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A Woman is Entitled...

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“It’s just this,” said the Chef to the Jester. “All the songs – not just yours, mind, all of them – agree that Madalena and Galavant were truly in love before King Richard took a fancy to her.”

“And so they were.”

The Chef shook his head. “But it can’t be. We’ve all seen what she’s like, these past months. We’ve seen what sort of Queen she is. You especially,” he added. “And that’s why it just doesn’t make sense.”

The Jester cocked an eyebrow at him. “It doesn’t?”

“I may not know much about love,” the Chef replied, “but I’m sure of one thing. Queen Madalena was never in love with Galavant. She just couldn’t have been.”

“Quite right,” the Jester agreed. “She’s even said so herself.”

The Chef stared. “But the songs. Your song!”

“Shhh,” said the Jester, touching a finger first to his lips and then to the Chef’s. “Let me tell you a story....”

#

Though captured and alone,
Completely on her own,
She had no ear for wicked Richard’s wooing....

“But you must see that I love you! The thought of life without you at my side has lost all meaning!” Richard dropped to one knee before Madalena. “I simply insist that you yield to the inevitable. You will marry me eventually, you know.”

Madalena simply laughed. “Never, my lord. My beloved Galavant will rescue me soon enough.”

Richard smiled toothily. “I think not, my dear. Just now he is a trifle preoccupied with another matter.”

“What have you done, you – you villain?”

“I?” Richard asked, sounding astonished. “Why, nothing at all. It seems, however, that there is a monstrous beast ravaging the countryside near the village of Outremere, away on the far side of the kingdom. I understand several sheep have been quite disastrously mutilated, chicken coops have been smashed to kindling, at least two dogs have gone missing, and no less than three peasants have reported seeing what they believe to be a werewolf. Clearly the situation calls for heroic intervention. I understand the villagers specifically sought out your beloved Galavant to deal with the creature, and of course he could never refuse such a request.”

Madalena glared at him. “There are no such things as werewolves!”

Richard kept right on smiling. “I sincerely hope you’re right. Still, something is clearly amiss, and I’m sure Sir Galavant will give the matter his fullest attention. I imagine, however, that it will take him a good six weeks to do so...and no doubt by then some other crisis requiring a hero’s presence will have arisen. With any luck at all, it will be at least a year before his time is his own again. And I should tell you that I have a reputation for being a very lucky man.”

“Perhaps, my lord,” Madalena said, and for a moment her voice threatened to betray her inner fears. With an effort, she steadied herself. “But I promise you this: you will never, ever get lucky with me. My heart belongs to Galavant.”

“Never say never, my dear,” Richard told her genially. “You’ll come around, I know you will. Gareth, kindly escort our guest to her chambers.” He waved a hand in dismissal.

The King’s right-hand man stepped to her side. “Best do as he says, lass. King Richard pretty much always gets what he wants.”

Madalena shook her head, but followed Gareth’s . “Not this time, he won’t.”

“We’ll see,” Gareth said, sounding nearly as cheerful as his master as he led Madalena off to a suite of rooms just down the hall from the king’s own bedchamber.

#

But Richard found a way
To keep her hopes at bay:
Another scheme that he had been pursuing....

“But that doesn’t clarify things one bit!” the Chef complained.

The Jester shrugged, lifting a cautionary finger. “Be patient; there’s a structure to these things. That bit, of course, happened back in our own lands, not long after Richard took Madalena prisoner.”

“If you say so.”

“I do. And if the King had just stayed home, well – but he didn’t, and here we are. He’d started the war with Valencia a few months before he fell for Madalena, and it wasn’t long after he kidnapped her before his army completed their conquest.”

The Chef nodded. “Let me guess. He reasoned that moving his court – and Madalena – here to Valencia would put her even farther out of Galavant’s reach.”

“That’s it exactly,” said the Jester. “You’re better at this than I thought. That’s enough right there to finish this whole transition sequence.”

“Transition—?” The Chef’s tone was one of puzzlement.

“Never mind,” the Jester said quickly. “Moving right along, then....”

#

Locked
Securely in a royal tower,
Patience ebbing by the hour—

If anything, the chambers Madalena had been given in Valencia’s palace were more lavish – though definitely dustier – than those she’d had in Richard’s own kingdom. As the others had, however, they came with bars on her windows and armed guards outside her doors.

Complaining about the dust had done little good. “I promise you,” Richard told her, “I have done my very worst to try and supply you with proper housekeeping. I even considered having the house-maids tortured, but once you’ve done that you nearly always have to hire replacements, and the present supply is regrettably limited.”

Madalena gave him a withering glance. “I can’t imagine why. Your soldiers have only just pillaged, looted, and maimed most of the local population. Surely the few who are left should be lining up in droves for jobs with the new leadership.”

“And so they are. No, it’s purely a matter of persuading the cleaning staff to set foot here in the south tower. So far they’ve all absolutely refused to do so.”

“Oh, lovely,” said Madalena. “Obviously this must be the Haunted Suite. Although,” she added thoughtfully, “it’s been a week now, and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of anything resembling a ghost.”

Richard sucked in a relieved-sounding breath. “Oh, good; I’d hate to have to move you. There just isn’t another suite available where I could keep you as comfortable and as securely guarded. Well, except my own, of course—”

“Not a chance. I’d rather be murdered in my sleep by a Valencian ghost. If there is one.”

“Just a thought, my dear,” Richard said hurriedly. “Truly, I would simply hate to lose you to some restless and vengeful spirit.”

Madalena laughed. “I wouldn’t worry about that. The only one you’ll ever lose me to is my beloved Galavant. He will come for me, I just know he will.”

That got her a glare from Richard. “If he does, my dear, you may be sure I’ll be ready for him. In the meantime, do enjoy your stay.” With a bow and a flourish, he swept out of the room, and the heavy oaken door thwacked shut behind him. Both the heavy metallic clack of the lock and the equally emphatic thunk of the bar dropping into place were just audible from inside the chamber.

For a few moments, Madalena stood silently in the center of the chamber. Then:

“Cup of tea, mistress?”

That was Gwynne, who had been waiting on Madalena from the hour Richard had first captured her. She had steadfastly refused to so much as pick up a dusting-cloth (“I’m that sorry, miss, but I’m a ladies’ maid, and that’s a house-maid’s job. The local union would have me in the stocks before you could say boo, and then where would you be?”), but her hand with a needle or makeup brush was deft and skillful.

“I suppose so. Do we still have that spiced Chinese blend?”

“I think so, miss. Right away, then.”

Gwynne began laying out the tea service. Madalena crossed the room and seated herself on a low couch, near enough to the hearth to stretch out and warm her hands. “I don’t suppose,” she asked after a moment, “that anyone’s said anything to you about ghosts in our suite?”

“Ghosts? Not a word,” Gwynne said without looking up. Absolutely nothing seemed to surprise or fluster the girl – possibly because she radiated an aura of perpetual gloom, and was therefore prepared for disaster to break out at any and every moment. It made living with her a trifle disconcerting. “Certainly not in these rooms, I’d wager.”

“Oh? And why not?”

Now Gwynne did pause. “This is the Queen’s Tower, mistress, or so I’m told. And the last ruling queen of Valencia? ‘Tis said she was a witch.”

Madalena cocked an eyebrow at her maid. “I’d think that would make ghosts more likely, not less.”

“Depends on the witch,” Gwynne said, resuming her tea-making. “Most times, you’d be right. But old Queen Megara? ‘Tis said nobody living or dead cared to cross her, she was that scary. And the house-maids say no one’s so much as set foot in her old rooms for the last two hundred years. Except for us, that is.”

“Ah,” said Madalena. “So if there were a ghost, it would have to be Megara herself.”

Gwynne nodded. “Just so, miss, except for one thing. The way the house-maids tell it, Queen Megara can’t be a ghost – because she never actually died. She just purely disappeared, right out of this very tower.”

Madalena let out a soft whistle. “Now that’s interesting. I take it King Richard hasn’t heard this story?”

“I couldn’t say, mistress...though I rather think not.” Gwynne frowned. “It’s not something you just tell an evil invader, even after he’s conquered you.”

“You heard about it, though.”

“That’s different. Servants always talk to one another, no matter who’s king or queen.”

“So you do.” Madalena sat silently for a few moments, then abruptly stood up. “Disappeared, did she?”

“That’s the tale. Here, your tea’s ready.” Gwynne poured out a cup.

Madalena took it, sipped absent-mindedly, then handed it back. “Well, then, let’s just see if we can do the same.”

Gwynne gave her a shocked look. “Mistress! Surely you’re not taking up witchcraft?”

“I trust that won’t be necessary,” Madalena told her. “Think, Gwynne. Do these chambers look like a witch’s lair?”

Gwynne’s perpetual scowl deepened, then shifted to a look of puzzlement as she turned in place, considering. “I guess not. There’s no place to put a cauldron and none to store herbs and such. I s’pose one of those might be a grimoire,” she went on, waving a hand toward a tall, well-stocked bookcase next to the fireplace, “but if I were a witch I’d keep such a thing under lock and key.”

Madalena smiled. “Very good. And what does that mean?”

Gwynne blinked, then snapped her fingers. “A secret passage!”

“Exactly. If Megara was truly a witch, it will lead to her work-room, and there’s sure to be another exit from there. If she wasn’t, she had to have a hidden exit in order to disappear. In either case, it’s a way out for us.” Madalena paused. “You will come with me if I escape, won’t you?”

The younger girl pursed her lips, then nodded. “Aye, miss. Whether I help you or not, the king will have me tortured and killed for letting you get away, so I might as well come along on the off chance we don’t get caught.”

“Ha,” said Madalena. “I admire your optimism. Very well, let’s just locate that secret passage.”

#

Ho!
Where does this passage go?
You’re sure you want to know?
No time to wait for Galavant!

It took just over an hour and a half for Madalena and Gwynne to find what they were looking for.   As it turned out, it was hidden neither in the fireplace stonework nor the bookcase. It was Gwynne who discovered a movable flagstone beneath a side table, and Madalena who pressed her foot against the bottom of the niche it concealed. With a surprisingly soft grinding noise, a four-foot square of floor in the room’s opposite corner slid out of sight, revealing a narrow staircase that curved steeply downward.

“That’s an awfully obvious hole,” Gwynne said doubtfully. “King Richard’s sure to spot it next time he comes in.”

“I’m sure there’s a way to work the floor from underneath,” Madalena told her. “The old queen would have needed it. Come, let’s have a look.”

“Shouldn’t we pack a few things first?”

Madalena paused at the top of the steps, then shook her head. “First let’s see what’s down here. Then we can come back, decide what to take with us, and get away for good.”

“Very well, mistress,” Gwynne said, though her frown deepened as she followed Madalena nervously down into the darkness.

#

Two hundred years or so
Before the times we know,
Megara was the queen of all Valencia;

But then one stormy night,
She dropped quite out of sight,
And ever since then she’s been in absentia....

“Two hundred eight, two hundred nine, two hundred—”

“Do stop that, Gwynne!”

“But miss, how else will we know how deep we’ve gone? Two hundred twelve, two hundred thirteen—”

“Who says we have to keep track?”

“It’s keeping me from thinking about the things that might be waiting at the bottom! Two hundred sixteen, two hundred seventeen—”

Madalena sighed and kept going. Luckily, they weren’t entirely in the dark; there were sputtering torches mounted on the walls at intervals as they descended. Which was clearly an argument in favor of witchcraft being involved – unless, of course, the whole thing was a trick on Richard’s part.

Then, abruptly, there was level floor instead of more steps, and a stone archway to her left. Madalena moved forward and turned to look into the chamber beyond the arch, just as Gwynne murmured “Two hundred twenty-six!”, stopped counting, and stepped up to stand next to her.

They both whistled softly at what they saw. “Definitely a witch’s lair,” Gwynne breathed, sounding awed. “Cauldron, check. Enormous fire pit underneath, check. Scary symbols carved in the floor, check. Bones and skeletons, check.”

“But no sign of things waiting for us,” Madalena pointed out. “Unless you count the torches. I wonder, how do you keep a torch burning for two hundred years?”

“Witchcraft. Though it could just be spelled to light when someone’s around to need it.”

“Which would also be witchcraft.”

“Indeed, miss.”

Cautiously, Madalena moved into the chamber – a large round room at least thirty feet across – and began examining its contents. The cauldron was empty, the firepit unlit, and a row of bookshelves and many-drawered cabinets appeared neatly organized. Unlike the suite above them, however, there was no trace of dust anywhere. “You don’t suppose the house-maids have been down here?”

“Surely not,” said Gwynne. “If any knew of this place, there’d have been talk. And none of that lot would set foot in Megara’s witchery-room for all the gold in Valencia.”

“So what’s keeping it tidy?”

“Witchery again. Though it’s an odd thing,” Gwynne added, “for ‘tis said when a witch dies, her magic dies with her.”

For a moment, Madalena’s scowl was a match for Gwynne’s. “That can’t be right. If she were alive she’d be centuries old – and she wouldn’t have put up with Richard sweeping in and conquering her kingdom.”

Gwynne shrugged. “Didn’t say it made sense, miss. That’s witchery for you, anyhow – not much for keeping to rules. Sorcery, now, that’s a different story.”

Madalena gave her a surprised glance. “You seem to know a lot about magic for a—”

“Serving girl?” Gwynne said, finishing the sentence. “I keep my eyes open, I do. We had a sorcerer through our village once, back home, and he let me look at his books for a bit.”

“Can you do any magic yourself?”

Gwynne let out a sharp laugh. “Never a bit.   Don’t have the patience for witchcraft, the mind for wizardry, or the gold for all the makings a sorcerer needs. Best thing to do with magic, I say, is stay out of its way.”

“Maybe you’re right,” said Madalena. “Wait, though – what’s this?” Behind one of the skeletons that stood like statues around the perimeter of the chamber, a silvery shimmer beckoned. None too happily, Gwynne followed her across the room to investigate.

What they found was a mirror fully seven feet tall and nearly three wide, framed in ebony and mounted solidly against the smooth stone wall. Between the flickering of the wall-mounted torches and the pale glow emanating from the mirror’s own surface, it was difficult for Madalena to make out her reflection.

“Magic!” she breathed, her voice soft.

“That’s not witchery,” Gwynne said, just as softly but with conviction. “It’s – I don’t know what. Dangerous, like as not.”

Madalena eyed it thoughtfully. “Powerful. It might be our way out of here.”

“If by way out you mean getting us killed, or worse.”

“It’s worth a try,” Madalena insisted.

Gwynne shook her head emphatically, stepping several paces back and to one side. “Not to me, miss.”

“Have it your way,” said Madalena. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall....”

Before she could go further, the mirror’s surface flared for an instant. Words began to spell themselves out on its surface in deep violet-colored light, as if written by an invisible hand, and from somewhere within the mirror’s depths, a quavering melody began to play.

Mirror, mirror, heed thy mistress,
Work her will and set her free.
Mirror, keep thy mystic bargain
With the voice that sings to thee.

“Mistress!” Gwynne called urgently, but Madalena’s attention was fixed firmly on the glass, and after a moment she began to sing, chanting the mirror’s words in counterpart to the invisible flute.

As she repeated the verse for the third time, the full surface of the mirror suddenly flashed with a brilliant purple glow – and then the wall of light flipped itself inside out and back again. Then the glow faded, and all that was left was the figure of Madalena, standing in front of the mirror.

It took Gwynne several moments to catch her breath in the wake of the pyrotechnics. “Wh-what happened, mistress?”

“Exactly what should have happened, my dear.” The voice was Madalena’s, but its cadence had changed subtly, so that it held an extra touch of firmness and not quite as much lilt.

“Oh my gracious,” Gwynne breathed, dropping to her knees – whether from shock or servant’s instinct, even she could never say afterward. “You’re Queen Megara.”

“How very perceptive of you,” Megara said, her tone now a little chillier. “That, however, had best be kept between us. It would not do for the lady Madalena to disappear as I once did.”

Gwynne managed to nod. “I...understand, mistress – milady.”

Mistress will do, for the moment,” said Megara. “Before others, you must treat me just as you treated her.”

“Yes, mistress.”

Megara smiled, looking at once exactly like Madalena and infinitely more dangerous. “Very good, my dear.”

Gwynne took a breath. “If I may, mistress – what’s happened to the other Madalena?”

The former queen was quiet for a moment, then smiled again. “The question is fairly asked. She is safe enough, sealed into the mirror – but without powers such as mine, she cannot achieve her own release as I did. Given time and strength, she may someday learn to speak from within the glass, but that will be a matter of years. And if the mirror is somehow broken, she will be forever lost.”

“I understand.” Gwynne’s sigh was barely audible.

“See that you do,” the new-forged Madalena told her. “Now, then – let us go up to my suite. There is a great deal of work to be done.”

#

Witch
She was, at least by reputation,
Skilled with spells and incantations;
Now,
Though please don’t ask me how,
She’s made good on a vow
That can’t be good for Galavant!
(Or anyone else, most likely.)

The Chef stared at the Jester. “You’re telling me Madalena isn’t really herself.”

“Exactly.”

“But—” the Chef paused, confused. “How do you even know any of that actually happened? It’s not as if you were actually there.”

The Jester gave him an enigmatic smile. “Nothing says I couldn’t have been. And remember, I was very close to ‘Madalena’ for quite some time.”

“Oh, come on,” said the Chef. “She wouldn’t have shared that secret with you. And if it’s true, she’ll probably kill both of us now that you’ve shared it with me.”

The Jester merely smiled again. “Ah, but I haven’t just shared it with you. I’ve shared it with thousands – well, dozens at least – of readers out there in the audience. I told you there was a structure to these things, didn’t I? This is what’s called a plot twist.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better. So what does happen next, then?”

“I have absolutely no idea. I’m only the narrator, not the writer.”

“Oh, lovely.”

# # #