“She can go to the Manse. It’s quiet there and safe. She can bring some of her maids to keep her occupied.”
“As you say, my Queen.”
Bets was old now and bent, but that was not surprising as she had been my mother’s advisor before she was mine.
“The princess will be safe up there.”
“Aye, Bets, that’s true. Rose will be safe there and out of the way. There’s nothing else that can be done. Things are in flux enough and we cannot afford her throwing things awry.”
“Aye, queen, true enough.”
And Rose was a fool of a girl. She always had been, ever since she had been a small child. I still cannot believe that I bore a child so utterly alien to me. Maybe the peasants are right when they speak of children spirited away in the night and changelings left in their place.
She took after her father in so many ways, there was nothing of me in her. I was infatuated with his beauty and young and foolish enough to take him as my second consort. He would have been better as a dalliance.
“But I do not want to go to the Manse! It’s boring up there. The Klineys are all ugly and deformed. And what about poor little Pumpskin?”
“Pumpskin may go with you. Sorcha and Jess too.”
There was no point in explaining the real reasons why she had to go, just as there was no point in defending the Klineys to her; she would never understand.
The Klineys were not a handsome clan; short, blocky men and women, but skilled with pikes. I had seen them stop a cavalry charge, their pikes bristling undaunted while the horses thundered towards them.
They were loyal to the death. They would guard her with their lives for my sake alone, while she would abuse them and titter behind her hands at their ugliness.
Yes, yes, like her father she was beautiful; hair as black as ebony, skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood. It was so, just as one of the poets described her.
But why should so much be made of that? Has beauty ever staved off poor harvests, flooding or attacks?
Could beauty keep my people safe?
“You will be leaving tomorrow morning. I will send an honour guard of twelve men with you.”
That would please Rose; she liked pomp and ceremony for its own sake, the pennants and ribbons and the newfangled heraldry.
I had tried to teach her how things should be done, how to keep accounts, arbitrate disputes, inspire loyalty in her people. But she could not or would not do it. Accounts were an insufferable tedium, horses frightened her, her people disgusted her.
She would not listen. It was all lapdogs, vapours and flutterings, this prince and that duke. Beneath that pretty face she had a will of steel. How else could she have so steadfastly rejected me and everything I tried to teach her? My lessons slipped past her with nary a trace left behind.
I would have much to do when she was gone.
“Have them shown in, Bets. I will see them now.”
They entered in a crowd of silk, velvet and brocade, the height of fashion from the city, all embroidered and embossed. To look at them was to think of a crowd of bantam cocks, all the feathers and finery could not hide their aggression.
The world has changed since my mother’s day. These bantam cocks were of the new world but for the sake of my people I would stave it off while I could.
“Prince Jerome. Your unexpected visit as always delights us.”
That gives him pause. I do believe he thinks me a fool. Or maybe he thinks all women are fools.
“Dire matters, your Majesty. I will cut to the chase.”
That would make a pleasant change from his usual second hand tittle-tattle from the cities and new-fangled poetry.
“There have been incursions from the savages. They have attacked the summer grazing grounds that border your kingdom.”
And why is that, my princeling? Is it because they have been threatened and attacked by you and your bantam cocks? That further up the river in your fiefdom the summer grazings are becoming permanent settlements, contrary to all tradition? Do you think that both the Kona and I are fools, that we cannot see the naked ambition in your actions?
“I thank you for your concern for my people, Prince Jerome.”
“This is because I hold both you and your family in the highest of esteem, your Majesty.”
“However, I have met with the Chief Kona and you will be pleased to hear that any possible misunderstandings between my people and hers have been cleared up.”
So surprised, princekin! Let that put a stop to your gallop. I have had dealings with the Chief Kona for nearly twenty years now. Did you think that I would take your word over hers? Or did you think that I would sit in my castle weaving and waiting for you to bring me word of the outside world?
“I’m glad to hear that matters with the savages have been resolved, your Majesty.”
“It was not difficult, Prince Jerome, just two old women meeting to confirm what their mothers before them knew.”
Careful, careful, let him make of that what he wants.
“I see, your Majesty.”
And I think he does. Unfortunately, despite his affectations and aggression, he is not a fool.
“And where is Rose, your Majesty? I hope that she is not indisposed.”
“Thank you for your concern, Prince Jerome. Rose is well, but she is not here for now. She has gone visiting some friends.”
Rage flashes across his face. For a second we see each other as we truly are; his insistence on his own way, my dogged refusal to yield.
“I think that she will be away for a while. She brought Pumpskin with her after all. You remember Pumpskin, the little dog you gave her?”
“Ah, such a pity, your Majesty, I had hoped to see her.”
He has the gall to smirk in my face while saying that. A queen is not a voiceless ornament to breed children. Though, Rose would gladly become that and consider it a worthwhile bargain.
“But I’m sure that I will see her again before too long.”
Oh, but he thinks he is so cunning with his long term plans. I suppose that long term plans do not come naturally to men. Marry the old queen’s only daughter. She would in turn become queen but could easily be pushed aside by him. Weaving and children and other womanly tasks would be enough to occupy her time.
“Yes, I have an important matter, dear to my heart which I would discuss with her. Dear to her heart too, if I may be so bold as to say so.”
Oh yes, no doubt that you have discussed it already with Rose; matters of love and marriage and fairy tale endings of happy ever after. But what would happen to my kingdom and my people after my death with such as you holding the reins of power? A descent into blood, fire and chaos; bright, flashing swords and weeping; misery upon misery. I have caught glimpses of that new future in my scrying mirror and my mirror has never lied.
I must hold that future back from my people while I can.
“You are dear to all our hearts, Prince Jerome. When Rose returns I will tell her of your visit.”
I am not ashamed of what I did. What else could I have done? A queen’s first duty is to her people. Her people are her children. She must harden her heart to all other considerations, no matter how it grieves her.
Bets face is sad. She is too old for all this. We are both too old for this. But she will test me again to see if my resolve is unshaken. And so she does, waiting, gazing at me.
“What now, my Queen?”
“The red apples, Bets. The ones I had prepared specially. Have them sent to Rose at the Manse. They have always been her favourite.”
A queen cannot shirk her duty.
x x x
A twist on an old story—not exactly Disney-esque. Our British friends have a penchant for well-fashioned fiction. Another debut tale from a citizen of the UK: we’ve got a British invasion, it seems, this year. One if by land and two if by something and hang a lantern or write a comment on our BBS. - GM
By the way: the two dwarves you missed: Bashful and Doc.