from The Tumbling Ring
“Her puissant majesty the Queen,” boomed the Chamberlain, who had appeared just behind Jacky’s left shoulder, “my ladies and my lords, may I present Jacqueline Clotilde Snow.”
The party-goers looked up with smiles on their faces, as though the next entertainment had just arrived. The Chamberlain took Jacky by the elbow and gently moved her forward. “Perhaps,” he said in a low voice as they walked, “a single deep curtsey would suffice.”
“All right,” said Jacky, who felt that the Chamberlain might be the closest thing she had to a friend within an hour’s drive. “Do I look at her?”
“Of course,” said the Chamberlain. “She would like you to.”
“Do I meet her eyes?”
“I think you could,” he said softly, after a moment’s thought.
As they closed the distance, it became clear to Jacky which one was the Queen. She had seen Kazanakazan’s portrait in a number of places already, all the way back to Ontonos’s tavern wall. Given the Queen’s wizardry, it was unnecessary to doctor the pictures to make her look better: anything other than pure realism would have been a waste of a perfectly good collection of charisma spells and youth and beauty items. So here she was, looking exactly the way she wished to look: a bit taller than Jacky and thus as tall as the third tallest man in the room, seemingly dressed in jewelry and enormous amounts of pale golden hair. She was clearly centuries old and completely without makeup but showed nary a wrinkle or spot. The Queen took a step and a half toward the approaching pair, and they were the step and a half of a goddess in her grace.
She was smiling, but her pale blue eyes were staring down her visitor. Jacky cast her eyes down, then let them flutter up to check the result: the Queen’s smile was just a millimeter wider, as if she felt she had already won.
They came within perhaps ten meters, and the Chamberlain softly cleared his throat. Jacky went into her curtsey. Despite a lack of practice, she carried it off pretty well.
“Your puissant majesty,” said Jacky, “I am your humble servant.”
“Oh, I should hope so,” said the Queen in a voice like a woodland stream plunging over sharp rocks.
Jacky’s skin prickled. She had just a little of the feeling that she got when huge spells were flying. This woman might very well try to destroy her, and unlike Ankalish and Onkfar, this woman might be able to pull it off. Jacky wanted to ask if they could talk in private. She wanted to wave a flag of truce and get some serious issues out of the way in a rational conversation. At the very least, she wanted to know what the rules were. But here she was, facing this person who might or might not be a foe, who might or might not be her match, at least here in the Queen’s milieu, in front of a couple of dozen of the Queen’s most reliable fans.
With the acrid smell of embedded items on the air.
Jacky thought of several things she might want to say: “Excuse me, your puissant majesty, I just remembered that I left my bath running on the other side of the universe. Excuse me, your puissant majesty, I’d just like to take a year or two to think things over and get back to this audience later. Excuse me, your puissant majesty, I’d like to call a time out.”
Instead, she took a breath, bowed a little and said, “How then may I serve?”
“How may you serve. How may you serve?” the Queen repeated, thinking it over with a smile. She looked back to the nearest several beautiful people. “There must be some way. Will you serve me in any way I ask? I am accustomed to no less, isn’t that so, my friends?”
The beautiful people responded with giggles. Jacky became acutely aware of her grubbiness. She was clean, of course, as were her clothes, but she had the air of outside on her. And more than that, she felt as if she were the only one in black and white, and everyone else was in color. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Perhaps the whole scene was in a drab natural lighting, but the Queen and her friends were colorized.
“Your majesty,” Jacky began.
“Your puissant majesty,” inserted a giggling young lady near her.
“Your puissant majesty,” said Jacky. She cleared her throat. Everyone stopped giggling and smiled indulgently at her. The Queen arched an eyebrow. They were all waiting for something very amusing to come out.
“Your puissant majesty,” Jacky began again, with delicately exaggerated patience, “no, it is not the case that I will serve you in any way you ask. Your majesty may,” she said louder to rise above the giggles, “be accustomed to no less, but that is because people like your humble servant come rarely to your court.”
“You say you are my humble servant,” said the Queen, with an amused pout, “yet you are not my servant, or so you state, and you do not seem especially humble.”
“She is dressed humbly enough,” said another female courtier.
“That is true,” said the Queen. “She is dressed like a technician.”
“It’s not the first time I’ve been called that,” said Jacky.
“Is that what you are?” asked the first of the giggling courtiers to speak. “A traveling technician, come to fix up our items?”
Jacky waited while they had a laugh at that, using the time to think up and shelve several aggressive or defensive replies. She opened her mouth and held that pose, as if frozen in the act of speaking, while several more clever remarks occurred to the female courtiers. The male courtiers just smiled. The Queen just smiled, her very pale blue eyes fixed on Jacky’s.
“Yet she is no technician,” said the Queen, her smile somewhat faded. “As to why she is here, I think she will at some point let us in on that.”
“I am here,” said Jacky calmly, “because someone asked me to be here.”
This caused a certain amount of hilarity, but not as much as before. The Queen was somehow restraining her friends, pulling back the reins of the courtly horses before they ran away with the carriage. Jacky took a subtle look around the crowd, just to make sure it really was as homogeneous as it seemed. And it was not.
At the back, off to one side, holding a small glass of clear golden liquid, smiling but not laughing, was a handsome man of middle age made young again. Now she stole a second look, she thought perhaps his age was actually very great, though his face, like the Queen’s, was unlined and his hair and goatee were solidly brown.
She knew that face. She wanted to know it better. Of all the beautiful people before her, he drew her. Not like the Queen: her cleavage alone cast a powerful spell, pulling Jacky with a magnetism so great that it was barely exceeded by the powerful repulsion Jacky felt. But this man, handsome and yet not sparkling with youth and energy and charisma, drew her. She had not noticed him before, and she wondered how she hadn’t, so great was his attraction, as physical as gravity.
But there was something else about him. She knew what it was, but she had difficulty accepting it as fact. For here before her stood, glass in hand, slight smile on face, the very Zenkfakash who had been overthrown and killed two hundred years ago.
Of course there was no problem about that. Even in Rion, people were sometimes brought back from death. It could not be done if the person had no great power or knowledge of his or her own, and it could not be done without someone else expending great energy, both magical and emotional. In Kazmin, where the very air crackled, magical energy was not an issue. And this man could certainly attract the emotional energy needed.
So here he was, assassinated by the usurper Shakkafar, whose own usurper lasted but a year or two and was succeeded by a similarly brief usurper, and so on until Queen Kazanakazan came along to provide the nearest thing to Zenkfakash that Kazmin was likely to get. It was not very near. At the least, she certainly had his magical power, and whatever else she lacked, she made up for with sheer gall.
The Queen seemed not to have noticed Jacky’s glance wavering and dodging toward her predecessor. She smiled a little wider and said, as if indulging Jacky’s fanciful tale, “And who would it be that asked you to be here? It was not my puissant majesty. Who else is there?”
“Your puissant majesty,” said Jacky, “perhaps here in open audience is not the place for your humble servant to discuss such things.”
“If your puissant majesty prefers a private audience—?”
“And should my puissant majesty wish to be in private audience with a mysterious if oddly dressed stranger wearing a—?” She let her smiling eyes visit Jacky’s ring.
As if you should be afraid of me, Jacky wanted to say. Instead, she said, “I’m just not sure that—that it would be productive to discuss—here, in front of—”
“We’re all friends here,” said the Queen. “Aren’t we?” Of course this was answered by a loose but unanimous chorus of agreement.
Jacky couldn’t think of anything safe to say, so she shut her mouth and smiled. She looked behind her, expecting the Chamberlain to be there, but he was nowhere to be seen. Her eyes lit for a moment on Zenkfakash, who was watching her, watching the scene, with a very slight smile. Jacky looked back at Kazanakazan, hoping she would not notice her glance at Zenkfakash.
The Queen had been watching her the whole time, but her gaze had not moved to follow Jacky’s eyes: the Queen was more interested in what was behind those blue eyes than in what was in front of them. Kazanakazan moved to the left a little, with a dancer’s hip swing, and then took a step closer. Now she was easily within slapping distance, almost within kissing distance. Jacky could see she wore more than just jewelry and hair: she wore a gown of something both silvery and flesh-colored, which shimmered as she moved and yet also looked a lot like skin changing under light and shadow. Her terribly pale eyes, her hypnotic smile, and the clear gem that hung in the abyss of her cleavage: these were the stage on which the play of desire and threat were played out. In that gem: what could Jacky see now, shadow and light? What in the Many-verse could she not see there?
Except that Jacky Clotilde was a very difficult theater critic. All these items, all these spells upon spells, all these powers, physical, magical, spiritual, emotional: the special effects were state of the art indeed, but Jacky could not help recognizing them as special effects.
Jacky Clotilde had stood in the throne room of Lakanth: or if she hadn’t, she was going to. The future and the past, light and shadow. There she was, she was sure: she just wasn’t sure if she remembered it or foresaw it. Queen Kazanakazan of Kazmin was an actor, a very good and very well costumed actor on a subtle and complex stage, but if she was playing someone, she was playing L. Lakanth was L. There was no comparison.
On the other hand, Kazanakazan, here, had every reason to commit an outrage, and perhaps, just possibly, she could destroy Jacky Clotilde. That would be sufficient outrage.
“Maybe it’s all about you, my dear,” said the Queen from what seemed millimeters away. “Maybe the whole game is about you.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Jacky. “Am I to take that as a—?” But she couldn’t quite make herself say the word threat.
“I think you know,” said the Queen.
“I think I don’t,” said Jacky, gaining confidence. Zenkfakash shifted. She did not dare look to see his expression.
“Ah, she contradicts! At last, someone who will contradict me.” Kazanakazan smiled over her shoulder at her beautiful people, then turned her terribly pale eyes on Jacky again, at 110% power. “You say you came here for an audience,” she said. “And yet you also say someone you know asked you to come. Perhaps your friend fears to face me. I wonder why that would be.”
“Your puissant majesty, I can think of a reason or two.”
“Is it because I could destroy your friend with a wave of my pinky finger? Is it because here in Kazmin resides a power that could destroy a—a person who wears—?” She smiled down at Jacky’s pale blue gem.
Jacky smiled back. She remembered a line from an Elvish play. “Your puissant majesty,” she said very softly, “let us not hold up our blades to the light, to see whose steel is sharpest.”
“Because it might be mine?” replied the Queen.
Jacky let the question hang between them. She smiled at the Queen, waiting for her to make the next move. Jacky was tired of outrages, tired of outrageousness. She had a sudden longing for earnestness, for a serious discussion of the major issues and controversies. She almost wished Gremhar were here: at least she would know exactly where she stood with him.
The Queen held Jacky’s eyes for a minute, perhaps, and then laughed and broke off. She turned and began to walk away, saying, “My dear, I think we have had enough amusement for now. You may go, you will be called in time for the banquet. Come, my friends, let us get some more drinks and see what the actors can do for us.”
Then she and her beautiful people, laughing and making jokes, filtered slowly out of the hall through a set of double doors, like bubbly wine down a drain. Jacky watched them, stunned, relieved, confused and vexed. Then she turned, expecting that the Chamberlain would have come from nowhere to take her back to her room. There was no one there, just the harps playing all by themselves for no one but her. She took it in for a moment, as the last of the beautiful people bubbled out the door.
One lingered, taking a long look up the hall. It was Zenkfakash, the man who had been king. He looked on all this magical empire of a chamber and turned, with an almost audible sigh, a slight smile on his face. Just for a moment, his eyes crossed Jacky’s body. Bashfully, she smiled, but he was already gone.
Jacky backed away from the door by which the Queen and her friends had departed. She felt as if she had seen a ghost, although she knew ghosts fairly well and was fairly sure there was not one in the immediate vicinity. Ghosts, she said to herself, did not survive well in strong ordered penton fields, and this ballroom was as strong and ordered a penton field as she had been in for a long time. It almost rivaled Sinafror itself, hall of Antor the emperor of the fallen elves, and then the endless and insurmountable stronghold of Lakanth herself—almost. Kazanakazan thought she could take Lakanth, just like she thought the City of Kazmin was the rival of Sinafror. It was almost worth a laugh.
But Jacky was a little too spooked to laugh. Kazanakazan could almost take L, but Jacky was less than L. Kazmin was almost on a par with Sinafror, but Jacky was sure she couldn’t have made it out of Sinafror untrapped.
But, but. But Jacky had that odd little memory. She had made it out of Sinafror untrapped. Or perhaps she wouldn’t: perhaps she had a new doom, and no one had told her. But if that was so, then this was not her doom, that was. Her chronology might be convoluted, but it was still a chronology. She could not have two dooms. Could she?
One seemed a great plenty. Jacky had been hopelessly attracted to one ghost already, the lost Tarhan in the world after Fai. And being hopelessly attracted to one ghost seemed like as many as one living woman needed. And then here was old Zenkfakash, except he did not seem old at all, except for his eyes. Just like Jacky. And he was only a former ghost.
She had backed up to the point where she could look to her right and see the harps plinking themselves. Or were they. Perhaps ghosts were doing it. Ah, spirit servants, not ghosts: ghosts could not survive in such a strong ordered penton field, right?
But weren’t the spirit servants on strike? Maybe these were scab spirit servants?
Jacky shook her head. “I need to get myself together,” she muttered. “This damn place is getting to me.”
It was hard to pick just one scene from The Tumbling Ring.
When I toot my own horn, when I say I am as good a writer as many who actually do have publishing contracts, I’m thinking of just a few of my novels. This very day I finished Number 20, Girl Necromancer. It’s pretty good and it’s going to be boffo when I finish fixing it (which I never will). But Tumbling Ring and a few others, maybe Bluehorse and Vivian and Circle’s End and perhaps Tereza, are at this level. I reread Tumbling Ring and every page crackles. And I know all the twists and turns.
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