The Pale Queen’s Sister

The mountain court of the pale queen was bright with treasures: dew harvested from young roses and trapped inside crystal lockets; shirts of silk sewn so densely with hematite beads that they shimmered like hauberks; vases imprinted with the feather-patterns of ascending firebirds.  But for all the splendors in her court, the queen was not pleased.  For ten-and-three years she had warred with an empire of scythes and fissures, and for ten-and-three years she had been losing.

To the north and east was the realm of the birds, and twice a year the pale queen sent emissaries laden with rare treasures to beseech the birds’ aid.  She sent coins stamped with the faces of incomparable warriors, whose eyes were tiny diamonds; she sent books of poetry scribed on the hides of extinct wolves, and clever puzzle boxes that sang the hymns of the snow sisters when they were opened.  But the envoys returned each time with their gifts rejected and their pleas unheard.

At last the queen’s sister asked to travel to the realm of the birds.  The pale queen forbade it at first, fearing to lose her heir, but she gave in at last.  Although she offered her sister the rarest of her treasures, her sister refused everything but supplies for the trip.

The pale queen’s sister set off the next day.  Halfway to the realm of the birds, she came across a starving crane, too weak to move.  Although her mission was urgent, she fed the crane her own food and tended it until it recovered.

“I know your purpose,” the crane said when it was stronger.  “You are the pale queen’s sister.  What tribute do you bring to the queen of the birds?”

“Nothing,” the queen’s sister said.  “For all the gifts we sent, we never troubled to ask what the birds wanted of us.  I mean to do that when I arrive.”

“What if the birds want something you can’t give?”

“Then I must return empty-handed,” the queen’s sister said.  “The queen grows ill at heart watching the trees shatter, the rocks break, the soldiers cut down.  When she falters, it will be my turn to take up the fight, however hopeless.”

The crane’s voice turned cunning.  “You would make a better queen than she would.”

The queen’s sister gazed steadfastly at the crane.  “I do not know how you do things in the realm of birds, but she is my sister and I will not betray her, even for this.  I will look for another way.”

All around her as she spoke were birds: long-necked geese and merry sparrows, pheasants and swallows and falcons and swans.  The eyes of the crane were very bright, and the queen’s sister realized she had been speaking with the queen of the birds all along.

“You cannot buy us as allies,” the crane said, “but we would offer you our friendship if you would have it.”

“I would be honored,” the queen’s sister said.

The crane said, “Lead on, then.  I believe we have an army to defeat.”

for Nancy Sauer