“You know, your eyes are lovely. So blue. It’s like they’re made of sapphires.”
Clara smiled. “And my heart is made of diamond.”
The tavern-keeper leaned an elbow on the bar table and laughed. Likely he thought she was flirting back at him. She was not. Her heart was indeed made of diamond. A creature cursed she was. Like the king of myth whose touch turned all to gold, Clara could transform all to diamond. Her curse was more merciful in some ways. She could only harm who and what she loved, and only if her bare skin were to touch. A curse afflicted half the members in her family, each in different ways. Her sister lay in eternal sleep. Her husband had been transformed into a bear. She had thus far failed to find the wicked creature who had cursed them.
Clara was weary from her hunting and heartsick from missing her family. Now that the first snows of winter had fallen, she was weary too from cold. She could not even enjoy a hot bowl of tomato soup with crusty bread, for she loved that meal and it would likely turn to diamond. So she settled for porridge and bitter ale. And she dreamed that the tavern’s beds were soft and warm, for it seemed sleep would be her only pleasure.
But as she ate, she listened to people telling tales to each other, and she realized that a good tale was another pleasure she could enjoy. The keeper of the tavern seemed a fair storyteller. She’d heard the end of one he’d been telling a nearby group of mill-workers. And he seemed to want an excuse to linger by her “sapphire” eyes. So when he came to check if her ale cup needed filling, she asked for a story instead.
“A true story or a mystical one?”
Clara narrowed her eyes. “A bit of both.”
“Have you yet heard the tale of kingdom Callimoray and its sovereign queen?” the tavern-keeper asked.
Clara took a sip of ale and shook her head.
“Rumor has it she’s a dream-walker.”
When the queen of Callimoray was still a princess, she was schooled in all the ways a princess should be schooled. The skill of sums and the skill of reading. Knowledge of nature and knowledge of faiths. The arts, some sport, commerce and trade, law and rule. Royal tutors performed that task. Her godmother, who was rumored to have some fairy blood in her line, taught the princess about the many mystic practices in the world. The princess latched on to the practice of meditations at a young age. As the kingdom’s only heir, there was much for her to learn, many future burdens on her still-young shoulders. She found peace in her meditations.
In Callimoray, monarchs joined in matrimony not just to produce heirs but to balance the burdens and powers of rule. One would rule the kingdom. One would guard it. The king governed. The queen protected.
So as the princess grew older, she was taught all parts in the rule of the kingdom, but she was also taught that she must share that rule when she was of age, on the eve of her second decade of life. She was a solitary child, and the queen worried over that. But the princess was yet young. And there was time.
She developed many a skill—archery, harp music, painting, riding—and she lost many a skill as she abandoned those that did not serve either interest or need. The one practice that she remained faithful to was her meditations. Her godmother claimed it was how the young princess kept her focus and learned her other lessons and duties so well.
One morning, the princess came to her mother in great excitement and said that she had found the queen’s dream and walked with her through the orchards. The queen remembered the dream and was charmed by the coincidence that her daughter had had one so similar. But the princess recited details she could not have known unless they had truly shared the same dream. The princess had picked a pear and offered it to her mother. But as the queen reached out to grasp the pear, it turned into a sparrow and flew away. The queen was startled by her daughter’s keen guesses. But the protector of the realm was not one to believe in omens and dreams and magics unseen. The princess was still just young enough that she could be patted on the head and her claims dismissed with a humoring smile.
The king and queen were less humored when their daughter came upon the king’s dreams of passionate nights with the queen trying to make another child. The princess was past the first decade of her life by then but she was also sheltered, and did not know what it was she had seen. Still the king and queen dismissed the notion that their daughter had walked into a dream. Rather they resolved to be more cautious with the locks to their bedchamber in future.
The princess’s godmother was not so quick to dismiss the child’s claims. For the godmother knew of those who meditated and found themselves able to reach other realms, realms that no carriage or horse could ever reach. She told the monarchs that their daughter was dream-walking, that the talent was a rare one, to be nurtured. For it would surely aid the princess in her rule and protection of the kingdom once she came upon the throne. The king felt cautious, and the queen was skeptical, but they allowed the godmother to give guidance in the matter.
Then came the night the princess almost drowned in someone else’s nightmare. The princess didn’t even know whose nightmare it was. But the dreamer woke up and saved the princess’s life, for she woke as well. And she was found gasping for air by her godmother. The king and queen, fearing that the godmother they had entrusted with their daughter’s life and learning had not just failed them but betrayed them by teaching the princess terrible and dangerous practices, banished the godmother from the kingdom.
From that time forward, the queen always slept by the princess’s side. In time the princess regained her composure after that first fright and the loss of her godmother. She tried to convince the king and queen to let her continue her meditations and to recover her privacy when sleeping. Only after a year without incident, did they relent somewhat. Instead of the queen, a handmaiden her own age would sleep in the princess’s room. But they did not know how clever the princess was. She had always meditated sitting cross-legged in the fashion of an acrobat. But after she was forbidden, she learned to meditate while lying like a sleeper. She learned to control her own dreams. Soon she suffered no nightmares of her own. And she wondered if she could banish the nightmares of others.
It began with the daughter of the day cook, who was six years old and had a paralyzing fear of spiders. When she was still learning to toddle, she would sit on the floor of the kitchen to eat her breakfast. One day a rather large spider had crawled onto her hand and bit her. The venom was not poisonous but it was painful, and the poor little girl wailed for the better part of an hour as her mother held her and the castle’s healer tried in vain to apply a salve. The princess had gone down to the kitchen, curious about the commotion. And while her heart strained for the little girl, the princess had watched helplessly as others tended to the child.
Since that time, the girl suffered nightmares. The cook would wake every night to soothe her daughter. And the poor little child soon learned to fear sleep itself. Then one night, the child fell asleep against her mother’s bosom, listening to pleasant tales of frogs and hares, and she did not wake till morning. And when she woke, she told her happily refreshed mother a hazy tale of spiders and butterflies and the princess of the castle.
The girl was trapped in an oak tree. She had climbed it to escape the shadows that crawled all over the floor. Shadows in the shapes of spiders. But then she heard a knocking as of someone at a door, and she heard a familiar voice asking permission to enter. Through her dread, the girl felt curiosity. The voice was a friendly one. And she gave permissions. And she gasped when the princess of the kingdom moved through the spidery shadows and stood at the foot of the tree.
The princess had a lit torch and she climbed up and joined the child. She told the girl that it was no folly to be wary of spiders in the waking world, for some could indeed cause harm. Then she pointed to the shadows and told the girl that they were in a dream, the child’s dream. The monsters below were no mere spiders. They were fears, the girl’s fears, and they would go away if the girl wanted them to. But the girl was not convinced. She clutched at the princess’s arms as the spiders seemed to swarm below. The princess asked the child what creature she loved as much as she loathed spiders. And the girl told her it was butterflies. One spider, big as a tomcat, turned from shadow to substance and began to crawl up the tree.
The child felt the familiar dread. She begged the princess for help. The princess pointed to the spider and it transformed into a giant blue-green butterfly. Relief and joy filled the child, but the princess put her arm over the girl’s shoulder and told her that she must transform the rest. The princess would stay that night so long as the spiders were there, but she could not come night after night to defend the girl. In her dreams, the child had to learn to defend herself. She told the child to summon her strength, close her eyes and imagine the spiders changing into butterflies one by one.
At first, the spiders just came and crawled and hissed as they always did. And despite the princess’s presence, the child was still too frightened to do anything but weep and tremble. The princess threatened the nearby spiders with her torch so that none came close enough to scare the child out of the dream and back into the waking world. And soon the child tired enough of the stalemate that she closed her eyes and she imagined the nearest spider was a butterfly. She opened her eyes to see a little pink butterfly flutter by her face. Eyes wide, she looked up at the princess who rewarded her with a proud smile. The girl closed her eyes and did it again. And again another spider became a butterfly. She did it again. And again. She stopped closing her eyes. She pulled free of the princess’s grasp and stepped out upon a branch, changing each spider until dozens upon dozens of butterflies fluttered and perched about the tree.
In the waking world, the child still loathed spiders. But in her dreams, where they had become monsters, she conquered them.
The princess made heroes out of other children in their nightmares. And she allayed the fears of older folk. All those who could remember enough of their dreams, remembered that she always asked permission, as if she were entering someone’s bedchamber. And some even remember saying “nay” and never seeing the princess in their dreams.
In her eighteenth year, the king and queen began entertaining suitors for the princess. She argued she was too young and knew little of the world at large. That she was not strong enough, having never stood alone, having never had to care for herself. The king and queen found her arguments queer, for the very thing they feared was that she was alone. They heard whispers and rumors of the dreams that people had of the princess. But the rumors were vague and it had been many years since she had woke gasping for air. They did not know the princess was still a dream-walker. That she was already bringing comfort and friendship to the people she would one day rule.
All the king and queen knew was what they saw. The princess did not have any friends among the nobles at court or the handmaidens that served her. She was not the rough type of royal who exchanged quips and bawdy tales with the common folk in the castle. She had no pets. She kept to herself and what pastimes she enjoyed were ones that did not require the participation of others. She played the harp sometimes. She visited people of all ages and ranks in their dreams, but kept away from all people in the waking world.
The princess was distantly polite to the nobles and royals who sought her hand. She did her best not to give any of them hope. Most of the suitors were well-behaved, though there were braggarts and fawners among them.
There was one in particular who was aggressive in his aim to impress the princess. So much so that he found her one day while she was meditating in the royal gardens. He crept past the handmaiden who had fallen asleep and dared to kiss the princess. The princess had been meditating for hours, and her true self wandered far from her body. But such an intimate touch from a stranger woke her from the contemplation of some deep and cosmic idea that she had been seeking so long. She opened her eyes, looked at him, and courteously asked that he refrain from touching her again. The prince staggered back, dazzled by the beauty of her eyes. They were blue and green and so full of life. But as she gazed at him, he saw something else in her eyes that made him look away. A worm of unease began to creep about in his gut. Those eyes were not full of the innocence and trust and longing that he’d hoped to see.
That same day, the princess told the king and the queen that she refused the hand of that brazen prince, for the mistake he made was a troubling one. He had not asked permission. He had not respected her person.
The king and queen, though disappointed by her other refusals, were glad of this one. They loved not this particular prince. He was the son of a noble king, but it seemed the seed had been scattered far from the tree. They were eager that he should leave. And so he did, as did a dozen more suitors just that week. And as the number of suitors dwindled, the king and queen grew worried.
They had hoped their daughter would understand her duty to the kingdom, but they now feared that she would truly reject all the suitors. Monarchs they may have been, but in this they had no power either by will or by law. They spoke of striking a bargain with their daughter, to lift the banishment of her godmother. It was the princess’s one weakness, for after her mother and father, the princess loved her godmother most but had not seen her for many years.
But the bargain was never made.
The queen heard of a force amassing in the capitol. It was the brazen prince. He had not accepted the refusal of the princess. And he had a secret advantage that the queen only learned of when she commanded the capitol guards to stand against the prince’s force. The prince had as his ally a warlock, a man practiced in the arts of war-making magic. With the aid of the warlock’s arts, the prince had scattered his loyal soldiers throughout the capitol without the notice of the royal guards, under the nose of the queen protector. He had meant to have the kingdom through marriage. Failing that, he sought to take it through force.
Rains of fire fell upon the capitol by day. Shrieking shadows beset it by night. And while the warlock terrorized the people, the brazen prince’s soldiers overcame the royal guard and moved closer and closer to the castle. The suitors who still remained, even those who were in the midst of departing, having recently been rejected, readied themselves to stand against one who dishonorably attempted to take by force that which had been refused to him by law. But the cunning prince had brought so many. All who stood in his way were cut down, city guards, brave commoners, knights and nobles.
The queen sent word to the only person in her kingdom who might stand against a warlock, her daughter’s godmother. But whether word never reached her or she refused to help or she was waylaid on her way to the kingdom, the godmother never came.
At last the brazen prince’s forces reached the castle. It had only been three days.
The suitors were dead. The princess would not have married any of them. But they were worthy men. All of them. And he had killed them. All of them.
The castle was overrun. The king, the queen, and the princess were brought before the brazen prince, who proclaimed that the king and queen should be banished and that the princess should be wed to him. The king begged the prince to banish the princess with them so that they may remain a family. But the brazen and clever and cruel prince knew that the king would not risk raising a force and trying to regain the kingdom while his beloved daughter was in thrall to him. And he knew the princess would relent so long as she knew he held the lives of her mother and father in his hands.
The princess who could banish horrors in nightmares was helpless to banish horrors in the waking world. She held aside her fear long enough to say her goodbyes to her mother and father. She feared that the banishment was a ruse, that the prince would have her mother and father cut down sometime after they left the capitol. It was the coward’s way of assuring he had no challenge to the throne. A public execution would have turned the people against him of certain. She begged the prince to allow a few household guards to join her parents in exile. But the prince would not hear of it. The household guards and king’s knights were all sent to the dungeons. The brazen prince’s men accompanied the king and queen to the borders of the kingdom. After only a week, they were too far away and the princess could no longer reach them in their dreams.
The more time she spent in wakeful worry, the more helpless the princess felt. She knew of only one defense against the invader in her castle. She put herself into a deep meditation, so that only her body, the one part of her she could not protect, would remain. She knew he would defile it and perhaps even destroy it, but she needed calm and strength, and she did not have those in the waking world. When the prince was told that the princess would not wake from sleep one day, he barged into her bedchamber, meaning to shake and slap and cut her if need be to stop what he thought was a foolish protest. But when he saw her lying still as death in her bed, he stopped short.
The prince, the ruthless prince, the usurper who thought he would breach the castle walls and take her by force felt ill. He was filled with the memory of what he had seen in the princess’s eyes. The disquieting memory of something vast, something infinite. He thought it was her soul. And if it were so, he found her soul unnerving. He would have been content to have her locked away in her chamber, to have her forever meditating, never opening those horrible beautiful eyes. He would have preferred to execute the entire royal family. But he needed her alive. And to keep her good will, he needed the king and queen alive as well. While his force and his warlock could hold the sprawling capitol, they could not hold the entire kingdom. It would not do to have the people rise up. They would not do so if the princess still held the throne, even if a usurper shared that throne with her.
The usurper had heard rumors about the princess. That she could walk into dreams, that she was a mind-reader, a witch. But he had seen no evidence that she was anything but a princess like any other. Young and unworldly. Alone and frightened, she had fainted away and her faint was so strong, she had not yet woken. He had nothing to fear, he told himself. And it was easy to do so when he had not visited her chamber for days. But a week had passed, and the royal counselors asked after the princess and asked when they would wed. The prince delayed them with false stories of her needing rest after being separated from her father and mother. He spoke of her as if they were sweethearts. He called her his sleeping beauty. It was as if he had forgotten that he had taken the capitol by force.
He set his warlock to find a potion or spell or wake the princess, and the next day he brashly announced that he would wed the princess in a fortnight. Even if she were not sleeping, he could not wed her in haste, for a hasty wedding would make him seem afraid. It would make it seem that he was incapable of holding the kingdom on his own, without the protection of his union with the kingdom’s true heir. He had to leave sufficient time to prepare a royal wedding.
He did not know that the princess schemed and planned his downfall even as she slept.
The very first night that the princess put herself in deep meditation, after most of the capitol’s residents drifted off to uneasy sleep, they found themselves in a black abyss with the princess before them. She had grown powerful enough to split herself into hundreds of different pieces that each visited the hundreds of dreamers in the city. She asked each if he or she were loyal to her. It was possible to lie in dreams, but difficult, especially when taken by surprise. Those who answered “yea” found themselves gathered in the castle’s main hall. And when they looked up at the throne, they found the princess sitting upon it. She had mastered the vagaries of the dream realm. She made herself appear taller and stronger than she was in truth. She spoke and her voice flowed and echoed through the hall. She told her people the truth of it. They were in a dream. It was the safe place at which all could gather who wished to help her win back her kingdom from the usurper.
It was a simple plan. There were more people in the capitol who were loyal to her than to the usurper. If they all rose up at once, if they had a signal to tell them when, they could overthrow the forces in the city. And if the guards and knights in the dungeons were freed, they would help to overtake the castle. The princess had a hard choice in asking her people to lay down their lives to give the kingdom back to her. She hoped to lessen the bloodshed by using guile instead of weapons. She instructed those who were responsible for bringing food and drink to the usurpers forces to obtain sleeping draughts and all the capitol’s best drinks.
She meant to bring the sleeping soldiers into her dream and trap them there while her loyalists in the waking world disarmed and bound them, all without violence. Sleeping draughts and liquors were unpredictable. The work of regaining the city, even if all rose at once, would take a day or so. The princess learned that the warlock sought a way to wake her. And that gave her less time.
Even as she planned the uprising, she tried to range farther than she had in the dream realm to find her mother and father and godmother. But she failed. And she sought to find the warlock, so she could face him in a realm where she might have some power against him. But whether he never slept or was somehow warded from her dreaming eyes, she could not find him.
The day came at last. She gathered her people in the castle hall of the dream realm. In the midst of her rousing and rallying words, she felt hope and despair and pride and fear. She realized that without her part in the plan, it might fail. She should not have taken on so much herself. If she had only planned the uprising, and spread the actions to all else, the plan would succeed with or without her. If she was victorious in regaining her kingdom, she would remember that lesson. For now, the fretting was over. Her people knew what to do. Even if some lost courage at the last minute, she was confident that most would be true.
Time was different in dreams. So the princess had sleepers, those who would take sleeping draught right when the clock struck nine in the evening. They would appear in the dream realm and signal to her that it was time.
She stood in the castle’s main hall waiting and when the sleepers appeared, she began searching for the sleeping minds of the usurper’s soldiers. She drew them into her dream, into the great hall. As they began to appear, some were confused, as if they knew something was wrong, others carrying on as if they were still in their own dreams. She could hold them there if no one woke her. But she worried the warlock would find a way. Holding the soldiers might not be enough.
She did something then that she had only planned to do if the first plan failed. Straining the limits of her skill, she split into almost a thousand pieces and transformed the great hall into every nightmare she could remember. The dream realm was overrun with a thousand nightmares brought to vivid life. The soldiers began to flee and fight and scream. If the warlock should rouse her, if she should fail to hold the soldiers, let them wake in fear and confusion, the princess thought. And let the sight of the uprising make them doubt if they were asleep or awake, and make them easy for the people to subdue.
The princess controlled the nightmare realm from her seat on the throne. Then of a sudden, a burning pain struck her heart. She clutched at her chest. She rose from her throne and before she could do anything more, a crack rent the ceiling of the great hall. Rain began to fall from the crack, a red rain. Some of the nightmares vanished. She felt some force draining away from her. She took a step from her throne and stumbled…
She blinked her eyes, and when she realized she was waking, the dread made her alert within a few heartbeats. She lay in her bed in her chamber. Above her loomed the usurper. She began to tremble, but not from fear. There was a wound in her chest, just above her heart. A dagger stuck up from the wound. He had woken her thus.
There was banging and shouts from outside the door to her chamber. The princess could not rise, she felt so weak. She could not call out. Her eyelids slipped down. The usurper moved behind her. He pulled the dagger from her chest and it was just enough pain to make her eyes fly open again.
The royal guards burst into the room. They found the usurper with a dagger to the princess’s throat. In his desperation, he moved to lift her body up as a shield from any archers who might be skilled enough to try killing him with an arrow to the neck. But when he touched her, she felt a surge of some force and he drew back his hand as if he had touched flame. The royal guards set upon him. And the princess slipped back into sleep…
They succeeded, the people and the princess. The city was theirs again before morning.
When she woke a few days later, not from meditation, but from a sleep needed to mend her body, the princess found that she was surrounded by her people. Her father’s counselors had ruled while she slept, but in the large matter of what to do with the usurper and his forces, they had awaited her judgment.
The usurper was in the dungeons. But the warlock had vanished, somehow escaping from the castle when the uprising began. He was being hunted, but would likely not be found. The princess sent out messengers to call the king and queen back from exile. She longed to restore her monarchs to their thrones. Moreso, she longed to embrace her mother and father again.
She questioned the usurper both in the waking world and in the dreaming realm. She hoped he was keeping them prisoner somewhere, but he was no help. It may have been a strange form of defiance, but more likely, he truly had lost his wits. At last, she returned the prince to his father on the conditions that he be punished according to the laws of his native kingdom and that no one of royal blood from their kingdom could ever set foot in Callimoray again.
For a year and a day, the search continued. As her people searched in the waking world, the princess searched in the dream realm. But there was no trace of the king and queen. On darker days, she feared that the usurper had indeed had them killed. But she would not believe it until she found the proof. Her godmother too seemed to have vanished. So she hoped that her godmother had secreted her mother and father away somewhere safe.
One day, the princess called all the people of the capitol to the main hall in the castle. She proclaimed that she would continue searching for her mother and father, but that the land could not do without a ruling monarch. With the blessing of the royal counsel, she named herself queen of Callimoray, a sovereign queen.
She longed for the day she would find her mother and father. She could not walk through all the realms of the the earth, for she had a kingdom to govern, and she aimed to govern well. But she did walk through dreams, searching for her monarchs, helping children conquer monsters, growing stronger and wiser.
And her people came to call her their Dreaming Queen.
“Well, worth a copper at least, wouldn’t you say miss?”
Clara took a breath. She had been enthralled by the whole tale. She had only wanted a diversion, an entertainment. But he had given her the next step in her quest. A queen who could walk in dreams. If the story was even half true…this queen might be able to help Clara’s sister.
“At least,” Clara said. “Do you have any pears?”
The tavern-keeper smiled and shook his head. He did not think she would give him any coppers. He was right. “None fresh. It’s a bit too late for that. But I have some preserves.”
She nodded. And when he brought her a jar full of pears, she waited until he was called away. She opened the jar and with a gloved hand pulled out a whole pear, dripping with sugary water. She pulled the pear into her cloak where none could see, slipped off her glove, and touched the pear.
Clara loved pears. The fruit began to transform at once, from sugar and water and fleshy fruit to a clear crystal with a slight tinge of green. The diamond was far too large for common trading. But she had found that the same cursed hand that could make diamonds could also break them. She squeezed slightly and the diamond pear shattered into dozens of smaller pieces, which she swept off the counter into a small black pouch.
The tavern-keeper returned to ask how she liked the pears and frowned when he saw she had only eaten one. She promised to settle her debt in the morning and held up the pouch that he likely thought was full of coppers.
“I know where I must travel next,” she told him.
He laughed when he realized her intention. “The tale is a famous one. You may not gain an audience with the queen for some time.”
“I don’t need to request an audience,” Clara said. “All I need do is dream.”
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.