2. Alexandra, King of the Gypsies

Soundtrack and Video: Eurythmics, Missionary Man

Inglorion’s first errand is to visit a Gypsy camp just outside Liamelia’s city gates. The local Gypsies are the only allies the Theates have aboveground, and contact is informal and sporadic. Recently the alliance has consisted entirely of occasional visits between Inglorion and Krysztof, a quiet old cobbler with the grand title of King of the Gypsies. Krysztof is human, and when Inglorion does the math, he reminds himself that the old guy can’t possibly still be around. He thought that last time, though, and found Krysztof living in the same broken-down caravan, white-haired and stoop-shouldered, but very much alive and aware.

Inglorion walks up to the familiar caravan with a shoemaker’s sign hanging outside. It looks the same — the paint is perhaps more faded. He feels as if the same naked Gypsy child is still playing in the dust nearby. 

A handsome Gypsy woman answers his knock.

“I’m looking for Krysztof,” he says.

“Krysztof died five years ago, in midsummer. I’m his granddaughter, Alexandra.” She studies his features, smiles. “You must be Inglorion. Come in.”

Once inside, Inglorion notes that the rugs are worn, ornate, and probably valuable to the right buyer. The walls are lined with silk hangings that have become fragile with age. Did he miss them before? As before, the only furniture is the Murphy bed and a little side table. The tea-set looks new, a clever copy of a more valuable and ornate type from Dresden. Alexandra looks like a feminine version of her grandfather when Inglorion first met him. He’d guess she’s in her late 30s or early 40s. She’s strong and wiry, with thick, black, wavy hair marked with a streak of white at her widow’s peak. Her features are strong, too: prominent cheekbones, Roman nose, deep-set black eyes. 

“Would you like some tea?” she asks.

“Yes, please.”

As she arranges the tea-things, she says, “You’re Philomela’s son. My grandfather said he thought you were her heir, or would be.”

“I’m Marquis Theates, yes. How did he know?”

“He thought it was likely, based on a vision he had. Cream? Sugar?”

“Just cream, thank you.”

She arranges several biscuits on a plate, peels and sections a orange. She places the tray between them, hands him his tea, and they sit side-by-side on the bed. Inglorion eats an orange slice, the first fresh fruit he’s had in months. He bites through the delicate white membrane, the tiny cells burst on his tongue and between his teeth, and for a moment he’s entirely distracted by the tart sweetness. She’s amused by his focused sensual pleasure, says, “Have a ginger biscuit.”

The cookie is thin, crisp, not too sweet. “It’s very nice,” he says, then laughs, glances over at her. “It probably seems strange. But it’s been months since I tasted anything so good.” It takes him a moment to recover and reorient himself. “You said that Krysztof died a few years ago. I’m sorry to hear it. I didn’t know him well, but he’s been an important ally, and I liked him.”

“It was time. He was over 100, and had been ill. He drew close to the gods as death approached. The last few weeks of his life were spent in visions. He told me about you — said that there had been an agreement between our people, and you might show up from time to time.” 

“I have to ask. Are you the Queen of the Gypsies?”

She smiles. “King, actually. Queen isn’t used, possibly because spouses and consorts don’t have royal powers. But, yes. I’m the King of the Gypsies, and a cobbler and boot-maker, too.”

They sip their tea and nibble orange sections. Inglorion finds Alexandra to be a calm presence, as Krysztof was. He trusts her, and doesn’t feel the need to hurry conversation along.

After a time she asks, “Did you have a particular errand with my grandfather?”

“No. I’ll be aboveground for awhile, in Liamelia and Amakir. Since I was born here, I’ve wanted to deepen our existing alliances, and start new ones.”

She nods. “It’s a good thing to do. Our tribes are small and poor. Larger tribes are a kind of weather we adapt to.”

She observes him for a moment. He’s watching her attentively, head cocked. In years, he’s older than she, but to her he seems guileless and naive. The silence stretches out as she examines his face and demeanor, trying to identify the source of his charm, and to isolate its effect. Beautiful people often have a static or empty quality, which allows observers to project other qualities upon them. This is true of Inglorion, as far as it goes: In repose, his face makes an excellent allegory for religious devotion. However, the shock of his beauty is amplified by his intellect and will. He seems more clever because he’s beautiful, and his earnestness and wit animate his beauty.

Finally she says, “Krysztof told me something he saw before he died. He said you could bring peace. You have certain qualities. You represent an opportunity that may not come about again for a long time. He told me to serve you if I could. It won’t happen during my lifetime — I know that now, seeing you. But it may happen someday, and it’s my duty to try to preserve that chance.”

“Did he tell you anything about that vision? What he saw? How he knew?”

“No. He burned most of his papers when he knew he was ill and wouldn’t recover. He told me that a few times, though — reminded me to look out for you, and to help you however I could.”

He sets his cup and plate down and leans back against the wall. His gaze drifts as if he’s remembering or imagining something. Finally he says, “I’m glad you told me. I knew years ago, after the very first vision I had, that I was marked in some way. I hoped — I wanted so much — it sounds crazy to want it, though, to even raise the question. I had a series of visions recently, and I saw the cost of war — a fragment of a much larger picture, but enough to make you weep. Suddenly it felt urgent to me, and I began to question why we fight at all.” He shakes his head, and his gaze comes back into focus. Their eyes meet. He smiles and says, “I don’t understand, so I throw words at it.”

“I know,” she says. “It feels naive and silly, like something a child would ask: ‘Why do we hate each other so much?’”

They both consider this briefly. Inglorion reaches over to finish his tea, then asks, “Why do you say it won’t happen during your lifetime?”

“The way he described the vision. You’re so very young now.”

“I’m older than you are,” he says, a bit stung. “Probably by at least a century.”

“Yes, but we feel our mortality so much sooner. Our lives are condensed, and we’re forced to become wise. Or — I don’t know — it feels as if I could be your mother, though in years the reverse is true.”

Inglorion gives a delighted laugh. “Do elves seem childlike to you? Because of course that’s how we think of humans. It’s as if you die too soon to really grow up.” His face darkens, and he says, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

She smiles, shakes her head. “No, no, I think it’s interesting. We think that you’re eternally children because you feel like you have all the time in the world.”

“When I was younger, I felt so very rushed — I was terrified that I would get everything wrong, that I would never learn.”

“But feeling rushed is different from knowing how little time you have,” she says.

“Do you feel that?”

“Not yet.” She grins at him. “I’m not that old.”

“No, of course not. But I don’t know what’s usual for humans. For all I know, when you’re 10 or 12, you think, ‘Good God, I only have 60 or 70 years left to figure this out.’”

“Nothing that elevated. At that age, it’s more like, ‘Will any boy ever like me?’”

“Really? How funny. I had a similar thought concerning girls. I suppose it diverges around 30.” He suddenly feels shy, as if he’s flirting with the King of the Gypsies, and he ought not to.

Now that he’s aboveground, he feels the usual driving sense of need. By nature he’s attuned to women’s interest; he knows it wouldn’t be hard to cement the alliance between their people by seducing this bright and handsome woman.  

He finds this truth uncomfortable, so he sits back up and diverts himself with stage business: Eating the last orange section, trying to drink from his empty teacup.

She notices this and refills his cup, adds cream. “What are you thinking?” she asks. 

It’s difficult for Inglorion to dodge a question or dissemble. He rejects the first few answers that occur to him, because he knows that mentioning the attraction between them will give it life and substance. Finally he says, “I was wondering if you have divination powers, like your grandfather did.”

“That’s not what you were thinking,” she says. 

“Well, it’s what I asked, so I’ll trouble you to answer the question,” he says tartly, then adds, “I hope it’s not mind-reading.”

“No, no. I can see distant places with more or less accuracy, and at times I can communicate simple messages to a willing recipient. And by simple I mean, a few words or numbers — nothing fancy.”

“That seems designed for cheating at cards.”

Her expression turns serious. “That’s taboo, you know. Divination is a gift, not a tool. You can learn to shape and develop a gift, but there’s some danger of confusing desire with truth, and using it to serve your own ends rather than the will of the gods. I’m not talking about cheating at cards, though people do that. More like, trying to save yourself or a loved one from necessary pain — diverting events from their true and necessary course.” She breaks off, gives a self-conscious laugh. “I’m sorry — it’s been on my mind lately.”

He’s touched by her sudden earnestness — it’s a quality he admires in women. He’s painfully reminded of a beautiful widow he know long ago, Artemisia. He says, “Not at all. I often think of such things — worry about them.”

“I didn’t know elves had divination of any kind.”

“Mostly they don’t. The Drow take hallucinogens and fast, but they’re interested in gaining powers — the ability to tolerate heat and cold and pain, to control heartbeat and respiration. They believe over time you can learn to levitate, develop blindsight.”

“Do you think those powers are possible?”

“Certainly. But they’re rare and dangerous and costly. I’ve never sought them.” As he speaks, he realizes that he’s been striving all his life for physical prowess, and if he believed he could gain such powers, he would pursue them ruthlessly. He considers this, frowning. He’s drained his teacup again, so she refills it, and gets up to peel and section another orange. He smells the zest strongly. 

“But you have visions? Some kind of power?”

“I don’t know if I would call it that. A few years ago I took a hallucinogen over several days, when I was seeking guidance from the gods. It’s traditional among the Drow. I saw things, though nothing I’d hoped to see, nothing connected with the problem at hand.”

She bursts out laughing, then says, “I’m sorry, it’s just…”

“Oh, I know. It’s absurd to go back to the gods and scold them as if they misunderstood the question.”

She brings the orange over on a plate, sets it down on the tea-tray between them, then resumes her place on the bed, tucking her legs under her, arranging her black skirt around her bare feet. “Do you mind if I ask what you saw?”

He looks down, and his face clouds up. “I don’t know if I can explain. I don’t understand it myself. It seemed very personal. I was struggling with a moral problem, and —” he breaks off. “I don’t know why it should bother me to say it. In the visions I was my father. I saw what he saw, felt what he felt, his thoughts were mine. It was horrible.”

“Why?”

“He’s been dead for many years now, and I loathed him desperately. It felt — doing the things he did, seeing the world as he saw it.” He breaks off, coughs, struggles to control his voice. “What he did was monstrous, but he wasn’t a monster. I didn’t want to know, and now I do. I still don’t understand.”

She watches him for a moment to see if he’s finished. Finally she says gently, “You didn’t understand, but you felt something?”

“God, yes. Altogether too much. Admiration, sorrow that I never really knew him, disgust, anger. I felt what he felt. That was the hardest thing of all — his agony and confusion and regret. I hate him, but I took no pleasure in his suffering. It hurt me.”

He looks hurt and bewildered. As usual, his beauty makes his sorrow seem picturesque. Alexandra reaches over, covers one of his hands with hers, and says, “You sought facts and understanding, and instead the gods showed you the suffering of an enemy. They opened your heart.”

Her touch brings him back. He says, “Yes. Yes, of course. And that was painful.” He takes her hand, raises it to his lips, kisses it, an innocent gesture of gratitude. Their eyes meet. His lips are soft against her fingers, and she can feel the heat of his breath. Her cheeks flush.

He releases her hand, says, “That’s when I saw the cost of war. Not some abstract moral absolute, but a real, tangible cost in human pain. All of us bear it in some way. So I think I should try to stop it.” After a moment he adds, “I didn’t experience it as a power, a gift like your grandfather had.” He stops himself, as is silent for so long that she finally prompts him.

“What, then?”

“I communicate with the gods. I’m their instrument. They’re shaping me, guiding me. It’s not divination.” He stops again, because the thought seems too dreadful to put into words. 

“You feel they’re guiding you directly.”

He nods. He looks troubled, almost agonized. “Is that possible? Because that’s how it feels. I prayed for it my whole life, but when it happened, it wasn’t what I expected. They’re indifferent to the things I thought they would care about, and sometimes the things they show me are sickening.”

He looks angelic, holy. She’s aware of the effect, but powerless to resist it. He glances over, and she feels heat rising in her face and neck, as if his gaze has scalded her.

Until now, Alexandra has thought of elves as cold, distant and parochial, lovely but uncanny. The gray elves of Liamelia are kind, but they manage to convey that Gypsies exist on sufferance, because it amuses them to have their fortunes told, and to enjoy certain smuggled goods. Alexandra doesn’t regard elves as sex objects any more than she would a leopard or an Arabian horse. They’re exotic and beautiful, and she’s confident that they reproduce somehow, but the details have never concerned her. 

It’s a small room, and they’re side-by-side on her bed. He’s leaning back and staring at the ceiling, since that’s how he thinks best. She’s propped up on one elbow, inclined towards him, attending to his words, watching each expression flit across his mobile countenance. They’re so close they’re almost touching. It would be awkward to move back, and she doesn’t want to. She loses her composure briefly — bites her lip, looks away.

He realizes her predicament, and knows he can have her.

This thought is followed by a surge of arousal that blots out reason. Lying there, he absorbs every carnal detail: The blaze of white in her dark curls, the deep raspberry stain in her cheeks. He’s fascinated by the mingling of youth and age unique to humans. She’ll only live another 40 or 50 years. This seems poetic and melancholy, particularly since she takes it for granted. Her speaking voice is low and musical, but he imagines that if he made love to her, her cries would be sweet, breathy and high. More than anything, he’s intoxicated by the sympathy between them. An intellectual and spiritual connection with a beautiful woman is the most erotic thing he knows. 

“You know what I was thinking just now,” he says softly.

She’s genuinely flustered. “Oh, no.”

“I think you do.” He smiles, and she has to force herself to hold his gaze. “Shall I say it? I want you so badly that I can hardly think, and I wonder if you want me, too.”

Now her gaze does fall, and she blushes fiercely, not just her cheeks, but her neck and shoulders. He sees her breath quicken. 

He moves the tea-tray from between them, setting it down on the floor. He lies down next to her. She can see that he’s aroused — he makes no effort to conceal it. “My darling,” he says, “I don’t know your people’s ways. Am I permitted to kiss the King of the Gypsies?”

“Yes — that is, I’m free to please myself.”

Thought they’re not touching, he’s close enough to feel the heat of her skin. He murmurs, “Does it please you?”

“Oh, yes.” 

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