The Princess Problem, Part 5

Read Part 4 here

—5—

Related imageWhat smoldering dark eyes my princess has! Long lashes batted invitingly at me and only me. So what if they batted with an angry fire unmatched in passion by any woman save Rosa? They batted for me.

And so what if those eyes belonged to the face of the same heavily cowled figure who had tried to kill me as Rosa and I had magically departed from Solvang? Those long lashes batted for me.

And so what if Rosa fingered her dainty wand while those long lashes batted for me? Well, that did matter. It was only later that I realized what a mistake it was to ignore Rosa’s body language.

“Halt!” cried the princess. With practiced precision, her troops collided with each other. She leaned out her window and stared at me. I had little choice but to stare back, her long neck and shoulders bare save for a twinkling silver necklace filled with scintillating sapphires. Her gold-trimmed pink-and-white dress flowed towards an impossibly thin waist, the fabric sparkling as if woven with the stars themselves. Radiant blond hair cascaded in impossibly thick curls over her shoulders and down her back, held in place by the daintiest of tiaras. No man could deny she was the perfect picture of evil personified.

“I know you,” she slowly purred, eyes narrowing. A white gloved hand stroked her delicate chin as she examined me from head to toe.

I smiled and bowed with a flourishing sweep of my arm. “At your service, your highness.”

Did I not know fear, you ask, as I faced the very assassin who had attempted to kill me? No, not this fearless warrior, even though it had doubtless been her who had poisoned my boss. No, not I, for I was in love.

As I rose, recognition alighted my love’s smoldering dark eyes.

“Why, you’re… Guards! Take this man and his, uh, witch to the castle!”

Rosa’s jaw bounced up and down several times as the princess’ troops surrounded us, clamping meaty fists on our arms. With no time to raise her dainty wand, no sudden croaking ensued, and the two of us joined the parade.

Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Klaatu

All throughout the 70s, rumors of the Beatles reuniting sprang up every month or so, none of which proved true, of course.

Klaatu_-_3.47_EST_cover.jpgThe best of these rumors was a mysterious band called Klaatu, whose debut album “3:47 EST” came out of seemingly nowhere in 1976. No band members were listed anywhere, adding to the mystery. Riding the wave of these rumors, the album made it into the US top 40 albums chart. At the time, the Beatles were still my favorite band, and I had several debates with friends as to whether this was really the Fab Four, or George Harrison with friends, or John Lennon, etc.

In fact, their record company, Capitol Records, even released an official statement claiming they didn’t know who were in the band, as can be seen here.

The thing was, however, that the music is not a cheap knock off. It’s really good, well constructed pop music that mixes the quirky arrangements of Penny Lane with the best of Electric Light Orchestra and the Beach Boys with some 10CC or early Ambrosia thrown in. While it’s clearly a product of the 70s, it holds up well today, especially for fans of non-standard or alternative pop.

The lyrics are just as unconventional as the song titles: Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft and Little Neutrino open and close the album. Production is by Terry Brown, who produced many of Rush’s early albums. Eventually, we learned that, just like Rush, the elusive band was a Canadian trio from Toronto with progressive traits, but that’s where the similarities end. Imagine lush Beach Boy harmonies atop ELO arrangements with Beatle melodies and Paul McCartney (at his strangest) lyrics.

That’s not to say the album doesn’t rock. Klaatu lets loose on several songs like California Jam or Anus of Uranus, where they rock nearly as hard as early Kiss.

3:47 EST is what I call a headphone album; that is, you need to wear headphones or earbuds and listen to it several times that way to discover the layers of instrumentation or enjoy the fullness of the vocal harmonies.

The one clunker is Sir Bodsworth Rugglesby III, a British music hall tune on which the singer sounds more like Rowlf, the dog who plays piano on the Muppets. That would’ve been fine for a line or two, but for an entire song is almost unbearable.

However, the epic album closer, Little Neutrino, more than makes up for it. Grand and strange, otherworldly and decidedly un-pop with a phased vocal, it’s a wonderfully dramatic piece of science fiction that struck me as decidedly bizarre as a high school student, yet the more I listened, the more entranced I grew. Now, as an adult, it’s one of my favorite pieces of music from the 70s.

The band went on to release four more albums before sadly breaking up in 1982. A pair of excellent compilations of demos, outtakes, and non-album tracks were released in the early 2000s, all of which are quite worth exploring if you discover their original albums aren’t enough. By the way, the band did not reveal their names on any album until their fourth album, by which time we’d all figured out they weren’t the Beatles, but a unique band with their own distinct sound.

For more information, visit the band’s official website or check out the reviews on Amazon (nothing but 5 stars!)

The Princess Problem, Part 4

Finally, a return to this silly short story! Read Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

—4—

Mine is a dark and grisly business. However, nothing—and I mean nothing—has ever been as dark and grisly as my present peril. Working with wizards is one thing and dealing with women another. Rosa was something else all together.

I suppose I should update you on our progress. After my vision abruptly returned that fateful day last week, I realized Rosa had utilized some sort of transportation spell. Not understanding where we were I foolishly asked. That’s when I discovered what a nasty left hook Rosa delivers. After dusting off my backside and wiping the blood off my split lip, she icily informed me what a blasted pigheaded idiot, uncaring moron, and typical ungrateful male I was. If my listening skills did not improve, next time she’d drop me in the middle of the Bel Sea instead of so kindly delivering me to Jacumba, the capital of Javern and home of that tavern wench, Princess Lalena. As I rubbed my jaw, I decided I’d better listen a little more closely to Rosa.

During the next several days, I suffered ignominiously from ear pullings when I thought we should search in a different direction for the mysteriously missing princess, yanked hairs (from head, arms and, occasionally, legs) when I thought it was time for a beer, and a devilishly hard right uppercut if I paid attention to any woman longer than Rosa thought was necessary. Especially if I looked too long at Rosa.

Jacumba is a depressingly cheerful city. Everybody dresses far too colorfully; to my great discomfort, no one wears black or leather. I stood out like a non-human, few of which, in this homogeneous society, were rarely seen. The buildings were distressingly well-tended, well-built, and, well, too much alike for my tastes. It reminded me of one of those childhood theme parks. All it was lacking was a big mouse.

And the women! Nary a spot of flesh could be seen beneath their chins while their fat foofy dresses left a vacuity for the imagination to build upon. All in all, Jacumba reeked of benevolence and wealth.

This, of course, explained the disappearance of Her Royal Highness. It is with much certainty that I, too, would have chosen to desert this despicably clean, lackluster city had I dwelt there. Worse, the citizens behaved so darned diplomatic and friendly. There were no disparaging signs of crime, no motley mercenaries parading about, no painted women hooting from the balconies, no beggar children picking pockets. Even the dogs looked healthy. Embarrassingly, people smiled at each other.

This had led to our present dilemma. Where was the princess? How much longer would I be forced to shovel manure to cover the costs of our room, board and Rosa’s services while Rosa gallivanted about Jacumba seeking word of Princess Lalena’s whereabouts? Of course, “gallivanting about Jacumba” is an oxymoron.

The wizard (wizardess? wizardperson?) was getting under my skin. Being an hd65508eade869cf82d0cd401d558c80c.pngonorable warrior-type person, I couldn’t hit her back when she slugged me. Naturally, as Rosa took advantage of my position more and more, and my desire to belt her a good solid one increased, her yapping trap reminded me of the precarity of my situation. More than once I chose to unball my fist and remain an honorable warrior-type person than be transmogrified into a croaking toad-type person.

Other strange and morbid musings came unbidden to my sordid mind. Thoughts of holding hands, kissing, and—ugh—settling down with Rosa. Calluses were forming from constantly tapping my trusty Craftsman™ broadsword’s hilt in order to stifle this growing urge of domesticity.

My trusty Craftsman™ broadsword proved incapable, however, of stifling some serious heart palpitations when Rosa burst into the stable I was currently mucking out. Enthusiasm shone on her beauteous face, her large brown eyes shining. Either she couldn’t wait to tell me something or this town’s spirit had infected her.

“That damsel wannabe is back in town! The citizens are all turning out to welcome her with a parade!”

I tossed my shovel aside and grabbed my tunic. “Let’s go!”

“Wait a moment, farmboy. You’re going nowhere yet.”

Rosa whipped out her dainty wand, waved it and her free hand, then chanted something sounding like a pig being strangled. Suddenly a large wooden tub appeared above my head. Unfortunately, by the time I realized what was happening, cold water poured over me. Sadly, it was scented. Indeed, I now smelled like a flower garden. My heart no longer palpitated.

Minutes later, we were struggling to shove our way through the throngs and the scurrying paparazzi, their sketch pads flashing. Interestingly, my sudden change in status from muckraker to flower garden had a decided effect upon the populace. While catcalls of “pansy” and the like were hurled at me from the menfolk, the women gazed at me with long, lingering appraisals. Those poor, hapless people. They quickly learned the wrath of Rosa.

With the sudden influx of large croaking toads in the area and, more notably, the sudden disappearance of a plethora of Jacumba’s finest merchants and their wives, a trajectory leading directly to the street opened magically before us. The wrath of a woman conjurer can be a terrible thing.

Nonetheless, I soon encountered the humorous side of Rosa’s temper after securing front row lounge chairs. Jacumba’s finest merchants and their wives began popping back into sight. Most, to their discomfort, continued croaking and hopping for a few perilous moments before realizing their good fortune. As they slunk away, I found myself more and more impressed with Rosa and her magical abilities. Worse, my heart thudded anon.

As we patiently awaited Princess Lalena’s appearance, I spotted several heavily cowled figures slinking furtively throughout the throng. I leaned as close as I dared to Rosa.

“Have you observed the inordinate number of heavily cowled figures slinking furtively about? Do you think they might be assassins waiting for an opportune moment to strike down the princess?”

Rosa gazed about thoughtfully. “Hmmm. Either that or they’re potential husbands. Very well. I’ll clear a path to the castle for the wench.”

With that she whipped out her dainty wand and a few mystical passes and arcane mutterings (this time sounding like a lamb being burned alive) later, the air was once again filled with loud croakings. I gazed fondly at her dainty wand.

“I’ve just gotta get me one of those!” I whispered.

A foolish thing to say to a wizardperson, yes, but a sudden blaring of trumpets forestalled any caustic remark from my lovely counterpart.

As did the citizens of Jacumba, I craned my neck to catch a first glimpse of the fair Princess Lalena. Out of the corner of my eye I noted Rosa glowering. Nonetheless, I continued craning. Soon the stomp-stomp-stomp of the Royal Guards could be felt as well as heard. Then the glitter of the sun on their lances and plumed helms sparkled, producing an appropriately dazzling effect upon the populace.

As a long line four guards wide strutted past in their resplendent white and gold livery, the cheers began. Behind them a group of women with startlingly short skirts, tight sweaters, and really big, uh, smiles cavorted past. In each hand they shook what looked like multi-colored mop heads. Suddenly, directly in front of us, they halted. Quickly the cheers reached a fevered pitch as the women pumped their mop heads into the air and cried out, “Give us a P!”

The crowd roared back with a resounding “P!” In what then sounded like some sort of spelling contest, the women proceeded to spell out “Princess.”

I turned to Rosa and asked, “Who are these women?”

“Ladies-in-waiting.”

As the scantily clad ladies shouted, “Who do we love?” (to which the throngs, of course, responded deafeningly, “Princess Lalena”), the princess’ flower-bedecked carriage rode into view. She waved listlessly at her adoring fans while my heart nearly thudded its way out of my chest. Despite a languid face, I realized the talent of whosoever painted her oil was sadly lacking. Her beauty was astonishing. Here was a woman not only worth saving from whoever’s dire clutches, but also worth giving up my trusty Craftsman™ broadsword for.

“With a face that sour,” muttered Rosa, “She must be getting married or executed.”

I laughed while continuing to admire the princess’ astonishing beauty.

“Oh Rosa, you’re such a…”

Obviously I failed to complete the sentence. With good reason. I had been poisoned with the most deadly poison of all.

Love.

On to Part 5

 

A Film Everyone Should Watch

I love history and archaeology, and I especially love good film series that combine both. In the past year, I’ve watched series on Ireland, Ancient Greece, the ancient Etruscans, Native Americans, and others. Much of what I learn ends up in my stories, usually twisted just enough so that I can add magical elements. So when I mention the film I think every one (at least, every American, Canadian, and European) should watch, don’t expect me to mention the latest Star Wars installment or the next Godfather.

africaI’m referring to a recent (2010) BBC production, Lost Kingdoms of Africa, a two-disc set you can get on Amazon by clicking here. Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford, a British art historian whose heritage is West Africa (and whose bio you can read here) takes us on a journey to four ancient African civilizations: Nubia, Ethiopia, Great Zimbabwe, and West Africa (primarily the kingdom of Benin). Unlike Ireland, Greece, Rome, or Egypt, I knew absolutely nothing about ancient Africa beyond the legend of Queen Sheba and King Solomon. I doubt many students of history and/or archaeology know much, either, which is why I highly recommend this series to everyone.

In addition to the gorgeous ruins and stunning vistas, we get to see art that is the equal of anything created in China, Britain, India, or anywhere else. Some of the ruins themselves are equal in their splendor to the great cathedrals and castles of Europe, or the Parthenon in Greece, Rome’s Coliseum, or the ancient pyramids of Egypt. (Did you know there are far more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt? I certainly didn’t!)

Dr. Casley-Hayford is quite engaging, and one of the most enthusiastic hosts of any such video I’ve watched. I was particularly impressed by the way he treats all religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Animism, or local religions/customs. There is never a sense of “we’ve moved on from such foolish superstition” or a wink-and-a-nod to let the viewer know not to take any religion seriously. There is no moral superiority of science or any particular religion, no Star Trek “look down your nose and pretend that a different belief is okay, but you really know it’s superstitious hocus pocus.”

This makes his interactions with locals, particularly the respect he shows everyone he meets—whether a local blacksmith or the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church—feel genuine. That in itself helps to set Dr. Casley-Hayford apart from most hosts of similar series.

There’s a reason Africa has been called “The Lost Continent,” which is enough of a reason to watch this series, so that you can begin to understand its rich history and heritage. With Dr. Casley-Hayford as host, it’s a series I’ll return to watch again.

The Princess Problem, Part 3

Read Part 2 here

—3—

I arrived at Wizards Are Us shortly after the cock’s first crow the next morning. After a long wait, the stout wooden door was unbolted. Soon I was soon tapping my fingers on the arm of one of the comfy couches, listening to the vacant-headed receptionist chomp away. An even longer wait ensued until finally Mitzi popped out, accompanied by an even shorter gal with close-cropped black hair and large brown eyes. Despite a stern gaze that tightened her features into sharp points, she was quite pretty.

“Sir Roger, I’d like you to meet Rosa, your new wizard assistant.”

rosa.jpgMy jaw nearly unhinged as Rosa abruptly stuck her hand out. It was only then that I noticed her robe, which reached only to mid-thigh, was indeed embroidered with stars and half-moons and other wizardly symbols. I took her hand reluctantly, and she squeezed it with an impressive grip.

Pleased to meet you, Sir Roger.”

“Bu… bu… but you’re a gal! Gals are supposed to be witches!”

She frowned, anger sparking her eyes, and jammed her fists against her hips.

“No man’s going to saddle me with a broomstick or put me behind a cauldron! I can do a wizard’s job as well as any man!”

The venom in her voice shoved me back a step or two as my hands flew up of their own accord to ward her off.

“Hey, I’m sorry. I never met a female wizard before.”

“Well,” said Mitzi smoothly, “I’m glad to see you two are getting along so well.” As she placed a hand on both of our backs, gently ushering us towards the door, she said, “Rosa, make sure you check in when your job is done so we can get you a new assignment. Sir Roger, I’m sure you’ll be quite pleased with Rosa’s work and I hope you’ll choose Wizards Are Us for any future needs that arise. Goodbye!” And with that, the door shut firmly, leaving the two of us alone together on the landing above the rickety stairs.

“So mister big shot mercenary, who’s this princess wench I’m supposed to help you find?”

I cocked an eyebrow at her language.

“Sorry,” she said, “my mouth sometimes gets carried away. Let me rephrase that. Won’t you please inform me about the princess I have been hired to help you save from some fate worse than death?” The sarcasm in her voice dripped thicker than molasses.

Sighing, I pulled out the oil portrait of my mysterious princess from within one of the deep pockets inside my tastefully gold-inlaid cloak. Rosa yanked it from my hand to study it.

“Well, she’s certainly ugly enough to be a princess.”

“Ugly? Are you nuts?”

“What! You think she’s good looking? Her nose is crooked, her eyes offset, her hairstyle a century old. Where do you men get such strange ideas?”

“Well, I, uh, that is…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Typical male. Can’t defend yourself when faced with the facts. But if we’re gonna get anywhere, you’d better tell me all you know about this wench.”

I took a deep breath and slowly uncurled my fists before relating to Rosa what little the boss had mentioned to me prior to his demise, including his unfinished warning.

As I finished, Rosa let out a big sigh. “Princess Lalena, huh? Well, from what I’ve heard, I suppose you may have a point about her attractiveness. Still, there are rumors about her…” Rosa’s voice trailed off ominously.

I was about to ask her what she meant when a furtive flicker across the street caught my eye. Distracted, I missed what Rosa said next but I did indeed spot a heavily cowled figure hiding behind a column across the street. It seemed to be staring at me. What is it with me and all these heavily cowled figures?

“Sir Roger, did you hear me?” said Rosa, disturbing my thoughts. “Can I go ahead with the spell?”

“Uh, oh, uh, yeah, sure, whatever.” What spell was she talking about? I returned my attention to the heavily cowled figure, who was striding rapidly down the street towards us.

I’m still not exactly certain what happened next and in what order, but here’s my best approximation: Rosa uttered something arcane that sounded like a cat with its tail being cut off. A weird glow surrounded us and everything but Rosa and myself grew hazy. I remember a loud whoop and the cloaked figure racing toward us with a long dagger raised in one hand. The hood fell back and for a brief instant before everything disappeared I glimpsed the face of our attacker. She looked very familiar but ephemeral. Then all faded…

On to Part 4

The Princess Problem, Part 2

read Part 1 here

—2—

I landed with a thud outside the back door. A half-dozen more thuds swiftly followed. At the sight of the bull-like horned heads of the Akatan bouncers, my would-be captors sprang up and sprinted away.

“Hey you sissies!” I shouted. “They’re just bouncers, not used chariot salesmen!” But my opponents never looked back.

As I bent to recover my trusty Craftsman™ broadsword, I noticed a small, rectangular, green-and-white piece of parchment lying in the dust. Picking it up I read, “Kelly Mercenaries—We Fill All Your Plundering Needs.” Instantly, a solution for my predicament sprang to mind. Rushing to the nearest crystal ball booth, I opened the Yellowed Parchments and thumbed my way to Temporary Help. I quickly scanned the ads and lists of addresses until a name caught my eye: “Wizards Are Us,” replete with a portrait of a white-bearded gentleman with the tall pointy cap and long flowing robe befitting his position. My decision was made.

Solvang’s Central Business District, while a good stretch of the legs away, was nearly as seedy as the Red Light District surrounding the Blackmore. Filth cluttered the narrow dirt lanes and buildings tottered in serious need of restoration. Merchants’ stalls lined both sides of the streets, although several were starting to close at this late hour. I hoped I was not too late.

Then, beneath a sagging awning, I descried a deep purple placard with appropriate mystical symbols. Hastening over, I discovered I had indeed found Wizards Are Us. As I gingerly stepped into the dilapidated building and climbed a rickety staircase, I wondered what kind of wizards would work for a company in a construct in such a state of disrepair.

When I opened the stout wooden door at the top of the stairs, however, my mouth gaped in surprise. A plush interior with thick red carpet and soft leather couches welcomed me. Tapestries of lovely seascape scenes covered two walls. Opposite me stood an imposing oak desk complete with receptionist. A cute gal with bleached blond hair and extensive black kohl makeup, she lowered her copy of The Solvang Scandal (not the most trustworthy of news sources, I must say) as I stepped up. She looked me up and down with nearly vacant eyes, all the while continuously chomping open-mouthed on something, then asked, “Uh, can I like, uh, help you?”

“Yes, miss. I’d like to hire one of your wizards.”

“Uh, like, sure. Just a minute.” She whirled her head down the hallway and screeched, “Hey, Mitzi, up front and center!” Then she swiveled back to me and said sweetly, “Why don’t you, like, have a seat? Mitzi’ll be, uh, right out to help you.”

I plopped into one of the cushy couches but did not have long to wait before a petite, bright-eyed gal with brown curly hair bounced out of the hallway.

“Hello, Sir,” she announced perkily, extending her hand. “My name’s Mitzi Dupree. How can we be of service to you today?”

I rose, shook her hand, and said with serious gloom, “I need a wizard to help me out.”

“Well, come with me, sir, and let’s just see what we can arrange.”

I accompanied her to her office, a small cell hungbaby_dragon___reedited_by_luna_sregulartales-d9npcy8.png with cutesy tapestries of baby dragons and the like. Once seated, I explained my situation to her.

She nodded thoughtfully as I spoke, then asked, “You realize, of course, that the level of expertise that we can offer directly correlates with how much you’re willing to spend.”

“Gimme an idea.”

She consulted a parchment on her desk before responding. “Well, a top-of-the-line graybeard with full cap and
robe runs 75 silver pieces per week. An experienced wizard with a short cap and full robe is 50, and our standard full robe, no cap is 25.”

I opened my pouch. It was not nearly that full. I dropped a dozen silver pieces onto her desk.

“What can I get for this much?”

She frowned. “Hmmm. We don’t have much to offer at that price.” She flipped through her sheaves for a few minutes and then her face brightened once more as she pulled out a single manuscript. “I think I have just the right wizard for you, someone who’s straight out of our Wizards Are Us Training Academy. No cap and only a short robe, mind you, but an eager spirit and full of determination. Good with numbers, too.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “All right, I’ll try him.”

“Great. We’ve just got some parchment work to fill out and then we’ll have your wizard here first thing tomorrow morning!”

On to Part 3

The Princess Problem, Part 1

—1—

The Blackmore Tavern is not the world’s safest place.

But how could I know? The Blackmore proclaimed its robust good nature for all to see on the faded wooden placard of a minstrel’s lute hanging askew above the half-shattered door.

Of course, I had to duck when a scaly-skinned Torg hurtled backwards through the doorway, apparently an unwitting victim of some dastardly fiend inside. Unless, of course, the Torg was the dastardly fiend.

Patting the scabbard of my trusty Craftsman™ broadsword, I stepped carefully over the inert Torg and into the large, torch-lit central room. I deftly dodged a pair of grappling Akatas as they toppled past me. It was a mite noisier for lunch than I had expected, with a bottle breaking here and a death scream there, but I did not think my business would be affected.

a1f688524a684790f27844d70a7ba204_full.jpgI strode briskly across the room, throwing only a few punches along the way, all purely in self-defense. I don’t normally derive pleasure by hurtling my fist into the face of unsuspecting beings unless, of course, I’m unusually thirsty. And I was. So, with my path well-cleared, I snatched three tankards of Blackmore Beer from the tray of a serving wench. They’d been destined for a trio of short, stocky Brimulung at a nearby table but it’s amazing what a well-placed left hook can do in silencing the complaints of fellow customers.

Choosing a table in a private booth in the far corner, I swept away the still-twitching meal left over from the previous occupants and sat down to await my boss’ arrival.

Although I was distracted by the occasional body thudding onto my table, I did not have to wait long. What else are shiny black boots for if not to thrust away such unwanted vermin in order to protect the boss’ beer?

He slid in opposite me almost unnoticed until his bench creaked rather loudly under his impressive weight. Drama has never been his strong suit. The boss wore all black, as did I, but rather than dressing proudly in studded leather and a tastefully gold-inlaid cloak, he always hides himself in a dull voluminous robe. In fact, I never have seen his face, a mystery causing me some apprehension. I worry that he must have suffered a horrible accident as a child, perchance scalding water poured on him by an unwitting mother or maybe a vengeful older brother of a girlfriend slashed open a cheek with a knife, or perhaps he inherited a father’s acne. Even in the brightest daylight, he keeps his face carefully hidden under that deep hood.

“Whspznx dzspxshxz clvzzx?” he whispered hoarsely after downing his first tankard of Blackmore Beer.

“I beg your pardon?” said I. “You’ll have to speak up. The howling is a little loud in here.”

He eased back his hood, revealing a black mask that covered nearly all his face except his nervous, shifty eyes and shiny bald pate.

“All right, all right,” he bellowed, his rancid breath blowing out under the words.” Is this better?”

I was not prepared for the onslaught and so did not handle the situation as tactfully as, in hindsight, I maybe could have.

“Phew! Have you thought of using a little mint after you eat? Freshens the breath right up, you know.”

His shoulders drooped visibly and his voice grew shaky. “Oh, knock it off, Roger. You warrior-hero types are all the same. Just because your mother slept with a god, blessing you with impossibly rugged good looks, blue eyes, and a perfectly chiseled chin, you think you can embarrass those of us spawned by demons.”

“No!” I protested weakly. “I didn’t mean that at all, sir! It’s just that your breath is, well, not pleasant.”

“Go ahead and rub it in. Crush what little remains of my ego.”

This was quickly getting out of hand. I had to restore his pathetic self-esteem quickly or I might be out of a job.

“Really,” I said comfortingly, “Without brave souls like you to do provide management assessment, we heroes would never find the truly career-enhancing jobs that bring us glory, gold, and girls.”

He seemed to brighten up a little when I mentioned the three g’s, but quickly sank even deeper into his bench. “But we fearless leaders never get anything except the gold. You know, Rog, I haven’t gone pillaging for years. Ahhh, those were the days. Now it’s just creep, creep, creep. Even the occasional poisoned goblet or knife-slitting has lost its thrill.”

A cheery idea flashed through my mind.

“Say, boss, would you like me to go rescue a princess for you this time? Maybe save a damsel from a dragon? If we set it up just right, you could get all the press and I could get the gold. What do you think?” That glory and girls stuff only goes so far and if it helped out the boss, well, a hero’s bank account is never what it’s cracked up to be.

The boss immediately perked up. “What?! Let you have more money? What kind of fool do you take me for? Hrmpf!”

Oh well, I suppose a grumpy boss is a happy boss. At least he didn’t seem depressed anymore.

“Enough nonsense,” he continued. “Let’s get down to business.

“This job will be a little tougher than most. The princess you are after this time is actually beautiful, not unlike your typical damsel.” He was right. Princesses are vastly overrated. Weakened gene pool from inbreeding, I suppose, but great scandal-ridden press. The real babes are always the damsels.

“Are you sure this one’s portrait wasn’t touched up? The last three princesses all had far longer noses and much bigger warts than advertised.”

“Nah, this one’s the real thing. Here’s a recent oil.”

He unrolled a small canvas and handed it to me. My boss was not exaggerating. Either the princess had a great press agent or she was indeed very beautiful. Thick, long black hair cascaded past slender shoulders. Large dark eyes gazed thoughtfully, eyes that a warrior could get lost in for a very long time. Her demure nose was perfectly shaped and no warts appeared at all.

The boss took a long swig from his beer as he watched me study the painting. After several enjoyable moments, I looked back up. He lowered his tankard and eased back.

“Now for your assignment. This is Princess Lalena of Javern. There is something you must know about this princess. In addition to being beautiful, she is also an outstanding ack…”

Obviously, the last word was not intended. Unfortunately, the boss fell forward, his masked face crashing into the still-moving food. Even worse, his beer spilled and soaked into his cloak. I reached forward to check his pulse. There was none. Grabbing the now-empty mug, I sniffed the rim. As I suspected, poison of the most devilish kind, working only on short, fat bald men. Someone knew of us, possibly knew my assignment.

Unfortunately, there was no time to worry. At that very moment I found myself suddenly surrounded by a half-dozen suspicious, heavily cowled figures. I say suspicious because only their eyes were visible beneath their hoods, and those were awfully beady.

Normally I wouldn’t hesitate to take on all six but, in this instance, they all had bright pointy swords directed at me.

I tried to be as cheerful as possible.

“Gentlemen! May I help you?”

“Ysspqjsls ssdjsssh wssmsdnfxhs!!!” shouted one of the creatures.

“I beg your pardon?”

My assailant slipped off its cowl. It was a black-scaled Torg. Good fighters with blunt faces and hairless bodies, but as light as princesses on the brains end.

“Oops! Sorry! I tend to forget about that cowl muffling effect,” apologized the lizard-like Torg. Before I thought to escape, he had his sword at my throat.

“Now, en garde! Prepare to die, rebel scum!”

One of the other hooded beings leaned over and whispered in the leader’s ear.

“Oh, is that what I was supposed to do!” he said to his associate. Then he turned to me, peeled off a glove and hurled it to the floor.

“You have insulted me for the last time, you slimy piece of worm-ridden filth! Get on your feet and arm yourself, for I will pierce your heart with my sw…”

“No, no, no!!!” cried his associate as he yanked off his cowl. It was a thin-faced, green-skinned Greshi. So, it was mercenaries that I faced, mere hired hands. “You’re just supposed to get him to come with us, not kill the poor bugger!”

“Didn’t you just tell me I’m supposed to duel him?”

“No, no, no!! I told you to apprehend him!”

“But you said pusa, duel!”

“No, no, no! I said pusat, apprehend. It’s this darned cowl that keeps getting in the way. Why do mercenaries have to wear these stupid robes every time we’re supposed to look mysterious? It’s not as if we’ve taken the assassin’s creed!”

“And I even threw down my glove on that filthy floor. I suppose I’ll have to send it to the cleaners!”

“Well, we oughta all get these darned cowls off our faces so we don’t end up skewering each other.”

“Thank goodness!” “Phew!” “It’s about time!” came the cries from the remaining mercenaries as they uncovered their heads as well, revealing a motley crew of various races. A more wretched group of scum and villainy I had never seen.

At that moment, I realized the chance for escape had arrived. I leaped to my feet, skillfully drawing my trusty Craftsman™ broadsword, knocking over the table and saving my mug of beer all in one swift, suave motion. Well, maybe two or three fairly skilled, quick movements. All right, it was a whole series of disastrous, clumsy stumbles in which the table, myself, the mercenaries, my trusty Craftsman™ broadsword, and the beer all ended up in one unbelievable tangled mess of sable cloaks and dun-colored robes.

I quickly attempted to extricate myself. Unfortunately, so did my would-be apprehenders. As did the table and the sword. Then there was the beer and the barely-moving dinner underfoot. The tangled mess became worse. But that’s what bouncers are for.

The Princess Problem, Part 2

Note: This is a six-part short story I wrote a very long time ago and recently rediscovered. I’ve polished it up a bit for your enjoyment. It’s set in the same world as my “White Magic” series and inspired by The Princess Bride with nods to Deep Purple and Star Wars, among others.