Prompt: sired; strawberry shorthand
That day, the courtyard of the king’s palace overflowed like never before in the kingdom’s history. From every corner of the land, people brought gifts in the hope of currying favor from the mercurial tyrant. In the courtyard, wealthy landowners brought wagons full of fine wine, aged cheeses, and every other possible delicacy a person could hope to make or eat. One wagon, pulled by the largest team of horses anyone there had ever seen, had snow, brought from far to the north, piled high on slabs of ice thick as a hand’s width. Yet even these elite were searched by the relentless palace guards. They pawed through baskets and overturned platters. Though the courtyard was full, there was little merrymaking by the fearful guests.
On a dais, protected by spears and bows and swords, the king presided over all. His four brides, all made wives on that very morning, knelt behind the throne. Their dresses and veils used enough silk to clothe a village and their gold and diamond jewelry could feed a city for a year. Their eyes stayed downcast, but their ears were sharp. They listened as their new husband failed to enjoy the lavish celebration.
“Let the rabble present their gifts.” He drank from the never-empty cup at his side. “Then we may be rid of their noise and stinking animals.”
Members of the court brought forward their gifts first. “Swords of the finest steel,” the minister of finance said, “for the many sons you shall have.” Nobles presented horses of the best stock. “May your stables ever provide horses worthy of the future princes.” Court craftsmen together presented one dozen suits of full armor. They shone in the noonday sun like the bodies of gods. “Your Majesty shall produce an army of sons and may it be our honor to craft for all their glorious victories.”
It went on like this, with king and court both tired by the endless stream of supplicants and sycophants. It wore on and on. The sun began to set and the servants brought out torches to light the courtyard. By then, the brides’ knees ached from kneeling and the king nodded, drowsy with drink. At last, the only guests left were peasants with meager gifts pooled by whole villages: a ransom for them but wretched to the king’s eyes.
The final guest, the sunburnt and footsore masses saw, bore her gift in nothing more than a basket strapped to her back. Each guard watching her believed someone else had been the one to search her. No guest could remember where she had been until that moment. With the practiced ease of any peasant, she swung the trunk-sized basket from her back. She knelt behind it and put a hand on the latch for the lid.
She hesitated so long that even the king took notice and watched her. “I bring you the gift of Springs present and past.” She lifted the lid. Inside, red berries nestled in tidy rows. Each one shone in the torchlight, as though polished for the occasion. “Strawberries, for the sweetness of Your Majesty’s daughters.”
The king lurched to his feet. “How dare you dishonor us so? We will not bear the suggestion that we would sire a daughter.”
“Oh, but you already have.” And the woman winked as she reached into another compartment of the basket. She held out her arms and in them rested an infant.
“Guards, seize that woman.”
“I know your heart.” She laid the baby on top of the berries. They burst, ripe and tender, under the slight weight and stained the child’s wrappings red like blood. “Exhaust yourself and your guards trying to kill the child.” The guards surrounded the two of them with weapons drawn. “May you find her harder to abandon than her mother.” And then, without even a conjurer’s smoke and lights, she disappeared, leaving only an unwelcome gift behind.