They laid her down on a bed of roses, and she did not cry or struggle at the pricks of the little thorns, for then they would catch and tear at her flesh. The bread and the chalice were passed over her, and stood on her slim belly and between her breasts with cold fingers that lingered too long. Then she held her breath as much as she dared, so as not to spill it, for that would be worse.
The king had called her, and sat her down. His brown hair was shot with grey, his knight’s frame gone to blubber with age, drink, and soft food, and his thing when she held it was soft and marked by the scars of old pox. He combed her golden hair and laid his hands on her, a rough callous against each nipple, and he told her she was to be the elf cup.
She had stood by the bed as Nell had died, and saw the strange parallel scars she bore on hip and shoulder and buttocks and back, and wiped her chin when the golden seed came forth from her lips. It burned holes in the floor, and wracked Nell terribly as it worked its way through her, ‘til at last Nell had shat out her intestines upon the floor. All that, she knew, because Nell had listened to the French girl from Navarre and swallowed.
The vizard had called her, and she posed in the morning light, and he sketched and measured her with a crayon of charcoal on paper, alternating questions and instructions, both of which she answered as best she could. She saw the vizard’s paper, as she gathered up her clothes, and the star-signs ray’d round her face, the angles he had measured and the long scrawl of calculations. Later, she saw her face again, on a statue of Mary on the new church.
The ambassadors had brought a dragon tonight, and the king looked on impassive at their sport. She had learned well from the stablemaster, and knelt on all fours before the wheezing thing, flicking out her tongue and slinking in that inching way ‘til it caught her motion. It was old and half-blind, and she had to help and guide it in, and then there was silence in the hall save for the bellowing dragon and the hard breathing of the court’s guests. She woke in her bed reeking of sulfur.
The princess asked for her, after, always after, and she limped to obey. Her highness could not stand to watch, even had she been allowed, but she would listen from behind the screen as the elf cup told her of the night’s events. Behind that silk the gasps would come, faster and faster, and then the aching silence before the cup was released, and ordered to return.
There was an alchemist that asked for a spoonful of fabulous emission, and she took the golden spoon and the golden bottle and the golden coins, and never told him of what had happened to Nell.
There was a scandal amid the attendants of the bath, when the princess grew heavy, and all the servants were sent away save the elf cup, who told her stories with a new relish as her highness screamed in labor.
There was an old king carried to a summer isle by three queens, and the next week when the ambassadors returned they gave her the candle of him to keep, and showed her how best to use it.
And there was Nell’s grave, where no church would have her, and each year when a thorn bore up from there she borrowed a sword and cut it down.