Excerpt from The Thorning Ceremony
A standalone prequel to the Western Lands and All That Really Matters series
Copyright © Andrew Einspruch, 2019. All Rights reserved.
The Thorning Master
Eloise and Johanna sat on either side of the queen, each on their respective thrones in the marbled coolness of the empty Receiving Room, doing something that Eloise could not remember her mother ever doing before—waiting. People waited for her, not the other way around. It made their sitting together even more awkward than normal, and Eloise tried to figure out what it might take for someone to have that effect on the queen.
Queen Eloise did not wear the Attention Cape, so this was not about grievances, justice, or entreaties. Nor did she wear the Tribute Cape, meaning this was not about tithes or the queen’s percentage. Both were hung on the side wall, along with the Jangled Cape, the Obfuscation Cape, the Cape of Dashed Hope, the Disavowal Cape, the Bright Cape, the Elegiac Cape, the Really, You Don’t Want To Mess With Me Today Cape, and several others, each with their own purpose, including one that was just there in case the queen felt chilled. Each cape set a tone for the meeting that was to take place, and the queen’s choice provided a small amount of information to those who came before her.
But today, the queen was capeless. That made Eloise feel even more uncertain. She truly had no idea what to expect.
While she waited, her thoughts drifted back to the Thorning Ceremony and her mother’s mysterious attitude toward it. The Livre de Protocol’s text and commentaries gave shape to the framework of the ritual—if you were in line for the throne and female, you got stuff poked into you and a lot of words were spoken. So, not an atypical Court ceremony, except for the poking bit. It also documented who might attend and what might be said. But all that was a hollow skeleton. Their mother was still silent on the topic, other than the brief encounter in the Bibliotheca de Records and Regrets. No word on what “preparation” entailed, nor what going through it was like. Nothing.
Eloise didn’t think her mother was being secretive. It was something else. Distaste? Embarrassment? Both were out of character.
A herald poked her head halfway through the doorway. “Your Highness, she descends the main stairway and will be here shortly.”
“Her movements are… deliberate. I estimate ten minutes.”
“Very good. Please see her straight in.”
“Yes, my queen.”
Back to the waiting.
Five minutes dripped by. Long, increasingly uncomfortable minutes, punctuated only by small, inadvertent sighs from the queen.
“Mother,” started Eloise, but the queen held up a hand to stop her. Eloise swallowed any further words.
A shuffle of feet mixed with the “tock” of a wooden cane became audible. Shuffle-shuffle-tock. Pause. Shuffle-shuffle-tock. Pause. Shuffle-shuffle-tock. Pause. Weak length by weak length the sound came closer.
“Finally,” muttered the queen, and straightened herself on her throne. She clasped her hands in her lap and let her face relax to neutral. Instinctively, Eloise and Johanna did the same.
The herald stepped formally into the Receiving Room, cleared her throat with practiced exaggeration, and declaimed, “Baroness Sÿlvia Nûûûttëëërlïïïng Stúüùbenhocker née de Gumball of Look Elsewhere For A Place To Claim Land You Intruding Amateurs These Hills Are Mine, the royally acknowledged Thorning Master.”
A woman who looked old enough to have changed Çalaht’s diapers shuffle-shuffle-tock-paused her way into the room. She wore robes of the deepest black Eloise had ever seen. Her silver hair, braided so tight it smoothed the creases of her ancient face, was a precisely coiled rope on top of her head, so neat and severe that Eloise doubted she could push a sewing pin into it. The old woman’s cane, an ebony black enough to steal the light from one’s eye, was gnarled and twisted like an arthritic menace and topped with silver cast into an eagle’s clenched talons. But Eloise was transfixed by the dozens and dozens of thorns that she wore pierced through her skin. The old woman’s neck, cheeks, nose, eyebrows, ears, forehead, and hands were riddled with all manner of thorns, from tiny thistles to massive cactus spikes. They poked into her skin, and in some places went through it. Most notable was a particularly long, purple one that sliced through a flap of skin between the corner of her eye and her temple. It was huge, three-quarters the length of her skull, and as thick as a drummer’s beater. It looked to Eloise like she had a narrow aubergine poking through the side of her head.
And hard not to stare at impolitely.
“Hello, Little Elsie.” She stopped, realizing her error. “Oh, pardon me. Good morning, Your Highness.” Her voice was like stones crashing in a quarry. She slowly moved to the spot in front of the dais where the queen sat, and looked like she might be starting to curtsy. Eloise couldn’t imagine how long that might take, but fortunately, the queen lifted an open palm, sparing the Thorning Master that effort.
“Thank you for coming, Baroness Thorning Master. You have arrived early.”
“The weather was favorable. Congratulations on your ascension to the throne. I’ve not seen you since your Thorning Ceremony.”
Eloise saw a slight reddening to her mother’s cheeks. “Thank you, Baroness. It has, indeed, been a while.”
“Your mother, may she rest in peace, was an unmitigated disaster as queen. I believe you might be somewhat of an improvement.”
Eloise swallowed, waiting for her mother’s wrath. No one ever spoke to her in such a slighting way, and the queen did not allow anyone to speak ill of her late mother, deserved or not.
Nothing. Clenched jaws, but no rebuke. Who was this woman?
“Baroness Thorning Master, it is kind of you to make the journey here to instruct my daughters.”
Stúüùbenhocker thocked her cane once on the marble floor, dismissive. “I would not be much of a Thorning Master if I did not attend to the queen’s daughters.”
Again, the queen let it go. “I present to you Eloise Hydra Gumball III and Johanna Umgotteswillen Gumball. Girls, I present you to your Thorning Master.”
Together, the twins rose, curtsied, and said, “Welcome, Baroness Thorning, Master to Castle de Brague.” They straightened and remained standing.
“I thought they were twins.”
“They are, Baroness Thorning Master. Fraternal, not identical.”
“Who is firstborn?”
“Eloise,” said the queen, pointing. “This one.”
The old woman looked from one to the other, cold eyes assessing. “Well, I hope you have raised them with a greater degree of discipline than your mother raised you. Truly, the woman was—” The Thorning Master stopped, thinking the better of it. “Apologies, Queen Eloise. It does not do well for one to speak badly of the deceased.” She shook her head. “The old queen, may she stand at Çalaht’s side, did the best that she could, I suppose. One can give her that, even if the best she could do was completely inadequate. Mind you, I could have told you that would be the case. Her Thorning Ceremony was just like how she ruled. A mess. Her shortcomings were obvious.” She raised her hand so the cane dangled from her palm, and extended her index finger to gesture with quavering jabs in the air. “The Thorning Ceremony tells. The Thorning Ceremony lays bare and reveals. The Thorning Ceremony illuminates. The Thorning Ceremony predicts to those with the eyes to see.”
A silence stretched. The Thorning Master’s words echoed in Eloise’s head long after they’d stopped bouncing around the Receiving Room. She risked a brief sideways glance at Johanna, who looked both appalled and mesmerized.
The Thorning Master rapped her cane down on the marble and shifted her weight back onto it. It was obviously hard for her to stand for so long, but Protocol prevented the queen from offering her a seat, and Eloise doubted Baroness Stúüùbenhocker would have accepted it. “So, children, have you made your decision?” She looked from Eloise to Johanna and back, expectant.
Eloise had no idea what she was talking about. “Pardon?”
“What decision?” asked Johanna.
The Thorning Master turned her gaze to the queen. “You did not prepare them?”
“Their preparation is your role, Baroness Thorning Master. I did not want to interfere with your… process.”
“My process cannot start if they do not assent. Well, fine.” She looked again at Eloise. “You have read the Livre de Protocol? The section on the Thorning Ceremony?”
“Yes, Baroness Thorning Master,” said Eloise.
“I cannot hear that. Try again.”
“Yes, Baroness Thorning Master,” said Johanna, cheeks reddening.
“And the Commentaries. You’ve read them?”
“Yes,” answered the twins.
“Good. Then let me assure you that you know nothing. Nothing at all. Certainly nothing worthwhile. You might as well know about the sky by someone telling you a little about the color blue. The Livre is useless in this matter. Less than useless. It is misleading, both by commission and omission. Here is what you need to know for now, to make your choice: I am the royally appointed Thorning Master. I am tasked with preparing you for the Thorning Ceremony, the most important ritual you will undertake at Court for years, possibly until you are crowned. Your preparation is a task I neither relish nor shirk. It will not be a biscuit walk. If you make it to the ceremony, and then if you make it through the ceremony, then the words scribbled in those pages might have some relevance. But there is a long, hard, journey between now and when the queen might say anything about your future role in the realm.
“Here is what I demand of you, and this is what you must accept: you will do what I say, as I instruct. I will ask of you what I think is in your best interests, but you must choose to engage. The Thorning Ceremony is not a right or an obligation. It is a privilege. That’s one of the many things the Livre misses completely. The first step toward that privilege is accepting me as your Thorning Master. If you walk out of this room with me, you do so at your own behest, thereby assenting to these conditions.”
Johanna raised her hand to ask a question, her face curious. “And if we do not assent? What then?”
The Thorning Master gave a mirthless laugh. “Nothing, my dear. Nothing. The Thorning Ceremony will come and go and the scribe will record your choice not to undergo it. There have been Gumballs who have made that choice, and others who wish they had. Your mother was not one of the former, but perhaps one of the latter. Your grandmother, the same. Both were under my tutelage. Gumballs have submitted themselves to the Thorning Ceremony back to Agnes Delion Frostbite Gumball, the first Gumball queen, although the ceremony is much older than that. Lesser girls than you have succeeded. Better girls than you have failed. That is the way.”
She stopped and looked from one twin to the other. Her expression neither encouraged nor warned them off, but Eloise felt like the Thorning Master could see into her soul. “Follow me, or follow me not. It is your choice, but once made, it cannot be unmade.” Then the old woman faced the monarch and nodded. “Queen Eloise. It has been close enough to a pleasure.” Without waiting for a response, Baroness Thorning Master Sÿlvia Nûûûttëëërlïïïng Stúüùbenhocker née de Gumball turned and began shuffle-shuffle-tock-pausing her way out of the Receiving Room.
Eloise watched her go, thoughts racing. Could she stand to put herself in this ancient woman’s control, following whatever whims she had? Eloise felt coerced. She could say no. She could forgo the Thorning Ceremony. But the words in the Livre were all about fitness for rule. Her mother had done it. Her grandmother had too, although from what the baroness had said, it had been… inelegant, perhaps? Eloise did not want to sidestep the possibility. And she could not imagine her mother putting this decision in front of her if it were unsafe or damaging. Not permanently so, anyway. How bad could it be? How much could it hurt? But then, why had their mother not spoken to them about it? What was she avoiding, or hiding?
As the old woman reached the threshold of the Receiving Room, Eloise looked at her sister. “Jo?” Johanna was lost in thought. No, that wasn’t right. She looked scared. Johanna was blinking back tears and shaking.
Her sister never cried. Ever.
Strangely, that helped Eloise make up her mind. She extended her hand. “Come on, Jo. We can do this.”
Johanna looked up, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and nodded. She laced her fingers into Eloise’s and gave a small squeeze. The twins curtsied to their mother, who nodded back, face still carefully blank. Then they turned and walked out of the Receiving Room, putting themselves into the Thorning Master’s control.