by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by beili
The throne room looked different from this angle: an inch or so off the floor, with a guardsman’s shiny leather boot pressed against the back of his neck. It was a fine angle from whence to observe the delicate work and mother-of-pearl inlay. It was a terrible angle from whence to face the king. Unfortunately for him, Marcelo was not there to appreciate the architecture.
The truth was, he could barely even see the king, given the way he was being forced to bow. But he wasn’t there to look at the king; he was here to be looked at. Alas that he hadn’t known he’d be making a court appearance today. He might have worn more flattering trousers.
Was this really the time for his brain to offer jokes? He cursed his lack of impulse control for the ill-timed humor, and then for landing him here in the first place.
The guard was addressing the court from several feet above him, but Marcelo could only half hear what was being said. One of his ears was being pressed against the cool stone, while the other had been boxed painfully as the guards apprehended him, leaving a muffled ringing behind. He supposed the king was getting a whole recounting of the events. Marcelo had no illusions he was being represented favorably.
At last a strong gloved hand took the back of his collar and yanked him up. The king was there, scowling down from behind his thick black beard, clearly trying to intimidate the young nobleman brought so low before him. However, Marcelo only had eyes for the tall figure standing just behind the king, holding a handkerchief delicately against his split lip, his red-rimmed eyes downcast. The king looked Marcelo up and down, then turned to the wounded man behind him. “And you did not slay him on the spot for his insolence?” asked the king, his booming voice echoing off the vaulted ceiling.
“Father, I–” managed Prince Luiz before the king cut him off with a loud stomp of his boot.
“Guards,” said the king, “was the prince armed at the time?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” answered the one whose shoe had of late been so intimate with Marcelo’s neck.
“And did he draw his weapon to answer in kind?”
The guards on either side of Marcelo exchanged nervous glances over his head. “No, Your Majesty,” said the other.
The king’s scowl deepened so far that Marcelo had the wild thought that the king’s forehead might vanish completely, replaced forever with furrows. “And what is it that happened instead?” asked the king, his voice now a dangerous roll of thunder.
Another look was exchanged between the guards, this one even more uncomfortable and accompanied by an even longer pause. “The prince,” answered the first guard after a moment’s hesitation, “was seen to retreat and begin crying, Your Majesty.”
The king again fixed his withering gaze on Prince Luiz, gazing upon his only child with a look of disgust and disappointment. It was hardly the first time the prince had merited such a look, by the king’s royal estimation. His disdain for his tall, dark-eyed son was an open secret in the court, where no one doubted rumors regarding the king’s contempt for his heir. Many suspected that the treatment Luiz suffered was far harsher behind closed doors; Marcelo knew for a fact those suspicions were not unfounded. But now was not the time to think about what he knew and did not know. Now was the time to focus on keeping his head attached to his shoulders.
His prospects for accomplishing that dimmed considerably as the king turned back to Marcelo. “Have you anything to say for yourself?” asked his royal majesty.
Of course he had. He was Marcelo Vargas, whose adoptive father was that Don Santiago Vargas, and he was known throughout the court as someone never at a loss for words, often to the chagrin of those around him. He had a clever tongue and a sharp wit, and both were now straining like racing dogs at the gate to burst forth and opine on this situation.
He kept his mouth shut and his eyes downcast, then shook his head.
“Very well,” spat the king. “You shall have your case heard before the court and you shall answer for your actions against a member of the royal family. In two weeks’ time, you shall appear again and face judgment for your actions. I order the guards now to release you, that you may prepare your defense. Your description will be known to the guards at the city gates, though, so do not think you can escape retribution. Be gone.”
Before further comment could be made or protest lodged, Marcelo was back on his feet through the strength of the guards’ hands. He was all but dragged from the hall, and as he went, he tried to catch Luiz’s eye. But Luiz’s face was turned from him, and Marcelo did not know if he would ever see it again.
Hadn’t he said just that morning that he couldn’t possibly see the week’s going any worse? This, he supposed, would teach him.
“He means for you to run.”
Marcelo groaned as he slid his hands down his face, letting them pull his cheeks into an exaggerated jowly frown. “Of course he means for me to run,” Marcelo sighed, looking at Don Santiago on the other side of the small firelit study. “Ten silver pieces says he hasn’t even bothered alerting the city guard yet. Or if he has, he’s also told them not to be too thorough in poking every bale of hay or inspecting every herring-barrel that rolls its way out of the city. I may be the criminal in this instance, but I’m not the one who comes out looking poorly.”
Don Santiago nodded, folding his wizened hands together over his lap. He had never been young, not so long as Marcelo had known him, but now he looked positively ancient, his face a mask of worry in the fire’s glow. He was Marcelo’s father, for all intents and purposes, though he was certainly old enough to be a grandfather to him. “Did you have to strike him in public?” he asked at last.
That won a bitter little laugh from Marcelo. “I suppose I didn’t have to strike him at all,” he admitted, letting his face fall back into his cupped hands. “At this point, I almost wish he had stabbed me in return. It would have made things so much simpler.”
Don Santiago shook his head. “So, shall we begin packing your things?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Marcelo said.
“Don’t know?” Don Santiago’s brow furrowed even deeper. “You can’t possibly stay. There were witnesses! You all but confessed! He’s declared the court date as a formality, perhaps, but if you show your face on that day, you will face judgment for striking a member of the royal family! And you will go straight to the gallows!” His last frantic sentence disappeared into a hacking cough, and Marcelo jumped to his feet to fetch Don Santiago a glass of water. Don Santiago waved away the concern, but he took the proffered glass with genuine gratitude. After a long sip, he handed it back to Marcelo and sighed. “You see? If you stay for a trial, it will kill me.”
“If I go, it will kill you,” Marcelo countered.
“Then I shall go to my grave peacefully, knowing that you are safe and whole out there in the world, rather than passing from grief as they take you off to the gallows.” Don Santiago shook his head. “This is my decision, and as you are my son, you will abide it.”
Marcelo took a deep breath and let it out in a slow, heavy sigh. “If I go, my heart will break,” he said.
“Better your heart than your neck.” Don Santiago reached for Marcelo’s hand, wrapping his soft, frail fingers around Marcelo’s strong ones. “Tell me, did you strike him despite your heart, or because of it?”
Marcelo winced, but he supposed he’d earned that. “Bit of both.”
“Bit of both,” Don Santiago echoed. He patted the back of Marcelo’s hand with his other, then released him, relaxing back into the chair. “I respect you enough not to tell you that I told you so–”
“Oh, clearly.” Marcelo rolled his eyes, though by now things were already seeming a bit less dire, in the grand scheme of things. There would be no trial. He’d keep his head. Everything was perfectly fine, except for the part where he was going to have to leave forever the only home he’d ever loved, to say nothing of the people in it, to say a further nothing of one of those in particular. A perfect ending to a perfect day.
“However,” continued Don Santiago, as though Marcelo had said nothing, “my warnings to you about the king’s temperament were not made for my health. He hates and fears you, even if he does not fully understand why.”
“And why is it, Papa?” asked Marcelo, beginning to pace. “How can I understand what he cannot?”
Don Santiago scoffed and waved at the air as though clearing smoke. “Some bodies are better left buried,” he said, with the tone that simply said that that was that.
Marcelo was about to object, to say something for his rapidly dwindling position, when there was a rap on the door to the study. A moment later, one of the house servants entered, a pleasant young butler in a royal blue coat. “A guest has arrived wishing to speak with you, Don Santiago,” explained the butler. His accent was sweet and curious, perhaps from one of the northern provinces? Don Santiago was always collecting strays; it was simply his way. “It has to do with the matter of what transpired in the court today.”
“Who is it?” asked Marcelo.
The butler shook his head. “She will not give her name.”
“She?” Marcelo echoed with some surprise. Of all those he’d imagined might come and pledge to vouch for him, none of them were among the ladies of the court.
“Some other token of her identity, then?” asked Don Santiago.
“She–” The butler paused and pursed his lips, as though choosing his words very carefully. Finally, he straightened his shoulders and set his jaw. “I cannot be sure, as her face is hidden beneath a cloak, and yet … I believe she is a daughter of the Witch, sir.”
Marcelo didn’t know which was more surprising, the identity of their guest, or that Don Santiago did not seem surprised in the slightest. “Send her in, then,” Don Santiago ordered. “Offer to take her cloak, but do not insist. Offer her water and tea. Then bring her to this room. And if you value your continued health, you won’t use that word in her presence.”
It was testament to the butler’s nerves and training alike that he only nodded and stepped out, shutting the door behind him. Marcelo turned to Don Santiago. “A witch?” he asked, frowning at his adoptive father.
Don Santiago fixed Marcelo with a sharp glare. “Did you suddenly grow deaf in the last minute? Have you not put your life in enough danger as it is today?”
Abashed, Marcelo sat on the couch and shut his mouth. Still, it was as though the butler had announced the arrival of a ghost, or a dragon. Witches were the things of children’s tales, not part of the real world. And hadn’t the butler said not a witch, but the Witch? What on earth did he mean by that, and why did Don Santiago understand his meaning when Marcelo had no clue?
A minute of silence passed, the only noises in the room the regular tick of the clock and the soft crackling sounds from the fire. Marcelo held his tongue and waited until the door opened again. When it did, Don Santiago pulled himself to his feet, and Marcelo took his lead and did the same, turning to see if what walked through the door would answer any of his questions.
Instead, the figure that entered seemed to be a perfectly ordinary young woman, perhaps around Marcelo’s own age. The cloak was still around her shoulders, but she had pulled back the hood, leaving her face exposed. Her hair and skin were both dark, and her eyes even darker, and something about her — perhaps the mossy green of her garments — made Marcelo think of good earth, loamy soil, fertile things.
On seeing her, Don Santiago gave as much of a bow as his aged frame would allow. “Dear lady, you are welcome in this house,” he said with the deference Marcelo associated with royalty, not common girls in rough fabrics.
The young woman nodded back to Don Santiago, a gesture of acknowledgment, before turning to Marcelo and folding her arms across her chest. “Well,” she said, her voice even as she fixed him with a frightful glare, “let’s talk about saving your hide.”
Don Santiago smiled at that and gestured to the woman that she should take a seat, which she did, smoothing out her skirts beneath her. She even smelled of earth, Marcelo noticed, and it was a pleasant scent, like lying face-down in summer grass. Witches were not real, of course, but if they had been, he suspected that one might look as she did. Marcelo and Don Santiago sat after she was comfortable, even if Marcelo did not understand why she warranted this level of deference, especially given the way she had spoken to him.
“You have us at a disadvantage, dear lady,” said Don Santiago, folding his hands on his lap. “You know who we are, I gather, but I am afraid we do not know what we shall call you.”
“Brígida will do, thank you,” said the woman.
“And your mother?” asked Don Santiago. “Is she well?”
Marcelo looked from Brígida to Don Santiago, then back again. How did his father know her mother? What was more, how did he have no idea who either of them was?
“Well enough,” answered Brígida. “Winter is creeping in, and the chill settles in her bones.”
“I understand all too well,” Don Santiago said with a sigh. “When you leave, will you take some blankets with you? This house has more than it could spare, and they will do well to help keep out the cold.”
“Your generosity is appreciated, but my leaving is part of what I’ve come to discuss.” Brígida drew a strand of hair back from her face, tucking it with all her other curls. “The cards have promised a great change lately, something long-hidden that would come to light. We did not know what it was until we heard of the king’s judgment today.”
Don Santiago nodded. “What wisdom do you bring?”
“That your son will die,” said Brígida, looking at Marcelo, “unless you grant me three requests.”
“Die?” asked Marcelo. “Are you threatening me?”
“Please,” spat Brígida, rolling her eyes. “You all but have a warrant out on your head right now, and you think I’m threatening you? If I wanted you dead, I would have stayed home, sipped my tea, and waited two weeks’ time. I am here to save you. But to do it, I must ask three things of you.”
“What are they, dear lady?” asked Don Santiago.
Brígida nodded and pulled three thin rectangles from her sleeve. It took Marcelo a moment to realize them for what they were: tarot cards. “Four of wands. The Lovers. Judgment.” She placed them on a low table in front of her, all in a row, then tapped the first card. “Four of wands: You must let me live as part of your household for the two weeks ahead, between now and the trial.”
Don Santiago nodded. “Of course. I’ll have the servants set up a suite of rooms for you at once.”
Brígida tapped the second. Marcelo looked at the design, the image of two naked people standing under the watchful eye of a third. “You will marry me,” she said to Marcelo, and as he began to sputter, she raised a hand to quiet him. “In name only, if you like. But we must be wed, and within a fortnight.”
“And the third?” asked Don Santiago. It did not escape Marcelo’s notice that her second request had not received either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ from his father, nor did he miss how no one seemed to regard this as a request he was supposed to answer.
“He will go to trial,” Brígida explained, pointing to the Judgment card, “and he will take me as advocate.”
“If he goes to trial, he will go to the gallows!” Don Santiago beat his fist against the arm of his chair. “He not only struck the prince in the presence of witnesses, but he admits to it! There is no legal defense that can help a guilty plea.”
Brígida shrugged and gathered her cards, tucking them back in her sleeve. “I’m only telling you what the cards say is true. Agree to these and he will live. Refuse even one and he will die.”
“Wait.” Marcelo narrowed his eyes at her. “Why do you care what happens to me?”
“I don’t,” Brígida said. She pointed to Don Santiago. “My mother cares what happens to him. And I care what happens to myself. Three birthrights were stolen twenty-two years ago, and one of them was mine. The universe is giving us a single chance to put things back in order. I, for one, am inclined to take it. And as much as it galls me to say so, there is no halfway here. All three, or none.”
Don Santiago nodded as though this made complete sense to him, though Marcelo could not understand why. He supposed he’d have to add it to the list of inexplicable and horrible events of the day. “You understand,” said Don Santiago to Brígida, “that the first request is no matter, but the other two carry great weight.”
Brígida nodded. “Hence my asking the first. I will be here these two weeks, as you decide.”
“You said three birthrights. Was one mine?” asked Marcelo. When Brígida nodded, he asked, “And the third?”
“The prince’s,” she answered of the man whose currently held birthright, by all reckoning, was the entire kingdom.
Marcelo was having a truly fine sulk in the gardens when a palace servant appeared at the iron gate, rapping at its decorative bars to get Marcelo’s attention. “Pardon me,” said the servant, dressed in the plain garb of a messenger. Marcelo only knew her origin from having seen her before; he knew that to all others, she would pass unremarked-upon. “I am to deliver this to you.”
For a moment, Marcelo entertained the idea of telling the servant he didn’t want any letter, and that she should return it to its sender unopened. But no, it wasn’t as though he was blameless in the matter that had transpired that morning, and besides, he didn’t want to get her in any trouble. “Thank you,” he said, taking the envelope from her hands. It was plain and bore no marks indicating either sender or recipient; she must have been charged personally with the task of getting it to Marcelo.
Alone among the sculpted bushes and fountains, he made his way to an area beneath a hanging lantern. It wasn’t much light, but as he found, he needed very little to make out the words penned in elegant script on the card: I am sorry, my love.
Several minutes passed then as Marcelo fought back the urge to utterly dissolve into tears. He balled his hands into fists and set them on his knees, then breathed deeply, waiting for the sensation to pass. As all things must, it did, leaving him feeling even more acutely hollowed than he had before. Marcelo should be the one apologizing; the whole matter was his fault.
No, he admitted, it was no one’s fault. It was a terrible confluence of factors that had done no one any good, but neither had been meant to do anyone harm.
Almost a week ago precisely, the king had made the announcement that a marriage had been arranged between his only son and the royal daughter of some distant desert tribe, to take place at the midwinter solstice in three months’ time. Marcelo had barely heard of the tribe before, and never of the girl, but he hated her all the same. What made matters worse, however, was the fact that Luiz didn’t.
“I’m sure she’s perfectly fine,” Luiz had said, in the first moment they’d found themselves alone since the announcement. “Capable of walking upright in fine linen and speaking in complete sentences while owning a womb, which about fits the bill.”
Marcelo had not taken the news nearly so well. “Tell your father you won’t consent!” he’d said, grabbing Luiz’s hand in both of his.
With a sad sigh, though, Luiz had pulled away, breaking the contact between them. “And tell him what instead?” His voice was a soft sigh, a sound Marcelo loved when it was whispering indecent things for his ears only. Now he hated it. “We’ve always known this would come. He’s disappointed enough in me for everything else I do and have done in my life. But I at least possess the skills to stand before God and say ‘I do’, and perhaps in that one small gesture will make up for the years I’ve spent living far below his expectations.”
“But–” Marcelo had swallowed hard around the growing lump in his throat. “What about us?”
“Don’t you see?” Luiz had asked softly, forcing the corners of his mouth upward in to a smile obviously unfelt. “There was never a future for us.”
It had been, to put it mildly, the wrong thing to say.
In retrospect, Marcelo supposed he could have shown a bit more compassion for Luiz in the situation. But he was angry about having his whole life upended for the sake of a woman he did not know, and further betrayed by how Luiz’s spine seemed to have dissolved completely. Was their love not worth fighting for? For every last moment together they could steal? No, it seemed not.
The worst part was, Marcelo knew he was behaving atrociously. He was being a right brat, sulking like a child denied his favorite toy, and he hated himself for it. That anger had quickly curdled into full resentment, turning their weekly tennis match into a powder keg. The spark of disagreement over a single serve had turned a sportsmen’s argument into a lovers’ quarrel, and somewhere in there, the hand that had once caressed Luiz’s cheek with love had turned into a fist.
Perhaps some part of him had expected Luiz to respond in kind, to grab the knife in his belt and run Marcelo through. In the heat of the moment, it had seemed almost romantic, the idea of dying in the arms of the lover who could never truly be his. Having to wait two weeks, though, was enough to cool off anyone’s death wish.
Marcelo kicked a rock into a pond, making the frogs jump. He hoped some of them at least deserved it, the little bastards. In the next moment, though, he felt terrible about wishing harm upon innocent creatures just because he was in a foul mood. It was as though the entire universe was rigged against letting him feel better by feeling worse, even for a moment.
He looked again at the letter in his hand, anonymous enough that it could be to anyone, from anyone. The worst was knowing that Luiz was right, that there had never been a future for them. The king and queen alike were both scions of virtue, treating both convicted and suspected adulterers with the worst scorn imaginable, such that Luiz had declared himself faithful to his wife not only after the ceremony, but before even meeting her — thus robbing Marcelo of the three months they could have been together, or so his selfish brain had thought.
Perhaps he should go through with the trial. Then he could be convicted and die with at least the smug satisfaction of knowing that Luiz would blame himself forever.
…No, that was worse than startling frogs with rocks. Luiz deserved happiness, as much as he could get, and Marcelo could take only ephemeral comfort from the idea of the pain his death would cause Luiz. Maybe he should run. It might not make things better, but at least Luiz wouldn’t have the guilt for Marcelo’s death on his soul. In time, even, Luiz might learn to forget about him — though that thought made Marcelo angry enough to strike again. God’s blood, why was none of this easy?
At last, he took the letter and placed it just beneath the pond’s surface. He watched it float there a long time, as the water dissolved the fine paper and lifted the ink off the page, dissolving Luiz’s apology along with it.
As he went downstairs the next morning, he arrived in the kitchen just in time to see Brígida slip in through the back entrance. She wore her traveling cloak and boots, and carried a basket in her hand. “Morning,” she said, as though this were an ordinary thing.
“Morning,” Marcelo replied. He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to get it into some presentable order — though why she merited a higher standard of grooming from him, he couldn’t say. “Where have you been?”
“To speak with my mother.” Brígida placed the basket on the table and unfolded the cloth across the top. Marcelo’s nose was filled with the sweet scent of herbs. “And to get some plantings. Do you know you’ve got entire unused beds in the garden? It’s a bit late in the season, but they should transplant well regardless.”
None of this made sense to Marcelo, whose primary use of the house’s grounds since adolescence was for moody walks. “Do you … should your mother just come here?” he asked, not even sure if the invitation was his to extend.
“Oh, no.” Brígida laughed. “No, she’d never leave her plants, especially not now with the Harvest Moon on its way.”
Marcelo screwed up his mouth to keep from asking, but eventually curiosity got the better of him. Besides, if they were to be married (though that was certainly not a settled thing at the moment), shouldn’t they at least know the important things about one another? Important things such as: “Because your mother is a witch?”
That got another laugh from Brígida, this one of surprise. “Not a witch. The Witch.”
“She can do magic, then.”
“She can,” Brígida said. She untangled the plants in the basket from one another, and Marcelo could see that their roots were still intact, packed tight with the same dark dirt that stained her fingers. “Though most of her ‘magic’, you’d call ‘medicine’ instead if a doctor told it to you. The magic itself, that’s rare, and rarer still the person who deserves having it worked for them.”
“So…” Marcelo ran his fingers down a sprig of what looked like mint, though he detected a somewhat more pungent smell when he brought his fingertips back to his nose. “You can do magic?”
Brígida shook her head. “The herbs, yes. The real magic, no.”
Dragging this out of her was quickly becoming exhausting, and Marcelo hadn’t even had his morning tea yet. “And, ah, why not?”
“Because I wasn’t born to it.” Brígida said this with no weight to her voice of bitterness or relief either way. “As my birthright was stolen, I am also a thief, though I never meant to be. Will you come help me plant these?”
Seeing no reason to object, Marcelo agreed.
Morning in the garden was pleasant, though the occasional chill wind nipped through. The sun cast a warm glow on all the plants and pathways as Marcelo followed Brígida to a bed that, true to her word, was not currently in use by anything but a few stray weeds. She set down the basket and knelt beside the bed’s brick border, then thrust her hands straight into the dirt, almost up to the wrists.
“We, ah,” stammered Marcelo, “surely we have tools for that somewhere around here, in a shed, perhaps…”
“Don’t bother,” Brígida said, turning over the dirt. Bugs and even a worm moved in the earth as it fell from her hands, but she seemed unconcerned. “The soil knows touch better than metal. This is what we become when we die, after all, and we are what once it was. Why should it not know us?”
Marcelo had never before considered the idea that his vegetables grew from the same substance as long-dead people, and he now wished he hadn’t. Though she’d asked him for help, she did not ask him to do anything other than stand by, and so he did, shifting his weight from foot to foot as she buried dirt-packed roots in the ground, leaving leafy greens in her wake. Some of them flopped over, looking a bit the worse for wear by their transition, but most stayed upright, looking as happy as plants could look to be in their new home.
As she packed down the soil around a plant with small white flowers, Brígida glanced over her shoulder. “Whatever’s on your mind, go and ask it,” she told Marcelo. “I won’t wither under the weight of questioning.”
There were as many questions rattling around Marcelo’s mind as there were stars in the sky, so he tried to rank them by importance and failed, coming out first with the rather unspecific, “Why are you doing this?”
“Planting?” asked Brígida.
“No, not — well, yes, planting, I have no idea why you’re planting things, but this. In general.” Marcelo shook his head. “Yes, I know, for your birthright, you’re getting something out of this too, and good for you, I’m sure you deserve it, but why are you doing this like this? And please don’t say the cards. Please do not tell me you’ve upended your life and mine, arranged a marriage, because you some cards you drew from a deck predicted.”
Brígida rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. She pointed to a patch of well-trimmed grass on the other side of the bed. “Sit,” she ordered.
Marcelo did as told, crossing his legs under him and resting his elbows on his knees. “I sat,” he said, just in case she had decided that being cryptic was more important than paying attention.
“First.” She held up one dirt-caked finger. “The cards do not predict the future. Not even when my mother reads them. They help you see the present.”
“What good is that?” asked Marcelo. “The present’s already here.”
Brígida laughed. “Strong words from a man whose present is a royal — pun intended — mess. No, your present is all around you, but you’ve got no idea what to do with it, do you? Except that you do. You already know the choices you should make, in your heart. Drawing the three is for helping the rest of you see what your heart already knows.”
“And your heart knew … we had to get married?”
“No.” Brígida shook her head as she dug back into the dirt, lifting up handfuls of it. The soil in the bed was lighter at the top, but deep and almost black beneath. “My heart knows the goal of setting things right. My brain drew up a plan to achieve it.”
“Do you want to get married?”
“I want what getting married will accomplish, if you consider that the same thing. Hand me the mint, will you?” She nodded to the basket. Marcelo picked up what he thought was the most mint-like plant, holding it as gingerly as he could between fingertips so he didn’t soil his hands. Brígida snorted. “Or the feverfew, as you like. Place it here.” She indicated the gap she’d made in the soil, parting it in a deep crater.
Marcelo plopped it in, thankful he at least had the sense to know it went root-first. Probably, anyway. “Does it matter that I haven’t the slightest idea what’s going on?”
“It helps, in fact.” Brígida removed her hands, letting the dirt fall around the roots before packing it down. “Look, I’m sorry, but there’s already far too many moving parts. The less you know, the less you can act upon.”
“Or more chance I’ll act in ignorance,” Marcelo pointed out.
“And again, why I’ve moved in and won’t simply be letting you run amok from now to the trial. Look,” said Brígida with a sigh, at last looking away from her planting and meeting Marcelo’s gaze. “The goal of the marriage is not to last. But I need it to be able to last, should circumstances go in an unexpected direction. We don’t need to consummate anything. In fact, it’s likely even better that we don’t. Gives us a bit more flexibility with negotiations.”
“Rightful places.” Brígida shook her head. “The truth will out, in its own time. And if it does not, we may force it at the crux. But not until then.”
Marcelo flopped back on the grass, feeling the dew seep in through his light night-shirt. He hadn’t dressed for morning gardening; he wasn’t even sure he had any idea what his dressing for morning gardening would look like. “Thus, we are to get married, but you can’t tell me why, and it doesn’t even matter much, because the marriage won’t last? Am I following it correctly?”
“But it may last, and that’s why we need to be married,” Marcelo continued, gesturing vaguely at the cloudless sky as he spoke. “And it’s all in service of some truth you can’t tell me, that has to do with a birthright I don’t understand, because the cards that don’t tell you the future have told you about the future.”
“Pleased to see you’re keeping up,” Brígida said.
“Fantastic.” Marcelo exhaled in a heavy, petulant rush. “I take it back, your planting is about the only thing making sense here. At least you can eat those.”
“Not all of them.” Brígida pointed to a stalk topped by a cluster of miniature white flowers. “Avoid that one in particular.”
“Why, will it turn me into a toad?”
“If it would turn you into a toad,” Brígida said, “then I would shove it whole into your mouth right now and keep you in a terrarium for the next two weeks. I’m sure it would be easier on everyone’s constitutions, your own included.”
“You’re a witch, a horrid witch,” spat Marcelo. He regretted the words as soon as he’d said them, but they came from the same place that had struck Luiz in anger. He’d always known about this part of him, the little wild seed whose first instinct was to hurt, but he’d managed to keep it in check most all of his life. Lately, though, keeping any of his primal instincts at bay had become more of a chore than he had energy to carry out.
Brígida’s expression, however, remained as smugly serene as always. “I am a marvelous witch,” she announced, “and marrying me is the only chance you’ll ever have to be with your true love. Are you listening now?”
Marcelo sat bolt upright. “What are you–”
“Hush,” she said, cutting him off with the single syllable. “Part of what I’m keeping to myself is things I don’t wish to promise, lest they fall through. And I can’t guarantee anything. But I can tell you that your prince will be stolen from you, and that this has always been true. What did you think, that the king would let him remain a bachelor forever, or even more, let you sit beside him as his queen?”
No, Marcelo hadn’t thought that. In fact, he had spent the past several years deliberately thinking around it, distracting himself at every opportunity to keep from acknowledging the realities of their respective positions. If anything, he was mad at himself most of all for indulging himself in such deliberate ignorance, then being upset when reality came crashing down.
After a moment, Brígida nodded. “It’s not a guarantee,” she said, her voice softer now, even kinder. “It’s not even likely. But it is a chance. Do you love him enough to risk everything for that chance?”
Marcelo didn’t have to answer. He knew the look on his face told the whole story.
“Mint,” Brígida said, “has the serrated leaves with the visibly textured veins. They come two at a time, opposite one another on the stalk. If your eyes aren’t sure, let your other senses do the work.”
The basket was still laden with a number of plants, but only one seemed to fit that description. Just to be sure, though, Marcelo lifted it to his face and inhaled. Ah, there it was. He held it forward for her approval, and she nodded, so he placed it in the hole she made in the soil. This time, he held on until he was sure that she’d secured its base, and as he drew his hands away, he found he was pleased to see it stand upright.
“Do you know the difference between herbs and weeds?” Brígida asked.
Marcelo shook his head.
“The wanting,” she told him. “Every one of these plants would be torn from the ground for being unsightly. Those are weeds. But we plant them because we know their uses. These are herbs.”
He supposed they were ugly little things, all told. Even the ones with the crisp, snow-like white flowers were nothing compared to the spectacular roses, lilies, and irises that the gardeners cultivated on the grounds. He ran his fingers up the stalk of one with a shape that reminded him of a pine branch, and was rewarded with a smell that made him think of roast chicken. “Rosemary?” he asked.
“There you are,” said Brígida, giving him a smile and a wink. “We’ll make a proper witch of you yet.”
It was the oddest compliment he had ever received, but Marcelo found he couldn’t help smiling. For the first time in a full day, he really meant it.
On the third day of the wait, it occurred to Marcelo that he should write Luiz back, if only to tell him not to give up hope, that there was some scheme in the works, and that even if Marcelo didn’t understand it enough to explain why, all was not lost. He should apologize, as well, promising that he bore Luiz no ill will for what had happened, and even begging for forgiveness himself. Yes, a good, lengthy letter could convey all those sentiments and more, clearing up al miscommunications between them and easing Luiz’s troubled heart.
Brígida found him two hours later with a dried inkwell, a pile of crumpled paper at his feet, and nothing to show for it.
“I’ve no idea what to say,” he admitted. “I’m sure there’s some perfect middle ground between don’t lose hope! and don’t get your hopes too high!, but it is for me an undiscovered country.”
“Why not simply go talk to him?” she asked.
Marcelo snorted. “I am entirely banned from the palace grounds. They’re not just going to let me have another go at him, after all.”
“Then we’ll sneak you in,” Brígida said. “Or sneak him out. Which do you suppose would be easier?”
“Neither?” With a sigh, Marcelo slumped back in his chair. “The king probably has an armed guard surrounding Luiz at all hours, in case I decide to come back and finish my admittedly clumsy assassination. As long as I’m roaming the streets, he can’t be set free to walk them, and as long as I’m a menace to royal life and limb, I can’t be let back in the palace. We are, as they say, at an impasse.”
Brígida pulled up a chair and sat in it so that her legs tucked up beneath her, disappearing under the heavy folds of her skirts. Sometimes Marcelo thought she seemed she must be nearly a decade his senior; other times, like this, her mannerisms were unrefined, even childlike. But she swore they were the same age, even to the point that she had the same birthday as Luiz, who was a mere five days older than Marcelo. That seemed somehow too neat for Marcelo to wholly believe, but as it wasn’t the strangest thing that had happened recently, he was inclined to let it go.
His arms dangling down, Marcelo swatted at the failed letter attempts. “I don’t want him to blame himself,” he said. “That’s what he’s doing, I’m certain of it. And it’s entirely not his fault. He didn’t ask to be married off. He was just doing his duty as a good son and a good future husband. He certainly didn’t make me strike him, or choose to bring me to trial for it. And yet, I can … I can feel his guilt. All the way from here.”
“I know,” Brígida said. “Have you given any thought to the other two requests?”
Taken aback by the change of subject, Marcelo took a moment to recollect exactly what she was talking about. “I thought they were requests for my father, not for me.”
Brígida shrugged. “They are, but you can see how your consent would be helpful.”
“Then you’ve got to be a bit more honest with me,” Marcelo said. “At least about the third one. After all, it is my life on the line. Unless … are you foreseeing a short marriage because you’re expecting a guilty verdict?”
Leaning her head back, Brígida let out a deep belly laugh at that. “No, but that would’ve been quite clever of me, wouldn’t it? Making myself a rich widow, indeed! All right, then, I suppose I can understand your suspicions.”
The honesty of her reaction was enough to convince Marcelo that his death indeed had not been her plan. “What do you expect the verdict to be?” he asked.
“I don’t expect there to be one,” Brígida said. “You will be brought before the high court, and because the case is so important, both king and queen will likely be in attendance. I need an audience with them.”
“Is that all? You didn’t need to wait until my life was in danger to have my father arrange an audience for you.”
Brígida shook her head. “Not an audience. A public audience. With visibility and a record of my being there. Your life is not the only one in jeopardy.”
Marcelo frowned. “Just a moment, you think the royal family would try to kill you?”
“Oh, yes,” Brígida said, the look on her face as humorless as her voice. “But they don’t yet know what I know. So you’ll forgive me for not being as forthcoming as you’d perhaps like, but I have to be very careful.”
“I’ve hit my head,” Marcelo said, bringing a hand up to his temple. “During the tennis match, I must have been struck by an errant ball, and it’s knocked me loose of my senses, and I’m now having a most ridiculous dream, where I’m engaged to a garden-planting witch and ruled by a pair of cold-blooded killers. Perhaps someone will fetch the smelling salts and I can laugh at my imagination when I wake.”
“And will we wed?” asked Brígida.
“Of course. Why not! It’s all a concussed dream, after all.” Not only did Marcelo not believe that to be true, though, he found that saying it aloud didn’t make him feel much better. With a grumble, he sat upright. “All right. Yes. We may wed. If you sign papers saying that should I meet an untimely end, you will not become said rich widow. I still don’t entirely trust you.”
“Fair enough.” Brígida stood, then pointed to the writing-desk in front of Marcelo. “Tell him you forgive him.”
Marcelo frowned. “I can’t forgive him if he hasn’t done anything that needs forgiving.”
“Tell him anyway.” Brígida put a hand on Marcelo’s shoulder, then let it linger there long enough for him to feel the warmth of her hand through his shirt. Even in the cool autumn air that had settled through the house, she always seemed as warm as though she’d just walked in from the sunlight. Despite himself, despite all the circumstances, he found he was growing strangely fond of her curious, often infuriating presence. “And when you’re done, I’ll make sure it gets to him.”
Left again to pen and paper, Marcelo refilled the inkwell, then took Brígida’s advice. I forgive you, he wrote, skipping greeting or any other introductory material. He thought about all the other things he might add, then settled on, Please forgive me. I love you. It wasn’t some great missive of the heart, but it was to the point, and perhaps it would be enough.
He folded the envelope and sealed it with wax, taking care to press into it stamp without the family crest. He didn’t want to chance the letter’s being destroyed any more than it might already be. At best, if this were intercepted, it might be passed along to Luiz as a joke, a teasing letter of longing from some anonymous heartsick girl. Little did they know.
Or did they? The marriage announcement had seemed rushed at first to Marcelo, but in retrospect, perhaps a change had precipitated it. Had his affections for Luiz been discovered? Or had they been known all along, but only just reached the limits of royal tolerance? They had both been so secure in their secrecy, so utterly confident that their affair had gone unnoticed by all save Don Santiago, who let it go without comment. But if Brígida had known — and admittedly, she seemed to know far more than she ought about all things, but if she had known, who else had?
Marcelo supposed he now had no more place from whence to judge Luiz’s arranged marriage; after all, he was now himself in a curious engagement, the contours of which he did not understand.
Well, if it all went poorly, yet he did not lose his head in two weeks’ time, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad being married to Brígida. In time, he might even come to learn how to turn weeds into herbs just by knowing more about them. That was more, he supposed, than most marriages got.
There was no ceremony, no fancy dress, even no exchange of eternal vows of devotion. There was only a page, and when their two signatures were attached to it, in the eyes of the law they were husband and wife.
Don Santiago had a cake brought in from the town’s finest baker, and even led them in a toast after dinner, but he retired early in the evening, leaving the newlyweds alone with one another in the house.
In truth, it was no different from all the other nights passed in the week since Brígida had arrived to live with them, but Marcelo felt a different kind of obligation, so he invited her up to the roof patio with a bottle of wine and two glasses. “I come here to watch the stars,” he said, holding his hand up against the great dome of the sky. “Away enough from the city, from its lights. Sad to say the moon’s out now, so it’s not as spectacular as it might be, but on a clear, dark night, you can see every point of light in the heavens.”
“Thank you for sharing it with me,” said Brígida, swirling the dark red wine in her glass. “Do you bring others up here often?”
Marcelo shook his head. “No, in fact, I–” He caught himself, unsure of how much he should tell her, or how much indeed she needed to know. But they were married now, even if only as far as the legalities of it went, and he supposed his secrets were by rights as much hers. “I only ever came up here with Luiz. We would sneak away from whatever party or function or wherever it was we were supposed to be. I would tell him, see you in five minutes, and five minutes later, he would be here with me.”
“Quite romantic,” Brígida said.
“Not at first.” Marcelo led her over to a corner that looked down over the city as much as it showed the sky. “At first we were just boys shirking obligations. Coming up here to avoid meeting some baron, pitching grapes off the roof and seeing if we could land them in ponds. It’s a bit easier in the daylight, but not by much.” Marcelo smiled as he thought back to those days, even though they were all but lost to him now. “We were never quite friends, because … well, because, I suppose, that whatever he was supposed to have for friends, I didn’t fit the bill. I could never figure out what His Majesty wanted for his son, beyond the dead certainty that I wasn’t it. Someone quieter, perhaps. More obedient. Less obnoxious.”
The night wind blew by, making Marcelo shiver with the cold, and he turned away from it, then pointed to a spot just out of sight of the door. “That was where I kissed him. That first time, we were … sixteen, almost seventeen. And he’d said something to make me laugh, I can’t remember what it was, but we were sitting right there with our backs to the wall, and I turned to him and kissed him. I tell you truly, that was when I thought he would stab me. By the time I struck him, I knew he never would. Which … makes me something of a coward, I gather.”
“I don’t think so.” Though she had most of her locks pinned back, the wind caught Brígida’s hair, blowing loose dark curls around her face. “Tell me about him.”
“Tell you–” Marcelo arched one eyebrow. “Tell you what about him?”
“I don’t know. Nothing. Everything.” Brígida shrugged as she drew closer to him, letting his taller body block the wind from her. She didn’t even have a ring. He would have to get her one, find her something in the town, or perhaps see if Don Santiago had something lying about without too much sentimental value. Or perhaps they wouldn’t even be married long enough to need it at all. “You love him, that much is plain. I want to know why he deserves it.”
Marcelo thought about that a moment as he took a long drink from his glass. “No one deserves love.”
“A philosopher’s answer. You nonetheless think he does.”
He had to concede her point there. “All right,” he said, looking up at the stars. They were beautiful but cold in their distance, a perfect light that brought no warmth. “Honestly, at first it was because he loved me. He thought I was handsome, daring. I had the confidence he lacked, the spine his father wanted him to grow. I listened when he complained about the king’s harshness and told him that nevertheless, he was a good man. And he needed me.” With a grimace, he raked his hand across his cheek, feeling the beginnings of the stubble that would be felled by the next morning’s razor. “I must sound like a selfish monster. I suppose I am.”
“No,” said Brígida. With the hand not holding the wine glass, she took his arm, letting her fingers curl around the bend of his elbow. “If you are a monster, you bear the same monstrous affliction every other human does. There is no shame in needing to be needed, to be loved.”
“He simply … he needed someone.” Marcelo shook his head as he looked out over the night-dark city. “He can’t marry! How will a wife know when to tell him that his injury is justified and when to tell him to grow a spine? How could she ever know just the way he wants to be touched?”
“She’ll learn the same way you did, I suppose,” Brígida said.
“No, she can’t, because we learned together.” Aware that he’d raised his voice without meaning to, Marcelo shut his eyes and took three deep, calming breaths. “We were utter virgins when we came to one another, barely knowing our own bodies, much less what to do with someone else’s. Every nerve I have, I know it because he set it alight. I know his skin because I learned about my own with him.”
“Then perhaps you will also learn that there are different lessons to be learned.” Brígida put her glass down on the flat railing, then turned to take both of Marcelo’s hands in hers. “I can’t promise you everything will go well when you stand before the court in five days’ time. This marriage, between us, is a bargaining chip first and foremost. And yet … I can’t have you thinking of it as the end of the world, either.”
“I don’t,” Marcelo said. “I swear. If I’m being honest, this is far better than perhaps any other arranged marriage would have afforded me. At a bare minimum, I have a wife who doesn’t shriek and run to the magistrate if I mention a male lover. That alone has put you well ahead of the pack.”
“Please. I’m made of sterner stuff than that.” Brígida shook her head. “To be a witch is to live in a world of flexibility. The church teaches the world of absolutes. Those of us who live in the twilight areas of the cosmos, whether we do magic or not, we become witches. Love, and do what you will is the motto my mother and sisters practice.”
“You have sisters?” Marcelo asked, then considered the question and its context. “Or do you mean … sisters more metaphorically?”
“The answer to both your questions is ‘yes’. Three sisters, in fact, who share my mother, all considerably older than I, and all three adepts. I’ve never been like them, though, and no one’s ever expected me to be.”
Her phrasing made Marcelo think of Luiz, and he let his gaze fall away from Brígida, out into the shapeless night. How much had they both suffered under the weight of expectations, only to buckle and snap when crisis came calling. They had been forged in the fire of their upbringings, but tempered all wrong, left brittle. “I wonder what he’s doing tonight,” Marcelo murmured, barely aware he’d spoken aloud.
“Wondering the same about you, I’d imagine.”
That won a smile from Marcelo, despite the sadness and longing that had encircled his heart. He brought her hands together inside of his, using his larger ones to shield hers from the growing evening chill. “Perhaps.”
“We are wed,” Brígida said after a moment. “And by all rights now, my body is yours for the taking.”
The doubled look of horror that passed Marcelo’s face came first from the suggestion, then from the realization that she was correct, legally speaking. “God’s wounds, don’t say that!”
“I was simply thinking…” Her voice trailed off and Brígida lowered her gaze, looking at their joined hands. They hadn’t even done this before the magistrate as they signed the document pledging themselves to one another. “I’ve dragged you through much of this, and you’ve followed me with far less complaint than the situation has warranted. And I have not given you much in return in the way of collateral. Therefore, if it helps you think me true, I offer you this.”
Marcelo looked at her with a puzzled frown. “Have you ever been with a man before?”
“No,” she replied. “But I’m unafraid.”
“Fear has nothing to do with it. Or, rather, it oughtn’t. I–” Marcelo squeezed her hands between his strongly enough that she lifted her gaze to look at him. “I’ve never been with a woman.”
“Truly?” asked Brígida, her dark eyes widening. Marcelo imagined that if he looked deep enough, he could find the same stars above them reflected inside her gaze.
“Truly.” Marcelo nodded. “Nor indeed with anyone but Luiz, and he with me. And if I … should I take you now and bed you, I fear I would be a complete and utter disaster!”
Brígida laughed with surprise at that and pulled one of her hands from his grasp so that she could wipe her eyes on her sleeve. Marcelo did not take this sudden show of emotion personally; this was a trying time for both of them, and that alone was yet another reason to refuse her offer. “Oh, just wait until I tell the ladies at court,” she joked through her sniffles.
“See? See?” Marcelo threw his hands high with a gesture of exaggerated exasperation. “My entire reputation, ruined by my horrid wife.”
“From all the street theatre I’ve seen, I’ve gathered that’s the entire point of wives,” Brígida said.
“All the more reason never to let one see you naked,” Marcelo said, and now they were both laughing, letting days of long-built tension blow away on the evening wind. As they fell into a companionable silence, Marcelo reached for her cheek and drew a long strand of hair back from her face, tucking it behind her ear. “Perhaps, when this is all over, I … shouldn’t mind some different lessons. Provided, of course, you’re willing to teach. Not out of obligation, or compulsion, but desire of your own.”
Brígida nodded. “I might be amenable, if you were willing to instruct in kind.”
“A fairer deal I’ve never heard.” Marcelo thought for a moment; something she had said earlier had caught in his mind, rattling around in hopes of his placing it. “Love, and do what you will? If that’s the witches’ code, why does it sound familiar?”
“It’s not,” Brígida said with a laugh. “It’s from the church. But the church, I’ve found, has great trouble listening to its own best thinkers.”
As though on cue, the steeple bells in the nearby churchyard began to ring, tolling out a late hour. “Perhaps I’ll write him tonight,” Marcelo said. “Even if I don’t send it, it should make me feel better for having done it.”
“An excellent plan.” Brígida smiled as she took Marcelo’s arm. “Write him tonight, and then rest. We will need our collected strength for the days ahead. Now, will you escort me to my chambers for the evening, husband?”
It was a strange thing to hear from her, to be certain — and yet, no, not the end of the world. “I would be most delighted, wife,” he said, leading her back inside.
The day of the trial arrived, and Marcelo Vargas strode into the high court with his chin up and his shoulders straight, looking splendid in his finest suit. At his side came a hooded figure, who caused a great deal of murmuration in the court upon entry, then even more upon taking the place at the rail reserved for the accused’s advocate. After all, the Vargas family had a great deal of money, enough to hire the best legal defense in the land. So what had they done instead?
At Marcelo’s back, the crowd gathered for the trial sat, packed into their benches and standing when there was no more room to sit. Before him sat the three-judge panel, their fierce, bearded faces scowling down at him. And to his left, in the box set aside for them, sat the royal family: king, queen, and prince alike. The royals were of course welcome to observe any court proceedings, but in this case, they were also taking the place of the aggrieved party.
Marcelo did not look straight at them, but as often as he could, he tried to glance over and gauge Luiz’s condition. He looked particularly ill, even sickly, as though he’d neither eaten nor slept for two weeks straight. Marcelo took a deep breath and let it slip through pursed lips. One way or another, this would soon be over for all of them.
The chief justice banged a gavel, getting the attention of the room. “Marcelo Vargas,” he said, his voice an ancient rumble, “you stand before us accused of striking a member of the royal family, a crime for which the penalty is death. That you are guilty is unquestionable; the court has already heard from a great number of witnesses, all of whom were there, and all of whom saw you commit this terrible act. What have you to say in your defense before judgment is passed?”
Marcelo stiffened his spine. “Your Majesty,” he said, bypassing the judge entirely and turning to the king, “may we move this trial to private chambers?”
“We may most certainly not!” scoffed the king. “A crime against the royal family is a crime against the kingdom! Do you think there will be more mercy for you without an audience?”
“Not at all,” said Marcelo, as a low rumble of chatter rose from behind him. “In fact, I ask this not for my own benefit, but for yours, and that of your wife.”
The king glanced over at the queen, who looked back at him and shook her head without comprehension. “Our benefit is best served by a public — and timely — trial,” the king announced, laughing in disbelief in a way that did not cover his obvious fury.
Marcelo turned back to the chief justice. “Your Honor, I again plead with you to have this trial moved to private chambers, such that the king and queen may not be embarrassed by any information that comes to light.”
“How can we be embarrassed by lies?” asked the king, folding his arms across his chest. If there was a note of worry in his voice, it was covered instead by this bluster, intended to discredit whatever Marcelo might say about his relationship with Luiz. Marcelo could see it on the tip of the king’s tongue, a sword at the ready to both deny such outrageous allegations and label Marcelo a sodomite in one blow.
The elderly judge had the good sense to look more reasonably wary, but as Marcelo had predicted, there was little he could do in the face of royal overruling. “His Royal Highness has given permission for proceedings to continue in this venue, and thus it shall,” the judge instructed.
“In that case,” Marcelo said, placing his hands atop the polished wooden railing before him, “I wish the court’s record to note that I have done everything in my power to prevent royal embarrassment, and that for what follows, I cannot be held responsible.”
“So noted.” The chief justice nodded.
Nodding, Marcelo stepped aside. “I cede the floor to my advocate,” he said, indicating the cloaked figure.
She was a short woman, but Brígida might as well have been thirty feet tall as she pushed back the hood of her cloak. Her dark hair spilled down her back, and for a moment, there was a tense silence in the courtroom, as those assembled searched her face, trying to find some sign of recognition. Her lips curled in a sweet smile, she turned to the royal family — not to the king, but to the queen instead — and said, “Hello, Mother.”
The heavy door to the justices’ chambers shut with a sound muffled by the sheer number of bodies in the room. A space that was meant to seat two or three now held nine: all three justices, the king, the queen, Luiz, Don Santiago, Marcelo, and Brígida. “Very well,” said the chief justice, who had the only comfortable seat in the room, in a plush chair behind a large desk, “the proceedings may continue.”
Before anyone else could speak, Brígida stepped forward to the center of the room. “I have a story of which you all have only pieces,” she said, “and not all the same pieces, so you have no idea how they all fit together. I do. When I am finished, you shall all know it is true, and we shall all decide what steps come next. Agreed?”
“You may proceed,” said the judge.
“This is a story of three children denied what was rightfully theirs by birth, in order to cover the crimes of their parents.” Brígida turned to Luiz and smiled. “You and I have met before, though neither of us recalls it. We were only a few hours old when we were swapped one for the other.”
Luiz’s eyes went wide as the king’s face turned bright red. “What is the meaning of this?” spat the king. “How dare you say such–”
“Shut. Up.” Though she spoke with measured calm, Brígida’s tone took all the fight out of the king. He sank back against the couch as though suddenly deflated. “Because you’re next.”
“But … I don’t understand,” said Luiz, squinting at Brígida. “My parents are yours, and yours mine?”
“Not entirely,” Brígida said. “My mother is yours, as was my father, whoever he was. He was of no consequence to my mother, Ofélia, who wanted four children, and so took them from four different men. You were her fourth, and the only boy. And you were only an hour old when she was called to her bedside.” Brígida pointed to the queen. “So she went, still with bloodied skirts, because the servant who came to her said the queen and her child were both at death’s door. Except that wasn’t entirely true, was it?”
By now, Marcelo trusted Brígida implicitly, and had indeed believed this all when she had explained it to him the night previous. And yet, he didn’t know if he had truly believed it, deep in his soul, until he saw the look of shame and horror on the queen’s face at the sight of her past come back to haunt her.
“The child wasn’t dead; she was simply dark.” Brígida rolled up the cuff of her own sleeve, baring her forearm to make the point. “Too dark, in fact, for her parentage to be what it should have been. The queen begged my mother, please, bleach the child, make her pale. And when my mother said she would not do that even if she could? The queen said that if my mother would not help her, she would kill both their children, right there.”
All the color had drained from the queen’s face, and Luiz himself was looking rather ill. Marcelo hated that the truth had to come to him like this, but he supposed it wouldn’t have been much less painful under other circumstances. It was a horrible truth, after all, and not much could cushion its blow.
Brígida shook her head. “What could my mother do? Faced with the death of two innocents? Either way, she would not be able to keep her child. So she gave him life by giving him a life without her, and took the newborn princess to her breast instead.” She looked to Luiz with a sad smile. “You took my crown. I took your magic. And neither of us has been wholly suited to living without.”
“Is this true?” asked the king, puffing up his chest with self-righteous indignation, earlier threats seeming to have been forgotten.
“Do not ask me this,” answered the queen, looking at her clasped hands. Her voice was barely more than a whisper. “If you do, you will not like the answer.”
The king opened his mouth to speak, but Brígida was in front of him in a flash, staring him down. “And while the queen was with another man,” Brígida continued, “you were with Amélia.”
For the second time in what seemed as many minutes, the king was shamed into silence. “This is true,” said Don Santiago, speaking for the first time since entering the courtroom that morning. “My niece, Amélia, had come to keep me company and help manage my household in the wake of my late wife’s passing. She was a lovely thing then, round and fair, and all of fifteen summers old.”
That got a number of raised eyebrows in the room, including Marcelo’s; that particular detail had been omitted from his briefing the night before. “My wife and I never could have children, you see,” Don Santiago continued, “and Amélia was far too young. Thus, after she gave birth — to, I emphasize this point in case it was not clear enough by implication, the king’s son — she returned to her home and I adopted the child into my household. Gonçalo, I even believe you were the one that signed the papers.”
“I was,” answered the chief justice. He, like the other judges, looked a bit dizzy with revelations by this point. Marcelo knew how they felt.
“After she was gone, it was Ofélia who came to my household to nurse both her child and the one left to me,” Don Santiago said. “Without fail, day and night, she came and cared for him when his mother could not. I could see that her heart was breaking, even though I did not know the cause, but I could also see her tremendous love for the daughter she carried in one arm, and the boy she cradled in the other.”
“That boy is now my husband,” Brígida said, pointing to Marcelo. “Which means that any child we have will be doubly the rightful heir to the throne, as I believe the court here will now attest.”
The king had stopped turning red and had begun shading straight into purple, while the queen looked paste-white. “What do you want?” the queen asked after a moment, her words ghostly. Marcelo could tell from her eyes that all she could see was her kingdom crumbling before her, and he supposed she deserved it, too. They both did, laying claim to such false righteousness after infidelity, child abuse, and attempted infanticide. But their fall would take Luiz with them, and despite everything, Marcelo didn’t want that.
Brígida folded her arms across her chest. “Tell me about my father. That’s the one piece to the puzzle I can’t be sure of on my own. Who was he?”
“He was–” The queen pulled a handkerchief from her bodice and dabbed it to the corners of her eyes. “Must I?”
Two weeks before, Marcelo wouldn’t have known what to look for, but now he could see a softening around the edges of Brígida’s expression. She didn’t want to humiliate this woman any further; this was, after all, still her mother. “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t see it as part of the solution,” she explained. “Please.”
The queen sighed. “He was, at the time, the crown prince of one of the tribes of the Almorávidas. He … he had come for a state visit.”
Before the king could even budge in response, Brígida had him pinned to the couch with her glare, much the way a collector might pin an insect. It was Luiz, though, who made the connection before she could speak again: “The Almorávidas,” he said, weighing the word. “Same as the Lady Safya.”
“Safya?” asked Marcelo.
“My intended,” said Luiz.
“There we are!” Clapping her hands together, Brígida laughed. At least someone was having fun. “I see how the cards all fit. But before we begin, tell me, Marcelo: You have far more right to the throne than Luiz, or even than I. Do you want it?”
“No,” Marcelo answered without a moment’s hesitation. The corridors of power had never been appealing to him even before this incident; now such a fate seemed even more toxic and stifling.
“Very well,” said Brígida. “Then I first ask the court to dissolve my marriage, as it has shockingly just come to light that though we are not consanguineous, my husband’s father and my mother were married at the time we were conceived. That alone should be grounds enough for annulment.”
The chief justice nodded. “Yes, I suppose it should be.”
Marcelo looked at his now-ex-wife, who smiled right back at him. She’d been right about that, at least; now it was time to see how far she could push the rest. “Next, I ask Your Highnesses to please contact the tribes of the Almorávidas and tell them that your son will still be joined to them by marriage, only not through the princess they expected. He will retain his place as prince without public news of scandal, though legally, his right to the throne shall by through his marriage to the daughter of the queen.”
The king looked none too pleased at this, but he had been beaten and he knew it. Screwing up his mouth, he gave her a grim nod.
“Finally,” Brígida said, “I ask that the only son of House Vargas take an appointment as the prince’s chancellor and closest advisor, though that may take him from his other expected social obligations as your son.”
“It is so granted,” Don Santiago said, beaming with obvious pride.
“Then I have made three requests and had them answered. I am content.” Brígida smiled as she slipped her hands back into her sleeves; just before they disappeared, Marcelo caught sight of tremors in them. She had just played an astonishing game and won, a complete and unquestioned victory. Whether he liked it or not, she was clearly the son the king had always wanted. He would learn to appreciate it, or he would step aside.
The heavy silence that followed was summarily broken by a throat-clearing from the chief justice. “Given that … as now seems to be, the court is no longer hearing the case of a royal struck by a noble, but one royal struck by another, I feel no choice but to dismiss all charges against the accused. If my fellow justices are in agreement…?” He looked to the other two, who nodded in slightly bewildered assent. “Then you are free to go, sir, and our apologies for the inconvenience.”
“Thank you,” Marcelo said, unable to keep a smile from his face as the shadow of the gallows passed over him for good.
“Wait,” said the queen, raising a hand. When she had the room’s attention, she cleared her throat. “Should news of what has … the things revealed in this room, should they come to light, it would be catastrophic. The scandal would end all confidence in the monarchy. The kingdom would be in ruins.”
“We have no reason to reveal anything,” Marcelo told her, looking to Brígida and Don Santiago for confirmation. “Do not give us that reason, and all shall be at peace.”
“Indeed,” said Luiz, rising to his feet with a confidence Marcelo had never seen in him before. The preceding minutes had been terrifying for him, certainly, and yet now, Marcelo could see in him a marked change. He looked as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders — the weight of his false heritage. Freed of those expectations, he could stand as who he was, rather than who he should have been. “If you’ll pardon us, Mother, Father, lord justices, Don Santiago — I believe my chancellor, my fiancée, and I have a wedding to plan.”
And with that, he strode out with such authority and purpose that no force could have prevented Marcelo and Brígida from rising and following him out.
“If I am called upon to drink one more glass of champagne, I will explode,” Brígida declared, planting herself face-first onto the bed. “You’ll be finding bits of the bride for days.”
“I fear I exploded some six or seven glasses ago,” said Luiz, joining her atop the sheets. “I’m dead now; you’re seeing my royal ghost.”
Marcelo, at least, was still upright, though not for much longer. He pulled the doors to the suite shut behind him, then locked them for good measure. After all the comings and goings of the previous three months’ worth of wedding planning, he was certain few guards on that rotation had any doubts as to what was transpiring between the crown prince and his closest advisor, but why take chances?
That settled, he found the closest chair and began unlacing his shoes. “I think I shall sleep for a week now,” Marcelo announced.
Brígida made a rude gesture in his general direction. “Why are you tired? You’re not the one who just got married!”
“No,” Marcelo agreed, “I’m merely the one who’s spent the whole last month running around in ever-widening circles to accommodate the two people who were concentrating on ‘just’ getting married, thank you very much.”
“Oh, he’s right,” said Luiz, though his words were muffled by the bed. “He’s right, he’s right. Marcelo, always right.”
“That’s an excellent mantra.” Marcelo nodded. “Keep it up. Applicable under all conditions.” He pried off his tight leather shoes and sighed as they clattered to the floor. “God’s bones, my feet.”
Without seeming to move except from her knees down, Brígida kicked off her two heeled boots, letting them fall. “I would gladly have traded shoes with you at any moment,” she said. “Any moment. All you needed do was ask.”
Marcelo returned the rude gesture to her, even though she was in no position to see it. From outside, the sounds of music filtered up and in through the windows. There was a booming noise, followed by crackling colored light; someone was shooting off fireworks. The combination of the royal wedding and the midwinter festivities had truly thrown the palace and surrounding areas into a frenzy, one which Marcelo doubted would quiet down anytime soon.
Atop the bed, Luiz rolled over onto his back and patted his belly. “I feel they’re fattening me up to eat me. Aren’t witches supposed to do that?”
“Only wicked ones,” Brígida said with a grin. She put her hand on his stomach and gave it an appraising pinch. “And the plumper you get, the wickeder I get.”
“Help! A witch!” squawked Luiz. “Save me, Your Majesty!”
“Oh, I am too tired by far to save anyone,” Marcelo said, still slumped into the chair. “Save yourself, would you please?”
“Hasn’t Mother taught you yet the spell to repel witch attacks?” asked Brígida.
Though he had, as promised, retained both the title and obligations of his position, Luiz had also begun to spend time with his birth mother, who had cried with joy to have her only son recognize her as his own. Every ounce of praise he’d found lacking from his royal parents, he’d found tenfold from her, as she could hardly stop praising him for his startling magical progress, given that he’d started so late in life. Already, he was pleased to report, he could soothe a burn and ease a headache, tasks he found far more rewarding than sitting through yet one more trade meeting or tax dispute.
Those had become Brígida’s task, and one to which she was well-suited indeed. If the other ministers and diplomats had at first thought it strange to have a princess join them, their assumptions were soon shattered as Brígida proved herself time and again the sharpest person in the room.
Her own relationship with her birth mother was proceeding about as well as Marcelo’s was with his birth father — which was to say, well enough, given that each parent had at various times tried to murder their respective child. Time would tell what would become of those, but that was all right. Time was something they now had, all three of them, securely and in abundance.
“I know the spell to repel witch attacks,” Marcelo said, and flopped on the other side of Luiz, wrapping his arms around Luiz’s waist and pulling him back. “Or was this the spell to invite witch attacks? I’ve never been a sharp study.”
“Beast!” Luiz shouted as Brígida went for his middle, pinching and tickling up and down his belly. “Brute! Unhand me!”
“Say the magic word,” Marcelo said, giving Luiz a kiss on his jaw.
“Foul beast!” Luiz cried, barely able to speak for how hard he was laughing. “Criminal! Barbarian! Molester of royalty!”
“I don’t think he knows it,” Marcelo said to Brígida.
“I think he may not,” Brígida agreed.
In his flailing, Luiz grabbed for Brígida, and when he caught her arms and pulled her close, the air in the room changed. The laughter stopped and went to breath, and racing pulses suddenly took on a wholly different meaning. They looked at one another, caught there in an in-between land without maps.
Brígida broke the tension first, smiling as she slid away. “I’ve got a book,” she said as she rose from the bed. With near-contortionist skill, she reached behind her and undid the lacing that ran the length of the back of her dress. “And a bath, I was thinking of one of those. So … please, don’t mind me. I’ll be quiet as a church mouse.”
Marcelo looked to Luiz, then back to Brígida. “We were talking earlier, Luiz and I,” Marcelo said, “about debts.”
“Debts?” asked Brígida, stepping from the overdress first, then lifting off the multiple gold chains draped around her neck, leaving her only in the chemise beneath.
Luiz nodded and sat up in bed, with Marcelo following suit, draping his arm around Luiz’s waist. “Debts and obligations. As such, it seems to us that you are owed not one but two proper wedding nights,” Luiz said.
“And that the court annulled our marriage,” Marcelo added, “but ending something on paper is not the same as ending it in one’s heart.”
Brígida screwed up her face in the way Marcelo knew she did when she was being tough, but he could see tenderness soften the corners of her eyes. “So you’re saying, in essence, that I — who has been taught well by her wise and noble mother that husbands are far more trouble than they are worth — am now doomed to not only one but two?”
“I feel that’s precisely what we’re saying,” Marcelo said.
“Precisely, yes,” Luiz agreed.
“And you realize that if you’d been a real princess,” Marcelo added, “you never would have been given the chance to choose even one husband. But here you are, princess of a land you could hardly name, much less find on a map, proud wife of two husbands of your own selecting.”
Brígida clapped her hands over her face, then raked them back over her hair, which had been pinned and twined into an elaborate style for the ceremony. “When I set out to reclaim my birthright, this was not on my agenda.”
“Blame witchcraft,” Luiz said with a shrug.
“So,” said Marcelo, stroking Luiz’s hip, “you may take your bath and read your book to your heart’s content. But you have two husbands in this bed with not a thought in their heads but your happiness.”
“You might have stopped after ‘not a thought in their heads’ and landed closer to the truth,” Brígida snorted. She held her scornful expression for a moment longer before relaxing, letting her features soften into a kindly smile. “The offer is appreciated. But I understand. I’m glad the two of you have each other. Truly, I am.”
Luiz patted the bed next to him. “And we feel you don’t understand that ‘the two of us’ are no longer merely two. So won’t you come sit with us? At least for a time?”
Brígida’s resistance was eggshell-thin and cracked to begin with, and Marcelo could all but hear the sounds as it fell to pieces. “If you’re sure I’m not a bother,” she said, stepping slowly back toward the bed.
“Not a bother in the slightest,” Marcelo said, taking her hand and pulling her down between them. She squeaked as she lost her balance, the gasped as Marcelo caught her mouth with his in a kiss. He reached his hand for her hip and found Luiz’s already resting there, pulling at the fabric to expose her lovely legs. Marcelo twined their fingers for a moment, giving Luiz’s hand a playful squeeze before letting his own hand slip lower, working toward the soft curve of her belly and the cleft of her legs beneath.
Brígida moaned as Marcelo’s hand found its way between her thighs, even with the cloth of her chemise still between them. He supposed he had known intellectually that women tended to have shapes far different from men’s, but even still, it was startling to feel the difference in gaps and folds and wetness to Brígida’s body. When he pulled her close, he could feel the small rises of her breasts push against his chest.
Luiz grunted a little, and Marcelo broke from the kiss to find Luiz fumbling with the hem of the chemise, then with his own clothes. At last, he slapped the bed. “Royal decree! Thirty-second break to remove clothing, and then back to business!”
With a laugh, Marcelo let go and hopped from one side of the bed as Luiz all but fell from the other. They were the most dressed by far, but not to a point that they couldn’t be stripped down quick enough. Marcelo laughed as Luiz pulled off his shirt and left his hair in a frightful shock above his head, then did the same and realized his own hair had fared no better from the process.
Brígida, for her own part, needed no more than to strip off her underdress, leaving her bare and dark against the stark white sheets. Marcelo was struck for a moment, staring at her beauty until Brígida blushed and drew her knees to her chest. “Stop staring and get back here!” she ordered. “It’s too chilly otherwise.”
Neither Marcelo nor Luiz had to be told twice. Luiz pulled back the top of the covers and they all climbed in together, Brígida still sandwiched in the middle. The sheets were icy for a moment, but their twined bodies soon brought them up to an acceptable warmth as the three of them kissed and touched. Brígida had turned this time to face Luiz, so Marcelo took the opportunity to explore her body from this angle. She was soft and curved in lovely ways, and even three months of royal court life had not chased the smell of earth from her hair.
“Did you know,” Luiz said, kissing at the curve of Brígida’s jaw, “that you’re the most beautiful wife I’ve ever had?”
Brígida laughed and pushed back from him playfully, a gesture that led her securely into Marcelo’s arms. “Oh, no you don’t,” she scolded him, still smiling. “You’re trying to make me say you’re the most handsome husband I’ve ever had.”
“Well, isn’t it true?” Luiz asked, fluttering his eyelashes to comical effect.
“Of course your most handsome husband is correct,” Marcelo said, kissing Brígida’s neck just behind her ear. “Devastatingly gorgeous, the darling of the whole court.”
Luiz sighed and gave Marcelo an affectionate cuff upside his head. “That’s no fun if you just concede.”
“I can’t help it. You’re too handsome.” Marcelo shrugged with pure affected innocence, then reached across their joined bodies to stroke Luiz’s hip. “Then handsomest witch I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
“Why thank you, Your Majesty,” Luiz replied. Both were terms of endearment not to be used anywhere but the most private of situations — but what counted if not this?
Marcelo reached around to cup Luiz’s ass, pulling them tighter into a sandwich around Brígida, who laughed and sighed at once. She leaned her hips back, rubbing her ass against Marcelo’s cock in a way that made Marcelo’s head swim. He reached around in front of her, at the place where her hips joined Luiz’s, and wrapped his hand around Luiz’s cock.
Luiz groaned a little, thrusting forward. “Yes,” he gasped, his eyes shut. He was so beautiful like this that Marcelo wanted to keep him fixed there forever, lost in pleasure.
But it was true, what Luiz had said earlier, that they were no longer just the two of them. They were three, and the pleasure to be had there was to be multiplied. Thus, Marcelo let go of Luiz’s cock for a moment, just long enough to find Brígida’s hand. Guiding her, he brought their joined palms down to Luiz’s stiff shaft; Marcelo wrapped Brígida’s hand around it first, then encircled her hand with his own.
“He likes it just like this,” Marcelo said softly, his lips right next to her ear. “You can torment him for hours like this. Gentle motions, keeping him just on the edge. When he starts to move his hips, when he gets too greedy, let go. Make him wait for it.”
“Dear God,” Luiz gasped, shutting his eyes tight. “You’ll teach her how to break me?”
“How to break you with love,” Marcelo said with a smirk. “Well, love and a clever touch.”
“Like this?” asked Brígida, taking some of the rhythm from Marcelo and keeping it up on her own, without his clear guide.
Marcelo nodded. “Just like that,” he said, pushing his cock up against her ass. He left it there, snug against her soft, warm skin; he was not the focus at the moment.
“I see,” Brígida said. “Tell me more of what he likes?”
“He likes being sucked,” Marcelo said. “Especially in utterly inappropriate places. All you need do is offer him a mouth, and he’s helpless to resist.”
Luiz’s only answer was a weak sigh, which made Brígida laugh. “I suppose we’ll have to try that sometime,” she purred. “After all, the palace always seems to have a number of rooms and corridors going unused at all hours. Seems a shame to let such space go to waste.”
“You are evil, both of you,” groaned Luiz.
“Of course,” Marcelo added, “if you want to make him wait, there’s another fantastic opportunity. Get him just about to pop and then, oh dear, time to grant an audience to the Duke of So-and-So.”
“You haven’t,” Brígida said.
“Oh, he has,” Luiz moaned, clearly recalling any of the several occasions on which Marcelo had left him hard to suffer through some interminable gathering. “I should have had him executed then and saved us all the trouble.”
Marcelo let go of Brígida’s hand long enough to reach up and tweak at Luiz’s nipple. “But you love trouble.”
“An utter lie,” Luiz said, or began to say; the sentence disappeared before its proper end as Marcelo brought his hand to rejoin Brígida’s, then ran his thumb straight over the slit at the head of Marcelo’s cock. Despite his earlier protests of exhaustion and drunkenness, that contact was enough to set him over the edge; gasping and bucking his hips, Luiz came into his lovers’ joined hands.
Marcelo was by this point a veteran of this moment, from both sides of it, but Brígida made a noise of surprise and would likely have jerked her hand away had Marcelo’s not been holding hers in place. “Oh! Oh,” she sputtered as her fingers were drenched in come, enough that most of it spilled out through her grasp and was caught in Marcelo’s palm. “Oh, that’s … that’s very odd, sorry.”
“Are you insulting the royal jism?” asked Luiz in a rather haughty voice, considering how his post-orgasmic state, as per usual, was more liquid than solid.
“Possibly?” Brígida laughed and kissed the tip of Luiz’s nose. “Is there, ah, protocol for what to do with it now?”
“Wipe it on his side of the bed,” Marcelo said.
“Oh no you–” began Luiz, but it was too late; Brígida had already reached around him and wiped her hand clean on the sheets behind him. “That’s it, you’re both arrested for treason. Off with your heads. Just as soon as I’ve had a nap.”
Marcelo opened his mouth to make fun of Luiz for being tired, but instead of speaking, he broke forth with a massive yawn. Even his erection, which had been so insistent earlier, had begun to flag. Perhaps sleeping for a week before pressing forward wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
“Naps all around, then?” Brígida asked, settling herself between them.
“Naps all around,” Marcelo agreed. “And then perhaps breakfast. And a bath. Or three.”
“Or a bath for three?” Luiz offered.
“You’re the prince,” Marcelo said. “We merely follow in your glorious footsteps.”
Luiz lifted his head to look at Brígida, then at Marcelo. “I fear our lovely shared wife has still not had an appropriate wedding night,” he said, “and that due to our tragic states of inebriation and exhaustion, our performances have not been quite up to snuff.”
“Then what do you suggest we do with her?”
“I suggest we keep making her come back until she is well and truly satisfied,” Luiz said.
Brígida snorted as she snuggled tighter with them, settling her head on Luiz’s bicep and drawing Marcelo’s arm more tightly around her waist. “Reclaiming my birthright wasn’t worth all this,” she said in the tone of voice that let Marcelo know that it most certainly was.
For his own part, though, he was grateful to still be himself at the end of it all. Perhaps one day he would take more purposeful steps toward fulfilling some of the duties of the throne, but that could wait. They had time, now, finally, and he had two important people to take care of: the man he loved, and the woman he was beginning to. To him, no throne, no crown, no kingdom could compare.