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Bride of the Castle
By John DeChancie
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 John DeChancie
All rights reserved.
in a far-off land, in another time and in another world, dim and distant, there stood a mighty castle. A vast bulk bestriding a high escarpment, its cyclopean walls surmounted by cloud-piercing towers, this formidable stronghold commanded a view of bleak plains and distant snowcapped mountains.
The king, dressed in formal robes of state and wearing a crown of electrum, sat in a high-ceilinged chamber in one of the castle's loftiest towers.
He was pissed off.
"Hell of a way to run a castle!"
"Pardon, sire? To what do you refer?"
His Serene and Transcendent Majesty jabbed a finger at the pile of loose paper on his desk. "This flummery. Didn't I computerize this operation?"
"Sire, some of your subjects do not have computers. In fact, in most of the realms in which you reign—"
"Never mind, I know, I know. Low-tech, most of them."
The master of Castle Perilous breathed a heavy sigh. "We're really behind in our paperwork, aren't we, Tremaine?"
"Yes, sire. Very much in arrears."
"I suppose I should get to work and clear some of this away. What's this, for instance?"
"The Castle's tribute to the Empire of the East."
The king's dark eyebrows shot up. "What? We're still paying them tribute, after they invaded us?"
"Well, you signed a peace treaty after the failed investment of the Castle, on terms favorable to us. But the agreement did continue our vassalage to the Empire."
"Okay, but why should we pay them anything?"
"The sum is but a token, sire."
The king examined the form. "The bottom line here is something more than a token."
"Well, the tribute is based on gross revenue, not on net."
"A swindle. You know what I have to say to the Eastern Empire?"
"I'm not familiar with the idiom, sire."
"No, you wouldn't be. I learned that from a buddy of mine in Brooklyn. You've never even heard of Brooklyn, have you?"
Tremaine thought about it, then shook his head. "I cannot say that the name rings a bell."
"No matter. Anyway, I think it's time to inform the Empire where they can hide their tribute."
"But, sire, the political repercussions—"
"To hell with the—No, wait a minute. They want a token? Very well, send them a falcon. One falcon."
"Not a live one, mind you. A statuette of one."
"Statuette. Yes, sire."
"Cast in lead."
"Lead, covered with a thin coat of black enamel."
"As you wish, sire."
The king crumpled the form into a ball, swung in his swivel chair and pitched the ball toward a wastebasket. Arching nicely, it dropped right in.
"That's a good deuce!"
"Very nice shot, sire."
"Thank you. What's next?"
"This loan petition, sire, wants your signature."
The king was alarmed. "Another loan to cover yet another operating deficit?"
"We're in the red for another quarter? I don't believe it."
"The Exchequer's report is in front of you, sire."
The king studied the Exchequer's report.
"We're spending too much!"
"Yes, sire, but expenses keep rising."
"Do they ever drop?" came the king's rueful and rhetorical question. "I suppose I have no choice. Otherwise we won't be able to make our payroll."
"Unfortunately true, sire. Once again we must supplicate the moneylenders."
"Damn it, why do we need money, anyway? This Castle runs on magic."
"Magic costs money, sire."
"You're right," the king said resignedly. Taking up a quill, he scrawled his signature on the loan petition.
"We simply have to make some spending cuts around here," the king commanded.
"Aye, we must, sire."
"Luxuries are out! Everybody has to pull in the belt!"
"Think we could get away with charging the Guests room and board?"
"Most of them have no source of income, sire."
"Of course they don't. They sit around all day, eating my food."
"But if they left the Castle every day to work, sire, it might—"
"Oh, hell, never mind. I wouldn't think of charging them room and board. What am I thinking of? None asked to come here, and most can't find their way back."
"You are a most gracious host, Majesty."
"Well, we're just going to have to raise quitrents."
Tremaine took a long breath. He cleared his throat. "Sire," he began.
His Serene and Transcendent Majesty raised a hand. "Don't say it. It's politically impossible. Gods damn it all, am I an absolute monarch or am I not an absolute monarch?"
"You, sire, are the absolutest monarch of them all."
"You bet your sweet ass I am. All right, then why can't I—What fresh hell is this, now?"
Tremaine turned toward the commotion, which was not really a commotion, just a group of people coming through the double doors of the great office.
"—and these are the Royal Chambers, the executive offices of the Castle. If you'll step right through here, ladies and gentlemen, ladies and lords—"
The king threw down his quill. "What the blue blazes is going on?"
Tremaine said, "I'll see, sire."
The leader of the group was about to go on with his spiel, but espying Tremaine's approach, he stopped. Then he saw the king.
"Oh! Your Majesty! I thought office hours ended at five of the clock. We did not mean to intrude."
"Thank you for visiting us, my ladies, my lords," Tremaine said, approaching the group. "His Serene Majesty bids you welcome. However, there is much pressing business of state today. As you can see, we are working after hours. If it is not too much trouble, His Majesty requests that you look once around, and then leave."
"He is handsome, isn't he?" said one coiffed dame to another.
"For as old as he is," was the second dame's opinion.
"Ye gods," the king muttered.
The tour group took its time leaving.
"By your leave, sire!" the tour guide said as he backed out.
The doors swung shut.
The king was glaring at Tremaine.
"Sire, I believe you authorized these guided tours last quarter to raise additional revenue."
His Majesty scowled. "Pfui. I did no such thing."
"I believe you did, sire. Yes, I am almost sure of it. In fact, I quite remember looking over the signed edict."
"Yes, I'm quite sure you authorized the guided tours, sire."
The King of the Realms Perilous got up slowly. "I need a vacation."
"Sire, you just returned from a long journey."
"I'm going back, pronto. First, though, I'm going to hire me some help."
The king walked to the center of the room, stopped, then took two steps to the right and one back, as if sensing some optimal position. Satisfied as to his whereabouts, he began to make motions, tracing the air with his fingers. He sketched whorls and arabesques, circles and oblongs. Then he turned three times around while uttering a series of phrases in a language unfamiliar to his amanuensis.
On the third turnabout, he ended up facing the desk, right foot out, arms extended, fingers splayed.
"Appear!" he shouted, this time in his and Tremaine's native tongue.
A brief burst of flame enveloped the desk, and a puff of smoke rose. When the smoke cleared, there, seated where the king had been moments before, was the king's double, smiling, ready to serve.
Tremaine had stepped warily back, but now edged forward, studying the royal doppelganger.
"Majesty, for the thousandth time, I am in awe of your skill."
"Pretty good job, eh?"
"Marvelous. Does it speak?"
"Sure I do," the double said.
"You'll take care of everything?" the king asked his conjured twin.
"Don't worry about it. Go ahead, take off."
The king pulled out of his robes, revealing the purple jogging suit that he wore underneath, and his yellow-and-purple running shoes. He bundled up the robes and tossed them at Tremaine. The crown went a second later.
"Whoa!" Tremaine said, dropping the robes to catch the electrum crown. "Sire, please be careful!"
The king went to a wall and cast another spell, and in no time an opening, in the form of an arched doorway, appeared in what had been an expanse of bare stone. Beyond stood tall trees, green grass spreading from their bases.
"Look, I'm out of here. My duplicate will handle things. His signature is as good as mine."
"Sire, do you really think you ought to?"
"Tremaine, indulge me in this."
"Very well, sire."
"Good. I'm going out for my usual afternoon run, which I've skipped for the past thirty-one years, and then I have a bachelor party to show up at. See you later."
Incarnadine, Lord of the Western Pale and King of the Realms Perilous, walked through the arch. After giving a look around, he broke into a run and was off into dappled sunlight.
Tremaine sighed. He took up a sheaf of papers from the desk.
"And now, sire, I bring up the issue of pay raises for the staff."
The royal stand-in nodded emphatically. "It's about time the staff had a raise."
"But, sire, they are cost-of-living escalators that you yourself authorized—" Tremaine did a take. "Pardon, sire. Did you just say—?"
The doors banged open.
"Oh, dear," Tremaine said.
"And this, gentlefolk, is the Royal Office itself!"
Heads poked in and necks craned.
"It's the king!"
"The king is here!"
His Serene and Transcendent Majesty rose from his oaken desk and strode toward the door, smiling, arms out and open.
"Welcome, welcome! Come right in, good my lords and ladies!"
"Now, this has possibilities," Tremaine mused to himself.CHAPTER 2
his name was rance of corcindor and he robbed graves for a living. Times were difficult.
He was hard up for a grave.
He came down from the mountains above Garlanis into the foothills of Midresh, through which a mighty river raced and crashed as it followed a winding course ever downward, tumbling over cataract and rapids until it spilled into the Valley of Goan and the marshy plains of Veklin, there to swell wide and slow to a lazy crawl and flow past the fertile fields of Gan, the grassy knolls of Tabor and the dusty flats of Vilben. Farther along the river narrowed and rushed again at the foot of the cliffs of Heeth. Then, finally, it slowed and widened once more to flow gently by a huge boulder called, for some reason, Weird Larry.
But he didn't go there.
He came down from the mountains and went the other way, descending into rough land, black rocks breaking up through blacker earth. The air hung thick and fetid, palpable, cloying. Dark clouds hovered. Stale odors seeped from every crack and chasm. This was not a nice place.
He eased his mount to a halt and surveyed. A gnarled scrub forest to the east; a gradual flattening to the west. The sun boiled behind thick clouds on the horizon. Ruins to the south and east. To the west also. In fact, nothing but ruins lay about. This was ancient Zin; the Zinites had built much, and much remained of their handiwork, crumbled and weathered though it was. But the stench of death and decay lay over the land, a pall of oppressive misery and despair hung over all.
"Gods," Rance said. "This is depressing."
Grand edifices these ruins once had been: temples, palaces, courtyards, and squares; all now were heaps of tumbled block, here and there a long column, sometimes two together holding up the remains of a shattered pediment. There were, however, a few intact structures. One was an ancient convenience bazaar. The sign read, in ancient demotic script: stop 'n'haggle.
He had his eye on the stepped pyramid at the edge of the plain. A tomb, perhaps. Unrifled? He doubted it, but there could be scraps left behind: an interesting potsherd, perhaps a whole urn; even a bauble of some sort, some souvenir that would fetch a good price back in Corcindor. Maybe some trading stamps and a bottle opener.
He would make camp soon, perhaps on this ridge ahead, so he could survey the land below for targets of opportunity.
He continued on.
He followed a narrow pass between two craggy outcrops. When he reached its end and came out onto the slope of the hill, he was astonished to find a small town. He had thought nothing lived here.
His mount whickered nervously. He turned his head and watched a vague shadow take on shape and substance. A quaint tavern lay on his right. The rest of the little town had a bad case of the quaints as well, for all that it might have sprung into existence a moment ago—as indeed he suspected was the case. But the spell had likely been cast centuries before, set here to trap the unwary intruder.
He ignored it all. His mount sidestepped, neighing and quivering. He searched the land below for possibilities. He needed money, and badly. There had to be something below that generations of grave robbers had overlooked.
"Hello, cutie! Have the time?"
He looked up. A fair-haired woman with a hard but attractive face was smiling at him, leaning out of an upper-story window.
"Time is what I have least of, woman."
She shrugged. "Not even a moment to spare?" She parted her blouse and exposed heavy, pink-nippled breasts.
"I ..." He looked again. As breasts went, they were very nice indeed.
But his better judgment told him nay. He turned away from her.
She sniffed. "Well, all right for you."
He kneed his mount, and the beast bolted forward. He had to rein it in.
"Some men just haven't got what it takes."
He ignored that comment and others directed at his back. The town seemed to bunch up ahead, blocking his path, a jumble of shop fronts and houses.
"You look a mite hungry, sir. Care to bide awhile?"
He regarded the portly, white-aproned man walking toward him, then turned his head. Another—tall, gaunt and grim-faced—approached from the opposite direction.
"I care to pass through, if you good people will let me."
"Certainly, honored sir," the innkeeper said, "but you do look a bit peckish. I've just put on a pot of stew. It'll be done after a few mugs of good beer."
"Thank you, no."
The other grabbed the reins. The eyes were dead.
His sword was a flashing reflection of the sun, brief and brilliant. The tall one suddenly lacked a right hand. He screamed and backed away, the stump spurting blood.
The man—if indeed he was a man—stood in wide-eyed astonishment, watching bright blood splash into the dust. "Hey! You ... you cut off my hand!"
"Uh ... Yes, I did, yes," Rance said.
"I don't believe ... Did you see that? He cut off my hand. He cut off my frigging hand, just like that!"
"Hardly friendly," the innkeeper commented.
"I don't believe you actually cut off my hand!"
"Take warning," Rance said, moving on.
The man turned indignant. "Warning? Did you say warning?" He held up the fountaining stump. "This is a warning? Is that what you're telling me? What do you do when you get really pissed off?"
Rance was somewhat nonplussed. He sheathed his sword. "Well, I'm sorry. When you came at me, I—"
"All I wanted to do was take your mount into the stable for some water and food and a nice rubdown. But no-o-o-o. It's Mr. Touchy! Mr. Hands-Off! Mr. Macho Guy!"
"See here," Rance began. "You—"
An armored rider came out of a side street, his steed foaming at the bit. The horse stopped, reared.
"Mortal," came a deep, echoing voice emanating from behind a visored helm, "prepare to meet thy doom."
Rance's sword again hissed from its scabbard. "Prepare to meet this, spirit!"
"Your sword hisses nicely," the specter observed, drawing his own weapon.
It was the biggest, wickedest blade that Rance had ever seen. Rance swallowed hard.
"Make acquaintance with my sword, Just Avenger," the armored eidolon said. "How call you yours?"
Rance drew himself up. "The name of my sword," he said, holding his blade high, "is Bruce."
Rance's shoulders slumped. "Uh, you heard me."
The fearful apparition laughed derisively. "Bruce?"
"I call him Brucie. That's his name."
There was general merriment. The demon with the still-gushing stump stood there giggling along with the rest.
"'Brucie'?" the warrior-demon sneered. "What kind of name is that to strike fear into the heart of your enemy?"
"I got it secondhand," Rance muttered. "That was the name given the sword by its maker, and in order to take advantage of all the magical stuff you have to invoke it by its name, and that's its name. Bruce. That's all there is to it."
"Well, it's ridiculous!"
"Well, I'm sorry," Rance said with some hauteur.
Excerpted from Bride of the Castle by John DeChancie. Copyright © 1994 John DeChancie. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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