She does seem determined to let the finer points of etiquette elude her.
Oh, why do I lie? The finer points are not even in question. I'm lucky if she chooses to use a fork.
When I rescued her from the evil witch, I thought I was getting the princess who had been stolen. Lovely as a child when she was taken and surely just as graceful now, twenty years later.
She was five when the witch stole her from a court where the concept of eating with some measure of dignity was apparently taught at age six.
Gallina is a barbarian. There, I have said it. Or thought it, at any rate. I wouldn't dare say it. I'm convinced she has bewitched everything in our bedchambers, setting them to spy on me. She holds onto me as tightly as the witch held onto her. To say she is jealous is to underestimate the obsessive nature of her love. A thousand questions await me after even a brief time away from the palace.
It is how she was raised. I should not complain. My kingdom thrives. She has cured every sickness presented to her, and our people prosper and love her. The kingdom's livestock give birth to fine young, and our crops grow straight and luscious.
She is beautiful and uninhibited in bed, and she kisses me sweetly even if she cannot seem to use a spoon without dribbling.
Genevieve, on the other hand, has lovely table manners. Voluptuous creature that she is, she always jokes that she was made to be a concubine, and I would agree if she were actually better in bed than my savage queen. In truth, I often wish Genevieve was a little more adventurous, that she could provide some lovely middle ground of wildness in bed and decorum at the table.
And on the dance floor. Genevieve's dancing is lovely and not the almost seizure movements Gallina does. Primal, Gallina told me her movements were when I offered to enlist a dancing master to teach her the modern steps. The true dance, she said, and I was sure by the gleam in her eyes that she meant magic.
Do her steps draw out a spell? An enchantment surrounding my court? Binding all in it to me or to us--or just to her?
She killed the witch, after all. The people think I did it to free her, but she did it to be free, and that's quite a different thing, isn't it? I would just have been killing an evil witch who had the audacity and cruelty to kidnap a king's beloved child. But Gallina killed the woman she thought of as her mother.
Gallina killed someone she loved. All to move on to me--or perhaps more accurately to a better life.
Would her life be better without me here? Is it wrong to admit that each time I spill my seed in her, I worry she will conceive, and that it will be a boy.
An heir. Her role would be secured. Queen Regent. I would fear for my child if I were not much more frightened for myself.
It is why I should send Genevieve away from court. She's too great a risk to take. Until I fully understand the limits of my wife's power, I must be careful not to anger her. I will send Genevieve away tomorrow, then. Yes, that will be for the best. Gallina already watches her with a knowing look. Best to remove the temptation. At least until the mages figure out how to contain my bride. I have all of the court wizards working on it. The best in the land.
Only, last night I saw them dancing in Gallina's wake, eyes slack, mouths open in exhaustion. Maxwell, the strongest among them, was barely able to pull away, and he fell into a chair near the door, fanning himself as if she had nearly danced him to death.
Given his age, she might well have been trying.
I hear her steps outside the door, the tap-tapping of her heels. She never wore shoes when she was the witch's daughter and apprentice, so one would think she would trip and fall occasionally as she becomes accustomed to the complicated court styles of dress, but she never does. I think she has bewitched her shoes the same way she has everything else. Really, that would be a small magic, wouldn't it? Compared to the crops and the animals and how even when I am lying in her arms and
feeling terror, she can make me rise, my manhood a snake and she the charmer.
Why, then, can she not bewitch the silverware? I have never seen her wear silver, come to think of it. She uses it with no seeming pain but perhaps there is something in it that resists her magic. I shall have to tell Maxwell, if he still lives after his exertions from last night. To be honest, I have not had the heart to check on him.
The door opens. For a moment, I catch my breath as always. She is the loveliest thing I have ever seen. But that thought slips away when I see the stark look in her eyes, the way she no longer smiles to please me, the way her laughter sends a shiver through me.
"Have you no idea what day it is?" She is dancing and for once the steps look like something others might perform on the dance floor and not some kind of fit. "It is Valentine's Day, my love."
I know this, of course. Only men who do not fear their wives can afford to miss the important days: birthdays, anniversaries, and of course this cursed feast of love.
I thought I loved her, when I met her, when she smiled at me from the well outside the witch's house, and my horse, usually so fractious, settled under her gaze. I felt a fire go through me, and she was all I desired.
Just another spell, I know now. I was her way out. She saw it long before I did.
And perhaps the witch did, too. The old woman looked almost relieved as she burned, the fire starting inside her and then exploding in flames that scorched her but did not spread to anything else in her little house. Gallina has never told me how she did it. Perhaps it is best not to know.
I reach into my desk drawer and bring out a lovely silk bag. "Will you be my Valentine, my lady?" I try to make my smile sweet and silly, as if this is just a game, one of love and lust and things natural.
She opens the bag and pours out the necklace I had made for her by the best goldsmith in the land. Her eyes meet mine, and she smiles. "How beautiful. Where did you get this?"
"Johannes, the Younger."
"So fine for me?" She holds it to her nose and sniffs it as if it is a flower. Her laughter cuts through our chambers. "I think I smell Maxwell on this. A little magic, perhaps?"
How can she do that? Maxwell assured me she would never know the necklace was enchanted.
She puts it down, patting it gently, saying that she will wear it some other day, that it does not go with the gown she has on, but that is a lie. It has no stones, is nothing but cunningly worked gold. It will go with any color fabric. By design.
She pours herself a glass of wine from my goblet. The chalice is silver. I wait for her to take too strong a drink, to choke on it or let some wine dribble out, but she sips it like a lady born to the palace. "Have you never noticed that I only make mistakes when it's just us? Are you so bored with me that you don't see I can make you proud at court dinners? That I do it when we're alone to get a reaction--any reaction?"
I frown as I consider this. I sit across from her when we dine in our chambers; I sit next to her at court dinners. Truth to tell, I probably have not paid attention to how she does at those occasions, especially with that night's guest of honor at my other side, monopolizing my attention.
I am not sure what to say, so I say nothing.
"I brought you a present, too." She claps and a man I do not recognize brings in a box. He sets it heavily on my desk and then bows to her and, grudgingly I think, to me before walking out.
I force myself not to ask who he is. It would show weakness and that I will not do. "What is it?" I ask instead, touching the box.
"A heart. Is that not the point of this holiday? To give someone your heart?" She smiles, and it is the one I first saw her wear, when I felt my own heart jump and dance at the idea that this beautiful creature might be mine. "Open it."
It is a box from my favorite bakers. Perhaps inside is a heart of chocolate or a rose-shaped wine-cake. I push the top off and freeze.
A heart--a human heart--lies on a cake plate. The heart is beating.
For a moment, I think it is hers. That she has made a mistake, and I will crush the thing and have my life back. "Yours?" I ask, and I realize she hears the hope in my voice when she frowns.
"No." She leans in, running her finger over the heart and it beats faster at her touch. "She's a pretty thing, your Genevieve. I quite like her. I asked her how close you two were, and she told me her heart belonged to you. What better Valentine could a man get but the heart of a woman who loves him--of the woman he loves back." She leans down and kisses my neck, her lips close to my ear as she murmurs, "I'll keep the rest of her. I may even share her with you on occasion. Or you can destroy the heart and set her free. I'm looking forward to seeing which option you choose."
She touches the necklace again. "This is truly a work of beauty. Have Maxwell take the spell off it and give it to me again. Tonight."
She looks at me with a ferocity that is unnerving but also shocks me, because I see something lost in her eyes, a softness I do not expect. Does she love me? Is this how she loves? I can feel my manhood responding even as I am repelled.
I force myself to focus on the heart of my poor Genevieve. "You have killed her. Either way, you have killed her."
"No, I can put it back inside her if I want to. The question is, can you make me want to?" She looks at the necklace, and again there is a look I can't read on her face. "It really is beautiful. Fix it so I can wear it."
"And if I don't have him remove the spell, will you force me to? Will you work more of your damned magic on me?"
"I will not take your choice away. I never have. That day, at the well, you wanted me--I didn't make that happen, only what came later with...her." For a moment there is something that might be grief in her eyes.
"Yes. The only one I could remember until you reminded me I'd had another. My mother, who I killed for you." She strokes my hair off my cheek where it has a habit of falling. "Always for you." Her voice is wistful. "I will see you later, my king."
And then she leans down and kisses me sweetly on the lips, entwining her fingers gently in my hair, doing things with her tongue I could never quite teach Genevieve.
I feel my heart leaping the way it did when I first saw her. As she passes Genevieve's heart, it too speeds up.
"My dearest love," I whisper as Gallina closes the door.
I am slightly horrified to realize I'm not sure who I'm saying it to.
Gerri's bio: "In addition to work you've published in EC, I have stories at Daily Science Fiction, Grimdark, Escape Pod, Athena's Daughters II and others. I've also edited a speculative anthology, A Quiet Shelter There (Hadley Rille Books, 2015), that benefits an animal rescue in the Northern Virginia area. You can see more at www.gerrileen.com. It's a little out of date--one of my next tasks is to get it updated."