Chapter Twelve: Split Ends and Private Shows
King Algus wasn't sure why anyone would aspire to be a Captain of the Guard, as it seemed a thankless role, though he admitted the paces that he put his servant through might contrast peculiarly with the habits of other monarchs: never far from the king's hand, and always needing to know the king's mind, made of Captain Antynius a butler, a valet, a scribe, a short order cook, twice an impromptu executioner, and today, a procurer. Fortunately, as his man brought good tidings on a letter scented in the piquant muskiness of labdanum, cinnamon, and rose, this was one of those latter days, and he had just sent for his hairdressers, and begun to brag of his amorous plans to Antynius, when who should come calling but Gaspar and Biter. Since watching the griffin despoil a screaming horse was the king's favorite pastime, his servants were instructed to allow man and beast passage to his throne at all hours.
With his throne turned toward the courtyard, where the feast was on full display, Gaspar told the tale of his former employer, that pernicious wizard and animal handler, Ilmar, and his ambitious cousin, Lord Andercruik. While king Algus batted not an eye at Ilmar's evil eccentricities, when he heard of Lord Andercruik's brazen massacre, a carnage costly to the kingdom, tragic to its subjects, and profitless to Leonidas, he wondered why so many madmen and monsters nested his realm during the golden years of his reign. Not for the first time, Algus thought of reviving blood sports to satisfy the lust for this kind of amusement. Having kept the peace for fifty years, the people should pay him back in kind, not cut their neighbors' throats, traffic in pleasure on Duremar's streets, and suborn commerce in sinking the coins stamped with his face into the black market.
Gaspar finished his story only a tenth of the way through the hairdressers' efforts, as King Algus's head was overlarge both figuratively, from the vanity he took in the copious hair thought manly among the peerage, and literally, from the nine feet of white hair that required three hairdressers and a maid. For though the king was proud of the length, and would not sacrifice an inch, he permitted occasional trimming of split ends, as well as the strategic thinning of the hair, to render it more manageable, and the maid bustled more than the stylists as she swooped in to brush each cast-off white hair from his robes. Though King Algus's mask-like impassivity was so famous that it was immortalized in portraits, when a hair alighted on the royal cheek, the twitch cracked the mask, until the maid brushed his cheek, then apologized for the liberty.
King Algus hoped the tic did not seem a squeamish reaction to Biter's engorgement on the still-shuddering horse. Mustering his most pompous bravado, the king said "While I shouldn't interrupt your bewitching tale, I see an opportunity for you to amuse me and enrich yourself, Gaspar."
Algus sighed. Gaspar was either very boring without a subject, or he was too intimidated by his king to engage in banter. "Appointing you court executioner might renew interest in what were once festival days, for the novelty of staging Biter's feasts on crime would enthrall attendees, instill obedience, make my fame rise, and entertain me by making me a vicarious cannibal." Algus chortled.
"I don't have the stomach for that."
"Though you didn't think Biter could stomach live horse, your coos and caresses couldn't smooth her wild heart. Nature is natural."
"I'm not a beast at heart, your majesty."
"You're wrong, Gaspar. That wild god nature tyrannizes us all. When the mob cries for a rebel's blood, what stays my hand is not my bloodthirsty heart, which echoes the fury of the crowd, but the restraint I learned from tutors and books. And so I am either a slave to my bestial nature or a slave to learning, and tend to give in to the latter, unless I feel the savagery of the people is underfed, in which case I might lean the other way. Since even your king is a slave of sorts, humor me in this, Gaspar."
"I am both constitutionally unable to do this, and making Biter a man-eater may limit my mobility in polite society." Though Algus was irked to be rebuffed, he was satisfied to find a line this craven would not cross. All men owned fear, and all men had spine, and it was one of his talents to know the limits of his servants.
"While I admire your courtly breeding, I define polite society in Vanoor. On Tuesday, I can make the outre in, on Wednesday, I can turn ettiquette into etti-can't, and on Thursday I can imprison the aristocrats and make the peasants my new peerage. I could take a persona non grata like yourself, make you my headsman and heir, then order you to kill all those in the line of succession. My opinion is the only one that has weight, Gaspar." After a few moments, King Algus added, "So what were your plans today?" Gaspar did not like his emphasis on were.
"I had thought to watch sports on the concourse, then go to the theater."
"You haven't been?"
"No, I've gone eleven times."
"Eleven? I've only watched Curvalot five times in its three year run."
"I am a great admirer of the architect."
"Though we were lucky to get him from Klyrn," said Algus, "Lady Venhault is our finest import."
"She brings such a glory to the part," said Gaspar, "that I can't imagine another in the role."
"Though I hate to disappoint such a twofold fan as yourself, it can't be helped. I'm sending you to Khlarn."
"To Khlarn? Now?"
"Now. Though the three week journey through mountain passes might be three days' flight, morning may be too late, as recent missives recommend I win allies in the Klyrnish court, where Vanoori bandits, provocateurs, and anarchists hold court with the king."
"Wearing your colors, my liege, will I not be in danger in the stronghold of your enemies?"
"Gaspar. This is no test of puissance or character, but salesmanship—put on your bravest, friendliest face, and win friends. Not for you," the king hastened to add, "but for your nation and your king."
"What message am I to deliver?"
"While I might trust landbound agents with this message, that one of them might bear the tale of it to the Klyrnish king, with your flying steed, I need not trust your ears and mouth that quiver and stutter to hear and speak evil. You're simply too whitehearted, Gaspar—and I mean that in both the cruelest and kindest sense, in that you're as craven as you are good."
"If you think that best, your majesty," said Gaspar. When the man smiled, King Algus could no longer bear to look at him. He brushed a fallen hair from his beard—bringing another apology forth from the maid, whose hand was too slow—then handed an iron tube towards Gaspar, his eyes still fixed squarely on his own portrait. Though the portrait was even more mortifying to meditate upon, as it showed Algus riding a unicorn bareback and au natural, his white hair streaming behind him in what could best be described as a faerie flutter, in the painting was buried only the blind ambition of a favor-seeking artist, and not the disappointment, fear, anxiety, and worst of all, worship, which watered in Gaspar's eyes. While the king would prefer a more level-headed agent than such a fervent admirer, it couldn't be helped. Only Gaspar could represent his wishes in time, though it was a sour necessity, for the messenger did not flatter the king's purple and red livery, which were tailored for broader shoulders and brawny chests.
"Knowing the likelihood of you guarding this with your life, I'll ask you only to keep it on your person. Speaking of your person, as you are to represent the Vanoori crown, I've ordered garments for you tailored more to my liking. Additionally, I've commanded more stylish saddle and harness crafted for Biter, and Klyrnish coin withdrawn from the royal bank. I imagine you still know the rudiments of the Klyrnish tongue?"
"When last at court, your majesty, I thought to gain the fancy of Lady Venhault, who had made her first appearance in the touring production of "The Mouser, The Mice, and the Nine Madrigals."
King Algus recalled that traveling musical fondly, for it marked the beginning of Vanoor's romance with the theater as well as his first trysts with his mistress. "That show prefaced my decision to commission the Royal Theatre."
"You are a sagacious king with impeccable taste, your majesty," said Gaspar, "though many were enamored of her charms, and all the courtiers thought to gain her fancy. I thought my rapid fluency in Klyrnish might press my advantage, but she only asked for room service and introduction to knights and lords."
"How wonderful!" clapped King Algus. "While I dreaded that rural life deadened your wit, when you embellish those self-deprecating anecdotes, I am amused in spite of myself, and so would be any audience, high or low, even those painted savages in Klyrn. Try that instead of repartee. As to nonverbal self-defense, what are your skills?"
Gaspar patted Mikken's Wand, which he had taken to wearing in a fashionable hip scabbard, though he still lurched from the unaccustomed weight. "This magic sword fights on my behalf like a hero, my liege."
"Did Ilmar give you that?"
"Yes, your majesty."
"And you're the best of friends."
"Your majesty knows Ilmar to be a monster."
"Did the wizard give you anything that wasn't half curse, griffin included?"
"No, your majesty."
"Gaspar, I hate to be so overbearing, but a malevolent will gifted that blade. Since you can't trust it, use it only as a last resort."
"I'll leave it here, your majesty," said Gaspar.
"Leave it here? Lacking any other skills, why would you leave behind a magic sword? Other than that, only holding the high ground will keep you alive. If you find yourself on a battlefield, steer clear of any real fighting and drop javelins from your griffin. That said, you're not heading for war, but a king's throne."
"While I have never aspired to conquer by skill at arms, your majesty, how can I gain honor with such cowardly tactics?" said Gaspar.
"As my herald, you're the front line of my reputation, not your own," said King Algus. "When I do choose to send you into war, we'll armor you head to toe and your griffin too, once she can bear the weight. As my ambassador, your shield will be this banner." When Algus waved his hand, a guardsman took two steps and handed Gaspar a long spear trailing a pennant. "Though the pike head is more than ornamental, don't use it as a weapon. If you're charged by wyvern Knights, wave it so they know you're no advance scout."
"Klyrn fields its own flying knights on the backs of regressive dragons called wyverns for the venomous sting that tops their tail. The beasts have no dragonfire and only two muscular legs on which to perch, but their wings have a hundred foot span, and though the enormous lizards are slow fliers, they are steady gliders and their riders have learned to launch arrows to incredible distances." At Gaspar's blanched expression, the king added, "don't get killed, Gaspar. Not yet. I have plans."
""I might serve you better, your Majesty, if I knew not the message, but its preface and footnotes, so I do not seem a fool."
"Quite right. I wouldn't want you to step in it." The king chortled. "The prologue to your adventure occurred the night of late, lamented Adelae's funeral." Since the wizard raked Vanoor with the back and forth of the cloud island's constant storm, the funeral was all the drearier, with The Baroness of Cape Fliess's black-suited mourners nearly invisible in the blackness that fell with the rain from Wysaerie's starless underbelly. Though there was no love lost between Gaspar and Adelae, and his childhood dream of having a noble title was fulfilled when she left no will to contest, the new Baron nonetheless felt overcast by that dark day, for they were married many years, good and bad, and had not a few good memories. Moreover, there was the final insult of Adelae's adulterous admirers, who reinforced her meager surviving family with a conspicuous surplus of menfolk, making the dirge march a promiscuous mockery of a funeral procession. The only skirt in attendance was the casket's, for as to friends of Adelae's own sex, there were none, and the womenfolk in Adelae's family, as well as all her father's wives, died under mysterious causes, rendering Adelae's persistence to well-preserved middle age miraculous. While Adelae's posthumous humiliation of her husband was not lessened to see that the army of paramours vastly outnumbered Ilmar's nom de plumes, he took some satisfaction in the wizard knowing he was a cuckold as well, for Ilmar was such an egoist that he likely attended his victim's funeral in enchanted guise. That said, seeing The Viscount of Yoler, Bischoff the candy merchant, Valcuni the Vanoor spy, Garrick the horse trader, and Melchion the lutenist consoled Gaspar with the knowledge that the wizard stole, rather than created, these identities, indicating not only that the wizard's imagination was poorer than he bragged, but that Gaspar's misery had some company.
The king's snide remark about stepping in it referenced after the burial, when Gaspar trod a funeral horse's road apple down thirty yards of castle carpet. The servants, having to clean that lengthy smear, wouldn't look at him for days, and the king remarked that when one has excrement where one's head should be, one shouldn't be surprised by leaving a trail.
"That night, while you were grieving or watching Curvalot for the ninth or tenth time, Ilmar renewed his depredations of Vanoor. Nineteen letters from the reaches of my kingdom each tell a similar story, of griffins that tore house and stable walls to devour two-legged and four-legged meat, discriminating not between man, woman, child, horse, pony, or dog. When my knights sallied forth, they learned the folly of fighting these beasts full-grown. One Lord—a tractable fellow, who had just given me mining rights on his ancestral lands—lost his heir when the man-child was ripped from his horse, then flung to the ground with such force that the dead boy could not be extracted from the creased and smashed armor which served as his coffin. Though archers struck one dead, it took nineteen arrows, and their inspection of the corpse determined that while all pierced the skin, many had flattened on the griffin's obdurate bones. Each letter relates another horror of sons eviscerated, daughters decapitated, and cowardly lords deserting lands left without representation, and more of a tragedy, without taxation to replenish the royal treasury. While you know me for my peculiar sense of humor, I am weak to read of these malevolent ravagings and monstrous sports, the more so in that though Vanoor is prosperous, we have little recourse against winged monsters and wizards."
At this point, Gaspar was a few steps ahead, as he already knew that Ilmar could guide a cloud island and steer griffins, and drew a conclusion about what that meant for his aerial journey. "Your majesty, what if griffins waylay me on the way to Klyrn?"
"Gaspar, do not think a fabled sword will cut the miles of difference between an unmanly man astride a half-fledgling, and a ferocious, full-grown griffin. No offense. My own chances would measure poorly outside of a fairy tale penned by my minstrel."
"I was thinking the same thing—not that you wouldn't measure up," Gaspar hastily added, "but that I should apply myself with haste toward the goal."
"Very good," said King Algus, though Gaspar did not know if that was praise for him or the hairdressers, who raised a gold-backed mirror for the king, so that he could see his head nesting in the piled-up hair. "There is no need to delay this meeting any further." The Vanoori monarch rapped the window.
Hearing Biter's squawks, Gaspar turned to watch the stablers carefully harness the griffin, first with a suede blanket trimmed with white fur, then with a diamond-checked saddle, bulging saddlebags, a brass-chased leather quiver of javelins, and another, longer sheath for the pennant.
"This writ with our royal seal will permit Biter to graze on her choice of game animals or livestock. Though it details their options for remuneration, try to pick someone that can afford it. While one saddlebag has provisions for you, you're free to graze wherever you like as well, for while you're carrying that standard, no one will stop you—other than bandits, assassins, and the wyvern knights. The other saddlebag has your newly tailored clothes; keep the contents of each bag separate, so you don't smell like cheese when presenting my message to the Klyrnish king." When King Algus rose to his feet, two valets covered him, first with a surcoat of gold and silver thread, then his coat of unicorn-hair. "Quickly, Gaspar. They must get that message in three days."
Though Gaspar wished himself better forearmed, King Algus's sagacious forewarning served the cautious messenger, so that after they embarked, the greatest nuisance was a land predispositioned by Ilmar's storms to fear and revile griffins, even one in the king's colors bearing the king's herald and the king's standard. The king's writ proved both insult and injury, so that he exercised his license to pilfer prudently, which is to say, whenever the griffin's hunger was invincible.
As he was terrified of the thought of facing other griffins, he pushed Biter as far as she could fly, so that both were sore and exhausted at day's end, though Gaspar was only saddlesore, and poor, breathless Biter's wings shuddered even during her sleep.
While frightful of griffins, Gaspar's greatest dread became confronting the bereaved who had lost fathers, brothers, mothers, or daughters to the monsters, and looked at them with rancor, so that Gaspar feared he might cause groundswells of opinion against the king. By the time he reached the Vanoori border, it became apparent that human deaths were rare, and limited to the nobility, so that it was mainly animals which had not the sense to hide that were decimated.
When a bugle blasted his reverie, Gaspar looked askance at the armored trumpeter, who rode a scaled beast thrice Biter's length, and four times the griffin's wingspan. Though the rider's bugle was as long as him, it was more maze than pipe, its winding brass somehow untangling his breath into a drawn-out klaxon blast.
While Gaspar knew heraldry, and had seen the two-legged, winged dracoil depicted rampant, passant, dormant, and statant on shields, tabards, and flags, this was his first eyeful of a flesh and blood wyvern, and the serpentine monster, a mass of wings, coils, scales, claws, and tail, would never again seem static and symbolic to Gaspar's imagination. As the wyvern's head, tail, and wings slithered in several directions at the same time, the question of its facing was laughable, though there was no question that its capacious wings would overtake Gaspar and Biter, despite that it was burdened with armor. Two iron horns as long as swords protruded from the wyvern's half-helm, and its natural scales were draped with a coat of black enameled shells, each the size of a small shield.
Though the common person yells dragon at one and all, dragons are believed extinct, and wyverns descend from their feral, prolific, bastard relations, the dracoils. The learned man may know, before being devoured, that dragons were fabled not only to fly, breathe fire, and covet gold, but as anthrophiles enamored of all human artifacts, and shape-changing polyglots that treasured most of all songs and stories. If dragons still roam the land of Vanoor, they have settled into their human skin, and you have a greater chance of finding a human-form dragon in an antique shop or the Royal Theater than in the wild. By comparison, the dracoils are varied and sundry—some are winged, and others slither; some have venomous stings, and others are tailless; some breathe fire or hoarfrost, and others only gulp air, like the mute stingwyrms; the only thing that all have in common is being dumb as door nails. While there may have been the rare self-taught dracoil that could talk or count to three, no example was known, for the peril of the monstrous realms was a great barrier to scholarship. Since the departure of dragons, a teeming profusion of dracoils clawed their way into the ancient saurians' territories, both too many to catalog and so rife as to put a halt to the expansion of the human kingdoms. Gaspar's specialized knowledge was limited to griffins, accounting, and heraldry, so he could be forgiven for his fears of being roasted alive by a flameless wyvern, as to him a wyvern was a squiggle of paint on a shield or tabard. That he was also ignorant of the true danger, that of asphyxiating from being struck breathless by its paralytic sting, went without saying, and was a blessing to Gaspar, whose imagination was already overcome by the six inch teeth and foot long claws of the wyvern.
When Gaspar remembered to wave his banner, the rider waved the pennant fluttering from his horn, then pulled the reins and turned the wyvern. Gaspar took this as an invitation, and followed.
Though King Algus dismissed Gaspar with as much kindness and gratitude as the Baron deserved, all the world's luck, earnestness, and promotion could not dispel the circumstances of Gaspar's birth, and his low-born heart; as what was entitlement to the king was conceit to Gaspar, the King would never truly take Gaspar into his confidence.
Antynius was a different story. King Algus had promoted him to Captain of the Guard because Antynius's father, one of the king's most loyal privateers, had wanted more for his son than following in the family business of scuttling Klyrnish vessels, and overeducated the lad at Ardem Academy. Antynius, who had the soul of a hammer and penmanship like rows of crushed spiders, nonetheless knew his letters and kept the king's counsel as his own, which for discreet messages, was preferable to the castle scribe, for though that wit wryly dressed the king's thoughts in an exquisite style foreign to the king's royal faculties, he was also a saucy tale-teller.
"Dear kinsman," Algus dictated to Antynius. "Your recent adventures merit additional duty—namely, as Glasford's new tax collector, in which you will be responsible for that village's tax per annum. Though I would prefer you receive the notoriety that you deserve, if the tax continues without interruption, I see no reason why you may not reap the benefits of your labors." The king chortled at the idea of forcing his rich, arrogant relation to pay dead peasants' taxes. "That's enough. He's not dim, that one. After you escort me to my private performance, take it to him directly."
While Antynius was dressed in a light brown tunic, and could have been taken for a merchant or craftsman, King Algus would never dress down that far, and wore the brown buckled vest, white gown, and wide-brimmed black hat which were popular with the scholars of Ardem. Antynius's short sword was concealed in his tunic, but the court district was safe at all hours, largely due to the Captain's own orders, and they were less in danger of being murdered or robeed than recognized and rumored about by the bustling night life. Though the Captain had farther to go that night, through sordid districts, and lastly to the infamously gory Andercruik manor itself, his slight worry for his trusted lackey was banished at the sight of the Madame Curvalot stage, where the lights were on though the seats were empty and the scrim drawn.
When the king parted the stage curtains to enter the mock bordello, he found the curtains tied shut on the prop bed, but past this final veil, Lady Venihault was covered only in sheets.