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The Queen Sent Messengers

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My queen, I kneel before you.

-

This is the third day since you sent us out to search for a name. I've come back to you breathless and filthy from travel and half out of your uniform. But you have seen me so before. You've seen me return from every edge of your land.

I've been your messenger and served you as your mouth, ears, and eyes all across this land since I was fifteen, when I came up from the village, where my father had been a tailor, and to your court to serve the king and you, our queen, who can spin straw into gold. I hardly knew how to ride a horse or how to read and write or how to speak, but I was tall and strong like all the other boys and girls who came up to the court from their own villages, and I knew how to run and swim and work. I was given a uniform and a bed and, like all the other boys, I learned. How to ride a horse, and how to remember your words, and how to be called your messenger.

And we learned of how you would spin straw into gold, and we knew it to be true, because we remember the time before you were made our queen, and we remember the want and the men without livelihood. And we remember how this changed. At your court, we have enough, and that is what we also remember.

And we know you can spin straw into gold, although there is also speak, without a speaker, of strange, ugly creatures in strange costumes who know how to make gold out of nothing. Strange men who visit royal chambers at odd hours. The king not knowing, or the king knowing. The turn of the prince's nose. Demon treasure spun at price and interest. And there's speak of halls full of gold, and of halls running empty. Of kings who will love their gold but at whose touch it will burn like a pile of straw. And as the spring is turning into summer, of fields running dry and of spinning wheels standing still and abandoned.

But none of this was spoken the day you sent us out to find a name without giving us the reason, and we thought you were beautiful, and your crown looked heavy on your head.

And so I wore your uniform and rode down the cobblestone streets of the old town towards the east, past the church that was dusty with the sudden spring sunlight, and then across the bridge, and I thought of names.

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I rode through the outskirts of the town and stopped people, every now and then, to ask, what is your name, what was your father's name, and his father's, and they would tell me, because I wore your uniform and was your mouth and ears and eyes. I haven't brought you the names I heard. They were familiar names, everyone's names, like yours and mine, not names you remember. Unimportant names: the names of a tailor, or a miller, or a messenger, or a queen. But I went on, asking for names, and I noticed that, under the spring sun, my coat was too warm and its collar too tight.

In the evening, I came to an inn. Inside it, a smell of potato and paprika. I didn't ask for a drink but one was brought to me. The faces at the inn were all familiar, but not ones I'd seen before, and so I asked everyone for their names. But these names, too, were usual names and the names of everyone, and I haven't brought them back to you. But I sat among the familiar people I'd only just met, and we sang the songs that are sung at every inn in this land.

Then a room was arranged without my asking for it. And when I slept, I dreamed of hares and foxes.

In the morning, I went to the innkeeper and asked for a clean shirt and promised to pay for it with the queen's gold. And she said she would find me one, and soon she came back with a shirt. She didn't ask for the gold, but I put down some on the windowsill in my room. And I rolled up the coat of my uniform and put it into my rucksack, and I washed my face with water and made my hair smooth with it, and after that, I went to see to my horse.

-

On the second day, a curious thing happened.

Maybe it was because I wasn't wearing your uniform, but I thought about my father and the village while I rode on, past green and yellow birches, and I hardly stopped to ask for the names of any of the people I passed during the day. The ones I asked had the names of the men and women in the towns and at the inn, or they would not tell me, and I hardly paid attention.

But at the start of the evening, when I came to the edge of the forest by the hills, I noticed an oddly dressed man by the side of the road. He was struggling, his foot stuck in a hole in the ground or under a root. My horse stopped. I dismounted, and I went to the man. And this was curious: he looked strange and unfamiliar to me. He was small and light, and his eyes were dark and unlike any eyes I'd seen, but I didn't find him ugly.

I asked him if he'd misstepped, and he grinned at me bitterly and said, more like stomped. And he tried to pull his foot away again, but couldn't.

I offered to help. He asked what it would cost him. I said I had no need for gold, and he looked straight into my eyes, before I knelt down to cut through the root that was trapping him, and it was a curious look, hot and cold and odd. But I cut him free, and he said he would be in my debt.

And since it was already the start of the evening, I didn't ride on down the road, but followed him to a clearing in the forest, where he had his things. I tied my horse to a steady tree and gave her water, and the strange man started a bright fire.

I watched him. By his clothes, although they were odd, and by his things, I could tell that he was rich. And I asked him where he lived, and he said, here, in the forest. And I asked him how he earned his living, and he smiled to himself and said he helped people in trouble, for a reasonable price. And because he didn't seem to mind my questions, I asked him why he didn't live in a town or a great house, but at this, he simply looked at me and said nothing, and I found that I couldn't ask again and that I couldn't stay silent. So I told him about my father and the village, and I moved closer to him, and I told him about things I'd seen all across this land. But I told nothing about the court, and so I ran out of things to say, and we were silent.

He made bread on the fire and shared it with me. Then he sang a song, and it was not like any song sung at the inn or here at the court, and I didn't understand the words. But when he stopped singing, I said I'd liked it. And he laughed, and touched my cheek with his fingertips.

And he asked me to dance with him. I stood up and took his hand, and we danced, although there was no music but the memory of the song he'd sung. Its lilting rhythm matched our steps. He closed his eyes when we danced, and the buttons on his dark vest shone in the firelight and his feet were quick. And when I stumbled, he pulled me close and kissed me bold and lewd as anything. And I kissed him and undid all his shining buttons, and wouldn't have had it any other way.

I've lain on many a bedroll with many a man since I came to your court and became your messenger, but most of them I've forgotten, so I couldn't say why he was different.

In the morning, at daybreak, I rose from the bedroll. He was asleep and humming at something in his dream, his face still strange and unfamiliar to me, and I didn't wake him. I tied the strings of my rucksack into a knot, and went to my horse and walked her out to the road. From there, she knew her own way home, and I sat idly on her back and listened to the birds.

And I had no thoughts of anything, my queen, but of spring turning towards summer and of it being the season for swimming soon.

-

You don't remember, or maybe you do, a day when spring was turning into summer in the village where your father was a miller and my father was a tailor, before you could spin straw into gold and before the king came down, the day when I found your ribbon. You'd lost your ribbon, and you were wretched for it, because it was new and beautiful and a gift from your father. And I called you by your name and said, don't worry, don't worry, I will find it. And even though it was said that someone may have stolen it, I asked no one, but looked for it in the places where we'd play, and I found it hiding under a heavy rock, its bright-coloured end sticking out. I didn't know who'd put it there. It wasn't a place where the wind would blow a ribbon. Had someone stolen it for themselves, or had you put it there for safe-keeping? It doesn't matter. I pulled it out from underneath the rock and tried to brush off the cold moist soil clinging to its pattern, and I thought it was lovely. But I came back to you and gave it to you, and you thanked me and petted my hair, and you smiled, before you ran back to your father's mill and to your spinning wheel.

You don't smile much now, except at your son, our prince. But I remember how you would look.

-

And last night, before sleep, when I lay on the bedroll next to him and watched the stars small like pinpricks in the black sky, I felt awake and heady and wanted to laugh. And I turned towards him and asked if he'd ever been to lands outside this land. And he said, to some. And I said I sometimes wish I could see them. I don't know their languages or their people, but I'm tall and strong and know how to ride a horse and how to remember words.

And I said, we could go together, in the morning.

And then he, too, laughed, and brushed strands of hair off my forehead. And he said, maybe we could. But not in the morning. I have someone here, one more debt to collect. My son. I could go for him tomorrow, and we could leave at night.

And I thought about that, I looked at the stars and I thought of other lands and other languages, and of waiting for him in the forest clearing all day until it would be night again, and of not putting on my uniform and not seeing this chamber at the court again. And I thought of his son.

And I said, tell me your name.

And he went still, and I couldn't make out his face in the darkness. But then he laughed again, and he pressed his lips to my ear and said his name, and although all I knew of the rest of the night were his quiet hands, and the night-sounds of the forest, and the fits and starts of sleep, his name was a name I remember: Rumpelstiltskin.

-

Does anyone call you by your name now, my queen?

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My queen: I kneel before you.