Excerpt from The Star of Whatever

Book Two of The Western Lands and All That Really Matters series

Copyright © Andrew Einspruch, 2018. All Rights reserved.

Chapter One

A Lot for Someone Who Is Dead

 

Princess Eloise Hydra Gumball III, Future Ruler and Heir to the Western Lands and All That Really Matters, sprinted into the Purple Haze, becoming the first person ever to go in twice.

As the deadly fog swallowed her whole, filling her head with buzzing, the rest of the world ceased to exist.

Eloise opened her eyes and saw lavender mist everywhere. She could recall running into the Purple Haze and up a hillock of skeletal remains. She also remembered being airborne after a sudden fall off a precipice, landing scarily far below on a pile of bones, which hurt like Çalaht’s ingrown toenails when she smacked into them, but shifted enough to keep her fall from being fatal.

The next thing Eloise noticed in the Purple Haze was the dead body of her fraternal twin sister, Johanna Umgotteswillen Gumball. Except it seemed to be breathing rather a lot for someone who was dead.

Eloise clambered across the piled skulls, femurs, vertebrae and disjointed fingers to get to her sister. “Jo! Jo!” She turned her sister over, the bones beneath her clattering and scraping with the movement. “Jo, can you hear me?”

“El?” Johanna reached up and touched her head, groggy. “My head hurts.”

“You probably landed badly.”

Johanna sat up. Then she saw what she was sitting on and scrambled to get off them. “What is this?”

“This is the inside of the Purple Haze. And that’s what happens here.”

Johanna recoiled at the sight of the bones. “Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“We’ve got to get out of here, El. Which way is out?”

“I fell, so I’m not quite sure yet. But I think ‘out’ involves a lot of ‘up.’”

“That buzzing! Do you hear a buzzing?” Johanna slumped to her knees and pressed her hands to the sides of her head. 

“Yes. I hear it.”

“It’s awful. Just awful,” said Johanna. “I’d rather listen to you sing than hear that buzz.”

So, her sense of humor was still there. That was a good sign.

The two of them sat for a few minutes, looking around, taking in what they could see through the fog.

“I think there’s a pretty obvious question we should be asking,” said Eloise.

“Like, how are we going to get out of here?”

“More basic.”

Johanna reached over and laced her fingers through Eloise’s. “Why aren’t we dead?”

Eloise nodded.

They sat for a long time, Johanna recovering from being fogged and Eloise from the exertion of saving Gouache, and thinking about that very question.

Chapter 2

Disappeared

 

(Several hours earlier…)

Hector de Pferd and his fellow horse, the Nameless One, found a comfortable spot off to the side of the main square of Castle Blotch at Stained Rock, the seat of the Half Kingdom. From there, they could watch the comings and goings. Hector positioned himself so he could see the main castle door, while the Nameless One found a spot where he could observe the activity through the servants’ entrance.

Hector expected that he would have a lot of time to think about the many holes in their plan. Horse Guards (like him), and horses in general, get used to waiting. People didn’t understand how good they had to be at it. They waited all the time—for parades to start, for business to conclude, for carts to be unloaded, for the purveyors of war to be organized and dispatched. Waiting became second nature, and a horse either got drowsy with it or, if they were smart, they got sharp with it and used it as a chance to learn something. Horses could fade into the background; people often forgot they were there. Sometimes that meant they heard things that were supposed to be private. That was why all Horse Guards and Guard Horses received spycraft training.

Their plan, such as it was, was a disaster waiting to unravel. The likelihood that Princess Johanna would consent to putting the downer down in her mouth was minuscule. The chances of her keeping the vile-tasting stuff in her mouth were even smaller, even if she was, as Eloise described it, “prattled to the gills” (a turn of phrase that fish found offensive). They were hoping to get Johanna compos mentis enough to realize that marrying her uncle was a spectacularly bad idea, but there were too many unknowns, and way too many things that could go wrong.

However, it was the only plan they had, so Hector and the Nameless One watched Princess Eloise, her champion, Jerome Abernatheen de Chipmunk, and the guard, Lorch Lacksneck, enter the castle to attend an audience with King Doncaster. Then he and the Nameless One found their spots and began their wait.

Activity at the castle seemed normal enough. There were no unexpected sounds from within, and traffic outside was as expected, and so it remained as shadows crept across the courtyard.

In the early afternoon, the door opened and Princess Eloise and Princess Johanna stepped through it, looking like they were going for a walk. Something wasn’t right. They were arm-in-arm and laughing, which Hector had not seen them do for years. That made him suspicious, especially given that Jerome and Lorch were not with them.

A few moments later, the two jesters, the scheming Turpentine Snotearrow McCcoonnch and his younger brother, the massive but two-bulbs-short-of-a-tulip-bed Gouache, burst through the door after the girls. They followed, but did not try to catch them. Hector signaled to the Nameless One, and after a sufficient pause, the horses, too, began shadowing the group.

Eloise and Johanna looked tense, and their manner of conversation appeared strained beneath a veneer of joviality. Not too far from the castle, they stopped, consulted, and ran up the nearby Fogging Hill. Why would they go to the place where executions took place? And why try to make it look like a game? Turpy and Gouache watched them ascending and then split up, reaching the top of the hill from opposite sides. Hector and the Nameless One did the same but, given their unwillingness to be seen and how open the exposed hillsides were, they had to let the jesters get a long way ahead of them.

It was a fatal mistake.

Hector lost sight of the sisters as they crested the hill, and then also lost sight of the jesters. Cautiously, he moved upwards.

Then Johanna screamed.

Her screams echoed down the hill. Hector abandoned all caution and galloped as hard as he could. But by the time he got to the top, the two princesses were gone, and so was Gouache. Only Turpy remained, screeching like he’d been stabbed, pounding his head with one fist and clutching the other to his guts in obvious pain as he stumbled his way back down the hill. Hector ran over to where the Nameless One was coming up the other side and asked if he’d seen the princesses.

No.

They charged back to Turpy. “Where are they?” Hector yelled. “Tell me! Where are they?” But Turpy was useless, lost to the mental fragments that rattled in his head. The look in his eyes was deeply disturbing; Hector did not like to guess what might be happening in there.

The two horses scoured the area looking for any sign of the missing princesses, looking for some place they might have hidden—any explanation that did not involve that damned Purple Haze.

And then from 100 lengths away, Hector saw her. Eloise was rolling Gouache out of the fog. From where Hector stood, the big jester looked dead, but—impossibly—Eloise was very much alive. “Princess! Princess Eloise!” he called.

She should have been close enough to hear him, but she gave no sign.

And then she did something monstrous. Eloise turned and rushed back into the Purple Haze.

“No!” Hector yelled. He galloped after her, but slid to a stop at the fog’s edge, scared to follow. He took a breath and steadied himself. If she could survive the fog, so could he. Swallowing his fear, he stepped into the shroud of mist.

As soon as his front legs crossed into it, a buzzing sound filled his ears and his legs twitched, then flailed. He went mind-numb and fell hard on his side as he collapsed into an apoplectic attack. The seizures took hold, and did not let go.

* * * 

Across the slope of the hill, the Nameless One saw Hector’s back legs poking out from the fog, thrashing wildly. He dashed over, unsure what he should do. Why had Hector poked himself into the fog? Had he fallen in? Been lured? Seen something?

And why was Gouache lying face-up, slack-jawed, and mind-numb a dozen lengths away?

Each thrash slid Hector a little further downhill and into the Purple Haze. There was only one thing to do. Silently apologizing to Hector for the pain this would cause, the Nameless One clamped his teeth onto Hector’s tailhead, braced himself, and tried to drag him out. 

At first he only managed to stop Hector’s downward progress. As the thrashing continued, the Nameless One strained against the other horse’s weight and, using the movement of the palsy, waggled Hector up the incline. It was slow and difficult. Given how long the seizures were lasting, the Nameless One wondered how much permanent damage there would be, and how much injury he was causing Hector’s tail. One might as well be dragged by the nose—it would’ve been about as comfortable.

Eventually, the Nameless One got Hector completely clear of the fog, and almost immediately the frantic movements stopped. The horse’s breathing remained rapid, however, and sweat covered his body. The Nameless One had seen people fall in battle before, and he had a cousin who was prone to apoplectic fits. But this was unlike anything he’d ever encountered. He was unsure whether to run off and find a healer, or stay and hope Hector got better. He chose the latter, figuring that a healer was unlikely to have any useful tools that would help in this situation.

The Nameless One waited, feeling the minutes drag by. Unlike the mind-numb jester, after a quarter of an hour, Hector blinked and came back to consciousness. Thank Çalaht, thought the Nameless One.

“What…” slurred Hector.

“Shush,” whispered the Nameless One in a gentle tone. It was the first time Hector had ever heard him speak. He didn’t know the horse had a voice.

“Was… Was I dying?”

The Nameless One gave a noncommittal shrug, his silence resumed.

After another ten minutes, the Nameless One encouraged Hector to stand. Hector was woozy, but managed to walk back to the castle with the Nameless One to raise the alarm about Gouache. They accompanied half a dozen castle guards and a cart back to Fogging Hill, where the inert, but still breathing, jester’s body lay. It took four men and two women to heave the man onto the cart’s floor. 

The Nameless One and Hector watched the guards leave. As soon as they were out of earshot, Hector said, “I saw the Princess. She… She pushed the jester out of the fog.” He whispered, despite them being alone on Fogging Hill.

The Nameless One looked at him, slowly shaking his head in disbelief.

“I know. It’s impossible. But I saw what I saw.”

The Nameless One glanced left and right—a quick “Where is she?” look.

Hector blinked back tears. “She ran back into the Çalaht-cursed fog. Back into it! I called for her, but she did not hear me.”

The Nameless One tilted his head, waiting for an explanation.

“I don’t know. It made no sense. But the mist swallowed her right over there. That’s why I tried to…” Hector shivered at the memory of collapsing into the mist.

So that was why the Nameless One had found Hector with legs thrashing. He nodded, indicating that he understood, then moved so they stood shoulder. He leaned gently into Hector. 

Hector’s tears finally broke through. “We lost her,” he cried. ”Our princess is gone and it is our fault. Somehow, it just is.”

The Nameless One took two steps back, stamped the ground, and stared at Hector, hard.

“What?” Hector sniffed.

The Nameless One just stood there holding Hector’s eye, unblinking.

Hector was the one who broke eye contact. “OK, OK, I get it. You’re right.” He drew a deep breath, and let it whoosh out. Hector squared his shoulders. “Right. So, what do we do next?”

The Nameless One pointed to Hector with his chin and mimed eyes closing in sleep.

“You’re right. I need to sleep.” Hector’s head hung, his eyes drooped, and his limbs shook like he’d run a dozen strong lengths. The Nameless One wondered if he was about to cock a back leg and doze off right there. “But given everything that has happened,” said Hector, “I don’t think we should go back to the Rusted and Runcible. I think we need to be less conspicuous.”

The Nameless One nodded in agreement, then indicated that Hector should follow him.

“Where are we going?” asked Hector. “Actually, it doesn’t matter. I just hope wherever it is, it has a bed of straw.”

Chapter 3

Whoever Did This

 

There was no question the Purple Haze was strange. There was the buzz, for one thing. For another, the mist was not damp, the way one would expect fog to be. When Eloise touched her skin or the bones they sat on, they were dry. Dry to the point of dust. How could there be a dry fog?

The fog also seemed to have a non-specific light source. There was no obvious single point where the sun might be. The fog seemed to create its own light while shrouding the natural light outside it. 

And there was something else. Eloise had trouble putting words to it. Her first thought was that something was “calling” to her. But that wasn’t quite right. It was more a tugging at her insides. “Beckoning” might have been the way to describe it. But this was soft, like the entreaty of a shadow cast far away. She had to focus to feel it, but it was definitely there.

Eventually, Johanna stood up, brushing dust off her dress. “Come on, El. Let’s get out of here.”

Eloise didn’t move. She was still thinking things through.

“El? Really? This place is horrible.”

“Yes, it is.” Still, she didn’t stand up.

“What’s the matter?”

“I’m thinking something I don’t want to think, but I have to.”

Johanna sat back down. “I know that expression. Whatever it is you’re thinking, stop it right now. I mean it. I’ve seen that look too many times, and no good ever comes of it.”

Eloise stared her sister straight in the eyes. “Do you have an answer?”

“An answer to what?”

She pointed at the pile of bones she was sitting on. “Why we don’t look like that.”

“No, I don’t. And frankly, I don’t think I want to know.”

“There has to be a reason.”

“I guess,” said Johanna. “Here’s what I do know. I hate it here, and the sooner we get out of here, the better. It might take a while to find our way out, so we should get started.” Johanna stood and offered Eloise a hand to help her up. Eloise ignored it.

“Whoever created this fog, it was a crime.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do.”

“You can’t possibly know. It’s been over two centuries. It could have been anything. It could have been an accident.”

“Look around, Jo. Does this look like an accident to you?”

“It could have been.”

“Maybe something went wrong. Maybe what happened wasn’t what was supposed to happen. But this…” Eloise pointed at the fog, then at the bones everywhere. “This was deliberate. And there’s only one explanation that makes any sense.” Eloise blinked back tears. She didn’t think of herself as a crier. In fact, she was usually the exact opposite. But she had cried more times on this trip than she had in years—probably since she was a toddler.

“Go ahead, El. What makes sense?”

“It’s our fault.”

There. She’d said it.

“What? That’s not right. How could it be our fault?”

“Not you and me. But it was one of us. It was our family.”

“Oh. Oh, no.” Johanna started sifting the pieces of the puzzle to form the same shape that had formed in Eloise’s mind. She sat down again. “You can’t use magic against blood.”

“Yes.”

“So one of our direct blood ancestors…”

“Exactly,” said Eloise. “On our mother’s side.”

“How do you reckon that?”

“Because if it was on our father’s side, more people would have been unaffected by the Purple Haze. The de Chëëëkflïïïnt bloodline is all over the Half Kingdom, both with legitimate issue and presumably illicit offspring as well. You can tell from the amount of bones here that there have been a lot of foggings. Surely some of them would be directly related up the line to Father’s family. If it had been his side that cast this magic, someone would have walked out of here a long time ago, and everyone would have known more about what the fog was all about. There would have been people sent in to explore it.”

“Maybe it kills them—kills us—but more slowly. Maybe they still don’t make it out of here.”

“Possible,” said Eloise. “What I’m thinking isn’t without holes.”

Johanna picked up the previous thread of logic. “Mother was the first Gumball to marry someone from the Half Kingdom since before it was the Half Kingdom. Since before the fog. So we’re almost certainly the first direct blood descendants of whoever created this to have come in here.”

They sat there pondering, trying to remember history lessons they’d endured a decade ago. Then at the exact same moment, they said the exact same three words: “Gwendolyn the Irritable.”

“She was queen—” started Eloise.

“—when the Purple Haze first appeared,” Johanna finished. “And she hated what’s-his-face…”

“I don’t remember his name either, but you’re right, she hated the Northern Lands king. Brüüünööö somebody? Brüüücëëë? It was Brüüü-something.”

“Brüüütus Ulcer Tabific Twizzle de Chëëëkflïïïnt,” said Johanna, pronouncing the name with an affected rural northern accent.

“How can you possibly remember that?” Eloise grinned.

“Because the initials of his first names formed a word that a bored six-year-old in Histories and Hearsay found amusing.” Johanna giggled at the memory.

“I never saw that. Why didn’t you tell me?” Eloise nudged her sister with her elbow. “Back then you told me everything.”

“Back then I didn’t need to tell you everything. You already knew it.”

The moment of lightness passed. “You’re right. I did,” said Eloise. “And so did you.”

“Now look at us,” said Johanna. “Sitting on a mountain of bones, practically strangers. What happened to us?”

“Life, Court, the Thorning Ceremony, Mother—take your pick. Life happened, I guess.”

“I guess.”

Another silence fell between them. Eloise took comfort in Johanna’s nearness. She even put an arm around Johanna’s shoulder and pulled her into a hug. They sat that way for a long time.

“I can’t believe I was less than a day away from marrying Uncle Doncaster.” Johanna shuddered. “Thank you for coming after me. It must have been hard for you.”

“You have no idea,” said Eloise.

Finally, it was Eloise who stood. Johanna looked at her. “You’ve got that look on your face again. Stop it. I really mean it.”

“I have to get going.”

“Right. Any idea which way is out?”

“I’m not going out.”

“I knew you’d say that.” Johanna stood as well.

“I have to—”

“I know, I know. You have to go find whatever this is and stop it.”

Eloise shrugged. “It was one of us who did it. If anyone can put an end to it, it will be another one of us. I’ve seen a fogging. For that matter, I’ve seen you fogged. I promised myself I would figure out a way to end it. I’m going to try to keep that promise.” Eloise squeezed her sister’s arm affectionately. “I’m not asking you to come with me.”

“No, you’re not.” Johanna sighed. “That’s not how you work. The last thing I want to do is traipse all over this Çalaht-forsaken hellscape looking for who-knows-what, which, by the way, is clearly lethal. But then, I can imagine that’s also the last thing you feel like doing. Plus, you just saved me from a disastrous marriage, so I owe you one.”

“No, you don’t. You don’t owe me anything.”

Johanna shrugged that off. “Got any clues which way we should go?”

“Actually, I do. I’m guessing you do, too.” Eloise pointed. “That way.”

Chapter 4

Eight-hour Candles

 

Jerome and Lorch had been left waiting in the cold, stuffy room without the benefit of furniture, food, a window to look out of, or any idea what was going on. The two eight-hour candles lighting the stone-walled chamber provided the only indication of how much time was passing, and watching them burn was their only entertainment. 

As the candle burned lower, Jerome took to fidgeting, then pacing, then fidgeting while pacing, then pacing and fidgeting faster, and finally pacing backwards as well as forwards while fidgeting with both his claws and his tail.

Halfway through the eight-hour candles, Lorch tried the door, but of course it was locked from the outside. 

Lorch had spent the first couple of hours standing at parade rest, still and calm, which only made Jerome more aware of his own twitchy nervousness. As the hours stretched, Lorch finally allowed himself to lean against one of the walls, and eventually he sat. Now and then, he sprang up, thinking he had heard someone coming. And maybe he had, but it had nothing to do with him or Jerome.

As the candle burned below the one hour mark, Jerome started feeling claustrophobic. His breathing quickened and sweat gathered on his fur. He went to the door and called, “Hello! Is anyone out there?” Jerome thought he might have heard a sneeze in response, but it might just have been his imagination. He looked at Lorch. “How long are we supposed to stay in here?”

“I guess until Princess Eloise is done, one way or the other.” 

Sometime later, the two candles spluttered out at almost exactly the same moment. The darkness didn’t help Jerome’s state of mind. “Do you think there are jail chiggers in here? I don’t think I could take jail chiggers again.” 

Jerome, Lorch and Eloise had all encountered jail chiggers while sitting in the Southie jail, where they’d been held for a painful period after being arrested in the Sclerotic Wold. The chiggers were used by the authorities for “enhanced discomfort”—mocking, ridiculing, and haranguing inmates, as well as causing awful, mercilessly itchy welts. It had been maddening.

“We are not in jail,” said Lorch.

“No, not yet,” said Jerome.

“And there are no jail chiggers in here.”

“Are you sure? I swear I can hear whispering.”

“No one here but us chickens,” joked Lorch.

“You know chickens hate that phrase, right?”

“I know. I was just trying to amuse you.”

“Do I need to be amused? Yes, I suppose I do.” Jerome wiped the sweat dripping off his forehead onto the sleeve of his champion’s tunic.

The door handle rattled. “Oh, thank Çalaht,” said Jerome. He stood and straightened his clothing, ready leave the room. He heard Lorch rustling to do the same.

The hall was as dark as night, and lit by candles in sconces that were evenly spaced along the hall. Through the open door, 15 guards entered the room, swords drawn. There were 20 pikemen behind them, their spears pointing directly at Lorch and Jerome’s chests.

A uniformed badger stepped through the arc of weaponry. “You two,” he snarled. “I’m placing you under arrest.”

“You can’t arrest us,” said Jerome. “We’re with Princess Eloise.”

“It would appear I can.”

“On what charges? We’ve done nothing wrong. We’ve just sat here. For far too long, I might add. And without tea.”

The badger tilted his head and stroked his chin. “How about, ‘Entering a royal building with untoward intent’? That sounds plausible enough.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

The badger walked around Jerome, then pointed to the two closest guards. “Search them.”

“Certainly not!” said Jerome.

“Champion Abernatheen de Chipmunk, I suggest you submit,” said Lorch. “We don’t have a lot of options.”

“See, one of you has some sense.”

One guard searched Lorch, while the other tried to pat down Jerome, who giggled and flinched. “Sorry. Ticklish.” The guard tried again, and finally had to hold Jerome down with one hand while frisking him with the other. Among the personal items Jerome was carrying, he found a small, embroidered, felt-lined pouch. The guard handed this to the badger. “Hey, that’s mine,” said Jerome. “It was a gift.”

The badger ignored him and examined the pouch. He sniffed it, opened it, sniffed it again, and held it closer to a light. Suddenly he laughed, a genuine, deep, belly laugh. “Oh, my goodness. What were you thinking?”

“What? Thinking what?”

“There’s got to be, what, an eighth of a weight, maybe a tenth of a weight, of prattleweed here.”

“So what? It was a gift from the Southie envoy at my Champion’s Naming.”

“I don’t care if our good King Doncaster himself gave it to you. Possession of this much proscribed herbage is all I need.” He turned to Lorch. “And you, good sir, are an accessory.”

Lorch did not reply.

“Now, come. I have different accommodation for you two. Follow.” The badger turned and headed out the doorway.

They followed.

Jerome, desperate to ignore the rising panic he was feeling, chattered questions and demanded to see Eloise, but neither the badger nor the soldiers paid him any mind. Fifteen minutes and three flights of downward stairs later, Jerome and Lorch were ushered into separate cells in the dungeons. Behind them, impenetrable, iron-reinforced doors clanged shut, leaving them in darkness again. 

Chapter 5

Speaker for the Indigent

 

Hector and the Nameless One stood at the castle gates, laden with bundles of burlap sacks. The guards blocked the entrance as a line formed behind them. “Oats. I told you, they’re oats,” said Hector. “We’re supposed to deliver half of these to the kitchen, and half to the stables. Please, just let us do our job.”

“There are a couple of problems with that statement,” said the head guard. He was wheat-stalk thin, barely old enough to sport the wisp of chin hair he had managed to grow. He wore an impeccably tailored uniform and a face marred by a combination of acne pock-marks and knife scars that suggested difficult teenage years. “First, you have no scrollwork with you. No notices of sale, consignment notes, nor bills of lading. You have no receipts, invoices, or promissory documents. You don’t even have a hand-scrawled note telling you where the goods should go, nor proof that these are approved sacks of oats. Do you care to comment on that?”

“All I can tell you is that if I don’t get this to the scullery, Çalaht only knows what will happen.” Hector tried to make it look like he was shuffling nervously, but his years of training as a Horse Guard made a mockery of this. Hector could no more look oppressed and harassed than he could look unkempt. The inherent perfection of his body, coat, and mane were a force of nature, and did not lend themselves to fakery.

The head guard ignored Hector’s comment. “Then there’s the small matter of this.” He walked over to his desk and picked up a parchment. Unscrolling it, he held it up for Hector and the Nameless One to see. At the top, the parchment read, “Nope Don’t Let In No Matter What’s Going On.” Beneath it were rather unskilled drawings of Hector and the Nameless One. The artist hadn’t come anywhere near capturing Hector’s magnificence, nor the sure look in the Nameless One’s eye, but it was definitely a passable resemblance. “You’re on my Nope Don’t Let In No Matter What’s Going On list,” said the guard. “That’s a clear indicator that nope, I’m not going to let you in no matter what’s going on.”

Hector looked at the Nameless One, who shook his head slowly. It didn’t seem like it was worth pursuing this. They stepped away from the castle gate so that others could get checked through.

Another disappointment in a lengthening list.

Two days.

It had been just over two days since Hector had seen Eloise go back into the Purple Haze. Two days of recovering from whatever happened to him when he went in after her. Two days of debating and arguing with the Nameless One about what do next, and whether there was any point in staying in the Half Kingdom waiting for the princesses to reappear. Two days of worry, fear, and running through worst-case scenarios in his head. Two days of looking out for Princess Eloise and not seeing her, while also seeing her everywhere, in every vaguely princess-shaped person. Two days of wondering if they should send news home to the king and queen in Brague, and of discussing whether the princess would want him to do so sooner, or if he should give her more time.

Two very long, very bad days, which were only getting worse.

The midday sun made a half-hearted attempt to push warmth through the gray, uninspired sky, but to little effect. Hector and the Nameless One watched the gate from two dozen paces away as, for the most part, the guards allowed a flow of merchants, minor royals, workers, and merchants into the castle grounds—none of them, apparently, appearing on the Nope Don’t Let In No Matter What’s Going On scroll. A smaller, yet still steady trickle of people moved in the opposite direction, exiting the castle grounds—horses and donkeys with unladen carts, messengers, and even the odd necromancer. It irked Hector that so many could move in and out, while he and the Nameless One could not even peek around the corner of the wall.

The Nameless One snorted to get Hector’s attention, then pointed with his chin. At first, Hector couldn’t tell what had caught his eye. Then he saw it—a one-armed capuchin with a satchel slung over his shoulder, carrying a fishbowl with a jellyfish in it. That wasn’t so unusual, but the fishbowl was decorated with the guild robes. The capuchin strode away from the castle like he was late for an appointment.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” called Hector. He and the Nameless One trotted over to the capuchin. “Excuse me,” repeated Hector. “Are you the Speaker for the Indigent?”

The capuchin set down the fishbowl on the cobblestone road and assumed a waiting posture. “Ah, you saw the robes.” The voice came from the jellyfish, bubbling up out of a slurry of brine in the glass bowl. The capuchin made perfectly synchronized gestures to accompany the jelly fish’s words. “I normally take them off before I leave the castle, but today I was rushing. I’m Këëëvin. Këëëvin Ïïïgnatius Bümbërshööt, Speaker for the Indigent.” He wafted a couple of tentacles toward the capuchin. “This is my associate, Fïïïnn. What do you need, young equine?”

Hector hadn’t been called “young” for years. He wondered how old the jellyfish was. “My name is Hector de Pferd, and I believe my two friends are being held captive in the castle. Is it possible you might have spoken with them? A human and a chipmunk?”

The capuchin tilted his head and mimed deep thought, stroking his chin with his one hand. The jellyfish rotated in his bowl, tentacles wafting, body tilted at the same angle as the capuchin’s head. “Have they been there more than, say, three months?”

“No. Just a couple of days.”

“Then it’s not likely I’ve encountered them. I’m currently on Wing…” The jellyfish sloshed around and seemed to look at Fïïïnn, who paused, flipped open his satchel, peeked at a scroll, then made a gesture. The jellyfish turned back around. “Wing R of the dungeons. If they’ve only been there a couple of days, they are unlikely to have been banished to Wing R—they would not have been taunted enough yet. But a thorough search of my records will have to wait. I’m sorry I can’t remember off the top of my gelatinous bell, but the dungeons are full as always, and it’s not like I can get to everyone. Things slip my mind. Memory like a goldfish.”

This was a phrase that goldfish found offensive (although their memories were so bad they never remembered long enough to maintain their offense). So, while this was a stereotype, it was one base on truth, as jellyfish also had short memories. They were usually employed in positions that were repetitive, very, very simple, or did not require much grasp of detail. This memory problem, along with their mobility problems, meant that professional occupations were completely ill-suited to them. That this one had risen to the role of Speaker for the Indigent was either a testament to a particularly unjellyfishlike tenacity or was deliberate judicial sabotage. Hector suspected both.

“Come to my chambers in the Low Street in three hours, and I’ll gather details. But for now, I must away.” With that, the capuchin bowed gracefully, picked up the fishbowl, nodded, and was gone..

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from The Star of Whatever. Click here to get your copy.