June watched a garden snake slither away from the caravan’s metal wheels, all while the world tilted in nauseating rotations, never allowing her steady footing. The bars swirled around, blending together in her vision as one solid entrapment. Kensington slapped her back, burping her like a child.
“That’s it,” he’d been saying, “get it all out of your system.”
She blanched again, shoving her head further out of the bars as the molten stench of alcohol lurched into her throat again. Yellow bile dripped into the wind from the back of her throat. She dry heaved, eyes watering, as something invisible and rotten left her. It felt like the back of her throat was about to push through her mouth and turn her inside out. Then, finally, her system seemed cleansed of the poison, if only for a few moments. She collapsed inward onto the wooden bench, flopping her head against the bars. Hundreds of lumberjacks were along the side of the trail. They took metal teeth of saws and axes to the wood, around newly felled corpses of trees and decapitated stumps. A man sat on a green stump, thumb pressed white to the backside of his knife, whittling a branch into what looked like another knife handle. Sawdust and woodchips carpeted the space between tree trunks as far as the eye could see up the skinned land.
Needles of sunlight glared in her retinas. She buried her face into the corner of her arm. It felt like an axe cleaved her brain in two. She eventually allowed her eyelids up, looking down at her bony forearm in daylight’s unwelcome complexion. Pale skin clung to the bones as if she were the walking dead. She scowled to the blue sky with blood red eyes.
Around them, chiseled slopes of stone flattened unnaturally around the valley like grey pedestals; it looked as though the tops of mountains had been sheared.
“They gutted the Golden Peaks ten years ago,” Kensington said. “Strip mined them from the top down. It’s why the riverbed dried up in the Hollow; there’s no more snowmelt from the peaks to feed the river.”
“Why?” She asked, looking at the hard cuts into the distant stone.
Just over the horizon, gold and white spires grew hazy like clouds in the sky, as if the Kingdom itself reached to the heavens. Clean, square geometry of civilization blocked out the clouds. A crooked stone tower reached above it all, supported by wooden scaffolding around its base. She watched the lumberjacks carrying the butchered logs from the forest, like ants, towards that tower. At its highest point, the sun clashed off a glass clock face.
The chariot left the unkempt forest for the sawn lumber of a covered bridge. They drew to a stop in the grey shadows within. A crew waited with tinsel and flags to garnish the chariot into a King’s vehicle.
Jimmy Gallows stepped out of the front carriage, shrugging his arms into waiting sleeves of a silk crimson vest. He held a hand out for a scepter as one of his lackeys pinned a jewel studded cape around his neck. A team of men led the two bears into nearby cages. A pair of white stallions was hitched in their place. King James Gallant stepped back into the King’s Carriage that Jimmy Gallows had just stepped out of.
The latch to their car opened. A pair of the lumber workers hoisted rope-bound blocks into their car and closed the door again. She stared at the blocks, but couldn’t be bothered to stand. They looked like paper-thin cuts of bark stacked waist high in bundles.
“Parchment sheets,” Sheriff said.
With hands crossed over her stomach, she looked out the wayside of the carriage. Ratty, threadbare people lined the street to see their honorable King roll into town. Crowds of impoverished mistook her for a Vesper outlaw.
“Scum!” a shoeless man with a top hat yelled, pointing into their carriage. She recognized him as the doorman from the fishing shack. A head of lettuce smashed against the wall at her side. The wheel’s clamoring shifted as the carriage pulled up onto a new surface. The road was paved with coarse blocks of gold trodden with an enamel of dirt. A dirty-faced bum sat on the golden street panhandling for change with a grubby watering can in his lap. The bum’s beaten gaze met hers for a brief moment as the carriage slugged past.
The parade seized at the high castle walls. Four men held King Gallant’s cape straight as he stepped out of the carriage. He climbed the staircase of a mezzanine jutting out of the castle like a podium. Crowds gushed into the main artery from nearby alleyways and side streets. They stared, shoulder to shoulder at the base of the castle with gaping mouths, like baby birds each hoping father will puke mashed insects down their esophagus.
Their king had returned.
“They think he was leading a crusade against Jimmy Gallows and the Vesper underworld,” Kensington said to her. “It may seem cramped in this cage, but I promise it is them, out there, who are inside the bars.”
She stared at the crowd who gathered in the courtyard between tall marble pillars. They all wore the same look of eagerness that comes with uncertainty. The Kingdom erupted at the sight of Gallant reaching the elevated stage. She could feel the ground rumbling beneath the carriage as thousands of jubilant followers cheered in pandemonium. She puked. A thin line of clear mucus spilt onto the gold bricks below. Gallant extended his arms out over the crowd with a smile. He thrust his scepter victoriously in the air like a maestro, and the masses roared.
“Today marks a commitment…” Gallant said, “to vanquish enemies of the past…” he paused to choose polished words of no meaning, “and build… towards the future!”
Kensington rested a hand on her shoulder—it was the best way he’d ever touched her. They stood side by side, looking up in awe through the bars at a murderer shielded in idolization.
“I’ve mistaken a lunatic for a King,” she said.
“Now do you see the grey in law?” Sheriff said. “Do you see how delicately we all teeter between the roles of hero and villain?”