The little prince looked up at me from his mother’s lap. He had startlingly bright emerald eyes, the same shade as hers. He gave an unexpected chortle. “Gizward,” he said.

“Did you hear that?” asked the queen, so quickly that I almost wondered if he might not have said what had seemed so clear. “He just said ‘Wizard’!”

In spite of the king’s concerns about leaving his rose bushes in June, the trip almost immediately became something for which the whole castle was preparing. The king and queen would travel with a relatively small party: the baby’s nurse, the queen’s Aunt Maria, a few ladies, and a half dozen knights. The king was leaving his chaplain and me behind, although we had often accompanied him on short trips.

“You’d be bored silly in two days,” he told me with a conspiratorial smile. “The queen’s parents are very dear people, but- Besides, I trust you to keep an eye on Dominic.”

Since they planned to be gone over a month, the king took the precaution of appointing his burly nephew as regent. Prince Dominic listened to the announcement without any apparent emotion. He merely nodded and slowly twisted the ruby ring he always wore on his second finger. The ring’s setting was a golden snake, with the jewel resting on its coils, and I had always felt it would be a much better ring for a wizard than for a prince. This regency, I thought, might be the closest Dominic would ever come to being king of Yurt, and I would have expected more reaction from him.

I had sometimes wondered at Dominic’s calm acceptance of the birth of his young cousin. After all, the royal nephew had probably spent most of his life, until the baby was born, assuming he would someday be king himself. I wondered if he planned to revolutionize the running of the castle while the king was away and rather hoped he didn’t, for if so I might be the first to go.

Less than two weeks after the king and queen first announced they were going they were gone, riding off in the cool of the early morning, accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets. The whole party rode white horses with bells on their harnesses.

Everyone had come out to say good-bye, and for several minutes as the riders mounted there was a great deal of laughing and calling final messages and instructions. The baby prince, riding in a pack on his nurse’s back, frowned at us all. Dominic alone stood stolid and dignified, as though already feeling the weight of his responsibilities and wanting to be sure we all knew it.

The king reined in his horse just as they all started down the hill. “Be sure to cut the roses every day,” he told the constable. “As I already told you, it’s better to cut them in the bud than to have the blossoms all fade on the bushes.”

“Yes, you already told me, sire,” said the constable respectfully, but with a hint of an indulgent smile.

“All right, all right,” said the king, and did smile before hurrying to catch up to the rest.

They reached the edge of the woods below the castle’s hill and disappeared from sight with a final ringing of harness bells. The morning suddenly seemed extremely quiet and extremely empty.

“Well, it looks like you’re in charge of the castle now, Prince Dominic,” I said to break the silence. “At least until the royal family comes back.”

The regent was juggling something heavy in his hand which I recognized as the royal seal of Yurt. “But it’s not my castle, and they’re not my wife and child,” he growled, turned on his heel, and stamped in across the drawbridge.

The staff and the knights and ladies who were staying behind drifted back inside, but I didn’t feel like going in yet. The day had gone flat, and it would be at least three more days before we could expect a telephone call, telling us that the royal party had arrived safely at the castle of the queen’s parents.

My biggest wizardly accomplishment since coming to Yurt had been the installation of magic telephones. They were not like the magic telephones common down in the great City, but then very little of my magic seemed to be like anyone else’s. This was largely due to the fact that I often had to improvise to compensate for all the courses at the wizards’ school where I had not paid proper attention — and in this case I had managed to avoid courses in the technical division completely-but I preferred to think it demonstrated my unique flair and creativity.

In the meantime I didn’t want to mope for three days, waiting for the telephone to ring, imagining the royal family attacked by bandits or dragons without their wizard there to protect them.

“Joachim,” I said to the chaplain, who was also still looking off across the green fields of Yurt, “let’s go sit in the king’s garden for a moment.”

He gave a start, as though he had forgotten my presence, but answered calmly. “All right, Daimbert.”

We were the only people in the castle who used each other’s names, being Father and Wizard to everyone else. We didn’t always understand each other, and I had long since despaired of giving him a proper sense of humor, but we had managed to become friends, at least most of the time, though traditionally priests and wizards do not get along at all. For that matter, wizards don’t usually get along with other wizards.

We sat on the bench by the king’s yellow roses. The king had been up at dawn, pruning everything one last time before he left, so the only blooms on the bushes were the buds that were just opening.

“Do you know what’s bothering Dominic?” I asked. “I’d expected he’d be delighted to have a chance to act as king of Yurt.”

“I think that’s his problem precisely,” said the chaplain. “He loves the little prince-everyone must love him-but Dominic had been heir apparent to the kingdom his entire life, and now he isn’t. Being named temporary regent must emphasize for him that the future he’d always thought he was preparing for will never come to pass.”

If Dominic was undergoing some sort of emotional crisis, I just hoped he didn’t bother me with it. “Well, at least it’s not us,” I said cheerfully. “What shall we do first while the king is gone? How about if I try to discover a spell to raise up armed men from dragons’ teeth?”

Joachim stretched his long legs out in front of him and glanced at me from deep-set eyes. “I’m afraid we have no dragons’ teeth,” he said, perfectly serious. “But I have a task of my own. I received a message from the bishop yesterday, asking me to investigate the situation at a hermitage at the far eastern end of the kingdom.”

This sounded deadly dull to me. One advantage of being a wizard rather than a priest was that the wizards’ school wasn’t always giving us the responsibility of carrying out uninteresting tasks.

But something about this message had bothered Joachim. There was a faint note of concern in his voice that no one who did not know him as well as I did would have noticed. “What’s the problem?”

“I don’t understand why the bishop asked me,” he said, turning his huge dark eyes fully on me. Even after two years, the effect was still intimidating. “Why didn’t he just send one of the priests from the cathedral?”

“Maybe because the hermitage is here in the kingdom of Yurt,” I suggested, puzzled why this was important. “You’re Royal Chaplain, but the cathedral is located in the next kingdom.”

Joachim shook his head. “That shouldn’t make any difference. Both kingdoms are in the bishop’s diocese.”

“Maybe the bishop thinks you’d do the best job.”

He frowned at this. “The bishop should realize I have no special merits.”

I expected the bishop thought the exact opposite but didn’t say so. I was still wondering why being asked to do something which sounded simple and dull should bother Joachim so much, when the constable appeared, walking briskly down the grassy path between the roses.

“I thought I’d find you here, Wizard,” he said. “A message just came in on the pigeons for you. It’s from the count.”

I took the tiny cylinder from him, all that carrier pigeons could handle. Since the royal castle still had the only telephone in Yurt, the rest of the kingdom had to communicate with us via pigeons. I unrolled the little piece of paper. Yurt had two counts and a duchess; this message was from the older of the two counts. The message was, by necessity, brief.

“Have strange magical creature here. Don’t think it represents immediate danger, but wish you would look at it, soon as possible.”

I read it again. It made no more sense the second time.

“Look at this,” I said, handing Joachim the piece of paper. “What do you think he means? If they ‘have’ a magical creature, does that mean that they’ve captured it? Or does he mean that some nixie is flitting around the castle at night? Any magical creature poses potential danger, yet he claims this one

Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату