One-thousand years appeared to have done little to improve Malcolm’s taste in art.
A glossy marble floor extended across the open Royal Gallery. The room looked like a museum, the walls carefully arranged with golden-framed paintings facing marble viewing benches that matched the floors.
Most of the art gallery appeared to be self portraits of my husband. Malcolm riding on a horse with long hair. Malcolm giving a piece of bread to a starving child in the street. Malcolm, shirtless with a sword above his head, and more than a few liberties taken on the definition of his muscles and number of visible abs.
That is, unless he had been working out in Lentempia. What a few dozen lifetimes had done to his physique was still yet to be determined.
When I entered the gallery, Malcolm was sitting on a bench on the far side of the hall, staring up intently at a picture out of my view. He did look thinner, that was for sure. And lankier, like a string bean. If he had once been buff in this world, it had eroded away after he had taken the crown.
I twisted in my wheelchair to face the escort guard. “May I have some privacy with the King, please?”
“Of course, your holiness. I will wait outside, near the entrance.” The hooded guard bowed and left.
I began to push myself down the hall. “You’re a hard one to track down, you know that babe?” I called out, over the rusty squeak of my chair’s wheels.
Malcolm looked over from the bench and jumped. “Jillian!” he said, and began to stride over to me, his long velvet robe brushing against the marble as he walked.
I spread my arms out wide. “Get over here. I missed you.” He wrapped his arms around me, but the embrace was stiff and tense, and I felt the tendons in his shoulders contract as I pulled him close. Much thinner than before.
“Jillian,” he said, “Words cannot express how happy I am to see you, at long last, by my side. The stars have aligned, and we are together. Praise the Gods!”
I’ll praise myself, I thought. I did all the work to find your ass, not the Gods.
My head came forward for a kiss but he flinched away like a reflex. “Not until after the royal wedding ceremony,” he warned. “Would not want anyone to question your purity.”
“Wait, kissing one’s fiancee out of wedlock is scandalous here?” I poked him in the ribs. “What type of Puritan-ass Kingdom are you running here?”
He shook his head. “We are both Holy figures of the faith. We must respect that.”
“Oh come on Mal,” I said with puppy dog eyes, lacing my fingers through his. “Your queen missed you.” I pulled him towards me. “I haven’t seen the King’s bedroom yet, why don’t we go take a tour of that?” I patted the arm of my wheelchair. “Then afterwards if you’re lucky, I might even take you for a ride on my new set of wheels.”
“If others were to find out that the Angel from the Outside was suggesting such impure things-”
“No one’s here,” I pointed out. “And besides, we’ve already left our mark on purity in about five thousand different-”
“Shh!” he said. “There could be spies. Now, if you are finished, I wish to show you something.”
“Fine, go ahead then,” I said, my initial happiness to see him replaced with a sour resentment towards his steely resolve.
He pushed me past row after row of self-portraits, until we arrived at the small, humble corner of the room dedicated exclusively to subjects other than Malcolm the Great. We stopped in front of a tall life size portrait of a pale, ethereal woman dressed in white silk. “Here we are,” he said. “Well, what do you think?”
The woman looked wispy and delicate, like a ghost. But some of her features looked familiar, and something about her made the back of my neck prickle. I studied it closer and felt my stomach roll over.
Except different, I thought. More polished. Smoother. Sexier.
The blemishes and birthmarks on my skin were missing, the hair fuller and cascading in bouncy curls around my shoulders that I could never pull off, the chin a bit less pronounced, the cheek bones firmer. I looked like some kind of longing-male’s fantasy of myself. Which, I guessed, is probably exactly what the picture was. A twisted, distorted version of me that had survived one-thousand years in one man’s imagination.
There was, however, an uncanny lifelessness to the figure. An emptiness in the eyes that made it feel one step below human. It belonged on a burning pile of kindling, not the wall of an exhibit.
“What do you think?” Malcolm asked. “Had it commissioned myself, shortly after I took the throne. A fitting tribute to the woman of my destiny.”
“Can you take it down? It kind of gives me the creeps.”
He laughed. “Nonsense.” Then I felt his words tickle my ear, soft, as he leaned over my chair from above. “I can make you like that, if you wish. The molders here in the palace are the best in the Kingdom. They can sculpt away your imperfections like putty, give you the beauty to match your status as a queen. There is no shame, you know. The last queen used their abilities quite extensively.”
I whipped my head to face him, sure I misheard. “Excuse me?”
Sometimes it was hard to tell when Malcolm was crafting an elaborate joke, and I wondered if that was happening now. I watched the expression on his face, searching for any sign of a facetious smile creeping across it, but he stared down at me with as much playfulness as a coroner. “Would you like that Jillian? Say the word, and I will make it happen.”
He’s serious I decided.
Color rushed to my face. “What the hell is wrong with you? Keep your freaking molders away from me. I don’t want to look anything like the dressed up corpse in that picture.” Malcolm’s face fell, but like a ball rolling down a hill, my words kept tumbling forth, faster and louder. “You done showing me your expensive picture collection of teenage wet dreams and vanity portraits? Ready to explain what the hell is going on here?”
He paused, confused. “What do you mean?”
“What. Do. I. Mean?” Someone was going to get slapped. “Malcolm, why don’t we start with what you’ve been doing all this time. You brought me here, after all. Why did it take you one thousand years to do that? And why weren’t you looking for me after we got separated? While you sat here on your throne, did you even care that I was alone in this world, potentially even in danger?”
“I…brought you here?”
“I take it you’ve already forgotten? That time– say, what was it– about a week and a half ago, where you rushed me into our bathroom and threw me into another dimension, to show me the world you had lived in for about one thousand years? I rank it pretty highly in my list of big life events, what about you?”
His eyes widened. “I went to the Outside?”
“Don’t call it the Outside, it’s our goddamn apartment in New York and we moved there for your freaking job.” Then I paused, my mind struck with a terrifying thought. “Wait, you do remember…don’t you?”
“I…” he looked pained, scrunching up his nose as if he was straining very hard to remember something, “I don’t. I’m sorry, my angel. My memories are slipping.” Then I saw fear in his eyes. “I forget things. I…can remember your face. I have ways of preserving that memory. But the rest, the details, they all slip away. Now, I remember only that we once had a life together.”
He glanced around the room once, then twice, almost fearful. “It’s Caollin,” he whispered. “He does things to my mind. Makes me forget things. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it even takes me a while to remember who I am.”
“So then, you don’t remember anything about our past life? Or even bringing me back here a week ago?”
There was real pain behind his pale eyes. “I try, but where memories once sat, I find only emptiness. He takes them. The ones he doesn’t like. The distractions, he calls them. I know its him, it has to be.” He scratched vigorously at the back of his scalp, nearly knocking the ringlet off his head. “I can feel him poking around when he does it, taking things he thinks are useless.” His gaze fell to the floor. “You think I’m mad, don’t you?”
“You’re not mad, babe. I believe you. But…maybe I can jog your memory.”
We spent the next hour talking about our past life. I started with the little things; his fanatical obsession with David Bowie, and the way he would nerd out over random bits of trivia. His ideological refusal to cancel his subscription to his favorite science journal, even though we had entered the twentieth century and it was all online anyways. His love of professional wrestling, and the never-ending prank war between the two of us, although I made it very clear that he had drawn first blood.
Then I moved on to how we met at college, the romance started with myself, a quiet girl on the track team, and Malcolm, the abundantly confident boy from the floor below with the mischievous smile and not-so-secret crush. I found him cute and charming, but I never let him know it, because that boy loved to annoy and embarrass me while I was still in a long distance relationship with my high school sweetheart.
As it turned out, that same sweetheart had a nasty habit of cheating on me while he was away. We talked of the day I finally grew a backbone and left my ex, and how Malcolm had shamelessly asked me out a few days later, so I gave him the honor of escorting me to Margarita Madness Mixer Night as his date. I spoke in great lengths about how little we both remembered from the event, and how the Margaritas had done the rest of the work for us.
The next morning, we both figured our relationship would end as a one-time drunken rebound, but then the boy surprised me. He took me out for breakfast on his college budget of a crumpled ten dollar bill and half an expired Starbucks gift card, one that Malcolm somehow convinced the pretty cashier to accept by complimenting her smile and making her giggle. The interaction made me feel a surprising pang of jealousy, so that I wrapped my arm around him defensively, that is, until he asked me to stop because I was squeezing too tight and cutting off his circulation.
I told him how the two of us spent the whole afternoon doing nothing except laying out on the quad and talking about our dumb young-people-dreams, and that he made me laugh and feel like life was not meant to be taken seriously. Reminded him of the next few weeks as we began to hang out more and more, until we had become best friends.
Then after college, our tumultuous period of living in Philadelphia, sharing a crappy run-down apartment, before moving to New York a year ago so he could start a career as a physicist for one of New York’s fastest growing private companies.
For hours we talked, reviewing every high and low of our marriage. And still, he remembered nothing.
Caollin had taken it all.
Finally I threw my hands up in exasperation. “Come back with me,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to hide the rising panic in my voice. “Leave this all behind. We’ll ditch the palace tonight and find a way back to our home. Maybe then, once we’re back, your memories will return.”
He shook his head. “I will. One day, I promise. But I cannot leave right now. My destiny is here, guiding this Kingdom as the Champion of the Gods. Whatever the cost.”
I bit my lip. “You’re set on that?”
“Then promise me one thing.”
“Promise me…” I took the plunge, “promise me if you stay here for a while, then you will get rid of Father Caollin.”
Malcolm balked. “No, my love. I understand your concern, but he is also my oldest friend. The only one I can trust in a palace filled with my enemies.”
“Trust?” I looked into the pale, weary eyes of the broken man that was my husband. “Honey, you cannot trust that man. He’s using you for your strength. He told me that much himself.”
“I…I know that. I’m not stupid! But I need him. He can do things that I cannot. We’re partners, both of us invaders in this palace. Without him, I’d be dead.”
For a moment he stood still, like a statue, lost in contemplation. Then my husband started to cry.
“Everyone hates me here!” he yelled. “The crowds call for my head. I hear them, the way they chant False King like I’m some type of freak. What would you do in my position Jillian? Well?”
Be strong, Jill, I thought. Usually it was Malcolm that did most of the reassuring, while I did all the worrying, but now the tables had turned.
How had Malcolm comforted me, whenever I broke down?
I tried my best to emulate the confident smile Malcolm flashed that always made my worries slip away. “Mal, the good news about having me here is that now, for the first time, you have someone that loves you, unconditionally. Someone you can genuinely trust.” I squeezed his hand and pulled him closer to me. “You don’t have to do this alone anymore. Together, we’ll work as a team and win back those crowds.” As I spoke, his hand trembled in mine. “But I do need you to take the first step and get rid of that priest. We can even do it together.”
Still, he shook his head, but I sensed his resolve start to weaken. “I can’t…he runs everything. Without him, things would break out into chaos. I wouldn’t know what to do next.”
“Allright,” I said. “So let me tell you a story. The story of how you convinced me to quit my first job.”
He dried his eyes and looked at me, now attentive. I took a long breath and gathered my thoughts.
“Here it goes. So the first job I had out of college…well it kind of sucked. I had this prick of a boss, he always gave me shit for no reason and wore the same terrible green golf tie. Matter of fact, you always used to threaten to go buy a matching one for all the mandatory corporate events where we were supposed to bring our spouses.”
“The job itself was thankless…besides the fact that it held us afloat. You were in grad school then, working part-time as a teaching assistant, so your income was basically nothing. I always used to tease you by referring to myself as the breadwinner. And you told me that you were worth every penny that I spent on your handsome ass.”
“Then we got engaged, and with that came wedding planning in addition to balancing rent payments and student loans, so things started getting really hectic. Financially, times had never been tougher. And there I was…stuck in a dead-end job.”
“That is, until the day came that one of the seniors at my firm– the same man that was my career mentor– left unexpectedly. It was one of the those bittersweet types of news. This guy was one of the few people I liked at the firm…but at the same time his vacancy created a new opening for the firm to fill internally. One with higher pay, less grunt work. Still the same shitty company and same shitty boss, but otherwise a brand new opportunity. The best part? In my mentor’s resignation letter, he mentioned me by name as his recommended replacement.”
“Besides myself, there wasn’t anyone else even remotely qualified for the job, except for one other guy I worked with, a kid straight out of college named Craig. But I had been in the company almost a year longer than him. Craig was a bit of a suck-up, his only major leverage being that he would always go golfing with the boss on Sundays.”
“And so for a few days, I let myself entertain the fantasy of taking the new job title. Started to visualize where I would spend the extra money: how it could go towards helping my parents pay for the wedding, or that I could finally take you out for a fancy celebration dinner for getting an A on your quantum physics final, or how nice it would be to spend it on a much needed vacation for us.”
“Well, Monday of next week, my boss plans an impromptu conference. Once we’re all crowded into the tiny side conference room, he announces that he has some marvelous news to share. He just had a powerful conversation with Craig, and feels like he shares the same vision for the future of the company. Craig would be taking over at the Senior position opening, starting next week. Everyone breaks into applause and starts clapping him on the back like he deserves it. After my boss throws a few motivational cliches at us, he dismisses the meeting, and sends us on our separate ways.”
“The entire conference, my boss didn’t acknowledge me. Not once.”
“I’ve never been much of a crier, but something about that job always got to me, especially at that moment. To my credit, I remained a model professional for the rest of the day. By that, I mean I managed to avoid talking to most people, answered questions down to my shoes, and found enough busywork to keep my brain from functioning properly.”
“I held myself together until I got home, where I found you waiting for me. ‘How was work?’ you asked, as soon as I walked in, ‘any news on the promotion?’ And that’s when I lost it.”
“I was hysterical, bawling my eyes out, but you never missed a beat. You see, you had been trying to plan a surprise party to celebrate the promotion, contacted all my friends and set something up, but you never told me that until years later. It would have only made me feel worse, even though your intentions were good, and you knew that. So instead you held me in your arms and discreetly canceled everything later on.”
“’You should quit,’ you said, as I buried my head into your shoulder. ‘You hate the job and that boss treats you like garbage. I’ll start the car right now and we’ll drive over together.’”
“I laughed and told you that was crazy. That finding a new job was easiest when you already had one, that I should just put my head down and swallow my pride for a little longer, start polishing up my resume. But for you, that wasn’t an acceptable answer.”
“’I can’t bear to see you like this,’ you said. ‘Just be honest with me. Do you want to quit right now?’ And then I saw that glint in your eyes, that confident fire, and it gave me strength.”
“’Yes,’ I said. ‘I want to quit. More than anything in the world.’”
“You said, ‘Then for god’s sake, go and quit! We can figure out the money, the next job, the apartment, all of it is bullshit. Life is too short to spend being miserable. Let’s take this first step together, and figure out the rest as we go’. ”
“’I love you,’ was the only way I knew how to respond. Then I told you, okay, you can go start the car.”
I paused the story to massage my legs. Malcolm’s eyes were wide, hanging on my every word.
“The next few hours were a bit of a tear-stained blur,” I continued, “but I managed to do it. You stayed in the parking lot while I wandered into my Boss’ office and blurted something incoherent at him that vaguely resembled a two-weeks notice. I don’t even remember how he responded, or if he even cared. It didn’t really matter.”
“But I do remember plopping back into our car, fumbling with the seat-belt for a minute, before having it catch four times in a row and giving up. Then I looked over at you and said, ‘It’s done. I’ve got no job. No money. And I can’t even figure out how to buckle this goddamn seat-belt. So…what now?’”
“You put an arm on my shoulder and said, ‘Doesn’t matter, you’ve taken the first step, and that’s enough for today. Everything is going to be fine, babe. Now let’s go get some ice cream.’”
“Turned out that it was actually a beautiful summer day. So we stopped at the ice cream parlor right off the road near my parent’s old house, found a picnic table looking out over the buzzing marsh in the back, and made a mess of our chocolate ice cream cones.” I smiled. “You forget to appreciate things like nice weather and ice cream when you get caught up worrying about careers and money and expensive weddings.”
“Sometimes you even forget to spend time with the people you care most about. But not on that day. We spent the rest of the day with each other, just like back in college, as if we didn’t have a care in the world.” I sighed. “It’s funny how some of the best and worst days of your life can be one in the same.”
“After that, things turned out okay. You took on a night shift as a waiter and scoured the listings for openings while I job hunted and took interviews. A few months later I did find a new job. One with a boss that I liked much more, and better pay. You were right; everything worked out in the end.”
The story finished, I looked up at my husband. He was staring down at the ground.
“I wish I could remember,” he whispered. “More than anything in the world, I wish I could remember.”
“It’s okay,” I breathed back. “We’ll make some new memories.”
It wasn’t okay though. I wanted to stamp around and scream and break something. But I held strong, and looked back into my husband’s eyes like everything was great.
“Just be honest with me. Right now, do you want that priest gone?”
“Then the rest of this we’ll figure out as we go. But I need you to take that first step with me.”
He was silent for a long moment, still saying nothing. Then I saw it; no more than a tiny jerk of the head, but a nod all the less.
I wrapped my arms around his neck and flattened his messy hair with my fingers. “Good,” I said. “Caollin’s taken enough from us already.”
We were back in the throne room, but this time I sat at Malcolm’s side, before an audience of dignitaries and high ranking officials. I looked out over the crowd, to a mix of curious and confused expressions. Even Caollin looked a bit perplexed at the impromptu assembly the King had ordered.
“Thank you all for attending on short notice,” Malcolm said. “This will not take long, I promise.”
I had suggested that we release Caollin in private, but Malcolm had insisted we do it in public. “I know Caollin,” he told me. “He has a fear of addressing public crowds. He will be less likely to attempt something drastic if we surround ourselves with lots of guards and dignitaries.”
He started to fidget with his ringlet again, so I grabbed his hand and held it in mine. The tremors began to cease, and I felt him squeeze back.
He took a shaking breath, and then said, “Father Caollin, you are dismissed from our faith indefinitely. You are to leave this city at once, for your inability to serve effectively and faithfully as the High Priest of the Royal Cathedrals.”
The priest raised his eyebrows, as if the entire assembly had been put on for his amusement. For a moment, he simply sat in his seat, crossing his arms, contemplating. Then he stood up.
“It appears the King is feeling unwell,” he said. “He has had a long day, and needs his rest. Let us adjourn this meeting. The two of us will discuss this further in private.” He smiled at me. Malcolm sat frozen in his chair, and two guards got up and started to walk towards the King.
“No,” I said quietly.
All eyes in the room turned towards me. Caollin’s smile faltered, but Malcolm sat still, looking like he wanted to stand up and follow the guards out of the room. If that happened, then this was over. Hell, I might wake up tomorrow and not even remember my name.
“No,” I said a second time, now much more forceful. “The King is not feeling unwell. Father Caollin has misled the King numerous times, and also performed the Trial of the Mind on myself, the queen, without consent. He is a toxic influence on the Champion of the Church and will therefore be banished from the capital, effective immediately.”
The guards were still walking towards the throne. I held out a hand. “Stop!” I said, starting to panic. “Now!”
The guards looked torn, unsure whether to follow Caollin’s command, or mine. “Your King commands you to stop,” -I turned to Malcolm frantically- “isn’t that right?”
He had turned as white as a ghost. I feared he would sit frozen like that until he was forcefully pried out of his throne, but then finally, he spoke. “Yes, do as she says. She is to be your queen. Now bow to her and apologize or I will have both you and your families put to death.”
That did it. They both fell to their knees at my feet. “Forgive us, my queen. We are here to serve you.”
My eyes found Caollin again, who was also white in the face as he watched the guards refuse his order. He turned back to me, unblinking. “My queen, with all due respect, I believe that-”
“Shut up,” I said. “If I ever find you in this city again I will have you rotting in a dungeon until the day you die. Do I make myself clear?”
“That is a threat I doubt you could keep,” he said slowly, looking over at the guards bowing down before me as if he wanted to run a knife through their necks. “But nevertheless, I underestimated you, Jillian Reynolds.” He folded his arms, and for a second, there was the taste of lake water on my tongue. “A mistake I will not make again.”
“Good,” I said. “Now get the fuck out.”
Father Caollin fixed his eyes on me, and I was suddenly terrified that he would do something terrible. But then he turned his back on us, cold and mechanical, and walked out of the hall without saying a word.
The echoes of the priest’s heavy footsteps dissipated into nothing, and then the throne room was silent, except for the soft, musical tinkle of Alynsa’s laughter, who was cackling so madly that she nearly fell out of her chair.
End of Act I