The Queen's Choice
The highest room in the tower was circular, unwelcoming and dismal.
It had been decorated with geometric precision, and was a testament to just how much a lack of imagination could actually achieve. No fire burned in the grate, but the tower was nevertheless lit by the orangey-white, flickering light of flames. Outside, the park was burning. The resulting shadows twisted and turned as they danced across the walls.
The Queen stood by one of the windows, staring park as it burned. They were too high up to smell the smoke, but somehow the air in the tower still managed to feel thick and heavy, as if every breath were not so much a necessity of life but a bringer of slow death. She would miss the trees, and wondered if any would ever grow again inside the city. Or, if it came to that, whether she would be alive long enough to see them.
She grudgingly acknowledged that things had got out of hand, but she had never expected to be so turned upon, to be betrayed in such a way.
Shuddering, she turned to her husband, who sat slumped in one of the three wooden chairs which had been placed in front of the desk, itself situated at the top arc of the circular room. The Queen didn't notice, her imagination too busy torturing her with visions of her future, but if she had been paying attention she would have seen that each chair was exactly sixteen inches in front of the desk, another sixteen inches away from its neighbour.
There is, of course, much to be said for being precise. Indeed, in some situations it is an admirable quality; a surgeon who approximates is not the person one wants removing an appendix. It is however a troubling thing when beads of sweat begin to break out over the angle of a book on a coffee table. This is not to say that a desire for order is a harbinger of bloody, violent and above all neat death, but still... It takes a certain type of mind to measure out equal distances between pieces of furniture.
The Queen moved away from the window, stepping out of the pool of light and into the gloom.
"Wherefore are we brung low? Forget our sin!
This tomb of death the Teller brings his wrath
of which no kin afore us within hath been interr’ed- "
"For gods' sake, Ti, drop the act. We're in deep shit,” the King snapped, his voice echoing against the stone. “The rumours… We should have listened."
Titania walked softly to her husband and, bending down, wrapped her arms around his shoulders. She dropped a kiss on his head, her hair falling across her face. She didn't know what was going to happen to them, and she hadn’t meant to annoy him or sully the fragile armistice they’d negotiated. But it was easier somehow to revert to the old ways, rather than face the very real present or, indeed, the looming future.
"I know," she whispered into his hair. He reached up and rubbed her neck with his large, strong hand. She breathed in the smell of him, and for a moment everything calmed. They were together.
Titania was not and never had been given to sentiment or regret. To rise above the rank and file one needed mettle, and the self-styled Queen certainly had more than a nail's worth in her black blood. But it was impossible, at that moment, in that meticulously organised room, not to feel afraid. And so she found herself suddenly in need of comfort and reassurance.
She held herself to her husband as tightly as a child, her slender body pressed against his. She wished, for a moment, that she could just close her eyes and let everything end. It was dawning on her that Oberon was right, and they should have listened to the whispered warnings. But they had been having so much fun – their story was the story, it was their time, their Chapter.
Yet now she was here in this barren place, and all the power and fame she had amassed seemed like so many snowflakes: beautiful, yes, but easily destroyed. She tried to remember anything she’d heard about the Teller. The only thing she could recall now, the one thing that itched in her mind like a splinter, was that the he had no mercy, and would do worse than kill you.
People spoke of a power he had, a power no other fae had ever possessed. They said that he had a way to erase you, so that you might as well have never been. They said he was mad.
...But they also said he knew how to save the Mirrors. That he had a way to bring the characters back to them.
She turned the sound of the word over in her mind. Names were important, the Queen knew that as surely as she knew that day follows night. Look at Rumpelstiltskin - the imp had built an entire Chapter on the power of a name.
The Teller had started out as nothing more than wild rumour, and she had disregarded him as someone minor, an upstart vying for a story of his own. But if the sudden appearance of the the tall, white tower in the centre of Ænathlin was an indication of his power, then it was clear he was neither a rumour, nor was he minor.
Turning her head, her cheek resting against Oberon's thick, brown hair, she stared at the window, the flickering light of the fire reflecting on the glass. Somewhere down there was a statue of her, along with ones of Oberon and Robin. She wondered if anyone would try to save her statue, or it would be destroyed, along with the park.
Titania's breath faltered. Why was he burning the park? Why had he rounded up all her servants? Of course stories had to end, every Chapter made way for the next. Hells, hers and Oberon’s Chapter was the seventh, it wasn’t like this had never happened before. But not like this, not with fire and death and fear…
This was no simple coup, no attempt to overthrown herself and the King, and take what remained. What the Teller was doing was not taking over - it was rewriting.
Perhaps it was true that she and her husband had lost track of their story recently. They had involved themselves too much, especially when they stole the boy. But to burn half the city to the ground? To gather up all their loyal subjects and herd them into cells to have the mortal gods know what done to them? Had she done something so bad, really? It had all ended well: the arrogant had been brought low, the meek raised up. Does it really make so much of a difference how one travels, as long as the destination is reached?
But even as these arguments ran through her head, Titania knew they had lost.
Of course it mattered how things were done, how things were done was the story. No one really cares about the ending, as long as everyone gets what they deserve. But without the journey, without the triumphs and the disasters, there is no story. And she and Oberon....
She and Oberon had corrupted the story they had charged themselves with delivering.
Suddenly there was the sound of hinges creaking. The Queen and King both looked up sharply. A door opened slowly, obeying the oldest traditions of suspense. She felt Oberon’s shoulders tense under her arms, and realised he was afraid as well. They peered into the shadows, each dreading and needing to finally see the shape of the person who would come to influence their lives and the lives of everyone in Ænathlin.
What padded softly through the door was not, could not, be the Teller. But the fact that the creature was here, in this room and at this time, confirmed for Titania every fear she had been nurturing.
She had never seen the Beast before, but it was everything she had been taught to fear.
The three-headed monstrosity lopped casually through the door, it’s dark brown eyes watching them as it stepped further into the room. Her eyes dragged over it’s tall, long body, its thick, light brown fur splattered and stained black by drying blood, to stare at it’s heads, each moving independently of it’s neighbour: one sniffing the air casually while the other two kept their focus on the King and Queen.
So it was true that the Beast had aligned itself with the Teller. She wondered briefly if she could run. But of course that was madness. If you ran from the Beast it was because you lacked only the confidence to end your life yourself.
As if reading her thoughts, the Beast stepped towards them, moving with unexpected grace for a creature so wicked. It turned it’s nearest head to the Queen, and stared at her. She had the unnerving feeling that it was committing her features to memory.
Suddenly she was angry. The cloying taste of burnt wood in her throat, the smell of smoke, and the audacity of this monster to look at her, the Queen, fuelled something inside her that wouldn’t be quelled. Titania swept her hair over her shoulder and stood straight-backed behind her husband, the pearls in her crown glittering as they caught the light from the fire.
She met the Beast’s gaze and held it.
The Beast turned another head on her, four pairs of brown eyes watching her with something akin to curiosity. It’s nearest head tilted, sniffing the air. Titania could feel her heart beating in her chest. She made sure she breathed slowly and deeply, keeping her beautiful face still under it's scrutiny.
And then from behind the Beast appeared a little, white-haired man, no bigger than a dwarf. He wore a woollen cardigan over a slightly portly frame, and shuffled towards them in slippered feet. His face was decorated with thin lines that crinkled around his eyes and mouth, giving him the impression of a slightly rumpled bed sheet – old and familiar, and possibly in need or replacement. He must be lost. How could such a harmless man be all the way up here, in this desolate and unforgiving place?
And then he reached forward and gently patted the nearest head of the Beast, rubbing it’s forehead with his knuckles as if it were no more than a large, lolling family pet – the kind of slobbering dog that spends its days stealing slices of meat from the kitchen and its evenings asleep in front of a warm fire. Titania’s state of mind did not improve when the Beast nuzzled its head against the little man’s hand, a low whine of affection escaping from all three of its throats.
The little man smiled happily at the royal couple over the top of the Beast’s three heads, and gave the helpless shrug of dog owners everywhere when their normally well-behaved pet growls and bares its teeth.
Pottering over to the large desk at the top of the room, he carefully placed the files he had been carrying on the leather surface, straightening their edges so they aligned with the edge of the wood. Once he was satisfied that the folders were positioned in an orderly manner, he set about the task of taking his seat. He was only small, and he had to scramble to sit on the wooden chair placed on his side of the desk.
Titania wondered whether it would be rude to offer to help him or ruder not to, and then she remembered where she was, and what was happening.
Thankfully he managed to settle himself in the chair and, once he had shuffled himself into a more comfortable position, he rested his elbows on the desk and gave them another warm smile.
“Good evening, your Majesties.” His voice was warm and slightly anxious, like a man who a lot of his plate and had just been lumbered with another task, one which he had been too polite to refuse. “Thank you for coming here at such a late hour. As you can see, we are a little busy." He waved vaguely towards the windows and the burning park. “So your co-operation is greatly appreciated.”
“When will we meet this so-called Teller?” Oberon demanded, his nervousness causing him to sound more aggressive than he was by nature.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I suppose I thought you knew,” the old man replied mildly. “I am he.”
Titania couldn’t have stopped the gasp of surprise if her life had depended on it. But the man just smiled a thin, slightly tired smile, and opened one of the larger files he had brought with him.
“Please sit, your Majesty,” he said to her, not looking up from the pages of the file. “We have a lot to cover, and I would hate you to be uncomfortable. Now, let me see, let me see… Where shall we begin?”
Oberon opened his mouth to speak, but Titania squeezed his shoulder, silencing him. She moved to sit on the chair next to her husband, and was just about to bring it closer to his when the Teller’s head snapped up. He said in a tone of voice that begged no disobedience, “Please don’t move the chair. I think you’ve done enough, don’t you? Sit down.”
Without any intervention from her brain, her body sat. And, like the slow dread of a shark’s fin slicing through the water’s surface, the realisation slid across her mind that this neat, tired little man was infinitely more terrifying and dangerous than the Beast. The Teller was polite, methodical, clearly annoyed and impossible to disobey. He walked through the world with the quiet confidence of someone who had never encountered a problem that they couldn’t solve, a person they couldn’t manage, or a puzzle they couldn’t unravel. This was not a man who was used to disappointment. Well, not for long anyway.
“Goodness me. Haven’t you two been busy? Deary me,” the Teller muttered as he flicked through the file. His tone wasn’t angry. And why should it be? He didn’t need to be angry. Anger was for those who were out of control. “You may not realise this, but in some ways I’m quite pleased. Things have been slipping recently. It’s not your fault, not really. You are simply a product of a lax ethic – a broken social contract, if you will, ahaha.” He looked up to see if they would laugh, but didn't seem surprised when they didn’t. “So, what have you got to say for yourselves?”
The King pulled his shoulders back and opened his mouth, and Titania knew before he spoke that he would say the wrong thing. He did not disappoint.
“Say for ourselves?” Oberon boomed, his body rigid and defensive. “We have nothing to ‘say for ourselves’. You burn our park and build this tower in our city, you pull us out of Thaiana and the story we were running, and you dare to speak to us as if we were some footnote character? I am your King!”
The Teller regarded the King calmly over the top of his spectacles. It seemed to Titania that he was waiting politely to see if Oberon had finished speaking, though she couldn’t be sure. Either way, after a moment staring thoughtfully at her husband, he glanced back down at his files.
“Yes,” he said, “of course I dare. I have your entire Chapter in front of me – the reign of the self-styled King of The Fairies. Eighty-eight years of your avarice and hubris. Eighty-eight years of your clumsy story-telling and incessant, endless bickering with this woman here. Do I dare to do these things? You Highness, I dare not do these things.”
Oberon slammed his fist on the table. The Beast let out a low growl, which echoed against the high walls and straight down Titania’s spine. The Beast stood up, muscles moving along it’s body like rats in a barrel. The Teller shook his head and it stilled, but it kept all three pairs of it’s dark, intelligent eyes fixed on the King. Titania wanted to warn her husband not to say anything more, to make him realise that in the space of a few hours they had lost all their power, but when she tried to speak her throat was empty.
“I’ve heard about you,” Oberon said, angry and oblivious. “And all I’ve heard is that you’re just some jumped up little clotpole, with grand ideas about taming the stories. Well, it can’t be done. You might as well try to tame life.”
“Would that I could, your Majesty. But as regards the stories... They have been remarkably easy to domesticate, in fact. Look around you, Sire. It has begun. The task is already half completed and only now are you noticing.” The Teller learned forward on the desk and spoke slowly and clearly, as if he were talking to a child. “You have been beaten, sir. You and all your kind, with your gross, vulgar little tales and pathetic dreams of power, your selfish, rash storytelling, your disregard for this city and its survival... It is the end. The end of your Chapter and the end of your time.”
She could see that Oberon was at a loss. He was not a complex creature, and his story had risen to greatness because of his direct approach. If it caused trouble, kill it. If it was beautiful, take it. He didn’t have the resources to cope with the Teller and his subtle power and chilly logic. He couldn’t hear the unspoken threat any more than he could read the writing on the wall.
“Bullshit,” he said, causing the Teller to tut. “You, little man with your little dreams, are nothing more than another short tale that will be told and forgotten, and then never told again.”
The Teller shook his head sadly. “I will give you a chance to save what little you have. You may submit to me and I will recast you. Or you may refuse, in which case I will Redact you. Take your time to consider, please.”
Oberon stood, his chair hitting the floor with a loud bang. “Submit to you? When you're nothing more than a reference note? Perhaps I will offer you a similar choice.”
Titania wanted to scream, but the sound wouldn’t come. From beside the Teller’s desk the Beast bared its teeth at Oberon.
The Teller’s eyes narrowed. He turned to Titania.
“And do you share your husband’s views?”
Oberon turned to her, a smile appearing on his face. She knew what was he was thinking: that together there was nothing they couldn’t accomplish. They were the King and Queen of the Fairies, they had taken the Chapter eighty-eight years ago and held it ever since. Together they had created stories so beautiful they would last a thousand years, told and retold in all the Five Kingdoms of Thaiana. They had nothing to fear from the Teller, even with his mongrel Beast at his side.
He really didn’t understand what was happening.
Titania looked directly in the clear, intelligent eyes of the Teller, and did what she had always done:
She saved herself.