“My lady, a visitor.”
Enilor looked up at the uniformed manservant that held the door open before her. She snorted, almost derisively, and reached up to whack him lightly on the knee—the easiest part of him to hit at her height.
“Visitor! Tush, I’m more than a visitor. I’m practically family.” The boy looked down at her, eyebrows raised in obvious doubt. She squinted up at him, wrinkling her furry nose disapprovingly. “You’re new, aren’t you?”
“In the future, young man,” said a voice by the room’s fireplace, “You’ll find it in your best interest to announce her by her title.” Enilor looked to see Ameryn smiling from her seat by the fire, her dark eyes glowing with barely hidden mirth. “Lady Enilor, Otterling Chieftess of the Southeastern Hills. Remember that.”
“Yes, your majesty.” The boy looked pale. Ameryn waved him away with a good natured smile.
“Don’t worry about it, boy. You are new.”
He bowed out as Enilor lunged forward into the room on all fours, bounding forward in the way only Otterlings can. The tall Magmerian lady rose slowly from her chair, hardly in time to catch the blur of brown fur and rustling fabric that lunged into her white arms.
“It’s been too long,” she said.
“I’ll say,” Enilor replied, looking up at Ameryn’s face. Ameryn was of the Aetar—pointed ears, pale skin, and all—and therefore presumably ageless. But there were creases at the corners of her eyes and smile, and it seemed to Enilor that the queen’s strong features had faded into a kind of wintery frailty. Enilor’s own brown muzzle was flecked with grey, as were the roots of her hair and the tips of her pawlike hands. She saw Ameryn’s eyes flick over her face, and knew that the queen’s analysis was the same as her own. They were older—much older than they were when their friendship began.
They all were.
“How is Jacoby?” Ameryn asked, lowering herself back into her chair. Enilor saw her hand rested gently on that spot on her left rib. She returned her gaze to Ameryn’s face, still smiling.
“Well as ever,” Enilor answered. “He’s on the annual excursion through the piedmont provinces. Shaking paws with important people, attending christenings, overseeing new road construction. Same as ever, same as ever. I ran into his highness downstairs,” she added with a mischievous smile. “He seemed well. Hasn’t aged a day, the rascal.”
“Careful, my dear. He’s the king, you know.” But Ameryn was still smiling. Enilor could’ve sworn she was blushing, too.
“Neither of you have,” Enilor continued, nestling herself on the hearth, arranging her capacious robes around her. “It’s unfair. I’m not in half as good the shape I used to be in.”
“You’ve also had far more than just one daughter,” Ameryn said. “Nine children later, you’ve every right not to be as energetic as you used to be.”
Enilor let out a laugh that seemed unbefitting her age, or the stately, stony halls of the palace at Kharador. “My wild ones!” she cried. “What would I do without them?”
Ameryn sat up straighter in her seat and made a show of looking about furtively. “They’re—they’re not here are they? I didn’t tell the servants they’d need to put away the breakables!”
“Ha! They may be wild, but you know perfectly well they’ve never broken anything on any of our visits.”
“Except that one vase—”
“You always said you hated that vase.”
Before long they were both laughing so loudly that the chambermaids tiptoed up the stairs from the palace kitchen just to see what the commotion was. But any servant who had been there for longer than a year knew that the noise was business as usual when Lady Enilor came to call.