Pieces of Gold
From the private journals of Her Royal Highness Morana Meriwether Auric, Dowager Empress of Aurelian, Written during the Year of Monkshood
Waxing Crescent 30:
I was awakened by a knock. These days, I cannot sleep well, not since I read the telegrams from the front. My son had insisted I return to my home country, so that I could hold onto the estates in our name. I had wanted to bring the children, so that they would be spared, but he said that would be cowardice. The Auguries must stand strong and united in the face of insurrection. Why did I not take them?
Vincent waited as I put on a dressing gown—an old silver one, embroidered with flying swans—and opened the door to receive him. He knew not to disturb me unless it was an emergency.
“Your Highness, the castle Halcyon has fallen,” Vincent told me. His own face was pale; I could imagine he was fretting about his brothers and sisters, who worked in the Halcyon kitchens. We always treated the servants well, but now that painted targets on their back.
The news did not pour into me. It dripped in, slowly, like coffee from an ornamental pot. I tied the sash around my dressing gown, a silken cord that had once helped me climb out of a balcony window, and sat in a chair. Vincent held the telegram.
"No," I said. It was not a dramatic refusal, or denial. "These words are not real. These are just printed lies."
"The rebels sacked the palace," Vincent whispered, bowing his head. "We got the news that it happened several days ago."
Several days. Several days ago I was taking tea and drafting a telegram to send to my son Camillus.
I did something that most royals did not do; I moved off the chair and beckoned Vincent to sit on a bench with me. It was a seat meant for hosting cousins and uncles. He blinked in confusion.
"Sit please, Vincent,” I requested. “I need someone to hold my hand and stroke it.”
"It is not proper, Your Highness," he said.
"You lost your family," I said. "And I have lost mine. Now we are one and the same."
He did not bury his head onto my shoulder; that would have been improper. He took my hands and stroked them. Tears ran down his face, splashing his lapel and my dressing gown. I only felt mist on my eyes, as if the water had dried up with my bones. We did not speak until my hands were no longer cold.
My poor grandchildren. They must be scared. I hope the guards can find them, before the rebels do something terrible. I am prepared to pay a ransom for them, and for my Camillus and Eurwen.
Waxing Crescent 31:
The news keeps dripping in. Confound these slow telegrams. I kept telling my Camillus that he ought to have installed a phone system. He can complain all he likes about people not wanting their farmland dug up for wires, but we could have trained them to do more than dig their dirty hands for radishes.
Here, in this city, you merely need to walk to a box, put in some money, and dial for a phone. I would have one installed in my private chambers if I could stand the ringing. Instead, I have hired a local girl to answer the phone during waking hours and to take down messages. Apparently I have started a trend; my distant cousins have also hired servants specifically to answer the phone. The metal receivers must weigh heavily on their plain ears.
I gave Vincent a week's leave, but forbade him from returning to Halcyon. He was not to take the train back to our home, to find his family and bring them here. He was not even to find Camillus, Eurwen and the children. I knew how he felt, but I needed him once his vacation was done. He promised that he wouldn't. Just the same, I sent guards to spy on him. The heart betrays so easily.
They managed to intercept him each time he tried to jump a train. Then they'd take him to an alehouse where he could drown his sorrows. He would wake up with a splitting headache and the determination to try again. I would have preferred to place him in a tearoom, but I had been taking some spirits myself to manage an hour’s sleep. Hang my old age; it was better to die from a sip of brandy than from a knife slicing through your neck.
I have the velvet bag, which has gold coins. Each one has a face printed on one side, and a phoenix on the other. I press my fingertips to each face: Camillus, Eurwen, Milena, Hyacinthus, Edric, Odilia, and Oriana. Only two coins are warm; the rest are as cold as the frost on the windows.
Vincent will forgive me someday. He knows I would go back if I could still hop onto a train. If only my limbs hadn't stiffened when Camillus had my first grandchild.
Waxing Quarter 5:
My phone girl Anwen takes down the messages faithfully, and making an effort to not yawn into the receiver; she has to answer the phone at night now, often when I am allowed to sleep. I promise to myself to send her to university, when I no longer need her. She has a capable mind, and fine calligraphy.
The journalists that can hop the trains without losing a limb have been ferrying information, back and forth. I bless each of their souls when I go to pray. Some are kind enough to come to me directly; most leave messages or send telegrams.
Eurwen, Camillus's sweet wife, was killed almost as soon as she was spotted, trying to smuggle out a trunk of valuables. They beheaded her and mounted her head on a pike. They have done the same with Camillus. The black and white photographs have printed in the papers; I could not bear to look at them. Nor could Vincent. A new boy, Marius, had to read the paper for us. Vincent made sure he got a hot meal in the kitchen afterward.
I don’t know where the children are. The rebels have not sent ransom demands. I have asked a printer to copy their photographs, to give to the braver journalists. The country’s smugglers would take up the task, but I fear that they would pocket the gold and do nothing. Journalists I believe care more about the written word, and the inky facts, than about money.
Milena and Hyacinthus, the elder twins, would have realized the danger. Hyacinthus as crown prince would have overseen his father’s duties at the front. He would have kept a knife on hand, and a bag of gold for bribes. Milena was to wed a duke from Bertilo, ten years her senior, a grey-haired, serious fop named Dunstan. If the wedding had only been earlier this year, she would have been situated in a castle far from the siege, and allowed to breed her dogs.
Edric as the middle child hasn’t even courted a lady yet. He told his family that he wanted to study abroad, to learn new musical instruments and how to preserve them. Camillus had planned to indulge his wishes by apprenticing him to a violinmaker at a conservatory. Edric is good with his hands, with changing old trinkets into beautiful ones. If I close my eyes, I can hear his small knife cutting into wood. He was also good with changing small bones. It was a useless pastime, but a safe one.
Odilia had confessed that she was in love with a crown prince from Argmhild, a handsome youth named Kuno. They had danced once, at her sixteenth birthday party, and she was smitten. He had shown no interest; the rumors said he wished to marry his distant cousin, a duchess several classes beneath him. I had taught Odilia how to press flowers into a letter. There was no harm in a romance where the man would not chase the lady. Besides, she hated travel of all sorts, even by slow carriage. Any betrothed would have to come to her.
Oriana, I keep her photograph by my bedside. I was going to visit in Waxing Crescent, for her fourteenth birthday. There was a kennel that bred poodles, a noble and practical dog for a princess. Her elder sisters had received spaniels, because they had wanted lap dogs. My Oriana liked to do cartwheels, and to pretend she was walking on a tightrope. Camillus had hired the Cobaea Circus to perform for the family, in a private performance.
The circus people have also been trapped; the rebels are convinced that they are mindless performers who would sell their souls for coins and jewels. At least for that, the Cirque has a better chance of surviving, since their country would not allow for a “living landmark” to die abroad. I sometimes envy the power of that nation. I can only offer my words, and my coins.
Oriana and Odilia’s coins are still warm. I let them burn in the palm of my hand, and I study their images. Oriana hadn’t wanted to stay still, and she had to be bribed with toys and chocolate. Odilia had graciously lent her image, and a piece of her.
Then I tuck the gold pieces into the velvet bag, and let the cloth rest against my aching chest. Perhaps Odilia had managed to run off to her prince.
Waxing Quarter 10:
Odilia’s coin has gone cold. I had just opened the bag to stroke hers and Oriana’s, as I did every night, and felt ice. My fingers stroked it again, and burned with the cold. Even when I held the coin over the fireplace,
“No,” I said aloud.
A telegram came from Kuno and his family. They confirmed that they didn’t find a disheveled teenager smuggled into their castle, seeking refuge. Kuno expressed his sympathies between the various STOPs. I hadn’t thought an escape possible, what with the distance and the railroads being stopped.
The rebels have installed themselves in the palace. They have agreed to release the Cobaea Circus. I have sent a telegram asking the circus to come to this city, if they can tell me about where the children are. They replied as promptly as they could, saying that their home country had told them to return immediately.
Waxing Quarter 13:
The Cobaea Circus members are not allowed to come here. I am writing letters asking if I can send a trusted friend to go to them. So far we have not received a response.
At the Society of Nations, they have acknowledged the rebels as a new country. Camillus may well has not have ruled, or commissioned a gleaming bronze statue of his father.
More news has come from the journalists: within the countryside a quisling has bragged about finding Camillus and Eurwen’s plans to smuggle the children out before the rebellion. He claimed that Camillus had taken so many dissenters, and made them vanish like smoke. He had gone out into the night and caught Eurwen before the latter could escape with her bag of valuables.
The name turned my stomach. He wasn’t even a serf or a servant; he was a random cousin who held a respectable position.
It is almost a blessing that the trains have stopped going in and out as much as they did; Vincent would have boarded one without my consent, to find the quisling and wring his neck. There were only so many pints of ale the guards could force upon him.
I have spent all day in bed. Vincent keeps coming in and stroking my hands. Sometimes he brings me items that I can fiddle with. I find myself changing them.
Waxing Quarter 20:
The railroads have been destroyed. Rebels tore up the tracks. No one can go to or from Halcyon.
I find brandy a palatable companion on most nights. They won’t even give us the bodies for a funeral. We had to make do with effigies. I did my best with what I had, but the coffins were so empty. Flesh was never my specialty.
Written During the Year of Asphodel:
Full Opal 13:
A young lady came to see me today. She had claimed she was Oriana. Several of my cousins had spoken to her and examined her. They were convinced.
Three years. It has been three years since the other coins went cold. Oriana’s gold piece has remained warm and burning; it now hung from my neck, tucked under my collar. I had wondered why she wouldn’t come to me, if she were alive.
I have to admit the lady was the right age; Oriana would have grown a few inches, and have lost her baby fat. This woman dressed in the newfangled hoop skirts and had rouged her lips. When she spoke, she made sure to use proper grammar. I listened to Vincent question her for a few minutes. She could recite a number of facts about the Auguries, and about their childhood.
“You aren’t Oriana,” I told her bluntly, in the middle of her ramble about picnics with buttered bread.
She stopped. I felt cool iron enter my eyes. My hands shook with fury and despair. The lady looked down into the carpet.
“Come, Miss,” Vincent said, reaching for her wrist. She walked on her own outside, where the guards escorted her to the foyer. I stood, placing my hand over my heart. The coin was warm, but it had not even twitched in the impostor’s presence.
“How did you know?” Vincent asked when he returned.
“She was too confident, too poised,” I replied. “And you know she didn’t look the athletic type.”
Full Opal 20:
Another pretender. This one didn’t even have the right hair color; she had obviously dyed her locks and had failed to cover the roots adequately. What a dreadful, pretentious and terribly mannered rogue. She also could not speak the native tongue. Her escort tried to argue, but I had the guards take them both away.
I got annoyed and wrote a letter to the press because I may be old but I’m not a fool. No charlatan can trick me out of money, and attempt to mend my broken heart with cheap glue. A commoner in a dress cannot erase the memories of those photographs, or how cold my family’s coins are.
Anwen typed all of that on a new typewriter that spares her hands from blotting ink. The sound is rhythmic and oddly helps me doze. She attends classes at a local ladies’ college several nights a week and I pay every penny. Expense is never a worry, but rewarding her is. She blushes every time I praise her good marks.
I’ve also asked her to send a letter to the Circus Cobaea. They have not responded, just as they have not responded to all my previous letters, but I must keep trying. Someone must be opening the letters, breaking the wax seals, and reading them by kerosene lamp. That is the hope I can trust.
Anwen is to answer all of the letters and phone messages, with how thick my eyeglasses have gotten. Vincent is to question each of the impostors. There is only so much hope that a frail grandmother can take. I had broken down Oriana’s coin and gave him a piece.
Waning Gibbous 20:
An assassin tried to stab me in the night. What a waste; I’m not going to live forever. He even wore a black bandana and a mask, like a villain of the ballet.
I suppose the man had broken in by cutting a hole in the large glass windows in the parlor. That is where I take my evening brandy. I was there, pouring the golden liquid into a tumbler.
He breathed loudly. That alerted me as I was about to put the glass to my lips. On instinct, I tossed the drink over my shoulder. The liquid struck him straight in the eyes. He yelped as I whirled around. A deafening shot made the portraits rattle. Something whirred past my ear, scorching the bare lobe. I placed my hand on his, the gloved one holding a pistol, and he was still.
“Your Highness!” Vincent hobbled in. He needed a cane these days, and I had provided a polished ivory walking stick.
“I am all right, if messy.” I gestured at what was left. “He made me spill my drink. How rude.”
“Your Highness!” Vincent came and embraced me. After a moment’s respite, I returned the hug. Then he broke it off, red in the face.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I am unhurt.”
“Begging your pardon,” he said, tears coming to his eyes. “I couldn’t bear losing you too, Your Highness.”
“Nor I you,” I assured him. “You are pardoned for the lack of decorum. Now he is a nuisance. You know what to do with miscreants like him.”
He knelt and examined the figure. The gun was still intact, smoking and loaded. Vincent pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket. He shuddered and wrapped the offending object in it.
“We could question him,” he said.
“I suppose you will have to,” I sighed. “He is lighter this way though.”
“What if the next one actually manages to shoot you?” he demanded. “Your Highness, begging your pardon again, but we must know who would want you dead after all this time.”
I put the dirty brandy tumbler down. He was right; I had no political power or influence. People tolerated me because I had money, and would always have money.
“Very well,” I said. “But I must make sure no one knows how he fell.”
I also knelt, with more care, and did my work. Within minutes, I had pulled two golden coins from the man’s lips and left him for Vincent and several boys to drag away. It was like pulling petals off a daisy. That would do the job; the assassin would keep mum about how he had lost to an old lady. He wouldn’t miss his tongue.
“I ought to have suspected,” Vincent said. “Anwen has just received a telegram an hour before. The quisling has been seeking asylum abroad. The new government doesn’t like his noble blood.”
My ears pricked. This was news to me.
“Perhaps, if I may be bold, we can avenge the bodies we were never able to bury,” he said. “Assassins work for whoever pays.”
“That would not be enough,” I said as the assassin left a trail of gunpowder on the carpet. “I would want to see the quisling myself.”
Vincent nodded. He understood the rage beneath the request. It would be too much to want. Yet, I needed that revenge. If I could not have Oriana in life, I would have her family’s betrayer in death.
Waning Gibbous 28:
Two more impostors. It seems they lack the ability to read the newspaper. Vincent saw them and sent them away. The coin told him better than his ears could.
A journalist came to interview me. It was a woman, to my surprise, named Devin. She and Anwen could have been sisters.
We drank tea in the parlor. The gunpowder stains were still there, but less noticeable. Vincent had managed to get the bullet removed from the curtains, however. Devin mentioned that the new Halcyon government wished to seek an apology from me, the surviving Auric, and to make peace for what they had done. Probably the Society of Nations had pushed for this, after years of pieces speculating how the children must have suffered. I had survived a gunman, and thus I was a threat while I could walk.
“If the new government had given us the bodies, I would have forgiven my family’s murderers,” I said. “As long as I live, I curse them to rot in the afterlife, with no bodies or monuments for their funerals. So no, I refuse any apologies.”
She wrote this down with her left hand in a tiny, gilded notebook. I had to admire how she slanted her block letters.
I’ve asked her to see if she can find the Circus Cobaea. Devin promised she would do what she could.
Waning Quarter 10:
Devin has sent news. She has located the Circus Cobaea. They are planning to tour nearby again, in a month, now that they have new management. Devin describes an acrobat ringmaster who soars over the audience. Her hair is the color of sun-bleached lemons, and she has never fallen.
I haven’t ventured to the circus in years. Vincent will arrange for the tickets, and for them to do a private showing. Oriana’s coin glows warmer when we mention it.
New Opal 12:
They brought in the quisling. Vincent had hired the best men to find him. Gold will buy anything. I can picture them stealing into the Halcyon countryside, cornering him in a ramshackle palace that used to hold summer dances. The rebuilt railroads would make the old cars rattle, and pour bitter cold into the metal cracks.
I could have met him in a remote building, so as to not implicate myself in a foolish crime. I did not bother. Vincent brought him to my parlor, bound hand and foot. Several new boys whose names I had not learned also came. Anwen was away at class that night.
“Hello, Valerian,” I said, sipping a cup of tea and whiskey. “How many years has it been now? Three? Four?”
“Your Highness,” he said, sweating. “I can explain-”
“Don’t,” I said. “I seem to keep reminding people that I may be old, but I’m not stupid.”
He was kneeling on a canvas tarp; we covered the carpet because we had just gotten the gunpowder stains removed. Vincent gave the boys their leave and told them to guard the entrance. They did, after he gave them some gold. I trusted them to keep mum as I shifted in my chair to fight a leg cramp.
“Where is Oriana?”
The silence hung between us. Vincent glared at Valerian, as if he wanted to punch him in the nose. He would have, if not for decorum.
“I don’t know,” he whispered. “I knew what you could do, what Camillus could do. But she wasn’t with Eurwen! I swear we didn’t kill her!”
“But you killed Camillus, Eurwen, Milena, Hyacinthus, Edric and Odilia.” My voice was level. “Even if you didn’t strike the final blows, you knew how to murder them. That is unforgivable.”
He spluttered some response. I sipped my tea.
“And for what? Some token position in a pretender government? The only royal Auric left?”
“I didn’t tell them about it!” he insisted. “We didn’t know where the children were!”
“You mean they didn’t believe you. You told them, and they didn’t see the children in front of them. They only saw gold figurines, trinkets that could be sold for wine and bread. I imagine they were melted down out of spite, while Eurwen lost her head.”
That stopped him cold. I set my tea on the side table. A burning sensation ran through me from the whiskey.
“The Auric line is over,” I told him. “I cannot bear any more children, and if Oriana is alive, she cannot or will not return. You bear the name, but you also betrayed it. I would rather have an extinct line than a traitor live in prosperity.”
His skin was mottled from an old pox, and ravaged by age. I touched his cheeks. They were so jowled and cold.
“No, no,” he was saying. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
Maybe I would have spared him if we had gone to the circus earlier. But the Circus Cobaea wouldn’t perform until a few days later, and I had no idea if it would hold answers. Hope had distilled into pure, steely vengeance.
“Your apology is not accepted,” I said.
I placed my hands on his brow. First his eyes glazed over, then his forehead, and his nose. He stopped screaming when his lips turned into gold. All the while he thrashed, but the tight coils held him. I flashed to a memory of seeing my husband catch a fish on a lake, when we had first wed, and how it flopped against the cold morning air.
When it was done, a statue knelt on the ground. It captured Valerian in his last moment, even with beads of sweat dotted in gold. The texture reflected the fur coat, and his stained leather boots. I stroked the detailing.
“You still have the knack, Your Highness,” Vincent said. “It’s a blessing that he can’t change back.”
“I’d prefer if he were alive.” I said with distaste. “The drink made me unsteady. But no matter.”
“He’ll have to be broken down into pieces, to be used.” Vincent’s lip curled. “Shall we fetch a hammer for that?”
“If you must, do it in a closet that no one has used.” My hands were still shaking with fury. “Do you suppose this amount of gold is enough for circus fare?”
“More than enough, Your Highness, perhaps even for a private performance.” Vincent knelt with a groan and started to wrap the gold body in the tarp. “Do you suppose she may be there?”
“Could a figurine have been pickpocketed from Eurwen’s bag, reaching the Circus Cobaea performers by means of thief or bribed officials before the rest were melted down?” I asked. “Could the performers have found a shivering child in a nightgown, clutching gold coins, realizing what she could do, but also what would happen if the rebels caught them? Would they cut her hair and dye it, starve away her elegant figure, until they got out Halcyon? Maybe they’d deceive her into thinking that her princess life was a delicious dream?”
“It is possible,” he admitted.
Vincent got the boys to help him with the heavy bundle. The boys looked awed, and puzzled.
Oriana’s coin has never left my neck, or cooled. I made it a lifetime ago, from a lock of her hair. It had been very easy to change, but hard to detail.
I know what I will do if I see the new ringmaster. We will arrange an audience, perhaps over tea. If I am right, she will reach over and touch the chain, and ask why I wear it. She won’t recite useless facts, or feign an accent. She will simply look at the coin, and fiddle with it. Perhaps it will melt between her fingers. Vincent will give her the other piece.
Powered series, and Alban Lake published her works Carousel and Neo-Mecha Mayhem. Priya lives in Miami, Florida with her family.
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