KINGMAKERS PART 2

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Submitted Date 03/15/2019
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Part 2

Solene

All it takes is a masque and I am someone new.

Thank the Lord. For it is harder and harder to be myself these days.

I put on a masque, the last masque I ever made. It belonged to a man who had a daughter King Julien wanted for himself. It was a masque I was happy to retrieve when I learned the man baked pie for his daughter on Sevenday only to beat her on Oneday. So I took his face on a Twoday.

What kind of mage am I that it’s been almost a year since I made my last masque?

I look at myself in the antique mirror propped on the ground before me. Touching the reflection, I will myself to forget. Forget all that I am. Forget all that I have done.

Bang, bang, bang.

Someone’s at my door. I scramble to remove the masque and tuck it away but I trip over something in the dark. It clangs to the floor, knocking over another pile of junk as it goes.

I hiss, hobbling to the door. Three locks later, I widen my door a crack.

It’s only my landlord so I open it a little wider. “I gave you my rent last week, remember?”

“Here.” My landlord extends a brown package toward me. “Wouldn’t fit in your mailbox.”

“Oh.” I accept the package and scan the sender’s line, my spine stiffening when I see it’s blank. I tuck it away inside my robe. “You didn’t have to do that. Could’ve rung me and I’d have come and got it.”

My landlord shrugs, tucking her hands in her pocket before she squints at me. “No problem. How ya doing, Solene?”

“Oh, I—“ I shuffle my feet, looking down when the rowdy boys who are my neighbors come roaring from their rooms.

The bigger one, Riy, spies me and throws me the finger. “Wondered what was stinking up the halls.”

“Ah ha, good one Riy,” says the other, giving his roommate a high five. I’ve always considered him the stupid one so I never bothered to learn his name. “Get back in your den where you belong, ya little—“

“Oi shut the fuck up.” My landlord lunges at them, making them scurry off toward the stairwell. “You’re late on rent again, boys. Get it to me before the end of the day or get packing.”

They wave her away and disappear down the stairs, but not before Riy grins at me over his shoulder. I sigh, sagging against the doorframe a little.

“They give you much trouble?” My Landlord’s eyes bubble over with sympathy and it makes me want to sob.

I shake my head instead. “No, no.” I give her a gentle smile. “They’re just young.”

“Yeah.” My landlord gives me a strange look. She starts backing down the hall, hands in the pockets of her brown cargo pants. “Mel and I are going out to the bar around the corner tonight if you’re keen to join.”

I deflate. I hate it when she does this—pretends like I’m normal. Since she got married last month, her invitations come more and more frequently. “Yeah, maybe.”

My landlord waves goodbye before jogging off toward the stairwell. I check the corridor once, twice, before shutting my door.

“Useless.” I turn the first lock. “Stupid.” I click the second lock with a bit more force. “Little.” I click the latch into place. “Freak.”

Leaning my forehead against the door, I let out the sob I’ve been holding in.

Stinking up the halls.

Ya little freak!

Their words, they hurt.

I know they shouldn’t; I know. Yet I still crumple to a ball on the floor, shivering against the wind blowing through the window I could swear was closed.

A match strikes and a figure cloaked in shadows holds it to the candle on my writing desk. I know who it is before she speaks. There’s only one person who could sneak in here without alerting my sharp senses.

Tears of sorrow turn to tears of joy and I scramble up to make sure she’s real.

“You’ve been keeping secrets.” Her voice is raspy and ragged from crying or screaming. Knowing Amelie, it’s the latter.

“Amelie.” I look around at all the objects and papers and junk cluttering up my apartment. I look down at myself, my ragged clothes and spare figure. My cheeks heat in shame. The embrace I intended for her dies on my arms. “What are you doing here?”

When I write to her, I tell her I'm fine. I tell her I’ve found work in City-sur-le-Wall and that it fulfills me. I tell her what she needs to hear so she won’t worry.

Hard woman she may be, but Amelie’s cracks are filled with soft cotton and heart-shaped clouds.

She sits forward into the circle of light, just far enough for me to see the anguish wrought upon her travel-wearied face. “He found us.”

“I didn’t tell him,” I say immediately. “I never told anyone where you were, Am.”

Her shoulders sag in relief and it's then I see the flash of a blade in her hand.

“I didn’t want to suspect you,” Amelie says softly, sheathing her throwing knife. “I hope you understand why I had to.”

“I’m the only one you told. Of course, I understand.” I hug my arms around me. “Where is Rueben?”

“Gone.” The word pings around my tiny apartment, resonating off of all the things I hoard in here. “He sent Quentin to the Village. It did not go well. And so I’ve decided it’s time to pay our old friend Jules a visit.”

“Oh, Amelie.” I turn my face and sigh into the darkness. “I’m afraid you’ve come all this way for nothing. Yours is an impossible task.”

“Difficult. But not impossible.”

She was not there in the days before he exiled us. She does not understand. “He is like a spider. His Kingdom is his web and without an army, you could not tear it down.”

And Amelie says, “That’s why I need your help.”

~

I’d heard about them through near silent whispers, through dialogues held before the thrust of a knife. Anyone who spoke of them did it quietly. Anyone who spoke of them loudly met their end.

The moment I heard what they intended to do, I set out to find them.

“You’re a fool,” the Reverend had hissed. “You’ve never been beyond the safety of the mage cities!”

I wouldn’t look at her as I packed my masques, afraid she’d see the fear in my eyes. “They don’t want me here and I want to see the citadel. Besides, you’re one to talk, heading to the other side of the world.”

“That Village needs to learn about the Lord,” she sniffed. “But, Solene, it’s the citadel! The seat of sin itself!”

I touched her face and pressed my lips to hers. “I cherish your worry, my love. But this is where the Lord has called me. Thus, I will go.”

The moment I arrived, I went straight to the square, where I’d heard he preached.

He was not wrought in light. Nor was he particularly beautiful to look at. Yet no other that day compelled me as much as he. From the way he held the crowd’s rapt attention, I suppose I was not the only one.

When the Queensguard wrapped around the stage and the crowd thinned, I finally saw them—his kingmakers.

They were neither cloaked nor hidden as I thought they would be. No, they stood barefaced and well armed. They hovered far enough from the melee to look like bystanders but just close enough to keep their man from harm.

The fair-haired woman stood a bit removed from the others. Strange, for I’d heard it was she who glued them all together.

As the Queensguard grew hostile toward Julien’s shouting, his kingmakers whisked him away. I did not see the flash of blades and I did not hear the pop of guns yet when they fled the square, bodies lay bleeding in their wake.

So I followed them.

Soon, when I turned off the busy street and into a trash-filled alley, I heard the soft click of a trigger. I looked up to the roofs and into the barrel of her rifle.

“Looking for death, boy?” Said the one called Amelie.

I stood still as a pillar of salt. “Hold. I am not as I seem.” I removed my masque with a flick of my wrist.

Amelie didn’t lower her gun but her eyes did flash with surprise. “What do you want, mage?”

“I would join you,” I said simply.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Amelie with a smirk. “But I’ll give it to you, you’re a courageous beast for talking down the barrel of my gun.”

“I am no beast.” I brought myself up to my full height, jutting my chin and giving her a wicked smile. A smile, I’d been told, that was not quite mage and not quite masque but somewhere squarely in between. “I am Solene. The Lord has tasked me with a Holy Duty and, if you help me fulfill it, girl, you will be honored for eternity.”

“What’s this, Am?”

He stepped behind her, the one I’d come all this way to see. He noticed me then and crouched on the edge of the roof, scouring me with curious eyes.

Amelie kept her scope trained on me. “Mage claims it wants to join us. Something about Holy Duty, from what I can understand.”

My spine stiffened at her use of the word “it,” but I could forgive her for her ignorance. A young woman, she had much to learn. Perhaps the Lord intended that I be the one to teach her.

Julien looked me over a moment more. “What’s your name, mage?”

“Solene.”

“Give us a moment, will you, Solene?”

I bowed my head and stepped away, loitering in the nearby street. But of course, I was a mage. I could hear him plain as day.

“Amelie.” I heard his voice like it came from beside me. “This is perfect. What better way to win the mages to our side than to invite one of their own into our inner circle? Yanik wins us the refugees, Marguerite wins us the working class, you and I have already won over the lower class. With Quentin and now this mage, we possess the love of every group and faction in the Kingdom! This is exactly what we wanted, Am. A city united! A city where everyone has a voice!”

“It seems you’ve made up your mind on the matter.”

There came a sound like the whisper of skin on skin. “Only if you agree.”

“You know I can deny you nothing.”

There was a pause, the whisper of skin on skin. Then Julien spoke, “Solene. I know you’re listening.”

I rounded the building and stood before them, refusing to feel shame for eavesdropping. “I will not let you down,” I said.

When he rose to his full height, I gasped.

The sun ringed his head in fiery light. It was as if the paintings of the Christ had come to life before me. A kind and caring man, a descendant of David born in the House of Bread, ringed in Holy light.

It was a sign! My heart thundered against my chest, tears springing to the corners of my eyes. The Lord was giving me a sign!

Julien was the promised son, the one who was prophesied.

“Join us,” said Julien, extending his hand to me.

The Lord had shown a sign. So I took Julien’s hand and I agreed to make him King.

~

“N-no,” I say, shaking my head. “No, I can’t.”

Amelie’s hopeful expression darkens. “You don’t regret what we did? After all he’s done?”

“Of course I regret it,” I whisper fiercely. “There is nothing we can do to change it but pray for forgiveness.”

Amelie balls her hand into a fist on the table. “Do you think he will not come for us one day? We, who know his weaknesses and strengths best of all?”

I do not tell her that I will welcome that day with open arms when it arrives. “Please. Do not push me on this.”

“The Reverend would want you to—“

“Do not speak of her to me,” I shriek. The moment of anger passes and I am drained again. Sighing, I push away from the desk. “I forgot, I’m meeting some friends for a drink. You should take a shower. The water isn’t very clean but it is hot. I haven’t got much food, but there’s tea.”

As I ramble, she sits in her chair and watches me. I shrug off my threadbare robe and put on an overlarge coat. My boots feel strange as I lace them, it’s been so long since I’ve been outdoors.

“I might be late,” I say in a falsely cheery tone.

“Solene.”

“Don’t wait up.”

“Solene.”

“You can have the mattress, I know you’re weary from journeying so long.”

“Solene!”

I look up at her, standing over the table with her arms braced apart. She looks every bit the frightening killer she was ten years ago. Yet I know too much of her soul to be afraid.

“We aren’t finished talking about this, you and I,” she says.

I nod, nod again. Then I scurry from the room, knocking over a pile of dirty cups on my way out.

The streets are not much safer than the conversation I left behind, but I’ll take the funny looks over Amelie’s cold glare.

Like a leech, this city attached to the Wall as soon as it was built. It was once a small trading post, barely a city at all. Now it is a refugee camp, swallowing those who the Kingdom spits out.

My apartment building is near the base of the Pile, which is what we like to call the shape of City-sur-la-Wall. The city starts at the ground in a jumble of neighborhoods and shopping strips and run-down tenements like mine. The top of the pile consists of the homes that are built into the thick stone wall. These are connected by rickety bridge-streets that wind overhead like a jungle.

The jumble of bridge-streets block out the haze that blocks out the stars. I have only moonlight and neon streetlamps to light my way.

The bar around the corner is as rowdy as Riy and his roommate on a Sixday night.

I tug my coat around me, averting my eyes when I realize I’m the only mage in the place.

My landlord spots me from a booth in a well-lit corner.

“What will it be?” Asks my landlord’s wife, Mel, after she shakes my hand. “Whiskey? Theirs is the best in City-sur-le-Wall.”

I doubt that. “Just wine, thank you.”

There’s no chair facing the door so I stand with my back to the wall instead.

My fingers are shaking as I pat my pockets for a cigarette. My landlord is saying something but I’m not sure what. I can barely hear her over the din, over the roar of my mind as it roars, they’re all looking at you!

I nod when Mel comes back and asks if I’m alright. With a cigarette in one hand and my wine in another, I try to blend in with the huamns around me.

“So,” says Mel. “Sarai tells me you’re from the Kingdom.”

I know she doesn’t mean anything by it, but I stiffen all the same. “I was, yes.”

The newlyweds exchange a look. There’s an awkward silence like they’re waiting for me to say more. My landlord leans forward, lowering her voice.

“Say, you wouldn’t happen to know a way in? You know,” she blushes slightly, “A way around the Kingsguard.”

I frown. “A way around?”

My landlord swings an arm around her wife. “My lady loves that actress, Marguerite the Rose. Heard of her?”

I nearly choke on my wine. “Maybe once or twice.”

“Well,” says my Landlord, “As a late wedding present to Mel, I bought us tickets to Marguerite the Rose’s new show!”

“But I have mage ancestry,” says Mel, puffing her chest out like she’s proud. “And we don’t want to risk it since the exodus. We heard the Kingsguard has ways of knowing if you have even a drop of magek in your blood.”

It all clicks. My stomach clenches because I should have known. Why my landlord is always so kind. Why she brings my packages and threatens my cruel neighbors. Of course she had ulterior motives. Why else would she show kindness to a wretch like me?

As if my thoughts conjured them, I spy my neighbors slamming whiskey shots at the bar. I gulp and duck when I think Riy catches sight of me. My cigarette has burned itself to a nub, assuring me know it’s time to go.

“So?” Mel prods. “Do you?”

I slide out of the booth and shake my head, eyes darting. “No idea,” I lie. “I’ll see you around, Sarai. Mel, a pleasure.”

Bolting from the bar, I squeeze through a group of heavily perfumed girls.

I puff out a breath of relief when I step into the cold.

I’m so relieved, I fail to hear them before they grab me.

A hand wraps around my arm.

A fist shoves into my skull.

The blackout is fading but I’m still in the dark. Rough hands push and pull me, treating me like the animal they think I am.

“Take its clothes,” comes Riy’s gruff voice. “Bet we can get a nice penny for that jacket.” I feel his hot breath on my ear when he bends over me. “You’re gonna help us pay our rent, little freak.”

“Please.” I think I say it, but my ears are ringing so loud, I can’t be sure.

My jacket is ripped off, followed by my boots. I am proud that I don’t cry as they strip me of my shirt. My pants go, too.

I shiver on the ground, curling in on myself.

“Ha! Riy!” The stupid one finally speaks. “Flat as a board and smooth as a camel’s back! Told ya, bloody told ya!”

I should get up.

“Where’s your magek now, freak?”

I am stronger than this.

“Where’s all your freak friends to help you now?

I should get up.

“Probably doesn’t have any friends, Riy. It’s freakiest of all the freaks!”

I deserve this.

“Bloody pathetic,” Riy says. “Come on, Buck, no magek show here. Let’s try Fifth Street.”

They spit on my face and leave.

The world around me still rages on into the night, unaware of my pain; probably uncaring. The spit of my enemies rolls down my cheek.

~

I was at the church when it began.

We hurried through the candlelit sanctuary, the High Mage and I, our voices hushed. For those were the days when we began to realize that King Julien’s spider web had ears.

“He beheaded another of his Mage advisors last night.” My voice was a mere whisper in the night. “I fear he has grown wary of our power.”

The High Mage nodded, their young face, grave. “You’re right. We must protect our people from the King. We must—“

Footsteps interrupted us, the clack of boots on a wooden floor. “Ah, Solene. Good of you to follow my instructions so well.”

The High Mage’s face turned red, looking between the King and me.

“What is this?” The High Mage’s voice was a soft hiss. “Solene!”

I looked at the floor, pressing down on the voice in my mind screaming that I was making a mistake.

King Julien’s voice was the sound of thunder on a peaceful afternoon. “You are accused of treason, High Mage. What say you of these charges?”

“Charges?” The High Mage sputtered. “I demand to be taken before my people’s court of law! You cannot charge me, boy!”

King Julien feigned offense. “But I am your Christ! Am I not?”

The purple and red-clad Kingsguard stepped from the shadows of the pillars lining the sanctuary, rifles trained on the High Mage. And even one as powerful as them recognized their defeat.

The High Mage turned to me. “How could you? How could you betray me?”

“You forced her to leave,” I whispered. “All because you could not accept my love for her.”

“It is against tradition!” The High Mage roared. “You will obey my commands, you ungrateful, foolish little—“

“I do not follow you,” I said, finally meeting their gaze. “I only follow the Christ.”

Thus, it was my face the High Mage last saw when Julien stabbed them in the back.

Blood spattered my chest, staining the insignia on my jacket that marked me as the King’s right hand. The mage’s body slumped to the floor, the betrayal in their eyes fading with their soul.

“Excellent.” Julien sheathed his sword and kicked the body onto its back. “Now take the bloody face, Solene.”

I choked back a NO! “To make a masque from a mage is sacrilege.”

“I don’t give a fuck,” King Julien roared, “about your unnatural traditions. Take its face or I’ll take the faces of every mage in this Kingdom and start my own personal collection.”

I stared at the High Mage’s wet red blood speckling my pale green skin. “This is too far, Jules. Even for you.”

King Julien smiled. “Fine. Let me show you how much I’ve learned from your people.”

He took a knee and bowed his head and said the familiar words.

“Lord,” he prayed in a taunting voice, “I thank you for this bounty. This body, I sacrifice to you. This face, I pray you lend me.”

And the Lord answered.

The High Mage’s face fell away, slapping the stone with a sickly clap.

“Impossible,” I hissed beneath my breath.

Julien picked up the masque and smiled at the arched ceiling of the sanctuary. “Gracious are Thee for blessing me with many faces, o Lord. Gracious are Thee for sending me, that I might protect your sheep and deliver them from evil.”

He said the familiar words, but Julien was no mage; whatever magek he had, it was not of the Lord. I stared at him in horror, understanding how wrongI’d been.

King Julien clapped twice. “Now that’s done, I have a job for you.” He extended the not-masque to me. “You will put on that face and show it to your people. And you will tell them that King Julien is not the Christ, but the Lord Himself!

“Tell them that you follow me, o High Mage,” he mocked with a grin. “Tell them that your magek and their magek, tell them it all belongs to me.”

“No.” I lifted my face, knowing the truth without the need for a sign. “You are no son of God.”

“I must admit, I was hoping you’d defy me.” The monster’s smile widened. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited to watch all you perverse creatures bleed.”

“We have been your loyal servants.” My voice was weak, my resolve weaker.

The monster snorted and forced the masque over my head. “You have been my loyal slaves. Now run along, do as your master says.”

I did gather my people that night. But I did not tell them what that monster Julien demanded. No. I told them I had been wrong. And I told them all to flee.

If only they had listened to me.

~

Amelie is asleep on my thin mattress when I finally make it home.

I take a shower and tend to my wounds. But the biggest wound is beneath the skin and I can do nothing for it. So I pick up the package my landlord dropped off earlier. Better the anger than the pain, I've found.

I cannot open it in here, Amelie is too light a sleeper and she would chastise me for not throwing this in the garbage where it belongs. I grab a pack of cigarettes and wrap my threadbare robe around my shoulders.

My heart quickens when I walk past Riy and his roommate’s door, ridden with holes. But I hear not a scrape or scratch inside. They’re probably still out, preying on some other unfortunate soul.

I say a prayer for their victim as I head for the narrow balcony jutting off the end of the corridor. For some reason, the red carpet in the hall extends onto it, so it’s mushy with rain against my bare feet. I shiver in the humid morning air.

From the lack of return address and the way my name is purposefully misspelled, I know the package is more hate mail from my people. Each package or letter is riddled with such unique insults, I sometimes imagine them throwing a party just so everyone can decide what awful things they’ll send me next.

They think I killed our High Mage. And they’re right. I practically did; I deserve the malice they send my way.

A door slams in the corridor. I quickly rip the package open before I’m interrupted.

Inside, I find a masque.

For a moment I do not recognize the face, for it has been over a decade since I saw her last. Time has not been kind, her brown skin lined and full of sadness. Yet I recognize the poise of her mouth, the slight angling of her eyes.

It’s the way the Reverend always looked just before she broke into a smile.

I fall to my knees, pressing the masque to my chest.

I wail, not caring who hears. I tear at my bald scalp, releasing all the anguish I’ve held inside for too, too long.

I think of her as she was, only a girl when we first met. I remember the fervent way she spoke, her dark eyes revealing the depths of her inner light. I remember how she begged me not to join them, to come with her to that village across the world and live our lives in peace.

Who would do such a thing? To a woman possessed of such pure life! My people are cruel, but are they so cruel as to track her down on the other side of the world?

My breath cuts short.

He found us, Amelie said. He sent Quentin to the Village.

The Village.

Quentin.

Julien.

My tears dry at once. There is no time for sorrow now. I feel a surge and I rise with it, knowing what must be done.

First, I need a few new masques for my collection.

After all, I have not made a masque in nearly a year.

I throw back my hood and stroll toward their hole-riddled door. I hear them inside now so I knock. It’s the stupid one whom I greet with a smile.

A smile, I’ve been told, is not quite masque and not quite mage but somewhere squarely in between.

“Oi, Riy, that thing from down that hall’s back for mo—“

When I’m finished with my neighbors, I own two new masques.

When I’m finished with King Julien, I’ll own three.

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