Tessa Gratton (tessagratton) wrote in merry_fates,
Tessa Gratton

Fiction by Tessa: "The Center of Valor"

She waits to kill her king with a glass of sherry cupped in one palm and a dried cornflower in the other.

The blue petals flake away each time she moves, as she curls her fingers one at a time until they are a cage around the flower. Juro gave it to her when she first came to the palace, with a promise that if she fulfills her part of the plan and takes her vengeance for the slaughter of her family, she’ll be a hero.

It’s lived in a glass vial on her vanity since then, like a small blue eye watching her dress for dinner with the king, for dancing or riding out with him on a quail hunt. Occasionally she took it to the window and curled up on the cool stone bricks to stare south over the city. Through the marbled glass the mountain peaks where she’d grown up were muddy teeth cutting up into the sky. From this distance she couldn’t see the fire scars or broken houses, the poisoned wells. The graveyards.

All that this king's old father had caused.

This morning, Juro slipped into her bedroom without a knock, surprising her as she sipped dark tea and watched her watery reflection across the surface of the window where rain slithered in fast rivulets. The teacup had dropped from her fingers and hit the carpet with a dull ping, not breaking but splashing hot water against the tops of her bare feet.

Juro knelt and wiped them with a corner of his fine jacket, excitement making him less vain than usual. She hugged her dressing gown shut over her chest and watched the top of her handsome friend’s head. His dark hair combed back smoothly, and was caught up in a tail by a red silk ribbon. Matching earrings glittered at either side of his face, like points marking the edges of his wide, flat grin when he stood to face her. “Today, Messina, today is the day,” he said, and then he put his hands against her head, crushing her curls, and kissed her.

Once, his kisses had thrilled her, made her body melt and her resolve harden. But now, she opened her mouth and a string of guilt fell down her throat. She pushed away. “Juro, I’ve been thinking.”

He groaned and snatched one of the cookies off her tea tray.

Ignoring the hint, she stood tall in the center of her room, knowing soon she would miss this place. With its silk hangings, gilded mirror, and four-post bed that had its clothes changed every other day by a maid she shared with only two other ladies, this room was the best luxury Messina could ever hope to know. There was tea brought every morning, and dinners in the banquet hall, a private bath whenever she wished. Tomorrow, she suspected, she’d be back to cold streams and sand for soap, beer to drink if she was lucky, and straw under her back at night.

She said, “He didn’t know the things we hate him for.”

Juro slid a look at her that was at once pitying and amused. “Ignorance is no excuse for what was done in his name.”

“Nor is ignorance a reason to kill a man.”

“For God’s sake, girl, this is why you’ve been here for the last two years! Why we invested so much into you. To get you close to him. Closer than any of us might be.”

“I know.” She stepped nearer to Juro, touched his lapel. “And I have done so. I know him, and he can learn and change. He could do good from the throne – isn’t that a better outcome to hope for than open rebellion? Then the chance of someone worse ending up in power?”

“Messina.” His voice was hard and low. “Think of your parents. Of my sister and brother. Of all our families, cut down though they certainly might have learned and changed.”

The fury in his eyes was difficult to look at, but she'd had much practice these years in doing unpleasant things. Putting her hands on his face, she brushed her thumbs just under those raw eyes. Juro had been here at the castle during the massacre. Fostered with one of the old king’s cousins to promote peace and friendship between the king and his outlying dukes. But Messina had witnessed it all, an unnoticed girl hiding in a tree while her town was burned and the bodies of her aunts and uncles hung at every crossroad. She did not need to be reminded of the slaughter, of the smell of burning hair or what fat popping on funeral pyres sounded like.

“I remember them,” she said. “Every day. But I also remember that my mother was a healer and my father told me more than once that nothing is as simple as it seems.” She knew her father would not want to see his only daughter murder any man. She’d been heartsick and angry before, when she agreed to this. In love with Juro and the thought of vengeance.

But the new king had showed her a little bit about complications.

Juro grasped her shoulders. “You will meet him tonight, alone. And you will give him my mother’s knife.”

In the heart, is what he meant, and so Messina lowered her eyes. Juro pressed his lips to her forehead and they stood still while rain pelted the window, obscuring the mountains.

Now, she tightens her fist and crushes the blue cornflower. It falls to dust in her palm and she shakes it loose onto the king’s tile floor where it spreads like a stain.

The heavy door to his chamber pushes open a crack. “Sin? Are you there?”

A smile pulls at her lips before she can stop it, and she sighs to wash away all her reflexive happiness at the sound of his voice. “Here,” she murmurs.

The king enters, shutting the door behind him and pressing back against it like a little boy. He’s a year older than her, and barely as tall, but the gold chains of state and official ribbons adorning his jacket make him seem wider and larger. In the past six months since his father’s death, he’s grown into his role.

Standing smoothly, she goes to him and offers the glass of sherry – his favorite. He juggles it as she quickly divests him of the heavy jacket. The king rolls his shoulders and smiles. He sips his sherry and then catches an arm around her waist. Messina rests her head down on his shoulder, reveling in the press of her body against his, the smell of holy incense from the ever-burning thurible that hangs over his throne.

“What’s wrong?” he asks into her hair.

“How are the memorial plans coming, my lord?” She tilts away from him and he takes a drink before smiling the smile that has won him so much quick support.

“Lyric,” he says.

“Lyric,” she repeats, turning out of his arm and going to the table where she waited. There lies the dagger that belonged to Juro’s mother, and there the tiny box she bought with her emerald earrings from one of the castle sorcerers just an hour ago.

He joins her, stretching out his legs so that the heavy heels of his boots clunk onto the tiles. “Daria says they’re still arguing over the style of columns for the outside of the temple, but that I’ll have an official document on my desk next week. I’ll sneak them up here for your approval, love.”

When Messina first arrived at the castle, dolled and bathed and presented to the then-prince Lyric as Juro’s sister, he’d welcomed her and insisted she join him for tea that afternoon. She’d thought it a perfect opportunity to kill him, right then, with so little effort. But the very moment they were alone, he knelt before her and took her hand, throwing her purpose aside. With lines of honesty bending around his mouth, he apologized for her losses and asked if the prince might do anything for her.

She had demurred, allowing him no guilt, and so had begun their gentle courtship.

But she never forgot it, and watched as he ascended the throne, as he played the charming prince and then outgoing, wise king. She listened as he whispered to her while dancing that he needed to find a way to thwart Lord Isak’s monopoly over the trade routes east, and she stroked his rigid hand under the table when he sat for the presentation from Idalee. “They murder the children of their own nobility to keep them in line,” he hissed after the ambassador bowed and withdrew. It was then she wondered if Lyric knew at all what had happened in his own mountains.

Most people didn’t know. It was hushed and made into songs as though it had happened generations instead of mere years ago. They never spoke of it at open court, and referenced the southern dukedoms as though they’d been lost to some quaint natural disaster.

For long stretched of time, she forgot her mission as she spent time with the king. Except when Juro would offer her a sharp look or kiss warmth into her palm as they passed in the hallways. Soon, his breath promised. And, revenge.

Her dreams were haunted by ballrooms full of Lyric and his council, where the charred faces of her relatives peered from beneath swirling skirts and out of the corner shadows. They danced beside her, ashes crumbling off their hands and dusting her cheeks like tears. And she remembered.

The King’s death would be the price for all that death and scorched earth. The skeletons of trees and cave-like houses that once had held laughter and love. His death would ripple out and no one again would think a king might rule over slaughtered ghosts.

Until the night after his coronation, when she’d been sent for and found him sitting beside the massive hearth in his chamber, holding the ebony crown in his lap. When she knelt before him he said, “It is so heavy, Messina.”

She lifted the circlet from him, feeling the weight he meant settling over the entire room. And in his eyes were tears. Setting the crown onto the patterned tiles, she kissed the tears off his lashes and climbed into his lap because she was not so heavy as a kingdom.

Later that same night, he kissed her breast and she told him everything about her family’s deaths. Horror had made him lose all interest in her body, which made her love him when it shouldn’t have. He’d sworn to her that he’d set it right, though he could never bring back the dead.

But in the light of day, all the king would do was create a memorial. There were no direct culprits to be punished, no way to scour his court for them without destroying the tenuous peace he’d pulled together after his father’s death.

And tonight, when he promises the plans will meet with her approval, all she does is bow her head and wish he were brave enough to give her fair justice.

Neither of the men in her life is brave enough to act on his own. And that gives her courage.

She says, “Lyric, I am not Juro’s sister.”

Confusion flits over his mouth, all of his face she can see with her chin lowered, and he says, “What are you, then? What is he?” The king’s voice lilts up in panic before he steps away from her to add his guess. “Your lover.”

She ignores his jealousy and reaches across the table to skim her fingers over the dagger. “This was his mother’s knife. She gave it to him just a month before the massacre.”

“Why is it here?” he asks stiffly. He draws his feet under him and plants his hands flat over his knees as if trying to regain balance. Those hands are strong and she pushes away the memory of them lifting her up onto her horse or holding her against his chest. Or wielding a sword in the practice ring.

“You should ask Juro that, tomorrow. Give it to him, and be honest with him as you have been with me.”

The king rises. She does, too. “What is going on, Sin? Why are you talking like I’ll never see you again?”

Lifting the little carved box from the table, she flicks it open with her thumb. Inside is a red marble. She takes it out. “Because I don’t think you will.”

Lyric dives over the space between them. He takes her waist. “You cannot leave like this. Not telling me why, not so suddenly that I have no time to dissuade you or understand.”

Just as she did with Juro, Messina puts her hands on her king’s face. She brushes her thumbs under his eyes and kisses him. Softly, and now when she opens her mouth it is only longing that threads down her throat and into her heart.

His arms come around her and she presses her cheek to his cheek. Around his back, she lifts the red marble and touches it to her tongue. A sharp pain, and as the marble diffuses, so does Messina dissolve into a mist that slips up the chimney and into the sky.

Leaving her king alive, but maybe only half alive.


Note: I didn't intend this, but I'm fairly sure this is part one.

pic by cpkaite via flickr CC

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Tags: fairy tales, magic, tessa gratton
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