Knaves over queens, p.2
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.2

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  ‘Were you raised in London?’ asked Chandra.

  ‘No, Aldworth. Tiny village in Berkshire. Doubt you’ve heard of it. Nothing noteworthy, but for a fair quantity of elf shot. Legend says it was shot by the pixies. But in truth, it’s just Neolithic flint arrowheads. Had quite a collection as a boy.’ He gave Chandra a wry smile. ‘Never met an elf, though. Though there is a statue of a dwarf at the church. And of course the giants.’

  ‘Real giants? Paddy hopes to catch a yeti one day, but Aldworth has real giants?’

  ‘In the fourteenth century. Now they’re all stone like the dwarf.’

  ‘Like Scandinavian trolls?’ asked Chandra. ‘Did they come with the Vikings?’

  ‘Close,’ Foxworthy laughed, ‘the De la Beche family came with the Normans. Philip was seven feet tall and served as valet to Edward II along with a dwarf. Their statues are in the church, along with the stone effigies of Philip’s giant sons, each of them bigger than the last: John Long, John Strong, John Never Afraid, and John Ever Afraid, the biggest of them all.’

  ‘Why was he afraid if he was so big?’

  ‘Because,’ Foxworthy related softly, ‘it costs a lot to feed and clothe a giant, so he made a deal with the Devil for worldly wealth, with a stipulation in his contract that when he was laid to rest, the Devil could come for his soul, whether he was laid inside a church or out.’ Foxworthy blew a smoke ring. ‘So John Ever Afraid arranged to be buried in the wall of the church.’ He blew another smoke ring. ‘But in Cromwell’s time, some Roundheads decided the Aldworth Giants were pagan idols so smashed them all – except for John Ever Afraid, who they took as a trophy to Cromwell himself. When they stopped to rest and set the statue down, the Devil appeared, for the wording of John’s contract had finally been fulfilled. He’d been laid to rest outside a church. The Devil took John Ever Afraid to Hell – and the Roundheads with him!’

  ‘Sláinte!’ roared a voice behind him. ‘Another round for the shanachie!’ Paddy joined Chandra on the loveseat, giving her a kiss. ‘So, what’s the news?’

  Chandra shared the fruit of the gossip tree, then Foxworthy related what he’d been told by Commodore Ford, both the official story and the few details he’d been allowed.

  ‘Jetboy?’ Paddy guffawed. ‘Oh, that’s rich. Heard that too, down by the engine room. This poor ugly mug named Harry said he’d heard whispers about a plague that turns people into monsters. Germ warfare from the Nazis.’

  The Veranda Grill was the Queen Mary’s most exclusive club, situated in the stern on the sun deck – usually only open to first-class passengers with a months-long waiting list, but this day was unscheduled and Commodore Ford could admit whomever he liked. Today his guests included Foxworthy, Paddy and Chandra, and the Fisher family of the Fisher Family Theatricals, hailing from Cheapside and consisting of Francis Fisher, his wife, Edwina, and seven children, ranging from the younger Francis, the eldest at twenty-four, to Bertram, the youngest, at ten. In between were Muriel, Alfred, Colin, Jillian, and Robert.

  A grand table had been set up before a colourful mural depicting circus performers: dancers and acrobats, harlequins and clowns, an animal tamer with a tiger and a black panther jumping through his hoop, a green-faced witch with her pointed hat and wand and a Caribbean sorceress tossing a cockerel into the air, a grey-faced fakir and a pantomime horse, an African serpent charmer dancing with her boa, a statuesque ringmistress marching in high-heeled boots bearing a beadle’s ceremonial staff as her swagger stick, and Marie Antoinette herself fluttering an ostrich-plume fan, a mouse peeping out of one side of her wig.

  The Fisher family had taken to this naturally, dressed in their theatrical finest, with Chandra and Paddy seated at the far end of the table near the animal trainer and his leaping leopard, while Foxworthy was seated beside Ford at the head of the table near Marie Antoinette, next to Mr and Mrs Fisher, and opposite Lady Ermengarde Arkwright, the dowager of something or other. She was old enough to dictate her own fashion, wearing one of those stoles so popular in the twenties composed of at least a dozen ermines, heads, tails, and all, their beady little eyes replaced with beads of jet.

  It was a fine day, broken only by a transitory patter of sea mist or light rain from a passing cloud, but Commodore Ford looked anything but happy. ‘Brigadier, if you thought last night was madness, you would not believe the insanity coming over the radio today,’ he confided to Foxworthy in a hoarse whisper as they were being seated.

  ‘So what are you going to do?’

  ‘I’ve informed the crew, of course. We don’t need to tell the passengers anything other than it’s a spot of engine trouble. Extra caviar and champagne does wonders, and for those who find those insufficient, discounts on future trips. But we’ll still need to keep pootling about until the New Yorkers come to their senses and open the port.’

  Lady Arkwright, oblivious to the captain’s mood, was nattering on to Chandra, Paddy, and the Fishers. ‘I was on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary, you know. Hard to get tickets, but you can always weasel something if you know the right people. And oh, don’t those look lovely!’ her ladyship exclaimed, as the waiter set an ornate silver epergne on the table, its trays laden with strawberries, cream puffs, jam tarts and fairy trifles topped with gooseberries.

  Mrs Fisher, seated beside him, screamed.

  ‘Francis!’ she cried. ‘Francis!’ Referring not to her husband, but her son. Young Francis Fisher was dressed in his army uniform, a proud young Tommy just returned from the war, and had been in the action of reaching for one of the trifles on the epergne when his hand touched the silver. That hand was now silver as well, shining like a mailed gauntlet. The Brigadier thought for a moment that the man had suffered an injury during the war and was using a costly prosthetic, when he looked at Francis’s face and saw that his face was silver too, every eyelash and feather of hair perfectly sculpted, like the Silver Swan of Barnard Castle. But unlike the famous automaton, Francis sat frozen and unmoving, lifeless as a silver statue.

  Then Lady Arkwright screamed as well, her false teeth falling from her mouth, forced out by the sharp fangs of a mustelid. Her eyes turned jet black and the wreath of dead winter weasels about her throat came to life, screaming as one, waving their tiny claws as they writhed to escape but could not, fused to her like the tangled tails of a rat king or, perhaps, ermine queen, savaging her ladyship’s own clawed hands as she reached up to touch them.

  Mrs Fisher fainted dead away or fell dead, Foxworthy was not sure which, slumping to the floor, while her husband began to choke, gooseberry-green froth bubbling from his mouth. The froth coming from Commodore Ford’s mouth, however, was red, the colour of blood that Foxworthy was all too familiar with. Then blood began to issue from his ears and his eyes, pouring from his nose.

  The waiter standing nearby, poised in shock with a jug of iced tea in one hand, suddenly turned as thin and translucent as a saint’s icon from a stained glass window, then fell backwards and shattered, the tinkling of broken glass muffled by a sound in the distance like a bomb going off. Then a great wall of water slammed into the restaurant, gushing through the windows and doors as the customers continued to transform and die, to writhe and change, or stand or sit stricken with horror, still human for the moment.

  The wave subsided, only the edge having reached the table at the back of the restaurant, and Foxworthy stood up as Mr Fisher dissolved into green sludge stinking with the anise reek of absinthe. Paddy was standing and Chandra as well, staring at the horror that had replaced Robert Fisher. The thing still wore the tatters of the boy’s clothes, but his body had become that of an ape with a dozen arms and a gorilla’s face. Hairy tarantulas with twice as many legs as they should have began crawling from the gorilla-shaped husk.

  Of the remaining children, Jillian still sat in her chair, her mouth agape with horror, while little Bertram had fallen dead like his mother. Muriel lay on the floor, twitching and writhing, caught in the throes of death or transformation, while Alfred and
Colin, one fair, the other dark, had drawn together in fright, fused into one being, but not one that could live.

  Chandra held up her hand, blood pouring from her finger around her wedding band as she cried, ‘Aiyee! It is the curse of Kali!’ But it seemed, in fact, the curse of Ganesh, for her delicate hands were puffing up and swelling, turning grey and growing larger until they resembled the stumpy legs of a baby elephant, the left one cruelly scarred and weeping from where her wedding band remained embedded. Her face retained some semblance of its former self, but the whole of it was covered with rough grey hide, the setting of her maang tikka pendant fused with her flesh, its ruby star winking on her forehead.

  Paddy struggled to support her as she wept with pain. He remained unchanged, as did Jillian. ‘Help your family,’ Foxworthy ordered her. She was only thirteen and a girl, but there’d been younger soldiers before, that damnable Jetboy at twelve, and Jillian Fisher had lived through the Blitz. ‘Remain here. I’m going to check outside.’

  Outside, chaos reigned. A puddle of blood slicked the deck, spilling from a skeleton in a woman’s coat and mixing with seawater. People lay writhing and contorting into things that were not people or not alive and mainly both, twisted corpses strewn everywhere, but Foxworthy’s attention was drawn to the starboard bow where those passengers and crewmen who remained alive and human, for the moment, had gathered.

  The rogue wave that had slammed into the Veranda Grill had swept many overboard, not all of them dead or dying of whatever evil had overtaken the Queen Mary, but all of them surely drowning in the Atlantic if they did not get aid. All except one, for the wave was still there, but frozen like aspic or some fanciful moulded jelly as big as an iceberg and shaped like the head of Neptune, his kingly beard trailing off into streamers of froth and foam, his eyes twin vortices of phosphorescent sea fire.

  Yet in the blue of those giant watery eyes, Foxworthy thought he recognized the young officer he’d encountered on the bridge the night before, Lieutenant Waters. As King Neptune gazed down upon the human and inhuman flotsam he’d created, two smaller waves, their crests curling like fingertips, swept passengers and corpses back towards the ship.

  Both passengers and crew were tossing lifebelts over the side, lowering lifeboats, some dying as they did so, but apart from the nightmare transformations, it was a dance Foxworthy knew from the battlefield. Blind panic transmuted to the stone-cold certainty of doing what needed to be done. ‘Someone get a rope!’ Foxworthy cried, but the seas were too rough, the passengers slamming fatally against the side of the ship except when Neptune or Waters, or whomever the watery monster was, pushed people away.

  Then a miracle occurred.

  A blond crewman stood at the railing, stretching his arm out and crying vainly for some figure floating towards the horizon. ‘James!’ he cried and ‘James!’ again and a third time ‘James!’ But then his arms stretched out, further and further, extending like twin telescopes until his hands reached his friend, the farthest of those being swept out to sea, and grabbed the drowning man by the collar as he bobbed and gasped for air.

  The crewman pulled back, his torso telescoping as well, spiring taller and taller like a ship’s mast until it towered over the smokestacks of the Queen Mary herself, his back braced against the wall of the promenade, his feet against the railing, as he hauled the drowning man onto the deck. James coughed up water, but did so quickly, seeing as he had three heads. But he was alive, which was what counted, and his saviour, the telescoping crewman, had done his duty and gone on to pluck others from the waves.

  Foxworthy found his hands drawing out his pipe on habit, for he felt a desperate craving for a smoke, to calm his nerves and allow him to think. The danger looked ever so slightly more under control, but the madness still unexplained, and at this point he didn’t care if the face on his pipe were Hades. He shoved the king’s crown full of tobacco, and then, with trembling hands, took out his father’s lighter. His fingers, usually so adept, fumbled at the flint wheel, and his father’s lighter, carried through two wars, slipped from his fingers and skittered across the deck, tails up, Britannia with her trident and shield spinning anticlockwise, an ill omen if ever there was one, then disappeared over the railing.

  Foxworthy almost swore, but a gentleman never swore, especially a middle-class boy desperately working for promotion. Nor did one flash a two-finger salute, no matter how much he might like. And so he did as he had trained himself to do, holding his wilful fingertips back with his thumbnail, forcing his fury and rage, his hurt and horror, into a painful but secret gesture of regret and consternation.

  There came a snap! as his rebellious fingers broke free.

  It stung and it felt as if he’d cracked his thumbnail, but then he looked. His nail had become as grey as the flints he’d hunted as a boy, his thumb as well, and from the tip, in the place of blood, oozed a tarry black substance like bitumen. But it was burning, with a literal flame. And Foxworthy still desperately wanted that smoke.

  Not questioning the nightmare logic of it all, he held his thumb to his pipe, drawing the flame until the tobacco caught, then sucking in. He was pulling too fast, the smoke scorching hot, but the fire soothed his lungs and it was, in fact, what he needed. Foxworthy examined his thumb, which was still burning like an oil lamp. He snuffed it out against his jacket. It extinguished like any ordinary flame, leaving a scorch on the wool, but he was more concerned for his thumb. The bituminous blood scabbed over, hard and black on the grey stone, but though the greyness had spread down his thumb and was progressing to his palm, his thumb was still flexible.

  He turned to the three-headed crewman who had got to his feet and was exchanging glances with himself in a shell-shocked daze. ‘You, sailor,’ he barked, ‘James, is it?’

  There was an instinctive posture to a trained military man when he heard a commanding officer’s voice, no matter the branch of service. ‘Yes, sir!’ the three-headed man cried from all three of his mouths, saluting, his hand only raised to his rightmost head upon his ridiculously broad shoulders, his uniform rent asunder.

  ‘I’m a brigadier in His Majesty’s Army, and I’m taking this as an act of war and declaring martial law. So, name and rank?’

  ‘Seaman Gully, sir!’

  ‘Commodore Ford is dead. Who is the next ranking officer?’

  James Gully’s heads swivelled, looking in all directions. ‘Maybe Eddy?’ said the leftmost, pointing out to the watery bulk of Neptune. ‘Lieutenant Waters,’ the right corrected him. Then the middle head, still wearing his sailor’s cap with the CUNARD band, said, ‘All the officers save the Commodore were on the bridge, sir. We were all swept overboard.’

  ‘Then barring any new information to the contrary, I’m declaring myself captain of this vessel. Is anyone manning the bridge?’

  All three of Gully’s heads looked in unison, then all of them shook. ‘No, sir. But Commodore Ford set us on autopilot. Our course is set on a very slow circle in order to conserve fuel.’

  ‘We’ll need to loop back faster to sweep for survivors.’

  ‘Should we radio for assistance?’ asked Gully’s left head.

  ‘Good God, man, no!’ Foxworthy cried. ‘I don’t know whether this was caused by Nazi gas, an alien plague, or Madame Blavatsky going to Atlantis to reopen Pandora’s box with the Thule Society, but we dare not expose other ships. Just go find any men fit to helm the bridge, and when you have enough, loop back.’

  ‘Aye aye, Captain …’ the three-headed man trailed off, staring.

  ‘What is it?’ Foxworthy had seen soldiers tongue-tied with shock before, but never one with three tongues who still couldn’t spit out what he was trying to say. ‘Out with it, man!’ Foxworthy snapped his fingers impatiently then watched as sparks flew and a chip of stone broke off his thumb, flying off like a flake of Neolithic elf shot, but burning with fire as it lodged itself in the woodwork five feet away.

  He then saw what all three of James’s heads were staring at: his w
hole hand had turned to stone, not just his thumb, like a sculpture expertly flaked from flint, still betraying the sharp edges and tiny traces and ripples left by flint knapping. ‘It’s flint …’ Foxworthy realized.

  ‘Aye aye, Captain Flint!’

  Foxworthy saw no reason to correct the three-headed sailor. ‘To your work, seaman,’ he whispered and stalked off, hoping Paddy was still alive. The animal trapper was a resourceful fellow and more importantly, not yet dead.

  Paddy was not in the Veranda Grill, so Foxworthy headed for the purser’s desk. On the carpet before it lay a gigantic speckled egg, big enough to hold a man. The desk itself lay abandoned save for the corpses of bellboys and one thing that resembled an enormous nudibranch, its colourful frills and tentacles lying limp, its mouth gasping where it had struggled out of the skirt and stockings of a purserette’s uniform. ‘I’m sorry,’ Foxworthy told her softly, but when the thing extended a plaintive but poisonous-looking fluorescent-orange-spotted violet tentacle, he snatched the guest book and retreated.

  Paddy and Chandra had taken the Windsor Suite. Foxworthy’s new hand at least worked for knocking. Paddy opened the door, looking sick with worry but still human.

  Foxworthy held up his hand. ‘Yes, it’s happening to me too.’

  Chandra lay on the bed. Her shapely brown feet that only yesterday had been learning the foxtrot, today were the ungainly grey feet of an elephant. ‘The curse of Ganesh has touched you as well …’ she sobbed.

  ‘Yes,’ Foxworthy agreed, ‘but my hand is not elephant hide but flint.’

  ‘Then it must be the curse of Kali.’ She held up her left arm with its elephant foot, the wound weeping from where her wedding band had cut through warped flesh and bone. ‘The Divine Mother’s wrath has cursed New York and now struck us here!’

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