I should have killed my father while I still had the chance.
Chances, rather. Each of them ripe for the picking, all waiting for me to put out my hand and seize my choice. I have been biding my time since my ninth harvest, since the day I foraged for ramsons by the river and learned that a few stray leaves could be the difference between putting a meal on the table and calling upon the gravedigger’s art.
Mind you don’t pick any lily-of-the-valley or autumn crocus, my dear. Their errant greens could kill you.
I had a whole shadow harvest to serve me, an arsenal hidden within the fruits of foraging and my labor in the garden. Parsnips stewed with hemlock. Bean-and-nut porridge, sweet with honey to disguise the horse-chestnuts mashed in with true. A spring salad of dandelion, nasturtium and young violet leaves, strewn with corn-cockle and sweet-peas. A slaying for every season.
Or perhaps a liquid death, as befitting his love of drink. Tincture of monkshood, poured into his midday ale. The juice of crushed elder-leaf, mixed into his evening wine. Comfrey tea steeped with foxglove, to calm his head in the light of early morning. He died a hundred deaths in my mind’s eye, but still I waited. More fool, I.
They came for me in late summer, as the fields were slowly turning from green to gold, on a day when the cherries had waxed full and crimson. Two men with crests of ivy leaves worked upon the breasts of their tunics. They were polite, but their tone brooked no argument. My presence was required for an audience with the king. He wished, it seemed, to see my skill with a spinning wheel.
My daughter is so skilled a weaver, she can spin gold from straw.
I would like to think it was an idle boast, a fancy born of his wine-addled wits. I would like to believe that he wasn’t nearly clever enough to hatch such a plot. Yet even blind squirrels may find nuts, and among the drunkards at the tavern, the night he played braggart, was a royal spy.
What did my father see, with his ale-glazed gaze? Perhaps it was the fields of wheat, stretching as far as the eye can see. Perhaps it was all he could have had. Should have had, before the mill by the river became the old mill, the ruined mill, usurped by the windmill closer to the city road, closer to the market.
My mother had been an apothecary’s daughter. She taught me letters from an ancient collection of herbals – volumes of parchment, beautifully illuminated. Upon her death, there was no-one left to make gin from the fruit of the blackthorn tree, or preserves from the yellow peach, but the herbals were guide enough for me to seek out useful plants and make of them what I could.
I foraged to escape my father’s rage, and later, I foraged to escape my father’s misplaced affections, his sodden breath and wandering hands. As I grew older, I became the millstone around his neck, immoveable and unmarriageable. He must have known it every time he saw his reflection in the looking-glass: I was waiting for his death. Perhaps he lied to preserve his own skin. Perhaps he recognized that even untutored and unapprenticed, I was more than half an apothecary myself.
The king’s men had orders to escort me just as I was. There was still dirt beneath my nails when we rode into court.
They brought me into the great hall at the hour of sunset, dusty and saddle-sore, too weary for fear. Indeed, I held fast to hope. Surely someone in the court would be quick enough or clever enough to see through my father’s falsehood. My hands were marked with calluses from trowel and shovel, scratches from rose thorn and briar. Such marks are not the marks of spindle and distaff.
More fool, I. I forgot that all toil is much of a muchness to nobility.
The hall was filled with clusters of nobles, all of them dressed in shades of green and gold. They moved like rippling water before the guards escorting me, and a murmur followed in our wake. The guards marched me towards the head of the hall. Towards a table laid out for a feast.
Fat beeswax tapers sat in candlesticks of burnished gold, casting flickering shadows on ornate, hand-painted chalices. On the table stood platters of vegetables I had only ever seen in the pages of my mother’s herbals: white-footed sparrowgrass, purple-tinged artichokes, pods of garden peas with their curlicue vines and fluted blossoms still attached. An array of filigree dishes held a profusion of fruits, none of them of a season. Bitter oranges and smooth-skinned lemons kept company with white peaches, and dusky figs mingled with blush-skinned apricots and rosy pears. The sight was beautiful, but eerie – the natural order awry.
Only one figure sat at the table: a man with hair the rich, ripe gold of summer wheat. His eyes, a startling, uncanny green. His cloak had ermine trim, and it was fastened with a clasp of gold and emeralds, fashioned to form a cluster of ivy leaves. The guards bowed before him, and I curtseyed as best I could.
“Your Highness, this is the maiden you asked for. The one who can spin gold from straw.”
The king, despite his supposed desire to meet me, did not seem particularly excited by this news. Instead, he reached for a walnut from a dish by his elbow, and began toying with it.
“Has the spinning wheel been readied?”
“No, Your Highness.”
“Then have it readied, and brought before the court. We can have some entertainment tonight.”
Fear goaded me to speech, words tripping from my tongue. “Your Highness, I cannot.”
“Cannot?” The question held puzzlement rather than anger, but I sensed that the line dividing one from the other was as thin and as sharp as the edge of a knife.
“It is a… delicate process, Your Highness. It is not fit for an audience.”
There was a crack, and I saw that he had crushed the walnut in his fist. He shook the pieces on the table, but instead of a nutmeat in the broken shell, all I saw was a single bead, lustrous like glass or pearl.
“Let her spin in private.”
“Your Highness, shall I take her to your chambers?”
The king picked up another walnut and cracked it in his hand. It contained neither nutmeat nor sweet – nothing but an empty shell.
“Your Highness, is she to be a – a guest? Or prisoner, or maidservant?”
The king frowned. “Must you bedevil me with your petty details? Find her an unoccupied room. Any room. Dress her however you see fit.” He waved a hand in irritation, as though shooing a fly. The guards, however, were not so eager to accept the king’s dismissal.
“Your Highness, how long will she have to complete her task?”
The king rose to his feet. With one vicious sweep of his arm, he cleared the table and sent candlesticks and platters flying. There was a terrible crash of broken glass, and a sweetish smoke filled the air. Looking at the floor, I saw that a candle flame, not yet guttered, had caught the edge of an apricot, and set it to bubbling and blackening. These were not true fruits, then, but some sort of artifice fashioned from sugar. I would have marveled, had I been less terrified.
“Let her spin for a single day and a single night. Should she fail – throw her in the dungeons!”
The king smiled as the guards led me away. The last I saw of him was his bared teeth, black and rotting.
The king’s steward was an unassuming man, near apologetic when he showed me to my chamber. I could see that he, too, could not decide if I should be guest or prisoner: the room had no windows, but the floor was strewn with sweet rushes, and the bedlinens, though coarse, were perfumed with lavender.
A spinning wheel had been placed by the hearth, and beside it stood two large bales of straw. The steward’s manner was gentle as he asked me if I had all that I needed for my task, and I ached to confess that I could no sooner spin gold from straw than I could pluck the stars from the sky.
Instead, I told him that the spinning wheel was too large. Nonsense, of course, but servants were sent to remove it and bring in another. Next, I said that the straw was too coarse. Again, it was removed, and replaced with finer stuff. Then I complained that the candles were too dim to work by, and requested a lantern instead. By the time I asked for a plain needle and ordinary thread, the servants were beyond caring for my reasons. Having dillied and dallied thus until the hour was late, I was left alone in my chamber.
There is a scent to the air in the palace – unrest, unease, fear. I have seen it, when drought threatened the harvest, when travelers whispered of the plague. The servants’ eyes are heavy with shadows. They dream night-mares so vivid, neither valerian nor spikenard would soothe them.
“There is rot here, at the heart.”
“Hush. You musn’t say such words.”
“Haven’t you eyes? It’s clear as day.”
“Stay your tongue. The claret duke had a wife. Where is she now?”
Such unease works in my favor: troubled minds are quick to wander from their tasks. The guards did not strip me, nor did they search me for weapons. None noticed the torc I hid beneath the sleeve of my shift. My mother’s, of course, and before that, her mother’s. A loop of rough gold, thin strands rudely braided. Unravelled, it will serve as spun gold. But first I need to hide the straw.
It may be a maddening task to seek a needle in a haystack, but it is more maddening still to seek hay in a haystack. Beneath the linens of my bed lies a straw tick, and once I have torn open the seam with my nails, I set to stuffing the tick fit to bursting. Luck smiles upon me: I judge that it will hold all but a few handfuls of straw.
“You’re in quite a pretty pickle, aren’t you, my dear?”
The voice comes from the shadows, low and strangely musical. The figure that steps out of the darkness is small and slight, and for a moment, I wonder if all the old wives’ tales I heard as a child held a grain of truth, and if there are stranger creatures on earth than bird and beast and mere mortal.
By the light of the lantern, though, the figure is neither fae nor demon, but a woman barely a child’s height. Hair the color of burnished copper; curious eyes, dark like sloes. She walks with the aid of two ebony canes. Her gait, though hobbled, is perfectly steady. From each earlobe hangs a jewel the color of ripe cherries.
Her eyes are keen and clever, and I know that she has missed nothing in the room. Laid bare beneath her calculating gaze are the untouched spinning wheel, the bedsheets asunder, the hole in the tick that I have yet to stitch anew.
“A clever one. That’s a first. Perhaps you’ll have a better fate than the others.”
She offers no answer. A chuckle escapes her throat as she picks up the torc from where I have set it by the bed, turning it in the light. For a moment, something in the gesture reminds me of the king, an echo of the manner in which he rolled a false walnut in the palm of his hand.
“Who are you?” Her dress is plain and sober, but her ear-rings are no adornments for a servant. I cannot remember seeing her in the great hall, but there was such a gathering of nobles, I cannot not say for sure.
“I am Outis.” The smile on her lips is faint, but amused.
“Why are you here?”
“I offer you help. For a price.” Her eyes glitter, and I know that she will help me because she finds me either amusing or useful. I cannot say which is better, or which is worse.
“Tell me what happened to the others.”
“The king believes in strange things. His scouts travel the countryside, seeking signs and portents. They are tasked with bringing any trace of magic back to court. You are not the first magical maiden, my dear. There was one who claimed to cry tears of pearls. She drowned for her foolishness. Another, by rumor, could make lilies bloom from dead wood. She died on a pyre. And another who, it was said, spoke in precious stones. The king had her tongue cut out for her falsehood – but I believe she lived.” Her manner is blunt, as though describing a dish of mutton served at supper, and bile rises in my throat.
“He did this – before the whole court?”
“He is king. Who would defy him?”
I am beyond considering my father, his goodwill or his ill-will. All that matters now is the trap he’s cast me into. If I live, I won’t give him a peaceful death. I’ll let him drink himself into a stupor and drag him into the river to drown. I’ll use the axe from the woodpile to split his skull in two. I’ll take one of the threshing flails and beat him to a bloody pulp.
“I have a task that must be carried out. You will do as I bid, with neither question nor doubt.”
The bargain is dangerous. Once again, I think of childhood fables, of fae and trickery, but the threat of the dungeons looms large.
“Very well. I accept.”
“When the steward comes for you tomorrow, he will take you to the king. He will be seated at another banquet of subtleties. Within the display will be a golden casket filled with pearls. Take it, and present it to the king. Tell him pearls of wisdom are hard-won, and great men are not afraid to consume them.”
She reaches into her sleeve, and tosses something towards me. A fat spool of gold thread, fine and shining.
The steward came for me the next morning, just as my visitor had promised. It did not escape me that he paled and turned silent upon seeing the spool of gold in my hand. I was led to the great hall without a word.
Once again, the hall was filled with nobles, still dressed in shades of green and gold. Once again, the king was seated at a feasting table, set anew with glittering girandoles and blown-glass goblets. Laid out on chased golden chargers were all a manner of fish: whole brook trout with spotted silver skins, fat pink shrimp with tightly curled tails, tiny crabs with a purple-blue sheen. Other chargers held creatures I had never seen before, creatures I could not name. I had no way of knowing if they were true fruits of the sea, or more fantasies cast in sugar.
“Your Highness, the maiden has completed her task.” The steward had taken the spool from me, and now he presented it before the king upon a golden salver.
The king picked up the spool and rolled it in his hand, a thoughtful look in his eyes. “You may leave.”
At first, I thought he had dismissed me, and hope fluttered in my breast. My heart sank when I saw that the steward was making his departure. The king turned his eyes towards me. Again, I was struck by the uncanny green of his gaze. His eyes were not so much the eyes of a man as they were the eyes of a wild beast.
“From straw, to gold. You must be very wise, to have mastered such an art.” He spoke with a thoughtful air, but there was nothing to suggest that he suspected any deception. Small mercies: this was the chance I needed to complete my task.
“Not wise, Your Highness. Merely clever.”
Between a bowl of striped cockles and a dish of pearly whelks stood a golden casket, and I raised its lid to reveal the promised pearls. They gleamed dully in the candlelight. “Pearls of wisdom are hard-won, Your Highness. Great men are not afraid to consume them.”
I set the casket before him, upon his empty plate, and waited for a response with bated breath.
“Sit.” He gestured to the chair opposite his own. I sat. Despite the hall, despite the crowd of nobles watching our every move, it was not unlike sharing the supper table with my father.
“Are you favored by Fortune, my dear? Shall we find out?”
He reached into his sleeve, and cast something on the table that fell with a clatter. Dice, I saw. Cut from bone, brought to a high polish and inlaid with pips of gold.
“Fortune smiles upon you.” He reached into the casket and plucked out a pearl. “Open your mouth.”
I obeyed the order, too bewildered for fear. Was this what my midnight visitor had envisioned? Surely she had not taken such pains to save me for the sake of playing dice.
The pearl sat smoothly against my tongue, and could not help but roll it around my mouth. As it dissolved, I tasted something deeper, something darker behind its bright sweetness.
The king took up the dice again, and cast them once more.
“The wheel turns. Now Fortune smiles upon me.” He took three pearls from the casket, and swallowed them whole.
Again he cast the dice. And again. And again. More pearls went into his mouth. More pearls went into mine. I could not see any rhyme or reason in the pattern of the pips; I could not say what made him decide who it was that Fortune smiled upon.
The contents of the casket dwindled until there was only a single pearl remaining. The king cast the dice, and laughed – a quick, high laugh.
“Fortune has turned against you, my dear.” He bit down on the final pearl with a vicious crack, and granted me a full smile, all his black and rotten teeth displayed.
“Return the maiden to her chamber. Have her spin more gold.”
I felt strange, feverish and dizzy, as the king’s steward led me away. My face was wrong, my hands were not my own. The nobles of the court had transformed into a flock of green-and-gold starlings, and the court filled with a rushing sound as they took flight. Before we left the hall, I turned to look back. Perhaps it was only my fevered mind, but I thought I saw a flash of blood-red, and a tiny figure whispering in the king’s ear.
“He eats naught but sugar. Tis unnatural.”
“Hush. It isn’t our place to say.”
“Don’t you see? There is poison in the court.”
“Remember the crimson countess. Hold your tongue before you lose it.”
My head aches, and my throat is parched. How long did I sleep? The weather has turned, and there is a chill to the air. There are two new bales of hay beside the spinning wheel in my chamber, but there is also a fire lit in the hearth.
I remember the farmers setting alight straw stubble after harvesting spring wheat, in order to clear the fields for planting the winter crop. Straw burns. And so I kneel before the fire, and feed it handfuls of straw. It produces more smoke than heat, but falls away to fine ash. I make my way through the better part of a bale before there come noises from the hallway: a steady tattoo of wood against stone, followed by the creak of my chamber door being pushed ajar.
I have succeeded in deceiving the king. I still have my mother’s torc. Surely I can make my escape without resorting to another dangerous bargain?
“Who goes there?”
“I am Nemo.”
The only light in the chamber is that of the fire, and by the flickering flames, the woman seems even more uncanny than she was upon her last visit. Her ear-rings catch the light in glittering facets of blood-red, and I wonder again if what I saw in the hall was truth or fever-dream.
“The subtleties. Are they your art?” It is an empty question; I am already sure of the answer. The backs of her hands are marked in burns, and there is a blister on one thumb. I am no noble. I can read the marks of toil.
“They are one of my arts.” Her head is turned, and I cannot make out her face in the shadows.
“Why did the king choose to have me play a game of dice?”
“Why does the king choose to do anything? The wind blows from all points of the compass, and he cannot tell a hawk from a hand-saw. He is not fit to rule. He never was.” I am sure the words are treason of the highest order, but the woman utters them as easily as the villagers might speak of tricks to kill fleas. A chill seizes my spine, despite the fire before me.
A bitter taste to the pearls, masked by the sweetness of sugar. My strangeness in the great hall, my aching head when I awoke from a slumber like death. I am sure that I am not being told falsehoods, but neither am I being granted whole and honest truths.
“What price do you ask of me tonight?” Here I am, prisoner of a madman with a crown. Here I am, pawn of a traitor with unfathomable ends. Tonight, I am not afraid of striking dangerous bargains. Tonight, I am filled with enough rage to be dangerous myself.
“I have a task that must be carried out. You will do as I bid, with neither question nor doubt.”
“Very well. I accept.”
“When the steward comes for you tomorrow, he will take you to the king. He will be seated at another banquet of subtleties. You will see amongst them a bramble complete with thorns, leaves and blackberries. Take it, and present it to the king. Tell him that so does the berry grow from thorn, so from adversity blooms sweetness.”
She reaches into her sleeve. Tonight, the spool of gold thread glitters in my hand like a promise. To live, to escape, to seek out my prey.
Dearest father, do you not know that all this sitting and waiting gives me all the more time to contemplate your fate?
When the steward came for me the next morning, he did not seem surprised by the spool of gold in my hand, but remained wan and silent. I was led to the great hall without a word.
Beyond the crowd of nobles lay a sea of emerald taffeta and brassy samite, verdant damask and butter-bright peau de soie. All the fine wood and stone had been covered over or replaced with soft cushions, all in shades of green and gold. The king was seated upon a throne upholstered in velvet the color of new moss; on the table before him was a forest feast.
A nest of robin’s eggs as fine and as blue as the summer sky. Wild leeks, slender green stems shading to palest cream. Strawberries of the woods on a bed of their own leaves. Beech-nuts and filberts in woven baskets of sweet straw. Flickering votives illuminated a forager’s treasure in mushrooms, but the spread hinted at foes hiding beneath friends: scattered amongst the girolles and wood blewits, the dryad’s saddles and yellow knights, were tippler’s bane and chestnut dapperling.
“Your Highness, the maiden has completed her task.” The steward had taken the spool from me, and now he presented it before the king upon a tasseled pillow the color of summer grass.
The king glanced at the spool, but made no move to touch it. “Very well. You may wait.”
The king turned towards me. There was something oddly brittle in his manner, a curious stiffness to his movements.
“From straw, to gold. You must be very courageous, to have mastered such an art.” He spoke with a thoughtful air, but there was still nothing to suggest that he suspected any deception. Truth be told, he spoke as though he did not remember our last meeting at all.
“Not courageous, Your Highness. Merely determined.”
The bramble lay between a clutch of speckled quail eggs and a bowl of scarlet hawthorn fruits. It was only the smallest of sprays – hardly a dozen leaves and berries, all told – but exquisitely wrought.
“So does the berry grow from thorn, so from adversity blooms sweetness.”
I could not say what compelled me, but instead of setting the bramble before the king, I broke off a berry and held it out to him. Instead of taking it from me with his hand, the king lent forward and took the fruit from my fingers with his lips and tongue. The gesture was startling, and the closeness of it made my skin crawl.
“Sweet it is. Another.”
What was I to do? I broke off another berry, and held it out, but at a distance away. Still, the king lent forward to take the fruit into his mouth. I was sure all eyes in the court were upon us, but the great hall remained perfectly silent.
“Again.” I reached for another fruit, and yet another. I fed him from my hand until the bramble was empty, holding my back as rigid and as unyielding as iron to keep my shuddering at bay.
The king swallowed the last of the fruits, and turned his gaze towards me. Though I had yet to see him drink even the smallest of small ales, I wondered if he was in his cups. His eyes were all black, with only the faintest ring of green. Even less the eyes of a man, even more the eyes of a wild beast.
“Are you favored by Fortune, my dear? Shall we find out?”
The king turned to the steward, who brought forth a brocade pouch and tipped its contents upon the table. At first I thought them gold coins, but then I saw that they were more sugar craft – gilded, with glittering flecks of green that must have been crushed emerald. Each was marked with a cross on one face, and stamped with a five-petalled flower – a wild rose – on the other.
The steward placed one of the coins in the palm of his hand, and turned to the king.
“Your Highness, how should I proceed?”
“The rose – she lives. The cross – she dies!”
I barely stifled the scream in my throat. A flip of a coin. The king would wager my life upon a flip of a coin. My visitor’s words came back to me: not fit to rule. Not at all.
I held my breath as the coin arced in the air, glittering as it tumbled back down. The steward caught it, and pulled his hand away. A rose winked up from the coin’s face. Relief coursed upon me like cool water on a hot summer’s day.
“Take the maiden back to her chamber. Have her spin more gold.”
The steward gestured for me, and I made to follow him upon trembling legs.
“If she succeeds, I will make her my bride. And if she fails – sharpen the executioner’s axe, and take this from this!” I turned to see the king gesture to his head, and then his chest. We left the hall to the ringing echo of mad laughter, and as I crossed the threshold, I swore I heard a steady knock of wood against stone.
“He fancies himself made of glass.”
“Hush. Think what you will, but speak not of it.”
“Does no-one in this court speak the plain truth?”
“Hold your tongue. Have you forgotten the scarlet upstart?”
It is a warm night again, the last gasp of summer. There is no fire lit, and the straw tick of my bed is still too fresh to stuff anew. My mother’s torc lies heavy upon my arm.
The bales of straw make a mockery of me. I set to tearing them apart, holding tight to all my fury and my rage. Loose, the strands are long and soft. It is new straw – easily braided.
Perhaps I cannot make gold from straw, but I can certainly fashion a rope. I need no executioner. I refuse to become a spectacle for the king. The art of turning life to death is one that I can practise upon myself, though not without regret.
Truly, I should have killed my father while I still had the chance.
“There’s no need for such desperation, my dear.” The woman’s eyes are alight with mischief as she takes in the straw rope in my hand. She has shed her plain garb, and now wears a robe of shot silk, as liquid and as scarlet as blood.
“What name shall I call you tonight?”
“I am Legion.” She smiles, and her smile is full of wicked pleasure. I cannot tell if she is gloating over a personal triumph, or if my misery amuses her.
“Was it dwayberry in the fruits?”
For a moment, her smile falters. “What does a miller’s daughter know of dwayberry?”
“Only as much as she gleaned from her mother the apothecary. Poppy tears in the pearls, and dwayberry in the fruits. Would you seek to poison the king?”
The woman’s eyes are alight with sudden fury. She holds her head high as her words fall, sharp and clear: “I seek to claim that which is rightfully mine. This should have been my kingdom. And what has he done with it? Chaos and strife. No law, and all disorder. Famine and unrest. This country is tinder for a blaze, and all it needs is a single spark. Maybe it will burn. But it is my birthright, and I will rule, or die trying.”
As soon as she speaks, I see the resemblance. A common slant of bone, a shared tilt to the chin. Her eyes, however, are clear and untroubled. For all her rage and malice, I believe her mind to be perfectly sound.
“What price would you ask of me tonight?”
She eyes me thoughtfully. “What is it that you want?” The question is genuine, and all the more startling for its honesty. I pause. This could still be a trap.
A quick, curt laugh. “Spare me your lies. You’re no courtier; you wear your longing and despair clear upon your face.”
The words spill from my tongue unbidden. “I want my father dead by my hand. I want to tend to my garden and study my herbals, and live out my days untroubled. What price would you ask, to grant me such a fate?”
“I had thought to have you marry the king. To have him die by your hand, poisoned at the wedding banquet. To watch you beheaded for treason, that I might claim the throne. I think, however, that it would be a shame to lose a mind as clever as yours to the executioner’s axe.”
She claps her hands. Two servants appear. It does not escape me that each wears a scarlet rose upon his tunic.
“Bale this straw, and take it back to the stables.”
She turns to me. “Now, my dear, how would you proceed, if you were to kill a glass king?”
At dawn, the great hall is empty and silent. In the dim light, the rich colors of all the cushions and hangings are reduced to wan shades of grey. The table is littered with empty dishes, the tablecloth marred with spilled wax from guttered votives. The king is seated upon his mossy throne, and I could swear that he has not left it since I last saw him.
The woman walks several paces ahead of me, quick and light with her canes. She comes close to the throne, so close as to be within touching distance of the king. Even by the pale light in the hall, his eyes are as green and as mad as ever.
“Sister, dear sister. Ill-met by dawn’s break. What do you come to ask of me, at such an hour as this?”
“Brother. Once again I ask you to step down from the throne, and give me that which is rightfully mine.”
“Oh, sister. Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. Kith and kin. What was it that your wet-nurse called you? Little Rumpled-Skirts-Kin. Always in such a temper.”
“Hold your tongue. That is not my name.”
“My Little Rumpled-Stilts-Kin, angry as ever.”
The woman takes yet another step towards the king, and raises one of her ebony canes high. Lets it fall like a riding crop, cutting through the air. It does not escape me that the king shirks back.
“Brother, are you afraid? Why so? ‘Tis only a little wooden stick. It cannot hurt a man of breathing flesh and blood.” She raises the cane again, and the king flinches.
“Oh, come. Even if I were to strike you, there would only be the littlest of bruises. I am only as strong as a small child, you know.” Her tone is clear and mocking, and the king pushes his throne back in a terrible squeal of wood on stone, bolting from his seat like a startled hare.
I would have expected the king to run, abandoning decorum in the manner of his going, but he makes his way down the great hall with careful, mincing steps. The woman follows, her canes beating a steady tattoo of wood against stone. She reaches him easily, and plants herself in his path, forcing him to take a step backwards, and then another.
“Now, what will happen, brother, if you fall? A man of flesh and blood will come away only shaken and jarred. A glass king, however, will shatter into a thousand pieces, and all his horses and all his men shall never put him back together again.”
That is my cue. I steal behind the king, drop the straw rope about his neck and pull. He topples to the floor with a scream.
For a moment, the king lies stock-still. Then his body begins to tremble. I watch as he writhes and shudders and foams at the mouth. Finally, he turns slack and limp, his green eyes wide and unseeing, jaw fallen open and all his black and rotting teeth on display.
A beast’s death, as befitting a mad beast with a crown.
The queen offered me a position in her court, but it was a grace she knew I would refuse. She sent me home in a fine carriage, a fat bag of gold coins as a boon for my aid. As a parting gift, she gave me a cutting from a climbing vine – a hardy breed of scarlet rose.
I have already decided where I will plant it: in the rich dark soil by the ruins of the north wall, nourished by my father’s body. Next year, in late summer, when the queen’s spies pass through the village tavern, I hope to report that my roses are flourishing.