I, Omega, ruler of Tuzrat, and of kingdoms as far as away as the tundra of Quondonia, the fevered heat of Rargan, and the mild, fruit-plains of Westchire, I who have a palace full of fawning minions, thirty obedient wives, and one hundred and three obedient children, am cursed. Cursed by my disobedient daughter.
First in the matter of marriage. Unlike her sisters, Iota has never been fair. Whey-faced with dark, oily hair, an oversized nose and crooked teeth, she wasn’t equipped by nature to find a husband. Given her lineage, however, one would have expected she’d have suitors enough. But she drove them off—with her foul breath and her carping complaints about their own imperfections. None will have her, even if she is the daughter of a king.
Instead she will remain in the palace. She is determined to work in the library, in the scriptorium, recording the history of our dynasty. “This is a job for old men,” I tell her. “Not for young girls.”
She frowns and the lines between her eyes are as deep as any ancient scholar’s. “But it’s what I want,” she insists and pushes out her chin.
“Very well, you refuse to marry. If you wish to die a withered virgin surrounded by scribbling old men, do so. I wash my hands of you.”
A month later my tour of the imperial offices takes me to the library. The scholars are peering at scrolls with the aid of candlelight under twelve stories of walls lined with books and manuscripts. A thin late afternoon light penetrates the thick tinted glass of high windows. Bats move above us, finding secret entrances, conspiring in high-pitched whispers. Iota is bent over a page, scribbling fast.
When my page calls out, “The king!” all work stops, everyone rises, except for Iota who continues scribbling for a few seconds. I approach her table, lift a sheaf of pages and start to read. A long story, apparently. I tell my councilors to go about their business while I sit in her chair and she stands behind me shifting from foot to foot, longing for my approval. She was always hungry for praise and burned with envy when I complimented her sisters on their beauty and lilting voices, and praised her brothers for their wit and strength. Feeling indulgent today, I decide to try to find some worth in her work. The writing surprises me with its clarity and elegance. Reading is not a disagreeable chore.
Until I reach the second chapter, which begins “And that was when the kingdom started to go wrong.” I frown, reread the offending sentence and glance ahead at what follows. Then I let out a little puff of laughter. She cannot be serious.
“I think you have misunderstood your role,” I say, my voice taut as a drum, stretched tight across my displeasure. I will not lose my temper. “Your role is to describe, not to evaluate.”
I separate the pages. The first chapter—the one I read with pride and pleasure—that she may keep. The thick sheaf following that disastrous sentence, I hand to my servant. “Destroy these immediately.”
I turn to Iota whose face has flushed a deep red. Perhaps she imagined herself a tiger cub that is permitted to bite and scratch its all-powerful father. But she is no longer a cub.
“You have disappointed me,” I tell her.
“Disappointed you!” she says, stamping her narrow foot. “Are there not peasants rioting in Rargan? Are there are not children dying for want of bread in Quondonia? Are there not prisons full of people who have tried to bring their grievances to you? Are they not hung on gibbets throughout the city? Think how their fathers are disappointed.”
“That does not concern you,” I say. “You have elected to be a scribe. Nothing more.” Something in the defiant lift of her chin softens me a little. I gesture towards my departing servant who is carrying the offending pages. “I will charitably interpret this lapse as a misunderstanding and will grant you a second chance.”
When I return a month later to make the same inspection, Iota covers her pages with both hands. I lift them and start to read. “Omega is a cruel leader who crushes his subjects’ spirits and censors their words.”
“Why, Iota? Why?”
She stares defiantly.
“Why write about your father? Why not write about something else?” I gesture towards the other scholars busily engaged in recording the triumphs of twelve generations of my ancestors.
“This is what I am given to write,” she says. “What I am compelled to write.”
“‘Given,’ ‘compelled,'” I say with a sneer. “Given by whom? Compelled by what? Are you such a green girl that you believe those fairy tales the priests peddle?”
With no answer to my incisive logic, she remains silent.
“Remove her quill,” I tell the guard. “And find her other employment.”
“No,” she says. “You can’t do this.”
This time my heart is marble. Who is she to ask for mercy after what she has written? How dare she expect understanding when she has so miserably failed to understand her own father? To be honest, not everything she writes is false. There is a grain of truth in her account, just enough to prick my conscience, but her writing is so larded with exaggeration and calumny that she is best kept muzzled.
The next day she begs for an audience with me, and pleads to be allowed to continue to work with ink and paper. It pleases me to see her as a supplicant, although I will not relent on banishing her from the library. “Very well,” I say. “Go work among the clerks and the merchants with their endless bills of lading, keeping records of the beer and grain that enters and leaves the palace.” She has a fine hand. Let her employ it in some useful, innocuous task.
Weeks and months pass. I rarely see Iota, and my servants inform me that she chooses to eat alone in her bedchamber, reading. But then I hear her singing loudly and out of key, and later, at dinner I catch glimpses of her at the bottom of the banqueting table. Her cheeks are ruddy, her hair newly washed, her eyes bright, and almost pretty. In everything her demeanor is exactly what you could wish for in an obedient child. Perhaps she has finally come to terms with her proper place in the hierarchy.
But then, after another month has passed, I learn the true reason for her good cheer. A sealed package is delivered to me from one of my most loyal governors, the ruler of Quondonia. In it I learn that someone, the writer of an enclosed document, has been spreading sedition about me, seeking to sully my good name. The mildewed scrap of paper, obviously torn from an accounting ledger, was found inside an earthenware jug, the kind we use for beer. I recognize the meticulous handwriting, and peer with distaste at the tiny letters.
“I am suffocating. Omega has taken my breath away,” I read.
I summon my difficult child to a private audience. “What do you mean?” I ask, my voice calm in spite of my rage. “You have everything you need. You have food and wine, silk and wool to cover your body, entertainment, and work. And …” I gesture towards the wide windows that overlook the courtyard and beyond it the ocean. “You have ample fresh air. What do you mean when you say you cannot breathe?”
“You give me air,” she says. “I can breathe in.” She pauses. “But I cannot breathe out.”
I regard her for a long time, and then roar, “How dare you! If you were not my daughter …” My choler almost chokes me. So I grip her arm and drag her to a small window from which we can survey the bodies of traitors hanging from gibbets, pecked ragged by the circling birds. I feel her shudder.
“Fortunately for you, that is a fate for traitors outside the royal family. Your fate will be more merciful. You will be denied paper and ink forever. You will be banned from the royal table and royal functions. And you will be reduced to working with the lowest of the low, cleaning the bat droppings from the parapets.”
I nod in the direction of my guards. “See to it!” I say, and turn, back to my own heavy burdens of state.
I see her now and then tending the marble walls in the great banqueting hall, supervised closely by five guards. She scrambles up and down the scaffolding to reach all parts of the hundred foot high walls, light and agile as a spider. I observe her washing, chiseling and sandpapering rough edges, filling in fissures with clay.
After the scaffolding is moved to another wall, I notice something on the first wall that strikes me as different. I order one of my minions to climb up to take a closer look.
“She has been scratching words into the marble with a chisel,” he tells me. “Here …” He swallows nervously and hands me a sheet of paper on which he has copied her words.
I glance over the crudely inscribed letters and then search his face.
“What do you think of this message?” I ask.
He bows his head. “It is not my place to think.”
He is right, of course. How could I have so forgotten myself as to ask the opinion of a common guard?
“Lock her up in the high tower!” I order him. “Make sure she has no paper, no quill, no chisel or other instrument for carving. Give her bread and water.” Let her write words in bread crumbs, I add in my head, that the crows will eat.
I wake in a sweat later that night, disoriented and shivering. I dismiss the wife who is asleep beside me, open my windows, and feel the air chill the moisture on my skin. I dreamt that she’d written messages on scraps of clothing and then used breadcrumbs to entice the birds to her. When she’d caught one, she would tie a message to its spindly leg with strands of her hair. In my dream, her messages had reached distant lands and started a rebellion. My subjects rose up and returned in fearful numbers to destroy me.
The early morning air calms my fevered brain. Iota will not start a revolution, I tell myself. I have too many agents in foreign lands and too large an army at home. What am I afraid of, then? That she speaks the truth? That I am the monster she describes? I don’t want to believe so. No. That cannot be true. I am firm but benevolent, guiding my children in their ignorance, disciplining them for their own good, and guiding my subjects in the same way. All my councilors tell me so. She must be wrong. And she cannot spread false rumors about me. I have nothing to fear from her.
My servants change my damp sheets and find me dry nightclothes. I return to bed intending to sleep till noon.
The next night the dream wakes me again. “Shave her head,” I tell my servants. “Put glass in the window of her cell.” So that she cannot commune with the birds, I add inwardly.
On the third night my sleep is again disturbed—but not by dreams. People are shouting in the courtyard below my window. I wrap myself in a robe and stride out into the pink and yellow dawn, angry at the rowdy peasants who have dared to wake a king. I follow their gaze up the walls of the tower. Red marks, perhaps letters, on the stone near the window of Iota’s cell. There is some commotion on the ground. For long seconds I cannot interpret what I see there. A crumpled body. Blood. Shards of glass that seem to continue to bleed. “Iota, Iota,” I cry as I collapse to the floor of my balcony.
I wake sometime later with have no idea how long I’ve slept.
“What did you do with the body?” I enquire of the elderly man beside my bed, a stranger with tufts of white hair and tiny spectacles that magnify his milky eyes.
“I am your physician, Sire,” he murmurs, offering me a cup of some green, foul-tasting liquid. “I understand that the body was cut down and prepared for burial.
I spit out the liquid. “What sort of burial?”
The old man quakes—aware no doubt that the wrong answer could cost him his position if not his life. Should he say, “The burial of a princess,” or, “the burial of a traitor?” I hardly know myself.
He says he doesn’t know, but will fetch someone who does. He urges the drink on me again, saying it will heal me. I take a sip and then slip back into a dreamless slumber.
“What about the blood?” I ask when I next wake.
“They washed it away, Sire, as well as they could.”
She broke the glass, I realize, the glass that was supposed to protect me. I drink the physician’s drafts regularly now. He is a constant, necessary presence beside me—at table, in the council chamber, beside my bed. Whenever I see, or seem to see, those bloody words on marble walls, “You made my life worse than death,” or on bath tiles, “You took my breath away,” I turn to him for comfort.
I instruct them to wash the walls whenever I see the blood, but there it is again. Who would have thought that little shrew of a girl would have had so much blood in her? And spreading it around like this. She must have wanted to amplify the sound of her pain, to change how we saw her suffering. “But is that right?” I ask my doctor. “Can she do that?”
“No,” he murmurs, head down, consulting notes about the quality of my urine from this morning. “Your behavior towards her—so reasonable at the time—doesn’t suddenly become wrong in retrospect.” He smiles weakly. I am unsure whether he can see the blood that I see.
“And her self-imposed death … does that make me a villain?”
“Of course not, Sire. You didn’t kill her. Suicide is the product of a diseased mind. We shouldn’t listen attentively to the ravings of such a mind. We must not agree with its message.”
“Are you sure?” I ask.
“Of course. You can trust me. I specialize in damaged psyches.”
I see him flinch and then force his face to adopt a smooth impassive surface, hoping I didn’t catch the hint. I know what his words meant: my mind is as damaged as Iota’s. I have caught the plague from her. But in my weakness I need him too much to punish him for his insolence.
“You’re overtired, Sire. You need to rest.” He steers me back to my bed and offers me the cup again, reminding me to drink more if I wake. I shake my head and sink back into the feathered softness.
I dream that vultures are crowding around my bed, pecking at my eyelids. When I thrash around, and force my eyes to open, the creatures lumber away to hide in the eaves.
I reach for the cup and take a long swallow, desperate for the medicine to take away the cruelty.
But something is wrong. Instead of soothing liquid, the cup contains stones that catch in my throat. I gag, trying to expel them but they are buried deep.
I cannot cry out. I cannot speak. I can hardly brea….