Queen of Swords

Her predecessors' portraits hang in the antechamber of her bedroom. "A reminder," the king says. There is space for her portrait to hang beside them.

The ghosts come to her for the first time on her wedding night, after the sated king has departed for his own chamber.

They call her sister.

They stand just inside the doorway, Queen Katharine and Queen Isobel, each wearing a wedding gown as sumptuous as that which hangs now in the new queen's wardrobe, each cradling her own severed head in her bloodstained hands, and they call her sister.

They whisper to her in voices like the tapping of branches at the window. They tell her she is beautiful, as they were; they tell her that she will recognize her own successor merely by the light in the king's eyes. They tell her not to be jealous, not to be afraid. They tell her they will welcome her gladly to their company. The queen imagines standing next to Queen Isobel, the weight of her own head in her hands. She imagines calling her successor sister and shivers.

The dead queens appear after each of the king's conjugal visits. They drift closer and closer as the weeks go by, trading bits of their unceasing threnody back and forth. Once, she tries to speak to them, but they will not break their chain of words to answer.

In the fourth month of her marriage, the new queen and her physicians determine that she is pregnant. The king is delighted. "I thought I was cursed to marry only barren women," he tells her that night, his weight pinning her to the bed. He expects no response, and she offers none.

Later, alone, she waits, heavy with guilt. She has succeeded where Queen Katharine and Queen Isobel failed. They called her sister, and she has betrayed them.

But the dead queens do not come, and eventually she sleeps.

She wakes in the middle of the night. Queen Katharine and Queen Isobel are standing at the foot of her bed.

"He will have an heir."

"The murderer--"

"--our murderer--"

"--will have an heir."

"Our sister will grow heavy with his child."

They start toward the new queen, one on each side of the bed.

"She will bear his child."

"She will not be our sister."

"She will be his."

"His forever."

The ghostly queens stand beside the bed, close enough to touch. The new queen grips her hands together, her knuckles turning white.

"She is not his."

"She is ours."

"Ours."

"She is our sister."

"He will not have her--"

"--will not keep her--"

"--we will not let him."

"Please," the new queen whispers. "Please let me be."

When the servants find her in the morning, she is lying in a great, clotted darkness of blood. Her body is already cold.

One month later, the king begins to look for his fourth wife.


© Sarah Monette 2003     Feel free to link to this story, but please do not reproduce it without permission. "Queen of Swords" first appeared in AlienSkin, November 2003.