Excerpt from The Purple Haze
Book One of The Western Lands and All That Really Matters
Copyright © Andrew Einspruch, 2018. All Rights reserved.
Not a Mushroom
“You want me to be your mushroom?”
Jerome stood in his best Court suit, ridiculous green and blue pantaloons with a shirt that garishly mirrored the pattern of the pants. His tail fiddled with his ruffled collar.
“No, not champignon. Champion.” Princess Eloise sat on the Speaking Throne in the warm brightness of the Declaiming Room.
“Because it sounded like you wanted me to be your mushroom.”
“I most clearly said ‘champion.’ I’m talking about naming you my champion. It has nothing to do with mushrooms, and you know it.” The wordplay was an old joke between them, and they’d thought it was funny when they were five. That he was trying to use it now showed how unhappy he was with what was coming.
“It sounded a lot like…”
There it was. The Tone. He always thought of it as “the Tone,” ever since he first heard it when they were standing outside the headmistress’ door, about to be punished for rappelling upside-down on the Skills Course instead of polishing practice blades in the vault at the Bureau of Bladed Weapons. Jerome had tried to convince Eloise to bolt with him and avoid the upbraiding they were about to get. But she’d used the Tone, telling him to stay and face it.
And so he had. Jerome was no match for the Tone.
Eloise stood up, stretching to her full height. “I shall ask it again. Jerome Abernatheen de Chipmunk. Would it be acceptable to you if I should name you my champion tomorrow at Court?”
He’d known the request was coming. Well, it was a “request” in format, but it wasn’t like he could say, “Thanks, awfully, but no thanks. I’d be rubbish at that.” His mother had warned him of how Princess Eloise interpreted her prognostication. His obvious, flagrant, and wholehearted unsuitability seemed not to matter.
“In the Declaiming Room, it is best you not use nicknames. You should refer to me formally.”
With that, Jerome was sunk. When she went all formal, there was no changing her mind.
“Please pardon my familiarity, Princess Eloise. Can we please cover what you’d expect of me, should I have the honor to serve as your champion?”
“Come on, Jerome. It hasn’t been that long since we covered this in Protocols and Procedures.”
“But, Princess Eloise, champions are always massive blokes or buff gals with…” He mimed a huge, bulging bicep. “They’re highly trained warriors. At best, I am a highly trained worrier. Champions have a talent for weapons and tactics. You are more likely to save my bushy tail than the other way around.”
Eloise crooked a finger. “Please follow me, Jerome Abernatheen de Chipmunk.” She sailed toward the open doorway, careful to avoid stepping on any tile cracks.
Keeping an appropriate distance behind her (which felt strange, since for so many years he’d ridden on her shoulder), Jerome followed her out of the Declaiming Room, through the Hall of Authority and out across the Culpability Courtyard, once used for floggings, but now devoted to hockey sacking games. When they went left at the Arched Arch, he knew exactly where she was headed—the Salon des Champions (which they’d always called the Mush Room).
It was cooler in there than he remembered. And unusually empty. Adorning its walls were hundreds of paired paintings. Each depicted a champion, the Western Lands’ bravest of the brave, next to the royal they served. There were generations worth, heading back to Townshend Bellicose Shinglehefter, the first champion, and Agnes Delion Frostbite Gumball, the first monarch of the Western Lands and All That Really Matters to take the Gumball name.
Oh, nuts,” Jerome thought. He’d have to get a portrait made. He hated how he looked on canvas.
As they walked, Eloise pointed to images of several champions who strayed from the predominant pattern of muscle and weaponry. Some were lithe, others bookish. More than a few were non-human (mainly tigers and horses).
Eloise stopped in front of a seemingly random frame. “Being champion is about character as much as strength. Ability, as much as agility. Take Shauna Haliburton Splinter here. She lost an eye and a kidney in a freak kumquat harvesting accident, but served Queen Joan Mendacity Penultimate Gumball for a dozen years.”
They moved along the wall. “Or Gitride de Loamy. Notice anything about his legs?”
“Technically, I think they’re strapped behind him, being boneless. But yes. Not much happening in the leg department. Yet he saved Queen Yvonne Octave Barbell Gumball IV’s life over and over during his two months of service, relying solely on his skill in hand-to-hand combat.”
They walked past another three dozen perfect specimens of championhood, then stopped again. “Or how about Melveeta the Elusive here?” This painting was a landscape, not a portrait like the others. Jerome shrugged, and Eloise pointed to a faint human-shaped shadow emerging from the darkness behind a tree. “Melveeta served her sister, my several-times-great-great-grandmother, Queen Gwendolyn the Irritable. She held the role for decades, and one rarely saw her. Melveeta was said to have a strong magic for insulating herself against danger. We’re not even 100 percent sure what she looked like, or what became of her. But several-times-great-great-grandmother Gwendolyn’s diary notes are full of praise for her champion’s efficiency, cunning, strategy, and loyalty.” Eloise pointed to a light source in the foreground that seemed to come from outside the frame. “This brightness represents the queen, somehow. You’d think if Gwendolyn was so irritable, they’d have portrayed her with a darkness.”
“The portraits are painted while the royal is alive,” said Jerome. “Perhaps the artist did not think that approach conducive to longevity.”
“Hmmm. She was a tough one, for sure.” They both turned to the portrait of Gwendolyn Cowpatch Excelsior Gumball. There was little family resemblance to Eloise, except maybe in the eyes. Gwendolyn was squat and spreading, swathed in royal blues and weighed down by finery. She sat on the throne that was now in the Receiving Room, an unnamed greyhound to her left, and an unnamed manx to her right. On her lap was a glowing green stone or jewel, which was supposed to be the long-lost, and almost certainly fictional, Star of Whatever.
Standing side-by-side, Eloise and Jerome stared at the painting, drawn into Gwendolyn’s world.
“Back When,” Jerome murmured.
“Yes. She reigned at the end of Back When.”
“I often wonder what it was like.”
“Back when there was strong magic? Me too. I wonder if I would have had it.”
“Who knows? Not everyone did.”
“No, they didn’t.” Eloise took a step closer, and looked at the light part of the painting. “Do you think magic was hard to use Back When?”
“Maybe. But it was common enough, so maybe not.”
“I wonder how having it everywhere affected the way people lived. Day-to-day, I mean. We read about it in Histories and Hearsay, but that’s just words. After so many years, what Back When was really like is just gone.”
“We still have weak magic around. My mother’s prognostications. Your throwing.”
Eloise shrugged. “It seems so pale in comparison. A yawn to what used to be a roar.”
“Oh, very poetic.” Jerome turned toward her. He stood on his two back legs, straightened, and cleared his throat. “Princess Eloise—”
“We’re out of the Declaiming Room, Jerrific. You can relax.”
Jerome remained upright and formal. “Princess Eloise, if I may speak plainly…”
“No, Jerome. I don’t think so,” said the princess. “Look. You will accompany me on official business. You will stand during formal occasions as my protector. You’ll speak for me if I am insulted. You’ll give advice. You shouldn’t have to fight or anything, because almost certainly Guard Lorch Lacksneck will be around.” She reached out and gave him a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. “You’ll do what you’re good at: think and talk. Preferably, but not inevitably, in that order.”
“Please, Jerome. Your mother saw it. And I’m asking you, because you are my friend and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have.”
Jerome felt the flush in his cheeks. “Of course, Princess Eloise. When you put it that way, it would be an honor to serve. I most humbly accept.” He bowed formally, with just enough paw waggling for her to know there was an irony to it. “Just don’t call me your mushroom.”