“That went well, don’t you think?”
Advisor Emsan Owa meticulously folded his handkerchief and placed it carefully in his pocket. Only then did he allow himself to glance at the other two Advisors. It took a great deal of willpower not to appear nervous; he worried that he didn’t cover it well enough.(1)»
“Yes, yes.” Advisor Pol Preitru nodded vigorously, then adjusted his spectacles, which had nearly toppled off his nose. He chuckled to himself. “For some, at least.”
Owa’s gaze drifted to the silent figure of Advisor Celina Ven. She was the youngest, the newest, and the most soft-spoken of all the Advisors. She felt Owa’s gaze and muttered, “I … ,” nodded, then fell silent again.
These three were the last in the Council Chamber, and Advisors Owa and Ven stood awkwardly, as if wishing to leave but not wanting to appear rude. Advisor Preitru did not seem uncomfortable in the silence, but Owa knew there was a good chance he had forgotten where he was.
“Yes, little miss?” Preitru asked, after a minute’s lengthy silence. He blinked and scrutinized Celina. She turned from her internal contemplation of a chair to Preitru with surprise. “Did I hear you say something, dear?” Preitru continued. “I thought you started something, but maybe it was just these old ears of mine.” He tilted his head and began pounding the side of it as if expecting to expel water.(2)»
“I … I was just … ” She swallowed and began again, more confidently. “The Linking Generator. How soon will it be ready?”
“The Empress expects the Trio to leave before her dinner, remember?” Owa said. His fingers tugged at the handkerchief, but he refused to pull it out. There was no reason to—the meeting was over; everything was decided; nothing could go wrong now. “That’ll drain it for a week at least. Longer, probably. It’s not up to all this strain.” He didn’t need to worry about the Generator. No one ever needed it any more; this week was a fluke; they had met their quota of disasters … right?
“Yes, yes,” Preitru said. Owa nodded heartily in agreement before realizing that Preitru wasn’t answering his unasked question, but commenting on the Generator. “At least a week. All this flitting back and forth, in one day, out the next, without preparation, drains the Generator. The Generator’s magician said … knew his name, I thought … real odd name, if I remember right.”
“Qwom Jelp,” Advisor Ven supplied after a pause.(3)»
Preitru adjusted his spectacles, though they had no need for adjusting. “Really? Maybe I didn’t know it. Sounds odd, really. Qwom Jelp. Do you know him?”
Owa got tired of standing and sat. Everyone knew Qwom Jelp, whether they wanted to or not; Preitru knew Qwom Jelp, too; he just didn’t know he knew. Owa wondered how much of Preitru’s brain was like that.
“I’ve talked with him a couple of times,” Advisor Ven said. She studied her feet.
“I suppose so,” Preitru mused. “Anyway, he says it—the Generator, I mean—isn’t kept up as well as it could be, but it’s too complex or this or that other thing, if you see what I mean.”
Advisor Ven nodded. Owa wasn’t sure he understood.“Ah!” Preitru said suddenly, with a little hop. “Everyone’s gone. I do say, let’s not dilly-dally about here if we mustn’t. No sense in working when we’ve nothing to discuss. Owa, you’re making me hot. Put that thing away, if you would. My dear lady,” this to Celina Ven, not Owa, “let us go.” He proceeded toward the door without waiting for either Owa or Ven.
Owa folded the handkerchief again and looked sheepishly at Ven. “It went well, though, don’t you think?”
Celina shrugged, but could manage no words. Owa knew how she felt.
Advisor Jeenra walked down a sparsely populated street of the Crystalline Castle, heading toward her house. If the street had been busier, she would have pushed past the pedestrians with relish. She needed to hit something. The Empress had foreseen her support of the Trio and had used it to sway the rest of the Council. Jeenra had not correctly calculated the Empress’s fondness for the Horizon man. She had been certain the Empress would want her Strin Telnok to gain the glory, but the Empress, it seemed, wanted to keep him close. Jeenra decided to regard Strin with greater care than the Empress’s other pets from now on.
A hand touched Jeenra’s shoulder. She whirled about aggressively and met the serious eyes and grim face of Advisor Telmion. “Yes?” Jeenra snapped.
“Your personal jealousies have endangered the Kingdom,” Telmion said. The seriousness of each of his 65 years backed the words.
“Endangered the Kingdom?” Jeenra mocked. “A few monsters on the edge of our borders? These few monsters represent an imminent threat to our Kingdom? I assure you Advisor”—the title was a sneer—“that nothing will happen to your precious little Kingdom. How could it? We’re ruled by the greedy, grasping hand of a child trying to decide what flavor of lollipop she’d most like!”(4)»
“Enough, Jeenra,” Telmion said. “Sertrims are not to be taken as trifles.”
“The Empress’s incompetence is a greater threat than your scary Sertrims.”
“Then why do you play on her level?”
“The Trio will do fine,” Jeenra said lightly. She turned away from Telmion.
Telmion grabbed her firmly by the shoulder again. “That’s not the point.”
“What is then?” she asked angrily. “I couldn’t care less whether it’s the Trio, or Strin and his no-name sidekick, or a band of monkeys from the Mountains of We-Wanna-Be-Heroes-Too.” She turned and stomped away. “The Horizon will take care of itself.”
Telmion watched until she turned the corner, then turned and walked away.
In the upper suite of The Everhaven Inn, the Trio busily packed their few belongings. Webi whistled a cheery tune he had picked up from a mermaid on the coast of Gulgahara.
“Hey, Keck.” Harmony’s voice blended perfectly with Webi’s song. “Sertrims? Have we encountered any of those before?”
“I don’t think so.” He stuffed a shirt made of the hair of a great kigvannuli into his pack. He did not wear it often—it itched—but it had been a gift from the Mayor of Lunid for the Trio’s work in saving 101 men from a collapsed mine. “They don’t have Sertrims anywhere we’ve been, and that’s most everywhere. I’ve heard about them, though. They’re supposed to be nasty and hard to kill.”
“Hard to kill?” Harmony asked. She packed away the unicorn horn flute she had found in the grip of a dead king in the Waste of Woozlewin. “As in blood-sucking, swamp tangle hard to kill?”
“You know, that swamp tangle was cute,” Webi said, continuing to whistle even as he spoke.
“Webi, you think any moving plant is cute,” Keck said. “Harmony, are you ready?”
Keck sprang to the middle of the room. “Time for one more visit to her Majesty …,” Keck said ceremoniously.
“ … then adventure!” Webi declared triumphantly, and the three eagerly set out.
“I can’t believe she did that!” Fred said as he had countless times since the Council Meeting. He stomped across their narrow room in The Knight Place.(5)» The wooden floorboards groaned and creaked beneath him. “I can’t believe it! That spoiled, wicked, snotty, ugly—”
“Enough, Fred.” Strin sat on one of two rickety beds. Fred’s complaints helped nothing and changed nothing. “I feel the same way.”
“Then let’s do something about it! We can go make her change her mind! I’ll pound that featureless face of hers if she doesn’t! I’ll pound it even if she does!” Fred flung the door open.
“Fred,” Strin said sternly. Fred’s shoulders hunched, and he seemed to fight with himself to close the door. “Fred, she’s the Empress. Do you understand what that means?”
“That she’s a complete idiot?”
Strin sighed. Fred began pacing again, only this time he glared at Strin as he did so. “It doesn’t matter if she is an idiot. She was chosen by prophecy before her birth. She is the symbol and the ruler of the Kingdom. She is the Kingdom in any meaningful sense of the word.”
“Not that that means anything back home.”
“Not that it means anything,” Strin repeated wearily.
It was silent for a moment, if one discounted Fred’s footsteps and the continual, aching groan of the wood. But then Fred stopped, as if finally calmed, and then exploded in a volcanic overflow of grunts, gibberish, and what eventually became discernible as: “Why? Why? What does she have against us? It’s our home! It’s … our … home!”
“She doesn’t have anything against us,” Strin said. The next part took more effort than he had thought it would—or should. “She’s taken a liking to me, I think.”
Fred stared at him for a long time. If he wasn’t so infuriated, Strin knew Fred would have laughed. He would be rolling on the floor. As it was, Fred licked his lips as if considering how best to punish him. “I can’t believe it,” he said finally, disgusted. He threw himself onto his narrow plank of a bed. “Well, what are we going to do about it?”
“Nothing. The Empress’s whim is Law.”
“But it’s a freakin’ whim!”
Strin didn’t reply. There were times when you couldn’t argue with Fred.