A Dance with Magic – Nancy O’Toole

Rebecca I could see freedom from my bedroom window. A lush green field, illuminated by the pale dawn light, lined the back of the palace. Someone had opened the stable doors, allowing the horses to run free. For a moment, I found my gaze lingering on a single mare, a beautiful creature the palest of grays, racing through the grass. I felt the tightness in my chest relax a fraction. And then I heard a shift behind me. “Oh dear,” I said, a smile twitching on my lips. “Don’t tell me my time is already up?” I turned around to see a tall young man with the trademark Hijanni coloring—light-brown skin, straight, dark hair, and golden, hawk-like eyes. He wore the bright red uniform of a soldier. All the guards did, even with the war long over. But unlike the others, he wasn’t armed with a musket, but a sword. Anyone who would interpret this as a weakness didn’t know Zahir. “Lord Reginald is on his way,” he began, then paused, as if picking up on the subtle shift in my mood. “But…you do have ten minutes.” “Oh?” My eyebrows rose.


“And what could I do with that ten minutes?” “I suppose that’s plenty of time to sneak down to the stables.” Well, well. Imagine that. The famously rule-abiding Zahir suggesting escape? Perhaps anything really was possible. “I’m just saying,” he continued, voice stiff. “Dove looks like she would appreciate a ride.” “And wouldn’t it be a crime to deny her such a simple wish? Should we sneak down the back stairs?” “Better to go toward the servant’s quarters. I—” He was cut off by a knock at my chamber door. At the sharp rap, annoyance flashed through his golden eyes. His jaw clenched as he turned to the door. So much for ten minutes. The moment he turned from me, I felt the mask slip back on, straightening my posture and smoothing the smile from my face. It was one thing to relax around one’s personal guard, but the rest of the world expected something more. Not Rebecca Kelvin, but a symbol. I was well known throughout the kingdom for my appearance, as immodest as that sounds.

Like my mother before me, I fit the standards of the classic Kelvian beauty. Not just in my fair skin, blue eyes, long, pale-blond hair, and slight stature, but also in my stillness and silence. Kelvian women were supposed to be small, unobtrusive. As my nation’s princess, I had embodied that perfectly. Only I wasn’t a princess anymore. Zahir opened my chamber door. “You’re early.” If it wasn’t for my careful schooling, I would have winced at his choice of words and tone of voice. I suppose it was unfair to criticize my guard for being overprotective, but… “Well, I never! Can’t it kill you to be a little more polite, swordsman?” The speaker was my lady’s maid, Maggie Carroll, a plump woman of middle age, currently weighed down with a variety of hair ribbons. She glared at Zahir as she passed. “Now, now, Maggie. Zahir is just doing his job.” The second arrival bowed in my direction as he entered, the light in the room catching on his steel-gray hair and curling beard. “Your Highness,” he said with a slight bow. “Lord Reginald,” I replied.

Like myself, they both wore dark colors, a sign of mourning for my brother the king, who had, as far as the world knew, “died” a month before. Of course, only a select few, including the people in this room, knew that Carlisle the Butcher had been buried in the ground over a year ago. “I don’t see why being rude falls into his job description,” Maggie replied. “And me with so little time on my hands! Only an hour to prepare the princess for her meeting with the Verdian diplomat. Imagine that!” “Queen,” Zahir muttered beneath his breath. “I’m sure you can muster up something suitable,” Lord Reginald replied. Maggie stiffened. “I beg your pardon? What do you know about—” “Do you have any questions, my dear?” Lord Reginald ignored her protests. His gaze softened as his eyes met mine. “I know this is an important meeting.” “I was able to gain that much from the dossier you sent over. It was extensive,” I replied. “Good. I just want to make sure you understand the gravity of the situation.” “Given that this visit is to decide not only the future between our two nations but my marital state, I would say that I understand it quite well.

” Next to me, my maid let out a sigh so heavy it seemed to fill the room. “It’s a shame,” she said, holding a deep navy hair ribbon to my face. “For a woman to have to make such a determination on her own. In my day, that would have been the job of the men in the family.” I pressed my lips together in a firm line. Maggie was technically right, but the war had derailed everything. And my future had been far from my brother’s most significant concern. “With the crown at stake, the princess’s marriage is even more vital than it once was,” Lord Reginald replied. “This is not a decision that we can make lightly.” “Queen.” This time Zahir spoke louder. “Not princess. And it seems to me as if the crown is in awful good hands.” “A truth which I do not deny.” Lord Reginal raised a hand.

“I understand that without Her Majesty’s efforts, we could still be at war. Just what I’d expect from a daughter of King Conrad, of course.” He bowed toward me before continuing. “But that doesn’t change the fact that with a woman on the throne, other nations will view us as weak. Verdia and the Eastern Empire will be quick to take advantage of what they perceive to be a fragile opponent. Even Hijan may offer us less-favorable trade deals.” He looked to Zahir as he said this, and I watched as my guard crossed his arms over his chest in apparent frustration. It was clear where this argument was going. Meaning it was past time for me to jump in. “While I appreciate your council, Lord Reginald, the diplomat’s visit is to discuss the possibility of marriage, nothing more. Regardless of the outcome, the crown will remain in my fragile female hands.” Lord Reginald spoke up. “I did not mean to imply—” “Of course not. And while I am certainly open to the benefits that a more friendly relationship between our two nations would provide, I am also aware of the will of the people. Until recently, our nations were at war, and we have been enemies for centuries before that.

A decision to put a lesser Verdian prince on the throne is likely to be strikingly unpopular. And if I don’t have the support of my people, how can I call myself their queen?” “I…well-stated, of course.” But I could see the doubt in my advisor’s eyes. Reginald Gallant had been an advisor for longer than I had been queen. In fact, he had been serving the Kelvian family for longer than my own twenty-six years. His temperament was steady, his instincts usually good, but he was still a man with biases. For better or worse, our nation had maintained a constant masculine presence on the throne for over four hundred years. My advisor could not comprehend how it would function without one. I suspected it was keeping him up at night. I took a step forward, resting one of my small hands on his gloved one. “My Lord, I thank you for your concerns, and your detailed notes have been a great help. But this morning, we will just be greeting the diplomat, an event that will likely take mere minutes. Any true discussion will begin over dinner tonight. Perhaps we should have a more in-depth preparation this afternoon. After all.

” I cast a glance at my maid. “That is a fair amount of hair ribbons. I suspect it will take the whole of the hour just to examine them all.” Lord Reginald hesitated, then nodded. “Of course. Better to thoroughly work on the issue later, than to rush into it now. I will leave you to your preparations, my dear.” And with that, he bowed and stepped out of the room. The second the door shut behind him, Maggie let out a huff. “Would be wise, indeed,” she said. “What would be wiser is if he chose to have this discussion in a sitting room, as is proper, rather than the princess’s bedchamber.” “Queen,” Zahir corrected once more. “Oh, don’t you—” “Lord Reginald,” I said, pitching my voice slightly louder to gain Maggie’s attention. The fact that she fell silent meant that the crown at least pulled some weight against the indomitable will of Maggie Carroll. “Lord Reginald doesn’t mean anything improper by it,” I continued, speaking in normal tones.

“It’s just hard for him to forget that I am no longer the child he once dangled on his knee, but a woman grown.” “Well,” Maggie replied. “In my day, no man would be allowed such access, regardless of the reason.” Cycles! It was impossible to miss the look she cast Zahir as she said this. He glared back. Would the two of them ever get along? “Perhaps it would be wise for you to step outside for now,” I said, turning to Zahir. He opened his mouth as if in protest. “What?” I asked. “Do I need to worry about her deadly collection of hair ribbons?” Zahir scowled. “They would make very effective strangling devices.” “Then I will be sure to advise her to keep them far from my neck.” A smile quirked onto my lips. “Do you seriously think I need to fear my maid, Zahir?” His shoulders slumped, and he shook his head. “Of course not, my queen.” He cast a glance in her direction.

“I know exactly what she is capable of, after all.”

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Updated: 24 November 2021 — 02:47

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