Excerpt from The Crown Plonked Queen
Book Four of The Western Lands and All That Really Matters
Copyright © Andrew Einspruch, 2018. All Rights reserved.
Was It You?
Eloise walked from the chapel to the Throne Hall without further incident. This struck her as an incredible triumph, given what had just happened. The GHC fit better after Lorch’s attentions, but the weight of it still pressed on her. Her mother must have had a neck like an ironwood stump. At least the thing stayed on as she led the procession past the Salon des Champions, around the wintry, snow-caked Culpability Courtyard, lit by the last rays of dusk, through a couple of internal hallways, and to the Throne Hall itself.
Peering in, Eloise saw that the hall looked lightly decorated, which was appropriate, since the official status was that Court was in mourning. Normally, she’d have expected to see dozens of white banners embroidered with the Gumball crest (a weasel on a bushel of onions and a one-eyed otter holding a fire poker). Instead, there were a few somber black ones with the crest in shades of maroon and silver. Adding a splash of color were orchids brought out from a hothouse for the occasion. Half the banquet tables had a vase with a golden disa orchid, its bright yellow blossoms bringing a touch of sunshine. The other half had a small orchid with tiny purple flowers that somehow smelled of lime zest and talcum powder.
Eloise quickly tucked the hanky into her sleeve, hoping her nosebleed was done. As she stepped into the hall, a herald announced her. “Her Majesty, Queen Eloise Hydra Gumball III. Long may the crown-plonked queen live!”
Everyone stood, turned, and looked at her. Eloise wondered if they all knew what had just happened. It was safe to assume they did, since gossip traveled faster than a longwalker with his breeks on fire. Her cheeks flushed pink as she imagined them all sniggering about her as she walked past them.
Eloise strode toward the center of the room, allowing everyone to bow or curtsy as she passed. On the dais, a single throne—her mother’s—stood by itself. The rest—hers, her sister’s, and her father’s—had been cleared away. Flanking the throne were small tables, one with the golden disa and the other the lime-talcum orchid. As she walked, she heard the rustle of those who’d been in the chapel filing in behind her.
She paused at the step up to the dais and drew a breath. Eloise flexed the fingers on her right hand and winced. Her wrist would need attention sooner rather than later. She readied herself to step up and sit on her mother’s throne for the first time.
“I’m letting go of your train now,” said Johanna. “Please be careful, Queen Eloise.”
Eloise turned and looked at her sister. “Come on up, Jo. Keep me company. They can bring another chair. Or even your throne. I can ask them to do that.”
Johanna shook her head, then subtly moved her hands in the private sign language the twins had developed when they were young. I don’t think that’s such a good idea, she signed. Plus, it’s against Protocol in about a dozen ways.
Eloise’s shoulders drooped. She signed back, despite the throbbing in her wrist. Right. Such is Protocol.
Johanna nodded. Yes, such is Protocol. She gave her sister an encouraging smile. This is your moment. It’s the start of your reign. People need to see you as you, not as one of the two of us.
I guess you’re right. Eloise lifted a shoulder. I just don’t feel like a queen. I feel like a goofball in a dumb outfit pretending to be queen.
The first time in front of everyone was always going to be weird. Johanna nodded toward their mother’s throne. It’s all yours. Have a seat. Go be queen. Everyone’s waiting.
Eloise nodded. Thanks, Jo.
You are most welcome, Queen Eloise. Somehow, Johanna conveyed just a hint of joshing with her hands.
Eloise smiled, hiked the hem of the Raiment of the Queens to a safe height, and headed for her mother’s throne. She stopped in front of it, carefully turned to face the room, and spoke the words her mother had used to open hundreds of gatherings: “My friends.”
“Our queen,” chorused the voices as one.
“Please be at rest.”
People relaxed, but no one sat.
“Right,” said Eloise. “Got it.” She sat on the throne and tried again. “Please be at rest.”
Everyone sat at their banquet tables, keeping their attention on her.
At a nod, Lorch and her father mounted the dais. Chafed placed the Orb of Alleged Omniscience on the table to Eloise’s left, careful to position it so the chipped, dented side faced away from the crowd. Eloise took the Scepter of This is Much Better than the Stick They Used to Use from Lorch and laid it across her lap. Chafed and Lorch bowed and left her alone. Her father took a seat at a table in front with Johanna, First Advisor Ligurian, Other Places Advocate Bërnädïce-Ändrëä Thëjëts, and a few others. Lorch marched off at attention to stand at the side of the room.
Eloise sat there for a minute, surveying the room. It looked a lot like every other time she’d sat up on the dais with her family. The angle was a little different, since she was right in the middle instead of off to the side. And it was a little lonely. But otherwise, it felt normal.
But nothing about this was normal. Certainly not with the crown sitting like a granite basin on her head. She wasn’t sure how long she could stand wearing the thing.
Plus, there was something wrong with her throne. She wriggled a little, but it was still there—an uncomfortable lump in the seat cushion. Eloise stood, being careful not to let the Gumballic Heraldic Crown topple, turned, and fluffed the seat cushion.
As one, the room behind her clattered to their feet.
Eloise turned back around and looked at them, briefly confused. They stared at her, expectant and waiting.
“Sorry,” said Eloise. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. Please be at rest.”
Silence. No one moved.
Everyone else sat.
The cushion still wasn’t right.
She’d live with it.
Had her mother endured years of uncomfortable seating to avoid inconveniencing entire rooms full of people? She didn’t remember the late queen squirming all the time, but then, that wasn’t the kind of thing Eloise would necessarily have noticed.
A few minutes passed with people whispering and looking at her. She assumed they were talking about the disaster in the chapel. Ten minutes later, it occurred to her that everyone seemed to be waiting. Eloise looked from table to table, trying to work it out.
She saw First Advisor Ligurian suddenly lift his index finger. Just a little, but sharp enough and high enough to be noticeable. His wrist rested on the table, his eyes locked on hers, and his index finger was definitely up and wagging slightly, like a pudgy baby cobra paying attention to his music lessons. Eloise furrowed her brow at him. Ligurian crooked his raised finger and pointed at something on the table. His napkin? His goblet?
Eloise gave him a tiny shake of the head.
He pointed toward the table again, then turned his wrist and pointed to the side. To Bënnïë-Änn Thëjëts, maybe? Eloise narrowed her eyes further and shook her head again, just once. Ligurian tilted his chin just a few degrees and shifted his eyes, like he was looking at something in the distance, and pointed again.
Eloise looked in the direction he indicated. There were more tables full of people of all species. Nothing remarkable there. She looked all the way to the wall.
Oh. That was it.
There in the entryway to the kitchens, two columns of servers holding trays stood at attention, awaiting their cue to bring in the meal. Eloise looked back at Ligurian, nodded, and mouthed, “Thank you.”
She stood, waited for everyone to do the same, then said, “Let us be grateful to Çalaht for the bounty that is this meal, as well as to the farmers who grew it, and those who prepared it. Bless this food.”
“Bless this food,” echoed everyone.
“Please be at rest.” Eloise sat, allowing everyone to do the same. Then she raised her injured right hand and waved the servants into the room.
Dozens of servers bustled into the Throne Hall, hauling trays laden with a soup that smelled of asparagus and cayenne, dishes of soy ricotta to dollop on top, and baskets of black bread rolls to dunk. The lead server approached the dais carrying her mother’s silver tray, but Eloise waved him away. “Please, feed everyone else first.”
“I beg your pardon, Your Highness?”
“It’s OK. I’m not hungry. I’ll wait until after everyone else is served.”
“But Protocol insists that the queen—”
“Protocol hasn’t had the day that I have had.” She looked at the server, a lank man with greased-back black hair, a nose like he’d slammed into a door a few too many times, and a perfectly pressed footman’s tunic. “May I ask your name?” said Eloise.
“Nütflüx, Your Highness.”
“Lovely to meet you, Master Nütflüx. I appreciate what you’re doing, but I’ll need to eat later, perhaps once my stomach doesn’t feel like a trapeze act.”
“Yes, Your Highness. Of course, Your Highness. If Her Highness would let me put the tray on her table, Protocol would be satisfied.”
Eloise suppressed a sigh. “Sure. If that’s needed.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.” He put the tray down carefully, but left the meal covered. “Would Her Majesty like something for her royal stomach? Perhaps a drink of slippery elm bark tea? That would be my dear gran’s suggestion, although she’d have called it soft elm or moose elm, not slippery elm, although moose don’t like the latter name so much. Eldridge the Apothecary would have some, for sure. I could fetch it.”
“A slippery elm would be splendid.” Eloise held up her fractured wrist. “And if Eldridge the Apothecary has some willow bark or devil’s claw, that would be great as well.”
“Yes, Your Highness. May I suggest a damp cloth to tidy up…” He trailed off, but waved his open palm subtly to indicate his face. “There are hints of… Of redness.”
“Fabulous. I just addressed everyone covered in blood.”
“Hints of it.”
“A damp towel would be splendid.”
“Someone will be back in a moment, Your Highness.”
“Thank you, Master Nütflüx.”
She watched the server glide back to the kitchen and disappear into its maw. Eloise drew out her father’s handkerchief from her sleeve and touched her nose with it again. No fresh blood. Thank Çalaht for small mercies.
Something to settle her stomach had been a good idea. She was grateful to Nütflüx.
Eloise glanced back at First Advisor Ligurian, who slurped soup and dunked rolls with a singular, almost ferocious, determination. Her mother’s words about him—some of the last she’d spoken—were burned into Eloise’s memory. “The First Advisor is smart and loyal. He knows where the bodies are buried, much better than your father, who doesn’t have the mind or temperament for that kind of thing. Most of the bodies will be metaphorical, but not all. I suggest you keep the First Advisor in his role, at least for a while.”
Well, it had been kind of him to help her out in his small, finger-pointing way. Perhaps her mother was right, and he’d be someone to rely on. She’d need good, reliable people. Like Jerome. Like Lorch. Like Hector and the Nameless One. Only with a bit of nous for Court.
An approaching servant awkwardly balancing a silver tea tray interrupted her thinking. “Excuse me, mistress— I mean, excuse me, Queen Eloise. Sorry, I’m not used to that yet.”
“Läääcy de Aardvark. What a pleasant surprise. And, trust me, I’m not used to it yet, either. Have you started helping in the kitchens?”
“Only a little.” The aardvark put the tray on the edge of the table to Eloise’s right, sliding the orchid over to make room. She picked up the plant, placed it on a shelf below the tabletop, and slid the tea tray into position. “My sister is a scullery wench, ma’am. Only she has a stomach ague of some sort, and I didn’t want to leave them short-staffed on a day like today. So I popped on her apron and took her shift.”
“That’s very kind of you.” There was a damp napkin folded in the shape of a lotus blossom. Eloise patted it across her cheeks, nose, and chin. Her nose was sore, and she feared she’d be badly bruised. The cloth came away tinged red. Eloise showed her face to the aardvark. “Did I get it?”
“Mostly.” Läääcy pointed to several spots on her own cheeks and forehead, indicating where Eloise needed to try again.
How had it gotten all over? Eloise tried to remember if she’d smeared it somehow.
She dabbed a second pass. “Now?”
The aardvark shook her head and pointed to her face again. “Still some here, here, and here.”
Eloise held the cloth out to Läääcy. “Could you?”
“Oh, mistress!” whispered Läääcy. “I mean, oh my queen! Surely not here in front of everyone.”
Eloise let the cloth droop. “It would hardly be the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to me today.” She proffered the handkerchief again. “Go on.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Läääcy approached the throne with a curtsy, then took the cloth. Blocking the room’s view with her body as best she could, she gave her queen a delicate and discreet face wash. When the aardvark finished, she stepped back, took a careful last look, and gave a nod of approval with her tubular snout. “There you go, Queen Eloise.”
“Thank you, Läääcy,” said Eloise. “I look forward to seeing a bit more of you as a handmaid, now that I’ll have a retinue and not just Odmilla.”
Läääcy looked down at her forefeet and said nothing.
“What?” asked Eloise.
“Nothing, Queen Eloise.”
“Lady Seneschal has not brought me onto the Queen’s personal staff of ladies-in-waiting or handmaids.”
Läääcy shook her head. “It is her domain. We serve at her pleasure.”
“Not at mine?”
“With due respect, my queen, it has always been Lady Seneschal who has organized the queen’s servants. The queen has much more important things to do than worry about her maids.”
“Is Odmilla on the handmaid staff?”
“No, my queen.”
“Not that I know of, my queen.”
That was odd. Why wouldn’t her handmaid automatically stay in that role, even if it were part of a larger group? Clearly, there was a conversation to be had with Lady Seneschal.
Eloise picked up her cup of slippery elm tea and sipped it. The viscous texture was always a bit of a shock, but a generous dollop of rice malt helped the taste. It was like drinking sweetened slime. She sipped, then sipped again.
Eloise set down the cup and looked at Läääcy, She tilted her head slightly, considering, and beckoned the aardvark to come closer.
Läääcy curtsied nervously, took a few steps toward the throne, and curtsied again. “Yes, ma’am?”
Eloise leaned forward and whispered, “Would you like to be one of the queen’s handmaids?”
The aardvark looked down, and Eloise guessed the skin beneath her cheek fur was becoming pinker. “Yes, ma’am. It would be my honor, if it would please the queen.”
“I’d love to have you,” said Eloise. “I can’t make any promises, but let me see what’s possible.”
“Thank you, Queen Eloise.” The aardvark curtsied without looking up. “That… That would be wonderful.”
Eloise dismissed Läääcy (which felt awkward) and watched the servant bow her way backward off the dais and disappear into the kitchens. At least one person was now happy she was queen.
It was a start.
The reception dinner wore on, but Eloise’s appetite did not return. Normally, she might have slipped herself an extra dessert—who could go past a chocolate cupcake with raspberry buttercream? But one nibble reminded her that Chef hadn’t been involved in making them, which made her sad all over again. After drinking the slippery elm, she sipped some of the haggleberry tea that Läääcy had brought, using it to wash down a small mountain of willow bark shreds that had been pulverized and pressed into tablets. They’d take a while to kick in. Meanwhile, the throbbing in her wrist persisted.
She sat there, embarrassed, in pain, and overwhelmed, and did something that had eluded her since her mother died—she thought about things. She allowed memories of her mother to bubble up. The easiest ones to remember were the most recent ones. Eloise didn’t think she’d ever forget watching her mother die—her pupils too large for the amount of light in the room, the infinite look in her eyes, the backward pressing of her head into her pillow, and the way her hand had tightened in Eloise’s, a squeeze Eloise would always hold in her heart, and maybe her nightmares, too.
The difference between “the Queen is in her body” and “the queen is no longer in her body” was profound, pronounced, and immediate. Eloise understood exactly where the phrase “giving up the ghost” came from.
Her mother had died and a chaos of consequences erupted. They were still playing out, and would continue to do so for months. Years. Probably for the rest of her life.
Even though the reception was not supposed to be a meet-and-greet, now and then, someone would approach the dais with a bow or curtsy, an “Honor to the queen,” and a parting wish for her longevity and good health. Eloise recognized some of the people, but there were many she didn’t know. Court was awash with faces she didn’t have names for, and there were also names she knew but couldn’t put a face to. But no matter who it was who came before her, Eloise heard a small, insistent voice niggling in the back of her head, silently asking, “Are you the one who had my mother killed? Was it you who organized for two raw haggleberries to be slipped into her pie? Is her death on your hands, your paws, your claws?”
It was a dark thought to go with her darkening mood. An unworthy question for this particular event.
Or was it?
Eloise had put off focusing on that particular problem, but she’d have to face it soon. The “how” of the late queen’s death was well established. But the “who” and the “why” remained cloaked in darkness, and had Eloise spooked.
If someone wanted her mother dead so badly that they had her murdered, then surely they’d be planning a similar fate for Eloise as well. Sauce for the pie was sauce for the cake.
This is getting bleak, Eloise thought. And this reception is getting long. She wondered how the thing was supposed to end. Eloise needed some alone time, and maybe a decent night’s sleep. Now that she was queen, it seemed like that was a reasonable thing to expect. She felt like she’d done her bit at the reception—she’d given everyone time to gawk at her outfit, whisper about her Crown Plonking failings, and murmur in low voices about the ill tidings such a poor performance augured.
How would her mother have dealt with this?
That was easy. She’d have stood up, maybe said a couple of words, and left the room.
Eloise could do the same.
She was queen, after all.