Reading Room

Welcome to the crichtonscifi.com reading room. This is your place to read short stories, novel teasers, and serializations of novels by author, James A. Crichton.

Here in the reading room today you can read the first few installments of The Ugly Duckling, Book One in the Statue of Wilona with the Emerald Eyes trilogy. The Ugly Duckling can best be described as fantasy. Book two in the series, Far from the Madding Stars, is science fiction, and the third book in the series, Time Waits for No Man, is a combination of the two. Coming soon to the reading room are two short stories: Blackbeard and Seven Sisters, and further installments of The Ugly Duckling.

Enjoy the story.

Jim

THE STATUE OF WILONA WITH THE EMERALD EYES:

BOOK ONE

The Ugly Duckling

Copyright 2011 James A. Crichton

Once upon a time in the Seven Kingdoms, there lived a king rumored to possess the largest collection of stolen art ever accumulated.  This king, King Trent, denied that he possessed any treasure save his beautiful daughter, Celeste, whom he prized more dearly than his entire kingdom.  Yea, he prized her more dearly than he prized his own life.  So fearful was he that he might lose her that he kept her locked away in a tower where, besides himself, only her maid and companion, Matilda; and her ancient tutor, Ovcaybez, were allowed to visit her.

Whether the treasures which were stolen from surrounding kingdoms in those days found their way to Trent’s demesnes or ended up somewhere else entirely, many disappeared.  The greater the precautions to protect an art treasure, in particular, the more likely it was to disappear without a trace. So when Trent’s southern neighbor, King Ajax, spent half his fortune to acquire the legendary marble Statue of Wilona with the Emerald Eyes, a relic of the ancient past, the tale of which Trent had first heard in his boyhood from the mouth of the witch who had visited the Summer Fair Upon the Ebb in his childhood, he knew it would be folly to display her.  Yet, what was the joy of owning such a famous treasure if he could never show her off in order to make other kings envy him?  He assigned his own personal guard company to her protection and defiantly displayed her in his great hall for all to see.

A fortnight after Ajax installed the statue, a trading party from the far off and exotic realms of the East visited his kingdom.  The people of the far East were considered little more than half civilized by the people of the Seven Kingdoms.  But the Eastern civilizations actually predated civilization in the Seven Kingdoms by centuries.  Easterners considered the people of the West little more than savages.

The trading party stopped at Ajax’s court, where they offered spices in exchange for the furs of the mountains which formed the western borders of the Seven Kingdoms and for the winter grains for which the West was famous.  Primus, the leader of the trading party, a merchant prince, took the opportunity of his visit to admire Wilona loudly and greatly, and in so doing earned himself a personal audience with her proud owner.  Just as he had intended.

“What a magnificent piece of work,” the traveler marveled.  “What magnificent generosity Your Majesty shows to share her beauty with all who visit your court.”

“To a true connoisseur of the arts, sharing the enjoyment of a great masterpiece is much of the pleasure of its enjoyment,” intoned Ajax.

“Beneficently spoken, Your Majesty,” replied the traveler. “Such sentiment is a true indication of the difference in quality between a monarch like Your Majesty and the ilk of your thieving neighbor to the north, King Trent.”

“We see Trent’s reputation has spread far and wide,” replied Ajax, employing the royal “we”.  “So far that it’s known even in the East.”

“It has.  It is.  All the world knows of the infamous Jackdaw King.  Knowing his reputation, I was very much surprised, though delighted, when I learned that Your Majesty’s generosity would made it possible for me to behold and enjoy this masterpiece among masterpieces.  I would have expected that Your Majesty’s neighbor’s penchant for theft would have forced Your Majesty to go against the royal generous nature, to hide the magnificent Wilona away in a safe place.”

“Ha!  We have no fear of the Jackdaw King.  Our own royal guard protects Wilona.  No one could possibly take her from us when such loyal and capable men are protecting her, least of all that pompous ass, Trent,” Ajax declared.

“But I hear told the Jackdaw King views extraordinary protection measures as a gauntlet thrown down before him.  Does Your Majesty not fear he will take your truly impressive protection measures as a challenge?” Primus asked.

“We know Wilona’s presence and the excellence of her protection will attract his attention.  Our men welcome the opportunity to demonstrate their excellence.  Let him try to take her.  The Jackdaw King is not the only one who thrives on challenge,” blustered Ajax.

“That is an attitude to be greatly admired, Your Majesty.  It is an attitude to which I attribute much of my own success as a merchant,” Primus said.  “But tell me, a man such as your royal and brilliant self, Your Majesty, must have some plan for her protection which goes beyond the posting of Your Majesty’s guard.”

“Yes.  Indeed we have a number of surprises in store for anyone who would attempt to steal Wilona from us.  Her protection goes beyond the vigilance of the guard.  The Jackdaw King guards his daughter no more vigilantly than we guard our Wilona,” boasted Ajax.

A spark of fire glinted briefly in the eyes of the Eastern merchant.

“It is said the daughter of the Jackdaw King is beautiful, indeed,” he commented.  “They say the Wilona of flesh and blood who inspired Your Majesty’s statue may have been no more beautiful, though her beauty so bewitched her thousand and one suitors that they waited, every one of them, upon her choice as to which would have her until they starved, every one, to death.”

“So it has been said,” Ajax shrugged.  The story he had heard was that Wilona’s suitors had numbered seven sevens of sevens, not a thousand and one.  But he felt no need to quibble over numbers.  On the subject of Trent’s daughter, he added; “But no one has seen the girl to know whereof they speak.  She may be beautiful, ’tis true.  Or her father may be hiding her ugliness from the world.”

“It is said,” the merchant rejoined, “that her mother was a beautiful woman.  And it is said that the Jackdaw King had a sister who was comely as well.  It would seem doubtful the apple would fall far from the tree.”

Ajax considered Primus’ argument.

“It is true her mother was beautiful,” he admitted.  “Of that I have much first hand knowledge.”

“I would dearly love a glimpse of the daughter,” the merchant said.  “Would it not be pleasing to bring her here to this great hall of yours and place her next to the statue so as to compare the beauty of the two?  We could judge the merits of one against the other with our own eyes.”

Ajax considered this too.  A glint of fire sparked to life in his eyes like unto the glint of fire which had sparked in the eyes of his guest.

“There is a natural appeal to your suggestion,” he allowed.  “There would be a symmetry to it.”

“A symmetry.  Yes.  That is the very word for it,” agreed the merchant.  “The entire situation would be a situation of symmetry.  On the one side there would be the Jackdaw King, the stingy, mean spirited, man who denies the world to his daughter and his daughter to the world.  If his reputation be half true he is already plotting the theft of Wilona, thinking himself how he will hide her away with the daughter in the tower as he has done with so many other treasures through the years.  On the other side there would be Your Majesty, a most generous sovereign who shares his treasure with the world so all may find pleasure in its partaking.

“On the one side there would be the Jackdaw King’s daughter, a young woman of flesh and blood treated like a possession, denied all suitors, starving for hope for a future she can call her own.  On the other would be Wilona, a woman of stone never at want for suitors, cursed though she be.  A woman whose suitors of old all died starving for the hope of winning for themselves a part in her future.

“It would seem destined of the Fates that both women should find a future with the one man or the other.  I would sincerely hope, for the sake of the world and that of the poor princess, that both would enjoy Your Majesty’s protection rather than to suffer the cruelty of their fate should they fall to the Jackdaw King instead.”

King Ajax heard out this little speech without verbal comment.  But the dancing of his eyes suggested he was seeing in his mind’s eye the scene the merchant had described.

“It is said the Jackdaw King guards his daughter so well,” the merchant said, “that not even a dove could coo its song to her.  Her champion would have to prove himself a more clever man than her father to succeed in rescuing her.”

“It would be no great task to prove oneself more clever than Trent,”  Ajax harrumphed.  “Trent is an old fool.  He lost whatever wits he had when his wife ran away from him some years ago.”

###

Later that evening, Primus conferred privately with his captain of his guard company which protected him in his travels.  The man also served him as his chief advisor.

“These Western oafs who style themselves as kings are such fools,” he said to the captain.  “They are such fools that it is hardly a joy to outwit them.  I have already convinced this Ajax that his northern neighbor is out to steal his statue and that he should steal the man’s daughter, the princess who is kept hidden from the world in a tower, to pay him back for it.  While the one goes after the other we shall mayhap find a way to acquire both statue and princess.  If we set the fools properly against one another they will never suspect us and we can eliminate the middle man in acquiring an almost priceless work of art.  And perhaps I will take me a Western wife in the bargain if the girl pleases me.

“What I would have you do is this.  Visit the city of the northern neighbor.  I understand you visited the place some years ago, when my father did business there, so it is not entirely unknown to you.  Learn where the soldiers go to drink and tell tall tales.

“Take the Western son of my father’s Western queen with you.  I mean to have some use of that otherwise useless dimwit before the journey is over.  He has been nothing but a bother to us thus far.

“Arrange for him to take a room at the inn.  Instruct him how to confide to some sergeant of the Jackdaw King’s guard that he was at the court of King Ajax when Ajax vowed to bring down King Trent’s daughter from her tower and to install her in his great hall in order to compare her in the flesh to the Statue of Wilona with the Emerald Eyes.

“Instruct him to linger at the inn and about the town afterward to gather what information he may about the daughter, the tower she is kept in, and the history of the enmity between these two petty monarchs.  Surely there is some quarrel between them which we may exploit to our advantage.

“Do not let yourself be seen with the boy there.  I do not wish him associated with us in the minds of the natives.  He looks like all the other ugly sons produced by the women of these foul shores.  So they’ll think him one of them and talk openly in his presence.  Make up some story for him to use to explain his lingering about. And drill him on it until he knows it.  Make it simple enough that he can play at it without giving himself away.  If it is possible to invent a tale so simple.

“Arrange a regular rendezvous with him. Require him to report to you.  And, by the hair on the chest of the Yellow Sorcerer’s demon, make sure he knows he must not to be caught so much as glancing at the tower where the princess is kept.  It could cost him his head.  Though my father might secretly take pleasure in being rid of him, his mother would make endless trouble if he were to come to harm.  The whole court would suffer under the curse of her displeasure.”

The captain doubted the wisdom of sending out the boy in question.  The son of the Western queen had no experience at playing the spy or the agent provocateur.  The captain considered him unlikely to have so much as a thimble full of aptitude for either profession.  But he kept his own counsel concerning the matter.  In some things, Primus was unwilling to hear a dissenting voice.  The captain judged this to be such a matter.  He merely went and did as he had been bidden.  He cared not a wit about the witless boy.  And the trading venture would be profitable if they returned home with only the profit they had realized thus far.  So what real harm if the boy went in and blundered disastrously.

###

The captain made the journey that very night across the River Ebb to the kingdom ruled by Trent. There he quickly identified an inn where members of the Jackdaw King’s guard drank and gossiped during their off duty hours.  He then returned for the boy, Mallard, who was Primus’ step-brother, and instructed him in what was expected of him.  He set the boy up in a room at the inn and left him to do the job Primus expected of him.  Let him do it however well or poorly he might.

###

The next day the merchant prince contrived to hold discourse with King Ajax once again.  Once again he urged upon Ajax how desirable it would be to see the Jackdaw King’s daughter there in the great hall, side by side with Wilona, the beautiful woman of stone.

“I would derive so much pleasure from seeing Your Majesty possessed of both treasures, the woman of marble and the woman of flesh, that I wish there were something I could do to aid Your Majesty’s cause,” he said to Ajax.  “I fear I lack the cleverness as well as the experience to help such a man as yourself plan a rescue of the daughter from her tower.  But there might be a way I could contribute in some insignificant measure to your protection of Wilona.  Suppose some of my men were to attempt to steal her.  Of course they could not hope to succeed.  But the attempt might inspire your men to unremitting vigilance.  And if there were one or two of them slightly less vigilant than the rest, the test would allow you to pick those men out to caution or replace them.  Of course, I would order my men to do your men no harm in their attempt.  And I would ask you to order your men to bring to you unharmed any who would attempt to steal Wilona so that you might question them.  That would prevent your men from doing my men mischief when the test was done, just as my orders would prevent mine from doing harm to yours.  My men in particular would be much safer that way.”

Ajax was flattered by the terms in which the merchant presented this proposal.  He thought such a test an excellent opportunity to make a reputation of his own for the impregnability of his defenses, a reputation which, like Trent’s, would be known even in the far off East.  So he agreed.  “Very well.  You may test my men.  “You will see how truly capable and vigilant soldiers can be.”

###

A few nights after Primus made his proposal to Ajax, carefully selected and instructed members of the merchant prince’s guard made their attempt on the statue.  They had been told; “Under no circumstances are you to actually take the statue tonight.  There are two points to tonight’s work.  One is to make the locals feel secure, overconfident.  The other is to probe weaknesses in their defense of the statue.  We will take the statue later, using a properly planned and prepared strategy.  Allow the guards to stop you tonight.  When they do, be sure to congratulate them on how well they have done their job.  Tell them that even the Jackdaw King would find them a formidable obstacle to his designs upon the statue.  And ask them how long they think it will take their king to rescue the Jackdaw King’s daughter from her tower.  Give them a chance to make boasts their king will feel bound by pride to make good.”

###

While his step-brother’s guard was carrying out the mock attempt upon the statue, Mallard, the son of the Western wife of the merchant prince’s father, set out to perform the mission which his step-brother had assigned to him.  He wished to perform it well.  Perhaps if he performed it well his step-brother would be pleased with him and treat him less meanly, he thought.  Mallard watched the sergeant in King Trent’s guard whom he had been instructed to approach with his story of  King Ajax’s plans to take King Trent’s daughter and waited.  When the occasion was ripe, he joined in the conversation at the sergeant’s table and maneuvered its subject to create an opening into which he could tell his tale.

When he found his opening, he kept his tale very simple, even simpler than the guard captain had instructed him to keep it.  “I am a traveler, as you may have guessed,” he said. “I come just yesterday from the court of King Ajax. He has recently come to possess the Statue of Wilona with the Emerald Eyes. I was being entertained in his great hall when he spoke of the daughter of your king. He vowed to steal her from her tower and take her to his great hall, where he would compare her to Wilona, his new possession.  He was some distance from me when he spoke. He raised his voice when he made his vow, else I would not have heard it.  He lowered his voice again after that.  So I heard no more.  But I thought your king would want to know Ajax made such a vow. And you look to be the man I should tell of it, Sergeant.”

“I shall indeed make sure this story reaches the ears of my superiors,” the sergeant said. “You did right to bring it to me.” And he then proceeded to question Mallard very closely about the matter.

“I am merely passing through. I am returning home from travels on my father’s business.” Mallard said when asked what had brought him to Ajax’s court. When the sergeant demanded that he stay there at the inn for the next few days so as to be available if King Trent wished to question him personally, Mallard answered, “Gladly will I do so. I am weary with much travel and will be glad for the respite from it. My horse is weary too.”  Which deception was made up entirely of truths.

###

The first part of his mission accomplished, Mallard went out the next day to get a look at the tower where King Trent kept his daughter, in order to assess its strengths and weaknesses as best he could from a distance.  He passed the tower several times at long and irregular intervals, being careful to appear to ignore it entirely in passing.  He used his passes to carefully pace off the distance from the tower to each of the gates leading to and from the town.  Later he paced off the distance from each of those gates to the nearest wooded area outside the town.  Then he returned to the inn and kept his ears open for gossip.

It was not long before he heard the rumor he had started mentioned by someone in conversation.  As the evening wore on he heard it mentioned several times.  He managed cautiously to insinuate himself into one conversation soldiers who hadn’t been present when he had told his tale to the sergeant were carrying on about the rumor.  He was able to ask these soldiers the question to which his step-brother wanted the answer: whether there was some quarrel between Ajax and Trent.

“Who is this King Ajax?” he asked, “and why should he wish to steal away King Trent’s daughter from him?”

The other participants in the conversation were amazed at his ignorance.  When they found out he was a traveler unfamiliar with local history they happily remedied that ignorance.

“Why, they were bitter rivals, lad, for the hand of the Lady Llawrel. She chose Trent. She is the princess, Celeste’s, mother,” an old soldier told him. And there was more to the story than that. It seemed that though Llawrel had married Trent she had continued to flirt openly with Ajax afterward, whenever the occasion had presented itself.  She had been seen flirting with him the day the nobility of the Seven Kingdoms had gathered to celebrate the marriage of Ajax’s sister.  Many people had seen the shameful behavior of Ajax and of Llawrel that day.  Afterward, Trent and Llawrel had been heard to argue fiercely.  Less than a fortnight after the argument, Llawrel had disappeared. She had never since been seen in the Seven Kingdoms.

Different soldiers began to relate different opinions to Mallard and one another about what had become of Llawrel.  One theory was that she had run away with a merchant prince who had been taking advantage of Trent’s hospitality when the argument occurred and had left the realm the same night the Queen had disappeared.  Another was that she had been kidnapped, and later killed when Trent had refused to meet the ransom demands of her kidnappers.

Whatever Queen Llawrel’s fate had been, the daughter, who had been but a babe at the time, had ended up in the care of a nursemaid, who had returned her to the King after time had passed after she had at first disappeared with the Queen.  Since then, Trent had guarded the daughter closely.  He had built the tower to keep her in, and had vowed she would never be taken from him as her mother had been.

“King Trent, he held Ajax responsible for Queen Llawrel’s disappearance,” one of the soldiers explained.  “And there’s been bad blood between them ever since.  No one would be the least surprised even if either one of them plotted harm to the other.  And what greater harm could anyone do King Trent than to kidnap his daughter?”

As he listened to the story, Mallard grew ever more curious about the hidden Princess.  He dared not ask questions about her to satisfy his curiosity, not absent some perfectly innocent opportunity.  So it went unsatisfied.  He found himself thinking about her constantly that evening.  That night she troubled his dreams, though in a not entirely unpleasant way.

The next day Mallard strolled past the Princess’s tower several times again.  He told himself he needed to observe the changing of the guard at the tower.  And he did observe that carefully.  But it also caused in him a strange feeling to be in general proximity to the reputedly beautiful, virtually imprisoned, princess.

###

Now, the Princess, Celeste, spent much of her time, when she was not occupied with her studies or with visits from her father, looking down from her tower upon the lives passing in the streets below her, wishing she, too, had a life outside the tower to live among her father’s subjects.  She would watch the people and wonder what it would be like to be one of them.  Often she would make up a story of what she thought the life of one of the people she saw was like.  She would tell the story to her faithful maid and companion, Matilda, whose judgment as to the plausibility of her stories she made up she relied upon to shape her ideas of the way the common people lived.

It came to pass on this second day of Mallard’s mission that the Princess Celeste was looking down from her tower on one of the occasions when he passed it by.  She noticed him and pointed him out to Matilda, who was with her at that time.

“Do you know that boy down there with the wild hair?” she asked her companion.

“No, Mistress Celeste.  I have never seen him before,” Matilda replied after looking where her mistress pointed.  “I would remember such a head of hair had I seen it before.  He is not from around here, I warrant you.”

“Whom do you suppose he might be?” Celeste desired to know.

“I couldn’t rightly guess, Mistress,” was the best answer Matilda could give her.

“I’ll bet he’s a soldier, Matilda, marching off bravely to war.”

“He doesn’t have a uniform on, Mistress.  A soldier would wear a uniform.  Besides.  There isn’t a war going on anywhere in the Seven Kingdoms.  Not that I’ve heard of.  I don’t believe he’s marching off to war.”

“Perhaps he’s a seaman, then, headed back to his ship to sail away to some far distant land beyond the sea.”

“He doesn’t walk like a seaman, Mistress.  And besides.  He’s walking in the wrong direction to be going to any harbor.  His path leads inland toward the mountains.”

“Oh, Matilda!  How I wish I could walk out of this tower and run after him and talk with him.  I would ask him all about the places he’s been and the things he’s seen and the things he’s done.  And then I’d take a walk through the market and look at all the bolts of cloth and the pots and the fruits and the vegetables and the leather and the jewels and the pastries and the potions.”

This was not a new refrain the Princess was singing.  Matilda had heard it a hundred-one times if she had heard it once before.  She felt sorry for her mistress.  But she could not lightly endure having to listen to such incessant expressions of yearning for what could never be.

“My Da says there’s no use wishing for something when having it is beyond a person’s hope,” she passed on to her mistress the philosophy she had heard at home almost as often as she had heard her mistress’s sad refrain sung there in the tower.  “You should not torment yourself with thoughts of those things you cannot do, Mistress.”

“But there is hope, Matilda.  I have been thinking about it and there is a way I could slip outside for a taste of the world, if only you would help me to do it.”

When her mistress said these words the blood ran cold in Matilda’s veins.  All she could think of was what the King would do to her if she were ever caught helping her mistress to escape.

“All the guards see you come and go so often they think nothing of it,” Celeste explained her idea.  “They never stop you or question you, do they?  And you and I are of the same size.  Your clothes would fit me.  If you had a hood which would cover my hair and face and we were to exchange clothing, the guards would think me you and would let me walk right out.  Then they’d let me walk right back in again later, still thinking me you.”

“If your father came and caught me here without you, Mistress, he would have my head off,” gulped Matilda.  “And he might do something much worse to me first before removing it.”

“We would do it when he was not around,” Celeste answered this objection, oblivious to the terror in her companion’s voice.  “And anyway, we would do it just before the changing of the guard.  I would leave just before one watch ended.  As soon as the new watch came on you could leave too.  Each watch would see but the one of us leave.  Each would assume it was you.  Then, if my father or Ovcaybez came to the tower, neither of us would be there, and no one would know the part you had played in my leaving.”

“That would make no difference,” protested Matilda.   “Just the fact that you were gone would send your father into a fury.  People would lose their heads.  I would lose mine.  Ovcaybez would lose his.  And all the guards would lose theirs.”

“My father would never find out.  I would leave my privacy seal upon the door and he would not enter my private chamber.  I have put his honoring of the privacy seal to the test many times.  He observes his promise not to disturb me when it is in place.”

“Mistress, do not ask this thing of me.  Please.  The danger is too great,” pleaded Matilda.

But Celeste did ask, and continued her asking persistently.  Matilda felt too sorry for her, and was too kind hearted, to persist in saying no, though the thought of all that could go wrong caused her terror as persistent and as strong as her mistress’s pleading.

Celeste was eager to put her plan to the test and Matilda did not wish time to further contemplate all which could go amiss, nor what would happen when something did go amiss.  So Matilda consented to carry out the scheme that very evening.

###

Now, Mallard was giving particular attention to the way in which the guard was deployed about the tower.  So he was once again in its vicinity to observe how the procedure worked for the changing of the guard when the first watch of the evening went off duty.  Just before the relief watch was scheduled to arrive, he saw someone leave the tower, someone whom he presumed to be the personal servant of the Princess.  He debated whether to follow this servant or to wait to observe the changing of the guard.  The latter option was the one he settled upon after hasty consideration.  Thus it happened that he was still watching the tower after the previous watch had retired when Matilda left the tower.  Her, he followed, having seen what he had come to see and being grateful for the chance to learn about the people who were permitted in the tower.

###

Matilda was shaking so badly as she left the tower that her knee caps were knocking together.  She could not help thinking that Celeste would be caught, and of all the terrible things which would happen when she was, things Celeste could not even imagine but which Matilda had no trouble at all imagining.

The danger was not that anyone would recognize Celeste.  The only people who had ever seen Celeste since she had been a young child had been Celeste’s father; her tutor, Ovcaybez; and Matilda herself.  But Celeste was beautiful.  She could not help but to attract the attention of men.  And her lack of time spent among people might well lead to serious misadventure should some eager young buck thrust his company upon her.  Matilda planned to do her very utmost to prevent such trouble.  She had directed Celeste to a gathering place where the presence of a stranger would not be uncommon.  No one would question it.  And Matilda was now headed there straightway herself to be there to head off the trouble she feared should it start.

###

Mallard followed his quarry at a careful distance, sticking to the shadows, in which he could hardly bee seen in spite of his shock of hair.  Matilda led him a chase through a series of alleyways the existence of which he had not yet guessed.  When an alley down which she was speedily moving came to a dead end, Matilda disappeared through a door in the wall at the end of it.

Mallard was reluctant to follow her into what might, for all he knew, be anything: a house, a stable, a hideout, another alley.  Something in the young woman’s stride suggested to him, though, that she had not arrived at her destination.  He cautiously approached and examined the door and the wall in which it was set.  No light shone through the sizable cracks between the rough planks which made up the wall.  He put his ear to the door to listen.  No sound came from within.  The only sound came from the distance beyond.  He put his eye to a crack and could make out nothing beyond the wall but that it was an enclosed space.  Some light appeared at the cracks in a wall opposite from him.

Mallard took a breath, opened the door, and stepped through into what had to be a market stall.  He stumbled to the door in the opposite wall and went out through it into the city’s marketplace, closed and empty at this time of the night.  The girl he had been following was nowhere to be seen.  He had lost her.

But he realized happily that he was not lost himself.  He had passed through the marketplace earlier in the day as he had familiarized himself with the shape of the town.  It was but a short distance from the inn at which he was staying.  He set his footsteps in the inn’s direction and returned to its public room in which he had been spending so much of his time since he’d arrived.  He crossed the room, looking to find a place at his favorite table—and then leaped nearly high enough to hit his head upon the rough overhead beams in surprise.  The young woman he had been following was right there at a nearby table.

Beside her was another young woman, a beautiful young woman.  Her clothes were like unto those worn by the other woman he had seen leaving the tower, the one who had left just before the changing of the guard.  Likely she was one and the same.

There were already several members of the King’s Guard gathered at the table where the two women sat, drawn like flies to honey to the comely company.  Mallard eased his way into the edge of the knot of admiring men.

The more comely of the two women was flushed and responding eagerly to the attention of the men.  The other was much more reserved.  Her eyes darted about the room in a way which made Mallard think trouble was afoot.  When those eyes touched upon Mallard they bounced off, then came back to alight upon him a second time. They paused upon him momentarily in what might have been recognition.  He thought for a moment she had seen that he had been following her.  But no.  The eyes resumed their fugue about the room after just a momentary rest upon him.

Then Mallard realized the other woman was looking at him too.  Her eyes clearly held recognition.  Mallard felt a tingle, an excitement colored by alarm.  Had he been observed observing the tower?  No.  That was not possible.  He had been too careful.  But why else should there be recognition in the woman’s eyes?  Mistaken identity?

That could explain it.  His appearance was much like unto that of the people of this region.  He could easily have one or more look-alikes who visited places the young woman frequented.  Every Eastern ruler sought out look-alikes for use in decoying assassins and would be kidnappers.  Some had found and employed as many as half a dozen look-alikes or doubles at a time.  In all likelihood everyone had numerous look-alikes for whom they might easily be mistaken by someone who did not know them well.  He hoped that was the explanation.

Both the women were looking at him now, now looking away, now looking back to him again.  The guardsmen were glancing at him now, too, seeing him as a rival for the attention of the women and resenting the looks he was getting.  Mallard decided he had to change that that before it caused him trouble.  He cleared his throat.  All eyes turned upon him.

“You lasses keep glancing at me as though my countenance were familiar to you,” he spoke.  “But I don’t know you.  Perhaps you think I’m some other person.  Perhaps my face looks like that other person’s.”

The prettier of the two laughed.

“Oh, no.  It is you I have seen,” she said.   “I saw you passing by . . .”

“Passing by on the street today,” the other finished quickly for her.

“Yes,” continued the first.  “And we were wondering who you were and what business you were about, weren’t we, Matilda?”

The second nodded reluctantly and looked embarrassed.

“We never expected we would get the chance to ask you,” the more comely one continued.  “But we do have the chance to ask you.  So do tell us, please.”

This was even worse than if they’d thought he was someone else.  Mallard knew not where it would lead.  The other men were looking daggers at him.

“There is not much to tell,” he said, shrugging.  “I am a merchant returning home after a long journey abroad.  I was looking to my father’s interests.  I am merely resting over briefly here at the behest of a sergeant of the King’s Guard.  He may wish to question me further about a report I brought from another kingdom.”

The girl appeared disappointed, but only momentarily so.  “So what was your report about?” she asked Mallard.  “Do not keep us in suspense.  You are most unkind to do so.”

“I fear there is little to tell,” he answered, giving his shoulders an exaggerated shrug.  “It was merely a report of a boast King Ajax made about a statue he recently acquired, the Statue of Wilona with the Emerald Eyes.  He boasted he would take a certain something from King Trent to keep beside Wilona.  I only overheard the boast, not the details.”

“So you are the one who brought that tale to the sergeant,” exclaimed one of the guardsmen.  He was older than his fellows.  “What a fuss you have kicked up with it.  This is something you should know about, Matilda, for it is about your mistress.  King Ajax has vowed to kidnap her and keep her with the statue.  Our people at Ajax’s court have said the tale this merchant boy brought to us is true.  The old lecher has even had the gall to cloak his wickedness in the threads of gallantry.  He is calling it a rescue.  Everyone knows what he wants.  It is plain to see.  He courted the Princess’s mother and lost her to the better man, King Trent.  Now that the mother is gone he has made the daughter the object of his lust.”

The color drained from Matilda’s face.

“Where has the mother gone?” Mallard asked the guardsman.

“Why, she is dead, of course,” answered Matilda’s companion.  “She died giving birth to her daughter.”

“No.  That is not so,” the older guardsman disagreed with her.  “She was kidnapped by a robber baron from the East masquerading as a trader in precious stones.  It happened when the Princess was but a young child.  The Princess was kidnapped too.  But her nurse escaped the Eastern vessel with her before it sailed.  That is why King Trent protects her so carefully.  After losing his queen and nearly losing Princess Celeste with her, he will never all the princess to be kidnapped again.”

“Are you sure what you say about Queen Llawrel is true?” Matilda questioned the man.  “It is a fine story.  But what I have always heard while attending the Princess has been that her mother died giving her birth.”

“I saw Queen Llawrel with my own eyes, sitting with the child in the courtyard on many a warm summer day up until the time they were kidnapped,” answered the guardsman.  “And my sire was a member of the guard which was sent in pursuit of the kidnappers.  No one who lived in the kingdom on that day could fail to remember what happened.  King Trent went nearly mad in his anger and his grief at his loss.

“A personal guard had come with the Queen from her father’s court to protect her.  Three officers and twenty men, they were.  King Trent had the officers publicly executed, and banished the men in disgrace.  Three of the personal attendants of the Queen lost their heads.  The rest were dismissed in disgrace.  The nurse who returned the princess nearly lost her head, as well, for failing to raise the alarm.  In the end, King Trent permitted her to keep it.  But he dismissed her and banished her from the kingdom for life.

“Almost every man, woman and child present in the city was questioned in the hope they might know something of the kidnapping.  Anyone even vaguely Eastern in appearance was questioned for days on end, then eventually banished.  The King thought them all spies.  To this day no Easterner is allowed to trade in this kingdom.

“There is no question about it.  The queen survived the birth of the Princess.  I am much amazed to hear you have been told some other story.”

The two women sat in stunned silence.

“Kidnapping is not uncommon in the East,” Mallard broke the silence, forgetting it was unwise to call attention to himself again.  “But it is done for ransom or to obtain hostages to trade.  Did your king receive no ransom demand for his queen?”

“I never heard that he did,” answered the guardsman.

“That is most unusual,” Mallard said.  “Mayhap there was some message which was lost or misunderstood to cause the ransom not to be paid.  Or some such foul up.”

“What would become of a woman kidnapped by Easterners,” Matilda’s companion asked Mallard, her voice unsteady.

“The position of hostage is an honorable one in the East,” Mallard explained to her.  “She would be treated as a member of her captor’s family.  She would be guarded, of course, lest she escape.  But her guards would be honor bound to treat her with respect.  Even a double or some other person taken hostage by mistake would be honorably treated, and probably eventually released.”

“What do you mean, a double?” the girl asked, sounding less distressed than she had when she had asked what would become of a kidnap victim.

“In the East, all those who, because of rank or birth or wealth, might be the target of a kidnapping or assassination attempt go to great length to find those who look like them enough to be mistaken for them.  Such people are used as doubles or decoys.  A kidnapper may find he has kidnapped a double, not the intended victim.”

“What if a woman was taken as something other than a hostage?” the comely one thought of another possibility.

“As what?  I cannot think why else a woman might be taken.”

“I don’t know.  What if she were taken as a prisoner or a slave or something?”

“Someone would not be taken prisoner for no reason.  And anyone seeking to take a slave would never take one from a royal family.  Such a thing is just not done in the East.  If the Queen was not offered back for ransom I can think of but two possibilities.  Either she went voluntarily, in which case there was no real kidnapping, or she never made it to the household of her captors.  She could possibly have escaped, but has never made it home, for example.  She may have been shipwrecked and marooned upon some island.  The ship she was on may have gone down at sea.”

“Is there any way someone could find out what happened to … to Queen Llawrel?” the girl asked Mallard.  “Would your father have contacts in the East who could make inquiries?”

“Well yes.  Certainly.  My father has extensive contacts.  But would not King Trent have exhausted every avenue of inquiry?  It’s been how many years now?  Surely he would have learned something by now if there was anything anyone could learn by making inquiries.”

“It has been sixteen years,” replied the guardsman.  “And King Trent did all that could be done to find her.  No one could have searched harder than he searched for Queen Llawrel.  He overturned the kingdom and sent a wave of agents eastward across the sea to search for her.  If the search he made failed to find her, she will never be found.”

“Stella, I think we had better be going now,” Matilda urged her companion.  That was the first time Mallard had heard the comely companion’s name.

The companion seemed about to argue.  But she reluctantly nodded her head affirmatively.

###

Mallard would have liked to have followed the women when they left.  But there was no slipping out without notice for him now. He had placed himself in the middle of the discussion.  He remained with the guardsmen while the women left.  The requisite comments about the anatomies of the women having been made and embellished several times over, the discussion returned to the topic of kidnapping.

“Your comments about the love of the Easterners for kidnapping interest me,” the older guardsman said to Mallard.  “Our friends to the south report there is an Eastern trading party tarrying some days now at the court of King Ajax.  King Trent has always suspected that Ajax had something to do with the Queen’s disappearance.  And now Ajax has announced his intent to take the Princess.  Did you see the Easterners there when you were at Ajax’s court?

Mallard replied.  “There was a large party of Easterners there.”

“Then mayhap serious trouble is truly abrew,” the man concluded.  “There may be an alliance between Ajax and the Easterners.  But let them try what they will.  We are forewarned.  Plot as they may, they shall not succeed at making any mischief in this kingdom.”

###

The mock attempt upon the Statue of Wilona with the Emerald Eyes was a successful failure. Ajax could not have been more pleased with himself and with his men when they apprehended the Eastern party pretending their attempt upon his treasure.

The merchant’s men followed their orders faithfully.  They, when all had been explained by Ajax to his guard captains and the captains had ordered their release, were lavish in their praise of the vigilance and ability of Wilona’s protectors.  When Primus had the opportunity afterward to privately debrief his men he was very pleased as well.  He learned from this debriefing that the statue was secured to the floor of the great hall by four tremendous bolts.  He learned the guard rotation and the weaknesses of several of the guards.  “Though it will be difficult to get the statue out of there, it will not be impossible,” he told his captain.  “The statue’s size and weight will be make things difficult.  And the great hall is always occupied.”

“I count both as significant obstacles,” the captain said.

“Significant, yes.  But, as I said, not insurmountable,” Primus insisted.

“Am I to gather you have a plan?”  the captain asked.

“I have the germ of one.  I will tell you more of it when I have incubated it further.  What news have you from the nest of the Jackdaw King?”

“My first meeting with our eyes and ears there is scheduled for tomorrow.  I will be much surprised if he makes rendezvous.”

“If he is not prompt in making it, teach him well that he is expected to be where he is instructed to be when he is instructed to be there.  Beat the lesson into him so he shall never forget it.”

###

Mallard saved himself the beating.  He was waiting at the rendezvous point when the captain arrived there.  He observed the recognition protocol scrupulously.  When ordered to report, he began with a description of his telling of the tale of Ajax’s vow to the sergeant the captain had selected.  He reported how the sergeant and the others who had been there had received the story.  He informed the captain that his story about Ajax’s boasting had been checked and verified and that the Jackdaw King’s guard had consequently been put on alert.

“I was careful not to draw attention to myself. But I took a good look at the tower from every angle,” he told the captain. And he proceeded to give a careful description of its location and physical characteristics. “I also looked at routes away from the tower to the nearest cover,” he reported. He described in detail to the captain the routes he’d scouted.

He didn’t stop there, though. He had much more to tell. He detailed the schedule of the changing of the tower guard and described the guard’s numbers and armaments.  He described the three people other than King Trent he had seen coming and going from the tower and the times at which he had seen them coming and going.  He finished with an account of what he had learned about the history of the animosity between Trent and Ajax and what he had learned of the guard’s interpretation of his step-brother’s presence at Ajax’s court.

There was one thing he did not report.  He did not report on his personal encounter with the Princess’s attendants.  He felt safe in this omission.  He knew of no other source through which the captain could learn of it.  And he had no wish to relate the experience to the man.

The report was hard to find fault with.  The captain did ask about possible staging grounds within the city from which an attempt upon the tower could be mounted.  There is a market not far from the tower.  It has a head house.  No one is around it at night. It would make a good place to make a night raid from,” Mallard suggested. “I have not found any place good for a day raid staging ground. But it might be possible to mount a mid morning raid on the tower from the inn where I am staying,” he said.  “I will keep a look out for better places.”

The captain carefully questioned Mallard about one other thing.  He questioned him about the three people he had seen coming and going from the tower.

“Are you absolutely sure there were two different women?” he asked.  “Could they not have been one and the same, merely dressed differently?”

“No, Captain. I saw them both together, still dressed in the same garments they wore when the left the tower.”

“And one was named Matilda?”

“Yes. The other was named Stella.”

“Were they comely?” the captain asked with keen interest.

“Both were comely, but Stella possessed the more stunning beauty,” Mallard reported.

“They must be using a double,” declared the captain.  “The one named Stella must be a double for the Jackdaw King’s daughter.  Because only he; the aged male tutor; and the attendant, Matilda; have been allowed in and out of the tower before.  That, we have learned from travelers we have questioned at the other king’s court.  The rumor you carried must have scared them into employing a double.  Which means the real Princess may already be hidden elsewhere.  Or may soon be.  Wherever that other place is, it cannot help but be less safe for her than the tower.  This is most fortunate.

“You must locate the genuine Princess.  If you do not accomplish that, then find the double.  If the double is not already in residence in the tower we may be able to take her and use her to our advantage.  Meet me here at the same time tomorrow to report your progress.  See that you are prompt.  If you keep me waiting you will pay for it.  Identify yourself to me as you did today.”

###

The morning after Celeste’s trip abroad into the city, she spoke with Matilda in her tower about how she felt about what the soldiers had said about Queen Llawrel.

“My father has been lying to me all my life.  And there is nothing in the world he could have lied to me about to hurt me more,” Celeste sobbed, her body trembling.  Her face was contorted so as to make it as close to ugly as such a comely face could get.  She had spent the night in deep emotional agony. It had left its mark.

“He was probably trying to be kind. If he had told you your mother’s fate was unknown you would have agonized all these years wondering if she were alive,” Matilda repeated one of her mantras of the day.  Of all the things which could have gone wrong from Celeste leaving her tower, Matilda had never imagined Celeste might hear something which would cause her the pain the guardsman’s tale of her mother had caused her.

“I am going to confront him with his lie,“ Celeste declared.  “I shall see if he will lie to me again to my face.”

“No!  You mustn’t!” cried out Matilda.  “How would you explain how you had discovered the truth?  Either you would have to admit you left the tower or he would believe either Ovcaybez or I told you.  Either way, he would be furious. Ovcaybez and I would be finished.  Have pity upon us.  Or at least think of your own position.  If your father comes to believe you have betrayed him he may deny you all company but his own.

A new flood of tears streamed bubbling from the Princess’s eyes.

“You must indeed think me cruel, Matilda, to think I would think only of myself.  I truly had not thought of what might happen to you and Ovcaybez.  Had I thought, I would not have thought to confront my father with what I know.  For I would never bring harm to you or to Ovcaybez intentionally.  I will not confront my father if it will harm you.  But, oh!  I have to know the truth.  I have to learn it from someone who knows exactly what happened to my mother.”

“We do not even know who knows the truth,” Matilda reminded her Mistress.  “If the tale the guardsman told be true, even your father may not have learned the whole truth of the affair.  Only the kidnappers may know, or only your mother, if she still lives.”

“I will ask Ovcaybez,” Celeste declared.  “First I will swear him to secrecy and make him promise to ask me no questions.  Then I shall ask him what he knows.  If he betrays me to my father he will deserve no loyalty from me; I will swear to my father that it was he who told me my mother was kidnapped.  He will deserve whatever punishment my father gives him for it.  You will be safe from all suspicion.  I do not believe he will betray me, though.  Once he gives his promise I believe he will be true to it.  It is he, after all, who has taught me the importance of keeping one’s word.”

###

Ovcaybez climbed the seven flights of eleven steps up to Celeste’s chambers at the top of the tower.  He climbed each step slowly and painfully.  His heart was tired and his knees were sore.  He knew not how many more times he could make the climb.  This time he would make it.  Beyond this present climb he could not be sure.  Over the last fifteen years he had made the climb five thousand times and more.  He had lain out all the learning his mind possessed at the feet of his pupil.  He had done everything in his power to serve her as her vista upon the wide world beyond her tower, the world denied her by her father.

This day he arrived, gasping for breath, in her antechamber to find her waiting for him.  She pounced upon him even while his heart still pounded and twitched in his chest from the climb.

“Ovcaybez, I have questions for you.  You must swear to me that you will tell no one I have asked them of you.  You must swear to me not to ask me from whence they come.  And you must swear to tell me truth and nothing but.”

Ovcaybez sank to a couch and sought to draw in the breath to speak.  What could his pupil’s questions be about that she should swear him to secrecy and to ask no questions of the source of their inspiration?  Could they be about the ways of men with maids?  Could they be about the meaning of some embarrassing dream?  He nodded his assent to her conditions.

“Do not just sit and grin and nod your head,” she ordered him in an indignant voice.  “My request is no childish whim.  I require your solemn spoken vow.”

How serious she was!  And now that he noticed it, her entire face was strange.  She had been distraught.  He struggled for the breath to speak.

“Complete confidentiality.  I so swear.  No questions.  Only truth.”

“I have your oath, then.  Now tell me this.  You have told me, as has my father, that my mother died in giving birth to me.  Is this the truth or is it a lie?  Remember, I have your oath.”

Ovcaybez instantly regretted his oath.  From whence had such a question come?  What had Celeste been told?  Her source could only be Matilda.  She would never have gotten any from her father to make her ask such a question.  But what had Matilda said to her?  Could she know the enormity of the question she was asking him?  Could she know who he was?  Perhaps the time had come for him to tell her the truth.  At least so much of it as he could not avoid telling her.  For he knew not how much time he had left to him in which to tell it.  But how he hated having the decision sprung upon him like this with no time to think through what truth to tell and what to withhold and how to tell what he did tell.

“What your father and I have told you is not the truth,” he admitted to her.

“Is my mother still alive?” she demanded, her breath quickening.

“Yes.  She is alive.”

“Does my father know she is alive?”

“I think he knows not whether she is living or dead.  But I can not be sure that he does not know.”

“Is she in the East?”

“No.  She is not in the East.”

“Is she in the realm of King Ajax, then?”

“Yes.  That is where she is.”

“Is she Ajax’s prisoner?”

“No.  No.  She is not the prisoner of anyone.  She is entirely free.  She lives a quiet private life in the mountains.  It is quite lovely there.”

Angry tears began to flow again from the eyes of the Princess Celeste. They obscured her beauty.  Ovcaybez prodded himself to his feet and went to her.  He tried to put his arms around her to comfort her as he had done so many times before.  But now she pushed him away.

“Does my mother not care about me at all?” she sobbed.  “Why does she never come to see me?  I have been here all alone thinking she was dead, believing your lies.  And she has not even sent word to me to let me know she lives.”

“Celeste, your mother does care about you.  She cares about you very much.  More than you could ever know.  She would come to you if she could no matter the cost.  But your father would not allow it.  He would not let her near you.  Someday you may be free to go to her.  If the day comes while yet she lives, as I hope with all my heart it may, it will be the happiest day of all her life.  It will melt away from her heart the suffering she has endured at being kept from you. She will judge her entire life a happy one to be able to take you in her arms once more.  But for you to go to her is the only way you will ever meet her to hear from her how much she loves you.  It cannot be the other way around.”

“Could she not have even sent me some message?  You know she is alive. Could she not have sent me the message by your mouth?  I do not believe she would not have did she truly love me,” Celeste cried.

“And what would such a message have done to you, my dear Celeste?  Would you have been better off for her setting you to yearning for what your father would never allow?  How miserable would your life become were you set at odds against him over such a thing as that.  You permit me no questions.  So I can not ask you what you know of your father and your mother.  You distress tells me you know something of the story.  What you ask me suggests your knowledge of it is far from complete.

“Your father banished your mother.  For her to return would be to forfeit her life.  And surely that would do you and everyone else nothing but harm, for her to die at your father’s hand.”

Ovcaybez said more than he would have said had he been in greater command of his emotions.

“Are you telling me that my mother was not kidnapped?” demanded Celeste.  “I do not understand this at all.  You confuse me with your answers.”

“My dear child.  Will you not release me from my vow not to question you?  I know not what you have been told.  Whatever it is it seems to have confused you as much as it has enlightened you.  I cannot imagine who could or would convey you such confusing information, though there is but one person through whom the information could have been conveyed.”

“No.  I will not be questioned,” insisted Celeste.  “I cannot be.  You have given me your word.  You must tell me this.  If my mother and my father are at odds with one another, with which of them do you side?  I must know that.  You must tell me the truth.”

“I am on your mother’s side, as I have always been and as I must always be,” the old man answered her.  “Any kindness I have been able to do you all these years I have been your tutor and your friend I have done for the sake of your mother as well as out of my own love for you.  But please.  There is something else I must tell you.  Your mother was not kidnapped.  But there are those who may wish to kidnap you.  This tale which has… ”

“I already know King Ajax has vowed to ‘rescue’ me from my father,” Celeste interrupted him impatiently.

“Then know that if he is working at such a plan he may wish to confuse you in order to make his plan work more smoothly.  If you are confused about your father and believe Ajax has your mother it may be easier for him to manipulate and control you should he ever get you away from your father.”

Celeste gave every indication of ignoring this.

“If you love me as you say you do,” she told him, “and if you know where my mother is, I charge you to convey a message to her from me.  Tell her that if she cannot come to me, that is one thing.  But I need some token of her to know that she has not abandoned me of her own choosing.  I need to know for a certainty that she indeed cares about me as you say she does.  I need to know she cares for me at all.

“You have my command.  Now leave me.  I wish to be alone.”

###

If you wish to see more installments from this novel, please contact the author to let him know. You can contact him at submissions@crichtonscifi.com