Far beyond the Land of Old Wives stood a majestic fortress, constructed from an unknown stone bathed in an unfamiliar hue. Only those who had ventured to the Kingdom of Spears could recognize its likeness to the mighty chalk cliffs and gleaming plateaus that lined their sun-drenched beaches.
A lone dove, weary but resolute, skimmed the shoreline, faithfully tracing the rhythmic caress of the waves. Propelled by an invisible yet powerful homecoming instinct, it pressed on, wings beating steadily towards its distant castle home.
Finally, the familiar silhouette of the pigeon tower came into view. Landing with practiced grace, the dove perched patiently, its journey complete. Soon, the pigeon master approached, his movements brisk and efficient as he attempted to retrieve the message strapped to its leg. This time, however, a single glance at the unique markings adorning the dove sent him scurrying away, carrying the entire bird with him.
Queen of Spears, meanwhile, held court. Rows upon rows of vendors filled the grand hall, each displaying their wares on vibrant red cushions. Lace, ironwork, intricately braided textiles, and exquisite carvings flowed before her discerning gaze, an endless procession stretching from one end of the hall to the other.
"Only that which embodies both utility and artistry is worthy of our court," declared the Queen to her assembled ladies-in-waiting. "Discern carefully, my dears, and let only the finest grace our presence."
"But how can you tell the difference, Your Majesty?" inquired one of her ladies-in-waiting, her brow furrowed in confusion. "How does one discern between an object of mere utility and something... artful?"
The Queen, her gaze lingering on four beautifully presented pastries, chuckled softly. "The distinction, my dear, lies in their lasting impression. Something useful, once its purpose is served, vanishes from memory. But something truly artful… that lingers in the heart, a cherished companion throughout life's journey."
"But Your Majesty," her lady pressed, "how can we predict what will leave such an enduring mark?"
The Queen's laughter deepened, her eyes still focused on the tempting desserts. "Experience, my dear, is our guide. Uncover what resonates with you, what sparks joy and stirs your soul. It's a hidden treasure, requiring effort to unearth. But once discovered, trust me, its brilliance will be undeniable."
With a regal gesture, she pointed to a single pastry. The footman attending to them bowed deeply and swiftly removed it from the line of eager vendors.
"Indeed, my dears," the Queen continued, her gaze now upon shimmering fabrics woven with threads of light blue and gold. "Beauty often lies hidden beyond the surface, waiting to be unveiled. True appreciation demands looking past mere cost and instead envisioning the experience it offers. Consider how it would feel, how it would move, not just the price tag attached."
A chuckle escaped her lips as the King of Spears entered the hall, his steps echoing on the polished marble floor. His entourage of lords trailed behind, creating a flurry of activity.
“That’s very easy, of course,” said the King of Spears, who passed quickly with his heels clicking and clacking on the marble floor, surrounded by his lords. “If there’s no objection to the cost of it.”
The Queen, however, did not turn around upon hearing her husband’s teasing words behind her.
“If it mattered how much it costs,” she retorted, “how can it be considered royal at all!”
A playful purse of her lips, a teasing wink – for a fleeting moment, the Queen and the King locked eyes, a silent conversation exchanged amidst the bustling court. The world around them melted away, their own private sanctuary carved within the throng.
"Might I inquire," the King drawled, a theatrical bow flourishing his words, "if Your Majesty would grant me a kiss?"
A mischievous smile danced on the Queen's lips as she met the curious gazes of her ladies-in-waiting. A pregnant pause, then, "As you wish," she declared, eyes sparkling with unspoken amusement.
With a swift movement, the King leaned in, whispering promises on the wind. His lips brushed against her cheek, a fleeting caress in the opulent setting. Restrained yet charged with unspoken affection, the gesture, however brief, elicited blushes across the young faces, a silent testament to the shared intimacy between their King and Queen.
No sooner had the kiss landed than the King was gone, the familiar click-clack of his heels echoing his retreat back to his throne room.
"His Majesty is truly gracious, Your Highness," one of the ladies-in-waiting gushed, a touch of envy lacing her voice. "How fortunate you are."
The Queen offered a curt nod, her gaze distant. "Indeed," she began, her voice surprisingly firm. "But remember, young ladies," she continued, her eyes now piercing into theirs, "beauty for us courtly women extends far beyond mere appearances. Learn to discern, quickly, what truly holds value. Seek what sparks your soul, not just what pleases the eye. Do you understand?"
The young women, some barely more than girls, exchanged confused glances. The Queen's words hung heavy in the air, demanding introspection they weren't quite prepared for.
“I hope for your own good you do understand,” said the Queen with a sigh and returned to the red pads of the purveyors. Now they presented various jewels. Bracelets, necklaces, and earrings.
“Wonderful,” said the ladies-in-waiting.
“Certainly,” said the Queen, “but do not forget where bracelets and necklaces are most useful.”
The girls began to exchange glances with each other in confusion and no longer dared to speak so casually.
“And where may that be, Your Highness?”
“The dungeons,” said the Queen.
The girls looked at each other in shock.
"Let these words resonate within you," the Queen commanded, her gaze sweeping across the stunned faces of her ladies-in-waiting. "Never again let anyone belittle the true power of beauty by calling it mere artifice. Many of you hold the potential to become Marquises, Countesses, Baronesses… even Queens. When that time comes, remember this crucial lesson about beauty. Beauty that serves solely as a tool, a fleeting adornment to be discarded once its charm wanes, is ultimately meaningless. It's the beauty woven into the fabric of your being, the one that resonates with your spirit and inspires others, that endures. That, my dears, is an art form that transcends time, leaving an indelible mark on hearts long after its physical form has faded."
A thoughtful hush fell over the room, broken only by the gentle clinking of jewels. One young woman, her voice barely a whisper, dared to question, "But Your Majesty, even the most radiant beauty succumbs to the march of time, does it not?"
"Jewels and garments are meant to accentuate you, not the other way around," the Queen countered, her voice firm and laced with experience. "Beware of becoming the mere adornment, child. Strive to be the one adorned, the one whose presence captivates and compels engagement, not just idle observation. You seek not mere spectators, but those who truly connect with you, heart to heart. Remember, those who merely watch with detached amusement will readily exchange your golden chains for iron ones in the darkness of the dungeons. Their hearts will remain untouched, their gaze unwavering from the spectacle, from the beginning… to the very end."
With a decisive gesture, she dismissed the delighted jeweler, sending him on his way. "Next!" she declared, her voice echoing through the hall.
Before they could even contemplate taking a moment to breathe, a footman entered the room, interrupting the flow. "Your Majesty," he announced with a bow, "the cook awaits your presence for dinner."
The Queen, undeterred, waved him off with a dismissive hand. "The cook can wait a little longer," she stated firmly. "There's an important lesson my ladies-in-waiting require my full attention for."
“Of course,” said the footman, bowing deeply before leaving for the kitchens.
“What is strategy?” the Queen asked her entourage, not leaving them any room for ease upon the subject.
“I don’t know,” said the ladies-in-waiting.
“Knowing what the other party is thinking and letting them think it,” said the Queen.
She chose one pillow and sent the other one away.
“What is war?”
“I don’t know,” said the ladies-in-waiting.
“War is having an enemy and having to dance with it. War is knowing when to burn a bridge and when to build a bridge,” said the Queen. “It is knowing when to impress and when to shock. It is knowing when to wait and when to strike.”
Again, effortlessly, she chose one red pillow and sent the other one away.
"And finally," the Queen concluded, her voice now a low whisper, "knowing when to set your own desires aside and when to remind the world, unequivocally, of who you are and what you represent." With a graceful flourish, she selected another red pillow, dismissing its companion with a practiced flick of her wrist.
"Never let anyone diminish the profound impact of beauty by claiming it's mere skin deep," she continued, her voice resonating with quiet conviction. "Let them never know the weight of walking in your shoes." Another red pillow vanished, the silence in the room growing heavy with unspoken emotions. The ladies-in-waiting exchanged hesitant glances, sensing the Queen's words carrying a deeper, personal significance.
"You witness the agonizing disappearance of one son, the other consumed by vengeance," she spoke, her voice thickening with unshed tears. "You watch your daughters treated as pawns, manipulated to further the ambitions of others. You see the fleeting nature of it all, the impermanence, and begin to question the very essence of beauty in life. And then, after countless nights of grief, reflection, and quiet resilience, you come to understand this fundamental truth: life itself does not possess inherent beauty."
Not only the ladies-in-waiting held their breath, their faces etched with awe. Even the footmen and vendors paused, captivated by the raw wisdom emanating from their Queen.
"The true spark of beauty, my dears," she continued, her voice regaining its strength, "ignites within the heart, where life is truly experienced. All else is mere adornment." A few of the younger ladies dabbed at tears, their youthful naivety grappling with the stark realities the Queen unveiled. But the Queen herself remained dry-eyed, her gaze resolute.
"Remember, girls," the Queen's voice softened, "you navigate life through your body, but it's your heart that truly experiences it. Want to see the journey you've walked? Look at your body. The aches, the lines etched upon your skin, the marks of battles won and lost - they're all part of the story. But to glimpse the depths you've traversed, peer into your heart. That's where life's true beauty resides. Learn to access it, quickly, and draw your radiance from within. Ignite a beauty that resonates, that connects with others."
With practiced ease, she selected another red pillow, dismissing its twin with a flick of her wrist. "This beauty, my dears, is a conscious choice," she continued, her gaze sweeping across the attentive faces. "Those wrinkles, those scars, the marks of hardship - adorn them with meaning, transform them into vessels of experience. Choose carefully, girls, for your choices shape your reality."
Another red pillow vanished, the silence in the room now pregnant with anticipation. "Yes," she admitted, her voice taking on a softer note, "I am fortunate indeed to have the King by my side. A partner who genuinely seeks to share this inner beauty with me. A true blessing. But remember, this happiness exists only because another path could have unfolded. This joy thrives because darkness was a very real possibility. Do you understand?"
As if on cue, the pigeon master arrived. The Queen's eyes caught the unique markings on the bird, and with a swift gesture, she dismissed everyone present: attendants, vendors, ladies-in-waiting – the hall emptied in an instant.
With reverence, she took the pigeon from the master's outstretched hand and gently untied the message from its leg. Her hands trembled as she read the note, and when she finished, she closed her eyes, pressing the paper against her heart.
A moment passed as she stroked the pigeon's feathers, offering a silent thank you before the master exited, leaving her alone in the quiet hall. The Queen of Spears savored the silence, a bittersweet smile gracing her lips.
"He lives," she whispered.