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A Note from Professor Mounkhund

September, 2008
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In the year 1345 the population of the miniscule Coast Principality of Falala was affected by a sudden and unexpected shock. One would want to know this huge shock, this traumatic moment which spread twenty leagues around (and more), this frightening mystery, but I shall have to tell you the whole story first.

  The Coast Principality of Falala had gone through stormy times, not just on the water with amateur fishermen’s fishing tackle getting mixed up and causing trouble and many a good man falling overboard, but with the dynasties that ruled it through the ages. King Kakarakas had ordered a border fence put up between the Principality and the Five Kingdoms, when it was still a kingdom itself; then he got into a stupid war and was forced to surrender more than half of the rocky land. Kings Ferdelilalas and Matamatas had left most of the ruling to their Councilors, who mostly sat in their villas and smoked and left the ruling to their footmen who drooled and handed the ruling over to their dogs. The rest of the kings had put the principality through more bloody wars, more “accidents”, starvation, and endless poverty; finally the dynasty of the princes began and things were not much better.

  In 1342 a few Councilors finally marched out of their villas with their gold-tipped canes in hand and pomegranate wine in the other and set up a new prince, Prince Frederickarickas II, who, they said in their condescending drawling voices, would serve the Principality well.

  To finish with the formalities Prince Frederick (Frederickarickas is simply too long for me to spell) took up the Turkey Throne, drank a few jewel elixirs and napped and drank for most of his days. In one of the moments between these activities, he was wedded off to a wealthy duchess named Toostiefa and had one child, a girl. Or was it one child? But we shall speak of that later.

  This one child was named Darallis and I shall now begin her story.

  The flickering tapers in the Hall of Wonders and the cold stone walls and uncarpeted floors soon gave way to a new, forked, beautifully carpeted hall. It led either to the ruling prince’s famed torture chamber, from which the screams of mutilated men could be constantly heard, or the rooms of the royal family. The prince’s room was, of course, the grandest suite in the building. Trumpeters sat high above in balconies of beaten gold, ready to start an earsplitting fanfare whenever the prince and his wife appeared. There was also a very fancy and uncomfortable bed with a heavy canopy of royal red, a mattress stuffed with swan feathers, and rainbow-colored eiderdown sheets.

  The only person who really slept in her room and did not while the nights away drinking vodka and gambling with the rest of the court, or napping during the day on davenports set out on the balconies, was Princess Darallis. She was the child of the prince.

  Darallis could be found putting her reddish-brownish hair up in a ponytail or ordering the servants about in the courtyard or practicing swordplay—she always loved swordplay—with the handsome stable boys, but never at the stuffy old ceremonies. Too many odors mixed in at once, in her way of thinking of it.

  To get to the point: at the moment our story begins she was sprawled on the floor of her room in a most ungraceful manner, her nose twitching and her dark black eyes only a few inches away from the 145th page of The Epic of Malassares. A pen was sticking out from one side of her mouth and a chocolate energy bar from the other. Her black tunic, which usually billowed out in the fresh air she let in through the window, now clung to her sweaty skin. Nobody could distract Princess Darallis from reading without expecting severe punishment.

  Except for the First Councilor.

  Soko’s years of watching had finally paid off. Leaping nimbly but quietly through the shadows, she pressed herself against the crumbling alleyway wall, inhaling and exhaling quietly. She stepped forward out of the shadows just enough to reach for the stick-like man’s purse, slipping her hand in and quickly drawing back, now grasping a fat wallet. The man noticed nothing, as if the skinny, black-haired teenager who had just stolen most of his life savings was not there. Soko smiled to herself and tiptoed along the alleyway, absentmindedly smoothing out the dust which had gathered on her patched gray tunic. She stuffed the wallet behind her belt with her dagger. Tonight there would be roast boar to eat.

  “Well, well, well,” the First Councilor said, a nasty smile on his thin lips. “What have we here? The court’s pampered princess darling, with nose in a book which I might say is…inappropriate for your age.” With a single move of his foot he had disdainfully kicked it to the side. Darallis’s eyes flashed and she clenched her teeth. The First Councilor is a pig, she thought, resisting a very strong temptation to knock his smirking, simpering, smug round face into the nearest fire.

  “Shouldn’t you be at the ceremony? I am to be given the title of Commander of the Prince’s Forces, Prime Minister, and Lord High Chancellor. Perhaps you know, princess, that combined the result is…” He raised one eyebrow and smiled wickedly. Darallis gulped. “King. Of course. Commander of the Prince’s Forces has all military control—Prime Minister has the Principality in his hands—and Lord High Chancellor is the same. Well, it’s all very complicated but you wouldn’t know a single thing about it. Goodbye, princess.” The way he said it as the heavy brass door clanged shut made Darallis feel, with sudden dread, that she wouldn’t be a princess very long.

  Soko was met with a mixture of cheers, grimaces, and sneezes when she crept into the evil-smelling basement of the abandoned inn. She was immediately fed some moldy bread and roast boar. She rubbed her eyes and looked around at the place. For some reason she could never get used to their headquarters; with its flickering lights and muddy floor (which had been covered quite unskillfully with a threadbare Moroccan rug). The dung thrown to the side and the dusty corners always seemed so unfamiliar, even though she had lived with the smell of urine and tough boar meat for as long as she could remember. Laughing to herself and feeling quite lighthearted, she could not help gloating: The Boss was already twenty when he made his first successful pocket-pick. She laughed again and did an excited little dance, earning some glares from the other pickpockets but feeling very proud of herself. Before she could think further she was distracted by The Boss.

  “Soko, sure goddamn this wallet is full o’ cash ‘n crap, but that man was stupid or crazy or both ‘cause the others’ll strangle ya without lookin’ down if they feel clever fingers in their purses. Firehead, get your—” He swore viciously, “—off of my bench! Rookies, you! Midgets! Get your clumsy—” he swore again, “—doing some work and STOP MAKING COW LOOKS!” He took a huge swig of ale from his dirt-coated flask and fell over backwards almost immediately. Soko helped drag him away, discouraged greatly by the huge man’s words.

  Darallis was finally forced to don an uncomfortable, frilly, costume made of slippery pink satin and piled ticklish pink lace, and attend the ceremony. Privately she felt she would much rather finish her book. Three of her maids accompanied her, fiercely running jeweled combs through her hair in an attempt to tame it into an elaborate hairstyle. They did not succeed. She threw a vial of perfume over herself in all the wrong places, purposely, rubbed some mud onto her face, purposely, and limped. It was only because she had sprained her ankle in the horrible high-heels her maids wanted her to wear. She threw them off immediately and borrowed Moe the Groom’s sneakers. She finally clumped along to the Great Hall with dirt sprayed all over her dress, interrupting a bunch of solemn people who were in the middle of swearing allegiance to the First Councilor, who glared at her venomously. Darallis smiled triumphantly and shouted shrilly,

  “Subjects, my subjects, gentlemen and gentlewomen born, would you swear allegiance on bended knee to a monster who would take the principality from my father’s rightful hands?”

  “Milady princess, you speak aright,” one short, pudgy nobleman said cautiously, “but indeed I must say that your father the prince is a fool if I ever saw one and that the First Councilor will make a better principality.”

  “Why do you not swear allegiance to me, then?” Darallis demanded. “I will serve you better than that horrifying terror!” The crowd murmured nervously and moved back.

  “Why?” Darallis persisted.

  “Because you are a girl,” one man finally said. “No girl is capable of ruling a principality.” Turning her face from them so that they would not see the hot tears welling up in her eyes, Darallis marched chin held high back to her chambers.

  Soko sat gloomily by the ink-spattered, dust-covered and taped-up window in the basement. Through the blurry glass she could see the world into which she would never be allowed again; the world of the streets and stealing. It was the world which she had grown up in learning that money meant life for her and her comrades. She fingered a thick black marker, almost unconsciously, and began to doodle absentmindedly on the glass, creating a swirling scene on its surface. She looked back at it and scowled in disgust. The drawing was fine enough, but it was a castle, with realistic towers, a huge drawbridge, and all. Where in the world did she get the idea for a castle? She doodled some more, still miserable, and thought more about her “woeful imprisonment”, as the other pickpockets mockingly called it. Thinking about her past life as a pickpocket, she made a face at her reflection in the window and growled to herself. The Boss had forced her into this life and now he was trying to take it from her, and she hated him on both counts. He had been the one who first said that Soko was a bother, that she would be of more use with the other women roasting boar and such boring things. But Soko had been more of a bother in the kitchen, too. She had knocked over pickle jars, put salt in dessert and sugar in the eggs, which, if she cooked them, were either burnt or raw. She had accidentally torn most of the aprons until she was finally shooed out of the kitchen by angry women waving charred ladles that had been ruined by Soko’s clumsiness. Finally The Boss had said that she might as well “tag along” with some of the older pickpockets, try not to get in the way, and if she brought home a good share and she didn’t get a bad report from her elders, she could become a full-fledged pickpocket.

  Darallis was met by a livid First Councilor (now First Prime Minister and First Lord High Chancellor also), whose face was whiter than ever. The sight of the albino would have probably made any other person faint.

  Darallis, however, was not “any other person”. She was an intelligent princess, determined to get what she wanted in any way she wanted, and would not be cowed by an ambitious man who sought to wrest the principality out of her rightful hands. She stood arrogantly in her black tunic, one foot set in front of the other, her right shoulder sharply curved downward, staring at the First Councilor unwaveringly, unblinkingly.

  “Well, well, well,” he said to Darallis in that cold, horrible voice. He was no longer smiling in his icy, fake way, and his reddish eyes looked more fiery than ever, flashing clearly irritated looks back and forth every passing second. “The court’s dear darling decides to run into court, annoy me most irritatingly wearing sneakers, make the people’s minds turn against me, and run out again. Most impressive.” The last part was said with obvious sarcasm. “Anyways, I won’t have you bothering me again and so I have a little surprise for you. Your dear stupid father agreed at once to this. Ssorg, come, you great stumbling oaf of a man.” A massive, beefy man with no hair and puffy skin lumbered awkwardly into the room, staring dumbly around with tiny black eyes and waving his arms back and forth. Darallis gritted her teeth. If she had to go around with such a monster, she’d be dying of despair in her fourteenth year.

  “This is Ssorg. My personal bodyguard.” His icy smile had returned to his lips. “I will not have him be wasted on a midget like you, my pretty prize. But you are still in my clutches, and I will have you in the iron grip of Madril. Do not remain in the shadows, Madril. You are an ogre.”

  Soko had managed to pull off a clean getaway after being noticed by a lady’s poodle, and she had returned with five purses swinging from her hands and a slap stinging on her cheek. She had been met by an indignant Ricardo and a grumbling Sid, who pointed out very condescendingly that she had been seen by most of the general public and would be the first to be arrested if seen again. Soko had kicked them both in the legs. Later that evening The Boss had informed her that they had given him an unsatisfactory report of her conduct. Evil, mercenary things.

  Soko had walked by herself back to the basement, pausing every ten minutes or so to hide from a passing policeman or soldier and walking slowly, with her shoulders slumped and her eyes staring down at her sandals. She had felt almost positive that she would be forbidden to pick pockets any longer if she kept on just barely dashing away. The Boss would make her stomp on grapes for wine or join the Import/Export thief crew or the Smuggler’s Ring. Stomping on grapes would be horrible; she had seen the boys urinate in them more than once; the Import/Export thief crew’s job was mostly hiding in dusty, damp and smelly crates and making off with whatever was dumped on them; and the Smuggler’s Ring dealt with kidnapped girls, stolen orphans, banned food, drinks, and books in a quick-get-that-run fashion, always hiding or fleeing with their smuggled treasures. Why was she such a failure at the pickpocket business?

  Darallis gaped in horror at the terrifying thing advancing towards her on thickly greenish-skinned legs. It wore a stained loincloth that looked to be made of cat fur and a carelessly draped bunch of dragon scales, but nothing else. It roared incoherently and flexed its arms.

  “So, princess,” the First Councilor said wickedly, evidently enjoying Darallis’s horror. “Not so cocky now?” Darallis took a deep breath, and, ignoring the ogre, said firmly,

  “No, I never was cocky and I’m not about to turn cocky just because you are, you fatheaded, snot-nosed, selfish beast.” The First Councilor’s face turned even whiter, then a popping reddish purple, then a brilliant white, and finally he narrowed his eyes, waved his fist, said something to the ogre Madril, and left the room.

  Soko found herself on a hard, damp mattress stuffed with pebbles and straw, covered by filthy and worn-out blankets, with a wooden board covered in a few bunches of bird feathers wedged under her head. She got up quite groggily and stared at herself in the doorknob.

  She looked awful. There was a huge, swollen purple bruise on her forehead and a large bump on the side of her head, as well as a horrible pain in her knee and a feeling that her side was twisted.

  “Soko! SOKO! Despicable idiot! Can’t you remember to call for the rope ladder just once! You’ve delayed everybody with that stupid fall of yours and I say that you don’t deserve dinner at all!” Soko dismissed the voice behind her as a dream—everything as a dream—and groaned. Wait. It couldn’t be a dream, because there were a few soup ladles and some dung in the corner, and the same old Moroccan rug. The past events came rushing back to her as the voice bellowed at her again. Lost in thought she must have tripped and fallen through the trapdoor into the basement, hitting her head. She had a sinking feeling that this most recent display of clumsiness would be the last straw; the Boss was sure to take her off pickpocket duty now.

  The Boss swaggered towards the mirror, his muscular arms swaying beside him, and, after looking carelessly for a few seconds at the chubby man reflected in its dirty glass, he continued to pace back and forth. He was peering self-importantly through a broken magnifying glass, his eyes running over a newspaper clipping. It was merely a show of intimidation; he could read no more than a fried monkey. He had memorized the boldly printed headline; it was easy enough, and it was important news; but the rest he did not care to look at. The headline read,

  NEW UPDATE ON LEGENDARY TREASURE!

  The Boss knew which treasure they were talking about immediately; he was, as his title clearly showed, “The Boss” of the pickpocket business. He would get his hands on the treasure, but without injuring his own beefy body in the process. He smiled smugly as he tucked the dog-eared newspaper page into his pocket. He knew just the person for the job.

  “Imbecile! Get your rump off of the ground and get yourself doing some work!” Soko gritted her teeth and slowly turned her head. Murdella, the stout housekeeper, was clutching a frozen (and moldy) cookie in her brown, rough-skinned hand and looking quite fiercely at Soko. Soko scrambled to her feet just in time—Murdella threw the cookie accurately and it landed with a loud noise right where Soko had been sitting before.

  “The Boss is not pleased with you,” she said smugly. As if he had ever been pleased with her, either. “So you’re to go out who-knows-where on some wild goose chase to get some gold coins from a jackanapes’ nursery tale. By yourself, of course, to drown in a bog or get torn from tree to tree by wild cannibal savages or just get yourself lost in some kind of forest.” Soko grinned weakly and ran into The Boss’s room, where he was chewing on some kind of hairy meat.

  “Is it true?” she demanded.

  “What?” he asked, rolling his eyes.

  “That I’m going to be sent off to find some gold coins from a jackanapes’ nursery tale by myself to drown in a bog or get torn from tree to tree by wild cannibal savages or just get myself lost in some kind of forest?” Soko recited mechanically.

  “For heavens, you idiot, you have to make some kind of journey; no, it’s not a jackanapes’ nursery tale like that nosy old dame told you, it’s glorious legend. Marvelous, marvelous difference. Are you too stupid to see even that?”

  “Erg,” Soko grumbled, unconvinced.

  “Goddamn it, get yourself out of this room and let me concentrate on important things!”

  Darallis was immediately scooped up into Madril’s less-than-gentle arms and deposited onto her bed. The bedstead creaked and strained as the enormous creature cackled and sat down next to her.

  “You horrible thing!” Darallis shrieked, not in fright, but in disgust. “I see no reason why you can’t swallow that high-handed councilor and grind him into tiny particles with your huge ugly green body, but instead you choose to obey him like some kind of poodle!” The ogre grunted and started to drool while Darallis fought to get out from under his enormous legs. Finally she managed to slide out and dash from her room, hiding in the chambermaid’s closet until she was sure the ogre had passed.

  When she finally made her way down to the dinner table her tunic sleeves were ripped and her hair, usually in a ponytail, was in a disheveled mess. She endured funny looks from most of the ballet dancers, who were wearing short frilly pink tutus, and the noblewomen, who were wearing heavy and elaborate brocade gowns, as well as some snide remarks from her cousin, Syllie. The fried toad was too salty, the caviar sushi too slimy, and the rest of the food too plain. Darallis finally retired, on an empty stomach, to her room, where the ogre awaited her.

  “Oh heck,” she muttered under her breath in a voice most unlike her usually arrogant tone; the ogre was stretching out, spreading his drool everywhere. “This is going to be one miserable night.”

  Darallis was unhappy enough, but Soko was awoken at about midnight, quickly dunked into a leaking barrel of ice-cold water (called by the gang a “bath”), and told to change out of her well-worn, stained, and scratchy tunic into a new article of clothing. Soko observed her new tunic for a while before finally stepping into it, shivering inside the loose, thin calfskin and wishing she had something woolen instead. She tightened the splintery cord at her waistline and pulled up the too-long calfskin pants, shivering again in the cold night.

  Soko was thrown quite roughly into a barrel (she could tell it was a beer barrel by the strong smell) and hauled along to an oxcart which she could just barely see through the gaps in the dark, rotting barrel wood. She squatted down in the barrel, rubbing her bare feet to keep the cold out, with little success. After what seemed to be an eternity of jolting along in the unsteady oxcart she was rolled out and allowed to crawl. Turning her back to the oxcart, Soko gasped and collapsed to the ground, completely fatigued.

  She found herself the next morning in front of a formidable thicket of nettles, whiplash branches, and sinister trees. The oxcart and the gang had gone, but beside her was a messily scrawled note.

  Soko stared in amazement at the note. She was, like all other respectable pickpockets, unable to read (but, being unlike them, frustrated by it!), but she was smart enough to realize that yesterday there was a wagon and people around her; today there was not. She had been abandoned, dumped off in some strange, foreign place, left alone with nothing but a note. Despite what The Boss had told her on the previous day, she had still been unable to imagine that they would actually abandon her in some unknown place to find gold that might not even exist. Her life was a pickpocket’s life. Her life was a life in a gang, hunted and chased, always cuffed or hit when something was wrong and given extra meat when things went right—but now she’d be lost, lost forever to the world which had never wanted her, alone, confused, and betrayed. How could they forget that she was only thirteen summers old? How could they forget that she didn’t want to be part of any glorious adventure, however brave she was? Not that she was that brave, she thought bitterly. Soko pessimistically imagining herself torn to pieces by wild beasts, stuttering in front of kings, and getting lost in forests; she began thinking wistfully of the basement, even with its smell of dung, then began thinking about being torn to piece by wild beasts again. Surrounded by trees which offered only coldness and unfriendliness, with stinging nettles at her sides, and no Sid or Maru or Murdella to bring her back to the basement, Soko knelt down beside the frosty earth and wept.

  Darallis was too appalled at the ogre’s behavior to sleep in her own bed, so she dragged a spare mattress from the chambermaid’s closet into her room and spent a sweaty and sleepless night curled up on the uncomfortable thing. She awoke at about seven ‘o clock and ate a small breakfast of porridge and raisins, which made her feel sick and even more tired. Just as she was about to go back to her room to make sure the ogre had not torn up her books, a noblewoman whispered to her urgently.

  “The heralds are about to make an announcement, my dear,” she said worriedly. “If you leave they’ll think it’s dreadfully impolite and improper behavior for a princess. Why don’t you come sit next to me?” Darallis followed mutely and sat down on a hard wooden bench, feeling quite confused.

  “By decree of the king, a band of chosen nobles and knights are to set out today on a legendary journey, aided by money from the royal treasury, to find precious jewels and coins left in a secret place long ago by the hero Mickamickas and bring this back to the kingdom to further improve the royal court and the palace as well as the welfare of those of gentle blood. This is the decree of the king. Thank you.” The heralds bowed and retreated into their offices behind the stage, already whispering to themselves. Darallis strained forward to hear, wishing that the heralds would speak aloud. The court began to dissolve and the woman who had been sitting next to Darallis glided away.

  Soko was no supernatural being and could not remain feeling sorry for herself the entire day, so she soon dried her tears, glanced angrily at everything around her, and then stared down at the note again. It probably said to get through the forest and get gold. The gold had to do with some kind of stupid legend. A jackanapes’ fairytale. When was she to start? Where in the world was an entrance to the forest? What was she supposed to do with the gold? Thousands of questions filled her mind and another was just about to pop up when she heard a tiny little squeaking sound coming from a nearby bush.

  “Ay!” she shouted, jumping as she felt sharp claws digging into her scalp. “Get off of me, you despicable creature! Avaunt, black spirit!” It was a line from The Boss’s Gang Words, she knew, but what did it matter? It sounded professional at least.

  “Urgh. I have a reason to get off, you know. You stink to high heaven.” Soko jumped again as a grumbling voice reached her ears and she felt something small and furry sliding down her back. “When was the last time you took a bath?

  “What the—” Soko swore most unprofessionally and twisted her neck back to look at the creature.

  It was a puny thing, with a head almost completely encased in shaggy brown fur, from which extended a forked blue tongue dripping saliva. Soko could just barely make out some eyes in the mess of fur.

  “Come on, swear, we don’t mind,” the animal said, busily licking itself and prancing about. “Oh, where is my purse?” Soko picked a wet little parcel from her head and held it, disgusted, towards the creature. It took it quite eagerly.

  “Fourth time I’ve lost my purse and third time somebody’s found it. This is Marie Annlidy’s fourteenth designer purse, you know, so I have to be extra careful.”

  “What?” Soko asked incredulously, trying to spit like The Boss but instead drooling all over her chin. “That’s a designer purse? It looks more like my ma’s porridge left out too long.”

  “Well, they do say Marie Annlidy has the porridge style,” the animal said very coolly. “And I really doubt you huge thick humans have good taste in purses.”

  “Well, pickpockets do,” Soko said in a bored tone. She turned back to the animal. “What are you, anyways?”

  “I,” the thing said in a very proud and dignified tone, “am The Most Impressive Chancellor, the Waviere and the Prime Minister and the Moniere, as well as Honorary Member of the Geology Club, and a High Mousetrel and a First Citizen of the Order of the—”

  “Wait. What was that thing you said? Mouse something?” Soko said, squeezing her eyes shut, sticking out her tongue, and arranging her face into somewhere between grimace and scowl.

  “I am a High Mousetrel. We mousetrels are one of the most intelligent beings of the Central Planet and we have no intention of being related to our inferior cousins, the moron mice. Mousetrels are a new level of creatures, intelligent, cultured, quick-thinking, clever, smart, well-educated, and dignified. We—” Soko cut him off again. She had no intention of listening to a stuck-up mousetrel list his credentials for thirty minutes. She had a better idea in mind.

  “Listen, do you know anything about gold near here?” Soko asked hopefully.

  “Gold? Mousetrels have no need for gold, like you humans seem to desperately want so much. We are a—” Soko groaned and waved her hand, interrupting yet again.

  “Well, do you know how in the world to get past this forest, you horrible mouse-thing?” she asked, annoyed.

  “Yes, indeed,” the mousetrel said, sounding quite offended. “I am not so sure I should take a human with such disdain and contempt for us, superior—”

  “Oh fine, I take it back. Sorry,” Soko said grumpily, nervous that the mousetrel was about to launch into another ten minutes of pompous talking.

  Darallis was escorted back to her room by the ogre Madril, who had painted his face white, dressed himself in a black coat, and now looked like a stooped-over old man. Darallis was not fooled, however, and managed to squirm out of Madril’s loose grip and scurry off to the chambermaid’s closet. Before she could reach the closet, however, Madril had picked her up and squeezed her between his fingers. Just as Darallis was about to jump out of his grip, the First Councilor swaggered in.

  “Well, well, well,” he said icily, a triumphant gleam in his eyes. Darallis stared back, utter hate flashing across her irises. The First Councilor flinched for one second and regained his position.

  “You do not like this, do you not?” He reached forward and, smiling coldly as he watched Darallis struggle in the ogre’s strong hands, brought his dagger out of its sheath and put its blade close to her skin. He laughed wickedly and sliced at Darallis’s cheek, leaving a long line of blood running down her face. It was a quick pain, sharp and stinging, and the pain, unlike the blood, stopped as soon as the First Councilor lowered his dagger, but he had scarred her face for life.

  “Next time,” he rasped, his bad breath making Darallis queasy, “this could be aimed at your heart.”

  Soko followed the mousetrel as he waddled through the thicket as easily as if it were merely an annoying bunch of grass. Nettles whipped back at Soko, but she had not the voice to complain. She was getting thirsty, and, with no water in sight, she did not want to make her mouth dry faster by talking.

  “Now you just have to slide down on your belly, head that way, down this little slope,” the mousetrel said. Soko looked doubtfully at the “slope”. It seemed more like a mountain.

  “You go first,” she said nervously. The mousetrel slung his purse over his neck and rolled down, turning and grabbing and finally landing safely at the bottom with a grand backflip. Soko took a deep breath and tried to mimic the mousetrel. She failed miserably, managing to get into an awkward position with her legs splayed to the side and her neck twisted. Before she could stop herself, she was tumbling down the nettle covered hill with a sickening feeling in her throat. She finally fell with a thump about three feet from the ground, and, feeling sore, glared at the mousetrel.

  “Well, now that you’re finally down,” the mousetrel said, sniffing, “we can continue—”

  “Wait,” Soko said, looking at him angrily. “Let me get ready.” She brushed off her tunic, pulled up her pants, ran her fingers through her long, shiny black hair, and glanced around. The mousetrel tugged on her sleeve.

  “Oh, fine, I’ll come,” she grumbled. She continued to follow the mousetrel until they reached a stream of icy water, which the mousetrel said would take her down to the gold.

  “If you just sit on the water the current will take you all the way down to the secret cave and you’ll have it,” the mousetrel explained. “Or at least that’s what I think.”

  “I’m not getting myself all wet like that!” Soko shouted indignantly. “There is a such thing as a boat, you know! And why couldn’t we just go down on the nice land and not on a stream?”

  “Well, look,” the mousetrel said importantly. Soko looked to her side and gasped. The land had been sharply cut off by the stream, which seemed to flow in all directions, and there were no stones or objects in the water Soko could jump on across.

  “Well, then, let’s make a boat,” Soko said irritably. To her, the mousetrel was not able to see obvious things and was an inconsiderate jerk.

  “We don’t like making boats,” the mousetrel said doubtfully. “Or at least I don’t.”

  “You don’t like making boats? Good gracious, what in the world do I see before me? A human and a mousetrel. What company, what company. You know, I would have rather had a huge serpent come waving a forked tongue shooting fire, so at least I could get a few heroics into my story, but there’s no point in fighting a human or a mousetrel. Triumph would be too easy.” Soko turned around just in time to see a massive porcupine lumbering towards them. It was not any ordinary porcupine—it had multicolored spikes sticking up from its back and two huge rabbit’s teeth coming out of its mouth.

  “Aaaaaaaaaaah!” the mousetrel shrieked wildly, hopping up and down and finally tumbling over into the stream. Soko grabbed his hands and pulled a disgruntled and soaking mousetrel up onto the bank.

  “Anyways, pleased to make your acquaintance. Basically my name is Dr. Richard S. Plum. You can call me Richard, although some people call me Sylvester and some people call me Plum and some people call me an idiot. Well, that isn’t to be worried about…in any case I heard you saying that you don’t like making boats, and from what I can make out you want to make one. Anyways, Richard S. Plum at your service. I can chop down a couple of good trees full of wood in a minute,” the porcupine said in one sentence, bowing to Soko and the mousetrel. “Anyways, my dear Mr….?”

  “Tiddlywinks,” the mousetrel said hurriedly.

  “And the fair maid?” The porcupine grinned at Soko, and she smiled shyly back.

  “I’m Soko,” she said quickly. “Anyways, could you please cut down some trees? We need to make a boat at once.”

  Darallis was thrown onto her bed quite roughly, the blood from her cheek staining her bedsheets. The ogre was busy licking a cup of sticky red goo and Darallis had no intention of seeing what it really was. Nobody had been allowed to enter the room to tend to Darallis’s wound, and Darallis didn’t mind. Stitches, or at least her nursemaid’s stitches, would mean complete agony.

  She spent about an hour thinking up suitable deaths for the hated First Councilor, plotting wildly to escape the palace, and guessing what dinner would be, but the windows were bolted, the door was locked, and dinner was not being served to her. She finally lay down, feigning sleep while warily watching the ogre. Finding that everything was fine she at last drifted off into dreams.

  The next morning twelve knights, their squires, pages, heralds, and a party of marquises, along with wives, mistresses, sons, daughters, slaves, packhorses, palfreys, destriers, and nags, set out on a journey to find the legendary gold the heralds had been speaking of. The First Councilor had allowed Darallis to watch them go and she stared wistfully into the mist as they were obscured by its cloudy grip. She turned around and ran towards the stables, her temples pulsing fiercely. Madril took a few lunges at her, but she ducked and scrambled away. The First Councilor shouted and swore and stomped his feet, as if that would help any, and Darallis swung herself onto a snow-white warhorse, grabbed a bag of horse manure and flung it towards the First Councilor, laughing as she galloped off on the tail of the knights and marquises.

  Soko could not have been more pleased with the porcupine. He had chopped down thirty trees in an hour and was now shaving the bark quite easily, as if it were something he had done all his life. She was pleasantly surprised a porcupine would make such an effort to help a filthy young girl, but she kept her thoughts to herself and said politely,

  “Thank you.”

  Richard looked pleased with himself, also, and said proudly,

  “This boat will be a beauty. What in the world will you name it?”

  “The Boss,” Soko said, and that was that.

  Once all the wood had been shaved and lay on the ground smooth and white like newborn babes, Richard began cutting the logs into halves, and then cut those halves into halves and repeated the process until he had gotten them thin enough to make a boat. Soko and the mousetrel (who we must now call Tiddlywinks) wandered off to look at a few interesting sprouts, and, when they came back a few hours later, the boat was almost finished. Soko and the mousetrel, whom we must now call Tiddlywinks, wandered off and looked at some interesting sprouts. They returned a few hours later; Soko had been listening quite intently to Tiddlywinks’ commentary on different types of sprouts.

  Richard had painted The Boss in huge red block letters on the side, and added a small cabin at the front of the deck, in which there was a dark mahogany boat-wheel and some chairs. A small trapdoor on the bright, beautiful deck led to sleeping quarters, with bunks nailed to the wall and hammocks strung up on the ceiling, plus a kitchen, where some wooden bowls had been stacked up quite neatly. It was rather a small boat, but a good one, and the only thing that remained were the sails.

  “I really don’t know where to get the sails,” Richard said, scratching his spiky head. “Oh!” He dashed back to the forest and returned about thirty minutes later with an armful of bed sheets, bandages, and blankets all sloppily stitched into suitable sails. Soko helped tie the bunch of cloth to the mast and they were about to sail off when they realized one important thing.

  “We don’t have oars,” Tiddlywinks the mousetrel said quite disdainfully. “I am surprised that you, seeming to be of much knowledge, would overlook this simple thing of baby’s play.” Soko gritted her teeth angrily, hating every moment of the mousetrel’s gloating, while Richard looked hardly angry at all.

  “Yes, indeed, it slipped my mind. I can make some in a minute.” And indeed within a minute the skillful porcupine had created long wooden oars to propel the boat into the water, and so The Boss departed from the Shore of Maladies and into the churning stream.

  It was child’s play for Darallis to catch up with the party of knights and marquises, but she had better sense than to be seen by men who were loyal out of fear to the First Councilor, so she hid behind the swirling dust the horses made when they stomped and snorted all over the loose ground. She thought that she had seen one of the marquis’s daughters, eight years old by the look of her, turn back and slowly smiled at her, but she soon discovered that the back party was comprised mostly of flirting laundresses and dashing footmen who bored her terribly. She finally decided to get a bit of fun going, and masking herself with piles of sand, dust, and mud, and arranging her hair into a wild mess on top of her head, she shouted a shrieking war cry and waved a spiked wooden cudgel atop which was a wooden sculpture shaped like a skull, which had once belonged to Madril. The women screamed and the men said, trying to sound brave,

  “Er, um, oh yeah, avaunt you evil savage! You have no right whatsoever to harm us or the great gentlewomen born under our protection!” Darallis merely laughed a cold laugh, throwing back her head, and rode into their ranks, knocking men from their horses and making the most splendidly bedecked knights come to their knees; she tore and kicked and banged around until everyone assembled had yielded. Darallis got directions to the gold from a few young squires and sent them all back to the palace without giving any clue that she was really the princess. She continued on the way the squires had told her and presently came to a steep hill, where she dismounted and walked down, her chin held high. She remembered the fear she had inspired in the noblemen’s hearts and chuckled, not one bit surprised at her success, and held her head a little higher. She peeled off her damp dress, under which was a diaphanous one piece gauze undergarment, rather like a loose blouse and shorts sewn together. A bright red ribbon had been tied quite tightly around her waist, “to be in style”, but it hurt and Darallis forced it off. Dragging her dress behind her, she came to a small stream in which a few silvery fish were swimming happily, and it was at that moment that she spotted a shadowy boat sailing off into the sunset.

  When Soko looked back from the deck, the sea breeze whipping her hair into her eyes and water splashing up onto the boat, she thought she could just barely make out somebody standing on the shore staring at them, but she dismissed the thought as a dream. It did, however, nag her the rest of the day as they sailed around the huge body of water.

  The entire party had been amazed when the current carried them into the sea and Richard was up in the cabin marking blueprints, studying sextants, and occasionally ordering Tiddlywinks to turn the wheel to starboard or port. Soko went below deck, flopped down on a bunk, and tried to think about something amusing. She finally pushed herself back up the ladder and stuck her head in the cabin.

  “Richard? Tiddlywinks? What are you doing and did you see—” She stopped abruptly, thinking for some reason unknown that it might be better just to keep her sighting of that girl on the shore to herself.

  “Well, we’re trying to change the course here—don’t, you blasted mousetrel! Turn it that way! Anyways, the blueprints are slightly off course so I have to redraw them, which is a most tedious thing to do. Look here—” He spread out a huge map, along with a few rusty scissors and felt-tipped markers, red and black. “The Snail Sea is indeed shaped like a snail’s shell, and we just got ourselves into it, and anyways, if we had followed the stream downwards towards the island of Porseline, we could have dismounted, followed a route to the tunnel in which the gold is hidden, however, now that we’re in the sea we have to double turn towards starboard, make another turn, head port straight ahead and change our course again, which will require much turning of the wheel, marking of blueprints, and we’ll hardly get any sleep in the process, I’m afraid. I need a desk secretary to keep these things in order, and I really hate to say that we must all keep awake pretty much all day except when we’re in calm waters, when we can flop down and nap. I’ll wake up if we bump into a rock. Soko, I need to ask you something. Can you be the desk secretary? We need the mousetrel to handle the wheel, and—”

  “But I can’t. I don’t know how to read or write,” Soko said, shrugging.

  “But that’s the point. I can teach you,” Richard said, smiling. And so Soko’s reading and writing lessons began.

  Soko was a fast learner and soon began creating her own fantasy stories, all with vivid descriptions of castle life and royal costumes. Where did I get all this? She wondered occasionally, but she never really answered her own question. To her, the castle descriptions and stories seemed almost like memories, far, far away in her mind.

  Darallis noticed a bunch of leftover logs, some split neatly and some whole, lying on the shore, and decided to make a raft in which she could sail away and have adventures in some barren land, saving damsels and kings, slaying demons and dragons and other such things. Expertly tying the logs together with a bit of twine she had stolen from the stables, she was easily able to make a raft. She added a small lean-to to the top and tested the raft; finally deciding it was serviceable enough, she grabbed a few wooden poles to use as paddles, climbed into the raft, and pushed off.

  Soon Darallis was able to catch up with the shadowy boat she had seen earlier and tailed it, ducking whenever somebody came to the deck and keeping as quiet as possible. Finally deciding that the multicolored porcupine, the ugly mousetrel, and the skinny girl were not dangerous enemies, she shouted out, “Hail over there! Behold Darallis, Crown Princess of the kingdom!” The girl onboard spun around immediately and stared at her with eyes so mysteriously identical to hers.

“Hmm. You’re a princess wearing stained undergarments, a muddy hairstyle, and there’s no trace of gold, silver, or jewelry about you. I feel really skeptical, no offense, so who are you again?”

  “I’m Princess Darallis, fleeing from the evil First Councilor and forced to go through forests and toil far below my rank. I realize that you have a proper boat about you and I would appreciate it if you would at least yield to my birth and allow me a good place onboard,” Darallis said smoothly.

  “Fine,” the girl said, stifling a laugh. “Come on up.”

  Soko was amused by the girl beside the boat. She was interesting and her eyes looked rather like her own, so mystically black and proud, and she held her chin in an arrogant way which gave support to her princess claim.

  “Richard!” Soko shouted over to the porcupine. “A visitor. Princess Darallis, she says. In any case she’s floating on a sorry old raft and I can’t help laughing at her. Hand me a rope, would you?” Robert passed her a splintery coil and went back to his blueprints. Soko tied the rope to the mast and shouted over to the girl on the raft,

  “Come on up. The rope’s there.” The ‘princess’ grabbed hold of the rope and climbed up with amazing agility, making a final nimble leap to the deck.

  “Anyways,” Soko said, enjoying herself mightily, “so your name is Darallis.”

  “Yes, it is,” Darallis said through gritted teeth.

  “I really find it strange that a princess would be found floating on a badly made vessel in the middle of a snail-shaped sea wearing filthy attire, with not a pearl necklace nor rubies between your toes nor servants carrying you in a gold-decked litter.” Soko found herself acting most unlike her usual self.

  “I shall tell you the whole story then,” Darallis said, staring at Soko. “I am a princess by birth, heiress to the fortune of the kingdom and the realm itself, the meadows and the lagoons and the rivers and the lakes, the serf’s cottage and nobleman’s estate. All of this was stolen by one man; utter hatred for him flashes in my eyes when I am forced to endure his torturing presence. He usurped the throne, secretly, so that my father still reigns as a puppet king, and had me guarded by an appalling green-skinned monster, the ogre Madril. I ran off and captured a party destined to find legendary gold in the—”

  “Legendary gold?” Soko said in confusion. “But that’s what I’m going to find. That’s what The Boss told me to do!”

  “Well, it is my journey, my adventure, and I do not intend to stop it for the lowliest of subjects to find it for their own simple purposes,” Darallis sniffed. “Anyways, the evil First Councilor was much wroth by this and I am sure he is chasing me at this moment, to bring me back to the palace to whose dim halls and stuffy rooms I have been confined in for thirteen summers, never allowed to see the outside world. I have absolutely no idea why he despises me with the very blood in his veins but I should think it has something to do with the throne. I am the only person who blocks him from becoming king.” She was interrupted again by Soko.

  “I am thirteen summers, also. When were you born?”

  “The fifteenth of October,” Darallis said shortly.

  “What?” Soko cried. “It cannot be. Say you are jesting, princess of a stolen kingdom.”

  “I am not jesting. Why do you have that look of astonishment on your face, dog’s daughter?” Darallis asked curtly.

  “I, also, was born on the Fifteenth of the Tenth Month,” Soko said importantly. “At the time of eight in the morning.”

  Now Darallis’s eyes widened.

  “That is something that cannot be. I was born at eight in the morning.”

  “Where?” Soko inquired, interested in the girl with whom she shared her exact birth date. She had always been taunted by The Boss, who claimed “Octoberlings of the Fifteenth” always got bad luck; she also knew the details of her birth quite well from Sid, who was there. It had always been a bit of a point of pride; none of the other pickpockets knew their birthdays.

  “At the Market Square in Villiads—”

  “WHAT??!!!” At this Soko truly bellowed. “WHAT???!!!!” Her amazement at Darallis’s birthplace was followed by Darallis’s exclamation of,

  “What the—” It was because at this precise moment the two girls realized they were sisters.

  About a week later The Boss could still be found sailing in the Snail Sea, Darallis and Soko on the deck, skin white in the sunlight, or in the dimmer sleeping quarters. At that very moment they were lying carelessly out on deck, Darallis’s legs crossed over the railing and Soko crouched in a ball in the shade.

  “You know, Dar,” Soko said, peering up at the squawking birds and taking the liberty of calling her sister a casual nickname, “I wonder why we were separated at birth. I mean, who, too?”

  “Well, I don’t know anyone who would be that evil,” Darallis said darkly, thinking of the First Councilor, “except maybe for the First Councilor, or his pet ogre, Madril…but it’s probably impossible it’s them…”

  “Well, yeah, I guess,” Soko said, shrugging.

  “I’m hungry,” Darallis complained, changing the subject to royal grapes and beginning a conversation on the superiority of castle food. Thinking about food so much prompted a dramatic exit with a thunderous sound coming from her stomach. She stormed up to Richard.

  The porcupine was still at his blueprints and sextants and maps, occasionally pushing his glasses past his nose and staring out at the blue sky. The mousetrel had dragged a roll of parchment to the wheel, laboriously written “WHEEL” on it, and continued to write the word over and over again until Richard noticed and took the parchment away.

  “We want dinner!” Darallis said importantly, barging into the room. “You crazy mousetrel, get off of that! Now…” The princess imperiously raised her finger and porcupine, pickpocket, and quivering mousetrel meekly followed her into the shadowy depths of the kitchen.

  A grand galleon had been following The Boss for two days. Its mainmast, soaked in gold and twisted exquisitely, held huge flag sails of royal red with a white fox coat-of-arms emblazoned on the front. Darallis had been the first to notice the ship.

  “That is the royal flag of the kingdom,” she remarked to Soko as they stood on the deck. “Perhaps the evil First Councilor reclines on cushions of softest swan’s feathers embroidered with colors of the dawn in that luxurious cabin over there. Perhaps he drinks of fine pomegranate wine imported from faraway lands and devours fish pored over by the finest chefs in the land, fried in the most delicious and sweet-smelling of oils and sauces and Indian spices, in that enormous dining hall to the side. Perhaps he sniffs up his snuff and preens in front of delicately shaped mirrors and swaggers about in purple satin robes.” She sighed. “So little does he deserve all these honors of the kingdom, ah! How much allegiance he gets from the subjects that were mine when all he does is drink of wine of their grapes and eat the bread they toiled to bake!” She sighed again and Soko peered towards the approaching ship. Suddenly Darallis let out a shout and beckoned Soko to see. As they leaned over the deck railing, it was impossible not to notice the tall, pale-skinned man leering at them from the deck of the galleon. It was, without doubt, the wicked First Councilor, who had come to finish Darallis off once and for all.

  “Man the oars! Man the oars! Raise your swords! Raise your swords!” Darallis’s cry of the kingdom rose above the barbaric sounds of Madril the ogre, who was stomping about on the First Councilor’s ship’s deck, and the rest of the First Councilor’s brutal crew. Her scar stood out more than ever, and she rushed forward with a new courage as she remembered that day when she had been helpless to fight back. Powered by a bloody desire to slay and injure all those who sided with the First Councilor, and to kill the First Councilor himself, she let out another “Man the oars! Man the oars! Raise your swords! Raise your swords!” and flung, with deadly accuracy, a sharpened stick at Madril the ogre. The stick split part of his face open and a torrent of blood came pouring out of the ogre’s nose.

  “That was for you, monster!” Darallis shouted, tirelessly swinging another sharpened stick, this time setting it aflame first. It missed the First Councilor’s crew, but it landed on the deck and started a fire emergency on his ship. While his crew were busily pouring water, the First Councilor was left unguarded and Darallis took this chance to hurl a stick at him. The sharpened point whizzed just by his arm and grazed his elbow. The ogres, many of them with singed eyebrows and hair, returned to guard the First Councilor. Soko crept up unnoticed beside Darallis, her thin shape hardly making a shadow, and threw something onto the deck of the First Councilor’s ship. Darallis squinted at the figure flying through the air and let out a great booming laugh. Richard, the crazy animal, had told Soko to throw him over to the First Councilor’s ship. Cries of pain erupted from the First Councilor’s band of ogres. The porcupine’s spikes lodged themselves in layers of knobby green ogre skin, returning to his body again as if by magic. Richard seemed to be having fun. He pounced on a couple more ogres and finally jumped from an ogre’s bald head to the First Councilor’s shoulder, letting loose a few spikes and biting wildly at his neck. A couple of hiding ogres noticed Richard making quite a few painful marks on the First Councilor’s body, and they threw him off the deck before he could knock out any more of the First Councilor’s band. Richard swam back to the cabin and ordered Tiddlywinks to head starboard, then port, then starboard again, to confuse the First Councilor’s ship. The attempt worked, and Darallis laughed triumphantly as they left the howling First Councilor far behind.

  Surprisingly within a few hours the First Councilor’s galleon could be seen again, although its crew and the ship looked worse for the wear—a few of Darallis’s sharpened sticks had pierced the sails, and the holes made by Richard’s spikes could be seen on the deck quite easily. There was a great large dent in the ship’s siding and a fancy cabin’s window had been shattered on the poop deck. Soko was in no mood for fighting, and neither was Richard, so they increased the speed of the boat and avoided the First Councilor’s crew’s sharp spears, swerving to the side and nearly flipping over when a sharp one came whizzing by.

  “Oh, you little mousetrel idiot!” Darallis and Soko could hear, quite plainly from the cabin. “How dare you do such a nasty thing! You’ve brought us to our deaths, there’s no way this’ll be fixed in simply an hour, much less with a huge galleon chasing us—” Soko and Darallis rushed into the cabin to find Richard the porcupine shouting at Tiddlywinks the mousetrel, Tiddlywinks looking indignant and sulky and Richard’s very eyes on fire.

  “Don’t just stare at me like some dumb dog!” Richard exclaimed. “Help me get that wheel fixed. Or…” He peered hopefully out the window and jumped up and down. “Never mind! We’ll land on that great nice island and hide somehow! Get your things gathered up, my dears, this is to be an adventure of our lives!”

  “Listen to me! All of you! You carry your futures on your shoulders!” The First Councilor’s powerful voice rang out above the regular din of the ship, making the crew turn back and stare at him. “If you do not succeed in your divine missions you will be captured and oppressed by the New Kingdom! You will be hated and mistreated everywhere you go, and men shall make sport of hunting your noble race!” He wrinkled his nose as he said “noble race”, thinking personally that they were merely a bunch of greenish objects not to be bothered about.

  “Yah! Yah! Yah!” the ogres shouted, stomping their feet. The First Councilor’s speech showed signs that there was going to be an upcoming festival. The rest of the crew, mostly humans, looked skeptically at the First Councilor.

  “But if we win, you shall have eternities of undivided glory and riches, plentiful beyond mind’s worth, so that each being of us shall have chests full of our treasure-trove, so much that the gods in the heavens and the spirits on earth and the devils below shall look upon us with jealousy and think themselves ridden by poverty—” He lifted his eyebrow triumphantly at the gleam of greed in the crew’s eyes and continued,

  “—and we shall have wine sweeter than oceans and oceans of paradise, and olives salty with the taste of wealth, and women with hair silkier than the finest of cloth, longer than the longest rivers and more golden than the most gold of coins—” He paused again.

  “But only this if we succeed in our battles, will we win fame and glory beyond knowing and riches beyond bestowing on any living man. This I tell you all, and a good night.” Ending his well-prepared speech, the First Councilor swept out of the room.

  Landing on the tropical island, Soko and Darallis were forced to help moor the boat safely out of sight of the First Councilor. With Richard the porcupine onboard shouting instructions and the mousetrel absolutely refusing to help, it was up to the two girls to drag the ship where it could not be seen.

  Finally after a few panting efforts the boat was safely secured behind a bunch of thorny bushes and its food supply was replenished with the island’s delicious breadfruit, which they roasted over a hot fire and ate greedily. Going further they discovered some plantains, a few bananas, and a mysterious cucumber which had merely been left on the ground. There were great amounts of nuts, also, much to everybody’s surprise, and after a wonderful meal they retired to the boat’s sleeping quarters.

  They were surprised at about midnight by the sound of a war-party stomping and singing and shouting war-songs and war-cries. They crept out of the boat to get a better look and, lo and behold, a tribe of dark-skinned men in copper breastplates and colorful skirts were dancing around a bonfire, chanting some strange language and sipping a fiery drink from flasks at their belts each time they stopped. Staring in awe, Soko and Darallis did not dare to move for what seemed like more than an hour when a chilling voice sent shivers down their backs.

  “So, you have fallen into my little trap,” it said, the jeering tone distinctly familiar to Darallis. She winced, scrunching up her eyes. She turned around, slowly, as if she did not want to face stark reality, and found herself staring into the First Councilor’s bloodshot eyes.

  The First Councilor was enjoying himself immensely. With a snap of his fingers he had disposed of the illusion and he had two girls, a dangerous porcupine, and an annoying mousetrel in the grip of his loyal ogres. Under heavy guard, of course, they had been brought to the brig, where they would temporarily remain. The First Councilor smiled to himself and took another sip of his tea—Cerberus nightshade, it was called. Smelt of poison, tasted of poison, and was the kind of drink that made his belly burn.

  “Madril!” he called loudly, reclining in his red plush settee, crossing his legs and drinking contentedly. “Have the cook make some solid food today, not just that fancy ‘Paradise Liquid’ we’ve been having for a week now! Hmm…let’s see…” He flipped through the pages of the beautifully illuminated ship menu. “…oh, here’s it. Steak coated in dragon scale, with mushrooms sautéed in rosemary butter and a couple of baguettes plus vinegar and olive oil. Oh, don’t forget Greek salad with wine vinaigrette and newt eyeball and a dessert of fried cockatrice claw powder mixed in with sugar and ice cream.” Madril nodded and stomped off to the kitchen, drool dripping from his mouth.

  Darallis and Soko were having a miserable time in the brig. They had been separated from the porcupine and the mousetrel and were contemplating their foolishness. Darallis was the first to speak, pounding her fist on the wall.

  “If only I hadn’t been so stupid and become entranced with that bunch of small magic,” she said bitterly, frowning.

  “Well, the illusions were quite convincing,” Soko said reasonably. “The wisest of Merlins would have been tricked. And we will be able to escape somehow. The good side always has to win.”

  “Yes, with somebody dying at least,” Darallis said, still unconvinced. Soko sighed and leaned back against the wall. Both girls remained silent until Darallis began speaking, furiously listing off twelve different torture devices that they could possibly be fitted on. Soko only smiled to herself unworriedly, feeling invincible with Darallis by her side. The dusty brig door creakily swung open, revealing a precious bit of light and a hideous ogre blocking most of it. He grunted something and threw them two dirty knee-length dresses with pink frills and lace and fancy puffed sleeves. Darallis hated them on the spot.

  “Put on. He says,” the ogre said, barely coherently, squatting on the ground absentmindedly to squash an ant. Darallis made a face and refused to touch the dress, but Soko whispered,

  “Dar. Who knows what kind of horrible punishment your First Councilor has in store for us if we don’t obey?” Darallis stuck her tongue out, grimaced, groaned, grumbled, and finally forced the too-tight dress over her head and into a crooked position onto her body, where she groaned again and stared down at the badly-fitting garment.

  “Now you do it,” she muttered. Soko raised her eyebrows, held her breath (necessarily; the dress smelt of moldy detergent) and managed to get it over her tunic, where it was equally uncomfortable and poked out at odd places.

  “Follow,” the ogre growled. The two girls looked at each other, shrugging, and tiptoed after the lumbering beast.

  The First Councilor was in a relatively good mood. His many debts and important affairs were settled, his darkest secrets were still unknown, he had finally achieved a clever victory, and the Cerberus nightshade tea was giving him much pleasure.

  Knock. Knock. Knock. The First Councilor started for a moment, righted himself, and brushed off his purple silk robes. Well, perhaps it wasn’t worth the trouble. His wardrobe was full, and he could change at his convenience.

  Knock. Knock. Knock. The First Councilor dismissed the knocks with an arrogant wave of his hand, as if there were anyone to see him, and quickly changed into a bright yellow satin jacket and long pink trousers, compete with jangling bells and multicolored strips of satin along the waistline.

  Knock. Knock. Knock. The sound of knuckles hitting the smooth glazed wood of the First Councilor’s door made anything but a pleasant sound. The First Councilor sighed and finally said in a bored tone,

  “Enter.” He could hear whispering from behind the door. Fools! He could hear them as well as anybody next to them. He listened more carefully and thought to himself,

  It must be those girls. Hmm. This will be enjoyable. Smiling his cold, icy smile, he flicked some dust from his hair and tapped his long, pointed black fingernails on the door.

  “Enter, I have told you,” he said loudly, tapping his fingernails again. The door was thrown open with little ceremony by an ogre of respectable size, followed by two sullen girls, one of whom was looking at the First Councilor with an expression of familiar defiance.

  “So, so, so. One new girl, one old girl. We meet again, princess.” The First Councilor sneered. “Dressed in a frilly dress which I can see you perfectly abhor. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.” He turned to Soko. “And who are you, river rat? Spawn of dog? You should not mix with such high company.” He laughed, a cold, chilling laugh. “Well, this talk is going extremely well.”

  “No it is not, you pig,” Darallis said heatedly. “For one, you are hogging all the talking space, giving us no enjoyment whatsoever, for two, you are spending most of that talking time gloating and teasing, for three, you are a perfectly hateful creature and it is horrible making any cheer when you’re standing next to a human horror.” She said it all very fast, almost in one breath. The First Councilor’s smile disappeared immediately and Soko took the chance to join in.

  “And also because you are not speaking any truth at all. I am not a river rat or spawn of dog; I happen to be Darallis’s sister and as much a crown princess born as her or any of the royal family. We were separated at birth but we know we are twins,” Soko said, hardly speaking as fast as Darallis but not giving the First Councilor a single chance to talk except for,

  “What…no…thought…dead…separated…I…”

  “Yes, Soko’s right,” Darallis said, apparently not hearing the First Councilor’s feeble words. “And who knows if you even come from the House of Urdilles like you say you do? What if you just stole your power and money and learned black magic to control a crew of hideous things? What if you are no more than a murderer with no true, honestly-earned possessions to your name?” Darallis never imagined that what she said could be true, but the First Councilor’s face suddenly went whiter than even his albino skin usually was and his eyes showed sudden fear, then banished memories, and shadows of his past hidden in his mind.

  “Take—take the girls—those girls out at once,” he shuddered, turning away from Darallis and Soko. “Guest’s chamber. Oh, Renaatalla!”

  The “Guest’s Chambers”, which Darallis sarcastically named “Paradise Quarters” were a set of drab rooms, all painted a gloomy gray, with itchy gray-cushioned chairs to match. As if that were not enough of blank grayness there were stiff, uncomfortable beds with gray sheets, blankets, pillows, and canopies, jammed into the corner where a couple of rotted rat tails had been hung up in frames. It was the joltiest part of the ship and when the waters were angry the Guest’s Chambers received most of its rocking fury.

  Soko found that the door was locked from the outside, which led to an outburst on Darallis’s part and a couple of soothing comments from Soko. Finally some steaming porridge was carried in, along with steak, sautéed mushrooms, baguette, Greek salad, and vinaigrette, which had been mixed all together with some of the First Councilor’s old wine and fried till burnt. Darallis refused to touch the food, but Soko picked a bit at the meal and found that she did not at all like it. She thought almost wistfully of the tough boar meat and the moldy day-old bread back at the pickpockets den, then made a face and, holding her nose, scooped more of her meal into her mouth. Darallis looked disgusted and made vomiting motions. They went to bed early, finding nothing else to do, and kicked their mattresses sleeplessly as midnight passed and dawn galloped in, its dark brother retreating into the most unfathomable depths of the sky.

  “It cannot be,” he said to himself, staring with flashing eyes at the gold doorknob in front of him. He began to pace back and forth, saying again and again,

  “Reuinited…plan…failed…” The First Councilor was usually not one to pause between words, unless for dramatic or intimidating effect, but today he stared in the mirror and hesitated when he spoke.

  Breakfast was a bland, soggy bunch of who-knew-what soaked in milk for who-knew-how long by some mysterious who-knew-who. Soko ate it without much interest, and Darallis ate a bit and quickly regurgitated it onto her pillow, swearing and excusing herself, where she vomited more neatly into the bathroom toilet. A book had been left by the previous occupants of the “Guest’s Chamber” called “Death and Dying: We All Will. How to Find The Best Cemetery and Make Sure You’re Wearing Your Favorite Clothes When Buried By Frank Fitzulfeimmer.” It had rather too much of a morbid tone for Darallis’s taste and she contented herself by reading it aloud to Soko, adding many “farts” “affairs” and “grave mistakes” along the way.

  On the fourth day of their captivity the First Councilor’s ship stopped at an island called St. Crekellcuff Cove, where water and food was replenished. The First Councilor and a few of his men set out to hunt, and Darallis and Soko were reunited with Richard and the indignant Tiddlywinks the mousetrel. They were not allowed on the island, but they were allowed out of the “Guest’s Chambers” and Darallis said that most of the ogres had gone on some kind of expedition there anyways and that there would be hardly anyone to guard them and that it would be child’s play to take control of the boat and sail off. Soko was not so easily convinced, taking some pride in her own sensible words. If living on the street had taught her one thing, it was how to think practically.

  “First of all, the ogres remaining here are much greater in size and stature; they have been trained to put down rebellions and fight properly and will easily have us in their grip again if there is a simple scuffle, plus they have proper weapons—secondly, if we do not succeed, a lot of our privileges will be taken away and we may even endanger our lives—thirdly, there is no place in sight to sail to in haste and we will not be able to keep going that long anyways without the food and water we will need to get from the island,” Soko pointed out. “And this ship is different. There’s some kind of fancy waxwork contraption with hinges and bolts of iron and copper and gold that automatically (magically probably) steers the ship to where its master wants it to go. It might just stop or go the wrong way if we took control.”

  “The First Councilor thought of everything, obviously,” Darallis said, gritting her teeth in frustration. “And it’s simply up to you to point it out and ruin my tiptop, first-rate, capital, and jolly wonderful idea.” The First Councilor’s ship moved slightly away from the shore as they spoke.

  “I’m not ruining it,” Soko said, a bit sulkily. “I’m just pointing out things that will make your ‘wonderful’ idea quite wrong.”

  “Well, I don’t want your advice,” Darallis said, hurt. “And I don’t see why you have to act so skeptical and snooty when I lay out a perfectly fine escape plan.”

  “There are other ways to get off a galleon than the simple run, jump, and see-if-you-survive trick,” Soko said, equally offended. “And I’m not being snooty! You’re the princess, you’re the one who’s acting like that!” They continued arguing for a few minutes, their talk getting uglier and uglier, when they heard the sound of stomping, harsh laughing, a few cold orders, and the clang of longbows and hunting-knives being hung up in the armory. They stopped their quarrel and crouched silently behind the huge mahogany armoire, hardly daring to breathe.

  “Madril, if you have let those girls out of your sight I shall behead you. What?” Darallis and Soko could hear a few whisperings, then something about “armoire”, and then the sound of heavy feet coming towards them. They dashed out from behind the armoire just barely in time, and when the First Councilor arrived in the room they had occupied previously they were squatting, sweaty and tired, underneath his bed.

  “This is tantamount to committing suicide,” Darallis said pessimistically. The two girls had flattened themselves on the floor, holding themselves up with exhausted palms, and the young princess did not like it. “We are hiding in the room of a crazed usurper who wants to kill us, without any idea of how we are supposed to get out without anybody seeing us, and since there’s a whole crate of blueprints and maps and other things the First Councilor’s navigator will need at some time or another—”

  “Well, we would have been found if we stayed behind that armoire,” Soko said grimly. “Now hush. I can hear him coming.” They remained silent for a few minutes, but it happened just to be an ogre shouting something that sounded like “No Tartarus! No Tartarus! Mommy!”

  “Oh, well, we can’t start to squabble when we’re in a desperate predicament so let’s keep our mouths shut until we think of something reasonable,” Soko said, scrunching up her face as she did when she was thinking intently. “Hmm. We could risk a run, with two in four chances we’d get caught, two in four chances we’d make it safe, with two possible ways of revealing or remaining secret…we would have to avoid loud noise, bad sense of direction, we would have to…” She trailed off and did another count on her fingers.

  “Well, probability happens to be in our favor since the hallway’s clear of ogres and at the moment the First Councilor is either beheading Madril or still looking for us the wrong way,” Soko said, sounding slightly excited. “Come on, let’s head for the poop.”

  The escape went relatively well, though a few ogres saw them crossing to poop deck and Soko was forced to change directions towards the ship cellar, where they hid in a crate of dusty bugles until Soko announced it was “coast clear”. The ship had landed again (she had overheard some thing about Blackjack Island) and, hiding in the shadows cast by the ceiling rafters, the two girls excitedly debated an escape.

  “This time there will be guards all around, that’s for sure,” Soko said thoughtfully. “On the watch, shipshape guarding conditions, ready to strangle any who show signs of rebellion on the ship. We’ll be wanted and we’ll be hunted, as the gang used to say, and either way if we are to escape we’ll have to make a clean getaway so the First Councilor cannot hunt us down.” She spoke confidently.

  “You mean, in other words, it’ll be harder to escape this time while the First Councilor is out gambling and drinking than it was last time,” Darallis said, clenching her teeth. “Urgh.”

  “Wait a second…drinking! Stay here, Dar, I have an idea!” Leaving Darallis to her own devices, Soko sprinted off with agility that would have overwhelmed an athlete, broke open a barrel of ale, filled up some easy-to-open containers, and quietly slipped them onto the deck.

  Pandemonium broke out on deck. For a moment Darallis thought that they had been discovered and that it was the end, and stood fiercely in front of a few beer barrels, determined to remain valiant in the last stand for the kingdom, but it happened that the ogres had discovered the beer and drunk themselves senseless instead. The thudding of the first giant bodies hitting the deck had made the other ogres come over to see what was happening, and, being stupid creatures, drink of the intoxicating fluid.

  Once they realized all the ogres were drunk, the two girls crept up to the deck and bound them together with many lengths of strong rope from the armory and Soko’s expert knots, then rolled them, blindfolded, gagged, and stripped of weapons, into the brig.

  Their next task was finding out how to disable the waxwork machinery which controlled the ship so that they could steer it where they wanted. Luckily, Darallis accidentally fell onto the stove, which, most surprisingly, parted to give way to a tiny little mechanism which constantly rose and fell, wheeling a conveyor belt constantly around and around, which turned a little iron wheel nailed to the conveyor belt with gold spikes. Forgetting the painful fact her eyebrows were singed, Darallis jumped up and down (most unlike her usually contained and dignified self) and shouted,

  “Hurrah! Hurrah! Soko, here the accursed thing is! We saw it before, I knew it was somewhere around here…the stove must have been open before.” Soko came rushing in and together the two girls dumped a bucket full of swords, bricks, and the First Councilor’s perfumed pillows into, onto, and around the thing, blocking its movement completely. The ship stopped abruptly and the two girls were suddenly faced with the problem of getting it to move away from the island. Soko began to shake a little, terrified at the idea of being stranded on an unknown island, while Darallis lost her usual dignified tone and began stuttering and stammering. Both were somewhat frightened at what they had both done and were about to pull out the pillows; Soko concluded they would live in the ever-shifting shadows of the haunting island forever, and die of despair under its sinister trees. For a second, dark, wicked blackness seemed to cover the sky. Suddenly Darallis had an idea and called for Richard the porcupine.

  “Richard, here’s our problem. We stopped the magic mechanism but we need your help. It involves blueprints, maps, and sextants,” she said in a very formal tone. “You’re the only one good with this.”

  “Exactly where are these maps, blueprints, and sextants?” Richard asked, wrinkling his brow and stroking his spiky chin, if it could properly be called stroking. “And exactly what do you want me to do?” Soko took him out of the room to show him all the materials and was surprised to find a large, yellowed scroll, dog-eared and curled up, among all of the other carefully tended papers. It read,

No man’s hands shall ever kill you

Nor weapons of iron make

But mortal, thrice, indeed you are

And so you must sometime die

Two of the royal blood

Together in their looks

Spikes from creature dead yet not dead

Shall kill you when the time is ripe

And so, beware,

You mortal thrice,

Of the royal blood

And so, beware,

You mortal thrice,

Of the spikes dead yet not dead.

  The scroll was directed to The First Councilor, and Soko scurried off to show Darallis, confused.

  “Well, I can’t make much sense of it either,” Darallis said calmly, scanning the lines. “I mean, mortal thrice was used in really old Falallan—you know, the old language—to mean someone who people had tried to kill three times…but, anyways…” Soko had turned away from Darallis and was reading the paper again.

  “Wait!” Soko shouted. “Darallis! Two of the royal blood! Together in looks! That’s us!” Darallis shrugged and moved away, obviously intent on devouring some more grapes.

  Darallis headed to the brig to check on the ogre prisoners, carrying some wine to drug them again. Richard came back in a moment later looking quite excited, easily dismantled the mechanism, put the steering wheel in a good place, set everything in order using equipment from the armory, and managed to maneuver them away from the island with good speed.

  “And the First Councilor shall be left on the island to die,” Darallis said happily, feeling that her worries were behind her. But Soko felt, with dark certainty, that the evil enchanter would rise again and fight with them in a last, bloody battle.

  The first thing Soko felt like doing, oddly, was repainting the Guest’s Chambers.

  “After we paint some kind of glorious picture on the wall we really can call it the ‘Paradise Quarters’,” she said laughingly. Darallis merely shrugged and went back to sipping her coffee, adding a packet of sugar because she found the bitterness annoying.

  After three hours of laborious work a paint-stained Soko proudly showed Darallis the detailed masterpiece she had managed to paint over the wall’s original plain gray color. Soko’s image showed Darallis, wearing a hauberk of light silver chain mail and a diamond diadem upon flowing hair, a brighter, more fiery, furious red that seemed to depict her internal strength and hotheaded temper more than her real look. She held a sword in one hand with a pommel of glittering opal, a hilt of smooth topaz, and a blade of clear crystal, sharpened to perfection and pointed at a rearing, fire-breathing centaur. In the next painting she was in the act of slaying five swooping hawks of death, whose bloody talons clutched the carcasses of dead knights, and whose beaks contained the terrified shrieks of those who had glimpsed the Underworld before their time had come. There were many more, in which Darallis faced dragons, serpents, lions, demons, and banshees, but the princess was flattered by all of them. They declared the room the “Stronghold of Courage”, moved the beds out into another room for Richard and Tiddlywinks’s use, and met everyday there to look at the painting in admiration and snack on dried fruit.

  “You know, I’m glad that I finally have a family,” Soko said unexpectedly, chewing on her raisins and kissing Darallis lightly on the cheek. “Sid always used to tease me calling me a ‘nameless, parentless, and witless orphan’, but now I know that I have you, and our parents, and our relatives, and Richard and Tiddlywinks, even though they’re not strictly family…” She smiled at them and looked at Darallis again. “Speaking of our parents…like…well, what are they like? What do they look like? Are they nice? Do you think they would like me?” she added anxiously.

  “Well…they’re kind of boring,” Darallis said, squirming.
  “I mean…they’re not with me a lot…all they really do is lie around and gulp down their vodka and cognac and change clothes every minute in front of a gold-framed mirror while the First Councilor rules…I’m not so sure they’d want a pickpocket in their respectable palace, though…I mean, I’m sure they would like you!” she added at Soko’s disappointed face. “And plus, we don’t need them. We have each other, and Richard and Tiddlywinks.”

  The sisters realized before long, however, that their provisions were getting low and that they would have to stop sometime to replenish their supply of food. Richard displayed a map and showed them five possible locations, all about the same distance away but with different conditions on each one:

  Mordallis, Anvalia, Petroello, Wertyuiop-On-The-Coast, and Malady Island. Darallis chose Malady Island (for the adventure and her curiosity, she said), while Soko sensibly asked the environment of each one, which one had the most food, and how relations would probably be once they landed. She finally chose Petroello. Richard went along with her while Tiddlywinks squeaked that Anvalia housed more intellectual inhabitants whom he would love to meet, but Soko and Richard convinced Darallis that they could check Malady Island out later and perhaps Anvalia. The group headed starboard for Petroello and landed there promptly.

  They were met by a few kind-looking little people who nodded politely, smiled to them, and then went off to their own business. Darallis wanted a trumpet fanfare, as her rank demanded, but it was obvious that no one was going to recognize her as a princess in the cheap, badly made clothes she was wearing at the moment. After considering the problem for a few moments, she came up with an idea.

  “I shall be the high-ranking Lady Darallis, Crown Princess of Falala, sent off penniless after my mother’s death—” Darallis mused. “No, that sounds too hard to believe. And I don’t want it to seem like I’m asking for charity. Oh, I have it. I am the high-ranking Lady Darallis, Crown Princess of Falala, and you are my twin, Lady Sokorina, Princess of Falala—oh, the name Soko just doesn’t sound grand enough and stop making faces. We have been sent on a mission to bring education, clothing, and food to the poor and seek alliance from the five islands against the evil First Councilor, who I shall say is oppressing the innocent (stealing and plundering and usurping), and that we were slightly shipwrecked in mid-journey, repaired the boat, but lost many of our supplies and therefore that is why I am dressed horribly. We continued our mission, and I request a welcome as my level requires.” Darallis smiled triumphantly and called to Richard. “You will be the most important Dr. Richard Plum, Secretary to the Advisory Board, and Tiddlywinks shall be Sir Tiddlywinks du Intelgeonce, the Mousetrel Prime Minister and head of General Falala Education Affairs. Now let’s get on with it.” They went quickly back to the ship, brushed themselves off, and changed into slightly more presentable clothes. They were met by a throng of little children, who looked quite excited by the visitors from far away.

  “Hello, little boy,” Darallis said very haughtily, sniffing and holding her chin high. “You are lucky that I, Lady Darallis, Crown Princess of Falala, deign to speak to you, a lowly serf or fishwife’s son. Run off quickly, for I cannot endure the smell of dung about you, and tell the important men on this island that Lady Darallis, Crown Princess of Falala, has stepped upon the island land on a goodwill mission to bring food, good education, and clothing for peasant children like you.” The boy nodded, looking in awe at Darallis as if she wore a train of gold upon her shoulders and a princess’s red velvet gown, and scrambled off to a huge, impressive dome to their right. He did his job well, for in a few minutes three old men appeared. They had gray bears and glasses and were walking so fast that their purple coattails flapped behind them.

  “A most cordial welcome from the Colleges and Guilds of Petroello. The Petroello Board of Island Welfare extends its greetings, as we are thus assembled. How may we assist you, madam?” He nodded coldly at Darallis.

  “I am, sir, Lady Darallis, Crown Princess of Falala; this is my sister, Lady Sokorina, Princess of Falala; we are Goodwill Ambassadors to the five islands. We were shipwrecked and repaired our boat; however, we lost many supplies and the royal finery befitted to our rank. That is why we are dressed in the plain wear you see before you; however, we still remain of high rank and I request a saluting trumpet fanfare and a regal reception.” Darallis’s words were equally cold, but they had a confident, authoritative, commanding edge to them.

  “And who is the rest of your company?” another one of the old men asked in a deep voice.

  “I am Dr. Richard Plum, most important Secretary to the Advisory Board,” Richard said, sounding most unlike himself. He was a perfect actor.

  “And I am Sir Tiddlywinks du Intelgeonce, Mousetrel Prime Minister and Head of General Falala Education Affairs,” the mousetrel said imperiously, as usual.

  “You will be received by the king and there will be an official greeting. Count Bradley, Count Kousé, see to it.” And that was that.

  About thirty minutes later Darallis, Soko, Richard and the mousetrel were surprised by a group of horsemen, cloaked in brown, red, black, and orange, galloping towards them on splendidly decked palfreys. Three standard-bearers lead the procession, waving striped flags showing the official colors of the Five Islands. They were flanked by marching soldiers in full uniform. A large orchestra in the back of the group started first with an official trumpet fanfare, then the well-known Five Islands official anthem, then the anthem of Darallis’s kingdom. The crowd saluted and helped Darallis and her party up onto snorting stallions. They were brought to a sturdy-looking brick building with hardly any windows and led to a luxury suite.

  Darallis began a brisk inspection of the beds and the furniture, remarking disdainfully that the pillows were of no exotic cloth and the beds could easily be improved. After satisfying herself with a couple of complaints she strode towards the bathroom, a spacious place with a white marble floor and a bath of the same material. After sniffing at the perfumes, lotions, and soaps, the young princess peeled off her smelly garments and stepped contentedly into the tub of steaming water.

  After she had thoroughly cleansed herself Darallis chose a simple blue velvet kirtle which split at the skirts to reveal a gold-colored satin shift. Staring at herself in the mirror, she scanned the books which had been put on the bookshelf and promptly chose Yarrow Sunlight. After a yawn and another look at her hair, she settled down in the green plush chair and began to read.

  Soko was quite astounded by the lavish surroundings she had been deposited in. Hardly believing the grand rainbow-colored chiffon canopy which hung over the bed like a sudden sun over darkness, and the elaborate carpet laid out on the ground, she suddenly broke out laughing for some unknown reason. Finally regaining her senses she wiped her forehead and wandered about the room. She filled her bathtub with water, marveling at the flawlessly polished marble and the smooth, sparkling water, rinsed herself briefly, and hopped out quite cold.

  Pulling a very fancy green gown down from the closet, Soko thought rather smugly about what the pickpockets back in the alleyway would think. However, something about the dark roses embroidered on the waistline, something about its puffed sleeves and neckline made her feel gloomy, and she quickly hung it back up again, choosing instead a bright blouse with gold buttons designed to look like flowers and a checkered knee-length skirt. Feeling quite hungry, she reached into a china bowl of fruit and took a humongous bite out of a waxy pear.

  A very official reception banquet was announced and skillfully illuminated invitations and menus were handed out, welcoming Darallis and Soko to Petroello and other formal things. Ten footmen were sent to escort the guests to the table, first courteously waiting for Darallis to stop reading and Soko to stop eating, then staying patiently in the hallway as both Soko and Darallis realized they should put on more formal dress and attired themselves in all kinds of ridiculous finery. Darallis’s criticism lead both of them to change into black velvet kirtles with split skirts showing purple shifts, dark enough to be formal and of material good enough to be regal. They were then brought through various passages until they finally came to a silent dining hall, filled with people sitting quietly, hands politely set on their knees and eyes towards the wall, with napkins and menus and plates and very well-made silverware.

  “It is Petroello’s honor to welcome Her Grace Lady Darallis, Crown Princess of Falala, and Her Grace Lady Sokorina, Princess of Falala, to the Great Hall. Let the fanfare begin!” Eighteen trumpets rang out from the balconies at the side of the hall, stopping when the clock struck seven twenty and the king, an old man seated at the front of the room, cried,

  “Let that tune suffice; we welcome our royal guests with our hearts and our food, not our trumpets! I bid you stay awhile and make good cheer on my estates; for a king must have merry friends to share wine; and for now, taste without worry the spiced hams, do not hesitate to sample the cheese; stuff yourself without end on our oysters and crabs; and enough speaking; LET US EAT!” The court immediately began passing dishes of food, as exotic as donkey innards with lettuce ice cream and Fragment of Sword or as regular as a good bit of pumpernickel bread. Darallis sampled much of it, though she personally thought the smoked salmon was the best, and retired to her rooms after most of the court had left the hall. Gawking at the number of dishes and the new ones still being brought in, Soko followed quietly and the footmen led them back up the winding staircase to their palace rooms.

  Soko’s balcony commanded an excellent view of the gloomy streets near the palace, and she invited Darallis to criticize its grim—and somewhat mysterious—appearance.

  “What do you think of it?” Soko asked rather forcefully. “It’s a bit…”

  “Well, glum, if you do get my word,” Darallis said, studying the street and balancing a fork on her fingertips. “You know, how it’s all gray and strange and yet plain. It’s funny.” She shrugged and turned back to Soko. “Anyways, did you hear the king is in a rage? He doesn’t exactly seem like the type of person to have a fit, but I suppose we all change overnight. He wants to marry his son off to some priestess-princess type so that he’ll pursue the study of magic and protect the kingdom from disaster—” She wrinkled her nose, “—but those things never work, of course.” Soko, sensing that the subject had changed, said quietly,

  “What’s the prince’s name?”

  “Something like Prince Edward Lucian Royal, why in the heavens should I know?” Darallis spluttered. “You know…” Her imaginative mind was already forming an elaborate, adventure-filled escape plan for the sickly prince.

  “I hope you’re not thinking about rescuing him,” Soko said sharply. “It’ll be impossible, and plus, then we’ll have Petroello against us.”

  “Oh, come on. We could pull it off easily, and it would be jolly fun. Like in Tales of the Heroes, remember how Sarelia runs off with the helpless victim of an evil dragon who was going to make him marry a toad and then she slays the demons who come their way and brings goodness again to earth? Haven’t you ever read that story?”

  Soko was rolling her eyes, and she took the chance to say,

  “No, I haven’t, and I don’t want to either. Too much trouble to read a bunch of unrealistic and they-lived-happily-ever-after books, and plus, I can hardly read.”

  “Well, in any case, I shall rescue the tragedy-torn prince and introduce him to a life of happiness,” Darallis said grandly. “One day before the wedding, I will insert a straw dummy in his bed. The prince will hide inside the mattress, which we will either slash open or have the chance to unzip, if it’s that kind, and I shall be tied to the ceiling beam and watch everything going on below. We will wait until the dummy is discovered, which is when the king shall send out riders more skilled than the messengers of the sun, stallions more swift than the steeds of Immortals, to hunt for the prince. We will still be hiding, but nobody will be in the prince’s room. They will have gone to search elsewhere. That is when I switch clothes with the prince. He escapes down through the window, and I go downstairs. People will at first take me for the prince—it will gain enough time for the real prince to get away. Then I will be discovered and questioned and let go, and the prince shall be far away.”

  “Er…Darallis…that’s all very fine and everything,” Soko said, her mouth twitching, “but, like, maybe why couldn’t you just do the much easier go-down-from-the-window-at-night thing?”

  “Because that has no excitement!” Darallis exclaimed, pounding her fist on the railing alongside the balcony. “Nobody does that anymore!”

  “Oh, fine,” Soko sighed, wondering what the coming week would bring.

  Darallis went, dressed in all regal finery (headdress of delicate silk with a crown of jewels, a red jacket with puffed sleeves and knots of lace to secure it, a white satin blouse, and an enormous green velvet skirt around which several multicolored gauze ribbons were tied), to meet the prince on a sunny Wednesday morning. Having forced her feet into some very horrible jewel soled high-heels and adjusted her impressive headdress, the princess teetered along the hallway on a mission to find the prince’s room.

  She was forced to walk unsteadily on her despicable high-heels for more than twenty minutes before she found his chambers. They were in an entirely different palace, still on the grounds of the royal estates but separate from the king’s palace. The entrance door of the prince’s room was labeled, with gold lettering, Prince’s Rooms: Do Not Disturb. Darallis knocked twice and caught the attention of the two guards stationed at the right and left side of the arched door.

  “How may we assist you, madam princess?” Their tone was cool, but respectful.

  “I request an audience with His Royal Highness Prince Edward Lucian Royal,” Darallis said, equally coolly.

  “His Royal Highness is currently working on a ledger documenting the expenses of his palace court. Do you wish to disturb him with important news?”

  “Yes,” Darallis said firmly. The guards bowed politely and opened the door. Darallis stepped in and gasped.

  The beauty of the prince’s chambers was immaculate. Fresh sunlight flowed in through the window at the end of the wide hallway, temporarily blinding Darallis with the radiant beams, and the finest sandalwood made a cool, fragrant-smelling floor. Joyful scenes of festivals and fun were painted on the wall. Forcing her high-heels roughly off her feet and sliding along the floor in her slippery satin stockings, Darallis stopped at a door.

  A large gold-coated plaque hung from the doorknob, “The Working Quarters of Prince Edward Lucian Royal” carved into its surface in a twirling, curling script. Darallis knocked.

  “Erm…enter, please.” Darallis heard an awkward voice from the room and she strode in, putting on her most imperious look.

  Darallis was surprised by what she saw. She knew that the prince was usually ill and was a sickly boy, but his delicate features, his waxen pallor, his innocent blue eyes, his short yellow curls, and his small frame made him look more like a helpless infant than a prince.

  “Who are you?” the prince asked, sounding equally surprised.

  “I’m Princess Darallis of Falala. You don’t want to hear the rest of my credentials. Anyways, you don’t want to marry that priestess-princess, do you?” She continued quite briskly. “I’m sure you don’t. Well, I have a very fascinating plot to get you out of your palace world and into the land of excitement and adventure, and it goes like this…” She told of her plan in great detail, exaggerating many aspects and ending with a dramatic “and well may your father’s wrath envelop the world, and your mother’s tears make oceans to drown, and the councilor’s heads roll by the minute, and your brothers and sisters will wonder and worry, while the kingdom cries: but no good will come of magic; no good will come of fear; so why the heck don’t you AGREE?????” The prince looked quite shaken.

  “I suppose I’ll go, then. Would you mind helping me with this difficult math?” the prince asked hopefully, gesturing towards his ledger. Darallis grabbed the quill from Edward’s hand and finished so speedily that one could hear the quill’s sharp point scratching the page, could just barely see her blurred hand plunging the quill into the inkwell. Within a few minutes all the math problems were done and the salaries for the prince’s court solved, without a single blotted page.

  Darallis returned with the prince, who she introduced very loudly and self-importantly to an amazed Soko. The young pickpocket was accustomed to seeing pictures of muscular, tanned, and altogether warlike princes, but the young boy who stood before her was pale-skinned and frail, looking nothing like what Soko saw in tapestries or storybooks.

  “Erm…how do you do, your highness?” she asked.

  “I—well—very well, I suppose,” the prince said, fidgeting and looking as uncomfortable as Soko.

  “Anyways, I’ve told him the details of the plan and I just need to ask him a question,” Darallis said, sounding very businesslike. “Prince Edward, what is your opinion of early marriage, and do you approve of the idea of you being sent off to a foreign palace at an early age?”

  “Well—in a way of speaking, I guess—well, actually, in reality—well. . .I don’t know…oh, I’m ruining this horribly…well, no I don’t want to be.”

  “Good,” Darallis said triumphantly.

  Soko soon found that the prince’s marriage was to be a week early—in other words, the next day—and quickly informed Darallis, who in turn informed the prince, who in turn became nervous and frightened at the very prospect until Darallis forced him to drink some very bitter tea.

  The escape plan was re-talked through and everything was prepared—the mattress was slashed open so the prince could hide, a rope was tied to the ceiling beams so that Darallis could spy from above, and the window was opened so that the prince would be able to escape after the councilors had gone; the unsightly lump in the pillow case was made by an enormous basket filled with nuts, fruit, bread, cheese, a few beautiful carrots, a bunch of twisted quilts, the prince’s black greatcoat with brown fur trimming, and a couple of pairs of extra clothes.

  Darallis had prepared everything very well, even placing a handmade copy of one of Richard’s precious maps in the hood of the prince’s greatcoat so that the prince would be able to find his way across the confusing island land.

  The plan was a success, with Darallis not even having to switch clothes with the prince and the councilors in utter dismay and confusion at the prince’s departure from the castle. The priestess-princess threatened to cast a curse over the castle if the prince was found and the king hastily ordered that the prince be disowned and no longer eligible to marry the priestess-princess.

Darallis and Soko left soon afterwards for Anvalia, where they dropped off the mousetrel (who had become entranced with the idea of entering the prestigious University of Anvalia) and departed. It was after Anvalia that they stopped at Malady Island.

  What, Soko thought, could explain Malady Island? It was indeed a hard place to describe. With creative architecture featuring multicolored spiked archways set atop V-shaped poles, houses made of finely cut sandstone set in circles and circles around one large living room, and sculptures of mermaids and knights everywhere, it seemed somewhat like a happy place. But ash was littered on the ground, much of the fine art had fallen into disrepair, murky water gathered in pools around rotted stumps that had once been great trees, and the clouds above always seemed moody, secretive, and black.

  “Hello!” Sounding strange and harsh, Darallis’s voice echoed about the island. “Anybody here?” Her voice echoed again.

  “Listen, Dar, I guess this place just isn’t—” Soko was cut short by an eerie wail, which seemed to surround them with its sound. It infiltrated their minds and suddenly stopped with a sharp snap.

  “Ooooh…uh…maybe I shouldn’t do that again,” Darallis whispered. Richard the porcupine, sitting silently beside them, nodded. Another wail broke out, followed by five more, and then a grim, frightening silence. The two girls turned their heads and suddenly noticed their boat edging away of its own accord, farther and farther from the shore. With feelings of impending disaster, they turned to Malady Island again and wandered uncertainly into the dark mist.

  It was hard to see through the foggy blackness that Soko, Darallis, and Richard has pushed themselves into, and they immediately regretted doing it. They had lost all sense of direction in its blinding grasp and they could just barely see each other.

  “You know, I have a feeling there’s only one person who could have skillfully produced such wicked stuff,” Soko said grimly, turning to a blurred Darallis shifting behind her. “And unfortunately, I can see him standing right in front of us.”

  The First Councilor had lost his ogres. His fine robes were stained and needed mending, his jewelry lost or heavily scratched and tarnished by weeks in the rain of Malady Island, but he had constructed a fearless army of stonehearted, invincible giants that could do much more than turn valiant warriors to cowards. They were dead souls once chained, tormented for eternities of centuries and millenniums in the deepest depths of the most torturous pits in the forever gloomy realm of the underworld; the First Councilor had claimed them with the most powerful of sorcery, sorcery too catastrophically malevolent to be written upon paper. His new army was far more powerful than any in the world, because they had been born of giants and hags and beasts too horrifying to mention. They were called Inside-Outers, and they were twisted and decaying skulls and skeletons, drooping monsters cloaked in endless black with faces torn of all skin and necks endlessly dripping blood. Their looks betrayed the maliciousness of their spirits, and were horrifying to all.

  Now he had captured those he would have had to fight, captured those he needed his army to guard. After conjuring a simple bunch of fog, he had captured those who would have slain him and prevented him from getting to his goal. He smiled again.

  “Well, well, well,” he said, snapping his fingers. The mist disappeared and Darallis, Soko, and the porcupine were left staring at him with eyes of utmost hatred, yet also respect. “Fallen into my trap again. I must say, what an exhausting bit of sorcery that was. Moving my own ship away was easy, of course, as well as conjuring a tiny bit of fog…but both at the same time…In any case, you are now my prisoners on Malady Island and I will dispose of you at will if you happen to aggravate me enough.” He snapped his fingers again, and the mist reappeared, cloaking him in an unnatural cloud of darkness. Chanting some magical incantations under his breath he brought the ship back, but as Darallis made a move to run to it he waved his hands and froze them all in place, transporting the immobile Soko onto its deck but leaving Darallis with the porcupine.

  “Getting big ideas already. People underestimate me terribly,” the First Councilor said in an excruciatingly girly, high-pitched voice. Returning to his normal tone, he threatened,

  “You will not move towards the boat or I will put your porcupine friend to a gory death involving torture and fire. I will let you out of this spell, as it is draining my precious strength which I could easily use on more important things.” He laughed.

  “You don’t intimidate me, you oversized monster!” Darallis shouted, indignant at being separated from her sister and secretly disappointed about the lack of pomp and ceremony involved in their capture. She made an attempt to move, but The First Councilor waved his hands carelessly, creating a gold whip that hissed in the air and wrapped itself securely around Darallis’s hands and feet.

  “I have won again, princess,” the First Councilor said gloatingly, watching with enjoyment as Darallis struggled in fury and frustration against the magical lengths of the material which bound her. “And I shall win again and again and again.” He threw back his head and laughed a confident, malicious laugh. “Again and again and again, for years to come, and my name will be darker than the passages of the underworld and mentioned only in whispers, making the greatest of men shudder in dread.”

  Darallis and Soko were shackled together with thick iron chains about their ankles and forced into separate pillories for the night. They were first gagged and blindfolded and drugged with some nasty concoction which made them feel weakened immediately. Darallis was outraged and displayed her wrath by choking on her gag and catapulting it out of her mouth with unnecessary vehemence and saliva.

  “Soko, we are worthless idiots. We were unable to see past the First Councilor’s diabolical, unstoppable, plain evil witchery, and I—I, Darallis, Princess of Falala, who actually has a kingdom to lose and honor to keep and a perfectly functional brain I should actually USE—I am infuriated to think that I actually failed to notice HIM, he who has stolen my rightful inheritance, the green meadows of old which should have been mine to wander, from muddy farm to mighty forest—he who oppresses the SERFS who would have been mine to free, he who taxes my people without a care so that he and his lords may be privilege. It is not you who has a kingdom to lose, from fortresses of my great-great-great-great-great grandfather’s time in the days of lore, to summer palaces with marble baths and walls of clear crystal. I am truly to BLAME, for I am she who should have been WARY and NOT thought times of dangers far past; accursed are those who taught me unworthy arts that do not HELP me now; perhaps I can slay a demon of the wild, and perhaps I can tame rearing stallions; but none have taught me how to sense evil in the air and considerably powerful foemen; all arts of war I have knowledge of cannot—” She stared in awe at the sight before her. Soko, grinning sheepishly, stood before her, arms wide.

  “What the—” Darallis began in surprise. Quickly taking advantage of the situation, she ordered Soko,

  “Hasten to Richard’s cell next to ours after you’ve gotten this thing off of me—” Soko, with her pickpocket arts, easily picked the lock on both the pillory and Darallis’s shackles and freed the princess from her chains. Darallis stood up to her full height, looking resplendent even in the gloomy darkness of the brig, her cambric dress shining a pearly white against the darkness of the cracked wooden walls.

  “Anyway, don’t just stand here staring at me, go to Richard’s cell next to ours and free him!” Darallis shouted. Soko nodded and dashed off, her small figure hidden by the ever-shifting shadows of the brig.

  The First Councilor was not particularly happy. While he had not expected his boat to be in perfect condition, it was still annoying that his room had been wrecked by two irritating little girls. There was no Cerberus nightshade tea, which, he thought moodily, is worse than the fact that my Execution Wallpaper has been torn down, my bed’s expensive mauve silk coverlet has been removed, and a number of other nasty things.

  “Oeribus!” he called, tapping his foot impatiently on the smooth hardwood floor. “Come, by the demons of hell and lord of the underworld himself!” He needed to call no more. The door was pushed open by the invisible being, slowly, as if reluctantly.

  “I serve my master, my lord of darkness,” the creature said tonelessly. “I shall do all you command me to do.”

  “Go back to there where you were born and summon up the roots of evil from the ground with the chants of Cerberus. Take then the largest root and peel its skin, and then put it into white hot water. After that has been done, take the second largest, and peel its skin two times and put it into red hot water. And then you must take the third largest root, peel it three times, and put it into water not red hot nor white hot but medium hot. Stir these roots in their individual cauldrons and pour one pouch of crushed alligator tooth into each one of the mixtures. Then add lizard eyeballs to each mixture and stir again. Filter out the water and dispose of the lizard eyeballs, roots, and alligator teeth. Put the water into an iron container and freeze for one week. Then melt in hot water and serve warm,” The First Councilor instructed him, saying some magic word under his breath. Oeribus disappeared with a brisk nod.

  Darallis was met by a cheerful Richard and an excited Soko, who remarked that everything had gone “alright” and then added with a rueful smile,

  “Well, I felt something did see us.” Darallis made a quick mental note of it and turned to Richard.

  “What was your cell like?” she asked, not unkindly.

  “Same as yours. Anyways,” he said, brightening, “do you think we’ll be able to take control of the ship again?”

  “Really impossible. The First Councilor will be on his guard…no, perhaps he won’t, considering the security measures he took anyways, so maybe he’ll think we aren’t able to escape and so he won’t be on his guard, and then we’ll be able to take over easily. But who knows what kind of army he has now?” Darallis pondered.

  “Some kind of magical supernatural omniscient beast, knowing him,” Soko said, turning to her sister. “I wouldn’t discourage trying to take control of the ship, Dar, except for the fact the First Councilor and whatever army he has are onboard.”

  “Oh, whatever,” Darallis said, rolling her eyes. “If we had a few good swords, proper shields, and a few tricks at our hands we could vanquish any magician barbarians!”

  “No, but what if he had some kind of bodyguard lurking around, just waiting to ambush us when we pounced on the First Councilor?” Soko said pointedly. “And we don’t have any proper swords or shields, nor is it likely we will, because our armory is halfway across the boat.”

  “Oh, for heavens sake, why don’t you sneak across, steal a few weapons, and bring them back to us,” Darallis said with exasperation. “After all, you’re the pickpocket!” Soko raised her eyebrow but said nothing, and before Darallis knew it the nimble girl had sprinted out of the room toward the armory with a flashing grin on her face. Darallis immediately thought of all the nasty things that could happen to Soko, going across a ship full of enemies unarmed and vulnerable just like that, and blamed herself for the entire affair.

  “If I hadn’t been so obsessed with taking over the ship she wouldn’t have gone and probably gotten herself killed. It’s all my stupid fault again,” Darallis said sourly. “Oh, humph.” She was startled to hear a timid voice in the shadows saying,

  “Darallis?” It was too soft to be Soko’s voice, so she jumped around to face the intruder, and before she realized who it was, she had spun him around, bloodied his nose, and kicked him in the knees. Panting, she fell to the floor and realized who it was.

  “Aren’t you that Prince Edward Lucian?” she asked apologetically.

  “Yes,” the wounded prince said weakly, putting a hand to his nose.

  “I’m back,” Darallis heard a voice behind her say before she could question the prince further. She turned around so fast she twisted her side and fell to the ground, cursing, as Soko smiled up at her with hands full of loot. “Look.”

“What the—” Darallis stopped herself and managed instead, “You got enough chain mail for both of us, which is good in any case. An entire hauberk would be too much for Richard, but he ought to have something to protect his soft spot. Richard?” The porcupine willingly agreed to have a small iron plate strapped onto his “soft” spot, or belly, and then Darallis and Soko stood admiring the armor and weapons.

  The chain mail was light and skillfully made with the very best of materials; it made little noise and was very flexible; the helmet was of copper, brass, and gold, cushioned on the inside by soft velvet pads which put no weight on the head; but most splendid of all were the weapons.

  Glinting even in the darkness of the brig, Soko’s sword had a hilt of twisted crystal, a square pommel of beautiful emerald, and an exquisite blade of the most flawless steel, cold, sharp, and beautiful. Accompanied by a bright vermilion shield with an intricate clematis design, it seemed like some kind of symbol of freedom.

  Darallis’s sword flashed furiously, its ruby pommel displaying a fiery sunset red and its silver hilt feeling perfect in Darallis’s hands. With a blade like Soko’s and perfect to the touch, Darallis was very much satisfied. Her shield, a greenish blue with a picture of a fierce Pegasus, suited her as much as the sword. Like Soko, she also chose a bow-and-arrow of strong yew and a quiver of good arrows which she hung at her back.

  After Darallis had finally decided to also bring along a javelin and Soko gave Richard a dagger and a miniature bow-and-arrow, they set off in the shadows to attempt to conquer the ship yet again.

  The First Councilor was constructing a gallows. Not a very unusual one; it was made of wood, with a large oak crossbeam polished fairly well, and a noose of strong rope hung from that crossbeam; an ominous shape at dusk; but to the First Councilor, it was a symbol of his new totalitarian regime. He laughed as he strode the deck, throwing back his satin hood and revealing dark, deep-set eyes that hid the evil knowledge he possessed.

  “Good work, Mildrix,” he remarked to the robust female ogre standing beside him. She was attired in an ill-fitting apron and badly stitched trousers, not to mention the ugly brown sweater of filthy bearskin she had wrapped around her head. “What a sturdy gallows. Enemies, fear the gibbet!” He peered into the distance as if he had already sighted a foeman’s warship and laughed heartily at his own feeble joke. Mildrix merely grunted. She was the last ogre aboard, so she didn’t have to laugh at every bad joke the First Councilor made. She was too precious to be marooned or decapitated.

  “In any case, what is that unseemly commotion in the back?” he asked briskly, returning to his cold, businesslike tone. “You go and check, Mildrix, fists out, eyes open. Oeribus! Cerberus nightshade tea at once with a bit of bitterroot on the side. Order Nek to assemble the army for early drill. No drill tonight, no…Far more important things to do.” The First Councilor pursed his lips and frowned at the minion coming towards him carrying a pile of sloppily stapled paperwork.

  “What are these?” he inquired, sipping the steaming tea Oeribus handed him and staring at the paperwork still in the creature’s silvery hand. “Hmm—declarations of war, debt complaints—oh, and Oeribus, kill off the round of those noisy money-men. I don’t live to pay off debts. What is this?” He flipped around some more and stopped at an illuminated header printed neatly in bold on a piece of yellowed parchment. “Let’s see. It says I have been officially promoted to the rank of prince following the death of ‘our dear little Princess Darallis’s father. We think you would be the best man for the job, as you are strong and intelligent.’ Flatterers, all, but comfortable enough. Give a sack of gold to each of them.” He conjured some twinkling coins and went back to the rest of the paperwork.

  “Wait until ‘our dear little Princess Darallis’ hears that,” the First Councilor chuckled, scanning the rest of the paperwork.

  “She already did, you diabolical beast!”

  The First Councilor jumped and spun around, tearing the hem of his carefully made silk robe.

  “How the—” he breathed, gasping at the screaming princess and the nimble girl behind her. Soko was taunting the ogres, jeering at their slow, clumsy movements, and easily somersaulting out of the way of a furious Mildrix. Dancing closer to Darallis, she quickly did a jump and a backflip, grabbing Mildrix’s feet and knocking her to the ground. The ogre crushed Oeribus and his brother, Nek, who had come to his defense; the First Councilor barely swung himself out of the way when Darallis came, shouting fierce war cries and making skilled movements with her sword, slashing the air with a princess’s grace. As if two girls were not enough for the First Councilor, Richard the porcupine was rolling among the crowd on deck and causing chaos wherever he went. But as the First Councilor looked down towards the hatchway, he smiled to himself at the shadowy figures approaching the girls. He knew something that would make him the most powerful man on earth.

  Darallis was not usually frightened. Her handmaid would scream at toads, her governess jump at spiders; the princess liked the spider and the toad and neither of the women. While high-class girls her age were busy learning how to sew, she would fence with the stableboys (always winning) or read tales of adventure and intrigue. She liked the dark, was unafraid of deep water, and found mice amusing. Looking at Soko, she realized there was no fear in her sister’s eyes either. The First Councilor stifled a laugh, and Darallis turned to look at what he was focusing so intently on. Her scar stung and she felt the first pangs of horror as she stared at the dark figures emerging from the hatchway, and realized there was no hope of escape.

  While night began to fill the sky and the sun was chased off to light countries worlds away, Darallis was battling five wild Inside-Outers with her ever-shimmering sword. Soko had quickly darted to the sails, climbing with no difficulty and pulling them down. The thick purple cloth smothered four Inside-Outers and trapped the rest in a small combat space; Darallis had the perfect advantage and took her javelin from her belt. With flawless aim she pierced the ghoulish shapes of two Inside-Outers and smiled up at Soko. Their victory was not near, however. The First Councilor began chanting in a high-pitched voice, and fiery drops of stinging liquid dropped from the sky, burning Darallis’s shoulders with pain which made her twist in torment. The First Councilor laughed, cold and evil as usual, a hideous laugh that made Darallis shiver. Soko flung another sail at him, but nothing could hurt him. He had created a shield of magic, magic so strong nothing could penetrate it. Except…

  “Richard!” Darallis cried. Her hair, whipped around her head in the blasting winds, was disheveled and wet, and her shoulders were burning with the fire-rain the First Councilor had conjured, but she ran. She ran with the wind, slashing wildly at the air, forgetting the very feel of her sword. Her legs blurred, her fists flew, but it was too late. Soko gaped and ran like Darallis, but the First Councilor had been slain, his power broken and his magic destroyed, and the daredevil porcupine who had so bravely killed him lay motionless on the deck as the moon rolled into the sky.

  The two sisters were in too much shock to sob or wail; they did not scream; they did not collapse or make a dramatic funeral scene. Darallis solemnly raised her sword, not to ward off the vanished Inside-Outers but in honor of the fallen porcupine; Soko followed suit and the two crossed their shining blades, then allowed their swords to fall. They merely stared, ponderously, sadly, at the valiant porcupine who had left them years before his time. Just because of a fairytale adventure for gold that turned into a hunt for the First Councilor; just because of Darallis, who could have stayed shut up in the castle, and Soko, who made such a mess of being a pickpocket. Just because of us, just because of us. The thought rang endlessly in their two minds like a bell that would not stop.

  “Where are the blueprints?” They jumped at the familiar, groggy-sounding voice. Darallis gasped, sinking to the ground and weeping with joy. Soko’s eyes widened until they had broken the kingdom record and she fainted. Both girls crawled to the porcupine in wonder, sliding their fingers over his chipped spikes and feeling for his pulse all over.

  “You’re alive,” Soko finally observed, staring at Richard. “What—”

  “When—” Darallis began.

  “Where the heck—” Soko was cut off by a “How???!!!” from Darallis and bit her tongue.

  “Well, technically I’m supposed to be dead, I think,” he said, squirming uncomfortably, “but you know, I’m a doctor and I kind of avoided it…” And so he began a lengthy tale of his death, his revival, and how everything came about. Darallis’s un-ladylike grin seemed wide enough to swallow a sea, while the tears of joy Soko shed would have created two new oceans. Even the moon smiled upon them and sailed off into the depths of its silvery kingdom.

The End

EPILOGUE

Soko and Darallis were both the same age and both entitled to the throne and ruled Falala together. This was an enormous shock to Falala, who first of all had never seen rulers ruling together, and also because women rulers were very rare. Darallis was better at regal processions and was more popular among the nobility and the higher classes, while Soko was more popular with the “common rabble”, as nobles sometimes called the general public. It was traditional for queens to be married off as soon as they reached the age of twenty, but Darallis refused to bend to any such rule. Soko later married Gareth, Marquis of Annebauml, the illegitimate son of a high-ranking noble, and had three children. They were named Richard (named after Richard the porcupine, who was now Head of Foreign Affairs and Relations with Other Creatures), Eleanor, and Eva. Eleanor and Eva were twins, Richard being born a year after them, and it was determined that Eva and Eleanor should rule together after Darallis and Soko’s death. Eleanor acted a great deal like Darallis and acted like her as well, while Eva and Richard were more mischievous. They often flicked bread crumbs at influential councilors at dinnertime.

  Darallis swore to Soko not to get involved in any war unless she absolutely needed to, while Soko swore to tell Darallis if the commoners looked as though they were going to rebel. Ruling Falala was not as relaxing as napping on a davenport set on a sunlit balcony or sipping vodka or cognac while playing games of pool, but it was much more fulfilling.

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