Mark and I had taken the train down for his cousin’s wedding, and now we were in the lobby of this crazy hotel, waiting to check in. Mark talked on his cellphone while I looked around nervously. He had forgotten to make a reservation till the last minute, and this was all we could find. The gigantic mirror in the entranceway was hung too low, so that all you saw reflected back was your headless torso. Magazines on every surface had titles like Bowhunting World and Diabetic Living. In the center of the reception desk was a card in a plastic stand that said, “Bienvenue,” as if we were in Paris, except we were in Baltimore. April in Maryland: the air teemed with pollen, blanketing the cars in the parking lot in yellow. Mark’s eyes were watering. My throat felt as if I’d eaten dust. The man on line in front of us sneezed ten or fifteen times. His long, matted beard had blue beads woven into it, and he had on a wizard’s hat. He lifted the beard and blotted his nose with it. The woman beside him was twice his size and bottom-heavy in the style of a club chair. She leaned on a tall stick, like something you’d herd sheep with, carved with fish and vines and staring eyes. They both emitted the skunky smell of sage. The woman fanned her sweaty face and said, “I’d walk to Adyll for a flagon of sweet lemon water.”
There was a flutter in my rib cage, a somersault of uneasiness. I hadn’t witnessed such concentrated weirdness up close since my parents were alive: my father’s conspiracy theories and colon-cleansing elixirs; my mother’s ground-up lithium in a locket around her neck. I tried to take a deep breath, but my chest was tight. I adjusted my new bra, an allegedly sexy contraption that pushed everything up and out, but its underwire suddenly felt barbed. Mark was making another phone call: his PR clients could behave themselves for months, but the second we went away, it was one crisis after another. I poked him with my elbow as he dialed; he gave me a dirty look and turned his back.
The past few hours had been a series of unpleasantries, starting with Mark arriving at the train station just three minutes before our train was due to leave. His perpetual lateness drove me nuts. I’d gotten in the bad habit of mimicking his excuses in a snide, high-pitched whine — “I couldn’t find my keys”; “I couldn’t get a cab” — which drove him nuts right back. We had run for the train and just made it, sweaty and fuming. I said he owed me sixty-four dollars for the ticket. He said fine, and I owed him ten dollars for my sesame chicken last Tuesday night, plus twelve dollars for the movie. I said, “Why are your pants so short?” He said, “Why do your boobs look like they’re trying to escape?” We were two months into our second year together.
In the hotel lobby a woman in a floor-length purple robe walked by, lugging a harp. Mark touched my hand. He was still on the phone, but he mouthed, I’m sorry. I found the ridge of flesh between his thumb and index finger and squeezed, the way he liked me to. I wanted things to work.
Let me tell you about Mark: He was smart without being smug. He could play the trumpet and wire a lamp. He did a spot-on Dick Cheney. There’d been no sudden oddball revelations since we’d been dating, like a desire to live in the Biodome one day. I was always attracted to him, even though he crossed his legs in a fussy, egghead way that made me think of the moderator on C-Span, and his nose was bumpy, zigzag anarchy. His parents had died before we met, like mine, but his stories about them were specific and sentimental: the Sunday-night chili, the family trip from Boston to Tucson via Amtrak. My stories were vague and guarded, lest I scare him off. I was so secretive that Mark joked my family must have been in the witness-protection program.
We were nearing the front of the check-in line when some sort of commotion broke out at the desk. The clerk was trying to explain to an agitated woman in a hooded cape that the pool was closed for renovations. “But where are we supposed to filk?” the woman demanded. “That’s the filking pool!”
“Jaelle’s not going to like that,” a man behind us muttered. He wore black velvet shoes that curled up at the toe. His companion had on an orange cloak, and they both had huge, aggressive bellies. I wanted to jump back on the train to New York, but I also wanted to stay and watch. A girl in a bonnet stood beside the man in the orange cloak. Slung across her chest was a canvas tote bag printed with three intertwined hearts and the words “Love is messy. Polyamory is honest.” I had a sudden memory of my mother during one of her manic episodes, running around the city in her old beauty-pageant sash that said, “Miss Mountainbrook 1962.”
Mark sneezed into his sleeve. “What’s with all this goddamn pollen?”
The woman with the shepherd’s staff turned and said, “I really must intercede. The goddess of vegetation gave us pollen so our magnificent flowers could procreate and carpet the earth with loveliness.” Her teeth were the color of almonds.
“Those exquisite little granules are nature’s airborne sperm, looking for a mate,” said the man in the wizard’s hat.
It turned out the hotel was hosting a convention — “Nectarian Grand Council Meeting XXIV,” read a poster near the reception desk — for fans of a series of novels about a planet called “Nectary” situated in the sci-fi future but inhabited by old-timey, medieval characters. There’d be workshops all weekend, ritual drumming in the Harbor Room, alien-race creation in the Pickersgill Salon. In the atrium the Nectarians were setting up table after table of merchandise: vials of water direct (the sign proclaimed) from the Obliterata Sea; glass pendants filled with dirt from the grounds at Zendar Castle. Some of the attendees were waiting on line at a booth where they could have an authentic Seal of the Storn tattooed on their wrist. Others were testing their psychic powers — the Nectarian name for it was “veive” — by getting hooked up to an intricate contraption of wires and lights and then trying to make a weather vane spin using only their mind.
In our room Mark and I unpacked, and I went to the bathroom. Mark had set out his toiletries on the counter beside mine. Even though we’d be there only for the weekend, everything he’d brought was jumbo-sized: a bucket of vitamins, a thermos of shampoo, a box of Q-tips the size of a bread loaf. My toothbrush and face wash were crowded into the corner. A couple of weeks earlier Mark had asked me to move in with him. Was this what I had to look forward to? In the mirror my face looked waxy, and a muscle twitched in the corner of my mouth.
Mark was in bed for a nap when I came out. He had a sleep mask in his hand and his phone on the pillow beside his ear. He patted the mattress, and I lay down next to him, though I was wide awake. It was four in the afternoon, and my nerves were jumping.
“What’s in your ears that you needed to bring a billion Q-tips?” I asked.
“Shh,” he said, and he put on the mask. His mouth went slack. Soon he was snoring. I stared at the digital clock on the night table, which read 74:22. It was as if the hotel’s goal were to disorient. I read a little of the book I’d brought with me, but what had started off as a charming treatise on French fashion had devolved into an indictment of American women’s tendency toward obesity. I was suddenly starving and went to find a vending machine.
In the hall I followed the whir and clank of the hotel ice maker. I was restless and antsy. I was, as my father used to say, “in a mood.” My bra was still killing me. I imagined going back to the room, taking it off, and encircling Mark’s wrists with the straps before unbuttoning his pants. Then I imagined looping it around his neck and yanking both ends until his face turned purple.
When I found the vending machine, everything inside was a brand I hadn’t seen in years: Chuckles, Bugles, Boston Baked Beans. I remembered sitting between my parents at the movies when I was a kid, my mouth crammed full of Raisinets, my heart racing since we were as likely to have snuck into the theater as we were to have bought tickets. It’s not that we couldn’t afford them; my father considered it fair compensation for the overpriced candy.
My parents. Until they were gone, I didn’t have the first clue what forever really meant.
I fed quarters into the machine and made my selection: Bit-O-Honey, those beige squares of taffy that would pry out your fillings if you weren’t careful. The spiral coil unwound, and the candy came toward me, then just dangled there, stuck. I gave the machine a push, but it was as heavy as a truck. Almost in tears, suddenly aching for sugar, I slammed the metal side with my hip and felt a searing pain.
Suddenly someone was standing beside me. He was tall and dressed all in black: jeans, boots, jacket, eyeliner. He had long, tangled hair and wore a copper bracelet shaped like a bird claw around one wrist, and his belt buckle read, “Wiccan Army.” A tattoo of yellow and red flames rose out of his shirt collar and up his throat. Some guys like him you just know live in their parents’ basement and watch reruns of Star Trek, but this one was as solemn as a wolf.
“It’s stuck,” I said unnecessarily, since he was looking straight at the hanging Bit-O-Honey.
I gave the machine another weak shove.
“You can do better than that,” he said. He had burning eyes. A name tag pinned to his shirt read, “Vortex of Barjjedoon.”
I pushed again with both hands. The machine jogged a little, but the candy didn’t budge.
“Give it a whack,” he said. The smell of balsam rose from his skin. “Harder. Show it who’s boss.”
I pushed with my hip again, ignoring the pain.
“It’s a hungry beast,” he said. “Tame it!”
I was sweating and woozy, but the candy would be mine. I put a hand on either side of the machine and shook as hard as I could, then backed my rear end up against the glass and rammed it.
The Bit-O-Honey hung by just a corner.
“Again!” he said. “Bring it to its knees!”
I summoned up all my strength and rocked the machine forward and then back. The candy finally dropped. Vortex thrust his arms above his head and let out a war cry. I had a vision of us both in animal pelts, dancing wildly around a fire. He retrieved the candy and said, “Spoils to the victor.” Then he bowed deeply, presenting me with the Bit-O-Honey. Panting, I grabbed it from his hand and got away fast.
Back in our room, Mark was still asleep. I paced and chewed the sticky candy, adrenaline hurtling through me. My biceps trembled. Mark had left the TV on with the volume down low, and I found the remote and went from channel to channel. I wanted snorting elephants stampeding through a village. I wanted open-heart surgery. But all that was on were fake courtroom shows with people suing each other over pet-grooming misadventures. Mark slept on. The iron-colored bedspread he’d pulled up around his shoulders looked like those lead tunics the dentist makes you wear for x-rays. How could he sleep with it touching his skin? How could he sleep at all in this hotel?
I turned off the TV and went to the window. Our second-story room faced inward, overlooking the atrium filled with the tables of Nectarian merchandise, the tattoo booth, and the veive-testing station. I spotted the woman who’d gotten so upset about the closed swimming pool at a table covered with tambourines and bells. On the wall behind her she’d hung a sheet of poster board that read, “The filking festival has been moved from the pool to the basement. Express your displeasure to a mundane.” Still insanely ravenous, I crammed three more pieces of Bit-O-Honey into my mouth. Down below I saw a tubby guy wearing cargo pants and silver space boots swipe a ring off a table of Nectarian charms and slip it onto his finger, then disappear behind a display of leather corsets. On an easel by the corsets was a painting of a bare-chested gladiator shooting lightning bolts from his palms, and beside it stood a guy wearing all black, his face obscured by tangled ebony hair. My heart jumped. Then he turned, and it wasn’t a guy after all, just a thickset teenage girl wearing teal lipstick.
It wasn’t him by the crystals kiosk either. Not that I was necessarily looking. But Tame it! still reverberated through my skull.
When I turned around, Mark was sitting up, the sleep mask pushed onto his forehead. He pointed to the digital clock. “It’s 75:15,” he said. “Where’ve you been?”
“Nowhere,” I replied.
He asked me to scratch his back, and I moved the bedspread aside and sat next to him. While I scratched, he made a humming sound. His skin was warm, and his hair smelled like grapefruit. He sighed, then reached back to stroke my leg: the launch of the romantic encounter I’d been looking for, except now my mind was buzzing. Why did Mark always perch the sleep mask on his forehead instead of just taking it off? Why did he pronounce the h in where? I scratched harder.
“Easy,” he said.
Why were his boxer shorts inside out? When had he started trimming the hair under his arms? And why did the sight of our suitcases at the foot of the bed — side by side, empty, sagging into each other — make me feel nauseous and afraid? I dug my nails into his back.
“Hey!” He jerked away, twisting around to gape at me.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “Since when are you so sensitive?” But then I took a look at his back and saw red welts. I pulled down his shirt and gave it a little pat. He winced, lifting it back up and trying to get a look in the mirror across from the bed.
“Jesus!” he said. “I’m bleeding.”
“It’s just a scratch.” I gave him a little shove, like Ha ha, don’t be a wimp. At least, I thought the shove was little until he toppled off the bed. I said I was sorry and asked if he was OK. He jumped to his feet and grabbed a pen off the night table: “Here, why don’t you just stab me in the eye? What’s with you?”
“What’s with you?” I replied. I knew I was being unfair, but I was keyed up.
There was this squaring-off moment between us. Then he shrugged and asked, “What should we do about dinner?” I’d persuaded him to opt out of his cousin’s rehearsal dinner so that we could spend some time alone together, although that idea was starting to reveal itself as maybe not the wisest. “How far do you think we are from a decent restaurant?” he asked.
“Let’s eat here,” I said. “There’s a restaurant off the lobby.”
“That’s certainly something to think about,” he said, which was his usual way of saying my proposal was clearly absurd. “You really want to eat here in Bizarro Land, with the nectarines?”
“Nectarians,” I said.
“Nectarians, necrophiliacs — whatever.”
“You’re such a fucking snob,” I said. I must have yelled it, because Mark had a look on his face that fell somewhere between You’re annoying me and You’re scaring me. I’m sure I used to look at my parents the same way, not knowing how lonely it could make you feel.
Mark’s phone rang. I said I’d go scout out the dinner situation. Pressure was building up behind my eyes. I needed to get out of that room.
In the elevator were a man and a woman and a girl around seven or eight, all of them wearing ankle-length robes and sandals with brown socks. They were looking at a piece of fake parchment paper scotch-taped to the elevator wall: the convention schedule. The man said, “Hey, Elspeth of York is doing a lightning harness at six . . . weather permitting, of course.”
His wife said, “And there’s a Forsakian braggle at eight.”
“Weather permitting, of course,” said the little girl.
The parents laughed. The girl got that half-embarrassed, half-pleased look kids get when they realize they’ve said something funny. I laughed, too — it’s no fun being the only one who isn’t in on a joke — then complimented their robes. “They’re so majestic,” I said. They weren’t; they were moss-colored sacks cinched with frayed rope. “You look like royalty.” They all had stick-straight, waist-length hair. I said how lucky they were; I couldn’t grow mine past my shoulders without a mess of split ends. I said my mother used to rub Turtle Wax in my hair to control the frizz.
The man said, “We make our own shampoo out of hemp-seed and nettles.”
I suddenly wanted the elevator to get stuck so we could keep this conversation going. I wanted them to invite me to the braggle. I wanted my mother’s hands in my hair. I asked a couple of questions about their shampoo, but when we got to the lobby, they bounded out ahead of me, and I lost them in the crowd.
I passed a table stacked high with piles of Nectary novels and picked up one with a picture of a woman’s head on the cover, her eyes whited out and flames shooting from her ears: Margwenn’s Revenge. The first sentence was “The stars glistened savagely in the bloody Nectarian sky.”
A voice behind me said, “Exile first; then revenge.”
I whipped around so fast I almost hurt my neck. Vortex was smiling, baring the sharp tips of his canines, his eyes locked on mine. He motioned to the book and said, “That’s the second in the Clenchstorn Trilogy.” He picked up another — Margwenn’s Exile — and handed it to me. “Exile comes first.” He sounded as fierce as he had about the Bit-O-Honey, a low growl to his voice. His eyeliner was thick and black, as if he’d drawn it on with a stick of charcoal. I turned back to scan the table of books, trying to think fast. What would come after revenge? I grabbed Margwenn’s Ascension and turned around to show him, but he was already headed across the lobby, toward the conference rooms.
The man behind the book table said, “That’s a good one.” His beard was so wide it looked like a lobster bib. “After Margwenn is gifted with her veive, she transmogrifies to a Donar to elude the Rabideers.”
I started in the direction of the conference rooms, not thinking about Mark or dinner or the book still in my hand — until the seller called after me, “You going to buy that? It’s twelve helseks.”
I fished some bills out of my jeans, and he slipped the book into a crinkled plastic sack. I grabbed the bag and raced to the Chesapeake Gallery, which had the biggest crowd milling around it.
At the entrance a man in a long velvet robe was passing out name tags, which were arrayed in long rows on a table behind him, one for “Knights” and the other for “Ladies.” I hesitated. In my jeans and sweater I would be easily recognized as a mundane. I scanned the room for some sort of disguise and spotted a display of colored ribbons with a sign beside them that read, “For the handfasting.” I took as many as I dared and draped them around my shoulders like a shawl. While the man in the velvet robe checked his clipboard for the name of a guy in a jester’s outfit, I nabbed a badge from the “Ladies” row and rushed inside.
Everyone was taking seats at various tables. I hung back and half hid behind a plastic ficus tree, looking for Vortex, but I didn’t see him. I decided to check the other rooms, but right as I came out from behind the tree, a woman bounded over, scarlet cape streaming behind her. “What domain are you in?” Her breath smelled of ginger, which made me think of my father, who’d chugged purées of ginger and beets to cleanse his colon of “parasites.” She pointed impatiently at the name tag in my fist. It read, “Beltrana of Garehart.”
“Oh!” Her face went red. “Lady Beltrana, please forgive my impertinence.” She curtsied, one knee behind the other, bending almost to the floor, then just stayed like that. I wasn’t sure what to do.
“Um, you’re forgiven?” I said.
She smiled and extended her arm toward a corner of the room. “Your domain, my lady.” How could I make an exit after all that? She brought me over to a table and announced me. Everyone nodded deferentially and murmured something that sounded like “Zipper, zipper.” A boy with curly red hair, ferocious acne, and long fingernails filed to points introduced himself as Sebrus and pulled out the empty chair next to his.
“Let me be the first to welcome you home,” he said, “to claim your rightful place as a Nectarian royal.”
An emaciated man next to him said, “We were overjoyed to read in the last quarterly chronicle of your escape from your childhood captors and return to Nectary.”
They were watching my every move, scrutinizing my face. For a moment I wished Mark were with me to witness this. An elderly woman grinned at me so eagerly the tendons in her neck stood out. And there was the guy with the silver space boots that I’d seen swipe the ring; he was still wearing it on his pinkie. His pants had a million bulging pockets, so he had to sit perched on the edge of his chair, constantly shifting around. Every few seconds he’d take something out of one pocket — a burned-down candle, a dollhouse sofa — and stick it in another one.
Sebrus drummed his fingernails on the table. “As we are all aware,” he said, “our beloved Yoris has been assassinated. With his eldest son too young to rule, we gather today to advance our candidate for the new Regent of Nectary.”
The emaciated man raised his skeletal arm. It looked like a stick balanced on his shoulder. “I would humbly serve if called,” he said.
The man with all the pockets snorted. “Your arrogance astounds!” He had long jowls dotted with gray whiskers that swayed from side to side as he shook his head.
“Many years have perished since the Festival of the Ghost Winds,” the emaciated man pleaded.
The elderly lady coughed up phlegm, spit it into a tissue, and flashed it at him. “The passage of time does not dull the memory of your treachery, Cousin Hilario,” she said.
A man in a white tuxedo turned to me and said, “Lady Beltrana, I must implore you to intercede!”
Perhaps this would have been a good time to excuse myself. These people weren’t playing around. They’d freak out if they discovered I was an imposter. So why didn’t I get up? Why did it seem as if the outside world had dropped away? Why did everyone at this table feel so real to me, in a way sane people didn’t?
Why did I nominate myself for Regent of Nectary?
There was a stunned silence, then murmuring and astonished glances in my direction. Suddenly they began to applaud. I thought of Vortex, bowing as he presented me with the Bit-O-Honey. My heart skipped as I pictured him hearing about my nomination, his curiosity piqued, eyes gleaming with intrigue: Who is she?
Only the guy with all the pockets — “Despard,” his name tag said — looked disgruntled. “With all due respect, Beltrana, you’ve only just arrived on Nectary,” he said as he transferred things from pocket to pocket: a mustache made out of brown plastic, an old subway token. “After all these years away, you’d have to be practically head-blind.” That had to be an insult. “You haven’t got the veive to be Regent.”
Everyone turned to me, eyes wide. I wasn’t about to back down now. “Don’t try my patience,” I hissed. I sounded like an evil queen in a Disney movie. “I’ve got veive to spare.”
He eyed me sullenly. “Prove it.”
I looked at the garnet ring on Despard’s pinkie and said, “I’m sensing something about your ring, some . . . uneasiness.”
Despard stiffened. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I moved my open palm in slow circles a few inches over the ring, as though feeling for vibrations. He covered it with his other hand. I said I was getting a sense of displacement, as if this ring didn’t belong where it was. I saw a flash of fear in his eyes. For a moment I felt awful — he’d probably been dreaming about this convention all year and wanted to be Regent himself; now I was about to ruin the whole event for him, expose him as a petty thief. Then, in my head, I heard Vortex growl, Bring it to its knees.
“I have the distinct impression,” I said, “that this ring has been the subject of a criminal act.”
Despard squirmed and wouldn’t meet my eye. I asked if I should continue. He shook his head and looked down at the table. “Your veive is more powerful than I’d realized,” he muttered. The rest of the table stood up, clapping and bowing and curtsying. It wasn’t my finest hour, vanquishing a mentally unstable man in space boots, but I can’t say I had any regrets. I practically glided out of the conference room, I felt so regal. In fact, it was the most myself I’d felt in ages.
Out in the atrium Mark was standing by the entrance to the restaurant. I pulled the ribbons off my shoulders and shoved them into the plastic bag with the book. Mark was Mr. Reasonable; no way would he understand what had just happened. Already, as I walked toward him, he was squinting suspiciously at the bag. I said it was a wedding gift for his cousin. Then I noticed Despard waddling out of the Chesapeake Gallery, and I yanked Mark into the restaurant.
“Listen,” he said, “I know you’re mad at me.” He went into an apologetic account of the phone call he’d been on for the past hour with one of his clients, a New York judge who’d gotten caught e-mailing porn around his office. Usually I would have pressed for all the dirty details, but my head was swimming with visions of Nectarian royalty. We got seated at a booth in the back. A glass vase of carnations in the center of the table was half filled with water even though the flowers were plastic. Mark pretended to smell them. “So fragrant. We should get some of these for our new place.” We hadn’t even started looking yet, but I got a mental image of low ceilings, sealed windows, and old ant traps in the kitchen cupboards. When Mark’s shoe came to rest against mine, it felt like a block of iron.
I shot out of my chair and grabbed a plate for the buffet. Everything was massive: slabs of beef under heat lamps, potatoes in troughs, serving spoons the size of catcher’s mitts. I accidentally glopped too much spaghetti on my plate, but when I tried to chop part of it off with the spoon, it kept sliding away. The guy on line next to me had a plastic ray gun clipped to his belt and a patch on his jacket sleeve that said, “Security, Rastalir Tower.” Had someone reported me?
“Do you plan to play with those earth noodles until Balmous Day?” he asked. “Others require sustenance, you know.”
I dumped the spaghetti back into the tub and was about to go for the macaroni and cheese when a hand grabbed my forearm. The copper bird-claw bracelet fell against my wrist. “Insolent guardsman!” Vortex snarled at the security guy, his fingers hot on my skin. “Temper your tongue when addressing Lady Beltrana, or she shall have it for dinner.”
I looked around for Mark, who was at the far end of the buffet. Vortex took the spaghetti spoon from the security guy and shouldered him aside. “Allow me,” he said, and he filled my plate with noodles. On his plate were three raw-looking slices of roast beef, dripping with red juices. My face flushed as I thanked him. I liked how he’d stood up for me. I liked the bloody beef. I liked the rumbling noises he made when he looked me over. We were standing so close I could see a pink patch of razor burn on his jaw, a tiny purple vein in the crease of his eyelid. “In this era of wretched discord, the Barjjedoons stand with the Gareharts. You’ll have our unanimous support at this evening’s election.” Then he whispered, “The real Lady Beltrana happens to reside in my enclave. She was stricken with strep throat yesterday and will not be attending.” His voice was a low humming in my ear. “Your secret is safe with me.”
I shivered and imagined what our bodies would feel like pressed against each other. “Your discretion is duly noted, and appreciated,” I said.
He smiled. “Until tonight.”
I found Mark at the sausage station, piling sauerkraut on his plate, and said preemptively, “The spaghetti is so gloppy that guy had to help me with it.” I pointed to Vortex.
Mark said, “I’m guessing by those Burger King flames tattooed on his neck that it wasn’t his first time serving food.”
I felt bad about lying, but can I convey how little any of this had to do with Mark? Something had shifted in my brain. Maybe it had rattled loose when I’d banged against the vending machine.
Hilario met me at the door to the Starlite Ballroom. “Good news! Jaelle wants the campaign speeches in chronopathic order. That puts us after the Quistles.” There was a stage at the front of the room under a string of plastic flags with the Nectarian domain names on them. Campaign speech? My mouth went dry. The floor was littered with confetti, feathers, and broken bits of shells. “They’re supposed to clean up after the braggle,” Hilario said. “Someone needs to reinstate the Elengin Laws.” He looked meaningfully at me. If I won this election, would they expect me to govern? Where would I rule: in a castle in outer space?
I could barely believe I’d shown up. After dinner I’d read another chapter of the French fashion book, tweezed my eyebrows, and listened to Mark speculate about which of his feuding relatives would appear at the wedding tomorrow, but I’d kept feeling the hum of Vortex’s voice in my ear. When Mark had mentioned that he was still hungry — he’d barely touched the awful buffet food — I’d leapt up and offered to go find him some potato chips.
Now I followed Hilario into the ballroom. There were a dozen tables set up, one for each domain. At the Garehart table the others were speaking urgently about the vote, their words like missiles. I thought of my father’s fervent lectures about rigged presidential elections. I rearranged my shawl of ribbons and was ambushed by the memory of my mother in her Miss Mountainbrook sash.
Jaelle moved to the front of the room in a white satin dress that glinted like ice in the sun. She called up the first Regent candidate: Baird of Shehezar. “I’ve filked an old favorite on my zither,” he said; then he started strumming the melody to “Fly Me to the Moon” on a block of warped wood and frayed wire. “Land of bloody sky,” he sang, “I would justly govern thee, from the Argon Cliffs to the Obliterata Sea.”
Hilario’s skinny elbow jabbed my side. He asked, “How are you feeling, Bel?” I should have been panicked about my campaign speech, but I was feeling terrific. I would bring glory to this family.
Someone pulled a chair up to my other side. “The age of amity is nigh.” It was Vortex. Maybe this kind of talk would drive me nuts down the road, but for now we were just here, our chairs touching. There was that hyperawareness where the other person’s every move makes your insides quake. For a moment we sat watching the second Regent candidate, who had an albino boa constrictor around her neck. The snake was as thick as my thigh, and she kept stroking its head while she described the decrepit roads in the lowlands that needed repaving.
“Henceforth the command of this land shall be yours,” Vortex said to me. He took one of my hands in his and gripped it hard, and I broke out in a sweat.
Then something rose in me, some combination of euphoria and terror, and for maybe the first time I understood what life had been like for my parents. I felt their blood pulsing brightly through my veins. I felt their fever: the all-night drives to smell the ocean; my father’s top hat; his pineapple obsession; the kleptomania. I got it, that crazy energy. I gripped Vortex’s hand back. My heart was a wriggling fish, thwacking its tail.
The next candidate said she’d be reenacting the crash of the Mallitar spacecraft with an interpretive dance. “Typical Eaglespar impudence,” Vortex said. His skin was as hot as lava. He still smelled of balsam and along with it something tart and oily that I couldn’t identify. The woman on stage spun in circles, the crowd gasping as her hair whipped. I still had no idea what I’d do when it was my turn, but I couldn’t wait to get up there. The woman dropped to the floor, rolled around a little, then made a hissing sound, like vapors escaping the Mallitar’s wreckage. The crowd cheered.
“She was an honorable craft,” Vortex said, his hand tightening around mine. So what if my fingers were starting to hurt? Across the table, Despard sifted through the braggle debris littering the floor. The garnet ring was gone. Vortex pushed the hair from his eyes with his free hand. The guy in the orange cloak I’d seen earlier in the lobby came to the stage and declared, “As Regent, I shall not tolerate the abuse of looms.” At least, that’s what it sounded like. Vortex sat forward, muttering, “Hear, hear,” and I got a whiff of that chemical smell again. My hand was throbbing. I tried to shift my fingers, but his were clamped over them. The orange-cloaked man on stage held up charts that showed jagged black lines descending from left to right.
“Do you smell gasoline?” I asked Vortex.
“It’s lighter fluid.” He smiled. “A more suitable combustible for my purposes.”
Jaelle introduced the Quistle candidate, who came lumbering to the stage in a full suit of armor and an astronaut’s helmet.
Vortex tapped his foot restlessly. His knee bounced, and our clenched hands moved with it. He leaned close, his breath hot on my neck, and said, “I’ve fashioned a surprise for your acceptance speech.” My arm tingled. I was tingling all over, thinking: This is what free feels like. To soar through the castle, feet never touching the ground — my parents lighting the sky like stars, I was ready to leap.
“A pyrotechnical surprise,” he said. He motioned with his head toward a table beside the stage. On the floor beneath was a sculpture spelling Nectary made out of wire wrapped in rags. “Not to worry about the smoke.” He pointed to the ceiling, where a smoke alarm hung open, its wires dangling loose, the battery compartment empty. “I’ve disabled all the alarms. The mundanes shall not spoil our revelry.” He cleared his throat; it sounded like a truck grinding its gears. Was it mundane of me to think that this was a bad idea? “Besides,” Vortex said bitterly, “one involuntary stay in their mind-control facility was more than sufficient.”
Did he mean a mental hospital?
“Only in a mundane world,” he said, “would pyrotechnic self-expression be grounds for committal.”
Onstage the Quistle candidate engaged in some slow-motion joust with an imaginary opponent while Vortex told me of his escape plan in case the mundanes called the authorities: he’d evade detection in the foothills of Virginia; his mother would sneak him provisions when her retirees’ group took bus trips to Virginia Beach. “I thought you might accompany me,” he said. He clutched my hand so tight I worried a bone might crack.
So what if he’d been committed? So what if saliva was coagulating in the corners of his lips? I tried to keep my heart from sinking farther, but the guy with the zither drinking apple juice from a plastic cup made me remember my father downing glasses of his own urine, worried that parasites in his colon had survived the beet and ginger purées. Despard shoving styrofoam peanuts in his pocket made me remember my mother ransacking garbage cans for trash that she thought looked lonely, or holy, or cold.
Vortex was waiting for an answer.
I said the first thing that came to mind: “That’s certainly something to think about.”
“Indeed,” he said, and he nodded pensively.
I was hit with a longing for Mark so strong it made me dizzy. I pictured the barrel of Advil he’d brought with him on our bathroom counter. That he’d brought enough for both of us suddenly seemed endearingly generous. The Quistle candidate finished his battle, and Jaelle called me to the stage. Hilario and Sebrus turned to me with excited, hopeful grins. I stood up, prying my hand out of Vortex’s grip, and in a stunning act of royal privilege ceded my nomination to Despard. Then I got the hell out of Nectary.
On my way back to the room, I told the guy at the front desk that he needed to check all the smoke alarms in the Starlite Ballroom right away. Then I stopped off at the vending machine for Mark’s potato chips. They dropped right down. We lay in bed and shared them in front of an ancient episode of My Favorite Martian. The picture was fuzzy, the chips a little stale. The Martian made an apple float across his kitchen while Mark and I fell asleep.