Caution burst through the door. Before she knew why, her free hand shot back into the room, landed on Creep’s bare chest and pushed him back inside.
Then what she had seen registered; there was a maid standing in the hallway, staring confusedly at her.
“Oh,” Caution said, trying not to laugh while she pulled the door shut behind her. “Yeah. Right. I, uh, well, it’s been a strange day and I… tripped, you know, ’cause the dress is long? Yeah, I tripped on it, and it, um, undid down the back. Isn’t that the funniest thing you’ve ever heard?”
The maid did not look convinced that Caution was being entirely honest, but she dutifully bowed her head, and said quietly, “Of course, your Majesty.” Then, a little louder, she asked if Caution wanted her private chambers cleaned.
“Nooo, no, no,” Caution laughed. “No. No, they’re fine. Thanks. Great, even. Thanks, though.”
The maid bowed her head slightly. “Your Majesty.”
Caution was about to go back into her chambers, when a second maid came hurrying toward the first.
“He’s nowhere to be found,” the second maid said. Then she caught sight of Caution and hurriedly bowed her head. “My apologies, Majesty.”
Caution stopped herself from asking for what? “Don’t worry about it.”
The second maid nodded and turned to the first. “I’ve checked the garden and—”
“The central tower?”
“It was the first place I looked. There’s a footman posted there now, in case he returns.”
“How can he have disappeared at a time like this? And for two days?”
“The poor man is in a state too, you can imagine.”
“Sorry,” Caution interrupted. “Who are you looking for?”
“The sorcerer, Your Highness,” the first maid said.
Caution felt suddenly queasy, like she’d been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Had it really been two days? She did her best to look casual. “Oh yeah? So, uh, why do you need him?”
“It’s one of the royal advisers, Highness,” the first maid explained. “He’s run into a world of trouble.”
“Oh?” Caution asked, secretly hoping that it was one of the mean advisers—and realizing that it would pretty much have to be. “It’s not life-threatening, is it?”
“It… It… No. Though I daresay it will be, if it goes on much longer.”
“Oh good.” Caution responded to the no, ignoring the rest. She flashed a quick smile. “Well, if I happen to see Cre—the sorcerer, I’ll be sure to let him know you’re all looking for him and that it’s, uh, important.”
Caution spun on her heel, went back into her chambers and closed the door.
“They need you out there for someth—Hey! Why are your pants back on?”
Creep added insult to injury, by pulling his shirt on over his head. “Caution,” he said meaningfully. “We have barely left this room for two days.”
“And the bad part about that is…?”
Creep half-smiled. “There is none, that I can see,” he said. “Nonetheless, I think it wise that we put in an appearance—put in separate appearances, before the night is out.
“Oh. What about when the night’s back in?” Caution asked playfully.
“That, I will leave to you, Majesty.”
Creep, when he was dressed in his robes again, didn’t leave through the parlour door. Instead, he kissed Caution goodbye, went into her changing area and vanished.
Caution, for lack of anything better to do, got dressed herself. She found a small bottle of something next to her washbasin, with a note from Creep, telling her to drink it. His handwriting was kind of girly, but over all, very elegant and regal looking. She downed the bottle. It was sort of like drinking liquid, mint-flavoured pop rocks, except the crackling stopped before it reached Caution’s throat. In fact, it seemed to be focused around her teeth.
“I get it,” Caution muttered to herself. It was a good thing, too; travel toothpaste can only last so long, even when used sparingly.
Dressed, and with a minty fresh smile, Caution felt ready to take on the world. She left her chambers, then stopped. Normally, in a situation like this, she would go in search of Creep, and then she wouldn’t have to, because he would be there. She decided to go to the kitchen, because it occurred to her that she may not have eaten in the past two days, excluding, of course, the chocolate sauce.
Caution floated through the corridors, feeling like she was in a particularly pleasant dream, like the world was finally right and everything was as it should be. Euphoric, that was the word. She almost skipped as she came down the stairs, and negotiated, with happy familiarity, the hallways that led to the kitchen.
The kitchen looked pretty much the same as it always did, except that today there were things cooking. And, Caution noticed after a minute, the cook was kneeling on the floor with his head bowed, wearing a rather shocked expression.
“Oh. Sorry. Please stand up.”
The cook stood up, but he kept his head bowed.
Caution groaned. “Stop that, would you? Just… go back to cooking.”
The cook did.
“I’m Caution, by the way.”
The cook stared at her in total disbelief, a wooden spoon frozen in place just above a pot.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of me,” she joked. “I’m kind of a big deal.”
The cook nodded slowly.
“And you are…?”
“Byers, Highness. Forgive me.”
“Why does everyone always say that to me? I mean, forgive you for what? You were cooking and I interrupted you. Oh, and your soup is starting to get a skin.”
Caution grabbed snatched the spoon out of the cook’s hand, and stirred the soup. This, by the look on Byers’ face, was a mistake.
“It isn’t soup,” Byers told her, looking a little non-plussed.
“Oh.” Caution sniffed at it. “What is it?”
“It was a glaze,” Byers said meaningfully.
“Oh. Sorry. Maybe I should… uh, yeah.”
Caution set the spoon on the table, spun on her heal and headed for the exit.
“Wait,” the cook called after her. “My apologies, Highness. You wanted something.”
Caution turned back around. “What? Oh, yeah. I haven’t eaten in… I don’t know. Like, two days.”
Byers looked very bothered by this, considerably more bothered than a stranger should. “Was it that bad?” he asked after a moment.
“The food, Highness. I am sorry if it was—”
“Oh, you cooked? No. I mean, I’m sure it was great. I wasn’t really… around, you know, to eat. I’ve been sort of busy, and no one brought me any food—I mean, I’m sure they just couldn’t find me. Anyway, I didn’t think to ask and—”
“I’ll make you something,” Byers offered quickly.
Caution was about to sit on the counter, when it occurred to her that A, that would remind her too much of Andy and B, Byers would probably have an aneurysm.
“So,” Caution said after an uncomfortable minute of being quiet. “Have you worked here long?” Then, because she enjoyed watching Byers’ face go colours, she added, “I’m new.”
“I’ve apprenticed here since I was seven, Highness.”
“Holy Hell. How old are you now?”
“Twenty five, Highness.”
Byers had a full beard that should have been on a forty-year-old bird watching enthusiast. It sat on top of a pale, round baby face that looked like it belonged to a late-blooming five-year-old. Despite these shortcomings, he looked intelligent and Caution decided she could easily be friends with him, if he’d stop looking at her like she had just crawled out from under a rock… on mars.
“Byers, did it occur to you that I introduced myself as Caution because I’d greatly prefer to be called that?”
“It hadn’t, Highness,” Byers told her flatly.
Caution nodded understandingly. “Fair enough. So what’re you gonna make for me?”
“A sandwich, in the interest of speed, Highness.”
“Mmm, speed. Sounds good.”
Byers did something which caused the the flames under the ex-glaze to turn off. Then, in about thirty seconds, he constructed the most amazing-looking sandwich Caution had ever seen.
“Shall I serve you in the dining room, Highness?” he asked, as he put the sandwich on a plate.
“I’ll eat in here, if that’s alright.”
Byers nodded. “Of course. Shall I send out for the good silver?”
“Um, it’s a sandwich. I mean, can’t I just eat it with my hands?”
Byers smiled. “If you’ll forgive me for saying, Highness, you are not quite like an ordinary royal.”
Caution smiled back. “Forgive you? I think that’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.”
“I suppose it is a kind of compliment,” Byers said reflectively. He then turned, very meaningfully back to his glaze, signalling to Caution that while this had been fun, it was starting to get awkward.
It was starting to, inexplicably. It just seemed like Byers, as intelligent and friendly as he was, was an in-small-doses kind of guy, and he seemed to think the same thing of her. So, after she’d sat down, eaten and told Byers about a thousand times that this was the best meal she’d ever eaten, she left to go in search of Creep.
It didn’t occur to her until after she stepped into the garden that she had been expecting Creep to appear out of nowhere. Since he didn’t, she was forced to go back inside and keep up her search.
As she walked past the big scary room, Caution heard muffled shouting and on top of it, that kind of talk-shout thing that men do when there are a bunch of them in a room and each of them think that he is the only one with ideas worth hearing. Caution didn’t know or care what they were on about, and she planned on walking straight past and wandering back to her chambers, under the assumption that Creep would turn up there eventually.
It wasn’t curiosity that got the better of her, it was way worse. It was a sense of duty… to her people. She was the queen and it was her job to know about these things. She felt a little sick. Nearly twenty years of doing whatever she wanted and now she had duty and responsibility and all manner of unthinkable things.
Caution didn’t knock on the door. Queens, she decided, didn’t need to knock. She turned the handle, opened the door and walked in.
Every man in the room turned and looked at her. Well, almost every man. One of them couldn’t; he had an upturned chamberpot on his head.
Caution hadn’t stopped laughing, even when Creep fought his way through the crowd and led her out of the room. She’d collapsed in a heap in the hallway and had kept right on laughing while Creep slung her over his shoulder and carried her to her chambers and dumped her on the bed. She laughed even harder when Creep told a passing maid that she was in the throes of a fever, and that he would have to look after her.
Finally, Caution’s stomach hurt so much that she couldn’t move, and the laughter ceased. “Ow,” she said with a little giggle. “I think I broke something.”
Creep half-smiled. “It is thoroughly stuck. You are far better with magic than I anticipated.”
“Do they know how it got there?” Caution asked, slightly sobered.
“They believe the enemy are using magic against us,” Creep said flatly.
Caution would have laughed again, if she physically could have. She settled for smiling. “Ah, yes. The time-honoured terrorist attack of chamberpotting. A true classic.”
“In fairness to them, they believe it because it is what I told them occurred.”
Creep sighed. “Whenever magic is used by a person other than me, I am required to investigate and name the party responsible.”
“Ah. Wouldn’t be much of an investigation, seeing as you were there when I wished that thing into the cornfield.”
“It would not have mattered. You left your energy on it. Luckily, no one apart from me has anyway of knowing that. I told them the energy was Abiku.”
“Would you look at us—Partners is crime. So I guess you have to go get that thing off dude’s head.”
Creep looked thoughtful. “It can wait.”
“Yes,” he said, grinning. “I want to have fun.”