Authors: Diane Stanley
Tags: #Childrens, #Fantasy, #Young Adult
The Cup and the Crown
This book is dedicated to Peter,
who is always there to listen
and who says wonderful things, like,
What if you had a ratcatcher?
THE GREAT HALL WAS MUCH
as she remembered it: the tapestries, the massive iron candle stands, the enormous fireplace, the great gilt screen behind the dais. But the rushes were gone from the floor now, in keeping with the latest fashion. And there were sentries posted at the entrance to the royal chambers. They followed her with their eyes as she paced in restless circles, waiting. What was taking Alaric so long?
There had never been guards in the old days, when Godfrey the Lame was king. Molly knew this for a fact. She’d once pressed her ear to that very door and listened to young Prince Alaric quarreling with his mother, unobserved by anyone but Tobias, who’d come to mend the fire. He’d been scandalized that a scullery maid should presume to eavesdrop on a queen.
Molly smiled, remembering how intensely she’d despised them both. “Mind who you look at, wench,” Prince Alaric had said to her as he stormed out of his mother’s room. And “You aren’t fit to be here,” Tobias had added later. What
said didn’t bear repeating—but then she’d only been seven at the time, and inclined to say whatever popped into her head, however outrageous it might be.
Come to think of it, that last part hadn’t changed so very much.
She circled past the dais and was musing on the screen when the door flew open and a large, imposing man came out, thunder on his face, his boots striking the flagstones with the force of his anger. As he passed, he shot Molly a look of pure revulsion. Then he turned away, as from something loathsome, and continued with long strides down the length of that cavernous room, the stink of his fury trailing behind. She watched him, appalled, till he was long out of sight. Only when she heard her name did she look back at the door and see Alaric standing there.
He didn’t greet her with a smile or apologize for making her wait. Indeed, he scarcely looked at her at all.
“Come,” he said. “We’ll walk in the garden. I need a change of air.”
He took her arm and held it close to his side. Whether he did this out of affection or was merely stiff with rage, Molly couldn’t tell. Either way, she liked it. She cast a quick glance up at his pale, narrow face, his sun-bright curls and gray eyes, and judged him as handsome as ever—despite the scowl and the crease between his brows. She sighed to herself in quiet satisfaction and leaned her head against his shoulder, just a touch.
It was high summer, and the flower beds were bright with lilacs, roses, and lilies. Ancient trees arched over their heads, offering welcome shade as they followed their winding course, fine gravel crunching beneath their feet.
Molly had never been there before, though she’d lived half her life at Dethemere Castle. Common servants had no business in the king’s garden, unless it was to plant, and prune, and tend that private little patch of paradise. Her place had been in the kitchen, scrubbing pots and polishing silver.
All that had changed this past half year. And nothing about her transformation from scullion to lady had struck her quite so forcibly as this: that she walked the paths of the royal garden on the arm of the king of Westria—just the two of them, alone.
Never mind that he was in a mood.
“So, how do you like your new estate?” He said this distractedly, his mind on something else.
“It’s very beautiful, my lord.”
“I should certainly hope so. It was to have been my sister’s dower house. You’re happy there?”
“Not especially, my lord.”
He stopped and looked down at her,
looked for the first time that morning.
, my lord’?”
“It’s too grand for me, Alaric. I don’t belong. And those highborn servants, brought in to attend a princess, being asked to serve the likes of me . . .”
“You’re a lady now, by royal decree.”
“Yes. And you could royally decree that henceforth eels shall fly and magpies shall swim in the sea. But even
have not the power to make it so. My ladies of the chamber certainly know what I am. They correct my manners at table and express amazement that I can’t do embroidery, or play the lute, or dance, or read romances. And there’s nothing for me to do all day but meet with my steward and my chamberlain to talk about things I don’t understand, and choose which gown to wear, and sit staring into the fire or out the window while my ladies drive me mad with their never-ending chatter.”
“Merciful heavens! You’re
She could feel the tension in his body. He held her arm in a viselike grip.
“Any minute now you’re going to say that you’re awfully sorry, you know you’ve been shockingly rude, but it’s all because you were ill raised.”
“I suppose that would be—”
on your upbringing! I’m sick of hearing about it. I can see you now in your dotage.” He took the high, nasal voice of an old crone, hunching his back for added effect. “Oh, I’m
sorry I insulted you, my lord, but when I was a small child—
ago—I was not taught how to behave.”
She took a deep breath. “Your Majesty,” she said, “I truly
sorry that I seem so ungrateful when you have been so generous and kind. But I spoke the truth: I don’t have the makings of a lady. You’d have done better to set me up as a shopkeeper—”
“If you say another word, I shall bite off your head.”
How was it, she wondered as they continued to walk in stormy silence, that she’d been so careful of what she said to the cook when she’d worked in the palace kitchens and cowered under the haughty gazes of her ladies of the chamber—yet with the
king of Westria,
well, she’d say just
“I’ll find you some better attendants,” he muttered, “and see that they treat you with respect.”
When she didn’t respond, he added, “You may speak now.”
“Thank you, my lord, but you can leave them as they are. In the end I found it rather amusing to torture them.”
them? Good God!”
“Not with thumbscrews, never fear. I just developed a sudden fondness for exercise—taking long walks to the village or the next town over, in foul weather whenever possible. And as I cannot go out alone, it being unfitting for a lady—”
“—they have to accompany you.”
“Yes. Such a lot of mud this year.”
She’d finally made him laugh. And it felt for a brief spell like the old times, before he’d become king and the burden of great responsibility had been laid on his young shoulders, along with his royal robes.
“Alaric,” she said softly. “Tell me why I’m here.” She already knew, of course. She’d known for weeks, long before the royal messenger had arrived at Barcliffe Manor, calling her back to court. She knew because she’d seen it in a vision.
The first time it had happened, she’d taken it for a dream. But it had been too clear, too perfect; and when she’d sat up in bed, it had stayed with her, not fading away like smoke into air as dreams always do. It had returned the following night, and every night thereafter, always exactly the same: a handsome boy of eighteen or twenty, dressed in fine clothes, holding a beautiful goblet. And though she’d never seen the cup before, she knew exactly what it was—and what it meant for her, and for the king.
As for the boy, he was a mystery.
“I want you to go to Austlind,” Alaric said, “to find one of your grandfather’s Loving Cups.”
“I thought that must be it,” she said. “You were so keen to have one last winter—then not another word. I kept expecting . . . but I suppose you’ve had a lot on your mind these past months.”
“Learning to be a king, you mean? And taking control of my country, and choosing my counselors, and fending off officious busybodies who say I’m too young to rule and I must have a regent do it for me?”
“Yes. And I suppose that terrible man who came out of your chambers just now is one of the busy-bodies?”
“Lord Mayhew? Oh, yes. You know what he calls me behind my back? King Alaric the Younger. Isn’t that charming?”
“You should chop off his head.”
“Oh, please, Molly, be serious. I’m sending him with you to Austlind, by the way, to see to your safety on the road. That’s why he was so angry. He feels the mission is beneath him.”
“Then why send him? If he mocks you in secret, surely he cannot be trusted.”
“I trust him to keep you safe. As for the rest, I just told him you’re going to Austlind to find a certain silver cup, which I want to send as a gift to the king of Cortova. Anything regarding the princess or the special properties of the cup—please keep that to yourself.”
They’d reached an opening in the boxwood hedge that led to the heart of the garden. Here was a pond with a stone fish rising out of the center, standing upright on its tail, water spouting from its mouth.
They sat on a long stone bench in the shade of a chestnut tree. The king released her arm.
“Now, in addition to Lord Mayhew, I’m sending my valet. His name is Stephen, he’s fluent in the language of Austlind, and he has my complete trust. You may speak freely with him in all things. But do it in private.”
“You’ll need a chaperone, of course. Winifred will do, if you wish.”
“Yes. And I want Tobias, too.”
He scowled. “Whatever for?”
“Have you some personal objection to Tobias?”
His hands flew up, impatient. “Fine,” he said. “By all means, bring Tobias.”
She waited a spell for his ruffled feathers to settle before making them rise again.
“Alaric?” she began carefully. “May I ask you a question?”
“I suppose that depends on what it is.”
“I know you feel you must marry soon and get yourself an heir, as there is no one left in your family to inherit. What I don’t understand is why you must resort to enchantment in order to get yourself a bride. I would think there’d be princesses waiting in line—”
He gripped his head with both hands as if fearing it might come off. “By all the saints in heaven, Molly—is there nothing you will not ask? God’s blood, but your impertinence takes my breath away!”
She flushed. “I see I overstepped.” And then, because she couldn’t help it, “I thought I was your friend.”