(In honor of Poe’s birthday, and because I haven’t updated in a while, here’s a fun little mash-up that originally appeared in Icarus Magazine 🙂 )
MASQUE OF THE RUE PAULE
The pestilence had long devastated the country. No intolerance had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Hate was its avatar and its seal — the blindness and the ignorance of hate.
But the Queen had summoned to her presence many hale and light-hearted of her court, and retired to an extensive structure of her own eccentric yet august taste, amply provisioned with wine, security, and all the appliances of pleasure. There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.
It was toward the close of the fifth or sixth episode of this season, while the ratings raged most furiously abroad …
“Oooh giiirl!” rang out a voice. “You’ve got she-mail!”
There then appeared upon a wall of the dressing chamber the glorious image of the Queen herself, Rue Paule, their generous Prospero, their benefactor, the Queen before whom all lesser queens bowed and to whose throne they hoped some day to aspire.
They, these lesser queens, turned at once with great eagerness. Each was in varying states of disarray, half-clothed and partially cosmeticed, in mid-preparation for that day’s games. They numbered half a dozen now, each having won through while others had been eliminated one by one from the festivities.
“Who’s ready for a gay and magnificent revel?” the Queen’s image asked, shaking out tresses of flaxen curls over an off-the-shoulder black gown. “A voluptuous scene of unusual magnificence?”
Some queens squealed, danced in place and patted their hands in quick little claps … some said, “Hell yes!” and “Gay revelry? Bring it on!” … and some watched with silent predatory intensity.
Among them were:
Aloof, tall and lean, angular as a fashion model, with cheekbones that could cut diamond and eyes that never quite made contact with those of another.
Kallie Entay, by contrast, was hot-blooded and curvaceous, a fiery Latina with a spicy accent and a loud, raucous laugh.
Mo’Jo, of the dark chocolate skin and impressive bustline, was a queen-sized queen with a queen-sized attitude to match.
“We’ll see whose true colors come shining through,” the Queen continued, “and who’s just a horse – that’s horse — of a different color.”
Here were also:
Viva Vavoom, the oldest remaining in the contest, called herself ‘the camp dowager’ and favored cigarette holders and rhinestone glasses.
Cutie Pebbles, baby-faced and chubby-cheeked enough to live up to her name, had a high and breathy way of talking that often annoyed the others.
And, last but by no means least, Zoenne. Her body was spectacular, and she knew it, making the most of showing it next-to-naked at every opportunity.
“So,” said the Queen, “it’s time to find out who can go monochrome … and who can go home.”
The image vanished. Moments later the chamber door opened. In stepped a bald man of elegant aspect and impeccable attire. His complexion was warm caramel, his features aquiline, and his body moved with lissome grace.
“Hello, hello, hello,” he said. His voice was identical to that of the Queen, for this was the Queen, this was their Prospero, this was the one and only Rue Paule in person.
“Hi, Rue,” chorused the queens, ranging from simpering to sultry.
“Are you ready for today’s challenges?”
Nods and murmurs of agreement answered this.
He snapped his fingers. At once, two more men filed in, these scantily clad and of delectable physique – bronzed, muscular, and oiled. The reactions of the queens were, as always, approving and appreciative.
The men carried between them a large cloth-draped easel, which they set on the floor. They then passed out to each of the queens a notepad and marker, and went to stand at parade rest nearby, the pose causing considerable prominence of package.
“Our mini-challenge,” said Rue, “is about masks. We all wear them, don’t we? For some of us, drag is our mask. But, today, we’re playing a little game I like to call ‘Who Is That Masked Man?’ Behind this drape are numbered headshots of twenty famous, or infamous, gay celebrities. Their faces have been covered with masks, except for the eyes. You’ll have one minute to study the pictures and write down your guesses. The queen who correctly identifies the most will be our winner. Clear?”
Again, they gave murmurs and nods of agreement.
“Do the eyes have it?” asked Rue. “Your time starts … now!”
He whisked away the drape, revealing the masked headshots. It was of course his own guiding taste which had given character to these masqueraders, much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm.
The queens stared at the eyes that were all that was visible. Their markers flew, scribbling on the notepads. At the end of the minute, Rue declared they must put down their pens.
One by one were the masks removed, the faces revealed. There were of course Oscar Wilde and Anderson Cooper among them, George Takei and Ricky Martin, and other icons past and present.
And, in the end, with sixteen of the twenty correct …
“The winner is Kallie Entay,” Rue said.
The five other queens made congratulations, in varying degrees of sincerity, as Kallie preened. “Puerto Rrrrrrrico!” she cried in victorious celebration.
Following this, the proceedings of the day were to move on to the main challenge. Rue signaled again to the men of delectable physique.
With still as much appreciative approval, the queens watched as they crossed the chamber. There, in a glistening display of taut flesh and manly prowess, they moved aside one of the walls. Thus revealed was a closed corridor into which narrow Gothic windows looked from the right and left, an imperial suite of rooms.
Rue Paule faced the queens. A stack of flat objects in his hands made brittle, crystalline clicking noises as he deftly manipulated them like a magician about to perform a card trick. “Each of those windows is of stained glass, whose color varies in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opens.”
“You mean,” said Aloof, “that each room’s a different color.”
“That at the eastern extremity is hung …” Here, Rue paused, and his as well as many other glances slid along the bodies of the men. “… well hung … for example, in blue, and vividly blue are its windows.”
He held up one of the flat objects, which the queens now saw was a pane of stained glass such as might be found in a window. It was, indeed, vividly blue.
“The second chamber is purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and there the panes are purple,” he said. “The third is green throughout, the fourth furnished with orange, and so on. The fifth is white, the sixth violet.”
As he spoke, he fanned out the rest of the panes like a poker hand.
“Once again, time is of the essence,” Rue said. “This will test your charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. You’ll have one hour to come up with an outfit suitable for a masked ball. You can use your own wigs, shoes and undergarments from your wardrobes; everything else must come only from your assigned room.”
“We can only dress in one color?” asked Cutie Pebbles, eyes wide. “Only that color?”
“That’s right.” He smirked ever-so-slightly at their dismayed expressions. “The one who proves she can best stand out … and blend in … will be the winner.”
“Stand out?” echoed Kallie. “How are we supposed to stand out when we have to wear the same color as the room?”
“Don’t you give me no orange,” Mo’Jo said.
“Purple and violet?” Zoenne frowned. “What’s the difference?”
“Green is my faaaavorite color!” trilled Viva, wildly fluttering her lashes.
“I hope I don’t get blue.” Cutie bounced up and down, chewing her knuckles.
“Kallie Entay,” Rue Paule said, “since you won the last challenge, you’ll decide the order in which everyone picks their colors. You first.”
“Well,” said Kallie, her accent thick, “since green is my favorite color too … I’ll take green. Sorry, Viva. But you can go next.”
Viva grinned. “Honey, I hate green. I knew you’d take it just because I said that. I’ll have violet.”
Kallie flashed her a tight, catty scowl, then recovered. “Aloof can pick now.”
“White,” said Aloof.
“No,” remarked Zoenne with a sarcastic eyeroll. “The ice queen picks white. Who would’ve guessed.”
“Zoenne,” said Callie. “Your turn.”
“I’ll take blue.”
“Two colors left, and two queens,” said Rue. “Kallie?”
“Aw, hell, purple or orange?” Mo’Jo snorted. “Fine. Whateva. Cutie can choose. I don’t care.”
“No, you should choose,” said Kallie. “Mo’Jo.”
With a disgruntled sigh, the queen-sized queen examined both options. “So I can be a pumpkin or a eggplant. Let’s go eggplant.”
“Which leaves orange for Cutie Pebbles.” Rue handed over the final pane of stained glass. He started toward the door, then paused. “Oh, and there’s just one more thing …”
In again came the two men of delectable physique. They rolled between them on its casters a tall clock, ornately carved from ebony.
The queens glanced at it and each other in concern. They knew there were many who would have thought their Queen mad, though they felt that she was not … they knew that to hear and see and touch her was to know that she was not.
Yet, here was this clock, its hands ticking the circuit of its face.
“Like none of you ever saw a big black clock before.” Rue laughed. “But this one has … a special twist.”
Just then, the minute-hand reached the hour. The clock began to chime. Its sound was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that it struck a brief disconcert of the whole gay company.
The giddiest queens grew pale. The more sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie.
At the final stroke of the clock, its cabinet opened and a queen emerged with a toss of hair and the flourish of long, shapely legs.
“Ballyhoo, bitches! I’m baaaack!” this seventh queen announced.
Among the rest fell a sudden shock and consternation. There arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise.
“Sh’Devila will be rejoining the competition,” Rue said.
Some, with monumental effort, pasted upon themselves fake smiles. Others turned to their friends, whispering in terror, horror and disgust.
“Oh, hell no!” Mo’Jo said.
“There are matters of which no jest can be made,” whispered Aloof, her gaze focused elsewhere.
Viva gaped in exaggerated outrage. “I swear, she’s like herpes! You can’t get rid of her!”
But Rue had gone to Sh’Devila and gave her a final pane of glass, this one blood red.
“Thank you, Rue,” she crooned.
Rue indicated the clock. “It’s now five past the hour. The next time this clock chimes, you’ll know you have five minutes remaining. Gentlemen, start your engines. And may the best … woman … win!”
He stepped aside as the queens rushed for the corridor. At the entrance it became a bottleneck of shouldering and struggling, not shoving and slapping but each still doing her best to gain every possible split-second of advantage. They swarmed to their rooms, finding them by way of the stained glass windows corresponding to the panes they’d been given. Doors banged open. A frenzied clamor commenced.
To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked Rue Paule, taking in the arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments, the delirious fancies and madman fashions, a multitude of dreams.
“Half an hour to go,” he warned them when that span of the interlude had passed.
A light laughter pervaded the assembly. They smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made vows that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion.
Yet then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies, there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.
“Five minutes, ladies,” called Rue.
In the apartments beat feverishly the heart of life whirlingly on, until there was an uneasy cessation of all things. Then the moveable embellishments of the seven chambers were slid open, that the queens one and all beheld each other and were revealed.
What little Zoenne wore was, in fact, as blue as the room in which she stood, and drawn from the furnishings and accoutrements therein. In that manner she had abided by the rules of the competition, but far more was the hue of her own skin the centerpiece. A single silken ribbon twined its way about her face and body, covering, if barely, the minimum required by decorum, and fastened at one hip with an ornament made of the pane of stained glass.
By contrast, and despite her earlier misgivings, Mo’Jo looked nothing like an eggplant in her extravaganza of purple. She had gone for divine royalty southern belle, complete with lace-edged parasol and hoop skirt. Her cleavage was a jiggling and canyonesque expanse. Instead of a mask, she’d opted for a hat, a broad-brimmed bonnet laden with lavender blossoms, and a lacy veil.
Kallie Entay, in the green room, twirled so that her flamenco skirt flared in a lavish of flounce and ruffle, exposing leg to the waist and emerald heels that would have made the Wizard of Oz come out from behind that curtain. More flounces and ruffles adorned the lowcut neckline of a green sequined leotard. Her bronze-blonde wig was teased high, held with a spangled comb that had begun the day as part of a decorative lampshade; the materials of this also adorned her elaborate carnivale mask.
As orange had been deemed the most difficult and least desirable color, Cutie Pebbles might have had her work cut out for her. To pursue a theme of fire seemed the obvious choice. It may have been from an awareness of this that Cutie sought to surprise, creating instead an orange poppy fairy princess, with tulle tutu, organza wings, and her trademark orange hair upswept in a fantastical flower-bedecked arrangement. Petals encrusted with glitter and rhinestones formed her mask.
Ice queen, Zoenne had said of Aloof, and perhaps in response to the intended jab had Aloof chosen her costume for this monochromatic masquerade. A frost-white wig in a sharp wedge cut framed her face, half of which was hidden by a mask of elaborate snowflake design. A stiff, sheer fan rose up behind her head as if spun into a web of ice by winter spiders. From her shoulders flowed a satiny sheen, beautiful but exuding the coldest of chills.
Viva Vavoom went flapper in violet, with a fringed and beaded sheath dress that did its job perhaps too well; when the very intention of the style was to make even a grown woman more resemble a curveless boy. She had the rolled stockings and unlaced ankleboots, the wristlet gloves, the lacquered flapper bob, and a beaded headband from which sprouted feathered plumes. And, perhaps in violet violation to the rules, she sported her familiar vamp’s cigarette holder.
The pane of glass which Sh’Devila had been given was red, but the room to which it went was appointed entirely in black; only the window itself was of this deep blood red. She chose for effect a blood red wig, coupled with the simplicity of a black domino mask and the ubiquitous classic little black dress, which molded to her hips and booty like a coat of paint. Had the skirt been any shorter, those observing might have mistaken it for a belt.
In truth the masquerade license of the night was nearly unlimited.
“You all have a fine eye for color and effects,” said Rue Paule, upon finishing his inspection. “But it’s time to disregard the decora of mere fashion for something bold … something fiery … conceptions that glow with barbaric lustre.”
The queens quivered with anticipation.
“For tonight’s runway event,” Rue continued, “you’ll once again draw upon your charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent to bring us your best Poe couture. You’ll be presenting your creations to myself and my panel of judges, including our special guests: Usher, Detective C. Auguste Dupin, and the one and only Lenore.”
At this, many great excitements and agitations fell upon the queens, these names known to them but none more so than that of Lenore, the rare and radiant maiden second only to the likes of Cher and Beyonce in the firmament.
Several more times anon would strike the ebony clock, which stood in the hall of the dressing chamber. And then, for a moment, all went still, and all was silent save the voice of the clock. The queens were stiff-frozen as they stood. But the echoes of the chime would die away — they had endured but an instant — and a light, half-subdued laughter floated after them as they departed.
There was in another part of the structure another chamber, this one boasting a cascade of lights and a stage, a promenade. A high table sat overlooking this, where the judges waited in comfort and luxury for the evening’s thrilling revelry.
Then did the musicians strike up a stirring melody upon their instruments, as the divine figure of the Queen appeared, a goddess, perfection in womanly form. Flaxen hair curled in a mane of flawless coiffure, glinting with a rainbow of gems. A rainbow as well was her gown, rainbow and metallic, in all the colors of the seven rooms from before, and all other colors as well, colors never before seen or imagined.
“Prospero!” sang an unseen chorus.
“Pestilence past the lock,
“Stop the show at the chime of the clock.”
As they sang, Rue Paule owned the runway in confidence, in sexy and powerful strides. Each stride sent shimmering ripples through the fabulous gown, which winked and sparkled.
She stopped center-stage and bestowed a luxuriant smile upon the judges.
“Santinato,” she purred. “How’s the nitre treating your cough?”
Santinato, in the motley of a harlequin from parti-striped tights to the conical cap, raised his glass of Medoc in salute. “Rue, you can wall me up in your vaults any time, darling.”
“And, joining us from gay Paris,” Rue went on, “Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin.”
The dapper French detective blew her a kiss. “Enchanté.”
“You stay,” said Rue, regarding him with considerable flattery and favor. “Usher, so glad you could make it.”
The successful and multi-talented black entertainer arose from a sofa on which he had been lying at full length, and greeted her with a vivacious warmth which had much in it, might at first be thought, of an overdone cordiality. The nature of his malady displayed itself in a host of unnatural sensations, a morbid acuteness of the senses.
“Hello, Rue,” he said.
“New album coming out soon, I hear?”
“That’s right. Collaborating with Snoop Dogg and Hopp Frogg. It’s called Tamerlane, and it’ll debut in January.”
“Looking forward to it.” The Queen then directed her sumptuous gaze upon Lenore. “My angel. Rare and radiant as ever.”
“Likewise,” Lenore breathed, in her ethereal voice.
“How is Guy DeVere?”
“He sheds no tear, but my heart is light. No dirge will I upraise.” A faint, flickering hint of emotion crossed her face, and she added, “Until my next single, of course.”
“Adele and Taylor Swift better watch their backs.” Santinato said, and the judges shared a knowing laugh.
“Now,” said Rue, once again commanding their attention. “Earlier, my girls were challenged to come up with masquerade attire that they’d design within one hour, using only the materials found in their individual color-themed rooms. Here are the results.”
One by one, portraits of the seven queens were put up for the judges’ inspection.
“They were next challenged to bring their best Poe couture to tonight’s runway.” Rue took her seat at the high table. “Let’s see what they’ve come up with, and may the best … woman … win! First up: Cutie Pebbles.”
There was a jingling and a tinkling, a rhyming and a chiming, as Cutie undulated onto the stage. A belly dancer clad in bells, she wore them silver, golden, brazen and iron. They clamored on her wrists and bangled her merry bosom. They girded her waist, slung very low at her hips. A tiny jeweled bell bounced in her pierced navel as her rounded little belly rippled … keeping time, time, time, in a sort of runic rhyme. Other bells ringed her ankles as she, barefoot, swayed and shimmied the length of the runway.
“Tintinnabulacious!” Rue declared.
“Certainement rings my bell,” said Dupin.
Mo’Jo strutted out, head high and sassy for all it apparently had an axe embedded in it. On one side, her hair was meticulous; on the other, it matted tangled and clotted around the tinfoil axe blade. Half her face was beautifully made up, with dramatic eyeshadow and thick lashes … the other half coursed with crimson sequins and fake blood. The theme continued in a scarlet silk sash, sequin-studded, spreading down her ample figure. In her arms, she carried a stuffed black cat with a white blaze of fur upon its breast. One of its eyes gouged from the mangled socket so that cotton batting protruded.
“That is one nasty piece of pussy,” Santinato said.
“Such a spirit of perverseness,” remarked Lenore.
“Next we have … is that Zoenne?” said Rue, arching an eyebrow.
With slow and measured steps, someone in a hooded executioner’s robe moved down the runway toward the judges. Gloved hands emerged from voluminous sleeves, grasped the sides of the robe, and suddenly flung it aside to land in a coarse heap of fabric.
Beneath was Zoenne, a fetishist’s vision in stiletto-heeled boots and strategically-placed vinyl, zippers and chains.
But this alone was not what made the judges whoop and hoot with astonishment and mirth – from her groin there hung a long pole tipped with a curved silvery crescent; this device swung back and forth, arcs sweeping wider with each arrogant side-thrust of Zoenne’s hips.
“Never did I think that the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition could look so good,” C. Auguste Dupin said.
“There’s the pendulum,” said Santinato. “Are we also going to see the pit?”
Zoenne turned a thonged backside toward them and winked over her shoulder.
“Good thing she didn’t do ‘The Conqueror Worm,’” Rue said. “Now, welcome back to the runway: Sh’Devila.”
White-apparelled, the mould-spotted cerements of the grave a tattered winding shroud that trailed in wisps and tendrils about her, came Sh’Devila. Her hair fell wildly in distressed ringlets. Her face was grey-pallored, the eyes shadowed and lustreless. Her lips drew back in a ghastly smile, the teeth of such prominence so as to stir the madman’s urge and lead his hand to the tools of dental surgery. Elongated nails, chipped and splintered, clawed from the fingered ends of hands dark with mortuary earth. “Ballyhooooooo,” she cried in a banshee’s shriek.
“Ah-ah-ah-ah buried alive, buried alive,” said Santinato.
“Reminds me of my sister,” added Usher, not without a wince.
“Next up is Aloof … and my, my, once upon a midnight dreamy!”
The strapless full-length gown of obsidian velvet caressed Aloof’s sleek and stately lines. The plunging decolletage was trimmed not in marabou but in a brocade of black, silver and indigo silk threads, worked into a pattern of birds in flight. As she neared the end of the stage, suddenly there came a tapping, her shoes gently tapping on the runway floor. She spun, raising up her arms in a graceful allongé to extend wings of gauzy black feathers attached along their undersides in the manner of the goddess Isis; also like Isis were her dramatic eyes heavily outlined in deepest kohl.
Usher whistled low. “I’d quoth that!”
Kallie Entay wore a golden wig frizzed out into an immense afro, large beetle-shaped gold earrings, and sunglasses with oversized yellow lenses that were both bulged and faceted so that they resembled the eyes of an insect. Her gold lamé skirt clung to her hips, jet-black spots near the small of her back and the hem suggesting a skull or death’s-head. It was as if the carapace of some fabulous golden scarabaeus had gone into the making of the dress, its iridescent wings layered to form a translucent short cape that tied at the base of Kallie’s throat.
“One of the Solid Gold-Bug Dancers,” Santinato said.
“Looks like everything’s been heaped promiscuously into that treasure chest.” Usher grinned.
“Last up, Viva Vavoom,” Rue said.
She emerged in a simple brown faux-fur coat, knee-length and in the style of the 1940’s. Her platinum blonde wig was tucked into a bright red snood, secured at the crown of her head with a bow and ornate paste-ruby heart-shaped pin. Her pumps were also bright red, her stockings seamed up the back. When she shrugged out of the coat to sling it over her shoulder, it was to reveal a vintage lace sheath dress worn with a wide red belt and another faux-ruby in the form of a brooch. Glamorous though it was, the theme was rather less than immediately apparent.
“Dissemble no more,” Dupin said.
“Oh, I see it now,” said Usher. “The disease has sharpened my senses, not destroyed and not dulled them.”
“Thank you, ladies.” Rue gazed benignly upon them all. “While you untuck and enjoy an Amontillado cocktail in our Interior Masquerades lounge, the judges and I will deliberate.”
She then gathered her advisors and courtiers, and for a time they gave discourse and opinion, until the Queen signaled for silence.
“I’ve heard enough,” Rue said. “Bring back my girls.”
The queens returned, lining up along the stage’s lower edge. Rue, their Queen, their Prospero, addressed each in turn.
“Aloof, your raven was quaint and curious, not to be forgotten. As last week’s winner, you also have immunity. You’re safe.”
She ever-so-slightly inclined her head and moved to stand at the back of the stage.
“Viva Vavoom,” Rue said, and sighed. “You brought us more of the same, again. I know you love your vamp look, and it does work for you, but any queen who hopes to follow in my footsteps needs to shake it up with some variety now and then. I’m sorry, my dear, but you are up for elimination.”
Pressing her red-lipsticked mouth into a tight line, which unfortunately showcased the creases around it, Viva swallowed thickly and nodded.
“Kallie Entay from Puerto Rrrrrrico … still enjoying yourself?” asked the Queen.
“Oh, absolutely, Rue! Why? Am I bugging you?”
Rue chuckled. “You’re safe. Zoenne, it’s been mentioned before that you’re coasting by on having that spectacular body, but tonight you showed us something we’d like to see more of … your creativity and humor. Condragulations. You’re safe. As for you, Mo’Jo, the axe was a garish and ghoulish touch. You’re also safe.”
Zoenne, Mo’Jo and Kallie joined Aloof, while Rue’s attention fixed on Cutie. Nervousness must have made her tremble, the susurration of the bells made a soft, musical sound.
“Cutie Pebbles … In today’s challenges, you surprised and delighted. You brought us your cute and playful side, but you also brought the sexy. You’re this week’s winner.”
Cutie squealed, jittering her hands, and the bells rang for her joy. “Eeee, thank you, I love you Rue; I love you too Lenore, you’ve been my idol forever!”
“Sh’Devila,” said Rue, once Cutie had pranced, jingling, to stand with the others.
“Rue,” said Sh’Devila, already with a petulant scowl.
“Your little black dress was nothing to write a purloined letter home about, and your premature burial left us cold. I’m sorry, my dear, but you are up for elimination.”
The two of them took their places, preparing themselves.
“Two queens stand before me. Ladies, this is your last chance to impress me. The time has come for you to lip-sync for your life.” Rue savored the words with decadent ferocity. “Good luck … and don’t fuck it up.”
The music began, a driving R&B beat, Usher’s Fallin’ The House.
Sh’Devila spared Viva a moment’s pitying sneer – poor ol’ white bitch got no hope was what the look seemed to say. Her own lip-sync routine turned out, however, to have less to do with lip-synching, and more with aiming a lot of booty-shaking and droppin’ it like it was hot at Usher.
Viva, meanwhile, somehow dug deep and found her inner bodacious babe. She moved as if excited to fury, with violent gesticulations. She whipped off her snood and tossed her platinum curls in a wild frenzy. Anything was more tolerable than Sh’Devila’s derision; she could bear that mockery no longer. She brought it louder and louder! Hark! Louder! Louder!
When the song ended, her heart must have been pounding so vehemently the judges could hardly fail to hear it. Her breath heaved. Gasping, she turned to the judges, knowing that come what may she had given it her utmost, and lip-synched for her life.
“Viva,” said Rue. “You may call yourself a dowager, but you just proved there’s plenty of life in that old queen yet. Shante, you stay.”
Her lashes fluttered, not as an affectation but in a rapid effort at blinking back tears. She pressed shaky fingertips together and dipped a grateful nod at the judges, silently mouthing, “Thank you.”
Sh’Devila made a disgruntled noise somewhere between a huff and a snort.
Rue took a slow breath and released it with a shake of her head. “Sh’Devila. Your second chance didn’t make it to a last-minute reprieve. This was your final hour. Now your time’s up. Good luck, my dear. Now … sashay … away.”
It was not so much sashay as stomp, with a dismissive flip of her hand. Then she was gone.
“Once again,” said Rue, “six queens stand before me. Ask yourselves, who has what it takes to go the distance, and who’s run her course? And remember … if you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an A-men up in here?”
“A-men!” chorused the queens and judges alike.
“Then let the music play!” the Queen commanded.
And it did, and they danced, and when the ebony clock next struck the hour it held no dominion over them … not then, and nevermore.