A simple request
by Teodor Reljic
The Queen of Annexia lies dying.
In her palace, elevated above the capital city by giant steam engines, she waits for sleep, not caring whether it would be just another nap or the plunge into a final slumber that has held the court busy for the past week.
As preparations for the Scientific Exhibition bustle below, she breathes tiny, fugitive breaths, clasping her coverlet when thoughts of the very first edition of the technological fair, overseen by her husband, flit through her mind. He is now a fond shadow. The only features she allows herself to remember are the ones her subjects are familiar with: the wiry beard that at times appeared billowy at the ends through photographic accidents; the firm gaze he employed for speeches (though she knew this to be a rhetorical trick: the citizens of Annexia would never forgive him for being foreign). The rest is bathed in milky-white, and she is thankful.
Oblong blue tubes at either end clasp her long locks, which have remained a powerful, persistent brown even in her twilight years. They have never been wrenched tighter, and when she takes a deep breath that causes a bristly pain to electrify her scalp, she begins to resent the oblique excesses of the death-ritual. Surely this should be a time when soberness and good sense, which have been benchmarks of her reign, should be distilled?
The cloth which mummifies her body under the silken nightdress is freshly illuminated by prayers and well-wishes from the members of her court, lovingly transcribed by Ada, her favourite handmaiden. The Queen had been awake for most of the dedications and found them respectful enough, trusting Ada to alert her towards anything that could be potentially vulgar or in any way damaging. Allowing the male members of the court so close to her near-bare flesh would of course be unthinkable (imagine the quills stroking her thigh!) But for a vulnerable pocket of time, as the Queen of Annexia tries to recall her given name prior to the coronation and instead only gets flashes of more photographs (her father posing with a crocodile by the river, her mother and the silken gloves that scratched her face, though she never protested), she gives in to the possibility of Ada’s hand coarsening (or would it?) into that of Acton, her advisor, whose touch she knew to be shaky with age, or Alasdair, her portraitist, who would certainly be more delicate than Abe, the general with whom she had secured a trust, for reasons she never could fully understand. Would there be telltale signs of mischievous precision in the press of the quill? Ada allowed for no pricks: she had been well schooled in this ancient tradition (nervous, blushing young girls would practice tremulously over aged models at the Academy). She thinks of being lightly punctured by inexpert hands at random points of her body and finds it harder and harder to deny the excitement she feels, and to lament a life cheated away from her.
The Queen can see Ada’s creamy shoulder smouldering under the spring sun. What is she doing?
Another, deeper breath. Then she is hit by a starkness that scares her back into childhood: a metal ruler slapping her soft hand, when the schoolmistress caught her doodling faeries. Dying simply meant that she would not wake again. There would be no nightmares; she would have no trouble sleeping. In instances when affairs of state got too complicated for her to handle directly and were left to the squabblers of parliament to settle, she would retire to the library and nurture niggling worries in a passive languor that often purified into fantasies of a bitter-sweet surrender to an unprecedented oblivion. How silly, how childish this all seems now.
A blossom of spittle explodes through her pencil-thin lips, some slinking into her nose. Quick, wet footsteps: is that Ada? She gathers all her strength – feeling her scalp contract and her toes cocoon – and tries to collect the hollow, scattered breaths into an audible sound. One: “arhh,” two: “chh,” three: “…” She swims. Overseen by Ada or not, she wonders whether or not he wrote on her. As she shuts her eyes after a few brief convulsions, she succeeds in not thinking of her husband.
On the day he was unexpectedly rushed off to the Queen’s quarters on a special assignment, Archibald Plaineswyrth had been engaged in yet another fruitless attempt to convince Abigail – his boss, and head of Thermodynamics at the Royal Institute of Scientific Research – to help him fund the construction of a golem. The young scientist, with his confident, limber build and piercing green eyes, had instantly won the hearts of the all but deepest orbits of the throne. He was riding a wave of progress that had elevated Annexia as the world’s capital – so much so that few even spared a thought at the world outside the confines of the metropolis – and now felt entitled to at least one independent project.
“My dear Archibald,” Abigail cocked her head condescendingly at the bristling young savant, who was sitting at the opposite end of the table. Her blond hair was tied into a voluminous – though tight – bun, and from her tone, one Archibald had grown accustomed to during his long apprenticeship at the institute, it was clear to him that all she intended to do was to placate him and leave: she was a busy woman and had no intentions of indulging the infuriatingly whimsical ingrate. The boardroom, clearly built for large-scale meetings, was painted over in tan, which, Archibald thought, only exacerbated the stuffy mood of the day. “Your efforts are nothing but commendable,” she continued, maintaining a conversational trot that he knew would sputter out and leave him forlorn at any instant, “and the institute is fortunate to have discovered your talents at such a young age.” Archibald allowed himself a blink and a softening sigh; his thin shovel of a jaw relaxed. All he wanted to do was accuse her of patronising him with platitudes, to sate some of his anger on any signs of hypocrisy. But as is the case with all prodigies, praise was Archibald’s only real nourishment…and in any case, he knew her to be truthful on this count. Having barely broken into his twenties, he had made improvements on the DomestikBot which proved to be a major boon to the throne, since they arrived at a critical time: the Queen’s dip in favour amongst the middle classes was restored by the sudden, steady availability of an affordable contraption that took care of virtually all domestic duties (that this would be an indirect result of the subsequent overpopulation of Annexia would only be discovered generations later). His specialisation, however, was robotics, and eagle-eyed royal guards discovered him when he was sent by the major of the city to avert a potential catastrophe at the previous year’s Scientific Exhibition. Working against the clock, he had constructed tiny drones (out of what was essentially scrap metal) which, in a matter of minutes, managed to secure a column that would have collapsed right on top of the Queen’s viewing booth.
“Well, then…I don’t see why you shouldn’t indulge me,” he said. Even in royal circles, he wasn’t one to slink back from demanding whatever he thought to be his due. And when it wasn’t given to him, he would do his boldest to seize it himself: at each royal ball he was invited to, he made sure to fuck at least one of the handmaidens, an endeavour which had yet to fail. His lean, saturnine good looks were aided by the fact that, unlike many of his colleagues, he was far from a reclusive, bookish inventor: he had a hands-on relationship with his materials, which gave an irresistible twinge of physical involvement to everything he did. Building a golem would be the most rewarding project he could imagine: he would enjoy slaving away at every artificial nerve, every rivet (that doubled for a joint)…he thought of the glee and relief with which he would click the warm nugget of a heart into place, and then sit back to drink in the rumbling stirrings of life that would emanate from what was once just a lumbering bric-a-brac of metal.
Abigail laughed. He remembered that so far, all he had really done had been to follow orders, and that not even his wish to build a toy robot was about to be granted. Damn the money, damn the prestige. I should just go solo. “Indulge you? I believe I’ve got just the thing, young sir…”
“So you aren’t even going to listen to me?”
“Come now, Archie…you know perfectly well that making golems is, apart from everything else, strictly illegal. But tell me, when was the last time you shook hands with Her Majesty?”
“Bitch,” Archibald muttered under his breath.
To say that Archibald found the Queen to be striking would not only be an understatement, it would also fail to do justice to the complex sequence of events which would help him arrive to the conclusion that she was, in fact, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The journey to her chamber had been a long one, and no steam carriages were permitted. The monarchy maintained a sheltered – though brittle – distance from technology. All the latest advancements were endorsed and patronised, and allowed throughout most of the kingdom. But as one approached closer to the Queen’s own quarters, the clank and clatter of machinery would begin to fade, until it ground to a halt outside the hallway Archibald was now being led across by the guards. He was surprised to find that he didn’t feel any sense of smug entitlement to have a cabal of guards escort him all the way. Instead, he was smothered by anxiety: their stern, unflinching gaze reminding him that he mattered very little to the kingdom at large. But surely that would change, now that the queen herself had requested an audience with the inventor? Or was he recommended to her by one of his superiors at the Institute? Abigail insisted that she didn’t know why Archibald was being sent for, she had simply been asked to pass him on to the guards.
When they arrived to what seemed to be the entrance to the Queen’s chamber, the guards made an abrupt turn to face Archibald. A sudden disappointment ravished him. He had been eager to burst through the doors; to see the Queen actually gaze into his direction, attended by guards who would now be eager to serve him. He knew her husband was paying a visit to the Northern island that was his home, which only added to his sense of unearned yet undeniably exciting privilege to the meeting. While his views on the monarchy were more or less tepid (he agreed that a Queen should have power, though he wouldn’t go out of his way to offer any direct, tangible support to a figurehead that wouldn’t even allow him to build his large metal toys)…he felt an undeniable surge of privilege that disturbed him: he never imagined he would be so pathetic about gaining favour with heads of state.
The guards moved closer to him, the one on the left producing a black piece of cloth from a pocket Archibald failed to notice on his billowy grey uniform. Without saying a word, he began to tie it over Archibald’s eyes. While it would be natural to protest in such a circumstance, the young inventor did nothing. His ignorance of royal rituals stunned him, and he just went with it.
“You will now be directed to the Queen’s chamber, and you will help out on a medical matter,” the voice, Archibald thought, was unnecessarily loud, but his confusion found solace in unambiguous instructions, and the sense of childish excitement had not yet left him: if anything the blindfold added a touch of exoticism to the whole thing, a sense of ritual and subterfuge that he would have been disappointed not to find on his journey to the city’s power centre.
The guard continued. “You are not to utter a word unless spoken to, and you will follow the instructions of the surgeon who is directly in charge of the…” Archibald found this hesitation to be rehearsed, theatrical: somehow intended to simply boost his intimidation game. “…the problem at hand.” Did he feel a hint of a smile in the voice?
“Yes, your high—yes sir.” The fib only made his helplessness worse, so he received the undeniably aggressive nudge on the back – which pushed him forward – with gratitude. He expected the Queen’s quarters to have a stronger smell than what he felt once he stepped in: a diluted scent of roses, mingled with a number of polite office perfumes. Scattered voices betrayed a bustle of barely-contained panic. Archibald knew that something unprecedented had happened for them to resort to such ridiculous, seemingly arbitrary measures; to pluck a savant at random and blindfold him stank of tactical desperation.
He figured the guards must have left, and was now momentarily stumped as to what to do…somebody took hold of his hands. “Spread your fingers apart, please,” the voice emanated from above him. He pictured a spare young doctor, whose face was laced in perpetual contempt for the bodies he would deal with on a daily basis. Archibald did as he was told, stiffening his arms in an attempt at seriousness, spreading them equally apart for whatever was next. He felt rubber lace the tip of each finger slowly: gloves were being passed with that mixture of care and precision one would attribute not to professionals, but those with a vocation. Once his hands were covered (the gloves barely ended at the base of his palms), he heard a patter of footsteps behind him. Hair brushed his shoulder and he felt a freezing pull at his spine: could this be one of the handmaidens he had slept with? Was this an elaborate punishment the handmaidens had set up for him, acting in solidarity? The gloves stunted the movements of his hands: precisely what he relied on for both his living and to get out of any unpleasant (and into pleasant) situations. He wasn’t sure whether the handmaiden was touching him, at this point, but he could feel that she was leading him somewhere, and he followed.
After she stopped, the voice of what he thought to be the doctor interrupted his worrisome reverie. “We will need you to identify certain mechanical parts in isolation, so that we can allow you to come up with a solution to the problem before us.” Without uttering another word of explanation, the doctor took hold of Archibald’s right arm and then directed his hand onto something soft. He thought he could hear a muffled moan. “If you could please move your fingers inside, we’ll need you to describe what you feel.”
Personally? “What I feel?” The slip would have been unbearable had it not served to break the tension: he felt out the characters in the room through the sudden outburst of polite, but genuine, laughter. There seem to be an equal number of males and females and he felt them encircling him, focused on what he was doing. “No Archibald, perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. If you just prod a bit deeper – I am sorry I cannot disclose the identity or nature of the subject at this stage – you’ll find fragments of material that is hopefully familiar to you as an expert in robotics…one of our finest, or so I hear. Can we count on you to proceed?”
“Yes,” Archibald said. He appreciated this sudden simplicity, and felt less self-conscious about just getting the job done. But what was he prodding exactly? A wounded pet? Or was it – the thought awoke cruel tingles at his extremes and sent them plummeting for his heart – a child? The gloves masked any sensation as he dug deeper and deeper, fingering his way into the enclosure with detached abandon. The muffled moans suddenly reappeared, but Archibald kept going, too terrified to consider what they could in fact be and eager to finish the strange task. After a few more seconds of burrowing, he felt a rivet suddenly appear between his index and middle finger. He instantly recognised it as a homing rotor, used in MicroBots to keep the constituent parts magnetically sealed and re-attract them in case they got dismantled.
A scream. He felt skinny palms push at his breastbone and he had no choice but to start walking backwards, fast. He was in the corridor again. The door clicked shut, and the man he knew to be the doctor finally yanked the blindfold away. A smooth obelisk of a head fogged into his vision. Archibald rubbed his eyes and lowered them to meet the doctor’s sharp gaze. Great, Archibald thought, I must be party to a royal scandal. “So what is that thing?” the doctor said, with refreshing bluntness. Another scream. It was only then that Archibald realized he was still clutching the rotor. Professional indignation finally cut through his star-struck miasma: how could he be expected to do a job properly if he wasn’t even allowed to see what he’s working on? He explained its function as best he could. “Whatever piece of defective machinery you’re making me sort out for you, it can’t be allowed to roam around the body without this,” he said, holding the rivet up a bit too close to the bridge of the doctor’s nose. “I suggest you rush in there right now, lodge the rivet back in, and wait for the pieces to come together. Only then will you be able to safely remove everything.”
A few hours passed until Archibald was called back to the Queen’s quarters. They had basically discharged him, the doctor letting him ‘get on with his day’ after uttering a few hurried words of thanks. There was no disguising the fact that something big had just happened right under his nose, and that he would leave the Queen’s own abode having been cheated of witnessing it. But soon after he had been ready to retire to the workshop (the magnetised system reminded him of a previous project he had discarded), he received a visit from a messenger. The monarchy’s aversion towards technology was compensated for, predictably, by their employment of human servants (many subversive political commentators would build academic careers from observing this phenomenon), and Archibald, at this point, was annoyed to be summoned back to be exploited by what he decided were clueless bottom-feeders.
The messenger, who couldn’t have been older than Archibald himself, simply gestured towards the general direction of the Queen’s quarters, smiling.
“Where are the guards?” Archibald said.
“The Queen would like to thank you personally and in as intimate a manner as is possible. You are free to make your way to her quarters by yourself.”
The messenger took a mysterious detour into one of the corridors, and Archibald made his way to the quarters relatively quickly. Though he had been blind on his first visit that afternoon, he had purveyed many a blueprint of the palace whilst in the employ of the crown and knew all the little shortcuts. When he reached the door, all he could think of doing was to knock: which struck him as incredibly stupid the second his knuckles made contact with the chamber doors. Once again, he was surprised: nobody opened for him. Instead, a distant voice called out. “Come in, Archie.” He turned the handle, and walked into what he would have thought was a recently vacated room, until he saw the enormous, layered lump of fabric stir on the bed. He heard the lump speak. “Do come forward, Archie, I am still not well.”
He walked towards the bed, cautiously. His nickname, the disorder of the room…another arbitrary move by the authorities could have been looming. When he had reached the foot of the bed, he took one big, slow step, then another. He could not believe that the girl he was looking at was the Queen. It was not that she didn’t look dignified. Her face was inevitably relaxed from the apothecaries she doubtless had to swallow to ease her surgery but she still maintained a set poise. Her appearance was also predictably regal: a columnar pair of cheekbones housed curt lips and a pair of auburn eyes that, while pretty at close range, had an anonymity that stood her in good stead as a figurehead. But when she cracked a tired smile, her eyes blinking dreamily, Archibald felt she was regaling him with an affection that was almost sisterly.
“Y-Your Majesty…I hope that you’re recovering well. I would hate to think that any of my suggestions were misguided although I’m sure you’d understand that, given the circumstances…” She interrupted him, sighing. “I thought you were treated very unfairly Archibald…in fact, I was as much in the dark about this whole intervention as you were.” She told him how she had been afflicted by a sudden, persistent bout of hysteria since her husband left Annexia for the trip to his homeland, and how the court physicians got to work on experimental solutions for the ailment, which could prove to be a serious distraction to her royal responsibilities. They tried the usual method involving manual stimulation of the Queen’s female parts. This was effective to a point, but then it dawned on them that a machine could do the job better and faster. “The result was this baroque monstrosity,” the Queen said, gesturing towards a spidery contraption that lay on the floor, encased in glass. Archibald assumed that the four legs that grew out of its aubergine-shaped centre were meant to help the user prop the device on their thighs.
“Build me a better one, Archie…and this time, aim for verisimilitude.”
The Scientific Exhibition opens a week later than the proposed date, which proves to be enough time for the citizens of Annexia to both mourn the death of their beloved monarch and become hungrier for the latest public distraction. Archibald is present for the unveiling of his golem, a turtle-like affair that stretched the humanoid model that people are used to. They like his inventiveness but Archibald knows that he’s already begun regurgitating old ideas under new guises: playing around with designs and putting very little innovation into the engineering.
He doesn’t visit the fair again, that year. He isn’t even entirely sure why he doesn’t, since he’s always eager to hear of the new exhibits from his nephew, whom Archibald has employed to help around with the workshop after his mother – Archibald’s youngest sister – mentioned his talents with repairing the DomestikBots. Archibald had established himself as the prime inventor of his generation, owing, in large part, to the favour he had done for the Queen. He had managed to chip away at some of the Queen’s scepticism of technology during his many visits to her quarters, and he was on board as a consultant each time the Queen’s coterie of engineers proposed an improvement on his original work on the Vibrator. But his pioneering touch was, ironically enough, the result of a direct, unambiguous order: “aim for verisimilitude.” He was certain that the Queen had said it in a purely practical spirit. After all, even the most cumbersome, awkwardly shaped of cocks would surely have made for a more merciful experience than the initial model. When he was engaged in the construction of that very first Vibrator, Archibald didn’t think twice about masturbating as part of his job, or the hours he spent slaving away at every detail: pencilling in each vein, tracing every contour. What had compelled him to take the Queen’s words so literally?
He had tried marriage three times in subsequent years. He never lost his good looks, and since he had a steady stream of prestigious projects and an equally regular source of funding, the marks of aging seemed to have a relaxing effect on him. But at several points in his relationships with women, he would hit an impasse, and be forced to confront the fact that he had fallen in love with the Queen on that fateful afternoon. To sustain a modicum of sexual interest, he would dream, during intimate moments, of the vicarious pleasures he had bestowed on his monarch. He would think of the distance between their flesh, and how he imagined it bridged every time she would make use of the contraption that made his name.
Ada had been sceptical of his words, but they didn’t seem dangerous. For some reason, the gaunt old man, whose S-shaped body slithered with difficulty but not without reverence, appeared harmless, with his slight stammer and impossibly wiry beard. The effects of weeping had been obvious: the skin had a caked dryness but the eyes – small but penetrating orbs of grey – gave off a fresh glint. He had been the last one and privately, Ada was grateful. Her hand felt transformed into a stencil by dry remarks from officials. She was no poetess – her knowledge of the classics had always been embarrassingly lacking – but she liked to see the hint of emotion, of words put together with some care and precision that somehow still dripped with feeling.
She made an effort to betray no surprise at his request for an inscription. When he left, she took a deep breath, refilled the inkpot, took a new quill out of the vase next to the bed, and wrote:
‘The interests of my country only interested me so much. Oh my Queen…to have known you in the flesh as I knew you in my mind.’
She waits for the ink to dry, then accelerates the procedure by blowing on the Queen’s left thigh.
She puts the quill back into the inkpot and goes to the birdcage. The raven has been quiet, but when she opens the cage door he erupts into an ugly, leathery flutter of wings. The feathers jar with the metal, but she manages to wrench him free and tips him into the twilight. Bugles blow, the city erupts into a mass of dumb sadness…and Ada can finally rest.
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