Disclaimer: Not mine. No money. At all. I'm sad.
(Thursday 4:37 pm)
Virginia actually enjoyed mirror travel. The speed of it, the recklessness, thrilled her the same way a rollercoaster did. She'd always been an e-ticket sort of gal.
But she couldn't enjoy the prospect right now.
"He's fine, you know," her dad said, sitting under the tree that housed the mirror.
"Yeah," she said, not looking away from the path. It was getting dark. "I know."
"It's not like he doesn't know how to handle a city. In fact, he does better in towns than in the country. Remember?"
"Yeah," she said again, watching the trees. "But you didn't see him this afternoon, dad. He was so…" she broke off, not sure just how he'd been other than he worried her. She bit at a nail and rubbed a hand over her ever expanding waist. What if her child was just as…unpredictable? Unruly? Dangerous, even?
"So wolfish?" her father finished for her. He shrugged, "What did you expect, sweetheart? He's not human."
She glared at him. "He's human." She thought so, at least. Oh God.
"Not really. Honey, I've been in the kingdoms for a while now. When they talk about the Wolves, they don't talk about them like they're people. They talk about them changing at the full moon, and hunting, and killing flocks and, and farmers. They are dangerous and unpredictable creatures, and you'd be better off without him around."
"I love him, dad," Virginia said. She swallowed, fighting the burning in her eyes and throat.
"I know," her dad said, looking at her with sympathy. "I know you do, honey. And I never want to hurt you, but the truth is that we don't really know anything about who, or what, he really is."
"You're not helping, dad," she said flatly. She sighed, looking away.
"I know. I'm sorry. But just loving someone doesn't make them good for you. I learned that lesson with your mother. And I worry about you. Especially when you're with him. He's just not safe."
"He's sweet. He's tender, and protective, and caring, and he's more… attentive to me than any person I've ever known."
"I think you mean obsessive about you."
"He loves me! And he's loyal, and he understands me!"
"Then where is he?" her father asked quietly.
She gulped in a breath. "He… he's just having a … mood. He'll be here."
"Having a mood," her dad shook his head. "Do you know you sound like a cult member? I'm pretty sure the people who followed Jim Jones thought he was attentive too. You know he just had these moods sometimes. Try the Kool-aid."
"That's not fair, dad."
"You're my daughter. I don't have to be fair if I think you're in trouble."
"I'm not in trouble, dad," she said tiredly. She slid down to sit beside him. "I'm just a little worried."
He reached over and rubbed her back. "I love you, and we'll make sure everything is all right eventually, but I won't lie to you and say there's no reason to be worried."
"Why are we worried?"
They both jumped a bit, flinching as Wolf slid silently from the trees. Virginia looked him over carefully, but he seemed much better, his eyes clear and his hands still. But there was an air of sadness around him that made her own heart hurt. For the first time she wondered if going back to the kingdoms was the right decision.
"Where have you been?" Tony demanded, standing.
"Walking," he answered, never taking his eyes from her. Wolf walked up to her and held out his hand, offering to help her to her feet.
She took it, letting him pull her up. "Are you okay?" she murmured as he pulled her close.
"I am now," he responded, holding her. "I'm okay whenever you're near. I just had to remember that."
She pulled back a bit. "So you're okay with going to the festival?"
He nodded, "If it's what you want, then I'm fine." He let her go, giving them both a goofy grin. "Besides, the look on all those prissy royal pusses when they have to be polite to a wolfie will be just too much fun to miss."
"Great! Then can we go before the cops show up and I get sent to jail for the rest of my life?" Tony grumped, turning to the tree and working on activating the mirror.
As the air around the tree shimmered, Virginia tugged at Wolf's hand. "I know you're not okay. That grin doesn't hide as much as you think it does."
He looked at her for a long moment, the grin fading slowly. Then he simply leaned over and kissed the top of her head and followed Tony through the mirror without speaking.
Virginia wiped away the tear that had gotten loose, cursing. She hated crying. Somehow she was sure that she had made a mistake somewhere along the way – but for the life of her she couldn't figure out just where.
Taking a deep breath, she lifted her head and squared her shoulders. This was what she'd wanted. It was time to pay up.
"Into the woods," she muttered, and stepped into the tree.
To say that the palace was bustling would be like saying the Grand Canyon was a ditch. Virginia's eyes were wide as she and Wolf followed her father through the gleaming halls. Servants hurried about doing chores while the lower royalty supervised. "Wow. They're going all out, aren't they?"
"You have no idea," her dad said. "They've been prepping this place for weeks. Every female royal and head of state will be here for at least three days. The plans for who's sleeping in which bedroom alone have taken years."
A young maid, barely a teen, suddenly rounded the corner and scurried down the hall toward them, her arms full of linens. Not able to see over the stack, she bounced off of Tony, grabbing for the laundry before it could fall. "Sorry," she squeaked as she looked up, then gasped, bobbing and awkward curtsy at Tony. "Lord Anthony! Excuse me, please! I know that we lower maids aren't to be in the main halls, but these beddings was needed by the Housekeeper and she sent me to fetch them right quick, and I was to hurry, and I didn't think anyone of account would be in this wing at the mo… I'm so sorry! Please don't tell Housekeeper!" The girl was nearly in tears as she bobbed another curtsy, averting her eyes from her 'betters'.
"It's okay. You know I don't mind. It's a stupid rule anyway. You girls are just doing your jobs," her dad said, smiling slightly. "Go on now. Don't keep Housey waiting. You know how she gets."
"Yes, sir!" she bobbed again, deeply, and almost dropping her stack. "Thank you, sir!" She edged around the group, back to the other wall, and Virginia felt a strange mixture of pity and a slight irritation at her obvious submissiveness. The girl darted little looks at them as she passed, especially Virginia. The girl stared at her as if she were some sort of strange and exotic bird and she was storing up the details to tell to her grandchildren. Virginia cocked an eyebrow back at the girl, slightly amused at the understated awe in her eyes. She blushed and shifted her gaze.
The girl's eyes fell on Wolf, who had been standing, still and silent, behind Virginia – and Virginia watched as the girl stiffened, her eyes widening not with awe, but with fear and disgust. "Wolf," she hissed, her once pretty little features twisted into an ugly sneer. She stepped as far away as the hall would allow as she edged passed him. "He shouldn't be here, Lord Anthony, he really shouldn't. He's dangerous, and evil, and he'll spread his filth in the halls of White, and neither his Majesty nor Housekeeper will be pleased."
And the strangest part was that, though her face never lost its look of scorn, her voice was almost kind and Virginia realized that she was trying to help out 'Lord Anthony', to keep him from trouble the same way he had been willing to overlook her blunder. The fact that Wolf was a thinking, feeling person who could hear words her never crossed her mind.
Behind her, Virginia felt Wolf stiffen, then relax in a way that made her very nervous. She could feel his breath, hot against her neck as her stepped closer, crowding the girl without actually approaching her.
"I have always liked the way that housemaids flitter about," he said in Virginia's ear, just loud enough to be overheard. "So nimble and…sweet."
The girl let out an "Eep!" and jumped, clutching her stack of laundry and turning to scurry away as fast as she could.
"Wolf," Virginia said, shoving an elbow into his sternum. "That wasn't helpful."
He chuffed, rubbing at his chest. "She deserved it. Besides, it's not like I really did anything."
"Still, you upset her. She was just a strange little thing. She had obvious issues."
"No," Tony said. "She was pretty normal. There are some things about this place I don't like. They are very particular, here. You're born into a station, and that's where you stay until you die. If your mother was a maid, you'll be a maid, and your daughters will be maids. There is no moving up. And if you're a maid, you need to be invisible to the 'betters', up to and including turning your face against the wall if they happen to be walking past, so that they don't have to acknowledge your existence. It makes me very …uncomfortable sometimes. That girl could have been slapped by the Housekeeper for letting us see her working. Or she could have been fired, which is worse."
"Being fired is worse than getting hit?" Virginia demanded.
"Yep, in this case it is. A girl discharged from her last employment won't get a reference. Without a reference, she can't get another position in a different house. Without a job, she has no money, no roof, no food, and no legal rights because she's a girl. Without any of that, she won't get a husband, and without a husband she can't have a home, because women can't legally buy property. If she looses her job, she's screwed."
"Wait," Virginia said, "you're telling me that girl could loose everything because she walked down the wrong hallway?"
"Pretty much, yeah," Tony said. He sighed. "This place has a long way to go for people who aren't royalty."
"You have no idea, Tony," Wolf muttered, pushing past them to continue down the hall. "You really have no idea at all."
The maid had irritated him. Wolf could freely admit that as he pushed pasted Tony and took the lead. Tony may now live in the Palace, but Wolf knew he could locate the King much faster by using his nose, and the encounter with maid had him wanting to get this whole festival over with as quickly as possible. It just proved that nothing ever changed. 'Lord' Tony was a hero, Wendell was King, and Virginia had achieved above royal status by being a 'Great Woman', a woman whose story would be told for generations. She would be more powerful than Wendell in most situations. But him – the wolf who had been with them nearly every step of the journey, who had, in fact, saved all of the royals of all of the houses at the coronation – well, he was just a wolf. First, last, and in between, he was a wolf.
And everybody knew what that meant.
"What's your problem?" Tony demanded.
He clenched his fists. "Nothing. No problem."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Whatever."
"Dad," Virginia said, "leave him alone."
They didn't speak again until Wolf walked up to an ornate door. Tony snorted. "That kid never leaves the council room anymore."
As Tony opened the door, the conversation inside stopped and Wendell stood. He smiled and held out a hand. "Virginia. Welcome. I'm so glad you could make it."
Virginia stepped forward, taking his hand and kissing his cheek. "Hey, Wendell. Thanks for inviting us." The Council members had also stood, and now bowed deeply toward her. Tony rolled his eyes.
Wolf skulked in the doorway, unnoticed and unacknowledged.
"My dearest sister, in spirit, if not in blood. I could hardly have called this gathering a festival if you had not conceded to attend. Now, it will truly be worthy of the title of 'celebration'."
She gave him an amused smile. "You are become quite the charmer, my prince."
He leaned in conspiratorially, "I'm practicing. Do you think it will win me a bride this weekend?"
"You'll be beating them off with a stick," she assured him.
"That's the general idea," he grinned, squeezed her hand, then looked behind her. "Oh, and, Anthony, when you didn't return yesterday I had the royal tailor reschedule you for this afternoon." He glanced at his watch. "You should just have time to make it."
"Uh, I would love to," Tony said, making love to sound like I would rather have my teeth pulled by a deranged fairy, "but I, uh, should really see that my daughter –"
"Oh, yes," Wendell interrupted. "Excellent idea, Anthony. I had the tailor make you up some gowns, Virginia, I hope you don't mind. You can have your fittings while your father has his." Wendell grinned at Tony, only a little slyness in his eyes. "That will take of both problems nicely. Thank you so much for suggesting it, Anthony. You may be dismissed to go and take care of that, then." He winked at Virginia.
She shook her head, smiling. "Oh, that's wonderful," she said, obviously playing along. She turned and took her father's arm. "Lead on, dad. I want to see my new dresses."
"Yeah, but I don't want to see mine," Tony whined as he lead her through the door.
And then there was a moment, after Virginia and Tony had stepped out of the room, but Wolf was still there, next to the doorway. And Wendell met his eyes.
The Council members began muttering darkly. Wolf stiffened. Wendell waved a hand at the old men at the table, stilling them.
"Wolf," he said.
"King," Wolf answered, not looking away.
"You are welcome here," Wendell said, and ignored the gasps of those gentlemen. "In my house, in my lands, be assured that you are indeed to be made welcome. Or I will know why."
Wolf twitched, a surprised little jerk of his head, before bowing his head slightly – not submissively, but as he would have to a pack-mate. "Thanks. I'll try to be good." He scratched at his brow, then, in a flash of movement, turned and followed his mate down the hall.
And if he had to hear the uproar that Wendell's proclamation had caused through the open door behind him, well that wasn't Wendell's fault.
The first two days of the festival had passed in a fantastic swirl of colors and foods and music. Virginia had been in the center of much of the doings, as the young would-be queens flocked to the newest 'Great Woman' – only to find that she was also the beloved step-sister of the delectable young King they had been brought to court to catch. Virginia was both amused and flattered by the attention – and by the voluptuous gowns that Wendell had ordered made for her, and by the fact that many of the women at court had, after the first night, cut their hair to match her style. The atmosphere that the husband hunting females created reminded her very much of a high-school dance, where the cliques ruled and the 'haves' set the cliques. Virginia had never been popular – her father had been a janitor after all – so she was reveling in the role of prom-queen…she even had a little entourage that followed her around all day. And all night, too. The festival left her no time to sleep as she was awake all night dancing and gambling, or listening to the singing and poetry; and she spent all day attending the storytellers, and puppet shows (she would always remember the moment of shock and embarrassment when she heard her own story told with great liberties and dramatic embellishments). She toured the open fairs, and joined jovial brunches and elegant teas. There was always something going on, something new to do or see or try. She was in seventh heaven.
She was so caught up in being the bell of the ball, literally, that she didn't notice the lack of fun being had by her father and step-brother. Tony was simply irritated. He was stuck in a dress, acting as the sober chaperone/bodyguard to his young King as Wendell was systematically mauled by a line of desperate females, each with a better pedigree and less personality than the one before. He also had to run interference with the councilors, who wanted to auction off Wendell's wedding night to the highest bidder.
Wendell was not enjoying the process of bride-finding anymore than Anthony. It consisted mainly of hours of insipid conversation and having his feet trod on. He couldn't believe that he had once found these creatures to be the highest of society, the best of the aristocracy, the only suitable companions for a prince of the house of White. Now he found them boring and short-sighted. They were, as a whole, weak things, with little moral fiber. They had much to say, but little enough worth hearing. He didn't fit with them anymore, these 'worthies' who had once been his friends and companions. And that was worrisome. If he didn't fit with them, then did that mean he wasn't fit? He supposed that it might be a sign that he was finally growing up. Becoming a man, his own man, instead of just a prince or a king. He wondered that being a man should be the harder of them.
In any case, he had privately narrowed his bride choices down to a handful of daughters of the lower houses and lesser nobility – which was something that his chancellors would never stand for. His marriage should be a careful balance of political influences and monetary concerns. If he should abandon all of that in favor of someone he simply found likeable… they would – in Virginia's expressive phrasing – have a hissy fit. So he did his duty and danced with all the royal daughters, and kept his thoughts to himself. For now.
As evening fell on the third day of the festival, Wolf was also keeping his thoughts to himself. He'd watched from the shadows and the doorways as his mate played with the frilly, silly girls; and he couldn't fault her for it. He knew she was only enjoying the ability to be leader of the pack for awhile. But he also knew he couldn't join in. He wouldn't be accepted by her temporary companions. No more than he was accepted by anyone in the palace. From royal to drudge, he was universally snubbed.
He slouched in thresholds, gilded-up in his finery, and watched as the royals twirled through the twin dances of music and society. He ate when the buffets were first set up as to miss the mass of the other guests. He followed Virginia from room to room, always watching, always wary, but careful to not draw attention to himself.
Maybe that was why, on the last night of the festival, he was the only one to notice the girl sneak into the ballroom. Nibbling at a leftover bone, Wolf's eyes narrowed as the young girl made her tentative way through the servants door, ducking the ladies-in-waiting and dodging the footmen. Her dress was tattered homespun, her feet were bare and bloodied. She'd obviously been traveling for some distance. Wolf could smell her desperation and fear from across the wide room, even over the perfumes and sweet-oils.
Absently, Wolf snapped the bone open, sucking the marrow from it. He was so caught up in watching the child that he didn't even notice the disdainful looks from the nobles near him. The girl was obviously terrified of the palace servants and the royal crowd, yet she pressed on, darting around the fringes of the room like a hummingbird… or an unwelcome Wolf. The question was why. Why was she here?
It was inevitable that she would be seen. She stood out in this primped and polished mob. One of the footmen approached her, and Wolf frowned as the man caught her by the neck of her dress, and yanked. His eyes narrowed as the man lifted the child by the scruff, like a naughty puppy, and began frog-marching the girl toward the door. The girl's feet barley touched the floor, and she was obviously sobbing as the bigger, stronger man dragged her toward the servant's door. The route he chose was discreet, jerking her back along the ignored edges of the crowd, being as subtle as possible. The few nobles who noticed the little scuffle turned away from the sobbing child with a slight look of distaste on their elegant faces, as if the had spotted a servant taking out the trash.
Wolf was already moving as the footman yanked again at the girl. He growled as he saw her tattered dress rip in the man's grip. Wolf watched as she fell, still too far away to help her. She had been caught off-balance because of the way the man had been yanking at her, and she could not catch herself.
– and he saw the man's foot pull back as the footman aimed a kick at the fallen child.
Wolf leaped; his vision blurred and tunneled, his attention focused completely on the bastard. Wolf slammed into the servant, grabbing the man's lapels as he shoved his body back, into the wall. Around him he heard the shouts and cries of royals, who darted out of the way, but he didn't care. The man was going to hurt a child whose only crime had been to come to a party uninvited. He didn't care about offending noble sensibilities. He knew his eyes were glowing. Didn't care. He grinned, a bearing of teeth that couldn't be mistaken for pleasantness.
"Don't you touch that cub," he snarled, his tone quiet and more dangerous because of it.
The footman shrank from him, as far as his coat and the wall would allow. Behind him he heard some female mutter "beast!" and from someone else: "Stop that creature!"
The footman's eyes were darting, the man was squirming in Wolf's hands – which was a bad idea, as it brought all his hunter's instincts to the surface. He could smell the man's sweat, could taste the fear and the leftover whiffs of pleasure the man had gotten from threatening the girl.
His mouth flooded with saliva. His jaw felt thicker, stronger. He wanted – needed – to bite so badly.
His head jerked, snapping at the air in front of the man's face; he barely restrained himself from rending flesh.
Then there was a hand on his shoulder, tugging insistently. "Wolf! No! Stop it!"
He rounded on his beloved, still holding the footman against the wall, and her eyes widened in surprise at the red of his. "He was going to hurt this child."
She glanced down at the still sobbing girl, and then turned her angry gaze on the servant pinned to the wall. "You were going to do what?"
"Never!" the man gasped, trying and failing to free himself. "Madam, I would never hurt the girl...I was merely trying to get her out of the room! It's obvious she has no place here."
"Would someone like to tell me what is going on?"
The crowd of gawking nobles parted, allowing King Wendell and Lord Anthony through. Wendell looked merely curious ... but Tony looked pissed.
"Wolf said this jerk was going to hurt the little girl," Virginia said, kneeling down to help the sobbing child to her feet.
"Surely you aren't listing to the Wolf?" demanded an anonymous voice from the crowd.
"Surely you aren't trying to tell the King what to do?" Virginia snapped back.
The surrounding nobles dropped their heads submissively, but the general muttering continued.
"Thank you, Virginia," Wendell said, and reached a hand down to help both his step-sister and the girl stand. "Now, Wolf, if you don't mind...?"
With a final growl, Wolf reluctantly loosed his hold on the footman, allowing the man to drop to his feet.
Wendell nodded, satisfied. "Now. Let's have the full story, if you don't mind."
The girl stood shaking in Virginia's arms, as the Footman again stumbled through his tale of seeing a peasant who had no place in the palace, and that he was only removing the girl before she could cause trouble. "I was only doing my job, your Majesty. Honestly."
Wolf, who had positioned himself between Virginia and the girl and the footman, snorted.
Wendell motioned him to stillness, and turned to the girl. "And you, young miss. What have you to say about the matter?"
A tear slipped down the trembling girl's pale cheek. "M-matter? Sir?"
Wendell smiled softly. "How did you come to be here, little miss?"
She scrubbed at her cheek, sniffling. "I was asked to come."
An incredulous titter ran through the watching crowd. The girl cringed, Virginia glared, Wolf bristled. Wendell ignored them. "Asked by whom, pray tell?"
"This is preposterous!" a new, shrill voice piped in; and the crowd surged, tossing out a middle-aged woman wearing a ridiculous costume of ball-gown and red veils. "Really, Wendell, I can not believe you would lower yourself to talk to this filthy creature! I'm already bored. Tell the footman to take that... thing out, and let us proceed with our evening."
"Queen Riding-hood," Wendell said calmly, "I apologize for this horrid interruption in your evening -- heaven knows, I would never do anything to come between such a beautiful creature and her chosen entertainment, but such unpleasant things do crop up in a ruler's life, as you well know." He sighed dramatically, as if it was just too, too trying. "So, as this is my thrown-room, I will just deal with this little fiasco in my own fashion, hum?"
Riding-hood tossed her head a bit, making it obvious that she was not pleased by the slight, but dipped her head and backed once again into the crowd.
Wendell turned back to his family, rolling his eyes. Wolf snorted in agreement, while Tony shook his head. "Well, there goes the option of marring her." Tony muttered.
"That was never an option." Wendell replied, equally low-voiced.
"She certainly thought it was."
"She was wrong on many levels." Wendell turned to the girl once again. "So, miss, we will hear your side of it now."
The girl took a deep, if shaky, breath, clearing her throat and straightening her shoulders. Virginia stepped back a bit, giving her some space.
"Sir, King Wendell of the House of White, I carry a message to you."
Wendell frowned. "A message from whom?"
The girl swallowed, her eyes darting to the glaring Queen Riding-hood, before speaking again. "The Gray-Lady would call a council of the rulers, my Lord. She would have you do so in your name, since others will not heed her call. She begs your forgiveness in sending me, a child, to speak for her, but she had no way of contacting you herself. She would ask, even in the event that you refuse her summons, that you would grant safety and safe passage to her em... ema.."
"Emissary?" Virginia asked.
"Emissary," the girl said, relived.
Wendell gave the girl a sad, lopsided smile. "I think safety for her emissary is a reasonable request. But I also think her emissary should be feed and cleaned and rest a bit before partaking of this passage. Beckley," Wendell called, and was instantly attended by his personal valet. "Beckley, please escort this charming and brave young Lady to the blue room. See that she is attended by a ladies maid, someone kind," he warned in an undertone, "and that she is fed, bathed, her injuries seen too, and have the seamstress make her a new frock. And shoes. Thank you."
"Sir!" the girl gasped, boldly and desperately snagging at Wendell's lace cuff. "Sir, thank you, but what of my message? What should I tell my Lady?"
Wendell, sighed, dropping to one knee and taking the girl's hands. "My fine, brave, young Miss, we shall talk on these things after you have had a chance to rest. I must speak to my advisors on these things; but be assured that we will talk again before you return to your Lady, and then you will have my answer to her."
The girl looked at him, judging... then pulled her hands free. She lifted the hem of her skirt, ignoring the gasps of the watching nobility, and with a solid jerk she tore the seam. She pulled a small square of folded paper free of the new hole in her skirt, handing it to Wendell.
"From my Lady," she said.
Wendell took it with a respectful nod. "Again, I thank you, Miss. And I ask you, will you go with Beckley?"
Wendell stood, passing the girl's hand to the smiling valet, and nodded them from the room. As the walked through the crowd, Wendell signaled his guard. "Follow them. I want her protected," he ordered quietly. And the guard hurried after.
"Wendell," Tony started, stepping up and taking his arm, but Wendell held up a hand.
"My dear guests," Wendell said, his voice cutting through the muttering spectators. "Well, that was just fascinating!"
There was a general laugh.
"There is no telling what the peasants will get up to just to be around royalty! It's quite pathetic, really."
"So you don't believe the child's story?" asked a voice.
Wendell looked shocked. "What, that the Grey-Lady is sending emissaries for the first time in two generations, and that she chose a rag-tag child for the job? That's about as likely as a troll knowing his salad fork from his fish!"
Again, a laugh.
"Most likely the girl is just hungry and a little crazed. Feeding her will cost me nothing, and she can go about her way in the morning. Poor, filthy little creature." He shook his head sadly. "Ah, well," he continued, more brightly. "Let's not let this little drama spoil any more of our fun! Play!" he ordered the band, and the crowd dispersed talking animatedly, the young ladies impressed with his kindness toward the child.
"Wendell," Tony tried again. "How serious is this."
"Very," Wendell responded, never loosing his smile. He opened the letter, eyes moving over the words. "Very, very serious. Call the royal council together. Now."