Authors: Starla Huchton
Edited by Jennifer Melzer
“One can be strong on their own,
But there is greater strength in knowing when to rely on others.”
To my sisters in fierceness and mischief,
I know who I can always rely on.
When I was a child, my godmother told me stories before I fell asleep every night. She once said stories are more than the sum of their parts— they are whispers from ancient powers that dwell within the earth, traveling from ear to ear until they reach their intended destination. They are calls to action, meant to send the chosen on journeys of great importance. Truth may be lost through retellings, but when the person they are meant for hears the story, no matter how diluted, they will know this truth as certain as they know the air they breathe.
In my youth, as all children do, I took my godmother’s words as suggestions. Now, I hold fast to everything she ever told me as though they were precious pearls.
My godmother was very wise.
She began all her bedtime stories the same way, and so shall I with this tale now.
Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Sericea, there lived a king and a queen, blessed with a beautiful son. Having wished for a child for so long, they wept over his birth, knowing him for the miracle he was the moment he arrived. Those who saw him couldn’t help but remark on his wondrous qualities: hair dark as ebony, skin pure and unblemished as freshly fallen snow, and his disposition that of a glorious spring day.
Every year, the young prince grew stronger, kinder, more intelligent than the year before. All who knew him, loved him. It was said that birds broke into song as he passed, and wild horses bowed before him, and the weather shifted to suit his mood, though he was almost always pleasant.
People do adore their embellishments.
Regardless, the heart of the story is true. The prince was very striking, and he naturally possessed a type of calm understanding that usually only comes with long years and much reflection. He was a remarkable young man with a charmed life, but, as all stories have their twists and turns, so did his.
Shortly after the prince’s fourteenth year, his father, King Leopold Atimen Dedalus Trineal Benforno (the Second) fell fatally ill. As all male rulers were required to serve within military ranks for a certain number of years, the prince was sent off to train and serve alongside his countrymen until the year of his majority. The queen, already weakened and lonely at the passing of her husband, tried very hard to rule well, but her heart was hollow. The kingdom fell into a time of strained relations with their neighbors, one of which endured upheaval of its own, and borders became unstable powder kegs, each nation with its eye on the widowed queen and young prince.
To save her kingdom from war, the queen took a husband. This marriage joined two lands, but did neither any favors. The new king, Alder Durham Tilendale (the Only), seemed, by all accounts, an agreeable man who expressed a deep caring for the people. An uneasy peace settled over the world, but it hovered like a dragonfly, ready to flit away at the first sign of danger.
It took a full year of marriage before the queen showed signs of illness, collapsing at a ball for visiting dignitaries from other lands, which resulted in speculation over the stability of the kingdom. After all, little was known about the king by her side, and her son was not yet of age to take the throne. By rights, the prince would ascend at eighteen years, replacing a bond of marriage with a bond of blood.
Perhaps I’ve made a mistake in telling all of this history in such a short space, but it is only the foundation, and the beginning of my part in this tale. To that end, I admit to rushing into what I feel is far more important.
That is, I am not retelling the story of another, so much as I am the story of myself.
It was shortly after the queen’s illness was discovered that I came into the service of the palace. For six months, I was at the beck and call of any at the palace who were deemed to be above me. Which, in essence, was nearly everyone. No one pays much attention to a young boy shoveling muck in the stables, or scrubbing dishes in the scullery, or running at top speed to fetch the royal lap dog a bone from the butcher. While I may have been very busy, and dead on my feet by the time I finally slept at night, I was also completely disregarded as a being of any intelligence whatsoever. When everyone around you assumes you are stupid, they don’t watch their tongues and are not at all mindful of their actions.
“Such a pity,” Mrs. Haverdash said, shaking her head as she stirred the pot of stew. “Dozens of doctors and healers doing everything they can, and she’s worse every day.”
“Have you seen her lately?” Millie, one of the chambermaids, said as she held out a bowl to be filled. “It’s so terribly sad. Leah says she’s barely more than a ghost now.”
Trying not to call attention to myself, I slowly made my way to them on my hands and knees, scrubbing the floor as I went.
Mrs. Haverdash shook her head. “I heard tell she might not live to see His Lordship return. The prince is to come home very soon, but not a soul can say she’ll be able to hold out for him. Ach! It’s a terrible pity. To lose both parents so young, and inherit the mess they left behind them on top of it all. He was such a gentle child. I hope his time in arms hasn’t darkened his spirit.”
A bowl clattered to the ground, followed by a hoarse curse from the cook.
“So sorry, Missus!” Millie said as she bent to retrieve the dropped dish. “This whole business has my nerves shot. I can’t keep still.”
Mrs. Haverdash clucked her tongue. “Never mind it, girl,” she said. “You there! Boy!”
As she could only mean me, I lifted my head and blinked at her, eyes wide with false surprise.
She gave me an irritated look before waving me at the spilled stew on the floor. “Clean it up, boy. Quit staring and move!”
The conversation all but ended as I mopped up the mess with my rags, and my thoughts wandered as I finished my work and went to dump the dirty water outside. A sad sort of self-loathing settled over me as I pushed open the door to the bitter cold of December’s approach. The icy wind bit at my cheeks, adding extra sting to my own sense of uselessness. I was too late to save her.
As I was too late before.
Scowling at the trees, I tossed the contents of my bucket onto the frozen ground. Steam rose from the piles of rotting leaves where the warm water fell. The vapor curled up into the air, forming a familiar face. She looked impatient.
“I’m trying,” I whispered at her, frustrated with the situation and my own inability to do anything about it. “I can’t get near her. I need more time.”
The frown in response was unmistakable, which only soured my mood further.
“Oh, go bother the others,” I said, waving my hand through the steam to disperse it before stomping back towards the castle.
Ten paces before the door, I heard the distinct sound of hooves coming up the road. Leaving the bucket, I decided to save them the trouble of screaming for me and ran to see the incoming visitors. Horses always meant more work for me, and by the sound of it, there were at least ten animals that would need feeding and grooming before I could even think about dinner for myself.
I rounded the corner in time to see no less than a dozen soldiers on horseback, three of them mid-dismount. They were incredibly impressive to behold: the thin afternoon light glinting off of their golden helmets, their banners billowing in the wind, and the red of the officers’ uniforms glowing with warmth in contrast to the stark gray of Mother Nature’s winter cloak. Rocks crackled under my thin boots as I skidded up beside the stablemaster. His glare was brief, but there would be no reprimand in front of the guests.
Lord Wymore descended the stone steps leading from the main doors, his expression relieved. As the queen’s right hand in domestic affairs, the man was normally unflappable. But as the three soldiers finished dismounting and removed their helmets, I immediately saw what the fuss was.
The first was nothing special: a typical specimen, aged from military service, complete with grizzled features and weather-worn skin. The second was younger than I expected, but nothing out of the ordinary: likely a junior officer of some kind. But, when the third man removed his helmet, I choked back a gasp.
His hair, so dark it seemed to suck in the light, loosely brushed his collar. His face was so perfectly proportioned, so exquisitely chiseled, it had an unearthly quality I’d only heard about in my godmother’s stories. Every step, every movement, was infused with grace and purpose.
And then, he smiled.
I had never, ever seen a smile equal to that one, and it wasn’t even a full smile. A heartbreaking sadness colored every curve of his mouth as he greeted Lord Wymore at the base of the steps. The two men embraced, reunited after years apart.
I understood what everyone spoke about in that single moment. Of course I’d seen paintings in the castle of him when he was younger, but none of them came close to seeing him for myself.
The prince had returned home.
“He attends her himself,” I whispered to the smoke. “Healers visit, but he is always with her. None see her without him present. What can I do?”
The shifting, ghostly face wavered. “You must try something. Are there no unguarded passages in the walls? If you recall our—”
“There are passages,” I interrupted, “but none unguarded. Do you think I hadn’t thought to look? Between the rats, spiders, and servants, there’s little room for me, and I have yet to see those tunnels unoccupied. There are eyes everywhere, and most of them unfriendly. He’s been replacing servants one by one since he came here, and he pays them well to keep their loyalty.”
“Perhaps a distraction, then?” she said. “Something to drive them out.” A draft dispersed her face, but it reformed a moment later. “You’ll need it twice over, once to assess her ailment, another to deliver a cure when we have one.”
I grimaced. “Oh, is that all? Well, if it’s as simple as that, I’ll be done by week’s end, I should think. A pity, as I do so enjoy sleeping beside excrement and being belittled by anyone within a dozen steps of me.”
“I know this isn’t easy on you,” she said, the smoky expression softening. “We must do all we can, though. None of us can do as you do. We all have our parts to play, and yours is the heaviest burden to bear. Please keep your strength. Are you eating well?”
“Well enough not to die,” I said with a sigh. “Though that’s mostly thanks to my own wits rather than the slop I’m given twice daily. I miss her pies terribly.”
Her light laughter tinkled through the vapor. “I’ll have her prepare your favorite the moment I know you’re returning. She’s reserved blackberries for that special occasion. We all miss you, though there are grumbles about the blackberries.”
Wistful, I shook my head. “So good of them to sacrifice for me.”
“Yes, well, it’s late, and I’ll not have you brought to the whip on account of oversleeping. Be swift, be safe.”
“Spirits willing,” I said, then blew her a kiss, dispersing the fog and bringing the conversation to an end as I doused the fire in the metal bucket.
As tired as I was, however, my eyes refused to close, and my mind raced with urgent thoughts of how I might make some progress. Surely there was some way for me to see the queen.
There was one possibility, but the last time I attempted it… The memory of it still terrified me, though over a year had passed since the incident. The twisted face of the man and his rank, burning breath as he pressed against me haunted my nightmares, and I awoke at least once a week with the stench of him in my nostrils.
Pretty faces are dangerous to possess. I’ve worn many masks, but I’ve fought to my last to put on ones that invited temptation as much as beauty.
In the silence of my pallet in the hay, I rolled over and stared into the darkness. I’d worn my current disguise longer than any other before it. It disturbed me when I thought of the moment I’d have to let it go. The look of a stupid, young boy is safe, and none glanced at me twice. I preferred it that way. I wondered, would I know myself when it was over?