Knaves over queens, p.40
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.40
 

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

  ‘Not pretty enough to be a toy,’ the stranger called over his shoulder to the young man who had made the suggestion. The hand stroked down Noel’s cheek. Noel resisted the impulse to bite it. ‘But definitely a baby. Not a hair on his chin. How old are you?’ Like every other person who had spoken this boy had the fruity tones of a member of the British upper class.

  Noel considered affecting a working-class accent, but knew he wouldn’t be able to maintain it. He had no choice but to accept and affirm his kinship with these future masters of the universe. ‘Sixteen,’ he said.

  Another boy, stocky, blond with a broken nose, approached. ‘Any member has to be a student.’

  ‘He is,’ Siraj said, before Noel could answer.

  ‘Oh, God, he’s one of those,’ the tall boy said, but there was the tremor of laughter in his voice. ‘So, boy genius rather than boy toy.’ He turned to Siraj. ‘Are you proposing him for membership?’

  ‘I am.’

  ‘Well, we must think of an appropriate initiation for our boy genius. Mere alcohol poisoning seems too ordinary for such an extraordinary applicant. I’m James, by the way, James Nelson.’

  ‘Noel Matthews.’ They shook hands.

  ‘That disgusting pervert,’ James pointed at the young man who had suggested he might be a boy toy, ‘is Ralph Sessions. Over there is Geoffrey Palance, Timothy Radcliff …’ The introductions continued. Noel committed the faces and names to memory. ‘Now give us a moment to concoct an appropriate test of your fitness for membership.’

  The young men went into a huddle on the other side of the room. Siraj went to the well-stocked bar and poured himself a brandy. ‘Want something?’

  ‘I’ll take a glass of port,’ Noel answered.

  They sat sipping their drinks with the accompaniment of low male voices and the occasional shout of laughter. Noel studied Siraj. The neat spade beard and moustache framed a sensual, full-lipped mouth. Dark hair brushed his collar. He was on the short side. At sixteen Noel was as tall as the Jordanian. Noel knew he liked Siraj. He was also jealous of him. Siraj had wealth, charm and a certainty about his place in the world. An evil spirit urged him to betray some of those feelings.

  ‘So not a very good Muslim, I see,’ Noel said.

  The insult failed to hit. Siraj just laughed, took another swallow of brandy and said, ‘At home in Amman I’m a very good Muslim. Here I’m a very good Englishman.’

  Noel nodded towards the cluster of boys. ‘Not to them you’re not.’

  That did land. A frown like summer lightning flickered quickly across Siraj’s face, and the smile that followed looked more like a grimace, but he didn’t rise to the bait. Instead he turned it back on Noel. ‘You just might be venomous enough to fit right in with us.’

  At that moment Nelson returned, trailed by a handful of the members. ‘We’ve decided. We want you to seduce and bed a woman and bring us pictures to prove it. Crotch shots and her face so we know it’s not something you just pulled off the internet.’

  ‘And no hiring some slag to do the deed. Has to be a student at one of the colleges,’ Timothy said.

  ‘We’ll add her to our portfolio of loose women,’ Geoffrey added.

  ‘Fine. Challenge accepted.’ Noel stood up, drained the last of his port, and set down the glass with a snap.

  He and Siraj left. Once they were outside the Jordanian gave him a questioning look. ‘Are you sure about this?’

  ‘Absolutely.’

  ‘I don’t want to be accused of encouraging the delinquency of a minor. Particularly by your parents.’ There was a note of real concern in Siraj’s voice, and it touched Noel.

  ‘Look, it gives me access I wouldn’t otherwise have. They—’ Noel jerked a thumb back at the door, ‘—will step into positions in law, government, and finance because of their connections. I need that if I’m going to get ahead.’

  ‘You’re not exactly a member of an oppressed minority,’ Siraj said.

  You have no idea, Noel thought, but instead he said, ‘that’s pretty rich coming from an actual Arabian prince.’

  ‘Please, I am a Hashemite and a Jordanian. Not a dirty Saudi.’

  ‘A family that claims descent from Hashim, the great-grandfather of Mohammed. Mohammed who was born in Mecca, which is in Saudi Arabia, so I guess you are a dirty Saudi.’

  Siraj dropped an arm over Noel’s shoulders and laughed. ‘And you, my friend, are in danger of becoming one of those desert-loving Englishmen. Shall we find dinner and a pint?’

  Noel gave a regretful head shake. ‘I promised my dad I’d go over tonight and have dinner at home.’

  ‘We live so close. I just don’t understand why you wanted to live at the college instead of staying at home,’ his father was saying as he set the table. Jasper Matthews was thin with greying brown hair and deep lines etched his face, courtesy of the wasting disease that had left him an invalid for most of Noel’s young life.

  Because I’m enough of a bloody oddity, being a sixteen-year-old fresher and a damned hermaphrodite. I don’t need to be living at home with Mummy and Daddy, Noel thought. He was spared voicing any of it by the entrance of his mother.

  Amanda Matthews was a big woman in every way. Tall and heavy with a large shelf-like bosom and a protuberant belly that she made no effort to hide, instead picking dresses that accentuated her bulk. In part it was a rebuke to the patriarchy that insisted on unrealistic expectations of female beauty (Noel could repeat the words in his sleep), and Amanda’s desire to embrace the Mother Goddess. Not that her attitudes weren’t sincere. Technically, Amanda taught history, but her focus was on women in history, which made it almost a course in women’s studies with an emphasis on politics and culture, rather than history per se.

  Which made her decision to raise her intersex child as male all the more baffling. When at the age of twelve Noel had finally asked her why, her eyes had narrowed into slits and her jaw had tightened to the point at which her plump cheeks creased. ‘Because the patriarchy still holds sway. Advancement’s always going to be easier for a man than a woman, no matter how brilliant or talented.’ So while he had been given a gender fluid name at his birth, he had early on been Noel (one syllable) not Noelle (two syllables). It was Amanda who had insisted that Noel move into campus housing.

  Because she was a professor at Lucy Cavendish College, one of the few women-only colleges, Noel had been given a place in the Old Court at Clare College, which had large, spacious rooms and views across the gardens and the river. It was there he had met Siraj, who had the room next door. Despite the age difference they found themselves to be kindred spirits. Siraj might be a prince, but to many of the well-born students he was still just a sand-wallah. Noel was an oddity because of his youth … and the communal bathroom on their floor meant that several students had got a look at his small, misshapen penis. Hormonal treatments from a young age had accentuated his maleness and mercifully the stunted vagina that rested behind his scrotum had never developed enough to lead to menstruation. That was one indignity he had been spared.

  Siraj knew of his gender malleability. But what he didn’t know was that Noel was an ace.

  As Amanda walked past, she bestowed a hearty buffet to his shoulder. Noel knew his mother loved him from the fierce way she fought to give him every advantage, but sometimes during his childhood he had wished she would just give him a hug. There was a reason his father had become his dearest companion, adviser, and comforter.

  ‘How was your day, dear?’ his mother asked as she took her chair at the head of the table. ‘Oh good, Lancashire hotpot. I’m starving,’ she said as Jasper set her plate in front of her.

  ‘Good. Practised my German with Franz down the hall. Went to the magic shop to pick up an item I’d ordered. Luckily for me Oliver, the owner, was in and he gave me a tip on misdirection when you’re doing close magic. He also said he thinks he can get me backstage at Sebastian Crewe’s London performance.’ Noel didn’t mention his application to the drinking soci
ety. It would upset Jasper. He would tell Amanda later. He knew she would be delighted.

  ‘It’s fine to have a hobby, but don’t neglect your studies,’ Amanda said as she tucked into the food. ‘Being a magician doesn’t strike me as a career with much of a future.’

  Jasper patted Noel’s hand. ‘You keep up with your magic. A good parlour trick will make you a hit at parties and delight the ladies.’

  ‘And get my arse kicked by their large, truculent boyfriends,’ Noel said.

  After dinner Amanda retreated to her study to mark papers while Noel and Jasper washed the dishes. ‘Actually, Dad, speaking of ladies …’

  His father’s head swivelled quickly to look at him with a delighted expression. ‘Oh ho, an interesting development. Come on, spill it.’

  ‘It’s nobody in particular, but if I wanted to … attract a girl … what should I do?’

  ‘There is someone.’

  ‘Possibly. Maybe. Come on, help me out.’

  The gnarled hands disappeared back into the water and foaming suds and began scrubbing a plate. ‘Well, you should always be a gentleman. Be kind. Listen more than you talk. Try to think of something exciting or unusual to do with them so you’re not just the run of the mill bloke who only thinks in terms of the pub or the pictures.’ He rinsed the plate and handed it to Noel to dry. ‘Just be yourself, son.’

  ‘Yeah. Okay.’ But who and what is that?

  Why, Noel wondered as he watched his target take her bicycle off the rack, did he always have to over-perform?

  He spotted the security that discreetly surrounded Princess Gloriana Eleanor Catherine Mountbatten-Windsor. She was a pretty brown-haired girl of eighteen with blue eyes, a rather lush figure, and a round face more reminiscent of her great-grandmother than her grandmother, Queen Margaret. Noel found the name Gloriana to be a bit much, but since she was unlikely ever to become queen it probably didn’t matter, and of course she could always change it. Her great-grandfather had gone from Albert to George, and his brother from David to Edward. The honour and confinement of the throne would go first to her father, Henry, and then to her older brother. For the first time since the nineteen fifties Britain would have a king again.

  Noel knew from his research (stalking, if he was entirely honest) that the princess was heading to the library after her seminar. He had decided that today he would make his move. It was going to be tricky, because he could woo her only during the daylight hours, but he had prepared the excuse of a night job to explain why.

  He gathered up his book bag that contained a change of clothing as well as books, and went to a nearby public toilet where he could make his transformation. In a stall he dressed in much larger clothing, closed his eyes, and willed his body to shift. Bones moved beneath his skin, muscles stretched and nerves tingled as he assumed his new form. As he tucked in the shirt and fastened his belt, Noel reflected that if his mother knew what he was attempting she would view it as a deeply misogynistic act and be furious. This was Queen Margaret’s granddaughter, and Amanda respected the queen. His father would be equally horrified. His dad was a staunch royalist, following the ins and outs of every royal down to the most distant cousins.

  Which begged the question: why was Noel doing this? There were plenty of other girls at Cambridge. Was it because of the disdain in the eyes of those boys at Crabs? The implication that the only way this skinny teenager could bed a girl was to buy one? So he would pick not just any girl, but the girl. A royal princess.

  Stuffing his own clothes into the book bag, Noel left the stall and caught his reflection in one of the mirrors over the sink. A boy had entered the loo, a young man was leaving. Even after three years Noel still found this stranger in his skin to be arresting. He paused to study the red/gold hair, the deep golden eyes, tanned skin, and muscular build. It was said that the wild card virus took an individual’s psychology into account when it rewrote their DNA. Noel was the textbook case that proved the theory.

  He had contracted the virus when he was thirteen, during a family holiday to Ephesus. While exploring an old beached freighter, he had come down with what his parents thought was the flu. One morning six months later, in the throes of a particularly vivid wet dream, Noel had been awakened by his father’s shout of alarm to find himself inhabiting the body of a stranger, and his hand gripping a cock far larger than his own.

  His father hadn’t wanted Noel enrolled in the British wild card registry, but any routine blood test would reveal the presence of the virus, so in due course Noel had been listed.

  What the government didn’t know was his actual power. And it went beyond the ability to become every woman’s fantasy lover. At night Noel could summon the sultry and beautiful female, his Queen of the Night, who was every man’s fantasy fuck. He hadn’t yet had the nerve to actually do it, but he had tested the effect the two avatars had on people. They were virtually irresistible.

  So while Noel might not cheat by using money to satisfy the Crabs’ demand, he was going to cheat nonetheless; his avatars were the Ur woman and the Ur man. Sex rolled off them in waves and few people could resist their allure. The princess didn’t have a chance once—

  Noel’s thoughts stuttered to a stop. He needed a name. Something authentic that would reassure her he was ‘of her set’. Something with a hyphen. Simon Grenville-Lacey. That would work. He headed for the library.

  The library was at the western edge of the Cambridge city centre near the Memorial Court of Clare College. It was an imposing, almost industrial stone building dating from the nineteen thirties. The library tower was like an upraised and castigating finger against a surprisingly bright blue sky. It was said that at the opening of the building Neville Chamberlain had referred to it as this magnificent erection. Given Noel’s current goal the thought made him chuckle nervously.

  Clutching a piece of paper with a catalogue entry and the title of a book that resided in the stack where Gloriana tended to sit, Noel moved down the centre aisle pretending to search for the correct bookcase. The tall windows that marched like glass soldiers down the length of the room threw puddles of sunlight on the polished floor. A pair of discreet security officers were tucked away among the books, also pretending to study the titles. Noel could feel their scrutiny as an actual weight between his shoulder blades as they checked him out, but neither of them did anything beyond giving him a serious once-over.

  He slipped past Gloriana with a murmured apology. She looked up from her note taking and began to say, ‘Quite all right,’ but the words died as she took in the splendour that was Noel’s male avatar. She seemed a bit glassy-eyed.

  Noel smiled at her, pretended to scan the shelves then looked back with an apologetic shrug. ‘And after I disturb you the damn book isn’t even here.’

  ‘Oh, bad luck,’ Gloriana said. She had a pleasant voice with a hint of a lisp.

  ‘So sorry.’

  ‘No need to apologize. I’m Glory.’

  Noel noted that she offered no last name. ‘Simon. Simon Grenville-Lacey.’ He made as if to leave, and right on cue she began talking to hold him in place.

  ‘Are you a student here?’

  ‘As it happens I am.’

  She studied him from beneath her lashes. The tip of her tongue briefly touched her upper lip. ‘Are you …’

  ‘A wild card? Yes, ’fraid so. But don’t be alarmed.’

  ‘Oh, I’m not. Are you an ace?’

  ‘No.’ Noel gestured at his eyes. ‘I suppose these would technically make me a joker.’

  ‘Oh no, no one would think that. You look normal apart from your eyes. One of my mum’s favourite charities is the Queen Mary Hospital at the Isle of Dogs. I’ve been there frequently. The patients show such patience and optimism despite their afflictions.’

  Noel really wished she had displayed even a tremor of disgust against the less fortunate victims of the wild card, but no, she had to be understanding. He felt a tremor of doubt over his plans, but pushed it aside. ‘Look, I’m
starving and you were so nice about me interrupting you. May I buy you lunch?’ he asked.

  She hesitated, smiled and then nodded. ‘That would be very nice. Thank you.’

  London

  The file, edges flapping like the wings of a dying bird, fell onto his desk. Captain Flint met the gaze of the agent who stood in front of his desk. ‘From your method of delivery I take it I’m not going to like the contents.’ They were in Flint’s office at the headquarters of MI7, the Order of the Silver Helix.

  Alan Turing shook his head. ‘Probably not.’

  Flint’s thick stone fingers struggled to lift the file. Turing picked it up and placed it in his hands. ‘Thank you. But shouldn’t you have brought this to Lord Dalton? Redcoat is, after all, in charge now.’

  ‘I have a very real concern that he would use this as an excuse to toddle off to the Palace and inform the Queen rather than deal with the situation.’

  ‘A valid worry. The man does seem to be inordinately fond of rubbing shoulders with royalty.’ Flint returned his attention to the file. As he opened the cover he asked, ‘The boyfriend?’

  ‘Doesn’t exist. There is no record of a Simon Grenville-Lacey, and he is not on the registry, though he is clearly a wild card.’

  ‘I believe we need to have a conversation with this young man.’ Flint heaved his bulk out of his stone chair.

  ‘On your own authority?’

  ‘It’s just reconnaissance, Alan. Merely reconnaissance.’

  ‘You know you are quite unable to look innocent, Flint.’

  Cambridge

  Noel took his time with the pursuit. They had three lunches and a breakfast together before he made his move. Partly it was to allow Simon’s overwhelming sexuality to increase her desire until it had reached the point of being unbearable. Mainly it was his own nerves and doubts. He had never actually done it.

 
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