Hysteria clomped along slowly down the snow-covered road for some time. The orphan was so quiet that for a while I thought he must have fallen asleep. But at last he stirred and shifted a bit in his seat, which is to say upon Hysteria’s flank. I myself had been quiet as I remembered the events of that horrible night.
“What are you thinking about?” asked the orphan.
“I’m thinking about that horrible night,” I replied.
“Did you never find your family?”
“No, though I searched for weeks. My mother was to make me a blueberry pie that night, and I not only have never seen my mother since, I did not get to eat that pie either.”
“I’m sorry I brought up such a painful memory,” he said, and then paused. “Do you suppose that the purple drops on the floor could have been from your blueberry pie?”
“Fiends!” said I. “To rob a man of his mother and his pie in the same night!”
“Perhaps it were best that we think on something else,” said he.
“Perhaps,” I agreed.
“If you are really such a great storyteller…”
“The greatest in the world.”
“And if the story of the Queen of Aerithraine is a great story…”
“Wonderful. Exciting. True. Profound.”
“Well, maybe you could tell me the story.”
“I get half a crown for that story in Illustria,” said I.
“I have a shiny penny,” said he.
“The story begins in Aerithraine, far to the west, along the coast of the great ocean sea. From storied Illustria, its capital, to Cor Cottage just outside Dewberry Hills in River County, Aerithraine has been a great and powerful country for some seven hundred years more or less. By more or less, I mean that it has been more or less seven hundred years that Aerithraine has been a country and that it has been more or less great and more or less powerful during those seven hundred years. But about fifty years ago, it was less. That was when the old king died, and as is the way of kings, a new one was crowned. He was King Julian the Rectifier.
“He was called Julian the Rectifier because he was chiefly interested in rectifying. He spent most of his time rectifying. He rectified all over the place. And he was good at it. He rectified like nobody else.”
“It means setting things to right,” said the orphan.
“Of course it does and that is just what he did. Under his reign, the kingdom was prosperous and wealthy. And, as he wasn’t so interested in warring as in rectifying, there was peace throughout the land. King Julian had only one son, and he passed to that son the strongest and wealthiest kingdom in all of Duaron, and if it had only remained so, Elleena would have become nothing more than a minor princess perhaps.”
“Which would not have made a half-crown story,” pointed out the orphan.
“That is so.”
“Carry on then.”
“King Justin was the son of Julian. I hear tell that he was once called Justin the Good and Justin the Wise, though now when storytellers refer to him, they usually call him Justin the Weak or Justin the Unready.”
“What do you call him?”
“I just call him King Justin,” said I. “Though I truly believe he may deserve the title Justin the Brave, it is not what the listeners want to hear.”
“King Justin married a princess from the faraway land of Goth. The Arch-Dukes of Goth, which is to say the rulers of that land, have for generations, maintained power through a tightly woven web of treaties with its mighty neighbors. Their chief barter in this endeavor is the marriage of the many female members of the family. I hear the current Arch-Duke has but four daughters at least as of yet, but his father who was Arch-Duke before him had seventeen, and his father, which is to say the grandfather of the current Arch-Duke had nineteen.”
“That hurts just thinking about it.”
“Nothing. Go on.”
“It must have been quite a coup of diplomacy for the Arch-Duke of Goth to make a match with the King of Aerithraine, but he did, marrying to the King his daughter Beatrix. And though I hear that the women of that country wear too much make-up, she was nevertheless accounted a great beauty. She had pale white skin, raven hair, smoldering eyes, and a gold ring in her nose, as is the fashion in the east.
“King Justin and Queen Beatrix had four strong sons, the eldest of whom was Prince Jared. He was particularly beloved of the people. I saw him once when I was a child of four or five, sitting on my poor old father’s shoulders as the Dragon Knights passed on their tall white steeds. That is to say, I was seated on my father’s shoulders and the Prince was not. Neither were the Dragon Knights nor their steeds. I don’t remember why the Prince and the knights were in River County. It was too long ago. He would have grown to be King upon his father’s death if it was not for…”
“Yes, that’s right. You didn’t say you had heard the story before, though I’ll warrant it wasn’t told as well…”
“No!” screamed the orphan. “Goblins! Right there!”
He pointed straight ahead, and sure enough, stepping out of the shadows and into the moonlight were a half dozen creepy little man-things. They were no more than three feet tall, their over-sized round heads, glowing eyes, and gaping maws giving away their identity. As they came closer those mouths widened into grins filled with jagged little teeth, looking far too much like the teeth on the blade of a cross-cut saw for my taste. They brandished what weapons they had, mostly things they had picked up from the ground—a stick, a length of cord with a knot in it. But a couple of them carried old, discarded straight razors.