An orphan trapped in the underworld of NYC’s sweatshops…
A beautiful artist driven to despair by the changeling abduction of her newborn child…
Two Fae Courts, each yearning for a Queen to lead them into battle against the other…
THRONE by Phil Tucker
An ancient war is set to begin anew
With talking foxes and golden owls, with paths that lead into the land of the dead and impossible labyrinths hidden within the depths of New York City, THRONE is as much a tale of wonder and dread as it is of the trials of the heart.
From time immemorial the Seelie and Unseelie Courts have fought for dominance, each seeking to crown a Queen before the other – and in so doing gain terrible advantage. Maya and Maribel, two strangers caught in their separate moments of crisis, attract the attention of the Fae, and are thrust into an hidden world beneath the grim facade of the City.
Each woman will have to decide: how far are they willing to go to attain their desires, and how much are they willing to risk before losing themselves completely to forces behind their comprehension?
Afterward, whenever she thought back to that night, she remembered first and foremost the screams. There was no rise or fall to them, no character or shape; rather, they had been bursts of sound, visceral and blank in their terror and denial. Even as the nurses had clamored around her, trying to restrain her, pull her down to the ground, the screams had continued. They had lit the hall with their stark ferocity, each one a camera flash that caused the nurses’ faces to stiffen with fear and dismay.
Sanity, it felt, had never really returned after that night. Lucidity, yes; the ability to think, to analyze, to comprehend the passage of time and the general linkage between cause and effect. But not sanity. Awakening the next morning, the pale, diffuse New York dawn drifting into the hospital room, she had lain still and felt a terrible new presence in her chest come to replace the life she had carried in her stomach these past seven months.
A dark presence. Turning onto her side, crossing her arms over her chest and tucking her fists under her chin, Maribel had been able to picture the new presence perfectly. It was like a black conch shell, vibrating within her, threatening to crack if she shifted it too violently, to spill its contents into her body, to pollute her irrevocably with madness.
Instead, she stayed still, eyes wide and glassy, staring out the window at New York, at the skyscrapers that melted into the thick winter fog that hung like a funeral pall over the city. Everything looked anesthetized, still, silent. Breathing slower, she willed her mind to blankness. Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t think. The black shell vibrated within her, vivid in her mind’s eye. Don’t think, she whispered to herself, but greater than the ebony shell, greater than herself, even the city outside, was the emptiness in her body, the hollow center around which all her pain was arranged.
June 21st, 2010
Rain, rain falling in long, hissing needles over Barcelona. Vicious rain, the kind that hurts. But that doesn’t matter, it’s irrelevant, the world could be coming down outside, the buildings collapsing, flames roaring into the sky because here, inside the empty gallery, Maribel feels a sense of potential and joy that she’s never experienced. Not even when she first stepped before the cameras for her first photo shoot, all those years ago. Never have blank walls seemed so luminous, never has a large, empty room seemed so fraught with promise. Her agent Juan is speaking, walking ahead of her, his footsteps echoing back down from the tall ceiling that is all industrial pipes and ventilator openings, but she’s not listening to him.
Reaching out, she brushes the tips of her fingers against the smooth wall, the gray paint, and walks, running her palm across the cement. It’s rough, but that’s what she wanted; crudeness, a defiance to her art. Blank wall, but she can see her prints, see the large posters hanging here, one by one, can imagine the gallery filled with them, suffused with what she has seen with her eyes.
Juan turns, arms outstretched, a grin on his face. “So. Barring all that, we should be ready to begin in a couple of weeks. What do you think, Maribel? Did I keep my word?”
She turns to him, a smile flashing across her face. Outside, Barcelona breathes and twists and turns, is slashed by rain, but in here, in here—something promises to be born. Unable to resist, she places her hand on her flat stomach, where her secret, her true creation is growing.
“Yes, Juan,” she says, nodding her head once, suddenly shy before his confidence. “This is perfect. But.”
“Ah ah ah!” he says, striding forward, wagging his finger at her. “No buts. None. You are barred, prohibited, absolutely denied the right to use that word.” He reached her side, and placed his hands lightly on her shoulders. She raised her chin defiantly, and he smiled at the look in her eyes.
“You have the most stunning ability to take any admonition as a critique, my dear.” He turned to stand next to her, and looked out at the empty room. “Soon. You’ll see. When your photographs are on these walls, and the room is thronged with people and the media, then you will see. How right I was, how I am always right.”
“If you say so,” she said, uncertain before the promise of lights and attention, the furor that might accompany success, that might accompany failure. “But already I am hearing—“
“Ignore them, my dear,” says Juan kindly. “Ignore those little voices. I would have thought you practiced in that fine art by now.”
“Perhaps. But this is different. Before, they just criticized my body. Whether I was beautiful, ugly, whatever. Now they mean to criticize my… ‘art.’” The word still came awkwardly.
“And soon they will see that both are alike, one just as beautiful and entrancing as the other. I was thinking. Now stop, listen. Just listen. I was thinking, you should call the exhibit ‘Visions of War. ’ That or ‘Shitty Dates My Husband Has Taken Me On.’ I think Antonio would like that, no? What do you think?”
Maribel smiled, and then shook her head. “No… actually, I already have a name. Or think I do.” Juan turned to look at her, lowering his arms from where he had been framing the title before them. “Katabasis,” she said, stepping away to look at him, to judge his reaction.
“Katabasis,” he said, musing. He was intelligent, cultured, educated, but the word meant nothing to him.
“It means a descent and return from the underworld,” she said, turning to look at the blank walls once more. Envisioning the photographs. The faces, the bombed out buildings. “Katabasis.”
“Mrs. Martel?” asked a voice, and she realized it was the second or third time she had been addressed. She blinked, and then slowly turned over to face the door and the speaker. It felt so strange to roll over without the baby inside her.
She didn’t recognize the man. She had seen a score of strangers since being admitted to the hospital yesterday, had come to know the pediatrician, the anesthesiologist, her nurse. But not this man.
“Mrs. Martel,” he said, voice quiet like leaves sinking into the clear depths of a pond, “my name is Pedro Gusman, a grief counselor attached to the hospital. Do you mind if I speak to you?” He was balding, this Pedro Gusman, older than her but younger than Antonio. Late forties, perhaps, dressed in a shapeless gray suit, and he spoke with an American accent despite his name. A kind face, and so she nodded.
Pedro pulled out a chair and lowered himself into it, and then looked at her, lips pursed, pale blue eyes soft and cautious. “I’m very sorry about your loss, Mrs. Martel. I know that there’s nothing I can say to ease your pain, but I can advise you as to what to do next, whom to speak to, what steps to take in order to lay your baby to rest.”
“That’s not my baby,” she said, and something about her voice made him flinch. Pedro blinked rapidly several times, and she could see him quickly shifting her from one box in his mind into another.
“I—ah. I’m sorry, Mrs. Martel, what do you mean?”
She wrapped one hand inside the other, and placed them both beneath her chin. Taking her gaze from his face, she directed it at the wall beyond him. “That’s not my baby,” she said again. “That’s not my little girl out there.”
“Mrs. Martel – “ began Pedro, and then stopped. He leaned forward, elbows on his thighs, hands between his knees. “I can’t imagine the pain you are going through, the loss. But that is your baby. And she is your responsibility. Grief is a powerful thing, and the mind—“
“Didn’t you hear me?” she said, turning to stare at him. He stopped, cold, as if slapped. “That thing in the ICU is not my child, it is not my baby, it did not come from my body. My baby has been stolen. That thing—that thing—“
Pedro Gusman opened his mouth, closed it, and stood. “Excuse me, Mrs. Martel,” he said, and stepped round so that the chair was between them. “I’m sorry, I’ll be with you in a moment.”
Maribel took her eyes from him once more, and lowered her head slowly to the pillow. The dark shape in her chest was tremulous, swelling. She closed her eyes, forced her mind to blank, to stop, to cease. Gradually it slowed.
July 28th, 2010
“But conho, Antonio, what is the meaning of celebrating if you are not able to stay for the celebration?” Her anger, as always, was sudden, furious, spiraling out of control as he looked at her, chin lowered, face grave. The sound of people, music, just through the wall.
“Maribel. This is beyond my control.”
They were in a side room, just off the gallery itself. She was drunk, she felt perilous, beautiful, her dress wrapped around her long legs, her swollen stomach and chest like swathes of iridescent black silk, spun directly onto her body by some vast spider. The gallery had been a success, a success such as she had not hoped for, had not allowed herself to dream might happen. Positive reviews, Juan pushing champagne into everybody’s hand every five seconds, art critics, people there to see the photographs and not just her, or her famous husband. And now, before the event was even over, at the apogee of her victory, Antonio, Antonio.
“My love,” he said, and stepped forward, toward her, his eyes wise, deep, older than her, always older, wiser. He took her two hands within his large ones, stilled the anger that made them tremble, cupped them to his chest. Looked down into her face. Not for the first time she wished they were of equal height. “You have no idea how proud I am. But I have to go. They would not have called me for anything less than an emergency.”
She wanted to tear her hands from his. Wanted to hold onto her fury, the river of molten metal that electrified her, gave her strength. But instead, old melancholy, her gentle and constant friend, came stealing in. Fatigue, such that her head felt too heavy to hold up. She closed her eyes. “Antonio,” she said, “It is always an emergency. Your life, our life, is always being broken by emergencies.”
Sensitive to her moods, knowing when to move forward, he released her hands and wrapped his arms around her bare shoulders, gathering her to him. She rested her cheek against his chest, felt the soft burr of his suit lapel, the glossy touch of his tie. Listened to his heartbeat, so slow and sure.
“Maribel,” he breathed, and she felt ashamed at the pain she heard in his voice. “This is the life I chose a long time ago. You know this. You knew this when I married you. These people, if I can help them, if I can make a difference, like I did in Bangladesh, if I can prevent what happened in Sarajevo.”
Fatigue stealing over her, wrapping her in a shroud of lead. She closed her eyes, turned her head so that her brow was pressed against him, “Go,” she said. “Go. I understand. But don’t talk anymore. I can’t stand to hear you talk. Just go.”
If you looked hard enough at the fog outside the window, you could almost see it move, see whorls like the kind that spin briefly into existence in exhalations of cigarette smoke, that spin and then disappear when you pour milk into coffee. Clouding the city, resting damp and heavy over cars, pedestrians, obscuring store fronts, muting sound, slowing things down, killing.
“Señora Martel, I apologize but you have to make some decisions. Please.”
She rolled over again, her body a collection of sticks held together by bands of coarse rope. She felt listless and broken and empty, a bird’s nest that had been stepped on. A lady was seated next to her, small and dark-skinned, Mexican perhaps, young and solemn with eyes like those of an idol, a bird, black and shining and hard. This one would not frighten easily.
“There are decisions that must be made with regards to your baby.” Words like smooth river stones being dropped into her lap.
“What decisions?” she asked. Voice clear, still, steady. The words distinct from her, from her emotions, that vibration deep in her chest.
“The hospital cannot remain in custody of the body. You must decide what funeral arrangements you wish to make. I understand that you are visiting from Barcelona. If you wish, it is possible to transport the remains for a burial in your native country.”
“No,” Maribel said. “No. I do not want it to go to Spain. I want it to stay here.”
“Very well,” said the woman. “We can place you in touch with several funeral homes that can accommodate your wishes. These decisions, however, must be made before you are discharged.”
“I understand,” she said. “That will not be a problem. Thank you.”
September 18th, 2010
Barcelona. Sunshine, brilliant and unabashed, spilling out over the streets and avenues, the cafés and balconies, the old buildings and cathedral spires. The smell of the ocean, the murmur of traffic, the wind shifting the tree tops that circled the plaza as she set her purse on the table and lowered herself carefully into the seat. Her body ached, how it ached, her feet swollen, the small of her back smoldering as if coals had been thumbed under her skin to nestle amidst the muscles, her stomach ponderous, obscene, weighing her down. She shifted in her seat, sought the ever elusive position in which she could feel comfortable, and failed to find it.
The waiter emerged from the shadowy interior of the restaurant, his uniform crisp, starched, black, and sharp, and Maribel flashed him a smile as he set down her coffee and bowl of ice cream. Always the same. Indulgences. They were what kept her going. That and the phone calls, brief snatches of his voice carried to her all the way from Kabul.
Her phone rang, and the waiter stepped away.
“Hola?” she said, struck as always by the irrational belief that there would be nobody on the other end.
“Amor,” said Antonio, his voice rich like warm caramel, and she felt relief flood her. “How are you, preciosa? The baby?”
“Your baby weighs more than a pile of bricks, and is driving her mother crazy,” she said, trying to sound annoyed. “She is going to be the fattest little girl ever born. As round as a football.”
“I love fat little girls,” he said, and she could hear the smile in his voice. She pictured his face, lean and tanned, hair silvering at the temples, and wondered what he was looking at as he spoke to her. “That’s why I was unable to resist you, my love.”
“Oh, get lost,” she said, but she knew he could hear her laughter now, bright beneath her voice. “If you really wanted a fat girl, you should have stayed home. I’d fulfill your every fantasy right now.”
“If only. How are you? How are you feeling?”
“I’m tired.” She looked out over the plaza, watched an old couple walking slowly, ever so slowly across the street, his arm looped in hers. “I’m tired and I’m cranky and I’m sore. It’s probably a good thing you’re not here. You’d want a divorce after spending two days with me.”
“I would do anything to spend two days with you. Even if you spent every moment taking my skin off with the edge of your tongue.”
“That’s not all I would do,” she said, her smile turning into a wince as she shifted her weight once more. “How are you? How is work? Have you solved all the problems of the Middle East yet so you can come home?”
“No,” he said, and she heard his fatigue, heard it come rushing up to pull his voice down, to rob it of its confidence. “No, things are… well. Complicated as ever. Everything is on hold while we negotiate again with Pakistan. People are holding their breath. Waiting to see how things turn out.”
“So if nothing is happening, that’s the perfect opportunity to come home,” she said.
“What?” Dull certainty bloomed within her. Leaden and heavy.
A pause, and she knew he was searching for the best way to tell her. To be diplomatic. “I can’t come home yet. Amor, I’m sorry. But I just can’t.”
“You can’t come home,” she said.
He sighed. “I wish—I wish you could see how close we are here to turning the corner. If I leave—if I come home now, amor, there’s too much at stake. We’re so close.”
A sudden and terrible sense of solitude, of truly being alone in the world but for the small presence in her body. She nodded. “I knew it. I knew you would pick that fucking country and those fucking Arabs over the birth of your own daughter.”
“Maribel, I might still make it home—“
“Don’t,” she snapped, suddenly and irrevocably furious, trying to sit up, “You know what? I don’t care what you say, I am going to go to the gallery opening in New York.”
“Maribel, no.” Anger in his voice. “It’s not safe.”
“Then come home and stop me.”
A long, agonizing beat. Then: “Amor, please, you’re being irrational—“
“Don’t call me that. Save it for your Arabs. Call them ‘amor’ when you go into your next meeting. At least then you’ll mean it.” And she hung up.
“Maribel?” A voice, light, tentative, like a bird alighting on a branch, poised to take to the air again at the first sign of danger. Turning her head, Maribel saw Rebecca standing in the door, still wrapped in her heavy black coat, face roseate from the cold; tall, golden Rebecca.
“Maribel,” she said as she came into the room. “I only just heard. How are you, I’m so sorry, Maribel, I’m so sorry.” She came to the edge of the bed, knelt by its side, reached out to take her hands in her own, but drew back at the sight of Maribel’s face.
“Have you been alone this entire time?” she asked, voice falling to a whisper. She searched Maribel’s face, sat back on her heels. “No, Maribel. You should have called, you should have. Somebody should have been here with you. Somebody.”
Maribel gazed at her, at the woman who had promoted her and helped ensure her success these past few weeks amidst the falling snow and fog of New York, and said nothing.
“The gallery is receiving rave reviews,” said Rebecca helplessly. “I’ve received…” she broke off, and then rallied. “I’ve received word from a friend in Chicago that they want to host you there too. And a number of clients have requested quotes for copies of your prints, but I’ve told them all, I’ve told them to wait, that now isn’t…” Rebecca’s words dried up in her mouth as she held Maribel’s gaze. Finally, “What are you going to do?” Rebecca moved back and up into the closest chair. “How much longer are they going to keep you here?”
“I leave tonight,” she said.
“Where are you going? When do you return to Barcelona?”
The decision crystallized even as she considered it. “I am not returning to Barcelona.”
“No? Then—where? To your husband? Is he coming here?”
“No,” she said again, and closed her eyes. “No, I want nothing to do with Antonio.” The old bitterness that had poisoned these past few months, that had made her decision to come to New York a necessity, an affirmation of her independence. “Anyway, he’s still in Kabul,” she said, and her smile was hard, deceptively amused. “If he wasn’t going to be home for Sofia’s birth, why I should I bother him now?”
“Maribel,” said Rebecca, and then once more, voice louder, asserting herself, trying to take control of the situation, “Maribel. Tell me what you are going to do. You can’t be alone right now.”
“I can do what I like, Rebecca,” said Maribel, her smile disappearing.
Her friend drew back. Authority fled her voice. “What are you going to do?”
“I have to find somebody,” said Maribel, and turned away to face the window.
Sanity. She didn’t know what the word meant anymore. It had been replaced, however, with certainty. Or perhaps, more accurately, faith. Pulling her scarf more tightly about her neck, Maribel strode through the hospital lobby and toward the revolving doors beyond which New York loomed, gaunt and gray and chill. Certainty, faith. A knowledge that could not be discussed with anybody else, because there was no way to explain herself without seeming mad.
Pushing through the revolving door, she stepped outside for the first time since losing her baby. The air was crisp, cold, a shock on her face. She raised her chin, inhaled, smelled the tang of exhaust, metallic. It was a different world, now. Within her, the ebony shell, the vibrating chrysalis had slowed, stilled, so that it throbbed now in rhythm with her heart.
Antonio had tried to speak to her, had called over and over again, and then finally informed the nurses that he was en route to New York. She didn’t care. He could find her or not. If he did, he would fail to understand. There was simply no way to communicate this. Trauma, depression, hallucination. There were endless terms for it, and they had been spewed at her by the grief counselor, the pediatrician, her doctor. Only Rebecca had chosen to step away, to leave her be, to give her time.
Sanity. It was not as important as she had once thought. Always she had been accused of having a temper, of being bold, intemperate, stubborn. Other words, less kind: irrational, impulsive. Qualities tossed derisively at her by men over the course of her life, all of them meaning one thing: female.
Maribel lowered her chin. Set her jaw, and strode forward into the alien city. With a conviction that she did not question, with a knowledge that she did not doubt, she knew there was but one thing she now had to do, no matter what others thought, said, demanded. She had to find her daughter.
That night, when first she had risen from her bed, a mere hour or two having passed since they had whisked her baby away, locked her up in a clear plastic incubator, premature, so small, so small. Red and wizened, a little frog of a thing, too soon but hers, hers hers hers. Those precious few glimpses as her baby was taken from her, handed from one doctor to the next and placed in the incubator, her small body cupped in gloved hands, tubes and measurements and then gone, gone, taken before she could even see her face.
It had taken all her control, exhausted and panicked as she had been, not to scream, to demand they show her her child, to reach out to touch her. But like that, her baby was gone, and she sank back, fiercely determined not to sleep, to wait for the anesthesia that cloaked her lower body in numbness to wear off, so that she could walk down to the ICU and see her.
No name, not yet, she hadn’t been able to settle on one, it had plagued her, but nothing had seemed quite right. Perhaps when she saw her face, then it would come to her. She knew it would. She wouldn’t give her baby a name; she would simply know.
Later, down the hall, no nurses to help her, the hospital too busy. But she felt fine, she felt strong, she felt like she could do anything despite the pain, the ache in her stomach, the stinging between her legs, the light-headedness. Slowly, each step certain, following the directions.
No family with her. No husband, no friends. Alone, but that didn’t matter. Her baby, her child. Her girl. That was all she needed. All she would ever need. There. The wall of glass, the sight of cribs arrayed in neat rows. Nobody else looking in, this moment was hers alone, and she felt a pang of gratitude, that she would be able to devour the sight of her baby for the first time in privacy, not have to share it with anybody. Jealous, selfish, but hers.
She stopped, looked through the glass wall. Eyes moving from baby to baby, knowing she would recognize hers immediately. There.
The name came, unbidden. Her eyes filled with tears, and something within her turned, trembled, opened. A stiffness she hadn’t realized she was holding within her eased, she felt herself open up. Sofia. Stepping forward, she pressed her hands to the glass, stared at the little shape, the crimson face, the bundle of flesh and love in the midst of tubes and machinery.
The hairs along her arms pricked, stirred. Skin began to crawl on the back of her neck. Something was wrong. Something was happening. Maribel looked up and down the hallway, almost cried out for help, but why? She couldn’t see anything.
Sofia. A cloud had appeared above her, a swirling cloud of black ink, a tincture in the air, a bruise where nothing was. It swelled and grew, a storm cloud, no depth to it, sheer black, sucking in the light.
“No,” she whispered, shook her head.
A shape. Head, shoulders, pale, alabaster, paler than her own fair skin. Inhuman—or not human enough. Bulging forehead, emaciated face pulled tight around small cheekbones, a hint of a chin beneath a slit of a mouth. But the eyes, large, so large, and hands extending down toward her child.
“No!” she screamed, and pounded on the glass. It should have broken, should have shattered inward, destroyed by her fury. It didn’t.
Long fingers, impossibly long and pale, slipped through glass, slipped past the tubes, and took Sofia up. Drew her through the incubator walls. Left in her place a knot of flesh, leathery and still. Took her baby, kicking and stirring, small face pinched with an anger that mirrored her mother’s. Took the baby, and hugged her to its narrow chest. And then, as if slipping away down a hole, the pale head pulled back into the dark cloud, the roiling shadow, and was gone.
Afterward, whenever she thought back to that night, she remembered first and foremost the screams. There was no rise or fall to them, no character or shape; rather they had been bursts of sound, visceral and blank in their terror and denial. Even as the nurses had clamored around her, trying to constrain her, pull her down to the ground, the screams had continued. They had lit the hall with their stark ferocity, each one a camera flash that caused the nurses’ eyes to flare with fear and dismay.