The Center of Valor

She waits to kill her king with a glass of sherry cupped in one palm and a dried cornflower in the other.

The blue petals flake away each time she moves, as she curls her fingers one at a time until they are a cage around the flower. Juro gave it to her when she first came to the palace, with a promise that if she fulfills her part of the plan and takes her vengeance for the slaughter of her family, she’ll be a hero.

It’s lived in a glass vial on her vanity since then, like a small blue eye watching her dress for dinner with the king, for dancing or riding out with him on a quail hunt. Occasionally she took it to the window and curled up on the cool stone bricks to stare south over the city. Through the marbled glass the mountain peaks where she’d grown up were muddy teeth cutting up into the sky. From this distance she couldn’t see the fire scars or broken houses, the poisoned wells. The graveyards.

All that this king’s old father had caused.

This morning, Juro slipped into her bedroom without a knock, surprising her as she sipped dark tea and watched her watery reflection across the surface of the window where rain slithered in fast rivulets. The teacup had dropped from her fingers and hit the carpet with a dull ping, not breaking but splashing hot water against the tops of her bare feet.

Juro knelt and wiped them with a corner of his fine jacket, excitement making him less vain than usual. She hugged her dressing gown shut over her chest and watched the top of her handsome friend’s head. His dark hair combed back smoothly, and was caught up in a tail by a red silk ribbon. Matching earrings glittered at either side of his face, like points marking the edges of his wide, flat grin when he stood to face her. “Today, Messina, today is the day,” he said, and then he put his hands against her head, crushing her curls, and kissed her.

Once, his kisses had thrilled her, made her body melt and her resolve harden. But now, she opened her mouth and a string of guilt fell down her throat. She pushed away. “Juro, I’ve been thinking.”

He groaned and snatched one of the cookies off her tea tray.

Ignoring the hint, she stood tall in the center of her room, knowing soon she would miss this place. With its silk hangings, gilded mirror, and four-post bed that had its clothes changed every other day by a maid she shared with only two other ladies, this room was the best luxury Messina could ever hope to know. There was tea brought every morning, and dinners in the banquet hall, a private bath whenever she wished. Tomorrow, she suspected, she’d be back to cold streams and sand for soap, beer to drink if she was lucky, and straw under her back at night.

She said, “He didn’t know the things we hate him for.”

Juro slid a look at her that was at once pitying and amused. “Ignorance is no excuse for what was done in his name.”

“Nor is ignorance a reason to kill a man.”

“For God’s sake, girl, this is why you’ve been here for the last two years! Why we invested so much into you. To get you close to him. Closer than any of us might be.”

“I know.” She stepped nearer to Juro, touched his lapel. “And I have done so. I know him, and he can learn and change. He could do good from the throne – isn’t that a better outcome to hope for than open rebellion? Then the chance of someone worse ending up in power?”

“Messina.” His voice was hard and low. “Think of your parents. Of my sister and brother. Of all our families, cut down though they certainly might have learned and changed.”

The fury in his eyes was difficult to look at, but she’d had much practice these years in doing unpleasant things. Putting her hands on his face, she brushed her thumbs just under those raw eyes. Juro had been here at the castle during the massacre. Fostered with one of the old king’s cousins to promote peace and friendship between the king and his outlying dukes. But Messina had witnessed it all, an unnoticed girl hiding in a tree while her town was burned and the bodies of her aunts and uncles hung at every crossroad. She did not need to be reminded of the slaughter, of the smell of burning hair or what fat popping on funeral pyres sounded like.

“I remember them,” she said. “Every day. But I also remember that my mother was a healer and my father told me more than once that nothing is as simple as it seems.” She knew her father would not want to see his only daughter murder any man. She’d been heartsick and angry before, when she agreed to this. In love with Juro and the thought of vengeance.

But the new king had showed her a little bit about complications.

Juro grasped her shoulders. “You will meet him tonight, alone. And you will give him my mother’s knife.”

In the heart, is what he meant, and so Messina lowered her eyes. Juro pressed his lips to her forehead and they stood still while rain pelted the window, obscuring the mountains.

Now, she tightens her fist and crushes the blue cornflower. It falls to dust in her palm and she shakes it loose onto the king’s tile floor where it spreads like a stain.

The heavy door to his chamber pushes open a crack. “Sin? Are you there?”

A smile pulls at her lips before she can stop it, and she sighs to wash away all her reflexive happiness at the sound of his voice. “Here,” she murmurs.

The king enters, shutting the door behind him and pressing back against it like a little boy. He’s a year older than her, and barely as tall, but the gold chains of state and official ribbons adorning his jacket make him seem wider and larger. In the past six months since his father’s death, he’s grown into his role.

Standing smoothly, she goes to him and offers the glass of sherry – his favorite. He juggles it as she quickly divests him of the heavy jacket. The king rolls his shoulders and smiles. He sips his sherry and then catches an arm around her waist. Messina rests her head down on his shoulder, reveling in the press of her body against his, the smell of holy incense from the ever-burning thurible that hangs over his throne.

“What’s wrong?” he asks into her hair.

“How are the memorial plans coming, my lord?” She tilts away from him and he takes a drink before smiling the smile that has won him so much quick support.

“Lyric,” he says.

“Lyric,” she repeats, turning out of his arm and going to the table where she waited. There lies the dagger that belonged to Juro’s mother, and there the tiny box she bought with her emerald earrings from one of the castle sorcerers just an hour ago.

He joins her, stretching out his legs so that the heavy heels of his boots clunk onto the tiles. “Daria says they’re still arguing over the style of columns for the outside of the temple, but that I’ll have an official document on my desk next week. I’ll sneak them up here for your approval, love.”

When Messina first arrived at the castle, dolled and bathed and presented to the then-prince Lyric as Juro’s sister, he’d welcomed her and insisted she join him for tea that afternoon. She’d thought it a perfect opportunity to kill him, right then, with so little effort. But the very moment they were alone, he knelt before her and took her hand, throwing her purpose aside. With lines of honesty bending around his mouth, he apologized for her losses and asked if the prince might do anything for her.

She had demurred, allowing him no guilt, and so had begun their gentle courtship.

But she never forgot it, and watched as he ascended the throne, as he played the charming prince and then outgoing, wise king. She listened as he whispered to her while dancing that he needed to find a way to thwart Lord Isak’s monopoly over the trade routes east, and she stroked his rigid hand under the table when he sat for the presentation from Idalee. “They murder the children of their own nobility to keep them in line,” he hissed after the ambassador bowed and withdrew. It was then she wondered if Lyric knew at all what had happened in his own mountains.

Most people didn’t know. It was hushed and made into songs as though it had happened generations instead of mere years ago. They never spoke of it at open court, and referenced the southern dukedoms as though they’d been lost to some quaint natural disaster.

For long stretched of time, she forgot her mission as she spent time with the king. Except when Juro would offer her a sharp look or kiss warmth into her palm as they passed in the hallways. Soon, his breath promised. And, revenge.

Her dreams were haunted by ballrooms full of Lyric and his council, where the charred faces of her relatives peered from beneath swirling skirts and out of the corner shadows. They danced beside her, ashes crumbling off their hands and dusting her cheeks like tears. And she remembered.

The King’s death would be the price for all that death and scorched earth. The skeletons of trees and cave-like houses that once had held laughter and love. His death would ripple out and no one again would think a king might rule over slaughtered ghosts.

Until the night after his coronation, when she’d been sent for and found him sitting beside the massive hearth in his chamber, holding the ebony crown in his lap. When she knelt before him he said, “It is so heavy, Messina.”

She lifted the circlet from him, feeling the weight he meant settling over the entire room. And in his eyes were tears. Setting the crown onto the patterned tiles, she kissed the tears off his lashes and climbed into his lap because she was not so heavy as a kingdom.

Later that same night, he kissed her breast and she told him everything about her family’s deaths. Horror had made him lose all interest in her body, which made her love him when it shouldn’t have. He’d sworn to her that he’d set it right, though he could never bring back the dead.

But in the light of day, all the king would do was create a memorial. There were no direct culprits to be punished, no way to scour his court for them without destroying the tenuous peace he’d pulled together after his father’s death.

And tonight, when he promises the plans will meet with her approval, all she does is bow her head and wish he were brave enough to give her fair justice.

Neither of the men in her life is brave enough to act on his own. And that gives her courage.

She says, “Lyric, I am not Juro’s sister.”

Confusion flits over his mouth, all of his face she can see with her chin lowered, and he says, “What are you, then? What is he?” The king’s voice lilts up in panic before he steps away from her to add his guess. “Your lover.”

She ignores his jealousy and reaches across the table to skim her fingers over the dagger. “This was his mother’s knife. She gave it to him just a month before the massacre.”

“Why is it here?” he asks stiffly. He draws his feet under him and plants his hands flat over his knees as if trying to regain balance. Those hands are strong and she pushes away the memory of them lifting her up onto her horse or holding her against his chest. Or wielding a sword in the practice ring.

“You should ask Juro that, tomorrow. Give it to him, and be honest with him as you have been with me.”

The king rises. She does, too. “What is going on, Sin? Why are you talking like I’ll never see you again?”

Lifting the little carved box from the table, she flicks it open with her thumb. Inside is a red marble. She takes it out. “Because I don’t think you will.”

Lyric dives over the space between them. He takes her waist. “You cannot leave like this. Not telling me why, not so suddenly that I have no time to dissuade you or understand.”

Just as she did with Juro, Messina puts her hands on her king’s face. She brushes her thumbs under his eyes and kisses him. Softly, and now when she opens her mouth it is only longing that threads down her throat and into her heart.

His arms come around her and she presses her cheek to his cheek. Around his back, she lifts the red marble and touches it to her tongue. A sharp pain, and as the marble diffuses, so does Messina dissolve into a mist that slips up the chimney and into the sky.

Leaving her king alive, but maybe only half alive.

****

Note: I didn’t intend this, but I’m fairly sure this is part one.

pic by cpkaite via flickr CC

60 thoughts on “The Center of Valor

  1. I like this one very much! I love especially how the picture works into it, and all the feeeeeelings. 😉

  2. Thank you! (I usually don’t find such a perfect picture. This was much less annoying than usual! Glad you like it.)

    And haha, there ARE a lot of feeeeeeelings, aren’t there.

  3. So beautifully tragic…now I want to know what happens to the king and Juro now that she’s gone.

  4. I really enjoyed this. The characters were real and I found Melissina’s choice brave and heartbreaking. Thank you.

  5. Oh wonderful! I could, with no effort at all, see every image you put into words. That’s the best sort of story-telling, IMO.

    Yes, definitely want more of this story.

  6. Thank you! That’s exactly what I like to hear. Imagery is my favorite. (and making people cry. but yanno, can’t always have that.)

  7. Bleak, but beautiful. I love the bit about complexities. It’s so easy to put on blinders, so I found it satisfying (and heartbreaking) that Messina took hers off. How brave to leave (die?) in the face of love. The story weighs almost as much as the crown.

  8. Yay! Thank you. I love that last line about weight. Makes me HAPPY.

    FWIW, I don’t think she’s dead. I think she went to take baths in cold rivers and play with puppies. 😉

  9. This is beautiful and tragic, and if it is part 1 I totally can’t wait for the next part.

  10. all of your stories are fantastic, best part of my day
    P.S i might die in anticipation for part two!!

  11. So, this one took me a while to figure out what I felt, which is kinda funny since I’ve reacted much more clearly to your much less conventional stories.
    I love the theme here of gray areas. Of moral ambiguity.
    And I love Messina, because she’s stronger than either of the men in her life. She is strong enough to make a third option when neither of the pre-made ones suit her.
    Lyric (what a great name!) kind of broke my heart. He’s a good man. There are far worse things to be than careful. And he can’t bring them back. So would it be for the greater good if he were to seek justicie for Messina’s family, or would it be out of a selfish want to have her happy and thinking well of him?
    Still, I hope he finds the strength to at least try to make it as right as it can be made. If the king of a land doesn’t value truth, and justice how can the land he governs?

  12. Ooooooh! I’m glad you say this is only part one, it has such potential to keep going! I quite liked all the characters, you fleshed them out so well in so few words. 😀 I look forward to the next part whenever it makes it debut! 😉

  13. Oh, that’s fabulous and I love the way that she is torn between her past and possible future.

    Very nicely done and I’m hoping that you write a sequel!!

  14. This was so beautiful, but I shouldn’t have read it with Camelot and Game of Thrones I’ve already reached my tragedy quota for this week. I think I now need to eat a lot of chocolate or huddle up in a ball in the corner of a room somewhere.

    However with my hyperbolic drama queening aside it was so very beautiful it was almost lyrical. I liked it a lot.

  15. I love the imagery and how real and deeply the characters felt through their body language 😀

  16. It makes sense that with so much ambiguity your reaction would take a while to suss out. And I agree with you about the characters, esp Lyric – I think Messina does, too, intellectually which is why she didn’t kill him. But her emotions aren’t so clear about it. She wants him to do it for her, for her family.

    I hope he finds that strength, too. Thanks for the thoughtful response!

  17. Thank you! I’m interested in all the characters, too, which is WHY I think it needs some more parts. It will be interesting getting into the others’ heads.

  18. LOL. Maybe you can think of is as a triumph of integrity instead of a tragedy? Maybe? Hehehe.

    Thank you.

  19. Certainly.

    Also, saw one of Brianna’s books over here in the Philippines. Tell her well done! They were in the ‘spotlight’ section.

  20. *Brenna, even. Can’t spell. Although I thought that book wasn’t out till September? Maybe I was wrong.

  21. I thoroughly enjoyed your heroine’s anguish (does that make me evil? Lol) but Lyric… Oh, Lyric, both forced to live in the shadow of and be responsible for his father’s reign and actions. The weight of this responsibility (guilt?) could crush a man, sinking him inadvertently to the level of his predecessor. With a name like Lyric though…. well, I hope that doesn’t happen.

  22. I loved how you created a young king that was vulnerable and yet strong and realistic. I enjoyed Messina finding courage that the strong men around her could not and I love your imagery in her dreams. “the charred faces of her relatives peered from beneath swirling skirts” and “ashes crumbling off their hands and dusting her cheeks like tears” created a chilly and powerful image.
    On a different note, I escaped to a Barnes and Noble this weekend allowing my hubby to watch some wrestling championship thing on tv and started wandering through the isles. Not really having a plan to buy a book (our Borders recently closed and I literally have piles of books to read) but wanting one none the less. Then a golden light went off and I remembered your book came our recently. So I giggled, found it and bought it. My husband found me after the match and patiently accepted the fact that I bought yet another book. My 15yr daughter wants to bargain with me to read it first but I’m afraid she’s out of luck. Can’t wait to read it! I adore the work you’ve posted on here and know it will be an excellent read, can’t wait to get really absorbed in one of your worlds! *squee*

  23. THE REPLACEMENT has been out since LAST September, but her new one, THE SPACE BETWEEN doesn’t come out until this November.

  24. Thank you! I like the creepy parts best, especially when they come from more mundane or pretty places… Not surprising, I imagine.

    And WOO! That’s great. I recommend arm-wrestling for reading rights. 😀 😀 😀

  25. I love the way the story delves into moral ambiguity and Messina’s mixed emotions, but I think her suicide at the end was a bit hasty and unnecessary.

  26. I don’t think she killed herself. She was thinking about how the next day she’d be out of the castle, bathing in cold rivers and sleeping on straw – so she must have just used a transportation spell or something. Like flew powder in Harry Potter. 😉

  27. LOVED this!! There were so many brilliant lines, and you captured so much with so few words. I am thrilled that there will 80% be a second part; more thrilled if you could somehow up that number…

    I did love Messina’s bravery in confronting both men, and as someone else said, creating her own option when she found those she was faced with to be untenable. BRAVO…and ENCORE!!!

  28. LOL, you sound totally sure. Maybe there’s some.. hope? We’ll see what Lyric does in Part II.

  29. I think Lyric will be a much better king with Messina at his side than without her, so I hope Part II involves him being strong enough to win her back!

  30. Favorite line from this: “Setting the crown onto the patterned tiles, she kissed the tears off his lashes and climbed into his lap because she was not so heavy as a kingdom.”

    And when I decided that I kinda loved Lyric too: “Horror had made him lose all interest in her body, which made her love him when it shouldn’t have.”

    And, of course, I enjoy all kinds of moral ambiguity and the acknowledgment that political decisions are never as easy or black and white as we’d like them to seem.

  31. Thank you! I adore this comment – so useful for me to see what pulls you into a character and the exact moments of change. ❤ ❤ ❤

  32. Guess I’m just a sucker for characters (and real people) whose empathic and compassionate reactions are stronger than their personal desires (in this case, sex). I know in my book that that would make me love him at least a little, just like Messina, and would probably make for some better lovin’ at a later time anyway. (I can’t believe I just posted that, but it’s true. 😉 )

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  34. I’m always so impressed with the rich story telling that you put down here into such a small space. It’s incredibly inspiring as an writer to see such careful and meaningful writing that takes your breath away with each read, leaves your heart pounding in your chest and creates an ever growing urge to not only have more, but to write more. Simply because your inspiring. Truly, excellent work. Your writing draws the reader in, not only in the craftsmanship of the sentences but the immediate pull to each character for whatever reason. Thank you.

  35. Thank you so much – Merry Fates really is a place for me to play with ways of telling stories, to experiment and really let myself go into different voices and imagery, in ways that I just can’t with a novel because of the length and commitment. I’m so glad that you can see the layers and effort. 😀

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