Updated: Sep 19
The Empress clutched the letters in her hand. She paced inside the tiny garden. The walls felt like they were going to swallow her whole. Her swollen belly caused her gait to wobble. She stared at the red royal velvet tapestry draped over a nearby bench. She longed to once again walk out amongst the open trees. Once she was a simple maid who got to go home to her family’s tiny cottage on her day off. Somehow that had all changed. The Empress still didn’t really understand what had happened. Now she was carrying the heir to the empire. But the protection of the Emperor was suffocating her. She was completely at his mercy. Her handmaiden brought her a platter of plums and pickles. The Empress devoured them, the juice dripping down her chin. The quiet girl who had served her for the last six months struggled to hide her revulsion at the strange cravings the Empress devoured.
The servant girl longed to scream at the impostor who stood before her. Once she had been Empress of this palace. Once she had dressed in luxurious linens and sumptuous velvets. Now she wore a stiff wool uniform. She should’ve known better. When the visiting emissary had given her the beautiful genie’s bottle, she should’ve thrown him out of the kingdom. Or better yet, had him beheaded. Instead she had caressed the sparkling bottle thinking it was just another pretty bottle. The cloud of smoke that escaped the bottle had held her doom. The genie that appeared before her was neither intimidating nor looming. He was a slight, unassuming man. The former Empress thought he appeared more scholarly than magical and impressive. He’d simply bowed before her and produced a piece of parchment. “Vundar the great and terrible at your service, your eminence.” He consulted the parchment. “I see here that you long to be free of the trappings of your current life. I can arrange that.”
Before the former Empress could protest, she had switched places with the maid who was cleaning the chamber. The maid had looked in wonder at the finery she suddenly wore. The new Empress stared in the mirror in fascination. The former Empress watched in shock as her life walked away without her. The former Empress now wore the plain uniform of the servants. She tried to scream, but no sound came from her mouth. Vundar circled around her and nodded approvingly. “That should do it. No longer do you have to sit through long days at court or the neverending banquet dinners. No more confining clothes or commands from the Emperor to produce an heir already. You are free. Well. Almost. You can not speak to anyone about the magic that made you so. In fact, you cannot speak to anyone you knew in your former life as the Empress. Other than that you are free to do as you please.” With that, Vundar disappeared in a puff of smoke. The bottle he lived in disappeared as well.
The former Empress looked at her new life and screamed. No sound came out. Silence, as she came to be called, was appalled at how she was treated. She was bullied by the other servants the moment they figured out she couldn’t speak. Silence slipped into a fog. She slept in the servants dormitory and watched with sadness as her fellow servants went home to visit their family on their day off. Silence had no family. Her parents had married her off to the Emperor when she was barely more than a child. The only letter her mother had sent her was a hastily written message warning her that if she did not conceive an heir soon she would regret it. Now Silence was nearly 20 years old. Three years she had been the Empress and endured the Emperor’s touch. No child had ever come to her. Silence watched in mute rage as the Emperor announced that his Empress was with child. The peasant girl had conceived almost immediately. No one had even noticed that she was a different Empress. No one knew that Silence had been replaced. Day after day went by. The new Empress was coddled and protected. Silence was promoted to be her handmaiden. She could not protest. The new Empress liked the quiet girl who saw to her every whim. Silence helped her get into the elaborate costumes required for court and banquet. When her hands fell across the silks and velvets she remembered how much she had hated them. The weight of them and how they hampered her movement. Silence started spending her day off working in the stables. As Empress she had always had to ride in a stuffy little carriage for travel. Now as Silence she could help exercise the horses same as any other servant who was willing to volunteer. The Emperor’s collection of horses was varied. Tiny ponies lived next to enormous draft horses. Sleek, fiery horses lived in stone barns. Water horses lived comfortably in stone ringed ponds. Silence came to love all of them. She discovered she could speak to the horses as long as no one else was nearby to over hear her. So she took common painted horses out for long rides through the field. She told them everything she could not speak to another human. Time continued to pass. Her best friend became a black and white spotted horse gone mostly gray named Jinn. Silence and Jinn spent every free day exploring the lands around the castle. The other grooms thought nothing of it. On the days Silence came to visit, she was entitled to ride any common pony she wished. It was one perk of being a castle servant. The days after she had visited, Jin usually worked twice as hard. By the fifth day, Jin would begin to watch the doorway for his friend. By day six he was unruly. On the seventh day they would ride the fields together again.
This pattern continued until the day the Empress gave birth. The girl child did not resemble the Emperor at all. In Silence’s opinion she more resembled the genie that had made the maid into an Empress. Outrage broke out amongst the court. The auguries and fortune tellers all said the same thing: someone had placed a cuckoo changeling child in the Emperor’s kingdom. All eyes fell on Silence. She had appeared right around the time the Empress became pregnant. They called her a witch and bade her take the girl child away. Silence picked up the little girl and stared around the court. Once these people had bowed and scraped for her favor. Now she would be cast out. The Empress was to be locked away until she conceived another child, with no visitors. Silence could not believe this turn of events. She looked down at the child and smiled. Here was someone who needed her. Who would love her regardless of the roles she played. Silence bowed once before the court and walked out through the side gate. The stable master had Jin tied up to a small cart. Silence bowed once to him where he hid in the shadow of the doorway. She climbed up and drove away.
When she reached the forest, the child began to cry. Out of instinct, Silence began to croon a lullaby. She was startled by the croaked voice that came from her own throat and yet relieved. Perhaps this curse wasn’t so all encompassing after all. Silence and her new charge set off to find a place for themselves in the world.
The prompts for today’s short story:
royal velvet plums
Copyright 2020 Klaudia Grady