During his tenure as Archagent of Derse, Jack Noir kissed the Black Queen on exactly three occassions. The first time they had been fighting, after too much champagne on her part and too much moonshine on his, and somehow they’d ended up pressed together in an alcove, her hands clamped around his shoulders, nails digging into his skin through the silk of his uniform. The soft soles of his shoes barely touched the ground as she locked her mouth over his and held him there while his heart pounded and his eyes slid closed and fuck he was enjoying this.
The second time they kissed, the Dignitary saw.
They were on Jack’s desk, the fizzing static of the fenestrated walls around them, tuned to nothing. He’d kept his hands to himself – somewhat admirably, considering – but she was crouched over him like a panther in heels and her hand was jerking his pants down.
Neither of them heard the door open. Had they all lived in a bad sitcom, the Dignitary would have come in the room talking about something, caught sight of what was going on, screamed and – for added comedic effect, of course – thrown the papers he was carrying in the air before running from the room.
Thankfully, they didn’t live in a bad sitcom. The Dignitary entered the room silently, nothing in his hands but his spear, caught sight of what was happening, and turned on his heel, leaving the two of them to get on with it undisturbed.
The Dignitary knew about the third time Jack Noir kissed – among other things – the Black Queen, even though he didn’t stumble upon it. He inferred, based on the long run in the fabric of Jack’s uniform and the poorly-concealed bite mark on his neck, just below the black and white splashes of his high collar.
He never said anything about it. Jack was his friend, certainly, but he was his own person. It was none of the Dignitary’s business if he wanted to make terrible choices.
Terrible choices, he would later discover, that ran so much deeper than an ill-conceived rendezvous with the sovereign of the state.
He’d been shocked when Jack actually managed to lead a rebellion against the Queen, and she was banished to exile by her own husband. He’d been less surprised when Jack was sent out into the desert a day later. He’d never been particularly good at covering his tracks.
What had surprised the Dignitary the most was that the Brute and the Droll came to him the next day, the Droll wringing his hands, and told him that they were leaving Derse. They’d helped Jack, they explained, and just because they didn’t actually know what they were doing, and didn’t get caught didn’t mean they didn’t deserve exile. And Jack, the Brute rumbled, didn’t deserve to die alone out in the middle of the wastelands.
“He exiled the Queen,” the Dignitary pointed out, stunned.
“She was a bad Queen,” the Droll said, although he seemed a little uncertain on the point. “She wouldn’t do her job.”
“We’re leavin’, either way. ‘M sick of this military rap. Jack had the right idea – win through numbers. Not bodies.” The Brute had took a breath through his nose and nodded to the Dignitary. “You can stay, but someone gotta know we’re goin’.”
The words jumped from his mouth before he really had the chance to think it through. “I’m coming.”
They left that day, at dusk, before any of them had the chance to think about it too much. The heat of the desert was fading, the cold of night not yet set in. They traveled light – as much food and water as the Brute could carry, wrappings against the sand and the sun, and nothing else. The desert was still, and they could follow the footprints through the dunes for a while, until they broke free of the periphery of the place and the wind kicked up.
“What if we don’t find Jack?”
“We will,” the Dignitary lied. He had no idea – Jack could be dead in a ditch somewhere for all he knew. But he doubted it.
They did find him, close to the next morning, shivering and staggering through the sand, aimless. The Brute forced water into him while the Dignitary helped him wind the wrappings around himself and the already-tattered uniform. Silk was all comfort and no durability, more was the pity. He demanded an explanation as to why they’d left, but that was all he said.
They didn’t talk much at all, really. Even the Droll was quiet as they walked, day and night, stopping to sleep when exhaustion hit them, piled up in the sand like dogs.
It was probably around the fifth day that they ran out of water and started scavenging burnt-out husks of buildings for anything edible or potable.
On the eighth day, Jack started complaining. It was too hot, it was too sandy, it was too dry, the sun was relentless. All true, of course, but not something the Dignitary particularly cared to be reminded of. “Shut up, Jack.”
“And you know whose fault it is?” he went on, undeterred. “That fucking bitch. Fucking cut-rate excuse for a monarch, just soldiered on while all the mooks in her army went out and got their asses slaughtered for her. And she couldn’t even do them the goddamn courtesy of making herself the fucking Queen she needed to be!” He stumbled down a dune, hitting his stride, while the other three hung well back. “I should have been a fucking hero! Showed the bitch’s true colors to the whole goddamn kingdom and what do I get in return? Fucking desert!”
“We’re here too, Jack,” the Droll said cautiously. “I think you did the right thing.”
“You don’t have to be! You can go back,” he snarled. “Any fucking day you want, just turn the fuck around and go back and they’ll probably welcome you with open goddamn arms. But me, I show the country the fucking Queen’s a huge bitch who just does whatever the fuck she wants regardless of the fucking state and it’s ‘see you later, Jack, enjoy your sandy, broiling, slow fucking death’!”
“Jack we came because we thought you were right,” the Dignitary snapped.
“Yeah?” He stopped and spun on the Dignitary, sand slipping out from under him. He caught himself, glared up at the Dignitary. “Well then where the fuck were you when I was trying to get the bitch kicked out? Where the fuck were you before this fucking desert, Draco?”
“We didn’t know what you were doing. You never told us,” he answered, calm and cold. “I would have helped you.”
“Psh.” Jack crested the dune and stopped, looked back over his shoulder. “As if. You liked the bitch.”
“You don’t know that,” he replied, and the implication that Jack was throwing out burrowed under his skin like a scarab. If Jack Noir didn’t have a martyr complex, the Dignitary would eat his hat. Assuming he had an opportunity to have a hat again.
“Then where were you? I was the only fucking person in the country that hated the bitch, apparently!”
“Jack, don’t,” the Brute cautioned.
“Didn’t seem that way when you were fucking her.” He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t need to – the words seemed to spread through the whole desert. Jack froze. “If you hated her so much why the hell were you and her getting cozy on your desk?”
“Oh,” the Droll said, quietly. “Oh, no.”
“And you have the audacity to suggest we wouldn’t have helped you if you’d asked!” And now he was raising his voice. “We followed you into the desert, Jack! We could have stayed, kept our jobs, not gotten burned and thirsty and circled by vultures! What the hell else do you want us to do?”
Jack weighed the question for half a second before he spat “Fuck you, DD.”
The Dignitary leapt, and the two of them slid and rolled down the dune. Jack took a swing at his face, the Dignitary drove his knee into Jack’s stomach, and they landed in a snarling heap at the bottom.
“Wait, guys!” The Brute grabbed the back of the Droll’s wrappings and hoisted him back.
“Let ‘em work it out, Droll.”
The other two approached slowly, stopping halfway down the dune as blood spilled into the sand, thick red craters a world that seemed to be nothing but gold hemmed in by purple twilight sky. Jack was snarling, howling, ranting, while the Dignitary was silent, dodging, swinging, grunting when one of Jack’s attacks landed.
The concept of time was stretched here, so no one was really sure how long the fight went on. They were wearing themselves out though, under the burning red sunset. “All you had to do was tell us,” the Dignitary hissed, straddling Jack’s chest, shaking him. Jack bit him on the wrist.
“And risked you fuckers turning me in?” He scrambled backwards, fell, wiped his streaming nose with the back of his hand. “Fuck you!”
The Dignitary was back on his feet, and he kicked Jack in the ribs. “We wouldn’t have turned you in, you stupid piece of shit.”
Jack got up, after one or two false starts, and tackled the Dignitary, although to the Brute and the Droll – watching them from the sidelines – it looked more like they simply happened to fall over at the same time. “How the fuck was I supposed to know to trust you assholes?” He swung for the Dignitary’s face, but the other man knocked him away. Jack spilled into the sand next to him, on his back, splinting broken ribs as he gasped for breath.
“Because we’re your friends,” Dignitary groaned, propping himself up on one elbow, glaring at Jack through what was already shaping up to be a brilliant black eye. “It what we do.”
Jack watched him them, breath still coming in wheezing gasps, the blood from his nose drying on his face in the heat of dusk. “Really.”
“Yes, you idiot.” He flexed his arm and grimaced, instead tucking it carefully in his wrappings, using the cloth as a makeshift sling. “You just had to ask. Your God complex is fucking ridiculous.” They glared at one another for a second then, Brute and Droll drawing closer, cautious. Then the Dignitary shambled to his feet, swaying a little, still looking to Jack.
Jack panted up at him and then looked away, and just like that the tension in the air vaporized like a cloud. “Hey Draco,” he said, then, half-muttering.
“Help me up?” The Dignitary sighed and bent, good arm extended. “Thanks.”
They stopped to sleep that night on the gentle roll of a dune, side-by-side, staring out at the moon. Jack leaned against Draco’s ribs and the Dignitary leaned his good shoulder into the Brute, the Droll nestled between them.
As the Dignitary was drifting off, Jack – half asleep himself – murmured, “Sorry for punching you in the face.”
“Sorry for kicking you in the chest.”
Another wheezing breath, and the Dignitary’s eyes drifted shut. “Hey, can I ask you a favor, Draco?”
He couldn’t help the half-smile that twitched at the corner of his mouth. “What?”
“Don’t snore so fucking loud.”
The Dignitary sighed and rolled his eyes, slouching closer to the Brute. “Goodnight, Jack.”
Chapter 2: The Name Game
The desert destroyed everything. Clothes, shoes, water, houses, sanity – you name it, and the desert would have no qualms about taking it. The worst thing, the Dignitary thought, was that one of the things the desert took first was any sense of time at all. Days blended into nights which blended into one gritty, dusty eternity. He’d lost track after a month – how long had it been? Maybe five weeks, maybe three months. It was hard to guess.
He was willing to bet it was longer than five weeks, though. Their food supplies had lasted almost two weeks, and it felt like forever ago that the four of them had solemnly split the last can of green beans. Since then they’d been foraging, scavenging. Here and there would be an old house, all but covered with sand, and maybe they’d surface some cans of sickly sweet rotten fruit or rancid old meat or, on one occasion, nothing but condiments. They didn’t complain, just tucked into the ketchup like it was fine dining, because there weren’t any other options. Food was food.
And, scarce as it was, it was starting to show in the troupe. The Droll tired so easily anymore that the Brute usually ended up carrying him by midday. The Brute himself walked a little slower, took a little longer to crest each dune, stumbled just a little more. The Dignitary himself was not immune – he was foggy and distant; he felt like he was disconnected from the rest of the world, like Derse and its soft beds and iceboxes brimming with whatever you could think to ask for and total lack of sand were just fantasies or mirages that his starving, fevered brain had created to distract him.
The only one who hadn’t seemed to lose a step was Jack. He still plowed on with the same burning anger that he’d carried since his exile, arms folded tightly across his rail-thin chest, sunken eyes burning with either insanity or something else entirely. The Dignitary didn’t care to guess which, but if pressed he probably would have speculated it was a mixture of insanity and whatever. Jack was always a mixture of insanity and something else.
Still, despite the exhaustion and the heat and the gnawing hunger, they were at least civil to one another, if not downright friendly. Less friendly now, since the only thing they had to drink was some dirty water they’d fished out of an animal trough along the cobble street of an abandoned town, and the last time they’d eaten was … It was …
It probably wasn’t important. They just needed to find more. Soon.
Night fell, foodless once again. “We gotta stop, Jack; I can’t do anything else today,” the Brute grumbled, as his stomach followed suit. His knees folded and he settled into the sand, laying the little form of the Droll in the sand next to him.
“We stopping?” the little man asked, sitting up weakly. “Is there food?”
The Brute frowned and put his hand on the Droll’s head. “Sorry little guy.”
“Oh. It’s okay, I was just wondering.” He hunched over his stomach. “I’m awful hungry.”
Jack had stopped a bit ahead, sagging and swaying on his feet, looking out over the desert. “We’re so close,” he mumbled. The Dignitary sighed and put his hand on the shorter man’s shoulder. “Tomorrow. Or the next day. I can smell it.”
“What’s it smell like?” The Dignitary waited for Jack to slump to the ground before he joined him, dropping the pack gratefully and rubbing his sore, bony shoulder. Jack had probably broke his collarbone, and it had probably healed since then. How long did a collarbone take to heal?
Jack lay back and pushed his hood off. “Water. Food.” He folded his spindly hands behind his head and let his eyes fall shut.
“Sounds nice,” the Brute rumbled. “Wish I could smell it too.”
“You will. We’ll build a fucking city there, and other people’ll smell it too. Come from fucking miles around.” He shivered a little, and the Dignitary slid nearer to him, nestled in the overwhelming bulk of the Brute. “Do it better than Derse ever did.” His eyes opened again and he sat up. “Which reminds me: we gotta change our fucking names.”
The Droll cracked an eye. “Huh?”
“We ain’t Dersites anymore. Gotta lose the names.”
“But … but they’re our names.” The Droll looked puzzled. “We don’t have other names.”
“Well fucking make some up,” Jack snapped. “It doesn’t make a goddamn lick of sense to keep the same names. I mean look at you: Courtyard Droll? Alright, Droll maybe, but when you gonna work in a courtyard again, huh?”
“But … but everyone calls me CD.” His eyebrows knit. “I can’t be Desert Droll – DD already has those initials!”
“So change your initials, Jesus.”
“No!” You’d think Jack had suggested he kill a puppy, the way that horrified look blossomed onto his face. “I need my initials! I’ll … I’ll just have to think up a different name with the same initials!”
“I’m with him. I want my initials,” the Brute murmured, half-asleep. “You’re right though Jack: I don’t wanna be the Brute anymore. I ain’t a Brute.”
“Yes you are.”
“Well I am.” He took a deep breath, and the Droll – CD for now – bobbed up and down with his diaphragm. “But on my own terms. And I guess sometimes yours, ‘f I feel like it.”
“What about you, DD?” CD looked down over the line of HB’s stomach – formerly a formidable ridge, now just a hillock. “Do you still want to be DD?”
“I think so.” He rolled over onto his side, feeling Jack’s backbone rubbing up against his. “I’ll need to sleep on it.”
“Jack?” CD prodded the leader, and Jack cracked his eyes, lazy. “What about you? You could keep your name if you wanted to.”
“Fuck no I don’t want to. I don’t even want my goddamn initials.” His eyes fell shut again. He yawned. “Sleep on it.”
It was much later the next day when CD stirred in HB’s arms and lifted his head. “Hey HB!”
“What’s up, little man?”
“I thought of a name for you.” The leading two members of the party willed their stomachs to settle and perked up, the Dignitary half-looking over his shoulder at the other pair. “Wanna know what it is?”
CD beamed. “Happy Bunny.”
The Dignitary couldn’t remember Jack ever laughing so hard. The skinny guy actually had to stop and lay down, arm over his eyes against the sun, occasionally whimpering about his still-aching ribs. The Dignitary laughed too, plopping down in the sand next to Jack, his head cradled in his arms as his shoulders shook.
“What?” CD asked.
“Shut up,” Happy Bunny – formerly Hegemonic Brute – grumped.
“Alright Bunny,” Jack gasped. “Ow, argh, ribs, oh my God I can’t stop laughing.”
“D’you have a name for yourself?” the Dignitary giggled, wiping a tear away. “CD? Since you’re naming everyone else.”
“Oh, yes! I would be Cute Dugong. They were always my favorite animals! What?!” he howled, as the Dignitary and Jack lost it again.
Jack waved his arm vaguely toward the Dignitary. “Oh God, ouch, do him next. Him next, come on.”
“Who, DD? Well I had to think a long time about what he would like to be called,” Dugong said, suddenly serious, despite Jack and the Dignitary both writhing around on the ground in fits of hysteria. Even the Brute – sorry, Bunny – had cracked a smile. “But since he’s really skinny and graceful –”
“Oh God Draco, you’re so graceful,” Jack wailed.
“– I was thinking Desert Dolphin.”
“Oh sweet Jesus.”
The Dignitary shoved Jack. “So what about him, huh, Dro – Dugong?”
The little Dersite’s face fell. “He doesn’t even have initials,” he said, distressed. “I thought and thought but it’s just too hard without initials! I know a lot of animals – there are too many to choose from!” He thought for a while, while Jack snickered smugly at the newly-christened Dolphin. “But I guess if I had to pick an animal … Jack would be a scorpion. ‘Cause he’s kind of small but deadly and he likes to stab things.” He brightened. “So Stabby Scorpion!”
Jack punched the air. “I got an awesome name.” Then he rolled onto his side and smirked at the Dignitary. “Jealous, Dolphin?”
“Please; Dolphins are the most intelligent animals, second only to humans.” He sat up, still giggling from time to time. “I can live with Dolphin.”
“Really?” the smallest member of the party squealed. DD sighed.
“No, not really, CD. Sorry. It’s just … too silly.”
“Oh. That’s okay; I understand.” He looked around to the four, and then smiled broadly once more. “Wait, guys! I have a better idea!”
“What?” Jack asked, lurching upright, still wheezing. “I’m fucking doubtful it’ll be better.”
“It is!” He wriggled out of Happy Bunny’s grasp and landed lightly in the sand, pulling his wrappings off and casting them aside. His tattered uniform looked like an oil slick in the shimmering heat of the desert. He pulled the front of his tunic out and pointed to the pin in it. “We all have suits! And they match what our first names would be!”
The Dignitary opened his mouth to say something, and then pulled his own wrappings aside, as though he’d forgotten what the little red pin on his tunic was shaped like. “Huh.”
Happy Bunny had pulled his pin off and was turning it over and over in his fingers. “You got a point, guy.”
“I know!” The smallest member of the troupe beamed around at the other three and jabbed his thumb into his chest, right next to the pin. “So my name is Clubs now!”
“I could live with Diamonds, I guess,” the Dignitary sighed.
“I like Hearts.” They all turned to Jack.
“Aw, what the fuck, are we gonna dress up for Halloween together too?” Clubs cocked his head and smiled. Jack glowered. “Fine. Guess I could have got worse – Spades ain’t bad.”
“And that works out because back … before the desert,” Clubs said quickly, when he caught Ja – Spades’ – look, “everyone always called me Deuce bag. So I guess I could be Clubs Deucebag!”
Jack howled again, kicking out, sand flying everywhere as he cackled. “Fucking glorious.”
“Maybe,” Diamonds said, hacking to cover his own laughter, “drop the ‘bag’ part of that name?”
“I don’t think they were calling you deucebag, buddy,” Hearts told him, gently, patting him on the head. “But Clubs Deuce is nice.”
“Yeah, it is, isn’t it!” Clubs bobbed his head happily back and forth. “Clubs Deuce. Gosh, that’s a lot better than Cute Dugong!”
“Yes,” Jack whimpered. “Yes it is. Not as good as Clubs Deucebag though oh god my ribs.”
Clubs spun on Hearts. “Are you going to keep Bunny as your last name?”
“Um.” Hearts snorted and covered with a cough. “Sorry, buddy. I uh, I was thinking about usin’ my nickname from the service anyway. Guys called me Boxcars back then, and I guess Hearts Boxcars is pretty good for a name.”
“Why’d they call you Boxcars?” Diamonds asked, being the slightly more recovered of the two members with a functioning brain. “I always meant to ask.”
“Funny story, actually.” He smiled. “Second night in the service – fresh outta the tubes – the boys in my platoon and I got playin’ dice. Pot got up pretty big, too, an’ I bet all or nothin’ on rolling 12.” He spread his hands and shrugged. “Double sixes come up, everyone says s’called Boxcars, an’ the name stuck.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “’Course everyone always thought it was ‘cause my size, and I guess that works too. But it’s not where it came from. Hey, DD – you still need a last name?”
Diamonds shrugged and rearranged himself in the sand, cross-legged next to the still-laughing Spades or Jack or whoever he was. “I guess so.”
Hearts smiled broadly, rows of pirhana teeth shining against his burnt-black skin. “What about Droog?”
Diamonds blinked, and then looked to the others. “Droog, huh? You think I’m a Droog?”
Hearts smiled, but there was a touch of solemnity to it now. “I figure you earned that name when I first met you and we went on that mission.”
Clubs tugged at Hearts’ sleeve. “What’s Droog mean? Is that an army thing?”
“Yeah it is. Don’t worry about what it means,” he added, but he and Diamonds Droog shared a look. “Fits you, considering.” He nodded to Spades, who was still basically oblivious. “Hey, boss.” Spades sat up, tugging his hood back down. “We all got names – you need a second name.”
“Says us,” Droog said sharply. “Pick something. Spades what? You can’t just be Spades.”
“Spades Noir sounds kind of awesome,” Hearts pointed out.
“No,” Spades growled, empathetic, as he struggled to his feet and braced himself against Droog’s weight as the taller man used Spades’ shoulder to pull himself upright. Hearts scooped Clubs back up. “Nothing from Derse.” He shrugged. “I’ll think of somethin’.”
They walked again, relaxed and content, despite the lack of food and water. Every once and a while, Clubs would throw out a name and get a rapid ‘No’ in return. The sun started setting, curving down toward the horizon and taking the boiling heat of the day with it. Even Spades was dragging his feet now, Droog just behind him, Hearts carrying Clubs several yards back.
“Hey boss?” Hearts said, his voice cracking in his dry throat. “Spades?”
“What?” the leader stopped and turned, exhausted and pale under the grime and sunburn. Droog reflected that he felt as badly as Spades looked – they needed to find food or something, fast.
“You know how you were talking yesterday about,” he panted, drawing even with them, “smelling the place we’re going?”
“I smell it too.”
Spades blinked at him for a minute, before his lips drew back from his teeth and his too-thin face cracked into a sad smile. “Aw, shit. I was just … I wasn’t serious, man.”
“No. Smell.” He demonstrated, sniffing in a great big whiff of air. “Do it.”
Droog and Spades exchange a look before they both shrugged and inhaled. Droog’s brow furrowed as Spades’ eyes widened, and the smaller man whirled to look up the dune.
“Smells like water,” Droog murmured. He turned to look after Slick. “Water?” But the exiled leader was darting up the dune as fast as he could, bare feet scrambling in the sand. He reached the top of the dune and froze, before slowly raising his hands to his head. There was a noise then, indiscernible, and it was a minute before Droog and Hearts realized he was screaming.
Droog bolted up the hill, Hearts just behind, and likewise stopped short at the top. Spades was laughing now, and crying, or screaming, or something, and Droog realized he too was making some kind of noise he’d never thought himself capable of before.
Below them, verdant in the evening sun, the lazy bends of a river wound back and forth, groves of trees and bushes nestled in the coils. Hearts was laughing, and he’d put Clubs down and he was laughing too. Droog grabbed Spades and hoisted him off his feet. “You complete fucking lunatic,” he groaned, shaking him. “You brilliant, insane little man.”
Spades flailed out of his grasp and took off down the hill toward the shallows, speckled with reeds. He nearly made it to the bottom before he either dove or tripped – it was hard to tell, really – and slid face-first through the soft river mud.
“Oh, smooth boss,” Hearts laughed, hands on his knees, watching as Clubs and Droog picked their way down the hill more carefully. “Real slick.”
Spades rolled over onto his back and floated out into the water, not caring that his entire face was streaked with mud and clay. “Yeah, that was pretty slick, huh?” he breathed, before he plunged under the water and came up a second later, marginally cleaner and shaking like a dog. “Huh.” He grinned then. “Slick. I like it. Spades Slick.” He waded back out, almost tripping over an unsuspecting turtle, and stood next to Droog on the edge of the mud, dripping and soaked. “What do you think?” he asked, going to nudge the taller exile.
“Don’t get that filth on me,” Droog snapped, despite the fact that his own sad excuses for clothes were filthy enough that further soiling was hardly a concern. He gave Spades an approving look. “Spades Slick. It suits you.” He picked at the end of one of the wrappings. “Which is good, because I was going to suggest Spades Short next time you got on my nerves.”
“Oh,” Slick sighed, rolling his eyes and trudging back up the dune, “fuck you.”
That night, nothing managed to wipe the smirk off Droog’s face; even when the squelchy, bony mass that was Spades Slick collided with him, and the two of them plunged into the mud and down the bank into the water. Even when they emerged, and Droog was so utterly covered in river weeds that he less resembled a person and more resembled a dread lagoon creature. Even when they realized that the mud never was going to come out of their clothes.
And especially when Slick, curled up in the sand late that night, after they’d all had something to drink and to poor innocent turtle had gone on to serve its place in the great circle of life, yawned and mumbled “Sleep well, gentlemen. Tomorrow we start the hard part.”