Knaves over queens, p.1
Knaves Over Queens,
Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
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First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2018
Copyright © George R.R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust 2018
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Source ISBN: 9780008283599
Ebook Edition © June 2018 ISBN: 9780008239701
to Jane Johnson
Voyager’s own ace
who lured us all across the pond
A Flint Lies in the Mud by Kevin Andrew Murphy
The Coming of the Crow by Peadar Ó Guilín
But a Flint Holds Fire by Kevin Andrew Murphy
Needles and Pins by Caroline Spector
Night Orders by Paul Cornell
Police On My Back by Charles Stross
Probationary by Marko Kloos
Twisted Logic by Peter Newman
Twisted Logic: Part 2
The Cracks in the City by Peadar Ó Guilín
Twisted Logic: Part 3
Twisted Logic: Part 4
The Ceremony of Innocence by Melinda M. Snodgrass
How to Turn a Girl to Stone by Emma Newman
The Visitor by Mark Lawrence
Feeding on the Entrails by Peadar Ó Guilín
The Wild Cards Universe
About the Publisher
Copyright © 2018 by George R.R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust
‘A Flint Lies in the Mud’ and ‘But a Flint Holds Fire’ copyright © 2018 by Kevin Andrew Murphy
‘The Coming of the Crow’, ‘The Cracks in the City’ and ‘Feeding on the Entrails’ copyright © 2018 by Peadar Ó Guilín
‘Needles and Pins’ copyright © 2018 by Caroline Spector
‘Night Orders’ copyright © 2018 by Paul Cornell
‘Police On My Back’ copyright © 2018 by Charles Stross
‘Probationary’ copyright © 2018 by Marko Kloos
‘Twisted Logic’ copyright © 2018 by Peter Newman
‘The Ceremony of Innocence’ copyright © 2018 by Lumina Enterprises
‘How to Turn a Girl to Stone’ copyright © 2018 by Emma Newman
‘The Visitor’ copyright © 2018 by Mark Lawrence
A Flint Lies in the Mud
by Kevin Andrew Murphy
September 15th, 1946
‘And then,’ Paddy O’Reilly continued, whisky tumbler upraised, ‘we thundered down the mountainside, clutching the canopy poles of our elephant’s howdah, a hundred angry Kali cultists behind us, waving their knives and their crimson Thuggee sashes!’
‘My darling Timothy Patrick Xavier,’ the beautiful Chandra Ratri intoned in her Bengali lilt, ‘there were no more than fifty,’ she laid a delicate brown hand upon his freckled forearm, ‘and half were from the temple of Ganesh.’ Her fingers squeezed gently but firmly, flashing a diamond-encrusted wedding ring, ‘and most were my relatives and not,’ she shook her head, making the maang tikka pendant on her forehead sway, the pigeon’s blood star ruby at its heart winking above her bindi, ‘cultists,’ she added emphatically, pouting her coral-painted lips up at him from where she sat nestled in the silk damask loveseat.
‘Forgive my Fenian poetics, my lotus,’ Paddy gazed down, emerald eyes pleading, ‘I meant “worshippers”.’ Paddy’s name and colouring might be Irish, but his accent and demeanour were decidedly American.
Chandra turned away, her tawny topaz eyes flashing. ‘I will consider it,’ she pronounced, then took a sip of her cocktail, still unmollified.
Brigadier Kenneth Foxworthy sweltered in the armchair nearer the fireplace, puffing his pipe as he observed the couple with considerable amusement. They had retired to the far end of the Queen’s Salon for post-prandials. Foxworthy wished he could remove his dress jacket, but it would be unbecoming of an officer of His Majesty’s Army. Yet the O’Reillys’ company was worth some discomfort: the Irish American animal trapper and the Bengali princess or priestess or some such were easily the two most engaging dining companions he’d found and a distraction Foxworthy desperately needed.
‘We Bengalis do not forgive so easily,’ Chandra chided Paddy, setting her cocktail on the coffee table. ‘Nor forget. I am the elephant’s daughter.’ She smiled then, flashing teeth white as ivory. ‘I will require a kiss.’
Paddy leaned down, paying his fine honourably, while Foxworthy hid his smile with another sip of excellent single malt. Then suddenly the whisky sloshed out of his glass and into his face as Paddy stumbled forward, barking his shins on the table. Chandra’s highball glass tipped over and shattered, filling the air with the scent of cognac and champagne.
‘Merciful Kali!’ Chandra exclaimed. ‘What was that?’
A purserette ran up and threw a bar towel over the mess. ‘Nothing to worry about,’ she reassured Chandra, ‘just a patch of rough water. Another King’s Ruin?’
‘That, my lotus, was not “rough water”,’ Paddy told his bride as soon as the purserette left. ‘That was trouble.’
Foxworthy agreed: the Queen Mary had slowed, suddenly and precipitously. And if they’d felt the lurch here in first class, the stable centre section, Foxworthy did not like to think how it had been felt in cabin class at the stern, let alone tourist class in the bow.
Foxworthy exchanged a glance with Paddy. The animal trapper nodded curtly, saying, ‘Brigadier, perhaps you might speak with the commodore while I check on my tigers?’
Foxworthy removed his pipe. ‘You have tigers on board?’
‘In the kennels,’ Paddy explained. ‘A pair for the Hyde Park Zoo, but young so I was able to reserve the St Bernard crates. Hyde Park New York, not London.’
‘Ah,’ said Foxworthy, ‘last I saw tigers, I was a boy.’ Well, living tigers. The bombing of Berlin’s Tiergarten had been horrid. ‘But a sound plan.’ Foxworthy rose, looking up at the American. Paddy was a strapping fellow, standing half a head taller than him for all that Foxworthy stood an even six foot one. ‘Reconvene here once we have our intelligence?’
Paddy nodded as Chandra rose. She was no delicate flower either, only appearing dainty in comparison to her husband. ‘I shall remain. Gossip has five hundred tongues and a thousand eyes and the monkeys chatter most when they visit the watering hole.’ She i
‘Very good.’ Foxworthy puffed his pipe and left the honeymooners to their parting kiss while he went to see the commodore.
Foxworthy wondered what the trouble might be. The Atlantic, while not particularly calm now, was not notably rough either. He knew that just four years ago, in ’42, the Queen Mary, in her zigzagging to evade Nazi U-boats, had hit one of her escort vessels, the Curacoa, slicing straight through. Over three hundred died that day, and all the Queen Mary had felt was a bump. He’d read the reports. And once, while transporting over sixteen thousand American soldiers from New York to England, she had been struck by a rogue wave so great she had almost capsized.
But that was almost. If she’d capsized, it would have been the greatest maritime disaster since the Titanic. It wasn’t.
That dubious distinction was one Foxworthy was all too familiar with, to his everlasting shame. It had been only a year ago, in Lübeck. The day before, the British Army had taken the city without resistance. That day, in a show of force, the RAF sank three ships in the harbour.
In between the sinking of the first vessel and the second, one of Lübeck’s citizens somehow made her way through the gauntlet of junior officers to beg him to stop the bombings. Her son, the woman had cried, was aboard the Cap Arcona. Foxworthy rebuffed her pleas: the Cap Arcona had not surrendered, and, like the Queen Mary, she had been a luxury liner. She could hold battalions. If she disgorged them, the battle for Lübeck would be bloody.
The woman swore only her son and a few other soldiers were aboard, but by the time she told him who else it held, it had been too late. He’d watched the bombs drop.
The Cap Arcona was no troop transport but a floating prison, packed with inmates from the concentration camps. The SS Thielbek as well. And the Deutschland was a hospital ship, her funnels painted white, a red cross on the side. Seven thousand innocents perished at British hands that day.
But the war was over, and the Queen Mary was not perilously overloaded with troops, just fully booked for the last days of summer with everyone from American soldiers returning home with British brides to the wealthy resuming their former pastime of taking the ‘shuttle’ to enjoy the splendours of New York. Which meant over two thousand passengers and one thousand crew at risk.
Foxworthy rounded through Piccadilly Circus, the nexus of luxury shops at the heart of first class, and took the stairs up to the bridge. He hoped he was overreacting, but six years of war bred a certain wariness. Men who relaxed ended up dead, often taking many others with them.
When he arrived at the bridge he found the door closed, but activity could be observed through the windows. Commodore Ford was talking animatedly, his great head looking down at one of the junior officers. Foxworthy was unable to get Ford’s attention, or anyone else’s for that matter, but it was bright inside and dark out and they were deeply engaged. He rapped sharply, then waited, puffing his pipe.
It had gone out.
He took out his lighter. It had been his father’s, carried through the trenches of the Great War, adorned with Edward VII on one side, Britannia on the other, the lighter’s sides formed from two pennies from almost half a century ago.
The flint wheel spun expertly beneath Foxworthy’s thumb, steel striking stone, a cascade of sparks catching the wick alight. He clenched the amber bit, puffing until the tobacco caught and he was able to pull in a proper draw, savouring the taste of Ye Olde Signe, his favourite blend, a parting gift from his sweetheart, Alice. He wished he could taste her lips instead: Lady Alice Camden, with her chestnut-brown curls and cornflower-blue eyes, whom he would see again at the end of this deplorable journey, whom he could at last ask to be his wife …
Then another pair of blue eyes caught his and he snapped to attention.
‘Good evening, Brigadier Foxworthy,’ said the crewman. He was young, athletic, of medium height, with a public school accent and a peculiarly rich voice. ‘Lieutenant Waters. I am afraid the bridge is off-limits to passengers at the moment. ‘Commodore Ford—’
‘—can speak for himself,’ said Commodore Ford, patting the young lieutenant on the shoulder. ‘That will be all, Waters.’ Waters made his exit and the commodore took his place, looming in the doorframe. ‘Brigadier Foxworthy, this is not the most opportune—’
‘I’ve noticed,’ Foxworthy said. ‘How may I be of assistance?’
Commodore Ford stared down at him. ‘Help prevent a panic. We don’t want wild rumours circulating.’ The commodore glanced around, then said in a low tone, ‘The port of New York is closed. Reports as to why are confused to say the least. We may need to divert to Baltimore, but for now we’re idling the engines.’
‘Confused in what way?’
‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.’ He waved a large hand as if he were shooing invisible flies. ‘Reports of a bomb but then that the dropping of the bomb had been prevented. A small aircraft colliding with a weather balloon. And some mention of Jetboy.’
‘Robert Tomlinson?’ Foxworthy asked. ‘The boy pilot? Wasn’t he found last month on a desert isle having tea with Amelia Earhart?’
‘I hadn’t heard about Earhart.’
‘It was in the Daily Mail so take that with a grain of salt.’
The commodore rubbed his temple. ‘I feel positively brined at the moment.’
Foxworthy took a puff on his pipe, the meerschaum carved with the face of Charlemagne or some other ancient king (though it might be Hades for all he knew). ‘So what should we let people know?’
‘Just say that there’s a spot of trouble with the propellers. Nothing to worry about, just disengaging the engines while we run some tests. Gives us time to sort out the radio reports.’
‘We’ll get things sorted out straight away, I have no doubt. I appreciate your discretion, Foxworthy. And please, be my guest for tea tomorrow at the Veranda Grill. You and the charming Mr and Mrs O’Reilly.’
‘I would be honoured.’ Foxworthy gave a small salute.
‘Thank you, Brigadier.’ Ford shut the door and went back to talking with the bridge crew. From the quantity of gold braid present, Foxworthy could see that he had assembled his entire staff: the staff captain, the chief officer, the chief engineer and two more engineers below him, the purser, the chief steward, even the ship’s doctor and surgeon.
Back in the Queen’s Salon, the band was playing ‘Begin the Beguine’. Purserettes circulated with trays of canapés, oysters à la Russe and the like. Foxworthy accepted one, ordered a fresh Scotch, and reclaimed his former seat by the fireplace, below the huge gesso frieze over the mantel. It depicted two unicorns engaged in mortal combat, one adorned with gold leaf, the other with bright silver, done in the deco style still popular when the Queen Mary had first been launched ten years ago.
He did not see Paddy, but spied Chandra, chatting with a bevy of society ladies before excusing herself and retaking her place on the loveseat. ‘That was very interesting,’ she remarked. ‘One of them overheard the maids saying some criminal had released a gas over Manhattan that’s causing mass hallucinations!’
‘How would a maid know that?’
‘Her husband works in the radio room.’
‘Hallucinogenic gas?’ Foxworthy shook his head. Probably something cooked up by IG Farben. He imagined Nazi sleeper agents waking around the globe, committing unthinkable acts to avenge the loss of their Führer.
Chandra sipped another King’s Ruin. ‘Did you learn anything from the commodore?’
‘Nothing so lurid,’ Foxworthy admitted honestly, ‘but he asked me to quell any wild rumours to prevent panic.’
Chandra nodded. ‘Hallucinations are how rakshasas play their tricks.’
‘Rakshasas?’ Foxworthy repeated.
‘Tiger demons,’ Chandra explained. ‘They weave their deceptions from maya, the flames of illusion.’
‘Ah.’ Foxworthy sipped his Scotch
Three million. It was not six million, but there was a certain level of atrocity that the human intellect might comprehend, but the heart never could. It just became meaningless rows of figures, beads clicking on Death’s black abacus, the brutal calculus of war.
‘Did the famine completely pass you by?’ Foxworthy asked bluntly, for there was no delicate way to put it.
‘Of course not.’ Chandra’s topaz eyes turned sad. ‘But famine is no stranger to Bengal. One wishes to speak of babies born, not children buried, weddings, not funerals. I am a priestess of Kali, and I have seen more than my share of death.’ She smiled defiantly and took a sip of her cocktail. ‘My father thought Paddy was a rakshasa, with his tall tales and flaming hair, but I do not care if he is. Not all rakshasas are wicked, not all lies are unjust, and Paddy smuggled rice upriver to our village, saving it.’ She took another sip. ‘We had a fabulous wedding feast.’
‘And then?’ Foxworthy asked.
‘Oh, it is much as he told you.’
‘Your elephant went storming down the mountain pursued by the combined worshippers of the temples of Kali and Ganesh, who are also Paddy’s in-laws?’
‘I am a high priestess, forbidden to leave the temple complex. I was abducted like Sita.’
‘That would be sacrilege.’ Chandra glanced around, taking a nervous sip of her cocktail. ‘I hope Paddy is not having trouble with the tigers …’ Her tawny eyes turned to Foxworthy, settling on the Crown and Bath stars on his epaulette as she raised a raven eyebrow. ‘So, what takes you to America, Brigadier Foxworthy?’
Foxworthy exhaled smoke, felt it burning against the Scotch, and rasped, ‘Just meeting some colleagues in Washington.’ He sighed. ‘Plus I promised myself I would see New York, maybe find a betrothal gift for Alice, my intended. She’s in London.’
Knaves Over Queens by George R. R. Martin / Fantasy / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes