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.
After The Shaving Of Mollusks
“Wait, wait, wait. Here it is!” whispered Princess Eloise Hydra Gumball III, tapping her reading pointer on her copy of the Livre de Protocol. “Scroll forward. The passage on the Thorning Ceremony is after the Consecration of the Sumps and before the Hoisting of the Silent Petards.”
Her fraternal twin, Princess Johanna Umgotteswillen Gumball, glanced at their sleeping tutor, Master Thompkins Lyredog Overbolt, decided it was safe, and quickly rolled her scroll forward. “Got it,” she whispered.
Eloise switched to the secret sign language that the twins had developed years before, anxious not to wake Overbolt. Really, what is Mother’s problem? Why won’t she talk to us about this?
I don’t know, signed Johanna. It’s like she’s pretending it’s one of those antiquated rituals that no one does any more, like the Praising of the Royal Purple Cabbages.
This thing is coming. We’re turning 14 in a month.
The twins took a moment to read the passage. “Ye shall pierceth the flesh—scalp, face, neck, and hands—of the most honored maidens, and name from among them the Heir,” quoted Eloise in a whisper. Do you think this thing with the thorns is real? She shuddered. It sounds awful.
Maybe it is a metaphor, signed Johanna. Or symbolic. Like the Cleansing of the Upper Knowings. That was just a lot of smoke being wafted around.
I hope so. Otherwise, it seems barbaric.
Johanna looked at Master Overbolt, who sat leaning back against the stone wall on two legs of his tilted chair, mouth agape, snores rattling his uvula, a drip of saliva dangling from a corner of his third chin, ready to join its fellows on the front of his tunic. Overbolt’s mid-morning snooze overtook him like clockwork during their Protocols and Procedures lessons. Should we wake him and ask about it? It might be worth it.
I don’t know, signed Eloise. How likely is he to actually know anything about it? Even if he does, I doubt he could get through it in less than three days. I’m not sure I can stand more of his “tutelage” today.
Eloise and Johanna had been taught Protocols and Procedures for the last eight of their 13 years. Normally, Eloise loved being in the Bibliotheca de Records and Regrets, with its shelves of scrolls and smattering of bound volumes. She loved reading, loved being surrounded by all that knowledge, loved the Bibliotheca’s quiet hush, and the way everyone respected the assumption of silence.
But Protocols and Procedures dulled her enthusiasm for the place. Eloise had always found it hard. The straight-backed, cushionless wooden chairs in the windowless, candlelit study corner of the Bibliotheca were uncomfortable by design, to induce alertness, although Master Overbolt seemed immune to the effect. The study scrolls of the Livre de Protocol sat on angled stands, and they were never supposed to be touched, which suited Eloise—they smelled musty and were probably riddled with invisible mold. Protocols and Procedures lessons required a lot of sitting still (which Eloise detested), reading (which she liked), memorizing (Johanna was much, much better at that), reciting (ugh), and feigning interest (difficult when she, like Master Overbolt, tended to fall asleep, although she did not normally wake up babbling a string of non sequiturs).
Master Overbolt preferred rote memorization and extended monotonic diatribes over nuanced discourse or scholarly analysis. Eloise reckoned he was the dullest tutor of the dullest subject in all the four-and-a-half realms. The fact that his voice made him sound like an inebriated hamster with a lisp did not help.
For weeks, Overbolt had been forcing the girls to read, memorize, and discuss one of the most arcane passages of the Livre de Protocol, the List of Obscure, Infrequent, and Potentially Dangerous Ceremonies That Are Undertaken From Time to Time—a gathering of some of the most ludicrous procedures, processes, and rituals that Eloise had ever heard of. Over several weeks, they had covered everything from the Persecution of Bogus Affinities, the Tie-Dying of the Royal Smocks, and the Catechism of the Swamp Loungers, to the Exaltation of the Limpets and the Ululations Used Upon the Arrival of Minor Nobilities (Proper Forms Thereof). Overbolt’s somnolence had given the twins a chance to search for something about the Thorning Ceremony, and at last, their search had yielded a result.
There’s not much here, signed Johanna.
I know, agreed Eloise. Normally a ceremony’s every nostril flare and eyebrow twitch is described.
With an unexpected snort, Master Overbolt startled awake, the front legs of his chair jolting down onto the stone floor. “Turbidity!” he exclaimed. “Malarkey, snool, diphthong, hemidemisemiquavers!”
Eloise and Johanna looked down at their scrolls. It upset him when he knew they’d noticed him sleeping during their lesson, and he tended to punish them by assigning outlandishly difficult passages to memorize. (Eloise could still recite from memory the 50 Indicators of Noxious Mustards.)
Should we ask him? Johanna asked.
May as well.
Overbolt wiped a hand across his face and peeked through his fingers to see if anyone had noticed he’d been off to the La La Realms. Convinced he was safe, he tugged at the tufts of hair that sprouted like sheaves of wheat from his ears. He then tidied the corner of his mouth with a swipe of his thumb and middle finger, wiped at the wet spot on his tunic, and then looked at the princesses. “I’m sorry, can you repeat the question?” he squeaked, stifling a residual yawn.
“Of course, Master Overbolt,” said Johanna. “We were just discussing the Thorning Ceremony, and Eloise had asked if you knew the history of the ritual.”
“The Thorning Ceremony? Not the Shaving of the Mollusks?” His rural Southie lisp made the words sound like “theremony,” “thaving,” and “molluthkth.”
“No, Master Overbolt. You moved us on from the mollusk shaving,” said Eloise. He hadn’t, but Eloise doubted he’d remember. “It was fascinating, though. One of your best.”
Overbolt’s nostril flared with a one-sided sniff. He rubbed a hand across his face again to erase the residual fogginess, then hefted himself upward and turned so his back was to the doorway. He put his hands into his robe pockets, elbows angled like a hockey sacking girder preparing to play defense. “Are you being impudent again, Princess?” he hamster-lisped.
Eloise widened her eyes in mock horror. “Of course not, Master Overbolt. It is as you taught us. The ritual intricacies of mollusk-shaving clearly have deep, resonant ties to the culture of Court and the broader history of our beautiful and enviable homeland, the Western Lands and All That Really Matters.” It was close enough to the sort of thing he’d say.
“Humph. Right.” Another rub of his bald head. “The Thorning Ceremony. It has been a while since I studied it.” He cleared his throat. “I remember something about it having to do with thorns.”
A voice came from behind him. “Perhaps I can help, Master Overbolt.”
“Who in the name of Çalaht’s bloated gizzard is…” Overbolt turned, ready to give the interrupter a tongue-lashing for barging in on his instruction. He gasped, suppressed a squeak, and dropped to one knee with surprising speed for someone of his girth. “My queen.”
The girls jumped to their feet and curtsied. “Our mother, our queen,” they said in practiced unison.
Queen Eloise Hydra Gumball II, Ruler of the Western Lands and All That Really Matters, wore a dress dyed deep royal blue, which had helped hide her in the shadows of the Bibliotheca for who knew how long. Her pale skin and the single diamond of her day crown caught the candlelight as she stepped forward, and Eloise wondered just how much she’d heard.
“I don’t think Her Divinity would have had a gizzard, would she? Or is that a matter of Çalahtist factional debate, like the whole extended thumbs matter?” The queen’s tone was mocking, but not unfriendly.
“No, Your Highness. It was merely an expression. And my apologies for—”
The queen held up a hand and Overbolt stopped speaking. “And here I thought you were telling me something that might needle the Venerated Prelate Herself. She’s not easily needled, so it is handy to have something up one’s sleeve. Oh well.” She took three strides into the study nook, positioning herself between her daughters’ chairs. “It is incredibly fortuitous that you are covering the Thorning Ceremony, as that’s about to become somewhat relevant.”
It was the first time their mother had made direct mention of it. That’s a change, signed Eloise surreptitiously.
“I’ve asked you not to do that in front of me, Eloise. If you have something to say, say it for everyone to hear.”
“Yes, Mother. I’m sorry.”
“Carry on with your lesson, Master Overbolt.”
Sweat suddenly glistened on the tutor’s dome. “Yes, Your Highness. I was just about to allow the princesses a few moments to reacquaint themselves with the main text. Please do so, ladies.”
Eloise wished her mother would stop by more often. Master Ear Tufts was never this solicitous when it was just the three of them.
Overbolt walked over to his own bound copy on a second stand and frantically turned the handles of the scroll, threading the hemp parchment from one to the other, searching for the right passage. He eventually found it, and grabbed his reading pointer—a superbly wrought silver rod that was 20 weak lengths long, with a hand shape at the pointing end, its index and middle fingers extended together, the ring and pinky tucked under the thumb near the palm. Using it to read gave the impression of a pledge being made, a vow to the sanctity of the text and the honor of scholarship. (More heretical sects used a reading pointer that only had the middle finger pointing at the page, but this was not spoken of in polite company.) The reading pointer helped ensure that oils, sweats, musks, or whatever the person reading might secrete did not damage the scroll, and helped keep them in a mindset focused on the task at hand.
Overbolt leaned forward, squinted, moved a candle closer, squinted again, then mouthed words silently as he sped through the text.
It gave Eloise and Johanna time to sit down and do the same. The queen stood behind them, back straight, arms crossed, tapping a folded fan in the crook of one elbow. The air in the small nook filled with a growing sense of impatience.
Overbolt straightened. “Right. Of course.” He cleared his throat. “As is apparent in the text, the Thorning Ceremony dates to before the early establishment of the realms, and is a rite of passage that takes place around the 14th birthday, reserved for the highest-born of female nobles.”
Johanna, lost in the scroll, began to giggle. A moment later, the giggle evolved into a full laugh. She looked up, realized what she’d done, and put a hand over her mouth to suppress it.
“Yes, Princess Johanna?”
“I’m sorry, Master Overbolt. I was just reading the Commentaries. I think Elfric the Elder and Elfric the Younger might have had, um, issues.”
“Princess!” Overbolt gasped, scandalized. “It does not do for you to call into disrepute the Commentaries in front of our queen.”
The Livre de Protocol was produced in various forms. Fancy bound volumes were large and sumptuously illustrated with text organized into pages, designed to sit open prominently in the middle of a rich person’s drawing room. Others were written in very small hand, meant for carrying around when traveling. However, the most interesting ones, like these study copies in the Bibliotheca de Records and Regrets, were combinations of the main text and associated commentary—faithful duplicates of the one original scroll, which was held elsewhere in the building and guarded by zealous bibliothecarians. In these editions, the main text appeared in the middle of a page, and scholarly musings were written (or, in the case of copies, reproduced in something approximating the original handwriting) around the text, so the scholars’ thoughts could be studied in conjunction with the words that had inspired them. Over the years, the original scroll of the Livre had come to look like a graffitied public facility wall, which made creating copies extremely hard. Eventually, scholars had called a halt to adding comments, and the Livre became a fixed document, with the commentaries cementing into the Commentaries. Now, anyone who wanted to opine on the text had to do it on a scroll somewhere else.
The queen stepped across to Overbolt’s reading table and lectern, the tutor bowing his way a few steps backward to make room for her. She held out her hand, and Overbolt, after a moment’s confusion, handed her his reading pointer. The queen used the silver rod to gesture at Johanna. “Would you care to enlighten the rest of us as to the nature of these Elfrician issues?”
Johanna took that as her cue to stand. “Of course, Mother. The first comment, which you can see in the upper left-hand corner here…” She indicated with her pointer. “It’s from Elfric, obviously before he was Elfric the Elder and there was an Elfric the Younger. He talks about how the piercings should be taken literally, as a rite of passage for those who undergo it, a promise to those they might rule, and says that they should take succor from those in attendance. Then a few comments below, there’s a first entry from Elfric the Younger, saying that it is ‘easy to ignore the allegedly scholarly opinions about succor and the necessity of literal piercing from certain commentators who were never home and broke many a promise of showing a loving son the basics of hockey sacking. And if they can’t do that, then their literalist words are dust.’ Instead, he emphasizes the symbolism of the ceremony as what’s most important, admonishing against the strictness of literalism.”
“So, he’s an interpretationist,” said Eloise.
“Yes, Eloise. Let’s allow your sister to continue, shall we?”
“Elfric, now noted as Elfric the Elder, appears again a few comments further down, emphasizing his position, saying, ‘The words shall be taken as writ’ and that ‘one would be remiss to rely too heavily on remarks made by ones who do not give sufficient weight to the value of hard work, a roof over their heads, or clothes on their backs.’ Then skipping down, Elfric the Younger has this longish passage about the ‘richness and beauty of interpretation’ available to those ‘who can remove their heads from their posterior regions’ and ‘see shades of gray in such words as pierceth, flesh, honored, and even maidens, should one care to take off one’s blinkers, being blinkers that blind one to the needs of those around them so much so that one cannot be bothered to put down a scroll even at the dinner table and join in the family conversation.’”
“And?” prompted the queen.
“Elfric the Elder replies up on the right here, saying that strong minds root their opinions on the words themselves, ‘focusing on the piercing as rite of passage’ leaving ‘lesser minds to flounder about seeking interpretations,’ and that any such interpretations can be safely ignored if they come from ‘snotty-nosed brats who were constantly hectoring for attention day in and day out instead of fostering any kind of peace within a hockey sack’s throw of them.’ Then Elfric the Younger says something about ‘not paying mind to scholars who wouldn’t know good commentary if it jumped out of a forest and bludgeoned them with an axe,’ and that ‘pierceth could be taken as annointeth if a scholar had any nous at all.’ Then Elfric the Elder dismisses ‘all comments from scholars who break their mother’s hearts by staying out late carousing and making repeated, serialized, ill-advised choices for a succession of wives, which they were not able to keep ahold of anyway, and says that the ensuing description of thorns shows that ‘pierceth means pierceth,’ and ‘annointeth means one should learn how to read.’ Like I said,” said Johanna with a smile. “Issues.”
Eloise raised her hand. Her mother nodded for her to go ahead.
“Elfric the Younger seems to have the last word. The last comment on the lower right-hand part of the scroll is from Elfric the Only One Who Does Not Have Mulch for Brains and Who Can By Çalaht’s Liver Cirrhosis Carouse When He Feels Like Carousing and How Dare You Speak That Way of My Beloved Alice, then Gemma, then Jemima, then Geraldine, then Elicia, and finally Trixie. He writes, ‘Certain scholars can bite me,’ which we can, I assume, understand as being taken from his interpretationist point of view, rather than his father’s literalist.”
“Right,” said the queen. “I think we get the message. Or do we? Girls, what should we make of all this?”
Master Overbolt, who’d said nothing the whole time, timidly raised his hand.
“Not you, Overbolt.”
He put his hand down, keeping an embarrassed silence.
Eloise raised her hand. “It seems to me the Elfrics Elder and Younger hit on the central issue. Would those who would have undertaken this ritual have done it literally or symbolically?”
“Not ‘would have,’” said the queen.
Johanna blanched, but Eloise didn’t see. “Pardon?”
“She means ‘did,” not ‘would have,’” said Johanna. “Or, perhaps, ‘will.’”
Eloise looked at her sister, understanding creeping in. She turned to her mother. “This is not some antiquated, disused relic? This… this is real?”
Simple. Unequivocal. Eloise felt her mouth turn to desert.
“So who was right?” asked Johanna, her voice quiet.
“Oh, no question there. Elfric the Younger was an inebriant and an ingrate, and not a fraction of the mind of his father. Elfric the Elder was quite right. Gumballs have always sided with the literalist view.”
“Always?” said Eloise.
“Always. I’ve received a message from the Thorning Master. She confirms that she’ll arrive in three days. That should be enough time before your birthdays.”
“Enough time for what?” Eloise felt her eyes watering. She already knew the answer.
“That’s obvious, is it not? For her to prepare you for the Thorning Ceremony.”
“I’m sorry, Princess. I truly am.” The servant, an aardvark who was one of the many people who took care of things around the castle, shook a little as she held the silver tray. “I can take them away, Princess, if you prefer.”
Eloise considered the scones, then looked at the aardvark. Who was this one? Something de Aardvark. Judy? Lucy? Lucille? Lücy, maybe? Something like that. There were several of them, and many had a very similar look to their coats. She picked a name. “Lucy…”
“Apologies, Princess. It’s Läääcy. Läääcy de Aardvark.”
“Läääcy, then. What have I said about quince jam in the past?” She peered at a scone dubiously, as though worried it might sprout wings and fly off.
“I said it to Chef. I did, I promise. I said that you were not fond of quince jam and could I please have a different jam for you and that I would be most grateful if it could possibly be your favorite, blueberry, or raspberry, which is also nice, or at least strawberry. But Chef was not to be swayed. Chef said that she’d already deployed the quince jam and wasn’t inclined toward waste. That put me in a terribly difficult position. I either had to bring you the scones with the quince jam or not bring the scones at all. I’m sorry, Princess, if I made the wrong choice.”
It’s not that she hated quince jam. Eloise liked it well enough. But she did prefer blueberry. Or raspberry. The girl was right, raspberry was nice. But quince jam was definitely much lower on the list, and now she was torn between sending the servant back to try again, and actually eating something. Hunger won out. “Well, do try harder next time, Lucy. Maybe say that my mother told you to, or something.”
The aardvark’s eyes went big at that, but she said nothing.
“But go ahead and put the tray on the table. I’ll eat what I can stand to eat.”
“Yes, Princess. I’ll try to do better next time.” The aardvark set down the tray and dashed from the room, closing the door behind her with a solid thunk. Eloise debated whether it was close enough to a slam that she ought to say something, but decided against it. She’d skipped breakfast, so morning tea took priority.
Eloise picked up a scone and took a testing bite. Actually, the quince jam was superb. Chef really did have a knack. Or a weak magic. Maybe both. Either way, Eloise would have to remember to move quince jam up the preference list in the future.
She poured herself a cup from the teapot. Haggleberry, her absolute favorite. No need for a list there. No matter what was going on, haggleberry tea always made her feel a little better about everything.
She had been thinking about the whole Thorning Ceremony thing since their lesson the day before. Eloise really wasn’t sure what to make of it. It seemed like such an odd thing. She would just have to put it in the don’t-worry-about-it basket. It would come up when it came up, and usually, there was a way around these things, even the ones where her mother came across all earnest and determined like she had yesterday.
There was a knock at the door—the rap-rap, rap-rap-rap, rap-rap pattern used exclusively by heralds and pages.
Eloise set down the half-eaten scone, stood, and smoothed her robe. “Enter.”
A herald, a young hare who looked barely old enough to have progressed from page boy, stepped into the room. “Princess Eloise Hydra Gumball III,” he said formally. “The queen requests your presence in the Receiving Room. She asked that you wear something nice.”
“That was the whole message? Nothing about what ‘nice’ means in this context? Nothing about the purpose of the summons?”
The hare shifted nervously from foot to foot. “No, Princess. The queen did not share either of those things with me. Would you like me to ask her?”
Eloise sighed, conveying what she hoped was an adequate level of disappointment. “No, I suppose not. That will do.”
The herald left, and Eloise quickly ate the rest of the scones and sipped down the remaining tea. It wouldn’t do to keep her mother waiting. She rushed to find a suitable Court day dress, wondering who was coming that required the Receiving Room and a “nice” outfit. Well, never mind. She had other things to worry about. Eloise flipped open the trunk at the foot of her bed and began rummaging through her dresses. They’d been organized just the way she liked: by hue, using the same color pattern as a rainbow, although she did find one in the blue section that clearly should have been with the indigos.
She picked out a light orange dress from the middle of the precisely folded piles, held it up to herself, and considered it. No, it would not do for today. Her mother had called her to the Receiving Room, which meant the queen would likely wear something reddish or purple, and Eloise did not want to clash. She tossed it on her bed and picked out another three possibilities, but none of them suited her mood. They, too, went on the bed. She didn’t have much time, so Eloise pulled out all the dresses and slung them across her bed so she could see them all. That was the best way to consider her options. She didn’t like having such a mess, but someone would tidy it up before she got back.
Deciding on a favorite aquamarine one, she walked to her door, opened it, and looked around. There was another aardvark folding linens in front of a linen press. Eloise didn’t try to guess which one it was. “Would you please come here and help me dress?” Eloise turned back to her room, not waiting for an answer.
The aardvark followed her and helped Eloise into the aquamarine dress. She buttoned it and tied the sash into a bow behind Eloise’s back. The princess checked the bow in her mirror and shook her head. “It’s a bit crooked. Could you tie it again?” After seven attempts, Eloise was happy enough with the bow. “Thanks, that’ll do.”
“D-do you want help with your hair?” squeaked the aardvark.
It was a brave offer. Eloise hated having her hair done. Her curls were inevitably a mess, and all that tugging with the comb never helped her mood. “Uh, sure. Just a quick braid, though. I don’t have a lot of time.”
She sat at the vanity and braced herself. The aardvark separated her hair into three strands, and Eloise counted the strokes as the servant struggled to brush them, hoping for an even number, which she preferred. Nineteen strokes for the first one. An odd number, but a prime. Twenty-one for the second. Also odd. She didn’t care for that. Eighteen for the third. Good. Plus, the “Ouch!” to “Be careful!” ratio was relatively low.
“W-what ribbon would you like?”
Eloise stood, grabbed out a handful of ribbons from the vanity drawer, found one that suited the dress, and set the rest on top. “This one, I think.” She sat again as the aardvark quickly braided and tied her hair with the ribbon. The bow could have been better, but Eloise needed to get to the Receiving Room, so decided to let it be.
When Eloise said, “I’ll take it from here,” the servant curtsied and scurried from the room. Eloise tugged on a pair of matching slippers, tying their laces with precise bows in an orientation that perfectly mirrored the bow on the dress. She placed the hairbrush back in its spot, but didn’t have time to tidy the ribbons. Whoever fixed up the dresses could do them too.
Eloise burst through her door at a run and slammed straight into an aardvark carrying a heaped armload of linens. The bedding went flying, the servant fell backwards hard, and Eloise barely avoided crashing to the floor. She spun to face the maid. “For the love of Çalaht, Lucy, watch where you’re going!”
The aardvark groveled, gathering sheets and pillow cases as best she could at the same time. “I’m sorry, Princess. I’m so, so sorry.”
“That really could have been a disaster, Lücy. I could have ruined my dress.”
“I realize that, Princess. I’m sorry I was in the way. And it’s Läääcy, not Lucy or Lücy, Princess.”
“When you’re done picking all this up, perhaps you could do my room? I won’t be in there for a while.”
“Yes, Princess. I’ll do that.”
“Good.” That matter handled, Eloise turned and headed for the Receiving Room and whatever dullness awaited her there.
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.
Just beyond the threshold, the Thorning Master turned to face them. “I see you have come.” Matter-of-fact. Neither surprised nor pleased.
The twins stopped in front of her, keeping a respectful distance. “Yes, Baroness Thorning Master.”
“Here is your first instruction. You will do what I say when I say it. If I tell you to eat an orange, you eat the orange. If I say prick your finger, you prick your finger. Some princesses find this harder than others. They are not used to being spoken or dictated to in such a way. See this?” She pointed to the line of thorns in her neck. “You will not have to undergo anything I have not already experienced myself. Understood?”
“Yes, Baroness,” said Eloise.
“Yes, ma’am,” agreed Johanna.
“Here is your second instruction: you will not speak unless I explicitly give you permission to. Not in my presence, nor away from it. Understood?”
“Yes, Bar—” started Eloise, but the Thorning Master stopped her with a sharp wave of her hand.
“Which part of ‘you will not speak’ was unclear? That means now. Understood?”
The twins nodded.
“This is my third instruction: you will go to the designated room, where you will be secluded. You will not leave it unless I explicitly give you permission. You will have minimal or no contact with castle and Court, except as directed by me. You will care for yourselves without servants or other interference. You will wear what is provided, study when I dictate, eat only what is given, work as directed, and sleep when I say you may. You will give me your focus, your willingness, your capability. You will spare me your whining, your reluctance, your recalcitrance. I do this for you.”
Johanna raised her hand again to ask a question.
“Occasionally, I allow some questions. This is not one of those times. When I do permit questions, I may or may not answer them. Certainly not those I deem frivolous, not germane or, most importantly, where answers reveal too much too soon. Understood?”
“Good. Märgärët!” A pinch-faced servant Eloise had never seen before stepped forward from behind them. She wore the plain, cotton dress and apron of a kitchen maid, but her long, black hair was braided in a knot normally reserved for royalty attending gala events. The incongruity was startling. Eloise guessed she was at most five years older than them. She must have come with the baroness. “Girls, this is Märgärët von den Kleiderschrankbenutzer. All you need to know is that Märgärët’s word is my word. Understood?”
“Märgärët, escort them to their seclusion.”
“Yes, Baroness Thorning Master.”
Märgärët led them to a less-used wing of Castle de Brague. Eloise had explored most of the castle, but there were less inviting nooks and any number of disused rooms, and as such, parts of the castle were much less familiar. The servant led them like she’d lived there for years, through corridors, up stairs, and even through a tunnel. Eloise was not lost, exactly, but she was definitely on less familiar ground.
“Here.” Märgärët stopped in front of a nondescript door and used a key to open it. She walked into the room ahead of them. It was a little thing, but Eloise noticed. Normally servants let the princesses enter rooms first.
Calling the seclusion room “spare” would have been generous. It was not a prison—it was clean and had windows at the top of the walls without bars across them. There were a few pieces of furniture: two straight-backed wooden chairs, a single table with a slate and chalk, a sideboard, and a pair of cots with unmade straw mattresses folded over. Next to the cots were plain, wooden bedside tables, on each of which sat a neatly folded pile of blankets, sheets, and clothing.
“You are to remain here unless the Baroness or I explicitly give you permission to go elsewhere. If you leave, we will know. If you speak, we will know. Understood?”
The two girls nodded.
“You are to change into those clothes,” said Märgärët. “Fold up what you are wearing.” She lit an eight-hour candle. “The Baroness will be ready for you in exactly one hour. Between now and then, you may return to your room and select exactly 16 items to have with you here. If you try to bring more, she will know. If you have particular wants while you are in seclusion, you may chalk them onto the slate and I will take your requests to the baroness. If she assents, I will let you know. Understood?”
They nodded again.
“Now get changed,” she said, then left the room, closing the door behind her. Eloise half expected to hear the lock click, but it didn’t.
Eloise looked around the room. This was going to be a problem. No, that was wrong. The room itself was not a problem. The problem was Eloise—or, more specifically, her particular proclivities. She had habits that needed attending to, habits that helped her navigate from one end of the day to the other—things in their particular places, routines and sequences, objects and mannerisms, all of which provided comfort, relief, or distraction from her tendencies. These practices would not fit into this sparely furnished room, even if modified with 16 of her personal items. Eloise knew what she was like, and worried. She had done her best to hide this from everyone, even Johanna. If she had to attend to her habits in front of her sister, or even avoid doing so, they would become worse. Eloise’s mouth dried, and she tried to push the anxiety aside. But sooner rather than later, her habits would demand a reckoning, and she did not know how she’d manage.
Can I have the bed on the right? signed Eloise. It was the one her habits wanted.
Sure. I’m good either way.
Eloise flipped open the straw mattress, sat on the edge of the hard cot, and began unbuttoning her beloved Court day dress. She shimmied out of it, letting it form a puddle on the floor, and picked up the small stack of clothes. The material of both the dress and the undergarments was coarse and unbleached, the same cloth used for maids and servants. It was the first time Eloise had ever put on anything so plain, unrefined, and colorless. The starched stiffness was rough on her skin.
This would take some getting used to.
Johanna had not yet started moving. She shook her head with a pensive, puzzled look, then signed, What is this supposed to be about?
Eloise shrugged, I guess we’ll find out.
Do you trust her?
Which one? asked Eloise. The baroness or that servant?
Eloise walked over to her sister and gave her shoulder a squeeze. You going to be OK?
To be honest, I don’t know. I hope so.
Eloise pointed at the eight- hour candle and held her thumb and index finger near each other to indicate “small.” We need to hurry if we’re going to get our stuff.
Johanna shook herself, like she was trying to shake off her thoughts. She grabbed her pile of clothes. Two secs. Be right there.
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