11. The Queen Was In Her Parlor
Far away from here, there is a city.
Travel crosswise to the Alef Line, north by the equatorial stars and with the faraway Sea to your right. Long before you see the city, you will know into whose lands you have crossed. Stretching away from the Royal Road in either direction, clear to the horizon, are fields of flowers—untold thousands of acres of blossom, a riot of color under a clear spring sky, a sky like a blue eye.
Dazzled, you step into the nearest flower-bed. Hollyhocks creep towards the Sun, violently purple, their bells gummy with pale yellow dust; but they are overgrown, lolling on withered stems, and the trellis meant to support them sags, its slats broken. Nearby, Susans hang their brown-eyed heads, strangled young by the bindweed running rampant across the field. Witchgrass pokes up among the cracked tiles lining the irrigation ditches that run between the beds. Peonies, blowsy already, shed petals like drifts of sticky snow.
There were homesteads here once, farm cottages of wood and thatch. Their remnants dot the landscape: a collapsed earthen foundation here; a charred roof-timber in a stand of ragwort; a single broken cartwheel; a length of crumbling drystone wall overgrown with brambles. There are no people anywhere in the ruins, only the weeds and thorns—what grows back after a burning.
It goes on like this for mile upon mile—a vast jewel-box gone to rot, filling the air with a cloying, unwholesome sweetness, and the scattered wreckage of farmhouses. Mile upon mile, until the city shimmers just at the edge of sight.
The land here is tilled, and sown with clover; but no one is out tending it, and already great patches are going brown in the sun. The crop has for years been reaped hastily and without care. At the outskirts the fields are half-fallow, turning over to teasel and horsetail—or to bare earth. There are more homesteads here, all ruined and burned. Among the wreckage there are bones. Some of the bones are very small.
The ground begins to rise as the city nears. Great coppices of highbush blueberry once grew on the hummocks bumping up over the clover fields—the berries taut and shiny indigo and as big as your knuckle, almost like grapes; delicately scented and bursting with juice and wondrous sweet. Most of those bushes are gone now, and those that remain give only sour, puckered fruit.
The city stands on its hill, behind its six-sided wall. In years gone by the wall was ringed by orange groves; the scent of the blossom would make your mouth water, and you could walk for three days among the orange trees, in the shade of their leaves, clear around the city without seeing the sun. Now it’s only stumps and scorched earth—the trees have all been felled and burned, as fuel for the smelting of iron.
Within the city walls nothing grows, for the people in their hunger would eat the seed even if they could get it. The place teems with people; the old wooden houses still stand, and between them tents have been rigged, and crates stacked.
The city clusters hard by the citadel at its center. In days gone it was a humble tower of brick; but she who is its mistress has now declared it shall be clad in marble, a monument to herself in her magnificence. But good marble is very dear, and the mistress of the citadel is impatient; so much of the work has been done in soapstone. The tower’s finish has grown discolored from the smoke of the city’s cookfires, and the finish is dull and ugly, like wax.
In the highest room, the mistress of the citadel is standing. She is tall and lean and dark and clad in blackest velvet, the color of a moonless night; her limbs are slender, but heavy with greaves and bracelets of beaten gold, and the train of her cloak roils like a line of thunderheads. A simple golden circlet shines at her brow, but you would know her for a queen even were she dressed in rags. She is smiling, and her smile is like a warning. Her eyes shine with pleasure, and her eyes shine with hatred. She is beautiful, and there is terror in her beauty.
You would fall in love with her if you saw her, and that love would be the death of you.
She is standing in her chamber at the center of the Apiary, surrounded by a circle of youths and maidens. Their steel is keen and their and their smiles quite mad. They kneel before her, and she whispers poison in their ears.
And when she is done, they arise as one and go, spreading forth across the blighted land to do her bidding.
More next week...