It was summer in the wine country, in the cleft of a hilly vale steeped in green heat. I had a noseful of dust, pollen and sex. Our sticky bodies separated slowly as we sat back in the remains of our picnic, the white cloth dirty and disheveled. Carcasses of roast game hens and rinds of soft cheeses were strewn about. The dry, greedy earth had drunk most of the vintage from a toppled bottle, and what remained we quickly swallowed.
My companion rose, gathered her cast-off skirt and blouse, and went into the trees while running a hand through her blonde locks and smiling back at me. As I twisted the corkscrew into the mouth of the last bottle, I heard a muted whine, a soft explosion, the beginnings of a scream—all in the shady confidence of the forest.
I called to her without remembering her name. She did not answer.
I started to rise, then remembered my own nakedness. My gun lay out in the dust, tangled in my trousers. As I scrambled over the tablecloth, twigs broke and leaf-mould crackled in the woods. I claimed the gun and turned to face the forest. Where were my guardians?
A shadow moved between the trees in hazy webs of light. I saw a glint of red-gold, like the heart of a forest fire. No one had hair like that except my hosts, the royal family.
“Prince?” I called, thinking that somehow he had discovered my indiscretions with his sister last night; and now, in retaliation, had murdered the innocent I’d picked up at the edge of the woods.
The figure with the flaming hair stopped behind the tree where my friend had fallen. I heard a low chuckle, and despite the heat I felt a chill. That was not the Prince’s laughter.
“Don’t move!” I cried, my finger less than steady on the trigger.
Out of the shadows she came, still laughing. The rifle strap cut between her breasts, her weapon holstered so that I knew she did not intend to fire on me. Even so, her eyes were a fury.
“Princess,” I said.
She mocked me with a shake of her head. “Dear Prince, whatever will I do with you? Was it only last night you filled my ears with promises of fidelity? This is a poor start.”
“You’ve gone too far,” I said. “That girl—”
The Princess took a step into the sunlight and her hair turned molten. “Was she important to you?”
“She was innocent,” I said, momentarily blinded by her hair but pretending otherwise, not trusting her for even a moment with the knowledge of my vulnerability.
“Should that have saved her?” she asked, her voice tiptoeing around me through spots of glare. I tried to follow her with my gun; she was toying with me.
“If you’ve a fight to pick with me—’’
“Oh, come now. If my father insulted your mother, would she go out of her way to slap him in the face? Don’t be ridiculous. She’d pay her soldiers to fight, and plenty of innocents would die. This little ‘love’ of yours was in my way.’’
“I didn’t love her,” I said. “You needn’t have bothered.”
As the glare receded, and her face went into shadow, I saw the Princess stoop to snatch a pear from our picnic and take a bite. I lowered my gun and began to dress, she stared at me with a curious smile while the juice ran down her chin, her throat. She was dressed like a huntress, in soft brown leather and tall boots. As I began lacing up my shirt, she stopped me with a touch. “Don’t,” she said.
“Are you mad?”
Her grip tightened on my wrist. She clenched her teeth behind her smile. “Will you tell on me? Why not carry as before? Only I will ever know that once you broke our promise.”
I tore my arm away from her. “What do you want? We’ve had our pleasure but it can never happen again. What if we had been discovered last night?”
She took a step closer, pressing against me, her smell aphrodisiac. “It would have simplified everything. We would be planning a spectacular wedding now. It’s what our parents want: the children of both countries formally wed.”
I kicked through the remains of the picnic and fled into the woods, knowing that she was on my heels. A few yards into the shadows I came upon the body of the girl whose sweat and musk still flavored my tongue. Fallen leaves clung to the wreck of her face. As I leaned against tree trunk, the Princess caught me from behind, her nails cutting into my ribs. She twisted me toward her, biting at my lips. I stumbled against the tree, fighting her off, but she grabbed my hair and we both went down into the loam. She was naked beneath her brief leather skirt.
“I don’t want this,” I said. My body hinted otherwise.
‘‘We’re two of a kind, Prince, and you know it.”
I made myself relax. She believed my imitation of submission; her eyelids narrowed, pupils drifting to one side. She wasn’t seeing me, though her hands were all over my body. She trembled, already close, so close that I could feel myself being sucked along with her.
Then I looked through the grass and my body went cold. She was looking at the twisted limbs, the torn belly, the sun-browned breasts draped in a bloodied blouse. The tree trunk obscured my view, but I knew the Princess had a clear sight of my dead lover’s gory face.
‘‘My God!” I rolled free of her. She lay panting in the grass, her body wracked by spasms. I tore myself away from the sight and ran toward my car and my guardians, toward the borders of home.
My private jet left the Princess’s airspace shortly after sunset; it was another hour before we circled and came to earth. That was time enough for her to destroy the old pattern of my life, as I soon discovered.
Instead of the black ultralight carriage that normally awaited my return, an ugly armored vehicle idled on the airstrip. Arqui’s car. In constant fear of assassination, he never traveled in anything less secure than a street tank. Inside, Prime Minister Arquinian sat breaking pencils and cleaning his fingertips.
‘‘You’ve done it now,” he said as I took an uncomfortable seat beside him. ‘‘Mind telling us what happened over there?”
By “us” he meant himself and the Queen Mother, who watched from a two-way in the roof.
“How much do you know?” I asked, casually opening the wet bar which the P.M. never left behind.
“How much?” I could see he was in a rage. “They’ve declared war! It’s finished now, all the treaties. Five years of my life, you ruin in a pleasure jaunt that was meant to ease tensions.”
“It was fate,” I said with a shrug.
“Well, what happened?”
“I met the Princess.”
“The Princess,” Mother said, as if she understood perfectly. She had been a princess herself once. “You two had a fight? A lovers’ tiff?”
“Lovers!” Arquinian waxed apoplectic. “My God, and it came to this? The casualties are already past counting. Can’t you talk to the girl, reason with her, if she’s the cause?”
I shook my head, raised my hands. “There’s no reasoning with her, she’s in a passion. I’m all she wants.”
“Well!” said my mother, trying to hide her improper amusement from the P.M.
“Then it’s your fault,” said Arquinian.
“I haven’t killed a soul.”
“You haven’t patched things up, either. This is juvenile behavior.”
He shook a finger at me, as if I were still a child to be reprimanded—but I seized it and bent it backward, out of view of my mother, watching his face whiten while I whispered.
“You don’t know what you’re saying, Arq. She’s irrational. How can I reason with such a girl?”
“I’ve reasoned with far worse, young man, and so must you. She must be stopped. This war especially must stop.”
I relinquished his finger, now properly sprained, and he took it away without showing his distress. But the blood had drained from his ultimatum:
“If you don’t do something, Prince, we might turn you over to her.”
“Oh, leave him alone, Arqui,” said my mother. “We’ll do nothing of the sort.”
I peeked out the window, saw that we’d reached the city. “Look, there’s nothing I can do if her father sends armies on her word. The whole family must be insane. I’m surprised you’d risk me in negotiations. She killed my consort, that’s what started it.”
“You think I don’t know you better than that?” said Arquinian.
“I don’t care what you know.”
With that, I unlatched the door and leapt to the street. The Prime Minister and my mother, for once in accord, screamed after me, but Arqui didn’t dare leave his movable fortress. He ordered the drivers to give pursuit, but a military procession, brass horns blaring, marched in the way and several foot soldiers vanished beneath the tank treads before it could be halted. I ducked into an alley, leaving familial duties behind, and dodged through street after street, thankful to be home again.
All I needed now was a place to stay.
For three days I hid in a garret, writing sentimental battle odes and drinking cheap wine. I could find none of my old slumming companions to drink with me. For all their brave treasonous talk and rebellious posturing, they had conceded quietly enough to military induction and now were soldiers, mired in mud and gulping gas at the front, too stupid to command planes or even to push buttons in proper sequence from the safety of underground bunkers.
My greatest poetry was penned during the endless hours of midnight airstrikes. I was touched by the Princess’s persistence in striking at the heart of my land. It suited her twisted sense of the romantic. I hated to think she had inspired me, and I fought the idea with increased quantities of wine and pills, but the constant explosions were anodyne to my melancholy, and for the first time in my life I found myself able to harness my passions. However, waking one sunset to reread my morbid ballads, I began to wonder if she might have been correct in drawing parallels between us. My longest poem was a complex conceit in which ballistic equations were subtly derived from, and thinly concealed, the curves of her figure, the clash of phosphor lightning in the highlights of her hair. It ended on a black battlefield, and by the time I laid down my pen, I was shivering in an erotic fever.
Unable to purchase wine or water, and starving for breakfast, I left the confines of that close little room. The smell of bodies and cordite played a part in sending me out into the streets and back to my family, who had by now moved into the Emergency Palace.
The Emergency Palace was a perfect replica of our usual homestead, except that every one of its ornate windows opened onto nothing but dirt, rock and roots. It held the same temperature year-round, wherefore my mother preferred it to the regular Palace. Her shingles rarely bothered her here.
“I’ve come not to surrender,” I told her as she sat in state among her fawning courtiers and slightly more dignified lapdogs, “but to state my case.”
“Really, dear, it’s no concern of mine. Shall I tell Arqui you’re here?”
The Prime Minister had overheard my announcement. He appeared from behind an electric arras, eyes alight at the words with which I greeted him: “Set it up, Arq.”
And so that very night I was flown to the front over what appeared to be a scale model of luminous craters and stalled war machines. Naturally the Princess could not wait for a reasonable hour; but then, I was not interested in waiting. I wanted to see what would come of the affair.
At an underground airfield I was transferred to a war-scarred limousine which was chauffeured up a slight ramp to that perpetual amusement park whose theme is war.
A cease-fire had been called to facilitate negotiations, but plainly the land had been in some upheaval. Fires of hell fried the obsidian sky, leaping above generous mounds of cadavers, the usual battlefield fare. Although it was summer and no rain had fallen for weeks, the earth showed soaked and sprouting a crimson mildew in the headlights. Upturned helmets lay scattered on the road like battered tortoise shells, dippers full of blood. The tangled bodies became less distinct from the muck as we crossed into no-man’s-land.
And there in the worst of it, like a neon saloon in a nightmare, the Princess had parked her bus of state. As we pulled alongside, I commanded my aides to wait calmly no matter what happened. I gave thanks for my tall boots as I waded through the massacre to the bus. A chauffeuse was out polishing the windshield while another took a chamois to the chrome fenders. Mangled hands like squashed starfish reached out from under the tires.
Instead of knocking, I pressed my face to the glass folding door and said, “I hope you appreciate this.”
She opened the door with a shiny lever and gazed down at me from the plush driver’s seat. If I had expected her face to be streaked with tears or otherwise ravaged by my rejection, I would have been disappointed. Her demeanor was military, unperturbed.
As I climbed in, she said, “Before you say a thing, let me assure you that I have considered your desires before my own. I know that you, like myself, might thrive on new pleasures—while retaining certain favorites to which you may return again and again without exhausting their fascination. Therefore, I offer the portable services of my bus. This is only a taste of what awaits you at home.” She pulled aside a curtain that hung across the cabin, unveiling a living gallery of nudes smeared with fluorescent body paints and soaked in ultraviolet light: a lurid spectrum of humanity, displaying a variety of genders, some surgical. I was touched to see she had included a sex-anemone, for my Nanny and first mistress had possessed one such; although while Nanny’s had been a graft, moored in her flesh, this anemone was detached, a lonely polyp growing from a pair of fleshy vegetable thighs, devoid of personality. For the Princess, while she might concede to the pleasure-giving powers of many unexpected elements, would never allow any of them to compete for my intellectual attentions. Her human slaves, to similar effect, had the dull grins and sunken temples of the lobotomized.
“There should be something here to suit you,” she said.
“You overestimate my appetite,” I replied. “How can I consider pleasure in this setting?”
I leaned past her and switched on the headlights. A bright swath of charnel horrors appeared before us. It been there all along.
“What can you offer them?” I asked.
Her body began to shudder, wracked by spasms welling from her womb. Only her eyes remained unmoved, fixed on the scene beyond the windshield. She snagged my wrist in her nails, gasping, “Please, Prince, take me.”
“Say ‘fuck,’ dear. ‘Take’ isn’t your sort of euphemism.”
I considered refusing her, as I had refused the offer of her living cargo. But the blood and the sweating night and now this honest show of desire had worked me up to a fine point. I gave her what she asked for, while she stared out the window at the field of death which was all that would ever issue from her womb. I could not look at it myself. I turned my head to the wind-wing and watched the chamois moving slowly back and forth in the hand of a chauffeuse whose doe-like eyes held mine until that trembling instant when, eyes closing, I jerked and forced the Princess into the horn.
The wailing summoned my guardians from the car. They stood before us, knee-deep in bodies, their guns erect but blinded by the headlights.
“Turn out the light,” she said, hitching herself back into the seat.
I did so.
“Come home with me, Prince.”
“I can’t do that. You’ve been unfortunate enough to meet me at the height of my reckless youth. This is the only time I have to be wild and passionate, to develop the emotional artistry that must serve me in the slow grind of petty politics.” I lifted her hand and kissed it. “Should I apologize for winning your heart? It’s a skill of mine, honed to perfection—too sharp, I think—but I will put it aside when I put on the crown.”
“Why can’t you be like other men?” she said, rising from her ultraviolet pout.
I laughed. “Now I understand the devastation on your other borders. You’re entrenched in the affections of ‘other men.’ Would all those wars end if we married?”
“I will always hate the others, but not as I hate you. You’re the only one who dared run from me.” Uncomfortable with all those nudes watching us, I pulled the curtain closed again. ‘‘I was trying to preserve the landscape.”
“Fuck the landscape. You can’t pick a bouquet without gouging the earth.”
“And you’ve picked me a lovely bouquet of bloody flesh.”
“I? Pick flesh for you? I’m not courting you, Prince.”
“What do you call this?”
She sat back and stared haughtily at me. ‘‘Negotiation.”
“I shouldn’t have come.”
She smiled. ‘‘Are you always so moody after sex? I’m sure you’ll feel differently tomorrow. We’ll get an early start, take a slow drive through the wine country. …”
‘‘There’s not much left of it, judging from the photographs I’ve seen.”
‘‘You shouldn’t have retaliated. You’ll spoil our honeymoon.”
‘‘I didn’t start this war.”
‘‘Yes, you did. By running. Your country can’t be too pleased with its Prince. Who’ll follow a coward? If you don’t give me what I want, this war will go on forever. I’ll assassinate my brother—I’ve been poisoning him slowly anyway—and the power will stay in my hands. I’ll never marry. I will destroy you. The generation that grows up beneath you will be born to attrition. Society has a long memory for blame, and they’ll lay their lot to your cowardice. It will be your war then.”
‘‘My very own personal war?”
“Which you can’t fight without approval. The people will count the bodies and weigh them against yours. You have only one, and you’ll lose it.”
I sat down on the topmost step and rested my chin in my hands. “I don’t know anymore, Princess. You have my mother’s approval, don’t you?”
Her laughter rang like a cracked bell. ‘‘This marriage, my darling, was arranged long ago. I’ve merely tried to reconcile you to it. I think it’s something we could both enjoy. It wasn’t my idea, you know. We’re so alike that you should have guessed I wouldn’t look forward to putting my neck in a yoke, regardless of the partner.”
‘‘Not your idea?”
“Do you think that two children would be allowed to plunge their countries into total war? Our parents have let this war come about, prince, in order to draw us together.”
My hair prickled. “Who told you this?”
“I discovered it clue by clue, over the years. It’s obvious when you comprehend the pattern.”
I rose from the steps. “But how can you go along with it, knowing what you do?”
Her eyebrows arched up. “It suits me. By playing along, I get all I desire. Best of all, I get you.”
“A lousy trade. You’ll sacrifice your freedom and then you won’t want me. Not on our parents’ terms, you won’t.”
I was glad to see her considering this.
“Look,” I said, “what if I said you can have me? You know that in the only way that matters, I am already yours. ’’
She leaned closer. Her chauffeuse watched us with eyes like moons. “Yes?”
“But I don’t want to live in your land, Princess, and admit it, you have no fondness for mine. If we married, you would have to live in my country.”
“We can break with custom.”
“If you follow it now, even to get what you want, tradition will trap you forever. Listen, my bloody darling. Listen to what I propose.”
Her hand slid into mine.
“Pitch the war with all your will,” I said. “Drive your father until he howls. Be a cancer in his heart. Attack, my love, and never stop. Let there be ever newer weaponry, mountains of bodies. Let our love never stagnate in treaties. If we forsake peace, we can slake our lust forever.”
She looked out over the ragged fields, the sloppy graves. I could see my vision playing in her eyes. How easily it would spread, out of the wine lands and over the hills, blighting crops and felling forests, drenching the world in blood.
‘‘And you’ll be mine?” she asked huskily.
“Yes, yours always. We will meet thus, in the midst of death, pretending to discuss the terms of an impossible peace. For as long as we have each other, peace will never come.”
“You are mine!”
“And you are mine, Princess. And now there is something we share.”
“Yes.” Tightening her grip, she pulled me in again. “Yes.”
When I finally descended from the bus, my escorts stood stiffly around the limousine, sucking on perfumed cigarettes. They gasped at the sight of blood on my face and hands, the nail marks and bruises. The Princess’s bus roared and lumbered away, grinding through the carnage. I watched it until the taillights vanished, and thought I heard gunfire beginning in the distance. They couldn’t know it yet, but the cease-fire had ended.
“There was trouble?” asked an aide.
I pushed past him to the car, saying brusquely, “There will be no truce, no compromise. Take me home.”
* * *
“Wartorn, Lovelorn” copyright 1991 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in There Won’t Be War, edited by Harry Harrison and Bruce McAllister (1991).