Band Of Gypsys
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Former dictator, Ax Preston, has returned to England to take up the role of Green President, however the contract isn't all it appears to be from a distance. Decamping to Paris, the Triumvirate stage a protest against the government's Slave Labour camps by mimicking the same conditions for all to see.
Meanwhile, international relations continue to be fragile, England is embarrassed by its former leaders, and the USA has trouble brewing that could have serious consequences for Ax, Sage and Fiorinda.
This is book four in Gwyneth Jones' critically-acclaimed BOLD AS LOVE series.
Release date: February 23, 2021
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Print pages: 400
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Band Of Gypsys
These two, along with a few other smart folks around the citadel by now, were savvy on Lavoisier, without benefit of one of those solemn need-to-know sessions. A desert nest of terrorists. Manson Familyoids caught on the edge of going critical with the new, weird and scary, occult superweapon. And how about that raid! The FBI and the National Guard were going in with a division of infantry, chemical suits and breathing apparatus, Deep Stealth, Full Metal Jacket, you betcha Bob—
‘—meanwhile these two English guys dress up as cowboys, ride over there on horseback, and shoot up the town—’
‘It’s hilarious,’ agreed Frank: with the air of one waiting to be told something he didn’t know.
‘It’s a scream. It gets better, bro. We have live coverage.’
Frank stared, truly impressed at last. ‘You’re kidding.’
‘I’m not kidding.’ The man with the story leaned forward into the safe space that everyone who talks in bars around Capitol Hill believes can be found, directly above the mid point between their two drinks on the polished mahogany tabletop. ‘This Baal guy, the Black Dragon, had hidden cameras everywhere, and he has the true-life movie of what went down. He’s dickering with our acquisitions guys right now, from his undisclosed place of detention.’
‘Protective custody, mister.’
‘Whatever, he’s open for business. Detainees’ rights are a wonderful thing.’
‘What, he had the stuff when they brought him in? On an eyesocket chip or what? And our great Homeland Security experts let him keep it?’
‘Naw… He knows where it is, though. This is the real deal, Frankismo. I’ve personally seen the trailer. You want to see Mr Ax Preston garrotting a poor misguided Gaia-loving martyr? You want to see the expression on his pretty face, when the kid’s windpipe cracks?’
‘You want to see reformed bad boy Sage Pender dealing with the soft-bellied geeks at the hideout’s back gate? Some of them women?’
‘You have to be shitting me—!’
They contemplated the potential mayhem. It was nice.
‘You know, Jude,’ said Frank, measuring his words. ‘Joking apart, this could be serious for the Kill The Evil Research, Ban The NeuroBomb program. This sounds like bad doody for Mr Fred Eiffrich altogether.’
‘Don’t know about you Frankie, but I voted for the other ticket.’
They laughed, immoderately. Then they had one more drink and went their separate ways, as the hour was getting late.
Sage had fallen asleep with Fiorinda tucked against him, his chin on her shoulder, Ax wrapped around his back. In many ways, the best place the world can hold—but they’d moved away in the night. Had to have their personal space, it hurt his feelings. Slighted, and also cold, he lay with the morning light seeping through his lashes, frosting his eyeballs: thinking about his greatcoat, which was on the floor on the other side of the room. In the end it was the pressure of a full bladder, becoming insistent, forced him to slide out from between them.
‘Was’matter?’ mumbled Ax.
‘Need a piss.’
The chemical toilet was behind a screen, in one of the garret room’s slope-ceilinged corners. They hunkered on either side of the pot, grinning at each other. They liked pissing together.
‘We could make tea with that much,’ said Sage proudly.
It would be quite a coup to wake her with a cup of hot tea, which they could not otherwise provide until somebody went to fetch the drinking water. Ten minutes in the treatment jug would do it: but Ax was secretly squeamish and preferred a little distance from the details. Let the arrondissement do the instant recycling.
‘It could be cheating, unless we knock it off our fifteen litres.’
‘Oooh, no cheating, can’t have that.’
The cold in the room was intense, but somehow pleasurable once you were out in it. It had been storage space, the conversion for human occupation was minimal. They moved to the window, and sat on dusty boards, peering out through a warped solar insulation sheet that wasn’t very effective. Slate roofs, tumbled together, pigeon-breast shades all crusted in frozen white, rose into a grey, laden sky above Montmartre.
‘Looks like more snow on the way.’
‘Nah, it’s too cold.’
Like London, Paris was shrinking and compacting as the sprawl fell apart. The artists’ hill was crowded. No hum of traffic reached them, only stillness like a doubtful blessing, and the rumble of a single unseen vehicle traversing the cobbles of the Rue Des Dames. But Ax could feel the weight of numbers out there. So many, many people, in Europe and all the world beyond, all of them waiting and wondering, what the hell’s going to happen to next?
He turned from their roofscape, for which they’d developed a profound affection, to the more mysterious beauty beside him. The indigo shadows that lie between muscle and bone on white skin in wintertime; Sage’s yellow curls, not so Boot Camp cropped as they used to be, clustered over his skull like a helmet of coiled gold. Ax had always loved human bodies, never had the time, or the peace of mind, for an idyll like this before. He reached out—asking permission with a glance, and slipped his hand under Sage’s shabby teeshirt, to trace the welted scars where the magician had torn up his friend’s liver, nearly two years ago now. Sage smiling, accepting the caress with the forbearance of a kindly pet tiger. He didn’t like those scars, but Ax felt differently.
They hold your life inside, thought Ax. They tell me we survived.
‘This is a good time.’
‘Really? You do realise, babe, we are starving in a fereezing foreign garret, and looking forward to a tedious career of retired rockstar protests like this here, while bein’ greenwash for a succession of deranged gangsters at Westminster—’
‘Plus I hate talking French an’ our girlfriend is pregnant?’
Ax stopped laughing, suddenly focused. ‘You think so?’
‘Yes. Forty-six days: she could well be pregnant.’
They looked to the mattress on the floor, where she was sleeping.
‘We need to think about making a living,’ said Ax. ‘We are not condemned to a life in public office, I never said I’d do that. But I don’t see making a comeback as rockstars.’
‘Nah. Codgers’ Cabaret, I never fancied it.’
‘Living like this is good for us, I love it, but kids need security.’
‘Like this?’ Sage looked around, mildly disconcerted. ‘Well, okay.’ He stretched and refolded himself. ‘What are our skills? I veto white collar applications …’
‘Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to work for your dad.’
‘Tha’s a relief. We could be mercenaries. We have experience, an’ there’s plenty of openings—’
‘Okay, don’t panic. Well, then, what about sex? We’re good at sex, you and me, I do b’lieve.’
‘You’re not taking this seriously.’
‘Yes I am. I was a crowd-fucking entertainment industry whore for years, why not get honest about it?’
‘I may have said that, and worse, but I now think it was harsh.’ But Ax was intrigued. ‘Could you get into doing sex for money?’
Sage considered, thick stubby blond lashes downcast. ‘Lemme see. You would be there? With me the whole time?’
‘Not on the face of it, big cat. I’d take the money and wait round the corner. I think that’s the more usual arrangement.’
‘You’d be right there watching, Sah. Dunno about otherwise.’
Silence. As a fantasy scenario the proposal had merits, but there were doors that opened onto ugly memory—
‘Maybe we’ll just earn our bread busking,’ said Ax, at last. ‘I like busking, except, this weather, my hands get so fucking cold.’ He checked the white-laced quilt of roofs again. The frozen silence of Paris. ‘Is there any way we could sneakily get her to take a test?’
‘Don’t see how, if she doesn’t want.’
‘Couldn’t we, er, slip it to her, in her food or something?’
‘You have to piss on them, Ax.’
‘I knew that.’
Fiorinda sat up. ‘What are you two cackling about?’
‘My new career.’ They leapt across the room, bringing Sage’s coat (Ax and Fiorinda’s coats were already enhancing the bedding).
‘Once we’ve toppled the bad guys at home, he’s going to sell his arse under the bridges of Paris,’ explained Ax, burrowing into warmth. ‘It could work, he has ex-celebrity cachêt. But I have to be there, holding his hand throughout. The punters will think we’re nuts.’
‘They already know that,’ said Fiorinda. ‘Don’t be stupid. If we’re selling sex, obviously that’s my job. I’m the girl.’
Sage kissed the nape of her neck, through the springing red curls. ‘Not even in jest, sweetheart. Not you, never, never.’
Fiorinda had done her share of that hard labour, and worse. Ax took her face between his hands. He wanted to tell her nothing’s ever going to hurt you again, but there’s demons listening when you say something like that. All he could do was this, drink her up with his eyes, smiling at him, alive and sane; he could drown in these two miracles—
Sage and Fiorinda had never felt the full weight of Ax Preston’s undivided attention before. There’d always been some little task like saving the world to take the pressure off. They were agreed it was a little alarming, and hopefully wouldn’t last. He’ll come down soon—
‘You’ve been ganging up on me,’ said Fiorinda. ‘I can tell. What’s it about?’
Both men withdrew. ‘Fiorinda,’ began Sage, cautiously. ‘We don’t want to crowd you, but forty-six days? Could we talk about this?’
‘Today makes forty-six.’
‘Fuck it.” She sat up, folding her arms around her knees. ‘My period’s about two weeks late, big deal. Can’t I have any private life?’
‘Let’s look at this. I was de-sterilised four months ago. You two tested good for live ammunition in London, how long since?’
‘Six weeks,’ said Sage.
‘Be reasonable. Is it likely?’
‘We’re sure you’re probably not pregnant,’ Ax temporised. ‘But what if we quietly bought a pregnancy test from a pharmacy?’
‘Oh, right. Mr ex-dictator virtuoso busker and his giant Zen Master bodyguard, in Paris on a Lennonist publicity stunt. So hard to spot. What would you say? We’re making this intriguing purchase for a friend—’
‘I would hide around the corner; he looks ordinary enough.’
‘We’d go somewhere else,’ explained Ax, ‘not right around here, and I wouldn’t take a guitar into the shop, Fiorinda.’
‘I see you have it all worked out.’ She sighed, disarmed in spite of herself. ‘You know how people say, you can’t be a little bit pregnant? It’s bullshit. People get a little bit pregnant all the time, and it fails before they even notice. Three months and morning sickness, that would be worth talking about. Okay. You two go to work. I’ll think it over.’
Ax had thought he knew what he was taking on, when he agreed to return to England as a constitutional “President”, having quit his dictatorship. He would be a figurehead, not an accidental warlord, and working with a suspect government. The occult monster was dead, the Green Nazis had been driven out, but the current junta, known as the Second Chamber Government (mainly Hard Greens from the original revolution, “ennobled” by a former Prime Minister bent on appeasement) were secure in power. It was the way things were going all over Europe: ‘moderate’ neo-feudalists with fake Green credentials, applying blandly brutal solutions to a staggering cascade of disasters. But Ax had leverage of a kind that’s hard to measure, and the mandate of the US President (which impressed the so-called Second Chamber no end, oddly enough). He believed he could do some good: at least claw back some civil rights for the most helpless victims of this world storm, for instance.
But there’s always another turn of the screw. In Ax’s absence his brother Jordan (reserve candidate for the showcase Presidency, if the great Ax Preston couldn’t be persuaded) had meekly accepted the gift of a Preston stately home from the government. Ax had arrived in England to find his entire family—including his mother, his five year old nephew, and Jordan’s wife, Milly Kettle (formerly Ax’s girlfriend) who was heavily pregnant—luxuriously incarcerated in a huge, isolated mansion, behind razor-wire and dog-handlers, and surrounded by minders and armed guards over whom the Prestons had no control. Ax had swallowed his fury (because although Jordan tried the line that he was only living like all top celebrities do, and why not, the fool was clearly terrified), consulted quietly with his own power-bases, and decamped for Paris, as soon as the lavish reinstatement celebrations were done.
It had been November when the Triumvirate returned to England. It was March now, and their Bed In protest (against conditions in England’s new, adult labour camps) was nearly six weeks old. But Ax was in no hurry. The Prestons weren’t in immediate danger. He was happy to go on embarrassing the suits for as long as they liked.
At two in the afternoon, when Ax and Sage arrived on the Ile St Louis, the ironbound sky had given up none of its burden. They were borrowing an office in the antique mansion where Alain de Corlay, of the Eurotrash Techno-Greens, fellow veteran of Crisis Europe’s bizarre adventures, presided over his merry crew. Here the President elect of England, and his gangling bodyguard, entertained proposals from various emigrant suppliants, while Alain, if he felt like it, sat in as a witness, smoking his horrible marijuana bidis and looking disgusted.
Today it was the Restore the Thames Party (massive landscape engineering, as yet undisclosed technology, project: return a moderate sized English river to its pre-Ice Age route, thus convincing Gaia to reverse climate change) Then a few personal sad stories; given greater attention, and a fascinating presentation from the Devon couple who could make wind turbines invisible.
The New Plantagenet Society had been made to wait: neither worthy causes, nor the harmless type of lunatic. They appeared in full reenactment regalia: jewelled badges pinning actual sprigs of broom to their velvet caps; velvet robes over formal business suits. Mr Red, sallow and middle-aged, even bore an eerie physical resemblance to a famous portrait of Henry Tudor. Mr White, a dark-skinned, rubicund and hearty rosbif, didn’t look a lot like Richard Crookback, but he did have a Yorkshire accent! There goes your project, thought Ax, shaking his head at the unseasonable planta genista. Don’t you know we’re soldiers of the queen, and Fiorinda hates cut flowers?
To business. The red rose and the white had settled their ancient differences. Now they all needed was a figurehead, and Ax fit the bill. He was to marry the current Yorkist heir, a young Greek woman, or to be adopted, if he preferred, by the Lancastrian heir (an elderly Canadian). The Hastings family, also living Plantagenets, had surrendered their claim, in view of Ax’s superior qualifications … There were quasi-legal documents, including a declaration that Ax’s Islamic faith was not an impediment. There were fanfold genealogies in oak-gall, scarlet and gilt; a video message from the elderly Canadian, and plans for the ceremony in which Ax would simultaneously be adopted (or married), declared the rightful heir, and consecrated as King Richard Henry the First. It was a job for life, royal prestige, pick of the spoils—
The room was bitterly cold, heated only by a tiny trash-eater stove in the back of a cavernous baroque fireplace, where its heat went straight up a mighty chimney. The former Dictator of England and his Minister kept their coats on. Mr Preston wore grubby, Dickensian, fingerless dark mittens. He took one of the nicotine-free tobacco cigarettes that were proffered (but declined the carton); showed an interest in the ornate paperwork, and asked gentle questions about the dirty business of actually taking over a country. Tall Mr Pender, with the intimidating good looks, spoke only to his chief; murmured asides that won Mr Preston’s flashing smile, and made the negotiators envious.
Alain sat at the end of the table, following the proceedings with exasperated disbelief. Sage gazed absently at curling, satellite image print-outs of London and the south of England, thumb-tacked to the panelled walls. This room had been the nerve centre of Ax’s Velvet Invasion, in the final throes of the Green Nazi occupation and Rufus’s dreadful reign. Why did Alain keep relics of that hellish time? Poor housekeeping? A phalanx of landline phones stood gathering dust, and the stove hissed. At last Ax squared the documents, slipped an ancient vellum into its silk-lined folder, and swept the lot back across the board.
‘Mr Red, Mr White, thank you. You may leave us.’
The delegates looked at each other, nonplussed.
‘You could move that stove out into the room,’ said Sage to Alain, in English. ‘It would be slightly more fuckin’ use than where it is.’
‘Certainly not. It would mark the parquet.’
‘Welsh sovereignty wouldn’t be a deal-breaker,’ announced Mr Red, after a sub-vocal consultation, on throat mike, with confederates elsewhere. (The New Plantagenets were not fanatical about appropriate Renaissance tech). ‘We believe in political union between England and Wales, but we can live with separation.’
‘Well, that’s good,’ said Ax, and raised an eyebrow.
They didn’t take the hint. The pinch-faced older man steepled his hands and leaned forward. His “real” name was Woodville, and he had a straightforward, violent criminal background, of which Ax was aware.
‘Sir, Your Majesty is not certain of Fred Eiffrich’s support?’
Mr White (“Henry Lovell”, of the British Resistance Movement; descendant of the former BNP), already tasting glory, frowned a little.
Ax would never be certain of Fred’s support. The friendship of the mighty is a fickle thing, their priorities are always going to change. But Mr Eiffrich in theory made a good stick to poke at monsters.
‘I am certain of Mr Eiffrich. Could be I’m less than happy about my chances of waking up one morning with a red-hot poker up my bum. Or starving to death in chains in some draughty tower, when you folks get tired of your new toy.’
The Plantagenets were shocked speechless. Ax grinned like a friendly wolf, affable and confidential. ‘Just kidding. Look, I’ll be frank, we’re getting head-hunted all over the shop right now. We’ve been looking at a rather nice package from the Sealed Knot.’
‘They’re lying!’ cried Mr White. ‘Whatever they said, it’s a crock of shit! Those bastards have no money, and no credibility!’
‘They speak highly of you, too. And the Irish are putting out feelers, for Fiorinda as High Queen. She’s an O’Niall you know. The legitimate family’s cool about it. We’re thinking that might suit.’
Sage murmured, ‘nicer climate in Ireland.’
‘Why don’t you try the Mountbatten-Windsors? They’ve a posse of children, they might let you have your pick. Feel free. Just don’t try this game on any other member of my family, or any connection of mine.’
Briefly, the mischief had vanished from Mr Preston’s pretty brown eyes.
‘Is that understood? You may go.’
M. de Corlay sighed, and pressed a banana-shaped yellow buzzer. At its discordant summons Techno-Green muscle appeared, bizarrely costumed but convincingly armed. The Plantagenets donned their robes.
‘Edward II wasn’t killed like that because he was a homosexual,’ exclaimed Mr White. ‘The homophobic element gets unfairly exaggerated!’ (‘Incroyable’ muttered Alain, lighting another bidi.) ‘The issue is to leave an unmarked corpse—’
‘Tha’s our kinda meme,’ said beautiful Mr Pender: with such tigerish affection that the White Rose took a sharp step backwards. ‘Hey, compagnero! You must be one of us.’
When the dangerous lunatics had left the building, Alain delivered an item of secure mail to His Majesty: who glanced at it sharply, and stowed it, continuing to cackle with his boyfriend. ‘You abuse my hospitality,’ said Alain. ‘This hôtel is a serious centre of utopian resistance.’
‘If you say so, Monsewer Jupette.’
‘Very amusing. Mr Preston, who needs nobody to crown him, gets the rabid dogs to come to him, so he knows their plans and can deal with them at leisure, once he’s whipped his bureaucrats into line. What are you doing in Paris, in God’s name? What are you achieving with this infantile game about agricultural camps?’
‘My job, Alain. I’m making the suits look cool, working the margins, and getting something done for my own agenda.’
‘Now you’re talking like a toothless human rights activist,’ snapped Alain, and then stared. ‘You’re reporting back to those devils in Westminster?’
‘Of course.’ Ax retrieved his guitar case, and shrugged it onto his shoulders. ‘What else? I’m a Lennonist, not a Leninist, Alain.’
‘You’re an imbecile. They’ll make you sorry.’
‘I’ve been sorry. Now I’m trying what I always knew I should: the art of the possible. They’ve got my family; I need them to trust me. C’mon, Sage. We have to get the beer-money in before dark.’
‘Thanks fer the warm,’ called Sage, over his shoulder.
In the courtyard, under naked chestnut trees that stood gleaming in the frost like giant, funereal candelabra, Ax stopped dead, transfixed.
‘What’s up, babe?’
‘Sage. Could she be pregnant? Tell me, truly… So quickly?’
Fiorinda had been chemically sterilised when she was thirteen, after giving birth to her monster of a father’s child. As long as he’d loved her, Ax had lived with the knowledge she could never have another baby. Of course he’d hoped, when she plucked up courage to test for the treatment. No promises, but non-surgical sterilisation can often be undone. But it was dizzying to have the news so soon!
‘I don’t know,’ said Sage, with equal urgency. ‘It does sometimes happen, straight off. There’s reasons why—’
‘Yeah, yeah, I know—’
Naturally they’d been researching the topic.
Alain stared at the walls of the gold and brown salon: which was for him a shrine, a time-capsule of the last days of rational materialism. Here we laid our desperate plans, while that lanky blue-eyed alchemist who has just left was turning himself into the New Prometheus, breaking the barrier between Mind and Matter. And how little we guessed what his desperate feat would mean for the future of the world!
What annoyed him most was that Ax Preston, of all people, the Captain Sensible of Dissolution radical rock, had become a perfect character in this farce, while he, “Alain Jupette” (Alain Miniskirt was his stage name, when he fronted a politically motivated Eurotrash band called Movie Sucré), found himself unable to mock a situation that was beyond ludicrous. A world where fossil fuel reserves had been conjured out of existence. Where so-called governments scrabbled to own a magic planet destroyer in human form—
Thank God for Fiorinda. She, at least, still believed in reason.
A knot of Techno-Greens stood at the windows, looking down. He joined them and saw Ax and Sage, stalled under the sweeping branches of the chestnuts and the first difficult flakes of snow. You would stare at those two if you knew nothing, you would follow them down the street. They shone like golden armour.
‘What can they be talking about?’ muttered one of the crew.
‘The exquisite shape of Fiorinda’s left earlobe,’ said Alain sourly.
‘Is it true they’re on the oxy again?’ asked another, hopefully.
The speaker was a government spook, here by agreement, to keep an eye on the Plantagenet delegates, and on Ax Preston. Everyone wants to know how Ax is going to jump. There’d been a time when Ax and Sage had been oxytocin addicts, shoring up the famous three-way love affair with shocking quantities of the intimacy drug. But they were clean now—thankfully (since Alain was genuinely fond of the fools, and that potion is a brain-wrecker). The trefoil infatuation was currently genuine.
‘Drowning in it. But it won’t help you nail him.’
All the real megastars must have crap sex lives, thought Fiorinda; left alone in the nest. Because which of us rockstars, hardwired from birth to be continually starving for love and pleasure, forced by the working conditions to be addicts of excess …Which of us would strut on stage, or fret in a recording studio, a moment longer than it takes to get seriously rich, if we were getting what we needed at home? It would be: make your pile, take a bow and quit. And how often does that happen? How often does anyone get clean away?
Cheered by this thought, and prompted by the on-air buzzer, she brushed her teeth and dressed, briskly and chastely (sorry, mates, no sexy underwear; it’s not that kind of video). It was time to get to work. The global stats that ran along the sidebar of her out-of-shot monitor looked good. And here we go. Cribs of the certifiably insane.
“Hi everybody, and special hi to anyone looking in for the first time. Welcome to the rooftops of Paris. This is our garret, acres of space, which is not exactly realism, but hey, we’re dilletantes, what do you expect? This is our bed, with the personalised coat-bedspread—
Question, is there any heating?
‘Hi, Ian in Rotherham. Of course! We have heating from the arrondissement Renewables Grid, this is our dear little radiator. We’re allowing ourselves the same units per day, per person, for everything, including heat, as we’d have in a camp. If we were getting the statutory ration, which a lot of our vital agricultural labourers do not. But it’s Thursday and we’re on a three-day week here in Paris, so …
Question, do you get fleas?
‘No personal vermin, Alice in Queens, which is great, and not as unrealistic as the wide open spaces. The daily lice powder dustings you get in camp are just in case, and you have to offset little things like that against the glory (and it is glory) of serving on England’s food security frontline. But let me show you round. These are my clothes, hung up on my piece of string. These are my boots. These are Ax’s clothes. And Ax’s other hat, his Ned Kelly hat. I love this old hat; as long as he doesn’t. . .
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