2430 words, short story
All the King's Monsters
The monster in the cell across from me is Hunger. He is a young boy, brown and slight, with long crooked snatching fingers and thin greasy hair. All day, he plucks bits of straw from his mattress and digs them into the dirt floor or the flaking mortar between wall-stones. Sometimes he chews on them.
At night, he screams.
We are going mad, slowly, all of us. The monsters have taken everything, everything but themselves.
When Uri was dead, they brought me his things in a scarred leather bag that smelled of blood and burnt flesh and, unbearably, of him. There were his clothes, the torturer’s thin bloody handprints on the sleeves and collar; and the miniature of me that he had worn in a silk bag around his neck. The final item was a stained, half-finished sketch of a monster, its long neck decked with tassels and jewels like a King’s, its single horn barbed like a spear, its sharp teeth jaggedly overlapping its jaw. Worst of all were the eyes, like black holes bored in a sheet of iron, ragged-lidded and dim.
Two words were written on the back. Pride—though whether it meant that pride had killed Uri, or that it would kill me, or simply that pride is a monster, I do not know—and Soon. They need not have written that last. I knew they were coming.
Before Hunger came, I shared a cell with Grief.
Her child was dead. She called his name at night, weeping into her ragged white hair. I could not comfort her. She flinched from my hands, from my voice, from my offers to comb her hair or share my half of the gritty gray bread the guards brought us.
I whispered to her sometimes, telling of Uri, but she did not listen—or else she did not hear. I learned long ago that Grief is a monster without ears.
I wake at dawn. That word is almost meaningless here, but I have kept it, as I have kept the words sunlight and rain to describe the weak colors and sweet smells that sometimes reach us through the bars. Dawn is when the guards walk down the block of cells, looking to see if any of us have died during the night. That is the way they discovered Grief, frozen in her sleep.
No one is dead today. We are not that lucky.
She is with the guards today. I hear the click-click of her boot heels, like claws clipping against the hard earth. Her waistcoat and sleeves are clean now, pale blue and purest white, but by nightfall she will be covered in blood.
Of all the King’s monsters, she is the only one I fear.
“The King came to Abaddon on our wedding day,” I told Grief.
This is how I remember it; Uri and I standing beneath the canopy on the riverbank, the gentle rumble of his voice as we read our vows and scatter tulip petals to the current. Suddenly, the creak and snap of metal joints. An iron monster’s shadow falling on our faces. The break in Uri’s voice as the King flies overhead.
In the middle of our wedding vows, Uri paused. He was a man who put his hate before his love.
“It is not well to speak ill of the dead,” I said, “so I will say only that I wish he had chosen differently. I wish he had not paused.”
Grief turned her face to the wall and shivered.
She stops in front of my cell.
“What is your name, prisoner?” Her voice is very harsh; it comes from breathing in smoke all day. They say she was a blacksmith before the King came, that she is the one who built his iron monsters. I am not sure of that, but I know she is a monster in flesh.
“My name is Miriam,” I say.
“Why are you here?”
“Uri of Jordan was my husband. The King wants me where he can watch me.” With all his other monsters, I think but do not say. She wouldn’t understand, which would be bad; or she would, which would be worse.
“Uri,” she repeats. “The famous rebel.”
Let that be all, I pray, but she does not move. I am kneeling on the floor, my eyes level with her waist. I see the steady swell of her chest with each breath and feel my own heart hammering like horses’ hooves.
“Tell me what he was like,” she says.
“You know what he was like,” I whisper. “You killed him.”
She says nothing for a long time. Her body tenses, her chest heaves as if with pain. For a wild moment, I think she will kill me too.
Then she turns and walks to the next cell.
Uri told me once that the iron monsters have names. I asked the name of the King’s and he said a strange, brittle word, a word that means power and authority and soundness in the language of the King’s people. That is the monster Uri set out to kill.
Pride was Uri’s monster, as Grief was the white-haired woman’s and Hunger belongs to the boy across the block. Pride killed Uri. Pride made me a widow.
Pride is my monster, too. Its other name is Vengeance.
There is a new boy in the cell next to me. The man who was there before went out with her and did not come back. That man’s monster was Fear. The new boy is Anger.
“We’ll teach those bastards,” he says. And when he comes back from questioning: “We’ll kill them with their own weapons.” He is questioned a lot. I wonder how long it will be before someone who loves him is given his things in a scarred leather bag.
One day, when the questioning has been especially brutal, he falls against the bars that separate our cells and mumbles through swollen lips, “We’ll kill them. With the weapons they’ve given us, we’ll kill them.”
I look at him and laugh harshly. “What weapons have they given us? They’ve taken everything.”
“Everything but themselves,” he says.
She comes for him the next day. Then his cell is empty.
When they arrested me, they would not let me keep Uri’s things. They went through the house, collecting his clothes for the fire, and when they could not find his portrait of me they took me into the cellar and beat me until I told them where it was. But they did not ask for the scrap of paper with its half-finished sketch of a monster.
The day after she comes for the boy, I see a scrap of paper sticking out of his mattress straw. If I stretch, I can just close my fingers around the corner. I glance down the block, making sure the guards are not coming, and take the paper into my cell.
It is a picture of another monster, this one complete. Its neck is short and powerful, its eyes narrow, its jaw tight in a hideous grimace. Rough, graceless rivets hold its thick teeth in place.
There is a faint bloodstain along the bottom; the boy had this picture while he was being tortured. I think of the marks on the sketch they brought me with Uri’s things.
The boy’s family will never have this picture. Thinking of them, I fold it and tuck it into the silk bag at my throat.
“What do you think of me?” she asks.
She has come alone, her clothes already red from the day’s work. I look at her face to avoid seeing the stains. It does no good; her eyes are the color of dried blood.
“I think you are a monster,” I say.
“Did it occur to you that monsters might be kept on a leash? That they have to eat what they are fed?” Her skin is too dark to show a blush, but the way she turns her head away makes me think she regrets the question. Her throat tightens as she swallows. “Miriam,” she says, nearly whispering, “hold on to what the King gave you.”
“He gave me nothing,” I say. “Nothing but pain, and grief, and hunger, and fear.”
“He gave you vengeance,” she says.
She looks a long time at the silk bag, and before she goes, she slips a bit of paper between the bars.
It is a picture of Uri’s monster.
Hunger did not scream last night, and this morning he sits quietly on his mattress. He reaches for the straw sometimes, not as though he is going to play with it, but as though it is hiding something.
The guards are agitated. They chatter in their brittle language, the sound like metal on metal. She is nowhere to be seen.
Perhaps I am mad, but I think I heard her voice last night. It sounded like she was singing.
There is something I did not tell Grief; Uri sang, the night he was captured.
Old King Folly sat on a wall, Old King Folly had a great fall,
and all the King’s monsters and all the King’s men
could not put the King back together again.
“Children’s rhymes,” I said, kissing his forehead. “Hush, love. They’d kill you for less than that.”
He laughed, drawing me down into his lap. “They’d have to find me first.”
“You’re so certain you can beat them.”
“They’ve given me my greatest weapon.”
I wrapped my arms around him, pressing his face against my chest. His lips lay against the skin that rose and fell with my heartbeat. “You can’t trust them, love,” I said.
“Whoever’s telling you these things—your greatest weapon, the names of the King’s monsters, these foolish children’s rhymes. The King’s monsters, Uri. You have to remember whose they are.”
“I’ll steal the King’s monsters away from him,” he said.
I shook my head. “Who wants to own a monster?”
In the end, he was wrong. We do not need to steal our monsters. Sometimes, they are handed to us in a scarred leather bag.
The men who brought me my food take Hunger on their way out.
This is the first time she has not come for the prisoner herself. I strain my ears; sometimes when I do this, I can hear them screaming. This time, I hear nothing.
My appetite is gone; the bread tastes like ash in my mouth. I think suddenly that I am about to die. This feeling has been with me every day since my arrest, but now it is overpowering.
Every breath becomes precious to me. The moldering straw, the fetor of the dungeons seem suddenly as sweet as perfume.
I do not want to die.
The guards come to my cell next.
When he was dead, I went out into the riverside garden he had loved so well and ripped up the tulips, scattering their petals in a mockery of the wedding ceremony. I chopped down the cherry trees and burned them in a fire hot as a blacksmith’s forge. I stood over the flames, choking on the ash and wishing I could die.
“Here is your monster,” I said, and threw the sketch onto the fire. “I was wrong. It is yours, after all, and what’s yours can die with you.”
The picture burned, and even though I wished to, I did not.
This is where he died, I think as she locks the door behind the departing guards. I want to say it out loud, because I cannot make myself believe it any other way. This room is too dark, too dry, like a cell made of old bones. There is no smell of blood here, only rust and dry sweat.
“You asked me what he was like,” I say. She turns to me, her eyes blunt and penetrating like awls. “It should be enough for me to say that if you hadn’t killed him, this place would have.”
“This place did.” She rests her hand on her hip, hooking the iron keys around her thumb. “He brought himself here, Miriam, and I did what I had to do. The time was wrong. He was to lay low, wait for me to tell him—well, you’ll understand soon enough.”
She walks to a part of the floor that is smoother than the rest and kneels. I follow slowly. “The time was wrong—for what?”
“You’ll have to take his place. Pride was his, built for him, but she will serve you just as well.” Creaking, the paving stones beneath her begin to skin. She catches my wrist roughly and pulls me onto the platform. “This is it, Miriam—Uri’s rebellion. For the first time in months, the King is without his monster. We must catch him while he is weak.”
“We? What’s happing?”
And then the floor opens away above us, and I see.
The room is full of monsters. Short and corded, tall and sleek, glittering iron claws and fangs, rippling silver scales. I could name them at a glance: long-toothed Hunger, crooked dark-eyed Grief, Anger with his graceless jaw and powerful neck. The King’s monster crouches at the end of the hall, a mighty emperor among his subjects.
She takes me by the hand and leads me up to Pride.
I brush my fingers along the monster’s graceful tasseled neck, and the dull iron against my skin feels as hot and vibrant as the torturer’s hand—the blacksmith’s hand, the hand that shaped all the King’s monsters. Pride is beautiful. Her deep eyes flicker as I look into them; her breath on my cheek is cool and sweet.
The blacksmith hands me her reins. “Mount up,” she says. “The others will join us soon. But I wanted you to be the first—you’ve lost so much you didn’t choose to give.”
I have no voice. Pride nudges her iron head against mine, cruel and gentle at once; this pain is hers, too. She belonged to Uri, and Uri to her, more than I ever did.
The blacksmith turns her back, and leaves Pride and I to become each other’s.
We take to the skies, all the King’s monsters, with drawn swords and cruelly-tipped darts, with steel fangs and claws gleaming. Our queen and mother rides at the head, cutting through the air on the King’s own monster like a ray of light.
The King has taken much from us, but he will learn to fear the things he’s given, the things he’s made of us.
We are all the King’s monsters, and we fly.