Previously: ...The Family
"Is there a lot of tension between those people, or I am just imagining things?" Aquiel wondered aloud, while Gisela frantically paced their sitting room.
"Of course there's tension," Gisela rasped. "Lavinia is Gregoria's stepmother."
Aquiel blinked, paused, then asked, "...and?"
Gisela struggled to find her patience even as her heart pounded in her chest. It was easy to forget how ignorant mermaids could be of the human world, so much that she often wondered why they were ever even sent ashore.
"Royal families," she began, "are often thrown together. They don't like actually like one another. Their marriages are arranged, and every child is born out of necessity, not love."
Aquiel raised an eyebrow, bemused. "You're saying those people don't like each other?"
"Gregoria is the heir apparent," Gisela told her. "She was sitting in the king's chair, running the court in his absence. That means her brother--Lavinia's son--is just an extra heir in case something happens to her. Which renders Lavinia as mostly useless unless her son becomes king."
Now the mermaid was appalled. "That's awful."
Gisela stopped pacing. "You don't have royal families under the sea?"
"We do," Aquiel nodded. "Every clan has a matriarch. She chooses her mates as she sees fit, and has how many ever children she desires. If she cannot, or simply does not want to, then when she dies, one of her sisters or female cousins takes over."
Gisela didn't know what to make of that. "You don't have kings?"
"Some of our matriarchs take male consorts," Aquiel shrugged. "But they have no actual authority over the domain."
"And no one has ever killed one of these...matriarchs for her throne?" Gisela demanded.
"Maybe in ancient times," the mermaid shrugged again, "in clans that lacked discipline and didn't fear the goddess." She smiled. "Ursula is very strict, you see. If one mermaid murders another, she invites the curse of the goddess. She's given legs and permanently exiled to the human world. She can no longer breathe under water or perform magic." I wonder if she retains her heightened sense of smell though, Aquiel pondered.
Gisela stared at her. "How nice for you. Up here, when humans slaughter each, they usually just go on with their lives."
"Humans may worship Ursula, but her domain is still the sea," Aquiel replied. "They need her blessing for clear skies and favorable winds. But matters on land are best left to the earthen gods...which you people don't worship anymore," she finished with a slight wince.
"Dinner is going to be a catastrophe!" Gisela exclaimed. "You're gonna go in there, spouting off about gods and matriarchs and legs, and I...." She threw her hands up in exasperation.
"You get to enjoy a charming evening probably discussing literature with a prince," Aquiel assured her. "I can think of worse ways to spend your time."
"Oh, please--Florian is an adult," Gisela grumbled. "He's likely betrothed by now."
Aquiel's brow furrowed. "What's 'betrothed' mean?"
"Promised," Gisela sighed. "Royals don't get to choose their mates, remember? King Everard is probably off promising the poor boy to someone he's never met."
The mermaid shuddered. "Human mating rituals are barbaric."
"At least you and the princess will agree on something," Gisela rubbed her temples. "She's a spinster, after all."
"What's a spinster?" the mermaid blinked.
Gisela sighed loudly, exhausted to the point she had to sit down. "A spinster is a woman like Gregoria: never married and getting old. Soon she won't be able to bear children at all."
Aquiel chose her words carefully. "And that's a bad thing?"
"Up here? It can be. Especially in her case. With no spouse and no heirs of her own, Gregoria becomes a...well, an attractive target to someone like Lavinia." Pause. "Wars have been fought over less."
"How do you know so much about these people?" the mermaid marveled.
"I read, Aquiel!"
"Well, at least you and the prince will have something in common," Aquiel beamed.
"This isn't funny," Gisela stated grimly. "We weren't sent here to get up mixed up with these people."
"Actually we were," Aquiel countered, "if you think about it. If you thought we were gonna come here, keep our heads down, and continue our lessons for the next seven months, well...we could've just done that back at the temple. This test is abut temptation, and the Ursas chose it well. I mean, look at Savia."
"What about her?"
"She probably came here many years ago as junior acolyte--same as we," Aquiel explained. "One day, she was going to her lessons and doing her chores like a good little girl, and the next...she's at a palace. She went from being a nobody to being somebody a king listens to. Can you imagine that level of temptation?"
Gisela was visibly disturbed. She bit her bottom her lip briefly. "I don't want to end up like Savia."
"Neither do I," Aquiel assured. "It's settled then. We'll smile at these people, listen to what they say, do as we're instructed, and count the days until we get to go home. Deal?"
Gisela's eyes seemed to light up, even as her face remain troubled. "Deal," she nodded, sounding more optimistic than Aquiel had ever heard.
When receiving special guests in her father's absence, Princess Gregoria liked to use his private dining room. Despite being dubbed Everard "the Golden", her father actually had simple tastes. Upon ascending to the throne, he'd ordered all the gold in his dining room to be stripped from the walls and furnishings, melted down, and used to fund the shrine to Ursula.
The room was much plainer now, with heavy woolen drapes, and most of the light coming from a cozy hearth.
As she sat down across the small wooden table from the pretty mermaid, Gregoria suddenly missed her father.
The servants began by serving goblets of water. "Forgive me...I don't drink much," the princess apologized.
"I don't drink much either, Your Highness," Aquiel assured. Although she enjoyed many types of wine, she was actually relieved. She got tipsy very easily.
"You're not like other Ursas," Gregoria remarked, intrigued. "You actually adhere to the belief in minimalism. Most of the acolytes who come here treat the test like some sort luxurious holiday. And the ones who stay...." She trailed off, seemingly on purpose.
She wants me to gossip, Aquiel realized. "The palace is very beautiful, Your Highness," she smoothly side-stepped. "If my own devotion to Ursula were not so strong, I too would want to stay."
"But mermaids are said to never stay," Gregoria tilted her head. "And why would you? When the oceans are so beautiful."
Aquiel was surprised. Humans rarely grasped this on their own. "They are, Highness." After hesitant pause, she asked, "Have you ever visited the island temple?"
Gregoria shook her head. "I spent most of my life here at the capital. I've visited every corner of my kingdom, and a few times beyond. I wanted to accompany my father north, to meet with the great Queen Damiana."
Aquiel nodded. "She's quite famous, even under the sea."
"As she should be," Gregoria murmured. "She ascended the throne at a young age, same as my father, and after decades of war still managed to form the largest army in Misthaven--at least a hundred thousand strong." The princess chuckled. "Peace came rather quickly after that."
There was silence as the servants began bringing around trays. There were breads, fresh fruits and vegetables, and succulent meats glazed in sauces and dusted with dried herbs. Aquiel had never seen so much food before, prepared in so many different ways. She wondered if this was all really necessary for humans to live, or if it was just a royal thing.
Gregoria noted her wide-eyed reaction. "I take food at the temple is much simpler."
"And food under the sea is simpler still, Your Highness," Aquiel smiled broadly. That didn't stop her from letting the servants load her plate with samples. She just had to know what all of this tasted like.
Queen Lavinia appeared to drink a lot, and after five minutes in her company, Gisela was sorely tempted to join her.
Dinner was served in the dining room of the royal household. This was where the royal family was supposed to gather to eat, but Gisela could tell these people never used it.
They each probably eat alone in their chambers, she figured, looking about herself.
Like so many of the rooms of the inner palace, the walls and furnishings were plated in gold. The velvet drapes were parted to let the fading sunlight in, all the candelabras were lit, and the room was needlessly bright.
The table was long, carved from pale wood and painted with gold flecks. The long table runner was dark gold, embroidered in a lighter gold. The queen sat at the head of course, while Gisela was seated to her left.
"It appears my son is running late," the queen remarked, entirely devoid of humor. They hadn't been sitting long, and yet she was already on her second goblet of wine. The goblet was gold, like everything else in these halls. "He can eat when he gets here," she added, gestured for her servants to begin.
"I hope you like ham," Lavinia said. "Savia once told me that one of the best things about living in the palace is the ham."
"We don't eat it often on the island, Your Majesty."
"No, I don't suppose you do," the queen smirked. She raised her goblet for a refill. "Savia tells me the food is as plain as the clothing."
"We eat well enough, Your Majesty."
"Earlier, when you said you studied spirituality, you were referring to magic, were you not?"
Gisela's whole body tensed. "I'm not permitted to discuss--"
"--such matters with the uninitiated," Lavinia scoffed, finishing for her. "Yes, yes...Savia made all the same excuses. Turns out, she can't actually do any magic and never could. None of her little band of merry Ursas can." She paused, sipped her wine, seemed to mull it over, and then finally continued, "The hag does know her herbs, though."
Prince Florian finally arrived, flushed face and breathless. He paused to give his mother a light kiss on the cheek before going to sit to her right.
"Apologies; I was in the library when I lost track of time."
"The Ursa library?" Lavinia inquired.
"No, the royal one," Florian replied. "I needed to brush up on the names, titles, and domains of our nobles. Will the Duchess of Easterland be joining us?"
"Gods, no," his mother scowled. "Besides, Miss Gisela is our guest of honor."
Floria smiled at her. "Indeed. What languages are you fluent in, Miss Gisela?"
She already knew where this was going. "I can read Elvish, Your Highness."
"Perfect!" he beamed. "I will have Savia assign you to my study. I have some tomes that no one can seem to translate for me."
"Must we, my love?" Lavinia wearily asked. "Not all life is tomes and texts. Sometimes, life is gossip."
Gisela tried not to wince. "I have no gossip to share, Your Majesty."
"Sure you do," the queen smirked. "You just don't know you do. That island of yours is far more influential than you give it credit for." She cocked her head to the side. "Did you know that Queen Damiana's mother was an Ursa?"