The second queen forbade any telling of tales or writing of histories. Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof. Let him that breaks this law see his own hands cut off before he loses his eyes.
You have taken so much more from me, my Queen. But I will tell my story anyway.
Once upon a time, there lived a king and a queen who loved each other as the sunflower loves the sun. Every moment they shared was crowned with joy, and the jewel of that crown was their daughter Lirralei.
Then the queen died, and the king was left forever turning after a sun that no longer existed.
His duty did not permit him to kill himself, so he tried to create the land of the dead around him. The tapestries, the paintings, Lirralei’s silk gowns—all burnt. The dancers, the troubadours, the jesters—dismissed. Hunting, dancing, singing—forbidden. Every soul within the palace must wear black, whisper, and walk with head bowed, as befitted a shade. It was death for any man to bring his wife into the palace, or tryst with a lover, or even steal a kiss. For the king’s heart lay buried in the palace and it was blasphemy to embrace upon a grave.
The only delightful things he allowed to remain were the gentle white tea–roses that his queen had loved. He razed the gardens to make room for them, brought pots and baskets and vases of them into the palace, till every room was filled with their cloying scent, every floor spattered with the white snow of their petals.
Lirralei was a girl of storm–winds and thorns, the musk of the wild rose and the flight of the falcon. Year after year, the black–draped walls of the palace closed in upon her, the quiet courtiers and the mute servants shuffled past her, the spun sugar scent of the tea–roses choked her. She swallowed down the ashes of her father’s love, every day mourning his loss of something she would never be allowed to have, until she thought she would go mad.
One night, mewed up in her room like a falcon that must starve till it was tamed, she looked out at the stars and swore that she would suffer anything, give anything if only somebody could wake her from the endless mourning slumber of the palace. If she could only know this love without which all the world was dust.
Then she remembered a tale she had once heard. And she spilled her blood.
Once upon a time, there was a perfect kingdom. The Queen was wise and just and joyful—for though she had no king, every night Love himself came to her bed and delighted her. She bore him a daughter named Myrra, and raised her with all the love in the world.
Myrra drowned in that love like a fly in honey. She was that fly, the only blot in the perfect sweetness of the kingdom. Her mother gave her dresses and kittens and sweets, took her out riding and allowed her to dance at every grown–up ball. But Myrra fell off her horse, and at every ball she tripped or spilled food or was rude by accident. She was stupid at her lessons, and as for her looks—she was not ugly, but neither lovely: nose too big, lips too thin, her body a jumble of knees and elbows.
Every evening, the Queen came to bid her goodnight. She wore translucent silks, her face painted with rouge and her body anointed with musk, ready for the arrival of Love. One night, Myrra burst into tears when she saw her mother. When the Queen asked her why, she said, “Because you are lovely, and beloved, and I will never be either.”
“Oh, my child.” The Queen embraced her. “Someday you will be a woman, and then you will be lovelier than me, and loved as dearly.” She kissed her forehead. “Someday. But not yet.”
Myrra never complained again. Year after year wore on in the golden palace. She watched her nurses and handmaids and tutors grow older. Some got married and some retired, and new ones took their places. But every day they still dressed Myrra in ruffled childish gowns, gave her dolls and sorbet and confusing lessons. And every spring they celebrated her twelfth birthday.
One evening she looked in the mirror and saw the creases about her eyes, the sun–spots on her cheeks.
“Surely I am a woman,” she whispered.
She imagined herself running to her mother’s chambers and crying, Mother, I am a woman. But she already knew the Queen’s reply: Oh, my darling child. You will be a woman when you are loved.
She remembered her mother’s loveliness: the skin of cream and rose–petals, the slender wrists, the uncreased eyes. Love is ever–young, and the Queen was loved. Myrra was not, so she withered while still a child. She would die a wrinkled hag, without ever becoming a woman.
The fury trembled in her veins and coiled around her throat until she thought she would never breathe again. She seized a china shepherdess and threw it at the hateful image in the mirror.
The glass shattered, breaking the image of her futile decay. But the fact remained. With a sigh, Myrra knelt to gather the pieces of the shattered mirror. They slid in her grip, sliced open her palms. Her blood dripped to the floor, but the pain in her hands was easier to bear than the emptiness in her heart.
“Oh,” she sighed, “I would suffer anything, sacrifice anything, if only I could be a woman, and loved like my mother.”
Someone touched her shoulder.
Once upon a time, seven sisters lived in an old cottage: Knob, Note, Bone, Wisp, Jam, Leaf, and Moan.
They did not share blood, but pain. Knob had lumps on her shoulders. Note had claw–like fingers that could barely move. Bone had legs of different lengths. Wisp’s right arm was half the size of her left. Jam’s words came out sticky and mashed together. Leaf never grew taller than her mother’s hip. Moan could only make one sound.
The eighth sister arrived on a night of wind and rain. Knob heard a thump against the door; when she went to look, a young woman lay curled on the doorstep, rain dripping down her face. Her hair was dark as the cloud–smeared night; her skin was almost white and cold as snow. They thought she was dead, but Leaf dragged her beside the fire and rubbed her wrists and face until she awoke, choking, and coughed out a flower.
In a spasm, she clawed free of Leaf’s hands and flung herself into a corner. She hunched and stared at them like a startled cat.
“It’s all right,” said Leaf, her voice gentle. “We’re just like you.”
The girl didn’t move as Leaf slowly reached forward; when Leaf’s fingers touched her hair, she closed her eyes and shuddered in relief.
Leaf called her Heartsease, after the little purple flower she had spat out when she woke.
Yes, my Queen, you are the fairest woman in the land.
I’m telling you the truth. I am. You cursed me to know everything and never lie.
Heartsease never smiled and never wept. She would not eat or drink, though Leaf spooned soup into her mouth till it dribbled down her chin. She sat by the fire like an abandoned doll, dark eyes glinting from under her long dark lashes.
On the third day, they found that while she breathed, she had no heartbeat.
“She’s a revenant.” Knob hauled her up by the arm. “Back where you came from, gravespit!”
“No!” Leaf seized Heartsease’s other arm. “She can’t be, she isn’t rotting.”
“A witch–thing, then.” Knob dragged them a step closer to the door. Heartsease’s head wobbled; she didn’t look at either of them.
“Cursed, maybe.” Leaf clung to Heartsease like a righteously furious burr. “But she sat still and happy when we said our prayers last night.”
“Happy? This thing?” Knob shook Heartsease. “She wouldn’t notice if we killed her.”
Leaf’s voice was low. “Was I any more human when you found me?”
“Yes,” Knob snarled. But after a moment, she let go. “Watch her every moment,” she said as Heartsease crumpled to the ground. Leaf barely caught her head before it hit the floor. “If she hurts anyone, it’s on your head.”
“She won’t,” Leaf promised, and pressed her face into Heartsease’s dark hair.
Over the next few weeks, Heartsease grew a little more life–like. She would follow Leaf, wobbly but walking on her own, and she would sit and stand and hold things when she was told. But that was all Leaf could coax her to do, no matter how she tried to teach her eating or drinking or cooking or sewing.
Knob shot them sour looks while Jam and Moan huddled away from them. But then Wisp and Bone came down sick with chills and vomiting. The next day, Note, Jam, and Moan were sick as well. Knob and Leaf—too busy to glare—nursed the five of them. Then Knob took ill, and over her protests, Leaf laid her down with the others.
She turned to Heartsease and put a spoon in her hand. “Help me make the broth,” she said.
Heartsease blinked at her. And did.
They worked together until Leaf toppled over and couldn’t stop shivering. When the fever–dream broke, Heartsease sat beside her with a dipper of water. She held it to Leaf’s lips, and when Leaf had finished drinking, she raised it to her own mouth. And drank.
“You learned,” Leaf whispered.
Heartsease lowered the dipper and touched Leaf’s hair as once Leaf had touched hers.
“You learned,” Leaf said again, and fell asleep smiling.
After that, Heartsease ate and drank and learned everything Leaf taught her—except how to speak or smile. Knob called her an idiot and sometimes Jam still shivered at her glance, but they all agreed she was one of them. Soon she became nimble as Leaf at spinning, and the two spent hours working together.
“What’s your name?” asked Leaf. “I mean, was your name, before you came here?”
Heartsease never replied, but Leaf did not give up.
“Don’t you think that cloud looks like a bear?”
“Have you ever heard the tale of the bear and his wife? I know tales are forbidden, but who’s to hear me tell you?”
“Knob boxed my ears again today. I’ve decided you’re my favorite sister.”
“I am not,” said Heartsease, her voice a crumbling dried flower.
Leaf’s hands convulsed on her spinning, but she didn’t glance at Heartsease, who spun a little longer before saying more strongly, “Not. I am not your sister.”
“We’re all sisters,” Leaf said softly. “We’re all the same, and even when we box each other’s ears, we all love each other.”
“I don’t.” Heartsease’s voice was passionless. “I don’t.”
Your daughter is lovely, it’s true. But she weeps and sometimes whines, while you are serene in your beauty. She sweats in the kitchens and gets soot on her face. You glow every morning as you remember the touch of your love.
What else do you remember?
“If you’re not my sister,” said Leaf, “then you must be my friend.”
“Why?” The word drifted out of Heartsease’s mouth like a bit of dandelion fluff.
Leaf paused to squeeze past a bush. Jam had taken another one of her chills, and the village herb–woman wasn’t speaking to them, so they had to gather the medicine themselves.
“Well,” said Leaf, “we love each other, and if we’re not sisters, what else are we?”
“I can’t love,” said Heartsease.
“Why not?” asked Leaf. “You nursed us when we were sick and you don’t smack Knob when she’s bossy. If that’s not love, what is?”
“I do not.” Heartsease’s voice was like dust on a forgotten shelf. “I do not…desire…anything.”
Leaf looked back over her shoulder. “You ran to us. You ran to our doorstep. Why?”
Heartsease stared at her like she was a foreign language half–understood. Her mouth opened.
Then a wolf knocked Leaf to the ground.
She went down with only a gasp, but when it sank its teeth into her arm, she screamed, high and breathy. And Heartsease leapt upon the wolf.
It should have ripped her in two. But she had barely touched it when it let go of Leaf, whimpered, and fled into the woods. With still face and steady hands, Heartsease ripped her cloak to make a bandage, then swung Leaf up on her back. Three jolting steps, and Leaf fainted.
She woke much later to shadows, the crackle of the fire, and the dull throb of her wounded arm. She tried to sit up, but a hand pushed her back down.
“Hush,” said Heartsease.
“You wrestled a wolf for me,” Leaf whispered.
“I think…that makes us friends.”
Heartsease said nothing.
“Where is Heartsease?” asked Leaf.
It was two months since the wolf had attacked her. She could stand and walk now, though she still could not grip the spindle and no one was sure if she ever would. Today she sat on the doorstep, breath frosting as she watched Moan and Jam throw snowballs at each other.
“Who knows?” said Knob. “Soon as you were on the mend, she was out at all hours. Won’t help with anything, lazy girl.” She looked sideways at Leaf. “But she did nurse you at first.”
Heartsease returned for dinner, but all through the meal, her gaze twitched towards the door like a leaf trembling in the wind. Late that night, when all the others were sleeping, she rose quietly as the breeze and slipped out of the house. But Leaf had kept awake, and she followed her sister, silent as still air.
Heartease strode swiftly and surely through the woods to a little clearing where moonlight glittered off the snow. At the center of the clearing waited a gray wolf with gold eyes.
She dropped to her knees. “Speak to me,” she said, and her voice was more alive than Leaf had ever heard it. “I know you. When you tried to kill my friend, I—would have hated you, if I had a heart. But I also knew you. Since then, the hole in my chest has hurt so much that I could die.”
She held out her hand. With one bound, the wolf was upon her, jaws closed over her hand, teeth resting lightly against her skin.
She stared into his golden eyes and said, “Take my blood and body if you want. I don’t care what price I pay.”
The wolf growled deep in his throat. Blood dripped between his jaws—but when he released her hand, Leaf saw that his teeth had barely broken Heartsease’s skin. Only three drops of her blood fell to the pure white snow.
And the wolf changed. Limbs stretched, fur melted, until he was no longer a wolf but a naked man. The snow steamed and melted around him as if he were a living coal, but when he took Heartsease’s hands, she did not flinch.
“Please,” he whispered. “I am bound to love a lady that despises me. Every year she lets me spend one night with her, then reviles me and sends me away in disgust. Save me. Be my true love instead.”
“I cannot love,” said Heartsease. “I cannot love anyone, not even my dearest friend.”
“I will teach you,” said the man, and kissed her. Leaf stole back to the cottage.
Please, my Queen. (Yes, you are fairest.) Please. Remember.
At the hour of perfect darkness—long past midnight—when the moon was down and the wolves were silent, waiting at the gates, Heartsease stole into the palace, into her mother’s chambers and her canopied bed.
When the queen woke, she made a noise like a caught sparrow.
Heartsease raised her knife and said, “It is time for you to die, Queen Myrra.”
Afterward, with the blood still hot and sticky on her face, she found the casket. She fumbled at the jeweled clasp, but the old Queen had inscribed runes upon it that made her fingers stiff and her knees weak.
Her lover caught her as she wavered, and kissed her as he opened the casket. “Take it, my love,” he said, lifting out the limp red thing.
Heartsease slid her heart into her chest and gasped as the color returned to her cheeks, the drumbeat to her veins. For the first time in half her life, she smiled. Her lover kissed the scar.
“You are the fairest in the land,” he said, “and so long as you are fairest, I will love you.”
The convent of Silence–on–the–Sea was a place for women who loved God and women who had nowhere else to go.
Sister Samson was one of the first. For countless years she had lived to the rhythm of the convent’s bells, chanting prayers and copying old manuscripts: herbals and star–charts and tomes of mathematics. (They were only books the Queen allowed anyone to keep.)
Sister Naomi was one of the second. She slipped to the convent door through the long purple shadows of evening, and when they let her inside, she threw off her worn cloak and begged sanctuary.
“I was once loved,” she said. “I think. And now I am afraid.”
She was ignorant as a peasant, but she learned quickly. Within a year she could read, and then Sister Samson taught her to copy manuscripts. One evening, as the candles flickered around them and they knew it was time to stop, Sister Naomi asked, “Do you know why the Queen forbids tales and histories?”
“You have seen the proclamation that her mother gave,” said Sister Samson.
Sister Naomi laughed. “Not in my village. Who could have read it?” She lowered her voice. “But I must know what happened before. What has happened to our Queen now.”
“Why?” asked Sister Samson.
“Because I made a promise to a friend.”
“Only the Prioress and I know about this room,” said Sister Samson, as she led Sister Naomi into the library. “You must never tell anyone, unless you want to see this convent burned.”
She laid her hand against the wall.
One of the bookcases slid away, revealing a secret chamber stacked high with books: some bound with velvety red leather, others with wooden boards and gut, one with covers carved of ivory. All the tales and histories of the land.
Sister Samson turned to face her, lamplight flickering across her wrinkled face.
“You want to know about the queens,” she said.
“Yes,” said Sister Naomi.
“I have lived long enough to see all of them,” said Sister Samson. “I have heard the tales the herb–women told before tales were forbidden, and I have read every book in this forbidden room.” She drew out a book bound in leather green as envy. “Including a book written by a madman, who murdered his mother and her paramour, then wrote one last testament before he killed himself.”
She met Sister Naomi’s eyes. “Your friend is the Queen, isn’t she?”
Sister Naomi nodded.
“Then I have much to tell you.”
That is how I decided to leave the convent.
I think you already knew. That’s why you killed me so quickly.
Yes, you killed me with that spell, and I pray my soul has gone to God. It’s only my ghost that is trapped here in this mirror.
And that is why I cannot obey you now, when you order me so desperately to be silent. Ghosts cannot change, and I died swearing I would speak.
Lirralei had heard the tale from a chambermaid, in her childhood before the mourning: There are those who wander the winds and long for human warmth. So if on a night of stars and wind, you spill a drop of your warm human blood, one of them might come and grant your wish.
A foolish, idle tale. But the wind was rattling the windowpanes and she was more than desperate. So she pricked her finger with a needle, and as the blood dropped to the floor, she repeated her wish.
And she heard a knock at her window.
She threw back the curtains and opened the casement. Clinging to the ledge outside was a man made of shadows and wet leaves.
“Please, little girl,” he said, “let me into your room.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I am lost and I am lonely,” he said, and all the sorrow of the world was in his soft, hollow voice. “But with you I will be neither.”
He didn’t seem like he could grant her wish, but she pitied him and said, “Then come in.”
He flowed into her room like a shadow, but as soon as the candlelight struck him, he was a man with a body of bone and flesh—soaked through by the rain and dressed in ragged clothes, but just as real as she.
He took her hands and kissed them.
“Please, little girl,” he said, “let me into your bed.”
“Who are you?” she asked again.
“I am lost and I am lonely,” he said in a voice like smoke and honey. “But with you, I will be neither.”
Never before had Lirralei disobeyed her father’s strictures of mourning. But her palms burned where he had kissed them, and her pulse was in her throat.
Lirralei wrapped her fingers around his wrists and said, “Then come in.”
The next morning, she woke in the arms of the most beautiful man she had ever seen. He kissed her and said, “Please, little girl, let me into your kingdom.”
“Who are you?” asked Lirralei.
“I am Love itself,” he said. “And if you let me stay in your kingdom, I will grant your wish. You will be the fairest woman in the land, and you will know a true and everlasting love.”
Lirralei looked into his golden eyes and saw the promise of perfect joy.
“I will,” she said. “But I will not be like my father. Promise me that my daughter will have a chance to know such a love as well.”
“Look at your floor,” he said.
Lirralei sat up. On the floor of her bedroom, where her blood had dripped, there now grew a crooked stem blooming with a single red rose, its petals spread wide to reveal the gold within. It was only one flower, but its musk filled the room.
“Keep that flower and treasure it,” he said. “So long as it lives, you will know love, and so will every daughter of your house, as soon as she becomes a woman.”
O my Queen, my lovely queen, my lady dearest and most dread.
I cannot lie. You are surpassing fair. But there are a hundred thousand things in this world. You are not fairer than the smell of raindrops on hot stone, or the blossoming of ink as the pen runs down the page, or the crackle of the fire as the wind sings outside. You are not fairer than the morning Knob found me starving in the woods, or the first moment written letters spoke to me, or the night that Sister Samson trusted me with her hidden books.
You are not fairer than the moment you called me your dearest friend.
Somebody touched Myrra’s shoulder, and it was a man with eyes of gold and a face like sunrise over a still lake.
“I am Love,” he said, “and you are a woman. The fairest woman in the land.”
“No,” she whispered. “I’m ugly, a child—”
“Look.” He turned her to the remnants of the mirror.
She saw his face clearly in the rim of shattered glass, but the woman in his arms, she barely recognized. Gone were the sun–spots and wrinkles. Now her skin was smooth and fair as fresh cream—and her very shape had shifted. Her nose was a slender line, her full lips blossomed red, and her breasts and hips curved beneath her dress. Over her whole body danced the radiant loveliness that she had only seen in her mother.
“Love me,” said the man, “and you will be lovely and beloved forever.”
He kissed her, and she felt like a page cast into the fire, curling and crackling in one moment of glory before it died.
“Yes,” she said.
In the morning, she rose from her bed and looked in the broken mirror. She was still lovely, still a woman. Her lover slumbered on the bed, so she ran to her mother’s chambers to say, Mother, I should never have doubted. What you promised me has come true.
But her mother lay still in perfect deafness on the floor, curled around a little potted rose, her arms wrecked and her blood pooled cold and clotted all around her.
“Why?” Myrra gasped.
“Because,” said her lover from the doorway, “last night I slept in your arms instead of hers, and she could not bear it.”
Myrra turned on him, but could not speak.
“She was no longer the fairest,” he said. “It couldn’t be helped.”
“You are a monster,” she whispered.
“Once I was a lost and lonely thing,” he said. “Then your mother let me in. Now I am Love itself, and I will dwell in your house and delight the daughters of your house forevermore.”
Myrra shuddered. “Go,” she said. “Never return.”
“If you wish me gone,” he said, “destroy that flower.”
She seized the little pot to throw it out the window, but as soon as she grasped it, she saw how green and glossy were the leaves, how lovely the red petals, how sweet their musk. And she could not cast it aside.
“You will never love anyone else but me,” he said. “So you will never have the strength to send me from you. Nor will any children of your house.”
Myrra stood like a glass statue.
“You are right,” she said at last. “I cannot send you away, for I am a weak and wretched thing. But you will never have my daughter.”
That is why she forbade tales and history: that no one might learn again the charm that Lirralei worked. And that is why she carved out your heart and locked it in a casket, and why she dosed you with heartsease: that you might never love nor desire love.
You scream at me to be silent. Anger creases your face, twists the perfect curves that he once kissed and swore made him drunker than wine. Your fingers that once twined with his curl like furious claws. Your eyes turn red as they fill with tears.
You are not the fairest anymore.
When the eastern sky was smeared with cream and pink, Heartsease left the wolf who was not a wolf and returned to the cottage. When she opened the door, she saw Leaf sitting just inside.
“Please don’t trust him,” she said.
“He’s lost,” said Heartsease. “And lonely. Isn’t that why you trusted me?”
“What does he want?” asked Leaf.
“Love,” said Heartsease. She knelt before Leaf, so their eyes were level. “He will teach me how to love. All I must do is kill my mother and take my heart back. Then I will be queen, and I will take care of you all. None of you will be cold or hungry again.” She touched Leaf’s hair. “And then I will be able to love you.”
Leaf stared at her sister, at the almost–happiness trembling on her face like the almost–dawn in the sky. How could she forbid her to trust the lonely, to seek out what was lost?
“Only,” she said, “only don’t forget us. When you’re queen, and have all you desire.”
“I won’t,” said Heartsease. “And if I do, you’ll remind me. As you taught me how to drink.”
Leaf caught her hand, squeezed the cold and fragile fingers. “I promise.”
Even now, your daughter crouches among the ashes, cupping in her bleeding hands a rat who is not a rat. He whispers with a voice like smoke and honey, promising her love and the kingdoms thereof.
I do not know what you will do. I will never know. Ghosts cannot change and learning is a mighty transformation.
Maybe you will shatter this mirror and silence me. You will call on your guards and your wolves and your spells, and you will drive your daughter out into the wild. Her lover will find her. She is already his and so she will prevail.
Maybe you will break along with my glass. You will rage against your grief, and forsaking any other comfort, rend away your life. Or your grief will overtake you, until you cut out the heart you won at such cost and swallow the familiar numb sweetness of heartsease. And you will sit heavy–lidded with flowers on your tongue until your daughter comes and punishes you as she wills, and none of it will matter.
But maybe you will remember what you found in the wood, when you had no heart and loved us anyway. (Do you realize yet that you always loved us?) You will find the little potted rose with its twisted stem and one flower, and you will dash the pot to the floor and throw the flower in the fire. You will watch the petals char and weep blood while something lost and lonely wails outside the window. You will scream and weep and gasp like a newborn baby.
You will descend to the kitchens, draw your weeping daughter from the ashes, and beg her forgiveness and learn how to love her. Or you will flee through your country, and every door will be closed against you, until your pride is dead as your love and you knock at the convent’s door, and Sister Samson looks at you with wrinkled eyes and says, “Come in.” Or you will flee beyond this land, take passage on a ship and tell nobody your name, and run till every tongue speaks a foreign language and that place will be your home.
Or you will do something else that I cannot imagine. There are a hundred thousand things in this world, my Queen, my friend, and only one is lost to you.
Which one will you choose?
© 2015 Rosamund Hodge