Queen Ysabel returns from the war on the summer solstice, her sword chipped and thinner, the jewels in her royal crown cracked and broken. She wears patched armor from her retinue, and her cheek is scarred, though this does nothing to disguise the knife-like bones of her face, the fox-like beauty that won her the heart of her King Alaster.
She does not come with a parade of soldiers, or on her shield. She arrives unannounced, on a horse half-lame from riding, and must pay the stable boys to take it away to be put down. Ysabel is pitiless: it is only one more horse out of many taken out from under her or crippled on the battlefield. She is equally as careless with the shining coins of gold she gives to the slack-jawed peasants in the stables that were once her own. With these, she attempts to pay the Master of the Hall to announce her much unheralded arrival.
He is skeptical. She pays him instead in the cracked remnants of her queenly seal, and watches him shrink back as he takes in the scar, the armor, the fox-like beauty of her dust-smeared face. She does not accept his groveling pleas for forgiveness.
Arms filled with the rich cloth of her banner (a cross flory in azure on a lozenge of brown), she strides the length of the hotel room. On his, King Alaster blanches. Beside him, the lower chair bears a crown - her crown - gleaming, golden, and polished.
Ysabel clears her throat. "My beloved," she says, "I have brought you what you asked for."
King Alaster stares at her, the whites of his eyes gleaming in the light of a thousand lamps and mirrors. Beside him, his advisor glances at the crowds of nobility crowding the throne room, then at the Master of the Hall. Slowly, the chamber begins to empty.
"My wife," he ventures, cautiously, "Where is your army?"
Ysabel pushes back her hair and stares at him. It seems a year, maybe five, since she rode out with the army. She remembers the despair of her husband. She remembers the arguments, the stress of the war, she remembers his angry shout. "Then ride with them, and don't come back till you bring me the head of their leader!"
"They are at the border," she allows. "I have brought you what you asked for."
She throws down her banner, then, at his feet. The head rolls loose, staring sightless. It is a pale, swollen thing, beginning to stink. The nobility in the chamber seem more eager to leave now. King Alaster is pale, pale and breathing hard, staring at her in disbelief. He is taking in the scar, the fine bones of her face, the gleam in her eyes. Ysabel cannot muster the energy to apologize, to seek what isn't in his eyes.
When he flees the hall, she is not surprised.
The adviser comes down the stares warily, skirting the rotting head. Ysabel stares at the thrones, and tries to be angry. "Lord Adviser," she greets him. Her knees are tired, beginning to knock together. The throne on her empty chair glints coldly, and she cannot marshal herself to retrieve it and place it on her head, to call for attendants to see to her bodily needs.
"Lady Queen," he says, "You cannot think that the King expected to see you."
"I," she says, defiantly, "Did what I was asked. He wanted a head. I have returned."
He purses his lips thoughtfully. "It is a heroic thing you have done, Lady Queen. But you know he did not expect you to succeed."
Ysabel stares at him, too weary to argue. "And yet, all I have done is for him. I have put away my gowns, I have trained with a sword. I have led his armies, and saved our kingdom, and struck down his enemies in single combat."
"And yet." He shakes his head slowly. "I am sorry, my lady. This is not a saga or a ballad, and I am afraid your quest will not buy you back your king."
If Ysabel is tired or despairs, she does not show it, either as a queen or as a conquering hero. She purses her lips. "I have been prosecuting his war for over a year, Lord Advisor. If he will not have me as Queen, where shall I go? What shall I do?"
The adviser sighs. Frowns at the fine golden pillars, set with mirrors. Avoids looking at the blood on her surcoat, and especially at the rotting head. Ysabel waits, her eyes sharp on his face, and he says nothing. When she moves, ever so slightly, her armor creaks, and he flinches.
"I suppose, then," she says, "I will go."
Queen Ysabel returns from the war on the summer solstice and leaves on a fresh horse in patched armor, a rotting head under her arm in a banner that was once hers.
She does not look back.