Lit in solemn shadow a candle sputters, sends menacing shapes across the walls. Sat in the centre of a round table it awaits company. Strange company. Then, from the back of the tavern, a lithe, thin fellow, all angles and spikes, sneaks through the shadows toward the table. The straw-thin man settles into the left-hand chair, and the candlelight recoils.
He whips off his bowler hat and places it down beside the candle, chuckling as the flame bends in desperation away from the proximity of his hand. He clears his throat, the sound echoing into the tavern, insinuating into cracks in the walls, between the battered tiles upon the floor.
The bar maid approaches, bustling from the merry shout and bawl of a ragtag bunch of ne’er-do-wells taking up a full corner of the tavern. She slows, her feet as uncertain as the rest of her when she espies the collection of protuberances that comprise the unusual patron sat at the table.
‘Can…can I fetch ye a jar ‘o beer, good sir?’
‘No, thank you my dear. A simple glass of porter if you’d be so kind.’
Her skin bleeds whey pale upon hearing his voice. Thready it is, like candle smoke, stuttering and coiling upon the air, and nothing of natural in it.
‘Porter is it.’ She says and backs away, hand to her throat. Then she scurries to the kitchen, the door banging too heavily in her wake.
The echoes of her hysterical outburst, tatters of screams and sobs, flutter over the noise from the men in the corner. And it’s the tavernkeep that brings the porter in the end, his hand trembling around the cup. His thanks are a tossed handful of copper coins, and a week worth of nightmares from the slow gleam of a too-wide smile reflected in candlelight.
When he’s returned, tripping over his own feet, to the safety of his bar, a small, black cat pads into the tavern. If anyone had noticed the feline’s presence they might have wondered how it is he made his way in. No windows are open upon this cool evening, and no kind soul there to open the heavy oaken door.
The cat makes his way on silken paws to the table with the solitary candle. Leaps, a liquid rush of darkness, onto the chair opposite the tall, thin fellow. He dips his head in greeting. The thin fellow reaches out with an impossibly slender hand, the fingers vastly attenuated, gleaming, faintly moist.
‘Fee,’ he says in that voice of fleeting smoke.
‘You’ll have to pardon my rudeness,’ says the cat, direct to the thin fellow’s mind, his green eyes narrowing. ‘I’m stuck in this wretched form.’
The thin fellow leans forward. The light leans away, toward the cat, sending its pupils to needled slits.
‘How very interesting,’ says the tall fellow.
‘Yes. Quite. Do you have what I requested, Solomon? I haven’t time for pleasantries.’
‘Of course. But you haven’t paid the fee.’
The cat raises a paw and makes a small circling gesture upon the air. From the candle’s buttery light tumbles a selection of thick, golden coins.
‘Ahhhh,’ breathes Solomon, scooping them up in his improbable fingers. ‘That will do very nicely.’
Solomon produces his long grin. He twitches his fingers. The gold coins disappear from his palm, and in their place appears a small, stoppered glass bottle, filled with a murky solution. It has within its depths a faint suggestion of the rainbow effect of grease on water.
‘Take this when the moon it as its zenith, in two days time. At the stroke of eleven. Then and only then will it work.’
‘I’m perfectly aware of how it works, Solomon.’ The cat makes the circular movement with its paw, abrupt this time, irritation sparking green eyes to emeralds.
When the bottle has gone, Solomon closes his fingers over his palm. ‘Little cat,’ he says, ‘beware of what you wish for. I was once an angel, too, you know.’ Then he snaps his fingers and the light snuffs out.
‘I’m so glad you could join me today, my dear.’
Melisante forces a smile as Imalia hangs like a dead weight off her arm. The tiny Queen is dressed in a dress so heavy and ornate it’s a wonder she can move at all, and Melisante’s arm feels on the verge of breaking.
‘It’s a pleasure, Your Majesty,’ she says, through gritted teeth, fully aware of Imalia’s delight in her discomfort.
‘I’ve been thinking of taking on some new ladies in waiting recently,’ Imalia continues, fluttering a fan before the heavy veil covering her face and almost bouncing along the lavender lined pathway in the rear gardens of her palace. ‘I’ve vetted quite a few young girls. But I fear these younger attendants are quite unable to do as they’re told. They have a habit of collapsing to tears if I so much as whisper a command in their direction. So off-putting.’
‘What do you think, dear? What age should a suitable lady in waiting be?’ Melisante goes to speak, but Imalia is yet to finish, and she continues blithely. ‘Such a silly title, lady in waiting. I’ve yet to use ladies myself. Too spoilt. Empress Vidalla of Moldav employs her husband’s sisters, and has the most horrendous job keeping them in order. One can’t simply behead one’s relatives, it seems, not even if they are not blood.’ She sighs, clearly profoundly moved by the notion. ‘It’s an inconvenience I couldn’t suffer myself. I thought younger girls would be more malleable, but as I’ve said they’re proving only too perishable. I’ve gone through quite an exhausting amount. Do you think I should look amongst our dear, desperate war widows, or should I deprive them of their elder daughters?’
‘I rather imagine, Your Majesty,’ Melisante snaps, ‘that you should leave the mothers to care for their fatherless children.’
Imalia tips her head to the side. ‘Well, why on earth? Can not their eldest daughters take on the younger progeny?’
‘It depends upon the age of the eldest daughter’s.’
‘Your Majesty.’ Imalia’s voice is light, but equipped with whip-sharp edges.
Melisante bites her lip till it bleeds and forces out. ‘Beg pardon. Your Majesty.’
Imalia flutters her fan thoughtfully. ‘So perhaps I should take the daughters instead. But only the eldest ones, mind. I couldn’t bear to be dealing with anything younger than twenty.’
‘Would not all the daughters of that age be married, Your Majesty, perhaps with their own children?’
A bell-like ripple of laughter issues from behind the thick veil. ‘My dearest child,’ Imalia says, clearly diverted. ‘Such delightful naivety. What care I whether they are married or not? If I need them, then surely I need them more than their husbands or children could. I am their Queen. It is their pleasure to serve me.’
‘How foolish of me, Your Majesty,’ Melisante replies, trying not to ditch the hefty weight from the crook of her arm and run screaming from the gardens. Oh but her father is going to catch an earful for forcing her to this indignity. ‘I should have considered my words more fully.’
‘Well, we can’t all be me, can we?’ Imalia responds generously, then shrieks delight, pointing with her fan to a quaint, open wooden seat, built between the trees sat far away across the vast expanse of the lawn. ‘Oh look, an arbour! I didn’t know they’d built me an arbour. Let’s wander in that direction and send for lemonade. I do like lemonade. It’s so tart.’
Light on her feet despite the gown, the Queen drags Melisante through the lavender and onto the lawn. Melisante stifles a groan. Yes indeed, her father’s going to end up with an entire circus of fleas biting in his ear after this long, dire day has finally come to an end.
Cholmondley enjoys the subtle tap of his cane, his well-made shoes, upon clean paving squares. It’s a small pleasure, but he’s a great believer in man living by small pleasures. Of course, his small pleasures would be unobtainable to a smaller man. He’s blessed by fortune and greatness. They afford him greater small pleasures than most.
A pleasing counterpoint joins his multiple tappings upon the paving. Wing tip brogues if he’s not much mistaken. Handmade like his own Mandel-cap slims. From the resonance of the echo most likely even the same maker, John Moss of Hebb Street, the very finest of Londinium’s cordwainers.
He’s about to turn and offer his admiration when a soft voice curls into his ear like the fingers of a pickpocket into a fine linen coat. ‘I mark you’ll have forgotten me by now, imagined me lost in your little game.’
Cholmondley quits his perambulations. He doesn’t turn but his hand grips tighter about the handle of his cane, in readiness for attack. ‘Vespesian,’ he says. ‘What a surprise indeed.’
‘Did you think your deception would last long on me? I am no ordinary creature.’
Cholmondley sighs. ‘No. In fact I was rather hoping it wouldn’t.’ He turns to face the tall, elegant figure Vespesian cuts. The man towers above him, and fearful strength and power radiate even from within the confines of his eye-wateringly beautiful suit. ‘You’re a dangerous man, Vespesian. And when last we met, I sensed thoughts from you that gave me a certain, shall we say, hesitation?’
Vespesian offers Cholmondley a vulture’s grin. ‘A perceptive man, you are, I’ll grant you that. But this, see, this was the incorrect response. To try and rob me of my wits, even temporarily…’ He raises an elegant brow. ‘You must have realised there would be repercussions? I am not an understanding sort of fellow.’
‘No, no, quite. I do realise that.’
Vespesian indicates with his hand. ‘Let’s walk, shall we? We have a great deal to discuss, you and I. You have impositioned me, and now you must provide me with adequate recompense.’
© Ren Warom 2012