I Will Paint the Night

Reading Time: 26 minutes

1 – Death doesn’t knock


                “That night, Liminalin, One God, appeared to them in a dream. His four heads were crowned with gold diadems. His loincloth was of silver, and his cudgel iron.  He said, ‘Follow me, and I will lead you to your future’. And his voice was the roar of a thousand black-lions.”   Song of Sallonia – Book One

Mother died and took the memories with her. No trace of her existence remained in the castle, other than me. And the painting in Father’s study. Framed in smoked silver she sits under a blooming änge tree, flame haired and ebony skinned, one hand holding a yellow änge sprig, the other resting on an open book.

In the painting she is smiling, happy.

Bellizza too looked happy when she first came to Sallonia to marry my father. I was six then, and my new stepmother eighteen.

Stepmother; was there ever a word more seeped in myth, laden with tradition? One hardly ever heard of evil stepfathers, but which stepmother wasn’t evil?

Experience soon disabused me of that inherited fallacy. It was to Bellizza I ran when I was seven and believed the ground would open up and suck me into the bottommost hell because I had asked why One God had four heads and only two hands. It was with Bellizza I shared my secret dream of becoming a plant explorer. She had backed me when I demanded permission to study herbalism, and praised my translation of the great classic, On the World of Plants, from High Pegalian to Sallonian. I did it as a birthday gift to Father. His response had been a polite smile and a stilted thank you.

Fourteen months ago, she helped me escape a marriage that would have been worse than the hell. Much worse.

The rose-apples were a thank you. Bellizza loved rose-apples, but they couldn’t survive in Sallonia, with its seven months of scorching heat and seven months of unrelenting rain. I had begun my experiment of growing them in my indoor garden with little hope of success. But two seedlings survived into adulthood and one bore fruits, soft and luscious, pentagons in pink.


Bellizza was in the sunroom thread-knitting, when I went in with the rose-apples. She smiled in greeting, smiled when she put down the thread-knitting to accept the fruits, smiled as she bit into one. But her eyes remained lost in whatever desolated landscape her mind inhabited these days.

I wanted to grab her by her shoulders and tell her that not being able to give birth to a living son wasn’t the end of the world. I didn’t. It wasn’t the lying part that stopped me, but the useless part. I would have lied with every word if it gave Bellizza even a thimbleful of comfort.

It wouldn’t have. We both knew better. The Song of Sallonia left no room for arguments. Kings ruled. Queens produced sons. And princesses kept their blasphemous thoughts to themselves.

“This tastes good, Allii.” Bellizza’s voice had a lilt in it.

I grinned. “Truly? You aren’t just being nice to me?”

“I swear, by my sister.”

Thirteen months and thirty four days of working the soil, of struggling to control temperature with ember curtains in the rainy season and water screens in the dry season had not been in vain. I kissed her cheek. “Thanks, Belle.”

This time the smile reached her eyes. In that moment, she looked like the Bellizza in the picture on the red mahogany table, eyes alight with love, blue hair rippling in the wind, one hand on my father’s arm, the other hand clasping mine. The picture had caught her joyous smile, the proud lift of Father’s head, the skip in my step –happiness imprisoned on a canvas.

Bellizza munched more rose-apple. “You really are magical with plants, dearest.”

I grinned again. “Maybe I have witch-blood in me.” Most Sallonians were undecided on the existence of witches but every Sallonian knew what they were like – nasty, evil, and green-fingered.

In Sallonia, we said, Like the touch of a witchkilling men and healing trees.

Bellizza’s breath was a gasp. “Allii, don’t say such things.”

I knelt and caught her hand, my copper-collared fingers stark against her pearly-skin. “Only to you, Belle. You know I mind my tongue as a rule.”

“Not even to me. You never know who might overhear.”

My eyes darted around the sunroom. Who could overhear us in this glass cage devoid of living things, other than the two of us?

Perhaps Bellizza meant One God. With his four heads, he certainly had enough ears for it.

“Won’t do it again,” I said, standing up, giving the skirt of my robe a vigorous shake.

Bellizza’s blue brows formed a delicate arch over her blue eyes. “You are leaving?”

“There’s a little something awaiting my attention.”

Her eyes twinkled. “A new plant?”

“A fern, a green beauty with silver whorls.” I laughed in anticipation of the joy awaiting me.

Bellizza nodded, reaching out for the half-finished thread-tree and the silver needles. Her smile was like the pale gleam of a distant star.

I closed the door wondering what twist she’d add to the white thread-tree. Would it be a branch curling like a scimitar or noose-like roots? The last time she did a thread-tree, she gave it a fruit like a screaming mouth.

Thread-knitting was how Bellizza had escaped the stupor of despair after her final stillbirth.

Bellizza conceived every year. Each pregnancy ended in a dead baby. After her ninth attempt, Doktoras Poll said she wouldn’t be able to conceive again. She emerged from the birthing-chamber a week later a wraith. Her eyes were blank, her smiles grimaces. She ate little, spoke less, and rarely left her apartment. I spent as much time as I could with her, shoving plants under her nose, reading to her from books I hoped would interest her, telling her a woman’s worth was not in her womb.

She responded only once. “If you hire a singer, you expect her to sing,”

I bristled. “You are not father’s hired singer. You are his wife, his queen.”

Her fingers clenched on the arms of her chair. “A royal marriage is a contract, dearest. I’ve failed to fulfill my part in it.”

The maids whispered the king no longer visited the Queen’s Apartment. I had sense enough not to ask Bellizza about it, but I did ask Nana.

Nana’s lips tightened.

Nana, Dame Nanarina, personal maid and surrogate mother, helped birth me, nursed me, taught me my first lessons, scolded me and loved me. When she folded her lips, a lecture was bound to follow, a wave of words cresting on an appropriate quotation from the Song of Sallonia. Curiosity featured at the top of Nana’s Sin List, on par with disobedience and levity. A curious mind stinks worse than a sewer, she’d mutter, a frown darkening her mud-brown face. Curiosity leads to hell, she’d add, her frown vanishing, her eyes turning into green pools of tears, as if she was visualizing me in that insalubrious place, imps pulling out my unruly tongue with fiery pincers.

But there had been no hurling of sacred quotes that day. Nana had nodded her head, her old eyes sad.

That memory made me shiver, even though the hallway was warm with the heat from ember curtains. I told myself not to be a fanciful ass and rapped on the silver-studded door leading from the Queen’s Apartment to the entrance chamber.

The door glided open.

The Queen’s Guards had changed during my visit with Bellizza. I smiled at the new pair. Kiko brought plants for me whenever he visited his home in the Dollz Mountains. Terrii lived in the capital-city, Pinckossia. Though he stood as straight as his ceremonial lance, his eyes were red-rimmed and pouched. Even his moustache drooped.

“Is the baby sick again, Terrii?” I asked.

His smile was rueful. “She’s teething, Highness.”

I’ve never encountered a teething baby, but the books were clear on the subject: one afflicted infant could deprive an entire village of its nightly rest. “Grounded star-roots with honey would help,” I said, “or some mashed…”

The door leading out to the private stairway opened. Father strode in, followed by Lord Sherriz, the Chief Minister. They must have come from a formal occasion. Father wore a state-robe, crimson with silver work. The Ring of Sallonia gleamed on his right hand. Sherriz tripped at his side, an eager insect.

I bowed, trying to think of something interesting to say. Alone in my room, I could conjure up long conversations between Father and me. Reality was another world. “Good afternoon, Papa,” was all I could manage.

Not a bit interesting, and he wasn’t interested. He nodded in my general direction, and resumed listening to Sherriz, his brown head bent to catch the short man’s murmuring.

They headed towards the King’s Apartment.

“Allii, aren’t afternoons your plant-time?” The voice was deep and warm, with a hint of a smile.

I turned around, focusing on the unadorned magenta robe of the speaker, giving myself time to put together an answering smile.

At twenty seven, Cousin Tygyrin was only nine years older than me. But he was already a member of the Governing Council, a general in the army and a lay attendant of One God. I was certain he was the son Father would have liked to have in my place. Had he been less kind I could have hated him.

“My rose-apple tree is bearing fruits,” I said. “I took some for Belle.”

Tygyrin kissed my cheek. “I knew you would succeed. And how are you faring with my humble offering on desert plants?”

This time, the smile came unbidden. “Finished it yesterday.” When I did, it was as if I was plucked from a boundless space of sun and wind, and dropped back into my limited world of routine, etiquette and tradition.

Tygyrin’s brows went up. “Your birthday was thirteen days ago and that book has seven hundred and five pages.”

“I read in bed.” Until Nana caught me and gave me a scolding as long as the Song of Sallonia for ruining my eyes.

Tygyrin laughed. “Would you like some of those plants for your herbarium?” I must have looked like a bubble of excitement for he laughed some more. “The next time one of my agents travels to…”

“Lord Tygyrin, His Majesty is waiting.” Sherriz managed to sound both unctuous and smug, a signature trait. His smile was apologetic, but for a second, the pale blue eyes gloated in the baby-smooth face. I once told Bellizza he must use a pot of face paint every day. She shushed me but only after we finished giggling.

“In a minute, Chief Minister.” Tygyrin’s voice was cold.

Sherriz cleared his throat. “The discussion on the blueprint can’t wait.”

“Will you excuse me, Allii?” Tygyrin lowered his voice. “It’s a new weapon, an important matter.”

I nodded, keeping my eyes on his long fingers, on his totemic ring, a black lion on a red field.

Tygyrin’s lips brushed my head. “I hope to see you in Aunt Bellizza’s room in the evening,” he murmured and was gone.

I turned around and headed towards the stairway. I should tell Terrii how to make the concoction to reduce his baby’s teething pain but I couldn’t bring myself to look at him or Kiko.

Terrii would be here in the evening. I’d tell him then.

Once alone on the stairs leading up to my apartment, I balled my hand into a fist and hammered the banister, wishing the polished wood was Sherriz’s smooth face. Hurting myself as a way of taking revenge on Sherriz might have made some obscure sense when I was seven; not at seventeen though. I knew it, just as I knew, in some dark seldom-visited crater in my mind, that Father’s indifference enabled Sherriz’s insolence. Still, my mood lightened with each burst of pain.

Had Nana seen me, I would have got a scolding. “Princesses never show their anger,” was another of her precepts, probably the three hundred and fiftieth. “Remember, you are Princess Albalia, the daughter of King Walterin.” She never said King Walterin and Queen Filliana.

No one talked about Mother, not even Uncle Bernii, who talked about everything under the sun and the three moons.

I entered my apartment and went straight to my workroom. It housed my most prized possessions: herbaria, book collection, plant presses and the enlarging glasses. I removed the snowflake fern from the plant-press and examined it through the enlarging glass. There was no discoloration.

The rest was routine – don soft cotton gloves, open the herbarium onto a blank page, pick the right brush (quarter-inch for this one), apply the fish-oil paste on the back of the fern, place it on the blank page, write my observations on the facing page.

The next two hours would pass in happy oblivion. I’d be free from Sallonia, wandering among root systems, vegetative shoots, leaves, nodes, and apical buds.


The moth rose was as big as my palm. I held it to my face, relishing the satiny feel of its grey petals, the musky smell.

A scream rang out, long and sharp, like Bellizza’s thread knitting needles.

The castle was a place of hushed voices. A full-throated scream was as alien in it as the howl of a cloud-wolf or the screech of a pink-owl.

The scream stopped, as if cut with a knife. Silence returned. A different silence, like that line in the Song of Sallonia:

The silence that comes

After the end, and before the beginning.

One moment I was glued to the stool, moth-rose crushed in my clenched fist. The next moment I was running, out of my apartment and down the stairs.

A crowd milled on the landing, lords and ladies, menservants and maids, even a few officials in their gray robes. Wordless whispers hissed through the air. The door to the royal apartments stood ajar. A guard kept the crowd at bay, using his ceremonial lance as a bar.

I patted my hair to ensure it was where it should be and assumed a sedate descent, one step at a time. Running was one more thing Princess Albalia was not supposed to do, ever, not even if the castle was on fire and the said princess was about to be roasted alive.

The crowd parted for me. The guard bowed. I had no memory of seeing him before.

The entrance chamber was empty. The guards at the door to Father’s apartment stood still, eyes fixed on the middle distance. Terrii and Kiko bowed. Terrii opened the door to Bellizza’s apartment.

I thanked him. His hands shook worse than my words.

A knot of women huddled by the entrance to the sunroom. Lady Nellin, Bellizza’s chief attendant, stood over them, like a malevolent spirit.

The deep carpet swallowed the sound of my hurrying footsteps, but Lady Nellin turned around, her face hardening into a polite mask. She stepped forward in a rustle of red silks and bowed.

“What’s wrong, Lady Nellin?”

“One of the maids screamed.” Nellin’s tone was as expressionless as her face.

I pressed my sweaty palms against the folds of my robe. “Why did the maid scream? Where is the Queen?”

Nellin pursed her lips and pulled the door shut.

The nebulous fear vanished, leaving me in the all too familiar territory of anger. How dare she, that icicle of malice?

I reached for the door. Nellin’s hand shot out, diamond-glass bangles clinking. I raised my brows. Nellin opened her mouth and closed it. Her hand dropped to her side. She squared her plump shoulders and stepped out of my way.

I opened the door.

A shaft of light struck my eyes, blinding me. The rain had ceased. The kind of sun rarely seen in the wet season had broken through, bright as gold.

I blinked and the room came into focus in slow motion: bay-shaped glass wall overlooking the garden, the red mahogany table, the two chairs…

Bellizza was neither sitting on the chair knitting nor standing by the glass wall staring.

Something glittered on the floor. I looked down.

Bellizza lay sprawled on the flowered carpet.

“Belle!” I dropped on to my knees and cradled her head. “Belle, Belle…”


I glared at Nellin. “Why are you just standing there? Have you called Doktoras Poll? Get me some pincha leaves and a glass of…”

“She is beyond help, Princess.”

“But she…” The words died as I looked and saw.

Bellizza’s placid expression was distorted into a grimace. Her midnight blue eyes were glassy. A touch of foam spotted the perfectly shaped lips. Blood-infused saliva traced a delicate line down the chin.

The body I cradled was still, with the kind of stillness that had no place in life.

A hand jammed into my mouth forcing the scream down. It took me a while to realize the hand was mine. It shook, like the rest of me.

I waited till my teeth ceased chattering. “What happened? When did…” A sob rose, choking me. I allowed my head to fall, to hide my brimming eyes.

Nellin’s voice had no life in it. “Her maid and I came with her tisane and found her dead.”

Dead – the word slashed my innards.


“Doktoras Poll is on his way.”

“My father?”

“Chief Minister Sherriz has been informed. He will apprise His Majesty.”

I smoothed the disordered blue waves and kissed the cooling brow. Bellizza’s familiar scent, the subtle perfume of moon-lilies, enveloped me. I laid her gently on the carpet and stumbled to my feet, almost slipping on a silver needle.

Bellizza had been knitting when whatever happened to her happened. The red and white thread-tree, now three-quarters finished, lay close to one awkwardly angled arm.

I staggered to the glass wall and leaned against it, wrapping my trembling arms around my shuddering body. The sunroom was warm. The cold came from inside me.

“What is this? What is this?”

Doktoras Poll had not come alone. Father was with him, and Sherriz.

I said, “Papa, I’m sorry.” Or tried to. The words were unintelligible even to my own ears.

Perhaps Father didn’t hear. He didn’t look at me, but stood gazing down at his wife of eleven years. His usual earth-brown color had vanished, his face was drawn.

The sun disappeared behind a gray counterpane of clouds. The room sank into shadows. My eyes moved aimlessly, like fluttering moths, from Father’s blank face to Nellin’s tormented one, Doktoras Poll’s kneeling-form, the flowery carpet, the white and red thread-tree, the picture from the past, the thread-box, the white and red…

A mist blanketed my eyes. My head began to spin in a crazy whirl. I reached out for something unmoving…

A hand caught my elbow in a firm grip. “Highness, you are in shock. You must retire to your room.” Doktoras Poll’s voice was kind. “You need rest, sleep.”

I tried to smile. Poll had been my mother’s friend. He had known me all my life since he delivered me.

He turned to Father. “The Princess has had a shock, Sire. She needs to rest. And, er, I’d like to examine Her Majesty, if you would give me leave.”

Father nodded, his hands clenching and unclenching at his sides.

I said, again, “Papa, I’m sorry.” This time I could hear my words.

Father bent his head to listen to Sherriz, a muscle on his left cheek twitching.

Suddenly Nana was there, cuddling me. “There, there, my Allikin, come away, love. You need sleep.” Her tone was a lullaby.

I hesitated and gave in. I’d talk to Father later.


I woke up to a room dappled with shadows.

The sheer curtains offered a glimpse of a gray sky. Morning or evening? Morning. Coiffure-birds chattered outside, and they only sang in the morning.

The stone-light on the bedside table created a golden halo. Nana dozed in a chair by the bed. Her face was deeply lined, like the bark of an ancient tree. Her breath wheezed through her half open mouth. With her piercing eyes closed, she looked strangely fragile.

Nana had been the biggest staple in my life, whose presence I never questioned, like the sun or the rain. Seeing her thus, devoid of her aura of authority, made me realize she wasn’t an eternal force of nature, but an old woman who would one day die-

Like Bellizza.

A memory flashed, me at six, kneeling on a chair by an upstairs window, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of my new stepmother. The silver carriage coming to a stop by the main entrance of the castle; Bellizza stepping out, her blue hair flowing down to her ankles, like the waters of the Sky River…

The memory segued into another memory, of Bellizza lying dead, her head cushioned by her hair.

Bellizza once told me that she never saw her marriage contract. It was signed by her brother and my father. Her brother agreed to secure the north-eastern trade routes for Sallonia. Father agreed to sell Sallikan to Bellizza’s brother at a fixed prize. They were both keen on the marriage. Trade routes were vital to Sallonian commerce; and Sallikan – a metal of exceptional strength and suppleness, an essential component of mechanical pigeons, mechanical bulls and mechanical carriages – was available only in Sallonia.

Bellizza was the sealant of the new alliance.

Married at eighteen, dead at twenty nine; eleven years of wedded bliss in between, marked by nine failed pregnancies.

That shouldn’t have been your life, Belle.

I closed my stinging eyes, and wished for yesterday, any yesterday except the last one. I’d go to Bellizza’s room after breakfast. We’d spend the morning together. I might read something to her or she might have some news of her favorite sister, the one who ran away from an unwanted marriage to become a stargazer.

A hand caressed my cheek. A voice muttered a prayer to One God.

I opened my eyes and looked into Nana’s red-rimmed ones, not sharp anymore but blotched with fear.

“Sherriz wants to talk to you.” Something in Nana’s voice reminded me of the screeching of ulliina, the little brown bird of death. “Wanted me to wake you up. I said no, he’ll wait till you woke up in your own time, urgent or not.”

I sat up in bed. “Nana, they’d want to talk to me about Bellizza. Tell them I’ll be with them shortly.”

A knock rang, sharper than any I could remember. The door opened and Nellin walked in, wrapped in a dull green robe, the color of mourning. Her face had lines that hadn’t been there yesterday. She bowed to me but addressed Nana. “You informed the Princess?”

I cut in. “She did. And I’ve already given my answer. Now if you’ll excuse me-” I got up and walked to the bathing-chamber. As I closed the door, I caught a glimpse of Nellin’s expression. No known poison could have come close to its venom.


I paused by the door to the anteroom, holding my head high and my back straight. I didn’t want Sherriz to see how shaken I was.

It wasn’t Sherriz who awaited me, but old Minister Ekko, leaning heavily on his black and silver walking stick.

I smiled a greeting and sat down, indicating he should do the same. He stood there for a few seconds, gazing at me. Tears started trickling down his thin, parchment like cheeks and he let them. It was as if he didn’t realize he was crying. I wanted to put my arms around him, to comfort him. But such a display would violate royal protocol and probably embarrass him as well.

“The queen’s death is a great loss,” I began, my voice quite steady. “I saw her maybe an hour before…” The memories lashed at me. I stopped, battling my own tears.

“Highness, Princess-” Ekko swallowed and started again, this time in a slightly steadier voice. “The queen was poisoned.”

I fell back in my chair.

Poisoned, poisoned, poisoned, poisoned…

Minister Ekko was droning on. I forced myself to listen.


Nivati. I tried to remember what I’d read about nivati plants. But my memory was gone, like Bellizza.

“According to Doktoras Poll, it’s a fast-acting poison. He says paralysis would have set in within seconds. She wouldn’t have suffered.”

I tried to murmur a prayer of thanks. The familiar words eluded me.

Ekko had been studying the carpet now he addressed it. “The poison was administered through a rose-apple.”

“I took the queen two rose-apples from my indoor tree-” I stopped, touched by a ripple of dread. “Did you say the poison was in a rose-apple?”

Ekko swallowed. His eyes never left the carpet and he continued to address himself to it. “Yes, Highness.”

I have no clear recollection of what happened next, between the time Minister Ekko said his fateful words, and the time I was escorted to my room by royal guards – the only suspect in the murder of my stepmother.

Did I protest my innocence? Did I ask to see Father? Did I demand a chance to clear myself? Of any of it, I retained no recollection.

All I had were three memory fragments.

Minister Ekko muttering, his voice tremulous, “They are saying you hated the queen because she took your mother’s place.”

Nana wailing, “My baby, my baby, she killed nobody. My Allikin-” Until her was voice was cut off, as if by a knife.

Lady Nellin storming into the room, face crusted into a mask of hate, voice throbbing, “Why did you kill her? I thought you were clever. Didn’t you know you were safe only so long as she was there? Why did you have to kill her?”


2 – Dramatic injustice

            They strove, over oceans and forests, valleys and hills, never despairing, for their faith was as pure as crystal.  –  Song of Sallonia – Book One


Moon moths created blotches of silver on the bedside table, on the carpet, even on the bed.

Nana must have forgotten to close the curtains. The moon moths would have streamed in through the open window heading for the stone-light on the bedside table, and death.


Bits of memory fluttered like moth wings. Is Bellizza dead? Did someone accuse me of killing Bellizza?

I cried, “Nana-Nana,” And bit my tongue to stop the scream.

Closely spaced grilles barred the windows.

I sprang out of bed and rushed about my apartment trying door after door. The doors leading to my dressing chamber, bathing chamber, sitting room, and the anteroom were unlocked. The doors leading to my workroom and the passageway were locked, from outside.

Every window was barred with gleaming silver-iron grilles.

My rooms were on the third floor. Did whoever who ordered this horror think I could climb down a marble wall, with not so much as a reedy vine or a minute crack to help me?

I rang the bell for Nana, rang and rang. There was no Nana.

No books either. The bookshelves on the flanks of my writing cabinet were empty.

Fear was clogging my mind. I knelt before the frieze depicting One God in his seven manifestations, and tried to pray. The words came out in a jumble. I gave up and focused instead on his image as Lawgiver. Scroll in the right hand, cudgel in the left, right foot resting on the back of a supine figure, presumably a wrongdoer, it was an effective antidote even for mindless panic.

Soon I discovered another antidote – getting dressed on my own.

I managed the underskirt and the slippers, but tying the bodice and buttoning the robe proved to be superhuman tasks; at least they required superhuman patience. Attempts to achieve my usual braided-topknot constituted the greatest of my list of failures. Eventually I settled for a plain topknot, jabbing pin after pin to keep the wobbling mass in place.

I emerged from the dressing chamber to find a meal awaiting me in the sitting room, together with Lady Nellin and two strange women dressed in the brown trouser-blouse uniform of castle maids.

“They will attend to your needs.” Lady Nellin paused and added, “Highness.”

“Where’s Nana?”

“Dame Nanarina is indisposed.”

I clenched my fingers inside the pockets of my robe. “What’s wrong with her?”

“She is being treated.”

“I want to see her.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible.” Nellin’s voice was polite, yet insolent. It was as if she was daring me to stamp my foot, raise my voice, throw a tantrum…

Inside the capacious pockets, my fingers twitched. I turned to the ornamental mirror hanging above the silver-inlaid half table and made a show of examining my hair, watching Nellin from under my eyelids.

“The maids will be outside.” Nellin’s voice was as flat as the dusty plains of southern Sallonia. “They’ll come when you ring the bell.”

I toyed with a stray copper curl, tucking it behind my ear, studying the effect as if nothing else in the world mattered.

Nellin glared at my back, before flouncing out, followed by the two maids.

Once alone, I inspected the food, a pot of hot pomegranate juice and a plate of toasted honey-cheese – mid-morning fare. No marsh-clouds, the soft green sweets made from mallow plants. I had come to dislike marsh-clouds, and ate them only to please Nana. Now I ached for them, just one piece, soft like moth wings, like Nana’s touch, like Bellizza’s voice-

I crammed some food into my mouth and sat at my writing cabinet. Whoever who took away my books had been considerate enough to leave me some writing paper and two pens. I wrote to Father, begging for an opportunity to clear my name and for permission to attend Bellizza’s funeral.

When I rang the bell, the maids came in.

I smiled at them. “Are you two new here? What are your names?”

There were no answering smiles or answers.

I held out the letter. “This is for the King. Can you please make sure it reaches him?”

One of them, taller and thinner than the other, took the letter.

Afterward, I sat on a chair and watched the air-clock on the writing cabinet.

Two hours and eight minutes later, a knock sounded. One of the maids entered and said the Chief Minister would like to see me.

Was Sherriz Father’s answer to my plea for help?

Rage came first, followed by despair. Then they were gone, leaving me empty, bereft.

I forced myself out of the chair, went to the dressing room and examined myself in the floor-length mirror. My topknot wobbled every time I moved my head. I inserted a few more hairpins at random and smoothed away a crease in my robe. About the sickly gray pallor discoloring my coppery face I could do nothing, not without a pot or two of war paint.

Sherriz and three other ministers were waiting in the anteroom. Their bows had the usual depth. I inclined my head and sat down. Sherriz perched on the other chair. The retinue ranged behind him.

“Why am I being detained in this manner?” I asked, pleased my voice didn’t shake the way my insides did.

Sherriz cleared his throat. “A mere formality, Highness. The demands of justice must be met. It mustn’t be said the laws were bent because of your high position as his majesty’s beloved only child.”

The sarcasm didn’t escape me, but I felt relieved. It made sense. The law had to be the same for everyone. It would protect me because it protected innocents.

Sherriz consulted a paper. “Highness, may I ask you some questions?”

“Please do. I’m as eager as you are to discover who killed the Queen.” My mouth started trembling at the thought of Bellizza. I bit my lip hard, stilling the tremor.

“What sort of relationship did you have with the queen?”

I blinked and stared. “Would you mind repeating the question please?”

“Highness, what sort of a relationship did you have with the late Queen Bellizza?”

I knitted my brows. “We were friends, as you well know, Chief Minister.”

Sherriz jotted down something. “Did you feel Queen Bellizza was coming between you and your father?”

Either my ears were playing tricks, or Sherriz had lost his memory. This time when I answered, my voice was taut with suppressed anger. “You know the queen did everything in her power to bring my father and me closer. And I don’t understand the relevance of these questions.”

He scrawled again, the pen moving over the paper with ponderous dignity. “Did you resent your stepmother for taking your mother’s place?”

That did it. One of us had to be mad. “I didn’t resent my stepmother. I loved her.” Stop shrieking, Allii. “Shouldn’t you be asking me about this supposedly poisoned rose-apple? That’s why I’m under suspicion, isn’t it?”

“Highness, I will decide on the manner of this proceeding, not you.”

I glared at Sherriz, trying not to scream at him. “I want to see my father.”

Sherriz flashed a thin smile. “His Majesty is in mourning. He is not seeing anyone.”

“Other than you.” The words were out before I could stop them.

His thin smile widened a fraction. “Indeed, Highness. Now, are you refusing to answer my questions?”

His eyes caught mine and held them. There was a challenge in his gaze. I looked away first. He held all the cards. I was not just powerless. I was also in the power of this man who for some reason had never liked me.

I tried to cover myself with the tatters of my torn dignity. “I have no intention of not answering your questions.”

Sherriz bowed. “What did you feel about your father’s marriage?”

“I can’t remember. It was a long time ago.”

“Did you fear that your prospects would be adversely affected by a sibling?”

I took a deep breath, steadying myself. “Since Sallonian law doesn’t permit a queen-regnant, your question is irrelevant. Why aren’t you asking me about the supposedly poisoned rose-apple?”

Sherriz’s pale blue eyes met mine. “May I remind you that you are not in a position to make demands?”

“I’m demanding justice.”

“You will be given justice.”

My hands clenched. I unclenched them. Princess Albalia thumping Chief Minister Sherriz on his lying mouth would be deemed unseemly. Plus it wouldn’t do me any favors. And I had a favor to ask.

“I want to pay my last respects to the queen, Chief Minister, to be present at her funeral. I would be most grateful if you could arrange it.”

Sherriz rolled the papers into a neat cylinder. “The queen’s last rites were performed at dawn, Highness.”


There was a story I loved as a child, of a giant trapped in a cave. He ate whatever he could find, rodents, slugs, ferns- A few holes on the roof brought in breathable air and a hint of the sun. To keep track of the weeks, months and years, he made marks on the walls with a nail he pulled out of his own boot, one dash per day.

In the end, he ran out of places for his dashes.

My prison was my suite of rooms. Maids brought my meals from the royal kitchen. They did my laundry, made my bed, dusted, swept, took away used stone-lights and brought back re-powered ones. They didn’t return my smiles and ignored my greetings and thanks.

Nellin accompanied them often. Though her tongue remained silent, her grief-haunted eyes continued to accuse me.

Every morning my interrogators descended on me. Sherriz asked the same questions, again and again. After they left, I was on my own.

I spent the crawling hours writing letters. I wrote to Father begging for justice, and permission to visit Bellizza’s grave. I wrote to Nana asking after her health, telling her how much I missed her. I wrote to Prince Bernalin (Uncle Bernii, Father’s cousin and heir, and my favorite relative) explaining my predicament. I wrote to Doktoras Poll assuring him the poisoned rose-apple couldn’t have been mine. I wrote to Cousin Tygyrin asking for books. I wrote to Minister Ekko reminding him that both entrances to the Queen’s Apartment were guarded, and requesting him to obtain for me a list of all those who were in the Apartment at the time of the murder or came in from outside.

I had no idea whether the letters were even delivered. Still I wrote.


On the fifth day of my imprisonment, Sherriz’s questions turned into statements.

“We have been informed that two days before the queen’s arrival in Sallonia, you cried and said you hated her.”

I shrugged.

“Three days before the wedding you said if your stepmother tried to mother you, you would,” Sherriz looked at the piece of paper in his hand, “you would pull her blue hair until she was blue in the face.”

I resisted the urge to stamp my foot and shrugged again.

When they were gone, I strode about the room, driven by memories.

The wedding festivities for Father and Bellizza had lasted seven days, as dictated by Sallonian traditions. The ceremonies would begin with dawn and continue late into the night, well past my bedtime. Each night, a pageant was staged depicting a portion of Sallonians’ epic journey to their new homeland. It was followed by one of the seven traditional Sallonian dances: water-pot dance, peacock dance, red-mammoth dance, fire-pole dance, planting dance, harvesting dance, and winnowing dance.

On the first night, I tossed and turned in bed, wishing I was down there watching the fun. Suddenly there was a murmur of voices in the antechamber, and a knock on the door. It opened and Bellizza peeped in.

“May I come?”

I nodded, trying to smile.

Bellizza closed the door, walked over to the bed, and placed a silver box on the bedside table. “Cocolade balls, infused with honey.”

My mouth watered. Cocolade was a luxury even for a princess.

Bellizza smiled, “In my land, there are Cocolade trees.”

I gulped. “Cocolade trees?”

“Well, trees with pods from which cocolade is made.” A shadow that had nothing to do with the dim light in the room fell over her face. “I’m going to miss them.”

I looked at Bellizza, saw the darkness in her eyes and realized she would never see her own home again. She’d have to spend the rest of her life among people who looked so very different to her, people with yellow or brown hair and brown skins, other than me of course, with my copper-collared hair and copper-collared skin. The only time Bellizza would see a blue-haired, pearl-skinned person would be when she looked in a mirror.

Would that make her lonely, sad? Did Mother feel the same way? She too would have been the only red haired, black-skinned person in the entire realm.

The thought disturbed me, for a reason I didn’t understand. So did the silence eddying around us.

I asked in a rush, “Are you going to be my new mother?”

Bellizza had been staring at a painting on the wall. She turned towards me. There was no smile on her face. She looked solemn. “Do you want me to?”

A no was impossible. I said nothing.

Bellizza nodded. “You have Nanarina to mother you. I’d like to be your friend. I’d like us to be friends.”

Bellizza had kept her promise. I hadn’t. Had I stayed with her that afternoon, instead of seeking the more exciting company of my plants, I could have saved her. The murderer wouldn’t have been able to poison Bellizza with nivati-


I had a nivati plant in my indoor garden, bush-like with long satiny-green leaves and yellow flowers. Its berries killed slowly, and painfully, after hours of agonizing convulsions.

The way Bellizza looked in death was etched in my mind. Her body bore signs of some pain, but not convulsions.

Bellizza was poisoned, but not with nivati.

Doktoras Poll would know the properties of nivati. Even if he didn’t he could have checked it in a book.

What he said about nivati was no honest mistake, no accidental error. He, who was my mother’s friend, who was present at my birth and her death, lied to pin Bellizza’s murder on me.

Why? Why? Why?

Panic washed over me in unrelenting waves. I began saying plant names out loud in alphabetical order. By the time the list was over, the evening was advanced, exhaustion had obliterated panic, and I could think.

My plight was not due to my usual bugbears, Sherriz’s malice, Nellin’s spite, and Father’s indifference. It was the result of a conspiracy, which involved Poll, Sherriz, and probably Nellin. The whys of the conspiracy still eluded me but its implications were all too clear. I was alone, surrounded by people who wished me harm. To expect any justice from them would be lunacy. I had to find my own way out.

The grilles barred one way out. Even if I managed to overpower the maids and get out of the door, I wouldn’t go far.

I had my casket of jewels. Nellin wasn’t bribable, but the maids might be. Perhaps if I made a show of compliance, my enemies would relax a little, and the maids might be less hostile, more open to persuasion-

As flimsy as a moth’s wing.

I brushed the thought aside. The plan had enough holes to double up as a sieve, but I could think of nothing better. I’d pretend to be compliant and bide my time.

Maybe I’d even learn something to my advantage, as they say in the books.

I wanted to laugh, laugh until there was no laughter left in me.


At first, responding to outrageous statements with polite words was teeth-gritting tough. But with each new day, the pretence became easier, more natural.

As I became more docile, Sherriz turned friendlier. On the eleventh day of my imprisonment, he shifted the interrogation onto a new track, from Mean Princess Albalia hated Good Queen Bellizza to Evil Queen Bellizza detested Innocent Princess Albalia.

“Highness, were you aware that the queen disliked you?” Sherriz’s tone was sympathetic, even friendly.

Was my plan working? I conjured an ingratiating smile. “The queen didn’t hate me.”

Sherriz shook his head. “You were too trusting, Highness.” His voice was sad and a little stern, almost a parody of Nana’s. “Did you know she was trying to ruin your prospects?”

I opened my eyes as wide as possible. “I can’t believe she would do such a thing.”

“The king found a great match for you. She persuaded him to abandon it.”

I had been staring at my hands, which I always kept folded on my lap. At those words my head shot up.

Sherriz watched me, his eyes as wide and as guileless as an excited baby’s.

I closed my eyes.

Soon after my sixteenth birthday, an emissary from the Kikilonian Empire had arrived with a proposal. Nana had wept with joy. “I knew my baby-princess was destined for greatness,” she said, holding my face in her cupped hands. “You might even be an empress, my love.”

I laughed. “It’s the fourth son, Nana, not the heir.”

Nana’s expression hardened. “One God can make many things happen.”

That evening, I went to Father’s library and looked in the books. I don’t remember being happy or unhappy about the proposal. I just wanted to know everything possible about the country which might become my new home. “Knowledge can spare you much trouble,” Uncle Bernii used to say.

On the second day of reading, I discovered a fertility rite still practiced in the Kikilonian Empire. Every royal bride had to live one year in isolation, in a special palace. Her only duty was to rear a newly-born yellow ram. Once the year was up, she had to sacrifice the ram by beheading him at the temple of One God. The consummation of the marriage would happen that night.

The book slipped from my fingers. I ran to Bellizza.

Bellizza was in the Green Room, a large chamber filled with artificial trees and mechanical birds, relaxing on a daybed. Nellin sat on a low chair, watching her.

They looked up when I went in, Nellin’s frown darker than a thundercloud. Bellizza held out a hand. “Allii, what is wrong?”

“May I have a word alone?”

Bellizza signaled to Nellin who threw me a murderous glare before closing the door behind her.

I sat by Bellizza. “I don’t want this marriage.”

Bellizza frowned. “But why, Allii? It’s a good match. You will occupy a position of honor.”

I told her.

Bellizza’s eyes caught mine and held them. “Is this horrible fertility rite the only reason you don’t want this marriage? You haven’t formed an attachment to someone?”

I laughed. “As if I have the chance, Belle! Or do you think I’m spoilt for choice between Sherriz, and Doktoras Poll and Chief Priest Pena?” I stopped noticing the anxious expression in Bellizza’s face. “Belle, I swear, when I dream, it’s about roaming the world looking for new plants.”

Bellizza’s stare had continued, as if trying to read my innermost thoughts. Then she had given a lopsided smile. “I’ll talk to your father. He is unlike to refuse me.” She had placed her hand on her heavy stomach, and added, “Not for a week or two.”

Tears were misting my eyes. I blinked them back and touched my forehead. “May we stop for today, Chief Minister? My head is aching.”

Sherriz stood with alacrity and bowed.

I nodded my thanks and hurried to my bedroom.

Stars die, Bellizza once told me. They are born, they live, and they die like us. Bellizza had been like a new star when she came to Sallonia to marry my father, young, beautiful, shining with happiness and hope. A decade later, she resembled a dead star, still young, still beautiful, but with a beauty dulled by grief and despair.

This is an excerpt from a novel titled I Will Paint the Night, 2023.
Edited by Marie Ginga


Sam Muller loves dogs and books. I will Paint the Night, a YA fantasy cum murder mystery, is her first novel. You can find it on Amazon.  You can find some of her published stories at these free links: Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Apparition Literary MagazineTruancy Magazine, Critical Read, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.