Knaves over queens, p.45
Knaves Over Queens,
Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
She settled in a dusty hollow between two roots and flipped to page twenty-five of the West Briton. When she saw the pictures she clamped a hand over her mouth and looked away, unprepared for the shock.
It was a double-page spread about her father’s sculptures and the renovation of Polgurnow village hall funded by his success. It was a simple ‘local artist done good, hero of community’ story, with one important omission: the truth.
The largest picture was of his first ‘sculpture’ of Plum, their old dog. Just the sight of it made her throat tighten and her chest feel as if it was being buried under a pile of bricks. Her gloved fingertips twitched at the memory of running her hands over Plum’s fur and how, faster than she could register what was happening, the glossy coat had turned to stone beneath her fingertips. One moment she’d been fussing the dog for being such a clever girl, the next she was stroking a granite statue of her. Every little detail had been preserved in the freakish transformation, even the stitching in her collar that had changed too.
Her father had come rushing out of the studio at the sound of her screams and she had a vague sense of being comforted before the memory lost cohesion.
It was sheer luck that she hadn’t done the same to her father by accident. It didn’t occur to either of them that she had been responsible for what had happened to Plum. It wasn’t a natural conclusion to leap to.
She could remember arguments that night as she lay in bed, the first time she’d ever heard her parents raise their voices to each other. Her father had wanted to take her to a doctor or contact the authorities, maybe even the Silver Helix, while Mother had argued that keeping it a secret was best for all of them. If they told anyone what had happened, their daughter would be taken away. Perhaps they would never let her come home again.
Kerry wasn’t sure if she believed that any more and she certainly wasn’t sure if it would be worse than being stuck on the farm. The newspaper article was singing her family’s praises, describing how her father’s success had rescued their tiny village from the brink of ruin, the village she wasn’t even allowed to visit. She hadn’t seen the village hall since her eleventh birthday, only a couple of months before her card had turned, as the people on the telly said.
Scanning the text, as much to stop herself from looking at the pictures, Kerry hunted for a mention of herself. She found it quickly, nothing but a throwaway mention of a daughter. It seemed that the journalist had actually listened to her mother’s request for privacy.
She carried on reading. It told the story of a struggling pair of artists, one a potter, the other a sculptor, trying to survive. Then the breakthrough when her father tried ‘a new technique’ and created the most lifelike sculpture of a dog that Paul Wetherby had ever seen.
Kerry pressed her lips tight together at the sight of Wetherby’s picture with her father at his gallery. Once a big deal in the London art scene, he’d retired to Cornwall and opened a little gallery in Penzance. It was for tourists, rather than locals, and her parents had minor success with a few pieces there. Then on a visit to their home, to see what they were working on in the studio, he’d seen Plum in the corner.
Then everything had got much worse.
It was obvious that Wetherby was visiting today because he wanted another ‘sculpture’ to sell. She hadn’t made one for a few months, having cried for days after the last, a little hedgehog that her mother had found. There was a buyer in London, someone who collected hedgehog art apparently, who was willing to pay an absurd amount of money for a ‘perfect reproduction’. She’d wondered if they would have been willing to pay that money if the buyer had known one of their favourite creatures had to die in the process.
‘I know it’s hard, pickle,’ her mother had said as she held the cardboard box containing the hedgehog. ‘But it’s so quick they can’t feel a thing. And that money could do so much good. That deer you changed last year fixed the village hall, didn’t it? There are dozens of deer. One less doesn’t make any difference, but that hall being saved has made all the difference to the village, hasn’t it?’
‘What will you spend the money on from this one?’
‘We’re going to give half to the RNLI and the rest will keep us going for a few months. You know how much the lifeboats need donations; they don’t get any funding from the government. Just think, this little hedgehog could help save lives!’
Her mother always knew what to say to make it seem unreasonable not to obey her. Of course, refusing to kill a hedgehog seemed perfectly acceptable when held up against saving lives.
What really hurt was how much the animals she changed trusted her. She’d always found it easy to befriend them. Her father had once joked that she couldn’t go outside without making a new friend. After they realized she had killed Plum, she’d chased away all the local wildlife – from ravens to rabbits – that used to visit her each day for titbits of food. She couldn’t bear the thought of accidentally killing them. Weeping the whole time, she’d easily coaxed the hedgehog out of its protective ball to snuffle at her finger. The buyer didn’t want a ball of spines, after all.
There was a picture of that damned hedgehog in the paper, with a caption beneath marvelling at how skilled her father was in creating those granite spines. Kerry slapped the pages shut and rolled the newspaper up again to stuff it between two branches, ready for when she went home. For a moment, she wondered whether to just run away rather than returning home and being asked to kill another helpless creature. But then where would she go? All of the family was here and she knew terrible things could happen to children who ran away.
Besides, her uncle was in trouble, she could tell. Then the most awful thought occurred to her. What if she could make a sculpture that would give him enough money to—
No! She covered her face with her hands. There had to be another way.
Between messing about at the oak and then stripping the Rover’s engine, Kerry managed to avoid her parents all day. She had dinner with her uncle, nothing more than baked beans on burnt toast eaten in silence. He looked ill with worry, now that there was no engine to distract him. She helped him bring in the herd for milking, taking care to have the broom handle ready in case any of them tried to get too close so she could gently push them back, and then went home as the sun set, her feet getting heavier with each step.
Her parents’ modest house was so different to her uncle’s farmhouse, being modern and much more comfortable to live in. It had two bedrooms and an annexe on the back that was her parents’ studio. One half of the studio contained a kiln and her mother’s pottery paraphernalia and the other her father’s stone-working tools. He still sculpted sandstone as that was far easier to work than granite. It was one of the reasons her ‘sculptures’ commanded such high prices. It was a very difficult stone to work and far too hard to sculpt anything with the fine details as her curse could create. There were always a few blocks in the studio though, more as a sort of set dressing to satisfy Mr Wetherby when he visited. Thankfully his visits were rare.
When she entered the house she could hear her parents arguing again. Kerry slammed the door so that they would know she was home and the shouting stopped. ‘Only me!’ she called.
Her parents appeared at the doorway between the hall and the studio, all smiles and tense shoulders. ‘Hello, pickle,’ Mum said with a forced smile. ‘Did you have a nice day with Uncle Cal?’
Kerry nodded. She hated the way they were smiling at her. It was worse than walking in on them fighting. She busied herself by taking off her shoes and putting them on the rack next to the door. ‘I’m going to bed. I’m tired.’
‘Don’t you want to watch X Factor with me?’ her dad called as she started up the stairs.
‘No, thanks,’ she said. ‘Night.’
She wasn’t tired at all. She just didn’t want to have the inevitable conversation about the pressure the agent was putting on her father for another sculpture. Kerry went to her room, shut the door and sat on the bed. She loo
There was a gentle knock on the door. ‘It’s Mum. Can I come in?’
‘I’m going to bed.’ Kerry hurriedly took off her socks and gloves. The door opened anyway. ‘Mum!’
‘I need to talk to you about something important.’
Kerry threw her dirty socks into the corner just to annoy her. ‘Can’t it wait until tomorrow?’
‘No. Look at this.’
Her mother sat on the bed an arm’s length away. She was holding a newspaper clipping and with a jolt, Kerry remembered she’d left the copy of the West Briton in the tree by accident. But when her mother unfolded the piece she held, Kerry realized it wasn’t the same newspaper.
The headline was in large, bold letters:
PYGMALION BRINGS STATUE TO LIFE
Kerry’s dread lifted. ‘What’s this?’
‘There’s an ace who works for that Captain Flint bloke, called Pygmalion,’ Mum replied, handing over the article. ‘He can make statues come to life.’
The name was familiar. She was certain she’d seen him on the telly, just a snippet about him before her father had marched in and turned it off. It had been something about the Silver Helix and she’d wanted to know more, but her father refused to let her watch it, muttering something about it being nothing to do with them.
Kerry read the article as quickly as she could. There had been some sort of attack in London and Pygmalion had made one of the lions in Trafalgar Square come to life and chase down one of the suspects, pinning him to the ground until a specialist armed unit arrived. ‘It says he just touched the lion and it came to life. He’s like me … but in reverse!’
Her mother smiled. ‘That’s exactly what I thought! And … well, I don’t want to get your hopes up, my ’andsome, but I was wondering if he might be able to help us.’
‘Well … I was thinkin’ … if he bring statues to life, maybe …’
Kerry gasped. ‘What if he could bring my statues back to life?’ She jumped up. ‘What if he could bring Plum back to life?’
Her mother’s smile widened. ‘That’s exactly what I was wonderin’!’
‘We have to phone him! We have to find out the number … or email him. Uncle Cal has a computer!’
‘We have to be careful though,’ Mum said, patting the bed to encourage her to sit back down again. ‘We need to find out if he can do this, but not let them know about you. Not yet. You know how important it is to us to keep you safe. And Plum’s statue was sold for a lot of money. We’d need to find the money to buy her back so it’s a long way down the road yet. Sit down, darlin’, and let me tell you what I think we should do.’
Kerry sat, trying to keep her body still as her thoughts ran ahead. If Pygmalion could bring Plum back it would change everything! She wouldn’t be afraid any more!
‘Now, the first thing we need to know is if he can even do it, right?’
Kerry nodded. ‘But if we don’t have Plum …’ Her high spirits crashed. She could see where this was going.
‘We need to test this Pygmalion,’ Mum said. ‘So you need to make a statue. Just one, darlin’, just one.’
‘But what if he can’t do it?’
‘Then we know. As soon as I saw that article I knew what we had to do, so I went over to Truro this afternoon. To the pet shop.’
Kerry’s stomach cramped. She’d been expecting this, but it was still just as awful as she’d feared. She shook her head. ‘No, Mum, I don’t want to—’
‘But we need to know, don’t we? I know it’s hard, I do, but you just need to be brave, one more time.’ She left the room, no doubt to fetch the purchased pet. Turning a poor creature to stone didn’t feel like being brave: it just felt evil. Like that snake-haired woman in the myths they’d studied at school in her last year. Medusa. Was that what the newspapers would call her, if they knew what she could do?
Her mother returned with a small pet carrier with a metal grille forming the door. Even before she could see it, Kerry could hear the mewling of a kitten and tears sprang to her eyes.
It was set on the bed, the door facing away from her. ‘Now, darlin’, you need to be strong. Just think about Plum. If this works, we can get her back, can’t we?’
‘And what if it doesn’t?’ Kerry sniffed as a tear broke free.
‘Then … then we know.’
‘And you’ll have something new to sell.’ The words sounded so much more bitter voiced aloud.
‘We all have to do what we must to survive,’ Mother replied. ‘And now is not the time for that argument. Come on now, dry your eyes. Just this one, that’s all I’m askin’ for.’
Kerry swiped her sleeve across her nose as her mother opened the door of the carrier. The kitten looked like a fluffy black ball filling her mother’s hand.
Her first instinct was to love it. To pick it up and cradle it to her chest and kiss the top of its little head. But she pushed that down as swiftly as she could, knowing what would happen if she didn’t.
‘He has little white fur boots,’ her mum said, coaxing the kitten to uncurl and reveal them. ‘See?’
Kerry’s bottom lip juddered. Why was her mother pointing them out to her? It felt like the height of cruelty to make her admire the kitten like a new pet, rather than something she was being asked to kill.
The kitten stepped off Mother’s hand and hesitantly explored the duvet with his paws. His squeaky meow made Kerry jump off the bed and back away.
‘Oh, Kerry. I hate having to ask you to do this, I really do. You know that. But just imagine if that Pygmalion could change her back.’
‘But won’t you have to tell him about me?’
Her mother’s gaze flicked away, focusing on the kitten. ‘If that man can do this, I’m sure he will understand why we want to keep you safe. I’m going to ask him to help us protect you. He’ll know what it’s like to be … different.’
There was so much in that pause between the words. Was her mum thinking other words before she settled on that one?
She watched the kitten approach the edge of the bed, his booted legs stepping with the still-jerky movements of the very young. His eyes were a dazzling green and Kerry wanted nothing more in that moment than to be able to take care of him and love him as she had loved Plum.
Her mother’s eyes were upon her, she knew it, just as she knew there was no way she could get out of this, short of running away. And she was too cowardly to do that. She glanced at the newspaper clipping again, wanting to hope so much, wanting to believe Pygmalion would help her even though they’d never met. But if she were him, and there was a girl who needed mistakes like these to be fixed, she’d do it without hesitation. She had to believe he would feel the same. It was the first time she’d had hope.
Forcing herself to move back to the bed, Kerry knelt down beside the kitten and sucked in a breath as she held out her fingertips, just as she would when meeting any new animal. She liked to give them the chance to come to her first, when they were ready, deciding for themselves if they liked the smell of her. As much as she didn’t want the kitten’s curiosity to bring him closer, she wanted it over as quickly as possible.
There was never any way to tell exactly when it would happen. Sometimes it was the first touch, sometimes it was a few moments later. The only mercy was that it was always quick, and quick enough that she was certain they didn’t suffer.
The kitten mewed and loped towards her with his unsteady gait. Kerry held her breath, bracing herself for the inevitabl
She felt the warm brush of his tiny nose and as the fear peaked within her, the kitten froze, taking on the dull grey of granite before she had even blinked. She snatched her hand away as his little body tipped to the side, preserved with his neck outstretched, his curiosity given stony permanence.
Her mother picked the stone kitten up with great care, knowing full well that it would be so easy to break off one of the whiskers or the tip of an ear with its once-downy fur. There was no black-and-white fur now, no brilliant green in his eyes. Now the only thing that caught the light was the occasional speck of mica trapped in the granite. She carried it out of her room, leaving the empty pet carrier on the bed. Kerry only had enough time to close its door before she returned.
‘I know that was hard,’ she said. ‘Oh, I wish I could cuddle you. Maybe if we wrapped the duvet—’
‘No,’ Kerry said sharply. The other times she’d rejected the suggestion it had been out of fear. This time it was anger. She didn’t want her mother to try and offer her comfort, being the one that had upset her! ‘I just want to go to bed now.’
Her mother lingered in the doorway. ‘I’m going to London tomorrow. To see that … man. There’s hope, Kerenza, you have to hold on to that.’
But all Kerry could think of was that pause. What else was her mother tempted to call Pygmalion? She picked up the pet carrier, gave it to her mother, moving forward as she did so to push her out of the room. Closing the door in her mother’s face, Kerry rested her head against it and finally allowed herself to cry.
There was a message stuck to the fridge when Kerry went downstairs for breakfast, held on by the Nordic troll with a magnet in its back. No one in the house liked the thing, but no one had the heart to get rid of it either. She pulled it free and read that Uncle Cal was busy all day and it would be best if she stayed at home.
Knaves Over Queens by George R. R. Martin / Fantasy / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes