15 Creeper

I stood at the back of a much smaller room than we'd spent the day in yesterday, though the proportions were still massive compared to what I was used to.

The room itself was a semi-circular shape. When we entered I was surprised and I commented on it, Ash looked at me strangely, but explained that it was part of a turret—one of those round towers that climbed the sides and corners of castles. The round wall was made of thick bricks as long as my arm, stretching to a ceiling that had to be twelve or fifteen feet tall. The windows were far more narrow than the ones in my rooms. But Ash said that was because they were designed for archers to use to shoot at approaching enemies without making easy targets of themselves.

The stone floor was almost entirely covered in a massive red carpet trimmed in gold, and the chairs that were lined in the middle of the room were heavy, solid wood in a deep, dark brown that was almost black.

They had tall backs and thick wooden arms, reminding me of small thrones.

The seats on all the chairs were lined with a deep, royal blue velvet, except one, which was a rich purple. Soon after we entered the room we were told which of the seats to take. Mine was one of the blue ones. But Emory was given the purple seat.

I wondered if that was a good, or a bad sign. Given the way her face paled and she looked anxiously around at the rest of us, I suspected she didn't know either.

We shared a quick wave and small smile, but soon after entering we had been told to take our seats without speaking and wait to be addressed, and so we did. Though I took the opportunity to examine the room and its inhabitants, because they were fascinating.

David was nowhere to be seen, but our Knights stood guard behind us, lined up underneath those thin windows on the semi-circular exterior wall, each looking still and fierce as a hunting wolf. At first I'd found it quite thrilling as the Rite was explained by a woman we'd been told to call "Mother Estow." She would be our counsel and Advisor in the coming weeks.

She was a stern looking mature woman wearing a dress that was a plain, slate gray, but clearly of thick, luxurious fabric. Her brown hair, which was just beginning to gray, was swept up into a thick braid that then circled into an intricate bun at the nape of her neck. But her eyes… she had the most piercing blue eyes I'd ever seen. So bright they were almost white at the center. Yet a deep, indigo blue at the edges of the iris.

When she looked at me it felt like she was examining my insides.

We'd been seated in two curved rows, centered on a podium near the flat side of the room. There were eighteen of us in total who had been named as The Select. And as the morning wore on, I learned more and more about what that meant.

"Each of you has been afforded the highest of honors—the true and thoughtful consideration of your King for his wife." Mother Estow's voice thrummed through the room and she pinned each of us to our seats with those eyes. "Give every effort to make yourself known to him. Answer his questions with openness. Eagerness will not go astray. But above all, comport yourself throughout these days exactly as you would if you were to become Queen. Let the King see how you would behave as a ruler in any situation that might arise. But please, be patient. Do not fear, the King is committed to spending extensive time with all of you. And yes, there are many of you here, so rest assured, he will take whatever time is needed to ensure he has come to know you well enough to be certain of your future.

"The Rite does not have an end-date until the King has chosen his Queen. So you will not be forced to rush this process. The King is committed to exploring both your temperament, and your mind. He will not rush you, or his own decisions…"

She went on. Part of me stayed fascinated—this was The Bachelor, but for a King, and with life-and-death consequences? I could imagine the Hollywood Producers salivating.

And yet, there was something distinctly odd about the entire lecture.

If the King was so committed to us, why were we being reassured about his motives and intentions by someone else? A servant, no less.

I glanced at Ash who'd taken a position near the front of the room. His face was dark, flat, his eyes darting from Mother Estow, to me, to the other servants and nobles who filed in and out of the room, sometimes standing along the walls and whispering to each other, others simply watching and listening. They seemed to be from every station and race—some dressed almost as grandly as the King himself, others in the plain brown wool of servants. Some stayed, others left in minutes. Some whispered in the ears of their neighbors, others seemed to look anywhere but at us. Still others appearing to examine us, The Select, with a gravity that implied we were assassins or spies.

I supposed in a world like this, it might be a reality that an enemy would send a woman with the hope of having her chosen. A plant.

That was the kind of drama these stories were made of, right?

That thought brought a niggle of unease in my chest, but I pushed it away. It was a dream. No stakes. No consequences. No actual killers.



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