Thursday, February 09, 2017

A TALE OF TWO QUEENS

High up in her lonely tower, the Queen sat stitching. The King was away at war. He was often away at war. So she was often found in the tower, draped in her silks and satins, her needlework spread out before her, her women gathered around in silence, each head bowed dutifully over whatever they had chosen to embroider that day.

Today it was to be a tapestry in honour of His Majesty’s last victory. In the quiet corner of her thoughts, the Queen wondered if it should be called that. They were mere peasants, after all. Driven to revolt by the hunger in their stomachs and on the faces of their children. What fight could a pitchfork put up against a steel blade? What resistance was skin against an iron-clad shoe? But she never spoke these thoughts out loud. Thoughts can be reined, but words are treacherous and in this land of possibility, they could make the unthinkable possible, simply by flying through the air.

She stitched.

By the by – because even the most single-minded woman will sooner or later tire of the chain-stitch – she glanced out of the window. The milkmaids were about. So were the woodsmen. Naturally. All those rosy cheeks, the coy, downturned lashes, the shy giggles –a man cannot live by wolves alone. One of them in particular seemed to have found favour with the maids. She could see why. He was taller than the rest, this one, with broad shoulders, nut brown skin and the most alarming head of hair she’d ever seen. It was black like a crow’s feather, smooth, dark, iridescent. She fingered her own hair, a lock of which had come unpinned. It was pale yellow, silken. She wondered what it would look like fanned across his brown chest. Like butter on a loaf of hot bread. Her stomach ached. “Bread and butter” she told the nearest lady, who scurried away instantly. The Queen licked her lips. This was not hunger. Or perhaps, it was.

The woodsman sensed her gaze upon him. He looked up. She should have looked away. She didn’t. The milkmaids saw their mistress up in her tower and scampered, hurried curtsies not forgotten. The woodsmen, to a man, touched their forelocks and followed suit. Not him. He met her gaze, eyes twinkling, and bowed deeply before walking away. No, not walking. It was a swagger. Perhaps if she wasn’t thinking quite so much about to what to call his walk, things would’ve gone differently. But she was and they didn’t. She pricked her finger on her own needle. Three drops of royal blood spilled on the snow white linen. Her ladies were around her in an instant. They fussed and cooed over her, ineffectual mother hens to an indifferent hatchling. The Queen stared at the cloth. “We would have a daughter” she murmured, “With skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair” she glanced at the retreating figure below, “as black as ebony.” 


The ladies smiled indulgently. Of course the Queen wanted a child. It would’ve been more prudent to wish for a son and heir, but these were modern times after all. They didn’t realise that their mistress wasn’t employing the royal we. Or that ‘would’ wasn’t always a substitute for ‘want’. Words, however, realise their true nature, far better than the humans who employ them. They realise the intentions behind the employment too. And in this land of possibility, they needed only to be spoken to come true. 

Months passed and the Queen grew great with child. The King, not being much of a mathematical genius, was pleased. He showered his Queen with attention and affection and generously took his pleasure of the servant girls, to give the mother-to-be her rest. Well? Kings are men, too. In some respects, more so than ordinary men. And the girls were all plentifully compensated. He was not an unfair man, after all.

Then on a bright winter’s day, when the snow was a foot deep outside the castle doors, the Queen gave birth to a baby girl. The midwives were, well frankly, they were a little alarmed. The child was so pale, almost white. Yet her lips were so red, they thought at first she hadn’t been cleaned properly after the birth. And that hair! Exchanging worried looks, they swaddled the little Princess in velvets and furs to keep her warm and took her to see her father. Her mother rested, as new mothers need to. “Your Majesty has been blessed with a beautiful daughter” they told the King, handing over the wriggling bundle to him. They were sensible women, rather attached to their necks, as it were.

The King seemed overjoyed. He touched the pale cheek gently and planted a tender kiss on the baby’s forehead. Then he took the oldest midwife aside and made a few polite suggestions. Later that night, the Queen passed on from this world. The birth had been too exhausting for her Majesty, the midwives said. She went in peace, grace be to God. As has been mentioned before, these women were rather fond of keeping their necks. For you see, the King, despite arithmetic inadequacies, wasn’t a complete fool. With a hall full of ancestral portraits featuring illustrious forebears, all with heads of shining gold, he could guess what the Princess’s ebony curls meant. It wasn’t her fault though, the pet. There was no reason for him to be cruel to her. He would raise her as his daughter. Because as far as the world was concerned, wasn’t she just that? No, you wouldn’t have called the King an unfair man. Not to his face, certainly.

And so there was a little Princess in the castle and an empty throne by the King’s side and these things generally lead to another new development.Her name… she must’ve had a name, of course. But she was a Princess too and after she married the King, she became the Queen. He called her ‘my Queen’. The rest, your Majesty. The little Princess called her Mother. Her name took a backseat to these words. She was a Queen and a Mother. That would have to do. She came from Eastern lands, this new Queen, where the sun shone mercilessly. There were no dark corners there, it was whispered, so people had to carry darkness within their hearts. Surely this new Queen was no different? Look at that hair, like a waterfall of jet beads. Or serpents, some muttered darkly.

The King knew what his people muttered and he didn’t care. He was enchanted by his young bride and she knew enough to keep him enchanted. When to flatter, when to tease, when to submit, when to please. She had been taught well. And she had learned other things too. How to advise, how to rule, how to run a kingdom without appearing to do so.And how to spot small thorns before they grew into giant briars.

The Princess wasn’t a small thorn. She wasn’t a thorn at all. She was milk. As good and kind and simple and honest as milk. And that was the problem, really. Other children ran around, played pranks, got their clothes dirty and sniffled in their sleep. The Princess listened. And asked questions.And pointed things out. Other children may not even notice the floury hands on the cook’s bottom. The Princess would ask if the cook liked the baker. You see why it was a problem. But the Queen let the child be. She had no mother, poor duck, and besides the Queen had a kingdom to run. Well? Wasn’t it helpful of her, to do that when the King was away at so many wars? Political instability is a dangerous thing, you know. She stayed true to him the whole time however. It’s easy when one is caught up all day in important matters of state. There is more than one kind of hunger.

And so the years passed. The Princess grew up into a beautiful, if a little alarming, young woman. Soon, suitors would come, baying at the gates. The Queen would have to tell the girl what’s what before that. Could she already know? She seemed to put two and two together so easily. And this was just a matter of putting one and one together, after all. For starters, anyway. She did her best to explain though, the Queen. The Princess, as was her wont, listened. And asked questions.And pointed things out. But before the Queen could respond, there was a great big guffaw of laughter from the doorway. His Majesty had returned from the war, minus the fanfare. The Queen rose to her feet and curtsied. The Princess followed suit. Why wasn’t there any fanfare, the Queen wondered. Had they lost the battle? The Queen searched the King’s face for answers, but he had eyes only for the young Princess. He hugged her like a bear, crushing her in his embrace till her pale face got paler and the Queen had to gently tear them apart. “What a beautiful young thing she has become,” the King murmured. And in his voice, the Queen thought she heard a trace of… but no, surely it was her fancy?

She watched the King closely since then. He was as attentive to her as before, as enthusiastic in bed, as affectionate in public. But something had changed. She could tell. So she decided to take matters in her own hands. She summoned her most trusted lady and asked her to bring her the Looking Glass. It was an Eastern marvel given to her by her mother as a wedding gift. “It’ll help you see things that may happen,” her mother had told her.The lady brought her the brass tube, once shiny, now dull with age. She unfurled it by the windowand peered through the smaller glass. Instantly, the world outside the window came closer. There were the milkmaids, carrying pails of milk to the kitchens. There were the woodsmen, bringing home the stags they hunted. There was the King, taking a stroll in the rose gardens. At twilight.With the Princess. The Queen watched as the King’s hand slid down from the girl’s shoulder, to her waist. And then, lower.

She snapped the tube shut. Not all Easterners carry darkness in their hearts. But they certainly recognise it at first sight. She had heard the rumours, of course. About who the girl really was and what happened to her mother. Perhaps that’s why the King felt he wasn’t doing any harm. But that didn’t change the darkness of the act. And so, the Queen made her plan. She told her lady – the one who had accompanied her from her own land – to take her to the most trustworthy woodsman in the service of the castle. Then she removed her fine gown and her jewels and dressed herself as a milkmaid, tucking her raven black hair inside a cotton cap. Cloaks are all very well if you want to get a feel of the thing. But the best disguise is always the unexpected one.

The lady took her to a woodsman she knew – the same woodsman, in fact, whom the first Queen had… seen from her window. Fate likes a good joke, like anybody else. There was more grey in his hair than black, but his eyes were still sharp as ever. Though they had lost their twinkle, which is, given the past, understandable. He recognised the woman who was pretending to be a milkmaid and even if hadn’t at first, he certainly would have after she pressed the bag of gold coins in his hand. The Queen wasn’t fool enough to reward someone with her jewellery. That kind of a thing would inevitably lead back to her. And she had no interest in following the first Queen and pass quietly in the night, like a bad dream. No, gold it was, more gold than the woodsman had seen his whole life, including the gold in the hair of the woman who would now live only his memories. The new Queen told him why he must do what he must do and what she asked him to do was this: “Take the Princess to the woods. She must never be seen again.”

Not all Easterners carry darkness in their hearts. This one merely meant for the woodsman to hide the young Princess deep in the heart of the woods. But darkness goes where it finds a place to hide. Sometimes it’s a place of pain, of sorrow, of loss. Like the heart of a woodsman, who fell in love with a woman hungry for love. And who lost her to the whim of a King. He expected only wanton cruelty from blue blood. And the Queen’s words… perhaps they could’ve been more carefully chosen. The woodsman read the unthinkable in those words, cross-referenced them with all the rumours he’d heard of the East and made his own conclusions. He agreed to do as she asked, of course. Nice, healthy survival instinct he had.

The very next day, the Queen summoned the Princess and told her to go in to the woods with the woodsman. “You should see a bit of the kingdom you’ll rule one day” she told the girl, “Being a princess isn’t just about sitting in the castle window sewing.” The girl nodded solemnly, then gave a start of surprise when the Queen gave her a tight hug.

The woodsman took the Princess deep into the woods. There, under the dark canopy of hundred-year-old evergreens, he told her what he believed was the truth. The Princess listened. And more importantly, didn’t question the complete stranger who was telling her that the only mother she’d ever known wanted her dead. Perhaps she was too trusting. Perhaps the rumours that flew around the castle had found their way inside her mind and hatched. Perhaps she resented being separated from her Father. Or perhaps the reasons were darker. In any case, the Princess believed the woodsman’s version of the tale. And when the woodsman was finished, he told her he had friends in the forest. Friends who could protect her and take care of her. They were a  little… different from the folk who lived outside the forest, but they were good people. And that is how it came to pass that the Princess met the Little People.

The Little People were the dark secret of this little kingdom. It was said that centuries of marrying within the confines of the kingdom had made the blood of its people weak. So that every now and then, a woman would give birth to a child who was… different.Perhaps a little smaller than the others.Perhaps with a spare finger or two.Perhaps with a dangerous gleam in its eye. The people recognised the signs early on and abandoned these children in the woods. Most perished, naturally. Others survived and grew up hating those who lived outside the forest. They stayed to themselves, hunted, mined, foraged and lived dreaming of the day when they’d exact revenge upon those who abandoned them and those who allowed them to.

As you can expect, the Princess didn’t exactly get a warm reception from the Little People at first. They were suspicious of this young woman with the pristine gown and the dainty slippers. Then one of them noticed her eyes and whispered to his neighbour. The whisper flew from lip to lip and the woodsman heard the words ‘Like us’. Because what the ladies at the palace had forgotten to notice was that among the snow white skin and the ebony curls and the blood-red lips were also a pair of eyes. And they shone with an unmistakably dangerous glint. When the woodsman told them why she had to live in the woods from now on, the Little People exchanged understanding glances. See, those glances seemed to say, even among royalty, parents are the worst monsters.

The Little People welcomed the Princess among them. They put her up in the best cottage, if their hovels could live up to a grand name like that. They cooked and cleaned for her, brought her fruit and berries and always served her the choicest cuts of meat. Well, she was a Princess. And she was just like them, really. Except she hadn’t been left to singlehandedly fight off wild animals as a child. But apart from that, just like them.

And so the days passed. When the woodsman returned alone, the rumours grew. Where was the Princess? What had that evil hussy in the palace done to her? It wasn’t long before the King himself began to wonder. But perhaps not as seriously as he would have had he been a healthy man. For you see, among the things he had brought back from his travels to far-off lands, was a deadly disease. It was the sort of disease a hearty man with a healthy physical appetite might catch if he isn’t particularly fussy about his choice of bedmates. The King was a very hearty man. With an extremely healthy physical appetite. And as for his choice of bedmates, well, a war isn’t the best place to find willing ladies of spotless character, is it? And the King was never one to shy away from a good war.
But unlike those scuffles in the battlefield, this disease was quick. It ate away the King’s insides, quickly, insidiously, till all that remained was days of blood and nights of agony. The royal physician shook his head in despair. The Queen advised him to find a cure instead of giving up. She was a woman, after all. She knew all about blood and agony. “It is no longer in my hands, Your Majesty” he whispered. As tempted as she was to cut off the useless man’s hands, the Queen stopped herself. She knew the tales flying around the kingdom. It wasn’t wise to come across as cruel when the king stood at Death’s door with no heir in sight. That’s the stuff revolutions are made of.

She sat in her chambers, deep in thought. Perhaps she could use one of the remedies she’d brought along with herself from her homeland. Her mother hadn’t trusted Western medicine and clearly, she had been right. What good was it doing her husband? Even now, she could hear him cry out from the sick bed. And despite all his weaknesses, the Queen loved the King. It is always agony to watch the agony of those we love. So the Queen went to her boudoir and pulled out one of the thick wooden chests she’d brought with her when she first came to the palace. Inside, among the silks and velvets, lay a smaller chest, filled with glass bottles. She chose an amber one and spilled two drops of the liquid inside into a goblet. Then, she hurried to the King’s side.

“Will Your Majesty like a drink of water?” she asked him with a smile. The smile took an effort. The King was a shadow of himself, a white-haired, grey-skinned ghost who smelled of chamber-pots. He gave a thin smile when he saw the Queen and accepted the water she offered. Moments later, he drifted into sleep. The physician was stunned. This was the first time in weeks that the pain hadn’t been too much for the King to fall asleep.

Thrice a day the Queen administered her own medicine to the King. And it seemed to work, for the King seemed to be in much lesser pain. A sure sign of progress, everyone thought, and it sent a wave of hope through the kingdom. Perhaps it sent one through you too, reader. But this isn’t that kind of story. Because the Queen was no physician. She did not know the arts to cure the King’s disease, if indeed it had a cure. The medicine she gave him merely held the pain at bay. It did not stop the illness from ravaging the King’s body. So one afternoon, when the King passed away in his sleep, moments after taking his usual draught from the Queen’s cup, you can imagine the mutters in the hallways. “But he was getting better, I saw it with my own eyes!” “From her cup, you say? What was in it, I wonder?” “Never trust Easterners, that’s what my grandmother always said.”

The Queen heard the rumours, like she heard all else that was going on in the kingdom. But there was a royal funeral to be arranged and those things are worse than weddings when it comes to planning. She oversaw the arrangements in her widow’s whites –white was for mourning, where she came from – and thought about the Princess. She’d have to be brought back from the forest. It was safe now and she was the heir to the throne. She’d have to be taught how to run a kingdom, poor pet. She really had no idea how complicated her life was going to be.

The day after the funeral, the Queen summoned the old woodsman and asked him to take her to the Princess. The woodsman blinked. Clearly the woman had gone mad with grief. “Your Majesty asked me to take the Princess to the woods. Remember?” he asked, speaking slowly, as if to a child. It was the Queen’s turn to think the man mad. “Yes” she replied, “And now I’m asking you to take me to her.” The woodsman’s stomach turned as he realised the mistake he had made. “So…you didn’t want me to…?” he couldn’t find the words and simply pulled his index finger across his throat. The Queen felt her hands go cold. She sat very still for a moment. “Is that what you did?” she asked, in a low voice. The woodsman swallowed. He had two choices: either tell the Queen that he had followed her order and the Princess was dead or tell her he hadn’t and that the Princess was alive. There was no telling which body part he’d lose for saying either thing. He decided that perhaps the Princess being alive could spare him the worst of it. He shook his head and told her what he had done. Despite her corsets, the Queen nearly sagged with relief. If the Princess had been dead, there would’ve been a civil war in the kingdom.

She pardoned the woodsman his foolishness. She had more important things to take care of right now. “Take me to her” she commanded the woodsman, who fell over his feet in his hurry to obey. Borrowing the fastest horses from the royal stables, they set out: the woodsman and his apprentice. For this time the Queen had dressed up like a woodsman. Well? Have you ever seen any milkmaids riding about on stallions? In any case, after two hours of hard riding, they reached the heart of woods where the Princess lived with the Little People. A hush fell upon the little settlement, when the pair arrived. The Little People hadn’t seen many queens. But they’d certainly seen a lot of woodsmen. And one of the two walking towards them right now, didn’t carry himself like a woodsman. Or indeed, a man.

The Little People gripped their weapons a little harder, as they heard the woodsman explain who the stranger was. The Queen, for her part, watched the curious gathering before her. Why had no one told her about these people? Not for the first time, the Queen wondered at the hypocrisy of the kingdom she’d married into. And they say us Easterners are monsters, she thought to herself, as she saw the sullen expressions on the faces of the forsaken.

Meanwhile, the conversation between the woodsman and the Little People wasn’t going as well. The Little People were in no mood to let the Queen meet the Princess. They trusted the monarchy just as much as they trusted their own parents and look how that had turned out. Besides, it was noon. The Princess was resting. She would wake up for lunch and perhaps then they could talk things over. If she wanted to talk to someone who had left her to die in the woods.The Queen was getting impatient. She felt for these folk, she really did, but she had a revolution to prevent. She drew herself up to her full height and said, “I command you to wake up the Princess. I am her mother, I want to take her back. I have news for her. And kiwis.” She held up the wicker basket she had brought with her. Kiwis were the Princess’s favourites and impossible to get this time of the year. Because where the Queen came from, you never visited anyone’s home without an offering of food. Even when the said home was a shack in the middle of nowhere.

The Queen’s words were greeted by thoughtful silence. A mother who came to take you back home? The Little People had never heard of such a thing. But they had never heard of kiwis either and yet, there they lay in a basket, all brown and furry. So maybe these things could happen. One of the Little People scurried away to wake the Princess. Ten minutes later, she stood before them, a little drowsy but curious. The Queen breathed a sigh of relief. The Princess looked just as she had when the Queen had seen her last. The raven black hair was tangled, but beautiful. The pale skin was as pale as untrodden snow. The berry-red lips were just as alarming. But for the first time, the Queen noticed the eyes. And felt a little uneasy.

To mask her disquiet, the Queen smiled and told the Princess how well she looked. The Princess merely nodded in reply. Then the Queen lowered her voice and told her that the King, her father, had passed away. And that there was a throne waiting for her at the castle. And that they ought to hurry, if they wanted to avoid the rush of peasants carrying pitchforks. And look, there were kiwis.

The Princess glanced at the basket of kiwis and beckoned to one of the Little People by her side. The little man grabbed the basket from the Queen and brought it to the Princess, who said “Peel it.” The little man rushed to obey and the Queen was impressed. The girl could certainly command. So that’s one less thing to teach her, she thought. When the man was done peeling, he cut the fruit and then, to the Queen’s astonishment, he popped a piece into his own mouth. Without giving it to the Princess. The Queen’s eyes met the Princess’s who merely smiled. “Food taster,” she replied, “Don’t you approve?” The Queen gave a forced smile but secretly, she was outraged. What was the Princess trying to imply? And then, her smile, her outrage, turned to horror. Because there was the little food taster, gasping and choking, clawing at his throat. There he was, falling to the floor, making horrible sounds as if someone had forced a fist into his throat to stop him from breathing. It was over in a matter of moments. The Princess hadn’t moved an inch while the food taster suffered. Now she looked directly at the Queen and the accusation in her eyes hit the Queen right between the eyes.

But how could such a thing happen? The Queen had personally picked out the fruit. Her errand was a secret and the woodsman hadn’t even touched the damn things. Then how? The Queen knew a lot of things, but there were some things that she could never know. Such as the fact that some foods simply do not agree with some people. For some, it’s peanuts. Others swear off shellfish. And for some, it’s kiwis. An allergy they call it in our world. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know if these things can be mildly irritating or downright fatal, unless you happen to eat one. It’s even more unfortunate if you never find out because you’ve gone into anaphylactic shock after eating your first kiwi.The Princess watched as the unfortunate food taster stopped thrashing and lay still, blank eyes staring at the sky. Then she looked at the Little People and said in a quiet voice, “Kill her.”

There are situations where being slow on the uptake isn’t a very life-lengthening trait. The woodsman stood there, staring at the hostile gathering, trying to make sense of what had just happened. That’s why he was trampled to death a minute later, when the horde of Little People rushed towards the Queen as one.

The Queen, as you may have noticed, had many remarkable talents. Among these was a substantial survival instinct. So the moment the two deadly words left the Princess’s lips, her feet had left the ground, as she ran towards her horse. Shock, surprise, disappointment, fear could all wait. The only thing that mattered now, was to return to the castle, alive – that was important – and then try to find a way out of these godforsaken mess. The Queen was a good rider and she’d chosen a fast horse. In a matter of minutes, she left the Little People far behind.

But vengeance always finds a way. Especially if it has had time to ripen. The Little People had had enough. First they’d been thrown into the forest as meat for wild beasts, and now when they were living peacefully, someone wanted to kill their Princess. Their Princess. No. This was not to be borne. By the time the Queen had reached the castle, the seeds of the revolt had already been planted. They bore fruit the next day, when the gates of the castle were stormed by a horde of wild-looking strangers, some deformed, some deranged, all strong. The Queen was sitting in the throne room with her advisors, trying to explain to them that they should take the possibility of a revolution seriously. One of the advisors was pompously telling Her Majesty that perhaps things went differently in the East (we all know how hot-headed those Easterners are, no offence to Her Majesty, of course, ho, ho, ho) but out here the people were all peace-loving. It was at this precise moment that a homemade arrow sliced through the air and split the advisor’s eyeball to pieces.

You can imagine what happened after that. Riot.Destruction.Whole-sale murder. Well? You can’t expect generations of abuse to be resolved with a peace summit, can you? The citizens of the kingdom learned this the hard way, with some hard steel making a very sharp point. What about the soldiers, you ask? Soldiers have weapons and armour, after all. It’s true. They do. But armour can be dented. Sometimes, while the person wearing the armour is still inside it. And soldiers, despite the terrible reputation some of them have, are on the whole not a bloodthirsty lot. They kill because they have to. Not because they want to. The Little People really, really wanted to. And isn’t that really the secret of success? Wanting something bad enough?

The Queen was imprisoned in her own dungeons, while blood spilled on the streets outside day and night. On the fourth day, when there were no more moans to be heard, the key turned in the lock of the Queen’s cell. It was the Princess, calm as ever. The Queen rose to her feet warily. For one mad moment, she considered pushing past the girl, out of the dungeons, out of this nightmare. But then, the Princess spoke. “Your Majesty, you will be moved out of these cells in a few hours.” “Moved where exactly?” the Queen asked. Into the woods, the Princess told her. Away from the cold stone walls of the castle. Under the wide open sky, where she could see the sunshine on the leaves and fill her dark Eastern heart with light. She would never return to the kingdom, of course. The Queen heaved a sigh of relief. She’d have preferred to return to her home in the East, away from this land of madness, but she’d settle for not being dead. Not being dead was good. You had options. So she consented to go quietly.

Her coffin was made of glass. So her eyes could fill with light till her breath ran out.


3 comments:

Ch4 said...

I quite like this piece of short fiction.

Ch4 said...

Branching out into children's fiction?

Vedashree Khambete-Sharma said...

@Ch4: Thanks, I'm toying with the idea :) Perhaps after the next book.