It was raining outside and a man stood, unremembering, with great ballroom doors to his back. They were closed. All the men and women in the room wore masks, some painted in eye wrenching colors, others covered in gaudy jewelry. Others were plain gray. All had simple, statuesque faces with gleaming black eyes that stared out blankly.
He weaved his way through the crowd of black-clad men and women. When he reached the center of the room, marked by a ring of pale blue stone, he realized that his footsteps ringing through the ballroom were the only sounds he could hear. He was startled to find one of the masked figures staring at him from the opposite edge of the circle. She seemed of an age with him. She began to walk towards the center. The man moved towards the woman with hesitant steps, meeting her at the center of the circle. The masked girl was perhaps a foot shorter than he was so he had to look down in order to meet the mask’s black eyes.
“You can take it off,” she laughed; he started hearing the voice and as the girl continued it struck him that her voice didn’t echo in the room like it should have. “I don’t bite.”
He brought his hands to either side of the bottom of the mask. He took the mask off. She had no mouth or eyes. The mask clattered to the floor as he spun around and ran out of the room.
“Wait!” Her desperate voice rang out in his head as he fumbled with the doors. “I just want to dance!”
The man did his best to ignore the voice in his head as he left the ballroom. The sky was only a few shades brighter than the gray than the ceiling of the ballroom. He barely had time to notice the oppressive humidity and only noticed the metallic scent of fallen rain as his breathing quickened. There was a balcony outside the doors to the ballroom, stone staircases curved down from either side like horns; with jerky movements he descended the right staircase. And paced down the street.
“Please!” He looked back and saw the faceless girl run down the stairs and follow him. The man quickened his pace still more.
The crowd was thin but thickened as he distanced himself from the ballroom. He sought the shadow of the cathedral that dominated the skyline—a chiseled mountain of impossible proportions. He shot a glance over his shoulder and saw that the woman (was she woman?) was still following him. Only the children seemed to see her face, marking their sight with screams, shudders, and bawling.
“Please! Wait! I just want to talk! Please…” he sprinted into the cathedral and shut the doors behind him. The cavern was full of empty benches and the echo of the slammed doors mingled with the scuffling of his footsteps and his heavy breathing. As he stepped to the altar the air felt like a song that abruptly ended on a dominant chord—a silence scream to be broken, even as the ghost of the resolving chord that ought to have been there rang like darkening fog. The sun shone through a circle of blue dyed glass set high above the altar. The light beaming through made the cavern look like the sea.
In the twofold morning shadows of a green valley and a great old castle there stood a large town. On this morning the shades upon the town were threefold and the third of these shades was the shade of mourning, for the king had died in the night. And so the kingdom was inherited by the three princesses, each named by the dwellers of the town for the color of the crowns they wore.
The oldest of these queens was called the red queen, though the only red that could be found on her were the rubies in her golden crown. She wore simple brown dresses and her eyes were dark blue. In the second year of her reign she (to the great mortification of the town) married a woman, A poet of good repute in her life and work. She was also a woman of great beauty and her marriage stung many of her previous suitors.
One of these suitors married the middle sister at the end of the third year. This sister was more justly named the blue queen, for her silver crown was adorned with small chains that had on their ends sapphires colored the same deep blue as her eyes. She was a woman known for her love of books. And it was she who ordered schools built. She was the closest advisor to the red queen, who valued her advice above all but that of her wife. The blue queen was also the only one who could cool the temper of the youngest queen.
The youngest of these queens was called the gray queen, though she vehemently demanded to be called a king. At any rate, the citizenry christened her well, for she was gray eyed and wore a wrought iron crown of simple workmanship upon her blond haired head. She wore also polished silver armor becoming of a valiant knight. The crown was last worn by a general, more than thirty winters lost or dead, who left it as a promise of his return. Her bearing of this crown garnered her note among the old army men who still remembered a time when the soldiers were not fat and drunk. Indeed, few of the citizens would deny that either were worn badly or worn unearned. It was she who ordered the walls that once surrounded the town remade. This was begun and finished in the first year of her reign with her sisters.
She had no wife or husband. Malicious rumors, however, insisted that she had many lovers. In the second year of her rule she embarked with a newly trained army out of the valley and returned with great plunder and joyful news of conquest. When autumn fell upon the valley in this second year there was much triumph. This joy however, was not to last, and in the spring of her next year she went off to begin another campaign. All that returned of her was a tearful messenger who brought with him news of her death and her rent crown. This news and the broken crown sowed many seeds of anger and started low mutinous grumblings. She was the most loved by the citizens, who all greatly valued action over words, no matter how valuable those words may have been.
It did not help that the red queen was reputed for strictness and rumored to be unfair. It was also rumored that she rarely listened to anyone other than her wife. And the blue queen had withdrawn completely by the winter of the fourth year to be utterly and sickeningly subservient to her husband (which caused the red queen great concern, for the man was of ill repute and seen by her to be greedy and a braggart). The Blue Queen died mysteriously in the spring of the fourth year.
It was at this time the grumblings began, all of which questioned the value of a woman in power. Thus, the former husband of the blue queen rose to prominence and came to the queen with a hidden dagger. He had no fear of the guards, for, since the death of the gray queen, they had grown complacent, drunk, and greedy once again. He had bribed also the cupbearer, for he knew the red queen’s wife would never murder her beloved.
And so he entered the castle under the pretense of an audience. The red queen drank leisurely from her wine glass before speaking, as was her way. And with that deathly sip the poison coursed through her veins. She slumped back, dead, within moments. The wife of the queen let out a despairing cry. Her lament was cut short when the man drew the knife out of his coat and lunged at her and drove the blade into her chest.
With this act he ascended to the throne. He ruled for a month and a day before being cut down by discontented citizens. Next to the throne rose his son, but he was an imbecile and so was cut down after only four weeks. The throne next was taken by an old general, a veteran of the gray queen’s wars. This general did much good: he rebuilt the walls, which had again fallen into disrepair. The citizens were content. But this calm, like the silence before a storm, was not to last. This king died in the night. The next king was a tyrant and was felled in the third month of his reign.
Things continued roughly in this manner for a year and five months; so when the conquering armies from unknown lands poured down into the valley, the town was so declined that the citizens had no hope of repulsing this army And it was only when their general, a woman with fierce amber eyes and hair, cut the head of the last sobbing man, that the town was finally at rest.
There was a woman, left to herself in an old stone tower centered in a forest. It was a tall tower, straining its gray form at the sky from where it sat, anchored in the center of a spring glade. The woman (she had long ago figured she was a sort of royalty) would not be often found outside in the afternoon; her habit was to lock herself in her room and stare and wonder at the horizon where the sun rose, and where in later hours lashes of smoke would billow to the clouds. The lashes were ever present in the winter and autumn times; they seemed unwilling to linger in the spring and summer days, sometimes keeping their transient mood through the early fall.
She was a young woman, given to winding between trees in the light of the early sun and more sombre ones in the failing light of the early evening. Thus was her life, a routine as unfettered as a well oiled clock. It broke sometimes (as all clocks, even those tenderly kept, might) to rain or snow and rarely did she leave in the icy heart of winter. But spring, it seemed to her, was a perfect time; the clock had only broken once this year. When a blustering storm that brought rain down in sheets like plates of iron, lit like curtains of pale fire for a heartbeat by the blinding lightning that arced across the sky. The woman remembered that storm, it was unlike the sun showers that had come before, and it had lasted. A doubly broken clock for that, graying the sky from the silvery dawn to ashy dusk. But rain had always drowsed her and she woke the next morning and wound about the forest as she always had, enjoying it more for the scents of rain.
Such was the turning of the habitual cogs of her routine. They turned like wheels; these wheels (though they often turned without resistance) hit a bump on the following morning, in the middle of spring, where she woke and stepped down the stairs with the grace of a half-lucid swan (She looked the part, with her white morning gown that lightly draped her form and slid down the stairs like pearly water. It was silk, as smooth against her skin as she could wish) to open the door. It was a heavy door, built of oak planks and banded by black iron, and it grumbled open slowly. The woman was surprised to see the path from her door lined with roses laid gently down with neat gaps of emerald grass between unfurled crimson buds and the bottoms of thorned stems. They marched in a neatly gapped line to where the path faded into the green grass.
The image haunted her on her wind through the woods and did leave her when she walked down the path (now marked with the scarlet roses) to her door. The image followed her into her stone tower and up the stairs and sat with her on her bed. When the shadows grew long towards the east she resolved to bring the roses in. She spent her descent estimating the number pricks she would have after she was done. Once she got about her task she finished in the early twilight hours. She brought them up to her windowsill in bouquets of three. She got a few pinpricks, but they healed soon after and she closed her eyes that night with a feeling of satisfaction.
The next morning there were more roses neatly bordering the path away from the front door, as regularly spaced as before. She smiled as she picked them up this time, wondering at her admirer, painting images of great men with great blowing capes and hair in her mind as she carried the roses in. By the time she had finished the sun was beaming down from its peak in the cloudless pale sky. She went up to her room and rested with her thoughts as she looked out the window until the eastward stretching shadows beckoned her out.
This was largely the manner in which the third day proceeded until the afternoon, when the thought came to her to wait out of sight of her admirer. This thought resolved itself in her mind first into a certainty, then into a given. With her mind settled on her general course, she began laying plans. By the end she had laid a labyrinth of backups and contingencies. As the shadows lengthened and called she almost laughed when she realized how unnecessary her labyrinth of plans was. She quickly left it in favor of a straight, simple path: She would go out into the fading day and wait in the moon-shade for her suitor. She left for her stroll at her everyday time; but rather than return after completing her usual route she stood in the forest, deep enough to be curtained away by shadows if prying eyes were to look her way, but close enough to see the tower and the path clearly. The twilight came, then the dusk, her eyes growing heavier by the hour. The night was silent and the sound of rustling footsteps dispelled much of her wariness; she stared at the tower and the path. There was no great man on horseback, bearing roses in a lengthy promenade. It was a woman (even at her distance in the uncertain moonlight she could tell that much), with the roses bundled in her arms. With each new rose placed, a wall came crashing down, with every moment, her imaginings seemed more and more presumptuous. When the silhouette had finished her work, she sprinted back the way she had come.
The woman walked back to her tower in a daze. She tried to adhere to her usual routine, undressing and laying down in her bed as she always did, but the silhouette of the woman, nervously hunched with a great bouquet of roses held in her arms, haunted her sleepless mind. She eventually slept; the only thing that indicated that was that she woke. Her eyes were sleepy, through her groggy haze there pierced one certainty A letter, I must write a letter. So was her thought and her action: She took a paper and sat at the small desk next to her bed and wrote thusly: ‘To my admirer,’ she began ‘I have seen you; I watched you lay the roses out upon my path yesterday, I return your love with my own.’ then she signed her name ‘Avalyne’ when she had finished, she leaned back and sighed. She stood and paced the length of her room, waiting for the ink to dry. As she traced and retraced her line, a thousand revisions whirled through her head. But when the ink had dried and she looked through her words she was relieved. The words fit her meaning perfectly.
Avalyne walked out of her room and down the stairs to her door. She pushed it open with her empty hand, it squealed open with its usual sluggishness. She found a stone to weigh her words down against the wind. The stone she chose was a remarkably smooth one that fit neatly in her palm. Once she had chosen the stone to her liking she returned to the door that led into the tower. When she was at the foot of the door (which, by then had closed itself) she bowed down and placed the two things she held, first the paper, then, still holding the letter down with her thumb, she placed the stone. With all of the possible actions she could have taken completed, she pushed the door open and, stepping carefully over her letter, walked back into her tower.