My name is Mercy, and I am a constitutional monarch. That means I have
no power. Also I am seven.
My favorite colors are peach and azure, and my favorite animal is the
unicorn. I have six unicorns. Their names are Cumulus, Cirrus,
Altostratus, Mama, Papa, and Mr. Thunderclap. My real Mama and Papa
disappeared when I was little and I don’t remember. Prime Minister
Astiriarchas says that the generals and the Parliament are still looking
for the people who did it. Gam and Tyburn said that Prime Minister
Astiriarchas lies, but we all need to pretend that he’s telling the
truth. Gam is the second cook. Tyburn is the Royal Philosopher. Gam
taught me how to read.
When I ran away from Castle Rocktop, I wanted to ride Mr. Thunderclap.
Tyburn made me pick a different unicorn, because he said Mr. Thunderclap
is too young and he would throw me to my death. Gam said no to Mama
because lady unicorns often disobey, so I rode Altostratus instead.
Gam packed me three sandwiches with lots of strawberry jam. “Ride hard,
Mercy,” she said. She didn’t want me to see her crying, but I did. “Our
friends are waiting for you. Pass those mountains before dawn, my sweet
girl, and don’t you dare look back!”
Tyburn didn’t say anything. He was too busy burning down the stables
with magic so they wouldn’t know right away that Altostratus and I were
— # —
It was forever later and still smelled like smoke when I told
Altostratus again that I was cold and I didn’t like riding him and he’s
my third-best unicorn.
Altostratus stopped and turned his big, gray head so one of his eyes was
looking at me. He said, “Mercy, we have a long way to go. If you keep
complaining, I will drive my horn straight through every doll in that
rucksack of yours.”
“I only have one doll.” That made me angry because there were three
more I wanted to bring.
“I don’t care,” Altostratus said.
“Fine,” I said. I wished I was riding Mr. Thunderclap instead.
— # —
We kept going all day long. I ate my sandwiches. Altostratus stopped to
let me pee in a bush. He peed in the road. “Gross,” I said.
“Just get back in the saddle.”
“How? You’re too tall.”
“Get on that big rock over there.”
“I can’t, it’s too big!”
In the end, a nearby bridge troll heard us arguing and he came and
helped me up. “Push hard,” he said to Altostratus. “The river says
there’s a warrant already, and the generals are riding for her.”
“Why do they care?” I said. “I don’t have any power.”
The bridge troll shook his head in disbelief. “Doesn’t she know anything
“What are politics?”
Altostratus thanked the troll and set off at a trot. “He means that
Parliament needs a monarchic figurehead, or the spell that binds the
three houses will no longer hold.” He spoke patiently, the way Tyburn
did when he lectured. “The magic that seals the constitution forces
the houses into allegiance with your crown. That’s why Tyburn and Gam
are sending you away, and that’s why the generals want to capture you.
Whoever controls the crown rules the nation, you see?”
“Ugh, I’m so bored.”
Altostratus stopped explaining things after that.
Also we got chased. Altostratus made me lean forward and hold onto his
neck. I shut my eyes so I don’t know what really happened. I just
remember Altostratus shouting really loud, “You cannot defeat the
storm!” He swung his head back and forth like it was a sword, and he got
blood on my favorite azure dress.
When I opened my eyes again, Altostratus had leapt over a really big
gorge, and there were people shooting arrows across to stop the generals
from following us.
“Are you all right, Mercy?” Altostratus said once we’d passed through
the gates in a big stone wall. He was breathing hard.
“I’m cold,” I said. I was scared, too. “Are we in another castle?”
They shut the gates behind us once we were safe inside.
— # —
At first I got to sleep and eat a lot of food. It didn’t taste like
Gam’s cooking, though, and there wasn’t any strawberry jam, and I don’t
like melted cheese. Then it was boring, because I had to sit in the same
room all day long while the council talked. They said I was there to
prove to the representatives of the three houses that the crown
supported them, even though I never said okay. They never spoke to me
and I only had one doll.
They had a big map with lots of colors hanging on the wall across from
my chair. They kept pointing to it and arguing. They pointed at the
castle where we were, in a periwinkle part shaped like a unicorn’s mane,
with mountains. Castle Rocktop, where Gram and Tyburn were, was in the
ugly green part shaped like a unicorn’s neck that had lots of trees and
rivers. The swamps below us were amber, with little lines running
through that they said couldn’t support an army. The country below our
country was azure, and everything else was ocean.
I said I wanted to leave.
The man who was kind of in charge stood up. He was a commander with a
big stiff coat, and he had purple in his cheeks. He looked like Prime
Minister Astiriarchas when he used to kneel on the carpet of my throne
room and tell me what to do. “Your Highness belongs here with us.”
“With Your Highness’s presence, this council will unite the three houses
against Prime Minister Astiriarchas and his army! We will restore this
nation to glory, and return the stewardship of this land to those to
whom it rightfully belongs.” The others murmured their agreement. They
sounded like a herd of grumpy unicorns.
I scowled at him. “But I don’t want to sit here anymore. My butt hurts
and I hate melted cheese.”
He got even more purple. Before he could answer, though, a woman with
silver hair pulled back in a tiny bun stood up from her place in the
circle of hard chairs. The others went quiet right away. “Would Your
Highness care for a pillow?” she said after a little pause.
“I want Altostratus!”
“Who?!” said Purple Man.
“I see,” said the silver-haired woman. I liked her more because she
wasn’t purple and she was listening. She was smarter than the others,
too. If she were a unicorn I’d call her Mrs. Thunderclap. “Is
Altostratus your pet unicorn?”
“He’s not my pet.”
She nodded slowly. “Ladies and gentlemen of the Republic,” she said to
the others. They all sat up very straight. “Let the council adjourn for
a recess, and I will escort Her Highness to visit her companion. On the
way I will explain her part in the prime minister’s deposition.”
“What’s a dumb position?” I said once the others left. Now that they
were gone I didn’t mind the chair.
“A deposition. We will replace Prime Minister Astiriarchus with a
government chosen by the people’s electors. We’ll see that the tyrant’s
rule comes to an end.”
I wasn’t sure about the word `tyrant’. Maybe Altostratus would know.
She continued. “With Your Highness’s leave, we shall soon launch an
assault upon Castle Rocktop.”
“To avenge your parents’ deaths at the hands of Prime Minister
Astiriarchus,” she said. “He and his army have starved this nation for
long enough. They’ve robbed free men of their land, imprisoned our
scholars, and deprived the primo gentry of their rightful places in
Parliament. It’s up to us to fight back.”
“You want to attack the castle?” The castle was in the ugly green part
of the map.
“The castle is Astiriarchus’s stronghold. We will destroy him and every
traitor within sight of it.”
I had trouble imagining everybody in the castle being dead. “But what
about Gam and Tyburn? What about my unicorns and dolls?”
Mrs. Thunderclap clasped her hands. She was standing close enough to me
that she smelled like the steel of the rings on Altostratus’s bridle.
“Your Highness,” she said, “we have rescued you from Astiriarchus. Your
loyal subjects made great sacrifices to bring you here, to us.”
“What if I don’t want to be here anymore?”
There was a pause, and it was long enough that I figured out that even
though she was calm now she might get very angry next. That was scary
because at first I’d thought she was my friend like Gam.
Her eyes narrowed. We stayed like that. Finally, she said in a voice
that was tight like a string pulled between two hands in a cat’s cradle,
“Your Highness does not get to choose.”
I held on tight to the arms of the chair. They were carved like leaves.
Mrs. Thunderclap tilted her head to the side like she was going to shake
water from one ear. “Now. Would you like to see your unicorn?”
— # —
That night, I tried to escape on foot by myself to go warn Tyburn and
Gam, but it didn’t work. I got caught on the stairs and the man with the
purple cheeks shouted and I shouted back.
I tried again early in the morning, and the soldiers caught me at the
gates. This time, they locked me in the stables with a chain at my
ankle. It was heavy and it hurt, but Mrs. Thunderclap didn’t care. She
wasn’t pretending to be my friend anymore.
“Like it or not, Your Highness will remain with us,” she said as they
locked the shackle. “We cannot afford to lose the allegiance of the
“But I want to go home!” I said.
“We are going to turn Castle Rocktop into rubble and smoke. Your
Highness should accept this sooner rather than later.”
When she was gone, Altostratus shook his mane furiously. “Mercy, what
were you thinking?”
“But they’re going to go to war. They’re going to attack Castle
“They were always going to go to war, child! Didn’t you listen to
anything Tyburn ever told you?”
The other unicorns murmured their agreement from the opposite side of
the stable. “It’s true,” said a lady unicorn who hadn’t yet told me her
name. “Conflict is inevitable.”
“But I don’t want to go to war!”
“It doesn’t matter what you want!” Altostratus said, stamping the ground
of his stall with his foreleg. “Evil and violence are inescapable!
That’s what the world is, Mercy. Your presence here ensures that the
Republic will unite the three houses and defeat Astiriarchus. Do you
know what that man does to the talking beasts who refuse to follow his
edicts? I’ll tell you whom he sends to the tanneries outside those
castle walls. If you care about people, well, he’s executed plenty of
“No, I won’t stop. I risked everything to bring you here. I did it to
free my people and yours.”
“But…she put me in chains.”
“Do you think I chose this stall for myself, Mercy?”
I hugged my knees to my face so I wouldn’t have to look at the tall gate
with the metal latch that he couldn’t undo himself because he didn’t
Altostratus sighed. “I know the men and women of the Republic aren’t
what you hoped for,” he said. “Maybe they’ll ruin everything, too, but
life is full of compromises. Anything to be rid of Astiriarchus.”
“You’re just giving up.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” he snapped and tossed his
head. I glared at him very hard. Everything was so unfair. I was
supposed to be a princess and now I was chained up and my third-best
unicorn was mad at me.
“You’re not free now, either,” I told him before my chin could get
wobbly like it does when I’m about to cry.
“Maybe not, but if we can’t be free, then we have to make our peace with
those in power.”
“Not Mrs. Thunderclap.”
“She chained me up!” Now I was crying, all because of him.
His dark eyes softened. “I know, child,” he said. “I’m sorry. But look
at me. I’m locked in here, too, because I thought it might be better. It
has to be better. That’s all we can do.”
That just made me angry. “I want to go to the place where it’s azure!”
“What is she talking about?” said the lady unicorn whose name I didn’t
Altostratus sighed. “Wherever it is, I’m sure it’s not any better.”
— # —
For two days, Mrs. Thunderclap pulled me out of the stables and dragged
me to the council chambers to sit there while all the grumpy men and
women made their plans. I stared at the map so hard it stuck in my
vision. Periwinkle, ugly green, amber. Like the shape of a unicorn’s
head. Purple, green, yellow. Under that, azure. I felt squished between
the colors. The council was getting their army ready but I didn’t
understand a whole lot more.
At night Mrs. Thunderclap locked me up again in the stables. She didn’t
talk to the unicorns on her way out.
Altostratus watched her leave. “Did you know she used to be a poet?” he
— # —
On the third night, I was dreaming about sandwiches and colors when I
figured out what I needed to do and it woke me up. “Altostratus!” I
The unicorns huffed. “Go back to sleep, will you?” said the lady
unicorn, who’d told me the day before her name was Sally.
“No!” I told her. “Altostratus! Wake up! I know what to do!”
Altostratus shook his head where he’d been sleeping standing up. “What
is it, Mercy?” he said wearily.
“I’m a constitutional monarch!”
“I know that, Mercy. Go back to sleep.”
“No, you stupid horse! It’s the politics! You should have told me!”
“What is she talking about?” said Sally.
“The only reason they’re keeping me here is because of the sacred spell
that binds the three houses and their stupid armies to my crown,” I
said. “So, what if I’m not here?”
“You’re chained to the wall of the stables, Mercy.”
“Only because you won’t help me escape.” I dragged the heavy chain
across the smelly hay of the stable floor so that it was within reach of
Altostratus and the other unicorns. “Is it close enough? Come on, break
“You can smash it with something, right?”
“Even if I could,” he said, “then what?”
“I have a plan! We’re going to the country that’s azure!”
“What? Where? How? Neither of us knows how to get away from here!”
“I do! I’ve been staring at that stupid map for three whole days. You
follow three roads and a river, and you go through the swamps. They
can’t follow because the swamp roads can’t support an army, and if
they can’t follow us, then the spell that brines the three houses will
fail, or something. I can explain on the way.”
The other unicorns pawed at the ground with their hooves, listening in.
“They’ll catch us, Mercy,” Altostratus said.
“Not if we leave right now. Come on, I can stop everybody all at once,
“How will we topple Prime Minister Astiriarchus if—”
“He’ll topple anyway, because of me not being there. Right?” I crossed
my arms. “If there’s nobody like me around to force the biggest army in
the whole country to take a side, then everybody in the three houses has
to make up their minds for themselves. They’re not forced to fight for
people who are just as bad as each other.”
He stared. “It might not work. Giving people the freedom to choose, I
mean. Humans can make very bad choices on their own.”
I rolled my eyes because he was taking so long to agree with me. “I
“Do you? Just because the armies aren’t bound to your crown doesn’t mean
they’ll be any more righteous without you.”
“But if I go away then everybody’s free to be stupid the way they want.
Even all the talking beasts!”
“Mercy, I don’t think you understand—”
“Oh, come on,” said Sally. “Do you have a horn or not, Alto? The child’s
“She’s chained to the wall!”
“Honestly,” said Sally. “Bring it here, Mercy.”
I dragged it as close as I could to Sally’s stall. “Can you open these
gates with your fingers, little one?” she said as I heaved it nearer.
“Yes,” I said even though I didn’t know.
Sally bent her head as low as she could over the shackle. It took a long
time and I realized that I was cold and I had to pee and I was hungry
and I didn’t want to ride Altostratus for the three days it would take
to travel the road south through the swamps and not the hills. But I
also didn’t want to stay locked up, and I decided that maybe everything
was terrible but I was still important and if it meant that I didn’t
have to live my whole life like I’m a doll, then I would try.
Finally Sally picked the lock, and I opened her gate after fourteen
tries, and I opened the other gates, and the unicorns waited until
Altostratus and I were good and ready and I’d stolen a saddle and some
bread before stampeding together and breaking down the gates that locked
us in. And I left behind the second castle and Mrs. Thunderclap and the
very last of my dolls, and Altostratus and I both yelled to the sky as
we escaped to the south, because we were scared but we were also brave,
and we knew we had to try.
© 2023 Elizabeth Cobbe
About the Author
Elizabeth Cobbe is a writer who has worked as an arts critic,
journalist, and playwright. Her short fiction has appeared in or is
forthcoming from Fireside, Daily Science Fiction, and Kaleidotrope,
and she is a graduate of Viable Paradise 2019. She lives in Austin.