The Candle Queen must always carry the sacred candles on her head; otherwise the world will end.
They take us for training when we are eight years old. Old enough that a child probably won’t cry immediately when separated from its parents, and may not ever cry, ever at all.
We are picked for our self-control and stamina. The only two qualities needed. The only two qualities they ever test us on. If I had understood this earlier, I might have misbehaved in order to avoid selection, although it would have been a struggle as I am competitive by nature. We sleep in a long room with twenty-six beds. Twenty-six beds for twenty-six girls. They give us new names, one for every letter of the alphabet.
Our training ends when we are seventeen. They pick me, out of twenty-six girls, because the testing has proved me the best. “The Candle Queen,” they say, “our unflinching rod. She who could stand in the flames and not scream.”
They bring me to the Underground Palace. The current reigning Candle Queen is there. She is sixty-seven. She has served her purpose. They lift the Candle Crown from her elderly neck and place it onto mine, a rounded metal bowl to fit over my head with a circular silver plate on top and a strap to secure it under my chin. Three large candles sit on the plate, and it is heavy, but this is what I have trained for.
They sew me into the dress I will wear for the next fifty years, and there is singing that fills the chamber like bells.
I spend my days being vigilant. I make no decisions, and I am responsible for nothing except holding up the candles. If one goes out or burns low, someone in my entourage will immediately replace it with the next candle in the series. But I must keep my head straight and my concentration unwavering, for if all three go out this will trigger the end of the world.
My days follow a strict routine. When I wake, I am cleaned by my handmaidens, who wash me and replace my underclothes, and I eat the breakfast that is chosen for me.
I have my morning walk, in the same corridors each day where the sacred wax has hardened into hills on the stones. I wear my slippers with the thin rubber soles in order to feel each lump of fallen wax with my feet. I eat an early lunch. In the afternoon, someone will come and read to me or play for me, or I will meditate. I have my evening walk before dinner. After dinner, the masseuse comes to work on my neck and shoulders, and the handmaidens return to wash me once again. Lastly I am put to bed, which requires three different pieces of machinery so that I may sleep with the candles burning above my skull.
After many months of this constant order I come to understand the magnitude of something changing. And it is only a small thing, but when I am eighteen, something does.
My evening wash is slower. My handmaidens always come in pairs, one to watch the candles while the other cleans, and they usually wipe me like a precious vase. Tonight the cloths are gentler, still careful and precise, but there is an added tenderness now, too. I am reminded of when my mother used to bathe me as a small child. Those are unhelpful thoughts, so I focus on the warm cloth as it tucks itself between my toes, over my creases, around the backs of my knees. The handmaiden’s breath on my cleansed thighs. The salve she applies around my hips where the seams of the mesh dress rub against my skin.
When she slides out from my skirt and packs up her materials, I ask, “What is your name?”
She jolts a little as she stands. She is petite, like all of the handmaidens, so they can fit beneath my dress, and her eyes are too big for her face. She glances at me furtively, like she is trying to deduce if I am angry. She says her name is Anne.
“Anne!” I announce, loud enough to get the attention of the guard by the door. “I like Anne. Bring me more Anne.”
He nods, and it is done.
The next morning, Anne is wiping my jawline as she would paint a canvas. A fleck of blue wax is buried in a fingernail of her free hand. Eventually she notices the target of my gaze, flicks the wax from her nail and colours slightly.
“Have you ever seen the sacred wells, my queen?”
“I have not.”
“They took us there as part of our training,” she says, tucking the soft cloth behind my ear. “My favourite was the blue. It’s in a landlocked part of the country, but right around the well, it smells so strongly of the sea. If you close your eyes, the breeze passes over the wax and across your cheeks, and it’s like you’re at the ocean after all.”
She smiles hesitantly, as if checking for my approval.
I place my hand on to hers, only for a moment. “You can tell me.”
She continues, “Every day, we give thanks that the sacred wax continues flowing to the surface, carrying the magic from our earth’s core. We meditate on it in our daily circles, and if I concentrate hard enough on the blue wax, I’m not just underground anymore, I’m taking the sandy path towards the ocean near my childhood home. I can hear the lull between each wave, and everyone I pass greets me by name, and I’m all warm from their cheer and from the sun flickering off the water. Or I’m chasing crabs and treasures across the rockpools with my cousins, and we’re laughing and trying to stay out as late as possible, before the tide or nightfall takes us home.”
We agree that she will return in the afternoon to describe the rest.
So Anne perches in the fragile wooden chair in the corner and regales me with stories of the green well, where the wax seems to grow across the clearing like vines, and the yellow well, where she had to wear a tightly knotted veil to stop its brightness blinding her. At the pink well, the semi-liquid wax moulded itself into mouths and howled as it was harvested. The red well bubbled like an overflowing saucepan, and the orange well grew a solid crust in seconds no matter how the wax was heated, so harvesters constantly broke the top with pickaxes.
When she has finished she bends over my skirt to kiss me on the back of my wrist, and as she does she presses something wriggling into my palm. It stills when I close my hand over it, smooth and waxy; familiar. I try to slow my heartbeat, reserving my judgement for when I can examine it properly.
Later, in the eternal candlelight of my sleeping hours, I open my stiff fist to see a tiny wax elephant unfurl its trunk. It wobbles its head, which billows its ears like sails, and then it runs up my arm to settle on my shoulder. I turn my head towards it with practiced steadiness; its blue wax body smells of salt, and seaweed, and something new and clean; what I imagine the ocean would smell like.
Unlawful, I think, sacrilegious, and see those words like black wax falling into water. Our sacred wax should never be used for something so frivolous, and certainly not by a handmaiden, who is forbidden from crafting with the wax at all. I feel a queasiness, I think, a churning in my stomach. The little elephant trumpets up at me from my scapula, but it makes no sound.
Anne comes to administer to me the following night. Her demeanour reminds me vaguely of my childhood dog after puncturing a pillow or coating something forbidden in its salt-and-pepper hair. Mother and father always thought that it looked guilty, but I knew that look was fear. The extremities of Anne’s hands are shaking, ever so slightly.
She kneels before my skirt on the waxy black stones, avoiding my eyes. She pulls her tools from the white pouch around her hips and sets them beside her on the floor.
“Anne,” I say. “I’m glad to see you.”
Some of the tension in her shoulders drops away. “My queen.”
I correct her gently, sharing with her the name I was given at eight.
She repeats it, still not meeting my gaze, and ducks under the rim of my skirt to kiss my feet. There is a small shower of kisses, somewhere between a thank-you and apology, and improper regardless. Then she sets to work cleaning her lips off my skin.
She seems to calm and grow in confidence as she wipes her way up my legs. Before too long I feel a slow, deliberate kiss on the back of my left knee. “I hope I am not hurting you today, my queen,” Anne says quietly. “Is this okay?”
“Yes,” I say.
Her warm breath spirals higher up my leg, stopping just before the crease that separates my thigh from my hips. “And this, my queen?”
I press my thumbnail into the pad of my forefinger, just enough to feel it. “Yes.”
Anne replaces her breath with the heat of her mouth. And then her breath is moving sideways, to where she has two fingers hooked into my underclothes. “Is this okay?” she says.
And I say yes.
No-one in the room notices anything out of the ordinary; not the handmaiden with her eyes affixed to the candles on my head, not the guard rigid by the door. On the outside, I am the unflinching rod, the only thing I was ever trained for.
Inside, I am melting honeycomb, running all the way down.
The little blue elephant stops moving on the fifth day.
“Have you ever thought,” Anne speaks so low into the shell of my ear, “of living somewhere else?”
“No,” I say. “I have my duty.”
She drags the cool salve across the latest wax burns on my arms. I can see her furrowed brow from the corner of my eye and feel the ghost of a long-forgotten urge to smirk.
Instead, I say, “Do you not believe that the world would end if not for me?”
“I believe it.” She leans into me again, her chest pressing against the waxy crust of my shoulder. “I just don’t believe it has to be you.”
In the end, I am not convinced until it happens.
On the night in question, Anne treads in for my evening wash. Firstly, she offers the guard the same beverage she has been bringing them for weeks, although tonight when he sips it, his eyes glass over and his face slackens. Earlier, she convinced the handmaiden rostered alongside her of a mix-up, and she is accompanied by a girl I have only seen before in mirrors. I take its hand; waxy and smooth. A perfect likeness of me shaped out of wax, one that Anne has spent months crafting then breathed temporary life into, in the way she has been practising for years.
“Undress,” she tells my wax doppelganger, and it does, while Anne takes a pair of nail scissors from her utility pocket and cuts the line of stitches at the back of my dress. The weight of it shifts over me like a cocoon breaking. I want to gasp at the feeling of the air across my spine. Instead, I stare at the guard by the door, but he is studying the painting on the opposite wall of our country’s wax-red poppies.
“I told you not to worry,” says Anne over my shoulder. “As long as all the flames stay lit and no-one screams, we are beneath his notice.”
I steady myself with a couple of deep breaths and bend my knees until the hem of the dress is touching the floor. Then, with Anne’s help, I slowly extract myself backwards from the dress’s shell, making sure my head stays ramrod-straight as always.
I am out. My bare skin feels baby-new. I fear I will choke on my adrenaline.
Anne reaches out for the strap that keeps the candles on my head. I grab her arms. I would cry, I think, if I was still capable. “How do we know?”
She tells me: “There will still be a Candle Queen who will stay vigilant, and make no decisions, and follow orders and keep her concern solely for the candles on her head, because I tell her to. And when she stills they will find another, perhaps your second-best alphabet sister, and she will carry the candles until she decides otherwise.” Anne’s eyes glow brighter than any wick. “Don’t you want to try?”
When we finally lift the metal bowl from my scalp, it feels like cutting the umbilical cord between my body and the world.
We leave the wax queen sitting in my sleeping apparatus. Anne has tucked my matted mess of hair under a white handmaiden’s cap, and we pass the guard that way, one regular-sized handmaiden and one overgrown.
We keep walking. We walk all the way outside, the backs of our hands brushing. I feel so light I may just float off into the sky.
Has the world ended? It might, I know.
But not yet.