Happy Friday! Here’s an excerpt from “His Majesty’s Elite: Elliot” which I’m still writing and hoping to have out by the summer!
The forest surrounding me is familiar but strange. Moss covered tree trunks twist unusually from the forest floor, curling in and around themselves like writhing serpents frozen in time. Obscured by clouds, the moon casts no shadow. The forest itself is shadow. I turn in place, searching to find light to turn toward, and a glint of it shines beneath the brush in the distance. When I reach it, I see that it’s not a light at all, but the reflection of candles stretched across a polished stone path.
I know this path immediately. It leads to the palace.
As soon as I put my soft boot down on it I spin out of control, swirling like I’m caught up in a whirlpool. I try to call out, to reach out and grab something, anything to stop the spinning, and when I can’t, I squeeze my eyes shut and pray to wake up.
Surprisingly, the spinning stops and I land with a thump on something that feels like the seat of a cushioned wooden chair. At first I think it works, that my pleas have woken me, but then I remember I was in my bed at home, and now I’m sitting, and the sounds and smells that close in around me don’t fit with the ones at Amma’s house.
Strange, beautiful music played on instruments I’ve never heard before sounds in my twitching ears, and when I find the courage to open my eyes again, I can’t believe what I see. The vast room could fit Grandymum herself, leaves and all, all the way up to the ceiling. Its stonework, sturdy and expertly carved, seems almost weightless as its pillars and arms push the ceiling to an elegant, glass-paned peak.
I follow the line of the pillars down from the ceiling just as I follow the tree trunks at home with my eyes, listening to laughter and voices as they blend with the music and echo across the vast space. Scattered across the polished marble floor, a crowd of dozens of interestingly dressed people weave about, mingling and dancing, gesturing gracefully with their arms while their silky gowns and velvet capes sway dreamily to the music.
At first I feel far away from it all. All I can do is stare in awe as the salty sea air tickles my nose.
Eventually, I push out of my chair to wander among them. Those at the edge of the room where I appeared stand in small groups, talking and laughing together, drinking from jeweled goblets that flash in the light.
I squint past the light that reminds me of wisps falling from trees into the throngs of dancers who move together, their steps keeping time with the beat of the music. I’ve never seen anyone dance this way before. At home when we dance, it’s wild and chaotic. Here, it’s so controlled it almost seems like they’re bound to each other. Their synchronous movements entrance me. It’s unreal. Beautiful.
I can’t tell if this is a dream or if I’m Scouting. It seems too strange to be real, but I can’t imagine it’s something my mind would have conjured up. The ladies’ gowns and lords’ jackets and hose are the rich colors of summer butterflies, shining beetles, and meadow blooms. The women sparkle with jewels adorning their hair, necks, and wrists. The men wear metal buckles and studs. Their metal sword pommels catch the light like flames.
Dazzled by the scene, I weave through the dancers and the gathered crowds, careful to avoid bumping into or walking through anyone.
“Your Majesty, I must admit this is the most impressive Springswan Ball I can remember,” says a nearby lady.
“Majesty,” I whisper and follow the voice, curious to see a king for the first time. I remember the young prince’s whispers in the night about his father, and that makes me even more curious to put eyes on him.
Ducking through a pair of dancers who gallop past, I’m momentarily distracted by the sheer amount of fabric it must have taken to make the lady dancer’s dress. I reach out for it, just to see what the shimmering skirt feels like, but my hand dips through her skirt just as I knew it would.
“Ah, your flattery is misguided,” an old voice croaks in reply. “I had nothing to do with it, except signing a thing here and there. It was mostly Master Rand’ell, of course.”
“Oh, Majesty,” purrs the lady, “You’re just being gracious as always. Shall we dance?”
I dodge around another pair of dancers and finally arrive at the talking pair. The woman, incredibly beautiful for a human, wears her raven-black hair arranged in intricate braids on top of her head, which sparkle with golden jeweled pins. Her dress is as red as a woodpecker’s crown, and so tight at the waist it seemed to push the rest of her out of it at the top. When she leans nearer to the king, I follow her gaze and step closer, fascinated by the contrast between the two humans.
The king is the oldest looking man I have ever seen. Older even than Feren, the grove’s eldest druid who has recently celebrated his hundred and eighty-seventh birthday. Dressed in a purple tunic that looks as soft as spring moss, his shoulders draped in the fur of white rabbits, he seems to compress under the weight of the crown on his head, a golden circlet that shines like midday sun in the lamplight.
“Now, now, my dear,” the king chuckles, patting the lady’s hand, “these old feet would make a fool of me. Sir Josten!” he calls to a man passing by, who pauses and bows to the king. His broad shoulders and strong fighter’s stance remind me of Father, and a pang of guilt charges through me. Don’t wander, he’d said, yet here I find myself again in the palace of Cerion.
“Majesty,” the man says with a genuine smile. “I was looking for my daughter. Have you seen her?”
“Not since we dined,” answers the king, patting the arm of the black-haired woman. “Here,” he lifts her hand gently in the knight’s direction, and she eyes Sir Josten with hint distaste. “Ciri would like to dance.”
“Of course, Majesty,” says the knight dutifully, even though he looks just as reluctant as Ciri to follow through with it. Still, she accepts his offered hand and they fall into step with the rest of the dancing crowd.
“Another cup, good page,” the king calls to a boy my age dressed in the same purple color as the king himself, who runs off eagerly to fetch it.
I follow, interested where he’ll go, but end up losing him in the crowd. Sir Josten and Ciri sweep past me and I wonder why the king would ask them to dance together when it’s so obvious they hate one another.
A breeze drifts past carrying the scent of sea salt, and I follow my nose to a grand balcony overlooking the ocean. The sun is just beginning to set in the sky, splashing pinks and oranges across the water. I’ve never seen a sunset over so much water before, so I stand watching it for a long time until a ripple of laughter steals my attention.
It’s a familiar laugh. One I have heard before.
I recognize it immediately as the prince whose bedroom I ended up in the last time I followed the polished path. Tirnon.
“What?” asks a second voice, which I’m sure it’s the girl I saw earlier in the marketplace. Lisabella.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather dance? You aren’t dressed for a spar,” the prince chuckles.
I creep closer and find a narrow ledge leading to a second, smaller terrace with a column I can peek around to watch them.
“I might need to fight in a dress at some point.” Lisabella faces the prince, holding a wooden training sword out to him. “You never know.”
“Lisabella,” Tirnon laughs, “where did you get a training sword?”
“A lady never tells her secrets,” she replies with a dainty curtsy. Their eyes dance with a warm familiarity that makes me think of Hana. With a mischievous smile, Lisabella shakes out her skirt and jiggles her foot, and a second wooden sword clatters to the stone floor.
The prince’s laughter echoes across the terrace. He holds his stomach, and I can’t help but laugh along with him. His amusement infects Lisabella, too, until they’re both hugging their stomachs, doubled over. The idea of a girl dressed so splendidly smuggling wooden swords into an elegant dance like this is ridiculous, even to me with no knowledge of this land’s customs.
I stop laughing, though, when the prince turns to look straight at me.
“Did you see? Did you see that?” he asks, still laughing.
I take a step back, certain he’s seen me but unsure how he ever could, until from beside me, a third person I hadn’t noticed clears his throat disapprovingly. Relieved the prince didn’t spot me after all, I relax a little and lean forward to look. Hidden on the other side of the pillar, the throat-clearing man holds the side of his fist to his lips, clearly trying hard not to join in laughing. It only takes a moment for me to realize he’s a warrior, too. A guardian of some kind, I gather, from the way he glances around to watch for threats.
“Leave Finn out of it.” Lisabella says. She collects herself, holding up her sword in a salute. “Wait, maybe you’d rather go in and dance?”
“Now you’re just taunting me,” answers the prince, still grinning as he returns her salute with his wooden weapon. “There’s far too much red in there for my taste.”
Red, I think to myself. Too much red.…
Excerpt from “His Majesty’s Elite: Elliot” a “Keepers of the Wellsprings” prequel.
Copyright 2021 Missy Sheldrake
Have you read Mya yet?
When she discovers her screams can bring men to their knees, will one young woman stay silent or give voice to righteousness?