“Frankincense and Myrrh” by Megan Arkenberg
There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory.
– 1 Corinthians 15:41
I shall see him, but not now;
I shall behold him, but not nigh.
– Numbers 24:17
Balthazar was dead. This was the whole of the message; the envoy from across the sea, silken-voice and dressed in cotton of a dozen colors, could not say how it had happened, only that it was unexpected, peaceful but sudden, as the deaths of young kings rarely are. Yet Melchior seemed to hear more than the young man reported. He slouched in his throne as though the years taken from Balthazar had been dropped on his own shoulders. Then he nodded, and waved his many-ringed hand to dismiss the messenger.
From my chair at the foot of the dais, I watched weariness spread across my husband’s face, weighing his lips and his eyelids, and I could guess at what he’d perceived. He was the last. Caspar, rich and jovial, had died in the same year as Herod, nearly three decades past. Melchior never knew him as anything but ancient. Poor Caspar was the subject of many fond remembrances of the desert’s vicious heat, the dromedary’s clumsiness; We’d have had more luck helping the old man saddle a mountain, my husband would say, laughing and clapping his knees. It was one of the few times he laughed or told stories.
“My king?” I said. My voice echoed in the cool, narrow hall. The other courtiers had busied themselves at the envoy’s exit, taking up chessboards and poetry books, maps and small, ingenious devices for telling the hour or direction—activities learned but silent, as Melchior preferred. The afternoon light was cruel to my husband, deepening the wrinkles around his eyes, softening his jawline as though with dust.
“Leave me,” Melchior said. He covered his eyes, his rings glittering like constellations. His shoulders trembled as he began to cry.
On a winter day nearly thirty-three years ago, my husband saw a god.
He has not told the full tale to anyone, not even to me, although I know more than most. I know about the long journey in the light of a single unwavering star—first alone, then with Caspar, and finally with beautiful, mysterious Balthazar, barely twenty years old and already so wise in the ways of suffering. This is the way I remember them; they are my husband’s memories, but my mind, like an alchemist, has distilled them to these essential traits. White-haired Caspar, with his cheer, his riches, and his venerability; Melchior with his faith; and gorgeous Balthazar—though I cannot imagine where it came from—with his suffering.
“It should have been him,” my husband said, later that night when we lay in bed. He came to my bed so rarely, and when he did we hardly touched, never more than a cold kiss on my brow. That my children were not his children, he knew well, though others may have been ignorant.
That night, I sat against the pillows and he rested his head on my breast, his face turned from me. I could see the paleness of his thinning hair, the silver strands outnumbering the brown, and could hear his wet voice like sickness building in my chest. “Balthazar should have gone, this last time.” He had always spoken in riddles, even before he went to Bethlehem—just as he had always been reluctant to touch me.
In the end, seeing a god changes so little in a faithful man.
“Do you ever wonder what happened to him?” I asked, running my fingers through his hair. “Your god in the stable?”
He didn’t answer. Perhaps he hadn’t heard me. That is the danger of gods; they make a man deaf and blind.
When Melchior was asleep, warm beneath the perfumed blankets, I left our bed and went to find Dismas. In the early years of our marriage, of my husband’s faith, I had kept a string of lovers: young men, mostly soldiers, beautiful and foolish. There is some danger in fathering a king’s children, enough to keep them daring and interested. But in the end, I tired first. I grew up. I saw the boys settled comfortably, with vineyards or oil presses and a small pension, and sometimes with a wife from among my chamber girls. Then I forgot about them.
Dismas was different. I had been older when he came to my attention, a mother six times over, and the dangers of the childbed had somewhat cooled my impulsiveness. Dismas was older, too; not nearly my age, but a man, not a boy. I did not buy him with land or jewelry or a rich wife. In some ways, I believe he loved me.
His rooms were in the western tower, two floors below my husband’s observatory. His work had something to do with Melchior’s studies, with lenses and mirrors and candle wicks. He was still awake when I arrived, bent over a disk of bluish glass on his work table, tongue pressed between his lips. The lamplight shone in his thick dust-colored hair.
He heard the door click and looked up sharply. His face eased when he saw mine. “Vashti, beloved. What’s wrong?”
He had started to stand. I gestured for him to remain seated, came up around the back of his stool, and wrapped my arms around his broad shoulders. He smelled like paper and ground glass. There was a chart spread on the table before him, mapping a star’s progress thorough an empty lapis sky. “What is my husband watching now?”
Dismas traced the imaginary path with his thumb. “He thinks it forebodes death,” he said. “A shameful one, long and agonizing. Yet he calls it a good sign.”
“The stars are full of paradoxes.” I pressed my lips to the curve of his ear. “Whose death does he see?” I did not mention Balthazar; the messenger claimed he had died peacefully, without pain.
Dismas lowered his mouth to the crook of my elbow, where his words were a kiss. “He says it is a god’s.”
“I am afraid for him. The stars are one sign, and Balthazar’s death is another. What does it mean for Melchior?”
“I don’t know.” Dismas tilted his head back, baring his throat, reaching for my mouth. But I found myself turning my head, and his warm lips brushed my chin. Fear makes us virtuous—even I, a sinner long past redemption.
In the morning, Melchior asked me to join him in his observatory. There, surrounded by the charts and lenses he so loved, he became almost lively; I thought, though I would not admit it, of certain tropical flowers roused by an angle of sunlight. My eldest son was there also, the sleeves of his robe rolled over his elbows, smiling and handsome as neither Melchior nor I had ever been.
“Mother!” He greeted me with a kiss on the top of my head. He was a grown man, with a wife and daughter of his own, but in some things his heart was a child’s.
“My queen,” Melchior said. He stayed at his table, turning a lens between his fingers. It was the one Dismas had been working at the night before; I recognized the slightest sheen of blue in the glass. My husband frowned into it, then set it on the corner of the chart-cluttered table. The chart from Dismas’s room was there, too.
“I am going west,” he said.
“No.” He frowned, staring at the star map like a man staring across a storm-wracked sea. “Not this time.”
“What’s in the west?” my son asked. I bit my tongue, knowing the answer: another Herod, another god.
“If I don’t return,” Melchior said, turning to my son, “you will take the throne after me. Destroy everything in this room. Look after your mother. The rest I leave to your judgement.”
“Do you plan on not returning?”
He ignored my question, turning back to his charts.
He was bringing a gift to a woman in Jerusalem. “Not to a god?” I asked, barely keeping the vinegar from my voice; but he did not answer, tucking a jeweled flask of perfumes into his saddlebag.
“The woman is his mother,” he said at last. He stroked the horse’s long, sleek neck. “The myrrh is for a tomb. You see why the task was meant for Balthasar, not for me?”
When he was gone, I had the palanquin sent for, and asked the servants to carry me to the dark, cool temple on the edge of the city. I left my sandals at the door and knelt upon the hard stones. After some minutes of silent rumination, I crawled to the alter and lit a stick of incense. But even for my husband’s sake, I could not teach myself how to pray.
“He told me once about the god’s mother,” I said to Dimas. He reclined in my bed, the blankets pooled around his waist, and I stood at the open window, watching the cold enigmatic stars. “She was nearly a child herself, he said. And she was already so noble, so pious, so wise in suffering.”
“It sounds as though he loved her.”
“He did,” I said, “but not the way you’re thinking. He worshipped her for what he saw in her of himself. But it isn’t her I wonder about these days.” I ran my fingers through my hair, feeling its brittleness, and looked back at him over my shoulder. “I’m thinking of her husband. What must it have been like to be married to a woman who’s carried a god inside her?”
“You would know,” Dismas said softly. He cast the blankets aside, stood and padded closer. But he did not touch me as I clutched my own shoulders and began to weep.
“He’s gone,” I said after a moment. I wiped the back of my hand across my cheeks, my upper lip. “When he doesn’t return, my son will become king. And I will retire to a little house somewhere on the banks of a river, with a herb garden and balsam trees.”
Dismas said nothing.
“I will no longer be a queen,” I said. “But I wonder, will you still have me?”
Slowly, he came forward and took me in his arms, burying his mouth in my shoulder. His skin was icy, pebbled in the night breeze. I could hear his heart beat. He took a long time to answer.
Megan Arkenberg‘s work has appeared in over fifty magazines and anthologies, most recently in Asimov’s, Nightmare, The Dark, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She has edited the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance since 2008. She currently lives in Northern California, where she’s pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature. Visit her online at www.meganarkenberg.com.