When Riley Evensong was summoned to the throne room, she knew this was the moment she’d been waiting for, planning for, and yes, even dreaming of since she’d joined the Royal Guard. At the doorway, she took a moment to straighten the jacket of her immaculate dark green uniform and to corral the one lock of her long black hair that always escaped her braid. This was it. This was the day King Brandon would clap her on the shoulder and say, “Riley, you’ve done a fine job as Captain of my Guard. As you know, I have no heir, but I can appoint a successor to the throne. I’m pleased to announce that I have chosen you to rule Eldenfair. I can’t think of anyone better suited for the job.”
Riley planned to thank the king for this great honor and to assure him she would be a firm but compassionate ruler. She’d be very calm, very professional. And if anyone gave her any problem about not following Convention, she had an iron-clad answer for that. She had a legitimate, ages-old claim to the throne.
She knocked once and opened the door. As throne rooms go, this one was suitably impressive. Red velvet draperies held back by golden cords framed the floor to ceiling windows that let in the balmy breeze and golden sunlight of the day. The long polished marble floor led from the double doors to the throne, an elaborate chair carved with flowers and stars. Two smaller chairs flanked the throne, one for the Queen and one for a prince or princess. The Queen, however, had died in childbirth, so no one had occupied those chairs for many years.
The king sat on his throne, finishing his morning’s activities which included a council meeting and hearing the petitions of the people. He was a regal-looking man, tall and broad shouldered, with gray hair and dark eyes. He wore a silver crown and a blue jacket with many ribbons and medals. His three advisors, one plump, one thin, and one clumsy, clustered about in their red and purple robes, as well as two representatives from the troll population, huge lumbering beings with gray rock-like skin and fringes of lichens for clothing. The Lady Sapphira, official Damsel in Distress, blonde and blue-eyed, wearing a flowing pink gown and a circle of flowers in her hair, and the Royal Soothsayer, Fortuna, a bony woman in black robes decorated with silver symbols, made up the rest of the court.
The king spoke to his advisors first. “Sifal, your thoughts?”
The plump man bowed. “I agree with you completely, your majesty.”
The thin, angry-looking man bowed. “It’s a foolish idea, sire. It will never work.”
“Thank you. Ponsonby?”
The awkward younger man flushed bright red and bowed. “Well, I just don’t know, sire.”
“All right, that’s all done. Morning report. Trolls, you sacked one village and were driven back from another by angry villagers?”
“Growled impressively from the hilltops and threw boulders at the few men foolish enough to climb up?”
“Excellent work. Next?”
“Sapphira, your majesty. I’ll need rescuing from the dragon again.”
“Has the dragon burnt his requisite number of fields and towns today?”
“He’s working on it, sire.”
“Let the guard know when you think you might need rescuing. Who’s next?”
“Your soothsayer, your majesty.”
“Good morning, Fortuna.”
The woman cleared her throat. “Sorry about my voice, your majesty. I wore it out predicting disasters yesterday.”
“Sounds good and otherworldly. Beware the Forest of Calamity?”
“A stranger will come, riding a flaming stallion?”
“Check. And a few more ‘bewares’ and omens, sire.”
“Thank you. Next?” Sifal held up a scroll, and the king made a mark beside each item. “Dispute over land, dispute over cow, marriage granted, baby blessed. I think that’s got it. Thank you, everyone. Council is adjourned.” He turned to me. “Good morning, Riley. A chair for the captain, please.”
Ponsonby hurried over with a gold chair. Riley sat, and the king waved everyone away. “We’ll need some privacy, please.”
This is it! Riley felt her heart pick up speed. He doesn’t want the court to know yet. There will be a formal announcement, maybe a ball, and then the coronation. Her mind ran off in so many directions she didn’t hear what the king said and had to apologize.
“Excuse me, your majesty.”
“We have a situation, Riley, something that threatens not only Convention, but our entire way of thinking.”
All right, so maybe today was not the today his majesty planned to name a successor. But if he wanted a problem solved, then she was the one to do it. If someone or something was tampering with Convention, this had to be stopped. The king was a strong proponent of the standard and widely accepted rules of How Fairy Tales Should Be. He’d broken tradition by having a female captain of the guard, but with so many modern fairy tales depicting brave princesses taking on non-traditional roles, this hadn’t disturbed Convention, merely stretched it a bit.
He reached down and picked up a slim black box. “Zorill found this near Way Side. He has no idea what it is. He should know, being head wizard for the court, but he says he’s never seen anything like it.”
Riley took the box. It was smooth and rectangular, and when she opened the lid, the top became a screen filled with bright images and the bottom a flat surface filled with little buttons, each with a letter or a number. “It seems to be some sort of portable magic mirror.”
“Except there is no face in this mirror, only confusing pictures. It appears to be a larger version of those toys I’ve seen the young people carrying around.”
It was a growing concern that the younger fairies and elves were enchanted by small handheld communication devices. No one had been able to explain the appeal, least of all Riley, who had been called upon more than once to rescue a youngster who’d been playing on his device and fallen into the river. Why were they so entranced by these boxes when they could see and talk to each other every day?
“Did the Zorill try any of these buttons?”
“He didn’t think that would be wise. Who knows what sort of creatures he might conjure up?”
Riley carefully closed the box. “What would you like me to do, sire?”
He took the box and put it back beside his throne. “We have engaged the services of a Waysider to explain this device. Whatever it is, it doesn’t fit Convention. We have to make certain more of these boxes do not find their way over. Also, there must be a way to find out if the smaller boxes are harmless toys or pose a greater threat to Convention.”
“A Waysider? A human?”
“Yes, and I would like for you to be his guide and protector while he is here.”
Not exactly the news she was hoping for, but a valuable assignment. If the threat was as dangerous as the king believed and if she removed it—and she would—it could only serve to make her a more viable candidate for the throne.
“His name is Melchior Thaddeus Worthington. He will be at the gate tomorrow at sunrise.”
Humans often found their way over, usually by sleeping inside a fairy ring, or wandering into an enchanted forest, but Riley was one of the few who knew about the gate in the garden wall near a small village not far from the palace.
“You can count on me, your majesty.”
She was dismissed. She walked back down the long polished floor and out into the marble hallways of the palace. She started across the palace grounds to her quarters in the Guard house when something soft and white bounded across the lawn, calling her name in a sweet little voice.
Oh, not this again. She stopped and pointed a finger at the fluffy bunny. “I’ve told you I don’t need a sidekick.”
The rabbit leaned against her leg. “But every hero or heroine has a cute talking animal to advise them. It’s Convention.”
“I do not need an advisor, either.”
He batted his eyes. “Someone to share your hopes and dreams, then—and advance the plot.”
The rabbit straightened and glared at her. “Aww, come on! I’ve got songs and everything.”
“Definitely no songs.”
“Okay, okay, I won’t sing. But let me tag along. This sounds like quite an adventure. A Waysider coming here!”
“How do you know about that?”
“Are you kidding? As your sidekick, that’s my job!” He got low to the ground. “I sneak, I snoop, I fit in places you don’t.”
“Do not tell this to anyone. It’s a matter of Convention security.”
“But I can keep secrets, too! See how important I am?”
“I do not want a sidekick.”
The rabbit danced around her. “This guy was invited by the council. Hey, maybe he’s the lost heir to the kingdom.”
“Impossible. He’s human.” The last thing she wanted was someone else making a play for the throne. “He can’t possibly be a lost heir.”
“But wouldn’t that make a great story?”
Riley resisted the urge to reach for her weapon. “You’re going to be a lost hare if you don’t go away.”
The rabbit’s ears drooped. “All right, all right. Party pooper.”
Riley reached the guard house and her set of rooms that included a bedroom, private bath, and a sitting room for visitors, although she rarely had visitors and she rarely sat. But she slumped down in the large carved chair. A human. Someone from Across the Way. Someone who’d get in the way, more likely. Why didn’t the king consult her before dumping a strange man into her care?
Melchior Thaddeus Worthington. Well, wasn’t that the stuffiest name ever? It conjured up a picture of an elderly stick of a man, all tweed and tobacco smoke with hair growing out of his ears, near-sighted, grumpy, and frail. Probably a know-it-all, someone who would lecture her about the proper form of fairy tales.
But Rule of Order for Palace Guard #603 said: An officer accepts his mission and fulfills it to the best of his ability.
To the best of her ability. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. All right, Melchior Thaddeus Worthington. Think you know everything about my world? You are in for a big surprise.