The Dragon's Dollhouse

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Part II, Chapter 8: Butchers' Windows and Hungry Gods

The streets were so clear that a visitor might have believed Cjantosk one of the ancients’ desolate cities. The prince’s black banners, emblazoned with a red narwhal, dangled from storefronts and porches so immaculate as to look not only hand-washed, but then politely abandoned to suit any invader’s fancy. Only the smoke puffing from the chimneys, and the smell of wood fires, simmering broths, baked bread, and roasting meat would have signaled to any arrival the existence of a populace.

Down this spartan thoroughfare rolled a caravan. The king’s white, winged horse on red painted the carriages and adorned the tabarded breastplates, helms, shields, and barding of the caravan’s flanking armored horsemen. Though this was indeed the royal train, its cargo was not the king, but a slightly less regal passenger dignified by his kingly mission.

Having entered into well-deserved retirement, Duke Conyll was soon extracted by the king, who could not let rest his former General and premier ambassador.

Though his hair was white, the old man had a full scruffy head of it, and he was hardy enough to affect a put-upon saunter that gave him the flouncy carriage of a youth a quarter his age. Having disembarked from the stopped coach in this fashion, he pulled himself back in chargin, less from the fact that he had not arrived at its destination, than from the phalanx of armored monks, clutching a thicket of pole axes and pikes, that blocked his caravan.

“Your honor, go back inside.” When Lieutenant Trenn acted as if he would hasten the King’s favorite servant within the coach interior, the older man shrugged away his hands.

“Why do you stand in my way?” Though the younger Duke Conyll was more imperious, experience taught him prudence in commanding another’s subordinates. His own men had watched him murder more than one pompous fool who was sent to command despite their ignorance of the enemy’s land, language, ranking officers, contingents, and banner. In this case, the Duke’s first look appraised the monks as rebels, and their haughty reply warned him that they were anathema.

“We have come to ask that of you, Duke Conyll.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why do you meddle in Cjantosk’s affairs?”

“I? I do not.”

“Are you not here to advise the prince?”

“If I am, any advisementis the king’s will.”

“Then you are the king by proxy, and I ask again, why meddle here in Cjantosk?”

“I am less the king than the prince; as the king’s servant, I am even less king than you, who is so self-ruled and imperious as to dream of asking such an impertinent question.”

“Since you are only the king’s lapdog, and do not personally intend us any ill will, if you leave Cjantosk now by this road, carrying that message to the king, we will spare you and your coachmen.”

Having fought the Zeftredi sects in wars, Conyll knew zealots said and meant things by the letter, and that this mercy would be cruelly specific, without any hope of a liberal interpretation. “Lieutenant, order your men to fall back as he directs.”

“I have ears, and heard the threat.” To the monks, Trenn said no less sententiously, “friends, we want no trouble, and will do as you bid and carry your message to the King.”

The monks’ laughter was so wicked, that if they were created in the image of their deity, Conyll would have hated to see the gargoyle god that inspired their mirth. The monks’ leader said to Lieutenant Trenn, “Forgive me, I did not know you were one of the faithful. Or was that just wishful thinking?”

No sooner did the coachmen shut the door, than the driver flicked his reins. As if the beasts smelled the religious horror of these zealots, they obliged quicker than well-tipped waiters, nickering in their hard left, which tipped Conyll’s carriage a full inch before crashing down and jarring his head on the roof, which jammed his teeth together.

“Wishful thinking?” said Lieutenant Trenn. When Duke Conyll’s coach straightened, the horses trotted for the gates, leaving his escort several wagon lengths behind.

“That you would bear this message with your own dispatch to The Land of the Dead, and find your king there, is a hope we share.”

The monk’s grave mistake was in thinking the stoic Trenn too unintelligent to follow this erudite threat. After the lieutenant yelled, “fall in!“, he cast his javelin an inch above the monk’s breastplate, where it pierced his neck, then pinned his fallen corpse to the cobblestones.

When the armored wall of man and horse walked towards the break in the line, the stunned monks could only stare at the body of he whom had only recently been so proud and loudmouthed, and the moment having passed in which they could have set their pikes against the cobblestone street to repel the riders, gave way. This ended the career of the holy warriors that received the charge, and the monks that survived, being now equal in number to the Duke’s men—or outnumbered, when you counted the warhorses—fled. Trampling again halved their number, and when the stragglers banged on doors and cried for help, those doors stood mute.

Just when the last was slaughtered, Lieutenant Trenn turned at the cadence of many boots and the second stanza of “The Light Laughs at Evil.” Ten armored horsemen in Corunan orange and yellow preceded a lightly mailed throng of monks marching with pikes and pole axes. The monks’ knights were the mightiest, ugliest monks that Trenn had ever seen; no doubt these were former king’s men that had forswore their noble duty to serve this graceless power.

“Retreat!” called Lieutenant Trenn. After wheeling their horses, they galloped for the gatehouse. Now the stillness of the streets chilled the battle-hardened soldier, and they arrived at a gatehouse that seemed less silent than pensive; with the teeth of its inmost portcullis drawn down. Save in time of war or insurrection, there was no reason to lower all half-dozen portcullises, and to Trenn this looked as ominous as a beast waiting to pounce.

“In the king’s name, open this gate.”

In reply, hot coals clattered off armor and shield, crackling as they fragmented and hissing as they burned the livery and singed a horse’s tail. Arrows then glanced off armor and barding, save for one horse’s foreleg, pierced below the barded hem of its mail skirt. When it reared, throwing its rider, the archers shifted their aim to the sprawled horseman, and several arrows pierced his armor’s joints and killed him.

“To West Gate!” cried Lieutenant Trenn. A gate in name only, Cjantosk’s West Gate was a harbor where they might have boarded one of the prince’s crafts or a loyal merchant vessel, or in desperate straits, leaped their horses from the wharves to the strip of shore abutting Cjantosk’s outer wall.

As they rode for West Gate, they stopped short at the line of mounted monks, sweat-flecked from riding hard, who had used their greater knowledge of Cjantosk’s streets to head off the king’s men and pin them against the marching monks.

“Steel yourselves,” said Trenn. “We must go through!”

Though the soldiers’ lances were pennant-bearing, and intended for parade pomp, and the Corunans’ lances were dragged by white sashes, those that wielded them were deadly serious, and when the horsemen collided, blue pennants fluttered, white sashes flickered, and red rained. The wooden shafts of the Corunans’ snapped, the fine steel lances of the king’s men held true, and breastplates screeched as they bent into horrific wounds. When they turned from the fallen flower of Corunan Knighthood to the tremoring rabble of pikes and pole axes about to run them through, Lieutenant Trenn and his troop had already sold their lives dearly, but they obliged the mob, dropped their bent and shivered lances, drew their blades, and hewed at the throng mightily until many hands pulled them from their saddles to be murdered. Though all ten of the devout rebel horsemen were slain or maimed in the royal charge, and though dozens of the marchers were riven in the first seconds of their riotous seizure of the king’s men, the marching monks accounted the massacre a great victory, hung the bodies of the king’s men from the lampposts, and routed people from their houses at pike point to join in forced hymns.

***

While the prince was confined when his troops fell back and the monks besieged the castle, his fear had made him a prisoner months before—dreading assassination, reluctant to consider near-foolproof escape plans, and cooped in a menagerie of recurring nightmares and monstrous terrors.

He could not deny some good came from being pursued by torment, for when his eyes became barred against sleep, and his teeth gnashed tight against food, he sloughed several flabby rolls. Whereas once he could only walk with assistance, now he paced up and down the long hallways.

Not that his reduction made him any younger, but more shriveled, with worry lines slivering his laugh lines, grays clumping like weeds in his enormous beard, and his hair threadbare and wispy.

The prince half-listened as his captains recommended siege plans and his cabinet advised him to regain popular support, for if his soldiers needed reinforcements to defend him and his people were traitors, only one might be trusted to save him. But should he not prevent the king from coming to Cjantosk? Should he not prevent his father from walking into what was certainly a trap? For there was only one reason for the monks to seize the gatehouse and allow Duke Conyll passage. The Corunans wanted the king to come, or failing in that, they were taunting the king’s army. While without his father’s intervention he had little hope, if the prince importuned his father, those zealots might pull the kingdom’s teeth in one yank.

As captains and stewards showed him maps, analyses, and logistic reports, he felt a need to stretch his legs. When he stood, his belly smacked and shuddered on the table, “Put a pin in that. I’m going for a walk.”

“Yes, your highness,” many murmured, averting their eyes.

“Begging your pardon, your highness,” said a lieutenant whose name he had forgotten, “but what do we do?”

“About what?”

“We only have food for two weeks. Three, if we eat the horses.”

While this statement once would have caused the prince to panic, for gourmandry was his pastime and gluttony was his vice, now that he could barely stomach gruel, he heard the crushing weight of that statement like a rational man, or the starved ghost of one. It meant his neck might lay on the chopping block, whether his disillusioned guards or the resentful rebels whetted the axe.

“One hour won’t make a difference.”

“Your highness, you’ve put us off every day this week.”

“Butcher the dogs for an even month,” he snapped, then lumbered into the hall and up the stairs to the third floor, where he paced the hallway.

While the thick-walled castle blocked the mob, famishment or strategy might deprive him of that, and like any peasant, hope would be his last treasure. Even posterity and history would abandon a prince who fostered civil war. As the only alternatives to hope were suicide and all-out attack—which amounted to the same thing—he must wait on his father, or his generals, if they still had great deeds left in them.

That he was a prince and powerless was so galling that his anger surged higher than it had since he was a thinner, landless whelp that desired the Courtesan Inwysse. Though her heart was only turned by money, what disappointed him was that far from thinking her unworthy, his father, tutors, and even his lickspittle retinue, disapproved of his undying love. Love was a passion, they told him, a temporary infirmity like the flu, that a prince must surrender to at times, while not submitting to its rule. All men, even princes and kings, die in love.

When he learned the king was an old customer, and had enjoyed his unobtainable whore, the prince abolished that love, allowing only a passion for food to smolder under his gray apathy. When he spurned the king’s pleas for an heir, and rejected handsome brides and handsomer dowries, it was less from resentment of his father than from submission to food; had he the whore for his concubine, he might still have been much as he was, but with a mistress on the dais to please.

As his thoughts spiraled deeper into fear, most of him melted away. The Prince faded first, as that was only a cake-topper for the masses to admire, a superficial pose held in the face of their worship and contempt; next, his manhood dissolved, for that was only the sugars and oils prescribed to him in tutors’ recipes for manners; beneath that finishing, the raw, raging passions of his youth had already seized on the devil’s food of gluttony; under it all, in the shining mirror of the tray, was the face of the child whose selfishness and selflessness now drove his feet restlessly across the carpet, stalled on its tottering progress from birth towards death.

Though his layers were indulged more, fattened to the point of decadence, he was assembled no differently from any other, and like many at middle age, having become a topheavy cake of lies, wished mostly to peer into the face of the child smothered by the foundation of the man and find that first flame of desire. Unsurprisingly, the frightened, forgotten boy was unimpressed by the man’s fear of losing everything, when nothing around him was valued. At some point, he had substituted the accolades of cravens for the approval of his lion-hearted father, and even the stirrings of his own heart, and he learned to live the life expected of him, rather than the life approved, or the life desired.

Not only was the life desired now so far removed as to be unrecoverable, but his father must not be allowed to save his wastrel son, and thereby imperil the kingdom. There was only one action left to the prince that would preserve the family honor.

Having not climbed to the roof since his father took him as a boy, he did not know the location of the battlement steps. This castle was once his father’s villa, in which the king wintered, summered, idled with books, and romped with mistresses, the more pointedly to ignore the councilors and viziers that were stranded with his duty at the capitol. Remembering now when his father took him up the tower stairwell to survey the tableau of tulips, markets, and stone houses, then made the grand gesture of giving the province to a boy who didn’t eat his greens and occasionally wet the bed, the prince supposed that his affection for Cjantosk was rooted in this golden age. Though the king treated Cjantosk as a territory to carve out the carnal activities befitting a despot of his rank, all matters of state were leagues away, and during the day the child prince fell into the king’s orbit. In the castle’s residence they would feast, and watch private plays, puppet shows, and fencing and boxing matches. When the prince’s sentiments stirred not only nostalgia for these old pastimes, but the memories of past time itself, it summoned the location of the tower steps.

Though he opened the tower door timidly, and questioned his resolve, he climbed the steps nonetheless, for if he lost his nerve, he still might see Cjantosk from that forgotten perspective and better recall his childhood. More likely, he groused, the view’s grandeur would be blocked by public works or ruined by Urgu’s havoc.

When he stepped onto the tower landing adjoining the battlement, the tableau lay as he remembered, with sunlight blazing on roofs, steeples, and monuments, and only the blue flags of his boyhood supplanted, by the prince’s own red pennants, which on the eve of civil war he had ordered flown by every loyalist in Cjantosk. His initial delight in his city’s vista faded as he strained to see whether loyalty had been dispelled by fear or infatuation with the Corunan power. Finding some banners displaced, he felt the roil of resentment, and stopped himself.

What he must do was already severe, and he would lose his nerve if he felt wronged by those for whom he bore this final responsibility. He gripped the embrasure, closed his eyes to steel himself for what lay after, then opened them with new resolve, only to see three swans, one between his hands on the allège, and one on each coussiège .

When the prince backpedaled, gasping “O gods” more in relief than surprise, one trilled a lilting melody, stretched out its beak, and tapped the others on their wings. They unfolded like an origami of feathers, then puffed into human shapes—a white bearded and dark complexioned man whom the prince presumed an islander, and an older woman and young man with the olive skin and dark brown hair of born Cjantoskans. All three wore Coruna’s robe.

When the islander asked “where is the prince?” like a born Cjantoskan or one who had lived there all his life, it wrecked the prince’s prejudices a little, and deflated him more than anything else since the siege.

“You mean, ’where is the prince, your royal highness.’” Though he intended the tautology as dry wit, he supposed educated wizards and priests would be unlikely to be amused.

The young man scoffed. “You’re not the prince. He’s so fat he can barely walk! Are you his double?”

“Though your spine-curdling insult betrays an unintended compliment, I will refrain from extending dungeon hospitality so long as you give me my honor by right. I am him.” When obeisance did not come, he said with exaggerated arrogance, “No, no, you need not beg nor grovel, for your large prince is largehearted.” And when their indifference seemed studied, possibly professional, he murmured, “please do not kill me. I’m a bad prince and a coward, but not a bad man. To spare my subjects further dishonor, I was about to throw myself from the tower.” He sobbed. “Though I’ve witnessed you swap feathers for holy robes, I’ve taken you not for rebels, but miracles, and pray you are not omens of my death.”

“Stop talking and listen,” said the woman. “Your royal highness, we come for your help.”

“You want me to end the siege? That’s what I was trying to do. If the monks want my head, I should give it to them. Why should my soldiers and staff die? Though I never looked after their self-interest, they have always looked after mine.”

“We want you to end the siege,” said the youth. “But not that way.”

“Though many would applaud your vain jump,” said the islander, “it might sadden your father, who is only a few leagues away.”

“He’s here? Thank you for saving me!” When his fear and shame dissolved in the excitation of his father’s immanent arrival, and the hope that the king’s armies might take revenge on the monks—even if his subjects were crushed against the rebels without regard to loyalty or disloyalty—he glanced at the unlikely messengers. “Why are you helping me? Are you not the enemy?”

“Speaking for myself,” said the woman, “I have paid little attention to your reign.”

“Speaking for all of us,” said the islander, “though we’re not your enemies, neither are we great friends that would savor your gratitude. It is a greater need than yours that brings us here. Did you mean it when you said you would die to spare the suffering of your people?”

The Prince stammered, “I was distraught, as my advisers painted a grim picture, and I hadn’t eaten my usual portions for days. Speaking of which...”

“We brought nothing to eat, your highness,” said the islander.

“It can’t be helped. To one whose life is food, this austerity condemned me already, and when I thought myself soon defeated and dead, I cast around for the most honorable method to dispose of my withering body. Do not bring me this joyous news, then ask me that!"

“Evil is evil,” said the woman, “and wicked is wicked, whether predestined or schooled. Whether eternal as darkness, universal as death, or ephemeral as prayer, evil is evil.”

“I would be delighted to discuss this fascinating catechism,” said the prince, “if we might table it downstairs?” The view from the battlements was no longer crammed with the nostalgia of childhood, but the more recent knowledge—better to call it a nausea—that he had nearly jumped to his death. “As you are not yet united in your proposal, your conspiracy may benefit from this intermission.”

“You’re a fool,” said the islander, in a sterner tone than any tutor, adviser, or aristocrat had ever plied with him, “if you think any building on Cjantoskan soil is safe. In the shelter of your royal ignorance, Chantosk grows not only tulips but iniquitous weeds that mirror your beautiful flowers.”

“While his tone is to be lamented, your highness, his words are true. You must come with us.”

“Do you take me to my father?”

“Going there would serve no purpose.”

“Why effect the prince’s rescue, and not enjoy the king’s gratitude?”

“Only that you call it a rescue, not lifting a siege. If your father also thinks no further than his own flesh and blood, then is given his object too quickly, he might postpone his attack, and leave Cjantosk to the butcher.”

“Where are you taking me?”

“The one place they won’t look.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

“It’s not so bad—we’re going to the library.”

“In the capitol? Leave me with my father, and I’ll get there more directly.”

“To the only library in Cjantosk.”

“The monastery?” The prince was dumbstruck. “Why not let me jump?”

“Be reasonable. They will not look for you there.”

The youth added, “He is being sensible. By your ludicrous logic, he should take lunch in our cafeteria.”

“Why explain anything to a fool?” asked the islander, “Your Highness, if you want your corpulent form back, follow me.” Like a wave collapsing into foam, the wizard then contracted into his former, feathered shape, and with a trill and a tap of his wing, he transformed the prince, then the others, into swans.

To one dulled by the immediate satisfaction of every princely whim, finding himself stuffed in the body of a swan so ballooned his self-awareness that he felt his mind mirrored upon itself, as if he stared down his mind’s eye only to find that he could not tear himself away.

When the others took wing, his lame flaps scratched a circle on the battlement, nearly tipping over the wall in his haste to reach the stairwell. As he skittered down step after step, he told himself he would make himself known by flaps and honks, like dogs tell of their dead masters, until this plan was blocked by the door he had locked upon entering. Though a swan’s mighty wings were said to break arms and lay men low, he wasn’t so stupid to think a twenty-five pound bird could split an iron-banded door, nor did he want his servants, no doubt more peckish than he was, to find a game bird had so graciously walked within twenty yards of knives and an oven. Seeing how descent blocked his flight gave him such a nervous pang that he gained a glimpse into a bird’s mind, and knew why they did not build roofs.

When a breeze banged the top landing door against the jamb, the thought it might latch, cooping him in the stairwell to be cherished by whomever craved a taste of swan, sent him in fluttering spurts for the creaking exit. Though he wasn’t yet king, after the lucky servant enlisted a cook as an accomplice to the prepping, roasting, and plating of his swan body, they might dine on faux regicide, both unconscious assassins and bewitched cannibals. His bird body was atremble with a singular shiver, something he had never experienced as a man, and if in that moment his fears were more honestly avian and less infected by human memory, he might have unleashed that pent-up squawk as he careened towards the battlements.

Though his luck had become penny thin, and seemed ever poised to tip from good to bad, it came heads up—or more likely still spun—when his flailing wing knocked wide the closing door, then scurried over the battlement to lunge through the embrasure in one graceful, feathered rush that answered his earlier yearning for defenestration and satisfied a more primal pulse that he didn’t know he possessed. When his quivering, winged nerve dipped not toward the earth, but bathed in the sky, his fears were obliviated, and for long minutes he thought nothing, almost losing the prince in the magical embrace of the sky. As walking was until recently near impossible for the prince, and even now a great difficulty, in that moment he never wished to leave this new medium. By descending through nature he had ascended through life, for an hour ago he wanted to end himself with a brief fall through space, and now he desired endless air.

The first princely thought that returned to the prince was that he greatly preferred being a swan. Unlike power and respect, mobility and speed required no inferiors to cultivate satisfaction; the prince liked the taste of self-love in every pure burst of flight, not a show to be appreciated, or a race to be won, but an experience in which to exult. His second thought was only one word: serenity.

When he saw the other three, his first impulse—and he knew not whether it was a prince’s whim or a swan’s instinct—was to veer away and pray they did not give chase, for if he followed them, he must give up this joy. When he followed the thought through to the full consequences of surviving as a swan—nourishing himself on pond grasses, bugs, and tadpoles, sleeping on sticks, and in other ways grasping at a habitat contrary to his privilege—self-consciousness crashed down, so that he then felt fearful of the great divide between sky and earth, as if he was only the king’s son, stuffed in a luxuriant swanskin, and hurtling by his own swinish weight.

His next thought was of flying for his father’s army, but having dined on swans, as well as falcons and eagles, he didn’t like his chances of being tendered to his father by a royal huntsman. When he remembered the fishy, oily taste of swan stew, his bird belly shook with hunger, then another squawk shivered the swan. Though at first it quivered unvoiced, when the strong shudder bugled forth, he tasted the revulsion in his beak, and thought he might never eat game birds again. When the other three swans veed, then circled him, he followed them to the monastery, which from above seemed a large stone coffin.

After alighting on a windowsill, one by one they hopped to the floor. Wooden book-lined shelves towered over the prince. When he could see the spines, but not read them, he panicked—were swans’ eyes not made for reading, or did swans not have the brains to read?—and not knowing the magician from the others, blatted and bleated at each swan in turn. As if he had followed not the enchanted swans, but common, illiterate ones, they stared at his outburst, and one waddled forward with wings stretched and its beak shrilly trilling as if in an overture to an attack. When he paddled forward on duck feet to meet its rush, its wing brushed his head, and the paunchy, middle-aged prince snapped back to stumble against a shelf, which swayed, but did not topple.

“Squa...” While the squawk’s back end never dropped, the prince proceeded to honk, “...change me back! Give me back my form!”

“You are the prince again,” said the islander, stepping away from the cumbersome prince, whose arms flailed like flabby wings, and who half-hopped like an overgrown bird before catching himself on a wobbly library table and panting.

“But no prize,” said the youth. “You were a healthier swan, though you might have been pate.”

The prince scowled. “You’re taking an awful chance, insulting your future monarch.”

“What chance?” asked the woman, “We rescued you.”

“Don’t think me ungrateful,” huffed the Prince, “in demanding a modicum of respect.”

“Also, your coronation is by no means a sure thing, with civil war looming, the nobility expecting the unlikely miracle of one so fastened to the dinner table producing an heir, and your father not preferring some handsome bastard to his legitimate son. Once all these ducks are in a row, you don’t become king by this minimum of merit but by waiting for your inheritance, and I might lay odds on our hale king, who sleeps in his saddle as much as you nod off over seconds, outlasting you, unless you’re comfortable with murder.”

“Murder?” said the King aghast. “That’s my father!”

“Forgive me—I meant regicide. Although...in fighting our faith the king will likely—if history serves as a guide—declare himself divinely appointed, or bypassing the need for further sanction, a god. Which would make your inevitable crime a deicide.”

“I would never..!”

“It all depends on the stage of his life: in his crib—you’ve missed your window—infanticide; after coronation, regicide and parricide; after declaring himself a god, deicide; and, after usurpation and exile, a common murder, without all the fancy trappings. Which one would it be if I stuck you here and now?”

“Janin!” shouted the woman. “That is enough.”

The prince looked away, less offended than incredulous--how did he deserve such enmity? In his peaceful governance, he endowed the guards with increased authority and discretion to preserve law and order in Cjantosk.

As if reading his mind, Janin continued. “No, it isn’t enough. He had enough, though, didn’t he? Given the power to change things, he chose to keep things the same.”

“How is that bad? Cjantosk is a good place with good people--should I not preserve the status quo?”

“Are they?”

“Are they what?”

“Are they good?”

“Why would you ask that?”

In reply, Janyn stuck his hands in his pockets and slouched into the library stacks. Though loaded bookshelves soon intervened between them, his chuffing series of sighs was soon the plainest detail in the dark library. However, the prince was relieved to note that he could read the titles on the nearest volumes.

“Why could I not read the names of those books a a swan?” the prince asked the islander.

The magician furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”

“Exactly what I said. I’m not being clever. Well, not in present company,” laughed the prince weakly.

“While owls are farsighted and cats are nearsighted, swans’ eyes vary like ours, and you should have the same eyes as a swan. And since the spell shapes bodies, not minds, if you could not read as a swan, fear might have shaken your mind.”

“Or the gods played a trick on you,” added the woman.

“Must you always bring gods into it, Eleita?” said the magician with a pained expression.

“Yes, leave them out,” said Janyn.

“Khlarn, you’ve seen the power of the gods,” said Eleita, “and Janyn, my patience with you is nothing short of a miracle.”

“While we’ve seen the power of something,” said Khlarn. “what is unfathomable is not necessarily divine.”

“Isn’t it?”

“If this is to be another dispute on human words,” said Khlarn, “I concede to your voluminous knowledge.”

“Was that word play, swan? My pedantry rubs off on you.” As Eleita wasn’t the sort to be dropped into a library without trying to read all the books, and succeeding in completing a third of them, Eleita had become a pedant, and the wizard’s use of voluminous seemed less figurative than literal.

“Oh yes,” laughed the Prince politely, “that’s a good pun.”

“What pun?” asked Khlarn innocently.

“Though you said voluminous as in vast, we also heard volume as in book, so that you seemed to call the librarian a bookworm.”

Somehow, Khlarn’s human mouth squawked like a swan, then he shook his hands above his head and followed Janyn into the library.

After Eleita and the prince were alone, he said, “I finally know your names.”

“Though I wanted to make introductions, you might have been captured in our escape, so we agreed to wait until we reached the library.”

“I see,” said the Prince. “What do I do now?”

“You’ll be safe in the wine cellar below the library. It’s mostly unused, and we’ve prepared it with bedding, a lantern, and a desk with paper and ink.”

“Who do I write?” asked The Prince.

“Whoever will support your bid against Mother Alyana.”

“I’m to foster civil war?”

“There already is one. And we just struck a major blow today.”

“Am I so important?”

“Your highness, how should I respond? Don’t look to me for moral support. While I was not opposed to rescuing you, Khlarn proposed the idea.”

The prince now realized that when Eleita scolded Janyn, it was only to reprove his behavior, not to bespeak an opinion of the prince. In fact, she seemed more critical. “You didn’t want to save me?”

Eleita sighed. “If moping is all you do, have at it in your new suite.” When she heaved open the moldering doors, a fetid odor—like a dog’s mouth—wafted from the wine cellar.

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