Knaves over queens, p.7
Knaves Over Queens,
Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
Foxworthy stood before the barracks in Kingston upon Thames, the whole edifice looking smaller than he’d seen it last. Then again, he was larger.
But he had a uniform, the most finely tailored he’d ever owned, and all his pips and bars, saved by his mother and the vicar, the ribbons washed out from whatever disinfecting solution they’d been soaked in. And soldiers saluted anything with enough medals, even a statue.
‘I’m here to see Lieutenant Colonel Henshaw,’ Foxworthy said.
‘Yes, sir.’ The soldier stared up at him. ‘Is he expecting you, sir?’
‘No,’ said Foxworthy. ‘Tell him Brigadier Foxworthy is here to see him. I expect he’ll need time to prepare. Please fetch me when he’s ready.’
Henshaw’s office looked the same as Foxworthy remembered, if smaller, as did Henshaw. His hair was thinner and his neck fatter, but it was still good old Wally. Or Sir Wallace Henshaw if one were being formal.
‘Good God, Wally, I’m a joker, not a ghost,’ Foxworthy told his frightened friend. ‘And it looks as if I still outrank you, so at ease, soldier, pour yourself some Scotch, and while you’re at it, pour me some too, because I need it even more.’
Wally, looking both relieved and terrified, fumbled for a crystal decanter, pouring himself a shot which he slugged, then poured two larger glasses. He handed one to Foxworthy, who drank the nectar, feeling the fire flare inside of him upon his more substantial breakfast of charcoal. Wally poured him more, then raised his glass. ‘To your health?’
Foxworthy chuckled. ‘Cheers.’
Henshaw sucked at his Scotch, then looked up at Foxworthy. ‘Ken, you were buried …’
‘Were you at my funeral?’ Foxworthy sipped his Scotch.
Wally nodded, then bit his lip. ‘Do you recall that bottle of Warre’s we put by, promised to break open together after the war?’
Foxworthy did. A rather wonderful old port. Then he recalled the earth that had tasted improbably of port-soaked Stilton. ‘You poured it on my grave, didn’t you?’
‘Well, yes, sorry …’ Wally apologized.
‘I got a taste. Well done, old friend.’
‘That’s good then,’ Wally said. ‘A vow is a vow. After what you did with the Queen Mary, half the country wanted to hang you and the other half wanted to see you knighted. You saved everyone a great deal of bother by dying. And since no one wants to speak ill of the dead, King George pronounced you a hero and knighted you posthumously.’ He lifted his glass. ‘Welcome to the peerage, you enormous toff.’
Foxworthy felt both hurt and perplexed; terrifying as he might appear, it was not like Wally to be a coward, let alone with his best friend. But Foxworthy endeavoured to bear it with good humour. ‘I’ll accept the “enormous”, Wally,’ he told him, ‘but you’ll always be the toff.’
‘I was born to it,’ Wally admitted, ‘and even you couldn’t quite drub it out of me.’
They had not been friends at first, sparring as rivals for Alice’s affections. Then both of them had lost out, and in their commiseration, forged a friendship. And when Alice had broken it off with the other fellow and decided she preferred Kenneth, Wally had been the better man, choosing to retain the friendship and pursue it no further, for all that he’d been smitten with Lady Alice Camden since they were children.
Wally had the wealth and title, but Kenneth had the looks and ambition. And then the war came, and Wally had been the one to reassure Kenneth when he was afraid that Alice had been killed. ‘Wally, you know how I could always tell you anything. When I was buried, I couldn’t move, but I could still see and hear. Alice was at my funeral. She told me she loved me and she knew I wanted to marry her. And she said she would have said yes,’ he gestured to his stony face with the knives he now had for fingers, ‘even with me like this.’
‘She’s a good woman, Ken,’ Wally said. ‘She never stopped loving you.’ He then caught his breath and looked away, staring at his desk. Foxworthy saw that his gaze rested on a picture frame, lying face down.
Foxworthy was not a fool, but he was a man, and a man still needed hope. ‘Show me, Wally.’
‘Please don’t be angry, Ken.’ Wally looked up at him, cowering.
‘Please, Wally. Just show me.’
Wally snatched up the photograph, hugging it to his chest. ‘It wasn’t all at once, Ken,’ he confessed frantically. ‘I was in Washington for months and busy with more work when I got back, but you know the social circles our families run in. We were both invited to Sandringham for a holiday party, so of course we had to attend.’ He looked stricken. ‘Alice was so beautiful and sad, still in mourning for you, and she just wanted someone to talk to, who remembered you as you, not as a hero or a monster …’ Wally turned the frame around. The photograph was not as Kenneth feared, of them in their wedding clothes. Instead, it was something more recent: Wally in his uniform, smiling proudly; Alice, in a pert jacket and summer hat, smiling, but both tired and older than Kenneth had last seen her; and cradled between the two of them, a little boy, no more than one year old, looking at something off camera with that intensity only infants could manage. ‘We named him Kenneth …’
Foxworthy raised his hands and heard Wally scream, ‘Please don’t kill me!’
‘What are you talking about, man?’
‘You’re angry!’ Wally cried. ‘You’ve got flames of rage shooting out of your eyes!’
‘These are tears, man!’ Foxworthy brushed them away, but then saw that his hands were covered with flames and his jacket was on fire where flaming paraffin had dripped. He patted it out, at first only spreading the fire but at last smothering it with his stone hands.
His jacket was a ruin. But there was still one thread of hope left. ‘Please tell me that Her Majesty’s Army has a place for me as I am now.’
‘I could, but I’d be lying,’ Wally confessed. ‘We pensioned off all the soldiers who became jokers when they got too close to your plague ship. I could ask the same for you …’
‘Please do.’ Foxworthy covered his eyes with his hand so he would not again spray fire. ‘Give all my love to Alice. Tell her— Tell her I would like to see her again some time, and my namesake, when you both think it right …’
Then he ducked out of the room and stumbled away, his jacket on fire, along with his life.
The Queen Mary had passed from a quarantined plague ship to a floating hospital to an embarrassing tragedy everyone tried to ignore, much like the jokers themselves, so no one complained if they continued to live there. At some point it had been repainted with thousands of gallons of random paint requisitioned in the hope of sealing any alien spores remaining. Combined with a dazzle camouflage scheme from the Great War, it looked like harlequin’s motley.
Since he no longer fitted in the Churchill Suite, he volunteered to take the boiler room, but James would not hear of it, instead leading him to the end of the Queen’s Salon where, beside the fireplace and the frieze with the duelling unicorns, there now stood a confused jumble of couches and thrones carved from grey Portland stone. ‘Pick a chair,’ Jamie, James Gully’s rightmost head, said, waving to the lot with their right arm, sitting down in a peacock-backed throne that fitted his huge shoulders.
Foxworthy found a throne his size and was faintly concerned to note that there were larger ones. ‘This is unexpectedly pleasant,’ he remarked, shocked to find a seat that did not shatter or even complain beneath his weight. ‘Whom do I thank?’
‘Crispin Barbour,’ Jimmy, James’s left head, said, pointing with their left hand, ‘who’s also, oddly enough, a barber.’
Foxworthy looked: reclining upon a stone bench lay the sculptor whom Foxworthy had initially taken to be one of the sculptures, a long, lean gryphon-like gargoyle. Not of stone but of flesh, yet his grey, wolf-like, pointed ears and goshawk-grey wings were the same colour as Portland stone, as were the lion-like paws sticking out of his grey workman’s coveralls, looking much like the feet of a claw-footed sofa. His beak and razor-sharp raptor
He awoke, eyeing them with one red goshawk eye, the sole spot of colour on him, then sat up and yawned, stretching his bird legs and flexing his claws, the steel talons ringing like hairdresser’s shears. ‘So, it’s the famous Captain Flint.’ He stood, ruffling his wings. ‘Pleasure to meet you.’ Both red eyes glanced at Foxworthy’s own razor-edged fingers. ‘We could shake, but I don’t know who’d come off worse.’
‘Have we met?’ Foxworthy wondered aloud. There had been so many passengers aboard the Queen Mary …
‘Ever get your hair cut in Westminster?’ the gargoyle asked. ‘Worked in my family’s shop, then joined the RAF, and once the war was over switched trades to stonemason to repair the Abbey. Then I was up on the roof three years ago when this happened.’ He spread his claws and his wings, displaying an immense wingspan. ‘But it’s not all bad.’
He lofted into the air, light as a feather, then pirouetted with a predator’s pounce onto a stone ottoman showpiece carved like the golden fleece, seizing it with his talons and paws, spinning it up and around before setting it lightly before the fire with him perched upon it, wings furled, legs crossed, a feather-tufted tail draped over one knee. ‘And I also do trims,’ he said, scissoring his talons.
‘Do you also still work on the Abbey?’
‘No and yes,’ the joker confessed. ‘The Archbishop decided he didn’t want any dirty jokers mucking around his precious abbey, especially now with the coronation coming up, but he doesn’t know his arse from a hole in the ground, and he certainly can’t tell the difference between stonework carved with a nat’s chisel and a joker’s beak. And I’ve got a couple of mates who take jobs off site, and if he doesn’t give me a pass to the coronation? Who’s going to count the gargoyles on Westminster Abbey when the Queen’s visiting?’
Security, thought Foxworthy, especially if the grey gryphon had told that story before. But he was thinking like a military man, not a pensioner, and so what if some joker wanted to get a gargoyle’s eye view of the coronation?
‘There you go.’ Foxworthy chuckled. ‘So, gentlemen, I’ve been out of circulation. What does one do to pass the time here? And what’s been happening in the world?’
The answers to both, it turned out, were the papers. Jokers might be ignored, but newspaper circulation departments took money from anyone, and the advent of the wild card had done little to change the British press other than to add more lurid stories to the tabloids and slightly raise their credibility, since the wild card had rendered the unbelievable the merely unlikely. Other features remained unchanged: Lady Mabel Fortescue-Harrison, despite now claiming to be an ace, still provided prophecies and horoscopes no more accurate than before, leading to even more amusement. Most of the headlines seemed to be about the continuing manhunt for Spring-heeled Jack, who every week knocked over another jeweller or pawnbroker, leading Scotland Yard on a merry chase before disappearing into thin air and often a puff of smoke.
Lord Webb-Johnson’s testimony was pretty much unimpeachable – a peer and wealthy doctor besides, he had little reason to lie. So assuming the younger Francis Fisher had returned to life, now able to fly, what reason would Fisher have to not reveal himself to the world?
Foxworthy knew a very good reason: if a man made of flint needed to eat dirt and combustibles with the odd scrap of glass or metal thrown in, a man made of sterling silver should need similar sustenance: namely silver. What silver tasted like to Francis Fisher was a matter of conjecture – ham, maybe – but it was conceivably something he needed to stay alive.
And being from a family of theatricals, it would be easy for Fisher to costume himself as Spring-heeled Jack – an opera cloak, spare wings from Varney the Vampire. And the shining steel claws sounded like an easy mistake to make for someone seeing fingerless gloves worn by silver hands. Add to that the police reports in which bullets had not stopped him, nor caused him to bleed, which the police had assumed was because he wore armour? Being made of silver also explained it.
Even the glowing red eyes were explicable. According to the papers, some wild card powers were more common than others, enhanced strength being one, which Spring-heeled Jack was said to have … as did Foxworthy. But his stone came with a stove inside that made his eyes glow, so it stood to reason that Francis Fisher’s silver contained a similar furnace – one that evidently belched smoke at times too.
Foxworthy missed his pipe.
But no one had been killed or seriously injured aside from one man with a broken leg. Frightened, certainly: jewellers had been threatened with metal claws, police bowled over as Spring-heeled Jack flew away, sometimes with fire shooting out of his eyes, and Foxworthy intimately knew the wild card biology behind that. The poor young man forced to steal to stay alive rather than go back to the living hell of being a frozen statue. Foxworthy had only had a taste of it, and it was enough to make any man cry.
It was a wonder Fisher wasn’t mad.
No one had suffered major harm save some insurance companies. For all the fuss in the Daily Mirror about guards being doubled at the Tower of London because of Queen Margaret’s fears for the safety of Queen Victoria’s ridiculous silver punchbowl, no museums had been burgled apart from the original disappearance of the silver statue at the Hunterian. And honestly, a man couldn’t steal himself.
And if Her Majesty’s Army had decided that they didn’t need the services of a joker? Then they didn’t need his services.
Wally was good to his word and the pension arrived. Harry made certain he had a nice change of suits. James located his pipe which had been missing since Foxworthy’s body had been packed off to the Hunterian. And Crispin Barbour proved to be as good a barber as a sculptor, chiselling off Foxworthy’s stony beard and sculpting his hair, keeping him from looking like a hellish effigy of Swinburne.
That was what was good in Foxworthy’s life.
The bad? The Vicar of Aldworth was much better at sending apologies than money, which explained how the Archbishop of Canterbury got word that a joker had the audacity to rise from the dead, then spent his Easter sermon insulting him, preaching how the resurrection of Christ was far better than any false miracles from the wild card.
Foxworthy burned that article. He had no problem with Christ, but compared with what he had gone through, rolling aside a stone and getting greeted by your family and friends sounded like a lovely way to spend a Sunday.
But the worst thing was, apart from the pension, there was nothing further from Wally. Or Alice. And he couldn’t even blame them. What were they supposed to do, bring him his namesake, then watch him tear up and shoot the child with flaming paraffin? He was a freak and a monster, and the world had wisely decided it should have nothing to do with him.
His fellow freaks and monsters were of a different opinion, but they had their own problems. John Gully still visited his brothers on Mondays, but had the cruelty to mention that he’d found a sweetheart – a nat, naturally – who was of course fine with the handsome Lookout, but didn’t want to visit a plague ship to have tea with his brother, the three-headed giant. And a gryphon gargoyle. And a demonic statue escaped from a pagan altar.
And while Foxworthy comforted the Jameses, the fact remained that James was still mostly human, and it would be easier to find a woman who fancied a three-headed giant than one who wanted an inhuman gargoyle or a razor-edged stone giant who shat flaming bricks.
Or one might have Harry’s problem, to be desired by an endless number of women – and no few men – but have nothing to offer them. Or even himself.
But there were still the papers. ‘Oh, listen to this,’ Jamie began nattering to his brothers about one of the endless parade of vulgar American senators, Joseph McCarthy, who had just founded a group of government aces with the truly pretentious acronym SCARE.
Foxworthy paused his self-pity long enough to ask, ‘What does it stand for?’
Jamie replied, ‘Sodding Cunt Americans. Really? Earnestly?’
Jimmy told his triplet, ‘Yes, but Jamie’s is more accurate. Oh, look, here’s a bit about our Ermine Queen.’
Lady Arkwright had become something of a folk heroine among the jokers on the Queen Mary. A wealthy eccentric to begin with, once she was allowed to leave, she did. But rather than cloister herself in her townhouse in Holborn, letting the world forget her, she donned a pair of smoked glasses, made certain her living stole of ermines was clean and groomed, and set out to live her life exactly as she had before and damn anyone who got in her way. To that end she had her summer weasels, the nickname the press had given to the retinue of solicitors she used to threaten legal action to any shopkeeper who sought to bar her.
‘Perhaps later,’ Foxworthy said. ‘Anything happier?’
Jamie and Jimmy each grabbed a newspaper, flipping them open so Jim could see too. ‘Ooh!’ he exclaimed. ‘Spring-heeled Jack was seen in Belfast! And not at a jeweller’s either. At the lodge of the Society of Nuada.’
Jim added, ‘Supposedly a poetry and folklore society.’
‘Spring-heeled Jack broke all their arms and set fire to the place,’ reported Jimmy.
‘What did he take?’
‘According to this, “their holy regalia”,’ said Jimmy.
‘Sounds like a cult,’ Jim concluded. His brothers nodded.
Seasons changed, spring into summer, summer to autumn, then even autumn faded into the Christmas season, the calendar turning to December, and Foxworthy found himself crying.
He patted at the flames, but knew the reason. This wouldn’t be his first Christmas a joker, but it would be his first alive as a joker. And his first without his mother. It had been a special time for her, even more important after his father died, and with the war over, he’d been planning to spend it with her, with Alice as his fiancée.
Knaves Over Queens by George R. R. Martin / Fantasy / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes