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.
The new king’s good reputation was short-lived. Presented with a crown and with sovereignty, Hiram found himself freed of the limitations imposed on his behavior by his traditionalist father. Within months, the nobility were noting signs that Hiram’s exemplary conduct at the time of his father’s death had been nothing more than a ploy to solidify his popular support. That it had done so left Hiram’s critics unable to publicly criticize or confront the king, for fear of the people’s anger.
At first, the unease was the fear of that situation which befalls every monarchy; a playboy king. Hiram’s parties were lavish, his affairs were multitudinous and his attention to duty was lax, at best. The nobility, including his uncle, the Duke of Qift, saw to it that handlers were hired to hush up the king’s philandering — duties which included misdirection of the press, ensuring that the king’s rendezvous were discreet, and keeping his paramours quiet. These measures met with moderate and predictable success.
The result these efforts was an uncomfortable, and ultimately short-lived status quo. Once again, the precipitating event was sadly predictable; the king fell in love with Lumi Koderzaught, the young daughter of the Duke of Maltin. This was a source of great controversy and unease in the capital. The houses of Maltin and Trefen being both of the royal line, they had on occasion been rivals for the throne — most notably in the War of Succession, roughly eighty years before Hiram’s reign. Though that conflict was brief, the bitterness it engendered endured, and was perpetuated by a thousand subtle slights across the years. Invitations and notes of thanks forgotten, nobles left waiting in antechambers, rolls of the eyes and every other dagger of social practice available kept the anger alive, if not the memory of its reason. As noted above, the Duke of Maltin at the time of Hiram’s reign was at best a reluctant admirer of the king’s early efforts at good behavior, and a suspicious one at that.
Consequently, as the king’s hedonistic tendencies grew unavoidably obvious, Maltin’s criticism of the king became correspondingly harsher and more pointed, though never public. The only matter of any public note was the strange coincidence that the Duke’s beautiful, charming daughter Lumi seemed never to be at dances, dinners and social events simultaneously with the king. The natural — and true, according to Lady Koderzaught’s own diaries — rumor was that the Duke carefully arranged for the two young people never to be together. Clearly a political insult made under the pretext of paternal concern, it became clear that any paternal concern on the point would have been more than justified.
In the Spring of [date redacted], at the debut ball for the king’s distant cousin, lady Anida Knauger, the king committed an egregious violation of etiquette — arriving far earlier than expected, and entering the line for announcement out of proper order. He found himself in the queue behind lady Koderzaught. According to contemporary records, the king’s faux paus caused a temporary delay in proceedings while the Knauger domestic staff sought a protocol for lessening the indignities brought on by his majesty’s misstep. Through the delay, the king engaged lady Koderzaught in conversation, and appeared immensely affected by her charm.
–From A History of Trevendland: Chapter 3, “Hiram I, and the Dissolution of the Monarchy” by E. Kodrave
“Right,” The prophetess said, “well, then, that’s enough for one night.”
She reached behind the tree she was planted against, and drew out a thick, fur-lined overcoat which she offered to Marigold. When Marigold took the coat it was warm and dry, not like something lying in on the forest floor on a cold night.
Either failing to remark or disregarding Marigold’s astonishmen,t the prophetess reached back behind the tree and drew out a coat of her own.
“Not much,” she said, though not apologetically, “but they’ll keep us warm. Wrap up.”
At any previous juncture in her life, Marigold might’ve stopped to inquire about coats appearing from behind trees in the dark. She found though, that her mind had space only for a few questions, and that the origin of the coat didn’t warrant her curiosity.
“The others,” she started, “Harrison and Almira, and —”
The prophetess told her there was nothing they could do, but assured Marigold that Harrison and Almira, in particular, would be safe for the night, and that Marigold could sleep without fear.
Marigold took off her flannel shirt and jeans, bunched them into a grimy semblance of a pillow, and nestled into the overcoat. As she slipped away, she heard the prophetess, still sitting against the tree, overcoat slung across her knees, muttering to herself.
Sunday morning was cold. Gray light and frosty air that leaked in at the cuffs and the collar of the overcoat forced Marigold awake. Her eyelids were swollen and gritty with mucus. Her throat hurt, and her nose was congested. The wound above her eye ached and itched, and stung. Every time she moved, cold air flowed into her sanctuary, and her joints and muscles protested until the pain made her gasp.
Once, on an educational trip to the harbor in Tetidet with other Oneness Students, she had seen a shipping crate that had broken free of the crane unloading the ship. It had crashed down onto the pier from a great height. No one was killed, but the cargo itself had been ruined. When Marigold’s group visited, the day after the accident, workers had been unloading the ruined freight — luxury cars. The bedraggled metal messes that rolled out of the crate were recognizable, but dull, sagging approximations of their intended shape. In mind and body both, but especially in body, Marigold felt like one of those squashed-up luxury cars.
The prophetess was also asleep, propped against the tree with the overcoat laid over her whole body. She was snoring.
As soon as Marigold poked her head out of her overcoat, the snoring stopped, and the prophetess’s round head shot up out of the coat.
“DAMN!” she roared, startling Marigold, who gasped in terror and twitched one foot out from the protection of the overcoat into the cold.
“It’s cold!” hissed the prophetess, seeming surprised. “What the hell?!?”
Marigold, pulling her foot back in, wondered again what was the worth of a prophetess who was being constantly surprised.
Or of a queen who didn’t know she was one. An account manager who turned out to be a queen. A hill girl who turned out to be a city woman.
“Of course,” she said, “why wouldn’t it be cold?”
The prophetess glared at her, but seemed to choose silence as the route of wisdom, allowing herself only a snort. Having begun to snort, she transitioned smoothly into clearing her throat and spitting.
Marigold winced at the prophetess’s manners, and eased upright, accompanying the movement with a self-pitying collection of moans and gasps, and taking care to keep the overcoat wrapped around her.
“Good god,” said the prophetess, “What are you on about? You’re young. Imagine being my age.”
Marigold felt a flash of irritation, but fought it down.
“Yesterday was hard,” she said, “and last night wasn’t great, either.”
The prophetess scrunched her face into a prune and sighed. The breath steamed out in front of her.
“You’re right, you’re right. Apologies.”
Marigold wasn’t sure what to say to that, and said nothing. Beyond the soreness, her stomach was empty and aching, and the air was stinging her exposed skin.
She fumbled with her makeshift pillow, disentangling her shirts, pants and socks. She made a brief attempt at dressing under the coat, but gave it up, and was obliged to pull on her clothes while standing shivering on top of the coat.
As she was dressing, Marigold noticed that the gray was beginning to subside. In all directions from their particular pool of shadows, Marigold could see patches where the early autumn sunlight cut through the forest canopy and painted leaves and branches white.
As Marigold was watching the woods, and buttoning up her flannel shirt, the prophetess reached behind the tree again, searched with her hand for a moment, then dragged a large backpack out from behind the trunk, solving the question of just where the warm, dry coats had come from the night before.
The pack was made of two leather bags, one huge and one moderately-sized, bound to a polished frame of dark-stained wood. To Marigold, the pack was very like the prophetess — antique, and peculiar, but effective.
The prophetess had begun to hum a lurching melody in a minor key while she unsnapped the smaller, upper compartment and fished out a battered copper kettle. Then, she turned back to Marigold, who was ashamed to find that she’d been staring, and raised a bushy eyebrow,
“I imagine,” she said, “that you’re as hungry as I am.”
“Alright, then,” said the prophetess, “we eat, and once our brains have fuel, we think till our skulls split.”
It was as agreeable a plan as Marigold could have hoped for, so she tottered off, her knees creaking and ankles rattling in search of twigs and leaves to burn. She wasn’t inclined to go far, and didn’t have to. When she had filled her arms with sticks and verified by investigation that none of the leaves on the forest floor were dry fit to burn, she circled back and found that the prophetess had somehow filled the kettle with water, set out two tin cups and bowls and cleared out a bare circle of dirt for the fire.
As Marigold approached, the prophetess was fiddling with a short, cast-iron post with three notches in the shaft, and a curve like a shepherd’s crook on one end. At the tip of the crook was a smaller hook, which Marigold presumed was for the handle of the kettle. The prophetess pushed the straight end into the ground, got up, leaned her full weight on it, rummaged in her backpack until she produced a wooden mallet, pounded the post with the mallet, and — finally satisfied that it was solidly in the ground — hung the kettle from the crook end.
In the space beneath the kettle, Marigold assembled the fuel by habit, her fingers guided by memories her mind had forgotten. When she was done, the prophetess leaned in and struck a flame with flint. Marigold smiled. For as much as she’d lost of her heritage, she could still set a fine fire.
As the fire crackled and the kettle steamed, the sun’s rays turned from white to gold. Still, the air was cool in the shadows, and the women sat close to the fire, staring at the flames.
When the water began to boil, the prophetess roused herself from her reverie, wrapped a rag around her hand to fill the cups and bowls with water. Hanging the kettle again, she extracted from her mysteriously abundant backpack oats for the water, salt for the oats, and tea for the cups.
They ate ravenously, Marigold thinking that as much as her father’s spirit might’ve disapproved of her breakfast on Saturday, he would’ve applauded the prophetess’s choice for Sunday. It was everything her father had been; hearty, wholesome, and difficult.
With a congealed brick of oatmeal in her stomach, and the warm tea in her hand, Marigold’s thoughts turned from her stomach to her plight.
Clearly, so had the prophetess’s. She grunted, and said, “So. You’re the queen.”
“We don’t know that,” said Marigold, “not for sure.”
“How sure do we need to be?” asked the prophetess. “The amulet thinks so, you think so, I think so, all those nincompoops in Valeview seemed to think so—what more do we need?”
“The government, maybe?” hazarded Marigold. “I imagine they want a word.”
“Ah,” said the prophetess, “No. What they think doesn’t matter, because no matter what they think, they’ll do what they want, which is deny that you could possibly be the queen, say it wouldn’t matter if you were, denounce you, and try to have you killed.”
“Gosh,” said Marigold.
The prophetess shrugged. “You’ll get used to it.”
Marigold looked away into the woods. Shafts of sunlight shone on tree trunks and dappled the undergrowth and the carpet of matted leaves. The pinpricks of light shifted and danced in a meandering breeze that ruffled the leaves and needles affectionately on its way. The whole world seemed to be at perfect peace.
Despite the soothing tranquility of her surroundings, Marigold’s stomach was knotted, and her chest was tight. It hurt to breathe. The foremost thought in her aching mind was that after fewer than twenty-four hours of government pursuit, her body was a battered mass of aches and bruises, cuts and scrapes and scabs. She took a deep breath and tried to rediscover the courage she’d felt in the night.
“I don’t know that I will.”
The prophetess laughed, but did not smile. “Your choice, of course, but you’ll do one or the other: Get used to it, or die.”
Marigold clenched her teeth.
“You might not like to hear it,” said the prophetess, “but I’d rather you be angry than dead. Now—”
“If I’m the queen —” started Marigold, wheeling on the prophetess, and then said, “Get down!”
She dropped flat, and the prophetess, showing agility and reflexes remarkable for a woman of her years, flopped down beside her.
“Give me your gun,” whispered Marigold. “There’s someone in the trees.”
The prophetess rolled onto her side, and plunged a hand into the backpack. Marigold, eyes fixed on the woods, was surprised at her own response. It had been nothing but the faintest flash of skin and cloth in her peripheral vision, but instinct had risen from the past to put her on high alert. She eased her right hand back toward the prophetess.
The older woman was breathing loudly and fumbling in the backpack. Marigold felt her heartbeat running faster and faster, pressed against the ground, until the prophetess gave a satisfied sort of snort and pressed the gun into Marigold’s hand.
The weight was astonishing. It was a struggle for Marigold to swing the gun round and level it on the sunny undergrowth where she was convinced someone was hiding. Even when she managed it, she found that she held it steady — not from nerves, but from weight.
Her nerves, though, were taking part in the festivities. They blurred her eyes with tears, as she stared into the sunny foliage, some twenty yards distant, where she’d seen … whatever it was she’d seen. Now, there was no movement but the undulations of branches and leaves, swaying with the wind. The prophetess, having completed a complex maneuver to turn around and crawl up next to Marigold without raising her head, was muttering under her breath unintelligibly.
Marigold squinted to clear her eyes. Blood thundered in her ears, and throbbed through the scab on her forehead and the abrasions that now seemed to cover most of her body. The prophetess’s muttering was growing louder, commanding. A lock of hair fell across Marigold’s eyes, and tickled her nose.
“Crap,” she whispered, and taking the gun in her right hand, tried to brush away the hair with her left, without losing focus.
As she moved her hand back to the gun, three things happened in quick succession. First, Harrison — looking surprised and embarrassed — tumbled out of the thicket and crashed down with a yelp. Simultaneously, the prophetess swelled up from the ground beside her like a striking cobra, arms spread straight out from her sides, gibbering at a thunderous volume. Third, Marigold — first trying to swing the gun to cover the movement then trying not to aim it at Harrison, lost control of it. It slipped out of her right hand and as she tried to catch it, her grasping fingers landed on the trigger. The gun went off.
Marigold was blinded, deafened, and felt a devastating blow across the bridge of her nose. The gun had recoiled from the shot, straight into the bridge of her nose. She dropped her head, clutched at her face, and rolled over onto her back.
The prophetess whooped and charged forward, unconcerned by the possibility that Marigold might’ve killed Harrison or herself. Marigold, her nose radiating pain, rolled back over to see what was happening.
Harrison had recovered his wits, and turned to run, but he’d taken no more than three steps before the prophetess was onto him. Leaving her feet, the old woman caught him in the back with a flying tackle.
She landed on top of him, swept up his arms behind his head, and planted a knee in the back of his neck before he had reacted.
Marigold scrambled to her feet, scooping up the gun with one hand and holding her face with the other. She staggered forward at the highest speed she could manage, driven by adrenaline, restrained by soreness.
“HOW DID YOU FIND US?” thundered the prophetess, dragging at Harrison’s arms.
“Ouch, ouch! Let me go! LET ME GO!” squealed Harrison, squirming and trying to wrench his arm free.
“Not just yet, you toad,” growled the prophetess, digging in the knee. She turned to Marigold. “I don’t trust him.”
“I saved her life!” said Harrison. “What have you ever done?”
“Oh, did you?” asked the prophetess. “You know as well as I do that —” She paused.
“Let him up,” said Marigold, wincing as blood trickled out under her fingers and rolled down her nose. “Let him up, take the gun, and we’ll talk.”
The prophetess pouted, and insisted on taking the gun before she was willing to let Harrison rise, extending and complicating the entire sequence significantly. When at last Harrison rose, dusting himself off, he and the prophetess glared at each other. She ostentatiously drew back the hammer on the revolver.
“How did you find us?” she asked him, keeping a hand pressed to the bridge of her nose.
“You should ask her that same question,” said Harrison, “She shows up at a secret meeting, tells us she can’t prove she’s trustworthy, and five minutes later the building is burning and we’re under attack from all sides. She somehow miraculously escapes with — with you, and leaves the rest of us to our own devices.”
“Why exactly,” asked prophetess, “would you want me to stay and fight if you don’t trust me? And why would I arrange to have the meeting broken up, and lots of people hurt, and the building burned if I was planning to escape with Marigold?”
“I think it’s obvious,” he growled, “you—” He trailed off. The prophetess raised a mocking eyebrow.
“Go on,” said Marigold.
“–you want her to trust you,” finished Harrison, lamely.
“Sure I do,” said the prophetess, “but I certainly wouldn’t have needed her to if I just wanted to kidnap or kill her. If you’re wondering how I found your ‘secret meeting,’ and the whole place ended up crawling with enemies, maybe it has something to do with how well you and your little insurrection club keep secrets.”
At this tactless suggestion, Marigold made an attempt to break in, but the prophetess stamped a foot and raised her voice.
“And of course I took the queen — sorry, took Marigold — and escaped. Were you thinking that it would be more trustworthy to keep her there, surrounded by assassins, when she’s already beaten half to hell? You’re either an idiot, or you’ve a lot to learn.”
Marigold bunched up a dirty sleeve, and wiped away some of the blood draining from the cut on her nose. She was beginning to tire of constant fear, of flight, of scrapes and cuts and bruises and rivers of blood gushing from her head. More than all that, though, she was weary of conversations she didn’t understand, and being spoken of like she wasn’t present. Harrison had paused to plan his response, and she cut in sharply.
“If you’re done fighting among yourselves about whom I can trust,” she said, “why don’t you answer the question?”
The prophetess nodded to Harrison, “Go on.”
“You, too,” Marigold told the prophetess, wiping at her nose, “You’ve been lovely, but I’m not altogether convinced I should trust either of you.”
Now Harrison smirked, and the prophetess sighed.
“How did you find the meeting?” Marigold asked the prophetess.
The old woman sighed again and rolled her eyes, before answering, “Magic.”
“Be serious,” said Marigold.
The prophetess’s eyes widened in anger. “I am,” she barked.
Marigold was taken aback. Harrison snorted.
“Just because you don’t believe in it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” said the prophetess. “I tap into the powers of the earth and elements, and there’s no other word for that than ‘magic.’ I’m shown things and commanded by God, and that’s what it is to be a prophetess. Why is that so hard to believe? Because it hasn’t happened to you? That’s a laugh.”
Marigold felt incapable of marshalling a response to this onslaught, so she nodded, and turned to Harrison,
“How did you find us?”
“Magic,” said Harrison, and winked at Marigold.
Marigold, despite herself, giggled. The prophetess snarled, and raised the gun. Harrison ducked away.
“Stop!” Marigold raised a hand, and the prophetess lowered the pistol. Harrison straightened up, and asked, “Well, if she can just say ‘magic,’ why can’t I?”
“She said it sincerely. You didn’t.”
Now Harrison rolled his eyes. “Fine. I tracked your cellphone.”
The prophetess turned on Marigold, agape with indignation.
“A cellphone? You’ve been carrying a phone with you this whole time?”
“I — I — I guess,” stuttered Marigold, “I mean, I don’t — I didn’t — I don’t have reception here.”
“Oh, good lord!” groaned the prophetess, flinging a hand to her forehead, “you’ll be the death of us all.”
“GPS is by satellite,” explained Harrison to Marigold, “not cellphone tower.”
Marigold, the presumptive queen, found herself feeling like she’d laughed in a library.
“Give it to me,” ordered the prophetess, switching the gun to one hand (Marigold noticed that the prophetess seemed to have no trouble with its heaviness), and reaching out.
She took the phone, laid it across a thick root, adjusted her grip so she was holding the gun by its barrel, and used it like a hammer to crush the phone. There was a splintering and crackling, and a small shower of glass. The prophetess nodded to herself, and proceeded to bash the phone five more times for good measure. Then she got to her feet, nodded again, and kicked the remains off into the trees.
“Let ‘em find that,” she said.
It was true that Marigold hadn’t thought of her phone for a day and a half, but as the prophetess banged away at it, she felt a deep pang in her chest. She’d been proud when she bought that phone, with her own money from her own job. She’d taken picture after picture of the buildings in the city, of herself twirling her hair around her fingers in the mirror, of herself with friends on their way to dinner, of herself and her friends at parties she never wanted to go to, drinks in their hands, arms over shoulders. She never wanted to go, but she was almost always glad she’d gone.
She swallowed. Far away in Valeview, the church bell rang.
“I’m sorry,” said Marigold, biting her lip, and staring at the forest floor.
“Don’t be,” said Harrison, “It’s a good thing that I found you. And now I’ve told you how. Isn’t that enough?”
Marigold was careful not to look at the prophetess, “Yes,” she said, “Yes, that’s enough.”
“He saved my life,” she told the prophetess, who had begun to growl in protest. The prophetess pursed her lips and said nothing.
“Are you alone?” Marigold asked.
Harrison nodded. “I came alone, but I was just with the others this morning,” he said, moving into the shade, and rolling up the sleeves on his sweatshirt.
“Almira —” started Marigold, grimacing and taking another timid wipe at the cut on her nose.
“She’s safe,” said Harrison, “After the two of you disappeared, it was pretty much over. Everyone just left. The Kemizeze were gone as quickly as they showed up, and those guys with the guns left, too. We lost one, and the K lost one.”
“I’m sorry,” said Marigold, “As always, I guess, but also as always, I’m confused. Could you explain?”
“The K — Kemizeze — were the people in black,” said Harrison. “They’re some kind of anarchist death mob.”
“Oh,” said Marigold, disappointed to discover that death had found its way back into the conversation, and wondering what a ‘death mob’ might be.
“Personally,” said the prophetess, her pride sufficiently restored to rejoin the discussion, “I’m more interested in those ruffians who came busting in the front door shooting. I guess that’s how your man died?”
“No,” said Harrison, “and it wasn’t a man.” The prophetess shrugged.
“It was Nell, our look-out.”
His voice was dry and forced. Marigold gasped, and the prophetess’s face flickered. Marigold was remembering the slight form, crumpled in a moonlit gutter, the pool of blood beneath her head. Fine features, long lashes, still as in repose. Marigold’s head filled with a buzzing, and she couldn’t tell whether it came from her ears, her crushed nose or her mind.
“Good god,” said the prophetess. Harrison shrugged.
“She wasn’t so young that she didn’t understand,” he said, and pressed his lips unsteadily together again.
Marigold had known Nell, but not really. She had been a face of the village, one thirteen-year-old girl in a swarm, giggling and flirting with the village boys. Boys. Whose pale pimply face was Nell longing for as she died, Marigold wondered, what sad, shallow romance was her last thought? Or did she cry for her mother in those final moments? Least likely to Marigold, was the possibility that Nell died enraptured by visions of revolution.
“Ha!” said the prophetess, echoing Marigold’s thoughts, “Wasn’t so young she couldn’t understand what? Death?”
“She knew that there are causes worth dying for!” snapped Harrison.
The prophetess gazed at Harrison for a moment, opened her mouth as though to speak, and then her expression changed, and she said, “So the group that came through the door — any ideas?”
The prophetess nodded, almost to herself, then said to Marigold, “These are the people who think they can help you.”
“Look,” said Harrison, “I know we looked bad …”
“Like a bunch of kids,” put in the prophetess, “a bunch of useless kids.”
“… but we’re improving. And, unlike the woods, we’ve got guns, and people, and walls and food.”
“… And I’ve got a spoonful of wit, and can actually aim my gun,” countered the prophetess, “which is worth the whole pack of you.”
Marigold shook her head, “I’m sorry,” she said to the prophetess, “I know your concerns, but I just don’t know how we could do this alone.”
The prophetess looked at Marigold for a long moment, her small eyes inscrutable, and then she nodded.
Having decided to trust Harrison and his rumored coalition, following him to the camp was a natural progression. It was a long hike through the woods, up the shoulder of the mountain where the forest wrapped around the west side of Valeview, and then up the steep slopes into dense pines. Marigold found that years of urban living had muted her ability to tell time in the wild, but she guessed that the walk was about three hours.
As they walked, Harrison explained himself to Marigold in a sort of breathless, quiet speech about his childhood on the plains, the son of a metalworker who worked on the machines, homes, and even horses of his neighbors. He told her about his selection as a Oneness Student, his initial wonder at being selected, and his gradual recognition of the inequity inherent in the program.
He spoke at length about injustice, and the corruption of the ruling class, and Marigold made small noises of affirmation, and took in his words in a vague sense without hearing the details. She was glad he was talking to her, and glad he didn’t expect her to talk. Behind them, the prophetess stumped along, gasping for breath and glaring.
Two times as they walked, they heard the ominous hum of aircraft, but the sound was distant, and they kept hiking.
It was about midafternoon by Marigold’s estimate when they climbed up onto a natural stair at the base of a cliff that ran along the side of the mountain like a wrinkle. The trees pressed in close to the stair, and stretched up beyond it, almost to the top of the cliff, so that the sheltered area underneath the ledge was almost impossible to detect from a distance.
To their right, along the course of the cliff, was an impassable crush of debris. Trunks, branches, roots, rocks and dirt formed a blockade as complete as a wall. Harrison turned toward it, and let loose a halting, crackling squawk.
There was a silence, punctuated only by indistinct bird sounds. Marigold stared at Harrison, and the prophetess stared at him rudely.
“Really?” she asked, and Harrison scowled.
“Let’s see you do better,” he snapped.
“Can’t,” said the prophetess, “which is why I’m not trying.”
She turned to Marigold, “The mountainfolk screech of entry.”
“Oh,” said Marigold, she bit her lip, “I — I don’t think I remember it, anymore.”
The prophetess scoffed, “Alright,” she said, “we’ll stay out here and listen to plains-boy yelp.”
Harrison shrugged, and took a deep breath.
“Fine,” said Marigold, “Fine! I’ll try.”
She took a deep breath, and let out a screech. It was a quiet screech, but it held the melodious rasp of her heritage. As the sound of her voice died away, a small section of the mound slid aside, revealing a narrow passage through the wall of debris. The hole was small, and dark. Branches stuck out from the walls, and bits of dead grass hung from the ceiling.
“Stay to the center,” called a muffled voice, “and move!”
They hurried in, Marigold first, bent over and scuttling through the passage. About ten feet down the tunnel, when the light from the doorway behind them was almost entirely obscured, Marigold’s hand, fumbling in the darkness, came up against a dead end. She stopped, but another section of the wall on her left opened again with a flash of diluted daylight. Marigold scrambled through the dogleg, and crawled another ten feet to daylight.
Marigold broke through, and straightened up into fresh air. The flat space at the base of the cliff was wider on the inside of the barrier, possibly through the efforts of the inhabitants. The cliff loomed to her left, and the wall of brush and earth curved around from behind to run parallel to the cliff on her right. Small huts, tents, and lean-tos were arranged in rows between the walls. From where she stood, Marigold couldn’t tell how far the space extended, but it was already enough to surprise her. A hundred feet away, in a wider-open space, a fire was burning. She wondered how it was she hadn’t smelled or seen smoke from the far side of the wall.
Just in front of them were four people, all armed, and strangely symmetrical. Two were men, two were women. Two were plains-dwellers and two were mountainfolk, one woman and one man each. Two — again, one man and one woman — held blackwood cudgels, and the other two had compact submachine guns slung over their shoulders. The equality of representation impressed Marigold as forced, and awkward.
“Welcome,” said the plains-man, stepping forward. Marigold clasped his hands and smiled. He bowed his head.
“Hail to the queen,” he said.
“Oh,” said Marigold, “Oh, um.”
“Hail to the queen!” echoed the other guards, in turn stepping forward to clasp her hands and bow. By the time the third guard was clasping her hands, Marigold, who didn’t know what else to do, decided she ought to bow her head in return. As she bowed to the fourth guard, a petite woman from the plains whose dark hands were warm and soft, she heard a rustle of tent flaps, and footsteps crackling through the crabgrass and gravel. When she looked up, Almira Hotchkiss was standing before her.
Almira was wearing dark clothes; ill-fitting, heavy-duty hiking gear that replaced her graceful curves with utilitarian androgyny. Even her baby bump was obscured by a heavy jacket. The golden waves of her hair were pulled tight into a pony-tail and a white bandage was wrapped around the place where she’d been struck the night before. Her eyes were red, and her cheeks flushed.
As at the market, Marigold’s mind turned to memories of Almira as the golden daughter of Valeview, fluttering her eyelids at an adoring future while skinny little Marigold burnt her tongue, gulping coffee to keep from inconveniencing anybody. She also remembered her own submerged satisfaction at realizing that years of tumult and exile had turned her into someone who knew bad coffee when she bought it.
Now, seeing Almira again, Marigold felt a deep surge of an emotion she couldn’t understand. Sorrow and anger and joy and relief welling up at once. She bit her lip as Almira approached.
“Hail to the queen,” said Almira quietly, clasping her hands and turning her eyes to the ground.
Marigold’s heart was racing, and she felt a wild urge to hold Almira, and weep into the shoulder of her coat. But she didn’t. She bowed, and looked up. Almira’s eyes were red from tears, but they were dry now. Almira’s gaze flickered to Harrison, and back to Marigold.
Marigold looked back at Almira, and for a moment they stood in stillness. Account manager and coffee girl, soldier and queen, daughters of mountainfolk.
“Hail to the cooking fire,” said the prophetess, pushing past them, “Provided any of you know how to cook.”
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