‘Requiem for Kingkillers and Queenmakers’, Andrea Tang

Illustration © 2018 Pear Nuallak

 [ Requiem © 2018 Pear Nuallak ] There’s something unspeakably awkward about being welcomed into an obscure beachside village by people who know you’re here to murder their royalty. The elders who, upon my arrival, untacked my horse and gathered my saddlebags, would never say as much aloud, of course. When you grow up Isle-side, to the steel-toed beat of the Mainlanders’ march and the whispered drums of war, discretion has a way of sticking to your bones. It certainly stuck to mine, however little Islanders or Mainlanders alike may believe that now. A woman with a reputation for regicide, after all, is the very antithesis of discretion. It’s also a remarkably difficult reputation to shake, no matter how many years pass. The bloodier deeds of youth die hard deaths.

The elders, though, knew what I’d come for—or rather, whom. Wordless, they led me to the edge of a grass-patched, dune-streaked hill. I stuck one experimental foot on the rocky slope, felt half my boot give against the sand, and helpless to do otherwise, began laughing. The village elders, it seemed, wouldn’t resist the violence scheduled to ensue, but they’d certainly make me work for it first.

One boot submerged in the sandy knoll, face already baked beneath bright, midsummer Isle heat, I slitted a sun-stabbed gaze toward the elders who’d accompanied me this far. Grinning, I kissed my knuckles and held a vertical fist aloft to them. “Grace go with you,” I offered. It was an iconic salute, this one, its visual associations entrenched in older, bloodier memories of the Isle. Coming from me, the vertical fist spoke volumes. Of what, exactly, the elders would debate well outside my earshot.

I faced the unforgiving, Isle-fierce sun, and began to climb.

A woman waited at the peak, recognizable by her silhouette long before I reached her. Swathed and veiled in gauzy ivory silk, she sat before a little wooden table she’d topped with a tea service. Low-slung clouds misted about woman and tea service alike, almost impossible to distinguish from her robe and veil. She didn’t look up at the sound of my approach, but she did pour a bright, steaming stream of red tea into one of the cups before her. Good china, I observed, no doubt imported from the Mainland.

I knelt low, a swooping curtsy better-suited to Mainland-style ball gowns than sand-stained riding trousers, but as in all things, a woman must make do. “Your Majesty.”

“Lady Lailani.” The veil inclined. “I trust your tea preference has not changed.”

I smiled at the familiar lace hem of the robe I’d prostrated myself to. “Indeed, Your Majesty. It is one of the few parts of life that has not.”

Queen Kana II, daughter of the late King Hehu IV, mother of the Isle by blood, and anointed consort to the throne, emitted a distinctly un-queen-ly snort. “You certainly haven’t changed, Lailani. Not the fundamentals of who you are.” A pair of well-callused brown hands emerged from the delicate, cloud-pale silk, clasped my equally-callused fingers, and lifted me back to my feet.

I redirected my smile toward the dark eyes I knew so well, which glinted like knives over the Queen’s ivory veil. “Nor have you, I’d hazard to guess. Majesty.”

“You know,” said the Queen, idly, “I used to have advisors who wanted me to bewitch you to death for your insolence.”

My fist found my chest, and clutched. I widened my eyes. “That would be a tremendous abuse of your childhood lessons with the royal sorcerers of the Isle, my Queen, but well within your rights, I suppose.”

“An abuse, yes. Not to mention a tremendous waste of my harebrained advisors’ cleverest rival—no doubt a motivating factor behind their advice.”

I bowed my head to hide my twitching lips. “My Queen is too kind to this humblest of servants.”

“Oh, do drink your tea, Lailani.” Kana shoved one of the fine china cups between my knife-roughened, still-sandy palms. “You know how I hate to dawdle.”

Obediently, I sipped from the cup, using both hands in the formal fashion, despite the sand. “Your red tea selection remains excellent, Majesty.” This much would always be true.

“Confound my red tea selection. I’ll cut to the chase.” The Queen served herself the second cup, but didn’t lift the veil. “Have you come here to kill me?”

The china paused at my lips. Steam kissed my tongue. I weighed my next words with care. It was a fair question, and one that deserved what integrity I could muster. I had known Kana a terribly long time. We’d met as girls at her father’s palace, and continued our acquaintance for years after I’d killed him.

“There would be a certain unfortunate symmetry to killing you,” I admitted now.

“A false equivalence,” chided the anointed mother of my homeland, with another un-queen-ly snort. “You are above that, Lailani. My father was a tyrant during the worst of his reign, and a plaything of the Mainland emperors during the best. Do you believe me to be either tyrannical or sycophantic?”

“Those aren’t the adjectives I would select, no,” I said, amused, and couldn’t help but add, in graver tones, “You also haven’t had thousands of our countrymen executed on trumped-up charges or sent to labor camps in exchange for Mainland trade deals. I imagine that curries favor among the locals.”

“You do know how to set a bar for your monarchs,” drawled the Queen. “Tell me truly, though, did my husband send you here?”

When we were girls, Kana had always enjoyed putting conversations on thin ice. I could take comfort, I supposed, in her consistency. “Would that make this better?”

“It would manage my expectations.” She turned the still-full cup of red tea round and round between her palms. “How are his lovers?”

“As expected. Jehan remains the King’s favorite.”

“Ah, Jehan.” The Queen’s eyes hooded. The rotation of pretty young things King Theo kept for company in court and bedchamber alike was an open secret, a privileged tradition long sacred to occupants of the Isle’s throne. Still, none had risen quite so high as milky-skinned, golden-eyed Jehan of the Isle. A gentleman born to a Mainlander father and an Islander mother, he’d been bred to the beaches of his mother’s people, but a fair-headed, thin-nosed inheritance from his father had won Jehan a unique position in Mainland-style social circles. One foot planted in Isle dunes, the other on the green mountains of the Mainland, the man himself a nimble, fine-boned political creature with a harpist’s fingers, a seducer’s tongue, and an opportunist’s eye.

“You know,” mused Kana, “I’ve always suspected that Jehan’s pretty golden head reminded Theo of his long-lost homeland. My poor, exiled Mainlander husband, placed upon an Islander’s throne through this peculiar marriage of mine.”

My mouth twitched. “That was rather the point at the time, as I recall.”

“Oh, quite.” Kana’s dark eyes curved upward at the corners. “My beloved lord and sovereign, the great liberating hope of the Isle, plucked directly from the Mainland’s shores to end my father’s reign. You chose brilliantly, Lailani, when you chose Theo for me. He had fire in him, once.”

Once. I tilted my head. “Do you regret my selection?”

The Queen shook her head. Wind tugged at the veil and robe, whipping pale silks around the tea cup, though the red never spilled. “As I said. You chose very well, at the time. I’ve never had reason to doubt your guidance, in love or politics.”

“Certain statesman-philosophers would say that marriage is, at its best, a little of both.”

Kana laughed. “How quick-witted of you. That’s perhaps what I like best about you, that you’re both knowledgable and changeable enough to be diplomat, scholar, spy, warrior, and entertainer all at once. You’re a very useful yet cost-effective person to keep around. I wonder, though, what legacy do you wish to leave? What stories do you want told about you, after you’re gone?”

I thought about the question for a few seconds, then offered, “I should like to be best remembered for my operas.”

The Queen laughed again.

“I’m serious,” I said mulishly. “Diplomacy and war-making alike will always be lucrative, so long as I find royalty such as yourself to employ my services, but if you ask what sits at the core of my heart, truthfully, Your Majesty, I think myself a rather fine librettist.”

“It’s true, it’s true,” the Queen conceded between chuckles, “I did always love your music. High-brow enough for Mainland airs, but always a flavor of the Isle to the stories the melodies told, no?”

“Well.” My smile here grew genuine in full. “I’m a daughter of the beaches. The Isle is, and shall always be, where my heart beats.”

That seemed to sober the Queen. “You still haven’t answered my first question, you know. Are you here to kill me?”

I set my teacup aside, buying time, then said, very carefully, “I’m here to take you on a journey, should Your Majesty agree to embark on it.”

The Queen was silent for a long moment. Then she said, almost wistfully, “I was right. The fundamentals of who you are really haven’t changed.”

I bowed my head. “Will you hear me out then, Your Majesty?”

Kana’s answering laugh, when it touched my ears, was harsh, and so understatedly sad, I’d swear the sound alone bruised my heart. “As I said, Lailani. I’ve never had reason to doubt your guidance. I see no reason to doubt it now.”

What unfolded in the aftermath of that encounter belongs to a librettist’s opera, or a painter’s brush, or a playwright’s stage, as much as it belongs to the historian’s scroll. Perhaps more so. Certain moments in human existence so ineluctably entwine and alter the lives of those involved, that a mere recounting of the events—insomuch as events can be agreed upon—seems an injustice.

Still, for our sakes, I’ll persist.

King Theo, my hand-picked liege, exiled son of the Mainland turned defender of the Isle—in this moment, a million miles away from that little beachside village where I shared his wife’s tea—sits upon his throne room dais. Everything begins here, on the dais. He’s reclined upon his silken pillows, toying with a long, jeweled dagger, and eating a mango, of all things. A few feet away, the King’s favorite companion, Jehan of the Isle, bends golden head over a golden harp, and strokes deft, famous fingers across the strings.

The King spears the mango on to the end of the dagger. Biting into the fruit’s flesh, Theo grimaces, then tosses its remnants into a hooded servant’s waiting, wooden bowl. “This is sour,” the King proclaims. “Someone, fetch me tea.”

A second servant, also dutifully hooded, kneels with tea service already in hand, and immediately offers a cup of red to the King’s impatient, fruit-stained fingers. They’re well-trained, these servants of their Isle’s great protector. “Now,” says that protector, with a swig of tea, “tell me of Lailani.”

Before the dais, a trembling messenger prostrates himself, forehead kissing the marble floor. “Your Majesty,” he informs the floor, “the whispers are the same as ever. The Lady Lailani has retreated to some little village to write music. She won’t be disturbed.”

“Music!” scoffs the King. He’s still a sight to behold, when displeased. The premature age common to Mainlanders has whitened his once-yellow hair, now a striking shock of silver above storm-blue eyes. Those eyes go narrow, dark as the island sky before thunder. The first time he met Queen Kana’s father, that old tyrant Hehu, Theo wore the same expression. It’s been the subject of paintings and poetry, that look on his face, a quiet yet incandescent rage that precedes some great shift in history.

But now, Theo merely says, “Music’s a waste of Lailani’s mind. I need her here. Hasn’t she heard about the treaty?”

The silent ripple across the court consists only of significant eye contact and shuffling little stares. No one dares say aloud what everyone is thinking: that every Islander from palace to beachside has heard about the treaty their King is preparing to sign. Strategic annexation, King Theo calls it. He speaks with the same clever tongue that once won the favor of Islanders after Hehu IV’s bloody, famous death. That tongue can still drip honey, when Theo cares enough to bother. After ten years of shaky-pillared freedom, won’t the Isle be better off in the Mainland’s care, just as bright, overly spirited children are better off in the care of adult guardians? The Isle would gain bounty through Mainland business, and security through the protection of the Mainland’s great armies. In exchange, the Isle need only trade its independence.

A proper business deal, King Theo calls it.

“And what of my wife?” the Isle’s great defender asks now, with a downward turn to his mouth that triggers the messenger’s trembling all over again. “What has she to say about all this?”

The messenger, still kissing marble, shakes and shakes. His King asks a cruel question. Everyone knows what the Queen famously said before her husband banished her to some remote beachside hilltop.

“The Queen has her… disagreements,” the messenger whispers into the tile.

“Pah!” thunders the King. “Disagreements, this cowering caterpillar tells me. Disagreements! Don’t let’s be coy, Mister Caterpillar.” Theo takes another irritable swig of tea. “Say it for me. Tell me precisely what that shrill, prattling woman said.”

No one speaks. The messenger’s shameful head drips sweat before the dais. The only sounds filling the throne room are the rich chords of Jehan’s harp, which continues to sing beneath its master’s skillful fingers.

And then.

“You always neglect to mention one pesky little clause of your proper business deal. That’s what your wife said, before you sent her away.”

The court’s focus shifts. The woman entering the throne room wears red veils over red robes. Even with her hair and face covered, every last occupant present knows instantly who this is.

“If you cede the Isle to the Mainland emperor, he’ll lift your exile. You’ll finally be allowed passage back to your homeland, after all your old defiances. Isn’t that right?”

Her voice echoes off the marble, the grand arched ceilings. Even Jehan’s harp falls silent.

“You love your old home in the green mountains of the Mainland. You miss it, after all these years. You never thought you could miss something so much that it would grow like a cancer inside your soul, but now you would sell anything for it. Even the Isle that took you in after you lent arms to the coup against Hehu, and lost the Mainland emperor’s favor. Even the palace whose throne you’ve sat upon for more than a decade.” A pause, carefully measured. “Even your life’s partner, bonded to your heart by sacred vows of royal marriage.”

The King rises, stormy eyes narrowed at the newcomer’s insolence, but when he opens his mouth, no sound emerges. His eyes fly wide, as some ghostly force propels his feet down the steps of the dais, and bend his bone-creaking knees until he’s kneeling at his messenger’s side, the two of them bow-backed before the red-wreathed woman. His mouth opens wider, forcibly pried by invisible forces, tongue wagging, but unable to shape sound.

“And that, my lord and husband, is a feeling I understand well.”

Queen Kana, whose husband called her shrill and prattling not three minutes ago, lifts her veil. She doesn’t sound shrill or prattling now. More like some ancient deity, declaring sea and sky into existence. Her deep brown skin, dark even for an Islander’s, shines bright against her crimson silks, her curling hair braided into a tall, thick crown upon her head.

Upon the dais, the hooded servant who’d served the King his tea lifts her head, displaying a smile both rueful and familiar to this court. She sets the pot carefully aside. “As ever,” she tells the Queen now, “your red tea is beyond compare.”

Red tea, that delicacy native to the Isle, is only ever a delicacy to the privileged few who can afford such luxuries. It is strong, and bracing, and sweet. But brewed by a woman tutored in royal sorcerers’ arts—a woman whose aptitude in magic lessons equaled only her aptitude for deportment and political science—red tea can take on far more exotic properties. Under the influence of simple magic, it might turn merely poisonous. But under the influence of advanced sorcery—sorcery cast by an adept such as, for example, an Islander princess—red tea will burrow deep into a man’s veins and organs, and nestle there until his every movement is the tea-brewer’s to control.

King Theo’s kneeling form jerks forward, lips practically touching his wife’s toes. His throat emits a thin, choking sound. He might be trying to scream.

“Your guards won’t come, by the way,” the Queen tells him, sounding bored. “They pledged their contracts to me a month ago. A proper business deal, you see.”

A glint of metal winks between the King’s fingers. As the Queen’s black eyes narrow, her husband jerks backward, then up on his knees, that jeweled dagger of his trembling between his hands. The blade’s still stained in mango juice, when Theo, with unnatural strength, buries the dagger hilt-deep into his own heart.

Someone screams. No one moves.

Theo’s storm-colored eyes stare into his wife’s, as he falls, bloody. He takes a long time to die, his body twitching, gasping, struggling against the inevitable. His gaze, wide and shocked, remains fixed on Kana’s long after he goes still, his mouth a slack-jawed O.

Choked-off screams and aborted gasps echo like a riptide’s ghost across the room. Courtiers try, in vain, to regain some semblance of composure, uncertain what the tyrant Hehu’s daughter—now King Theo’s widow—will do next. Someone is crying. Someone else might be having hysterics. Jehan of the Isle sits with his golden harp at his feet, looking like a particularly lovely statue, his hands frozen at his mouth beneath wide, golden eyes.

Delicately, Kana lifts the crimson hem of her robes. She steps over her husband’s corpse, and on to the dais. She takes a seat on the throne. Meanwhile, the tea-bearing servant rises, rueful mouth gone somber. The hood falls back. Thick dark hair tumbles across the exposed copper shoulders of the Lady Lailani, favored advisor to Queen Kana. Lailani, famous diplomat and famous assassin in equal measure, who should be ensconced in some seaside hut right now, penning rhymes and ditties for an Islanders’ opera.

“Today, we mourn the death of our great protector, King Theo the First, the nobleman from the Mainland who gave up his home to defend ours, and to wed our Queen.” Lailani the librettist’s voice rings as loud and clear as any opera actor’s, fills the swooping arches of the throne room. Then, more quietly, “His Majesty’s abrupt suicide is nothing short of a tragedy.”

Suicide!, the courtiers whisper amongst themselves, or would, if they dared speak aloud in this moment. You call that a suicide.

But of course, by any technicality, it is. The rumor mill, ever reliable, spins fast. By sunset, the story will already be swirling across the furthest beaches of the Isle, straining toward the green mountain shores of the Mainland.

But the Lady Lailani hasn’t finished. “Let us give thanks to sea and sky that the fates who govern our Isle have nonetheless seen it fit to leave us our beloved Queen, the daughter and widow of Kings, who now holds the throne by both marriage and blood right.”

To the surprise of the court, the terrified messenger, quivering by his master’s corpse, is the first to kiss his knuckles and raise the vertical fist. “Grace go with you, my liege!” he cries. The words are halting, and frightened, but he speaks them nonetheless. These were the words of revolutionaries, once, in the days that Kana’s father ruled. These fists carry meaning.

A minor but decorated count, a few feet away, mindful of the fleeting political opportunity, kisses his knuckles next. “Grace go with you, my liege.”

The riptide’s returned, but from a rather different direction than the first. Soon, it fills the throne room, as everyone from the lowliest servant to the richest of the courtiers races to kiss their knuckles and raise their fists.

“Grace go with you, Your Majesty!”

“Grace, my liege, go with you!”

“Grace go with the Queen!”

“Grace, and long live the Queen!”

So it goes, until Kana rises from the throne, and holds aloft her own vertical fist. The other hand rises palm-first, for silence.

Her new court, almost instantly, goes silent.

“I have been your Queen for more than a decade,” proclaims the new defender of the Isle. “And your Princess, for years before that. I have never sat upon the throne itself, but with the blessing of my people, I shall occupy the seat with the grace of both blood right, and my beach-born Islander’s heart.”

A cheer erupts. The Queen allows it, for a minute. Then the palm rises again. “From tomorrow on, from dawn’s light till the dusk of my last day, I shall rule as well as I know how. I shall never betray the Isle.”

Another cheer. A minute. The palm returns. “But tonight,” says the Queen, her tone shifting. “Tonight, I am my husband’s widow.” Her black eyes have softened, and for the first time, she seems her age. Younger, by nearly a decade, than her now-deceased husband. She has not quite the number of years Theo did, when he took the Isle’s throne. But she will, buoyed by the Isle’s will, have more.

“Tonight,” says Queen Kana, soft-eyed, young, yet still so replete with Isle-born grace, “I shall wear a mourning veil before I wear a crown.”

A collective murmur traverses the throne room, cautiously approving.

“Lady Lailani.”

The lady in question rises at her Queen’s command. “Your Majesty.”

A moment passes between the two women. The weight of nearly thirty years’ history hangs between their dark-eyed gazes, their red-stained, callused hands. “I thank you, today, for your service,” says the Queen. Her voice, for the first time, sounds strained. “For all the services you have done me, through all our shared years.”

More murmurs cross the room, but these take a more speculative edge. The Lady Lailani has earned a reputation for many things throughout the years, but alongside accomplishments and misdeeds alike lie rumors of her appetites. That she takes both male and female lovers is not unusual, particularly for a high-born and educated noble. That she takes so very many—and has spent so many years in such devout service of both King and Queen—well. These are the things that feed palace gossips. Services, they all wonder. Services, indeed.

“I’m afraid, however,” the Queen continues, then cuts herself off, her mouth twisting for just a moment.

Lailani merely smiles, opaque, but her brown eyes go soft. “Do go on, my liege.”

“I’m afraid,” says the Queen in that odd, tight voice, “that when I trade my mourning veil for the monarch’s crown at daybreak, I must also see you exiled from the Isle.”

Lailani’s smile doesn’t falter, but she bows her head, thick hair curling over her eyes. “I see,” she says in the tones of a woman well-rehearsed. “Might I ask the reason, Your Majesty?”

“Trespassing,” answers her liege, without missing a beat. “For entering the throne room under a false guise, without the permission of our late King.”

Lailani lifts her head and blinks. Then, quite abruptly, she laughs. “Trespassing,” she repeats, still chortling. “Very good, my Queen.”

It’s masterfully done, what passes between these women. Kana cannot implicate the oldest, cleverest, and most loyal of her friends in King Theo’s death. The line between suicide and murder must stand stark as an open secret, if Kana is to ascend the throne smoothly. But nor can Lailani, the famous regicide who once orchestrated King Hehu’s assassination, stay at court. Lailani’s presence thins the delicate line with every moment she remains. The Isle will only stand for so many monarchs born of bloodshed, and Lailani is a living, breathing reminder of death.

Now, the regicide sweeps an elegant curtsy before her fresh-crowned sovereign. Lailani’s words, amused, are wistful all the same. “I shall go then, my liege. And if the soul of our Isle should ever move you thus, may I return some day, begging forgiveness, to bend the knee and lay my unworthy lips upon your feet.”

The Queen, her complexion too dark to show color, nonetheless draws a sharp breath. The watchful court whispers. Bend the knee, they echo, speculative, scandalized, and almost lecherously curious. Unworthy lips!

It’s a paltry distraction, this suggestion, but it’s enough, in the time these women have. The crowd parts to allow Lailani passage when she descends the dais, straight-backed, gliding around the dead King’s body in her borrowed servant’s robe, cleaving her way toward the exit.


She pauses, once, at her Queen’s command, and glances over her shoulder just long enough to see her red-wreathed sovereign kiss the knuckles of a vertical fist. “Grace go with you.”

The particular look in the Lady Lailani’s eyes, when she smiles at Kana for the last time, will break poets’ hearts for the next century. “And with you, Your Majesty. Always.”

When she leaves the palace, she does not turn back even once.

Here’s what the court that day will never know: I did second-guess myself. It happened during my ride, halfway down the palace slopes, my horse trotting toward the southern beaches that hid my carefully-prepared safe-house. When my horse shifted from trot to canter, the wind flapped my stolen servant’s hood across the back of my neck. As the crack of fabric whipped my eardrums, the thought struck me, sentimentally and nonsensically: I shall never ride this slope again.

The slope in question wasn’t even particularly well-paved. My horse stumbled, more than once. The view flashing past the bare-branched trees gave me angry grey sky over grey rocks, the sea obscured by the hidden horizon line. Mainlanders act like the Isle exists to embody sunlight, color, and idyllic life. To inhabit the Isle, so far as they believe, is to be free from burden, free from pain, free from depth of thought. They never consider our storm-brewed skies, the ugly crags of our stony bluffs, the mud-splashed slopes beneath our sweat-spent horses’ hooves. But that, perhaps, is what makes the Isle ours, and not theirs.

It wouldn’t be mine, though. Not at tomorrow’s first light.

The storm had begun in earnest by the time I squirreled away into my safe-house. I had no village elders, however passive-aggressively taciturn, to help me with the saddle bags this time. Yet midway through unpacking, a stranger’s knuckles rapped against my door, cutting through the rain’s patter.

I tucked a knife into my sash, and answered. At first, all I saw was a wide-brimmed, black silk umbrella. Then the voice beneath the silk spoke. “A word, my Lady Lailani?”

I sucked in a breath, as the umbrella lifted. The speaker tugged black scarf and black hood aside to reveal golden eyes and golden hair.

My fingertips kissed the hilt of my knife, as I curtsied, beckoning my guest inside. “My illustrious Lord Jehan.” I couldn’t quite keep the edge of amused mockery from my tone, even now. “Your presence honors this disgraced exile.”

Those much-praised golden eyes curved upward at the corners, over the scarf. “That puts us in rather mutually appropriate company, doesn’t it?”

Something akin to guilt twined around my heart. Jehan was right. King Theo’s death had left his favorite lover dangerously unprotected in a vicious court still finding its feet. Royal lovers and companions fell out of courtly favor as easily as they fell in. Along the path to political stability, knives often found their marks in the hearts of lovers, mistresses, and concubines. Remaining at court would be no more tenable for Jehan than it would for me.

“I’d offer you tea in apology,” I said. “But that seems in poor taste, somehow.”

“So long as it’s not red,” he answered. His accompanying smile, even this wan, dazzled.

“Nothing so rich as red tea,” I agreed. “Strictly herbal, for humble outcasts like ourselves.” I poured for us both, and set out the soup noodles I’d boiled. I’d planned to dine alone, but the pot held enough for company.

“I didn’t realize you cooked.”

I shrugged, ladling soup into a dish for Jehan. “Well enough to survive. I have all sorts of useless talents. Cooking is one of the more sensible in my repertoire.”

Jehan cast a metallically sharp look my way, from beneath his long fair lashes. “You’re rather obnoxiously self-effacing, for a political operative who has orchestrated the assassinations of not one, but two kings, and lived to tell both tales.”

“True.” I began curling noodles into a spoon, and added, a bit sheepishly, “It seems I’m distressingly less and less likely to be best remembered as an opera librettist.”

That startled a laugh out of Jehan. “I can see why the Queen liked you.” A pause. “Why they both did. The Queen, and… the late King.”

“My Lord Jehan is terribly kind.”

He went quiet for a moment, stirring his soup. “She’ll want to kill me,” he said conversationally. “The Queen, I mean.”

“Not necessarily.” I hesitated. The suggestion at the back of my mind was, at best, distasteful. But then, survival often was, and I owed Jehan that much, for what I’d done to him. “She might even allow your return to court, with her blessing, under certain circumstances. Kana isn’t immune to particular… temptations.”

Jehan’s eyebrows shot straight into his golden hair. “And I’m sure you’d know all about tempting the Queen.”

I ignored the innuendo. “As I recall, you were quite popular—among courtiers of all genders—before King Theo took an exclusive interest in you. Kana is a queen, and a formidable political player, but she can be, shall we say, charmed.”

Jehan, chuckling, shook his head. “I don’t doubt your word. But I’m afraid I must disagree. Kana may be seduceable, but not by me. In her eyes, I’ll always carry the ghost of her husband. That’s not what a healthy bedroom life is made of, if you’ll pardon my saying so. Nor does it bode well for my longevity, so long as I remain on the Isle.”

“There’s a world beyond the Isle, you know.”

“Is that what you imagine for me?” Jehan sounded amused, but there was a bitter edge to that dazzling smile. “That I’ll sail to the Mainland, pass myself off as my father’s son, and turn my nose up at my mother’s home? I could,” he admitted, his voice gone low and conspiratorial. “I do look rather like him, don’t I? It might be a useful survivor’s ruse, for an exile who no longer belongs anywhere in particular.”

“Well, my lord.” I met his eyes. “As a wise man observed earlier this evening, we do find ourselves in mutually appropriate company.”

“Oh, all right.” Jehan pulled a face. “I deserved that. I can’t stand self-pity. But I do have one question for you, my lady.”


“Do you consider yourself seduceable?”

I blinked, suddenly very aware of the minimal space I shared with the man who’d once been the most sought-after lay at court. I eyed the curve of his jawline. “Proudly so,” I said, opting for honesty, then groaned. “Oh, lords of sea and sky, don’t say you’re here to whisk me into bed so you can murder me there. I loathe clichés.”

Jehan smiled, softer now. “I had a mind to try the first thing, without the murdering bit. Is that still a cliché?”

“Perhaps.” I shrugged. “But I’d make exceptions for a particularly good one.”

“Very good, my lady,” said Jehan, and swallowed my next exhale in a kiss. His fingers, harp string-callused, made nimble work of my sash and trousers. My knife clattered to the floor. Taking my bottom lip between his teeth, he didn’t seem to care. Nor, for the moment, did I. If the dead king’s lover really was here to avenge Theo, I could think of worse ways to go. I tore Jehan’s scarf and hood aside, peeling back his rain-soaked shirt until I found the smooth-skinned muscle beneath. His fingers clenched against my waist, and suddenly, his hips were between my thighs, my back scraping the wall, violence and pleasure coupled across my skin in the trail of his mouth. Tasting blood behind my teeth, I wondered whose it was.

Outside, thunder rumbled.

I’m not an inexperienced lover. But, as I discovered firsthand that night, a man like Jehan of the Isle does not become a monarch’s favored companion without particular expertise in certain arenas.

“Jehan,” I said, much later, with a great deal of effort. His head lay at my navel, and what he was doing with his fingers felt like sorcery itself.

“Oh, don’t,” he whispered, a rumble against my ribs, barely audible beneath the thunder’s crash. “Don’t make me talk about anything. Let me take us both away from this.”

The way his voice broke woke some sudden awareness at the back of my mind.

“Jehan.” I twisted upward, through pleasure’s inertia. He didn’t answer. “Jehan,” I repeated. In the dark, my fingers found his chin. I curved a hand loosely around his jaw. He wouldn’t meet my eyes.

I didn’t try to make him. “Jehan. You don’t have to talk,” I said, “but I’ll ask that you listen. You’re not obliged to forgive me for what I’ve done, much less please me.”

Jehan drew back, as if struck.

“You do not have to please me, Jehan,” I repeated. “Ugliness is permitted. We do not always have to feel beautiful things.”

He moved forward, so suddenly, I thought he’d kill me after all. Instead, the hands I’d anticipated around my throat closed a vise around my torso. He wept, curled furious against me. As if he wanted to break my ribs, or keep me here, locked skin-to-skin on the shore of an Isle that would be forbidden to us both come morning. As if he’d smother grief for a dead lover in the arms of a regicide.

I remembered Kana, then, red-wreathed and wondrous and terrible, and returned that fury-fueled embrace, my grip painting bruises over Jehan’s sand-pale skin. Not all grief, after all, is for the dead. A cruel thing, the unbearable wreckage our monarchs leave behind. Yet even through rage and sorrow, sometimes still, like sunlight’s fingers waking sleepers at daybreak, is a hard-edged kind of love.

“Lailani,” said Jehan, when he was finally spent. Hoarse, but determined. “Where will we go?”

Through my safe-house window, I studied the pale red pattern of sunrise leaking past dark purple night. “I don’t know,” I said, truthfully. “There’s a boat at the docks. A horizon. Beyond that, who knows? Perhaps I have another libretto in me.” I glanced down at the light spilling across him. He’d be Jehan of the Isle no longer. But he was still the man whose fingers plucked melodies that could bewitch a court like blood-red sorcerers’ tea. “Wherever we go, it should be a place for music.”

Slowly, Jehan lifted his head. “I had best bring my harp, then.”

Later, when we boarded the boat, the Isle at our backs, my hand found his, bones squeezed tight beneath skin. Our fingers, bruised and bruising, met at the calluses.

© 2018, Andrea Tang

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