Part 4: The Queen’s Alchemist
Queen Cassandra watched from her balcony, forcing her trembling hands to steady. It was her first public execution, and the sight of Theo’s thin, convulsing body shudder into death made her feel sick to her stomach. Did it usually take this long for the poor souls’ last breath to escape their bodies? The crowd cheered as the first of rain sploshed onto the streets below.
After several moments where Theodore Bartholomew Ashencroft’s body shuddered to its final silence, his head limp, the crowd dispersed, already bored, their mundane lives continuing after only a moment of entertainment.
Queen Cassandra exhaled, and realised how tightly she’d been clenching her fists. A guard either side of her got to their feet, and she followed, her emerald robes flowing behind her like seaweed in an ocean. The winter air was damp, and the heaviest of the rain came as they reached the pearl balcony doors.
Queen Cassandra maintained her refined, queenly posture as she made for the royal quarters. Guards bowed, their armour clinking steel as she passed, and her slippers tapped on the carpeted corridor. When her guard closed the door behind her, the strong demeanour disappeared. Queen Cassandra buried her face into her silk gloves and wept.
Queen Cassandra almost jumped out of her skin at the soft voice from the corner of the room. She quickly straightened and dabbed at her eyes, although she knew, with a sinking heart, that the speaker had already seen her weakness.
A young man stepped from the shadows, and her heart slowly calmed back to its usual rhythm.
“I’m sorry if I frightened you,” the Queen’s Alchemist whispered. She responded with a sad smile, and reached for him with trembling hands. There was no one in Atharron she’d rather see right now.
“Are you all right?” The young man lit a floating candle with a wave of his hand, and Queen Cassandra’s large, stained eyes watched, half in fear, half in admiration. “I am now,” she whispered back, as she grasped his fingers in hers.
“There is no need to be scared, my lady. What is it you fear?”
“Nothing, I’m…” Cassandra rubbed her arms, which suddenly stippled with goosebumps. “I just witnessed my first execution.”
“Ah,” the Alchemist gave a sympathetic sigh. “Yes, it can be rather… disturbing the first time.”
He gently pulled his hand from hers. The warmth of the candle flickered close to Cassandra’s face, filling her with a sudden peace. “I know the teachings say that magic is evil, but…” she watched as the Alchemist smiled, lighting more candles around the room with a wave of his fingertips. “I can’t imagine my life without you.”
“We have been best friends for all your life, my Queen. I cannot imagine any kind of life without you, either.”
Cassandra sat with a sigh onto the four-poster bed. Without her guards, her advisors and that beastly Uldrid, the pretence was gone. It was as if an enormous weight of the whole of Atharron had been lifted from her shoulders.
“I am weak,” she uttered eventually, unable to stop her voice from trembling. All the responsibility, all the pressure of ruling was finally flooding from her. Her voice shook as she spoke in a half-whisper. “I’m not fit to rule Atharron. Perhaps my father was wrong. He should have made Anaya queen.”
“My dear Cassandra,” the Alchemist took the queen’s chin in his slender hand and turned her tear-streaked face to look at him. “Your father, the good King before you, made a fine choice choosing your pure heart and marrying your sister to King Roderic. You are a beauty unlike any other, an inspiration to us all, and a fine leader of this great kingdom.”
Queen Cassandra felt her Alchemist’s warm breath on her face, and her eyes half-closed, under his spell. But he drew away, his cool fingers withdrawing, and the crimson cloak he always wore floating behind him, slowly, as if underwater.
“Something happened earlier.” Queen Cassandra sniffed.
The Alchemist didn’t turn round, and the pattering rain on the window drowned out any sound he might have made in response.
“I felt angry. Angrier than I’ve ever been. I broke a vase.” Cassandra shuddered at the memory of her high-pitched, angered shriek when she’d lost her temper at Uldrid. “That has never happened before. I don’t have a temper, yet I frightened my guards. I frightened myself.”
“Pressures can overcome us all, my Lady. Even a Queen,” the Alchemist reassured her. His head was still turned, however, and she didn’t see him smile.