Undraland, page 21
I could smell something beefy wafting in from the kitchen area. Despite how much I’d consumed last night, I was ravenous. My mom used to comment that each new day was a challenge to Linus and me to see if we could consume an entire hippopotamus. She was not wrong.
I cast around for something to say during the next lull. It was hard to tell when there was a lull, since the king and queen seemed perfectly content just sitting and staring at me. I straightened the gold and pale blue gown Uncle Rick gave me to wear. It was so fancy, I was afraid to move around too much in it. “That’s a lovely painting,” I said of the portrait of an elf, a huge golden boar and a guy with a funny little hat like Jamie’s. They were all fighting against a giant bald janky-toothed man with black bark-like skin and red marks peppering his body. He looked like a comic book monster villain.
“Ah,” said the king. “That’s from back when King Johannes and I got along. Though Jamie’s always welcome in my kingdom.” He nodded his head to Jamie, who smiled kindly.
“You’ve always known what was important in running your kingdom. Father’s forgotten that, but I have not.” Jamie made it clear that his affiliations with the rest of Undraland were not his childish father’s.
There was another traffic jam worth of pausing, so I searched for something else. “What can you tell me about the artist who painted that?”
There we go. Look at me, conversationalist extraordinaire. The two rattled off various facts about Oden the Meticulous.
“I suppose if you’re going to be labeled as meticulous, painting’s a good profession to get into,” I commented. It was as if I’d told the first joke that ever was. The two laughed like they’d never had occasion to before. Even Kristoffer’s professional demeanor cracked at my “hilarious” wit.
When that reached a head, Jens flicked my ear, reminding me to be charming. I smiled. “I know so little about your world. Can you tell me about Prince Jamie? He’s been too humble to say much about himself.”
Jamie gave me a modest smile from his seat next to mine as the king spoke. “Jamie comes from a long line of Tonttu Tomten. He’s the third born and chose to live amongst the people instead of above them at his proper place.”
It was hard to tell if King Hallamar admired Jamie or was scolding him.
The queen chimed in, her voice low-pitched like a sexy jazz singer. “Are you not betrothed to Freya of the Nisse? I can only imagine the good that will do your region.” She turned to explain what was common knowledge to me. “There are three Tomten tribes with three kings who do their best to rule together, but separate. Jamie’s Tonttu tribe is known for farming. King Gunnar’s tribe to the North handles the upkeep of the cities. Then the Nisse tribe looks after day-to-day commerce.”
Though he sat with perfect posture, Jamie was at ease in the overly formal room as he spoke to me. “My father’s tribe is seen as being of lowest value, since we don’t protect or trade in anything other than food. However, our warrior Jens the Brave changed public opinion when we had a mess of trolls no one could get rid of. Even the Nisse’s best men were slaughtered in a failed attempt, but Jens went out and destroyed the beasts single-handedly. Our tribe has been seen to be of greater value since then.”
Queen Sorena sipped her tea. “How is Jens these days? I know of eleven petitions in my immediate circle for women that wanted him as their Tomten.”
I was about to say, “Why don’t you ask him? He’s standing right behind me,” but Jamie shook his head infinitesimally. I was kind of shocked and impressed that the guy who guarded my family was in such high demand. I made a mental note to stop firing him.
Jamie answered for Jens. “Jens is well. He works for Queen Lucy, which is why she’s been so well protected. He fended off an attack of Weres recently. Pesta must’ve forgotten to use the peaceful souls, and filled the bears with horrific ones again.” His tone was light, like chiding a well-meaning two-year-old, but I saw his steel cutting with the kindness. “It’s rumored Jens fought off a pack of Weredogs, too.”
King Hallamar laughed at what he assumed was a joke. “Oh, you know how the gossip spreads. Weredogs. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”
I looked the king dead in the eye and watched his merry expression die. “There were three Weredogs. They were sent by Pesta to attack me, and Jens ripped them apart with his bare hands.” I dared Hallamar with my eyes to question that. “I don’t rely on gossip, either, which is why I’m grateful I saw Jens do it with my own two eyes. I had to leave my world because Pesta was closing in on me. She’s getting desperate, which is why she resorted to Weredogs. There aren’t many bears in the area I was living in.”
Jamie closed his eyes as if I’d just dropped a precious china cup on the floor. I felt the hand of my guardian gnome on my shoulder and shut my mouth.
Jamie popped in with a “delightful” little conversation changer that somehow spun me as a nature-loving loyalist to whatever it is they stood for. Something about the wisdom of elves. I kind of stopped paying attention when we hit hour four, and there was still no food to speak of.
What I wouldn’t give for Tonya and her hot dog casserole right now.
Tonya. I wondered if my alleged death sent her into Danny’s arms. Good for him. Though, she could do better.
The gold and glass double doors behind the Queen opened, and I almost salivated at the thought that I might be fed soon. Someone in an official-looking uniform entered, summoning Kristoffer and the king out into the hallway so they could speak in private.
“Is something the matter?” Jamie inquired politely, setting down his teacup on the narrow glass table in front of him. His acting was flawless, like he was bred for pleasantries laced with deception.
“I can’t imagine there would be.” The Queen glanced over her shoulder to see her husband speaking in hushed urgency with Kristoffer and the guard in the hallway.
Jamie spoke for me, since I was not sure how to play in his game. “Queen Lucy usually travels in secret to keep Pesta from finding her location. She is of utmost importance to her kingdom. Pesta is angry Queen Lucy won’t let her build a portal to Be in her land, so she has sent Weres to attack her several times.”
My spine straightened at the lie that I somehow had a vote in what Pesta did.
Queen Sorena appeared troubled, but I could smell a self-soothing lie coming. “Werebears are peaceful. Pesta only sends the best souls to inhabit her creatures. You get the occasional fluke, but on the whole…”
Jamie’s face was solemn. “That is not the case on the Other Side. Pesta has no treaty with Queen Lucy, and she’s going about it the wrong way.”
Queen Sorena folded her long fingers in her lap. “Indeed. But Pesta has been sequestered to the Land of Be for years now. Surely there’s no need to fear her. She’s not known for targeting specific people. The palace of Elvage is a fortress.” Sorena smiled demurely at me, her posture so straight, I did not understand how she’d maintained it for four hours. “You are safe here, Queen Lucy.”
“Thank you, your majesty.”
King Hallamar came back in, his chestnut brow furrowed. “I’m afraid we’ll have to cut our visit short, your majesty.”
Oh, me. Right. “Is something the matter?”
“No, no,” he assured me a little too eagerly.
Jamie stood, offering his hand to me. “Has Pesta found her? Are there Weres spotted in the area?”
The king rubbed the back of his neck like he did not want to tell us the problem, but for my safety, he clued us in. “It’s the portal. I must see to it. One of my guards informed me that there’s been some sort of disturbance. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I must go there straight away.”
I took Jamie’s hand and stood, bowing with him when the elves bowed to us. “Is there a path you recommend we take? I have to get out quick if Pesta knows I’m here.”
Their expressions fell that I was leaving so soon. I can’t imagine I’d said one interesting thing the entire tim
Hallamar had his hand on his wife’s back. Her brown eyes clouded with concern as she spoke. “You’re leaving? We’ve only just begun to know you. I would be honored if you stayed longer. I could show you more of the kingdom. I’m sure the disturbance is of no import.”
I smiled at the gracious hosts. “Thank you, but I should be going. This has been great. Real nice. Thanks for tea and the company. Elvage is incredible. This gold dust you’ve got everywhere? Off the charts nuts.”
Queen Sorena lifted her heels off the ground as she spoke, hoping to catch me in a lengthy conversation to deter my leave. “It’s remnants of elfish magic. A trace left behind when large amounts are used.”
“That’s incredible,” I complimented her people. “Thanks for everything, Sorena. I hate to go, but I’m just worried Pesta will come after me. I wouldn’t want to cause drama in your beautiful land.”
Kristoffer stepped forward with his barrel chest, the need for my safety trumping his desire for me to stay. Good man. “If I may,” he said, excusing his interruption. “You should take the Fallsbury passage. This time of day, there won’t be many to slow you down.” Then he did something so embarrassing, I blushed about nine shades of red. He got down on his knee to bow to little old me. I resisted the urge to confess that my title was completely made up. I tried my best to be cool when Kristoffer took my hand and placed a kiss atop it. “I hope you find rest from the Weres, Queen Lucy the Fair.”
Queen Lucy the Fair. Well, that was adorably cute. A far sight better than Lucy Goosy.
I bowed to the elves again, and then exited on Jamie’s arm. As soon as we cleared the room, we picked up the pace.
“It won’t do to run, Miss Lucy,” Jamie instructed, donning his forced smile as he greeted a few elves who bowed to him as we passed.
“Isn’t it all about to break loose?”
“Yes, but there have been no mention of Weres, only that there was a disturbance with their portal. We don’t want to look like we have too much information, now. Do we?”
“I guess not.” I held tighter to him when four men in the guard’s uniform ran past us toward the castle. “They’re going to discover the busted portal soon, and it’ll all hit the fan. I’d like to be gone when that happens.”
Jamie looked around the sky as we walked at a pace that was too slow for my taste. He patted my hand as we strolled in the direction of the woods that were thick with knotted trees and aggressive root systems. “We will be. You played your part well. The king and queen won’t suspect you of breaking the portal. Besides, you and I were with them at the time. Perfect alibis.”
“I was pretty nervous. Things aren’t so formal back home. I’ve never met an honest to goodness queen before. Super cool.”
“What sort of aristocracy do you have?”
“My country has a president, but I’ll never even come close to meeting him. Good thing you’ll never see where I lived. Not very impressive when you compare it to kings and princes and whatnot.”
“Is that what you want? To be a princess?” His curiosity was endearing; it matched his reserved smile perfectly.
I tripped over my robes that had been hemmed to fit my shorter height. Jamie steadied me, and we continued our walk toward the woods. “Right now I’d settle for four walls that were mine. Four glorious walls that never leave me.” I sighed wistfully as I daydreamed about the simple things that were never attainable for me. “A home with a white picket fence and a garage. Maybe a little bed for Henry Mancini.” Jamie waved to an elf as we passed by a well. “And I’d sit at my kitchen table – not a kitchen nook, a real table – and do my math homework over breakfast.”
Mom could make blueberry pancakes. Dad could make a fire in my very own fireplace. Linus and I would have a pancake-eating contest, make ourselves sick, and then hold our stomachs all morning and blame the other person for our malady.
If I could dream up a home I’d never have, then I should be allowed to imagine who I’d want there with me.
I could tell Jamie was watching me as we walked into the thick tangles of trees and underbrush, so I purposefully kept my gaze straight ahead on our destination as I talked. “Extravagance is nice, but when you’ve never had the simple things, it’s kind of all you want.” I cleared my throat. “You don’t live in your dad’s palace. You chose your own house, so I bet you know what I mean.”
“I do. One day, perhaps we’ll both get what we want,” Jamie said.
I seriously doubt it. I want my family back, and you want to be with Britta. “Maybe. But can you even admit what you want?”
Judging by the pallor of his face, I could tell I’d hit too hard. His thick lips were drawn in a tight line as he lifted a low-hanging branch out of the way. “I take it Jens has been telling stories again?”
“I guessed. It’s pretty obvious. Britta’s a cool person. I can see why you’d be attracted.”
Jamie picked up his pace, taking us deeper into the forest, and cutting out a portion of the daylight from our path. We climbed over obnoxiously intrusive roots and brush. “It’s not proper for us to talk about such things.”
I gave him a withering look as I picked up the hem of my dress to keep from tripping over it. “Newsflash, you don’t have to hide anything on our little trip. We’re not actually in proper society right now. I don’t think Nik, Tor or Foss really care who you’ve got the hots for.”
“Your phrasing is very telling.” He climbed over a felled tree with a trunk as wide as a yardstick. “I’m afraid it doesn’t matter who I’ve ‘got the hots for’. My choices have been made for me.” Then in a quieter voice, he added, “But I suppose my heart is still my own. There’s no crime in wanting something.”
“No crime at all.” I tried to keep the conversation going, but the many-layered dress was not meant for climbing over felled trees. I tugged, ripping a small piece of the pretty fabric. “Ah, man! It’s like the dress knows it doesn’t belong on me, and is trying to get away to a better owner.”
Jamie bent down and wiggled the torn off piece free from the root it snagged on. “I don’t like the idea of leaving a trail for the Mouthpiece to follow.”
“The Mouthpiece. Pesta’s mouthpiece? You know, the Undran Pesta sends her soul into when she wants to move around outside the Land of Be?”
I pointed to my blank expression. “I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.” Then I snapped my fingers in time with the click that happened in my brain. “Wait, I remember. Yeah, yeah. The dude who’s not really a dude, but acts like a puppet for Pesta to operate. Go on. I’m paying attention.”
Jamie searched around for any other part of me I might be leaving behind before he continued on our journey. “Pesta can’t leave Be. That’s part of the agreement, but she figured out how to send her soul out into Undra. So she’s technically not breaking the treaty because her body’s still in Be. Father was not pleased about that. Neither were the Fossegrimens or pretty much anyone in Undraland.” He shook his head, offering his hand to me to assist me over an uneven surface. “She chooses someone who’s weak, and they let her in. For all intents and purposes, she becomes them.”
“Um, what? And you guys allow that? What’s the point of pretending she’s chained to Be, then?”
Jamie answered my blunt question with kindness. “The Mouthpiece has none of her powers. They can barely access their own. All the same, I’d rather the Mouthpiece not find you if she’s already sent Weres out for you.” He dropped my hand so I could pick up my long dress and jump over a protruding root. “Alrik was smart to declare your presence among the Elves so loudly, holding a conference with you as the special guest. The Mouthpiece wouldn’t dare a
I clasped my hands together under my chin. “Aw! You belove me? I belove you, too.”
Jamie laughed, confused but amused at my humor. “That’s quite an honor. Thank you, Miss Lucy.” He laughed a couple more times at random as we walked. “Hallamar and Sorena took a shine to you, which helps deter any uprising the Mouthpiece might try to start against you in Elvage.” He gave me an approving look. “You did quite well back there.”
“Thanks. Who’s the Mouthpiece? Does it change whenever she gets bored?”
Jamie shook his head. “No. Once she’s in a body, her soul’s chained to it until they die. If Mouthpiece vessels started dropping all over the place, no one would let her in again. It would be bad for her plan to leave a body under suspicious circumstances.” He scratched his chin as an orange bird the size of a puma flew overhead. “The vessel is a Fossegrimen named Rasmus. I know what he looks like, so you needn’t fear. I’ll make sure we aren’t followed.” He tugged on my hand. “Up and over this one. Do you need help?”
“Man, your world’s confusing.” I sized up the felled tree in our path. “I think I’ve got this.” I put my hands up as high as they could reach, but I was still a few inches shy of spanning the width of the horizontal trunk. No sooner did I get a solid footing than two strong hands gripped my waist. I shrieked as I was lifted off the ground. “Jens!” I cried when his face appeared.
“Forget about me? I’ve been with you the whole time.”
“Oh, sorry. I guess I did. I’m not used to the whole invisibility thing.” I mentally ran over everything Jamie and I had talked about and ruled with relief that none of it would be embarrassing if he heard it.
The fact that I could not pick and choose what Jens was around for hit me all at once. I’m sure it should have much earlier, but I was dealing with a lot of new stuff flying at me, so the obvious stuff kinda slipped under the rug. “You were with my family for five years, right?”