Suddenly a cheerfully strident voice (that Rodney feared he would soon be hearing in his dreams) entered the bar with Prince Robin attached. The voice offered a happy salutation to all, tripped over someone’s leg, and stumbled into the bar.
“Whoops!” said Robin. “I usually stumble out of bars.”
Rodney pretended to study a coaster with an interesting picture (a chicken playing a harpsichord) in hopes Prince Robin wouldn’t notice him. The fracas behind him was picking up steam. The juggler shouted something in an outlandish accent (it could have been Maurian; it could have been Ossetsian) and jumped to his feet. Rodney distinctly heard him say, “I no-have a’razor!” Then the juggler swung a tankard at his companion’s head.
His companion, a handsome youth (wearing a nice pair of denim jeans with runes sewn on the pockets) ducked and blocked the blow. Breezy Hill Ale splashed across a mirror and trickled to the floor. The two men grappled and rolled, crashing into Rodney’s stool. The luck of the roll landed the juggler on top. Rodney casually swung his boot heel back connecting with the juggler’s head. The young man (it certainly looked like James, but it couldn’t possibly be James because he was hundreds of miles east on the Great Highway with Star) got part way to his feet and drove his shoulder into the juggler. Both men smashed the mirror, offering a dim shattered view of aggression (to those artistically-minded patrons with good night vision). Two bottles on the ceiling broke showering more glass. Suddenly, the juggler had a knife in his hand. He thrust a few times at the young man, who backed off. The juggler turned and ran for the door. As the young man chased after him he did two things: One, he whispered a quick, “Thanks!” to Rodney and two, he pulled a strange glowing rectangle from a chain around his neck. The door slammed. The men were gone. An unnatural silence was heard (or not heard, depending on how you read that). Then, little by little, the murmur of partially intoxicated people filled the room once again.
“Does this sort of thing happen often?” Rodney asked Belle.
“Never!” she said (a bit too emphatically). “I run a quiet establishment. I’ve never seen either one of those men in my life.” Belle began to think of chickens doing fun things.
“Rodney!” said Prince Robin. “There you are! What an exciting place! Did you know the, ahem, ‘Royal Suite’ overlooks a herd of chickens? Chickens, Rodney! Bobbing! Pecking! Corn! Ugh! And they make a beastly howl. I hope they don’t keep it up all night!”
“You don’t like chickens?” said Belle, in an incredulous (and somewhat menacing) tone that Robin somehow failed to notice.
“Actually,” said the prince, “I prefer capons. But I absolutely refuse to see chickens as a decorating touch; a, how-shall-we-say, embellissement de la décor.” (At this point Prince Robin laughed in the demeaning and superior tone that princes often laugh in.) “I mean! They’re everywhere! Like feathered cockroaches!”
“You don’t like the pecking!” said Belle. “You don’t like the cute way they walk? The way their little heads go back and forth, BACK and FORTH! BACK! AND! FORTH!”
Belle’s voice had risen to such an alarming volume that even Prince Robin could tell something was wrong. So he tried think of something nice to say about chickens. Something to smooth things over and get the evening back on an even track.
“Have you ever had them stuffed them with sweetbreads?”
“Out!” shouted Belle. “Get OUT!”
“Oh, come on, Robin!” said Rodney with a great deal of (even for him) familiarity. “You shouldn’t upset this wonderful woman who OWNS this fabulous inn with your particular brand of rough-edged humor. This man…” Rodney put his hand on Robin’s shoulder, “is the world-renowned court jester, Robin of…Parsippany!”
“Oh?” said Belle suspiciously. “A jester?”
“Yes,” said Rodney. “World-renowned.”
“So, he was just…kidding?”
“He’s a professional!” said Rodney. “At the top of his game. World-renowned.”
“You said that!” said Belle. She gave Prince Robin a long stare. “So, you’re saying he…likes…chickens?”
“Adores them!” said Rodney. He turned to Robin. “Let me buy you a Breezy Hill Ale, you lovable rascal.”
“I’d rather drink bilge water,” said Robin. “Do they have any cognac?”
“Oh, the humor, the humor,” said Rodney. “It’s made him the toast of many a royal court.”
With a suspicious glance Robin’s way, Belle went to fetch a bottle of cognac—a special bottle—it had been opened fifteen years earlier and been gathering dust ever since. As she poured, Belle tried to recover her emotional balance by thinking of chickens doing fun things. Also (to further lift her spirits) she tripled the price of Robin’s drink. One thing Belle was sure of: the Breezy Hill Inn was not going to have any vacancies tomorrow for this so-called, world-renowned jester, no matter how many gold coins he scattered among the staff.
Back in Delia things were “okay-not-great” at the royal palace. Princess Star had been King Bernardino’s favorite (he’d come to realize) and now that she was gone, he really missed her. At first, Bernardino had put his efforts into training Prince Robin (a thing he’d been avoiding most of his life.) As stated earlier, it was not a success. Robin slouched. He carped. He whinged. He even caterwauled when asked to do a relatively simple task (butcher a stag and carry the bloody haunch back to the castle). And then he left. Poor King Bernardino. He thought a Quest might do Robin some good, but then was lonelier than ever.
The King also was experiencing new and challenging administrative problems. People from all over the Delian metropolitan area had disappeared to go on the Quest. (Of course, these “people” were mostly “men” due to the “my-daughter’s-hand-in-marriage” clause.) Anyway, it caused a labor shortage. Crops spoiled in the fields. Goods were scarce. There were no balloons in the sky. Shop owners were forced to stand behind their counters all day without a break plus a number of jobs that had been traditionally done by men were now being done by women. Women! And the sacred springs were still on the fritz. It was a mess.
So King Bernardino was in low spirits. Whenever this happened (and it had happened before) the King went back to basics. He went back to a tried-and-true method which had never failed to cheer him in the past. He paid a visit to the armory. There he spent long hours polishing and sharpening the halberds, pikes, lances, battle axes, maces, mauls, war hammers, spears, long swords, broadswords, short swords (and swords of indeterminate length). The King stayed there, alone, sadly whistling a cheerful Eulalian folk tune (Breeney Caught a Fish) and polishing weapon after weapon until each shone as bright as a mirror. Alas, his tried-and-true method didn’t work. After three months it was official: King Bernardino was clinically depressed.
One day the King was in the Great Hall (also known as the Throne Room) catching his breath after a trying morning. He’d had a meeting with a lobbyist for the Ossetsian green-grocers’ industry (demanding more Eulalian water to irrigate the desert); then he’d had a meeting with the Maurian ambassador and his finance minister who explained that Eulalian long-term capital account deficits were pushing the interest index of the short-term bond market to the brink of…well…something bad. (King Bernardino didn’t get the rest because he wasn’t really paying attention. But he said he’d look into it.)
When they finally left the king was struck by an inspiration. He called for his chamberlain (whom you’ll recall was named Edelbert) and said, “Edelbert, tell me. Who was the maid who dusted the horse?”
“Gloria, sire,” said Edelbert. “Her name is Gloria.”
“Send her to me,” said the king.
(to be continued…)