After bringing war to the gates of the capital, the king, taking his heir and his most valued advisors floated in his specially commissioned Montgolfier high out of range of the guns and safely over the heads of the besieging army. The people murmured angrily. They were starving and the enemy offered no quarter, except on one condition, which the king had effectively sabotaged.
His wife watched the Montgolfier, draped in the royal colours, as it grew smaller and smaller against the sky. She had stayed with her children, the expendable ones, and the people. Not out of duty—she was a mother, not a soldier—but out of love for the babies, her own and those of all the mothers trapped in the city who would not fit in the Montgolfier. Albert had nodded solemnly when she told him of her decision, but she noticed his eyes shift anxiously to the clouds and the storm rolling in from the plains. He itched to be gone.
He was gone now. So small she couldn’t even see him. And little Albert would be cowering on the floor of the basket with his hands over his head in all probability. For a moment, the smoke from a bursting shell hid the balloon, and she held her breath. It must be close to the hills by now. The smoke cleared. The Montgolfier hung in the sky over the highest peak, low enough to…
She gripped the rifle harder and raised her hand in sign of farewell. She didn’t hear, but she saw the flash of the mortar instants before the balloon exploded. The image of a pale little boy flashed through her mind, the child she had never been allowed to love, but her eyes hardened, and she raised the rifle high.
“The rebels have him!” she shouted, and watched with bitter satisfaction the expression of utter astonishment of the troops on the walls. She waited for the wave of cheering from the people to die down before she added, “Send out an envoy to the enemy. We can give them what they want. It is time to sue for peace.”
A general stormed and blustered, but was overpowered before he could speak. Another ordered his adjutant to shoot her down, but a bullet in the back of the general’s head stayed the adjutant’s hand before he drew the pistol. She stood on the palace wall and stared across the sea of hungry people and her lips set in a determined line. They would have justice. If Albert survived the crash, he would pay for his war, her loveless life, the pale child. And she would not shed a single tear.