A man was holding the second set of doors open as I entered the vestibule and Laffi went straight in. I was right behind him, so it took a moment for me to see what kind of room we had entered. Good thing too, I probably wouldn’t have gone in if I’d known.
The place was packed. Hundreds of people, brightly dressed and chattering away, filled a raised gallery that went right round the room. The moment I walked in, the noise stopped and they all stared down at me.
When I’d been told I had an audience with the King, I hadn’t expected an actual audience to be present.
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I don’t do well with large crowds. I froze, suddenly unable to remember why I was here. My throat went dry and I could feel moisture forming on the tip of my nose, the back of my neck, the small of my back… everywhere, really. My face felt hot. Was it turning red? Could people tell? These sorts of thoughts only made it worse.
The room itself was about the size of football pitch. Arches along each wall supported the gallery above. In the alcoves under each arch stood a soldier, fully armoured and holding a pike. There were over a dozen of them, each built like Schwarzenegger in his prime. All wearing demon masks. They showed no signs of movement, each standing between pillars like a still-boxed action figure.
Intimidated? Me? Let’s just say it was a good thing I was wearing brown trousers.
At the far end of the room was a raised platform on which there was a large throne. Sitting on it, looking a bit bored, was a young man. Or at least he looked young. His all-purple outfit suggested wealth and opulence. His silver-blond hair hung down to his shoulders, fixed in place by a simple gold circlet. I’d put him in his early thirties.
I forced myself to move and followed Laffi as he walked across the room. He stopped in front of the platform and bowed deeply. I stood next to him waiting for him to stand up straight, but he just stayed there, bent over.
“My liege,” said Laffi, still bent over, “may I introduce to you the visitor, Colin.”
An older man stood next to the throne. He was in a black robe with a velvet cap that was too small to cover his bald head. His face looked like someone had sucked all the fat out, giving him the appearance of a skeleton with skin.
“This is King Randall III,” said Skeletor. “It is customary to bow in his presence.”
“Yeah? Well, it’s not my custom.” It might read like I said this in cool, off-hand kind of way, but I didn’t. It was said in a mumbling, bitter voice. Even with all the people staring at me, my mind was still on Captain Genocide and the Avengers of Doom, so I wasn’t really focused on my current situation.
“Do you think you could try, just this once?” asked Skeletor. “For appearance’s sake?” He looked like the kind of guy who arranged public floggings and executions, but actually he sounded more like a slightly exasperated uncle.
“I suppose so. But I don’t think I’ll be able to do it without making it sarcastic.”
“I don’t think We’ve ever seen a sarcastic bow before,” said the King. “We didn’t even know it was possible.” He looked up at the gallery with a smirk and the crowds all tittered and giggled.
Had he said something funny? Not as far as I could tell, but I guess that’s why it’s good to be the king.
Now that I was closer, the King looked even younger. If Princess Laney was thirteen, then technically he could be her biological father, but she was supposed to be the youngest of six. How had he managed that at his age? Even regular moisturising wouldn’t keep him looking that youthful. Could it be magic?
If it was some kind of witchcraft, most stories about people finding a way to stay forever young involved the blood of virgins. And no, that didn’t mean my life was in danger, because I wasn’t a virgin.
A shocking twist! Could I have somehow found a girl sad and desperate enough to let me give her the D? Yes, and more than one. By which, of course, I mean two. That’s right, on two separate occasions, girls who were sober (more or less) and mentally competent (more or less) agreed to have sex with me.
If you want details, then you’re out of luck. All you need to know is that both times were horrific—I mean Hiroshima and Nagasaki horrific— and ended with no further contact, much to the relief of all parties involved. Why did it turn out so bad? Mind your own business. No, it had nothing to do with penis size. Yes, I’m sure they were both girls.
“So, you’re the one who’s got our little Laney all worked up. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Er, hello… sorry, I don’t know how I should address you. To be honest, I don’t even know why I’m here. The Princess put a bounty on my head for no good reason, so if you could have a word and tell her to cut it out, I’d be very grateful.”
There was some muttering from up in the galleries. I think my tone wasn’t as respectful as it should have been.
“Usually one requires a Key to the City before making demands of the Crown.” The King curled his lip, but I couldn’t tell if he was amused or irritated.
“I left my Key at the Municipal Directory, but if that’s what it would take for you to make your daughter behave herself, I can go get it.”
This got a Mexican Wave of gasps going around the room.
“You have a Key? We don’t recall awarding you with such a—”
Skeletor leaned forward and whispered into the King’s ear. After a few moments, the King stood up. “Clear the galleries!” he boomed.
Everyone immediately filed out. Laffi, who had been bowing this whole time, remained bent over and walked backwards to the door, where he turned and felt around for the doorknob before finding his way out. In a few seconds, the only ones left were me, the King and Skeletor. Oh, and the stars of the WWE.
The King stepped down from the platform and walked towards me. He was tall and built a lot like his guards.
“It seems We owe you our thanks.” He grabbed me by the shoulders and gave me a shake. I think I lost a couple of fillings, but at least he was smiling. “You defeated the Mouse King, and gracefully allowed others to take the credit. You, sir, are a true hero. The Mouse King’s death is a service to all.”
Again with the inexplicable level of awe for the Mouse King. I really had to figure out what it was that people had found so impressive about the little guy.
“We wish to know how you vanquished a foe as fearsome as the King of Mice.”
“Quietly and with as little fuss as possible,” I said. “We, that is me and my party, don’t like to attract a lot of attention. Easier to get things done if no one knows who you are.”
“Very wise. Very smart. You will have to bring the rest of your party next time. We want to meet them all. We shall throw a great banquet in your honour.”
Skeletor stepped forward and whispered some more in the King’s ear.
“Ah…” said the King. “It seems this matter must be kept private, for now. A shame, but necessary. We thank you for your understanding in this matter and hope you don’t mind too much.”
I shrugged. “No, I don’t mind. It was my idea.”
More whispering. The King’s eyebrows rose as he listened. “Semion, why weren’t We told about this earlier?”
“Apologies, my liege,” said Skeletor, whose name was apparently Semion. “In an attempt to be discrete I failed to keep you fully abreast of events.”
“And the other party, the ones who We awarded the Key to, they are aware of this subterfuge?”
“No, my liege. It was thought best to allow them to continue to believe they killed the Mouse King, so that the ruse would be more convincing. As suggested by this young man.” He waved a hand in my direction.
“It seems you are not only smart, but also loyal,” said the King. “You deserve to be rewarded. Isn’t there something We can give you as a token of Our esteem?”
“Yes,” I said, “there is, actually. I’d like some land.”
“Oh?” said the King “That shouldn’t be a problem. Do you have somewhere in mind?”
“I heard the marshlands were unclaimed.”
The King looked at his advisor who nodded. “Yes, We believe it is so. Any particular part of the marshlands?”
“All of it,” I said, which took the King by surprise. Took me a bit by surprise too.
“And what do you plan to do with all of the marshlands?”
Fair question. Wish I had an answer. I was so focused on gazumping Captain Genocide, I hadn’t got round to making up a plausible reason for wanting an area the size of East Anglia.
“Fishing,” I said. It was the best I could come up with on short notice.
My answer only baffled the King more. “You must be a very keen angler.”
“Yes, I can’t get enough of it. Nothing I like better after a long day of monster hunting than getting out my pole and slinging a few worms. I love it.” Were these even the correct terms? I had no idea.
“Well,” said the King, “We would have to think on it. That’s a lot of land to give to one person.”
“I understand,” I said. “I’m sure there are others far more deserving than me. Probably with much more ambitious plans. I can see someone wanting to build a castle and turning the area into a training ground for their army. Having something like that so close by would probably be more useful to you than the small log cabin I would build. They’d probably even want to help with running the kingdom and keeping everyone safe with all their soldiers and weapons. I would totally understand if you chose someone with a grand ambition like that over my paltry plans. All I could offer you is an open invitation to come stay at my cabin any time you felt like a bit of fishing. Probably not all that tempting.”
“No, no, that’s very kind of you,” said the King nervously. He looked properly rattled by the thought of someone wanting to ‘help’ with running his kingdom.
Knowing Tin and company had received the Key by mistake might have been enough to stop the King from giving them the marshes, but after my rousing story of a usurping army on his doorstep, I was pretty sure he’d never let anyone turn the marshlands into a private stronghold, not even me. Which was fine. I really had no desire to be the Lord of Ditchwater
Job done, now I just had to get out of there without screwing things up somehow.
“Please take as long as you like to decide,” I said. “I’m sure you will be fair and just. If that’s everything, I should probably get going and leave you to run the kingdom. It’s been a pleasure to meet you.”
“Yes. Nice to, er, nice to meet you, too.”
“I’ll see myself out.” I turned and managed one step towards the exit.
“And where do you think you’re going?” yelled a squeaky yet terrifying voice.
I slowly turned back around. With all the talk of mice and marshes, I’d forgotten the reason I’d come to the Palace in the first place.
Princess Laney stood in the doorway behind the throne, red hair frizzed out, dressed in an orange and lemon uniform. And a look in her eyes crazier than Jack Nicholson before he sticks an axe through your door.
“Princess Laney,” I said as calmly as I could, “it’s a delight to see you again.” I bowed.
“Ah,” said the King, “so that’s what a sarcastic bow looks like.”