“So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears,
as was their custom, until their blood flowed.”
1 Kings 18:27-29
A stream of words, pointless and jumbled, was escaping an old man's mouth. Hunched over his table in a dark tavern room he mumbled: “No, no. It's wrong. The wrong set of cutlery. Why did they give me this fork? It's for the meat, and I have ordered the fish. The fish, I say! Have I not? Or maybe they want to give me meat instead of fish? Maybe they want to cheat? Oh, yes! That must be the case!”
A door opened with a bang, letting another stream of customers inside. The old man jolted in his seat. “What a hateful place! All those unsavoury peasants, coming and going. I am a man of letters! What am I doing here?!”
Agitated and still muttering to himself the old man jumped from his seat and rushed out of the tavern. In his haste to be as far as possible from this place he forcefully brushed past a young beggar in the street. The young man stumbled and almost lost his balance, clutching at his walking staff.
It was difficult to ignore murmurs, talks, shouts, or occasionally slurred words all around. It seemed as if the world had gone mad, making people voice out everything they saw, felt or thought every second of their lives. The constant level of noise was maddening. Every man talked, every woman laughed, every child cried.
Even in the churches, where one was supposed to hear only the rustle of holy pages or a soft preaching voice of a priest, the halls were filled with albeit hushed but never-ending whispers.
Hem frowned. Having been confined to the hearing only, he couldn't understand what people were talking about most of the time. Their jumbled speech, how they jumped from one subject to another without finishing the thought, seemed like a never-ending stream of consciousness. It made his head hurt.
He had arrived at this land not knowing what to expect. He had heard about the land's kind ruler, who in her wisdom could look into the hearts of men, read their sins and voice the god's justice. He was told about her love to her people and how kind and forgiving she was. How every word she uttered was considered more precious than a gemstone.
And how feared and loathed the Queen was because she was deaf to any pleadings and ignored worshipers. And how many of finest people found their death in those few words she bothered to utter.
Hem was intrigued.
The throne room was awash with the light of a fading sun and hushed murmurs. The windows were framed by the golden curtains, rich, and decorated in thick folds. The marble floor glittered in the setting sun.
In the middle of the room stood a throne on a podium. Craftily cut from the finest wood, it looked enormous compared to a young woman occupying it. The woman, almost a girl still, had a pale face and long white hair, which fell almost to her feet. The white dress, she was wearing, was made of the finest silk and lace. Streaming down the white folds of her dress, the hair mixed with the lace and almost wholly hid two thin tubes attached to the veins on the inner side of her elbow. A black tape covered her mouth. The ethereal paleness of the skin and the lifeless half-closed blue eyes made her look like a lost child. Or a madwoman.
But her name was Jasper, and she was the Queen of the ‘never silent’ kingdom.
The streams of court people came and went. Pages moved to and fro, minstrels played various tunes. Still, the Queen remained unaffected by it all. All because she couldn't hear. All the people, who never stopped talking, looked like fish to her: they opened and closed their mouths, but no sound came out.
Suddenly a new group of people came through the doors. A fat advisor and two old council members with long grey beards went in, followed by a shabbily dressed young man. He was walking slowly, leaning slightly on his staff. He went with the unsure step of an old man as if expecting to fall any second. Apparently, the court men walked too fast for him, so he managed to catch up with them only when they reached the throne.
He almost went into the fat man's back, while the other one was bowing ceremoniously to their Queen. That received him a glare and a curse, which he ignored.
“The greatest Queen Jasper, this man has come to seek justice from you. Please, honour us, your humble servants, with the wisdom of your Word,” said one of the old men.
The words were polite, but there was something mocking in the tone. Hem frowned. With a beating heart, he awaited the answer.
But the Queen remained silent.
A tentative hand brushed over her face. Cold fingers traced her white brow, moving to the forehead and hairline, and then going down the bridge of her straight nose. The fingers paused over her mouth, covering it for a moment. The lips were still.
“She doesn't talk?” asked the artist surprised. He had been given an unprecedented honour to touch the Queen’s face – he couldn’t see her, and the counsellors saw no harm in his request.
In the jumble of the hurried answers around him, he heard what they were not saying – they were afraid. The Queen was deaf, but she wasn't blind or stupid. She could hear, what they said without hearing their actual words. She could read their lies in their hearts and cruelly judged those who dared to hide the truth.
Jasper was the Queen of Silence and Justice. But it was a bloody justice, for every day used to bring new executions to the court. Until her faithful servants had realized that they could not go on like that.
They couldn't kill her because the people of the land adored her. So, they had closed up her mouth with the tape, which was kept on by the spell, pumped her blood with poison and counted their blessings. The executions had stopped.
Nobody outside the Palace knew what was going on. The common folk believed that the Queen was well and ruled happily, while, in fact, every law was being passed and executed by the councillors the way that suited them. If people wanted to see the Queen, they were admitted inside and shown the royal ruler from afar, so that nobody could reveal the wicked plan.
Inside the Palace, people ignored the Queen and counted days until her demise.
Until a noisy blind artist came, asking too many questions. He was blind and couldn't see the tape or the tubes coming to and from the Queen's body, poisoning her heart.
Jasper was dying. She couldn't hear or talk. The poison made her almost completely lose her powers, made it difficult for her to think, although she could still feel. And a sudden feel of cold fingers on her cheek woke her up.
Opening her eyes, she saw a young man standing right in front of her. He was tall and had a wondrously tanned skin. Dark, dirty hair and torn clothes spoke of him as a poor man who travelled a lot. The young man was leaning on a walking staff, and a worn blindfold covered his eyes. He was a travelling artist, she realized, someone who came from far away and didn't know anything about their land or their suffering Queen.
And he made her counsellors damn nervous. They stood behind the young man, their mouths opening and closing like that of fish. She could hear nothing though. The poison made her sleepy. She wanted the artist to stay. So she glared at her court. And they understood.
The artist stayed.
He slept at her feet and ate the food, the pages brought for the Queen. Jasper didn't need food, but the artist couldn't know that. So he ate little from the plate, leaving the rest for the Queen.
Every day he drew pictures, moving pencils gracefully over the paper as if he wasn't blind. He sketched colourful flowers and pretty birds of paradise. And Jasper could swear, she smelled their fragrance and heard birds chirp. She also saw the looks the court members gave her artist. He was a foreigner, who came from the land of the dead; a Pandora box; a strange, filthy and, what's more important, quite dangerous thing. He was a new Queen's toy that gave her enough reason to open her eyes a bit earlier each day.
The poison's effect was fading.
Still, Jasper was very weak. She almost didn't move. And even if she could, it wouldn't help communicating with the artist. She could only glare at her furious vassals and hope that on next morning when she woke up, the artist would be still alive.
The advisor cleared his throat and launched again into his tirade about how inappropriate it was for a poor beggar like him to sit daily at the feet of the Queen. And to lean back to the leg of her throne – unforgiving!
Hem knew that he was lying. The man was scared of him and wanted him dead. That didn't scare the beggar himself; he just hoped that the advisor would tire soon of his tirades and leave him alone. The man sounded like a toad and most probably looked like one as well. Hem envisioned him as a bloated middle-sized man with a red face and sparse hair. Croak-croak, said Toad the Advisor, and finally left.
Grasping his easel tighter, Hem leaned over the paper and let his fingers move. He was drawing something from his past, something he didn't want to remember but desperately wanted to share with the Queen. She might want him dead afterwards, but he didn't want to hide his sins.
That's what he had come here for.
So he drew and drew, until his wrist hurt and his fingers cramped. He drew small houses, little gardens, and empty streets with a wild forest in the background. He painted everything black, except for a lone figure in the middle of the picture. He was drawn in red, as if completely covered in blood, with the streams of red rivers flowing from his fingers in all directions.
Hem was painting his past.
“I could see their sins, every one of them,” he said quietly. “How men cheated on their wives, and wives stole their husbands' money, and kids who would throw stones at stray dogs. I was blessed with this gift of knowing their sins and with the ability to remedy them.” Moving the painting so that the Queen could see it, Hem continued, “I killed them all. Because none of them regretted what they had done.” He sounded sad but not disturbed by his words. “I'm blind because I cut my eyes out. I didn't want to see other people's sins anymore.”
He paused. “I heard of you, the Great Queen Jasper. Heard of your gift to read into the minds of people and voice the judgment.”
Then he added smiling slightly, “I only wish I could see you.” A small exhale behind him made him turn his head to look at Jasper with his blind eyes.
“I wish I knew what you are feeling.”
Using his stick to rise, Hem leaned closer to the Queen and reached out to touch her. His fingers missed her face and landed on her shoulder. Tracing thin bones with his fingers up to her jaw, Hem wished she would talk. Wished she would tell him the truth about his sins. Whether he deserved the right to walk under the sun or not.
The cheek under his fingers was wet. Jasper was crying.
“Hush, hush, my love. The murderer like me does not deserve your tears,” whispered Hem. Overwhelmed and surprised that anyone, let alone the Queen, would feel sorry enough for him to shed a tear, he leaned in and whispered, “I know I'm not worthy of your presence or your pity, and I will probably die for what I'm going to do. But let it be this way.”
Caressing her cheek, his fingers encountered something they hadn’t felt before – the edge of the tape covering her mouth. Tugging at it and peeling away the tape, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers.
The kiss ended, and Hem stepped away.
“Don't go,” were the first words uttered by the Queen after ten years of forced silence. Her voice was hoarse albeit surprisingly strong.
“You are talking!” breathed out Hem, amazed and surprised. But with the sudden happiness came another thought – he was going to hear his own sentence.
Kneeling awkwardly on the steps to the throne, Hem bowed his head and said, “Forgive me, my Queen, for such rudeness. What I came here for were your wisdom and your judgment. But instead, I stole your kiss.”
“What is your name, artist?” asked the Queen.
“My name is Hematite, my fair Queen,” answered the artist promptly. But it received no reaction from Jasper. Immediately realizing his mistake, for the Queen couldn’t read his lips and he dared not to look up at her face, Hem felt around for his fallen pencil and paper. Hastily, he drew a picture symbolizing his name.
“You bear the name of the Black Stone, which was created to contain all the sins of the mankind,” said finally Jasper. Hem bowed his head in acknowledgement.
The Queen was thoughtful. “It was said to be white as a moon. But then it went black with all the people's misdoings,” she said sadly.
Pausing in her speech she stirred her gaze away from the kneeling man to look at her court.
Meanwhile, the throne room seemed to have been filled in with all inhabitants of the royal castle. Councillors and pages, maids and cooks, musicians and other servants were present there. They all came to look at the Queen. The Queen, who could see and could talk.
“You told me about your past, my artist. But I want to know more about you. For you have captured my heart with your drawings.”
Bowing his head even lower to hide a smile threatening to burst on his lips, Hem drew a black eye and a dagger on paper. Aloud he said, “I was the Eyes of the god. I could see all the people's sins. But I am blind now; therefore I can't see what crimes you or your people have committed.”
Jasper's eyes filled with tears.
“And you came seeking my judgment?” she whispered.
The artist just smiled. He was still kneeling near her throne, dirty and ragged, but beautiful in his wildness and his sin.
Finally, the Queen said, “I am the Mouth of the god. But I was mute when you asked for my Word; therefore I couldn't condemn you for your sins. Although there is nothing to condemn you for. You have judged yourself guilty and executed the sentence. I have nothing against you.”
The people around them were whispering to each other, disgust and fear evident in their voices. How dare they condemn this brave young man to speak out loud about his misdoings while they hid in dark corners hoping to fool their Queen with meaningless words and fake smiles.
“Could you take these tubes out of my veins, my beloved? They are hurting me,” said Jasper.
Hem leaned close to his Queen, obeying her request. His fingers found the offensive plastic and tore it away. The blood from torn flesh flowed freely down the pale skin and white lace.
Suddenly there was a deafening silence in the throne room – everyone at once stopped talking, as the Queen, now free from the spell, regained her powers. And in this silence, everyone heard their Queen's next words: “And kill them all, my love. For they have sinned.”
Hem smiled and turned away from the Queen to face the waiting crowd.