The two boys played skip-splash in the puddles outside the great doors of the Castle, blissfully unaware of the tension that filled their elders. With nary a worry, their game continued moving from puddle to puddle – hop-splash! hop-splash! – leading them inexorably away from the growing knot of concerned citizens, their parents among the crowd. But the two boys weren’t called back as more people arrived. Instead, the crowd grew along with a murmuring dissension that filled the courtyard enough to drown out the boys’ conversation when they grew tired of their game.
“Why do we have to wait outside?” asked Jeriff, the youngest of the two by nearly three years.
Karill, glad to display his greater knowledge at the grand age of ten, puffed out his chest with his perceived self-importance.
“We’re here to see the Red Queen. Our ma’s and pa’s got sum big things they gotta ask.”
“What big things?”
Karill hadn’t expected that question, so he searched his mind quickly for an answer.
“Important stuff. Like…” Karill paused again, trying to remember what his parents had been arguing about. “… like higher levies.”
Karill didn’t know what levies were, but he knew they must be very important for his ma and pa to dress in their finest festival clothes and shut down their little shop for the day as they made their long trek from their little village to the Castle Gates. He hoped Jeriff wouldn’t ask about the ‘levies’, because then he might have to admit he didn’t know. But when Jeriff next spoke, it was with a completely unexpected question.
“Why do they call Her the Red Queen?”
Happy at the change in subject, Karill considered the question, reviewing the gossip he heard in the streets.
“Janit, the baker’s oldest son, told me it’s ‘cause She’s always dressing in red.”
Red was an exotic color, reserved only for the nobility and merchants who could afford the exorbitant price of the dye.
“Everything?” asked Jeriff, astounded at the idea. “Even Her cloak?”
“Cloak, gown, crown, rubies, jewels, rings, hair. All of it. They say She even paints Her hands and face red, and Her Castle is full of endless rooms of red silk and painted glass because She can’t stand any other color.
“Wow,” breathed Jeriff, his imagination caught with wonder. “I wanna see Her, all in red! The Red Queen!” he shouted, entranced by the idea, spontaneously spinning in a circle and hopping back into a small puddle.
“Do you know, Her hair isn’t really red,” a new voice broke in, deep and low, but unmistakably feminine.
Instantly, both boys whirled around to see a cloaked figure standing in a nearby alcove.
Karill immediately knew that something was wrong. Fear stole through him as he realized he and Jeriff had wandered too far away from their parents to cry out for help. But despite his premonition, the figure did not move, did not threaten the boys in any way.
And Jeriff, in his innocence and newfound wonder, did not miss a beat.
“No red hair? But what about rubies? Or Her Castle all full of red rooms.”
The figure stirred.
“Truth is as multi-faceted as the best-cut gem.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means there is some truth in what you say, young man. Sometimes, that is all that is needed.”
The murmuring crowd behind them suddenly spiked in volume, momentarily drowning out anything else the figure might have added.
“Let us in!”
“It’s our right!”
“Hear us, Queen!”
The cry to ‘hear’ was taken up by many, chanting voices multiplied by the echoing Outer Courtyard.
“Other times, it is only harsher truths that will quiet dissent.”
The woman’s voice, though no louder, had increased in intensity, somehow cutting through the tumult to reach the ears of both boys clearly.
They looked up simultaneously, to find the shrouded form suddenly standing between them.
“Watch, then, and learn why She is known as the Red Queen.”
A wash of apprehension fluttered through Karill and Jeriff as the cloaked figure moved away. Their game of skip-splash suddenly felt meaningless as the boys realized there was a deeper game swirling around them, vibrating in forgotten puddles reflecting a desolate gray sky.
As they watched, the figure slid effortlessly between the growing and gesticulating mob. She moved silently, quietly working her way seamlessly through the crowd, parting people around her almost effortlessly.
In her wake, the muttering people fell silent, her cloaked figure somehow more menacing than any contingent of metal guards.
Only the small knot of gesticulating dissenters nearest the Castle Gate remained unaware of her presence, their anger forming a porous wall that dissipated the danger approaching them.
"Let us in!"
"It's our right!"
"Lower our taxes."
In the smallest space between breaths, a new voice spoke.
"Why do you anger? It will only weaken you."
The hushed, melodic tones cut through the mass effortlessly, the shrouded figure somehow suddenly standing in their very midst.
The silence was immediate.
Though her face was hidden, the figure’s sudden appearance startled the mob, opening a circle around her and freezing their anger.
But only for a moment.
Their leader apparent, a burly metalsmith, turned his mottled face towards her.
"And who are you to tell us what to do with our anger?"
"I serve the Queen."
There was a sudden intake of breath, yet the man wasn’t finished.
"Do your children hunger and freeze?”
The cloaked figure shook her head slightly.
"I have none."
The metalsmith clenched his hands in an attempt to keep himself from shouting at the figure.
"Then why does the Queen send you here? What right have you to speak at all?”
"The right of one who knows your anger will only lead to ruin.”
The metalsmith ignored the mounting menace in the woman’s voice as he sneered back at her.
“Anger is the only way we will be heard.”
Her shrouded head moved once in negation, the movement slight and precise.
“There are other ways, better ways. You need not rage.”
At that, the metalsmith finally did yell.
“Speaks the voice of one who’s never lost a loved child to thirst or cold or Plague!”
His voice broke on the final word and he swallowed thickly, his sorrow breaking through his rage.
But the figure was not cowed or moved in the least.
"Have I not lost?" she whispered, so softly she shouldn’t have been heard, but whose cadences somehow still filtered through the watching crowd.
“How can you know of loss, when you stand there in your thick woolen robes while we shiver in ragged linen and spun cotton? Bah!”
He turned away and raised his hands to the rest of the crowd.
“Brothers and sisters! While we starve, the Queen feasts. While we sicken and die, the Queen ignores our laments and remains hidden in Her Castle. I say, we can take no more! We must be heard. We must call the Queen.”
He turned to face the Castle Gates.
“We want the Queen!”
His cry broke the paralysis of the other watchers, and they eagerly took up the same cry, chanting frantically as if trying to make up for their collective moment of cowardice.
The figure’s arms emerged from beneath her cloak, clad in the deepest black velvet, hands completely covered by long black satin gloves but bare of any hints of gold or silver. With deliberate precision, the hands grasped the sides of the hood and flung it back.
Silence immediately descended once again as the woman’s face was revealed. The dim light of the overcast day caught hints of red highlights the color of dried blood in the heavy mass of mahogany hair, as fine as net of woven silk. It fell, unadorned, to frame sculpted porcelain features, cold and imperious. The visage peered outward, blank and emotionless except for a near-smile, the slight upward curve tightening the thick yet colorless curve of lips in anticipation and tinting both cheeks with the faintest blush. A straight, even nose flared in the cold morning air, above which wide eyes glittered, black and hard as obsidian. Only the pupils looked foreign, alien as they glittered dull crimson in the wintry morning.
Her gaze swept around the gathered townspeople, felling them like a scythe through wheat as they dropped to their knees and lowered their heads.
She wore no crown, no jewels. But there was no doubt in anyone that they beheld the Queen.
Only the same knot of desperate, cold, and hungry tradesmen remained standing – Karill and Jeriff’s parents among them.
“Well then. You asked for the Queen. Here I stand.”
The soft, melodic voice from before was gone, its rich tones now ice-cold and emotionless.
“Tell me, what is it you want?”
The challenge in Her voice might’ve stopped a lesser man, but the metalsmith had nothing more to lose.
Or so he believed.
“How can you still not understand? We want you to lower our taxes, so we can afford medicine for our children. My own firstborn…”
He briefly paused, overcome with grief. He shook his head once, then continued fiercely.
“We know our taxes go to arm your guards and feed your personal servants, to clothe yourself in silks and feast on the best meats.
The Queen looked around the crowd deliberately as She answered.
“Neither my guards nor my personal servants eat, while my own appetite is… somewhat other. As for the rest – what you say is nearly true. I think of myself and none others.”
Shocked by Her easy admission, several of those in the crowd began to murmur in remembered anger. But the Queen was not finished speaking.
“If I give you what you ask, then there will be less for Me. And when there is less for Me, I begin to want.”
Her voice lowered until it was nearly soundless.
“My Wants are not easy to satisfy.”
Her explanation, full of overt selfishness and absence of sympathy, enraged the metalsmith and his group of followers. The Queen was alone, far from Her guards. Could they not simply overwhelm Her and hold Her for ransom, force Her to give back what they felt She stole?
The metalsmith took an aggressive, threatening step towards Her. Her smile widened in expectation.
“Yes. Closer,” She whispered, again so softly he shouldn’t have heard, but somehow still did.
His forward movement halted, and the yelling people around the two of them faded away.
“Please, I’m begging you, can’t something be done? Can you not help your new people?”
The Queen looked at him carefully, then glanced around at the many other angry, twisted faces. Her gaze settled back on the metalsmith, and for the first time, he felt a shiver of fear.
“You need work to feed yourself. I will provide that work.”
Suddenly, the Queen was grabbed from behind. She did not resist, instead leaning into Her captor.
Now unsure, the metalsmith held out a placating hand to whoever was behind her.
But before he could get the rest of his plea out, the Queen whirled in Her captor’s grasp. With a move as swift as a striking snake, She reached out and gripped the man’s neck. Her fingers squeezed his windpipe, cutting off his air. Though the man flailed and clawed at Her hand, he was unable to budge it. As he fell to his knees, the crowd backed away, fear suddenly sweeping over them, followed by a profound silence.
The Queen turned her head to look towards the voice. It was Karill.
“That’s my Pa. He’s a good one. He didn’t know. He didn’t. Please, Queen. Please don’t kill him.”
She looked back at the man’s purpling face.
“Why would I waste such a one?”
She quickly opened Her hand, shoving aside the gasping man. She looked down at him coldly.
“Your son serves me now.”
Before anyone could react, She turned back to the metalsmith.
“Would you see my suffering?”
He shook his head.
“No… my Queen… please…”
She slid Her gaze across the crowd again before resting it on the slight figure of a worn-looking woman.
Helpless, the woman walked forward, unable to resist the command embedded in the Queen’s mesmerizing voice.
“No! Not my wife!”
But the Queen ignored the metalsmith’s agonized cry. Instead, She held out one black-gloved hand as if in invitation. The woman’s eyes glazed with terror, yet she continued walking forward until her chest met the Queen’s outstretched fingers.
The metalsmith tried to move, to intervene, but his body remained immobile, frozen as the winter day. Only his flickering eyes and hoarse, smothered cries showed any indication of his internal struggle.
So it was with all those around him, who watched in fear and complete submission as the Queen smiled hungrily at the metalsmith’s wife.
The woman’s head nodded, and she reached for the ties of her dress. In moments, her chest was bared to the elements. Ready.
The Queen’s hand elongated, nails growing into razor-edged claws. In less than the blink of an eye, the Queen plunged Her hand into the woman’s chest, parting the skin and bones and muscle as easily as a stream of wine. With another impossibly quick moment, She ripped out the woman’s still-beating heart.
The woman screamed silently, her eyes wide with pain and terror, as the Queen examined the heart She held. Her gaze rose up to meet the woman’s. Almost languidly, the Queen raised up the heart and took a large bite. She chewed slowly, luxuriating in the taste and texture, in the echo of emotions She could feel coming from the woman. She savored the terror, the futile anger, the brief wonderment.
For a suspended instant, the Queen was nearly Whole. Complete. Joyful. She felt.
And Her power grew.
As the crowd dropped to its knees, mouths agape in shock, the Queen ate the woman’s entire heart, each bite causing the beating organ to slow its rhythm just a little more, until, with the final piece, it stopped.
The Queen swallowed. The woman fell to her knees, dead.
Turning a sticky, blood-covered face on the metalsmith, She smiled in satiation, Her teeth stained yellow and purple, glistening with tiny bits of meat and muscle. The paralysis holding the entire crowd broke, and screams filled the courtyard. The metalsmith rushed forward to catch the falling body of his wife. His sobs broke free of his chest as the tiny form of Jeriff hurtled towards the Queen.
“You killed my ma! You killed my ma!”
He threw himself at Her, screaming, but She caught him easily.
The crowd was rapidly dispersing, melting into the winter fog, hurrying away from the horrific scene. In moments, only the screaming Jeriff and the sobbing metalsmith remained.
Instantly, Jeriff’s voice died down. The Queen smiled at him indulgently.
“You wanted to know why they call me the Red Queen. Does this serve?”
He nodded, biting back another sob.
“You’re friend, Karill, will be back soon to serve me. Would you like to join him?”
“No… please… don’t take him.”
The ragged voice of the metalsmith slithered through the courtyard.
“He’s all I have left.”
The Queen looked carefully at the man, his emotions raw and plain to see.
“I am in need of one to service my guards. You will join me in the Castle.”
The metalsmith shook his head in disbelief.
“How can you think I would ever serve you now?”
The Queen gestured to Jeriff.
“He will be there, of course. You may stay close to him. And…”
She tilted Her head, meeting his wounded gaze.
“I have some of your wife in me now. I feel… an echo of her love for you. It would please me to have you near.”
Her power flared around Her in a near-visible nimbus.
“Your Queen commands you.”
At the sound of her voice, both the metalsmith and Jeriff ceased their sobs. They stood and bowed towards her in unison.
“As my Queen commands,” they replied in unison.
She smiled at them benevolently.
“Then follow me.”
She pulled Her hood back over Her blood-spattered face and turned towards the Castle Gate. At a small gesture from Her hand, it began to open. She walked forward, Jeriff and the metalsmith following Her unhesitatingly into the Castle grounds.
Behind them, forgotten, lay the discarded remains of a woman – wife, mother, food.