The penultimate chapter of the book.
16.) The Toad King’s Last Escape.
The Prince’s pavilion in the corner of the throne room has been taken down, the throne moved to a raised dais. The huge room is full. The wealthy and the nobility of the principality have been summoned, one and all, to witness the final defeat and humiliation of both Quarry and the mythical Toad King.
We are on our knees before the throne.
“I knew who you were the moment you appeared, Toad King,” the Yellow Prince says. “Do you think me an idiot?”
I don’t answer, which infuriates him. With a practiced wave of his fingers, a fist comes from behind and strikes me on the side of the head. I am stunned for a moment, flashes of light and darkness swirling before my eyes.
“Your ugliness alone is a warning,” the Prince continues. “Besides, I haven’t had a visit from a merchant in years.”
“And you never will,” I answer. “If you don’t release me.”
“Even if I believed your story, your jewelry tells the truth. The earring you wear once belonged to someone I loved.”
I can’t help but laugh at this; both the unlikely coincidence and the thought that Pertem ever loved anyone. He waves his fingers again, but this time I’m prepared for the blow, manage to move my head along with the strike. It hurts, but I remain clear-headed.
The audience is completely silent, unmoving, like statues--all of them afraid to call attention to themselves. The Prince peers down at me, his large head atop his small round body looking as if it will fall off if he leans too far forward.
“What am I to do with you, Toad King?” he muses.
“Let me go,” I say. “I will bother you no more.”
“Is this true?” he demands. “I am told the Toad King cannot lie.”
I don’t answer, for he has asked me directly and the answer I must give is not the one that will free me.
The Prince says, “I cannot do with you as I would any other scoundrel and put you in my cages. You have shown you can escape anywhere. Can you escape death, Toad King?”
“I don’t know,” I answer truthfully. “I haven’t tried.”
“Well, let’s find out,” he says, sounding agreeable. He nods toward Quarry, but doesn’t look at him. “May as well have your pawn executed at the same time.”
Quarry is as still as stone. The rebel leader bound and gagged. If I didn’t know who he was, I could believe him a statue. His dark eyes glare at the Pertem, as if his willpower alone can topple the Yellow Prince from his throne.
The Prince is more afraid of Quarry than he is of me, this is clear. Quarry is one of his own people, whereas I come from the outside; a legend, a god even. He has captured me, and there isn’t likely to be another legend or god who will come along and challenge him.
But Quarry comes from Pertem’s own principality, and as out-of-touch as the Prince might be, he understands Quarry is the real danger. If one leader can rise, so can another.
Unless an example is made.
“Let’s not delay the inevitable,” Pertem says, sliding down off his throne. He is stunted in every way; his arms, his legs, his trunk…his mind and spirit. Only his head is of normal size, which makes it look larger. Even on the raised dais, he isn’t much taller than Quarry is kneeling. “We shall execute you in the courtyard, so the bloodstains may be easier to clean.”
I shake my head. What he really desires is a bigger audience, not just of nobility, who are already completely intimidated and craven; he wants the townspeople to see, so that they’ll tell their family members in the outlying towns, who will tell those in the farthest reaches of the principality.
This is what happens to those who defy the Prince.
I am strangely at peace. This is a far better death than I expected…or probably deserve. I always thought the end would come during one of my thefts, or perhaps from a jealous husband.
Instead, I am caught trying to do the right thing. I die because I’ve tried to help others.
I can live with that. Or perhaps I should say…I can die with that.
I’m kicked from behind, and I stagger to my feet. Quarry rises beside me, a smooth still motion, as if he went from kneeling to standing without anything in-between. The closest bystanders back away when he looks at them. With a dignity that seems appropriate to a royal chamber, he starts across the throne room to his fate.
I follow, looking and feeling much less inspiring. My arms are bound behind me, and even in my human form, it’s an ungainly posture. If I were to transform, my arms might be torn from my body.
Quarry turns his head to look at me, and I can read what’s in his eyes.
Escape, his expression seem to be saying. You’ve done all you can do.
I smile. Even Quarry has bought into my myth. It gives me faith, somehow. I test the bonds, so see if I can loosen them. My legs are unbound.
If I transform, will I be able to jump? My arms might be mangled, but at least I’ll be alive. I look to either side, and count more crossbows cocked and ready than I can count on my human fingers and toes.
Not much of a chance, but what does it matter whether a bolt finds me trying to escape or standing helplessly awaiting my fate?
I blink in the daylight. I’d thought we’d emerge into the giant courtyard, but in my daze, it feels as if we are in close quarters.
Then I see it. The entire population of the city has filled the courtyard. The soldiers have to push aside the onlookers, who are unmoving. It is strange to see so many people, so silent.
The soldiers lead us to the huge statue of Prince Pertem’s grandfather, the first of the royal line. A brick wall that appears more recent has been constructed around the statue, no doubt to save it from defacement. Instead, the bricks show signs graffiti being painted over many times.
Quarry and I are placed against the wall. The guards move back, and a line of crossbows faces us.
Well, so it ends. Without me ever knowing why I ever came here in the first place. If I meet the Mirror God in the afterlife, I’m going to demand an answer.
I close my eyes, wait for the click of the crossbow triggers, the whoosh of the arrows.
“My loyal subjects!” Pertem’s oddly deep voice carries far.
The soldiers have carried out a large table, upon which the Prince stands.
“Today the rebellion ends, with the death of its leaders. Here stands meekly the so-called Toad King, the Trickster God. But it appears he is mortal after all, or soon will be.
“And here stands Quarry, who pretended to be a man of the people, but has proven to be no more than a thief. This is the end of all thieves.”
And then, Prince Pertem makes his first mistake. He pauses, as if expecting cheers and applause. Instead, he is greeted by a deep silence. Then, from somewhere in that vast crowd a lone voice shouts, “Quarry!”
The shock that slams over Pertem’s face is clear to all those near. From afar, his body language is equally clear. Prince Pertem shows a moment of fear, a moment of uncertainty.
And that is all it takes. Instantly other voices take up the call. “Quarry! Quarry! Quarry!” Gratifyingly mixed among the chants, I fancy I hear the occasional, “Toad King!” as well.
Pertem wastes no time. He turns to the firing squad and frantically waves his tiny arms.
Quarry and I stare back at our executioners, neither of us showing fear, and it is that contrast that finally breaks the soldiers. One by one, they lower their crossbows.
The crowd surges forward, the table upon which the Yellow Prince stands is buried under a wave of bodies, and I hear one loud “No!” in Pertem’s deep voice and then can hear nothing but the celebration of the crowd.
One of the soldiers comes forward, dropping his crossbow as if it is a poisonous snake. He pulls a knife, hesitates…and then he cuts out bonds.
I’m lifted up by the crowd, carried to the steps of the temple, and deposited there next to Quarry.
The big man is naked and filthy, and yet everyone can see…here stands a true Prince of the Thirteen Principalities.