I HAVE STABBED THE WORLD IN ITS HEART!
The petticoat latches tightened. Gloriana winced.
“Sorry, my queen.” Her attendant pulled her hands back.
“That's all right,” Queen Gloriana mumbled. “I should be used to it by now.”
“How was your bath?” Her youngest attendant, Grace smiled apologetically. Grace was twenty-four.
I wonder what she thinks of me, Gloriana thought. She forgot to answer Grace. She forgot how to be a normal human being all the time. It was rare that anyone corrected her.
Gloriana was the highest figurehead of the most powerful empire in the world. She was nineteen.
Just like everyday, her army of personal attendants had woken her up at dawn. They led her into the bath. She was washed with water from a virgin spring and the finest soaps. A careful selection of the best artisanal candles money could buy carried the smell of the mysterious forests of Albion to her. Her day old skin, forever a milky white, was sloughed away and her hair carefully washed and dried and braided into the traditional pattern, which her forebearers had worn since records of such things were kept.
She was led naked into her dressing chambers.
She felt more like a cow than a queen. Her care was presided over by her oldest attendant, one of her mother's, a matronly woman named Zelda. The woman was like an aunt. She was the closest thing that Gloriana had to family. Everyone else was dead or sick from centuries of inbreeding, war and assassination. Her real aunt was married to some decayed king in some other country. She was reportedly jealous of Gloriana. Gloriana received daily missives from her advisors that her aunt was scheming to bring to her niece war and death and all sorts of terrors.
“Oh, I know you don't like it, dear, but you've got to do it.” Zelda had explained the first time they had to dress her in the regal gear. It seemed like her outfits got more and more complicated each day, as if she was some living experiment for her dressmakers to top each day.
Zelda stepped back about mid-point through the ritual of dress. She looked ill. She'd looked ill more and more often lately.
“Are you alright?” Gloriana asked her.
“Yes, of course. Don't worry.”
Gloriana worried. Zelda's duties were physically demanding. Even now, as a small army of ladies in waiting
stepped in to finish the courtly work, Zelda leaned against a wall, looking depleted.
They carefully applied white makeup to her face with almost clownish, colorful accents for her eyes. She coughed and sputtered, but her well-trained staff ignored her struggles and continued to erect the prison of fabrics around her.
The dressing completed, Gloriana was no longer a naked human girl of remarkable frailty. She stood nearly a foot taller and was a great deal more imposing besides. She was in full court regalia, though court duties had grown increasingly scarce over the last decades. Her attendant led her out of the dressing room and into the breakfast suite.
“Zelda, won't you join me for breakfast?” Gloriana asked. “You don't look well and you could do with a proper meal.”
“No, my queen.” Zelda bowed. “You could do to eat my share yourself, though. You are far too skinny. I beg your pardons and mercy.”
Gloriana sighed and let herself be led away for a meal. She had known that Zelda would not allow herself to be seated next to her betters.
She was treated to an elaborate meal of the finest fresh vegetables and cheeses, fresh baked bread, and a glass of wine. Much of her food was imported from the far reaches of her empire, and her kitchens carefully selected the finest cuts of each and every shipment to the Royal Districts for her Majesty's lips. She ate very little. She was a small woman, slight of figure. It was strange for a Queen to not reach a proper, womanly size but Gloriana had never had much of an appetite. After she finished her wine, she was conducted into the throne room, in which the day's business would be completed. She was the Queen of the most powerful nation on the planet. She had many duties. Most of them were impossibly dull.
She looked about for Zelda, but the old woman was nowhere to be found. She let herself be settled into the seat. The first dignitary began addressing her.
“Lady of the Royal Flag, Mistress of the Castle of the Waxing Moon, Queen of Albion, Commander of the Royal Armies, Empress to the Darkest and Brightest Corners and Cabinets of the Earth...”
Every single speaker must acknowledge her twenty titles before stating his purpose, and so it went throughout the day. She never yawned, rarely blinked. It had taken practice and training, but she never showed just how tired and bored she was, no matter what went on throughout the day. Supplicants and relatives and debtors and debtees went before her and she heard their cases. Her advisors hurriedly scribbled down notes. She made few decisions. Moreoften, she nodded sagely and offered a prayer or a blessing. The candle lights, trapped in prisms of glass, cast off enormous heat.
The room was a sweat lodge by mid day.
After a day of the company of politicians and soldiers and statesmen, at sunset she was led into the dining room where she was cooked an elaborate meal in the Gaulish fashion, a roasted fowl with decadent presentation and liberal helpings of butter and cream, and an array of freshly cooked vegetables prepared in
much the same way. She ate little. She was allowed one bottle of white wine, of which she drank two glasses.
“Where is Zelda?”
“She's not well, your majesty.”
“I'd like to see her.”
“She's not well.”
“I am your Queen and you will do as I say. Take me to
Gloriana hoped they wouldn't notice her voice waver and her hands shake. They brought her into the attendant's room. She'd never been inside of it before. It was just adjacent to her room, hidden by a fresco and some suits of armor. Zelda lay in her bed. She'd gone, in one day, from being energized and active to truly elderly. Gloriana made her way as best she could to the old woman's side. She was still in part of her court gear. She wanted to kneel down and take the woman's hand but she could not kneel in her costume.
“My Queen. Please leave me. It is nothing.” Zelda's voice was a rasp.
“Zelda, you are sick. You are dear to me. You know that.”
“I would not wish you to see me like this.” Zelda's voice gained strength. “I have worked to make you strong. I have worked my whole life. Be strong, my Queen. If I die tomorrow, be strong.”
Gloriana said nothing. She turned and left.
She was then taken to her undressing chamber, which was now lit by candles releasing soothing aromas of cherry groves and freshly cut flowers. Her attendant performed the inverse of the morning's ritual, carefully undoing the work she'd done hours before. Gloriana felt absurdly like an onion, as layers were peeled
away, layers of leathers and lace and silk and felt and brass, gold and silver. Her hair was let out of its braiding so that it fell about her naked body, which now looked like the body of any other girl in her early twenties that was a bit too skinny. Any of her subjects, seeing her now, would have been struck by how very young she looked, unless they had chanced to catch her gaze.
Gloriana had come to relish the time she was alloted each night to take her bath. She had a separate chamber for her evening bath. Whereas her morning bath took place in a large, open, ivory chamber, her evening bath was a simple affair, much like anyone else would enjoy. It was the only time when Gloriana was allowed to think on her life and enjoy any sort of solitude.
Gloriana stepped through the door and it shut behind her. It would not open again until she rang thelarge silver bell which hung from the doorway at the fair end of the room. The moonlight shone through the single large skylight window, with only a few candles to supplement its light. She walked, naked once more, up to the bath. Ribbons of steam unfolded into the air and breathed heavily for a moment and then she stepped down into it, gasping a little as the water was nearly hot enough to scald her.
She threw her head back and let the water wash over and then she breathed out, deeply. She hummed a little tune and let
A man in a dirty leather suit, wearing a helmet which made him look like an insect came walking over to her out of the shadows.
She did not even have time to scream, or even to be shocked. She just cocked her head and reflected.
“You've come to kill me,” the Queen said.
The man drew a large knife, the kind one would use to cleave through a jungle overgrowth, and plunged it through her chest. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. The man watched her impassively as she felt her body stiffen. She listened carefully to the sound of her own heart, which was said to
be the heart of Albion itself. It was beating strangely. And then it stopped.
The dirty man bent down to examine her body. He took her pulse in order to confirm the kill. He stood there for a moment, as if in reflection. He left the way he came in.