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The Cripple Who Danced When The House Was On Fire, chapters 1-3

December 28, 2008 by · 5 comments

Raven Jordan

Photo: ajawin


So massive a construct was the gown of pearls that it could stand on its own with no queen inside. And now, this noon–how its inhabitant did sweat.

A network of pearl-strung wires it was, lashed snug to her body via hidden strings; it pinched her skin through the plain linen slip that was all she could stand to wear beneath it. She had never really been an athlete before she became queen; but more muscle now wrapped up her bones than ever in her life, simply from bearing up this garment of stones.

Beneath her perfumes, beneath the stink of her own brine, she yet could detect the smell of her husband’s mother…and that one’s mother too…and doubtless two or three mothers before. The stewards and ladies-in-waiting could never really get the superstructure clean…not really. One particular day, after yet another ceremonial procession, she had finally just pitched herself a sad little fit about what she tried to tell them she smelled. The head steward threw up his hands. They would air the dress out, he said—air it out so that next time there could be no complaints.

He actually had his men hitch a team of war horses to one of the heaviest chariots they could borrow from the army, and they stood the gown in the chariot, strapped and anchored the thing by its hems, drugged the horses with battle weed, then detonated something so that they would flee.

This plan went sadly wrong, because the people in the countryside witnessed the gown of pearls standing tall in the rampaging chariot and immediately assumed that this must be the headless ghost of the queen herself—she, herself—destroying their fields and gardens over some transgression of which they knew not–some affront that, further, they would never understand.

None bothered–not even those mayors who had authority to communicate with the royal herald corps—not a single one bothered to make inquiries as to why their current queen might have been beheaded, nor to seek an explanation as to why she might inflict her haunting by stampeding a fully equipped military chariot straight through their villages. Peasants, no matter how impoverished, started slaughtering and offering up their only cattle and goats, praying in terror; the royal family had to bring back every living herald who had ever served, to go forth and try and calm everyone down before the royal garment’s ride brought the entire land to ruin.

The queen herself had to be bound once again into the damn pearl contraption and visit in person a few particularly skeptical and fearful enclaves in order to rescue the kingdom’s supply of milk and meat and hide before all the breeding stock was massacred.

The dress itself had returned from its solo journey dusty but erect. The horses pulled up, lathered and blowing, in the stable yard; as the chariot stood to a halt, the gown with its springy wires bobbed forward, as if in an arrogant, minimal bow. Two shifts of a dozen artists’ apprentices went to work on it with fine brushes, and the dust was painstakingly burnished away; but the queen—though she dared now say nothing further to her servants–could still detect that stink.

The odor of all those dead old women had made sense, once–for she knew that genuine pearls are vulnerable to human sweat. The dress had been a ceremonial garment long enough to host to a score of fleshly smells. But standing now, in the flooding, bashing sun, she wondered: Could a dress be haunted?

Dance troupes leapt and bashed through the streets below. She hailed them stiffly, did math in her head: fifteen real pearls, or really just twelve?

Her daughter–the king’s only royal child–would not be still. The girl, also strung tight in a carapace of pearls, jumped up and down, her nails and face already smeared with dirt from who knew where—digging for snails, probably, no way to stop the little bitch no matter what the occasion. For her part, the princess was sweating joyously; the queen could see the salt water running down the hollow of her daughter’s little back and disappearing into dim clefts. A few blessed clouds closed over the sun, dull as lily pads; but they then sailed on, as if ripped loose by all the commotion.

She herself–the queen–should have been not merely happy. Her life should have soared. She had been a prize, and it had been the young king of the Gulf of Pearls come a-courting, on fire in his belly and strong in scepter and throne. He had been so handsome, with the gold fuzz on his chin that would not quite become a beard and those blue-diamond eyes. He sang funny songs to the flying squirrels, and puzzled the monkeys and parrots with heartfelt declamations of poetry while she cried with laughter on the garden bench.

Their wedding had lasted nine days and every bit of nine nights. Now she stood behind him and a little to the side as he, decked in his own much trimmer coat of pearls, made the crowd laugh and cheer. He raised his arms, and capered like a clown to the cymbals and drums.

The crowd laughed and the king laughed, and the little princess laughed too. The king jumped and the princess jumped, and the queen floated a water-lily smile.

Very slowly, very carefully, the queen let herself unscroll a laugh. Neither of you, she thought, could have jumped so easily in those garments before now.

Counterfeits, the queen thought.



Photo: irok

She had found out about her husband’s gambling debts on the tenth night of their marriage. It was first quiet night they had had; no scheduled blasts of fireworks remained, and the sweet dark wind still blew scraps of decorations across the terracotta walks. She had come out onto their terrace to watch the moon blind the sea into stillness. She and her new king had spent every evening out here, high above the other revelers as the sky exploded. She realized that she had just expected that he would be out there, awaiting.

Instead, she found only his voice. Looking down into the garden, she could see him with a band of young men that included familiar nobles but also guards and men who did not look as though they would normally be found gaming in such an intimately royal spot . In a circle of lantern-light they were tossing pieces of obsidian and ivory upon a kidskin and moving other pieces upon a wooden board. One—an on-duty guardsmen, actually, for he had his pike in the crook of his elbow–was in charge of a parchment book, judging rules and marking charts.

She had watched for a long time, actually enjoying the puzzle of the game, which she did not know but gathered as it progressed. But by degrees it soaked into her that her husband was betting real gold on this playtime and that the guardsman was consistently, inexorably, logging loss.

The queen counted up just what she had seen already, and suddenly she went up on her toes as if she were drowning. She stood fast as a statue, while the losses trickled on. Surely this must reverse, she thought.

Can a king lose?

Finally she slipped inside and called for a servant to go and bring her her lord. Amid the hot-rose draperies of their chamber she ordered amber and fire. Her maids arrayed her in webs of gold. Before they left, she demanded, for herself, a cup of wine–spiked. When the king arrived, there seemed no other reason for her summons than the impatience of a frisky young wife.

She had hoped that this was an out-of-character incident, but through rigorous intelligence she leaned that it was not. The fortune in the pearl trade that should have kept the royal family swimming in wealth continually drained away to satisfy her husband’s many losses. He would gamble with anyone, from the lowest to the highest—even with his country’s enemies. Often, half the kingdom’s spy force was taken up with escorting famous foreign gamers over hostile land and sea just so that they might throw the obsidian and ivory opposite her king.

A particularly bad recent spate had required drastic measures, and was what had initiated the surreptitious sale of the large and spectacular pearls in the ceremonial garments. She had known nothing of any of it until she walked in one afternoon to her own dressing-room and witnessed the royal jeweler performing the latest of his surgeries upon her own hated pearl robe. She was reprimanded by him–and by her own maids–as if she were one of the girls that dumped the chamber pots for the stable-hands and gardeners. Meekly, she tucked her chin and left.

The garments themselves were priceless when one took into account not only their gems but also their engineering and their age; to reduce them to merely their component stones was almost sacrilege. Ironically, the hollow glass counterfeits smuggled in to replace the pearls were such works of crafty art that the getting of them cut sharply into the profits that even the royal jeweler’s most rapacious agents could extract.

What made it all even more of an emergency was this little side-matter of the rose-spice. The botanists had identified it—this was just before she married the king–on the harshest of the uplands. So trivial was its appearance and so remote its habitat that scarcely any attention had been paid it for all the centuries it had straggled over barren rock. But when any took its shriveled berries upon the tongue, the flavor so bewitched the eaters that they were wild for more. All captains of incoming ships henceforth had ground-up rose-spice slyly sprinkled into all their food and drink. It alone could have replenished the treasury, had never another of the gulf’s oysters popped a pearl.

But the spice was still rare enough—efficient cultivation had only just begun—that there was only enough of the herb to fill one single warehouse. It was a nondescript building, meant to draw no attention.

As the king, the queen, and their daughter ascended to the terrace where they would review the parade, the news came–someone had burned the warehouse to the ground, only the night before.

The king had shrugged it off; the queen had actually turned away and, out of sight of even her servants, put numbing potions upon her face and in her eyes. As she gazed upon the clowns and acrobats, upon her leaping daughter and dancing king, it was physically impossible this day for her to weep.


Photo: emeraldrose

That afternoon, the queen and the princess bathed and donned more regular garb–cool, multicolored robes fringed with sparkling beads meant to weight the garments just enough to keep them from whipping in the sea wind. Glass unto glass, thought the queen.

The pearl harvest had been thin even three years before her wedding. Shortly after the princess’ conception, the queen’s agents had brought to her the news that there was a blight upon the oysters in the gulf. The species, renowned for the speed with which it could produce superior gems and situated in a locale where the sea brought a constant fresh supply of grit for new growths, was now riddled with a disease that not only sickened and killed the shellfish but ruined the precious stones already forming. Even pearls fully-formed melted and rotted away, and an ugly grime marred them to their cores. His counselors had tried to explain the situation to the king, but he did not seem to understand, and went on as he always had.

Night after mild night, the queen, her body swelling around the grit of her husband’s seed, haunted the verandas, watching the sea. When the child finally slipped out of her, luminous as any of the gulf’s most illustrious jewels, the queen saw nothing but blight.

The princess now sprinted through the gardens as though she were naked. Eight years old. She knows nothing of pain, thought the queen. She will learn.

The queen and the princess were by themselves; this in itself was an unusual situation, but the queen had dismissed all her ministering servants so that she could ponder what to do about their troubles, and perhaps to try to begin to explain things to her daughter.  The girl ran about, ceaselessly; her mother wandered up and down the terrace with its massive blue-green-glazed pillars,  down the oyster-shell paths, past the tall carnelian fountain. The sun and wind flowed through her garments. She sat finally upon a bench, gazing at veils of rain far out to sea. Just like a common peasant, she thought, all my troubles come down to cash. I might as well be grilling up greasefish on the street and wearing seagrass rags.

The strong wind blew. Beside her, against the marble of the bench, the glass beads rattled and gleamed.

From somewhere below in the garden, her daughter screamed.

The girl’s mother bolted. One of the floating layers of her robe was caught by the wind against the bench, and she had to yank it free as she fled, beads flying everywhere as she cursed every damn queenly robe she had ever had to wear. When she saw her daughter’s hands, she tore the scarf the rest of the way loose and shucked away the rest of the beads.

The royal archers and huntsmen were sometimes careless about where they practiced their shots, and one of them had apparently lofted an arrow over the garden wall. It had lodged in a flower bed, and the princess had found it.. When she pulled it from the ground, she had sliced both her hands wide open on the steel head of the arrow. Her mother went down on her knees in the dirt and gathered the girl’s hands in the torn length of silk; but instead of staining the fabric, the blood drops rolled off it like rain on oilcloth and thudded on the ground.

Rubies, every drop. Fine, impossibly fine rubies–kaleidoscopes of scarlet in the sun. The queen gaped; her daughter shrieked. Up on the terrace, from every door and corridor, the servants came running. Down the stairs to the lower garden they poured.

The queen scrambled to gather up the stones, binding the princess’ hands with one silk scrap to catch the fresh gems and filling another with what she picked from out of the grass. The arrowhead gleamed, a ponderous star.. The queen seized it and slammed it so hard into the soft garden bed soil that only the rim of its socket caught any light—thin, like a new moon. A handful of dirt took care of that.

When her ladies arrived, the queen was already hurrying the girl toward the narrow closet that held medicines and remedies, and refused to allow any one else to tend to the wounds. Old Anna, who knew more about treating injuries and illness than anyone else in the palace and who would normally have seen to the princess, raised her voice as much as she dared, but at last she and the others allowed themselves to be sent away. Today, the queen was in command.

With them gone, the queen grabbed a sheepskin from a chair and spread it across a table. The girl sniveled and whined, but the queen gripped her daughter’s hands over the fleece and let the wounds flow for a few minutes more. The rubies fell one by one upon another, with a gentle, lazy click. Sun streamed in through the steep window slats; the queen stared, mesmerized at the beauty of the gems, and even the princess was quieted a bit as she watched them tumble and coruscate upon the wool. Ordering her to be still and keep her hands spread, the queen made up a cup of soothing herbs and honey and sweet wine. She tipped the cup to her daughter’s lips as the girl sat with her arms outstretched. The bright click of stones beat on.

At last the wounds were bound. They really should have been stitched, but the queen had no training in that. She made do with a salve that stopped bleeding, and bandaged and splinted the hands so that the cuts would not start up again. The stones the queen slid into a soft leather pouch, which she then bound, for the moment, beneath her ruined clothes. The girl watched her, dull from the wine, then stared from one swaddled hand to the other.

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