King Rolof was fit to be tied, and Benecala thought he might have to do it: tie him. He looked at the red velvet curtains covering the door to the balcony for what must have been the tenth time in as many minutes with the same glowering stare each time. Benecala watched him carefully. Given that the king had a penchant for doing whatever he wanted regardless of the good advice his wizard gave him, it was possible he would make a dash for the balcony and address the crowd below.
John was sitting on a bench against the wall to the right of the king’s chair. He was as nervous as he had been in years. It wasn’t hot in the room, but his armpits were dripping against his ribcage and he wished he could unbutton the top of his white shirt, or at least take off the velvet cloak he was wearing. The crown felt heavy on his head, too. He didn’t blame Rolof for not wearing it very often.
“I fail to see the morality in it,” Rolof muttered.
“The morality in what, sire?” The question came from Raj, the only one in the room who could possibly understand how King Rolof felt. Raj was a Crescen, once the King of Crescens. Although he ruled only briefly before a demon took over his body, he ruled long enough to know what it was like. “The morality of keeping yourself alive because your country needs you?”
“That part I understand.” He jabbed a finger at John. “What I see as immoral is sending him out in my stead—having him pretend he is me—so the people of this country can rally around their king. The king who is, in practice and in fact, hiding behind a damn curtain!”
“It worked for the Wizard of Oz,” John said. The looks they gave him made him wish Andy looked more like the king than he did. They would have laughed if Andy made the joke, even if they didn’t get it. Andy was the one with the reputation of being a funny guy, but he was out in the streets, one more pair of eyes protecting the king. He was out in the clammy chill of the day, mingling with the dirty, smelly massed, but at least he wasn’t the one who was going to be blasted by druids if the protection wasn’t enough.
Rolof looked at the faces in the room. Raj gave him an encouraging smile and a shrug that seemed to indicate he should relax and let the plan unfold. Benecala’s face showed deadly seriousness, and King Rolof realized quite suddenly that the wizard was not going to let him give the speech no matter how much he begged, pleaded, cajoled, or even ordered him to allow it. John was the only one not looking at him, and that was fine with Rolof. It allowed him to see what the other two did to make him look like him. They did a very good job, he had to admit. His hair was the same shade of red as his, and the beard the wizard created looked very much like his. John was only a little smaller than him, but the distance from the crowd afforded by the balcony, and the fact that few in the crowd had ever seen their king up close made up the difference. John would be a passable double.
Sistelli watched the crowd with suspicion. The suspicion was part and parcel of his role as a colonel in the Protectors Guild of Sexton, and it had been running higher than usual since the druids attacked the palace from a ship—one belonging to the king before it was captured, somehow, by druids. It had been a month since the attack on the back wall of the palace drove a hunk of it down the cliff to the bay below. King Rolof had not been seen publicly since that day. Many believed he was dead.
They were gathered in the square before the palace on a rainy morning because word had gone out that the king was going to make an appearance on the balcony, and perhaps address the citizens. Sistelli felt it was time for that to happen. Not that anyone asked him, of course, or that they would ask him. His role was to keep the king safe no matter what, and some of those in power thought the attack on the palace was a sign of dismal failure on the part of him and his men. It was a ridiculous notion, and a persistent one.
He scowled at a group of young people that shuffled by his position on the corner. They were staring at him, not with the admiration or fear he had come to enjoy, but with something that was almost contempt. One of them, a young blond man, met his eyes. He couldn’t stand the glance and looked away within a second or two. Not for the first time of late, he wished he could leave the guild and spend his energies and time with Questa, building their whoring operations in the city. Business was good, the money was good, and he was in charge, but he needed to maintain his image as a protector, not to mention the contacts within the guild he might need should trouble arise. They had nothing to fear from the druids, but their whoring operations were illegal. Tolerated, but illegal. As long as he was inside the guild, he would be in a better position to protect his interests than if he wasn’t.
He needed to pull his mind back to the task. Given the attack on the palace and the way rumor and fear of magic spread from person to person, he needed to at least appear vigilant and watchful. The sky was overcast with a silver mass of clouds, but the light from the clouds was still bright. He put the side of his hand to his forehead and looked at the rooftops of the buildings around the square. Several of his men were in strategic positions on the roofs of buildings around the square, with crossbows trained on the crowd. If they saw a glimpse of a red eye, or a hand raised as if casting a spell, their orders were to take a life. There would not be, nor could there be, another attack in the city.
Two more of his men, also armed with crossbows, were under the balcony on either side of it. They watched the first few rows of people in the crowd, and were also under orders to kill anyone who made suspicious hand gestures or had red eyes. The crowd was also interspersed with protectors who were not from his unit, and still more managed the crowd from the sides and rear. This was the most protected appearance of the king he had ever seen or heard of, and they were still nervous.
A man passed him and looked at him a little too long. He was shorter than Sistelli by a few inches, and his build was the kind of stocky that would probably turn to fat in his later years. His hair was a little strange: dark brown or black, but the ends were a much lighter shade, a greenish blond. His beard was black and full. Their eyes met for a moment, and the man smiled before he shifted his eyes to look at someone in the crowd. He waved at whoever he was looking for in the crowd, and moved along his way. There was something about the man that seemed familiar, but he didn’t have time to wonder why.
Andy’s heart was still beating hard when he broke eye contact with Sistelli and pretended to look for someone in the crowd. He had been watching the colonel for several minutes—long enough to see his eyes when he checked on his men in the crowd. It was the first time he remembered being glad Sistelli was as paranoid as he was. The guildsmen on the roofs were well placed, and there was no doubt in his mind they would kill anyone who even looked like a threat. Whether or not they actually were a threat wouldn’t bother Sistelli a bit. Once again, Andy was glad he had stronger moral fiver than the scumbag guild officer.
The reaction of the crowd told him the curtain had finally opened. It got very quiet in the square, as if three or four hundred people held their breath. He sidled between two big men in clothes only half a step up from rage, and looked up at the balcony. He blinked. The man on the balcony could have been King Rolof. He knew it wasn’t, but only because he knew it wasn’t.
Three or four seconds went by the the quiet felt uncomfortable. I might as well be the first one, he thought as he sucked in his breath to shout. “There he is everybody! Good King Rolof! I knew he was alive. Three cheers for the King of Sexton!”
That did it. The crowd erupted in applause and cheers. He looked around, and even stood on tiptoes with his hands on the shoulders of the men in front of him. Young and old shouted cheers for their king. There was a mix of income groups in the crowd, including some who looked rich and some in the middle, and the two workers in front of him. They shouted at the balcony—greetings of welcome, cheers of relief, and even a few strongly worded suggestions of what to do to Crescens that were graphic enough to make Andy cringe.
John raised his hands to quiet the crowd, and forced himself to smile. “I AM ALIVE!” was all he got out before the cheers of the crowd roared through the square again.
John was taken aback by the cheers. It wasn’t his first public appearance, or public speech—if a season of high school forensics counted as public appearances and public speech—but it was his first time people really thought he was a king. It was heartwarming and a little surprising to feel the joy, real joy, the people in the square shouted up at him. Or at Rolof, who they thought he was, but he wasn’t, but they didn’t know that...
Speech, John, he thought. Make the speech!
“Yes, I am very much alive!” he shouted. “As you can see. People of Sexton, we have been attacked! Savagely attacked.” More shouts went up, and this time they weren’t joyous. There was anger in them. Calls for revenge. He held up his hands wit the palms out. “The cost to us of that attack was not devastating. We lost a few bricks to the sea...”
More shouts. They knew damn well most of the back of the palace fell to the bay. They were the great unwashed, but they weren’t dumb. He was glad King Rolof was able to remember that, but he could see—standing over the people as if he really had command over their lives—how easily a king could feel like he was more than a man. The shouts were angry calls for revenge. One voice carried to him clearly and it was representative of what the others were probably shouting. “We’ll kill the bastards!”
He held up his hands, palms out. “Let us not be hasty in deciding who we will kill! Leaning forward, he went on. “Lives were lost. Lord Mage Benecala lost his daughter, Quaiva. She was with child, but the child was not killed. She was my friend. I knew her well when we were little and we remained close.” His voice choked a little. He was beyond acting. Although he was thinking more of Tom’s loss than his own, it still hurt to know she died when part of a ceiling collapsed on her while she gave birth. He hammered the railing with both fists. His anger was real and matched by that of the crowd.
“Do you know who killed her?” he shouted when he straightened. “Do you?”
The cry went up from the crowd. Different voices. Different volumes, but the same cry. “Crescens!”
“No!” The crowd went quiet so suddenly he almost lost his train of thought. “Crescens did not kill her! She was not killed by soldiers. She was not killed by citizens of that country. She was killed when magic cast by druids was hurled at the walls of a symbol of this nation. Magic cast by druids! Druids!
“We are in the midst of a war, my people. It is a bloody war. Your sons are fighting this war as we stand where we are. They fight in the desert. They fight on the sea. They fight each other like men. Make no mistake...we will win this war.”
Cheers went up again. The tone was powerful and resolved. He had to bring them around, and give them something...something to direct their anger against. Something they could do to help the cause. “Remember this attack! It was more than an attack on this pile of rocks we call a palace. It was an attack on what we are as a nation. Remember as well...” He leaned forward again and swept his eyes across the mass of people in the square. “...Druids. Priests of a god that cares nothing of men and women and children. Druids did this! There is a long history of war between us and the Crescens, but every one of those wars was directed one way or another by druids!
“I will tell you how you can help the effort. Would you like to help the effort?” The question was one that made Benecala itchy, but it was Rolof’s idea and it was endorsed heartily by him and Andy. The crowd roared their assent. Before he could speak, the real King Rolof’s voice came through the curtain behind him.
“Be careful now, John. Do not over incite them. You could cause a riot if you do not proceed with caution.”
John held his breath for a second, pretending he was waiting for the crowd to calm. “Be vigilant. If you see a rat, kill it. The druids are capable of changing their shape. They like to become rats—for that is what they are in human form, and it is natural for them to assume it when they spy on our streets and neighborhoods. Be vigilant. Look each person you see in the eye. If the eyes are red as lamps outside a whorehouse, continue on your way and find the nearest protector. They will handle the situation.” There was a slightly muted roar. Mistrust of the guild ran almost as high as the public’s trust in it. He wondered if Rolof knew that, and realized he probably did.
“They can take other shapes and forms as well, but their eyes always give them away. Red as coals, they are. They stand against all that we stand for! They want this land...but not the people on it. If they had their way, there would be no Sexton man, no Sexton woman, and no Sexton child left alive. We will not stand for that, will we?”
The sounds from the crowd answered his question. Hats were tossed in the air. It was like seeing a multicolored wave sweep the square. He held up his hands again and waited for them to calm down.
“Now let me tell you what we will not do. I say this—nay, I order this—as your King! We will not blame the people of Crescens for the attack on the palace! We will not!”
The mood of the crowd changed like the colors of a traffic light, from green to red, in a hot second. A few started to boo and it spread. He couldn’t let that continue. Didn’t need Rolof to tell him that.
“The people of Crescens are not of themselves evil! You know this! You are all good enough to know this!” He continued to project his voice, but toned it down so it wasn’t a shout. “For a long time we have had Crescens live peacefully among us. You buy from them in the bazaar. You seek the fabrics they import. You sell them grain, and buy their beer. They are people. Same as you, if different in some ideas and fashions.
“The soldiers fighting our soldiers—your sons—in the battlefield, must be fought. We will do that as long as the druids running Crecens make us do that. We will be victorious in this war when druids are destroyed. I urge you...I beseech you...do not panic. Do not kill until you see the reds of their eyes!” A little line stolen from the American Revolution couldn’t hurt, he thought. “But when you see red eyes, act swiftly.”
“Well played,” he heard Rolof say through the curtain. “I think you have them now. Finish it.”
John stepped back from the rail so he could see the crowd. They were waiting. He had their attention, and he had given them something to do. Helplessness on the part of a group of willful people was dangerous. “Druids. We fight druids. That they are among us is beyond doubt. Be vigilant. Be the brave people our ancestors were, the people who fought the beasts that killed their children, the people who tamed the forests and tilled the fields and built the city. We are those people! We are not animals who kill to kill ideas and who seek to bring about the ruin of civilization. Druids do that! We can, and must, and will defeat the druids.
“For my part, I am and remain your king! I have led troops in battle, and now I pledge to you that I will lead you as well. We will win this war. We—not me, we—will win this war against druids. If you see a red-eyed creature, kill it! If you are friends with a Crescen, or someone of Crescen ancestry, maintain that friendship! They are not the enemy, the druids are! If you know, if you have friends that are Crescens, talk to them about the druids. See what they have to say, and let them help you root them out. Will you do this?”
The cheers were loud enough to overcome the thunder in the distance behind the walls. It started to rain, not hard, but hard enough to obscure the balcony and the man standing on it.
In the crowd, Andy looked around. He was impressed at the way John picked up on their emotions and turned them the way they wanted. It was a lot better performance than the one he gave in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying as a high school junior, and a lot more important. He pressed his way through the crowd and headed back toward the palace. He liked the bit about red-eyed rats. Chuckled at the idea. He might not know it, he thought, but he just ordered a hit on every rat in the city whether its eyes are red or not. And I’m damn glad I’m not an albino rabbit. Those are toast, too!