“Not you,” said the soldier who carried her. “Never you. King Nasilee is your father. What man would dare to take a whip to you?”
So it was that Asineth learned that the daughter of the King can do no wrong.
Asineth’s Lesson of Love and Power
King Nasilee’s favorite mistress was Berry, and Asineth loved Berry with all her heart. Berry was lithe and beautiful. When she was naked she was slender and quick of body, like a racing hound, and all her muscles moved gracefully under her skin. When she was clothed she was ethereal, as distant from the world as a sunburst, and as beautiful. Asineth would come to her every day, and talk to her, and Berry, beautiful as she was, took time to listen to the little girl, to hear all her tales of the palace, all her dreams and wishes.
“I wish I were like you,” Asineth told her.
“And how would you like to be like me?” Berry asked.
“You are so beautiful.”
“But in a few years my beauty will fade, and the King your father will set me aside with a pension, like a housekeeper or a soldier.”
“You are so wise.”
“Wisdom is nothing, without power. Someday you will be Queen. Your husband will rule Burland because he is your husband, and then you will have power, and then it will not matter if you are wise.”
“What is power?” asked Asineth.
Berry laughed, which told the six-year-old girl that she had asked a good question, a hard one. Adults always laughed when Asineth asked a hard question. After they laughed, Asineth always studied the question and the answer, to see what made it such an important question.
“So power is naming people?” asked Asineth.
“And something more. Power is to tell the future, little Asineth. If the astronomer says, Tomorrow the moon will come and cover the sun, and it happens as he said, then he has the power of the sun and the moon. If your father says, Tomorrow you will die, it will also happen, and so your father has the power of death. Your father can tell the futures of all men in Burland. You will prosper, you will fail, you will fight in war, you will take your cargo downriver, you will pay taxes, you will have no children, you will be a widow, you will eat pomegranates every day of your life—he can predict anything to do with men, and it will come to pass. He can even tell the astronomer, Tomorrow you will die, and all the astronomer’s power over the sun and the moon will not save him.”
Berry brushed her hair a hundred times as she spoke, and her hair glistened like gold. “I have power, too,” said Berry.
“Whose future do you tell?” asked little Asineth.
“What do you say will happen to him?”
“I say that tonight he will see a perfect body, and he will embrace it; he will see perfect lips, and he will kiss them. I predict that the seed of the King will be spilled in me tonight. I tell the future—and it will come to pass.”
“So you have power over my father?” asked Asineth.
“I love your father. I know him as he does not even know himself. He could not live without me.” Berry stood naked before the glass and drew the borders of herself, and told Asineth how her father loved each nation of her flesh, told her which he came to as a gentle ambassador, which he dealt with sternly, and which he conquered with the sword.
Then her voice softened, and her face became childlike and peaceful, even as her words became colder. “A woman is a field, Asineth, or so a man thinks, a field that he will plow and plant, and from which he means to reap far more than his little seed. But the earth moves faster than a man can move, and the only reason he does not know it is because I carry him with me as I turn. He only plows what furrows he finds; he makes nothing. It is the farmer who is plowed, and not the field, and he will not forget me.” Asineth listened to all of Berry’s words and watched the motion of her body and practiced talking and moving like her. She prayed to the Sweet Sisters that she would be like Berry when she grew; she knew that there was never a woman more perfect in all the world.
She loved Berry even on the day she spoke of her to the King. Nasilee let her sit beside him in the Chamber of Questions, and though she was young, he would sometimes publicly consult her. She would give her answer in a loud voice, and Nasilee would either praise her wisdom or point out her error, so all men could hear and benefit, and so that she could learn statecraft. This day the King asked his daughter, “Who is wiser than I am, Asineth?”
“Ah,” said her father. “And how is she so wise?”
“Because she has power, and if you have power you don’t have to be wise.”
“I have more power than she has,” said the King. “Am I not wiser, then?”
“You have power over all men, Father, but Berry has power over you. You can never get a farmer to plow the same field twice in a year, but she can get you to plow twice in a day, even when you have no seed left to sow.”
“Ah,” said Nasilee again. Then he told the soldiers to bring Berry to him. Asineth saw that her father was angry. Why should he be angry? Didn’t he love Berry as much as Asineth did? Wasn’t he glad that she was wise? Hadn’t he poisoned Asineth’s own mother because she was angry at him for taking Berry into his bed?
Berry came with manacles on her wrists and hands. She looked at Asineth with a terrible hatred and cried out, “How can you believe the words of a child! I don’t know why she is lying, or who told her to say these things, but you surely won’t believe the tales of my enemies!”
Nasilee only raised his eyebrows and said, “Asineth never lies.”
Berry looked in fear at Asineth and cried, “I was never your rival!”
But Asineth did not understand her words. She had learned her first lesson so well that she was incapable of imagining that she had done something wrong.
Berry pleaded with her lover. Asineth saw how she used her beautiful body, how she strained against the manacles, how her robe parted artfully to show the swell of her breasts. Father will love Berry again and forgive her, Asnieth was sure of it. But Berry’s lover had become her King, and when all her pleading was done, he sent for a farmer and a team of oxen and a plow.
Out in the garden they did it, plowed Berry from groin to heart with a team of oxen pulling, and her screams rang in the palace garden until winter, so that Asineth could not go outside until winter changed it into another world.
It was a cruel thing her father did, but Asineth knew that he, too, heard Berry’s screams in the night. Berry dwelt in every room of the palace, even though she was dead, and one day, when Asineth was nine, she found her father slumped in a chair in the library, a book open before him, his cheeks stained with half-dried tears. Without asking, Asineth knew who it was he thought of. It comforted Asineth to know that even though Berry had not so much power as she had thought, she had this much: she could make herself unforgotten, and force her lover to live forever with regret. Yet Berry’s death itself was still a half-learned lesson, with the meaning yet ungiven, and so Asineth asked her father a question. “Didn’t you love her?” asked Asineth.
“Why did you kill her, then?”
“Because I am the King,” said Nasilee. “If I hadn’t killed her, I would have lost the fear of my
people, and if they do not fear me, I am not King.”
Asineth knew then that of the two powers Berry taught her, the stronger power was naming. It was because Nasilee was named King that he had to kill what he loved most. “You did not love Berry most of all,” said Asineth.
Nasilee opened his eyes, letting their light shine narrowly out upon his young daughter. “Did I not?”
“More than her, you loved the name of King.”
Her father’s eyes closed again. “Go away, child.”
“I don’t want to go, Father,” she said. I loved Berry more than I loved you, she did not say.
“I don’t want to see you when I think of her,” said her father.
“Why not?” asked Asineth.
“Because you made me kill her.”
“If you hadn’t told me of her treasonous words, I wouldn’t have had to kill her.”
“If you had merely laughed at the words of a child, she could have lived.”
“A King must be King!”
“A weak King must be what other Kings have been; a strong King is himself, and from then on the meaning of the name of King is changed.” The words could have been Berry’s, for Berry understood these things, and Asineth only still guessed at all that she meant.
“What does it matter?” said the King wearily. “You said the words, the King heard them and had to act, Berry had to die, and now I mourn her and wish that you had died in birthing, and taken your mother with you, by the Hart I wish it, by the Sisters I swear it, now leave me, little girl.”
She left him. Until that time, she had been the one person in all Burland who did not fear King Nasilee. Now there was no one left who did not fear him, for he was King, and could break anyone with a word.