First: Something’s Up
Lord E Lordy wanted the Wiz. That’s where the Last Little War got started.
You see, Lord E Lordy — he’s alcaldé of the next-door kingdom of Potrero-Taraval — was of a mind to conquer. This was not unusual. Lord E was always of that mind. Potrero has been spreading all the time, bit by bit, south and east toward Excelsior and Merced.
It started doing this when Lord E’s daddy was alcaldé of Potrero. He was an expansive SOB. He pushed Potrero-Taraval down against tiny Bernal in the southeast and up against Embarcadero all the way to the Farm. He even gobbled up the Buena Vista, whereupon the Embarcaderans beat him back, but not before some folks died.
Folks like mi madre y padre.
Lord E’d like to be an expansive SOB, too, but he’s fortunately not as good at it as his daddy. Once in a while he sends his knighties against the Border between Embar and Potrero, but they always turn back — usually about the time they see our knighties with their body-armor and AKs, and decide knives and crowbars won’t cut it.
But this time, Lord E determined that he would leave his knighties at home and send only smeagols over the Border. ’Cause Lord E had a new merlin and Lord E’s new merlin had a plan.
It is my eternal shame that I didn’t know this. It was Deadend, smeagol extraordinaire, who brought the smell to Hismajesty’s attention.
“Somethin’s up,” he says.
We are hanging in the Throneroom of the Regency Palace when he comes in and makes this pronouncement.
“What’s up?” asks Squire, ’cause that’s his job. Hismajesty don’t talk to smeagols.
“It’s an ill wind from Potrero-Taraval,” says Deadend, “Lubejob’s been skulking around the Farm.”
“Says who?” asks Squire, scathing-like. “Or are you fabricatin’?”
“Kaymart and Bags put me onto the rumble. I saw the smeagol myself. It was Lubejob. I put a tail on him. Followed him all the way back to the Slot.”
“Ask the smeagol, ‘then what?’” orders Hismajesty.
“Then what?” asks Squire.
“Then he huddles with his gang. Mark me, Squire, there’s evil afoot — we’re being scoped.”
Hismajesty looks to me. “Had you an inkling of this perfidy, merlin?” he asks me.
“The branches of the Tree of Destiny did quiver,” I say and cross my fingers, ’cause the TOD was sitting on the balcony in a stiff breeze at the time. “I perceived no cause.”
Hismajesty’s brows go all gnarly. “Summon Scrawl,” he tells Squire and Squire turns to the gofer next to him and says, “Gofer Scrawl.”
Hismajesty’s brows are still looking like smooshed black caterpillars. “Prepare to read the runes,” he says to me.
I do, and damn quick. Hismajesty’s an ace dude if you’re square with him, but if he thinks you let him down — wham! — you could be deadjim in no appreciable time. I don’t wish to be deadjim, so I get my rune can and hustle back to the Throneroom.
Scrawl is there when I get back, and Firescape and Cinderblock, too, ’cause this looks like it could be a job for the military.
She’s a piece of work. Firescape, I mean. Number one jade — all rigged out in black leather and red spandies and redder hair, with her Magic Weapon slung at her hip.
My pants get uncomfortable. I shake my rune can to announce myself and get my hormones’ attention off Firescape.
Hismajesty waves a hand at me. He’s not scowly now — mostly, I think, ’cause of Hermajesty, who is sitting in his lap. Hermajesty’s name is really Ampam and she was born in the produce bin of a mini-mart on Columbus, but His M doesn’t care, though he is of higher origin, having come into this world in the back seat of a Mercedes-Benz.
There is a circular pit in Hismajesty’s Throneroom. We call it the Pit. Here, we gather to read runes and jam on Saturday nights. This is where Scrawl and I go now.
While the Majesties and the others sit in the soft cushions around the shallow edge, Scrawl and I move down onto the stone floor and begin to circle each other. She shakes her rune bag at me; I shake my can at her. It is a bright red can and says “Hills Bros” on it. There is a picture of a merlin drinking a cup of coffee on the front, and it is this I direct at her so she will remember that I am a merlin and she is only Scrawl.
She yields, of course, ’cause that’s protocol, and I am the first to spill my runes on the center of the great Mandala in the floor of the Pit. We both hunker down to ponder them.
Scrawl makes humming noises and nods as if she sees auspicious stuff. I see nothing but broken chips of glass and bottle caps. There is even a matchstick or two and a button from the fly of my jeans. There is also a rotten old peach pit; someone’s used my rune can for a garbage receptacle. I snag the pit and chuck it over my shoulder.
Scrawl “ahems” at me, then waves her hand over the stuff like she is stirring a pot. I look at her face but her big, watery eyes are mum. I wonder if she is wondering what I see.
I squint at the runes, then my eyes go wonky like they do. I see a shape. Looks like a giraffe, but that doesn’t make sense. I look at it some more and it gets to be a crane — the kind there is near some of the big skyscraper carcasses downtown.
“A crane,” I say and nod, then see something else. “And a scales.”
Scrawl comes to peer over my shoulder. “Yeah,” she says. “Could be.”
I move to another angle. My wonky eyes see a mountain . . . or a pyramid . . . or maybe it’s the Regency Palace.
I say, “Mountain,” and Scrawl mumbles, “My turn, Taco-face.” She moves, too, giving me the hairy eyeball. Then she screeches, “Danger! Danger! They’s after something!”
“Sooth!” says Firescape. “Of course, they’s after something. Lord E’s always after something.”
I begin to suspect that Scrawl sees less in the runes than I do, but while I am trying to make sense out of “crane,” “scales” and “mountain,” she stands up straight as a lamp post, clutches her head and says in her best Voice-O-Doom, “They’s after Hermajesty!”
The Majesties don’t like this pronouncement. They look at each other and get all scowly again.
I check my higher consciousness, trying to sense out what this has to do with cranes and scales and mountains. When I think of mountains, I think of trees. Mountains have lots of trees — more than the Farm, even. And they are much bigger than the Fabled Tree of Destiny — Giants. This makes me think I am supposed to be thinking of the Fabled TOD.
I say as much. “I think of the Tree of Destiny. Runes are not enough. The Tree must be consulted.”
Scrawl sees that Hismajesty likes this pronouncement better than hers, so she gives me the hairy eyeball again. I am the only one who can talk to the Tree. Still, she pretends to be agreeable.
“Taco’s right,” she says, “meanwhile, I shall consult the wall runes.”
We are dismissed and I make my way up the Great Crystal Elevator to my chambers on the top floor of the Palace. The Palace is much narrower at the top than it is at the bottom. On my floor there are only eight big rooms, joined two and two. Four are the Majesty’s; four are mine, although I’ve considered asking Firescape to share them with me. Two of the four have beds so I have my choice of sleeping places. Naturally, I have in mind that she should share the beds, too.
I go to the room I use as a workshop. There, out on the balcony, is the Fabled Tree. He is enjoying the sun, and the tips of his branches reach upward, waving. I am sorry to disturb him, but I must, taking my seat beside him at the balcony.
He’s a Douglas Fir. I know this ’cause of the Wiz. I also know that Trees have sexes just like people and animals. It just so happens that Doug is a boy, which is good, ’cause the name fits better.
“O Tree of Destiny,” I say. Normally, I call him Doug, but this is ritual stuff. “O Tree of Destiny, we have a problem. Lord E Lordy has spies upon us. His head smeagol’s been seen in Embar. All the little smeagols’ve been seen too. So says Kaymart, Bags and Deadend. O Tree of Destiny, we fear the kingdom of Embarcadero is jeopardized by these skulkings. Scrawl says Lord E wants Hermajesty. I need to know is this so and how he means to get her.”
I bend my face to the little Tree. The boughs brush my cheek. I close my eyes and breathe in the firry smell. It reminds me of the Farm that now is all that divides southwestern Embarcadero from Potrero-Taraval, and where I spent many child-days.
Nothing happens, except I can almost see the Farm with its giant Trees and flowers and strange buildings. Which lack of something makes me wonder — like I always wonder — how I got to be a merlin. I know it’s ’cause I got the Tree. I say a thanks prayer that Doug chose me and not somebody else (like Scrawl, for instance).
When I open my eyes again, I see something odd. I see a knightie looking up at me from the plaza outside. This is not unusual except that she is half-hiding behind an old trolleycar and she is not wearing Firescape’s colors. She is wearing the yellow and black of the Virgin Guard, the knighties who patrol the Richmond near the Farm.
She sees me just as I see her and disappears behind the trolleycar. A chill goes down my spine. I pick up Doug — pot and all — and head back to the Throneroom. The Majesties are surprised to see me lugging the TOD out of the Great Crystal Elevator.
“What the hell?” says His M and salutes the Tree. Hermajesty throws him a kiss.
I ask Firescape if she knows any reason one of Sweetie’s Virgin Guard would be wharfside instead of on her normal beat around the Richmond Virgin. She can’t think of any, and when I tell her the Tree inspired me to know there was a yellow knightie in the courtyard, skulking, she and her sidekick, Cinderblock, unsafety their magic AKs and head for the street.
“Well, merlin?” Hismajesty is looking kingly at me. “Well? What has the Tree of Destiny revealed?”
“The Tree says,” I say, though I am clueless, “there are smeagols all about us.”
I set Doug’s pot down and dust off my hands, catching a whiff of his nice firry smell and trying to think of something more to say. I do.
“The Farm must be watched night and day. This knightie the Tree saw is ersatz. Which means that, most likely, one of Sweetie’s gang is deadjim. Maybe more than one. First, smeagols around the Farm, now smeagols in disguise, at the heart of it all. Think of it, sire. If you wanted something close to Lord E, what better way than to disguise yourself as someone who could get real close?”
His M is nodding. “Yeah. Like a knightie. But why a Yellow Knightie from the Virgin Guard? Lord E’s gotta know the Palace is guarded by Red Knighties.”
I shrug. “She had to get past all kinds of eyes, Majesty. I suspect she cacked the first knightie she came across.”
His M is still nodding. “But is she after my queen?”
I don’t know the answer to this, but I’m not about to say that. Scrawl saves me from having to open my mouth. She comes in wailing like a house on fire. “Oi!” she’s saying. “Oi! They’ve left signs! Th’arrogance of ’em!”
They left signs, alright. LORD E RULES! was the sign. Plastered all over the side of the old trolleycar. I didn’t have to guess who did it. Only question is, why so bold?
Hismajesty doesn’t ask me again if Lord E is after Hermajesty. He has Firescape set a guard on her and puts all the knighties in Embarcadero on alert.
Rumbles start flying. All kinds of scuttlebutt. I hear all of it, of course, ’cause I’m listening. A good merlin has ‘ears’ all over the place. A better merlin is pro-active. I go down to the Gee Gah to hang around the steamy stalls and shops that smell of fish and herbs and incense. That’s where I hear that Lord E’s shopping queens. According to the rumble along the Du Pon Gai, he’s lost another lady-lord to the dolores. Childbirth, says the rumble.
The old ladies and gents in their shops and stalls chatter like pigeons, blaming it on the water, the food, the air in Potrero.
On the outside, I think they’re right. It could be any of those things. Potrero got its problems, that’s a surely, foremost of which is a King who don’t give a fig about what he can’t stick in his treasure house. And there’s a lot of sicklies, too. But I know there’s always something inside the outside — something that makes the outside work bad. In the case of Potrero-Taraval, that thing is the dolores.
A long time ago, see, way before the Getting Out — hell, before there was even a city here — this whole place belonged to a people called Ohlone. They named it Awaa-te and lived close to the water. One day, they woke up to find aliens — my own ancestors — staring at them from inside these silly tin hats.
My ancestors put them all into a dios house called Dolores, which means “sad.” In this dios house, the Ohlone caught the alien’s diseases and died. There are thousands of them buried around the Dolores dios house. I learned this from the Wiz.
By the time the folks who called themselves Americans sent a government agent to check up on the Ohlone, there was only one left — an old man named Pedro Alcantara. Pedro told the agent that he had lost his son and asked if the agent couldn’t help to find him. And then he said, “I am all that is left of my people — I am alone.”
The Dolores dios house lies smack inside the boundaries of the northern-most Potreran barrio. You can see the top of it from Embar. That, I thought, was why Potrero was so sickly and so sad — those spirits were still there — the Ohlone dolores.
I am pondering this when I bump into my good buddy, Creepy Lou.
“Thay!” he says to me. “Thay Taco!” (Which is ’cause he’s missing a few teeth.) “Thay, Taco! You be scopin’ the rumble? Lord E lost hithelf another lordette.”
“I be hearing that,” I say. “Third one.”
He nods, looking sad. “Third one. Young, too. . . . Thecond trimethter.”
This pokes my Alice bone. “Where’d you hear that?”
Creepy Lou scratches around in his scraggy hair, making dust and leaves rain onto his shoulders. “Shmeagols.”
“Naw, little shmeagol,” he says, and jerks his head three times to the right. “One of his hangabouts. Shmeagol says, uh, Lord E thinks we got some kinda magic. ’Cause Hermatchsty has three babies, already, no hitches, no glitches.”
The last word comes out in a shower of saliva. I blink and shake my head.
“No, really. Th’ Alcaldé thinks our women are magic.” His face lights up; big holey grin, a little wicked. He pumps his left knee up and down and jerks his head three times to the right. “I think tho too.”
Makes sense, I s’pose. Odd sense. Lord E didn’t have such good family luck. He hadn’t produced an heir yet. His M has three — two girls and a boy. So, Lord E might think if he has the right queen — a magic queen — he can have heirs too. And slit Hismajesty’s throat to the bargain.
I shake my head, this time meaning it. “Our women aren’t magic,” I say, “just healthy.”
Lou nods, stamps his right foot, and grabs at something I can’t see. “It’s the water. Damn bad water in Potrero.”
“Damn bad attitude,” I answer, knowing it’s the Dolores.