"My wife has left me," he says, "tell the children," and the governess feels she should have done it already, as if she were being paid to know what will happen.
Connor cries, but Sophie is older and looks as if she knew it was coming.
She reads Connor and Sophie their bedtime story.
The house is dark and her steps echo, and she wants to lock her door but doesn't dare (he says she should feel safe here, that locking the door is an insult).
If you leave meat on the bone in warm water long enough, the pores will leak marrow. No matter how gamey the meat, the bath in its milky marrow-water will soften it and give it flavor. It's a poor man's trick.
You know the meat is ready when you can peel the bone out of the meat and grind it to powder under your fingers.
The king had two boys, fair and bright, but their mother had been dead many years and the king felt his house was empty, so he married again. The stepmother was pale and silent, and the children could not love her, for where her heart should be there was a diamond, hard and cold.
Their scullery maid saw the signs of black magic on the stepmother, and knew that evil would befall the children if they stayed in the palace. She was brave and kindhearted, and that night she took the boys with her beyond the palace walls, to the edge of the dark wood.
Cook reminds them all the time he could have opened his own two-star Michelin, but at heart he's a butcher, and when he opens the deep freeze in the garage and sees the meat he knows what it is. But meat is meat, and Cook checks only for freshness before he starts trimming fat.
The ribs will be barbeque, the flanks steaks. He picks out the small bits not good for much to mash into dumplings, and her fingers (sans ring) go into a pot for stock.
The dumpling dough is soft as skin and slides back and forth across the board, the steady hush of flour.
The dark wood was no place for little children alone, but the scullery maid knew that it was the only thing in the kingdom the mad king would not enter. She handed each child a piece of bread and a long red ribbon. The ribbons were magicked (most good women have a little white magic in them). She tied the ends of the ribbons to the willow tree. "Carry one end with you wherever you go," she said, "and never come out of the woods until nightfall. I will tug on your ribbons when all is safe."
And she kissed each child on the forehead and sent them off into the lonely wood.
She isn't smart, has never been; she believed the mother when the mother said the blouse was a gift (two weeks later the mother searched the governess's room for the blouse, asked the governess why she felt the need to steal when they provided her everything). But the next time the mother offered a present the governess had still taken it, because it was a cold winter and boots were boots.
When he closes her in the master closet, says, "These were her things. Take whatever you want," she knows what it really means, and trembles in the little prison.
"The children need to be put to bed," she says. She has never wanted so much to kiss Connor's dark hair, to close Sophie's door against the rest of the house, to read them the story about the two young princes.
He says, "Later."
Bromelain is the most effective tenderizer, and ficain is the sweetest, but the moment you leave the cooking to a chemical you've lost control of your kitchen. A tenderizing mallet does the trick. Start with a few firm strikes to gauge the firmness of the cut, and then ease the pressure so you don't over-tenderize; it's much easier to make a few more strikes than to try to rebuild what has been broken down.
"Let's see how you look," he says, pulls up a chair in the doorway so she can't run out.
The mother had beautiful things, and the racks behind the governess sag with the silk and satin dresses the mother wore only once and couldn't throw away. One is the dark blue of the night sky sewn with silver, one is the bright gold of the sun, one shines like a diamond.
When she shakes her head he says, "Come on, you took the boots she gave you. She's not coming back for these. Let's pick something nice."
She feels as if his hands were on her, but he sits in his chair while she pulls the blue dress from the hangar, slides it over her naked bones. She trembles so much that he has to pull up the zipper himself.
He turns her to face the mirror.
"That's better," he says, moves the chair aside, closes them in.
Each night the scullery maid tugged on the red ribbons, and each night the children walked out of the woods. The maid met them at the edge of the path, handed them food.
"When will our father stop his madness and cast out our wicked stepmother?" asked the older boy.
"Kings don't go mad," said the scullery maid, "they just change their minds," and she reminded them to keep hold of the ends of their red ribbons, and never to come out of the woods until night fell and she had given the signal that all was safe.
After the children are asleep, the governess goes to her room and sees the dress of gold laid out on her bed, unzipped and waiting for her. The lining is embroidered with bees (from the mother's name--the dress was made for her).
She looks out the window as if she could signal someone, but it's night out, and the window might as well be painted over black.
She puts on the dress and goes to his room.
"Very good," he says, and she feels like her mouth has been stuffed with cotton and no light will ever reach her.
When he zips the dress closed, she can feel the bees spring to life inside the dress, a thousand tiny stings.
Tartare is too suggestive. Make burgers instead, with breadcrumbs and onions. Make fajitas. Cube what's left over and make a stew with the stock; pull out the fingers and crack the bones to make sure all the marrow is gone.
For the centerpiece to a fancy dinner, serve the leg bone with the marrow scraped out and cooked with garlic, then piped back in. You can garnish with watercress for a smooth finish, or leave it as it is; a dish like this needs no adornment.
She finds Sophie and Connor in Sophie's room; Sophie's reading the bedtime story book, and when Connor looks up she feels his gaze like an accusation, but her mouth is stuffed with cotton and she has no words to explain.
Sophie looks up, grips the book tightly, says, "Connor, close the door."
The wicked stepmother believed that the boys had drowned, but as the years went by and she was unable to bear children she grew suspicious of some magic working against her.
One night she followed the little scullery maid to the edge of the dark wood and hid herself with magic and waited. Sure enough, the scullery maid appeared, carrying one bundle for each child.
The stepmother set upon the scullery maid with a knife of steel and killed her.
Then the evil stepmother pulled on the ribbons tied to the willow tree, and the king's two sons came out of the woods, children no longer. Years had passed, and it was two tall young men who walked out of the shadows. When they saw what had happened to the loyal scullery maid they turned on their stepmother.
"Mercy!" cried the wicked stepmother, but they who show none receive none, and the boys pulled the red ribbons tight around her neck and strangled her.
Then they lay beside the body of the little maid, and bound up her wounds with ribbon, and she opened her eyes and breathed again.
The king was overjoyed to see his sons come back to him alive and well, and the kingdom rejoiced. When the king died, his older son took the throne and married the loyal maid, who ruled beside him as his queen in a corset of red ribbons.
He zips her into the dress of diamonds, presses his hand against her neck before he steps back.
"Tell the children," he says, and she shakes her head, wants to cry but doesn't dare (he says she has everything she needs, that tears are ungrateful and insulting).
He walks behind her to Sophie's room, and when she opens the door Sophie says without looking up, "I told you to stay out." Sophie's reading the bedtime story.
"Children," he says from behind her, and then they look up. Connor frowns at her dress, and she wonders where the mother wore it that Connor remembers it.
"She's going to be your stepmother," he says, "and I hope that we'll all get along."
Connor cries, but Sophie is older and looks as if she knew it was coming. When she turns around he's smiling, as if this were what he wanted all along.
"Come on, children," he says, wraps his cold fingers around her arm, "we should go down to dinner."
Remember that steak continues to cook even after it's removed from heat. Rest it for ten minutes. Then, while you can serve it whole, it's recommended you carve it into thin slices; it's a good way to determine the readiness, and meat always benefits from a thoughtful presentation.
About the Author
Genevieve Valentine is a columnist at Tor.com and Fantasy Magazine. Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, comes out in 2011 from Prime Books. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog at glvalentine.livejournal.com.
This story is an approach I've always wanted to take with fairy tales; not retelling a particular fairy tale, but instead taking tropes from this one and that one, and using them to explore the dangerous and often gruesome world of the classic tales, not to mention the way that the heroines often suffer more than the witches before the story is over. The recipes are delivered cooking-show style, a comfortable tone that belies both the casual brutality of these early stories, and the way the world sometimes accepts things we know it shouldn't especially as regards the presentation of women.
The unspoken beats in all these other stories were, I thought, ripe for a story of their own. "To Set Before the King" is about the accidental evil stepmothers; the frustrated cooks who have to bake a pie of live birds just to please the king; the tricked; about the children who realize all at once that fairy tales are the darkest kind of story you can ever tell at night.
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