In Which There Is a Misunderstanding and Mendanbar Does Some Plumbing
The awkward lump of wizard-magic was right where Mendanbar had left it.
He studied it for a moment, then drew his sword.
"Your Majesty!" said Willin from the doorway. "What are you doing?"
"Cleaning up after our visitor," Mendanbar replied. "Do be quiet for a minute, Willin. I need to concentrate."
"But-" Mendanbar shot an irritated look at Willin. The castle steward broke off and closed his mouth into a thin, disapproving line.
Mendanbar waited half a moment longer to make sure the elf was not going to say anything else, then turned back to the lump. Raising the sword, he reached over the loop of Enchanted Forest magic and stuck the point into the center of the mass.
A surge of power ran through the sword as it sucked up the wizard's leftovers and sent them to reinforce the invisible network of Enchanted Forest magic. The surge was stronger than Mendanbar had expected, and he frowned as he lifted the sword away from the now-empty space and put it back in its sheath. Perhaps it hadn't been extra, unused magic, after all; perhaps Zemenar had deliberately left a spell behind. It was too late to test it now, though. The sword was thorough, and whatever the lump had been, it was now gone for good.
Willin's voice sounded much more tentative than it had a moment before. Mendanbar almost smiled, but Willin was sure to get upset if he thought he was being laughed at. So Mendanbar kept his face stiff and took a little longer than necessary to undo the loop he had left to guard the wizard's magic. When he was positive that his expression was normal, he turned.
"What was all that about? Has my lord the Head Wizard gone? Why are you wearing your sword? What-" "One thing at a time," Mendanbar interrupted gently. "Zemenar has gone, yes. He cast a vanishing spell, and a very good one, too. No smoke, no whirling dust, just poof and he was gone. Unfortunately, he wasn't as tidy with the end of his spell, and some of it got left behind. Or at least, that's what I thought until I got rid of it a minute ago."
"I… see," Willin said in a tone that meant he didn't. "And that's why you have your sword?"
"Partly." Mendanbar looked at the empty patch of floor where the wizard had been, then shook his head. Whatever Zemenar might have been up to, it would have to wait. "I have to pay a visit to the King of the Dragons."
Willin's face went completely blank. "You what?"
"I'm going to the Mountains of Morning, to see the King of the Dragons," Mendanbar repeated. "And I'm certainly not going without a sword.
There are lots of dangerous creatures in those mountains, and some of them wouldn't care that I'm the King of the Enchanted Forest , even if they bothered to stop for an introduction before they attacked."
"But you can't just leave, Your Majesty!" Willin said. "A formal embassy to the King of the Dragons will take weeks to arrange. You'll want a full escort, and-" "I don't think there's time," Mendanbar broke in, before Willin could get too involved in planning. "Something's come up, and it needs to be dealt with now. So I'm going today, in another minute, and you're in charge of the castle until I get back."
In a sudden inspiration, Mendanbar pulled the Key to the Castle out of his pocket and handed it ceremoniously to Willin.
"I am deeply honored by Your Majesty's confidence," Willin said. "But are you sure this is necessary?"
"Yes," Mendanbar said. "Oh, and don't let any wizards in while I'm gone. Something funny is going on, and I don't want any of them inside the castle until I figure out what, especially if I'm not here."
"But what should I tell them, if they ask for you?"
"I don't care, as long as you don't let them in," Mendanbar replied.
"Is that all? Then I'm going."
He took hold of a strand of magic and pulled. When the misty whiteness cleared away, he was standing among the trees of the Enchanted Forest just outside the castle. With a bit more care, he chose another magic thread and pulled again, harder. This time, he appeared at the very edge of the forest, where the Mountains of Morning began. Two paces in front of him, the vibrant green moss stopped as if it had been sliced away, and the dry gray rock began. He checked to make sure this was the right place-Morwen's directions had been very specific-and then, reluctantly, stepped over the boundary.
Mendanbar had not left the Enchanted Forest for over three years, not since he had become King, and he had forgotten how very barren everything felt outside. He could still sense the free-floating network of magic behind him, but where he stood, the air was empty.
Thin grass and scrubby bushes grew in patches wherever dirt had accumulated in low spots and cracks and corners. Ahead, the mountains rose high and sharp and dead.
Many magical creatures lived here, but the Mountains of Morning had no magic of their own. Mendanbar could feel the emptiness where the magic should have been, and he shivered in spite of himself.
"At least I don't have to worry about finding Kazul," he told himself.
"As long as I don't get my directions mixed up, I should be able to walk straight to her cave." He smiled suddenly. "And it will still be there when I get to it!" That was worth something. And he still had some of the magic of the Enchanted Forest along with him in the form of his sword. Even through the sheath, Mendanbar could feel the reassuring pulse of power.
"Well, there's no sense in putting it off." He shrugged, took a last look back at his forest, and started walking.
Once he got used to the dry, dead, magicless feel of the mountains, Mendanbar actually enjoyed the walk. Much as he loved the Enchanted Forest , he had to admit that it was nice to see so much sky. Since dragons liked high places, the walk was mostly uphill, but that was fun, too. With no trees to block the view, Mendanbar could see for miles, and the higher he got, the more he could see. The hills in the Enchanted Forest tended to be either low, rolling bumps that you hardly noticed, or steep mounds that were usually home to something dangerous, or magical, or both. Most of the latter were made of something strange, too-jasper or polished coal or solid silver. There was even one made of glass somewhere along the southern edge of the forest.
Some king had built it in order to get rid of his daughter.
Daughter. King's daughter. Princess! Mendanbar's good mood vanished.
He'd forgotten about Kazul's princess.
"And I'll have to be particularly polite to her, no matter how irritating she is," he reminded himself gloomily. If she had as much influence as Zemenar hinted, she could make things very difficult if she took a dislike to him. He wondered why Kazul had kept her. The King of the Dragons didn't normally bother with a princess, or at least, Mendanbar had never before heard of one who did.
He came around a curve and saw the mouth of a cave in front of him.
There was a wide, flat, sandy space in front of the cave, big enough for several dragons to land at the same time, if they were careful about it. The mountain rose straight up behind the cave mouth. Set in the stone over the center of the opening was an outline of a spiky black crown.
As Mendanbar drew nearer, he saw a tarnished brass handle sticking out of a small hole beside the cave. The handle was level with his waist, and next to it was a sign that read: "WELCOME TO THE CAVE OF THE DRAGON KING. Pull handle to ring bell." On the line below, someone had added in neat letters printed in bright red paint, "ABSOLUTELY No wizards, sales-people, or rescuers. This means YOU."
Mendanbar stared at the sign for a minute and began to smile. No wonder Zemenar didn't like Kazul's princess. Well, he wasn't a wizard, he wasn't selling anything, and he certainly didn't want to rescue anybody. He gave the handle a pull.
Somewhere inside the cave, a bell rang. "Well, it's about time," said a woman's voice, and Mendanbar's heart sank. He heard footsteps coming toward the mouth of the cave, and the same voice continued, "I was hoping you'd get here before I left. The sink is-" The speaker came out of the cave, took a look at Mendanbar, and broke off in mid-sentence. "Oh, no, not another one," she said.
Mendanbar stared at her in utter bafflement. If this was a princess, she was like no princess he had ever seen, and he had seen dozens.
True, she had a small gold crown pinned into her hair, and she was very pretty-beautiful, in fact-but she was wearing a blue-and-white checked apron with large pockets. Mendanbar had never seen a princess in an apron before.
The dress under the apron was rust-colored and practical-looking, and she had the sleeves rolled up above her elbows. He had never seen a princess with her sleeves rolled up, either. Her jet black hair hung in plain braids almost to her knees, instead of making a cloud of curls around her face. Her eyes were black, too, and she was as tall as Mendanbar.
"Well?" she said in an exasperated tone. "Are you going to stand there like a lump, or are you going to tell me what you want? Although I think I already know."
"Excuse me," Mendanbar said. He pulled himself together and bowed uncertainly. "I think there's been some sort of mistake. I'm looking for Kazul, the King of the Dragons."
"I'll bet you are," the young woman muttered. "Well, you can't have her. I handle my own knights and princes."
"I beg your pardon?" Mendanbar said, blinking. He was beginning to think the mistake was his. This young woman didn't look like a princess (except for the crown), she didn't act like a princess, and she didn't talk like a princess. But if she wasn't a princess, what was she doing here?
"I handle my own knights," she repeated. "You see, I don't want to be rescued, and it would be silly for someone to get hurt fighting Kazul when I intend to stay here no matter what happens. Besides, Kazul has enough to do being King of the Dragons without people interrupting her to fight for no reason."
"You really are Kazul's princess"-what had Zemenar said her name was? Oh, yes – "Cimorene?"
"Yes, of course. Look, I haven't got time to argue about this, not today.
Could you please go away and come back in, oh, a week or so, when things are a little more settled? Or I can direct you to a more cooperative princess, if you'd rather not wait. Marchak has a very nice one just now, and he lives quite close by."
"No, I'm afraid not," Mendanbar said. He was beginning to think Willin had been right to say he should wait for a formal audience. "You see, I didn't come to rescue you, or anybody. I'm the King of the Enchanted Forest, and I really did come to talk to Kazul. And it's urgent. So-" "Oh, drat," said Cimorene. "Are you sure it can't wait? Kazul isn't here right now."
"I'll wait for her," Mendanbar said with polite firmness. "As I said, the matter is urgent."
Cimorene frowned suddenly. "Did you say you were the King of the Enchanted Forest?"
Mendanbar nodded. "My name is Mendanbar."
'Just why is it that you're so eager to see Kazul, Your Majesty?"
Cimorene said suspiciously.
"I ran across a… problem in the Enchanted Forest this morning," Mendanbar replied, choosing his words with care. "A witch named Morwen advised me to talk to the King of the Dragons about it."
"Morwen sent you?" Cimorene looked surprised, then thoughtful. "It must be all right, then. Come in and sit down, and I'll see if I can explain."
"As you wish, Princess," Mendanbar said, bowing.
'Just call me Cimorene," she said, leading Mendanbar into the cave.
She bent to pick up a lantern from the floor inside the entrance and added, "My official title now is Chief Cook and Librarian, so I've gotten out of the habit of being called 'Princess'."
"Chief Cook and Librarian?" Mendanbar said curiously. "How did that happen?"
"Kazul and I decided on it between us after she became King of the Dragons last year," Cimorene said. "You see, the King of the Dragons doesn't usually have a princess, and we didn't want the other dragons grumbling about Kazul breaking with tradition. I was hoping it would discourage the knights a bit, too."
"Well, it doesn't sound particularly noble and knightly to say you've rescued the Chief Cook and Librarian, does it? And it has cut down on the number of interruptions. I used to get two or three knights a day, and now there's only about one a week. And the ones who do come are at least smart enough to figure out that I'm still a princess even if the dragons call me Chief Cook."
"Doesn't that make them harder to get rid of?."
"Not at all. The smart ones listen when I argue with them. The stupid ones think I'm kidding. I had to offer to fight a couple of them myself before I could get them to go away."
Mendanbar peered doubtfully at Cimorene in the dim lantern-light.
She didn't look as if she were joking. "You actually offered to fight a knight?"
"Four of them," Cimorene said, nodding. and a prince. It was the only way to convince them." She looked at Mendanbar uncertainly. "I'm sorry if I behaved badly to you at first, but I really did think you were here to rescue me. It's the crown." She pointed to the circlet on his head. "You wouldn't believe the trouble I've had with some of the princes. Being rude is the only way to get rid of them in a hurry, and sometimes even that doesn't work. Especially if they're particularly stupid."
"I understand," Mendanbar said without thinking. "They sound a lot like princesses-stubborn, witless, and-" He stopped short in dismay.
He'd forgotten for a moment that Cimorene was a princess, too. He hoped she wouldn't be insulted.
Fortunately, Cimorene didn't seem insulted at all. She nodded.
That's why I send the knights and princes on to rescue other princesses.
They mostly deserve each other. Of course, I do try to make sure I send the nicest knights to the nicest princesses. They can't help it if they're silly," They had reached a side opening, and Cimorene hesitated. Then she shrugged and went in. "The kitchen's a mess today," she said over her shoulder, "but even when it's messy, it's more comfortable for human-type people than the big caves where the dragons go to chat. I can make tea, too, if you'd like some."
Before he could answer, Mendanbar emerged from the side tunnel into a large, well-lit cavern. An enormous black stove took up half of one wall, and the other walls were lined with tall wooden cupboards. A stone sink next to the door was filled to the brim with scummy gray water, and the shelf next to it was overflowing with dirty dishes. In the middle of the floor stood a large wooden table and three mismatched chairs.
"Tea sounds good," Mendanbar said, politely ignoring the dishes.
Cimorene scowled at the sink and began rummaging through the cupboards.
"Do you mind having your tea in a wine glass? I know it's a little strange, but I'm afraid all the cups are dirty. The sink has been plugged up for nearly a week, and I haven't been able to do the dishes."
"I don't mind," Mendanbar said. "But you'll have to do something about that sink sooner or later, you know."
"I've tried," Cimorene said in an irritated tone. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to persuade a plumber to come look at a dragon's sink? I thought I'd finally found one, but he was supposed to get here yesterday morning and still hasn't shown up, so he's probably not coming. And there aren't any books on plumbing in Kazul's library, or I'd have fixed it myself."
"I'm sorry," Mendanbar said. "Maybe I can do something about it."
"Go ahead," Cimorene replied. "You can't make it any worse than it is already."
That didn't sound like much of a vote of confidence to Mendanbar, but it didn't matter. He went over to the sink and studied it for a moment, then backed up a pace and drew his sword.
Cimorene made a startled noise. "Your sword does plumbing?" she said, sounding interested. "I knew it was magic, but I thought it was for dragons."
"It does most things," Mendanbar said absently. Working magic outside the Enchanted Forest took a lot of concentration. He squinted down the length of the blade at the sink, feeling the power within the sword tingle against his palm. Then he whipped the sword through the air, pushing power out of it to wrap around the sink. With a final flourish, he touched the tip of the sword to the surface of the scummy water. There was a spray of magic, a loud glug, and the water swirled and began to run down the drain.
"There," said Mendanbar. "That should do it." He wiped the tip of his sword and stuck it back in its sheath.
"It certainly should!" Cimorene said. "Is your magic always that flashy?"
"What do you mean?"
"Never mind. I'll wash some cups while the tea water is boiling. Sit down while I get the kettle started."
Mendanbar sat down at the table and frowned suddenly. "Oh, bother."
"Morwen gave me some cider to bring to King Kazul, and I was so busy cleaning up after Zemenar that I forgot to pick it up before I left.
I'm sorry. I'll have to send it with someone when I get back."
Cimorene stopped short, holding the teakettle suspended in midair.
"Zemenar? Not the Head Wizard of the Society of Wizards?"
"Yes, of course," Mendanbar said, a little surprised by her reaction.
Then he recalled how much Zemenar seemed to dislike Cimorene.
Presumably Cimorene felt the same way about Zemenar.
"And you had to clean up after him? It figures," Cimorene muttered.
She finished filling the kettle and put it on the stove, then went back to the sink and washed two cups, two saucers, and two spoons with an intense concentration that made it obvious she was thinking about something else.
Mendanbar was happy to let her think. He had a few things to mull over himself. Cimorene was not at all what he'd expected. She acted more like Morwen than like a princess. He wondered where she had come from and how she had gotten captured by the dragons. He nearly asked, but pulled himself up short before the words left his mouth. He hadn't come to talk to a princess. No, indeed. "When will King Kazul be back?" he asked instead.
Cimorene did not answer at once. She set the teacups on the table, poured hot water into the teapot to brew, and sat down across from Mendanbar. She studied him for a long minute, then gave a decisive nod.
"All right," she said. "I'll tell you the truth. I don't know."
A wave of irritation swept over Mendanbar. "If Kazul didn't tell you when she expected to be back, why didn't you say so at once?"
"Oh, she told me," Cimorene said. She looked very sober. "She was supposed to be home the day before yesterday."
"And she's not back yet?"
Cimorene nodded again. "And she hasn't sent a message or anything.
She's disappeared. I was just getting ready to go search for her when you showed up."