The winner of the first ever Book House Short Story Competition has been announced at the Thame Arts and Literature Festival.
Jo Tiddy was awarded the prize of £100 worth of book tokens for her story ‘The Queen’s Sister’. The theme for the competition was ‘Family’ and entries could be no more than 2,000 words. After whittling around 30 entries from unpublished authors down to just seven, the winner was announced in the town hall on Saturday. Judge Tom Mogford House, himself a finalist in the Crime Writers’ Debut Dagger Award, did the honours, saying the winning story stood out for its creativity, composition and compactness.
Read the story below.
The Queen’s Sister
It’s a man. It’s always a man with my sister. She attracts them like carrion to the dead. My sister is cursed by her poor choices in men, it appears. All I can do is help her through the pain and pick up the pieces afterwards. It has ever been like this, I am always the one standing by. It’s what family are for.
High born, noble born, we should have been blessed. As children in Tyre, it seemed that we were.
And my sister more blessed than most. Truly, the Gods seemed to smile on her. She had it all; beauty, intelligence, a great future. Me, not so much; younger, plainer, not smiled upon by anyone really.
“I will rule a great city, I will be a great queen”. She spent our childhood telling me this, serene, sure, accepting. Sometimes I would have to remind her that her head was the size of a watermelon, but she’d just laugh. She meant no malice. I didn’t mind, over much. I knew my place, as beloved younger sister.
But the minds of men, and those of the Gods, are unknowable, shrouded in mists. They feed off unhappiness, discord. When our father died, she expected to step into her inheritance. But our brother, cheerful Pygmalion, preferred not to share, and our world turned upside down. In one step he went from loving brother to murderous tyrant; fuelled by lust for gold and envy.
“He’s the only man I’ll ever love,” she sobbed when news came that her husband had been murdered by our own brother, and she collapsed into such a storm of weeping that I thought she’d follow him straight to the grave. It was me who found the ship to take us away, it was me who deceived our brother with stories of treasure hidden, so he spent his days searching for gold and did not think to keep an eye on us. It was me who hustled our sister away one cool night, away from Tyre, away from home, and out onto the open seas with no destination in mind. It was me who, when we reached the Kingdom of Libya, put into her mind the trick to get land. I did all these things, and kept her safe.
And so now she raises a city to Juno, a city to honour the goddess, the fairest city ever. Together we build, we conspire to fend off those who would wed her for her beauty, her city. We are happy; she rules, but I am always there, beside her. “Virtuous Anna,” people say, “so true to her sister.” But their eyes are only on her.
And then of course… a man has to come and ruin it all.
All sorts wash up on Carthage’s shores: sailors and pirates and merchants, refugees and fugitives.
None like this man though. He strolls into the palace one day, our palace of the winds that overlooks the azure seas, and I see him first. He looks like a God, all the women gape at him, astounded at his beauty. He comes with a tale to tell and who can resist him? A tale of a long war, of a lost cause, of accursed treachery. He comes trailing a pretty son and the shade of a dead wife. Who can resist?
Not my sister, cold and pure on her lonely throne. She takes one look at him, smiling up at her, and falls into love, so quickly that I suspect it’s a madness sent by the Gods.
“Tell us your story, traveller” she says, her lips parted, the sheen of desire on her forehead. She pours him wine with her own hand. She looks so beautiful in the lamp light.
‘I saw him first,’ I think, and I turn my head so I don’t have to look at them.
“Sister,” I whisper to her later in her rooms, “Sister, you know the only way to stay safe is not to love, not to tie yourself to some man, who likely only wants you for your inheritance.”
“I’m lonely, Anna,” she says simply. “So lonely.”
“And your poor dead husband, who you swore to remain true to?” It’s a lie we have told so often to fend off others that we have come to believe it ourselves.
“But he is dead,” she replies. “And I am only now just learning to live.”
She doesn’t listen to me. She’s obsessed with this Trojan Prince. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.
How do we remain safe when her mind is filled with him? All work, on the city, on the temples, comes to a halt. She forgets everything. I am sure it’s a sickness. Not one that I have ever suffered, true. Nobody is lining up for my hand, no one is composing poems to my beauty, no one is sitting at my feet telling pretty stories of great deeds.
Still, it will wear off, I’m sure. She’s not stupid enough to think there’s a future in it, surely?
But it’s as though Cupid himself has drawn an arrow and pierced her breast. She uses every opportunity to spend time with him. They walk together in olive groves. They hunt, and she conspires to separate him from the rest of us, they got lost, she says, had to hide out the storm. She feeds him food from her own plate. She moons about like a love-sick girl, not a queen. She’s drunk on him, and I lose her. He never even sees me.
“We are married,” she confides, joy filling her eyes. It’s not a marriage though, not a proper one, sanctified by priestesses. It’s not recognised by anyone else. It’s an excuse to tumble in her bed during the long hot afternoons when the wind across the sea dies down.
He’s just a man, a mortal man like any other, conniving and deceitful until they get what they want.
But passion fades, even a queen’s beauty can pale. He’s got lots of good excuses; I remind him of them frequently, in the guise of innocent questions. I ask about his dead wife, and the dreams she sends him. Surely the Gods have set him to some high destiny, surely the Gods don’t approve of this match; is he not to found a great city, a lineage of his own? I take his own words and I throw them back at him. He’ll say anything, in the end, to get away.
I rush to her rooms in the high tower on the day he says goodbye. She’s red-eyed from weeping, her voice cracks, “He’s really going?” She still can’t quite believe it.
I point out of the window to where the fleet are preparing in the bay, sails billowing white as his men haul the ropes in.
“He’s really going.”
“I begged him, Anna. I promised him everything. I thought he loved me. And when the begging didn’t work, I cursed him. I said our nations would always be enemies, through the ages, that I would hate him for eternity and turn away from him in the afterlife. Even that didn’t work.” She sobs, her voice catches in her throat again.
“He’s betrayed you,” I say, and my voice is flat. I don’t mince my words. I don’t try to comfort her.
“He’s used you and now he’s leaving.” There may be a hint of bitterness behind my words; I can’t help it. We all fell a little in love with him, I think. But he didn’t see me, he only saw her.
If she is surprised at my tone she doesn’t say. Instead she pulls her shoulders back, raises her head high, and says, “You’re right. I must put him behind me. I must scrub myself clean of him. I must purify myself.” She almost smiles. At least she is calmer now.
“I want everything of his burned,” she announces. “Tell them to take all of it, and build a pyre. I will sacrifice everything we shared to the Gods, so that they may smile on me again. They are not smiling on me at the moment.”
I order it done, then I steal away to weep by myself. I look out over the bay; the sea is now bereft of ships, and my heart is breaking too.
I really had no idea, I swear. I didn’t see the turmoil in her mind. Wrapped up in my own hidden misery, I didn’t stop to think. I assumed that the cleansing fires would remove all memories of him and she would dedicate herself once more to her city and her people. That she’d come back to me.
But it wasn’t like that.
As the sun sets she stands before the pyre, dressed in coarse spun linen. They have laboured all afternoon, using oak and sweet smelling cypress, to burn bright. She even orders her bed be heaped upon it, the bed where she spent so many happy hours with him. She looks on as they bring all the trinkets and baubles that he left behind and toss them onto the pyre. They bring something more deadly, too. He left his blade, forged in Troy. A sword that has killed many Greeks, according to him.
How he came to forget it here is a mystery. She leans to pick it up, stands tall, then throws herself onto the sharpened point, down onto the bed. The steel pierces her breast, slides in easy, as if her very flesh is melting.
It takes a moment, this act, only a moment. Then she is dying, fading in my arms as I cradle her. She tries to speak, to lift her head, but the life flows out of her so fast that she can’t. Her eyes go dark, and I scream and rent my clothes even as the Goddess Juno takes her.
“She’s not meant to die, she’s not meant to die! Don’t leave me, Dido!” But she is already walking through the glades of Proserpina and now the fire is set, racing upward through the dry tinder as if to reach the heavens. As the smoke rises, towers into the darkening skies, I hope that Aeneas, faithless Aeneas, is standing on his ship looking back at it, and wondering. I hope too, that the Gods don’t tell her of the secrets in my heart.
I am as guilty as he is; her heart shattered and I rejoiced a little at that. I look through the smoke to see if I can see a future for myself, a husband, a child, and I see nothing, nothing but the shifting waters of the sea beyond, and a memory of what might have been.