Two chapters for you, still very much work-in-progress. By Jemima Pett (c) Princelings Publications
Chapter 1: The Cheeky Parrot
“The name’s Barton, Victor Barton,” I said as I walked up to the bar at the Cheeky Parrot, the best inn at Wash. Of course I didn’t say that at all, although I’d always wanted to. No, I addressed the barkeep in the manner in which I’d like people to address me when they arrive off the stage, hungry and tired and thirsty and in need of a wash and a room for the night. It’s funny how people respond to tiredness, some are fractious, some rude, some just weary and some downtrodden by it all. The barkeep here would probably have responded in much the same way I would have responded to my civility, had I not arrived at the same time as a dead body.
I’ve never been particularly close to a dead body, I don’t think. I’ve done a lot of things in my time, but not that. I found early on that doing things kept you away from things being found for you, which were not the things you‘d do if you were offered a choice. It comes of being brought up in a bar myself. The Inn of the Seventh Happiness, that is, the best inn around. I’m biased of course, but I’ve heard other people say the same and who am I to argue with them?
The body had probably been there some time, it just happened to be found at the moment I tried to get a room for the night.
The reason I was trying to get a room is that I was prevaricating. I couldn’t decide whether to go and visit Crown Prince Fred and his brother, Prince Engineer George, at the Castle in the Marsh, or whether to go the other way, to Humber, where I’d heard of some opportunities that a person like me might find enjoyable, not to say profitable. I find the best thing to do when I can’t decide something is to sleep on it, and since I had slept on the stage without coming to a decision, more sleep would be needed.
You may be wondering how a simple son of a barkeep like me would have the nerve to go and visit a prince or two and know them by name. Well, it’s a long story, but I helped them out in a little business when they were just princelings and I was holding the fort for my dad at the inn. Then again, we fought alongside each other in the Battle of Dimerie, and when I needed an internship to get my business degree, the generosity of Prince Lupin of Buckmore meant that I was responsible for the product launch of Engineer George’s wondrous invention, which is now everywhere. And nowhere, as you never see it. (Hee-hee, got you guessing now!) Strawberry Juice power! You see strawberry plants everywhere now, even where they didn’t grow before, just so that everyone can have little strawberry juice power plants. They’re brilliant. And Prince Lupin even allowed me a very, very, very small percentage of the royalties from the invention (he owns it as he sponsored Princeling George, who got a much bigger slice of the royalties). Anyway it gives me enough to be able to do some things I’d like to do, including go and rub noses with a Crown Prince if I fancy it. So I was coming to the conclusion that I should visit them even before I’d been shown to my room for the night. But it never harms anyone to check out a new place thoroughly and I’d only been to Wash once before as far as I could remember. I’d met a Prince from here though. Crown Prince Hunston, fine chap. Travelled from here to Dimerie with him. Didn’t think he’d remember me though. Not like Fred and George. Or Prince Lupin.
Or the barkeep here, who didn’t seem to remember me at all and had in fact disappeared. I suppose dead bodies do drive things from your mind.
After a while I helped myself to a small drink from behind the bar, and while I was there someone came up and asked for an ale or three, and before I knew it I was serving everyone until the barkeep came back. Old habits die hard and I do have something of a professional touch behind the bar, even if I do say it myself. A couple of people asked where the regular barkeep was (whose name, I discovered, was Archi) and I just said he was called away on unexpected business. I left out the detail of the business. Dead bodies don’t sound like a good advertisement to me. Although some tourists seem to go in for that sort of thing.
One thing led to another and before long people were asking for food and I had to go and find the kitchen and check out the service routines here. I found the kitchen, but no-one there which I thought odd, as when the stage comes in you’d normally expect the inn to start serving food. I did a quick check of the readily available foodstuffs and decided that a few things could be served as specials, and nipped back to the bar and looked for the menu card. This was decidedly absent from the bar, along with the barkeep still, so I hurriedly scrawled up three dishes on the ‘specials’ board, and added a note on staff shortages so expect delays, and went back to the bar along with four persons who’d watched me write up the menus and were ready, willing and eager to place their orders.
Well, that wasn’t quite the way it happened, as a matter of fact. There was a guy who came out of the kitchen to give me the specials, or rather, to give Archi the specials, and I explained what had happened and he looked me up and down and said, well what do you think you’re doing, and I said there was a queue at the bar and no-one serving so I thought I’d help out and so on. He said in a funny tone of voice that it was very kind of me, but now if I’d go round to the other side he’d carry on, thank you. And that was how I met Py.
Next morning after breakfast I apologised to Py and to Archi too, although they were very nice about it and said the bar takings had been up that night and I must have overcharged the customers. I was a bit embarrassed about that as I’d looked at the price list, and didn’t think I had, but maybe I gave out smaller measures than they usually did. We get through a lot of drinks at Seventh Happiness and we often have to be careful with our stocks. Not that we overcharge people, of course, we wouldn’t do that, and we never water down the ale which we’ve heard happens some places. Naming no names of course. It seems like the closer you are to the brewery the more difficult it is to get stock in, for some strange reason. Dad and I had talked about brewing our own, but we looked into it and the big drawback was availability of something to brew from as there wasn’t too much that grew on the plains above Seven H. Not for quite a way anyway. If we had to import brewstuff we might as well just bring in the ale.
My Dad is Argon, by the way. He’s a great guy and a great Dad. I’m lucky to have him. I don’t remember my Mum although he says she was a wonderful woman and I look a lot like her. He says I take after my grandpa for brains though, which I used to think was odd as I thought my grandpa was Neon, who was barkeep before Dad took over, but it turned out I had a real grandpa and a step-grandpa, and my real grandpa was a famous scientist who emigrated to Hattan when Dad was a boy.
Anyway Py and Archi and I had a bit of a chat when the stage left and it all quietened down, mainly about bar stuff and custom and differences between Wash and Seven H (which is what we call Seventh Happiness for short). Seven H is simply a stopover, you see. It’s got a market and all, but the market grew up because the stage routes crossed and that’s why the inn’s there too. Wash has a castle with a King and Princes and everything right and proper, so it has more than one inn although the Cheeky Parrot is the best (Archi and Py didn’t say that, it’s a well known fact in the trade). I was surprised there was only the two of them running it and they said, well, Archi said, that they needed a few more hands from time to time, but with the fishing season and everything all the extra people, the reliable ones, were at sea at present. I wondered if they should get some hired persons in just for the season and they said they’d tried it and it hadn’t worked, so we moved on to other subjects. Like the dead body.
It had been found in a room that had already been cleaned. The new occupant of the room had arrived just in front of our stage, in a private coach, which is why he’d been expected and he just went to his ‘usual quarters’ rather than wait with us ordinary folk off the stage. So when he’d found a dead body in his room Archi had understandably been rather put out, as there’d been nobody or no body in the room when he’d cleaned it and left it ready. We puzzled over it for a bit. The body had been removed to the Castle for security and the authorities would be down to see Archi later. They didn’t know who it was, or had been, and it hadn’t been somebody staying at the inn. Archi said he’d told them that at the Castle, but they’d said they’d be down anyway. I was interested enough to stay and wait to find out more but then I thought I might be better off if I left before I got too involved in things. I do have a habit of getting involved in things. Comes of listening to all the customers, I think, I get so many angles of a picture that I think I know more about what’s going on than most people. Which is usually true. But as I hadn’t been here before, maybe I didn’t this time. Maybe.
I decided I’d go to Castle Marsh to see Fred and George and I asked Py about getting there. There was a new regular service three days a week now, it appeared. Today was one of its days, or I could wait till the day after tomorrow. It arrived about noon, gave its passengers a couple of hours to shop or lunch or whatever, then left again on the return trip at three. It would get to Marsh around six or seven depending on the tide.
“Why the tide?” I asked.
Py explained that there were a couple of places where a little diversion was needed at high tide. We then got to discussing tides and marshes and routes and whether Marsh was more cosmopolitan than it used to be. The answer seemed to be ‘yes’ as Princess Kira had made sure of that, and ladies visited Wash to get the latest materials and news and fashions, as well as scientific journals and library books. There was a certain amount of travel by learned people, Archi said, and there was talk of holding an annual “international summer school in natural philosophy”, but he didn’t know what that meant, except it sounded like a business opportunity to him. It did to me, too. I wondered whether somebody at Marsh might need someone to help get it off the ground?
I’d said goodbye and thank you to Archi and Py and was just going out of the door to book my place on the coach when in walked Crown Prince Hunston accompanied by some other chaps. He looked at me.
“Were you here when this body was found?” he asked sternly.
“Er, yes sir,” I stammered.
“Then stay here.”
I sat down near the door, where one of his chaps had remained on duty, and listened while he asked Archi who had left since the body had been found and Archi went through his books listing all those that had left on the stage this morning. Hunston sighed and told his aide to copy the list and send a despatch to Humber to get statements from them all. Fortunately the stage back to the Prancing Pony didn’t leave till after lunch, so those people were all here. He sent someone else out to round them up in the town. He was very efficient. I wondered if he’d remember me.
“Well, Victor, and how is your dad coping at Seventh Happiness now that you’ve left home and become a business guru?”
It wasn’t the sort of opening I was expecting but I was delighted that Crown Prince Hunston remembered me, and all about me. I replied courteously saying that Dad was fine and the staff enjoyed working there and we didn’t seem to have any trouble, not like here but I expected this was pretty unusual. And of course I asked after his health and his family’s. Which turned out not to be as good as it might be, but King Lynn kept hanging on which was getting a bit boring. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but I assumed that as Crown Prince he had to hang around doing nothing just in case, if his dad was ill. And investigating why a body had turned up in an inn was the sort of thing he could fit in just to pass the time.
He asked me formally when I’d arrived, whether I’d seen the person whose room the body was found in (I hadn’t), whether I’d seen anything suspicious when I arrived (ditto) and whether I knew the deceased. I said I hadn’t actually seen the body but I wouldn’t have thought so.
Just as a routine thing he asked me to go and see the body and check that I didn’t know him, so I went along with a couple of other visitors escorted by one of Hunston’s aides to a back room, where we each filed in, had a quick look and said we’d never seen him before, as you’d expect.
Except it didn’t happen quite like that. I knew him. It was a person called Charlie White, last seen getting onto the Dimerie stage about two months earlier. It looked like I wasn’t going to be getting the coach to Marsh that afternoon after all.
Chapter 2: A proposition and a task
“So I told Prince Hunston all about him. Turned out to be not much, really. So I got on the coach as planned. And here I am,” I finished, and grinned round the faces at the dining table with me.
“And who was he?” asked Princess Kira.
“It’s a sad story. What I pieced together anyway,” I explained. “He’d been accused of something. We never did find out what, but he fled from Sowerby one Halloween. He ended up doing a number of things to keep himself going. I remember for a while he went round with a little handcart sharpening knifes for people. Then he’d trim hair for the gents as well. Then he set up a little stall in the marketplace at Seven H. Then he left and went to Powell, I think. I didn’t see him again for a long time. I gathered there was a lady involved. Then he was back from time to time. Selling fabric to the stall holders, for resale, you understand. I think he got an agency for one of the drinks people for a time. But I’d moved on and I wasn’t sure which one. I don’t think he was very successful. But I was visiting Fortune about two months ago and saw him in a bar. Then getting onto the Dimerie stage, like I told Hunston.”
“So you didn’t really know him,” asked Fred, who of course was Crown Prince Fred but he still let me call him Fred, which was nice of him. As long as I was polite about it, of course.
“Well, I knew him like I know everyone in the market at Seven H,” which was pretty well, I thought, but didn’t say so. I mean, when you’ve grown up somewhere like I did you know everybody and most things about them, a lot of which they don’t want anyone to know about.
“Well, at least you solved that problem for Hunston. Have another glass of wine,” said Fred, pouring one for me without me saying anything. He is a most generous chap. I’m glad I know him.
The persons round the table also received more wine and the conversation sort of went into little pieces, some chatting about people they knew that had fallen on hard times, others talking about completely different things. I looked around at the people there and thought how much had changed at Marsh since Fred and George had first returned there. There were a couple of young persons from Buckmore I hadn’t met before, some ladies from Dimerie that were members of the royal household there so presumably Princess Kira’s younger sisters or something similar, some student types from Marsh itself and an older person that looked vaguely familiar but that I couldn’t place. He saw me looking at him and moved to sit beside me.
“Hello Victor, nice to see you again.”
“Um, hello,” I said, “it’s been a long time.” I always find it best not to admit I’ve forgotten someone, and I’ve had a lot of experience watching my dad do this too. He says you usually remember who they are pretty quickly by what they say. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like he was going to say anything.
“What have you been doing recently?” I tried.
“Oh, same old stuff, really,” he said, airily.
“Done much travelling?” Something was vaguely stirring in my memory.
“Only when necessary.” He was good, and so was I, as I was pretty certain I knew who he was… If only I could remember his name.
“You don’t stop at Seventh Happiness when you do,” I said, sort of half-accusingly, as if I really knew who he was and could tease him.
“True,” he said.
I laughed. “It’s alright, Sundance, I won’t press you any further!” I said, glad I had placed him and remembered his name, as it had all flooded back to me. “But I bet you aren’t here for a holiday.”
He laughed too. “Well, I’m not saying either way, but I’m just passing through really.”
Frankly, you don’t just ‘pass through’ Marsh. It is miles from anywhere and requires some determined journeying. But Sundance, who I’d met during the time of the Battle of Dimerie, was the sort of person who knows a lot and tells little. We always assumed he was in Intelligence. I’d always hoped he might recruit me, but then I got on with my business degree and forgot all about such childish fancies. Nearly.
“Do you know anything about this Charlie White business?” I asked him, on a hunch.
“No,” he said slowly, “But do you know who was occupying that room he was found in?”
I shook my head. Apart from knowing he was rich enough to have a private coach, but not someone who would stay at the castle, which might have been expected, I knew nothing about him. I hadn’t even seen him when I checked in, as he’d called Archi upstairs to see the body while I had been doing my introductions.
“There aren’t many people who would have a private coach but not stay at the Castle,” I said to Sundance, who nodded in agreement.
“We may never know,” was his response, and he stood up and went back to his original place, as Princess Kira had also stood and was suggesting we had a bit of fresh air before retiring for the night.
It was a dark night and the slim crescent of a fairly new moon was heading towards the west, crossed by wispy cloud every now and then. You got a great view of the moon and stars at Castle Marsh, no wonder Fred had turned his mind towards natural philosophy. Which reminded me, I’d meant to ask him about this rumoured ‘summer school’. I could ask Prince Engineer George but he hadn’t been there at dinner. I wondered if he was experimenting and whether anyone would mind if I went down to his workshop to look for him. I thought I’d seen him once but it turned out to be a distant relative that had returned to the castle now that things were changing there.
Most of the assembled diners had dispersed, some to their rooms, and some of the youngsters seemed to have gone in the direction of the hostelry. I heard movement behind me and turned to find Fred approaching once more, accompanied by Sundance.
“Are you working on anything at the moment?” asked Fred, politely but very directly. I said no, I’d thought to look into a new project at Humber.
“Sundance here has a proposition, and I have a task I’d like you to consider while you think about his proposition.”
That sounded complicated, but I looked interested anyway. I mean, it always helps to look interested. Even if there is very little light to look interested by.
There was plenty of light on the deck of the GS Flying Fosh. I was standing there because I felt it was the best place to stand when feeling ill. I only remember being on a boat once, and I was too busy being a pirate at the time to feel ill. Now I realised I was suffering from seasickness. And I wanted to die. And then I thought it might be even worse, I might go on forever feeling like this.
Sundance was being very unhelpful, sitting over on one of the benches swigging a Vex with the Lady Amelia, Kira’s sister who had come along on the journey too, and chatting to some lovely ladies who were travelling to see an uncle in the Great Polder.
He’d told me about his proposed trip to the Rhinish Lands and that he would like someone with a good business brain along, and that sounded like me, so I said I’d go. Then Fred had asked me to find George. Well, that surprised me, I can tell you.
Apparently George was overdue, had set off for an aeroplane flying show in a place called Kone, had sent a postcard saying he was having a wonderful time, and hadn’t arrived back three days ago when he was expected. Apparently Kone was in the Rhinish Lands, so I could find George as well as help Sundance. I wondered what they would have done if I hadn’t been around.
We were nearly at the port on the other side of the sea when suddenly the ship gave a great lurch. It was a good thing I was holding on to the rail tightly, or I would have gone overboard. As it was, Sundance had just stood up as the ship rolled, and he rolled straight over the side and landed in the water with a splash.
“Help, help,” I cried. “Man overboard!” I added for good measure as I was sure I’d read that in a book.
People came running up and I pointed at Sundance who was thrashing about in the sea below. I made to get over the rail and go in after him, but somebody stopped me, and they stopped Lady Amelia too, who was also looking as if she was going to do something heroic. I suppose it runs in the family, heroism.
The ship went round in a circle and came back to where Sundance was – they’d thrown something down for him to hang on to and we could see it easily as it was bright orange. I don’t know how they managed to get the ship to stop, but it did, and it lurched about most horribly while it did, and they got a little boat out to go and save Sundance.
Well, after all that excitement we went down into a little cabin and helped Sundance get dry and then the ship arrived at the port and we found the coach we had to get on from there and we all settled down for a good sleep. And when we woke up we were in a pretty place at the edge of some mountains the name of which sounded like a sneeze.
Well, it didn’t quite happen like that. The crossing was totally uneventful and Sundance didn’t fall in, so I didn’t need to go and save him, but we did get on the coach and sleep all the way to Achoo. I’m sure that was the name of the place.
Kone was a nice place, full of towers and buildings and city walls. It reminded me a bit of Buckmore, but it was only partly on a rock as the river Rhine ran along the cliff side and the other side sort of went off into the farmland. Good farmland, I could tell that, not like the land around Seven H. Sundance found us all rooms at the University Arms, which was a very nice inn with stone walls and windows and clever glass in the windows that had pretty markings in it. It had an internal courtyard as well, so we could sit round a table there and be outside yet inside at the same time, which was much quieter and cleaner than having stages drawing up at any moment and scattering dust everywhere.
I needed to track George down and Sundance said he had some business to attend to that he’d tell me about later. Lady Amelia said she wanted to go shopping and she’d be quite fine on her own so we decided we’d breakfast together and then go our separate ways. Which is what we did. Really.
I asked the University Arms whether George had stayed there for the flying show, which they called a Luftfest, I discovered after a bit of a problem trying to explain I was looking for someone who wasn’t there any more. It was all the more difficult as it turned out that George hadn’t left! Although they hadn’t seen him since the Luftfest ended. But his things were still there and did I want to look after them for him if he wasn’t coming back?
Well, what would you say to that? I didn’t know where he was, so I didn’t know whether he was coming back. I certainly hoped he was. I wondered if I should discuss it with Sundance but I decided to take action and to put everything he’d left in his room together and bring it back to mine. But I made a mental note of the way it was left, because it was all a bit strange, I thought.
You went into the room, which was very much like mine but higher up with a lovely view of the river. On the bed was a pile of papers, just left anyhow. There was a brochure for the Luftfest, and ticket for a special evening event for flyers and engineers, a business card from an Ingineur Doktor Zelli, a sheaf of papers with sketches and drawings on them of bits of planes that might have been George’s writing, I wasn’t sure, some advertisements for planes and for other flying events, a map of the area, and a half scribbled postcard to Fred and Kira which said “May be delayed coming home, met an interesting chap and going to M….” and that was all it said, it sort of went into a scrawl and I couldn’t read what the name of the place was. Then on the table by the window was his flying helmet and gloves. That was very strange. Where was his flying machine? And he had a set of keys for it too… those weren’t anywhere to be seen, but then he’d probably keep them on him, wouldn’t he? His scarf wasn’t there though. He always wore the scarf Kira had made for him to keep his neck warm when flying a long way. So he must have time to pick that up, wherever he’d gone. I got the impression he’d gone somewhere in a hurry, and hadn’t expected to be very long, either. It was all very strange.
There was a small cupboard in one corner. It smelled funny so I opened it.
A body fell out. A dead body.
That’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed it. What do you think of Victor rabbiting on then saying ‘it didnt really happen like that?’ All comments welcome!