Continued from Spells & Poems, Part One.
My queen could not leave the palace or be seen meeting her Spider, but I could come and go, so I went in her stead.
For a year and a day, I carried messages for them. My meetings with him were hardly meetings but crossings—on a bridge, in the marketplace, wherever the queen was not. I never saw his face nor his eyes.
He had a delicate way of handing me messages without ever actually touching my skin, though it seemed he radiated heat the way I could feel him near.
I never opened the small folds of paper they exchanged, nor read the forbidden book of poems that I now knew she possessed. It was pleasure enough to share in the secret of the correspondence—and thrill in the danger of it.
Never let it be said that I wasn’t aware of the risk. Never let it be said I didn’t know what I was doing.
The Spider’s secret words had ignited a steady light inside of my queen. It took seeing Queen Mayberry truly happy to realize she had only been pretending at happiness before. She was a vision, her eyes an endless velvet sky, her skin flushed with a radiance so apparent that court rumor had it that King Grigori had finally found his way into her heart at last. I did my part encouraging this theory with the other ladies.
I’d never been courted before, and this strange dance between my queen and her Spider and me felt like being part of a courtship of a sorts. Queen Mayberry’s stories romanced me to sleep at night, and when she described what she felt for the man known as the Spider, I fell half in love with her love for a faceless man that the rest of the world feared.
And so I learned him in parts:
Not his real name—she didn’t call him the Spider, but simply Spider, as if it were an endearing nickname—or the features of his face, but the parts that mattered.
His were the hands that had soothed the abandoned, half-dead fox kit they found while out walking in the woods one day. “He named her Mayberry because he said that her fur was the same gold-vermilion of mine,” my queen recounted wistfully. Too near death to save, he’d brought her water and held the wild Mayberry until she was at peace.
His was the steady patience that taught my queen to fish, to cast her line and wait beneath the breeze-tossed boughs as the dappled sun kissed freckles onto her cheeks. It was not the catching that was the prize but the slow time spent out in the wild and lush world, a time that would never be lost even as her freckles faded to a lady’s proper lily-paleness once more.
His was the voice that composed fragments of poem aloud as he thought of them. She liked the solidity of his bass timbre, how he sounded confident of himself even when he had not quite found the shape of the finished line yet.
I relearned my queen in parts, as well.
New sides of her slowly revealed like the moon going through her phases in the sky. When Queen Mayberry finished her evening reading, we often stayed up together as she told me about her too-short time together with her Spider. She opened wider, willing to entertain my questions. We watched the fire burn low in the hearth and talked long into the night.
“Why does the Spider stay near the court? And why does the king let him?”
“Powerful men have strange ways. Grigori likes to play games. He finds Spider mystifying, but entertainingly so. He also likes to flaunt his possessions, especially to those from whom he has taken. And Spider…well, he stays in the court to keep close to me, but also he believes in keeping his enemies near. They circle one another, always evaluating, but never striking. They have a mutual interest in me. So long as I am unharmed, neither moves against the other. It’s a tenuous peace, but for now…”
Our talks were not always of serious matters. Other nights, we spent the late hours laughing and inventing new rumors for me to share with the court ladies. She was quite funny, and I liked to make her laugh.
“Oh! Tell them that I’m actually as bald as the king, and I have to wear wigs! They’ll love that.” She collapsed on her bed in laughter beside me.
And she was right—Ruby and Heartlight and Orchia and Zalaine did love it, drinking down my false rumors with a dark delight, thrilled that I was finally opening up to them.
It had been a happy year for everyone.
But now it was nearing Springblossom again and the world trembled under the seasonal surge of storms, wild springtime rains to stir the heart and soil. We balanced in anticipation on the knife edge of winter and bloom-time.
Something was stirring. The queen began pacing at night and talked less. The frequency of message-exchange increased with the rains, sometimes multiple times a day, which meant I had to figure out even more elaborate prearranged meeting times and places.
They were planning something, this much was obvious to me. Never let it be said I didn’t know what I was doing.
“I need you to do something for me, Perla.” The words were familiar by now, but they never failed to excite me like an open door, an invitation, an unfulfilled possibility.
“A message?” I had already run a message earlier in the morning; I’d met the Spider at the marketplace. His hooded head was down, glowering the direction of a selection of herbs and salves as I passed by. After, I made a show of purchasing a basket full of several varieties of pastry for a Springblossom picnic the queen would host for the ladies of the court this afternoon.
“Not this time. Something more important: a ring. You will have to go to the magician’s guild tonight. The ring is—special—and he thinks this is our best opportunity for you to get it and bring it back unnoticed. When the mead is flowing and there are—more distractions around.” Her words hung in the air, unusually hesitant and uncertain. There seemed a hidden question buried there, a suggestion of a greater danger than the risks I’d already been taking.
But hidden danger or no, there was nothing I would not do for my queen.
The sky seemed to watch closely over this festival night, the full-bellied moon large and yellow and hung low in the sky. At the magician’s guild, the fête celebrating the arrival of Springblossom was well underway. Honeyed mead was flowing. Hoods were thrown back to reveal faces. I pushed my own hood back though I left my red cloak clasped at my throat. The sound of pipes and timbrels whirled in wild ecstasy over a moving sea of spangled dresses and dark robes. Couples went off in search of darkened alcoves in which to embrace. A dangerous, near-manic energy threaded the air; everyone was hungry and looking for something.
The Spider was waiting near a fountain. I knew him by his hood, which unlike the all the others, was still drawn down. He held a goblet of mead.
He spoke no words, only pressing the golden cup into one of my hands. By the other hand, he drew me down a long corridor that led to a courtyard full of moonlight and climbing roses. It was the first time in a year of exchanges that he’d ever touched me. I had not been imagining it before: his skin burned hot.
To anyone watching, we would appear to be lovers seeking privacy. The sound of the celebration was still near; our exchange wouldn’t be heard over the laughter and music if we were quiet. My heart beat in my throat and temples, my terror and excitement and the wonder of my queen’s trust in me tangled into an intoxicating rush through my veins.
Turning to face me, he drew his hood back. I held my breath.
His face beneath the hood was still unexpectedly young, though his eyes were indeed an unsettlingly liquid black beneath slashed straight brows, the sharp eyes of a peregrine falcon or the glossy back of a spider. Darksome devouring eyes.
Would the blackness leach out of his eyes when this was all over, restoring them to color?
It would be over soon, this I was certain. This ring, this ring was something different, a break in the pattern that signified whatever plans they’d been making were now in place.
I sipped from the cup I’d been given, tearing my eyes away from his.
Sweetness coated my tongue as he slid a ring, the ring, from his little finger.
It was not the kind of ring I’d imagined. This was no lover’s promise ring, no wedding band.
It was a poison ring.
My blurred thoughts snapped into focus. She is going to kill the king.
And I was going to help her.
“Steady hands!” the Spider sharply cautioned as he cradled my free hand and slipped the ring onto my finger, his touch surprisingly gentle despite his tone. “If you disturb the clasp,” he gestured at the nearly-invisible catch that unlatched the ring’s poison compartment, “it would be quite unfortunate.”
He explained that the poison contained within the ring had taken a trio of magicians to create—one to distill the poison, another for the enchantment that nullified all antidotes, magical or otherwise, and another for the spell that ensured the spirit of one killed in this manner could never be summoned or resurrected.
My hands were not at all steady at the possibility of complete obliteration. I swallowed. “Were you one of the three who made it?”
“No. I stole it.” His voice was as smooth as dark amber. It did something to my bones, something warm and liquid and very improper. I remembered my queen telling me how she loved the sound when he used his poetry-composing voice, and how in love with her love I was. How odd that this warm feeling sat alongside my terror of him, neither precluding the other.
A stolen ring. It made sense. He was known for enchanting language, not creating poisons or bespelling worked metal. Who had he stolen it from? If I was found with it, who would want it back from me?
The ring was a thing of wonder. The milky pale moonstone reflected star-like light patterns. It was set into a petaled bezel that flowered open around the stone. The scrollwork of the band was as intricately wrought as the bezel, worked into a woven vine pattern. So beautiful, and so dangerous. A ring to set my queen free.
And would it be worth it? She seemed to think so. I had no doubt about what she planned, but I could not picture this ring on my queen’s finger, nor could I see her truly wielding it against the king. Could I?
But then I thought of the strange look in her eyes that night she’d first asked me to meet the Spider for her. Perhaps she would, after all.
For freedom. For love.
Suddenly, in a single fluid motion, the Spider was upon me, one hand deftly undoing my cloak’s clasp and the other pinning my body against a stone wall all over-trailed with roses. Soft petals brushed my cheek and a thorn pricked the back of my neck as my cloak puddled to the ground. Abject terror shrieked in my uneven pulse and skittered in my blood.
I’d known he was a dangerous man; only a fool would be surprised when danger delivered on its promise.
Then I noticed a man and woman, hands entwined, peering through the archway. I’d been so distracted that I hadn’t heard them coming. The realization that the Spider had ensured they would only witness a couple in mid-embrace was slow to surface in my drowned mind. The young woman was rumpled, showing a shocking amount of décolletage in a disheveled spring green gown. She looked vaguely familiar, probably one of the lesser nobles from court. Her young man winked at me as they turned back the way they came, continuing on their search for an unoccupied space.
We held our poses and waited until their shuffling footsteps and giggles had been swallowed completely by music. I barely noticed the thorn needling me when he was pressed so close.
“Apologies, my lady,” the Spider whispered in my ear. “For taking the liberty.”
He lifted my cloak around me again and clasped it at my throat again before stepping back.
It took another long moment for me to collect myself. Tears pricked at my eyes but I wasn’t certain of why.
“Do you miss her terribly?”
The words of a romantic fool had slipped out of my mouth unchecked.
His pause was slight, but it was long enough for him to assess me steadily with those unnatural black eyes, for that nervous feeling he gave me to drip down my throat and stir my stomach. His mouth quirked at the corner but otherwise his expression remained unchanged.
“Yes. Give her my regards.”
Before I could make my promise, he pulled his hood back down to obscure his face. He strode away back to where the celebration danced on unabated. I trailed him, watching until he’d disappeared completely in the press of bodies.
I finished my mead to calm myself before crossing the city on this wild night, drinking the whole cup down in one draft. The drink pushed a warm and liquid sensation through me, a perfect mirror of how the Spider had made me feel.
And then, finished with that heady cup, I refilled it again and downed the sweet drink as I stood on the fringes of the revelry and watched the others. I was asked to dance, though I declined all offers with a blush and a shake of the head, which only seemed to charm my potential suitors further.
I made my way home alone in the dark with secret fire glowing beneath my skin and a stolen poison ring upon my finger.
It was the last night that all of my life’s pathways stood open, the possibilities seeming endless.
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: As I mentioned in part one of this story, I drew a lot of inspiration from some of my favorite poetry. There are references to poems by Robert Browning, John Keats, and Gerard Manley Hopkins buried in this part of the story. At Madcap, Dhonielle talked about finding a character’s emotional truth and that was a really useful concept– I had to continually think and rethink what emotional truths were driving Perla, the queen, and the Spider.