The Cabinet Meeting

A deathly hush fell on the Cabinet Room, a gleaming space in the heart of the Orange Palace. Shafts of mid-morning sunlight glittered off the ranks of china cabinets lining the walls that gave the room its name.

The weekly ceremony of the Cabinet Meeting was about to begin, with all the Palace staff duly assembled. Old hands, like myself and Crotchet the cook, sat near the back where we couldn’t be seen dozing off.

The dignitaries of King Grump’s court filed in. A fanfare resounded, and the King himself, smiling and waving, entered and sat on a pile of soft cushions in front of the most splendid cabinet of all, displaying the First King’s sumptuous collection of chamber pots.

“It’s been a good week,” the King began. “Probably the best week the kingdom has ever seen. In fact, we’ve had so much success this week I’m heartily sick of success.”

A few coughs and nervous titters broke the watchful silence.

“Of course I’m joking about that last part,” the King announced with the slightest crease of a frown.

The resounding laughter, more relief than appreciation of humor, seemed to go on forever.

“A most auspicious week,” agreed Viceroy Dense, when the room had quietened down, and the more enthusiastic members of the audience ostentatiously rolling in the aisles had been escorted away.

“Indeed,” said the Captain of the Militia. “And I thank your inestimable highness for granting our hard-pressed officers the right to incapacitate first and ask questions later.”

“Our workhouses are fuller than ever,” the Overseer of Forced Labor added. “Albeit more than usual coming in with missing limbs.” He gave a pointed glance at the Captain of the Militia.

“That’s a remarkable achievement,” the King announced. “We are putting more and more of our cripples to productive use.”

At this point I found myself nodding off, and woke only when Crotchet nudged me in the ribs.

The shafts of sunlight had marched noticeably around, when Prince Rebus pulled himself to his full height and puffed out his chest. “Your Highness, it has indeed been a most remarkable week, and I am deeply humbled and honored to serve under your inspiring rule.”

As we stood to leave, Crotchet turned and cast a beady eye over the nearest cabinet. “What a load of old crock,” the cook muttered.

The birdie post

On my way back from the town hall, I spotted a few members of the Vulture Corps in their permanent encampment outside the gates of the Orange Palace.

A couple of them looked downcast, like naughty schoolchildren caught dunking beggars in the fountain. They were being berated by Jerrycan, the King’s Assistant Spinmeister. As I drew near the gate, the subject of the altercation became clear.

“You’ve been at the King’s birdie post again!” Jerrycan raged.

“No we ain’t, Miss Jerrycan, honest.”

She shoved the hapless wretch aside and pointed to a glowing brazier the two of them had been trying to hide. Suspended over it on a spit, the unmistakable carcasses of two pigeons browned and crisped.

“Aww, c’mon Miss. We got these from the town square.”

Grim faced, Jerrycan pointed to the small brass message capsule still attached to one blackened claw.

“We got to make a livin’ somehow,” the other one pleaded. “Times is ’ard, what wiv King Grump declarin’ us a Public Nuisance an’ all.”

“In times past,” the first one mumbled, “we used to get invited inside t’Palace and looked after proper like.”

“Please don’t be ’ard on us, Miss Jerrycan. This is all we ’ave to live on nowadays.”

Of Cabbages and Kings

With huge relief that the coronation painting had not sent King Grump into a storming rage, I treated myself to a midday wander from the Orange Palace to the town square. There was usually something going on, a market some days, a public flogging on others, but today the place was eerily quiet. Even Pox, the Town Crier, was nowhere to be seen.

A murmur of voices in the distance alerted me to a stream of people converging on the town hall. Intrigued, I followed and spotted Crotchet, the Palace cook.

Although it was a warm day, the cook wore a bulky overcoat that seemed to bulge in all sort of abnormal ways, even for Crotchet.

“What’s going on?” I whispered.

“Coma’s back,” came the reply.

I was so taken aback at the clarity of the response, which jarred with common sense in a disturbing way, that I was momentarily lost for words. As we shuffled forwards, my mind caught up with the cook’s reply. “Coma?” I hissed, picturing the former head of the Fearsome Brotherhood of Inquisitors. “He’s been missing for weeks!”

“Well, ’e’s back, and word is, ’e’s telling all sorts o’ weird stuff about t’King.”

“Like what?”

Crotchett leaned closer, and in a lowered voice, accompanied by a strange rustling from somewhere in the depths of his/her overcoat, said, “Seems ol’ Grump’s been ’avin’ dealin’s wiv Poutine.”

“What? The cabbage merchant from Little Rustier?” I said, aghast.

The cook nodded.

“The one we’ve been told to not talk to because he’s a threat to our own brassica empire?”

“The very same.”

“So,” I said, “what’s going on in the town hall?”

“Word is, Coma’s goin’ ter tell all.”

I glanced aver the crowds, who, for once, seemed oblivious to the posse of the King’s guards lurking nearby and trying to look menacing. One shaved nonchalantly with his long sword, while another tossed a battleax lightly in the air, flipping it end over end and catching it in one hand. He scowled as the nearest peasants ignored him, and gave up showing off. He sulked in a corner and used one wickedly curved point of the ax’s blade to pick his teeth.

Crotchet edged forward, eagerly looking for a gap in the crowd to squeeze through. Another suspicious rustle and a muffled crunch as someone jostled him. A buttery aroma wafted over the predominant eau-de-armpit.

“And ... is that ... popcorn?”

Crotchet winked. “Should be quite a show.”

The Return of the King

The whole of the Orange Palace was in a heightened state of anxiety, what Crotchet the cook referred to as Code Yellow on the Trouser Scale.

Earlier that morning, Pox, the Town Crier, had vocally proclaimed the triumphal return of King Grump from his foreign visit. Always a source of anxiety, because no matter what the official news proclaimed, no-one could ever predict Grump’s moods, and he was always, well, Grumpy after being too long away from his weekend resorts.

Regardless of the general mood downstairs, I had reason to elevate my personal mood to Code Brown. Spider had been noticeably absent since fleeing the Vulture Corps seeking news of Coma, the King’s chief Inquisitor, and so I had no idea how he planned to deal with the coronation painting and it’s embarrassing lack of jubilant crowds.

Worse, Grump had been overheard bragging yet again about the size of his following to the other Kings, Queens, and assorted nobility on his foreign trip.

The painting would surely have been unveiled by now? And yet, there had been no explosion of outrage from upstairs. No dismembered body parts fluttering from the battlements. What could have happened?

Night fell. Many hours later, the Palace fell into its customary few hours of slumber.

By the light of a single candle, guttering in dank breezes whispering through the lofty halls, I crept towards the gallery where hung the coronation paintings of rulers present and past.

As I drew near, it became clear that the new painting had indeed been hung and unveiled. The acres of ornate and highly tasteful gold leaf threw back a thousand glittering highlights from my meager light.

Puzzled, I approached closer. There was King Grump, and his retinue of grey-faced officials, and ... and ... a whole crowd of happy onlookers!

I stared. The painting certainly looked like the style of Nat Parks, but he couldn’t possibly have done this. A student, maybe?

The figures looked awfully familiar, though. I stepped closer yet and held my candle up to the canvas.

The work had been done with exquisite care. Only the closest of scrutiny would reveal that the figures had been stuck on top of the original canvas, but where could they have come from?

My gaze drifted along the hallway. This painting, alone of all those in the long hallway, was set in an alcove all of its own flanked by marble columns that I could have sworn were not there yesterday. Beyond the columns, a generous acreage of plush velvet hangings ensured nothing of interest for at least a dozen yards in either direction competed for this painting’s claim on the onlooker’s attention.

Suspicious, I tweaked back one corner of the far curtain. There, hidden from view, was the Predecessor’s coronation painting, with blank gaps where the foreground had been carefully cut out.

Nobody had noticed. Or, at least, nobody had voiced any suspicions.

I would do well to follow suit.

The King is always right

The sun rose early, approximately at dawn. In fact I would be tempted to say precisely at dawn, because that is what our foremost Natural Philosophers would have us believe, but they are very much out of favor with King Grump (since daring to inform him that gravity was not actually an Eastern plot to hold our merchants down) and so, it follows, is anything they would have us believe.

And so, no matter how suspiciously close to dawn the sun persists in rising, that should not be construed as anything other than a happy accident. Any purported connection is fake news.

I had finished my morning rounds of the Orange Palace in remarkably quick time (largely because the King was still away on his foreign travels and so there was nobody much around to mess up the place) and had made my way to the town square. There I was met by a remarkably large and unruly crowd for this time of day.

Mayor Pianoforte and a couple of flunkies were dunking a crippled old man in the fountain at the base of the statue of Our Lady the Slightly Virtuous.

“What’s going on?” I asked Prince Rebus, the Palace’s Majordomo. “Shouldn’t you be putting a stop to this lawlessness?”

The Prince gave me a pitying look. “They’re only protecting their right to free speech.” In response to my blank gaze, he continued, “He had the temerity to ask the Mayor when he was getting his wooden leg.”

“Tha’s right,” the man spluttered. “War veterans are supposed to get looked after. Replacement limbs and suchlike. Me old leg got eaten by woodworm. I’m due a replacement.”

“Poppycock! Take that, you precious snowflake! And stop asking awkward questions!” The man disappeared under the water again.

A few conclusions fluttered into place, but these were highly uncertain and confusing times. I felt the need to clarify. I took the Prince by the arm and discreetly led him away from the jeering crowds. “Just to be sure, I always heard ...”

The Prince gave me a stern look.

“... entirely unfounded and most likely untrue rumors that war veterans did have their medical needs cared for by the State.”

I wasn’t sure whether I preferred the pitying or the stern look. The Prince sighed. “That was, indeed, an old and outmoded custom of the Predecessor’s.”

“Aah.”

“But those wastrels need to learn self respect and to stand on their own two feet, or one foot as the case may be. It’s for their own good, after all it’s his own fault he got his leg cut off in the first place. Besides, we need every spare florin to send more men to the war.”

“So, an upstanding citizen dunking a ...”

“Rebel upstart purveyor of fake news,” Prince Rebus supplied helpfully.

“Yes, that, is not committing an assault, but is upholding the rule of law.”

“I can see a bright future for you at the Palace.” Prince Rebus grinned.

Pussy galore

“Salut,” slurred Crotchet, raising his (or her) goblet and knocking back the contents.

I swirled mine more cautiously, admiring how well the slightly steaming (though ice cold) liquid cleaned the inside of the goblet, and took a sip. “So,” I wheezed, “you’re saying Spider’s in more of a fix than just mishandling the news about Coma?” Or, I added to myself, a sparsely populated coronation painting.

“Oh, that’s the focus of his worries right enough, the incitin’ incident, if yer like, but it’s the timin’, see?”

I confessed I didn’t. Crotchett gave a conspiratorial wink. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure the door to the cook’s office was securely latched. The fire in the grate sparked and spluttered, casting a demonic glow over the cook’s ruddy face.

“It’s the foreign visit,” Crotchett whispered. “King’s in a right filthy mood.”

I pondered how, exactly one would tell the difference, but was still puzzled. “According to Pox ...”

“Pox? Pah! That’s the official version.” Crotchett tapped his nose with her bony finger (or was it the other way around?) “Sources say, he tried to stroke High Chancellor Murky’s pussy.”

I gagged on the sip I was ill-advisedly taking at the time. Visions of scabrous fur floated in front of my blearing vision. “What happened?” I gasped.

“Got scratched and bit, din’ ’e? Daft puddin’” Crotchett poured another snifter from the heavy, iron-bound bottle, and set it back on the table with exaggerated care. “Queen Melanoma ain’t touched ’im since. Says he must ’ave fleas or rabies or summat.”

Again, I wondered how much difference that would make in the grand scheme of things. “Well, that would explain Spider’s anxiety. You don’t want to get in Grump’s crossbow hairs when he’s having a tantrum. But how do you know this?” An awful suspicion formed. “You haven’t been sneaking visits to the pigeon loft again, have you? You know what’ll happen if they catch you interfering with the King’s birdie post.”

The cook’s face settled into a picture of innocence. “Got ter collect eggs for the palace breakfast, ain’t I? And wiv me eyesight”-I was painfully aware of the gimlet gaze skewering me that would do an Inquisitor proud-“a pigeon can look awful like a chicken.”

The Fearsome Brotherhood of Inquisitors

“I ’ere poor Spider’s in a bit’o a mess.”

That was Crotchet, the head cook. A fierce and withered creature of indeterminate age and gender, it was said that the cook had been here since the founding of the Orange Palace. Indeed, some accounts suggested that the cook even predated the palace, and that the walls of the kitchen had been built up around him. Or her.

My mind went back to the sight early this morning of Spider and the coronation painting, before I realized that this, surely, couldn’t be the problem. Not yet. Unless someone else had been sneaking a quick look at that painting.

The pressing warmth and heady aromas of the kitchen brought me back to the here-and-now. It was only a matter of time before the cook expanded on that mysterious statement.

“ ’E was caught out, talking to Pox about Coma.”

Aah, that made more sense. The whole town was buzzing with rumors about Coma, the mysterious head of the Fearsome Brotherhood of Inquisitors, who had been missing since Tuesday. Pox, the Town Crier, had been pestering Spider for news ever since.

The trouble was, no-one, especially not Spider, really knew what had happened to him. “Fired,” some said. “From the highest battlement,” said others. “Gone fishing.” “Run away.”

Some accounts, whispered only in hushed tones downstairs, and never within earshot of any of Grump’s spies, suggested that Coma had unearthed something about the King himself. Something about getting into bed with the wrong person, I’d heard. But that didn’t make sense. It was unwritten Law that everyone in the kingdom was fair game for a right royal screwing.

“Moment ’e opened ’is big mouf,” the cook continued, “t’whole Vulture Corps was a-swarming. And King Grump weren’t too ’appy about it neither.”

My heart sank. When Grump was unhappy, everyone kept their heads down. There’d been a lot of that going around lately.

“ ’E was last seen disappearin’ into some bushes,” the cook said with a knowing wink. “ ’Ad to take a piss, ’e said.”

Sadly we got to hear nothing further of the cook’s musing. Stoat, a recent addition to the kitchen staff and most certainly one of Grump’s spies, slithered through the door and the gathering swiftly dispersed.

“Not buyin’ any o’ that malarkey,” the cook whispered to me, bustling past. “Takin’ a piss? Bit late for that. ’E’d already pee’d ’isself.”