Clangs His Funeral Bell
"We are kings, you and I," the gentleman said idly, "and yet we are put upon by unworthy men who still yet wield their wicked power over us. It is not to be borne." He tapped his pointed chin thoughtfully with a long ebony cane, the head of which was very prettily inlaid with what Stephen had once assumed to be bits of polished ivory, but now had reason to believe were the teeth of a human child. "However, I crave diversion--this wretched dilemma can be approached at another time. How can one think of overthrowing ones enemies when such beauty is before us! How well Lady Pole looks tonight."
Stephen readily agreed. Although her face was blank with discontent, her fair skin was set off to lovely effect in the new dress the gentleman had presented to her.
"It is just the color of sweet dreams that bring a pang of regret upon waking."
Although Stephen could not have described the color in terms of "pink" or "gray", he knew that it was so. Lady Pole was promenading with a gentleman made entirely of blackberry canes, who was nonetheless impeccably dressed in cloth of rich brown, with a smart black ribbon in his queue. They moved quite gaily; Lady Pole's step was light, almost skipping as the piper called the mournful tune, and she showed no particular sign of distress at the brambly hand that clasped hers, though Stephen could see that thorns had pierced her, leaving vivid carnelian spots on her white glove.
"Do you think Lady Pole would like a new companion? While Mrs Strange is a delightful creature, surely a pretty new face would bring the Lady Pole some amusement."
Stephen most heartily doubted it, but could hardly say so. Although the gentleman had many fine ladies in his court, he seemed especially taken with Lady Pole, and Stephen had often wondered that the gentleman had not schemed against Sir Walter to ensure his death, so that he might claim Sir Walter's wife as his own. Although Stephen doubted that the gentleman with thistledown hair considered English law a restraint, should he conceive of the notion--and yet there was something very chaste in the gentleman's fascination. He certainly went to great lengths to please Lady Pole, often lavishing her with splendid (and sometimes grisly) tokens of his esteem: a cunning little tiara that glittered with the crystallized tears shed by angels who had wept at the death of a saint, the huge, hideous head of a dragon, its lips still drawn back over its dagger-like teeth in its final snarl of defeat, a little hand mirror that only showed the back of your own head so that she might arrange her hair more conveniently, though a dozen maids waited on her in Faerie and six in England besides.
"Perhaps she would wish a new partner to dance with." Then he tilted his head to fix Stephen with a speculative look. "Ah, no, it comes to me--what pleases a lady better than to see her friends well married? We shall find you a wife, dear Stephen. Any woman worthy of your nobility, your beauty, will be a fine companion for the Lady Pole."
Even as he parted his lips to protest, the gentleman pressed his hand, his eyes suddenly glittering.
"Your Mrs Brandy is very pretty, it is true, but you must look to your duty as a king. A woman of high birth, a woman already accustomed to the matters of state--that is just the sort for you. Still. It may not be wise to attract the magician's attention..." He sat up, resolved. "We must go farther afield," he said, getting to his feet.
He fussed with Stephen's collar and brushed the shoulders of his coat.
"You will make a very regal impression, Stephen," the gentleman said approvingly.
Stephen touched the diadem set on his brow with some anxiety.
"Sir, shall I not first wait to... have a kingdom to offer her? A lady is not to be wooed on what may seem to her mere speculation."
"As usual, your modesty does you credit, but she will surely see by your kingly bearing that you are everything she would wish in a husband."
"You are so kind to say so, sir," Stephen murmured, exhausted by the mere effort of trying to redirect the gentleman's attention. Still, he found it within him to continue to speak. He could not bear to think of another young lady stolen away for the gentleman's amusement, forced to make endless rounds in this eerie, cheerless hall. "But if I may say, I believe that I would wish to remain a bachelor, were I not to be king."
The gentleman's finely drawn eyebrows arched, but he did not seem angered, so Stephen pushed on. "Wouldn't you yourself prefer to choose a wife--and from the lovely women who already attend you?" Stephen had some faint hope that the gentleman could only take a Faerie bride, thus letting Lady Pole and the other enchanted human females out of the selection.
"Oh, wives," the gentleman said in a bored tone. "I have so many sisters and cousins, and so many beautiful ladies in my court... whyever would I need one more?"
He seemed indifferent to the fact that he had been considering adding another new ornament to his hall only moments before, but Stephen was accustomed to this fickle streak, and let show no outward sign of frustration.
The gentleman's sly face sharpened with interest and he rested a hand on Stephen's shoulder, dropping his voice to an intimate whisper. For all that the gentleman was so fey and slim, his hand burned on Stephen's shoulder like a glowing coal.
"In fact, perhaps you would do better to rule as a king alone. Queens are all very well, but they can be so tiresome at times. You are a very handsome fellow, quite in your prime of life--you have many years before you must think of a legacy and sons. You might have any lady in this hall, should you but snap your fingers." He paused, giving Stephen a look that seemed to indicate that he was waiting for Stephen to do just that.
"I would... hesitate to favor one lady over the other, sir. I would not wish to cause any one pain."
"You are a paragon, Stephen, indeed." The gentleman's eyes were very bright, and his hand let go its purchase on Stephen's shoulder in order to draw the gentleman's arm around Stephen's shoulders in a frank and companionable way. "Your tender heart, your manly grace, your wisdom--it is sure that you are a king. But as a king, you must realize the loneliness of rule. You will have so few equals! Why, there are but four kings I could name, and only one worth bothering about, until you are become the next lord of England."
"Ah. Loneliness," Stephen said soberly. He had become so isolated from the waking world that he could honestly not think of the last time someone (other than the gentleman with thistledown hair) had touched him, so he was already very well acquainted with loneliness.
"Yes, loneliness is a risk--but you have little to fear there, as there is also the satisfaction of treating with your equals. You and I will be as brothers, then. Your counsel is trusted above all, and I know that you trust mine even so. We shall be a great comfort to one another, you and I."
"I am glad to hear it," Stephen said, shrinking ever so slightly from the gentleman's sour breath.
"Yes," the gentleman said softly, and brushed Stephen's cheek with the backs of his white fingers. Stephen held very still, and the gentleman glittered at him, eyes aglow with mad light. Abruptly, he released Stephen and turned on his heel to gesture at the piper, a sallow faced man whose feet were quite literally rooted to the ground. Heavy vines like frayed rope curled into the hall's earthen floor, and wound under his trousers and around his legs--or were his legs--Stephen had never been sure.
The piper started as lively an aire as Stephen had ever heard--shocking in its tempo and tenor in this sad hall. The other dancers faltered and turned their heads, uneasy at the change, and a low murmur swelled in the crowd. The gentleman, of course, paid no attention, merely seizing Stephen's hand and setting the other on Stephen's hip.
It took all his power not to stumble as the gentleman whirled him around the court in a sort of bounding waltz--everywhere, the other dancers drew back and made way, and there was something like fear on most faces, and something like envy on a few.
After what seemed like many hours, the gentleman danced Stephen into a tall, thronelike chair and pushed a silver goblet of bitter wine into his hand. Although Stephen was gasping, the gentleman was perfectly composed as he leaned down to touch Stephen's ear, and it took every fiber of his strength to keep from shuddering when the gentleman grazed Stephen's cheek with his speaking lips as he promised, "Yes, Stephen, when we have made you king..."
Title from the poem "After Hearing A Waltz by Bartok" by Amy Lowell.