Once upon a time, there was an evil queen. It was said that she was so beautiful, no mortal could look upon her face without becoming bewitched, and so she hid it with a veil. She ruled her land with an iron fist, but one day a hero and his two friends journeyed to defeat her and take back their country from her tyranny.
This is her story.
One lady of Astree brushes gold dust onto my palms, another dusts it onto my exposed shoulders. A third secures a jewel-encrusted headband — with gold thorns that strangle gold roses — across my brow, securing my veil in place. Today, as my veil is white, my face is obscured with a delicate gold mask, which I wear reluctantly as I hate the weight of it. My shoes are brought and placed upon my feet. A dress is then held in front of me and I am tied in. Five ladies of Astree, the selected few from the noble house who are privileged to serve me, stand back as I look into the polished glass in front of me. The bodice of my dress is cut low with intricate beading, gold leaves and roses array the fabric, and a tangle of gold thorns snake around my waist. It fits me tightly until just past my hips where the beading fades and falls into the frailest white shani fabric — delicately soft, and even though it is whisper thin, light cannot shine through it. Despite the jewels and the gold I’m bathed in, the fabric is the most expensive thing I wear. One of the ladies steps forward and secures my cape by attaching it around my neck; the collar is high and decorated in the same pattern as my bodice. The sleeves of the shani cloak rest over my upper arms only, and the train falls past the end of my dress. Checking my veil is properly secured, I make for the door, which is opened as soon as I approach; Zanzee stands outside.
“Beautiful,” he exclaims in appreciation. I tap one of my sharpened gold nail attachments against my thigh. He knows not to comment on my beauty; he does it to challenge me. I look at his blue and white robes of the Atarix Brotherhood, and I am glad I hide my face because my disgust would be difficult to suppress. I sweep past him down the hall and make my way to the grand central staircase of the palace. My elaborate costume clings to my body and the cape flows behind me in rippling, offensive luxury. Zanzee has always tried to get me to shun our traditional clothing in favour of loose-fitting robes befitting the “Virginal Queen” illusion he tries so desperately to weave. But he cannot control everything, and this happens to be one of my more demure choices.
Ithrael falls into step at my side, and I allow him to be close as I walk down the stairs, my personal bodyguard and the only male allowed in such close proximity to the Queen. To me.
I had arrived back at the palace from the convent aged fourteen, in black, a veil covering my face. They did not know me any more; they did not know what I planned.
I had been sent to the convent aged eight, after the death of my parents and sister. I was told that being in the hand of Daylar, the god of the Daylarian church, would heal my broken soul, but the hands of their god harmed me over and over again.
My face, they said, was a call from Daylar himself — the face of perfection. Daylar had spoken to them. They must teach me to be humble, to be righteous, because my beauty was too great a gift to bear without being tested. I was made to kneel before the statue of Daylar in the freezing months, from sun up to sun down, wearing only a white robe to make penance for my sin of vanity every time I might have caught sight of my own reflection. I was lashed if I behaved in any way like a child instead of a deity, but within days, the wounds healed to nothing, with no visible scars because of my blessed royal blood. I was stripped naked and made to stand before the brothers of the church nightly, as they exalted heaven over my child body, my cursed flawlessness. But they didn’t touch me. They didn’t dare, because I had learned, long before, that I would be wanted against my will. My mother had taught me, before anyone could take advantage of me, how to fight against the men of this world, weak to their urges, and so I always kept my nails long and filed into claws.
Eventually, one of the brothers believed he was entitled to me, and so I showed him what happened when someone touched me without my permission. After I’d nearly killed Brother Tobias, they no longer punished me so much for the beauty I didn’t ask for, but I did not stop hating the priesthood. It was only a few days later that I burnt the abbey to the ground, hoping I would die alongside all the men who had been my jailers, my persecutors. But alas, my will was too strong and I crawled my way out, and watched as the cursed men screamed to their puny god. I hoped he heard, because I was sending him a message. I was coming for him.
With my face covered in smoke and ash, I was found, and I have hidden my face from men since that day. No man shall see what turned men of religion crazed, unless I grant him permission. If they look or touch without my consent, I will kill them, and I know a lot of ways to kill. When I returned to the palace, they instated a member of the Atarix Brotherhood, the highest order of the Daylarian church, as my Royal Aide, as regent: Zanzee.
I turn the corner and enter into the council chamber where the High Sancees are waiting for me; they stand and bow. A mere formality. I am now barely a figurehead to this gods-dammed nation. The Sancees, the government of this limping, suffocating queendom, sit, their eyes following my lithe, perfect body as it lowers into the chair. Every one of these men wants to know what rare beauty lies behind the veil and whether it really is beauty, or whether I hide my face from vanity because I am so disfigured. They need only ask my ladies who cannot look at me for long, whose eyes remain lowered when they serve me. It is my curse.
“My Queen.” The Primlect stands and bows briefly to me, his grey hair tied low and white robe of an official clipped in place with the deep-blue crystal emblem of my queendom. “You called us here today as you wish to make an announcement, is that correct?”
In my own country, inside my own palace, at my own table, I am not allowed to speak first. I incline my head and he sits. I run my talons along the armrests of my chair and speak slowly. “I will not grant the Daylar church any more land. The balance between the Daylar and Neesoh churches is shifting far too much in favour of Daylar, and if we allow that to happen, we risk instability. We do not want an unhappy population.”
The Primlect starts to speak, but I hold up my hand and glare at him hard enough to know he feels it through the veil. “I may have had most of my power taken from me when I was a child, but tonight I become Queen in my own right. But even then, the land that this country is built upon is the Crown’s, and I say how it is to be used. There will be no more churches, no more abbeys. The Daylarian church will just have to make do.” I rise to my feet. “Now, gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me I have a ceremony to attend.”
This small act, this one defiance, is the start of my true reign, for I shall reign and I shall bring damnation to all those who call themselves men of god and prey upon the innocent. I shall burn every single symbol of their house to the ground.
I stand by the balcony doors, the Primlect behind me, his heavy breathing irritating every one of my nerves. I roll back my shoulders and walk forward as the doors are opened before me. The crowd below cheers for their Queen, for me. The joy doesn’t reach me and I can hear, even under the cacophony, the rumble of discontent. I wave, I smile, but I want to run through the palace halls, tear off this ridiculous outfit, put on some normal clothes, and stand before them as their true Queen, the one who doesn’t bow to the tyranny of a religion, who isn’t clinging on to her rule because the High Sancees are taking more and more control of the queendom under the watchful eye of the Daylarian church.
The Primlect begins to speak and it takes all my self-control to refrain from ripping the diamonds from my fingers and ramming them down his throat.
“Today marks the first day of the reign of Queen Amarea Saffiere Condessa, ordained by our church to lead us into a prosperous future.” He signals Zanzee who approaches me, his expression radiating reluctance. It is the church’s own edict that when a monarch is crowned, the people must see the face of their true leader. He did everything he could to try and stop this part of the ceremony, and I didn’t try to stop him. However, it’s one decree I agree with, that the people must know their ruler. Fortunately for them, at this height and distance, they won’t see much and the mask obscures much of my face. Zanzee, however, does not want to look upon my face for his greatest fear is that he will worship me instead of his god. He bows his head and lifts my veil, then backs away. Everyone on the balcony faces forward, too close to risk a glance. I step toward the railing, and against our agreement, I remove my mask and smile down at my people, my beloved people, and wave. Silence. They’ve never seen my face, never seen it’s likeness in a portrait even, and some have probably enjoyed spreading rumours that I’m disfigured. Despite the distance they can tell my face is perfect and somehow, even from up here, it has an effect. Then I hear weeping and exaltation from the crowd and cheers so loud my heart hammers along with them. But as I listen to them, I feel the familiar fear that they do not love me, their Queen — they love the face, and so I replace the mask and pull the veil back down and back away, promising myself I will not let them down. I will be the Queen they need, not the Queen they want to love.
In the throne room I sit, bored and uncomfortable, waiting for Zanzee to finish his pontificating. When he is done, he turns to me, my crown in his hands.
I am to be the first Queen this kingdom has known, and so I ordered that the old crown be melted down and refashioned for me. The church, of course, refused, but they did agree to allow me to use some of my own jewellery to create the crown I desired. I inherited a lot of pieces from my mother, rubies as large as plums, diamonds as clear as mountain water, emeralds as vibrant as the lushest day in spring, and gold, boxes of it. Zanzee turns to me with the crown nestled safely on a blue velvet cushion. It is glorious.
Gold raven feathers trim the bottom of the crown, and on either temple, they cluster together, pointing downward. Two delicate chains loop from the edge of the feathers to the midpoint of the crown. Each link has a tiny rose thorn. In the middle of the base of the crown is a small loop of gold detail and a single teardrop-shaped diamond hangs from it. The main body of the crown is built up of gold roses, rose leaves, rose thorns, raven feathers, and small, blood red rubies. In the centre of the crown, nestled amidst the tangle of nature, sits the largest diamond ever seen — the Siren, one of the crown jewels that had been placed alone in a glass case, never used. Well it’s being used now, in my crown.
Despite the best efforts of the jewellers who crafted this masterpiece, it sits heavy upon my head, but I don’t mind. The weight reminds me of what I bear, of who I am. The first Queen of Maldessa.
I hold my head high as the room bows to me, their Queen, and watch as Zanzee takes a beat longer than everyone else to submit. Finally, I can begin my reign.
The banquet is large, the small ballroom filled with tables of dignitaries from across our land and some from across the seas. The food is rich and plentiful, the alcohol even more so. The Primlect sits to my left, Zanzee on my right, and the higher station and Ithrael stand behind me. The Primlect leans toward me and mutters in that loathsome way of this, “It has been decreed that the Calmaya people shall not be granted refuge in our land, it doesn’t make sense to bring their plight to our shores. We do not want to welcome the wrath of the Hyrathean nation; we will protect our people first and foremost.” I turn to him slowly.
“And when, pray, was this decided?”
“While you were preparing for the ceremony, your majesty.”
“I see.” I spear a piece of meat with my finger, lift my veil, and chew the roasted boar carefully. “I also see that you invited the Hyratheans here tonight, despite that decision being a politically dangerous one.”
“We felt it best, for the sake of peace.”
“And for access to their indispensable luxury goods trade?” The Primlect wisely stays silent, knowing that the Hyratheans have no trade; they merely sell on what they plunder. Zanzee, however, has never been one to observe such prudence.
“And the prince is here and has requested the first dance.”
“Has he now?” I say, not in the least bit surprised. I feel Ithrael stiffen behind me; he doesn’t like the methods I’ve had to use for manipulation in the past, and he can sense what I’m intending, but I’ll use whatever weapons I have to make change in this land.
When the meal is finished, we move to the large ballroom. The ostentatious crystal chandeliers give the room a soft glow and make the light refract off the thousands of opulent pieces that adorn women’s necks so that the room sparkles. Everyone stops what they’re doing when I enter. I make my way to my throne, nodding and smiling at the greetings. My crown no longer sits on my head; it will now only be used ceremoniously.
A man is escorted to me by one of the guards. He’s handsome, strong, and barbaric looking, which means at least I’ll have some fun as well.
“My lord.” I incline my head.
“Your majesty.” He gives me the bow of a soldier.
He leads me to the dance floor and we take our places in the centre of the dignitaries.
“You look exquisite tonight, your majesty,” he says as he places his hand lower than is necessary for the dance we’re engaged in.
“Why thank you, my lord, how kind of you to say.”
“I was considering leaving tomorrow but now I think I might stay a while.” I brush my body against his as though by accident but enticing him all the same.
“You are quite the flatterer.”
“And you are quite the beauty, I hear. But I’ve wondered, how are we to know if that’s the case if we are to never see your face?”
“Some may, with my permission, but I cannot risk it if anyone else is around,” I say innocently. He pulls me against him, and I can feel his thrill at the prospect of getting me alone. “And how goes your war, my lord?”
His expression darkens. “It goes well.”
“Ah, good, I’m so glad to hear it. Wars can really be such a drain on your treasury.” His expression darkens further. Yes, I may be a Queen with no real power, but I read the reports. They are haemorrhaging money. I pull him closer. “You know, I don’t like war.” His expression changes instantly, enjoying the press of my hips against him.
“Not many do.”
“All those people killed or hurt, it makes me so sad.” I lean toward his ear. “My lord, I would hate for you to come to harm.” He has expertly led us toward an alcove as we dance, away from too many prying eyes. I run my hand up the back of his neck and let my breath brush his ear ever so slightly, sending a shiver through him. “End this war, make peace. I can’t bear the thought of…” I let my voice catch, and I pull away. His breath is ragged and his reaction is evident. Men are hopelessly weak. The music has stopped and I’m blessedly free. I hate this kind of politics, although unfortunately, it seems to be the only way I ever make any impact.