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.
Even from the bird’s-eye view of history, it remains difficult to state with any confidence the nature of the King’s courtship of young lady Maltin. The evidence of conversations and thoughts recorded in letters and diaries does give considerable insight into her feelings. She was curious at first, and flattered, but she took care to scribble girlish clarifications in the margins of her journal that she neither expected nor wanted anything to come of the relationship.
Her disinterested curiosity was short-lived. After their conversation in the antechamber of the Koderzaught ball, they did not speak again for three weeks, at the end of which they met, seemingly by chance in the Embritton Municipal gardens.
Certainly, young lady Maltin took it to be by chance, and wrote in her diary, “He accompanied me and Nan [her personal attendant] throughout the gardens! pointing out flowers of particular interest! and amusing us with historical anecdotes about the gardens. Truthfully, I know the names and types of the flowers quite as well as he, if not better, but he took on the role of teacher and entertainer with such a flourish that it seemed quite out of the question to correct his misapprehension of my knowledge. Again, as in that serendipitous moment at the ball, the king was both chivalrous and charming throughout our encounter. Of course, he is very handsome, which did not lessen my pleasure in his attentions. Once, when he fancied that I could not see, he looked at me with such feeling that, in truth, I blushed. What depths there seem to be that lurk beneath his bluff demeanor. He is a dear, and I blush as I write, I feel that in our meeting twice so quickly after never having met before, there is a certain hint of cheerful destiny.”
In the years that followed, she came, all too well, to understand the submerged depths of the king, and to know that what seems the cheerful work of benevolent destiny might be just as easily the jaws of the snare, beginning to close.
–From A History of Trevendland: Chapter 3, “Hiram I, and the Dissolution of the Monarchy” by E. Kodrave
She was the queen.
That fact had started as a fire in her mind that Marigold couldn’t put out. After nearly a week in the mountain camp, the flames had died away, and it was an ember. It shone, but not so brightly.
The first three days that Marigold spent in the ravine-shaped camp, she’d spent mainly asleep, and resting when she wasn’t. Every time she woke, Almira or the prophetess would be keeping vigil in her tent. Occasionally, Harrison was there, but never without the prophetess. Every time he attempted to engage her in conversation, the prophetess would scowl and snarl at him to leave her be, you twit. So Marigold passed those days, groggy at best, and mostly asleep.
On the fourth day, the makeshift doctor employed by the revolution allowed her up and out of bed. She wandered through the camp, a prickly city of olive canvas, boards and ropes — with a young plainswoman hovering nearby at all times — and washed herself in the waterfall that came crashing down near the eastern edge of the compound. She changed into a fresh set of the nondescript clothes that constituted the uniform of the rebellion and ate the evening meal together with the bulk of the group, sitting cross-legged around the cooking fire. The group, she realized, was not large. There were maybe thirty — at most fifty — people sitting and crouching around the ring.
It was mid-September (but Marigold had lost, and could not recover, any sense of the actual date) and all remaining traces of late summer were fading out into autumn. So as they ate, the slender sky visible past the cliff-wall and the trees deepened from crimson to violet to sable. Although there had been no obvious signs of surveillance or government search, the rebels were cautious, and let the fire die out with the daylight. They ate in the darkness.
The meal was bread and stew. The bread was warm, and the stew was hot. It was neither nearly so thick nor so rich as the stew Almira had made on the night of the warehouse fire. Marigold ate, and made perfunctory attempts to engage others in conversation. Mostly, she failed. The rebels seemed stuck in a place between awe and suspicion, and were stiff and awkward. Mostly, the rebels stole glances at her, and whispered or muttered among themselves. She was their queen, and consequently not one of them. Neither the prophetess, nor Almira, nor Harrison was present.
The next morning, the instant he heard the sounds of life proceeding from her tent, Harrison had appeared and whisked Marigold away to a quick, unpleasant breakfast of grain cereal, and then through a threadbare curtain seemingly made of retired bedsheet and into an artificial cave the rebels had hewn out of the mountain, and turned — seemingly — into a classroom. It was cramped, and the walls and ceiling were uneven. Still, a board floor had been laid, and two rows of long wooden desks lined the room on either side of center aisle. Daylight suffused through the bedsheet, and lanterns were hung along the center aisle.
Harrison had forced Marigold to sit down, and had launched into a rambling lecture (largely unsupplemented by texts or visual aids) that sketched out a complex portrait of socio-political wrongdoing on the part of the city-led democratic government. All of the important fabrics of the national culture of Trevenland (the social fabric, political, economic, moral, religious, etc.) were being torn apart by the misdeeds of the urbanites.
Marigold wondered whether she was a victim or a perpetrator in this narrative. She certainly had been stolen from the country, but having been stolen, had gone on to enjoy the many benefits of the city. Never enough to feel at home, but enough to kill any desire to return home permanently. Was it Stockholm Syndrome if you preferred the faces from home, but your captor’s house?
Harrison’s contentions, though lacking visual aid, were backed up by such a dense flow of statistics, facts, and theoretical constructs that Marigold normally retained only a rudimentary sense that the king’s abdication (actually a deposition) had led to short-sighted, selfish mob rule. It also led to a more robustly-held feeling that footnotes, statistics and facts, gatekeepers of credibility, are best as trees, and lose their purpose as a forest.
Harrison plunged on. He described how the people of the far-flung provinces, of villages and remote cities and the countryside, began to band together against the unending oppression of the capital. As she watched him describe it, Marigold felt a pang in her chest, and then a swelling sense of pride and defiance. This movement was scattered, and nascent, but energetic, and it would grow, and unify behind one banner now that every disenfranchised citizen could rally not behind the problem of the city government, but to a solution: a dispassionate, benevolent monarch. Marigold found herself wanting desperately to agree. Naturally! Too many cooks had spoiled the soup! And when democracy, that greatest idea of modern civilization, had stubbed its toe on the greed of the capital city and fallen apart, what was left? A problem. A solution was what they needed, and Hivelgott’s amulet had brought them one.
She was the queen. Marigold tumbled back to earth, back into scratchy clothes in a man-made cave with a bedsheet door, and hands that were pale and soft from city life, and trembled as they nervously caressed the tabletop.
The lesson lasted well into the afternoon. For much of the post-lunch portion, Marigold found it difficult to push her thoughts past the idea that she was somehow a central player in the drama Harrison was unfolding. It was disquieting. Equally disquieting was the realization that the rebellion she was being asked to lead was not in any way a fighting force capable of confronting the city. In point of fact, it was more like a loose network of gangs posturing under the banner of valor. Prior to Marigold’s abrupt and questionable coronation in the marketplace, the movement had been wholly a response to the excesses of the urban elites. The emergence of the queen had given a sudden stir to a stagnant pot of petty conflicts and underfunded rebellions. No one was ready for a queen.
On her sixth morning in the mountain camp, Marigold woke slowly, blinking and rolling onto her back on a bed made of fresh pine timber on top of which the rebels had laid a woven mat, a thick comforter, and a pillow smuggled in from a superstore on the outskirts of the city. There was a knot in one of the timbers, a knot that took every opportunity to reach through the mat and the blanket, and grind against her spine. The mat itself was an object of idle curiosity for Marigold, who had wondered, on all three nights in the camp, while she twisted in a tangled mass of sheets and limbs, whether the real problem was that the mat was too thin, or that it, like the boards, was too hard.
These reflections were traditionally followed by hasty regret. She reproached herself — the daughter of a mountain farmer — for having atrophied and eroded in the city to the point where a person could offer her a nice wooden bed with a nice woven mat, and all she thought about was the tiny knot in the boards underneath it all. Most people in the camp had a similar bed. Some slept on the ground. It also felt singularly ungrateful to mind the discomfort, given that she was the queen, and so the rebels had taken great care to arrange this new, specially constructed bed for her. She was confused by the nature of the special construction, but felt instinctively that it would be worse to bring up the fact that she led a far more luxurious life as a commoner in the city than as a queen in the mountains.
This thought had progressed directly in opposition to the question of queenship; a magical item had declared her the queen, and events had transpired that forced her — at the risk of her own life — to accept that that was the case, for now. But was it of any use to anybody, including herself, for Marigold to be the queen? She understood Harrison’s notion that a queen was a rallying pole for the discordant factions of anti-government rebellion, but the convenience of unity carried with it the immutable goal of her rule. A successful revolution meant Marigold becoming the queen in name and deed. Was that in any sense a worthwhile goal?
This was a question Marigold pondered privately, and most poignantly on the three occasions so far on which her spine and the pine knot had carried on nocturnal conversations about other matters. The camp as a whole was caught up in another conversation altogether: what next?
Marigold felt that the question of what use she was as queen ought to be answered first. What came next meant nothing without a goal to move toward.
This morning she had a clear goal: food. She swung her legs over the side of the bed, out from beneath the comforter, and sat with her feet dangling down. Even inside the tent, the air was brisk. She shivered, and gritted her teeth. Much like the bed, her tent was no match for her modest commoner’s apartment. On the other hand, the cramped canvas room with a shipping pallet floor was the greatest of the luxuries her royalty had afforded her: her tent was hers alone.
She yawned as she pulled on the thick military pants she was already growing accustomed to. She shivered as she pulled on a tank top and the flak jacket Almira insisted she wear, and shrugged into her coat. She pulled up her hair and dropped the royal amulet around her neck. She slipped her feet into high-top boots and laced them up, the currents of her thoughts eddying in the blank current of her consciousness. Finished with the boots, she stood up, and faced the zippered door. She took a deep breath and filled her lungs with frost. Marigold gasped a little, and unzipped the door.
Outside of the tent, the air was cold. The sky overhead was deep violet shot through with shreds of vivid color. A wall of sunlight was creeping down the slopes of the mountain, inching toward the camp, which remained encased in frost and shadow.
She walked to the fire, frost crackling underfoot, passing through clouds of her own breath. For all that she’d lost of her childhood, she had never lost her love of rising early, and walking through a waking world.
When she reached the fire, she found only the four guards who’d been awake at their posts through the night. They were sitting in silence, eating cold pieces of bread and staring at the flames. The morning guards — who built the fire — were already in position at the gate and along the barrier.
One of the eaters, an angular, white-skinned man named Douglas who had been introduced to Marigold as the “head of the guards,” nodded in acknowledgement, and mumbled “hail to the queen.” The others, noting her presence, nodded and mumbled, and scooted sideways on the logs around the fire to make room for her.
“No coffee?” she guessed, settling down onto a log, and looking around.
“Morningfolk drank theirs dry, I’d imagine,” said Douglas, pulling another piece of the thin, crusty bread from the plate resting on the ground, “and as you might imagine, we’re not big on coffee for breakfast. “
“No, I suppose not,” said Marigold, yawning. “How was the night-watch?”
As though prompted by hers, Douglas also yawned. He scratched the stubbly rectangle of his chin. “Boring as hell.”
“Thank God,” put in another of the guards, a plainswoman. She was short, slim, and had a rounded mass of tightly curled hair.
“Thank God,” agreed Douglas. “Bad enough staying up all night. Nothing much worse than staying up all night fighting.”
“Oh,” said Marigold, “it’s an incredible sacrifice. I’m sure we don’t know what it means.”
“Royal ‘we’?” asked the plainswoman, and took a large bite of the bread.
Douglas raised his eyebrows and gave the woman a look of disapproval. “Respect the queen.”
The plainswoman shook her head, and disentangled her mouth from the bread enough to say, “No, no. No disrespect.”
Marigold chuckled. “No,” she said. “Not royal; inclusive. You’re not protecting me; you’re protecting all of us, and our hopes for the future. And we are all in your debt.”
“Due respect, ma’am,” said Douglas, leaning forward, and resting his arms on his knees, “we’re protecting you. You are our hopes for the future.”
The other three muttered assent.
“Why is that?” asked Marigold. “What can there possibly be about me that gives you hope for the future?”
She looked up, beyond the fire and the guards to the golden light inching down the mountainside. The fire crackled merrily on, while her question hung unanswered.
“It’s a good question,” said Douglas, at last, “but the answer’s too long for the moment, and I’m too tired to give it. Sorry for that.”
“Verbose, he is,” another of the guards, a round-shouldered Valeview guardsman, informed Marigold without irony. “S’like this — the pot’s been nearing boil for a long bit, and hasn’t been nowhere for all that steam. The coast, the plains, the mountains — we’re all het up, and we have been, and you — you’re our path to something better.”
He looked around the circle, and addressed himself to his fellow guards with widened eyes in almost a whisper. “We’ve got a queen again, we have.”
Douglas raised his cup of water. “To the queen, and better days to come.”
The other guards raised their cups as well. “The queen and better days to come.”
This seemed to finish the conversation. The guards polished off the last crumbs of their meal and stumped away to nap, leaving the queen alone beside the fire.
Soon enough, light footsteps, and a hint of cologne announced Harrison’s presence.
He slid down beside the fire and crossed his legs. His hair was damp. He rubbed his hands together and held them toward the fire with a satisfied sigh.
Marigold looked over, caught his eye, and smiled.
“You’re a hard woman to find alone,” he said, returning the smile.
“Have you been trying hard?”
“Harder than I should have, probably.”
“I’m flattered. What reason would you have to be finding me alone?”
“Any number of reasons,” he said, still smiling. But then their eyes met, and he looked away, down into the fire.
“One of them,” he went on, his voice lower, “is that I’m impatient. We’re on the verge of wasting time. We need to think about when we’ll start to move.”
“We surely can’t stay up here planning and talking,” he said, gesturing at the compound. “Sometime, we’re going to have to go back down, and fight.”
“Gosh,” said Marigold, “I guess so. I just — to be honest, I don’t know how. I don’t know what.”
“I know. I know,” Harrison leaned back, “but we all trust that once you get caught up to speed, you will.”
“Why?” asked Marigold. Her stomach rumbled.
“You’re the queen,” he said matter-of-factly.
“That seems to matter a lot,” said Marigold, “enough that my judgment goes unquestioned.”
“Well,” said Harrison, “to a desperate nation hollowed out and divided by the best-intended policies of the ‘coming future,’ a young, beautiful queen with their best interests at heart is enough.”
Marigold felt a rising tide of irritated befuddlement, exacerbated by the ongoing lack of breakfast and coffee.
“Fine,” she said, “assume that we can say with any certainty that the nation is longing for something new, that everyone outside of the capital city is pining for a new system, and they’d accept without question a young queen who professes their best interest — assume that, and I’m still wondering why they’d accept that I am the queen, not just a silly pretender to the crown.”
She did not say so, but Marigold remembered vividly that, two weeks and one day before, on a hot afternoon in the early autumn, Hivelgott had had no trouble inciting a mob to pursue her, knowing full well the implication of the amulet. Nor, she thought, had the gunmen and Kemizeze at the warehouse seemed inclined to follow her just because the amulet said she was the queen.
She also remembered the half-empty box of whole-grain, health-promoting breakfast cereal, now going stale in the unattended cupboards of her apartment.
The fire crackled, on either side of them, Marigold could hear the intermittent rustle of the camp shaking itself and rising to the day.
“The people are longing for change,” said Harrison, “and besides, you’ve got the amulet.”
“I do,” said Marigold slowly, “but …”
She paused again. The rustle of awakening had become heavy footsteps. The heavy footfalls became the prophetess trundling up to the fire, wheezing. She let herself down between Harrison and Marigold in a cascade of creaks. Marigold bit her lip.
“I think,” said the prophetess in her customary pre-breakfast growl, “that her divine highness and her most enthusiastic of advisors are wandering and wondering indirectly toward a powerful point, which is that a substantial portion of the population of Trevenland, especially outside the cities, would require only the slightest proofs of authentic royalty to join the side of the queen. After all,” she went on, “why are the rest of us here?”
Harrison raised his eyebrows.
“Yes,” he asked, archly, “why are the rest of us here?”
“I don’t know,” said the prophetess and cleared her throat. “There’s a queen, but not breakfast or coffee.”
She grinned at Harrison, and he glared at her.
“That’s a wonderful summary,” put in Marigold, “and a good question.”
“It’s an obvious question,” crackled the prophetess, “and you know it’s not the real question.”
“What’s —” started Marigold, but she was interrupted by Harrison,
“The real question,” he said, with a sour glance at the prophetess, “is when we’ll put the sacrifice and the spirit of these loyalists to good use, when we’ll finally rise up, and take the fight to the capital! Our passion is nothing without action!”
“Right,” said Marigold, “right.”
“So let’s start!” said Harrison, “Let’s plan today, and start tomorrow! Enough with inaction! Enough with lethargy! Enough with inertia!”
As his voice rose to the crescendo, he slapped the ground.
The fire crackled.
“We’ll talk to Almira,” said the prophetess. Harrison looked at Marigold.
“We’ll talk to Almira,” she said, and the words were heavy on her tongue.
Her stomach churned.
In the absence of an organized revolution, decisions and counsel fell to Marigold, Almira, the prophetess, Harrison and Douglas. They convened at lunchtime, carrying bowls of stew from the cooking fire into the classroom cave. It had become an unseasonably warm and sunny day, and the cool interior of the cave should have been a welcome change. But Marigold’s fingers were cold, and her stomach was still filled with a cold ache. She felt powerless — tossing in the grip of a current that was driven by the amulet at her neck and the voices of the other four people in the room.
She set down her soup, and pulled the chair about so that it was facing the other chairs across the table.
As queen, she’d been served first, and so she was able to watch the rest of her “top committee” enter. Of this hastily convened council, only Harrison fit her notions of a revolutionary leader. He looked the part — tall, with cords of muscle flickering under his smooth brown skin. He was beautifully handsome, as well. As he set down his soup, light from the doorway outlined his strong, straight nose and the clarity of his jawline.
More than his magnetic appearance, he had the right spirit, thought Marigold. He was passionate, reckless and full of fury at injustice. He was here on compulsion — carried by deep currents of conviction and emotion that surged at the core of his being.
Meantime, what were the rest? The prophetess, stomping into the room with her soup jostling and spilling as she muttered to herself, was an ill-tempered enigma. What possible motive she could have for joining this fledgling rebellion was beyond Marigold’s perspicacity. As to leading a rebellion, she was far too erratic. No sane people would rally to a leader whose speech and conduct were an endless torrent of nonsense and selfishness, punctuated erratically with bravery, wisdom and apparent magic. Douglas was a henchman and royalist from birth. His motive and usefulness were stable, and limited.
Almira came last. The village coffee-girl. A widow. A mother. Even in the two weeks since the explosive events in the Valeview marketplace, grief and loss had continued to erode the blunt sexual magnetism of her youth into a magnetism that was more complex, but no less strong. Almira set down her bowl of soup, and eased down into a chair, maneuvering her pregnant belly into place. Everything in her carriage suggested dogged, unflinching strength. Then, seeming not to notice Marigold’s gaze, she glanced down the desk toward Harrison.
The glance was a flash, but it was a look of such piercing vulnerability that Marigold bit her lip, and looked down into her soup. Two days in the camp had sealed her belief that Harrison and Almira were sleeping together, and had been for some time. A week in their company had not unsealed to her why they preferred to keep it a secret.
Marigold bit her lip again, harder, and tried to focus her thoughts.
“Alright,” said Almira, breathlessly, interrupting the unpleasant buzzing in Marigold’s mind, “Alright, let’s … let’s talk.”
“Shouldn’t we kick off the council with some sort of … prayer or ritual, or something?” asked the Prophetess. “Just to properly establish the solemnity of the moment?”
They all peered at each other uncertainly.
“Also,” said the prophetess, who seemed to relish the opportunity to chew and chat simultaneously, “maybe we should grab a giant pinecone or something, and the person who’s speaking holds the pinecone, so nobody interrupts.”
She glanced at Harrison and raised her eyebrows, as though to indicate where she thought the interruptions might originate. Harrison gave her back a scornful glare.
“One way or another,” said Almira, “there will almost certainly be people who die because of this meeting. Probably innocent people. That’s as much solemnity as I need.”
“And with that on our minds,” she went on, having cowed Harrison and the prophetess to her satisfaction, “we’ll have our say when the queen asks it, and I wager we’ll be serious enough to keep calm without passing around a pinecone.”
She turned the blue sky of her eyes on Marigold. “Your highness?”
“Um,” said Marigold, confused by the sudden feeling that — with lives at stake — her feelings didn’t matter. “I guess I thought — I thought —”
“— We thought it might be a good time to talk about what comes next,” said Harrison, interrupting helpfully.
Almira took a spoonful of soup, and looked at Marigold.
“Is that what you were about to say?” she asked.
Marigold’s mouth was dry. Her ears buzzed.
“Harrison and the prophetess had an idea,” she said, “that they wanted to discuss.”
Almira nodded, and held Marigold’s gaze for a moment longer.
“Alright,” she said, “if you want to discuss their plan, let’s discuss their plan.”
There was silence. Marigold’s breath was coming in quick, short gasps.
“Your idea,” the prophetess reminded Harrison, then slurped a long, loud spoonful of soup.
“Right,” said Harrison, “well, over the past few days, I’ve been trying to figure what the logical next step is for us. How do we move beyond being a tiny enclave stuck in the mountains with winter approaching?”
Nods all around.
“And I was forced to ask why we’re here in the first place. It’s a very simple equation. We are all here, preparing to freeze or starve or be slaughtered on the slopes of the Trevenmal for two reasons. We’ve seen the horror of the urban center’s oligarchic grip on our verdant, fecund land, and we know that only dramatic change will save our nation. Second, we now know what form that change will appear in — we have a queen.”
“So you’re suggesting …?” asked Almira.
“That we leverage the widespread loyalty to the queen to gather the numbers and resources needed to overthrow the government.”
“We —” Harrison paused.
“We don’t know what shape the revolution will take,” he said at last, “And we’ve lost time in inaction on the mountain. Where I find I must disagree with her highness is on the point of next steps. Why plan our next step after the people rally to our banner if we don’t know whether they will, and who will be among them. Better to rally, reassess and then to plan our next step.”
Almira looked from him to the prophetess.
“Eh,” said the prophetess. “Honestly, we’ll all probably be dead in six months, no matter what. May as well just jog down the mountain, call a television station and say ‘Here’s the queen!’”
“Why would the television station care?” asked Almira.
“The amulet,” said the prophetess, “that priceless piece of magic metal.”
“And why wouldn’t the government just shut down the station and bomb the marketplace?”
“‘They can’t do that on live television,” said the prophetess, “they won’t.”
“How are we going to get the amulet to them in the first place?” asked Marigold. “If the authorities hear anything at all about me and the amulet, they can get to us before the broadcast.”
“We meet in secret,” said Harrison.
“How?” asked Almira.
Harrison threw up his hands. “I don’t know!” he said. “But there’s a goal, isn’t there? Our goal is a secret meeting with a television station! Let’s figure it out.”
“The television station — if it’s a worthwhile station —” said the prophetess, “will want some sort of proof besides the amulet.”
Douglas and Harrison peered at her in confusion. Almira nodded in agreement. Marigold felt a rush of emotion she couldn’t name.
“So perhaps,” said the prophetess, “we start by finding proof that she’s the queen.”
She smirked at Harrison and Douglas’s astonishment.
“Oh, no, I know, I know — we’ve seen the amulet. But if we’re dealing with a city-sympathetic journalist, we’ll need to do more than waggle the amulet in her face. We’ll need explanations. Where did the amulet come from? What reason would it have to recognize Marigold? What does Marigold’s mother have to say?
“The amulet is nice,” she said, “but it might not be enough.”
In the overwhelming silence that fell across the table, Marigold felt her stomach lurching. She stole a glance around the table. Everyone was looking down. Her stomach was cold.
“We go to Valeview,” said Marigold, “and we find out if I’m the queen.”
To be continued