Short Stories

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The Return of the Thin White Duke

I never met David Bowie. After a while it almost became a game: I only had one hero left, and it was him. The nearest I came to it was meaning to send him a copy of Trigger Warning, with this story in it, and an apologetic note.

It's unabashedly fan fiction. You can find the story of its origin in Trigger Warning.


He was the monarch of all he surveyed, even when he stood out on the palace balcony at night listening to reports and he glanced up into the sky at the bitter twinkling clusters and whorls of stars. He ruled the worlds. He had tried for so long to rule wisely, and well, and to be a good monarch, but it is hard to rule, and wisdom can be painful. And it is impossible, he had found, if you rule, to do only good, for you cannot build anything without tearing something down, and even he could not care about every life, every dream, every population of every world.

Bit by bit, moment by moment, death by little death, he ceased to care.

He would not die, for only inferior people died, and he was the inferior of no one.

Time passed. One day, in the deep dungeons, a man with blood on his face looked at the Duke and told him he had become a monster. The next moment, the man was no more; a footnote in a history book.

The Duke gave this conversation much thought over the next several days, and eventually he nodded his head. "The traitor was right," he said. "I have become a monster. Ah well. I wonder if any of us set out to be monsters?"

Once, long ago, there had been lovers, but that had been in the dawn days of the Dukedom. Now, in the dusk of the world, with all pleasures available freely (but what we attain with no effort we cannot value), and with no need to deal with any issues of succession (for even the notion that another would one day succeed the Duke bordered upon blasphemy) there were no more lovers, just as there were no challenges. He felt as if he were asleep while his eyes were open and his lips spoke, but there was nothing to wake him.

The day after it had occurred to the Duke that he was now a monster was the Day of Strange Blossoms, celebrated by the wearing of flowers brought to the Ducal Palace from every world and every plane. It was a day that all in the Ducal Palace, which covered a continent, were traditionally merry, and in which they cast off their cares and darknesses, but the Duke was not happy.

"How can you be made happy?" asked the information beetle on his shoulder, there to relay his master's whims and desires to a hundred hundred worlds. "Give the word, your Grace, and empires will rise and fall to make you smile. Stars will flame nova for your entertainment."

"Perhaps I need a heart," said the Duke.

"I shall have a hundred hundred hearts immediately plucked, ripped, torn, incised, sliced and otherwise removed from the chests of ten thousand perfect specimens of humanity," said the information beetle. "How do you wish them prepared? Shall I alert the chefs or the taxidermists, the surgeons or the sculptors?"

"I need to care about something," said the Duke. "I need to value life. I need to wake."

The beetle chittered and chirrupped on his shoulder; it could access the wisdom of ten thousand worlds, but it could not advise its master when he was in this mood, so it said nothing. It relayed its concern to its predecessors, the older information beetles and scarabs, now sleeping in ornate boxes on a hundred hundred worlds, and the scarabs consulted among themselves with regret, because, in the vastness of time, even this had happened before, and they prepared to deal with it.

A long forgotten subroutine from the morning of the worlds was set into motion. The Duke was performing the final ritual of the Day of Strange Blossoms with no expression on his thin face, a man seeing his world as it was and valuing it not at all, when a small winged creature fluttered out from the blossom in which she had been hiding.

"Your grace," she whispered. "My mistress needs you. Please. You are her only hope."

"Your mistress?" asked the Duke.

"The creature comes from Beyond," clicked the beetle on his shoulder. "From one of the places that does not acknowledge the Ducal Overlordship, from the lands beyond life and death, between being and unbeing. It must have hidden itself inside an imported offworld orchid blossom. Its words are a trap, or a snare. I shall have it destroyed."

"No," said the Duke. "Let it be." He did something he had not done for many years, and stroked the beetle with a thin white finger. Its green eyes turned black and it chittered into perfect silence.

He cupped the tiny thing in his hands, and walked back to his quarters, while she told him of her wise and noble Queen, and of the giants, each more beautiful than the last, and each more huge and dangerous and more monstrous, who kept her Queen a captive.

And as she spoke, the Duke remembered the days when a lad from the stars had come to World to seek his fortune (for in those days there were fortunes everywhere, just waiting to be found); and in remembering he discovered that his youth was less distant than he had thought. His information beetle lay quiescent upon his shoulder.

"Why did she send you to me?" he asked the little creature. But, her task accomplished, she would speak no more, and in moments she vanished, as instantly and as permanently as a star that had been extinguished upon Ducal order.

He entered his private quarters, and placed the deactivated information beetle in its case beside his bed. In his study, he had his servants bring him a long black case. He opened it himself, and, with a touch, he activated his master advisor. It shook itself, then wriggled up and about his shoulders in viper form, its serpent tail forking into the neural plug at the base of his neck.

The Duke told the serpent what he intended to do.

"This is not wise," said the master advisor, the intelligence and advice of every ducal advisor in memory available to it, after a moment's examination of precedent.

"I seek adventure, not wisdom," said the Duke. A ghost of a smile began to play at the edges of his lips; the first smile that his servants had seen in longer than they could remember.

"Then, if you will not be dissuaded, take a battle-steed," said the adviser. It was good advice. The Duke deactivated his master advisor and he sent for the key to the battle-steeds' stable. The key had not been played in a thousand years: its strings were dusty.

There had once been six battle-steeds, one for each of the Lords and Ladies of the Evening. They were brilliant, beautiful, unstoppable, and when the Duke had been forced, with regret, to terminate the career of each of the Rulers of the Evening, he had declined to destroy their battle-steeds, instead placing them where they could be of no danger to the worlds.

The Duke took the key and played an opening arpeggio. The gate opened, and an ink-black, jet-black, coal-black battle steed strutted out with feline grace. It raised its head and stared at the world with proud eyes.

"Where do we go?" asked the battle-steed. "What do we fight?"

"We go Beyond," said the Duke. " And as to whom we shall fight... well, that remains to be seen."

"I can take you anywhere," said the battle-steed. "And I will kill those who try to hurt you."

The Duke clambered onto the battle-steed's back, the cold metal yielding as live flesh between his thighs, and he urged it forward.

A leap and it was racing through the froth and flux of Underspace: together they were tumbling through the madness between the worlds. The Duke laughed, then, where no man could hear him, as they travelled together through Underspace, travelling forever in the Undertime (that is not reckoned against the seconds of a person's life).

"This feels like a trap, of some kind," said the battle-steed, as the space beneath galaxies evaporated about them.

"Yes," said the Duke. "I am sure that it is."

"I have heard of this Queen," said the battle-steed, "Or of something like her. She lives between life and death, and calls warriors and heroes and poets and dreamers to their doom."

"That sounds right," said the Duke.

"And when we return to real-space, I would expect an ambush," said the battle-steed.

"That sounds more than probable," said the Duke, as they reached their destination, and erupted out of underspace back into existence.

The guardians of the palace were as beautiful as the messenger had warned him, and as ferocious, and they were waiting.

"What are you doing?" they called, as they came in for the assault. "Do you know that strangers are forbidden here? Stay with us. Let us love you. We will devour you with our love."

"I have come to rescue your Queen," he told them.

"Rescue the Queen?" they laughed. "She will have your head on a plate before she looks at you. Many people have come to save her, over the years. Their heads sit on golden plates in her palace. Yours will simply be the freshest."

There were men who looked like fallen angels and women who looked like demons risen. There were people so beautiful that they would have been all that the Duke had ever desired, had they been human, and they pressed close to him, skin to carapace and flesh against armour, so they could feel the coldness of him, and he could feel the warmth of them.

"Stay with us. Let us love you," they whispered, and they reached out with sharp talons and teeth.

"I do not believe your love will prove to be good for me," said the Duke. One of the women, fair of hair, with eyes of a peculiar translucent blue, reminded him of someone long-forgotten, of a lover who had passed out of his life a long time before. He found her name in his mind, and would have called it aloud, to see if she turned, to see if she knew him, but the battle-steed lashed out with sharp claws, and the pale blue eyes were closed forever.

The battle-steed moved fast, like a panther, and each of the guardians fell to the ground, and writhed and was still.

The Duke stood before the Queen's palace. He slipped from his battle-steed to the fresh earth.

"Here, I go on alone," he said. "Wait, and one day I shall return."

"I do not believe you will ever return," said the battle-steed. "I shall wait until time itself is done, if need be. But still, I fear for you."

The Duke touched his lips to the black steel of the steed's head, and bade it farewell. He walked on to rescue the Queen. He remembered a monster who had ruled worlds and who would never die, and he smiled, because he was no longer that man. For the first time since his first youth he had something to lose, and the discovery of that made him young again. His heart began to pound in his chest as he walked through the empty palace, and he laughed out loud.

She was waiting for him, in the place where flowers die. She was everything he had imagined that she would be. Her skirt was simple and white, her cheekbones were high and very dark, her hair was long and the infinitely dark colour of a crow's wing.

"I am here to rescue you," he told her.

"You are here to rescue yourself," she corrected him. Her voice was almost a whisper, like the breeze that shook the dead blossoms.

He bowed his head, although she was as tall as he was.

"Three questions," she whispered. "Answer them correctly, and all you desire shall be yours. Fail, and your head will rest forever on a golden dish." Her skin was the brown of the dead rose-petals. Her eyes were the the dark gold of amber.

"Ask your three questions," he said, with a confidence he did not feel.

The Queen reached out a finger and she ran the tip of it gently along his cheek. The Duke could not remember the last time that anybody had touched him without his permission.

"What is bigger than the universe?" she asked.

"Underspace and Undertime," said the Duke. "For they both include the universe, and also all that is not the universe. But I suspect you seek a more poetic, less accurate answer. The mind, then, for it can hold a universe, but also imagine things that have never been, and are not."

The Queen said nothing.

"Is that right? Is that wrong?" asked the Duke. He wished, momentarily, for the snakelike whisper of his master advisor, unloading, through its neural plug, the accumulated wisdom of his advisors over the years, or even the chitter of his information beetle.

"The second question," said the Queen. "What is greater than a King?"

"Obviously, a Duke," said the Duke. "For all Kings, Popes, Chancellors, Empresses and such serve at and only at my will. But again, I suspect that you are looking for an answer that is less accurate and more imaginative. The mind, again, is greater than a King. Or a Duke. Because, although I am the inferior of nobody, there are those who could imagine a world in which there is something superior to me, and something else again superior to that, and so on. No! Wait! I have it the answer. It is from the Great Tree: Kether, the Crown, the concept of monarchy, is greater than any King."

The Queen looked at the Duke with amber eyes, and she said, "The final question for you. What can you never take back?"

"My word," said the Duke. "Although, now I come to think of it, once I give my word, sometimes circumstances change and sometimes the worlds themselves change in unfortunate or unexpected ways. From time to time, if it comes to that, my word needs to be modified in accordance with realities. I would say Death, but, truly, if I find myself in need of someone I have previously disposed of, I simply have them reincorporated..."

The Queen looked impatient.

"A kiss," said the Duke.

She nodded.

"There is hope for you," said the Queen. "You believe you are my only hope, but, truthfully, I am yours. Your answers were all quite wrong. But the last was not as wrong as the rest of them."

The Duke contemplated losing his head to this woman, and found the prospect less disturbing than he would have expected.

A wind blew through the garden of dead flowers, and the Duke was put in mind of perfumed ghosts.

"Would you like to know the answer?" she asked.

"Answers," he said. "Surely."

"Only one answer, and it is this: the heart," said the Queen. "The heart is greater than the universe, for it can find pity in it for everything in the universe, and the universe itself can feel no pity. The heart is greater than a King, because a heart can know a King for what he is, and still love him. And once you give your heart, you cannot take it back."

"I said a kiss," said the Duke.

"It was not as wrong as the other answers," she told him. The wind gusted higher and wilder and for a heartbeat the air was filled with dead petals. Then the wind was gone as sudenly as it appeared, and the broken petals fell to the floor.

"So. I have failed, in the first task you set me. Yet I do not believe my head would look good upon a golden dish," said the Duke. "Or upon any kind of a dish. Give me a task, then, a quest, something I can achieve to show that I am worthy. Let me rescue you from this place."

"I am never the one who needs rescuing," said the Queen. "Your advisors and scarabs and programs are done with you. They sent you here, as they sent those who came before you, long ago, because it is better for you to vanish of your own volition, than for them to kill you in your sleep. And less dangerous." She took his hand in hers. "Come," she said. They walked away from the garden of dead flowers, past the fountains of light, spraying their lights into the void, and into the citadel of song, where perfect voices waited at each turn, sighing and chanting and humming and echoing, although nobody was there to sing.

Beyond the citadel was only mist.

"There," she told him. "We are the end of everything, where nothing exists but what we create, by act of will or by desperation. Here in this place. I can speak freely. It is only us, now." She looked into his eyes. "You do not have to die. You can stay with me. You will be happy to have finally found happiness, a heart, and the value of existence. And I will love you."

The Duke looked at her with a flash of puzzled anger. "I asked to care. I asked for something to care about. I asked for a heart."

"And they have given you all you asked for. But you cannot be their monarch and have those things. So you cannot return."

"I... I asked them to make this happen," said the Duke. He no longer seemed angry. The mists at the edge of that place were pale, and they hurt the Duke's eyes when he stared at them too deeply or too long.

The ground began to shake, as if beneath the footsteps of a giant.

"Is anything true here?" asked the Duke. "Is anything permanent?"

"Everything is true," said the Queen. "The giant comes. And it will kill you, unless you defeat it."

"How many times have you been through this?" asked the Duke. "How many heads have wound up on golden dishes?"

"Nobody's head has ever wound up on a golden platter," she said. "I am not programmed to kill them. They battle for me and they win me and they stay with me until they close their eyes for the last time. They are content to stay, or I make them content. But you... you need your discontent, don't you?"

He hesitated. Then he nodded.

She put her arms around him and kissed him, slowly and gently. The kiss, once given, could not be taken back.

"So now, I will fight the giant and save you?"

"It is what happens."

He looked at her. He looked down at himself, at his engraved armour, at his weapons. "I am no coward. I have never walked away from a fight. I cannot return, but I will not be content to stay here with you. So I will wait here, and I will let the giant kill me."

She looked alarmed. "Stay with me. Stay."

The Duke looked behind him, into the blank whiteness. "What lies out there?" he asked. "What is beyond the mist?"

"You would run?" she asked. "You would leave me?"

"I will walk," he said. "And I will not walk away. But I will walk towards. I wanted a heart. What is on the other side of that mist?"

She shook her head. "Beyond the mist is Malkuth: The Kingdom. But it does not exist unless you make it so. It becomes as you create it. If you dare to walk into the mist, then you will build a world or you will cease to exist entirely. And you can do this thing. I do not know what will happen, except for this: if you walk away from me you can never return."

He heard a pounding still, but was no longer certain that it was the feet of a giant. It felt more like the beat, beat, beat of his own heart.

He turned towards the mist, before he could change his mind, and he walked into the nothingness, cold and clammy against his skin. With each step he felt himself becoming less. His neural plugs died, and gave him no new information, until even his name and his status were lost to him.

He was not certain if he was seeking a place or making one. But he remembered dark skin and her amber eyes. He remembered the stars -- there would be stars where he was going, he decided. There must be stars.

He pressed on. He suspected he had once been wearing armour, but he felt the damp mist on his face, and on his neck, and he shivered in his thin coat against the cold night air.

He stumbled, his foot glancing against the kerb.

Then he pulled himself upright, and peered at the blurred streetlights through the fog. A car drove close -- too close -- and vanished past him, the red rear lights staining the mist crimson.

My old manor, he thought, fondly, and that was followed by a moment of pure puzzlement, at the idea of Beckenham as his old anything. He'd only just moved there. It was somewhere to use as a base. Somewhere to escape from. Surely, that was the point?

But the idea, of a man running away (a lord or a duke, perhaps, he thought, and liked the way it felt in his head) hovered and hung in his mind, like the beginning of a song.

"I'd rather write a something song than rule the world," he said aloud, tasting the words in his mouth. He rested his guitar case against a wall, put his hand in the pocket of his duffel coat, found a pencil-stub and a shilling notebook, and wrote them down. He'd find a good two-syllable word for the something soon enough, he hoped.

Then he pushed his way into the pub. The warm, beery atmosphere embraced him as he walked inside. The low fuss and grumble of pub conversation. Somebody called his name, and he waved a pale hand at them, pointed to his wristwatch and then to the stairs. Cigarette smoke gave the air a faint blue sheen. He coughed, once, deep in his chest, and craved a cigarette of his own.

Up the stairs with the threadbare red carpeting, holding his guitar case like a weapon, whatever had been in his mind before he turned the corner into the High Street evaporating with each step. He paused in the dark corridor before opening the door to the pub's upstairs room. From the buzz of small talk and the clink of glasses, he knew there were already a handful of people waiting and working. Someone was tuning a guitar.

Monster? Thought the young man. That's got two syllables.

He turned the word around in his mind several times before he decided that he could find something better, something bigger, something more fitting for the world he intended to conquer, and, with only a momentary regret, he let it go forever, and walked inside.


Illustrations © Yoshitaka Amano