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Fiction

The Cheesemaker and the Undying King

Tana was in a humid cave checking the rind on a round of Tomme when the messenger arrived to tell her that the war was lost and her wife was to be hanged. She took her time rewrapping the cheese before she responded. Still too soft. Another week, she estimated. The rind was a beautiful blue-black shade that would catch a maid’s eye in the market. Ruining a fine wheel wouldn’t save Renae. And she knew what the boy was going to say as soon as she heard his nervous footsteps. She’d known a month ago, when Renae strapped her sword to her side and pinned the emblem of their dead queen to her chest and rode off into the night to lead her troops on a last, brutal march over the mountains to try and stop the army that had swept across half the world.

“When?” She moved to the next rack. This one held cloth bags of afuega’l pitu. She preferred the shape of the bags, though most of her competitors aged theirs in round molds. She’d added paprika to this batch and set it to age the morning after Renae left. Usually she let it go until the salt crystals crunched in her teeth, but she took these off now while they would still be as sweet as the fresh milk.

The boy swallowed. “Tomorrow in the evening. His Majesty, in his generosity, will allow you to see her.”

Tana bit back a number of now-treasonous words and bent over the rack so that he could not see her face. He was just a boy, she told herself. It had been his father’s choice to pledge the family to the Veiled King, not his. And that was barely a choice at all. The war was lost as soon as the King’s armies began marching across the western pass as implacable as a thunderstorm. Nation after nation had fallen to him. He left drought and plague in his wake, the whispers said. He wrecked the land and needed more, more, more. He would not stop until all the world was his.

“Missus Geruin,” the boy said. “I’m very sorry.”

She remembered Renae teaching him and his tall sister to fight with a wooden sword. Juin and Fanchon, those were their names, the children of the village farrier who had started shoeing the King’s horses as soon as his army rode into the square. Only two of the crowd of children who had swarmed Renae in the square every afternoon, begging for lessons from the Queen’s newly-retired swordmistress.

The cheese bag squelched in her fist.

“Get out,” she said, and she waited until he did to fall forward and cry.

• • • •

The Veiled King’s men escorted her to the capital as if she didn’t know the way. Neither of them spoke for the whole half-day ride. Only when they dismounted at the palace gates did Tana realize it was because they had no tongues.

Renae was shackled in the furthest cell on the lowest level of the prison beneath the public wing of the palace, so deep that cold condensation ran down the walls. In Queen Ismay’s day, this level had been empty. Tana had used it once to age an ewe’s milk kashkaval for the fifteenth year of Ismay’s reign. She’d never been able to replicate its hazelnut and olive notes.

Renae’s head drooped slack between her shoulders and Tana couldn’t tell if she was sleeping or unconscious. She smelled like war—gunpowder, blood, brackish water, sweat both human and horse. She still wore her uniform, but the queen’s emblem had been ripped from her chest and a slice of skin showed through the rend.

Tana knelt on the floor and took out the food. They’d allowed her nothing else. She unwrapped a skin of ricotta. Renae had always favored sweetness. “Renae?”

Renae stirred. Hair stuck to her face. In the last few years her dark hair had begun to streak white, but not this white. Her eyes were glassy. Bright blotches of blood broke the whites, and her pupils swallowed up the lanternlight.

“You came,” she whispered.

Tana pressed her hand to Renae’s face. “You’re burning up.”

Renae laughed but it ended in a wracking cough. “I think I’m dying. Though the rope will get me first.”

“I brought your favorites,” Tana said. If she thought about the gallows she’d seen standing in the courtyard, she would start screaming. She spread ricotta on an oat cracker and lifted it to Renae’s mouth. She’d brought the last jar of cherries up from the cellar. The harvest last year had been poor, and there wouldn’t be more until the spring. She’d intended to save these for their anniversary. She smashed a syrupy cherry on the next cracker with another spoonful of ricotta. Renae sighed when she ate it.

“Do you remember,” she asked, “the first time you came here?”

She did. One of the young queen’s handmaids had purchased a block of her cheese (a late-season Emmental, nothing special, although that year’s batch was exceptionally mellow) and the queen was taken with it. Tana’s family had been cheesemakers for as long as anyone knew, but none of them ever had a royal commission. She was summoned to the palace with a basket of her best and it was there that she’d met the queen’s swordmistress, a hawkish-faced woman with brown eyes that Tana fell right into.

Don’t be nervous, Renae had said. She’s only your divine and supreme ruler, after all. Then she’d plucked a slice of a cave-aged two-year gouda off Tana’s carefully-arranged tray, winked, and disappeared into the dining room where the queen was waiting.

“You were terrible,” Tana said. The words caught in her throat. “I almost spilled that tray all over Queen Ismay, I was so nervous.”

Renae closed her eyes. “He poisoned her.”

Everyone knew that already, but Tana still glanced towards the end of the hall where the guard listened. She prepared another cracker. “Let’s not talk about that.”

“You must promise me something,” Renae said. “When I am dead he will ask you to pledge your loyalty to him.”

“I could never—”

“You must do it.” Renae opened her eyes and there was something in them that chilled Tana, a wild penned-animal desperation. “You must bend the knee. It’s all true, Tana, oh, it’s all true what they say about him.”

They said a lot of things. He had died and returned. He practiced witchcraft not seen since the days of gods on earth. He came from an undiscovered land across the sea. He came from the depths of the abyss. He was cursed to kill all he touched. He was blessed by dead prophets. No one knew the truth. The first news of his unstoppable armies had come two years ago, and since then each weekly courier brought rumors of another kingdom burnt and pillaged, another nation brought to heel.

“I love you,” Tana said. “I can’t swear fealty to the man who will see you dead.”

Renae lunged forward. Her chains screeched against the hooks holding her to the wall. Tana jumped. Sweat dripped from Renae’s face and her breath was hot and sour.

“He is not a man,” she whispered. “Listen to me. He is not a man. I got so close, Tana, I thought we’d won. I put my blade in his breast and sank it between his ribs and broke it off in his bones and he did not die. He laughed, Tana. He laughed with eleven inches of the finest sword I’ve ever held buried in his chest.”

She doubled over coughing, and when she turned her face up again, dark blood seeped from the corner of her mouth and down her chin.

“It’s dark, dead magic, Tana. Promise me you will do whatever he asks of you.”

• • • •

Tana promised, because there was nothing else to do. Now she stood in the silent crowd, penned in on all sides by the Veiled King’s strange men. They filled the gallows with Renae and her two generals, Queen Ismay’s enchanter and his apprentice, the court alchemists. The doctors too, and their students. Even the woman who told little fortunes in the Sunday market, though her magic was so small it couldn’t have been a threat. They had enough mercy to cut the ropes to the right length and make it quick. She had thought she could watch, thought she could bear to witness, but at the last second she closed her eyes and heard the thump of the trap door and the wet snaps instead.

Afterward the guards took her to the room that had once been the queen’s library. A wooden screen sat in front of the reading chair, with two tongueless men in front.

Tana jerked her scarf up to cover her nose. The library stank of death. Not kind death either, not the musky scent of animals decaying back into the earth. This was dirty death, the stench of bodies left to bloat and rot in gutters, of carcasses putrefying in summer heat. Her eyes watered.

A dark shape moved behind the screen. Many years ago Tana had traveled across the ocean in an artisan exchange with another cheesemaker. In that country, royal women had their own part of the house and they were never seen or heard by strange men except through screens like these. This was no woman peering in, she knew.

“I have heard of you.” The voice that came from behind the screen whistled like the wind through a seaside cave. “Though your wife had the more fearsome reputation. The Queen’s Swordmistress, the Queen’s right-hand, the General of Five Armies. I admit, she was . . . an irritation.”

The room was ghastly hot and between that and the smell, Tana felt like she might faint, or like she was floating just outside her body. It was all that saved her from lunging at the screen and dying on the spot.

“Where I come from we kill the husbands and wives of dispatched irritations.” Another wheeze. The Veiled King sucked in air and it whistled. “They have an annoying tendency to become revolutionaries.”

Tana did not dare move. She saw something through one of the star-shaped cutouts in the screen. A dull, whitish eye.

“Do you know why I won’t kill you?”

“Because I will swear fealty to you?” She couldn’t keep the bitter edge from her voice.

The Veiled King laughed a creaking laugh. She heard him spit into the queen’s copper ink bowl. “Oaths are useless. I will not kill you because you are old and fat and if you are stupid enough to raise a blade against me, I gut you like a sow. I do not think you are that stupid. I think you are smart enough to be grateful for this gift I am giving you.”

Tana’s face burned. He was right, of course. She was long past her prime, and even then she hadn’t been a fighter. And as her mother always said, no one bought cheese from a skinny woman. She wasn’t slow, but she had muscles built for hefting wheels of parmesan and not for dancing around two trained soldiers to assassinate a king.

“There, there.” A rustle, and another puff of the cloying stench came from behind the screen. Tana held her breath until it cleared. “It’s always better to be the smart one. And there is another reason I’ve spared you—this delightful item.”

The lefthand soldier reached behind the screen and brought out a plate with a thin slice of orange cheese on it. Mimolette. A northern variety that Tana had just attempted for the first time. She’d given a quarter wheel to the prince consort last week. Such a small gift, her wife gone and his dead, both of them sick with grief and fear. She took the plate. The slice of cheese had white mold spores growing on it. The bad kind, not the kind she cultured in the rinds. It should have kept for much longer than this.

“I like this thing,” the King said. “We have nothing like it in my homeland.”

She found her voice. “This is only one variety. I can make you many more.”

“I shall expect you back then, at this time next week.”

As the men herded her out of the library she slipped the piece of cheese into her pocket.

• • • •

She set a Caciocavallo up to age. It was a soft cheese, with an edible rind, formed into a teardrop shape. She doubted that the Veiled King would understand this subtle resistance, and if he did, he would probably find it amusing. She did it only for herself.

She wrapped the moldy Mimolette in a cloth and put it in the cold, dry part of the cellar to keep. The day was warm enough to rot meat so she set a bucket of chicken gizzards and another with some cheese rinds in the sun. In five days, the cheese rinds had grown a thin layer of bluish mold. The chicken parts stank like the inside of the library and had grown a carpet of white and green-flecked mold much like the one on the cheese the Veiled King had been eating. She did not know what to make of it. She had seen mold like this before, in the already-dead flesh of a man dying of gangrene, but she had never seen it grow from a living man’s touch.

On the eighth day after her wife’s execution, two soldiers wearing the crest of the King came to escort her to the capital. It wasn’t until they were on the step that she recognized Juin and his sister. Now Fanchon walked head uncovered like a married woman and wore a sword like she knew how to use it, though she couldn’t possibly. She was fourteen, maybe.

Halfway to the capital, Tana dared to turn to Fanchon. “How do you like it, serving him?”

The girl barely looked at her. “It’s fine enough.” But her hands tightened on the reins and she leaned forward into the saddle to urge her horse faster.

When they passed through the capital gates, it felt like she’d been gone far longer than a week. The market square stood silent and empty, the stalls broken down and carted away, the few signs left fluttering tattered in the breeze. The houses’ shutters were closed and the people they passed on their way to the palace hurried on. The palace windows were boarded shut. Inside the air was warm and wet like the inside of a lung. The Veiled King took his audience in the ballroom. Her footsteps echoed over and over themselves across the vast emptiness. She wondered where the tables and chairs had gone. Surely there wasn’t space to store them all.

Tongueless foreign men waited in all the corners.

She asked for a tray, and was brought it, and asked for a blunt knife and was allowed that too. She plated the cheese the way she had those years ago for the queen. To steady her hands, she pretended it was that time again. The ballroom helped. She and Renae had danced away the early morning hours here after many court balls, all the other dancers gone to bed. In those years she had scaled down her business to just a few boutique batches and had taken a post as one of the queen’s mistresses-of-house, so that they could be close.

When she reached the steps up to the dais, she hesitated too long before getting to her knees on the dusty floor. The cartilage in her left creaked and she hoped that excused her slowness. One of the Veiled King’s guards ferried the plate behind the screen. A sound like a wet tongue smacking in a hollow mouth came from behind the screen.

“This was different,” the King said. His voice was quiet even inside the barren room, meant to be filled with courtiers and servants and musicians and all the stuff of life.

One of the guards glared at her. Tana started. She hadn’t thought she was expected to respond. The room was warm enough for her to be able to smell the sharp stink of the guards’ sweat even ten feet away, but she still shivered.

“Yes. This is a family recipe. It’s younger than the last. Sweeter.”

“Fascinating. How many are there?”

She shook her head. At least she had a speech prepared for this, for overcurious children who trailed her around in the market. “Hundreds. Thousands? It’s a particular art, it depends upon the salt in the air and the humidity and the altitude and the milk, all of which are specific just to this one place in time, in this one location. I can make dozens of varieties, but if you move north or south there are dozens that only those cheesemakers can produce, particular to them.”

“Do you know, there is an art in a land thousands of miles south of here that involves carving stones into the faces of particular gods in order to draw down their qualities. It is a very small magic, but it does work if the art is fine enough.” The King sighed. “I wonder if there are any of them left. I should like to see one of those little toys again. They vexed me for some time.”

One of the guards shuddered. It had never occurred to Tana to wonder how the Veiled King got his loyal, silent guards.

She ducked her head and focused on the flagstones worn smooth from generations of dancing feet. Beads of sweat trickled down her spine but she didn’t dare move until one of the guards dropped the empty plate in front of her face.

“You may go,” the King said. “You will be retrieved again in a week.”

• • • •

Tana set to work. She took down her mother’s and grandmother’s journals from the mantle. She hadn’t read them since she’d apprenticed at her mother’s elbow. Her great- and great-great-grandmothers hadn’t been much for writing recipes. What they’d left amounted to a single envelope with notes like age this cheese until the death of the goat that gave the milk. She put a white cheddar up to age, a basic cheese, too simple for her palate but good enough for someone who had never tasted it before. In the journals, she found the notes for a recipe she half-remembered from childhood, called the Barber’s Blue. The notes were sparse, but one of her foremothers had sketched a picture of a barber-surgeon offering a woman in a sickbed a slice.

She brought the mold culture from the putrefying Mimolette up from the cellar and examined it under the set of doubled lenses she had ordered from the university in Verebourg, far north. It cost nearly a year of her pay from her position as a mistress-of-house, and the townsfolk tittered that she’d finally gone a bit cheesy in the brain. But the doubled-lens allowed her to view the internal structure of a mold and took the guesswork out of picking the particular strain for each cheese. The townsfolk stopped giggling when she started producing her rare cashel blue with regularity.

Two years ago she’d ordered a book from a natural philosopher employed by one of the southern caravan kings. Descriptive plates of various mold and fungi as collected by His Majesty’s naturalist Fatimah adh-Anwah. Unfortunately, the bookseller’s catalog description had led her to believe that the book would contain far more about cheese molds and far less about the sort of mold that made a man turn basalt-green and leak his insides from his nose. She hadn’t even bothered to have it bound, and it sat on the mantle still in its unmarked vellum.

Now she took it down and searched until she found a mold structure that was almost identical to the one she had cultured from the Veiled King’s plate. The caption read Sample from the lung of a tubercular donkey-herder, taken two years after symptoms arose and six weeks before death. Then she descended into the caves and cultured six strains of blue.

• • • •

Only Fanchon returned to take her to the King.

“Where is your brother?” Tana asked. She carried cheddar tucked up against her side. There was an unseasonable frost in the air.

Fanchon shrugged. “He’s taken ill. I haven’t seen him. One of the King’s philosophers told me this is necessary.”

“Seclusion?”

She hummed. “The King personally assured me he is being cared for. I trust His Majesty.”

“Of course,” Tana said. When she next looked over, Fanchon was red-eyed, one hand tangled in the horse’s hot mane next to its pulse.

“I have heard some of the ones who came with him from other lands whispering,” she said. Her voice barely rose above the wind, like she feared that he would hear them even out here. She sounded like a child again, not the adult she was dressed up as. “They say this is a holy sickness. Juin is unlikely to survive. If he lives—if he lives—he will take the most honored position in His Majesty’s court. He will look upon His Majesty’s face.”

For a moment Tana couldn’t figure out why the girl was so distressed about this. Then she realized the only people she had ever seen go behind the king’s screen were his mutilated guards. What could she say to that? Where were these children’s parents, now? “I’m sorry.”

Fanchon’s face hardened. “I said. It will be an honor.”

When they arrived in the capital Fanchon led Tana another way, through the north gate instead of the south. She didn’t understand until it was too late, until she’d stepped into the courtyard and saw the bodies swinging in the gallows like so many overripe apples. More now. Ones too small to be adults alongside the men and women. The only mercy was that she only recognized Renae by her uniform. The birds and the mites had done their work to the rest of her. She froze. Her bundle slipped from her hand and the cheddar bounced across flagstones stained rust-colored with blood and bile. Acid burned the back of her throat.

Fanchon stood in the archway to the palace grounds, half in shadow. Her teeth glinted coldly when she smiled at Tana. “We don’t want to leave him waiting.”

Tana forced her head down and her feet across the stones to gather up her things. She couldn’t even be angry at the girl for lashing out at the one person she was capable of hurting.

• • • •

Her neighbors vanished one by one. The crops were moldering before they were ripe enough to be picked, the cows were giving sour milk, the chickens wouldn’t eat and screamed and screamed until their owners were forced to behead them. Everyone smart enough to read the portents took to the roads. Somewhere there was a land beyond the Veiled King’s reach. Somewhere the orchards still gave fruit and the rabbits did not drown themselves.

Tana’s second cousin appeared at her door. His twin girls and his wife stared forlornly out from the blankets covering their wagon.

“Won’t you come with us? One of my guildbrothers is sheltering us in Susserland until I set myself up.”

She couldn’t open the door to him. She had recipes spread across the table and the floor and she’d begun writing on the walls because she’d run out of paper. Niche strains of blue cheese hung from all the rafters. The white mold had grown over the plate and the counter and had consumed the whole skinned squirrel she’d fed to it. She no longer went in that corner of the house because the air made her lightheaded. “I’ll stay.”

His forehead crinkled. He lowered his voice. “We all loved Renae. But you’re not so old yet, Tana. You have a long time left.”

Tana squeezed his hand. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”

He went away shaking his head.

She had cut the curds for the blues as soon as she came home from her last visit with the King. Each got a different strain of mold mixed in, and she’d left some to age down in the caves and some to age here where the air was drier and warmer. Now she split them open. She was looking for a particular curd size, blue crackling between the color of the sky before a thunderstorm and the color of the water in the shallow bay in winter. The cheese was described in her mother’s books, but Tana couldn’t remember seeing it made. She had to go by instinct alone.

Two of the blues looked close to the right color, although one was holey like a swiss. She covered her mouth and nose with a cloth, scraped up a layer of the white mold taking over her kitchen, and placed the blue underneath. She added another log to the hearth and lay down on a blanket to sleep. She couldn’t yet face the empty bed.

In the morning the white mold had consumed the cheese and had grown down the front of her cabinets. Failure.

Renae’s second-best sword still hung over the mantle. The guards never searched her. She could nestle it between her girdle and her dress and smuggle it in, thrust it into the screen in the direction of his voice. He would slay her where she stood, of course. But maybe she could hurt him a little bit. She let the dark thought stew while she washed and cut more curds and prepared another culture and boiled more milk, until the work had all but washed it away.

• • • •

On Tana’s next visit, Juin stood in the King’s receiving line, the sutures in his mouth still showing raw and red when he forgot himself and tried to speak.

“I like this one.”

She’d brought him a chevre wrapped in dill and the zest from the preserved lemons she’d been saving for the new year’s feast back when she expected to see winter.

“Oldest cheese in the world, my mother used to say.” It was easier to talk to him now. She’d gotten used to the smell. It clung to her clothes for days afterward, the stink of sickroom sweat and bile. She couldn’t get used to the sounds. Wet, toothless smacks. “Shepherds made it in the time when people roamed the wild grasslands.”

“And what will you bring me next?”

Dangerously, she told the truth. “I thought a blue. You seem to like the stronger tastes.”

“You do so delight me,” the King said, toneless.

Fanchon drove a hard pace back, racing away from the capital. Tana took pity on her and invited her inside, even though all she’d prepared for dinner was bread and butter and the last scraps of salted haddock.

“He’ll notice if I don’t return,” Fanchon said, and she stayed on her horse while Tana unsaddled hers. Small reliefs—she’d worried the girl had lost her tongue too. Then Fanchon turned the horse and tossed over her shoulder, “I shall kill him tonight.”

Tana froze half in the doorway.

“The fever took Juin’s mind, and then the King’s barber took his tongue. I shall kill him for it.”

Tana saw Renae, standing in front of the hearth on tiptoes to take her most-loved sword down from the hooks above the mantle. Her scabbard was too snug on well-fed middle-aged hips. I just got the message. The Veiled King’s army has slaughtered the first and fifth battalions. Louis and Angelique are already dead. You know he killed Ismay. Who else is there, Tana?

“You stupid child,” Tana said. “You will die horribly.”

“At least I won’t feed the monster.” Tana heard her spit on the ground. “I’m allowed close enough. Who else can do it?”

“Yes. Who else would they suspect? Girl, you wear your anger clear as day. The instant you touch your dagger or your arrow or whatever clever tool you think you’ve hidden away, you will lose. You are young and hale, and he will know that you think yourself righteous and true.” With the sun overhead, Fanchon looked so much like Renae. “Do you think I loved my wife so little that I would just bend the knee to her murderer?”

The sharp angles of Fanchon’s shoulders softened. “You have a plan.”

“I am a fat old woman. I make cheese. What could I possibly threaten a dead-magicked king with?”

The girl dismounted without taking her eyes off Tana and slipped the reins around the post. “Tell me. Please. Tell me.”

It could be a trick. A long con of the Veiled King. Surely he couldn’t believe her loyal, not after he’d left Renae’s body swinging in the gallows like a cow awaiting the butcher.

She let Fanchon inside, and showed her the recipe book. Three double-page spreads were devoted to blue cheese, its varieties and peculiarities. Tana pointed out the Barber’s Blue. “My grandmother used to make it. There was a war on then. Many soldiers returned home to lose limbs to the barber’s blade or boiling in their skins from bad blood. They were fed this for the blood sickness. It fell out of favor in my mother’s time.”

“You think the King is ill?”

“My wife . . . she was dying when I saw her. Not of camp sicknesses. He touched her and it went to her bones somehow. And your brother—why would surviving the illness mark him for guardship, unless the illness was of the King himself? You know he isn’t a man, not really.”

“He did touch my brother. He allowed Juin to kiss his ring.” She chuckled, though it landed like a rock in still water. “Tell me what I can do.”

“Go back. Pretend we never spoke.”

“I can help.”

“I’m telling you this so you don’t help. This recipe may be only an old wives’ charm. I may be wrong about what he is. You need to stand by in case I fail. Someone has to learn how to kill him.”

Tana didn’t like the way Fanchon looked at her. It was the same way she’d seen Renae look at Queen Ismay long ago. Like she had been given purpose. She suddenly felt what a heavy burden it was, to charge another person with a duty like this. Tana could have told Fanchon to walk away, to run as far as she could, and the girl would have obeyed. If she died in the pursuit of justice, Tana had killed her as surely as the Veiled King.

“I understand,” Fanchon said. She adjusted her sword so it wasn’t so very close at hand. “Be quick. The land is dying.”

• • • •

She was right, of course. Tana went down to the sea one morning when she was still trying to sort her dreams from reality. She reached into the water to splash it in her face and came up with a small fish in her cupped hands. Its scales were alabaster-white and where it should have had eyes it had two little puckered ulcers.

When she was done screaming and done scrubbing her hands raw she knelt in front of the molds hanging in the cellar and begged them to break true.

The first three were beautiful blues, with wide marbling. She’d cut the curds to the right size and mixed them true but the color of the mold was wrong. Based on the drawings in her grandmother’s book the salinity in the air had drawn in a cousin of the mold she was after instead of the right one.

The fourth she’d kept in the coolest corner of the cellar. She removed the mold and raised the knife to split it and check the variety, but stopped herself. This was her last chance. She found that she didn’t really want to know yet if she had failed. Outside, she heard Fanchon’s horse approaching, the hoofbeats echoing off of the now-empty roads.

She remembered nothing of the ride. Fanchon stabled their horses silently. They both stepped quietly, like they were invaders and not invited.

The palace was as empty as the capital streets. Once or twice Tana caught a glimpse of a maid or valet around a corner. Optimists, the ones who’d stick around until it killed them. Some people didn’t know when to cut and run, she thought, and then she remembered what she was doing.

Three guards stood in front of the screen, Juin and two others. Tana got to her knees and tried to work the cloth off the cheese despite her uncooperative hands.

The King’s voice rattled more today, like dice in a cup. “I had a man bringing me his ales every week as well, but he seems to have abandoned me. You have not.”

“I am a woman of my word, Your Majesty.” It didn’t sound convincing even to her own ears.

The King made a noise that might have been a chuckle.

One of the guards approached. Tana made her choice. “May I serve you? I confess—it is unusual for me, to never see the one I am sworn to.”

Wood creaked behind the screen. This time she knew he was laughing.

“I suppose our time together will be short enough.” Juin grabbed her by the elbow and hauled her to her feet. She wanted to say I could have gotten up on my own but when she looked at him there was nothing in his eyes. She steeled herself, took a last breath of the unsullied air, and stepped behind the screen.

He had dropped his veil. In all of her dreams and nightmares, in all of the monsters that she saw stalking her in the shadows, she had never seen a thing like this. She had concocted an image, had steeled herself for it. Every child heard the same fireside tales of what could happen when magic turned sour and brutal, when the wrong man broke it and twisted its dead carcass to his darkest desires.

The King was only the shape of a man.

He had a man’s bones. She could see the skeleton poking through the layers of white mold that held the crumbling scapulas and patellas and vertebrae together. He had no lips, no eyelids, no hair, like a corpse dredged from the river after spring thaw. His lidless eyes looked like they were covered in cataracts, but then something like a maggot wriggled behind the translucent membrane of the right.

He raised his head to look at her. His mouth still glistened like a living man’s. “Do you regret this?”

She held out the cheese. Her body was as cold as her cellar.

“Cut it for me.”

She split the round and cut a thick slice. She couldn’t remember how it was supposed to look. The King shook two fingers out from under the cloak that hid the horror of the rest of him, lifted the slice, and dropped it into his mouth. Tana could see his molars wiggling loose in his jaw while he chewed, held in place only with gums like dried beef. She couldn’t turn away.

She cut another piece instead and held it out to him. “How do you like it?”

“It fizzes. I didn’t know you could make it like that.” Clear fluid leaked around his eyes. Not tears. Like the seepage from healing wounds. His speech slurred and lost that careful cadence. She wondered whose bones those had been.

Tana offered a third piece. This one did not go down as easy. The King gurgled and scraped at his throat. Layers of mold peeled off his fingers and she saw the sunbleached bone underneath.

“What have you done,” he hissed. Fever-hot pieces of him flaked away like scabs. The death-smell was beginning to lift—her lungs weren’t burning in her chest anymore.

“You become very familiar with molds and sickness, as a cheesemaker.” She sat on the supplicant cushion opposite the throne. “I know the look of infection. I know what growths to culture and which will sicken. The smell of you alone said you were not a person.”

He could no longer talk. Light shone through the hollow places between his ribs, where mummified lungs spasmed hopelessly.

She cut another piece of cheese and chewed it herself in case being this close could spread his infection. It was dense and strong even for a blue, with a distinct stilton-tang.

“I hope you outlived whatever twisted bastard made you,” she said, while he tumbled off the throne and curled on the floor, spreading black spores across the stones. “Else I’ll have to spend the rest of my life finding him to do the same to.”

His hands came off first and then his feet. As soon as the infection holding him together died his bones began crumbling to chalky dust. The last thing to go was his eyes. They fixed on her until they each made a sound like a corn kernel popping and became just two wet spots on the floor.

In front of the screen came three thumps. Tana knew what it was before she looked. The guards lay facedown and still.

The girl stood in the furthest corner with her arms curled tight around herself.

“He’s dead,” she said.

Tana knelt and turned Juin over to be sure. He was already stiff, like he’d been dead hours and not seconds. She closed his eyes. Then she took Fanchon by the arm and led her gently away from all of it. They walked out of the palace and out of the capital and down the road before Tana felt like she had gotten the particles of him out of her lungs.

Fanchon kicked a fallen tree on the side of the road. And then she kicked it again, and again and again and again until she’d used up all her rage. Then she sat down on it and threw her daggers into the woods. “What happens now?”

Tana reached up into the branches of a maple tree. Beneath the spotted, diseased leaves, new green buds were already forming. “The land will renew itself. Some distant cousin will come and claim the throne. People will return when they hear it’s safe again, though not everyone will. You could come home with me. We could wait for them. Life will go back to normal quicker than you think. This will all just be a story someday.”

“I don’t think I want to go back,” the girl said.

“No,” Tana said, “I don’t think I do, either.” There was nothing left but an empty house, a few books, the tools of a trade she’d just used to assassinate a king. Let someone else come upon it and take up her life. She could never be the woman who fit in that house again. Fanchon stood up and they started north, towards the sea and other lands that had never known the touch of the dying king.

Lina Rather

Lina Rather - A white person with short hair and a leaf-print button up, mid-laugh in the sun in front of a concrete wall.

Lina Rather is a speculative fiction author from Michigan, now living in Washington, D.C. Her short fiction has appeared in venues including Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, and Shimmer. Her Tor.Com Publishing novella series, Our Lady of Endless Worlds, is about devotion, empire, and nuns living in a giant slug in outer space. When she isn’t writing, she likes to cook overly elaborate recipes, go hiking, and collect terrible 90s comic books. Find out more about her and her writing at linarather.com or on Twitter @LinaRather.