From the mind of Megan Arkenberg

September 3, 2011


Posted by Megan Arkenberg with No comments
First published in Long Story Short, March 2008. Full story behind the cut.

* * *
I woke up this morning as if from a dream--or a nightmare. Cloud-filtered sunlight fell in a pale ray across my bed, where the fine linen sheets clung to me like spidersilk wrapped around a fly, damp with cold sweat. I sat up and tried to shove them aside with an impatient gesture, but the room seemed to spin around me, and I had to lay down for a moment before trying again.
I still lay here now, almost an hour later. My tongue tastes dry in my mouth, my face is flushed and hot. I image how it will feel to splash it with cool water from the wash basin. It is tormenting to think that the bowl is so close, only a few footsteps away...

But it is more tormenting still to be trapped in bed and not remember why. My coat of arms, painted on the ceiling above my bed, seems to taunt me. What have I done during these past days of madness? It is the same question I always ask myself when I wake up like this, and I have been asking it far too often these past few years. These strange, unpredictable bouts of anger, paranoia, insane fervor become more frequent as I grow older.

What kind of King cannot rule his own mind? What manner of Queen is unable to command her own thoughts?

I sit up again and take a small silver dressing mirror from the tray beside my bed. My reflection is pale and blurry, as though I were looking at myself through a fog. White face with a fevered flush across the cheeks, cracked lips lined in deep-blue, and red, watery eyes with no spark to them. Good. The unnatural clarity of madness is gone.
The knowledge makes my stiff limbs a little less resistant to moving. I drag myself out of bed and to the wash basin, where I carefully scrub a more natural color into my face. I don’t bother calling a servant to help me dress. The royal robes are heavy, but as I wrap their weight around my shoulders, I feel my body strengthen to support it. If only my mind could do the same!
I am not hungry, but I force myself to break my fast with a loaf of white bread. It is bland and dry: I savor every bite. Once fully awakened, dressed and fed, I am a different person. Your Most Wise and Excellent Majesty, I think, bowing to my reflection.
Why, then, does the last word come out as Madness?

I turn to the window. Clouds are gathering in the west, no longer red-tinged by the light of dawn. They are like a white palace, towering insanely over the vast gray sea. That is where the true majesty lies, not in this sad and broken excuse for a monarch.

Someone is rapping at my door. How long has that been going on? How long have I been staring out this window at the clouds and the churning sea below them? “Come in,” I stammer, afraid of what may come through my door, not quite forgetting that whoever is on the other side may be just as afraid of me.

But it is only Pyramon. He, too, looks worn and tired, like a mother kept awake for many nights with a sick child. I feel a pang of guilt at this. Pyramon is as good an advisor as ever a King or Queen could ask for, but sometimes I feel I ask too much of him.

“Well, your majesty?” he asks before even entering the room. The unfinished question hangs heavy in the air between us, like a mass of storm clouds.

“I think so,” I say, sinking into the chair behind my desk. My disjointed memories of these last few weeks are slowly returning to me, and I know that I have become unjustly angry with Pyramon more than once. The knowledge brings a hot flush of shame to my face, but my throat closes around any words of apology.

If Pyramon notices, he is too good a diplomat to show it. “Then I suppose it’s time to give you these,” he says, without missing a beat of our intricate dance. A pile of papers appears before me as he pulls them from a locked drawer in my desk, along with the royal seal and a stick of wax.
“All the difficult cases of the last month,” he says as I scan the top page. “The ones requiring your better judgment. I separated them from the others, as you requested.”

“How were my verdicts on the others?” I ask. It comes as no surprise to me that I fear the answer.

“Completely unimpaired,” Pyramon assures me. He leans against my desk with a sort of casual dignity I could never wish to emulate. “I inspected every one of them myself.”

“And they contain nothing to suggest my...illness?”

He frowns, as if considering the aptness of the word. “Your secret is as safe as ever, your majesty.”
With a small sigh of relief, I turn my full attention to the papers before me. These are the so-called difficult cases--uprisings in the provinces, inheritance battles, marriages to be blessed or annulled, appeals, pardons and other such issues, all of which make my skin crawl to think of the consequences of an irrational verdict. I know my father, similarly afflicted with these moments of madness, would never postpone judgment on a case, no matter what his mental state: I often wonder how he managed. And then, I wonder how my children will manage when I am gone.

“Perhaps I should just dissolve the monarchy,” I mutter under my breath.

Pyramon has been staring out the window at the same clouds that captured my attention earlier. Now he turns to me with a startled look. “Your majesty?”
“What would you say if I turned this country into a Republic?”

He doesn’t miss a beat. “I’d say you were out of your mind, your majesty.”

“Ah, well,” I say with a weak smile. “That’s the point, isn’t it? That a thousand madmen could rule better than one.”
Pyramon clears his throat. It is the signal that passes between us when he feels I am nearing the dangerous boundary.

“I’m sorry,” I sigh, turning once again to the letters. “I’m not serious, Pyramon. It’s just so damn hard sometimes. I’m either sick or waiting to be sick, watching the pendulum swing closer and closer until I can feel it brushing against my skin, and then...” I push my hair back out of my eyes and sigh again. “Where does it all end?”

Pyramon is spared the ordeal of having to answer by a knock at the door.
“Come in.”

The door opens barely a crack, and Chera scuttles into the room like a spider creeping along the wall. The voluminous robes of Court Wizard seem to take up more space than the tiny woman inside them.

“I brought the oil, your majesty,” she says in her raspy little whisper. The words are barely out of her mouth before I grab the glass vial from her skeletal hands. The oil has the foul smell of fish and it tastes hot and slick, but I drink it all in one greedy mouthful. Chera and her fellow wizards swear it will help me manage my thoughts, and that vague promise alone would be enough to make me do anything. Anything to feel like I’m somehow in control of my fate.

The oil leaves its taste in my mouth, thick and choking. I hand the vial back to Chera, who snatches it up in her claws and disappears from the room just as quickly as she came. Pyramon watches her leave with raised eyebrows.

“Does it do any good?” he asks, his eyes still on the door. “Does any of it do any good?”

I shake my head. Who knows? No one can say what tomorrow will bring, not even me. Especially not me.

“Well,” Pyramon says with a shrug. “I’ll just leave you to those for now, shall I?”

Poor man. I know how it feels to want to return power to the one who rightfully owns it. I know how wearying it is to act in a part you weren’t cast for. I nod, and he walks to the door. He is about to leave when his hand pauses on the knob, and he turns back to me.
“Your majesty,” he says haltingly. “I...well...I’m glad to know you’re well again.”

I give him another weak smile. “Is that all?”
“No. I was long do you think it will be, before we have to go through this all again?”
The paper feels smooth beneath my fingers, smooth, warm and flowing, like sand slipping through an hourglass. I shrug and raise it to the light from the window. “I don’t know,” I say, choking on the words, sickened by the taste of helplessness.
The door closes with a soft click. Outside, the mass of clouds, the beautiful, majestic, insane palace in the western sky, looks whiter and clearer than ever. I allow my gaze to linger there for a moment before returning to my work.

The letter before me begins, “To Your Most Wise and Excellent Majesty...


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