It was not until the new year, in the month of February, that Emerald discovered the reason for the High Queen’s visit and the questions she had been asked in the drawing room in her home, the Palace of Roc Presh.
The explanation arrived in a letter, which Emerald read after breakfast in the privacy of her bedchamber, lest she should react inappropriately around the Palace staff.
Dear Princess Emerald,
You have probably asked yourself if there was a particular reason for our conversation based around royal women. I am writing to reveal to you that the same questions asked of you were asked of four other princesses in a process which enabled my selection of a suitable High Princess Consort for the next High King of Emriqa. It gives me great pleasure to inform you that the young woman I have selected for this role is you.
In our conversation you displayed intelligence and views that I very much admire. I invite you to the Palace of Light to meet the two choices for the High King of the next thirty years, in order that you may choose a man who will bring you happiness as well as one who will be a good king. If you find that neither man is to your taste, I assure you that no one will mind if you simply walk away and become the Queen/ Consort of another royal. I will even compensate you for your troubles. In the meantime, I look forward to your visit which may take place whenever is most convenient for you. Bring the necessary items for at least a month’s stay but bear in mind that the Palace staff will be happy to launder your clothes for you.
High Queen of Emriqa
Emerald read the letter and was shocked. Incredulous, she read it again and continued to feel shock. The queen of all Emriqa had chosen her, princess Emerald Pièroc of the Jewel Kingdom, to be the next High Princess Consort and to choose the next High King of Emriqa? Impossible. Unbelievable. But when she went to her mother, who was sitting in her private drawing room, listening to the Palace violinist, to show her this nonsense, she was met by an expression of beaming pride that told her that the ridiculous idea was in fact reality.
“Oh, my,” said Emerald, feeling faint. “It’s really true, isn’t it?”
Her mother nodded, smiling.
“Qiara will help you pack what you need,” she said. “I see no reason why you cannot depart today. Why wait? It is the opportunity of a lifetime?”
Too dazed to argue, the princess moved into her mother’s embrace before going to her bedchamber where she oversaw the packing of her travelling trunk.
An hour later, she was ready to leave. A kitchen maid gave her food for the journey and the family came outside to say goodbye. Her mother presented her with a bag containing bath salts, creams to soften and moisturise the skin and pretty accessories for her hair to enhance her appearance, and kissed her lovingly on the cheek. Her father ruffled her hair as he had often done when she was a child, saying, “You will make a wonderful Consort.” Her brother Peridot embraced her, saying “Do be careful around those men, Emerald. And don’t do something that you wouldn’t do.”
Thus, without having been given time to react properly to the situation, Emerald was waved off and found herself being transported to Central City, in which stood the allegedly splendid Palace of Light.
Emerald woke up and was momentarily confused by the sight of the carriage interior. Then she remembered the events of this morning and the long journey up until the point at which she had fallen asleep. It appeared that the carriage had stopped now. She hastily neatened her clothes and hair, fortunately finishing this before a Palace footman opened the carriage door and helped her out.
“Princess Emerald, what a pleasure to see you.”
The High Queen stood before her, smiling warmly, all pale in the moonlight, even her golden hair which was usually radiant.
“Your Majesty,” she murmured.
“You must be tired. Follow me to the Parlour.”
Tired indeed, Emerald followed wordlessly, barely taking notice of her surroundings. She could, she reasoned, look around the Palace tomorrow; it should look spectacular in the light of day.
In the Parlour were sitting three fair-haired girls, their facial features similar, which made Emerald inclined to believe they were sisters. They were reading aloud together from a book with a blue leather binding. As the High Queen and Emerald entered the room, they looked up and fell silent.
“Evening, girls,” said Queen Anita with warmth in her voice.
“Good evening, Aunt Anita,” they chorused, smiling at the High Queen.
“This is Princess Emerald from the Palace of Roc Presh,” the High Queen told them, gesturing to Emerald. Three heads turned to look at her.
“Good evening, Princess Emerald,” said the two girls who looked youngest of the three. The third girl, who seemed to have eleven or twelve years, did not join in, looking thoughtful. After a short silence she asked, “Are you the lady to marry Cousin Christopher?”
Emerald was not sure so she said nothing. She looked at the High Queen to see what she would say.
Queen Anita said, “Well, she could marry Argent Phase, you know.”
“Oh, him,” said the eldest girl unenthusiastically. Emerald was slightly amused by her tone.
“If you marry Cousin Christopher, you’ll be our cousin too,” said the middle child, smiling adorably.
Emerald smiled back.
“Would you like a drink of hot cocoa, Emerald?” asked the High Queen.
Emerald turned to her.
“Yes, please, Your Majesty,” she answered.
“Oh, me too!” called out the youngest girl.
The High Queen smiled at the small child.
“Okay, Tiera.” She looked at the other girls. “Milly? Tamina? Would you like hot cocoa too?”
“No, thank you,” replied the eldest politely.
“No, thank you,” said the middle child, imitating the older girl.
Queen Anita nodded.
“Make yourself comfortable, Emerald,” she said to the princess before leaving the room to see to the drinks.
Emerald sat down in a chair facing the girls. There was a table in front of it and she was careful not to knock it over as she took a seat.
“So are you sisters?” she asked the girls.
“Yes,” replied the eldest. “I am Tamina, and my sisters are Milly and Tiera.”
“Hello,” said Milly and Tiera shyly.
“And the High Queen is your aunt?”
“Well, I’m not sure she can really be considered so - she is the cousin of our Mother and we have always called her Aunt Anita.”
“Do you have any other siblings?”
Tamina shook her head.
“Most cousins of one Family grow up like siblings but my only true siblings are my sisters.”
“Have you met Loopy Phase?” asked Tiera bravely, with that sober voice which young royal children employed to show that they could be serious too.
“I have not,” replied Emerald, forcing herself not to grin at the name. “Is he a friend of yours?”
Tamina had smiled when Tiera said the name ‘Loopy’. She explained to Emerald, “His name is Lupus and yes, Tiera gets on well with him.”
Tiera smiled widely.
“We played in the nurs’ry room today. We had a picnic with Sammy the bear and Aunt Jemima.”
“Aunt Jemima is both our aunt and Edmund and Lupus’s aunt,” said Milly, the middle child. She looked proud to know this fact.
“That is interesting,” said Emerald. “Does that mean a Solay married a Phase?”
Milly looked blank. Tamina answered for her.
“Yes, it does. Uncle Sammy was slightly weird and married Jemima Phase.”
“Ah, so does that not normally happen?”
“Well, there was also the case of Aunt Leticia and Jonathan Phase. But no, it does not normally happen.”
“I see.” Emerald decided not to point out that if Astra and Galaxus had been siblings, all Solays and Phases were related - there may be the slightest hint of tension between the two families if it was considered ‘weird’ for them to intermarry.
“What happens in your family?” asked Milly.
“Ah, mine is not as interesting as yours,” Emerald told her. “We have only one Royal Family. Every Queen bears two children and it is either the boy or the eldest who becomes the next ruler. It is tradition; though my brother Peridot promises me he will change the system when he is King. We have no cousins - our uncle is unmarried and has no children, which I expect may remain the case for the rest of is life, but neither he nor my brother and I are any the sadder for it.”
“You have no cousins?” asked Milly, surprised. “I would be so lonely without Ray.”
Emerald smiled. “I have my brother. He is all I need.”
“How many years has he?” asked Tamina curiously.
“Fourteen,” answered Emerald.
Tamina sat forwards, her expression one of interest.
“Describe him to us.”
“Well, he looks a bit like me, though younger and masculine; his hair is brown like mine but his eyes are brown too, not green like mine. He’s a friendly person - he has a kind heart, can be gentle and sensitive where appropriate, listens well when you have something to say and is there for you when you feel alone.”
Emerald sighed sadly, wishing that the High Queen had invited him as well, so that she would have known at least one other person in this strange place. At least the High Queen’s cousin’s daughters were being friendly. Tamina was smiling at her after her description of her brother - Emerald briefly had an image in her mind of her marrying Peridot, young though they were. Maybe she would find a friend outside of the two young men competing for the role of High King of Emriqa...
Her Majesty the High Queen re-entered the Parlour, followed by a maid carrying a tray with two mugs containing steaming cocoa upon it. One was laid on the table near Emerald and the other on a hidden table to Tiera’s right, for she sat on that side of the sofa. The High Queen took a seat in the room a short distance away from Emerald and smiled at her.
“Once you have finished your drink I will show you to your chamber,” she said.
“Thank you,” said Emerald.
The maid who had brought the drinks in was hovering nearby so Emerald picked up her cup and saucer, blew across the surface of the drink and sipped at it.
“Delicious,” she said sincerely.
The maid smiled, dropped a curtsey and left the room. The girls resumed their book - it turned out to be a fairytale about a handsome knight rescuing a beautiful lady from a tower guarded by her possessive mother who was also a witch - and the High Queen and Emerald were silent until the latter had finished her drink.