The last night I slept soundly was the night before my wheezing father announced the succession. He named me – his daughter – as his heir. He hoped aloud that my brother would advise me faithfully. The pulsing vein in Damian’s forehead suggested otherwise. With one word my father had severed our fraternal connection more effectually than any witch’s curse.
I sit up in bed watching the candle-gleam on the door handle, making certain it doesn’t move. Four guards stand watch outside. The points and hilts of their too-long swords scrape the stone of the narrow corridor. My clock chimes three. Four. Five. I doze…and rise…and drift.
Father dies. My soul screams; my desiccated eyes are tearless.
I order a spinning wheel brought to my room; and the motion of my hands allows me to stay awake. I watch the gleam. A week goes by thus, or a year.
“You don’t deserve to be Queen,” says Damian.
Phantasmagoric creatures haunt my darkness – no beneficent elves, these. Sinister witches leap from the fireplace’s shadows; a dragon bars my escape.
At my coronation banquet, my taster grows purple – and still. Damian is strangely unruffled.
The replacement is the dead boy’s sister. Her lip trembles; she hugs me. The ladies-in-waiting hiss; I hush them, and stroke her mouse-colored hair. Her breath is warm against my chest.
Something boils within me.
I address my captain of the guard: “Teach me to fight.”
He laughs – then remembers his place. “Your highness –”
“That was not a request,” I intone. “Captain.”
My sword arm droops; I feint altogether faintly; I forget his corrections after mere moments. He peers into my face. “Forgive me, your highness…you look exhausted.”
“Again. Let’s try it again.”
My captain doubles the guard and arms them with knives: “You’ll be safe.” The blue has fled my eyes and they blaze like fire. The clock strikes twelve, still I thrust and parry…
One night, outside my door – shouts, shrieking steel, unholy screams of men – “Don’t open the d–” roars the captain, before his words are cut sickeningly short.
The gleam pauses, dances, vanishes: In its place stands Damian. He has a knife in his hand and a sword at his waist. He hurls his knife – I drop – I draw my own sword from beneath my mattress. His blade clangs against it before I can draw breath. There is murder in Damian’s heart, and there are no good fairies coming to my aid…
I stumble into the spinning wheel, steadying myself against it even as it collapses…I prick my finger on something but manage to hold on…
…his sword kisses my neck. “Any last words?”
The man who used to be my brother has bulging blue eyes –
“Go to hell!” I cry, plunging the broken spindle into his belly. He staggers, falls, curses me, even as his blood pools.
I keep silent watch while he dies.
I send my taster back home to her mama.
I feel I could sleep for a hundred years.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, and Foreign Service Officer who has previously served at U.S. embassies in Africa and Asia. She calls Wisconsin home, and currently lives outside Washington, D.C.