Before The Festivities
The Caspartine made an elegant turn, and the silvery ribbon of the Alfiana rushed towards us. It grew wider and wider, until the opposite banks were barely visible from the middle. The ship half-dived into the water, and a rainbow of sparkling splashes surrounded it.
Captain Shakespeare was standing at the steering-wheel.
"Wasn't it breathtaking?!" he yelled to me. "Dear old Caspartine! She excels in landings!" He stroked the steering wheel like it was a horse.
Mount Huon was right in front of us. It was enormous! Larger than I thought possible! The top of the castle's dungeon was covered with clouds. I stood and gazed at that magnificent view.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Primus said.
"Oh, yes!" Tristan and I answered in unison. Yvaine nodded politely, but as she was a star, heights on Earth didn't astonish her much.
"Come on, now," Captain Shakespeare said. "I don't want anyone to notice my ship. My reputation will be in ruins."
We all said warm goodbyes to the captain, and he gave each of us a magical weapon that could shoot lightning.
"First-quality lightning," the captain said proudly. "For ten thousand bolts of it… old Ferdy at the North Market would have given five hundred guineas… Well, so long then. It was an honor, Your Majesty – Your Highness – Lady Illusia."
The pirates roared and shouted, so they didn't hear Shakespeare warmly wishing all of us the best of luck.
We came ashore, and that instant the Caspartine began rising into the sky. I looked at it, until it disappeared in the clouds. We spent such wonderful days on that ship! For me, they were the first happy days of my life.
Primus was already walking to the outer gates of the castle.
"Your Highness!" the gate guards saluted him.
"Your Majesty," Primus corrected dryly and showed them the Royal Stone. The two guards, frightened and amazed, immediately saluted again:
"Long live the King!"
"Now," Primus said. "These three people will be my guests until after I'm officially crowned. Treat them with due respect. This is my nephew, Prince Tristan. This is his companion Lady Yvaine, and this is…" he hesitated. "Lady Illusia."
The men saluted us as well.
"Has my brother Septimus been here recently?" Primus asked.
"No, Your Majesty, not after he went to search for the Stone," one of the guards replied.
"Excellent. Then, I will be crowned tomorrow. I think you might let us in now?"
"Oh, yes, yes, sir."
We entered the seemingly endless dark corridor inside the castle. Four lackeys suddenly, as though magically (or maybe really magically), appeared in front of us, each carrying a torch. They bowed respectfully, and took our bags.
"To the Twentieth Floor guest rooms, sir?" one of them asked Primus.
"No, never in the world," Primus said firmly. "My nephew will have the White Topaz Hall, and Illusia and Yvaine can settle themselves in the Lily-of-the-Valley Room and the Redwood Veranda respectively."
The lackeys just nodded politely and quickly like hares ran away, but I caught the glances on their faces. They were more than amazed.
"What's so dazzling about our rooms?" I asked Primus.
"They are only for the most influential royalty and haven't been used for ages." Primus shrugged. "The White Topaz Hall is well-guarded because it's in my wing of the castle. I should advise you, Tristan, to stay there, in case Septimus makes a sudden attack to get rid of me and you. The Redwood Veranda has a glass roof with a wonderful view of the Milky Way. I think you'd like it, Yvaine. And the Lily-of-the-Valley Room is like a little garden. I guessed you, Illusia, will be very comfortable there. Come, everyone, let's get to the rooms. After we do get there, we'll be exhausted. I can bet."
At first I didn't believe it. Exhausted just from walking around one's living place! Impossible! But Primus turned out to be right. We walked for about two hours and then mounted an enormous stairway. When we started walking, I tried to glimpse now and then at the majestic interior of the castle, but when we were about three hundred stairs high, I already thought of nothing but getting some rest.
Finally, we saw high marble doors with silver letters above them: WHITE WING. THE CHAMBERS OF PRINCE PRIMUS. I saw several silversmiths working near the doors: they were apparently going to replace PRINCE with KING.
Primus took a key ring out of his pocket and opened the doors. We passed through several chambers. They were well-guarded indeed – every door or window and even every hearth had at least three armed men in front of it.
I was nearly dropping down from tiredness. Then, suddenly Primus gestured to two crystal doors. On them LILY-OF-THE-VALLEY ROOM was engraved in flourishing letters.
"Here's your room, Illusia," he smiled. "Tristan, Yvaine – the doors to your chambers are just on the opposite side of the hall."
Indeed, we turned around and noticed a gilded door to REDWOOD VERANDA and a marble entrance to WHITE TOPAZ HALL.
First Primus showed Tristan his room, then Yvaine her veranda, and finally turned to me and handed me a key. It seemed to be made of whitish crystal, but I, being a magician, knew that instant – it was made of lily-of-the-valley fragrance!
"That's the key to your room," Primus said. I opened the crystal doors and walked inside.
Oh, the room was lovely! Its walls were made of sandstones, and decorated with morning glories, lilac, and ivy. The roof was dark blue like the evening sky, and instead of the floor I saw lily-of-the-valley flowerbeds with occasion rosebushes here and there. Somewhere between them, a couch, a table with several chairs, and a pond with a fountain were situated.
"Do you like it?" Primus asked.
"Oh, it's the best room one can think about!" I whispered in awe.
"Wonderful. I've already sent the butler to hire a new maid for you in some village nearby. The maid will be here by tomorrow morning, and she'll bring you breakfast to the room and help you get dressed. My coronation is tomorrow, in case you don't remember."
"I remember," I assured him. "But do I really need a maid? I've managed to do all by myself…"
"Illusia, you'll get lost in the castle by yourself! And, by the way, your outfit for tomorrow's festivities will be difficult to put on without assistance. Have you ever worn a ball gown?"
"Never," I admitted.
"So you don't know what it is like. Also, a maid can help you with the art of ceremonial behavior."
"Fine," I surrendered.
"Goodnight, then," Primus said and closed the door. I smiled:
"Goodnight, thanks again for the room."
I lay on the couch, inhaling the sweet aroma of flowers and the fresh breeze that seemed to be magically designed, and I was so tired that I fell asleep without any more thoughts.
In the morning, I was awakened by a knock on the doors.
"Lady Illusia!" a girl's voice called. "I've brought you the breakfast. May I come in?"
"Oh, of course," I yawned and jumped off the couch. Now I was aware that I had forgotten even to change into my nightgown the evening before.
The door opened, and a pretty blond girl about my age, dressed in a simple woolen dress, came in, carrying a large tray. She set it on the table and curtsied.
"Good morning, ma'am."
"What's your name?"I asked as I started eating a delicious omelet with boiled tomatoes and pork.
"Melina, ma'am," the girl said. I felt awkward, since I've never had a servant:
"Now, why are you standing? Er… I don't… well… see why do you need to stand while I'm sitting."
Melina sat on the edge of the couch.
"Can you tell me anything about the castle and the royal family, Melina?" I continued my inquiries.
"Oh, well, ma'am, I've always lived in Lakeripple, it's a town about twelve miles west. I've never worked here before. But I knew much about the Royals, of course. His Majesty Lirdon, the previous king, was quite a good ruler. I mean, he was good with most of the people of Stormhold – excluding his own family, of course. I don't know if I can say that…" Melina hesitated.
"It's alright. I come from a faraway land and I want to know about the place I live in. I can't ask Primus about his family, so…"
The girl nodded in understanding and resumed her tale:
"King Lirdon was married three times. The first queen was the best one, Queen Silvia was her name. She's the mother of His Majesty Primus. She was very nice and kind to everyone. She was poisoned by Lady Malecasta, a poor courtier anxious to get the throne herself. But the King after the first queen's death married not her, but a simple village girl Acrasia. Actually, my mother came from the same town as her, and she told me that Acrasia was very beautiful and magnetically charming at first sight, but nothing at all more. She gave birth to five children, got tired of them and eloped with some lackey. They were never seen or heard of again. So the King married Lady Malecasta after all, but beheaded her after she refused to give him more heirs.
"But I think seven princes were more than enough. They constantly fought and attempted to kill each other, until – well, I think you know. There are only two left."
I raised my brow:
"Thank you, Melina. But… look, no offense, but you talk like an educated girl! Why?.."
Melina gave a little laugh:
"That's because my parents, thanks to Acrasia's influence – she remembered her old childhood friendship with my mother – were able to send me to a good school. But when Acrasia ran away, all of her protégées were reduced to the positions of simple townspeople."
"And you think King Lirdon was good?!"
"Oh, yes," Melina said honestly. "I'd rather be a maidservant than have to move in the high society! Of course, now, with a really nice King like King Primus, it will be better, but you don't know what it was like when the seven princes were all alive!.."
I preferred not to know and ate my breakfast.