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Plight of the Transformer
A sequel novella from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8
ALTERNATIVE FORMATS KINDLE E-BOOK | PRINTED ANTHOLOGY
Plight of the Transformer, a fantastical novelette by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 2

Castles are castles are castles.

They are boxes for the well disposed, should order fail. There is a certain pessimism inherent in the architecture: a castle stands in wait of attack. Its defenses are at worst ornamental references, in desperation starkly functional, and in the best of circumstances a sleight-of-light combination of the two.

My car meandered through the Home Park. I sat in the back. The driver had a boil on the back of his neck. Through the windscreen I watched Windsor Castle crest the horizon, banners limp in the still October morning.

Tourists queued by the King Henry VIII Gateway in their garish T-shirts and fluorescent hip-sacks, taking photographs and movies of one another while sipping soda pop through straws. Some turned to watch as we passed, squinting at their own reflections in the tinted windows. In another moment they were behind. We drew up to the Norman Gate entrance along the family's reserved path, slowing at the guard-house.

The driver's window hummed as it sank into the door. "Mr. Tennyson Smith, on appointment," he said.

The guard in grey, expressionless, checked his register and then nodded curtly beneath his tall black hat, gesturing to continue with an impeccably white glove.

I crossed the Upper Ward's quadrangle alone. The ground was soft from rain, the sky heavy and leaden. Brown birds scattered before me, then fluttered back down in my wake to resume hunting worms from the squelch.

I felt weightless. I always do, when I am myself. The occasions are always brief, but I enjoy them: I feel nude.

In the mirrors lining the family's private hall I caught sight of a stranger wearing the fair tweed suit from the very back of my wardrobe. I knew him vaguely from old photographs. In the man's aquiline profile I can recall myself as a careless boy, as a braggart teen, as a young officer...

It can be unsettling to forget your own face.

The chief steward showed me to an anteroom with tall windows overlooking the East Terrace from which the last residues of the morning fog were still burning off, diaphanous tendrils snaking between the low hills in search of shadow. I stood with my back to the door until patient, familiar footfalls drew near.

I turned, simultaneously bowing my head. "Your Majesty," I said.

"Mr. Smith," she replied. "Do sit down."

"Thank you, ma'am."

We each took a short sofa beneath a towering Rembrandt in a gilded frame, its many layers seeming to glow from between the glazes of coloured oil applied masterfully in the style of Da Vinci's sfumato. As I admired the painting a silver tea service was wheeled in by a lesser steward. The settings clinked as she arranged our cups. Upon her retreat we drew breath to begin our conversation.

"The Swiss affair has been resolved to our satisfaction," said the Sovereign as she cradled her steaming cup between her hands. "I should thank you for your role, Mr. Smith."

"No thanks are necessary, ma'am. It is my privilege to serve."

"Of course," she acknowledged, regarding her tea. "Never the less, we should not wish to take talents such as yours for granted, Mr. Smith. I feel obliged to share with you that MI6 has strongly petitioned to have you enrolled."

"A compliment, to be sure."

"Quite. I trust such prospects would not appeal to you, however."

"I have not changed my mind, ma'am, though you indulge my preference at your discretion."

The Sovereign gave me a brief, tight smile and then set aside her cup. I set mine aside, too. She said, "I must ask something of you, Mr. Smith."

"Please, ma'am."

"I must ask something of you that may fall outside the purview of your usual missions. I do so reluctantly, but inspired by great need. It has never been my wish to expose you unnecessarily to danger."

"I accept risk as my duty, ma'am."

"Indeed, Mr. Smith, and gallantly. However, in the scenario I am about to describe you would be obliged to operate independently. That is to say, Mr. Smith, that this is a solo assignment -- without support, and without any sort of the usual protections."

I hesitated, my mouth dry. I took a deep breath to sustain my stiff upper lip. "Am I to return to Iraq, ma'am?"

"No, Mr. Smith," she replied gravely, fixing me with her sharp eyes. "I am afraid this assignment is considerably more serious, and indeed more dangerous than anything the Iraqi theatre has to offer."

I swallowed, blinking away bad memories. "Yes, ma'am."

She picked up her cup again and sipped from it, her nose lingering over the rim. "You are aware, of course, that our House has a long history."

"Yes, ma'am."

"There are many secrets spread across the centuries, Mr. Smith, inherited by each successive legion of guardians. Even now our young princes are gaining their first glimpses of this shadow world. Before I die I will be obliged to initiate them with the knowledge they will need to captain these secrets, and until that day comes it is my sacred mission to see to the resolution of as many hidden wars as God will grant me the strength to, in order to lighten the burden I shall leave for my boys."

"They become excellent men as we speak, ma'am. I have no doubts as to their abilities. William is especially strong, in my opinion, and destined to become a noble leader in his time."

"I know you are fond of the boy, Mr. Smith."

"I admire him, ma'am."

"And he you. But neither William nor Henry understand a tenth of their coming responsibility. It is this old woman's bane to lessen it, in any and every way possible."

I frowned and looked up to object. "Ma'am --"

"Please, Mr. Smith," she said, raising one hand. "Do not attempt to play to a sense of conceit I do not possess, lest your compassion mispresent itself as pity. Pity, sir, is something for which we have no need -- nor the illusions it implies. I do not have long to walk this Earth. Let us not deny it, but rather let the fact inform us to make clear my motivation in this matter."

"Very good, ma'am."

The Sovereign sipped her tea again, then took a long breath. "My dear Mr. Smith, for how long have we been acquainted?"

"The better part of three decades, ma'am. And my father before me, since the war."

"Yes, quite. Your father was a remarkable man, and an exemplary Briton. We mourn him still."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"And yet I have never shared with him what I share with you today. He never had cause to suspect the history to which our House has been simultaneously privy to and a victim of, in this century or any other. Indeed, I am not free to speak plainly even now, but our need dictates that certain facts must come to light."

I sat up attentively.

The Sovereign continued after briefly licking her lined lips. "Mr. Smith, you must believe me when I tell you that not all men die."

I blinked. "I could not be sceptical, ma'am, for I know you never exaggerate. Still, I am perplexed."

"Arrest your reason and listen a while, Mr. Smith. This is not a sane tale, but it is an important one." She put aside her cup for a second time, then carefully stood. "Walk with me, Mr. Smith."

She offered her arm. I dashed to my feet and hooked it in my elbow, my skin tingling at such proximity to the Crown. Together we strolled the length of the anteroom, away from the private apartments and toward the hall. In silence we descended the steps. A brace of stewards stole up behind us and deposited a shawl over the Sovereign's shoulders as we crossed the threshold into the quadrangle.

"There is a war, Mr. Smith, being fought this very day, this very hour. It has been raging since antiquity, and I fear it will continue into William's future. Though many have fallen on either side you will find no mention of this war in any history, nor even the briefest anecdote reproduced in any credible account of the world's affairs. It is, as I have implied, a wholly clandestine conflict between nameless forces."

The fine gravel muttered under our heels as we strolled. The day was brightening. Traces of the tourists' voices were carried over the walls by a new breeze -- light, cool and temperamentally shifty.

The silence stretched. I cleared my throat. "To which side does Britain owe her allegiance, ma'am?"

The Sovereign pursed her lips. "Whichever side pities mortals more," she said, her voice flat. "We are insects to them. We are but collateral damage. They neither care for nor need our fealty or even our fear. Perhaps they once did, to forward their aims, but now their reserves of influence are without limit."

"I must know, ma'am -- who are these covert war barons?"

She stopped walking, and so did I. She looked me in the eye and whispered, "Mr. Smith, they are our masters."

I have lived many adventures and seen many things both spectacular and grisly, but I assure you without a word of a lie that I have never been so chilled as to hear my Sovereign concede her submission to greater forces more concrete than God, the Commonwealth, or propriety. Beneath my linens I broke out in a gooseflesh. "Our masters, ma'am?" I echoed quietly.

"I have said too much," she declared after a pregnant pause, then resumed walking. "I am bent by your sympathetic character, Mr. Smith. My longing to uncork the subject clouds my better judgement."

"I'm sorry, ma'am."

"It is not yours to be sorry. It is mine to be dutiful. I have sworn too many oaths to remember them all. You see now, don't you, how old I have become?"

I sighed heavily. "Dearest Bess, what can you tell me?"

She smiled again, this time allowing it to touch her cheeks in earnest. "I do so miss our conversations, Tenny."

"You are not alone in that."

She nodded once and then her expression hardened again. "There is a man, Mr. Smith. A certain man. He makes his home in the Veneto. His estate is a fortress, guarded by barriers technological and cunning, designed by an experience longer than England's memory." She hesitated, staring out over the Round Tower to the west. "In the estate is a library. In the library is a book." She stopped walking again and turned to me fully, a regal hand on each of my shoulders. "Mr. Smith, I charge you to retrieve this book."

I furrowed my brow. "A book, Your Majesty? Just a book?"

Her hands dropped and she clasped them behind her back as she resumed walking. I strode to catch up to her and then matched her pace. "Just a book..." she repeated airily, eyes distant. "I wish it were so."

"What is to be done with it, ma'am?"

"You shall bring the book to me, Mr. Smith. You shall speak to no person about it, nor show it to anyone save myself regardless of their rank or position. You must bring it to me, personally. Is that quite clear, Mr. Smith?"

"Quite clear, ma'am."

"You must not read the book," she went on. "You must not touch its pages, nor smell its binding. It must be wrapped in black cloth and conducted to me without delay. It can never be photographed or weighed. Its presence must never be suspected, its existence never inferred by any authority, great or small, secular or holy."

A flock of birds burst free from the field and took wing in concert, the sun-dotted shadow of their flock flashing over us. When they shrank into the sky we turned to look at one another again. The Sovereign was pained, and it hurt me to see her so.

"Ma'am," I said, stepping forward to touch her sleeve. "Bess," I said, looking into her eyes.

She turned her face and steeled herself. "Nothing has ever been this important, Tenny. You cannot conceive of what hangs in the balance, and I will not condemn you with that information. All you need know is that this -- this man -- must not find you, must not interview you, must not ever know his security has been breached or I swear the worst kind of retribution will come to Windsor."

I said nothing for a moment, my hand still on her sleeve. She sniffed and drew her mouth into a tight line. "Will you do it, Tenny?"

I smiled sadly and nodded. "My acceptance was never in question, ma'am."

She folded her parchment-paper hands before her and looked out over the walls. "You shall leave tomorrow, Mr. Smith."

"Thy will be done."



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