by Nara Kagerou (奈良蜻蛉)
The night blossomed with light. Paper lanterns and peacock feathers, diamonds glittering on the curve of bared throats, silk necklines plunging down soft bosoms; the twinkle of laughter, the clink of glasses, the slosh of champagne. The orchestra bubbled with exuberance, violins cascading their voices to trail notes along the quick-stepping toes waltzing across the room.
Anna toyed with the gold band on her finger, twisting it restlessly and watching the fire in the studded rubies.
“How cheerful you are, Anna, at this ball in your honor.”
Startled, Anna looked up, and immediately rose to her feet. “My Lady Queen.”
“Don’t,” the Queen raised a hand to still her, and settled down at Anna’s side. “You’ll be Queen soon enough, won’t you? Your fiance is itching to be rid of his terrible stepmother.”
Anna flushed. “The king yet lives.”
“It’s grim,” the Queen said, with a quiet sigh. Her royal diadem weighed heavy with gold on her yellow hair; gray eyes tired and weary in a face so young.
Anna thought of her eldest sister, and wished to take the Queen in her arms like that lost sister, and lighten her heavy burdens.
“But what of you?” The Queen asked. “Soon to be married and soon to be crowned, why so glum at your engagement ball?”
“It is hard,” Anna replied, “to have cheer when my fiance dances with strangers more than me.”
“Then perhaps I can lure you away from your sorrows. Keep an old woman company, won’t you?”
“You’re not so old,” Anna replied, rising with the Queen and following her out of the ballroom, away from the peacock masks and false cheer.
“Do you know why kings hold balls?” the Queen asked. “It’s to hide that the kingdom is rotting inside.”
“You’re hardly older than I,” Anna insisted. “The kingdom knows you’ve only been married a few years.”
“To a dying old man who wanted a fair gem to grace his arm.” The doors opened before her, and the Queen settled wearily into a chair. “Each year a decade, and I am grown old, my young Anna. Sit with me, won’t you?”
Anna settled on the floor by the woman’s feet, watching as the Queen unbound her long yellow hair, drawing a gilded comb through the strands.
“You’ll grow old too, Anna. While the Prince who has seen more years than either of us is still a squalling child.”
Anna took the comb from her hands, perching on the arm of the chair to take over the task. “Don’t you fear to speak so candidly of the Crown Prince before the woman who will be his wife?’
A tired smile creased the Queen’s mouth. “What should I fear, Anna? Death? Exile? Whatever words I say, my fate has already been decided in my stepson’s mind. He counts the days, impatient of his father’s life and his stepmother’s presence.”
“And what of me?” Anna’s hand stills, resting in the golden waves. “Should I fear?”
“It doesn’t matter.” The Queen’s soft white hand closed over Anna’s, the hand with the dreaded ruby ring. “You’re a woman, Anna. You are merely a trinket until you begin to grow old or useless or too influential. Then you will be disposed of: death or exile.” Her hand drew back, reclaiming the comb. “Go back to the ball, Anna. You’re too young and beautiful to endure an old woman’s bitterness.”
Anna left the room, but did not return to the ball.
– – –
“Like a swan in your wedding gown, Anna,” the Queen spoke. “The very picture of beauty and grace.”
“Swans are out of fashion this year,” Anna replied. “The Prince would rather have foxes.”
“Already bitter, sweet Anna? It doesn’t suit you.”
“Nor does age suit you. Even on his wedding day, will he dance with every woman in the room?”
The Queen chuckled mirthlessly, adjusting a swan feather in Anna’s hair. “My dear Anna. He’ll be in your bed tonight, and every night, until the seed takes, have no fear of that.”
Anna looked at her in horror. “Must you be so crude?”
“No,” the Queen pulled her hand back, abashed. “No, Anna, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it so.” Graceful fingers lifted Anna’s chin. “Stem your worries, my little Queen-to-be. It won’t be bad, and God willing you’ll soon have a warm baby boy in your arms, and need never fear for your life, as I fear mine. God’s will be done, my darling.”
Anna looked into the woman’s eyes, sharp-toothed tears stinging at her own. “I do not think any Queen’s life is free from fear, Your Majesty. I would rather have cruelty than lies.”
“Brave Anna,” the Queen whispered. “Go now to your bridal chamber and await your lord and master. Be strong, sweet girl.”
Anna went to visit the Queen’s chambers the next day.
“My dear Anna.” The Queen smiled, setting aside her needlepoint and dismissing her maids. “Come sit with me.”
Anna curled up against the side of the Queen’s chair, spreading her long velvet skirt around her legs. “Did it hurt?” The Queen asked, fingers gently coaxing strands of Anna’s long dark hair out of her braid.
“At first,” Anna admitted.
“Did you enjoy it?”
“Enjoy it!” Anna looked aghast at the suggestion. “My Lady Queen, bid me not to speak, for I am sure my lips would confess treasons, if I did.”
“My name is Sasha,” the Queen said. “It would please me if there were no titles between us.”
“Sasha,” Anna echoed her.
“Be my friend, Anna,” Sasha whispered, pressing her cheek against the younger girl’s hair. “When the king dies, I will have only enemies, and you will denounce me and vote for my exile—you must, and exile would be a welcome fate for me—but until then, be my friend.”
Anna’s head lifted slowly, shocked by the Queen’s lowered head and closed eyes. “Sasha,” she whispered, throwing her arms around the slender monarch, burying her head with a sob in the other woman’s shoulder. “How can such an ordeal be endured? Oh god, better dead than wived!”
“We find our own pleasure, Anna. So can it be endured. Although I might have thought that with all the Prince’s affairs, ‘twould teach him some skill in the bedchamber.”
Anna, through her tears, began to laugh.
“Sweet Anna.” Frowning, the Queen lifted her friend’s chin. “Your cheek bears plums where it should bloom roses.”
“The Prince,” Anna replied, “is angry I am not yet with child.”
“Ah,” the Queen said. “Your courses again. And the King’s life the slimmest thread. How perilous, the woman’s lot.”
“Your jokes are always so bitter,” Anna wept.
“There is a secret,” Sasha began, “that I would tell you, my love, before they take me away.”
“Tell me,” Anna whispered, her head in the Queen’s lap, her arms around the monarch’s thin waist.
“I have no words to speak it,” the Queen whispered. “Only lips.”
A fingertip was enough to raise Anna’s chin for a kiss, and the Queen’s lips were warm.
Anna’s breath caught with surprise. “Your Majesty?”
“No, Anna, my dear. Call me Sasha.”
“Sasha,” Anna murmured against her lips, unable to resist the sweet embraces of her kiss.
“Do you trust me, Anna?” the Queen asked.
Anna nodded, a virgin blush high on her cheeks.
The Queen’s fingers were nimble in the laces, carefully untying and unfastening, releasing Anna from her silks and ruffles, the expanse of linens holding her body captive. She told her secret with the trepid touch of fingertips, lips and tongue tracing tracts of Anna’s body that even her husband had never seen or caressed.
“Sasha,” Anna whispered. “This is blasphemy.”
“No,” Sasha said, as she parted Anna’s legs and pressed a kiss unto the thigh. “It is love.”
Anna cried aloud to the Blessed Virgin as Sasha’s tongue moved inside her, and brushed Heaven with her fingertips, for one long, perfect moment.
“Sasha,” Anna whispered, naked and vulnerable on the Queen’s bed.
“Remember me when I’m gone,” Sasha said, drawing the girl into her arms.
Anna was in the gardens with the Prince when the news came of the King’s passing.
Sasha was seized and accused of the murder by poisoning of the King her husband. The judge pronounced the sentence of exile, and she disappeared to a nunnery, in the country. The King’s physician was put to death.
Anna was crowned as Queen by her husband’s side, and kept her title for five years. She bore the King a young daughter, and miscarried twice. The daughter was named Sarah, because the Queen dared not name her Sasha. She was pale and beautiful, with dark hair like her mother, but the King wanted a son, and neglected mother and daughter alike.
When the king’s mistress bore a healthy boy, the king divorced his wife and found a new bride. The former Queen was sent into exile.
She disappeared to a nunnery, in the country.
Sasha sat under an apple tree in the orchard, showered by the flutters of petals as they fell, with a book on her knee. The lines on her face had smoothed, and the color on her face was flushed with health, eyes clear and light hair shining in the sunlight. She held out her hand as the exiled Queen approached, with the young princess by her side.
“You must be Sarah,” Sasha said, taking the child by the hand. “Welcome home.”