a company of heroes book two the fabulist

A COMPANY OF HEROES

Book Two
The Fabulist

Ron Miller

A Company of Heroes

Book Two: The Fabulist

Ron Miller

The brave and beautiful Princess Bronwyn is forced to watch helplessly from behind bars as she becomes an outcast in her own kingdom.

But iron bars are no match for her iron will, and with her companions---the dashing Baron, the changeling Gyven and the faithful Kobold giant, Thud---Bronwyn engineers an escape...only to begin a trek through the fairy-haunted Dark Forest. She must confront unknown races and unfathomable dangers---to say nothing of the bounty hunters and spies of the evil Lord Payne and the uncanny General Praxx.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

eISBN: 978-1-62579-366-9

Copyright © 2012 by Ron Miller

Cover art by: Ron Miller

Illustrations courtesy
The Encyclopædia Bronwyniana

Published under the auspices of Shahalzin Pordka XVI University

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

Electronic version by Baen Books
www.baen.com

This book is for Sommer

Poet, artist, songwriter and, most importantly,

Friend

Book Two

The Fabulist

CHAPTER ONE

ARRIVAL

King Felix of Londeac is so startled by the unexpected appearance of his young niece, the Princess Bronwyn Tedeschiiy, that he has an attack of asthma that renders him bedridden for nearly two days. Bronwyn tries to speak to him during that time, but can barely understand his labored wheezing even when the hissing respirator that covers his face is not operating. Nevertheless, there is a twinkle of joy in his eyes that is impossible to misinterpret.

While she is waiting for her uncle’s health to reestablish itself, Bronwyn and her three friends are tendered every amenity. She is able to abandon at last the black leather riding habit she had worn every day since her escape from Blavek . . . nearly two weeks ago, she realizes with a jolt to her sense of duration. It seems as though it ought to have been less, yet seems longer. Or perhaps
vice
versa,
she is no longer able to tell.

She, Thud, Gyven and Baron Milnikov are given separate but adjoining apartments and the princess unabashedly wallows in unaccustomed and long-absent luxury. She eats until the servants assigned to delivering food to her room begin to complain among themselves; she sleeps, she strolls the parks surrounding Felix’s palace, and she tries on the many new clothes that are brought to her, clothes in amazing fabrics entirely new to her and in styles startling and exciting to a young woman who had been raised within the prudish confines of ultraconservative Tamlaght. She wears many of the costumes with not a little embarrassed self-consciousness. While she has never been shy about her body so far as Thud or the Kobolds had been concerned, she has always, subconsciously or not, relegated them to the status of servant, which is as much to say “furniture” or “nonentity.” Back in her old life in the palace at Blavek, servants had come and gone from her bath and toilet, or to and from her dressing-rooms, with scarcely an acknowledgment from her . . . in much the same way that anyone else would feel little discomfort while undressing in front of the family dog. However, when it came to exposing undue amounts of her body in public to
real
people, that is an altogether different matter.

What passes for fashion back in Tamlaght are clothes made of great quantities of heavy fabrics, dyed in blacks, greys and muted colors. All of Bronwyn’s dresses had possessed hems that brushed the floor, sleeves to her wrists and collars to her chin. Beneath had been layers of assorted undergarments which any hint of burgeoning female shape abandoned all hope of penetrating.

It had been her great fortune that she had been wearing only a light housedress, it had but a scant three petticoats, when she escaped so many months ago, else she might have been as hobbled as the flightless birds in a turkey shoot. The clothing available in Toth, on the other hand, is of a lightness wholly unimagined, and even unimaginable, by Bronwyn, to whom it had not occurred that what amazed her are fabrics that the people of Londeac considered as yet suited only for winter wear. She would have disbelieved the possibility that women might be willing, indeed, eager, to shed what she already thought is scandalously meager; summer, and her great enlightenment, are yet to come.

For all of that, the clothing is finer than anything she had ever before worn. What is difficult for her to accustom herself to is the way these exotic fabrics cling to her body. She possesses shapes and movements she had before been aware of only in a kind of private, theoretical sense. She is not at all certain that these shapes and movements are meant to be observed . . . although every woman she has seen in Londeac has been dressed not only in much the same way, but often in a manner that made the princess appear conservative, not that this is any particular comfort (nor even very difficult). What disturbs her is that her body seems to enjoy its freedom, traitorously jiggling and writhing no matter how much she insists it restrain itself or how carefully she avoids unnecessary movements. Perhaps it is just too early for the princess to either grasp or deal with the concept, but it is entirely possible that what disturbs her is the dawning realization that she is in fact a reasonably attractive young woman (she would never accept a more forceful, even if more accurate, adjective than “attractive” and she would absolutely insist on the qualifying “reasonably”), not that she would consciously admit to it.

The fashions that embarrass her so much seem to have been designed to emphasize just those features that are her most outstanding. Her extraordinarily long legs are shown off to good advantage by hemlines that come shockingly to mid-calf and by sheer hose that make them look lacquered, abetted by diaphanous fabrics that cling to her thighs like icing on a pastry. While skirts are fairly full, bodices are as carefully fitted as the skin on an orange and the contours of Bronwyn’s narrow waist, flat stomach and taut, hemispherical breasts are revealed with an explicitness that cause her terrible anxiety . . . she is constantly and intensely aware that scarcely an eighth of an inch separates her skin from the outside world. The current propensity for deep décolletage and short sleeves, or even, unbelievably, complete sleevelessness, only make matters worse.

For the first time in her life she is able to wear the bright, rich colors demanded by her hair and complexion. In spite of her reservations, she nevertheless is curiously, if secretly, pleased and excited by the mirrored image of an inordinately tall woman of prolonged curves in a dark green dress that make her ivory skin, emerald eyes and mahogany hair seem like attributes wholly alien to the picture by which she had always mentally illustrated the abstract concept of
Princess Bronwyn.
Her inborn rebelliousness and a potentially latent exhibitionism refuse to allow her to flatly shun wearing these scandalous new clothes. Upbringing, however, is a powerful opponent against inclination, however natural, and she roams the gleaming marble hallways of the palace using the still-chilly season as her excuse for always being tightly wrapped in a shawl or scarf. Unfortunately for Bronwyn, in her first two days in Toth she has not yet had the opportunity to experience anything other than what is locally considered normal, and even conservative, day wear. Little does she know that the horrors of the evening gown are still ahead.

As for her three companions, they are weathering similar metamorphoses idiosyncratically. Baron Milnikov, the cosmopolite, as a man who had looked debonair in his prison pajamas, has no difficulty wearing the latest Londeacan creations. His tall, lanky figure and piratical expression, in fact, sets a formidable and uncommonly delightful challenge for the tailors to deal with. Though he is old enough (by a small margin, let us be kind) to be Bronwyn’s father, the princess thinks Milnikov is one of the most dashing and romantic men she had ever met.

Gyven has become even more of a cipher than ever. The palace tailor outfitted him with a charcoal grey suit of tapering trousers and a coat fitted to his narrow-waisted form, which only exaggerates his height and broad shoulders, his muscle-encased torso is shaped like a huge wedge of pie balanced on its tip.

Most of his original pallor is gone but, though no longer bone-white, his face is still pale beneath the glossy thatch of thick black hair. Level, heavy brows shade eyes like spheres of smoky quartz. In his new suit he is at one and the same time the most handsome and the most formidable man Bronwyn has ever seen; once again she feels that peculiar, inexplicable stirring within her, as though a fist has been clenched somewhere just behind and below her navel.

Thud is a problem. The king’s tailor took one look at the giant and had locked himself in his chambers, refusing through his tears to speak to anyone. Finally an army tentmaker had been called in who did a surprisingly creditable job in creating several suits of clothing for the big man. From a great distance and with nothing around to give away the scale, one might almost think Thud is a normal human being. He is inexpressibly proud of his new clothes, they are the finest things he has ever owned, at any one time or cumulatively, and tears obliterate the tiny black beads that pass for his eyes, making them look like frog’s eggs. Bronwyn finds herself tearful, too, at seeing her friend so moved by such an insignificant pleasure.

Uncle/King Felix is finally well enough to see his niece on the morning of the third day after her arrival in Toth. She visits him in his bedchamber while the doctor is still in the process of removing the complex machinery of the respirator.

“Good morning!” wheezes the king, opening his arms to greet her. She goes to the bedside and allows herself to be given a pressureless hug.

“Good morning, Uncle,” she replies. “You must forgive me, I had no idea you are so ill.”

“It’s no matter . . .”

“But I should’ve given you some warning!”

“Oh. This happens all the time, now. I’m getting quite used to it. If it hadn’t been the surprise of your arrival, it would’ve been something else. Don’t let it worry you, my dear. Please sit down.”

“Thank you.”

“Of course the question I’ve been asking myself, as I suppose everyone else has, is: what in the world are you doing here? Though don’t think for a moment that my question implies that you’re not welcome!” he adds hurriedly.

“I know I’m welcome, Uncle Felix, thank you. I don’t know where to begin, really.”

“I suppose it has something to do with your brother and that dreadful reptile, Payne Roelt?”

“How did you know that?”

“Oh, come, come, Bronwyn! Our two countries are at a few points only ten miles apart . . .”

“I’m sorry, I is being stupid.”

“No you aren’t. I think perhaps you’ve just been a little too close to the problem. Look, forgive me if I’m jumping to any conclusions, but let me tell you why
I
think you’re here. May I?”

“Of course.”

“What Roelt’s been doing to Tamlaght, in your brother’s name, has been horrifying us here in Toth, nay, all Londeac!, for many months now. To tell you the truth, are it any other country, Crotoy, even Ibraila, we could care less. In fact, we might welcome such internal disintegration. But Londeac and Tamlaght are once a single nation, though this is a very long time ago. Still, we share a commonality and there are still strong ties of blood. Good heavens, you’re my niece and that poor, bedeviled creature in Blavek is my nephew, my brother’s only son, Musrum help us both! Of course, there are political considerations as well; as I’ve just mentioned, Tamlaght is only separated from Londeac by ten miles . . . who knows that Payne Roelt’s ambitions will stop at the strait?”

“I couldn’t agree with you more, Uncle,” Bronwyn replies fervently. “In fact, I suspect that things may be worse there than you think.” She then proceeds to describe the horrors she had witnessed during the months she had spent in Blavek, before escaping with her three friends: of the pogrom organized against the barons and their families, her description of Piers Monzon’s murder and the massacre of his household is so vivid that poor Felix turns blue as his lungs flood sympathetically and her story has to be interrupted until he can again breathe normally; of the looting of state treasures, not only from the palace itself but from the museums and archives, priceless works of art are being broken up for their jewels or melted down for their gold and silver (never mind that their value is lessened a hundredfold in the process); and the creation of new and unfair taxes, while at the same time virtually all public services are being curtailed or eliminated.

King Felix is wheezing like a wet, used party favor by the time Bronwyn arrives at her description of the celebratory orgy that followed the coronation, but at the mention of Payne’s obvious intention to eventually loot the Church itself the doctors have to again be called in to restore the king and the interview is necessarily postponed. When it is resumed, an hour later, the king prudently has his physicians standing closely by, the bellows of the respirator quivering anticipatorially. It is as well, since Bronwyn has yet to tell Felix of the atrocities committed against her own person. His every alveola collapses like a thousand punctured balloons when he learns that not only had Payne Roelt attempted to murder his niece, but that the crime been abetted by her own brother.

“And how did you at last,
heeeeeeee
, reach Toth?” he is finally able to ask, once the doctors, glaring furiously at the princess, remove the valves from his face.

“Baron Milnikov had a yacht in the Slideen harbor. I’d gone to the lodge on Catstongue Island to warn Payne and Ferenc of their doom, and the yacht, with Thud, Gyven and the baron already on board, was waiting for me afterwards on the downstream tip of the island. In an hour we are well away from the city and far beyond any pursuit. In fact, I doubt that anyone had any idea for days how I’d gotten away. Anyway, we left Tamlaght via the Moltus. The Baron insisted we travel at full steam day and night, so it only took a little more than two days to reach the mouth of the Solsonna River. We went ashore at a little town there . . .”

“Spolkeen-on-the,
heeeeeeee
, sea,” wheezes the king.

“Yes. Well, and this is the best part of the whole thing, we took a train!”

“Yes?” answers Felix, not sharing in Bronwyn’s excitement, and a little puzzled by the apparent irrelevance.

“I’d never seen a steam train before,” explains the princess, a little crestfallen at the failure of her uncle to appreciate the thrill she had experienced. The high technology of steam power had been something of which Bronwyn hitherto had only theoretical knowledge. She had of course seen the steam-powered ships that plied the waters of the Slideen below the windows of her palace apartment, but they had all been foreign vessels and forbidden to her. And of course she is aware of the presence of the industrialized Transmoltus district, Blavek’s (and Tamlaght’s) sole and reluctant concession to modernity. A zone as forbidden and forbidding as the Realm of the Weedking, it is as tantalizing and alluring as are all things that are deemed evil by others but are unexperienced by ourselves. By day, vast clouds of reddish smoke and oily fumes poured into the sky like an evil, antigravitational waterfall; by night the district flickered and sparkled like burning steel wool. Barely half a mile separated the palace from the Transmoltus and its sounds carried easily across the water. That same asymphonic medley of sound effects that Thud had grown to ignore is like a siren call to the imaginative young princess. In all her eighteen and three-quarter years Bronwyn had never actually seen, with her own eyes, a machine more complex than a gun.

When Milnikov took the three refugees to the train station in Spolkeen it is all he could do to persuade the excited princess to enter one of the coaches. She instead had immediately run to the front of the train, where she stood before the gleaming cylinders and gears in a kind of religious revery. A shifting patina of grease and oil gives the metal a flesh-like, ophidian quality. The engine gives a thunderous sigh, like an exhausted mountain, enveloping her in a sweet-smelling cloud of oily water vapor. For Bronwyn the universe seemed, for a brief moment, to have shrunk into an opalescent sphere that contained only herself and the sleek complexity that glimmered at her like the disinterested eye of some vast reptile.

At the beginning of the journey, as the train is leaving the town, she is thrilled to her core, the excitement creating a kind of regression that caused her to chatter like a ten-year-old. However, as the train accelerated she became quieter and finally, at its top speed (of fifty miles an hour), she says not a word but gripped the armrests beside her seat until her knuckles showed white beneath the skin.

The train followed the Solsonna River directly to the capital. The scenery is uninteresting: the broad, flat river on one side and endless, level farmland on the other. Eventually, it succeeded in hypnotizing the overstimulated princess and she fell asleep and remained unconscious for most of the rest of the journey.

A taxi had taken the party directly from the Toth terminal to the palace, a horse-drawn cab, she discovered with a feeling somewhere between disappointment and relief.

The Guards at the palace gate are understandably reluctant to admit the disreputable-looking party until Bronwyn displayed her signet ring, which bore the seal of the Tedeschiiy family. Not convinced to the point of granting the girl an unrestrained red-carpet welcome, they acquiesced to the extent of passing her on to their superior. Thus, by a laborious series of upward deferments, Bronwyn finally gained an audience with her uncle, King Felix.

“Well,” that person is continuing, “the thing to do is to decide exactly what we must, ah,
heeeeeee
, do.”

“Payne must be stopped at all costs!”

“Well, now, my dear, that’s easy enough to say. I’m certainly sympathetic with you, and I agree that
something
must be done, but there are many considerations. Many. King Ferenc is my brother, after all, and you and your, ah, brother are my niece and nephew, but Tamlaght is still a sovereign state. I simply can’t order my army to march into it and assassinate Payne Roelt.”

“But why not? he deserves it!”

“No doubt! For his treatment of you, if for no other reason, and I daresay my advisors would consider that reason enough. Nevertheless, I must confer with them. Protocol must be followed, especially in a time like this.”

“How long will that take?”

“I’ve no idea. Please be patient just a little longer; I promise it won’t take any more time than absolutely necessary.”

“I’ve never been very patient, Uncle.”

“Maybe, maybe . . . but you must be, now.”

“It’s just that I can’t stand not knowing what’s going to happen!”

“Is it the not-knowing, or the uncertainty? In any case, my dear niece, even though Musrum Himself may suspect what the future holds, He still cannot guarantee it.”

Although not entirely satisfied with that answer, Bronwyn allows herself to be dismissed, as the physicians reattach the king to his life-support system. The soft
boof boof
of the bellows has already begun as the door shuts behind her.

Gyven is waiting for her in the antechamber.

“Good afternoon, Princess,” he says in the distant, vaguely disinterested tone that irritates her so much.

“Good afternoon,” she replies, equally distant. “Have you seen Thud?”

“No. Princess, there is something that I must discuss with you.”

“I’ve no doubt but that you do.”

“It’s about the promise you made to King Slagelse.”

“What about it?”

“I had hoped that I would not need to remind you that you had promised to deliver me to the faeries.”

“I did no such thing! I only promised to take you as far as Londeac! Well, here you are. What more do you want?”

“I want you to take me as far as the faerie kingdom. As you promised.”

“I tell you I made no such promise. Besides, I haven’t the slightest idea where the faeries are, let alone their ‘kingdom.’”

“I won’t leave you until you take me there.”

“Believe me when I tell you that I’d consider that more than enough incentive if there is anything I could do about it. However, I can’t, so if that’s what you intend to do, then I suppose that I’ll just have to bear the burden of your company as best I can. If you’ll excuse me, I want to find Thud.”

She turns her back on the unsurprisingly stony-faced Gyven and strides lengthily down the long corridors to her apartment.

Although it really isn’t necessary, since plenty of sunlight is pouring into the room through ranks of tall windows, Bronwyn throws a small switch mounted on the wall near the door. The room is immediately flooded with a brilliant white light that outshines even that of the sun. This emanates from a large glass globe suspended from the center of the ceiling, inside which carbon elements buzz ecstatically under the influence of the powerful electric current. Gyven had embarrassed the princess when they are first presented their rooms, when she discovered him observing her with a supercilious smirk as she had been flicking the switch on and off in amazement as the first electrical light she had ever seen blazed and went dark at her touch.

The palace is filled with similar wonders: she discovered to her delight that hot or cold water is available from taps in her bathroom, which also boast a water closet (and every apartment, she learned to her increasing wonderment, had its very own), and she had thought that a row of ivory buttons, each with an engraved label beneath (“valet,” “maid,” “kitchen,” etc.), is enigmatically decorative until it is pointed out to her that by pressing the appropriate button she could signal the desired person or service. Astonishing. She had discovered that the half-dozen floors of the palace are connected at several points by hydraulic lifts. The effect of stepping into a small room, closing its door, and then reopening that door onto an entirely different room seemed almost like magic. She rode it up and down until the butler is forced to gently ask her to refrain.

Thud had his own apartment, adjoining Bronwyn’s, which she now enters by way of the connecting door. Thud is standing in front of his window, or, to be more exact, he is standing in front of two and a half windows. He turns when he hears Bronwyn enter (since, naturally, she had not seen any need for knocking) and one of his almost frighteningly impossible grins splits his head into almost equal halves, like a grapefruit, which it closely resembles both in size and shape.

“Hello, Princess.”

“Hello, Thud.” She herself into one of the room’s comfortably padded chairs. “I’m so frustrated I don’t know what to do. After everything I’ve gone through to get here, all my uncle can do is tell me to
wait
. I don’t see how wasting any more time is going to accomplish anything.”

“Mm.”

“I simply can’t
stand
not knowing. Unless I know how something is going to happen and who is going to do it and when, it’s the same to me as though it aren’t going to happen at all. I’ve always taken ‘maybe’ for ‘no’ and ‘we’ll see’ for ‘never.’”

“Mm.”

“There are worse places to have to vegetate, I suppose, and I’d only be driving myself mad if I sat around and brooded over things I obviously have no control over. And I guess that I
have
been enjoying myself.” She draws her knees up to her chest and leans her head back against the chair. “I never dreamed Londeac is such an amazing country! I’d read about some of these things, but they somehow just never seemed very real. Do you know what I mean?”

“Mm.”

“Maybe I’m just feeling guilty for being distracted by these things, for enjoying myself at all. But it all seems so fantastic: there’re machines for doing just about everything. When I’d read about such things I always imagined them as part of some far-off future, not things I’d ever see.”

“Mm.”

“What in the world is so interesting?” she asks with some exasperation, joining him at the remaining half window, then cries, “Holy Musrum! What’s that?”

A dark sphere is drifting across the sky. It is about the same angular size as either the sun or the smaller moon; that is, about half a degree. Seen against the bright blue, it looks as though a hole has been punched in the sky.

“I don’t know,” answers Thud, unnecessarily.

Bronwyn peers intently at the uncanny object. A dim highlight reveals that it is indeed a sphere, and there appears to be a small object suspended below it. The latter moves along with its larger companion at the same leisurely rate, maintaining a constant distance, but whether they are actually connected physically she can not tell. After a few moments, the mysterious apparition passes within a cloud and vanishes from their sight.

“I have no idea what that could’ve been, Thud,” she says, turning from the window. Then she notices that she is trembling and realizes that the uncanny object had actually frightened her. “Well,” she says, trying to keep her voice under control, “there’re a lot of very peculiar things about Londeac that we’ll just have to get used to. These artificial lamps, for example.” Not very adroitly changing the subject, she goes to the wall and causes the ceiling fixture to illuminate the room brilliantly. “Aren’t they marvellous?”

“I suppose so,” replies Thud calmly.

“Oh, Thud! Doesn’t it amaze you that you can turn these lamps on and off with just this little switch?”

“Isn’t that the way they’re
supposed
to work?”

“Of course! But . . . forget it, Thud.”

“All right,” he answers dutifully, forgetting.

CHAPTER TWO

THE VILLAINS HAVE DIFFICULTIES

“What’s this?” asks Payne Roelt, waving a heavy piece of paper under the distinctly
retroussé
nose of King Ferenc. Ferenc is not responsible for the shape of his nose, nor for the consequence that when he tries to wriggle it out of the way of the paper it looks as though he is smelling something bad.

“What?” he replies.

“This! you ninny! What did you think ‘what?’”

“Ah . . . what?”

“I’m talking about this letter!”

“All right, all right! I just didn’t know what
what
you wanted.”

“Well?”

“Well what, Payne?”

“Do you have to be so confoundedly stupid?”

“I don’t understand, Payne,” says the king, obviously hurt. “Why do you have to talk to me like that?”

“It’s a compulsion, Ferenc. You inspire me.”

“Do I
really
?” Ferenc replies brightly, but only in a figurative sense, of course.

Payne looks at his king with the same sort of expression anyone else might use when seeing an insect with two or three of its legs missing. The six months since Ferenc’s coronation have seen substantial changes in the two men. The new king has grown softer and more stupid, if possible; he increasingly resembles a monstrously overgrown baby, as though he was merely the pupa stage of some vast, cow-like animal, perhaps a walrus or manatee. On the other hand, Payne’s reptilian intelligence has increased in direct proportion to his covetousness. His eyes burn with a kind of hyperspectral luminosity, as though they are emitting ultra-violet light or X-rays. He seems never to blink, which may have been no illusion since his lusterless eyeballs actually do appear to be dry. The wealth he has accumulated in just the short time since the coronation is, even for him, almost incalculable. It is a matter of some irritation that he does not have an exact accounting . . . he would very much like to know precisely how wealthy he is at any one moment, or even from moment to moment if that are possible. It is not what wealth can buy that is important to Payne, it is entirely possible that its true value means little and that he would collect poenigs as avidly as crowns, if that is all that was available, but rather the
possession
alone is sufficient. He simply liked to accumulate money. Therefore, the knowledge of how much he has, to the fraction of a poenig, is of great importance . . . it is the
whole
point, in fact. Round numbers are not satisfying; he prefers his numbers nice and crisp, with sharp well-defined edges. He glances at the now-crumpled paper in his hand. Another distraction.

“It’s an invitation from your Uncle Felix.”

Ferenc looks up from the cigarette tip he has been contemplating, or has been mesmerized by. “Uncle Felix?”

“You
do
remember that you have an uncle?”

“Of course; I was just expressing surprise.”

“He’s inviting you to visit him in Toth.”

“Toth?”

“The capital of Londeac.”

“Yes, yes, I know what it’s the capital of! But why’s he inviting
me
to visit? I haven’t seen him since I is a little boy. I can barely remember him.”

“It
is
rather sudden, isn’t it?”

“Well, I am king now. Perhaps he’s just being polite. A courtesy call, you know?”

“Except that he’s asking you to do the calling.”

“Well, he must be an awfully old man by now. Maybe he can’t travel.”

“Maybe.”

“You’re the most suspicious person I’ve ever met.”

“No, just the most intelligent.”

“Well, I can’t simply
refuse
to go.”

“No, I suppose not,” Payne says, then,
sotto voce
: “I’d like to get General Praxx’s opinion about this.”

“Praxx?” squeaked the king, dribbling ashes down his vest. “Must we?”

“There’s something about this invitation that doesn’t feel right. I’d like to hear what he has to say about it. Praxx has a much better feel about things like this than I do.”

“Oh, Musrum! Do I have to be here when he comes?”

“To be truthful, I’d rather you aren’t.”

“Why not? I have every right to be here!”

“You’re unbelievable, Ferenc.”

“Why, thank you,” replies the king, with a smirk.

Payne looks at the young king with an expression that, on anyone else, might have been pity. Without saying anything else, he pulls a bellrope, in almost instantaneous answer to which appears a servant. Payne sends him off to fetch the general.

Ferenc manages to consume another half-dozen cigarettes in the few minutes it takes before Praxx glides silently into the smoky room, as though on well-oiled wheels.

“Your Highness,” he peremptorily acknowledges, but bows toward the other. “Lord Roelt.”

The king says nothing, but only puffs faster, his portly figure gradually transforming into a cloud of acrid smoke, like a whale retreating into its lightless abyss.

“Take a look at this,” says Payne, handing Praxx Felix’s letter. The general reads it carefully twice, then returns it to the Chamberlain.

“Well, what do you think?”

“It’s a pretty transparent trap, I’d say,” replies the general.

“That’s what I suspected, but what’s the motive behind it? What could its purpose be?”

“I wouldn’t venture to say.”

“No one’s heard from King Felix in years; why this sudden interest in his nephew?”

“He wasn’t able to attend the coronation; perhaps he’s making up for that omission.”

“You can’t believe that . . .”

“Of course not.”

“ . . . the timing’s all wrong. This thing just doesn’t ring true.”

“I agree. One thing, however, is both obvious and imperative.”

“And that is?”

“That under no circumstances should Ferenc be allowed to leave the country . . . certainly not until we discover what this is all about.”

“We have to respond to this invitation in some way.”

“We need to delay, to gain enough time to discover whether or not this invitation is legitimate . . . and if not, what’s behind it. In the meantime, I’d suggest we send an emissary.”

“Emissary?”

“Under some official pretext or another . . . perhaps an assistant consul would do. Yes, that’d be a good choice; he would have access to both the palace and the king. A good man could easily ferret out what’s really going on.”

“So what do we tell Felix in the meantime?”

“Oh, anything. It doesn’t matter. The man is half senile as it is. Tell him that Ferenc has the plague and that the palace has been quarantined. That’d do.”

“Plague?” comes a whine from within an opaque cloud of smoke. “What’s this about plague?”

“Oh, Musrum!” curses Payne, who had actually forgotten the king’s presence. “It’s nothing, your Highness.”

“Stop treating me like a child! I heard you talking!” The king comes toward the plotters, his soft bulk emerging like a dirigible from the smoky cloud.

“Let me handle this,” Praxx says to Payne
;
then to the king: “We hoped not to worry you, your Highness, but we seem to have uncovered a plot against you.”

“Plot?
Plot
?” he shrilled, his normally tallow-colored face turning as dead white as a porcelain toilet and as beaded with cold sweat. “What kind of plot?”

“Perhaps an attempt at . . .
assassination
!”


Assassination
?
Me?
Whatever for?”

“There’s no explaining the mind of a fanatic, your Highness.”

“It
is
kind of thrilling, in a way, you know? I mean, no one actually wants people shooting at them or anything, but it
does
make one feel rather important, you know? Why, just look at me! I’m all aquiver!”

“Yes, your Highness.”

“Who could it possibly be?”

“We’re trying to find that out now, your Highness . . . possibly some radical political underground.”

“You think so? Really?”

“It’s not un-likely.”

“It’s so weird thinking that there’s someone out there who . . . who . . . wants to
kill
me!” He shivers violently, spraying cigarette ash down the front of Praxx’s hitherto immaculate uniform. “Can you imagine such a thing?”

“Only with difficulty,” lies Payne, who has entertained the thought perhaps fifty or fifty-five times.

“You
are
planning to do something about it?”

“Of course. That’s exactly what the general and I are just discussing.”

“Excellent! Just what are you going to do, then?”

“Well, your Highness,” says Praxx, “we’re sending a spy . . .”

“A
spy
? How wonderful! Really? An actual spy?”

“Yes. I’m glad you approve of the idea. We’re sending an, um, spy to Londeac to try and discover, ah, who’s behind this, ah, plot to kill you.”

“Londeac? Why Londeac?”

“That’s where this invitation came from.”

“The invitation from Uncle Felix? What does that have to do with assassins?”

“General Praxx and I have reason to doubt the authenticity of this invitation, your Highness. We feel it may be a trap.”

“A
trap
? Holy Musrum! This is indeed thrilling!” The king lights another cigarette from the butt of the old one. His hands shake so badly that the cigarette makes an acute bend toward his nose, which is so
retroussé
that he takes no notice.

“Yes. We need to find out whether or not the invitation is genuine.”

“Well! By all means, go ahead!”

“Thank you, your Highness. Praxx, you’ll handle this?”

“Just a moment,” interrupted the king.

“What is it?”

“What about the plague?”

“What plague?”

“The plague that you and the general are talking about?”

“There’s no pla, . . .” begins Payne, but Praxx interrupts.

“Yes, yes, your Highness, I remember. We are just discussing possible means by which your assassination might be accomplished.”

“You mean, someone might give me the
plague
? That’s fiendish!”

“Yes, your Highness.”

“Oh, dear Musrum!” says the king, collapsing into a chair that competes unsuccessfully with him in overstuffedness.

“You’ll handle this?” Payne once again asks his general.

“Of course.”

“Then I leave it entirely in your capable hands.”

“Thank you, your . . . ah, Lord Roelt.”

General Praxx leaves the chamber feeling far better than he has for months. When he had learned that the Princess Bronwyn had shown up at the postcoronation ball, had threatened both Payne and the new king, and had subsequently vanished from the country, evidently in the company of the notorious Baron Sluys Milnikov, who had earlier made a sensational escape from a supposedly escape-proof prison, he had been irked beyond all expression. Two humiliatingly catastrophic events in one evening is intolerable and, what is worse, inexcusable. It had taken every ounce of his manipulative ability to maintain his position . . . Payne had been almost insanely furious over what he had considered the virtually traitorous incompetence of Praxx and his Guards. At that, he felt, and rightly, that neither he nor his organization are held in the same esteem they’d enjoyed before the coronation. Much of the general’s time during the succeeding months had been spent in diplomatically reëstablishing his position.

The king, as usual, is not difficult to handle, even less so than ever before, if anything. It appeared that once Ferenc felt that his grasp upon the throne is secure, his grasp on reality loosened; he retreated ever further into a self-indulgent fantasy world. Most recently, Praxx had been able to keep the king out of the way by arranging with the National Gallery to hold an exhibition of wax fruit. As an acknowledged major collector and authority on the subject, Ferenc was more than delighted to accept the patronage. Heading the various committees, arranging the catalog, overseeing the exhibitry: all of these important tasks kept the king busily and happily occupied from dawn to dusk.

Payne seemed to be going through metamorphoses of his own, changes the various significances of which Praxx is still uncertain. The Chamberlain was becoming almost pathologically greedy; the accumulation of wealth has become his overwhelming passion. He seems to be unaware that there might ever be any ultimate limits, or that he might be destroying the very sources of his income. Praxx is well aware that Payne’s next intended target is the Church, whose vast holdings he covets beyond all measure. Now
there
is a pending situation of apocalyptic potentialities!

Historically, the Church of Musrum has been, for all practical if officially unadmitted purposes, a subdepartment of the state. The Church has always supported the government, tacitly if not overtly, making palatable to the people any potentially unpopular legislation, from increased taxes to declarations of war. In return, the government turns a blind eye on how the Church and its officers conduct their business. Members of the royal family, as well as the aristocracy, have traditionally been officials of the Church, just as in turn officials of the Church have always sat in the Privy Council. Therefore, over the centuries the position of the Church has grown to be both powerful and precarious.

This new problem interests Praxx. When he reaches his office, he summons one of his agents and, while waiting for the man to arrive, gives the matter a little thought. The sudden interest of King Felix, if true, is puzzling indeed. Especially in light of what he knows about the man. The king is elderly and, as seems typical of the Tedeschiiy family at any age, more than a little dotty. Felix has not placed a foot on Tamlaghtan soil in more than fifteen years . . . the last time he had seen either Ferenc or Bronwyn they had been little more than toddlers. In all the intervening time there has been scarcely any official communication between the two countries, let alone familial. It is not really King Felix’s fault: Tamlaght’s xenophobia extends even to nations ruled by members of its own family. Well, then, why the sudden interest? It certainly does have a sinister ring to it. Payne may be growing paranoid, but he’s not mistaken in this case, Praxx is certain. At this point in the general’s thoughts, the summoned Guard arrives.