The soft late-summer wind blew warm in the stone-paved courtyard and shivered the glossy leaves of the orange trees. It carried the scent of lavender and rosemary, and of roses too, from the terraces of the royal garden down below. Not the stink of blood.
The two guards allowed old Papatya one last moment with the queen. One last goodbye. They were all alone in the courtyard, now: Queen Enmas, her maid, and the guards with their stiff, tall bayonets.
Queen Enmas evidently found the proceedings dull; she was rapturously contemplating the contents of her nose, sometimes with a guilty glance up at Papatya. Quite the contrast: the silver dress embroidered with preserved forget-me-nots, versus a slimy trail of snot. But Papatya couldn’t scold her. Not now. And never.
Enmas was only two years old and had drunk her mother’s milk just last night, of course of course of course she couldn’t know, couldn’t understand even if she knew, that her parents’ bodies lay cold now on the already-red carpets of their rooms, pierced through by traitors’ knives. That the heavy, cold metal cap placed on her head during the rushed midnight ceremony had made her queen, the symbol of her country, one whom the invaders and their treacherous friends could rightly call “enemy.” Not little Princess Enmas anymore. Queen Enmas, the last of her line. Her mother’s crown was far too large for a little thing like her, would have fallen to her shoulders and maybe left a bruise if Papatya hadn’t held it up.
And now Enmas was hungry, oh, she was hungry. She twitched impatiently, wanting to climb down to the highest terrace of the garden and pull sweet strawberries, crackling with seeds, from their rope-like vines.
“Come, child, say goodbye to old Papatya.” She tried to swallow the heavy tears that fell behind her nose into her throat.
Enmas half-walked, half-skipped toward Papatya, her energy restless and relentless even after her late night. And in Papatya’s bones, too, there was a sick trembling energy that made her steps quicken and her words pour out like falling tears.
The little queen leaned her face half-heartedly against her maid’s knee and clasped her leg in a careless hug. Even through the thickness of her dress, Papatya could feel her touch. Such a soft little cheek, such soft little hands, and warm.
Once, as a child, Enmas’ mother, the queen–no, no, Enmas was queen–had hugged Papatya’s leg with such fervor that the leg grew numb and Papatya had had to grab the trunk of a young oak to steady herself.
Just as Papatya was about to swoop Enmas up into her arms, Enmas let go of her leg and toddled over to one of the courtyard’s edges. There, she stooped, trying to catch a pebbly gray toad that hopped in the shadows of the orange trees.
“It’s time,” said one of the guards.
Papatya cringed every time she heard one of their voices. Not cruel voices. Normal voices; normal, average-looking men. Which made everything so much more terrible.
The guard stepped toward her and pressed the tip of his bayonet into the soft green stuff of her dress. He nudged her past the first terrace of the garden, with the strawberries, and the second and then the third, with their cacophony of flowers and young fruits. Beyond lay the courtyard’s magnificent gate, with painted, snarling lion-faces in a jungle of black iron leaves. And beyond that, a carriage with a proud gray mare.
She turned her head, and through her tears she barely saw the second guard taking Enmas by the hand, gently, and leading her where her small imperious finger pointed. To the strawberries.
Papatya had had no choice. If she turned Enmas over to the enemy, to be crowned and then killed, she herself would receive amnesty and safe conduct. If she had tried to protect Enmas, she would not have had any hope. They would have both been captured. And killed. And little Enmas would have suffered hours of terror before her death. No, she really had had no choice. This way…
And yet, as the second guard’s bayonet struck true and the childish scream rang from among the strawberries, and then fell silent, Papatya stopped and pressed her shaking hand to her mouth. She could not move even as her guard pressed the cold tip of the bayonet past her dress into her back, drawing a single drop of blood.
Formerly a concert pianist, now a professional legal writer, Dorian spends her free time reading like a maniac, writing speculative fiction, and playing with her kittens Twinkle and Pippin. She is an SFWA member, and her short fiction has appeared in venues including Utopia Science Fiction Magazine and Gwyllion. Say hi on Twitter @doriantwolfe or learn more about Dorian at dorianwolfe.wordpress.com.