The Blaran and the Bonshoon were dragged into the throne room and flung to the threadbare rug. The guards, brightly-dressed and highly-polished, stepped back with a clank and saluted with a different type of clank. Their festive olde-worlde attire smelled sharply of preservative mist and was tattered and bleached. The smooth white machinery underneath was still in excellent condition, though.
“So,” the King leaned forward and fixed the pair with a piercing blue-eyed gaze that was no less bright and jolly for the fact that its source was a pair of sophisticated blue-tinted gel-crystal lenses. “These are the troublemakers who have been so upsetting my beloved subjects.”
The Bonshoon pushed himself up on his lower hands, dusted himself off with his uppers, and spat on the floor. “Fuck you, clown.”
It was a common misconception that Bonshooni were all big chubby friendly pacifists. It was mostly true, and that was what made the misconception so persistent. Some were absolute pricks, though. Huxley Bunderwold, despite his rotund physique, broad honest face and hysterically misplaced name, was far more than an absolute prick. Huxley Bunderwold was, in fact, a platinum-plated, metaflux-reinforced, Margan-pearl-studded bastard of the darkest and grimiest calibre.
The King sat back on his throne, his expression not changing. It was mostly painted on anyway, so its benign, slightly sleepy smile couldn’t change. His face, like those of the guards, was a strange, puffy amalgamation of humanoid and Molranoid features intended to appear sympathetic and non-threatening to human, Blaran, Bonshoon and Molran alike. It might have even worked, under normal circumstances. It was the work of master designers, after all.
The lacquer was bubbled and scorched on one side of his face. Courtesy of a high-powered energy weapon that had failed to get the job done, and never been repaired.
“We don’t like bad language here, young man,” the King said disapprovingly.
“I can switch to Karl if you don’t like Xidh,” Bunderwold growled. “Char’flet.”
“Goodness me,” the King said mildly. “Such a midden-mouth,” he turned his kindly half-smile on the Blaran. “I do hope you’re nicer.”
The Blaran made no effort to push himself upright, just remained crouching where the guards had flung him. “Nicer than Huxley Bunderwold, the Sleeper Pod Killer of Judge’s Gavel? That’s a very low bar to clear, Your Majesty.”
The King laughed. “That’s true, but don’t be so modest! You are Mora Fastel of Nebuchadnezzar, son of notorious swindler Morigon Bazander and Molran Fleet Captain ChoraMae Ghenea Fastel, and the criminal underworld of the Six Species knows you as Grendel’s Grief. Master thief, with a policy of … well, if not ‘no killing’, then at least ‘not as much killing as stealing, and never when killing is the point’,” the King leaned forward again, and tilted his head. There was a soft whirring sound from one eye and it rolled grotesquely in its socket – probably intended as a wink, except the eyelid had fused at some point in the past couple of hundred years. “That’s the official story and we’ll stick to it, eh?” the King continued in a warm, confidential murmur.
“You have an impressive information-gathering network at your disposal,” Grief said.
“Oh, I didn’t need my little fairy spies,” the King said cheerfully. “Why, part of the ongoing legal framework of the planet you stole – the planet! – makes use of old settlement writs ‑ ”
“Of course,” Grief said, “Bunzolabe Incorporated writs of ‑ ”
“You dare to interrupt His Majesty!” the guard behind Grief snapped, and drew back his spear to give the Blaran a good seeing-to with the butt. He froze at a gesture from the King, and then settled back in place with another clank.
His Majesty the King – at least so he was calling himself in this area of the park, His Majesty the King Horatio Bunzo I, monarch of the Sunny Hills, regent of Dragon Valley and Prince Consort of Fairyland – smiled benignly down at the two intruders. He clucked and shook his head. “Still, I have to say even without that tedious little paper trail, your thefts-on-commission are the stuff of legend. Many worlds and unions out there consider it a mark of having ‘made it’ as a culture if Grendel’s Grief has stolen some great treasure from them.”
“Your Majesty is too kind,” Grief demurred.
“Why don’t you two just get it over with and fuck each other,” Bunderwold suggested – displaying, in Grief’s opinion, a regrettable inability to read a throne room.
“Your friend is very rude,” Bunzo said in hurt tones.
“This is about as nice as he gets,” Grief confided. “He’s a bit freaked out by the whole Sunny Hills aesthetic. I think he was victimised by a Twin Species recreationalist historian when he was a young fellow…”
“You ‑ ” Bunderwold snarled, but the menacing motion of the Bunzolabe robots in the gaudy castle guard’s attire behind them stopped him short. “We had a deal, Bunzo,” the Bonshoon went on in an almost moderate tone. “I deliver Grendel’s Grief, and you tell me the future.”
“In the future, the Six Species will be no more and a new union will emerge,” the King declared grandly. “Everyone will live in the centre of the galaxy and a human carrying the Sword of the King that Never Was will cut down the Bonshoon veil and open the gates of space. But you probably won’t be around to see any of that. You will almost certainly die in three years, eight months and … seven hours.”
“What ‑ ”
“Maybe five, if you have inherited your mother’s weak tertiary vessel walls to an unfortunate degree,” Bunzo added. “But plenty of time for us to figure that out, together.”
“You can’t ‑ ”
“Take him away,” Bunzo waved a lace-ringed hand, and Bunderwold was dragged kicking and screaming from the throne room. Grief settled back on his heels and took in the experience. He didn’t think he’d seen and heard someone actually getting dragged kicking and screaming out of anywhere before. “So,” the royal facet – the giela, really, of the dark and terrible whole – sat back in his throne and slung one gleaming white composite leg in tattered hose over the arm of the great golden chair. “It would seem that my bargain with Mister Bunderwold is complete. He has delivered you, and I have told him the future.”
“He was never very good at the whole fine-print thing,” Grief said.
“Can’t abide loopholes myself,” Bunzo replied.
“Me neither,” Grief shifted direction mid-thought, “but if I only need to do them better than Bunderwold … ”
“Well, indeed,” Bunzo laughed. “I must say, I will be sad to see you go,” he went on with a very realistic little sigh. “You are an interesting fellow. I don’t suppose I could impose upon you to … ?”
“On the contrary,” Grief inclined his head, “it is I who wouldn’t dream of imposing on you.”
“Very charming, very charming indeed,” Bunzo said pensively. “And I know of no fewer than four fallback measures you have in place to ensure your safe getaway, which means there must be at least two more I haven’t found, eh? So I have little choice, I suppose.”
Grief, who had to think about his various escape plans for a moment and could only remember setting up three, was very grateful for his augmented body-sheathing and its ability to hide his bio-signatures from the watchful sensors of the world-spanning electronic God. “Legend has it that you will answer three questions,” he started.
“My goodness, are there legends already?” Bunzo sounded pleased. “Alright, let’s go with that then. Three questions. No, check that, I already know your questions are going to be silly. You don’t know what you want. You’re bored. Fame and glory and immortality and all that. I will tell you three things, how about that? I’ll tell you three things, and you can pretend you asked me.”
“Your Majesty is too kind.”
“Hmm,” Bunzo smiled down at him, and there was another whirring noise and his eyes rolled. Probably, this time, he was attempting to narrow them in contemplation. “You must give yourself up to the authorities,” the King eventually said. “You must do so in a place that will see you imprisoned in the Storm’s Eye. One day, you will be recruited for a secret AstroCorps mission, its name will be Operation Spider or Project Spider, something to do with spiders … you will accept this mission,” the battered old machine paused, looking somehow uncertain despite his lack of expression. “Was that three?” he waved a hand again. “It was three. Let’s say it was three.”
Grendel’s Grief laughed. “You know,” he said, “growing up, I always loved the stories about Spider Merdokk.”