La Rana y La Reina
The queen was but a princess, her parents lost this year past, one to war and one to childbirth. The child, too, was lost. He would have been heir.
When news of the Queen mother’s death, and that of her infant child, reached the ears of the kingdom, envoys of counselors and suitors came to the hall. But the princess-Queen chose La Rana.
La Rana had been advisor and handmaid to the Queen mother. She was short and stout, with dark hair, large, black eyes. They said she had been taken from the gypsy caves in Granada, a spitting, half-feral thing. As a child she had been in an accident, and about her throat was a burn mark as if from a rope. She wore high collars, and when she spoke above a whisper, she seemed to croak. No one knew her age.
“The gold gown,” she nodded to the princess-Queen’s handmaid. “The red brooch. You must look powerful tonight.”
The princess-Queen, Aurelia, lifted her head. She was dressed in only a shift, her long, black-brown hair loose about her shoulders. The coronation ceremony had taken place a month ago. Requests for her hand had not ceased since. On average, her suitors were 25 years older.
Tonight, as with many feast nights, there would be gifts from all parts of the country: gilt-handled swords from Toledo, casks of wine from Rioja, great wheels of cheese from Castilla.
Aurelia’s maid fastened the sleeves of her gown, pinned the brooch at her breast with care. She plaited her hair into shimmering dark snakes and pinned these with garnets and pearls. La Rana nodded.
When the Queen was ready, she dismissed her maid and the servants who’d been milling about with wine and small favors. The fire in her chamber needed stoking, and a ripple of gooseflesh crossed her body. She turned to her advisor, the olive of her skin livened by the fire’s shadows. Her dark eyes were neither wide with fear nor slitted in dreamy expectation, but La Rana knew that Aurelia was hesitant about the night to come.
“Consejo,” Aurelia said. The tremor in her voice added a question mark.
“My advice has not changed, lady,” La Rana croaked. “None of the marriage offers are advantageous. Galicia had a bad crop year, but it does not excuse the small offering of fish oil and pearls. You must show them your strength, the varilla de hierro of your father’s will.”
Aurelia blew out a breath and nodded. The tendons of her neck tightened and relaxed, and she put on a smooth face.
The queen and her advisor entered the hall, and the buzz of conversation dropped to fervent whispers. La Rana y la Reina, the people said. Some crossed themselves. Others straightened and put down their cups.
Aurelia raised her arms to her subjects. “My people,” she said, and in her voice was the mellow richness of her mother’s speech. “I thank you for your offerings on this fine night. I am glad to have you join me at my hall.”
Noises of assent sounded throughout the hall, and some raised their glasses to the Queen.
Aurelia dropped her arms and tried to hide blotting her sweaty palms on her skirts. La Rana watched impassively from the corner, turning her attention from the Queen to her subjects, all of whom were riveted on the young woman.
“I have an announcement to make,” the Queen continued. Forks that had been raised were lowered gently. “I will not choose a husband this year, nor the next; I will not wed before the year I turn 20.”
Murmurs and gasps sounded throughout the hall. Four years before the Queen would marry. Aurelia hoped it would be enough time for her to learn the intricacies of ruling her kingdom.
“My people, I do this for all of you,” she said. “For to choose one husband from all those who have approached me, to value one man over thousands of subjects, is to put my needs before those of all of you. Instead of being wedded to one, I am wedded to all of my subjects equally.”
The voices that had risen before quieted as the Queen’s subjects considered her words. The servants were refilling glasses, bringing out the roasts, so the hall filled with the scent of cooked meat, potatoes fried in fat, rosemary, garlic.
“My people, does it please you for your queen to hold you all?” Aurelia cupped her palms as the wine flowed and thick bread made the rounds.
Some faces held displeasure, but somewhere a cheer went up, and cups were raised. Shouts of “La Reina!” and “Aurelia!” began to flow from the tables.
La Rana watched it all, noted who frowned and who shouted, which arms rose spontaneously and which with hesitation, who was already drunk. Her dark eyes glimmered, and if any had been watching her, they might have seen a smile. Four years, she thought. It would be more than enough time to mold this lamb, to steer the kingdom.
Queen Aurelia let her hands drop and joined her subjects in feasting. She looked for her advisor in the shadows, who bent her head to her lady and smiled.
For more inspiring art by Tian Miao Lin, please visit her website (http://www.wanggongxin.com/). Sculpture © Copyright, Tian Miao Lin 2004. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Stay tuned for extra content this week from Jen. Return next Monday for Audrey’s answer to this prompt.