In an alternate timeline, the Blackwell dynasty reigns over early 16th Century England. The only surviving child/daughter of the deceased King Henry VII, Henrietta Blackwell - as a woman - has no choice but to bring her family honour through a suitable marriage. But she has other ideas...
** Author's Note: My intention with this contest entry was to take a non-traditional approach to prove how oppressed, socially-restricted women/girls can still find ways to be kick-ass heroines too. Without being a highly trained assassin armed with an axe or such. Enjoy! **
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Some say that women are weak. Some say that women cannot be heroes, or warriors, for we cannot wield swords or charge into battle. But some people are wrong.
We have much deadlier weapons at our disposal.
As I stride along the grey-stone corridor, flanked by my loyal guards, the Tower of London's prison quarters smell like they always do. Like flesh and blood -- and filth. Nobody tells you how much people soil themselves before they die. But recently I've become well-acquainted with death, playing the role of the Grim Reaper's best supplier, and now the stench barely makes my nostrils flare.
At the end of the corridor, another set of guards bow and salute, before pulling open a heavily guarded, wooden door. The entranceway creaks and groans like a miserable man on its hinges -- or perhaps the moans are actually coming from the real, more miserable man inside. Christopher Howard. Begging and filthy, curled up in the far corner.
Though his complaining stops short the minute I enter the cell. As if all the life has been sucked out of the room.
I tend to have that effect on people.
"Leave us," I command the guards, with a simple, dismissive wave of my hand.
Without a word, they obey. Why wouldn't they?
I am Henrietta Blackwell. Heir and Queen to the royal Blackwell dynasty, which presides over England. The last daughter of the last father.
And a disgrace to my name, some might add. Simply because I was born a girl.
But even though I cannot become a great ruler for my family, or those snide gossips at court, it doesn't mean I can't still become something else.
A reckoning and a heroine for myself.
"Come to gloat?" my prisoner says, spitting on the floor only inches away from my slippers.
Tutting, I shake my head melodramatically from side-to-side. With such wretched, animalistic behaviour, anyone would think we were enemies. Not lovers. Not husband and wife.
"Of course not, my love," I reply mockingly, crouching down to his height. "I've only come to see my sweetheart."
But as I reach out my hand towards his cheek, he viciously slaps it away. And I can't help the wicked, twisted smile which quickly spreads across my face.
"Why are you doing this?" he growls. He needn't gesture around the prison cell to make his point -- not to the bare, cold floor or the waste bucket fermenting in the corner.
"Because I have to," I say.
I raise an eyebrow. "You know why."
And, as he swallows hard, I know that he does.
Barely sixteen months ago, nobody could have predicted that we would find ourselves in our present situation. Apart from maybe those prying-eyed, crone-nosed business intruders who float around court in fine suits and fancy dresses. Debating and speculating about who's-bumping-uglies-with-who, or that-oh-so-scandoulous-thing, over hunting trips and too much wine. They probably saw this coming.
Especially for the fifth time.
But nobody else.
To an outsider, my girlish giggles and gooey-eyes at the first mention of Christopher Howard's name would have only hinted at a future romance with him. He said all the right words, pulled all the right wooing tricks. But he isn't my first husband -- and he won't be my last. Even if I am only 18.
The first was a man named Christopher of Aragon. Red-haired, blue-eyed, and the son of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castille. A noble, worthy suitor -- even if he was married to my older, recently deceased sister first. He was handsome. He was smart. And he had enough charm to woo the swallows down from the trees...or at least arrange a very extravagant dove releasing ceremony in my honour. But after I married him at 14, besotted and (for the first and last time) truly in love, his condemning crime wasn't that he had taste for Blackwell blood. He never made it to Christopher's situation, but our divorce and his shameful banishment came as a price for something else he had done, something much darker and deeper than I ever thought possible.
The second was Andrew Boelyn. He wasn't quite as lucky. And I had it all planned from the moment I met him. Execution for incest, witchcraft and plotting my death seemed to fit the bill. And hanging, drawing and quartering with squealing, blinded hogs made for quite a spectacle.
The third was called Justin Seymour. The best friend of husband no.1 and no.2. He tried to sneak into my bed before Andrew was even dead and buried in the ground...and I let him. Just for a while. Just until he'd fallen under my spell like all the others, thinking me nothing more than a simpering, weak girl -- his to toy and play with as he pleased. But, in the end, he was the only one who ever managed to escape my clutches. To end it all himself - with a noose around the neck - as soon as he figured out what I was doing. What I had already done to the other two -- and what I planned to do to him.
The fourth - and my latest victim - was a German prince. Anders of Cleeves. My consort for six months, before I offered him a choice -- help me end others like him, or else his name would be added to my tally. Be my informant or die. Though our well-orchestrated, messy divorce still painted him in a worse light than me for the minor indiscretion he had committed.
And now there is number 5.
Sitting before me, crying and shivering in the frigid air, knowing that I have come to take the last thing that belongs to him. His wet, pathetic excuse for an existence.
"Why?" he dares to ask again.
Because it's the only way I can protect my people, I want to reply. Instead, I say: "Because I can."
There are too many reasons to count.
Husband no.1 was a perfect man. A dream, an expertly carved statue come to life. Until the day I caught him dragging my servant - and my best friend - Elena into a secluded palace room and beating her to within an inch of her life. We had grown up in London together. Played together. Laughed together. Afterwards, as I secretly tended to her cuts and bruises by candlelight, she told me that she wasn't the first. Christopher of Aragon had beaten many servants before, and for much less - her 'crime' had been stealing an emerald ring that had belonged to his mother. The same one he had given the previous week, before clearly forgetting about it. When Elena's health declined over the following weeks, right up until the day she dropped stone dead preparing my bed for the night, I swore that I wouldn't let such an injustice go unpunished. Even after so many years, the striking feel of my father's hand of my face still stung. And I couldn't let something so much worse, so much more evil, happen to other people simply because it could.
It didn't matter that I couldn't throw him out of court, or run him through with a blade, myself. Soon I learnt that I had other ways - other powers - to use against him. I was heartbroken, distraught, angry.
But Christopher of Aragon had to pay. And he did.
Husband no.2 was worse. So much worse. So much so that - even now - I can barely bring myself to think about it. The whore houses in the poor parts of the city. Those girls who he took, slammed down on the beds, and had his way with. Over and over again. Through their tears, their pain and their torment. Only to then haul them down to the river, bind their hands, and toss them in with heavy stones in their pockets. As soon as I heard about his habits, I made a beeline for him as my second husband, swearing under my breath that he would suffer more than he had made my subjects suffer.
Husband no. 3 was shallow and vile. He wasn't even meant to be on my hit list, but he put himself there. At the time, I was done with men. Court hated me for the fact that I hadn't found a suitable, steady marriage - and produced an heir - more than they hated me for being a girl. I was ready to give up, screw them and their sorry expectations. But one night, a lowly stable boy restored my faith in myself -- and possibly in love too. By the next morning, though, he was dead. Poisoned. Killed by someone who wanted to eliminate the supposed 'competition' vying for my hand. And Justin Seymour had made himself my next target.
Husband no.4 was the best of a bad bunch. He hadn't killed my subjects, or stolen their pride and dignity, but he had an affinity for taking something else instead. Something glittering, gold, and doled out under my command to those who needed it most. Orphanages. Schools. People trying to dig their families up and out of the gutter. Rumours about the rich man stealing from the poor flitted around London for weeks before I believed them, but when I did the old solution returned like a familiar friend. My one way to protect my people. My only way.
And so, like the rest, I married the demon. I committed myself to the monster. I sold away another tiny piece of my soul at the prospect of ruining and annihilating him.
Which is why I can't even bring myself to say what Husband no.5 has done aloud.
"They say you're having me sentenced for adultery," Christopher Howard snaps. A feral dog in chains, determined to go down barking until the end.
What a shame he seems more like a yapping lap dog.
"I am." But that's not the only reason.
"And you'll seriously watch me be beheaded?"
No hesitation on my part. "I will."
"Then I'm glad," he says. His dark eyes flash with malice and hatred -- planted long ago. Back when he became more monster than man. "I'm glad I'm not going to die with the taste of Blackwell skin under my lips, Henrietta. I'm glad I got to feel Tatiana Colpetter beneath my hands, bowing and bending and uttering my name. I'm glad I got to kiss her, to whisper sweet words in her ear, to see her glorious smile so unlike your evil, shark's grin."
"And I'm glad too," I agree. "Glad that my face will be the last you ever see in this world."
For I may just be a girl, I think, dreaming about all of my subjects' lives that I will save. A prospect I will willingly marry monsters and carry out vengeance for. But even if women cannot fight, if they cannot wield swords or charge into battle, we can still save the day. We still have power. We can still be heroes in our own way.