My debt to Austen, Tacitus, and Plutarch.
In a wooded kingdom, along a wooded march, ruled a Dowager D’attente, the wise and beautiful Queen Cleo—whose subjects insisted on both descriptors.
Those were not the days of vast and wearisome kingdoms, with many ambitious vassals plowing wrinkles into the monarch’s forehead with their squabbling intrigues and demands of sweet lands for their dubious exploits and sweeter marriages for their dubious offspring. No, in Cleo’s day, there were many small kingdoms, kept peaceable among each other by mutually arranged matches, and a shared tongue (if not always shared pronunciation), and the constant threat of barbarians in all directions.
This particular kingdom was on the western march, nearest the barbarians of the stony forests of the dusk, against whom Cleo’s knights often protected the other kingdoms. The late King, Cleo’s late husband, was renowned as a hero who died in a faraway land—although the details were sketchy—and it was expected his son would also make a heroic king. More so than all princes were expected to do.
But this is not the story of a man pitting his strengths against other men bent on pillage. This is the story of a woman.
As the Oracle of Romance has taught us, a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. This was doubly true for Queen Cleo’s son, as princes could not by law take the throne until they had married. And in response to this universally acknowledged truth, the Prince of the wooded kingdom received the offers of many young Ladies, from noble families throughout the land, to be his bride.
But, no young Lady met the Prince except through Queen Cleo. This was not because she was jealous of the throne. She knew the time must come when her son would rise and she retire. But, she loved her kingdom, loved the legacy she had built with her late husband, and loved her son, who had not proven himself equal to his father’s resolve. Queen Cleo would protect them all with whatever strength she had.
And this is why Princess Geneviéve of the kingdom of words (yes, that is how it was known in those days, for it was deep in the midst of the land and its people knew most things of the world through hearsay) was met with her retinue at the eastern gate of the wooded kingdom by the Queen herself, and the Queen’s guard, and the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, and the Queen’s gray cat, Doué.
After the Princess curtsied politely to the Queen, they all greeted her quite graciously. All except the cat.
“My Lady,” said the Queen, “you are as fair of form as your mother attested in her many letters.” For this was all the Queen knew of the Princess at that moment, and she could see with her living eyes that it was true. “Welcome to our wooded kingdom.”
“A queendom, surely,” said the Princess. “And you, my Queen, are the very vision of regal bearing I was told to expect. A woman among women.”
Cleo nodded very slightly, with only the right side of her head.
“Let us walk,” said the Queen, and she waved her hand for the two entourages to give her space to speak with the Princess. The cat climbed from Cleo’s arms onto her shoulders, hiding under her gray curls, and wrapped his gray tail around her neck.
“Is the Prince not with you?” The Princess surely saw that he was not.
“My son is quite busy with the defense of our kingdom. We will see him presently.”
Cleo gestured to the many shops and market stalls they were passing, crowded with townspeople who bowed as they recognized their Queen. “This is known as the Traders’ Street. Commerce from all the kingdoms of the land comes through here. There is the seed merchant, and there the mattress-maker, and just beyond that the baker.”
“It is quite busy,” said the Princess, her golden hair swaying as she glanced from side to side. She maintained her composure, but the Queen could see that she was shying from the crowds. “I am sure we have such places in my own kingdom, but I have not seen them.”
“Everything that comes into our kingdom must be measured, as the sun measures the day, the moon the month, and the half-seen stars the year.”
The Queen lifted her finger, not quite pointing, at a nearby stall where the baker was weighing grain upon a great iron scale. “Seed to grow or grind on one side, or sometimes gold. Dross to support its value on the other side. Different but equal in weight.”
“Fascinating, my Queen.” But, she did not seem fascinated.
“On one side rests what is precious, but how precious cannot be known without the dross to support it and give it meaning.”
“Dross, your grace?” The word had an unsympathetic sound in the mouth of the Princess. “But, one could make weights of gold, surely?”
The cat batted at the Queen’s gray curls. “One could. But, set aside to be used as weight it could not be used as gold. So, it would become as dross.”
The Princess watched the scale as they passed, thinking. The Queen permitted herself a grin. The cat pawed at it until it became a smile.
“It seems a sad compromise,” the Princess decided, “confining the gold and grain to one side, ever to be measured against lesser stuff.”
Cleo’s smile faded like the late morning dew, and the cat settled his eyes on the Princess.
“To keep balance,” the Queen said, “if you move precious stuff from one side, you must also move dross from the other. But then, what’s the purpose of the scale?”
Cleo knew, of course, that the baker could juggle numbers and work the scale that way, even if it would be a little absurd. She watched the thinking Princess, waiting for the realization. But the Princess finally just settled into the compromise, and not happily.
“Your hair itself is as gold as grain,” said the Queen. Geneviéve rediscovered her happiness.
“I am honored, your grace.” She searched up and down the Queen for a compliment to give. She passed over Cleo’s gray curls (and gray cat), her steady but faded blue eyes, her strong but wrinkled cheeks, the womanly fullness of form she had earned from her son and many years on the throne since the King had died.
“That pearl,” the Princess decided. “A single gem only for such a Queen as you?”
Cleo lifted finger and thumb to touch the green sphere where it hung against her breast from a silver chain. The cat reached down to rest his paw on her royal knuckle.
“A gift,” said the Queen. “From my late husband.”
They passed by the Royal House, with many a prying glance from the Princess, and made their way to the western wall, against the wooded march, beyond which all knew were the fierce barbarians of the stony forests. The Queen’s guard flanked them to either side as they approached the wall, and quietly formed a circle around them as they looked out over the golden hills and storm-black rocks and greenly shadowed trees.
A team of workmen were gathered near the ancient wall, waving and pointing and discussing some construction yet to be. Among them, a man of meager but steady bearing took note of the royal entourage and waved to the Queen.
As he approached, Queen Cleo introduced him.
“This is my son, the Prince.”
He bowed to the Princess, eyes struggling to avert from her beauty. The Queen noted the slip in his etiquette. The Queen also noted the slightness of her curtsy in reply.
“Our Prince is building a new tower along the march, to defend the land against the barbarians, whose yearly raids he has prevented thrice now.”
“To— today,” he stuttered, “the engineers and I are deciding where would be the best placement for the new tower.”
The eyes of the Princess scanned the landscape, then scanned the Prince’s face. He blushed and she leaned in. “Did you ask your mother her opinion?”
“If he did, I would not answer.” The Queen let one hand rest on her son’s broad shoulder. The cat climbed up her arm and settled on the neck of the Prince. “He has been doing this for years. He knows war and the wall better than I.”
“And,” said the Prince with a look over his shoulder, “the engineers know their craft better than I.”
Geneviéve turned to Cleo. “Yet, you are a wise woman. And, the Queen! Aren’t your thoughts as valid as his?”
“The wise defer from a position of ignorance.”
“Well,” said the Princess, setting her eyes to the land for the second time in her life. “I think over there would be a good place, near those trees.”
The Prince’s brow lowered. He put a hand to his chin, his eyes flipping and flagging between the Princess and the trees. Queen Cleo could see he was considering surrender. Not all wars and walls are the same.
The Princess smiled sweetly. “We are to be equals, yes?”
Cleo set her hand on Geneviéve’s shoulder this time. “Will you also be manning the tower you propose, my Lady?”
The Princess lost the grace of her eyes. “I… of course not.”
“It is required that all young men, including the Prince—especially my son—should man the wall. Would you not also be equal in that?”
“But, I am not familiar with—” She roused herself, found some semblance of grace again. “In any case, a Lady should be permitted to stand the wall, if she so chooses.”
The Queen nodded. “My son and his men do not choose. They are obligated.”
“Obligated?” The word sounded like profanity in the mouth of the Princess. “Nobody should be forced to do such a thing. It is barbaric.”
Cleo stared across the ancient wall, over the forests of the march, into the west. She imagined some barbarian chiefess, lost over the horizon, staring eastward over the forests toward her. But, she could not even see the horizon. The sky was darkening with a swift summer storm.
“The march is barbaric,” said the Queen. “So, somebody must stand the wall.”
After niceties, and a Prince’s kiss on a Princess’s cheek, they left Cleo’s son to his work and walked to the Royal House. The rain began gently and windless, with the quiet promise of a downpour.
“Fair Geneviéve,” said the Queen, once they were safely inside the House. “Please choose your room from among the many guest rooms. Test the beds. I want you to have the most comfortable sleep we have to offer.”
“I am sure, your grace, that you keep an impeccable House.”
“Even so,” said the Queen, petting her cat as if her thoughts were leagues away. “I want your night to be restful, and the bed to match your form.”
“I know my body better than anyone,” she granted. But, the eyes of the Princess showed that she also knew she was being tested.
So, Geneviéve tasked her ladies-in-waiting to examine every guest room and every guest bed, and the Princess herself measured each against the weight of her body, to ensure she selected the softest and most luxurious mattress in the entire House.
At the end of her search, Princess Geneviéve announced to the Queen her choice: the Lavender Room in the northeast corner of the House, overlooking the Royal Gardens, a carefully landscaped view with no wild corners in it.
The Queen nodded, with both sides of her head this time. “You have chosen the most comfortable bed in my House, reserved for only our most esteemed guests. A wise selection.”
The Princess beamed under Queen Cleo’s praise.
As the Princess’s retinue unpacked their luggage, and prepared the Lavender Room and its suite of servant’s chambers, the Queen retired to the balcony of her own chamber, overlooking the golden hills and dark forests to the west. The rain had come and gone, as fleeting as an afternoon’s doubt, but its scent still rose from the land.
Cleo sat on a chair her husband had given her—a wooden chair, not the throne—and stroked the gray fur of her cat under the open orange sky of evening.
“What do you think, my Doué?”
“She is quite fair of form.”
Cleo pinched the cat’s neck, and earned an angry mew.
“Do not taunt a Queen, you failed mouser.”
“I never fail a task I never try,” replied the cat.
“No doubt she will expect our wooded kingdom’s celebrated soup for dinner.”
“No doubt, wise Cleo.” The cat pressed his ear into her chin. “Cream for me, please, but a visiting Princess will want your soup.”
“And, so she’ll have it. But I have a task for you to try, and no mouse to murder in it.”
The cat purred. “Then I will try it.”
“Go to the cook, and have her make the soup. But give her my direction: too much salt by half.”
“Oh, you do have a mouse in mind!” The cat leaped from her lap. The chair creaked as the Queen’s weight shifted. “Not a gray mouse, but golden-furred.”
“Golden-haired. We do not call it fur, you flea-trap.”
“Call not a trap what shares your fleas with you.” The cat swiped at her royal shin.
“I’ll feed you carrots.”
Doué wrapped his body around her ankles. “Is that all, my Queen?”
“And tell the maids to use the special tableware tonight.”
The cat sat and folded back his ears. “That which your late King commissioned as a jest?”
Queen Cleo grinned sidelong, a winsome grin the old cat had not seen decorate her face for years. She seemed again, despite her gray, a girl. “He had a manly humor.”
“I was but a kitten then,” said Doué. “I’ll take your royal word for it.”
“You were gray even as a kitten, and I have met you there.” The Queen leaned back to take in the sky and the failing sun. The chair complained under her leaning. “I suspect your were born old, senile before you opened your eyes.”
And, hearing that, the cat ran off to do his mistress’s bidding.
But, to tell the truth, although the maids were quite delighted to lay out the late King’s mischievous tableware, Doué could not move the cook to spoil the soup. So, he took it upon himself to bat the shaker over (in the obstinate way of cats) and spill salt himself into the boiling pot of soup.
At dinner, four sat among the standing servants: Queen and Prince at north and south the table, crosswise Princess Geneviéve and Doué.
The table cloth was white and embroidered with a green and gray swirl of flowers. And, the late King’s roguish tableware was there. Thick tallow thrust from lumpish sacks of brass, wax trailing veins down purple shafts. Bowls like doubled leaves, soft buttons pinched at one end, cupped moist soup before the diners.
Except before the cat, who instead lapped and splashed at cream. He seemed to delight on leaving little white droplets along the plump lips of the bowl.
“My son,” said Cleo. “How is the soup?”
The Prince lowered his brow. The Queen could see him struggling against surrender. He shrugged. “It’s very good. As always.”
The Princess worked her lips against each other. “It is a bit salty, your grace.”
The Queen nodded, and winked at the cat. “I agree. Too salty by half.”
Geneviéve thought about it, emboldened. “Also, it could use less nutmeg. And maybe a little more mace.”
Cleo winked a darker wink at her Doué. He arced a dollop of cream at the Princess with his tongue.
The Princess shrank, but the cream never reached her. “Your cat has poor table manners.”
“He does,” said the Queen, “and he refuses to chase mice. But, my husband gave him to me, so I suffer his ill ways.”
The Princess surveyed the room, the servants, the Prince, the table. “Your grace, these candles.”
“Yes?” said the Queen.
The Princess winced. “They’re very thick for dinner candles. I mean, they look like… you know.”
The servants stifled a chuckle, which Cleo saw, but Geneviéve did not.
“I do see the resemblance, now. And those bulbous brass holders.” The Queen tsked her tongue against teeth. “My Lady, they make you uncomfortable?”
“Oh they’re quite masculine and menacing,” said the Princess. “Are they fit for the table?”
“Perhaps not.” The Queen let her pale blue eyes fall on the maids and footmen, to let them know to quiet their mirth. “And these bowls, fair Geneviéve, now that I give them a fresh look! Do they not remind you of… you know?”
The Princess studied the folded leaves of her bowl, softly curved edges gently tapering toward the ends.
“Oh!” Her eyes glowed like stars. “Yes, my Queen, they’re quite feminine and beautiful!”
Cleo dismissed the soup and called for wine and meat. The wine came, thick and dark and rough on the tongue, followed by plates of lamb and pickled radish.
The Queen noted that the Prince’s admiring eyes never left the Princess. “Have you settled on a site for your tower, my son?”
“My engineers did,” said the Prince. “They know the march, and where the foe will fall.”
Geneviéve groaned. “You shouldn’t have to stand the wall, my Prince. If only those barbaric men weren’t so mad with brutality and pillage!”
Queen Cleo tasted her wine, considering the Princess.
“My girl, do you know why they raid our kingdoms?”
The Princess considered it and found a ready answer. “Violence is in their nature.”
The Queen cut a radish with knife and fork, secretly delighting that the Princess had not yet noted the erotic cast of the handles.
“Just as our princes cannot become kings until they take a wife, their barbarian sons cannot wed until they’ve pillaged. Their mothers and sisters, who arrange and approve each marriage, send them off with a warning to come home with their shields or carried dead on them.”
The Queen lifted the cut radish to her mouth and chewed, as the mouth of the Princess was open and empty.
“And when they return from a raid, the women count and contrast their wounds to rank them according to their worthiness of a wife.”
Geneviéve closed her mouth and started to think, cutting her lamb with the impish silverware. Cleo watched her think, and suspected she was comparing her account of things to the hearsay of her own kingdom. “But why would they do such things?”
“I do not know the ways of the kingdom of words, fair Geneviéve, but here our women weave and sew and crush grapes and cook. The famed soup of our wooded kingdom is the late Queen’s own récipé. And this table-cloth, itself embroidered by my own hand when I was but a princess.”
The Princess did not look at the green and gray flowers of the table cloth. She looked at her own pink fingertips, which had never known a thimble.
Doué flicked another dollop of cream at the Princess. Cleo hissed at him, and he folded his ears and fled the table.
“Dear Princess Geneviéve, barbarian women know nothing of industry but hearsay. How else are they going to drape themselves in silks and furs that they do not themselves fashion? How else can they sip fine wines over their half-cooked pork if their barbarian men do not risk their blood and limbs for it?”
After dinner, with the Prince and Princess retired to their rooms, the Queen settled into her balcony chair overlooking the wooded march. The stars shone clear, unsmothered by the lanterns that swarm the streets of larger cities, and Cleo could see the very tracks of the universe written there to be read, by those with eyes open to read.
She dismissed her ladies-in-waiting, and summoned the cat to her lap with a faint gesture of her hand.
“My Doué, where have you been? I thought you’d run off to the Prince’s bed for the night.”
The cat huffed at the thought. “Your son’s feet are washed of late, probably in hopes of the Princess’s company.”
The Queen scrubbed that thought from her mind and petted the cat as he kneaded her stomach.
“So, where then?”
“Hunting your mouse, my Queen.”
“Don’t taunt me, fur-cough. Tell me your espionage.”
He settled himself into a coil.
“As she submitted her golden hair to the comb, the Princess commented on your green pearl.”
The Queen reached one hand to touch the gem at her breast.
“Did she? My husband’s gift?”
The cat purred and offered an ear to the Queen fingernails.
“Oh, yes. She opined grandly that the King gave you a pearl that looks like a pea to symbolize your role as a woman, properly in the kitchen.”
The Queen’s fingernails paused, then recommenced their attentions to Doué’s furry gray head.
The cat purred. “To reduce the Queen to a kitchen wench.”
“Kitchen wench. We do not use such words here, cat. We do not slander those who serve us.”
“Her words, my Queen. Not mine.”
Cleo tucked her nails under the cat’s chin. “You’ll make a mouser yet.”
The Queen leaned into the chair, which creaked under her weight, and took in the pale night sky with pale blue eyes.
“I have another task for you, Doué, if you’re not yet for sleep.”
“Cats never truly sleep, my Queen. We often pretend, to win the affection of humans.”
Cleo laughed. “You’re such a ready liar. That will help with what I’m about to ask of you. Rush off now to the Lavender Suite and whisper to the ladies-in-waiting this ruse: that sometimes seeds of mustard end up in mattresses, because the seeds are measured in the shop on Traders’ Street next door to the mattress maker.”
The cat purred with the intrigue. “Oh, that lie will sound quite the truth in the ears of the Princess. We are a match in our deceptions.” He bit her hand, but gently.
The Queen swatted his head. “There is no lie in that, you fuzzy rogue. Only a truth that doesn’t match the perfect bed in her room. If a falsehood is made of it, she’ll make it.”
Doué leaped from Cleo’s lap. As the Queen adjusted to the lost weight, the chair creaked and crackled. The cat peered into the weary blue eyes of his mistress and saw fear there. He said as much, in his cat’s way, with tail and ears and lazily blinking eyes.
The Queen caressed the wood of the chair. “I fear the chair will break, if I am careless. As I fear my son may break.”
“Your son is strong, like his father.”
“You were a kitten, then. You did not know the King.”
Doué turned for the door. “Still, the Prince is a good man.”
“Good men and good chairs are sooner leaned upon,” said the Queen. “Thus sooner broken.”
The Queen resolved to speak with the Princess before sleep. She held her patience until Doué returned from his mission, and left him curled on her bed as she made her way along the lonely corridors of the Royal House.
Received by the Princess, the Queen sat with her on the balcony of the Lavender Room, looking over the gardens, their bright flowers dimmed to the deepest essence of their colors under the gentle light of the stars.
“The Prince is a handsome man, and quite the match,” said the Princess. She tugged at her golden hair. “A good match for the throne his father left him.”
“Our King was a hard man to match,” said the Queen.
Geneviéve let her hands rest on her thighs, thinking. She was always thinking. This was the one hope the Queen had for her, even if it was the thinking of the kingdom of words.
“We shared the wooded land, the King and I.” She permitted her fingers to touch the green pearl at her breast. “One kingdom, but I had my realm her at home and he had his in the field. Even so, I made my eyes open to the scars he earned in his realm, and I counted them.”
The eyes of the Princess fell under a shadow.
“Not because I judged his worthiness thereby, you must know. But because a queen must not shy from things uncomfortable, to her stomach or her vanity.”
The shadow did not lift, but it did shift. “Your grace?”
“I did not envy him the glories and honors he earned in his contests in the field—the people described him as ‘sure and stout’—because I did not envy him the scars he earned those glories and honors with.”
The Princess rubbed her pink fingertips together, emptily, at her breast. “Surely, a queen also has her scars. If not so easily counted.”
“Indeed,” Cleo said. “And, neither did he envy me my scars, nor the descriptors the people may have given me.”
“But, a queen’s scars are not so easily counted and compared.”
“Nor her strengths.”
Geneviéve’s eyes brightened like the dawn.
The Queen let her hands rest upon her thighs. “Fair Princess, there are no absolute truths under the stars, and this also applies to the strengths of men and women. My niece, Princess Vera of the badlands kingdom, is a fine warrior in her own right and has stood beside my son along the wall. And my nephew, Prince Benigno, keeps a more regular House than ever I could. He sends me tapestries and carpets matched precisely to specific rooms in this Royal House, from the memory of his visit here as a mere boy.”
“Ah, yes!” The Princess beamed like a flower under the midday sun. “So we should cast those smothering rules aside.”
“Vera and Benigno are but two,” said the Queen, “and I have many nieces and nephews.”
The golden hair of the Princess dimmed under the night sky. Her shoulders slumped, then regained a semblance of grace. Her lip was bent on one side. “Forced to cleave to form.”
“No fences where none envy a neighbor’s plot. Yet, plots all the same.”
The Queen’s hands rose again to her pearl. She let rough fingertips caress its green smoothness until the Princess met her gaze.
“My husband sent me this pearl from the kingdom on the sea, beyond the southern barbarians. He went there to rescue my sister, who was accused of adultery with King Caleb.”
The Princess gasped. “He raped her?”
“Oh no. He was quite her type. Tall, broad in the shoulders, as strong as a wolf. She flirted with him, a single light jest but with no innocent intention. She meant to measure his interest, and he rebuffed her. But, Queen Lonergan was watching in secret, and was afire with envy. Despite the King’s loyalty, she escalated the charge to adultery-in-full and had my sister thrown into the dungeon.”
The Princess jumped as if the iron doors of a cell had just thundered shut in her own face. “You know this? How?”
“My sister wrote me from her imprisonment, confessing her flirtation and pleading for help. Her lady-in-waiting secreted the note out in her… soup-bowl.”
The golden hair of the Princess trembled. Her brows were knit, in the dance between anger and confusion. This must not have been the story as it had reached the kingdom of words.
“Why then did Caleb not stop the Queen, as strong as he was? Was he not the King? Why did he not force Lonergan to free your sister?”
“I think you know. The strength of arms and shoulders is not the only form of power. A queen has her own strengths, and they can rein in even the most formidable king, for good or for madness.”
Cleo let the pearl rest against her chest.
“Had King Caleb risen against the Queen’s lie, it would look all the more true! The way she’d pinned him, the strongest arms and shoulders could never help him rise from it. King Caleb was strong in the ways of men, but he had no inkling of the strengths of women.”
The Princess thought about it. Queen Cleo took that opportunity to think about it herself.
“Which was something else my sister liked in a man.”
The Queen rose to leave Geneviéve in her thoughts. “I bid you good night and good bed, my Lady. A restful sleep to you, and your fine servants.”
When the Queen returned to her bed, the cat was there, curled into a gray spiral near his pillow.
“Cats never truly sleep,” she said and waiting. Then, she leaned over and pinched his ear.
He spun like a rolling pin and flopped off the bed onto the floor with a growl and a grunt.
“What was that for?” he said, and jumped back onto the bed.
“Just measuring your word against the evidence,” laughed the Queen, turning down the bed herself rather than calling in a servant.
After they had settled into their places, Cleo on her pillow and Doué on his, she blew on the candle and let the night reclaim its hour.
“Dear kitten, do you remember Princess Vera, who wore blue-and-black armor on the Prince’s campaign to the kingdom by the sea?”
“I do. She came back from a hunt and let me taste rabbit meat for the first time,” he said, “and I purred to thank her for showing me that chasing rabbits is a waste of my time.”
The Queen laughed, not out loud, but Doué could feel it in the bed.
“And, curly-headed Prince Benigno, who was here as a boy?”
“I was very young then, but yes. He made a mincemeat pie and gave me my own full slice.” He licked his furry lips. “If mice tasted of Benigno’s mincemeat, such a good mouser I would be!”
“What do you think they would say of our Princess Geneviéve? I have my own thoughts, but cats see things that maybe I have missed.”
“They’d see she is fair of form,” he jested, but then said: “And quick of eye and mind.”
The night was quiet around them, and still but for the flicking end of Doué’s tail.
“Zeal,” said the Queen, pulling the quilts tighter around her. “Zeal spins the eye so up is down and in is out.”
As the servants lit the House’s fires the next morning, the Queen sent her son to the construction site with a sack of boiled eggs for the engineers, a kiss on the cheek, and the promise of a grand ball at the end of the summer.
“And Geneviéve?” he asked. His mother could see the Princess’s golden curls in his eyes.
“She might attend,” said the Queen. “There will be many Ladies there. We’ll see.”
Then, she climbed the stair to the Lavender Room, with two of her footmen at angles behind her, and gently knocked on the door of the Princess. One of her ladies-in-waiting answered and curtsied and allowed the Queen inside.
The Princess was at the violet dresser, sitting in a mauve chair, having her hair dressed with a lilac comb. Queen Cleo waved the servants away and they filed out of the room like grain. Her two footmen remained just outside the door.
“I trust you slept well?”
The Princess glanced into the mirror, beyond herself and the Queen, at the door. “I hardly slept, your grace.”
Birdsong from the gardens jangled dully against the glass balcony doors, but couldn’t quite get into the room.
She turned in the chair, toward the Queen, but her eyes flashed toward the footmen just outside the door, as if to confirm what she’d seen in the mirror. Then, she glanced over her shoulder at the bed. When her eyes turned to meet the Queen, they were dancing between pain and accusation. Her shoulders were raised as if she wore armor under her dress.
“No matter how I turned, there was a pinch.”
The Queen stepped away and pressed against the mattress with the rough tips of her fingers. “Fair Geneviéve, you had the most comfortable bed in the House. You chose it yourself.”
The eyes of the Princess fluttered, remembering the test. She opened them wide. Her brow softened. Her shoulders sank, but not in defeat. But, the Queen did not turn to see the change. So, the Princess changed her voice.
“I did, your grace. And you do keep an impeccable House.” She thought and thought until a clever thought was found. She let her brows snap closed again like a rabbit trap. “Perhaps the mattress maker doesn’t know how to make beds to support a woman’s curves.”
The Queen, still pressing on the bed, turned her gray head to look at the Princess. “Shall we take your complaint to her?”
“The mattress maker.”
The Princess searched the plum and periwinkle carpet for a replay. “Perhaps she was trained by men and bore their bias.”
That not satisfying the Queen, the Princess searched the corners and iris-colored covings. “And, your grace, it felt like there were seeds in the mattress. Mustard seeds.”
Cleo moved further from Geneviéve, so that the coral bed was between them. She looked at the mattress as if she were peering inside it.
“Tiny mustard seeds?”
“I felt it,” the Princess insisted.
The Queen lifted finger and thumb to her chin and nodded. “There are mustard seeds that occasionally make it into mattresses from the Traders’ Street.”
She let her fingers drop to the green pearl at her breast. “But there were none in yours. I assure you.”
“I felt it!” the Princess cried. Her eyes grew narrow, guessing her dowry was being rejected. She stood from the chair and shoved it rudely aside. “You cannot tell me what I felt!”
“Shall we not put the mattress to the test? We can have it torn apart to see if there are seeds in it.” The Queen snapped her fingers. Before the sound could echo from the carnation walls, the footmen were at her side.
The Princess glared at the footmen as if a pair of pigs had just snorted their way into the room. She gave the Queen a skeptical scowl. “You will not take my word for it? What sort of kingdom questions the word of a Princess?”
The Queen’s eyes were blue like a thin summer sky, her hair like a thick winter storm. “A kingdom where all things must be measured.”
The Princess burned as red as a coal. The Queen waved her servants to the bed.
“Open it,” she said. They grabbed the mattress with rough hands.
“No!” squealed the Princess. “My word must have some weight here!”
The footmen looked anxiously to their Queen, unhappy to displease either her or a visiting Princess. Cleo showed them her own rough fingertips and they froze with the mattress half-lifted in their grip.
“Outside your nestled kingdom, fair Geneviéve, the value of words is measured against the weight of evidence, as gold is measured against the weights of a scale. Shall your word then be the weight measuring the evidence, and thus become as dross and foul the balance?”
The Princess had no words. Or none ready and clever enough to speak. Queen Cleo freed a sigh from her breast and her footmen knew from its weight to leave. They set down the mattress and filed into the hallway.
“When my King would travel, from each kingdom he visited he would send me a gift that blended the local character with something familiar to the wooded kingdom. So, when he arrived in the kingdom by the sea, the first thing he did was send me this pea I wear.” She watched the Princess’s face to see it shrink as the casual slander was repeated to her.
Cleo sat on the bed and fondled the pearl. “A gem from the rocky coast, but the color of a leaf.”
The Princess could not look down at the Queen. She put her hand on the back of the mauve chair, but she could not sit. She ground her lips together, but she could not stay silent.
“He went there to wage war on King Caleb’s men? To rescue your sister?”
“Oh no,” said Cleo, letting her hand fall to her thigh. “Is that what they say in the kingdom of words? That he went to fight and was defeated and captured?”
The free hand of the Princess found the dresser and leaned on it.
Cleo shook her head. “No. He did not bring war to Caleb and Lonergan. Our son did, later. With the help of his cousins. But, no. My husband did not even take his sword.”
A morning breeze rattled the glass doors and, through the gap between them, blew a thin gust of flowers and fields.
“He offered to take my sister’s place, in hope this show of sacrifice would soften Queen Lonergan’s heart. He let himself be shackled and led to the dungeons, expecting at least to see himself thrown into my sister’s cell as she was freed from it.”
The Princess let her legs fold, and sat atop the violet dresser.
“But, Lonergan declared his offer an attack on her moral authority and had her men-at-arms execute them both in the hard, wet darkness of that hole.” Cleo turned to look through the glass doors, away from the Lavender Room and into the cloudless blue sky. “When the Prince rode south on his campaign, I asked the him to bring me Lonergan’s hands and leave her alive. I told him that, as she could not do her own murder with her own hands, but had her men do that for her, she did not need them.”
The lilac comb fell into the chair, then onto the carpet.
Cleo looked at the Princess, who was crouched like a beaten dog.
“The most foolish words I ever spoke, even in rage and grief. And my son was good enough a man not to heed them, knowing I would regret them. Not as cruelty, but as hypocrisy.”
The Queen touched the green sphere again and bent her head to lay her eyes on it. “My King went south to give me my sister, but instead this pea is the last gift he ever gave.”
“My Queen.” Her eyes were soft, as if to grant the Queen her tears.
Cleo shook her gray head. “I will never be your Queen.”