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.
Both Hiram’s reign and his personal life were marked by flaws of personality, and the influence of senseless tragedy. As is often the case with great tragedies, it began with tremendous optimism.
Taking the crown from his father at the tender age of 24, Hiram made the perfunctory public statements of intent to rule with wisdom, impartiality and benevolence, as he perceived his father and forebears to have done. Indeed, newspaper reports surrounding both the funeral and coronation remark that Hiram was a particularly subdued figure, “notable for the newfound soberness and humility of his bearing.”
He was also commended for his diligent attendance on the widowed queen. The editors of the Embrettiton Chronicle wrote in a glowing editorial that “there was evident in our prince’s carriage, and precisely his compassionate attentions to his bereaved mother a transformation of character which speaks well of his abilities to govern the nation. A good son is a good king.”
The Earl of Maltin, with the tactlessness that was his wont, wrote to a confidant that “The way this louse has pulled himself together, there might be hope, yet.”
The Earl was regarded for his candor, not his prescience. This prediction was characteristically straightforward, and just as characteristically wrong.
–From A History of Trevendland: Chapter 3, “Hiram I, and the Dissolution of the Monarchy” by E. Kodrave
“PUT IT AWAY!”
The second scream broke from Ma Gnowker like a deluge from a dam and shook Marigold from her stupor.
Hivelgott was frozen in front of her, eyes fastened on the glowing amulet in her hand. The amulet itself was smooth, and cool against her fingers. The light of the letters winked up at her. She shuddered.
The moment she moved, Hivelgott came unstuck. He flung himself down among his piles of trash with a happy squeal, and began to thrash, rolling over and through the mountains of his merchandise, kicking his legs and howling.
None of the events of the day thus far had prepared Marigold for a spectacle on this scale. She stumbled back, away from Hivelgott. All around the square, villagers were sitting and standing in dumbfounded silence, knitting needles frozen, cigars dropping from slackened jaws.
They were not staring at Hivelgott.
Marigold’s chest felt tight, and she could hear her own throat gasping for air. The amulet was too wide for her pockets. Marigold pushed past her mother into the vegetable stall. She slipped the amulet into one of the plastic bags Ma Gnowker used for her vegetables. She let go of the amulet, and the lights went out.
Ma Gnowker had stopped screaming, and was now mewing and whimpering, clutching at her daughter’s arm.
Marigold was gripped by a loathing for Valeview with its shrieks, and madmen and popeyed villagers. She thought of her apartment in the city, of tiles under bare feet, of the quiet, cool, darkness of her living room with something like thirst.
She would take the produce she needed for the week and go. She did her best to ignore the stares of the villagers, picking up carrots — turning them over, putting one down and selecting another — and finding a head of cabbage and a cucumber. She slipped them into her bag, and spun it shut without looking up. After eight years of unceasing embarrassment, she had no intention of letting anyone see her humiliation.
The attempt to preserve her dignity proved costly. When she looked up, she found that Hivelgott had staggered to his feet, and was standing before her, a vision of apoplectic malice. His hair jutted out in all directions. His lips were pulled back into a snarl, and his eyes were bulging out.
“SEIZE HER!” he roared, pointing at Marigold.
No one moved. The villagers stared. Marigold speculated bitterly that none of them had blinked nor breathed since the amulet lit up in her hand. Nor had Ma Gnowker ceased to weep and wheedle.
“Ma,” she said, pushing her mother away, “Ma, I need to go, now.”
“SOLDIERS!” screamed Hivelgott, beckoning to the guards at the gate, “Soldiers!”
He turned his gaze around the whole of the square as though unable to believe that no one was rushing to apprehend her. Marigold stepped out the side of the booth.
Hivelgott bent down, plucked a rusty bolt from the sea of his rubbish, and hurled it. Marigold was too stunned to move, and the missile caught her just above her left eye. She fell back against the post of the veranda with stars in her eyes. Her mother screamed again, and so, it seemed to Marigold, did everyone else in the village.
Regaining her balance, Marigold saw Hivelgott rushing at her with a clay pot raised above his head. As he swung it, she stepped sideways, and the pot shattered against the post.
For an instant, Marigold found herself peering straight into Hivelgott’s eyes. They were yellow, and the veins stood out like rivers on a map. His pupils had grown until there was nothing left of his irises — only black pools of nothing. It occurred to Marigold — in much the same way it would have occurred to her that she was out of milk — that he wanted to kill her. Indeed, he was having a go at it, right now.
Her body moved without the volition of her mind. It extended both its hands, grabbed the old man, off balance from his swing, and flung him headlong into the ground in her mother’s vegetable stall.
As Hivelgott crashed down, her body stepped into the alley between the Municipal Music House and the Valeview Carpentry, and ran. As she ran, she heard a sudden swelling of yells behind her, and redoubled her pace.
At the end of the alley she turned right, away from King’s Avenue and the guards. One block down, she cut left toward the carpark, then left again, back in the direction she’d come. She was breathing hard, running through a neighborhood of empty houses and walled gardens in the direction of King’s Avenue when her foot caught on a cobblestone. She fell headlong, crashing down on her elbows and her chin. She scrambled up and tried to run, but wobbled back to her knees. The gash on her forehead was bleeding freely, and blood and sweat were dripping into her eyes. Marigold swiped at her eyes with her free hand, and succeeded only in grinding dust from the street into the paste of blood and sweat. Her eyes were on fire, but she forced herself to her feet, and took two halting steps.
From the obscurity of the world, behind the red wall of agony in her eyes, someone was shouting. Marigold staggered toward the voice, and back into the shadows of another alley. She reeled against the wall for a moment, then forced herself on, propping herself up with her left hand.
She could make out sunlight ahead, and guessed that whoever was shouting at her was standing across from the alley. As she approached the street, she saw that someone was standing in the open back door of the Hotchkiss dry goods warehouse, directly across from the alley. The figure raised a hand in warning, and Marigold stopped.
Tears and blinking were beginning to clear the sand and sweat from her eyes, and she could see that it was a young man who had called out to her. He was of medium height, wiry and dark. His was familiar, but not enough to know him.
He was staring down the street, off to his right toward where Marigold assumed her pursuers would be, if her gambit of reversal had succeeded. His jaw twitched.
Then, without turning his head, he beckoned to her.
Marigold darted across the street, and tripped on the threshold of the warehouse. She would’ve sprawled on her face, but the young man caught her shoulders and pulled her upright. He smelled of flowers, and scented oils.
His hands were still on her shoulders. Marigold blinked. The shelves that ran along the walls, lined with bags of seeds and flour were reduced to smudges in the gloom of the warehouse, and she couldn’t make out the face of her rescuer.
“Thank you,” she said, though it sounded more like a gasp. He might’ve nodded, but Marigold couldn’t tell. He was guiding her by her shoulders across the room, past two waist-high stacks of seed bags on wooden pallets, toward the shelves along the eastern wall.
“Behind these,” he said. Marigold crouched down between the stacks. The young man stepped away toward the shelf, and a fresh profusion of blood from her forehead rolled into Marigold’s eyes and set them stinging. She closed her eyes, and felt her heartbeat shaking her whole body.
“Come on,” said the young man, looming up from the shadows, “in here.” Marigold opened her right eye. He had pulled open a small space between bags piled up beneath the bottom shelf along the eastern wall. As best she could, she pulled herself across to shelf, and eased feet-first into the space behind the bags, where she lay down on her back.
“Stay quiet,” said the young man. He pushed the bags back flush with the other stacks and Marigold was swallowed up in darkness.
Marigold lay in the niche beneath the shelves, soaked in sweat and blood, caked with dust and flour stirred up by her and the young man’s movements. The flour caught in her throat, and she fought the urge to cough, until her whole torso was shaking with the effort. But she kept still.
When at last the shaking subsided, Marigold lay still, staring up into the darkness, exhausted.
And the darkness held its peace. For a long while, she heard nothing. Then, after a while, there was a loud, but confused trampling of feet. Marigold lay taut while footsteps clattered around the room, but soon enough, they clattered away. Whoever they were, they were gone. She felt secure enough to take stock of her situation. She was already sore from the unexpected strain, marveling at how far she’d regressed from the lissome, durable farm girl of yesteryear. Although the blood had dried to a paste, the wound on her forehead and the scrapes along the base of her hands still ached.
What did it mean?
In the span of one day — one morning almost — she’d gone from dozing on the train to being hidden behind bags of flour by strangers to protect her from — what? Soldiers? A mob? She couldn’t decide which was more improbable.
This much was certain; either soldiers or villagers had come after her, and Hivelgott had set them on her. But why?
That was easy enough; the amulet. Marigold sat up in the dark as far as she could, gingerly raising her head until her hair was brushing the underside of the shelf above her, and slid her hand into the bag. She worked through the carrots and the cucumbers, and found the amulet at the bottom.
As her fingers slid around it, the lines of script glowed out through the bag. The flour still suspended in the air shone in its light. With painstaking care, she slid the amulet out of the bag, and held it up. The amulet bathed the whole niche with its inexplicable luminescence.
The slick-dressed trio from the city, and the slim little man who followed them must have been aware that Hivelgott was running some scheme with the amulets. But who were they, and why resort to subterfuge? Was it illegal to sell imitation amulets? But why would Hivelgott hide the amulets if it weren’t?
This one glowed in her hands — the other two had not glowed in the hands of the customers. Hivelgott hadn’t touched any of them. So was hers real and were the others fake?
That seemed like nonsense — the real amulet would glow in the hands of the rightful king or queen. Not in the hands of an exiled village girl.
Why had Hivelgott handed her the amulet, and then attacked her when it glowed?
It occurred to Marigold that she didn’t even know what the glowing letters said. Hivelgott had called them the “dread words of destiny,” but in her haste to escape, and through the chaos that followed she’d never stopped to read them. She blinked, and squinted into the light.
“Stay quiet, stay calm,” said the letters. She checked to the right, and to the left. The sentence was repeated over and over through the swooping lines of the amulet.
Marigold couldn’t restrain a giggle. The idea that she was hiding from a mob led by a maniac, because of an amulet inscribed with platitudes was too preposterous.
But the mob was real enough, she supposed. The maniac certainly was.
Marigold eased down onto the floor again, folded her hands across the amulet in the center of her sternum, and stared up at the underside of the shelf. Could this ever blow over? How big must a misunderstanding be to change person’s life? Could she crawl back out, return to the market, and show everyone that the amulet was a fake, have a laugh and go back to life?
She thought again of her apartment, and the back of her throat ached.
Marigold wasn’t aware that she was asleep until the sound of the flour bags being pulled away, and a trickle of yellow lamplight falling across her face woke her up. She yawned, blinked, coughed, and squinted into the light. There was a foul taste in her mouth, and her head, shoulders and hips ached as though someone had taken to them with a hammer.
The light, pale as it was, hurt her eyes. An indistinct number of silhouettes were hovering over her hiding place, jostling to get close. Marigold stared at them, unable to grasp their significance.
“Get back,” hissed a voice. “Give her air.”
Marigold recognized the speaker. It was Almira Hotchkiss, barging into view through the wall of silhouettes. Almira set her hip and shoulder against the stack of flour bags, and pushed them further back so Marigold could escape, clicking her tongue at the rest of the company while she did so.
“If you’re going to let her out, let her out.”
Marigold felt the now-familiar weight of stranger’s eyes as she took Almira’s hand and crawled out of the niche and into the warehouse. Almira helped Marigold onto one of the stacks of seed bags she’d hidden between earlier, and took a seat across from her while the rest of the silhouettes pressed in close, and stared at Marigold.
“Water?” Almira asked, holding out a clay mug. It was faded with age, and a chip was missing from one side of the rim. Marigold took the cup and drank a deep draught. The chill of the water spread along her collarbones and down to her stomach, tickling the nerves beneath her skin, and clearing the fog from her mind. She looked around the room.
All of the light came from oil lamps, with wicks trimmed low. Most were set on the shelves, but a man near the door, and the young man who had hidden her, were carrying lamps. Shadows shifted and flickered as the men with the lamps moved through the room. In the shifting light, Marigold could see the water jug and a kettle next to Almira on top of the stack of bags, and a poker leaning against the side. She was a trifle puzzled not to see a fireplace.
Her youthful savior — he was about her age, even — shouldered his way into the inner circle. For the second time in the day, Marigold was taken aback by his familiarity.
Almira reached out and caught him by the wrist,
“Give her half a second, Harrison.”
She stared up at him in staunch disapproval. Harrison furrowed his brow, started to speak, then thought better of it and slunk back into the ranks of the shadow-folk. Almira turned to Marigold.
“Made you some soup, if you want,” she said softly, and held out another mug. Marigold set down the water, cupped the mug in both hands and drank the soup straight from it. It was more of a stew than a soup; the carrots and potatoes burned the roof of her mouth, and the broth savored of goat. Marigold couldn’t recall the last time she’d enjoyed a meal so much.
Minutes passed before she spoke again. As she ate, the shadows muttered to one another, and watched her with great care, as though they were taking notes for an exam.
“Thank you,” she said, lowering the mug, “Than you, that was lovely.”
Almira smiled and looked down at her hands.
Marigold surveyed the room again. The shadows made counting heads a guessing game but she estimated that there were fifteen people in the warehouse. Beyond her and Almira they were all men, and mostly villagers. She noticed that Almira’s husband was missing.
Harrison was sulking on the edge of the circle, just beyond Almira. There were two other plains-dwellers with him, and Marigold wondered why they had come. For her? For a silly girl and an imitation amulet?
Shame rose in Marigold’s chest, and she felt nauseous.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what’s going on,” she said, more or less to Almira, but also to the murmuring mass arrayed throughout the room, “at all.”
“You know all you need to know,” said Harrison, unable to hold his peace. He stepped forward and standing next to Almira. His brown eyes glowed in the light of the lamp.
“I promise you, I don’t,” said Marigold. She added, “Thank you for saving me, though.”
Harrison’s face stayed stern.
“You know how badly we need change,” he said.
“Um,” began Marigold, “I —”
“You know the prophecy,” he went on, raising his voice for the benefit of the room.
She didn’t, and wished for an unostentatious way to say so.
“I’m awfully, awfully sorry,” she said, “But I —”
“You know how the backs of the people bend under the weight of corruption,” said Harrison, who was almost shouting, “how the people of the plains and the mountains are sacrificed for the whims and appetites of the wealthy, how the —”
Marigold strove not to broadcast the blank astonishment she felt, and hoped the shadows would hide what she couldn’t. She glanced at Almira, who was staring at her. Marigold shifted her eyes away.
Harrison may have gone on without end, but he was interrupted. There was a muffled crash, and then the door from the dry goods store to the warehouse was flung open with a bang. A stocky white woman with a shock of unevenly-cut grey hair hove into view in the doorway, clutching a wooden staff with ornate designs carved into its head. She was scowling a jowly scowl.
She pointed at Harrison. “You!”
He flinched. She stomped a foot, and glared at him.
“Me?” he asked, recovering himself. “Who are you?”
Now the woman smirked, advancing into the room, shaking her staff at the silhouettes, which scurried out of her path.
“I’m the prophetess,” she announced, “And I’m here to help.”
There was a pause.
“When you say ‘prophetess’ …” said a middle-aged, white farmer — Floyd Witmok — stepping closer, “Do you mean —”
“No,” said the Prophetess, plopping down on the seed bags next to Marigold’s, sending up a cloud of dust. “No, I’m not the woman behind your ridiculous prophecy. Not at all.”
There was a general sigh. The prophetess turned to Marigold.
“Believe me,” she said, puffing out her cheeks, “If I were the woman behind your prophecy, you’d know it. I don’t do these mumbo-jumbo riddle-me-this, wide-open nonsense prophecies. If you say you can predict the future, predict it, dammit!”
She gave her staff a rattle, and the villagers shied away from it. She didn’t seem to notice, but began to cast her beady eyes around the room.
“So,” she asked, “Who’s the holder of the amulet?”
Almira, unspeaking, pointed to Marigold.
The prophetess smiled, exposing a mouthful of huge, square teeth. “Wonderful!”
“Almira!” exploded Harrison, having once again maintained silence for as long as he could. “What are you doing? We don’t know her! We don’t know who she is, where she’s from, who’s she’s working for —”
The shadows — nervous as they were about the prophetess and her staff — muttered in concurrent disapproval.
The prophetess shrugged. “It’s a question I can’t answer,” she said, “but I’m as trustworthy as anyone here and I’ll prove it soon enough. In the meantime,” her voice dropped to a growl, “I’d invite any of you to try to throw me out.”
She shook the staff, and scanned the room, locking eyes with Harrison until he turned away.
Then the prophetess’s flat face wrinkled into a smile. She leaned into the lamplight
and peered at Marigold.
“What do you know, and what don’t you know?” she asked.
“I don’t know what I don’t know,” said Marigold, feeling befuddled. She peered around the room. Across from the prophetess, Almira and Harrison were staring at her. Beyond them was the shadowy ring of the others were also staring at her, “And I don’t know anything, actually.”
The old woman narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips.
“OK,” she said, slowly, “OK. You live in the city, yes?”
“Yes,” said Marigold.
“You used to live here.”
“And how did it happen that you went from living here to living in the city?”
“The people chose me. I was a Oneness Student. It’s an integration and diversity program,” said Marigold. “An exchange. They take children from the plains and the mountains to the city for school and training.”
There was a rumble around the room. Marigold stopped.
“Go on,” said the prophetess, “what did they tell you was the point of all that?”
Something fluttered in Marigold’s chest, “To make us a stronger country. It’s — it’s the slogan — ‘Strength as one.’ Combining the people from the plains and the mountains and the city — they — um, it brings us closer as one.”
The prophetess nodded. “Why do you think they choose you?”
Marigold shook her head. She didn’t know why they’d chosen her, but she could remember the day they’d come for her. It was late spring, and she was done with chores early, so she had been out in fields, running barefoot through the sloping meadows. Warm grass rustled against her calves and water from flooded streams thundering downward to the valley froze the soles of her feet. She was just that age when boys and girls begin to feel that there are things they are too old for. She felt a whisper that she was too old to spend the afternoon running through meadows, but it was spring, and she ignored the whisper.
When she straggled home, all muddy feet and ruddy cheeks, she found her mother and father in the kitchen talking to three strange men in suits. Her mother was crying, and her father, still wearing his work boots, caked in mud, was looking around the room like he didn’t recognize it.
Ma Gnowker had swiped a forearm across her eyes, taken a deep breath, and told her daughter that the people needed her. She was to leave with the men, and go to the city. Tonight.
“I don’t know,” Marigold told the prophetess.
There was a murmur of surprise around the room.
“WHAT?” hissed Harrison. Almira turned sharply to face him, and he went silent.
“We took a test,” said Almira, leaning in, “you might not remember. You only took it once. A month from the end of the school year, we took a test with colors and shapes and words and patterns. And they gave us a medical exam.”
Marigold nodded. She had a hazy memory of it.
“That’s why they took you,” said Almira, “That’s always how they choose.”
The prophetess grunted, “They take the best and the brightest from the mountains and the plains to the city, and they turn them into cityfolk. The mountains, the plains and the coast? They lose their leaders. The power, the money, the smarts — it’s all in the city, now.”
She locked eyes with Marigold. “They say it’s about oneness. When was the last time the city sent their best and brightest here?”
Marigold shuddered. Through the ache in her hip and her back, she felt the same hollow feeling that had come over her when she drank the Hotchkiss coffee in the morning.
“When was the last time anything good happened here?” asked Harrison.
“The road,” said Almira, “they repaved the road.”
“Right. Certainly,” said Harrison, leaping at the chance to retake the floor, “The road! Of course. One road.” He turned to Marigold,
“Her husband is gone!” he said, his voice rising, gesticulating at Almira, “Went off to find work, and disappeared. Probably dead. No one no notices, one cares. No one cares!”
Marigold bit back a gasp, and was ashamed. She hadn’t noticed his disappearance.
“Hell,” said Harrison, his voice dropping, “Tad never liked the government, so they probably don’t want to look for him. Better if no one thinks of it. She’s having a baby! In the city, she’d be fawned over by gangs of doctors; she’d be tethered to a thousand machines in a sterilized room. Instead, she’ll have her baby in the bed of her own home, festering in blood and dirt.”
He seemed to be raging at Marigold specifically, and she wasn’t sure why. Because she lived in the city? Because she’d been taken?
“The taxes go up, and up and up. Every year we pay for our children to be kidnapped by the city! We’re getting poorer, we’re getting weaker, and the city takes it all. All we have left is our anger.”
“You’re getting poorer?” asked Marigold, looking around the room.
“Sure!” said Harrison, sweeping onward, “They repaved the road. They repaved the road and built a train. Now they could come and gawk at us like we’re monkeys.”
“That’s — that’s awful,” said Marigold, “I’m sorry. I had no idea — I had no idea that things were so bad —”
“That’s the problem!” interrupted Harrison, “Cityfolk —”
“— but I have no idea what it has to do with me,” finished Marigold, raising her voice and channeling the vocal power of her Gnowker heritage to drown Harrison out. She finished, and the room was still.
“I’m sorry that things are so bad,” she said in the silence. “I truly am. I’m sorry that I didn’t know. But I don’t know what it has to do with me, and what you expect me to do about it.”
The farmers and villagers and day-laborers stared at her. Harrison furrowed his brow, and stared at her. Almira only looked down at her hands, caressing the baby bulge beneath her dress.
The prophetess snorted. “You’re bright,” she said, “Obviously you are. So stop being silly. What do you know?”
Marigold blinked. “I know you think there’s something special about me and the amulet.”
The old woman nodded. “But what you don’t know,” she told Marigold, “is the prophecy. A couple of years back, some whispery nymph slinking around the forest moaning about spirits tossed out out a so-called ‘prophecy’ about how a new monarch would rise unexpectedly from the ruins, clutching some sign of his or her right to the throne, and lead the people to peace, prosperity, and triumph over the city’s regime.”
She turned her beady eyes around the room, and smirked at the would-be revolutionaries.
“These little children believe it,” said the prophetess, gesturing to the watchers.
“You don’t?” asked Marigold, who would have believed a prophecy ten years ago, wouldn’t have ten hours ago, and couldn’t make up her mind, now, “You’re a prophetess.”
“I’m a prophetess,” said the prophetess, “Which doesn’t mean some hussy half-dressed in deer-hide is. The prophecy’s —”
She was cut off by another crash from the dry-goods store, a sound of splintering wood, shattering glass, and seeds and flour cascading onto the floor.
Two of the men — Floyd Witmok and a young plain-dweller — who had been standing in the circle, anxiously listening to the interchange between the prophetess and Marigold sprang for warehouse door, first. As they approached it, there were pops and flashes, and another crash. Witmok spun sideways, and crashed to the ground. More villagers rushed forward.
Marigold turned back. Almira was sitting frozen on her stack of bags, staring straight ahead. Someone in the press of men around the door shouted suddenly “Get down, get down!”
Marigold leaned forward, snatched Almira’s wrists, and dropped down behind the stack of seed-bags, dragging Almira with her. Almira twisted as she fell to protect her abdomen, and landed hard on her hip.
Above them, the prophetess stood up, and produced from beneath her robe a revolver resembling in form and size a cannon better than it did a handgun.
“COME ON YOU BASTARDS!” she bellowed, pointing it in the direction of the hubbub at the door and setting off the gun.
There was a sound like the end of the world, and an accompanying flash of approximately equal magnitude. The prophetess staggered back from the recoil. Over the ringing in her ears, Marigold heard screams, bangs and clattering from the direction of the door.
The assembled would-be revolutionaries had remembered themselves, and were surging either bravely toward the contested doorway from which the pops, flashes and sounds of dispute were coming, or somewhat less bravely toward the freight door at the back.
Marigold glanced in the direction of the fighting. The men in the room were crowded around the door, but trying not to stand in the line of the gunfire. They had stopped jostling for a moment to stare at the prophetess and her enormous gun.
“DON’T STARE!” boomed the old woman, cocking the pistol, “FIGHT!”
She fired again, but Marigold had no idea what she was aiming at — there was no one visible in the doorway. The blast blinded Marigold.
Behind her, the freight door rattled open and cold air swirled into the room, accompanied by shouts and screams. The group that had surged to the back door now came surging back to the middle of the room, driven before a wave of black-clad figures that had come rushing in out of the darkness making efficient use of sticks and cudgels.
“Oho!” howled the prophetess, “Another country heard from. Come on! Come on! Come and get yours!”
She wheeled to face them with another ear-popping report from the gun.
Marigold fumbled in the shadows between the stacked up seed bags until found Almira’s hand and the bag containing the amulet. But Almira shook off her hand, struggled onto her knees, and picked up the poker she had leaned against the stack of bags. She looked at Marigold, and tilted her head toward the back door. Marigold nodded.
The prophetess’ pistol went off yet again behind the girls as they stumbled to their feet. Everywhere around them was flickering pandemonium. Everyone who — less than a minute before — had been staring at Marigold in silence as she protested that she didn’t know what they wanted from her — had been stricken down, or driven toward the center of the room, where they grappled with assailants in dark knots of writhing limbs and heads. Near the back door, an oil lamp had shattered on the floor, and sooty flames were licking at the underside of the shelf.
Marigold picked up the water jug with her free hand, glanced again at Almira, and darted out from between the bags, making for the back door. As she ran through the chaos in the warehouse, one of the black- clad invaders wrenched free from the villager he was fighting, and snatched at her.
Marigold twisted away, staggering off-balance, and Almira — one step behind Marigold, brought down the poker on the man’s head with a clang.
He reeled just long enough for Marigold to swing the water jug, catching him in the head and knocking him back. Water from the jug splashed across Marigold’s shirt.
Marigold and Almira charged through the melee for the back door, hearts pounding, striking out with the jar and poker in desperation and fear. They careened through the oil fire, and broke clear of the building.
It was cold, and the air hurt their throats as they gasped for breath. The moon was almost full, and Marigold could see every detail of the street etched out in sharp relief. There was a sentry at each end of the block, and what appeared to be a child’s body, lying at the foot of the warehouse wall, thirty feet to the right of the door.
Almira gasped, “NELL!” ran to the little heap of a person. Marigold went stumbling after her, unsteady on her legs. Almira knelt down, hiccupping and gasping.
Standing behind her, Marigold’s head swirled. Both sentries had seen them, and both were coming toward them at a run. Prompted by Almira’s scream, both sentries were coming toward them at a run. People were scrambling and falling out of the door behind them, some still fighting, others fleeing into the night. Flames were licking up the doorframe, and the shouts from inside had taken on a desperate tone.
“Nell!” repeated Almira, turning the girl over, and staring at her face.
Blood was still oozing from a long wound that ran along the side of Nell’s head, and a small pool of had collected on the cobblestones beneath her. Almira drew a sharp breath.
“Almira,” said Marigold, as evenly as she was able, “Almira, the sentries.”
Almira slapped at Nell’s face. “Nell! Nell, wake up!”
The first sentry was on top of them. Almira made an attempt to stand, and strike him with the poker. It was a late response, and too slow. She flailed at the man, but he stepped sideways around her swing and lashed out with his cudgel.
The swing hit Almira in the side of her head, just behind her temple. The blow was glancing, but it was enough. She fell, dropping the poker and rolling on the ground.
While his arm was still extended, Marigold drove her jug into his face. He stepped back, stunned. Marigold gritted her teeth and swung the jar upwards as hard as she could into his chin. The jar cracked in half, and fell away, and the man sagged downward.
Marigold flung the remains of the water jug aside and turned back to face the warehouse door. Without moving her eyes from the mob, she stooped, and picked up the poker. She smelled smoke, and her mouth was full of the taste of blood. She could feel the pulse in every inch of her body.
The skirmish at the back door was over. Three villagers were splayed out in the street at the feet of two tall figures enveloped in black. They turned toward Marigold.
“Come on,” she said.
They came, steady and businesslike, sweeping aside her pitiful swing with the poker, and wrapping iron arms around her, pinning hers to her side. Before Marigold could process or respond to this development, a squat, robed figure plunged out of the fiery warehouse and barreled up the street.
“Let her go,” roared the prophetess, arriving with a flourish. She fetched the man on the right an almighty blow to the temple with the butt of her gun, then spinning the weapon in her hand, placed the muzzle to the ear of the other attacker.
“Let her go,” she repeated, “Or I’ll speckle the wall with bits of your brain.”
The man — still steady and businesslike, released Marigold and backed away with his hands in the air. She tumbled down to her knees, gasping. Beside her on the ground, Almira was moving, pressing a hand to her head and moaning.
The prophetess had turned to face the crowd spilling out of the burning warehouse,
“NO ONE MAKES A MOVE,” she admonished them, brandishing the pistol, “OR YOU DIE WHERE YOU STAND.”
The crowd paused. They were unenthusiastic about the prospect of running toward the prophetess’s revolver.
“Hmm,” said the prophetess, turning to Marigold, “We’re going to have to run.”
“But Almira,” said Marigold, “Harrison.”
“They’ll be alright,” said the prophetess, “We need to get gone before the boys with guns get out here.”
Marigold gaped at her.
“Go,” moaned Almira, who had raised herself into a seated position and was staring at the flames consuming her family’s warehouse. “Go,” she repeated.
Marigold nodded, picked up the vegetable bag, and they went, inching into the shadows of the nearest alley while the prophetess covered the crowd with her pistol.
As soon as they were in the alley, as Marigold had that afternoon, they ran.
This time, though, there was no attempt at misdirection, just flight. They pounded through streets and alleys, headed south. In the distance behind them, Marigold heard a spattering of gunfire. Lights blinked on in the houses they passed.
They crashed into the scrubby wall of brush that divided the town from the carpark, and turned west along its length. They scrambled along the thick center of the fencerow, panting and casting glances up at the moon and back toward the town.
They heard no sound of pursuit, and saw no sign of danger. After an eternity of running, when Marigold was more tired and sore than she could ever remember being, they reached the border of the woods that lay to the west of the town. The prophetess, wheezing and coughing, led Marigold under the shadows of the trees. In the shadows, they proceeded more slowly, but did not stop until they were well into the trees, out of sight from the wood’s edge.
“Well,” said the prophetess, sinking down on to the forest floor with a groan, “That was not what I expected.”
Marigold said nothing. Her clothes were drenched with melted frost, and she could not feel her feet. Her lungs ached, and the wound on her forehead had opened again. Warm blood was running down her face and neck.
“Aren’t you a prophetess?” she asked at last, roused from silence by curiosity.
The prophetess shrugged, “Sometimes you see the beginning and the end — or at least you see the end — but not what’s in between. I don’t decide what I see.”
“Do you know what comes next?” asked Marigold.
“Sure don’t,” said the prophetess, and sighed, “We’re still in between.”
Marigold sighed, as well. “Between what and what?”
The prophetess said nothing.
“Between what and what?” asked Marigold again.
“Hard to see,” said the prophetess, “Harder to say.” She gave her staff a little shake, and the beads rattled.
“I don’t think prophecy’ll help us tonight,” said the prophetess sadly, “Sometimes, you just have to figure it out. Sometimes, even that doesn’t work.”
She gazed into the darkness for a moment, lost in thought, then shook her head, “Still, figuring it out’s worth a try.”
The prophetess leaned back against the trunk of the nearest tree. “Let’s start with what we do know,” she said. “What did all those overgrown children in that seed-store believe about you?”
“I told you,” said Marigold, “I don’t know.”
She said it harshly, and hoped it would end the conversation. She was too cold, and miserable to be polite.
“No,” the prophetess was undaunted, “I think you do. You told me that they thought there was something special about you and the amulet.”
“Oh,” said Marigold, “Yeah, yes. Apparently.”
“Well.” Said the prophetess, “What is it?”
Marigold found she had no ready reply. She stared into the shadows of the woods, at the bright pools of moonlight dappling the blackness. Her tongue was thick, and her throat was dry. It was cold.
“What is it?” repeated the prophetess.
“What. Is. It?” asked the prophetess, rising to her knees, and fixing her eyes on Marigold, “say it.”
“They think I’m the queen?” asked Marigold.
The prophetess leaned back and chuckled, “Seems they do.”
“But I’m not,” said Marigold, “I’m not — this amulet’s a fake.” But saying it brought no relief, and she heard in her own voice a telltale lack of conviction.
“Is it?” asked the prophetess. She leaned forward, “May I?”
“Of course,” said Marigold, and reached into the bag. The lettuce and cucumbers were bruised and oozing cold, sticky liquid over everything. She grimaced, dug to the bottom, and lifted out the amulet. The words glowed golden in her hand, and lit up the face of the prophetess, staring at it.
The prophetess took it. As soon as it left Marigold’s hand, the light inside the disc went out. The prophetess laughed,
“Sure, it’s a fake,” she said. “Give me your hand.”
Marigold held out her hand, the prophetess placed the amulet in her hand again, and the lines glimmered to life.
“Doesn’t seem it’s a fake,” said the prophetess. “Does it?”
“I don’t understand,” insisted Marigold, who didn’t. She blinked. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes.
The prophetess looked at Marigold and held her gaze, her tiny black eyes boring into Marigold’s.
“By now,” she said, “I think you do. Not the in-between, but you understand the end.”
“How do you mean?” said Marigold, shivering.
“Maybe you don’t know why, or how it came to be this way, or what will happen next, but we both know now that the amulet’s not fake,” said the prophetess. “And it won’t lie. I think we both know what that means.”
Marigold’s hand tightened on the amulet. She felt a shiver pulsing through her core.
The prophetess studied her face for a moment, and sighed. “I don’t want to say it,” she said. “I don’t want to ask it, even. I don’t want to think about what comes next.” She exhaled slowly, and deeply. “But it has to be asked.”
“Marigold, are you the rightful queen?”
Marigold’s eyes spilled over. A cold sweat broke out on her forehead. Her pulse raged in the wound from Hivelgott, and the many bruises, and scratches on her aching frame. Her whole body shook.
And then the tremors died away, and her eyes were dry. She was cold, and clear, and calm, and Marigold said, “Yes.”