Chapter Eleven: Good Neighbors and Sovereign Storms
When Gaspar and Biter hurtled the Royal Theater's dome, Ilmar chuckled.
"Do I know that man?" asked the king. Though King Algus was only a little shorter than Ilmar, and wore a voluminous crown that jutted up and out in an inverted cone, the king's slight build and small features made him seem tiny to the wizard. And while Ilmar was accustomed to ostentatious attire, nothing in his wardrobe or his array of haberdashery enchantments could match the king's resplendent purple and red robe, which was interwoven with silk, gold thread, and, if Ilmar's eyes did not deceive him, unicorn hair. Though the garment had an antique cut, it was supple and effulgent, and Ilmar instantly coveted this priceless remnant of a bygone age as a rare opportunity to possess the extinct animal.
"One of your former courtiers has come into my employ, my liege. Since you dismissed him when he married this magnificent creature, he thinks himself disgraced in your eyes. If you forget Gaspar, I will tell him he believes overmuch in his own importance."
"I begin to remember. Lady Adelae asked me to dismiss him as a personal favor. Though I knew her not a bit, our exchange of favors charmed me, so that we soon took the same position. I'm sure you need no persuasion that I was overcome by her good form and gentle bosom in our tender congress." Though the king's insinuations were from fourteen years past, and though they were phrased ornately, so that Adelae could pretend not to understand, Ilmar darkened at the innuendo that Algus had taken liberties with his new paramour.
"Your majesty," said Lady Adelae, "I am of such little consequence that you have misremembered. I never asked such a thing."
"I remember. Every dismissal plagues me so. Sorcerer, if you know a spell to remove my soul, so I could put it on my nightstand with my spectacles and teeth, I'd sleep better."
"You're too witty," said Ilmar, "but you mean wizard. I am no sorcerer, neither am I a conjurer, soothsayer, or necromancer."
"The day is running backwards." said King Algus. "A no account lighthouse Countess contradicts me, and a mountebank sorcerer—excuse me, warlock, thaumaturge, charlatan, which is it?"
When Ilmar's eyes wanted to narrow and his nostrils to flare, he strangled those signs of his roiling anger by knotting his hands behind his back, then composed his face into a mask."Yes, my liege. I mean, yes, I am a wizard, but no, I do not contradict you, for ignorance is the absence of learning, not its contradiction. As a man of learning, my design is to instruct."
"Ha ha," laughed the king good-naturedly. "Instruct your ignorant king how to meet that young man. In the event I'm not using that word correctly, let me clarify. Enlighten me. Edify me. Educate me. I am waiting."
Seeing this thin-skinned king was nothing but ego and toes, and always at risk of being bruised or stepped on, Ilmar reined in his impudent tenor. "At once, my liege."
Feeling very much like an errand boy, Ilmar mounted Deathspell, took to the air, and spied Gaspar browsing the restaurant district and walking Biter behind him. When the wizard landed next to his minion, people jumped, their faces furrowed with annoyance and fear. "How goes it, Gaspar?"
"You would embarrass me in front of the king," said Gaspar.
"While that was my intent, Gaspar," said Ilmar. "Algus is a dotard, and your shame is dead."
"Though he knew Adelae by name, title, and endowments, your unmanly attributes were so forgettable to that old lecher that he wishes to make your acquaintance."
"I remember. I could not bear it.'
"Will this make it bearable? When Adelae asked for your dismissal, the king satisfied your betrothed." Though the king's insinuations were still irksome, it was pleasurable to pass it on to Gaspar.
"Why would she do such a thing? Why did you tell me?"
"I take as much pleasure in her squirms of discomfort as her squirms of pleasure. Possibly more—I do like to watch her squirm. I suppose I told you because you're much the same after so many years together." As Gaspar simmered and Ilmar gloated, they walked a little further, quietly. "Gaspar, I'll extend your vacation and deepen your pockets. If you don't come there may be an impasse in my negotiations with the king."
"What do you want from the king?"
"Trading rights between Wysaerie and Vanoor will legitimize my rule in the eyes of other kings. While I wouldn't mind brigandry if outlaws had a peerage and pedigree, I am desirous to socialize with those worthy of my society. And one day marry one suitable of my great station and sire a brood of sage wizards."
"Marry? What of Adelae?
"Tragically, the Baroness is a mesalliance, a ship passing in the night. Fear not, when I return her she will still be seaworthy."
"If I haven't been clear," said Gaspar, "she's all yours."
"If you insist," said Ilmar, "I can sink her in a way that will not inconvenience you."
"Please do," said Gaspar. "and tell her she can find no harbor with me."
"I am happy to pass that along, should you choose to mediate for me. If the king continues to be uncooperative, my plan B will make widows and orphans, so think of yourself as a peacemaker."
"If I must."
When they returned to the theater doors, a footman held a handwritten scrip: King Algus demands your presence forthwith, without delay, immediately, post haste."
"The old man prolongs a weary joke. Whatever you do, shopkeeper, don't correct him. His memory is long for such a tiny, forgetful old man."
"I'm happy to wait on the king's pleasure, as he's reigned decades longer than his forebears and may know something worth heeding."
King Algus's castle, built four centuries prior from slabbed black stone, was so ancient, ponderous and massive that one wall seemed to sag, another to lean, and a number of newer granite buttresses fortified the walls. Though the stars were out, and the moon dipped toward the horizon, they were conducted swiftly to the king's presence through a bustling castle recovering from one of the queen's full regalia court dances, which the king dodged to attend the play with his mistress. The staff insisted that the griffins not be stabled but taken directly to King Algus, down a wide hallway which Gaspar recalled had often accommodated the canter of mounted knights.
Though the throne room was dimly lit by hissing brass gas lamps, moonlight flooded through the windows. Despite the passage of fourteen years that had made some rotund and others spotted with age, Gaspar knew more than half of the milling nobles, royals, potentates, presidents, ambassadors, authors, artists, musicians, scholars, and travelers that were summoned from the queen's after-party. And though Gaspar may not have left an impression in the monarch, he knew the king to be a showman who loved an audience. When he saw that the monarch had removed his crown, freeing a cascade of white hair to flow over his robes and throne, Gaspar was certain something was going to happen. Vanoori kings are proud of the hair that they never cut, but rarely reveal it.
"As you can all see, the peasant stories are true. Come closer," bade King Algus, "that we may see this flight of griffins that has come to Vanoor." Fixing Gaspar with his gaze, he asked, "do you own these beasts, or do they own you?" Not even a second had passed before the king added, "speak, man! Your king commands it."
"Your highness," said Ilmar, "this man, and these griffins, are my subjects. They answer to me."
"Your subjects? We recognize magical beasts as subjects of no sovereign power. While this man may have that dignified status, I am his king. Unless you have come to declare treason, or rebellion, or stage a coup with my friends and allies all about me?"
"I vainly seek diplomacy with the unimaginative and court the indelicate. Perhaps if I appeal to your practical nature, your majesty, you might treat me with the courtesies due a new nation. Some years ago, when I discovered an island resting atop a cloud, I claimed it as my own. Where my wizardly wind blows, there drifts Wysaerie, my sovereign tempest, with rainstorm feet and griffin claws. But like a good neighbor, I have come to open trade relations."
"I would admire your brass if your threats were not tin, and were you not wrought from such base mettle that you seek to claim authorship for the brazen, terrible depredations of those monsters. Moreover, as you have no title to dignify those airs, and I have never released you from the land, you were born my subject and would die a serf if I did not hang you for rebellion or bridgandry."
"My liege," said Ilnar, "I was born a free man to House Andercruik."
"Listen to him say 'my liege' when it suits him," sniffed King Algus. "If you were freeborn, when you claimed yourself king of another territory, you renounced your citizenship. Not only can you not pretend to a fairy throne and remain citizen of Vanoor, but I have never permitted any dual citizenship, as it opens the floodgates to turncoats, spies, and traitors." When the king waved his hand toward the Captain of the Guard, a dozen guardsmen advanced.
"If it pleases you, I renounce my citizenship, and claim myself subject only to the laws of Wysaerie. You have no power over me," said Ilmar, and when he bowed with a flourish, rose red spear-points of light radiated from him. Many clapped their hands to their eyes, and when one guard was gored by the blades of light, so that he added his gruesome red to the glare, the others backpedaled from the crimson rays.
"It does please me," continued the king nonchalantly, as if an impalement and a stand-off had not occurred. "And since you can back up your ludicrous claim of self-sovereignty, I will take your bid to open trade relations under advisement." Aside from the king speaking, and guardsmen winching crossbows, the room had grown deathly quiet. "However, if we are to conduct these negotiations in earnest, you must relinquish my citizen." Turning to Gaspar, the king added, "unless you're a king, too?"
"Yes, my liege," said Gaspar. "I mean no, your highness."
"How soon you forget. It's 'your majesty.'"
"Have you renounced your citizenship?"
"No, your majesty, I have not."
"Do you wish to?"
"No, your majesty."
"Your loyalty pleases me. Do you wish to rejoin my retinue?"
"My Lord...I mean your majesty." Gaspar stopped. His jaw dropped. "I'm honored."
Algus cackled. "I thought so. Don't take this the wrong way, Gaspar, but you're more valuable an employee now than you were. To be honest, if I could strike a deal with the monster, I'd hire the griffin rather than the rider."
"Your majesty," said Ilmar. "We have a contract, and must decline."
"Though we recognize your sovereignty, without a trade agreement Vanoor recognizes neither your contracts with our citizens, nor any play money you minted or printed. Like yourself, this subject was born a free man and entered and left my employ as such." The king's eyes swept the room, lingering for a moment on the crossbows before allowing the smirk to flicker to his lips. "So you see, I win, conquer, vanquish, crush, take the victory."
"Your Highness," said Ilmar, "I apologize if I have offended. I have much to offer and want little in return."
"We will revisit this conversation when your monsters and your storm behave themselves. Good bye, good day, you're dismissed, this audience is ended."
Though Ilmar was spited in the eyes of everyone who was anyone, and his heart melted into murder, it was being in the sights of crossbowmen that made him decide it would be wiser to bow out graciously. That said, the wizard felt himself neither wise nor gracious at that moment, dug his heels in Deathspell's flanks, and crashed the skylight, before realizing that, in losing his plaything, he forgot his pet. When Adelae gaped through the shattered ceiling window, he was moved more by pity than false love to blow a kiss, then lobbed a blue spark that coiled around her. When he tugged on the spiraling lash, she burst into tatters and ashes.