I stand behind Queen Madeline’s chair at the high table, waiting to taste everything she receives from the kitchens. Far down the table, my beloved, Eris, sits beside her father, the Queen’s alchemist, and I pass the time gazing at her, pretending she’s the sort of person who might look back with real love.
Then she does look up, but not at me. Avid, insatiable, she turns the full force of her curiosity to the Queen’s conversation. I have often seen that expression directed to a specimen floating in amber liquid or a small body twitching on a dissection table. My fancies flee like a deer when a loud twig snaps beneath the hunter’s boot. What has aroused my beloved’s curiosity? Should I fear it?
The Queen is listening to Boris the Historian. He sits in the guest’s place to her right. He waves a spice-encrusted duck leg to emphasize his points.
Queen Madeline listens without leaning back from Boris’s nostril-searing breath (which even I can smell, standing behind her), nor flinching when he drags the cuff of his scholar’s robes through the plum sauce as he gesticulates.
Boris is complaining. He was complaining when I lost myself in thought, and he is still complaining. He has a grievance with the Queen’s soldiers, from whose camp he returned today. They would not let him approach the walls of the rebel baron they were besieging.
“Historians are the greatest and most important of natural philosophers!” bellows Boris. “We dissect the great body politic rather than the little corpses of dead animals.”
He utters these words in the manner of an incorrigible blowhard, in love with his own words and metaphors. And I realize immediately why Eris is paying attention to his monologue. Her face is all concentration; the words “dissection” and “natural philosopher” have that effect upon her. Silently in my mind I beg Boris to shut up. Eris’s curiosities are dangerous enough as it is.
“I’m sorry my men inconvenienced you,” says the Queen, when Boris pauses to suck his wine. “They were trying to keep you safe.” She has to put up with Boris no matter how badly he behaves, because his appointment induces his powerful family to remain loyal. The realm has enough problems without even more rebellions. What, after all, is suffering through a little bad breath and tedium to secure the realm?
Boris sets down his goblet with a splash, grinning at the Queen’s flattery. But he continues to make the same point as if she had not responded at all:
“Like a natural philosopher, a historian needs access to his subject. The natural philosopher discovers with his knife the secret organs of an animal, and the historian witnesses with his presence the organs of the kingdom. The natural philosopher preserves in jars the heart or brain or foetus of the animal, and the historian preserves in his books—”
The Queen has turned pale. She cuts off Boris, finally. Even she has her limits: “That’s not table talk, Sir Historian. Remember yourself.”
Finally he shuts up, plump cheeks reddening. He gives his attention back to his duck leg, peeling back his lips to nibble with an air of martyred dignity.
I look back down the table at Eris. She is staring thoughtfully at the ceiling with bright eyes, and then her gaze drifts down—over me, whom she seems not even to notice—and settles on the Queen, with an expression simultaneously fired with curiosity and cold with regard. I have seen that expression many times before, when she first holds up the organ of a newly dissected animal with her forceps, or when she discovers that prodding the exposed brain of a mouse can make its leg twitch. That is how she looks at the Queen. I try to meet her father’s eyes, where he sits beside her, to signal to him that we have a problem—but he is oblivious. He is struggling to extract a gristle from the pork chop on his plate, and I cannot make him pay attention to his daughter without breaking the decorum of my office.
When my duties conclude for the day—after I taste a glass of warm milk for the Queen, just before she goes to bed, and it doesn’t kill me—I hurry straight to Eris’s chamber. It lies beyond her father’s workrooms and closets, concealed by them. I have found it easier to protect her if her experiments remain hidden. But she is not poring over some animal strapped to her table or labeling one of the jars where her treasures float.
I look next, of course, in the library. When I slip past its heavy doors, the maze of shelves is lamp-lit. She must be here. No one else would be at this hour, but when Eris is curious, nothing can stop her.
“Eris?” I call.
Her head appears from behind a distant shelf. She sees me and returns to what she is doing without a word. Despite my concern, I feel a swell of satisfaction and affection: it makes me happy to be taken for granted in her world; accepted. I know this corner of the library. It contains histories and treatises on statecraft. They are not the sort of books that interest Eris. They contain no illustrations of the branching nerves that thread our flesh or the bones that hold us upright.
But I find her sitting on the floor, surrounded by books. She holds one in her lap and looks up when my shadow falls across her page.
“Thomas,” she asks, “would you say that Queen Madeline is the brain or the heart of this kingdom? Perhaps its stomach?”
My own heart—if I can call it that—clenches beneath the scar on my chest. I try to keep my voice calm.
“I don’t know. It’s just a metaphor.”
“And would you say,” she continues, paying my observation no mind, which is quite typical when she’s got the teeth of her curiosity in a new problem, “that this kingdom is a healthy body? I think it might not be.”
I rub my shirt above my scar and say nothing. I just watch as the head I love, full of dangerous analogies, buries itself in a book, focused as if I were not even here.
The first time I was poisoned, I was eight years old. I fell twitching and foaming in the royal nursery. I had been tasting then-Princess Madeline’s orange juice. She was ten.
I was new to the job. Soldiers had extracted me from my father’s household, after he was finally defeated at the Battle of Tremaine. He had certainly not believed the kingdom was a healthy body. But his proposed remedy—asserting his claim to the throne over that of my uncle, Princess Madeline’s father—had ended in defeat. He was confined to the dungeon of a more loyal subject and I, as his firstborn son, was taken hostage to serve as cupbearer to the heir he had intended me to supplant.
I remember still the taste of that deadly juice, sweet and coppery. I remember the stabbing pain in my stomach and the clenching of my throat; how the checkered tiles of the nursery tilted up to meet me. I remember lying there, cheek on the cool floor, gaze frozen on the dust beneath the calligraphy table. Struggling for breath, I watched a puddle of bright yellow juice runnel into the cracks between tiles. The Princess’s screams merged with the ringing in my own ears.
The royal nursery was very close to the alchemist’s chambers. But for that stroke of fortune, I would have died.
Instead, I was rushed to the alchemist. He treated me with ipecac to void my stomach. Then, after he sniffed the glass where the poison had been secreted, he made his best guess as to a counter-poison to negate the symptoms. He guessed correctly. I shook and shivered, vomited and wept, but I did not die. The alchemist told the guards, the chambermaids, and the tearful princess, who were gathered around me on his laboratory table, that I would recover. But I should rest. They left me there, alone. He would keep an eye on me for the rest of the afternoon.
I lay on his table like an animal prepped for dissection, aching in every limb, more exhausted than I had ever felt. I could hear him puttering about in an adjoining chamber, humming as he ground a fragrant plant with his pestle. I would rather not have been poisoned, of course, and like most children I was secretly afraid of alchemists—I associated them with the rumors of forbidden ingredients and unnatural resurrections, rather than with their actual court duty, manufacturing medicines. But lying there alone and at rest was a relief.
I had not been alone like this from the moment the soldiers took me from my family’s estate. I was a traitor’s son. Though young, I might for all they knew have been a part of his treasonous machinations. They watched me closely as I tasted the Princess’s food and drink. I knew that the fate of my parents and siblings rested entirely on my capacity for serving humbly and faithfully, on my ability to prove that our entire branch of the family did not need to be extirpated for the security of the realm.
Getting poisoned, it seemed, had earned me a little rest, a little solitude, a tiny measure of trustworthiness. Lying there on the alchemist’s table, I felt at peace.
Until I saw her. Her face was distorted by the glass of the alembic behind which she crouched. I opened my mouth to scream, but I was still too weak to produce a sound.
She saw that I had seen her, and she stood. She was just a girl. Younger than me, perhaps. Small, with tangled curls and dirty fingernails. She approached the table where I lay and pulled herself onto it, and she knelt scabby knees by my head. She stared into my eyes but somehow gave the impression that she was looking at them rather than into them.
I had been stared at and studied for weeks, but this scrutiny was different. I felt keenly that I was stretched upon a dissection table. The girl reached out a finger and pulled down the lower edge of my eyelid to peer into the pink rim around it.
I flinched away. “Who are you?” I managed to croak out of my ravaged throat.
“I’m Eraneris,” she said; “did it hurt being poisoned? Your eyes are yellowy and red. Like in the boar’s head I saw yesterday in the kitchens before they roasted it. I wonder what causes that. It’s interesting, don’t you think? I’m his daughter.” She pointed with her chin at the adjoining room where the alchemist was working.
She put a dirt-black thumbnail into her mouth and chewed on it, staring at me. She was the most unpresentable person I had yet seen at court.
“I’d like to look in your mouth,” she said.
I should perhaps have been offended by this rude creature. But there was something about her straightforwardness that appealed to me. Whenever anyone had spoken to me these last few weeks, they had couched their words in the roundabout courtesies and thorny indirections of the court. Sometimes it hurt my head trying to understand what they were really saying. Eraneris just wanted to look in my mouth.
I opened it for her.
“Stick out your tongue,” she said.
I stuck it out.
“There are white bumps on it,” she said. “Are there, usually?”
I shook my head. She studied my tongue for a few seconds more, then nodded to herself, as if confirming something she had suspected. Without another word she clambered off the table and began to walk out of the room.
“Wait,” I croaked.
She halted in the doorway and looked back.
I didn’t really have anything else to say, I just didn’t want her to leave.
“I found a dead bird by the north wall this morning,” she said. “It had a ring in its stomach when I opened it to see what it died from. Do you want to see that?”
It wasn’t at all the sort of thing I wanted to see, but I nodded.
“Okay,” she said, “I’ll bring it.”
Since the banquet I have sought a way to distract Eris’s single-minded pursuit of the similarities between natural philosophy and politics. But her dissection table is now piled with histories and works of philosophy rather than the usual assortment of rats. She used to speak of the circulation of blood and the working of the bowels, and now she has taken to musing about the agricultural production of peasants and the duties of court ministers. Nothing I can come up with distracts her at all.
In the kitchens I hear that the Huntsman’s prize bitch has produced a new litter, one pup stillborn. I wait until the Queen takes her early afternoon nap—the morning is filled with meetings of state, at each of which there is sometimes coffee, sometimes pastry for me to taste before her—and then while she is sleeping I rush down the long spiraling stairs to the kennels. The Huntsman sits on a bench polishing his spurs. I can hear the whimper and growl of the bitch and her new pups where they lie on a blanket in the corner of the room.
“Thomas,” he grunts, seeing me. He is a perpetually ill-tempered man when stuck inside and not striding the greensward of his beloved forests. “What d’ye need, lad?” Ever since I convinced Eris to save his favorite horse when it took mysteriously ill, he has liked me.
“I heard there was a dead one in the litter,” I say, nodding toward the pups.
“Aye,” he says.
“Could I have the body?”
He puts down his boot and slings his polishing rag over his shoulder, leans back and crosses his arms. Spending so much time with Eris, I forget sometimes the way most people are about bodies and death.
“It’s for... natural philosophy,” I say.
“Natural philosophy,” he repeats, like it’s the name of a god he’s never heard of.
“Eraneris would like it,” I say.
“Ah.” He shakes his head at the strangeness of it all, but I can see him thinking that he owes her one for the horse. “I buried the wee body behind the stables. Do what ye will.”
I bring the dirt-stained corpse, eyes still womb-shut, to Eris’s chamber. She is sitting cross-legged on her table, surrounded by books. When I enter she glances up annoyed, looks back at her book, then notices the limp body in my hand. She favors me with a smile and clambers down to accept my present.
“A dog!” she says. “I’ve not looked into one since—” She doesn’t finish the sentence. Once, my project was to convince her to restrict her investigations to dead animals, and I am pleased to say I won that battle, though only after she had satisfied herself as to the question of whether various creatures could survive the whole or partial removal of various organs.
“Shall I clear these off your table?” I gesture at the books. They include Santorelli’s notorious Kingcraft and three volumes of history about last century’s grievous wars of succession. She nods, already absorbed, palpating the limp body in her hands, inspecting it from every angle. “I’ll return them to the library.”
“No,” she says, not looking up. “Leave them near.”
I curse silently. My whole design was diversion. From the wall, I take her leather apron and sharpest scalpel and bring them to her.
“Surely you have more interesting things to study,” I say, “than dry old books about things gone and done.”
“Oh, Thomas,” she laughs. “It’s not the past that interests me.” She lays the corpse on her table, and I hand her the dissection equipment. She dons the apron and turns to let me tie it for her. Such small moments of intimacy always fill me with happiness. “The problem with historians,” she continues, inspecting the glinting edge of her scalpel, “is the unscientific way they use their observations of the past. Do you know they never perform experiments?” With a flash of steel, she gestures at the books I’ve piled in the corner of the room. “Santorelli here even writes that the historian must be like an observing spirit, drawing conclusions but refusing to intervene in politics. And yet his Kingcraft is supposed to be advice for monarchs! Would you trust an alchemist who never tested his potions on living creatures, just read about plants? There is no knowledge without experiment.”
My throat is dry when I try to swallow. I search for words as Eris splays the limbs of her new toy and stabs her scalpel eagerly into its sternum with a precise and steady hand. The problem with Eris is that you can’t appeal to her conscience, because she doesn’t really seem to have one. A spurt of the body’s not-yet-congealed blood falls across her sleeve, but she continues to dig and cut, ignoring the stain as it soaks into cloth and spreads like an inkblot on paper.
“Perhaps,” I say, thinking of my father, “politics is too dangerous for experimentation.”
Eris peels away a flap of skin to inspect the underdeveloped muscles of the gift I brought her.
“I thought you liked dangerous experiments,” she says coldly, as she begins to flay the pup.
The second time I was poisoned, thirteen years old, I lay on a green bank by a stream dappled in the shadow-lace of trees. I knew what had happened immediately and strained a hand toward my poisoner as a red film crept over my vision. She watched with keen interest.
My life as a hostage had gone much better since my first poisoning. The court at large continued not to accept me, but now I had Eris.
She fascinated me. Whenever I was free from the duties of tasting, I would run to the alchemist’s chambers to find her or ask where she had gone. Her days were full of projects. When she became curious about something, she would find a way to answer her questions, and mostly she seemed curious about the bodies of animals. What made them work; what made them stop working? Could she fix them, or break them in very particular ways? I did not understand what attracted her to those things, but her driven curiosity itself was the purest thing I knew, and it embraced me easily as friend and co-conspirator.
She had a secret cupboard in her father’s store-room, full of purloined jars containing dead rats in various stages of decomposition that she had pinched from the traps set by the chamberlain around the castle. She wanted to see which parts of them would decay first. The oldest were delicate pristine skeletons; the freshest, maggoty and crawling with the life of death. In the same cupboard she also kept various liquid samples of pond and dirty dish water, to watch what happened as scum and fuzz formed across their stagnant surfaces. She performed experiments of all kinds, sniffing and tasting and squishing and cutting and submerging and mixing whatever she could find that squirmed or trembled, breathed or crept. When I hesitated to agree to something she wanted us to do, she would look at me and say, “but it’s interesting, don’t you think?”
And in response I would think, you are interesting—and go along with it.
That day on the riverbank, after she poisoned me, she knelt beside me, just as she had those years ago. I sank back on the moss and struggled to draw breath.
“Why?” I asked, between heaving gasps.
“Your lips are turning blue,” she said, bending close, for all the world like a lover leaning in for a kiss, but in her case just to look. “I thought perhaps the mixture we used on that rabbit wouldn’t work on a larger animal. But it does seem to be working. Interesting, don’t you think?”
I looked up at her brown eyes and knew I was dying. Ever since the first poisoning I had often flinched when tasting my royal cousin’s food, and I had suffered nightmares about choking and pain in my gut. But now that it was happening, I found that my mind did not immediately claw at life in a panic. Instead I found myself suffused with yearning sorrow about my poisoner; chiefly saddened that it was her who had done this to me.
I rasped, “But I love you...”
She reared back, startled. The red haze was beginning to cover my vision. It was growing harder and harder to draw breath. On the edges of the haze, black crept in.
“How strange,” she said.
“Think of it as... my experiment,” I whispered, the black fully swallowing the red, “It’s interesting... don’t you... think?”
The forest and river disappeared, and my brain began to sort frantically through my favorite memories.
Over the last five years the only person from whom I could earn a smile had been Eris. Everyone in the castle could not help but remember my father when they looked at me. But all I had to do to please Eris was to contribute to her collections or aid her in one of her experiments. I had brought her a box filled with the Princess’s fingernail clippings, stolen a key for her to the Royal morgue, helped her catch frogs at night in the ornamental fountain in the castle’s main courtyard.
We had grown into teenagers, and I had begun to feel more than friendship for Eris. An alchemist’s daughter with no standing at the court and a hostage cupbearer? Why not?
But in Eris, adolescence had taken a different turn. Her childhood interests did not waver; they intensified, expanded, became more systematic. In watching her father retrieve various ingredients from animals for his work—the poison glands of an asp, or the precious bezoar to be found in the stomach of a dead goat—she acquired a taste for formal dissection, and in his books of alchemical recipes she got the idea of writing and drawing what she discovered. Her experiments grew more ambitious, and they seemed to be building toward something, some insight unimaginable by an ordinary personal like myself.
Then one day Princess Madeline’s prized white cat, Felicity, turned up dead. She was buried and mourned, but three days later she reappeared, with a strange scar along her belly. She was no longer dead. It was certainly her: she had the same black splotches on her nose, and walked straight up to rub her face on the horrified Princess’s leg.
The alchemist took me aside when next I wandered into his laboratory in search of Eris.
“We must speak, young Thomas,” he said when I asked him where she had gone.
He drew me into a storeroom and locked the door behind us. I felt uncomfortable. Somehow I knew that this would be about Eris.
“You know Eraneris as well as anyone,” said the alchemist. “And you know that although she is brilliant—far more intelligent than you or I—she has... no sense of boundaries when she wants to understand something.” He paused to assess my reaction.
I merely looked at him.
“Her mother was the same,” he said. “It’s our duty to protect people like them, you understand? They’re precious.” He reached out and took my shoulder, began to knead it painfully, as if to persuade me with the force of his fingers. “I have a small collection of books on things forbidden. Every alchemist does, in case the realm has... need. Poisons, the rites of life and unlife, unnatural births, and suchlike.” He examined my face.
So the children’s tales were true.
“Well,” he said, “Today I found that the lock I keep on my cabinet of these books had been broken.”
He dropped his hand from my shoulder.
“Talk to Eraneris,” he said. “She doesn’t really listen to me if she’s set on knowing about something. But you’re her friend. Maybe she would listen to you.”
“But I don’t think she would like it if I—” I began. He held up a hand.
“If you don’t intervene, and if others realize who is tampering with nature, she won’t just be in trouble, do you understand? These things are forbidden.”
So I set out to reason with Eraneris about the new tenor of her experiments, and she poisoned me.
I don’t think the two things were related. It just so happened that the occasion I chose to warn her was the very same picnic during which she chose to experiment on me.
I came back to my senses alone on the riverbank. Shadows were long around me, and I lay in a depression in the moss, sodden with my own sweat, aching. Eris was gone, but there was an empty vial beside me.
Had she intended to give me a counterpoison all along, after she saw the effect her concoction would have on me? Was that the experiment? Or had my words of love saved my life? I have never been able to decide, but I know that if there’s an emotion Eris understands and respects, it’s curiosity; if ever I had a stroke of luck or genius, it was in framing my love for her as an experiment.
Eris avoided me for a few days, then appeared one evening while I waited outside the Princess’s boudoir before dinner.
“Meet me behind the stables,” she said, looking around to make sure we were alone. “One of the horses foaled, and I know where they buried the afterbirth. I would like to dig it up and study it.”
“You want me along?” I said.
She looked straight into my eyes—which it struck me, then, that she almost never did.
“We both have experiments to see through,” she said. “And neither of us can carry them out alone.”
She stuck out a hand, as if we were colleagues establishing our collaboration. Hesitantly, I took it.
The histories are gone from Eris’s chambers. I hope that her reading was merely a phase, a pure academic interest piqued by that blowhard, Boris.
Then Queen Madeline takes ill.
Her face is gray. She tires easily. She has no appetite, and when she eats she can’t keep the food down. There are whispers in the halls of the castle, and rumors and fears abound. Queen Madeline is young; there is no heir.
No one suspects foul play. I’m here, after all, healthy as ever, tasting everything she eats or drinks. No one suspects—except for me.
I find Eris in her chamber innocently pickling a dead gosling, to add it to the shelf on which she is attempting to preserve for study a full spectrum of its species, from the blood clot in an egg yolk to a black-necked goose. The late afternoon sun filters through her many wet specimens, casting the shadow of a gently floating half-dissected frog across the table.
I don’t know how she could be poisoning the Queen and simultaneously slipping me an antidote without my notice; but if anyone could...
“Are you responsible?” I ask her. There is no need, I think, to specify.
The sterile smell of fixative fills the room as Eris finishes depressing the plunger on her needle, bloating the gosling’s downy wing with fluid. She gestures for the flask in order to refill her needle. I hand it to her.
“It’s interesting, don’t you think?” she says. She might as well be talking about the damn bird, but I know she’s not.
“What could possibly be interesting about this?”
“Nothing is more interesting than healing a body. You know that, Thomas.”
“You’re calling murder ‘healing a body’?”
She pauses in her ministrations and looks right into my eyes, an occurrence rare enough that it catches my breath in my throat. Then her gaze traces down my face, my neck, to my shirt, where it covers a certain scar.
“Sometimes for a body to live,” she says, “an organ must be replaced. This kingdom is a dying body. It’s barely clinging to life. The treasury, which you might call its blood, is draining. The peasants, its muscles, are starving. The courtiers and nobles splinter like brittle bones. And the heart—the heart is weak.”
I sink hopelessly onto a bench. She sounds like my father used to. He made such speeches often in my youth, ranting about how the kingdom was falling apart under the rule of his brother. Economics this, politics that. But Eris’s words are far more precise, and her intentions seem far more dangerous.
The tone of her voice is resolute. I won’t be able to persuade her against what she has in mind.
“I’ll tell,” I say, quietly. “They’ll put you in the dungeons.”
It feels momentous to me that I have said this. I feel out of breath, like I have just ran up a hill. I have never threatened Eris before.
But this time she doesn’t even look up from her gosling.
“No you won’t,” she says. “That would be bad for your experiment.”
Now I should stand up and do it. I shouldn’t just sit here and look at her lovely intent face, and I certainly shouldn’t feel a guilty warmth about her confidence in my discretion.
She beckons with the flask of fixative. “I need this filled,” she says.
I shouldn’t help her. I shouldn’t stand up and take the flask and carry it to the cask in the corner of the room and turn the spigot and fill it up and bring it back to her. I shouldn’t set it beside her hand—no longer the grubby hand of a child but the clean hand of an adult, albeit shiny in places from the odd acid burn. I shouldn’t tremble when that hand briefly touches mine in thanks and lingers, a few seconds longer, in persuasion.
I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t.
The third time I was poisoned, I did it to myself.
My life had found an equilibrium at Princess Madeline’s court. Her father was dying, and soon she would be Queen. I would be the Queen’s cupbearer, and I was happy with that arrangement. It meant I could stay forever near to Eris. But into this relative idyll intruded a shadow—my father.
By then I had been more years at court than at home; it had become my home. I knew my good behavior had secured my father’s freedom. After my first poisoning, he had been allowed to leave the dungeons where his rebellion had landed him, and over the years since then he had even been permitted to venture beyond the borders of our estate. I had never seen him in person. The only signs to me of his continued existence were the formal greetings appended to my mother’s regular letters. What had he been doing?
As it turned out, he had been plotting.
I was awakened in the middle of the night by the smell of horse and leather and a gloved hand clamped across my mouth. My panicked eyes opened on a face I had not seen since he accompanied me to the court: the sergeant of my father’s men-at-arms. Oak, he was called, and his face looked like one: ageless, knotted, hard.
He waited until my body relaxed to remove his hand from my mouth, then spoke in a hurried whisper.
“Your father sends his compliments on your stalwart endurance among our family’s enemies. He wishes you to know you will soon be free. All you must do is drink this, tomorrow, before you taste the food.”
And he clasped my hand around a small brass vial, straightened, and vanished.
I lay trembling in my bed, unsure if I had just awoken from a particularly vivid dream. But the cold metal of the vial was heavy in my sweaty hand.
For hours I stared at the shadows on the ceiling. My heart was not slowing from the fright of my ominous awakening; no, it was beating faster and harder as I began to understand what I was being asked to do. I could not pretend to myself not to know what I held. An anti-dote, no doubt, to a poison that would be administered to Princess Madeline in her food, tomorrow.
My father had failed to take the crown by force of arms, so now he was planning to try again with guile. I knew enough from standing behind Madeline in her lessons to recognize what it would mean: if she died, the best claim upon the crown would belong to my father. And his son. Oak’s midnight visit presented me with a choice—no, demanded a choice. I was to choose father or the Queen.
And if I chose father, all I had to do was... nothing, really. Drink this antidote and watch it happen.
I found myself fighting an urge to run immediately to the castle guards and tell them what had happened. I did not want my father’s revenge. I had no ambition for our family. Perhaps this was pathetic and weak, but I had grown to enjoy my life at court, hostage or no. I was safe and comfortable, and I had Eris.
But how could I possibly expose my family? I might resent my father’s hopeless crusade to claim some pointless right to a throne I didn’t want, but my mother, my sisters, also stood to lose, perhaps to die, if I betrayed him.
This choice felt more bitter to me than the poisons I had twice imbibed.
I lay undecided, unsleeping. Eventually dawn stained the room and the soft steps and voices of chambermaids walking past my door indicated I would soon be required to fulfill my daily duty and attend the Princess. But I was no closer to seeing a solution. The chamberlain knocked at my door as he passed. It was time. I must choose.
I couldn’t. I set down the brass vial on my pillow, dressed, and made my way from my chambers to the stained glass chapel where the Princess customarily said her morning prayers and received her breakfast. I entered the hushed room, around which stood a dozen retainers still and quiet, watching Princess Madeline on her knees in a pool of colored light, hands clasped, eyes closed, murmuring piously. A chambermaid held a platter with bread, fruit, and chocolate. I found myself staring at it, and I wondered which item held death.
The Princess rose, and my moment, if I was going to seize one, had arrived. But instead of speaking out I watched, dumb, the same self-canceling arguments battling in my head and freezing my body as she approached. She paused as usual for me to swallow a bit of each dish.
Somnambulistically, I reached out my arm. I saw it as if from a distance. I picked up the chocolate and nibbled a corner. I swallowed and felt the sweet hardness travel down my throat. No pain, no tightness. The bread: I broke a piece, watched steam rise from the vent and chewed, chewed, swallowed. Still I felt nothing. But the instant the cool pear touched my tongue, I knew. It tasted wrong.
I swallowed, as if swallowing the whole contradiction of my position.
I would die, but the Princess would live and no suspicion would fall upon my family. I closed my eyes and felt—an unfortunately well-known sensation to me by then—the gorge rising in my throat, like a particularly sharp and fatal heartburn. But this poison was different. It didn’t close my throat, it made my heart beat fast, faster. Full of pain. I clutched my chest and fell.
There was no miraculous salvation this time. My death was excruciating. As the dark closed in and I felt a piercing pain in my chest, I pictured Eris as I liked her best: bent over a project, lips pursed, intent.
And when I opened my eyes again, disoriented, that was what I saw. I felt strangely leaden, as if a great weight bore down on every part of my body. I couldn’t move. Eris loomed above me, staring not at my face but, it seemed, at my chest, doing something with her hands I could not feel. In what I could tell was her father’s laboratory—I must be laid out on the same table where I had first encountered her—the light was dim as if the room were lit by candles but also green. I smelled harsh herbs. And I heard a steady stream of panicked, muttered prayers. They were not coming from Eris, who was intent on whatever she was doing to me. To the left, I could just make out a fuzzy corona of hair that I recognized, glimmering in the green candle-light, as her father the alchemist. The prayers were his.
Later, the alchemist was credited by a grateful Princess with nigh miraculous powers of resuscitation. But the truth was that I had died; the poison stopped my heart. The same hand that had returned the Princess’s cat from a grave had also returned her cupbearer, and by the same means. There was a scar across my chest, and a pig was found, dead, eviscerated, its heart removed. And my heart—the original one—where is it? I’m not sure; but in another sense, in almost every sense, it’s in the hands of the alchemist’s daughter.
My father fled our estates that very day, incriminating himself. In truth, he was never a very good conspirator, but in his panicked over-reaction to the failure of his plot, he did what perhaps was best for our family for once. He seemed to the whole kingdom a traitor so venal he would poison his own son. And in this one act, he cleared my name: no one believed I could harbor loyalty to a monster like that. On the contrary, I had once again stood between the throne and its enemies. When Princess Madeline acceded to the crown soon thereafter, she transferred my father’s lands and title to me, and I was released from her service. But I chose to stay and begged only to continue as her cupbearer. I swore an oath of fealty.
But my oath was really to Eris. We were now bound as close as I could ever wish.
I am standing with the rest of the court at the royal funeral mass, waiting my turn to pay my respects to the body lying in state. The choir sings, the court murmurs, and dust floats above us in beams of stained-glass light. Queen Madeline’s death has been attributed to the well-known weakness of her constitution.
All the vultures are here. Among the crowd are at least half a dozen relatives of the dead Queen, each with a plausible claim to succeed her, each harboring plans to seize the moment and the crown. No one knows but me that the real master of this situation stands demurely beside her father among the rest of the castle staff and servants.
I see Boris, whom I have not seen since he unwittingly set all this in motion at the Queen’s table. He is circulating among the mourners, taking notes with a kind of unseemly pleasure at the tangible presence of his subject; history is thick in the air. He sees me and pauses. I can imagine his thoughts about me: from traitor’s son to cupbearer to lord to—claimant? He must wonder. He begins to make his way in my direction.
When he arrives, he says quietly, “Lord Naymerry?”
I suppress a shiver at being addressed by a name I still associate with my father.
“Historian,” I say.
“Will you be returning to your estates after the funeral or remaining at court?”
He’s not a subtle man. I just smile and say nothing. His eyes narrow, his mind works.
It’s my turn to approach the coffin. I leave Boris frowning and walk slowly from the mass of mourners, up the dais to the casket. I pause before it and note, with an eye trained by hours assisting my beloved to embalm, pickle, stuff, and mount her many specimens, that the royal morticians have done a remarkable job with the body of my cousin. However I don’t think Eris will ask for details; her interests have risen from the body physical to the body politic, and this body was no more than an organ in the larger body, to her. The weak heart has been removed, and her interest will move on to its replacement. I pass back down from the dais into the crowd, and I make my way through it toward the throng of servants.
Eris stands a little behind her father, who slumps like a man defeated. She is watchful. I approach them.
“I’m to visit Naymerry, my family lands and levies,” I say softly. “Come with me. As my wife.”
Her father turns his head away. Perhaps he has suspicions. Probably he regrets asking me to help him restrain his dangerously curious daughter all those years ago. But Eris looks me in the eye.
“Are you sure?” she says.
As she once told me, neither of us can carry out our projects alone. We need each other. I need Eris to see me, because I love her; and Eris needs a new heart for this kingdom she’s experimenting on. She thinks I’ll do—with her at hand to keep me pumping properly. It may not be the kind of attention I have longed for, but it will be Eris’s eyes always upon me, her body beside me.
Out of the corner of my eye I see Boris, with his nose for history, peering in our direction, and I smile at the alchemist’s daughter.
“It will be interesting,” I say. “Don’t you think?”