When they reached the front desk Robin was tempted to call out, “Company! Halt!” but he did not mostly because of the look on Belle’s face. It was a darkish look, a look that suggested imminent intemperance. (It was a scowl, actually.) So Prince Robin kept a lid on it. He merely said, “Checking out!” and “Here’s the key!” and not a word escaped his lips about the inadvisability of using chickens as an element of décor, or as a substitute for a home entertainment center.
“I hope you found everything to your liking, sir?” said Belle, just daring him to utter one tiny, little, negative mot about chickens. (She was a bit conflicted when she saw Robin’s heavy purse dangling at his side, but she ignored that feeling.)
“Oh, wonderful!” said Robin, a bit distracted by the flow of his possessions out the door and into the wagon. “I’ll certainly recommend the place to every fowl lover I know.” (Belle looked a bit put out at this. But what could she say?) Then Robin asked, “Who took such good care of our little burros?” (They did look terrific, all brushed and everything; plus, Robin was changing the subject, a real breakthrough in his development as a canny traveler, as opposed to an oblivious royal.)
“It was our new stableman, Dione,” said Belle. “He just came to work for us a month or so ago. Our former stable boy disappeared with a wagon load of manure and he was never seen again.”
“Oh…” said Robin, not really paying attention. (He was busy tracking several cases of a rare Eulalian chardonnay being carried by a bruised and battered waiter named Mosel.) “Manure, you say! A whole wagon load! What an extraordinary thing! That’s a real shame! What is this world coming to! You just can’t trust anyone these days!” plus a few other platitudes before he realized what Belle had actually said. “Manure?” Robin exclaimed. “What on earth did he steal that for?”
“He was an odd duck,” said Belle warming to the story and forgetting about chickens for a brief moment. “He showed up out of nowhere about six months ago. He claimed to know all about the hospitality industry but he was all butterfingers with the valises, plus he spent a lot of time talking to outlandish characters in the bar. Well, two outlandish characters, but two was enough. And then we caught him in a guest’s room without permission so we demoted him to stable boy. Then he stole our manure. And now he’s gone. And we haven’t seen him since.” Her tone said: Good riddance! (There was something about her story that didn’t ring true, thought Rodney. Because if it was the youth from last night (and Rodney thought it was) then Belle had seen him. Plus, the whole “butterfingers” angle was just poppycock.)
“Extraordinary!” said Robin, again not really paying attention.
“The honey wagon and the team only came back a week ago,” continued Belle. “They were in a terrible state. One of the axles was broken, the cranking mechanism on the wagon bed was broken, the horses’ coats were all matted, and they were hungry, poor dears.”
Rodney popped into the conversation. “The characters we saw in the bar last night looked pretty outlandish.” Belle looked confused. “You know,” said Rodney. “The strange juggler? The young man? They had a fight?”
“Oh, that!” said Belle, sounding a bit shaky. “Just normal hijinks on a Saturday night.”
“It was Wednesday,” said Rodney.
“I was speaking metaphorically,” said Belle, who began to think about chickens doing fun things.
Dixie chimed in. “We get all sorts here. Especially in the bar. Especially at night. We can’t keep track of all of them.”
While they were talking Robin paid his bill with gold coin and readied a handful more to distribute to the staff. He was ready to go. He was not in the mood to hear any long-winded descriptions of missing manure, or broken wagons, or re-visit bar fights, or any other nonsense. Robin searched around for a fresh mot that would get him out of this situation and came up with, “A missing honey wagon! Tragic!” uttered in a very insincere tone of voice. One could even have called Robin’s tone “dismissive,” or “ironically mocking” which didn’t bother Dixie, but was unfortunate as far as Belle was concerned (because Belle was not tolerant). Fortunately, Dixie and Rodney were both peacemakers by nature. It was Rodney who saved the day.
“Well, we’d better be off!” he said. “Look at the time.”
Everyone nodded. All in favor say, “Aye!” Motion carried.
And away they went.
Back in Eulalia, in the capital city of Delia, things were not going well. In fact, things were going poorly. Things were deteriorating. (Actually, they were falling apart.) The kingdom had taken a succession of heavy blows. William. The Quest. Star. Robin. One after another. The crown had become destabilized and the court followed. The feeling of unease spread to the people. Fights in the street became common. People hoarded goods against (what they thought were) the coming bad times. Fishing was down. The graceful arcing walkways only had a few people walking fast with eyes downcast. Eulalia had been a blessed land. Now, not so much. Funny, how things can change. Borrow a towel without asking? Wham!
King Bernardino abandoned his daily audiences, leaving more and more of the day-to-day to his ministers. All good people but they could not agree on ways and means. They even disagreed on fundamental principles. The ministers just weren’t used to autonomy. They’d never had any of before. So they jealously guarded their spheres of influence, forged secret alliances, and indulged in petty rivalries. All for the good of the country, they said. But it created dissonance. Instead of one voice, foreign ministers heard many, so that’s what they reported to their respective kings. Thus it came to pass that the neighboring lands: Ossetsia, Mauria, Malaria (who had all lived in peace for many years) began to imagine the unthinkable: The conquest of Eulalia. Their own glorious king would have a new possession. They would gain control of Eulalia’s timber, her farmland, her minerals. The vast potential for profit made war seem…well…reasonable. And since many of Eulalia’s men were away on the Quest, the war would not be protracted. It would be a walkover, they said. A piece of cake. A snap.
King Bernardino didn’t hear of any of this. And his ministers were too green to recognize the signs. Drums were beating on Eulalia’s borders. Drums of war. And while the drums were beating, loader and louder, the ministers were vying for larger offices, grander titles, new taxes, new fees. Rake-offs. Kickbacks. Yuck! It was a mess!
(Actually, the ministers were lucky Bernardino paid them no mind. If he had been paying attention, he probably would have chopped their heads off. As it was, whenever Bernardino met a minister in the hall, he would only nod in a vague and misty manner, sometimes offering a “Carry on!” wave. The ministers just nodded and waved back at him. Every day they survived, untrammeled and unpunished, they gained in confidence.
So what was King Bernardino doing? (I’ll give you a hint. It involved a bed, a private room and Gloria. (Not that! I’m surprised at you, you rascal.) King Bernardino was spending most of his time at Prince William’s side. And Gloria was with him. And the King was crying. Constantly. His depression had reached a nadir. He had become a wet and weepy thing and he marveled at himself.
“My king, do not weep,” said Gloria, for the twelfth time (she’d been counting).
Bernardino laughed (more of a sniff, really.) “You say those words as often the hours strike the day.” (He was right but he hadn’t been counting. He was just an extremely good guesstimator, which was why he usually made the right decisions for Eulalia.)
“Would you like some mutton pie or a wedge of Roquefort?”
“Could I bring you some barley soup or noodle soup?”
“No. I’m just not hungry. Tell me, child. Have you ever wielded a sword?”
“Buckled on a shield?”
“Ridden a war stallion into battle with a thousand men at your back?”
Gloria smiled. “I think you know the answer to that, sire. I have raised a mighty cloud, but only with my feather duster.”
King Bernardino studied the alabaster face of his sleeping son. Just now, as on other occasions, he could swear he saw a smile forming on William’s lips. And just like that, it was gone. It was only hope caused the sight, thought Bernardino. It was not real. I cannot expect him to awaken and lead when I, who am fully awake, do nothing.
“Come child,” said the King. “There’s something I wish to show you.”
They left the room. William’s nurse, an acolyte from the Sacred Pools, felt the deep and comforting silence seep back into the room. Her name was Astrid; she stood five foot two inches tall and weighed two hundred and twelve pounds. Her robe was white. On her head she wore a wimple the color of wheat, the only color an acolyte was permitted to wear. Astrid gazed around the sickroom before returning to her prayers. Tapestries in muted shades of gray hung from every wall. The room was small in length and width but the ceiling, painted with stars, was twenty feet above her head. A tall, narrow window looked out upon Delia, the Black Mountains, and heavy gray skies. Astrid did her best to ignore the view, concentrating on her prayers; even a voice drifting up from the courtyard barely made an impression. Still she found herself quietly amazed by William’s pallor. His whiteness is like my own, she thought. It’s pure.
“Heal William, O Sacred Spring,” she prayed. “Heal our future King.”
(to be continued…)