in which the moonshone palace welcomes its new arrival
The Moonshone Palace had been built on a bet, and a swamp. Some hundred years prior, famed architect-past-his-prime Wuldor Bright-Eye had succumbed to the soft embrace of alcohol, and attempts to bring him back to sobriety all failed spectacularly. One night, when trying to convince a friend that he did not have a problem, Wuldor had exclaimed, amidst hiccups, that “as th’realm’s greatest visionary of, and, and the builder, yah, the visionary of them as well, I don’t even, thisn’t even stopping me. Iss a challenge, my friend, which I must inflict upon myself because otherwise issall too easy.”
In retaliation his friend had goaded him to prove it, maintaining that Wuldor could not build a functional lodging while being consistently drunk, and to embark upon this bet the great architect would either have to put aside the drink, or admit that he had a problem. Wuldor, with the defensive determination of a true drunk, did neither, but set out marking plans for his most ambitious work yet, and two full moons later, Wuldor had won the bet, miraculously evaded alcohol poisoning, and erected a magnificent palace in a sparsely populated corner of Fentroa. Only one wing, sinking into the nearby swamp due to a miscalculation of placement, gave any indication of its maker’s habit.
“And the best part is yet to come!” gushed Essrina. “Because of this astounding accomplishment by an already esteemed figure in the lands, people came from far and wide to see it. Those who already lived in the region profited, and the tourism so burgeoned that eventually an entire town sprang up around the Moonshone Palace. Wuldor, by crafting his own palace, made himself a very king! Your new home’s legacy is that of conquering obstacles, and of happy endings!”
“My new home’s legacy is being built by a drunkard,” sniffled Ellinetta into the crook of her arm, where her face had been resting for most of the carriage ride. “And what was that about one wing being sunk in a swamp?”
“’Tis imperfections which create the strongest endearances, sister,” said Essrina, unconvincingly. Ellinetta snorted.
“Imperfection is for those who cannot afford perfection.”
Essrina sighed and closed Lord of the Spirits Realm on one finger. She was sitting tidily on the carriage bench, the curtains of her window drawn back to let dapples of light from outside play across her face. Now she glanced down at her sister, huddled against the opposite wall and pressed into the shadows like a graveyard ghoul, with some concern. “I do hope you read that somewhere, and didn’t come up with it yourself.”
“I heard it from a suitor once,” Ellinetta grumbled, scowl deepening. “When I still had them.”
Essrina smiled with relief and perked up. “Oh! That reminds me! Adrick sent me the most beautiful jewelry box yesterday.”
“Was it full of imperfections?” Ellinetta snarled.
“Perhaps I shall write to you when you are settled in,” Essrina said primly. After a moment, she opened her book again. “Shall I continue reading?”
“There is naught I should like more,” came sarcastically from Ellinetta’s dress sleeve.
Her sister sighed. The carriage rattled on in silence, and in her warm, moist bubble of self-pity and stifled snot flow, Ellinetta cried silently and un-puffily.
The carriage presently tilted, mounting a hill, and there was a rustling and shifting sound as Essrina pushed back the window’s curtain. Then she cried out. “Oh… oh, Ellinetta! Do stop sulking at once and look! It’s beautiful!”
As it is not in a princess’ nature to rebel against direct orders, nor to ignore the promise of beauty, Ellinetta pulled her face up and opened her curtain a sliver. She peered out. She opened the curtain further. Then she pushed it back the rest of the way and stuck her face out of the window, squinting against the sudden brightness of the setting sun.
It was her first glimpse of Fentroa, having buried her face into layers of tulle immediately upon entering the carriage back in Feldeu. So even before her eyes fixed upon the palace, she was struck by the unfamiliar appeal of the landscape. It was mountainous, as Feldeu was, but unlike the lush, tree-coated slopes that bordered Burgstein Burg with purple and blue, here the distant peaks were jagged and hard, like molars, and the light reflected off of the dry, bare rock in tones of dark orange and obsidian. Beneath the mountainline, however, the land was furry with distant calico masses of forest, and even now the road that the horses carried them along was beginning to weave through groves of poplar and birch, after hours of open grassland. Ellinetta hadn't noticed when the road had ceased to be paved and wide enough for four carriages side by side, but now it was half the size, and dirt.
Following the winding line of the path down into the valley below, her gaze came to rest upon the Moonshone Palace. White stone shone out of the shadows of the valley like bones, mottled with age yet luminescent still amongst the dark vines and scarlet mosses. The sun was low, turning nooks of the swamp into patches of blackness, but where the fringe of trees was sparse, orange light fell upon the vibrant swamp plants and gathered in copper streaks across a murky moat that ribboned the castle perimeter.
“It’s so very… romantic,” said Essrina.
“Where is the town?” Ellinetta asked.
“I think I can see its smoke in the North En’, there. Behind those trees. Come look out my window.”
Ellinetta did not do so; she was still peering out of her own window suspiciously. “Where is the part that sank into the swamp?”
“I am not sure… I suppose ‘tis not visible from here.”
"Or at all... being sunk into the swamp."
“Do you think there are werewolves?”
"That is not an answer!"
Essrina scooted over and put her arms around her sister. “There are no werewolves. Queen Gemina would not put up with such things.”
“If there are werewolves, will I be allowed to come back to Burgstein Berg?”
Essrina stroked her hair. “When I am in charge, you may come back to Burgstein Berg any time you like, sister. But give the Moonshone Palace a fair chance. I just know that once you are queen you will not want to return to our boring old castle at all.”
Ellinetta grumbled that she liked boring, as the carriage rumbled up to the edge of the moat. There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Is there not supposed to be someone waiting upon us?” whispered Elinetta.
“I… should think so,” said Essrina uncertainly.
They sat. Ellinetta was opening her mouth to suggest they Royally Command for a lowered drawbridge, when the air around them turned to lead. The carriage inflated with a profound, bone-aching pressure. Both princesses gripped their heads in terror. A colossal voice vibrated around them, saturating the world with the force of a flood bursting through a canyon.
“PRINCESS ELLINETTA, THY PRESENCE IS WELCOME.”
Then the voice stopped. The air was once again air. Both princesses were left gasping. Ellinetta barely had time to register, smugly, that she was welcome and her sister was not. Then, driving out thought as well as breath, the voice erupted again.
“YE MAY SAY THINE GOODBYES AND EXIT THE CARRIAGE.”
Ellinetta looked out of the window and then back to her sister, alarmed. “But it’s… it’s muddy out there!”
Essrina shrugged helplessly.
Ellinetta’s hands fretted together for a second before she tsked, unlatched her carriage door and stuck her head out awkwardly into the crisp evening. The ground was indeed spongy and damp, and littered with autumn debris—twigs and pebbles and rotting leaves. She cleared her throat, feeling foolish, took a deep breath, and then called tentatively towards the glow of the palace’s windows.
There was no response.
“No one can hear you,” Essrina’s voice said quietly behind her, with exasperation.
“Excuse me!” Ellinetta shouted.
“No one can hear you from this distance,” Essrina hissed. Ellinetta yanked her head back into the carriage, a flush rising in her face.
“Then why are you whispering?” she hissed back. Essrina pursed her lips, going pink also.
“You should perhaps exit the carriage,” Essrina suggested.
“But--!” Ellinetta leaned out of the window even further and twisted her neck round to look at the front of the carriage, where the driver sat. The patched elbow of his sleeve was visible. “Jinko!” she said. “What should I do?”
The elbow twitched, startled, and Jinko’s thin face appeared above it. “Wha… uh, your Highness?” he asked, obviously at a loss. “There some water what blocks the horses,” he offered.
“Oh, thank you, Jinko,” Ellinetta said icily. The driver beamed.
“Uh, you’re welcome, your Highness.” But Ellinetta was already looking past him back at the dusty castle walls. A flicker in one of the windows had caught her eye. She scanned, located it: in one of the windows, a dark shape was illuminated against a pale curtain. She suppressed a shiver.
“Rally your courage, dear sister!” said Essrina, a line taken verbatim from one of her novels.
“Shut up,” said Ellinetta. Then she called out. “Excuse me, perhaps you do not realize your drawbridge is upraised!”
A frog scurried out from under the carriage to investigate her exceedingly charming voice, but there was no other movement nor response. Ellinetta continued. “Please permit us entry, as we arrive solely on invitation from the Queen of this castle, Her Majesty Ge—”
“I SEE YOUR LIPS MOVING BUT I CANNOT HEAR YOU!” thundered the voice. The frog compressed noiselessly. Ellinetta’s mouth snapped shut. There was a swift, awkward silence.
“WELL,” started the voice, and then paused. “IF YE HAVE EXCHANGED FAREWELLS...” It regained its initial ominous tone. “PRINCESS ELLINETTA, THY PRESENCE IS WELCOME. EXIT—NAY, EXUENT—YON CARRIAGE.”
The continuation of this exchange, in its unconventionality, could only go so long without affecting the princesses, and it was at this point that Essrina began to look wild in the eyes, and pale about the mouth. “You had better leave!” she said, and added, “dear sister, do not be afraid” unconvincingly.
But Ellinetta was petrified also. A princess’ brain is conditioned for schedules, structure, normality. The shocks of being outside Castley Rock had been jarring but endurable, and Ellinetta’s mind had softly but uncomfortably stretched to accommodate greater and greater abuses of civility, such as arriving at a destination and not receiving a royal welcome; or being told she should sink her beautiful shoes into the mire outside of the carriage… even a bodiless voice with the power of thunder had not broken her yet. But these mental victories were difficult and unpleasant and scary, and the other parts of her brain were stubbornly sending only urgent signals to return home immediately. Ellinetta glared at Essrina, envious that her sister had that choice and was rushing to get rid of her simply so she could take it.
“You and Jinko should surely come in with me! Where is your social courtesy?”
Essrina flinched, but even this grave accusation could not overrule her fear. “It’s only calling you!”
“Ellinetta, dear sister, please, I’m scared,” Essrina whimpered. “I will return, with mother and father and Elliara, ever so soon! You know they could only not come because of the Meeting with the Douingiho, and when that has finished they will come and visit.”
Ellinetta’s lip trembled. “I shall not exit on my own! I am even more scared than you, because I am younger, and…”
Tremulously from the front came: “Your Highness?”
Ellinetta thrust her head back out the window, afraid suddenly that the carriage was being approached by something horrible. It was not.
“Uh, the uh, the voice said you should exit,” said Jinko. “Maybe you didn’t hear it back there.”
“I heard,” she snapped. At that moment her door flew open.
Perhaps it was shoddy craftsmanship, or something had been knocked loose in the long journey of the day; perhaps Ellinetta, though she did not recall doing so, had in her frustration struck the door in some manner, or perhaps fate had decreed that the plot of the story must at some point advance. The reason, at any rate, did not matter to Ellinetta as she tumbled out of the carriage with a perfectly implemented Help-I’m-falling scream.
Her dainty body hit the ground with a dainty thud. It was the first time she had used a scream in earnest, and for some reason no one responded, as she had been trained to believe would happen. So she sat in shock upon the ground and the cold dampness of the moss began to seep through her skirts.
Her sister cried out. “Ellinetta! Dear sister! Are you alright?” Essrina’s face was visible at the other end of the carriage, though in the fading light the depression of her eyes was filled with darkness, turning her beautiful face into a skull, and Ellinetta swallowed back another cry of fear. Her whole body was beginning to shake with panic.
“GOOD,” the voice commended. “HORSE-DRIVER, RETURN YE HOME AND LEAVE ELLINETTA TO MY GOODWILL.”
Jinko obediently clicked his tongue and the horses began to turn the carriage around. Ellinetta scrambled to her feet and backed out of the way.
“Wait!” Essrina called, seemingly forgetting that the voice could not hear her. “Is your will really… good?”
“ONLY THE PRINCESS ELLINETTA MAY ENTER THIS ABODE.”
“That’s not what I asked!”
The carriage had rotated 180 degrees and Essrina’s window was now next to Ellinetta. “Sister, come back home with us,” she said. “This is far too… mother and father will understand! Maybe we have the wrong castle,” she mused.
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” said Ellinetta, close to tears. She began to scurry around to the other side of the carriage, and was just behind it when a howl quavered through the gloom, so close that Ellinetta jumped, Essrina jumped, Jinko jumped, and the horses jumped, then took advantage of the inertia to gallop away.
“No! Oh no! Wait!” Ellinetta shrieked. She flung her hand out; it grazed the side of the carriage and she suffered a splinter, then the carriage bounced past her reach. She tottered a few steps after it, hopelessly. “Stop!” The only answer was another mournful howl, further away from the first, which only gave Ellinetta a second of consolation before a group of answering yips sounded from the forest on the other side of the road. Was she being ringed in?
“Help!” she called frantically towards the castle. “I’m out of the carriage, I’m ready to enter!”
“ENTER, PRINCESS ELLINETTA,” rumbled the voice.
“THERE’S NO DRAWBRIDGE!” Ellinetta screamed furiously, and so loudly that she felt the palpable, pressing size of the other voice recede suddenly. When it spoke again a moment later, it was with a touch of sullenness.
“I THINK I KNOW WHAT MY OWN CASTLE HAS AND HAS NOT, OKAY. I CAN’T AFFORD A DRAWBRIDGE.”
Another wolf’s cry sounded. Ellinetta wrung her hands, speechless with fright.
“BUT THERE’S A REGULAR BRIDGE, IF BRIDGES THAT DON’T FOLD UP ARE GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU,” continued the voice petulantly.
“Where?!” howled Ellinetta.
“OH, IT’S INVISIBLE, BUT MAYBE THAT’S NOT QUITE AS COOL AS BRIDGES THAT FOLD…”
Ellinetta bit back her first response that invisible bridges did not exist, as she realized that all she would be basing such a statement off was her life in one limited environment, and that, furthermore, it would be rather to her benefit if they did. She stepped to the edge of the moat and prodded a foot out over the water, testing for invisible surfaces.
“MORE TO THE RIGHT,” supplied the voice. “MORE… NO… WAIT… TRY THERE. OKAY, NO, ONE MORE STEP RIGHT.”
And suddenly her foot did hit resistance. She was so shocked that she withdrew it, and then, blinking, stomped forward again, harder. There was a satisfying, solid sound of leather hitting stone.
“Oh my,” Ellinetta whispered, and she shuffled forward until all of her body stood safely five feet above the moat. She walked tentatively forward, looking down at the surface of the water as it began to buckle and froth. Directly beneath her feet, two yellow eyes sluiced up through the ripples, followed by the rest of a long, triangular reptilian head that grinned up at her.
“Oh my,” Ellinetta whispered. Then panic struck her, and obscured what little common sense she’d had in the first place. She was separated from the alligator by a bridge, invisible though it may be, and the only way those fangs could get at her would be if she fell off in some way, such as bolting in a blind panic without testing to see what was invisible stone and what was just air, as she proceeded to do. The thought that she might run straight off the bridge and into eager jaws occurred to her just as she leapt the last stretch onto visible ground, beneath a high arch of stone.
“Oh my,” she gasped, as her foot hit the ground and the rest of her followed, in sheer exhaustion and fright. She lay huddled for a few seconds, afraid to move or even look up. She knew the outer courtyard of the palace lay in front of her, but considering what it had already thrown at her, she was not sure she could handle any more of its features today.
A shadow fell over her. Ellinetta tensed, squirming her body into the dirt with the instinctive hiding mechanism of a snake.
Then a woman’s voice, cracked with age and amusement and years of intimate acquaintance with a pipe, spoke from about four feet above the ground.
“Now that is an entrance befitting of a princess of the Moonshone Palace!”