The Knowledge of the Queen: Chapter Six

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.

Previous chapters:
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five

Chapter Six

“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.

“Where now?”

“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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The Knowledge of the Queen Chapter Five

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.

Previous chapters:
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four

Chapter Five
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.

He laughed.

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.”

Marigold nodded.

“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.”

“How?”

“What?”

“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?”

He nodded.

“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

The Knowledge of the Queen: Chapter Four

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.

Previous chapters:
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three

Chapter Four

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.”

“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.”

He beamed.

“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.”

“How?”

“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

Previous chapters:
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three

The Knowledge of the Queen: Chapter Three

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.

Chapter One
Chapter Two

Chapter Three

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.”

Marigold nodded.

“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.

Marigold sighed.

“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?”

Harrison glowered.

“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?”

“None.”

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.”

The Knowledge of the Queen Chapter Two

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.

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Both Hiram’s reign and his personal life were marked by flaws of personality, and the influence of senseless tragedy. As is often the case with great tragedies, it began with tremendous optimism.

Taking the crown from his father at the tender age of 24, Hiram made the perfunctory public statements of intent to rule with wisdom, impartiality and benevolence, as he perceived his father and forebears to have done. Indeed, newspaper reports surrounding both the funeral and coronation remark that Hiram was a particularly subdued figure, “notable for the newfound soberness and humility of his bearing.”

He was also commended for his diligent attendance on the widowed queen. The editors of the Embrettiton Chronicle wrote in a glowing editorial that “there was evident in our prince’s carriage, and precisely his compassionate attentions to his bereaved mother a transformation of character which speaks well of his abilities to govern the nation. A good son is a good king.”

The Earl of Maltin, with the tactlessness that was his wont, wrote to a confidant that “The way this louse has pulled himself together, there might be hope, yet.”

The Earl was regarded for his candor, not his prescience. This prediction was characteristically straightforward, and just as characteristically wrong.
               –From A History of Trevendland: Chapter 3, “Hiram I, and the Dissolution of the Monarchy” by E. Kodrave

 

“PUT IT AWAY!”

The second scream broke from Ma Gnowker like a deluge from a dam and shook Marigold from her stupor.

Hivelgott was frozen in front of her, eyes fastened on the glowing amulet in her hand. The amulet itself was smooth, and cool against her fingers. The light of the letters winked up at her. She shuddered.

The moment she moved, Hivelgott came unstuck. He flung himself down among his piles of trash with a happy squeal, and began to thrash, rolling over and through the mountains of his merchandise, kicking his legs and howling.

None of the events of the day thus far had prepared Marigold for a spectacle on this scale. She stumbled back, away from Hivelgott. All around the square, villagers were sitting and standing in dumbfounded silence, knitting needles frozen, cigars dropping from slackened jaws.

They were not staring at Hivelgott.

Marigold’s chest felt tight, and she could hear her own throat gasping for air. The amulet was too wide for her pockets. Marigold pushed past her mother into the vegetable stall. She slipped the amulet into one of the plastic bags Ma Gnowker used for her vegetables. She let go of the amulet, and the lights went out.

Ma Gnowker had stopped screaming, and was now mewing and whimpering, clutching at her daughter’s arm.

Marigold was gripped by a loathing for Valeview with its shrieks, and madmen and popeyed villagers. She thought of her apartment in the city, of tiles under bare feet, of the quiet, cool, darkness of her living room with something like thirst.

She would take the produce she needed for the week and go. She did her best to ignore the stares of the villagers, picking up carrots — turning them over, putting one down and selecting another — and finding a head of cabbage and a cucumber. She slipped them into her bag, and spun it shut without looking up. After eight years of unceasing embarrassment, she had no intention of letting anyone see her humiliation.

The attempt to preserve her dignity proved costly. When she looked up, she found that Hivelgott had staggered to his feet, and was standing before her, a vision of apoplectic malice. His hair jutted out in all directions. His lips were pulled back into a snarl, and his eyes were bulging out.

“SEIZE HER!” he roared, pointing at Marigold.

No one moved. The villagers stared. Marigold speculated bitterly that none of them had blinked nor breathed since the amulet lit up in her hand. Nor had Ma Gnowker ceased to weep and wheedle.

“Ma,” she said, pushing her mother away, “Ma, I need to go, now.”

“SOLDIERS!” screamed Hivelgott, beckoning to the guards at the gate, “Soldiers!”

He turned his gaze around the whole of the square as though unable to believe that no one was rushing to apprehend her. Marigold stepped out the side of the booth.

Hivelgott bent down, plucked a rusty bolt from the sea of his rubbish, and hurled it. Marigold was too stunned to move, and the missile caught her just above her left eye. She fell back against the post of the veranda with stars in her eyes. Her mother screamed again, and so, it seemed to Marigold, did everyone else in the village.

Regaining her balance, Marigold saw Hivelgott rushing at her with a clay pot raised above his head. As he swung it, she stepped sideways, and the pot shattered against the post.

For an instant, Marigold found herself peering straight into Hivelgott’s eyes. They were yellow, and the veins stood out like rivers on a map. His pupils had grown until there was nothing left of his irises — only black pools of nothing. It occurred to Marigold — in much the same way it would have occurred to her that she was out of milk — that he wanted to kill her. Indeed, he was having a go at it, right now.

Her body moved without the volition of her mind. It extended both its hands, grabbed the old man, off balance from his swing, and flung him headlong into the ground in her mother’s vegetable stall.

As Hivelgott crashed down, her body stepped into the alley between the Municipal Music House and the Valeview Carpentry, and ran. As she ran, she heard a sudden swelling of yells behind her, and redoubled her pace.

At the end of the alley she turned right, away from King’s Avenue and the guards. One block down, she cut left toward the carpark, then left again, back in the direction she’d come. She was breathing hard, running through a neighborhood of empty houses and walled gardens in the direction of King’s Avenue when her foot caught on a cobblestone. She fell headlong, crashing down on her elbows and her chin. She scrambled up and tried to run, but wobbled back to her knees. The gash on her forehead was bleeding freely, and blood and sweat were dripping into her eyes. Marigold swiped at her eyes with her free hand, and succeeded only in grinding dust from the street into the paste of blood and sweat. Her eyes were on fire, but she forced herself to her feet, and took two halting steps.

“Marigold!”

From the obscurity of the world, behind the red wall of agony in her eyes, someone was shouting. Marigold staggered toward the voice, and back into the shadows of another alley. She reeled against the wall for a moment, then forced herself on, propping herself up with her left hand.

She could make out sunlight ahead, and guessed that whoever was shouting at her was standing across from the alley. As she approached the street, she saw that someone was standing in the open back door of the Hotchkiss dry goods warehouse, directly across from the alley. The figure raised a hand in warning, and Marigold stopped.

Tears and blinking were beginning to clear the sand and sweat from her eyes, and she could see that it was a young man who had called out to her. He was of medium height, wiry and dark. His was familiar, but not enough to know him.

He was staring down the street, off to his right toward where Marigold assumed her pursuers would be, if her gambit of reversal had succeeded. His jaw twitched.

Then, without turning his head, he beckoned to her.

Marigold darted across the street, and tripped on the threshold of the warehouse. She would’ve sprawled on her face, but the young man caught her shoulders and pulled her upright. He smelled of flowers, and scented oils.

His hands were still on her shoulders. Marigold blinked. The shelves that ran along the walls, lined with bags of seeds and flour were reduced to smudges in the gloom of the warehouse, and she couldn’t make out the face of her rescuer.

“Thank you,” she said, though it sounded more like a gasp. He might’ve nodded, but Marigold couldn’t tell. He was guiding her by her shoulders across the room, past two waist-high stacks of seed bags on wooden pallets, toward the shelves along the eastern wall.

“Behind these,” he said. Marigold crouched down between the stacks. The young man stepped away toward the shelf, and a fresh profusion of blood from her forehead rolled into Marigold’s eyes and set them stinging. She closed her eyes, and felt her heartbeat shaking her whole body.

“Come on,” said the young man, looming up from the shadows, “in here.” Marigold opened her right eye. He had pulled open a small space between bags piled up beneath the bottom shelf along the eastern wall. As best she could, she pulled herself across to shelf, and eased feet-first into the space behind the bags, where she lay down on her back.

“Stay quiet,” said the young man. He pushed the bags back flush with the other stacks and Marigold was swallowed up in darkness.

Marigold lay in the niche beneath the shelves, soaked in sweat and blood, caked with dust and flour stirred up by her and the young man’s movements. The flour caught in her throat, and she fought the urge to cough, until her whole torso was shaking with the effort. But she kept still.

When at last the shaking subsided, Marigold lay still, staring up into the darkness, exhausted.

And the darkness held its peace. For a long while, she heard nothing. Then, after a while, there was a loud, but confused trampling of feet. Marigold lay taut while footsteps clattered around the room, but soon enough, they clattered away. Whoever they were, they were gone. She felt secure enough to take stock of her situation. She was already sore from the unexpected strain, marveling at how far she’d regressed from the lissome, durable farm girl of yesteryear. Although the blood had dried to a paste, the wound on her forehead and the scrapes along the base of her hands still ached.

What did it mean?

In the span of one day — one morning almost­ — she’d gone from dozing on the train to being hidden behind bags of flour by strangers to protect her from — what? Soldiers? A mob? She couldn’t decide which was more improbable.

This much was certain; either soldiers or villagers had come after her, and Hivelgott had set them on her. But why?

That was easy enough; the amulet. Marigold sat up in the dark as far as she could, gingerly raising her head until her hair was brushing the underside of the shelf above her, and slid her hand into the bag. She worked through the carrots and the cucumbers, and found the amulet at the bottom.

As her fingers slid around it, the lines of script glowed out through the bag. The flour still suspended in the air shone in its light. With painstaking care, she slid the amulet out of the bag, and held it up. The amulet bathed the whole niche with its inexplicable luminescence.

The slick-dressed trio from the city, and the slim little man who followed them must have been aware that Hivelgott was running some scheme with the amulets. But who were they, and why resort to subterfuge? Was it illegal to sell imitation amulets? But why would Hivelgott hide the amulets if it weren’t?

This one glowed in her hands — the other two had not glowed in the hands of the customers. Hivelgott hadn’t touched any of them. So was hers real and were the others fake?

That seemed like nonsense — the real amulet would glow in the hands of the rightful king or queen. Not in the hands of an exiled village girl.

Why had Hivelgott handed her the amulet, and then attacked her when it glowed?

It occurred to Marigold that she didn’t even know what the glowing letters said. Hivelgott had called them the “dread words of destiny,” but in her haste to escape, and through the chaos that followed she’d never stopped to read them. She blinked, and squinted into the light.

“Stay quiet, stay calm,” said the letters. She checked to the right, and to the left. The sentence was repeated over and over through the swooping lines of the amulet.

Marigold couldn’t restrain a giggle. The idea that she was hiding from a mob led by a maniac, because of an amulet inscribed with platitudes was too preposterous.

But the mob was real enough, she supposed. The maniac certainly was.

Marigold eased down onto the floor again, folded her hands across the amulet in the center of her sternum, and stared up at the underside of the shelf. Could this ever blow over? How big must a misunderstanding be to change person’s life? Could she crawl back out, return to the market, and show everyone that the amulet was a fake, have a laugh and go back to life?

She thought again of her apartment, and the back of her throat ached.

Marigold wasn’t aware that she was asleep until the sound of the flour bags being pulled away, and a trickle of yellow lamplight falling across her face woke her up. She yawned, blinked, coughed, and squinted into the light. There was a foul taste in her mouth, and her head, shoulders and hips ached as though someone had taken to them with a hammer.

The light, pale as it was, hurt her eyes. An indistinct number of silhouettes were hovering over her hiding place, jostling to get close. Marigold stared at them, unable to grasp their significance.

“Get back,” hissed a voice. “Give her air.”

Marigold recognized the speaker. It was Almira Hotchkiss, barging into view through the wall of silhouettes. Almira set her hip and shoulder against the stack of flour bags, and pushed them further back so Marigold could escape, clicking her tongue at the rest of the company while she did so.

“If you’re going to let her out, let her out.”

Marigold felt the now-familiar weight of stranger’s eyes as she took Almira’s hand and crawled out of the niche and into the warehouse. Almira helped Marigold onto one of the stacks of seed bags she’d hidden between earlier, and took a seat across from her while the rest of the silhouettes pressed in close, and stared at Marigold.

“Water?” Almira asked, holding out a clay mug. It was faded with age, and a chip was missing from one side of the rim. Marigold took the cup and drank a deep draught. The chill of the water spread along her collarbones and down to her stomach, tickling the nerves beneath her skin, and clearing the fog from her mind. She looked around the room.

All of the light came from oil lamps, with wicks trimmed low. Most were set on the shelves, but a man near the door, and the young man who had hidden her, were carrying lamps. Shadows shifted and flickered as the men with the lamps moved through the room. In the shifting light, Marigold could see the water jug and a kettle next to Almira on top of the stack of bags, and a poker leaning against the side. She was a trifle puzzled not to see a fireplace.

“Marigold!”

Her youthful savior — he was about her age, even — shouldered his way into the inner circle. For the second time in the day, Marigold was taken aback by his familiarity.

Almira reached out and caught him by the wrist,

“Give her half a second, Harrison.”
She stared up at him in staunch disapproval. Harrison furrowed his brow, started to speak, then thought better of it and slunk back into the ranks of the shadow-folk. Almira turned to Marigold.

“Made you some soup, if you want,” she said softly, and held out another mug. Marigold set down the water, cupped the mug in both hands and drank the soup straight from it. It was more of a stew than a soup; the carrots and potatoes burned the roof of her mouth, and the broth savored of goat. Marigold couldn’t recall the last time she’d enjoyed a meal so much.

Minutes passed before she spoke again. As she ate, the shadows muttered to one another, and watched her with great care, as though they were taking notes for an exam.

“Thank you,” she said, lowering the mug, “Than you, that was lovely.”

Almira smiled and looked down at her hands.

Marigold surveyed the room again. The shadows made counting heads a guessing game but she estimated that there were fifteen people in the warehouse. Beyond her and Almira they were all men, and mostly villagers. She noticed that Almira’s husband was missing.

Harrison was sulking on the edge of the circle, just beyond Almira. There were two other plains-dwellers with him, and Marigold wondered why they had come. For her? For a silly girl and an imitation amulet?

Shame rose in Marigold’s chest, and she felt nauseous.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what’s going on,” she said, more or less to Almira, but also to the murmuring mass arrayed throughout the room, “at all.”

“You know all you need to know,” said Harrison, unable to hold his peace. He stepped forward and standing next to Almira. His brown eyes glowed in the light of the lamp.

“I promise you, I don’t,” said Marigold. She added, “Thank you for saving me, though.”

Harrison’s face stayed stern.

“You know how badly we need change,” he said.

“Um,” began Marigold, “I —”

“You know the prophecy,” he went on, raising his voice for the benefit of the room.

She didn’t, and wished for an unostentatious way to say so.

“I’m awfully, awfully sorry,” she said, “But I —”

“You know how the backs of the people bend under the weight of corruption,” said Harrison, who was almost shouting, “how the people of the plains and the mountains are sacrificed for the whims and appetites of the wealthy, how the —”

Marigold strove not to broadcast the blank astonishment she felt, and hoped the shadows would hide what she couldn’t. She glanced at Almira, who was staring at her. Marigold shifted her eyes away.

Harrison may have gone on without end, but he was interrupted. There was a muffled crash, and then the door from the dry goods store to the warehouse was flung open with a bang. A stocky white woman with a shock of unevenly-cut grey hair hove into view in the doorway, clutching a wooden staff with ornate designs carved into its head. She was scowling a jowly scowl.

She pointed at Harrison. “You!”

He flinched. She stomped a foot, and glared at him.

“Me?” he asked, recovering himself. “Who are you?”

Now the woman smirked, advancing into the room, shaking her staff at the silhouettes, which scurried out of her path.

“I’m the prophetess,” she announced, “And I’m here to help.”
There was a pause.
“When you say ‘prophetess’ …” said a middle-aged, white farmer — Floyd Witmok — stepping closer, “Do you mean —”

“No,” said the Prophetess, plopping down on the seed bags next to Marigold’s, sending up a cloud of dust. “No, I’m not the woman behind your ridiculous prophecy. Not at all.”

There was a general sigh. The prophetess turned to Marigold.

“Believe me,” she said, puffing out her cheeks, “If I were the woman behind your prophecy, you’d know it. I don’t do these mumbo-jumbo riddle-me-this, wide-open nonsense prophecies. If you say you can predict the future, predict it, dammit!”

She gave her staff a rattle, and the villagers shied away from it. She didn’t seem to notice, but began to cast her beady eyes around the room.

“So,” she asked, “Who’s the holder of the amulet?”

Almira, unspeaking, pointed to Marigold.

The prophetess smiled, exposing a mouthful of huge, square teeth. “Wonderful!”

“Almira!” exploded Harrison, having once again maintained silence for as long as he could. “What are you doing? We don’t know her! We don’t know who she is, where she’s from, who’s she’s working for —”

The shadows — nervous as they were about the prophetess and her staff — muttered in concurrent disapproval.

The prophetess shrugged. “It’s a question I can’t answer,” she said, “but I’m as trustworthy as anyone here and I’ll prove it soon enough. In the meantime,” her voice dropped to a growl, “I’d invite any of you to try to throw me out.”

She shook the staff, and scanned the room, locking eyes with Harrison until he turned away.

Then the prophetess’s flat face wrinkled into a smile. She leaned into the lamplight
and peered at Marigold.

“What do you know, and what don’t you know?” she asked.

“I don’t know what I don’t know,” said Marigold, feeling befuddled. She peered around the room. Across from the prophetess, Almira and Harrison were staring at her. Beyond them was the shadowy ring of the others were also staring at her, “And I don’t know anything, actually.”

The old woman narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips.

“OK,” she said, slowly, “OK. You live in the city, yes?”

“Yes,” said Marigold.

“You used to live here.”

“Yes.”

“And how did it happen that you went from living here to living in the city?”

“The people chose me. I was a Oneness Student. It’s an integration and diversity program,” said Marigold. “An exchange. They take children from the plains and the mountains to the city for school and training.”

There was a rumble around the room. Marigold stopped.

“Go on,” said the prophetess, “what did they tell you was the point of all that?”

Something fluttered in Marigold’s chest, “To make us a stronger country. It’s — it’s the slogan — ‘Strength as one.’ Combining the people from the plains and the mountains and the city — they — um, it brings us closer as one.”

The prophetess nodded. “Why do you think they choose you?”

Marigold shook her head. She didn’t know why they’d chosen her, but she could remember the day they’d come for her. It was late spring, and she was done with chores early, so she had been out in fields, running barefoot through the sloping meadows. Warm grass rustled against her calves and water from flooded streams thundering downward to the valley froze the soles of her feet. She was just that age when boys and girls begin to feel that there are things they are too old for. She felt a whisper that she was too old to spend the afternoon running through meadows, but it was spring, and she ignored the whisper.

When she straggled home, all muddy feet and ruddy cheeks, she found her mother and father in the kitchen talking to three strange men in suits. Her mother was crying, and her father, still wearing his work boots, caked in mud, was looking around the room like he didn’t recognize it.

Ma Gnowker had swiped a forearm across her eyes, taken a deep breath, and told her daughter that the people needed her. She was to leave with the men, and go to the city. Tonight.

“I don’t know,” Marigold told the prophetess.

There was a murmur of surprise around the room.

“WHAT?” hissed Harrison. Almira turned sharply to face him, and he went silent.

“We took a test,” said Almira, leaning in, “you might not remember. You only took it once. A month from the end of the school year, we took a test with colors and shapes and words and patterns. And they gave us a medical exam.”
Marigold nodded. She had a hazy memory of it.

“That’s why they took you,” said Almira, “That’s always how they choose.”

The prophetess grunted, “They take the best and the brightest from the mountains and the plains to the city, and they turn them into cityfolk. The mountains, the plains and the coast? They lose their leaders. The power, the money, the smarts — it’s all in the city, now.”

She locked eyes with Marigold. “They say it’s about oneness. When was the last time the city sent their best and brightest here?”

Marigold shuddered. Through the ache in her hip and her back, she felt the same hollow feeling that had come over her when she drank the Hotchkiss coffee in the morning.

“When was the last time anything good happened here?” asked Harrison.

“The road,” said Almira, “they repaved the road.”

“Right. Certainly,” said Harrison, leaping at the chance to retake the floor, “The road! Of course. One road.” He turned to Marigold,

“Her husband is gone!” he said, his voice rising, gesticulating at Almira, “Went off to find work, and disappeared. Probably dead. No one no notices, one cares. No one cares!”

Marigold bit back a gasp, and was ashamed. She hadn’t noticed his disappearance.

“Hell,” said Harrison, his voice dropping, “Tad never liked the government, so they probably don’t want to look for him. Better if no one thinks of it. She’s having a baby! In the city, she’d be fawned over by gangs of doctors; she’d be tethered to a thousand machines in a sterilized room. Instead, she’ll have her baby in the bed of her own home, festering in blood and dirt.”

He seemed to be raging at Marigold specifically, and she wasn’t sure why. Because she lived in the city? Because she’d been taken?

“The taxes go up, and up and up. Every year we pay for our children to be kidnapped by the city! We’re getting poorer, we’re getting weaker, and the city takes it all. All we have left is our anger.”

“You’re getting poorer?” asked Marigold, looking around the room.

“Sure!” said Harrison, sweeping onward, “They repaved the road. They repaved the road and built a train. Now they could come and gawk at us like we’re monkeys.”

“That’s — that’s awful,” said Marigold, “I’m sorry. I had no idea — I had no idea that things were so bad —”

“That’s the problem!” interrupted Harrison, “Cityfolk —”

“— but I have no idea what it has to do with me,” finished Marigold, raising her voice and channeling the vocal power of her Gnowker heritage to drown Harrison out. She finished, and the room was still.

“I’m sorry that things are so bad,” she said in the silence. “I truly am. I’m sorry that I didn’t know. But I don’t know what it has to do with me, and what you expect me to do about it.”

The farmers and villagers and day-laborers stared at her. Harrison furrowed his brow, and stared at her. Almira only looked down at her hands, caressing the baby bulge beneath her dress.

The prophetess snorted. “You’re bright,” she said, “Obviously you are. So stop being silly. What do you know?”

Marigold blinked. “I know you think there’s something special about me and the amulet.”

The old woman nodded. “But what you don’t know,” she told Marigold, “is the prophecy. A couple of years back, some whispery nymph slinking around the forest moaning about spirits tossed out out a so-called ‘prophecy’ about how a new monarch would rise unexpectedly from the ruins, clutching some sign of his or her right to the throne, and lead the people to peace, prosperity, and triumph over the city’s regime.”

She turned her beady eyes around the room, and smirked at the would-be revolutionaries.

“These little children believe it,” said the prophetess, gesturing to the watchers.

“You don’t?” asked Marigold, who would have believed a prophecy ten years ago, wouldn’t have ten hours ago, and couldn’t make up her mind, now, “You’re a prophetess.”

“I’m a prophetess,” said the prophetess, “Which doesn’t mean some hussy half-dressed in deer-hide is. The prophecy’s —”

She was cut off by another crash from the dry-goods store, a sound of splintering wood, shattering glass, and seeds and flour cascading onto the floor.

Two of the men — Floyd Witmok and a young plain-dweller — who had been standing in the circle, anxiously listening to the interchange between the prophetess and Marigold sprang for warehouse door, first. As they approached it, there were pops and flashes, and another crash. Witmok spun sideways, and crashed to the ground. More villagers rushed forward.

Marigold turned back. Almira was sitting frozen on her stack of bags, staring straight ahead. Someone in the press of men around the door shouted suddenly “Get down, get down!”

Marigold leaned forward, snatched Almira’s wrists, and dropped down behind the stack of seed-bags, dragging Almira with her. Almira twisted as she fell to protect her abdomen, and landed hard on her hip.

Above them, the prophetess stood up, and produced from beneath her robe a revolver resembling in form and size a cannon better than it did a handgun.

“COME ON YOU BASTARDS!” she bellowed, pointing it in the direction of the hubbub at the door and setting off the gun.

There was a sound like the end of the world, and an accompanying flash of approximately equal magnitude. The prophetess staggered back from the recoil. Over the ringing in her ears, Marigold heard screams, bangs and clattering from the direction of the door.

The assembled would-be revolutionaries had remembered themselves, and were surging either bravely toward the contested doorway from which the pops, flashes and sounds of dispute were coming, or somewhat less bravely toward the freight door at the back.

Marigold glanced in the direction of the fighting. The men in the room were crowded around the door, but trying not to stand in the line of the gunfire. They had stopped jostling for a moment to stare at the prophetess and her enormous gun.
“DON’T STARE!” boomed the old woman, cocking the pistol, “FIGHT!”

She fired again, but Marigold had no idea what she was aiming at — there was no one visible in the doorway. The blast blinded Marigold.

Behind her, the freight door rattled open and cold air swirled into the room, accompanied by shouts and screams. The group that had surged to the back door now came surging back to the middle of the room, driven before a wave of black-clad figures that had come rushing in out of the darkness making efficient use of sticks and cudgels.
“Oho!” howled the prophetess, “Another country heard from. Come on! Come on! Come and get yours!”

She wheeled to face them with another ear-popping report from the gun.

Marigold fumbled in the shadows between the stacked up seed bags until found Almira’s hand and the bag containing the amulet. But Almira shook off her hand, struggled onto her knees, and picked up the poker she had leaned against the stack of bags. She looked at Marigold, and tilted her head toward the back door. Marigold nodded.

The prophetess’ pistol went off yet again behind the girls as they stumbled to their feet. Everywhere around them was flickering pandemonium. Everyone who — less than a minute before — had been staring at Marigold in silence as she protested that she didn’t know what they wanted from her — had been stricken down, or driven toward the center of the room, where they grappled with assailants in dark knots of writhing limbs and heads. Near the back door, an oil lamp had shattered on the floor, and sooty flames were licking at the underside of the shelf.

Marigold picked up the water jug with her free hand, glanced again at Almira, and darted out from between the bags, making for the back door. As she ran through the chaos in the warehouse, one of the black- clad invaders wrenched free from the villager he was fighting, and snatched at her.

Marigold twisted away, staggering off-balance, and Almira — one step behind Marigold, brought down the poker on the man’s head with a clang.

He reeled just long enough for Marigold to swing the water jug, catching him in the head and knocking him back. Water from the jug splashed across Marigold’s shirt.

Marigold and Almira charged through the melee for the back door, hearts pounding, striking out with the jar and poker in desperation and fear. They careened through the oil fire, and broke clear of the building.

It was cold, and the air hurt their throats as they gasped for breath. The moon was almost full, and Marigold could see every detail of the street etched out in sharp relief. There was a sentry at each end of the block, and what appeared to be a child’s body, lying at the foot of the warehouse wall, thirty feet to the right of the door.

Almira gasped, “NELL!” ran to the little heap of a person. Marigold went stumbling after her, unsteady on her legs. Almira knelt down, hiccupping and gasping.

Standing behind her, Marigold’s head swirled. Both sentries had seen them, and both were coming toward them at a run. Prompted by Almira’s scream, both sentries were coming toward them at a run. People were scrambling and falling out of the door behind them, some still fighting, others fleeing into the night. Flames were licking up the doorframe, and the shouts from inside had taken on a desperate tone.

“Nell!” repeated Almira, turning the girl over, and staring at her face.

Blood was still oozing from a long wound that ran along the side of Nell’s head, and a small pool of had collected on the cobblestones beneath her. Almira drew a sharp breath.

“Almira,” said Marigold, as evenly as she was able, “Almira, the sentries.”

Almira slapped at Nell’s face. “Nell! Nell, wake up!”

The first sentry was on top of them. Almira made an attempt to stand, and strike him with the poker. It was a late response, and too slow. She flailed at the man, but he stepped sideways around her swing and lashed out with his cudgel.

The swing hit Almira in the side of her head, just behind her temple. The blow was glancing, but it was enough. She fell, dropping the poker and rolling on the ground.

While his arm was still extended, Marigold drove her jug into his face. He stepped back, stunned. Marigold gritted her teeth and swung the jar upwards as hard as she could into his chin. The jar cracked in half, and fell away, and the man sagged downward.

Marigold flung the remains of the water jug aside and turned back to face the warehouse door. Without moving her eyes from the mob, she stooped, and picked up the poker. She smelled smoke, and her mouth was full of the taste of blood. She could feel the pulse in every inch of her body.

The skirmish at the back door was over. Three villagers were splayed out in the street at the feet of two tall figures enveloped in black. They turned toward Marigold.

“Come on,” she said.

They came, steady and businesslike, sweeping aside her pitiful swing with the poker, and wrapping iron arms around her, pinning hers to her side. Before Marigold could process or respond to this development, a squat, robed figure plunged out of the fiery warehouse and barreled up the street.

“Let her go,” roared the prophetess, arriving with a flourish. She fetched the man on the right an almighty blow to the temple with the butt of her gun, then spinning the weapon in her hand, placed the muzzle to the ear of the other attacker.

“Let her go,” she repeated, “Or I’ll speckle the wall with bits of your brain.”
The man — still steady and businesslike, released Marigold and backed away with his hands in the air. She tumbled down to her knees, gasping. Beside her on the ground, Almira was moving, pressing a hand to her head and moaning.

The prophetess had turned to face the crowd spilling out of the burning warehouse,

“NO ONE MAKES A MOVE,” she admonished them, brandishing the pistol, “OR YOU DIE WHERE YOU STAND.”

The crowd paused. They were unenthusiastic about the prospect of running toward the prophetess’s revolver.

“Hmm,” said the prophetess, turning to Marigold, “We’re going to have to run.”

“But Almira,” said Marigold, “Harrison.”

“They’ll be alright,” said the prophetess, “We need to get gone before the boys with guns get out here.”

Marigold gaped at her.

“Go,” moaned Almira, who had raised herself into a seated position and was staring at the flames consuming her family’s warehouse. “Go,” she repeated.

Marigold nodded, picked up the vegetable bag, and they went, inching into the shadows of the nearest alley while the prophetess covered the crowd with her pistol.

As soon as they were in the alley, as Marigold had that afternoon, they ran.

This time, though, there was no attempt at misdirection, just flight. They pounded through streets and alleys, headed south. In the distance behind them, Marigold heard a spattering of gunfire. Lights blinked on in the houses they passed.

They crashed into the scrubby wall of brush that divided the town from the carpark, and turned west along its length. They scrambled along the thick center of the fencerow, panting and casting glances up at the moon and back toward the town.

They heard no sound of pursuit, and saw no sign of danger. After an eternity of running, when Marigold was more tired and sore than she could ever remember being, they reached the border of the woods that lay to the west of the town. The prophetess, wheezing and coughing, led Marigold under the shadows of the trees. In the shadows, they proceeded more slowly, but did not stop until they were well into the trees, out of sight from the wood’s edge.

“Well,” said the prophetess, sinking down on to the forest floor with a groan, “That was not what I expected.”

Marigold said nothing. Her clothes were drenched with melted frost, and she could not feel her feet. Her lungs ached, and the wound on her forehead had opened again. Warm blood was running down her face and neck.

“Aren’t you a prophetess?” she asked at last, roused from silence by curiosity.

The prophetess shrugged, “Sometimes you see the beginning and the end — or at least you see the end — but not what’s in between. I don’t decide what I see.”

“Do you know what comes next?” asked Marigold.

“Sure don’t,” said the prophetess, and sighed, “We’re still in between.”

Marigold sighed, as well. “Between what and what?”

The prophetess said nothing.

“Between what and what?” asked Marigold again.

“Hard to see,” said the prophetess, “Harder to say.” She gave her staff a little shake, and the beads rattled.

“I don’t think prophecy’ll help us tonight,” said the prophetess sadly, “Sometimes, you just have to figure it out. Sometimes, even that doesn’t work.”

She gazed into the darkness for a moment, lost in thought, then shook her head, “Still, figuring it out’s worth a try.”

The prophetess leaned back against the trunk of the nearest tree. “Let’s start with what we do know,” she said. “What did all those overgrown children in that seed-store believe about you?”

“I told you,” said Marigold, “I don’t know.”

She said it harshly, and hoped it would end the conversation. She was too cold, and miserable to be polite.

“No,” the prophetess was undaunted, “I think you do. You told me that they thought there was something special about you and the amulet.”

“Oh,” said Marigold, “Yeah, yes. Apparently.”

“Well.” Said the prophetess, “What is it?”

Marigold found she had no ready reply. She stared into the shadows of the woods, at the bright pools of moonlight dappling the blackness. Her tongue was thick, and her throat was dry. It was cold.

“What is it?” repeated the prophetess.

Marigold swallowed.

“What. Is. It?” asked the prophetess, rising to her knees, and fixing her eyes on Marigold, “say it.”

“They think I’m the queen?” asked Marigold.

The prophetess leaned back and chuckled, “Seems they do.”

“But I’m not,” said Marigold, “I’m not — this amulet’s a fake.” But saying it brought no relief, and she heard in her own voice a telltale lack of conviction.

“Is it?” asked the prophetess. She leaned forward, “May I?”

“Of course,” said Marigold, and reached into the bag. The lettuce and cucumbers were bruised and oozing cold, sticky liquid over everything. She grimaced, dug to the bottom, and lifted out the amulet. The words glowed golden in her hand, and lit up the face of the prophetess, staring at it.

The prophetess took it. As soon as it left Marigold’s hand, the light inside the disc went out. The prophetess laughed,

“Sure, it’s a fake,” she said. “Give me your hand.”

Marigold held out her hand, the prophetess placed the amulet in her hand again, and the lines glimmered to life.

“Doesn’t seem it’s a fake,” said the prophetess. “Does it?”

“I don’t understand,” insisted Marigold, who didn’t. She blinked. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes.

The prophetess looked at Marigold and held her gaze, her tiny black eyes boring into Marigold’s.

“By now,” she said, “I think you do. Not the in-between, but you understand the end.”

“How do you mean?” said Marigold, shivering.

“Maybe you don’t know why, or how it came to be this way, or what will happen next, but we both know now that the amulet’s not fake,” said the prophetess. “And it won’t lie. I think we both know what that means.”

Marigold’s hand tightened on the amulet. She felt a shiver pulsing through her core.

The prophetess studied her face for a moment, and sighed. “I don’t want to say it,” she said. “I don’t want to ask it, even. I don’t want to think about what comes next.” She exhaled slowly, and deeply. “But it has to be asked.”

“Marigold, are you the rightful queen?”

Marigold’s eyes spilled over. A cold sweat broke out on her forehead. Her pulse raged in the wound from Hivelgott, and the many bruises, and scratches on her aching frame. Her whole body shook.

And then the tremors died away, and her eyes were dry. She was cold, and clear, and calm, and Marigold said, “Yes.”