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THE CROWD HURRIED to cross the street before the Fiddler’s tank rolled by. I wasn’t fast enough. A man stuck his arm out to stop me before the treads crushed my feet. Bits of gravel stung my shins. Soldiers, in their flashy uniforms, waved to the crowd though no one waved back. One soldier reached down and offered me a sandwich. I acted like I didn’t see, kicking a pebble on the sidewalk. The soldier shrugged, tossed the sandwich away, and the tank moved on. The group behind me swelled. We marched across to check the wall.
Mixed in with posters of the missing, the job requests, the offers of a clothing swap, and I almost didn’t see it. The other posters were the dull, gray color of sidewalks, but that one was a faded pink and reminded me of a picture I’d seen once of salmon jumping against the rocks. The poster’s three corners lay flat against the wall while the last corner threatened to find its own place in the wind.
I ran my hand up the middle, stitching the tear back together, giving the ear and the eye back to the forehead and placing the small nose above wide lips. The whole face was framed in curls. I ignored the press of bodies against my back and the people shouting as they recognized a loved one or organized an exchange. I forced myself to take even breaths. I tried to remain calm, tried to keep the poster together.
There you were.
Sometimes, I would glimpse your image hanging over a shop window. Or see your features on scraps of old magazines pounded into the bus floor. I ate up pictures of you whereever I could find them.
I try to pattern my life after yours and I’m not the only one. You have an entire community who dress like you, only not as well. I know a good seamstress who can do amazing things with a bit of thread and an old skirt. We like to think that you would rest your feet on our stained sofas and tell us stories about being Queen. Nice stories filled with handsome dukes and sweeping lawns and swimming pools with gold trim laced around marble statues. You would tell us how grand the future will be if we just do our duties and keep our heads high.
The day I found the poster, I wore a standard-issue school uniform, altered to rest on my hips like the skirt you wore to introduce the Borders Law. It was the only outfit I had that wasn’t so rough it left patches of raw, red skin.
There was your face. The picture was grainy. I think it was from the time you gave your most inspiring speech, the one on the balcony of the palace. I was taught the speech in school and could still recite it word-for-word. Be true to your kingdom, you said. You wore a crisp sky-blue A-line dress. The wind picked up your curls and you had to speak with one gloved hand on your head and the other clutched around the balcony rail. You were beautiful.
The poster was for a play. Since the Fiddler’s soldiers had shut down the factories, I couldn’t afford any plays. Who could? I meant to let the rip continue cutting a scar in your cheek, when I noticed the block letters at the bottom. AUDITION. EVERYONE WELCOME.
A man whacked the back of my head. I ducked to avoid another blow. I’d been standing at the wall too long. I should have moved, let someone else take a look. Instead, I leaned closer, inspecting the poster for any information. There was no year or month, just a day and a time. The audition could be next week, or next month, or two months from now but I didn’t worry about that. I decided I would go every month on the listed day until I got my audition. I didn’t let myself think about it being too late. After all, that’s not how you would have thought.
I slipped in the theater doors, careful to shut them quietly so not to disturb anyone who might be auditioning. I smoothed my skirt and pulled at my shirt. I tried not to sweat too much or to be too nervous. I shouldn’t have worried. The hall was empty.
My eyes adjusted to the candelabras’ dim glow. Glass chandeliers hung above the balcony seats. I spun around, blurring the light as it reflected off gold-foil embellishments. It’s true, the seats were dusty, every other fixture was burnt out, and ragged holes spotted the carpet, but I didn’t care. I pored over the painted walls. I imagined myself on the sagging stage, the sheer force of your spirit bringing this place, and all of us, back into what we were meant to be.
I figured I must be early. I thought I was the first girl there. I was wrong.
She looked like a woman on the edge of an illness. She lay at the end of the stage, her eyes scanning the curtain, her mouth slightly open and a slick of drool pooling at the corner. I tried to be quiet. I moved to the second row and pushed down a seat. The hinges protested with a screech. I froze, not sure whether I should continue pushing the seat down or let it up. She rolled her head, slowly, and rested her gaze somewhere above the balcony.
“Are you here for the audition?”, she asked.
“I— yes. I’m here for that. The poster said it’s open to everyone but—”
“It is. I’m here for it too. We’re the first people. I’m Mel.” She pushed herself up and swung her legs around, dangling them off the stage. “Are you always late?”
“My name is Ruby and I’m not late,” I said, standing. The chair slammed back and we both jumped. “Sorry. Everything is loud. In my complex, everyone is always talking, and if they aren’t, someone down on the street is yelling in our window. Have you noticed that?”
“I mean, maybe I’m late. I was hoping I was early,” I kept going, “Is the audition over?”
“It hasn’t even started yet. What time is it? I thought you were late.” Mel checked her wrist but there was nothing there. “Damn, I keep forgetting. I’m not allowed to wear a watch. I can’t wear anything that I could hurt myself with.”
The watch clued me in. She wouldn’t know anything about my loud neighborhood because she wasn’t from here. She had the affected movements of the wealthy, the long stretches, arms and legs pulling out like they need a lot of space, her voice dripping with the tenor and confidence of someone who expects people to listen when she speaks.
“Aren’t you going to ask me why I can’t have things to hurt myself?” she asked.
“I, well, I wasn’t sure how you could hurt yourself with a watch.”
“So,” she said, as if I’d given the wrong line, “it’s because I committed suicide.” She registered my confusion with an eye roll, “Obviously, they revived me. Doctors love to revive people. They live for it.”
“I did. And then, I didn’t.”
I gripped the chair in front of me. Mel settled onto the stage with her chin on her fists.
Since there’s nothing to lose talking to a rich girl who’s convinced she’s better off dead, I asked, “Did you see the Other Side? Did you see our Crimson Queen?”
She laughed hard, wiping tears from her eyes that I couldn’t see. I began to worry she would beat me for the part.
“No, sweetie, I didn’t see the Crimson Queen. I didn’t see the Other Side either. There is no other side. It’s just a silly myth.”
“No, it’s not,” I whispered.
“What? I have a bad ear. From the suicide. I was revived but my damned ear drum went ahead and stayed dead. Are you sure this play thing is happening? Can we check a feed? Do you have screens down here?”
I shook my head and scolded myself for feeling embarrassed.
Mel sighed, throwing her hand in the air, “Of course not. You’re not missing anything though, trust me. Feeds are overrated. Big screens playing one channel, over and over—the life of the Queen, the speeches of the Queen, the—.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, my desire for the part overriding my fear of who she might know. “Don’t they have theaters and plays near your home?”
“I ran away,” she said, winking.
“Maybe I wanted to see your part of the city. Maybe I wanted to meet new people.”
I frowned, “What for?”
She winked again.
Mel’s the one who declared no one else was coming. Or maybe they were. Maybe we were early.
“Who cares?” she said. “Let’s do something.”
I had nowhere to be. She helped me up on stage and we went exploring.
Backstage was smaller than I expected, a simple concrete slab off the wings and a staircase leading down below the stage. A table had been piled high with props. Eagerly we sifted through them. A knife. A scepter. A doll. A crown.
“Hey, look at this.” I held up a plastic gun.
“That must be for the execution!” Mel reached for the gun but I held it above my head, both hands on the barrel.
“You think that’s in the play?” I asked.
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
I shrugged. Because the execution wasn’t supposed to happen and I didn’t think it was important, not in the whole of the story, not in the grand scheme of things.
You were never meant to leave us. You were never meant to leave us.
“Come on,” she said, “Let’s find the costume room.”
We found the costumes in one of the dark recesses under the stage. We crept in, holding our breath even though no one was there, gripping each other’s elbows even though it would leave bruises, wanting something to happen and being terrified something would happen. Clothes hung like prisoners on wire racks. I could see the outlines of dresses, men’s shirts, tunics, and capes. The light from the hallway was enough to show us lined paths up and down the aisles.
She let go—
“I’m not going anywhere. I think I can see a light.”
Reaching up, standing on her tiptoes, she grunted and pulled a string that had been cut too short. I never would have seen it if I had been alone. A bare light switched on with a disturbing pop, glowing a dull orange and growing into a bright white. The colors of the costumes began to show. First the ones in front, and on down toward the back, as if a painter had taken a paintbrush to a black canvas and touched it with crimson, cerulean, cranberry, ochre, buttercup, and all the other colors that have to be named exotic names because their beauty deserves it. Not a yellow skirt, but canary. And a cape, not blue; sapphire. A soldier’s uniform, lusher than green. Viridian.
We tore down the aisle with our outstretched arms grabbing at fabrics softer than the rough cotton we were used to. Velvet, silk, mink, satin, chiffon and where had all of this come from? I pulled a lavender, cashmere sweater off the rack and wrapped it around my shoulders, pressing the sleeves to my cheeks.
An aisle over, she yelled, “Look at this. Hurry!”
I hung the sweater back on the hanger, careful to get it exactly as it had been. I crawled underneath a line of fur coats. On the other side, she’d found a long table with women’s costumes laid out neatly and labeled by year. She grabbed my arm, pulling me up so fast that my back scraped along the rack and knocked several coats to the ground.
“Wait, I’m not through yet,” I complained.
“Sorry. No, don’t worry about those. Just leave them. We can pick them up later,” she said.
My back stung where it hit the rack. I began putting the coats back in place.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
I didn’t answer. I hung the last coat, and made a big show of arranging them.
Mel exhaled, annoyed that I wasn’t looking at whatever fascinating thing she had found.
“Fine,” I finished, “I’m paying attention. What’s the big deal?’
She didn’t have to reply. I saw your confirmation gown and squealed. I couldn’t help it. She bounced and clapped. I hugged her. We jumped up and down, laughing and covering our mouths to stifle our excitement.
“Wow,” I said. “Wow, wow, wow,” like it was the only word I knew.
And the confirmation gown wasn’t the only one. They were all there, the clothes you had worn in every remarkable moment of your life. There were even some I didn’t recognize and my chest tightened at the thought of someone knowing what the blueberry pantsuit was for. Maybe for when you spoke before the Council to request full military control?
“You know what this means?” Mel asked, bending over to catch her breath, “We can do the audition. You and me, in these costumes!”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Come on, why not?”
I started to list the reasons. She held up the dress you greeted us in for the first time as Queen and I forgot my irritation.
You hadn’t been much older than I am now but you seemed ancient and timeless. The feeds hadn’t been working down here and I was too young to care but there was a book at the library. The book had all of your dresses in it, even the early ones. The coronation dress was one of my favorites. In the book it was worn by a mannequin, only she wasn’t nearly as beautiful as you were. She didn’t wear your dress as well. Her plainness didn’t diminish the dress, though—oh, no, the dress was breathtaking. I knew the costume was just a copy but it was perfect. Someone who loved you made that dress.
How does it feel to be loved that way? Do you return the sentiment? It’s an important question.
The wide skirt was blood red, with gold embroidery, and—I hadn’t realized until I held it up—the embroidery told a story. The fairytale from every Crimson citizen’s childhood, the one with the fox and the lion and the challenge over the rock. In photos, they looked like intricate designs and things are so much more luscious up close, aren’t they? The top was ruffled cream and more gold thread with a red bodice. Cinched tight, it would make even the thinnest girl show some curves. I wondered where the wig was. I preferred your real hair to the tall, powdered pile of curls, each one balancing on the one beneath it like a stack of pastries.
I realized I hadn’t spoken in a long time. Mel studied me with her arms crossed.
“Are you in love with that dress or something?” she asked.
“It’s so beautiful,” I said.
“That’s all it takes to sweep you off your feet? Beautiful dresses?”
She dropped her arms and stood beside me. I could feel the hairs on her arms touching the hairs on mine like an electric shock that didn’t go away. She thumbed the dress. I could sense her smirk. I thought she was going to say something cruel. Instead, her cheeks relaxed and her mouth slacked but her hands kept moving, running along the embroidery like a mother searching for the source of her child’s pain. She stayed like that for several minutes, and I can only guess at the dark place she went, before snapping back and saying, “Damn. I should have used a gun.”
“Are you all right?” I asked.
She pulled the costume off the table. The skirt dwarfed her and I couldn’t help but grin remembering the short bursts of playtime and dress up in the school. Back before it closed.
“Come on,” she said, “let’s take these upstairs. Please. Let’s audition! Let’s do our own play.”
“Yes,” I started, then brought my hands to my mouth. “Yes, but no, what if someone catches us?”
“Who? I don’t want to do it alone. I know just how I’ll play the coronation scene.”
She had an irritating way of getting me on her side. “Fine, but what if I want the coronation?”
She waved toward a lavish pile of white silk and fake rubies. “You can have the wedding.”
The stage lights weren’t easy to find. Finally, Mel spotted a nest high above the floor seats. I uncovered the narrow ladder hung along the back wall and tucked behind a curtain. There was no discussion about who would climb the ladder and cross the thin bridge to the controls. She jumped onto the ladder without hesitation. I guess wanting to die is a good cure for fear. She hurried across. I held my breath, ready for her to slip and shatter on the seats below. She crossed safely, giving me a quick smile before ducking into the nest. After a few curses, the flood and footlights lit up. A spotlight would have been more appropriate but there didn’t appear to be one. She waved over the edge and I waved back. She came down with a set of colored gel films between her teeth.
“Look what I found,” she said, holding them out.
I took a few and fanned them in my hands. They were meant to go over the lights, to create an atmosphere with different colors.
“I can’t figure out how to get them on, but holding them up to the lights is neat, isn’t it?” She crouched down and placed a light blue gel. In that slice of the stage, the floor turned from wood to ocean. “Or how about green?” She set a dark pine color and I stepped into it. The gel had been carved, allowing white light to peek through the green. A pattern of leaves cast onto the backdrop.
“It’s like the palace garden!” I said. “It’s perfect for the wedding.”
“I can’t be your prince and hold the gel, so you’ll just have to imagine it.”
I thought of all those times you walked along the garden path, chatting with reporters and diplomats. The time you tiptoed over mud-splattered stones on your wedding day. I practiced smiling like you, like I would want to smile if I were marrying the love of my life.
I gathered the wedding dress around my waist and hurried to center stage. Mel unrolled a long red carpet from the back wall. She tried to arrange a trellis, but the pieces kept falling apart so she gave up and left it propped up against a large vase and some fabric roses. If I squinted, especially with the floodlights, the scene of your wedding, looked just like the pictures. Wearing your white wedding gown with the loose, flowing panels and a pattern of rubies around the scooped neck, I felt ready to marry a handsome prince from the Tempest kingdom.
I walked deliberately, the crown perched on my head, and I swore I heard robins calling out of the wings. I smiled brilliantly, forgetting my rotten tooth.
By the time I reached Mel’s open palm and set mine on top, her soft hand curling around my rough one, I believed it.
I mouthed, “Hello, Darling,” and she rolled her eyes.
She said the priest’s lines, or as much as she could remember from the feed.
“You saw the feed?” I asked, amazed. “Tell me everything.”
“Not now—the audition, remember? Besides, you didn’t miss anything if you saw the pictures. It was boring.”
I wasn’t bored. I had memorized the marriage vows a long time ago and repeated them in your clipped, formal accent.
She leaned over for the kiss and whispered, “I will never love you.”
I pushed her away, “Why would you say that?”
“Because my heart belongs with someone else. And this travesty, this marriage of convenience, can’t change that.” Her eyes flashed. I took a step back but she was quick. She gripped me tight, kissing me deeply and after the kiss she spat. “That’s what I think of your promises to my kingdom.”
“What are you doing?” I steadied my crown. “I love you! And you love our Queen, me.”
“You don’t really . . .” She paused. “What did you think that poor woman was sentenced for? Do you think she committed some crime?”
“What woman?” I asked, though I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Mel seemed to be aware of things and happenings that I couldn’t grasp. But she was unstable. She was delusional.
“The girl thrown in prison for being the Prince’s lover.”
“He didn’t have a lover. He adored our Queen,” I said, adjusting the crown again.
“She married him to gain control over the Tempest resources. They were a strangled nation, with us on the west and the ocean on the east. They couldn’t trade unless they went through us. He had to marry her. How do you not know this?”
Hadn’t we always allowed trade passage to the Tempest? I tried to remember history class. You always spoke so highly of our friends to the East. You always spoke so highly of your Prince.
“I know love when I see it,” I said.
“Whatever you say, then. This scene is over. I want to do the Teacup Ball.” She tore her jacket off and tossed it aside.
“Even if it was about resources, the Queen was sacrificing her happiness for our kingdom.” I let the wedding crown slide. It was too big for me anyway.
“Can you see the zipper?” Mel craned her neck, trying to look behind her.
“I see it, but it’s stuck. Suck in your gut.” I tugged at the tiny zipper.
“Don’t be rude.”
“I’m not being rude. My dress is tight, too. I hope we don’t pass out.” I giggled, already short on air. “Ah, wait, there it goes, just a bit further.”
The zipper slid up her back and I secured a hook between her shoulder blades. I stepped back, admiring her figure in the teacup ballgown. I wanted to ask if she’d worn dresses like these before. If she was comfortable in the silk slippers that pinched my toes and, if so, what was she afraid of? The wealthy had everything: working feeds, clothes, sugar. Even with the Fiddler occupation, I hadn’t heard anything about her side of town being mistreated.
Instead, I told her she looked beautiful and she told me the same. She wore the Queen’s gown. Tiny rosebuds adorned the skirt and wound around the bodice. My gown was embroidered with tulips in purple and yellow. Their stems and leaves cascaded down to my slippers. The point of each gown was to be delicate and intricate, to exude a sense of fragility. When all the ladies gathered in the center of the room they were like a table full of overturned teacups.
Our shoulders were bare and we tied our hair into buns. Braids wrapped around flowers were last year’s preferred style, but we didn’t have the time or the flowers. Buns would have to do.
Mel offered her arm and I slipped my hand into the crook of her elbow. We peeked around the curtain, stifling giggles, as if there were an audience or lines of young men waiting breathless for a glimpse of the dresses. Together, we stepped onto the stage.
I didn’t know the steps, of course, but Mel led me. At first, she danced a controlled waltz, but soon she sped up, her dress billowing about and curling around mine. It felt like we were spinning out of control, one slip away from getting flung off the stage. Laughing, I wondered if she was making this up as she went. I imagined champagne and candles. My head got light.
She put her mouth right up to my ear and cupped my neck.
“Do you hear that?” she said.
“Hear what?” I asked.
“Them. My dear lady in waiting, the only one I can trust, don’t you hear what they say?” her hand trailed down my arm and I caught her eyes darting around the stage. It was an act. At least, I thought it was an act.
“No, Your Highness, I don’t know of what you are speaking,” I played along and tried to pull away but her grip was tight.
“They are coming for me. My own soldiers, my own doctors, someone has poisoned them against me.”
“You’re paranoid,” I told her—not her, the Queen, but her, the girl with the scars on her wrists.
“Here.” She reached into her bodice and removed a small, gold blade. “Use this. Summon the other ladies. We will rid ourselves of this poison. Tonight, while the men are drunk and stumbling off to bed. Lure them, slit their throats.” She opened to the audience, raising the knife above her head and calling, “I am not a coward. I know what’s being said. I know you’re planning to overthrow my throne.”
She ignored me and stormed around the stage, slicing the air. “Take that. Everyone who was close to me is a liar. I will find new senators, new doctors, new lawyers; they are the reason the kingdom is faltering. I need people who will—” She turned to me and, for a second, she was back in control. “It’s hard to know who to trust isn’t it? Trusting the wrong person could get you killed, but you have to trust someone. We all have to trust someone, if we want things to change.”
“What are you talking about? This is all wrong,” I said.
“No, it’s absolutely right.” Mel spun on her heel and continued stabbing guests and ghosts I couldn’t see. I followed behind her, pleading with her to stop. I dodged a slash and caught her wrist. I waited until her chest stopped heaving and she dropped the knife.
You were a gentle ruler. I tried to convey that to her. You were always laughing and trusting and quick to share credit with your advisors. You could not have been the manic, disheveled woman before me.
Mel jerked away. I tried to remember the pictures of the Teacup Ball—who was there, and whether I had seen pictures of them since. You had looked gorgeous as always, and so happy. I was happy, too. We had a party that night, like we did every year. The palace delivered tea and sugar. Mother made cookies. We danced.
Surely you didn’t end the night, while I was sleeping, having anyone murdered. What would be the point?
“My father was a royal doctor,” Mel said, finally. “The last time I saw him, or heard my mother say his name, was the night of the Teacup Ball. That night she came home alone.”
“Your mother was there! What was the cake like?” I said before I could stop myself.
Underneath her disgusted look, I could tell she was hurt.
“I’m sorry.” I moved to hug her but she put her palms up. “I know the Crimson Queen couldn’t have killed them all,” I said. “She suffered too, you know. Just like the rest of us.”
“Right. How do you figure that?”
I started peeling my dress off, “Get the nightgown and the pillows and I’ll show you.”
“You’re going to play the birth?”
“What color do you want?” Mel crouched by a footlight and swapped out different gels. The back wall lit up in yellow then violet then a burnt orange.
“I guess I like the orange.”
“Really? It makes me nauseous.” She grimaced and set it down. “I think maybe a pinkish color? Kind of like blood in a sink?”
“I’m sorry about your dad,” I said as I pulled a set of large pillows to center stage. The pink light made me feel more like I was at a carnival than having a baby, but I didn’t want to argue.
“Forget it,” she said. “I’m sorry I ever even said anything. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m paranoid and the whole kingdom is a big pile of roses.”
I knelt on a pillow. She was insulting me. I could yell at her, I suppose, but that’s not what you would have done.
Aurora’s birth must have been hard on you. I read you labored for days. I decided to play it as dramatically as possible. I wore a sheer nightgown and was embarrassed at how small my breasts were. When you were pregnant, you practically overflowed. Mel wanted to pour a bucket of red paint, for the blood, but we couldn’t find any. It would have made a nice touch. Still, the low light and red scarf across my lap did fine.
I screamed. I thrashed. I gripped my belly and crashed off the pillows. I took ragged, long, heavy breaths and when I thought there wasn’t more to do, I screamed again. I drug the doll out from between my legs and sobbed. I collapsed, exhausted, staring into her dead plastic eyes. Not even you could make a baby survive if the Other Side had laid a claim to it.
Mel laughed, slapping the stage. I couldn’t tell if it was a real laugh or a fake one. Either way, it annoyed me.
“That was great. You were everywhere.” She imitated me, rolling around. “And then, no, I really did think you might cry when you yanked the doll out.” She sighed and fanned herself. “Don’t make me laugh so hard. I remember when that happened. I was with some friends, some others who were starting to understand what was happening. How she was trying to control us. We heard she was going to claim Aurora was a product of a Fiddle rape and use the girl to leverage even more power. Everyone was nervous and when the baby was born dead several of them cheered. It was practically a party.”
“That’s a lie, and your friends sound like horrible people,” I said, shocked.
“Were you actually sad? Who is she to have a child when everyone else has to enter some lottery? Who is she to get something like that? Haven’t you noticed nearly every single missing person on your wall is a woman? What do you think happened to them?”
“I . . . they, well . . . the Fiddler’s soldiers and spies—they kidnapped them,” I said.
“Please. The Fiddler? What would he want with a bunch of factory girls? The Fiddler occupation only started in earnest a few months ago. Girls have been missing longer than that. Girls who got pregnant without her majesty’s approval. There’s no room for poor waifs like yourself to be making more. There’s no time to stop the factories for a woman needing a rest. Nothing to be gained by a woman wanting something better for her baby. The Queen was bent on expansion and it doesn’t happen without missiles.” Mel held the pink gel to her eye. “She was sending a message. You may not have noticed, but the missing girls’ mothers did. Those mothers made sure the younger sisters stayed home. No dances with boys for them.”
My neighbor went missing. She was a sweet girl with a foot that turned in. I could hear her voice through the walls, hear her singing in the shower we shared with her family. One day she was there and the next she was gone. Their apartment fell quiet. When I passed her sister on the street, we shared a nod and nothing else.
I held the doll and kissed her head. It smelled like chemicals.
“I’m glad that baby was blue and cold,” Mel went on. “I think, in the actual play, if it ever happens, you should do it just like you did tonight and the whole audience will be up on their feet!”
I couldn’t imagine saying such things about you. It hadn’t occurred to me to be anything but heartbroken when our Princess was stillborn.
Though, if I had to admit it, I might say that a small part of me was happy to see you sad—but only a small part, and only for a moment, and only because it meant you were also a real person with real feelings. I know how badly you wanted to be a mother. I know because we all want the same thing and it’s not your fault. The lottery keeps us from overpopulating the way the Tempest has. But if I accept that women were being taken from their families for getting pregnant, do I have to accept you ordered it? You wouldn’t. You love us. You’re starting to feel far away.
I could see Mel’s position. She could use a poor dead Queen to further her rage, justify her ridiculous thoughts, and spew it out as reason. It must feel good to have someone to blame. I resisted the temptation. You helped me resist it. My sister wanted a baby but you helped her resist the temptation for that as well.
I threw the doll off the stage. She tumbled head over feet and thumped against a chair.
“Whoa. I don’t know if I would do that on opening night. No one likes getting hit in the head with a baby.” Mel grinned and set the pink gel down.
“Everyone suffers,” I said, shoving the memory of my neighbor away.
“Equally? I think you might understand what I’m saying, right?”
“I won’t ever understand you. You’re spoiled and bored. You have to make up lies to entertain yourself. Commit suicide to get someone to pay attention to you. Your daddy isn’t dead. He probably ran off to get a break from your drama.”
“You think so? Are all the poor people like you? No wonder you let her dictate your every move. You’re so naïve and brainwashed.” She stomped off the stage.
I thought I won, if there was anything to win here. I slid off the pillows onto the hard wood floor.
She came back with the gun. “Get the stage picked up. We’ve got one more scene.”
“One more scene?”
“Yeah,” she challenged. “Don’t you want to finish the play?”
Mel fit into the execution suit perfectly. The brocade overcoat sharpened her shoulders. Underneath the coat, cream satin slacks spilled out down to her ankles. We couldn’t find the right shoes, so she was barefoot, but it didn’t matter. She was you, on that day, and I squeezed my fists tight because I knew she’d make fun of me for crying. We didn’t have the feed, but they distributed the pictures. Your suit was ruined.
I stuffed myself into a Fiddler uniform. All one piece and skin tight. I felt strange, wearing the colors of our enemy, and as I pinned the Fiddler emblem to my chest, I realized I knew nothing about them. The emblem was an ax. Perhaps the region was thick with trees.
Mel walked to the center of the stage, raised her chin high, and flung an angry salute to the imaginary Fiddle executioners. I held up the plastic gun, summoned my voice, and yelled, “Rattatatatat!” Her body shook from pretend bullets as she slumped to the floor, bending her knees at an awkward angle. I clapped and cheered with more enthusiasm than I felt.
She opened one eye, “Wait, it’s not over yet.”
I braced myself. She sat up and wiped at her coat. Looking to the audience, she said, “Well, darlings, how did that go? Did it look believable? I simply must get out of this suit. Bring in the corpse—”
“What are you doing?”
She sighed, standing and putting her hands on my shoulders, “You’re a good soldier. You have a fighting spirit and, I hope, when this is all over they go easy on you.”
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” I said.
“But maybe you’re too loyal.” She tucked a piece of hair behind my ear, “You don’t question enough, and a soldier without a sense of rebellion, will follow her leader to the end. I want to trust you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I saw the feed. It went dark for a few seconds. Not long, but long enough to bring in a body, stage a scene.”
My knees buckled. She caught me before I hit the floor.
“That means you think she’s alive?” I said, breathless, scrambling to get my feet back under me.
“That means I think she escaped.” She spat the words at me. I tore out of her grasp but Mel didn’t stop, “She knew the Fiddler was coming for her. She pushed him too far and she wasn’t ready for an invasion. Not enough soldiers. Not enough weapons. She thought she would be the one invading. She told you they were coming, she let you believe it was unprovoked. She left out the part where the other kingdoms had been sanctioning us for months. The way she worked you in the factories, that’s a crime.”
“Worked me?” I tried to keep my voice level. “I worked for the good of the kingdom. She delivered books to the factories so we could keep up with our studies.”
“Propaganda,” Mel said.
I scowled at her, regressing back into a petulant child. “Why are you here then? If you hate her so much why try to play her?”
“Because I thought we might find some support here.” She looked at me in an intense way that didn’t fit with the dramatic girl I’d met a couple hours ago.
“Who’s we? Support for what? If she’s alive, she faked her death to help us. Not to hide.” My voice shook. “And I don’t even believe, I mean, she’s—could she really be alive? She’s wouldn’t just leave us. I saw her in person, a little over a year ago. She flew above us, in a helicopter. Her hair was loose and she had a flight suit on and she waved to us, telling us to stay brave, hold strong. And you know what? That’s what I intend to do. She’s so much braver than you are. She faced her fate and you run from it.”
“You don’t get it. She planned for this. She isolated us. She set out to conquer, and if she was the one invaded, she had an army of civilians in the city. You and your neighbors will fight until there is nothing left and you don’t need to. We can negotiate a truce with the Fiddler Empire but her martyrdom has to be reversed. We need to drag her out to the light and we can’t do it alone. We need someone the factory workers trust. Otherwise they’ll never believe us.” Mel grabbed the gun, staring me down.
I yanked back and she let go.
“I don’t believe you. You’re one of them.” I pointed to the emblem on my chest.
“I’m not. I don’t want the Fiddlers in control any more than I want the Queen. I want us to be our own state,” she said.
“I won’t ever betray my Queen. If she tells us to fight, we fight,” I said. I reached for you in my mind for comfort, but found nothing. My words and chest were hollow. Growing doubt spawned a tendril of trust for Mel.
“Good for you,” she said, back to her old self. “You’ll be okay if I don’t shed a tear when they turn you into a girl soldier. I mean, your brave convictions will be enough to shield you from the bullets. While you wait to get annihilated in a war your Queen started, I’m going to find something to kill myself with.”
She stormed off to the wings. Had we been lovers, it would have made a great scene.
I gave up my act and crawled to the end of the stage. Mel came back with a rope that looked ready to fall apart. She glared. Go ahead and kill yourself, I shrugged.
I wiped the tears away with the back of my hand. I’m not sure why I cried. I had images in my head of a shiny fleet of coffins. Each one filled with a wealthy person who offed themselves in some dignified manner. It was lonely.
She sat beside me. I put my arm around her and let her lay her head on my shoulder. We dangled our feet. She hung the rope off the edge like a fishing pole.
“Do you really believe all those things?” I asked.
Her only response was to throw the rope and snag it back. Overhead, a drone or a helicopter—I’ve never been able to tell the difference—skimmed low enough to shake the theater.
Mel pushed herself to her feet. She wrapped the rope around her elbow and up her thumb.
“All right. I’m going to go commit suicide now,” she said.
Out the corner of my eye, I watched the bottom of her feet as they walked away. She kicked over a stack of gels, turning once to make sure I saw, but my head was too scrambled to do much in response.
From the wings, she called, “And if any damn doctors show up, don’t let them revive me. They live—”
“I know,” I said, “they live for that.”
I lay back, letting the uniform’s cape pool around my head. I got hot under the lights but I couldn’t move. I lay there, sweating and hoping, telling myself you were alive—no, dead—no, alive. I kept an ear out for sounds that might suggest she was successful with her hanging but only heard footsteps echo.
I wonder what it’s like where you are. Maybe living in a bunker surrounded by shelves of food and a footman buttoning your suede boots. I can’t decide what I want to be true or what I need to be true. My imagination swells with a hundred possibilities and what do I do with all of them? I’m only one person.
My fingers brushed the stack of gels Mel had upset. I picked them up, held them over my eyes, swapping out the colors to look through different hues. My thoughts wound back to you, as they always do.
Scarlet, you’re dead.
Crimson, you’re alive and hiding and going to save us all. Nothing you ever did was to hurt us.
I closed my eyes to keep the color in, a hopeful buoyancy of the kind I had before I entered the theater. But it couldn’t hold. I couldn’t believe in it anymore. I set the gel aside.
Red, you’re hiding, hoping the war played out leaving enough survivors that you can rebuild your kingdom again. Hoping the Fiddler doesn’t come looking for you.
I sat upright when I noticed the gel was different. Like the green gel. I could make out a pattern cut through the tint.
“Mel!” I yelled, even though I knew she was gone. I saw an empty noose dangling from a pipe. I placed the gel over a light and familiar streets, intersections, and landmarks splashed onto the back drop.
So, here I am. Is this a message from Mel? Is she a part of something? Is she running to her compatriots—do they call them compatriots?—maybe telling them she took a chance and trusted a factory girl but the girl might be too giddy, too in love with you to be much help? Because I do love you, still.
I could warn you. I could tell you they are coming and save you. I have this selfish hope—Would you reward me? Throw a grand ball in my honor?
Murder me before I could change my mind?
I love our kingdom, too. You demanded loyalty and you have it. To our kingdom, above all else. Isn’t that what you said? Are you serving the kingdom, if Mel isn’t insane, if the map is right? Somehow, I doubt it.
The whole city lay out on the wall. The factory, the theater, the old school, and, a few blocks over, where the long abandoned markets sit in their bombed-out former glory, was an etching of the castle crest.
There you are.
About the Author
SADIE BRUCE is a librarian living in the heartland with her partner and two rowdy boys. A Clarion Workshop graduate, her stories can be found in Daily Science Fiction and The Colored Lens. She can be found in a good book or on Twitter (@sadiekie).