Queen Naivara admired that about them. They certainly had cause to celebrate. They’d come a long way and their story was amazing. Even as recently as two months ago, the idea of these two people marrying as King and Queen of the kingdom of Pearlania would have seemed impossible. At that point, Mertaugh had been a mid-level magician of zero renown in King Dorwall’s kingdom and Ceyselle had been a kitchen maid most known for delivering the infamous biscuit to King Dorwall that he hated so much that he outlawed all biscuits in his entire kingdom so that he and his subjects would never have to worry about encountering a biscuit like that one again.
And now, two months later, King Dorwall was dead, his family was exiled, and Mertaugh and Ceyselle were king and queen, much to the cautious delight of the royal families of the kingdoms neighboring Pearlania, who had always been wary of King Dorwall’s reputation as an unstable, unpredictable man who also happened to be an excellent tactician and leader of men in battle.
Queen Naivara squeezed the hand of her husband, King Rinn. She looked at him and smiled. His face was very red and his eyes were heavy-lidded. He looked as drunk as Queen Naivara felt, as did all the other kings, queens, and highly-regarded lords and ladies seated at the table of highest honor with the newly-married King and Queen of Pearlania at the front of the great hall, nearest the enormous fireplace which kept the winter cold creeping through the castle’s walls at bay.
King Mertaugh was laughing again. His voice had grown hoarse from all the laughing and merry shouting and horrible singing, about which he was very good-natured and self-deprecating.
Queen Naivara tried to ascertain why King Mertaugh was laughing this time. Maybe it was something that she could laugh at too; she liked to laugh as much as anyone. She looked down to King Mertaugh’s end of the table with bleary eyes.
“Seriously,” said King Carrick. “I want to know how. How?”
King Mertaugh let loose another burst of laughter. Queen Naivara chuckled too, but she didn’t really get why King Carrick’s question was funny. She hadn’t been paying attention to the conversation until now.
“You really want to know?” asked King Mertaugh. “For real?”
“Yes,” said King Carrick. He was smiling, but it was the uncertain smile of a man who doesn’t know if he’s actually ready to commit to a smile.
“What do you think, my lovely bride?” asked King Mertaugh, turning to Queen Ceyselle. “Should I tell him?”
“Tell him what?” asked Queen Ceyselle. Her lips were very red. A deep, wet red. Wine-colored.
“Then I shall tell him!” said King Mertaugh, and he pounded the table with his fist, jostling a chunk of cheese with a knife stuck in it off of the table. Now everyone was paying attention to him. “If you want to know so bad, King Carrick, then I’ll tell you. I overthrew King Dorwall with a curse. A simple curse.” He laughed again.
“Oh,” said King Carrick. “You did?” He laughed too, but in such a way that he could be certain to clip it off at any moment.
“A curse, yes, of course!” said King Mertaugh. “I cursed his organizational skills! Hey, King Morsonne!”
King Morsonne, who appeared to have nodded off in his chair, did not wake up when his name was called. He did not stir, did not even snort cartoonishly.
“Well, he’d tell you,” said King Mertaugh. “He’d tell you if he wasn’t so drunk.”
“He’d tell me what?” asked King Carrick.
“He’s the one who defeated King Dorwall in battle that day,” said King Mertaugh. “He saw the effects of the curse first-hand. And benefitted from them. As did we all!” And King Mertaugh burst out laughing again.
And Queen Naivara, finally getting the joke, burst out laughing too. “A curse!” she cried. “You got him with a curse!” And then her laughter again swept her away.
“Yes!” said King Mertaugh. “Yes, yes! I sure did!” And his laughter fed off of Queen Naivara’s and grew wilder. And now others were joining in. King Rinn, still holding Queen Naivara’s hand began to laugh and King Carrick’s inauthentic laughter began to take on notes of authenticity here and there. King Marchalland, a notoriously bitter and dour drunk, threw back his head and unleashed a harsh, gravelly laugh. Queen Devoislynn laughed, King Pormince laughed, and Lord Vamun and Lady Tithership laughed, as did other lords and ladies whose names Queen Naivara didn’t know.
“A curse,” gasped Queen Naivara. “Oh, a curse!” And this sent another surge of laughter through everyone at the table of highest honor. It was such an absurd explanation, but perfectly so, and delivered in good humor to the enjoyment of all. It was a silly thing to say, but the collective mood was very silly, so it was perfect, just perfect.
King Carrick, whose laughter was almost entirely authentic now, pulled himself together and said, “King Mertaugh, please, tell me, how would you curse me?”
The kings and queens and lords and ladies struggled to stifle their laughter so they could hear King Mertaugh’s response.
King Mertaugh, still shaking with scarcely-restrained mirth, said, “Hmm, well, King Carrick, your kingdom has rich, fertile soil so I’d probably curse the soil so nothing would grow.”
“No, no, no,” said King Carrick. “I mean, what would the curse sound like?”
“Well, it would sound like this,” said King Mertaugh, and then he uttered a series of nonsense words that sounded so foolish that everyone again erupted in laughter.
“Now do me!” shouted a lady from the other end of the table. “Me next, your highness! How would you curse me?”
“Why, Lady Uslya,” said King Mertaugh, “I’d never want to curse you. But if I did I suppose it would sound a little something like this.” And then he again uttered a series of hilarious nonsense words that again sent the guests into hysterics.
Queen Naivara had never had so much fun at a wedding. “And now me!” she blurted out, unable to resist getting in on the fun. She had been the first to see the humor in all of this, after all. Well, second, if you counted King Mertaugh.
“All right,” said King Mertaugh. “All right, all right, Queen Naivara. Let me think. Ah, I’ve got it.” And the series of nonsense words he uttered next was the funniest yet, and Queen Naivara laughed until there were tears streaming from her eyes.
A long time later, after everyone who’d wanted to hear what their curse would sound like had been told and the meal had calmed down and King Mertaugh and Queen Ceyselle had finally retired to their chambers and many of the guests had gone to bed too, King Morsonne finally woke up.
“You missed out,” said Queen Naivara. She’d never felt so drunk in her life. Next to her, King Rinn was asleep with his head on the table and Queen Naivara played with his hair.
“Missed out on what?” asked King Morsonne, pouring himself another drink.
“Oh, we had so much fun,” said Queen Naivara. “King Mertaugh tried to wake you up but you were too out of it.”
“Ah, yes,” said King Morsonne. “I’m a heavy sleeper. Why did King Mertaugh want to wake me?”
“Because he wanted you to tell us about your battle with King Dorwall,” said Queen Naivara. “I think.”
King Morsonne took a long drink from his goblet, then said, “Well, you guys didn’t miss much, it’s not much of a story.”
King Morsonne shrugged and belched and winced as if the belch had hurt his feelings. “It was not a glorious victory. I barely had to do anything. It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. King Dorwall’s army was a mess. Men running everywhere, horses bucking anyone who tried to ride them, I even saw one knight with his helmet on backward swinging blindly at everyone who came near him until a run-away ox-cart full of hay ran him over, continued on through a campfire, burst into flames, and burned King Dorwall’s entire camp down. I never even took my sword out of its scabbard.”
“Whoa,” said Queen Naivara. “That is strange.”
“Yeah,” said King Morsonne. “And King Dorwall’s armies were always renowned for their discipline. I don't know what happened, but it was odd. I’m happy Dorwall’s gone, this new king seems like a nice guy, but I took no pride in the victory.”
“Huh,” said Queen Naivara. And it was at this moment that she began to feel the first hints of worry.
Two weeks later, Queen Naivara, clinging to life in her bed, her body ravaged by the disease that had already killed her whole family and 70 percent of her kingdom, tried to remember the words King Mertaugh had uttered when he’d cursed her. She’d thought she remembered them all, but when she whispered them aloud through her swollen lips, the words didn’t sound funny at all, so they couldn’t be right. King Mertaugh’s curse had been nothing if not funny-sounding. But Queen Naivara had been very drunk that night, so not remembering the words would make sense. And it was also possible that even if she did remember the words, the fact that their utterance had ruined her life might have sucked the humor out of them.
Queen Naivara had the honor of being the first stop on King Mertaugh’s apology tour. Her surviving servants – those few not brought low by the disease – propped Queen Naivara up in her bed with some pillows and then escorted King Mertaugh to Queen Naivara’s chambers.
The first thing King Mertaugh did when he entered the room was recoil in horror at the sight of Queen Naivara, as expected. “I am so, so, so sorry,” said King Mertaugh. “Is there much pain?”
“Yes,” said Queen Naivara. “That’s probably the worst part. Plus the emotional pain of losing my whole family.”
“You have to understand,” said King Mertaugh. “I never thought just saying the curses in a casual setting like that would actually do anything. I mean, I didn’t think they would work, I was just saying them, but I didn’t mean them.”
Queen Naivara had a huge coughing fit. It went on for a long time. Then she said, “Well, you were wasted, so I really don’t think you were thinking about the consequences of your actions at all, King Mertaugh.”
“You asked for the curse!” said King Mertaugh.
“Number one,” said Queen Naivara, “no, I asked to hear what the curse sounded like, I did not want to be cursed. And number two, I didn’t believe you could really curse people, I thought you were just joking, that’s why I was laughing so hard. Why would I laugh at you bragging about actually cursing people? That’s awful.”
King Mertaugh’s face had gone from not-very-apologetic to not-apologetic. “We were all drunk, Queen Naivara, drunk people laugh for all kinds of dumb reasons. I thought everyone was just giddy because King Dorwall was gone. I thought people were laughing ‘cause King Dorwall was such a skeptic about the usefulness of his magicians, so it was ironic that he was undone by one of those very magicians using magic: me! And I thought everyone was happy that I’m the King of Peralania now!”
“Well, I’ll be honest,” said Queen Naivara. “I didn’t like King Dorwall, but compared to what you’ve done to-”
“On accident!” shouted King Mertaugh.
“You were careless,” said Queen Naivara. “And now look at me. And what about everyone else you cursed?”
King Mertaugh looked a little sheepish. “Well, it turns out I botched the words on most of the other curses. I got you, King Carrick, and a few others. And some bad stuff happened to Lady Simley that she claims is because I cursed her, but I don’t even know a curse for making someone afraid of their own internal organs, so I’m not taking responsibility for that one. I don’t remember, but I think there’s a chance I wasn’t even trying to say the disease-curse words for you. I think I was trying to say the words to curse a kingdom’s water supply. But your disease was a lot like the one that I know a curse for, so…”
Queen Naivara had been through too much to find this new revelation more or less appalling. She couldn’t muster the energy for any emotional reaction at all. “Well, all right,” she said. “You made your apology, sort of. Do you know any magical blessings?”
“No,” said King Mertaugh. “I really focused entirely on curses during my magical training, I thought they’d be more useful in terms of career advancement.”
“And now you’re a king,” said Queen Naivara. “Hooray.”
“It’s good that you can still joke,” said King Mertaugh. “Even if it’s at my expense, I’m happy you’re joking around again.”
“Hooray!” said Queen Naivara. “Hooray, hooray! King Mertaugh gets to be king! Hooray! All hail King Mertaugh! Hooray, hooray, hooray! Hooray for King Merataugh, King of Pearlania! Hooray!”
“All right,” said King Mertaugh. “Well, I can see that-”
“Hooray!” said Queen Naivara, one more time. And then she passed out from the pain.
Three weeks later, King Carrick came to visit Queen Naivara. She was feeling better but she still looked awful, as she undoubtedly would for the rest of her life, which would probably not be very long. The disease had no doubt wrought all kinds of permanent damage, internally as well as externally.
But at least Queen Naivara could sit in a chair at a table with King Carrick and feed herself mutton with a knife and a fork now. King Carrick had, like everyone else, recoiled in horror upon first seeing Queen Naivara in her current state, but to his credit, he’d recovered quickly and was now doing an admirable job of looking at her when he talked to her and even eating a meal in her presence, which was rare indeed.
“So,” said Queen Naivara. “Did King Mertaugh drop by your kingdom to offer an insincere apology too?”
King Carrick nodded. “Yes, he mentioned that he’d visited you first. He gave me the impression that it went well.”
“It did not go well,” said Queen Naivara. “We argued.”
“I didn’t want to argue with him,” said King Carrick. “To be honest, I’m afraid of upsetting him. I mean, the curse he hit me with was bad, but I look at what happened to you, and it…well, yeah, it terrifies me.”
“I don’t think he wants to be enemies,” said Queen Naivara. “He just wants us to like him and treat him like a real king.”
“For now,” said King Carrick. “But what happens in a year if he decides he doesn’t like us, or decides he wants to expand his kingdom a little? Or what if he means us nothing but the best but he gets drunk again and goes on another cursing bender?”
Queen Naivara made a dismissive gesture with her disease-scarred hand. “I’m kind of beyond caring about ‘next time.’”
“I understand,” said King Carrick. “But Queen Naivara, listen, this is part of why I came all the way here to see you. Whatever else has happened, you are still alive. Against the odds, you’re one of the small handful of survivors in your kingdom, and that means that you have a future. And so do your surviving subjects, and they’re looking to you to lead them into that future.”
Queen Naivara hated this kind of speech. The surviving members of her royal council, of which there were two of the original nine, had given her the same speech over and over since before she had recovered enough to understand it or even be certain that she wasn’t just hallucinating it.
“King Mertaugh told me most of the curses didn’t even land,” said Queen Naivara. “That they were just gibberish. Is that even true?”
King Carrick shrugged. “It’s hard to say. Other than mine, I don’t think he really said what the curses were before he did them. Like, with me, he specifically said, ‘I’m gonna curse your land so it doesn’t grow crops’ and that’s exactly what happened, so it’s hard for him to duck responsibility on that one. And whatever he says about your curse, I think it means something that he apologized to you first. He knows what he did. But in most cases, he just said what sounded like nonsense words and we all laughed, so there’s no way to prove that the bad things that have happened to people since then are all his fault. But, I mean, Lady Simley wasn’t at all afraid of her own internal organs before that feast, so I know how I think she got that way.”
Queen Naivara said nothing and King Carrick took the hint so they just sat in their chairs and ate their mutton for a while in peace. Queen Naivara knew the proposal was coming, she could feel it, and she intended to enjoy to whatever extent she could whatever moments remained in her life in which she would not have to deal with the consequences of whatever her answer ended up being.
“And so,” said King Carrick. “Well, the real reason I came, other than to pay my sympathies for your, um, many, many losses is that, see, I still have all my subjects, but the land is bad now, whereas you’ve got all kinds of available land now, but you lost a lot of people, so I was thinking, well, what if we got married and then my people could come here and work your land and everything would be better for all of us? That makes sense to you, right? People, land, you and me as King and Queen of both people and land, together?”
Queen Naivara did not feel like getting married in her current state, especially not one of these business-deal weddings that other royal families were always getting into. She saw King Carrick’s point, his idea made sense. Both of Queen Naivara’s surviving royal council members had told her this was probably the main reason he was coming, but still, it was uncomfortable to be proposed to while looking like an actual corpse.
“You can take a while to think about it,” said King Carrick. “But I would ask that you hurry at least a little bit because right now I’m buying food from King Mertaugh’s kingdom, and he’s giving me a good deal since, well, since it’s mostly his fault, but still…”
“How long has it been since your first wife died?” asked Queen Naivara.
King Carrick furrowed his brow. Then he started to cry. “Six years,” he said, using both hands to wipe his tears out of the beard-hair on his cheeks.
It was odd seeing King Carrick so moved by the memory of his late wife when Queen Naivara’s huband, King Rinn, had only died a couple months ago and she wasn’t crying. She thought it was maybe because she didn’t really feel like herself anymore, she felt sort of inhuman and sometimes, in moments when the persistent pain would inexplicably fade, she felt immaterial. But she never felt like crying.
“I guess we can get married,” said Queen Naivara. “It’ll be good for the subjects, you’re right about that.”
King Carrick smiled and it seemed genuine, and Queen Naivara wasn’t so far gone that she couldn’t appreciate the fact that a genuine smile was a lot better than another horrified recoil. “We’ll get married here,” said King Carrick. “I will arrive in a month’s time on horseback, leading a great host of my subjects to re-populate your land, and then we will be married and begin to rebuild our lives.”
“That’s a lot better than this all could have turned out,” said Queen Naivara. “Unless you turn out to be abusive.”
The two subjects looked awful. Queen Naivara thought they looked more awful than she did and she recoiled in horror when she saw them, but they both recoiled in horror at the sight of her, so maybe they all looked equally awful and it was just a matter of what they had each grown accustomed to.
“Hello,” said Queen Naivara. Her voice echoed in the mostly-empty throne room. She sat hunched on her throne with King Rinn’s empty throne next to her. She wondered if King Carrick would use King Rinn’s old throne once she married him or if he was planning on bringing his own throne with him. Or maybe he’d commission a new one. Queen Naivara realized the two subjects were waiting for her to say more. “My surviving council members tell me that you are two of the very, very few people who contracted the disease and managed to survive. Like me.”
“That’s true, Your Highness,” said one of the subjects. Queen Naivara couldn’t tell if the subjects were two men, two women, a man and a woman, or what. She also couldn’t tell how old they were. None of these seemed like good topics of conversation to pursue. In the old days, before King Mertaugh’s stupid wedding, Queen Naivara had been great at interacting with common subjects, she had always been adept at making them feel special and honored to have her attention. But now that she actually had something significant in common with a few of them for the first time in her life, she felt awkward and she just wanted them to go away.
“Do you still have the pain?” asked Queen Naivara.
Both subjects nodded.
“Yeah, me too,” said Queen Naivara. “How much sleep do you get?”
The second subject spoke up in a voice deep enough that Queen Naivara felt safe assuming it belonged to a man. “I get maybe two or three hours a night,” said the subject. “If I’m lucky. Also, the disease deepened my voice so now I sound like a man when I’m actually a woman.”
“It’s so hard to feel feminine like this,” said the other subject.
“Ah, yes,” said Queen Naivara. “And yet we are all women here, but of varying ages, probably.”
The two subjects nodded again, but they both looked a little puzzled to the extent which it was possible to discern expressions on their mottled, twisted, pocked, and scarred faces.
“Well, all we can do is just keep trying,” said Queen Naivara.
“Trying to do what, Your Highness?” The subject’s tone was meek, but Queen Naivara thought the question was rude.
“Just anything,” said Queen Naivara. She thought about telling the subjects about the curse, about the wedding feast, about how she’d been too drunk and was responsible for bringing this gruesome plague down upon them and their loved ones and her loved ones and herself. But then she thought about how pointless that would be, how even if she could make them understand it and believe it, she wouldn’t be doing them any favors, she’d just be letting them into her tiny club of people who knew that the worst thing that had ever happened to them was also a farce. “And now,” said Queen Naivara, “if you’ll forgive me, I really must go get my bandages changed. You both should probably do the same.”
The subjects bowed, turned, and hobbled toward the throne room door, and everyone went and got their disgusting bandages changed.
A few days later, Queen Naivara called her two surviving council members into her chambers. “Good morning,” she said. “If we invite King Mertaugh to my wedding, would it be easy to assassinate him while he’s here?”
Neither surviving council member looked shocked. Queen Naivara didn’t know if she should be insulted by that.
Lord Gorn adjusted his robes and said, “For what purpose, your Highness? Revenge or as a precaution against future curses?”
The other surviving council member, whose name the disease had erased from Queen Naivara’s mind and who she had not wanted to ask for a reminder, asked, “Or perhaps those are the two equally desirable birds you’d like to kill with just the one stone?”
“I just think my new husband would sleep easier if King Mertaugh were killed,” said Queen Naivara. “Especially if he didn’t have anything to do with it or know anything about it.”
“Ah,” said the surviving council member whose name Queen Naivara didn’t remember. “A sort of secret wedding gift for your esteemed groom.”
Queen Naivara suppressed a sigh. Neither of these surviving council members had even gotten the disease that killed 70 percent of her kingdom, but she again reminded herself that even if they didn’t have the permanent disfigurement and the pain, they had lost friends and family too. “So we can make this happen?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Lord Gorn. “I mean, we can try. Most of the best assassins your kingdom had to offer died of the disease. We’ll have to settle for the best available assassin, but given the circumstances, that may be a hefty qualifier, Your Highness.”
“All right,” said Queen Naivara. “Get whoever you can get. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
“My Queen,” said the surviving council member whose name she couldn’t remember. “Thou art no beggar, thou art the-”
“Don’t tell me what I am,” said Queen Naivara.
Attendance at Queen Naivara and King Carrick’s wedding was poor. The events of the last royal wedding everyone had been to hung over the event like a black, disease-spreading, soil-corrupting, possibly-irrational-fear-inducing cloud. And many of the people who did bother to show up turned right around and left when they saw that King Mertaugh was in attendance, although they all claimed different reasons for leaving and all spared King Mertaugh a few kind words on their way out for fear that he might curse them as they left if they were open about the fact that he was the reason they were leaving.
The wedding ceremony was fine. King Carrick recoiled in horror a little bit when he lifted Queen Naivara’s veil to kiss her, but she didn’t hold it against him. For one thing, it was his smallest recoil yet, so there was reason to believe he may eventually not recoil in horror at the sight of her at all. For another thing, it’s not like Queen Naivara was that excited about kissing him either. King Carrick wasn’t good-looking and he didn’t even have the disease excuse, he was just born unattractive. And honestly, after the recoil, the kiss was fine. Queen Naivara had certainly had worse kisses.
The wedding feast was awkward. The table of highest honor had a lot of empty seats and the conversation was repetitive and lifeless. King Mertaugh wasn’t talking to anyone other than his wife, Queen Ceyselle, and even then he’d only whisper a few words in her ear and then go back to staring into space and drinking wine. Everyone else watched him while trying to appear to not be watching him, but their anxiety was written on all their faces.
People kept asking Queen Naivara if she was feeling all right and if her doctors predicted a full recovery. She didn’t tell them that the disease had killed all of her doctors. King Carrick was clearly nervous, but he compensated for that by being talkative and complimentary, praising every guest seated at the table of highest honor for anything he could think to praise them for, from the quality of the material of their clothing to victories in battles from decades before.
And then, at the precise moment when the tension had risen to the point where it seemed as if something must happen, something happened. King Mertaugh stood and lifted his cup of wine high. “A toast!” he said, in a loud, slurred voice. “A toast to King Carrick and his new wife, Queen Naivara! It would have made all the sense in the world for them not to invite me and my wife here tonight. I know that. You all know that. You all probably wish they hadn’t. But they did. And I don’t know why. I guess maybe they’re just nice or they forgave me, I guess. Which I didn’t even ask for, they just did it. So I guess they’re better than me. But that’s not news to you people. And I don’t even care if you all think you’re better than me. That’s fine. But that doesn’t mean you can’t like me. Or, well, you probably can’t like me now, but you could have liked me. That’s all I really wanted when I invited you all to my wedding. I thought, man, I used to be just a nothing magician and now I’m a king, but all the rest of the kings and queens are never gonna forget where I came from, but maybe I can use that to my advantage, maybe if I’m just open about the fact that I don’t have royal blood, they’ll be like, well, this guy isn’t as good as us, but he’s a good guy, we like him anyway. But then I totally blew that. I got too drunk and I put some curses on some people on accident and now everyone hates me and always will. But I can’t change the past, it’s just, yeah, I can’t change it. But then I got invited to this wedding, and I knew I couldn’t make it up to you guys, Queen Naivara and King Carrick, I knew that, but I thought, well, I can make a gesture, a nice gesture. So I broke out the old magic books I have and I…I tried to learn a blessing for you. For your marriage. And here’s the thing: the words for blessings are way different than the words for curses. And when you’ve said a lot of curses, it sort of contorts your tongue and makes it really hard to say blessings. Like, you just can’t pronounce the words quite right. But I practiced and practiced. My wife will tell you how much I practiced. And now, yeah, so here’s the blessing…” And then King Mertaugh, in a halting, stumbling voice, pronounced a series of nonsense words that sounded very similar to the words he’d spoken at the last wedding feast that had turned out to be curses. “Anyway,” said King Mertaugh, “I don’t know if I said it well enough for it to work, but you all heard me try, so I hope it works out for you.” Then he sat down again and slumped in his chair, his face turning red as he avoided eye contact with everyone at the table.
Then Queen Naivara saw all the eyes turn from King Mertaugh to her and King Carrick. The eyes told her that the people who possessed them were on the brink of panic.
“Thank you, King Mertaugh,” said Queen Naivara. She could feel King Carrick trembling next to her. “And that blessing you just gave us…what does it do?”
King Mertaugh looked up at her, his cloudy eyes searching her grotesque face. “It’s supposed to help you conceive twin boys,” he finally said. “If I remember correctly. I think that’s the one I went with.”
Queen Naivara’s two surviving council members were not excited to be having an emergency meeting of the council at 3 o’clock in the morning in the Royal Council Chambers, which hadn’t been used since the disease. They were both a little drunk from the wedding feast and very sleepy.
“I need you guys to call off the assassination,” said Queen Naivara.
“But Your Highness,” said Lord Gorn. “It may have already taken place.”
“Oh no,” said Queen Naivara. “Really? But ‘may have’ means there’s a chance it hasn’t.”
The other surviving council member said – Quinser! His name was Lord Quinser! So the disease hadn’t completely erased his name from Queen Naivara’s mind! Anyway, Lord Quinser said, “Well, he hasn’t reported back to us yet, Your Highness, so we can’t be sure he’s succeeded until he does.”
“And also,” said Lord Gorn, “as we explained before, he was merely the best available assassin, so I have to say, our confidence in his ability is not very high.”
“But there’s no way you can reach him now?” asked Queen Naivara. “You can’t give him some kind of signal to halt the assassination?”
Lords Gorn and Quinser looked at each other in a way that Queen Naivara knew meant “no.”
“We didn’t think it prudent to confuse him with a lot of extra steps and complications,” said Lord Quinser.
“What about sending a warning to King Mertaugh?” asked Queen Naivara.
“Um, maybe,” said Lord Gorn. “But who?”
“Go back to bed,” said Queen Naivara.
Most of the important guests were being housed in a separate wing of the castle, but Queen Naivara had put King Mertaugh and Queen Ceyselle in a room far away from the others in order to reduce the chances of the assassin having an unfortunate mix-up.
When Queen Naivara arrived at King Mertaugh and Queen Ceyselle’s room after a long, painful walk, she found two guards stationed outside the door. When the guards saw Queen Naivara, one of them gave the door a sharp knock and pressed his ear to it. Then he opened the door, announced Queen Naivara’s arrival, and admitted her to the room, closing the door behind her.
Queen Ceyselle sat knitting by the fire. There was no sign of King Mertaugh.
“Good evening,” said Queen Naivara.
Queen Ceyselle smiled and nodded at the other chair by the fire. “Good evening, Queen Naivara. Please, join me.”
Queen Naivara walked over to the chair, her eyes searching the room for signs of trouble, but nothing seemed amiss. She sat down.
“What brings you to visit me at this late hour?” asked Queen Ceyselle. “And on your wedding night, no less.”
“I just wanted to check on you,” said Queen Naivara. “I wanted to make sure everything was OK. Some of the other guests seemed a little hostile toward your husband and I’ve heard some reports of strange men lurking around the castle tonight, so I just wanted to make sure no one had bothered you.”
“Oh,” said Queen Ceyselle. “Do you mean the assassins?”
Queen Naivara tried to quickly determine what her face should do in response to this question, then remembered that her face was a wreck incapable of most expressions. “Assassins?” said Queen Naivara. “What assassins?”
Queen Ceyselle sighed and set down her knitting. “Oh, every time we go visit another kingdom, there are always assassins trying to get my husband. Everyone either thinks he already cursed them or is afraid he might curse them next, so they’re always acting nice to his face and then sending assassins to kill him in the night. But that’s what the guards are for. They’re the best. They’ve intercepted two assassins already tonight.”
“Intercepted?” said Queen Naivara.
“Well, killed,” said Queen Ceyselle.
“Ah,” said Queen Naivara. “Good. Good!”
“And he slept through all of it, of course,” said Queen Ceyselle, nodding over at the large canopy bed in the corner of the room where Queen Naivara saw a lump among the blankets that must have been King Mertaugh. “He always sleeps through the assassination attempts. He drinks himself into a stupor pretty much every night now. It’s not just at wedding feasts.
“Well, I appreciated his gesture,” said Queen Naivara. “At the feast.”
“Oh, right,” said Queen Ceyselle. “His gesture, yes. Listen, Queen Naivara, can I be frank with you?”
“Certainly,” said Queen Naivara.
“I know you lost two boys to the disease,” said Queen Ceyselle. “Your sons. And people say you never talk about them. Maybe you don’t even think about them. Maybe the disease did something to you and you don’t even remember them. But I know that influenced the blessing King Mertaugh tried to learn for you. And maybe you want to believe in it, just like you want to believe that awful disease was his fault ‘cause he babbled some words at you at our wedding feast. But, I don’t know, I don’t really believe in magic. Like, at all. Not curses, not blessings, none of it.”
Queen Naivara couldn’t have disagreed more, but she didn’t say anything. King Carrick’s curse had happened exactly as King Mertaugh had described it. That couldn’t be a coincidence. And the disease? No one even knew what the disease was and it had started almost immediately after the curse King Mertaugh had directed at Queen Naivara. And that meant that maybe, maybe, assuming he’d actually gotten the words right, Queen Naivara’s battered, old womb, ruined by the disease, might still bear a set of twin boys.
There was a tapping at one of the windows near the fireplace, a scraping against the closed shutter. Then the noise intensified, the shutter began to shake, and then it burst open and a man clad all in black toppled through the window and into the room, sprawling on his stomach. There was a rope tied around his waist that ran up and out the window. He scrambled to his feet and the queens saw that he also had a black mask that concealed his entire face except for his eyes. “All right,” said the man, his voice muffled by the mask. He pulled a jagged knife from a sheath at his waist. “Which one of you is King Morton.”
“King Morton?” asked Queen Ceyselle. “You must have the wrong room.” Neither queen had risen from her chair. Queen Naivara was impressed with Queen Ceyselle’s calm.
The assassin fumbled in his pockets and pulled out a scrap of paper. “King…Mert-ow? Mert-ogg? Mert-auff?”
“Oh yes,” said Queen Ceyselle. “He’s over there on the bed. He’s already dead. Another assassin killed him earlier tonight. He has a lot of enemies.”
“Great,” said the assassin. “Great.” He clearly didn’t know what to do next.
“How about if I cut off a piece of his cloak,” said Queen Ceyselle. “And then you can show it to whoever hired you as proof that you’re the one who killed him.”
“OK,” said the assassin. “I mean, sure. Yes.” He seemed very dim. Queen Naivara decided this was probably the assassin she had hired through her surviving council members, and if her face had still been capable of blushing, she might have.
After the assassin had gone back out the window with his scrap of King Mertaugh’s cloak and begun his arduous climb back up the rope to the roof, Queen Ceyselle closed the shutter and Queen Naivara apologized, but what she was apologizing for remained unspoken and was probably misinterpreted.
“One more thing,” said Queen Ceyselle, right before Queen Naivara was about to walk out the door. “I’ve never told anyone this before, but that biscuit that I served to King Dorwall? The one that he hated so much that he banned all biscuits? I spat on it before I gave it to him.”
And then Queen Naivara walked back through the dark, empty halls of her castle to her chambers and the bed where King Carrick waited for her, assuming he was still awake. She hoped he was still awake.