Saturday, January 1, 2011

4. The Seven Gifts

Purely as a matter of form, His Majesty had a Royal Wizard. The wizard lived somewhere on the palace grounds, but accounts vary as to precisely where. His counsel is recorded in none of the annals of King Bruno's reign. Perhaps a holdover from the court of Bruno's royal father, Wizard Thrush is not definitely known ever to have appeared in His Majesty's presence or to have done any mighty feats of magic for him. Only once before his death some two years into the exile of Prince Winter did he do anything worthy of being mentioned in a story.

One of the Queen's bedchamber attendants had found a wet-nurse for the tiny maimed Prince. The girl's name was Phyllis. She was a twenty-year-old widow who lived close to the palace walls. Phyllis had recently had the bad luck of surviving a fever that had claimed the lives of her father, mother, younger brother, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and husband, which shows that these things don't always come in threes. Hard on the heels of these tragedies, and with no one left to console her, she had given birth to a stillborn child. What she felt about all this can only be imagined. But the fact that she was still lactating opened a door for her which led to a far more interesting life than she had ever expected to live.

Phyllis was stuffing the last of her meager possessions into a mangy carpetbag with one hand, while jiggling the infant Prince on her shoulder and patting his backside with the other, when her hovel was visited by a very strange man. It was, as you may have guessed, Wizard Thrush.

Phyllis described him later (many times, for example, to the Prince himself) as a rather short, unkempt fellow whose body-shape was concealed by many layers of ragged garments, and whose face was all but obscured by his bushy eyebrows and long, tangled, scruffy beard. He wore a snug crocheted cap atop his head, which made his hair stick out in bunches all around it, and he always seemed to be chewing on his mustaches, or on any bits of his beard that had drifted close enough to his mouth. And oh! how he smelled! Phyllis would sometimes go on for minutes together, rhapsodizing on the deep, complex fug that emanated from this learned person, with its notes of old shoes, overcooked turnips, unwashed dog, stale tobacco smoke, and goat feces, besides a metallic tinge that might suggest herbs burning in a pewter crucible (or so the girl imagined).

"I say," the old man said. He repeated this two or three times, as though warming up his little-used vocal cords, or trying to get used to the sound of his own voice. It wasn't a very prepossessing voice. The only way Phyllis could describe it was "as if he had to try very hard not to cough."

"Who are you?" Phyllis said, now that she was over the shock of such a very strange stranger barging into her hovel without knocking. "And who invited you in, might I ask?"

"I am Thrush the Wizard Royal," said Wizard Thrush.

"Pull the other one," Phyllis suggested.

"I have come to give My Lord the customary wizard's blessing," Thrush added.

"They'll be giving you a blessing if you don't back right out," Phyllis said, brandishing a fire shovel that happened to be closer to hand than the poker she would have preferred.

"It wouldn't be right to let the tyke go without the blessing," Thrush said persuasively, though the effect was somewhat spoiled when a ferret poked its head out of the wizard's sleeve and delivered a vicious bite to his left thumb. "Ye gods!" the wizard screamed, and then he began to suck his thumb.

For some reason, this embarrassing spectacle awakened whatever pity then lived in Phyllis's grief-shambled heart. "All right," she said grudgingly, though she kept her grip on the fire shovel, "make it quick. I've got to catch the post. We've a long trip ahead of us, you know. They're throwing the poor mite out in the cold."

"In that case," said Thrush, thrusting his aromatic presence so close to the wet-nurse that it seemed to her, for a moment, as if she could have pinched the stench of him between finger and thumb and held it out of the way. He placed his grimy hand on the child's head, soiling its bonnet in so doing, and with his eyes rolling back to show their bloodshot whites he chanted: "A contrary nature I give to thee, rejected scion of the King. Whatever boon he grants thee, it shall thereafter turn to bane. Whatever wounds thy father deals, they shall become thy strengths, and double back upon him till he claims thee as his heir."

The hand withdrew, and the odor too. Thrush seemed confused for a moment, pausing to recover a semblance of order. During this moment Phyllis said, with undisguised surprise, "That was sweet, actually."

"Hardly," said Thrush with a decided sniff. "Travel well," he added, meeting the wet-nurse's eyes for a heartbeat, and while the power of his direct gaze still held her, he withdrew. Phyllis recollected herself at the ringing of the post-bell, which meant she had to run flat-out with the royal child in one arm and her carpetbag in the other so as not to miss the post.

The post, at that time, was a two-wheeled chaise with a large trunk, low and aft, for carrying letters, parcels, and passenger luggage, and seats within where up to three adults could sit if they didn't mind being packed together like mackerel. Forward of the passenger compartment was a bench where the driver and guard customarily huddled under cloaks and rugs behind a team of two to six horses (usually four) who were changed at roughly 20-mile intervals. Above and behind the driver's seat was the flat roof of the chaise, surrounded by a low railing, and available for a nominal price to any passenger who valued economy over luxury.

It was there, sometimes with other passengers but often alone, that Phyllis spent the next few days, hunkered down under a motley assortment of rugs, nursing the infant Prince and warming his body with her own. It was there, on the roof of one post-chaise or another (for she had to transfer to other postal routes at several points on her journey) that she learned to change a diaper without looking, both because the rugs were in the way and because the sensibilities of other passengers had to be considered. It was there that she discovered a hardiness she had never known in herself before.

Phyllis was forced to endure relentless, non-stop travel because the posts ran day and night, stopping only for a half-hour out of every three or four to change horses, and once or twice a day for an hour or two when the driver needed refreshment. A passenger could ill afford to stray far from the chaise when it might depart at any time on little notice, or even none, and the next post-chaise would demand a full fare. Until she learned to sleep while cradling the baby while the hard surface beneath her rattled and bumped over every pothole in the road, she had to make do with a few naps snatched in haystacks behind the inns where horses were changed. She learned to bear exposure to cold and wet with stoicism and even, in time, to enjoy the opportunity to gaze down upon the open landscape in the ample solitude afforded by the most uncomfortable seat within the circle of the horizon. And it was, after all, the fastest way an indigent non-rider could travel. She couldn't afford to go any other way; indeed, at her destination she might even have a few pennies left over from the advance on her pay.

Somewhere among the wilds between Green Bay and Marinette, the post suffered the first of a series of accidents that plagued the entire route Phyllis took with the child. Later she couldn't decide whether a horse had become lame, or a wheel had come off the chaise, or a fallen tree had blocked the road; there were so many accidents that they blurred together in her memory. For some reason, however, she remembered each of the fay, cloaked figures who came to the chaise's aid as soon as the problem proved more than the combined exertions of driver, guard, and passengers could answer. She remembered each one with perfect clarity and intricate detail, and she could unfailingly distinguish each from the others. So Prince Winter always felt he knew the six young noblemen who aided them, though many long years would pass before he met them again.

First there was the soft-spoken gentleman with the red-orange hair, wearing a white tunic over blue-gray robes, who arrived providentially with four servants in dusky-orange livery, all on horses, when something needed done that could only be done with the aid of five strong men. Phyllis always fretted that she couldn't remember whether it was to pull a wheel out of a stony cleft in which it had become wedged, or to right the carriage after it had tumbled end-over-end down a grassy slope (happily, when it had already been evacuated and unhitched for some other reason), or to round up a team of horses that had panicked and bolted after the guard managed to unhitch them from the chaise. She was amazed to find, from later experience and conversation, that she had undergone a lifetime's worth of bad luck in that one trip.

Meanwhile, however, the red-orange knight approached her after his work was done and asked to see the child. Flattered by the attention, she had nevertheless tried to demur, hoping to spare herself the sight of the gentleman's dismay, if not horror, at the baby's disfigurement. The gentleman appealed so strongly to her gratitude, however, that she relented and brought Prince Winter out from under her rugs. He seemed not to notice the purple-black and scarlet stains that mottled the infant's skin, making him appear as some unholy thing that ought to be left exposed on the roadside (as one fellow passenger had opined during an earlier leg of their journey). He gazed down at the sleeping child's face with an inscrutable countenance, then wrapped his hand gently round its foot and said, "Thou shalt abhor bondage and love freedom, not only for thyself alone, but for all flesh. I, Sir Altair Westfall, knight of thy father's realm, do salute thee."

The second kind stranger who came to their aid was a lively gentleman with deep black hair who, along with his three attendants, wore dark green livery. They emerged from the great forest south of Escanaba, right on schedule to do something that the post needed exactly four spare hands to do. Though Phyllis couldn't remember whether that had something to do with a broken axle, or a boggy sinkhole that had opened up beneath the chaise's wheels, or perhaps that one prodigiously obese inside passenger who had suddenly come in need of physic, she remembered that after he and his men had rendered service, he had approached her with merry smile and big, interested eyes, and asked to see the child. Without thought, let alone argument, Phyllis had shown him Prince Winter. Whereupon the gentleman had stroked the poor mite's discolored cheek and said, "Love peace and loathe steel. This say I, Sir Baham Aeolian, in thy father's service."

Then there was the strikingly beautiful, sandy-haired lord in light green uniform, whose three companions were dressed likewise. He entertained them by playing his harp and singing, backed by the light clear voices of his two younger friends, while the third and eldest physicked a team of horses that had suddenly, and simultaneously, fallen ill. Phyllis could at least remember that much about their trek through the even greater forest east of Escanaba--a forest that stretched clear across an isthmus in the tapering peninsula that formed that region of the kingdom. It was the type of forest that felt haunted, and it was such a relief to her spirits, not only to be spared being stranded there, but even to have her spirits lifted by sweet music. When the horses were back on their feet, the young lord put up his harp, held out his hand toward Phyllis, and accepted the baby from her. At that point she would have resisted no request of his. "Always the inner beauty see," he chanted to the child, who for once was quiet though awake. "Beware hypocrisy. So saying I, Sir Deneb Saltwell, welcome thee."

There followed still three more visitations like these. A brown-haired lord with two brown-clad men dandled the child on his knee after repairing a broken wheel, or mending a broken harness, or curing the driver's blinding toothache, and said: "I, Sir Markab Elkhorn, bid thee listen to a thousand words, ere thou sayest ten." A pretty young master with flowing red-brown locks and one scarlet-robed aide repelled a robber, or offered the party shelter and stabling when a road block diverted them from the postal route during a night of wild storms and, afterward, while feeding breakfast to the babe, said: "Lord, if thou wilt pardon thy servant Sir Procyon Rosewood, he would bid thee fear neither height nor light, nor things above the earth, so much as things below." And finally a loose-limbed, white-blond youth, clothed in black and guarded by one man in light blue garb, added his team to the chaise's to help it over one last, supremely strenuous hill (which the driver swore had never been there before), then kissed the infant Prince and said with an impish grin: "If thou wouldst grant thy servant Sir Sarin Hawk to speak, he would bid thee learn to dive and swim like a seal, for where there is water enough to bathe in, thou canst not want for fun."

These last two encounters took place out on Manitoulin Island, so recently ceded to the king by his Faerie allies and evacuated of its previous inhabitants prior to settlement by the king's subjects. This stretch was what Phyllis often and very accurately described as "the fag-end of civilization," accessible from the mainland only by ferry and traversed by roads scarcely worthy of the name. At the furthest end of the kingdom's least coveted postal route, to be assigned to which was tantamount to exile, the exhausted nursemaid and her perversely thriving charge had to wait two days before a boat became available to ferry them over to Fitzwilliam Island and whatever grim fate might await him at the hands of Bonnie Prince Arleigh.

The fisherman they had hired for the trip dumped them and their luggage with little tact and less ceremony on a strand of filthy sand, covered in driftwood and other washed-up debris, just out of sight of Sir Arleigh's jetty. The fisherman had explained that any unexpected arrivals at the jetty were supposed to be shot at; and since Phyllis and her princeling had arrived at the same time as the letters ordering Sir Arleigh to expect them, they were unlikely to get a royal welcome.

Phyllis trembled to think about this as she stood on the strand, burdened with a mail bag besides her own luggage and her royal charge. How would Arleigh welcome them? Would he try to dispose of the little prince as a rival for the throne? Would he seek revenge on the king who had, as he could be expected to see it, usurped his kingdom and banished him to durance vile? Of more immediate concern: Did Fitzwilliam Island have a "wet foot/dry foot" immigration policy? Would Sir Arleigh's men shoot at Phyllis once she was on dry land?

Before she could gather enough courage to walk up the strand and clamber onto the grassy bank above, Phyllis got her answer. A shadow passed over her. Looking up into the sunshine (for at that hour of the morning it blazed directly into her eyes), Phyllis saw, almost in silhouette, the figures of three men and an enormous dog standing on the edge of the grass above her.

"Isn't this a pretty surprise," said the deep, rich voice of the man on her left, whose figure was taller and broader than the other two. "Or do you, Declan, know of this? Come, now. I won't punish you."

The man in the center, closest to the dog, laughed and said in a loud, coarse voice: "I swear, your honor, you know as much as I do."

"And you, Ludwig?"

This the first man appeared to ask the tough, wiry figure on the right, who replied: "I'm at a loss, sire."

"Then I suppose we'll have to ask the maid herself," said the figure on the left.

"State your name and your business," barked the man on the right, whose name Phyllis understood to be Ludwig.

"I've come from His Majesty's court," she said nervously, managing something like a curtsy in spite of her multiple burdens. "If I may..."

"What's that?" the man in the middle growled. "I can't hear you. Speak up!"

The strain became too much for Phyllis at this point, and she began to see dancing lights. She was a second or two away from fainting, which would not have been proper for the Prince Royal's wet-nurse to do under the circumstances. Luckily, the man in the center darted forward, half-running and half-sliding down the strand, and gripped her by both elbows while Ludwig, following a few steps behind, relieved her of her luggage.

It was the third man, finally, who took the child from her. Phyllis heard him gasp with alarm before the morning sunlight turned into blackness.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

3. The Royal Bastards

Protocol dictated that no questions be asked of the six visiting dignitaries until they and their attendants had satisfied their hunger. Faerie, as Bruno had not forgotten, had tremendous appetites even when they weren't fasting. Haunch after haunch disappeared down their graceful throats. The only sounds in the banquet hall were the rustle of silks, the shuffle of footmen's feet, the rattle of plate and crockery, and the occasional chime of spoon on glass as the faerie lords took it in turn to offer a silent toast to their host's hospitality. Each time glasses were raised and drained, another row of footmen darted forward with decanters of wine to refill the emptied goblets.

King Bruno hardly knew how he could endure the feast, knowing that his bride could give birth at any moment. He survived chiefly by receiving regular updates on her condition. The intervals between Queen Sophie's cramps had been growing shorter until the time came for him to change for dinner. But since then, it seemed, the contractions had come to a stand.

The first prince to arrive, and without doubt the first in rank, rose to his feet at some subtle signal that the feast was over. He raised his glass and broke the silence with this short speech: "Your Majesty, I greet you in the name of my mother, the Lady Bergamot of the Westfall clan. She sends you hearty wishes on the birth of your heir today"--the king's heart leapt into his throat at these words--"and bids you read the private word here sealed."

The orange-haired faerie passed a small box of beautifully inlaid wood to one of the footmen, who brought it to Baldwin. The latter examined it, observed that it was properly sealed, and handed it to the king. At the king's touch, the seal broke and a silver brooch in the shape of an oak leaf fell out of the box and into his lap. With it came a slip of paper which trembled in the king's hand as he read. Baldwin later copied it into the king's correspondence diary, with a full description; thus we know that it said: "Bergamot to my sweet Bruno, affectionate greetings. I trust He will recall the occasion on which He presented to me the favor enclosed. I return it to Him with my deepest regard and with the hope that He will look favorably upon its bearer's petition. Know that he is both the fruit of our night of passion and the worthiest candidate for cavalry service in either your realm or ours. My best to the Lady Sophie, and my blessing upon her child."

Understandably, Bruno had gone white in the face by the time he reached the end of this missive. He looked up, first at the fine young faerie standing before him, then around the table at the others, who he now truly feared would prove to be brothers.

"O king and ally," said the noble petitioner in a clear, strong voice, "hear my prayer. Altair of clan Westfall is my wayname; among kinsmen I am called by steadname Sorrel. I offer you my loyal service as a mounted officer, if you will but remove from me the stigma of bastardy. I beg Your Highness"--at this the king closed his eyes, realizing that nothing could prevent the rumor of this speech reaching his wife's bedside the instant it was over--"to acknowledge me his firstborn son, with a rightful claim to the social status becoming one of noble, yea, and royal parentage."

The king's mouth was too dry to form a reply at first. After a sip of water he was able to ask, "Who is the second petitioner?"

Altair Westfall of the orange hair and livery dropped into his chair with an ashen look. A moment of hesitation came before the second faerie lord, he of the black hair and deep green cloth, stood up.

"Know that I am Baham of clan Aeolian," he declared with a brave show of cheerfulness, "called by steadname Fisher. I bear His Majesty greetings from the lady Juniper"--here he handed one of the attendants another sealed casket made of inlaid wood--"and a petition very like that of my good Sorrel." He nodded toward Altair Westfall, having very meaningfully named him in the familiar manner.

The king opened the casket, fondled the ampoule of perfume he found inside, and read the letter to himself. According to Baldwin's transcript, it said: "Juniper to my most delicious Bruno, greeting. May the fragrance herewith returned to thee its giver remind thee of the hours we savoured together, so that the aroma of its bearer's petition may be pleasing to thee. By the numerous times I have poured fragrant balm upon his wounds after engagements with the barbarians to Your Majesty's west, I bear witness to his valour. Grant him but one boon, sire, and I daresay he will win many another grievous wound for thee. Farewell."

"I will hear your petition, Baham," said the king after he had returned the letter, ampoule, and casket to his footman.

"I beg His Majesty to recognize me as His son," said Baham Aeolian, "neither firstborn nor last, neither heir nor successor, yet worthy of a noble calling, and of the titles and lands owed to my faerie kinship. Heretofore I have served my country as a conscript. Henceforth, with my father's blessing, I would serve Him as a volunteer."

"Be seated," the king said. "I will hear the other petitions before I answer. Who speaks next?"

The third young stranger now stood, crowned with sandy hair and served by a footman in light green robes. The ten-stringed lyre leaned against the wall behind his chair, a waiting presence of its own. "Deneb of clan Saltwell speaks, Your Highness," he said in a piercingly clear, smooth voice. "I am also called Cardoon by those who know me. Will His Highness receive a token of greeting from a devoted lady?"

"Certainly," the king said aloud. "As if I could avoid it," he added inwardly, wincing at the thought of the rumors that must by now have reached the door of his wife's bedchamber. Would that strumpet Lylis let the messenger past the door? Would she, perhaps, spare Her Majesty the strain of hearing his report? Far more likely, Bruno thought glumly, Lylis would whisper it herself in Sophie's ear, with embellishments.

By this time a third casket had arrived in his lap. Again the seal dissolved at his touch and the lid came off, revealing a crystal fish caught on a thread of silver. The fish seemed to leap and flip, so lifelike was its shape; yet it also gave off patterns of multicolored light from its transparent depths. Another moment of tenderness came over the king -- his lips silently formed the name Vervain -- but then he set his jaw and looked up at Deneb Saltwell in a manner not likely to encourage his suit.

"Your petition?" he asked.

"My elders and betters have taken the words out of my mouth," said Deneb, also called Cardoon.

"Then let the next petitioner stand."

"Markab Elkhorn, your highness," said the brown faerie lord on rising from his chair, "familiarly known as Nettle. Please accept this bauble from the Lady Beryl, my mother."

The bauble, protected by a burlwood case ingeniously held shut by a spring, turned out to be a silver nose-ring Bruno had bought, out of his princely allowance, for a princess whose pale delicacy still, in memory, took his breath away. Looking up at the young lord before him, he saw his own coloring, firmness of limb, and even the features of his long-dead father and brothers.

"I know what you would ask," said the king. "Who else brings a request?"

The fifth petitioner was the youth of deep-red hair and livery. He identified himself as Procyon Rosewood, also known as Hip, and the trinket he bore was an ivory comb belonging to the lady Iora. After him spoke the last visitor, the white-blond stripling who, reckoning from the then-prince's youthful dalliance with his mother, must have been close to forty years old. His name was Sarin Hawk, or Hornet, and his mother the Lady Medlar had sent the king a a pair of earrings shaped like bees. The king actually blushed when he saw them.

While he was still holding these baubles in his hand, a messenger arrived out of breath and panted something into his ear. The king stood hastily. "Gentlemen, you are all welcome to every comfort of my house. Please to excuse me for the evening. I will give thought to your petitions until the morrow." And he left in a swirl of costly velvets, hardly daring to glance at their dismayed faces.

Now he approached the queen's apartments with dread. He knew very well that Sophie would never understand, never forgive him if he countenanced these putative sons. It did not matter even that he had not met her when he knew their mothers. He knew that she would never let him forget her years of trying, and her months of suffering, to bear him one son: only to learn, on the day of the heir's birth, that he had six already. Bruno arrived at Sophie's bedchamber braced for a storm. Even so, he was unprepared for the fury that broke upon him.

A messenger almost collided with Baldwin as he opened the bedroom door for the king. "It is time," the youth panted, before darting around a corner to be sick.

When the king went in, Queen Sophie was indeed in the very throes of delivery. A midwife hovered around the bed while the royal physician looked on from his perch in the corner. The queen's attendant looked pained as her mistress clutched her wrist. When Sophie saw Bruno at the foot of her bed, she slapped the waiting woman out of the way and began to curse for all she was worth.

"I spit on this child," she fumed. "I turn my back on it forever. I wish it may die. No! Rather, that it may be a monster whose deformities of figure, face, and character will ever dismay thee...."

Sophie was only half-faerie. Her workings were not up to faerie standards. But on this occasion, she truly felt everything she said. And she said it in the proper form, too.

The king covered his face with both hands and sank into a chair near the bed. The queen seized both of his hands in hers and squeezed so hard that he was unable to pick anything up for days afterward. Then, before either of them understood how far along things had come, a baby began to cry.

The midwife gasped. The physician darted forward and just prevented her from dropping the child. He took it out of the room to be washed and dried, then brought it back, wrapped in a warm blanket. He shook as he presented it to the king.

"Great wheels of war!" the king exclaimed when he saw the child. "What is that?"

"That," said the physician, "is His Majesty's son."

"But," Bruno faltered, "but... but it isn't human!"

The physician forced it into the king's hands anyway. "He won't know anything about that. Perhaps he will get better in time."

The king stared in horror at the swaddled deformity in his hands. Horror mixed, he realized slowly, with pity, and pity with guilt, and perhaps even a tiny spark of owner's pride. But not much pride. For he had never seen such an ugly creature.

It wasn't, he reassured himself one part at a time, missing anything essential. It had one nose (none too piggish) and two ears (not at all like those of an ass). It had all the requisite fingers and toes, and nor were they webbed. If its eyes had been open he might have been reassured to see they did not have cats' pupils; had its teeth grown in, he would not have been dismayed by any semblance of fangs. Everything was in the proper place and proportion.

The only trouble was the pigment of the boy-child's skin. Here and there were irregularly shaped blotches of flesh-colored flesh. Most of its body, however, was covered with a shade of purple verging on midnight black, varied only by occasional patches of dark red. Though the baby quieted in his father's arms, he had such a burned, maimed look that it pained King Bruno to look at him. In a sense he had been burned, seared by the curse of his mother who, even now, turned her face away from the child she had rejected.

"Take it away," the king said to no one in particular. "I have seen enough."

"Your Majesty?" the doctor queried vaguely, as he lifted the infant out of the king's hands.

Bruno shook his head wildly. "Find him a nurse. Send them... send them..." The king shook his head in despair. "Send them to Fitzwilliam Island. Let Bonnie Prince Arleigh have him." It was as close to a death sentence as the king had courage to order. "I hereby create him Baronet of the Manitoulin District, to be administered under Arleigh's regency until he comes of age. Now. Remove him from my sight."

And so it was done.

2. The Six Embassies

Queen Sophie was in her pains, and King Bruno was holding her hand, when a quaking messenger arrived at the door of the chamber with a word from the palace gate. The king's steward, or personal assistant, received it with consternation. Waving the messenger off, he sat down behind the king's chair and whispered in His Majesty's ear.

"A what?" said the king. "Fetch that fellow back in here and let me hear it from him."

The steward passed the word, and the messenger returned to deliver the word directly to Himself. Shortly thereafter he retreated again, more alarmed than ever. The king's irritability could not be helped. Her Majesty was writhing, sweating, and groaning, in spite of her faithful attendant's constant care. As soon as the bout passed, the king arose and said to his steward, "Come, Baldwin. We shall see what this is about."

They went and saw. A window on the fourth floor overlooked the palace's main portico, the front gates, and the open square beyond. There were actually two gates at this end of the palace. The outer gate admitted visitors to the wider royal complex, including parks, barracks, administrative buildings, and guest houses. Lord Thorn's selectmen kept this gate and challenged all who approached to be searched for weapons and to present their credentials. The inner gate, which surrounded the king's house and its garden merely, stood seventy yards within and was kept by a ceremonial doorwarden who had been in office since Bruno was a runny-nosed boy. Today, in the center of the wide vestibule between the two gates, a small but striking party of visitors had made camp.

"Strike me blue," the King said, gaping at his guests. His weren't the only staring eyes about. The courtyard between the gates was lined by a still but wary contingent of guards. The old doorwarden, Tynan by name, stood outside his gatehouse and gesticulated helplessly. He seemed to be trying to make the intransigent visitors understand what they ought to do. But they weren't doing it.

"Tell Tynan to shut up," said the king. Baldwin passed the word quickly. Both men watched as the messenger trotted up to the old man and took his elbow. Before the message had been read, Tynan threw up his hands in disgust, plunged into the gatehouse, and slammed the door.

The king clucked his tongue. Then he returned his eyes to the embassy that waited in the vestibule. Four men stood in a semicircle, cloaked in livery of a rich, dusky-orange hue. Their forms were tall, graceful, and alert. Their heads were covered with soft felt hats shaped like a sailing ship, keel up; the pointed bow-ends extended well beyond their foreheads, shading their faces from view. King Bruno did not need to see their all-black eyes or their long, back-swept ears to know what they were. Besides, seated in front of them was unmistakably a faerie lord: young, strong, straight and finely made, with an uncovered head of reddish-orange hair and a tunic of white linen belted over a knee-length robe of blue-and-gray brocaded silk. He sat on a one-legged stool, essentially two sections of a stout tree limb fitted together in a T shape, and showed no trouble balancing himself. They never do, the king thought ruefully. He was a magnificent specimen, right down to his turquoise hose and his soft leather, ankle-high riding boots. He was the first emissary from Faerie to come to Bruno's court. The king began to consider whether he should be afraid.

"What message, my lord?"

His Highness looked at Baldwin in amazement.

The royal steward squirmed slightly, then asked a clarifying question. "Would His Highness desire to send a message..."

"No message," said the King. "They will stand there, or sit as the fancy takes them, until this time tomorrow."

Baldwin blinked. "My lord?"

"It is their way," King Bruno added patiently. "Faerie court etiquette. One always waits in the vestibule for a night and a day, neither eating nor drinking nor saying a word. It's the Faerie way of saying they mean neither to impose on our hospitality, nor to insinuate themselves into our confidence. Clear?"

"Understood, my lord."

"Good. Send for Conon now. I'll have a word with him."

Conon was the king's chief of staff. His duties differed from Baldwin's in that the latter hardly left the king's side, serving as Bruno's eyes, ears, and mouthpiece in relation to the palace staff. Conon, on the other hand, ran the palace itself. Everyone on the king's personal payroll answered to him. He kept things organized, planned formal events, and saw that everything went according to protocol.

"A feast at this hour tomorrow," the king told him. "Our guests appear to be a young lord from Faerie and his entourage. Prepare one of the guesthouses. Be sure to remove anything made of iron. See to it that no one approaches them, speaks to them, or offers them food or drink until they complete their... er, greeting ritual."

"Anything else, my lord?"

"Fresh game, Conon. The Faerie are not fond of farm-raised meat."

"Very good, my lord."

The king returned to the queen's bedside. Her Majesty was having another contraction.

"Was it this bad before?" asked the king as Sophie crushed his hand in hers.

"Ah, your majesty!" cried the queen's attendant. "That were many years ago."

"Well, it ought to be over before our guests expect to be entertained," the king opined.

But the waiting woman shook her head. "This could go on for days," she said. "I've seen it happen."

Another messenger came. Baldwin, more shaken and bewildered than before, approached the king and whispered in his ear again.

"Befuddle," Bruno cursed, "beguile and bemuse them!" After a moment of panting fury, however, he relented and said: "Let's go and see."

The second embassy had set up its watch a few yards behind and to the left of the first. This one had only four men: three standing, one sitting. Those standing wore dark green livery and the same type of boat-shaped hats. The second seated man looked strikingly similar to the first, except that his tunic, robe, and hose were all different shades of green, and his hair was such a deep black that even its glossiness gave back little light. While the first faerie lord sat stoically, looking neither right nor left, the second envoy gazed around himself with interest.

"I like this not," breathed the king. "Send to Conon, saying we'll need another guesthouse and another chair at the feast. I do hope Sophie will pull through by tomorrow. I should not like to leave her for an evening while she still labors."

"Who is come?" Sophie asked her husband when he sat down by her bedside again.

"Two embassies from Faerie," he reported.

Her countenance darkened at this news. Before the king could ask her what this might mean, another message came.

"Don't say it," Bruno growled. "Let's see them."

The third embassy had encamped still farther to the left and rear of the first two. The three attendants stood in light green uniforms around a beautiful young man who could have been a twin to either of the other two, apart from his dirty blond hair and the attention he devoted to tuning a ten-stringed lyre.

The king was about to send word to Conon to add a third guesthouse and seat of honor when the guard at the outer gate came to attention for the arrival of another guest.

"Oy vay," the king groaned.

The fourth faerie lord and his two attendants handed the reins of their horses to the men at the gate and walked forward. Tynan came out to challenge them, then made a dismissive gesture and went back into his house. This party took up station behind and to the right of the first comer: two men in dark brown livery, flanking a brown-haired gentleman garbed in shades from cream to fawn-colored. Unlike the other three young lords, this one sat directly on the ground, crossed his arms and legs, and to all appearances went directly to sleep.

"Most peculiar," Baldwin murmured.

"What say you?" the king demanded, trying to control a new twitch in his right eye.

"Beg pardon, my lord."

The king paced up and down. "They're coming faster and faster. Next they'll be arriving one on top of the other. Where will it end?"

It ended, ten minutes later, with six embassies from faerie encamped in the vestibule before the palace gate. The fifth and sixth faerie lords arrived, indeed, at the same time, and camped together just within the outer gate with one liveried servant to each of them. The attendant clad in deep red guarded the flank of a lovely youth with flowing, red-brown hair and clothes of earthen shades. The guard in light blue attended a white-blond boy, who seemed scarcely to have grown to his full stature, and whose gangly limbs were clad in snug garments of pure black. While their boat-hatted men stared through the front of the palace as though it wasn't there, these two young lords began a game of ro-sham-bo with which they seemed prepared to amuse themselves all night.

"They could all be brothers," Baldwin breathed, risking another familiarity with his king.

"You haven't seen many faerie," Bruno snapped. "They probably all look the same to you." But secretly, the king agreed. And he had seen many faerie indeed.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

1. The Changeling King

On the last evening of the embassy from the Faerie Court, Waldo the Second, King of Wisconsin, at last perceived that something had to be done about his sons. Before the feast began, five of his sons were yet alive. By the cheese course, only three remained.

The choking death of Lord Galen, the Duke of Oshkosh and thirdborn of Waldo's seven sons, was embarrassing enough, though the Ambassador was kind enough to take no notice. But even he was stirred out of his elvish unflappableness when Prince Ludovic, the heir apparent, was skewered by a crossbow bolt that somehow leapt out of the fat goose he had been carving in front of His Excellency.

Two gruesome deaths were a bit much, the King felt, even on a state occasion. Over brandy after the plates were removed, the Ambassador impressed on him that more was at stake than his social reputation. "I fear," said His Excellency, "that some one or more of your sons may be causing these accidents."

"On purpose?" King Waldo cried, looking scandalized. "Never!"

"There is a proverb in Faerie," the Ambassador rejoined gravely: "Never say never. If this keeps up, you won't have any sons left. Except, perhaps, the one least likely to enjoy the loyalty of a happy people."

After much talk of this sort, His Majesty was persuaded to see the Ambassador's point of view. Indeed, a few additional tumblers of brandy may have helped. Before they retired to their separate apartments, the King tipsily agreed to permit his wise friend to take the youngest prince abroad. It wouldn't do to leave him exposed to the sorts of "accidents" that lately seemed to happen, all too frequently, among the King's sons. Besides, a foreign education might do the lad some good.

And so the following afternoon, a confused and tearful Bruno, Duke of Sheboygan and latest-born of the royal children, saw the flag at the top of the West Tower vanish below the horizon for the first time in his seven years. It was the last he would see of the royal palace until his twenty-first birthday, when he arrived to claim his throne.

Young Bruno soon forgot his homesickness. As part of the Ambassador's traveling retinue during the next few years, he saw awe-inspiring countryside and mighty cities. He was dressed in exquisite finery, fed sweet bread and heady wine and salads dressed with savory herbs, and trained in manners, magic, and manly arts. He was petted and fawned over by queens and duchesses. He learned history, letters, human and faerie languages, poetry and music at the Ambassador's patient knees. And when the movable embassy was at last recalled to the High Court of Faerie, Bruno went with it and beheld wonders unspeakable.

The date of Lord Bruno's first romantic adventure is not recorded. Suffice it to say that the ladies of the Faerie Court were not restrained by moral scruples such as chastity or monogamy. They enjoyed Bruno's innocence, candor, and enthusiasm. But, being long-lived creatures, they little understood his instinct for passionate attachment. So by the time a half-human princess from Toronto, named Sophie, came to the High Court, Lord Bruno was a little spoiled but greatly frustrated in love.

And then he discovered her. Unlike her fullblooded kin, the Princess Sophie had imperfect looks and an uneven temperament. With moods ranging from violent agitation to sulky silence, she was the most troubled, insecure, and vulnerable person Bruno had met in years. He soon fell blindly, blazingly in love with her.

Her folk were very happy to promise Sophie to Lord Bruno in marriage. It wasn't so much that they wanted an alliance with his kingdom, as that they didn't expect to do better by such an unfaerielike princess. Bruno was sixteen years old, and Sophie fourteen when the promise was sealed. It was only a few years later that he persuaded her to accept their union. Being bartered like a pig did not like Sophie well.

Meanwhile, sordid goings-on were afoot in the Kingdom of Wisconsin across the sea. King Waldo, already long a chattering fool, became increasingly demented while his last two sons laid cunning traps for each other. While the boyish Bruno was wooing his reluctant bride, Prince Harold died under mysterious circumstances; no one could ever explain how the box jellyfish got into his bidet. At the same time, by a most unfortunate coincidence, his brother Duke Nolan was crushed by a grand piano that had, by some strange means, become airborne just as he walked out of his mistress's hotel directly below it. If King Waldo had a theory about how these misadventures might have come about, he never mentioned it before his own death of old age nine months later.

In some respects, Bruno became King at that time. But then, he was hardly eighteen years old. By law, he could not come to power until he reached his majority. Historians call the next three years the Regency. It was a time when the Ministers who had already been running the kingdom during Waldo's dotage now ran it on behalf of Prince Bruno. No one knows what they thought about the idea of giving up power to a young stripling who had spent most of his life at the High Court of Faerie.

Some of them probably supported the Bonnie Prince Arleigh, a first cousin twice removed of the late king, who now claimed that he had more right to the throne than Bruno. Arleigh found a lot of supporters in the southern and western counties of the kingdom. An army of them, in fact. Soon Kingstead at Appleton, the royal palace, was under siege. But the Regents had their own followers. Within a few months of King Waldo's death, the succession question ignited into open war.

Through all this, Bruno remained safely in the custody of the Faerie Court. The Ambassador had promised his royal father to keep the lad alive. A step toward doing this, His Excellency found, was to keep Bruno ignorant as well. The young prince never suspected that such interesting things were happening back home in Wisconsin. No one had bothered to write to him in years, even in response to the announcement of his and Sophie's marriage. So, from Bruno's point of view there was nothing unusual about the lack of news. There wasn't much he could have done anyway, except wear a target on his chest.

During the king's absence, three leaders emerged, three young men who helped turn the tide of the war in favor of the Regents. When he finally returned to Kingstead, Bruno had been briefed on the situtation well enough to know that he owed his throne to these three men. He rewarded them accordingly.

The first of the three heroes was a dazzlingly handsome baronet named Yardley of Ironwood. It was Yardley who had persuaded the barons of the northeastern peninsula to swear fealty to King Bruno and his regents. Few people know that Yardley secured this promise by making one in return. Yardley fulfilled that promise twenty-two years later, at the feast celebrating his wedding to the king's eldest daughter. The Princess Spring had been betrothed to Yardley since six years before her birth, when Bruno still sat uneasily on his throne. When the king, flushed with wine and overcome by emotion, commanded his friend and son-in-law to name his heart's desire, Yardley replied: "Replace your court with a chamber of deputies elected by the citizens of every county in the kingdom."

At this the king's face turned another color. Though Yardley's demand took away a third of the king's power and put a strain on a long friendship, it pacified the northeasterners, who had always chafed under the laws of a faraway king, even when their territory belonged to the neighboring land of Michigan. Eventually, King Bruno realized that the establishment of the Chamber had saved Wisconsin, and he was happy when Yardley was elected First Deputy.

The second savior of the regency and of Bruno's throne was a tidy little marquess named Damon of Beloit, who even as a teenager was so well-known for his scholarship that the regents themselves consulted with him on questions of legal precedent. Damon, too, exchanged promise for promise. When Bonnie Prince Arleigh started rewarding his most illustrious officers with lands and titles in the southwestern counties, the former barons of those lands appealed to Damon for advice. They didn't care to turn over strong houses they had built themselves to a cadre of jumped-up fops.

It was Damon who persuaded the new barons to let the old barons stay on as stewards, in return for a percentage of the land's produce as rent. The results were so satisfactory to everybody that the old barons never petitioned King Bruno to nullify Prince Arleigh's land grants.

For settling a rebellion in the southwest almost before it began, Damon won the hand of the king's second daughter, the Princess Summer. At their wedding feast, twenty-five years later, King Bruno reluctantly made Damon the same offer he had extended to Yardley three years earlier. He winced just as bitterly, too, when Damon asked that the king cease judging cases appealed from the lower courts, and set up an independent Supreme Court instead. Nevertheless, Damon of Beloit proved such a wise and well-respected Lord Chief Justice that, in the end, King Bruno forgave him for taking away another third of his royal power.

The third hero was a ferocious fighter named Count Thorn of Westbridge. Thorn saved the Regency from having to fight on two fronts when he easily repelled a barbarian invasion and drove the brutes out of Duluth. Using that formerly savage settlement as a powerful base of operations, Thorn then led a series of attacks on the flank of Prince Arleigh's forces, ultimately splitting the pretender's army in two. Thorn accepted Arleigh's surrender in person and, later, enforced his exile to Fitzwilliam Island, part of the Manitoulin group the High Court of Faerie gave King Bruno as a coronation gift.

For his acts of valor and his military victories, Thorn won the hand of the king's third daughter, the Princess Autumn - though he had to wait nearly 30 years for it. By this time neither she nor the king much loved or trusted Thorn of Westbridge. But debts are debts, and promises are promises; and wish though he might that he hadn't set a precedent of offering the groom his heart's desire, King Bruno risked it a third time. All Thorn wished for, as it happened, was a professional standing army, of which he himself became the first Commander-in-Chief.

King Bruno's throne was now completely secure. He only lacked two things: a shred of real power, and an heir. As things stood at the opening of his thirtieth regnal year, the first in line for the throne, by virtue of his marriage to the eldest princess, would be his best friend and Prime Minister, Lord Yardley. Next after him was the right honorable Lord Chief Justice Damon. Even at three removes from the throne, Lord High General Thorn made the king uneasy. If the memory of his six elder brothers was good for anything, it was to increase King Bruno's uneasiness for the first two lords. Having a male heir would have made things much simpler. Or so the king thought at the beginning of his thirtieth year on the throne.

By the last day of that year, however, he was thinking differently again. For even then, on the day of his birth, there was nothing simple about Prince Winter.