The Royal palace stood at the center of the Capital, surrounded by a gilded fence of wrought iron rods, twisted and woven into depictions of the glorious past. The gate itself, as tall and wide as a house, was a portrayal of the Battle of Glory Hills, where King Adalbert the Great had earned the throne for himself and for his family, for generations to come. Toadmila had hoped that the gate was as far as she needed to accompany the prince. She didn't want to go inside and risk running into Lefroy, so he could rub his new title in her face, the title she had coveted, worked for, studied for. But Prince Gilbert had other plans. First, he took her to the stables, then he grabbed her hand and dragged her off her broom and into a dim corridor that seemed to run the length of the entire palace.
“This is my secret shortcut,” he whispered, pulling her closer so that the sound of his voice could reach her.
Toadmila wanted to point out that the corridor was rather long to be called a shortcut, but he didn't give her time to speak, dragging her faster towards a dim light up ahead. He stopped in front of a tapestry. Bright light pierced through the fabric in a million golden needles that danced on his face and in his hair, like fireflies. He raised a finger to his lips to keep her quiet. He finally let go of her hand, and reached for the edge of the tapestry, pulling it only by an inch, so she could see on the other side.
Light flooded the corridor. When her eyes adjusted, Toadmila could see a great hall, tall and wide, supported by pillars of green marble and lit by hundreds of candles. Close, to her right, there was a large wooden throne, with its back turned to her. In front of her, rows of guards dressed in tunics of red and gold, stood motionless like statues. Further still, among the pillars, courtiers in brightly colored clothes, gathered to talk in low whispers. Gilbert leaned closer, his face nearly touching her hair, and pointed at a lonely figure dressed in black velvet trimmed with gold.
“That's Cousin Julian. He gets to inherit the throne if Father dies and if I die without heirs.”
Cousin Julian looked older than the prince. His dark hair had not begun to turn white, but there were deep lines in the corner of his dark eyes.
“Father says that he's old beyond his years,” Gilbert whispered, “But I think he just looks old. He's the son of Father's younger brother, but he's older than me. Father says it's a good thing his brother hurried to have a son, but not so good that he also hurried to die.”
Toadmila's eyes drifted away from Julian, and stopped on a familiar face, a chubby little man, older than Julian, standing proudly in his puffed up clothes of green and gold. His light brown hair was thinner than she remembered it, and his beady eyes seemed smaller, but Toadmila recognized in him the benefactor of her old orphanage, the unnamed nobleman who brought money for the sisters and who sometimes took orphans home to raise them as servants. To give them a better life, the sisters said.
“And that's Uncle Frederick,” Gilbert said, following her gaze. “He's Father's cousin.”
“And when does he get to inherit the throne?” Toadmila asked, sizing up the little man.
“Never,” Gilbert answered.
“He looks like he's going to inherit it,” Toadmila noticed, pointing at the man's double chin, proudly raised almost in defiance of the throne and of the King who must have been sitting there.
“Well, if Father dies and I die without heirs and Julian dies without heirs, then he gets the throne,” Gilbert answered with a shrug. “But that's not going to happen.”