Once upon a time, Mirabelle laid in her chamber, watched the dawn creep in. Her eyes were hot and dry in their sockets, exhausted from denying the caravan of thoughts and recriminations which had travelled through her mind for days now. She sought joy where she could, having denied herself the things she wanted. The smiles of her subjects were rich soil for small bursts of pleasure but they were not him.
She had to deny him until she knew.
The pain of Eilhu’s absence was slow and subtle, the point in an illness between fever and relief. It pinned her to the bed with its terrible weight. Each day, the toughest battle was to awake, dress and do her duty.
She told herself he was not an assassin. His gifts for himself then to her father and the kingdom. She had watched him, clad in three colours of armour, catch the golden apple and not ask for her favour. His silence frustrated and tempted her to the point of frustration but he would look at her, or touch her and she would fizz with delight.
Mirabelle wondered if a man could inspire such depths of feeling and hold apart a scheme to destroy her world with a single arrow.
Her maids came, helped her bathe and dress for the day’s proceedings. The hours of dawn, and before, part of her laid with the phantom lover Eilhu had become. Her fingers, guided by intuition, brought him to her and they made a secret, turbulent love. The kisses of starving ghosts were poor fare but she could sustain herself upon them.
Suitors had approached her. Men offered power and territory, or feigned vengeful sympathy but she disliked the insincere babbling they overwhelmed her with. Such need was raw and juvenile, beguiling in the short time but Mirabelle tasted the frustration which awaited her, like grit underneath her teeth and turned them away with a smile and a demure demonstration of grief.
It was too soon; she told them.
She received her privy council at breakfast, a platter of fresh fruit and meats, bouquets of poinsettias mounted around the room. They were symbolic of new life for fallen warriors, and a sign Queen Mirabelle was not a placeholder, but a viable monarch in her own right. She was her father’s daughter, subtle without malevolence and decisive without being cruel.
‘We have translated the symbols, your highness.’
Henry had been a scholar, taught in the Caliphate and assigned to her father as part of a negotiation conducted years before her birth. He still bore the polite deference of their culture, wielded to an intellectual rigour which made him important in matters of state. He had shaven his face and head, but wore the white robes of education to set himself apart. His news revived her, and she fought the impulse to press him for information until he stood and had an apprentice bring in the arrow, wrapped in black silk woven with wards to prevent scrying or infection.
‘They are in ancient texts.’
Mirabelle frowned and sat upright.
‘They were stories told to children.’
Henry grimaced and nodded in agreement.
‘Yes, now but the symbols along the shaft were in a set of entries referring to–‘
He coughed and his apprentice poured him water which he drank with haste before lifting his head.
‘Demons, your highness.’
Mirabelle’s heart pounded in her chest.
I would know if he trucked with demons, she thought, I held his hand and looked into his eyes and I would have known.
‘What sort of demons?’ she said.
She fought to keep the emotion from her voice.
Henry spoke to his assistant in a language which sounded like he was trying to dislodge something stuck to the roof of his mouth with his tongue. The assistant left the chamber and returned with a large, leather-bound book which he laid on the table. Mirabelle saw the assistant wore gloves made from chain mail and had two pairs tucked into the rope tied around his waist. He passed both pairs to Henry, who slipped one across the table to Mirabelle.
‘A necessary precaution, your highness.’ Henry said.
Mirabelle slipped the gauntlets on. Links pinched the backs of her hands but she bore the discomfort without acknowledgement. Henry opened the book and gestured around the chamber.
‘The symbols are in the language of The Dust.’ Henry said.
She swallowed and shook her head.
‘Not part of my stories.’ She said.
Henry coughed and nodded in quick agreement.
‘No, but they lived without living and died without dying.’ He said.
Mirabelle had wondered if there had been a better description of duty in its bleakest moments.
‘Which stops them from involving themselves in the business of mortals.’ She said.
Henry shook his head.
‘And did so for thousands of years.’ He said.
Mirabelle shifted in her chair and pointed to the open page.
The picture was a woodcarving, its rough limbs twisted before it, large voluminous eyes which projected a relentless thirst and travesties of anatomy hidden underneath a rough cloak.
‘They still exist?’ she said.
Henry agreed and turned the page for her.
‘Yes, they do.’ He said.
Mirabelle wondered who would hate them enough to truck with demons, it hurt when she set such a question against the memories of her father.
Her imagination, agile and inventive, turned to dismal creation by imagining Eilhu kneeling, bare to the chest and offering supplication to the things made of hunger and darkness. She shut the book, unable to bear the sight of it.
‘I have agents abroad, let us hope they find something.’ She said.
Carrey raised his hands slow, eager not to force Ernst into action.
‘Now, let’s talk about this, shall we?’
Ernst kept the blade still where it poised at Carrey’s throat. A single slash would open his throat to the bone, and Carrey knew this violence was evidence of a change in Ernst’s opinion, one which might be useful.
‘You first, turncoat.’ Ernst said.
Carrey cleared his throat and spoke.