Compelled to write something to mark Leap Day, I was delighted accept an invitation from my American author friend Samantha Warren‘s Facebook party today, which runs from 10am until 11pm Eastern Standard Time. As that’s five hours behind my local time in England, I have taken advantage of the head start to spend the morning, UK time, writing a short story to join in the fun. If you’re reading this in time to join the party, you’ll find it here on Facebook. Whenever you land on this page, you can just scroll down to read the story for free.
My story is set in a medieval royal castle, similar to the one featured in my festive short story, The Owl and the Turkey or the Real Reason We Eat Turkey at Christmas. Because I always love an obvious title (I think I must have spent too much timing reading Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories when I was a child), the title for this one is in a similar vein. And like the festive story, of course, it isn’t the real reason at all. I just made it up. I claim the author’s right to poetic licence here – and if you object, you’d better look out, or you might end up in one of my stories…
The Queen and the Astronomer –
or the Real Reason We Celebrate Leap Year Day on 29th February
“Your majesty, I fear this early darkness foretells impending doom.”
The king’s spiritual advisor, seated at the far end of the long table, put his hands together as if in prayer.
“What if he is right, sire?” said the young queen, seated in her throne at her new husband’s side. She raised her clear blue eyes from her snow-white embroidery. “It’s never been this cold and dark so early in August before. In our forefathers’ time, this month was always warm and sunny. If you want proof, just look around you at the tapestries.” She waved her free hand at the hangings that added much-needed warmth to the cold stone hall. “Can’t you do something about it? Why not command the sun to stay in the sky a little longer each day?”
The king shook his head and indulged her with a royal smile, touched by her belief in his omnipotence. He did not realise how much her father had exaggerated his power to persuade her to marry him.
“My dear, would it were so simple. I’m afraid the sun falls outside my jurisdiction. I can no more command him to change his hours than I could arrange for the Man in the Moon to visit us. Though, goodness knows, I’ve tried hard enough. I have a dozen archers firing messages skywards every night, but none has reached him yet. Perhaps no-one has yet invented the arrow capable of travelling the necessary ten miles. Every time I behold his gentle smile at night, I must recognise the limits to my powers. Or at least, to the wit of the royal inventors.”
The keeper of the castle, on the left of the table, coughed to signal his intention to speak.
“It the darkness troubles you, sire, I can assure your majesty that we have plenty of candles in our stores. It would be easy for us to provide more light within the castle on these dark days.”
The king hesitated. “Your offer addresses the symptoms. We need to consider the cause.”
The chief royal explorer raised his missing hand. He could not say where he’d lost it – that territory was still uncharted. “Perhaps we might follow the example of the humble swallow, your majesty? Why not travel south when the days start to shorten? I have observed myself that if you travel far enough south, days and nights are of an equal length.”
The king dismissed the speaker with an impatient wave. “Yes, yes, that’s fine if you don’t mind risking falling off the edge of the world.” He banged his fist down on the heavy oak table. “Would you have me sink like a stone, sir? To share the same fate as the hundreds of explorers who never return? Though, heaven knows, I spend enough on their damned ships.”
The elderly court mathematician spotted his chance to add reason to the debate. “Perhaps a giant lever to move the earth a little closer to the sun? With a large enough lever, one may move anything.”
The king looked at him aghast. “Haven’t I already said I don’t trust new-fangled inventions?” He turned to inspect the men ranged down the other side of the table. “What say you, astronomer? The sky is your field of expertise, not the numbers man’s.”
Out of respect for his assembled elders, a pale young man with dark eyes and dense black curls stood up to speak. The young queen tried not to notice how pretty he looked, backlit by the huge log fire blazing in the fireplace.
“Your majesty, I have just completed some fascinating observations of the heavenly bodies. My findings convince me that our calendar is at odds with the natural order of the skies. Each year we mark 365 days, but to keep our seasons consistent requires an extra quarter day each year. The simple solution is to add one.”
He sat down.
“Simple? I’d not call that solution simple,” retorted the mathematican, his lank white locks shaking. “How on earth could we add a quarter of a day? Should we sleep through it, and treat it as an extra night? Or do a quarter as much of each of our normal day’s tasks? Either way, it would never catch on. The peasants would revolt. They lack our intellectual understanding of such matters.”
The astronomer rose to his feet again and gave a slight bow to the king. “I’m sorry, I should explain my proposition in more detail. I suggest we add a whole day once every four years, perhaps at the end of February to even things up.”
“Ugh, February, my least favourite month,” declared the Queen. She pulled hard on her embroidery needle. “Why not repeat one of our better days instead? Two Christmas Days, perhaps?”
The king reached over the thick arm of his throne to pat her on the head.
“Ah, my dear, how little you understand of scientific matters. Only the wit of men can resolve such a tricky problem. We can’t have two Christmas days, because Jesus wasn’t twins.”
Unsure of whether he’d just made a sound point or a joke, the king glanced around the table for reassurance. He hoped the reaction of his advisors would enlighten him. After all, that was why he paid them.
The advisors smiled and nodded, a shrewd way of covering both possibilities. Those that did not practise such diplomacy did not last long in this king’s court.
“Then I propose we celebrate your birthday two days in a row, sire,” the queen suggested. She flashed a sweet smile, her head on one side. Though they’d married only a month before, she was already a skilled manipulator of the royal ego.
“Ah, but then your queen would age twice as fast.” The mathematician addressed only the king. The new queen had yet to win him over, having had no cause to do so yet.
“No, no, no,” said the king. “We can’t have that.” He turned to his wife. “But you, my dear, may have the honour if you wish? Two birthdays for you on consecutive days? There’d be more presents.”
He was not the only one who had the measure of his spouse.
The queen’s smile tightened as she considered the prospect.
The mathematician butted in again. “Sire, that’s the perfect solution. And there’s an added bonus. Within just twenty years, your wife would be your own age.”
“And in forty years, I’d be twenty years older than him,” said the queen. She patted her husband’s hand. “I don’t think you would like that, would you my dear?”
The advisors stared down at the table, embarrassed. Did she not know that none of her predecessors had survived even five years of marriage?
“Perhaps we could mark it as a special feast day,” she continued, oblivious. “Being so rare, it would be worth celebrating.” She was still young enough for four years to seem a long time, in relation to her own age. “Especially when February is always so gloomy.”
The keeper of the royal purse leaned forward, eager to speak. He was already fond of the spirited young queen. She’d made winning his favour a priority, ensuring her own purse was always full. But, so far, for him at least, duty came first.
“I would prefer the extra day to fall on a week day. That way we’d gain a day’s labour from every peasant, and an extra day in which to impose tax.”
The king’s face brightened. “That is a splendid idea. Astronomer, is there a propitious time of year at which we should set this extra day?”
The astronomer stood up again, always conscious of his inferior years in this company. “As I suggested earlier, we should add it to the end of little February, which so lacks days at present.”
“That would tidy things up,” agreed the keeper of the royal purse. “While we’re at it, could we make it two days, for the sake of neatness? And round the other months down to a mere thirty? It would make my job so much easier.”
Everyone ignored the indignant huff that came from the direction of the mathematician.
“I’m afraid not, sire, much as I’d love to help you. That approach would do more harm than good. But fear not – after a few of the longer years have passed, everyone will become used to the new order of things. No-one will even think to remark upon a twenty-nine day February. Unless of course they have the misfortune to be born on one.”
A ripple of laughter passed around the table, stopping only when it reached the queen. She shot an anxious glance at the astronomer. As their gaze locked, she put a hand to her still flat stomach. Only they realised the significance of the gesture.
His face warmed, thinking back to their secret trysts in the weeks before the royal wedding. He had comforted her the best way he knew, on dark nights beneath starry skies. He had felt so sorry for her having to marry against her will, and she was so beautiful and coquettish.
Maybe his stargazing had made him too romantic, but he was surprised how soon she cast him aside. A week before the wedding, she told him she wished she had never set eyes on his accursed telescope.
He ran one hand around his young, unlined and still intact neck. He wondered whether he would live to see their ill-starred child born on the first ever 29th February.
If you enjoyed this story, you might also like to read The Owl and the Turkey or the Real Reason We Eat Turkey at Christmas, which is available as a stand-alone single story ebook on all the usual platforms. (Here it is on Amazon.) I’m now wondering whether I should write more stories like this to create a collection. What do you think of that idea?
More topically for the 29th February, a day on which in many countries it’s traditional for unmarried women to propose to men, you may like to try Marry in Haste, my latest collection of humorous short stories, launched last month, and fast accruing excellent reviews. The ebook is currently available exclusively from Amazon here, and you can order the paperback from any stockist, online and in the real world, by quoting ISBN 978-1911223016.
If you enjoy any of my stories, please consider leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other site of your choice. Or just recommend it to your friends! All these things help authors gain more readers. Thank you.