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.
Lumi Maltin’s dreams of cheerful destiny drawing her toward a happily-ever-after with the handsome young king were, indeed, naïveté. The trap that was laid, however, was not laid for her.
The king was a master of the arts of persuasion and suggestion, and his journal displays a deliberate, methodical undoing of the ingénue’s reluctance. He planned spectacles to dazzle her youth, showered her with attention that played to her vanity, carefully orchestrated moments of feigned kindness to servants and beggars and urgent matters to be ignored so he could be with her and inch-by-inch tugged her across the many boundaries her imperious father had set for her. In doing so, he wrote that “I feigned at all times an innocence and good-hearted ignorance equal to her own. I needed merely to make a show of teetering on the brink of some ghastly impropriety, then become overcome with shy embarrassment — too bashful to speak the thought, and allow her to wheedle it from me. Indeed, in time, poor kitten, she became utterly enamored of the belief that we two souls were carried upon rivers of passion, helplessly drawn past inhibitions — barriers erected only for the sake of lesser folk engaged in lesser loves.”
It was not long, then, before chance meetings at a debut ball and in the municipal gardens had become a torrid, but clandestine affair. Lumi Maltin’s diary from this period reflects mainly her enthrallment with the charms of the young king, and her amazement at the revelations of what she took to be true love. Only briefly does she seem to exhibit any doubts about her relationship, writing that “my soul is alive with the wonders of this infatuation, and yet — and yet! Father, dear, beloved, wise father has chosen — quite without sense, to my reckoning — to quarrel with the king, and Hiram thinks it best that we wait to reveal all until ‘the proper moment.’ Surely he knows best, but in the meantime, what is a girl to do? I go about all day, bursting with joy, unable — almost — to contain myself. He is mine, I am his, and every moment we part is an agony to me. If only Father and Hiram were to lay aside their silly quarrel … but. What do I know of these affairs? I will wait, and I will be patient, and soon enough! Ah, soon enough, all will be well.”
–From A History of Trevendland: Chapter 3, “Hiram I, and the Dissolution of the Monarchy” by E. Kodrave
Like all of Marigold’s involvement in the erstwhile revolution, the plan concocted at the lunchtime meeting struck her as improvised and ill-advised. By the time Almira surveyed the table and said “Okay. Is that — that’s it, then?” and received no response, Marigold’s mind was wilting under the weight of distress and doubt. She excused herself, and fled. The churning in her stomach had gotten down to business and turned to full-fledged nausea. Her skin felt cold, but her forehead was damp with sweat.
She’d hoped that a scheme for directly confronting her status as a possibly invented queen would ease the momentary anguish of her uncertainty. It had not.
After the gloom of the cave, the outdoors, drenched in clear September sun were painfully bright, and she shielded her eyes as she navigated through tents back toward the relative isolation of her own canvas hut.
She closed the door of the tent behind her with shaking hands, and then collapsed down on her bed. The bed was unyielding, and the blow stung. She was crying — she didn’t know why, and her breath was coming in gasps. It was hot in the tent. She rolled over and buried her face in the pillow to muffle the sound of her sobs. Even in her tent, she wasn’t alone. The canvas walls were thin.
Outside, a campload of criminals were busy ennobling themselves in the knowledge that they were soldiers in the army of the true queen. Smugglers and robbers become knights of the realm. Saved from a lifetime of fugitive futility because she was the queen.
Was she the queen? How could she be the queen? She was playing at queen. Ambushed in the square, ambushed in the warehouse. Scabs on her forehead, addled in the brain.
Meantime, in the city, she assumed her phone, internet and bank accounts had been broken open and inspected closely by the police. Phone calls and texts gone unanswered were cascading into an unfamiliar inbox where they would be analyzed in detail for codes and schemes and revolutionary sentiment. Worried friends advised by the police to … what? Probably to grieve. Maybe informed that she was now a criminal? Either way, they’d been told things to reassure them that it was okay to carry on without her. Her apartment was empty. Her healthy breakfasts were wasting away in the cupboard. Her coffee maker sat idle. Her glorious, soft, paid-for-with-wages bed was fixed in the state of disarray from when she’d clambered out of it two weeks ago. All because she was the queen.
Was she the queen? And if she was the queen, did she have to be? The amulet hadn’t asked what she preferred.
What did she prefer? An unassuming life in the city, surrounded by casual friends, constant comforts, and the stigma of her antecedents, or a grimy and uncomfortable life in the mountains, the queen of a band of criminal malcontents? She was surprised to find that no answer came to her.
She rolled onto her side. What if she wasn’t the queen? She supposed that the prophetess would snarl a bit, confess surprise, and wander away again to stir up trouble somewhere else. The criminals would go back to stealing, and Almira would go back to selling coffee and bearing children. This time, though, Marigold supposed, the children would be Harrison’s.
Her stomach knotted cold at the thought, and she cursed herself for thinking it. What did it matter to her, she asked herself, if Harrison and Almira were sharing a tent? What of it if they wanted to have children together? What did it matter if Harrison looked at Marigold first when he made jokes? What did it matter if he was irritable and unhappy when he was with Almira, and prattled like a little boy, hiking with Marigold, or sitting at the morning fire with Marigold? What did any of that matter when she might (or might not) be the queen, and he spent his nights with Almira?
Marigold gritted her teeth. Harrison and Almira were the least of her troubles, and — royalty aside — Marigold would never stoop so low. Even the thought was repugnant. And after all — that was the crux of it, wasn’t it? Character dictated her actions, and the choices were not hers to make. She was the queen or she wasn’t.
The choices had never been hers to make. Just a week ago, in the sun-drenched marketplace, that fool Hivelgott, sneering and handing her the amulet. Damned curiosity that drew her to him. Damned cityfolk buying his amulets. Damn, damn, damned amulets. Damn magic. Damn Hivelgott. Damn the amulet. The sole, unconvincing evidence of her royalty.
She was grateful to the prophetess for pointing out that before they could rally a revolution, they needed to prove their queen was the genuine article. It astonished her, in retrospect, that everyone but her had taken the amulet so seriously. And yet, she supposed it was serious. Still, it amused her in a melancholy way that Harrison, the skeptic who scoffed at prophecies and magic, had never questioned the royal sign, magic though it unquestionably was.
Why not? thought Marigold, why not?
And after all, the amulet had illuminated at her touch. That, at least, was unequivocal. She fumbled for the amulet. It was pressed against her sternum. She rolled onto her back and held it up. It glowed against her hand.
“Hold your head high,” it read.
Marigold breathed out. Yes. Whatever they might find, the amulet could not be denied. It might glow out juvenile platitudes, but it made the whole question of evidence tautological; the conclusion was provided, all that was necessary was securing evidence to arrive in the same room through a different door.
That was, she supposed, one way of looking at it. And so far, it seemed to be almost everyone’s perspective. What seemed inevitable, though, was that it was a door she was doomed to walk through.
That the rule of Queen Marigold was inevitable seemed to be everyone’s perspective except the mob that had chased her out of the market square. She had not forgotten them. Nor the little man with the mustache, nor the bald man with the pencil-thin flunkeys.
And maybe the mob was right. Would a queen spend the afternoon lying on her bed, staring at the roof of her tent? Doubtful. But on the other hand, if she ventured forth and offered her assistance, it would be declined. What was the proper role of a queen? The nausea stirred in her stomach. She felt guilty for not moving, and the guilt froze her in place on the hard bed, staring at the thin, yellow rod at the peak.
“Hold your head high.” The amulet was an optimist. A damnable obnoxious optimist.
On the other hand, she supposed that if the amulet was undeniable, and an optimist, that perhaps there was reason to hope, after all. Maybe it wasn’t so bad being a queen. She supposed that if a queen decided she wanted to spend the day in bed, she could.
Was she the queen? Did she want to be?
There was a knock through the canvas on the tent’s load-bearing post by the door. Marigold started. Had she been asleep? It was almost pitch dark inside the tent. Her mind was clogged with mud, and her lips crusty with drool.
“Coming,” she croaked.
Her skin and clothes were stifling. She tottered out of the bed and unsteadily to the door.
Almira was outside with the young plainswoman guard. Almira carried a flat wooden tray with a bowl and cup and slice of bread. The plainswoman carried a lantern, glowing yellow.
“Supper?” asked Almira.
“Yes, yeah, yes, thank you,” said Marigold, and stood blinking stupidly.
“We’ll come in,” said Almira.
Marigold nodded and turned back to sit on her bed, yawning and rubbing at her eyes. Almira and the plainswoman followed her, Almira moving heavily, hampered by the swollen bulk of her abdomen, and the plainswoman gliding.
Almira, as was her habit, did not speak. She handed the board to Marigold, and sat beside her, silently caressing her baby bump.
“Are you alright?” asked Marigold, realizing through the haze of her exhaustion that Almira was breathing heavily.
“I’m fine,” said Almira, coughing a little. “It’s never easy to bear a child.”
“No, I guess it isn’t,” said Marigold. As she had come to expect, the soup was waterier and the bread was thinner than the day before.
“Are you getting enough to eat?” she asked.
“We’re getting enough.”
“I’m glad ‘we’ are,” said Marigold, “But that isn’t what I asked. See to it that you are.” She ignored the pang of uncertainty this queenly pronouncement caused. She turned to the plainswoman, standing in the tent, still holding up the lantern.
“See that she does.”
“Yes, ma’am. I mean, yes, your highness.”
Marigold winced at the honorific, and devoted her attention to the bowl in fervent hopes that the rest of the meal could be passed in silence. She neither spoke, nor raised her head.
As they departed, she thanked them, and followed them to the door. The air was bracing and the stars burned clear, unsmudged by the pollution of street lights.
Hold your head high.
To her own surprise, stress and unintended nap aside, Marigold slept soundly, and when a muffled knock announced the morning, snapped awake, instantly alert.
She sped through the process of dressing in the dark, animated by anxiety and anticipation. Outfitted in the drabbest of the drab clothing she had, she hurried out to the cooking fire.
As she approached, she heard an uproar of sibilance, just below the crackle of the flames. The prophetess and Harrison, already bundled and packed, were whispering ferociously at Almira, who was whispering ferociously back at them. The plainswoman guard — also bundled, and also with a pack, was standing at a distance, staring fixedly into the fire.
“No!” said the prophetess.
“Unacceptable!” hissed Harrison.
“What’s going on?” asked Marigold.
The prophetess turned. “She wants us to take along that little stick of a girl.” She indicated the plainswoman.
Marigold turned to Almira. “Why?”
“She’s my representative,” said Almira.
“Then what am I?” asked Harrison. “I’m as much a member of this collective as she is.”
“Good god,” groaned the prophetess, now focusing her irritation on Harrison, her favorite target, “if you aren’t the pettiest revolutionary in the history of the world …”
“She’s my representative,” repeated Almira. “I can’t go, and I’m sending Louisa in my place — if it pleases the queen.”
All three looked at Marigold.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because —” started Harrison,
“I’ll tell you why not,” interrupted the prophetess. “Because we don’t know her! We don’t know that we can trust her! She’s a simple soldier, and we’re headed into a situation of gravest concern with the utmost need for quick wits and trustworthy actions. She’s unproven.”
Almira nodded, pursed her lips, and said, “She’s proven to me. Significantly more so than you are, prophetess.” She finished the sentence with grim emphasis, and stared down the old woman.
The prophetess had no ready reply.
“It pleases me,” said Marigold again, “queen or not. Whatever I am, I’ll be glad to be accompanied by Louisa.”
Harrison shrugged in resignation. The prophetess rolled her eyes. Almira smiled.
Their plan, such as it was, was far from an ironclad solution, but at least it was simple. They would steal down the mountain to the Gnowker family farm and ask Ma Gnowker if she knew some way in which it made sense for her daughter to be the queen. They depended on the hope that Ma Gnowker might at least possess a hint that could lead them in the direction of verifiable proof of Marigold’s identity.
They descended the mountain by a route to the east of the camp. In the absence of a path, they followed a zig-zagging pattern of rocky walls and ragged slopes with patchy weeds that ran down the stone folds of the mountain toward the valley. There was no conversation as they slid and stumbled down the rocks, and scrambled through trees. The trunks of the black pines rose on either side like pillars in an endless church in which there was no place to hide, but in which shadowy threats were hidden. As they climbed lower, the slope eased and the ropey pines gave way to wider-set beech trees. As they passed beneath the twisted boughs, the sunrise set fire to the autumn leaves, forming crowns of fiery orange above the trees.
The prophetess cast an eye at this seemingly symbolic work of nature, and said, “Shit.”
They hurried on.
As they made their way down through the beech forest, Marigold felt herself breathing easier. She remembered these beech trees, and this forest, perched just above the outskirts of Valeview. She was close to home.
A hundred yards from the road, the prophetess — trundling along at the front — signaled a halt. Harrison, noticing her motion, also signaled a halt. Marigold glanced at Louisa, who was biting back a smile.
Past the edge of the trees, was a small field of ripened corn, and to the right of it, an orchard. It was a field she knew, and trees whose apples she’d eaten, and cider she’d drunk as a girl. She remembered clutching an apple, and running through the village in the evenings after market day, when the tourists were gone, and the village became one huge family. She could almost hear the sound of her mother’s unearthly shrieks emanating from the Municipal Music House. She shook herself, and drew in a deep breath. This was no time for nostalgia.
They moved west for another hour with Marigold leading, skirting the road and doing their best to stay out of the line of sight or smell of farm dogs. Many of the farms and pastures farther from the town on the northern edge of the village had stone walls around their pastures and fields, and the party moved with relative comfort. As they passed each farm, Marigold found herself thinking of the farmers who lived there, wondering what they were doing — what had become of their children. Were they struggling under the burden of taxation? How many of their children had been transplanted to the city?
She led them farther from the town as they passed through the woods where she and the prophetess had spent their first frigid night wrapped in overcoats, and she thought of her cellphone.
They combed their way between fields of corn, and bent low to scurry along stone walls, through melting frost. Despite herself, and despite the gravity of the mission, Marigold felt her heartbeat rising in the bucolic surroundings of her childhood, and as she gazed out upon the placid plains of her home, a thought bubbled at the back of her mind. She tried for a moment to draw it out, but to no avail. They passed beneath a familiar copse of trees, found a familiar fence, and hastened along, hunched below its spine until it was bisected by another, taller fence. They stopped in the shady corner of the fences.
“This is it,” whispered Marigold, “this is the farmyard fence.”
“Birthplace of the queen,” murmured Harrison.
“Good god,” muttered the prophetess and shook her head at him, then turning to Marigold, “Okay.”
The old woman leaned against the wall, and pressed her eyes shut, one hand raised to silence her companions.
When she gave the all-clear, they clambered over the wall and into the yard.
Marigold suddenly felt as though, even in her brief visits through the years of her exile, she’d never really examined the home of her childhood. It had simply been home. Now, though, the leaning barn and overflowing hay mow struck her as derelict and embarrassing. The peeling paint and mossy stones of the toolshed seemed like evidence of negligent character. The house itself, wood and stones and pinewood shingles, was stooping glumly; dilapidated and unpleasant.
“Bad coffee,” whispered Marigold, and bit her lip. But she raised her head, and led the way through the muddy, hay-strewn barnyard to the door. She knocked lightly.
There was no response.
Marigold knocked again, harder, and again the gloomy house made no reply.
And then she remembered. She turned,
“How … how many days has it been since … since everything with the amulet and the fire?”
The prophetess scrunched her face thoughtfully.
“Seven!” said Harrison.
“Yeah,” said the prophetess, “a week,”
“Oh,” said the prophetess.
“Yup,” said Marigold.
“What?” said Harrison. Louisa said nothing.
“It’s Saturday,” said Marigold, “it’s market day. Ma is at market.”
Cool breezes were playing with her hair and emphasizing the icy nature of the melted frost on her shoes and pants. Sunshine, potent and blinding, was beaming past the hunched-over barn. Somewhere, lost to her sight, her weekly train was making its way from the city to the bus depot.
“Oh,” said Harrison. He also leaned back, hands on hips, and drank in the morning.
“Oh,” he said again.
The prophetess kicked a rock and swore. Marigold stole a look at Louisa’s inscrutable expression, and felt the familiar sense of being always in the way, and always in the wrong; always to be pitied, always misjudged.
Before she could make sense of this muddle of emotions, the prophetess, whose emotions were always clear, took charge. She kicked another rock. This time, rather than swearing she made an angry gesture at the tumbling stone, and it burst apart into a pattering of sand.
“Well,” she said, turning back to Marigold, “I feel better. Now what?”
Marigold felt that there were a number of compelling reasons for being unable to answer.
“Damn,” said Louisa, “wish I could blow stuff up when I get pissed.”
“Practice,” said the prophetess. “Meantime, I don’t trust this.” She waved at the farm. “How do we know she’s at the market? How do we know she hasn’t been arrested?”
“We can find out,” said Marigold, and started for the barn.
“I’ll find out,” said Louisa. “I’m the soldier. What am I looking for?”
“The wagon,” said Marigold. “The wagon and the horses.”
The plainswoman nodded. Both the prophetess and Harrison started to speak, but she held up a hand.
“I’m a soldier,” she said again. “Begging your pardons, but you’re not.” She looked at the prophetess. “And you sensed that there’s no threat?”
“Um,” said the prophetess, “yes. Shouldn’t be — but walls can be problematic.”
“Got it,” said Louisa, and walked to the barn. She peered into the gaping maw of its doors.
“No wagon,” she called, “and no horses.”
Marigold let out a gust of breath, unaware that she’d been holding it.
“Okay,” she said, “We wait inside for nightfall. She’ll come home, and we’ll talk to her then.”
To Marigold’s surprise, the front door was unlocked. This unexpected evidence that Ma Gnowker had relaxed in her old age and widowhood, and that not even the events of the previous Saturday had shaken her, was relaxing. The back of Marigold’s mind busied itself with a whispered thought that perhaps it was all a lot of nothing. She wasn’t the queen, but none of this mess of hidden compounds and makeshift rebellions was really a big deal.
Louisa — analyzing the lay of the land and the number and nature of the exits — protested that the house was unsafe. The prophetess and Harrison dismissed it as paranoia, pointing out that any moderately competent hostile force would be just as likely to check the barn as the house, and that if they were going to be ambushed, they may as well be comfortable.
Louisa shrugged, and followed them inside.
As she entered, Marigold found the house more than familiar — it was the truest home she knew. The low ceiling of rough-cut oak beams, the pot-bellied stove, the clay-tile floor, all of it scrupulously scrubbed clean. The low table where her parents sat crying the first time she was taken.
There were two bedrooms on opposite sides of the hall — the low, drafty room on the left where she and her brother had slept, and where her parents hung a curtain for propriety when her brother turned thirteen, and the larger room to the right where her mother now spent nights alone in a double bed. The bathroom behind her parents’ bedroom, and a sitting room at the rear of the house with a bookcase, a slouching sofa with worn-out springs, two rocking chairs, another pot-bellied stove, and a small, flat-screen television. As in the kitchen, there were two small windows, framed in with white-painted pine-boards. In the right corner of the room was a small, plain door with a window, and a dirty woven mat.
In the comfortable surroundings of her mother’s home, Marigold felt the weight of adrenaline and the early morning hike settling down on her. She leaned her pack against the counter in the kitchen beside the prophetess’s curious leather bag, and, yawning, left the prophetess and Louisa bickering in the kitchen over who should take first guard duty, and shuffled back to her bed.
It was lower, and narrower, and lumpier than she remembered, and smelled of must and dust and age, but after a week spent sleeping on a bed made of pinewood and thatch, it was a revelation.
Her sleep was heavy and dreamless, an inky, comforting blackness. When she woke, she woke at a snail’s pace. The room was almost as dark as night, but from the doorway to the hall, she could see afternoon light. Her head was warm and her thoughts unclear. She grimaced and rolled her legs off the side of the bed. Her clothes were oppressively hot and rough against her sleep-swollen skin.
She eased to her feet, and lumbered out into the hall. She heard the distant sound of the television, and wandered into the sitting room. Louisa was there — slumped asleep on the couch, mouth open, arms folded on her chest. Marigold blinked and yawned, and in yawning discovered that her throat was parched to the point of cracking. She ambled to the kitchen in search of water, and found Harrison, perched in a chair, leaning back against the wall, facing the windows.
He smiled. “Hey, sleepy.”
She grunted, and moved to the cabinets above the sink.
It seemed that sometime in the eight years of her daughter’s absence, Ma Gnowker had seen fit to move the cups. Marigold frowned, and set to opening all of the doors in the kitchen.
She was embarrassed, as usual, to be sleep-dazed and irritable in front of him, but she was too sleep-dazed and irritable to restrain herself. She found a glass, poured herself water and sat down at the table.
“You sleep a lot,” said Harrison.
“Beauty sleep,” slurred Marigold, and wondered if she ought to have said it. She looked out the window, and willed herself to wake up.
He laughed again.
“It’s working.” The compliment was unexpected, and ought to have been unwelcome, but she was too fogged to push it back.
“Are you being sarcastic?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Come on, now. I’m a gentleman.”
Marigold said nothing, and Harrison chuckled.
“You’re in a good mood,” she said.
“You’re cute when you’re upset.”
Her heartbeat shifted. Her head was heavy. She tried to change the subject.
“Louisa’s asleep,” she said. “Where’s the prophetess?”
“Also asleep,” said Harrison, smirking. “Bad humor is exhausting, apparently.”
Marigold smiled, despite herself.
“It’s hot,” she said.
Harrison nodded. “Sit outside?”
They sat on the stone step, their backs to the door, looking up through the farmyard toward the wooded slopes of the mountain. The step was narrow, and they were pressed together at the hip. Marigold’s heartbeat lifted again, and she told herself that it was the bracing air, and the cold blue sky. Her pulse pounded in her temples. She was tired, she was bleary; she was a dam creaking against the power of a rising reservoir. The choice was not hers to make.
“You’re funny when you’re tired,” said Harrison, returning to the theme of her endless capacity for naps.
“Then I’m funny a lot,” said Marigold, hoping it was true.
“It makes sense,” said Harrison. “You’ve been burdened with a weight beyond the rest of us.” He turned and looked her full in the face. “It’s no small thing to be queen, and I’d rather you sleep than see you so threadbare and anxious.”
“It’s —” started Marigold, “— it’s not, it’s no more than —”
“Yes,” said Harrison, his deep brown eyes still locked on hers, and his hand fell lightly on her knee, “it is.”
As his hand settled on her leg, a crack appeared in the dam, and for a moment, she felt suddenly awake, suspended in the cold air, her heart racing and nerves rippling with expectation. She leaned forward.
The door swung sharply into her back, and both she and Harrison stumbled off of the step with strangled exclamations.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” said Louisa. “Something’s wrong with the prophetess.”
Marigold started to her feet, blushing and stammering. The suspended moment came unstuck and crashed down, shattering around her. Her ears were full of a rattling buzz, like an army of cicadas, who having survived into the autumn were glorying in their longevity.
The buzzing grew louder and louder as they followed Louisa into the house. Louisa spoke with a battlefield calm. “I found her like this, and she’s not responding.”
They hurried down the hall, the television scattering blue light through the sitting room. Lousia turned right and led them into the master bedroom.
In the light of the single window, the prophetess was standing rigidly at attention, eyes bulging open. The buzz was rattling out between her clenched teeth. Her hands were balled into white-knuckled fists.
As they entered the room, she relaxed.
“Oh, good. You came,” she said, “Listen —”
“What the hell?” asked Louisa, stepping forward. “What in the actual hell?”
“I’ve got a prophecy,” said the prophetess mildly, “and it’s incredibly important. I needed you to pay attention.”
“Why wouldn’t you say so?” asked Louisa, “’stead of scaring me to death?”
“People ignore me when I say so,” said the prophetess, “and we can’t afford to ignore me.”
Louisa shook her head like a disgusted mother sorrowing over a roomful of delinquent toddlers, but said nothing.
“What was the prophecy?” asked Marigold.
“Is,” the prophetess corrected her.
“Dammit, Anida, tell us the prophecy!” snapped Harrison.
The prophetess’s eyes widened, and in two leaping steps, she crossed the bedroom to Harrison. He stepped back, raising his hands in front of him.
Her voice was a guttural rasp. “What did you say?”
He shook his head, his curls bouncing. “No, no,” he stammered, “I —”
“WHAT DID YOU SAY?” roared the prophetess, leaning into his face. Marigold and Louisa gaped. The room was shaking with the prophetess’s voice. She seemed to have grown tall, staring down Harrison.
“I —” said Harrison, his voice quavering, his eyes rolling. “I said —”
“DON’T SAY IT AGAIN,” bellowed the prophetess, “DON’T YOU EVER SAY IT AGAIN!”
“I won’t, I won’t, I won’t,” said Harrison, still backing away, “I promise, I won’t.”
The prophetess laughed, without humor. “You promise, huh?” She stepped back from him and grimaced. “See that you don’t,” she said. “See that you don’t.”
She turned to Louisa and Marigold. “You heard nothing.”
“Nothing,” said Marigold, trembling a little herself.
“You got it,” said Louisa, “whatever you say.”
“Okay,” said the prophetess, “and now the prophecy.”
She placed a hand on Marigold’s shoulder. “Right now, in the marketplace, your mother is in terrible danger.”
“We need to go,” said Marigold.
No one moved.
“We need to go, now!” said Marigold, “Come on,” and turned to go.
She paused for an instant, waiting for Harrison or Louisa or the prophetess to object, but no objection came. She glanced back at them.
“We came to find out if you’re the queen,” said Louisa. “Can’t find that out without her.”
“Alright,” she said. “Come on.”
“Hold on,” said the prophetess, “we need to think — we’ll never make it in time on foot. Does your mother have a car?”
“No,” said Marigold impatiently, “if she needs a ride, she calls my brother.”
“Does she have a cellphone, a landline — how does she call?”
“A mobile,” said Marigold, confused.
“Right, right, right,” said the prophetess, “of course.”
For a moment, they stood in the kitchen and looked around themselves in frustrated bewilderment. Marigold tapped her foot in frustration, staring at the jars, boxes and bags on her mother’s shelves.
“What’s your brother’s number?” asked the prophetess.
“Does it matter?”
“Maybe,” said the prophetess. She crossed the kitchen and rummaged in the smaller compartment of her massive leather bag.
“Aha!” she said, and produced a small cellular phone from inside the mysterious container.
“What?” asked Marigold, “You? You have a cellphone? You smashed mine!”
“Yeah,” said the prophetess, “I’m a huge hypocrite, and it’s saving your mother’s life, shut up.”
“I’m sorry —” started Marigold, and the prophetess waved a hand.
“Like I said, shut up.”
Marigold shut her mouth. The prophetess bent over the phone, eyes closed, muttering. She looked around the tiny kitchen, and glanced at Louisa and Harrison. Harrison met her gaze, and she looked away with her cheeks burning. In the corner, the prophetess went on muttering. And then her mutterings were accompanied by the featherlight sounds of buttons pressed on a cellphone, and then —
“Hello! Hello! Is this — are you Mr. Gnowker? Wonderful. You’ll have to tell me your first name sometime, but in the meantime, you need to get to your mother’s farm as quickly as possible without asking me any questions. Your sister and your mother depend on it.”
She listened for a moment.
“You ludicrous chump. I said no questions. Fine.” She motioned to Marigold. “Your majesty! Say hello to your paranoid excuse of a brother.”
“It’s me, Danny,” said Marigold, “and we need help.”
The prophetess listened, nodded, slapped the phone shut and looked up.
“He’s five minutes away.”
In silence, they slung on their packs. The prophetess paused to toss the phone back into her pack, and fished out the mammoth revolver. She spun the cartridge and raised her eyebrows. Louisa rummaged in hers, and took out one of the submachine guns the guards carried in the mountain compound. She glanced up at Harrison and Marigold in turn.
“Harrison,” she said, “you know how to work this?”
“Okay. You take it.” She held it out to him.
Harrison took it gingerly, almost hesitantly, and it struck Marigold as out of tune with the flame-throated rhetoric of his speeches.
Louisa turned back to her pack, and produced a blackwood club. She leaned it against the counter, put on her backpack, and then picked up the club and swung it lightly.
Marigold looked around the kitchen. The prophetess was fiddling with the revolver, Harrison was staring in bewilderment at the machine gun in his hands, and Louisa’s face had taken on a serene placidity, twirling the cudgel.
“Um,” said Marigold.
“Your majesty?” inquired the prophetess.
“You’re all armed,” said Marigold. “I, uh, I feel a little exposed.”
“We can’t risk you,” said Harrison. “Your job is staying safe.”
“Fine,” said Marigold, “but just in case I can’t —”
“Right, right,” said the prophetess. She eased out of the leather pack, and opened the lower, larger pocket. From its incalculable interior, she drew out the ornate staff she’d been holding when she first appeared a week before, in the dry-goods warehouse. She held it out to Marigold.
“It’s not much, but if you’re close enough to bop ’em, you can fetch ’em at least one good knock.”
Marigold took it, and felt, like Harrison, hesitant.
“Is … is it — powerful?” she asked, turning it over in her hands.
“Oh, goodness, no,” said the prophetess with a cackle. “I’m glad you think so, though. No, it’s just a prop. I like to make my enemies think I’m powerless without it.”
“Oh,” said Marigold.
“Huh,” said Louisa.
“I knew it,” said Harrison.
“Well, you certainly do now,” said the prophetess.
All armed, they turned to the windows, and waited.
To be continued