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Queen of Swords: a novel

Chapter V- The Princess of Wands

On the morning I was under mandate to show up at the courthouse I routinely pulled a card. Justice. This is the balance card, the card of the Midnight Court. In the Midnight Court, women weigh men in the balances. On the face of my card the Goddess pulls down her blindfold to peek out at the man she assesses. As we all know, Justice requires assistance. It is built on the bodies of those who must submit. The Goddess herself calls me to sit on that jury.

Carefully I assembled my disguise. Any well-appointed home has just the thing. I went upstairs to the second bedroom to see what I could pull together.

Of course I don’t call it a “bedroom” around anyone else. They might get ideas. It doesn’t even contain a bed. Officially, it’s The Boxroom.

I live in the most beautiful house on the lake. Everything about it is perfect except its rather silly name – “Topside”. Some sailing expression. I was happy to wash my hands of Dr. Quantreau’s hideous house in Colorado Springs. Vast, dark, creaky and vaguely Japanoid. “Modern” back in the fifties. Ugh. Topside is too perfect even to allow a housekeeper, or maid, like the ones I had back in Colorado Spring. It would be too intimate, having another person here. I relish caring for all my beautiful objects. It doesn’t take up too much of my time to stroke my own beast.

Boulder is a much more happening place than poor old Colorado Springs. Here, we are all making ourselves up as we go along out here. How you were born is no comment whatever on how you will end up. Life on the lake combines the best of both worlds; the power, tradition and beauty of the status quo with the fiery challenge, the imaginative power of the self-made.

Whenever I step inside my door I hug myself. All this space is just for me. Three bathrooms and a massive two storey living room whose glass wall overlooks the lake, a pro chef’s kitchen (in case I entertain); even “a media room.” Plus underground storage for my current “baby”, a gold convertible Mercedes SL.

I sigh as I tell my stepdaughters that it is not a good house for children. Too full of treasures. And the lake is so dangerous. That’s why all family parties need to be at McKenzie’s house. She has a pool. I try not to visibly smirk as I watch five dirty children struggling to exhaustion in the chlorinated water. Then I finish my drink – McKenzie’s wine is as good as anybody’s – I know because I bring it myself – and leave. As I disarm and rearm the security system the house itself seems to sigh with pleasure. “I have been waiting for you.”

The Boxroom is where ill-advised gifts come to die. Who can know me well enough to actually give me anything? Not a soul on this planet, sister. On this morning I was looking for a specific sweatshirt given to me by McKenzie’s youngest. It’s pink, it’s covered with strange-looking cotton balls and it says Best Granma Ever!

Wig? I thought of that already – my sex club wigs certainly won’t do. Do they even sell gray wigs? Baby, they sell everything. Gray wig, check. No makeup. Ouch. Reading glasses. Big-bottomed elastic waisted Mom jeans. Am I shameless enough to pad them? Why not? Could be amusing. A couple pairs of the boys’ jams that form my usual lakeside attire ought to thicken me up nicely. Wow. If I had long brunette hair I’d look just like Whitney.

Add a tapestry bag full of yarn and canvas and there she is, the Widow Quantreau. Fair, balanced, but so easily swayed. Inexperienced – deliberately — in the ways of the world. The Widow Quantreau has kept her mind pristine. She tries to think only the best of people. In her life unpleasantness has always been taken care of by someone else. She hasn’t had to fight her way up, the way I have. The status quo is God-given and naturally right, and all who breach it should be punished. Unless they have a particularly alluring sob story, and then I guarantee my eyes will glisten and my lower lip will droop – droop – droop.

Talk show television, that’s what the Widow Quantreau favors. And non-abrasive cooking shows. You know, the helpful as opposed to the competitive kind. That’s what I told the questionnaire anyway. As I looked at myself delightedly in the mirror I almost wished I was going to the sex club. This was a new disguise for sure! Sadist or masochist? Because you better believe it, you’ve gotta be one or the other. Top or bottom; lion or lamb. I take my lamb rare, thank you. Very rare. But they don’t let lions sit on juries, if they can sniff them out in advance. They might enjoy themselves too much, and as we’ve all had dinned into our ears since grade school, it’s not “work” if you enjoy it.

Judge Sugarman made his call; I made sure of that. He owes me. So I probably have a fairly high interview number. Still, he assures me they will have a list of questions already prepared to ask me. (Sometimes designed by an expensive jury consultant.) Under “religious affiliation” I did not put Wiccan, as I sometimes do just to scarify and tease. Nor did I put down my mother’s church, the complex name of which I’m sure I can’t recall correctly. The Church of Christ Crucified and Unforgiving. Something along those lines.

No, I claimed Episcopalian, just like dear old Dr. Quantreau himself, the old atheist. Not that he bothered with a priest when he decided to get hitched. He was in too big a hurry, since I wasn’t prepared to get naked without suitable guarantees. Read: no pre-nup. But that Matterhorn proved amazingly easy to climb! I thought it was going to be the biggest challenge of the campaign. I didn’t know about “ux”. That’s what Latinists call “wife” apparently. He had all the trust documents set up – whoever was married to him at the time would step right in. Easy-peazey.

Dr. Quantreau showed up at church only twice a year, and then only if he thought someone was looking. He spurned what he cynically described the “comforts” of religion for himself, describing them as the province only for “females of both sexes”. Knowing that, I didn’t bother with last rites. There was nothing and nobody to protect him at the end.

Knitting bag in hand, I hurried out to the rental car. What kind of vehicle does the ideal juror drive? I wasn’t taking chances. You never know who you’ll meet in the parking lot. Each time – prosecution and defense – has a universe of hangers-on. Mid-size, mid-expense, nondescript seemed my safest bet. That’s what I ordered and that’s what they brought me. A gray Buick. One yawns at the sight of it.

No gardener today, and if I hurry, no Judge Sugarman, but it’s hard not to pause just long enough to survey my plot with pride. Spring is my season! I feel the blood fermenting in my ripening veins. The carefully hand-scattered daffodils have sprung up beside the stone wall; the weeping cherry trails kimono sleeves across the Buick’s roof. Beneath the thundercloud plum a slate birdbath vaunts a tall metal sculpture of feasting heron and dancing frogs. Frogs dance when they are about to be eaten. It’s an old Cajun joke. I’m Cajun on my stepfather’s side. Didn’t you know that? You acquire the powers of anyone you kill.

I shouldn’t be surprised to see Whitney’s jalopy. Fortunately she’d turned the engine off – she’s always playing the most God-awful, brain jangling music. No wonder kids can’t think if this is the stuff they listen to.

I pulled her card yesterday so I knew she must be lurking. In the Tarot universe she’s the Princess of Wands; a girl-woman whose weapon is the fire wand. Naturally she doesn’t know how to use it; she has yet to come into her power. Fire wands may have their place, but a sword will cut a fire-wand in half. A true Queen will not be burned even by a shower of sparks. The Princess’ only hope is to catch a Sword Queen napping, but…

Aging Dr. Quantreau didn’t do Whitney any favors, making her into his “ideal companion” while he was waiting for me to arrive. A teenage girl who is half seventy-five year old man is most certainly fated to struggle to find her place in the world. She should be out clubbing with her friends, daring the rituals of sex and drunken exaltation.

Instead, she’s hanging around me. I used to think she nourished quite a charming little passion for me; it’s the man-woman in her. Her sisters and I have mastered the language of femininity; but she refuses. My Empress (whose powers I also acquired) also risked mannishness. And look how she ended up.

Yes, I had high hopes of Whitney, before she set herself against me. She is an Archer, just like myself, born under a full moon at the exact time of the Winter Solstice. Mercury and Neptune hung above her cradle. Mercury is the Mind, Neptune the Imagination; it is a fatal double blend. She will over-think all her choices and frequently suffer paralysis between competing options. Her questioning sarcasm might remind me of myself. But I corral and empower my thoughts; spitting out an endlessly empty hostility is a mark of cowardice.

Her father spoiled her rotten. Her sisters – Princesses of Cups (so zodiacally impoverished they must share identity) at least understand that a family trust that pays all education and health expenses is extremely generous. I can feel Whitney wanting more. She is too wily (or fearful) of my power to come right out and claim what she desires, and I have no incentive to make it easy for her. Let her come to me, if she ever thinks she can summon up the power.

I realize I went about befriending her in completely the wrong way. I was unsure of my sway over the doctor –what if he got well before I could get rid of her? Plenty of men recover from stroke. Luckily she opposed me so obviously he took my side. Plus, he yearned to be alone with me. Ah, the naked nights and the drunken days! He should have been suspicious of upselling at his age. But we all are victims of our hopes, are we not? I didn’t have time to break Whitney’s spirit; I had my hands full with her father. Respect once lost can never be regained.

Whitney lacks self-pride. She never seems to care how grungy she looks. She shops at thrift stores. If she’s ever had a boyfriend, I’ve never met him. She insists on remaining a club that even she doesn’t want to join.

The Princess of Wands would be a proud archetype for anyone but Whitney, who refuses to so much as acknowledge its existence. Her fire throne (Fire is Whitney’s element) is guarded by a pair of lions and a single black cat, reminding us of the Egyptian goddess she once was. Her flower is the Sunflower, her star the Sun. In my deck she has long dark hair, just like Whitney. Whitney may come into her own someday; but she’s not going to do it on my dime. With no husband or children, a studio apartment and the merest hint of an excuse for a job, Whitney seems to have plenty of time to gad about; which she uses poorly. Hovering around me. The helicopter stepdaughter is always up for getting into trouble. I’ll never make it easy for her, why should I instruct her in her powers? I zip my lip. Intimacy with her ilk – even the kind obtained through criticism – is to be shunned. I certainly hated her unwelcome appearance on this morning; seeing my disguise. But it could play out to my advantage. “Might could” as my mother used to say. Let’s keep her guessing.

“New car?” She studied my rental curiously. She’s all about the moolah. Let her think it’s mine.
“You don’t like it?” I asked airily. Always answer a question with a question; never give out free information. Make them pay for it. What she’s really worried about is my spending of her father’s money. Because she thinks she gets what’s left. That’s if there’s any left! I lean as hard as I can on Trustee Nicholas Rudoff’s investment decisions to keep them out of the “blue chip” category. That is, when I have nothing better to do.

She continued to stare. “It doesn’t seem like you, somehow.”

So now I’m obligated to live up to her fantasies, whatever those might be? I tried not to manifest my annoyance. “I contain legions,” I teased. Somebody famous said that once. Goddess knows what the real quote is.

Whitney’s “job” is selling advertising. Her Mazda Protégé is slapped with stickers. Beats me how a person so deliberately unpleasant can survive on commissions but she says she loves the excuse to be out in the open air. She must rely on her garrulous nature. She loves “chewing the fat.” Today she wore white pants, too early for the season, a brilliantly colored op-art blouse and a short pink suede jacket emphasizing her girth. Why does she insist on wearing belts as if she had a waist? But what can you do? I’d tried and failed. Built for comfort, not for speed, as my stepfather used to say.
She fastened her eyes on my knitting bag. “Late for class?”

“That’s it. I’ve got to run.”

Of course I had to lie. If I got on the jury she’d find out eventually. Let her. But while I wove my spell I required a decent darkness.

“Sure is a new look,” she remarked, her eyes sliding about inside the glop she decorates them with. Brunettes don’t need so much makeup. Someone should tell her.

Pointedly I unlocked the Buick door. I seriously doubted I was even the target of this visit. It’s spring, after all. She, too, had probably noticed Brainerd’s Beautiful Assistant. She must have sap – or something – running through her veins.

“I’d offer you coffee but I’ve already set the alarm,” I climbed right into the front seat. Buh-bye! No need to stand on ceremony with family members!

She leaned right in the driver’s window so I found myself staring right into her somewhat bulgy pale blue eyes. She has worn the same makeup ever since high school; black eyeliner, turquoise mascara, rose blush and a sweep of pink lipstick. Just like an American girl doll. Sacrificial offering to the Lost Daddy.

“Wow, do you look different,” she emphasized.

“I’m in disguise,” I hissed conspiratorially. “Charitable works.” Keep her guessing. I tried not to seem too impatient as I pointed to her car blocking my path. She hurried to accommodate me.
Do her good to run. She can use the exercise.

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