Commander Ducane stood up. He gravely shook his head. “It seems I owe you the thanks of my people, and also my personal apology.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. “Why? What did Grayson say?”
Ducane sat down and refitted the monocle to his right eye. It immediately fell out again. “It seems you are the ones responsible for ridding us of the Mouse King. For that, we, the people of Fengarad, will be eternally grateful. My thanks.”
I looked at the others who were as baffled as me. “You’re... welcome? If you don’t mind me saying, you seem quite upset about it. Is there a problem?”
“No, no. Well, yes, but not of your doing. You see, another party of visitors arrived in Fengarad recently. They had been responsible for clearing a mouse nest, so when I heard the Mouse King had been killed, I’m afraid I assumed they were the ones responsible. They have been awarded the accolades that should have been yours. I am terribly, terribly sorry.”
This news didn’t bother me very much. Personally, I wanted as few people as possible to know about my role in killing the Mouse King and his unborn mice babies. If someone else wanted to take the credit, that was fine by me.
“Ah, excuse me,” said Maurice. “When you say accolades…?”
“The reward for killing a unique beast, such as the Mouse King, is the Key to the City. It allows you both the freedom to go anywhere in Fengarad, including restricted areas such as the Palace and the Seven Spires, and it also grants you the right to an audience with the King himself.”
The Key sounded like a really useful item to have. Not that I had much interest in meeting the King, but the ability to go anywhere in the city, perhaps leading us to clues to why we were here, was definitely something I’d want.
“The key was awarded in a ceremony only two nights ago,” continued Ducane, his eyes fixed on the desk. “It was a wonderful night of celebration.” He was practically choking back the tears. “I can’t believe they didn’t say anything. They’re supposed to be heroes, damn it.”
“They probably didn’t realise,” I said. “The nest was cleared out when we got there. We only discovered the King’s hiding place by accident. When you told the others they’d killed the Mouse King, they probably assumed he was one of the mouse warriors. We had no idea what we’d done until Grayson told us, so I don’t expect the others knew what the Mouse King looked like, either. I’d put it down to an honest mistake.”
Ducane nodded. “You’re probably right. Still, the mistake will have to be rectified. The Palace will be horribly embarrassed because of my error. My only course of action is to take responsibility and try and protect the King’s good name.”
“This Key, are there many of them?” I asked Ducane.
He lifted his head. He really did look sorry for himself. “Indeed. Quite a few have been handed out over the years. I even have one myself, awarded back in my youth. I wasn’t always the pathetic excuse for a soldier you see before you now.”
“Then to atone for your mistake, give us your Key,” I said.
He looked surprised.
“Give us your Key,” I continued, “and don’t tell anyone about the mix up. That way we will have our rightful reward, and the King won’t be embarrassed.”
“But, but…” Ducane seemed to be having difficulty grasping what I was suggesting. “People will think they and not you were the ones who killed the Mouse King.”
I shrugged. “Let them. It means nothing to us, right?” I looked at the others for confirmation. They didn’t seem to understand what I was doing either, but they all made various sounds to confirm they agreed with me.
“You would really forego any recognition of your heroism for the sake of the King?”
I didn’t give a toss about the King, but I had no problem staying out of the spotlight. My whole gameplan was to keep a low profile and attract as little attention as possible. The only thing I wondered about was why the Mouse King was considered such a valuable target. True, we had struggled to kill him, but that was because it was us. The mouse had not been a particularly difficult adversary and I’m sure other groups, or Grayson himself, would have dealt with him easily.
Not that I was going to bring it up, despite my curiosity. The last thing I needed to do was convince Ducane the Mouse King wasn’t that a big deal and our role in his demise was more luck than judgement. I wanted that Key.
“For the sake of the King,” I said, “I think it’s best this way, don’t you?”
“I don’t know how to thank you,” said Ducane, excitedly wringing his hands. He turned to the officer who was still standing beside him. “Laffi, quickly, go to my residence and get my Key. It’s in the reception room, in the glass cabinet by the window.”
The officer darted out of the room.
There was a gleam in Ducane’s eye. I actually think he was happy to be giving up his Key. I suspected he was the type who saw being punished for your mistakes as noble and honorable. “I’ll have to inform the Palace, of course. We can’t have people thinking you’ve stolen my Key. But otherwise, discretion shouldn’t be too hard to maintain.”
“Are you sure it’s okay?” said Claire. “The Key probably means a lot to you.”
If I could have reached from where I was sitting, I’d have slapped the silly cow on the back of the head.
“It means the world to me,” said Ducane. “Which is why it is exactly the sacrifice I need to make.” He turned to me. “I truly am very grateful to you for giving me this chance to make amends.”
“Don’t mention it.” I glared over at Claire, psychically demanding she shut her big mouth. Unfortunately, my psychic powers appeared to be on the fritz, as Claire started to say something else.
She didn’t get to vocalise whatever idiotic thought had occurred to her because the door flew open at that point.
“Ducane! Why was I not informed there were visitors here?”
Standing in the doorway was a teenage girl. Her bellowing voice didn’t seem to match her slight frame and babyish face, but then neither did her outfit. Think of the kind of uniform every crazy dictator designs for themselves as soon as they get in power. Braids, ribbons, tassels, gold trim and brass buttons-a-go-go. Now add a My Little Pony colour scheme—pink jacket, lilac jodhpurs, rainbow epaulets—and top it off with masses of red hair. Not ginger, bright red.
“Your highness!” said Ducane, standing to attention and dipping his head. “They only just got here.”
“That’s what you always say. Thankfully my spies are everywhere. Don’t you forget it, Ducane. Everywhere.” She walked around to get a proper look at us, at which point, her face fell. “Oh. How disappointing.”
I looked at Ducane for some kind of explanation.
“Ah, yes. This is Her Royal Highness, Princess Laney, youngest daughter of the King. And these are—”
“Never mind,” said the princess waving a dismissive hand at Ducane. “I know who they are. I’ve already met with the other visitors and they were very clear about the three remaining parties. The Posers, the Losers and the Cowards. It’s more than obvious which you are.”
“Is it?” I said, more than a little annoyed by Little Miss Bossy Boots (the boots were purple, in case you’re wondering). “And what did they call themselves? The Super Smashing Super Squad?”
“No, actually they’re called The Avengers.”
“What!” Maurice was on his feet, eyes popping out of his head. “How dare they! You can’t just take that name. I won’t allow it!”
Of all the things to be morally outraged by in this world, this, apparently, was a bridge too far for Maurice. Appropriating the name of Earth’s Mightiest Movie Franchise was where Maurice drew a line in the sand.
Claire pulled an incandescent Maurice down into his chair.
“And the members of The Avengers?” I asked.
“Don’t call them that!” wailed Maurice.
“Tin, Dag, Marlon, Mandy, Amy and Jenny.” She gave me a sarcastic smile. “They’re all good friends of mine.”
I wasn’t surprised it was them, although hearing Jenny’s name gave me an odd feeling. At least she was okay.
Flossie raised her hand. I’m not sure who’s permission she was seeking, but I felt obliged to give her a nod.
“If we’re all posers, losers and cowards,” she said, “why’d you want to meet us?”
The princess put her hands on her hips. “According to my good friends in The Avengers, the Posers are quite handsome, so I wanted to see for myself. I appreciate a pretty boy as much as the next girl. But instead, it’s you, the Losers.” She rolled her eyes. “I would have preferred it to be the group of girls, even if they are cowards.”
The mention of the girls set my teeth a little on edge. The memory of seeing them was still quite raw for me, and I didn’t appreciate the princess’s snide comments.
I wanted to put the little bitch in her place, tell her exactly what I thought of her, but that wouldn’t be wise. Even though she was just a kid—I’d put her around thirteen—she could still make trouble for us. I’m sure Daddy would happily chop off our heads if his precious baby asked him to. I decided to keep my thoughts to myself and wait for her to get bored and leave. The sensible choice.
“Honestly,” said the princess, “how can you expect to survive in this world if you’re too scared to kill anything. I hope they’re lying dead in some ditch, somewhere. It’s what people like that deserve.”
Of course, sensible and me have never been great friends.
“By the way,” I said to Ducane, “if by chance I do something truly heroic, like… kill a dragon or save the city—you know, something really big—do you think the King would grant me any reward I wanted?”
“Certainly,” said Ducane. “Traditionally, the King will give a true hero whatever he asks for.”
“What if I wanted to marry a princess?” I asked.
“That is actually one of the more common requests. I’ve never known it to be refused.”
I looked at Princess Laney, who had her eyes narrowed at me. “Even if the princess in question isn’t very keen?”
“Well,” said Ducane, “royal marriages tend to be political. Princesses rarely get a say in these matters. Oh.” He finally noticed the princess glaring at me.
I had no intention of marrying a child, and I had even less intention of fighting any dragons, but if I wanted to give her something to have sleepless nights over, what could be more horrifying than the thought of spending the rest of her life with me?
“You wouldn’t dare,” snarled the princess. Then her face crumbled. “Please, forgive me, I was out of line.” Tears streamed down her face. “I won’t make fun of you any more, I promise.” And then, in less time than it takes to snap your fingers, her face transformed into a huge grin and she burst into laughter. “Oh, it’s too funny. You? Kill a dragon?” She laughed again, her eyes huge and wild. “Oh, whatever will I do if you ask for my hand, brave knight?” And then she twisted her face into a mask of pure hate. “Let me make you an offer, loser. If you do anything worthy of a meeting with my father, I will not only agree to be your bride, I will get on my knees and lick your boots in the middle of our wedding ceremony. If you’re going to try and scare me, let’s make the stakes nice and high, hmmm, huuuuu-s-baaaand?”
Which was when I realised my mistake. Ogres, rapists, talking mice with spears—they didn’t come close to the terror I felt looking into the eyes of this thirteen year old girl. She was fucking insane.
I wanted to say, “Just kidding,” and get the hell out of there, but I was frozen in my chair.
Laffi, the officer Ducane had sent off, came running in carrying a velvet box.
I stood up. “Thank you, Princess, I agree to your terms.” I turned to Ducane. “We need to get going. Could you direct us to the Municipal Directory?”
Ducane nodded. “I’ll have one of my men escort you there.”
“And may I have that?” I pointed at the box he was holding.
“Of course. With my thanks.” He handed me the box.
I opened it just long enough to see the golden key inside, and then snapped it shut. “Thank you. I rely on you discretion, Commander.”
“And I on yours,” he said.
Princess Laney was staring open-mouthed. I had made sure my little glimpse at the key was in her eyeline.
“Why does he have that? Is that a… Ducane? Why does he have a Key?”
“Ah, your Royal Highness, I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say.”
I bowed. “I look forward to seeing you soon, Princess. And to meeting your father. I think we’ll have a lot to talk about.”
I turned and walked out to the sounds of her screaming at Ducane.
The others were right on my heels.
“Are you really going to marry her?” Claire hissed at me. “She’s a kid!”
“Of course not,” I said. “What do you think I am? I was just winding her up.”
Screams rang out behind us.
“I think you may have gone too far,” said Maurice.
“Yeah, no shit,” I said. “Don’t worry, I have a plan.”
“Does it involve running away and hiding?” asked Claire.
Damn, they knew me too well.