From the author: In Edwardian England, a young man with terminal tuberculosis goes to a particular house in search of a gentle death. A death with meaning. What he finds is something perhaps more merciful . . . or terrifying.
Carriages rattled past the house, which bore the name Apis over its door, and, perhaps surprisingly, the Royal Arms discreetly painted beside it, along with the words, By Appointment to His Majesty the King. The signage made no mention of which provisions this house might purvey to the royal one.
Gas lamps in the street outside lent an unhealthy tinge of green to the faces of those who passed through the house’s doors—not that many people here looked healthy, anyway. But even invalids had needs, and so they came, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the hale in the confines of the cell-like lower rooms. And the girls of the house, wasp-waisted, uniformly honey-blond, and just as uniformly clad in tight black jackets over ruffled velvet skirts with tiers of black and gold, bustled about, offering guests drams of whiskey with honey in amber-tinted glasses.
A visitor squinted as one girl approached. “Do you have a regular?” she asked him.
“My word, I can’t tell you apart. You all look precisely alike!”
“We’re all sisters,” she murmured. “Do you perhaps recall a name?”
“Of course. I’ll have her down directly.”
A newcomer entered, leaning discreetly on a cane as he paused to take a ragged breath and observe. He appeared to be young and pale, but had hectic color in his cheeks, and beads of sweat bedewed his brow. Coughing genteelly into snowy handkerchiefs might be how operas depicted consumption; reality held desperate, ragged gasps for breath and bloody spittle.
The buzz of voices in this place almost concealed a sort of throbbing hum, which, when he placed a hand upon the wall for balance, he could feel through the wooden frame of the building. The rumors didn’t lie.
Satisfied, he found a chair in a corner. His eyes drifted to the bar, behind which an enormously fat, gray-haired woman held court, her bulk barely constrained by her corset. She laughed and sent her girls out to work the crowd, where they bobbed and edged around one another in the tight confines, a comical, bumbling little dance. The young man nodded, and then coughed wrackingly into his kerchief, till he shook with the effort of sucking air into his lungs.
Outside the house, a black carriage came to a halt. Sable horses pulled it, each with an ebon plume rising proudly above their manes. A woman emerged from the carriage, carrying a small satchel, her back straight as a sword. Swathed in black, her face concealed by a weeping veil, she strode towards the door. A watchman hastily barred her path, murmuring, “You don’t want to go in there, ma’am—it’s not a place for a decent woman. And if you’re here to evangelize, well . . . they don’t take kindly to Methodists.”
A pale face lifted under the dark veil, and then she opened her satchel, showing the watchman the contents. “Don’t be a fool,” she replied sharply. “This is what I’m here for.”
His face paled, and he muttered, “God save the king,” before moving away.
Inside, the buzz of voices lowered to a whisper as the woman entered. The young man thought he could smell a hint of smoke drifting in her wake. She cut through the crowd to the bar, and knocked her knuckles there peremptorily. Then, with great ceremony, she removed a long black crape ribbon from her satchel, and set it on the bar, followed by a photographic plate.
Even at a distance, the young man knew what it was—the image was too sharp, too clear, to have been taken of any living soul. Only the dead held properly still for photography. “I have come to tell what must be told,” the woman announced coldly. “King Edward is dead. Long live King George.”
The room fell silent, but through the walls, the young man could still feel a feverish hum. Behind the bar, the fat woman bowed her head regally. “You have honored the compact,” she wheezed. “And we’ll honor our end of it. Long live King George.”
The woman in black lowered her head, and then turned and left. Behind the bar, the heavyset woman shouted, “In honor of the new king, all drinks are on the house!” which lifted the pall that had settled over the crowd.
A sudden vivid recollection assailed the young man. On the day his father had died, he’d watched his mother approach the wicker domes of the beehives behind the house, where she’d knocked before hanging crape ribbons upon them, and then had whispered her husband’s name to the bees. He exhaled. Confirmation; the house was precisely what rumor named it.
At that moment, one of the wasp-waisted women approached, lighting on his lap like a butterfly. “You’re new,” she murmured, playing with his cravat. “What can I do for you? I’m Mellifera.”
“Honey-bearer,” he translated, and coughed into his hand.
A saucy smile. “Aren’t you clever? Educated, too.”
“Perhaps a little overly so.” A labored inhalation. “I’m here for . . . special services.”
“Isn’t everyone?” she teased.
A wheezing chuckle. “More special than most. I’m here for poisoned honey.”
Her face and eyes emptied. “Do you understand what this entails?” she asked quietly.
He dabbed sweat from his forehead. “I’m a dead man who’s yet to fall over. I’ve heard rumors that a life, now and again . . . serves a compact? One that keeps the Royal Arms by your door? My death may as well be of some use. And I’d prefer less pain and lingering.”
She stood, pulling him along behind her up the stairs. They passed private rooms, from which he could hear various groans of passion, and tried to stifle the laugh that threatened to become a cough. “Something amuses you?” Mellifera asked.
“I think most of the men here would be . . . heartily offended . . . to realize that they’re just flowers to you.” He choked down the cough, and added, “You just collect our pollen. And make it into something . . . hah. Sweeter. Don’t you?”
Mellifera gestured him through another door. “You are educated,” she repeated as he took a seat on her bed. The room, he noted, was a perfect hexagon.
“I’ve read too much Darwin and studied too much entomology, dear lady.” He loosened his cravat. “Will the poisoned honey that rumor speaks of ease me out of this life gently? And am I right to suppose that, in order to raise a new queen, you’ll require a human body in which to encase the egg and nourish the larva?” The horror of it didn’t impinge on him any more than the nearly-fetishized trappings of mourning that his society employed: photographs of the dead, posed beside living family members, hired mourners, mourning bands, and all the different colors worn when in half-mourning, sometimes years after a death. He managed a brittle smile. “I suppose you’ll need a new queen soon? The one downstairs seems older than the rest of you.”
“Clever boy,” she murmured. “But you don’t have quite all the details correct.”
She straddled his lap, and he gently edged her away. “I appreciate the thought, my dear, but any effort more strenuous than a gentle amble will likely drown me in my own blood.” He put aside the thought of an embolism in his ravaged lungs with effort, and pinned a smile to his lips. “What have I misunderstood?”
Mellifera kissed his cheek tenderly. “We’re bees, darling, not wasps. We’re quite domesticated. Your people let us live, because we supply your monarchs with some of our royal jelly. Keeps them long-lived and healthier than they’ve a right to be, considering their hereditary blood diseases,” she explained, drawing her skirts up, giving him a flash of . . . yes, a foot-long stinger, as well as more womanly parts. He blinked dizzily, wondering how none of the men in the other rooms had ever noticed this minor detail before—perhaps they did . . . perhaps they like being stung. Special services, after all . . . .
A headshake to clear his mind. “Royal jelly—like what makes a larva into a queen?” He paused. “Wait, isn’t the jelly, like honey, made from . . . .” Oh, god. “Nectar and pollen?” he ended weakly.
“It is,” she replied with equanimity. “I suspect that the royals don’t think about where it comes from, any more than humans think about how bees vomit nectar up from their honey-stomachs, and then chew on it until it becomes the golden delight you all crave.” She stroked his face with light fingertips. “Also, if your part in the compact worked the way you thought, it would be our queen in here with you, not me. Crushing you beneath her as she jammed a fertilized egg into your body. Be glad it isn’t so.” She kissed his lips, humming under her breath. He tasted sweetness there, and responded to it feverishly. This is the poison, he thought distantly. Thank god. In her mercy, she’s putting me out of my misery quickly.
His mind became hazy, and a burning sensation spread through him, starting with a prickle at his lips. The room skewed, the humming reverberating in the building echoing through him now, too, and the world slipped away, and he went with it.
Sometime later, he awoke, surprised, and somewhat disappointed. “Damnation. I’m not dead,” he whispered.
The words didn’t tickle his chest. No pressure, no sensation of having to struggle for breath. But the world looked . . . odd. The light slipping through the shutter had a violet tinge to it that made the bedsheets glow. He tried to sit up, and the motion sent his bedmate tumbling aside. “No, you’re not,” Mellifera said sleepily. “A happy circumstance, I trust? Usually, it doesn’t work—most men willing to give their lives are usually in too poor a condition to survive the process. And then we have to drop the body in the Thames.” She propped her head on a hand, looking at him speculatively. “You, on the other hand? Survived. You’re one of us now. Oh, not a sister,” she added as he looked down hastily, verifying that he hadn’t grown breasts or lost anything else important. “A drone. No sting, see?” She pulled the sheets partially back, showing him that they were both mother-naked now, and gestured indicatively.
A moment of stark panic. “Ah, what?” Dizzy thoughts as he tried to understand the new reality around him. Drones don’t have wings. Did I lose my legs? He tried to wiggle his toes, and felt movement there, to his exquisite relief.
“Don’t worry, we take good care of our drones. We have so very few. We certainly won’t let you go anywhere that you could be hurt,” she informed him sweetly. “You’re important to us. Only drones can give us more sisters—if they service the queen.” She laughed at the horrified expression on his face. “And drones can make any sister into a queen. It just means having to fight the old queen . . . or founding a new hive.” Mellifera rolled on top of him, kissing him thoroughly. “Ever thought of going to America?” she murmured. “Or India?”
He shook for a moment, pulling his lips away from hers. “Is there anything else I should know?” he asked, fighting apprehension. This seems the sort of gift that should be given to the highest in the land. Health. Long life. Perhaps captivity, but . . . .
Mellifera stroked his face. “There is the small matter of our diet,” she told him, and he gagged suddenly. “Oh, don’t look like that. Drones don’t gather pollen,” she chided. “You’ll feed from my lips, or my sisters’. Close your eyes and think of king and country.” She kissed him again. “Usually works for me.”
And tasting the honey on her lips, he swallowed, and surrendered to his domestic captivity.
This story originally appeared in Cabinet of Curiosities.