It had been so long.
Breakfast that morning was everything I wanted: waffles, strawberries, fried eggs, and ham. After attending to matters in court, lunch was served: wild boar, roasted and glazed; apple slices drizzled in warm caramel, fresh bread still soft from the oven... Everything was perfect, but how I wanted the taste of that pie again!
I called for Meg Bartlemead to be brought to the Hall. She arrived in an overly-large white apron, the hems of her sleeves soaked in foamy dishwater. To complete the strange picture she made, her eyes were shining with excitement. What on earth?
“What happened to you?!” I blurted with a frown.
“Oh, I was washing dishes.” When I waited for more, she burst out, “Your kitchens are amazing! The ovens bake so evenly, and there is so much counter-space, and everything is so shiny, and--” she went on and on! “--And there is an endless supply of ingredients from all over the world! Please, can I use them soon? Please?”
“Hold off on the flattery. You haven’t cooked yet?”
“No, Master Flann said I can only wash and clean.”
“Well, I didn’t bring you here to wash. Make me another pie, just like the last one.”
The girl cocked her head to one side. “Just like the last one?”
“You should have no objections.” My eyes narrowed.
“No indeed, your majesty. However,” she paused, rocking on her heels. “Your pantry lacks one important ingredient that I need to make the pie. Without it, the taste will not be the same.”
My eyes became slits. She was being sly again. “And what is this ingredient?”
“‘Tis a rare spice, your majesty. The bark of a certain tree ground to a powder.”
“I can have someone fetch it. What is the name of this spice?”
“Oh, ‘tis a trade secret, your majesty. I have sworn a vow never to reveal it. But there is a pouch of it hidden in my family’s cottage. I will certainly be able to make the pastry for you if I am allowed to go back and fetch it.”
Clever girl. “Nice try,” I said flatly.
“No, no! Why would I try to run away now when I can cook in such a marvelous kitchen here?” She batted her eyes innocently. “But while I’m already there, I could let my family know that I’m all right--”
“That trick’s been done before. You’re staying here.”
“Then I’m afraid I cannot make a pie as delicious as before.”
“You’ll do it, child,” I said frankly. “There’s no contract to protect your whims or vows, so you’ll either tell me what spice you need, or you’ll do the best that you can with what you have.”
Her shoulders slumped while her mouth twisted into a pout. So much for her clever plan. “I’ll my best, but you won’t like it as much.”
As she turned to go back, I said, “And by the way, an unpalatable dish can count as poison, so be careful, would you?”
Meg Bartlemead frowned at me, insulted. “Of course, your majesty,” she answered, sarcastically curtseying with the large apron.
But oh, what a disaster awaited her!
She had understood what I meant, right? No poison, and nothing so absolutely disgusting that any self-respecting cook would rather admit to poisoning rather than say that he or she made it? I was clear, wasn’t I?
So, why? Why did I sit there, mouth burning, staring at her steaming pie with perfect latticed crust, knowing that it was poison that was causing the bitter taste in my mouth?!
It had certainly smelled wonderful. The fork had just touched my lips when my test-taster started coughing up the bite he’d had. It was bitter beyond belief, but not from salt. He seemed fine after it was out, so it wasn’t enough to actually hurt anyone, but strong enough to detect.
I looked up at the Bartlemead girl, the little actress who should have known better. Her eyes were wide, her face as pale as a sheet. Everything about her said she was confused.
“What’s wrong?” her voice rose to a panic.
“It’s poisoned,” I told her. “What did you put in there?”
“Nothing unusual! Just regular spices! I didn’t-- it wasn’t me!” She wrung her hands.
Could I believe her? Was Thomas’ grandchild as honestly sincere as she looked, or was this the reward of taking the matter of revenge on him into my own hands? There was the possibility of sabotage, but no one should have hated her enough to poison me.
“But I'll tell you this, Meg Bartlemead, if you try to poison me or anyone else, I'll have your head on a platter!” I had said so myself, in front of witnesses. A king must follow through with his promises. He cannot pick and choose which of his laws to obey or shake the confidence of his subjects by being inconsistent. A king cannot go back on his word.
I have never been able to.
Not even when the only friend I had in the world and the woman that was supposed to stay by my side forever betrayed me all at once.
The second warning should have been the grudging way she asked about my human friend. How long had I known him, was he always this irritating, and did he come to the faery mountain often? We were eighteen, so I'd known him for ten years at that point, yes, he was irritating, and we often went on many adventures together. How embarrassed I felt after I'd answered that last one! 'Adventures?’ Was I a child?! Sadder still, that was the longest conversation we'd ever had, and it was about someone else.
Thomas showed up the next day, asking me (right in front of her) if she'd been nice to me, or if she was still being a mean little miss. She was furious. She never touched me when she didn't have to, but she lost no time in giving Thomas a small slap on the arm. He just laughed and told her she was a bit small to be picking fights.
In hindsight I understand, but how was I to know at the time that the constant bickering between them was supposed to be a sign of romance?
I only noticed that something was bothering Thomas one day when we were out riding. His normally idiotic, cheerful face was clouded and solemn. When I asked what was wrong, he blinked and gave me a crooked smile.
“Trouble with a woman,” he said.
“Oh, isn't it always? It's so hard to figure out what they're thinking!” I sighed, and twisted my head to look back at him. “But I didn't know you fancied anyone.”
“Neither did I,” Thomas muttered.
It was after the ceremony on my coronation day, the week before the wedding that I remember the white-hot silence following their announcement. The hush that fell over the faery court when words that should not have been said were sounded.
She loved him, and Thomas loved her.
Her parents were furious. “What is this? How could you, Floriana?!” her father thundered.
“You never asked me what I wanted!” she snapped back. “Not once! But I came anyway. I tried to be content! I’m sorry, Father, but I love no one but him.” Floriana looked up at Thomas, and her look made even him seem handsome and noble.
My parents shot disappointed and panicked looks my way, wondering what I would say, and hoping I wouldn’t let my people down right as the crown was just barely placed on my head.
Thomas was apologetic, his head bowed to me. My bride looked at me pleadingly.
Cases like this have happened before. Forceful kings will marry the woman they desire, and she and her lover will run off while he sleeps at the wedding feast. The king chases them to the ends of the earth with his horses and his hounds, vowing to get back what is his or to kill them both. What else could he do to save face?
The treaty between my parents and hers would be broken, our alliance shaky at best. The star-crossed lovers might be executed at once, changed into animals, cursed for eternity, or have to flee for their lives while the king chases.
How could a good king allow his friend to take what should have been his and tell his subjects that he didn’t mind at all if it would make both of them happy?
“Get out,” I heard my voice answer. “Both of you. Leave while I still allow it and never set foot in my kingdom again.”
People began to talk, the spell of shock broken. “But your majesty--”
“Your king has spoken!” I cut them off firmly. “I need no betrayers in my kingdom. I hereby banish you both from my kingdom. Be happy in the life you have chosen.”
Thomas looked sad, but relieved. When our eyes met, I tried to relay that I meant what I said about their happiness. The woman that was now his bride looked ecstatic. She was free. Hand in hand, they walked out of my hall for the last time.
A king cannot go back on his word.
Not even when their grandchild was staring at me with all the appeal they’d had then, but now multiplied. Her eyes couldn’t get any larger. She all but shook with panic. I didn’t think she was acting. She had too much pride in her own skills to make such a shameful concoction.
“You know what I said,” I heard my voice say. “You knew the consequences.”
“But it wasn’t--”
“Your head will be presented to me on a platter in the morning. Enjoy your last night in our mountain, Meg Bartlemead.”
Oh noes! What will happen to Meg? Check in tomorrow while you have some leftover pie!