Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chapter Two: The Royal Dinner

I feel as though I am walking through a dream. With each step, waves of nervous excitement roll over me. Soon, we shall arrive at our destination: the glorious Castle Veradel. My new home. And I shall be a princess; I shall be his at last.

My love takes me to his horse and together we ride through the dark Alathean Forest. I have heard tales of robbers and fierce animals that roam these woods, but as I hold tightly to Lothar's waist, my body leaning against his back, I am not afraid. My prince will protect me no matter the cost.

At dawn, we arrive at the castle. It is larger than any dwelling I have ever seen and more beautiful than I ever imagined. I feel small, so very small before its massiveness. 

Awestruck, I gaze upon the fortress as a man comes toward us.

"Good morrow, my lord," he says to Lothar.

"Hello, Renfred," Lothar answers. "Please take Argo to the stables and give him water to drink."

"Very well, my lord."

Before Renfred takes the horse, he turns and bows to me. "Good day, fair lady."

"Good day," I say, blushing. I shall have to get used to this kind of treatment.

Lothar walks me to the castle's entrance, where a guard stands to meet us.

"Greetings, my prince. Who have we here?"

"This is the Lady Corynne," Lothar says. "She is to be my bride."

The guard looks me over, surely thinking that I am dressed like no Lady, but he does not mention it. "Very well. Enter, my lord."

In the castle, Lothar leads me up a winding stone staircase to his room. Again, I am in awe.

"It's bigger than my house!"

Many beautiful things fill the chamber, including an easel, a writing desk, and a case full of books. Not many of the witches can read, but my mother taught me when I was young. Such a thing was necessary for learning her trade.

"You are welcome to everything you see in here," Lothar says. "This is your home now."

Lothar lights a fire and soon we are not alone. A boy in a fancy red and gold tunic joins us. He looks to be around Lothar's age, or prehaps a bit younger. One of his brothers, I presume. 

"Lathian," Lothar greets him warmly.
"Brother," Lathian says. "There is much I need to tell you." He glances in my direction and lowers his voice so that I can no longer hear him.
"Of course," Lothar says. "Let us continue this conversation elsewhere."

Lothar then comes to me and strokes my face with his hand. "Darling."

"You have to go?" I ask.

"I will not be gone for too long. You should rest."

"I thought there were no secrets between us," I say. "What are the two of you talking about?"

"I'm afraid I can't tell you that, now," Lothar says. "But in time you will know. I promise."

Lothar leaves with his brother and I lie down upon the softest bed I have ever been in. Within moments, I fall asleep.

I am not sure how much time has passed when I hear a sound. I sit up groggily, expecting to see Lothar. Instead it is a woman with bright pink hair.

"Hello, my dear," she says cheerily.


"I am Falada. Lothar sent me for you. My, you are lovely, just as he said you would be. Yes, yes, I have just the thing in mind for you."

"For me?" I ask. "Um, exactly what do you have in mind?"

She laughs. "A dress, of course. You must have one for dinner."

"You have a dress for me?" I have never felt this giddy about clothing before. In the Sisterhood, we kept our dress simple and ordinary, to not draw attention to ourselves.

"I am going to make you one," she says. "The king has appointed me to make all of the clothes for the royal family. This is my magic. Watch."

Falada extends her finger toward me, releasing a soft purple light.

My skin tingles with a strange, warm sensation. Her magic envelopes me and transforms the fabric on my body to something truly exquisite.

When she is finished, I marvel at her creation.

"I can turn any cloth into velvet or the finest silk," she says. "What do you think?"

"It's..." I search for a word but cannot find one that is good enough.

"My," I hear Lothar's voice. "You look pretty."

Falada throws up her arms and declares with much bravado, "She looks glorious!"

"You are so beautiful," Lothar says. "I am the luckiest man I have ever met."

But I am truly the lucky one. I cannot believe how much my life has already changed in only a day.

"You will make a perfect bride," he says and kisses my hand. My heart is so filled with joy in this moment I do not think my body can contain it.

"My father knows you are here and he has requested your presence at dinner," Lothar says. "It will begin soon, but first I would like to take a walk to better acquaint you with the castle."

"Of course, my love."

Lothar leads me to a beautiful garden where many people are hard at work.

"I cannot imagine having so many servants," I tell him. "It's so strange to me."

"They're actually slaves," he says.

"Slaves?" I feel the blood drain from my face. "You... own these people?"

"They belong to my father," Lothar says.

"Debtors, most of them," he explains. "To escape imprisonment, they swear the oath of servitude to the king. We treat them well and in return they take care of the castle and do whatever else we require of them until they have worked away their debt. It is a much better life than wasting away in chains."

We sit together on a stone bench and Lothar pulls me toward him. "We will marry in this garden," he says.

"I can't wait," I tell him. "I wish it were today."

"Soon, Darling," he says.

A bell rings in the distance. "Dinner," Lothar says. "Come. It's time for you to meet my family."

He takes me to a large hall decorated in white marble. Lothar puts his arm around me and everyone in the room stares at us. "Mother, Father," Lothar says, "may I present to you the Lady Corynne. She is to be my bride."

The queen, Larana, gapes at me in disbelief. Even with her mouth hanging open, she is stunning. "Bride? My son, isn't this a bit sudden? How long have you known this girl?"
"Long enough," Lothar says. "I love her and I have never been this sure about anything."

"Well, then," she says, sounding nonplussed. "We shall have to become better acquainted, was it, Lady Corynne? Anyhow, now that two of my sons have arrived, I shall very much hope to see the third soon." Louder, she says, "Where is Litham? Let no one eat until he gets here."

"Don't mind her," Lothar says. "My mother has quite the temper but I know she will love you." We sit down at the far end of the table and I take the chair furthest from the king and queen.

The ladies of court are curious about me and they ask questions.

"How old are you, dear?"

"I am sixteen," I answer.

"And how did you come to meet the prince?"

"We met at the market."

"She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen," Lothar says. "The moment I laid eyes on her, I said to myself, 'I am going to marry this girl.'"

The ladies coo in response and I blush. He has never told me this before.

"Corynne," Queen Larana calls across the table. "Will you please come join me? I wish to learn more about my son's lady." 

I take the empty seat beside her, which I assume is reserved for the absent brother, Litham.
"Sit, child," she says in a voice that is sweet but sharp as well. King Lothe and his men offer me welcoming smiles but I feel uncomfortable in the queen's presence.

"Tell me where you met my son?" she asks.

"At the marketplace in Veradel square," I answer this question once more.

"So you're from Veradel, then?"

"I am."

"I see," she says. "Lothar tells me that you are nobility. Who's daughter are you?"

"My mother is the potion-maker, Amea," I inform her.

The queen is quiet for a moment. Then in a low voice, she says, "Amea, yes, I have heard of her. Her potions are quite popular."

"As I recall," her tone turns from sweet to bitter, "I do believe that she is a witch. And this, Lady Corynne, could only mean one thing..." 

Her lovely features twist into a snarl. "That my son has brought a witch to join us for dinner."
A collective gasp fills the dining hall. I close my eyes, ashamed.
"I do not know if he has done this as a cruel joke or out of sheer foolishness," she continues. "Surely, he knows that your filthy kind are not worthy of sharing my table."

"I am no longer one of them," I say. "I have left the witches to be with your son."

"Only when I am dead."

"Wine!" the king shouts. "Bring the wine." Then, to his wife, he says, "I have invited the girl to my table, and here she may stay."

"Return to your seat, then," the queen says. "Leave my presence, Witch."


As I walk back to my chair, Lothar glares at his mother.

"I'm sorry," he says quietly.

Her words are still stinging my heart. I try to push down the lump in my throat and keep my eyes from watering. She will love me, indeed.

The friendly, eager looks from the court ladies have turned to suspicious stares. For the second time today I feel small. Small and dirty.

Renfred, the servant I met this morning, brings out the wine.
In the Sisterhood, my mother taught me that wine is a great evil, leading women into folly and wickedness. Only harlots and classless wenches consumed it. 

"I can't," I tell him. "I'm sorry."

"Whatever is the matter, Witch?" the queen calls to me. "Is our wine not good enough for you?"

"Take it," Lothar urges me. "You will insult them if you do not."

"But I was taught..."

"Forget everything you were taught," he says. "You said yourself, you're not one of them anymore. This is how you can prove it."

I am taken aback by his words, but I know that he is right.

"Very well," I say. "Thank you, Renfred. I will drink after all."

"My mother sees evil in everything. But what's the worst thing that could happen?"

Renfred gives me my wine and takes the last glass for himself. "To your health, my king," he says and takes a drink.

Immediately after he swallows, he drops his cup and brings his hands to his throat.

It is a terrible thing to see. His face is pallid. He reaches out for someone to help him, but no one can. Choking and gasping, he falls to his knees.  

"What witchcraft is this?" the queen seethes.

Mere moments have passed and poor Renfred lies motionless on the floor, his eyes open and glassy. I know that he is dead.

Panic spreads throughout the dining hall. The members of court cry out in horror at the grim sight. 

My insides lurching, I scream with the rest of them. I have never seen a person die before, and in such a grisly manner at that. I hope I will not have to see such a thing again.

"It was the witch!" one of the women shrieks. "She refused the wine--she must have known it was poisoned. She would have murdered us all!" 

The rest of them look upon me with accusing fury.

"No!" I cry. "I could never--"

"What is the meaning of this?" the king's voice is as deep and unnerving as thunder.

"What do you expect?" the queen hisses. "Invite a witch to dinner and you get poisoned wine."

"I--I had nothing to do with this," I stammer. "Please, you have to believe me."

Queen Larana is pitiless. "I will have lost my mind indeed the day I believe the words of a witch."

The king, however, looks thoughtful. "I wish to speak to the girl in my throne room. I will get to the bottom of this one way or another."

In terrified silence, I follow King Lothe into the cavernous marble throne room. Lothar and the queen run in shouting after us.

A man dressed in black with a scar across his left eye joins us. "The whole court is in an uproar," he says silkily. "It seems someone let a witch into the castle. How interesting that murder should follow her arrival."

"And I find it interesting that you didn't bother to show up for dinner at all," Lothar shouts. "You could have poisoned the wine."

"How could you say such a thing?" Larana cries.

"That is quite an accusation, Brother," the man, whom I now assume is Litham, responds with  a smile on his face. There is something completely disconcerting to me about this man.

"Mother," Lothar pleads, "you must believe that Corynne is innocent. She could never do such a thing."

The queen sighs and speaks slowly, as though to a child. "Darling, she is a witch. You could not imagine the cunning and craft of which they are capable. My poor, deceived son. You think you love this creature."

"Of course I love her!"

"Do you think she loves you? Witches are incapable of love. They despise it. She has pretended to love you to get closer to us. Had she succeeded tonight, she would have killed us all."

"That's not true!" Lothar shouts. "Corynne's not like that. You don't even know her."

In an act of desperation, I throw myself before the king. "Please, my lord. I am not a witch, and I did not do this evil thing. I have escaped Galaea and her witches forever. They forbid love, and I will never stop loving Lothar."

"I came here for one reason only--to be with your son. He is the only thing I want."

"My king, you must look at me and know that my words are true."

"I believe you," he says. Galaea always said that King Lothe is the most evil of all men, but in his eyes there is such gentleness, such kindness.

"Arise, my child."

"What?" the queen snaps. Litham makes a disgruntled noise. "But my king," Larana protests, "how can you--?"

"Enough," King Lothe says. "I am the law and I believe she speaks the truth. This poor girl has been through much today. I wish to speak to her alone."

As Lothar and Litham leave the room, the queen throws up her arms in frustration. "This is madness!"

She then spins toward me and shoves her finger in my face. "Mark my words, Witch! You may have beguiled my husband and son, but you will not get away with this. I will do everything within my power to see that you pay for this crime."
She then storms out of the throne room, leaving me alone with the king.

"Thank you for believing me," I say shyly as he steps toward me.

"It is my gift to see one's true intentions and my business to know when I am being lied to," he says. "You did not lie. You were just as shocked and frightened as everyone else in that hall."

"Yes, my king," I say in utter relief.

"My what a pretty thing you are," he says as his eyes travel below my face.
"My... king?"

"What beautiful children you will give my son," he adds quickly, looking back up at me.

"He loves you dearly, you know."

"Yes," I say, smiling. "I know."

"I have never seen him so taken with a girl. And the way he was so quick to defend you, not questioning your innocence for a moment. He cares very much for you, and therefore you have my blessing."

"Thank you, my lord!"

"You are free to go anywhere in the castle," he says. "And do not worry about the queen. She may seem cold, but she will come around. I have had the suspicion for quite some time that someone was trying to kill me. That is why I ordered my slave to test the wine before I drank. I think we all should consider ourselves very lucky that no one important was killed."

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