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.
“Okay, I’m going to comment on the technological aspect of this, and not in the way you think. It’s not about any one revolutionary technology. Rather, I’m thinking about how we think about technology in general.
This discourse I’m thinking of was first brought to my attention by a professor back in the day who taught a course on the formation and development of modern society. He wasn’t a history professor — it was a geography Gen Ed. Topic of the class aside, he was a brilliant lecturer, so it was easy to forgive him the occasional polished digression into matters he didn’t know much about, and shouldn’t have spoken on authoritatively.
One of those digressions, while he was talking about the role a certain technology — to be honest, I’ve forgotten the specific item or concept — but he said that technology develops in response to demand. That the theories and materials for lots of technologies exist well before the technology itself does, but we don’t get around to building the machine until it can solve a problem for us.
That’s bullshit, and I’ll tell you why: imagine that through some miracle of scientific discovery, someone in the middle ages, or even in the first half of the twentieth century had invented modern cellphones. Do you think their business would grow or fail?
I’d wager that it would boom, because immediate, independent communication is something we’ve always wanted, throughout history.
Television? Same thing.
Most technology addresses issues we’ve had since the dawn of time, and each successive development in tech reflects a slight improvement in how we go about satisfying that need or desire.
So to say that we don’t develop technologies at the pace of the science that allows us to develop them doesn’t make any sense to me, and ‘demand developed’ doesn’t strike me as a reasonable story for why technology develops when it does.
So there’s more than one question when it comes to the relationship of tech and time.”
— Edited comments from Dr. Harold Regis, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at New York University, delivered at the 2012 Interdisciplinary Panel on Technology and Time
“Oh, golly, oh, man, oh, heavens, oh, crumbles, oh …”
Danny kept up a steady stream of subconscious silly-swears as he twisted the steering wheel to keep the aging station wagon bouncing and rattling up the dirt-and-gravel road to Valeview.
Marigold smiled despite herself at his agitation. Danny was four years older than Marigold. His teeth were solidly into the life of his choice, he was a young father, a young farmer, and an old soul. He had inherited their late father’s even keel and solid frame, but was incapable of the old man’s gruff unflappability.
“It’ll be fine, Danny, we’ll get mom,” she said, and reached from the back seat to squeeze his shoulder through the windbreaker.
“Yeah, fine, sure,” said Danny without turning his head, “okay. Sure.”
They roared through the last sharp turn in the back-road that ran from the farms to the village, flattened against each other by the force of the turn. Settling back into place, and Marigold caught a glimpse of the parking meadow. It was overflowing with vehicles. Marigold’s throat tightened. This late in the afternoon, the parking lot was normally half full at best. Why were there still so many cars?
She was scrunched into the back seat between the prophetess and Louisa, and was wishing — for any number of reasons — that the slenderer, better-smelling Harrison hadn’t submitted meekly when the prophetess ordered him to sit up front. The prophetess’s hips were wide, and made of iron. Seemingly oblivious to Marigold’s paralyzing fear for Ma Gnowker’s welfare, she was grinning with anticipation, straining forward as if she could move the car faster by stretching her neck toward the destination. On Marigold’s right, Louisa looked relaxed, despite being folded in half between Marigold and the door. Her eyes were scanning the road ahead, but the rest of her face was motionless. The hardwood cudgel lay lightly in her hands, bouncing with the car.
Louisa noticed her gaze and smiled at Marigold.
“No worries, highness.”
Marigold nodded and did her best to breathe in deeply. The engine of the station wagon wheezed, the frame creaked, and the ancient car eased over the lip of the parking meadow, and shuddered to a stop next to the buses.
Danny turned to the back seat, his face pale.
“Drop us here,” said the prophetess, “go to the carpark, and stay there.”
“Yeah, OK,” said Danny, “okay; carpark, and stay there.”
Harrison, the prophetess, Louisa and Marigold clambered out of the car, which lurched away toward the yellow ropes of the carpark. The sky, deepening toward sunset turned the buses to druidic ritual stones, looming up over their heads.
“Come on,” muttered the prophetess, and stomped off between the buses with her head thrust forward. Harrison followed with his brow furrowed, jaw clenched, gun half-raised, and eyes confused. Louisa put a hand on Marigold’s shoulder, and shepherded her forward.
“Ahead of me, highness.”
Marigold nodded, and lurched up into the ravine of shadows.
They marched out into the flat space where bus drivers should have been napping and playing cards and complaining, and paused. The field was empty. The bus drivers’ chairs sat in empty circles or individually in the shade of their buses. The card tables had been set up, and cards were scattered haphazardly across the tables, the chairs, and the grass. An ace of spades was tangled in the blades at Marigold’s feet, trembling in the breeze. Water bottles, cups, and napkins lay idle on the tables. There was no sign of a struggle, nor of any life. The parking meadow was abandoned.
Marigold felt a new wave of cold fear.
“Listen,” said Louisa and cocked her head. The dulled sounds of a public address system were booming down from the square, echoing off the clay and concrete walls of the town, filtering into an unintelligible, ominous roar.
Marigold had anticipated flashing lights and sirens; riot police and armed guards; the full muscle and vigilance of a teetering regime under threat from a girl. Not this overwhelming emptiness.
Most Saturdays, there were at least two guards standing at the King’s Avenue arch, and two more at the entrance to the square. She looked along the scrubby fencerow of brambles and bushes toward the eastern entrance into town. She couldn’t see any guards, but obscured from view by the fencerow, and tucked just outside the King’s Avenue arch was a white vehicle with a decal on the side.
“TV station,” she said.
The prophetess nodded, and met her eyes. “I have no idea,” she said. “Let’s go.” She started off again. As they began to move, the prophetess and Harrison exchanged a short glance with narrowed eyes.
They scrambled toward the arch, hugging close to the fencerow, hunched almost onto their hands.
The precaution was wise, but unnecessary; as Marigold had observed, there were no guards at the archway, nor in the street beyond. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the television van, just the gradual increase in volume from the loudspeaker in the square. The group scuttled through the arch, glancing over their shoulders, and up-and-down the empty street. The sun was inching lower, casting longer, deeper shadows across the cobblestones. Nothing stirred but the breeze.
“What the hell?” asked Louisa, now holding her club more tightly, looking up and down the abandoned thoroughfare. “What the hell is going on?”
Marigold tried again to decipher the loudspeaker, but the words kept fading into noise.
“I don’t know,” said the prophetess. “I don’t know, but I don’t trust it. I’m not about to march through that arch in the square. It’s a mouth full of teeth, I’d wager. We’ll swing around the side and creep up through the side streets. Look sharp.”
Louisa nodded, and they set off again in a halting gait that was equal parts anxiety and haste. The prophetess, who had never exhibited anything amounting to caution before, hugged walls and led them in a zigzag pattern, creeping across cobblestones, and dashing between alleys, approaching the square along almost the reverse of the jagged path Marigold had taken when she fled seven days before.
As they hurried through a residential street, Marigold glanced to the right, and glimpsed the blackened walls, yellow caution tape and plywood patches that remained of the Hotchkiss warehouse. She allowed herself a shudder, and kept close to Harrison’s back.
Half a block later, the prophetess turned toward the square. The sun had fallen below the roofs of the buildings on either side, and the shade in the alley was ink-deep. The echoing loudspeaker thundered ever louder around them. They were one street back from the edge of the square. At the end of the alley, the prophetess peered out into the street beyond, and raised a warning hand. The others pressed themselves against the wall behind her.
“K,” she whispered loudly, turning her head, “couple of ’em, skulking around in the street.”
There was a sudden sound of footsteps.
“Damn,” sighed the prophetess, “they heard me.”
At last displaying something akin to the foreknowledge of ordained events Marigold had previously expected from someone called the prophetess, she swung her pistol arm out into the street and clotheslined a black-clad assailant who’d been rushing around the corner full of violent intent. He gave a little grunting gasp of surprise, and sank toward the cobblestones. The prophetess, never one to do things by halves, swung around and kicked him in the face as he fell.
The other K was on her instantly, and all might have been disaster had the prophetess been alone, or only with Harrison and Marigold. As it was, Louisa smoothly stepped around Marigold, Harrison and the prophetess in one stride, and caught the man on the bottom of the chin with a short swing of the cudgel. He stumbled back, swinging his own club wildly in front of him, seemingly on reflex.
Louisa moved like a dancer, darting into the radius of his swing, and parrying it with her own club as though she was fencing. Dropping her cudgel, she caught the K around the back of the neck, dragging his head downward while she shoved a knee into his crotch. He gasped again, and swung his free arm in a left hook into Louisa’s unprotected side. She grunted, but didn’t let go, dragging his head lower and kneeing him again. Without releasing her grip, she swung around his back, and caught him in a headlock with her left arm, covering his mouth with her right hand. He sank to the cobblestones, sputtering through her hand and pinwheeling his limbs. Her grip tightened, until the pinwheeling gave way to desperate, feeble scratching, and then to nothing. When Louisa let go, Marigold couldn’t tell if he was breathing. The young plainswoman straightened up and looked down at her opponent, face blank.
“Should’ve killed him,” she muttered. Although the K had attacked them, Marigold couldn’t escape the impression that Louisa was the swift and deadly huntress, and the K were her lumbering prey.
The prophetess’s victim, despite a nose that had taken on a new angle and was releasing a sluggish river of blood, was only stunned. Louisa bent down, placed a hand at the back of his neck and squeezed. He gave a little sigh, and subsided into silence. The prophetess watched her work with a wide-eyed look of unconcealed envy.
“Now that,” she said, “is a neat trick.”
They dragged the limp bodies of the K into the shadows, and left them slumped against the wall. After scanning up and down the street for other guards, they darted one by one across the street to a narrow alley that led directly to the square. The passage was cramped and littered with the cast-off possessions of the adjacent buildings, degraded from status as a byway to life as a storage space. A wagon blocked the square-ward end of the alley, providing Marigold and her companions with a final layer of protection.
Leaving Louisa crouched in sentry position, Harrison, the prophetess, and Marigold picked their way through the alley, and huddled up against the shelter of the wagon. The crowd was packed to the stalls, and Harrison and Marigold were forced to crane their necks to see what was drawing the attention of the entire town.
In the center of the square, a small stage of planks and wooden crates had been built next to the fountain, with a lectern and an array of microphones in front of a flat black curtain. Black-clad guards, seemingly also members of the K, stood in formation around the base of the platform, self-importantly scanning the mob and toying with machine guns. Behind them, black tripods strained beneath the weight of gigantic loudspeakers from which the booming proceeded. Spotlights on the far side of the square competed with the dying sun. A tall, white-haired man with a stoop in his spine was speaking. Marigold could see no evidence of Ma Gnowker, nor any path of ingress through the mob.
“… And as you know,” said the man, evidently finishing off a thought, “there came a time in our history, not so long ago in the count of years, but several ages ago in the swings and shifts of society, when we faced a choice. Not we, of course, instead, for us, our king. In the interests of progress, he was confronted with a difficult choice.”
Beside Marigold, the prophetess hissed through her teeth. It was evident that she, more or less prevented from seeing the stage by the height of the wagon and of the crowd, was not pleased with what she was hearing. Her eyes were hard, and her lips drawn back into a growl.
“It is,” said the man, “the duty of a king to do what is best for his people, and this duty holds when all other bonds and considerations founder. Beyond loyalty, beyond family, beyond the final, mightiest cords of self-interest and self-preservation, nothing can dilute the strength nor alleviate the weight of this burden — to do what is best for his people. In ease, in hardship, in prosperity and in poverty, in personal gain, and in the face of personal devastation, a king must do what is best for his people. Always.
“Twenty-two years ago,” the man went on, “our king faced an impossible choice. Far-seeing, and bound by tradition and the inherited wisdom of his royal antecedents, he knew the dangers of the approaching future, of the shifts that were to come in governance, in thinking, in technology. Our king could see what was best for his people, and knew that, in the interest of freedom, it was best for his people to rule themselves. That independent of his reign, they would soon themselves demand to be free.
“Of his own volition, and in the interest of peace, he gave them what they would soon have asked. Placing their good above his own, our king forsook the palace, and forsook his reign. His scepter was given to the people, and his power turned over to the parliament.
“We have seen then, for twenty years, what becomes of a country in the absence of its king.”
The crowd, which up until this moment had been strangely quiet, now rustled in agreement. The old man’s voice rose. “Into the vacuum of our monarchy have rushed cowards and self-interested confidence tricksters. Men and women who concentrate power for themselves, and for their families. In these twenty years, what have we seen? A more prosperous, more peaceable, more unified nation? Ha!”
He barked a sharp laugh, and a few cries of “No!” echoed from the crowd.
“No! We have seen the power concentrated in the hands of a few, who huddle together in the capital taxing and exploiting the coastline, the plains, and these mountains —” he gestured about himself. “They rejoiced to see the end of the king, but now they strive to replace him! Each would be king or queen in his place!”
This was not at all the speech Marigold had anticipated. Beside her, Harrison was nodding. The prophetess was biting her lip.
“They steal our land, they steal our taxes, they steal our young men and women — we are enslaved!” shouted the man, his face reddening. Really, thought Marigold, this speech was Harrison all over. She wondered again, as she had when Harrison had made the same claim: was life in the city, with its cellphones and trains and parties and apartments, slavery? A curious and comfortable kind, at worst.
“Only a fool,” said the old man, “only a fool would say that this has been best for the people. Our money, our work, our children — none of it is our own. They belong to a few small men and women in Embritton who take, and take, and take, and never give.”
The prophetess gritted her teeth.
“A king,” said the man, “must do what is best for his people. There is no change of law, there is no change of rule that can break this solemn duty and bond. Two decades and two years ago, our king in his wisdom knew that what was best for his people was to give them a chance to lead themselves — to carve out in the living earth their own course, and to chart a destiny through new stars of their own.
“For two decades,” said the man, “the people have charted their path. And for two decades, the path has been one of foolishness, waste, and avarice. For two decades, in secret, our king has mourned the path his people choose. He has watched from the shadows as our best and brightest are wasted, as our capital city becomes a stronghold of thieves and robbers, and as the unity of our regions to the whole of our nation has turned to fractiousness and fighting.”
Marigold looked around. Fully half of the crowd was composed of tourists from the capital city, the region presently being denounced at top volume from the stage. Some were looking enthusiastic, others indifferent, and most of them looked afraid. She wondered where the children were.
“A king must do what is best for his people. And tonight, people of Trevenland, our king knows what is best for his people.”
The crowd rustled uneasily; what king? A cool wind, hastening down the slopes, stirred their hair and collars and swept across the square to Marigold. She cast a glance at the prophetess, who shook her head. Harrison looked wide-eyed at Marigold.
“And he has chosen,” said the man, his voice rising to a hoarse bellow. “Our king has chosen. People of Trevenland — downtrodden, forgotten, robbed and enslaved, rejoice! The fog is lifting! The clouds part! He returns to us now — I give you your king! King Hiram returns!”
Silence greeted this pronouncement. The crowd rustled uneasily. The wind whispered among the people, their eyes wide, searching the stage and each other’s faces for some sign of what was to come.
The old man uncoiled the stoop in his spine and stood erect, arms raised. From behind the makeshift curtain, another figure swept into the glare of the spotlights.
This man was hunched over grotesquely. He wore a military dress uniform of pure white, beneath two capes — one silk, and one fur — both crimson, trimmed in white and gold. His head bent beneath the weight of a crown, which resembled a headdress, an elephantine bulb of red velvet squeezed into a gold-and-silver filigree. The tracery followed the same pattern as the lines of the amulet hanging against Marigold’s sternum, and resolved above the man’s forehead in a golden cross with a ruby at its center. At each joint of the precious metals, a diamond caught the glow of the spotlights and the dying sun.
It was the costume of a king, but not the figure. Besides his stoop, the man’s eyes shone yellow and crafty in the light, his legs bowed and his hands stretched out from the military coat with pale skin wrinkling around the bones like the talons of a raptor.
Now the crowd began to babble. It was a buzzing, starting on the western side of the square, the furthest from the platform. The noise rushed through the square, growing in volume and intensity.
“No,” said the prophetess, who had pulled herself up on the side of the cart, “no, no, no,”
With an attempt at a regal smile that revealed crooked, yellowing teeth, the king motioned for quiet. The clamor grew louder and louder.
The king shook his head, and slowly, deliberately reached into the bosom of his lily-white dress uniform. After a moment he withdrew from the pocket a disc of metal, glinting in the red light of the sunset and the white glare of the spotlights. But at the touch of his hand, spidery lines along the disc began to glow until, from afar, it looked as though his hand ended in a star. It was the amulet of succession — talisman of the royal family.
The noise grew softer and softer, and died away. Tourists and villagers and bus-drivers alike were gawking slack-jawed at the stage. The wind, growing colder and stronger as darkness encroached, rattled hair and collars, and rippled in the curtain behind the king.
As the crowd fell silent, Marigold felt her heart throbbing, and blood pounding in her ears and in the accumulated wounds of the past week.
“Good god,” said Harrison softly, staring.
“Holy shit,” said Louisa.
The prophetess ground her teeth together.
Marigold said nothing.
It started with the villagers, and it started with the oldest. One wizened old man at the front of the crowd, his brown skin furrowed by the years, pulled off his winter cap, and dropped to his knees. His eyes were cast down, and he clutched the cap tightly to his chest. His lips moved without noise.
Around him, other elders of the village were kneeling, bareheaded. And then the young villagers, and finally, the whole crowd was quiet, on its knees in the square.
Marigold, Harrison and the prophetess ducked below the top of the wagon. Marigold, drawn by the spectacle, crawled on her belly under the wagon until she could see the stage again.
The man stood before the crowd, the amulet raised above his head, eyes alight, teeth glowing in a snarl of triumph.
Marigold’s breathing was shallow, and her heart was beating a wild tattoo, thumping against the amulet she wore, identical to the one this would-be king now raised as his sign in the square. Was she the queen? Did she want to be the queen? Could she be the queen? The questions were meaningless, now.
Standing on the stage, a glowing figure poised above the subservient masses, Hivelgott was the king.
To be continued
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