Thursday, January 18, 2024

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fourteen: Diego

With our nameless, cantankerous escort pressing forward impatiently well ahead of us, Ernest and I entered the rough-hewn confines of the anarchist’s central compound. Although it was my distinct impression that she would have been much pleased to drive us on with a quirt as if we were cattle, she had clearly been assigned the task of delivering us safely to Diego, wherever he might be; despite her clear disdain, she nonetheless managed to remain within view even as we refrained from her ungracious precipitance, maintaining instead the sort of dignified pace that marks a gentlewoman and her escort.

Inside the fortification, a motley array of structures had been assembled against the outer wall; their wild variance of style, construction materiel, and architectural soundness were of a piece with the shambolic ethos of this eminently entropic tribe. It was all in functional order, mind you, but every object and every soul within was frayed about the edges, stained indelibly with dust and the cares of the world; I was given to think that it was not simply that they were unwashed, but that they somehow had attained a state of essential unwashability, which even the concerted efforts of a score of the most diligent maidservants could not remedy.

In the centre, a single large circular structure served as some combination of meeting hall or festival space; it clearly also functioned as a refectory, for given the crowd within there was ample evidence of a communal meal currently underway. Scores of eyes looked up from whatever dank and meagre gruel formed the basis for their repast, joining with dozens who appeared wraithlike beneath the lintels of every door we passed in their oddly sullen inspection of our progress. The scent of their supper filled the air, and despite my admittedly growing appetite, I found it quite repugnant; from the musty flatness that filled my nostrils, it was as if they were supping upon algae and dishwater. We were also, as before, followed by a growing throng of unkempt children and dark eyed youths, who moved in a swirling, timorous flock a safe distance behind us.

As we circled around the right hand side of the hall, our impromptu entourage trailing behind, it became evident that our ultimate destination was on the far side of the main entrance to the inner fortification, for that was where our guide had stopped. She was now leaning with an affected insouciance against the wooden frontage of our goal, looking as if she’d rather be almost anywhere other than where she had settled; it was a single two story building of log construction, which had affixed to it a neat, hand-painted sign that read: Central Committee Building: Commissioners Only.

Ernest and I continued our measured perambulation, and arrived under that sign at precisely the moment when we intended to arrive there, at which point I paused and, my gaze politely fixed upon our eternally uncomfortable guide, waited for further instructions, a pleasant smile upon my face.

“Go in. Upstairs. Second floor.”

“Thank you for your kind assistance,” I said, with a faint bow as we entered, a bow that Ernest mirrored precisely, for while her contribution had been the farthest thing from kind, one does not return rudeness for rudeness; as Madame Toussaint so clearly states, “la politesse est un cadeau offert gratuitement, et non une marchandise que l'on ├ęchange dans l'espoir de la recevoir en retour.”

The interior of what was evidently the Central Committee Building was of the sparest and most spartan design. The lower floor was an office or study space of sorts, as a half dozen old desks bore upon them ancient computing devices whose clumsy keyboards and screens marked their provenance as from some point prior to the collapse. One or two of those working upon those primitive machines looked up and peered at us, but most did not even bother to note our presence. Upon the walls were stark-coloured canvases, in varying styles, which showed scenes that one sufficiently informed would consider typical of old socialist realist agitprop; they showed broad-shouldered women and men, working together or with fists outstretched, matched with terse slogans of varying levels of truculence.

To the right hand side of that drably functional room, a single wooden and unadorned staircase rose upwards, and as that was the route to our destination, Ernest and I made haste to ascend it.

The upper level was equally spare, but was clearly intended as a meeting space in which a group of a dozen or more might gather for discussion; at that very moment, there were four individuals seated in chairs at the far side of the room: a woman, raven-haired and golden of complexion, who from her muscular form was likely the selfsame creature who had leapt upon the rear pillion of Diego’s motor bike; a man, tall and lean, with a feline look about him that spoke of minor mischiefs; a person in a shapeless shift, with hair dyed a bright vermillion, whose gender was oddly indeterminate; and the matchless man whose name was, apparently, Diego.

I had entertained the thought, in a moment of reflection during our journey towards this much-anticipated rendezvous, that perhaps my initial reaction to his appearance was a phantasy born of my dire circumstance at the time; it is not uncommon for those unfortunates who find themselves in the throes of mortal peril to experience their deliverers in ways informed by that dire condition, as one desiccated by thirst in the Mojave might experience the restorative taste of cool, clear water. Surely, I had reasoned, this was the reality of our first encounter.

I was, in this, quite mistaken.

This man, this Diego, remained an impossible vision of the masculine virtues, the Platonic form of Virility descended incongruous into our lower and inferior plane; for a second time, I felt the most peculiar effervescent thrill, as if all my inward parts were suddenly alive with sparkling Veuve Clicquot, coupled with a momentary dizziness and blurring of the world, as if I was teetering at the very edge of a yawning chasm.

He sat upon his humble hand-hewn wooden chair with no less dignity than a monarch on a throne of burnished bronze, from whence he regarded me with those imperious golden eyes, eyes that at that moment burned with the heat and light of some unknowable passion. As I observed him more fully, I realised that it was not just his arm that was a potent cybernetic prosthetic, but that both of his legs were of similar manufacture.

He did not speak, nor did his companions, all four of them simply staring at us with their expressions fixed, and after a long and difficult silence it became evident that, despite the clear dictums and protocols of common hospitality, it would fall to me to open our conversation. I took a deep breath, gave the slightest hint of a curtsey, and began.

“I am the Lady Rebecca Wexton-Hughes, Countess Montgomery, and this,” here I gestured to Ernest, who bowed in turn, “is my stalwart footman Ernest. Insofar as I speak for all of House Montgomery and as a servant of the Crown, I would like to thank you and your people most profoundly for your services this day upon our behalf. Without your timely interventions, we should most certainly have either perished or suffered the most grievous harm, and I can only barely express the fathomless appreciation that we feel, or begin to repay our great debt of gratitude for your actions.”

There was a moment of silence. Then, with a single elegant motion, Diego rose, his eyes aflame; striding forward upon his powerful mechanical legs, he approached me with such vigorous intent that it required some effort on my part not to take several steps backwards. He stopped but an arms-length away from my person, the closeness of his presence a faintly overwhelming yet not entirely unwelcome imposition.

“I am,” he began, in a lilting way that marked him as whose linguistic heritage included a significant amount of Spanish, “Diego Cruz-Campo, Acting Chair of the Central Committee of the Powhatan Region.”

He moved closer still, his breadth and strength even more viscerally present.

“Rebecca.” His voice spoke my name in a deep earthy whisper that seemed wrought to draw in my whole attention, which, I will confess, it most unquestionably did.

“Yes,” I said, retaining my composure with rather more difficulty than I’d like to admit.

“May I ask you a question, Rebecca?”

“Most certainly,” I said, endeavouring to express a confident smile.

Again, he moved closer by but the tiniest, nearly imperceptible increment, and it was as if he pressed his flesh and steel against me, so intensely did his whole person radiate some yet-unnamed passion. I regarded his full, perfect lips, which in that moment were to speak the directness of his heart, words that would come to define who he and I would be to one another.

“What in the serious XXXX do you think you’re doing?”