High comedy, low pratfalls, and thrilling derring-do combine in a magical and fantastic epic about the Ancient and Honorable Kingdom of the Hydrangeans; the mighty, though rather stupid, warrior Gudge; and the mysterious Black Weasel.
"Confusion reigns in this often funny, frequently precious fantasy about usurped thrones and lost heirs. After the Gorgorian barbarians conquer the civilized kingdom of Hydrangea, their leader Gudge makes himself king, marries Hydrangean Princess Artemisia and settles down to a highly satisfactory life of drinking and debauchery. Royal triplets, separated at birth because of a Gorgorian superstition that multiple births suggest the mother's infidelity, receive very different upbringings. The only girl, Avena, is brought up in the palace as Prince Arbol, heir to the throne and a fearsome swordsman. One brother, Wulfrith, is raised by a shepherd; although a young ewe is his favorite companion, his size makes him a fearsome battler. The other brother, Dunwin, reared by the outlawed wizard Clootie, develops into a talented magician. To this basic brew Watt-Evans (the Ethshar series) and Friesner (Gnome Man's Land ) have added a couple of dragons, some attempted seductions, mistaken identities and misguided spells to produce a lighthearted fantasy." -- Publishers Weekly
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About the Author
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Lawrence Watt-Evans has been a full-time writer and editor for more than twenty years. The author of more than thirty novels, over one hundred short stories, and more than one hundred and fifty published articles, Watt-Evans writes primarily in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and comic books. His short fiction has won the Hugo Award as well as twice winning the Asimov's Readers Award. His fiction has been published in England, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Poland, France, Hungary, and Russia
He served as president of the Horror Writers Association from 1994 to 1996 and after leaving that office was the recipient of HWA's first service award ever. He is also a member of Novelists Inc., and the Science Fiction Writers of America. Married with two children, he and his wife Julie live in Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
The scream from the north tower of the Palace of Divinely Tranquil Thoughts was loud and shrill enough to shatter seven stained-glass windows in the banqueting hall belowsix of them among the handful of remaining works by the master artisan Oratio, dating from some fourteen centuries back, and the last a cheap imitation installed during the reign of Corulimus the Decadent, a mere millennium ago.
As shards of glass rattled across the table King Gudge, Lord of Hydrangea, looked up from his wine at the sudden influx of daylight and growled, "What in the name of the five ways to gut an ox was that?"
Trembling at his royal master's elbow, Lord Polemonium replied, "I thinkI think, Your Omnipotent and Implacable Majesty, that it is the ebullient and convivial exultation of Her Most Complacent Highness, Queen Artemisia, your connubial helpmeet, as she experiences the transitory distress of parturition, preparatory to the imminent joy attending the nativity of your supremely longed-for progeny."
King Gudge plucked a sliver of blue glass from his goblet and munched it thoughtfully as he considered this reply. Then, moving with the remarkable speed for which he was known, he drew his sword Obliterator and lopped off Lord Polemonium's head, adding to the mess on the table.
"Now, let's give that another go-around, all right?" the king said, wiping the gory blade clean on the lace tablecloth as he gazed at his remaining ministers. "I'll ask one more time: What was that?"
"The queen's having the baby," said Lord Filaree, with all dispatch, watching Lord Polemonium's head. It was still bouncing.
"Oh." King Gudge thrust Obliterator back into its scabbard and picked up his wine. "About time." He swilled down the measure, getting most of it in the black tangle of his beard.
Farther down the table, out of earshot and swordreach, Lord Croton nudged Lord Filaree in the ribs. "Is it just me, or did our royal lady holler 'Three'?"
Lord Filaree shrugged, not really paying any attention to the question. Every time he was "invited" to one of King Gudge's council meetings/drinking parties, he only had eyes and ears for His Majesty. It might have been the same sort of morbid fascination that made commoners stop and stare at a particularly gruesome cartwreck, or perhaps just the fact that any minister caught not having eyes and ears for King Gudge alone wound up not having eyes and ears.
"I said," Lord Croton repeated testily, "why would she scream 'three'?"
"Maybe she and her handmaid are playing a round of gorf," Lord Filaree hazarded without turning.
Lord Croton snorted quietly. "Filaree, the correct gorfing cry is 'five on the loo'ard side and mind the pelicans!' Any fool knows that. Besides, pregnant women never play gorf."
"My dear Croton, you know how these women are when they're giving birth. They say all sorts of nonsense. Didn't your own wife…?" He let the question hang unfinished.
"Well, yes," Lord Croton confessed. "While she was in travail, my darling lone called me a bubble-headed, lust-crazed, self-indulgent, slavering babboon. And she swore I'd never lay a hand on her again as long as I lived. Which was not going to be too much longer because she was going to kill me as soon as she got her strength back. All very well, Filaree, but she did not yell 'three.'"
"Well, perhaps Her Majesty has decided that our new sovereign-by-right-of-conquest already knows that he is a bubble-headed, lust-crazed, self-indulgent, slavering babboon," Lord Filaree suggested.
"Knows it! He'd take it as a bloody compliment."
Filaree nodded. "Indeed. Therefore, let us assume that Her Majesty is not exclaiming 'three' but 'whee!'"
"'Whee'?" Lord Croton echoed doubtfully.
"A cry of joy," Filaree explained, "denoting that her labor has been successfully accomplished and that she no longer needs to remain in isolation in the north tower, according to ancient Hydrangean tradition governing pregnant queens."
Lord Croton shook his head. "I don't know, Filaree. Now that the baby's here and she can come out of the north tower, it also means that she'll have to go back to sleeping with King Gudge. That's not the sort of thing I can picture any sane woman celebrating."
"Well, it makes a heap of a lot more sense than caterwauling numbers!" Lord Filaree countered. "Anyhow, why on earth would Queen Artemisia shout 'three,' tell me that!"
Lord Croton thought about it. "Right," he concluded. "No reason for it at all. 'Whee' it is. Was. Should be." He doodled on the council table a bit with his pen-knife for awhile, then said, "You know, it's funny, Filaree; this ancient Hydrangean tradition about isolating pregnant queens…"
"I never heard of it before Artemisia brought it up."
• • •
"Three?" shrieked Queen Artemisia from the bed. "O merciful stars, don't tell me there's three of them!"
Old Ludmilla stood by the royal receiving cradle and looked helpless. "Oh, my darling lambikins, you know I'd never tell you the eentsiest thing as might trouble your dear thoughts at a time like this." The green silk-wrapped bundle in the crook of her arm began to wail. "Certainly not, not when my precious Missy-mussy has just been through such a strain, bearing up like the adorable little brave trouper that she is when other girlies would be a-weeping and a-wailing and a-carrying on something disgraceful to…"
"Three!" howled the queen. "Three, three, three, the pox take all Gorgorians and the horses they rode in on! There isthere is most definitelythere is going to be"
All aflutter, old Ludmilla laid the swaddled newborn in the huge ceremonial cradle with its scarlet hangings and gold-leafed dragon headboard and hastened to her lady's bedside. "Lawks and welladay, sweet Missy-mussy, whyever are you panting so? And your face! I do declare, it's gone the most unbecoming shade of lavender, it has. Oh, wurra-wurra and"
"there is going to be a third one," Queen Artemisia said with jaw taut and sweat drenching every inch of her body. "And here it comes now!"
Some time later, old Ludmilla lifted a beautifully formed little boy from the Basin of Harmonious Immersion-one of the oldest pieces of the Old Hydrangean royal house's childbirth accessory setand whipped a green satin swaddling cloth around his trembling limbs before showing him to his mother.
"There, now, Missy-mussy," she said, as pleased as if she'd handled the business end of the birth herself. "All washed and neat and tidy. Isn't he a lamb?" She bore the babe to the receiving cradle in triumph, but before she laid him down in it she paused and turned to her mistress. "Ah…not any more coming, are there, love?"
"No," said the queen, lying pale and limp against an avalanche of overstuffed pink brocade pillows. She sounded near the brink of total exhaustion. She also sounded more than a little cranky.
Old Ludmilla cocked her head, the better to turn her one functioning ear in Queen Artemisia's direction. "Quite sure, are we?"
"We are positive," the queen returned.
"You were wrong before, you know. Of course, arithmetic never was one of your strengths. I remember saying to your dear, departed, decapitated da, King Fumitory the Twenty-Second, I said to him, 'Our Missy-mussy has her charm, but she couldn't add a wolf to a sheepfold and get lambchops.' That's what I said."
"And I say" Queen Artemisia's clear blue eyes narrowed, "I say that if you call me 'missy-mussy' one more time, I shall ask my husbandmay his skull crack like an acorn under a millstoneto give me your liver roasted with garlic as a childbirth gift. What do you say to that?"
Ludmilla gave an indignant sniff. "I say there's some people who've grown a shade too big for their breeches, that's what. My liver roasted with garlic indeed! When you know as well as I that garlic gives nursing mothers the wind something scandalous."
She placed the satin-swathed infant in the cradle and then turned on her mistress in a fury. "But that's just my opinion, isn't it? And who am I to you, eh? Just the woman who raised you from a nasty little snippet of a royal Hydrangean princess, is all! Only the one who stood by your side on the royal city ramparts while your dear, departed, decapitated da, King Fumitory the Twenty-Second, was doing his best to fight off the invasion of those loathsome Gorgorian barbarian hordes! Merely the loyal soul who helped you hide in the royal turnip cellar after that thoroughly rude Gudge person did for your daddy right there in the Audience Chamber of the Sun's Hidden Face and got all that blood worked into the carpets so bad that three royal housekeepers have quit in disgust! Simply…"
"Three," groaned Queen Artemisia, and yanked a pillow out from under her head to slam over her face. Still from beneath the downy bolster came the pitiful, half-smothered whimper, "Three."
"Well…yes." Ludmilla pulled her tirade up on a short rein, taken aback by Queen Artemisia's obvious despair. The crone cast a myopic eye over the contents of the ceremonial cradle. "And the steadfast handmaid who saw her own darling Missy-mussy give birth to three beautiful, cuddly, perfect…"
"Death sentences," said the queen, and threw the pillow at Ludmilla.
The ancient waitingwoman sighed. "I'll make the tea."
Later, as the two ladies shared a pot of well-steeped wenwort tea, Queen Artemisia recovered some of her self-possession. "They are beautiful," she admitted, gazing into the cradle at the three drowsy bundles. Ludmilla had most thoughtfully lugged the heavy piece of ceremonial furniture near Artemisia's bed so that the new mother could look at her babes in comfort. Instead of the dreamy maternal smile Ludmilla expected, the queen's expression grew stern. "Too beautiful for Gudge to sacrifice in the name of his beastly Gorgorian superstitions!"
"Ah, well, you know how these men are, dearie." Ludmilla poured more tea. "They do have their little ways. If it's not leaving all their clothes in the middle of the floor then it's believing that more than one babe at a birth means more than one father at a begetting."
"It was bad enough when I thought I was only carrying twins," Queen Artemisia said, nibbling a fortifying bit of seedcake. "It was during that savage Gorgorian holiday, the Feast of the Rutting Goat, when I started getting my insides kicked out by two sets of feet and hands. Three." Never again would she be able to pronounce that number without twisting her finely-featured face into the most grotesque grimace.
"I never did understand the point of the celebration," Ludmilla admitted. "Aside from giving all the apprentices a day to run around and cudgel the brains out of innocent chickens. All those ladies rushing through the streets with their biddies hanging out, waving bundles of dried ferns and cucumbers…"
"Women's magic." Queen Artemisia's full lip curled disdainfully. "Gorgorian women. Limited, so I have learned, to minor fortune-telling skills and the occasional attempt at influencing matters of love, sex, and fertilityor at least, so they all insist. The male Gorgorians have absolutely no use for it, Gudge told me, but as long as it keeps their females busy and out of mischief, they graciously permit it."
Ludmilla sighed so deeply that the several layers of phoenix-point gold lace fluffing out the flat bosom of her gown fluttered like autumn leaves. "Oh, I do so miss them," she said.
"Our magic. Our wizards, I mean."
Queen Artemisia did not spare her handmaid any sympathy. "They were of no use whatsoever and you know it," she said.
"Oh! My lady!" Ludmilla clapped one scrawny hand to her mouth and made a slightly complex and very silly warding sign with the other. "Such disrespect for the great, the powerful, the masters of all arcane knowledge, the gentlemen whose mystic studies have made them privy to the secrets of…"
"Privy is the word," the queen snapped. "And to the royal privy with them and all their useless spells and cantrips! Their magic was like a gold-dipped pig's bladder: all flash and glitter, all wind, all worthless. What good did their so-called arcane knowledge do my poor father when the Gorgorians attacked? Where were our wizards and their sorcerous weapons then?"
"Hmph!" Ludmilla's paper-thin nostrils flared indignantly. "Some of us know that worthwhile magic is not something you can just whistle up to do your bidding, like a sheepdog. Some of us know that preparations for a thaumaturgical assault of any real strategic value requires careful, one might even say meticulous, preparation. Why, a single wrong word, an improperly pronounced syllable, a pass of the wand from left to right, pinky extended, rather than right to left, pinky down, could mean all the difference between winning the battle and having your guts ripped out by the demons of the abyss. Throtteliar the Magnificent told me so his very own self, not twenty minutes before fleeing the palaceor trying to flee, at any rate."
Queen Artemisia made a noise that in a person of lesser status might have been called a snort. "So instead of anything useful," she said, "our wondrous wizards pottered around with a bunch of overrefined spells that are too complex and too damned long to be practical, and while they were still just warming up their preliminary incantations they wound up having their heads lopped off by my royal husband, may bats nest in his ears for the winter."
Ludmilla nodded, sighing. "Since the wizards never did the man a lick of harm, I do wonder sometimes, why did he insist on executing them all?"
Queen Artemisia handed the empty teacup to her handmaid. "You know Gudge. So do I, more's the pity. Ordinarily you'd imagine that if a thought ever managed to crawl into his skull it would die of loneliness and despair, yet at the same time there is a certain primitive cunning to the creature. Just because our wizards weren't able to get their wands up in time to prevent his conquest of our kingdom, he still saw their powers as a possible threat for the future. My louse-ridden lord is a simple, direct, and practical man: He decided that the best way to safeguard his future was to eliminate theirs."
"Oh my, so sad, so sad." Ludmilla took a purple handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed her eyes. "I know I shouldn't weepthe public beheadings were almost a year ago, and it does so weaken my sightbut I can't help it. It was such a moving ceremony."
"Moving indeed," Queen Artemisia observed drily. "The way some of those wizards kept moving even after their heads were cut off was quite impressive, which was doubtless why Gudge ordered his men to round up the truant parts and burn them all. I heard that they had to chase Master Urien's head all the way to the Street of the Mushroom Vendors before they caught it and brought it back to the bonfire."
Old Ludmilla grew more and more nostalgic and misty-eyed over the past. "Do you remember, precious lambikins, how beautifully Master Urien's head prophesied just before King Gudge drop-kicked it into the flames? 'Thine own downfall, O thou crawling blight of Gorgorian honeysuckle which doth strangle the fair and noble oak of the Hydrangean kingdom, shall spring from thine own'" She stopped and wept afresh. "That was when your hubbikins punted the poor thing into the fire. I think it was very rude of the king not to allow Master Urien's head to finish what it had to say."
"Then it shouldn't have called Gudge a honeysuckle," Queen Artemisia concluded. "All I remember of the whole disgusting business is that the smoke from the burning wizard-parts made me throw up. That was when I first suspected I might be pregnant." She closed her eyes and sank deeper into the pillows. "Well, what's done is done. At least I was able to keep Gudge from finding out I was that pregnant by making up the whole ancient Hydrangean custom of secluding the royal mother-to-be. Not that he cared." She made that same unladylike noise again. "For Gudge, women are either beddable or invisible."
"My lady," Ludmilla said softly, "shall I go ahead with the plan?"
"Yes, yes, do." Queen Artemisia's voice sounded weaker and weaker. "Only you'll have to travel with two babies instead of just one. Are you up to it? You're not as young as you used to be."
"And who is, I'd like to know?" Old Ludmilla's face was already a web of crepey wrinkles, but she carved out two more frown lines right between the eyes as she glow-red at the queen. It was wasted on Artemisia, whose eyes remained shut. "Don't you worry about me, I'm sure. I know my duty, even if some people don't know the first thing about courtesy to their good and loyal servants. I'll take the babies straightaway to your royal brother, Prince Mimulus, and…"
"Weasel," came the faint comment.
"Eh?" Ludmilla cupped her good ear.
Queen Artemisia sighed faintly. "You'll never find him if you blunder around in the eastern mountains asking for Prince Mimulus. Gudge's soldiers did that for ages and came up empty-handed. The whole point of going undercover to lead the secret Old Hydrangean resistance movement is to keep everything about it a secret. You don't want Prince Mimulus of Hydrangea…"
"Don't I, then?" Ludmilla blinked in puzzlement.
"You want the Black Weasel, brave and dashing heroic leader of the Bold Bush-dwellers."
"Right, then, my poppet." Ludmilla nodded. "I go to the eastern mountains with the babies, then, and I ask around for the Black Weasel."
"The Black Weasel, brave and dashing heroic leader of the Bold Bush-dwellers," Artemisia corrected her. "It's no use asking for him any other way, he's given strict instructions to his followers that they are not to say one word about him to anyone who doesn't use his full title. Do you remember the first message I sent him when I suspected I was carrying twins?"
"Yes indeed, my cherub." Ludmilla smiled at the memorynot so much because it was a particularly pleasant one, but merely because it was there at all; many of her memories weren't, these days. "We had young Pringus Cattlecart run up to the mountains with it. Such a pretty laddie, Pringus!"
"Looks aren't everything," Artemisia muttered. "He forgot to ask for the Black Weasel properly, and he was still wandering from one mountain village to another when Gudge's patrol caught him. Luckily for me, the message was unsigned and in code. Unluckily for Pringus, Gudge got so annoyed when no one could translate the note that he gave the poor boy over to his Gorgorian bodyguards as their regimental…mascot."
"Oh." Ludmilla blanched. "Now that you mention it, the last time I saw the young man he didn't look half so cheerful as he used to. Well, never you mind, my waddle-duckums, your Ludmilla will do everything right."
"Ummmm," Artemisia murmured drowsily.
"Now first off, let's see…" Ludmilla began to gather herself together. "Where are those portraits? Whoop-sadaisy, here they be, right where I left them. Dearie, rouse yourself a bit, there's a good girl. You've got to name these sweet dollykits before I go, you know. Now here's the miniature of Prince Helenium the Wise. Which one will you name for him?"
"My firstborn son," the queen replied, her voice muzzy.
"Well, and which one's that?"
"Oh, Ludmilla, the one that's not a girl!"
"Hmph! There's two of 'em as aren't girls, and as like as two straws in a haystack they are. Or haven't you been paying attention?"
Artemisia opened one cold, blue eye. "I shall pay the closest attention to your execution if you don't stop dithering. Didn't you tie the sacred red cord around the wrist of my firstborn?"
"Lawks! Well, I neverI am such a goose; of course I did. Let me just unwrap the babes a wee bit and…ah, there it is, red as red can be. So! I'll just untie it a moment so's I can thread this charm on the cord and we're alloh, it is a striking resemblance to Prince Helenium, isn't it?"
Prince Helenium had died two centuries ago, but considering how old Ludmilla looked, it was entirely possible that they had been acquainted. She babbled on about the many virtues of the Old Hydrangean prince until her royal mistress rather peevishly instructed her to get on with it.
"We'll never get these babies officially named and off to safety at the rate you're going."
"Oh! Now see what you've made me do, you willful girl! I've gone and dropped the naming tokens in the cradle. All righty, my little dovey-byes, let's just get you all named spang-spang-spang, jig time, like you was no better than a litter of puppies."
Ludmilla was in a full-blown snit. Artemisia fought to open both eyes in time to watch her handmaid fussing about in the ceremonial cradle, muttering darkly as she worked. "You are Prince Helenium, and you can just be called after Lord Helianthus the Lawgiver, and never you mind about the proper naming rituals! No, we're in a hurry, we are! Now where did I put the cord for tying your token 'round your little wristy? Ah, here it is. I'll be forgetting where I put my own head next, we're so desperate quick about things! And you, you can be named for Queen Avena the Well-Belovedoh, bother these slipknots, I never could tie a decent…there! Fine. Done. All tagged with their proper tokens and with no more observance of the decencies than was they three sacks full of grain for the market. Will there be anything else, Your Majesty?"
Icicles hung from Ludmilla's last words, but Artemisia was too tired to mind. "Just change into your disguise and take Avena and Helianthus to my brother. And then let me get some rest before I strangle you," said the queen as she drifted off into a well-deserved sleep.
Copyright © 1993 by Lawrence Watt Evans and Esther M. Friesner