Maps in a mirror, p.61

Maps in a Mirror, page 61


Maps in a Mirror

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  If he listened to the Bear and sent the prince away, the princess would never forgive him, would hate him, in fact, and he couldn’t bear that. But if he didn’t listen to the Bear, then the princess would surely marry the prince, and the prince would surely ruin his kingdom. And he couldn’t endure that.

  But worst of all, he couldn’t stand the terrible look on the Bear’s face.

  The princess stood sobbing in her father’s arms.

  The king stood wishing there were something he could do or undo.

  And the Bear simply stood.

  And then the Bear nodded, and said, “I understand. Good-bye.”

  And then the Bear walked out of the room, and out of the palace, and out of the garden walls, and out of the city, and out of any land that the king had heard of.

  He took nothing with him—no food, no horse, no extra clothing. He just wore his clothing and carried his sword. He left as he came.

  And the princess cried with relief. The Bear was gone. Life could go on, just like it was before ever the prince left and before ever the Bear came.

  So she thought.

  She didn’t really realize how her father felt until he died only four months later, suddenly very old and very tired and very lonely and despairing for his kingdom.

  She didn’t realize that the prince was not the same man she loved before until she married him three months after her father died.

  On the day of their wedding she proudly crowned him king herself, and led him to the throne, where he sat.

  “I love you,” she said proudly, “and you look like a king.”

  “I am a king,” he said. “I am King Edward the first.”

  “Edward?” she said. “Why Edward? That’s not your name.”

  “That’s a king’s name,” he said, “and I am a king. Do I not have power to change my name?”

  “Of course,” she said. “But I liked your own name better.”

  “But you will call me Edward,” he said, and she did.

  When she saw him. For he didn’t come to her very often. As soon as he wore the crown he began to keep her out of the court, and conducted the business of the kingdom where she couldn’t hear. She didn’t understand this, because her father had always let her attend everything and hear everything in the government, so she could be a good queen.

  “A good queen,” said King Edward, her husband, “is a quiet woman who has babies, one of whom will be king.”

  And so the princess, who was now the queen, had babies, and one of them was a boy, and she tried to help him grow up to be a king.

  But as the years passed by she realized that King Edward was not the lovely boy she had loved in the garden. He was a cruel and greedy man. And she didn’t like him very much.

  He raised the taxes, and the people became poor.

  He built up the army, so it became very strong.

  He used the army to take over the land of Count Edred, who had been her godfather.

  He also took over the land of Duke Adlow, who had once let her pet one of his tame swans.

  He also took over the land of Earl Thlaffway, who had wept openly at her father’s funeral, and said that her father was the only man he had ever worshipped, because he was such a good king.

  And Edred and Adlow and Thlaffway all disappeared, and were never heard of again.

  “He’s even against the common people,” the nurse grumbled one day as she did up the queen’s hair. “Some shepherds came to court yesterday to tell him a marvel, which is their duty, isn’t it, to tell the king of anything strange that happens in the land?”

  “Yes,” said the queen, remembering how as a child she and the prince had run to their father often to tell him a marvel—how grass springs up all at once in the spring, how water just disappeared on a hot day, how a butterfly comes all awkward from the cocoon.

  “Well,” said the nurse, “they told him that there was a bear along the edge of the forest, a bear that doesn’t eat meat, but only berries and roots. And this bear, they said, killed wolves. Every year they lose dozens of sheep to the wolves, but this year they had lost not one lamb, because the bear killed the wolves. Now that’s a marvel, I’d say,” said the nurse.

  “Oh yes,” said the princess who was now a queen.

  “But what did the king do,” said the nurse, “but order his knights to hunt down that bear and kill it. Kill it!”

  “Why?” asked the queen.

  “Why, why, why?” asked the nurse. “The best question in the world. The shepherds asked it, and the king said, ‘can’t have a bear loose around here. He might kill children.’

  “ ‘Oh no,’ says the shepherds, ‘the bear don’t eat meat.’

  “ ‘Then, it’ll wind up stealing grain,’ the king says in reply, and there it is, my lady—the hunters are out after a perfectly harmless bear! You can bet the shepherds don’t like it. A perfectly harmless bear!”

  The queen nodded. “A magic bear.”

  “Why, yes,” said the nurse. “Now you mention it, it does seem like the bear that saved you that day—”

  “Nurse,” said the queen, “there was no bear that day. I was dreaming I was mad with despair. There wasn’t a wolf chasing me. And there was definitely no magic bear.”

  The nurse bit her lip. Of course there had been a bear, she thought. And a wolf. But the queen, her princess, was determined not to believe in any kind thing.

  “Sure there was a bear,” said the nurse.

  “No, there was no bear,” said the queen, “and now I know who put the idea of a magic bear into the children’s head.”

  “They’ve heard of him?”

  “They came to me with a silly tale of a bear that climbs over the wall into the garden when no one else is around, and who plays with them and lets him ride on his back. Obviously you told them your silly tale about the magic bear who supposedly saved me. So I told them that magic bears were a full tall-tale and that even grownups liked to tell them, but that they must be careful to remember the difference between truth and falsehood, and they should wink if they’re fibbing.”

  “What did they say?” the nurse said.

  “I made them all wink about the bear,” said the queen, “of course. But I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t fill their heads with silly stories. You did tell them your stupid story, didn’t you?”

  “Yes,” said the nurse sadly.

  “What a trouble your wagging tongue can cause,” said the queen, and the nurse burst into tears and left the room.

  They made it up later but there was no talk of bears. The nurse understood well enough, though. The thought of bears reminded the queen of the Bear, and everyone knew that she was the one who drove that wise counselor away. If only the Bear were still here, thought the nurse—and hundreds of other people in the kingdom—if he were still here we wouldn’t have these troubles in the kingdom.

  And there were troubles. The soldiers patrolled the streets of the cities and locked people up for saying things about King Edward. And when a servant in the palace did anything wrong he would bellow and storm, and even throw things and beat them with a rod.

  One day when King Edward didn’t like the soup he threw the whole tureen at the cook. The cook promptly took his leave, saying for anyone to hear, “I’ve served kings and queens, lords and ladies, soldiers, and servants, and in all that time this is the first time I’ve ever been called upon to serve a pig.”

  The day after he left he was back, at swordpoint—not cooking in the kitchen, of course, since cooks are too close to the king’s food. No, the cook was sweeping the stables. And the servants were told in no uncertain terms that none of them was free to leave. If they didn’t like their jobs, they could be given another one to do. And they all looked at the work the cook was doing, and kept their tongues.

  Except the nurse, who talked to the queen about everything.

  “We might as well be slaves,” said the nurse. “Right down to the wages. He’s cut us all in half, some ev
en more, and we’ve got barely enough to feed ourselves. I’m all right, mind you, my lady, for I have no one but me to feed, but there’s some who’s hard put to get a stick of wood for the fire and a morsel of bread for a hungry mouth or six.”

  The queen thought of pleading with her husband, but then she realized that King Edward would only punish the servants for complaining. So she began giving her nurse jewels to sell. Then the nurse quietly gave the money to the servants who had the least, or who had the largest families, and whispered to them, even though the queen had told her not to give a hint, “This money’s from the queen, you know. She remembers us servants, even if her husband’s a lout and a pimple.” And the servants remembered that the queen was kind.

  The people didn’t hate King Edward quite as much as the servants did, of course, because even though taxes were high, there are always silly people who are proud fit to bust when their army has a victory. And of course King Edward had quite a few victories at first. He would pick a fight with a neighboring king or lord and then march in and take over. People had thought old King Boris’ army of five thousand was bad, back in the old days. But because of his high taxes, King Edward was able to hire an army of fifty thousand men, and war was a different thing then. They lived off the land in enemy country, and killed and plundered where they liked. Most of the soldiers weren’t local men, anyway—they were the riffraff of the highways, men who begged or stole, and now were being paid for stealing.

  But King Edward tripled the size of the kingdom, and there were a good many citizens who followed the war news and cheered whenever King Edward rode through the streets.

  They cheered the queen, too, of course, but they didn’t see her very much, about once a year or so. She was still beautiful, of course, more beautiful than ever before. No one particularly noticed that her eyes were sad these days, or else those who noticed said nothing and soon forgot it.

  But King Edward’s victories had been won against weak, and peaceful, and unprepared men. And at last the neighboring kings got together, and the rebels from conquered lands got together, and they planned King Edward’s doom.

  When next King Edward went a-conquering, they were ready, and on the very battlefield where King Ethelred had defeated Boris they ambushed King Edward’s army. Edward’s fifty thousand hired men faced a hundred thousand where before they had never faced more than half their number. Their bought courage melted away, and those who lived through the first of the battle ran for their lives.

  King Edward was captured and brought back to the city in a cage, which was hung above the city gate, right where the statue of the bear is today.

  The queen came out to the leaders of the army that had defeated King Edward and knelt before them in the dust and wept, pleading for her husband. And because she was beautiful, and good, and because they themselves were only good men trying to protect their own lives and property, they granted him his life. For her sake they even let him remain king, but they imposed a huge tribute on him. To save his own life, he agreed.

  So taxes were raised even higher, in order to pay the tribute, and King Edward could only keep enough soldiers to police his kingdom, and the tribute went to paying for soldiers of the victorious kings to stay on the borders to keep watch on our land. For they figured, and rightly so, that if they let up their vigilance for a minute, King Edward would raise an army and stab them in the back.

  But they didn’t let up their vigilance, you see. And King Edward was trapped.

  A dark evil fell upon him then, for a greedy man craves all the more the thing he can’t have. And King Edward craved power. Because he couldn’t have power over other kings, he began to use more power over his own kingdom, and his own household, and his own family.

  He began to have prisoners tortured until they confessed to conspiracies that didn’t exist, and until they denounced people who were innocent. And people in this kingdom began to lock their doors at night, and hide when someone knocked. There was fear in the kingdom, and people began to move away, until King Edward took to hunting down and beheading anyone who tried to leave the kingdom.

  And it was bad in the palace, too. For the servants were beaten savagely for the slightest things, and King Edward even yelled at his own son and daughters whenever he saw them, so that the queen kept them hidden away with her most of the time.

  Everyone was afraid of King Edward. And people almost always hate anyone they fear.

  Except the queen. For though she feared him she remembered his youth, and she said to herself, or sometimes to the nurse, “Somewhere in that sad and ugly man there is the beautiful boy I love. Somehow I must help him find that beautiful boy and bring him out again.”

  But neither the nurse nor the queen could think how such a thing could possibly happen.

  Until the queen discovered that she was going to have a baby. Of course, she thought. With a new baby he will remember his family and remember to love us.

  So she told him. And he railed at her about how stupid she was to bring another child to see their humiliation, a royal family with enemy troops perched on the border, with no real power in the world.

  And then he took her roughly by the arm into the court, where the lords and ladies were gathered, and there he told them that his wife was going to have a baby to mock him, for she still had the power of a woman, even if he didn’t have the power of a man. She cried out that it wasn’t true. He hit her, and she fell to the ground.

  And the problem was solved, for she lost the baby before it was born and lay on her bed for days, delirious and fevered and at the point of death. No one knew that King Edward hated himself for what he had done, that he tore at his face and his hair at the thought that the queen might die because of his fury. They only saw that he was drunk all through the queen’s illness, and that he never came to her bedside.

  While the queen was delirious, she dreamed many times and many things. But one dream that kept coming back to her was of a wolf following her in the forest, and she ran and ran until she fell, but just as the wolf was about to eat her, a huge brown bear came and killed the wolf and flung him away, and then picked her up gently and laid her down at her father’s door, carefully arranging her dress and putting leaves under her head as a pillow.

  When she finally woke up, though, she only remembered that there was no magic bear that would come out of the forest to save her. Magic was for the common people—brews to cure gout and plague and to make a lady love you, spells said in the night to keep dark things from the door. Foolishness, the queen told herself. For she had an education, and knew better. There is nothing to keep the dark things from the door, there is no cure for gout and plague, and there is no brew that will make your husband love you. She told this to herself and despaired.

  King Edward soon forgot his grief at the thought his wife might die. As soon as she was up and about he was as surly as ever, and he didn’t stop drinking, either, even when the reason for it was gone. He just remembered that he had hurt her badly and he felt guilty, and so whenever he saw her he felt bad, and because he felt bad he treated her badly, as if it were her fault.

  Things were about as bad as they could get. There were rebellions here and there all over the kingdom, and rebels were being beheaded every week. Some soldiers had even mutinied and got away over the border with the people they were supposed to stop. And so one morning King Edward was in the foulest, blackest mood he had ever been in.

  The queen walked into the dining room for breakfast looking as beautiful as ever, for grief had only deepened her beauty, and made you want to cry for the pain of her exquisite face and for the suffering in her proud, straight bearing. King Edward saw that pain and suffering but even more he saw that beauty, and for a moment he remembered the girl who had grown up without a care or a sorrow or an evil thought. And he knew that he had caused every bit of the pain she bore.

  So he began to find fault with her, and before he knew it he was ordering her into the kitchen to cook.

sp; “I can’t,” she said.

  “If a servant can, you can,” he snarled in reply.

  She began to cry. “I’ve never cooked. I’ve never started a fire. I’m a queen.”

  “You’re not a queen,” the king said savagely, hating himself as he said it. “You’re not a queen and I’m not a king, because we’re a bunch of powerless lackeys taking orders from those scum across the border! Well, if I’ve got to live like a servant in my own palace, so have you!”

  And so he took her roughly into the kitchen and ordered her to come back in with a breakfast she had cooked herself.

  The queen was shattered, but not so shattered that she could forget her pride. She spoke to the cooks cowering in the corner. “You heard the king. I must cook him breakfast with my own hands. But I don’t know how. You must tell me what to do.”

  So they told her, and she tried her best to do what they said, but her untrained hands made a botch of everything. She burned herself at the fire and scalded herself with the porridge. She put too much salt on the bacon and there were shells left in the eggs. She also burned the muffins. And then she carried it all in to her husband and he began to eat.

  And of course it was awful.

  And at that moment he realized finally that the queen was a queen and could be nothing else, just as a cook had no hope of being a queen. Just so he looked at himself and realized that he could never be anything but a king. The queen, however, was a good queen—while he was a terrible king. He would always be a king but he would never be good at it. And as he chewed up the eggshells he reached the lowest despair.

  Another man, hating himself as King Edward did, might have taken his own life. But that was not King Edward’s way. Instead he picked up his rod and began to beat the queen. He struck her again and again, and her back bled, and she fell to the ground, screaming.

  The servants came in and so did the guards, and the servants, seeing the queen treated so, tried to stop the king. But the king ordered the guards to kill anyone who tried to interfere. Even so, the chief steward, a cook, and the butler were dead before the others stopped trying.

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