1474 c/o Valerie O'Riordan

King of Hearts

“You're the King now, Al,” whispered his mother, pinching his cheek and hoisting him onto the throne. She balanced the crown awkwardly on his head. “My little King. Give us a smile, duck.”

The crown dug into his scalp like a manacle. Alfonso shivered. The old kings rotted away in their tombs like spoiled meat; his father lay upstairs, cold and silent, waiting to join them. Alfonso gripped his mother's arm and showed his teeth, milky and square. His intake of breath was ferocious. His mother smiled triumphantly at the court.

“You're my Queen now, right? Pay attention,” Al told his cousin, pushing her onto her back and straddling her. His narrow body trembled. He looked at her breasts, the curved lines of her waist, her skinny teenage legs. He moaned. Isabel shifted and propped herself up on one arm.

“Show me how it's done, why don't you, Highness,” she spat, and the courtiers, clustered around the edges of the room, winced.

Al swore and knocked her back down. He heard her arm snap behind her, a horrible cracking retort. He smiled. She screamed, and so did the courtiers. Alfonso roared above them all – “Shut up! Shut up! – and he held his hand over her mouth and mounted her. Their strangled breaths and grunts filled the air.

“Bow to your fucking King,” barked the soldier, casting a quick apologetic glance up at Alfonso, who gazed down from his ten-foot platform like a man in a trance. The slaves fell to their knees, some willingly, the rest jerked off their feet by the snapping chains.

Al squinted past them. Their dark faces merged into the wavering desert landscape. He spied out for snakes, lizards, deadly spiders. When he lost concentration, Isabel appeared, accusing him, always choking on poisoned wine, her slack tongue lolling from her mouth as she fell to the ground, the wine glass shattering.

They brought the slaves back home, men and women lashed together and stumbling alongside the mules by the roadside. Al picked out one of the women, tall, with a proud gaze, and ordered her sent to his chambers. He dressed her in his mother's old gowns, tattered and yellow, and had her coo lovingly at him.

“You're my little King, aren't you, pet?” she murmured, hesitantly, stroking his balding head, struggling with the unfamiliar language. Al didn't notice. He gurgled, kicked his legs, and laughed.

“I'm the Queen,” the girl repeated, staring at her uncle. She planted her hands on her hips. “You can be the King, but I'm going to be the Queen.”

Alfonso nodded. His sister's bastard child. Her head reached his chest. She was younger than Isabel had been at the time of their marriage. Her cheeks were flushed and determined. Her small breasts pushed against her dress. Al swallowed. He knelt beside her and a servant handed him a pen. They signed, her careful round print dominating the page. She underlined her name with a flourish. Al's scrawl crept out beside it.

“You're my Queen now,” he said slowly, and reached out towards her, his mouth dry, but she laughed, and turned away.

“What an awful old man,” he heard her say to her maidservant as she left, and Alfonso pulled his knees up to his chest, curled on his throne, and wept.