The Secret Room
For years the Queen had tried to learn what was behind the locked door in the east tower of her husband 's castle.
The locks were intricate couplings of brass and silver. On the massive housing was embossed the ancient symbol of the ruling family, the prancing lion. From time to time, the King withdrew a large iron key to from the heavy chain around his waist. He seemed surreptitious in his movements, which the Queen noticed. His face seemed reflective, even melancholy, whenever the weight of the iron key was in his hand.
These were the items the Queen had seen her husband remove from the secret room:
- A map of an island with no name. There was no way to tell whether this island was near or far, whether it lay within the bounds of the Narrow Sea or beyond, in some yet undiscovered realm.
- A piece of yellowing parchment, on which had been written, in her husband 's careful hand, the letters KMCVQH
- An iron knitting needle
- A stone the size of her fist, on whose rough surface glittered a sparkly metal that might have been silver
- A drawing of a unicorn
- A broken silver chain
- A dozen gold coins stamped with the profile of Aurelia, the Queen of the Undersea
- A small painting, about the width of a hand, of a man with no eyes
After studying the items, sometimes for hours at a time, her husband would secrete them in an iron chest next to the bed. The King rarely opened the chest in the Queen's presence. Occasionally, and always late at night, when the Queen feigned sleep, she heard the unmistakable clicking of the tumblers followed by a brief scuffling noise that she knew meant the King was moving his hands over the chest's contents. Lying still and barely able to breathe, the Queen pictured the King probing here and there with his meaty fingers. After a short while, the King heaved a great sigh and would return to bed.
One day, the Queen ordered her maid obtain a particularly strong draught of valerian from the monks. She told the servant she needed it for herself, as the king moved restlessly at night and frequently woke her. When the servant returned, the Queen slipped the valerian into a draught of the King's wine and he soon fell heavily asleep. As the King slumbered, the Queen quietly extracted the key to the chest from the chain he wore around his waist and, in a state of utmost fear and trepidation, lifted the lid.
She had to wait long for her sight to adjust to the heavy darkness within. Gradually, she began to make out shapes. Reaching in, she let her fingers move over the strange objects. When she was satisfied that there was nothing she had left unexplored, she replaced the key on the chain around her husband's waist, and returned to bed.
The next morning, she froze whenever her husband turned his face toward her. But his look was kind.
One day, during a fox hunt, her husband fell from his horse and broke a leg. His squires carried him into the castle. A monk came with healing herbs and made a poultice. A surgeon set the bone. In spite of everything, however, the King continued to scream with pain. For days everyone in the castle was frozen by the sound of his shrieks. No food was served, no horses were fed. Everyone sat motionless, as if trapped in a dream.
The abbott was sent for. The smell of incense permeated the entire castle, even down to the stables.
The Queen, whose tears had forged deep furrows down her cheeks, went to her husband and begged him to relinquish his keys. "So that," she whispered, "I can bring you the objects that will most ease your heart and your mind."
The husband's eyes became intensely black, as if a night sea was washing over them. With a weak hand, he indicated the chain around his waist.
"Take the keys," he whispered.
The Queen hardly needed to be told twice. She removed the chain, noting that only two keys remained (when before, she was sure she had seen at least a half dozen). She flew to the locked door. She turned the massive key in the lock. She heard the softest of clicks. The door groaned open.
The room was tiny. The only light came from a narrow window, high up. The floor had been swept clean. The Queen ran here and there, searching each dusty corner for the treasure she was sure was hidden there.
Soon after, the King died. The realm fell to a neighboring kingdom, a kingdom whose implacable rulers had waited long and ardently for this day.
At first, the new rulers did not know what to make of the Queen. The King called for a secret council, during which the status of the widowed Queen was debated. A few were for beheading, others suggested exile. The King, however, having studied the widowed Queen's disposition, decided that she could be no threat: she evinced not even the slightest whiff of ambition. Moreover, she had borne no children and was long past childbearing age. Without children, she could have little interest in palace intrigues. The new King allowed the widowed Queen to continue her search, a task that would occupy her completely, to the very end of her days.
Marianne Villanueva is a writer from the Philippines. She is the author of three short story collections and a novella, JENALYN. She has work published or forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Elsewhere, PANK, Eunoia Review, Waccamaw, J Journal, The Asian American Literary Review, and the anthologies Manila Noir and Philippine Speculative Fiction, vol. 9. Her story, "Appetites," appeared in Issue 31 of The Cafe Irreal.