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 red 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 masses, but at least he wasn’t the one who was going to be blasted by druids if the plans failed.
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 to himself. 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 place 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 glace 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 legal. 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 the life. There would not be, nor could there be, another attack in the city.
Two more of his men, also armed wit h 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 still they were 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 stocky of the kind 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 rooftops 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 better moral fiber 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 suddenly held their breath. He sidled between two big men in clothes only half a step up from rags, 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 and 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. He looked around; even stood on tiptoes with his hands on the shoulders of the men next to him. Young and old shouted their cheers for the 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 suggestions of what to do to Crecens 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