Invitation of the Queen

Issue #52

Ander Leuhovesen saved it from a book burning. It’s a well-kept secret, but officers can do that sometimes, if we’re quiet about it and otherwise in good standing with the Corps.

All the same, I was surprised that Leuhovesen took advantage of such an opportunity. He was a man cut in the true fashion of the New Order: an athlete. Tall, he had coal-black hair and valley-green eyes, and long arms and legs taut with muscle. He was a runner, a jumper, and managed a machine gun with utter calm and no small skill; he was young and strong and gloried in being so. I admired him for these things, and in my less admirable moments I even envied him, but I couldn’t imagine him reading any book, much less a forbidden one.

I first saw it when I stopped by at his post after a quiet night scouting the north end of the valley. We had occupied this part of Vormer for nearly six months, so most nights were quiet, though every so often we encountered a fleeing family of Amaasmen or a Djubati suicide attack. Leuhovesen had distinguished himself in preventing one of the latter—to the extent of saving the Djubat for the firing squad—and along with his promotion to major, he had been granted the use of a white clapboard farmhouse, former property of some bookish Amaasman. Most of the previous occupant’s books had been burned; in fact, the only one in sight was a leather tome with silver-edged pages on the coffee table.

The title was written in some flowing script, not the blocky shapes of Amaasin. “Say, do you know what this is?” I asked, gesturing to the midnight blue cover.

“It’s in old Mantinae,” he said, setting a cocktail glass rattling with ice carefully on the opposite end of the table. “I remember some from college. It says, An Invitation of the Queen of the Bright Lands.”

“Hmm,” I said, lips to my own glass. I was more startled by the revelation that Leuhovesen had been to college than by the book’s language or title.

“It seems to be a lot of mystic stuff,” he said, with a proper New Order sneer. “And it mentions love a lot, particularly the, er, physical aspects, but I think that’s just some sort of crude metaphor for the aforementioned spiritual hooey.”

He said the last with such a mockingly stern face that I had to laugh. “Well, I won’t worry about you, Leu, as long as you don’t start taking it seriously.”

“Of course, Hary,” he said, and after that our conversation turned to other things—an unfortunate resistance in a town on the Vormer-Nethian border, a letter he had received from his sister back home, my own letter from my ex-wife reporting the progress of our children. Little Hary was already playing at muster and drilling his sisters.

I didn’t get the chance to ask Leuhovesen that night why he had picked out the book from the blaze. To be honest, I forgot about the book until I came by to visit him again, which wasn’t for another three weeks.

I saved the Djubati girl from a band of scouts who found her hiding by the waterfalls at the valley’s southern end. They called her a spy and were going to shoot her. More likely she was just trying to escape the reach of the New Order. I took her into my care. It’s well known that officers of the Corps can do that if we’re quiet about it and in good standing, though some revile us for it. She became my housekeeper.

Her name was Tahileh. All I remember of her is long, brown hair. Since she was Djubati, I suppose she had the dark skin and black eyes, and she must have been a little pretty—for a Djubata, at least—given what the men wanted to do before they shot her. Even in a military as disciplined as the Corps of the New Order, there will be some thugs.

The house I occupied was in the town proper, almost in the exact middle of Beluett valley, and once belonged to an Amaasin shopkeeper. It was decorated in the characteristic flower-and-silver-plate tawdriness of those people. I set Tahileh immediately to cleaning it out, and she did such a fair job that I mentioned her glowingly to Leuhovesen when I saw him in the barracks offices.

“Djubati men, they’re all useless, you know, Leu. Let them throw themselves to oblivion, so long as they don’t take good New Order men with them! But their women—once a Djubata learns her place—can be a treasure! I was pleasantly surprised, you see, by the girl I saved from the boys at the south end last week.”

“I didn’t know,” he said with a teasing curve to his lips.

I told him about her. He knew plenty of my grief with the poor decorating, as it was my favorite complaint behind Djubati suicides and Amaasin merchants and their untraceable descendents set in charge of supplying our barracks with heritable stinginess. He rejoiced with me that the ribbon flowers were burned, the silver plates made by the crucible into ingots to send back to the capital’s mint, the deep plum and rose-colored walls repainted sturdy cream. My house turned out to be a real beauty after all; all it had lacked was the proper care to bring it out.

“Hary,” he said when I had finished, “you wouldn’t consider lending this girl out, would you? My house was owned by Amaasmen, too, and it still stinks of it in some corners.”

He was my greatest friend in Vormer, so of course I readily agreed. The next morning I had Tahileh pack an old feed bag with the sturdy skirts and soft linen nightgown and undergarments I had given her, and drove her in my Corps truck to Leuhovesen’s place. She stayed there two weeks, which seemed a long time to fix up what was—considering what had previously owned it—a rather tastefully decorated farmhouse.

The three scouts who had found Tahileh were memorable: all had seen action, all bore the marks of it. One wore a pewter cap on the tip of his nose, another had a scar on his left cheek, and the last had a puckered, poorly healed wound on his forehead like a third eye. These marks of valor aside, they were fine, handsome men, young and strong, smart-cut cloth of the New Order. Rather like Leuhovesen.

Though, as I said, they were thugs. Yet perhaps they had reason to hate Djubati—perhaps they had received their scars from a suicide attack.

I encountered the one with the false nose first, about nineteen days after I had rescued Tahileh. He was dead, lost in a freak accident. The provisions truck he had left in, heading for a mountain pass, returned to Beluett valley six hours later with his foot trapped on the gas, his legs caught in the door, his head hanging out, dragging on the gravel road. How he got into such a position could only be conjectured, for of course he was gone already. And he had been, I think, the most handsome of the three.

Unsettled, I spent the evening at Leuhovesen’s house, hoping to find comfort in his company and perhaps also to seek the return of Tahileh. She served us drinks, blushing when I smiled at her, then disappeared to some other part of the house, leaving us to speak privately.

“It was ghastly, Leu,” I said. “Just ghastly.”

He murmured something, I don’t remember what, very sympathetically. Leuhovesen was always very empathetic; that and his unquestionable skill won him many loyal friends, myself included. In his presence, I felt I could give in to the horror and tragedy of the young man’s death without showing any weakness antithetical to the New Order.

In truth, I believe Leuhovesen personified what the New Order could be: compassion tempered with strength, with hidden wells of humor and insight, commanding but properly obedient, physically attractive and fit and, in my memory, always young. It is a comfort to remember him, as it was a comfort to be with him.

I looked away from his face, because I’ve always been shy of revealing my admiration in my expression, and my eyes fell on the edge of his bookshelf. There sat a single book, slender, with a midnight-blue cover.

Invitation of the Queen, is it?” I asked, suddenly and too brightly, because I was trying to shake off the lingering sickness of grief and horror for the young scout.

“Yes,” Leuhovesen said. “I’ve nearly finished it now.”

“I didn’t know you were still reading it!”

He took a quick sip of rye whiskey. “It’s interesting. A lot of nonsense, like I told you before, but... beautifully written.”

“Is that so?” I asked, grinning. “I seem to remember some crude metaphors about love... in its grosser aspects. The physical ones, I mean.”

“Oh, stop.” He waved a hand, irritably, I suppose, though I had never before seen Leuhovesen irritable. “Parts are even like poetry. It made me think, oh, of the Songs of the Wise King.”

“The Songs and all their sister volumes are merely part of the Amaasin superstition,” I declared. “And I can’t imagine this book is of much merit, even if it does fascinate you. Still, I don’t suppose it does you any harm—”

“I didn’t ask for your permission to read it, Hary,” he said softly.

“Of course not. I’m sorry.”

“Of course. Forgive me for acting so nasty when you’re already out of sorts....”

I waved it away. “No problem, no problem. We’ve both grievously wronged each other. Now let’s toast to forgiveness!”

We did so with relieved smiles. After that, curiosity, and also the lingering urge to escape the memory of that afternoon, prompted me to ask what draw the book had had on him.

He shrugged. “I saw it in the burning pile, nested in what looked like a complete set of Daughmant’s encyclopedia—the blue stood out so strongly against the brown leather of the set, which I why I spotted it—and I guess it was the title that drew me. I haven’t read Mantinae in so long, and honestly—” He smiled almost cheekily, like a schoolboy who knows he is being foolish—”I wanted to see who this Queen was, to meet her.”

Somehow, that made me think of the other reason I had come to his house, and I asked politely if Tahileh could soon be returned. Leuhovesen excused himself. I waited, sipping the last of my whiskey, and thought once that I could hear low voices murmuring from the hall.

He returned soon after and said he was sorry, but he hoped I would let him borrow her a while longer. “She’s helping me redo my bedroom,” he said.

He spoke with no obvious irony, but I wondered. Even he, a model young officer in the New Order, could not be that innocent.

The howls that echoed at night through the foothills over Beluett valley probably were of wolves, though one Manniten corporal said they sounded like coyotes. We were a bit too far southeast for that, the rest of us decided, and anyway, with a sort of boyish glee we welcomed the idea of wolves, since they were the symbol of our Corps. Some of the scouts joked they howled so long and loud into the night because they were joyously tracking down Amaasin escapees and Djubati assassins.

Only that one night there must have been some mistake, because the wolves took a scout instead. I remember clearly that there was no more howling than usual, and no cries; I am proud to say the man died bravely, silently. But I don’t know what could explain the silence of the wolves.

The body was brought back to the barracks in Beluett town securely wrapped, the covering showing dark stains in places. I didn’t know the deceased’s identity until I saw his friend at the graveside while giving the salute; a broad-shouldered young man, handsome features marred by a puckered scar in the middle of his forehead.

Again Leuhovesen’s house, again the drinks. He told me he thought Tahileh could return the next morning, or the morning after that at the latest, and I was glad although I had been, by that point, longer without her than with, and was beginning to feel almost as if I could get along without a housekeeper.

Invitation of the Queen of the Bright Lands lay on the coffee table, a slim red ribbon between two of the last few pages. I set the glass down and pulled the book toward me.

“I’m finished,” Leuhovesen said. “Just rereading parts.”

I flipped the book open and read.

Your pale body, Love,

Plated by the moon-white sun of this land

Of my land, my Love;

Love, this is mine.

There was more of it, but nothing I remember more clearly. There were passages I wouldn’t repeat even if I could—I do remember the spirit of them. They were beautiful, as Leuhovesen said, but I could feel the skin above my collar heating.

I returned Invitation of the Queen to the table and took another gulp of whiskey.

“I almost see why it’s forbidden,” I said.

“Almost?”

I shrugged. “There’s nothing that I could point to as truly wrong, yet it feels as if it should be forbidden. It just reads that way—doesn’t it?”

He swirled the ice in his glass and didn’t answer my question. “I paged through the file of forbidden books. Invitation of the Queen was classed for three reasons.” He set down his drink and ticked off one finger. “First, it’s a superstition.”

I snorted and said some standard phrase disparaging foolish Amaasmen.

“But it’s not Amaasin—it’s Djubati.”

I choked on my whiskey. “What—them? Are they even literate?”

“Perhaps it was inscribed in Mantinae from an oral history. The book, of course, is very old... anyway, it was also listed as objectionable philosophically—though I found no philosophy, objectionable or otherwise.” He laughed, but not Leuhovesen’s characteristic hearty laughter.

“And the last reason?” I asked.

He shrugged. “It was lewd.”

I looked again at the book. Certainly, I thought, passages were very... passionate... and yet it was beautifully written....

Night was falling. In the distance, a howl split the air.

Leuhovesen saw me startle. “Say, Hary, why don’t you stay over here tonight?”

“You wouldn’t mind?”

“Not at all, we have plenty of spare rooms....” He trailed off; I saw him staring at the door, and realized he had said we.

Tahileh stood in the door, dressed in a simple white linen gown, bright against her skin. Her eyes flickered to me—bright eyes, though Djubati-dark—and she reached up as if deliberately to pull a slender red ribbon from her long, silky brown hair. She pushed it back on her shoulders, revealing the lace along her scooped collar, along her shoulders and down below the hollow of her throat....

My gaze snapped to the table, and I reached again for my drink, lying beside An Invitation of the Queen. I drank until the glass was empty, and as I set it down I accepted Leuhovesen’s invitation.

That night echoed with the cries of wolves. My room was beneath the farmhouse’s attic, where Tahileh slept... I knew she slept there... I heard her crying in the night, a wild, ecstatic cry of triumph.

Or perhaps it was a dream. I am sure I only imagined Leuhovesen’s brisk step on the attic stairs.

When I returned to the barracks the next morning I was put in charge of a scouting circuit in the southern part of the valley. I remembered the waterfalls where Tahileh had been found and took special care looking around that place.

It was easy to see why the Djubati might hide there. Shade and shelter from the trees, water in plenty—and it was beautiful. I found myself staring in awe. The river fell from its genesis in the mountains to the floor of the Beluett valley in many streams down a rock face, and the plunging water glinted in the sunlight like strings of glass beads, or a thousand hanging crystal chandeliers. Even the roar of the falls was like tinkling crystal chimes.

My eyes climbed the rock face. No sign of anyone, and there was nowhere to hide up there—if the Djubati lurked in the south of the valley, it was in the shadows of the surrounding forest. But my gaze was captured by a short falls off a ledge near the rim of the valley. About a six foot drop, I guessed, and the ledge was two or three feet wide, which made it one of many small falls-amid-the-falls. What was truly arresting was the brightness of the water. It cascaded in flashing white sheets, almost as unbearable as looking at the sun, as if some vastly brilliant light lay shining behind it.

I took a step forward, maybe with some plan to climb the cliff face and answer the mystery, but my reverie was broken by a furious cry. I turned, reaching for my pistol, to find a copper-skinned figure rushing from the forest.

Two arm-long steel blades flashed in its hands. The knives were incredibly sharp, we all knew from experience, but no match for modern guns—that was why we called them Djubati suicide attackers. This one lasted longer than most, forcing through the ranks of firing scouts, striking three. I thought she was headed for me, and she might have been, given my officer’s uniform, but it seems men always think a Djubati suicide attacker is headed for them.

The Djubata’s face, blood-streaked from the wound in her temple, snarled even in death. The Djubati, I remembered hearing once, were the natives of this country; perhaps that was why they fought so hard against New Order settlement, harder by far than the farmers and Amaasin shopkeepers of the towns.

But what were they trying to protect, except some square miles of earth? The Djubati had no written language, little culture beyond barbarianism, no history worth mentioning. They were like children grabbing a toy only so that no one else could have it.

When I looked back, the bright water was gone, faded back to dull sunlight-gilded beads like the rest of the falls. I sent scouts to comb the area for more Djubati. They were reminded to shoot on sight; I had no interest in saving girls like Tahileh that day.

And with that thought, when I returned to Beluett town I turned my steps for Leuhovesen’s house.

I demanded the return of Tahileh. She was mine, and had been working for Leuhovesen instead for far too long. I thought of the cries I heard the night before when I slept beneath the attic, but I refrained from saying anything, which given Leuhovesen’s temper that day was probably wise. He was moody and almost stubborn.

“I don’t see why you need her, Hary,” he said. “She’s already cleaned up your house beautifully, you said.”

“She needs to keep it that way! Please, Leu, three weeks is more than enough to take care of anything, even in this old dump.”

He frowned, not meeting my eyes. At last he said, “I guess you have the right of it. Wait here.”

He vanished inside, leaving me on the porch. I heard low murmuring voices, and in a little time Tahileh came, carrying the bag she had gone to him with but wearing a scarlet ribbon I hadn’t given her. She looked over her shoulder into the house, but I don’t know what she saw there.

I let her ride beside me in the truck. She was silent all the way home, and all that evening, and all that night. She made no protest when I showed her into my room. Her hair was soft as silk and smelled like pure water; her skin was firm and warm and smelled like life, sweat and salt, blood.

Once I saw an insect that had been trapped in an electric lantern, between the glass case and the bulb. It had been a hornet, I guessed from the shape, but all the yellow and black stripes on its body had bleached to pure, uniform white under the glare. It must have been there a long time.

We found him on the bank of the river; possibly he had drowned and washed ashore. I don’t think it likely, though—he wasn’t water-bloated, but shriveled, and nothing can explain the whiteness. Even his hair was bleached, and even the puckered scar on his forehead was only a pale ivory. His eyes were closed, but his mouth hung open, as if he had died screaming.

Looking up, I saw a flash of light brighter than the sun amid the waterfalls, but I couldn’t place it, and we had no time to linger; we had to carry the body home.

“What are the Bright Lands?” I asked.

Leuhovesen didn’t answer. From the look of disgust on his face, he must have thought I was drunk—maybe I was, by then. A bottle of straight Amaasin potato-whiskey sat nearly empty on the table before me. I couldn’t see Invitation of the Queen’s blue cover anywhere.

“If you had seen him, Leu... bleached, just bleached. Pure white. I can’t imagine... and if he suffered—he must have—it was my fault, I sent him out there!” Of course I hadn’t known at the time, hadn’t seen the puckered scar, hadn’t noticed because I hadn’t paid attention. It was on my head. Foolish superstition to think so, but it was.

“You’re being too hard on yourself,” he said, the platitude like a lead casting dropped from a mold.

“But I’m not.” I said it then, confessed my superstition. “All three of them... they were the ones who captured Tahileh, who were going to ravage and shoot her. This... she’s having her revenge!”

Very quietly, he said, “What will she do to you, then?”

“I rescued her!”

“Yesterday, did you rescue her from me?”

“Damn you!” I went to my feet, feeling surrounded by red haze, like smoke from something burning. “She was properly mine. You... you only....”

He silently cleared the whiskey bottle away.

“Do you think I didn’t hear you, creeping that night to her room? Don’t I know what you did? Do you think you’re any better than me?”

He flinched as if avoiding a blow, and I was ashamed. I apologized, and he nodded as if accepting it; then I fled. At home I fell asleep quickly in my room beside Tahileh’s, in my bed, alone.

When I awoke I knew instinctively the house was empty. I searched it to make certain, looking into every room, softly calling Tahileh’s name. My head was clearer than it should have been by rights, which I was glad of. I would have felt uneasy driving at the speed I did down Beluett’s gravel roads with a cotton mouth or splitting skull.

As it was, I had a sick taste in the back of my mouth, a sick churning in my gut, as I went to Leuhovesen’s door.

It hung open. I went inside, and found myself repeating the search I had made at my own house, calling Leuhovesen’s name instead of Tahileh’s. I had as much success.

I found Invitation of the Queen of the Bright Lands sitting on the kitchen table. The red ribbon bookmark had been replaced by a slip of paper.

Hary,

I told her you were my friend and for that reason she has spared you. For now. Please leave quickly.

-Ander

I read the pages marked by the note, but there was nothing special in them, only a prayer to some Djubati spirit, and an account of the Queen’s wedding night—I couldn’t stand to read very far.

It is right that that book is forbidden.

I burned it and the note in the farmhouse stove.

As an officer of the New Order, I did not abandon my post. Whatever Leuhovesen cautioned about speed, once I put in my request for a reassignment I waited the four months it took to find me a new post in Laidia.

They never found Leuhovesen. Perhaps the waterfalls would have answered the mystery, but for four months I avoided the south end of the valley.

I can’t grieve for him, not in good conscience. I do grieve for the three lost scouts, who couldn’t have deserved their deaths, no matter what they did or wanted to do. It was understandable, after all. Even Leuhovesen gave in to it.

I still remember the Djubata’s ecstatic cry, and the triumph in it. I know she was dark, so I wonder why, in my dreams, it is only her silken hair like shadows; the rest of her is pale and piercingly bright.


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Therese Arkenberg writes and runs a freelance editing business from her home in Wisconsin. Her fiction has recently appeared in Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and a forthcoming issue of Ares, and multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She blogs sporadically at ThereseArkenberg.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Sacrifice Pit” by Brian Dolton
“The Bone House” by James Lecky

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