Magpie King by Leslie Plank
“Where is your King? I need to speak to him!”
“Her.” I had the correction ready before the man even spoke. Sizing him up had been easy enough; his clothes spoke of Town, not Road, and only someone of the towns would make a mistake like that. Those of the road know their own.
“No. Your leader. The one in charge.”
“Yes. Her. And if you keep on like that, you’ll never get anywhere near her. Maria Iliania doesn’t have patience for fools.” He bristled at that and if he’d threatened violence, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Instead, he held his tongue and finally nodded. Whatever put his trousers in a twist was important enough for him to not insult us further.
I took a certain amount of pleasure in making him wait as I gathered up the straw lengths and dried flowers that I’d been working into a wreath, leaving my work in a tidy pile before standing and leading the way through the camp.
Her wagon wasn’t much different from any of the others of my kin. It was just as worn and weatherbeaten, and just as highly decorated, with little bits of scrollwork in the eaves and plaits of garlic and herbs hanging at the corners, ready for use. Among other travelers, it was joked that we were a magpie lot, picking up little bits and bobs what pleased us as we traveled.
“Maria,” I called, not wanting to use her common name in front of a stranger. “There’s a man to speak to you.”
There was a rustling inside the wagon, and after a moment, the top half of the door opened, but it was fair-skinned, fair-haired Petrovna, not my King who answered. “Town man,” she called back into the wagon. “Looks a-twist about something.” She glanced back out, flashing a grin before disappearing into the depths of the wagon.
The man at my side bristled even more. It seemed that seeing an unabashedly bare-breasted woman clearly keeping the company of another woman hit some sort of nerve. He didn’t have long to stew, because a moment later, my King came into view, tying a light robe about herself as she opened the other half of the door and took a seat on the steps leading into the wagon.
“You have a problem only I can solve?” she asked, an easy smile on her dark lips.
The town man didn’t quite know what to make of this and stammered before working up the words to explain himself. “You’ve stolen my daughter away and I demand her back!”
“Stolen, have we? Katarina? Have we stolen anyone recently?”
“Of course not,” I replied, embarrassed to be addressed at all. I’d been hoping that this man was not who I thought him to be. Now, there was no avoiding the fact that I might have been partially responsible for his visit. “We’ve brought in a few late blooms, but we never steal.” It was never stealing, when the things were not wanted in the first place.
“‘Late blooms?’ My daughter was set for marriage to a good merchant before your lot came through! Now she’s run off and I’m a shamed man.”
“Oh, she’s run off now? Then clearly we’re not at fault and certainly can’t help you.”
I barely stifled a laugh at this. My King wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding her entertainment, either. It was most amusing as the man huffed and flustered and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d stamped his foot in frustration.
“I demand to see my daughter!” he shouted, perhaps thinking that if he made enough noise he would get his way.
“And I tell you, your daughter isn’t here,” my King replied, her voice growing cooler. “You’ve taken over a week to come to us. Over a week to decide that your embarrassment was more important than her well being. Over a week to scrape together the courage to even ask. But that doesn’t matter. If you’d come the very day she was missing to you, my answer would be the same. Your daughter is not here.”
“Ah! So you know how long she’s been gone,” he crowed, thinking he’d caught us out. “That means she’s here, and as her father, I have every right to see her and take her home.”
“And that is where you are wrong. If I thought you cared for her as a person, rather than some pawn to make a good match for your family, I might consider the request. If you were a good father, you would have respected her wishes. But you clearly are not, and so have given up any family claim. And so I repeat to you, your daughter is not here. All who come to us fall under our protection. There was no thieving, as you claim, only good people, doing good work where people like you failed. Katarina will show you to the edge of our keeping. You will only be more embarrassed if you try to return.” Before he could raise a protest, Maria fixed him with her coldest, most powerful stare and I watched with glee as the words died in his throat. Head bowed, he allowed himself to be lead to the edge of our camp. He could find his own way back home and I would feel no sorrow at his parting.
“Is he gone, Kitty?”
I glanced over at my beloved Tess, the beauty that man tried to claim as his. “Yes, my heart. Our King has protected you, and claimed you as our own. I told you she would, if he came along.”
“It’s still hard to believe… that I can be here, and be loved and…” She clung to me then, relief warring with uncertainty.
“I know, dear one. But one day, I hope you will never doubt your place.”