The courtiers and servants did their best to conceal the truth, but that was a losing battle. The final straw, so to speak, was when their beautiful young queen managed to elude her Ladies in Waiting and greet the South Islands Confederation ambassador while wearing only a skirt made of broom straw and a gardenia pot for a hat. After that incident there was little point in denying the obvious: Mei Janda II, newly crowned Queen of Lucosa, was barking mad.
The Chief Assistant, a youngish man who was the second son of an earl, conferred with the Head of the Privy Council, an oldish man who held the rank of duke, as they walked through the palace gardens.
“Lovely roses,” said the Chief Assistant, by way of conversation.
“I hate roses,” said the Head of the Privy Council in the same spirit. “Pity about Her Majesty, though. Do you think the nuns knew?”
Mei Janda had spent the last five years in a convent according to the wishes of Their Late Majesties. The Privy Council had ruled in her name until her eighteenth birthday, whereupon the coronation had taken place. All had gone as planned. Except for the “barking mad” part.
“The Sisters of Inevitable Sin? Almost certainly, though I’m not sure I blame them for keeping it quiet. Still, if it wasn’t for that business with His Excellency the Ambassador . . . well, water under the bridge.”
“Usually the royal family is better about hiding such things,” the Head of the Privy Council said.
The Chief Assistant nodded. “Quite so. Have you ever considered that when a Royal goes lunatic, it’s usually a sort of, well, specific madness? For instance, do you know why the former king and queen put their daughter in a convent at age thirteen?”
The Head of the Privy Council scowled. “It was said that they wanted her to be raised away from palace intrigue.”
“Rubbish. The real reason was because the princess asked what those two dogs in the courtyard were doing, and her parents became hysterical; she was packed off to the convent that very night. Or consider her great-grandfather, Omor III. He believed that the stones of the palace were eavesdropping on him. Some lathwork and plaster, a few well-placed tapestries, and he was perfectly fine. Ruled well for over fifty years. Yet the fog around Queen Mei’s brain doesn’t seem to obey any strictures whatsoever.”
“Have you consulted the Royal Magician?”
The Chief Assistant made a rude gesture. “That charlatan? I asked him what we should do about the queen’s illness. You know what the old fool said? He said that there was nothing wrong with her! I’m afraid he’s gone senile.”
“Quite,” said the Head of the Privy Council.
His terseness could perhaps be explained by the sudden presence of the Queen, who chose that moment to come skipping through the gardens with a garland of wilted morning glories around her head. She was stark naked otherwise. Being experienced courtiers, the two men just bowed and pretended not to notice.
“Good morning, Your Majesty,” they said practically in unison.
“How do you like my dress, ducks?”
“Quite becoming, Majesty,” said the Chief Assistant. Which was true enough. Unlike many in her bloodline, Queen Mei’s heredity agreed with her. Except, again, for the “barking mad” part.
“You think so? Then I shall wear it at my wedding,” she said.
The Chief Assistant exchanged glances with the Head of the Privy Council. “Wedding, your Majesty?” again, nearly in unison. Still, being individuals of a sort, they never quite managed a true unity of speech, but that didn’t seem to matter.
“You didn’t know? We sent out the invitations ages ago. Of course you two are invited, never doubt it!”
“Thank you, Majesty,” said the Head of the Privy Council, on his own this time. “Might one inquire when the joyous event is to occur?”
“A week next. On Whitsunday.”
“We shall clear our schedules, of course,” said the Chief Assistant. “As the messenger containing the details has apparently gone astray, might one also inquire who is to be the lucky groom?”
The queen frowned then. “That’s the only strange thing about it,” she said. “I don’t know who he is. Isn’t that odd? Still, he is coming and there is much to do. My bouquet, for a start. I need more flowers!” The queen began plucking stems at random from both sides of the path, ignoring both thorns and briars even while her hands began to bleed.
The two men withdrew to a discreet distance.
“She’s coherent enough,” the Head of the Privy Council said, “considering that she’s speaking pure nonsense.”
“She thinks she’s getting married,” said the Chief Assistant thoughtfully. “This might be the solution to our dilemma.”
“The management of the kingdom is in good hands as it is. Yet we have a Queen now. At some point she’s going to be making decisions and asking people to do impossible things that will, nevertheless, be treason to disobey.”
“That’s only sense,” said the Head of the Privy Council.
“Further, the Council cannot take that authority away from the Crown, even if she is barking mad. That would be treason as well.”
“I never suggested such a thing!” the Head of the Privy Council said. Granted, he had thought about it, but he had never suggested it.
“So you see our dilemma?”
“Of course I do!” said the Head of the Privy Council. “What I don’t see is how the Queen’s delusions of a wedding have anything to do with solving it.”
“Simple, Your Grace: We have a real wedding.”
The older man blinked. “We what?”
“Think about it. Her Majesty is currently the only living member of the royal family. For the stability of the kingdom, she simply must produce an heir.”
“Well, yes. Preferably several,” the Head of the Privy Council conceded. “In due course.”
“We don’t have that luxury. Word of Her Majesty’s condition will soon spread. What sort of suitors will she attract then?”
“The same sort as before,” the older man said dryly. “Penniless second and third sons, greedy princes, ambitious monarchs intent on absorbing our ancient kingdom into their own territories. We’ll be lucky to end up as a sixteenth sinister on someone else’s coat of arms.” He stopped because the Chief Assistant was nodding vigorously.
“Precisely so,” the younger man said. “In her present condition, the Queen is incapable of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Unless we look at this situation as more than simply a problem—it is also an opportunity. I’m almost certain that Her Majesty sent no invitations. So we send our own. Have the Privy Council draw up a list of eligible men of good character, and these and only these will be in the palace on Whitsunday. As they will be the only men permitted to be present, the Queen is sure to pick one of them.”
“In her current state, she’s just as likely to marry the Archbishop’s podium,” the Head of the Privy Council said.
The Chief Assistant dismissed that. “Even the Queen, sane or otherwise, cannot overrule the church on a point of theology, and the marriage between a human woman and a lectern is currently not sanctified. I admit my plan has no guarantees, Your Grace, and certainly will not solve all our problems. If this works, however, it will ensure that at least one person on the throne is sane, plus create the reasonable chance of an heir. That would be a vast improvement, no?”
“Yes,” the Head of the Privy Council said. “Very well. I shall present your plan to the Council.”
His Grace quickly did so, and as the Council had no ideas of their own, they agreed. Nor was it a great surprise that all the eligible bachelors in the Privy Council put their own names on the guest list, as well as that of the Chief Assistant. After that, likely candidates were more sparse, but the Privy Council did manage to put together a respectable list, to the number of two hundred and three men of reasonable standing and at least passable character, most of whom, like the Queen herself, awaited the coming Whitsunday with great anticipation.
• • • •
“Tell me again why this gown won’t do?” The Queen was admiring herself in the full-length mirror in her chambers. The Royal Magician sat patiently on a stool in the corner. He neither ogled nor pointedly didn’t ogle, even though the Queen was still stark naked.
“Because it’s not a gown, Majesty. It’s your own bare flesh.”
“Well,” she said, “I admit it is a bit form-fitting.”
“Being your own skin, that stands to reason.”
The Queen sighed. “I’m not so good with reason these days, Magician. I mean, everything makes perfect sense when I do it, but later I begin to wonder. For instance, I knew this gown was just too comfortable. Even the prettiest, best-fitting dress pinches somewhere. Still, the Head of the Privy Council and the Chief Assistant both liked it.”
“I’d question their eyesight otherwise,” the Magician said. “They are both good men at heart, Majesty. Even if they don’t listen very well. So. Why don’t you wear the white gown with the yellow brocade? It belonged to your mother. It might need to be taken in a bit for you, but I think it would look splendid.”
The Queen frowned but held up the dress in question so that she could examine it against her skin using the mirror. “It’s very nice,” she said finally. “Not quite so well-fitted as the one I’m wearing, but I do like the colors. Do you really think I should wear this or just have the one I’m wearing now dyed to match?”
“Definitely your mother’s dress,” he said. “You have many seamstresses, but the best dyers are in Aljin, and that’s more than a week’s travel. You’d never get the dress back in time.”
“I suppose,” said Queen Mei. “I’m fortunate to have your counsel, Magician. You’re so wise. Is that because you’re . . . archetypecast?”
“Archetypical, Majesty,” the Magician corrected politely. “And yes, I think so.”
“What does that mean, anyway?”
“It means that I have a role to play. We all do. It just so happens that mine is to at least appear to be wise and to do my best to make sure things turn out as they’re supposed to.”
“Who decides how things are ‘supposed to turn out’?”
“No one. Or perhaps everyone.”
She sighed. “I don’t understand, but I guess that’s because I’m barking mad.”
The old man’s smile was not unkind. “Actually, no, Your Majesty. No one really understands this, and I do not exclude myself. I merely realize that some things are not to be understood—they are to be acknowledged. Just as we sometimes recognize the roles we play even as we play them.”
The Queen looked pleased. “That means I must have a role, too! Do you know what it is?”
“For a start, to get married on Whitsunday.”
The Queen looked less pleased. “That does sound like fun, but it doesn’t really seem very important.”
The Magician smiled again. “Majesty, in this instance it is the most important role of all. The future of our country depends on it.”
“Very well. Did you attend to the invitations?”
“Yes, I did send out the invitation, Majesty.”
“Invitation? You meant invitations, didn’t you? As in ‘more than one’? I mean, I know I’m barking mad and all, but shouldn’t there have been more?”
“I sent the one that mattered. Trust me, Majesty—There will be plenty of guests.”
“Well, if you’re sure.” She pulled the dress aside to gaze at her own reflection again wistfully. “Pity about the dyers, though.”
• • • •
The Traveler, a handsome, roguish fellow, entered Lucosa the day before Whitsunday. Perhaps it was merely a coincidence that both the Head of the Privy Council and the Chief Assistant happened to be visiting their respective tailors for fittings on that same day. Perhaps there are no coincidences. Whatever conclusion one draws, the fact remains that they were present, with their haughty attendants, and the Traveler cheerfully greeted them there.
“Good day to you, gentlemen,” he said.
“I am a Duke,” corrected the Head of the Privy Council.
“And I am a knight, the son of an earl,” said the Chief Assistant. Their attendants, as was proper, did not speak, but to a man they fixed the Traveler with Looks of Disapproval.
“Well, then it was clearly wrong of me to refer to either of you as a gentleman, and I apologize,” the Traveler said. “Rather, then, Your Grace and Good Sir Knight.”
“That’s better,” said the Chief Assistant as he eyed the youth with some distaste. The Traveler’s face and clothes were dirty, his dark hair unkempt, and his brown traveling cloak tattered and worn. “What business do you have with us, fellow?”
“I merely wished to ask what time the Queen’s wedding was to take place tomorrow, as you two fine personages seemed the sort who might know. The invitation was a bit vague.”
“Wedding?” The Chief Assistant frowned.
“Invitation?” The Head of the Privy Council frowned even more.
“Frankly,” said the Traveler, “I’m as surprised as you are. I have not been in Lucosa, so far as I can recall, since the year of my birth. I have no friends or family here that I know of, and yet,” he said, fumbling inside a pouch in his belt. “Ah, here it is.”
The youth held up the paper so that both could see. “It says only the date, which is tomorrow. Not even the name of the groom. I do not know why I should have been invited but saw no reason to forego the experience. I’ve never been to a Royal Wedding before.”
The two men just studied the document in silence for a few moments.
“That’s not like ours,” the Head of the Privy Council said finally.
“No. This one actually has the Queen’s seal,” the Chief Assistant replied. “Pray, young man,” he asked. “How did you come by this?”
“Odd about that—a red hawk dropped it on me. In broad daylight. At first I thought the wretched bird had dropped something more odious, but that did not turn out to be the case.”
“I don’t like where this is going,” muttered the Head of the Privy Council.
“You said you had no family here?” asked the Chief Assistant.
“Well, not that I know of, you understand,” the Traveler said. “I don’t remember much before my time on the road.”
“Uncertain origins,” said the Head of the Privy Council, nodding, though he was talking to the Chief Assistant, and his tone was pure “I told you so.”
“I suppose you’ve traveled far and wide, seen all sorts of things?” the Chief Assistant asked the younger man.
The Traveler’s face lit up like a beacon. “Oh, yes. From the South Islands to the frozen north, the burning west, and the sultry east. I have met such people, tasted such food, seen such wonders, experienced such marvels . . . Even if your esteemed selves were content to listen, we’d miss the wedding entirely merely recounting half of it.”
“And now you’re here, by Royal Invitation, a penniless, homeless nobody,” said the Chief Assistant.
“I’d be insulted,” the Traveler said, “if not every word you had just muttered been the absolute truth. As I said, it puzzled me as well.”
“Oh, I’m not puzzled,” the Chief Assistant said. “Clearly there is a Destiny upon you. Wouldn’t you agree?” He turned to the Head of the Privy Council for confirmation.
“Extensive travels? Obscure origins? Animal messengers? Do you even need to ask?” confirmed the older man.
The Traveler frowned. “What sort of Destiny?”
“Something involving the Queen, I fancy,” said the Chief Assistant. “But don’t let that concern you just now. You are here by Royal Invitation, but the wedding is not until tomorrow. As faithful servants of the Queen, we certainly cannot let you sleep on the streets.”
“Well, I was really considering a lovely game park I saw on the way in . . .”
“I won’t hear of it.” The Chief Assistant signaled two of his burlier attendants. “Please escort this man to the palace. He is our guest.”
“Too kind,” said the Traveler.
Before they led the young man away, the burliest of the burly two leaned close to the Chief Attendant and whispered a question. “Dungeon?”
The Chief Assistant and the Head of the Privy Council watched the young man being led away.
“That was bloody close,” said the Head of the Privy Council.
“Agreed. It’s all well and good for penurious young men of destiny to win the hand of a beautiful young queen in a fairy-tale,” the Chief Assistant said. “But how in good conscious could we let our kingdom simply be a reward for the position of the stars at this stranger’s birth? I mean, really. For all we know he’s the long-lost heir of some ancient enemy, or an ogre or worse in disguise. I like our plan better.”
“That goes without argument,” said the Head of the Privy Council. “I do love your new tunic, by the way. Quite fetching.”
• • • •
The Traveler walked into the cell calmly enough. It wasn’t that he didn’t recognize a dungeon when he saw one. It was more that, first of all, he judged his chances against his escort if he chose to resist and didn’t like what his eyes and common sense told him. Second, while it was true that the Traveler had seen a dungeon, he had never been in one. It was his nature to experience everything he could, and especially the new and different. He had sought both out for as long as he could remember. He did not understand why and never had, but the inclination bordered on irresistible, and now it led him to walk through the cell door and experience the clang of an unbreakable door shutting behind him.
He looked around his new quarters with the same eye for detail and curiosity that he approached everything. While he had little experience of dungeons, he rather got the impression that this was one of the nicer ones. The straw on the cold stone floor was at least relatively clean, if old, and smelled a bit musty but no worse than that. The Traveler judged that this particular dungeon didn’t get a great deal of use, which he thought spoke well of the Queen and her kingdom.
The Traveler spent a relatively comfortable night on the straw in his cell. Truth to tell, he’d had worse nights’ sleep under the open sky. In the morning, a surly guard brought him a passable breakfast of cold pease porridge and water.
The Traveler had no idea why the two noblemen he had met felt the need to confine him. He hoped they would at least inform him of this in due course. Something else to understand and experience, even if such experience turned out to be his last.
“One would almost judge this a friendly, welcoming sort of place,” he said. “Except for the bars on the door of my accommodations.”
“Ah, there you are. I thought I might find you here,” said a high, piping voice with no obvious body attached to it.
The Traveler looked about. “Who said that?”
“I did. Down here, young man.”
The Traveler looked down into the beady black eyes of a stout, brown, frost-whiskered rat. It stood on its hind paws by a break in the stone, which it had apparently used to gain entrance.
“Well, then, it would hardly be a respectable dungeon at all without at least one rat,” the Traveler said, “but I wouldn’t expect that rat to talk. Strange, because I hardly think I’ve been confined here long enough to go mad with despair and loneliness. Such things, I thought, took time.”
“You’re not mad,” the rat said patiently. “The Queen might be, but you’re certainly not. I’m here to help you.”
“I’ve heard rumors of such things,” the Traveler admitted. “Ferocious tasks and animal helpers. Are you saying I’m a Prince in disguise?”
The rat sighed. “No, Traveler. You are no prince, nor am I a rat. I’m the Court Magician. I’ve merely taken this form so that we can have a little chat. I trust you received your invitation?”
“Unless I miss my guess, you know I did. Weren’t you the hawk, too?”
The rat grinned, showing sharp, chisel-like teeth. “Clever, but I would expect no less. Yes, Traveler, I was the hawk as well. I brought you here . . .” At that the rat paused and looked around the cell. “Well, not here. That was the Chief Assistant and the Head of the Privy Council. Don’t think too harshly of them, by the way. They mean well. Mostly. Though I suppose the chance of becoming king has skewed their judgment just a tad.”
“Am I supposed to understand what you’re talking about? If so, I may need to ponder a while. At the moment it makes no sense.”
“Right again,” the rat said cheerfully. “Forgive me for rambling about matters that do not yet concern you. Your current task is to get out of the dungeon so you won’t be late for the wedding.”
“But why? Am I to marry the Queen?”
“I didn’t say that either. I said you need to get out of here and make it to the wedding. I can’t tell you why because then you’d say that I’m mad, and there wouldn’t be any recourse to reason that would convince you otherwise. Frankly, Traveler, we just don’t have that kind of time. Say rather that you really don’t want to miss a Royal Wedding, do you?”
“No,” said the Traveler. “I don’t. And I really don’t understand that part either.”
“Would it help if I told you that after you attend the wedding, you will understand why you were supposed to be there?”
“Maybe,” the Traveler said. “I really would like to. Understanding things makes me happy. Learning makes me happy. Seeing things I have never seen before makes me happy.”
“Come to the wedding,” the rat said, “and I guarantee that you’ll hardly be able to contain your joy.”
“Fine to say, but how? The door is locked.”
“Have you tried it?”
The Traveler’s eyes grew wide for a moment in open astonishment. He took two long steps and put his hand on the door.
“There is still much to learn,” the Traveler said as the massive door swung open.
“If you’re indeed fortunate, that fact will never change,” the rat said. “The ballroom is two flights up. You still have your invitation, don’t you?”
“Show it to the guards at the door and go on in. I will meet you there.”
• • • •
The Queen wore her mother’s wedding dress into the grand ballroom. She had to admit that the Magician had been right; the looks of envy from the women and admiration from the men told her that much even if her reason wasn’t available to do the same. A long green swath of carpeting marked the central aisle leading to the makeshift dais where two thrones sat.
One for my husband, I suppose. I hope he isn’t late.
The Queen moved in stately procession down the aisle, her two Ladies in Waiting keeping sharp eyes on the train of her gown so that it didn’t snag. It was hard for the Queen to remain so solemn, when what she really wanted to do was to stick out her tongue at the Duchess of Corns, or moon the Archbishop now standing in the center of the dais beside the thrones, his book ready. Yet something told her that this would be wrong, and nothing had ever told her that before. At least, not so that she could remember. Today was different. She tried to think about that for a moment, but her thoughts, as they always did, swam away from her like little frightened fish. Sometimes she believed she could almost see them darting away.
I’m meeting my intended today. Maybe that’s why. So where is he?
The Queen ascended the dais, nodded to the Archbishop with perfect decorum and turned around to face her guests. The Magician had been right about that, too. There were a goodly number; in fact, the ballroom was nigh to bursting. That was nice. Yet none of it would make sense even to a barking mad queen, unless . . .
“Ah. There you are. But why are there three of you? I don’t think the Archbishop will allow that.”
The three dark-haired, handsome young men in threadbare clothes had just entered through the main doors, looked about themselves with awe and curiosity, and were, apparently, very slow to recognize that the Queen was speaking to them. At this point, the Duchess of Corn and all the rest of the duchesses—and not a few of the Earls present—screamed.
“Where?” asked the rat who had just scampered up to sit beside the leftmost empty throne. “Oh, me. Right.” In a blink the rat was gone, and the Court Magician stood in its place. “Sorry I’m late, Majesty. Had a run in with the Royal Moggie. Had to singe his whiskers a bit.”
“Why are there three grooms?” Queen Mei asked.
By this time the Chief Assistant and the Head of the Privy Council had pushed forward. “Really, Your Majesty, we must insist—”
“Silence, the both of you,” the Queen said. “Honestly, ducks, you’ll get your turn. Right now I’m talking to my Magician.” She turned back to the Royal Magician. “Why?” she asked again.
“I’m afraid it’s a test, your Majesty.”
“Isn’t that a little presumptuous of you? I mean, I’m barking mad and all, but I am the Queen.”
“Precisely, Majesty. Yet once this thing was begun, certain rules began to apply, which neither you nor I can gainsay. While the Traveler has had some minor travails, the fact is that, right now, this isn’t about him. As I said before: You are the one who matters here. So this test has to be for you.”
“Oh,” the Queen said, “well, that’s all right, then. What sort of test?”
“You must recognize your intended.”
“Or you will be separated from him forever. As this would be quite disastrous, please choose well.”
“Are you barking mad, too?” the Chief Assistant blurted at the Magician. “The Queen is in no condition—”
“The Queen,” said the Queen, “will decide for herself what she may or may not do, and what her condition allows.”
“Of course, Majesty,” said the Head of the Privy Council. “Yet even the Queen, if she is wise, will listen to the advice of those who best understand the situation.”
The Queen glanced at the Magician, who merely shrugged. “True, so far as it goes, Majesty,” he said.
The Queen turned back to the Chief Assistant and the Head of the Privy Council. “Well then, Gentlemen, which of the pair of you understands this situation better than I do, barking mad though I am?”
The Head of the Privy Council just scowled. The Chief Assistant opened his mouth as if to speak, then apparently thought better of it, since he slowly closed it again. The Queen nodded.
“That’s what I thought.” She turned again to the three identical Travelers, who all this time watched everything unfolding before them with eagerness if not, the Queen judged, full comprehension.
“I’m having a remarkable run of coherent thought at the moment,” she said. “And I think you three gentlemen have something to do with that. Yet I wonder why that is.”
It wasn’t exactly a question, but the three Travelers didn’t show any sign of having an answer. If anything, they seemed more and more confused as each noted the presence of the other two as if he had never seen them before.
“Strange,” they said, almost in unison.
“Don’t start that,” the Queen said firmly. “I’m not sure how long this coherence will last.” She turned to the Magician. “I must choose? As they are?”
“You may ask one question of each,” the Magician said, “if that helps any.”
“Your Majesty,” began the Head of the Privy Council, “Surely you can’t—”
“I’m barking mad, Your Grace,” the Queen said. “Not simple. Now, I did ask you to be quiet. I really must insist.”
The Head of the Privy Council fell silent and the Queen stepped down from the dais and approached the three young men as her two Ladies in Waiting followed behind. She turned to the first young man. “Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m the Traveler,” said the first. “Such wonders I have seen, such wonders still to be seen! Too much for a lifetime, but I must try in the short time I have.”
“Sounds marvelous,” the Queen said, then she turned to the second young man. “Who are you, then?”
“I am the Traveler,” he said. “I don’t know who these upstarts are, but I am the one, the true Traveler. Everything that false face just said applies to me.”
“If you say so,” the Queen said and turned to the third. “Young man, who are you?”
The third Traveler met the Queen’s gaze squarely. “I don’t know.”
The Queen frowned. “Oh?”
“I thought I did,” the young man said. “I was the Traveler. Then I stepped into this room and beheld Your Majesty for the first time. At least, I think it is the first time. I cannot remember another, and yet I do not think I can go back to being a simple Traveler again. I think that time has passed.”
“I’ve missed you,” said the Queen. “Welcome home.”
She embraced the third young man before the assembled guests and kissed him on the lips. In another instant he was gone, along with the other two false images. Vanished, as if they had never been. Alone now except for her two attendants, the Queen glided regally back to the dais and took her place in front of the throne. For a moment or two she simply stood there, a deep frown creasing her brow. Just as the guests began to get restless, the Queen spoke.
“Friends and Honored Guests, I know you came today prepared to witness a wedding. I’m afraid I must disappoint you in this. We will be having a celebration as planned, but no wedding . . . at least, not today. The feast, however, will commence shortly and of course you are all invited, so please make your way to the banquet hall now. It seems I will be in need of partners for the dance, so perhaps this will be our chance to get to know one another better.”
The guests were, for the most part, pleased with Her Majesty’s speech, even if they didn’t have the slightest idea of what had just occurred. They began to file out of the ballroom on their way to the banquet. The Chief Assistant and the Head of the Privy Council, however, were not content to be confused. The Head of the Privy Council was still under a stricture of silence, so the Chief Assistant was the one who asked.
“Majesty, what just happened here?”
“You already knew that my reason had left me. Today it came back.”
“I’m sure Your Majesty remembers the details well enough now,” said the Royal Magician. “But to save your strength for the dancing tonight, perhaps I should explain?” The Queen nodded assent and the Royal Magician continued. “Five years ago, Her Majesty was given into the safekeeping of the Sisters of Inevitable Sin.”
“Everyone knows that,” said the Chief Assistant.
“What everyone doesn’t know is that the Queen was stuck in a twilight existence there, neither free to leave nor in training as one dedicated to the Order. She was learning nothing that would be of any use to her as the Queen she was destined to be. I separated her from her reason,” the Royal Magician said, then went on when he saw the horrified looks on the two men, “at her own request. I gave her reason a separate existence and sent it out into the world with a magical directive of curiosity, so that it would do and experience all the things that she could not.”
“Leaving her Majesty barking mad!” said the Chief Assistant.
“Sir,” said Queen Mei, “it’s not as if I actually needed my reason before now. It wasn’t doing me much good in the convent.”
The Magician smiled. “Just so. When the time came, her reason was invited to return, bringing everything it had learned with it. Their meeting was expressed as a wedding simply because, well, I had to put the matter in terms consistent with Her Majesty’s then-current level of comprehension. That was the tricky bit—she still had to be able to recognize and acknowledge that part of herself when it returned, else they could never be whole again. It was a risk, but fortunately Her Majesty acquitted herself wisely.”
“Well, of course we were not questioning . . .” began the Chief Assistant as the Head of the Privy Council vigorously nodded agreement, but the Queen cut them both off flat with a wave of her small hand.
“We understand that you had the good of the kingdom at heart,” the Queen said, “even if neither of you would have minded being king. To make up for your disappointment, Your Grace shall have the first dance tonight. After that, Sir Chief Assistant. We believe that is the correct order of precedence.”
“Too kind, Majesty,” said the Chief Assistant, already planning his charm and small talk.
“Afterwards, you can keep each other company in the dungeon.” She smiled then at the look of horror on each man’s face. “Oh, calm yourselves, Sirs. Your confinement will not last through tomorrow morning. After a hearty breakfast of water and pease porridge, you will both be expected to return to your duties. We would merely suggest that you remember this coming night,” she said. “If either of you is ever tempted to insult Our reason again.”
There was a healthy mixture of both relief and fear in the two men’s eyes as they gratefully withdrew with the other guests. The Queen sent her two attendants ahead to prepare a more appropriate gown for the dance. When they were quite alone, the Magician turned to her again.
“Gratitude is sometimes best with a leaven of fear. That was well done, Majesty,” he said.
“Was it? I had hoped so, but wasn’t entirely sure. Perhaps reason and I can reach accommodation, then. Yet I must say . . . it feels very strange to be sane.”
“Majesty,” the old man said, bowing. He then nodded at the retreating men. “To give them their due, neither would have made a bad king,” he said.
“I’m not sure that either the kingdom or I personally should settle for a consort who is merely ‘not bad,’” the Queen said. She remembered the handsome features and dark eyes of her newly returned reason. She remembered what he remembered, and her face adopted a wistful expression. “Though I’m not certain I’m the best judge of that yet. Perhaps I should make my own better acquaintance before I go wearing this gown again. Or is that barking mad of me?”
The old man smiled, and bowed again to his queen. “Not in the least, Majesty.”
Queen Mei smiled too. “Just checking.”