Confections and cakes were piled high on glass platters. Tiny sandwiches with no crusts, scones dripping with melted butter, and five different types of bread completed the spread. A porcelain teapot with a cheerful smattering of pinks and pansies and daisies sat in the very center of the table. The sugar bowl hid behind the bulge in the teapot’s middle, shy, while a smaller version of the teapot stood stiff and tall, proudly bearing the cream.
For a moment, Gwyn’s heart soared. The queen watched her with a patient smile on her face before she rang the silver bell at her elbow to summon a servant.
“You seem to have forgotten the girl’s treat,” the Ruby Queen said, enunciating every word with relish.
The servant bobbed her head and rushed away, her eyes averted.
Gwyn slouched her shoulders. “I thought today I could have something else.”
In all the time she’d been in the Garden—nearly twelve years—she’d never tasted the sandwiches or pastries. Just cold tea and sugared pear.
The queen gave her the bright smile of an adder. “But, my dear, I know how much you must miss your sweet mother. Every girl misses her mother.” She wrinkled her nose as she eyed Gwyn. “The Garden is not a place for children, and I would not want you to be lonely.”
Quick as a wink, the servant returned with a porcelain plate that had scallops along the edges. The pear, peeled and upright, stood in all its disgusting golden glory. What Gwyn could see of its pale yellow fruit beneath the caramel sauce and the freckles of nutmeg and cinnamon, glittered with sugar crystals.
A silver spoon with a bowl the size of the nail on her pinkie nestled against the pear. Waiting for her, as it always did. The Ruby Queen had always derived a special pleasure in making the pear last as long as possible.
Gwyn frowned at the pear as sugar-tinted bile rose up in the back of her throat. “If I could speak to her, I wouldn’t miss her so much.”
“Ah, but that is not the way of things. Your mother and father may only visit you when the moon wanes into nothing but a shadow of a memory. It was a price they agreed to in the beginning. Now. Eat your pear. Remember your mother with fondness.”
Gwyn lifted the spoon and cut off as big a piece of pear as she could manage. If she held her breath and swallowed quickly, she could get the worst of it down before she could taste it.
“The pears were a gift from your mother,” the Ruby Queen began as she always did. She took a dainty sip of tea, hiding the cruel smile she always wore when she spoke of Gwyn’s mother. “A tribute payment for services rendered.”
Gwyn took another bite, nearly choking on it in her haste to swallow. Her throat burned with sugar and her stomach shifted uneasily.
“Chew it, my dear. It would be dreadful if you should choke.” The Ruby Queen waited to see that Gwyn followed her command before she went on. “Yes. The great and powerful Queen of the Seelie needed my help. And do you know what she gave me in return for the help I gave her at great personal cost to myself?”
Gwyn shook her head, trying to keep the pear down. She knew, of course, exactly what her mother had done. The queen had seen fit to remind her of it every day at teatime. But the queen liked to be the one talking.
“She gave me a basket half filled with pears from her garden. The other half of the basket,” the Ruby Queen grimaced as though the tea she’d been sipping had gone cold, “was, of course, you.”
Gwyn gritted her teeth against the Ruby Queen’s words that needled their way into her heart. It didn’t matter how many times she heard the story, it always hurt to know that her mother had willingly given her away.
And to the Ruby Queen, of all people.
The Ruby Queen was the sort of person to whom you gave an emerald snake with a scarlet tongue or beautiful flowers that glistened with venom. What you did not give her was anything fragile or delicate, and that is how Gwyn felt every time she was called to tea.
And about to be stepped on.
The queen leaned forward, her eyes narrowed until they were disapproving dark slashes against her pale skin. “And it has been my misfortune ever since to have the handling and rearing of one so rebellious and obdurate as you. Are you, or are you not, a childing?”
Gwyn swallowed the last of the pear, her stomach a swirling mess of misery. She nodded, her tongue unable to form the word.
“And is there, or is there not, a law concerning all childings?”
She nodded again, tears pinching the corners of her eyes. She blinked them back, though, for showing any sign of weakness was an invitation for attack. The queen already had her claws out, and Gwyn could feel them pressing against her neck, keeping the words she wanted to say—the words she should be saying—from spilling out of her lips.
“And what is that law?”
Gwyn swallowed, her tongue thick with sugar and half-eaten words. “Gloves.”
The Ruby Queen tilted her head to the side. “What was that? You are in the presence of your queen, and you must speak as though you are.”
The lump of punishment and rules had sharp corners that dug into Gwyn’s throat as she swallowed again and again to clear enough space for her voice to come through.
“We must—” She cleared her throat and tried again. “We must wear gloves at all times.”
The queen pursed her lips, disapproval radiating from her like the sickly sweet stench of decaying plants. “And why is that?”
“Because,” Gwyn had to force her neck not to allow her head to drop, “childings are reckless and filthy creatures. The gloves keep the Garden safe from their carelessness.”
“Sticky and prone to break things, as well,” the queen sniffed, turning her nose so it pointed sunward. “I have received word that you have broken this law to the effect of removing your right glove.”
The queen’s gaze arrowed over to Gwyn’s right hand with a deadly precision that left Gwyn wishing she could hide it away forever. But even as she wanted to shrink away, a spark of something like iron burned inside her chest, giving her the strength to meet the queen’s eyes.
“I removed the glove, but only for a moment.”
“I see. And was your glove on fire?”
“Was it covered with flesh eating poison?”
“No,” softer now.
“Was there any good reason for the removal of your glove?”
Sunshine and fresh air would hardly count to the queen as Good Reason. Freedom would only fare worse.
Gwyn licked her lips and shook her head.
The Ruby Queen sat back in her throne, satisfied. “Well, I shall have to think of a fitting punishment. In the meantime, do try to stay out of trouble.”
With one last poisonous glance, the queen minced away to terrorize her other subjects.
Gwyn let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. The weight of the Garden, with its polished walls of pale gold stone and heavy silver gates, settled firmly on her shoulders.
She had to get out, but how?
As if in answer to her question, the teapot did a little jig in place while the teacups rattled an impressive aria in their saucers.
Shedding the weight of the last few moments as though it had been nothing more than feathers, Gwyn’s whole face lit up as the sugar bowl began juggling its sugar cubes.
Lyra had come!
. . . TO BE CONTINUED . . .
© 2015 by Danyelle Leafty. All rights reserved.
Ah, hope! Perhaps it isn’t as cruel as it seems at first glance. As for tea parties, the best and the worst of times often happens when gathered round the tea table. Have a crumpet?
Join me next Tuesday to meet Lyra, inspiration of teapot and teacup silent operetta from the time she was a small tot. Whatever happens, prepare for some fun. You, dear reader, have been duly warned. 😉
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!