I have descended into madness.
It has crawled beneath my bone for years, a beggar for crumbs of cruelty, and I nurtured it like a changeling at my breast. A creature sharp of tooth and dark of eye.
A flicker of forked tongue, a whisper of mad intent, dearer to me than the daughter I bore.
The daughter I hate.
Behold me now:
Above the patter of rain, my slippered feet race across the gold-lit flagstones of the courtyard. My gown skims over the puddles, and my crown glitters in the torch-glow.
My hand draws a blade from a fold in my gown.
Someone loved me, once.
A Near-Soundless Night
Let me tell you the greatest story of a love that never was.
This love was.
But it was strangled. Garroted by a mercenary heart.
Perhaps this story may not be grand enough for some, for dragons do not breathe their fiery fury between these burning lines, and bold heroines do not hound monstrous abominations into hidden dens and roust them with swords whetted for blood.
This is a quiet tale, about a quiet love spreading its wings in a belfry, on a breeze that bore a hint of what would come.
It happened in the twilight of our halcyon days, upon the advent of a queen to rise.
It is the tale of a love, boundless and vast, borne in the humble chest of a boy in a shabby coat.
The coat he offered to me on a near-soundless night, when you could hear the beating of a heart.
Some remembrances are too heartrending to shear off whole. Like paring off one’s flesh. A blade slitting the skin.
That sharp spear of pain, one sliver at a time.
Here, upon a bloody parchment, I tender you these torn-off bits of agony.
They may be scraps of a person, and the scraps of a tale, but I bid you find the story within.
Look between the blood and the blurred droplets of heartache, and find, in the purls of skin that curl inward, the wounded boy.
A Changeling Fable
He discovered her on a trail of sorrow.
The sobs led him upward like a chain around his heart.
Up the winding tower stairs, his long nightshirt rippling in the draft, his toes bare.
He crept up so pitter-patter soft, until there, at the top of stairs, beneath the steeple, he espied her.
All in white lace, with wispy pale hair, a froth of a girl lay beneath the carven iron bell.
She curled up in a nook of shadow while he paused in a pool of moonlight.
With so much foaming lace in a tide across the floor, he thought she resembled spindrift flung from a crest of a tide.
Not that the boy had ever seen the sea, although the priest had said they had pulled him from it.
The boy had only been three summers when they found him bobbing, parched and half-expired, amid the flotsam and driftwood of a broken ship.
The sea had glutted itself on the meat of the rest, spitting out but one survivor: a silver-haired boy without a voice.
The priest’s tale never explained what providence had urged him to depart the city and chance upon that choppy shore, nor even from whence such a ship had hailed when the seven cities had built no ships at all for centuries, ensconced as they were behind the walls that shielded them from an ancient enemy.
So went the tales of orphans: fanciful, changeling fables.
The boy knew the truth.
His parents had abandoned him.
He had not been swept, half-expired, from the lathered mouth of the sea.
He had been half-consumed by disease in the maw of the poor quarter.
Illness had taken his voice, and an extended fever nearly his life.
Only the priest had answered his mewling and pried him from that putrid fate.
He had garbed the boy in flowing white robes like a miniature of himself, given him a room in the back of the chapel, and exerted the effort of cutting the boy’s too-long hair.
Now the boy shooed that hair from his eyes.
Like a finger dipped in still water, that negligent movement unbalanced the scene before him.
The girl looked up, her cheeks sheened with tears, and the boy lost his breath.
For the first time, he understood how the air in one’s lungs could leap out, too excited to stay put while needing to be nearer to this newly discovered wonder.
For the first time, he understood how a heart could wheel like a moth eager to be caught in a girl’s cupped hands.
Unversed in the civil veneer one must retain before gifting one’s heart in a jaded world, the boy acted on sheer instinct.
Unfettered, he let his heart flutter out.
It flitted right into her keeping, a delicate hope expending its first tentative steps as it landed on her palm.
If the boy lost his breath, the girl gained it.
For the first time in an existence bound by strictures and corsets, her lungs expanded, full and…astonished.
The breath felt, peculiarly, like a laugh. Or the prelude to one.
But how could she judge when she’d never laughed in her life?
Giggled? Of course.
It was a foreign sentiment. At least to a girl cuffed for inappropriate smiles, for misnaming the wrong noble, for bumbling in a court that commanded rigid-spined austerity.
By necessity, she had soured herself to assimilate with the sycophants who thronged her existence.
She bowed to the First Magnate and dutifully danced with his bored sons at every ball. She and her friends cast aspersions and traded calumnies amongst themselves like sweets.
She bloated with it all, sick at heart.
Her bitterness, once a mask, had begun to fuse with her skin: the vinegary pursing of her lips; the curdling, gimlet eye; the uplifted nose.
She was becoming as rank as her mother.
Now they’d arranged a marriage for her with a vilely unsightly man, someone distantly related to the magnate of the Second Demesne.
Her fate was shutting around her like a cage.
Where else to flee fate but to the chapel?
This late in the eve, however, only candles flickered in the naves, and when she splayed herself, imploring, before the altar, naught but the discomfort of cold stone seeped into her, and air instilled with the unheard entreaties of the thousands who had knelt here in vain before her.
After all, who could find solace in the chapel of the Absent God?
He had left mankind to fend for itself centuries before.
She’d found herself rising in the midst of those unanswered echoes—and then…
The melody of the bells.
Their chimes had sung her soul to stillness.
For how long?
In the hushed echo of their finale, she had glided up the stairs like one lost. Wept like one hurt.
And now her soul fizzed like one found.
Here in the belfry appeared a boy barely older than she, garbed in a nightgown, his face so pretty she thought his lips must taste like cherries.
And his hair! Like the finest silver cutlery, it pricked up in prongs around his head.
Why did she want to smile as though he changed everything?
Because he did.
But the girl I was proved too stupid to recognize it.
He became her breathless escape—which was ironic because his smiles enabled her to finally breathe, only for his very proximity to take it away again.
It was like being constantly reminded she was alive. She was constantly aware of some sparkle in the air around him.
It made her unable to sour properly as her mother demanded, as the court required.
Her mother smacked her. Her father scolded her.
Her friends mocked her dreamy distraction while she drifted past the noblemen requesting dances.
What did she care?
The more the court berated her, the more she escaped to the boy.
They were secretly inseparable, always sneaking into the chapel’s tiny library where the priest left them treats of cakes and steaming cider.
Although the boy couldn’t speak, he wrote her letters and poems—witty poems that amused her till her ribs hurt from laughter. And he lent her books, and nodded or shook his head when she asked him questions, and she hardly noticed he didn’t speak because he did, with his expressive eyes. They lit up when she arrived or slunk impishly to the side before he tickled her, or they drew down beneath lowered brows in fierce concentration when writing a poem. And he spoke through his radiant grin, through a sheepish duck of his head, through a blush or a smile or the ruffle of his hand in his hair.
He conversed with her in countless different ways other than speech, and every single one enlivened her more, until she felt constantly buoyant.
Sometimes she wanted to scream with it, and the closest she got was when the boy urged her to lie beneath the bell, and when he rang it, she felt the vibrations from her scalp all the way down through her toes.
It was a blazing moment of clarity. Her bones thrummed with the certainty that she would never feel this unbound again, this unchained from every constraint.
This was being.
In the near-silence of the night, he’d knelt down by her hip.
Her heartbeat thumped in her chest—and she heard his as he leaned down, their pulses a mere breath apart…and their lips no longer apart at all.
That single kiss shattered her down to her core, rendering everything else in her life insignificant.
It was a long while before they tasted enough and he drew back, their lips warm, their souls happy.
Smiling in the chilly eve, he wrapped her together with him in his threadbare coat, and they slept beneath the bell where they’d met.
Despite the coat’s myriad holes, she felt toasty-warm all the way through, because all she needed for warmth was him.
The Vipers’ Nest
But her home was the court, and that vipers’ nest never set its victims free.
She was still betrothed, even though she swiped that pesky thought aside every time it arose.
Somehow, she knew she would never marry him. An entire world of opportunity had opened up to her with the boy, and she imagined—
In truth, she couldn’t imagine what sort of life they would have, for he was poor and her parents would disown her, but she knew they would be happy.
That’s what she imagined, and that’s always enough for the young.
Then came the day she skipped from the chapel on her way out—and ran straight into the magnate’s eldest son.
They bounced backward, both hurling apologies, and then stopped, recognizing one another.
She was a young noblewoman, flushed and pretty and in love.
He was the future king, handsome and enigmatic and mussed.
To everyone in the treacherous court, they were the perfect match.
To the girl and the future king, both born and bred in that ruthless bed of scheming pride, they could be the perfect match.
Although both their hearts were entangled in poorer places—his with a penniless girl, hers with the priest’s silent orphan—they could appease the court by joining with one another, noble to noble.
When the magnate’s eldest son offered for her hand, the girl snatched at the chance to rid herself of her vile former betrothed.
And truth be told, part of her thrilled that by marrying the magnate’s eldest son, she would one day be Queen.
She would bear the next royal septuplets.
But she had to tell the boy.
She tried to explain it to him, the rules of her world. How she would become the Queen, the mother of the future rulers, and how the entire court now expected this of her.
If she reneged, she would be ruined. Her family would be exiled for the dishonor. She had given her word, and words spoken in court were not easily revoked.
But the boy had never set foot in her sophisticated world. He only saw that he was insufficient for her.
She promised that nothing would change. She swore that after her marriage, they would still meet.
But he didn’t understand the workings of humans who didn’t esteem the heart.
And she didn’t understand the workings of the heart at all.
She married in the boy’s chapel, resplendent in a gown of scarlet, with tame doves swooping overhead.
People threw flower petals and trinkets and smiles.
She strained her ears for the bells her true love would ring, bated for his song.
Bated for the moment she could escape her husband and promise the boy that she loved him most.
The boy tried to ring the bells for her…he did…but his hands would not work. His heart.
How could it fail?
She had chosen another, opened a door to another life, and he stood outside.
He didn’t understand how the vastness of a life without her could rob him of his will to move, his strength to breathe.
But he had given himself entire, and he did not understand her halfway love.
His heartache spread its wings in the belfry, and like the ravening sea that failed to consume him as a child, its current now swirled him away.
He folded beneath the bell where he’d found her, and he died where her gown had frothed like spindrift.
The priest himself climbed the stairs, and there, above the crumpled, empty-eyed orphan boy for whom he had spun a changeling tale of rescue, the priest wept.
He wept as he rang the bells for the very girl whose fickle choice had killed this innocent, and he swore he was finished.
That night, he abandoned the city to the exile town outside the walls.
He could not bear to stay near a girl whose lacquer of courtesy concealed only self-serving greed.
The Iron Curve of Spine
They teach you how to behave.
They prepare you for the spite and the envy, the importance of never crumbling: a Queen must never show weakness.
No one has ever found a crack in my façade. No one catches even a glimpse past the steely masquerade I present to the world.
Dare to stroke the iron curve of my spine, and its spikes will disfigure your courage.
Only I feel the blood seep through the hundreds of thousands of fissures in my heart.
When I think of him, my blood is only good for bruising.
It no longer brings life. No heat. No wild pulse.
No more. And never again.
All the lessons clouted into me, all the thousands of hours practicing comportment, repartee, and vilification.
Nothing prepares you for heartbreak.
Nothing prepares you for the atrophying of a heart.
No one who hasn’t experienced it can understand.
How dare you judge the embittered and the bleak? How dare you try to strike a spark in the heart that we have closed?
You’ve no concept of the ghouls we’ve rocked to sleep in the cradle of our fading heartbeat. The lullabies we’ve sung to bloodied hands.
I have hummed my desolation into drowsy dreams.
Still, that wound putrefies in the gangrenous flesh of my soul.
As the handsome future king took the girl for the first time, his face cringed, and she knew—knew he was forcing himself into the deed, and she knew, too, that she forcibly held herself beneath him, and that any pleasure their bodies wrought together was mechanical and empty, a shudder of flesh and tissue without any heart. A rapid pulse without a song.
Her song had silenced with the boy, and her body couldn’t hide her heartache.
Just as her husband’s face could not hide his unexpected sorrow for the love he’d abandoned for this marriage.
Afterward, he stumbled from the bed and retched out the window.
He gripped the sill and didn’t move while she lay limp on the bed and willed her soul to leave.
Smelling faintly of vomit, he finally returned and held her close as if to make up for his reaction, to make amends for the look of revulsion when he’d finished inside her, and his bruising shove on her shoulders when he’d pulled out, repulsed.
He held her out of apology, though, not affection. He stroked her hair in a game of pretend that she pretended to believe.
Every kiss to her brow, every halfhearted smile, every feeble touch that faded too quick was an apology for not wanting to be with her, but thanking her for being with him anyway.
They had to make this work, for the Demesnes needed the next seven rulers.
Make It Fair
Eventually, they settled.
He could make love to her without retching.
She could shut off her mind and cry out in the feeble pleasure of their coupling.
But they dragged their guilt along behind them like cloaks of ravaged wishes. They threw their true loves to the back of their minds—or she did.
His lover still lived—why hadn’t she expired of a broken heart?
She was likely a product of their jaded world and knew how matters worked, unlike the queen’s sheltered orphan boy.
Although the king’s lover would certainly have welcomed him back into her bed, he did his duty by his Queen and the seven demesnes and attended to his queen’s body almost every night, and then sat calmly beside her on their thrones every day.
The Queen even tried to hope for more.
If she gave him the sons he craved, he would come to love her.
With his children inside her, she would come to love him.
They must, or she would go mad.
Perhaps she did.
She lived out the tragic madness of stillborn years and became the disappointment of an entire kingdom, of every walled city.
Her husband’s visits to her bed dwindled.
His visits outside the castle increased.
She followed him, once, to a dingy little shack in the poor quarter.
To a scrawny woman who blushed so prettily when he propped his foot into her cracked door to hold it open.
Oh, she made a display of protesting when he swept inside, telling him he was wed now and must sire the septuplets, but he was already kissing her, and she got no farther than those weak breaths.
He silenced her remonstrations with passion and aroused other cries from her with his fervent lovemaking.
Was it fair that he still had his love and the Queen had lost hers?
But she was a Queen now.
She would make it fair.
One thing she knew: gold coins cascade so easily from the fingertips of a queen.
Poured straight into the purses of brutes, that gold ensured they silenced her husband’s lover for good—with their own manner of passion.
She suffered at the end.
The Queen made sure of that.
A Pox of Stars
As he had destroyed me, so I destroyed him.
Is that not fair?
I only wish the daughter he got on me proved as easily slain.
Her existence is a thorn that pricks me with my failure every day, reminding me that I’ve not yet borne the next rulers.
And my King no longer visits my chambers at all.
Our kingdom becomes restless, but it is all futile. If I don’t bear the rulers, no one will.
I’ve made a pact to doom them all. Behind the shutters of night, I’ve conspired with our ancient foe.
The city walls that were erected to keep them at bay will not ward off our nightmares forever.
They are coming. Monstrosities honed of barbarity and vigor. A bladed claw around a future corner. A razor-toothed smile above a slumbering girl.
Nothing can save our kingdom now.
Definitely not a daughter born in my loveless bed.
Is there anything left of what I was?
Can there be, when a king stricken by a star-crossed love leaves his murderous Queen in lonely solitude?
A Queen never crumbles, even with the entire world set against her.
Even when her own heart has turned its face away.
This is the comportment of a queen:
She presents an iron spine, a steel heart, and, if needed, a stiletto in her gown.
From the most magnificent castle in the known world, I stare out upon the dark night and the pox of stars that scar the sky, and I wonder.
Where did the path to my dreams fork off onto a different road than my heart?
But I know.
I imagine that moment.
When a boy with no words gave me a kiss that wrote volumes in my heart—volumes that I never read.
When he offered his torn coat and bashful smile to a broken girl, who warmed herself for a blissful time and then discarded it with the careless toss of youth.
In my cruelest dreams, I stay with him.
I turn into his arms.
He wraps me up in his shabby coat.
But the warmth escapes through its myriad holes, and though I press near and nearer, he’s only a phantom formed of regret.
All that ever warmed me decayed long ago.