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The Cripple Who Danced When the House Was on Fire, Chapters 4-6

March 26, 2009 by · 2 comments

Raven Jordan

Photo: lepiaf.geo

Read chapters 1-3 here

Even now, the pearl-blight raged. The king knew this; why were they telling him yet again?

It was sunny, out beyond the colonnade. Out there, it was hot. The fountain bubbled and spat; hummingbirds browsed the vines. He watched one close in upon a flower, close and linger…then withdraw. His throne room was alabaster dusk, cool enough to be a bed-chamber. One set of ministers fell silent; another set advanced.

He knew about the poachers, yes. Northwest of the capital, off in the Great Midnight Greenwood, they sneaked across the border and had all but destroyed the Greenwood’s unique marbled black lynx, poisoning the cats–specifically not shooting them–for their incomparable pelts. This had not only dealt a blow to the domestic fur trade, but also eliminated the one natural enemy of the infamous Greenwood rat. Once encountered only within the Great Midnight itself, with the lynxes gone the rodents now routinely encroached on granaries and gardens; geese and full-grown goats had been dragged away, fighting, still quite alive. A mastiff would not challenge even a lone rat, much less a host of them. The food supply was in danger from this. Again, the king knew.

But now came the news that the rats had spread to the extreme uplands–and had developed a taste for the rose-spice. So the likelihood was fading that the contents of that still-smoldering warehouse could be replaced anytime soon–and commerce was faltering in general: there were highwaymen on the land, pirates on the sea. Blight was everywhere. Everywhere. Ministers, officers, witnesses–they stared at him. Outside, the fountain sputtered. The hummingbirds stabbed and purred.

Then came the news about the arrowhead. Up, in an ecstasy, sprang the king.


Photo: saragoldsmith

With the princess guided into her bed and the doors to her room secured, the queen went into an orderly and methodical panic. If any of the servants found out, it could mean her daughter’s life. The girl might literally be bled dry. And as had been demonstrated that very day, an active child could find most unexpected ways to bleed.

She rolled the last drops of wine in the cup of gold, turning it toward the blinds so that the drops darkened and sparked. This drink might very well become her daughter’s daily medicine. She would certainly have to outlaw all sharp objects in the places where the princess might be, for it not only increased the chances of the servants endangering her daughter, but also would give them the means to help themselves to what she meant no one else to have.She stepped back from the blinds, and the pouch of rubies bobbed inside her thigh.

It was time to get to the royal jeweler. He was also treasurer; he had opened his ledgers to her, and she had examined them herself. There were debts that would not wait.

Down she went, down to stand before his table, where shutters and lenses forced daylight into a pool. This room, in the basement of the palace but thrust out high above the exploding waves, had been his own choice–carefully calculated to draw sun at all times of the year. The jeweler sat cross-legged, his hips wrapped in a linen kilt. He was grading the recent crop of pearls, flicking them into this receptacle and that. His eyes were unlit lamps.

He had been castrated long ago; the queen feared him as she did no other man. She reached up under her gown, and the lamps of his eyes effulged. His hand whipped round for a cane rod from the corner, but then the jewels poured–and the room was still.

Invincibly red, the rubies coruscated in the pool of light. Ridiculously, she realized she was still covered with flower-bed mud. She tried to flick some clods from her skirt, but beads snapped loose and clacked between the tiles. She froze; but he was silent still. Deeply, she allowed herself to inhale. For the first time she could look at the stones as mere gems. The jeweler extended a forefinger and thumb to where they lay in the circle of radiance–paused, and caught one of them up.

He held it, close to his face with parted lips, as if it were a berry he would pop. Angling it, he turned it for several minutes before flipping open a cloth-lined box at his side. Out came yet another contraption of lenses, housed in a carven teak frame; this he sprang open, one-handed, and set it firmly in the center of the light. Stone after stone he inserted into a shallow cup at the construct’s center, adjusting its arms–and, occasionally, one of the bigger branches of lenses that controlled the flood of sun. Every time he rolled one ruby out and rolled in another, he did so with—was it a sigh?

The queen wet her lips in the silence. “Might these help us out?” she stammered.
“Oh yes,” he whispered. “These are more than a cure for your pains. At least for those…those at hand.”

“There might be more,” she said–“Well, no. No. I doubt that.”

The royal jeweler opened a small casket and counted each gem into it. He did not move to pull out any of the ledgers. He dropped them in one by one–except for the last, which he rolled in his palm before closing his hand upon it. “There will be a need for more,” he said. “Immediately. Bring them to me and to no one else.” He opened his hand, and this last stone rolled into a pouch inside the waistband of his kilt.

The queen hurried out. They were out of money trouble at least for now, and the jeweler obviously had higher interests for himself than where the stones came from. But even if this same miracle could be made to happen again…

She stopped short on a staircase, above the bobbing gardens, above a waterfall’s hiss. Collapsing against the balustrade, she stared out to the sea. Up here she could only feel the waves, not hear them. They thudded though her feet–secret, irregular, and dull. They were never ever regular, never a pulse. Off around the hill she heard shouts, then a bowstring thrum; something cut its target, was mute. Shouts went up again, and the sun smelled of nectar and rawhide and grease.

Only one place. Only one good place to hide the rubies, and that would be in the shrine to the Goddess, where only royal females could go. No others could enter, even to polish gilt or scrub the floor—she had that as a sacred duty, just as the king had to keep up the God’s shrine with his own two gambler’s golden hands. Only from such a place could the servants be kept out. In the Goddess’ shrine there was a solid gold statue of the deity, and there was a compartment in the statue’s base with a lock that had no key. Each queen passed the solution to the lock’s puzzle to no one but her own successor, and the mechanism was so complex that, did one not possess the solution, only a blacksmith’s hammer could bash open the door. Any time she had need of some of the stones she would simply announce that she had to go…and pray.

When she returned to her apartments, the queen found the doors to the princess’ bedroom wide open. The king was kneeling at the princess’ bedside, his crown of counterfeit pearls askew and his two hands twisting a brocade handkerchief into a rag. His breath rasped in and out with grief, as if his daughter were not sleeping but actually dead. How could this happen?” he demanded.

She was running, and fell,” said the queen. “Out in the garden. She caught herself on the sharp edge of one of the rocks. I try and try to keep her from running, now that she wears long skirts, but she won’t listen. To think we let her take on grown women’s dress early. She wanted it so, and now look!”

“Smooth the rocks!” the king yelled. “Call the stonemasons, and have them make all the rocks round!”

One of the officers who had accompanied the king turned to go,but the king cried halt.

From this day, from this very day, nothing–nothing that can cut or wound may come into this child’s presence! We will keep her here,” he said, turning to the queen, “Here, in these precincts, where she will be safe. Nothing henceforth may harm her.” The queen nodded but managed not to smile.

The stonemasons came and ground down the garden rocks, and all glass vials and scissors were inventoried and summarily taken from the rooms where the queen and the princess lived. The furniture was swathed in padding, and the padding covered in the softest stuff (but only stuff that had no embroidery or anything that could scratch) and pillows were tied snug around the corners of all tables.

When she saw all this, the queen was distressed as well as pleased. He had carried out her exact idea regarding the sharp objects, and keeping the princess and her secret under her own supervision was good, but–what to do without a lancet? She had planned to hide a supply of sharp instruments inside the Goddess’ shrine and make the decree.

And how to explain any wounds that might be found on the girl by the servants? It would be three more years at least before the princess bled each month…what a wonderful treasure that would be! But the queen had to do something–now.

After the rocks had been rounded low and the pillows lashed all in place, on an afternoon everyone was supposed to be down for a nap, the queen stole out to the garden and clawed up the snapped arrow with its wicked steel point. In the medicine closet, she cleaned the blade of the arrowhead well. Then she took both the arrow and a vial of the purifying liquid to the shrine of the Goddess and hid them behind the cabinet doors of gold.

The princess was healing from her wounds, but the queen kept insisting that the girl was in pain and needed the soothing herbal wine  But finally the wounds were gone, and still the queen insisted on giving the drink. “She is so rambunctious,” the queen told the king. “I believe a little of this mixture would be a good daily tonic. It calms her, and will keep her safe until she attains the dignity of a woman.” The king, as usual, agreed.

“And to the end of bringing her to that dignity,” the queen went on, “I believe it is time to begin her training in the service of the Goddess. She shall wear a woman’s clothes, and she shall learn the duties of a queen.”

She at last decreed that she and she alone would bathe and care for her only child. This was unheard-of for a queen, but who could tell her no? The king, wrought up as he still was, thought it was wonderful. But then, he told everyone, the queen had a knack for the wonderful.


Photo: hyperscholar

And so each morning the princess drank her cup of wine, which her mother prepared with her own hands. With her own hands too, she bathed and dressed the girl, so that no one else would see the tiny wounds that appeared high up on the girl’s thighs. Twice each week they went behind the closed doors of the shrine; the queen deemed it best to make small cuts, taking only a few stones at a time. That meant it had to be done frequently, for the royal debts were huge. So deadening to pain were the herbs in the wine that the girl was never heard to yell.

At the end of three years the royal treasury was again full, even though the pearl oysters had never recovered from the blight, the rose-spice remained scarce, and the marbled black lynxes were all long since dead. Most everything else–grains, goods, and the like–had to be kept at home, since there was nothing to spare for export, but the country had enough to make do. The king did not notice the replenishing; indeed, he had never recognized the low to which his treasure had fallen. The queen and the royal jeweler never spoke of either rise or fall; she brought the rubies, and he arranged.

Gravely the princess glided, among the pillow-padded furniture of her rooms, the low rocks, the soft garden beds. Behind the locked doors of the shrine, in the cool green and violet shadows, she would be undressed. Up above sat the Goddess, pure gold in the pellucid light from above. The secret place in the elaborate pedestal would open wide, and out would come that arrow, along with the bottle that was used to make it clean–and also the little box full of powder that could stop the glittery red from falling out of her skin. The princess kept her eyes fixed on the goddess, most of the time. She could not grasp how this prepared her to be a queen.

Vaguely, she questioned those rubies. They were rubies–she had long known what a ruby was. But she had scraped a knee or cut herself many times before, and never had anything like these emerged. But then the cut had been no accident.

She had never seen anything like the arrow up close before; swords and weapons of slaughter had been weightless things, always—skeletal, constructs of clattering and stars. When she pulled out the arrow and the sun struck the steel edge of its head, something in her could not resist. She had grabbed the arrowhead with both hands, with all her might, and squeezed. She had wanted to know what it was. It hurt: she still had dreams.

The world seemed as though it were made of water now. She rode its sunny surface like one of the pink water lilies out in her garden of smooth rocks, and all that happened to her she likened to the lilies’ roots: hidden, muddy ropes that would not let any lily travel too far.

One day they let her occupy the end of the table at a banquet. Her ladies made sure she touched nothing sharp. But she could hear the nobles talking, talking as they always did about which peer had more than they and which country was powerful than their own.

Across the border,” one said, “they have it. They can make iron pipes, some kind of yellow iron, and the vapor that burns can pass through them. It springs up from the ground in one place, and they can make it go where they want. Then they set fire to it at that end. They rule fire, there. Why can’t we?”

And the princess, in her tranquil stupor, looked all around her and said, “Maybe they can get the fire to agree.”

The nobles cleared their throats and made the acknowledgments they had to make. The talk flowed on. At the end of the table, the princess floated low above a network of iron pipes in her mind, making the fire follow her wherever she wished.

She would not have said that she was unhappy; all the world was placid and picked out in bright bits, like tiles at the bottom of a pool. Everything she touched, though, felt like gray wool, and voices were always far away. Her mother would never let her keep any of the rubies to play with. The princess had cried about that at first, but it had now been a long time since she had cried about anything. Occasionally it would occur to her that she ought to get up and run around, but the idea would pass with a butterfly on the wind. On her eleventh birthday the only words she was heard to utter were to a servant: “Party’s nice. Who’s it for?”

Perhaps she spoke to that particular servant because that servant was wearing a fragrant garland of purple psera flowers. The servant was quaking in terror: these garlands were to be worn only by nobles and royalty, but the servant, speeding among the bored and glossy children, had no time to stop–and no one and no place to go to to dispose of the thing without committing desecration. The princess looked at the servant, and sighed.

“Take this thing off me,” the servant whispered. The princess complied. The servant filled up her plate, and rushed away. She didn’t later recall seeing that servant ever again, but that could mean anything…anything.

Perhaps she spoke to that particular servant because the forbidden garland had been dispensed by her father. She had been too busy watching the sunlight shift between the pillars to notice that he was no longer in the room. She had figured out by this time that the party was for her, but the faces were all just blossoms; the voices were all just candies and crisp-breads on a platter or a plate.

She was sitting next to the big red marble pool in the hall, listening to the fountain’s hiss; she took the purple flower garland apart and cast it, petal by handful of petal, onto the bubbling surface. She did not remember the big song the king struck up for her, or how he was booming the song and then no longer there. She was listening to something else, watching the sun shift, when he had exasperatedly spun on his his heel and tore off the garland and dropped it on the servant as he would a coat peg.

She stood, next to the massive red marble pool. Someone opened her hands and took the torn flowers from them, and led her to the middle of the floor to walk through a solemn and promenading dance.

The queen had made sure everything at this party was slow. She was terrified that the princess would fall or otherwise cause herself to bleed. The girl, to her credit, navigated her drugged world like an impeccably trained funeral horse. But there was always the danger of the secret being exposed…and the more formal the celebration, the more everyone would mistake the princess’ somnolence for ceremonial maturity. But even the queen’s focus on watching her daughter was disrupted when she saw the king stalk out and come up short right in the face of the royal jeweler.

The jeweler braced like a scorpion. The queen realized there were others ringed around, merchants who were nobles and others not noble but important enough to step up and address the king. She glanced at the dance floor–the princess was being firmly led by each young partner–or rather, moving so inexorably through the motions of the dance that they trotted  along beside her like ponies. The queen hurried over, toward the jeweler and the king.

“Remember the rose-spice,” she heard the jeweler say. “Just one–and look what that did to us!”
The queen saw the king’s back shrug. As she drew near, she caught what the merchants were saying. Someone had was setting buildings on fire, all over the peninsula–though not yet in the capital. All the structures had been empty of people, at least.

There would be a spate of these fires, and then they would just stop. A police captain in one of these affected districts had told one of the jeweler’s friends–so this friend was now telling the king–that he had noticed the same crippled boy in the vicinity of several of the fires, but the boy had then disappeared. Interestingly enough, the fires stopped happening right then.

Out beyond the colonnade, the hummingbirds purred.
“So,” said the king–“Do we not have… spies?”

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