The castle towers can be seen almost from the edge of the realm, looming above the lesser structures of the capital like mountains above foothills: two mirror images of each other, all gothic arches and spires, and one higher still, a featureless rectangle of turquoise glass.

The throne room tops the highest tower, windows on three sides spreading out the landscape a hundred stories below. Before the king is the bright tile and stolid concrete and steel of the city, and beyond that the southern slopes of hills black with the photovoltaic panels of electricity farmers; at his left hand is the harbor, and beyond it the sapphire sea edged in black cloud; and at his right hand are emerald and olive fields stretching out to the dun slopes and dark valleys of the nearer mountains, and beyond them the jagged blue teeth of the horizon.

The southern end of the room is dark, the king on his winged throne of scarlet and steel standing out with spotlight brilliance in the blackness, and above him like a halo the steel circle and stooping scarlet hawk of the royal arms. Tomosu Ironheart, despite his epithet, and despite the ravages of time, is still unalloyed flesh. His withered body is almost lost in the voluminous scarlet robes of royalty, but his eyes are brighter and harder than the rubies in his steel crown.

Beside the king stands Makriadis of the steel beak and red enamel wings, owner of the fabulous flying steed and the King's Champion, and below him his second, Harrick the Mighty, cradling a water-cooled machinegun dismounted from the largest war-truck in his metal arms, hoses running to the radiator on his back that no foe has ever seen in battle. Opposite Makriadis is the magician, dark-skinned and lean as the tattooed snakes coiling along his arms, battered satchel an ominous dark blot on the splendor of his sleeveless robe of copper scales. Below the magician stands the castellan Renata, plain in her dark gown and belt of many keys, face lined and hair faded beyond her middle years with the responsibility of not only the castle but the mysterious inexhaustible generator beneath that powers the kingdom's knights.

Thronging at the foot of the throne and out across the mosaic map of the floor are the assembled nobility, the flowers of the realm and dressed almost that brightly. The young and vain flaunt skin-tight clothing and bright colors, while their elders are more subdued but no less splendid in silk and velvet robes rich with embroidery. Mingled among the brightness are the drabber forms of those commoners who deem themselves uncommon enough to be here on this morning.

Ironheart's voice rings out, crushing the hubbub of gossip beneath its amplified weight: "HEAR US, OUR PEOPLE!" Silence falls to the faint hum of the speakers. After a moment the king resumes, more quietly. "I am old, and have little time left for frippery, so I shall strike as directly to the heart of the matter as I may."

"The marketplace stories of dragons in the east have come true. Two days past, the village of White Falls was destroyed by a monster from the mountains. Only an officer of the post, who was already some distance from the town when it happened, escaped to warn us. Yesterday, Marid's Corners was destroyed in the same manner. There were no survivors."

Despite the amplification, the king's last words are almost drowned beneath the babble of surprise. He waits until the room has quieted again, every wide eye fixed on him.

"My first thought was to send out the army to hunt down the monster and exterminate it, but my advisors have dissuaded me from that course, pointing out how easy it is for a single creature to evade a large force in the mountains, and how great a strain it would be to suppport such an expedition when so much of its strength would be wasted. On the strength of their counsel, We call upon those who would name themselves heros to prove their worth by ridding Our kingdom of this threat."

The clamor of voices rises again, covering Ironheart's next words. He ruthlessly ups the amplification. "THERE IS NO GOOD TIME for such a calamity, but in one respect this may be the least ill."

"As I have said, I am growing old, and although I like to think I have ruled well, I shall not be doing so for much longer. It is time for me to arrange what will happen after I am gone."

"The last person to sit on this throne was Robert the Ugly, and he lost his seat and his head because he was weak, because his crown was handed to him by his father like an heirloom vase, without a hand lifted on his part. I would rather that my heir not suffer such a fate."

Ironheart's voice rolls over the buzz of speculation, echoing in the roof beams: "WE, KING TOMOSU, FIRST OF THAT NAME, MAKE KNOWN OUR WILL, THAT WHOSOEVER SHALL LAY AT OUR FEET THE HEAD OF THE DESTROYER OF WHITE FALLS SHALL ON THAT VERY DAY BE MADE KING OF THE REALM IN OUR PLACE!"


This file was last modified at 1635 on 22Jun99 by trip@idiom.com.