By Juan Ersatzman
The Knowledge of the Queen is a serial novel, debuting with chapter one in January 2016 and slated for release chapter by chapter over the coming months.
Marigold came awake abruptly, staring at the ceiling of her bedroom. In the same instant, she became conscious of a prickling that danced along her collarbones, throbbed downward through her torso, and dissolved on the tips of her toes like a firework. She smiled into the gloom; it was Saturday.
As far back as Marigold could remember, she had loved Saturdays. As a girl, she loved scrambling out of bed in the dark and clambering into her milking frock while predawn air pooled and eddied around her shivering legs. She loved that she always managed to milk the cow in half the time on Saturdays. She loved seeing the cats waiting for the milk that splattered when she jostled the can, running across the farmyard to the house.
She loved the quick Saturday breakfast of eggs and bread with milk. She loved wolfing it down in the yellow light of an oil lamp, and hurrying to wash her fork and plate, change into her special market dress, and help her father hitch the horses to the wagon, still swallowing the last crumbs of breakfast.
The Gnowker family farm lay two gently sloping kilometers from Valeview, and Marigold loved rattling and bumping up the roads carved into the rocky flesh of the foothills. She loved watching the sun make jewels of the dew, the fat, shining beads bending down the grass. She loved rolling onto the top of the hill, through the southwestern gate, and into the market square in Valeview.
The market was open most of the year (with a midwinter break), but Marigold’s memories were all of brisk air and steaming breath. She thought of her father puffing out great blasts of steam while he stumped around the wagon, swearing at the horses and smoking a corncob pipe, and the little clouds that burst and blew away as her mother shrieked greetings to her friends, and instructions at her husband. She loved the rituals, and the habits, but she also loved the way the day exploded into color and noise — working with her parents, running through the crowd with friends, staring at city folk, getting treats from other stalls, and taking in the chaos of the day. She also loved the rituals of packing up the vegetables in the evening, of her mother and father being too hoarse to talk. The clanking bag of the day’s earnings, and drifting to sleep as the wagon rolled through twilight back to the Gnowker farm.
Now, her father was dead, her mother was a shrill, wizening widow, and Marigold had become a woman, more or less. She had been so young when she was taken from her family, and it had been so long ago that she sometimes forgot that many village girls her age still lived with their parents. Others were married, some of them mothers. Lying still and letting the first thrill of waking on a Saturday fade, it occurred to Marigold that if she’d stayed in the village, she might be someone’s wife by now. She giggled at the thought, and climbed out of bed.
Years and change aside, Marigold still loved Saturdays. She loved sliding out from between dark linen sheets and standing barefoot on the tile while the draught from the air conditioning swirled against her knees. She loved dressing up like a villager — slipping into blue jeans, and a fleece-lined flannel shirt — without showering, without washing her hair, without putting on makeup.
She still wolfed down her breakfast, even though it wasn’t half so hearty or exciting, anymore; a bagel, usually, or perhaps a bowl of cereal. Her father would have questioned the bagel, and hated the cereal. The cereal was all flax seeds and health-food, and she ate it with skim milk, or sometimes even soy. This particular Saturday morning, she did her level best to wolf down a bowl of flakes and flax with skim, admitting to the ghost of her father that of all the rituals, Saturday breakfast had perhaps lost the most magic. Maybe it was the absence of coffee; she never brewed coffee at home on Saturdays — she bought a cup at the market.
Her drab breakfast forgotten, the thrill of Saturdays tingled in her fingertips as Marigold walked to the train station through the sleeping city, empty alleys and thoroughfares wrapped in a seal of frost.
As usual, because she hadn’t had coffee, she fell into a doze on the train, lulled by the cheery lights and the hum of the electric engines. She woke up as it pulled into the Hartsburg station, three miles down the mountain from Valeview. The sun was rising, and Marigold woke slowly, blinking through a tangle of hair, then nestled deeper into the warmth of her clothes, as the train groaned and squealed and clicked to a halt.
Some Saturdays, her brother would be waiting outside the terminal with his old station wagon wheezing out steam, but today, like most Saturdays, Marigold was obliged to pay a crown and ride a bus for ten minutes with the tourists.
By way of an artfulness born of experience, she slipped off the bus at the front of the mob, and while the tourists milled aimlessly through the carpark fretting about cameras, children and water-bottles, she hurried ahead of them toward the market.
She dodged past the soldiers at the edge of the carpark, giving them the briefest and tightest of smiles, and flitted down King’s Avenue, the cobblestone thoroughfare that cut diagonally through the concentric rings of cottages and stables to the square.
The main entrance to the square was a stolid arch made of brick, plastered over with clay. Two soldiers, halfway through a transition from sleepy to bored, slouched on either side of the arch, surveying the busy crowd of vendors. On market days, farmers and craftspeople sold their wares out of wagons and temporary booths along the circular rim of the square, in front of the shops that stayed open through the week, and the slightly-larger-than-houses buildings that were home to government and cultural institutions.
As she always did, as she always had, Marigold stopped just inside the gate for coffee. The Hotchkiss family ran a dry-goods shop, and on Saturdays, they set a table in front of their shop, and sold coffee, hot chocolate, and tea. In her childhood, as soon as the wagon was unpacked, Marigold’s mother would slip her a coin, and Marigold would run through the crowd to the Hotchkiss stand, and stand between adults, drinking her coffee from a mug, and watching Almira Hotchkiss enviously.
Almira was one of the girls Marigold’s age who married young. When they were children, Almira had been a blond cherub, the daughter of a rich man, earning business for her family, and worshipers for herself with her fluttering blue eyes. Marigold had been a dark-haired little farm girl, lost in the crowd, gulping the coffee until she burned her tongue, hurrying so that no one would have to wait for a mug.
The mugs had retired and been replaced by Styrofoam, but Almira was still running the table. She had one son and was pregnant with another. Life had crushed her innocence, and bowed her head. Her blond curls were wisps, now. Her captivating eyes had bags beneath them. Her hips were wider, and her curves had softened. Almira smiled at Marigold as she paid for her coffee, and Marigold smiled back. She wondered how it was that they were the same age, from the same place, but living such different lives. She blew on the coffee as she turned to go, and then sipped it.
As nostalgia washed over her at the taste, she realized that it was awful. Genuinely repulsive. Just the sort of black, grimy water she might expect tourists to tolerate from some rustic hinterland. She took another sip, and was astonished again — the coffee still tasted like home, but home tasted like bad coffee. Marigold shuddered, and turned to find her mother’s stall.
Ma Gnowker (as everyone but Marigold and her brother called her) was already set up. The wagon was in place, beneath the shelter of the Municipal Music House veranda, turned so that the produce spilled out of the tailgate like a cornucopia. The village choir held concerts in the Music House, demonstrating the traditional ethnic musical styles of the mountain folk. Prior to Marigold’s move to the city, the Gnowker family’s local prestige had sprung from Ma Gnowker’s position of importance in the choir. As a leading singer and organizer, she held the spot on the veranda for free. When she was a girl, the choir had been such a part of Marigold’s life that she hadn’t ever even considered that some people might prefer music other than the percussive chanting and shrieking of the mountains. Now, when she thought of her mother, Marigold laughed to herself at the way that Ma Gnowker embodied the spirit of a shrieker in all aspects of her life.
Ma, a gaunt woman of sixty-seven, was already howling eagerly at a customer when Marigold slipped past her into the stall. The market had barely opened, but the first sunbeams had commenced a timid exploration through the gaps of the buildings, and a brisk flow of commerce had already begun.
As soon as the first customer was gone, Marigold’s mother did what she always did — told Marigold that under no circumstances would Marigold, her beautiful, delicate, accomplished city-folk daughter, help run the stall. And as always, her mother was quickly inundated with customers and began screeching at Marigold to help.
It wasn’t until late morning that Marigold was able to take a moment to breathe. When she did, she discovered that Ma Gnowker’s vegetables weren’t alone in their popularity — the whole market was buzzing.
Even old Hivelgott, the hunched-up, shriveled village madman who presided over a tarpload of what he called antiques and rarities (but everyone else called old junk and rubbish) laid out in the open square in front of the Gnowker stall, had customers. Three sleek city folk were glancing with cool detachment through the heaps of rusty, dangerously disintegrated wares he had spread out in front of his patched-up, splayed-axle wagon.
Two of them — a woman and a man — were tall and shaped like ice-cream cones; pencil-thin waists expanding up toward broad shoulders and close-cropped hair. They wore dark glasses, and their bloodless lips were pressed into expressionless lines.
Marigold watched as Hivelgott noticed the trio, sized them up, and dismissed the two tall ones. They were just muscle and logistics — sycophantic lackeys. The important one was the other man. He was shorter, and much broader than his help. His thick neck was corded with muscle, and his shoulders, chest and thighs strained against the fabric of his suit. His shaven head shone in the sunlight. Like his assistants, he wore dark glasses. Unlike them, he was speaking. Noticing Hivelgott’s intrusive gaze, the man said something softly to his cadaverous attendants. The woman’s lips twitched.
Hivelgott sprang to his feet like a dog to a whistle and loped across the sea of worthless trash.
“Sir!” he yelped, running with the gait of a wounded orangutan. “SIR!”
“SIR!” he repeated, catching his breath, “Have you found a treasure, sir? Has a something-special captured your roving, restless eye? Arrested your gaze and engaged your attention?”
“No?” he asked, plainly shocked to the depths, not waiting for an answer. He placed a bony hand on the man’s arm. The lackeys stepped closer.
“I know, I know! The choices! The options! The what-ifs and the maybes! The smorgasbordic, copious, overwhelming abundance! Sir, let me help! Allow me to be your guide!” Hivelgott wheeled away from the man, and plucked up a bracelet that might’ve been gold or might’ve been brass, or might’ve been a chunk of dirt — it was encrusted with grime past the point of being recognizable as anything. Hivelgott fixed his wide eyes on it for a moment, and rubbed it with his sleeve, on which it left a greasy streak. He turned back to the bald man.
“Yeeeessss!?” he asked, holding it up. He seemed astonished to have discovered a treasure of such value. “A bit of glitter for a lady’s arm?” The look of astonishment became a simpering leer.
The bald man made no response, and Hivelgott flung the bracelet away.
“No,” he said, hanging his head, “No! No lady.”
He ran his eyes across the mounds of refuse, pursing his lips in concentration. Before he could seize on another trinket, the man spoke.
“Thank you,” he said, “but I prefer to make my own selections.”
Hivelgott stared up at him, his mouth cavernously ajar, showing the decaying nubs of his teeth. Then he sank back on his haunches and guffawed.
“Of course!” he laughed. “Of course, naturally! No doubt! Indubitable! A sophisticated connoisseur! A man of erudite and individual preferences and tastes! Of course!”
He staggered back across the ocean of junk and resumed his perch atop his threadbare pillow that a judicious Valeview housewife had thrown away two summers since. As he watched the trio pick their way through the heaped-up husks of useful things, he began to smile to himself. Marigold wondered why.
Hivelgott looked away and whistled loudly, bursting with non-attention. Marigold laughed, and then felt ashamed for finding humor in his antics.
“I’m interested in this,” said the bald man, approaching Hivelgott. Marigold leaned forward to see what he was carrying. It was a small disc-shaped amulet, either made of gold, or gold-plated. Swooping lines converged around a smaller disc set into the center of the amulet.
“Ah!” said Hivelgott, hopping to his feet. He clutched the bald man’s arm and looked searchingly into his face. “You are a native of our fair and fecund fatherland?”
The man nodded.
“Then you will know the dolorous, sorrowful story of the tragic decline and disappearance of our wise and benevolent monarchy.”
Marigold supposed that one might describe the abdication like that. The bald man nodded again, hesitating. Sweat beaded on his glowing scalp.
“This,” said Hivelgott, taking a grubby rag out of his pockets and wrapping it around his gnarled hand to keep his soiled fingers off of the disc. “This is an exceedingly rare, notoriously elusive, impossible-to-acquire piece. It is a reproduction of unprecedented and unequalled accuracy and faithfulness of the amulet of succession by which the reigning head of the royal was known. It is a talisman to honor the memory of the great years of their reign, and of the hope of their return.”
He laughed again, and leaned in.
“But if you’re waiting for this one to light up at your touch, till the dread words of destiny shine out ’round your hand, you’ll be waiting till you die.”
Again, the bald man said nothing.
Hivelgott had begun to cackle, but at the man’s silence, he stopped short.
He stared into the bald man’s eyes for an instant, then spoke in a voice so low that Marigold couldn’t hear. The bald man nodded. Hivelgott raised his eyebrows. The bald man nodded again.
Hivelgott took the disc from the bald man, and with extravagant care wrapped it in his cleanest sheet of used newsprint. This was no simple ordeal, given that Hivelgott’s newsprint was as grubby as the goods he sold.
Having completed the laborious packaging, and accepted payment, he bowed obsequiously, and remained bent until the tailored trio had disappeared into the mob. But he tilted his head, and followed them with one protruding, bloodshot eye until they disappeared through the southeastern gate, heading to the carpark.
When they had gone, Hivelgott straightened up, gave a little leap into the air, and clapped his hands. He patted the money pouch at his belt, laughed, and limped back to his hideous cart. He began to peer around the marketplace with narrowed eyes, and Marigold looked away. While she’d been watching Hivelgott, a new crowd had gathered in front of Ma Gnowker’s, and the old widow was shrieking at her daughter to bag up the cabbages. Marigold hastened to obey.
When Marigold had dispensed with the cabbage-bagging, she looked back at Hivelgott. A slim little man with dark glasses and a prodigious mustache was meandering through the trash-merchant’s offerings. His hands were thrust into the pockets of his khakis, and a cigarette drooped from his mouth. He frowned, and peered down into a pile.
“Oh, sir!” exclaimed Hivelgott, arriving at the man’s side.
Again the screech from her mother, and again the cabbages; Marigold’s attention was reclaimed by the vegetable stand.
As she exchanged the three frosty-green heads of cabbage for half a crown, Marigold glanced back toward Hivelgott. She blinked, and for a moment, gaped at him. The new customer was holding up a disc identical to the one the bald man had purchased. She wished the cabbage-buyer a wonderful afternoon, and leaned forward to hear the conversation.
“Oh, yes!” Hivelgott was simpering, “… exceedingly rare! It is a talisman to honor the memory of their illustrious reign!”
Marigold couldn’t restrain an astounded giggle. She’d always known that Hivelgott was a swindler — nothing he sold was worth anything — but it had never occurred to her that he might be a cunning swindler.
Ma Gnowker, satisfied that all her current customers were looking, not buying, followed her daughter’s gaze.
“Hivelgott!” she snorted. “They oughtn’t allow him here. Dirty hooligan.”
“Mamma,” asked Marigold. “Do you know?”
“Know what?” asked her mother, distracted. Another one of the lookers was about to become a buyer. He had picked up a head of lettuce and was turning it over in his hands.
“Best lettuce within a hundred miles of the capital!” howled Ma Gnowker. The man jumped.
“Know what?” she asked again, turning back to Marigold. Hivelgott was wrapping up the new amulet in newsprint.
“He’s a fraud, Mamma — Hivelgott is, I mean.”
“Of course he is, dear — twopence per head, three for half-a-crown!” she told the man. She turned back to Marigold. “— He sells trash.”
“No, he —” said Marigold, and stopped. The little man had shaken Hivelgott’s hand enthusiastically, and set off back through the chaos of the marketplace toward the bus station. Hivelgott, again, was staring after him, waiting anxiously for the man to make it past the guards.
“Marigold, dear —” said her mother, confronted by not one, but two whole cabbage buyers. “I need you to —”
“Just a second, Mamma,” said Marigold, and slipped out of the stall, and off in pursuit of the slim little man. He was moving quickly, and the square was crowded, and for a moment, Marigold lost sight of him in the press.
Still, she guessed that he was headed for the carpark, and she made her way in that direction. She was small, and her years in the city had made her agile in a crowd. As she dodged her way toward the gate, she caught a glimpse of the man passing between the guards and out into King’s Avenue.
As she stumbled free of the square, and followed him out into the street, Marigold realized that she didn’t know exactly what she was going to say if she caught up to the little man. She’d been so startled by Hivelgott’s treacherous dealings that she’d set off without a plan. But still. Something in the little man’s drooping mustache and thinning hair had awoken her sympathy, and she felt it was only right that he know he’d been taken in.
The carpark was a large meadow on the southern edge of Valeview, extending to the eastern corner of the village, where the road bent in, before running due north, up into the mountains. Yellow ropes tied to stakes ran along the edges of it, and divided the section set aside for private cars from the larger area for the buses.
The carpark was almost empty of people when Marigold reached it — the tourists were all in town, the bus drivers were napping or smoking, or sitting on camp chairs, playing cards.
As Marigold came up to the edge of it, she saw the slim man wandering through a gap in the yellow ropes and the sea of private cars. She hurried past the first couple of slumbering buses after him, and was about to call out to him, when she stopped short, and shrank against the side of a bus.
The little man was walking through the rows of private cars toward the broad-shouldered woman who’d been with the bald man. Marigold peered out of her hiding spot. The little man was conferring with the broad-shouldered woman. He held up his newsprint packet, and she nodded. They laughed, and then he held open a car door for her, closed it behind her, and climbed into the front seat.
Marigold watched the car maneuver out through the parking lot. She was confused, and unsure of whether she should be embarrassed or suspicious. Either way, she didn’t want to be seen by the people in the car. As it approached, Marigold crept around to the front of the bus and leaned against the grill. Her chest felt constricted, as it did whenever she did something wrong, and didn’t know what it was — the eternal anxiety of a country bumpkin living alone in the metropolis.
When the car was gone, Marigold turned back toward the market. An entire card game’s worth of bus drivers were staring at her, sucking speculatively on their cigarettes. She dropped her head, unwilling to meet their eyes, and hurried into Valeview.
When she arrived back at the chaos and clamor of the market, her mother was too busy screaming at customers to spend time screaming at her daughter. Marigold, for her part, rushed to help. The line in front of Ma Gnowker’s extended ten people deep, and the tourists at the back were standing between piles of Hivelgott’s merchandise, fidgeting in the heat of the sun.
Marigold set to work, and between the two Gnowker women, they soon dispensed with the line. As the sun rose past its brilliant height, and began to descend, the chaos of the marketplace diminished. A few remaining tourists blundering through the square were aggregated into their proper groups by guides, and settled down for meals, or concerts, or special tours of farms and landmarks.
The women at the stands took out their sewing, and the men took out their pipes and packs of dog-eared cards. Hivelgott unrolled a ragged canvas overhang from the side of his cart, propped up the front end with a stick, crawled into the meager shade, and fell asleep.
Ma Gnowker, never much of a seamstress, was dozing against a pillar of the veranda. Marigold yawned.
“Mamma,” she said timidly.
“Uh?” said her mother, eyelids fluttering, but not opening.
“Ma, you said this morning that —” Marigold dropped her voice to a whisper “— that Hivelgott’s a swindler. What did you mean?”
Ma Gnowker shrugged, and didn’t open her eyes.
“That trash he sells isn’t worth a penny. He digs it out of the garbage.”
“You didn’t mean anything else?”
Ma Gnowker shrugged.
“What else is there to mean?”
Marigold got up and walked around the front of the vegetable stall.
“I’ll be right back, Ma.”
The sunlight was a thick blanket that fell across Marigold’s shoulders as she stepped out of the shadows and into the middle of the wilderness of Hivelgott’s questionable wares. For a moment, she was blinded.
When her eyes adjusted, she saw Hivelgott looking at her questioningly from beneath his makeshift canopy. He stared, but he didn’t move. His stare had none of the overweening enthusiasm he had shown toward his morning customers. His bulging eyes looked almost hostile.
Marigold took a deep breath, and stepped cautiously through the maze of his garbage toward the overhang, telling herself that his expression was afternoon listlessness, nothing more. He remained motionless.
When she was only about five feet from him, Marigold stopped. Hivelgott was still staring at her, and saying nothing. Marigold realized that she, too, had nothing to say. She wasn’t sure whether she meant to warn, or question, or threaten him.
“What do you want?” he asked. His voice was hoarse.
“I know what you’re doing,” she said. It wasn’t what she had planned to say, but it was the truth.
Hivelgott sneered up at her from beneath his awning.
“Do you know? Or are you guessing?”
“Guessing, I guess.”
He nodded with satisfaction.
“I know why you’re here.”
“Really?” she asked, irritated. She didn’t even know why she was there. How could he?
“Yes. I know,” said Hivelgott, now leaning back into his shade. The sun burned down on Marigold’s neck.
“How?” she asked, sharply. “What makes you sure?”
Hivelgott smirked, and wrinkles with greasy stubble on the ridges sprouted across the lower half of his face. A wreath of flesh for his gruesome mouth.
“Now’s not the time to be privy to that,” he said, and grinned. A drop of sweat ran down between Marigold’s shoulder blades.
She fidgeted, and said nothing. Nothing came to mind.
Hivelgott laughed, and turned away. He crawled out from under the far side of his awning, without standing up, and twisted his torso so that he clung to the side of the wagon with his right hand, reaching up underneath it with his left. One eye was turned to his work, and the other was squinted shut against the glare of the sun. He reached, scratched, swore under his breath, and withdrew his hand.
Marigold had crouched down to watch him work, and their eyes were level as Hivelgott came wheezing and nodding back under the awning. He laughed huskily, and held something out to her. Inside of his hand, wrapped in the filthy cloth, was another amulet.
“I don’t want it,” she told him. “Why would I pay you for a bit of trash?”
Hivelgott’s eyes bulged out, and his lips pressed together in sudden fury. Marigold flinched away, and started to stand, but Hivelgott regained control, and motioned her back to him.
“No, no, no,” he wheedled, his voice crackling. “No, no, no. A bit of trash? No. Never.”
“I’ve heard your speech about rare talismans,” said Marigold. “Twice.”
“No speech,” said Hivelgott, seriously. “Not for you. No gold, either. A token of friendship — a token of honor.”
“You’ve no reason to honor me,” said Marigold. She was becoming annoyed with this. “None that I know of, anyway.”
Hivelgott shrugged, and scratched himself beneath his stained collar.
“You don’t know much.”
He held out the amulet again.
“MARIGOLD!” shrieked her mother. Marigold started, and looked back. Her mother had woken from her stupor, and was standing, clutching at a veranda post for support. “MARIGOLD, come back here now!”
She was suddenly aware of how ludicrous it all was. People were watching. Mostly from the shade of their awnings and verandas, needles still moving, pipes still puffing. A few children were venturing out into the sunlight to stare.
Saturday was destroyed. The simplicity and comfort of her weekly trips home were slipping away. The coffee was disgusting. She was wearing a flannel sweater and thick jeans on a hot day. The madman was a swindler. His victims were deceiving him.
And now, she was crouched before a lunatic, speaking in riddles and nonsense, entertaining his madness, accepting his homage.
The villagers had never been certain what to make of her when she had first come back a year ago, two years after the government had taken her away. And now, she heard humiliation in her mother’s voice, and for the first time she understood how tenuous her position was with the villagers.
She had done something wrong. She wasn’t sure what.
She turned back to Hivelgott. Sweat was beading on the piebald skin of his scalp, and sliding through the straggling forest of his hair to drip off of his brow and down his nose. He was grinning at her. Broken, yellow teeth protruded from his discolored gums. His eyes bored into her.
Stung with embarrassment, Marigold snatched the amulet out from Hivelgott’s oily scrap of cloth. His eyes went wide. Marigold tried to stand up to walk back to her mother’s booth and sit in the shade.
She stood too quickly. The world swirled in indeterminate brilliance for a moment, and she stumbled backward to catch her balance. Blood was roaring in her ears, but she heard Hivelgott laughing, and her mother shriek.
Marigold’s mother was an inveterate shrieker but this was different. This was the sound of terror and horror together, of something worse than humiliation.
Marigold’s eyes focused. Hivelgott was squatting before her, grinning up at her with fiendish glee. Her mother was screaming, and her hand was clasped on the amulet. She glanced down at the amulet, cool and heavy in her hand. And then she stared, and the blood roared in her ears like a waterfall.
Tiny words in a flowing script had been etched along the curving lines of the amulet. Under her fingers, the words were glowing white.