Chapter twenty-seven: Black Innocence
As usual, Milek was full of bright ideas. They had been picking spearmint and cinnamon in the Dalziel Wood since yesterday, having decided to sleep in the wood one last time before the stormy season arrived, and inevitably couldn’t have stayed out of trouble if their lives had depended on it. At first Milek had been raving on like he always did about how they always got the most boring jobs, picking plants, while the older kids got to go hunting and fishing farther east or by the sea, and their parents delivered messages for the king.
“We ought to be at the top by now!” the ambitious ten-year-old always claimed. He said that their loyalty to the thankless, unstimulating job merited a raise in position, or in pay at least. At the moment they only received a silver penny for a pound of cinnamon and six bronze pennies for a bundle of mint. The other children could remember a time when they had to beg for food just to stay alive, let alone dream of having a job that paid anything at all. But nobody argued with Milek. And after all, they were just as bored as he was. Every now and then they tried to add verses to their derogatory rhyme about the King:
Prat the brat
Has got real fat
Everyday he eats a rat
There’s a crater where he sat
He wipes his bottom with a cat
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Orenda giggled, and Milek shrugged. They searched again. The wild onion patches were gone, and with the river being sick much of the plants were dwindling away so that they barely made any money at all anymore.
Their little wagons were woefully empty.
Tohon had climbed to the top of a hill, with two wagons in tow, to sit and watch the apathetic city. No one went out very often when the days became cloudy. He sat in the wagon and rocked himself back and forth with his foot, his back to the Wood. Milek got one of his smiles and whispered to Sage, who caught the smile. Creeping up behind Tohon she pulled on the handle of the wagon, and with a yell Tohon spilled into it and rocketed down the hill. The wagon hit a tree and spilled him out.
“Hey!” he cried, rubbing his head and struggling to his feet. The other children could barely hold themselves together as they laughed.
“Ho! I’ve got it!” Kafele raised his arm in the air, as though trying to get someone to call on him.
“Yes, Kafele?” Milek addressed him once he could catch his breath.
“Come on!” He grabbed a wagon and raced up the hill. There were ten children and four wagons, and they all made their way up the hill. After positioning his wagon, Kafele sat on it and Gabin gave him a push. One by one they all took turns barrelling down the hill, smacking into trees to stop, rubbing sore bottoms and heads and limbs and doing it all again. Once Tohon had regained his senses, he joined the fun.
“Hey, look at me!” Milek yelled, and to the admiring horror of the children, rode his wagon standing up, all the way down the hill, and tumbled off when it hit a tree. It thumped painfully, they could all tell, but he got up and took a gallant bow. No one else was brave enough to try it except Orenda, who fell off halfway down the hill, the wagon continuing without her.
The wind had picked up considerably after about an hour, and Milek, Sage, and Orenda decided for one last ride. Everyone else had quit to watch, trying to keep the bags of herbs from blowing away. Orenda was about to mount her wagon when movement caught her eye.
“Look,” she exclaimed, pointing. In the distance they could make out a group of people standing on a hill, looking at the city below.
“Everyone down!” Milek ordered gleefully. It was a wonderful time to go on an adventure. They barrelled down the hill on their wagons. “Stay here,” said Milek to the other, younger kids. “Sage, Orenda, come with me. We’ve got intruders!”
The three children crossed the grassy area between them and the river, giggling and whispering and hushing each other. “Whoa, look!” Sage exclaimed quietly. The river, which had been bone dry yesterday morning, was now filled completely with water. They rarely came near the river anymore after Milek’s older sister Brandolyn had drowned trying to rescue her cat last season, but yesterday they had found the courage to investigate the rumour that it had gone dry. And now, today, it was as if it had never known drought.
“I guess we will have to swim,” said Milek. He refused to think about Brandolyn. Holding his breath he dipped his bare foot into the water. “Ouch!” he yelled, falling backward. His foot bloomed with faint red blotches.
“Wow!” said Orenda, “the river has turned into poison!” This though made them giggle.
“Come on, let’s take the bridge to the far bank,” said Milek, rubbing his foot. “We’ve got to hurry before they leave!”
The trio raced to the hill-bridge and one by one darted over, quickly hiding behind the high bank. Slowly, they poked their heads over the edge to gaze at the group of people. Some rode horses, some walked. And though they were a considerable distance away, Milek could make out flashes of blue at some of their throats.
“Could it be – ” started Sage,
“The Escort from Despartus!” Milek interrupted, wanting to be the one who said it first. The three exploded into excited chatter which they quickly hushed.
“Didn’t you hear? Those are royals from the Meiren Mountains!”
“Didn’t you hear? They’ve got meiren treasure – look, I can see the chest!”
And indeed they could see it, strapped to the tallest horse by far. The people were pointing down below.
“Are they talking?” Orenda wondered. “I thought they could only talk with their minds! Their tongues get cut out at birth and they have to use those blue pendants to talk!”
Milek didn’t know that, but he said, “Yes, I heard that too!” His eyes remained on the treasure. “You know what? I think we should steal that box and give it to the King! He will be so grateful he will promote us all to hunters! Maybe we will even get to live in the palace.”
“The box?” exclaimed Sage. “Why would we do that? It’s just a box.”
Milek and Orenda rolled their eyes, shooting Sage incredulous looks.
“Didn’t you hear?” hissed Orenda. “That box is more valuable than the palace itself!”
“Or what’s in it, anyway,” Milek interjected.
“Yes, it might even be worth more than the military base!”
Sage and Milek gasped at the blasphemy.
“Okay, okay, I take it back!” Orenda conceded. “But come on, we can’t steal it ourselves!”
Milek thought about this. He had heard that Despartans could pick you up and throw you and stab you full of holes just by using their minds, from far away, without even looking at you. He smacked his forehead and groaned. “Run!” he hissed, already shooting back toward the bridge. “They can read minds,” he reminded them as they caught their breaths, hands on their knees. They were about halfway to the wood. “Okay, here’s the plan. We stop this stupid picking and go tell Salmalin. He will know what to do.”
“Salmalin?” the girls gasped. “No one is supposed to talk to him. Not us, anyway.” Salmalin was the ringleader of the highest-profile criminal gang and master of the biggest black market of the ’Skirts.
“Oh, as if you haven’t asked him for any favors,” Milek threw back at them, and they looked guiltily at their feet. “No one follows that rule. He will know how to get that box and make us all rich!”
“Alright, well, we better go quick before they get to the ’Skirts!” said Sage. The three ran to the wood and didn’t do much explaining to the other children, just that they had to get back home right away. They ran as fast as their little legs could take them, pretending that they were already riding the King’s finest, fastest horses.
The bell in the main throne room rang for the fifteen-hundred-twenty-third time that day. The frustrated king had been trying to convince his advisor Nayyam to have it removed from the premises, but the old toddy kept insisting that it was unconstitutional.
“‘What’s constitutional about a bell?’ ‘The people have a right to be heard,’” King Praithelon, still known as King Prat the Brat to most, mimicked the worn out conversation in a high-pitched voice, his face convulsing in disgust. Nayyam was still too honourable to turn his back on the King, but he refused to look at him, and secretly rolled his eyes, wishing for his shift to be over. “Don’t I have a right to my own sanity, Nayyam!” Prat yelled, throwing his wine goblet across the room. The Dedicated Wine Goblet Retriever L-O-L moved to pick it up and throw it down the chute, and Prat listlessly held out his hand for the new glass of wine that the Dedicated Wine Goblet Replacer immediately handed him, for the third time that hour. The King hardly ever drank more than a few glasses per day – most of it ended up splattering one of the eight walls of the room, or, newly, the ceiling. In this case, the Dedicated Mural Keeper went to work.
“I miss my father, Nayyam,” Praithelon whined, stretching out on his back, his head dangling over one arm of the throne and his legs over the other. Nayyam and all the Dedicated Servants stifled their gasps. This was the lowest the King had gone. “He kept a firm hand, I will admit, but at least he had a plan. At least he had things to do!”
The bell rang for the fifteen-hundred-twenty-fourth time. This time Prat pretended he didn’t hear it. There were fifteen hundred twenty-four people waiting in the third chamber of the throne room, and they had better have brought him good gifts for all the effort he was taking to ignore them.
“I do wish I hadn’t killed him,” Prat muttered. Everyone sighed.
“Your Majesty – ”
“Nayyam – ”
“I worked for your father for years before you were even born. What you saw of him was hardly the beginning of his errs.” Nayyam gave the younger man – a boy, really, of only nineteen years and the temperament of a five-year-old since the heist – a stern look. If there was one thing everyone still respected him for, it was his regicide.
“Nehaj has atrophied, Nayyam!” Prat wailed, speaking of the Renian Court of Justice. “The Kingdom has atrophied! My life, dead and gone!” he stood up, and three servants rushed to him, one offering him water, one offering him food, and the other, a record book, in hopes that he might go and meet the people in the third chamber. “There’s nothing to do, Nayyam! I’ve fixed everything in this forsaken land! The people are fed and clothed, the city is so safe we were able to take down the wall and build another palace for me. And still they come to me! ‘My pet fish has died, Your Majesty, I seek compensation.’ ‘My sister has stolen my best hair ribbon, Your Majesty, I want her hanged.’ ‘My father doesn’t like the job you’ve given him, Your Majesty, make him your assistant.’” Prat went down the list, starting with the least ridiculous, continuing until he reached the other side of the room. He opened the door, reached out, and yanked the offensive, solid gold bell off its hook. Glaring at it the little thing hatefully, he dropped it, crushed it under his slipper-clad heel, and threw it out of the window. It was a lovely day outside, grey and misty and cold and thunderous. He didn’t even hear the bell hit the ground.
Nayyam whispered to a servant, who nodded and left to find the Dedicated Bell Replacer.
“Bring me a list of my enemies, Nayyam! Maybe I can go start a war with someone.”
“I can’t, Your Majesty, remember the list was ceremoniously burned after the last negotiation? We have made peace with all the kingdoms of Pessolanius, even the Siyemene Isles.”
Right. In his quest to build a better kingdom than his father had, Prat had signed peace treaties with even the smallest, insignificant kingdoms. Why had he been so diplomatic?
The new bell rang. “Well, that was a stupid thing to do!”
“It was your idea, Your Highness. I know, why don’t you find yourself another wife?”
“Oh, I have too many wives! Most of them were my father’s. And they are all good for nothing except Nari and Sonnet and Chephir!”
“How about a party? It will be your one-fifth birthday soon, it’s never too early to begin celebrations.”
“I’m tired of parties. I’ve been tired of parties since last year. Nayyam, how much longer can I stand this?” Prat moved to the window and sat on the sill, staring at the swirling grey clouds. He could just make out the lights of Port Aghyml in the distance. Could they really bring back capital punishment? Stealing hair ribbons was a horrible offense in the world of women, was it not? “I just feel so restless. I know! Summon Sa Rongi, I haven’t heard the news for today.”
“Your Majesty, the subjects await you in the third – ”
“Fine! Summon Sa Rongi and I will start seeing them! but you had better summon some music for me too, then, so I have something to keep me from rudely passing out from boredom!”
Nayyam sent one of the servants off. Prat continued to stare in the direction of the port. If only his son, Sleiod, were older, then he could go on a journey, all by himself. Even if all he did was sail around Pessolanius and came back…but he doubted the two-year-old could mind the kingdom properly. Not that hair ribbons and fish were above his mental capacity.
Sa Rongi entered, and Nayyam cleared his throat. Prat sighed and turned so Sa Rongi could bow to him. “The news, if you please, Sir.”
The previous Dedicated News Bearer usually brought a scroll with him, but Sa Rongi remembered everything. “Today I received news that the ambassadors from the Court of Turac have joined ranks with the Court of Elerim in Wespiser.”
Prat perked up at this. He had been sending spies to keep tabs on the situation in Wespiser in case something interesting happened. They had apparently been growing resentful of Despartus, and Prat wondered if something like the Despartus-Valota War would break out again. He fully planned on joining in, no matter whose side he had to fight on. “Why? I thought Rolo was loyal to Despartus.”
“Tensions have been rising there. King Ziyan himself led a diplomacy mission there to try and stabilize the situation, but apparently there was a…mishap…with one of the Princes, which highly offended His Majesty King Cuahalm. And then to top it off, they had to leave immediately because the Queen of Vaupen has ordered the Pilgrimage.”
Prat was intrigued. “Really? I thought Prince Xarthanias was even younger than me.”
“Indeed, but the Despartans had to leave immediately before proper amends and consolations could be made for the…mishap.”
Prat realized that Sa Rongi was trying not to laugh whenever he said “mishap”. “What happened, anyway?”
Sa Rongi’s lips twitched. “Apparently Prince Nolleban, Prince Xarthanias’s brother – ”
“Yes, I know who he is!”
“Well, apparently he threw barrels and barrels of wine on the guests at the party Ziyan and Cuahalm were having in honour of their indecision at Elerim” – he tittered – “it undid all their peacekeeping efforts! Haha!” Even Nayyam cracked a smile. No one, including Prat, knew what was so funny, but he laughed anyway.
“And what about my uncle and cousin?”
Their laughter froze in their throats, their smiles paralyzed on their lips. Ah. A diversion. He had known Sa Rongi didn’t have that much of a sense of humour.
“Your Majesty – ” Nayyam warned.
Sa Rongi held out his hands. “No one wants to go there. The Belt is too dangerous. They still need to think of a plan.”
Before Prat could build up his impressive anger, the bell rang, and a second after, the door flew open. There was a burst of movement in the room as everyone tried to apprehend the intruder. But they did a terrible job, for the intruder suddenly appeared at Prat’s side. It was Naniphe, the Captain of the Guard.
“Your Majesty!” he exclaimed, seeming out of breath. “Something terrible has happened, apparently people have been trying to tell you all day. The Kenase!”
“What about it!” Prat asked eagerly, nearly bouncing with excitement. The last he had heard, the river had been dry.
“The water has come back, but – look!” Naniphe rolled up the billowing sleeves of his tunic. His arms and hands were covered in rash-like splotches, so bright red they seemed to glow. “Acid – the river’s turned to acid!”
Prat could barely contain himself. “That’s wonderful!” he yelled, bestowing an extravagant kiss on the Commander’s head. “Nayyam, ready the horses! In five minutes, we ride!”
“Your Majesty, we have people to do that for you, Inspectors – ”
“Hang the inspectors!” Prat exclaimed. Shaking his head, Nayyam held a hand up to the people who moved to the door to find the Dedicated Executioner, who was on a generally permanent vacation. “Don’t ruin this opportunity!”
The bell rang again.
“And will somebody let those people in?” he shrieked. “That bloody bell has been ringing my ear off all day! Oh, never mind, I’ll do it myself, get out of my way!” He was in such good spirits he crossed to the end of the room and threw the door open himself.
He nearly fainted. One of the servants caught his arm to steady him.
Later he would say that it was the shock of the company standing there, but really, it was the smell that nearly killed him. After overcoming this horrible surprise, he took in the six dirty people standing before him. Three blond men and a redhead – though who could tell? They were nearly all the same mud colour from head to toe – a blond girl, and a black haired girl he thought he would never see again.
“Your Majesty, the Escort of Despartus,” introduced the guard who stood behind them.
“Oh, you all smell terrible!” Prat exclaimed. An impossibly tall man whose hair could have been red under the grime grinned and stepped forward, bowing.
“Nay, you’re majesty, not I! I smell just as well as I see and hear.”
Prat stared at the young man for a minute, flummoxed, and then ignored him and appraised the rest of the group. “Alapar?” he whispered, feeling as though he were seeing a ghost. “Is it you?”
Without looking at him she nodded.
“Oh, Alapar, how I’ve missed you so!” he cried, launching himself at her. But – no, the smell was too strong, he fell back again, but he was laughing merrily. “Nayyam, summon my wives!” he shouted with glee, nearly breaking his face with his smile. “Take our guests to the bathhouse!”
“But Your Majesty, the water –”
“We’ve been using the wells for days! Come now, before the smell kills me! Sleiod is still too young to be king!” he crowed in uncontainable delight. “Summon the musicians! Summon the chefs! We are having a party tonight!”
Two of the servants approached reluctantly to lead the stinky people away. After a moment of staring at her, her brown eyes that matched his perfectly, Prat held his breath and reached out to her, drawing her into his arms. “Oh, Alapar, how you’ve been missed,” he murmured, trying not to breathe too deeply. He told himself his eyes were watering because of the stench. He released Alapar.
“Get me a washbasin, Nayyam,” he muttered, thinking she would not hear. Alapar smiled in spite of herself and all her trepidation. Her cousin hadn’t changed a bit.