Once upon a time, the queen of the faeries fell in love with the king of the coffee shops.
They lived in a different kind of forest, where the tall trees were made of metal and brick, and the meandering paths were dark as pitch and hard as rock. This forest was loud and fast. The queen and the king knew of no other world, no better world, than this land of perpetual motion, this place that never slept.
It so happened that on the night the queen first saw the king, the forest lay blanketed in a wet, heavy tarp of snow, and the wind blew frigid and swift through the corridors of steel and stone. From her perch above the world, looking down upon her kingdom from the highest of the towers, the queen saw the king, wrapped tightly in his winter coat and bracing himself against the icy gale.
And she thought to herself that she’d never encountered a living thing more handsome.
But the queen of the faeries knew very little about humans, and so she devised a plan. In the days that followed, she watched him, followed him from his small room into the busy streets, memorized his daily rhythms, studied his life. Soon enough, the cold days turned warm and soft, and the air filled with the scent of blossoms and new life. The queen decided the time had come.
“This is foolish,” said one of her attendants, as she pulled a brush through the queen’s thick mane of hair.
“She’ll be bored of him soon enough,” answered another. “Human lives are short and sad.”
But the queen would not be deterred. That morning, as the sky turned pale and light, she gathered her closest confidantes around her and said: “I am not certain how long I might be away, but I must go. Be well, and think of me.”
And she turned away and left them. Had she stayed, she would have noticed their scoffing, giggling, the worry and doubt on each wary face.
“This will not end well,” she would have heard whisper.
The queen was not afraid, though she was not unafraid either. There was a new feeling in her heart, something fierce and unrelenting, begging to be set free. Love, she knew. Love, she’d heard, sends ships to the ends of the earth, men to their deaths, and now, she thought, a queen into a great unknown.
The brass bell above the door to King’s Coffee jingled a merry chime as she walked through it, hands trembling, face aflame. But she would do this. She approached him, the king, there behind the counter, and took a breath to speak.
“Morning,” he said, before she’d gathered her words. “Beautiful today, right? What can I get you?”
The queen had prepared for this moment.
“A cappuccino,” she answered. “Extra foam.”
And she smiled, her brightest, biggest smile, one that had melted hearts and broken armies, one that demanded notice, demanded a reaction, demanded submission.
“Sure,” he said. He looked away from her, down and to the left. He met her eyes again with a cup and a marker in his hand. “Name for that order?”
This, thought the queen, was not going according to plan.
“Um,” the queen began.
“No,” said the queen. “My apologies. You may call me Anna.”
“Got it,” he said, and scribbled something illegible on the cup.
“Your name,” said the queen. “It is only fair, a name for a name.”
“That’s a new one,” said the king. And then he smiled back at her, just a quick flash, there and gone. Enough for a hope. And he said, “It’s Nick.”
Love had a name, thought the queen. “Nick,” she repeated. “It’s wonderful to meet you, Nick.”
“Same,” he said, but added, with a note of apology in his voice, “it is. But, uh, if you could move down. There are other customers.”
The queen looked behind her then, and saw a long line of irritated faces. And someone elbowed her, actually elbowed her, out of the way.
These creatures, she thought, are beastly.
She waited at one side of the counter, and when her name was called, realized it was not Nick who would hand her cup to her.
“Thank you,” she said, nonetheless, and walked out, head down, and into the spring air.
A lesser being might feel discouraged. A weaker one might use magic.
“And I could,” the queen said to herself. “I could, and this would be done. He would be mine.”
But the queen did not want a king compelled to love her. What purpose in that? And so she returned, day after day, determined to know him better, and to win his heart.
The first morning she returned to King’s Coffee, Nick did not recognize her.
“Morning,” he’d said. “What can I get you?”
“Anna,” she told him.
“Cappuccino,” she said. “And thank you, Nick.”
He smiled, and she felt it again. Hope. There was hope.
The queen spent most of her time in King’s Coffee after that, though Nick did not always realize it. One day, glamoured as a tall, thin woman with dark hair and blue eyes, and the next, as a woman short, stout, and fair, today one person, tomorrow another, and each morning, always, just Anna, ordering her coffee. Nick’s routines were simple and kind. He’d help one customer, then the next, always with a cheery smile and a ready greeting. But the queen found she was not, as a whole, very fond of people. For every person who accepted Nick’s gentle friendliness, there seemed to be one who recoiled, who snapped, who grimaced and cursed.
One morning, ordering her “usual,” as Nick called it, she told him, “I want you to know that I find you an exceptionally nice person, Nick.”
She saw it, knew she hadn’t imagined that Nick’s cheeks had begun to turn a delightful shade of pink.
“Just doing my job,” he said.
“Well,” the queen added, “then you do your job much better than I would. I would not have the patience.”
Nick laughed, and how the queen loved the sound of it. “You’d surprise yourself, I bet,” he told her.
“Perhaps,” said the queen.
“Service isn’t a great job,” Nick told her, “not all the time, anyway. But I get to meet a lot of people, and most of them really are fine. Some are them are great.” He winked as he added, “Like you.”
The queen decided to sit down that day, as herself, at a little table in the corner. She caught Nick’s eye a few times, as he worked, and each time, it seemed some message passed between them, something more, better, something thrilling. She was drawn out of her reverie by a familiar voice.
“They are a rough and mannerless bunch, are they not?”
The queen’s eyes focused on her closest friend, sitting comfortable in the seat across from her, as if she’d been there the whole time.
The queen nodded and said, “Some of them, yes.”
“You must come home,” her friend said. “Your people need you.”
The queen closed her eyes, rubbed her temples, a decidedly human behavior she had somehow acquired, and said, “I can’t. I won’t. My heart will not allow it.”
“Your heart will destroy all that you have built.”
“Then let it,” said the queen. “I cannot tame it.”
Especially not now. Not now that something was shifting, changing. The queen could feel it. She was close, her goal in sight. Her love, her hope, near enough to reach out and touch. Almost.
The queen woke the next day determined. She would move this forward, and by the end of this day, she and her king would “have plans,” as she’d heard those around her say. Perhaps dinner, as seemed to be a popular choice. She would ask him. He would say yes.
But it was not Nick who greeted her that morning.
“Where is Nick?” she asked.
The man behind the counter did not smile. He barely looked at her at all. He focused instead on the line forming behind her, on worrying his hands with cups and a marker, and on plunking numbers into the register. “Accident,” he said. “Last night. What do you want?”
“I don’t understand,” the queen said, even as she felt her chest tighten, felt her stomach flip and her legs go weak and unsteady beneath her.
“Look, lady, I’m not here to answer your questions. Do you want coffee or not?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “No thank you.”
The queen turned, walked toward the door, and felt a tug on her shoulder.
“He talked about you last night,” said a small voice behind her. One of Nick’s compatriots, someone she’d seen often. “After you left. Said he was going to ask you out today.” The girl sniffled, wiped at a tear in her eye. “I just thought you should know,” she said, and choked on a sob. “I just can’t believe it.” And then she hurried to the back.
The queen walked out the door, into the daylight of a stark new reality.
“We told you this would end badly,” said her friend, again appearing from nowhere, hanging close by her side. “Human lives are fragile.”
And it was true that the queen did not understand death, not in the way that Nick would, that humans seemed to, and that she wished she could.
“I saw him yesterday,” she said. “He was just here.”
“Come home,” said her friend.
The queen could not, and did not, for a long, long time. She wandered dark paths, both within and without. She lived among the wild, lonely things, as she herself felt. Only when the pain dulled, when the weight of it began to left, did she return to her own kind and to her kingdom, though she was not the same queen. They say she was changed, perhaps forever.
“Are you happier, for having known him?” Her friend asked her this, one night, many years later.
“I am happy and sad, and lonely, and angry,” answered the queen. “I did not know I could feel so much.”
And they say she loves him still, the kindly king of coffee. They say her heart will never heal, will never be whole again, that some wounds will always remain open and aching. And that she watches, like a sentinel, from her favorite place upon the highest tower, far above that land of noise and motion and metal and coffee, for the day when her king, her Nick, will return to her once more.
Thank you for reading! This is the second of twelve stories I’ll write for my 2023 Short Story Challenge. The theme this year is: Wild.
Here’s the first one, from January: Dark, Dark, Dark
I hope you join me and write some stories of your own this year! It’s fun, and I hope this will be a happy year full of good stories. But just reading is fine, too, and I’m glad you’re here.
The next story will be posted at the end of March.