After a long, bumpy night of travel (and a long, bumpy day of more travel) the fair city of Delia was fair only in memory. Prince Robin and Rodney were making “pretty-okay” time. They had stopped, at certain intervals, to rest their trusty burros. They stopped for wine and cheese at ten (for example). And cheese and wine at noon (for another example). And again at three, but Robin skipped the cheese. By the end of the day the young prince was a bit sloshed and Rodney was getting tired of hearing him expound upon certain subjects. To wit:
♦ The drudgeries of kingship.
♦ The inestimable value of frippery (Rodney’s word).
♦ Various fripperies that he (Robin) planned shortly to make, or acquire.
♦ The many shortcomings of the wagon that he (Rodney) had purchased for the trip.
(And, if instead of “expound,” you were to substitute “complain,” (or even “whine,” “whinge,” “caterwaul,” or “carp,”) Rodney might mention He Never Said That At All.) At any rate, when the sign for the Breezy Hill Inn appeared, they both thought it was a fabulous idea.
The Breezy Hill Inn was located on a hill. As they coaxed their trusty burros up the long curving approach, Robin remarked that it really was pretty breezy. Rodney remarked that the breeze seemed to be increasing. In fact (they both agreed) it was getting downright windy. At this point hats, cloaks, and a few of the smaller valises had to be tied down and the ears of their trusty burros twitched as they shook their heads to rid themselves of the penetrating gale.
There’s only one place on Earth where the polar easterlies and the horse-latitude westerlies join forces to howl down a narrow valley and converge upon a small hill (Breezy Hill). So (of course) that’s where a demented ancestor of the present owners thought it would be a good spot to build an inn. (It wasn’t. It was a really bad spot.) However, after a few generations of madness and suicide, a smarter (and more proactive) ancestor built a shield wall that redirected these winds up, across the Great Highway, and back into the sky where they belonged. As soon as Prince Robin and Rodney reached the shelter of this wall the winds died down and their six little burros began to trot with a carefree air once again.
“We have to get roses for them,” said Prince Robin. “Or daisies. Or something. They’re just too cute.”
Rodney sighed. “It’s fall, sir. There’s not even a tulip.”
“Artificial flowers then,” said the prince. “And bells! Lots of bells!”
“I shall make inquiries, sir,” said Rodney (who intended to do no such thing). “Perhaps they have bells and artificial flowers for sale in the lobby.”
“I could make them coats,” said Robin. “And little hats!”
“At least we’re out of that beastly wind,” said Robin. “I almost lost a haunch.”
Rodney guided the wagon up to the big, circular (and very grand) entrance. A wagon-hop came out to take the burros to the barn and host of bellhops descended upon the wagon. They seized Robin’s luggage with glee. They thought he’d be a good tipper. And he was. (Robin didn’t know anything about tipping so he handed out gold coins like…well…like a fabulously wealthy young prince.) The bellhops were ecstatic. A few earned enough to take a year off. One made enough to buy his own inn. Rodney carried his small black bag himself, so they politely ignored him.
Robins was put in the Royal Suite which overlooked both the chicken coops and the yard where the chickens liked to scratch around and find small pieces of corn. (The chickens thought they were foraging like real wild birds but members of the staff actually put the corn down for them when they weren’t looking.) The owners of the inn, Belle and Dixie, loved chickens. They loved to watch them strut around with their heads bobbing; they liked to hear them coo or cackle, and they laughed like loons whenever they saw them pecking. They just really got a kick out of it. They thought it was the funniest thing. And since they couldn’t imagine anyone feeling differently about chickens, they made them the main attraction of the Royal Suite.
Prince Robin didn’t like chickens. He didn’t know this before he stayed at the Breezy Hill Inn. Before this, most of Robin’s experience with chickens was centered around roasting pans, rosemary, herbes de Provence, a little basting, perhaps even a rotisserie! But bobbing, cooing, cackling and pecking were definitely new and (as I mentioned) Robin didn’t like them. The main thing was that the chickens kept doing them over and over again. Apparently, chickens don’t get bored with repetitive tasks. Who knew?
Rodney wound up in a snug little room on the ground floor. It was cozy, warm, and had a soft bed. The room opened on to a private garden with a koi pond. Inside the room was a small natural hot spring flowing into a pool (like the Sacred Pool, but warm and without newts). Rodney tried it out immediately and was as happy as a trout. Both Belle and Dixie had heart conditions so they were always too warm. They couldn’t imagine anyone choosing to sit in a hot pool when they could be looking down on chickens and laughing all day long. (There’s no accounting for taste.) At any rate, Rodney was very comfortable there, and that’s the important thing.
After Rodney unpacked (two minutes flat) he went in search of adventure. Perhaps, he thought, the Breezy Hill Inn might have a convivial bar. And sure enough (after asking four or five people) he chanced upon it.
The bar was somewhat dimly lit. Actually it was very dimly lit. (In truth, you could barely see anything). Each table had a small candle in a red jar. Each jar gave off a tiny, ruddy glow. Because of this lighting scheme all the patrons looked terrific and tripped over each other constantly. The ceiling was festooned with thousands of bottles suspended by strings (which most people never worried about because it was too dark to see them). Rodney ordered a local brew called Breezy Hill Ale. After his eyes adjusted he saw the place was really quite crowded.
Most people were at the small tables enjoying a quiet chat and the inn’s famous ale. But from one dark corner came the sound of laughter. Not happy laughter. Not good-natured laughter. It sounded like the kind of laughter that can lead to serious lapses of judgment—especially in a bar. This laughter was sarcastic. It was sardonic. (It could even, in a pinch, be called evil.) Rodney moved to the end of the bar to get a better look. (He also evaluated his barstool for use as a shield and ordered another Breezy Hill Ale in case law enforcement shut the place down.)
At a table in the darkest corner he saw a tall, foreign-looking chap in an outlandish costume. A pointed hat hung from a hook at the end of the booth. He was wearing crazily-patched clothing and he looked like some kind of juggler or clown. (You guessed it! It was the jongleur that Princess Star met and stabbed after he tried to kill James.) The darkness kept Rodney from getting a good look at this juggler, but he didn’t like the little he could see. Plus, the sarcastic, sardonic and evil laughter had come from his table. (From him, in fact!) Hmmm, thought Rodney. I’ll bet that chap is up to no good.
To be continued…