The theme for the current Lesbian Book Bingo square is "Fantasy" and Daughter of Mystery is featured as suggested reading, though of course the Alpennia books would work for any number of thematic squares. See my first post in this series for information about the Bingo challenge and to find the start of my series of mini-stories on the themes of the bingo squares. I'm doing a piece of flash fiction (well, sometimes almost verging into short story territory) for each theme, with the added challenge of placing them all in a historic setting and linking all the stories together loosely as a single narrative.
As with the "historical fiction" square, I've taken up the challenge of creating what my late 17th century characters would consider to be fantasy. This was exactly the era when the creation of literary fairy tales was a favorite pastime among the salonnières of Paris, so what better fantasy tale than one of fairies and magic? Isabel and Laura, who were introduced in the last story, are now back in Paris and invited to the salon of the eventually-to-be-infamous Madame de Murat. I'd originally made Madame d'Aulnoy the hostess of my salon, but by complete coincidence, Mari Ness's series on fairy tales at Tor.com had an essay as I was writing this on Madame de Murat. And when I saw the click-bait description of her as "a lover of women, and who, authorities insisted, needed to spend some quality in prison, and who, she herself insisted, needed to dress up as a man in order to escape said prison" how could I resist handing the reins over to her? She may well return in a future story.
The telling and re-invention of fairy tales was a favorite activity of late 17th century salons and resulted in several of the significant collections of the genre from this era. I don't think it was done in the sort of "shared world story-telling" method I portray here, but the tale itself is also my own invention, though cobbled together from recognizable patches. I hope you're enjoying this little tour through the genres.
I've also indulged in a reference to a recent online conversation, spread across twitter and blogs, about the all-too-frequent trope of dead mothers in fantasy. I won't say more, but those in the know may recognize a guest appearance by a certain French fantasy author.
Three White Doves (Lesbian Book BIngo: Fantasy)
After the hardships of the siege of Montigny, Paris seemed like a wondrous fairyland. And once I was strong enough to go about in society, nothing was a more certain key to the gate of that land than the invitation that I hurried to share with my beloved Laura. Perhaps, I thought, it would lift the melancholy that had settled over her since our return. Perhaps it would drive out of her memory the sight of the men she had tended on the battlefield, if that was what lay behind her moods. No woman could help but be wounded to the heart at such sights.
Laura looked up from her reading with a start as I waved the folded paper at her, then relaxed when she saw my own smile. “What is it Isabel? You wouldn’t need a letter to tell you if the baby had cut his first tooth and it’s too early for him to have babbled something that you took to be ‘Maman.’ Who has sent you news?”
“Not news at all,” I told her. “We are invited to the salon of Madame de Murat!”
I could tell that Laura had no idea what honor had been conferred on us, though I was certain it was only for her sake that I’d been invited at all. I was neither witty nor learned enough to have caught de Murat’s interest, but Madame Laura Alberti, who had trained as a physician at the University of Bologna—now there was a prize for any salonnière!
We were escorted into Madame de Murat’s chamber by a pair of black pages, both dressed in scarlet coats and turbans, but the girl in skirts of course, and the boy in breeches and shoes with curled-up toes. The boy announced us in a soft rich voice, “My lady, here are Baroness Isabel de Maricourt and Madame Laura Alberti.” The girl brought refreshments and showed us to our places. Not in the place of honor, near to where Madame de Murat held forth on her bed, but in comfortable chairs by the window.
I was tongue-tied at the faces that turned to greet us. There was the famous Madame d’Aulnoy and her dear friend, and so many more that I had heard whispered of or seen in passing when I was presented at court. But I managed to return the greeting and make my curtsey without sounding so dull that de Murat would change her mind. I only hoped that I would not be asked to recite or to give my opinions on philosophy.
After an hour, as the conversation moved from poetry to strange sights seen traveling in far lands, Madame de Murat announced, “We shall now play the fairy tale game. Who will give us something to start?”
The tall man standing close at the side of Madame d’Aulnoy called out, “Doves! The tale must have three white doves.” And everyone laughed because they knew that his mistress bore three doves on her family crest.
“A poor girl who marries a king,” suggested another.
“That’s no help at all,” de Murat chided. “Half the stories begin or end with a poor maiden marrying well. But we shall use it. I will give you the beginning and then choose who will continue the tale. Once upon a time, there was a rich merchant who had a beautiful daughter—now, now you must not interrupt me, she will become poor before she marries, I promise you! There was a rich merchant who had a beautiful daughter but her sorrows began early and as she wept on her mother’s grave, there came—”
“Fie! I must protest!” The interruption came from Madame de Bodard. “We’ve had too much of dead mothers in these stories. “Let her mother be alive.”
Madame de Murat seemed both amused and affronted but she nodded. “As you will. There was a rich merchant and his wife, who was most assuredly not dead, who had a beautiful daughter named Isabel.”
I started when she spoke the name, but mine is a common name—there was at least one other Isabel in the room—and no reason to think she singled me out.
“At the girl’s christening, a ragged child appeared and asked for broken meats from the christening feast. The merchant felt generous because of the joyful day and commanded that the poor child be seated with the other guests. When she was seated at the table, the rags fell away and all could see by the shining garments she wore that she was of the fairy kind. It came time for the guests to bring gifts to the newborn and the fairy opened her hands to show three white doves that fluttered and cooed, tu-tur tu-tur. ‘On the day that you need your heart’s desire,’ the fairy said. ‘Whisper it to one of the doves and toss it into the sky and it will come to fetch me.’ As the girl Isabel grew, the doves were always at her side, fluttering and cooing, until she thought no more about them than one might of a cat. Now Charles,” she said to the tall man, “you may continue the tale and tell us how she came to be poor.”
The story continued as each voice that Madame de Murat chose took up the thread. The shape of these stories was familiar to us all, and I thought that even I might acquit myself fairly in the game, though I hoped to be spared.
The merchant experienced a reverse of fortunes. First one ship, then another was lost at sea. Just when his daughter was nearing an age to be wed, not only had her dowry been lost to their creditors, but they were near to being driven from their home with nothing but the clothes on their backs. But when fortune was at its lowest, Isabel’s mother remembered the fairy’s promise and she came to her daughter and said, “Isabel my dearest, you see how it is with us. We have fallen low in the world. But your fate, at least, can be assured. Send one of the white doves to the fairy and tell her that your heart’s desire is a dowry so that you can escape your poor parents’ doom.”
Isabel called one of the doves to her finger. It cocked its head as if it were listening as she leaned closely and whispered, “My father needs only another chance to make his fortune again. I will not seek to escape their fate. Please send enough gold that my father can buy new ships and cargoes to fill them.” She raised her hand and let the dove fly off into the heavens.
The next day, the dove returned and fluttered down the basement stairs into the farthest darkest corner of the store rooms. When Isabel followed where the dove had gone, she found a beautiful maiden, a few years older than herself, sitting on top of an ancient iron-bound chest. “Is gold your heart’s desire?” the fairy asked.
Isabel shook her head. “I want no gold for me. My heart’s desire is to take this burden from my father and to save my mother from being driven out of her home. I want nothing for myself.”
“Then you shall have what you ask,” the fairy said and she became a dove and flew back up the stairs and disappeared through a window into the sky.
The chest had stood in that corner since Isabel was a tiny girl and she had never seen it open. Now she unclasped the fastenings and struggled to lift the heavy lid and found it was filled to the brim with gold.
Madame de Murat crooked her finger at another of her guests. “Now it is your turn, and I suggest you remember that our beautiful Isabel must wed a king.”
The merchant quickly paid off his debts and financed two new ships to return his fortunes. Isabel and her mother had new silk dresses and they moved to a larger house in the center of town with a garden where the two white doves perched on a fountain all day and cooed, tu-tur, tu-tur. The merchant told no one whence the money had come, but his wife became tired of turning away the curious questions of their neighbors and said as a joke, “How did we get so much gold? Why, my daughter spun it from straw, of course!”
Rumor went around the town quickly that the merchant’s lovely daughter could spin straw into gold. Soon there were offers of marriage and the merchant thought he had only to choose the best of them to assure her happiness. But before the choice had been made, a messenger of the king arrived and commanded the merchant’s presence.
“The king has come to know that your daughter can spin straw into gold,” he said.
And what could the merchant say in return? It’s a perilous thing to call a king a liar. So he said nothing.
“The king wishes to see proof of this wonder,” the messenger continued. “If it is true, he will wed your daughter and make her his queen. If it is false, he will send you all into exile for your lies.”
The merchant took counsel with his wife and daughter and told them the king’s command. “It was foolish to claim such a thing, even in jest, and see where we are now. But daughter, send a dove to the fairy and tell her of your plight.”
“How can I do that?” Isabel asked. “I can’t tell her that it’s my heart’s desire to be able to spin straw into gold or to wed a king. I can only tell her that I wish all of us to be safe. Perhaps the safest thing to do is take ship into exile.”
They argued through the night, but Isabel would not be budged. And in the morning the king’s men came and built a house with locks on the doors, and they placed the merchant’s daughter inside with straw and a spinning wheel and told her to summon them when it had been turned to gold.
At first Isabel wept, sitting among the straw without a soul to comfort her, not even the doves. But just as the church bells chimed for midnight—
With a mischievous expression, Madame de Murat held up her hand to stop the speaker and waved it to point at the next teller of tales who looked flustered and took several starts to begin.
Just as the church bells chimed for midnight, there was a rustling in the pile of straw and a strange little man in ragged clothing crawled out, rubbing his eyes as if waking from a long sleep. When he saw Isabel, he asked, “Why do you weep? There’s no rest for a body with you wailing so loudly.”
Isabel told him the tale, about her mother’s joke and the king’s command, and the impossible task she had been given. She didn’t tell him about the fairy or the doves, though she couldn’t have said why.
“Straw into gold? That’s easy enough!” the little man said. “What will you give me if I do it for you?”
Isabel tried to think of what the strange little man might want. “My father could build you a house so you needn’t sleep in a pile of straw,” she offered.
The man shook his head. “I could have a house any time I chose.”
“My mother could make you a suit of clothes, finer than any you’ve ever seen,” Isabel said.
“I could have whatever clothes I want,” the man said, and as he said it, he snapped his fingers and he was wearing a suit of green silk brocade.
“What do you want?” Isabel asked in despair. She didn’t really want to be sent into exile, and now that hope was in sight she was thinking that it might not be such a bad thing to marry a king and become a queen, though she would never have called it her heart’s desire.
The man said, “My magic cannot work on the living. I long to have a child of my own. Promise to give me your first-born daughter and I’ll spin the straw into gold for you.”
Isabel was horrified at the demand, but then she thought to herself, “I have no child yet and who is to say I’ll ever have one? And if I become queen, I’ll have guards and ladies in waiting to protect me.” So she agreed to the bargain.
With that, the little man set to work and long before the cock crowed, every scrap of straw had been turned to gold. “Remember your promise,” he said and he disappeared up the chimney just before the king’s men opened the door at Isabel’s call.
So Isabel married the king and became queen and she and the two white doves went to live in the palace. And in a year and a day, Isabel knew she was with child.
Madame de Murat held up her hand again. “A trifle unimaginative, perhaps, but it will do. And who shall continue the tale?” This time she turned to my beloved Laura. “Madame Alberti, have you seen how our game is played? You’ve guided children into the world,” with a nod to me, “let us hear what you can do with this one.”
Laura looked in my direction as if asking for permission and I gave a faint nod, though I didn’t know what I was agreeing to.
In a year and a day, Isabel knew she was with child. Fearing the bargain she’d made, she went privately to her mother and confessed the whole to her. “Tell me what to do,” she begged. “If my husband the king knows I’ve bargained away our child he will cast me off. You’re so much more clever than I am. What shall I do?”
Isabel’s mother kissed her and said, “It was a foolish bargain you made, but I can see by the way you’re carrying that the child will be a boy. You bargained only for a first-born daughter. If your first-born is a son, then you will be free of your promise.”
That cheered her heart and Isabel returned to the palace and made ready for the birth of a son. But Isabel’s mother couldn’t resist telling her friends how clever she had been and word of it came to the strange little man who had spun straw into gold. He went up to the castle and rapped on the door to the queen’s chamber. Rat-a-tat-tat. Nor all the ladies in waiting could keep him out. When he came to Queen Isabel he demanded, “Will you keep your bargain with me?”
“I will,” she said. “I promised you my first-born daughter. And if my first-born is a daughter—” she laid her hand protectively across her belly, “then she is yours. But if I bear a son as my first-born, then we are quit.”
The little man stormed forward, his face blazing with anger and he laid his own hands on the queen’s belly and knew that she indeed bore a son. “Then he will never be born,” the man said. And with a cry, Isabel felt the child die within her. Her ladies gathered round to tend to her and no one saw the strange little man leave.
I stifled a little sob. So it had been with my first. I knew when he had quickened and I knew just as surely when he stilled within me. But Laura continued the tale.
Queen Isabel was ill for many months, but in time the roses came back to her cheeks and the smile to her lips and then one day she knew she was again with child. This time she sent no word to her mother and she told none of her ladies in waiting. But in time her belly swelled so much that the secret could not be kept. Soon the word went around in castle that there would be an heir. From the castle it went to the marketplace, and from the marketplace to the ears of the strange little man.
Once again he came rat-a-tat-tatting on the door to the queen’s chamber, and once again he would not be gainsaid. “Will you keep your bargain with me?” he asked Isabel.
“I will keep my bargain,” she said hollowly. “But I do not know whether I bear a daughter or a son.”
Again the little man laid his hands on the queen’s belly and again he cursed and swore. “A son! But neither will this one be your first-born if I have to do with it!”
Isabel twisted to get away from him, but he dug his fingers into her belly as if he were reaching through to the child within and with a great gout of blood, she felt the child still within her and swooned to the ground.
Madame d’Aulnoy said, “This seems a dark and terrible tale. Perhaps we’ve heard enough for one day.”
But Madame de Murat answered back, “The world can be a terrible place. I shall let Madame Alberti continue with her tale.”
Laura bowed and she looked at me with the same compassion I’d seen in those long days of anxious waiting.
The third time that Queen Isabel felt a child quicken within her, she knew that she bore a daughter, and she despaired. She kept the secret for many long months, until she knew it was in vain. Then she remembered the white doves. It had been so many years and she had never been certain what her heart’s desire might be, but she knew that she couldn’t bear to lose another child, either in life or in death. She took up one of the doves and whispered to it, “Go find your mistress. Tell her my heart’s desire is to be freed from the bargain I made and to keep this child.”
The dove flew up into the sky and many days passed with no sign of an answer until Isabel felt the pangs of birth beginning. As she labored, Isabel cried out for her mother and for the fairy of the doves. Her mother was at her side, but the fairy did not come, even when they laid the crying infant in her arms.
“Where is my dove?” Isabel cried. “What shall I do when the spinning man comes?”
But then a waiting woman came in all pale and trembling and she said, “Out in the courtyard, come see.” Though she was still weak from the birth, Isabel was helped out to see what was in the courtyard. And there was a vast flock of snow-white doves, fluttering and cooing around a small heap of rags. The birds were pecking at it as they would at a heap of corn in the field but there was nothing else to be seen when they rose up in a great cloud and circled three times before flying away. The strange little spinning man was never seen again.
Laura was watching me as she told the tale and I knew it was for me. There had been no strange magical man stealing my children before they were born, only my own weak body. But even so my own guardian fairy had vanquished the curse. I thought of my son in his cradle at home.
“Now that seems like a fitting end,” Madame de Murat said. “But one dove remains. Perhaps our own Isabel will tell us what became of it?”
She looked at me and I could feel my tongue tripping over itself. I would make a fool of myself before all these people, but I would do it for Laura.
One day, Queen Isabel was sitting in the garden when the king had gone off hunting, watching her daughter play among the flowers and holding her newborn son in her arms, and a snow-white dove flew up and settled onto her shoulder singing tu-tur, tu-tur and bobbing its head. In that moment, she knew there was only one thing left as her heart’s desire. She whispered it to the dove and watched as it flew up into the blue heavens.
In an hour, just as the sun was fading from the sky, she heard a fluttering of wings and turned to see the fairy of the doves standing before her in the garden.
“Why have you called me, Isabel,” the fairy asked. “What is your heart’s desire?”
“Hasn’t the dove told you?” Isabel said.
The fairy shook her head. “All it would say was tu-tur tu-tur.”
“But that is my heart’s desire,” Isabel said. “Tu, you. You are the only thing that would make my happiness complete. You have been with me as a dove since the day of my christening, only asking what you could give. And now there is nothing else I want but your company at my side.”
The fairy smiled at her and took her hand and they were never parted again in this world.
I looked up at Laura to see if she had understood my meaning and I could see the weight of melancholy drop from her shoulders. Had she doubted that I wanted her? Had she thought I valued only the service she had rendered? Would she believe what I had never before found words to say?
“An odd tale,” Madame de Murat said, “but it will do. Perhaps I will add it to my collection. I’m writing a book, you know.”