Guinevere. You're Guinevere.
My mind raced wantonly as Vivian half-led, half-dragged me down the hallway. I kept catching glimpses of people as we went -- young guy with goatee and dark glasses: Percival, joy -- and I couldn't stop -- middle-aged woman with grim haircut and cheerful pumps: Elaine, pity and jealousy -- seeing them as if I knew them. The Personae behind their faces were practically screaming their names to me. There: an Arthur-type! My heart did a little flutter.
I was losing my grip.
Vivian's insistent tugging on my hand was not helping. Touching her was like licking a battery: it sent tingles all up and down my arm, sparking into and out of my brain with the tantalizing promise of more than I could handle. She led me directly down the hallway, jaw set, and it was as if the seas parted before us: people steered around us as if veering around an iceberg. They seemed almost unconscious of it, or if they were they sure as hell weren't making eye contact with either one of us. People who were obviously walking in pairs slid to either side as Vivian plowed us through their midst, only to merge smoothly back into step with one another as they passed around us. Even people whose backs were to us seemed to unconsciously steer out of our way. We could have run full-tilt through the crowded hallway - at the speed Vivian was walking, we nearly were - and not jarred a single elbow.
"Here," she hissed, "no one will bother us here."
"Cafeteria", read the simple block letters over the doors.
"Ah," I agreed. "Naturally, this will be more secure than a vault that takes special clearance to enter."
"The Purloined Letter," she answered. "No better place to hide than in plain sight. Also they have donuts. Ooh - this will be fun. Let's take you for a test drive."
Not relaxing her grip on me, Vivian steered me toward a man whose triceps looked like they'd been chiseled out of a particularly cosmetic piece of marble. His hair was spiked just so as to look like he hadn't spent much time with it. He had.
"You're Guinevere," whispered Vivian to me. "He's a Lancelot-type. The bit players can't help but respond to their roles when they're in our presence. He'll make himself part of your story without even realizing it."
She winked at me. "Get us some donuts." Then she let me go, with just enough momentum that I stumbled forward slightly towards Mr. Triceps.
This was not helping me relax. I shot Vivian a look of panic that I hoped would convey a certain amount of I'm emotionally fragile right now and you have just dropped me in the deep end.
Her eyelashes fluttered slowly. Learn to swim, they said.
I let my stumble go on a step or two too far, and collided with muscles that were every bit as hard as the marble I'd imagined. He'd been mid-turn, having detected my impending impact with a warrior's sense for danger. That, or the triceps had antenna: I wasn't putting anything past them.
"Ow!" I cried, rubbing my shoulder where his elbow had just barely grazed it. I grimaced in feigned pain.
His body had tensed automatically against an attacker, and upon seeing a green-shirted teenager, it relaxed immediately. I let tears well up in my eyes, and a new tension immediately filled him: Oh god, I've hit a girl.
Immediately, he was all concern. "Are you all right? I'm so sorry: I didn't see you there. Jeez, I really elbowed you, huh?"
He knows you bumped into him. But others are watching: he is saving face. You have him.
"It's okay," I sniffed. I rubbed my shoulder again.
"No, no, it's not. Here, can I get you something? My way of apologizing."
A brief flirtation later, I had two jelly donuts and a pair of cappucinos. Mr. Jason Triceps and I parted ways, and I returned to my minder. Vivian accepted her drink languidly.
"That's not how Guinevere would have done it," was all she said.
She steered us to a table and sat down. She took the top off of the cappuccino and dipped a finger in, coming back out with a puff of steamed milk. Slowly, she drew her tongue down the finger, licking the foam away. It was as if I could feel her tongue in the small of my back, working its way delicately up my spine… Her feline eyes watched me all the while.
I shuddered, uncertain if this display bothered me, or if I liked it. "Do you do everything like a porn star?" I asked.
"You should watch me eat a jelly donut," she winked. She whipped her tongue out to catch the last fleck of foam on the tip of her finger, then licked her lips.
My toes curled involuntarily. "I'm wondering if we don't need a private room for that."
"You're the queen… right?” she said, pausing just too long before the last word. "You tell me where to you want to do it."
I gulped. "Is that how Guinevere would have done it?" Her face betrayed nothing. It looked just like it had before she'd driven her fingers into a man's throat.
“Guin Drake was my boss," she replied. "If she'd told me to eat a jelly donut, I'd have swallowed it in one go. And now she's dead," her eyes pinned me to my seat, "and you're here."
"Convenient, isn't it?" I agreed. "That's what you were about to say. You weren't trying to protect me from Lance. You were getting me somewhere you could interrogate me all by yourself."
Her yellow eyes told no tales.
"Well, allow me to clear up one misconception you seem to have about me. It is not convenient. I've just watched you murder two people. You still have a man's skin under your fingernails. If you think that getting sucked into your little world is supposed to get me all excited, then you have been drinking too much of the Kool Aid. It was terrifying and I don't want to do it anymore. In fact, fuck it - why am I even explaining myself to you?" I pushed my chair back and stood up.
She leaned forward, smile not changing. "Two reasons. One, because you found out that you were a queen ten minutes ago and you need to talk to someone. That's not going to be tall, dark, and Doyle and it's sure as hell not going to be Iceman McStabbins. I'm who you've got." She relaxed, and settled back in her chair. "And two, if you walk out that door without me, the Red Handed League is going to murder you to death, because whether or not you want to drink the Kool Aid, they have. They're apparently mad about it."
I glared at her. "I can take care of myself," I said. "Why do you want me to explain myself to you?"
She didn't blink. "Because neither of us is too sure that you are who Doyle says you are, and you need to help me make up my mind about whether or not I exit stage left so the League can make up theirs.”
I sat back down.
“Got your attention?” she purred. “Super. Because you’ve had mine since we met, like woah. Why is that?”
The feeling is mutual, then. Interesting.
“Guinevere showed mercy to Vivian after she was cast out,” I suggested. “It’s because of Guinevere that Vivian ever made it to Camelot. That’s bound to make memories.”
“Maybe. But I don’t think that’s it. I want to bite you. And I don’t think I’d know until my teeth were on you whether or not it was the kind of bite you’d enjoy.”
I shivered. I thought I knew the answer. Vivian spared me the contemplation by continuing to express her doubts.
“You can cast the bit players, sure, but you don’t do it like Guinevere. A queen would have reared back and gone full regalia on himbo back there. You bumped into him, then used those oversized anime eyes of yours to alternately water and wag lashes until he was too confused not to do what you wanted. You played him, but you didn’t make him play for you. Then you roll over and hope I'm as dumb as I pretend to be."
She shook her head. "Sorry, kid: you're not the only one who can act. But you do act calm when suddenly confronted with violence. That scene at the Library, maybe it made you raise an eyebrow, but you were fake crying like a champ as soon as I suggested it. No real tears, though, because I don’t see a even a smudge of runny eyeliner on your ‘yeah I hung out with the Goth kids’ face. (Less is more, honey.) Lance and Doyle may not look above your boobs, but I am a much badder bitch than they are, and now you are dealing with me.”
Her yellow eyes were blades.
She does not appear to believe that you are Guinevere.
No shit, Sherlock. What else have you got?
She does not appear to believe. But we are as close to a public place as one can be at CIA Headquarters. She has not isolated you. She has not treated you like a threat. If she truly thought you to be a danger, there were many other places where she could have brought you, places from which you might disappear with no one the wiser.
“This is a test.”
This is a test. It is worth noting that you said that out loud, however.
The woman opposite glared at me, confirming my inside voice’s deduction. I leaned back in my chair and smiled.
“I meant what I said,” she started. “If you don’t knock my socks off, I pop smoke and leave you for the League. Start talking.”
My grin widened. “Oh, I’m sorry, did you say that if I just say nothing, you’ll quit pointing fingers at me and leave me the hell alone? Gosh, that would be terrible. You clearly don’t hang out with many Goth kids.”
“No, you listen!” I leaned forward and it was my turn for finger-pointing. “I’m having a really shitty morning, and frankly yesterday wasn’t exactly a peach, either. Haven’t slept much. So if you’re going to piss off and leave me to my thoughts, don’t let the door hit you on your stretch pants. I was doing pretty well at not getting killed up until I met you, and I’ve got a pit bull.”
Cavill wagged his tail happily, thumping it against the back of the chair he was sitting in. Vivian started, eyes wide.
“What the-? Where the hell did-? How-?”
“He does that. Nobody seems to notice. You see anybody looking funny at him? Me, either.”
“Come to think of it, I think he’s attended intel briefings I’ve given.” She shook her head. “No, I’m positive of it. How did I not notice a dog in the room?”
The dog in the room smiled. I scratched his head.
“Probably because he’s suchagoodboy. My point here is that I’m eighteen and generally don’t give a damn. Also that I grew up in Yemen and am the adopted daughter of a controversial Senator, so today was not the first timethis week that I’ve had someone threaten my life, though that part is mostly on the internet. So the whole ‘people say they’re going to kill me’ thing isn’t some kind of new territory for me. It’s called Wednesday.”
I gave her a feral grin. What would Guinevere do? Give neither an inch nor a fuck, that’s what. I was a goddamn Queen.
“You think you have leverage over me? You’re cute, lady, but don’t make a career out of trying to think. I don’t need you to stay and protect me. But,” I downshifted, “I do want you to stay.”
Guinevere would also show mercy. That’s how you Queen.
Vivian recoiled like I’d slapped her with a swimming pool noodle: her head jerked back and she batted her eyes in confusion, then half-smiled that it hadn’t been nearly as bad as she’d thought, and then went back to being kind of mad.
“Don’t move,” she commanded. “I’ve decided about what kind of biting I’m going to do. This will be easier if you don’t struggle.”
It was as close to a peace offering as I was going to get, and I let myself laugh. “I’m so glad. Was that more Guinevere-like for you?”
She gave a wry smile. “People tend to forget that she was a teenager when Arthur met her. Won’t that be a fun surprise for him?”
I sighed. “I’ve read every Arthurian story in the library, and more than a few pieces of bad fanfiction. I know Guinevere. If I’m her, I must be Guinevere the girl, because I’m for sure not a noble queen - or an adulteress. But I don’t know if I’m the Guinevere like Doyle says I am. How would I know? Maybe it would be good if he’s right? It sounds like you need a Guinevere. But if he’s wrong, if I’m not her, and I screw this up… it sounds like that’s bad, too. I don’t know what to want.”
Vivian hesitated. “We do need a Guinevere. She… Guin Drake… she’s the reason I’m here at all. Camelot’s always been a club for boys, and New Camelot isn’t really any different. Every now and then you’ll get a gender-swapped Persona, a female Bedivere or something… but New Camelot is the usual sausage-fest. And there’s really no reason for me to be involved: Arthur doesn’t want a Merlin in Camelot, so he damn sure doesn’t want the woman who comes to steal his power.”
There it was again. It had been there, right after I’d said that all this was a test: the universe coming sharply into focus around two words. For a moment, everything else faded out, and I could see them written across Vivian’s lips. The woman. What was that supposed to mean?
Vivian took a deep breath. “But Guin, she’s… she was… decent. She was decent. She had mercy that Arthur wouldn’t let himself have. Arthur’s not a bad man - he’s a great man, and maybe that’s just as messed-up. But Guin Drake never had any illusions about her humanity. She was decent. She let me in. She made them let me in.” Her jaw clenched, and I watched the tendons of her hand stand taut as she fought herself off from crushing the paper cup in her hand outright.
“Vivian comes to Camelot in desperation, then flits from man to man until she lands on Merlin, the most powerful of them all. She works him into a sex-frenzy until he lets his guard down, betrays him, and steals his power. She’s never been of Camelot, even though she’s part of the myth. Guin knew that. She could see it in my eyes, that I won’t be around here forever. But she let me in anyway. She told me once that she saw storms in my eyes… and that she loved thunderstorms. She told me that I wasn’t anything to be afraid of.” Vivian swallowed. “Then she shook her head and said that they would be afraid of me anyway. She said she was sorry.”
Vivian laughed. “She also told me that if I tried to fuck her husband like the Vivian in the stories, she’d cut open my belly and choke me to death with my own Fallopian tubes. Yeah. Graphic. I’ve steered clear of the whole slew of knights, just to be on the safe side.”
The mask dropped. There was genuine pain written across her features. “But there’s the thing. No Guinevere, and there’s nobody to stand their ground when Arthur’s wrong. Hell, the Round Table is so full of yes men, there’s nobody even to make him give a second thought. We need her, and she can’t be some lightweight.”
She continued, “So, you… Maybe I believe you didn’t kill her. I’m going to give you a shot, kid. But you had better fucking know: I’m not loyal to Arthur. I’m loyal to Guin. She was strong, and she was good, and she was a decent human being. She was the Guinevere. If you screw over her memory…“
She drew herself up. Composed herself again. Put the mask back on.
“I loved Guin. And love bites.”
Well, if she was threatening me… that was good, right? The mask made her impossible to read. Still… the Guin connection… it was real. I tugged a little on the thread she’d dangled.
“I’m sorry. If I’m supposed to be… her… I’m probably not much of a comfort right now. You heard Doyle, at least. Arthur will see to it that her killer is punished.”
“Arthur,” she sneered. “Doyle’s supposed to be Sherlock-Fucking-Holmes. Why isn’t he doing it?”
“Maybe Arthur wanted dibs?”
“Maybe Arthur is too busy worrying about Senate hearings to give a shit.” She sighed, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “No, that’s not fair. Whatever else they were… he loved her. I saw them together. When they were in the same room, he was just a guy who loved a girl. He looked at her even when she wasn’t looking back. But now that she’s… gone… Arthur’s a great man. He’ll do what he has to do. You’ve got a tough row to hoe, kid. Or Arthur does? At least you’re legal.”
I stiffened. “You mean… he’d really… me? Sex?”
“Not that it would be any good, is my guess.” She laughed, throaty and deep. “Nice looking guy, don’t get me wrong, but he probably wears that suit even when he’s naked. Nothing but suits, all the way down. But you’re eighteen; you don’t know any better.”
“If I spend much time with you, I’ll bet I learn a lot. So Arthur would sleep with a teenager before his wife is even in the ground, but you think he might not go looking for her killer?” I shook my head. “What kind of ‘great’ does that make him?”
She straightened. “A Persona. The kind with his eyes on the prize. And it ain’t you, girl. He just needs you to play your part. Your… public and private parts.”
I snorted. “You were going to say ‘pubic’, weren’t you? You’d get along with boys my age.”
She smiled. “I was. Don’t know why I didn’t. I must be trying to behave myself in front of the Queen.”
I squirmed. “Do… do you really think I’m her?”
Vivian sighed. Her perfect features sagged into mere beauty for a moment. She looked exhausted. I had the sudden certainty that she hadn’t left the office since she’d found out that Guin had been murdered. Working leads. Trying to solve a murder. The woman had been flailing desperately against the dark. She wanted- no, needed justice.
And here I was.
She continued, smiling weakly. “I don’t know, kid. I’ve known who I was for a long time now… long enough to have outlived one Persona, only to meet his replacement. It’s… confusing.”
“Really?” I asked. “Who was it?”
“Sir Percival,” she lied. I knew immediately that it was a lie, the way she searched my face the split second after she said it.
Her cat’s eyes saw my head cock, and the mask came back up. The fatigue and sadness washed away into glistening beauty, the kind you wanted to lick. It made my brain go fuzzy, made my heart flutter, made a warmth bloom deep inside me. Good grief, when she turned it on, she turned everyone on!
Everyone, acknowledged my inside voice.
She let the silence go on for a while, watching me. It was my turn to talk. I tucked Vivian’s lie away, a mystery for later.
“Well, Doyle thinks I’m Guinevere. What’s his track record on this sort of thing?”
“Doyle?” she scoffed. “No idea. He showed up yesterday, a couple hours after we found Guin. Supposedly he’s got the best algorithms in town. Arthur's given him full access to everything."
"If Arthur wants his wife's murder solved, he'd call in the best, right? Sherlock Holmes is the best. But you guys aren't the trusting sort. How does Arthur know Doyle isn't sleeping with the enemy?"
Vivian shook her head. "I don't know. He trusts Doyle, but hasn’t said why. At least, not to me."
That last bit... she did not have to say that. She hesitated ever so slightly before she did. She said that for you. Ask, and watch what she says carefully.
"Are you and Arthur on the outs?" I tried.
She shrugged - a little too casually. That damn mask! Most people were open books. Doyle had been harder to gauge than the so-called "bit players", but I'd still been able to glean what he was all about. Vivian... she was so guarded. Blank. It was nearly impossible to tell what she was letting slip, and what she wanted me to think she was letting slip.
"I'm the new girl," she answered. "I've been at the Agency a while, but I only came back to Headquarters a few weeks ago. Arthur's orders - my PCS got cut short. But ever since I got back, I’ve been riding a desk. Arthur’s boys are all in the ORG vault up on the second floor… my badge doesn’t even get me in there. He’s summoning Personae back to Camelot, sure, but why me?“
"Probably has something to do with how you take your coffee," I said.
"I've been a very good girl since I got back," she said. "I haven't slept with any of Arthur's boys, honest! Not even a blow job!"
"How unbelievably chaste," I deadpanned. "You deserve a real pat on the backside."
"Yes, please," she grinned. "My battery budget is through the roof. But even on my best behavior, I'm still working in a support department. I don't get to play with the boys and their toys."
"Who does that leave you playing with? Battery-operated devices aside."
"Meh. The usual. Reports. Metadata. Everything you can know about a bad man from ten thousand miles away." She sneered. "Not how he smells when he sweats."
"You have weird fetishes," I replied. "Why aren't you getting your dose of bad guy B.O.?"
"Best guess? There's no Merlin."
I looked at her for a minute, gathering my thoughts. “You said that before. There's no Merlin in this New Camelot?"
"Doesn't leave anybody for me to vamp on and steal his magic, does it?" she answered.
"And Arthur is keeping you and your power-stealing sex away from his Merry Men," I finished.
"Wrong story. But yeah. There's nothing for a Vivian to do in this Camelot."
"And no one to do it to," I mused. I was sure I knew what and who Vivian was here to do, but I needed to test a theory. "Doyle's new in town. You going to do it to him?”
She made a face. "Too skinny. Do you think that's actually his real name?"
"It's how he introduced himself to me. But I mean, who knows?" She claims not to be interested in Doyle. Does she mean it? "Last name Holmes, first name the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries? Who names their kid that?"
"People name their kids some awful things," Vivian grinned. "My first name's Irene. I'm sure my grandmother was a lovely woman, but please." She narrowed her eyes. "Tell anyone that and I will destroy you. It's my darkest secret."
I smiled. Excellent.
Vivian hadn't paused. "Anyway, back to thinking about my favorite topic: things that turn me on. I like my boys more like your coffee daddy."
I flushed. "He's not my-"
A Cheshire grin spread over her lips. "You're really going to have to remove that stick from your butthole if we're going to hang out. Not that I have problems with things in the ass, but I prefer it if they lead to happy endings."
For a moment, I had no idea how to respond. I'd never met anyone who talked like this. Sailors, I’d heard, but the one time I’d expressed curiosity about the Naval Academy in nearby Annapolis, my father had been… emphatic in his opposition. Maybe not as graphic as Guin Drake, but still. So I didn’t get any sailor experience, which was proving to be a real drag at the moment. The way this woman talked… I had no idea what to do with this.
"Right. Um. So. What's your happy ending?"
Shit. She raised an eyebrow as if to thank me for the opening, and I hastened to clarify. "What do you want to do here? What's a good outcome for you, personally?"
Her eyes searched my face for the dagger she was sure hid behind it. The question seemed to take her aback. Finding nothing she could object to, she almost didn't answer. Treachery, she understood. Sincerity, she did not.
Then she sighed. “I don’t know. I signed up here to catch bad guys. I mean, that’s what I want to do. You see that guy over there, the one young enough to know better than to wear that bow tie? He was the one who put the pieces together on Umar al-Baddawi. You’ve never heard of Umar. That a-hole had a bomb ready to put onto a plane full of kids going to Disneyland. He’d picked the flight exactly for that reason. Bomb was undetectable. That guy over there is the reason that it never made it on board. Screw all this Camelot bullshit. I want to do that.”
“So do that! Don’t let Vivian define you. You define Vivian.”
“What are you, a talk show host? Guinevere will get to do whatever she wants. These guys already know who Vivian is, what her story is. They don’t trust me.”
“And Arthur calls all the shots at the CIA? I can’t believe that. No one man is that powerful; that’s what the bureaucracy is all about. My father told me that. He said it like it’s a good thing, and maybe he’s right.”
Vivian shrugged. “You've never heard Arthur talk. Maybe he is that powerful. He’s certainly the boss of me, according to the real world: he's the director of the counterterrorism center - the D/CTC. If I want to catch terrorists, I'll be doing it how he says.”
I frowned. “In the legends, Vivian finds her own way to power. It happens to be by stealing Merlin’s, but maybe that’s just a metaphor. Maybe you’re supposed to do your own thing, Arthur be damned.”
She grinned at me. “You sound just like her.” I blinked. “Swear to god, Guin Drake told me the exact same thing, those exact words about her husband before…” Vivian swallowed. “Before some asshole killed her.”
“Yeah. That. What are we going to do about it?”
She looked at me appraisingly. “You’re the new hotness. You really want Guin Drake’s legacy getting in your way?”
“Guinevere’s legacy is already in my way. What’s one more thing?” I shook my head. “I think Arthur and I aren’t going to see eye to eye on much. Especially my pubic parts.”
Vivian's eyes were right at my level. They gave me a long look. Then, with a grin, she exclaimed, "You saucy little minx! Are you a rebel? Oh, they aren't going to like that!"
I grinned right back. "Call me a petulant teenager, then. I've never even kissed a boy, and they think I'm going to marry a guy who widowed his wife yesterday? Somebody who's apparently friends with my dad?" I snorted, did my best Valley Girl impression. "As if."
She bit her lip, grinned. “Yeah, okay. You get a good book report. Get back to me when you find yourself a Lancelot and I’ll get you into fighting shape in no time.”
“I’m not sure fighting is what you’re all about.”
She snorted. “Don’t kid yourself that what I do is any different than what Arthur does. I fuck people. Up. Like the Lady Iliza says, this ain’t a push-up bra, baby: it’s a suit of fucking armor. Mascara? War paint, bitches. The Round Table has got nothing on these lady lumps.”
Her nostrils flared. Suddenly, all the humor had gone out of her. She was right: I’d been taken in by the mask, the carefree person she showed to the world. The real Vivian was darker. And angry.
“Arthur can take his shot at finding his wife’s murderer. But I’m going to be the one who finishes the job.”
I swallowed. “I believe you. Where do I sign up?”
“Uh-uh,” she shook her head. “You’re the Queen. You call the shots. Call it.”
“I…” I hesitated. In this moment, disappointing Vivian seemed terminally unwise. “I’m eighteen. How would I know how to find a killer?”
She leaned in. “Sorry, Gwen. You don’t get to weasel out of this one. You think Arthur’s got demands of you? Hah! He gets to be the King, and that means doing whatever he wants and the rest of us getting in line. You’re going to be the Queen, honey. That means being everything to everyone. To him. To Lancelot. To me. And I need this. Your Highness.”
I gulped. She glared.
“Pennyroyal,” I blurted.
I hadn’t meant to say it.
That is not for you to reveal, not yet.
You look at her, and you tell me again not to say anything. Look at her. Look at The Woman.
My inside voice went silent again.
Vivian was still staring. Her predator’s eyes hadn’t blinked.
“Pennyroyal tea,” I elaborated. “Guin Drake was drinking it. Before she died.”
Blink. Pause. Blink. “Tell me.”
“It’s an herbal tea. Very uncommon. You’d have to know what you were doing, make it special. You’ll never find it in the grocery store.” “Why?” “Because it can cause abortions.”
Neither of us said anything for a long moment.
“No,” she broke the silence. “That makes no sense. Guin couldn’t have babies.”
“How do you know?” I asked, softly.
“I… you know the story. No heir for Arthur.” She shook her head. “How do you know this, anyway?”
“My mother’s doctorate is in cultural anthropology. You’d never believe the weird stuff I’ve picked up over the years.”
“And you just happened to recognize the smell of abortion tea?”
“I… keep a collection of rare herbs. I went through it last night.”
“You… keep a collection… of rare herbs.” She tasted the words. “And you smelled your way through it last night? Identifying a scent that you’d been exposed to hours before, for a couple of minutes tops?”
“And you’re sure? You’re not just telling me something because I want to hear-“
“Guin Drake was drinking a tea that can terminate a pregnancy and this is a clue to her murder,” I thundered. The world vibrated in C-fucking-major.
Vivian’s mask shattered.
“Oh my god,” she whispered.
“Damn straight,” I stood. “So let’s quit fooling around and get to work. There’s a killer out there.”
She sat very still in her chair. “But… Doyle…?”
“Isn’t going to find the killer first, and now you know why,” I snapped. “Stick with me, kid.”
“Kid?” The verbal jab kicked her back into gear. “Really? Kid?” “You keep calling me ‘Highness’. How about we agree to stick to first names? Hi, I’m Gwen.”
“That’s not your real name… your Gwen-ness.”
I pouted, and she shook her head. “Doyle… sonofabitch! And you… you! That explains a lot, like why I keep wanting to bite you.”
“I’m quite certain that isn’t a good idea.”
“Come onnnn,” she whined. “Love bites.”
I couldn't help laughing. Vivian wasn't... malicious, not really. She'd just found a soft spot and couldn't stop poking it.
I waggled my eyebrows. "And you say you haven't slept with anybody in Camelot? They're all supposed to be ga-ga for Vivian, when she shows up."
“Did I mention the bit about being throttled with my own innards? Scary. Of course… not… completely unwarranted?” She looked guilty for a second. "I... may have made a pass at Arthur. Not my finest moment! It was before Guin said anything! Don't look at me like that!" She held her hands up in mock self-defense.
I was leaning over the table at her, eyes narrowed. It was an aggressive, possessive posture. I straightened, as if catching myself.
"Right. Arthur, who I don't care about. Did you give him a love bite?”
She laughed in relief. "Almost. I was only just back from the field, and we’d just had a big win, nailing al-Baddawi. We all had a few drinks up in Lance's vault, afterward.”
"Lance's vault? ORG? On the second floor?”
She nodded. "Yeah. Lance Haran. Chief of the Operational Resources Group." Her voice dropped to a whisper, even in the middle of CIA Headquarters. "The ones who fly the Predators."
"Haran... Haran..." I closed my eyes for a moment. "Haran was Lot's father. In the Koran. Or the Old Testament, whatever. What?" I asked, at her incredulous stare.
"How do you know that?"
"Lot's one of the Prophets of Islam. How do you not know that?"
We looked at each other. Lance Haran. Haran, father of Lot, whose wife got turned into a pillar of salt. Lance-Lot.
Lancelot. A knight about to ride off to battle.
“Oh my god… you think he’s cu-ute!” she singsonged. “I do not know how to feel about that, except to laugh at you.”
“You’re just jealous.”
“Hah!” she laughed. “This one, I’m going to let you feel out all on your own. My prior offer stands, after you embarrass yourself.”
“Aww, you’re sweet. Thank you so much for playing up to my teenage insecurities. Has anyone called you a bitch to your face and lived?”
“You’d be surprised at how fast some people can run,” she nodded ruefully. “And let’s not even get started on the ones who were in cars.”
“Someone called you a bitch from a car? That’s awful!”
She laughed. “Now you’re sweet. You're only saying that because I'll throat-punch anyone who tries to hurt you. Besides, I’d already shot out his back window, so he was probably just not his normal, feminist self.”
“I assume that the rest of the story involves curb-stomping? And I’m also saying that because I love your lipstick. Where'd you get it?"
“Takes longer in five inch heels, but yeah.” She looked up and to the left. “Lipstick… I think from a Japanese diplomat's bathroom. And no, I know what you're thinking, and I did not fuck him. I did help him choose a good set of heels to match the dress he was wearing. So there."
“Straight eye for the trans guy? You’re practically a fairy’s godmother. Not even a love bite?”
She scoffed. “Hardly. But I’m telling you: push-up bras work for everybody. Go big or go home. Speaking of your boobs, I'm going to give a good report about you to Arthur."
“Aww, we’re body-shaming and slut-shaming each other! Are we besties now?” I asked. “I kind of feel like we’re besties.”
Her eyes flickered up behind me and latched onto something. She didn't show any alarm, but the mask clicked firmly into place. She took a long sip of her cappuccino, and I saw for the first time that there was a piece of a napkin stuck to the bottom of it. It had a phone number on it.
The handwriting: jagged, cramped. Numeral one slants to the left and the two zeroes are non-uniform. Written with the non-dominant hand, under the table. Small white flecks at the edges: the napkin is secured to the bottom of the cup with foamed milk residue that had been left on her fingers. She had not decided to give this number when she walked into the room, but made the decision within sixty seconds of licking it off of her fingers, before it dried. Timing corresponds to… “Pennyroyal.” That secured her loyalty.
I memorized the number instantly.
"Doyle Holmes," Vivian purred as I felt a presence behind me. She leaned back, pushing a chair out with her foot. She was wearing cream, open-toed shoes, with her nails finished in a French manicure style. The heels were four inches long, and as her leg slid out from her pants, I saw the reptilian tip of a tail tattooed on her leg. The sight of it made the mind wander up that leg, higher...
She flicked her toes with a pop, and the chair lurched toward Doyle. He and I both jumped. We had been staring.
Cavill panted happily at us.
Doyle steadied himself quickly, adjusting the gift-wrapped package that he held under his arm. "No thank you, Miss-"
"Vivian," she admonished - a bit quickly, as if she did not want him to continue. “Her Gwen-ness thinks we should stick to first names.”
His back straightened, and he didn't sit. "Does she?” he murmured. "Very well, Vivian, Arthur is looking forward to your report. I trust all was as I promised you it would be?"
"Oh, I do look forward to giving Arthur my report. Yes, Doyle, our new Gwen is just fine. No surprises whatsoever."
Doyle's eyes widened, and darted to me for a second. "I hardly think-" he started, but Vivian kept right on going.
"As you predicted, she was grateful when it was clear that New Camelot would protect her in the wake of an attack on her person. She was - what was your word? - overawed at discovering her role as Guinevere, and is excited to meet her Arthur. She looks forward to doing whatever she can to assist our efforts. Isn't that right, your Gwen-ness?”
A false report, stroking Doyle's ego by confirming his predictions while simultaneously shaming him in front of the subject of those predictions. She is helping Doyle relax about you, but she is also antagonizing him. She is also showing you that she intends to make good on her promise to ingratiate you to Arthur.
Doyle did practically beg to be antagonized. "Oh, yes," I nodded eagerly. "I've been so impressed by Vivian's stewardship, I'm thinking of recommending her to Arthur as a confidant and counselor... what with there being no Merlin in Camelot. Don't you think she'd make a great advisor? I do."
Doyle's eyes narrowed at us both. "I see that you've been getting to know one another. I look forward to hearing all about your discussion. Later.
“The timetable has accelerated,” he continued. “Arthur needs whatever you’ve got in the next hour. Don’t bother coordinating with Lance; just send it over.”
“Why?” Vivian bristled. “What’s the big hurry?”
“In light of recent events, Arthur is convinced that the drawing of the sword is closer than we thought. We need to be prepared in case the enemy makes a move at today’s hearings.”
”I believe your stepdad puts my husband in the hot seat on the regular…”
“The intelligence hearings?” I asked.
Doyle gave me a look that said, Can you not see that mommy and daddy are talking?
But his words said, “That’s correct. Arthur is giving testimony on the allegations that someone at CIA leaked a rumor about the… ahem, scandalous video involving President Triumph.”
Vivian snorted. “The one where he’s taking it up the-“
“The very one,” Doyle hastened to interrupt, his words trampling over something that rhymed with “droop shoot”.
“It seems that the President has been Tweeting again. Naturally, there’s an investigation. Half the Congress wants to know about leaks, and the other about this alleged black book the Russians are allegedly using to blackmail the President.”
“But why is Arthur testifying?” I asked. “He’s in charge of blowing up brown people, right? What’s that got to do with Russia, or the President?”
Doyle and Vivian looked at one another.
“First, it’s not all brown people,” Vivian clarified. “Just the bad ones.”
“And second, though I might argue that it should have come first or even exclusively,” huffed Doyle, “is the fact that Syrian extremists appear to be receiving support from the Kremlin. America’s response has been… anemic. A recent slew of leaks to the media have damaged the Administration’s assertion that there is nothing to fear from Russian involvement in Syria, and President Triumph has accused Arthur of being the source of the leaks.”
“Politics?” I asked, distracted.
”Gotta run. Gotta see a man about a sex tape.” Words spoken by the wife of the man about to testify on the Hill. The late wife.
“Politics,” affirmed Doyle. “I should think that you…” he went on, but I was losing his words even without intending to tune him out. There was something…
Cavill aside, my dad had seemed unusually chipper this morning. “Big day on the Hill, honey.”
“He’s giving that testimony to my father,” I blurted.
Doyle and Vivian looked at me blankly.
“Well… yes,” Doyle began. “You didn’t know?”
“No… you’re not getting it. My father… Leo DeGrace.” Now it was my turn to stare at them. “Arthur… Leodegrance? Who Arthur saves from… oh my god…”
I put my hand to my mouth. “Dad’s the minority leader on the committee. The majority leader is Senator Rance. Don’t you two read?” I practically shouted.
Their expressions didn’t change, other than the blinking.
“Arthur saves Leodegrance from King Reince, after Leodegrance pledges fealty to Arthur! That’s how he and Guinevere meet! And now you’re telling me that Arthur thinks the hearings where Senator Leo DeGrace and Senator Rance will be fighting it out about Arthur’s testimony… he thinks those hearings are in danger? Good grief, the ones where he is personally giving testimony?”
“Er… yes?” Doyle was getting up to speed. After is eyes refocused from the infinity of his data-displaying contact lenses, he nodded smartly. “All the more reason to get you to safety. Arthur has Excalibur. He’ll be fine. We have a secure location prepped for you.”
“Like hell,” I growled. “That’s my dad out there. We’re going to Capitol Hill. Saddle up.”
Vivian reached out gently and put her hand on my arm. Concern was written across her eyes.
“Gwen… this doesn’t make any sense. You’re…” her eyes flicked to Doyle. She hesitated.
I glared at her. If you’re who I think you are, you’ll pick up what I’m laying down. Ixnay on the Oyleday.
She barely missed a beat. “We don’t know what we’re up against here. Could make the scene back there in the Library look like a fairy tale. You sure you’re ready for this, Gwen?”
“When it comes to fairy tales, go Grimm or go home.” I stood up and withdrew my arm from Vivian’s restraint.
“You want to see a bad bitch? Mess with me.” I pulled Guin Drake’s red fingernail polish out of my pocket.
“War paint.” I slammed it down on the table. “Now let’s go to war.”