Search This Blog

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Fox and the Dragon

In my life I've been the target of various insults: Scoundrel, rogue and villain, these are all words that have been hurled at me at one point or another. Now that I am one of the most powerful people in the kingdom, the insults have stopped. At least, no-one calls me any of the above words to my face any longer, but it wouldn't surprise me if they persisted behind my back.

Well, let them talk; frankly, I do not give a damn, what people think of me. Most of it is true, anyway. However, there is one thing no-one can accuse me of and that is disloyalty. I have always been loyal to the one person in my life who has truly mattered: She took me off the streets and made me the fox I am today.
I still remember our first meeting; its a tale that I believe is worth telling and so, I've decided to write it down. Now, seeing as how I am the protagonist, I thought it fitting that I would touch briefly on my early childhood. Don't worry, it won't take long.

I never knew my parents, I was left on the doorsteps of an orphanage, wrapped in a blanket. The blanket had the name Lorenzo stitched into it and so, that was the name I was given. The orphanage was run by a religious order, worshiping a minor deity called Tzubulcha. It was never really clear what this Tzubulcha was a God of, but living in an orphanage dedicated to him required being woken up at 5 in the morning, eat breakfast and after that work at various assigned tasks, up until lunch. After lunch, we had two hours of spare time, before work continued until bedtime, which was by sundown.
Rules were strict, those who failed to show proper respect or slacked off, felt the sting of the overseer's cane on their backsides. Many were the times when I and the other orphans lied awake at night, listening to some poor bastard wetting their pillow with their tears.

Personally, I did not get beaten very often, but I soon realized that this orphanage was not a place for me.
You see, although I kept my head down, deep inside, I was yearning for adventure and excitement: I did not wish to be apprenticed to one of the craftsmen that would come to the orphanage every once in a while and, after having paid a sum of money, left with some boy or girl in tow, nor did the life of an acolyte hold any appeal to me. So, at the night of my eleventh birthday, I decided that it was time to leave.

That night I laid in my bed in the dormitory that I shared with twenty other boys (the girls' dormitory was next door) and waited until I could hear the sound of my fellow orphan's snoring. As soon as I knew the coast was clear, I slipped out of bed. It was pitch black, but I had carefully memorized the way to the door, so that I wouldn't accidentally walk into something and risk waking everyone up. Just as I put my foot down on the wooden floor, I heard a sleepy voice, slightly above me:
"'Enzo, where are you going?"
I turned around and noticed the black-furred head of the mole who was my bunk-mate, look down on me with heavy-lid eyes.
I gestured for him to be quiet.
"My stomach's acting up", I explained. "I'm going to the privy. You won't squeal on me, will you?"
"Can I have your bowl of porridge, tomorrow?" The little glutton asked, fixing me with eager, greedy eyes.
"Sure."
I had no problem making that promise. After all, tomorrow I'd be long gone.

With cat-like thread, I crept up to the door and carefully opened it. My next objective was to get downstairs. I knew that the second highest  and the third lowest step of the staircase both creaked when stepped upon and so, I took care to avoid them. Once on the bottom floor, I made way to the kitchen, to pilfer some supplies for my journey.

If you were expecting there to be some sort of dramatic incident, such as me being discovered, I'm afraid I must disappoint you. Everything went without a hitch. I first threw the sack of provisions that I had acquired over the high fence which surrounded the orphanage, before climbing over it myself. Seconds later, I found myself on the streets of the capital. My friends, if you have never lived your entire life under strict, suffocating rules, not being able to go wherever you want or do whatever you want, you can not understand the sheer exhilarating feeling of freedom that swept over me at that moment. I almost shouted with joy, but fortunately, discretion won out: I didn't want to risk waking everyone up and besides, I needed to get as far away from the orphanage as possible, before one of the overseers came to wake us up and my escape was discovered.

What path should I take? I could go down to the harbor and seek employ as a cabin-boy on one of the many ships which laid anchored there. This idea was not without appeal, I could already see my self, traversing the oceans, visiting strange and exotic nations. Of course, there was a problem with this plan: I could swim. Now, some of you may point out that there are plenty of sailors who have never bothered to learn how to swim either, but I had no wish to be fish-food, if I could avoid it. Drowning has always seemed to be one of the most terrible ways to die.

Consequently, I put my sailor-plans on hold for an indefinite time. My other idea was as follows: Reading material in the orphanage had been very limited, but one of the older boys had managed to get ahold of a a pamphlet which detailed the exploits of a gang of criminals. To us, that pamphlet was like holy scripture. We would read from it in secret and imagine ourselves in the role of its lawless protagonists. Well, why shouldn't I make that fantasy into reality? Surely, I could not be the first orphan who had ran away and become a member of a criminal society? Such was my reasoning, as I walked the streets of the capital that summer-night.

I wandered the streets aimlessly, not knowing or caring where they would take me.
Occasionally, I saw a nightwatchman out on patrol. When that happened, I quickly ducked into an alley. I hadn't actually done anything illegal, as far as I knew, but I thought it best to stay out of their sight, I didn't want to answer any awkward questions. I kept walking, feeling more alive than I can remember ever having done in the short time I had been alive: The World was my oyster.
Just then, a girl about my age; a rodent with blonde pig-tails, came running at a great speed and crashed into me, causing the both of us to end up in a pile.
"Watch where you're going", the girl snapped at me before she ran off, as quick as her legs could carry her.
My head was still ringing from the collusion and so, when I had worked up a snappy comeback, the girl was already gone. However, I saw that she had dropped a small brooch. I picked the brooch up and looked at it. It was decorated with tiny gemstones, I had a feeling that it did not belong to the girl. At that moment, I heard footsteps approaching and so I quickly slipped the brooch in my pocket and made myself scarce.

Being the no doubt intelligent person that you are, dear reader, you have no doubt come to the same conclusion that I did, all those years ago: Namely, that the girl was a thief. Why else would she be running away in such a hurry? Not to mention being out at this hour. A thought occurred to me; what if the girl was part of some kind of gang? If so, she could be my ticket into it, I had to find her. With that objective in mind, I went back to the street where I had first ran into the girl. No-one was there, her pursuers had moved on. I then headed the way that I noticed the girl had taken, hoping that she didn't have too much of a head-start.

I had not gotten far before a huge paw clamped over my mouth. The next moment, two individuals stepped into view.
One of them was a weasel, only a few years older than me from what I could tell and brandishing a knife in his belt. The other, was her.
"Alright, fox-boy", the weasel said, his voice carrying with it the smell of garlic. "Hand over the stuff and no tricks."
"We know you have the brooch", the girl said in an accusatory tone. "No-one else could have taken it."
I signaled with my eyes that I wanted to say something, hoping that they would understand.
"Let him speak, " said the weasel, who seemed to be the leader.
The third member of the group obeyed and I turned my head slightly, to get a look at him:

He was a canine and though he seemed to be the same age as his two companions, stood taller than the both of them. One look at his imposing physique and I made a mental note not to get on this fellow's bad side.
"Well?" The weasel said. "What is it? Spit it out."
I turned to the rat-girl.
"I always planned on giving you the bracelet back", I said. "Here it is."
I fished the brooch out from my pocket and immediately, the girl reached out and snatched it.
"Why did you want to give it back?" She asked, with an incredulous look on her face. "You must have realized I stole it, didn't you?"
I nodded.
"Then, why?"
"Are you three part of a gang?" I asked, trying to conceal the excitement in my voice. "You must be. I've heard that all criminals in the capital are part of one."
"So?" The weasel asked, his left eyebrow crooked. "What's it to you?"
"I want to join you", I explained. "That's why I returned it."

The trio looked at me as if I was crazy.
"Please". At that moment, I was prepared to fall down on my knees and beg. "I can't go back to the orphanage. I won't go back!"
The weasel stroke his chin, as people are wont to do when they contemplate something.
"What do you think?" He said, turning to the girl, who stood there with one paw on her hip.
"Our numbers have been getting smaller", she said. "Just two days ago, Serro was grabbed by the watch, remember?"
"That's true, I think the boss would appreciate some fresh blood. Still, how do we know he's not a spy?"
"I swear I'm not", I protested.

"Don't be ridiculous", the girl said, pointing at me. "Look at those clothes: A spy for the watch would be dressed much more shabbily, so's we would take him for one of us. Besides, the boss is a clever guy, if the kid's a spy, he'll figure out it pretty quickly. I think we should give the kid a chance."

I didn't  exactly like being called a kid by someone who wasn't my elder and shorter than me to boot, but decided to keep quiet.
The weasel shrugged.
"Fine", he said, though there was a reluctant tone in his voice.
The girl turned and looked up at the dog. "Is that alright with you?" She asked.
No reply came from the dog's mouth, but he did nod in his head.
"Then its settled", the weasel said. "You'll come with us and be presented for the boss. By the way, what's your name?"
"Lorenzo."
"Well, Lorenzo, I'm Lucien, the girl's Rachel and the big guy goes by the name of Bruno, he can't speak, but he can hear us just fine. Can't you, Bruno?"
Once again, Bruno nodded. This time, the nod came with a grin, showing a row of yellowing teeth.

"Anyway", said the weasel, slapping his paws together. "Now that we all know each other, let's get out of here."
As we made our way through the streets, I decided to ask Rachel what our destination was.
"Well", she said. "Let me put it like this: Have you ever seen the remains of a dead body before?"
I confessed that I had not.
Rachel turned and grinned at me, her front-teeth gleamed in the moonlight.
"You will in a moment, we're heading for the catacombs."

******

In the past, the catacombs had been the place in which the citizens of the capital had buried their dead. As the population grew, however, it soon became more in vogue to cremate your dead relatives and keep their ashes in an urn at home. During daytime, guided tours are given of the catacombs, but visitors are only allowed into certain areas and are told not to stray from the group, since it could mean them getting lost there forever.

We reached one of the entrances and after Rachel had picked the lock, we entered. With Lucien taking the lead, carrying a lit torch, we proceeded deeper and deeper down into the bowels of the earth. We wandered for what seemed to be an eternity, occasionally having to crouch down as the tunnels we walked in became smaller. Eventually, we came out into a large, open room, lit up by several torches and filled with several individuals engaging in various activities:
 Some were playing dice or cards, some were sharpening their knifes and some simply chattered away.As we entered the room, everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at us, some shouted words of greeting at Rachel, Lucien and Bruno.
At the end of the room, an orangutan wearing a golden chain around his neck, sat in a large chair. He waved at us, or rather at my new acquaintances, to approach; the rings adorning his fingers glittered in the torchlight.

"Welcome back home", the orangutan said. "How did your expedition go?"
The trio immediately reached down into their pockets and produced an assortment valuables, among them was the brooch. They put the objects on a tarnished wooden table which stood nearby. Getting out of his chair, the orangutan picked up each objects, turned them around and studied them carefully.
"A good haul", he said, with a satisfied nod. "Well done."
"Thanks, boss" the trio said in chorus, beaming like children whom had just received rare praise from a stern parent.
I had remained quiet during all this, thinking it prudent to wait until I had been introduced, but my patience was starting to wear thin. Thankfully, it was just then, that the boss decided to notice the newcomer in the room:

"Who is this?" He asked.
"His name is Lorenzo, boss. He wants to join up with us." Lucien explained.
"Is that so?"
The orangutan scratched his cheek while looking at me. I felt as if I was one of the precious items on the table, being held up for scrutiny.
Then, suddenly, he threw his head back and laughed heartily.
"Very well", he said, squeezing my shoulder. "Anyone who wishes to be a member of our little family is welcome." He leaned close to me and whispered in my ear:
"But I warn you, boy. If I find out that you've played me for a fool, you won't live to regret it."

*****

Thus I became a member of the 'family' and I am pleased to say that the boss never had cause to regret letting me join. I soon became a full-fledged member of the gang and participated in everything from burglaries, to smuggling. Occasionally, we also had skirmishes with other gangs in the city. We won, often enough, but not without losses. 
That said, the criminal activity which I proved myself most suited for, was pick-pocketing.
I became pretty good at it and honed my talents, until a more skilled and discreet pick-pocket and cut-purse could not be found in the capital.
Then, the Day came. 

It was about two years after I had joined. On a winter's day like many others, with snow blanketing the streets. It was market-day and the square was packed with people shopping. Rachel and I were among the rogues that were there and we had already managed to get quite a haul. Rachel wanted us to quit while we were ahead and go and get something warm to drink, but I was not ready yet; I was on a roll. As my eyes swept over the crowd, my eyes fell upon one shopper in particular:

"Look", I whispered to my companion. "That person over there. She has the fattest pouch I've seen and its hanging directly from her belt. Its a wonder no-one has snatched it."
"Who?" Rachel asked.
"Over there, by the bookstall", I said.
Rachel followed my finger and when she saw where I was pointing, she let out a gasp.
"That's a dragon", she said.
"Thank you, captain obvious, I replied sarcastically. "So?"

Rachel stared at me, it was the same look in her eye she had had on the night when we first met.
"The only dragons around here are members of the royal family. Stealing from them is very risky."
"Only if you get caught", I said cockily, "and I have never been caught."
"Please tell me you are not..." Rachel began.
I nodded.
"If you are afraid, you can go and wait for me at the cafe . I'll pay for whatever you want when I get there. Or rather, her highness over there will pay."

Realizing that I had made up my mind and that there was no talking me out of it, Rachel only shook her head.
"It was nice knowing you", she said, trying hard to sound casual.
Paying no attention to her words, I approached the bookstall, walking rapidly, while I looked up at the sky. It didn't take long until I made physical contact with my target
The streets were slippery with ice and as a consequence of that, we both ended up on all four.
The next moment, the bookseller, a huge gorilla wearing a pair of small, round spectacles, clipped me on the back of my head, so that I briefly saw stars dancing.

"Watch were you're going, brat!" The bookseller growled at me. He then proceeded to help his customer up, brushing the snow of her overcoat.
"A thousand pardons, your highness" he said in a sycophantic tone, before turning around and looking at me. "Apologize this instant you low-life", he commanded.
"Its fine", the dragon said. "Accidents happen. Just be more careful next time, will you?"
"Y...yes, m'a'm" I stuttered, affecting a humble and regretful look. "By the way, I believe I caused you to drop your pouch."
"So you did. Would you mind getting it for me?"

Seeing as how she begged me so nicely, how could I refuse. The purse had ended up underneath the stall; I crawled down under it.
On my person, I always carried with me a purse filled with false coins. It was a moment's work to grab the dragon's purse and stuff it under my collar. I then handed her the substitute pouch.
"Here you go, ma'm" I said with a bow. "Again, I apologize for my clumsiness."
She gave me an approving nod, then having apparently forgot about me, turned to the bookseller:
"Have the books delivered to the palace", she said. "Oh, and I would like that one wrapped. Its a gift."
With that she left, none the wiser, the crowded parting itself in order to let her pass.

Looking around, I saw that Rachel too, had left. No doubt she had taken my advice.
I pictured the look on her face when I entered The cafe and produced my prize. Before doing that though, I wanted to see just how much the purse contained. 
Blending in with the crowd, I walked in the opposite direction of the dragon, until I was a safe distance from the town-square. There, I snuck into a secluded back-alley, where I opened the purse and poured out its contents into my outstretched paw.

I let out a giggle of delight, with this kind of money, I could eat well for several weeks and treat my friends and that was after I gave the boss his share. Was I worried that the rightful owner of this pouch would find a way to track me down? Not in the least; I know this city like the back of my paw and besides, at the time I did not look any different from any other fox.
I was still busy congratulating myself, when I noticed something else that had come out of the pouch. Something small and shiny. I picked up the strange object and looked at it carefully; it looked oddly familiar, but what was it? Some kind of gemstone? No, it didn't feel like it. Then I realized what it was:
A dragon scale.

"Haven't your parents taught you that its wrong to take the belongings of others?" A feminine voice behind me said, it was a voice that I thought I would never hear again.
I did not waste time turning around to look at the voice's owner, instead, I ran as quickly as my legs could carry me. I was just about to jump over a fence, when I felt myself being pulled back, as if by some invisible force. Before I knew what was happening, I was lying on my back, with the dragon's foot on my chest.

She looked down at me, her eyes cold. There was a smile on her face, but it did not reach her eyes.
"You know", she said, "I've never been robbed before. I believe that the proper procedure is to call for the city watch, so that they can arrest you, haul you in front of a judge and throw your sorry carcass in jail. I'm sure that you'd be a hit with all the other inmates."
"Or", she continued. "In order to save the tax-payers any unnecessary expenses, I could just...kill you right here. Now, I've never actually killed anyone before, but it can't be that hard; I'll just put my fingers around your neck and squeeze."
The dragon's words chilled me to the bone; during my brief stint with the gang I had become acquainted with some pretty brutal types, but I could not recall any of them talking about snuffing out a life in such a casual manner. It was, of course, especially upsetting since the life that was about to be snuffed out was my own.

At this point, I inwardly cursed my hubris and folly, wishing that I had heeded Rachel's words. Rachel, never would I see her again, or Lucien or Bruno. Tears welled up in my eyes.
"Fortunately for you", the dragon said. "None of that is going to happen. I'm sorry, did you say something?"
"Don't kill me", I begged. "I'll do anything you want."
The dragon looked at me with an annoyed expression on her face.
"Weren't you paying attention? I just said I'm not going to kill you, or have you rot away in a cell. Do you know why?"
I shook my head, which was not the easiest thing to do in my position.

"Because you interest me, you are bold and fearless and from what I can gather, skilled at your profession. Tell me, how do you think I managed to track you down?"
I thought for a moment, then it came to me:
"The dragon scale!" I blurted out.
The dragon nodded approvingly.
"I see I can add intelligence to your list of favorable traits. Exactly, I put a spell on the scale, which allows me to track it down, wherever it goes."
I had to admit, I was impressed. Still, there was one thing I had to ask:
"What do you want from me?"
"Let me ask you a question: What's your name, boy?"
"Lorenzo"
"How old are you?"
"Thirteen."
"I see. Tell me, what are your plans for the future, Lorenzo? Where do you see yourself in, say, five years?"

I must confess that up until that moment I had never thought much about the future.
"You have potential", the dragon said. "With proper guidance you could go far. Would you really be satisfied spending the rest of your life as a sneak-thief, having to give away part of your earnings to some old ape, or whoever will be in charge when your boss draws his final breath. That is, if you don't get caught by someone much less merciful than me?"
I was beginning to see what she was hinting at, but I wanted to have my suspicions confirmed.
"Do you want me to work for you?" I said.
In answer to my question, the dragon brought her hands together in an applause.
"Bravo, that's exactly what I want. You see, I have big plans and I need a protege; someone I can mold to my liking. Someone I can rely upon. I think, no, I know that that someone is you."

"Where would I live?" I asked, imaging that she would find me some small apartment in the city somewhere.
"Why, in the palace of course, there's room to spare."
I almost couldn't believe what I was hearing: Me, living in the palace? Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined such a possibility. In my mind, I already pictured myself sleeping between sheets of silk and being waited hand and foot by a staff of servants.
I had already made up my mind, but this sealed the deal; I would be a fool to throw away this golden opportunity. I looked up at the dragon and in that moment, I knew that I was hers, forever.

"I accept", I said.
"I knew you would."
Removing her foot, the dragon pulled me to my feet.
"Come", she said, there's a carriage waiting for us. Oh, and you can keep some of the money, consider them payment in advance."
I thanked her and followed her out of the alley, it was then that something occurred to me.
"Your highness", I began. "If its not to much to ask, may I know your name?"
"Certainly, you'll find out soon enough anyway, might as well learn it now." She smiled, but this time her smile was considerably more friendly.
"I am Argath."

*****

That is how I became acquainted with our illustrious monarch. Perhaps one day I shall regale you with some of the adventures I've had in her service, such as the loss of my eye. Don't expect me to tell you everything though.
For now, however, I'll put down my pen and wish you a good night.















Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Latro In the Mist

I don't think I've written anything about Gene Wolfe before, but he is one of my favorite living authors. Granted, prior to this review the only thing I had read by him was The Book of The New Sun. However, that series was more than enough to cement him as one of my favorites, being, in my opinion, one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century.
The Book of the New Sun made me want to get further acquainted with Wolfe's work, which led to me acquiring the book that is the focus of this post: Latro In the Mist.



Latro In the Mist is actually a compilation of two novels: Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete, originally published in 1987 and 1989 respectively. There's also a third novel called Soldier of Sidon, which came out in 2006.

So, what's it about? While The Book of the New Sun took place in Earth's extremely distant future, in Latro in the Mist, Wolfe takes the reader back to our planet's past. More specifically to antique Greece. The story is narrated in first-person by its protagonist Latro, a Roman mercenary who sustained a head-injury while fighting for Xerxes at the Battle of Plataea. As a consequence, Latro has lost his short-term memory, leading him to forget everything when he sleeps, forcing him to write down the events of each day in his journal.
The injury has also given Latro the ability to see and communicate with the gods and supernatural beings that populate the landscape, invisible to mortal men. An encounter with the Mother of the Gods, tells Latro that the cure for his condition lies in travelling to a temple dedicated to her, located in the lands south of Riverland (Egypt). With that information, Latro sets out on his journey, but soon finds himself the pawn in the games of men and deities alike.

Everyone who is familiar with Gene Wolfe's work can tell you that his books do not make for light reading, his narratives are peppered with hidden meanings and allusions that even the most attentive reader may not catch upon a first read, not to mention his use of unreliable narrators, who may mislead the reader, intentionally or not. When it comes to Latro In the Mist, a knowledge of the history of ancient Greece, as well as Greek mythology, is also a requirement.
This may make it sound as if Wolfe is one of those authors who loves pointing out how clever they are, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Going by my own experience (limited though it may be), its clear to me that Wolfe respects his readers' intelligence and excepts them to work things out on their own. As Neil Gaiman put it: "He is not smart to make you feel stupid. He is smart to make you smart as well."

Latro's story is a complex and intricate one. Wolfe's breadth of knowledge regarding the time-period he has set his tale in is truly impressive and like all the best writers of historical fiction, he brings the past to life excellently.
Character-wise, Latro, is not unexpectedly the most rounded character. He's an engaging protagonistwhose plight makes him easy for the reader to sympathize with. As much as I love The Book of the New Sun, if you asked me who my favorite was between Latro and Severian, I think I'd have to go with the mercenary. He is backed up by a strong supporting cast, of which the precocious slave-girl Io and the necromancer Eurykles are two of the most memorable.

Latro In the Mist is another masterpiece from Wolfe's pen and strengthens my admiration for this great author. For newcomers, its as good a place as any to start.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Chapter 24

There exists in the widespread palace-garden, certain places which a person might go to should they feel the need for some privacy while being outdoors. It was to one of these secluded spots that Nasari had steered her steps. The place in question was her favorite to come to whenever she needed to get away. There was a goldfish pond there and the female feline would sit down near its edge, looking at the pond's denizens swimming to and fro, without a care in the world. It was an activity which she found relaxing. Though she was loath to admit it, Nasari had felt a twinge of gratitude when one of the other chambermaids had told her that Argath had given her the day off. She was glad for the small holiday, not only because yesterday and the night that followed had been quite busy, but also because it would give her the opportunity for some quiet contemplation. As she leaned forward, the goldfish nibbling at the finger she had dipped into the cool, clear water, Nasari thought back to the night before:

She had just been about to get into bed, following a busy day's work, when she heard someone knocking at the door. Now, It should be pointed out that Nasari was in the habit of not wearing anything to bed. However, since its usually frowned upon to answer doors in the buff, she went over to the closet which stood in one corner of the room. She opened it, took out a bathrobe which hung on the inside of the closet-door and went to see who could be calling on her at this late hour.

"I know it is late", Miranda said, standing in the doorway, but I need to talk to you. Can I come in?"
"Can't it wait until tomorrow?" Nasari asked, while stifling a yawn.
"We might not get the chance tomorrow. After all, we haven't been able to see each other for almost a week."
"True", Nasari agreed "Come in."
She stepped aside, allowing Miranda to enter. As soon as the raccoon was inside, Nasari shut the door.
"Thank you."
"So, what was it you wanted to talk about?"
"Us."
"I am listening."
The room's only window stood open, letting in the night air, but Miranda felt warm either way. She pulled at the collar of the blue chemise she was wearing. Her eyes fell upon the jug which stood on the nightstand.
"I need something to drink first", she said.
Nasari poured some water into the glass next to the jug and handed it to her. She drank greedily, then wiped her mouth with the backside of her paw.
"Thank you", she said, putting the empty glass back.

Nasari sat down on the bed, her eyes were beginning to feel heavy. she blinked a few times. Miranda sat down next to her and began to talk:
"From the moment I first saw you, looking at that painting, you fascinated me. Who is this? I asked myself. She's beautiful, but she seems sad at the same time. I felt an urge to cheer you up, so I approached you and struck up the conversation, using the Carazzio as an excuse. I was so happy when we became friends, but I wanted us to be more than that; I wanted to feel your body pressed against mine, our tongues wrestle in our mouths. I lied awake, fantasizing about you. Even when I was with the Queen, I..."
She paused, noticing the expression on her friend's face, it was the kind of expression that someone makes when the person next to them has just broken wind, or perhaps confessed to murder.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" She wondered, before a light went off in her head. "Oh, its because I mentioned being with the Queen, isn't it? But I'm not the only one, all of us have. Surely, you must have known? Its hardly secret.
Nasari shook her head.
"No, I knew, its just that the two of you together..." She shuddered, "How could you?!" She asked, her voice suddenly louder than she had intended. "Do you even like her?!"
"Its not about whether I like her or not." As Miranda talked, a shadow passed over her features. "I haven't told you this, but I come from terrible circumstances, most of the maids do. The Queen saved us from them. I know that she can be a real bitch at times, but if not for her, my life would have been much worse and probably shorter and I wouldn't be able to sit here, talking to you."

Those last words were accompanied by a smile, which tugged on Nasari's heartstrings. Suddenly, she felt overcome by compassion; not just for Miranda, but for all the maids in Argath's service. She had no doubt that some of them climbed into the Queen's bed willingly. After all, there was no accounting for taste and, as she knew Argath could be generous when she wanted to be, but what about those that only did so out of a sense of obligation, or worse, a fear of what would happen should they refuse?
"You are crying", Miranda said. "Was it something I said?"
"Its nothing". Nasari dried her tears and looked at the raccoon. "Please, continue."
Miranda nodded, her fingertips lightly brushed against Nasari's knuckles.
"I wanted the two of us to be more than just friends, but I wasn't sure how to tell you how I felt. Perhaps I was afraid that you wouldn't feel the same way and that you'd reject me, so I kept quiet about my feelings. Then you angered the Queen and she forced me to use the castigator on you." Miranda shuddered.
"At that moment, I hated myself and I was sure that you would hate me to; that even our friendship would be no more.

Now it was Miranda who cried; her tears running silently down her cheeks.
"It was silly of you to think that I would let something like that end our friendship", Nasari said. She looked her friend in the eye and smiled reassuringly. "I knew that you were not the one to blame."
"Still, I blamed myself. Seeing you lying there, having taken all that abuse, I felt so awful. I wanted to make it up to you somehow and I thought that tending to your bruises would be a good way to do that, but as I began to apply the lotion, I..." Miranda's face turned a shade of red and she looked down on the floor.
"I'm ashamed to admit it, but I became aroused. As I kept massaging you, my desires, which I had kept pent-up, screamed to be released. Eventually, it was as if I couldn't control myself anymore and that's..."
"...That's when you kissed me", Nasari interrupted.
"Yes. I couldn't believe what I was doing. Any second now, I thought, she'll push me away and her face will have that shocked and hurt expression on it, as if I had betrayed her trust, but you never did."
"No, I did not." I should have, but I did not.
"That's when I became certain that you and I both had the same feelings for each other. I'm not wrong, am I, Nasari? Tell me that I'm not wrong." She said, looking at Nasari with round, pleading eyes.
"No, Miranda, you're not wrong. During the brief time that we have known each other, I have come to feel for you in a way that I never thought I would feel towards another woman and that is a problem."
"I don't understand."
"Miranda, I have a husband."

Miranda crossed her arms and let out a derisive snort.
"Of course, the famous general Jeraddin. Tell me, Nasari, where is he now? Why is it that you live in the palace and he does not?"
For a moment, Nasari considered revealing the reason for why she and her husband lived separately to Miranda, but then she decided against it. Such knowledge would only serve to put the younger woman's life at risk. She got a brief vision of a knife slashing Miranda's throat and shuddered.
"I'm sorry", she said. "I can't tell you."
"Fine, I won't insist, but you should know that there's a rumor going on about your husband among several of the other girls."
"What kind of rumor is that?"
Miranda hesitated, a hard edge had crept into Nasari's voice. Perhaps she had said too much.
"Its not a very nice one I'm afraid. Are you sure you want to hear it?"
"I'm sure."
"Well, its like this: They think that the reason why you're here is because the general has a lover and that when you found out, you demanded a divorce, but the general did not wish to pay alimony, so he used his clout with the Queen to have you confined to the palace."
While she listened to her friend's words, Nasari's body shook with suppressed mirth. Finally, the cat could not contain herself any longer and she fell backwards, laughing uproariously.

Miranda was confused, this was not reaction she had expected.
"I thought you'd be angry", she said.
Nasari sat up
"How could I be? Being angry would mean that I actually took such a ridiculous rumor seriously. I suppose that the Queen knows about this?"
"She does. So, there's really no truth to it at all?"
"Of course not. The very thought is absurd."
"Oh."
For a moment, silence reigned in the room. Then, Miranda rose from the bed.
"Are you leaving?" Nasari wondered.
Miranda looked over her shoulder.
"I've told you everything", she said. "You must be tired, I apologize for having kept you up for so long."
She made as if to leave, but just then, Nasari grabbed hold of her wrist.
"Wait!"
The raccoon turned around and it was then that Nasari returned the kiss that Miranda had given her. The next moment, sashes to bathrobes came undone, chemises were taken off and on top of the bed, two bodies became one.
After they had finished making love, Miranda had fallen asleep almost immediately. Sleep, however, had eluded Nasari who lay awake, staring up at the ceiling. Until, at last, her eyelids became to heavy and she drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

*****

"Penny for your thoughts?"
Nasari had been so deep in thought that she had failed to notice that she was no longer alone.
Upon seeing her husband's face reflected in the water and hearing his familiar voice in her ear, she was so startled that she almost fell into the pond.
Fortunately, she was caught just in time.
"Careful, dear", the lynx said, helping his wife up on her feet. "You almost took an involuntary bath."
Nasari stared at her husband as if she had just seen a ghost.
"Jeraddin? What are you doing here?"
"What matters the reason, Nasari? I'm here, is that not enough?"
With those words, Jeraddin wrapped his arms around his spouse and pressed her to his chest. He waited for her to return his embrace, but to his surprise, she gently pushed him away.
"What's wrong?" He asked. "Aren't you glad to see me?"
"Of course I am, its just...."

Nasari bit her lip, the lingering feeling of guilt that she had carried with her all day, was growing stronger. She had never thought herself capable of infidelity, let alone with someone of the same sex, but that was exactly what had happened.
Having so irrevocably broken her vows, accepting her partner's touch as if everything was normal, struck the feline as the worst form of hypocrisy. He did not deserve to be deceived in such a fashion.
"Jer", she said. "We need to talk."

Jeraddin nodded solemnly.
"I agree. There are a few things I want to say to you."He pointed to a bench standing under a peach-tree a short distance from the pond.
"Why don't we go and sit over there? It'd be nice to be in the shade, don't you think?"
The two of them walked over to the bench and sat down. Almost immediately, Jeraddin gently took Nasari's paws into his own.
"How are you holding up?" He asked, as he looked into her eyes.
Nasari, who was still working up the courage to admit her infidelity found herself caught off-guard by the question. She asked her husband what he meant.
"Living here in the palace, of course. It must be hard for you."
"It is."
"If there's anything I can do to make it easier for you. Do you have all of your things?"
"I believe so."
"Good."

Jeraddin nodded contentedly, though he was puzzled by the distant tone in his spouse's voice. It was as if she were someplace else. Well, if something was bothering her, she would no doubt let him know before he had to leave.
Leave. Oh, yes, it was time to tell her the actual reason why he was here.

"Nasari, I'm sorry for monopolizing this conversation, but there is something important I need to say."
Nasari looked at Jeraddin; the tender smile he had previously sported had vanished. She wondered what was going on.
"You asked the reason for my appearance", he began. "The truth is that I will be out of the country for awhile."
"Why?" Nasari asked and Jeraddin couldn't help but be pleased to notice that she was listening with rapt attention. "Where are you going?"
"To war. The Queen has decided to invade Frigonia and she has picked me to do the dirty work."
He sighed.
"I have a feeling that there's going to be more wars in the future and that Vinoli will be the aggressor in the majority of them. Nasari, if the worst should happen and I would not be able to come back alive...."
"Don't say that", Nasari pleaded. "I don't want to think about such things!"
"Listen to me". Jeraddin put his paws on Nasari's shoulders. "If such a thing should happen, you must find a way to get out of the palace. No, out of the country, as soon as you hear of my demise. Money will be no problem, trust me on that."

Having said all this, Jeraddin relaxed, his smile returned.
"Still, you're right, this is to pleasant a day to think of such morbid things. "Now, what was it you wanted to tell me? I am all ears."
Nasari took a deep breath. This was it, time to unburden herself. She just hoped that Jeraddin wouldn't despise her too much.
"Jer", she said. "I have...I am seeing somebody."
There, Nasari thought. Now its all out.
She glanced at her husband to see what his reaction would be. Jeraddin was staring out into space, his mouth a thin line.
"Who is he?" He asked suddenly, his voice flat and without emotion.
Nasari swallowed.
"Actually, its a she. Her name is Miranda."
This prompted a reaction from Jeraddin, he turned his head and looked at Nasari with genuine surprise.
"Really?"
"Yes."

Jeraddin did not say anything else, still processing what he had just heard. Nasari being unfaithful to him? With another woman, no less? Had she not told him herself, he would have found it hard to believe. Miranda, where had he heard that name before? Ah, yes, the female raccoon who had been in the throne room, the Queen had addressed her by that name. So, she was the one.

Nasari looked at Jeraddin with growing anxiety. She wished that he would say something, that he would yell at her, or strike her even. Anything would be preferable to this awful silence.
"Tell me, how did this happen?"
The female cat sent a silent prayer of thanks to whatever Gods were watching. At least, he was still talking to her.
"Are you sure you want to hear this?" She asked.
"Yes, I need to know."

Well, what other choice did Nasari have? She began to tell Jeraddin everything, concluding with the events that had transpired last night. Jeraddin listened to his wife's story with his eyes closed and a pained expression on his face. Behind closed eyelids, his mind conjured up images of Miranda bringing Nasari the kind of pleasure he had thought that he only could give her. Against his will, Jeraddin felt the fabric around his crotch tighten. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and let out a tiny moan.

Though Jeraddin did his best to conceal the bulge, Nasari noticed it.
Poor thing, she thought. I'd like to help him, but I'm not sure he wants my help and who can blame him?
"Now you know everything", she said. "If you hate me now, I  understand it."
Jeraddin sighed, when he spoke his voice was strained.
"In a way, I'm glad that you admitted this to me, rather than keeping it a secret", he began. "Better to find it out directly from you, than somebody else, whose word I may not have trusted." He took a deep breath and continued:
"That said; knowing that you have been with somebody else, that knowledge hurts. Still, I can't deny that despite of what you've done, I still love you and would like to forgive you, but there's also another part of me that wants to punish you and I'm not sure if I can truly forgive you without the punishment preceding the forgiveness.
"I will accept whatever punishment you deem fit", Nasari said, her eyes downcast. "Its only appropriate."
"Nasari, there is one more thing I must know: Do you still love me?"

Nasari looked up, she had not expected this question. She gazed at her mate, fresh tears began to form in the corner of her eyes. She blinked them out of existence and began to speak;
"Oh, Jer, you have been the best of husbands and together we had the most wonderful children any parents could ask for. I shall always love you, but I can not ignore my own feelings: Even if she and I haven't known each other for as long as we have, I love Miranda as well. She comforted me when I needed it and she made me discover things about myself that I wasn't even aware of. I do not wish to chose between the two of you, but if you force me to..."
"You'll choose your lover, is that correct?"
"I'm sorry, Jer, but yes, that's what I'll do. I can't face life in the palace without her.
Jeraddin shrugged.
"In that case, I suppose I can accept us having an open marriage."

Nasari gasped, this was the outcome she had desired, but she hadn't dared hope that it would actually come to pass.
"Oh, Jer, thank you". Overcome by happiness, she wrapped her arms around the lynx's neck and planted a kiss on his cheek.
Jeraddin smiled.
"Now, I can think of something else you can do to show your gratitude. Something that would make me grateful as well."

Nasari understood immediately what Jeraddin was referring to. She knelt down in front of him and eagerly stripped him off his pants, exposing his already erect cock to the breeze.
Nasari stared admiringly at the sight of her husband's ample maleness. It had been so long since she had last seen it, that she had almost forgotten how impressive it was.
She began to lick the glistening head of the cock, prompting a moan from its owner. She then took the entire length of it in her mouth and proceeded to suck it, treating it as if it was the most sweet-tasting candy cane in the whole world.

Jeraddin turned his head upwards, his entire being quivering with pleasure.
Finally, he could not hold back any longer. His body tensed and a roar rose up from his lungs, as he climaxed, filling his spouse's mouth with his seed.

*****

"Be careful out there", Nasari said, as she bade her husband farewell.
"When have I ever not been?" Jeraddin asked, as she leaned in and kissed her.
"I will see you soon!" He called out, as he headed towards the gate.
Nasari looked at him with fondness and sighed wistfully.
Then, she turned and walked back to the palace. She had to find Miranda and tell her the good news.
















Friday, July 28, 2017

Chapter 23

One week before the events narrated in the previous chapter transpired, Gerion the lawayer was meeting with three of his clients.  The first two were a pair of rabbits, husband and wife, both of whom had made some fortunate investments and, as a consequence, had awaken one day to find themselves rather wealthy. The third person was Jeraddin.
Gerion, a vole, was seated behind his desk, in front of him lied two documents. He took out a monocle from his breast-pocket and looked at his trio of visitors who occupied the three chairs facing his desk. In the corner of the office stood a service wagon, which had come in loaded with refreshments, but was now quite empty.

"Now then", the lawyer said. "You have read the contracts, is there anything you wish to ask before signing them?"
The husband shook his head.
"Everything looks just fine to me." He gazed lovingly at his wife. "What about you, my love?"
The wife, paws resting on a belly heavy with child, imitated the gesture made by her other half.
"No, I quite agree with you. We've seen the property and we think that it'll be the ideal place to raise our children, the old house was beginning to be a bit cramped. Although, I do have a question for you, sir."
She turned to Jeraddin.
"Yes?" The lynx asked.
"I didn't ask before, but why did you decide to sell such a beautiful place?"
Jeraddin shrugged and put on an apologetic smile.
"Financial difficulties", he said. "The upkeep on a place like my ancestral home has really made hole in my bank account."
Naturally, you my most esteemed reader know that this is not the real reason for Jeraddin selling the place, but of course,he could not tell the truth, even if he had wanted to.
"Well", the husband said with a chuckle. "In a moment, your financial troubles will be all but over, old boy."
If only my real problems could be solved so easily, Jeraddin thought.

The three of them rose, walked up to the contracts and read through them one last time. They then took the quills that Gerion handed to them and moments later, the contracts were signed. The deal was sealed by Jeraddin and the couple shaking each other's paws.
"There", Gerion said, patting the contracts. "That's that. I must say, I'm glad that we were able to come to such a quick agreement."
"As am I", said the husband. "You have the deed to the property with you, I assume?" He asked.
Jeraddin nodded and, reaching into the inner pocket of his coat, which was draped over the chair's chest, produced an old rolled-up parchment, tied together with a red ribbon.
"Here it is", he said.
"And here's the money", said the rabbit, producing a signed check. The two objects changed hands.
"Splendid", Gerion said, rubbing his paws together. "I think this calls for a toast. What say you to opening a bottle in celebration?"

*****

As he entered the throne room and began the walk up to the throne itself, Jeraddin looked left and right, observing the people gathered in it: There were the expected guards, standing stiff as statues, the occasional twitch of the facial muscles, being the only indication that they were in fact alive. There were groups of courtiers; richly clad lords and ladies gathered together in little groups. Some of them acknowledged the lynx's presence with a nod, which he politely returned. A few of the younger ladies  tried to flirt with him, fluttering their long eyelashes and giggling coquettishly behind their fans. To no avail, Jeraddin paid them no heed, his mind was elsewhere. Standing around the throne were the members of the royal council and Jeraddin noted with some surprise that Cornelius was not among them. Had the old boy shuffled of the mortal coil? Sad, if that was the case. There was the one-eyed fox, Lorenzo, arms crossed and with a dagger in his belt and a faint smirk on his face. Standing next to the throne, their eyes downcast were some of the Queen's chambermaids, pretty things each and everyone of them. Nasari wasn't among them. This surprised Jeraddin, since he thought that the Queen would keep his wife close-by, to remind Jeraddin what the prize would be for any lack of co-operation.
Finally, sitting on the throne which had once belonged to her father, the royal scepter in her hand, was the Queen herself.

Stepping in front of the throne, his face an impassive mask, concealing the bile rising up in his throat, Jeraddin bent his head and got down on one knee, staring dagger's at the Queen's foot.
Argath looked down at the figure in front of her and smiled contentedly; there was something quite intoxicating having power over people. For a moment, she wondered if her fa...if her predecessor had ever felt the same way. What was she thinking? Of course he had, the old hypocrite . Alas, all fun things must come to an end and so, Argath decided that Jeraddin had humbled himself enough:
"Arise, General" she said. "We thank you for answering our call so swiftly."
"It was my duty, Your Majesty", Jeraddin answered in an even tone. "How can I be of service?"
"It is our wish", the Queen said, twirling the scepter, "that you shall invade the kingdom of Frigonia."
Ah, so that's it, Jeraddin thought.
"Your Majesty, our two kingdom have been at peace for over a century. May I ask the reason why?"
"You are a solider, do you need a reason for carrying out your orders? Especially ones that come directly from your monarch?"
"Nevertheless, Your Majesty, it would ease my conscience if you had the grace to provide me with one."

The Queen shrugged.
"Very well; we have received a report that Frigonia's king is currently planning a surprise attack on our territories. Does that reason satisfy you?"
No, Jeraddin thought, it does not. Who sent you this report? Has anyone else seen it? Anyone on the council? Not that it would matter, no doubt many of the council members would be eager to give the Frigonians a bashing, having been fed distrust of our northern neighbor along with their mothers', or more likely nursemaids', milk. 
Naturally, he did not say any of this out-loud. Instead, the words that came out of his mouth were the following ones:
"Perfectly, Your Majesty, I'm grateful for your indulgence."
"We're pleased to hear it. Now, we wish you to leave for the Northern border at your earliest convenience, it would not be good if the Frigonians found out that we have anticipated their little ploy."
With that, the Queen stood up in her full height. As she did, the tiara she wore became slightly askew and when she reached up to adjust it, she dropped the scepter, which hit the floor with a heavy sound.

Letting out an annoyed sigh, Argath pointed to the symbol of her power and ordered one of her chambermaids to pick it up. However, before the maid had the chance to do it, someone else had already snapped it up.
"Once again, general, the promptness with which you come to our assistance do you great credit. Now, hand us our scepter, if you please. Rend unto the Queen what is the Queen's, or however it goes."
She smiled, exposing her sharp teeth and as if on cue, some of the courtiers broke out it in an appreciative laughter. Which, I can assure you, did not sound the least bit forced at all.
Jeraddin weighed the scepter in his paw, it was heavier than he thought it would be. The Queen's physical strength must be stronger than he thought, judging by the ease with which she had twirled it. For a moment, Jeraddin toyed with the idea to bring the thing down upon Argath's head, but he dismissed it almost immediately. Still, it was a beautiful thought. Just then, a voice called him back to reality:
"General", the Queen said, her smile obliterated. "We do not like to repeat ourselves. Our scepter, now."
"Of course, Your Majesty. I was merely admiring it for a moment."

He bowed and presented the scepter to the queen, who took it and put it down on the pillow-clad pedestal, placed next to the throne.
"We shall leave the finer detail of the Frigonia business to your discretion, general. We have every faith in your abilities."
She sat down and made a dismissive gesture, indicating that the audience was over and that Jeraddin could leave, but to her surprise, he did not move an inch.
"Your Majesty, I have a favor to ask you."
Argath's eyes narrowed. A favor? What could he possibly be asking for? Oh, of course!
"The crown sees no reason to refuse a request from such a loyal and diligent subject as yourself, general. Yes. you may see your wife."
She turned to the same maid who she had ordered to pick up the scepter.
"Since you and Nasari are such good friends, I don't suppose you'd have any idea where she is at the moment, Miranda? I gave her the day off you see", she explained to Jeraddin, looking at that moment as the very picture of benevolence.

Moving closer to Jeraddin, Lorenzo put one of his paws on the lynx's shoulder.
"Her Majesty is so generous, isn't she, general?" He whispered. "Truly your wife is fortunate to have been granted the privilege to be in her presence everyday. Don't you think so? Of course you do, the mere thought has rendered you speechless with joy."
At that moment, Jeraddin's head flashed with images of him wresting the dagger from Lorenzo and plunging it in the fox's remaining eye. It was a mental image that was not displeasing and he smiled inwardly at it.

"I saw her head out into the garden, Your Majesty", said Miranda. "Do you wish for me to go and fetch her?"
Before the Queen could answer, Jeraddin spoke up:
"Beg your pardon, Your Majesty; there's no need for this young lady to trouble herself on my account. I shall go to my wife myself."
"Yes", the Queen said in a dry tone, "I have no doubt that you two could use the...privacy." Once again, she stood up and turned to her maid.
"We suddenly have a craving for sweets. Go down to the kitchen and tell them to prepare us a cake, then have it brought up to our chambers."
"As you wish, Your Majesty."

****

Jeraddin left the throne room with a feeling of relief. As he walked through the hallways of the palace, he wiped his lips, which had touched the Queen's ring in a farewell greeting, with his left paw. What he really wanted to do was spit, but he couldn't find no place to do it. At least being summoned to the palace meant that he would be reunited with his wife, if only for a brief moment. Jeraddin could hardly wait to see Nasari again, it felt as if forever since he had last looked upon her. He wanted to take her in his arms, to hear her voice. The thought of it caused a smile to appear on his hitherto solemn features. 
"General, a moment of your time?"

Startled, Jeraddin turned around and found himself face to face with Felix.
"What can I do for you, councilor?" He asked, hoping that the conversation wouldn't take too long. Then, he remembered something that had puzzled him.
"How is old Cornelius?" He asked. "I couldn't help but notice his absence."
Felix sighed.
"Cornelius has been...banished from court", he said.
"For what reason?" 
"It has to do with this war against Frigonia. Cornelius spoke out against it, said that we should try to negotiate, Her Majesty was furious."
Knowing the history between the two councilors, the lynx studied the lizard's face, trying to discover any sign of satisfaction on it, but found none.

"I can guess what you're thinking", Felix said, "but in this case I'm in complete agreement with Cornelius. I was about to back him up, but when I saw the Queen's reaction... I'm ashamed to say it, but my courage failed me. Besides, I thought I would speak to the Queen, convincing her to let Cornelius back on the council in due time."
"I see. Well, I wish you good luck with that.
"Thank you. However, that is not really the reason why I approached you. There's something I think you should know."
"What is it?"
Felix looked around, then motioned for Jeraddin to come closer.
"Well", he began, lowering his voice. "Cornelius and I suspect that this whole thing about Frigonia planning to attack us is merely a falsehood, cooked up by the Queen. Probably with the help of that blasted fox of hers."
"I wouldn't put it past her", Jeraddin commented dryly.

Felix, who had hoped that this revelation would come as something of a surprise, found himself somewhat disappointed.
"In that case, general, you know the Queen better than either of us."
Jeraddin shrugged.
"Perhaps, but why tell me all this?"
"Because your word carries weight. If you were to publicly express your doubts regarding the justification for this war, many people would take them seriously. If public opinion turned against this war, I am positive that we could pressure the Queen into opening negotiations with Frigonia, thus clearing up any misunderstandings and hopefully avoid unnecessary bloodshed."

Having said all this, Felix waited for Jeraddin's answer with his arms folded. He was confident that the lynx would see the logic in his proposition and agree with it.
"I am sorry", Jeraddin said, turning his head so as to avoid the councilor's eyes. "I can not go against the Queen."
The general's words hit Felix like a slap to the face. He stood there, mouth open and eyes blinking in surprise, as if he could not believe the witness of his own ears.
"Why?" He asked, when he had mastered his feelings.
Jeraddin sighed. He felt bad having to turn Felix down, but what other choice did he have?
"Its not for my own sake that I refuse" he said, "but to protect those I care about. Forgive me, but I can not offer another explanation. Farewell, councilor, give my regards to Cornelius when you see him."

With those words, Jeraddin turned around and walked out the door that lead to the garden. As he
watched him leave, Felix thought about what he had just said: Protect those I care about. What had he meant by that? Going through his memories, Felix recalled that the general was married and had two children and that the entire family had been present at the  feast which had ended with the death of the king. Felix himself had not been able to attend the feast, having been confided to bed with the flu. Because of that, he had only learnt about the events that had occurred through second-hand sources and so, he had originally resumed that the family had returned afterwards.
That is, until he had learnt that not too long after the feast, the wife had moved into the palace, as one of the Queen's chambermaids.

Felix had seen her briefly a few times, a feline with black fur. Attractive, but with something sad about her, which he could not really define. Why was this woman living here in the palace? Felix had never really thought about this before, having had other things on his mind, but now he was beginning to wonder. Jeraddin's words had hinted that his wife was actually a hostage, but it seemed incredible. The general had always been a loyal servant to the crown, why should the Queen require a hostage to guarantee his continued loyalty?
Felix pondered these questions while walking back to his quarters in the palace. As he rounded a corner, an idea suddenly popped into his head. It was an idea so terrible that it caused the iguana's head to spin.
No she couldn't have..he thought, before his legs gave way under him and the floor came closer and closer.






Monday, June 26, 2017

Ashenden

As we all know, popularity does not always equal quality.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not some contrarian who looks down his nose on mainstream shows (most of the time anyway). There are plenty of popular shows that I have a deep fondness for. At the same time, there's no denying that TV as a whole, is filled with shows that does not deserve half the praise and adoration showered upon them. On the other side, there are plenty of shows that, in spite of being of extremely high quality, languishes in undeserved obscurity. The Bristish mini-series Ashenden is one such show.

Based on a collection of stories by W. Somerset Maugham (confession time: I haven't read any of Maugham's work), which in turn were based on the author's own experiences, Ashenden tells the story of John Ashenden, a playwright who is enlisted as an agent for British Intelligence during World War I. Each of the four episodes deals with Ashenden on one of his missions, whether its inducing a dancer into betraying her lover who is a German agent, or travelling to Russia during the 1917 revolution to convince that nation to remain in conflict with Germany. Each episode opens with an aging Ashenden, living in France, listening to the opening tunes of a pop song on the radio, before angrily pushing the radio off the table.

As a show, Ashenden is a prime example of quality over quantity. Despite there being only four episodes, each episode is a well-crafted gem, featuring interesting characters and gripping plots. 
Alex Jennings plays Ashenden and while the character does not perhaps enter into my pantheon of favorite TV protagonist (though he's a close runner-up), Jennings does a fine job making the character engaging and likable. Its also interesting to see Ashenden grow more and more disillusioned with the nature of his job and the ruthlessness of his superior officer Colonel "R" as the series progresses. Due to the limited number of episodes, the supporting cast is relatively small; aside from the titular character, the only other recurring characters are Ashenden's friend, the homosexual pacifist Andrew Lehman (Jason Isaacs), the aforementioned "R" (Ian Bannen) and the real-life head of MI6, Sir George Mansfield Cumming (Joss Ackland). That said, the one-off characters all very memorable as well, with Alan Benett and Alfred Molina being particularly good in their roles as a British traitor and a Mexican assassin respectively.

I learned about the existence of Ashenden quite by chance and I'm glad that I did. I was fortunate enough to find all the episodes on YouTube and you can find the first episode inserted into this post. I strongly recommend watching it, this a show that deserves to be more well-known and getting an official re-release and if my post can, in some small way contribute to that happening, I'd consider my job done.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Chapter 22

Stifling a yawn, Felix the iguana shifted the weight of his body from one leg to the other. He and the other members of the royal council were standing around the large, oval-shaped table which dominated the council's meeting chamber. Felix had enjoyed a moment of relaxation, playing chess with his wife, when a servant had appeared and told him that the queen had called a meeting. Felix had left the chess-table, not entirely without a sense of relief (his wife had always been his superior at the game, perhaps thanks to having more spare-time to practice) and had headed to the meeting chamber. That had been almost an hour ago, and still, there was no sign of the queen herself.
"How long does she mean to make us stand here and wait", a voice muttered, cutting through the silence.

Felix turned his head towards the speaker; a lanky young wolf with a sullen expression on his face. Felix recognized the youth; what was his name again? Br...something. Ah, yes, Brutus. That was it. Next to Brutus stood his father, Julius, who immediately answered his son's question:
"She'll let us wait for as long as it suits her. Making people have to wait for you is a sign of power."
"Still don't understand why I have to be here", his son muttered, while crossing his arms.
"Because", Julius said in a tone that made it clear that his patient with his off-spring was at its limit. "The oldest child of our family has served on the council for generations. When the time comes, I expect you to take my place and serve our country and monarch, just like I have. Now, I want you to stand there and be quiet, if you embarrass me in front of the queen, I'll disinherit you. Do you understand?"
Brutus said nothing, but nodded slowly to show that he had grasped the meaning behind his father's words. Felix could not help but feel a twinge of sympathy for the lad; from what he knew about Julius, being his son could not always be easy.

It was a warm day and the room had become quite hot and stuffy. One of the other councilmen, a ram, wiped his brow with a silk handkerchief.
"Someone ought to open up a window", he complained, but his plea went unheard. His colleagues were all staring intently at the door, waiting for it to open.
At last, their prayers were answered! The door swung open, its hinges creaking. The first person to enter was an elephant dressed in livery and carrying a staff with a jewel at its top. The elephant stopped, tapped the staff three times, trumpeted loudly with his trunk and called out in a strong voice:
"Announcing her Royal Majesty, the Supreme Ruler of Vinoli: Queen Argath I!"

With that, the elephant stepped aside and Argath entered the room. As she did, the councilmen all bowed their heads in her direction, while saying with one mouth:
"Greetings, Your Majesty."
Behind the queen, carrying a large roll under his arm, came Lorenzo, his entrance was greeted with surprised whispers and looks of disapproval from the council, none of them cared much for the fox, whom they regarded as an opportunist and an upstart. It did not seem right to them that a person without any known background, should continue to be so close to the queen.

Paying no heed to the angry looks the councilmen gave him, Lorenzo strode up to the table, put down his burden and unrolled it. The others leaned forward to get a closer look: It was a map, showing Vinoli as well as its closest neighbors.
"Sit down, gentlemen", Argath said, seating herself in the large chair that the servant had pulled out for her.
Thanking the queen, the others sat down, glad to finally be able to rest their feet. However, Lorenzo remained standing, having positioned himself behind the queen's chair.
"Now then", the queen said, her eyes sweeping across the table. "We hereby declare the first council-meeting under our reign, open. No doubt you are all wondering as to why you've been summoned. The reason is quite simple, it has to do with this:"

The councilmen looked at the spot on the map the queen was pointing at. Felix was the first one to speak:
"The kingdom of Frigonia, your majesty?"
"Exactly", said the queen. "We recently received word from one of our agents over there, a person in whom we have the utmost trust. This person has informed us that Frigonia's current king, Salizlav V is planning to revive some of his people's old customs; including that of sending raiding parties across our border."
This revelation was met with general astonishment, everyone started talking over each other, in loud angry voices:
"Has he lost his mind?"
"We've been at peace for decades!"
"Damn northerners, you just can't trust them!"

Seeing the effect the queen's words had had on the councilmen, Lorenzo allowed a mocking smirk to spread across his face. It only lasted for a few seconds and the only person in the room who noticed it, was young Brutus, who glared angrily at the fox. Eventually, the queen picked up the gavel next to her and banged it forcefully in the table, three times. The third time, the councilmen noticed the sound and quieted down.When all was still, Argath cleared her throat and began to speak:
"We understand your concerns and share them, but have no fear; thanks to our spy, we have the opportunity to nip Salizlav's plan in the bud."
"Well", the ram asked. "What do your majesty have in mind?"
"Simple, that we launch a surprise attack on Frigonia."
This idea was met with general approval. After all, if the Frigonians were so treacherous they could hardly expect others to deal fairly with them. Only one of the councilors was of a different opinion:

The person in question, an aged dog with grey whiskers, frowned slightly, removed his pince-nez and began to clean it with a piece of cloth.
"With all respect, your majesty, I believe that we should attempt to negotiate with Frigonia before we send in our troops. Dissuade its king from going down a path which will only bring calamity to his nation in the longer run. Its the action that your father would have taken.
Argath listened to the councilor's brief speech with a detached, weary look on her face, her claws drumming rhythmically against the tables' surface. Finally, she held up a hand, signalling for the speaker to be quiet.

"You are absolutely right, Cornelius" she said, her head bobbing slowly, up and down. "It is what our late predecessor would have done. However, let me ask you this: Why should we follow his example in everything?" She slammed her fist into the table and glared at the assembly with bulging eyes.
"Its about time that all of you learn that the reign of Sharan is gone, gone forever and that it will never return. We rule Vinoli now and we intend to rule it our way. Furthermore, from this day forth, any mention of the late king in our presence will be punished, most severely."
A heavy and uneasy silence spread across the room. The councilmen glanced nervously at one another. Cornelius looked down at the table, his mustache twitched. He could feel the queen's eyes boring into him, the fur on the back of his neck stood up.

Judging that the dissenter had been sufficiently cowed, the queen smacked her hands together, with a satisfied expression on her face.
"Well, gentlemen, let us continue. Any questions? Yes, Julius?"
"Your majesty", the wolf said. "Who is going to lead the attack?"
"Isn't it obvious?" The queen asked, looking surprised. "I can think of only person suitable for this task." She turned to Lorenzo. "Has the message to general Jeraddin been dispatched?"
"Yes, my queen."
"Good". Once again, the queen made use of her gavel. "We hereby declare this meeting adjourned. Gentlemen, let us all head to the throne room. We shall greet the general there, when he arrives."
She stood up and at once, everyone else did the same. Just as the queen was about to leave the room, she stopped and looked disdainfully at Cornelius.
"Except for that person. We do not wish him among us."

Immediately, those members of the council who were standing close to Cornelius moved a bit further away. Then they turned their backs on him and hurried after their monarch.
Only Felix remained, he  looked at Cornelius who had slumped back into his seat with a hangdog look on his face.
The iguana couldn't help but feel sorry for his fellow councilor, he decided to offer a few words of comfort, certain that they would be well received.
"I'm sorry about what happened at the meeting", he said, patting Cornelius on the shoulder. "Don't worry, I'm sure that you will be back in the queen's good graces in no time."
Cornelius looked up.
"Thank you", he said, surprised at this expression of sympathy, because the two of them had often crossed swords in the past.
"I know we've had our differences", Felix said, "but this time I agree with you: We should have sent someone to negotiate."
"Well, I'm glad that we're on the same side for once", Cornelius said. "Although it would've been nice if you had let me know that during the meeting."
"I'm sorry. I was about to join my voice to yours, but the queen's reaction to your proposal convinced me that it was best to hold my tongue."
"Yes, I have a feeling that there is going to be a lot of that in the near future."

With a sigh, Cornelius stood up, supporting himself on a cane. He looked with melancholy eyes at the table and the empty chairs around it.
"When Sharan became king, long before any of us were born, he did not know anything about ruling a country. So, he gathered the wisest men and women in his kingdom, so that they would assist him into becoming the sort of ruler he believed worthy to lead this nation. As the years came and went and the king became more and more experienced, the members of the council were on occasion replaced. Some died of old age, or chose to retire to make room for younger minds. Others fell out of favor,  I've seen it happen myself, as have you. However, those who fell into disgrace did so due to they being exposed as corrupt and dishonest, not because they voiced their opinion."
As he continued speaking, a bitter tone crept into Cornelius' voice. He continued:
"The king had the final word in every discussion, but he always took the advice we gave him into consideration. Considering how close they were, I was certain that Argath would continue to rule in the same way as her father. Evidently, I was mistaken."

Felix nodded in agreement. At that moment, a thought came into his head. He looked around to make absolutely certain that no-one else was around, then motioned to Cornelius to come closer.
"What is it?" The elder councilor asked.
"I just had this notion", Felix said, lowering his voice to a confidential whisper. "You don't suppose that the queen could be lying about the Frigonians planning to attack us?"
Cornelius frowned and began to stroke his mustache.
"The thought had occurred to me, though I can't help but hope that we shall both be proved wrong in the end. No matter what I personally think of the queen's decision in this matter, I do not want to believe that she is willfully deceiving her own advisers."
"I know what you mean. Still, we must take the possibility into account."
Just then, a servant appeared in the doorway.
"Excuse me, sir" he said, addressing Felix. "The queen told me to send for you. She wonders why you are not present in the throne room yet?"

A noise could be heard as Felix smacked his forehead. During the conversation with Cornelius he had completely forgotten that he was supposed to be somewhere.
"Has the general arrived yet?" He asked the servant.
"He was seen entering the outer gate, he should be in the throne-room soon."
"I better go and present my most humble excuses for my tardiness, before I too incur the queen's wrath", Felix said to Cornelius. "Don't worry, your 'banishment' won't be long, I'll see to that: I shall plead your case for the queen."
"I appreciate the gesture, but you need not trouble yourself on my account."
"If you find it embarrassing to be indebted to me..." Felix began.
"That is not the case. No, I have a feeling that the queen won't be persuaded to take me back. For all we know, she had already begun to consider who should take my place on the council when she left the council hall."
"I shall try anyway. Farewell, Cornelius and don't loose hope."

Escorted by the servant, Felix left the room. Shortly thereafter, Cornelius did the same. As he stood in the doorway, the aged councilor cast one last look at the room from which he, for many years, had helped shape Vinoli as a nation. He doubted that he would ever set foot in it again. A tear appeared in the corner of his eye. He wiped it away and then began to walk down the palace hallways.