“History favors the victor, Monsieur Grimm. So you will forgive me if I do not seem terribly excited to see you?” The woman turned from the small window in the tower room, mocking me with her expression.
I nodded stiffly and sat down at the table. It and the chairs were the only pieces of furniture in the room. The wood was old and scratched, warped in places as if from too much moisture.
I wished Wilhelm was here with me. He was so much better at reading people than I. I was the scribe; he was the one who drew out the stories, who knew what to say to make people trust us. But he had taken ill just before we were to leave, heaving his guts out into a chamber pot and quite unable to travel.
The queen had been gracious when she’d received me, not seeming to mind that she’d been stuck with the less-gifted Grimm. I knew her story well, of course. Who did not? But when she’d told it, the tale of the little ash-girl became even more touching and magical. I had found myself tongue tied in her presence. Struck dumb by golden curls and cerulean eyes. And by the bravery of a girl who had risen above her pain to become a princess, then a queen.
And all despite the machinations of her evil stepmother.
“My stepmother did not adjust well to my success,” the queen had murmured. “She…she is quite mad. Although she has good days – perhaps good enough for you to corroborate my story, as I know you and your brother like to do.”
“You think she will tell me the truth?”
“I don’t know. But surely I owe her the chance to speak?” The queen had smiled, causing my heart to rise to my throat. How could anyone be so lovely?
And so the queen’s men had brought me to this place. Bringing the woman in and unchaining her only after I asked them to. The queen had said she was mad – was she also dangerous?
The woman looked at me for a moment, as if assessing my character, then she smiled. “My name is Catherine, as Ella must have told you. Am I what you expected to find when the queen told you of my sins?”
She was thin, emaciated even, and what had probably once been great beauty was faded. She turned back to the small window and gulped in large breaths as if she could not get enough air.
“I did not expect anything.”
“Such a safe answer.”
“Only the truth. You have been here long, Madame?”
“In this room? Scant moments.”
The room had an abandoned air about it, but it was surely more pleasant than wherever this creature normally resided.
“The air is fresh today, non? I have not had much fresh air lately.” She chuckled strangely, an angry yet resigned sound. “What was your question?”
“How long you have been imprisoned here.”
“A lifetime it seems.” She did not turn to look at me as she spoke. “You are here because Ella wishes me to tell you the truth?”
“The queen knows that I will compare what you tell me to her story.”
The woman laughed bitterly. “It’s her sense of whimsy at play. That I should be forced to corroborate her story.”
“Her story is quite inspiring.”
“Yes, I know. She tells it quite well, I imagine. She has had years to perfect it.” Catherine laid her hands against the sides of the window as if she could push the stone away and make an opening big enough to crawl through. But we were very high up. She would plummet to her death – unless she could fly. The queen’s story had almost made me believe this woman could do that.
“Was I very evil in her version?”
She smiled; it was an ugly smile. “Are not all memoirs full of some twist or other? The burden of perspective, Monsieur. Surely you have seen it many times?”
I had. I chose not to say so.
“So many versions. And only one that is mine.” She half turned, and I could see her lips tilting slowly upward. “Or perhaps I have more than one?”
“There is one version of the truth, Madame. I have no doubt you could spin many versions of fabrication.”
“Fabrication. A thing you make up. Like…like the fate of those we love.” She turned back to the sunshine, and I could no longer see her expression. “There is truth. And there are the pretty stories you and your brother collect.”
“They are more than just pretty stories.”
“I believe they are.” We had seen too much, Wilhelm and I. Some of the stories were real, even if those who read them would probably never believe that.
“Fairy stories, people call them. I hear about them, even in here.”
I tried to hide the thrill of pride that went through me at the idea we were so well known.
“So little Ella expects me to tell you the tale she set forth? And, but for this” – Catherine pulled out a small envelope from her bodice – “I would have done so with a willing, if not light, heart.” She finally turned around to face me. “This is a most dangerous thing for a prisoner such as I. A letter containing truth, containing freedom. Finally, I have a choice.”
“A choice, Madame?”
“Yes. A choice of which tale to tell you, Monsieur Grimm. Do I tell you what my stepdaughter wants told or what really happened?” She walked to the table, sat down heavily, and held out the letter as if to let me read it, then pulled it back. “Too dangerous for you, I think. Let me tell the tale and you can be the judge. How is it that you and your brothers like to start these stories?”
“Once upon a time?” I set my pen to paper, ready to copy her words, even if I was unsure what game she played.
“Yes. Once upon a time there was a nobleman: Philippe de Villiers. He was known throughout the land for his kindness and generosity. He went many years without marrying, too busy serving his sovereign to pay attention to matters of the heart. But one day, he saw an exotic woman and fell instantly in love with her.” She stopped, stared at me. “Have you ever fallen in love in an instant?”
“No. But such a love is longed for.” Such a love was claimed by those who filled the pages of our stories. Who was I to say it did not exist if so many of those we chronicled said it did? Maybe it was only for heroes, for those with royal blood or pure hearts?
“I do not long for it. For it is only brought about one way. By magic.”
“This woman was well below Philippe in stature and also in character, although he did not know that at the time.”
I put down my pen. “Madame, this story bears little semblance, even so early on, to the one I have been told.”
“No doubt.” She gave me a sly smile. “But it is the truth.”
I considered pulling my pens and paper together and leaving her alone with her truth. But there was something in her eyes, something very sad – and very sure. If she was lying, it was a lie she believed. It would not hurt to hear what she had to say; I did not have to use any of it. I picked up my pen. “Continue, Madame.”
“This woman bewitched Philippe. I know this because I sat on the sidelines of his life and watched it happen. I had loved him for so long, but I always knew his causes came first. I had faith, though, that someday he would see me – that he would love me.”
Her face was set in a tight line. As if, even all these years later, what she said hurt her.
“He married her. Her name was Carlotta. She was a foreigner.” Catherine shook her head. “Dark and not very pretty – nothing like her daughter. Scant weeks after Philippe met her, he was wed to her. Out of my reach.”
“You were angry?”
“I was heartbroken. But I was also practical. I had a duty and when my father arranged a marriage for me, I did as he wished. Guillaume d’Harcourt was kind to me. In his way, he loved me. And he did not mind if my affection for him was gentle and quiet. He did not expect great passion.”
“Did he know you were in love with another man?”
“I don’t know. I never spoke of it, of course. And he never asked.”
“Guillaume was the father of your daughters?”
She smiled, and her face lit up, giving a hint of her past beauty. “Yes. Marie-Louise and Therese. Good girls. Loving, dutiful girls.”
“Loving to you, perhaps. The queen said they often treated her badly.”
“Not so. They grew up with her, were her childhood playmates. We lived on neighboring estates. And, as Carlotta spent Philippe’s – and ultimately, her daughter’s – fortune out from under him, my girls were kind to Ella, who always seemed so unhappy in her lot. So desperate to escape.”
I considered the palace I had been invited to, the grand room the queen had received me in. She had escaped, but it had been from servitude to this woman, not from a conniving mother.
“Ella hated her mother.” Catherine played with the letter, pushing it around the table. “It was not much later that Carlotta died. She came down with a strange and sudden illness. A vomiting sickness.”
“I see.” The queen had told me this, how much it had hurt to lose her mother that way. How lost she had been. She’d had her suspicions. “Catherine, you are quite skilled in the stillroom, are you not?”
“I am.” She did not seem surprised by the question.
“You are a master of mixing cures?”
“And poisons, perhaps?” It was not uncommon. After all, these big chateaux attracted vermin, and poison took care of them.
It took care of other things, too.
“Ella is also very skilled in the stillroom. Even more so than I.” Catherine sat back. “Where is your brother, Monsieur?”
I was surprised at her abrupt change of subject. “Ill.”
“A strange and sudden illness, perhaps?”
I sat very still.
“The two of you together are no doubt quite formidable at getting to the truth. But you, alone? Are you perhaps the not so capable Grimm?”
I looked down. She was not wrong, but I was not completely incapable. “Did your husband not die of a strange and sudden illness only a year before Carlotta passed away, Madame?”
“He did. I had no idea it would be used to condemn me all these years later.” She met my eyes. “I was not thinking as Ella does. I was not a young girl clever beyond my years with no conscience whatsoever. One who, knowing she might wish to kill her mother, wanted to lay the groundwork – a trail of blame to someone else’s door.”
“That is quite an accusation.”
“Yes. Very hard to ask you to believe it, isn’t it? She’s a beautiful woman, our queen. She takes your breath away, does she not?”
“She does.” I had seen many beauties in my time, but Queen Ella was superlative. “You wish me to believe she is evil?”
Catherine nodded, waiting, as if she expected me to get up and leave her.
I did not get up. I studied her. Was she lying? Was she enjoying this moment of freedom from her prison enough to spin me crazy tales? Her eyes were placid. And she did not appear nervous, despite the way she was worrying at the letter.
“What happened next?” I asked.
“Philippe and I were wed. During the last year of his unhappy marriage to Carlotta, we had grown close. Nothing improper. We sat on the wall in the meadow, he on his side, I on mine. We held hands occasionally and talked for hours. He was worried about Ella, growing up with such a mother. I was worried about my girls, with no father. When Carlotta died, we waited the bare minimum of time before we married. It was the happiest day of my life.”
“But happy days end.”
“Oh, yes. Not even a year later, Philippe was thrown from his horse. A horse that had carried him faithfully for many years. It went…berserk.”
“Horses do get spooked.”
“It was frothing at the mouth. The froth smelled of wolfsbane and rue.” She did not look away. “And rye mold. Ella loved to bake bread.”
“You are saying that his own daughter – ” I stared at her. “Horses graze. They sometimes eat things they should not.”
“Perhaps. But it was not the season for wolfsbane. And rue did not grow near our chateau.”
“But why would she do such a thing?”
“She thought she’d get what was left of her fortune. She did not understand that virtually nothing remained. The income that bought the girls fine dresses and paid for our meals came from Guillaume’s estate.” Catherine sighed. “Ella had nothing.”
I stopped writing.
“I loved her, Monsieur. She was a strange child, granted. But she was Philippe’s. The last thing I had left of him. I would have protected her. I would have seen to her future.” Her mouth set in a bitter line. “Instead she stole mine.”
“Stole? Did you not try to steal hers?”
“No.” She frowned. “Oh, you mean the prince? He would have thanked me, eventually.”
“They married for love. He searched everywhere for her.”
“I will not argue with you. He was a man possessed. Just as my Philippe was so many years ago when he met Carlotta.”
“You are saying Ella enchanted him?”
“I am.” She looked down. “Did she feed you pretty stories of fairy guardians and mice that turned into magnificent horses? Of pumpkins that grew into carriages? She needed none of that. I dressed her; I coiffed her hair. Just as I did my own girls. I sent them laughing together in our carriage. She went to the ball, Monsieur, at the side of my girls. One of three. Equal in all ways.”
I decided not to argue with her. “And she met the prince there.”
“Yes. They could speak of nothing else when they got home. You know how girls are.”
My expression must have told her I had very little experience in that realm.
“They were excited. Giggling. So happy. The house came alive when the prince visited. But I was worried. He was there all the time. Neglecting other things – his father would send servants to fetch him back to his duty. I could tell he was enchanted; her evil magic drew him to us like a moth to a candle.” She laughed, the sound bitter, as if she was angry at herself. “I thought I could protect him by locking her in the cellar. I hoped, in time, he would break free from her spell.”
“He did not.”
“No, Ella broke free. Well, to be more precise, it was Therese who let her out. Dear, soft-hearted girl. She let Ella out while Marie-Louse went and told the prince what had happened. They loved their stepsister, you see.”
“She said –”
“I know what she said. I can imagine exactly what her words were. But nothing happened the way she told you.”
“If it did not, why are you here in this prison? Why did you not flee once she had run to the prince?”
“She was wise, my little Ella. She knew I alone could hurt her, but that the safety of my daughters would guarantee my silence. She didn’t take any chances with me keeping my word. She put me in here. But I would not have said anything. My daughters were my life.”
“Were?” The queen had said they lived still. Beneficiaries of her mercy.
“Were, Monsieur Grimm.” She gripped the letter. “She fed me news of them. Stories of their marriages and children. Even little miniatures, painted by her own artists. But they were fabrications. Everything was a lie.”
I must have looked unconvinced.
“Did you ask to interview them?” she asked.
“No. The queen said they lived far away. But she offered to arrange it if I wished.” I had not wished. The places she had named would have been unpleasant in the extreme to get to.
“And a day ago, I would have told you they were alive and happy.” She tapped the letter. “But they never wrote me. I should have realized that they would not have abandoned me that way. It’s just that Ella can spin lies into truth so effectively even I believe her some of the time. I thought she had turned them against me.”
“I know where she said they are. I can go to them and –”
“This letter was sent to me by someone that I trust completely. My daughters are dead, Monsieur. They were murdered by the queen as soon as she came to power.”
“I would like to see the letter.”
“The person who sent it to me would probably prefer you did not.” She got up with an unexpected grace, given her frailty, and walked to the fire that did almost nothing to warm the room. Kneeling, she placed her letter carefully into the flames, not taking her eyes off it until only ashes remained.
I sat in silence for a moment, considering the story the queen had told and comparing it to the one I’d just heard.
“The king died soon after she married the prince,” I finally said. “Of a sudden and strange illness?”
“Yes.” She rose and walked back to the table. “I would not want to be the prince once an heir is born.”
“Perhaps not.” I looked down, aghast that I would say such a thing.
“The king was known for his robust good health, Monsieur Grimm.”
“She said he’d grown old.”
“She’d say that, wouldn’t she?” She touched my hand. “She didn’t ask for her story to be told, did she? Your brother pushed it.”
Wilhelm had pushed it, and the queen had pleaded other duties. But Wilhelm had not given up. And now, here I was. And he was home. With a strange and sudden illness.
“I have done all that I can,” Catherine said. “I have entrusted the truth. To you.” She smiled, it was a game smile, but one that made my heart hurt for her.
I began to gather up my papers. “There is no way to verify this. Any of this. Even if your daughters are dead. Even if I could somehow prove my brother was poisoned to keep him from coming – we have enemies, and the queen is not one of them.”
“Then you will do nothing with my story? You will let the truth die?” She looked suddenly to the door, panic lighting her face for a moment before she seemed to force it away by sheer will.
I turned to find the queen standing in the doorway.
I rose and bowed deeply. “Majesty.”
Her laugh was like chimes tinkling. “Did I not tell you she was mad? My stepmother has been too long confined, I think. She makes up tales to amuse herself and shares them with you, as I was concerned she might do. That is why I came.”
“You were listening.” Catherine did not make it a question.
“I was worried about you, Maman. This dreadful delusion you operate under – it makes me so sad to see you this way.” She turned to me. “I think casting me as the villainess helps her live with what she’s done.”
“Where are my daughters?” Catherine said, her control breaking a little as her voice went up.
“They live far away and do not want to see you. I have told you that.” The queen smiled gently, the expression one that could easily have been carved on a marble Madonna, then she turned to me. “Surely you do not believe her story?”
I stared into her clear blue eyes. Eyes of such startling purity that I felt humbled to even be allowed to look into them. “Majesty, of course not.”
“Of course not.” She moved behind Catherine, putting her hands gently on her arms, and resting her chin on her shoulder. “You see, Maman, he does not believe you.”
Catherine shrugged out of the queen’s embrace and walked to the door. “He cannot afford to believe me.” She offered up her hands to the waiting guards. I watched as they put chains upon her. She was old and frail. Why did they need chains?
Ella seemed to read my expression. “She has been tranquil with you? That is good because there are other times when she flies into fits of rage. And she is strong in her madness, and pays no mind to the damage she does to others or herself. I do this to protect her as much as us.”
Catherine’s eyes flashed. “I am not mad.”
“You are not the one to say what you are, dearest Catherine. It is ever the curse of the afflicted to not realize the depth of their insanity.” Ella looked at me. “Have you not seen this in your own travels?”
I nodded in helpless agreement. It was often the case that the mad did not know how far gone they were.
“Take her back to her room,” the queen said gently.
Her room. Not a cell. Not a dungeon. A room. Nicely appointed, no doubt. Comfortable.
Catherine turned around, gave me a knowing smile.
The mirage of a room waiting for her disappeared as I stared into her eyes. “Please be careful,” I said.
“I suggest you do the same, Monsieur Grimm.” She walked regally out of the room, her chains clinking as the guards led her down the stairs.
The queen walked to the window. Her hair shone like liquid gold in the sunshine. “So tell me, Monsieur, how will your story start?” She turned, and there was something new in her expression. Something hard.
I felt a frisson of fear as I stared at her.
She smiled, and I decided my fear was irrational in the face of such gentleness. “Isn’t it: Once upon a time…?”
“Yes. Once upon a time. It is our signature beginning.”
“Of course. But you have another signature. The ending, I believe.”
“We have both seen that not everyone can live happily ever after.”
“Well, it is up to you to decide who will, then.” She reached over and gathered up the notes I had taken. She read quickly. “My. This is not what I expected.”
“I notice you do not say it is not true.” I looked down, startled that I had said such a thing.
“Oh, dearest Jacob. How much you must care about the truth…and your wonderful stories.”
I mumbled something. Shamed by the warmth in her voice, the way she had said my name.
She walked to the fire. “These are nothing but the musings of a madwoman. They will cause Catherine to be mocked and pitied. And the woman she once was would not have wanted that.” The queen’s face reflected love never achieved, regret that would never go away. “Let me dispose of these for you.” She laid them on the flames, being careful, I noted, to make sure each page burned entirely.
I gathered my things together hastily. “I must get to work on your story, Your Majesty.”
“But of course.” She took my arm, smiled winningly up at me as she led me to the door. “And I’m sure that you are eager to leave this place. It is full of ugliness and pain. Not things you want to follow you.”
I tried to tell myself there was no threat in her lovely voice. I told myself that all the way down the stairs and back to the guest house.
There was a note waiting from Wilhelm. He was feeling much better, attributed his incapacitation to bad cheese. He would see me in Brussels in four day’s time.
A knock on my door sounded. I opened it, saw a courtier, heavily laden with beautiful paper.
“The queen wished you to have this,” he said. “For her story.”
I noticed he was wearing gloves.
“You have served her a long time?” I asked.
“Since she wed the king.”
“She is a good mistress?”
“Wondrous.” There was no hesitation, but I thought I saw something flash in his eyes. It looked like devotion – the kind that could inspire a man to do anything. He made as if to hand me the paper, and I moved away, indicating he could put it down on the table. He did, but again something flashed in his eyes.
“Thank you,” I said. “Good day.”
He left, and I closed the door and locked it, before turning to stare down at the paper. It was beautiful. My hands itched to take a sheet and begin the story, knowing that my ink would sink in just so, that the inscription would be more striking because of the quality of the medium.
I bent low, not letting my nose touch the paper as I sniffed carefully.
The paper had a strange odor. Was it rue? Perhaps mixed with wolfsbane and rye mold?
I decided I would write on my own paper. I felt a pang of something I hated to think was guilt as I picked up my pen and started on the story the queen had told me.
I wrote until morning. Knew when I finished that it was an inspiring tale. Who did not enjoy stories of fairy guardians and crystal shoes? Who would not feel pity for a girl saddled with a new mother who did not want her?
I let the last page dry, then I packed my bags, throwing things in without bothering to fold them for the journey. I hurried to the palace, eager to leave. I would wait for Wilhelm in Brussels, not tarry here before meeting him.
The queen took the packet I handed her with a quick grace. She was, I noticed, wearing opaque gloves that matched her outfit perfectly. Such gloves were not in fashion – at least not in the other courts I had visited. Open lace was more the rage, light gossamer things that let the skin show through.
She looked up at me as she opened the package. “You did not use my paper?”
“I wished to share it with my brother.” The paper would never be shared. Just as she and Catherine had done earlier, I had made sure every single sheet burned to ash.
I, too, had worn gloves. Gloves that had followed the paper into the fire.
She read the story quickly, and delight colored her face. Her prince charming, now a king, sat silently beside her, apparently not interested in reading my account of their love.
The queen handed me back the papers. “The story is perfect, Monsieur. You must linger while I think of a suitable reward for your efforts.”
“Allowing me to include your story in our book is reward enough, Your Majesty.”
She pitched her voice very low, “You say the sweetest things. I do wish you’d tarry.”
“My brother is expecting me.”
She leaned back. Her hand fell on her husband’s arm. He set his hand over hers, but his eyes seemed empty.
“Perhaps we will see each other again?” She leaned forward. “You never know where I might turn up. I do hope to meet your esteemed brother.” Her smile was vivid, sweet and girlish.
“I’m sure he would be charmed.”
“Most people are.”
It was interesting how charmed could mean so many things.
“Good day, Your Majesty.” I turned, walking faster than was necessary. I was halfway across the audience chamber, my eyes seeing only the doorway that meant freedom.
“You have not heard, it appears?” Her voice rang out, filling the space between us.
I stopped, turned slowly. “Heard?”
“My stepmother died last night.”
“A sudden illness?”
“She has been frail. It may appear sudden to you, but she has been weakening for months.”
“Was she alone?”
“No. I was with her.”
I was not sure that brought me comfort; I knew it would not have brought Catherine comfort. Meeting the queen’s eyes, I saw nothing in her expression that seemed out of place.
“Good bye, Monsieur Grimm. And thank you.”
“I merely chronicled the truth, Your Highness.”
“Yes.” She smiled serenely. “The truth.”
I fled, clutching her version of it.
Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. She came to fiction writing late in life and writes stories in many genres, including fantasy – often centered around mythology – science fiction, horror, crime fiction, and romance. She dabbles in poetry and has one poem published. In addition to Cabinet des Fées, look for her stories in such places as the Sails & Sorcery anthology, the Ruins Metropolis anthology, Renard’s Menagerie magazine, the Desolate Places anthology, and the Fusion Fragment e-zine. A complete list of her published and accepted work can be found at http://www.gerrileen.com.
Image: Aschenbrödel, Carl Offterdinger, late 19th century.