The Dragonbone Petticoat

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Chapter 9 (Tentatively: Fool's First Words)

The Emperor scowled. His tea was lukewarm. While his servant had decanted a steaming cup, every time he was about to sip, Gaspar asked a question. Even for questions idiots would consider self-evident or rhetorical, Gaspar would wait patiently and obsequiously for his answer.

Moreover, however much it pained the Emperor to think meanly of one of his loyal minions—especially after kicking Gaspar very far upstairs, within hollering distance of the throne—the Vanoori turncoat hatched more than his share of dumb questions, magnificently dumb questions.

(Insert rhetorical and dumb questions here: stuff about Klyrn, Vanoor, food, their purposes, maps, bodily functions,

“Will you be eating breakfast, your majesty.”

“Yes, Gaspar.”

“Will you be wanting a breath of fresh air, your majesty?”

“<grumble>”

“What was that, your majesty? Would you like me to repeat the question?”

“I do like to breathe, Gaspar. And while there’s nothing wrong with my ears, I like to hear myself think.”

“How far will we journey, your majesty?”

Like a weed that sprouted in every nook and cranny, Gaspar must always get a word in where he can. The Emperor clapped to his sitar players. He hated the sitar, but their buzzing meow might drone over Gaspar. At their first hissing strains, The Emperor leaned back, clasped his arms under his robe, and sighed. “Until the stink of townies clears my nostrils.” While the emperor missed the scents of his stables, and the proud flesh of his steeds—horses, an ostrich, various dracoils, and a number of wyverns—this was mainly a slight on Gaspar, who had such a bland flavor that the Emperor would prefer not to look at the toadie, and look through him instead, at the brocaded tapestries, oil paintings, and colored glass lamps collected at great cost by the depraved Lady of this manor from the coffers of its decrepit, deposed Lord. While such wealth was truly offensive, as it was sown in greed, reaped by transgression, and relished in corruption, wickedness was spicy and Gaspar needed seasoning.

The Emperor sighed, averted his eyes from Gaspar, and raised his teacup.

“Do you believe in the soul, your Majesty?”

How Gaspar got from the length of their journey to what might exist after the length of a mortal journey, the emperor did not deign to understand.

“How can I not, when vultures beseech me? Souls are such needy creatures, forever feeding on meaning, that it would be better if they vanished, leaving me a field of fat, willing subjects.”

This was when one of the Emperor’s pages, the small, blonde Vanoori he had bought upon arrival—while the Vanoori pretended not to practice slavery, her parents were happy to rent her in perpetuity for a flat fee, and call it apprenticeship—pattered down the flagstones, past gleaming flagpoles waving the Klyrnish flag, past brocaded tapestries of diving hawks, falcons and griffins, and past the proudest appliance in the place, its former Lady, Renae Vargun, now on hands and knees, scrubbing the stones with rags and a sea-sponge, every now and then bequeathing magnanimously a surly, murderous scowl and a curled, quivering lip upon the Emperor.

As the page pumped her arms pell-mell, her face flushed as if she had run all the way from the Capitol. Though she flailed her arms, she could not bring herself to a stop at the foot of his throne, fell over his pointed shoes, then thrust up a rattling tube.

The Emperor uncapped the tube, tapped out the scroll, and read it as he unfurled it, winding each line back into the roll, which he then tipped back into the tube.

“Was that important news, your majesty?”

The Emperor neither replied, nor deigned to regard Gaspar, but sank deeper into his robes in profound satisfaction. When he smiled and looked down, the girl still knelt at his feet, though she had scooted a foot away from his curled shoes. “You are my reply. Toromal.” From the ranks of armor-clad pikemen lining the walls, the squat but deep-chested soldier marched to the base of the throne, planted the buttof his weapon with an echoing crack, then knelt behind the girl. Though his steel and oak spear was at least twenty pounds, and the small, kneeling warrior had neither the weight nor the leverage to make this easy, the hand clutching the leaning shaft was white-knuckled but unwavering.

“Your majesty.”

“You shall take this girl to Ouldrach, wait at Pearl for a ship, then return with my cargo.”

“Pearl, your majesty?”

“It’s a dock, I believe. Head for the harbor.”

“The message, your majesty?”

“You may take it with you, if you wish.” The Emperor handed Toromal the scroll.

“But this was for your eyes, your majesty.”

“Blessed are you who may read what was meant for the Emperor.” When Toromal stood dumbstruck, the Emperor said, “read it, Toromal. Now.”

Having read the note, Toromal’s brow crinkled and his eyes narrowed, but with a profound discipline, he managed not to look at the page girl. “I understand, your majesty.”

“Leave that here, Toromal. Let it not be known that I rescind gifts, but I think it’s best for safekeeping.”

“Yes, your majesty. Should I not have a note, for appearances’ sake? One could assume from things left unsaid.”

“Very well,” grumbled the Emperor. “Gaspar! Give me a page and a stylus at once.”

“Your majesty?”

“I’ve finished my tea, Gaspar. There’s no need for pointless questions.”

“But I am the scribe, your majesty...”

“For now. And I am the Emperor. Give me a page and a stylus.” Upon receiving the shivering leaf of paper and the wavering pen from Gaspar’s shaking hands, the Emperor scribbled a few lines he had never been able to forget from The High Earth and the Quaking Sky, then swapped this note with the scroll in the tube. “Depart at once.”

“Yes, your majesty. Come, girl,” said Toromal. “You’re to come with me to Ouldrach.”

“Ouldrach? What about my family?”

“Come.” Toromal’s authoritative whisper roared in the sitting room’s antique paneling. “Do not embarrass his majesty.”

***

“Let me out of here!”

Leonidas rattled the bars of the brig the best he could, given that they were still slippery from piss, which was already clammy and chilled though the captain whizzed it a minute ago with the steamed vehemence he might have reserved for repelling pirates with cannonballs.

“You’re only here because the sea’s too good for you, Andercruik!”

“Pfaugh!” Leonidas spat through the dripping bars. “You’re to blame, you mad, oversized harpy egg!”

“Me?” Fury clumped to the humongous, hairy sea captain as his eyes bulged, his chin and neck juttted, his shadow bulked to twice its normal size, and his muscles protruded, as if by leaning on Leonidas the sea captain might pierce him with the rage-inflated points of his body.

While the ramshackle cell would be in serious danger from any collision with the ogrish man, being the master of keys on the frigate, he could lay his hands on Leonidas whenever he wished. Although Leonidas was cowed by the hairy giant, he was still riding the murderous wrath that seethed at the captain’s ransoming schemes, and vented his frustrations spitefully, first rolling a barrel of salt pork into the sea, then breaking the arm of the cabin boy who served him a cold meal in his initial hour of confinement, for which Leonidas was dragged to the brig, then sprayed by the irate captain.

“Captain!” His broken arm bound to his chest with a swath from an old sail, the cabin boy stooped as he hollered down the stair.

“Back to your post!”

“I’m not on duty, Captain!”

“Your post and your duty are bed, boy, until you sleep away your injury. I’ll skin a few more years out of you before I let you be worn out by a bad bump.”

“That’s just it, Captain. He’s here.”

“Who’s here?”

“Actually, did you advertise for two?”

“Two what?”

“My replacements.”

Grumbling, the captain clawed his keys from his pouch, rattled the cell door with an impatient urgency, then, as Leonidas lunged on all fours under his muscular bow legs—which, clad in black oilskin, looked more like lamp posts then limbs—the captain snatched the villain in the air with one fist, cuffed him four times with the other, then dragged him upstairs, taking great care to jar Leonidas’s noble head on each stair, then the iron handle of the deck door.

“Ridiculous,” sneered the burly captain.

“Then tell me which is which,” said the cabin boy.

It was, indeed, hard to say which was the emperor’s offering and which was his messenger.

While the shadow on his cheeks and chin said he was older than his previous cabin boys, and he was accoutered like a high-ranking officer, in sateen livery trimmed with gold thread, he was so short that the effect was of a jaunty mechanical soldier marched out of his clock. The instant the captain laid eyes on him, he knew him for the emperor’s toy. His charge--unless the captain was very much mistaken, and their roles were indeed reversed—was no boy at all, although she would not be the first girl to serve him in lieu of a real boy. Real boys were born trouble, and if you thwarted their petty ambitions, they matured into men corrupted by resentment and inferiority, while propping up their successess spoiled them with entitlement. Even those that swaggered on a moderate path—those too stupid to know or too easy-going to care about what they wanted—having settled for second best too many times, soon tottered under a heavy cargo of rotting desires and unexamined dreams. As girls, on the other hand, were all born captains, and took to a chain of command like a duck to water, he got along with them just fine.

“Does your emperor know me?” said the captain.

When the stunted, garishly armored man boomed in reply, hatches quivered in their jambs. “Bow to the name of his majesty, Emperor of Klyrn!”

“What?” The captain couldn’t believe his ears.

Might personified in miniature, the tiny man roared even louder. “Bow to the name of his majesty, The Emperor of Klyrn!” As he emphasized the definite article of His Majesty, The Emperor, vehement spittle flicked from his gnashing teeth, accompanied by the accordion press of his toy dog ribs, which he hunched over in a surprisingly effective attempt to appear taller.

“Bow to the name?” Awe, amusement, and contempt mingled in the captain’s tone. “What does that even mean?”

“Just say he bowed, man,” piped up the cabin boy. “He’ll never do it.”

“Not on your life! Bow on my own ship? Kowtow to a tattooed mercenary whose bottom adheres to the right chair? If you say I even nodded in his imaginary direction, I’ll keelhaul you!” he roared, then let his oddly muscular jaw knot into a grotesque smile as he bent into a burlesque position, expelled a monstrous wind that Leonidas would later swear cast a subtle haze in the air, then added, ” this is the only kiss I’ll blow for his majesty! And he should thank me for the favor! I’m the one postponing a five thousand gold payday! Do we have a deal or not?”

When the scowling toy soldier pushed the dumbstruck girl forward, she remained utterly silent, like a doll, a statue, or some other commodity collected by a rich man.

As she stared accusingly at Toromal, a shriveled tear, no bigger than an orange pip, slid down his cheek. “King’s orders, girl.”

“Yes, she’ll do nicely.” The captain’s coarse voice became slick, like sand dribbling in an hourglass. As his pawful of girl was clasped to one side, he mauled Leonidas with the other, passing the trussed lord to Toromal, who heaved the much larger traitor nearly four yards over the shadowy sea between both ships, to land on the adjacent deck.

“You’ve only changed castles, girl.” The vulturous captain’s mighty fist tightened on her livery, and she dangled as he carried her below deck. “Only a truculent lass would find it a prison, but no walls are thicker or lonelier than the sea.”

Sprawling dead weight in his ogrish grip, the girl whispered “why,” and tears slid messily from her eyes and nose, a blubbering grief that greased her chin and the damp ends of her swinging locks.

“Your gods said it: ‘no greater coward than a king.’ Or is it ‘no greater king than a coward?’ No matter. When we meet face to face, I’ll find his heart for you the hard way, by hand.” He held up his other gnarled claw of a hand. It was a twisted, ugly lump of muscle and sinew that rightly belonged in a nightmare, however much it fit the vulturous captain.

When her snuffling became a fatter, bloated monster of self-pity, he sighed. “Laughing boys find the sea a lark, but a ship is hell for a weepy boy.”

“I’m not a boy!” She dripped a tearful trail as the hirsute bird-man swaggered, his arm lobbing back and forth with an incredibly long, ostrich-like gait, not only suited to the baggy, billowing cut of his pants, but to wading through the heavy currents of his monstrous life. As his arm lobbed back and forth, her head flopped and wagged, spraying tears in a wide circle.

“Pay attention, girl. You’ve had a career change. You’re my new ships’s boy.”

With a stoop and a hairy ham thrust of his fist, the monstrous captain punched open a small door and stuffed her inside so forcefully that, unable to find her backpedaling feet, she stumbled, thrashed, and foundered on a mattress so knotty that her crashing momentum knocked the wind out of her, which not only cut off the air to her weeping, but when she at last gasped down a swallow of air, she expelled it in an indignant explosion, racing forward with a flurry of fists an a whooping screech from which the monstrous captain took a step back, nonplussed, before grinning, sniggering, and doffing his cap, which he held to his chest in a caricature of manners that was a ruder, grosser offense than the snicker.

“Get out!” she yelled. “Get out, you hairy brute!”

“I’ll oblige you, lass. For now, you’re our guest. Tomorrow, your trial begins in earnest. Holler all you like, but be warned: I’m disinclined to allow the feet of a whiny ship’s boy on my deck.”

“Then you’ll send me back? Do it!”

“No.” His monstrous snort roared, whistled, and wheezed as it blew, as if his lungs concealed as many hidden horrors as an underground cave. “If you don’t tread the boards, you’ll tread water. In any case, tread carefully, boy.” Having emphasized her new role in life, he slammed the door,

***

At the rattle on the trap door, Renae bolted up, casting the scrathy sackcloth blanket to the floor. Yesterday, at breakfast, she had spilled her chamber pot down the trap door, and when lunch and dinner didn’t appear, hunger pangs ravaged her sleep, then kept her in bed well past noon the next day. While she was hardly chastised, a more ravenous, miserable misfit could not be clawed out of hell.

Having creaked open the trap door, her jailer slid the tray on the floor, then sealed her room shut. The echo of his footsteps were soon drowned out by her gurgling belly. When her oatmeal and coffee were cold, her juice warm and half-drank, and her apple munched, she repeated her new, self-pitying mantra: “Hell!”

Hell was her new first word, for while anything else set off the clamoring chaos bells, she could say Hell with meaning and sense, having not remembered it in a fiery, sparking cloud of associations, but relearned it, as if again newborn, and Hell her only inappropriate question, as well as her stock response for any orders or condescending remarks. Too often, her jailors assumed she had no understanding, that her memories were cobwebs, her mad brain a spider to step on, and her insanity only the side-effect of knotting together eight common failings--foolishness, stupidity, wickedness, stubbornness, mischief, selfishness, jealousy, and violence--into one brooding creature. While before, they had talked to themselves as if she wasn’t there, treating her like a beast that yapped at every pleasantly phrased insult, this stopped when she started growling, “Hell.”

While their loose lips were now buttoned, they now treated her to nothing but silence as they acted out their orders, such as now, when the trap door banged open, and the pole of a broom rattled in the jamb.

“Hell,” she shouted indignantly, then pulled on her frock, an ancient raiment of cracked and faded leather handed down long ago from her guards to the kitchen help before finding its way to the manor’s old mistress. In different decades it had been armor, then an apron, and now a madwoman’s buckled nightgown. Having cinched her belt and pulled on her boots, she clambered down the ladder to the landing below, where she picked up the broom.

“Day bugs and bed rot, my ginger stalks,” grumbled Renae. Having trundled downstairs to the tower door, she shouldered it aside, and was promptly seized by the guards flanking the door, one to each arm.

“Worm snatch my tangled hour, ogre bellows,” she hollered, as they dragged her across the grassy bailey, barged through the foyer door, then dragged her over flagstones to the ballroom where the Emperor had set up an impromptu throne by covering one of her prized antique dining room chairs with a massive ermine-trimmed velour throw she had imported at great cost with half the grain she had taxed from her serfs. And it was during the famine year that had shorted her crop and decimated her farmers, so grain was pricey.

“Sweep.” The tallest guard was a profundly ugly brute made of muscles clustered without any sense of proportion, less like a body than a heap of mashed potatoes topped by a pocked, rotten apple. When he rattled the broom on her ribs and chin, she seized it in both hands and rattled back, but the guard was so immense that the handle only stood fast, tore her palms, and made her wrists ache. When he repeated, “sweep,” and gave another coarse shove, she stumbled against the wall, but was roughly held upright by another guard.

“And listen.” When the emperor’s cool, mellow voice cut through the tinny acoustics of the airy ballroom, and three wrens, perched on the open skylight, trilled a lilting birdsong, for one nonsensical moment it seemed to Renae that he had paid for their accompaniment.

“While we enjoy your hospitality, Lady Vargun,” the Emperor began without a trace of condescension or pretense, “we will take our leave for warmer climes. That said, we so appreciate your companionship that you may accompany us on our rounds of your savage land.”

Where was Gaspar? On turning to look for her former brother-in-law, she observed, in the corner of her eye, and in a moment fat with satisfaction, that the Emperor’s features reddened until his dusky complexion became as bright as copper. While she had not intended to snub the Emperor, or leave without his permission, in that instant she owned the discourtesty, for in truth, she had long felt it, not only for his majesty, but for anything, human, animal, alive, dead, or even the inanimate. Her misanthropy had long passed through the mere human to consume the totality of existence; it had molted into a hungry new misery, not misanthropy but misreality.

“Gazebo crossing,” said Renae, with cool aplomb. Levelling her darkest gaze upon the Emperor, she added, “and apple the skies.”

Although his apoplexy had not diminished, and the Klyrnish monarch gripped his makeshift throne until his knuckles were white, and his brow creased so deep that it seemed his tattooed dragon was cleaved by the madness tattooed on Renae’s brain, he could no longer suppress a titter, which erupted into a gleeful howl. Wiping tears of mirth and rage, he said “You’re more fun than a hatbox of snakes.” When Renae scowled, the Emperor’s mask of angry amusement relaxed. “I think you’re enjoying this, Lady Vargun. Shall I tell you a secret? Emperors are also as mad as they want to be.”

His accusation was mere noise, sound without sense. Did he really think she had faked so onerous an affliction for so long? To what end? To have her estate, rank, and self-esteem skinned by the bandit’s mace, her stepson, the probate court, then this petty, tattooed, fraud of a monarch, who, being below average in height, build, brawn—and surely brains, if he really believed she dissembled to no conceivable purpose—could only aspire to mediocrity without the dignity of his birthright and the pride of his conquest, two crowns that now seemed much too big for the fool.

It pushed her so close to the edge of fury that her urge to vocalize made her nearly coherent: “Runny brained egg-man.”

After a tense lull, the Emperor chortled, and his guards broke into a laughter so explosive it was surely forced. “If you insist, Lady Vargun. We leave on the morrow.” His eyes flicked to her face, and he smiled. What had he seen there, or thought he saw? Not only were her words knotted but her face was so snagged in unceasing anger that she always felt hot and flushed. He smiled smugly as he continued: “Don’t fret—you need not ride a fender all the way to Ardem. As I tire of Gaspar and his gift wife, I’ve arranged for you to provide my companionship.”

When she finished sweeping, the Emperor flicked his hand towards the door. “Don’t bother packing, as you’re being upgraded. Wear the clothes we provide.”

Although she felt her face fall into bemused surprise, the guards still treated her as if she was hostile, crooking their arms through hers and dragging her so fast her heels scraped and squeaked along the flagstones.

Having slammed open, then shut, her trap door, she lay where they flung her, face down on her mattress, then flopped onto her back so she could count the corpses that vengeance demanded: Emperor, stepson, Judge, Gaspar, her callous guards, and most of all, for some reason, the beauty, whose flawless face mocked her in the imagined curtain call of corpses; while they were corrupted and defiled by the grave, Gaspar’s second wife was unblemished and immaculate. Though such a rich, spoiled beauty had surely had every whim fulfilled, and been had in every conceivable way, in Renae’s imagination, the beauty was a virgin that her scorn could not corrupt, that the daggers of her mind could not pierce though a thousand flurried on the divine slut flowering in Renae’s enflamed wakefulness. Though the light of Renae’s consciousness dwindled to hot coals, she smoldered through the night, resenting her unwilled admiration for the beauty, and was no less exhausted the next morning when the trap door burst open, its jamb was rattled by a scabbarded sword, and a flung bundle knocked the breath from her lungs.

Renae clawed open the parcel and stared. Who did he think he was? Even an emperor could not make a bull into a chicken, or a tree into a bush. While she hadn’t felt like herself in months, this costume was not suited for Lady Renae Vargyn. Although she admitted it would fit, and even flatter her body--the halter emphasizing her modest attributes, and the skirt revealing her legs, her very best attributes--she did not like what it suggested.

While she thought herself somewhat short of middle-aged, she could not help thinking there were more fetching beauties to share the Emperor’s coach. Why not the beauty? That toady Gaspar surely wouldn’t mind.

Having donned the meager attire, she climbed down the tower steps, exited into crisp morning air, then walked past the whistling guards. Perhaps because she was not clad like a kitchen scullion, when they tried to haul her off, she elbowed them back, and they walked two steps behind her all the way to the carriage house, where her burdened serfs marched under casks, tuns, chests, baskets, bushels, and other luggage, to the half-loaded coaches.

This time, there were nine coaches in the Emperor’s convoy, their number swelled from Renae’s own remise, including a char-a-banc bought at auction, and the fargon, with which the Emperor loaded those sycophants among Renae’s staff who desired a position.

As the travelers turned out to the fleet, there turned out to be more than one captive aristocrat in the group. She felt she should know this person, as there was something familiar about the cruel eyes that followed her embarrassing outfit, and the scornful smile, lit not by lust but by lordly condescension.

While the chained lord’s mirth was restrained, and many in the Emperor’s entourage stifled a laugh, a few derisive guffaws seemed to scurry after her half-nakedness as she boarded the char-a-banc. While its new green and black coat smelled of fresh paint, and while the horses were caparisoned likewise in the Emperor’s colors, she could not help thinking of them as her ensemble, having chosen four roan horses in cultivating her personal style when seeking connections in the Vanoori peerage.

The lord having been shoved in to topple into the seat beside her, his manacled hands were then padlocked to a crossbar presumably installed for that purpose, and perhaps also to divide them from the plush, velvety seats which still waited for the Emperor.

When the captive lord’s manhandlers jostled Renae carelessly as they withdrew, she guessed they fumbled in a less than subtle feel for her barely concealed goods.

When her indignant sigh was drowned out by a roar of profanity, the guards’ heads spun in such a wary glare at the captive lord that she realized they thought him more dangerous than she was, despite the fact that during her captivity, she had broken this one’s tooth with her elbow and bruised the other’s nose with the broom handle. He had gotten off easy, as she was aiming for his crotch, and only when he blocked it had she condescended to bend the handle to thwack his nose. Having hired this handsome brute from an alley just last year, she was not disappointed that he was an abyssmal lackey, as she had only the most salacious intentions for him, but when he proved a disloyal turncoat that changed his colors as easily as the paint laid on her char-a-banc, she saw red.

“Is this journey short?” asked the Lord.

While the handsome brute brayed a vile, bestial laugh, his Klyrnish cohort composed a respectful, submissive expression. “Two days, Lord Andercruik.”

“How do I sleep.”

“On a seat that plush? With pillows that silky soft?” Her brute sneered at Lord Andercruik. “Very easily.”

“Is that supposed to be funny? You didn’t give me any slack.”

“Take my tender apologies to heart, Lord Andercruik,” said the Klyrnish. “It was ordered so by The Emperor, may he live forever.”

As they departed, the crumble of gravel under their boots was soon suppressed by squeals of cruel laughter.

“Why don’t you laugh?” said Lord Andercruik, turning on her a bale and doom-ridden glower that suggested that while he held her in contempt, it was not nearly so low as he, himself, was treated. “You are the fool, after all. Fool away.”

If the halter and skirt were revealing, they were imprinted with such loud and lively red, pink, and purple diamonds that it was hard to see the half-nude woman, not the garish fool. Who could lust after one so ridiculous? Who would dare suggest the emperor had made advances on his new fool? The idea was so ridiculous and audacious that it was bound to happen, she realized, but all she could say was, “asses in the mule cart,” a profound breakthrough followed by weeping, laughing, and the lord dragging at his chains and glaring, murderously, at Renae.

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