A shrill, clipped voice nudged at the fabric of Caroline’s uneasy dreams, pulling her towards wakefulness. She shifted, uncertain where she was, and who might be there with her.
“Thank you for attending on me at such an inconvenient time, my lord,” the voice said.
Caroline couldn’t make sense of who was speaking. She shifted beneath the blanket, feeling as if it was really wrapped around her brain. Her thoughts shied away from trying to comprehend her situation and she felt the pull of sleep tempting her back to oblivion. She was so tired, so comfortable even though slumped in a chair, and something told her the waking world was not a place she wanted to be.
A deeper, gruffer voice replied to the first, pulling Caroline’s attention further into the conversation.
“Majesty, I live to serve. How may I be of assistance to you?” this voice, that of a man, asked.
Caroline latched onto the fantasy scene that seemed to be playing out around her, adding imagined details to it, as an alternative to rejoining reality. The male voice brought the image of a stocky, middle-aged man into her thoughts. She pictured him struggling down to one knee before an elaborate throne. In her mind’s eye, he was dressed in an Elizabethan costume, the tight doublet restricting his movements. A woman who was obviously a queen, judging by her crown and finery, sat very upright, looking down her nose at him. The queen’s imperious tone suggested she did not fully appreciate the lengths he would go to in order to carry out her bidding.
A sharp, astringent smell wafted from somewhere nearby, jarring against the picture Caroline had built. It brought unpleasant associations with it, and Caroline fought against its influence.
The queen spoke again. There was something about her voice that nagged at Caroline’s memory. It was familiar, but distorted, as if someone was trying to sound like a queen and taking the character too far. Caroline still wasn’t completely awake, though, and her mind refused to focus. The queen’s squeaky words penetrated the fog of sleep still shrouding Caroline’s mind, allowing her back into the half-dreamed medieval scene playing out in her thoughts.
“It has been brought to my attention that I am not long for this world. To reward you for your faithful service in the latter part of my reign, I bequeath my estate and all my possessions to you.”
This was an unexpected turn of events, and prompted a surge of grief that swamped Caroline’s thoughts for a moment, before she pushed it resolutely away. She concentrated her attention firmly on the exchange of the two characters. Something told her the suppressed emotion was connected to the elusive familiarity of the queen’s voice, but she resisted following the path to comprehension.
“Majesty, I have no words for the honour you bestow upon me.” The courtier’s calm tone suggested the news of the queen’s impending death was not a surprise to him, but gave Caroline no indication of how he really felt about it.
Caroline also thought that perhaps she had misjudged the queen, since she obviously valued the courtier highly enough to set him up as ruler in her stead.
The queen continued, “You realise, of course, that this also includes all my responsibilities, as the crown will now fall to you.”
Something about this troubled Caroline, more so than just the double-edged nature of the gift. Surely the queen couldn’t just choose who the crown would pass to on her death. There were rules of succession and, even if she had no heirs, the decision of who would rule after her would not be hers alone. The whole thing was starting to feel very strange, as Caroline grew more and more awake. For one thing, why was she sleeping in the presence of royalty in the first place?
She fought to focus her thoughts on her immediate surroundings, and opened her eyes. Everything seemed suffused with white light for a moment, and then the scene resolved itself. Her daughter Millie sat up in bed, a wooden peg doll in each hand. One did indeed sport a rough approximation of a doublet, fashioned from blue felt and gold thread. It was prostrated before the other, which had an elaborate red felt dress and a paper crown, decorated with red sequins.
The real world collided with Caroline’s dreamy imaginings and shattered the illusion. Tears pricked her eyes as she watched her daughter playing, and the smell of disinfectant assaulted her nose once again.
The dolls had been lovingly made by Caroline’s fiance, Daniel. Millie wasn’t allowed many personal items, and had little space to store them, so Daniel had produced the dolls to be her companions, as they were small and versatile. Caroline had worried that Millie might reject them as too simple and old-fashioned, but she had in fact accepted them with delight. They had provided many hours of entertainment. Millie and Daniel had worked together on a range of outfits and accessories for them, and Millie amused herself endlessly by creating new characters and scenes for them to portray. The queen and courtier pairing was new, at least to Caroline, and she wondered when Millie and Daniel had had the opportunity to fashion their clothes.
The activity had brought Millie and Daniel closer together, which Caroline had rejoiced at, and she was glad they were continuing to find time for it. Everything about their lives was so uncertain and changing so fast, so it was lovely for the two people she loved most in the world to get along. Daniel was always coming home with scraps of material and mismatched beads from the primary school where he worked, eager to bring them when they next visited Millie.
Caroline decided not to interrupt Millie’s current theatrical by letting her know she was awake. Instead, she closed her eyes again and let the exchange of dialogue wash over her, amazed as always by her daughter’s imagination and command of language.
The courtier was responding to the queen’s announcement that he would become king, and Caroline thought he was taking it remarkably calmly.
“Majesty, your news brings heaviness to my heart, but I will do my best to serve both you and our great country in this new role.”
Caroline wondered if she would be able to accept such news with such equanimity. Taking on the duties of ruling a whole kingdom was a massive job, not to mention having to deal with the death of the queen as well. She thought about her own situation and knew it wasn’t so easy to deal with new responsibilities in the face of impending loss.
The queen sounded very level-headed, considering what she herself must be going through.
“I am glad to hear it, and I know I am leaving the country in safe hands.” Millie’s portrayal of the queen faltered for the first time, her voice slipping back toward its normal register. “She has been a wonderful mother to me and she will need a lot of care and love once I am gone.”
A sharp pain squeezed Caroline’s heart at this and her eyes flew open again. She took in the stark reality of the crisp, white sheets, the fluorescent strip lighting, and the incessant beeping of the machines at Millie’s bedside in the cancer care unit of the children’s hospital.
Millie moved the queen doll closer to the courtier and spoke in a softer version of the queen’s voice, as she finally looked up to meet her mother’s gaze.
“I entrust this most sacred of duties to you, my lord Daniel, in the knowledge that your strength and compassion will see the country through the difficult times ahead and in the hope that you will eventually lead her into a new era of happiness and prosperity.”
Caroline couldn’t speak. Her heart was too full of pain and love, and Millie’s oblique reference to their situation was almost more than she could bear. She looked down at the protrusion of her heavily pregnant belly, and then back up into the eyes of her beautiful daughter. Their time together was running out, and a whole new life beckoned to Caroline, full of joy and excitement. But how could she move forwards into that life, knowing that Millie wouldn’t be there to share it with her? And how could Millie be so strong and so generous in the face of her life being so unfairly cut short? She would leave them, all too soon, and life would necessarily go on without her, even though Caroline couldn’t yet conceive of that. They were supposed to be a family all together; Caroline and Daniel, Millie and the new baby. But the universe had conspired against them with Millie’s diagnosis, and now every joy was inextricably intertwined with sorrow.
Millie reached out to place one of her hands on her mother’s swollen belly in a gesture of benediction, as Caroline began to cry.
R.L. Ugolini has had short stories published in over three dozen literary journals and anthologies, including, most recently, Cicada, Demonic Visions Vol. 3-6, Red Rock Review and Crack the Spine. The Summerset Review nominated one of her short stories for the 2011 Million Writers’ Award. Her first novel was released by Samhain Publishing in 2015. She lives in Texas with her husband.