The Once and Should-Be Queen
Zenobia dragged out the ending of her story for two years. It took that long for her to trust the prince to kill her. During the first year, she simply gave him the knife with which to do it. In the meantime, Zenobia did languish, though not in the dungeon the prince set up for her. She daydreamed about that cold, dripping cell. It seemed preferable to the single stripe of shade she currently sat in against the warm sandstone wall.
Zenobia had discovered with mixed feelings that this languid tavern had been converted from a monastery. She knew, as a sorceress, that she should have enjoyed the concept on principle, but she found herself upset at the idea that the prince was letting monasteries be desecrated under his nose. Zenobia might have allowed such an atrocity under her rule, but she at least would have had better reasons. Like opening a bar less crowded and overheated.
At least she had wet her throat. She had wanted alcohol, and rivers of it. Unfortunately, the barkeeper only served her water because she looked rundown, which summed up everything wrong in Zenobia’s life. She couldn’t tell if she was better-dressed than the dancers in the bar—she thought maybe she wasn’t—and that disturbed her far more than the reappearance of the prince.
She watched him slap his palms on the bar, drink a glass as tall as what he had to prove, and announce to the barkeeper, “I’m looking for a woman.”
“Aren’t we all?” The barkeeper eyed the palace guards flanking the prince.
“A specific one. Dark skin, green eyes. Somewhat taller than I—”
“Brave choice. Beautiful?”
The barkeeper’s attempt to keep the conversation light made Prince Malik scowl. “Very, if you fancy a viper’s caress. She wears spider-silk from the underworld and extract-of-pure-evil perfume.” (Sarcasm! Zenobia thought. You do have a sense of humor.) “Have you seen her?”
Well, princeling, that’s our business, not his, Zenobia thought. The barkeeper explained that he didn’t want trouble. Coins rang across the table. Ah, Zenobia amended, now he’s sure to have seen me. And what a grin on his face!
“A woman of that complexion came in, but she looked rather beaten up.” (Zenobia winced. Had she forgotten to cover the bruises with illusion? Dung.)
“How long ago?”
“Oh, you know, perhaps today.” Code for, She’s right here listening. The barkeeper jumped to add, “May I interest you in a room upstairs?”
The prince nodded, absentmindedly relinquishing more gold. Zenobia got her first surprise when he turned: he looked older. True, he was windswept and sweaty, but that didn’t account for all the difference.
Zenobia admitted that this was her first good look at the prince in quite some time. Their last encounter by daylight had been months ago. (They had danced around each other until she got bored and opened a fissure in the ground with her hands. It was lovely, having landmarks named after oneself. Maybe she should have thrown the prince into the abyss, instead of taunting him about how she had usurped his father’s throne—all without having married the old infirm king, too! She was still proud of that, but less proud that she had killed neither king nor prince. Leaving one’s nemesis alive was an all-too-common pitfall in Zenobia’s field.)
In any case, her hero had never looked promising, but with this newly angular face, Zenobia truly wanted to believe he would make a better match. When he caught her staring and glided toward her, she almost got excited. However, if the prince noticed her summon a lick of perky green flame in her palm, he kept the challenge to himself. He simply motioned the guards to stand away and tipped back a chair to sit beside her.
“Must we do this again?” She playfully made the flame in her palm rise higher. “A year after reclaiming your throne, you find me thus bedraggled. Surely, a queen can find some rest?”
The prince’s dark eyes glinted under his messy hair. (Zenobia remembered him flicking it out of sleepy eyes the day he had reclaimed their country from her. Somehow he had managed to befriend the entire forest while she sat on his father’s throne, and next thing Zenobia knew, she had been fighting for her life against an army of woodland animals. Why they cared whether he ruled the kingdom, she would never know. It wasn’t as if she had made squirrels illegal during her reign.)
“You may rest if you wish, but I will never rest as long as you live to call yourself queen,” the prince said.
“I thought I was meant to be the one driven by an insatiable desire for revenge. How long until I hear you monologue, my lord?” Zenobia stood just enough to bob a curtsy.
“Zenobia…” A warning tone, for which she returned insolence: “Ye-es?”
“Neither of us wish to leave such faint marks.” He gestured at her bruises, though Zenobia could not say he looked sorry. “When the sun comes up tomorrow, let’s finish this.” He glanced back at his guards. “Alone.”
Zenobia wanted the prince to fill his role, of course, but she couldn’t help despising his belief that she would do things as the good side was meant to do them. Had no one taught this boy anything practical about the chaos that governed the sorceresses, outcasts, and villains of the universe? But she merely waved her flame away. “Why not earlier? I have nothing to wait for, and this heat is abominable.”
“I rather like it,” he said, getting to his feet. He evidently wanted to end the discussion, which made Zenobia determined to win their showdown on her terms. Eyes narrow, she watched him exchange a word with his two guards and walk up a stairwell, presumably to the room he had rented.
Zenobia remained in her place, brooding, until just before dawn. Then she crept into the stairwell above the bar. In the near-dark, the stone-built tavern felt like a monastery. She felt deliciously unholy, searching for the prince’s room in the shadows of such a place.
If only his guards hadn’t killed her vibe. Zenobia had envisioned swooping past them, perhaps having to use the window to avoid them. She found them, instead, a snoring heap against the door. Feeling sudden anxiety that they might not feel true terror of her, she smoothed out her torn skirts, marched up, and snapped, “You disgraces. You would never have disrespected your queen this way. Do you know what could be happening to the prince right now? I could kill him!”
Both guards had startled awake and mumbled “milady” out of habit, then started to protest her scolding. One very nearly bowed to her. It almost appeased Zenobia to know her effects were longstanding, but when she mentioned killing the prince, they seemed to wake up and remember she wasn’t the boss of them any longer. She was, in fact, wanted dead or alive. Both drew their swords. “In the n-name of the prince, w-we demand that you—”
“Oh, spare me.” Zenobia stunned them with a flash of magic, threw open the door, and strode through. The prince had propped his longbow and quiver against the head of his bed. As if he could shoot her from a battlement! Is everyone here incompetent except me? she seethed, waking him with the tickle of her dagger at his throat. When his lips parted in surprise, she slipped the blade along the inside of his cheek, careful not to cut him.
“Try to speak and I’ll slit you open,” Zenobia hissed. He watched her, eyes round as if he might cry with fear. Just a boy again, when she wanted a worthy enemy. “I’m the only one qualified to monologue. You can’t even play your part properly! You think you bruised me? It took ten brigands to beat me into the ground; the only prize you can claim is carelessness in leaving the roads of your kingdom undefended. If I hadn’t been a sorceress, hmm? How many of your subjects—my people as well as yours—get hurt through your neglect? Given the choice between a sorcerous queen who attended to business and a king who gallivants across the country looking for revenge, whom would they put on the throne?”
A line appeared between Prince Malik’s eyebrows. She slammed his shoulders into the bed, still controlling the knife so she didn’t cut him, and snarled, “And for what? At least do it for personal gain!” (Perhaps hypocritical, that advice. After all, she had taken over his kingdom because he was abroad, his father the king had no sense of administration, and she knew she could run the country more efficiently. If she had to fill the role of the villain to get business done, so be it.) “Never leave yourself so vulnerable that your guards obey me better than you, and never insult me by bringing a long-range weapon to a duel. Get yourself a decent knife!” In a precise motion, she withdrew her dagger from his mouth and plunged it through his feather pillow into the mattress.
The barkeeper intruded upon this scene with a sack in his hand. Zenobia threw a look over her shoulder and immediately understood what was happening. The prince should never have shown off his gold; any thief would come for such unprotected treasure. The barkeeper might have amused Zenobia a few hours before—but he also had a scabbard at his side. A sword, against her prince with his useless longbow. Her fist clenched around her dagger again. “Sorry, sweetcheeks, but the prince doesn’t need two of us in one night,” she said through her teeth.
The barkeeper did a quick calculation and fled, only to stumble outside the door. Someone oomphed. Zenobia, still bent over Malik, listened until the scuffle ended. The guard who had been tripped over and awoken dragged the barkeeper back in. That might have turned out all right, had not the guard stammered, “In the name of the—in the name of the—”
His gaze kept shifting from the prince to Zenobia and back, as if he couldn’t figure out to whom he was presenting the thief. Zenobia didn’t know either. She looked at Prince Malik, and he looked at her. His face hardened before hers did. “Sorceress—”
“No,” she panted, “I’m done.” Zenobia had ranted enough for one night; besides, the thief and flustered guard had interrupted just as she seemed to get through to Malik. Rather than waste time repeating her tirade, Zenobia transported herself outside the monastery into night silence.
I am never, never using that spell again—The burst of magic made her head ache as if it were filled with spiteful, clawing cats. In such a state, stealing Prince Malik’s horse seemed like a fitting exeunt—until she saw what was tethered to the post. Dear gods, she thought, appalled. Yet Zenobia, terrifying witch and should-be queen, flew off into the pink sunrise squirming on the back of a white alicorn.
After a bumpy ride, she dismounted with a healthy dose of respect for the (wingéd, hornéd, monstrous) beast and its former rider. Her kind of respect begat the thoughts, May a thousand sticks fall upon your head. May you always find pebbles in your boots. May I never see you again, but was respect nonetheless. After she reached the conclusion that Prince Malik might never catch up with her to find out about her respect, her journey progressed smoothly. That is, if a journey without a destination can be said to progress.
Once, two months after speaking her mind to Prince Malik, she ran into an obstacle which seemed to her insurmountable: a group of pleasant foot soldiers asked whether she had had any trouble on the road (and if so, where, so they could very kindly take care of it?). When she answered suspiciously, they explained that the prince had responded to traveling perils by posting a new force every twenty miles or so on major roads.
“He wants to be accessible to the people. It’s good to have him back,” one of the company said with a grin.
Zenobia blinked, mouth agape. “Well, that’s… nice of him.” She said this with a genuineness that frightened her. It was nice, to have been listened to, except for the fact that it stripped her of her last sense of direction. If he could be the good prince he was supposed to be without reference to Zenobia except as an inadvertent advisor… and unintentional beneficiary… what was the point of her anymore? Her outburst against him seemed to have sapped the last of her willpower.
Zenobia desperately wondered if he still bothered to hunt her, but what would be the point of him doing that either? She did a thorough job of running herself ragged all on her own, and recovery was slow. She decided it might be therapeutic, perhaps even inspiring in her wicked works, to relieve childhood memories, but that only led to imposed naptimes. In between the sleep, the second year began to pass.
She never saw Prince Malik in that time. Evidently, he had given up, coward that he was. Or has he found something better to do? She ground her jaw to think of it. Fine. So shall I.
Zenobia had as much power at her disposal as ever. Every now and then she opened a gorge or unleashed a whirlwind, to prove she could. Still she felt so weary so often. Why was that? No matter where, when, or how long she slept, the thought of him—living in utter independence of her and being good at it—never let her rest. If he wasn’t going to follow her path of disaster, she would dream him back to her.
At the end of that second year, Zenobia made her way back to the forest where the prince had lived during her reign. Here he had been lost, found friends as outcast as himself, and plotted her demise. From here he had led a ragtag army of peasants and creatures and, gods only knew how, they had dragged her from the throne. But what made her angriest of all? You have not killed me, princeling.
Then the witch called a bolt of lightning and burned everything down.
So he came.
She sat on a twisted stump, no longer caring that her dress had turned the color of the ash on the ground. When she saw her dagger in his hand, she gave him a nod of approval. “Now, that is fitting. I should have granted it long ago.”
He didn’t return her gesture, nor did he look so resolute as she wished. “Are you going to kill me?” she urged, shifting in her seat. “I’ll let you, if you’re quick.”
“You won’t fight back?”
“I haven’t fought back for a long time.” Zenobia remembered stabbing that dagger next to his head, then baring her teeth on the barkeeper with the sword. “Gutting a load of feathers doesn’t count. I can’t even stand to see you hurt anymore, princeling.”
“I’m not a prince anymore.” His voice was soft.
“You—you’re not?” She felt the first spark of interest since the company on the road. “King Malik, then?”
His eyebrows knotted up under his boyish curls. Zenobia wondered when, exactly, the old king had decided it wasn’t worth being an invalid anymore. For over two years everyone had guessed, including her while she kept him on puppet strings. Truthfully, she had seized the throne so quickly because Prince Malik had been abroad, and his father had let her.
Zenobia searched the prince’s face and realized, for the first time, There was pain for you. Of course, I did mean to hurt you. But I meant to do it in different ways. I am sorry for it, but I suppose I can never confess now. “It would not matter,” she murmured aloud.
Zenobia’s mouth went on while her tired mind lagged behind. She would give it a chance to catch up later. “I still want to be queen. That’s true. But I don’t want to do it alone. So if you can’t see any way to forgive me for forcing you to live among woodland creatures, running your kingdom efficiently, and using questionable magic… put an end to me.”
“But, I…need this.” He stood before her, holding the dagger hilt loosely. He sounded almost plaintive. “What will I do without our feud? And yet, if you aren’t running anymore, why am I chasing you?”
Zenobia got to her feet. Somehow, she felt they were facing each other as equals now. “You don’t need me, Malik.” He flinched when she put one hand on his shoulder. Her other hand closed around his fist holding the dagger. Zenobia helped him raise it, then let him go when the dagger tip was poised over her heart. “The hero has to win sometime. You have your role. I, for one, am ready to end the story.”
Zenobia closed her eyes, waiting for her final purpose: to rest. Instead, she heard a soft thud on the ash, and looked down to see her dagger lying at her feet. That thud, the sign of Malik’s wonderful, constant incompetence, of his true need for more guidance. Specifically, Zenobia’s mortal enemy the king wholeheartedly consented to needing her.
Zenobia met his eyes and, for the first time since crowning herself, grinned.