QUEEN of the DEEP
Excerpt from Chapter Three: Jane Gray has stumbled into another realm, one that appears to be an enormous luxury liner sailing on an alien sea. She must be presented to the queen, the “Doge,” but she is still shaken by her experience of crossing over from her world in modern day Manhattan to… whatever this place is.
“Jane,” came Braco’s concerned voice.
She waved him to silence. It wasn’t working. To say it was magic was not working. The far more likely explanation for all this was that she was having a mental breakdown. “Oh, God,” she moaned. “What’s happening to me?”
Braco patted her arm. They sat for a long time, Jane, head in hands, Braco watching over her.
At length he murmured, “You can open your eyes, Jane. We shall not hurt you.”
She shook her head. No, it was too much. She thought of the hat falling behind on the ocean waves, bobbing and lost. Voices in the hallway petered out, becoming more intermittent. Her heartbeat slowed, and she knew a measure of peace.
She opened her eyes and took a deep breath.
“That is a brave girl,” he said.
“Not so brave.”
“Well, you act brave.”
Act brave. It gave her a foothold. This all was a stage, a drama. Well, it wasn’t, but she could imagine it as such. She could be an actress in this drama. It might allow her to survive here, until she figured things out. She glanced up at Braco. “OK, I’m ready. If I have to meet the Doge, then I will.”
“By the Mother, you are rare!” Braco exclaimed. He stood, giving her his hand. They began walking toward the audience chamber. The hallway had become deserted, and they headed toward the sounds of a crowd. As they approached, Braco instructed Jane as to court practices: Be respectful of Diamonde’s mages, particularly the tall one, Sir Donato. Curtsy, speak when spoken to.
At the entrance to the Doge’s public chamber, Braco pushed Jane through a knot of courtiers and fine ladies. With his bulk he managed to clear a path to a position near the front of the crowd, where he left her for a moment to confer with one of the nobles.
Richly dressed men and women clustered around a small dais where the Doge sat. But nothing could be mistaken for the center of the glory, the woman occupying the dais and sitting on its throne: Diamonde d’Palazzo, the focus of every gaze in the room.
Braco leaned to whisper. “The Doge is surrounded by powerful nobles, Jane. Show respect, by all means and do not speak of waters and floating upon them, for this will only bring derision.”
“But it’s the truth.”
“Spend a time with us and reserve judgment as to truth.” He put his hands on her shoulders, squaring her toward the dais where an aged noble stood next to Diamonde. He was small, with white hair flowing to his shoulders.
“Alphonse,” Braco whispered. “His natal gifts are of windows and sight. He spies into the Oscuro at will, which talent the Doge well loves. The tall one is Donato—be watchful of him for he is her grand inquisitor and can discover all miscreants with his sight magic. And seated there, Ugo the Lame, born to the talent of doors. Have a care not to become bemired in the plots of the Three.”
“What is the Doge’s talent?”
Braco blinked. “Why, Jane, the Doge does all the magics, small and great.”
The Doge sat in a gilded chair, her taffeta gown ballooning around her. She wore gold, white and silver, capturing every photon of light. A jewel-encrusted net swathed her long neck and her black hair was tightly braided halfway down, then broke free to descend into glorious waves around her shoulders. This stunning display of hair framed the most distinctive face Jane had ever seen, pale as bone, almost too long for beauty, yet marvelous to look at. Full lips and wondrous dark eyes completed a picture of forbidding glory. The Doge now turned her attention from a conversation with the lanky Donato, and gazed at Jane.
Jane had never felt shabbier. Why hadn’t she worn her good suit and her nice strappy heels into the damn Oscuro? How could it be fair for a woman to look like that?
Braco whispered, “Now, forward with you,” giving her a little push.
Jane found all eyes immediately upon her. She bowed, and as she did so, the handkerchief that Braco had given her to wear fell off her head.
The crowd laughed, and Diamonde, rather than joining in, whispered to a servant. The young girl hurried to Jane, and taking off her velvet cap, gave it to Jane.
Putting it on, Jane bowed again.
Alphonse waved Jane closer, and she approached the dais with a rather bad case of stage fright. She took three deep breaths, gathering her stage presence.
Diamonde spoke almost to herself, in a low and throaty voice that managed to carry. “I have never seen a young woman with no hair.”
“I gave up my hair for a friend. Her name is Rickie and she’s sick.”
Alphonse, dressed in plain black wool, and speaking in a quavering voice, pointed at her. “Speak only when bidden.”
“It would be best to do so,” the Doge said sweetly, smiling at Jane. This kindness under the circumstances made Jane unreasonably grateful to the Doge, and she bowed once more, thinking perhaps she would get through this interview unscathed after all, if she could side step the three mages who scowled in unison.
The Doge raised her chin, and Jane came forward a few steps at the beckoning. “What is your name?”
The Doge looked skeptical. “So Braco Scrivano has informed us. Such a plain name, and such a plain face. Too much penalty.” Moving past Jane’s shock at the insult, she went on, “What manner of mage sent you to the Oscuro?” Her voice was deep and textured, well able to get past the footlights, Jane guessed. The Doge went on, “From what world, and for what crime? No matter the crime, I absolve you, for we welcome all travelers.” She turned to Alphonse. “Do we not, wise lord?”
He inclined his head.
Looking into the crowd, Jane saw Braco nodding encouragement. Jane turned back to the Doge. “No mage sent me there, unless Starling is a mage. I followed him from my apartment in Manhattan. In the United States. I’m not sure where I’ve ended up. Sorry.”
Alphonse gestured a palsied arm at her. “You will honor her, young dolt. Madame is the address. Use it.” He leaned down to speak with Ugo the Lame, whose red hair, in a bowl cut, framed doughy features.
The Doge shook her head, sighing. “No crime, no mage, no wit.” This brought laughter from those close enough to hear. “How long were you in the Oscuro, by your reckoning?”
“An hour, Madame, perhaps two. Not long enough to lose my wits, but long enough to dodge a few monsters who hoped for my flesh.”
The Doge raised eyebrows in mock surprise. “Ah yes? An adventurer, then! Excellent. You will have stories, I warrant. But tell us first in what world did you dwell? The world of great colossal snakes? The world of snowy mountains and the celebrated fire magics?” She looked about her for support. “I will wager the latter.”
Donato smiled, making his long nose appear like the beak of a predatory bird. This was a trap. She would now have to contradict the Doge. But she thought of a better approach.
She summoned up her best stage voice. “Madame, you’re right that my world has icy mountains. I’ve walked in snow and in mountains like that. But my world also has warm valleys and cities, and not much magic that I ever heard of. Until I found the Oscuro, I never knew there was any magic.” Jane was beginning to find her stride in this part of the Marco Polo traveler facing the barbarian queen.
“A firmament world then,” Diamonde said, relaxing into her chair, and receiving the whispers of Ugo on one side, and Alphonse on the other, perhaps vying for influence.
“We call it the Earth.” Jane had never uttered a more ridiculous line, on stage or off. How could the present world not be the Earth?
Diamonde clapped. “Ah! The Adamantine, we call it. With its scientologies, it hath little magic. A dreary place.”
Alphonse ventured, “You followed a personage across the Oscuro? How did you see him in the dark?”
“Well, he glowed. His cape flashed like a beacon. I could see him from a long way off.”
Alphonse rubbed his chin. “Glowed. ’Tis most strange. And how did you enter the Oscuro; and how leave?”
“Through the doors, Sir Alphonse.” When he waited for more, she said, “Starling went through the door next to my apartment, and I followed him through. Then I left the . . . Oscuro through the door he used.”
Alphonse and Ugo conferred for a moment. The red-haired one said, “And this Starling glowed such that he became visible in the room where no one can see? A powerful mage indeed.” He narrowed his eyes. “Unless you are a mage—and dabbling in forbidden magics, eh?”
The Doge’s expression hardened, and she watched Jane carefully.
“I don’t think I’m a mage.”
Alphonse took up the questioning again. “Never healed by a touch? Cast a glamour? Found luck where none could be?”
“I . . . I don’t think so.” She paused. “I have one special talent, though.”
Everyone seemed to lean forward.
“I can act. I’m an actress.”
The Doge laughed indulgently. “Well then, we shall look to be enchanted on the stage!” Polite laughter followed this remark. Then the Doge turned to Alphonse. “Instruct our little Jane what has befallen her, Alphonse. That is befitting treatment of a guest. We have waited too long, and I do scold you.”
“Traveler Jane,” Alphonse began in a voice both quavering and keen, “For passage to our world, a mage has opened a door for you, and which mage that is, we are most anxious to discover. We know of no mage called Starling, but he must go disguised.” Noting the Doge’s impatient glance, he hurried on: “You have come from the world called the Adamantine, and now stand before Diamonde d’Palazzo, ruler of the Palazzo and of our hearts. At her sufferance, you are welcome.”
“Thank you,” Jane said bowing, unsure that she knew very much more than before his explanation. “You’ve been very kind. I’m anxious to go home, of course. Except I would like find Starling, first, and . . . ask him some questions. After that, well, if you would be kind enough to help me go back where I came from, I’d appreciate it.”
Ugo the Lame muttered loud enough for all to hear, “Mortals cannot travel from world to world unless exquisite circumstance provides an open door. You shall not be so blessed again.”
The Doge said, “Alas, little Jane, Sir Ugo speaks the truth. You will not go home.”
The words fell heavily.
Diamonde went on, “The Oscuro surely would devour you next time. If ’twere possible for mortals to navigate it, there would be much mixing of the worlds, to and fro, when in actual, it is rare. No, it cannot be.”
Jane began to protest: “But . . .”
As quick as she had ever seen anyone move, Donato swept from his place by the dais and grabbed her by the neck, thrusting her down to the floor, head on the ground. Pressing down, he kept her there. “You contradict the Doge, do you?” he hissed.
After a few minutes Donato pulled her up, not roughly, though his eyes said he would have liked to.
The Doge looked at her as if she were a puppy that had peed on the floor. “Oh my dear. You are undone, of course. The court commiserates. Nonetheless, you will find ours a pleasant world and, in time, like others before you, you shall call this home.” She said it as though it were merely a minor adjustment. There was no way that Jane was not going home, of course. In fact, she just might leave immediately, if this was how these people were going to behave.
Gathering the billows of her skirt, the Doge stood up, and a flurry of those around her signaled that the audience was at an end. Diamonde’s gown spread out behind her in a short train, showing a V of embedded pearls leading from her back down the length of her gown. But just as she was leaving, the Doge turned halfway back to Jane. “Did the estimable Braco Scrivano not give you a proper hat to wear in my presence?” The Doge cut a look across the room at Braco, who visibly winced.
“Yes, Madame, but I lost it overboard.”
At this, the Doge turned fully around, and her attendants who had started a procession away from the dais turned back also, cutting glances at their queen. “Overboard? A curious term.”
Jane didn’t like the look Braco had suffered from the Doge, and she wasn’t sure how great a breach the bald head had been. “I’m sorry, but it wasn’t Braco’s fault. My cap fell in the water.”
The Doge swept her gaze through the crowd, arching an eyebrow as though amused. “You suffer visions of water, then?”
They must all be under the same delusion, Jane realized. But whether they liked it or not, they were all on a ship and that ship sailed on an ocean. She’d be damned if she’d lie. “Water. Yes. That the ship is traveling on.”
The Doge pouted her mouth for a moment as though confused by Jane’s summation. “How, Jane, does a world stay afloat in a great body of water? Would it not sink?”
In point of fact Jane wasn’t sure how an ocean liner did stay afloat—it had something to do with density and displacement—but she couldn’t deliver a lecture, and what she knew about ships would make a short talk in any case. She answered, “Like an apple in a barrel of water. It floats.”
A ripple of laughter spread outward, and people crowded closer, glittering and merry.
The Doge cocked her head in mock confusion. “So now the Palazzo is an apple?”
This brought an eruption of laughter, and Jane’s face grew hot, especially since it appeared that this would be the Doge’s exit line, as Madame swept away and Jane was left standing like a fool.
She considered a rejoinder, but Donato hung back, looking ready to pounce on her again. Jane, along with the hundreds assembled in the room, bowed low as the Doge retreated from sight.
Just as Jane was rising from her bow, the Doge’s young servant girl returned and playfully snatched her cap from off of Jane’s head. Gazing gleefully at Jane’s bald head she said, “There’s an apple for you!”
In the dispersing throngs, a few people looked back, grinning at this last joke.
Jane watched the over-dressed fops and tittering ladies retreat. The interview with the Doge had been an amusement at her expense. As annoying as that was, a far worse problem now suggested itself: Jane appeared to be in a floating city of lunatics.
And they wanted to keep her.