Written by Tamara Romero and translated by Lawrence Schimel. Read the original in Spanish.
Queen Estigia of the Kingdom of Nonchalant glanced sideways at the empty throne to her right and felt, with a glimmer of guilt, that the room's perfect symmetry had shattered. Eleven days had passed since her husband King Lazarus had disappeared; only fifteen days since they had been married in the presence of his loving subjects whose mistrustful glances she now attracted.
Estigia still wasn't used to being seated in the throne room, in essence without anything to do. The decisions for the upcoming months had already been made by her husband, so the audiences she was required to attend were really quite frivolous.
Isaiah, the most loyal counselor to King Lazarus, made too obvious an effort to keep his distance and prudence and to offer the same good advice to the Queen, even if both feared that the King wouldn't reappear. Two weeks later, the sharpest initial pain now spent, Estigia dared to make her own wishes known.
"I still don't feel comfortable with Esmeralda at my side all day beside the throne. Without a doubt, I'd prefer her to be chained to the wall," the queen said one morning, speaking the words firmly so they were perceived as an order.
"The animal would not be pleased by that, my Lady."
Esmeralda was a black panther with turquoise-colored eyes who lay at the feet of Lazarus' throne. An animal of her size and majestic stature couldn't be considered a mere pet. She was the most valuable defender of the palace and the claws of the king himself, always at his feet, ready to bare her teeth at anyone who made the slightest offensive gesture toward His Majesty (something which, obviously, did not often take place). And whenever a drunken courtier became too raucous at dinner and made mockery of King Lazarus, the beast leapt onto the table and let its pestilent saliva drool onto the wretch's velvet shirt.
At first, Lazarus had worried how Esmeralda would welcome his future wife but surprisingly everything had gone as smooth as silk. The panther allowed Estigia to walk beside Lazarus through the zen garden and share the same bedroom without a problem. She had accepted without complaint the place she must spend her nights from now on: at the doors of the monarchs' main chambers. Yet despite not being able to say she had any conflict with the feline, Estigia still didn't feel safe—especially not since the king's disappearance.
One afternoon, after an intense meeting with his advisors, Lazarus had retired to his rooms to rest. The panther shadowed him, his guard. Estigia remained in one of the inner courtyards with two of her maids, preparing fabric to be worked on. The king approached to kiss her cheek, accompanied by the animal. That was the last time she was with him. He locked himself in his rooms and no one saw him again. They found Esmeralda at the feet of the empty bed. The sheets were rumpled. It was as if Lazarus had disappeared into one of his frequent nightmares.
Far from having all the time in the world to weep for her loss and ease her grief, Estigia of Nonchalant had summoned all her strength and her iron will: she had a kingdom to govern. She had decided to establish her position in the castle and not allow anyone, under any condition, to force her down from the throne she'd worked so hard to win. She organized a committee to investigate the king's disappearance. Meanwhile, she resumed with determination the duty that had occupied most of her husband’s time: to sit on the Throne Beneath the Sky and observe the universe.
If she barely harbored hopes of, over time, getting rid of Esmeralda, there was little to be done about her idea of moving the royal seat to another room. The Throne Beneath the Sky was in an enormous, open chamber, completely exposed to the skies. With God, Isaiah said. Without a roof, without protection, without falling masonry. With storms, with vultures dancing circles around her crown, with the sun blinding her eyes at the end of the afternoon. Remaining there during the day, greeting the subjects in that chair was, Isaiah had said, an unalterable duty. The throne could not be moved.
"Absolutely non-negotiable. The court would never accept the overturning of this centuries-old tradition. All queens without exception have endured it, my Lady. The regent must remain on the rusted throne, enduring storms of water and snow, and the occasional droppings of the eagles flying overhead."
Lazarus' great-grandfather, it was said, had been struck by a bolt of lightning while fulfilling his duty to remain seated on the Throne Beneath the Sky. That was unquestionably information which Estigia would have preferred not to have learned: since then, she cast continual fearful glances at the sky, so harmless and at the same time so unfathomable. I'll get used to it, she thought.
The first morning the queen sat alone beneath the sky couldn't have been more spectacular. It rained mercilessly after a clap of thunder that shook the palace. Estigia clutched the unpleasant rough arms of the centuries-old rusted throne and closed her eyes as water slid down her face and her waterlogged blonde hair darkened a few shades. She would never admit it, but she cried silently. She let the tears flow calmly, knowing that the courtiers, who remained under cover at the sides of the nave, would think them royal drops of rain.
The queen watched the panther's behavior in those days. The animal remained at the foot of the adjacent throne, that of the King, strangely calm. She didn't show any overt rejection of Estigia, but instead the greatest indifference. But if there was something that gnawed at Estigia, it was the possibility that the animal knew, or was aware somehow, of what had happened to her husband.
"If only you could speak, Esmeralda," the queen whispered into the rain, her dress ruined.
The animal responded with a poisonous glance of its turquoise eyes.
Those eyes were so penetrating that they did speak, they spoke indeed.
The problem was that nobody could interpret what they said.
The investigation committee had followed Esmeralda for a few days through the palace rooms, and allowed her to enter all the areas normally forbidden to her, such as the kitchens, in hopes that she might lead them to a reliable clue that would help them find the king. All the correspondence he had received over the past year was reread, searching for any possible threat that might have been overlooked. Lazarus wasn't a monarch with a large number of enemies, but his harvests of Marea, the plant from which the Particle of Plenitude was extracted, were the envy of the neighboring kingdoms.
The Particle of Plenitude was the main raw ingredient from which the Kaspar pills were artisanally manufactured, an antidepressant without serious secondary effects which had made the kingdom a better place. Despite having been shared with other kingdoms, in a gesture of generosity, the Marea plant seemed to only flourish in the fields of King Lazarus, thanks to the constant rains that the king must endure on his own face, seated day after day on his uncovered throne.
"The Throne Beneath the Sky is a magnet for this sacred water which has brought wealth to our kingdom," Lazarus said, smiling and drenched.
While waiting for the rain to abate, Estigia of Nonchalant slid a Kaspar pill beneath her tongue and immediately felt better, although the real effect would take a few minutes longer. Her body welcomed the capsule of happiness with an eagerness she didn't know how to conceal.
The queen's second day on the Throne wasn't any better. There were no scheduled audiences. Isaiah preferred to make the subjects wait, since he considered that Estigia was not yet in condition nor in possession of the necessary mental clarity to make the best judgments. The excuse was irrefutable: the Lady was still in shock at the disappearance of her husband. However, one of the advantages of a marriage of convenience was that the tragedy didn't undermine Estigia’s state of mind, who seemed more concerned with making whatever changes she needed to feel more comfortable with every passing day in her new duty. There was no dark thinking in her behavior: if the Lady was comfortable, that would be reflected in her disposition on the throne.
That day, the fine skin of Estigia's hands was covered in deep cuts, from the metallic rust that covered the armrests. Of course, covering them with a pleasant fabric wasn't an option. The cuts and bruises were part of the martyrdom that brought wealth to the kingdom. Despite clouds covering the sky and further darkening the gloomy throne room, what bothered the queen that morning was the cluster of six vultures flying in circles above the royal seat. After a few hours they came to rest on one of the edges of the room, all in a row like funereal notes on a stave, and turned their carrion bird eyes toward her.
Because of this unpleasant and unsettling presence, Estigia couldn't concentrate on her meditation exercise. Before assuming the responsibility of the Throne Beneath the Sky, she had meditated in the Zen garden in the company of Sensei Hirogui. Until the moment she married Lazarus she had never had contact with that discipline, in which she found an inexhaustible peace. Isaiah knew perfectly well that her "peace" was due to the dose of Kaspar she took before each session. Over the past days, without time enough to visit the Zen garden but without anything else to do, Estigia had had no problem practicing her meditation on the throne.
She opened her eyes slowly at the third squawk from the vultures, who were visibly upset.
"Something that we could do, Isaiah, is cover the exposed edges with large spikes to keep those birds from roosting there. You'll agree with me that the company and scrutiny of carrion birds is unacceptable."
Isaiah, who remained standing beside the staircase, hesitated before answering. It was the first time he'd seen vultures overflying the Throne Beneath the Sky and unquestionably it gave a bad impression. He'd seen eagles, albatrosses and seagulls because they were close to the sea, cranes and even condors. But never carrion birds. They gave him chills as well, but he preserved his usual diplomatic calm.
"You must not fear them, Lady. With Esmeralda at your side, you need have no worry. She won't allow them to even touch you. That is, in fact, one of the reasons why we can't chain her. The panther is the first defender of the monarchs."
"But she hates me, Isaiah. This animal shows me nothing but her fierce and absolute indifference, it's obvious to see."
Esmeralda looked at her as she spoke these words but didn't make the slightest movement.
The counselor sighed.
"I shall study with the committee the viability of placing spikes on the edges of the room, Lady. After all, we must reinforce the protections of the castle after what has happened."
Someone ordered stones to be brought and one of the guards tossed them at the vultures to shoo them away. But the birds returned after a few minutes to settle on one of the other corners of the room.
"Well, seeing as there is not much to be done on the throne today and it doesn't seem that those clouds are going to release their rain, I shall retire to the Zen garden for a while to continue my meditation. If the rain appears, I shall return immediately to welcome it. Otherwise, I consider my duty for today to be completed."
The queen got up from the throne, bothered by the presence of the vultures, and left the room followed by two of her maids who always drifted a few steps behind her, following her spotless wake. Estigia didn't wait for any gesture of approval from Isaiah. Little by little she was feeling more secure in using the imperative tone with him. She had paid close attention to the dialogues between the counselor and her husband the king. Lazarus had sometimes used a submissive tone with him, forgetting at times that he always had the final word. Isaiah had managed to solidify his position within the castle in recent years.
As soon as she abandoned the room, Esmeralda climbed onto the queen's chair, under the astonished gaze of the courtiers. None dared to make the panther get down.
Estigia reached the Zen garden and found the old sensei kneeling beside the koi pond. The lush vegetation and pleasant birdsong enveloped them, and the agitation she carried within her began to dissipate. The two maids, Lira and Marianne, sat on a flat rock on the other side of the pond. The queen settled herself onto another stone, near the master, who as usual, didn't speak a word to her.
"I am going to meditate, sensei. It is the time when my husband used to do so. I hope that, wherever he is, he also delivers himself to this deep reflection and that we manage to connect. Lately, I have the impression that this is the only way that we will manage to find him."
The master inclined his head in a sign of approval, collected his things, and settled himself on a stone near the queen, ready as always to accompany her during her exercises.
But Estigia couldn’t empty her mind.
She couldn't stop thinking about those vultures overflying the castle, resting on its walls, looking down at her with disdain.
She lay back on the rock and sighed. From that position she could see the balcony of the royal bedroom perfectly, very near the bed she had shared with Lazarus. Among the balcony's columns she saw Esmeralda, who had abandoned the throne room soon after she had left. The panther had chosen the balcony of the royal chambers as her favorite place. Except for the hours when the Queen sat on the Throne Beneath the Sky, when Esmeralda had to accompany her, the animal preferred to remain on the balcony, even at night. At first, Estigia wasn't willing to let the feline spend the night near her, but there was no way to keep her from the balcony from the day Lazarus disappeared. She scratched doors and mewled until one of the maids let her enter the bedroom. Once she was inside, she ignored Estigia and her companions. She headed straight to the balcony and stared at the moon until they slept. The queen quickly ordered a sliding gate to be built between the bedroom and balcony, to avoid the panther leaping on her during the night.
On her third day as Queen, Estigia suffered an uncommon fright. An enormous bang, like a thunderclap right in the middle of the throne room, made the guards and Esmeralda leap up as if on springs.
After breakfast, Estigia had remained seated on the throne, receiving the rain. After a few hours, the sky cleared and the room was illuminated. The moss that covered the joints between the stones of the room's upper reaches almost glowed phosphorescent under the sunlight. Then something fell from the sky, landing right in front of the throne. An enormous wicker basket plummeted abruptly in front of the queen. From it came a small middle-aged man who rolled along the royal carpet. He bumped against the first step that led to the throne and the guards quickly unsheathed their swords and pointed them at the intruder.
The panther leapt onto the stairs and positioned herself between the disoriented man and the Queen, baring her fangs and ready to pounce. After a few moments, the tarp that had borne the basket fell, destroyed. The balloon no longer existed. Estigia needed a few moments after the initial shock to understand that there was no danger. It was only one of the things that could fall from the sky that she should welcome with gratitude.
The man stood up, limping, assisted by Isaiah's right-hand man Fulcio. He peered around him with a wild look, his eyes nearly leaping from their sockets, and instantly understood the situation he found himself in. As soon as he regained his legs, he bent them once more in order to bow before Queen Estigia.
"My most humble apologies, Majesty, and I beg you to forgive my accident!"
Estigia touched the panther's flank and she moved away, the possibility of danger dismissed.
"You may rise," she answered, enlivened by the sudden audience. "Can you explain what happened? I suppose you have read in the edicts that it is forbidden to overfly the throne room with those hot-air balloons, is that not so?"
A blush came instantly to the face of the man, who introduced himself as Elijah Mesner, Inventor. Yes, Estigia remembered him from an exhibition she had attended with Lazarus when she was only his fiancée. He was a man keenly interested in building, testing, and perfecting vehicles to move through the air.
"That is absolutely certain, Majesty. And please allow me the audacity of assuring you that at no moment did I seek to to overfly your immaculate throne, and much less to land in such an abrupt fashion before you. But I am still in shock, Lady. Not from the fall. I am used to falling from the sky with greater or worse luck, that's why I try not to rise to very high elevations. This time it was a bird. Not a normal bird, you must understand me. It was a gigantic bird."
The man paused in his tale to pull from his pocket a handkerchief with which he sopped up the sweat that began to run down his face as he remembered the size of the creature.
"A stork?" Isaiah asked.
"It wasn't a stork, nor a heron, nor even a great bustard," Mesner answered.
"Then what was it?"
"I don't know if I'm explaining myself well. It was nothing that any of us have ever seen before. If I had not seen it floating in the sky before my own eyes, I would say that it wasn't of this world. That bird looked at me as if I had disturbed its flight and violated its space. With full awareness of the cruelty of its actions, I would swear, it turned its beak to the cloth and tore it to shreds. Luckily, I wasn't very high up, otherwise I wouldn't be here telling this to all of you and presenting my respects to the queen. It can't have been far from here. Have you seen it, Majesty, overflying the throne?"
Estigia shook her head no, although it wasn't the first time that news of this sort arrived.
In the past twenty years, during which the harvesting of Marea in Lazarus' kingdom had become widespread, the different effects caused by the raw material of happiness on the birds who ate the plants had been observed. The fields of Marea had been fenced to prevent coyotes, lynxes, and boars from eating the seeds, and after having the Particle of Plenitude burst in their oblivious throats, spinning hysterically in circles, peering into the windows of homes, laughing desperately, and crying in relief.
These strict and impenetrable fences around the harvests kept animals away from the powerful plant—but not all of them. Birds ignored the scarecrows and kept diving into the Marea. And then the mutations began. Not as an evolution, but suddenly. Some birds became enormous in size. Or so it was said. Nobody, until now, had seen them with their own eyes. It had been heard from the harvesters, from the flower sellers in the plaza, from the tavern patrons, from the inventor fallen from the sky. But Estigia, needless to say, had never seen them. Nor Lazarus either.
"We shall hope that it doesn't occur again," Estigia replied. "You may withdraw."
The bruised Elijah Mesner understood that the reception had come to an end. He made an unsuccessful effort to drag the basket of his balloon with him toward the entrance. The guards undertook to remove it. He gave another stumbling bow before the queen and left, walking backwards, unquestionably aware of the protocol: not turning one's back on the throne.
Estigia lifted her gaze to the skies. The clouds brought back the rain she had started to grow used to. When the first drops fell, Esmeralda stirred and abandoned the throne. She moved sinuously toward the side of the nave, to take refuge from the rain. She stretched and watched the queen until her eyelids closed with sleep, leaving her alone with her martyrdom.
That same afternoon, after the rain for the harvest had been summoned, Estigia stretched out on the conjugal bed and ran her hand down the side of the bed where Lazarus usually slept, closest to the balcony. Esmeralda, as usual, remained out there, watching her. Just a few hours ago the men carrying out the industrious daily searches for the missing king had returned, with the same fruitless result. There was still no sign of Lazarus. The refuge she had searched for in meditation had given her no answers either.
After some minutes that seemed like hours, which she spent tossing and turning on the bed trying to capture the scent of Lazarus' hair, Estigia thought she needed a more concrete plan to take control of the reins of the palace. She thought of how Isaiah redirected her opinions; of the stupid superstition of the throne beneath the rain; of the panther, whose claws scratched at the wooden fence just then, demanding her attention or, perhaps, entering the room. Estigia sat at the foot of the bed and looked at the panther. An idea had just come to her. Could she earn the animal's trust, just as her husband had done? She looked at her through the fence. Could you put an end to Isaiah, Esmeralda? Could you slide your claws across his old throat this very night?
The queen rose and sat at her dressing table. She looked at herself in the mirror and began to brush her long and untamed blonde hair. Ever since she needed to sit and receive storms, she barely bothered to comb her hair, which she was sure that Isaiah didn't like. She placed the crown over her forehead and let her hair fall loosely over her shoulders. On sliding the brush through the tangles of hair, she smelled the atmosphere and divine punishments, lightning and vulture feathers.
Growls and unsettling noises from Esmeralda interrupted her, a clear sign that the animal was upset. The queen had no appetite. She turned toward Lira, her trusted maid, and asked to be left alone.
"I won't go to dinner tonight," she said, "I'm rather tired. If I feel better and am not overcome by sleep, I'll go down to the kitchens at midnight."
"I'll ask them to leave something prepared for you, My Lady," the maid answered, withdrawing without questioning the queen's desires. "I'll be in the next room. You can call me at any hour of the night if you find yourself unwell."
When she had departed, Estigia approached the screen that kept Esmeralda locked on the balcony. A rather ingenuous measure, she had thought, for the panther would be perfectly capable of destroying it with her claws should she wish to. The animal halted its grunts as soon as she walked toward it and slid the gate aside. Esmeralda pushed it aside with her head, asking Estigia to join her on the balcony. She even bit at the hem of the queen’s dress and tugged. The queen had never pet her and that night would not be the first time, either. She bent down, looked into the panther’s blue-colored eyes, and asked once more after Lazarus. Where has he gone? Who took him, Esmeralda? In one of the pockets of her dress, the monarch kept a vial of Kaspar pills, which she took too often. She knew that the pills were harmless, but it was beginning to worry her that she felt the need to always have them on her. She opened the vial and extracted one of the capsules. She pushed it into Esmeralda's mouth, avoiding the fangs with her snow-white fingers.
Darkness began to fall on Lazarus' kingdom and a young moon made its appearance in the cloudless sky. The air was warm and damp. The panther, stretched out on the stone balcony, blended into the night and began to emit a smooth and pleasing purr. Estigia opened the vial of Kaspar again and emptied its contents into her mouth. She took one of the velvet footstools from beside the bed and dragged it toward the balcony. That night she wanted to feel the chemical joy beneath the light of the moon and on her marital bed, multiplied tenfold, a dozenfold. She didn't know exactly how many pills she had swallowed, but she could already feel the pleasurable squirming racing along her skin.
Estigia sat and asked the heavens where the disappeared king was, since the panther couldn't have answered even if she had known his whereabouts, or at least the manner of his disappearance. She rested her golden tresses over the stone railing, abandoning herself to sleep. As she slept, she saw how Esmeralda's eyes remained more open than ever. But the panther wasn’t just watching her, but watching over her.
Estigia's dream was terrifyingly real. She dreamed that a black bird of enormous size—its spread wings as wide as the walls of her great bedroom—watched her for a long time, perched on the adjacent turret, while she swallowed the anti-sadness pills. She couldn't describe with assurance its shape nor fathom its exact size. Nor could she remember its eyes, for they were as dark and opaque as its plumage. She did notice the iridescent glimmer of its enormous beak and the solidity of its claws, which closed around each of her arms, careful not to tear the fabric of her dress. As she slept, the bird rose into the air with its prey, Queen Estigia of Nonchalant.
When she woke, Estigia thought she would explode with happiness. She was in Lazarus' arms. The king was alive. It had been he who slid his rough and dirty hand along her cheek, waking her from the dream of the black bird. She smiled and felt an utter calm for a few moments. Then she took stock: looking at his arms, her husband's marked and dirty face. The queen stood up. They were in a bed of branches and black feathers. Lazarus looked terrible, covered in unhealed wounds and one entire leg livid and bruised. She felt his fevered brow.
"It's not here now, it's left. It will bring us food," Lazarus said. "Raw, of course. Almost always wild fruits."
Estigia stared at him, horrified, and drew away from his arms. She stood and felt the round, white stone in the center of the branches.
"That's one of its eggs. I've spent a few days wondering if I'll live long enough to see it hatch."
Beneath the gigantic nest there was only the steep and inaccessible face of a mountain. Many kilometers in the distance below, she made out the silhouette of the palace and the fields of Marea, receiving the first light of the day.
"What are we going to do? We need to get down from here," Estigia said, her voice faltering from the horror of the situation.
"I've already tried that and this was the result," Lazarus said, pointing to his broken leg, clumsily bandaged with branches.
At the moment the queen closed her eyes overwhelmed by Kaspar, the panther got up and left the balcony. She moved toward the throne room, avoiding the courtiers and maids who, after sunset, moved leisurely about their tasks. As soon as she entered the open throne room, the panther climbed into the royal seat with a single leap. The next day, it would be she who greeted the rain.