The Illusion Queen
On the island of Corazon, time was kept by the beating of a million hearts.
Few on the island were aware that long ago, in the lands now drowned under a raging sea, people once counted the passing of days, months, and years. None on Corazon had ever seen the strange little machines their ancestors used to worship time. The ones with the thin, metal knives that sliced the day apart like a loaf of bread, cutting it into pieces so small that few could take any nourishment or pleasure from them.
On Corazon, little thought was given to what the next day held, for each new day was much like the last. Change in Corazon came in the way the tides filled grottos and then left them barren, or how the redfish left frozen streams as fry and then returned full grown in the bloom of spring. Change was how the waxing moon illuminated a starless sky and, once it waned, returned the night to darkness.
But for Aleja's life, one of duty and rules carved in stone, change came in the form of a cloud of smoke.
The thick, black smoke emanated from the pinnacle of the High Temple of Mir in a pillar so high it looked as if it were holding up the sky. The sight of it caused great unease in Corazon's people, for it was the only time they would know uncertainty in their lives. It signaled the body of their Queen was dying, and they would not know if her spirit would remain with them until the color changed from black to green.
Aleja would never shame herself to show any anxiety over the smoke, but she could understand and forgive the Queen's children, the simple people of Corazon, for such open displays of emotion. But what she heard from the wailing old woman prostrated before her, was not something she could understand. And, what's more, it was her duty not to forgive it.
The old woman ground her forehead into the dusty floor of the amphitheater pit.
“…I beg of you, Daughter of the Queen of Corazon, Judge of Mir, and Instrument of Her Justice, give this man the death that took my son from me.”
Muffled gasps from the crowd filled the amphitheater like a suffocating fog.
The old woman was a Caretaker, charged with the duty to raise the orphaned and abandoned children of Corazon. From her seat high above the amphitheater floor, Aleja saw a Caretaker's kindness in the old woman's tear-filled eyes, but also a face that was as hard and unyielding as the Guardians that flanked Aleja's throne.
The accused, an attractive youth with dark brown eyes and skin, stared at the Caretaker with a look of horror shared by many in the crowd. Seeing no compassion in the Caretaker's face the youth pleaded with Aleja for mercy.
Disgusted with such a public display of fear, Aleja silenced the youth and called out to the Caretaker.
“To desire another to die is an evil of the Drowned World, the world our Queen saved us from.” Aleja's voice, soft yet resonant, floated down from the stage and surrounded the Caretaker in echoes. “To utter such a request is as abominable as the act itself.”
“You are wrong Daughter.” The Caretaker replied. “What does someone as young as you know about death?”
Aleja's face betrayed none of the insult she felt. It was true that Aleja was young, but that was not unusual, for some Judges in the distant reaches of Corazon were even younger than she. Privately, for it would be abhorrent for a Daughter to admit it, Aleja prided herself over her self-control. Still, she could not allow the Caretaker to suffer no rebuke for her disrespect.
“In your grief, you may have forgotten that this Daughter serves you as the Judgment of the Queen. This Daughter will overlook your slight, but do not to do so again.”
Daughters never referred to themselves as “I” in public. Although Aleja was not one of them, she knew of Daughters who even refused to do so in private. Since the day the first wisp of smoke appeared from the High Temple, Aleja was certain one of those would be chosen to give their life to the Queen, for they were certainly more worthy of the honor. In the quite moments of the day Aleja would tell herself this. But late at night, alone in her bed, she could not escape the shameful truth.
I don't want to be chosen.
“In the mind of every Judge of Corazon stands a Memory Palace…” Aleja continued, “…a grand structure filled with objects your eyes have never seen. Each one is a lesson from our Queen. And once this Daughter takes hold of one, she remembers every word the Queen once spoke with her own lips. All that this Daughter is, all of her purpose, is to be the instrument of our Queen. The Queen who sacrificed her physical form long ago to give life to this island.”
Aleja pointed in the direction of the smoke visible over the horizon of the amphitheater.
“You see the smoke, and must know what it means to a Daughter. Our Queen must live on to guide us, so every Daughter lives with the knowledge that she may be chosen to be the Queen's Vessel. To have her life stripped from her body so that the Queen's spirit may reside within.”
“And yet you say a Daughter knows nothing of death…” Aleja's fingernails scratched against the stone armrests as she leaned forward in her chair “… and yet this Daughter may know it before you.”
Aleja paused. Feeling that she had sufficiently chipped away at the Caretaker's confidence, she reclined in her chair and smiled. Her smile waned as the wind turned and the smoke from the High Temple billowed out towards the amphitheater like a storm cloud.
Aleja moved slightly, but awkwardly, as she searched for a more comfortable position in her chair. Even with the comforts of goose-feather cushions to soften the seat, sometimes Aleja went home with bruises in places that made her too embarrassed to share in the luxuries of Mir's bathhouses.
“How many days the sun has warmed this face is of no consequence to a judgment.” Aleja said after she adjusted herself. “But if you doubt the wisdom of ancients spoken through the voice of a young girl, then look to the wisdom they have carved in the stone around you.”
Aleja gestured with open arms towards the reliefs carved into the walls of the pit. The reliefs, much like others that graced all the sacred pillars and temples in Mir, illustrated the story of the salvation and redemption of Corazon's people.
The amphitheater filled with screams as the Caretaker grabbed handfuls of stones and flung them at the carvings.
“Stories…” the Caretaker wailed, “…they are just stories. Why should I care about lives carved in dead rock? I carried a life in my body, and had to hold it in my arms as it faded away.”
The Caretaker pointed at the youth.
“All because of this man. What he took from me, the life of my only son, must be taken from him. It's the only justice that matters to me now."
Shouts and screams from the crowd rained down on the Caretaker.
“Heresy!” the crowd cried. “Banish her to the Wastes!”
This time, Aleja could not hide the shock on her face.
Aleja's Guardians cracked their staffs on the stone floor to quiet the crowd.
“Surely you do not mean to say that your son, and yourself, will not one day be reborn on Corazon?” Aleja said.
“I am a Caretaker. I have fed and clothed many in my lifetime, but I have never seen a face that I lost to death. Whatever life was in my son is gone. Forever.”
Aleja shook her head.
“You are wrong. Our Queen will bring her people back to Corazon, again and again, in an eternal cycle of death and rebirth. This is her promise. This is truth.”
There was a slight tremble in Aleja's voice, as if her own tongue doubted the words she knew to be true.
Aleja held out an open hand in the young man's direction.
"This was an accident, with no malice intended. The guilty man fell on your son from the top of a broken ladder. The Queen's judgment is fair and just. If a life is lost due to the accident of another, the living should take on the role of the dead."
"He was careless! Thoughtless and careless!" The Caretaker yelled.
"And he must die for this?" Aleja replied as calmly as she could.
"He must die for me! Those that love him must know the pain I feel."
"This man's death will not bring back a life." Aleja raised her hands to calm the crowd. "Vengeance offers no solace to grief."
The Caretaker laughed bitterly.
"You foolish young girl, what makes you believe I expect any solace? My grief will die with me."
Aleja's duty was clear. The old woman must be banished to the Wastes for her heresy. But what wasn't clear to Aleja was why she didn't do it the moment the woman uttered the hateful words. Perhaps the uncertainty about the Queen muddled her thoughts more than she realized. But even though Aleja herself could be punished if she did not apply the Queen's laws, she found she could not condemn someone who was in such pain.
The amphitheater hissed with whispered words. Aleja had never felt so acutely aware of how many eyes were watching her. She took a deep breath to calm herself, closed her eyes, and receded into the depths of her Memory Palace to find an answer.
She found nothing.
Aleja opened her eyes and saw the doubt that clouded the faces in the crowd. She wondered if their faces were a mirror of her own.
In a life where everything was assured and predictable, where even a mind could be forced into obeying order, Aleja felt lost. The countless judgments Aleja memorized since she was a child were of no use.
Aleja had to make a decision. For the first time in her life as a Judge, Aleja realized it must be her own.
“Give him the death that took my son from me.”
The Caretaker's spiteful words rang in Aleja's head like the clanging of iron bells. Aleja felt she must say something, anything, if only to quiet the sound and give herself a chance to think.
“Very well,” Aleja stood up, “If this man is of no use to you, he cannot fulfill his duty to the Queen, therefore…this Daughter condemns him to die.”
The young man fell to his knees and held his hands out to Aleja.
“How can this be?” he cried, “You cannot do this.”
The crowd echoed the man's words, only more loudly, and with palpable anger. This time the crack of the Guardians' staff had no effect in quieting them.
Aleja looked at her guards. They were young and strong, with the swirling tattoos of the kraken's tentacles running down their arms, but did not carry the daggers of those who had been tested by the hardships of the Wastes.
Would they have the strength to subdue this crowd?
Aleja moved between her guards, and filled her lungs with air.
“I will have SILENCE!”
Aleja's voice tore through the amphitheater like a herd of charging horses. The crowd, now silent, stared at Aleja as if they couldn't fathom how this girl, who looked little older than a child sitting in the great stone chair, could have a voice of such power and authority.
Aleja waited for some time before she spoke again. Only small birds, fluttering through the ivy covered columns behind her, dared utter any sound in the face of Aleja's withering stare.
“If you will not take this man as your son, then you will be free to live with vengeance in your heart and silence in your home.”
Aleja walked down from the stage as she spoke. Once on the floor Aleja placed her hands on the Caretaker's shoulders.
“As you have said, this man must be given the death that took your son from you. So this Daughter decrees that, when the sun rises, you must go to the place where your son died, climb a ladder, stand above this man…and fall on him.”
A look of confusion came over the Caretaker's face.
“And if he does not die, “Aleja continued, “then you must climb the ladder and try again. You must do this…again and again…until your justice has been done.”
The look on the Caretaker's face changed from confusion to disbelief.
“Or...” Aleja's voice filled with a compassion that was both practiced and sincere “you may accept the Queen's judgment, take this man as your son, and let him warm your heart and home.”
When the Caretaker said nothing, Aleja feared what the crowd would do if she failed. But after a long and painful silence, and with head cast down, the Caretaker spoke.
“I accept the judgment of our Queen. I will take this man as my son.”
Cheers erupted throughout the crowd. For a moment, amidst the shouts of praise to the Queen's mercy and wisdom, she thought she heard the crowd calling out her name.
I am just a Daughter. They should give no praise to me.
Aleja's heart raced. But whether it was from the fear of hearing her name or the exhilaration of it, Aleja could not tell.
Aleja looked at the Caretaker's face, and expected to see an expression of gratitude for sparing her from the Wastes. What she saw instead was a look of defeat. It was as if the Caretaker wanted to be banished all along.
Aleja pondered her decision after the Caretaker and youth were taken away. In not doing her duty as she had been instructed, she had defied the Queen's law, and there would be consequences.
Aleja's head swelled under her headdress, a thin silver band that split into two interweaving circles on her forehead. The circles were called the lemniscate, and were the Queen's symbol of eternal rebirth. She tried to ease her mind with thoughts of home, the warmth of her fire, the comfort of her bed, and the hearty taste of the pickled vegetables and steaming bowl of onion and seaweed soup that waited for her.
Once evening came, Aleja made her way towards the crowded street outside the amphitheater, and discovered she would not be going home. As usual, a palanquin waited for her under the grand archway of the amphitheater. But instead of the usual red curtained variety that would take her to the Temple of the Queen's Memory, where she would share with the Priestesses all that she did and thought that day, this palanquin was covered in green.
The Queen's color.
Aleja walked towards the palanquin with legs that felt as weak as willow reeds. A guardian drew the curtains, and bid her to sit inside.
They're taking me to the High Temple.
Aleja looked up at the pillar of smoke just before entering the palanquin. In the deep blackness of the churning cloud, she saw the first shades of a beautiful, forest green.