THEO OPENED HIS eyes and drowsily watched a spider chart a tenuous path across the roughly plastered ceiling. When the spider lost its footing and dropped in the vicinity of his forehead, Theo tried to push aside the thin gray blanket that scratched against his skin and raise a hand to sweep away the insect. Puzzled by the difficulty of what should have been a simple movement, and still groggy with sleep, it took time until Theo understood the source of his predicament: his hands were bound together at the wrists by a thick cord. A quick check of his legs revealed that his ankles were bound too.
It wasn’t easy to lift his aching body into a sitting position, but after several attempts Theo managed to swing his legs over the side of the narrow bed and sit up. A quick glance around the room made him wonder why he had made the effort. The room was small and smelled of damp and neglect. A narrow window let in a sliver of subdued light, the only light in the room. There were no bars on the window—there wasn’t even a pane of glass—because it was too narrow for a child to wiggle through, let alone an adult. It was wide enough, though, to let in the chilly air, Theo realized, ruefully, as he struggled to wrap the blanket around his shivering limbs.
The only other furniture in the room was a rustic table made from wood that stood uncertainly on three uneven legs. Sitting on the table were an earthen jug and one cup. The sight of them reminded Theo that he was terribly thirsty.
He hobbled unsteadily across the short distance from bed to table. When he tried to raise the jug with his bound hands, it slipped through his fingers and shattered on the stone floor. In an instant, the wooden door to the room swung open.
“Here now, what’s all this?” A short and stocky man stood in the doorway and gave Theo a reproving look. Then the man’s face returned to its more accustomed state, one of genial astonishment at the world. He looked at Theo with a curious eye, which made Theo feel like an exhibit in the zoo.
“Who are you?” Theo asked.
“I should think it’s you who needs to do the explaining,” said the man.
“I know who I am.”
The man drew closer and lowered his voice. “Look, son, I don’t know who you are and what you’re doing here, but when you’re taken to Count Chezkah for questioning, I suggest you show more respect.”
“Who is Count Chezkah?”
The man raised his arms heavenward in mock despair.
“I’m serious,” said Theo. “I’ve never heard of him.”
“Even if you’re from the Shivering Isles, you’d have heard of Count Chezkah, Everby’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Supreme Commander of His Majesty’s Imperial Army. Everyone has.”
Before the jailer could reply, a stern-looking gray-haired man dressed in a long tunic made from black velvet and trimmed with fur entered the cell. Theo had the feeling he had seen the man before.
“Your orders were to inform me as soon as the prisoner awoke.”
“I was just about to inform you, Your Excellency.” The stocky man made an awkward bow.
“Clean up this mess.”
“Yes, Count Chezkah.” The man made a second bow.
Count Chezkah snapped his fingers and two armed guards stepped forward. “Bring the prisoner to the Council Chamber.”
The count strode out of the room. The two guards took Theo by the arms and roughly propelled him forward. Theo tried to catch the eye of the man who had been his jailer, but he was industriously gathering the fragments of the broken jug.
“This is a dream, right?” Theo called out to him.
The man didn’t reply. But Theo did see the jailer give him one last look—and shake his head in warning.
THE COUNCIL CHAMBER, as befitting its title, was a spacious room. Like the rest of the fortress, its walls and floor were made from cold and dreary stone. But the room’s walls were decorated with life-size wall paintings depicting heroic battle scenes and the room itself was illuminated by dozens of candles. A large hearth, where a log fire of gigantic proportions was blazing, took up most of one wall, adding heat and light. The center of the room was dominated by a massive rectangular wood table that had been polished until it reflected the candlelight from the circular light fixture hanging above it. Yet despite all these efforts to light the room, the general atmosphere remained gloomy—as was often the case in Everby.
Count Chezkah, who was seated at the table, glowered when the guards brought Theo into the room. Theo stared back, and he was now certain this was the man he had seen the previous night, the one who had looked bored by the fire dance performance. Today, the man looked anything but bored. He glared at Theo from deep-set eyes hooded by bushy gray eyebrows, while his hands rested upon the table in a position that suggested he was ready to throttle Theo, should the necessity arise.
“Name?” Count Chezkah barked.
“I demand to call my lawyer,” Theo replied.
“I’m a citizen of the United States of America. It’s my constitutional right to …”
“Barkan! Golan!” Count Chezkah shouted.
The two men who had captured Theo the previous night hurriedly entered through a side door. In daylight, they looked more like surly hired laborers than professional hitmen. But even so, Theo wasn’t anxious to renew their acquaintance.
“Why didn’t you mention in your report that this person is a lunatic?” Count Chezkah demanded.
The two men called Barkan and Golan exchanged worried looks.
“There was nothing crazy about the way he was spying on the royal party from that tree,” Barkan ventured.
“You are contradicting me?”
Beads of perspiration broke out on Barkan’s forehead. “Of course not, Your Excellency. I was only trying to explain that ...”
That explanation was cut short by the arrival of two more people: Prince Rodepho, the young man with the hawk-like face, and Baron Kanay, the man whose sharp features seemed to be frozen in a perpetually amused expression. Count Chezkah jumped to his feet. “Your Highness!”
“Be seated, my dear count,” said Prince Rodepho. “Don’t let us disturb your proceedings.”
“Bring some chairs, you fools!” Count Chezkah shouted to some attendants, who were clinging to the shadowy corners of the room. In an instant two more chairs were placed at the table. Prince Rodepho sat in the center, while Count Chezkah sat to his right. Baron Kanay, Everby’s Minister of Culture and Communications, took his customary seat at the prince’s left.
“Have we missed much?” asked Prince Rodepho, adjusting the long sleeves of his gold-colored tunic so the golden threads shimmered in the candlelight. The outfit, a gift from Queen Zollani, his future mother-in-law, was brand new.
“Truly, Your Highness, you needn’t have bothered to come,” said Count Chezkah, trying to conceal his disgust. In his opinion, the prince’s new costume made the young man look like a mechanical gilded songbird. The prince’s father would never have been seen in such a getup. “The prisoner is insane—no threat to you at all. I was just about to have him disposed of.”
“I applaud your ability to come to judgement so quickly. But you take too much responsibility upon yourself.” The prince shifted his gaze to Theo. “I would like to know more about this lunatic.”
The prince was a good deal younger than Baron Kanay and Count Chezkah, who were both old enough to be his father. The young man was also of delicate build, and therefore in no way a physical threat. And he had no real power, because he was only a prince regent; his father King Abir IV had died a few years earlier and Rodepho, the king’s only surviving child, would ascend the throne only after he married. Prince Rodepho was well aware of these obstacles. But he wasn’t about to let the fact that he lacked real authority get in the way of obtaining what he wanted.
“Tell the prince your name,” Count Chezkah barked for a second time.
“I demand to call my lawyer,” Theo repeated, although with less certainty than before.
“Is that your first name or your last?” the prince sneered. Baron Kanay smirked his approval.
“I don’t have to tell you anything,” said Theo. “You have no authority over me.”
“Perhaps not, since by your speech you suggest you come from another country,” said the prince. “But since we do hold the power of life and death in our hands, you would do well to answer our questions. That is, if you value your life.”
Prince Rodepho absentmindedly fingered a large gold signet ring he wore on his left hand and gave Theo a benign smile. Theo had read enough stories to know that when kings and princes signed important documents, such as death warrants, they affixed their royal seal as well.
“I’m not afraid of you,” said Theo, with more bravado than he felt. “You’re all just a figment of my imagination. When I wake up, you’ll have disappeared.”
“Then you won’t need a lawyer,” said Prince Rodepho.