No door in the castle was closed to the queen. She could go wherever she wished, open any cupboard, peep into any chest. Nothing was secret, nothing was hidden.
We are living in lucky times, her old nurse said. The old nurse was also the queen’s third cousin, and had been her first tutor in history, geography, and the physical sciences. Shortly after the last of the queen’s older brothers had ridden off on his adventure or quest or whatever he and their parents had been persuaded to call it, the princess, as she had been then, had offered the third-cousin-tutor-nurse a more than respectable pension and a house in the countryside, complete with a personal chef, a housekeeper, an appointments secretary, and five male servants of her own choosing, but Nurse had merely smiled. Mummy and Daddy had been no help at all, preoccupied as they were with keeping watch over enchanted candles and incessantly checking to see if knife blades had turned rusty or spots of blood had appeared on white stones. Mind Nursie, they said, and kept vigil for the princes.
Mind Nursie was all they ever said. Mummy barely looked at her, and Daddy emptied his first cup of wine before he got out of bed in the morning, and kept the pourers busy long into the night.
Lucky times? the queen asked, as they walked in and out of the storerooms that took up much of the uppermost story of the castle’s east wing. The queen had been queen for nearly a year. She supposed she might command her old nurse to retire, but then she’d have no one to talk to except councilors and ambassadors and ladies-in-waiting, who were all, without exception, very tedious people. In any case, there was unfinished business between the two of them.
The rain is adequate, the crops are doing well, the plague is in abeyance, and the King of the West hasn’t the coin to pay his soldiers, nor spine enough to pry more money loose from his nobles, so there won’t be a war this year. Lucky times, indeed, your majesty.
The storerooms were quite boring. Old furniture, linens, gifts to the family nobody had quite known what to do with – really, an alabaster wine decanter in the shape of a unicorn, with the wine meant to be poured out of the stubby, twisted horn? The queen picked it up. The creature had sad eyes. Useless things had a right to be sad, she thought. There should be a law against the creation of useless things.Put that down, Nurse said. It is utterly hideous.
Our soldiers will grow restless with no enemy to fight. Restless soldiers can become dangerous.
Set them to farm, Nurse said. Better still, set them to paving roads and repairing bridges.
But then they will fall out of the habit of soldiering, and when the King of the West comes into funds and calls up his troops again, ours will be unprepared, and many might be unwilling to re-don their armor.
I’m glad to see there’s a brain working behind that mask you’ve made of your face, Nurse said. Pay them to drill, then. Establish honors and prizes for the best commanders, and rewards for the soldiers. Competitions for the men, to keep them sharp.
That is a good thought.
I’m gratified your majesty approves. You daydreamed so much during your lessons I was afraid there was nothing but wind between your ears.
I liked the mathematics tutor Daddy brought over from Resenna. He had a pleasant laugh.
Yes, and an accent so thick no one could understand a word in five.
I understood him perfectly well, the queen said. They passed into a room of looms and massive embroidery frames, none of which had been touched for at least a century. She had taken her mathematics lessons with the youngest of her three brothers. The eldest prince had been aloof to her, and the middle one delighted in snaring her in small cruelties, then laughing when she cried. The youngest one had been a gentle boy. They’d played together, sometimes, and she remembered once that he had read to her when she’d been ill, a story about a tree with magic plums, and birds with four wings, and an old king with three sons, which she’d never been able to find again in the castle library.
The candles had all sputtered out, the knife blades were rusty, the white stones streaked with crimson. She had not cared much for her elder two brothers, but she missed the youngest. And the elder two, aloof and cruel as they had been, were still her mother’s sons.
I have been queen for nearly a year, she said.
Indeed you have.
It strikes me that there are duties I have neglected to take up.
Such as? The old nurse looked at her with her thin eyes. Eyes of that type ran in her father’s side of the family. The queen’s eldest brother had had thin eyes, too. The queen was glad she took after her mother in that respect. It is much too early for you to marry, Nurse said, but if you like, I will send for portraits of some suitable princes. Though you can’t really trust portraits all that much. A true likeness is rare.
I wasn’t thinking of that.
Good. There’ll be plenty of time for that sort of business later. And there are ways to secure an heir or two without taking on the encumbrance of a husband, if you indeed remember your history lessons. Leave it to me. Now then, what weighs on your thoughts? The completion of the monuments to his late majesty your father and her late majesty your mother is behind schedule, but you know what artists are like. I shall send a messenger to urge the work along.
It wasn’t that, either.
Then what, majesty?
I had three brothers, the queen said. I am the youngest child, and a daughter. Should I not be trying to rescue them? Traditionally speaking.
Well, Nurse said. Well. If there had been seven brothers. Or nine. Or twelve, I suppose. Yes, twelve comes into the stories sometimes. Then, yes, indeed, you’d probably be out wandering the world wearing through one set of iron shoes after another, or sitting on a heath somewhere, weaving shirts out of nettles. But three? The first one gets into trouble, the second one follows after and falls into the same trouble, and then the third brother makes all right again. Traditionally speaking.
And if the third brother fails as well?
Then you get to be queen and live happily ever after.
Nobody gets to live happily ever after.
I have, Nurse said. I’ve managed it for quite a while now.
Tell me something, the queen said.
Of course. What does your majesty desire to know?
They say that the curses of women are stronger than the curses of men. Is that true?
You’ve been in the library again, Nurse said.
I read to educate myself. Is that not proper?
Quite proper. Perhaps you’d like the mathematics tutor to come back?
They passed into a room full of old glass, jars and flasks and vials and fanciful objects, unicorns again, and flowers, and fruits of many colors. There were even books made of glass. All the containers were empty, and everything was covered in inches of dust. He got married, the queen said. Then he and his wife died of the plague, two years ago. Do you not recall?
Luckily the plague has subsided.
I wish there were a way to get rid of some of this junk, the queen said. And don’t give me that speech about unknown treasures. I haven’t seen a single one yet.
The queen may do as she wishes. But unknown treasures are termed unknown for a reason.
You haven’t answered me about the curses.
Have you ever seen such a thing, Nurse said, picking up a glass fruit, or possibly vegetable, in the shape of a crescent moon, its color a hue halfway between lemon and gold.
Not in nature, I have not.
People have such imaginations.
Answer me direct, I pray you.
Curses aren’t real. That is my answer direct.
I have seen the men who come to you, all in lamentation, wearing the clothing of repentance, or no clothing at all.
Nothing is hidden from the queen. Nothing is kept secret. You have me to thank for that, you know.
What happened to my brothers?
The old nurse sighed. I’ve told you before. They have been turned to iron.
And is that not a curse?
Nothing of the sort. You go poking around huts perched on chicken legs, or accept lodging in an inn made of bones, and something of that kind is bound to happen. Come along now, it could have been worse. They’re not in any pain. They’re not even technically dead.
There’s no therefore about it.
My parents died of grief over the princes.
Your parents died because they were old. It is the nature of things.
And yet you are older than both of them were.
I have been fortunate in my health. I wish your majesty equal fortune, if not greater.
I would go to the kitchens now, the queen said.
As you wish. But it is hot and filthy down there.
Don’t worry. I’m not planning to shove you into any ovens.
That, said the nurse, her thin eyes narrowing, was an odd thing to say.
Ah, often I speak merely to amuse myself. You should know that by now. But I do wonder about these men who come to you, through the postern gate, and then along disused passages, whom the guards let pass without blinking, whom the servants pretend to ignore.
There are no secrets from the queen. They are cursed men.
And yet just now, you maintained that curses were not real.
Pardon me, I misspoke myself. They are men who believe themselves to be cursed.
And what do you do? Curse the ones these men believe cursed them?
It is harmless enough, and it gives them comfort.
They pay you well, I imagine.
What need have I of coin? I do it out of kindness. Besides, more often than not, the men have cursed themselves. Their fear is of their own creation.
And you ease their minds?
I do my simple best.
Tell me, the queen said, as they descended the narrow steps to the ground floor, what curse did my brothers believe they were under?
Why, none at all. His late majesty your father set them tasks to test their merit. Such tests are hardly unusual.
One might even say traditional.
And yet my mother begged, with tears of blood, that the third prince might be spared.
Her late majesty your mother had a soft heart. And his late majesty your father was a stubborn man.
And you had the ear of both.
I do not follow the path of this discourse.
I have changed my mind, the queen said. I shall not visit the kitchens today.
Very wise. The counting house, perhaps?
No. I wish to go to your chambers, and speak with the man who came last night.
My chambers, your majesty? The old nurse’s nostrils flared. Her thin lips twitched.
No door in the castle is barred to the queen. Is that not so?
So. Yes. It is so.
For we live in lucky times.
You know where my brothers are, in their shapes of iron, don’t you?
No, I swear that I do not. All I know is that each took horse and rode north.
Who turned them to iron?
And do magicians live in huts mounted upon chicken legs?
This magician dwelt in a house of bones.
The third prince slew him, your majesty. He was able to cut off the evil magician’s head before turning completely to iron.
You know all this, and yet you do not know where they are.
In the north, majesty. Do you not yourself recall the traveler who brought word of the battle against the magician, and the relief of the people dwelling in that region when the magician was slain, and of the metal – remnants – left outside the house of bones? I am certain his late majesty your father and her late majesty your mother allowed you to stay up late to listen to the tale. But the man had heard the account from someone who had heard it from another, and so was unable to be precise as regarding location.
I recall that night. I remember my mother crying. I remember my father overturning the table, and cursing himself because he had set his sons this quest.
It has always been a puzzle to me, majesty, why men cast curses on themselves. But curses are only words. They have no power.
But my father died. And then my mother died.
They died because they were old, majesty.
So you say.
They walked until they reached the outer door of the old nurse’s chambers. Nurse had had these rooms since she had come to live in the castle, when the queen’s father was a boy. No servant entered there. The old nurse had maintained for decades that she needed no attendants. The queen herself had not ever set foot in the inner chamber, though when she was a child Nurse had allowed her to conceal herself in the outer one when the second prince and his friends were being particularly cruel. She could still remember the smells, tallow and sweat and mouse urine, and the dust everywhere, and the scampering of small clawed feet, and the leaping of fleas. But she could cry there where no one could see, and still, sometimes, when she dreamed of a safe place, the queen dreamed of dust and ancient tallow.
Do they look like themselves? The princes? Were they transformed into semblances of their own forms, like statues?
I believe not. I believe…they were shaped in twisted ways.
I read in a book somewhere, that there were three points to a spell, as with a triangle – the Binder, the Bound, and the Unbinder.
All books in the library are open to the queen.
Is it true?
What do I know of spells, your majesty? When I was at school, I studied history and science.
There were schools when you were young? the queen murmured. Speak as a historian, then. Lecture on traditional thought.
The nurse said, It is my understanding that some spells are triangular, in the manner your majesty described, but not all of them. And there certainly were schools when I was young. The printing press had even been invented. Oh, and we knew how to make fire, and grind grain for flour, as well.
Forgive me. It was a poor jest.
Your majesty may speak as she pleases.
May I? Then I will ask you this. Why do these men come to visit you, if you know nothing of spells, and believe curses are powerless words?
Because I am an old woman, and men are foolish.
Did my father ever come to you?
No, your majesty.
The nurse was silent for a moment. Once, she said. Her late majesty was in great distress. I attempted to comfort her.
She cursed my father, didn’t she?
No, your majesty.
Did she curse me?
No, your majesty, I swear to you, she did not.
She cursed herself, then.
Again, the old nurse was silent.
Well, the queen said. It would appear that it is not only men who are foolish. I would speak to the one you have here.
All doors in the castle are open to the queen. But your majesty, the man is mad with grief and despair. You will draw little sense from him.
I would determine that for myself.
As you wish.
They entered the outer chamber. The queen closed her eyes briefly. The smell was the same. Despite herself, she felt a calmness come over her.
The inner chamber was bare except for a bed and two chests. The man was crouched in a corner. He was naked. He had slashed his arms and his thighs, and his skin was crusted with blood. His head was down, and he did not look up when the queen and the old nurse entered.
Her majesty would speak to you, the nurse said.
I am a cursed thing, the man said. He spoke into his knees. There is no hope for me.
What have you done? asked the queen.
I have cursed my blood. I have called on the old gods to devour me. I have sealed the curse with my own hands, and I will die screaming, and I will be screaming for eternity, in the pit with the old gods.
The queen glanced at the nurse. The old gods are surely dead by now? When our ancestors conquered this land, we buried them deep. That was ages ago.
The nurse shrugged. Men believe what they wish to believe.
To the man, the queen said, If there is no hope for you, why did you come here?
Hope dies hard, the nurse murmured.
Do you think this old woman can help you? That she can remove the curse?
There is no removal. I had thought…The man raised his head slightly. I had hoped she might turn it from me.
For the curses of women are stronger than the curses of men.
And old women have much power.
You know that I am the queen of this land.
The man raised his head a little more. He blinked, but his eyes did not appear to focus. He was filthy; he had walked naked to the castle from whatever village he came from. His feet were blistered and bloody, and had left marks on the floor. If you say so, he said.
Look at me. I am the queen.
You are the queen, he acknowledged. The words did not seem to mean very much to him, but at least his eyes saw her now.
Why did you curse yourself?
Must I answer? He glanced at the nurse.
Nothing is hidden from the queen, Nurse replied sternly.
I killed my children, the man said softly. They were only babies. My wife was in the fields. I was supposed to watch them, but I was mending a boot. They fell into the fire. The younger one tumbled in, and the older one tried to pull his brother out. They both were burned. It took the younger two days to die. The older boy lived for a week, screaming. I told my wife to curse me, but she would not. So I cursed myself.
Grief and despair, the nurse whispered into the queen’s ear. You see.
Are you a loyal subject? the queen asked. Will you do as your queen commands?
What can I do? the man answered. I am a cursed creature.
You may serve your queen, and lift the curse from yourself.
The curse cannot be lifted.
But it can, the queen said. The curses of women are stronger than the curses of men, and I am the queen, and the queen is the strongest woman of all. I will take your curse and lay it on a tall, thick-trunked tree. Let the old gods take it into the pit and try to make it scream. May they have joy of it. She paused. You don’t really want to die. You wouldn’t have come here if you did.
The man hugged his knees. What must I do?
You must travel north, to where my brothers, the three princes, fought the magician, and were turned to iron. I will give you men, and horses, and carts. You will bring the three twisted shapes of iron you will find outside the house of bones back to the castle. Your blood will be cleansed. Your service will be honored. And when you return to your wife, clean and whole, the two of you may still make a life together.
The man lowered his head to his knees. He took a breath, and began to weep.
The queen glanced at the old nurse. We will leave him now, to work through his thoughts in peace. Tomorrow I shall return for his answer.
Outside the chambers, in the passageway, the old nurse made to lay a hand on the queen’s arm, then stopped. Why? she asked. Why ask such a thing? The man is only a farmer. Why lay this task on him?
Grief and despair are powerful motivators. He’ll do it.
He’ll die on the journey.
If he does, we’ll send the next one. There will always be a next one, won’t there?
Majesty, I do not understand. In truth, I am in great confusion. Why do you wish this? Do you mean to try to unbind the princes?
The nurse shook her head. It will not be possible.
We shall see.
Majesty. Majesty. Recall their cruelty. Recall their scorn of you. Even the third prince shunned your company once he came of age.
I remember very well.
They walked down the passage.
Majesty. Majesty. You are queen. If even one prince is restored –
I cannot comprehend your majesty’s mind.
Can you not? And yet you have known me since I was born. The queen turned. She met the old nurse’s thin eyes. I never wanted to be queen. It was you who wished that. It was you who had the ear of both my father and my mother, and spoke to them of tradition, and tests, and tasks, and quests. I have been queen for close to a year now, and I have hated every moment of it. And I hate you.
You hate me, the old nurse said. Her thin eyes widened, and spoke as if her breath had been snatched away. You hate me, child? Don’t you know that I love you? I have loved you all your life.
You bound me in as twisted a shape as your magician did my brothers.
I did no such thing. I raised you, I taught you, I cared for you. I protected you. I made sure that you would be safe.
You imprisoned me. The princes are locked in iron, and I am bound as queen. I would have preferred the iron.
You cannot mean that, the old nurse said. Thin tears slid slowly from her thin eyes. It was the first time the queen had ever seen her cry.
You never asked me what I wanted.
The nurse was silent.
Speak, the queen commanded.
What can I say? I love you.
As if that means anything. As if that excuses anything at all. The queen knew her words were cruel, but she had waited years to say them. She’d believed speaking the truth would bring relief, and it did, but not as much as she’d expected.
The nurse let out a sob.
Will you help me free myself from the prison you have confined me in? the queen asked. Even if you think I am wrong, even if you think I am foolish, even if you think you know better, will you help me find a way to unbind the princes?
I will, the nurse said. I will, I swear it.
The queen moved down the passage. Of course Nurse would promise anything. People who imprisoned others out of love always did. The true test would come when the princes had been brought back to the castle.
Tell me you do not hate me. Majesty. Child…
They walked. No door in the castle was closed to the queen, except the door that opened to the real world, and a real life.
Child, the nurse said. Please.
The queen walked on.