After I lost my beloved and married a king, I vomited up mutton stew on his shoes at the first official hanging.
Who was hanged isn’t important.
What’s important is that I wasn’t breathing.
One breathes differently after breathing in freedom and then trying to breathe in captivity.
And the sight of that man’s feeble kicks while he struggled for air—as I had been struggling for it, too—proved too much.
I spewed half-digested pears and gizzards across my magnate’s burnished, buckled shoes.
He, ever mild behind his neatly trimmed beard, the powerful set of his jaw neatly expressionless, eyes as unreadable as his blandly shaped mouth, rose to his feet.
The spectators silenced. A sweep of hisses and hushes rushed from those garbed in both silk and homespun. Thousands of breaths held in time with mine, in motionless, sunlit faces.
Only the creak of the rope swinging the first executed body from the scaffold disturbed the quiet—disturbed me—while the executioner waited. His boot poised on the block beneath the next victim whose breath would be quashed.
I wiped my mouth and formed a rictus, a garish endeavor at a smile. Readjusting my knocked-crooked crown, I peered up at my new husband’s slender figure: his immaculate white hose, his bejeweled, heavily embroidered burgundy waistcoat… and vomit-spattered buckled shoes… his emptied face silhouetted against the pavilion’s striped tarp overhead.
Had I possessed my current forty-six summers behind me then, as now, I might have offered him a poisonous smirk. “Oh, darling, look. I’ve spewed a carrot on your buckle.” And to the blue hell with any consequences.
But back then, having just stepped into a royal marriage, I had no notion of how deeply I’d stepped.
How deeply I’d sunk.
I’d only begun to suspect that I no longer stood as mistress of my own autonomy.
No matter that I could expend gold to impact the lives of those unfortunates even more powerless than I, no queen chained to power can ever stray far from its whim.
At a tug on her chain, she must kneel as a supplicant before the true power on the throne, or she must spread herself submissively on her marriage bed for that true power to plow her form.
Now I’d just humiliated my monarch before all. And he—
—knelt down and lifted me up completely in his arms—his hardly breathing wife, in front of the hardly breathing populace—and he carried me away from the unbreathing man.
Any executions after that were performed out of sight, in the dungeon.
I didn’t care, as long as I never had to watch someone’s breath being taken that way again.
And I learned to breathe once more myself, eventually.
It’s a mechanical thing—the lungs’ expansion—a simple thing, and I was never weak.
Especially when a queen must never crumble—never cave—not even with the entire world incensed against her.
I am sick of it all.
I did everything right, all that they bade, and what have I to show?
No lover; no husband; no sons; just scorn.
I am beaten, spurned, unloved, used up. Filled up with sorrow.
Here in my empty room, my empty bed, my empty life taxes my every breath.
And all these wanderings on the bleak and barren moor of my despondency only lead me to search for what I had, once.
Before my marriage.
Before this prison.
Before my breath stopped.
With the boy.
The freedom—near flight—for a girl who had been as flightless as a bird with clipped wings.
Freedom, when every scent erupted to life like things precious and vivid and wild: honeyed comfits, tart cheese, bursting strawberries, the unconstrained laughter—breathing fully for the first time in my life—and the boy’s innocent, inexpert kisses blending with my own earnestly artless attempts.
And the hope.
Only once, then, did I strive to fly the boundaries of my oppressive world.
And, naturally, I ended up as such foolhardy creatures do: crumpled up in a daze of wrecked wits and things (like hopes) smashed up where the world can never see.
That’s what happens to foolish creatures with clipped wings who flee their cage.
Mindless metaphorical poultry. Winded and cracked and fractured.
I’d deserved it.
I lean from my open bedchamber window and out into the bracing night, into the swirling wind that blasts past. It stings my eyes and whips the sash around my waist as I set my elbows on the dusty sill.
Stretched out below, the First Demesne’s turrets and cupolas and cobbled streets create a scenic artistry daubed in layers of ashen monochrome.
Overhead, pennants flap on the castle’s moon-blanched towers, banners as powerless as my hair in the wind’s assault. They snap like cracking bones, reminiscent of those who crushed their dreams inside these walls of apathetically observant stone.
Even farther above, the stars leak light like injuries cut into the sky, as if some wild goddess wielded the crescent moon as a sickled blade and perforated the firmament a million times.
In the battlefield of my mind, I emulate that goddess’s rage.
I fell unfavorable thoughts like enemy warriors.
If only my king permitted me a real weapon, I would impale my own heart.
He wouldn’t notice.
He wouldn’t care.
So why does he deny me any escape?
Is it only from cruelty?
Perhaps I am cruel, too, for I shut my eyes in the girl I once was—the girl who never once entertained the thought that she might ever be queen.
Lost amid all the other noble-girls, I navigated a world of gilded mirrors, gilded smiles, and gilded lies.
We all adhered to its rigid strictures, painting our faces into formidable masks, lacing up our frailty in iron corsets, and scheming beneath teardrop chandeliers.
On the night before I almost—almost—escaped, I and other pinch-faced girls were trading caustic calumnies on an airy terrace.
Beneath aloof and unfriendly stars, we hoisted our wineglasses aloft, our giggles a-slosh with intoxication.
Our mouths as red as roses burgeoned words as sharp as thorns.
Below us scintillated lamps in the palace’s moonlit gardens, where the scents of pine and apples drifted amid the stifled mirth of faithless lovers, who were snatching ardent embraces behind the screens of foliage.
I hardly heeded their vapid laughter.
I leaned into the misting drizzle that cooled my flesh, for I overly sweated from the packed ballroom, my curled hair plastered moistly to my swanlike neck.
And I drunkenly decided that my companions’ mouths were like creatures slashed open to raw pink tongues, for their mouths all swarmed with chortles, and their skirts were rustling like legions of snakes.
Slick and slithering.
And it was then, with my mind a-brim with uncharitable thoughts, my face uplifted to the misting rain, and my gaze defying the inimical stars, that the carnival arrived.
It swept in on a nocturnal wind that whisked sand and promise and raindrops across my lips.
Within it dwelt a hint—a thread—of unfamiliar things: uninhibited hilarity and merriment and spun sugar; fried bread, crisp and hot and bursting with flavor from seasoned oils with mouthwatering spices.
For a moment, I almost—almost succumbed to the temptation.
But then, with a silent titter, I batted aside the carnival’s promise as gauche.
It was here at the castle that sumptuous dishes and lavish riches splayed themselves out for our esteem.
Here, the possibilities unspooled to infinity as the royal court inundated our senses: dizzying dances with the First Magnate’s impassive sons; perfumes jamming our breath with lilac and jasmine.
But later that night, ground down by the meaningless swaths and sounds of frivolity, I fought, fraught, in uneasy slumber.
And like an extension of those bad dreams, my mother swept grandly into my chamber.
She sought to disguise her flinty eyes by swaddling her supple limbs in silken robes of gentle pastels, but she alighted on my bed like a hawk by a dove.
She loved nothing more than to rend the flesh from my hopes. Already, she had pared them down to tendon and bone.
I didn’t bother fleeing—to what end? She controlled my life.
I straggled up, mussed and morose in my nightmare-drenched gown.
“Your father’s arranged a marriage for you,” she pronounced without preamble.
My senses went dull.
I listened as she relayed my imminent engagement to a vile, unsightly man, a man thrice my age and distantly related to the magnate of the Second Demesne.
I would be ousted from everything I knew, dispatched to a demesne where I’d never been, to belong to a man I would never want.
Her smile brimmed with schadenfreude. “Why frown, my babe?” she trilled at my deadened reaction. “Do you think anyone better than a nobody would have you? You’re taller than most men. Thin as a starved stork. Breasts as flat as runny eggs. And those eyes! So weirdly dark. Skin pallid as a lizard’s belly. And this.” Puckering her mouth, she flicked her fingernails over my almost-white hair. “So wispy, you’ll certainly go bald when you’re older.”
I mashed down my retort, because every word I spoke would become a weapon she wielded better.
At last, she left, but her schadenfreude hemmed me in, its needles sewing my burial shroud up.
Slumped in my plush bed, heartsick and bloated with the day’s cruelties, I envisioned my fate spanning the decades ahead.
Was this the life that awaited me?
Relegated to a minor nobleman’s wife, in a different demesne, with the same indifferent people, only they’d have different names.
My obedience to duty would become a changeling at my breast: a maddened creature sharp of tooth and dark of eye, my rancor fused with my sinew and bone.
I would become as bitterly virulent as my mother: a vinegar-sour purse of lips, a curdling of gimlet eye.
I would pucker up like a mouth as dark as blood.
I wanted out, to gnash my way from this pomp and glory’s noose.
But my fate was closing around me like a circle of foes.
And then, through the open window, the carnival’s hint of forbidden adventure skimmed its invitation past me once more.
It thumbed its nose at my misfortune.
It fostered my discontent. I yearned for more than this uninviting fate.
The glass window reflected me as I slipped from the bed: a too tall, too mannish form without womanly curves, ribboned in frills and lace and with unusual black eyes.
I looked outlandish, bizarre, for the berries of the wine I’d imbibed earlier had painted my lips a poppy-blossom red, and my petulant mouth was too plum-dark in the night.
Smiling at that frothily fierce reflection, I licked a cake crumb from my upper lip, a relic of the moist confections on which I’d supped.
Everything in this place strove to sugar me to tedium, but I did not have to bow.
I would not.
I would tiptoe tomorrow into the traveling fair.
What harm, after all, could venturing into the forbidden do?