Crown of Three
Gulph stared at the crowd. An ocean of faces surrounded him, some expectant, some bored. There must have been hundreds of spectators—perhaps even a thousand—all dressed in finery the like of which Gulph had never seen. They filled the tiered seats of the Toronian Great Hall. Gulph used to daydream about playing to such a large audience but had never imagined that, when the time came, it would be as a captive of the king.
He inhaled, his empty belly gurgling at the tang of roasted pork wafting from trays carried by wandering servants. He listened to the low rumble of the audience as the king’s guests murmured to each other, shifted in their seats, waved their fans against the heat. He watched airborne dust move through rays of light pouring down from the gold-tinted windows in the roof. Was it possible to make glass from gold? Gulph didn’t know.
“Get on with it!” called a voice from the uppermost row of seats.
Not as if we’ve got any choice, Gulph thought.
He bowed low, bending forward at the waist until his nose touched the tip of his left shoe. He waited as a ripple of amusement moved through the crowd. Then he stood up straight again, paused, and bent over backward. This time the crowd gasped. Gulph’s spine folded over on itself. Gripping his ankles with his hands, he stuck his head through his legs and forced himself to grin his biggest grin.
With his body contorted in this seemingly impossible fashion, Gulph trotted from one end of the sand-covered floor to the other. On the way he passed Pip, who was juggling a selection of apples and pears and hopping from foot to foot. As Gulph circled her, she dropped him a wink, but there was no mistaking the sadness in her brown eyes. The other members of the Tangletree Players looked on and clapped their hands. The jester, Sidebottom John, went one step further by standing on his hands and jangling the bells attached to his ankles.
The crowd took up the applause. By the time Gulph had returned to the center of the hall, many of the audience were on their feet. He planted his hands on the floor and flipped his legs over his head. Landing on his feet, he bowed again, this time to the royal box.
King Brutan and Queen Magritt were unmissable in their crimson robes. The king stroked his beard, expressionless. The queen dipped her head, but, instead of a smile on her face, Gulph thought he saw a frown.
A cloud cast its shadow overhead and the golden light faded. Suddenly Gulph saw the Great Hall for what it was: a once-grand chamber grown old and tired. Paint was peeling from the thick supporting columns, and the uniforms of the various servants and orderlies were patched and in ill repair.
Castle Tor might have been the heart of the kingdom, but the heart was sick.
There was a particular face in the royal box Gulph wished he’d never set eyes on: that of General Elrick. This pompous military man with the face of a weasel looked very pleased with his place beside the king and queen, and took every opportunity to chatter to them, seemingly oblivious to their obvious dislike of him.
It was Elrick who’d brought the Tangletree Players to Idilliam. Weary from the war, he’d clearly been delighted to discover Gulph and his troupe of wandering entertainers performing for Brutan’s soldiers in the nearby forests of Isur. He’d promised them riches and full bellies, warm quarters, and the king’s protection.
The reality had been different. General Elrick had paraded the players before the king as spoils of war, then introduced them to their new home—one freezing cell between all twelve of them. Life on the road—sleeping under hedges wondering where their next meal was coming from, or whether they’d wake to find their throat being cut by some wandering ruffian—had been hard. But as far as Gulph was concerned, at least he had been free.
As an encore, Gulph went into a series of backflips. The crowd roared. After every flip, he paused and took another bow, exploiting the extraordinary flexibility of his body to the limit . . . and taking the opportunity to throw another glance at Queen Magritt.
Every time he looked at her, her expression grew more ferocious.
Stare at me all you like. I’m used to it.
Many people saw Gulph’s contortionist skills as a kind of deformity, along with his bulging eyes and the crook in his back. But this was different.
So intense was the queen’s glare that, on his final backflip, Gulph stumbled. Ankles tangled, he fell heavily on his backside in a puff of dust. Laughter pealed through the audience.
Queen Magritt rose to her feet. Her fists were clenched. On her cheeks, bright red spots stood out like beacons against her pale skin. The king raised his hand to pull her down but she shook him aside.
“Take him out of my sight!” she shrieked, pointing directly at Gulph. Instantly the crowd fell silent. Gulph stared at the queen, bewildered, as her words echoed through the Great Hall. “This . . . this malformed monster will bring nothing but ill fortune to the realm.”
“But, Your Majesty . . .” said General Elrick, rising to his feet. The king shoved him down, then turned to regard his queen with one bushy eyebrow raised quizzically.
“The Vault of Heaven!” said Queen Magritt. Astonished cries rose from the audience. She waved a group of legionnaires forward. “Take him there. Take him there now. I won’t have him in my sight a moment longer!”
As the soldiers strode toward him, Gulph looked up at the shocked faces of his friends.
“They won’t take you!” called Sidebottom John.
“Tangletree stays together,” said Willum, the bright-eyed piper. He ran toward Gulph; after a moment’s hesitation, the other players followed suit.
Pip, the juggler, was much closer than the rest. Seizing Gulph’s hand, she hauled him to his feet.
“What’s the Vault of Heaven?” said Gulph, dazed.
“I don’t know.” Pip’s hold turned into an embrace. “I won’t let them take you, Gulph!”
The legionnaires reached Gulph before the rest of his friends. Grabbing Pip, they shoved her aside. As they surrounded Gulph, she beat against their backs. The rest of the Tangletree Players halted, uncertain in the face of such force.
“Get back,” said Gulph, anxious for Pip’s safety. “You can’t help me!”
“Yes, I can!” Pip replied.
She raced across the arena to the royal box. Skidding to a halt, she fell to her knees before the king.
“Please, sire, I beg you,” she cried. “Show my friend mercy. He only wants to entertain you. He’s done nothing wrong.”
The king leaned forward, smiling. “Such loyalty toward such a grotesque creature.” His grin became a scowl. “Do you know what happens to little girls who question a royal command?”
Peering past the heads of his captors, Gulph watched in horror as a legionnaire struck Pip square in the chest with the blunt end of his spear. Pip fell backward onto the sandy floor.
“Leave her alone!” shouted Gulph, trying to force his way through the legionnaires. “I don’t care where you take me. Just leave my friends alone!”
Hands clamped around Gulph’s arms and shoulders. He struggled in vain as Queen Magritt beckoned to a tall, gray-haired man dressed in the bronze armor of the King’s Legion.
“Captain Ossilius,” she said. “Come to me.”
The crowd hushed as she murmured to the legionnaire. Giving up the struggle, Gulph waited. He listened to the blood thumping in his ears.
When the queen had finished speaking, Captain Ossilius nodded and marched over to Gulph. The soldiers fell back, leaving Gulph standing alone and exposed.
“Will you defy me, boy?” said Captain Ossilius.
Gulph stared into the man’s eyes. He looked tired and a little sad.
Gulph glanced at Pip, who was being helped to her feet by Sidebottom John. A pair of legionnaires loomed over them.
“No, sir,” he said. He had no idea why this was happening—or even what had happened. He just knew that to save his friends he had to obey.
“Very well,” said Captain Ossilius. Seizing Gulph’s arm, he dragged the young contortionist out of the Great Hall. As they passed the royal box, King Brutan turned his rage on General Elrick.
“You fool!” the king bellowed as the general cowered. “How dare you upset my queen? The day is ruined!”
His voice was drowned out by the clamor in Gulph’s head. The Vault of Heaven, he thought wildly, wondering what his destination could be. The name was strangely beautiful but did nothing to lessen his fear.
Outside the castle, the narrow streets were packed with peasants putting up rickety tables and erecting makeshift stalls. Captain Ossilius hauled Gulph through the labyrinth without saying a word. The captain’s grip on his arm was like iron.
I can’t wriggle my way out of this one.
As they passed a vegetable stall, a woman behind it threw a cabbage at Gulph. It struck him on the side of the head and slid onto his shoulder in a mass of pulpy, rotten leaves. The stench was overwhelming; so was Gulph’s misery. He tugged at his captor’s arm, wanting to explain to the stallholder that he wasn’t a criminal, that it was all a mistake.
Then he saw that all the vegetables on the stall were rotten, not just the one the woman had thrown. He realized the clothes for sale in the adjacent stall had been thrice mended and were ready to fall apart. Even through his despair, Gulph saw that Idilliam was not a happy place.
Turning a corner, they left the market and entered an open yard. Here Captain Ossilius stopped.
“We are here,” he said.
Gulph didn’t understand. He’d been expecting some kind of prison, but all he could see was a forest of tree trunks stripped of their branches. They rose from the cobbled yard like the legs of some enormous beast.
“What . . . ?” he began. Then he looked up.
The trunks were stilts. Perched on top of them was what looked like a gigantic bird’s nest. It appeared big enough to contain the entire Great Hall, where the Tangletree Players had just been performing.
What Gulph had thought were branches were in fact iron bars, bent and woven into an intricate mesh. Between them he saw the occasional flicker of an orange flame. But for the most part, the nest’s interior was utterly black.
“Come, boy,” said Captain Ossilius.
A narrow set of steps led up through the massive stilts. Suspended from creaking ropes, the steps swayed as they climbed. At the top was a square iron door. Beside it was a row of rusted gibbets—small metal cages each just big enough to hold a man.
Captain Ossilius thrust Gulph inside one of the gibbets and snapped the lock shut. Taking a key from his pocket, he opened the door and disappeared inside the iron nest.
Gulph stared through the bars he was standing on, to the ground below. It was a very long way down. He looked sideways into the next gibbet and saw a pile of bones.
Was this it? Was he to be left here to die of thirst and starvation? And for what? Because the sight of his deformed body offended the queen?
Gulph pinched his eyes shut. He would not cry.
The door clanged open. Someone fumbled with the gibbet’s lock. Gulph opened his eyes to see Captain Ossilius standing before him. He searched the man’s face for some sign of hope.
“Forgive me,” said the captain, and Gulph’s heart lifted. It had all been a mistake after all! But Ossilius said, “I had to restrain you while I made arrangements. Come!”
The captain’s hand clamped once more around Gulph’s arm. He was dragged through the door and into darkness. The door slammed shut, and out of the black void ahead came a gravelly voice.
“Ah, here you are,” it said. “Welcome to the Vault of Heaven.”