“I liked your last sentence out of all of the other sentences you said the best.”
“I always save the best to last.”
“I could tell.”
Arthur smiled. His face was red and his skin was stretched taught across his brow, deep creases reflecting his worries. He felt like this after every speech – was he losing them? Did they cheer louder last time or this time or have they not cheered as loud as the first time in a long time? He ran a hand through his hair separating the thick brown strands into a mess.
“Cephas, can you make me a G&T?”
“Of course, of course,” she replied and hurried over to the drinks counter encased in a large antique globe. “Ice and lime?”
Arthur took his weary limbs to the wine-red velvet armchair opposite the fireplace and sunk down into the cushions. It had been over six months since The Balloon had visited his home on that rainy afternoon and changed his life forever, bit his body had aged as if it had been six years. His hands were crinkled and beginning to show liver spots, his face had grown gaunt, his hairline was receding with renewed vigour and his waistband had shrunk faster than his wardrobe could keep up making his clothes hang loosely which accentuated his pointed frame. The toll was not just physical and his mind these days was preoccupied with thoughts of coups and bureaucracy, the sharp-toothed confidence of his younger days fading in the rearview mirror.
Cephas watched him as she scooped ice into a tall crystal glass. She could see the stress that was growing like a thunderstorm behind the whites of his eyes, she knew that it was not long to go until he reached breaking point. A smile flashed briefly across her thick lips.
“Make it a strong one would you?” came a plain demand from Arthur, head now in his hands.
She splashed a healthy glug of gin into the glass, watching it trickle down over the chunks of ice. The scents of juniper and peppercorns were quickly masked by the odour of ethanol. Cephas took the silver metal tongs from the globe bar and lifted a thin wedge of lime from a white dish, placing it delicately on top of the ice. She then reached below the globe to the mahogany cabinet it was sat on, opening the cabinet door to reveal a small fridge containing twelve cans of tonic water. Cr-tssssh. The liquid fizzed over the ice and lime and bubbles erupted to the surface escaping the glass leaving a hazy moisture on the back of Cephas’s thumb.
The ice and glass clinked together as she carried it over to Arthur, whose eyes were beginning to glaze over out of either exhaustion or contemplation. Cephas wished this was the figure that the outsiders could see. The children in her village had grown up with stories of the White Cliffs, the collapse of the Balloon, the battle of Ngong Ping, the infamous Arthur and his feral clan. Whispered rumours and hushed tales disseminated by a frightened populace had allowed the Arturians to sweep through the land whilst rarely requiring them to resort to bloodyshed. In her ever lengthening tenure as Arthur’s maid, Cephas had never, in fact, seen him raise a gun, a sword, nor a fist against another man or woman. She was not naïve enough to assume the same could be said for his high ranking officials, and her clandestine corridor conversations with maids assigned to the lower ranks had informed her of their masters’ depravity, however she could vouch that their leader had never expressed an interest in such carnal violence. It was as if the years of barbarism had rendered him civilized and, seeing him here staring sadly into the flames of the fire with his thinning hair and gaunt face, he was surely a different man to the villainous figure of the village folklore. She longed to throw open the curtains, run on stage during the magic show and reveal the trick, shout to the people that they had forged their own yoke, they were willingly subjugating to this impostor –
Arthur thrust out his hand to receive the drink from Cephas and scattered her thoughts.