Pairing: Jack/Tenth Doctor
Rating: All ages
Series: Two Travellers. This is the seventh story in this series. All you need to know is that immortal!Jack is travelling with the Tenth Doctor, and that they are now lovers. After Children of Earth for Jack; before Waters of Mars for the Doctor.
Summary: The Rose Crown of Drelga is a beautiful and valuable artefact--but why does the Doctor want to steal it?”
Betas: The fantastic wendymr and yamx
Author's Note: Written for the wintercompanion Summer/Winter Holiday Challenge for the prompt: 40, Ruby, The Mender of Ways, The War of the Roses.
“Doctor, explain to me why you want to steal the...” Jack glances at the sign on the display case. “The Rose Crown of Drelga. I’ll admit, the ruby is spectacular—”
“It’s not a ruby.”
“Looks like a ruby—except for the part where it’s the size of an apple and is carved in the shape of a flower. Scans like a ruby.” He glances down at the read-out on his wrist-comp. “Aluminium oxide with traces of chromium... hardness: 9... specific gravity: 4... it’s a ruby.”
“Weeelllllll... physically it’s a ruby,” the Time Lord concedes.
Jack stares at him. “But what? Emotionally, it’s an emerald? It moonlights as an amethyst?”
“You’re not too far off,” the Doctor replies. “It’s more than a ruby.”
“Okay. Explain to me why you want to steal an old silver crown decorated with more-than-a-ruby?”
The Doctor pulls the psychic paper out of his pocket, lifts the cover, and shows it to Jack. Tregantell, the day approaches. We beseech you, bring the Rose Crown, that your chosen servant may learn to do your will. Minirdoshe.
“Who is this Minirdoshe?”
“A bloke from Drelga. He’s the Mender of Ways. A sort of Chief Magistrate, you might say.”
“And who—or what—is Tregantell?”
The Doctor’s face goes curiously blank for a moment. “Someone I used to know.”
“And what? He’s on holiday, so you’re picking up his mail?”
The Doctor glances at the museum guard who is standing near the doorway at the far end of the gallery. “Later.”
Jack nods. He doesn’t need the desperate plea of the psychic message to tell him that something serious is going on. The Doctor doesn’t steal a precious gem from a museum for whim or profit. “What do you need me to do?”
“Distract the guards while I sonic the lock on the display case. Preferably without getting yourself killed.” It’s said half in jest, but Jack knows that the Doctor still has trouble accepting his deaths, especially the ones that ought to be avoidable.
“Yes, mother,” Jack says cheerfully. “I’ll do my best.”
His best is good enough. Jack arrives at the TARDIS with only a minor blaster burn on the back of his right calf. The dermal regenerator will take care of it. He finds the Doctor in the console room, studying the stolen crown. The circlet itself is moderately impressive: a silver band, engraved with stylised leaves and roses. It’s the huge ruby that draws the eye. The size is closer to a plum than an apple, but that still makes it one of the largest cut rubies he’s ever seen.
“So... you promised me explanations about the Rose Crown of Drelga.”
“So I did. It was stolen by an inter-galactic jewel thief during the confusion after the last king’s death. After changing hands several times, it was donated to the museum. The Drelgans believe that the crown was given to them by their god a few millennia ago, and that he’s taken custody of it again. The forty-day mourning period for the old king is nearly over, and if the crown isn’t there on coronation day, it will be taken as a sign that the heir doesn’t have the god’s favour. That would lead to bad things.”
Considering the Doctor’s gift for understatement, ‘bad things’ could mean riots and revolution. Jack has seen it before: the loss of a sacred artefact pushing an otherwise peaceful society over the edge into violence. “I’m guessing that our next stop is Drelga?”
The Doctor purses his lips. “Yes, but not immediately. I need to examine the crown first. Make some... erm... adjustments.” Is that guilt Jack sees in his lover’s eyes?
Adjustments? To what? The circlet looks undamaged, the ruby secure in its setting. “That reminds me, Doctor—you were going to explain about the more-than-a-ruby.” And dammit, that is a look of guilt passing like a shadow over the Time Lord’s face. Jack can’t imagine what that’s about. He won’t push. Not yet.
“Need to examine it first,” the Doctor says, not meeting Jack’s eyes. “I’ve heard of the Rose Crown, but I’ve never actually seen it before.” He nods decisively. “Blue Workroom. Come along, Jack.”
The Blue Workroom is bluer than Jack remembered, and more crowded, if possible. The Doctor sets the crown on a battered diner-style table topped with marbleized linoleum. The silver and red of the Rose Crown stand out in sharp contrast to the swirls of cobalt and azure and ultramarine. “It’s a pretty thing,” Jack comments, leaning over the table to get a closer look at the ruby.
“Don’t touch it!”
Jack jumps back. The last time the Doctor said those words in that tone of voice, Jack had been approaching an attractive flowering shrub with long, glossy leaves. He learned afterward that it was known by the locals as Serpent’s Kiss, and the tongue-like leaves were coated with a poison that could cause hallucinations and violent seizures, leading to an agonizing death. “All right. I won’t.” He clasps his hands behind his back. “It’s safe to look at, right?”
“Yes, perfectly safe,” the Doctor says. “Just don’t touch it.”
“You were going to tell me more about it,” Jack prompts.
“So I was... I’ll start with the official Drelgan version of the story...”
It could be a myth from any one of a thousand humanoid cultures, Jack muses. A primitive world. Warring clans who fought constantly for power.
“Then a meteorite landed on a battlefield, and it killed dozens of warriors from one side, including their chieftain.”
“Let me guess: the survivors took it as a sign from the gods.”
“Oh, yes. Especially since the meteor split upon landing, and there was a pocket of pure molten silver inside.” The silver from the ‘starstone’ was shaped into a circlet and engraved with roses, the Drelgan symbol of courage and leadership.
“So the ruby came later?”
“Centuries later.” He hesitates. “I have to get some tools. Back in a jiffy.” There’s something off about the smile he gives Jack.
As soon as the Doctor leaves the room, Jack returns to studying the crown. Hands behind back doesn’t make for a very stable position when bending forward, so he braces his hands against the ribbed chrome edge of the table. This close, he can see the faint signs of age on the silver: tiny dents and scratches, uneven patches of tarnish inside the engraving lines. The ruby rose is flawless, as far as he can tell without magnification.
It doesn’t look like a classic Earth rose. More like a peony or a Zetan sarilli. Then again, psychic paper isn’t always precise about translating names. His eyes trace the sharp, graceful curves of the petal edges and the light that dances across them. So lovely. He wishes he could touch them... but he mustn’t. The Doctor said so.
But the Doctor touched it...
Yes, but he’s a Time Lord. There are things he can do that humans can’t.
What is it going to do, kill me?
But it wants to be touched.
At this last realisation, Jack slowly straightens up. The Rose Crown wants to be touched. It wants to be touched by him. He knows it as surely as he knows the value of e. Jack reaches out and grasps the crown with both hands.
A shiver, electric and delicious, goes up his arms and down his spine. Yes, this is right. This is necessary. Just one more thing... He lifts the crown and sets it on his head. A wave of calm flows over him. Why did he doubt this, even for an instant? He looks around the room and spots a Queen Anne wingback chair, comfortably upholstered in blue leather. Just the place to sit and wait. He’s not sure what he’s waiting for, but that’s all right. He’ll know when it’s time.
He doesn’t know if it’s been five minutes or fifty-five when the door of the workshop swings open. The Doctor bustles in, arms piled high with tools and devices. “Sorry I’m late, Jack. I had to hunt high and low for the gyrostatic—Jack? What are you doing?”
He sounds unhappy. Jack doesn’t want the Doctor to be unhappy. Not ever. “I’m waiting for you.” The moment he says it, he knows that it’s true. He was waiting for the Doctor. The Time Lord is still frowning. “Doctor? What’s wrong?”
“Why are you wearing the crown?” the Doctor asks quietly. His face is expressionless.
“It wanted me to.”
“Do you think you could take it off now?”
“If that’s what you want.” Jack will do anything to make the Doctor happy, and this is a very easy thing. He pulls the crown from his head and sets it back down on the table, then turns to find out what he should do next.
What he should do, apparently, is to follow the Doctor into the medbay. So he does. Once inside, the Doctor performs a full battery of scans and tests, including blood samples. Jack sits, stands, or lies down, as directed. He’s not sure what the purpose of this is, but it’s clear that the Doctor is worried. Maybe the tests will make him feel better.
They don’t. Each result seems to make the Doctor more frustrated. He’s trying to hide it behind a frozen smile, but Jack knows him too well to be fooled. “I feel fine. Honestly.”
“Somehow, that doesn’t reassure me,” the Doctor mutters. “Let’s see what isolation does.”
For a moment, Jack is afraid that he’s going to be locked up, away from the Doctor. He won’t resist, of course, but he wants to be with the Doctor. Always. It’s where he belongs. Instead, the Doctor returns to the Blue Workroom, picks up the crown and carries it to Lab 3. He places it into a cubic metal box, closes the lid, and enters a long series of numbers on a keypad. The box begins to hum.
“Do you know what this is, Jack?”
Jack doesn’t know, but he doesn’t want to disappoint the Doctor. He scans the box with his wrist-comp. Some of the readings don’t make sense, but there’s enough data for him to make a good guess. “A temporal stasis?”
“Right you are!” The Doctor seems pleased, and Jack smiles. “How do you feel now?”
He takes a moment to evaluate his physical and mental status. “I feel fine. The same as before.” The Doctor looks at him with a mixture of concern and doubt. “I am,” Jack insists. “Look.” He drops to the floor and begins doing press-ups.
“Jack! Stop that!” Jack freezes in place and waits for a new command. “Yes, I know you’re very fit. No need to prove it to me. Stand up.” Once he’s on his feet again, the Doctor moves directly in front of him, so they’re nearly touching. The Time Lord raises his hands, moving them towards the sides of Jack’s head. “Is it all right if—” he begins, then grimaces. “What am I saying? You’re not capable of giving consent.”
“Doctor, whatever you want to do is okay. I trust you.”
The Doctor squeezes his eyes shut. “That’s the problem.” He opens his eyes and inhales deeply. “I’m sorry, Jack. I know you don’t understand, but I’m sorry.” Before Jack can reply, the Doctor’s hands press against his temples... and the lab goes away.
He’s still standing... somewhere. It looks like a room in the TARDIS, unfurnished, and the walls are blurry, as if they had been starting to turn into mist, then froze. The Doctor is there, too. He’s no longer touching Jack. He’s just watching him with those dark, unfathomable eyes. “Doctor? Where are we? Is this the TARDIS?”
“Physically, we’re in the TARDIS. Our bodies are in Lab 3. This—” The Doctor waves his right arm in a sweeping gesture. “—is your mind, or part of it. At the moment, it resembles the inside of the TARDIS, which brings up all kinds of questions that... aren’t terribly relevant now.”
“So we’re in a telepathic link?” Jack asks.
“The Time Agency measured my psi rating at 23. I’m not a very strong telepath,” he says apologetically. The misty white walls of the room turn a dull dark grey.
The Doctor’s smile, both sad and kind, colours the room a softer grey with patches of yellow. “That’s all right. I’m strong enough for both of us.” There are shadows in the corners that look like storm clouds; Jack tries not to look at them. “Off we go!” He leads Jack through a door that wasn’t there a moment ago.
They walk down endless corridors lined with endless doors. Now and then the Doctor opens a door. Jack never catches more than a glimpse: a windswept beach, a spaceship, Cardiff seen from a height, a jungle planet. Once he thinks he recognizes a lift on Satellite Five, but the Doctor closes the door before he can be sure. At another door, the Doctor places his palm against the riveted steel surface. “You don’t want to see this, Jack.” And he doesn’t, so he turns his back. The door is open only a split second, but before it slams shut he hears a guttural scream. “Don’t think about that. Just... be calm.”
He’s with the Doctor, so of course he’s calm. They can walk through these hallways forever, and he will be content... satisfied... happy. He hasn’t been told not to be curious, so a question bubbles to the surface. “Doctor, what are you looking for?”
“That.” The Time Lord flings open a panelled oak door and gestures upwards. The ruby from the crown—now the size of a football—hangs from the ceiling of a completely blank white room like an enormous light fixture. Its bright red glow pulses in synch with Jack’s heart.
“What are you going to do?”
“Remove it. If I can.” Jack thinks he wasn’t supposed to hear that last bit, spoken in a low, raspy whisper. The Doctor pulls the sonic screwdriver from his pocket.
“That will work in here?” The moment he thinks the words, Jack feels guilty. He shouldn’t doubt the Doctor. Not ever.
“I suppose I could get a ladder and a sledgehammer,” the Doctor says, adjusting the settings on the screwdriver, “but I can’t think of a better manifestation of my will than a tool I’ve used on and off for centuries. Besides, best not to go smashing things willy-nilly.” He aims the screwdriver, and a solid stream of blue light strikes the ruby rose, setting off a cascade of fierce white sparks. His face is grim, taut with concentration.
Jack doesn’t know what’s going on, only that there’s something in his mind—something connected to the ruby—that the Doctor doesn’t like. He doesn’t want anything in his mind that displeases the Doctor. I should help. But how? It’s hard to think. He’s got a raging headache. “Doctor, how can I help?”
“Focus on the sonic. Send it power!”
He remembers those long-ago psi training sessions at the Time Agency. Thought is action and will is power. He looks at the sonic screwdriver, and the TARDIS-coloured light that flows from its tip. Brighter, he thinks. Stronger! The shower of sparks becomes an almost solid deluge.
He tries, oh how he tries, summoning every last scrap of strength and endurance. He must help the Doctor—nothing is more important—but the ruby refuses to release him. He’ll just keep trying, keep pushing until his pitiful human body breaks under the strain.
Jack clenches his fists as fire explodes inside his skull. He bites down on his lower lip to keep the moans of pain inside. Mustn’t distract him, he thinks, but his head is splitting apart. In the instant that he thinks it, a huge crack slices across the floor. As it widens, the agony increases until finally, his body betrays him, and a scream escapes his mouth.
“Jack!” The Doctor’s cry echoes throughout the TARDIS like thunder as Jack collapses.
He doesn’t lose consciousness. There’s a moment of wooziness as the TARDIS in his mind dissolves and gives way to the reality of the hard tile floor of Lab 3.
“Jack? How are you doing?” The Doctor is crouching beside him, looking very unhappy.
I failed him. “Doctor, I’m sorry...”
“What? Whatever do you have to be sorry for?”
“You told me to fight it, and I couldn’t. I wasn’t strong enough. I’m sor—”
“You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m the one who should apologize. I pushed you too hard.” He studies Jack carefully. “Do you think you can stand up? I’d like to take you back to the medbay, make sure there weren’t any physical consequences to that tussle.”
Perhaps he’ll be given a chance to make up for his failure. The Doctor is kind. “Of course I can.” Jack leaps to his feet. Once in the medbay, he lies down on the exam bed. He remains quiet and still while the Doctor repeats all the earlier tests and a few more.
“No change,” the Doctor says to himself. “No worse, but no better than before.” He opens the medicine cabinet and slips something into the pocket of his suit jacket. “What do you say we sit in the library for a while, eh?”
There’s only one possible answer. “Yes, Doctor.”
After the pyrotechnic glare of the psychic battle, the muted atmosphere of the library is soothing. They sit down on a large sofa covered in dark green velvet. The lamps on the end tables have amber glass shades that fill the room with light as thick and sweet as golden syrup. Without a word, the Doctor pulls Jack towards him to lean against his shoulder. Jack nuzzles against the Time Lord’s neck, breathing in his familiar scent.
The Doctor brushes Jack’s hair back and gently kisses his forehead. “I’m sorry, Jack. I’m so very sorry.” There’s a buzz and a tingle on the left side of his neck, and then darkness swallows him.
When he revives with a convulsive gasp, he’s lying on his back on the green velvet sofa. As usual, he doesn’t know if it’s been seconds or hours, but this time he suspects it was on the shorter end of the scale. He’s not surprised to see the Doctor standing over him, gazing down at him with a look he can’t quite identify.
“How do you feel?”
He takes a moment to evaluate himself. Other than the inevitable post-revival headache... “I’m fine.”
The Doctor studies him for a long, silent moment. “Jack, go to the kitchen and make me a ham baguette with Camembert and olive paste.”
Jack sits up and turns sideways, leaning against the thick, padded arm of the couch. “Since when do you like olive paste? I thought you hated that stuff.”
“I ate some the week before last, when we were at that banquet in Greece.”
“Only because you didn’t want to offend Alexander,” Jack retorts. “Anyway, if you’re so hungry, lazybones, make your own damn sandwich.”
The Doctor grins. “Jack! Jack, Jack, Jack! Never thought I’d be so happy to hear you being rude to me.” He approaches, arms held wide, and Jack throws himself into the hug.
As they’re disentangling themselves, Jack murmurs, “Thank you.”
“What?” The Doctor stiffens. “What are you thanking me for?”
Oh. He’s going to be like that. “Thank you for saving me.”
“I didn’t save you. I killed you,” the Doctor snaps.
“Thank you for killing me,” Jack says calmly. “I know that was hard for you, but it cut me free from the crown. That rose has some nasty thorns.” He’s watching carefully, so he sees the faint shudder that the Doctor doesn’t completely suppress.
Jack leads the Doctor out of the library. “C’mon.”
“Where are we going?” the Time Lord asks, though he doesn’t pull away from Jack’s hand on his shoulder.
“Kitchen. I’m hungry, and a ham baguette sounds like a fabulous idea. With mustard and onion, I think.” And then we’re going to talk.
Jack prepares two sandwiches: one for himself and another (cheddar and pickle) for the Doctor. He doesn’t consult the Time Lord, just sets the plate in front of him, and switches the kettle on. He wasn’t born on Earth and the Doctor isn’t human, but both of them have spent enough time in the UK to appreciate the soothing properties of a hot cuppa.
He takes a large bite from the sandwich and washes it down with a swig of tea. “Well, that was something different,” he comments. “I once spent three days wearing a Sycorax slave bracelet—a Time Agency mission that went wrong. No fun, but at least it was just compulsion, you know? Obeying orders. My mind wasn’t affected. But this...” He struggles to find the words. “I’m not sure how much of what I experienced was the crown and how much was me. Because I do have feelings for you, and I usually follow your orders, but not...” Not like a fawning puppy.
“I am so sorry, Jack.”
He holds up one hand, palm outward. “Hush. It wasn’t your fault. Unless... did you know that it could entice someone without touching?” The Doctor shakes his head vigorously. “Then I don’t see that you have any reason to blame yourself. Eat your sandwich,” Jack commands, and takes another large bite of his own. “I’m glad it was you.”
“What?” the Doctor sputters.
“I’m glad it was you,” he repeats. “If it had to happen, I’m glad it was with someone I trust, someone who wouldn’t take advantage.”
“I made you fight a psychic battle! I pushed you to expend so much energy that you collapsed!” The Doctor throws up his hands.
“Something else I should thank you for. If it was holding me in some other way, if I’d had free will, don’t you think I would have pushed myself that hard or harder?” He locks eyes with the Doctor. “And if that didn’t work, and I had a choice, I would have killed myself or begged you to do it. So I owe you a ton of thanks—and I think you owe me an explanation. Tell me about the connection between the Rose Crown of Drelga and your old friend Tregantell.”
The Doctor flinches, as if he’d been struck. “He was never a friend of mine. Never!”
“All right. Tell me about it.”
The Doctor’s head droops, and he stares into his mug of tea. “A few centuries after the starstone fell, Tregantell arrived on Drelga. He told the Drelgans that he was a god, and he had come to relieve them of the never-ending battles for the crown, the terrible Wars of the Roses.”
“How did they react to that?” Jack asks.
“With great skepticism. Tregantell announced that he would take the crown and give it to a more worthy candidate. The king protested, of course, so the god struck him down with heavenly fire.” The last two words are heavy with irony. Jack nods. Probably a blaster of some sort. It isn’t hard to impersonate a god on a Level 3 planet. More than one rogue Time Agent has been locked up for trying that trick.
“Then Tregantell produced the ruby rose and set it into the silver crown. He said it would select a more worthy ruler, one who could hear the wisdom of the god and use it to guide his people. According to Drelgan lore, that’s what happened.”
The Doctor shrugs. “The royal chronicles say he journeyed to ‘Heaven’ on a regular basis, sometimes for years at a time. The last time he was seen on Drelga was at the coronation of Jasthur the Twelfth—the king who just died.”
Jack has pieced together some of the puzzle. “The rose is a psionic device that can detect and attract humanoids of a certain telepathic level,” he says slowly. “It binds the wearer to a stronger telepath, and later gives the king some kind of telepathic influence over his subjects. How am I doing so far?”
The Doctor glances up from his untouched mug of tea. “Well enough. You missed some details, but...” He shrugs again.
“There’s just one thing I want to know. Who was Tregantell?” And why are you acting like this is your fault?
“One of the details that you missed is a necessary condition for the bond. It’s not enough for the bond-holder to be a stronger telepath,” the Doctor says stiffly. “He has to be a Time Lord. Like Tregantell.”
Jack feels like the meteoric starstone has just landed on his head. A Time Lord. A renegade, of course. From the little that Jack knows about the High Council of Time Lords, they only interfered with other worlds that posed a major threat to the timelines. “Did you know him?”
“Heard of him. Saw him once or twice at public gatherings when I was young. He left Gallifrey after I did, but I heard rumours that he was playing god on a primitive world. For the natives’ own good, of course.” In a quieter but no less acidic voice the Doctor adds, “Just like me.”
“Bollocks. You’re nothing like him..”
“I could be. I’m a Time Lord, Jack. Arrogance, deviousness, and a taste for power are woven into all three strands of my DNA. I could be exactly like him.”
Jack remembers all too well what a Time Lord unrestrained by any kind of morality is capable of. “I know.” He represses a laugh at the Doctor’s gobsmacked expression. “And I love that about you. You could do those things... but you won’t. There’s no virtue in refraining from things that don’t tempt you.”
“You can forgive me that easily?”
“There’s nothing to forgive. This is not your fault.” He rises and circles the table, bending down to cover the Doctor’s face with soft kisses. “It’s not your fault,” he repeats.
The Doctor sighs. “I suppose not, but it is my problem. I’ve got to do something about the crown.”
“It’s our problem,” Jack corrects him.
“You can’t be anywhere near it.”
“I know that. Doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from my brilliant ideas.”
“Have much experience with advanced telepathic technology, do you?”
Jack shrugs modestly. “Can you nullify the telepathic circuits? Turn it into a harmless ornament?”
“Of course I can,” the Doctor says indignantly. “Easy peasy, only that’s not much better than keeping it locked up. The new king expects the crown to help him hear the ‘wisdom of the god’, and to impose his royal will on the people around him. If the crown is just a pretty hat, it won’t take long for the government to collapse.”
“Slow decay, then. Turn it down to half power and let it gradually fade away over the years.”
“But that’s... erm... quite brilliant, actually.”
Jack grins. “I’ve got a few more ideas...”
Maro Thulie stands, straight and unmoving, beside the other eight candidates. They might almost be statues of past kings in the Hall of Glory, he thinks, then brushes the impious notion aside. He and his cousins are waiting in the Hall of Presentation for Tregantell to appear in his divine chariot and choose the next king.
Who will it be? The question has been haunting his mind since the candidates were named by the priests on the ninth day of mourning. In theory, they all have an equal chance, being the nine eldest royal cousins of their generation. Could it be him? His cousins don’t think so. Oh, he’s a good warrior, skilled with blade and bow, or he wouldn’t be one of the Nine. He’s not the youngest, nor the slowest, though some of the others think him weak. They call him ‘schoolmaster’ and ‘grandmother’ because he likes to read books other than manuals of swordmanship and military strategy. He’d argued that a king needed knowledge as well as strength, and his eldest cousin had laughed. “The king has councillors and the voice of the god in the crown. Why should he trouble himself with the scribblings of old men?”
Maro’s speculations are interrupted by a grinding noise that seems to come from everywhere at once. The god’s chariot! It takes all of his discipline to remain in place, not to look in all directions like a child at his first festival. Just as in the tales, the chariot appears first as a shadow, turning solid within a few heartbeats. The door opens and the god strides out, followed by his servant. Tregantell looks like a chieftain in his prime: tall, straight-backed, and sure-footed, with dark hair as shaggy as a skarrun pelt. His face is different to the various likenesses of him in his temple, but such is the way of the god, the priests say. If the miraculous chariot was not proof enough of his divinity, the Rose Crown sits atop his head. Only the god and his chosen can wear the crown unscathed.
The Mender of Ways hurries forth, bowing low. “Holy Tregantell, you honour us with your presence. The candidates await your judgement.”
Tregantell waves him off with a careless gesture. He walks along the line of young men, examining them with the same dispassionate air that Maro's uncle Ruche gives to new horses for his stable. Tregantell approaches the first candidate. Maro can't see his cousin's face, but he can see the god studying him with keen brown eyes.
Tregantell moves along the line, and his servant follows two paces behind. He is a tall man, as tall as the god, but the eyes in his solemn face are blue. When the god moves in front of the fifth candidate, the servant touches him on the arm and whispers in his ear. The god does not strike him down for his presumption, but nods thoughtfully. Surely he must be a cup-companion or shield-mate to behave so familiarly.
And then Tregantell is before him, and his silent voice fills Maro’s mind. Why should you be king?
He hesitates—but there is no concealing his thoughts from the god. I do not know if I should be king, Holy One.
Do you think so little of yourself?
I know my skills and my strengths, Holy One, but you alone know who will best serve Drelga’s needs.
Indeed, I do. The god cries aloud, “Behold my chosen, O people of Drelga. He raises the crown from his own head and places it firmly on Maro’s brow.
Much of the rest of the evening is a blur. Maro watches, as if from a distance, as the rituals and ceremonies are performed: the anointing, the benedictions and chastisements, the robing, and the oaths. He understands now that those things are for the observers. Nothing matters to him except the crown and the god. The voice in his mind is patient and calm. It teaches him how to use the crown to guide the thoughts of others. When you can, use words of reason rather than force, the god advises him. Better to have willing allies than slaves and enemies.
Other thoughts flow in, not as words but as images and... understandings. Visions dart by, swift as greywings: tree branches heavy with fruit, green fields criss-crossed by strangely narrow streams as straight as spears, a huge chariot wheel immersed in a river, affixed to a hut on the bank, a group of children—peasant children!—sitting in a half-circle around a scribe. These are my gifts to you, Tregantell tells him. They will sleep in your mind until their time is come.
The god withdraws from his mind just as the feast is announced. Maro leads the god to the seat of honour in the Great Hall. Tregantell gestures for Maro to sit at his right hand and his companion Jack at his left.
The servers bring an endless stream of dishes: roasts and stews, fish and cheese tarts, groats with herbs and berries, and roasted Scarlet Skimmers re-dressed in their feathers. The wine flows like a golden river, and song fills the hall. There is a bell dance and a spear dance, and a chorus of novices from Tregantell's temple.
The god proclaims himself well-pleased with the entertainment. "You lot know how to throw a party," he declares, "but now we've got to be off. You know how it is. People to see, planets to save."
There are murmurs of astonishment throughout the hall. Maro is not surprised. Tregantell is mighty and wise and kind—no wonder if he guides other peoples in places beyond the heavens. The feasters rise and bow as their new king escorts the god from the hall.
They stand in front of the great blue chariot. Maro bows low and stammers words of thanks and farewell, then steps aside.
Tregantell's companion opens the door of the chariot. He grins impudently at the god. “So... tonight is a time for celebration. Can you tell what I’m thinking?”
Tregantell snorts. “I don’t need the Rose Crown to figure that out.”
As the door closes behind them, the chariot begins to flicker like a candle flame. In the brief moment before it vanishes, Maro swears that he can hear, beneath the chariot’s loud groaning, the merry echo of men’s laughter.
--- THE END ---