Before the Spider was a magician, he’d been a youthful poet with dreaming eyes. And before Queen Mayberry was the queen, she was the young poet’s lover. But when she was made to marry King Grigori against her wishes, the poet renounced his poetry and turned to magic, which blackened his eyes and tarred his heart.
A spell was just a poem that bit back.
His century of sonnets composed in silver-pointed pencil were now lost; every poem, every copy was destroyed by order of the king. For as the tale went, it wasn’t Queen Mayberry herself who first caught the king’s notice. King Grigori had fallen in love with the shape of a woman outlined in words: her beauty and tender heart made luminous and transfigured by the light of the poet’s little songs. And so the king kept both the woman and her likeness traced in language, kept them both for himself so that no one else could read the poems and know the heart of his queen as intimately as he.
Three autumns ago, the rumor at the market was that the Spider had cursed the Earl of Trilwater so that every word he uttered turned into dust. The unfortunate earl nearly choked to death and was still under a vow of silence. The Spider’s reasons for not cursing King Grigori’s words into dust were a mystery to all. Some believed he was working secretly to free the queen. Others suggested the king himself was a terrifyingly powerful magician with an especial gift for poison; he had destroyed many other men and never seemed to face retribution.
I could not say if the Spider’s eyes were truly blackened or if his face was still handsome. Like all of the magicians we saw at court, he always wore his deep hood drawn down. The court ladies and I knew him by his long-legged, stalking gait and avoided crossing his path. The other magicians seemed like men playacting at sinister in their hoods, but the Spider…we agreed there was an intensity to his movements which left us uneasy.
The stories told of our beloved queen and the king’s cruelty and the poet the Spider had once been, but the stories—old rumors traded like they were still new currency while we passed dull stitching time because we had little else to dream aloud about—ended there. All of the ladies ached for new details to stitch on the shabby quilt of past stories worn quite thin, and I was the one expected to provide those details. On winter days when the fire was dying and cold was seeping into our stiff fingers making an already-joyless task grimmer, we became a little impatient with one another. The other women—Ruby and Heartlight and Orchia and Zalaine—grew especially weary of my reticence when it came to Queen Mayberry’s private habits.
Under pressure, I sometimes described the scent of her perfumed hair and how she asked for little but grew rose-cheeked with pleasure whenever I brought honey for her bread.
These details were never enough.
“Perla. I cannot see why you refuse to just look,” Ruby complained. “The last maid was much more forthcoming with the queen’s habits. You…you are quite boring.”
“Just see if she still has a copy of the poems. That’s all you have to do,” Orchia added.
It was not that I lacked curiosity. I often wondered too. Did my queen still think of her once-lover? Did she still read his old poetry only to find that in the long, cold shadow of his absence, his beautiful poems had transformed into biting spells that stirred up bitter memory and desire? I would never dare ask.
Though I’d been Queen Mayberry’s personal lady-in-waiting for nigh upon four years, Ruby and Orchia had not managed to persuade me to search her chambers. Heartlight and Zalaine had stopped speaking to me nearly altogether.
It seemed to me that my queen’s life had been dissected quite enough. Let her keep her secrets shielded as close to her bosom as brides clutched sweet-scented heart’s ease bouquets on their wedding days.
Perhaps she was happy. Who were we to decide that her story was a sad one? She’d never lost her smile or the roses in her cheeks, and King Grigori was less awful when she was around.
It was a stormy night just before Springblossom. Warm April rain lashed the windows; the next day we would surely wake to find that all the flowers had been stirred into a waking fury by the downpour.
“Perla.” Queen Mayberry stilled my brushing with one hand, the other resting upon the book open in her lap. “This must stop.”
I put the brush aside. Though her hair was a cascade of red-gold that required little untangling, I could hardly breathe for fear that I’d tugged too hard and pained her. “I am so sorry, my lady.”
My queen closed her book, an unobtrusive rose-colored volume bound in cloth, and turned to me with the full bloom of her hyacinth blue eyes. The king once commissioned a pigment to be made from ground lapis lazuli simply so that the ultramarine of her eyes could be painted. It was, as the court ladies still tell it, the most expensive paint color in the world. The king allowed the artist to show the unfinished painting in open court that we might all admire how well the artist’s work captured that drowning blue, but the completed painting had never been seen. Like the poems, the painting was for King Grigori alone.
I believed my queen read nightly from a book of devotionals. But I wondered then if she had been calmly hiding in plain sight the fabled book of poems thought long destroyed. Her eyes held an unfamiliar look, somehow both distant and far too sharp.
Queen Mayberry’s hand returned to mine; it was steady and warm to the touch, though I could not recall a time I had ever seen my merry queen so serious. “You did not hurt me, Perla. What I meant was that I need you to do something for me.”
“Of course, my lady. Anything you wish.” Satisfaction welled up in me like the brightness of a swallowed star.
TO BE CONTINUED…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Christie is a New Orleans native and PhD candidate at Louisiana State University where she teaches literature, composition, and women’s studies. When not at work on her dissertation about female sonnet writers, she enjoys writing YA novels about strange people, beautiful dreams, and magic. Her new year’s resolution is a personal challenge to read one hundred books for fun in 2016, not counting the books she reads for teaching and dissertation purposes. Find her on her website!
A NOTE ON THE WRITING PROCESS: I knew when I saw the three elements of the prompt (a sinister stranger, a fear of spiders, and a stolen ring) that I didn’t want the spider to be an actual spider, so I made the Spider the sinister stranger. The stolen ring shows up in part two of the story. The first four lines came to me together in a single moment while I was driving, as many of my stories often do (and in fact, they’ve only been edited very slightly from the original moment of inspiration). In keeping with a story about a poet-turned-magician, I also drew inspiration from many of my favorite poems. The April rains and the queen’s hyacinth blue eyes were inspired by T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” The phrase “century of sonnets composed in silver-pointed pencil” is from Robert Browning’s “One Word More.”