Greg M. Hall
It had all been good fun until Farncis heard a wizard's offhand comment: "Nasty fellow, the Emperor. If his mood's foul today, somebody's losing their head."
"Won't be mine," said another wizard. "I wouldn't have set foot within a day's walk of the place if my teleportation skills weren't up to snuff."
Farncis stage-laughed at the banter, hoping he didn't sound too shrill. He was far out of his league here, in the Emperor's throne room, in the midst of aged, robe-clad men who oozed magic ability from their pores.
Nearby, two score of stout oaken chairs faced the dais and the currently unoccupied throne. Just as Farncis wondered why there were so many, a commotion at a side door caused him to look up. A harried bald man wearing an Imperial tabard led a handful of servants into the room and began shout-whispering orders.
"No, you may not 'just drag them to the back of the room.' They must be removed!"
A doughy, bulb-nosed servant, a full head taller than his diminutive supervisor, replied: "But, Mister Monfort, tomorrow we have that-"
The bald man hissed: "Not another word! The Emperor must not be given the impression that I invited any more than the eight mages who are here!"
"'Gads," said the doughy servant after a glance in Farncis' direction. "You must have had fifty on that list."
Farncis looked away before they saw him smirk. Mages were a haughty, independent sort; they tended to view their sovereign as the man who ruled the land they lived in, not the man who ruled them.
The one called Monfort, apparently satisfied that the surplus chairs were leaving the room at an acceptable rate ("carry them, do not drag them") drew in a pair of deep, cleansing breaths, smoothed the wrinkles from his tabard, and grabbed a scroll from one of the remaining seats.
He harrumphed loudly, and looked across the group of mages. His honey-brown eyes looked pushed back in their sockets, burrowed under a constantly furrowed brow and above large, droopy bags.
"Good mages of the land, thank you for being so patient and for coming on such short notice. If you don't mind, I wish to make note of those in attendance." He unrolled a portion of the scroll, and extracted a writing-stick from behind one ear. "Bertrand the Large?"
A hulking, pale man nodded, his conical cap flicking back and forth.
"Tyrenium?" Monfort looked about the gathered group, nodded, made a mark on his scroll, and continued.
Farncis lifted a hand and said: "Here."
Monfort's gaze, jaundiced in its natural state, narrowed even further. "You're Iconeus? I'd expected a much older man."
As he gave what he hoped was his most disarming grin, Farncis said: "Yes, and no." Not allowing himself to be overly hampered by something as dull as modesty, Farncis would describe himself as a strapping, enthusiastic fellow, with arresting green eyes and an irresistible rustic charm. He actually wasn't too far off the mark, but overlooked the fact that he seemed all arms and legs and would never be mistaken for an athlete. His face, adorned with a big, splayed nose and prominent chin, radiated youthful enthusiasm.
Monfort looked at Farncis sideways, squinting through one eye.
The young man brushed fiery red bangs off his forehead. "My good fellow, I specialize in metamorphosis, transmogrification, polymorphs, and the like. My current form cost a lot in resources, and I prefer not to waste it by reverting for one short meeting."
"You'll pardon my skepticism. I've never heard of a mage who was so concerned with appearance that he'd-"
The Imperial lackey stopped talking as Farncis' waist-cinch cord rose, snakelike, so that the knotted end was at eye level. The knot bobbed back and forth, before lashing out at those honey-brown, sunken eyes. Like a hound on a chain, the cord's lunge was arrested and it succumbed to gravity.
Monfort yelped, and drew back, drawing a few snickers from the gathered mages. He quickly collected himself but drew no nearer to the young man. "Yes, yes, of course, Iconeus." He scribbled on his parchment and continued the roll call.
Once he had names for all eight of them, he invited them to be seated in the remaining chairs. He then raised thick, bejeweled hands next to his head and clapped twice.
Three fools sprinted into the room and began to cavort, caper, and gambol around chaotically, skidding around in stocking-feet on the polished marble floor. After a few minutes, a servant brought them each a stout bamboo pole, and the jesters began trying their best to beat each other senseless.
A wizened, distinguished-looking mage in a gilded robe had taken the seat next to Farncis. After watching the spectacle for a few moments, he leaned over and whispered, "You, young sir, appear to be in a competition for the worst impersonation of Iconeus in the land. Go to the kitchen and swallow a few drams of vinegar, then come back and try again."
Farncis put a hand over his mouth to cover the smile. "You've found me out, sir. I'd heard the true Iconeus despises the Emperor. That's why I thought it safe to assume his identity."
The older man arched an eyebrow. "I would hardly consider your action to be 'safe', if Iconeus found out."
"I'll have to leave any worry about that to the time that I might actually meet him. The name's Farncis." He extended a hand, and the other reciprocated with a pale, liver-spotted one of his own, surprisingly firm despite its appearance. "You see, my good sir, I befriended an Imperial Messenger who stopped in my village for a mug of the local ale. After I bought him four, he told me he'd been sent to the great mages of the Seven Kingdoms for an audience with Emperor Rutger. I saw a golden opportunity for a free meal. And, of course, top-notch entertainment." He wince-grinned as one of the skittering fools took a pole in the groin. "Oooh! That's going to leave a mark!"
The older mage, apparently not a fan of physical comedy, let Farncis finish laughing before saying, "Provided you don't lose your head, young man, your presence here might be entertainment enough. This would otherwise be a convocation of grumpy old men."
Farncis tore his eyes from the fools' carnage. "I understand why I'm the only youth here, but why aren't there any women? There are some sorceresses of fearsome power throughout the land."
Farncis' new friend smiled. "Then you don't know the Emperor too well, lad. He's got a low opinion of women. 'Fragile creatures that should be protected and cherished', he'd say. The fool doesn't even recognize his youngest daughter could best him in most worthwhile endeavors. If he allowed her to carry out some of his responsibilities, the Empire would be better for it."
Two attendants ran to the center of the room to drag off one of the entertainers, bloodied and unconscious. Farncis watched them and said: "I had no idea. In my village, the women work themselves into an early grave as quickly as the men."
Their conversation was ended by a shout, which reverberated through the cavernous space: "Oye, Oye! All rise for Rutger the Magnificent, Emperor of the Seven Kingdoms, Scion of the Tergen Line, Defender of the Three Faiths, Supreme Arbiter and Exchequer!"
No mortal could live up to such a superfluous introduction, but the man who entered the room and ascended the dais to a fanfare of horns was an abject disappointment. The Emperor's flowing robes didn't conceal his hemispherical belly or narrow shoulders; his weak chin was made weaker by a pendant gullet that drooped almost to the middle of his neck; and his bulbous face bore unremarkable, muddy brown eyes.
"My loyal subjects!" he proclaimed in a warbly tenor, made even more high-pitched by the fact that he had to shout to be heard in the expanse of the throne room. "We are very pleased to have you in our presence. We have summoned you here because of a grave matter which concerns us all: The succession to Our throne."
The distance between Emperor and mages allowed for discreet asides. Bertrand the Large made an off-color remark about what that meant in his relations to the Empress, forcing Farncis to chew on his tongue to keep from laughing out loud. Oblivious, Rutger the Magnificent continued.
"As you know, the Imperial line has been continuous for fifty generations. We rule a land that has seen peace and prosperity, with nary a concern about outside threats or internal discord."
The Emperor paused and paced, hands clasped behind him for effect, and the mages were courteous enough not to point out the fallacy in his claims.
"All this, as stable as it seems, is at grave risk. We have no sons, and have also just learned that Our Empress has passed beyond her childbearing years. We're all aware of the Prophecy of Dawn, and how the Empire will shatter into anarchy when the line of male successors from the Tergen House is broken."
He sat down in his throne, and made a gesture more appropriate to the stage than a throne room. "This, gentlemen, is where you come in. We have one daughter remaining who has yet to be wed, the Princess Mindra. Since we need a Prince of the Tergen Line, one who is the fruit of my own loins-"
"Oh, don't tell me..." whispered the old mage next to Farncis.
"-We need a powerful mage to make my lastborn Princess into my firstborn Prince."
The general reaction was stunned silence; every mage's chivalric sensibility had been spat upon by the man who was supposed to exemplify it. After an uncomfortable, air-warping beat, Bertrand the Large let his breath sputter out between his lips. His chair clattered to the marble floor as he stood and turned toward the door. Striding angrily, Bertrand flopped his hand behind him, as if he were throwing something away.
Rutger the Magnificent went livid. "Guards! Seize that man!"
Six of the Emperor's finest bored in on the impertinent mage. Bertrand snapped his fingers, and a tongue of purple flame immolated him in mid-stride. The guards skidded, ungainly on the smooth floor, their heavy armor a hindrance now instead of help. Two couldn't stop in time, and they collided with a horrifying din of clashing metal.
The Emperor's face turned purple, and Farncis heard the sickening pop of one of the Imperial teeth breaking inside his tightly clenched jaw.
Everyone else here can make themselves disappear.
Farncis bolted to his feet before Rutger the Magnificent started looking for any neck to sever. "Your Highness? Iconeus, at your service. I specialize in metamorphosis, transmogrification, polymorphs, and the like. And I believe your problem falls right into my area of expertise."
The Emperor began to smile, but it turned into a wince. He waved for Monfort to join him on the dais, and the lackey nearly fell over the chair recently vacated by Bertrand the Large in his hurry to appease His Highness.
Rutger put an arm around the flunky's shoulders, muttered something, and left as quickly as he could. The trumpeters, caught off guard, didn't play their fanfare until the Emperor was almost out the door.
Monfort skittered down the steps of the dais and said: "Gentlemen, if I may have your attention thank you for coming; you're free to go. Mage Iconeus, if you would be so kind as to remain here, I'll show you to the guest quarters as soon as I finish a small errand." He left with a gait that looked like a dignified, yet panicked, dash.
The older mage watched the lackey go, and then clapped his hand on Farncis' shoulder. "Young man, I wish you the best of luck. I have a feeling you'll need it to avoid losing your head. It's too bad; you seem a quick-witted fellow. You'd make a good mage with a mind like that, provided you could put in the necessary work."
Farncis smiled, and felt a trace of blush-heat on his cheeks. "I thank you, Mage..."
"Blackfriar," the older mage supplied.
Farncis' eyes widened and he leaned forward. "Truly? Then indeed, I am humbled in your mere presence." He began to kneel, but was halted by the elder's gnarled hand and its surprising strength.
Blackfriar shook his head, holding his finger over his lips in a shush. "Like you, I'm here in disguise. I wanted a first-hand look at what my nephew Rutger was up to; now I fear he may make a bungle of historical significance." He looked toward the door where the Emperor had made his hasty exit. "Shame about the prophecy. I think it's a bunch of sheep-dung. Mindra would be a most effective Empress."
"No," said Blackfriar, "I couldn't. The Imperial line has gone unmarred by usurpation for centuries. I'm not going to be the one who sullies it." He shook his head, and replaced his frown with a faint smile. "Perhaps, young man, you will prove to be a most interesting wildcard. Watch yourself. Rutger is easily offended and extremely harsh on those who anger him. Have you learned any good concealment spells? Teleportation? Can you turn yourself into anything?"
Farncis gave him a cockeyed smile. "I'm afraid I haven't advanced much past parlor tricks. But if I'm cocky about one thing, it's that I'm able to think well on the run."
Blackfriar returned the smile. "If you make it out of this with your head, come by and look me up." And with that, he blinked out. Just disappeared. No smoke, no flames, no transmogrifying into a dove, nothing. It was simple, to the point, unpretentious. Exactly the way, Farncis thought, he'd do it.
"I'll take you to the princess now, Mage Iconeus. She's in the garden."
"Excellent! Is she picking flowers? Admiring some ferns?"
"Not exactly," stammered Monfort as they descended a spiral set of stairs. "The garden has the most room for her to construct her machines."
Farncis almost missed a step and flailed his arms. "Excuse me?"
Monfort said: "Hrrmpf. Yes, she fancies herself an inventor. Her current project is some sort of catapult she claims will double the effectiveness of the ones her father's seigemasters use."
Farncis arched an eyebrow. "Most intriguing."
Just as Monfort had said, a young woman paced the garden, spewing orders at a crew of seven men armed with hammers, ropes of various sizes, and a variety of woodworking equipment. She wore a drab, shapeless work tunic, but Farncis still gasped. Her beauty, even under smudges of dirt and grease, was striking, and there was a grace and confidence in the way she moved. When she looked to see who had intruded on her work, his innards froze.
"Monfort! To what do I owe this wonderful visit?" Even dripping with sarcasm, the young woman's voice was captivating, smoother and richer than the finest of bells.
"Princess, this is a guest of your father's, who wishes to speak with you."
Mindra directed wide, opaline eyes heavenward, and exhaled a disgusted breath. "Is this one of those 'have to do' things? I'm extremely busy. Father's about to dispatch an army with ineffective catapults. Can't he come back later?"
Farncis stepped forward. "If it pleases you, Princess, continue what you were doing. I find this contraption most fascinating. I'll just sit over here, out of the way. Perhaps we can release Monfort to his more pressing duties?"
Mindra heaved a tired sigh, turning back to the catapult. "You may remain if you wish," she said to her device, "But stay out of the way. And try not to bore me with incessant jabbering."
"As you wish, Princess," said Farncis. He looked over his shoulder at Monfort, silent in his annoyance. "That will do, Monfort, thank you very much."
The lackey turned a stricken glance from his visitor to the Princess, but left without another word. Farncis could see he was more than happy to be away from Mindra.
The Princess continued to work, examining joints, knots, and hardware. She ignored the young visitor, speaking only to give instructions to the workmen. Farncis was content to watch Mindra and was in no particular hurry. What kind of monster was the Emperor to desire to rob the world of such fair, honest beauty?
At last, she turned away from her creation, hands on her hips. "Well?"
Farncis shrugged. "Really, I find your construction quite interesting. It seems a bit unorthodox, placing the main pivot of your throwing arm away from your center of balance."
"That's to maximize the leverage in the mainbeam, increasing the momentum on the end." She was on the verge of a smile, but twisted it into a critical, brow-knotted look. "But you're really not here to discuss catapult technology. Tell me the purpose of your visit."
"My name is Iconeus, and I am a mage that specializes in metamorph-"
She gave him a dismissive wave. "I think we can skip that part. You may have convinced the doddering old fool that licks my father's boots, but quit while you're ahead. What, exactly, are you doing here? And be honest. There's no love lost between me and my father."
"I can see why. He wants me to turn you into a prince."
"What?" She looked ready to kill him.
"Wait, wait! I assure you that I have no interest in tampering with such exquisite beauty."
She crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one leg. Farncis looked around, and, not seeing any eavesdroppers, decided an attempt to feed her a load of manure would only get him in worse trouble. Quietly, seriously, he told her: "In truth, I couldn't even turn you into a blonde."
He might as well have told her he was going into a bull's pen to slap it on the rump a few times.
"You see," he forged ahead, now more decisive, "your father, having no sons, wants a powerful mage who can make him one from what he has available, which is, ah, you. The other mages he had assembled were on the verge of laughing him out of his throne, but they could make themselves vanish in a puff of smoke. I, on the other hand, can pull a rabbit out of my hat, or make a coin appear from your ear, but I would hardly be able to prevent your father from venting his frustrations on me."
Mindra drew nearer to him, ignoring the rhododendron that she crushed under her foot. "So why were you even there in the first place?"
He shrugged. "I thought it might be fun. Impersonate a mage, get to see the palace, maybe get a free meal out of the thing. Just to be able to tell my friends that I did it. Now I've had to change my plans a bit. I think I'm going to try to get a little payment in advance, then somehow steal away tonight when everybody's in bed."
She shook her head. "No, no, he'd find you. Your face would be spiked to every tree in the Seven Kingdoms within a few days."
Farncis smiled and tapped his chin with his forefinger. "That's why I'm in disguise. Fake chin, fake nose. I put a little red dye in my hair, too."
Mindra returned his smile, putting a sly twist on hers. "You're nothing but a charlatan, out to take my father's gold. It sounds like much more fun than what I'm doing."
Farncis swallowed hard. His mind grew thick and sluggish. "Well, yes. Ah, anyway, will you be at dinner tonight?"
She giggled. "Of course. Although, don't you think it would be wise of me to act hostile toward you? Since, after all, my father thinks you're here to... does he really think I'd just willingly go along with that? What a horrible person he can be!"
"Uh, yes, I'm getting that picture," said Farncis. She had somehow gotten within arm's length, and the scent of flowers that had sacrificed themselves to her beauty mingled with his breath. He cleared his throat. "Thank you, Princess. I'm glad we had this little talk. I'd best be going now."
"So soon?" That smile made his head swim; if she reached out and touched him, Farncis felt he might lose his balance. "Supper isn't for a little while, yet."
"Uh, my chin seems to be getting a little loose. I should attend to it." He retreated, amazed that he'd gotten all that out without swallowing his tongue.
By dinner Farncis had the outline of a plan. First, he would extract a payment of 100 talents to cover 'expenses'. Spell components for such an unusual transmogrification were rare and expensive, he'd say, especially the white dragon testis. Then, he would slip out of a window, swim the moat, and run to safety and future adventures.
The only problem with the plan was that he'd have to leave her behind.
The dining hall was not quite as impressive as the throne room, though it was as large as a jousting field. At the center of the Emperor's table, which perched on a balcony above long empty tables, were Rutger, the Empress Norrina to his right, and Mindra to his left. Directly across from the Emperor was Farncis. Other diners included two Kings who were at the palace to bring Rutger his annual tribute, and an Emissary from a land outside the Seven Kingdoms. The rest were advisors to Rutger, whose names Farncis promptly forgot.
Rutger spoke through chews on his roast mutton, occasionally launching bits of his food at his guests on p's, t's, and k's. Farncis barely succeeded in keeping his gorge down when, in one particularly animated sequence, the Emperor hit him smack in the nose with a masticated chunk of boiled lamb.
At last, the conversation turned to Farncis, and Princess Mindra.
"So tell me, Iconeus," Rutger began, tossing a leg bone over his shoulder, "how exactly are you going to change our daughter into a prince?"
Fighting off the urge to stare at her, Farncis took a swig of wine, and set the fine crystal goblet down. "Such a spell, Majesty, was developed six centuries ago, by an archmage named Rutemus. He used a polymorph on all the women in his city, doubling the apparent size if its garrison during a siege. In development of his spell, he established guidelines for what not to do, so that he could avoid permanence. I merely have to work backward, and in many ways, this should be simpler, since I don't have to take as many precautions."
Rutger looked delighted, but Mindra said: "I don't like it, father. Why haven't you asked me about what I want? Can you be so ignorant as to think that women sit around all day, wishing they were men?"
Rutger tensed. "Mindra, dear, not in front of the company..."
She rose from her chair. "I will not be silent on this subject! It's like...it's like you're murdering me! As the person I am, I will cease to exist!"
The Emperor shocked Farncis by, instead of exploding, reaching out to touch his daughter on the arm. "My dear, we're royalty. I've sacrificed much for the good of the Empire; I'll only ask this one thing of you."
Mindra looked surprised and unbalanced by the conciliatory tone. She sat back down, silent for a moment as she studied the tablecloth. Rutger, appearing confident that the crisis had been defused, grabbed a hunk of bread and bit into it.
After a moment, Mindra looked across the table at Farncis and said: "Iconeus has told you that he needs to take me back to his castle to perform the spell, hasn't he?"
Farncis' eyes widened, and he shot an incredulous glance at her. What the hell are you doing? was written all over his face, if only briefly.
Don't worry, responded hers.
"No," responded Rutger, the mouthful of bread shoved into his cheek. "We did not know this."
Farncis' mind was racing, and he took a healthy drink of wine, both to buy him time and because he needed a good, stiff belt, hoping that his hand clutching the goblet was steadier than it felt. He set the goblet back down and said: "Ah, yes, Your Highness, I hadn't gotten to that part; we haven't had an opportunity until now to discuss the details. My castle, actually, is just a stop for supplies and equipment. The actual spell-casting must occur in the caldera of an active volcano."
Rutger took an agonizing moment to finish chewing, before he swallowed loudly and said: "Then I will send a party of guards along to assure her safety."
"But, sire, a full-blown party would merely attract attention and be far more difficult for me to protect. And, as I'm certain you know better than I, the mountain folk are a rebellious sort. They'd ignore two travelers, but would certainly be hostile to a force traveling under Imperial colors."
Rutger took another too-large bite of mutton, responding between chews. "In that case, Iconeus, so it must be. But allow a concerned father the discretion of sending along my two most trusted and capable guards. In disguise, of course." He leaned forward and pointed his joint of meat at Farncis. "Know this, mage: no harm is to come to our daughter, or to the son you bring back. If you don't return with a male Mindra within one month, We will see that your castle is destroyed and you are brought to us on a spit! Is that understood?"
Farncis nodded. How had he managed to drag the real Iconeus and his castle into this? If Rutger and Iconeus were both out for his hide, it might take more than a simple disguise to protect him. From the corner of his eye, however, he could see Mindra smiling.
Trust me, said her eyes.
I'm a dead man, said his in return.
This was supposed to be fun!
Farncis, dejected, lay on his luxurious guest-room furnishings. This was what he'd wanted - the huge, plush bed, the raging fire in the fireplace, the gluttonous banquet--but how was he going to work himself out of this mess? If he ran off now, Rutger would most likely destroy Iconeus' castle, or (more likely) lose an army trying. If he actually took Mindra away, as she was forcing him to do...
Would that be all bad? A month of bliss, basking in her glow, breathing the same air she breathed? It seemed too good to be true. It had to be.
Women! Whoever had referred to them as 'the weaker sex' was obviously a eunuch. A woman like Mindra could wrap a man around her little finger, make him serve her hand and foot, and with a single soft, sweet smile make him willing to die for her. He cursed her for the grip she had on him, and cursed himself for allowing it to happen. He should leave. Right away.
The annoying sanity of that thought caused Farncis to sigh in resignation. Of course he would go with her tomorrow. Even if she was just using him to get out from under her father's thumb.
He needed sleep, but it wasn't coming. He wasn't a real mage, but a self-sleep spell was supposed to be simple. He began the guttural chant, and tried very hard to keep his pinkies out as he had been taught as he waved his arms...
The soft, sweet song of female laughter drifted to him from the balcony of his room.
Farncis sheepishly turned to look.
Mindra stood in the entrance to the balcony, leaning against the arch. The night breeze drifted her auburn hair across her shoulders. A playful smile was on her lips. "What in the world are you doing?"
His heart trip-hammered. "Uh...it's a sleep spell. I'm trying to cast it on myself."
Her eyebrows, arched elegantly above those pale, multihued eyes, raised slightly. "So you do know some real magic?"
He nodded. "Oh, I've been through an apprenticeship or two, but it just seems to take so long. And most mages want you to practice this, and practice that, and 'clear your psyche through cleansing labor', which of course means scrubbing pots and pans and sweeping floors. I just didn't have the patience for it. How did you get up here, anyway?"
Mindra chuckled, as if her little secrets were something she liked to wave in front of people's noses. "I've lived here all my life, and never been allowed outside the Palace Grounds. I know this place inside and out." She drifted over as she said this, and ended up sitting, legs folded, on the foot of his bed.
Her eyes, glowing in the flickering fireplace light, tilted up to meet his. "What's it like? I've heard many tales of the Seven Kingdoms, the mountains, the desert, dragons larger than the largest of trees...It must be wonderful to be free to wander wherever you wish. If I can go with you, and enjoy that freedom for even a month..."
Farncis snorted at her idealism, the memory of a recent brush with death from a band of highwaymen too fresh in his mind. "With freedom comes risk. It's not very safe out there."
"Safe," she said, not trying to hide her contempt for the word. "May I never be 'safe' again."
He didn't know how to reply, so he didn't. Instead, he allowed himself the indulgence of staring at her.
"What do you think, Farncis?"
Mindra lowered her eyes and began smoothing out the blanket in front of her. "I don't want any part of being a man. But my father actually made sense when he talked of sacrifice. 'For the good of the Empire.' You know public opinion better than I, Farncis. How well-liked is my father? Is he really doing as poor of a job as I think he is?"
"Do you really want me to answer that?"
Mindra smiled and patted him on the knee. "I think you just did." She pondered that for a moment, an unpleasant expression crossing her face. "Well, I guess we've got a month to figure out some other way, don't we?"
"I guess so. You're really going to trust yourself to me? I'm hardly a laugh a minute. I've got some pretty annoying habits."
"Please," said Mindra, "I've been living under my father's gaze all of my life. I'm really looking forward to this."
Farncis busted out in a foolish grin. "I guess I am, too." His heart was singing, but his mind was troubled. He couldn't shake the notion that it was unwise to let himself be drawn into her spell.
They left the next morning, just two people and their horses, followed by two more in coarse gray robes that hid plate cuirasses and an array of weapons. Before they rode out of the gate, Farncis saw the look Rutger gave the guards; chin raised, eyebrows knitted. A silent admonition that the young wizard was to be hacked to pieces at the first sign of something going amiss.
A day of travel brought them into a dense forest. Heavy, kudzu-laden branches loomed over their heads, blocking off any breeze that might have cleared the mist that hugged the path. Farncis and Mindra continued to ride up front, their stony companions keeping pace a few lengths behind.
"Do you have a plan yet?" she asked, for the first time in a few hours.
"I've devised several that may work, but none that will work." The Princess' expression made him ask: "Do you?"
A small smile crossed her lips. "My grand-uncle Blackfriar lives along this route. You can claim you need something from him for the spell."
As long as Blackfriar liked his grand-niece, and there was no reason to think he wouldn't, it was a good start. "Then what?"
Instead of answering, Mindra pointed to the trail ahead. "What's that?"
A sharp black line hung in the air between the trees. Farncis and Mindra immediately stopped their horses, and the guards drew alongside as best they could in the narrow path.
One of the men-at-arms said: "You're the magic man, wizard. Tell us what it is."
Before Farncis could respond, an amorphous black cloud began flowing out of the slit, like ink spilled into water. It began to swirl, leaves and forest floor detritus circling around it, until it took the form of a man in the action of walking toward them.
The final few wisps of dark ether curled into minute hairs, congealing into a white beard that now framed a scowl crafted from decades of use, engraved into the skin of a narrow, pale face. A pair of coal-black eyes perched above the scowl and a nose that resembled an axe-blade.
One of the guards pulled a throwing knife with one hand and a horseman's saber with the other. He threw the knife and followed it at the apparition in one fluid movement. The bearded stranger ignored the action until the knife's trajectory warped around him in a tight arc. He raised his right hand. Horse and rider fell in an ungainly garble of meat, bone, cloth, and metal to the peaty forest floor.
The other guard raised both hands, slowly, to show he wanted no part of a hopeless fight.
The smoke-crafted man stopped a horse's length from Farncis. "You're the one, aren't you?" As scrawny as the man's body was, his voice was deep and commanding.
For one of the few times in Farncis' life words failed him. All the lessons of station and behavior that his mother had tried and failed to teach him were coming home to roost.
The interloper addressed Mindra without shifting his penetrating, coal-eyed gaze from Farncis. "I would like to let you know, miss, that this young man, who had better give me a very good reason not to kill him in a most unpleasant way, is most definitely not the wizard Iconeus."
The remaining guard said: "Aha! Do what you want with the imposter, as long as no harm comes to the Princess."
That earned the guard a dirty look from all three of the others. He shot into the air from his saddle, arms and legs trailing behind him like flapping tails, flying off into the sky and out of their field of vision. His trajectory took him too far for Farncis to determine whether or not the landing was survivable.
"Right," said the old wizard, the true one, not a young man looking for some mischief, "now that it's just us, let's talk. Tell me what you had to gain by assuming my identity."
Farncis opened his mouth, hoping for the best. "You, her" -he nodded toward Mindra- "her fatherï¿½ to common folk like me, you're just characters from mythology, not real flesh-and-blood people that I could actually meet. Iï¿½ I just wanted to see what it was like, to live in the realm of the legendary."
The wizard, having let the young man finish, expelled a harsh breath, lips flapping. "I probably should still kill you, as an example, but you make it seem so beneath me." He shook his head, shrugged, and with his pinky traced a J shape in the air.
Farncis' right arm disappeared.
Mindra, shocked, and began to rebuke the wizard, but only managed to get two words out before Iconeus drew a finger toward him in a come hither gesture. The Princess began clutching at her throat, her mouth working up and down in an impotent effort to gather breath. Farncis gawped at the mage, feeling like he'd just seen someone stomp on a newborn kitten. "She didn't do anything to you! It's me you should be torturing!"
Iconeus said: "She'll regain her breath soon enough. I can't stand to hear young people with no life experience yammer at me with righteous indignation. Now, I understand that you, posing as me, were commissioned to turn her from a young lady to a young man." His inky eyes locked on Farncis. "You wouldn't really want that to happen, would you?"
"No!" Farncis absently reached with his left hand to feel the side of his torso where his right one had been. "Honestly, I was just looking to pull a trick on the Emperor, maybe lighten his purse a little, and then disappear."
If nothing else got Iconeus' interest, that did. His expression softened from outright fury to mild distaste. "Look. That thing," he motioned in the general direction of Farncis' right side, "will grow back over the next couple of years, as long as you remember the lesson. And see, she's breathing again. Now, tell me: does that self-important dotard still lose his temper like a four-year-old?"
Rather than waiting for an answer to his question, Iconeus said: "I'm inclined to perform the service that you certainly cannot. But, there's a cost: reciprocity. If she changes from female to male, a male must be regendered in exchange."
Farncis swallowed hard. It had been easier to talk about gender-switching when it was an impossibility.
Exactly thirty days after Mindra and Farncis had left, two riders approached Rutger's palace. The Sergeant of the Gate, unable to identify them shouted: "Identify yourself! Who are you and what are you doing with the Emperor's horses!"
Farncis pulled on his reins with his remaining hand, while the other rider pulled a hood off his head and smiled at the guard. "Come now, Vincent, is your memory that poor?"
The Sergeant looked baffled for a moment before gasping and drawing back a step. "Oh! Your Highness. Your father will be very pleased to see you've returned."
Farncis followed the other rider through the gate, into the main courtyard, and graciously accepted assistance in dismounting from a pair of servants.
A heavy oak door opened and the Emperor, possibly running for the first time in his life, made haste to see the new arrivals.
The Emperor studied the tall, auburn-haired man before saying: "We're very glad to have you back, son. Our health has not been the best lately, and we've most likely just deducted a year from the time we have left on this earth by running to greet you."
The Emperor offered a hand, and the Prince shook it. A flare of magical energy burst from their contact, making the hairs on the back of Farncis' neck stand on end. Under his crown, the Emperor's gray hair lengthened. His ample belly flowed downward like molasses, collecting around his hips and upper thighs. He called out: "What's going on?" while the words squelched from tenor to soprano.
When it was over, a crone in Imperial garb swung a palm toward the face of the new arrival, who caught it in mid-air with little effort. She whirled to face Farncis and screamed: "What have you done?"
Farncis, with a one-armed shrug, said: "Reciprocity. The gender of one must be counterbalanced by that of another. Don't worry; it's fully reversible, but only if Mindra becomes a woman once more."
"Now that you have a clearer perspective to evaluate things," said the tall, auburn-haired Prince, his voice getting steelier by the word, "let's discuss this nonsense about the prophecy and all-male succession."