“Announcing Lord Argyne and Lady Areeth, high Cheiftains of the House of Coyotes, and their son, Aarn.”
It seemed they were the fiftieth family that morning. The palace’s throne room was filling up with nobles, but slowly. In twos and threes, the scattered nobility of Berasia marched down the thick blue carpet as if they were meeting the King at the altar. King Grare and the Princess Aileen inclined their heads graciously to each visitor, but to Ameryn, it seemed that the both of them might as well be nodding off.
The King’s Wolf was stretched out at his feet, panting and watching the nobles walk by without so much as a flop of his tail. Aileen’s Fox had fallen asleep in her lap an hour ago, and was now twitching its great ears, hunting in its dreams.
Ameryn watched the eyes of the regally garbed royals as they walked by. Part of her job as the princess’s Guardian was using the most peculiar of what the king called her “special skills”: determining which ones were trustworthy, and which were not. The Coyote family seemed harmless enough—their son radiated no ill-will, and seemed, Ameryn thought with a smirk, a bit simple-minded. If Aileen went after that one, she would have a thing or two to say about it, but she could tell that these three would be no threat.
Every family followed the same pattern on their journey from the arched throne room entrance to the foot of the throne. They walked stiffly, the air around them humming with nervousness, their eyes fixed on the king and the princess. At least, the older ones did. Their sons and daughters—thus far unaccustomed to the halls of the king—had never seen the Guardian before. She caught every one of their furtive glances in her direction, each fearful peek a pinprick on her consciousness. No one ever saw her face—oh no, that would be too horrible. What they saw was a shapeless grey-robed figure wearing a brightly burnished wolf mask, its mouth gaping, hungry. That was fearsome enough. Ameryn smelled their collective fear—even their Beasts seemed to be walking toward her with hesitation.
The King and Ameryn had cultivated this fear in the hearts of Berasians for the last decade. Fear for the Princess’s Guardian meant no one would dare touch the princess. The rumors flew across the country—indeed, they were in the whispers of the throne room at that very moment. Some said she had horns and long fangs. Others said she had long claws on her hands and feet. But the most fearsome things of all was, of course, her lack of a Beast.
Every citizen had a Beast, which served both an animal that answered their family’s call and a symbol of the family itself. The King had his Wolf, the Princess had her Fox—other human families had Bulldogs and Dingos and Mastiffs. The High Sprites had Squirrels and Rats and Ferrets. The Low Sprites had Sparrows and Finches and Skylarks. In Berasia, you either had a Beast or you were one.
Ameryn had no Beast. She had no family, no race, and no name. In the people’s eyes, she was a monster.
Ameryn watched the fear flit through the eyes of suitor after suitor as they walked past her. She smiled grimly under the cover of her metal mask. If I must be a monster to keep the princess safe, she thought, then so be it.