THE MARGRAVE WAS typical of embedded public officials, in my experience. He wore an air of menace that went poorly with his unimpressive physique. Fiftyish, plump, black hair slicked back over an egg-shaped skull, he was shorter than an average Klahd. I could look him square in the eye as he went up and down the line, glaring at the three of us.
"This is an outrage," I said, jangling the manacles on my wrists so the rusty yard of chain rang..
I was keeping up an air of official grief to throw him off balance. The gyves were attached to irons around my ankles by links of sturdy chain with links as thick as my thumb. My leg irons were connected to Tanda's on my left and Calypsa's on my right. We had been hauled up by rings around our necks so I was perching on tiptoes. The whole contraption was fastened high on the stone wall behind us with a staple that could have held the entire text of the Tax Code. I was grateful that Tananda's disguise spell had held, or we'd probably have wound up tied neck to heels, if not worse. It was uncomfortable, to say the least, especially after we had been kicked and beaten by the crowd and dragged along the cobblestoned streets the entire four miles to the castle behind a pair of yoked pigs. My clothes were smeared with droppings, along with everything else that Merngeans threw out into the streets and hadn't washed away since the last rain. I could hardly stand my own smell. To add to the ambience, rats and bugs, most of them sizeable, were starting to crawl out of the walls, attracted by the scent of strangers.
"Release us. You have no idea whom you're dealing with." I use 'whom' when I'm really torqued.
"You are charged," he boomed, in an impressive-sounding voice, "of impersonating officials of the crown, theft, wasting time by deception, fraud, corruption of the young..."
"Of what?" I burst out, not believing my handsome, bat-wing ears.
The Margrave leveled a beady black eye on me. "The boy whom you tempted into surrendering his personal reminiscences."
"We didn't get a thing out of him, if you ask your eyewitnesses."
"You admit it!"
He spun on his heel and walked to the table where all the contents of our pockets, shoulder bags, boot tops, as well as the various unmentionable places where Tanda tended to conceal things. (Even though the muscular guardswoman had been pretty thorough in her search I was certain that there were still more weapons and tools hidden about Tanda's sumptuous person. She had been doing this a lot of years.)
"What is this?" the Margrave demanded, waving the D-hopper at me. I cringed inwardly, hoping he wouldn't drop it. The technology to build them had been long lost, and though sturdy enough to withstand dimensional travel, they got goofed up when they hit stone floors. I didn't want to lose it.
"Massage stick," I said. "Good for easing those tight muscles."
I leered, letting him think worse thoughts. He blanched and put it down hastily. I grinned. He had a dirty mind.
"Why do you have this?" He held up Kelsa.
The crystal ball was empty, the beturbaned head nowhere in sight. We had instructed her over and over again not to talk to anyone but us. I was glad she had paid attention, because all we needed was her unfocused chatter to make matters worse.
"It's a family heirloom," I said. "I travel everywhere with it."
"Are you a witch?"
"Do I look like a witch?" I countered.
The Margrave sneered. "You look like a charlatan. Something is wrong with you. My soldiers say that your flesh feels coarser than it appears."
"Skin condition," I shrugged. "Had it since I was born. Are you going to prosecute me for that?"
"I intend to prosecute you for something," the Margrave said, lowering his eyebrows. I'm sure he'd made strong men cringe with that expression, but I'd had meaner teachers in Pervish primary school.
"It seems we got off on the wrong foot here, Lord Margrave," I said, my voice a low purr. "I told the Skivers that we had come from your castle, but it was a lie."
"You admit it!" Seemed to be his favorite phrase. I relaxed slightly.
"Sure I do. My true mission was a secret. I have been under scaled orders, until now. I have no choice but to reveal to you my actual purpose for being in Mernge."
"Well?" The Margrave looked suspicious but very curious as did Calypsa and Tanda behind him. I gave them a nod to assure them I had this whole thing under control. "What IS your mission?"
"Gathering information," I said.
"What kind of information? Surely not statistics on school athletics!"
"Kingdom security," I said, lowering my voice. "Sealed orders from Her Majesty." The Margrave had to lean closer to hear me, then jumped back in case I was going to take a swing at him. I almost wished I had been able to.
"The queen sent you?" he exclaimed. "Shh!" I looked at the guards in pretended alarm. "All right, the secret's out. You blew it. Just wait until I tell her."
"You're frauds. I don't suppose you even know the name of the duke of this province."
"Spruesel," I said at once. "That's his private name. His official name is Congreave, but his mom used to call him Spruey. He's a couple inches taller than you, brown hair receding around a widow's peak and squinty hazel eyes, and favors red flannel combination underwear...but I probably shouldn't say anything about that even to you. On behalf of her serene
majesty, Queen Hemlock, he sent us to get the full story on the boy, Imgam."
The Margrave narrowed his eyes again. I had made him re-evaluate us, and he didn't like that.
The royals in this country had birth names, but took a new name when they ascended the throne. I happened to know because I'd had all the archives of the Possiltum court at my fingertips, which included information, maps and portraits from spies and cartographers visiting the neighboring countries, plus some very confidential data from diplomatic diaries.
When he was still prince of his country, before it had been absorbed by Possiltum, Congreave had proposed to Queen, then Princess, Hemlock more than once. She had never taken the proposals seriously, since she thought that Congreave's nickname and underwear were both hilarious. She probably wouldn't have been as thrilled if she knew the nicknames that her brother monarchs had for her.
I pressed my advantage, and shook my manacles.
"Now, look, Highboy, Duke Spruesel is not gonna be happy that you locked up three of his favorite courtiers in chains over a stupid little misunderstanding, is he?"
"It's Highperin," the Margrave said, automatically. He looked less certain than he had before, then he recovered himself. This was still his ball field, whatever kind of sneaky base-stealing I had just done. He came up, kicking aside a rat, and glared me straight in the eye. "You will call me Lord Margrave!"
I was casual. "Whatever you like. You can call me Lord Fistula."
"Never heard of you." He hoped I was lying. I smirked.
"The duke has. I am his good right hand."
"Not so good, if you are capable of starting a near riot through your ineptitude. The Skivers..."
"You oughta be proud of the Skivers," I interrupted him. "Holding up the honor of the province like that. They weren't willing to blab a syllable to a stranger without making sure it was going to hold the people, and hence, its ruler, in the best
possible light. I call that pretty impressive. Right off the bat, they were trying to do things right. I have to hand it to them. It's going to go in my report."
Highperin stroked his fat chin. "I see..."
I built on my theme. "His grace will be glad he sent us. I'll get it all down on parchment. Just as soon as you unclip the iron jewelry. It doesn't go with the rest of the outfit." I jingled my gyves again.
"Well, Fistula, if that IS your name, if the king is so impressed by security, then he will not be displeased with me."
I held out my wrists, but he waved them away.
"I'm not going to take you at your word. You will remain here, without food or drink, until my messenger gets back from the capital. That should take," he gazed at us, enjoying our dismay, "about three days. Each way. If you are whom you say you are, then I shall apologize and make amends for detaining the Duke's archivist and his minions. If not, then I shall devise a very public punishment for the three of you. I have plenty of scope for my imagination, as you can see." He waved a hand at the wall.
I had already been admiring Highperin's collection of nasty torture devices, most of which would delight a socially-deficient crowd like the one that had dragged us here through the streets. They were, one and all, the kind of objects capable of doing things to a body that you hope never happen to yours. Hovering beside them like museum docents eager to show off their display of impaled butterflies was a handful of professional torturers, complete with black hoods and oiled bodies naked to the waist.
Pervects could take a lot of punishment, but Trollops had less stamina than we did, and Walts were more fragile yet. A session with any of the devices would probably ensure that none of us would ever play the piano again. I vowed to the God of Second Chances if we got away unscathed I would start taking lessons immediately.
I glanced at Tananda to see if we had a hope of magikal escape. She gave a little shake of her head, and I realized that
she was stretched to the limit maintaining our disguise spells: I was afraid her powers were stretched as far as they'd go. She could do smallish spells, mostly connected with her many professions. The padlocks securing our chains were old and probably somewhat corroded. I glanced meaningfully at the cup. If I'd been motivated before to get my powers back, I was rarin' to go now. It was our last chance.
"So, you see, Lord Fistula," Highperin said, with a smile, "we are very security-minded here. See you in six days." He started toward the door. His torturers, with a backwards look of regret toward their working tools, set down their irons and followed him.
"I salute you, Margrave," I called after him. "In fact, I want to offer my respects."
Curious, he turned back to me. "And how would you do that?"
"Let me drink a toast to you. What would it matter if our six-day fast starts now, or in a minute?"
"Are you thirsty, Lord Fistula?" Highperin said, returning to me with a gloating look spread across his plump little face. "Why not use the object of your most convoluted theft?"
As I hoped he would do, he snatched the Cup off the table and waved it in my face. The dented, time-dulled goblet didn't look like much, but I recalled how miserable Ersatz had seemed until I knocked the tarnish off him. The Cup was similarly disguised. No Klahd would look twice at it. Unlike Pervects, they can't smell gold. We can.
I sneered at the goblet, trying to let none of the eagerness I was feeling show on my face. "You really don't expect me to drink out of something that tacky."
"If you consider it beneath your notice, perhaps you will tell me why you wanted a boy's cheap trophy?" the Margrave asked. "I don't see anything special about it."
"My associate probably wanted me to see it," I said, shrugging as best I could with the weight of the chains. "We were interviewing the kid about the race he ran to win it, after all."
"Fine, then," the Margrave said, waving his hand impatiently. "Drink my health. I don't see why not, since you're all going to die in this cell, once His Grace confirms that you are all frauds. In celebration of your last moments of daylight, go ahead."
One of the guards poured the cup full of murky water from a rain barrel next to the window. I guessed that it was used to quench irons used for torture. "What, not even wine?" I asked, aggrievedly.
"You're lucky to get that, you criminal," the guard said haughtily.
I shrugged. "I can put up with water once in a while. I just don't overdo."
"I almost salute you, Lord Fistula," the Margrave said. "Showing such nonchalance in the face of doom."
"Suave's my middle name," I said.
The guard held it out to me. I reached for it. He tilted it and deliberately let the water splash to the floor. I stifled an outburst and glanced at the Margrave. The big cheese was getting a kick out of this. I couldn't wait to get my powers back. I'd give him a kick he'd remember the rest of his soon-to-be-shortened life. At his employer's nod, the guard dredged up another cupful and handed it to me.
My hands trembled as I took the cup. The anticipation was nearly killing me. I was seconds from getting my powers back, after all these years. I was almost floating. In the vision I had quaffed the whole cupful. The water smelled unappetizing, and there was a dead bug floating on the surface, but anyone who'd ever eaten Pervish food had had worse.
What to do first when the joke powder had been flushed out of my system? Should I just get us the heck out of there, or should I bounce the arrogant SOB all over the walls? Should I tear him into little pieces and rearrange them? I thought I'd begin by making the chains float in the air like clouds, then drop them on the Margrave's round little head.
I raised the cup high. "Your very good health, Margrave. You're the epitome of a government official, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart."
I drained the cup in a single gulp. Well-being flooded through me. I felt stronger than I had in years. Every bruise and bump that I had gotten from the mob who had jumped us and dragged us here faded away. My eyesight seemed clearer. I could hear birds twittering miles away outside the window. I felt connected to the world in a way I hadn't been in a long, long time. "Ah!" I patted my chest and stretched my arms. Look out, world, here I come!
The Margrave gestured impatiently to a guard to take the cup away from me.
"There, you've drunk my health. Does that make you feel better?"
I grinned. "As a matter of fact, Highboy, I feel great. Now, let me show you a little trick."
I took a deep breath, balancing myself on the balls of my feet. I pushed back the manacles so my hands were clear, wound up, and threw my hands toward the Margrave. Maybe I had put a little too much body English into it, but it was worth it. I opened my eyes.
I stared at my hands. What went wrong? I reached far down inside me and hoisted up all the energy I could, drew back, and threw it at the Margrave.
"And what am I supposed to see?" Highperin asked, one eyebrow most of the way toward his thin hairline.
He should have blasted apart into six pieces, by lightning that ought to be still ricocheting around the room! I felt around for the force lines. There ought to be plenty of power in reach, since Tananda was still using it to maintain our disguises. I reached deeper and came up as embarrassed as a diner who'd forgotten his wallet. There was nothing there. The rush of power that had gone through me had left
me feeling absolutely terrific, but I was still bereft of magik. My shoulders sagged.
"I see," the Margrave said, flicking his fingers derisively at us. "You're just wasting my time. See you in six days. I don't know precisely what I will have done to the three of you, but I promise you, it will be humiliating."
It couldn't be any more humiliating than the way T felt at that moment.