Katarina stared at the heavy wooden gaol door and adjusted the crown on her head before patting down her elaborate dress. One of her soldiers fetched the keys and she traced the dark stains on the wood with her eyes, spying the rusting bolts on the frame. Behind this very same door countless prisoners, mostly peasants, had wasted away. This cell had probably never held such a distinguished prisoner as the current occupant: Katarina’s husband and the former King of Diovasille.
The heavy latch unlocked with a loud metallic clunk, and one of Katarina’s guards stomped into the room, a hand on his sword hilt and announced the arrival of the queen to the occupant, ordering him to stand.
“I’ll stay seated, thank you,” came the defiant reply, and the queen rolled her eyes at her husband’s arrogance. A heavy leather boot hit the prisoner in the side, and the guard repeated the order. Begrudgingly Katarina’s husband stood up, shackled hands rattling, and she entered, her nose creasing as the pungent smell of 6 months of imprisonment hit her in force.
“My dear Katarina,” the prisoner said with a smile, hastily adding a bow as the guard took a step towards him. He quickly added, “Your majesty. It’s so nice to see you again.” She said nothing, so he continued, “why don’t you take off these shackles and I’ll show you just how much I’ve missed you.” The queen held up a hand to stop the guard before a mailed fist could strike the former king.
The queen spoke slowly, with purpose, “Walter. I see six months of prison time hasn’t dulled your sense of humour. I had hoped your incarceration might have given you time to reflect on your actions in our kingdom.”
“Is that how long it’s been?” He stroked his matted beard, “I would have expected this to be longer.”
Katarina frowned, about to say something but instead she held her tongue and stepped back out of the cell, happy to escape the stench for a moment. She signalled the guard.
“Bring him. We’re going for a walk.” The former king’s eyes lit up at the suggestion, but his wife’s gaze remained as sharp as steel. “I thought you should see the damage you caused. It might help you to understand the situation, before your execution.”
He mouthed an ‘oh’ and smiled to the guard as his chains were released from the gaol floor. The guard checked the shackles on his hands were still tight and motioned him to follow the queen, one hand always ready at the sword hilt.
Katarina motioned the guard to stand back and allow them a private conversation, then led Walter out onto the battlements overlooking the city. She waved out over the buildings, and he turned his head to see, squinting as the midday sun reflected off swords, pikes and armour. Guards now filled the peaceful city. The smell of charred wood and burnt flesh stung his nostrils, and a large plume of black smoke rose from near the city’s outer wall. On every street corner, and on top of every battlement a soldier now stood, watching the comings and goings of the people like hawks watching over a meadow.
She stopped, allowing him a few moments to take in the sight before speaking. “Your failed rebellion has started a period of turmoil that didn’t end with your capture. Your homeland officially declared war on the Kingdom of Diovasille, the kingdom it took us 30 years to build together.” Her voice cracked almost imperceptibly, “I’ve had to deal with numerous incursions and sabotage operations over the last six months from people demanding both your release and my head on a plate!”
Her husband smiled at her, a mischievous and handsome smile, even beneath six months of unkempt facial hair. “Oh come now Katarina, it’s hardly the first time the homelands have been at war. Nor the first time one of us has led a revolt against the other.” He put his hands on a battlement and stretched, holding his face up to the sun. “Thank you for bringing me out here, it is so nice to be able to move about. I suppose the royal bath would be off-limits before my execution?” She shot him an ice-cold glare. “I thought as much.”
She stared at him for a moment, her teeth grinding, the muscles in her neck twitching, and Walter sighed and shrugged, his hands open in front of him.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he said.
Katarina snapped, her cold façade shattered and replaced by white hot fury, practically screaming loud enough for the entire kingdom to hear. “I want your apology! When your pathetic rebellion came against me they marched on the palace, scaling the walls and raising swords against my guards, my servants, my priests! Hundreds of people died, blood ran in the streets, children were left orphans and-“ she bit her tongue, took a breath and dropped her voice to barely more than a whisper as she waved away from the city gates, and towards the shimmering marble palace at the centre. “They destroyed my art gallery! All those years of carefully curated works, some dating back hundreds of years were burned, turned to ash in seconds! Up in smoke because of your insignificant peasant rebellion!”
Despite the fury of the onslaught, Walter didn’t seem to budge. “There are plenty of artists, and in a hundred years their work will be just as valuable.”
She stepped forward, her face red, and he backed up against the battlement. “Why did you do it?” she demanded.
Walter hit the cold stone with his back, and glanced around for a moment. Then he pushed himself forward, standing up straight with defiance. He stepped towards the queen, eye to eye, barely inches from her face. “How many nights did you dine with that foreign prince from the islands of the western sea? How many gifts did you let him dote upon you before you let him know you were married?”
Katarina held up a hand and nearly stabbed a finger into her husband’s eye. “That was diplomacy! A trade deal you idiot! Is that why you raised arms against me? Because you were jealous of that pathetic, overweight slob that reeks of fish?” Walter stepped back, but she pressed. “You have done exactly the same thing when young maidens visit, have you not? You destroyed my pride and joy over something as petulant as jealousy! We are supposed to better than that!”
Walter looked sheepishly at the floor and nodded. The queen sighed and re-centred her crown, motioning him to follow again. They remained in silence, the mischievous grin gone from the former king’s face, his brow now furrowed. Katarina stopped as they reached a corner of the white stone wall and pointed towards the palace. There was a break in the palace buildings, a jagged wound of unfinished scaffolding and unpainted masonry that stood out against the otherwise perfectly proportioned marble walls. Walter gazed at it for a long moment.
Tentatively, he stepped towards the queen, “What happens now?”
“You will be executed.” She said simply.
He took another step forward, standing next to her. She noticed. It would take so little effort to curl her hand and interlock their fingers.
“What will happen between us Katarina?” he said. She didn’t take her gaze away from the empty space where the gallery had once stood.
She sighed, and leaned forward, pressing her hands into the coarse stone of the battlements. “The people have called for your execution. I can’t stop them. Your time as my husband is at an end.”
“Does the Queen of Diovasille have eyes for a new husband? A foreigner from over the mountains perhaps…in the interests of a trade deal?”
She turned and looked at him. His roguish, defiant smile had been replaced with wide, fawning eyes. “We’ve done that too many times Walter. The mortals are smarter than they used to be. Gone are the days when we could flaunt our divinity openly, a royal life is the best we can manage now. I fear that in time even that will be stretching it, and we will live no more comfortably than the commoners.” She pushed off the battlement and looked at him. “And I have no intention of leaving this place and starting again. It took us thirty years to get this comfortable here, I plan to enjoy it while I can.”
Walter nodded to himself and looked back out over the beautiful city, his eyes tracing the limestone battlements, the white rooftops and the vibrantly painted wooden doors that adorned the houses of the people.
“I am sorry, Katarina. The rebellion was never meant to touch your gallery, the fires were to be set in the dockyards, granaries, hospitals, that kind of thing. It was never meant to reach the palace.”
She nodded, but stayed silent.
He took a step slightly closer and turned back to her, “You can live the life of a widow. I will take my execution, the kingdom will be at peace under the rule of a good, just queen. You were always better than me at that. And Katarina,” he locked eyes with her and reached out, taking her delicate fingers in the palm of his rough, shackled hand, “If it would please you, my goddess, I will be a commoner in your employ. I will spend every day rebuilding your gallery, toiling away until I have perfected the brush, the pencil, and the easel. I will spend every day creating art for the Queen’s personal gallery until every painting and drawing that was taken from you has been recreated stroke for stroke. If it takes a thousand years I will do it to make it up to you.”
The queen cocked her head at him, and then tried to scowl to hide the smile that spread across her face. She turned back out towards the skyline so no guards could see her joyful expression. “Very well Walter. You will be executed, and the queen will be impressed by an unknown and much cleaner dressed painter.”
“An exceptionally handsome painter,” Walter corrected, “one who takes the queen’s fancy.”
Katarina kept her gaze on the horizon, but involuntarily raised her eyebrows. “Are you suggesting something illicit?”
Walter leaned close, the playful smile back on his face. “Something scandalous,” he whispered, enunciating every syllable. Katarina playfully shoved him off, careful to keep her blushing face away from onlookers.
She took a few deep breaths and mused, “And they said two immortals could never hold their love for thousands of years.”
Walter examined every curve of her perfect face and smiled. He turned, looking out at the city again and changed the subject. “How will I be executed?”
Katarina looked at him for a long moment, with what may have been pity in her hard eyes. “The army has taken quite a fondness to those new gunpowder weapons. You are to be executed by firing squad.” Walter raised his eyebrows, and she continued. “It looks like it will be exceptionally painful.”
Walter did not look enthused at that. “It always is.”