A crowd of people had already started gathering, but they quickly moved for the Black Swans — after all, everyone knew that Black Swans were poisonous — and the Black Swans swaggered in, knowing very well that everyone was terrified of them and taking full advantage of this fact. Theron and Solea moved behind them quickly — once, Solea even got a face full of black cloak when a Black Swan stopped unexpectedly in front of her.
Alainna’s mother — Solea’s stepmother — was already near the gift table, directing several servants. When she saw Theron, she finished up quickly and joined them. “It’s chaos in the kitchens,” she whispered to him. “I hope they weren’t serious when they said dinner was going to be ready as soon as the gifts were opened. Because, unless there are some more surprise gifts, we’re going to be in trouble.”
“It’ll be fine, Francine,” Theron reassured her. “They’re passing out enough wine that people won’t be too bothered by the wait, if there is one.”
“That’s part of the problem,” Francine said grimly. “We need some food to sober everybody up.” Francine nodded toward Solea. “Are you having fun, at least? I know Alainna’s having a great time.”
Alainna was analyzing the gifts that were already there, obviously delighted at the table full of gifts.
“It’s nice seeing you,” Solea admitted. “And Archondid came too! I didn’t expect to see him.”
“Yes, he was one of the White Swans who said he could come,” Francine said offhandedly. “Did you see Eurodities yet? She came by here and talked with me a little.”
“No, not yet,” Solea said.
“Well, hopefully, you’ll see her soon. She said she wanted to see you if you weren’t busy. Some of the White Swans couldn’t come,” Francine continued. “Sergius passed along his apologies, for instance. Said he was doing a bit of unexpected work that couldn’t be put off. And those two White Swans — what were their names? The ones who were the parents of the original Conqueror? They said they couldn’t come either, though I was warned that they never came to any real social functions anymore since — well, you know. Still, at least they responded. And then there was another one who couldn’t come, though his excuse was rather ornate and flowery and didn’t make sense. Eurodities said he was a bit of an oddball for the White Swans. But all twelve Black Swans came, and that is something!” She turned to Theron. “I take it Uclepidies eventually arrived?”
“Yes, he’s with Diplomat,” Theron said.
“Good. That means that you get to spend more time with me,” she said, laughing. She stood on her tiptoes to steal a kiss from him. “Will he need you as his Voice today, or do I get to have you all to myself?”
Theron shrugged. “I think he said he might have to use me to talk a little to explain the story behind his gift to Alainna since he said the gift might seem a little strange at first. Otherwise, he seemed perfectly content to spend some time with his siblings and listen to them argue.”
Francine shook her head. “He didn’t have to get her anything, you know. I mean, if the other Black Swans wanted to spoil her rotten, then I suppose that would be one thing, but him? He can barely move! And she owes him so much already, though he’s too polite to mention it. Honestly, the very fact that he came here at all should have been sufficient by itself.”
“It was his idea,” Theron said patiently. “I’m sure he was perfectly aware that he didn’t need to get her anything if he didn’t want to.”
Francine shook her head. “Well, he’s nicer than I am, let’s just say. I told Alainna that our gift to her was the new gown for this ball that we got for her, and let’s just say that I almost shredded up the gown after listening to her complain. She said that real parents should give their daughters gowns as a matter of course instead of giving them as gifts and that I ought to get her something else for a birthday present instead. The nerve! This school has been awful at putting things in her head. Some of the girls are so spoiled, and she wants to be just like them, and I can’t stand it. It’s shameful, that’s what it is. I gave up everything to leave this sort of phony bourgeois life, and yet here I am having to deal with it once more, but now in the form of my daughter.”
“I have to leave,” Solea said, gesturing to the present.
Francine glared at the present. “Wait. Is that Uclepidies’s gift?” When Solea nodded, she picked it up and held it in her hands, frowning. Then she looked at Theron with a critical eye. “This better not be a ball gown.”
“It isn’t, right?”
“He didn’t say what it was,” Theron said delicately.
Francine sighed heavily and handed the present to Solea. “Better give it to her. And remind her that she needs to be grateful and accept the gift with a smile on her face, no matter what the gift is. It’s bad luck to spurn a Black Swan’s gift.”
“Good luck with that,” Theron muttered under his breath.
Francine shot Theron an inquiring look. But, before Solea could hear his explanation, Solea rushed away toward the gift table.
But, though she had been able to get comparatively close to it, thanks to the Black Swans initially blazing the trail at first, it was impossible to get even closer. There were just too many people around it.
The Black Swans — in their human forms, of course — were all around the gift table, laughing and jostling with each other, and they seemed to fill the room with their black cloaks and glowing red eyes. Even the six women in black cloaks, who had previously been unamused by their brothers’ antics, seemed to be excited and were laughing together with their brothers.
And there was Alainna, eagerly taking in the scene of a table full of gifts. There were some smaller gifts that other people had given her, wrapped in paper towards the edge of the table. But it was the gifts in the middle of the table that Alainna kept eying the most. Those gifts were wrapped, not in paper, but in velvet and satin and silk, each of the fabrics richly embroidered and trimmed in lace, made from real gold and silver. Even the wrapping was an exquisite gift in itself. These were the Black Swans’ gifts, and as people approached the table, they would gasp and admire to see the gifts stacked and towering above them.
Solea held her father’s gift and looked grimly at the stack of gifts. There would be no dismembered rats in these presents. Everything about these presents screamed wealth and finery. And why shouldn’t they? After all, Alainna was the Lady, which meant that she was their mother, reborn. They wouldn’t dare give her anything that wasn’t made for a queen, for she was a queen.
It was then that Solea decided that she needed to somehow put the gift at the gift table and leave the party as quickly as possible. She had been humiliated enough for the night, and she couldn’t bear to see Alainna be rewarded for her bad behavior even more. The Black Swans might have given her subpar gifts to their standards, but Solea had no doubt that they had given Alainna something special nonetheless, and she didn’t want to find out what it was.
And she especially didn’t want to see Alainna open the gift that she now held. Because she knew that Uclepidies wouldn’t give her sister a bad gift. After all, if Uclepidies had to journey all the way back to his private lakeside and pull out the gift, it had to be special. Indeed, it was probably something priceless. A priceless gift that he would gladly get for the Lady, his mother, but not for his daughter.
And especially not for the daughter that had killed his wife during childbirth.
The problem was Solea couldn’t get to the gift table. Not at all now. Everything was too crowded. Nor could she easily run away, since a crowd of people had come from behind her and were pushing her forward so that they could look at the tower of gifts.
She was trapped.
“I am accursed. Diamea has cursed me,” Solea swore under her breath.
And so, she watched helplessly as her sister stood on the gift table, knocking down some of the smaller gifts wrapped in paper as she did so. “Hello all!” Alainna called out loudly toward the crowd. “I am the Lady and today is my birthday!”
The whole room exploded in cheers.
Alainna beamed at the room and allowed them to continue for a full minute, before waving off the cheers. “Today, the Eleven White Swans have decided to host a birthday party for me, and what a wonderful party it’s been so far! They are the ones who’ve provided for the fine wine that we’ve had so far—”
A new surge of cheers came from the crowd so that Alainna had to stop, her face flushed with excitement, and wait for the cheers to die down before she could begin again.
“The White Swans have provided for the ball today, along with the dinner that will come shortly,” she finished. “So, let’s all thank the White Swans today for all their efforts!”
The crowd roared in approval, looking hopefully around for any White Swans to perhaps stand out and be thanked personally. But no White Swan seemed to want to take the credit and they all hid, and so the crowd just continued clapping loudly for another full minute, until Alainna waved them off again.
“But before we eat, it’s time for me to open my birthday gifts!” she cried. “Of course, it’s a gift in itself for me for you to come to my party,” she said, smiling, and the crowd laughed.
“But I must admit that I do like opening gifts. And so, I want to thank all of you who have taken the time and effort of selecting wonderful gifts for me. I am sure that they are all wonderful!”
More cheers. Solea looked around again, wondering desperately if perhaps there was a chance that she could just escape. Maybe she could just throw the gift at Alainna, preferably at Alainna’s head, and just run out somehow.
“I want to especially thank the Black Swans who have come peaceably to celebrate with me, and have freely chosen to gift me with gifts that are no doubt treasures.”
At this, the crowd was less enthusiastic and their clapping was more scattered at first. Black Swans were not normally applauded at all, especially not so soon after the annual Frenzy. But the Black Swans cheered and waved and clapped loudly for themselves, and their enthusiasm helped warm the crowd up for another long cheer.
“And so, without any further ado, I will open their gifts!” Alainna called out, and the crowd cheered even more.
There was some commotion near the table. It looked like the Black Swans were arguing amongst themselves who should be first. But whatever disagreement they might have had was quickly resolved, and a Black Swan hoisted herself up on the table near Alainna and knelt down in front of her.
“Hail, Lady!” she cried so that the whole room could hear. “I am your daughter, Jocieri. Here is my gift to you.” And, still kneeling, she handed Alainna a gift wrapped in a deep purple silk cloth with silver stars embroidered on it.
Alainna took the present eagerly and unwrapped it.
And then she froze.
It was a book.
And it was at that point that Solea finally started to smile. It was a nice book with jewels encrusted on the front with a gold title emblazoned on it. But it was evidently not what Alainna expected, and Alainna was no bookworm.
Alainna looked up from the book, at first lost for words. Jocieri was still kneeling, as if she was awaiting a response from Alainna. Alainna stared back down at the book with a strange expression on her face. After a minute of odd silence, Jocieri looked up, “It is a book about my personal experiences with the Conquerors,” she explained in a voice that those close to the table, including Solea, could hear. “As you are the Lady and will probably be asked to deal with a Conqueror, if the prophecies are true, we decided that it would be good to prepare for you the occasion.”
Alainna opened it and flipped through the pages. “I can’t understand any of the writing,” she murmured. “It’s written in your language, not mine.”
“But you will,” Jocieri said, smiling. “We consulted with your language teacher, and she said that you are making excellent progress in our language, especially in the written portion, and so we have high hopes that you will quickly learn to read it in no time at all.”
Solea choked back laughter at that point. The only reason why Alainna had such high marks was because Alainna made Solea do all of her homework for her. Alainna would barely be literate otherwise.
Alainna closed the book, swallowed, and tried to smile. “Thank you, Jocieri, my daughter, for your kind and thoughtful present.”
And with that, Jocieri smiled and rose, giving Alainna a short polite bow before hopping off the table.
Alonso grabbed his present before hopping onto the table, also kneeling before Alainna. “Hail, Lady!” he cried. “I am your son, Alonso. Here is my gift to you.”
Alainna looked at the present, which was wrapped in black velvet with a golden sun embroidered on it. It was the same size as Jocieri’s present. Slowly, Alainna pulled the velvet covering off.
“Another book,” she said strangely. “How nice.” She looked at the tower of presents, which were all approximately the same size, and frowned. “Are they all books?”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“And they are all written in your language?”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“How… thoughtful,” Alainna murmured, clearly thinking the opposite.
“Thank you, my Lady.”
“And thank you, my son, for the kind and thoughtful present,” Alainna said, swallowing hard.
Solea covered her face to hide her laughing.
And so, for the next several minutes, each Black Swan would take a turn, kneeling down and presenting their book to Alainna, while Alainna would try to accept it graciously, each time getting more and more flustered. And every present was a book. Eleven Black Swans gave her eleven books, all in a language that she was barely literate in, and her face grew redder and redder with every book that she received.
When it came time for Uclepidies’s turn, Alainna was so frazzled and red that she snapped at him, “Another book?” as a greeting, which took him aback. He shook his head and hopped on the table, almost falling over in the process. Alonso quickly reached up to steady Uclepidies and whispered something. Uclepidies absently nodded at whatever Alonso said. Then, spreading out his wings, he shook his feathers — and instantly cocked his head, confused.
He forgot that he gave me the gift, Solea realized with a start.
Uclepidies looked through his feathers, his head still strangely cocked, and shook his wings again. Then, still confused, gave a quick bow to Alainna and turned to Alonso, tapping something out on the table. Alonso frowned and turned to his brothers, whispering something fast to them.
While this was happening, Alainna grew redder and redder. She didn’t understand what was happening at all, nor did the Black Swans try to explain to her what had happened. As the minutes passed, the more furious she looked.
Sometime during these minutes, it occurred to Solea that she could stop the fuss almost immediately. She could call out and say that she had the gift. Then the crowd would move and let her through. This would solve the problem immediately. Uclepidies would be able to present his gift to Alainna, Alainna would be able to actually enjoy a gift that was definitely not yet another book, and then everyone would be happy that dinner would be soon.
And yet, there was also a part of her that took pleasure in this moment as well. Alainna had humiliated her earlier and so she enjoyed seeing her grow more and more frustrated with every passing moment. Let her be humiliated in front of everybody and see how she felt!
But — and Solea would never consciously admit this ever, because to admit this would shatter her perception of herself, though she felt it more acutely than anything else — she took a perverse pleasure in seeing Uclepidies struggle. After all, Uclepidies had forgotten her. Again. For her entire life, he had forgotten to give her a gift. He had forgotten her when he chose his gift for Alainna. And now he had forgotten her after he had entrusted her with his gift for Alainna.
Let him feel forgotten too.
And so, she watched while Alainna grew more and more frustrated while Uclepidies tried in vain to communicate with Alonso. Finally, Alonso looked over at the crowd. “Voice?” he called out. “Where’s Uclepidies’s Voice?”
Theron called out something and the crowd began to move aside for him. But, instead of coming straight toward the Black Swans, he veered aside and grabbed Solea’s arm, pulling her with him.
“What are you doing?” Theron hissed in her ear.
“Hey, that hurts,” Solea muttered, trying to twist away.
“Why didn’t you put the gift on the table like you said you would?” Theron asked.
“Because it was too crowded and I couldn’t get there,” Solea answered, still trying to wiggle away from him.
“That excuse worked five minutes ago. When you saw him struggling, why didn’t you go up and give it to him then?”
“Because I forgot!” Solea cried out. Then, doing her best to give him the gift, she said, “Here, you can have it. I never wanted it anyway!”
“Too late,” Theron said grimly. “You’re going to be the one who gives it to him.”
They were getting closer to the table and now she could see the Black Swans clearly. They looked at her curiously, saw the gift in her hands, and started laughing.
“It’s here!” Alonso said. Then, to Uclepidies, he said, “You haven’t lost your mind after all, my dear brother. Your daughter had your gift all the time.”
Alainna glowered at Solea angrily. “So. It was you,” she hissed quietly under her breath.
Solea blushed and gave her a quick curtsy. “Sorry,” she said lamely. “I got stuck.” She tried giving the gift to Alonso, but he shook his head and gestured back to Uclepidies.
“He’s supposed to give the gift, not me,” Alonso said firmly. “Give it to him.”
Uclepidies looked down at her expectantly.
Solea glanced at Theron furiously before walking as slowly as she could toward Uclepidies. “Here,” she muttered, pushing the gift at his feet. “Have it.”
“Oh, but Solea,” Alainna said loudly enough for other people to hear. “You didn’t tell me that this was a family gift. Why don’t you come up here and give it to me alongside your father?”
Solea stared at her in horror. “I don’t think that would be a good idea,” she said slowly. Already, her head was starting to swim and she was starting to feel as if she would faint at any minute.
“It’s a wonderful idea. After all, you are his daughter, are you not? Why don’t you come up?”
Uclepidies looked at both Solea and Alainna. Then he shook his head and attempted to discretely shoo away Solea with his wing.
“With all due respect,” Theron began. “This is not Solea’s gift to give to you.”
“Are you speaking on behalf of Uclepidies, Voice?” Alainna snapped.
Theron flinched. “No, I am not.”
“Then be quiet.” Alainna turned to Solea. “Well? Stand with your father. Unless he is ashamed of you and would prefer you didn’t stand up with him.” She turned to Uclepidies. “I assume that you have no objections?”
Uclepidies glanced at Solea and shook his head.
“I’ll help you up,” Alonso offered Solea. He knelt down and held out his hand. “Just pretend I am your staircase,” he said cheerfully. “You’ll get up in no time.”
“I think I am going to be sick,” Solea muttered.
“Then, if you can, please don’t get sick on me,” Alonso said.
With Alonso’s help, Solea somehow made it to the table, though her legs felt like jelly and she felt quite sick. At first, she curtsied in what she thought was a polite way, but Alainna still glowered at her. Then a Black Swan whispered, “Kneel!” and she remembered what the Black Swans before had done. So she forced herself to kneel, her head bowed down low so that she could not possibly see her sister’s face — which, in her opinion, was the only good part about this whole ordeal. Humiliation didn’t even begin to describe what she felt.
Uclepidies waited for Solea to finish kneeling before he bowed to Alainna and pushed the gift toward her with his beak. There was no address, of course. No exchange of formalities. Only silence. Uclepidies couldn’t speak and Solea did not trust herself to speak. And so, between them both, silence reigned.
Still, Alainna hesitated, just in case, before she picked up the gift once more. “This is not a book,” she said, probing the contents once more. Then, as if she could bear it no longer, she pried open the ribbons of the velvet bag and pulled out the gift. And then everyone gasped.
It was a cloak.
But not just any cloak. It was the oldest, dirtiest, most beat up, weathered cloak that Solea had ever seen. Originally, the cloak might have been white — at least the threads that held it together looked white anyway. But it had browned and gotten stained so many times that it turned into the color of dirt at its best places, and the color of mud at its worst places.
Solea stared at it, shocked. She shot a glance at Uclepidies, but he was still bowed down politely, his eyes closed. For a second, Solea thought that the cloak was a mistake — it had to be a mistake! — and that Uclepidies had packed the wrong thing. She stared at him, wondering how to tell him. But, as the crowd began to murmur and talk about the strange gift, and still Uclepidies kept his head down, she realized that the slight was completely intentional.
Alainna stared at the cloak in her hands in horror and then at Uclepidies, who was still politely bowing to her. Tears welled up in her eyes. “This is the gift you gave me?” she asked finally. “This… thing?”
Uclepidies looked up at the cloak and nodded, bowing politely once more. From behind, Solea heard the sniggers of the other Black Swans.
Now tears openly fell from Alainna’s face and Solea actually felt bad for her sister. She looked at the old cloak, and then at her father in disbelief. Perhaps dismembered rats would have been a better idea, she thought. At least then, Alainna would have had a perfectly justifiable excuse for attacking Uclepidies.
Solea rose from kneeling and looked at her sister sympathetically. “This has got to be a bad joke. Isn’t it, Father?” Then, when Uclepidies didn’t move, she said, “You have another, better gift for her, right?”
“Keep kneeling, Niece,” Alonso said cheerfully. “Alainna has to thank Uclepidies for the gift first before either of you can get up. It’s the polite thing to do.”
At those words, Alainna snapped. “Polite thing to do?” she cried. “Polite thing to do? How about not giving horrible gifts to people as a polite thing to do.” She turned to Solea, furious. “And don’t even pretend that you’re surprised about this,” she said to her. “You set him up for this, I know it!” And then she threw the cloak as hard as she could at Uclepidies.
Had Alainna thrown the cloak at another Black Swan, the cloak would have simply bounced off harmlessly and the Black Swan would have simply laughed off the attack. After all, their feathers were harder than diamonds. But she threw it at Uclepidies. And so, the cloak knocked him off his feet, which sent him skittering off the table, which sent him crashing head-first to the floor.
The smell of Black Swan blood — thick and fetid — filled the room.
“Everyone, stand back,” Alonso cried out, while the other Black Swans moved to surround Uclepidies. Then, to Solea and Alainna, he commanded, “Don’t move.” Though, he didn’t need to tell them that. Both Solea and Alainna stared at Uclepidies in horror.
Alainna turned to Solea quickly. “I didn’t mean to—” she started.
“Shut up!” Solea said.
For a horrible moment, Uclepidies lay on the floor not moving. Then, very slowly, he lifted his head. Only one eye glowed red. The other one oozed blood. He blinked pathetically and rubbed his head on his back. Then he looked towards Theron.
Theron bowed to Alonso. “Uclepidies has requested that you help him back up the table, if you please, so he can attempt to give his gift to the Lady again.”
Alonso didn’t move. “Is he all right?”
Theron shrugged. “Is he ever all right?”
Alonso shook his head and knelt down to Uclepidies, carefully cradling him in his arms. Then, very gently, he placed him back on the table and glared at Alainna. “If you please, my Lady. He will give you another chance to accept your gift, so you’d better take it. The sooner you thank him for his gift, the sooner we can all move on with our lives.”
“But I don’t want it,” Alainna whispered.
“It’s in bad form to reject a gift from a Black Swan,” Alonso reminded her grimly. “Very bad form.”
“But I don’t want it!”
Uclepidies blinked up at Alainna and then bowed to her once again.
Theron cleared his throat. “Uclepidies has requested speaking with you, using me as his voice, to explain the story behind the cloak, if it will make you feel better about the gift.”
“Why, so he can humiliate me further?” Alainna snapped, her face turning red. “Surely he can’t think that this is acceptable in any form?”
The Black Swans just laughed.
“Considering that you just attacked him, he’s being awfully nice, in my opinion,” Tarygen said. “Most Black Swans would have cursed you by now.”
“It was an accident that he fell!” Alainna snapped. “And he knows it. If he weren’t so fragile, nothing would have happened. It’s his fault that he’s not tougher.”
“You’re right,” Tarygen said sarcastically. “It’s his fault that most of his body was melted off by cursed acid. I’m sure he did that on purpose.”
Alainna’s face turned red. “In any case, it’s his fault that he gave me such a horrid gift. An old cloak! For me, the Lady!”
“Uclepidies can give you any gift that he sees fit,” Alonso said firmly. “And that includes old cloaks.”
Alainna stepped forward and glared at Uclepidies. “Answer me yourself,” she said. “Is the cloak magical?”
Uclepidies considered this question for a long moment and then shook his head.
“Does it have any special powers?”
Again, he shook his head.
“Is it special in any way?”
It was here that Uclepidies hesitated. Once more, he looked at Theron.
Theron stepped closer to the table. “Uclepidies requests that you let him speak to you about this gift.” When Alainna hesitated, Theron added softly, “It’s not as bad as a gift as you think it is. It’s quite precious to him. He gave it to his wife once, you know. She used to wear it all the time.”
“He gave this to his wife?” Alainna asked incredulously. “Solea’s mother? The one who is dead?”
“And she wore this cloak?”
“And that’s why it’s precious to him?”
Uclepidies gave her a deep bow.
Alainna wrinkled her nose and looked at the cloak in disgust. “I had heard rumors that your wife went insane at the end, but I didn’t believe it until now. She wore this rag? She really did go completely insane, didn’t she?”
It happened so quickly that Solea barely saw it. One moment, Theron’s face looked uneasy, as if he heard something uncomfortable. The next moment, his face had turned enraged. Then, before Solea could say anything, Theron reached out, grabbed Alainna by the foot, and sent her crashing to the table. In the next moment, he sent her crashing to the floor.
Alainna sat up, dazed, her nose bloody and her hair everywhere. She looked around with unfocused eyes, still unsure how she got to the floor. But, before she could wonder for long, Theron grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her to stand in front of him.
“What do you know of insanity?” he hissed at her. “What can you possibly know, you sheltered, silly girl? You know nothing of that, just as you know nothing of love, just as you know nothing of anything else! You think Diamea will come to you, placate you with jewels, and send you on a pretty romance? You fool! Do you think Diamea has come for that? He has come to spill the Conqueror’s blood and take back what is his, or else destroy it all!”
Then, while Alainna’s eyes grew wide, he whispered, “You think you know of insanity? You know nothing of it, yet. But there will come a day in which you will follow Diamea, against all reason and hope, and the whole world will think of you as insane for doing so. And I only pray that, when this happens, you will have the courage to follow Diamea into insanity and oblivion.”
At that moment, Francine rushed to Alainna’s side. “Please, Uclepidies,” Francine gasped, pulling Alainna behind her so that she shielded Alainna with her body. “Let your wrath die down against my daughter, please. If you must be angry, be angry with me, her mother.” And, very slowly, making sure to push Alainna away even further from Theron, Francine lowered herself prostrate to the floor.
And it was only at that moment that Solea realized that Uclepidies had possessed Theron, and that is why Theron had suddenly acted so unlike himself. And it occurred to her that, at that moment, the White Swans, who had previously been content to hide away from any sort of publicity, now came out toward Theron with daggers drawn.
“Don’t kill him!” Solea cried to the White Swans, slipping off the table and grabbing Theron’s arm. “Uclepidies will stop. Won’t you, Father?” she said in a shaky voice, turning to Theron.
Uclepidies looked around at the White Swans in disdain. “Be at peace, daughter,” he muttered to Solea, shaking off her arm. “They won’t kill Theron. He is my Voice, after all.” He glanced at Francine, who lay before him motionless, and then at Alainna, who whimpered on the floor in a little ball. And then he went to the table, plucked off the cloak, and turned back to Solea.
“Your stepsister has rejected my gift. Will you take it instead?” He thrust it towards her, his face angry and cold. “Your mother once wore it.”
Solea stepped back and swallowed, her stomach churning. “I would love to accept your gift,” she lied.
“Then kneel down in front of me, and don’t get up until I tell you to get up.”
Solea looked at his face, hard and cold, before looking around the room. The White Swans had stopped moving toward him and now stationed themselves a respectful distance away, except for one of them, who went toward Alainna and helped her up while she whimpered pathetically.
But no one made an effort to help Solea. Instead, they just stared at her curiously. And why would they try to help? Solea thought grimly. After all, when Uclepidies threatened Alainna, he was attacking the Lady. But when he threatened her, he was only disciplining his child.
“You didn’t make Alainna kneel to you when you gave her the gift,” Solea murmured stubbornly, drawing away from him. “You knelt to her instead.”
“And are you the Lady now?” Uclepidies snapped. “Am I your son? Or would you rather I grovel in front of my own daughter?”
“You are my daughter and I am your father. Show your respect and kneel.”
Solea closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. In the background, she could hear Alainna blubbering to the White Swan that attended to her. But there would be no rescue from any White Swan for her. It occurred to her that the easiest and quickest way out of this situation was to just follow orders. And so, feeling very much like a condemned criminal about to be executed by beheading, she knelt before him, shutting her eyes as tightly as she could.
For a minute, it was quiet. But, just as her knees started to feel as if they would give out, she felt a surprisingly soft cloth wrap around her shoulders. She looked up and there her father was, frowning down at her.
“Do you have any questions about the cloak?” he asked sharply.
The way that he asked the question made Solea feel as if she ought to ask something. So she took a deep breath and tried to ask in the politest voice that she could muster, “What are the brown marks on the cloak?”
“They are old blood stains from one of the previous owners of the cloak.”
Solea’s eyes grew wide. “From my mother?” she stammered before she could stop herself.
Uclepidies shook his head. “No, not from her.” He frowned. “Do you have any other questions about the cloak?”
And the answer was yes, Solea had many more questions about the cloak. But she also decided that she didn’t want to know anything more about this strange gift. And so she took another deep breath and shook her head furiously. Then, as an afterthought, she said, “Thank you for the gift, Father.” She started to stand up.
“Did I ask you to stand?” he snapped.
“Then kneel back down.”
She resumed her kneeling position. Her legs felt as if they would lock up soon and she wondered if she would faint. And if she did, she wondered if anyone would care about her then, or if everyone would just stare at her like they were doing now.
He frowned and then took out a small package, wrapped in brown paper from his pocket. Solea recognized it with surprise as the same package that Uclepidies had given Theron earlier. “This belongs with the cloak,” he said, tossing it to her. “Open it.”
Solea caught the package and tore it open. Inside was dull glass brooch, the glass set in a tarnished lattice frame. The glass was cloudy, flat, and utterly unremarkable, and it occurred to Solea that this ugly brooch was the perfect companion to the ugly cloak.
“Thank you,” she said, nodding her head again. “It is beautiful,” she lied.
“Touch the glass.”
She did, and almost dropped it.
As soon as her finger touched the glass, the brooch exploded into color. The surface of the glass turned a dark and violent violet. Then it shifted into a dark blue until it finally morphed into the night sky, flecks of silver twinkling like the stars.
She looked at the glass in wonder, and then looked back up at her father.
Her father was watching her face carefully. “It is part of a feather from Diamea himself. When he is alive — and he is alive right now — you can touch the crystal and it will show you the colors of his dreams.”
She stared at the crystal in wonder. “Thank you, Father,” she said quietly.
This time, she meant it.
“Now you may rise.”
The White Swans and Black Swans quickly moved forward to stare at the crystal.
And so did Alainna.
“That brooch,” Alainna said. Her face, still bloody from the fall, quivered. “That brooch was meant for me, wasn’t it? That is the sort of gift more proper for the Lady, and not for a mere Black Swan’s daughter, right? It belongs to me, doesn’t it?”
“It belongs with the cloak,” Uclepidies said firmly. He took the brooch from Solea’s hand and, gathering up the cloak, he pinned it up. Then, leaning close to Solea’s ear so that she was the only one who could hear him, he whispered, “My child, never doubt my love for you again.” And with that, he knelt down before her and kissed her hand.
When he looked up again, his face had transformed from hard and rigid to completely confused. He sprang away from Solea and looked around, baffled, first at Solea, then at Alainna, then at all the Swans that surrounded them.
Theron had returned.
He ran a nervous hand through his hair and coughed. “Something big just happened, didn’t it?”
The Black Swans burst into laughter.