Cassilda and Cassandra and Caterina and Calliope and Cassiopeia were all seated at their places, the King wasn’t presently in attendance, and the others were all on their own. The other two sisters had already gone to their rewards.
Back in his chamber, Jenkin was frowning into the vanity mirror.
Keziah was trying to keep him relatively calm, as this was probably his last chance to both attend the buffet after the Play and, maybe, possibly, renew his humanity, if he could keep from making a beast out of himself. It was a time of rejoicing, the anniversary of the victory against the Foe, He Who is NOT to be Named.
Jenkin, as usual, was uncooperative.
“I’m trying,” he hissed when reminded.
“Yes. Yes, you are. Very. Now relax. You’re going to be meeting the King.”
“I hate masks.”
“It’s the least thing you can do.”
Keziah threw up her hands. “Now what?”
“Mon Dieu! Sacre blue! Chinga Tu Madre!” Jenkin tittered. “That sign!” Anytime someone made a slightly off-center cross on a field of grey, Jenkin was summoned to appear.
“Perhaps if you weren’t quite so abderian,” Keziah remarked.
“Given to sudden bouts of maniacal laughter.”
“Bitch! Cur! Chien! Cyka! Meinu! How you bark!”
“Try to remember that I am a sorceress,” Keziah Mason drew herself up to her full height, turning her glare to eleven. “I can destroy you.”
“Oh, I wish. But yet you torture me by letting me live,” Jenkin whined.
“I am also your only friend. Even that fool Mazuriewicz has deserted you.”
“He’s blinded by Calliope’s skirts. And Cassandra’s lies. Merde! Hash! Chasisi! Shit shit shit shitshit!”
He was hopping up and down, his prodigious and scaly tail twitching and roiling about.
“Outer Gods but you’re hopeless. Maybe I should just go by myself. At least then I’ll be able to eat.”
“Ahh, fuck. Jebati! Wasaq! Baren! Oh, you wound me to the heart. I should feast on your liver and lights! I could have them out instantly.”
“Calm down. Let’s go – the King will be arriving anytime soon.”
And they departed the chamber, a tall redheaded woman in a great black cloak and a large rat with an ugly human face, whose nails clicked as he walked.
They traversed stone corridors, dotted with small lanterns and decorated with grotesque artworks, presently came to a colossal archway that led to a great chamber, at the far end of which was built a gigantic fire.
A few paces away from the fire was the great Tree of Life that helped to maintain Carcosa’s anonymity. Built by the King as an escape route during the Wars, it stretched literally to the stars from this point.
The Maitre d’hotel beamed as he caught sight of them. “Ah! Magnificent! You are expected, yes? Yes. I am pleased, gruntled, indeed it is invigorating, your presence. You have been missed.”
“Everyone has swallowed dictionaries today,” snapped Jenkin. “Mon Dieu! Mo dhia! Mein Gott!” He gnashed his teeth, showing them yellow beneath his malformed gums. A droplet of drool streamed from the side of his mouth, stretching to reach the floor.
“Ah, the famous wit. Oh, I am chuffed. Let me show you to your seats.”
The pair were led to a small table near the middle of the throng. Keziah had a glass of wine. Jenkin had water in a bowl.
The trumpets announced that the King was arriving just as the first course was brought in.
“What in the actual blue blazes is this?” Jenkin muttered under his breath.
Each diner was given an appropriate treat. In Jenkin’s case, it was a small cake of waxy substance bearing a rectangular sigil, with the word “Dial” in the center.
There was a ripple of laughter when that registered on the diners nearby.
“You have to admit it – that’s funny,” whispered Keziah.
“Oh I am laughing on the inside,” retorted Jenkin, drooling out of the other side of his mouth. “Really I am. Assholes! Asiliukai! Poauau!” He popped the soap into his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and belched bubbles. “See, I get along to go along or whatever. I conform. I make of me the joke.”
The King by now was speaking, but he was too far away to hear well.
“Why’s he only speak poetry?”
“It’s a long story,” said Keziah, and not really worth the telling. “It is a test of himself by himself, a limitation placed so that he realizes he has them.”
“Them? Words/ Rhymes?”
“Limitations. You may have noticed that the King is like unto a God.”
“But he isn’t quite.”
“How do you know?”
“I am perhaps not who or what I seem. I have a great many secrets. Can you name the other two sisters, who perished in battle with the Foe, with He-Who-Is-Not-To-Be-Named?”
“Callista, the beautiful, and, and… Carlotta? Cosette? Cordelia?”
“Celestine. And their mother was known as Cybele. And that’s another long story. Remind me to tell you sometime.” She shuddered and drained her glass, which was immediately refilled.
Jenkin’s bowl stood empty.
“Oh, the second course is coming,” Keziah said. “It’s a cheese course.”
Her plate bore several squares of A-list Fromage. His writhed.
“Cazu Marzu!” She exclaimed. “Oh, they must love you. It is a rare and delicious dish.”
“Bless you. Also Gesundheit. It’s worms,” he complained.
“Better. It’s maggots. Try it!”
He essayed a small forkful. “I’ve eaten worse.”
“Sir,” said the table serviceperson. “We are to ask if you would like a small libation. The King’s compliments.”
“I would, or at least I would hope to. The eats are odd at this table,” he said, eyeing his plate. “This though is promising. I do like still-living meals.”
“Oh, we are gratified to hear it.” And the server poured an ounce of Jeppson’s Malört into a tiny goblet.
“That smells terrible,” Jenkin remarked.
“Oh it is, and worse,” agreed the server. “Try it.”
Jenkin downed the shot. “I like it. More please.”
“Perhaps later in the meal, sir. The third course is arriving.”
“Well, my palate is certainly clear. Thank you, merci blue coupe, grassy ass.” The man strode away. A robot cart pulled up and two plates were drawn from what lay within.
Keziah’s small plate bore an array of tortilla chips, avocado slices, and tomato salsa. Jenkin howled with delight as his was uncovered to reveal a huge pile of Quick-fried-to-a-crackly-crunch Cheetos.
Soon he was covered head to collar in orange powder, his claws and paws were full of the stuff, too. His water bowl was refilled, and he used his napkin to clear up a little while the main course arrived.
Jenkin sniffed the dish, and his remarkably ugly little face, all teeth and pouches, and proboscis became still uglier.
There are those whose smile lights up a room. The beauty of their souls shines through their eyes and all nearby are gladdened.
Jenkin isn’t one of those. He would lose a beauty contest to the Grinch, and his heart never enlarged, if indeed he had one. He certainly didn’t have any soul.
Jenkin’s meat, in gravy, would have pleased television alien ALF.
“The chef thinks he’s funny,” he muttered murderously. “Or whoever gave him my menu is. But he’s really good.”
Jenkin at that time was involved in a dispute with the cats, over his theft of certain rare documents from their library.
Just a little joke,” he mumbled, tearing at the meat, which he held in both paws, dripping gravy on the flagstone floor.
The server appeared at their table.
“Begging your pardon, Mr. Jenkin. Does the King understand you would have words? He would be pleased to, now.”
“By all means,” Jenkin said, jumping lightly down to the floor. “Lead on.”
He followed the man to an adjoining chamber, all of stone, with chased stonework in various designs adorning the entrances and exits.
The King, in Yellow tatters, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, sat atop an ornate chair. He bade Jenkin sit beside him, on a leather ottoman.
“I regret to say that there are things even I cannot reverse
Nightmares I can’t turn off, and worse
Events that happen and turn out for ill
Random winds blow still,” said the King.
“You mean to say, that I am destined to stay this way,” volleyed Jenkin.
“I thought as much. Cassilda herself would have to reverse it, and that isn’t going to happen.”
The figure bowed his head and spread his hands, palm up.
“I have an alternate idea. Let’s change my sigil, my call sign, to something a little rarer.”
The King made the eye-to-eye gesture.
“S-s-s-s-ssss. Every time someone draws that symbol, I am obliged, obligated to answer. Ach! Zut! It is MOST annoying,” said the muskrat with a human face to the anonymous figure in tattered ochre finery. “What am I supposed to do? Here we are all the only ones of our kind, there ees only un of moi ici and I’m tired, boss.”
“What then would you have me do?” The figure intoned.
“Would it be fitting that you, in your dreams
Become two, or maybe three?
Would it be proper? Would it fit?
If I changed the sign a bit?”
Brown Jenkin stamped his paw. “I don’t knoooooooow,” it shrieked. “Argh! Ach! Fuck! I just need help! It’s as bad now as it was before.”
“I understand your issue
The problem is that you cannot cope
That has never been your brief
But yet, you’re paying out the rope by which you hang.”
Jenkin bowed. “My most sincere and abject apologia, my liege. I am not paying you the proper, just, respect. I am but a small creature, a joke, a creation of your consort the Queen of us, may her dread Name be spoken in silence lest She hears.
“But yet, I know, comprendo, intuit, that you can effect a small change, enable those that call to me to have a reason for my humble person. I ask merely that the off-center crux be removed and that I may be summoned by a single bloody tear.
“Is that overmuch, too grande? It would mean you see less of me.”
“You work hard, it is true. I am not overfond of you. It is probably not too much to ask, was I inclined to do.”
Jenkin’s scaly tail lashed restlessly.
“If I do this thing, incant the verse, and then you find it has turned the worse, I tell you now there will be no reverse. The thing will be your curse.”
The figure extended a sleeve. There was only darkness within.
“Yes,” peeped Jenkin. “Oui, si. Ja, da. Oh yes please,” it breathed. “And thank you, gracias, merci blue coupe.”
“Consider this then, my present. May it be quite as pleasant as you desired,” said the King, in Yellow, and His mask appeared briefly beneath His hood, and His eyes flared, and He waved His sleeve up, then down, and suddenly sidewise, and the very tip of a talon was briefly visible.
Jenkin bowed and skedaddled. “Super, great, magnifique, colossal, muy mucho bueno. Thanks, merci, grassy ass.”
A drop of blood on the lower right quadrant of a circular coat of arms, in chartreuse, was the image that his mind held.
“Fitting,” Jenkin agreed.
He arrived back at his table in time for dessert.
“Testing, one, two, three,” he said over dessert, a small round dish of lemon curd, and a single red tear fell on the treat.
He was in a small hotel room with a noisy AC running and roaches running across the kitchen table. It smelled of rot and ruin and worse. But it was better than the King’s recreation hall.
A small bony fish poked its head out of the water. Jenkin snatched up some of the roaches and threw them into the water for his placoderm to eat. One of the bits bounced off the small tree in the corner of the table.
“Hi honey, I’m home,” he said to the other rooms. A pile of scrolls was stacked up on the kitchen table. “Merry Christmas!”