As Isabel was escorted to her chambers she noticed a peculiar aspect about the Crystal Palace. Just like in the room she had arrived, the outer walls seemed to act like a two-way mirror. While no one could see into the palace she was able to see out. She saw the ocean shimmering in the distance on one side, snowcapped mountains on another and below her she could see the beautiful gardens and grounds. Isabel also noticed that the light changed color from one area to another with the occasional rainbow dancing in a corner. Nancy was right, it was as if she was walking inside a diamond or prism and guessed this was the reason for the palace’s name.
Her chambers were marvelous. The massive doors swung open to a receiving room furnished with a settee and chaise of polished mahogany and plush white satin. Back near the balcony was a pretty little bistro set for dining, and just outside the bedroom door sat a mahogany roll-top desk on which sat a neat stack of parchment, a quill and an inkwell. Inside the bedroom was an enormous round bed that Isabel estimated she could roll across three or four times without falling off. The overstuffed pillows and fluffy duvet looked so inviting that Isabel, after glancing over her shoulder to make sure she was alone, ran and dove onto the bed. Oh, was it comfortable! Isabel thought she could easily sleep for a week in that bed and sure enough sleep began to take her. She turned over, preparing for a quick nap, when she started and sat up, not sure she could believe her eyes. Surely the Crystal Palace had a roof and yet she found herself looking up at bright clouds sailing lazily across a brilliant blue sky. Well, that’s a bit unnerving. Once the initial shock wore off she settled back against the pillows.
Both her mind and her heart were in turmoil as she relayed the events of the day. It had started out ordinarily enough, yet it could not have ended in a more bizarre fashion. She had been attacked by a frightening man calling himself the Lord of the Underworld, an eerie concept in itself, who spoke of witches and magic and royalty with the nonchalance of someone giving directions to the post office. She watched her mother kill monsters and rescue an exiled princess. Then there was her meeting with the beautiful people; the lovely and graceful Queen Nerissa, the refined and elegant Dowager Empress and her son, the devastatingly handsome Prince Alaric. Isabel’s heart fluttered again as her stomach flipped at the thought of him. God, he was gorgeous! She had always been a sucker for tall men with wavy hair, light eyes and a sexy accent and this man checked every box on her list! Even during the unpleasant surprise of finding Omar waiting for them, she was conscious of the prince’s gaze upon her and she flushed at the memory.
Isabel had been around rich attractive men before but none had the affect on her the prince did. She snorted. If she didn’t know better she could swear she’d been hit by the fabled lightning bolt of love at first sight. Still, Isabel Kendra was not the swooning type and had to remind herself not to become some silly female around him. Anyway, she suspected the prince took the fawning of women for granted. He had probably bedded every noblewoman in the kingdom and the odd tavern wench or three besides. Why was she even giving this man a second thought like she had a snowball’s chance in Hell with him? His blood was as blue as the sea. Well, you are the daughter of a Duke.
Duke or not, her father shamed her and in no way made her the Prince’s equal. Besides, she was now a burden to the Alliance, someone to be watched over and guarded. Isabel had never needed or wanted any man’s help. She had always been independent and able to protect herself when necessary. As a chef she would either start or end her day during the graveyard shift in a desolate parking lot so she made sure to take self defense classes offered semi-annually at the woman’s center in Jersey City. Still, Lord Rakad had gotten the upper hand and did a number on her. She winced as she turned on to her side and several parts of her body complained. She would have to be better prepared should she find herself in danger again. She didn’t want to have to stand by while strangers came to her rescue. She groaned as she realized this would mean being civil enough to Omar to learn about the amulet.
A pair of servants arrived to bathe and dress Isabel for the coronation ball. One was a willowy blonde in a plain blue gown and black bodice and looked to be much younger than Isabel with hair done up in elaborate looking braids. The second woman was far older, in deep purple with a black bodice. Her dark hair was swept up and greying at the temples.
“Good evening, milady,” the older woman crooned. “I trust you are well rested and ready for your bath.”
Bath? Isabel watched the younger woman disappear behind an ornate partition in a corner of the room. The pattern looked a bit Oriental with odd symbols and pictures of roses, dragons and little fish. She followed the girl and found a small fluffy towel and several small vials of colored liquid sitting on a little mahogany table. Beside that was a large white marble basin. The young woman was holding a single white pitcher in her hands and Isabel could see the palace had no running water.
“Where are the others?” she asked.
“Others?” The girl blinked.
“To help you fill the tub.”
The girl shook her head and smiled as she lifted the pitcher and replied, “Tis all I need, milady.”
Isabel frowned. Either their royal highnesses were stingy with their guests or they took water conservation to the extreme in Baelcrest, adapting the custom of bathing in three inches of water. The girl tipped the pitcher over the basin and Isabel gasped as a seemingly endless torrent of hot foaming water poured out and began to fill the tub. Placing her hands on the edge, she leaned in for a closer look, gaping. “That’s incredible!”
The servant girl giggled. “Do you not have bathing pitchers where you come from?”
Isabel shook her head. “Not like this, back home water comes out of the wall.”
“You mean the walls of your home are full of water?”
Isabel looked up at the confused woman and shook her head, deciding it would be too complicated to explain the concept of indoor plumbing. The older woman appeared and drizzled the liquid from the vials into the steaming bath before taking the pitcher away. A lovely blend of exotic floral scents filled the air. The younger servant came towards Isabel and began to pull up her blouse. Isabel jumped back and pushed her hands away.
“What are you doing?”
“Does milady not wish for her bath?” she asked, looking confused again.
“Sure but I can undress and bathe myself, thanks.”
The older woman returned then and raised an eyebrow at the younger women. “Is anything amiss?”
“I was just explaining that it isn’t necessary to undress and bathe me. I can do it myself.”
The older woman clucked her tongue. “Milady, tis not customary for one of your station to undress and bathe without assistance.”
Isabel squared her shoulders and held the older woman’s gaze. “Well, seeing as how it hasn’t been customary for me to need assistance in bathing and dressing since I was a toddler, you’ll just have to make an exception.”
“Now, Lady Kendra, will we have a problem?”
“No, because you will both find something to do and leave me to my business.”
Both women glared at each other silently for a moment. The older woman blinked twice, nostrils flaring slightly, but she made no other sign of dissension.
“As you wish, milady,” she replied and the servants hurried out of the room.
Isabel snorted, shaking her head while she stripped out of her clothes and sank beneath the silky suds. Even the temperature of the water was perfect. The confrontation reminded her of her start at the country club. She had interned at an affiliate club in upstate NY her senior year of college, and the owner had been so impressed with her drive and ingenuity that upon graduation he’d hired her as a sous chef for his club in Fort Lee. Of course her being young and fresh out of college, Isabel knew she would have her work cut out for her but she was never one to shrink from a challenge.
The executive chef had died suddenly so the prior sous chef had stepped into the role. Isabel quickly discovered how inept the man was at his job, often arriving late or drunk, ordering the wrong items or quantities for inventory and accepting deliveries that were subpar, to say the least. This often led to a scramble in the kitchen to minimize the damage, while trying to present dishes of the highest quality. More than once Isabel found herself having to take up the slack whenever the executive chef was unavailable or simply unconscious, and the owner of the club soon elevated Isabel to the executive chef position.
If Isabel thought she had a fight on her hands before, she was sorely mistaken for the real battle was about to begin. She often found herself squaring off with someone. The vendors didn’t take her seriously because she was a young woman and they were used to pulling stunts with her predecessors. Members of her own staff resented her for jumping ahead in seniority because she held a fancy piece of paper. Yet however hard her opposition pushed, Isabel pushed right back. She had grown up watching her mother struggle against ignorance and prejudice. Leticia was the first female bus driver in the district. She fought against landlords who didn’t want any “dirty spics” in their neighborhood or building and people who saw the single mother as an easy target quickly discovered their error.
Like her mother, Isabel would go home and cry her heart out at the injustice and stupidity of others. She might bang and throw things in frustration at home but in the morning she would head out for another day of battle determined as ever. Instead of running to her boss, Isabel shook up the kitchen enough to scatter bad vendors and troublesome members of staff alike. No, Isabel was not one to be intimidated, not by an enraged mallet-wielding butcher and especially not by some uppity palace servant.
The younger servant girl returned with a fluffy towel, which she handed to Isabel as she stepped out of the tub. The older woman stood by a vanity lined with combs, brushes and pins and on the bed laid a beautiful silk gown.
“Ladies, I thought I made it clear your assistance wasn’t needed.”
The older woman bristled but the younger servant quickly responded, “Milady, your gown will be very difficult to put on without assistance and the Dowager Empress insisted I do your hair.”
Isabel noticed the intricate braiding on the young girl’s head. “Will you do my hair like yours?”
“Better!” The girl beamed.
Isabel sighed. “Alright, let’s do this then.”
Isabel could see why the Dowager Empress had insisted the woman do her hair. She worked her magic and somehow managed to tame her mass of curls into an intricately woven tapestry of braids. The gown they helped her slip into was impossibly silky and delicate. It hung off the shoulder, framing her ample bosom, with sleeves of lace that flowed just to the elbow. Her bodice and long flowing skirt was a swirl of lavender, soft pinks and pastel blues. When presented with a mirror, Isabel could hardly believe her eyes. If not for the dragon pendant resting in her cleavage, she would never have recognized herself; she was a goddess! She warily stepped into a pair of azure colored glass slippers the servants had readied for her and was surprised to find they felt just like regular dress shoes. She hoped she wouldn’t forget herself and accidentally bash them against something during the night.
She was escorted to a large plush room that had been decked out in beautiful tapestries that told stories of damsels in distress, men riding into battle, and the destruction of ferocious demons and monsters. There were also large portraits of elegantly dressed men, women and children. Isabel guessed this was the history of Lothiari and hoped she would have the chance to study them in more detail before returning home. The high ceiling revealed a night sky chocked with more stars than she had ever seen in her life. The marble floor had been polished to a magnificent shine that reflected the stars so that Isabel felt like she was floating on air instead of standing in a room of the palace. A few elderly men and women, decked out in glittering jewels and finery, had already gathered at the other end of the room and chatted quietly while sipping from crystal goblets. Isabel saw Nancy standing among them looking uncomfortable but lovely. Her long auburn locks had been brushed until they glimmered and braided down her back. On her brow rested a circlet of gold with an emerald in the center. The top of her jade gown crossed at the breast and flowed loosely to her feet and at the arms. A choker of gold, from which tiny emeralds dangled, was clasped to her throat and soft golden slippers were placed on her feet. Nancy glanced over at Isabel and both girls giggled as they realized how out of place the other felt in such a grand environment.
Movement caught Isabel’s attention and she shifted her gaze to find the handsome prince of Lothiari approaching. Once again she had to steady herself against the wave of desire that swept through her. Somehow Prince Alaric looked even more magnificent than he had earlier in the day. His ebony hair was swept back beneath the ringlet of silver that rested on his brow and he wore a blue doublet that brought out his eyes, edged with a row of sterling silver buttons. At his waist a silver ornamental sword with an elaborately adorned handle was strapped on with polished leather and his black trousers were tucked at the knee into a pair of shiny leather boots.
“Welcome Lady Isabel.” He greeted her, his twinkling eyes and warm smile setting off those damned butterflies again. “You look lovely this evening.”
He offered her his arm and escorted her back to where the other guests waited, all eyes watching.
“I’m a bit nervous, your highness,” She whispered as they approached. “I’m not used to being around royalty.”
Crap! Why did I just tell him that?
“You will do just fine.” He whispered back, squeezing her hand in his, it was large and warm. “Just be yourself.”
The prince was right. As he escorted Isabel around the room she silently thanked her mother for making her take deportment lessons as a child. Growing up in a garden apartment, Isabel never did understand why her mother had insisted on those lessons. Now, suddenly, it made sense.
The sound of a large crystal bell chimed, silencing the room as the crowd parted to make way for the royal procession. Approaching was the Dowager Empress in a white flowing gown dusted with gold and a crystal tiara nestled in her snowy hair. Just behind her was the King of Abiloth elegantly dressed in shimmering robes of layered multicolored gemstones. His snowy beard was combed and adorned with a gold ring and a large golden bejeweled crown sat upon his head. In his hand he grasped a golden staff twice his height and topped with a large ruby. Beside him walked a dainty little dwarf with sunny hair that flowed down her back beneath a hennin draped with lace. Her satin gown matched her pale blue eyes and was sweetly adorned with lace and pearls. Tucked into her bodice was a beautiful blue rose and her pink rosebud mouth formed a smile as she gazed upon the crowd.
Behind them came Princess Nerissa in a long shimmering celadon gown covered in crushed emeralds with a golden crown on her brow. Beside her Zenaida was clad in flowing deep green robes with an emerald bindi on her forehead. Her silver hair was plaited down her back in the same fashion as Nancy’s.
“Lords and Ladies of the Realm,” the Dowager Empress began, “Today we bear witness to the restoration of the crown and the strengthening of the Crystal Palace Alliance. Valeska, princess and heir to the Kingdom of Rune, we here in Lothiari welcome you!”
The room erupted in applause as Ilythia beckoned Nancy forward. Her heart was in her throat as she stepped into the path that had been cleared for the procession. Standing before the Dowager Empress, Nancy gave a curtsy that would have made her mother beam with pride.
Ilythia smiled and nodded in return then gestured to the side. “Make way for Nerissa, Princess Regent of Rune.”
Nancy’s cousin stepped forward as did King Jarek and the pretty dwarf at his side. He bid the cousins to kneel, then touched the tip of his staff to the emerald resting on Nancy’s forehead, causing it to glow warmly against her skin.
“Lords and Ladies of the Realm,” the Dowager Empress called, “bear witness now the passing of the crown, the restoration of power, from Princess Regent to rightful heir.”
King Jarek removed the circlet from Nancy’s head, handing it to the pretty dwarf. He then removed the crown from Nerissa’s head and sat the heavy object on Nancy’s head with a kiss to the emerald on her forehead. Finally, he took the circlet and placed it on Nerissa’s brow before stepping back again. The king bid the ladies to rise and as Nancy turned to the crowd he and the Dowager Empress declared in unison, “Lords and Ladies of the Realm, on behalf of the Kingdom of Rune and the Crystal Palace Alliance, I give you Queen Valeska!”
Cries of “long live the Queen” rose up accompanied by cheers.