By Beka Gremikova
The crunchy bitterness of the riptalion leaf takes a slight edge off my craving. Grasping my swollen stomach, shoulders hunched, I glance back toward the castle, pushing strands of golden hair out of my face. Here in our private garden, my husband and I grow the dark green, large-leafed lettuce that has plagued my family since my grandmother first started chewing it.
Now, like my mother and grandmother before me, the craving gnaws at my thoughts. More.
What are you doing? You can’t!
You want your child born with this dependency?
Of course not. I don’t want it to ruin her life even as it claws its way through mine. My fingers quiver as I stuff the riptalion in my mouth.
What sort of queen are you?
Shame sharpens against my tongue like rancid milk. Think of something else! I picture strawberries and clotted cream, and icy-sour longing fills me. I sigh. Over the years, I’ve learned how to cope with my magical ability to taste emotions, but simple distraction doesn’t always work.
The warm, rich tang of venison—excited recognition—suddenly envelops me. I frown. It’s not my emotion I’m tasting. I glance over my shoulder.
A stranger lurks near the riptalion patch, his shoulders hunched, his bright golden hair streaked with grey. “Your Hig—” He swallows. “Riptali—”
The venison flavor melts into a muddle: fishy fear, searing-spice uncertainty—all mingled with the tartness of… desperation.
This man knows me.
“Grace is my name.” I stand. Riptalion is the name Witch Goten gave me, that of a woman enslaved to a plant and held captive by a sorceress. Grace is the name I gave myself.
His eyes shimmer.
My tongue tingles with cumin and nutmeg, his anticipation. The same flavors I taste when I’m about to gnaw on riptalion after going through withdrawal.
“Grace,” he murmurs. “Your mother…”
That hair. Those hunched shoulders. Details I see in the mirror every day. “You’re my… father?” The words are charcoal, gritty.
“You gave me over to a witch!” I gasp for breath. “Goten locked me up in a tower because I was growing up.” She didn’t want to lose me like her little Peter, who flew off to some land she couldn’t reach. She cursed me to taste emotions, as if knowing her every feeling would bind me to her.
But I did grow up, fell in love…
I cradle my stomach, gazing back at the castle. My eldest children are probably pestering their governess for riptalion while I scrounge in the garden. I’ve forbidden them from it, but I can’t resist it myself. I blink back tears.
What sort of queen are you?
The man shuffles forward. Resignation exudes from him in waves of pickle brine as he sits cross-legged on the ground. “There is no excuse. Your mother…”
“Craves it still? Did she send you here to steal some from me now?” As I say it, rotten egg putrefies in my mouth.
“She wanted me to see you.” His voice, honeysuckle-soft, breaks. My eyes sting at his devotion to the woman who traded me for lettuce before I was even born. His stinging-pine regret and salty longing chase the heated words from my lips.
Perhaps he wishes to have been better than he was.
Just as I long to be better than I am.
“Does she regret giving me up?”
“She couldn’t face you. She still struggles so much. She hates herself for what happened, but the craving…” His gaze slides across the riptalion patch to my green-smudged fingers. His sorrow is cold summer rain on my tongue. “You understand, I see.”
“I haven’t given up my children.”
“I’m glad you don’t have to.” Though his tone sounds sad and not reproving, the words still scald. I’m privileged to garden my own riptalion—to not have to resort to stealing, to giving up my children to satisfy my hunger. “I pray every day you might break the cycle.”
I suck in a breath. If only it were so simple.
He stands. “Thank you for letting me see you, Grace.” He stuffs his hands in his pockets. “Your mother will be happy to hear you’ve grown into a strong queen.” He starts shuffling away.
What sort of queen are you?
“If…” I stop, then plow on. “If you’re in need of riptalion, you may collect from my garden. Stop by my steward’s office and tell him I gave you permission.” You don’t have to steal anymore.
The man’s eyes widen. “I thought you hated us.”
“I’m trying not to.” If I hate you, I hate myself. I gather a leafy bunch and drop it into his hands. “Take this back to your wife. Tell her… there’s nothing to fear from me. I haven’t had a real mother in a long time. I don’t know if she can ever be that for me, but…” My anticipation and longing surprise me with the warm comforts of clotted cream and strawberry jam. “Perhaps she can still be a grandmother to my children.”
The man hugs the riptalion to his chest. Before he can speak, I say, “I must go now. I’m to help my husband look over our roses.”
The man, my father, nods and hurries off in the direction of my steward’s office. He passes my husband halfway down the next row but offers him only a furtive glance.
My husband beckons me to join him deeper in the garden, and I gladly leave the lettuce patch behind. “Who was that man?” he asks as we wander amongst the roses. Here, our mutual love and affection mingle in the crisp, clean tastes of spring and autumn, our favorite seasons.
I gaze behind me. The craving that tugs at me now is not for the riptalion plants fluttering in the breeze. “An… acquaintance.” Perhaps, one day, family.
Because I know what sort of queen I want to be. One who has grace for others—and for herself.