Midnight Hour

The Nameless Queen sipped her port, rolling the blood–dark liquid in her mouth. The night’s rain pattered against the tall leaded glass windows of her sitting room in a gentle susurration. On the mantel, the clock ticked four minutes until midnight.

The door burst open, bouncing against the paneled wall. “… must be planted in winter so that they can grow snow. You see? Grow snow. It is so delightfully simple that I am not certain why no one has thought of it. Grow snow! Then we shall have relief in the heat of the summer.” Her husband strode into the room with his hands tucked behind his back and his brow knit in concentration. Beneath his dark green robe, King Lennart of Stromhold’s broad shoulders presented the picture of a man of action, so long as one did not listen to the irrationality of his words. “Who is next, well? We have not got all day. Unless we stop the clocks, then we would of course, but meals would never come and one should get frightfully hungry. Yes? Who is next?”

One of the ministers who trailed him leaped forward. “What should we do about the ambassador from Itodia? Prince Volis has brought favorable trade terms for the everwood but wants to meet with you directly. We have not given the details of your situation, of course, but he has heard the rumors.”

The queen drew her feet up into the chair and pressed into the high winged back, praying that the king would not notice her until the clock struck twelve.

He tugged at his sandy beard. “Bugger him. Bugger, bugger, bugger. We shall not sell him any everwood at all. Shall we? No. Sell him the wood from the snow trees and then his ships shall freeze and they can skate upon the seas. That will be enough advantage. Who is next? Well? Who is next?”

She closed her eyes. It was bad enough to be with him when his hour of lucidity ended, but she rarely had to face his full raving energy. Another minister slid into place. “We have narrowed the architectural candidates to three and I have their portfolios for you to look at. The first is the one I recommend.”

“Let us see, let us see—” Pages rustled, and then fluttered to the floor. “No, no. There are no ponies here. I distinctly asked for ponies. How shall we have the miniature jousts if there are no—” His voice caught on the word.

Lennart coughed, gagging on the torrent of speech. The next breath was ragged, but the words that followed were clear and lucid. “Your clock is slow.”

As if in response, the clock on the mantel chimed, counting the twelve strikes of midnight. The queen put her feet on the floor and rose to face her husband. “I will have it fixed.”

He stood leaning against a table with both hands spread flat on the surface. Silent now, Lennart nodded. Without moving, as if staying upright took all of his energy, he said, “Ahlgren, your planned forestry project is good. I did not hear anything about transportation to the mills in the winter, however. It is best to plan for that.”

His ministers shifted nervously. The minister of forestry scribbled a note. “Are you considering…?”

As if in answer, Lennart looked out the window at the night rain. It would clear by morning, as it had since he was cursed. “I presume the weather is still perfect? The crops remained unspoiled?” He did not wait for a reply. “Then not yet. But my death will have the same effect. Anything that causes the agreement to break before the seven years are up will void our terms with the witch. Best to plan ahead. Have a report for me by Friday next?”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“Cederquist. The architect you suggest looks like an excellent choice. Thank you for your work in the selection process.” He picked up a page from the floor and put it on the table as the castle steward handed him a quill and his seal. In quick, neat strokes, the king signed his name to approve the plan and stamped it with his seal. He returned both to the steward, since he could not be trusted with either during the other twenty–three hours of the day.

“I am not forgetting you, Rosdahl.” Lennart turned to the other ministers first and responded as quickly as he could to the matters that they had brought up as he roamed the palace. He could hear, and comprehend, but not respond with sense save for this one hour.

She felt a warmth in her gut watching the focus with which her husband answered the questions the ministers had been posing to him throughout the day. His discipline was breathtaking and the reason for it drove a spike through her heart.

He pressed his hands against his eyes between one answer and the next. “Drug me more tonight.” He dropped his hands and for a moment the exhaustion caused by his restless energy during the day showed in fine lines around his eyes. “And if you can get a blindfold on me, I think it is the light that wakes me so early.”

“I can do that,” she said, already imagining how to trick him into thinking the blindfold was a game.

He turned at her voice and gave her the small mocking smile of her courtship, the one that acknowledged their lack of privacy and the desire that accompanied it. A course of answering heat flooded her center. Oh, gods. How she missed him.

Not looking away, Lennert said, “It is unfortunate that Itodia did us the honor of sending a prince as their ambassador. Is there any way to put him off without causing offense?”

Rosdahl hesitated and shook his head. “The rumors, sir… To feel confident, Prince Volis wants to meet with you.”

The rumors of madness would be easier to discredit if they were not true. They had tried to hide it from people and referred to his non–lucid hours as “The King’s Fool” but even so, rumors spread. The despair in his gaze was for her alone. “No luck finding a better double than Jorger, I take it?”

“Not that will withstand close scrutiny, your majesty.”

His cousin Jorger did well enough standing on the balcony to address the people. They had both grown beards to make the illusion a little better, but at any closer than forty feet, he was clearly not the king.

She cleared her throat and the ministers raised their brows, as if surprised to find her present. “Do you want me to meet with him?”

“I do not like asking you.”

“Then it is fortunate that I am offering.”

His eyes crinkled a little and he inclined his head. “It will mollify him, to have the attention of my queen. Thank you.”

Rosdahl shuffled his papers. “Still, sire. He wants to meet with you.”

Sighing, Lennart scrubbed his face again, the weight of fatigue visible through his shoulders. “Then we might have to decline the trade and risk offending Itodia.”

The queen said, “Schedule a costume ball in his honor. If Jorger has a mask, then he will do quite well.”

Lennart’s head came up at that. “Yes. Yes, and I can meet with the prince after.”

Again, Rosdahl hesitated and for a moment her husband’s control snapped. “I cannot meet with him in the day. This might seem eccentric, but at least I will be sane.”

The fire crackled in the hearth as his words filled the dark corners of the room. Against the windows, the night rain continued.

Lennart nodded and his gaze flicked to the clock on the mantel—the one that she needed to have fixed. He had half an hour left, maybe less since the clock was slow.

He wet his lips. “Gentlemen. May I ask you to withdraw? I will speak with you tomorrow night.”

“There are still a few issues—”

“My wife’s mother died two weeks ago and you did not tell me. I had to overhear a chambermaid.” He turned, glaring at them. “I want to give her half of my hour, gentlemen. Now.”

To their credit, they did not waste his time with arguments. The clock on the mantel ticked forward as they shut the door behind them. She shivered in the sudden silence. Her husband stood for a second, utterly still, and then he came to her and wrapped her in his arms.

His body was as firm as it had been when they married. She leaned into him, taking comfort in his strength and stillness. When the King’s Fool took him, he could not be still.

His lips brushed her forehead. “I am so sorry.”

“I am not.” She tasted the salt on his skin. “I miss her. I will grieve. But I do not regret the choice to stay here.”

“I do.”

“It was not your choice. ”

“I think it was, even if it was a choice made five years ago.”

“Then it was a choice I made as well.”

His breath was warm on her cheek as he sighed. “Why did you not tell me?”

She pulled back. He had only an hour each day. How could she be so selfish as to ask him to spend it comforting her? “Because there was nothing to be done. It was not as if I could go home to Surnway for the funeral.”

He sighed and released her. “You were not supposed to pay a price beyond your name.”

The price to stop a plague and a famine. They had traveled to Surnway, to a witch that had advised the queen’s father from time to time. It was the last time she had been homethe last time she had left the castle.

But nothing came for free. In exchange for stopping the plague and the famine, Lennart agreed to seven years without rational thought. A price that he could stop paying at any time by saying his wife’s name. And she… she could regain her name by leaving the castle. Either would break their agreement and the plague would resume.

“I suspect she thought we would have cracked by now.”

Lennart gave a half–laugh. “I am getting close to it some nights.”

“Two more years, love.” Twining her fingers in his, she raised her mouth to his lips. He gave her a silent answer as the clock ticked out the seconds they had left.

With a sour smile, he lifted his head and glanced at the clock. “Twenty minutes of lucidity. How would you like to spend them?”

“I believe we had marital duties on the agenda tonight.”

“Yes, but—”

“My mother died two weeks ago.” She slid the button of his waistcoat free. “I would like to have you to myself before the hour ends. And that clock is slow.”

Without a word, she took his hand and led him into the bedchamber. She wanted to be slow and leisurely, but they had only a quarter of his hour left.

Two of those minutes were lost to disrobing.

In their quest for an heir, she had borne two daughters that he could not be trusted to meet during the day, and a son who had not survived the month. Lennart’s body was capable, but there was no tenderness, no love in their coupling during the day.

The queen placed her hands upon his bare chest and pushed him to lie back upon the bed. He slid his hands up her arms and pulled her down to lie atop him. The heat of his body warmed her skin. Feather–light, he traced patterns upon her spine.

Smiling, she kissed his neck, nibbling the surprisingly soft skin there. His beard tickled her cheek as she worked her way up to the lobe of his ear. He rewarded her with a soft exhalation of pleasure.

His fingers tightened on her buttocks. “You should let me—”

“Hush.”

“But while I can—” He moaned as her other hand found its way lower. “While I can think of you, you should—”

“Hush.” She sat back, straddling his hips, and ran her fingers down the wiry hair of his chest. “I never get to do this.”

She had trapped the length of him, pulsing, beneath the weight of her body. Rocking her hips forward, she slid against him and relished the heat that ran up her spine. He traced circles around her knees and her toes curled against his thighs in response.

Bending forward, she kissed his chest, taking the tip of one nipple into her mouth. He gasped and his body rose to meet hers. She lifted her head to meet him, but Lennart was looking past her to the mantel, and the clock upon it.

She leaned forward, letting her hair fall over his chest and block his view of the clock. It did not matter what time it said, they would know when the hour was up.

Pressing her lips against his, she opened her mouth to him. Her own gasp lifted her as his hand found the tender space between her legs. Back arching with a current of heat, she rose onto her knees. With a last squeeze, she guided him into her, relishing his obvious pleasure.

Hips rising to meet hers, Lennart rested his hand against her stomach. “I—”

The clock chimed one.

He gagged, back tightening in a spasm. With a ragged sob, he curled inward, face twisting in anguish.

She rested her hands on his chest. Beneath her palms, his heart lunged with panicked beats. She met his gaze and gave him a smile. “I love you, too.”

“I, I, I, I am— I—” His hands slapped against her hips, fingers digging into the flesh above the bone. She ground her teeth as he lifted her up and down, slamming against him. She grabbed his hands, trying to loosen his grip even a little.

Sobbing, he thrust upward with hoarse grunts. With each push into her, his lips bared in a snarl. She tried to ride up with him, so that the bright point of pain in her middle would be less sharp, but his grip tightened. “I— I— I am thinking of getting a puppy. A puppy would be so nice, would it not? Not a little yappy thing, oh no. This would be for hunting.” Tears still ran down his cheeks, but his voice was cheery. “I do so like to hunt although it has been too long. Why has it been so long? Why? Why not go at once?”

“Later, my love. After we play hide and seek.” The nameless queen brushed the tears from his cheeks and forced a smile.

Her husband was still inside, and he could see her.

The fountain trickled in the roof garden and the queen permitted herself to close her eyes and simply listen. The warmth of sunlight played across her arms with just enough breeze to be the perfect temperature.

Every day in Stromhold had perfect weather.

Every night had perfect rain.

The sound of footsteps on gravel called her back to herself and she smiled as her eldest daughter ran up the path to her. “Mama! Mama!”

“We do not run, Judit.”

Slowing to a walk that was only barely not a run, the little girl waved her hands with excitement. She glanced over her shoulder at the door from the tower and skipped the last few steps. “Mama! Is that Papa?”

Holding her smile steady, the queen looked down the path to the tall man who had stepped onto the roof with Rosdahl. She stood, continuing to smile. “No, my dear. That is the Itadeian ambassador, come to pay me the honor of a visit.”

Judit’s face fell. “When will Papa come?”

“On your birthday. He will tuck you in and read you a story.” She glanced around and caught the eye of her daughter’s nurse. “Go inside now, my dear, and I will see you at tea time.”

With a proper curtsey, like the princess she was, Judit said farewell and followed the nurse back inside. The tension between the queen’s shoulders relaxed a little. It would not suit for the Itodian ambassador to know that the princess was unable to recognize her own father. Prince Volis and her husband were of a height, but Volis had hair the color of a moonless sky while Lennart’s was old hay.

She held out her hand to acknowledge him. “Prince Volis. So good of you to join me.”

He took her hand and extended his leg in a formal court bow, just brushing his lips to the leather of her gloves. “Your majesty. The invitation is an honor.” Straightening, he glanced around the rooftop garden. “Is your husband able to join us?”

Rosdahl stepped forward, hands clenched so his ring of office was prominent. “I do apologize, but his Royal Majesty was detained.”

“Again.” His dark eyes narrowed. “That is unfortunate. I hope he is not unwell.”

The queen laid her hand upon his arm. “Not at all. But as a prince, you must understand that his duties are sometimes more demanding than he would like.”

“Of course. It is only a difference in customs between our kingdoms. My father greets ambassadors at the gates to the keep.”

She smiled at the rebuke, as if they were truly discussing customs. “In Stromhold, we consider it a kindness to allow visitors, regardless of rank, time to recover from their journey before being subjected to the rigors of protocols. I suppose we should both be thankful that we do not live in Esseland or we would be meeting over a bowl of brain pudding.”

He snorted at that with a half–smile and inclined his head. “Please, then, accept my thanks for the ample time I have had to recover from my journey. I was in Surnway before I came here.”

Her smile faltered at the name of her homeland. “Did you…” She cleared her throat. “Were you there for my mother’s funeral?”

“Your mother?”

“The queen.”

“Ah. My apologies. No one mentioned that she had a daughter. You have my sympathy.” His gaze measured her. “I did attend, but I was there to meet with someone else.”

“A lady?” She teased, trying to move the conversation past the point of pain. The witch had wiped out her name everywhere. She had known that. The curse had only two more years left.

“Something like that.” He looked beyond the parapet of the rooftop garden to the rolling hills of Stromhold. “As my father’s third son, I am supposed to go on a quest to prove my worth.”

“A quest? What an intriguing custom.” She gestured beyond the walls of the palace. “We have excellent hunting, and you should take advantage of it.”

“Thank you. I had received your husband’s note with an invitation to do so… Although, again, I had hoped to see him on the ride.” He cocked his head, smiling so that a dimple reduced the censure of his words. “Perhaps you would care to ride with me, in his stead?”

“Alas. I have not ridden for years.”

“That is unfortunate.”

“Well, as a young woman, one might do many things that are less appropriate for a queen.”

“Hm.” He studied her, his dark eyes sparkling in the sun.

“We must find another way to entertain you, I think.” She laughed, and turned away to finger the petals of a peony. “Perhaps a ball? Would you like that?”

“Do you dance, or is that also a part of your youth?”

“I do.” She turned and he had moved to stand just behind her. She had not heard him take a step at all, but now he was so close that she had to tilt her head back to look up at him. “With my husband.”

“Oh? Will he be there, then?”

“Yes.” She smiled and tried to recall how to flirt. “And I will tell him that he must meet with you.”

To someone who did not know him, the man she was dancing with could well have been her husband. His cousin, Jorger, had his build and the family’s coloring. The sun mask covered the fact that his nose, cheeks, and brow were all wrong.

And the Nameless Queen provided the rest of his disguise.

They reached the end of the set, and gave their courtesies to their partners.

Coming from the side, unavoidable without giving offense, was a man with dark hair over a raven’s mask. Prince Volis. She tightened her grip on her escort’s arm as a warning.

Turning, she smiled at the ambassador through her golden owl mask. “Prince Volis. May I present you to my husband, King Lennart of Stromhold?”

He gave a full, correct, court bow in the Northern style, with bent knee and hands swept wide. The sleeves of his dark doublet made wings for his mask. “Your majesty. I am honored.”

“Are you enjoying the ball, your highness?” The timbre of Jorger’s voice was a bit too nasal, but mixed with the music, it served well enough.

“I am, your majesty.” The Itodian ambassador straightened, head cocked to the side to look past the beak of his mask. “Though, I hope you will forgive me for suggesting that I did not come to Stromhold for a ball.”

“Of course not.” Jorger gestured to the dais, where Rosdahl awaited them. “Come up where it is a little quieter and tell me something of your purpose.”

As they moved to the dais, a liveried servant saw them and, at a nod from Rosdahl, brought a smaller chair and set it between the thrones. Directly behind the chair, a pierced screen stood, draped with greenery for the occasion.

And behind the screen, hidden from view, her husband was tied to a chair. During his lucid hour, he had instructed them to chase him down before the ball, bind him, gag him, and then place him behind the screen so that he could see and hear the opening conversation with Volis.

The queen smiled at the screen as though she admired the greenery, but her smile was for Lennart. She spread her skirts as she sat and a muffled groan slid through a gap in the music.

The Itodian prince raised his brows. “Have you a ghost?”

The queen laughed, fixing her gaze on him. “You sound like my daughters. It is only the wind.”

With the bird mask, it was impossible to tell what he thought. The cock of his head might be curiosity or a disbelief. “Ah. I thought it might be related to the curse.” He laughed, eyes bright within the mask. “But of course, curses are also tales for children, are they not?”

Her breath caught. He knew about their agreement—Oh dear gods. The woman he said he had visited in Surnway. The quest. She swallowed. The witch was not content to let them complete the terms of their agreement.

Thankfully Rosdahl stepped forward to distract them. “If it please, your majesty, his highness Prince Volis and I have been having some favorable conversations about terms.”

For a moment, she thought Rosdahl referred to the terms of the witch’s agreement, and then realized it was about the everwood. Was that simply a pretense?

The beak of the bird mask swung around to face Jorger. “Of course, I do not want to press, if your health does not allow it.”

“If my health is your only concern then please, feel free to press. You are interested in our everwood, I understand.” Jorger leaned back in the throne and the sun mask he wore caught the light so it shone.

He listened to the ambassador speak, nodding where appropriate to encourage the man to continue but otherwise he hid any thoughts behind his mask. All of this, of course, was just so that Lennart could see and hear Volis before they met. So much effort to create the illusion of a man in control of his kingdom.

At length, Rosdahl approached the throne and leaned down to whisper in Jorger’s ear. Jorger listened and then waved him away as they had arranged. “My minister has reminded me that this is a ball. I need to mingle with our other guests, but would like to continue this conversation. Though it is late, let us speak after the dance.”

“After…?”

“Yes.” Jorger stood, settling the sun upon his face more firmly. “I find that I often get my best work done at night while the rest of the world sleeps.”

The Itodian prince rose with the king. “Well, then. May I ask for the privilege of your queen’s hand for a dance?”

In the space before Jorger spoke, a muffled howl gave the true king’s answer. Volis began to look toward the screen, but the queen stepped forward and placed her hand on Prince Volis’s arm. “Of course. I would be delighted.”

The queen followed Rosdahl down the hall, her skirts lifted to move more quickly. A pair of the King’s Own Guard stood by the door. The nearest one shook his head. It was nearly one o’clock and Lennart was still in the room with the Itodian prince. The plan had been for him to leave the audience at ten till the hour, to have time to get away before the King’s Fool came out. They had only two minutes of lucidity left.

Rosdahl turned to her. “Just tell him it’s—”

“Our daughter—I know.” If it appeared to be anything but a personal matter, Prince Volis would know he was being put off again. She put her hand on the door to enter. It was locked. Why was it locked? The queen knocked rapidly. She did not have to feign urgency. “Lennart? Judit is ill. I know it is nearly one o’clock but can you—?”

The door to the audience chamber flew open and bounced against the wall with a bang. Lennart burst out of the room. He looked to Rosdahl, who held up a watch. One minute remaining.

“Damn it.” Lennart turned and sprinted down the hall, flanked on either side by his guards. One was already pulling restraints from his belt.

Through the door, Prince Volis was visible, head cocked to the side like a bird. On the mantel behind him, the clock showed a quarter till one.

All through the palace, other clocks struck the hour. Lennart staggered.

He dropped to one knee. The echoes of one o’clock tolled around them and still he tried to stand, reaching for the guardsman with the last vestiges of himself.

The bells silenced and Lennart slapped the man away. With a snarl, he turned back towards the audience chamber. His guards, bless them, tried to restrain their king without harming him, but the King’s Fool had no such compunctions. He used every skill he had known, fighting them off and all the while he chanted, “Lying bastard. I’ll show him. I’ll show him. We have a dungeon, we do, and I know how to use it and not just for keeping the bears in, oh no. It’s for lying bastards.”

She pulled the door closed on the ambassador, even while knowing it was too late. He had already heard the raving. Still. He did not need to see it. The queen turned to her husband and lifted her skirt to the knees. “Lennart?” Bending, she gave him a coquettish smile. “Catch me if you can!”

And like magic, his fight with the guards was forgotten. Lennart laughed. “Games! I love games. Of all things, I like games best. What shall be my reward if I catch you?”

The queen did not answer him. She simply ran, trusting that he would chase her back to their own quarters and the thick walls and the locks.

The queen opened her eyes, unsure of what had woken her. She lay in bed, tangled in the sheets with Lennart. The heavy curtains shrouded the bed, keeping them in an intimate rectangle of privacy. At her side, Lennart lay in the dim blue shadows with his head sprawled on the pillow, jaw slack beneath the blindfold she’d wrapped around his eyes. She laid a hand on his chest to see if he had also awoken, but the slow steady rhythm of his breath meant that the drugged wine still held him in its grip.

In slumber, she could more easily recognize the man she had married. Always, he had presented a firm, controlled presence to the public and only in their rooms had he been vulnerable. The arrival of the King’s Fool did not change that, in some ways, because when he was awake the energy kept him in frenetic motion.

She stayed away from him during the day, because he loved her. That manifested in predictable ways, without regard for who was in the room with them. When he woke, they would likely copulate again, and then play games over breakfast. She was his favorite playmate, but it broke her heart.

In the quiet of the night, it was easier to be with him. The queen came more fully awake. The quiet. The clock had stopped ticking.

She sat up in bed and reached for the curtain. Drawing it back a little, she peered into the room.

Prince Volis stood by the mantel, with a shuttered lantern in his hand.

Swallowing, the queen glanced behind herself to make certain Lennart was still asleep. She should call for the guards, but did not want to chance waking him if it was avoidable. He had been… volatile after his meeting with the prince. The madness often reflected his true emotions, but without any rationality. Having the man actually in his chambers seemed fraught with potential.

Sliding out of the curtains, the silk of her nightdress hissed against the heavy drapes. Volis turned, a narrow beam from the shuttered lantern slicing across the room. It blinded her just enough that she could not see his features, though her own must be quite apparent.

She laid a finger on her lips and pointed to the door. Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she walked towards the door. He did not let her reach it.

Volis stepped in front of her and grabbed her by the upper arm. She pulled back, but his grip was too strong.

Heart racing, she glanced over her shoulder at the bed. Surely, she was far enough away to chance whispering without waking Lennart. “I will give you the opportunity to depart before I call the guards.”

“They will not come.”

A chill ran down her spine. “What—what have you done to them?”

“I was given a magic flute.” He shrugged carelessly. “They are asleep.”

“You are lying.”

He shook his head. “No, madam. I am on a quest. The Kingdom of Stromhold is under a curse, and I intend to break it.”

“With perfect weather, prosperity for our subjects? Peace with our neighbors? Oh yes, I can see why this would be portrayed as a curse by a jealous nation.”

“You do not mention a mad king who has been in hiding for five years. A castle that is haunted. Or a queen without a name.”

“Is that your excuse for breaking into my bedchamber?”

“Did you drug the King tonight?”

Sweat ran in rivulets under her gown. “He is asleep as any rational person would be at this hour.”

“Hm. Erina? Helge? Rika?” He rattled off the three names and lifted the lantern so it shone square in her face.

She raised her free hand to shield her eyes. “What are you doing?”

“Krona? Istell? Sirune? Hariel? Ena?”

As his voice rose, a groan answered from the bed. The queen glanced behind her. “You must go.”

“Simply tell me your name, madam, and I shall.”

Her mouth opened, searching for a false name to give him.

He drew her closer, grip implacably hard against her arm. “It will be obvious if you lie, since the curse you laid upon this kingdom will still hold.”

She shook her head. “You have been lied to.”

“You do have a name?”

“There is a difference between a curse and a price.”

“I see…” He turned, dragging her by the arm towards the door. “Well, I was told you would not answer, and that seems true enough.”

She stumbled along at his side. Once they were in the halls of the castle, someone would see them. She could scream. She should have screamed already, but Lennart would kill anyone that he thought was hurting her.

The groan repeated with the sound of cloth shifting. And then Lennart laughed. It raised the hackles on the back of the queen’s neck as the laughter went on and on and on.

Prince Volis stopped, looking over his shoulder at the bed. “My gods.”

“Guards!” She put her free hand on his arm and pulled him toward the door. She might as well have been pulling a wall. “For the love of all you hold dear, we need to get out before he—”

“You—you are afraid of him?” Volis tilted his head, dark eyes wide as he stared down at her.

“I am afraid of what he will do to you. Guards!”

“Tra la la! Who is in my bedchamber?” Lennart threw the curtains aside. He stood on the bed, framed by the velvet drapes. He wore nothing save the blindfold, pushed up on his forehead like a black crown. He was erect and grinning.

The queen turned as far toward him as she could, trembling. “Good morning, my love. What game shall we play?”

“Oh! I should like to play patty–cake or maybe have some cakes. Are there any cakes? I like—”

Light flared in the room as Volis opened the shutter on the lantern. The illumination revealed the sword upon his hip.

Lennart’s grin dropped away. “You.”

“The ambassador has come to play with us.” She had to divert his anger. “Did you not, Prince Volis?”

“Thief!” Snarling, Lennart jumped down from the bed. He staggered as he landed, eyes still fogged from the drugged wine. Lennart widened his stance and as he straightened, the lantern light played over the scars he bore from battles past. “You came to steal my wife. I saw you. I saw you coveting her and dancing with her and touching her and I will not have it. She is my wife and will not play games with you.”

The queen held out her free hand to Lennart. “I do not want to play games with anyone but you. Come—come play with me.”

Lennart snatched up a silver vase and threw it at Volis. Flowers and water tumbled to the ground as it flew wide, not coming close enough to threaten.

Twisting her arm behind her, Volis yanked the queen backwards. A brief cry escaped her before she bit it off.

“Don’t hurt her. Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare hurt her.” Lennart stumbled toward them, knocking over a chair in his way.

“Leave me. He won’t chase you if I’m here.”

“I was told there was more than one way to break the curse.”

“Leave me!” She stomped on Volis’s foot.

He swore but did not let go. The queen stumbled in his wake as he dragged her toward the door. By all the gods—He was going to take her out of the castle. Would it count if she did not go willingly? Knowing the witch, it would, and their five years of sacrifice would be for nothing.

The queen sought the king’s gaze. “Catch me if you can!”

Volis threw open the door to their bedchamber and hauled her through it. The guards were absent, as the prince had said.

Behind them, Lennart laughed and then howled. “He shall not have you. Thief! Thief! Bring me back my wife or I shall grind your bones to make my bread! Bread from bones. Bone bread. Bone bread. Break bones bread.” He giggled and that was almost worse than the rage.

With his fingers digging into her arm, the prince strode from her bedchamber into her sitting room. The patter of night rain against the glass mixed with the ticking of the clock on the mantel. It would be over nineteen hours before Lennart was lucid again.

But she could hear her husband, following and cackling. “Break bones! Break bread! Bone break bread!”

She could not let Volis take her out of the castle. It would be on his own head if Lennart hurt him. The queen let her body go limp, and dropped toward the floor. Volis kept his grip on her arm, so she dangled from it.

“Get up.” He tried to lift her, but with one hand encumbered by the lantern her dead weight was too awkward.

Lennart staggered into view, bracing himself against the door frame with one hand. Tonight, of all nights, she had drugged him so heavily that he could barely stand. “Bone break—You killed her!”

Swearing, Volis tried to drag the queen through her sitting room by one arm. She grabbed for the leg of her overstuffed chair and clung to the carved wood.

“I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you dead! Deader than bread.” Lennart snatched the iron poker from beside the fireplace and brandished it like a sword. For all the madness clouding his mind, his body remembered how to fight. Even drugged as he was, he held the length of iron with menacing grace.

Volis dropped the queen.

Her chin smacked against the floor and not even the carpet kept her teeth from biting her tongue at the impact. Tears flooded her eyes as copper warmth filled her mouth. When she rolled over, Volis had set the lantern on a side table.

He reached down and grabbed her around the waist. Standing with a grunt, he threw her over his shoulder.

She twisted, hitting his back with her fists. “Let me go.”

“Thief!” Lennart sprang forward, using the chair to steady himself. He cracked the prince in the ribs with the iron poker.

The man grunted and staggered, dropping the queen again as he caught his heel on the carpet. She tumbled to the ground, her nightgown tangled around her legs. The breath woofed out of her and for a moment she could not breathe.

Volis spun, drawing his sword. It rang against the iron as he blocked another wild swing. As Lennart drew back to swing again, the prince slipped his sword forward and scored a line across Lennart’s naked side.

Her husband put a hand to it and stared at the blood. With a growl, Lennart lifted his fist and beat his head. “Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid! I need to be clever. Lying bastard. I need to be clever.”

The queen pushed to her knees, facing her husband, and drew in a wheezing breath.

“Clever, clever, clever—” Lennart stopped and stared at her. He took a deep breath and for a terrifying moment, lucidity looked out of his eyes at the wrong time of night. “Your name is—”

“No!” With everything she had, the queen lunged forward and punched him in the groin to stop him from saying her name—from breaking their agreement to save her.

His voice choked as if the clock were striking. Her husband dropped to the floor.

The queen grabbed the iron poker as it fell from her husband’s grasp and swung it at the prince.

Volis still stared in horrified astonishment at the king, who was writhing on the ground. The poker caught him in the knee. It buckled under him. He dropped to one knee, raising the sword to fend her off, but the queen was already swinging the poker and the tip of his sword was not enough against even her small strength. The poker pushed past it and smashed into the side of his neck.

Wheezing, he fell forward and she brought it down again on the back of his head.

When he lay still on the ground, the queen crawled across the carpet to Lennart. Her husband lay curled around his pain, with the blood from his side smeared in a crimson wash.

And he was weeping like a child. She pulled him into her arms and pressed the fabric of her gown against the wound in his side. “Oh, my love. I am so, so sorry.”

“He was—he was going to hurt you.” He buried his face in her lap with sobs that racked his body. “I had to—I had to be clever to save you.”

“No, love. No… I am safe. I am with you.” She brushed the tears from her husband’s face. They would speak at midnight and discuss what to do about Itodia and the prince. But for now the King’s Fool was terrified, and hurt, and sobbing. And her husband was still inside. He could hear her and she loved him with all her heart. “There, there, my love. It is all right. Sh… sh… See? I do not need rescuing.”

(Editors’ Note: Amal El–Mohtar reads “Midnight Hour” and Mary Robinette Kowal is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 5A.)

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Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of The Glamourist Histories series of fantasy novels. She has received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, three Hugo awards, and the RT Reviews award for Best Fantasy Novel. Her work has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. Her stories appear in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and several Year’s Best anthologies. Mary, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor, recording fiction for authors such as Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow, and John Scalzi. She lives in Chicago with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Visit maryrobinettekowal.com

Photo Credit: ©2012 Rod Searcey

13 Responses to “Midnight Hour”

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    […] Robinette Kowal’s “Midnight Hour” takes standard fantasy set pieces, including a mad king and cursed queen, to render an […]

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    […] on their novelling careers. You keep publishing strong short fiction, like last year’s “Midnight Hour” in Uncanny Magazine. How do you make time for short stories, and what do you get from them […]

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