I am old now, and my nights are like a stream bed in midsummer, rivulets of cool sleep trickling across an expanse of cracked dry mud. I close my eyes, and when I open them again it is still night.
I walk then, along the ramparts of my garrison, my soldiers following me at a discrete distance, vigilant, guarding me.
They seem so young, no more than boys. They should be in narrow beds with giggling girls, making fat babies who will grow up to be farmers and smiths, not watching an old woman who has forgotten how to sleep.
I shall not tell them not to watch me. They take such pride in their sashes, black and red, that mark them as the Queen’s Guard. The young need their pride, lacking experience, pride is all they have.
What pride I once had, like my sleep, like my vision, has dried up and flaked off like blood from an old wound. I have no patience with the ritual and the obeisance, the titles and the flourishes, the salutes, the ovations. Do they think I need to be reminded that I have conquered this land? My memories of when I rode in the vanguard of an army are still fresh, no matter what else fades.
I play along with the game for their sake, pausing at doorways and letting my presence be announced. It makes these boys feel secure, justified in their vigil.
They wait for me to die. The whole realm waits for me to die. The Baronage has taken the realm in all but name, but the last fragments of fear of me keep them from taking the name while I live.
That pleases me.
I should have taken a consort, I should have produced an heir. Now that the time for that has long passed I can admit it to myself. Without an heir, the Baronage is the next best thing. There will be chaos when I die, but it will be managed. The Baronage will fight to hold what they have, and the people will know peace.
At night I walk, around the walls that I have caused to be built. From these walls I can see the city, my city, mine by right of conquest, although I have not been inside it for years.
I do not like the way it smells. It smells of people. I prefer my keep on my hilltop, with the valley spread out below me, and the stars above.
My doctors tell me that I am healthy, for a woman my age. I know that they lie, I can see it in their eyes, and I can feel it in my bones, my blood, my wasting flesh. I am growing thinner, and I feel as if I am growing younger, my body changing back from a woman to a girl. I was such a thin child, although I was fed well. As a maiden I was slim, though curved to catch a man’s eye.
As a crone I am gaunt. Meals have become a chore to me. I haven’t felt honest hunger in years.
I could have the doctors hanged for lying, but the Baronage would simply appoint new doctors who would tell the same lies.
For so long a willing manservant, Death has become a timid bridegroom. He has entered my chambers, yet he hesitates to consummate matters with his kiss. Perhaps we know each other too well, there will be no mystery to this meeting, no romance, simply a matter of business to be conducted.
Shall he be waiting for me, when I cross that still river into the shadowless lands?
Only once did Death disobey me, when he took the only man I ever–
I cannot say the word. I never said it to him while he lived.
Here in the night, the cruel night that drags on like a punishment until the pale dawn, here upon the walls of my will and my wrath made stone and timber, here at the end of my days, can I speak the truth of my own free will?
The shadowless, the dead, it is said that they can not speak lies. Across Death’s still river, if asked, I would have to confess the truth upon my cold lips. Shall I speak the truth now, not to my burnished, attentive boy soldiers, not even to myself, but only to the empty, empty, and empty again, night? Shall I whisper my words to the cold stars?
The only man I ever loved.