Half way through my early-morning rounds, ensuring the thousand-and-one glittering candelabras of the Orange Palace were properly gleaming, I heard a curious noise in the distance. Down hallways and up stairs, the sound became more distinct. Someone was sobbing.
Who could be up and about at this hour? Below stairs the household was only just awakening to begin the daily grind, but this early the halls of the administrative offices and the residential wing were usually silent.
I crept closer, and was startled to see a pitiful bundle of misery huddled under the long line of portraits in the Main Gallery. It was Spider, the King’s Spinmeister General.
He sniffled as I approached, and swiveled a red-rimmed eye in my direction. “Oh, it’s you.” He straightened himself and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
“What seems to be the trouble?” I asked.
“What? No trouble here. Everything is good,” he spluttered. “Why would you spread fake news like that?”
I rolled my eyes, ensuring the gesture was made in a non-discriminatory fashion, and silently pointed in turn to his tear-streaked face, his rumpled clothing, and the hallway that should, by rights, be devoid of human traffic.
“Oh, there’s no fooling you, is there?” He deflated and sagged back to the floor.
For the first time, I noticed the large oblong package leaning against the wall opposite Spider. “Is that the painting of King Grump’s coronation?” A feeling of dread crept over me.
“It’s not due to be unveiled until tomorrow. Have you looked at it?”
He nodded again.
Cautiously, I lifted a corner of the covering and studied the painting. All at once I could see the problem. My gaze rose to the long line of paintings of coronations past that hung along the hall. The line ended above Spider’s head with that of The Predecessor, a particularly fine work by the famous artist, Nathaniel Parks. The new work, also by Nat Parks was specially commissioned and boasted to be even more impressive than The Predecessor’s.
“The frame is certainly more imposing,” I muttered. That would please the King. He liked large and elaborate acres of gold leaf. “And the artist has captured perfectly the sheen on the golden crown, the plush of the velvet, and the ermine is exquisite.” I hesitated, scrutinizing Spider’s expression from the corner of my eye. I glanced up and down the hall to make sure we really were alone. “But the crowd looks a little ... thin.”
“How in the world am I supposed to spin this?” Spider wailed.
“Do you think anyone will see past the glitter of the frame and look at the picture itself?”
“The Vulture Corps will. And some of them can even count.”
I gazed at Spider with a twinge of pity. He wasn’t a bad man, but he was in an impossible position. “I know Nat Parks is renowned for his accuracy, but could we, maybe, see if he can paint a few more figures in?”
“As soon as he announced he was finished, Grump fired him ...”
“Can we get him back? Before it’s too late?”
“... from the largest cannon on the battlements.”
“He didn’t want him painting anything even more splendid for someone else.”
I studied the painting of King Grump’s coronation again, ignoring the grey-faced officials surrounding the smugly grinning King and singling out the onlookers. “The worst part is,” I said, “they’re not even smiling.”
“No,” Spider agreed, gazing sadly at the painting. “Neither of them.”