She Walks in Beauty
The last time she walked in the gardens, there was a child.
It shouldn’t have been there. It should’ve been cleared out of her way, the way everyone else was.
She trod empty marble corridors to the outside, blinking in the hot sun. Small stones crunched under her feet–her own footfalls had long been her only companions. Water tinkled in a nearby fountain as she entered the walled garden, and lifted the light veil she wore over her face.
On her left, an unwary bird fell like a rock from a tree. Once she would’ve wept, but she’d been away from the sun and the wind for so long she couldn’t feel sorry. A bird was a small price to pay for the caress of sunshine on her cheek and the kiss of wind on her forehead.
And then she turned towards a rustle, and saw the child.
No one could explain why the child had been there in the first place, why its mother had not kept it close, why…
They asked all the wrong questions. It wasn’t why the child had been there but why they had agreed to let her out in the first place.
She would never give in to her weakness again.
From behind the curtain that separated her from everyone else, she sent them away. With her own hands she closed the shutters and dragged wall hangings over them, shrouding her rooms in darkness. She tied bells to her ankles and wrists, to warn of her approach. And last of all she took the dreaded veil, the widow-veil, all heavy and black, and draped it over her head and face.
No one would look upon her again.
She lived in dimness, like a shade caught between life and death, light and dark. She read many books and played the sitar and paced a tiny enclosed veranda. She learned to see life—such as there was in her apartments—through dark gauze.
The silence that surrounded her was so deep and devoid of life that the chimes at her ankles were only a bit of foolish bravery, the sounds high and breathless, soon swallowed up. Nothing else penetrated that silence, not birdsong nor childlaughter nor, even when they came, the sounds of the invaders’ cannons around the city.
She only knew of the siege in the increasingly frantic letters the councilors and priests and even ordinary people sent her. They told of fouled wells and breached walls, of men butchered during attacks and the last of the emaciated animals butchered in the streets.
She didn’t answer, but she read them all, pondering each word.
One morning she rose from her bed, crossed to her writing desk, dipped her pen into the inkwell.
On thick linen paper marked with her own seal, she wrote: YES.
Silence and space were nothing new, but not so the smells. The lingering scent of smoke and gunpowder, the salt and metal tang of blood, and the sweet-rotten stench of messy death. Buildings, blasted and smoke-blackened, leaned drunkenly against each other. Rubble and refuse both covered the streets, crowding against the stretch of tattered carpet they’d laid down for her.
Her route, circumscribed as she had directed.
There would be no unfortunate accidents today. Nothing would happen that she did not intend.
She took a deep breath and ascended the stairs up the city walls. Soldiers stood guard, faces to the wall. Their backs tensed and their muscles quivered as she passed by. A boy in a uniform too large for him started violently when her veil brushed against his thighs.
She went through a deep archway and out into the light, onto a small balcony. Her veil slip-slithered off her head and face, pooled blackly behind her. Under it she wore pure white to catch the eye. Vivid jewels at her throat and wrists flashed against the stone.
For a moment, she was dizzy from the vastness of the plain before her. The horizon tilted crazily and she clutched the stone railing. Her stomach tightened as she looked at the enemy massed below, at the faces turning up to her, waiting, as they had been told, for her surrender.
So many people.
“Soldiers of my enemy.” Her voice carried, commanded, compelled. “Look at me now.”
They did, and were bound. Even as their eyes burned and their breath turned to acid, even as their weapons fell from nerveless hands, they looked. They could not stop. Did not want to stop.
As the enemy soldiers fell in swathes, choking on their own awe, burning in her gaze, she descended onto the field and walked among them, forcing herself to see what they had become.
Forcing herself to see what she was.
Fingers brushed against her skirt. She would have walked past, spared the man a worse death, but his hand clenched in the fabric, insistent.
She looked down at the soldier. His scalded face blistered, his breath was hot and labored, squeezed out of bubbling lungs.
“Beautiful…” he gasped, even as she killed him. “So… beautiful.”