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Victoriana

Victoriana
by Sarah L. Byrne


When the Prince Regent died, the Queen of this realm built a monument in his memory, towering three hundred feet high. Ornate marble arches reached into the sky like the vaults of heaven, angelic statues adorned the four corners, and on a high throne sat the likeness of her lost love, sculpted from gold and large as life.

And when that was done, she came to me.

She was a proud woman, and it was not easy for her to beg my help. She stood in the kitchen of my little cottage, her jaw clenched tight and her hands clasping each other.

“I cannot do it,” I told her, quietly.

“You can.” Her voice was firm, she would brook no argument. “I know of your powers, Luise.”

“I will do everything in my power, Your Majesty,” I replied. “I will do what I can to ease your grief, to guard your children against the sickness that took him.” I spread my hands, smiled gently. “But I can not raise the dead.”

“You can,” she insisted. “You will. Not his poor body, perhaps, it has been too long for that. But I know well that you can cross to the other place, speak with him, bring his soul and his true being back. I have had a fitting body made for him, surely you have seen it?”

I think the shock must have showed on my face for a moment before I composed myself. That was what she planned, then, that her golden prince would sit by her side again.

“Your Majesty, think what you are asking me.” I tried to reason with her. “You are a Christian queen, what would your people think if they saw a dead man walking, and in such a form as that!”

“You would defy me, woman?”

She drew herself to her full height, which was not very high, glared up at me. I saw the struggle and the frustration there, I am one of few alive that she may not command, and that she knows well.

“So, you will do nothing to help me then?” she demanded at last.

I bowed my head meekly. It is sometimes wiser to say nothing to a queen, than say words she would not wish to hear. Even for me.

I let her shout and rave at me, using language a queen should not know, let her curse me and threaten me and tell me never to come near her again. Words, only words.

When she turned and stormed out through my low doorway, I waited a moment and then followed her outside. I watched as she stalked across the little bridge and out into the park to where her coach waited, her guards hurrying behind. Waterfowl flapped into the air in alarm at the commotion, spreading ripples across the smooth surface of the lake. I stood and watched my queen’s black-clad figure disappear from view. The sun was warm on my shoulders already, it was going to be a beautiful summer’s day. The park was still quiet this early in the morning. I decided it was time for a walk, to see this finished monument for myself.

* * *

It was truly a magnificent thing, an incongruous thing belonging to an opulent age long past, a desperate outpouring of a rich woman’s love and grief. But I looked up at the figure enthroned in the middle of this edifice, and saw an ordinary man. No flattery here, they’d made the sculpture true to life; she would not have had it any other way. So no heroic figure, just a normal-looking middle aged man, balding a little at the temples, slightly fat around the middle, with a mild and pleasant face. He was a nice man, it had been generally considered, quiet and gentle in his manner. But to her he was her prince, her hero, her beautiful golden boy. The sun in her sky.

And now night had fallen. Worrying rumours came from the palace as time went by. The queen had shut herself away in her bedchamber, curtains closed to block out the light of day. She made no court appearances and took no part in the business of the realm. Republican sentiment increasingly rose against her. The situation was serious. And so I went to pay my Queen a visit.

* * *

I glimpsed the usual stares as I emerged from the wrought iron gates of the park and strode through the streets: I am a tall woman and like to go hatless so I feel the wind in my long hair as it streams behind me. This is not considered quite proper, at least not for a grown woman richly dressed, and so people stare. And also of course they know who I am. Or who they think I am, which is not quite the same thing.

Those of my kind, whatever you choose to call us – witches, advisors – we never appear in history books, except as distorted versions, recast as mistresses or servants by those who do not understand. This suits us well enough, for we do not court fame and we have all the fortune we need. But we have always been here, behind the throne, using our subtle powers to gently guide the business of the realm.

I got the same looks of mixed suspicion and respect from the palace guards, but they bowed and stood aside as always to let me pass, as did the black-clad servants who opened the doors for me to enter. I walked softly but swiftly through the corridors towards her private chambers, and her serving women followed alongside me, hurrying to keep up.

“You’ll find her not so welcoming, Lady Luise,” one of them warned me anxiously. “In fact, she said the other week she’d have your head for treason if you showed your face here again…”

I smiled. We were approaching her door.

“Don’t worry, Sophie, there’ll be no beheadings today.”

A flick of my hand and a gust of wind blew the door open, slamming it back on its hinges. My queen started up, furious, from where she had been curled on her bed.

“What is the meaning of this?” She saw me framed in the doorway and stopped. “You? Did I not tell you to never darken my door again?”

“Your Majesty, please,” I came slowly into the room, noticing that she shrank slightly away from me as I did so. She always was a little afraid of me, despite all the bluster. She may be queen, but I am something more.

I smiled, to reassure her. “I mean no harm, I only come to help you, if I can.”

She sank back down on the bed.

“There is only one way you could help me, and that you refused.” Her eyes were red-rimmed from weeping, and judging by the musty smell in the room she had not bathed or allowed the women to change the linen of late. Or even opened the windows to let in the fresh summer air.

I walked over and pulled back the heavy curtain, and she flinched as though the light hurt her, shielding her eyes with her hand. Dust motes shimmered in the afternoon sun.

“Close it,” she begged. “I don’t want to see the sun.” She turned away as the tears came again. “Leave me, all of you. Forget me. Let the world go on without me, let it be as if I never was.” She buried her face in the pillow.

“Your Majesty,” I pleaded. “An ordinary woman might do that, but not the Queen. What about the running of the realm?”

“You take care of it,” she said, her voice flat and distant. “Do what you want, Luise. I’ll give you the regency if you like. Just leave me. Please.”

Truly? I thought. You’d give me the power, as easily as that?

But no. That was not the way we worked, not ever. And it would not serve. The people would never accept me as ruler; they barely accept me as friend and counsellor to the Queen, looking at me with suspicion and whispering ‘witch’! To try to take the power would be to destroy the crown, to throw the doors open to republicanism, and with it the end of my people’s influence.

There had to be a better way.

“Suppose I talk to him, after all?” I offered at last.

She sat up slowly, turned to me, wiping her hand across her eyes.

“You would?” For a moment she was like a little girl, hopeful, pleading.

“I will try,” I replied. “But I cannot force him back, if he does not wish to come”. That much was true. I do not command the dead, any more than she does. I can but ask.

“What are you talking about?” she demanded. “Of course he wishes it!”

“As you say, your Majesty,” I replied.

* * *

The sun was sinking but the sky was still blue as I walked out across the park. It was quiet now, the warmth of the day giving way to damp earthy coolness. I climbed up the monument and seated myself on the arm of his great throne, and we sat there side by side for a while in silence, looking out over the city that went on with its summer evening bustle outside the tranquility of the park.

“She sent me to bring you back, you know,” I said at last, to the golden prince by my side.

“I know, I know,” he answered, in a patient resigned voice that was almost a sigh. He had a strong accent still, from his homeland, despite all his years with her. “She will always have her way.”

I turned to look at him. “It is your choice, my prince. She cannot force you back, and nor can I, even if I wished to.”

“She will not like that.” He gave a small smile. “She will have raged against that, commanded you, I know.”

I replied with a slight nod.

“I am sorry to see her grieve,” he went on. “She is a good woman, you know. Proud and demanding, but isn’t that always the way with queens? And she has been good to me. But I find I like it up here. No one tells me what to do here. No demands. It is peaceful, and there is so much to watch.”

“Then so may it be.” I slid to my feet, snapped my fingers once. The golden prince was as still as a statue again.

* * *

There were some matters I had to attend to before returning to the palace. I needed to pay a visit to a friend, a very good friend. Just the man for the job.

It was growing dark when I returned. She was pacing up and down her rooms in impatience, but stopped as if frozen in time as I entered.

“Well? Did you speak to him?”

“Yes,” I said, with a grave smile. I saw the look on her face, hardly daring to hope.

“And he…he will come back to me…?”

“Not in the golden form; that I could not do. But I have made other arrangements.”

A witch never lies. We speak the truth, exactly, precisely. In what others choose to hear, therein lies much of our magic, I sometimes think.

She looked at me, uncomprehending. Then she was suddenly smoothing back her hair with anxious fingers, glancing this way and that for her serving women. She gestured to me imperiously, heading for the door.

“Show me. Take me to him. At once.”

In the doorway I held up a hand, making her pause. “Wait a moment, Your Majesty. It’s time to cast off your mourning dress.”

And I smiled then. “Have the women bring your riding habit.”

“Have you gone mad,” she asked? “It’s almost dark, how can I ride at this hour?”

“There’s a full moon,” I replied, and swept out of the door. “Come along. It’s time.”

* * *

The moon was indeed rising, and the clear sky was turning midnight-blue with a handful of stars coming out, and the soft white glow of Venus low on the horizon. Down in the stables, my Queen followed me to the end of the stalls, alone. It was best that none of her maids witnessed this meeting, we would have it known that she met him, by chance, at a later time. She stumbled, holding up the trailing hem of her habit as she stepped through the straw on the ground. To where my friend waited, dressed as a serving man and holding the reins of an elegant black mare.

“Your Majesty,” he greeted her with a slight bow, and a warm smile. “I’ve come to take you for a ride.” Oh yes, we always speak the truth.

She glanced from him to me suspiciously, a flash of anger in her eyes. Or was it fear?

“Luise? Who is this man?” She drew back from him slightly, stumbling into me as she did so. “Who are you?”

He hesitated, we never reveal our true names.

“It’s best, your Majesty,” he said, “if you call me John Brown”.

“Names are not important now,” I murmured gently, my hand on her elbow guiding her towards him. “Look into his eyes.”

She did. She stopped. She stared into his blue eyes as though seeing heaven itself. He smiled, then bent respectfully to offer her the stirrup of her horse. She placed her foot in it, and I watched as he caught her around the waist and lifted her lightly into the saddle, as though she were a slim girl again and not a sad, stout woman of forty.

And as I watched him lead her around the moonlit gardens I knew everything was going to be all right. She was his now, and he was mine. And so the realm was safe.

In my hands.

* * *

Sarah L. Byrne is a computational biologist and aspiring science writer in London. Her first short story was recently published in Aoife's Kiss magazine. She blogs occasionally at http://anewroom.blogspot.co.uk.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Usually ideas just pop into my head as I'm walking around the city. Sometimes they're inspired by the things I see - in the case of this story, my walk took me past the Albert Memorial, Buckingham Palace, and the picturesque little birdkeeper's cottage in St James's Park which looks like something straight out of a fantasy story or fairy tale.

What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?

Read as much as you can, not just fantasy but all genres, literary, poetry, everything. The more widely you read, the richer your writing will be, and you may be surprised by what you love.


1 comments:

JMD said...

Well, you were wrong about the century and the continent, but other than that - right on! (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/how-superstition-works/280649/)