Knaves over queens, p.41
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.41

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
He hated confessing that to Siraj, but he needed advice and guidance. The Jordanian had suggested a prostitute for practice. Noel had rejected that idea; afraid of catching something, and lacking the funds to hire a high-class call-girl to make sure that wasn’t a risk. The prince offered to pay, but that felt wrong. They had settled on Siraj talking about his own sexual adventures and watching porn. Noel was surprised by how arousing that experience actually was. Despite his gender dysphoria it seemed he responded in a very male way to visual stimulation.

  But today was to be the day. In preparation he had purchased a tiny camera at an electronics store. It made him feel a bit like a secret agent. He tried not to think about how he intended to use it. Noel had a room reserved at the Arundel House. He had also purchased a package of condoms. She would expect him to wear one and while he had a suspicion that Simon’s sperm was as feeble as his own, he didn’t want to test the theory.

  It was a pleasant summer day and their table was at a window and offered a lovely view of the River Cam. On the opposite side punts nuzzled the bank like piglets in search of the teat. Occasionally, one went past. Most of the small boats held a couple, laughing girls reclining in the bow while a boy wielded the punt pole.

  Over lunch Noel continually reached out to touch Glory’s hand, run a finger down her bare arm. Each time he touched her her breath caught and she shivered. The waiter delivered their dessert and they shared the banoffee pie. The taste of bananas and toffee and cream were cloying on the back of Noel’s tongue and added to his feeling of nausea.

  Glory finished her coffee quickly. ‘Let’s get out of here.’ She glanced over to the table where her security tried to look inconspicuous.

  Noel left his chair, threw down money to cover the bill, and moved over to her. He leaned down and kissed her. Her mouth tasted of coffee and bananas. ‘And maybe go somewhere a bit more private,’ he whispered, allowing his hand to brush across her breast.

  Her gasp was sharp and her arms went around his neck and she began frenziedly kissing him. ‘Oh God, yes! I thought you’d never ask.’

  He pulled her to her feet. ‘Let’s go.’

  ‘My minders … what do we do about them?’ she whispered in his ear.

  ‘I’ll show you.’

  They left the restaurant. The two security officers followed at a discreet distance. They walked down Granta Place while Glory pressed herself against him. Fire coiled in his groin. Noel wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her even closer. The river seemed to be winking knowingly at them as the sunlight glinted and danced off the water. At Little St Mary’s Lane he turned quickly around the corner, gathered Glory in both arms, and teleported to the hotel room.

  She gave a squeak of alarm as they landed in the room, and her weight caused him to lose his balance. They tumbled to the floor. ‘What did you … how did you? You’re an ace!’ Her tone was a mix of confusion, excitement, and alarm.

  ‘I thought it was the best way to lose your minders,’ he said as he helped her to her feet. She flung herself against his chest and kissed him, caressing his shoulders. Heat came off her in waves, her face was flushed, and the way her breasts pressed against his chest drew an answering reaction from his groin. Noel’s body might be confused, but Simon’s knew exactly what was expected. His erection pressed painfully against his zip.

  He eased her over to the bed and down onto the bedspread. ‘Ow. This mattress is terrible.’ She began unbuttoning her blouse with clumsy fingers. Noel helped her while she giggled uncontrollably and tried to pull his T-shirt over his head. It was thrown aside and she stroked her fingers down his chest, tracing his pectoral muscles … which on his male avatar were impressive. ‘Oooh, nice.’

  The rasp of her nails against his skin sent another electric jolt into his groin. He toed off his tennis shoes and began desperately pulling off his trousers. She got her skirt unzipped and wriggled free. Her underwear was lacy and lavender and even that was arousing. Soon they were both naked, bodies hot and sweat-slicked.

  ‘Condom?’ he gasped.

  She shook her head. ‘On the pill.’

  She was trying to guide him into her, but he was awkward and nervous and kept sliding off. He growled in frustration.

  ‘Relax,’ she whispered into his ear.

  And the door crashed open.

  ‘Well, young man, you are in a great deal of trouble.’

  The boy seated with his hands cuffed to a metal bar welded to the table was scared. It shone in his strange gold eyes and trembling lower lip.

  Good. Flint knew he was an imposing, even terrifying, figure with his flickering red eyes and seven-foot-nine stony bulk. ‘So, who are you … really?’ The young man remained silent, eyes flicking to the narrow window high up in the wall. ‘All right, let’s try this one. Who do you work for?’

  That elicited a response. ‘What? What are you talking about? And … and I want a barrister.’

  ‘A perfectly logical request. Unfortunately for you I’m not the police. I can bury you so deep that no one will ever find you.’ The young man’s strange golden eyes were hard to read, but the muscles in the handsome face betrayed his fear.

  Then, surprisingly, the square jaw tightened and Flint was treated to a stare as cold as an asp’s gaze. There was another glance towards the window. ‘You can try. What exactly am I accused of doing? Deflowering the cream of British womanhood? Debauching a royal?’

  ‘Evading security – which one could argue was an attempt to kidnap a member of the royal family. It also seems that you possess some special power to arouse. A clever solicitor could make the argument that use of this power removes consent.’ He paused for a long moment. ‘Which moves us into the realm of rape.’ The boy blanched at that. ‘There’s also the little matter of the camera we found among your possessions. So which are you? A member of the paparazzi, a blackmailer, or a rapist?’

  ‘I’m not any of those things. It was just a bit of a lark. A bet with some mates. God, you people.’

  Flint leaned down and gripped the boy’s wrist. The sharp edges of his fingers cut into the boy’s flesh, drawing blood. ‘Ow! Bloody hell!’ the boy squeaked.

  Flint released him and headed to the door of the interrogation room. Turing was waiting in the observation room with a slide and a sterile envelope. Flint smeared the blood from his fingers onto the slide. Turing carefully topped it with another slide, placed the pair in the envelope, and handed it to an aide.

  As the door closed behind him, Turing said, ‘I told the lab to rush it through the system. We’ll find out who he is soon enough.’

  Before Flint could respond the door opened again. Lord Dalton Carruthers, fourth and current holder of the nom de guerre Redcoat, strode in. Flint gave an inward groan. After Winston Churchill’s assassination in Belfast and the bloody farce of his funeral at Westminster, Her Majesty’s government had needed a scapegoat, and Sir Kenneth Foxworthy had loyally fallen on his sword and tended his resignation as the head of the Order of the Silver Helix. The noble Redcoat had taken his place. Carruthers was in his mid-forties, distinguished and photogenic, and possessed of an adequate degree of telekinesis to impress the public and tempt him into rash actions. Between his noble title, ace powers, and good looks Carruthers was the sort of entitled git who gave entitled gits a bad name.

  ‘Where is he?’ his lordship demanded. ‘Who is he? I hope you haven’t mucked things up by interviewing him without me.’

  ‘We just sent off the blood sample. We’ll have his identity soon enough,’ Turing said.

  ‘I believe the technician is cueing up the CCTV footage,’ Flint said, in an attempt to distract the ace.

  ‘Excellent. I want to know how this happened … and whether we need to flay the princess’s security detail alive for losing track of her.’

  Flint and Enigma exchanged glances and followed Carruthers into another room filled with computer equipment. A young man with acne scars and a few fresh pustules was sucking on a lollipop while his fingers flew acr
oss the keyboard. Images flickered past on the screen. The viewpoint was that of a camera opposite the Riverside Restaurant.

  As he watched Gloriana attempting to climb the prisoner as if he were a tree, Flint found himself striking sparks from his fingers as they closed into fists.

  ‘Hope to hell the paparazzi don’t get hold of these pictures. Won’t look good to have the princess behaving like a tart,’ Carruthers said.

  Flint glanced over to the security feed from the inside of the interrogation room just in time to see the prisoner unlock the cuffs with a thin lock-pick. ‘Bloody hell!’

  ‘Oh, look, the bastard can teleport.’ The computer tech was gazing at his computer screen as a new CCTV image appeared.

  Flint’s head swung from screen to computer and back to the screen just in time to see the young ace flip the bird at the camera and vanish.

  ‘Well,’ Turing said. ‘That was … unexpected.’

  ‘Oh, well done, Flint,’ Redcoat said. ‘Another cock-up.’

  Noel desperately wanted to go home. He wanted the comfort of his old bedroom and his father making toast smeared with Nutella for tea and playing one of his operas on the record player and preparing a casserole for dinner. But that made him feel like a stupid little kid, and his father had a way of getting Noel to talk. Instead he had returned to his room at Clare and tried to calm himself with a glass of brandy.

  He had a paper to prepare before his next seminar, but he couldn’t focus. His thoughts ricocheted between oh God, what if they find me? and there is no way they can find me. And the mockery he would face from the Crabs over his failure to obtain the necessary photos. He didn’t want to admit that he had failed.

  For a brief moment Noel wondered why he was upset about the cock-up with his initiation into the Crabs compared to his arrest … and that terrifying knave Flint. Unconsciously he rubbed at the scabbed cuts on his wrist. He wished he could have seen the faces of those fools when he made his escape. But none of that would get him into the Crabs.

  So, what should he do about the drinking society? Noel hated to admit that he had failed, but the thought of trying again make him feel rather queasy. He would tell Siraj that he was going to take his advice and not go through with this. Thus face could be saved and pride salvaged, though he had a feeling he would constantly wonder what they would say about him within the walls of the society.

  The fact that he’d made a decision turned incipient nausea into real hunger. He didn’t want to face a lot of people. He’d go pick and up an Indian takeaway and return to his room.

  The sun had set by the time he headed out. A damp chill caused him to hunch his shoulders and dig his hands into the pockets of his jacket. Fog was twisting off the surface of the Cam like the white hair of river sprites playing hide and seek with the moon.

  As he passed a recessed doorway he became aware of two points of glowing red in the darkness some two feet over his head. Panic slammed into Noel’s chest. For an instant he froze, a rabbit in a snake’s thrall. He started to run, the soles of his loafers slipping on the damp pavement. He reached for his other avatar, his Queen of the Night.

  This transition was actually more painful and took longer than the switch into his sun god. The sensation of the bones shifting in his pelvis was especially uncomfortable. He was only partway through the change when a heavy stone hand descended on his shoulder. ‘Don’t do it, lad. If you run again my next stop will be at your parents’ house.’

  Noel froze. ‘Please don’t tell my parents.’ He was furious that his voice trembled, thick with fear. ‘Are you going to put me in prison?’

  ‘It wouldn’t be my first choice. Why don’t we have a sit-down and discuss this? I have need of people with talents and yours are intriguing.’ The stone hand lifted a strand of the waist-length black hair that Noel now possessed. ‘So there’s a female version of the chap whose skin you wore earlier. Interesting. But perhaps you could shift back or finish what you were doing because right now you look a bit … disconcerting.’

  Noel considered completing the transformation, but had a feeling the stone man might have a stone prick and not be susceptible to his queen’s allure. He shifted back to his normal form.

  ‘Where were you headed?’

  ‘To get some takeaway at Taj—’

  ‘Good, let’s go. I’ll buy you dinner.’

  There was no argument he could present. The threat of his parents had him falling into step with the stone giant. Noel had to take two steps to one of the knave’s just to keep up. ‘How did you find me?’ he asked.


  ‘That’s why you cut me.’

  Flint nodded. ‘We matched you through the registry. The NHS keeps a list of all wild cards active or latent.’

  ‘But I got sick in Turkey, how could the National Health—’ Noel broke off, remembering he’d had blood drawn when he’d had strep throat the year before. ‘Damned doctor violated my privacy.’

  ‘And obeyed the law.’

  They walked on in silence for a moment. The stone man seemed in no hurry to break it. Noel couldn’t stand it and he asked, ‘You’re Captain Flint, aren’t you? That guy from the Queen Mary … you’re really old.’

  ‘My actual name is Brigadier Sir Kenneth Foxworthy and yes, I am really old.’

  ‘So what do I call you?’ Noel asked.

  ‘Sir will suffice.’

  The condescending tone made Noel long to call him Kenny or Foxy, but he lacked the nerve. They reached the restaurant. Flint pulled out a wallet. ‘Order what you fancy. I’ll wait for you on that bench.’ He pointed at a stone bench across the street. ‘I doubt the furnishings in there can hold my weight.’ The notes were pressed into Noel’s hands. ‘Oh, and don’t think about ducking out the back. I have agents stationed all around us.’

  Noel felt himself blush … because of course that was precisely what he had been considering. He went in, ordered and came out with his food. Sat down next to Flint, opened the container, and started to eat his butter chicken and samosas. It was hard to force the food past the lump that had taken up residence in his throat. ‘So, what did you want to discuss?’

  ‘What do you know about MI7? The Order of the Silver Helix?’

  ‘I know it exists. Some sort of police thing.’

  ‘Yes, it is that. Unlike MI5 and MI6 we use wild cards as field agents. Your talents would be of particular interest to the organization. It would give you an opportunity to serve your country and your Queen.’ The whispering voice faded away.

  ‘Or I can go to jail?’ Noel said.

  ‘I’d prefer not to be that crude … but yes.’

  The samosa suddenly tasted of ashes. Noel dropped it back into the container. ‘I wanted to finish school.’

  ‘You will. It’s only a forty-five-minute train journey to London. Your parents and classmates will be told you are doing intense one-on-one study.’ The massive stone mouth moved and Noel realized Flint was smiling. ‘Which isn’t actually a lie. We’ll see that you are educated and graduate with a degree. Useful that your course is history and modern languages.’

  Noel crumbled the samosa with nervous fingers. ‘How can you ever trust me, knowing that you will have blackmailed me into working for you?’

  Flint took a pipe out of his pocket, snapped his fingers to produce a flame, and puffed. The bowl glowed red to match his eyes. The smell of tobacco and spices tickled Noel’s nose. The knave gave a chuckle like the whisper of the wind blowing fallen leaves. ‘Enigma has evaluated your background, and I believe we know you better than you know yourself. Your father tried to enlist but due to his health he was rejected. Your mother’s writings on the Queen have been quite favourable. I would be surprised to find you’re a republican who advocates an end to the monarchy. I expect that at heart you are a patriot and a loyal subject. With your talents you could help keep this nation safe against threats both foreign and domestic.’ His sigh carried a weight of regret beyond anything Noel could imagine. ‘I
m an old man, Noel. I’ve seen horrible things – on the battlefields of Europe, aboard the Queen Mary, in the ruins of Jerusalem, and right here at home. Help me prevent the next atrocity.’


  ‘Well. I’m queer and I admit to being tempted.’

  Flint glanced down at Turing who stood at his side. Where other men might have had a shaving nick and a forgotten scrap of tissue beneath an ear, on the ace it was a place where he had failed to cover his silver skin with make-up effectively. The patch of silver glinted under the lights. ‘Then I take it the male avatar has an equally powerful effect?’

  Enigma gave him a small, tight smile. ‘I think both the princess and I can attest to that.’

  The two of them were watching through a one-way mirror as the boy’s body completed its transformation into a woman. And such a woman. Midnight-black hair hung to her waist, her eyes were pools of swirling silver, her face a perfect oval with pearly white skin, her body every man’s fantasy. Even Flint felt the tug of forgotten passion.

  On the other side of the mirror, Alfred Spraggs, the male half of the husband-and-wife team Banger and Mash, cleared his throat. ‘Well … that’s a bloody sight,’ he said in his pronounced East London accent. ‘Let’s start … uh … women have a different centre of gravity.’ Banger’s eyes were oscillating between Noel’s bosom and hips. ‘You will have to … ah … compensate for … that.’

  Flint keyed the intercom. ‘Alfred, perhaps under the circumstances it would be better to have Jiniri and Petula tutor Noel in hand-to-hand when he is in his female form.’

  Banger saluted. ‘Right, sir. I’ll go fetch ’em.’

  Noel turned to face the mirror, arms folded across the amazing bosom, and smirked. ‘Too distracting.’

  ‘Rather. Noel—’

  Turing interrupted. ‘That really won’t do, Kenneth. One simply can’t call that Noel.’

  ‘Noelle?’ Flint suggested.

  ‘Far too chaste. Let me suggest … Lilith.’

  Noel’s life fell into a routine. Two days a week he travelled to London for ‘tutoring’ at the headquarters of the Silver Helix in a nondescript Victorian building near the Thames. His male form was bigger and stronger than either his actual self or Lilith, but Jiniri, the Iranian-born ace whose real name was Maryam Shahidi, had taught him how to use an opponent’s body weight and momentum against them when he was in his female form or his own.

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