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.”
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.”