Return to HC.SVNT.DRACONES (fiction)
Tonight I shall eat like a king.
(Like a king. Likinging.)
Annie, the moderator, studied the ceiling tiles for all of four and thirty-three before suggesting (with the usual dogged effort to avoid eye contact) that we owed the speaker a debt of gratitude for this profoundly teachable moment.
If she was waiting for some kind of reaction, she didn’t let it show, and what she got instead was mostly ambient noise.
An elderly gentleman with a well-worn plaid fedora took his seat near the door and grumbled about Don Wan being the real kook. He rubbed his knuckles and willed the clown to keep pushing his buttons.
A couple chairs over (both were occupied: one for his ass, the other for his flipflops), Player (with the inner city vibe) was making eyes at Dolly. She was hotted up for the attention, too, but didn’t want his paws all over her lacy new blouse, not yet.
Not yet: she shrugged him off with a lurid grin and he settled back in his chairs, apparently content to wait her out.
Annie opened her smile and chirped: oh. Lulu—
—You want to get in my face? Lulu asked with menace, a well-chewed finger pointed at the moderator’s brow.
Annie’s smile, of course, showed not the least sign of failing—it was built to hold up under worse conditions than these—and Lulu seemed to take that as a promise. A tiny, camisoled, muay-thai boxer thumbing her nose for a fight, she turned instead to stare down Street Cred. But he seemed to have other things on his plate.
Pushing his floppy hat down to the oversized Oakleys, Player decided to use this opportunity to charge up for his rendezvous with the long-nosed beauty queen.
Lulu stood on her toes for a wordless breath or two before addressing the empty chairs at the front of the room.
This is a story that happened a long way back. I heard an old lady tell it who was there. It’s just a forest now, and scattered rumours somewhere as far off as Scandinavia. But in its day it was an Empire. And this is what she told me happened.
Lulu did a little interpretive dance.
The ritual isn't complicated. You skip around like this with your arms in the air, in a secret place illuminated by the pregnant moon.
A little garden.
Lulu shimmied to a stop. And you need water. But it’s got to be drawn from a well with the moon mirrored on its surface. And you have to cover the seeds with a bowl of crystal.
Lulu cupped her palm to demonstrate.
There's something you say, too—at just the right moment—
No one remembers the words, she lied.
—But you whisper them in order and your seeds will sprout into marvellous fruit. And all you do, when the time comes for the shadows to creep back under their rocks, is pluck one by the roots and swallow it whole.
Lulu danced her anticipation.
The appointed night arrived, and the time and the queen at the garden, where the moon, deep in the dark of a well, floated in perfect isolation. Water was drawn with a silver chalice; seeds were pressed into soil. A prancing monarch whispered past the front row chairs, clapping her treasures with the palm of her hand and tiptoeing back—
—to the royal bedchamber, where she lay with the king till the sun rose.
Lulu stopped tiptoeing and pointed another finger at Annie’s brow: don’t you believe a word of it!
Don Wan giggled at the word vagina.
And like a magic spell, nothing happened.
Lulu turned from one to another of her tormentors: a jungle cat confronted with the legs of a chair—
held back only by the impossibility of deciding which of those galling limbs to splinter first.
Lulu made an ugly face and gestured to the girl with the boob job, daring the other to interrupt her again.
Dolly, to her credit, pretended not to notice. She had just painted her nails.
Lulu looked ready to pounce regardless.
And then a switch was pulled.
Lulu twitched her head to the side, as though disturbed by an unexpected thought.
She put a hand up to her mouth and said—
—I forgot the most important part—
The old hag had cautioned the queen to peel her prize before she packed the thing away. But when the time came, Bea was so concerned to do the deed without her being seen to do it that she inserted her treasure filthy scabby skin and all.
Lulu paused, thinking the problem through.
Lulu never finished her thought. Transported by an absolute certainty that she had conceived her child at last, the elated monarch danced as Lulu danced—suggestively, on the balls of her feet, and not at all like a queen—
She was a beautiful dancer. But this went on for longer than anyone could have thought appropriate. Chairs began to creak in discomfort. Even Annie could be seen to smile, glancingly, at her watch.
—and then, stopping abruptly, in a breathless rush she cried out: nine times the moon shuttered its eyes, and when they flashed at last the shrieks of the midwife carried the length of the castle.
It was followed by a rush of blood and a gasp that carried the last of the queen’s mortal burden away.
Lulu snapped her hands behind her back.
Her cry rose sharply as the blood-streaked visage contorted itself in a rictus of teeth and gums. It built to a crescendo as the monster slithered out of the womb and clambered up her arm still trailing its umbilical tether, and it might have reached a new plateau when that appalling mouth started rooting for her breast. But the midwife had already blown out her lungs by then and never took another breath.
Lulu whispered: unseen in the ensuing turmoil was the second-born, a tiny, placid twin, nestling serenely in his mother’s gore.
If his Highness was slow to appreciate the gravity of this situation it was only because he had chosen that week to holiday at the seashore. On receiving word, however, he immediately gathered up his entourage and decamped (not quite as tanned as he might have been), and without ever laying eyes on the monstrosity declared all speculation about the birth a crime.
Now this served only to encourage the whispers—which otherwise were as little susceptible to royal proclamation as the frenzied howls that still rattled the late queen’s private chambers—
—and the most extravagant rumours promptly overran the dominion.
Lulu waited for the chatter to subside.
His Royal Highness would never stoop to refute the empty prattle directly. But a fine-looking infant was on full display at the services for his mother. These were delayed longer than decency should have allowed—and the closed casket left many feeling cheated of a last glimpse at a popular royal. But even the few who still clung to the notion that the child was a changeling had to grant his uncanny resemblance to the late queen.
Like that, interest in the rumoured monstrosity waned.
—And it would have faded altogether were it not for a dilemma faced by every sovereign worthy of the name: that royal dignity imposes a reliance on those who haven’t the dignity of their own to object and who, on those grounds alone, are inherently unreliable.
—but his Majesty’s deafness to the unrelenting howls sent a clear message to those charged with maintenance of the royal phantasy. And no one was less likely to object to the objectionable than the old hag who lived in the ash grove. And as the former Deputy Chief of Staff would later confess, she was willing to pay.
He simply pointed out the obvious: it wasn’t for the Deputy Chief to contemplate the old hag’s plans for that abomination—his only concern was for discretion, and the old hag had proven herself a past master at that.
Asperger & Co. appeared thoroughly confused.
Lulu had drifted deep into a world of her own.
Assistant Counsel to the former Deputy Chief hastened to explain: what no one could have supposed was that the monster would be kept alive and not—
She struggled to find the words.
Don Wan seemed to be working the math out on his fingers.
—They knew her Majesty had found the old hag useful, and that was enough. They—
—They needed a thing gone.
—And gone it stayed.
Lulu shook her head: the thing about worms, though, is they live in holes, so it’s nothing for them to lay low. As the old hag cautioned her guests: there was more beneath their feet than they might care to know.
She would get no argument from them: the old hag was as wise as they come, but, really, they’d just stopped by for the exfoliating cream. There were celebrations in the works. His Highness, Prince Rupert, had declared his intention that week to seek a bride.
Now, in the one-and-twenty years since he was first presented to the public, Baby Rupert’s once remarkable likeness to the late queen had wholly disappeared (only the most ingenious ever pointed to a trait they might attribute to his father’s line), but he was a good-looking kid, popular with teenage girls, and happy to wait his turn for the throne.
—Oh, the parties would be divine!
The customer is always right, of course. But in the Office of the Chief of Staff, it was being claimed that these festivities would have to be postponed.
The very notion was dismissed, at first, as plain (and possibly seditious) nonsense—though the old hag spouting it looked neither senile nor insubordinate, and when word reached certain ears the response was rather a sudden clammy tremor.
The plaid-hatted gentleman needed to step outside for some air.
If the old hag were to be believed, there was an unacknowledged prince of the realm, born the elder twin of his Highness, Rupert Rex, from the late and now, truth be told, largely forgotten, Beatrix Regina.
—The Office of the Chief would affirm only that the old hag had once been recruited to his Majesty’s employ for the eradication of a pest. Evaluation: positive; would recommend for future duties of similar nature etc etc.
Lulu seemed to wave the report in her hand: there's no official recognition of this supposed birth in any of the relevant—
The old hag came straight to the point: he seeks to exercise his right of first refusal—
I had to ask: his right—?
—to reject or accept for himself the woman his brother chooses for a bride—
The official was having none of it. Polishing his pince-nez with the sleeve of his shirt he complained: that right is contingent, madam, on his standing as a first-born son, and I’ve seen nothing to support such a claim. Does he have any papers?
—He’s a prince—
Lulu shrugged: he will not be intimidated, First Assistant to the Deputy Chief.
—And the court no doubt will take that into consideration. The name he goes by?
The First Assistant flung his pen in disgust: it’ll be the rack for the both of you; that much is clear.
—If you saw him, perhaps—
—Saw him, you say—?
The idea hadn’t even occurred to him.
—Why, bring him in, by all means: the constabulary won’t have as far to go to take him into custody.
And so, W Regis was wheeled in on a chair by a pair of labourers hired for the purpose. He had on one of those glittering robes a championship boxer might wear into the ring, a loose-fitting hood keeping his face from view until the whole ensemble could be shrugged away, just before the punches flew.
The empty sleeves bounced around as the chair was rattled through the doorframe, but W Regis himself didn’t stir until his name was announced.
The First Assistant knew the stories surrounding Rupert’s birth as well as anyone, yet he was wholly unprepared for what he saw when W Regis finally lifted his head. The sickening disfigurement was everything he’d imagined—but the gross, astonishing resemblance to his Royal Majesty left him, literally, short of breath.
He needed a moment to consult with his aides.
—As you can see, the old hag called over his shoulder, W Regis simply isn’t able to entice a woman into his bed. But surely with the help of his Highness—
—Pimp Royale! Player hollered to an imaginary posse.
—Look here, it’s possible—I think—if you and your crippled charge were to wheel away and never trouble me again—that you might very well escape with nothing worse than a formal administrative sanction—
W Regis turned to the official.
—Do not diddle with me, First Assistant! If Rupert Rex has any hopes of marriage, it must behoove him to find me a bride.
Don Wan began to rock, like a blind musician, crooning: diddle my vagina! viddle my dagina! till Delores kicked his chair.
The First Assistant was suddenly inflamed. Lulu hissed her antipathy.
W Regis looked the official in the eye: You have sorely misjudged your position—
With the glistening quickness of a prize fighter, he slipped from the robe and rose cobra-like to his full commanding height.
Lulu towered over the room.
You threaten me with dungeons? she demanded.
Where I should drag your carcass, not even the blowflies would know that you had ripened to my satisfaction—and oh how well you would go with a fine Barbaresco. But I’m not here to plan my luncheon, First Assistant to the Deputy Chief. I’m here to arrange for my bride.
The First Assistant’s lips twitched and sounds bubbled up from his throat, but there was no coordination between the two, no possibility of speech as long as that rearing beast was drooling its venom all over his desk blotter. It was all he could do to keep his bowels from prolapsing.
Dolly, who had gotten off to an early start on her stash of baby carrots and celery sticks, looked ready to breathe new life into rumours that she was bulimic.
(Riddle my Pegina! Piddle my Regina!)
Finally, the old hag shuffled forward, shushing the monster like a fretting child. She took a moment to help him into his robe, then called for the porters to wheel him back to the ash grove.
—You can arrange the details with the old hag, he called back as he was led out the door.
—And if his Highness refuses?
—Rupert shall be the last of his line.
As it turned out, the young prince never thought to refuse, as he was never actually briefed on the matter. Neither was it considered appropriate to trouble his father, the King, with something so utterly disagreeable.
The usual goons were called on to kick down doors, which they did, and knocked the old hag around a bit when they couldn’t find W Regis cowering inside. She pointed them to a pit at the edge of the woods, and they set her thatch alight. The old hag would learn to sleep on the street that night.
She was back at the castle, though, (with a swollen eye and a long list of complaints) even before the opening bell. And that was more than could be said for the First Assistant, or the louts with the motorcycle boots, who somehow never managed to re-emerge from the woods.
And so it went.
The Deputy Chief absconded after recklessly ordering the old hag locked in leg irons—an outrage for which his pale and shaken replacement found it prudent to offer the most heartfelt regrets. The old hag settled for the empty residence of the former First Assistant and a modest annuity.
Slightly flushed, the elderly gentleman took a seat near the door.
And then came the swindle.
W Regis had no cause to doubt the Honourable Chief of Staff when he tried to pass off the painted, puffed-up daughter of a local discount merchant as Rupert’s own choice of bride: he wouldn’t be in a position to evaluate her until the wedding.
It was a curious thing, however, when the woman’s father (evincing not the least concern for the hooded figure in the wheelchair) sauntered unannounced into the private chambers of the Chief of Staff and unilaterally reopened negotiations over the price of his offspring.
These last-minute demands were met with barely concealed contempt. The Chief produced a pigskin pouch from the strongbox in his drawer and tossed it onto the desk in front of him: you can take it or leave it.
Instead, the man took a seat and crossed his arms defiantly.
Player did him one better, crossing both his arms and his legs, all the while pretending not to listen. Annie smiled. The elderly gentleman quietly rubbed his knuckles. The official stared in disbelief, but the merchant held his ground.
At length, the Chief sighed and opened his drawer and, leaning forward, unhappily loosened the purse strings. The greasy smirk this brought to the merchant’s face left W Regis verily rattling in his carapace.
Lulu shook her head: the Chief himself had to shake his head at the impertinence of it all.
Without a word, he reached into the pouch and extracted one of its treasures, holding it up to the man for inspection—very nearly pressing it into his poxy nose—before letting it go, with a heavy splash, into the coin slot of the strongbox in his drawer.
For a moment, the other was too astonished to respond, and in the interval the Chief reached back into the pouch, came up with another gleaming piece of silver—and dropped it into the slot with the first.
At last the man found voice enough to utter a sharp, panicked cry, and before the Chief could reach back in again he snatched the pouch away and fled the room, a secretary scurrying after with his receipt.
W Regis would be married before the sun set.
The old hag meanwhile happened upon the bride while her coach was blocked by a flock of sheep being driven to the slaughter.
A word to the wise, young bride! she called out from the shade of the Archaeopteris tree.
The woman squeezed her eyes to a pair of suspicious slits but couldn’t come close to penetrating the shadows.
The old hag soon enough hobbled into view—ancient beyond reckoning, bent beyond straightening, filthy rags dragging in the muck: the young Miss Penny Glory had never seen such decrepitude in all her life.
A word to the wise, the old hag repeated, flapping her good hand at the idled carriage.
Don Wan did his best imitation of an aging thalidomide baby. Lulu was oblivious.
The bride, however, wasn’t about to have her day spoiled by such an uncouth sight: she chucked the crone a well-sucked lump of sugarloaf and had the driver clear the road at once of sheep and vagabonds alike.
Of course, if young Miss Glory was dismayed at the sight of the old hag, it was nothing compared to what she felt when W Regis finally revealed himself to his new wife.
He was standing there, motionless at the altar like a monk in a long woollen gown, his head bowed as though in prayer—a posture she unthinkingly mimed. There were prayers, of course, and exhortations, vows were made, and the husband was invited to kiss the bride. There would be no exchange of rings, but this omission surely was the last thing on Penny’s swirling mind.
She lifted her veil as he turned for her lips, and they needed smelling salts before she could be revived.
The elderly gentleman just needed to step outside for a quick drink.
In earlier days they would have been escorted to a pallet behind the church to sanctify their vows—
—as spirited onlookers supplied advice and encouragement and, not infrequently, impromptu demonstrations of their own.
Times change but it was customary, still, for the nuptial sheets to be paraded through the courtyard, the smear of blood being viewed as a favourable sign—and those who managed to daub a bit between their eyes were thereby assured not only of the most lavish fecundity, but (more to the point) a skewer of lamb and a flagon to toast the groom and the bride.
Never in their collective experience had the linens been so deeply saturated that nothing of the original colour was left behind.
Player nodded toward the paunchy Mexicana: I guess they never seen Delores on the rag—
And there was Lulu, towering over the room, and Player, suddenly on his hands and knees, his mouth agape and face livid from the unexpected strain of reinflating his lungs. Lulu bent over and made sure he got a good look at her eyes before she went on with the story.
There would be no more interruptions.
As a rule, when that much blood is spilt the erstwhile owner can be witnessed stiffening awkwardly in the thick of it. But there was no one to be found: the suite was empty, and the blood-streaked villagers were on the hook for their own dinners that night.
W Regis turned up later at the rectory seeking an annulment—the marriage was never consummated, he complained. As for Mrs. Glory-Regis, the last he saw she had taken up with the Chief of Staff—and if either had anything to say about all that gore they sure weren’t letting on (and he never claimed to read minds).
Whatever the truth—and W Regis wasn’t taking interviews either—there was no more trying to keep the story under wraps. Following another brash and poorly orchestrated effort to assassinate the beast, a fact-finding mission was conducted and the whole sordid business brought to book.
The former Deputy Chief confirmed what anyone with eyes must already have concluded on his own: that W Regis was indeed the long-rumoured spawn of Regis Rex and Beatrix Regina.
—And et cetera, and et cetera, and et cetera.
(though not, of course, on that account to be considered a candidate for the throne—his Royal Majesty’s prerogative regarding the succession was not to be infringed).
—But the time-honoured right of the firstborn—?
—would be upheld.
This latter determination, coming unexpectedly from the Press Secretary himself, was as close to law as anything yet to be articulated on the matter. And while it wasn’t immediately clear why the court should choose to take such a line, the public nature of the declaration ruled out any further treachery on the part of the royal staff.
As for damages to church property, costs were assigned to the family of the fugitive bride.
Nothing is done for nothing, however, and his Majesty’s intentions turned out to be entirely in keeping with his entrepreneurial disposition: missives were sent to kingdoms far and wide soliciting bids for the hand of the eldest (and most beloved) son of Regis Rex (as ever, caveat emptor). In the event, W Regis fetched enough to get the royal steamer out of hock (and the prudent monarch elected to make himself a passenger on it throughout the ensuing uproar).
When the big day finally arrived the old hag found herself a leafy seat in the cemetery and nodded off until the wedding procession could worm its way by.
—A word to the wise, young bride! she suddenly urged from the rubble of the Unmarked Mausoleum.
The dour princess affected not to hear.
The bride responded with an almost imperceptible signal to her eunuch, whose broad and pileous midsection promptly choked the old hag’s line of sight and swallowed, within its pendulous folds, the bulk of her unsolicited advice.
Promises later, with her veil lifted (and her husband slobbering for a kiss), the princess no doubt struggled to maintain this level of decorousness.
It would only get worse when she saw him with his clothes off.
As before, the volume of blood was all out of proportion to the number of bodies recovered from the newly furbished (and once again inexplicably vacated) conjugal suite. And as before, the disenchanted crowd had long since drifted home by the time W Regis turned up (sluggish and distended) at the rectory door.
Well, if credulity was in short supply, so was hard and fast proof of an offence. More importantly, if W Regis were found responsible for anything untoward, a hefty dowry would have to be returned (even if the balance had already been spent). His Majesty was thus concerned to see justice fully served. The eunuch was tortured till he confessed, then promptly separated from his head.
This, of course, did nothing to encourage other families to marry into the Regis clan, and even the handsome Rupert’s prospects suffered as a result. W Regis was confronted with the fact that his murderous reputation (deserved or otherwise) made it well-nigh impossible to secure a bride, even with his Majesty’s intervention.
But hadn't the old hag made it clear? W Regis wanted neither wealth nor social standing from his future wife, nor even beauty (of the common or superficial sort)—a peasant or a pauper would suit him fine.
Now this was happy news indeed, for peasants and other assorted riffraff were always available in great abundance. What's more, the debtor’s prison was full of half-starved serfs who might consider swapping a surplus child for their release—and all at no extra cost to the state (the bean counter who came up with that suggestion was a lock for employee of the week).
It was almost a shame that the only one with heart enough to step forward after all the recent blood-letting was also the most beautiful woman their kingdom had ever seen: the incomparable, Annabel Lee.
—Some guys have all the luck, it seems—
—And yet, as fortune would have it, this bare-legged girl (with the almond eyes and auburn curls) was met on the road with a sudden muffled cry: a word to the wise, young bride!
It took her a moment to find the old hag clawing her way up the drainage ditch, but Annabel hurried to her side.
—A word to the wise, the old hag repeated, shaking off the unwanted hand.
—What is it, mother? Have you lost your way? Shall I call for someone to retrieve you?
The old hag jabbed a finger into her breast: if you have any sense you'll shut your trap and listen! The predator is drawn to flesh. Entice him with flesh and—
—Your husband, girl. He must be made to see that you are more than fats and proteins—
—Now hear me well! You must wrap yourself in slips and gowns—as many layers as you can find. You will pledge to obey, but there must be a price. And oh how he should squirm when you echo his demands!
—Echo his demands…?
Pretty young Annabel had no reason to take the old hag seriously. But what did she have to lose?
Bulging roundly with the patchwork of rags she managed to scrounge from her acquaintances, the bride showed up looking less like a tramp than a tatty Russian doll.
Lulu stood on her toes savouring the moment.
Later, when she opened her eyes in the conjugal suite, the restoration crew was telling her to watch the paint, and grumbling among themselves that the walls would need another coat or two, at least. They practically jumped through the window when W Regis slithered into the room. She didn’t know whether to laugh or jump through after them. The paint fumes were starting to work on her brain.
W Regis, however, was all business. The door had hardly closed behind the fleeing workers before he was grinding his teeth: off with that gown already, wife. You don’t want to keep me waiting!
His obedient bride took the hem of her dress and peeled it over her head, revealing the layer underneath: as you wish, my liege.
Her husband’s eyes flashed. She could see the violence glimmering.
But before he could speak, she nodded her head at his robe and ordered: off with that gown already, husband. You don’t want to keep me waiting!
And for the first time, he smiled: as you wish, my bride.
Then almost before she could take a breath he was leaning over top of her, his smooth chitinous segments gleaming in the lamplight, his teeth grinding like millstones: I hope you like what you see. Now off with that gown, if you please!
It could have been the paint fumes, but Annabel moved at the speed of a dream, running a playful finger down his ventral plates then peeling her dress away, revealing the layer underneath: I hope you like what you see…
This was doubtful, considering how he began to quake.
…Now off with that gown, if you please!
W Regis reared his head back and sent a geyser of bloody saliva crashing into the ceiling. He turned as grey as a corpse, and then he shook and cracked, and off sloughed a heavy sheath.
The monster slithered out of its broken shell as smooth and shiny as a newly moulted centipede.
And then he grinned: is this what you'd hoped to find? Now off with the gown!
And the girl in her many layers was content to comply.
A dozen times they traded demands, till at last she was no longer facing a beast. The beautiful, radiant, Annabel Lee took the hand of her naked prince and lay with him on the sheets. And he whispered: all my life I have crawled through holes, making do with rot and decay. You have saved me, my love.
Then he took her by the throat: tonight I shall eat like a king.