Tuesday 5 December 2023

A Christmas Toast by Jennifer Leigh Kiefer, sugar cookie latte

The tree was lit, hung with hundreds of sparkling ornaments, and topped with a shining silver star.  Every wall, nook, and cranny featured candles burning brightly in their wreaths of holly.  A new chandelier hung no more than a few hours ago brought the room from a soft glow to a bright light.

The room wasn’t the only thing that had brightened considerably for this evening’s festivities. The adults toasted with full wine glasses and all of us danced, even to the most annoying Christmas songs.  It had been so long since I last danced, and I couldn’t help enjoying the way the crystals beaded into my silver dress sent rainbows flying across the walls as I twirled through the room.  More light.  The carefully crafted theme of the evening.

            “Joy to the world,” my younger brother, Anton, sang out as the next song started.  Raz, his ever-present partner-in-crime, quickly joined in, leading him around the room in a sort of waltz. I was glad they had discarded their ceremonial swords somewhere; the young knights in training weren’t the most graceful dancers I had ever seen. They were the most fun to watch though.  This was the first time they could simply be in love without looking over their shoulders. Without waiting for one of our Father’s spies to catch on and ruin it.

            Whatever trepidation I had about what came next, at least I was finally in a position to keep Anton safe. To keep them both safe. To allow them to find their joy even if it meant I would never get to find my own.

             I’d admittedly had too many frosted cookies from the constantly circling silver trays and blamed the high amount of sugar for the abrupt wave of nausea.  I stepped off the dance floor and picked up another mug of hot chocolate as an excuse for my quick departure. It only took a moment to remember why I had been dancing in the first place, though, as I was immediately surrounded by people with questions I could not yet answer.

            “What will your policy on-?”

            “How will you change the-?”

            “Is it wise to hold the coronation before the body is cold? As much as I love the idea of a Christmas Coronation-”

            “Like a fairytale!”

            “If you mean short and glossing over a lot of important details.”

            “We all wanted him dead, does it matter how-?”

            Across the room, my aunt Claudia tapped a knife against her glass causing the conductor to immediately cut off the hastily hired string quartet.  Anton’s voice cracked beautifully as he realized there was no more music to sing to.  He hid his reddening cheeks against Raz’s chest. 

            No one else noticed though, because Aunt Claudia was stalking slowly across the room, her gold and emerald gown catching every eye as she raised her matching gold and emerald encrusted goblet, ready for a toast.  With each measured click of her heels, she ensured the attention of every member of her carefully considered guest list.  When she found the center of the room, Aunt Claudia turned and stared directly at me, her eyes drilling into mine as we each forced an easy smile. 

            “To my niece, Princess Amelia,” she started, her voice strong and steady as her sister’s had once been, as I hoped mine would soon be too. “Who on this day is a symbol of light and hope to a nation that has bled under her father’s tyranny far too long.  Who tomorrow, will help us heal and return to prosperity as she takes her rightful place as queen.”

            Everyone around us raised their glasses, but my mind was stuck on the word bled.  Why that word?  Four letters were all it took to fill my mind with images of my father’s blood, gushing out around his own sword.  Blood, running down the blade to my bare hands.  Blood, causing the blade to slip from my hands as I fell to the floor with my father.  Blood, staining my knees as I knelt by his side, as I heard his last breath.  Blood, coating my brother’s hand as he helped me off the floor and led me away. 

            But our hands and the floor had been scrubbed clean.  The marble beneath my aunt’s heels turned white as the snow we woke up to find this morning.  And Christmas candles had been quickly placed, alluding to Aunt Claudia’s confident claim that I would dispel the darkness of the reign before. 

            My aunt beckoned me forward, but I could not stand where my father had so recently bled – where I had made him bleed.  Someone took the comforting mug of hot chocolate from my hands, exchanging it for a heavy goblet.  I could smell the red wine inside and knew if I looked, I would only see blood.  But the goblet, uncomfortable in my hand, was also a reminder.  I could hear Aunt Claudia telling me it was time to act like an adult, time to act like a queen.

            I stepped forward and raised the goblet, earning a real smile from Aunt Claudia’s wine coated lips. 

            Taking that as their cue, the room broke into a chorus of voices.  “To Queen Amelia, long may she reign!” they echoed, using a title not yet mine to show their support. My aunt looked satisfied as their joy and hope settled on me like chains. 

Anton caught my eye, signaling with his glass that I had to drink first.  His free hand clutched at Raz, already worried about what could happen if I showed weakness in this moment.  In any moment. 

            I steeled myself, bringing the goblet to my mouth without taking even the smallest glance at it.  It was not blood.  My father’s blood was gone, except that which ran in my brother and in me. 

After the sweetness of hot chocolate and cookies, the wine was bitter, and my imagination convinced me it had an iron taste. Or had someone really filled my goblet with blood, hoping to reveal a chink in my armor so soon?

I swallowed. Keeping my lips covered by the goblet until I could form them into a smile. My aunt continued to watch me, simultaneously reminding me I would need to make a speech and hoping I would stutter.

I had been a fighter long before she had taught me to use a blade though. And while I had never yearned for the weight of a crown, it had been years since I promised Anton he would never have to take the throne. Never be required to take a wife he did not want.

I focused on that as I lowered the goblet.

“Thank you all for adjusting your plans so you could be here with me this evening. I hope you have all been enjoying yourselves and aren’t entirely disappointed by the change.”

There was polite laughter all around. Whether they were or not, they hadn’t come here to have fun.

“Tomorrow, I become queen,” I continued. “This is something I have been preparing for all my life. I’ve been told a million different things I will need to be a successful ruler, but my father always insisted the most important was the ability to instill fear. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to any of you. I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of you are here tonight because you didn’t know what I would do if you didn’t. To that I say, I’m sorry. I don’t want anyone to live like that, I plan to rule a different way. I plan to rule through openness and honesty. Something I learned from my mother.”

Anton was nodding, Aunt Claudia gripped her goblet a little tighter. Otherwise, there was no response. Not that I had really expected one, why should they trust me? But maybe there was one way I could convince them. Aunt Claudia would be furious.

“Of course, without action, those are just pretty words. So let me provide an example. I’m sure you are all wondering, and maybe even here in the hopes you’ll find out, exactly how our late king met his end.”

Anton stopped nodding. Aunt Claudia ever so subtly shook her head. But how long would we be able to keep the secret anyway? I wouldn’t lead through dishonesty or misdirection. My people waited for the truth with bated breath.

“Last night, my father called me to this very room. He asked everyone else to leave.” If this backfired, there was no reason to implicate my brother or Aunt Claudia. “Then he informed me of a new law he planned to announce on Christmas. This law would have devastated half the families in this kingdom. Good, hardworking people who have done nothing to deserve it. But it would make my father richer, more powerful, so he would not listen to reason. I felt helpless. But that wasn’t true. He only made me think it was. Like everyone else, he used fear to keep me from realizing the power I had all along. That power was nothing special really. I am not a master with a sword, I have yet to show any magical ability… my power was simply proximity and in that moment, I knew I would be a fool not to use it.

“I am the one who killed King Alaric, first of his name, conqueror of the seven kingdoms, vanquisher of the council of witches, feared by all. I killed him with his own sword, steps away from his own throne, and tomorrow I will wear his crown.”

Unless someone took the opportunity to challenge me. I had just confessed to treason. A few people didn’t seem surprised, having speculated that I was the most likely candidate, but most looked shocked, including Aunt Claudia. I couldn’t tell if she was shocked that I had confessed or acting to avoid being implicated as an accomplice. Anton had pulled a dagger from somewhere, but I wasn’t sure what he planned to do with it if the whole room turned on me. Raz had a hand on his arm, for once acting as the cautious one.

The silence was suffocating, I wanted to fill it with the first thing I could think of, provide some excuse for what I had done. But it had been my goal to let the people have a say, it was my responsibility to withstand any consequences that came with that choice.

It was my father’s advisor who found the courage to speak first. “To Queen Amelia, the Brave.”

A noble woman who had likely fallen on hard times given her out of fashion dress raised her glass next, “To Queen Amelia, the Fearless.”

The click of a heel alerted me to Aunt Claudia’s approach. Her face was once again a mask of calm, but this time the smile looked a little more real. As we made eye contact, she raised her goblet. “To Queen Amelia, the Defender of Justice.”

I did my best to keep the frown off my face, while I did hope to help people and make things better, I wasn’t so sure I could live up to any of these impressive titles.

Anton stepped forward, his dagger once again hidden away. He held up a mug of hot chocolate since he was too young for wine. “To Queen Amelia, the Honest”

I reached out my free hand to squeeze his, my brother always knew the right thing to say. The thing I needed to hear.

Behind him, Raz led an echo to which more people than I could have hoped for joined into.

I didn’t need any prompting to answer with another sip from my goblet, and this time I only tasted wine on my lips.


About the author 

Jennifer Leigh Kiefer (she/they) is a semi-nomadic writer and stage manager with many places they consider home. Previous work can be seen in Rat's Ass Review, Children, Churches, and Daddies and Academy of the Heart and Mind. Find her work at www.jenniferleighkiefer.com or on Instagram @jenniferleighkiefer 


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