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Chapter 30: On a Scale of One to Twenty

Jordan


My parents were waiting for me in the hall when Kurrum led me out of the council meeting room. The sight of them brought an instant wave of relief—I hadn’t realized how badly I’d needed a familiar face until that moment.


The other council members took their leave, heading off to complete various preparations for tonight’s ceremony.


“We’ve just sent a report to the Hub,” my mother said as she and my father walked toward me. “They’re locking down, and I wanted to let them know how things were going here. How are you holding up?” she asked, smoothing my hair.


The gesture made me feel like a child, which probably wasn’t good for my king image, but I couldn’t bring myself to pull away. I gave her a shaky smile. “Good. Fine. Well—I mean, okay, considering.”


She studied my face with an expression of understanding. “It’s a lot to take on at your age, but you’re doing great, Jordan.”


My father stepped up behind her, nodding. “You’re doing amazingly well. I’m proud of you, son.”


Tears pressed behind my eyes. Did kings cry? I supposed they did, but crying on my coronation day would not be the best start toward inspiring my people’s trust. I blinked the tears back and forced a smile. “Thank you. I’m trying.”


Kurrum cleared his throat. “Forgive me, Your Highness, but time is of the essence right now.”


“Yes, of course.” I turned to him, smoothing my shirt. I was still wearing the spare clothes my parents had brought for me in their travel bag, which I’d changed into during the hours Ayla had been unconscious. They were the long-sleeved fitted shirt, leather pants, and leather vest of a LeyGuard in training—not the clothes of a king—but at least my parents hadn’t insisted I wear the protective armor plating over them.


The thought of walking through the palace, dressed as I was, made me question how my people would view me. They already knew I was only seventeen, but if they knew I was still a trainee, would that undermine their confidence in me? Then again, I couldn’t be other than what I was, and how would the Teoinyrians know what the LeyGuard clothes meant? I was starting to second-guess everything. I drew a shaky breath. “Lead the way.”


Kurrum led us through several increasingly ornate palace corridors, until we finally rounded the corner into a lavishly furnished hall which dead-ended into massive, arched, double doors made of a dark wood that had been polished until it shone. An intricate carving of a forest scene with some antlered animals that resembled deer covered both doors. Two uniformed palace workers, wearing matching hunter-green tunics and dark breeches with polished brown boots, stood on either side of the entrance to the hall, and two more stood on either side of the doorway.


“The king’s private chambers,” Kurrum said, leading us down the hall. “Beirthyr chose to use the easy-access royal suites on a lower floor rather than these, thank goodness.”


In other words, these were the chambers which had last belonged to my father. The weight of that settled over me as I followed behind Kurrum.


The uniformed workers pulled open the doors when we reached them.


My jaw nearly dropped open at what awaited me inside. The chambers were every bit as fancy as I had expected the king’s personal chambers to be, with polished wood floors accented with thick, colorful rugs; an ornate, four-poster bed covered in lavish curtains; a sitting area with plush furniture next to a crackling fireplace; and a massive, bronze-framed window that covered almost an entire wall, revealing a breathtaking view of the sunlit, rolling hills of Teionyr below. A large, claw-footed bronze tub was planted to one side of the room, full of steaming water and giving off vapors that smelled like an entire herb garden in bloom. But the truly shocking feature was the people—more than a dozen of them, all stationed in various places around the room, and all staring at me.


“So many…” I whispered. Were they all here to watch me take a bath? Any other words I might have said in soon-to-be-kingly greeting escaped from my head. I just stood, gaping at them, like a deer in headlights.


“Is the room not to your liking, Your Highness?” Kurrum asked, staring at me in concern. “Would you prefer—”


I waved my hands frantically. “No, no, it’s… it’s lovely.” My face flooded with heat, but at least my words were working again. I glanced at my parents in desperation, though what they could do to help me at this point was anyone’s guess.


My father stepped up next to me, then looked at Kurrum. “Is there… uh… something he’s meant to do next?”


“Oh, right, of course!” Kurrum’s discomfort melted. “Right this way, Your Highness. Your dressing chambers are just through that door.” He gestured to a door on the far wall that I hadn’t even noticed… because there had been at least five people standing in front of it. “There is a ceremonial robe inside,” he continued. “You’ll know the one; it’s set out for you. You can leave your current clothes on the floor. You won’t be needing them again tonight. One of your attendants will take them to the laundress after you’ve bathed.”


I had that same feeling of massive discomfort I got when the LeyGuard doctors sent me for a massage and I was put in a room with only a robe and a sheet-covered massage table, unsure how much of my clothes I was expected to take off or leave on before the masseuse arrived. I turned to Kurrum, trying to keep my voice low, though with how intently the palace workers were watching us, they were sure to hear anyway. “Do I just… undress, then come out in a robe and get into the bath? With all of them here?”


Kurrum’s eyes widened. “Oh! No, Your Highness—they are all here for you to instruct, in case there are any comforts you wish them to retrieve or tasks you wish done. They await your commands, but if there is nothing you need, they will leave before you bathe. I mean, unless you wish for some of them to remain in case you need something, though they will avert their eyes if so.”


I breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh. Alright.” I glanced around, but decided I’d made things awkward enough and it was time I just address the people in the room directly. I raised my voice. “Thank you all for coming. I’m… not sure what I might need. Honestly, I’m relying on all of you to help me get through this.” A nervous laugh escaped me. “But if all I need to do right now is take a bath, I believe I can manage that.” The mood in the room was intensely awkward, all of them staring at me like they were hanging on every word. “I… uh, I mean…I’ll need someone here to tell me what I need to do after the bath. So maybe one or two of you could stay outside the room? You can decide who. But the rest of you can lea—I mean, thank you very much for being here, for being willing to help me, but you’re… you’re free to go.”


It was probably the most awkward speech in the history of new king speeches, but… it had its desired effect. The palace workers all hurried from the room, some with rushed curtsies or bows but all avoiding eye contact with me.


As the last one slipped out and shut the door, I groaned. I imagined they’d be talking about that disaster for a while to come.


Kurrum turned toward me, biting his lip in a way that almost looked like he was attempting not to laugh. “Very well, Your Highness. Now, if you don’t need me for anything else?”


I glanced at the tub. “How long should I—I mean, you said this is a ceremonial bath. Is there a certain period of time I’m meant to stay in it?” The bath looked relaxing, and I could definitely use a moment alone to think, but he’d also said we were in a time crunch.


“Until the water cools, Your Highness,” he said with a kind smile. “At least, that’s customary. When you’re finished, just put the robe back on and call for one of the attendants. They’ll bring in your clothes for the ceremony.”


I nodded. “Thank you.”


He headed for the door, then turned back as though remembering something. “After you’re bathed and dressed, you’ll be expected to give a brief greeting to the palace workers in the great hall. No formal speech is expected, just an official introduction of yourself to your closest staff, before you’re presented to the public. You can keep it casual. It will be the same attendees who were in here today, along with the rest of the palace staff. Perhaps four dozen people?”


Right. Just the same people I’d humiliated myself in front of, plus three dozen of their coworkers who were sure to have heard about it by then. Perfect. I swallowed. “Okay.”


Kurrum met my nervous gaze. “You need not fear your own people, My King. We all understand you are new to our customs. It is strange for all of us, but… the Teionyrian people are a good-hearted people, and kinder than you might think.”


Something tightened deep in my chest. “Thank you, Kurrum.”


He smiled warmly, then slipped out and shut the doors behind him.


I turned to my parents. “On a scale of one to twenty, how disastrous was that?”


They both chuckled.


“A five, perhaps?” my dad said, grinning. “But don’t let it bother you. You’re learning. No one expects you to act like a seasoned king on your first day.”


That was the problem, though—the Teionyrians deserved a seasoned king. I had no clue what I was doing.


I felt a hot ache in the back of my throat again, but I swallowed it down. “I'm going to put on the robe.” I headed for the dressing room door before my parents could notice how much I was struggling. It would only make them worry, and there wasn’t anything they could do about it. They couldn’t be king for me, and they couldn’t help with much else, either, other than just being there for me, for which I was immensely grateful. But none of us knew Teionyrian customs well enough to get through this without me feeling like an idiot. I was adrift, a lone plank from a shipwreck, bobbing in a sea of Teionyrian expectations and kingly responsibilities. How was I ever going to do this on my own? With everything familiar hundreds of miles or even worlds away? Even with my parents here, I still just felt so… alone.


I had a sudden, intense, aching need to speak to Ayla. Just to hear her voice, to know that she was still there—even if she wasn’t here.


“I—” My parents knew I had the runestone Maddox had given me, but no one else was supposed to know and for all I knew, a palace worker might walk in at any minute. I pulled the stone out of my pocket, then backed toward the changing room door. “I’m just going to…”


My mom smiled when she noticed the stone. “Oh, that’s a wonderful idea. You’ll need to keep it brief, but I’m sure speaking with her will make you feel better.” She grabbed my dad’s arm.


He nodded. “You’ll want your privacy for the bath, anyway. We’ll wait out in the corridor, but we’re just on the other side of that door if you need us.”


They slipped out and I sank against the changing room door in relief, then opened it and stepped into the room itself for good measure. No sense standing out in the open where anyone might walk in.


The changing room was lit by sconces and was about the size of a large walk-in closet, with plush carpet, a rod hung with clothes at one end, and a large, gold-framed, full-length mirror on the wall. A cushioned bench stood in the center of the room, with a dark red, gold-embroidered, velvety looking robe laid out on it. A robe fit for a king.


I sighed, then pressed my thumb to the stone. It lit with a warm hum. “Please answer,” I whispered, then I waited.


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