One week. Aralee had been longer a widow than she had been a wife.
The chapel’s yellow drapes had been replaced with gray, their somber windows weeping. Aralee stood at the head of the chapel with the priest, staring out into the gathering throng with dry eyes and a bleak heart. Most of these people had known Aerold for as long as Aralee had been alive, some longer. What right did she have to lead their mourning, she who had hardly known the man?
The funeral began, Aerold’s spiced ashes brought in by those last few who could claim any blood relation to the king, however distant it was.
Aralee had never been to a funeral before. She’d never tasted the ash of mourning. Her stomach turned as the priest started the fire.
Aerold had asked her once if she had ever lost anyone and she hadn’t. He had told her it was better that way. She wondered how much more miserable she’d be had she known him, had she loved him.
Aralee set the glass bowl over the fire and stepped aside. The blood relatives poured in the ashes. His daughter should have been there to put in the herbs of mourning, but she wasn’t. Aralee’s mouth twisted with bitterness. No, of course she wasn’t. And that was Aralee’s fault. The entire funeral was her fault.
The priest tossed in the herbs and a cup of wine. Then he lifted his knife, babbling something about life and renewal, about blood and blah, blah, blah. Ancestors beyond, was this supposed to be comforting? She stepped forward as Aerold’s wife and the priest gently took her hand. He gave her a soft smile, almost apologetic, and then tore the pad of her index finger open. Aralee winced in pain and he held her hand over the bowl. Five drops for a mourning wife, and then she stepped aside. Five drops. That was all she had to offer him.
Maybe it was the smoke burning her eyes. Maybe it was the pain in her finger. Or maybe it was the loss of what she knew would have been the one meaningful relationship in her life. But Fire and Ice, it was hard not to cry. She stood to one side of the bowl, watching an endless line of mournings mingle their blood with the ashes of her husband, the wine of a life well lived.
Was it a life well lived? Or had the princess robbed him of that? She had sapped him of will and trapped him in his own home, a hollow world of sadness and apathy. How could she? His own daughter? And then when he finally began to breathe again…
Aralee clenched her eyes shut, but a few tears escaped, trickling slowly down her cheeks. She wiped them away angrily and glared down at the bowl, at the simmering remains of a life.
What would it have been like if he had lived? She still couldn’t quite think of him as a husband, although she would have had to eventually. But a friend, certainly. Maybe even family, in some other way. Maybe the way her father should have been to her. Trustful. Dedicated. Loving. A man who would care to see her improved, to see her happy. He seemed like that kind of person. In the few days she had known him. Or was it all a phantom? Was she idealizing him already?
Now she’d never know.
Two drops for relatives. One drop for friends. Three for children, but that wasn’t happening. Aralee swallowed and stared out into the sea of faces shifting restlessly before her, waiting for their chance at the bowl. If all of them had had blood to give, they could have filled the whole chapel. But the relatives were few, the friends fewer. Most were there merely out of respect. Most passed with a nod of acknowledgment. Most wouldn’t have to taste his death.
Hours upon hours. Aralee stood as long as she could, but the physician made her sit eventually. Her stitches ached only slightly less than her heart. The sun sank away and the moon arched overhead, his pale light shining down through the ceiling windows. Candles were lit and still they came, an entire city shuffling through the chapel. Maybe an entire nation. She was offered food and found she wasn’t hungry.
Something had to be done. This wasn’t tolerable. This was a horrible crime and the only ones who had been punished were those who didn’t deserve it.
Too long we have worn the grey.
And now they wore it all over again. She couldn’t stand it.
It was near dawn when the last of them left. The chapel was nearly empty, only a few clustered on the first few pews, watching the glass bowl now scorched black. Aralee. Twelve relatives. Eight friends. Those were the only ones who felt close enough, fewer even than those who gave their blood. The priest watered the dark sludge down to a thin broth, and then ladled out the ashes and the blood between them. Aralee watched as the others sipped and left, leaving bowls steaming behind them to be poured into the fields later. Hers remained pressed between her fingers, hot, untasted, as her grief distilled down into something else.
The priest stood at her elbow, his hands twisting together. They were alone. “My queen?”
Too long we have worn the grey.
Her hands shook as she glared down into the fire.
“My queen. You have to.”
Fury. That was what this was.
She wouldn’t wear the grey of mourning. She wouldn’t let Snow White do that to her, too. Not her.
Aralee drank her husband’s death, downed the entire bowl, smearing her lips and searing her throat. Shrieking with rage, she hurled her empty bowl to the chapel floor and it shattered against the cold stone.
Not her. She’d wear the black of vengeance until one of them was dead.