I wrote the story so it is easy to read aloud to someone. That someone can be a grownup or a child.
How is the writing intentionally suitable for reading aloud? Most paragraphs of words spoken by a character begin by identifying the speaker. Phrases such as "he said...", "she remarked...", "he grumbled...", and "she exclaimed..." both let the listener know who is now talking and help let the reader know what tone of voice to use. This is needlessly bulky for text when you read to yourself and see the changes to new paragraphs. Yet I am familiar with the challenges presented to someone who enjoys reading aloud but is terrible at reading in different voices, and judge the large gain in accessibility to be worth a small loss in elegance.
Also, when there are words that a child might not know this is not a problem because the words are used a bit superfluously. This means that, as in the previous sentence, the main point of the sentence is understandable even if the big word is not understood—and furthermore the sentence helps teach the meaning of the big word through association and exposure. Reading a lot has been proven to be the best way to improve our vocabularies. Why not make this as effective as possible?
The Wart did not know what Merlyn was talking about, but he liked him to talk. He did not like the grown-ups who talked down to him, but the ones who went on talking in their usual way, leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, and chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned. He had the glee of the porpoise then, pouring and leaping through strange seas.
– T.H. White, The Once and Future King, chapter 5
This novel is by David L. Van Slyke ©2001.
The ship approached the island of Windsong as the sun rose from behind the liquid horizon.
"It's like we're flying a kite," mused a sailor while enjoying the scene and his idle time until the ship entered the bay of Windsong's only city. "Every time we sail here it's like this. Nowhere else are sunrises so colorful. Although we do not actually speed up as we approach the island the way the land looms makes it seem so. It's like we've begun to run and the sun is a kite that rises as we gain speed."
The listener nodded but said nothing. He was traveling on the ship but was not a sailor.
The sailor was not looking at his companion. "Windsong's sunsets are even more amazing—all of them. They say the island is enchanted to have fine weather and glorious sunsets and such."
The listener's lips puckered slightly, almost a frown.
The sailor continued, "I believe it. I've sailed halfway around the continent and no place is as green and healthy looking from a distance." He paused for a moment, during which the listener's eyes went unfocused. Then the sailor concluded, "It's quite an island."
The listener nodded vacantly.
The sailor turned to his companion and raised one hand, extending one finger to emphasize his words. "Of course," he said, with eyes suddenly darkly stormy, "I would not want to live on Windsong. You've heard about the dynasty. Windsong the island is a beauty. Windsong the king is a tyrant."
The listener closed his eyes and turned away from the sailor.
The sailor faced the sunrise again. If the other man was weeping he was unsure how to respond, so ignorance was preferable.
"And so, little brother," chuckled King Asper Rhyn after explaining over breakfast his plans for a kidnapping, "I am looking forward to today. Are you?"
Crede Rhyn kept his expression neutral as he finished chewing and replied, "I thank you for the honor of inviting me to breakfast. It surely will be the highlight of my day."
Asper laughed and finished a pastry, delight glittering in his wrinkled face. "Your formality amuses me. But I hope there is no other reason for it, Crede. Although you are next in line for the throne I have no plans to do you harm. My spies have found out much about your plans. I find it quite comforting that your plans all seem to start the moment I die and not the sunset before. I don't think you're mean enough to rule well, but you certainly seem intelligent enough."
Crede took another bite of breakfast so his swallowing would be ambiguous. "Not mean enough, sire?"
King Asper took a long drink before explaining. Crede looked increasingly uncomfortable during the delay, which pleased the king. "Not at all!" Asper said. "You eagerly anticipate the vault of magic items will be yours. You have many plans in which it plays a part. I'm sure you eagerly await the magical protections I wear, so for once you can live without fearing assassins. But I've never heard mention of you being eager to have use of beating boys. None of your plans take advantage of the palace guards' flair for extortion. It's almost as if you believe a king can rule without imposing fear. I don't mean to be insulting. And I acknowledge that not seeming...bad enough at heart has probably helped you survive our family despite your position. I just hope it is all an act, this lack of sadism. Some day it will be your turn to rule and I'd hate to have the Rhyn name lose its sting."
Crede had nodded politely at certain points during Asper's lecture. "My King," he answered, "I am impressed by how perceptive you are. Please do not worry. You invented the beating boys, and the religion of light. The Rhyn kings and queens before you were evil enough without these particular exhibitions of cruelty. People are different; in the years before the throne becomes mine I surely will develop my own quirks."
"Quirks!" laughed Asper, "Quirks! Maybe I should secretly let you have an hour with the boys. Ah! You would quickly see how universal cruelty is. But secrets are difficult to keep, and if others heard you received preferential treatment things would go badly for you. Still, imagining the scene has made this breakfast worthwhile." King Asper finished eating and stood. "Tell no one of my plans for today—a little test of loyalty I am sure you will pass. Ah, one Alconar spy captive already and the others soon to follow. Watch it happen, little brother! Some day, when it is your turn to rule, I hope you have an outlet for your vanity as well as your cruelty. Fare well! I'm off to think and exercise with the boys."
After Asper left Crede finished eating alone. It would be nice to have the Alconars dealt with. He knew little about the family, but did know they had stolen some of the king's invisibility cloaks two months ago and now employed invisible spies. Often during the past two months he had felt an eerie suspicion that he was being watched—usually when he was doing sparring practice or other exercise. If today would provide a lesson on how to catch invisible spies then he would pay attention.
Crede took a deep breath and slowly released it. Despite the discomfort of being with his brother, breakfast had gone well. Asper, as usual, had said too much. Crede was pleased with the success of his efforts to leak specific information to Asper's spies. It was useful to be thought of as spineless. The truth, of course, was that Asper was brutish while Crede was crafty. Asper saw power as a means to obtain opportunities for cruelty. Crede saw cruelty as a means to solidify power—and often an inferior means at that. And once Crede had power there would be much better things to do with it than hit children.
Crede stood, looking at the bits of food still on his plate. Why eat any but the finest part of a dish? Asper's plate was empty. Crede laughed to himself: yes, better to be ruled by good taste instead of by hunger like an animal.
"Fried fish!" the orphan children called. They were sitting on or beside some crates that they had set upon their sides in parody of a market booth. "Yummy! We have a special seasoning!"
The sailors walked by, keeping their eyes averted. Orphans were sometimes kidnapped by merchantmen who would sell them as slaves in other nations back on the continent. Keeping away from orphans helped avoid being mistaken for a slaver. At least that is how the sailors justified their behavior.
The people who lived in Windsong avoided the orphans even more forcefully. The island did have wonderful enchantments. There was no harsh weather or disease. Dangerous or annoying animals avoided the island. Crops were always bountiful and livestock was always healthy. Yet an overabundant food supply did not ensure enough food for everyone after subtracting the dynasty's heavy taxes. Before the dynasty's rule began no one had lacked food. Orphans should not need to bob about the harbor in wooden boxes, fishing to get food and something to sell for coins for clothing. It was wrong, the way a wound is wrong.
One man stopped by the orphans' fish stand as he came ashore from a pier. "Good morning," he said. "You start your business early."
"Yes, sir," a tiny boy answered.
His sister was older, and saw more in the man's face. "You look so sad! Want a fish for free? We were lucky and caught plenty this morning."
The man shook his head no, remembering to also wave one hand as was done in Windsong to add politeness to the head's shake. Then he added, "I've been to many ports and never seen orphans selling fish." His tone made the statement a question.
The boy looked at his sister. She was older and should answer. She thought for a moment and then shrugged. "It was a good idea." Then she turned to a boy beside her who was monitoring a small skillet over a tiny fire. He cut a small sample off the fish he was cooking, and passed it to the girl, who offered it to the man.
The man accepted it with prompt politeness, but looked at it dubiously. He glanced at the orphans' hands, noticing they seemed reasonably clean. He put the bite of fish in his mouth. The flavor was a startling shock that almost caused him to choke. It was truly delicious.
The girl smiled broadly. "See, you like it. Everyone does after they try it."
"How?" asked the man.
"We have a special seasoning powder," the girl said. "The girl who gave us the idea of the fish stand made it for us. But we have to keep it private. We're not allowed to give any away or sell it or anything. And if someone tries to take it we'll throw it into the bay."
The man scratched his neck. "What happens when you run out of seasoning powder?"
"By then all of us will have new clothes with no holes," replied the girl.
"Then what?" the man asked.
"I don't know. She said not to worry so we don't."
The man sighed. "Your leader is either quite wise or quite foolish, and I feel foolish myself trying decide which based upon a mouthful of exquisitely seasoned fish."
"Huh?" asked the orphan girl.
"Never mind," said the man. He handed her a coin and entered the city of Windsong.
The orphan girl smiled for a while, partly because of the coin but mostly because no other adult had bothered to speak with her for so long. Friendliness was uncommon.
The name Windsong was shared by the island, its one kingdom, and its one city. The name could also refer to the current monarch, although only visitors from the continent spoke with that idiom. Besides the city, the island also had a dozen small farming villages.
Fulmer, the good mage who created the island kingdom three hundred years ago, was both kind and thorough. Besides making the island's environment a utopia he instituted a monarchy in which the person on the island most suitable to be king or queen was chosen to rule. In the palace throne room a magical sword balanced sideways upon a magical stone, and pointed at the person most qualified to rule the kingdom. Ideally, transitions would be peaceful and often remarkably temporary. A person best suited to rule in a time of peace might step down when the kingdom felt the threat of a foreign naval invasion, and resume ruling once peace was restored.
Fulmer had ruled Windsong for its first forty years. Then, finally and to his great relief, someone else had become more qualified to rule and Fulmer had stepped down and resumed his career as a traveling mage. In the following two hundred and sixty years more than forty kings and queens had ruled Windsong. On a few occasions a ruler had tried to remain in power after the stone-sword indicated he or she should retire. But throughout history the system worked well and was universally respected among Windsong's populace, including its palace guard. Greedy rulers were soon off the throne.
Sixty years ago the evil mage Maximus Grim had conquered Windsong and established a different dynasty. The Rhyns, a family from the continent with experience in abusing power, were put over the kingdom. Maximus Grim provided them with fearsome magical items to ensure that the dynasty remained in control.
There was a prophecy that Fulmer would return to Windsong to restore goodness and justice to the kingdom. There was another prophecy that Maximus Grim would return to Windsong to finish bending the kingdom to his wicked desires. Most of the people of Windsong did not believe in either prophecy. The kingdom had not had a seer in forty years and interest in religion had dwindled. Oppressed by the royal family, the people were used to being hungry, sore, and without hope. Outside the palace, few people except the visiting sailors and merchants had time to notice or enjoy the idyllic setting.
The man who had listened to a sailor at sunrise and then spoken with an orphan girl walked through the city, curious about what life under the Rhyn dynasty was like. By repeatedly asking a few careful questions he realized that friendliness was uncommon, and why.
Selfishness had slowly spread through the kingdom as the dynasty's tyranny had matured. The dynasty's greed had quickly manifested in large taxes and new rituals with no purpose besides legislating displays of groveling obedience. Eventually all private land had been claimed by the dynasty. Sadly, the people had responded to becoming servants and serfs by also becoming tainted. Instead of feeling unity as people oppressed, they had become divided by increasing selfishness. Instead of rebelling against the vices of their rulers, they had absorbed the vices in smaller degree and called it protecting themselves. Fear had smothered hope, and gentle kindness had been replaced by callous fortitude.
Of course, the man's questions were met not with such an abstract summary but with tragic details of how each family had been cruelly forced from greatness and generosity down to groveling and ire. When the questioner could take no more, he sat down on the edge of a large fountain and cried. It was worse than he had heard.
Fulmer weakly gripped his forehead with fingers that once lifted mountains from the sea. As he cried, a butterfly landed on the fountain's edge and walked with its trembling steps to a drop of water to drink. The island had many butterflies. His ancient magic still ensured that.
The chapters of this novel all are labeled "In which..." in tribute to A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories.
Fulmer is named after a friend of mine from my graduate school days. The real Fulmer was a model of patience and wisdom, and his personality helped shaped the fictional Fulmer until that fictional character developed its own personality.
A young girl named Chamomile knocked on the back door to the Alconar estate with one hand behind her back. The Alconar family was always friendly to Chamomile even though she was an orphan. She thought that the sword in the throne room must usually point to Old Alconar. She never told him that, though.
The cook, Fennel, opened the back door. He smiled at Chamomile and invited her in. He kept one hand behind his back. From behind her back, Chamomile took a handful of flowers that she had picked from the plants bordering the park. She gave them to Fennel, who put them in the vase he had been keeping behind his back. Her gift of flowers had surprised him the first and second time. By now there had been too many times to count, but both still shared the small joy of pretending, for a moment, that the flowers were still a surprise.
Fennel always spoke first, as was proper. "What beautiful flowers today! Would you believe that when I woke up I felt that today would be special?"
Fennel had been the cook for the Alconar family for thirty-four years, during which time the previous Old Alconar had died and his son Jacaranda had acquired the role of Old Alconar. Although he had been born ten years after Maximus Grim had taken over Windsong, Fennel had seen the kingdom decay under the rule of the Rhyn dynasty until special days were increasingly infrequent, and often set apart only by a better selection of vegetables at the market. His remark was intended to both cryptic and hopeful: a fitting beginning to the verbal sparring they enjoyed together.
Chamomile smiled at the compliment. Then, looking serious, she met his eyes and replied, "Today really will be special. Old Alconar will meet someone very special today."
"Ha-ah!" Fennel barked, a sound made to simultaneously show approval of humor and disapproval of implication. "Have you become a seer today, Chamomile?"
"Why, yes," Chamomile answered, smiling mysteriously and keeping her eyes on his as she climbed onto a chair at the kitchen table.
Fennel kept the eye contact a few seconds. Then he gave up on winning the game of saying the right thing. He turned around to mind the stove and sink. He was also not going to lose by saying something obviously wrong.
"For example," the girl continued as he picked up his salt shaker, "I predict you are going to put too much salt in that stew." As she spoke, its lid came off and several spoonfuls of salt fell into the pot of stew before Fennel righted it. Still with his back to her, he frowned. When she had spoken had she actually mentioned the salt before it spilled, or did she simply finish her sentence as guided by opportunity? He could not remember.
The two of them shared company but not conversation for a few minutes. He tended the stove and sink. She ate a breakfast of fruit and bread that had been waiting for her arrival.
A few minutes later Walnut entered the kitchen. As the only son of Old Alconar he was the steward of the estate. He was in his twenties, and moved with a restless energy created by trying to absorb wisdom ahead of his years while refusing to slow his mastery of physical prowess. Chamomile, as usual, told him what she had seen earlier that morning at the docks: which ships had arrived or left, and which goods she had overheard were being unloaded. Walnut had older contacts that usually informed him accurately about which ships would soon be arriving at Windsong and what goods they traded. There had been a few times, however, when having confirmation from Fennel's young friend was very important. Today was not one of those times and Walnut listened politely but then quickly left the kitchen. Later the repeated distant but sharp crack of wood against wood indicated that Walnut was in the sparring room doing his morning practice.
Chamomile climbed down from her chair and brought her plate to the sink. The sink was large enough that she would need to pull up a chair to wash the plate. Usually that would inconvenience Fennel, doing more harm than good.
"What are your plans today?" asked Fennel.
"Today I visit the palace," she replied.
"Oh, really?" he prompted. He was intrigued and fell back into their game of words. If she was still pretending to be a seer, why would she have predicted such an unlikely thing?
"Yes," she continued. "Old Alconar and I will dine together there tonight. The special person I mentioned will be there too."
Fennel controlled himself. He did not want her to feel insulted. If cooking the food had required any concentration he would have sputtered aloud, but fortunately his mind was focused on their verbal sparring and he caught himself. Her suggestion was ridiculous, amusing in the extent of its absurdity.
The kingdom had six noble families before Maximus Grim arrived. Only three remained in control of land and wealth. Old Alconar ate with his son and daughter, or with other nobles who visited him. Only very rarely, to show deep gratitude, would Old Alconar invite others of his household to share a meal. Fennel himself ate with Old Alconar and his family the last day of each month, for it was part of Old Alconar's philosophy that a valued cook should share the family's joy of eating meals so carefully prepared. Chamomile's suggestion of dining with Old Alconar would have been unrealistic even if the meal were to happen there in the kitchen; to say a girl whose home was a dirty, abandoned building would share a meal with nobility while at the palace was ridiculous.
Fennel broke out of his daydreaming and noticed Chamomile looking at him. It was his turn to reply. He rolled his eyes.
Chamomile sighed huffily. Fennel's expression of doubt could be saying she was foolish or in trouble. Deciding to act as if he was warning her of trouble, she replied, "Oh, don't worry, Fennel. I will not have to talk during dinner. My job will just be to wait and listen."
The stew was bubbling a bit too vigorously, which Fennel gladly used as an excuse to pause their game. For a second time that morning she had scored a point: he could not think of an appropriately witty thing to say.
Jasmine, Old Alconar's daughter, slipped quietly into the kitchen from the hallway. She tiptoed towards Fennel, glancing at Chamomile and putting one finger to her lips. Chamomile kept quiet. Fennel decided the broth was ready for vegetables and went to the main cupboard for carrots. Keeping out of his sight, Jasmine snuck over to the counter and took away the knife block.
Fennel returned to the counter, set down the carrots, then noticed the knives were gone. He looked disapprovingly at Chamomile. "Either you did this or Jasmine is here and you are helping her. Either way, you are causing trouble."
Chamomile blinked wide eyes. "Help her? What if she is sneaky enough that neither of us notice her?"
Fennel sighed. "She probably is, but you two giggle together after these pranks. I think she lets you watch because she enjoys showing off." He looked around again and then grunted, but failed to convince either girl he was truly upset. When he bothered to think about it he realized that he was fifty, and the family cook, and that Jasmine was a rebellious teenager who needed someone to tease.
The situation was also slightly sad, as Fennel remembered past years when Old Alconar had been more playful with his daughter. Over the years Old Alconar had become more serious; so had most other people and things of Windsong. Yet Jasmine seemed immune to the trend and laughed frequently. Fennel thought she was an odd girl, but appreciated how she could see the good in anything.
Fennel put a serious look upon his face and studied the room. While keeping a watchful eye he stated, "If the potatoes, onions, and leeks would stealthily appear on the counter that would be of great help."
Jasmine stood up, frowning. She had been crouching behind the counter on the opposite side. "That's outrageous! Just how sneaky do you think I can be?" She put the knife block back onto the counter with a thunk, then stomped out of the kitchen.
"My, I did not mean to insult her," Fennel said. He shrugged, turned to the carrots, reached for the large knife, and yelped. The knives were not in the knife block: Jasmine had replaced them with scallions. "Where did she put the knives?" he muttered. Fennel went around the counter to look at the floor on the other side. The knives were not there, so he looked in the counter's small cupboard and in the sink. Then he went to the main cupboard and checked the shelf where the scallions were kept. Wait! Some other vegetables were also missing! He glanced at the counter again. The knives were back in the knife rack, and next to his carrots were a few potatoes, onions, and leeks.
Fennel looked at Chamomile and said, "In three more months she will be eighteen and then she will have to stop playing silly, childish games."
Jasmine leaned into the kitchen from the doorway to the hall. "Fennel!" she scolded, "There is no reason to be mean!" She left again, closing the door.
Fennel called after her, "No reason? If I cook the stew with only these few vegetables, do you know how much trouble I will be in?" He waited a minute to make sure no reply was coming, then went back to his work. Chamomile carried more vegetables from the main cupboard to the counter while Fennel expertly cut and diced.
A few minutes later, the distinctive tapping of Old Alconar's cane warned them that he was approaching the kitchen from the hallway. Chamomile checked to make sure that her clothes were as neat as a few seconds' time could make them, then climbed up onto a chair. Fennel did a quick mental inventory of himself and the kitchen, then decided he did not need to do anything besides continue preparing the stew.
Old Alconar entered from the hallway. He paused a moment in the doorway, closing his eyes and breathing in the smells of the kitchen. "Ah, Fennel, I should smell your kitchen more often. I have been summoned to visit the Temple of Light. I may be late for lunch today. Now, having freshly smelled your cooking, I will miss the food even more if I am delayed." He straightened slightly above his cane, holding onto a counter with his other hand, and inhaled the kitchen's smells again. Old Alconar was seventy, and one of the few people of Windsong old enough to clearly remember what life on the island had been like before Maximus Grim or the Rhyn dynasty. As head of his noble family he was referred to as "Old" Alconar instead of being addressed by his first name.
Fennel's face showed his concern. "Summoned already?" he asked. The Way of Light was a false religion newly founded by the Rhyn family. The city had already learned that anyone who did not pretend to embrace the new religion was branded as a heretic and jailed. It was one more way the evil dynasty could enjoy watching everyone else grovel. The temple's High Priest also made demands upon the wealthy families of Windsong, requiring financial support that was called "donations" but was actually a thinly disguised royal tax. When Old Alconar spoke of being late for lunch, the words signified that trouble was expected.
Old Alconar made an ironic grin, mimicking the predatory smile his enemies might be making. "You plan your kitchen precisely, Fennel. I have careful plans as well. May the Architect accept mine within his."
Fennel nodded agreement, but his face did not lose its worry. Although Windsong's oldest generation believed certain divine beings were real, Fennel himself had never seen evidence of that religion's truth and drew no comfort from its ritual formulas. The old religion taught about three divine beings: the Architect who planned the world, the Builder who created and maintained what the Architect had planned, and Taint who unceasingly tried to corrupt the world so it no longer matched the Architect's plan. Taint's struggle was futile, however, because the Architect could see through time and anticipate the choices each person and divine being would make.
Old Alconar smiled again, an honest smile this time. "Have peace, Fennel." Then he turned and left the kitchen.
Fennel looked at Chamomile. She nodded in unspoken agreement, slipped down off her chair, and left through the door she had come in through. Besides paying for her food with wit and company, she helped Fennel by occasionally following Old Alconar through town. If he encountered trouble, she would see and get help. She thought that shadowing the old man was delightfully ironic because the Alconar Estate was officially the guildhouse of the Spies' Guild. It was Old Alconar's way of avoiding the royal decrees that seized private land and prohibited servants working outside the palace. The Rhyn family had complained that there was no evidence that a Spies' Guild existed. In reply Old Alconar had calmly explained that he was a talented master spy, so of course the spying activities of his well-trained apprentices such as Fennel and Beech would likewise go unnoticed.
Chamomile went around the estate to a street where she could see the front door. After a few minutes Old Alconar came out, alone. Most of the nobles, and all others his age, avoided traveling the streets alone, even during the day. Windsong had become slowly more lawless ever since the end of the reigns of its proper kings, and now muggings might happen night or noon. Old Alconar quietly encouraged rumors that told how he had secret ways to defend himself. Chamomile did not know if the rumors were true or if they merely allowed Old Alconar to ignore the streets' dangers.
Old Alconar began his walk. Chamomile stayed a little behind him. She doubted she could escape his notice, but at least he could pretend he was traveling alone.
The weather was ideal, of course, and Chamomile enjoyed the smells of flowers and sea carried by the breezes. As they approached the main plaza, someone's moans of grief disturbed the day's pleasantness. Entering the plaza, they saw a middle-aged man sitting upon the fountain's edge, sobbing mournfully.
They also saw a young man approach the crying man from behind. The crying man was too consumed with his grief to notice. The other drew a knife, and took a step closer to the crying man, then suddenly stopped, made a few small, quivering shakes with his head, and looked about with a confused expression. Old Alconar and Chamomile watched and waited. The man with the knife looked at his blade, put it away, and quickly walked out off the plaza by a different street. The crying man continued sobbing, unaware of what had happened.
Old Alconar looked around the plaza, then slowly went up to the crying man. "Excuse me..." Old Alconar began, as Chamomile caught up with him.
"Let me be," was the man's strained reply.
Old Alconar stood quietly, watching the distressed man. His clothes were unusual, certainly not made in Windsong. He must have arrived in the city by boat. He looked well fed and healthy but not muscular, so he was probably a guest on the boat, not a sailor. Perhaps the attacker had been discouraged by a protective magical item, indicating that the man must be quite wealthy. But the man's only jewelry was two rings; he lacked thick necklaces and other common signs of wealth. His hands were smooth, indicating that the man was not a laborer. His shoes were weathered but the soles hardly worn: in recent weeks the man had traveled by boat or mount or carriage, not on foot between towns.
"I don't want to talk to anyone," the sad voice reaffirmed, interrupting Old Alconar's analysis.
Chamomile knelt to get a better look at his face, held in his hands. His eyes were closed. Chamomile quietly said, "Unlike the others, we wish you well. Follow us, for we are going to a place where men meditate to draw magical energy from around them, but mistake it for a divine presence." Then she stood and took Old Alconar's hand. She indicated with a gesture of her chin that they should resume walking.
Old Alconar paused for half a moment's thought and then began walking again, wondering who was leading whom. Very few people of Windsong were left who knew anything about magic besides old stories turned to fables. He had suspected that the Monks of the Light were doing just what Chamomile had asserted, but had not spoken such "heretical" thoughts to anyone. How would this child have learned anything about magic? Old Alconar, of course, knew that Fennel and Walnut employed this girl as an extra pair of eyes and ears in the city. His own network of contacts and spies was established and professional; their parallel efforts on a small scale stirred an ironic, paternal fondness in his heart. Surely both Fennel and Walnut would know never to reveal their thoughts or feelings about sensitive issues to this girl.
Thinking of his spy network caused Old Alconar to once again fret. One of his spies had been captured yesterday. Surely that was what this audience with King Asper was about. What would Asper have done to his prisoner?
As they left the main square, Old Alconar noticed the crying had stopped. Several seconds later he heard the patter of footsteps, then saw the shadow of their new acquaintance. But since the other did not start conversation or attempt to make eye contact Old Alconar politely ignored him.
How strange it was to be in such company on this morning's walk! Normally he walked alone. Of course the rumors about how he could defend himself contained false information. But his spies had stolen some of the palace's magical artifacts, some of which he did carry on his person. In truth he very much was able to defend himself—just not in the ways the rumors suggested. Of course he knew this girl sometimes followed him, but he did not mind. It was actually flattering that Fennel would do more than passively worry about him. Flattering to him, but not to Fennel: what could the girl do other than report a misfortune, so that Fennel might be better informed about how to grieve or seek revenge? He himself, on the other hand, assigned one of his spies as his personal protector. That spy was so capable at shadowing him that Old Alconar had never seen her while she worked. He assumed she would be as capable in his defense if the next youth with a knife chose him.
The youth with the knife... something about what he had seen did not make sense, but he could not remember what it was. Surely it had seemed very important at the time? Oh, well; best to think about something else.
Old Alconar, shocked at what he was thinking, suddenly turned around and faced the man who had joined them, deftly raising his cane and resting its point on the man's neck. Hmph. The girl had better not tell Fennel about that; he worked hard to keep the extent of his agility and swordsmanship a secret even from his staff. True rumors would be a needless risk.
The man who had been crying went wide-eyed with surprise and took a few steps back. Old Alconar, no longer bent over as someone needing the cane, nimbly matched those steps while keeping the cane's point in place. The captive backed up against a wall. The cane's end was not sharp, but a strong push threatened to do a great deal of harm.
"How can you threaten me?" gasped the captive. "The enchantment should ward away anyone who means me harm!"
Old Alconar grunted. "Apparently it also protects itself by warding away remembering how and when it worked. My mind is quite disciplined, and I have been enchanted before. As to how I can threaten you, I will explain later—perhaps after you introduce yourself more politely than you did earlier."
"Are you a mage?" asked the other.
"Hmph. Do you need an example to follow for how a proper introduction is made? Very well." Old Alconar managed a surprisingly graceful half-bow while keeping the cane's point on the other man's neck. "I am Jacaranda Alconar, master of the guild of spies, thorn in the foot of Rhyn, Old one of the Alconar nobility, and willing tool for the Builder in the Architect's plan."
Chamomile interrupted, adding, "In the reverse order, of course". Old Alconar grinned but dared not take his eyes off the captive. Chamomile continued, "And I am Chamomile, orphan and urchin and recently seer." As the man looked closely at her for the first time she added, "And that, sir, is all."
Old Alconar was startled to see a look of terror paralyze his captive. The man's face paled, his jaw went slack, and his eyes went even wider—staring at Chamomile. Why? What part of her introduction was so meaningful?
Time crawled. The captive remembered to breathe again. After a raspy minute he could speak. "I am the mage Fulmer, creator of this island, at your service. I arrived today and have seen no kindness and no hope."
Old Alconar lowered his cane. He shifted his posture slightly and his balanced fighting stance was replaced by the twisted bends of old age. He inclined his head in greeting. Then he leaned slightly sideways and extended the hand holding the cane towards Fulmer. "Rest your hand on mine, my guest. Lean on the Alconars' kindness and hope. I never meant you harm. I trust your protective enchantment is still functioning perfectly."
"What?" Fulmer's hands shook and his face quivered. "You were bluffing? And you believe me? Oh!" He covered his face with his hands again. "Oh! Oh!" He fell to his knees. "Builder help me! I'm so confused! Nothing is right."
Chamomile stepped before him and reached out, taking hold of both sides of his jaw and gently lifting his head. Smiling into his eyes, she softly assured him, "Hush, Fulmer. The time for crying is past. This kingdom is in confusion and truly nothing is right. But today we will begin to fix that."
Fulmer closed his eyes, forced his breathing to calm, and valiantly failed to smile back at the girl, to Old Alconar's amusement. Fulmer put his hands over hers, and patiently said, "But when I retired I gave to my apprentices all my sources of magical energy. I cannot cast spells any more."
Chamomile shook her head like a mother showing disapproval to a child. "Tsk, tsk. Then that shall be the first thing we fix!"
Hesitantly Fulmer asked, "Exactly what are you suggesting?" It was still easier to be suspicious than hopeful.
Chamomile shrugged. "I'm a seer, not a mage. I don't know how it will work," she admitted. "But you know what can be done with the proper opportunities. Stand and come with us."
Fulmer stood, wiped a tear from his cheek, and placed his hand over Old Alconar's on the cane. "Kind sir, I accept your hope and kindness."
Old Alconar nodded agreement. He felt Chamomile take hold of his left hand as Fulmer released his right. As they resumed their journey to the Temple of Light, he leaned down and whispered to her, "You have an unusually persistent manner of shadowing someone, child."
Chamomile giggled, then asked, "How long has it been since someone told you that you have nice hands, my lord?"
A wistful expression visited Old Alconar's face, then left. "Much too long, I regretfully admit."
"Well, ask Walnut to buy you some oil to soften your skin. I can tell you spend more hours holding a sword hilt than a child's hand. When Windsong is once again more suitable for children than for swords, should you not be ready?" She looked up at him with her youthfully large eyes.
"If you were truly a seer, dear child, such words would give me hope."
"If you are not ready for hope you could at least have soft, smooth hands."
A few of the Monks of Light had met the High Priest back when he led a noble house as Old Glaspid. By either name he was a shrewd, cunning man. But King Asper Rhyn was slightly more shrewd and cunning, and resisting the monarch eventually depleted the Glaspids' wealth.
In retrospect the High Priest was unsure if King Asper had been merciful or merely efficient by making him High Priest. The Glaspid estate had been transformed into a religious temple: something common on the continent but previously unknown on Windsong. The High Priest missed having sovereignty over his estate but in truth found little else to complain about. Collecting mandatory contributions for the new religion was easy, and he once again had servants and steady income and power.
The High Priest's only son was the religion's only other priest, and the one who supervised the score of monks. The monks were adolescent troublemakers whom the palace guard had taken to the temple with a simple message: obey the priests or we will be back to take you somewhere much worse. These boys, as King Asper had anticipated, took to their new role quickly. They were fed, housed, taught about mystical power—and although it was a prison of sorts they were not in the dreadful dungeon pits known as oubliettes.
The brilliant Glaspid gardens had been paved over and made into a courtyard. The estate's building's interior had been changed to offices and dormitory rooms downstairs. The Glaspid family now lived only upstairs. All the exterior of the building and courtyard walls had been repainted, with the worn but once beautiful colors replaced by a sterile white.
Old Alconar's informants had told him that the property was a source of strife within the Rhyn family. King Asper, who had founded the Way of Light, enjoyed his puppet priests and monks. Others in his family wanted the property used as additional barracks so the dynasty could hire more palace guards. Old Alconar had not yet found a way to make use of this source of Rhyn strife, and had other suspicions. By ancient tradition Windsong lacked professions such as police and tax collectors, whose duties the palace guard performed. Under the dynasty the palace guards became more numerous and did more outside the palace. Was King Asper training the monks as strongmen separate from the palace guard? If so, to what end?
Old Alconar, Chamomile, and Fulmer stood in the courtyard of the Temple of Light watching one of the monks meditate. The monk was kneeling, sitting upon his heels, with his back straight, his shoulders back, and his hands palms-upward upon his thighs. His eyes were closed and his breathing was very slow. He was wearing a plain robe of the faintest pale blue.
"I've heard them talk about what they do," Chamomile whispered to Fulmer. "First they concentrate and relax. They are trying to sense or feel something."
The monk opened his eyes and frowned at her.
"...to sense or feel the Light," Chamomile corrected.
The monk resumed his meditation with an unreadable expression.
Chamomile continued, "After they make a connection with the Light, they use their slow breathing to make the connection stronger. Light slowly fills them to overflowing."
They watched in silence for several minutes. Old Alconar knew that the High Priest was watching them from inside the temple's main building. Waiting here and making the High Priest come to them set a certain tone that might be important. It was also a test: Old Alconar's spies had informed him how much of a "donation" the palace had told the High Priest to request. Old Alconar wanted to know if the High Priest was foolish enough to get angry and raise the amount. Such information about an enemy's weaknesses would be worth the cost.
Pools of light appeared on the monk's palms. They grew taller and brighter as the monk slowly lifted his arms, keeping his palms facing upward. Two minutes passed, with the light continually growing, before the monk had finished raising his hands above his head. Bright beams of light streamed from his palms into the sky, distinct even against the noon-time sunlight.
"The Light is good, is it not?" asked a cold voice. Old Alconar, Chamomile, and Fulmer had all been watching the monk. They turned and saw the High Priest approaching. His smile was mischievous yet enigmatic. But his eyes were hard and definitely cruel.
The High Priest had pointy fingers, a pointy nose, pointy hair, and a pointy beard. He wore richly embroidered robes and colorful sandals. If he had been Chamomile's age and size he would have been cute, but all such potential was ruined by his height, his oily voice, and the manner in which his mouth curled that made people fear he might bite them.
Old Alconar slowly turned to face him, putting on a purposefully bland expression.
Chamomile stepped towards the High Priest. In a clear voice, rich with all the innocent wonder of youth, she answered, "Yes, light is good. How grateful we should be that the Builder made the sun."
Old Alconar's mind reeled. What had she done? Would they all be cast into an oubliette?
The High Priest's smile widened; he looked especially predatory. "What? Has Jacaranda decided to distract me with a child's heresy? Never fear, Old Alconar. I have time and attention enough to thoroughly deal with both of you. Now, little girl, what else did he tell you to say? I mean, other than that you should tell me, 'He did not tell me to say anything.'"
Chamomile looked properly insulted. She replied, "I am a seer. The words I speak come from the Architect, not from any man or woman."
The High Priest still smiled. He leaned forward, putting his hands on his knees, so his face was more at her level. "Very original. It is a shame this is not a play. No, not play at all. Do you understand what you say, child?"
More monks were gathering in the courtyard, some in the distance kneeling to meditate and others forming a circle around the conversation. Two went to find the younger priest, who was away at the market. Old Alconar waited patiently for Chamomile's drama to unfold, gripping his cane tightly. He could not afford to intervene on her behalf. Fulmer was following the conversation while taking quick glances at the first monk, who still knelt with hands raised in support of light-pillars reaching to the sky.
"I understand that the Architect planned the world, and that the Builder made it, and that I am sent to expose your talk of a divine light as lies and heresies. Cast off Taint before it is too late."
The High Priest stood straight, frowning. "Stupid girl. The Architect, the Builder, and Taint are from fictitious legends. Look at the monk behind you. See with your eyes his connection with Light divine."
Chamomile did not turn to look at the monk. But past her, the High Priest could see the monk. He saw the other man who Old Alconar had brought reach out towards the monk's uplifted hands.
The other man gracefully scooped the pillars of light into his own palm-up hands, and the monk fell over, unconscious.
Then the other man, still moving gracefully, turned to face the High Priest.
"Light!" he spoke in a booming voice. The pillars of light streaming up from his palms blazed brighter.
"Light divine?" he projected, with an oddly tenuous authority. The pillars of light became blindingly bright.
Then the brightness faded until it was bearable, and faded more until it was no brighter than when the monk had held it. Then it changed. The pillars bent towards each other and took on changing colors. The pillars' bases left his palms and the light, now a scintillating arch, expanded until its bases rested upon two corners of the temple courtyard's walls. Then the colors blazed in finale and stopped. The arch of light was painted in stripes: a rainbow over the temple.
The quiet was broken by the man's voice, again: "No, not divine. Mere magic, usable by any mage." Then the man pointed a finger at the High Priest and said, "Sleep." The High Priest collapsed, snoring. As the gathered monks gasped, the mage pivoted, quickly meeting their gazes, one-by-one, with a merciless stare.
Chamomile spoke, drawing all eyes. "Initiate mages," she began, pausing to let the monks realize that she meant them, "The Architect has said, 'Enough.' Truth is invading this island. Soon the palace guard will arrive and arrest us. Those joining our stand against heresy should follow us into the temple building for further directions. The rest of you may take the High Priest and leave the temple."
Old Alconar hobbled over to Fulmer while the dazzled monks began to move. "What just happened?" Old Alconar asked.
"Creating and manipulating light is perhaps the easiest thing to do with magic," Fulmer replied as he started walking to the temple building. "As a mage I can see magical energy. In all my experience I have never met someone able to directly draw magical energy into themselves from the normal environment, but these monks do so. Not much, but enough to play with light. I merely took control of the other monk's spell and stole his internal magical energy: very basic maneuvers of magical combat. The rainbow was impressive to see, but trivial as a spell. Making the High Priest sleep was a larger spell, and now I am empty again."
They had reached the temple building. A dozen monks were around them, listening to Fulmer's explanation. One opened the front door and held it open. Another, hesitantly asked, "Teach us a spell, please, nameless mage?"
Fulmer considered the request. "When we only have a few minutes, and you and I lack a common vocabulary to describe magic?" The monk's face fell. Fulmer sighed. "Very well, I will. I have seen too little hope in this kingdom and will not contribute to hope's diminishing. But you do not know what you ask. This will be painful yet not hurt you." He walked quickly into the building and soon had the monks eagerly kneeling in two rows, meditating to internalize magical energy.
Fulmer continued to speak softly above their quiet, slow breathing. "The girl spoke rightly. You are initiate mages, bringing magic into you and using it. You feel magical energy, nothing divine. Close your palms and, if you can, avoid making light. Keep the energy inside. I'm going to touch each of you to remove a small part of the energy. I will use it to cast a spell. The energy inside each of you will be moved: I will make you cast a spell the way a father teaching a child to swim moves the child's legs with his own hands to teach it to kick."
He walked among the monks now, touching the top of each monk's head. "Sadly, I cannot be gentle when I force you to cast the spell. But ignore the discomfort and pay attention to what happens inside you. Duplicate it and you will cast the spell by yourself. Those who manage this should help the others. Use whatever words you have been taught to describe what you feel to others. This is all I can do now. Perhaps when I see you next I will have liberty to introduce myself. We can even hope to one day be a real mage school."
Old Alconar grunted. "Hurmph. We can hope to be hunted down and executed, at this rate." Chamomile scowled at him.
Fulmer continued, "Place your fingertips on your eyes. Maintain your calm. Ready? I'll count to three. One..."
"Two..." As he counted Chamomile went to the front doors and peered out.
"Three." He made two quick two-handed gestures. Some of the monks yelled. One screamed. Many quivered, as if shaken.
"Open you eyes and walk," Fulmer told them. They did, taking slow, clumsy steps like blind men who had been healed.
"What did you do?" asked Old Alconar.
"Remember I told you I can see magical energy? That ability is another simple spell, simple enough I long ago was strong enough to make it a permanent enchantment on myself. They are seeing magic."
"Look! Look!" called one of the monks, keeling and meditating again. This time his eyes were open and he was watching himself with a look of awe.
"The palace guards are entering the courtyard," said Chamomile. She had stepped outside, and was calling through the doorway.
Old Alconar and Fulmer joined her. Then Old Alconar turned back into the building and commanded, "Flee! Run and hide to avoid the king's wrath! Live to make magic another day!" The monks looked at each other and then ran out the room's back door, further into the building. One paused long enough to wave farewell. Old Alconar smiled back, then turned to the courtyard again. He shifted his shoulders slightly, confirming that he still looked aged and stooped.
"Now what?" asked Fulmer.
"Now we go to see the king," replied Old Alconar. "But do not get your hopes up. When Maximus Grim conquered the island he replaced the throne room sword."
Fulmer drew a necklace out from under his tunic. He held the end, so the pendant dangled. The pendant was a small sword, which pivoted until it pointed at Old Alconar.
Fulmer smiled. "Just because I created the island does not mean I would make a good ruler. The sword points to you, my lord. But I suspect the current king would not accept where the true stone-sword pointed, let alone where my small copy does. And the palace guard is halfway to us." He dropped the necklace back under his tunic.
"Oh, the guard bullies me and the other street kids all the time," said Chamomile. "Do not give them any excuse to discipline you and we should each arrive at the throne room in one piece."
"Hah. I have less trust in their care," said Old Alconar. He lifted his head and called out to the air, "My protector, please convince this guard captain that my health is in his best interest." Then he nodded, as a small bow to denote thanks.
The palace guard arrived—one patrol of nine men, marching as three neat rows of three. The patrol stopped two paces before them.
The captain was front and center. He took one step forward. "Greetings, Old Alconar, from the king and from my patrol."
"Greetings, captain." Old Alconar looked feeble and humble and old.
"You and those with you are under arrest. We will escort you to the palace."
"We go willingly."
A dark shape appeared behind the captain, like coalescing mist. The fog-creature billowed slightly: perhaps the movement of robes. As it materialized it held a knife to the guard captain's throat. Then it vanished, dissolving as quickly as it had appeared.
"Shall we go?" asked Old Alconar, apparently oblivious to the reason for the guard captain's momentary delay. He reached slightly with his left hand towards the captain's arm: an old man wanting support as he walked unsteadily even with a cane.
"Yes, guildmaster," the guard captain replied slowly.
The march to the palace was not otherwise eventful.
As they walked to the palace, Fulmer thought about how much the island had changed.
When he had first stood upon the island three hundred years ago he had labored for three years on the enchantments that still maintained the island's idyllic weather, desirable flora and fauna, enhanced crop fertility, and political guidance. These enchantments were bound into a large stone, on which he balanced a magical sword. Meanwhile, the workers he employed built the palace and town, laboring with magical tools he had provided. Their pay while in his employ had been food, lodging, and health. Afterwards they had been given a choice: to return to their homelands with a magical purse that produced new coins each morning or to remain living on the island as its first settlers. Most chose the first, but many who did so returned to Windsong in subsequent years with their families. On Windsong their coins were meaningless except as a slow supply of copper. But they had learned that money could not buy the peace and health that Windsong guaranteed.
Fulmer had only heard rumors about what had happened during the last hundred years. On the boat he had heard confirmation that an evil mage had conquered the kingdom, installed a corrupt dynasty, and given it magical items to allow it to stay in power against the wishes of the sword and Windsong's people. Now Fulmer wondered how the palace had been changed by housing a dynasty, and how the kingdom had been changed by a supply of threatening magical items.
The spy whom Old Alconar called his "protector" had given him one clue. Magical cloaks that bestowed invisibility and protection upon the person who wore them were made by many mages on the continent. But the spooky, wraith-like effect was characteristic of one particular evil mage. The people of Windsong had called their conqueror Maximus Grim. Fulmer knew him by other names. That Old Alconar had somehow stolen a magical item given by Maximus Grim to the dynasty was a good sign. That the evil mage who had conquered Windsong was that evil mage was not a good sign. The Rhyn dynasty was undoubtedly now equipped with magical items fearsome enough to hypothetically challenge Fulmer even back at the height of his power. He feared what would happen in the palace. But he was traveling with someone powerful. He and Old Alconar would be as safe as Chamomile desired.
Old Alconar had told him that the throne room's magic sword had been replaced. Maximus Grim had probably not liked having it as a constant reminder that someone else was more qualified to sit on the throne. The rock must still be there, unaltered, for the island's enchantments had not been disturbed. Had Old Alconar thought that Fulmer would, while in the throne room, declare who was the rightful King of Windsong? Fulmer still had enough internal magical energy from the rows of kneeling monks to do a small manipulation like causing the new sword to pivot. Should he? What would Old Alconar want him to do? Old Alconar had clearly not been surprised when picked by Fulmer's small copy of the sword. Had Old Alconar stolen from the palace, besides the magic cloak for his spy, one of the other identical necklace pendants that Fulmer had left behind almost three hundred years ago? What plans did Old Alconar have?
They had arrived at the palace, on its hill at the edge of the city. As they walked through the gatehouse and across the gardens the guard captain politely freed himself from supporting Old Alconar and went ahead of his men. Old Alconar turned to Chamomile and softly but harshly whispered, "If you do all the speaking and I get killed, I'll never forgive you."
Chamomile answered in a voice just as soft but lacking any harshness, "If you get killed you will be in a place more wonderful than you can imagine."
"Will you stop talking like a seer!"
"You do not trust me," she said. Fulmer could hear the hurt in her voice.
"No, I do not trust you. Aside from the fact that orphan girls do not become seers, I have not lived as long and well as I have by trusting people. My apologies, but that is how I am. And that is why it is my turn to do the talking."
"I could make you mute. But I'll forgive you instead."
Old Alconar shook one hand in the air in frustration.
They continued without conversation from the palace gardens through the grand entryway and into the throne room.
Passing through the double doors into the throne room, Fulmer gasped and fell to his knees. He quickly stood up and continued forward, before the guards would have a chance to "help" him. The doorway had been enchanted to drain magical energy. Having even his small amount of internal magical energy torn away had almost knocked him out. His two magical rings and the sword necklace were now powerless until recharged. The doorway would also...
Too late. As Old Alconar's "protector" entered the room, following the guard patrol silently, the magical cloak was deactivated. The spy became visible, but only briefly. There was a shimmering in the air on both sides of the spy. The spy went unconscious. The shimmering began to coalesce like mist, and the spy's body was caught before it hit the ground. Then the spy's body vanished as it was tucked under an invisibility cloak. The mist faded to shimmering and then vanished. The "protector" had been captured by the king's own magically cloaked spies. It had been silent and quick; Fulmer would not have noticed if he had not been looking back. Old Alconar would not know his guardian was captured.
Fulmer faced forward again, and looked around the throne room for the first time. On the floor in front of them were three pillows for kneeling. The king had been expecting them. In front of the pillows was the magical stone, a sphere of jade as large as the throne, half-buried below the floor and faintly glowing a deep, lush green. There was no sword balanced upon it. On the other side of the stone was the dais and the throne, as he remembered them. The king was an impressively muscular man, tall of build and face, with a fierce expression of unveiled hatred. In his left hand he held a slender wand. In his right hand he held the throne room's magic sword. On his right ring finger he wore a ring like the one Fulmer owned that would protect him from anyone who wished to harm him. The king stared at Old Alconar as the three prisoners arrived at the pillows and kneeled.
Or, rather, as two of them kneeled. Old Alconar had, and Fulmer had been watching him carefully, mimicking his court protocol. Chamomile stood behind her pillow, her head now about level with theirs. That caught the king's attention, and Fulmer was dismayed at how the king's expression could possibly change to exhibit yet stronger hate.
King Asper made a small gesture to dismiss the guard patrol. When he spoke, his voice had a slight mirthful cackle. "Jacaranda Alconar, you are finally in my throne room. In welcome, I present some demonstrations of my royal power."
The king nodded to an unseen servant to his right, who became visible amidst a swirl of fog-like robes. The servant approached the king, knelt until he received another nod, then stood and accepted the magical sword from the king. Then the servant turned and approached the magic stone. He grasped the sword by the hilt and held it over the stone. The sword was pulled from his hand by the stone's magic. Then the sword began to pivot, like a compass needle. It's tip swung around to point at Old Alconar, who knelt on the central pillow. The sword's hilt faced the king.
The king hissed, "Just for you, Jacaranda, I restore the true sword upon the stone. I am sure you have plans to escape my clutches, but I have better plans. My plans are better, and my claim to the throne is better. This magical trinket likes you, but the dynasty is stronger. It is I who sit upon the throne."
The king nodded to his servant again, and the servant went to stand to the king's left. "My better plans," continued the king, "included capturing the spy you sent yesterday into the palace, and the ones you sent this morning!" The servant reached out to the air beside him, and pulled. An invisibility cloak had covered a large table, upon which were four unconscious bodies bound hand and foot with ropes. One was Walnut. The other three were the spies that Old Alconar hired: employees used for gathering information and occasionally stealing magical items from the palace. Old Alconar's face fell. Asper continued, "I am not sure, Jacaranda, where you had planned for them to be standing at this moment. Would they have been behind you, ready to cover you with their cloaks and take you away? Would they have been behind me, daggers ready? It does not matter."
Asper's servant had taken another few steps away from the throne to the king's left. "Your family stole five of my ten invisibility cloaks," the king continued. "But today I have them all back." In front of the servant the air swirled with cloak-mist, as a second unseen agent of the king took Old Alconar's "protector" from under the invisibility cloak he wore and passed the still-unconscious body to the first servant, who held it upright. The air stilled and the second servant was again invisible. Old Alconar's face fell even further, and paled.
"I already knew who she was," the king said, triumphantly, as his servant removed the mask from the black-clad form he held. "Your daughter is very talented. But my plans were always better than yours.
"You have no idea how much inconvenience I have suffered in keeping secret my family's magical items that could drain magical energy. I had to hide them away and not use them until today, for in truth your spies did often steal what they wanted from my palace. But today all my property will be reclaimed, along with all your estate. Jacaranda, did you notice the mage suffered as he walked through the throne room doorway, his magic undone? He also turned and saw your daughter's capture as her cloak was inactivated. But he wisely held his tongue and allowed me my dramatic moment of victory. For that I would reward him, but sadly I have already promised his unconscious body to the High Priest, whose men have recently been hypnotized by the wiles of Darkness and believe they saw things that did not actually happen. Light is always victorious, however, as this man's public execution will remind the Monks of Light. In truth, I was aware you arrived at Windsong this morning, Fulmer, but was not planning on so soon having an excuse to execute you. I am doubly grateful for your choices today.
"Now, Old Alconar, have you lost all hope? Vitality has left your eyes, but you do not yet weep, so I politely ask." As the king spoke, his servant put a knife to Jasmine's neck.
Old Alconar remained quiet, thinking. When he replied his voice was heavy. "King Asper, I can only think of ways to kill you, and how it is worth doing even at the price of my life and my daughter's. So, yes, I have lost all hope."
The king laughed, a mocking bark. "Then let me save you from again demonstrating the inferiority of your plans. The ring I wear is identical to the one Fulmer wears. It confuses attackers. Enjoy wishing me dead, but know that the moment you try acting upon such a thought your mind will be magicked. Please, try to kill me now. I am curious what weapons you have hidden on your person, and desire some amusement."
Fulmer whispered, "He speaks truth, my lord."
Old Alconar's face went stony. "King Asper, I must decline, and continue to thwart the humiliating desires of the Rhyn family."
"As you wish," the king said. "In truth, I too am weary of the games we have played all these years. I will not kill you or your daughter quickly. But that will only be for the sake of formality: the nature of your deaths means nothing to me now that my moment of ultimate victory has passed."
The king grinned, exhaling with a contented, nasal sound that made Old Alconar want to scream. For a long moment the king sat in silence, watching his captives. The anger slowly drained from his face, almost. Finally, he spoke, "I wish to be done, to make the gestures for my invisible servants to take you away. They have magical means of making you instantly fall unconscious, and when you wake you will be as bound and helpless as your allies on that table. There is really nothing more to say or do now." Asper smiled, but realized his view of this victory scene was marred by the silly girl. He protested, "Why do you stand, child? Has Jacaranda done something to your mind? You defied the High Priest and now annoy me! How can you so often beg for a treasonous death at your young age?"
Chamomile replied, "A seer cannot kneel before anyone who defies the Architect's will. His plan has allowed you on the throne, but you ungratefully oppose him. I have words from him to you." Her voice was soft but clear and loud, and without malice.
King Asper smiled. "You are significant only in your blatant stubbornness. Yet with that alone you today have caught the attention of the High Priest and the king. Very well, child, Windsong will humor you. What does the mythical Architect have to say to me, other than, 'Congratulations, your majesty, on defeating your foes!'?"
Chamomile walked around the stone to stand before the king. She looked up into his gaze as he sat upon the throne, upon the dais. "Oh king, all nations, like all people, must at one time truly choose to ally themselves with good or with evil. All grow, mature, make that choice, and receive appropriate consequences. Windsong will now enter a time of choosing. You, King Asper, will now dramatically lead the way with your individual choice. Long ago you chose evil over good without thinking of the Architect's consequences. The Architect asks you now: choose truly, once and for all, evil or good. The sword before us declares you unfit to rule: will you acknowledge it?"
King Asper frowned. "Your religious language both confuses and bores me. Are you saying that your Architect is going to suddenly condemn me if I do not immediately give Old Alconar the crown?"
Chamomile calmly nodded.
"Humoring you was a waste of time!" the king shouted. "It put me in a foul mood, when before I was relishing victory!"
Chamomile stepped forward, closer to the king, and held out her hand. "Give me your wand that shoots lightning."
King Asper handed it to her. The lightning blazed forth, reducing him to cinders. Chamomile swung it to her left, firing it again, and three invisible servants were caught in the arc of electricity.
The servant on the other side of the throne slit Jasmine's throat a fraction of a second before a dart from Old Alconar's blowgun killed him.
With three thumps the electrocuted servants hit the ground, still invisible. Tiny wafts of smoke rose from the air, showing where they must be. With two more thumps Jasmine and the man behind her fell.
"That's all the invisible guys," declared Fulmer, but no one was paying attention to him.
Chamomile dropped the magic wand and dashed to her right, taking Jasmine by the hands. Jasmine opened her eyes. Chamomile helped her to her feet.
Old Alconar stared at them both. His daughter looked groggy but had no trace of any injury. The blood he had just seen was gone. She was looking at the remains of the king and plugging her nose. "Jasmine..." he croaked, weakly.
"Father!" Jasmine ran to him as he stood up. They embraced, then she lifted him an inch off the ground and spun him around. "You did it! You killed him!" She set him down. A moment later she asked, "Why are you crying? You can let go of me now. We should do something before other people come here."
Jacaranda released her. He was shaking and unstable. Fulmer, who had finally stood up, took his arm to support him.
Jasmine, alarmed, asked, "What's wrong, father?"
Old Alconar pointed at Chamomile, and asked, "Why did he give you his wand?"
Fulmer quickly added, "And why didn't his ring protect him?"
Chamomile had knelt after Jasmine left her. Now she stood and faced them, drying tears. Then she smiled demurely and went to pick up the crown from where it sat upon the ashes on the throne. She took it to Old Alconar, and as she handed it to him said, "A seer is given authority as well as words. Surely you understand the difference between authority and power, King Jacaranda."
"No," he replied in a whisper. "I may not be sure of anything anymore." He looked at the crown in his hands as if he had never seen it before.
Chamomile continued, "As for the ring, Fulmer, it did not protect him because I did not want to harm him. Or the others. But I did what the Architect had planned, even though it was against my wishes."
Jacaranda was steadier on his feet, but still looked in shock. Fulmer made a pointed glance from Jasmine to her father. Jasmine noticed and replaced the mage at her father's side.
Fulmer went to the table where Walnut and the other spies were tied. He checked that they were breathing, inspected their bonds, and then went to where the three invisible bodies were on the floor. Naturally, no evil mage would have made a robe that was invisible to mage-sight; such an item could potentially be used against him. Although the enchanted doorway had stolen Fulmer's magical energy, the two permanent enchantments upon him were not effected. The spell that gave him the ability to see magical energy had long ago been magically paid for in full and required no sustenance. The throne room's drama had looked less dramatic to him. But sharing that fact had not seemed wise, and in fact the ability to see both Jacaranda's "protector" and King Asper's agents throughout the day had not given him any practical advantage. Now no one noticed that he had little trouble removing the magical robes from the three bodies. He took a knife from one, and returned to the table to cut the prisoners' bonds.
It seemed strange that the three unconscious bodies he had just taken the robes off of were all breathing. He had seen lightning wands in action before and had practiced with them himself. It took significant skill to make a less powerful, arc-shaped blast as Chamomile had done. Such a blast's intensity stopped the target's heart and breathing. Using the wand but not killing someone therefore required knowing enough first aid to quickly revive the victim you had electrocuted. Fulmer chuckled as he cut the ropes, being careful to leave long enough lengths so that he could tie up Asper's agents. Either Chamomile had been granted unusual skill with the wand, or Jasmine had not been the only one healed. It did not really matter which had happened. A fussy part of him wanted to know exactly what had occurred, but in retrospect it did not matter. What was important was what Chamomile had said about the kingdom entering a time of choosing.
Jasmine had been talking with Chamomile about the events that had happened while she was unconscious, but now she looked at Fulmer. "What are you laughing about?" she asked.
"I'm sorry," said Fulmer. "All day long I have been asking myself, 'Doesn't the Architect care about Windsong? Why doesn't the Builder do something?' Now I have seen the answers. Of course the Architect cares about Windsong. The Builder did act—but it was frightening and unreal. It was more disturbing than how things were before. In the future I will be more hesitant asking for divine aid. Even walking with the seer's little feet, the Builder leaves huge footprints."
Chamomile nodded. "A king slain is not a dynasty overthrown. Plan carefully, everyone. The more steps you take, the fewer must be taken by the Builder for the journey to be complete."
Jacaranda sat down on a pillow and frowned. In frustrated bitterness he muttered, "Is that what people are for? To prevent divine titans from squashing the earth with their clumsy footsteps?"
Chamomile went over to him, pulled a second pillow beside him, and sat down. She brushed some hair from his face as she replied, "No. Rather, the world suffers from Taint, and is so broken that both people and the Builder do not fit in it as they should. We are for a better reality."
Jacaranda looked at her, and then looked at the crown he held. "Today every part of me has been undone. My plans were shattered, my family taken, my wisdom confounded, my hope vanquished. I cannot stand. Who is Jacaranda Alconar, that he is worthy of his daughter's embrace?"
Chamomile answered, "For that do you need to be more than her father who loves her?"
Jacaranda closed his eyes in silence for a moment. Then he said, "Being her father is enough. You are right."
Chamomile pointed to the magical sword. "Are you the rightful King of Windsong?"
Jacaranda looked at the sword fearfully. He took a deep breath, then stood. Slowly he walked around the magic stone. He took quick steps and slow steps. He jumped forward, then did a backwards roll. Always the sword pointed at him.
"Reach out your hand and ask it to come to you," said Fulmer.
Jacaranda did so, moving nervously and speaking in a whisper. The sword's hilt flew up in an arc, somersaulting over the blade. Jacaranda instinctively shifted to a fighting stance as the sword landed in his hand. He closed his eyes, and a look of calm slowly spread across his face. He opened his eyes and smiled at the sword, then tucked it into his belt and put the crown upon his head.
Fulmer smiled, and nodded at Jacaranda. "Comfort can come from unlikely places, my king," he said as he finished untying the bound men and tying up Asper's three servants. Chamomile came over to the table. She touched the freed men on their foreheads and they awoke. Jasmine had gathered up all six invisibility cloaks, Asper's ring and wand, and the main servant's sleep-inducing gloves.
Walnut and the three spies moved sluggishly from the table. Fulmer quickly informed them that Asper was dead and his agents killed or captured, and that Old Alconar was now King of Windsong. They made wobbly bows, and Walnut beamed.
King Jacaranda looked around the throne room and fingered his chin. After a moment he said, "If Windsong has entered a time of choice my people must know that. We must proclaim that now. I'll worry about the false dynasty later. In truth, I am not eager to deal with a palace full of murderous Rhyns; they were dangerous enough when restrained by their chief, but now all will see the throne as theirs to claim."
Once assembled, the group quietly approached the double doors leading to the palace's grand entryway. Walnut and the spies stood at the rear of the group, each tenderly shifting his weight from side to side, letting his arms sway, and flexing his fingers.
"Wait," said Fulmer. He stepped up to the doorway and inspected its walls. "The magic-draining enchantment is still here." Other than the central double doors, there were small servant's doors in the throne room's two adjacent corners that also led to the grand entryway. He inspected those as well. "This is the only safe doorway," he said, standing before the second servant's door.
Jasmine put an ear to the door. "There are no guards there," she said. She handed the magical items to Chamomile and listened at the double doors. "But there are guards in the center of the grand entryway."
Jacaranda nodded to the group and led them out the servant's door. There were four guards in the entryway: two flanking the throne room's double doors and two guarding the doors leading out from the palace. Jacaranda strode forward, shouting, "Make way for the new king!" His pretense of moving as an old man had been left behind with the cane. His bearing was graceful and regal.
The guards turned and drew their swords. Jacaranda drew the magic sword without pausing in stride. Two guards lunged at him. He swung the sword to block their blows, and shouted in surprise as the magic blade cut through theirs. Those guards dropped the truncated weapons and fled into the palace. A moment later, the other two guards also ran. Jacaranda called after them, "The rightful king has returned! You need not flee, my people!" Then he turned to Fulmer and exclaimed, "You did not tell me it would cut through steel like butter!"
Fulmer chuckled, "You did not ask. I spent three years enchanting the stone and sword for all future kings. Did you think I would make less than the best for you?"
Jacaranda stared at the blade. "It slices through steel. It flies to my hand. What else does it do for the rightful king?"
Fulmer wrinkled his face. "All the classic things. You can throw it with unerring aim. At your command the blade will glow with light or blaze with fire. While you hold its hilt, non-magical weapons cannot harm you, and you will never grow tired or hungry or thirsty. If there were walls or such between you and it then when you summoned it instead of flying through the air it would simply appear in your hand. And, of course, as with any magical item, it is virtually indestructible."
Jacaranda made a pout of approval, and sheathed the sword. "I thought being a king would be more difficult," he said lightly. Then he quickly muttered at the sky, "Sorry, sorry. That was not really funny."
He approached the doors leading to the courtyard. Fulmer said, "None of the guards had magical weapons, at least when we arrived." Jacaranda smiled, opened the door, put his hand on the magic sword's hilt, and boldly strode through.
The startled guards faced him. Fulmer, after glancing at the guards, shouted, "Kneel before the new king!" The guards drew their swords. Jacaranda kept walking, ignoring them. One guard stepped after him, placing his sword against Jacaranda's side. Still the new king ignored him. The guard flashed his partner a worried look. The second guard yelled an exaggerated battle cry, and charged. He swung, and his sword ricocheted off Jacaranda's arm as if it had impacted a stone pillar. The king continued walking as if nothing had happened. The guards stood still, staring at each other and the departing figure. As Jasmine and the others passed by, Fulmer patted the guards on the shoulder and said in a cheerful voice, "Sorry, fellows. He is the rightful king. Might does not make right any more. Have a nice day." The guards flinched at his touch and fled into the palace.
The portcullis was down in the gatehouse. Jacaranda approached it, shouting, "Make way for the new king! Go to your homes and tell your families that the rightful king has returned to Windsong!" The guards leaning against the walls on the other side of the portcullis jumped to their feet. Jacaranda drew the magic sword and with three strokes cut a door-sized hole in the portcullis. The guards fled.
As they walked through the portcullis, Jasmine asked Chamomile, "Is it all going to be this easy?"
"Of course not, "Chamomile said. "This is part of our reward for having long ago chosen good. But many people have not yet chosen, and the kingdom itself still must choose. Important choices are always difficult, requiring sacrifices. There will be suffering and bloodshed. The island will either be purified from what Maximus Grim did or will sink into the sea. Yet I rejoice because your father chose correctly in going to proclaim the return of the rightful king instead of using our swords and the working invisibility robes to purge the castle. Have hope throughout the upcoming troubles."
"Troubles for us or for Windsong?" asked Jasmine.
"Both. The old king led his kingdom into choosing and judgment. Now your father leads the kingdom and, as the vanguard, he suffers first."
They walked down the hillside from the palace into the city. "That's strange," said Fulmer. "I think I see a crowd already gathering at the main square."
"Why would they? I do not like it," said Jacaranda. He turned his head to look at Walnut and the three rescued spies. "Go to the estate and fortify the house. Tell Fennel and Beech that I am the rightful King of Windsong. Asper is dead and I have the crown and the sword. Walnut is Old Alconar until I return." He took the pile of invisibility cloaks from Chamomile and handed it to them. He also gave Walnut the sleep-inducing gloves. Then he took the protection ring and put it upon his own left ring finger, and tucked the lightning wand into his robes.
Walnut embraced his father, then the four men obediently ran ahead. Once within the city's buildings they turned away from the main road and out of sight.
Jacaranda, Jasmine, Fulmer, and Chamomile continued to the main square. Fulmer's earlier view of the square had been their last: they could not see far ahead once they reached the bottom of the palace's hill. "We are walking into a trap," said Jasmine.
"I am not afraid," replied Jacaranda. "Although you have often heard me say that my life is in the Builder's hands, I have never actually felt it was true until now. Still, I have a protection ring and you do not; I will not think badly of you, and indeed would even feel some comfort, if you leave me now and return home to help your brother."
Jasmine put a hand on his shoulder, and stopped their walking. "I feel cowardly, father, but you have trained me as a spy, not as a herald. I cannot think of how I can help. I would only be a liability."
Jacaranda nodded to her. He looked at Fulmer and asked, "May she take your sword necklace?" Fulmer took it from around his neck and handed it to Jacaranda, who placed it in his daughter's hands. "Use one of the charge discs in the basement to recharge this, and then it will point to me."
Jasmine managed a forced smile, holding back a tear. They embraced again, and then Jasmine darted away through the city's familiar alleys.
Jacaranda, Fulmer, and Chamomile resumed their walk.
The market square was the largest open area in the city, but was always so crowded with stalls and tents and shelves of goods and pens of animals that the square was useless as a site of public gathering. So assemblies happened at the main square, which was almost as large, more centrally located, and which retained a sense of drama since it served only political and theatrical uses. Royal criers called out their announcements from the wooden stage at one end of the plaza. At other times acting troupes used the stage; but this was less common in recent years.
As Jacaranda and his companions entered the market square, they saw that most of the city's populace was indeed gathered there. Soldiers of the palace guard were positioned throughout the crowd. Jacaranda suddenly regretted the time spent steadying himself before leaving the throne room, and the sedate pace of their walk from the palace.
On the stage stood two men. The High Priest was dressed for public spectacle. His face was a mask portraying only enlightened serenity. He leaned on a staff that glowed faintly. Next to him stood Crede Rhyn, known to the populace only as Asper's only brother and thus the dynasty's next heir to the throne. He was dressed in a simple style, but his clothing was of a quality seldom seen outside the palace. Upon his brow he wore an unadorned, thick gold circlet.
Fulmer gasped. He guessed that Jacaranda believed the crown currently on his head was "the crown of Windsong". It was an ornate, heavy, masculine thing that Fulmer had immediately guessed had been instituted by Maximus Grim. The original crown of Windsong, which Fulmer had made three centuries ago, was now being worn by Crede Rhyn.
Crede pointed at them as they came into view. "There they are!" he proclaimed in a booming voice. "Back away, my people, so that all may see this man and hear him defend himself against the charges I have already made known to you."
Before Jacaranda could respond, Crede continued, "Jacaranda Alconar, leader of the city's spies—do you deny that you or your people killed my brother? Do you deny taking his crown? Do you deny killing his men?"
Fulmer was puzzled for a moment by that last statement. Only Asper's main servant had been killed. Then he realized that his careful work of tying up the three others had been in vain: Crede, or another Rhyn, had killed them to add mystery to Asper's death. But how could Jacaranda deny any of the accusations without sounding like a fool, in front an agitated mob?
Jacaranda answered, "I carry the throne room sword, which declares me rightful king. Your brother..."
The High Priest interrupted him, pointing the staff at Jacaranda as he shouted. The staff blazed with light, accenting his words. "The throne room sword? Do not change the subject from the king's accusation to old legends! Why should we care if you or your friends have enchanted a sword so it points to you? You are a murderer and a traitor! Any magic that declares you worthy to rule—even to rule the Alconar estate—would be declaring a lie!"
Crede's booming voice resounded through the square as the High Priest finished: "Do you deny the charges against you, Jacaranda Alconar: murder of the king and his men, assault upon the High Priest, theft of the crown you wear?"
Fulmer took a step forward, but Jacaranda stopped and silenced him with a gesture and firm hand, whispering, "If you wish to speak and thus share the blame, let me speak first; I know their laws and procedures." Fulmer nodded. Chamomile took Jacaranda's other hand in hers.
Jacaranda shouted back to Crede, loudly but not angrily, "Yes. Let all here assembled know I deny the charges. Your lies are cunningly wrought, Crede, but are still lies and will bring you misery."
The High Priest angrily thumped the stage with the butt of his staff, but kept silent. Crede replied, "Then answer to our questions: first, who assaulted the High Priest this morning and knocked him unconscious?"
Jacaranda nodded at Fulmer, who answered, "That was I, not Jacaranda."
The High Priest glared, but nodded assent to Crede, who continued, "And who later killed my brother?"
Chamomile's voice was not as loud as the men's, but its difference in tone made it all the more remarkable to the crowd's ears. "The Builder's own hand held him accountable for his crimes, using myself as his seer."
A murmur went through the crowd, and Crede and the High Priest exchanged whispers.
Crede continued his questioning. "And who then took the crown from the throne room?"
Jacaranda answered, "That, Crede, I did, following Fulmer's laws for Windsong."
Crede made an impatient gesture and addressed the crowd, "Here, then, what your king declares. These three have admitted publicly to breaking the laws established by the Rhyn dynasty! They will be punished."
Suddenly, a small section of the crowd in the main square—around and including Jacaranda, Fulmer, and Chamomile—fell asleep.
Crede kept talking, but pointed at a group of palace guard on a rooftop. "Fear not, my people. A bag of sleeping dust has been emptied by the royal guard, who will now remove the criminals. Then you may assist in waking up the others with water. Keep back from the criminals...I do not know what curses they may have put upon their persons to protect themselves even now!"
He paused in his oration, allowing the crowd to process his words and mutter among themselves. More palace guard quickly approached, inspected, and removed the sleeping "criminals". As they left the main square, going back along the road to the palace, Crede resumed his speech. As he spoke, three other palace guardsmen circulated through the crowd, distributing wet rags from a bucket to any who wanted them while using quick gestures to keep attention focused on Crede.
"My people! Thank you for your prompt and orderly assembly! Today justice has been served. The guilty have been separated from the innocent and will be punished. Yet this small victory for goodness should not cause us to forget to mourn for my elder brother. In truth, Asper's unjust and oppressive governing sickened me and others in our family. I shall speak truthfully and admit that few will miss his presence with us. Yet we know the Light has now transformed him into a spiritual guardian of this island, purified by contact with the Light. I ask something difficult: in our minds we must move past his human cruelty to think instead about his current, better state. For my part I will implement changes in law and governance so that justice may be our new ideal and pride. In token of this, I wear this crown, an older crown of Windsong, to help you see your new king as different from your old. You are now dismissed to return to your homes and business, or to help my guard awaken the sleepers. At this time tomorrow please assemble here again, to hear my changes to Windsong's laws and policies. May justice prevail!" Crede made a solid gesture, holding both hands as fists in front of his chest, a finger's width apart. The High Priest led the crowd in copying him.
The crowd was slow to disperse. Relief and gratitude hung thick in the air. The palace guard, going about their work, overheard murmurs of contentment and respect. This new king was strange, thought the guards: he had magically transported himself to the square and immediately conscripted ordinary city folk as messengers to summon the palace guard and assemble the populace. Except for the two patrols that had been given special assignments to use the sleep powder or gather buckets of wet rags, the large number of guards in the square were apparently summoned to do nothing but serve as a presence that kept the crowd orderly. Asper would have dealt with the situation by personally using magical items to fill the crowd with a reverent dread, and by using the palace guard to bludgeon the criminals into submission.
As he left the stage and the main square, Crede carefully made eye contact with as many of the city's people as he could. But his thoughts were inward, on his plans. He had given justice three new symbols: the crown, the gesture, and himself. The crowd had received all three with appreciation, almost with joy. It was a worthy start to his reign. Asper had been brilliant in his own way, but also had been loathed because he had ruled by fear. Crede would be still more brilliant: we would carefully cultivate a fear of injustice and a belief that his rule was synonymous with justice. He would rule by fear without being the object of that fear. If he kept the public mindset focused on justice and how his governing was less oppressive than Asper's, then no one would consider the difference between justice and goodness. His own delight in power was different than Asper's, but with very little work the populace would be jumping for the chance to help satisfy his indulgences.
It was a shame he had not had time to safely hide away those servants of Asper who had had witnessed the regicide. Surely Aunt Manzanita would have dealt with them already, in case the Alconars' method of bypassing the royal protective magic could be used again.
A palace guardsman handed him the magical items Jacaranda had worn. At last he had Grim's crown! The other royal magical items were the palace vault Grim had made for them. It was securely locked, and Grim's crown was the key.
This thin crown was also magic. It allowed him to transport himself between the throne room, main square, market square, and festival field. That would make returning the palace easy but would seldom afterwards be useful. Grim's crown, on the other hand, would open the door to vastly more useful power.
A sword on a stone is obviously a tribute to the various King Arthur legends. As a child I adored T. H. White's Once and Future King. (Well, at least the first section about King Arthur's childhood.) The obvious difference is that the classic sword in a stone shape is Christian imagery (a cross on a hill) whereas this story's sword pivoting atop a stone depicts a moral compass not tied to any real-life faith.
Chamomile woke up as she was being carried back to the palace. Jacaranda and Fulmer were being carried over the shoulders of two guardsmen, but the guard carrying her was holding her against his chest with her head on his shoulder, as a man normally carries a child.
She opened her eyes, and pushed back from his shoulder so she could see his face. She had not seen this guard before. It was a different patrol of nine men than the one which had escorted them earlier. This guard must be one normally assigned to the palace, since he was not one of the guards who harassed the city's orphan children.
The guard carrying her was startled by her waking and said, "You should be asleep." Chamomile was not sure if he spoke to himself or to her.
"You have beautiful eyes," Chamomile told him.
It was true, but the guard was not sure what to say in reply. After a moment he settled on, "Thank you."
"If you think my eyes are also beautiful you are supposed to tell me," said Chamomile. "It's no surprise that you're feeling less in love with Magnolia if you don't know the things to do to keep being in love strong."
The guard dropped her, and took a step back. His eyes were wide, and he held out his hands as if to ward her away.
Chamomile landed on all fours and stood up quickly. "Someone else can carry me if you want," she suggested. The guard backed away another step. In a softer voice, Chamomile assured him, "Don't be scared, Nettle. Soon things with Magnolia will be better. Don't hide your changing feelings, but ask for her help and together you will make things better than they have ever been."
The other guards in the patrol had stopped walking and were looking at them. The captain asked, "Nettle...?"
Nettle glanced at his captain, and then back at Chamomile. In a shaky voice, he began to explain, "Sir, she complimented my eyes, and..."
The guard captain interrupted him, "Nettle, we have work to do." He picked up Chamomile with a hand under each of her armpits and held her face in front of his. "No trouble, little girl."
Chamomile smiled at him. "I was curing trouble, sir. Where are we going?"
The guard captain set her down. "Resume!" he ordered his men. As they started walking again, he turned to Chamomile and said, "Do you know about the oubliettes?"
"No," replied Chamomile, trying to walk beside him. She had to take frequent running steps to keep up with the guards' strides. Tiring of that, she switched to skipping. "Tell me what you know about them."
"They are six deep pits that Maximus Grim dug in the palace cellars. Criminals are put in them by the king's orders. Sometimes the point is isolation, and the criminal is given food and water. Sometimes the point is torture, and cowardly yet quick rats are lowered in so the criminal cannot sleep. Sometimes the point is just to let the criminal die slowly, in hope that accomplices will attempt a rescue. The king has ordered that my men take you three there."
"Oh," said Chamomile, skipping along. "Will we share a pit or each have our own?"
The captain stared at her and frowned. He was surprised by how much he had said, and more surprised by her reaction. Perhaps she was insane.
Chamomile stopped skipping for a second to pick some wildflowers, then caught up with the captain while arranging them in her hands. She held them out to him. He sighed enigmatically, and accepted them from her.
"It would be nicer to share a pit," Chamomile said. "But I know it won't happen since you said they only feed people who are alone, and it's almost dinner time. I had imagined eating dinner in the palace with Jacaranda and his friend would be different. Funny how life is."
The guard captain looked at the flowers he held. His fingers began to loosen, but he stopped himself.
Chamomile said sadly, "You can drop them. Don't feel bad. They are only a token and will soon die, unlike the love they represent."
The captain looked at the flowers again, then carefully put them in a belt pouch.
"Sir, when you lower me into an oubliette," said Chamomile, "remember that justice and goodness are different." Then she quickened her pace and went to the front of the procession, where she skipped along and whistled happily.
Two hours later, Jacaranda woke up as a bucket of water was dumped on him. The water hurt, smashing against him and stinging his skin. He opened his eyes and could faintly see in the dim light. He was in an oubliette. He had heard Walnut describe them. The rope used to lower him down was tied in a loop under his arms. The rope had been dropped down after him. The light was brighter directly above him, but the pit's mouth was much narrower than the "room" in which he lay. There was nothing else.
Crede's voice called down to him, "Time to wake up, Jacaranda. It has been several hours and I have found out more about your plans and crimes. I must admit that using the insane child to bypass Asper's ring and poison him was ingenious. You destroyed the evidence with his lightning wand, but that must have been how it was done. This morning Asper confided in me about his plans. He so much needed someone to hear him gloat! A good thing he did, or I would not know that doorways could be enchanted to drain magical energy. So, yes, the series of doorways into this deepest cellar have all been enchanted. I'm expecting your family will try to rescue you, but they will not succeed. I have so much in store for them! I admit that this morning, when Asper told me his plans and the spies of yours that he had captured, I thought you had finally met your match in cleverness. There will not be a chance to underestimate you again. Well, it is time for dinner. As King of Windsong I must go and dine in luxury. Enjoy your bread and water, Jacaranda. I have not yet decided if theft from the palace should be a capital offense under my new regime. To ensure a just reign I must think carefully about such things and not act impulsively. But I felt it proper to warn you that this meal might be your last. Hm. I cannot truthfully say 'fare thee well', or even 'good evening'. Forgive me for leaving without such niceties." The sound of Crede's boots faded as he left the cellars.
Jacaranda slowly knelt, and felt within his clothing for the magical items he had hidden on his person. They were all gone. He had nothing but his clothing and a rope.
The sound of small collisions above brought him to his feet. He stepped aside, and looked up. Someone was lowering a small basket on another rope. A voice echoed down to him, "The rules are that if you try anything with this basket or rope it's the last food you get."
He had his clothing, a rope, a stale slice of bread, and a clay cup of water.
Walnut had escaped from an oubliette during the earliest days of Asper's reign. The boy had been with other teenagers protesting a new tax by shouting from the main square's stage. Asper had used magic to paralyze the group of boys, and then let other children decorate the immobilized bodies with paint, tar, honey, and substances more vile. The protesters who had noble blood were also thrown into oubliettes for an evening, for the sake of intimidating them. Human skeletons were put into the oubliettes first, to add the ambiance Asper desired. Walnut had unwoven the thick rope used to lower him down and rewoven it as a thin but strong twine. Then he had tied bones together, making a makeshift ladder.
Jacaranda wept, and prayed for his family's safety.
Fulmer did not wake up until late that night. He did not know where he was, except that it was obviously some sort of well-like cell. There was bread and a clay cup of water, which he set aside with muttered thanks to the Builder. He untied the rope from around his chest and made an inventory of his possessions. The two magical rings were gone. But he still had his left sock. The doorways that drained magical energy would not have drained its many contents—nor could they simply dispel its very architectural magic. So, using his sock and all it contained should he escape now, or wait? Escape probably could not hurt. He removed his shoe and sock. Reaching into his sock, he took out a pewter mug and a black pearl. After a bit more rummaging he pulled out a warm chicken leg. Then he put his sock and shoe back on. He sat and leisurely ate the chicken leg, enjoying its exotic marinade, fondly remembering its happy cook and regretting that he never did get that recipe. Then he stood up, glanced at the well's mouth, and squared his shoulders. He picked up the clay cup and poured its water into his pewter mug. He whispered the appropriate words, and then tipped over the pewter mug. Water spilled out in an endless stream. He quickly set it upside down on the floor, so its production of water would be quieter. Soon he would be able to hold it underwater, and it would work silently.
At few minutes later Chamomile started a conversation with one of the cellar's guards. "Hello?" she called up from her prison. "Somebody talk with me."
"What do you want, street scum?" asked a guard.
"I want to make butterflies," said Chamomile. "May I have some rats?"
"What?" asked the guard. He had been warned that the child was insane. It was slightly more comfortable to imagine he had misunderstood her words as their voices bounced along the oubliette's depth.
"Do you still have any rats up there?" asked Chamomile. "When I arrived in the cellar I saw two cages of them."
"They're still here," growled the guard. He looked around the room. The cages of rats were in a corner. He had not cared about them. His fellow guards were leaning against the walls or sitting on crates, twiddling their thumbs.
"Drop down a cage of rats," requested Chamomile.
The guard scowled. He hoped he would not get in trouble for this. But it served her right. He walked over to the cages, and kicked one towards her oubliette.
"What are you doing?" his captain asked.
"She asked for rats," said the scowling guard. "Who am I to say no?" He twiddled his thumbs and smirked. This patrol had been inside the palace all day, longing for activity and sunshine, while kings fell and rose.
The captain chuckled. "Who indeed?" He walked over to Jacaranda's oubliette and called down, "The screaming will be your kid playing with our rats."
Jacaranda closed his eyes to stop the tears. He had only recently stopped crying. Earlier that day he had been outsmarted and had admitted to losing hope. Somehow the Builder had saved him and those with him. Then he had felt that his faith in the Architect's plan had become limitless. But it was only a few hours later and he was already in despair again. He was not the master planner, the protective father, the wise king. He again felt undone. He was nothing but an old man in a dungeon where his friends were tortured and his family would be captured.
A butterfly landed on his nose. How would a butterfly get into the cellars?
He heard a guard shouting, "Hey! What's this! This one's floating up to the top! What's he about to throw?"
The sound of a small explosion reverberated through the cellar.
A few minutes later, Fulmer dropped him a rope. "Hurry, my King. As useful as nightmare pearls are, their explosions stink terribly."
Walnut's escape from an oubliette is a tribute to Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy. Fulmer's explosive item is a pearl because the second of those novels is named The Green Pearl.
Crede looked at the guard captain named Sycamore who knelt before his throne. He and his patrol had successfully taken Jacaranda and his two companions to the oubliettes. Crede had met them there. Sycamore had lowered Jacaranda and the other man into two oubliettes. No problem so far. But this man been holding back tears as he lowered the girl down into a third oubliette. Crede had asked why, and Sycamore had simply replied, "She is insane."
Crede had been bothered by the incident ever since. In the next few days Crede was hoping to secure the love and loyalty of his people. Somehow the girl had attacked that, claiming part of Sycamore's loyalty herself. He had to know more, both to learn from her and to undo what she had done.
Crede spoke first, of course. "I confess I am confused and hurt, Sycamore," he began, calmly. "Why should a captain of my guard care about orphan street scum? Why would her insanity make you care more? I appreciate your obedience, but am startled that a murderer can plant mixed loyalties into a trained and experienced soldier."
Sycamore sighed, and bravely met his king's eyes. He had also been thinking about Chamomile ever since he left her. "My King, I do not think that, in truth, I am fond of the girl herself. It was her actions that touched my heart. How long has it been since I have heard a child's laughter? How long has it been since I've seen a young girl skip and sing? How long has it been since I have heard a child whistle an improvised tune?"
Crede nodded, and in his most compassionate voice assured the captain, "Your insight rings true. Asper's rule was oppressive in more ways than we can comfortably speak about. Do you believe me as I promise now to rule Windsong in ways that do not squelch children's youthful joys?"
Sycamore smiled, but was still obviously holding back a tear.
"And this girl," Crede continued, "whom I do not doubt can be lovable one moment was also insane enough to kill my brother at another moment. Do you agree she is more dangerous than cute?"
Sycamore nodded assent.
Crede took a deep breath, as if what his next words were difficult to say instead of carefully rehearsed. He continued compassionately, "Sycamore, she has committed the most heinous of crimes. Her insanity shields her youthful innocence but not her criminal guilt. Because she is insane, she is a danger to everyone around her. Justice must happen, for justice holds our kingdom together. Every criminal might have instead been a beneficial member of society. Regret that she is a traitor instead of healthy young child. But do not regret that justice protects Windsong's other healthy young children from dangerous traitors like this girl. Do you understand?"
Sycamore was still for a full minute. Then he nodded agreement, and said, "Thank you, my King. You have eased my pains and doubts." Crede could tell from the captain's breathing that the crisis of tears was past.
Crede made the gesture that dismissed the captain. "What else are kings for?" he said in friendly farewell. "May justice prevail."
Sycamore had been backing from the throne room with proper protocol. He stopped to make the new hand gesture. "May justice prevail," he replied. Then he left.
Crede waited a minute, then set down his scepter on the arm of the throne. He shook his head, ran his hands through his hair, then shook his hands in front of him, as if shaking off water. That had been more difficult and important than tomorrow's task of actually killing the girl.
Now the day's duties were done. He picked up the scepter, smiled, and stood. The news of how the compassionate king would stay up late to grant a troubled guard captain a private audience must already be spreading through the palace.
He rolled his shoulders and stretched his arms. What a day. He was beginning to miss Asper's reign, in which he enjoyed the palace's luxuries without having to bother with actually ruling. But yesterday most of Windsong barely knew his name. Tomorrow they would be chanting it in the main square. After a few years of hard work he would step down from the throne, letting another Rhyn carry the scepter's weight. Then he could live as revered ex-monarch, with both luxury and the kingdom's adoration. What else was being a king for?
He shook out the day's tensions a third time, then walked through the palace to his private suite. He would sleep well tonight.
What else was being a king for? He decided to make one quick visit before going to bed. He took the Grim's crown from its hiding place in his rooms, admiring its heavy weight and jewels. The slightly asymmetrical points added an interesting statement. He carried it through several hallways to the end of a corridor: a dead end strangely out of place within the palace's architecture. The wall had a circular pattern of holes. For the second time today he put the crown's points into the holes and the wall slid silently back. Crede did not enter, as he had hurriedly done after his speech, to find the other royal protective magical items. Now he merely looked upon the wealth now his. The Rhyn ruler would give others in the dynasty gifts of gold or furnishings to help discourage family assassinations. But the real wealth and power was here, in the king's private vault of magical items.
Crede glanced at a pedestal in the room, which held an old book: the room's inventory. He longed to lock himself away in this room, doing nothing but exploring the extent of his power. With a sigh he reached forward and removed the crown from the wall, which closed ponderously yet silently. He would wait. His people must tomorrow be enchanted with his words. Asper had skipped that step and it had brought him ruin. Words tomorrow and the next day and the next...until they were loyal to nothing but the new king and his heroic crusade against injustice. Besides, he already knew what most of the room's items did. No need to be spoiled just because he was finally king.
When he returned to his suite he did sleep well, but he had a strange dream.
Someone was softly running a hand through his hair. It felt nice.
"Wake up halfway," said a child's voice. "Wake up, but only enough to hear me and remember all I say. Stay asleep enough to dream."
In the dream he tried to ignore the voice. It had been a long time since anyone had tousled his hair.
"Thank you for dinner," said the voice. "It is a shame you have no other programs to feed the city's orphans. They would not be just, but kind."
The hand running through his hair moved in rhythm with the voice's meter. "The Architect's plan focuses on goodness, not justice," said the voice. "Think about the difference. Together we lead your kingdom to a clear choice: selfishness disguised as justice, or selfless and unjust sacrifices. You lead from the throne with the dynasty's authority, but we need neither. Our authority is from a different place. Which matters more: who sits on the throne when Windsong makes its choice, or if Windsong chooses well?"
The voice was speaking pleasant syllables, toneless music that invited his attention although he refused to approach it closely. It was a pleasant backdrop to having his hair tousled.
The voice paused, then began again. "Farewell, Crede. You would not accept my love, so I leave you my butterflies. In the morning you will remember this dream and its one command clearly."
The voice left. The hand stayed a few minutes more and then it also left, after once brushing his cheek. He did not dream more that night.
Late that evening, as the temple was starting to close for the night, the High Priest was writing in his study when a loud knock on his door disturbed him.
"Yes?" he asked, his voice a model of patience.
A head peeked in and two hands grasped the edge of the door. It was one of the monks whose turn it was to man the temple's gatehouse. "Excuse me, master, but a guard is here. He says he has 'the criminal.' He requests entrance."
"They can both wait for me," answered the High Priest. The monk left.
The High Priest sighed. The reason the temple had a gatehouse was so that no one could visit unless he was ready for them. Why else would a temple need walls and a gatehouse? But some of the newer monks were still young and did not understand such things. It would be arrogant to make such rules explicit, and he had to be a model of humility. He softly pounded the table with his fist a few times, then resumed the current page's accounting.
Twenty minutes later he walked through the temple's courtyard. As he approached the gatehouse he was surprised to see that the guard and his prisoner were inside it. They should have been kept waiting outside the temple.
Even worse, the guard led the prisoner out of the gatehouse to meet the High Priest. The High Priest frowned, mentally composing a note to send to Crede.
"Your glowingness, I present the criminal who knocked you out earlier today," said the guard. He poked the prisoner with his polearm.
The High Priest carefully suppressed his gasp of astonishment. He would have slapped a monk for calling him such a made-up title or for speaking of the embarrassing incident. The guard's helmet made slapping ineffective, but in the High Priest's mind two more scathing sentences were added to the note.
"Why is he here?" the High Priest demanded with false, polite calm. He pointed to the criminal. "He was supposed to spend the night in an oubliette and be brought here tomorrow."
"Just following orders, your luminosity," replied the guard cheerfully.
"Whose orders?" asked the High Priest in an icy tone. Enough was enough. No one should be cheerful while bothering and insulting him.
"The Architect's," replied the guard, swinging his polearm. Crack! The High Priest fell, unconscious, with a very large bump forming on the side of his head.
Jacaranda removed the guard helmet. "I wasn't sure I could do that any more. In just one hit, I mean."
Fulmer shook off the chains that were looped around his wrists but had not actually bound him.
"Sparring with Walnut is good for both of us," Jacaranda continued, "But we can't practice moves like that on each other."
Fulmer picked up the High Priest and carried him towards the gatehouse. "At least this High Priest is thin," he said as he walked. "In most countries they are as round as the well-fed pigs they feast upon."
"Step aside," requested Jacaranda as Fulmer arrived at the gatehouse doorway. Fulmer turned towards Jacaranda, then took a few steps out of the way. Jacaranda threw the polearm at the top hinge of the courtyard's door to the gatehouse. The polearm's blade dented the wooden door and threw it ajar.
"We had left it unlocked," teased Fulmer. "And that would have been a lot more impressive if you were more than five feet away from the door, or if you at least broke the door off a hinge."
"Come now, that was something else I was not sure I could still do at all. I certainly do not get a chance to practice that one at home," replied Jacaranda. "And I hit fairly close to the hinge. Say, what would you have done if the monks at the gatehouse had not both been ones that had joined us earlier?"
"Same thing as I am about to do now," relied Fulmer, entering the gatehouse and setting the High Priest in a corner of the room. "Wander through the temple, collecting my supporters and magically putting to sleep the rest of the monks. I must surround your estate with wards and barriers before the Rhyns decide to magically level it. I am not sure what to do with the collected monks after your estate is secured. Would it bother you to have a mage school temporarily reside in your home?"
"Of course not. The estate is already the guildhouse of spies, and I never notice the spies taking up any more space than my son and daughter and two servants habitually used."
Fulmer chuckled, "That is because your spies are so well trained to stay out sight. The monk-mages will be more cumbersome for your household."
"The three agents I do employ in the city can come help Fennel in the kitchen; at this time it is too risky for them to be out of the estate anyway. And I won't mind the noise, at least not for the few days I'll sleep once this adrenaline wears off."
"Very well, I will stop acting as my own opposition. Let us leave the High Priest for a moment and find our allies. My sleep spell is ready."
Jacaranda picked up the polearm again. "Can I help? This uses less magical energy, and makes a pleasing 'crack'."
"Sometimes I have trouble understanding why the sword picks you. You can be a terribly violent old man."
"Oh, look whose talking, Mr. Keeps Nightmare Bombs In His Sock." Jacaranda prodded, recalling Fulmer's explanation of the escape.
"Hrmph. I would not have lived to my four hundredth birthday if I did not have some tricks up my sock. And you are unfairly attempting to change the topic of conversation, since I never claimed to be an optimal king."
"Well, I was not the one who decided a sword should pick the next king. You could have used a magical glass flower. Or a miniature poodle."
Two monks were coming out of the temple's main building, each cautiously leaning to and from with a hand to an ear. Fulmer pointed at them. "Time to get busy. Pleasant dreams to my foes..."
Jacaranda ignored Fulmer's seriousness. "Or a huge herd of magical, miniature poodles. That would discourage false kings. Yip yip yip yip yip."
"Does violence always make you so immature?" asked Fulmer as they ran towards the monks.
"Ah, I wondered how I kept so young." Crack!
The next morning Walnut came down to eat breakfast in the kitchen. "Good morning Fennel. The more heroic ones are still asleep? If it does not bother you I would appreciate your company with breakfast."
"Good morning, my lord Walnut. Yes, Old Alconar and Jasmine are still asleep. He was exhausted when he and Sage stopped by to tell us they had escaped from the palace. Then the two of them went off again, and returned with a handful of those Light monks. By then Old Alconar was barely sensible: I think it was the day's stresses more than physical exhaustion. He may be awake by now, but he has not left his room. Jasmine seemed to have recovered from her worries once she saw her father home the first time. I am not sure what keeps her from breakfast this morning, unless weariness is contagious. The mage they call Sage, although I judge he is in truth not from this island, spent hours doing something with the monks before going to bed. That whole crew is sound asleep; I checked on them not long ago."
Walnut sat down at one of the kitchen's tables. "I am happy to be here, Fennel. You and I, we know about buying and selling. You manage our household and keep us fed and cared for. I manage the trading of goods that keep us wealthy. I was proud when father asked me to act a spy and be in the throne room ahead of him to protect him, but it apparently takes more than a magical invisibility trinket to make a worthy spy. I remember entering the palace and noticing I had become visible, and then I was waking up in the throne room. I had been taken prisoner. I think someone in the palace put me to sleep magically. There is too much magic on this island, Fennel. Maximus Grim left an evil legacy in which a man's abilities are less significant than which toys he has to play with."
Fennel only nodded. He quickly but carefully put a plate of food together for Walnut, then brought it to the table. "What will you have to drink, my lord?"
"Any juice," Walnut replied. "This looks wonderful, Fennel. I am not sure what troubles today will present, but they can wait until after breakfast." After eat a few bites he added, "Delicious! It makes me wonder...I don't think I've ever heard of any magic items that create food or aid in its preparation. Maybe mage magic cannot do that. In any case, on an island with too much magic your job is a good one."
Upstairs, Jasmine was trying to calm her father as he paced in circles around his bedroom.
"Father, you have been pacing for half an hour. I think you should calm down."
Jacaranda continued circling. He retorted, "No, I think I should be very excited."
Jasmine groaned and grabbed her hair. "Please, you are making me worried."
"We'll make a good pair, then. Did Fulmer tell you about the butterflies?"
"He told me about the escape from the oubliettes. Chamomile turned some rats into butterflies. That seems like nice magic. Is that related to why you are suddenly frantic this morning?"
"It was not magic. Fulmer's eyes got big when she did it to the second cage of rats, after we all were out of the oubliettes. I asked him what he was starting at, and he said there was no magic. He can see magic, remember; we both noticed that he kept looking at you when you were invisible yesterday morning."
"So she has something like magic that isn't. Why are you going crazy about it? As the saying goes, 'There are more things on heaven and earth than anywhere else.'"
"Because she claims she does things with the Builder's guidance and power. Either she is wrong about that, in which case our friend is a dangerously insane miracle worker, or she is right, in which case...I don't know. That is what is driving me crazy. How do I rule a kingdom in which young orphan girls manifest the divine? Why doesn't she just fix the kingdom herself if she has that much power? The Builder is playing games—either with or without her understanding—and I can't take it. Yes, she saved my life twice yesterday. But emotionally I was twice torn apart before the salvation arrived. If that is life according to the Architect's plan I do not think I can survive much more."
Jasmine sighed but could not find words to say.
Her father continued, "Yesterday I was so busy I did not have time to really notice what was happening. This morning I woke up, opened my eyes, looked at the ceiling and thought, 'By the Architect's plan, what happened yesterday!?' Consider my new role: a criminal guiding the entire kingdom towards morality in defiance of a powerful dynasty. To help me the Builder has graciously provided a girl who turns rats into butterflies and an ancient mage who hides bombs in his socks. What is the world turning into? Why must I be torn as it is reshaped?"
Jasmine grabbed her father's hands and looked him in the eyes. "Father, tell me about being twice torn apart. You are keeping that inside and it is not healthy."
Her father began to pull away but stopped himself. He closed his hands, each holding one of hers, and asked, "What did you feel when you were captured in the throne room yesterday?"
"I thought, 'Oh no!' and then was asleep. But that is what I thought, not what I felt. I felt startled and frightened and helpless."
"So did I, when Asper revealed that he had captured you and the other four. I had such intricate plans, but his plans were more clever. I felt startled and frightened and helpless. When his servant held a knife to your throat I nearly fainted. Knowing Asper, I expected you to be killed at any moment, to make me suffer, to break me. Being Old Alconar meant guiding and protecting the family, and I had guided you into a trap and would be responsible for all our deaths. I felt failure. My plans had held the family together for so many years, but in the end the Rhyn were victorious."
Jacaranda paused. He saw his daughter's eyes were moist, but her empathy was misplaced in her youthful hopes and innocence. He went on, softly, "Why had we struggled so many years? If we had submitted we would have lost our land but still had each other. I had chosen the wrong path, and failed."
"Father!" Jasmine exclaimed. "Don't say such things."
"Jasmine," he said, slowly. He lifted their hands and held them to his face. "I saw you killed yesterday. You were asleep when it happened. And Chamomile healed you. But I saw you killed by that servant with the knife."
Jasmine looked at her father in silence.
He continued, slowly and quietly, tasting each word. "Chamomile spoke about a choice between good and evil. I can avoid that choice for a frantic day, by becoming king and being arrested and being rescued and then storming the temple. But this is a new day and I've run out of evil monk heads to crack. So I remember: again and again I recall you being killed. And I realize that to prevent it from happening again I would, without hesitation, grovel before Crede or any of the Rhyns."
He released her hands to dry his eyes, swearing internally because he had thought there were no more tears left. Jasmine waited patiently. Jacaranda sat upon the edge of his bed. She turned and stood facing him, with sad eyes and a mouth closed but drooping.
When his eyes were dry and his voice had returned, he concluded, "That's why I am going crazy. Because I am asked to lead the fight for goodness but today I learned that for your sake I would abandon the struggle. Next to my fatherly love I have no room for a choice between good and evil. Do you understand?"
Jasmine nodded. "As best I can, father, not being a parent myself."
A flicker played across Jacaranda's eyes. "If I do not want the crown, if I want my family's safety more...do you have Fulmer's necklace still?"
"I do, with its magic renewed." She reached into her dress and drew it out.
Jacaranda held it between them. The sword pivoted, but quickly settled, pointing at him. He threw the necklace down. "Curses upon the current dynasty and curses upon this mindless toy ordering me to do better! I am not able to order my son or daughter into danger, let alone command an army."
A small knock at the door interrupted them. Jasmine went and opened the door, revealing Chamomile waving a welcome. "Good morning!" Chamomile said cheerfully, although her face betrayed worry. "You have both been crying. Can I help?"
Jacaranda's scowl faded as she came into the room's light. His earlier discomforts regarding her nature were dispelled by her childish innocence. Life was not fair. The builder was playing games. He was infuriated. But could not vent his ire upon the young Chamomile that now stood before him, with large eyes and drooping cheeks. Wasn't she even more a pawn then he?
"Can you help us?" he asked. "I am afraid you cannot, unless you will force upon me the stupidity to send my own children into danger again, after yesterday seeing Jasmine killed."
Chamomile picked up Fulmer's necklace. She smiled at him, an invitation to share her peace. "This is on the floor. Did you chose your children's lives over the life of the kingdom?"
Jacaranda laughed nervously, and with a wave beckoned her closer. "Young seer, you have framed an hour's dilemma in a question of simple symmetry. Yet I gain little help when the Builder supplies you with clever words. Please, do not mock me when I must choose between failing as a father and failing as a king." He plucked the necklace from her hand and tossed it across the room.
Chamomile twisted her mouth into a small pout. "You are worthy to be both Old Alconar and King Jacaranda. You need not fail in either role. If a memory of Jasmine's dying haunts you, allow me to release a second memory to heal the hurt." She looked at Jasmine. "Will you sit beside him and hold his hand?"
Jasmine nodded and did so.
Chamomile looked back and forth at Jacaranda and Jasmine with such a serious gaze, so unfitting her child's face, that her words seemed muted. She put her hand on theirs, and commanded, "Jasmine, remember heaven. Jacaranda, share the memory."
As Chamomile watched, their eyes went blank. Chamomile put a hand to her mouth and quickly added "You will not injure yourselves" to her commands, in the same stern voice. A moment later Jasmine and Jacaranda blinked their eyes open although the trance remained upon them. Their eyes blazed with emotion. Quickly, Chamomile commanded, "Sleep." They fell backwards upon the bed, but their bodies were tense and twitching, and their eyes remained open and radiant. Chamomile went around to touch their foreheads. "Enough," she whispered. "What does not fit here must dissipate. In this body you are not sufficient to hold heaven."
They relaxed and their eyes closed. Chamomile smiled, and gently patted their foreheads as she spoke in her usual, cheerful voice. "Jasmine visited heaven yesterday, though I clouded her mind about that when I restored her life since that was not the right time for her to deal with the memories. This morning is scarcely more appropriate, but what must be done is done. Sleep well as your minds begin to deal with what they now know."
Walnut had finished his breakfast but not his conversation with Fennel.
"I thank you again, Fennel, for sharing with me what you heard people say in the city yesterday afternoon. It is useful to know how Crede's speech was received among those who are oppressed into inaction instead of action. I feel close to answering a question that has been heavy upon my mind."
"What question, my lord?" asked Fennel.
"In what way is Crede a worse king than Old Alconar?"
"Surely, Walnut, after all you told me about your adventures yesterday you must believe Old Alconar would rule best, and agree that the sword has chosen him!"
"Yes, yes. But I cannot defend my position with reasoned argument. What has Crede done wrong? How can the city folk be convinced that Old Alconar is the rightful and better king? Most families have forgotten about the old traditions, including the throne room sword and all the other good things the mage Fulmer installed as Windsong's proper government."
"My lord, my mind is not trained like yours to think about political issues."
Walnut fidgeted with a fork as he thought. "What complaints have you heard since Crede's speech?"
Fennel shrugged. "Few from other people. I have my own worries, of course."
Walnut nodded, then asked, "And your worries are?"
Fennel frowned. "Will my young relatives suffer under the cruel whims of the next Rhyn ruler? Crede's goodness or badness might be only a small issue for those toddlers, compared to what the next Rhyn is like."
Walnut thumped his fist on the table. "That's it!" he said. "As long as Windsong has a dynasty Crede's words of justice ring hollow. The true struggle is not between men who claim to be king, but between two methods of choosing future kings. What other wise insights have you been secretly stewing, Fennel? Can you also tell me how to shift the city's focus of attention to that more true but subtle struggle?"
Fennel frowned and nodded negatively. "I am sorry, my lord. I am glad to have helped you see a situation clearly. But that does not elevate me to the ranks of planners and strategists. The Alconar family has persevered to preserve knowledge of true religion and politics. But this household is a rarity in that regard. Maximus Grim did his work too well for someone like me to imagine how to rekindle longing for the old system in the hearts of common city folk."
The two men looked at each other and sighed.
"I am glad I am but a cook," said Fennel. "Tonight we will enjoy some enormous artichokes that the market surprised me with yesterday afternoon. I should also fix something simple for all those monks to eat. But I must get started." Looking at Walnut he smiled. "I'll turn the artichokes into a feast, and you can redeem the kingdom. Not the most fair division of labor, but the Architect's plan has put us in different positions and we each must make the best of it."
Fennel turned to start his preparations, but when Walnut made no reply the cook turned and looked at his friend and master. Walnut wore a distant expression and mumbled, "Not fair but just..." as he softly drummed his fingers upon the table top.
Fennel shrugged and attended his own business.
Jasmine's sentence "There are more things in heaven and earth than anywhere else" is a silly paraphrase of Shakespeare used by my college friend Josh.
In the morning, as Crede awoke, his mind began to fasten upon the past night's strange dream. Before he opened his eyes, a command was foremost in his mind: "Think about the difference." What difference? Slowly the entire dream came back to him with surprising clarity. This time the words were meaningful, not mere syllables. What difference between goodness and justice? Why should he care? He was the king.
He opened his eyes, reaching out to his bedside table for the crown. It was gone. Both crowns were gone. The room scintillated with the wings of two dozen butterflies.
Crede sat up, caught one, and killed it. Not satisfying enough. He dressed quickly and hurried to the practice hall so he could throw javelins while he thought.
Like most of his family he was not notably skilled at any particular weapon: expertise made one appear threatening, and family members who appeared threatening met with accidents. But javelins were simple and made a satisfying noise when they sank into the straw target; they were his normal way of physically releasing mental tension.
Along the way he realized he now could try Asper's beating boys. Why not? At the very least he would appear properly cruel to certain relatives who might otherwise judge him soft. He told the next servant he met to have a palace physician and two beating boys sent to him.
The practice hall was once a large room for dining. Since the Rhyn family did not invite others to dine with them, the room had been converted into an area for exercise and for practice with weapons. Crede threw javelins while waiting for the arrival of those he had summoned. His throws were rushed, overly forceful, and not satisfying. How could he keep secret the theft of his crowns?
A guard arrived and timidly shared the news of the three prisoners' escape. Crede shouted and broke a javelin across his own knee. The guard fled. Crede threw more javelins into the target, with deteriorating aim.
What had happened? He genuinely wanted to be a decent king and earn his people's love. He had foolishly declared that within twenty-four hours he would rework the kingdom's taxes or some such thing to please the people and distinguish his reign from Asper's. That had been rash, but he had spent many hours yesterday in thought about it and now did not regret his proclamation. But apparently he would not be given the chance to appear a peaceful and benign ruler: he would now be more visibly a king struggling with and punishing traitors.
How did Old Alconar and the other two escape? Had they somehow planted that dream in his mind? They must have been in his room to steal the crowns. Why had they not killed him? How could he give today's speech without a crown to wear? Had they raided the vault of magical items? He could not check without Maximus Grim's crown! What were they planning? They neither seemed to be seizing the throne nor letting him rule. Where were the beating boys?
Another messenger opened one of the hall's doors, politely saluted him with the new justice gesture, and held out a paper. Crede summoned the messenger closer with a wave of his hand. The paper was from one of the guard patrols. Late last night the Temple of Light had been attacked; the High Priest and half the monks were taken captive to the Alconar estate.
Crede tore the paper in two. The messenger was gone. Crede shook his fists and screamed.
The physician and beating boys cowered as they entered the room from a far doorway. The physician had the appropriate two magical pitchers with him: one made of green jade, the other of red ruby. Each beating boy carried a cup. From the idyllic, glazed expressions on their faces Crede knew they had already drunk the red formula. Crede waved one of them to him. That boy handed his cup to the physician before approaching Crede, who proceeded to punch and kick the boy brutally.
Asper had been right, at least somewhat—Crede was surprised. Faced with so many problems and frustrations it felt good to simply be hurting others.
The physician poured a green liquid from the jade pitcher into the cup he held. It would completely heal the beaten boy. The red pitcher's red liquid caused the boys to feel no pain. Managing the king's beating boys was not a job either of the palace physicians enjoyed. But both physicians had seen kings take out their rage in more damaging ways, and knew not to protest. After all, the boys were not slaves but servants who needed money so desperately they applied for this employment. Who were the physicians to question the tradition? The boys would return home each evening fully healed and not even tired from a day's work. Some days the physician almost envied them.
When the first boy had been injured enough, the second shouted. Crede ran to him and resumed venting his anger, while the medic approached the first boy and administered the healing draught. The cycle continued as Crede continued to rant in his thinking as well as in his physical aggression.
He had to appear soon after noon to give his speech. Now he had neither a crown to wear nor a High Priest to stand beside him. In truth, he detested the High Priest. The new religion of Light and Dark had been Asper's idea, and from all that Crede had seen very few of the kingdom's people even pretended to believe it. It had worked as another excuse to transfer wealth from the people to the dynasty, but as a religion all it had done was elevate a haughty noble to a semi-political position of authority that Crede would happily do away with. Perhaps he would alter the topic of today's speech and undo the new religion and its thinly disguised taxation. That would make the people grateful, serve to make his reign distinct from Asper's, and save him the trouble of pretending to care about the High Priest or his monks.
Crede heard a yell and switched back to the first beating boy, hardly noticing what his body was doing as he thought. It felt...pleasant was not the right word—soothing, perhaps, or maybe enriching—how the beating boys allowed him to nurse his wrath while he thought. Even the javelin throwing had meant he did not have to attempt to think while the wrath festered with inattention. But this physical violence added spice to his angry thoughts. Or maybe it was not the violence itself but how the exercise did not require any attention, leaving his mind free to focus on his thoughts.
He could level the Alconar estate. Yes, that would be just. How? All the powerful magical items were in the vault and he did not have the key. Ah—he still had the lightning wand that had been taken from the criminals yesterday. He could have a guard use it from the window of an adjacent building, steadily bathing the Alconar estate with lightning until the building was rubble. That would not be as satisfying as having molten lava flow from a magical portal cast above the house, but the Alconar's neighbors would prefer the lightning. The guard would also need to be given the protection ring that Asper had been wearing. And that would be fitting: for the magical item that killed Asper to cause the death of Old Alconar and his house.
Crede heard a yell and again changed beating boys.
Hm. Things were not so bad, then. Both crowns were magical items, and thus would be indestructible and easily reclaimed from the ruins of the Alconar estate. His plans for the day were not thwarted after all. Sycamore would be a good man to trust the lightning wand to: dependable normally, and today especially eager to obey his new king and make justice prevail.
Crede smiled. With his scheming complete, his mind returned from its daydreamish state. He looked at the boy he was hitting. Uhg. He closed his eyes and gestured for the boys to leave the room.
With a brief nod to the physician, Crede drank some of the green potion and left the practice hall. He would return to his suite. He must finish his thinking about how much to ease taxation, be washed and dressed, and send Sycamore on that new errand. Then he could eat a luxurious, peaceful breakfast and again feel truly kingly—if he could forget the boy's face.
The High Priest awoke in a small but comfortable room. It was still a cell, even if the bed and chair were well made and oil paintings decorated the walls. There was a small, square, barred window in the room's only door. The High Priest groaned, stood up slowly, and looked out the window. He saw a wine cellar.
The side of his head hurt and was swollen. He felt the bump gingerly. For a long moment he gazed upon the paintings, considering whether destroying them would actually hurt Old Alconar. Then the ire in his eyes dimmed. He sat down in the chair.
It really was a nice chair. He closed his eyes and tried to rid the world of everything but its comfort.
He heard footsteps, and changed his focus from relaxation to meditation on the Light. If someone was bringing him breakfast, the least he could do was make them feel uncomfortable because they were interrupting him. He began to glow with a foggy aura.
"Um, good morning, sir," said a timid voice from the other side of the door.
"Who are you?" asked the High Priest, glowing with slowly increasing brightness.
"My name is Beech. I work in this house. I keep the estate clean. I also bring people food when they are not eating in the kitchen. Which you're not." The voice wavered, but the High Priest could not sure if the servant was feeling afraid or merely awkward.
"You bring me food?" asked the High Priest. He made his glowing fade away but remained deep in the meditation state.
"Yes, sir. Breakfast," replied Beech. There was a slide of wood against wood as a beam was moved, and then the servant opened the door.
Light blazed from the High Priest towards the door. Beech screamed, and dropped the platter he was carrying. The High Priest discarded his calm and jumped from his chair, pulling the door open.
Beech wobbled, and set one hand against a wall. He held the other out in front of him.
The High Priest listened. Nothing. It could not be so simple: this must be a trap.
"I could hurt you and escape," he told the servant in his most menacing, authoritative voice. "But I will not. Criminals escape from their cells. I am not a criminal. I have done nothing wrong. I will wait for my king to rescue me."
Beech had put both hands up in front of him, in an absurd effort to perhaps ward away some potential aggression.
The High Priest laughed at him, with a practiced mocking cackle. "Your sight will return in an hour or two. Go, little servant. Tell your master that I am his prisoner only by my choice." He put his hands on his hips and sneered.
A sudden blow to the already-injured spot on the side of his head knocked him out. As consciousness spiraled away, he heard a voice say, "Jerk!"
Walnut picked up the High Priest and set him upon the bed again. Tossing the invisibility cloak over his shoulder, he went to Beech. "I'm here. He got his medicine. I'm sorry he flashed that light. I should have anticipated that. I'm sorry. You will be better soon. Tell me where in the house you want to rest and I'll escort you."
"Did you hit him hard?" Beech asked.
Walnut patted the servant on his shoulder. "Yes. You heard."
"That I did. Whack. He's the worse off of the two of us?"
"Most certainly," Walnut snickered.
"That's fair. I'll go to the sparring room and listen to you there, if you don't mind."
Walnut involuntarily thought, "Not fair, but just." He answered, "Beech, you know my schedule well. But today I'm not going to practice before lunch. I must prepare for Crede's speech in the early afternoon."
"Ah, I wanted to go hear the speech as well. I missed yesterday's speech. All the town is abuzz."
"Find me before you leave. I will ask a friend to make sure you are safe. That High Priest might not be the only one that wants to attack you merely because you are Old Alconar's servant." Walnut gave Beech a motivating pat on the shoulder, but it startled the temporarily blinded servant.
"Really?" Beech wavered, turning his head left and right. "Oh my. Perhaps I should stay here then. Oh! I just remembered! His food is on the floor!"
Walnut clicked his tongue. "He made you drop it. Let's leave it as a reminder of his lesson."
Beech smiled. "I think he'll remember it anyway. Whack. That was a great noise. What did you hit him with?"
Walnut gently guided Beech out of the doorway. Beach heard the creak and sounds of wood against wood as Walnut closed the door and replaced its beam.
"Let's go, Beech. Take my arm."
The Alconar estate faced one of the city's smaller roads. Across the road was another estate whose previous owners had not been as clever in avoiding the dynasty's seizure of lands. Its garden's plants had either died or gone wild, depending upon how they were planted and whether or not the estate's buildings prevented them from receiving the island's idyllic sunshine and rain. The estate's walls were kept in more decent repair, as was its main building. The Rhyn family enjoyed having a place from which to keep track of Old Alconar, and Old Alconar did nothing to stop them from such predictable spying.
Sycamore looked down at the Alconar estate through the highest window of this opposite estate. He fingered the magical wand and shifted his weight from foot to foot.
The Alconar estate was beautiful, but Sycamore failed to convince himself that his hesitation was due to an artistic appreciation of the house and its grounds. He glared at the magic wand. There was something unsoldier-like about it. The same was true for raining destruction upon an unprepared opponent.
Yet, there was something even more unsoldier-like about refusing your king's orders. He squared his shoulders and stepped up to the window.
He held out the wand and, as he had been told to do, mentally urged it to send forth its lightning at the Alconar house. Its urgency and power was startling: it had no recoil like a crossbow, but as the lightning immediately blazed out from it he could feel its power almost as a weight in his hand. The bolt of lightning stretched towards the house nearly instantly, but before it hit it rebounded. At the moment of rebound a sparking, iridescent sphere appeared around the entire Alconar estate. The lightning was deflected by the defensive sphere, which remained in the air barely long enough to be visible.
Sycamore's mind gawked in surprise. With its mental command gone the wand stopped producing the lightning bolt, whose tail raced towards the Alconar estate's protective sphere as its head sped toward Sycamore. Evidently the protective sphere was designed to reflect spells back upon their caster.
That would have been Sycamore's last thought, but a small hand reached up and caught the lightning bolt. He looked down and saw the girl he had arrested yesterday, who had given him the flowers. She held her hand above her head as the rest of the lightning bolt flowed into it. That took only a second. She turned to face him with a matronly expression of severe disapproval, lowering her hand, which now held a tiny glowing ball of cackling lightning. When her hand was in front of her face she blew and the lightning went out. Small wisps of smoke hovered above her palm, as from a candle's pinched-out flame.
Sycamore backed up one shaking step, then two. He noticed he had dropped the lightning wand. Where had the girl come from? How and why had she saved him?
She brushed her hands together as if cleaning off dirt, still staring at him in the same way his mother had when he was child and had broken something or made a mess.
He opened his mouth, then closed it. His tongue and mind were failing him.
She kept staring at him. He felt like squatting or kneeling so she would be looking down at his face. Somehow her disapproval was even worse because she was only a third his height.
"I..." he began. He swallowed, and tried again. "I'm sorry."
"And what's that supposed to mean?" she demanded. It was what his father had often said, and she almost got his tone right too.
Sycamore put his hands on his throbbing forehead but did not dare be disrespectful by closing his eyes. His hands did not help and were awkward in front of his face. He clenched his hands in front of his stomach and tried to think.
The girl picked up the wand and snapped it in half. She tossed the halves at his feet and scolded, "You could have hurt someone with that thing."
It was his mother's words and tone this time. His head felt like it was bursting. He wanted to turn away from the girl so he would not have to look at her, but he had a feeling he knew what she would say if he did. He was not sure he could bear that.
"Why?" he managed to ask.
There was a long silence, although the relentless pressure of her disapproval, which was so much his parents', did not flicker.
Then the girl smiled, not just with her mouth but with her entire face. Sycamore felt the weight of her odd interrogation lift away.
She approached him and held up a hand towards one of his. "Justice is not always the right thing," she said. Her voice was again a small child's. Her eyes again held only youth's innocence.
Sycamore looked at her face and then at her raised hand. How often had he, as a child, held up a hand like that for his mother or father to take? He suddenly felt a strange mourning, a longing to again be able to ask for acceptance so simply and vulnerably. Did adults have such a gesture or words to compare?
He reached down with both hands and picked her up under the arms, setting her on his hip. "What is your name?" he asked.
Sycamore sighed. "What just happened?"
She ignored his question and asked, "Do you still have the flowers I gave you?"
He frowned. "I tried to save them, but I was foolish and put them in my belt pouch, where they got crushed and dried out."
She renewed her smile. "Then let's go pick some more and you can take better care of them."
He paused, not wanting to upset her. "I love your idea, but if I do not bring King Crede a crown very soon, he will do very unpleasant things to me."
"Oh, don't worry. I know how to braid flowers into a circle."
Sycamore made a small grunt of protest, then said, "I don't think he would be happy with a crown of flowers. He is going to give a speech after lunch and wants to look really regal."
"Does he always get what he wants?"
"I think so. He is the king."
"Hmph." She pouted slightly. "Well, I have two crowns so I suppose I could share and give him one. He doesn't deserve the old circlet, but the evil spiky one suits him well."
Sycamore almost dropped her. "Uh, I thought Old Alconar had them."
"Oh, no. I took them from Crede's bedroom last night. Old Alconar does not even know I took them."
"Where did you put them?"
"In my place."
"Where is that?"
"Where I live. We can go get them now, if you want. We'll give the circlet to Old Alconar and then the spiky one to Crede. Then we can pick flowers. I'll teach you how to weave a circlet of flowers for me to wear."
"I'm still not sure that plan will work."
"But King Crede has lost his magic wand and the Alconar estate was not damaged. He will still be angry."
"I was angry at you a moment ago. But I got over it."
Chamomile smiled at him again. "Pick up the pieces of the wand before we leave here. You can ask a guard to bring them to Crede, and the spiky crown too. You won't have to see Crede today unless you want to go to his speech." She touched his nose with her finger. "Trust me," she said.
Sycamore sighed. "All right." A distant part of his mind added, "I owe her more than that," but it did not find a place in his thoughts; the emotional trauma of how she had just invoked his parents' disapproval was still overwhelming the other details of what had just happened. "So, where do you live?"
"I'll tell you where to go."
"But first we should go to my house. If I am not working as a guard for the rest of the morning, I should not be wearing a guard's attire."
"Do you have anything at your house I may eat?"
"I'm sure there is something."
"Yummy. But let's go to my place first and deal with the crowns. Marigold might want to join us for picking flowers, but she shouldn't see the crowns."
"Hm... I suppose it will be easier to send a guard on the errand to Crede if I am still in uniform."
Jacaranda and Jasmine came into the kitchen together, laughing.
"Good morning, Fennel!" said Jacaranda, with unusual cheer. Jasmine gave Fennel a look that made him blush, but he was not sure why.
"Ah, Fennel, we are too late for breakfast," Jacaranda said. "But sit and eat brunch with us."
Fennel bowed in acknowledgment, and quickly put the finishing touches on the food he had ready. He served the others, then himself, and then joined them at their table.
As they started to eat, Jacaranda turned to Fennel and asked, "Did you know that in heaven we will again taste our grandmothers' cooking?"
Fennel wondered what to say. Unlike Jasmine and Chamomile, Old Alconar and his son did not engage in frivolous word play. However, he could think of no better attitude in which to respond. He finished chewing, then replied with melodramatic seriousness, "Although I am hesitant to speak ill of my ancestors in any way, I must admit that even the most modest expectations of heaven's virtues leave out my honorable grandmother's culinary endeavors."
"Ah," said Old Alconar cryptically. Then he brightened, and mimicking Fennel's tone said, "In heaven the master cooks are admired by all. When we are both in heaven, may I serve as your apprentice for a lengthy while? Most people new to heaven gain a bit of weight, and I would enjoy contributing to your share of their joys while learning a more valuable skill than any I now possess."
Fennel held both hands open before his chest, a gesture of emptiness. "My lord, I am not sure how to reply to your offering to serve me, nor your claim that my skills supporting the kitchen somehow out-value yours that support the entire estate. If there are as many fine kitchens in heaven as you suggest, and one such kitchen may be an excuse to continue our families' unity even there, I would gladly let you peel potatoes so that I could focus on my special eclairs that your own father must be waiting for."
Jasmine laughed and Old Alconar smiled. The three ate for a while in silence, although Fennel much preferred the way Jasmine normally joked with him to the new, reckless humor in her eyes. Once she and her father looked at each other and together slipped into giggling. Fennel did not understand what joke they shared, but it did not seem to be about him or his cooking.
"This is where you live?" asked Sycamore, pausing halfway through the door in the floor.
"Right now, at least," answered Chamomile.
Sycamore looked again at Chamomile's "place", a large pile of discarded clothes in the corner of the attic of an otherwise empty and abandoned building. There were no rats or fleas on the island (other than the rats Asper had imported for his dungeon), so Chamomile lived alone. Sycamore's eyes scanned the room as he searched in vain for something worth saying.
"A lot of the city's orphans don't even have it this nice," said Chamomile. "There have been plenty of abandoned buildings since the latest tax increases, but the foreign pirates who use the island as a port haven for black market merchant ships keep an eye on the abandoned buildings and discourage us from using them. I've been lucky to not be noticed in this attic for three whole weeks. But there are plenty of holes in the wall in case my luck runs out."
"Why are the holes important?" asked Sycamore.
"Because I can fit through them, and there are enough holes that the black market men would have to really surround the building if they wanted to catch me. They wouldn't bother getting that organized just to catch one more orphan girl. We don't survive sea voyages well, and since I'm not pretty I'm not worth much to slavers.
"Also," she continued, "the people of Windsong do not like having their port used by foreign pirates. Those that know what really goes on are willing to accept small bribes to ignore things only because it appears the pirates are not hurting anyone." After a pause she added, "But don't worry about the pirates. They would not be here during the day."
Chamomile fished through the pile of clothing and took out both of Windsong's crowns. Holding them up for Sycamore to see, she asked, "Which do you like best?"
"The evil spiky one," said Sycamore. "It's not as elegant or pretty, but it is what I am used to seeing the king wear. It has a certain sense of weight and presence that the other lacks."
Chamomile wrapped the crowns in two bits of cloth. "Kings need not throw their weight and presence around. Haven't you have heard the stories about the kings before Maximus Grim, whose dignity was more graceful and respected?"
"No," answered Sycamore, starting down the ladder.
"Well, no wonder you don't see things," teased Chamomile. "What's the island for, anyway?"
"What do you mean?" asked Sycamore. "What would an island be for?"
"Well, what did Fulmer create Windsong for?"
Sycamore thought in silence. He brightened as they left the building and emerged onto a street. "I've never thought about it. I suppose he wanted to rule a kingdom so he made himself one."
Chamomile shook her head in disagreement. "If you knew the stories, you would know he left as soon as he found someone else who could rule as wisely. But never mind." She handed him the cloth containing the spiky crown. "There's a guard: if he is one you trust, give him the wand pieces and the crown, and send him to Crede." She stepped away from Sycamore and sat in a corner made by a building's wall and chimney.
The guard was one Sycamore knew well enough to entrust his message and delivery. Chamomile overheard only fragments of their conversation. "A favor to ask..." "Mission from Crede..." "Recovered these things..." "More to do..." "Would you bring them to our King?"
After the guard left, Chamomile rejoined Sycamore and they walked through the city towards the Alconar estate.
The island of Windsong was roughly oval, noticeably longer from west to east than from north to south. The western side was mountainous, with steep cliffs along the western and northwestern coast. The mountains descended eastward and southward quickly enough that the southeastern coast had few cliffs and the entire eastern half of the island was at a fairly constant altitude. As clouds formed above or passed over the mountains, their rain came forth, and the wind was most often gentle and westerly. The most western quarter of the island was thus steep and wet; the most eastern quarter was level and drier; and the land between spanned that spectrum.
The oval shape of the island was disrupted by a large bay slightly west of the center of the northern coast, at the foot of the mountains. Here rested the city of Windsong, named after strange, wispy rock formations in the western edge of the bay that sang melodically as the wind blew through them.
The city rose from the bay south and slightly west up the foothills, with the land's geography naturally determining distinct city sections. The docks, with their warehouses and buildings that stank of fish, were central and north. Most of the city's farmers lived in the eastern city on low ground, closest to the flat cropland east of the city. The skilled craftsfolk lived to the southeast, upon slightly elevated land that was farther from the farmland and better protected from how the dock scented the westerly wind. The noble houses were built upon slightly higher plateaus south of the docks and west of the craftsfolk. The market square provided a buffer in the center of the city, between the docks and the nobility's foothills. Finally, the palace was on the highest plateau, at the city's southwestern edge. Below the palace, the city's western edge held the barracks of the palace guard, the king's storehouses and other original government property and the main square in the City's northwest corner.
Chamomile's place was in the southeast part of the city; Asper had been careful not to tax the farmers too heavily, but did not mind taking the last wealth from a crafter's family.
As they walked clockwise around the city's edge, out of the craftsfolk's part of town, Chamomile twice noticed two of Old Alconar's hired agents roaming the streets, whispering things to any passersby. She slowly pieced together their intent from fragments of muttering among those they had spoken to: the agents were asking city folk how would Crede assure than his successor as king would also be just, implying a just reign could not be trusted to a dynasty. She guessed the third hired agent was in one of the taverns nearest the main square, spreading similar discontent before Crede's speech.
Sycamore did not notice Old Alconar's men. He did not know them by sight, and they were practiced at looking like unimportant idle gossips. Hushed whispers about the king were nothing new, and today were unusually common—mostly with praise for the new king and eager anticipation. Today the whispered gossip had acquired a light-hearted conspiratorial joy from the unspoken realization that the palace guard would probably not oppose gossip that complimented the king.
They arrived at the Alconar estate, hand in hand, just as Walnut was leaving. He looked at Chamomile and Sycamore with wide eyes. "You found a guard..." he began.
Chamomile gave him an especially childlike smile. "And a crown!" she piped, removing the circlet from its cloth and handing it to him. "Tell Jacaranda not to wear it or cause trouble at the speech. Just because he has learned about looking forward to heaven does not mean that today should be his time."
Walnut furrowed his brow but took the circlet. "And you?"
Chamomile tugged on Sycamore's hand. "We're going to pick flowers for a little while." Sycamore shrugged and reddened slightly.
Walnut nodded. "As you wish. I had wondered if I should find father before I left. I guess now I must."
"Also get another protection ring for yourself from the mage," advised Chamomile. "After all, who knows what plans Crede has today against your house..." Sycamore was suddenly glad he was already blushing.
"The mage is still asleep," replied Walnut. "Protecting the estate kept him up late and apparently really wore him out. But I'm glad the protections are working."
"Working well indeed," said Chamomile, glancing quickly at Sycamore, who cringed slightly. He wondered how much longer he must be subjected to this.
"I'll be back before the speech," Chamomile added in farewell. Walnut nodded and reentered the estate.
Chamomile squeezed Sycamore's hand, and he led her down the foothill towards his home. He, like many who worked at the palace, lived in one of the homes in the center of the city around the market square.
Sycamore took a deep breath as they began walking, then said to Chamomile, "You really make me uncomfortable some times."
"Only in ways you deserve," she replied.
After a brief pause he smiled. "Actually, I do not understand you at all. In the tower this morning I was too overwhelmed with feeling like I was guilty before my parents to really realize that you caught a lightning bolt. How did you do that? Are you a mage?"
"Oh, no. I'm a seer."
"What is a seer?"
Chamomile's eyes sparked. "A seer is someone who represents the Builder. Which helps explain why I didn't ask you to apologize to Walnut. You already told me you were sorry, and Walnut does not know what you tried to do. Trying to destroy his home is not really about him any more; it was between you and me."
Sycamore pulled on his lip with his free hand. "I don't understand."
Chamomile asked, "Do you know about the Architect and the Builder and Taint?"
Sycamore raised his eyebrows and shook his head.
Chamomile stared straight ahead. "Those Rhyns!" she fumed. Then she regained her composure and began to explain.
After Crede dismissed the guard, he stared at the crown and the two halves of the wand.
The guard had honestly appeared to be proudly doing a duty as a messenger. There was no reason to suspect he had changed Sycamore's words. If it was indeed Sycamore who had asked the guard to deliver the message and items...
What was the meaning behind the message? That was the question.
Assuming the Alconar estate was undamaged, why would Old Alconar steal both crowns and then willingly return one? If Sycamore had succeeded in destroying the Alconar estate, why would he not return both crowns? Neither alternative made sense.
The crown was actually the least disturbing part of the message. Magical items were indestructible. Every Rhyn knew that. What power had broken the wand?
Crede furrowed his brow. He could feel the disjoint pieces of the puzzle colliding in the back of his mind, trying to find a way to fit together. Broken magic items... A temporarily stolen crown... The king leapt from the throne and ran to the vault of magic items.
The crown fit into the holes in the wall, but the vault's door did not open. Instead, a strange light flickered once along the doorway's edges with a cackling pop, then vanished. Crede shrieked in frustration and pulled the crown from the wall. He scowled and inserted it into the holes again. Nothing happened. The vault remained sealed. Crede pulled the crown from the wall and ran to his private chambers.
Once there he hurled the crown against a wall, but its clanging only served to stab his heart anew. He picked up the crown and inspected it. He had not noticed before, but there were etchings on the inside face of each of the crown's points. His hands clenched the crown more tightly. Carving a magical item was as impossible as breaking one. He walked over to a lamp and looked at the etchings more closely. Butterflies.
Impossible! A mage could add more spells to a magic item, but not otherwise change anything permanently enchanted.
Yet the crown had been changed. Would that prevent it from opening the vault? Perhaps all the magical items in the vault were untouched? Perhaps...but he could not get to them. Crede shrieked again. Somehow the uncertainty was more torment than if the vault door had opened to a room of shattered power.
Crede slowly reviewed Sycamore's message. "Your mission is accomplished. The party who stole from you has been found and is being dealt with. Destroying the estate as ordered was not possible. The thief was not Alconar. I have recovered these things, and return them." Not Alconar? It could be no one else. What was Sycamore trying to say? Had his conversation with the guard-messenger been watched and controlled? Had Sycamore chosen careful wordings, or had the odd wordings been dictated to him? The phrase "being dealt with" was suspicious. Perhaps Old Alconar or his agents had caught Sycamore and prevented the attack on the estate, and were using the message to tell Crede that they could damage his magical items and control his guard captains. That still left unresolved how magical items could be changed or broken.
Crede threw the crown onto his bed, where it landed with a soft thump. Old Alconar was evidently extremely powerful. He had killed Asper, escaped from an oubliette, kidnapped half the priests of Light, stolen both crowns, damaged magical items, and prevented Sycamore's attack. Why would Old Alconar do those things and not seize the throne? What plans did Old Alconar have—plans in which Crede seemed increasingly a mere pawn?
Crede grabbed at his hair. His speech was ready. He still had a number of magical items at his disposal. If Old Alconar was so intent on not killing him, then perhaps Crede could do some investigating himself before it was time for the speech. That might be the last thing Old Alconar would expect.
Crede took a key from his belt and unlocked a small chest. He took out a floppy hat and a small knife with no pommel. The hat was terribly ugly, but that would soon change. The knife was a Seeker: if commanded it would fly from his hand to kill its target, at which point its magic expired. That Seekers had only one use made them especially valuable, but it also prevented someone standing beside the victim from using the Seeker for a quick revenge. He put the Seeker and hat in two pockets. Those two items and the ring he always wore that protected him from intentional harm should be sufficient for a short reconnaissance mission. Yet underestimating Old Alconar seemed overly common lately. Crede also took out two rune-covered strips of leather. One was a long as his arm, and he tied it around one of the feet of his bed. The other was as short as his thumb, and after licking the roof of his mouth he placed it in the right side of his mouth between his teeth. He took two steps away from his bed and bit down on the small piece of leather. He suddenly was back beside his bed, his heel against the long strip of leather. Crede relaxed his jaw, smiling. The bits of leather were somewhat awkward to use, but were the only available way to magically transport himself to safety until the thin crown was reclaimed.
Once outside the palace Crede took out the hat, grasped it with both hands, set it upon his head, and bent its rim slightly while concentrating with closed eyes. He continued towards the Alconar estate, in the guise of a jeweler with fine clothes and a small bag but no hat visible.
At the estate's main door he noticed a new sign. A small, old plaque to the left of the doorway read "Guildhouse of Spies". Crede grinned at that one, even though it was one way Asper had been outwitted. Now a new plaque, below the old one, read "Mage School". Curious.
He knocked and after a moment the servant named Beech answered the door. "Good morning," said Beech, although his voice lacked conviction. From behind him came indistinct words but a familiar tone: someone was lecturing.
"Good morning," replied Crede. "I am Peridot, a jeweler who has recently arrived upon this island. I was told that your master might be interested in looking at my wares, as his daughter's birthday draws near."
"I will announce you," said Beech, nodding. "You may wait outside or enter into our main hall, but if the latter then accept Alconar's apologies because the hall is somewhat crowded."
"I'll come inside."
An estate's main hall normally was large, more than one story tall, and fairly empty. Sparse but elegant furniture along the walls complemented intricate woodwork along beams and edging, giving an impression that the family had wealth but kept it elsewhere than the hall that served as foyer and multipurpose room. Currently, however, the room was not at all empty. Crede was startled to see the missing monks sitting in rows, meditating and listening attentively. Pacing back and forth at the front of the impromptu classroom was the man who had been arrested with Old Alconar yesterday.
"The monks..." Crede whispered to Beech, wondering what reply he would get.
"Not monks anymore," replied the servant. "The religion of Light was debunked, and now they are learning magic." After the briefest pause he added, "Please excuse me as I tell Old Alconar you are here."
The lecturer saw him enter and smiled. "Ah, a perfect example. Who can tell me one type of magic item this man is carrying, and as much as mage-sight shows about its..." The man's brow furrowed as he squinted at Crede. "My hat! You have my hat! Oh, good sir, please name a price that I might buy it from you. I have not seen it in..." his voice quieted, fading to private thoughts.
Uncertainly, Crede replied, "Sir, I am Peridot the jeweler and I wear no hat."
The lecturer sighed. "Generous merchant, you have entered my mage school. We all can see your hat. If it is not for sale then tell me that plainly, but do not play games with us."
Cautiously, Crede answered, "Sir, to whom do I speak that teaches missing monks and claims to have owned my hat?"
The other man smiled conspiratorially. "At this time and place my name is Sage, although I have used others, as should not surprise you since I created the hat you wear."
"Perhaps I may watch your teaching after I speak with Old Alconar?"
"Perhaps. Until he arrives, since you refuse to offer a price for the hat, I will reassign my question to my students. Who can tell me about one magic item this merchant carries?"
One of the ex-monks raised a hand. After being acknowledged with a nod, he answered, "His ring has a green aura, so it must affect living things. It glows darkly, so it is passive. If I must guess, I would guess it provides nourishment or healing."
The teacher nodded, then acknowledged another raised hand.
"The hat is invisible but glows yellow. It affects light. It also glows darkly, so it is at work continually without active guidance. If I must guess, I would guess it creates a change of appearance that currently includes making the hat itself invisible."
The teacher nodded, then acknowledged another raised hand.
"From his mouth is a faint dull aura. It is blue, of time and space magic, and again passive. I have no guess what it is from or does."
The teacher nodded, then acknowledged another raised hand.
"From his pocket is a faint and dark aura of both green and blue. It is passive, of living things and time and/or space. I have no guess what it is from or does."
The teacher nodded a final time, then smiled. "Well done, all of you. You rise to meet my expectations." Turning to face the visitor, he added, "How did they do?"
The visitor tried to smile back. "Accurate but incomplete. You taught them this within the past day, since the Temple of Light was abandoned and attacked?"
"They are exceptional pupils. As you could be if you chose."
"Sadly, I have other duties."
"Which I do not envy."
The approaching footsteps of Old Alconar and Beech caused them both to look towards the doorway leading to the stairs. The visitor did not look back at the magic teacher, and thus did not see him make a quick gesture around the top of his head.
Old Alconar approached the visitor, then knelt before him. "Your majesty, to what do I owe the honor of your presence in my humble home? A little espionage to get the circulation going after a morning of successful speech writing?"
Several of the mage-students gasped. One's clothes burst into flame. The teacher gasped, and muttered, "Watch the discharges! How many times do I have to tell you..." as he quickly strode over to help the neighbors of the smoldering student put out the small flames throughout his monkish robes.
Crede was only slightly less startled at Old Alconar's words. His lip curled as he hissed, "You kneel in mockery, old man."
"I am saddened to hear that you believe that, but in truth not very much. I confess that my loyalty to the king does not yet extend to valuing his happiness but it does..."
"No," spat Crede, interrupting. "Rather, it extends to regicide."
"I did not kill your brother, sire, and had no plans to do so. The Builder's own seer made that decision and did that work."
"A seer? Your games insult our intelligence, Jacaranda."
"She really is a seer, sire. I also resisted accepting it. But..."
"The girl, Chamomile."
Crede stared at Jacaranda, unsure if the old man was teasing him or genuinely believed what he said. In either case maintaining the stern, condescending stare was proper. One benefit of being a Rhyn, especially the king, was how silence could continue a conversation.
Old Alconar weighed the silence, then offered, "We should continue our dialogue in more privacy. Would you accompany me upstairs or to the kitchen?"
"I'm home again!" came Chamomile's voice, the call faintly wafting from the kitchen.
"The kitchen," said Crede, grinning in a way that made Fulmer uneasy. Crede let his hand brush against the pocket with the Seeker. Old Alconar might have unexpected protections upon his person, but the girl would not. It should now be easy to teach Old Alconar not to play games.
Old Alconar looked across the room. "Sage, please come with us. Beech, you should remain here. If Walnut or Jasmine return home then let him know where we are." Slowly the old man rose and led the other two into the kitchen.
"What do you mean, 'What do I do with them?'" Chamomile was scolding Fennel. "These flowers are my namesake! Have you known me all this time and never once investigated my namesake? Just because they are not a spice does not mean they have no place in your kitchen. But I am not about to excuse your ignorance and rudeness. I'll leave them here and you can find out on your own what to do." She set a small pile of white flowers upon one of the kitchen's large tables. A wreath of other flowers was atop her head.
Jacaranda quietly spoke to Fennel as he entered, interrupting the cook. "Fennel, due to the surplus of mages in our hall I must borrow your kitchen for privacy. Please excuse us until we leave or call for you." His words were sharp yet gentle. Fennel nodded assent and left the kitchen.
As Fennel left through the door to the hallway, Crede entered through the door to the main hall. When Chamomile saw him, she clapped her hands and exclaimed, "Oo! You have a dress-up hat! May I try it on, please?"
Crede made a forced laugh, and with his left hand removed the hat from his head. The illusionary costume vanished. At the same time, he reached into a pocket and took out the Seeker, then released it. It darted towards Chamomile's heart with a sinister whizzing noise.
Chamomile's hands were already before her, from clapping. With a small movement she caught the blade: pinched between a thumb and two fingers. "It's a seam ripper," she said. "No, thank you, I do not need it." She turned it around so it faced Crede and released it. It darted back through the air towards him, with a slightly melodious hum. Fulmer collapsed against a counter behind him but could not take his eyes from the scene.
The knife danced around Crede's body, jerking and twisting in curves and dives, undoing all the seams on his garments. Soon his robes dangled in unwoven layers, their sleeves' fabric fluttering to the ground. His pockets fell to the ground, their contents scattering. Then the knife darted around his feet, cutting the seams of his shoes. Finally, it attacked the hat he held, but bounced ineffectively against its stitching.
Crede realized he had stopped breathing. He took a breath gingerly, his heartbeat pounding. The knife had been a Seeker, and it had sped right at him, and he was still alive. How many from his family had been killed by a Seeker as part of succession conflicts? But he was alive... Looking up, he saw Jacaranda smirking, trying to restrain laughter. The mage called Sage looked pale and was supporting himself against a counter. The girl... Seeing her, Crede's mind freed itself from the trauma of seeing the Seeker attacking him. She had caught the Seeker, and changed it, and... And now he, the King of Windsong, wore only a few layers of fabric hanging from about his neck like the signs worn by the boys employed by certain merchants.
The girl was looking intently at his hat. "Um," she began, looking up at him. "I guess you need the hat more than me, as much as I'd love to play with it." The magical seam ripper was still bouncing against the floppy hat. Crede tried to grab the blade, but it was moving too fast and cut his finger. He grabbed the cut finger with his other hand, dropping the hat. The seam ripper fell to the floor and was still.
The cut was small, and Crede decided to ignore it. He picked up the hat, put it on, and touched the rim with both hands, bending it slightly. Illusionary royal robes appeared upon him.
"Now," asked Old Alconar, "do you believe she is a seer?"
Fulmer was panting oddly, repeating half a sentence in a mumbled whisper.
Old Alconar looked at Fulmer and Crede, and continued, "I assure you that if Fulmer himself were here, he could not change a Seeker into something different without casting a spell, even if he could catch it out of the air. But with her, the Builder's desires happen effortlessly."
Something clicked in Crede's mind. "The changed crown... the broken wand... Sycamore said the thief was not Alconar. It was you!" A memory from yesterday pushed itself to the forefront of his thoughts. "And yesterday you said you killed Asper as a seer."
Chamomile shook her head in disagreement. "No, his crimes killed him. I explained that as the Builder's hand I had completed his accountability."
Crede bit the piece of leather in his mouth. Nothing happened. He realized that he had bitten it before, in panic as the knife flew at him. Sycamore had said the house was protected; an enchantment to prevent teleporting in and out was not too surprising. How else could he escape without showing cowardice?
Chamomile spoke, her tone one of recitation but still carrying her child's cadence and inflections, "Together we lead your kingdom to a clear choice: selfishness disguised as justice, or selfless and unjust sacrifices. You lead from the throne with the dynasty's authority, but we need neither. Our authority is from a different place. Which matters more: who sits on the throne when Windsong makes its choice, or if Windsong chooses well?" She paused, then in her more usual, cheerful manner added, "Your majesty, you have a speech to make. Lead the kingdom as you will. You have grown up surrounded by evil but you still have the ability to grow and rise above those roots; you are struggling to find direction, unlike Asper who fought the Builder. Perhaps seeing goodness will change you? But realize you are not the Builder's puppet: your choices, and the kingdom's choice, are all too real. May everything you do today be as successful as this morning's reconnaissance."
Crede stared at her in long silence. Finally, he said, "I am the king and you cannot dismiss me from your presence. Seer or not, you have committed regicide and must come with me, in submission to my authority."
Chamomile obligingly climbed down from the chair she had been sitting on. "Will I get to play with the dress-up-hat?" she asked.
"No," he said, pointedly yet without haste, relishing the word. "I defy you. Do I indeed have free will and authority to reign? You claim to be the Builder's seer and you say so. Let us see what the Builder will allow me to do to you to fulfill justice. He protected you from me as an assassin; will he also save you from me as king?"
"He has not told me that," Chamomile replied calmly.
"If he does restrain me then you have lied about my free will and authority," said Crede. "Come; to the palace we go. I am not yet sure what to do with you, but I must change into something less drafty before the speech."
"As you wish, King Crede," said Chamomile sadly. She looked at Old Alconar and Fulmer. "So it must be," she said. "Do not hinder this."
Old Alconar spoke softly to Crede. "The back door is before you. It would not be right for my visitors to see that the King of Windsong came here in disguise only to abduct a young girl. Better that your purpose remains a mystery."
Crede nodded. "You are a mystery, Jacaranda. But if this girl is what makes you enigmatic, perhaps you will no longer be so puzzling." He reached up and adjusted his hat again, appearing now in the dirty clothes of a beggar. "Thank you for the food, good sir," he croaked. With a private chuckle he gripped Chamomile's shoulder and directed her towards the door. "So generous to the homeless, the Alconars. Even the king should appreciate such generosity, I'd think. Come, my child." His chuckle turned into a cackle as he left the house.
Fulmer banged one fist against the counter. "I think I preferred doubting the Builder's omnipotence to doubting the Architect's wisdom."
Old Alconar laughed, surprising Fulmer. "Do not doubt either, my friend. I had not realized how much experiencing heaven would change me. But I was even cheered by Crede's parting words. In the stories about the seers of old, have you never noticed how haphazard their lives were? Yet our adventures with Chamomile yesterday make all their old seers' lives seem routine! Am I worthy of being caught up in such stuff? I always imagined someone set apart by the Builder would be calm and graceful and regal. May I be set apart more, that I may continue to puzzle Windsong's enemies!"
Fulmer sighed. "I appreciate your enthusiasm, but do not feel hope is kindled so easily."
Old Alconar clapped him twice on the shoulder, for steadiness' sake. "Then realize which one of them was wearing a crown as they left." He turned around and left the kitchen, calling for Fennel.
The High Priest opened his eyes. His head hurt terribly. He closed his eyes again. Slowly he remembered what had happened that morning. He opened his eyes again. He was still in the cell, lying on his back.
Someone laughed mockingly from by his feet. He pushed himself up and tried to focus that far away. A tall humanoid shadow was standing just inside the doorway.
The High Priest shrieked. The shadow stepped forward, looming over him and reaching out one phantom arm to grab his hair with a quite tangible grip. The hand was cold, and the chill it radiated demoralized him.
"So, the religion of Light is going to be publicly abandoned today," the shadow intoned. The High Priest was unsure if he heard the words or if they echoed directly into his mind. "But with the Builder under the authority of my agent's agent I am free to act." The shadow lifted him up off the ground to hold him more closely before its featureless head. The High Priest clutched the arm that held him dangling. His feet swung in small wild arcs. He did not consider resisting.
The shadow continued, "I am here to help you overcome your troubles. You have been but a pawn on the board. But pawns can turn into more powerful pieces." The shadow lowered the High Priest's feet to the ground. The High Priest sagged, his muscles unresponsive. The shadow knelt, depositing the High Priest puddle-like upon the floor. It let go of his hair and spread its fingers upon the head. Then the shadow reached out its other arm and thrust that hand inside the High Priest's chest. There was no pain, although the High Priest thought he could feel the phantom fingers probing his heart. "Yes, you are mine," the shadow cackled, withdrawing its invasive hand. "Know your master."
Suddenly the High Priest found himself high above Windsong. He could see its landscape and buildings below, and people moving to and fro appeared as grains of sand. Strangely, he could somehow see their taint. Their petty spheres of selfishness and distrust splashed against each other as they moved about. In the palace, a very slightly different hue glowed victoriously of pride's contentment: "I feel better, I live better, I am better."
The scene flickered and changed. The landscape and buildings changed only slightly. It was a different, earlier time. There was no visible taint. Instead, unselfishness and joy splashed high in flowing turbulence as the city's people interacted, the pools around each individual overflowing and merging to make a viscous sea. It was contagious, and one part of the High Priest's mind yearned for how it did not strive and had superseded contentment. Yet mostly he noticed its weakness and instability: a people unused to terror would be unable to resist terror.
The scene returned to the first aerial view. Time rushed by and the tiny people with their spheres of taint sped through days and weeks. The taint grew and spread and soon even the palace's residents lacked contentment. Waves of new, different taint oozed out from the palace through the city. The last few traces of love and charity vanished. Finally even pride was overrun by the other flavors of taint. No one on the island felt anything besides fear and despair.
The vision ended and the shadow released his other hand from the High Priest's skull. The High Priest lay on the floor, whimpering.
The shadow kicked him playfully but forcefully. "What? You see only that much taint from afar and you cannot stand? Prepare to experience much more. Prepare? Ha, forgive my good humor: there is nothing you can do to be at all prepared." The High Priest screamed as the shadow reached towards him again.
The High Priest woke up with a scream, but quickly controlled himself. Had something been frightening? No, the dream had been thrilling. He glanced down at his right hand. Upon his right ring finger he wore a heavy ring of solid shadow. Such power he had been given, for faithfully corrupting the minds of Windsong's people! What a generous reward was his today! Now he must leave this place and destroy a stone.
He sat up. Why was he on the floor? No matter. He stood and faced the door to his cell. "Door of wood, decay and warp," he muttered spitefully. With cracking and creaking the door withered and buckled, falling from its hinges and latches. The High Priest strode from his cell, looking about the wine cellar. "Wine in casks, be now poison," he intoned, grinning. That should do for vengeance.
He climbed the stairs to the cellar's only door and left the room, emerging into a hallway. He peered out another door and saw a large room filled with his old underlings, kneeling in rows. He approached them, slamming the hallway door behind him to announce his presence. "Fools!" he called out, "Be blind and disoriented again!" Vertigo scattered the ex-monks across the floor. The High Priest strode across the room, choosing a path through the prone, moaning bodies that was close to regally straight yet let him step on a few hands. Then he left the Alconar estate.
Inside the main hall, Fulmer discarded the spell he had cast after Chamomile's capture that made him invisible to malicious people and animals. Then he began carefully dispelling the blindness and vertigo. He was thankful that the beast on the High Priest's hand was so overconfident and unperceptive. As he worked, gathering magical energy from his students and shaping it properly, his legs were unstable and his hands uncoordinated. How much should he tell Old Alconar? It was difficult enough keeping Chamomile's secret.
"You should change your disguise soon," Chamomile advised the king.
"Huh?" Crede left his private thoughts and looked at her sternly. "No one cares about beggars."
"Other beggars do. A bunch of us live up ahead. If you don't want to deal with people's questions, look like that merchant again, or yourself."
Crede scowled but said nothing. He continued walking at his brisk pace, as fast as they could manage while he held her hand. Chamomile had tripped once and Crede had simply dragged her along until she regained her footing a few moments later.
"Or we could turn into something fun. Wouldn't it be neat to be a bird? But the dress-up hat would not allow us to fly or change our size, and a bird so big would be silly. Maybe a big dog. You could be a big dog and I could be riding on your back. If I was really sitting on your shoulders while you walked, I bet the dress-up hat could manage that. Or..." Crede slapped her cheek forcefully with his other hand. She stopped talking.
Two steps later he paused and used the hat to change his appearance to that of a nondescript farmer. Then he held out his hand, which she took, and they were off again.
"I wonder..." Chamomile began, but Crede slapped her again. She attempted looking up at him, hurt in her large eyes, but she could not maintain a stare because of the need to watch her footing carefully.
"Ha-ah!" Crede barked. He spoke to her without looking at her: "A seer that can't talk is quite worthless, true? Perhaps I should start your punishment by having your tongue removed."
After a pause he made a short, snorty laugh and said, "The dream you sent me asked about a difference between goodness and justice. There is a difference: justice is enriched by irony, but goodness is not."
"True..." began Chamomile, but Crede silenced her yet again.
"I did not ask for your comments," he sneered. "Ah, how nice it is to hit you, especially if you and not Old Alconar really are the root of all my problems. I suppose that is another difference: vengeance adds spice to justice, but not to goodness." Finally he looked at her, smiling at the grief in her eyes, and said, "When Asper was king I thought he was beastly. But today I'm beginning to learn that sometimes hitting children is the best thing a king can do." Then he looked once more at where he was hurriedly walking.
A few minutes later he spoke to her again. "I just realized why hitting you made me feel so vigorous. It's not the same as the beating boys. It's much better. Until today I had doubted that the old religion was real. Not knowing if the Builder and Taint were real added a background of dullness to my life: I felt in control of my life, but never knew if I was I acting by my own nature or being subtly manipulated by invisible forces of good or evil. But seeing you catch and change my Seeker—you must be a seer as you claim. And I as king have authority over you. Hitting you is like hitting the Builder. How mighty I feel, that the powers of creation suffer beneath my fists!"
"Voluntarily," said Chamomile. Crede punched her in the nose before he processed what she said.
"What!" he yelled. "Impossible. That would ruin everything." He paused and looked at her again, then knelt down to speak at her level. "Perhaps it is true for now, but I'll test the limits of what you and your Builder will allow you to suffer. That bluff will be met. But I have other business to attend to first."
Chamomile held the edge of her dress to her nose and was silent.
When they reached the road ascending to the palace, Crede again used the hat to change his appearance, choosing to look like himself, regally dressed. He looked down at Chamomile, frowning, and said, "You must agree now to wait in the throne room for my return, without making trouble. In that way you will show your submission to my authority and my free will to exert it. After my speech I'll take you somewhere else, but I have not yet settled into a coherent plan. The throne room still has its guards against magic. The Alconars could possibly rescue you from any room. But since you agree to be mine I should not worry."
Chamomile nodded assent. They went up to the palace.
The gatehouse had its normal number of guards, but so that as many people as possible could hear Crede's speech he had dismissed the two guards that stood before the palace and half of the four that guarded the entryway.
Crede put Chamomile in the care of one of the entryway's guards. "Keep her in the throne room until I return from giving my speech. If she tries to leave, beat her senseless. Otherwise do not let her be harmed or healed."
The guard saluted, then took Chamomile into the throne room. Crede left for his rooms. Shortly he returned, dressed less brightly but still wearing elegant robes with a demeanor that inspired confidence. Five guards were with him, providing a small formal escort to the stage in the main square. The king smiled at the remaining one entryway guard, then left with his retinue.
A few minutes later, the lone entryway guard was surprised to see the High Priest approaching. Mustering his deep, formal voice he announced, "The king has ordered no admittance into the palace today until after his speech, at which time he will hold court to settle disputes."
The High Priest stopped before the guard, uncomfortably close. The guard hesitated, then repeated, "Again I say, the king has ordered..."
"Pain," said the High Priest. The guard fell to the ground screaming, clutching at his limbs, at his stomach, at his chest, and his head. The guards at the gatehouse had been similarly dealt with.
The High Priest crossed the entryway and entered the throne room.
Chamomile was sitting on the floor, holding the edge of her dress to her nose. A guard was standing behind her. Both looked up as the High Priest entered.
He saw them and snarled, waving his hands at his sides. "You!" he exclaimed, pointing at the guard, "Flee in fear!" The guard ran from the room. The High Priest stared at Chamomile. "You!" he yelled again, but then paused.
Chamomile looked at him sadly. She was sitting between him and the magic stone. The sword was not on the stone. It had been set upon pegs, hanging on the wall behind and above the throne.
"You will watch me," said the High Priest. "You cannot use your Builder's powers now. You have sworn not to use those to oppose Crede's authority, and he is under Maximus Grim, who serves Taint."
"It is important to protect the stone," said Chamomile. "That is the most important thing, even for Windsong's rightful ruler."
"You think that your work as seer was sufficient," snarled the High Priest. "You think that the kingdom is ready to choose. But they will be more selfish when famine and disease destroy this island." He walked forward and stood above Chamomile. "I am glad you will watch me destroy the stone and ruin your plans."
He held out his hand, with the ring. "Won't you plead? You know what this island's choice will mean. And your nose is bleeding. It is good to see you bleed. There should be more blood—perhaps I should hurt you before I destroy the stone."
Chamomile sighed, her cheeks drooping. "I do not want to hurt you."
"You cannot stop me, impotent seer."
Chamomile reached a hand above her head, catching the magic sword as it arced towards her. With a small motion she cut off the High Priest's hand. He screamed and dashed about the room. The sword crashed heavily from her hand to the floor.
Chamomile picked up the hand and addressed the ring upon it before it faded away.
The High Priest had fainted. Chamomile sighed again and walked over to set the hand beside him. She touched the High Priests' head, briefly, saying "Stay unconscious, sir. Taint spoke of blood, but there need not be pain." Then she slowly walked back to where the sword lay and knelt beside it, crying. After a long time she stopped. Then she started again.
At the conclusion of Crede's speech, the populace's cheering was unrestrainable. A king that not only lowered taxes, but reinstated the ancient custom of holding court to settle disputes? Could it be that this king actually valued the well-being of his people? There had been some murmurs that morning about how even a good king could not compensate for a corrupt dynasty, but those seemed unimportant now. The time of suffering was over. Justice now prevailed.
The news about the Religion of Light was also uplifting. In his speech the king had admitted that that institution was merely one of Asper's ways to tax and disillusion people. The reward offered for capturing the renegade High Priest was quickly canceled after a guard from the palace brought news that the High Priest had just attacked the palace but was captured by palace guards. The reward was divided among all the palace guard, since only chance had determined which of that faithful body happened to have been on duty when and where the High Priest attacked.
Perhaps most stirring was the surprising bit about the noble families. Amid great ceremony, the king announced that he, with the aid of the king's magical artifacts, had rid the Alconar family of a magical curse, cast upon them by an evil sorceress who disguised herself in the form of a young child. That sorceress, whom yesterday everyone had heard confess to the murder of Asper, was in custody in the palace. To celebrate the restoration of the Alconar's sanity, and because it was just, the king restored all the noble families' lands.
The speech had concluded with the announcement that the king required one hour to return to the palace, check on the captive sorceress, and ready himself for holding court. Then all those whose work could be postponed were invited to attend court. Let justice prevail.
It was a good speech, Crede thought. He glanced around the crowd that filled the main square, abuzz with chatter and eager in anticipation.
Yes, things were going very well indeed.
Fulmer found the book in the Alconar library, and sat down in a comfortably cushioned chair. He had been both anticipating and dreading reading an account of when Maximus Grim had taken over Windsong. Now he could no longer postpone the task. He opened the book and read:
For 200 years the city of Windsong and two nearby villages had claimed to be a one-island kingdom, also named Windsong. The seven other kingdoms of the nearby continent may or may not have noticed. Foreign merchants visited Windsong, but never diplomats or navies.
Fulmer smiled. The account was obviously written for an audience not familiar with the island. He knew more than the author: that the enchantments of the stone-sword did all that magic could do to prevent other countries from taking an interest in the island. Who did write the book? He checked the back page. Ah, it was one of Grim's servants, trying to flatter his master.
Maximus Grim, the most powerful and evil of mages, had decided to conquer a kingdom because he liked being in charge, and he realized that being a king would put him in charge of many things. He decided upon Windsong because it was favorable of climate and beautiful of vegetation, and those would certainly be pleasant things to rule over. If he did not like being king over the island's people he could always leave—or stay and send everyone else away.
Preparation, almost none of it requiring magic, took several weeks. Everything Maximus did involved splendor and art.
Then the day came. The kings of kingdoms on the continent were frequently visited by mages. Maximus Grim had visited kings before. He wondered if King Thistle Cragnus had ever been visited by a mage. Certainly not by one as powerful and widely feared.
The king welcomed Maximus Grim with warm formality. Or, more accurately, when Maximus suddenly appeared at the castle gates, dressed in velvet elegance and carrying a very large, flat, rectangular package, one of the gate's guards courteously showed him to a pleasant, sunny sitting room while another hurried to tell the king of the mage's arrival.
There was an established way to become the King of Windsong. In the center of the throne room was an enchanted sword balanced upon a mystic jade stone. The sword pivoted to point to the person most qualified to rule the kingdom. Several times in the kingdom's history the current king or queen had not been willing to give up the throne just because the sword had decided the kingdom needed a new monarch. But the people of Windsong were not tolerant of greedy rulers. Improper kings and queens were soon disposed of and then the sword once again pointed to the person who sat upon the throne.
That magic sword was the only weak point in Maximus's plans. Taking the throne would be easy, but the sword would not acknowledge him. Its presence would be a constant insult. Yet as an insult it was powerless, whereas removing it would likely be disastrous. According to rumor almost old enough to be legend, the mage Fulmer the Benevolent, who led the resettlement of the island 200 years ago, had created the artifact while the humans he led busied themselves building the city and its castle. Legend stated that he island's benign weather and lack of annoying insects were not natural, but were enchantments flowing from the sword and stone. So Maximus dare not move the artifact until he fully analyzed it.
Fulmer had chuckled at "Fulmer the Benevolent", but the brief moment of humor quickly passed. The author was already trying to plant seeds of doubt about the stone-sword in the audience's mind.
A messenger arrived in the sitting room. Maximus politely nodded his head to acknowledge the trembling boy. Trembling! Naturally the evil mage's fearsome reputation preceded him, but it was regrettable that a truthful account of his enjoyment of etiquette and ceremony was apparently not part of that extensive reputation. The boy stammered something too quietly to be understandable. Maximus smiled and prompted, "Speak, boy, and fear not. To you, I am merely another guest."
The boy hesitantly said, "Lord Maximus Grim, you are welcomed by Cragnus, King of Windsong, and summoned to his throne room."
Maximus smiled inside, imagining a small display of power for which he didn't have time, which would give the boy a new understanding of the word "summoned". But he kept the humor to himself. Today pomp and ceremony were important. When he was on the throne he wanted his subjects to treat him as royalty, not a rude military tyrant. To Maximus the only difference was a proper regard for court ritual.
In the throne room, King Cragnus sat upon his throne, surrounded by a small number of courtiers and officials. Maximus Grim entered the room, followed by the messenger boy and two other servants carrying Maximus's package. The king lifted his hands slightly and said pleasantly, "Esteemed magician, we ask why you grace our company." The king did not smile.
Maximus cheerfully replied, "I bring a gift, in recognition of your royalty."
At a cue from the king, the two servants carrying the package removed the silk cloths that covered it. The gift was beautiful, and many gasps of admiration put a real smile on Maximus's face. However, he wished they did not also look so surprised. Apparently his skill at oil painting was another neglected facet of his reputation.
The painting showed the throne room, in surprising detail. Maximus had painstakingly reproduced the background: the sword and stone, the courtiers and officials, the tapestries, paintings and chandeliers. Many courtiers stared, comparing the clothing they were wearing with what they wore in the picture. Others not in the throne room during Maximus's scrying stared at the painting, searching for themselves in vain. One official stepped a pace to one side, as if standing where the painting pictured him was a bad omen. The painting's foreground was, of course, the throne and its occupant. But it was not Cragnus on the throne; instead, a lion was seated there. Its musculature and posture both echoed and magnified Cragnus's purposefully royal demeanor. Its face had the same cast of calm yet uncompromising authority that Cragnus so carefully cultivated, yet the look was even more effective on the lion.
Maximus watched the king inspect the painting. The painting could validly be interpreted as either a compliment to the king, or as subtle condescension. Maximus wanted to time his spell carefully, just a moment after the king decided upon which interpretation was meant and which would be officially received. Maximus waited until the king's eyes settled, and the king's jaw line relaxed ever so slightly. Then the evil mage made a small gesture.
The lion leapt from the picture. It was confused and roared loudly. It set beady eyes menacingly on the nearest courtiers. More than a few people began screaming. The king's guards, on either side of the throne, shifted their hands on their halberds.
Maximus grunted in disappointment. The lion was not yet panicking or violent. So much for real screaming and pandemonium.
King Cragnus spoke. "Very impressive, mage. Your gift is worthy of these walls." After the briefest pause he continued, "Return the lion to the painting, so that I may hang it, and so that your presentation of it may always be spoken of fondly, with admiration."
Maximus made a sweeping gesture with his arms that looked quite grand but did not clearly express acquiescence. He replied, "In truth, your majesty, there were two paintings, not one. With artistic talent alone I painted the scene with an empty throne. Then I began doing magic. I magically made a duplicate picture, then I magically bound a lion into the first picture. Naturally, its posture and expression failed to compliment you. So again with only paint and brush I added a lion to the throne of the other picture. What happened a moment ago was I both switched pictures and released the lion."
The king did an admirable job controlling his emotions in a dignified manner. He spoke again, "Lord Maximus Grim, your explanation is edifying. Yet for the sake of both my subjects and the noble lion, let no one's memory of this moment be tarnished by injuries. Remove the lion."
Maximus made another sweeping gesture, this time one that clearly implied obedience, and said a sharp phrase. The lion stopped moving, standing still as if stuffed. Maximus stepped up to it and ran a hand along its back. His eyes did not leave the king's.
After a long moment, King Cragnus broke eye contact, turning to look at the picture. "Thank you for taking care of the lion, Lord Maximus. This picture now shows an empty throne. I long to see the picture with the painted lion once again."
"No," said Maximus Grim, not softly but not loudly. The disobedience was so unusual and unexpected that it took a moment to register. Before any reaction appeared on the king's face, or anyone else's, Maximus had completed a series of finger motions and the horrified court watched King Cragnus fly through the air from his throne at—no, into—the picture. The two servants that held the picture jumped back, as if the frame itself was dangerous. The picture fell backwards to the ground with a sharp crack that echoed twice in the lofty throne room.
Maximus stepped beside the picture. He looked down into it, as if studying his reflection in a pool. In actuality, he was regretting how so much of his exquisite oil work was now covered by a view of Cragnus from behind. Was the painting now unsuitable for hanging in the throne room? Its presence seemed an important enough reminder of his powers that the lack of Cragnus's dignity was irrelevant.
Maximus turned away from the painting on the floor, then made another small gesture. The painting that included a lion on the throne appeared, upright before him. As Maximus turned towards the throne and ascended the steps of its dais, the other painting also fell backward. The loud crack it made hitting the tiled floor seemed too much for the guards beside the throne; this time they visibly flinched at the noise. Maximus noticed, and felt assured they would not dare oppose him. He waved them away, and they quickly walked to the edge the throne room, by the main doors.
Maximus gracefully seated himself on the throne. He looked out over the officials, courtiers, and servants. He noticed that the magical sword now pointed away from the throne, towards the northeast. There was an easy way to make the sword point at him, at least while he sat upon the throne doing whatever official royal duties kings did.
Maximus pointed at a servant, who cringed. "You, find whom the sword is pointing to and have them await my interview in whatever chamber lies on the other side of the wall directly behind the throne." He pointed at another servant. "You, hang these pictures on that wall, separated by that tapestry." He pointed to two officials. "You and you, carry the lion up here, so I can use it as my footrest."
The four people he spoke to hurried to obey. No one else moved. One woman fainted.
Maximus tried to look regal, but frowned inside. Being king must mean more than being stared at. He realized how tired the magical drain had made him. For a bit of extra challenge Maximus had decided to claim the throne using only magical energy drawn from himself, instead of from someone else or from a magical item that stored magical energy.
Oh, well. No sense trying to hide the fact that he had not been trained to be royalty. And no sense in being tired. He uttered a whispery phrase and made a gesture towards the woman who had fainted. Her body shook slightly. Now Maximus felt revitalized. As for the woman, she was already resting and regaining her energy. No harm done, although the way others were looking at her showed that this was not yet general knowledge.
Maximus also decided that he was done putting on a false face. He knew quite well that one advantage of being an evil mage is that you don't have to look terrifying for everyone to be terrified of you. Now that his dramatic arrival was complete, he could be himself again.
He pointed at the official nearest the throne, who was dressed most impressive of all the officials. In a voice more conspiratorial than regal he beckoned, "You, come here." Then Maximus let an expression of genuine bewilderment show and asked, "Now what do I do?"
To his astonishment, the official replied as calmly and promptly as if the situation was routine.
That night, Maximus Grim stood with his shoulders back and his fists pressed to his hips, surveying the view from the castle's highest balcony. So far the thrill non-mages seemed to attribute to kingship had eluded him, except for how claiming the throne provided him with the contentment of a day's work well done.
The main official—here called a Chief Herald—had been trained in helping new monarchs. Apparently, with the way the sword and stone worked, the kingdom had to be ready to change monarchs at a moment's notice.
The balcony offered an unparalleled view, which pleased Maximus until he noticed that the solitude gave him a false sense of impotence. Normally, when his gaze swept back and forth, the people it caught felt caught and squirmed. His subjects, far below in the city, were currently oblivious to him and his staring, probing eyes.
He focused on the lighthouse's beam, on the far side of the harbor. Then he uttered a phrase half rooted in sound and made a gesture. The lighthouse went dark. It's light, however, was not gone. The light was merely redirected, streaming forth from the gaze of the new King of Windsong.
After another gesture the gaze of Maximus Grim took on a deep hue, mostly royal purple but with a disconcerting crimson tint. Now, as he looked down at the city, his gaze visibly swept across the city. Now people noticed, and pointed at the beacon coming from atop the castle's tallest tower. News they had heard whispered earlier in the day was suddenly confirmed and personal. When the colored gaze caught them, even momentarily, they squirmed.
Maximus gripped the balcony's rail as he leaned forward, looking and smiling. His gaze pounced upon cityfolk with a predatory joy. He was used to being the preeminent evil mage of the continent, a status that involved as much work handling challengers as it did researching new spells. But this! This was relaxing. He was beginning to enjoy being king.
The next morning Maximus sat in the throne, relaxing during the few minutes between the meeting with the guildmasters and the time of holding court. Since waking, he had found that the ruler of Windsong was not in charge of his own schedule, but had regularly appointed meetings, ceremonies, and chores of paperwork and legalwork. None of it was fun. Several times he had thumped his fists on the arms of the throne, declaring, "Enough! Is not the king in charge? Who placed all these expectations upon the king? I crave power in freedom, not authority in legislature!"
Then the Chief Herald would calmly say, "You may do as you please, your highness, but to do else than custom requires would be to become something other than King of Windsong. That choice is yours."
Then Maximus Grim would look at the faces of the others in the room, and he imagined their thoughts: "He stole the throne! The sword does not acknowledge him! Of course he is not up to the task!" For the first time in decades Maximus Grim was in a position that made him squirm; but he did not let it show, and each time covered his unease by proclaiming, "For this week, then, I will be King of Windsong. Next week I will reflect upon what being king means and decide if I shall continue these stifling matters of custom."
So now he sat and finally could relax—for a moment, and then the main doors to the throne room would open and what the Chief Herald had described as "holding court" would begin. Apparently even peasants could place expectations of time and wisdom on a king! They would come with personal, petty squabbles for him to declare justice upon. He expected his brain would ache with the effort of comprehending their mundane motives and prattle.
A bell rang. The huge doors opened with a potent creak: their weight gave them presence that oil could not mask. Maximus could see a line of people at the threshold. The first two approached, a pair of farmers. After the appropriate bowing and heraldic protocol he heard their problem: each claimed ownership of a certain sheep.
Maximus was for a moment speechless with incomprehension. Argue over a sheep? What worth was a sheep? He purposefully lowered his brow, then declared coldly, "Both of you, close your eyes and hold thoughts of that sheep in your minds." The farmers were startled by the request, but complied. Maximus made a gesture, then a sound the farmers could both hear and feel. A sheep appeared between the farmers.
Maximus nodded unconsciously, then said, "Your thoughts agree on the sheep. See, it has been brought before you." Then he made a lengthy series of gestures and spell-sounds, at the conclusion of which a duplicate sheep appeared beside the first.
Maximus smiled. He laughed a short, barking chuckle, then said, "Now there are two sheep. But working mercy instead of justice has fatigued me. For my effort and time I deserve payment, and I claim both sheep as mine. However, I grant each of you one minute to explain to me why you deserve one of them. Perhaps I will be generous."
Maximus's smile broadened to a grin as the farmers' faces showed panic even as they wasted now-valuable seconds regaining control of their gaping mouths. Maximus shifted and stretched, becoming more comfortable on the throne. His feet rested on the lion footrest; he repositioned the majestic robes on his legs to best effect. Throughout this his gaze remained fixed upon the two farmers, whose mouths moved but only produced murmured, gasping noises.
Maximus, for the first time since waking, was comfortable. People often came to beg favors from a powerful mage. He was experienced at this game.
When two minutes had passed Maximus shrugged his shoulders and said to the farmers, "Your time has passed and you have not declared yourselves worthy of a sheep, let alone my patience or favor. Please depart especially quickly." He looked up, across the huge room to the waiting line of people. He cast a very quick spell, and then whispered. His voice was redirected and magnified. From the ceiling it crashed, booming, at the line of waiting people, thunderous yet mockingly polite: "Next, please."
Fulmer put the book down. He had read enough. The Maximus Grim in the narrative matched all that he knew of the evil mage. What could he possibly do?
The island of Windsong took its name from a large rock formation in the harbor of its only city. Some of these rocks were large and thick, others as solid but pierced by holes, and still others so riddled with tunnels that they almost looked like lace. When wind blew through the rocks, melodious songs were produced.
The harbor's rocks were the model for the wind rocks, which in turn symbolized the kingdom's six noble houses.
During the early years of Fulmer's reign as Windsong's first king the system of having the throne room's magical sword and stone choose who should rule was unanimously respected. Even though Fulmer was beloved and his leadership was commendable, the whole island eagerly awaited a second king or queen. Fulmer made no secret that he was the most impatient: he treasured his island and loved its people, but dearly desired to again be working as mage instead of magistrate. Slowly a crucial flaw in the system became clear. The island produced many men and women as virtuous as their king—many of which were more skilled than he at certain crafts or at working the land or sea. But the simple kingdom's lifestyle gave little opportunity for such hopeful potential monarchs to develop skills in leadership and statesmanship. A gathering of all the populace was held, which lasted for three days. Finally someone suggested a solution acceptable to all. The noble houses were created.
Fulmer created six magical rocks, intricately carved, each as large as a man's torso. Wind was magically pulled through their tunnels and around their knobs. When other rocks were carefully put in place on these "wind rocks" musical tones could be made, in mimicry of the harbor's natural instrument. Six years were decreed in which every family in the kingdom was encouraged to excel in virtue, productivity, and culture. Then the populace voted for which six families had best become examples of what all on Windsong should aspire to become. The winners were presented with the "wind rocks" as tokens of their new status, and given plots of land on a previously unused hillside to build larger homes.
That was all.
Yet that was sufficient. Through trade with other kingdoms these families amassed significant wealth. They became the patrons of artists, sponsors of festivals, and hosts of special celebrations. Slowly, more of their family members stopped working as craftsfolk, farmers, or fishermen and instead helped the family's Old leader manage the family's assets and estate. In time, when the city grew large enough to require guilds, members of the noble families naturally were chosen (with a few exceptions) as most capable of serving as guildmasters. Then, during the fortieth year of Fulmer's reign, the throne room's sword finally indicated that someone else should be the new ruler of Windsong.
Since that time the noble families had served their kingdom well. Not all of the kingdom's kings, queens, and guildmasters were from these families, but most were. The noble families continued to be the patrons of artists, sponsors of festivals, and hosts of special celebrations. The island's magically idyllic weather, flora, and fauna allowed even farmers and fishermen to easily make a living, which prevented jealousy. Those islanders born outside the nobility who wanted the responsibility of being part of a noble family usually managed to marry into one. (Indeed, such people were few, for most of the populace was very content to attend the festivals and celebrations without having to organize them. Furthermore, those few who wanted to marry into nobility and could not were so clearly unpleasant that everyone else was happy to see them remain in the lower social status with only insignificant wealth to squander and only insignificant ties with foreign merchants to jeopardize.)
The morning after Crede's speech Old Alconar knelt in his garden, carefully adjusting the sound of his wind rock and enjoying the sunrise.
"Fair morning," Fulmer quietly said in greeting as he approached. The phrase was humorous, since Windsong's weather was magically kept ideal, but either despite or because of this irony the phrase had quickly become a standard during the first years of Windsong's history.
"Hmn," Old Alconar mused, concentrating on his task. The rocks in the garden's stream had shifted slightly since he had last been here, altering the noise of the water. He was trying to again make the wind rock harmonize with the stream.
Fulmer waited, interested and patient. Old Alconar adjusted rocks for a few more minutes, then smiled and wiped his hands against each other. "Better?" he asked.
Fulmer strained in vain to hear how the garden's sounds had been changed. "I am sorry, but my ears must not be what they were back when I was as young as you."
Old Alconar barked, "Ha-ah! May you never grow older, my friend, even if it is too late to save your ears."
Fulmer grinned. "Oh, I don't any more, so never you fear. Anyway, I came because I cannot help being concerned for Chamomile, and unsure about Crede's rule. I need conversation."
Old Alconar continued to kneel, and motioned for Fulmer to join him on the grass between the wind rock and the stream. Fulmer sat down and crossed his legs, resting with his hands behind him.
"First I have a question for you," Old Alconar said, his eyes narrowing slightly. "You can see magic. I also overheard some of the lessons in which you were teaching your students to look with mage sight at the 'colors' of magical items. So, please tell me: did Chamomile change the Seeker into something else before or after she caught it?"
Fulmer paused, taking a deep breath, then releasing it in a sigh. "After. What was your clue?"
Old Alconar's eyes widened, but his forehead remained drawn in seriousness. "Your expressions during the incident. Also, you were staring at her hands, not her face."
Fulmer sighed deeply a second time. "And you know what it means?"
"My wine cellar had a door ruined. It was warped and decayed. And my wine had become vile. The High Priest could not have done that, nor sickened all your students. My agents tell me that the palace guards are whispering concern and gratitude: the ones who saw the High Priest were overcome without contest, and all are glad that Crede gave them credit for the High Priest's capture when he managed it himself upon returning the throne room after his speech. Except that I have a guess about how the High Priest was stopped. He was possessed by Taint, and she stopped him because only she could. Seers do not get superhuman reflexes. She's not human, is she?"
Fulmer nodded. "Very close, my lord. I would say 'she is not merely human'. And the High Priest was not possessed by Taint so much as he served as a carrier, although I would be unable to explain the difference clearly were you to press me. But you are essentially correct. Her submission to Crede's authority allowed Taint to manifest. But she stopped him."
"From ruining the throne room stone."
"Yes," admitted Fulmer.
"Then the prophecies are both true, for Taint is trying to destroy this island before its people make their collective choice. Maximus Grim will return. Taint will make him return."
Old Alconar smiled. "I have a plan."
Fulmer squished his face in incredulity. "Already?"
"It was an old plan, one that has been in consideration since I discovered your identity. Now that I know Maximus Grim is returning I think the time is right. Tell me: drawing on the magical power of the mage students, could you manufacture another wind rock?"
Fulmer smiled too. "No, but I could spend a day making a magic item that stores much magical energy. Then I would be able to make a new wind rock."
Old Alconar slapped both his thighs. "Please do so. I'll handle the diplomacy." He stood up, then extended a hand to help Fulmer to his feet.
"My pleasure," said Fulmer, shaking the hand after making use of its aid while standing. "You have given me new hope."
Old Alconar narrowed his eyes. "You were not hopeful?"
Fulmer twisted his mouth. "Not in any practical sense. I was generally optimistic. It is comforting to add a specific plan."
Old Alconar laughed. "I disagree. In my experience plans no longer add hope. They can distract me from my worries and fears so my hopes are attacked less. But my plans also can do ill, for if I put my hope in my plans I am not putting it elsewhere."
Fulmer nodded. "But we must plan nonetheless."
Old Alconar grinned. "The Architect has mercifully never told me not to."
A scene about adjusting a garden's noise is a tribute to Sean Russell's The Initiate Brother.
Chamomile was crying as Crede heated the tip of the metal rod in the fire. She had started only a few moments after he entered the palace smithy, which the second Rhyn king had refurbished as a room for interrogation and torture. Her crying bothered Crede. He thought about why.
Part of it was him. He had never tortured anyone before, and he had been looking forward to shattering her fortitude by causing pain. It had felt wonderful to be able to hit her, knowing she was the Builder's special "pet". How much more exhilarating to totally break her? But she had no fortitude! She whimpered and sobbed and gasped and bawled like any suffering girl-child might. The challenge of breaking her will turned out to only have been an imagined activity and Crede was disappointed.
Part of it was her. Even though he had not touched her yet, her wails already had the sound of genuine pain. He had watched Asper here many times. Adults would panic in expectation of the torture, then cry once the pain began. But she was too young for isolated panic, and shrieked as if he were already applying the rod. Crede wanted to see her panic in an adult way, with threats and bribes and pleas. She was not playing her role properly.
"You're going to burn me!" she wailed, somehow catching her breath between cries.
Crede turned to face her and glowered. "Of course I'm going to burn you. You don't need to tell me that." He turned back to the rod and fire, and thought more about her panic. She had not exhibited any fear during her entire captivity until he had entered the room a few minutes ago. And now she was bawling like a wounded brat.
He turned to face her again. "Quiet yourself or I'll burn you much more. Prisoners are supposed to blubber and plead while they are captured and taken here, but once they are here they decide to prove themselves tough so they try to suffer silently. You do everything backwards, and it puts me in a bad mood, and the person you least want in a bad mood is the man about to torture you."
The threat only caused Chamomile to cry louder, in the huge, choking sobs and screams of a child feeling panic and pain and doom.
Crede swung the rod at a nearby table, breaking off one of the table's legs. He had to calm himself or he would bludgeon her as well. If he used the rod only to burn her then a green healing potion could heal her. Thus he could torture her as much as he wanted. If he clubbed her with the rod in a rage, he might kill her.
Chamomile suddenly quieted when the table leg went skittering across the floor. Her final, muffled sobs were masked by the noise of the table falling over, dumping the metal rods and chains and locks upon it onto the floor by Crede's feet.
"Ah," he said, stepping slowly towards her. "Breaking things scares you, and startling you makes you quiet. That is good to know. And I just thought of something other than furniture to smash. I hope you stay quieter now, for if I get angry again I'll probably break your legs with this rod. Broken legs can be healed, just like burns."
Between ragged, silent sobs she asked, "Why do you hate me so much?" Her eyes were large like a wounded animal.
"You represent fate and destiny. I want those shattered."
"It's not my fault the High Priest bled to death before you got back," she said.
"What has that got to do with anything?" Crede asked.
"I could not heal him because he was Taint's and would attack the stone again. But I tried to save him for you to kill. You are jealous because I've killed two people now, and you have never killed anyone. But..."
Crede ended the discussion.
Jasmine tossed her invisibility cloak over her shoulder, and looked around the smithy. Chamomile was the only prisoner. She was unconscious, a locked chain securing her to a table against one wall. Jasmine took out a cup from within her cloak, went to the shelf with the green and red pitchers, filled the cup with red numbing potion, and then poured it upon Chamomile.
Chamomile awoke as Jasmine was returning, this time with the cup filled with healing potion. "Don't," she said.
Jasmine looked at her sharply. "This might be the only chance to rescue you."
Chamomile began to cry. "I can't be rescued. Don't try. I don't want anything to happen to you. Don't heal me, either, or he will know you have been here."
"What?" Jasmine set the cup of healing potion on a bench, and wrinkled her hands and face in irritation. She opened her mouth once, but paused and said nothing. Finally she muttered, "You mean it."
"But look at you!" Jasmine said, pointing to the burns on her feet. "Thanks to you I know about heaven. Because of that I can handle a lot in this life. But...look at you!"
Chamomile's face sagged. "Life can be like this," she said softly. "Crede even threatened to break my legs, but he was bluffing. He threw up after burning my feet a bit. He has forgotten that as king he has better things to do than hurt children. And he is too afraid of pain to enjoy watching it."
Jasmine's mouth hung open. "You sound sorry for him!" she protested. "He's burning your feet!"
Chamomile sighed. "It would be nice if there were no pain or evil, forever," she replied.
Jasmine just stood, watching her.
Chamomile continued, "That's heaven. We get that some day. But the Architect knows that this life is also necessary."
Jasmine shook herself and flexed her hands, but said nothing. Then she frowned and said, "You're an idiot."
"I'm getting smarter," replied Chamomile. "Now I understand why Taint is so proud of having created pain. Pain disperses love. A moment before the pain I know the Architect loves me. A moment after the pain I again know that. But while the pain is happening I cannot feel the Architect's love."
Jasmine walked up to Chamomile and set a hand upon her forehead. "I love you too. Can I rescue you?"
"No," answered Chamomile. "I love you too. Go. Hurry. And tell Fulmer to hurry also, and have the rock ready by tomorrow's breakfast."
Jasmine kissed her forehead and went back to the cup. She picked it up. "I wish this stuff would help me. I'm about to cry."
"I can hear a guard coming," Chamomile whispered.
Jasmine wrapped the invisibility cloak around herself again. "I feel like removing his guts with my knife. I could heal him with the potion."
Chamomile scowled. "You're a heroine!" she whispered, sharply.
Jasmine's voice came from closer to the door. "Things aren't fair!"
Chamomile laughed, half-heartedly, "Yes they are. Heaven makes things fair. We're just impatient."
Far away from the Island of Windsong, Maximus Grim was laughing. Visits by Taint were dreadful to anticipate, but sometimes not so terrible once the conversation gained momentum.
Taint bellowed, "What is so funny?"
"Your story. How she cut off his hand." Maximus Grim quickly suppressed his mirth. Needling Taint was unwise.
"How could she?" asked Taint.
Maximus Grim paused, choosing his words carefully. There was always a question during or after the story. He hoped that the only reason Taint had appeared was to have this question answered. "Yes, she had put the Builder's authority in submission to Crede. And since I am under your authority and the Rhyn dynasty is under mine, she was in that way under your authority. You thus could and did declare her powerless to stop you. But when you threatened the throne room stone she became queen, albeit briefly, with that authority. The Rhyn dynasty is in truth still under the authority of the rightful monarch, even if the dynasty does not behave thus: that chain of authority is denied but not undone. As queen she was momentarily above Crede's authority and therefore no longer under yours."
There was a long silence. Maximus Grim watched the humanoid shadow that was Taint, thinking again how futile these explanations were. The Architect had planned for Taint to lack humor and a grasp of authority. And body language, Maximus thought impatiently as the silence continued.
Taint stood up; the conversation was complete. "You must destroy Windsong. The kingdom must not be allowed to exist."
Maximus Grim mentally sighed. He had been planning to start a major war during the next week. If any of several political situations changed while he was busy with Windsong then the war's layers of ironic meaning would dissolve. He might still initiate conflict, but not grandly reveal hypocrisy. Nevertheless... "Yes, my lord," he quickly agreed. Taint never bargained, and refusing was not a tenable option.
The humanoid shadow vanished. There was work to do: scrying and planning, and packing for the trip.
Maximus Grim clenched and relaxed his hands. Having to follow orders irked him. He decided to visit his horses. Taint had not told him to rush, so he would do things carefully and elegantly. Visiting the horses did not actually contribute to either of those goals, but it would help his mood. The evil mage loved his horses.
When he first began making a name for himself he thought horses were too mundane, and when he needed a steed he would magically control a more fantastic creature. Later, when he was working on a reputation for cruelty, he would transform certain of his enemies into beasts of burden. But now he was older, and his reputation was well established, and he could simply enjoy his horses' psychology.
He knew horses well. In an important way they enjoyed considering themselves independent. No amount of training would totally prevent them from trying to graze as he rode along a grassy train. When allowed to run freely they were truly ecstatic. Yet the same animals would come when he called and yearned to return home where food and his protecting presence could comfort them. They did not actually need him: unless he happened to be traveling through a mountainous or swampy area they could survive without his care—certainly this was true after he enchanted their gaze so that when they were frightened it paralyzed any living creature except himself. But for all their independence and strength they recognized his superiority and humbly accepted both his loving care and his discipline. Humanity, thought Maximus Grim, had much to learn from horses.
He would also readily admit that his fondness for horses showed something about his own nature. Horses were much more intelligent and independent than sheep. And he had no interest in sheep. Let the many politicians of various flavors govern the land's kingdoms! They could herd the sheepy common people and acquire the false idea that they were more than a higher herd animal. In truth they were much like horses: claiming to be independent, but betraying that claim with their eagerness for the assurance of good food and a caring home. Thus Maximus Grim understood one of his secrets to happiness: there was as much pleasure in humbling a village as in bringing a kingdom to its knees—in both cases the challenge was to elegantly show a leader his or her horsey nature. The only difference was in material: how much gold and purple the leader wore.
By the end of that afternoon Maximus had done enough preliminary scrying to know that he would have to plan more carefully regarding the Alconars than Crede. This errand might even be worthwhile. Crede was not much of a horsey challenge but Old Alconar looked to be an opponent of a caliber he had not bested in decades. Nevertheless, he would deal with Crede first and do a thorough job. Kings deserved some privileges.
That evening Crede visited Chamomile again, used healing potion to magically heal her, and then tortured her again until she lost consciousness. He tried to enjoy it but found the experience unsettling. The girl no longer seemed a seer. The thrill of defying the Builder had vanished; he was merely making a child suffer and that was an unpleasant waste of his time.
Later, when he slept, he had another dream in which the soothing child's voice spoke to him while a comforting hand tousled his hair. This time the voice did not speak words, instead humming and singing a wordlessly caring melody.
When he woke he remembered the dream, and was content to close his eyes again, feel treasured, and enjoy the memory for a while. Then he sat up and noticed the small footprints of blood beside his bed.
A few minutes later he was in the smithy, rumpled but dressed, shaking Chamomile awake. Opening her eyes halfway, she involuntarily reached for her worst wounds, upon her feet, but other injuries painfully stopped her. She began to cry, half-asleep. Crede slapped her cheek, waking her more completely. Aware of him now, she tried to stifle her crying.
Crede spoke to her, "You asked me why I hate you. I'm going to tell you the real reason now. Your guess was close but not quite right. I'm not just jealous. I'm afraid."
Chamomile looked at him, suppressing sobs.
Crede continued, "I like being mean. I like having power. Asper often said that power made other people suffer; anything else a king did was diplomacy, not pure power. But I watched Asper carefully, and the more mean he was the less happy he became, which made him try to be more mean, which made him even less happy. It was a vicious spiral that ruined him and wrecked the kingdom. I really do care about the kingdom. So now I'm afraid to be mean. Did you hear that? I am afraid to be mean."
Chamomile nodded, silently.
Crede resumed, "I don't like that part of myself that is afraid, but you won't let me avoid it. You have so much power and you never do anything mean. Even when you kill people you are not mean. So I know what I'm going to do today. I'm going to have Sycamore and his wife brought here and unless you are mean to me I'll kill them before your eyes. You can save them. Simply be mean like the rest of us. Anything—curse me, spit at me—just be mean!" He paused as inspiration hit, then added, "For if you do not, they die needlessly and you are thus mean to them."
Crede whirled and left the room. How much of his ranting did she comprehend through her haze of pain and exhaustion? It did not matter: he would heal her when he brought Sycamore and his wife, and explain things again.
A little later he was strangely comforted to hear that Old Alconar was at the palace gates, asking for an audience and bearing gifts. He invited him to breakfast, an honor once extended often to the head of a noble house. It was a fitting exchange, recognizing his restoration of the noble houses yesterday.
The old man who entered Crede's breakfast room was a striking change from the Old Alconar with whom Crede was familiar. Thinking quickly, Crede realized that yesterday at the Alconar estate the change had been present but overlooked. Old Alconar was no longer visibly ancient in posture or movement; he had discarded that act for a natural efficiency of movement that still spoke of great age but was pleasant to watch. Even more startling was the depth of calm the man exhibited in face and form. The intensely rebellious and scheming leader who had opposed the Rhyn family for decades was gone, replaced by a smiling patriarch who held gifts already offered and wisdom waiting to be requested.
"Welcome, Jacaranda Alconar," Crede said. "Today I will not be so rude as to argue with your kneeling before me."
Old Alconar approached and did kneel. "Thank you, my King. It is a pleasure to see how you are improving the kingdom."
"Join me at the table," Crede requested. "My servants will serve us and open the presents you bring."
Old Alconar obliged.
"I envy your calm," said Crede as the meal was served.
Old Alconar nodded. "I have many thoughts now, but no struggles. As before, I wish to work with the good that Windsong's king is doing and lawfully resist the bad. So far you have made this agenda very easy for me."
Crede smiled. "You almost say I am a good king."
Old Alconar sighed before saying, "A king is a person, and certain aspects of who you are as a person disturb me. But that is different from leadership. Thus far your leadership is commendable. Even when you arrested me your leadership was valid, although the information you acted on was inaccurate."
Crede nodded. "I am still confused about the mage who is leading a school at your estate. Yet I do not wish to discuss him, or anything else about the past days' troubles. I am the king, and at my breakfast, and I wish to enjoy your visit and gifts and calm. Let us see the gifts you brought."
Old Alconar had brought, among other gifts, a large bottle of juice made from his garden's fruits and pancake syrup imported from the continent. Crede asked a servant to pour them some of the juice and to put the syrup in the kitchens. Crede grinned and said, "There are no pancakes this breakfast. Without your seer you do not predict the future so well."
Old Alconar nodded, a look of sadness crossing his face. He ate one bite, then a second. "I miss her, despite all the trouble she caused me," he eventually said.
Crede leaned forward slightly. "What trouble did she cause you personally?"
Old Alconar laughed. "She made me feel unfathomably uncomfortable because she effortlessly did everything I tried to do better than I could: defying Asper, protecting my family, unmasking the religion of Light, making peace with you. In fact, it was even more than her being better: in all those things I failed utterly and completely. Being her host was the most humbling and traumatic thing that has ever happened to me. Yet I believe I am a better person because of it." He looked at Crede and nodded. "She has been doing the same with you, I see."
Crede slowly finished chewing. "You are not surprised that I have tortured her a bit?" Old Alconar carefully kept his expression level and proper. Crede continued, "Even in that she is more effective than I. Causing her physical pain seems paltry compared to the agony she puts my identity through."
Old Alconar nodded, then politely asked, "If I may pursue that subject, one of my gifts concerns a shift of identity: a way to improve the kingdom's esteem of the Rhyn family, but at some cost. I cannot suggest you accept it, especially at this time, but I felt an obligation to share its existence with you. I confess to being one of many who can think 'I pay homage to Crede' more wholeheartedly than 'I pay homage to Crede Rhyn', and as your subject I wish this was not so. I share an idea for a cure. Before I bring it forth, may I tell you the history of the noble families while you finish your meal?"
Crede nodded, intrigued. This might help him judge the Alconar's true loyalties. In any case the juice was excellent and the story and gifts would keep his mind off the girl.
After breakfast Crede dismissed Old Alconar with the customary thanks and banter. Crede was impressed. Old Alconar had come with a difficult errand, unafraid, and had been tactful throughout. If Crede had a child, such a man might be useful as a tutor of social graces and etiquette.
A new wind rock! The implications were staggering. Old Alconar was offering the dynasty as a whole the social redemption Crede had managed personally. Old Alconar's retelling of the history of the noble houses had carefully emphasized how the current monarch was usually best able to raise children worthy to rule. Old Alconar had even carefully slipped in a reference to the vault of magical items, implying that a noble family trained in using those would of course be better able to defend the kingdom and perhaps better able to rule in peaceful times as well. The cost was equally staggering. Acknowledging the old customs would be terribly awkward unless the throne room sword showed Crede was the rightful monarch. In short, Old Alconar had offered a challenge: was Crede capable enough at ruling to become the rightful king and turn the dynasty into a noble house? If he was, it could happen. If he were not, no one but the two of them would be any wiser. With other careful words Old Alconar had made it clear that the challenge had no time limit; the rightful ruler was content to encourage the man on the throne, for the sake of the kingdom. Crede rubbed his forehead. The pride with which Old Alconar had spoken of the Alconar family had almost brought tears to his eyes. None of the Rhyns felt such family loyalty. To be a Rhyn meant being part of a system—a system in which family had more motivation towards regicide than homage. Yet few Rhyns would accept changing the dynasty into a "mere" noble house. It would be best, for the family and the kingdom. But it seemed impossible because of individual greed.
Enough. It was quite a challenge. He would think about it more later. By now Sycamore and his wife must be prisoners, waiting for his attention. He had his own challenge to administer.
He leisurely walked towards the ex-smithy. He told a guard to go ahead and make sure Sycamore and his wife were ready for him: bound to tables with a guard in the room. The guard scurried ahead obediently, leaving Crede free to plan his words and actions. He took a detour through the palace gardens, magnificent as always. The garden was strangely like throwing javelins: both helped him think, but they affected his emotions differently and thus had distinctly appropriate uses.
All was ready when he entered the torture room. Sycamore and his wife (Crede did not know her name) were quiet but their eyes spoke panic. Chamomile was asleep, unconscious and unbound. One guard stood in a corner, unobtrusive while ready to assist his king.
"Heal the girl," Crede told the guard. "I want her to be alert. Yet she is injured enough that if she was instead made numb she might move in a way that she harms herself badly."
The guard nodded acknowledgment, then moved towards the pitcher of healing potion.
Crede slowly walked over to Chamomile. He gently shook her awake. "Wake up, girl," he said coldly. "I am going to heal you."
Chamomile questioned him through half-open eyes. "Really?"
Crede smiled but only with his lips. "Yes," he said.
Chamomile closed her eyes. "I'll do it. No need to waste your healing pitcher's supply." She took a deep breath, then sat up, healed.
Crede stared at her, his expression blank. If the healing pitchers were limited to changing a certain amount of water into potion and then would be used up... No, he would not let her distract him. He glanced at the guard, who had been approaching with the healing pitcher. The guard held it up in silent query. Crede gestured for the pitcher to be put back. Turning again to Chamomile, he again had to control his expression. She was filthy, and her clothes were torn and blood-soaked from the beatings, and she looked very sad. Yet her large child's eyes showed hope, not despair, in such an utter contrast to the rest of her that they held Crede's gaze. Disconcerted, he looked away. "Do you remember what I told you this morning?" he asked, pointing at Sycamore and his wife.
"No," said Chamomile. "I remember you waking me up, but it was like a foggy dream."
"You are going to be mean," said Crede. "Be mean to me. Yell insults, spit at me, anything like that. If you do not I will kill Sycamore. In that case your refusal is being mean to him and his wife."
Chamomile wrinkled her face, frowning. "Huh? Why would you want me to demonstrate wishing harm without hate? You already do that better than I, my King."
Crede stared at her again. How had she done it? Suddenly his new enterprise seemed petty, just as she had made his torturing petty. She was correct, while he had been wrong that morning: he was frustrated not by her lack of meanness but by her lack of hate. She had not hated Asper, who had killed so many; if Crede killed Sycamore that would not cause her to hate him either.
"The lesson you need is how to kill someone even though you love them," Chamomile continued. "That's what you will have to do before you save the kingdom. But it's not much of a lesson; you just have to be absolutely certain it's necessary, as it was with Asper and the High Priest."
Crede still was examining her critically. There were two obvious flaws in her argument. He asked, "I am going to save the kingdom?"
Chamomile raised her eyebrows. She pivoted so her legs hung off the table. She swung her feet. "Who did you think was going to save it?"
"I was not aware it needed saving," Crede stated.
"I saved it yesterday," said Chamomile. Crede almost smiled at her irony: her voice held no pride, simply the inflection one assumes when trying to win an argument.
Crede again turned from the direction she had steered the conversation, unwilling to be manipulated. "Answer this, then," he asked, critically, "how can I kill someone I love if I do not love anyone?"
Chamomile swung her feet again. "You love someone."
Crede frowned. "Who?"
Chamomile smiled at him. "She makes nice on your hair when you sleep. True, your affection is a bit muddled, but a hint of love is there if you look. When you meet the person you will have to kill, you will love that person too."
Crede was silent.
Chamomile waited for a long moment, then continued, "If you trust me, pick me up and carry me to the throne room."
Crede stared at her again. He hated her tremendously. Yet, as much as he disliked admitting it to himself, he could identify the hint of love also. But she was not asking about either of those, or suggesting that they were weights on opposite sides of a balance. She asked if he trusted her. Strangely, the love and hate were equally irrelevant to that.
He picked her up, and looked into her eyes as he held her at arm's reach. "I hate you tremendously. If I was brave enough to kill someone for pleasure I would kill you so my life would be free from the trauma you create. But you have never lied to me and you say things that are piercingly correct." Then he carried her out of the room.
The throne room was empty when they arrived. "Now what?" Crede asked.
"Put me down," said Chamomile. He did, went to the throne, and sat.
"You need to add words to deed," said Chamomile. "Do you trust me?"
Crede frowned. "Yes," he said, softly.
"Do you love me?"
"I curse your existence. But, slightly, I love you. At least when you rub on my hair."
Chamomile yelped with joy and did two cartwheels.
"What was that all about?" asked Crede.
"Put the sword on the stone," replied Chamomile.
Crede sat, frozen.
"You trust me, remember?" she said, grinning mischievously.
Hesitantly, Crede stood and lifted the sword from the wall behind the throne. He walked slowly to the stone, and set the sword flat upon it.
He let go. The sword pivoted halfway around until it pointed at him.
He took a step to the side. The sword turned, following him.
He took two steps to the other side. The sword remained fixed upon him.
"I don't get it," he said.
"If you are the rightful king it will fly into your hand, no matter where you are," suggested Chamomile.
Crede held out one hand and opened its fingers. He looked at the sword, which leapt from the stone to his palm. After an awkward pause he closed his fingers around the hilt, carried it back to the stone, and returned it there.
Chamomile run to him and hugged him, her arms around his waist and her face against his hip. "Aren't you happy?" she asked.
"If I was not utterly confused I would be happy," Crede stated flatly.
"You trust me and love me," Chamomile said.
Crede unhooked her arms and pushed her away. "I put up with you and would enjoy killing you."
Chamomile smiled again. "Good enough. Oh, never mind. You're not going to understand. But it is also more fitting that a Rhyn is the rightful King of Windsong when Maximus Grim next attacks the kingdom."
Crede looked at her skeptically. "And when will he arrive?"
She did another cartwheel, ignoring his question until she was standing again. "Tomorrow. Remember the sword will come to you during your moment of crisis."
Crede looked at her blankly.
Chamomile continued, "Let's go to the Alconar estate and get your other crown. Or you could summon Old Alconar here with it."
"Speaking of crowns, you broke the one I do have. Are you going to fix it now that we're friends? That seems quite important if Maximus Grim is really about to return—which I'm still dubious about even though I just admitted to trusting you."
Chamomile put her hands on her hips. "Boys. Always thinking about your toys." She held up a hand, palm out. "I changed the vault's door, too. To open it simply put your palm on it and say, 'Open.' I thought that would help discourage assassination attempts."
Crede scowled at her. "If it opens as you say I'll let you play with the dress-up hat because you look disgusting. Let's go." Chamomile followed him. On the way they passed a guard whom Crede sent to the torture room with a message to free the two prisoners.
The secret door did open as she had described. Crede grinned, and entered the room, taking a few select items. Then he left, closing the vault behind them. "A quick detour to get your hat and then I'll summon Old Alconar. You will go with the guards that fetch him so he will believe that I am the new rightful king. But I get to pick what you look like. What is your least favorite color?"
Chamomile told him and then pouted. "Humph. You give me a dress-up hat but then do not let me play with it. That's mean."
Crede made a short, snorty laugh. "I never said I was not mean. Get used to it. I have not changed."
"Are you sure you wish to accompany me to the palace?" Jacaranda asked his daughter as they walked up their estate's stairs.
"Yes," she said for the third time. "I have been spying there, for you, for years now. I really want to enjoy walking through its halls without an invisibility cloak: like a normal person and not a ghost. May I ask why you obviously prefer me to stay here?"
"Crede," replied her father. "He will see you."
"And?" prompted Jasmine, noticing her father's discomfort but concealing her smile. She considered pausing at the top of the stairs but decided he did not deserve any mercy and kept walking; she would continue the discussion as she made her preparations, and if she could not win the argument with words her father would eventually retreat for modesty's sake. As they left the stairwell the downstairs voices of Fulmer, Fennel, and Chamomile faded.
Old Alconar gestured as he talked. "He fears so much, especially the future. This morning I showed him what he might hope to be like when he is an old man. He desired it visibly. What will happen when he sees you and meets your grace, nobility, virtue, and power? You who he does not think of as an enemy, and who is nearly his age—how much more will he want what you have? How much easier for him to imagine himself having what you have? And I doubt he is mature enough to distinguish desire for your qualities from simply desiring you as a beautiful woman."
Jasmine pouted, but only with her mouth. "Only you call me beautiful."
Old Alconar laughed. "A fact which, as your father, I do not mind. How many men have you called handsome?" The corners of his mouth turned up as it was her turn to look uncomfortable. "Yet you want them to be brave enough to call you beautiful. It also does not help that you spend so much time invisible, my dear."
Jasmine shrugged, making her face unreadable. "Both compliments and stealth? A girl cannot have everything, father." She opened her wardrobe and inspected its contents.
Jacaranda sighed. "Days like this make me especially glad I have raised you able to defend yourself, even from your father's wishes. Yet I see you eyeing that velvet dress and do not want you getting into a problem bigger than you can handle."
"Oh father," Jasmine quipped, "he is only a king. I'm not going to sit demurely aside while you alone play with his mind."
The dress worked, or how she did her hair, or her smile. She could find out later. When the Alconar family and Fulmer entered the throne room Crede could not keep his eyes off her.
"I cannot believe we have not met," said Crede to her after the formal introductions had finished and he had led the guests to a large-windowed parlor. To the west, the sun was just beginning to set. The sky was starting to change colors.
Jasmine smiled demurely. "Your intuition is accurate, my King. We have met many times, although you were not aware of it. You forget I am my father's most skilled and trusted spy."
Crede furrowed his brow. "And exactly how much have you spied on me?"
Jasmine made a small curtsy. "I long ago lost track, your majesty. My father's assignments involved countless hours of spying, although mostly upon the current king and not upon those Jacaranda called 'the palace children'." She paused, then added coyly, "Although I confess to spying on you a bit more during my free time."
Crede blushed and Jasmine smiled again. She continued, "After all, your highness, I am almost your age. Who would not want to watch a prince go about his luxurious life?" Crede smiled, but Jasmine continued, "Even if most of your indulgences are repulsive, at least I can watch you to learn about dysfunctional things."
A different shade of red spread over Crede's face. Walnut laughed, and added, "Do not be troubled, my king. I know my sister. Her wit is worse than her crimes. I have learned that her words are truest when interpreted in the least offensive way. This also usually makes a reply happily unnecessary: when I do not reply she cannot use my words against me. I would assume in this case that she is merely admitting she finds you cute while voicing disapproval of your family's cruelty and other problems."
Jasmine made an obviously forced frown.
Walnut finally smiled. He titled his head towards Jasmine and said, "Dear sister, I regret interfering with your games, but respecting our King is important. There is a time for flirting, but you should initially be content with courtesy and making a good first impression."
Jasmine made a second small curtsey. "Apologies, my King. I had thought that I already had made a good first impression. Often, when I watched you exercise, you would glance around as if suspicious of being watched."
Crede stopped himself before saying aloud, "If that was your desired first impression it was not a good one." Such an obvious reply now seemed like a trap. Crede glanced at Walnut, slightly raised eyes betraying a hope that someone else would speak next. Why not, as king, order the girl to be silent? Strangely, the combination of criticism and flattery pleased him more than it disturbed him—and these two combined in a way that he had no words to describe.
Old Alconar cleared his throat, then dryly remarked, "More precisely, proper courtesy would allow everyone present some opportunity at making a good first impression before one individual begins enchanting the host."
Fulmer nodded. "Well said, sir. Although as a professional enchanter I do enjoy letting others do such work after the workday has ended."
The conversation was awkwardly still for a long moment. Then Crede broke the silence with laughter. "No wonder your estate is magically protected: otherwise this household's sharp words and thorny barbs would have long ago destroyed its walls. This is amusingly entertaining and repulsive! I am torn, both wanting to send you all away and wanting to hire you as an acting troupe."
Chamomile entered the room, accompanied by one palace guard. After returning to the palace she had been taken away to change into better clothing. Crede gestured for her to join them and for the guard to stand in a corner. He nodded approval at her new dress, and asked her, "The Alconars have been demonstrating their oratory skill. I now understand better why Jacaranda found your bursts of irrational knowledge so infuriating."
Chamomile walked over to Fulmer and lifted her hands to him. He picked her up and sat her upon his lap. She hugged his hands to her stomach while replying, "It was good to hear you really laugh, my King. You have found some joy in not needlessly striving. Soon we will have enough struggle."
"What?" asked Jasmine.
Crede moaned, "I had wanted to forget. She says Maximus Grim will arrive, and I must believe her."
Fulmer stroked Chamomile's hair. "Well, of course he's coming."
"Tomorrow," added Chamomile.
Fulmer's face fell. "Tomorrow!"
"Wait," Crede interrupted. "How did you know he would be coming?"
Fulmer looked at Old Alconar, who nodded. Then the mage explained about Taint and the High Priest, and what would surely follow.
When Fulmer finished speaking, Crede looked at Chamomile. "I may not have Alconar intelligence but I can figure some things out. If Maximus Grim is loyal to Taint, as the High Priest was, then he can also be taken over by that evil being—as long as you are under my authority. If Windsong must fight an enemy I prefer a mortal one. So I release you from obeying and serving me. Perhaps I...Nevermind. You are again only the Builder's seer."
Chamomile jumped off Fulmer's lap and ran to Crede. "Thank you," she beamed, with bright eyes. "Sadly, now that I am free I am only free to depart Windsong. This will not be my struggle, but yours."
"You are leaving?" asked Jasmine, startled as they all were.
"I must go," said Chamomile. She ran back to Fulmer and kissed his cheek. "There is some magical power restored. Just a little. You will need it to alter the stone-sword. That is all I can do."
Old Alconar's face fell, but he said, "You know best."
Chamomile frowned. "Yet I do not know what choice Windsong will make. Maximus Grim is so charming and powerful."
Walnut snickered softly and said, "If charm was a dueling weapon we could simply arrange a formal duel between Maximus and Jasmine."
"Hmf," chuckled Fulmer. "True, but I am afraid the evil mage will also try to enchant our King with more traditional magical aggression."
Crede flexed his hands, then relaxed. "I had sincerely hoped we had moved past that topic of conversation. Since Maximus Grim is arriving tomorrow, I had been planning on extending to you all an invitation to stay in the palace's guest rooms, that we might spend the evening planning together. Yet now I am not sure I want all of you under my roof."
Jasmine batted her eyes at Crede and teased, "With all due respect, my King, you lie most unconvincingly. Instead of describing where you want me, instead say that spending too much time with us makes your thinking seem muddled, most unfit for planning a defense against our Grim future."
Walnut sighed. He looked at Crede and prompted, "Your majesty, we sometimes throw things at her to make her stop."
Crede managed a small smile. "Only fair considering what she throws at us."
Fulmer looked at his hands for a moment, then gestured. A large pillow appeared in the air before him. He threw it at Jasmine. She nimbly dodged and caught it.
Standing, she leveled a playful glare at the mage. "That was not wise," she said. "Now I have the only pillow."
Fulmer gestured again. A pillow appeared before each of them.
Jasmine looked apprehensively around the room.
"Don't look at me," said Chamomile, smiling broadly. "One need not always be a seer to know what will happen next. And I am glad this part of my visit ends with play time."
Jasmine grinned widely. "Do your worst!" she dared them. "I have seen heaven and am not afraid to die!"
"Really?" asked Crede.
"Actually, yes, your highness" admitted Jasmine, meeting his eyes as Walnut's pillow knocked her sideways.
Outside the room's large windows the sun touched the horizon and the sky blazed with color, as it did every evening on the island.
Maximus Grim chuckled, watching the pillow fight in the surface of the liquid in his scrying glass. Amateur wizards did scrying with a crystal ball or an enchanted pond. Long ago Maximus had decided the extra challenge inherent in using a glass of fine wine made the work less tedious. Since that day he had discovered that wine of the Zendagla region of the continent's largest kingdom was not only his favorite for its taste but also produced a remarkably clear image when scrying.
"Charming and powerful", he mused, "a valid compliment." What a delightful bit of eavesdropping. He briefly considered waiting a few days to visit the island, but decided that if they were expecting him it would be rude to disappoint them.
"A toast," he whispered at the glass, lifting it before him as he let the scrying spell fade away. He snorted while reflecting on what he had observed. Really, to have the King of Windsong falling in love was almost too convenient. And with the seer going he would not have to struggle against opposing power, and should be able to elegantly destroy the island without needing to kill anyone. He lifted his voice to the glass: "To the destruction of Windsong! May its population survive to continue their fights and loves." After a moment he added, "And to Fulmer! May I not have to kill you, for the world needs good mages almost as much as it needs evil ones."
The scrying spell had ended; its image had disappeared. Maximus Grim drank his wine tenderly.
The first thing that the people of Windsong noticed when Maximus Grim returned was the shadow. Looking up, they saw the dragon.
Dragons are big. Adult ones usually are larger than a house, and some grow to be bigger than a barn. A house-sized dragon has scales sturdy enough to protect it from any usual warrior: only siege equipment or a magically enchanted weapon can pierce its hide. No barn-sized dragon has ever been killed, so the thickness of their scales cannot be commented on.
Maximus Grim arrived on a dragon as big as Windsong's mountain. As it descended towards the bay the wind blown by its wings knocked over many of the buildings in the east part of the city, where the farmers built cruder homes. Landing in the deeper water of the bay, it made a wave that flooded most of the buildings along the bay's shore. The water touching the dragon hissed and steamed. The dragon slowly turned its head about, looking at the city. Then it lowered its neck, making a bridge from its back to the city. Its eyes blinked once, and then it slept.
On the dragon's back was an ornate house, circled by a moat-shaped garden of flowers. In front of the building's double doors, across the garden, stood a large pavilion consisting of a roof and one wall supported by five vertical poles with other thinner poles crisscrossing under the roof. Maximus Grim sat under the pavilion, in its shade, reclining in a swinging porch chair. To one side of the house his two horses grazed on a sizable lawn of grass.
Maximus Grim clapped his hands, and someone appeared before him, squatting and curled up. The evil mage laughed.
"What? You were not only hiding in your house, but you were curled up like a cornered rabbit? Ignorant fool! If you had studied your nation's history you would know of my civility, and that when I last conquered this island I did not wander the city doing random smiting. Stand up!"
The frightened man stood.
"Come here, I have something for you to deliver to your ruler."
Shaking, the man approached the swinging porch chair.
Maximus Grim stopped his chair's motion. He stretched briefly, straightening his toes and making the plush pillows he laid upon shrink and then re-expand. Then he reached up slightly and from the air pulled a scroll, which he handed to his new servant. He also pressed a small gold coin into the man's hand.
The man looked at the coin. He had never seen a coin with markings like these. Surely he would never travel to its country of origin, but he could save the coin as a souvenir or melt it down and use the gold. Yet the amount of gold was so small...
Maximus Grim snapped his fingers impatiently. The servant shook himself and looked at the mage. Maximus softly questioned, "What is your name, man?"
The man's voice wobbled so much he could not produce a word.
Maximus gestured for silence, then ordered him firmly, "Blabbering coward, go with all speed to your king and deliver the scroll. Let no one but he open it. Go. Now." He clapped his hands again and the man vanished, returned to his house.
Crede looked at the scroll. He was grateful that the evil mage had not visited the castle in person. Such thoughts, admitting his own cowardice, once troubled him even when the fear was justifiable. How had he changed?
The scroll read:
Unto Crede Rhyn, current and rightful ruler of the Kingdom of Windsong,
From the mage Maximus Grim, father of your dynasty.
I regretfully inform you that I must destroy this island. But I will allow you to choose the manner of its end.
The island is protected by the enchantments of the throne room stone and sword. While I was king I analyzed it thoroughly, and found a way to undo its enchantments. If at any time Windsong's rightful ruler truly believes and publicly declares that the government Fulmer instituted is not best for the kingdom, the enchantments on the stone and sword would weaken enough for me to shatter them. This will happen. But you may choose among five ways it can occur.
First, as the rightful king if you believe you know of a better form of government you yourself can publicly declare this. This is the simplest option. The other four options all involve the destruction, corruption, or removal of the island's entire human population, besides myself. Then I would be the only option for ruler, and could myself publicly renounce Fulmer's government.
The second option is to have my dragon destroy the island's population. The stone's enchantment would defy the dragon as soon as it became aggressive. A tension would begin in which my magic holds it here while the stone's magic makes it want to go elsewhere. I could not keep it here long enough to put the island beneath the ocean, but I could certainly hold it long enough to wipe out all the kingdom's human population besides myself.
Third, you could choose to have me magically infect the populace with a plague-like enchantment of vice. The anger, or greed, or lust, or other vice would spread throughout the kingdom until everyone but me is consumed by it. Then I would be the best choice for ruler of Windsong.
Fourth, you could decide to have me personally kill anyone whom the sword would prefer above myself. This would be the most messy alternative, but could be done in a sportsmanlike manner if that appeals to you. I would save your death for last, of course.
Fifth, you could instruct me to magically transport your entire population to the continent. Then they would not need to suffer, except for the usual consequences of migration.
Please notice that I am not needlessly cruel. I encourage you to choose the first or fifth option. I give you two hours to appear in my pavilion with your choice. If you refuse to make a choice the worst features of each option will occur. I will first begin the plague of vice, then transport your population to a politically volatile part of the continent, and then have my dragon attack that land. Finally, a few years from now, I will personally hunt you down and kill you. So please make a choice.
None of these variants of doom need happen immediately; I look forward to a tour of the island, in which you can display what greatness the Rhyn dynasty has achieved since my departure.
Crede frowned. He signaled to a servant to bring Fulmer and the Alconars from their guest rooms in the palace.
One hour later, a horseman calmly rode his horse out from the city, across the dragon's head and neck, to the pavilion where Maximus Grim still lounged. The horse walked oddly, but Maximus could not specifically identify how. When he had ruled Windsong there had been no horses on the tiny, mountainous island.
The rider's demeanor at first made Maximus believe the horseman was the king himself. His bearing displayed pride long before any other details could be seen: not arrogance, but the fusion of self and role that rulers develop. But soon the rider's clothing was visible. The uniform of the palace guards had not changed in the past sixty years.
"Welcome," said Maximus, gesturing with his palm up to indicate the pavilion and garden.
"Fair morning, awesome mage," the rider replied, dismounting at the edge of the pavilion and then entering. His horse stood outside the pavilion, a stillness that spoke dullness. It looked impressive enough as a specimen; perhaps its had been stupefied to remove its fear of the dragon. The rider knelt before Maximus Grim and held out a scroll. "I bring you a letter from King Crede, who bids you welcome to his island."
Maximus said, "I hope your king is not attempting to play games with me. Hand me his letter without fear; I am civil enough not to punish a messenger for his master's lack of politeness."
The letter was brief.
Unto the great mage Maximus Grim, once conqueror of this island,
From King Crede Rhyn, ruler by the two legacies of Rhyn and stone-sword,
The kingdom of Windsong is at your service, in all ways proper for a kingdom to honor a visiting mage of your renown.
You sent me a letter an hour ago that I found disappointing. I know of your respect for high culture, and regretted learning your sense of humor was so banal.
Please know that none of your threats have merit. Another mage currently visiting Windsong has changed the throne room stone-sword so that it now looks beyond the geographical confines of this island to find a rightful ruler. Thus your threats to weaken the stone-sword by doing something to Windsong's populace are meaningless. I remain the person best qualified to rule Windsong even when the entire continent's population is considered, and you would have to destroy the continent's population to become my replacement.
That said, I again welcome you to my kingdom. Please accept this guard's horse as a token of my good will. The gold coin that caused greed was another disappointment; an advisor of mine knew of your fondness for horses and so the other visiting mage changed the cursed coin into this fine animal.
Regarding the tour of the island, I suggest the morning tomorrow, yet late enough to end the tour at a nice lunch spot. I know a tavern on the bay whose fried fish is worthy of a king. The building should have dried out by then.
p.s.—My advisors wish to also ask you to please not exterminate the island's human population in mere spite, especially since that would ruin the one still workable way in which you can destroy the stone-sword.
Maximus nodded politely and tucked the letter behind him, among the pillows on the porch chair. His scrying had revealed Fulmer's presence, but not whether that rival had regained any of the magical power that he had once given away. He looked at the guardsman kneeling before him and asked, "What are you fanatic about? I can see it in your eyes and shoulders."
The man's gaze brightened. He opened his mouth to reply, but paused awkwardly.
Maximus laughed. "You may address me with simply 'my lord', as to any noble. I am not currently ruling any nation, and I grow weary of hearing buttery adjectives prefacing the word 'mage'."
The guard nodded. "My lord, the Builder's seer saved my life very recently. She also changed King Crede for the better, saving my life a second time. Now she has gone away. In her absence I am privileged to continue her plans and character as best I can. I want to do the good things which she would do if she were here."
Maximus nodded. "So now you understand my absolute need for luxury and independence."
The guard wrinkled his forehead. "No, my lord."
Maximus put a hand over his heart. In a stately voice he lectured, "I must be in absolute control over my life. I have no choice about that any more: striving to be the second-most-powerful mage in the world would quickly prove fatal." He looked levelly at the guard and asked, "You follow me so far."
The guard nodded. "Yes, my lord."
Maximus continued, "Now, what is the opposite of control? Suffering, for suffering causes needs. If I suffer it makes me have needs, which reduce my control over my life: thus I need luxury. The suffering of someone I love also makes me have needs, which reduce my control over my life: thus I need independence."
The guard nodded again. "And you like this, my lord."
Maximus chuckled dryly. "No, I do regret it. When young I often fell in love, and I enjoyed my loves." He paused, switching to his previously energetic tone. "But when someone I loved died I felt a need: the need you expressed to live in a way that allowed her ideals to carry on. It reduced my control over my life. Therefore, now that I need absolute control over my life I can love no one. It is the price I pay for my near-omnipotence." Maximus stopped, bewildered. The guard was on the verge of tears. "Explain!" Maximus ordered.
The guard was silent for a moment, then relaxed. He closed his eyes, then opened them and looked at Maximus Grim. "If I may ask, my lord, how many people did you love? And how long has it been since you have seen them?"
Maximus answered tersely, "Dozens. Several centuries."
The guard took a deep breath, then continued. "My lord, they are in heaven and can watch you. But they no longer do. When you arrive in heaven you will see them all again. They will look at you with eyes you still love. In their eyes you will see the joy they had when you lived for their sakes. Much larger you will see the hurt they felt and still feel as you ignore them for so many years. Most terribly you will see the coldness in their eyes, of how they have given up watching you, given up hoping you might again live for their sakes. You will not be reflected in their eyes." He paused. "Please excuse my near tears."
Maximus was silent. His porch chair had stopped swinging, but he did not restart it. The he grimaced and said, "Your false assumption is that I will go to heaven."
The guard frowned. "You may not, my lord. Between death and heaven is revelation. Some people, after understanding all they have done to diminish their participation in heaven, simply choose oblivion instead. If you have ever felt true guilt you can understand how revelation can suffice for judgment."
Maximus waved on hand in denial. "I meant I plan to never die. That plan has worked for centuries and will work forever."
The guard sighed. "I would not chose an eternity without love for my plan."
Maximus smiled. "You have not experienced the feelings of wielding my power."
The guard frowned. "May it never happen to me, if it can taint a man so."
Maximus laughed. "Taint can be very enjoyable."
The guard paused, then looked at Maximus with wide eyes. "My lord, you are wise with years so I will ask you: does it always come down to a choice between enjoying love or taint? Do we only fully enjoy one in the absence of the other?"
Maximus closed his eyes halfway and thought. As he did, he muttered, "What a question! This is a fitting first conversation for a visit to so noble an island." After a long silence he answered, "No. A few of the women I have loved were a perfect match for me, in taint as well as in intelligence and interests. That love was fully enjoyed."
The guard pursed his lips. "My lord, I respect your opinion but must reserve my doubts until I have pursued this issue more completely."
Maximus nodded assent. "Enough of this talk. You are quite a philosopher for a guardsman. Thank you for an interesting conversation. But now return to your role as messenger. Stand. What is your name?"
The guard stood. "Sycamore, my lord."
"Then ride back to the palace quickly, Sycamore. Tell King Crede that my threat still stands, that it still will serve its intended purpose despite Fulmer's assurances otherwise, and that he has not much more than half an hour from this moment to appear before me with a choice that will avert my default doom. Go, now."
Sycamore bowed politely and left as quickly as he could manage.
Maximus watched him depart, then began a pointless yet intricate incantation, just to keep his mind off certain people long dead.
Sycamore had not gone far into the city before he met King Crede. The king was calmly walking towards the habitation on the dragon's back. "Relax, Sycamore," the king said, although his own countenance was stern. "With the scry-horse I saw and heard everything. You did unbelievably well, and I am already here. Return home with my thanks. Your duty is done."
Sycamore nodded. He stood for many minutes watching his King continue towards Maximus Grim before walking away. He wondered if Sage was really Fulmer. Perhaps one of the Alconars would tell him.
Maximus Grim smiled as King Crede approached. "Welcome to my own small island, King of Windsong."
Crede did not smile in return. "I must ask you to explain certain things before I can extend a similar welcome. After all, you have threatened to harm my populace."
Maximus grinned. He made a small gesture, and a second swinging porch chair appeared under the pavilion. "Please, have a seat. I will be happy to answer your questions."
King Crede sat down, then looked hard at Maximus and asked, "How can Fulmer assure me that your plans would no longer work, yet you claim they would? It appears that either you are lying or you know something he does not. If the latter is true, you only gain influence over me by explaining your secret."
Maximus folded his hands. In reply he also asked a question. "King Crede, what would you expect a duel of magic between master mages looks like?"
Crede shrugged. "I have not considered such a thing. Bolts of lightning and darts of fire, perhaps?"
Maximus nodded. "A common misperception." He stood, and motioned for Crede to do the same. "A small analogy will best answer your question." With a gesture he made two stone cubes appear, each of side as long as his forearm. He stepped onto one, and tilted his head to indicate Crede should step atop the other. "These stones represent a place of stability. Mages alter reality. To do so safely they must be unchangeable. Spell casting is done while grounded in reality, in an abstract yet quite real way." He gestured again and a long rope appeared on the ground, its ends on the stones at their feet. Maximus Grim picked up his end. Crede took his. The mage continued narrating, "The lightning and fire idea of magical combat might be accurate if each mage had his or her own magic to work with. But magic is magic. Both mages are using the same magic. They just pull on different ends."
Maximus smiled wickedly, and concluded, "Clearly, there are two ways to suffer defeat: to fall off your place of stability or to let go of the rope. Are you ready?" Crede nodded. Both began to haul in the long rope. After a moment it was taut, and they began tugging and feinting, trying to make the other loose their balance without sacrificing too much rope. The contest was soon over. "Don't feel bad," said Maximus, smiling. "I've had more practice." He returned to his chair, as did Crede.
"Since my arrival Fulmer and I have been in an analogous struggle. I claim to be able to do certain things. He attempts to discredit my claims and offers his own claims. Back and forth we go. Our only feints are in our claims—the body language of rope pulling. What is actually happening with the magic—the rope—is abundantly clear to both of us. He has modified the sword-stone's spell slightly. I am not sure if he has done so in the way he claims or is bluffing. I did demonstrate how I could start a plague of vice. If that actually is how I would do so is another matter. In any case his postscript was a shoddy farce. If I was the only living human on the island the sword-stone would pick me regardless of alternatives on the continent because otherwise it would be advocating my slavery; I know it better than that. Which reminds me: you have five minutes remaining to make your choice. Please, please do so."
King Crede scratched his chin. "The first option seems a false commitment. How can I chose to truly believe something of which I am not convinced?"
Maximus laughed. "Have no fear in that regard. I know of many forms of government better than following the stone-sword. I assume that at least one of them will also seem superior to you. If not, I accept the responsibility of continuing to suggest alternatives until you or one of your successors does peaceably, truly, and publicly agree that a better form of government exists."
Crede nodded. "That is very generous of you."
Maximus shook his head in denial. "All of the options put the burden of work upon my shoulders. I would much prefer to discuss philosophy and politics, with words and demonstrations, than control a resistant dragon or transport an entire kingdom's population to a distant place."
Crede nodded again. "In that case I chose the first option, admitting now that I know of no better government than the stone-sword's."
Maximus smiled. "A sound choice, although its apparent safety for your populace is illusionary. Any kingdom that honestly grapples with political reform will have strife and bitterness. It may be that one day you will welcome my transporting your population away, except that each of its several factions will desire their own separate destination to start their own daughter kingdom. Worse things have happened. Birth pangs are required before new life. Ah, I am getting sentimental. I do enjoy politics. And I am eager to see what your leadership and my experience of centuries will produce. But first..."
Maximus Grim clapped his hands and a terrible noise blanketed the island. It was a shrieking cry of pain and hatred that seemed both an ultimate terror and an ultimate irritant. King Crede fell to the ground, writhing with his hands over his ears: the sound triggered so many primal responses that no other action was possible. That reaction was universal in people across the island.
Except with Fulmer, who had an extra option for escaping the noise. After a moment curled up with his hands over his ears, he remembered his left sock. He tucked his right foot's toes into it, then quickly reached down to grab the sock's lip and pull. The sock stretched until he was entirely inside it, at which point it suddenly shrank back to its normal size, hanging over the edge of his left shoe which had also been left behind.
A moment later Maximus Grim entered the room and walked to the shoe and sock. He made a magical gesture and a small cubical metal safe appeared before him. He unlocked it and tossed the shoe and sock inside. Then he locked the safe, picked it up, and left the room.
A moment later the evil mage appeared under his pavilion. He gestured again and the noise vanished.
King Crede still whimpered, on the ground before him.
"My apologies for your pain," said Maximus Grim. "I took no sadistic pleasure from it. Yet it was necessary for two reasons. First, as a demonstration to show how terribly ineffective the stone-sword's rule can be in protecting your kingdom. Secondly, as a simple way to immobilize and imprison Fulmer, who would have prevented our future discourses on politics."
King Crede had stopped shaking, but could not yet rise. He looked at the mage and asked weakly, "Why?"
Maximus replied, "Oh, Fulmer would not disrupt our discussions intentionally. But he and I both seek to kill the other. We can think such thoughts when distant, but we both wear rings that disrupt thinking when such desires are thought nearby. The two of us would literally be unable to carry on an intelligent conversation: the rings would reduce it to haphazard phrases among constant memory lapses. As amusing as that would be for you to witness, it would get nothing productive accomplished. Similarly it would prevent you and I from having intelligent conversation if he was within a bowshot of me.
"In any case, your mage is fine. He fled the noise by hiding in his enchanted sock, which I have trapped in this enchanted box. When our business is done, be it days or years from now, I will return the box and you can release Fulmer. Inside his sock is a storage room that he constructed separate from our flow of time. He will not be any older when he is released, and will not be aware of if his imprisonment lasts seconds or years. Again, a regrettable but necessary measure with no permanent damaging effects."
King Crede tried to stand, but could only kneel supported by one arm.
Maximus Grim added, "I am going to go inside to put this box away. If you wait a moment we can ride into Windsong together. The horse Fulmer made is useless as a scrying device now that he is gone, but still I must politely decline the gift so my own, superior, horses will not feel insulted. I do accept your invitation to lunch and a tour of the kingdom tomorrow. For today's lunch, I think I wish to visit a certain place—an old favorite from six decades ago. If you wish, leave without me: I will not be offended. I understand the limitations on a ruler's actions in public."
King Crede groaned and once more failed to stand.
Maximus Grim walked towards the ornate house, a spring in his step as he whistled a merry tune. Perhaps he should put words to the tune: something about how when two mages of significantly differing power battled the duel could resemble lightning and fireworks.
Crede left Maximus's pavilion sadly certain that the morning's events had gone exactly as the evil mage had wished. Perhaps as troubling was Crede's uncertainty if that was bad for him or the kingdom.
He hated the evil wizard. The hatred had budded in response to Maximus's arrogance and pushiness. The terrible noise—how Maximus would cause agony to the entire kingdom to make a point—had cemented the anger.
The prominence of these same characteristics in the Rhyn dynasty was the worst part. Maximus Grim had implicitly promised to show Crede the shortcomings of Crede's rule. Apparently that education had begun by unmasking a quality the Rhyns called the populace's "fearful respect". Having now seen "fearful respect" from the perspective of the underling, Crede realized it was actually a cautious hatred. Crede had enjoyed feeling feared. But feeling hated was grueling.
At the same time Crede felt drawn to the evil mage's personality. Maximus's words to Sycamore seemed true; he might actually be in perfect control: calm and calculating and maliciously suave.
Continuing through the city towards the palace, Crede was surprised to see Old Alconar approach. "I thought you were staying in your estate with Fulmer, since it was protected from magic."
"Plans change," said Old Alconar, slightly out of breath. "Fulmer is gone. That noise paralyzed everyone in the estate, and Maximus Grim simply walked in and captured him. So much for my estate being safe. I then decided I should come to the palace quickly, to offer what aid I could."
Crede nodded. They both resumed walking towards the palace. "I have been thinking about your offer of a wind rock. Now I have become the rightful king, and should consider my kingdom's future. As much as I owe loyalty to my family, I am weary of its members plotting against one another. Having the Rhyns become a noble house—especially one with so many advantages in retaining the throne—would anger only people I do not mind angering who are already plotting my assassination."
Old Alconar's face was unreadable. "Everything you say is true." He glanced around them, waiting until they were quite alone. Then he reached out and touched Crede's forehead. "Thus I cannot allow it to happen." Old Alconar caught the unconscious Crede as he fell. Then both men vanished. They reappeared inside a windowless corridor of stone that had one wooden door and four metal doors of bars leading to cells. Old Alconar's visage shimmered and faded as Maximus let his magical disguise vanish. The evil mage carried Crede into a cell and laid him upon the stone floor. "Rest well, good king. Your troubles and confusions are only beginning. I do try to never kill my opponents, since that does not truly conquer them. Specifically, I have no intention of killing you. But do not assume I play fair in other ways."
Maximus looked at the unconscious king for a moment. "I must ask your pardon for exposing you to the chill air," Maximus said as he removed Crede's outer garments. I am not sure Old Alconar would be as convinced by a crude disguise as you were. Only real clothing drapes realistically."
Maximus left the cell, locked its door, then turned and stared at Crede. The evil mage's visage blurred and shifted as he studied the king's face and form. When all was done he was disguised as Crede. He put on Crede's clothes, then gestured to make a mirror appear. He confirmed his appearance and experimented with several facial expressions. Then he made the mirror disappear again.
There, he thought. All is ready. But before the fun begins I should go shopping.
Fulmer paced back and forth in his left sock's largest room, a warehouse lined with shelves and with neatly arranged crates of mundane supplies.
He was a fool. How could he have allowed himself to be so easily trapped? It must have been the imposing extent of Maximus Grim's power. Normally life had the decency to be somewhat fair, in that those you struggle against who are more powerful are less clever. Fulmer suspected he was not the first person to have been too concerned with Maximus Grim's power, completely neglecting how the evil mage preferred outthinking his adversaries to overpowering them.
This example of Maximus's intelligence was admittedly brilliant. The sword-stone did nothing to protect the island against mere noise. Neither did the wards protecting the Alconar estate. Maximus undoubtedly knew the former from the years he spent in Windsong's palace. The latter he could have confirmed by scrying at the estate's front doorway, noticing if visitors had to be invited inside before conversing. The noise itself was a masterful manipulation of human reflexes of which Maximus must be very proud; in a way Fulmer felt honored that Maximus had needed to use a hidden ability of such potency to defeat him.
Fulmer realized he was tired. Well, there was no reason to be weary as well as imprisoned. He went to the bedroom.
The room was not right. It had an extra door: a closed doorway on a wall that should be blank.
A real doorway with a door! The sock's rooms had doorways but no doors. Even the exit from the warehouse room appeared to be a tunnel. That was part of the spell of extra-dimensional rooms: they could not have doors. Doors were too rigid. They connected places in the Builder's created worlds, and were unsuitable for miniature worlds created by mages.
Fulmer steadied himself with one hand against a wall. Who could have altered his personal spell-world? Had Maximus Grim gotten that powerful?
There was a knock at the door.
Fulmer hesitantly crossed the room and opened the door. After all, when you are way out of your league you might as well be polite.
Through the open doorway he could see a hallway that extended both left and right. Three doors were visible in the opposite wall. They were close together. Perhaps the entire hallway was lined with doors.
In the hallway, Chamomile smiled up at him. "If you were Fennel I'd have flowers," she said cheerfully.
"What?" mumbled Fulmer, putting a hand to his head.
"You can be a big dumb," she said, reaching up her arms.
Fulmer nodded agreement, picking her up with a hand under each of her shoulders and then setting her upon one of his hips.
Chamomile giggled. "I never understood why the Architect didn't also give men useful hips. I told him that fathers would also want to carry kids around. So much for my suggestions."
Fulmer squeezed his eyes closed and then reopened them. "I thought you said you were going."
Chamomile poked his chin. "I did leave Windsong. So did you. Now we're together."
"You put the door in my sock's bedroom?"
"The hallways in the Builder's palace have doors to all rooms. Usually they are not for mortals. You are an exception." She pointed into the hallway. "That doorway opposite yours leads to a doorway in the Alconar estate."
Fulmer's face fell. He turned back into the bedroom, set Chamomile upon the bed, then collapsed into a plush chair. He closed his eyes and rubbed them. "How will my returning help? Even if I had magical power to rival Maximus's he would still outsmart me. We simply cannot stop him."
Chamomile stood on the bed and started jumping. "So?"
Fulmer opened his eyes and looked intently at her. "So? He is trying to destroy the island!"
Chamomile did not pause in her bouncing. "Stopping him is not your job. What's your job...yours and your allies?"
Fulmer picked up a slipper from beside the chair and threw it at her. "I thought we were trying to save the kingdom."
Chamomile kicked up her feet, bounced on her bottom, then resumed jumping. "Remember what I told Crede: 'Together we lead your kingdom to a clear choice: selfishness disguised as justice, or selfless and unjust sacrifices. You lead from the throne with the dynasty's authority, but we need neither. Our authority is from a different place. Which matters more: who sits on the throne when Windsong makes its choice, or if Windsong chooses well?'"
Fulmer wrinkled his forehead, struggling to apply her words to Maximus Grim.
Chamomile stopped jumping and scowled. "You know, there is not much point to my being a seer when no one pays attention to what I say."
Fulmer quickly protested, "I do pay attention! But I am not sure how those words now apply. I had thought they referred to the Alconars leading a coup against the Rhyn dynasty. But now it seems that will not be necessary, and the kingdom is threatened by someone different."
Chamomile smiled quizzically, making Fulmer nervous. "Then here are more confusing words: What is the difference between Crede and Maximus Grim?"
Fulmer frowned. "I do not understand."
Chamomile climbed down from the bed. "Who would need a seer if seers only said what people could presently understand? You should go back to the Alconars now. They need you." She went from the bedroom to the hallway, turned and waved. She wrinkled her nose to suppress a tear.
Fulmer stood up, went to her, knelt, and hugged her. "I'll also miss seeing you," he said.
She nodded, and pinched her mouth in silence.
"Hm," Fulmer mused. "Wait here a moment." He ran back into his sock's rooms, soon to reappear with some cooked chicken on a plate. "I got some treats for both of us," he said. "Here's yours. Even in the Builder's palace it should be special."
Chamomile managed a weak smile and accepted the gift. "Tell everyone..." She stopped trying to speak and put one hand to her face, its fingers on her forehead and her thumb on her cheek. From within that shelter she closed her eyes and whispered, "No, don't tell them. I'll see them again and we all must be patient until that time."
Fulmer paused, then asked, "I still am not allowed to tell them about you?"
Chamomile nodded no. "Tell them who Crede is. You will know."
Fulmer nodded, hugged her again, then left through the doorway opposite his.
Chamomile watched him depart. She noticed he had left his door open. "Big dumb," she muttered, closing it.
Jasmine left her father's side to fetch him some tea. He was so brave. Perhaps he had forgotten how to despair, for whereas Walnut and Fennel wore bleak faces her father's was blank, containing emptiness instead of hopelessness. Sometimes there seemed to be no difference between current strength and past pain. She felt weak and worried that her pain must still be in the future.
She took a deep breath and thought about her memories of heaven. Even that did little to lift her spirit.
Just yesterday she had wondered why she would ever worry again. There had been so much danger but also so much assurance. Perhaps heaven helps to make dangers less threatening but it cannot make threats less dangerous. Or would it be better to say that hope can negate fear but not pain?
As she approached the kitchen she heard a loud thud. Was Fennel in trouble? She rushed down the hall and opened the doorway. Fennel was kneeling over someone else. It was Fulmer! He had escaped! How...
"Ouch," said Fulmer. "That was a cabinet door. Why not a door at floor level?"
"Are you hurt?" asked Jasmine.
Fulmer took Fennel's hand and got to his feet. Then the mage smiled at both of the others while reaching into a pocket and withdrawing a handful of socks. He smiled conspiratorially. "As ready as I'll ever be. I hope it is ready enough."
Jasmine looked at him quizzically. "Why so many socks?"
Fulmer laughed briefly. "Good organization is very important. Initially I had one enchanted backpack, but it was terribly cluttered. And harder to fit in the sink to wash."
Jasmine's eyes widened as she remembered one of her father's past comments about the mage. "Ah..." she slowly said, "true, you wouldn't want dirty magical items."
"Yes," agreed Fulmer, looking at the cabinet he had fallen from. "It is very important to look professional."
The painter did not even look at the doorway as Maximus Grim entered his building. The bottom floor was one large room that served as both store and studio. The painter was in the back, busy at work. He paused for the briefest moment to yell, "What, you haven't changed your boots in sixty years?"
Maximus Grim chuckled. "I have, but I still prefer a hefty, solid pair that announces my presence efficiently." He began to walk slowly through the store, respectfully spending several minutes with each painting.
The painter paused again, only long enough to call back, "I knew you were back." After a dozen more brush strokes he took a step back from his current work. While looking at it he elaborated, "People shouting in the streets about a dragon and flooding...the unexplained noise that crippled me and then vanished...if there ever was someone inclined to showy destruction and meaningless pain it was you. Myself, I don't understand performance art."
Maximus pouted. "You misunderstand my work."
The painter laughed. "And you usually misunderstand mine. I still have not forgiven you for not appreciating that scene of the bay: the masterpiece of my youth, that one is. But you never understood it."
The conversation lagged while Maximus's surveyed the rest of the room. Then the mage asked, "I would like to purchase the one with the woman in a hammock. And a set of oils, of course."
"Of course," replied the painter. "I still do not understand why you buy my paints. Good choice with the hammock painting."
"Because you have undoubtedly changed the recipes slightly in the past sixty years, even if not consciously. I could magically create duplicates of the paints you sold me last time, but in doing so would loose touch with the natural development of art on this island. For the same reason I'll also ask for one of your sandwiches. Creativity is the spice of life. And your food was always excellent."
"A sandwich! I just made and ate my own. Now I'm working again." The painter sighed. "But your gold is good, and I would do as much for any customer. Wait here."
The painter climbed the staircase to his apartment on the floor above. Meanwhile Maximus went to his selected painting and gingerly touched its side with both hands. He closed his eyes and uttered a whispery, throaty phrase. Then he pulled the painting from the wall. Where it had hung was now a duplicate of the painting—frame and all—made of gold. The image was mostly visible in the raised golden brushstrokes even though the colors were now all the same.
The painter returned with a sandwich and a ceramic mug of iced tea. He nodded appreciatively at the golden artwork now upon his wall. "The other one is in the palace, of course. It did not take the Rhyns very long to decide that the island's only golden painting belonged in their halls. Thank you for this one. It adds something to the room: I also appreciate variety, even if now I will have to explain to five dozen fools that I do not actually work in gold."
Maximus Grim bowed slightly. "My thanks to you, old man. You did all the hard work. I merely accented the original beauty, with the briefest of labors." He set the original painting so it rested in mid-air, then pushed it gently. It disappeared.
The painter handed the sandwich and tea to the mage. "Where do things go where you do that?" he asked as he went to the back of the room to put a supply of paints in a canvas bag.
Maximus chuckled and called after him, "The entertainers who perform slight of hand tricks in the streets of Klev say that a good magician never reveals his secrets. The saying is even more true with evil mages."
The painter returned with the bag, now bulging, which he set down before the mage. "My full variety of colors: I know you will not be content while you are merely making easy money and I'm doing the only real art."
Maximus smiled while chewing. In between bites he answered, "You know me well."
The painter nodded, then after an awkward pause while Maximus ate he added, "We spent enough time together, years ago. And we are both artists: we both make creations—carefully and artistically we bring dreams into reality. I work in oils, as do you, although sometimes you waste time with a more human medium." Then the painter straightened and gestured at the contents of his gallery while asking with honest pride, "In my eighty years have I made more painted treasures than you in your hundreds of years?"
Maximus shrugged. "Probably. But that does not mean my other efforts are a waste of time."
The painter shrugged, mimicking the other. "From heaven my wife and ancestors can see all my paintings, even those hoarded by the Rhyns. So I sleep well. You are so showy, but your largest audience does not care about your political games and power plays."
Maximus scowled. "I do not care about entertaining them. It is sufficient to make them jealous of my power and success."
The painter went back to his work in progress. "See. Wasting time. No one in this world can make people in heaven jealous." He waited for Maximus's reply, but the mage was strangely silent.
Crede opened his eyes. His head hurt. He tried to make his brain get going. He was cold. His outer garments were gone, including the circlet crown. There was a bucket and a bench and three stone walls and a fourth wall made of metal bars: a door to a hallway. Two manacles hung on short chains above the bench. He was in a cell. Across the hallway was another cell. Inside was someone in a white dress. It was Jasmine Alconar. She was sitting behind her cell's wall of bars, looking at him.
"At last you wake up," she said.
"Uhnhg," he groaned. That was not a very dignified response. He tried again. "Sorry to have kept you waiting."
"He got me when I left the Alconar estate," Jasmine offered. "And you?"
"As I returned from my meeting with him aboard the dragon."
Jasmine's eyes got wider. "That was yesterday! You really were unconscious a long time."
"My head still hurts. He knocked me out with magic. It must wear off slowly." Crede gingerly touched his head. It was not tender, to his surprise. There were no lumps.
They looked at each other for a moment. Crede was not sure what else to say.
"Of all the times I've spied on you, sitting here was the least exciting," Jasmine offered.
Crede tried to smile. "Well, now I'm king. I have to leave my reckless youthful ways and become responsible. Life gets to be a rut pretty quickly. Especially while unconscious."
They looked at each other for another moment.
Crede shrugged. "Well?"
Jasmine shrugged back. "I'm not sure what to do. Escaping from the cell is simple but then what? Why would he capture us? When will he return to check on us?"
Crede climbed to his hands and knees and then moved to a sitting position. "Before we debate your questions, could you review the 'escaping is simple' part for me?"
"Oh," said Jasmine. "Well, I can see one way to escape, maybe two. How about you?"
"None," replied Crede. "That bench looks pretty flimsy. I don't think it or the bucket could damage the bars."
Jasmine frowned at him. "You'd make a lousy spy."
Crede grinned a large, forced smile. Sarcastically he said, "Ta da. Lousy spy. Guilty as charged." He paused for a brief moment then added, "And you?"
Jasmine's frown deepened. "Now, my king, don't get angry when there are no children to beat upon." She glanced at the bucket. "The bucket has a thin metal handle. It looks quite bendable, especially using the rectangular metal beams at the bottom and top of the cell door. I could bend one of its hooked ends straighter and then pick the door's lock. I've already examined the lock: it's a quite simple mechanism."
Crede looked at her blankly.
Jasmine continued, "Something I'm less sure would work would be to use my dress as a thick loop of fabric. I could tie it around two bars with some slack. Then I could break a leg off the bench and use that to twist up the fabric. The loop around the bars would get tighter and tighter. The bars would probably bend before the fabric tore—they look thin enough and I would not have to bend them very much—but I'm not completely sure. And I'd honestly rather not undress in front of you even if you are safely locked in a cage."
Crede remembered Walnut's advice and remained silent.
They looked at each other in awkward silence for a third time. Then Jasmine asked, "So, do I need to repeat my three questions?"
"No," grunted Crede. "I think I know the answer to the second. He captured me by disguising himself as your father. He must want me here so he could magically impersonate me. That explains why he took my clothes but not yours. And he put you in the cell opposite mine just to torture me."
Jasmine grunted, "Hmph," then was silent. Crede found the noise oddly ugly, and felt slightly offended although he could not understand why.
"So," asked Crede, "am I right? Last night or today—before you were captured—did he appear as me to make any pronouncements or anything?"
"Not publicly, but I would not know if he is impersonating you within the palace," said Jasmine. And even if no one has 'seen the king' for a day that does not mean he will not impersonate you in the future. But why would he want to impersonate you other than to cause senseless trouble?"
Crede tried to remember his conversation with Maximus as precisely as he could. "He said that he was going to show me the limitations of Fulmer's form of government. And show me better ones. My guess is that he will impersonate me to change the government, then visit us here to flaunt any apparent benefits. But that guess feels wrong. He had also said that he could not change the stone-sword's government without my agreement. He seems to delight in outsmarting people, not using deception and imprisonment and slowly wearing me down with petty arguments."
They thought in silence for a few minutes.
Jasmine spoke up. "What if impersonating you was intended to make the populace react in a specific way, instead of intending to make you react somehow? Perhaps he needs the kingdom's people to obey him as their ruler and enjoy his reign? Maybe it is they and not you who need to be convinced that some other way of governing is better, for whatever reason he needs that?"
"Wouldn't your father and brother work against that? They were spreading doubts about my rule and intentions. Wait a minute. That might be what the young seer meant by them leading from the streets and me from the throne—except that it is not truly me but Maximus?" Crede thought for another minute. "If so, Maximus would still have to outwit them. He would get to outsmart someone after all."
Jasmine nodded. "And Old Alconar would be much more of a challenge than you," she added.
Crede thought about protesting but recalled Jasmine's methods of escaping from these cells. Jasmine must be right. Old Alconar had escaped from an oubliette, after all.
"So," Crede began, wondering if they should escape now or wait until after Maximus visited them for the first time, "do..." Suddenly he was exhausted, falling backwards, asleep before his head hit the stone floor.
Jasmine watched and smiled, under her breath mumbling, "Nod off."
"So, what do you have in those socks?" asked Jasmine.
Fulmer merely smiled and said, "Are your father and brother home?" He let go of Fennel's hand and brushed off his knees.
Fennel glanced at the mage. The Alconars (Builder aid them) seemed to have a habit of befriending odd people. Witty orphan girls he approved of; mages who seemed to do little more than get frequently captured seemed less trustworthy, especially when they hid in his cabinets. Fennel went to get his step stool to ensure nothing else was hiding up there.
Jasmine took Fulmer's hand and ran out of the kitchen. The mage waved a good-bye to Fennel as he was dragged away.
Old Alconar was still in his room, where Jasmine had left him. Jasmine opened the door and came in with Fulmer, enjoying the surprise evident in her father's eyes. "Oops," she said. "I forgot your tea."
"Um, in the argyle," replied Fulmer. "Green, black, or oolong?"
Old Alconar beamed at Fulmer. "You escaped! Why did it take you four hours? I was nearly in a state of panic."
"I'm not terribly efficient," answered Fulmer. "But I did find all my socks."
"I sometimes take four hours to clean my room and I still do not find all my socks," added Jasmine, grinning.
Fulmer put a bent finger to his chin, then said, "Also, something about the young seer's prophecy...came to mind since I have seen you last. Jacaranda, your trading network is extensive. Who is Windsong?"
"Huh?" questioned Jasmine. "Windsong is a place, not a person."
"Urm," mused Old Alconar. "In all the continent's nations the ruler is referred to with his or her nation's name. The nation and the ruler are thought of as being the same. Insults or aid to one are also treated as insults or aid to the other. In that sense, Crede is Windsong."
"So when Chamomile described the kingdom making a choice she was really referring to Crede making a choice?" asked Jasmine. "I'm not convinced. I thought Chamomile never said anything that was tricky to understand."
"In any case," said Fulmer, "I'm not sure how that relates to the prophecy. Before I was captured I saw with the scry-horse that Crede agreed to reconsider the optimal form of government. That is neither selfishness disguised as justice nor selfless injustice."
"Crede did accept Maximus Grim's first alternative?" asked Old Alconar.
Fulmer nodded. Then the mage asked, "Where is our king now?"
"Captured," Jasmine and Old Alconar said together. They glanced at each other.
Old Alconar continued, "On the way back from his meeting with Maximus he was kidnapped. Walnut was following him and saw it from a distance. Someone approached him, then they spoke for a short while, and then they both vanished. It must have been Maximus himself. Walnut is currently using the necklace you left us—the small copy of the stone-sword—to triangulate his location."
Fulmer nodded. "Then all we will need is wisdom about if trying to free Crede is the correct thing to do."
Jasmine pointed at his handful of socks. "Any of those have wisdom?"
Fulmer scratched his chin and looked at the socks. "The cashmere has a crystal ball that might be most helpful. Even if it does not help us with Crede it might help show us how to lead from the streets. The prophecy said that was our role."
Old Alconar sighed. "I admit I still have no idea how to fulfill that role."
Jasmine scowled. "I hate prophecies! In all the stories about the seers of old it never helped to know a prophecy. What it meant only became clear at the last moment, or sometimes even only in retrospect. What's the point? The seers of long ago seemed so useless. Isn't Chamomile better?"
Fulmer grinned. "Knowing a prophecy in advance may be largely useless, but seers do more than prophesy. Perhaps the prophecies are for their sakes, not for the hearers'."
Jasmine frowned. "I'm still frustrated. Distract me with your crystal ball, please?"
Fulmer reached into the cashmere sock with a twinkle in his eye. His arm went in well past the elbow—it became more pulling the sock up a shrinking arm. Jasmine found it very disconcerting to watch. He suddenly paused, shouted, "Down! Stay!" into the sock, then continued fishing inside it. Finally he smiled and withdrew a crystal ball as large as a double fist upon which rested a butterfly made of shining, active light. The ball absorbed and changed the butterfly's illumination like a kaleidoscope.
Jasmine's eyes grew large trying to take in its beauty.
"Distracted?" asked Fulmer.
"Huh?" replied Jasmine, still staring.
Crede awoke in the cell again. His head throbbed. Thinking was painful. Opening his eyes and sitting up was painful. Looking around caused him to scream, but not from pain. He was not alone in the cell. Something like Jasmine was there too.
If he kept his gaze above her waist it was merely Jasmine sitting on the cell's bench, her hands kept above her head by the manacles on the wall. She was unconscious, still wearing the white dress although it hung about her in a slightly disheveled manner. Her face was still beautiful, despite a large bruise on one cheek. Apparently she had struggled against Maximus, and had been unconscious while taken to this cell and put in the chains. Had she wrestled with the evil mage before, after, or while Maximus changed her legs into tentacles?
Crede wondered how long he had been unconscious this second time. With the first time it had not seemed like a whole day. Yet the headaches made it impossible to be sure.
Crede noticed a scroll and dagger on the bench beside Jasmine. He clenched his jaw and then silently crept just close enough to her to grab them. Then he scurried away and sat by the cell door. He opened the scroll and read it slowly.
Unto King Crede, from Maximus Grim, on the third day of your captivity,
(Well, thought Crede, that answers my question about how long I have been down here.)
Hear now of a major flaw (but one of many) in Fulmer's governing by stone-sword: a powerful person can control who is the rightful King of Windsong.
For example, currently you are the most suitable choice for king. Yet before you an object of your affections is slowly turning into a monster that will kill you. Thus you have a choice: do you kill her first to protect yourself or allow yourself to be killed? Both choices are wrong. Someone suitable for Windsong's throne would not kill an innocent person he loves, nor would he commit suicide by inaction.
The stone-sword cannot see the future. It does not yet know you will soon make yourself unworthy to rule. For the moment you are still the rightful King of Windsong. But within a few hours you will not be the chosen one. I assume that after you disqualify yourself Jacaranda Alconar will be the next rightful king. I look forward to also outwitting him.
A part of me wishes to apologize for making our conversation about forms of government so short. It might have been a pleasure. But when the predicament you now find yourself in flashed through my mind I could not resist putting the scheme into action. It is so fun to invent monsters. Wait until you see what your lovely's head turns into. Or don't and spare yourself both significant torments.
Crede dropped the scroll and stared at the dagger.
On the other side of the cell Jasmine made small sleeping noises and then opened her eyes. She looked at what used to be her legs and swore.
Crede looked at her, unsure what to say.
Jasmine looked at him and stated, "I had once heard that it does not work to kill yourself by holding your breath. Instead of dying you fall unconscious and start breathing. But it seemed worth a try."
Crede listened in silence.
Jasmine continued, "After dragging me into another room and tying me to a big table, he explained his plan to me as he cast the spell. But I refuse to turn into a monster and eat you."
Crede swallowed, then with hesitancy offered, "There must be something we can do. We can escape this cell and find Fulmer, who can fix you."
"Fulmer was captured the first day Maximus was here. Remember the terrible noise and all the rest?"
"But..." began Crede.
Jasmine glared at him and interrupted. "There isn't any time, and there are no other plans. While you have been dozing I've had time to think." More quickly she added, "And as much as I want to do the right thing I'm terrified of dying so please take the dagger he left us and get it done quickly since the wait is terrible. Trust me, it's the only thing to do."
Crede stared at her, carefully—piercingly. Then he noticed what he was doing and turned to face away from her. She had lied to him, either just now or earlier. Either she was not afraid of death or she was. Or... His head still throbbed painfully and he did not want to make a choice. Then he realized that Chamomile had told him what to do, no matter who was in the cell with him.
"This is hard," he muttered, picturing Jasmine's face.
"Then get it done," Jasmine's voice said hurriedly, fearfully.
Crede shifted the dagger in his hand, holding it very loosely. He stepped backward one step to be within lunging reach of Jasmine.
He heard her breathing pause.
He spun around, dropping the dagger and summoning the throne room sword to his hands. It appeared between his palms and he grasped it firmly as he cut Jasmine in two.
But her body shimmered and changed as its top half fell to the ground. Her face, features, clothes, and even the chains were all illusion. Upon the bench her tentacle-legs shimmered as the illusion faded, and in their place were an old man's lower half.
The top half of Maximus Grim was on the cell floor, screaming. He did not look like the strong, sophisticated gentleman whom Crede had met under the pavilion. That must also have been illusion. He was gnarled and ancient, wearing dozens of necklaces, amulets, and rings.
Crede knew the stories of his family's past regicides. He knew how to kill people who used magic items. He stepped beside the evil mage's head and cut it off, then grabbed the necklaces with one hand and threw them away from the mage's body. Next he removed the rings. The throne room sword seemed to ignore whatever protective enchantments Maximus had assumed would protect him from the dagger. Dismembering the evil mage was easy. But it took a long time for Maximus to die.
Crede was disappointed when the sword would not cut through the cell bars. The palace's vault of magical items had weapons that could do so. But the sword did work as a lever. Crede began to bend the bars enough to squeeze between them and escape from the cell. He smiled as he struggled with that task, thinking, "Ha! A way out of the cells of which Jasmine had not thought! Summon a magical item and use it as a crowbar." Then he remembered that it had probably not been Jasmine in the cell opposite him.
In the hallway was a stairway. Crede followed it up, and eventually found himself in a familiar part of the palace cellars.
He ran towards the throne room, eager to assure his palace guard that he was all right, and eager to tell others that he had killed the world's most dreaded evil mage. He stopped, suddenly feeling uncertain. Could he have done it if he did not have Chamomile's warnings and promises? Would it be wrong to brag about his role without mentioning hers?
A long dagger appeared at his throat, and he heard Walnut's voice calmly ask, "Are you Crede or Maximus in disguise?"
Crede remained quite still. "Crede."
Walnut said, "Prove to me that you are Crede."
Crede rolled his eyes. "I just killed Maximus. Don't I get to celebrate at all before getting into more trouble? Ah. I know. I'm going to drop the throne room sword and have it return to my hand."
The sword clanged on the stone floor. It remained on the ground.
"Huh?" muttered Crede. But Walnut released him, silently withdrawing a step and sheathing his dagger.
"Sorry, but that seemed necessary," Walnut said. "You really killed him?"
"Apology accepted," grumbled Crede. "What are you doing here? Yes, I killed him. In a basement dungeon cell."
Walnut made a small bow to show he was in service of the king. "My father sent me to find you. I have a necklace with a miniature sword pendant that points to the rightful King of Windsong. By using it in a several places I could triangulate your location. For most of the day you were somewhere beneath the center of the palace. But about twenty minutes ago the pendant changed. Now it points northeast from the palace."
Crede's face fell. "You lie!" he snarled.
Walnut took another step back. "Let's go to the throne room and use the real stone-sword. Perhaps the amulet became broken."
Crede did not answer. They looked at each other in silence for a dozen heartbeats.
Then Crede sighed. "I am weary, and have just spent who knows how long being tortured by an evil mage. Was it one day or three? I need someone to talk at while I collect my thoughts. Please return home and tell Jasmine that her presence would be appreciated and might even help keep me sane."
Walnut nodded and held up one finger to answer the question about days. But he did not leave.
Crede paused briefly, then smiled conspiratorially. He added, "Actually, tell her first that if she truly wants to do something to stop me from using the beating boys to help my thinking then she is invited to take their place—pause—she merely has to sit and listen to my ranting without saying anything—anything. Yet I fear that for her such silence might be an unbearable torture for which my physician's red potion offers no aid."
Walnut nodded again, then asked, "May I also ask a palace servant or guard to bring you some food in your quarters or in the throne room?"
Crede smiled awkwardly in agreement. "Thank you. The throne room, for both the food and meeting Jasmine."
Walnut nodded again. "May your thinking go well, your majesty. Bards across the island and continent will sing the story of your deed today. Your adventure is not over. May it continue..."
Crede interrupted sternly, "Enough buttery words. Do as your king has ordered."
Walnut bowed and left towards the palace kitchens.
Crede watched him go. He recalled that not long ago he had longed for people to deem him worthy of honor.
When Jasmine entered the throne room she noticed that the magic sword had been carelessly tossed upon the throne and Crede was circling the large stone in the center of the room muttering his thoughts aloud—at least most of them. After receiving Walnut's message she had quickly dressed in a long, jade green dress that complimented her coloring but was not otherwise pretty. She had also changed her jewelry, putting on only a bracelet of small pearls upon which sat the glowing scry-butterfly.
Crede looked curiously at the butterfly made of light. "Magical jewelry?" he asked.
Jasmine nodded but did not smile. "Pretty, my King?" she asked. She noticed he was avoiding looking at her face.
Crede softly grunted assent. Then he straightened and added, "As are you, despite your efforts to dress plainly and wear distracting jewelry, but prettiness is not the issue here."
Jasmine looked at him sternly. "If it is not relevant, then why request my presence instead of your beating boys, your highness?"
Crede looked at her face for the first time, distantly. "I have just spent what I thought was days being tortured by Maximus Grim. He often wore your form, and I had thought he had...done terrible things to you. Your presence here, now, assures me that all he proved was the extent of his own mind's taint."
Jasmine's face fell. She took a step towards him, then stopped.
Crede pointed to a chair beside the dais. "Sit," he said, shortly but not unkindly. "Your quiet listening time has begun. I know you're good at being silent."
Jasmine pouted but sat as she had been bid.
Crede resumed his circling. "I am also very angry at you, for no fault of your own. While wearing your form Maximus forced me into a situation in which any action or inaction I took would lower my worth in the measure of the throne room sword." He walked to the throne, picked up the sword, then went and set it upon its stone. It pivoted to point away from him. Crede snarled, and then continued, "Even though I killed Maximus I'm still incredibly angry at him. But that I do not mind. Killing him took a long time, and was unpleasant, and the anger...helps." He paused, then turned to face Jasmine. "But the only living person I am angry at is you, which I do mind. You do not deserve my wrath and perhaps are the only person I want to think kindly about. I so much want to be a good king. I also want, perhaps even more strongly, to be a good person and to be respected by my people. Please believe me when I say that those are old desires even if I've recently learned how poorly I was succeeding in them. But you..." He turned away and resumed his circling. "There is something about your beauty I have not encountered before. More than being pretty or desirable you have an elegance that makes me want to respect you. I want to learn that your personality is as beautiful as your appearance. How do you do that? How do you make me want to respect you? I want to learn that. I've never wanted to respect anyone before. And..." He sighed, and briefly squeezed his hands into fists. "But Maximus tainted all this by making me angry at you."
Jasmine kept her eyes on Crede as he paced around the room. After his speech had ended she broke his sad silence by adding, "So you wonder, highness, if hating me now, not your earlier actions or inaction, is what is making the sword point at my father's estate instead of you."
Crede whirled and pointed at her. "No! Well, yes." His arm fell, and then his eyes flashed again and he pointed a second time. "You are supposed to keep silent!"
Jasmine smiled and put a hand to her mouth. "When you summoned me, did you really expect me to keep silent, your majesty?"
Crede lowered his arm again replied, "No, I suppose not. But could you, at least, not make it so obvious that you are more intelligent than I?"
Jasmine's smile widened. "That might be the first cute thing you have ever said. I feel honored, my lord."
Crede opened his mouth, then closed it.
Jasmine tilted her head slightly, as if looking at him differently. "It's not fair, is it?"
Crede turned from her and resumed his pacing, gesturing aimlessly with his hands. "Not fair? All my life I knew I would one day be king. For the past years I watched in fascinated horror as my older brother ruled Windsong badly. I trained my mind and body and strove to develop a sense of justice and goodness despite the darkness of Asper's reign. I knew and know that I would be a good king. When Asper died my reign began well with my people approving of me. Then the sword also approved of me and the throne seemed more glorious! Yet in one day Maximus took all that from me. The sword now prefers your father. After all my effort the sword abandons me because of one unavoidable act. It isn't fair. I am the king! I will be a good king! All my life I've been preparing. Why should I give it up? Cannot I have a chance to redeem my family's legacy and show that the Rhyn dynasty can produce a king as good as its past rulers were evil? Cannot I have a chance to cancel the dynasty's bad laws and show that the remaining structure is worthwhile? Why..." Crede stopped, suddenly aware that Jasmine was crying. He hurried near to her and asked "What?" in a tone that held at least as much concern as impatience.
Jasmine dried her eyes on a sleeve but did not look up. Slowly she said, "Selfishness disguised as justice, or unselfishness disguised as lawlessness?"
Crede closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. Then he spun around and bellowed a cry of anguish. "Curses upon prophecies! The last one described the most successful and painful thing I have ever done. Why can't I return to the safety of my old insecurities?"
Jasmine waited for his raving to end, then continued, "What is the difference between a dynasty and a noble house, my King? What are you trying to redeem other than a structure created by Maximus Grim—a tainted mockery of the older, better system?"
Crede opened his eyes and stared at the throne room sword. "I need the seer back," he said, laughing with slight mania. "I suspect that if I surrendered the throne to Old Alconar because the sword now points to him, then that act would fulfill her prophecy and cause the sword to change and again point to me. Old Alconar would then return the throne to me."
Jasmine folder her hands, keeping silent.
Crede continued, "But I am not sure. So I will not take the risk."
Jasmine leveled a piercing gaze at him.
"Hurph," snorted Crede. "I do trust her. Just not with this. I am a Rhyn. If my guess is wrong, and give up being king, who would I be?"
Jasmine spoke quietly, "The hero who slew the land's most powerful and evil mage. A famous past King of Windsong who reigned for the time the stone-sword decreed and then humbly put the best interest of the kingdom before his own desires. A man who the people of Windsong will want to respect for deeds done with anguish and courage."
Crede walked to the throne and sat upon it, resting his elbows on its gilded arms. He put his face in his hands and was quiet.
Jasmine watched him softly.
Eventually Crede lifted his head and spoke. "You make life sound so easy."
Jasmine said softly, "My liege, Fulmer made life on Windsong easy. He did that three centuries ago." Crede nodded as she continued, "But you! Yours is the only family in the kingdom who never experienced his dream of utopian ease." She stood up and her calm voice became icily stern. "When there should be enough food for everyone people have been starving for sixty years under your family's rule! When everyone should have leisure the kingdom groans in toil because of your family's taxation! Your family has introduced greed and corruption and anger, and spoiled the kingdom! And you dare complain because not being king seems personally unfair! Your dynasty has been unfair to the kingdom's whole populace for three generations!"
"But..." began Crede, but Jasmine continued her scolding.
"Your family can become a noble family. I would even guess that my father is only needed by the stone-sword temporarily to rebuild the shattered economy, and then you might again have the throne after he did that tricky work. Life is that easy and unfair. But you have to let life be that way. You can't keep your taint, or your family's. You can't redeem the greed and corruption and anger and injustice and selfishness. Abandon those. Throw them away. Disown them and let them die. They are taint. You are not responsible for their care. You are responsible for their demise. Have I ever told you I have been dead?"
"What?" asked Crede, his retort defused by her question.
Jasmine continued in the quick, scolding tone. "Remember when I said I had seen heaven and was not afraid to die? Your brother killed me. Chamomile revived me. I do remember heaven. There is no taint there. When we arrive we have to leave our share of it behind. And I realized we should not even carry it that long."
Crede looked at her in silence.
Jasmine sighed and let her shoulders sag, then she stood tall again. Warmly she said, "May I go, my Lord? You need time alone. You have said your bit. I have said mine. Now you need to choose. Be a spoiled brat and keep the throne and I'll obey you as my king. Be a humble hero and let life be easy and I'll respect you. Windsong will survive either way. Heaven makes everything fair in the long run. I..." She paused, holding the vowel as its sound faded away.
"You...?" prompted Crede.
Jasmine returned to her chair and sat again. "I would like to say I don't care. But I do. You are the most frustrating person I have ever met. I've spied on you for years and watched you do rotten things. But you were raised in a horrid family and try to be good even if you barely know what goodness is. And I care so much I'm about to cry and it's all your fault."
"Am I more frustrating than the seer?" asked Crede.
"Infinitely more so, your majesty." Jasmine sniffed.
Crede laughed, an old sarcastic cackle but with a trace of mirth. "At last!" he shouted, "something I do better than her! I'm more frustrating!"
Jasmine put her face in her hands. "Tell me about it, my liege."
Crede laughed again. "Oh, look who is talking, the girl who moves invisibly, wins every conversational duel, and probably knows four ways to knock me unconscious barehanded."
"Six," murmured Jasmine.
The last two lines of dialogue are tribute to the dinner conversation between Goldfinger and James Bond in Ian Flemming's novel Goldfinger.
Old Alconar, Fulmer, Walnut, and Fennel watched and listened. The crystal ball's scrying had been projected upon a wall by Fulmer so that everyone could see.
Walnut grunted and hit one hand with the other fist. "They're arguing like an old married couple! Why can't he just make his choice!"
Fulmer continued tugging on his thumbs, his entire body knotted with tension. "Patience," he whispered.
Crede and Jasmine thought in silence, occasionally darting glances at each other. Finally Crede broke the silence. "What about...?"
"Why, my King?" interrupted Jasmine.
"Huh?" asked Crede.
"Why ask 'What about...?' at all, your majesty? You are used to a mindset of easy work and hard choices. Didn't you learn anything from Chamomile? Try a mindset of hard work and easy choices. We'll be much happier. You know the prophecy. You know the virtues of either choice. She and I would both rather have you as a happy hero than an anxious, selfish king. Do you trust her? Do you trust me?" Jasmine looked into Crede's eyes. He was looking at her but not returning the gaze. She dropped her eyes.
"It is myself I don't trust," replied Crede softly. "What would my life be like if I turned the dynasty into a noble house and was not king?"
Jasmine responded without looking at him. "Courage inspires people's respect. Power inspires people's envy. Haven't you learned that by now?"
"Yes," Crede agreed after a brief pause. "But power is better company for someone alone."
Jasmine straightened in her chair. "Your decision must be made by you alone. If I believed it permissible to influence your choice by offering companionship I would have already done so. I have already explained how you would earn my respect. That is all it is proper for me to offer."
Creed grinned. "Ah, I see new insight into why I am more frustrating than the seer."
Jasmine pouted and breathed a "Hmph" more daintily than Crede had thought possible
Crede stood, then resumed his pacing. "When Maximus Grim impersonated you he was just as frustrating. But it was in an aggravating way, not a convicting one. You somehow are more helpful than hurtful with all your barbs. Strange how easily that differentiates a good person from an evil one."
"And you?" asked Jasmine. "How do measure up by that standard?"
"Me?" replied Crede. "You tell me."
Jasmine thought for a moment, then said, "Your majesty, your barbs are nearly always aimed at yourself. And they are more harmful than helpful because of a misunderstanding. After understanding an issue you speak circles around it in an attempt to find a perspective that makes courage unnecessary—instead of examining yourself to draw upon the wisdom you need. Good people internally have wisdom and exhibit it as courage, but you are trying to internally have courage and exhibit it as wisdom."
Crede returned to sit upon the throne, then grinned. "So you claim I am not smart enough to act bravely, and not brave enough to act wisely. Very well, I know of only one way to prove you wrong. But I want an enormous statue of myself in the main square on which is inscribed, 'Besides saving everyone from the evil mage he was brave and wise.' Summon your father and tell him that if I knew where either crown was then I would put one upon his brow."
Jasmine yelped joyously and jumped to her feet, clenching her hands. A moment later the butterfly on her wrist glowed more brightly, then flew to the floor before the throne. Old Alconar and Fulmer stepped into the throne room through it, shimmering and distorted as they grew and stretched. When the spell was done their shimmering ended and the butterfly returned to its normal, fainter radiance. It flew up into the air and hovered by the room's main entrance. Both men bowed formally to Crede. Alconar was holding the circlet crown.
Crede groaned quietly. He chuckled and then complained, "You had to be so quick, didn't you? Not that I blame you for scrying, but I was hoping to have some time to work up the courage I just pretended to have." Then he straightened upon the throne and then spoke with a loud, formal, regal tone. "Jacaranda Alconar, Windsong requests its true crown."
Old Alconar bowed again, then approached the throne and handed the circlet to Crede.
As Old Alconar backed away Crede held the circlet in both hands, turning it this way and that. Then he took a deep breath and held it towards Fulmer, saying in the same voice, "Fulmer, approach. My dynasty returns this crown to you. May the creator of this island and kingdom do what is proper." In his normal voice Crede added, "Glad you are free. How come you tried to hide your identity?"
Fulmer approached the throne and received the circlet. He whispered, "Thank you, my king. Old, futile habit, I suppose." Another day he might add, "Because I wish people to judge me based on what I do, not what I have once done." But implicit advice of that nature seemed currently quite inappropriate.
Then Fulmer backed up to stand beside the stone and sword. In a deep but unpracticed voice that made Jasmine giggle into her hands he pronounced, "Jacaranda Alconar, approach." The magic sword followed Jacaranda as he walked. When he stood before Fulmer the mage continued, "To the assembled populace of Windsong, who has just seen that the stone-sword chooses this noble, I present your current king." He set the circlet upon Jacaranda's head.
Crede's brow was furrowed. "Assembled populace?" he asked, standing and stepping down from the throne's dais.
Jasmine went to stand beside him. "What the scrying butterfly sees and hears is normally viewed with a crystal ball. But Fulmer used a wall of one of the large buildings bordering the main square to display an enormous view. We weren't sure what else to do that would count as 'leading from the streets' during the decision while you were 'leading from the throne'."
Crede paled. Jasmine took one of his hands in hers and added, "So, good choice with that booming, regal voice." Fulmer nodded to himself, then gestured. The butterfly dimmed to the slightest glow, then vanished, returning to its perch upon the crystal ball.
Noticing that Crede's knees were wobbling, Jasmine quickly bent down, tapped the back of his knees sharply, and then, standing, caught him as he fell. "Let's go talk," she said, seriously, carrying him out of the throne room.
Old Alconar went to the throne and sat upon it. Looking at Fulmer he asked, "So after fifty years of struggling to oppose an evil dynasty it is finally over like this? After four days of being repeatedly defeated I am made king. The dynasty's final king turned out to be the hero who kills the evil enemy and romances the young woman. Yet the prophecy—or perhaps two from what Crede had said—was fulfilled. Did the Architect design this part of his plan in his earliest moments, before he invented causality?"
"No," replied Fulmer, "but I cannot explain more."
When Maximus Grim had imprisoned and impersonated Crede, he had ordered the rest of the Rhyn family bound in chains and locked in the palace's torture room. The palace guard had done so; the request was typical of a new Rhyn king. The next morning King Alconar and Fulmer oversaw those Rhyns carefully being led to a ship which would return them to the continent.
The new king scheduled an elaborate ceremony for that afternoon on a field outside of the city walls, attended by the entire populace, in which various old titles and deeds would be restored to people whose stations or land had been claimed by the Rhyns.
Crede was officially made a noble, and also the new head of a much smaller palace guard. King Alconar had whispered to him, "So that, until I have rebuilt the economy, you will have practice with the kingly skills of keeping the peace and bossing people around." Crede had whispered back, "The door to the vault of magical items is still keyed to my hand. So do not fear, my liege: I'll guard you and play with powerful toys while you do the difficult and thankless job."
Fulmer had previously and privately declined all offers of land or job, explaining that he was not sure how long he would be remaining on the island. He glanced at Jasmine and Crede as he said this, earning a wilting glare from Jasmine.
The ceremony was halfway complete before King Alconar noticed Chamomile sitting in the audience, wearing a tremendous smile. She drank in the king's smile with wide eyes.
When the ceremony's planned events were completed King Alconar summoned Chamomile before him. She ran up the long path of carpet, curtsying when she reached the small pavilion he sat under. Fennel and Jasmine had not seen her in the crowd and called out greetings from their places. Chamomile waved at them happily as she ran.
The king removed his circlet and pressed it to his chest, then replaced it upon his brow. "Windsong—the kingdom and myself—owe you much, young seer. Do I have the authority to present you with anything?"
"Your ears, good king," replied Chamomile buoyantly. "My mage has a story he may finally tell you about a challenge between divine beings."
Fulmer yelled in joy and came forward to stand beside Chamomile. After looking down at her for a moment he sat down and began to relate what previously had been one of his two secrets.
"One day, centuries ago," he began, "Taint was walking in the Architect's palace when the Architect approached him. 'My servant,' said the Architect, 'have you noticed yet that people are inherently good?'
"'Not so,' asserted Taint. 'People prefer my taint to what you call goodness.'
"'On the contrary,' corrected the Architect, 'you cannot even suppose a circumstance in which a person will certainly choose taint over goodness.'
"'Surely I can,' averred Taint, thinking for a moment. 'Imagine someone young who was raised immersed in the taint of a truly corrupt family, wherein he learned to habitually ignore moral issues and avoid thinking about goodness: such a person would probably avoid goodness from lack of conscience. Also imagine that this youth inherited the full privileges, wealth, and absolute power of dictatorship. His human weakness of lusting for influence and the thrill of domination would run unchecked! He would never even think about goodness, let alone prefer it to taint if such a choice were ever made clear to him.'
"'We shall see,' said the Architect."
Crede's face was pale when Fulmer finished his story. King Alconar inclined his head to Chamomile and then asked, "So, this situation was a test arranged by the divine beings?"
Chamomile gestured to Fulmer, who answered. "My King, three hundred years ago the Builder appeared before me. I was asked to design an island-kingdom utopia, and temporarily given the magical power to do so. Not merely the events of the past days, nor those of the past sixty years, but the entire history of Windsong is in one sense merely a test."
The king raised his eyebrows and inhaled sharply. Chamomile laughed, a child's high and spontaneous laugh, before adding, "Why is that notable? Do not look as though you doubt you have had free will when this kingdom's history is actually a triumph of the whole purpose of free will! So much of the Architect's plan has circumstances important only in how human free will can demonstrate the superiority of goodness over taint. Taint is significant only because of its paradox: although it is always inferior to goodness, effort is needed to resist it. Heaven is the fitting end for a life lived with ever-increasing victory over Taint. This kingdom now deserves to be a utopia, for here the choice of goodness instead of taint required maximal effort yet still goodness was chosen."
Crede chuckled. His face had color again. After receiving a nod from the king he asked Chamomile, "So, does ever-increasing victory over Taint only come from listening to annoyingly bossy seers? For I fear only that has improved me in recent days."
Sycamore raised one hand while covering his mouth with the other. After also receiving permission to speak he replied, "No, sir. Merely her company while picking flowers suffices."
The king smiled, and added, "And others have changed you for the better, noble Crede." To Chamomile he then requested, "Good seer, Windsong requests your further company. Please reside here, for our utopia is not complete without you."
Chamomile bit her upper lip, then said, "You have learned that my life is haphazard, and that this spreads to those around me. Do you really welcome that to the kingdom you must govern?"
The king grinned gleefully. "This test I will also pass, dear Chamomile. You live by the Architect's plan, as Windsong should also live. If I had once falsely believed that such a life was calm and orderly I now know otherwise and will gladly teach this truth by example. Since life must have both difficulties and provision then of course I desire to live where they arrive as the Architect has allocated. And if the future holds a situation that is only made fair by heaven then I would rather go through it holding your hand then around it while you gaze at me with disappointment. You know my deeds have proven these words."
Chamomile nodded, then smiled. "Hold my hand? Is Windsong once again more suitable for children than for swords?"
King Alconar pursed his brows, then rubbed his hands together while frowning slightly. "They are not soft or smooth. I had forgotten your recommendation until now. What else have you said that I have forgotten?"
"Fix this one and then we'll concern ourselves with the next," answered Chamomile.
Fulmer was already reaching into a sock he had taken from a pocket. He removed small bottle and tossed it to the king. The king opened it and spread some of the oil upon his hands. Then he replaced its cork and set it upon an arm of his chair. "Done," he said brightly, "And what is the next thing?"
Chamomile thrust her hands into her pockets. "Next thing? Doesn't anyone want to take a break for a while?" she whined. "This is a happy day!"
Jasmine spoke up. "We've forgotten how to relax and simply enjoy providence."
Chamomile laughed merrily. "Then that shall be the next thing."