Arbitratus... a short story

Fiction By Aisling // 2/24/2005

The room was dark. It hurt her eyes to have it lighted more than dimly. Her head ached regardless. She was queen, and she was dying. Dying. And had no heir.
She sighed heavily. She was faintly aware of having done so several times within the last five minutes. And her weary mind kept on its futile trek around and around in a circle of indecision. Every time she came back to the thought of her young cousin, in France, she would linger and sigh.
He said her cousin couldn’t be queen.
She heard the door open, and close with that empty thudding sound, which echoed back in the depths of her restless mind. Her husband: young, astute, nationalistic, troubled…king.
He came and sat down on her bed. His dark eyes were like troubled storm clouds, full of purpose, but reluctant to let the storm fall.
She sighed again. “I can’t stop thinking about my cousin,” she said.
He knew what she meant; he shook his head. “I know it must be hard,” he murmured, “but…try to see it as I see it. Think what it would mean: war, hatred, horror, bloodshed, the utter ruin of my country. We can’t let that happen. You can’t be so…so unreasonable as to choose an end to Spain.”
She frowned. “It’s not as if I want that to happen,” she said impatiently. “It’s just that…if not her, then who?” She closed her tired eyes, and a thousand little lines of care rent her white forehead. “Who?”
Oh the abominable question! Again the old familiar circle; again emptiness, hollowness, indecision. Because she would not, could not go on, past her cousin, past hope and rightfulness, and face the only other choice existent. But there was only that one last choice. They both knew it. All she had to do was open her eyes to see that he was about to propose it, again.
“But she can’t be queen. She can’t!” the dying lady protested.
“Come, now,” he reasoned, “you needn’t get all worked up about it. Just tell me, why can’t she?”
“Because. Because it would mean all those horrid things you say a queen from France would bring: war, hatred, horror, bloodshed.” She wanted—oh she wanted desperately—to add “the utter ruin of my country”, but she didn’t have the strength or the courage. She just said, “We can’t let that happen. It’s every bit as much my duty—our duty.”
It was his turn to sigh. “There must be a way,” he insisted. “Duty has to lie somewhere. And it can’t lie in the destruction of my country.”
“What about mine?” she asked quietly.
He was quiet for a moment, just looking at her. It seemed to her that she saw, somewhere inside him, a sudden wavering, faltering, an uncertainty. But then it had passed, and he was his old certain self.
“Dearest,” he said, “you have to weigh everything, when you make so crucial a decision as this. You may wish your cousin could be queen after you, but would that be wisest, and best? I know it would not be. On the other hand, what harm could possibly come from choosing…the other…as your heir?”
“What harm? You know as well as I her beliefs, and—”
“Yes, yes,” he interrupted, “but all that could be avoided by making her take an oath. And I am wholly convinced that she shall take it.”
The queen lay very still. An oath? The thought had never occurred to her. She had never let him speak about the matter quite so far as that. But now he had, and she must reply. “She…she wouldn't. She wouldn't ever take it.”
“She can’t fail to see our need, our utter hopelessness besides her. She will take it.”
The queen shook her head.
“Well then, the least we can do is summon her, and see,” he said.
The queen sighed yet another time. A sigh of resignation.
He quit the room, on his imperative errand.
And she was left behind, in the dark room, in the empty silence, in the troubled sea of her anxiety. Her heart ached to begin moving again, going around and around that endless circle forever, rather than stop here. But stop she had. And, somehow, she couldn’t make it start spinning again.
But it would have to, she told herself, this couldn’t be the end. The girl would never take the oath.
She repeated it over and over to herself, to drown out the other voices. Voices that whispered with a frightening intensity of the weight of her responsibility, of the millions upon millions of people whose lives depended on her, of the ages to come that she might have to answer to, of the eternal supremacy of rightness.

The queen tossed, day in and day out, always just beyond the ability to lift herself above the anxiety and the misgiving.
And then, she came. She whom the queen had never been able to love.
But she would never take the oath.
She smiled softly, and came over to the bedside, bending to kiss the white hand.
“Tell her why we’ve called her,” the king said.
The queen sat up a little. “I am dying,” she said frankly. “Everyone knows it. And everyone knows I’ve…I’ve no heir. I cannot leave the throne to my cousin, and so I must…I must leave it to you. And so I have called you—to take an oath.”
The young woman knelt down, and nodded solemnly.
“Dost thou hereby swear, that upon inheriting the title of Queen of England, thou shalt in no way thwart the work we have begun, but continue to restore the Catholic Church to this country?” Mary asked.
Phillip nodded.
And Elizabeth swore.

...you have to weigh everything, when you make so crucial a decision as this...