Amidst an entourage of sharp-eyed rooks, Vespesian perches atop the Cathedral, stares out across the stone and steel patchwork of the city. In the thin light of morning Volitares swoop across cloudless heavens like swans, their weighty grace almost incongruous. The distant chug and puff of their engines calls up the dawn as if it were birdsong.
His eyes, keen as a hawk’s, watch the streets below. The few ragged souls abroad have been here as long as he. They emerged, tired eyed and slow of foot, into the lamp-lit darkness to go about a daily toil that will barely provide enough to fill their bellies. He knows hunger too. It gnaws at his belly, a never-ending discomfort. A hunger for revenge.
It is revenge that keeps him upon this vantage point in the bitter morning air, revenge that drove him through long hours of relentless hunting, searching out the focus of his rage, the architect of his humiliation. Vespesian has found him now, has been watching him for some time. He knows this person well, knows his patterns of movement. Soon, when the pieces are in place, he will make his move.
The clock on the Cathedral strikes six sonorous tones, they echo in waves across the city. The insane rush of the working day will soon overtake the quiet dance of the early-rising lower classes preparing newsstands, sweeping streets, dousing oil lamps, feeding and grooming horses for the Hackney service. The thought displeases him.
He enjoys this gentle preparation, tolerates these small people with far greater ease than their spoilt, overbearing, supposed superiors. These are struggling, starving, earnest folk who do not place a burden upon the world, they are the reliable cogs turning beneath the surface, the ceaseless mechanism that ensures the unhindered running of the great machine of the city.
Showing none of his inner agitation, Vespesian gazes across to the mansion houses curving in proud crescents to the West of the Cathedral. At precisely twenty past the hour his prey will leave the plush interior of his family home in the Grosvenor District of Londinium and, cane in hand, will tap with brisk and precise steps through the wide avenues to his equally comfortable gentleman’s club, to be cosseted in the lap of yet more luxury.
It is not the luxury Vespesian resents; it this fellow’s use of him as nought but a pawn in the game. He is no pawn, he is at the very least a Rook, and perched here beside other, feathered, compatriots, he has come as he does every morning to observe the man who stripped him of his life, buried him here in this aberration in the veils to rot. That same man who entrusted him with a specific task. Ill-used as he has been, Vespesian’s task has altered accordingly.
He plays his own game now, and the Rook will be the only piece standing on his board.
Blythe stares about him with undisguised disapprobation at the pomp and assery, the silk-drenched, sleazy obsequium pervading in the vast opulence of the salle d’attente, the long awaiting room before the Queen’s audience chamber. These howling buffoons, half drunk on their own importance, would disport themselves as braying sub-equines for the chance to stand before a self-appointed monarch of the realms. It sickens him.
Were he not bound by honour to approach the Royal fatted mule to beg for the reinstatement of one of his finest soldiers, he’d never set foot within this vestibule of singular horrors. Bad enough that he must beg, but to be forced to wait here amongst her circus of simpletons, arse lickers and fools is beyond bearing. Blythe takes a snifter of port from a page, downs it in one. When will that benighted woman call for him?
A short, well appointed attendant slips from the audience chamber and announces in ringing tones, ‘Her Majesty will now see Brigadier-General Blythe.’
‘About bloody time,’ he mutters, and barges through the crowd to the attendant.
The neat little man nods his head at Blythe, then sweeps a hand to the door, swinging it open with greater flourish than his entrance. ‘This way.’
Blythe withholds upon his growl of fury. These jumped-up stuff shirts on her close staff do not deem it necessary to give appropriate formal address. Something to do with that blessed woman and her progressive ways, no doubt. It bemuses him how progression can also embrace a detrimental leap back to the days of Royal lick boots and brown noses vying for five minutes audience and the according notoriety.
The salle d’attente is, naturally, not directly after the audience chamber and the attendant leads Blythe, ever more furious and overheated, down a long, tapestry-lined hallway. It matters not that he’s trod this hallway many a time before, in war and in peace, what matters is the old bitch forcing him to wait so long before calling, knowing how uncomfortable he’ll be in the ceremonial dress she requires for audiences. Well, if she imagines she has the upper hand, she’s another thing coming, by thunder.
At the grand double doors, fully fifteen feet high, a foot of thick, carven oak, the attendant halts and, as if informed of their proximity by some form of telepathy, the pages within pull the doors wide. The audience chamber is tiny, lit only by tall, beeswax candles thick as a man’s thigh ranged upon a selection of grotesque and eccentric pillar candlesticks, whose depictions of unimaginable torture and the mating of ill-wrought beasts never ceases to curdle Blythe’s blood in his veins.
Atop the dais, drowned by a throne of such ridiculous Rococo exuberance it quite hurts the eyes to behold, sits the small, veiled figure of Queen Imalia the first, the usurper, the pretender, the cuckoo Queen. Aloof of bearing, foul of aura and cunning beyond measure of mind, this diminutive demoness in simple yet exorbitantly expensive embroidered satin represents the greatest challenge the Brigadier-General has ever faced.
‘Blythe. Good of you to wait.’ Her voice is a pained husk, a throaty, broken whisper, yet it seems to cause her no discomfort to speak. Indeed, the only discomfort is reserved for the ears of those required to listen.
‘I imagine, Your Majesty, that I wasn’t granted choice in the matter.’
A dry, crackling laugh floats from beneath that thick veil. ‘Very droll, Blythe. So, you come to beg for the boy, do you?’
Blythe struggles to contain his reaction, as ever. Her apparent precognition, the work no doubt of spies, moles and dupes, is designed to unnerve, to wrong foot, like the interminable wait, the ambience of the audience chamber, her unwillingness to show her face, that horrifying voice. It is all a pantomime, a mummery, and he will not succumb.
‘He’s a fine lad, Your Majesty, too good to waste in the backwaters. Don’t know why in blazes the boy’s been called to care for a family seat his uncles could run blindfolded when he’s needed on the battlefields, fighting and winning your wars.’
‘Hmmm, so I hear. But I have a goodly amount of advisors and courtiers who would sooner see him sent to his backwater, tail between his legs. They tell me it would be seen as a weakness for me to show mercy for one man’s plight, when I need show no man mercy, and I’m inclined to agree with their sentiment.’
‘I see. So you have no further need of a man such as him, even in your Buccaneers?’
‘Aye, Your Majesty. I rather thought that losing Percy Grace might be somewhat of an inconvenience, a bad show as it were, when someone of his ilk is so sorely needed for Your Majesty’s more devious designs upon the enemy.’
‘Are you quite aware of your place, Blythe?’ She’s ice. Hard, cold, unyielding.
Blythe drops a low bow. ‘It’s not my place to advise you on matters of state, Your Majesty, but in matters of war I am no less than your advisor and, if you were to ask my opinion, I would indeed vouchsafe young Alexander to replace Percy. No offence to Percy, but I’m sure Your Majesty is aware that Alexander’s field record is far superior.’
‘I was aware of this, indeed. I am always aware of everything, Blythe, as you should know.’ The warning is blatant.
‘Beg pardon, Your Majesty, I did not mean to suggest that you were unaware of such an asset.’
‘Quite all right, Blythe. But, asset or not, he is Landed Gentry and, as such, is beholden to me in other ways.’ Her torturous voice takes on a dangerous, silky edge. ‘Do I allow him to ignore a Royal command to his duty as Lord and instead make use of his skills, thereby showing myself malleable, or do I flick him from my flesh like the insignificant parasite he is so that others may know not to test me?’
His scalp crawling, Blythe fights to maintain his demeanour. She seeks to shock him into a mistake, a misstep, he must be wary of the words he chooses, Alexander’s future depends upon it. ‘I respectfully suggest that your so called advisors forget Your Majesty’s strategic brilliance is all that stands between Great Britannia and certain invasion. As such, their petty concerns that Your Majesty might be seen to be softening indicate only their profound ignorance of Your Majesty’s undeniable steel.’
Her gloved finger taps on the vast, ball clawed arm of the throne. ‘Hmmm. You flatter me, Blythe, but you are no less correct for it. I applaud your judgement of my character.’ There is a pause, then she inclines her head gracefully, just a touch. ‘Perhaps I shall speak to Lucian. If he is in agreement, then there may be room for my blessing in this matter.’
It’s not even as much as a promise, but it’s the best he’ll get. Blythe bows again, this time even lower, because he knows she’ll be looking for an excuse to say no, an excuse to make him hurt, to punish he and Alexander both for challenging her. Imalia dislikes being manipulated, is invariably acutely aware of any attempt. His banter with young Alexander was designed to ease the boy’s worry, but truthfully there is no way to force Imalia to make a decision in your favour, she is fickle and pernicious and, in the end, pleases only herself.
‘Gracious of you, indeed, Your Majesty.’
‘I know. You may leave me now, but you will be present at the St Spevin’s day ball, as will young Alexander. I find it needful to measure his worth in person before speaking to my dear Lucian.’
Blythe bites back a retort; he’d no sooner subject poor Alexander to her than a starved and feral Wold-Steer, but now he has no choice. ‘Very well, Your Majesty.’
‘Excellent.’ Her tone dismisses and Blythe heads for the doors, which open as he nears. Before he can leave, however, her voice rattles once more through the chamber, sinister yet somehow amused, ‘Bite not the hand that feeds, Blythe.’ The air behind him thickens, crackles with freezing energy as she adds in a voice that shakes him to his very marrow, ‘Lest it strike you down.’
He leaves without a further word, cold to his extremities and filled with an absolute conviction that this woman, this self-appointed monarch, is an aberration, an abomination, that beneath her veils the face she refuses to reveal is redolent with the core of undiluted evil residing in her shrivelled soul. He believes she is a symbol of the rot seeping through Great Britannia, that with her this once great kingdom is destined to fall.
And she will stand over its ruins, laughing.
© Ren Warom 2012