Author's note: Rudolph and Isadora is not over. Since I'm writing The Golden Night independently, I'll be posting the chapters randomly, whenever I finish them. The Rudolph and Isadora posts will continue to go up every day as scheduled.
I’d fantasized as a child about my life being like a fairy tale, but as a little girl, I’d forgotten what came before happily ever after. And I didn’t even know about the darker tales, the ones that had no happily ever after...
***Paralyzed by shock, Alethia was led from the throne room by a stone-faced guard summoned from behind a door at the far end of the room. Her mind was reeling from her encounter with the king. She was walked down long hallways, footsteps muffled by carpets thicker than any she’d ever seen. Eventually they came to a plain wooden door, which was opened by a maid. The guard talked quietly with the maid for a few moments, and then gently pushed Alethia inside. The door closed behind her and locked.
“So you’re the girl. News travels fast around here – I’ve already heard all about you. Well then, we’ll get you cleaned up right nicely, now.” The maid’s loud and friendly words snapped Alethia out of her daze.
“What do you mean?” Alethia asked. “I think there must be some mistake. I—”
“You’re the guest of the king, you are. We’re to clean you up and make you look all nice, and then tonight you’ll do your spinning ” –at this she twirled– “and tomorrow you’ll go home with a gold piece in your pocket. Sounds like a right nice deal to me.”
She took Alethia into an adjoining bathroom and spent the next twenty minutes scrubbing dirt and ash off her face, chattering away the whole time. Several other maids came in to do her hair and help her dress in a gown finer than any she’d ever owned. She thought she heard one of the maids say that it was a shame her old clothes had to be burned, but the meaning didn’t truly register until hours later. She was, however, allowed to keep the sash, which was tied around her waist and rested appealingly on her forest-green dress. Alethia was as confused as she’d ever been, but she wasn’t about to stop the maids. But if she had to spin or die, how was she the guest of the king? And why did the king want her anyway? She came to the same conclusion every time. The king was mad, and she was doomed.
Later, she feasted in the great hall with the nobles of the kingdom, all perfectly-mannered and all incredibly dull. The food, however, was nowhere near as insipid as her tablemates. She ate each rich course with gusto, and by the end of the meal, although her head swam and her stomach was uncomfortably full, she was content. As she watched the dancers spinning gracefully, her eyes became heavy, and she was just drifting off when she felt a hand grasp her shoulder. She looked up, suppressing a gasp. Three guards were standing behind her, obviously waiting for her to stand up so they could lead her, like some animal, to do the king’s bidding or die trying.
She stood up, bid a quick farewell to whatever nobleman was sitting next to her, and let herself be led down twisting passages, up spiral stairs and into hidden passageways. When they finally reached a plain wooden door, one of the guards knocked, and she stepped into the room.
She gasped. This room, fairly large, was a clothmaker’s paradise. Every wall was stacked to the ceiling with supplies to weaving, sewing, spinning – anything to do with cloth. The king must have ordered one of his servants simply to buy the entire stock of every clothmaker in the region… or more likely that foul advisor Nukta had. The king wouldn’t have thought about it.
There was a narrow window in the west-facing wall, and through it, she could see the sun setting, it’s golden light tinting the entire sky.
“You work starting at sunset.” Alethia turned quickly to see one of the guards still standing in the doorway. She realized it was the one who had led her out of the throne room what seemed like a lifetime ago. He must have been assigned to her. “The king will come to inspect your work just past sunrise. If he deems it satisfactory, you will get a job in the palace and several gold coins. If not, I believe you know the consequence.”
“Thank you—” Alethia began to say, but she did not have time to get the words out before the guard closed the door. She heard the bolt slide into place, but she didn’t hear the guard walk away. They’re still guarding me, then, she thought. She sunk to the floor and put her head in her hands, but the tears she was expecting did not come.
She was done worrying about what would happen – she’d done that enough before dinner. Now was the time to act. She began to pull materials down from the piles and out of the stacks, and sat down to create her golden cloth.
Hours later, eyes and fingers aching, she finished the bolt of fabric. It was golden in color, and soft and fine on her fingers, but it didn’t sparkle like the cloth around her waist. She knew it would never be good enough for the mad king and his awful advisor.
What do I do? What on earth am I supposed to do? She just wanted to sleep, to wrap herself in her new gold cloth and forget the coming dawn. But she didn’t. She needed something for the king other than the cloth. He’d never accept the cloth. So she got out a needle and a tray of embroidery floss, and took out a piece of thick, flowing, sapphire-blue cloth and began to embroider.
The candles around her burned low and her eyes began to strain in the fading light, but she continued pushing the needle in and out of the cloth, which was soon no longer blue, but all shades of the rainbow, showing the sunset from the west window, the last view she had seen before being locked in to face her fate. Each stitch was tiny and perfect, and the picture was as fine as any painted by the royal artist.
As she finished the intricate embroidery, the tears that had not come earlier finally settled on her lashes. Sitting there with her watery eyes, oft-pricked fingers, and scene of sunset, she thought of home. She had embroidered every day, sitting behind her table with a piece of fabric and watching the door of the shop for customers so that she could call her father out of the back room. Everyone in the town had an embroidery of hers. And her family – they all had more than they could possibly need. They had scarcely one set of unembroidered clothes between them. She smiled to remember how her younger brother had hidden his clothes so that she could not get at them with her needle. They had eventually compromised, though – she could embroider them only if he told her what to embroider. Her silly younger brother. Her gift to her family and friends had been to paint these pictures with cloth and thread. And nearly all of it had been lost in the fire. Her family’s life work and living was lost. And now she was here, embroidering for a king who had lost all rationality instead of her family who she might – would most likely – never see again.
As the sun rose, the door was unbarred and the guard found Alethia asleep in a pile of fabric, with a bolt of gold cloth in one hand and her embroidery in the other. He woke her gently, let her straighten up, and called in the king.
“Let’s see the girl, Nukta,” the king wheezed as he shuffled into the room, slowly falling into a chair set out by the kind guard.
“Yes, of course, Your Majesty,” said Nukta unctuously. He led Alethia to the king, smiling at her in an oily way that made her want to wrench her wrist from his grasp. When he finally let go, it was only to grab the sparkling golden cloth from around her waist and hold it up to the light.
“Let go of that right now.” She spoke without thinking, and covered her mouth with her hands as both he and the king turned to look at her incredulously. She curtsied, and was about to apologize when a look from Nukta made her decide that silence was wiser.
Keeping her mouth firmly closed, she held out the fabric she had made the night before to the king. He ran it though his fingers.
“This is very fine cloth, Nukta. Perhaps we should keep her on to make more of this cloth.” Alethia gasped, and it took nearly all of her self-restraint not to throw herself onto her knees and beg for this solution. But she had to do something.
“If it pleases Your Majesty, I also made this last night.” Fingers shaking, she offered the embroidery.
In a low voice, Nukta snapped, “You do not speak to his Majesty unless spoken to,” but the king took the embroidery. Squinting his eyes to see the picture, he seemed satisfied, and was about to speak when Nukta, having sidled up next to him, whispered,
“Remember your promise, Your Majesty. She did not carry out your order. Why should you reward her for doing less than you asked?”
At this, Alethia dropped to her knees in front of the king.
“Quiet, girl,” said Nukta, pushing her away.
“I have made my decision,” said the king. “Although a masterful clothworker, the girl did not carry out the royal order. She must be made into an example. She is to be executed in 1 hour. Goodbye, girl.”