The queen didn’t say anything; she just looked at Gwyn, her eyes the color of night and twice as unforgiving. Auburn curls fell in soft waves against her face, the only part of her that was gentle. The queen’s poppy-red skirts unfurled about her legs like petals that had bloomed to their fullest.
And she smiled with scarlet lips that hid hungry teeth.
The yellow rose twisted in Gwyn’s hand, and she wished she’d thought to hide it away the moment her cousin had given it to her. Hope and beauty didn’t last long in the Garden, not without the Ruby Queen’s permission.
Permission she never gave to anyone but herself.
“Where did you get that?” the queen asked, her razor sharp wings like crimson glass buzzed behind her. Her skirts swayed as she minced closer, the look of a well-fed cat on her face.
Gwyn dropped her gaze. The queen was a bright red thundercloud, full of lightning and fury. She only smiled when she was about to unleash herself on someone, and she’d developed a particular fondness for unearthing Gwyn’s guilt.
“Robin gave it to me,” she said hopelessly, her voice little more than words dressed in thought.
She’d known when Robin had given it to her that she’d only be able to keep it for a short time, but it hurt every time she had to give his presents up. Just once she wanted a flower that could be all her own. Something she could keep until its petals had withered away into dust.
The queen plucked the rose from Gwyn’s hand, studying it as though it held a complex puzzle that intrigued her. “Why do you persist in accepting such shoddy workmanship when I surround you with beauty all the day long?”
Her tone was bored, but Gwyn wasn’t fooled. She could almost feel the queen’s temper pulsing in the air between them, turning it heavy and dark, until it was so thick she could barely move.
And that was the strange thing about the queen. No matter how angry Gwyn made her, she always responded with studied politeness woven through with tight barbs. She was much more careless of her actual subjects’ lives, seeming not to concern herself with whether they wilted or flourished. Life held its own power, and the Ruby Queen never let anyone forget that, in the Garden, she was all the Fates wrapped in one.
Gwyn tried to choose her words with careful precision. She wouldn’t lose her head, although there were times she wondered if it wouldn’t be easier on everyone if she had, but the withering scorn on the Ruby Queen’s face never failed to reduce her insides to soggy ash.
“Yes,” the queen’s smile broadened into a grin, “you always are.”
Then, her eyes on Gwyn, she gripped the head of the rose in her hand and squeezed. With a savage twist, she ripped her hand away, her fist full of petals.
Gwyn watched the bruised bits of sunshine flutter down to the ground in a fragrant rain. But before they could touch the stone of the path, the petals shivered into pairs of wings and drifted away in a cloud of butterflies.
She couldn’t hide the gasp of surprise at Robin’s latest Audacity, and her delight uncurled itself and smothered her earlier discomfort. She could almost forgive him for speaking the dreadful name aloud before vanishing into feathers and sky.
Too late did she remember the queen.
The Ruby Queen’s mouth turned into a solid red line as she regarded a new twist to a puzzle she thought she’d already solved. Twin spots of temper colored her pale cheeks, heightening her beauty. Her nostrils flared as she fought to control her breath, and Gwyn had a momentary vision of the queen exploding from her indignity.
Red and sharp and hot. A firework of fury lighting up the day.
But the moment passed, and the queen regained her composure. The tight lines at the corners of her lips and eyes remained, but to Gwyn’s disappointment, she calmed down enough to avoid a spectacular, if fiery, end.
“It is time for tea,” the queen said, straining the words through her teeth. “We shall discuss your infractions later.”
She crumpled the stem and tossed it aside. Gwyn half expected it to turn into something too. Not butterflies, of course, but maybe a fat, stripy caterpillar. To her disappointment, the wadded up stem fizzled where it landed and disappeared.
The queen held out her scepter, looked pointedly at the glove covering Gwyn’s hand, and led them away to the tea table.
With every step, Gwyn imagined herself stronger. Strong enough to take the punishment that was coming. Strong enough not to quail beneath the Ruby Queen’s thorny gaze. Strong enough not to be bothered that the daisies had still told on her, despite her threat.
The Garden stretching out before them, usually bustling with life, was silent as a graveyard. Eddies of hushed conversation prickled against Gwyn’s back. She could almost see the flowers straining against their roots, trying to get a better look.
Rounded shrubs and topiaries twisting up into fantastical shapes pulled away from the path ever so slightly. Not enough to raise the Ruby Queen’s awareness, but enough that Gwyn’s skirts didn’t brush against them as she passed.
“I had such high hopes for you, girl,” the queen said as they reached the table with its lacy white cloth. She gestured forward with her scepter, and proceeded around the table where a throne-like chair made of curling vines with yellow-gold petals stitched together for a cushion waited for her.
Gwyn waited for the queen to be seated before she perched gingerly on the edge of her wooden bench. It rocked a little with her movements, one leg being slightly shorter than all the rest. But the flaking paint and its unsteady character were the least of the bench’s discomfort. From the earliest time she could remember, Gwyn had always hated the bench because it reminded her so much of herself—and of what was to come.
Pasting a smile on her face, she surveyed the table, hoping that this time would be different—just as she always did.
. . . TO BE CONTINUED . . .
© 2015 by Danyelle Leafty. All rights reserved.
Ah, hope! A bright feathered creature with a terribly sharp beak. As Gwyn has found, it’s hard to hate anything so beautiful, no matter how hungry it might be. And that is precisely what keeps its beak and talons so sharp.
Join me next Tuesday to see what horrors await at the tea table. 🙂 But do not fear. All is not lost. We have met the main character and the antagonist. Perhaps it is time for us to meet a friend.
If this is your first time visiting, check out the first installment of this episode. Feel free to gather round the hearth and read the other stories that are going on too. The more the merrier!