by Mari Ness
In the end, she had not been able to change them back to men, though her hands still burned from the attempt.
Too little determination, her stepmother would have said. Too easily distracted. It was true: even in that first year she’d often paused at her task, sometimes for nothing more than the call of a bird. But she herself blamed the pain, the endless pain. Not merely the burning stings in her hands, but the ache in her back and arms and legs.
The ache, the hunger for talk.
The caress of a hand on her neck.
She had quivered. Her mouth had parted. And they had come stumbling out, the words, each one burning her throat, until he had silenced her, healed her, with a kiss.
They floated below her now, her brothers.
In the end she had only made two shirts. Even that had gone wrong. The shirts had been locked in a chest–not quite forgotten, no–when the swans finally arrived. She had rushed back to the palace, chased by servants and guards, tripping over her heavy skirts as she rushed up the stairs–the lock, the lock, why did I lock the chest, why–She had sent servants and guards rushing for the key–
The sun had set before she found the key, before she managed to seize the shirts, her hands burning. I could have split open the chest. The guards–the guards had swords, axes, but I wanted to keep the chest, keep its carvings, its beauty, that silver gilt–
Not that it mattered. She had already spoken, and she had only two shirts.
I could have thrown those two, let my brothers fight for the wearing of them, or chosen two to save–
Those three whispered words, breaking her silence. The words only her husband–and perhaps her brothers–had heard.
That was why she had not finished the task. Not the distraction of her husband or children, or of her rich linens and dresses, of the music played for her, of the paperwork and tasks that even a queen must do. It had been too late, and she could waste no more time on this.
She had ordered a lake built, where she could watch them swim. Some craned their necks towards her; others looked away. Sometimes she tried to guess which was which. Sometimes she even called out their names.
She had never heard an answer.
But they had never flown away.
She watched them now, her hands burning in memory of it all: the weaving. The not-weaving. The returning.
“Majesty–” said a voice behind her.
“Yes,” she said, hardly hearing.
She crushed the shirts in her hands, lifted one and ran it against her cheek. It did not draw blood–not quite. Her vision filled with water. “Yes,” she repeated, before folding up the shirts and leaving them upon a small chair by the pavilion by the lake that she’d ordered built, the pavilion that none but she and her guards were allowed to enter. She touched her cheek with a burning hand, before turning back to the palace, her music and laughter, and the bed of swansdown she shared with her royal husband.
Mari Ness is only slightly less obsessed with fairy tales than her work might suggest. Her fiction and poetry have also appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Goblin Fruit and previous issues of Scheherezade’s Bequest and Demeter’s Spicebox. You can keep up with her writings and other thoughts at her blog, mariness.livejournal.com, or on twitter at mari_ness. She lives in central Florida.