It’s Monday, and nothing’s up. Problem solv-ed!
Here’s chapter one of The Rogue Decamps.
ONE: A FINE KETTLE OF FISH.
The stair was steep, without a comfortable footing for a man with long dogs. There had once been a wooden railing hooked into the wall but, this egress largely forgotten, unmaintained, it had years back fallen away. It was lit by three slits of grille from above, but the lowered sun failed to illuminate the stairwell to any useful degree. Sly, with his better vision, had begged to precede, to coach the escape – broken step here, sir – but the old man had charged ahead.
Sly had followed his embattled superior down to a door providing easy access to serene formal gardens. They’d spent the best part of the afternoon in a close chamber with a panel of officials, until the embattled recipient of earnest counsels and irritated exhortations had leapt up exclaiming Umeak! Isilik oiloak pixa egin arte! (Children! Be quiet until the chickens pee!)1 He’d turned and bolted without any hint of intention to his stunned assistant. Sly had rushed after him, trailing the fugitive down a long corridor to a cul-de-sac harboring a hidden door. Before a search party reached them the two had vanished, leaving pursuers scratching their heads.
They’d negotiated the descent quietly, and slipped out into a jewel-like landscape, bursts of early blooms everywhere. The recently woken garden was normally a source of delight for both of them but they were too agitated to pay it heed. Sly knew well – too well – what to expect. Lately, any unpleasantness kicked up the same well-litigated dispute.
Batten the hatches, boy, he told himself. You’re in for a real blow this time. Keep your trap shut. Smile. Nod. Get through it.
“Lord On High,”2 he groaned. “Enough upset for one day. No more, please.” He tried a diversionary tactic, a string of acidic quips assessing the intellects of those they’d been sparring with. In response, he got a variety of mirthless snorts.
In his best nothing-fazes-me voice he exclaimed, “Sir! This is a bad business. We must ponder a response, certainly, but I’m not up to it just now. Let’s shrug off this sour mood and enjoy what’s left of a beautiful day. We’ll go at it tomorrow. What do you say?”
The old man tramped sullenly along the brickwork path. Behind a dense hedge the graybeard bent low, one hand cupped on one knee to steady himself nose to nose with his diminutive associate, the other clutching his cloak tight at his throat. His thin lips were contorted in a deep frown. “Look here,” he spat. “You would abandon me to those fat-heads? I refuse to believe it.”
Poorly braced, the hunched form tettered, but his underling did not back off. Although small of stature, nowhere near the other’s heft, he disdained to act on a very reasonable anticipation of personal injury. He was focused on making his point.
“Let me slip away,” he hissed. “It’s all my fault. Those fools are in revolt against me, not you. The most of them are good men. I am willing to assign them the least foul of motives; they are fearful. You and I have been too flagrant in our unnatural association. The sudden accord of ones normally at each others’ throats is the closest they dare come to a bald rebuke. Once I’m out of the picture they’ll revert to their fractious ways, for this proposal is, unquestionably, indecent.”
“Don’t leave me!” begged the anguished ancient. He lurched toward a stone bench, collapsed onto it, and buried his face in his hands. “Holy Mother,” he moaned, “steel my spine, as you did that of my distant relation, the Friar of Carcassonne.”3
Sly dipped his head in a halfhearted show of respect. “A fine kettle of fish,” he muttered. “The spark,” he growled, “emboldened by some exchange with your silly son, feels he has an ally there.”
“Impossible! Bittor despises him.”
“Be that as it may, the rascal sees his star rising. This stunt is a declaration of newfound sway. Why else would he tip his hand? Stealth would seem to be essential.
“Now, part of me says he was trying to get your goat. He loves to bait you, we know that. Take his threat seriously and he’ll be delighted. Confound him. Laugh it off. Look the other way.“
“Part of you says! What does the rest of you say?”
“Please, don’t blow your top over an observation. It’s a damn ingenious idea. There’s big money to be made, if he can pull it off. We would do well to assume the worst. I’ll poke around, see what I can dig up.”
“I must talk to Bittor about it.”
“Do no such thing. It was a jest, that’s your stance. You have better things to worry about. Haven’t you longed to be rid of M. d’Ollot for years? Give the idiot his free rein. I’ll keep an eye on him and intervene as necessary. I have my own nasty ways and you know it.”
“Do I not!” moaned the grizzard.4
“I can’t predict the exact nature of my disruption but whatever happens, you need not fear retaliation, neither from rat-face nor from your lady-fair. No blame will be laid at your door. I’ll see to that.”
“No blame? What do I say to Saint Peter, standing sentry on the door to Joy Eternal, when the inevitable hour overtakes me?”
“Let’s not dig into that bucket of worms, please. I’ve had my fill of nonsense for one day.”
“Your fill? Of nonsense? That’s rich! You, with your ideas! That I always listen to respectfully, do you dare deny it?”
Sly did dare deny it, but he thought best to keep mum.
“By the way, thanks so much for your intervention earlier! What would I have done without it?”
Sly had sat side-by-side with Jakome, fixing each speaker in turn with a single wide accusatory eye. That and a sneering twist to the corner of his mouth had unsettled them quite spectacularly. His friend had not understood the reason for the frozen faces for a good while. He’d thought it due to a masterful counterpoint, and had congratulated himself on his lithe rebuttal.
“Belief shared by millions, nonsense? Simon Peter, nonsense?” The old man was turned red in the face. “I’ll tell you what the Cephas will say!” he screamed. “He’s not called Rock for nothing. Play dumb, you say, while d’Ollot is merry inciting a crime beyond contemplation. Peter will condemn me on the spot. You saw to your own interests? You looked the other way while faith was mocked? Worse, you failed to hinder the corruption of the innocents? Begone, scoundrel. No, my oh-so-clever friend. No! I will not tolerate the deviltry. Never!”
The wailed remonstrance brought attendants running. Sly lay low in a swath of greenery as his companion raged and shook a fist at the cloud-strewn expanse of blue, the perhaps observant, possibly occasionally responsive celestial space widely rumored to be the safe harbor, after the storm-tossed sea of life, commonly known as heaven. 5
Attendants! Is the wobble an inmate of an asylum? You will think so when I tell you that he’s been talking to a cat. But Jakome is no ordinary sad-sack. He’s a king, I’m afraid, a not terribly effective one. He’s a gentle soul. He hasn’t a ruthless bone in his body. That’s not good when you’re king, not good at all.
Jak was not the monarch he’d been, and what he’d been had never been impressive. Always timid, he had become alarmingly withdrawn. His new habit was to brush long bangs into his eyes, using the heavy crown to hold the fringe in place, to conceal the panic that pinched his brow whenever he was forced to speak officially.6
The man feared to give his opinion on any matter of importance until the cat hopped onto his lap, whereupon the two would seem to confer. His adherents held that a beleaguered old wreck took comfort from the presence of a beloved pet and played at confiding in it. Others insisted it was a way to humiliate favor-seekers and annoy adversaries. A few attempted to call it circumspection. His enemies used the term dotty freely, but privately, among themselves.
If the conduct were a strategy, it demonstrated no unifying principle. It could not realistically be branded judicious temporizing, nor cunning dissimulation, nor, as much as one wished to believe it, an unremarkable royal fatuity. (Royal fatuity, in those days, encompassed some outrageous behavior.)
His advisors concurred that he was unfit to rule, but they propped him on the throne. The son would, by all indications, be far harder to manage.
- A Basque proverb, meaning shut up, and stay shut up. Chickens, birds in general, do not pee and poop separately. They plop, as we can readily see on our windshields.
- A figure of speech. Do not take it as a statement of belief.
- Bernard Délicieux, aka the Friar of Carcassonne, battled the corruption of the twelfth century church, in a region not far from my imaginary Haute-Navarre.
- He’s a grizzled old man with a long, scrawny neck, a bit buzzard-like. He’s a grizzard, for my money.
- Sly’s view, and a source of considerable contention between the two. He is a staunch humanist, in other words, an atheist. An adorable atheist, I promise.
- I have extracted phrases from here and there for decades, adding them to my word file. I never jotted attributions. (I never thought my story publishable.) I am cobbling credits as best I can. Using the heavy crown is one of my snatches, I couldn’t tell you where it’s from if my life depended on it.