Knaves over queens, p.4
Knaves Over Queens, p.4Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
He lifted the Queen Mary, like a child picking up a large toy boat, and stepped over the lock to the main pool of the West India Docks, waded a few paces as he drew in more water, growing even larger, then stepped over the Marsh Wall and the sluice gate shattered in the Blitz, stepping into the upper elbow of the Millwall Outer Dock. As if he were picking his way through tidepools, he manoeuvred carefully to the larger lower elbow, now half-drained, and sat down in the rectangular pool as if it were a royal bath, holding the Queen Mary steady as if it were his favourite bath-toy. He glanced over his shoulder to the west, to where the old channel to the Thames had been filled in twenty years ago, the ground now pocked with bomb craters. He gave a jerk of his head and the waters of the Thames flooded over the lip, refilling the pool around them. Lieutenant Waters leaned back, the cataract of water erasing the war’s scars, his whiskers flowing with the incoming tide. His left hand pushed the Queen Mary drifting gently towards the South Dock. Then he waved and slid into the pool, disappearing into the water he was.
A great cheer came from the port bow. Foxworthy followed as everyone rushed there, seeing a crowd of dockers, waving and tossing their hats in the air, then one of them taking to the air himself, screaming as he drifted away on a light southerly breeze like a child’s lost balloon. Another screamed, sinking into the dock as if the wood were quicksand, then a third fell forward, his head breaking off, bowling across the planks as it changed into a coconut and dropped into the water, more coconuts rolling out of his clothes.
The remaining dockers ran away, most still on two legs.
Foxworthy dozed unpleasantly, but that was nothing compared to the past week: the Queen Mary had docked, the crew lifted down by Lookout to secure her anchor chains, but they had remained for quarantine, especially once Jillian had restored her radio repairs and given the authorities a load of codswallop about fears of a hull breach which is why they had come to London rather than anchoring off Southampton.
That a thirteen-year-old girl raised by theatricals could lie like an army requisitions officer should not have come as a surprise.
Foxworthy affirmed Jillian’s false story, then left it to her and Paddy, equally skilled in confabulation, since the radio room was cramped for his new stature and his whispery voice made him hard to understand. He’d then gone outside to smoke, one of the few things that still gave him pleasure or, it seemed, nourishment.
Over that week, he’d sneaked a few nips of Scotch and swallowed a shot glass, but even once he’d succumbed to his monstrous appetites for alcohol and glassware, it was like trying to survive on sugar water and crisps. The contents of the on-board tobacconist only sustained him by chain-smoking.
Other virus victims were starving as well. Lady Arkwright could pretend her tastes had not changed while letting her lei of ravenous ermines gorge themselves on steak tartare, but others were not so fortunate. Foxworthy saw a woman with flowers rooted in her hair swear she would die if she could not go to Kew Gardens. They had prevented her, then watched as she fainted, withering like a cut tulip in the sun.
More victims joined them – dockers they’d infected and soldiers who’d strayed too close to the quarantined Isle of Dogs. Others came from across the city, sent with food, medicine, and promises that doctors would come once they knew how to sanitize the alien spores.
Foxworthy had retired early, still hungry, but mainly cold. He had drifted into a dreamless sleep, but he was awake now.
He heard voices somewhere, one of them a woman’s, familiar. Alice? No, not Alice. He tried to open his eyes, but could only force them open the barest crack, seeing light and then a skeleton. ‘What fresh Hell can this be?’ he tried to say, but couldn’t. He realized his jaw was numb, his arms as well, all of him save the tips of his ears and his eyes, numb as when he was a lad and nearly froze in the blizzard of ’33, the winter his father had died.
Foxworthy then realized that while he couldn’t feel his feet he was standing up, as was the skeleton opposite him. A skeleton only a couple of inches shorter. At first he took it for another victim of the virus, until he saw a sign in eighteenth-century lettering:
Charles Byrne 7ˊ7˝
‘The Irish Giant’
Behind the giant’s skull was a railing displaying a collection of horns and antlers, and beyond that was the walkway of a gallery lined with bookshelves containing volumes going back centuries.
Foxworthy shifted his gaze to the left, seeing the head of some long-necked dinosaur, then glanced right, at a Doric column on top of which sat the silvered form of Francis Fisher the younger, still in his army uniform, forever frozen with his hand outstretched. He looked more like a beatific icon of St Simeon Stylites, reaching out in benediction, than a young Tommy who’d been unfortunate enough to touch a silver tray just after he’d inhaled an alien virus.
Beyond Francis stood another column topped by a pyramid of coconuts and a small potted palm and beyond that hung a giant speckled egg sitting in a chandelier ring like an enormous egg-cup, suspended like the roc egg in the palace dome in Aladdin. It shone, a dozen lamps trained on it, not just illumination but incubators.
It was the heat from the lamps that had woken him, Foxworthy realized, the warm air circulating in the upper level of the museum, liquefying the bitumen that served as his blood, but only in the top of his head. He was like a stove with the ashes banked, perhaps a few smouldering embers left within him, but not enough fuel for a fire. Pipe smoke and Scotch were not enough to sustain him.
He also realized where he was: the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, the biggest collection of freaks and oddities in London, at least dead ones.
‘I’m not dead!’ he tried to yell, but nothing came out. ‘I’m still alive!’ Again, no words came out of his mouth, not even the faint crackling sound his voice had become, the whisper of flames in a furnace. ‘Please, somebody, hear me!’
Somebody did. The familiar voice sounded close, somewhere beneath the plinth he must be standing on … and it sounded not like just any woman’s voice, but his mother’s. ‘Lord Webb-Johnson, I don’t care if your man from Pompeii was shattered during the Blitz,’ Foxworthy heard his mother say, ‘you’re not exhibiting my Kenneth as a statue – and naked no less!’
‘Mother, I’m here!’ he tried to call, but again, no words emerged.
‘Please, Mrs Foxworthy, think of it this way,’ said a cultured man’s voice. ‘We are a research institution, yes, but we also subsist on donations from the public, including medical oddities. Your Kenneth is gone, but the wild card virus has left behind a very grand statue. Consider it a monument to him. It’s what he would have wanted.’
‘I’m alive and I don’t want it, you bloody toff!’ Foxworthy screamed in his head.
‘I’m a better judge of what my son would want than you,’ his mother said.
‘Your son wanted to save lives,’ the lord pleaded, ‘and so do we!’
‘How?’ his mother asked. ‘You declared him dead!’
‘By every objective medical standard, yes. He has no heartbeat, no pulse, no brain activity – but this wild card virus is entirely new territory!’
‘I live in the old territory. The real world, not some castle in the air! I trust you will see things my way and release my Kenneth’s body to me so I may take him back to Aldworth to be buried beside his father.’
‘No, mother! No!’ Foxworthy tried to yell. ‘I’m alive! I’m still alive!’
‘As you wish, Mrs Foxworthy,’ said Lord Webb-Johnson, admitting defeat.
The last thing Foxworthy recalled was losing consciousness in the back of a cold lorry. He awoke to a drop of sweet fire on his tongue, trickling down the back of his throat. His vision swam, then resolved itself to show him a familiar freckled face. ‘Just a drop of poteen,’ said Paddy. ‘Brought it for the wake, but saved you a taste.’
‘More,’ Foxworthy croaked weakly. ‘More …’ But no sound came out of his lips.
‘I can stand,’ Chandra told him. ‘It would pain me more to not say goodbye.’ Her baby elephant foot touched Foxworthy’s cheek. ‘Paddy is taking me back to Bengal, but I am the elephant’s daughter and I shall never forget you. Sleep well.’
His mother smiled down at him next. ‘My Kenneth,’ she said sadly. ‘My brave boy.’ Tears rolled down her cheeks. ‘When you returned from the war, I thought you were safe. A mother shouldn’t have to bury a son.’
‘I’m alive,’ he tried to say, but couldn’t. ‘I’m still here.’
She smiled then, as if she had heard, and his stone heart leapt, but then she said, ‘King George knighted you. Star of India and the George Cross too. I couldn’t be prouder. But I don’t know what I’ll do without you …’
‘I’m not gone!’ he tried to scream. ‘Get Paddy to give me more of that damned whisky!’
His mother left, and after the glittering of the sun, he saw Alice standing over him, a vision of loveliness and grief, a veil over her cornflower-blue eyes. She caught her breath, covering her barberry-bright lips with her glove. ‘Oh, Kenneth, what did those monsters do to you?’ She leaned down, whispering, ‘You never asked me, but I know you wanted to. I thought you were going to when you came back. But I wanted you to know, I would have said yes.’ She bit her lip, her lipstick smearing as her tears rolled down. ‘Even like this, I would have said yes.’ She kissed his cold stone lips. ‘I love you, Kenny. Goodbye.’
Alice stepped away, and after a last glimpse of sunlight, the coffin lid was shut. Not even the hellish light from his eyes illuminated the darkness. The fire in his heart was extinguished.
He felt the coffin lurch and then lower, heard the mumbled prayers which could only have ended in ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
He heard the earth hitting the coffin lid.
The Coming of the Crow
by Peadar Ó Guilín
Daddy didn’t like it when Anya looked inside the puppies. He stood at the door of the shed, eyes wide, mouth open as though to shout or weep.
‘I can stitch them back together,’ she offered.
It wasn’t enough, and never could be, because Daddy … Daddy had moods. The one called ‘sadness’ made his eyes glisten. It set him to drinking from the bottle under the stairs and Anya’s life became difficult for days on end. All that fuss to bring him around again! Fighting to make sure he didn’t lose his job for drunkenness. And now, the loss of some troublesome pets had brought him down again.
She distracted him for a while with chess, allowing him to win, although she kept the game close enough that he muttered, amazed, ‘You’ll be thrashing me soon and you’re only twelve! Your mam would have been so proud.’
And later, when he was changing her bandages, sopping up the blood, removing scraps of rotting skin from her face or inside her elbows, Anya used her brave voice to tell him, ‘Oh no, Daddy, it doesn’t hurt me at all. Will you read me a story?’
‘Of course, my love! My poor pet. Of course!’
The two of them had a big house all to themselves: a mould-spotted warren with rattling sash windows that sucked in every draught from across the bog and the sea beyond. Daddy’s breath clouded the air when he read to her by the light of a gas lamp. Anya liked the old legends best, for what better way was there to plumb the mystery of emotions? Of fury so strong it warped a hero’s body? Of a love deep enough to kill Deirdre stone dead? Of Gráinne’s lust, and Diarmuid’s failure to suppress his?
She wondered if she would ever feel such things herself; if she would have ‘moods’ that would control her and allow her to be controlled by others.
Who am I? she often wondered. What am I? She asked those questions every day. Perhaps adolescence would provide the answers, although the chances were her condition would kill her first. How unsatisfactory to die before finding out.
On the day after the puppies were buried, Daddy left to go teaching with the usual warning: ‘Stay in the house, my love. Nobody is to see you, remember that. I couldn’t bear it if they took you from me. Promise you’ll be good?’
‘I will, Daddy.’ She widened her eyes to display sincerity. He wanted to believe her, she thought. Yet, as she watched him from her bedroom window, he paused several times on the lane, as though uncertain. Then, he straightened and walked out onto the road, scattering a flock of crows along the way.
She had seen this happen a hundred times and yet today something about the birds’ behaviour caught her attention. Chickens ran from people. She knew this from personal experience, but for some reason, she had thought crows were different. Why should they be? And why should she think so?
She crawled over her bed to the flaking window. Daddy believed her too fragile to open it, yet when she pulled, all that happened was that skin broke under her bandages, leaking blood. She slipped on the way out, however, landing harder than she meant to. The impact felt like metal spikes hammering into her joints. It was more than the diseased frame of a twelve-year-old child could handle, and for a moment, eyes fluttering, she had one of her visions.
She found herself hovering high over the thirsty bog, counting the missing tiles on the roof below. But the pain eased soon enough, returning Anya to herself, so that she could take stock of the day.
Everywhere lay rock and brown bog, with hard-won pastures rising above the surface. Off to her right, a cluster of famine ruins hid her from the road. Seán Brian Hiúdaí had been using the stones bit by bit to wall his barren fields. There was no sign of him today, however, and she was safe to proceed.
The crows perched on wall and bush and along the top of the shed. They cawed and pecked or nibbled at their own feathers, but as she approached all preening came to an end and they turned to watch her, in that curious way birds have, from one side of their heads. Not one of them flew off or backed away.
‘Is it that ye can’t smell me with the bandages?’ she asked them. Her whole body was covered, after all, other than her sensory organs.
The wind ruffled their feathers and waved the bog cotton growing behind the shed. Two of the birds stood on one of Seán Brian Hiúdaí’s chest-high walls. Anya stepped slowly towards them and waved her hand, watching as their heads bobbed to follow the path of her fingers. She picked up the nearest one. It did not tremble as the puppies had done, or the chickens before that. And when she wrapped its warm body in both bandaged hands and twisted sharply, the little crack failed to drive the others away.
‘Come here,’ she said. And they did, they all did, an entire flock descending to form a carpet of black feathers that remained calm, no matter what she did to them, until at last she said, ‘Leave me,’ at which point the survivors scattered.
She hid the crows she had killed lest they cause another mood in Daddy. Then, she experimented further, calling out to a nearby robin. It ignored her. As did starlings, wrens, and cows. She was considering sneaking over to find Old Brídín’s donkey when she realized something was wrong. A stillness that shouldn’t be there.
‘Well, well,’ came a man’s deep voice. ‘It’s all true then.’
A stranger stood right behind her. How did he move so silently? He was big too, her face was level with his sternum, and when she looked up and up again, she saw a wide, snaggly smile over a square, dimpled chin.
Anya found herself leaning back against the wall, feeling the sharp angles there sawing at her bandaged skin. Her head spun as it did when the pain became too much, but mere pain couldn’t make her heart beat so fast, or warm the skin of her ears. Was this a ‘mood’ at last? Love, maybe? Lust? She was the proper age, after all.
‘Don’t you recognize your own uncle, girl? I’m Séamus.’
Ah. The youngest of Daddy’s brothers. She saw the nose now, the sharp beak they all shared.
‘I know you’re surprised, girl. We’re not expected.’ He gri
‘You all right, Eoin?’
‘He doesn’t speak Irish, I’m afraid, girl. How’s your English?’
He paused. ‘Can you speak at all? By God, you got a bad dose, didn’t you, you poor thing?’
He grinned, dimpling his cheeks. ‘Eoin, this is Anya.’
The boy smiled, either as a signal of happiness or to offer alliance, Anya couldn’t tell. Having met several doctors and a priest, she had learned to recognize ‘disgust’, but she saw no trace of it in the boy’s face.
‘Good lad,’ Séamus said. He ruffled the blond curls as though he couldn’t help himself, as though Eoin were a favourite puppy, and at that precise moment, Anya realized she had never looked inside a human before. Would there be a ‘seat of emotions’ in the brain? Would it tell her, at last, who she was? What she was?
But there was no time for that. Séamus pulled both of the children with him up the lane until they reached the front door. She struggled to keep up, with her sore joints and the old woman’s curve in her spine. Her condition had been growing worse. It would kill her soon, she felt sure.
‘Keeps the house locked up, I see,’ said Séamus. ‘Sensible man, my big brother.’ He let go their hands and without pausing for even a second, he walloped the door with his mighty shoulder. Once, twice. Splinters fell. And then, with a grunt, he hit it a third time to knock it right off its hinges. ‘Let’s all have a cup of tea while we’re waiting.’ But he paused beside the stove to wipe dust from the photograph on the wall behind it.
Knaves Over Queens by George R. R. Martin / Fantasy / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes