The Spark – Snippet 40

“I noticed the cubicles,” I said. “They were all really neat. Not as neat as Louis’ own room, but neat.”

“So they were,” said Guntram. “I’m sure it’s a very efficient working environment.”

I shrugged. “It works for some, I guess,” I said. “I don’t figure it’d work for me. Anyway, I want to be a Champion.”

“Yes,” Guntram said. “The shield I gave you is one that Louis built from scraps, some of which came from what I believe was a clock. I don’t think there’s ever been a Maker with more of a flair for arms. He and Jon are well-suited to their task of reuniting Here by force. Where that’s necessary.”

I thought of Beune. I didn’t recall anybody there complaining that there wasn’t more unity. I didn’t say anything.

The door head at the corner of the hall was seven feet tall with an arched top. Its brass mountings were for show, not strength, and they’d been polished recently, maybe just this morning.

The two guards were probably for show too, but they had good arms and looked like they knew how to use them. They moved a little apart as we approached. The taller one said, “Good morning, Master Guntram. We don’t often see you in this end of the palace.”

“I’m showing my friend Lord Pal around,” Guntram said. “I thought I’d introduce him to Lady Jolene.”

“Any friend of yours, sir,” the guard said. He pulled the door open and with his fellow stood braced as Guntram led me inside.

The man who’d just gotten up from a stool in the small anteroom was a servant with sharp features and a fringe of red hair which had gone mostly gray. He wore black tights and a tunic in two shades of blue, both muted.

“Master Guntram!” he said. “How shall I announce your companion, please?”

“I’m Pal of Beune,” I said quickly before Guntram could call me, “Lord Pal,” again. Lord of what? I didn’t even own the farm my parents had left me.

Though I had a boat, come to think. I wondered what Camm had owned and how he’d become “Lord Camm.” Still, that was on his conscience, not mine.

Had been on his conscience.

“Master Guntram, and Pal of Beune,” the attendant called into the big room beyond. He didn’t speak loudly, but his voice carried in a liquid wave.

“Lady Jolene,” Guntram said, “this is my colleague Pal. He’s enrolling in the Aspirant’s Chamber.”

“We don’t see you often, Guntram,” said the lovely blond-haired woman on a central chair. “Would you like some refreshment? We have wine and also sherbert thanks to the marvelous cooler that you made for me.”

There were three men, all Champions by the look of them, and seven or eight women. One of the women had been singing softly as she plucked a musical instrument with a long neck and a round sound box, but she stopped and looked at us when Jolene began speaking.

Lady May was the singer.

“No thank you, Lady,” Guntram said. “Pal has done me a number of services, both here and on the Marches. I was pleased that he took my advice to join the Leader’s Company. Now that he’s here I’m showing him the important things in Dun Add–”

He paused and bowed. Guntram wasn’t without social niceties after all, though he only practiced them when he chose to.

“–which of course includes you, your ladyship.”

Jolene wore at least three and maybe more layers of blue gauze. There were fish embroidered on one layer or another; they seemed to swim when she made a flirting gesture with her hand toward the old Maker.

“Guntram, you’ll turn my head,” Jolene said. She continued to smile as she turned to me.

I stood straighter. It was like being stared at by a cat. A really big cat.

“Where is Beune, Pal?” Jolene said. Her voice was as smooth and lovely as the rest of her, though I was beginning to see that she was older than I’d first thought. “I don’t believe I’d heard of it before.”

“It’s on the Marches, ma’am,” I said. I’d been thinking about answering the question instead of remembering who I was answering. “That is, your ladyship, I mean.”

She laughed like silver bells. “Just call me Jolene, dear,” she said. “Nobody needs to stand on ceremony in my chambers.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. To change the subject I said, “Beune’s thirty-two days out from Dun Add by the Road, and that’s hard travelling. I came here by boat this time, though.”

“You have boats on Beune?” a forties-ish man said. He didn’t speak loudly but his voice had authority. So did the man, obviously, from the way everybody in the room looked at him as he spoke. He was as tall as I was, but much more powerful.

“Well, there was just mine,” I said. “And now that I’m here, not mine either. It’s real uncommon to see a boat on Beune.”

“You own a boat?” one of the women said, leaning forward like a hot-pink flower. She had black hair, and her lip-rouge matched her dress color.

“Ah, yes ma’am,” I said. I hadn’t expected to be doing any talking when we entered the room, and I’d sooner have been right about that. “I can’t guide it myself, though. I just own it.”

I hadn’t really thought about ownership before. Nobody was going to argue my claim, that I was sure of.

“Jolene, would you mind if I showed Pal the terrace?” May asked. “He and I know each other, you see. We met before.”

“By all means, child,” the Consort said, gesturing toward the window with a movement that made her look even more like a cat.

I heard giggles. One of the men nudged another–not the fellow who’d asked me about boats–and chortled.

I stiffened. I thought May started to blush, but she said, “This way, Pal. The roses are still blooming nicely, though it’s been so dry that we have to water them every day.”

She opened the casement and stepped out, then closed it after us. I’d noticed greenery through the glass but I hadn’t paid it much attention. Now I saw that there was a roof garden with small junipers in pots right outside. You couldn’t see through their branches any better than you could’ve a brick wall.

We walked around the junipers, into a little plaza with wicker couches and potted rose bushes. May turned and faced me. “So, Pal…?” she said. “It was just a disguise, you pretending to be a poor rube who didn’t know anything about the big city?”

“Ma’am, it surely was not!” I said. “I was just what I said I was–I still am, mostly. I’ve had some good luck, that’s all. And the biggest luck was all the things that Guntram’s done for me. He made it sound like I’d helped him, but that’s not so–not to mention, anyhow.”

May smiled. God knows she was pretty!

“So,” she said. She straightened the collar of my red suit. I was glad now that Baga or maybe Maggie had told me to change out of my regular clothes. “Guntram is responsible for your new taste in clothing?”

“Oh, no, ma’am,” I said. “This suit’s from Marielles and I’ve got two more like it. A lady gave them to me because I’d helped her find her sister.”

“A lady?” May said, cocking her head. The rosebush behind her was in full bloom. That made me remember the first time I saw May when she had a bunch of tulips in her arms. “Was she as pretty as me?”

“Oh, goodness, no!” I said. “I don’t know anybody who’s as pretty as you, May!”

“You’re a sweet boy,” she said. “And don’t worry, I won’t pry.”

I started to tell her that there was nothing to pry about, but before I got the words out May had lifted up on tiptoes and kissed me on the lips. Not hard, but a real kiss.

“Come along, now,” she said and led me back around the junipers to the window we’d come out by.

I know my cheeks were red when we went back into Jolene’s chambers.