by Carmen Welsh
©2010 Carmen Welsh
When Kemal woke, he noticed someone beside him. Still groggy, he remembered bits and pieces of the previous night, and the many nights preceding
His fathers people, Tabbies, hunted and provided food for his band of homeless Angoras: A handful of nobles, six border guards, and an overthrown Kinghim. Day after day was mere survival; most of the band knew little of hardship, or indeed of life outside a palace or manor.
Last night had been a Tabby festival, one of those holidays that involved heavy drink. Kemal learned they were fond of beer, and being part-Tabby himself, he obliged. The head of the Royal Guard, Emshiv, had cautioned him to drink little, but the weeks of being on the run and keeping his small band of loyalists sound had taken a toll. Kemal decided that knocking back a few mugs of heady Tabby mead would be just the thing
More memories fell into place: Along the borders separating Angor from Tabby grasslands, the Angoras had found a deserted hamlet. There were no barnsthe place was obviously too small for thatso they took residence in the vacant shacks, some of which had been used for livestock. The rooms were arranged with only troughs, and racks and shelves on which fowls could nest. Straw and a few scratchy sheets made from sacks and nest layers would have to do.
Kemal sat up in his makeshift trundle trough-bed. Propping himself up on his elbows, his head didnt pound and he actually felt good. Until Kemal turned his head.
He knew the woman: Her name was Emeraldine. She was five years his senior, a one-time member of his palace kitchen staff.
She had soft black hair, thick and curly, and that black extended over her eyes and the top of her rounded cheeks, a little on the bottom lip and chin. White fur on the lower half, her mouth and throat.
Now as she turned over, the king remembered she was black on other parts of her, and the thought embarrassed him.
Ankarakedi? Youre finally awake.
How long was I asleep? was all he could think to say.
The woman stretched, taking care to remain covered by their sheet.
Hmmm I think you said words to me most of the time. Then you finally fell into a deep sleep.
He had to think a minute. The nights revelries hit him with great vividness. His mind, that he thought would be numb with beer, crystallized every detail. He realized he was naked.
I dont know what to say to you
Im not angry, sire.
Dont be. I enjoyed last night.
Her eyes were narrow and deep green. When she blinked, her eyelids were black.
In the dark room, her pupils filled her eyes in a pleasant way.
Outside, he heard the morning sounds. Of people stirring.
I should go. She turned and reached the floor on her side. He looked at her back. Her arms were covered in white fur. A large patch of black, like a cape, covered what the drawn sheet revealed. He remembered more.
She was heavier than most Angoran women.
She noticed him watching her.
Im sorry Im fat.
That took him a moment.
What? No Dont
I should go, she repeated, holding her dress to her body in a crumpled mass. She deftly slipped the garment on, then bent down to gather her shoes.
Among the six border guards, four were noble-born. There were seven noblewomen, including Captain Emshivs wife, the Lady Tias, and four kittens. The eldest kit was the youngest border guard, his age-mate a younger sister to one of the noblewomen. The two remaining, smallest, kittens were Lady Tias daughter and son.
They were all Kemal had to his name. In less than four months, he had lost everything else to armed rebellion against his reign.
Keeping them all fed was less of a problem than the ex-King had feared, thanks to food-gifts surreptitiously left by Tabby benefactors. But such gifts only went so far, so Kemal insisted on hunting with his border guards, the only males capable of hunting for, and protecting, the females. They all needed the practice: Kemal and Captain Emshiv had plans to move into the Lower Interior, the northwestern border-state that split the Angor nation in two. There would be fewer rebel sympathizers in that region.
Kemal knew Emshiv watched him during hunts. Killing, whether for food or whatever other purpose, was a dangerous business, and Captain Emshiv had become his personal bodyguard when the King was ten. Emshiv often told him he had been a pleasant boy. Precocious and adult-like, well-mannered as well as authoritative. His friend.
Emshiv, may I speak plainly?
Of course, my Ankarakedi. You could always do so between us.
Kemal felt a smirk on his lips.
Ankarakedi? Of what? Ive no Kingdom, and I may not have an Empire much longer. What am I, if I am no longer Kingor Emperor?
Now Emshiv, once Captain of the Royal Border Guards, descended to one knee.
You are the legitimate crowned Prince by the previous Ankarakedi. In her wisdom, she deemed you her sole heir, though you were not her first kitten. As I am a subject of the Kingdom and Empire, you are my King. As I am Captain of your guardianship, you are forever my Emperor. And you are my friend.
Thank you, Emshiv. You do my heart glad. And embarrass me into humility. Im sorry.
Emshiv stood, There is no need for you to apologize. The previous months would take a toll on anyone; you have lost much, and not least of those early losses was Queen Abrillan, from childbirth. That you maintain your sanity, as well as your dignity, is a testament to your character. And that is why we follow you.
The captain often made him feel as if his insides were blushing. They dismissed their hunting for that time.
In the days and weeks immediately following the coup which deposed Kemal, the rag-tag group had been thoroughly unified; hunger and uncertainty left little room for in-fighting. But after months in the plains and semi-forests, old habitsrelics of the cliquishness and social maneuverings of the Royal Courtcrept back.
For instance, high-born women could not be expected to soil themselves with manual labor, now could they? So it was left to kitchen drudge Emeraldine to wash everyones clothes as best she could. She tried to be inconspicuous about it, because lacking any opportunity to lord it over the populace at large, some of her fellow refugees had taken to tormenting
There she goessniffing after His Majesty! someone said. Now five of the groups seven noblewomen surrounded her as she dealt with the groups laundry.
This isnt the kitchen! And youve got no reason to follow after him!
With those words, one of the noblesPree, short for Presumpcionslapped her. Prees boldness was strictly in proportion to the number of people backing her up.
Ignoring the assault (reacting to such things only brought greater abuse), Emeraldine rubbed at her cheek and wrung out the top clothes. They must salvage as much of their clothing on their backs as could be managed. Until they returned to Angor once more.
To Angor, once more. If only the other women knew about the night she spent with the Emperor! But that would cause her death.
She smiled as she wrung out a nappy. It was just bullying; she could handle it.
She brought the four folded linens to Lady Tias.
Thank you, Lady Emeraldine. The baby was running out.
Tias tilted her head. What happened to your face?
Emeraldine covered the bruise.
Its nothing, my lady.
Nothing, my rump. Its those biddy-caddies, isnt it?
I forgot my place.
Youre a noble, arent you?
My lady, mine is a very insignificant house.
That means nothing.
Please, she said as she bowed to Tias, whatever the rest may do to me, it is my affair.
The viscountess had a wry thought: And she takes her leave of me.
Sounds like a traveling fortune-teller! said a noblewoman with peaches-and-cream fur, who stretched out a foot.
What is it, my lady? Emeraldine asked.
My shoe. Put it on.
Yes, my lady.
And the other.
Yes. My lady.
Emeraldine bent to slip on the laced shoe when she found herself face first in the dirt.
Im so sorry! exclaimed Lady Pree, who (for once) wasnt the culprit.
But look at her butt! said another noblewoman. Its like a heifers!
Emeraldine tried to get up. That same shoe she helped put on kicked her, and she ate grass.
She opened her eyes, and felt for her kitchen cap. The white headscarf had slipped around her neck.
Why are you! Whoever it was, the kitchen drudge did not turn to look at them; better not to give them any more of a chance to torment her.
Emeraldine finally sat up. She removed the headscarf, dusted it and properly tied the top of her head with it. She sat on her rump and made a face, noting how sore it felt.
Damn! Now, that was new; the intended target turned her head to see noblewomen tumbling, struck down by a stronger forcethe Lady Tias. She wore a dress, as befitted her class, but her sleeves were rolled up and she wore rough, and very solid, worker boots.
With her hair piled up, she swiveled her hips as she rolled her fists in midair.
A gaggle of outraged noblewomen surrounded the Viscountess. Some tried to relieve the pain of what was more than injured pride.
Go on! Give me an excuse! Im rusty! Viscountess Tias sneered, laughing out loud.
Youre no noble! the peaches-and-cream spat. Youre a thug!
And I am so named by one who dares speak only behind Lady Pree.
The younger girls ears flushed.
Am I to assume youre the leader, Lady Pree?
You will calm down, Lady Tias!
What if I dont? Swift claws slashed at Prees face. It happened so fast that Lady Pree staggered back. When she tried to recover, a rough palm-pad bloodied her nose.
That tears it! someone said and Tias kicked the speaker before she could retaliate. The impact sent the bully down.
Tias ducked clumsy claws, used elbows amidst snarls, and gave a second palm-strike to one womans jaw. And in the end, Tias Umberly of Leaven-Oak stood alone, among groans, sobs and bodies twisted in pain. With disheveled hair and loosened clothing, but otherwise unscathed, Tias walked towards Emeraldine, and without a word, pulled the woman to follow her.
Once they arrived at Lady Tias home-away-from-home, the Viscountess picked up a meaty fruit, then started to peel and carve it. Between strokes, she jiggled her knife at Emeraldine.
You simply must learn to stand up for yourself! With a wedge of fruit on the knife end, she bit it off. She pared off another slice.
Emeraldine felt ashamed. She sat on the floor of the shack that the Viscountess shared with her husband (Emshiv, the former captain of the Royal Guards), their daughter and infant son.
Not that Im complaining, Tias said as she popped a fruit slice into her daughters gaping mouth, baby bird-fashion. It felt good to knock some heads she offered a wedge to the kitchen woman. and some teeth. But as for you, my dear, I say again: You need to fight back.
I dont know how. Emeraldine took the proffered piece.
So learn. Were out in the borderlands; we must survive.
Yes, my lady.
And please, call me Tias, even if you dont want to.
You better listen, Big Aunty, said Lady Tias child, with the expression, and tones, of a serious adult. Listen to everything Mummy says and she wont swat you.
Having just seen what the Viscountess was capable of, Emeraldine found the little girls statement was rather ominous; she made an uncomfortable laugh.
Why were they picking on you, may I ask? said Tias.
Only the usual.
Pfft! That Presumpcion and her fellow clucks dont do things usual.
She paused for a response, but the kitchen woman only became more uncomfortable.
Well, whenever youre ready to speak of it, please tell me. In the meantime, just try to keep far from them. Though they may take a few days to recover from this beating. Tias expression was the unladylike grin of a harpy. Especially since most of them have never even seen a spanking in their life, let alone been the target of one. They may not know what to do, poor things!
Kemal had not met with his guards for days. He hunted with them, yet they awaited his next orderan order that did not come. While they watched some of the truffle hogs and their young on the other side of the creek, Captain Emshiv watched his King from an inconspicuous vantage point. The young ruler fidgeted with a patchwork shawl, a gift from his newfound father (a Tabby, and a ruler in his own right). It covered Kemals shoulders and was held in place by a broach made from a boars tusk.
Even though the Tabby chieftain had his breeds customary contempt for all things Angoran, he respected Kemal, as one leader to another; the boy couldnt help being the son of a long-haired mother, after all. The shawl was a heartfelt gift, and its intricately detailed patchwork art depicted the Tabby tribes and their allies.
As Kemal fingered its tasseled edge, the Captain noted the umber from some of the odd fabric. It contrasted with the Kings tangerine fur. My Lord is very handsome tonight.
I overhear some of the ladies say you're almost pretty. Emshiv jibed. He knew the king felt self-conscious about his effeminate appearance.
The stroking fingers clenched the fabric.
My Lord knows his looks.
Then why does my Captain tease me?
Perhaps because I see that something troubles my King, and I wish to help.
Kemal thought a bit. Have you found yourself in a situation that should confuse you but what puzzled you more is that youre unhappy about the situation ending?
See? Thats whats upsetting me. Lets go. I dont care to shoot down any boar this evening.
Tias had a healthy dose of curiosity. However, it was not her style to ask prying questions; Tias preferred to watch for clues. Yet in the matter of Emeraldine, she did not know what to look for. The kitchen woman acted civilly towards everyone; she was even affectionate towards one border guard, Officer Rollinfer, a childhood friend, and that was to be expected. She avoided her tormentors as much as possible. She continued to do their laundry, but now handed the folded sheets and clothing to her soldier friend to bring to the bullies.
Well, if the answers Lady Tias sought could not be found watching Emeraldine, perhaps Rollinfer might be a better object of study. Finding him would not be difficult; the King often accompanied his border guards as they hunted for the partys food. On one such occasion, Kemal spoke with Officer Rollinfer and Emeraldine was close by. The King said nothing, only appeared confused, and hungered for a reaction from Emeraldine. However, she bowed and shuffled away from him. His confused look deepened and became lost.
On another day, Emeraldine asked His Majesty a question. He answered but avoided her afterward. Tias never knew someone could look so grief-stricken
The Viscountess did that harpy-grin again.
Honey, has Kemal said anything to you when you hunted with him? About any recent problems, within the past two days?
Emshiv had been playing with his daughter. He now stopped bouncing her and the agile child climbed over his shoulder to his back, making roaring sounds.
Tias, I wish you would address the king properly.
Oh, poo! Were not in the palace, the King is nowhere! Now answer my question!
Mummy said poo.
Hush. Tias, why cant you take things seriously?
Kemal doesnt mind, and I do employ proper address in appropriate situations.
Hrrf theres that word again. Appropriate. As to our Kings problems Emshiv stroked the place between his jaw and his ruff. The King does seem troubled in his mind. Today, he wanted to speak about something, but I couldnt follow his thinking.
Tias felt excited, Furling, ask Kem- His Majestyabout Emeraldine the next time you both go hunting!
Captain Emshiv looked at her. The Lady Emeraldine? Why? What does she have to do with this?
Just ask. And tell me his reaction.
Indeed? The Captain gave his wife a speculative look. Very well: Ill do it, because I can see your intuition working, he said. Then he deposited the little girl on the floor. She, like Tias, began to pout and kick her legs against the floor. When both parents glared at her, she promptly quieted, pretending to look at her dolly.
The captain put on his jacket and picked up his bow. You may not be a lady, but youre still a woman.
When Emshiv went through the door, Tias called out:
What do you mean, Im not a lady?
Officer Rollinfer greeted Emeraldine on bended knee. Milady, the Ankarakedi requests your audience.
As she followed and noted how nice her friends broad-shoulder jacket lookedshed been so proud of him, on the day he passed his officers examsshe wondered: Why this formality? Then, standing outside the shack that was the Ankarakedis, Emeraldine felt a twinge of guilt? Anxiety? She did not know what.
Your Majesty, Rollinfer declaimed in his magnificent calling voice, I bring Lady Emeraldine!
Send her in, the King said. His voice sounded odd; a mix of irritation and hesitancy. And you may leave, Officer Rollinfer. Both friends looked at each other.
Yes, Ankarakedi. Another look at Emeraldine.
Inside, as she approached the king after a deep bow from the waist, Emeraldine did a surreptitious look about her. The room was not familiar, though the scents were. Their intimate evening had taken place in another shack attached to this front room.
She felt her ears become hot as she watched the kings back. His tail-tip moved slowly.
Do you know why I called you? he asked.
Why? Your Majesty, I mean.
He turned. His strange water-green eyes regarded her. Her ears burned hotter.
He came closer, albeit cautiously.
Do I remember you, Lady Emeraldine?
I would think Your Majesty would remember me. Ive been at the palace since I was almost eleven. Your Majesty was five. Why are you asking? There was hurt in her tone.
His irritability grew. I can ask, he pointed out.
That you can, she said, trying to use words like a soothing stroke. But I thought you wanted me in here. For. Another. Reason. Sometimes, the hand can stroke the wrong way, bristling the fur
Kemals eyes appeared to change color. His royal immensity filled the room and she could feel his hot, controlled anger.
You presume much. His words scraped like burrs on clothing.
She wanted to shriek. Instead, with a deceptively calm tone, she said, Then I shall take my leave. It was better to retreat.
You will leave when I say.
She felt sudden tears. Something within her, something delicate and over-strained (perhaps from weeks of abuse and privation), snapped. Dont talk to me like that! she cried, heedless of who she was talking to. You havent the right!
She instantly recognized how ill-chosen her words had been. The King snarled, I havent! and for a fraction of a second, Emeraldine truly feared for her life. The space between them disappeared; Ankarakedi Kemal grabbed her arm; he pushed her towards the front door.
Officer Rollinfer! Rrollinfer.
The border guard was at the door, looking surprised.
Yes, your Majesty?
Kemal shoved Lady Emeraldine towards him.
Get your friend away from me, now. Before I do something I might regret.
Y-yes Ankara-kedi. Come, Emer-
I hate you! She twisted from the officer and faced her King. I hate how unkind, how cruel youve treated me!
Em! Quiet! Its His Maj-!
I hate him! More than those foolish idiots that cant even wash their own petticoats!
She fled before either man could stop her.
There was no one to wash the linen. Emeraldine remained with Lady Tias in the latters shack, and all knew the Viscountess had taken her under her protective arm. They let the drudge alonethe drudge, and the question of unwashed linen.
What happened? Emshiv asked his petty officer.
I never saw anythin like it, Captain! He went all snarly and rackets! Officer Rollinfer was greatly agitated; his lower-hill accent grew audible through his officer-trained voice.
Emshiv stroked again his jaw and ruff. Ive seen him angry, but not like that
Like a ragin lunatic, you mean?
Remember whom you speak of, Rollinfer.
Apologies, my Captain. But the Lady Emeraldine was in tears; I cant abide by that!
Calm yourself, Rollinfer. His Majesty did not strike her. Let me speak with him before you become all puffed-up defensive.
Like I dont have every right to be!? Shes my friend! From when were kittens! I wont tolerate anyone makin her cry! Not even my Emperor-King!
Hearing these words, Emshiv straightened his posture, his demeanor transforming from off-duty soldier to that of the commanding officer he was. He became straight as a statue, and his glare cut through Rollinfers anger.
You will go somewhere and cool off. Or shall I dunk you in the creek myself?
Rollinfer realized his error. He bowed his head to Captain Emshiv so he could control his expression.
I will go hunting.
Take Bigham with you.
The Ankarakedi summoned Emshiv to the Royal quarters (the least weather-beaten of the available hovels). It was the most logical place for Captain and King to converse: Outside had the bullies, Emshivs shack had a fuming Tias and teary Emeraldine, and the creek side had Rollinfer.
What happened, Kemal?
The young King looked tired. There was no scent of missed sleep; rather, his weariness stemmed from emotional strain.
A misunderstanding, Kemal said. I knew what I wanted, and she thought she knew what I wanted, but I didnt want that. At least not right then, I didnt.
Now the Kings gaze rested on nothing in particular; clearly, his attention was focused elsewhere than the here-and-now. The Lady Emeraldine has served the palace since she was eleven. That means I would have been five when we first met. I was a sickly kitten, and Mother feared I wouldnt live to be six. Emeraldine saved my life with a stew that she sneaked past the ladies-in-waiting, and you know how very protective they can be.
I I did not know this story
Why should you? It was before your time, Kemal pointed out, and then he returned to his tale. She, her stew, saved my life. A lowly kitchen drudge did something the court physician could not. Still, he knew enough to recognize an improvement in condition when he saw it, so he declared that whatever was being done must continue. No one knew about the stew. He smiled at the rhyme. That is, no one except Emeraldine and I.
You never spoke of this?
Kemal sank into a chair. I didnt even think about it until she said she hated me.
Emshivs ears quirked in different directions. Lady Emeraldine said that?
The King nodded. The quietest, most humble member of my palace staff did, indeed, say that. Shes like a comforting presence, steady, and reliable
Kemal. What happened to you? I know were all under a lot of strain
This has nothing to do with our present circumstances. The King licked his lips before deciding what to say. Remember that Tabby holiday we celebrated a week and a half ago?
Yes, and I remember advising you not to drink the mead.
Refusing it would have been an insult, Emshiv. Especially after the kindness the Tabbies have shown us.
But my lord is not used to such heady liquor
Quite right; Im not. And I did get drunk. He swallowed.
Did he remember the taste? Emshiv wondered.
And when I awoke in my bed. Someone was beside me.
Yes. Lady Emeraldine.
Emshiv came close, not knowing if he did out of comfort or from disbelief.
By the Divines, he whispered, why did you not say something, Kemal?
Do you want to know the funniest thing, Emshiv? Im not even upset. Not at seeing her there, nor at ending up in bed with her, at least. I think whats troubling me is that I miss her.
A cold realization dripped down Emshivs back. This sounded too familiar.
Youre in love. Or just coming into it. You must speak with her. Could she be?
Now Kemal lifted his face and his strange eyes shined. With child? If she is, I would welcome such news.
Embarrassed, Emshiv cleared his throat. You both will have to speak. I would advise you to wait a day or two; right now is not a good time. Tias has been treating Emeraldine like a wooly caterpillar.
No. No. I must speak with her now! Its because I waited too long that its come to this.
The King put his words into action, or at least tried to. But when he reached the Viscountess shack, Tias confronted the King at her door.
Shes gone to do the laundry, against my better judgment, Tias said. Youre foul, you know that?
Tias! her husband murmured in warning tones.
Stand down, Emshiv, the King said with a dismissive gesture. The Viscountess is right: Royalty or no, my behavior was foul. So I intend
I dont care what you intend, Tias said. Youre not going to see her or speak to her.
But I want to apologize
Your Majesty, I wont allow it, either. Rollinfer came towards them, with confused officer Bigham trailing behind him.
Thwarting the Emperors will? I believe thats treason, Kemal said evenly. Which is punishable by death, you know These words shocked them all to motionlessness. And before anyone else could react, the King sprinted between them, running to the creek side where Emeraldine was doing the linen.
When the King arrived, another bullying session was in effect: The not-so-noble women were shoving Emeraldine back and forth between them. They came in full force, attacking the kitchen maid before she could retreat or the Viscountess could come to her rescue. Newly laundered sheets and clothing were strewn about the ground, trampled and filthy but when they caught sight of His Majesty, everyone froze. It took time for them to shift their behavior from show the upstart her place to courtly decorum.
Your Majesty, they chorused as they bowed.
What has happened here? He approached Emeraldine, but she stayed miserable and silentcould she think he might blame her for this tawdry affair? He repeated the question, this time asking the other noblewomen; they, too, did not answer.
Fine, then: We shall rectify the problem. And with his earlier frustration still in him, the King gathered up the large sheets that were pristine and untouched, and threw them over the embankment.
The showers had come a few nights ago. There was mud down there.
The captain, the officers, Emeraldine and the rest of the noblewomen watched as, like a madman, the King took up each piece that was clean, and threw it all down into mud. When he finished, he said,
As of this moment, the Lady Emeraldine will no longer do any laundry but her own. We shall all cleanse our own clothing, as we all ought to.
That was too much. ButYour Majesty!
She, like the rest of you, is nobility. As for her House standing, what difference can that make? Ive been overthrown, were in the semi-woods, so each one of us must pull our weight and do our share. Right? Very good, then.
As hed done earlier, but with a gentler touch, the King took Emeraldines hand and pulled her to her feet.
Come. Im taking you back to Lady Tias. I have a favor to ask of her.
I cannot accept this, my lady. Emeraldine held up a curtain of color like new budding leaves. Its like the dark majesty of full trees in high summer.
The gown was the only other article of clothing in the Viscountess possession.
Take it, Tias enjoyed the other womans delight. It suits your eyes.
Emeraldine became shy. She crumpled the dress into a ball and held it clenched in her lap.
Butit is too fine, my lady.
You will notice that we have few, if any, changes of garment, Lady Em. Tias stood up and spread her skirt, revealing the hidden parts where the worn hem and hasty stitching could not mar even so well-made a dress. So we must alternate between our undergarments and outer in order not to wear away the little we have.
I understand. But the dress is still
You cant continue to wear your kitchen maid dress. As you alternate your head tie for a scarf or a shawl, receive this green dress as my gift. To my new friend.
Elsewhere, Captain Emshiv watched Kemal put on a dark wine-colored jerkin, whose gold-threaded embroidery was in very good conditionpractically new, really. My Lord wore that during pre-coronation week
Did you not?
Kemal smiled. It pleased Emshiv that his young King could do that again.
The King shook his smiling head. I feel ridiculous, he stated. But then, the whole situation is ridiculous.
Youve found love again. Whats ridiculous about that?
No, I mean all of thisthe formalities, the ceremony.
We are only practicing the familiar so we dont become unhinged, the captain said.
And Lady Emeraldine is a good woman. Simple, but good.
Simple? Hardly. It would be more accurate to say that she shows no pretense. Shes frank-hearted and clear.
Yes, she is. Is My Lord ready?
Kemal straightened. Emshiv thought, Hes a young man, hungry, fighting in the woods, a refugee. How does he manage to remain regal?
Tias held Emeraldine by the hand as she guided the kitchen maid to the rendezvous point her king had indicated.
Evening was near; the blue of the sky was becoming richer and deeper. The semi-forest became gray-blue the further the women walked towards the creeks bed.
Emeraldine tried to walk in the laced boots that matched her dress. She tried to hold onto the Viscountess hand while using her other to hold up the hem in order to keep from tripping. Being a court lady was all so complicated, and they werent even in the palace!
My lady! Please stop!
Oh, no, Lady Emeraldine! His Majesty wanted you at this spot at an appointed time, and we must not disappoint him. Now, pick up the pace!
When they arrived at the creek, the soft beauty of their surroundings was emphasized by starlings, the sounds of crickets, and toads hopping in the rushes.
Ive not seen this during the evening.
Its twilight, Tias looked about her, admiring the subdued colors around them.
Oh, but this is a bad time. An unlucky time.
Not for our Ankarakediah, theres Emshiv and Emeraldine quickly followed Tias as they saw the captain come from behind the trees up the bank.
Thats my cue, Tias said with a wink at Emeraldine. Have fun!
But and the captain and lady were gone.
Bewildered, Emeraldine sat down in the uncomfortable frock and scratched at her ankles where the boots fabric itched.
That dress is perfect on you.
Your Majesty! She got up fast and nearly tripped. She regained her composure and footing.
That green shows how deep your eyes are like a fairy queen.
Emeraldine recalled that hint of green in a shallow pool: Thats how she perceived the kings eyes.
And you your eyes so odd I mean, they are unlike anyones, Your Majesty.
Sit, he ordered, and she did.
He was wearing his wine-dark jerkin with puffed sleeves and embroidered gold thread, plus the hunting pants and boots all the men now wore. He had polished and smoothed away the scuff marks.
With a leonine grace, he moved from the trees and came towards her.
What do you remember about our first meeting, Lady Emeraldine?
Her parents had been petty nobles, hardly a coin to them even when they married. The gentry in the lowlands had more than they, and yet, her father had still seen fit to gamble it all.
Her mother instructed her that, as the eldest girl, she must learn a trade, and being not particularly attractivein her mothers eyes, at leastthere was no chance of betrothal. There was also no money for university education.
Employment in the palace was her only way out of the hills.
I remember that I was turning eleven when I arrived. I could no longer go barefoot. I had to wear aprons and smocks. And there were head ties. I remember almost a year passed before we met. And even when I did, you were like no kitten Id ever seen. So strangeso different.
As soon as she realized her statement, she corrected herself.
Please, dont misunderstand. You are like I only briefly saw the previous Ankarakedi, your mother. And she was considered one of the most beautiful, the most elegant of women in all the kingdom and realms. But seeing you She shook her head and hissed in resignation. You were sick
I was six years old.
Yes! And the palace didnt believe you would survive. Many of the older staff muttered that though the Empress had other children, she loved only you.
I see Kemal did not expect this.
I would be called to her chamber, and I would overhear things. Ladies-in-waiting could gossip, but what harm in telling secrets in front of a little kitchen girl? Emeraldine sighed. But when the court physician could do nothing for you, I knew that I had to try to help the kitten that moved the Ankarakedis heartnot that Im saying she was heartless, Your Majesty!
You shouldshe was. Continue.
I remembered a stew my mother made for me once. When I had gotten dreadfully ill. The ingredients came from plants and weeds growing only in hill country. I wasnt sure I could find a substitute, but I did! She grinned like that little girl and continued her story.
It took me a week! You were waning. So I used the secret passage to get to you.
He remembered that no one, not even palace staff on the first floor, could visit, for fear of who-knew-what contagions.
I came in and the bed practically swallowed your tiny form, and when I called to you
He remembered in that feverish state, someone calling: Little Majesty, little Majesty. Can you hear me?
You were so tiny! And your fur was like fuzz from a ripe fruit, and hair spun like light gold, stripes like red gold. Your eyes, that hint of green in a pool
He remembered the black-and-white bicolor girl looking down at him. With her narrow dark green eyes, she regarded him with more wisdom than the defeat he had perceived from the court physician. You were just so pretty! For the longest time, I thought I may have misheard Prince for Princess. You were like a fairy child. Seeing you, I was sure that all those stories of exchanges between mortals and the fair folk had to be true! Here was such a kitten! I knew, then, that perhaps the reason you were sick was that you werent used to mortal food.
Its not funny, Your Majesty! I really believed that!
But Im as mortal as you, dear Emeraldine.
Oh no, my Ankarakedi, you are so much more. Thats why I had to try to save you!
And you did. I remember the taste; I remember feeling better afterward. I was never that sick again.
Emeraldine lowered her face, her lashes thickly black. You must think Im foolish.
Never. Stand with me.
A toad croaked. The sounds of dragonflies zipping past.
Pinpricks of light hovered above the creeks bed.
Oh, theyre the lightning bugs from back home! her eyes seemed to light up in wonder, I didnt know they were this far north in the low country.
I noticed them the other day. When the Captain and I went hunting. Emeraldine
Yes, Your Majesty?
Dont I warrant being My lord?
Now a thread of the fireflies flew near the two. As they brought their luminescence beside Kemal, Emeraldine gasped.
You are truly the Fairy King of old!
Stop that! I am only a mortal King, and a deposed one at that.
But she wanted to compliment him. His hair had grown so thick and long in recent weeks.
What are you thinking of, my lady?
Only How beautiful you are, Ankarakedi.
And you are the keeper of my heart. Ive always found you special since that day, Emeraldine. Ive told no one that story except today, to Captain Emshiv.
Suddenly, he leaned forward and kissed her.
He continued to hold her hand. However, Emeraldine reacted strongly from the kiss. She felt unsteady.
Dont sit, Emeraldine. Remain on your feet.
Please dont -
I will be Kemal to you.
I dont dare!
Well, it is not a dare to me. It is not even a risk. I wasnt the least upset finding you in the bed beside me. I enjoyed that night with you. I want only to have more nights, and days, like that. My previous Queen That marriage was purely political, without any love. But in time we grew to care for each other, to some degree.
He squeezed her hand a little.
Yourve known me more intimately. Therefore, I ask that you agree to be my next Queen. One who I already love, he reverently kissed her hand, and who has obviously loved me longer.