Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In Which the End Begins

From the diary of Dulcie, Crown Princess of Bentlefay:

(continued from here)

Well, once again the day has been saved, and once again I am unable to determine who in the collective effort has been most responsible for saving it. All I can say is that this time, the deciding action was mine, and I believe I am prouder of it than of anything else I have ever done.

For all of yesterday’s excitement I must have dropped off to sleep after all once I had done writing up my diary, since it was certainly early dawn when a clang and a muttered oath woke me up and indicated that my precautions had not been in vain.

I groaned and sat up, rubbing my eyes. I must be growing accustomed to interlopers in the small hours, since I was hardly even nervous at the time – I only wished the whole thing was over so I could get some real sleep.

“You could have knocked,” I said. “Prisoner or not, this is a lady’s bedroom for the purposes of this journey, and it’s not as though I’m going anywhere.”

It was the fair young giant who last night had held custody of the captain.

“Why on earth would you leave those things there?” he complained. “You made me look like a fool.”

I shrugged. “I dislike being taken by surprise. Besides, you can’t possibly expect me to prioritize for your dignity under the circumstances.”

With the chamber pot disentangled from his foot, the young man set his legs astride in a heroic posture, swelled out his chest and beamed.

“Ah! Intelligence and a sense of humor. You will make an admirable queen for me.”

It was the first time any young man had given a hang about my intelligence and sense of humor and it ought to have piqued my interest, had the assumptions that went along with it not been so sweeping and unwarranted.

I yawned elaborately. “Oh? Are you a king? You hardly look like one.”

“I will be a king as soon as I like,” he snapped. “I am Royal Duke Harker of Norhammer.” He gazed importantly into the middle distance as though waiting for a round of applause.

I giggled. “I wish I had a penny for every deluded nobleman I meet who confidently expects to be king someday. Try again.”

His face became suffused with blood and I wondered if he was going to hit me. But the flush receded quickly and smiled with an effort.

“It is evident that you have not heard of me … I had not thought your country so backward. Ah, well, I have no doubt you will learn very quickly how to treat me once I get you back to Norhammer.”

I leaned forward. “You know, you’re not even the first person Bleake has tried this with,” I said earnestly. “He seems to have an entirely unwholesome view of the position my virginity should have in international politics. I shudder to think what he will come up with once we beat you.”

Harker strode forward and caught me by the arm. “Listen, you little cat,” he hissed. “You have no hope, do you hear? Your Bleake works at my command. My men have this vessel under complete control. No one will even know you are here until your parents receive my ultimatum. So it would be as well for you, princess, if you learned your manners.”

The grip hurt, but at that moment a scuffle and a shout were audible from the deck outside so I was able to smile. “Are you certain?” I asked sweetly. “It seems just as possible that you might be the one who needs to learn your manners.”

Harker actually raised his hand to me at this, but before the blow could connect we heard the clash of steel meeting steel in earnest, and the door flung open to reveal Bleake in a towering rage.

“I ought to have known I’d find you here, you ridiculous cockerel,” he snarled. “It’s those damned pirates. You told me they were gone. Where did they come from? How did they know? By god, I’ll have you flayed for this.”

Harker shoved me away and leaped up to tower over Bleake. “You have me flayed?” he sneered. “You have exactly as much power as I say you have, you puppet. I should have left you back in court; you’re less a bother as my uncle’s lapdog than you are playing at battle.”

At that point the slanging match surged forward high, loud and vigorous, and made a fascinating counterpoint to the clash of the swordfights outside. It was as though each man had touched in the other his deepest vulnerability, and neither of them cared what happened outside in the battle as long as he could best his verbal opponent here within.

I sat spellbound in my bunk, wondering if the whole thing was really going to be this easy. The battle was beginning to subside outside – although the argument was still going strong – when Long Bob strode in with his sword dripping blood and engulfed Bleake almost lovingly in an uncompromising armlock.

“Well, now, your majesty, if your flagship hasn’t got rats on it after all!” he boomed jovially.

I thought the whole thing was over now, but I underestimated Harker. With lightning speed and reptilian agility, he turned, snatched me from my bunk as though I weighed no more than a rag doll, and whipped his dagger to my throat.

“On the contrary, I believe you brought the rats with you, Captain,” he said through gritted teeth. “Shall we step out on deck and parley? I fear it will be an unequal bargain. Your captive, I’ll wager,” and he flicked cold eyes over Bleake, “is not worth nearly so much to me as mine is to you.”

We all stood frozen in silence for three long breaths, then Long Bob lowered Bleake to the floor and stepped back.

“Parley it is, young man,” he said slowly. “Come out -- carefully,” he added, with a meaningful look at me, “and we can assess the situation.”

(continued here)

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