She was never seen. Neither face nor form. Some say it was because she was so beautiful that the queen and king feared she would inspire terrible and unrelenting envy. Others said the opposite was true. She was hideous, deformed. She was never heard. Neither wit nor word. Some said there was no princess, and therefore, no suitable heir. For the queen and king had had another child, but he was only a son.
Once, there was an uncommon people who lived in the mountains, high above the clouds. They were known as the Bevoneberg. And that too was the name of their mountain realm. The Bevoneberg Mountains were beautiful. Some were ice and water mountains, and some were fire mountains. The people learned how to harness and use the natural gifts that the mountains gave. They forged houses of metal and glass and grew vegetables and fruits. They kept animals, goats, sheep, and pheasants. They built homes of earth, rock, and wood.
No other people could reach that high. The Bevoneberg could do it because almost all were born with a quality that was unique to their people. They had the ability to float up into the air. Whenever they breathed in, their chests would fill with air, and they would rise. As they breathed out and released air, they would descend. They used paper fans to direct themselves when they were floating up and so they sometimes appeared to have wings to those who watched from below. Until a certain age, all children were the same in their ability. They couldn’t rise as high as grown-ups. Most women could riser higher and withstand the thinner air of the higher climes better than most of the men. So it came to be that women were the rulers and warriors. From such heights as they could reach, they could throw down daggers, or arrows, or even drop stones and greatly injure those who could not float, those who were “anchored” as the mountain people call them. Those who could reach the highest heights were bestowed the greatest honors. The first queen of the Bevoneberg was said to have floated up so far, she brought down a piece of a star and threw it into the mountain to start a blaze so hot it melted the earth of the mountain. The molten mountain thereafter gave warmth and protection to her people.
Later queens did not have to perform such extraordinary wonders to gain their throne. They had only to be the daughters of the queens who came before.
At a time when the neighboring realms were thrown into an age of ignorance, Bevoneberg thrived under the rule of great queens, one after the other. Queens were overthrown. Revolution came and went. The people sent their scholars, both women and men, into the wider world, and gathered knowledge and culture to add to their own. There were those brave kings who sought to rule in their own right. To prove that a king could rule as well queen.
Many came to believe it was unjust for women to rule only because they could float higher. Many came to believe that it was unjust for monarchs and sovereigns to rule simply by right of birth. Many came to believe that it was fearful of their people to close themselves off from the wider world. Bevoneberg received no visitors. Merchants, troupes of performers, and thieves alike would try to climb the mountains, to no avail. If they could not be discouraged by the mountains themselves, then they were discouraged by the border guards who patrolled the mountains like dark and deadly ghosts.
It came to pass that the reigning sovereign of the mountain realm was Queen Rane and her king was named Elroy. It was time of great vigor and passion, but also restlessness and defiance. The sovereignty was often questioned. Anyone who shared even a drop of blood with Rane’s line had circled and plotted to gain her throne since the day she was crowned. Rane’s family was strong. They had ruled for three generations. But it was a time of change in the realm. Even the most minor lady could entertain ambitions of being queen with promises to the people of a new type of leadership.
But Rane was strong-willed, well-trained at court, adept at games of wit and intrigue. When her mother passed, Rane ruled well enough for many years. She was not so adept at the ways of love, and yet the practical alliance with a mighty noble family that her late mother had arranged for her was not to be. She fell in love, unexpectedly in love, with Elroy, who was then a lord of a minor mount at the end of the range. They married and he became her king. Many whispered that the alliance with such a minor family would weaken Rane’s reign. Even Elroy feared it until Rane insisted he must not doubt himself but his enemies. She told him to save soft-heartedness for those who deserved it, and then proceeded to tell him that none at court deserved it.
The people respected Rane and were fond of her for troubling the nobles and the royal counselors, but they did not love her. They loved Elroy. His chosen color was green, his complexion was mountain-brown, and his face and form were beautiful. When he came out to meet the people wearing his glittering green diadem, walking forth before a proud queen who wore always black and crystal, he was every bit the jewel of the realm.
When the twins were born, one girl and one boy, there was rejoicing in the mountains. The girl assured that the royal couple had an heir. But shortly after they were born, the twins suffered from a disease that plagued half the realm. When the plague passed, the princess was not seen again for many years. When pressed, the queen maintained that she was protecting the girl from the risk of any further illness or danger. The plague had come from the outside world, likely brought back by the scholars, spies, and merchants who were allowed outside of the realm’s borders and back inside by royal permission. The queen insisted she was also protecting the girl from court intrigues and venomous enemies who played at being friends.
The royal counselors were displeased with the queen’s over-protectiveness of the princess, and raised their concerns. The people needed to know their sovereign monarch. The princess would appear weak and frightful if she never showed herself before she took the crown. Rane scoffed at such accusations at first, using her queenly privilege, for she too had to assure she showed no weakness to her counselors. But she also knew that the counselors were right. The people of the realm had to see the princess-heir to celebrate her, love her, and be ready for her when she took the throne.
The queen hoped to appease by sending the prince out among the people, to represent his sister. Though he would not rule, he was trained in all the ways a princess would be trained, to rule, to fight, and to float high. He was strong and worthy. Kind-hearted and clever. A handsome child, and gentle. Obedient, and yet also curious and questioning. Prince Gutun was charming and soon became as beloved of the people as was his father, if not moreso.
But the queen knew there were would come a time when the people had to see their heir. On the day of the twins’ tenth birthday, a great celebration was held in the capital. By law, none could float above a certain height in the capital, save for the royal guards. That height was marked on the palace in ornate gold leaf. So the queen could assure that if she presented her heir high above the highest floaters, in the balcony of the queen’s bedchamber, none should be able to reach the child. So it came to pass, the first time the Bevoneberg laid eyes on their next sovereign. So it came to pass that they heard their next sovereign speak humble but mighty words. They were written by her mother, but the Princess Gerta spoke them well and sincerely.
After that, the princess-heir made the rare appearance at balls, dinners, or parades. Always garbed in the finest finery, always surrounded by guards, the princess-heir soon came to wear a veil to hide her face. She spoke less and less, if at all. So started the rumors about her looks and even about her ability to rule. No amount of scoffing or scorn by Queen Rane could stop the rumors. She wondered aloud at dinners if her heir should spend all her time visiting all the people in the realm in their homes instead of studying to be queen. She quipped that perhaps once crowned, her daughter could leave the governing of the realm to the royal counsel. Rane made it seem as if the counsel were plotting to undermine her daughter’s rule, but the counsel was full of allies. The queen knew it, but she was so fearful for her heir that she sometimes wished she was only a common woman raising a child who would have few and simple burdens.
The prince too received many questions about his sister over the years, questions that he could not answer. Prince Gutun road out to be the sovereign’s representative. It was typically the heir who made such trips. But the prince gained the favor of many local leaders and authorities. He only told all that his sister was kept away even from him. They did not miss each other, for they had not been raised together. Such was the wisdom of the queen, the prince would say, for a good sovereign must think of the realm first, even above kin. The prince was admired for his well-spoken support of his mother and sister. And many began to grumble that it was a shame he wasn’t born a girl, for the prince did in full view all that the princess was expected and meant to do. Times were changed, and it was not so unusual for men to lead, be it in their homes or even on fields of battle. But there were still some who held to the old ways, so far as to be offended that their prince had been raised as if he were a princess.
When Bevoneberg suffered incursions by one of the realms of anchored folks, Queen Rane declared war. In time, she joined the battle and was killed. It was just past the twins’ seventeenth year. The princess-heir only showed herself once after the queen’s death and declared that the king should rule in her stead until she was ready to take the crown. Rumors flared that it was simply a trick and that the princess did not exist. It was easier to believe that than to believe that the next sovereign of Bevoneberg was a coward who couldn’t face her people, even as they mourned for their old queen.
For five years after, King Elroy ruled, all the while being hounded by his counselors to take a new queen. The royal counselors insisted that Elroy marry and make a new heir. They even tried to recruit Prince Gutun to convince his father. With Rane gone, they were open in speaking their thoughts about the princess-heir. They did not trust her to return and rule. They saw the end of Rane’s line coming.
When Elroy would take no new queen, the counselors urged Gutun to take a wife, for if they produced a daughter, the rules of succession would make her the next in line. Gutan was fond of a lady who’d begun to court him. But he had seen what difficulties his mother had faced, and what doubt and vehemence had been cast upon his sister. He could not bear to think of his child suffering under such burdens. Not long after the royal counselors spoke to the prince about how he might help his family keep the throne, they received word from the princess, from the one true heir.
She would come forth and claim her crown in seven days’ time.
Adhering to ancient custom, neither the king nor the prince appeared at the crowning ceremony. So little notice had the royal counselors and advisors been given, that there was no time for an extravagant coronation. Still, when word reached the people, the streets of the capital began to fill will revelers. By the day of the coronation, glittering gems decorated the rooftops all over the capital, and people floated over to see them all. On the ground, there were carts filled with gifts for the new queen making their way up to the palace on the great royal road. In the palace itself there were servants dashing to and fro, the smells of cooking and baking permeated the entire lower floor. They weren’t ready when she appeared, for the princess had said she would not wait upon them, but be crowned at her own leisure.
After all the years of doubting her, the counselors, advisors, and nobles began to doubt themselves. Perhaps Rane had known what she was doing. Perhaps she had deceived them all and sent the girl to live with the anchored folk and learn their ways. Or perhaps she had made a deal with the faere folk to send the princess to live and learn with them. Perhaps the princess was returning with powers unknown in the mountains. Perhaps her brother had told her everything, prompting her unexpected return. And perhaps she was angry.
It was early evening. There was still light in the lower sky even as the stars began to twinkle in the upper sky when a voice descended above the crowd that was standing and floating around the royal palace.
“My Bevoneberg people!” the voice said. It was smooth, clear, and booming.
A figure descended from the sky and landed on a platform that jutted from the royal palace wall. It was low enough for all to see her, but high enough for none to be able to reach her without being shot down by the royal guards.
She was neither ugly nor beautiful. She looked neither fearful nor audacious. She wore a diadem of black gems upon her black hair. Her cloak was colored like the night sky in hues of dark purple and blue. She unclasped it and let it drop. Beneath, she wore her mother’s color, a gown of black and crystal. She was magnificent.
“I have come to take my rightful place as your sovereign.”
She silenced the roar that followed by raising both arms. She smiled and her dark eyes twinkled with warmth. “Let the ceremony be short. So we may enjoy our revels this night.”
The roars and cheers that followed were even louder than before. But she silenced them again and her smile faded, but the warmth from her eyes did not.
“When our revels end, you will resume your work, and I will start mine.”
“All hail the mountain, the fire, and the cloud!” came a cry from the royal priestess. The people repeated the cry.
The priestess held the coronation crown, a heavy lattice of gold, laden with all the gems and stones that were found in their mountains. She floated up to the princess, lay the crown upon her head, floated back down and announced.
“Behold, your Queen Gerta!”
Gerta held her head up beneath the weight of the crown.
Gutun heard the roar of the crowd from one of the highest towers of the palace. The new queen had retired many hours before. He had appeared at the feast hall late and been scolded by the lady who was courting him, Lady Della, for missing his sister’s toast and her moment of triumph. Gerta had said many fine things about Queen Rane and declared that Gutun would rule the royal counsel and speak for her when she could not appear herself. She even jested when the very man she declared her trust for was nowhere to be seen. No one could remember Gerta ever speaking in jest. She stole away shortly after the toast. She had taken only a few bites of her dinner, eaten only, it seemed, out of respect for those who sat at table with her.
Lady Della pulled the prince into a quiet corner, and Gutun explained that he was not reveling with another, shirking his duties, or betraying his queen’s trust. He had in fact been seeing to a matter of state on the queen’s behalf. Lady Della was most interested in the queen, as was most everyone. She wanted to meet Gerta. When Gutun hesitated, she teased that if she one day wanted to ask for Gutun’s hand, she must know if the queen would grant it.
Gutun was cautious always with this heart, for it had been broken once or twice when he was younger. But he was fond of Della, and his heart had fluttered at her mention of asking for his hand. Still, his first duty was to his queen. And Queen Gerta would see no one unless she herself summoned them. The only exceptions were the king and the prince. Gutun explained this, but for the many days following the coronation, Della showered him with gifts and begged him to seek audience with the queen on her behalf.
Gutun refused at first. Even at the cost of losing the lady’s attentions. But the sovereign needed allies, beyond the royal counsel and advisors. True and powerful allies. Gutun and Elroy were true, but they were not powerful. Lady Della’s family would make a powerful ally. It was a risk, but all alliances were.
The highest tower of the palace was meant for the queen. None else were allowed to stay in it save for a king. The queen did not often take company there. But one evening, Gutun left Della by the entrance to the tower. The tower was so high that it would take many breaths and leaps even for a woman to reach the queen’s chamber at the very top.
When Lady Della reached the top of the tower, she found a grand chamber. The curtains to the balcony were open to a twilight sky. She walked slowly around the chamber, not wanting to intrude, but curious. She knelt over the writing table beside a window. There was parchment drying there.
“Welcome,” said a voice, and it made Della start.
The Lady Della turned to find a figure outlined against the balcony opening. The queen was taller than she seemed when she hovered over the people or sat on the high throne in the receiving hall of the palace. She was as tall as her brother. And if she had floated straight up from the ground onto the balcony and into the chamber, then she had powerful breath indeed.
Della had a purpose in meeting her queen, a purpose she did not reveal to the sweet and good Gutun. But such purposes were not meant to be known by the gentle hearts of men. The mountain realm was a great realm. And its people a great people. Queen Rane had ruled in plain sight and ruled well when all her mistakes and triumphs were summed.
Any true mother would tolerate much from her child. And so Queen Rane had tolerated much from the mysterious Gerta, who had spent so little time in the mountains that she could not rightly call herself a Bevenoberg. Spies had been about the palace for years, and while they did not know where the princess-heir went when she disappeared, it seemed that she was nowhere in the realm. Nowhere in the mountains.
There were still those who believed that the princess had not returned. That the brave and strong woman whom they had crowned queen was a pretender. If she was, Della was sorry. For she bore no ill will to any but the cowardly princess who did not deserve to rule.
She approached the new queen, and Gerta stepped back. “Stay where you are,” the queen said.
Della held up her hands to show they were empty. “The true sovereign of the mountains has nothing to fear from me.”
The new queen asked why Della wanted to see her. And Della answered that she had a question. She turned away and as she’d hoped, the queen stepped toward her. Della spoke in a deliberately low and hesitant voice. The queen came closer and asked her to speak again.
The queen was close enough then. The guards were well-trained and clever. They had checked Della well, but had not caught the tiny dagger she’d hidden in the folds and piles of her hair. She slipped it out and slashed at the queen.
Della had been impatient. She had not waited till the queen was close enough. She only managed to cut the queen’s arm. With a cry of pain the queen leapt toward the door of her chamber. She called for the guards who hovered close by. But they did not come. Della’s allies had seen to the guards.
The queen dropped down to the first platform beneath her chamber. She called for the guards below, but they too had been dispatched. The queen took a breath and floated down to the next platform, and the next. Della followed, wondering why the queen had not escaped off the balcony, but perhaps she could not think, having been caught by surprise.
As Della landed on the platform just above the ground, the queen ran out of the tower. She called for the guards again. But this time, her voice boomed as loudly as it had on the day she was crowned. It boomed louder than it should have been able to.
Della could not fathom how the people of the mountains could welcome the strange princess and cheer her coronation. She hoped that Gutun was not nearby. He’d said he had business with the royal counsel, but she feared he might have lied and stayed close. Della took a breath and leapt up into the air and landed. She leapt again, and landed.
The queen leapt as well, but the leap was weak and clumsy. She was better off running.
“You are no great queen if you cannot leap higher than I can.” Della was mocking, but she wondered at the queen’s weak leap. Her wound may have been worse than it appeared.
Della gained on the queen, who to her credit, was a fast runner. But then she saw the black-robed guards approaching. They were leaping as she was, leaping toward their queen.
Della leapt and landed. The guards leapt and landed. The queen ran. Della was close. Her skill with the dagger was true. She would strike the queen’s neck. Even if the guards reached Della and killed her, it would be too late to save the queen.
Della leapt up into the air, and something collided with her right side, knocking the breath out of her. She plummeted to the ground, but the one who’d collided with her breathed in and their fall slowed. Della regained her breath and raised her dagger, but she felt a sharp pain her shoulder. She’d been struck by a weapon. As she dropped to the ground, she turned her head and saw an archer, a man no less, notching another arrow.
She had failed.
Gutun went to the dungeon where Lady Della was being held. If not for the skill of the royal guard, Bevoneberg would have lost its sovereign. Gutun would have lost much more. He entered the dungeon and asked the guard to leave for he had much to say to the one who had betrayed him. Della was chained to the wall and could not leap or reach him, so long as he stood at the right distance.
“I placed my trust in you,” the prince said. “I trusted that you would reveal yourself as friend or foe this night. And so you did.”
“I never meant you any harm.”
“Yes, you did. You came to kill my sister. I never knew her, but I love her. She would have been a great queen. Strong enough to fight all of you, and I would have stood by her side.”
He saw the confusion in the lady’s eyes. “For the crime of attempting to kill your queen, you will be banished. But your punishment will go deeper, for you will know a truth that none other know beside myself and my father. A truth that sheds light on everything that Gerta has done and been, and you will be able to do nothing with that truth.”
Gutun checked to assure that the guards were gone, that the other cells were empty. Then he told her.
Gerta never survived the plague. She died before she was a year old. In grief and rage, Queen Rane banished any from the realm who knew of the princess’s death. Such banishment was a brutal and ruthless affair, for it required that a surgeon perform a procedure to assure the banished could not float, that they remained “grounded.” The queen declared to her husband that they should let no one know that the princess, their heir, was lost to them. She mourned Gerta, but she also mourned the lost throne. Rane could have no more children. The midwife had told her so after the twins were born. She would try, up until she went off to battle, but to no avail.
Queen Rane loved her son as much as she loved her lost daughter. She taught him as she would have taught her daughter. The mountain realm needed such a queen, one who valued all her subjects. For the realm was a horror when it was ruled by vicious queens who despised their own people, who thought men were weak and inferior, who feared the people of others realms, and who feared the changes in their own realm that would make everyone deserving of their stations in life, by right of merit and not by right birth.
Gutun was such a worthy child that Queen Rane had once told him he was everything a mother wanted in a child. But then she had lamented, “If only you could have been a girl.”
He was Gerta’s twin. So when rumors abounded about the princess, and when the queen had to present her daughter to the realm once again, she put Gutun in a dress and marched him out of the balcony from the queen’s chamber. Later, when his manly features and voice developed, he would cover his face with a veil. Because he grew broad and tall, he would hunch. And so grew the rumors that the princess was deformed. The queen herself made the dresses that Gutun wore on the rare occasion that the princess-heir needed to show herself.
After the queen died, Gutun found another way to carry on the ruse. He learned from the scholars who had gathered knowledge from the wider world. He became a master of illusion. He could change his very appearance and even his voice. He spent years perfecting the skill, and that was why he declared his father should rule. He needed the time to assure that his illusions were so impressive that he could rule as Gerta for the rest of his life.
After Gutun finished his story of a deception far greater than the clumsy betrayal Lady Della had attempted, he stepped toward her, within reach of her. He had no reason to, other than to show courage.
Finally, Della spoke. “You say she would have been strong. How strong could she have been if she succumbed and you lived? What a freakish thing to have happened.”
Gutun could see the restrained rage behind the lady’s eyes. But he spoke his words with a cold calm. “Be careful, my lady. You are addressing your sovereign.”
Della stepped back from him then. Her eyes widened. Perhaps she feared he had told her the truth so that he would have a reason to execute her. It was no longer lawful to execute anyone in the mountain realms, but the sovereign had the power to change that. And he was the sovereign.
Gutun called for no surgeons before he banished Lady Della from the mountain realms. Many thought the decision more foolish than merciful, but Gutun could not be afraid of assassins in the shadows. He accepted that he would die an early death, for he was sovereign. And if his enemies did not end him, the constant doubt and bickering of his own advisors might.
As she was carried away, Della raved about the truth of the false queen and the treacherous prince. But the guards had seen her attacking Gerta. They had been closer to their sovereign than anyone as they took her to the healer to have her wounds tended.
Della screamed for them to check the prince for the same wounds she had given the queen. But clever Gutun was ready. Despite the protests of the guards and the counselors, who insisted the prince not indulge a madwoman, Gutun unclasped the buckles on his sleeve and bared his arm. He had mastered illusion. He felt the pain from the wound. But none could see it.
Prince Gutun did not fancy being a pretender as he had been all this life, and he knew he could not fool everyone forever. Nor did he want to. He would one day do what Della and her kind had failed to do. He would one day do away with “Gerta.” But only after she succeeded in changing the rules of succession, as a few queens before her had tried. If he could inherit the realm, then he could give his poor sister a heroic death. Thereafter, he could rule by his own right. He felt a terrible guilt in lying to his people. But his father told him that he must bear that guilt and rule anyway, as both queen and prince. And rule well. So well that perhaps someday there would be no need to lie. For princes and princesses would be regarded the same.
“The mark of a worthy ruler should not be whether she can reach the top of the mountain,” King Elroy said. “That is an ancient rule from ancient and barbaric times when the mountain realm was nothing but a group of mountain-hoppers trying to find a place to live where they would not be troubled by those anchored to the ground. The mark of a worthy ruler should be whether she—or he—can govern with wisdom, restraint, compassion, and strength of character as well as of body.”
Gutun smiled and nodded. “I am content not to claim glory. But I don’t want to hide behind my sister’s face all my life. I don’t want my rule to be a ruse. Someday soon, it will not be.”
Copyright © 2015 Nila L. Patel