Sunday, 26 May 2013

Princess Spireshine Meets Peregrine Pagebinder

The Kingdom of Spireshine woke up to find that the relative calm of the previous five days was at an end. The full stop to the sentence 'Anabyl Spireshine has returned home.' was made out of the smouldering wreckage of the carriage that had brought her to Caer Spireshine. The vehicle, or what was left of it, was strewn about the branches of a tree, known by the Spireshiners as the stout oak, that had stood for over twelve centuries not far from the entrance to the castle.

Such occurrences were not unusual in Spireshine. For the last half decade or so a pattern had established itself. Chaos reigned, an increasingly stringent number of security measures and disciplinary edicts were issued, the princess would disappear for a few days, a carriage would bring her back, chaos would resume.

About a year ago there had been the blessed two month period when Anabyl's eldest sister had been married to the third Lord Sommerslip. The kingdom had been left in the capable hands of a regent, heir to the throne Benedyct. Benedyct had done an excellent job and the period was seen as a brief golden age during troubled times. The fact that the current Lord Spireshine had decided to take Anabyl with him on that occasion could not have hurt Benedyct's brief period in office in the slightest.

Princess Anabyl was a child, everyone acknowledged this fact. So, surely, one day she would have to grow up, this everyone hoped. They hoped, more precisely, that their definition of 'growing up', which included not setting fire to so many things, was precisely the type of growing up she would do. Nobody liked to discuss the existence of alternative things that could happen. The words 'she could get worse' were only ever thought, not ever said.

The broken axles and sad rags of upholstery were not the only new thing a Spireshiner might have been able to see at the stout oak at sunrise. The early-rising resident of the kingdom would have to have been standing north of the tree, they would also have to be looking off to the side of the rising sun, just at the point where the flaming orb's presence in one's field of vision was starting to produce tearing from the eyes.

It was one of those days where the sun and the moon battled for dominance in the early morning sky. Unusually the moon was extremely close to the edge of the sun that day. Some, particularly stellar alchemists, might have said 'impossibly close'. It was at that precise proximity that one could just about see it although the peripheral brightness of the sun would cause you to squint.

Thus squinting one might have seen the unusual sight of a man appearing to walk out of the fading moon to hop down through the branches of the stout oak, like a large and flapping owl among the branches, to land on the road. One would, obviously be surprised to see such a thing, so one might believe that this thin man in ragged clothes wearing a tall hat seemed to squash and bend in the hard light of the red rising sun.

At this point one might decide to get out of the line of sight of the sun and take a closer look. Approaching the tree from a less eye-watering angle one would realise one had been mistaken. Obviously about a man climbing out of the moon, that goes without saying, but also about there being a thin man in a tall hat.

Now that one drew closer one could clearly see that it was a tall man, wearing a scholar's skull cap. He had a nose like the beak of a carrion crow and a pair of glasses hanging from this bony proboscis, two flat oblongs of clear glass in plain metal frames. The eyes behind the glasses were very dark, they glittered dangerously.

If one were to look into those eyes for too long all that stuff about tall hats and wide, white grins (that you most certainly wouldn't have seen with the sun in your eyes, so how do you even know about them, stop thinking this way) would come back into your head, if only for an instant. It was almost as if the whole man, spiky elbows to stern frowning mouth, were some sort of mask, concealing a far stranger interior. One would try to forget having such a thought even upon its occurrence and the thought would hasten within one's mind to be forgotten.

Instead our imaginary observer would possibly decide to look over the man's clothing and accoutrements. He wore long, black school master's robes. Under one arm the academic bird-man clutched a serious looking book. A switch of flexible wood was clutched in his left hand. Our observer would see this man cast a cold eye over the carriage carnage in the branches of the stout oak and tut disapprovingly. If they were close enough they might make out the merest whisper of a smirk at the corner of the man's mouth.

No one was there to observe this, not even an imaginary observer, which is a shame because they are often the ones who notice the most. So the incident passed unremarked upon and unthought about. The academic bird-man was alone as he turned towards Caer Spireshine and walked along the road towards it.

The first Spireshiner to observe the advance of the man in the black robes was Old Robson, the night guard. Being centrally located among the members of the One Hundred Kingdoms (a title of nomination only, there were far more than a hundred kingdoms signed up to the One Hundred Kingdoms Pact) Spireshine had limited use of stout night time defences. Soldiers signed up to military service in Spireshine were usually provided a position within the One Hundred Kingdoms Alliance. For this reason Caer Spireshine only had a skeleton guard during the night time.

Old Robson had watched the gatehouse of the Caer from Midnight Bell until Morning Bell for over seven decades at this point. In all that time he had never marked the approach of a lone schoolmaster to the castle gates.

Upon seeing the master making his way up the paved path to the drawbridge crossing Old Robson roused himself from his comfortable chair and made his way down the stone spiral stairs to the main gate. He opened the hatch in the wicket gate to peer out suspiciously shortly after the first precise volley of five knocks.

"Morning," Old Robson mumbled.

"My very warmest wishes of the new day," said the academic in a fluting tone that should not have been as filled with authority as it was. "Peregrine Pagebinder, reporting for service as tutor to Princess Anabyl Spireshine."

"I en't been told anything about no tutor," Old Robson said. This was true although even the ancient night watchman knew that if anyone was in dire need of a firm guiding hand it was the princess. If some fool was going to turn up at the gates of the castle and demand to be placed in a position of responsiblity for the little tearaway Old Robson was inclined to believe that they were telling the truth. The lie would not merely be fruitless it technically qualified as dangerous.

"That is because I have not yet been retained," Peregrine replied, a cold smile patronising Old Robson right through the eight inch by three inch slit in the wicket gate. "I have all of my certificates of authority in my pack and I have been assured that Princess Anabyl is precisely the kind of student I excel in educating. Show me through to the relevant waiting area for today's court session and I will occupy the position by sunset I can assure you."

"Gates don't open for court until mid-morning bell," Robson said.

"Ah," Peregrine said regretfully. "It seems that I have been misinformed as to the Princess's educational requirements. Please pass on my best wishes to Lord Spireshine, I shall be on my way."

Old Robson opened the gate purely on an intuition he would identify as 'gut feeling'. Had he possessed a more rational turn of mind he would have reasoned that if this man was what he represented himself as - i.e. someone who could tame the savage beast that concealed hobnail boots beneath a variety of frilly formal gowns - then it would only be a fool who would let him walk away from the castle. If the man was not all he claimed to be then he would run from Caer Spireshine screaming before the day was out.

In other words: What did Old Robson have to lose?

"You can come in and wait," he said to Peregrine.

A broad grin fled momentarily across the dour man's face. Old Robson got the impression of far too many teeth, all of them dazzling white.

Peregrine was shown into the main reception hall of the Caer, where a couple of hearth sprites were finishing up the job of cleaning a large stain of gravy, treacle and compost off the west wall. He sat on a chair in the public enclosure and waited patiently for noon bell, at which point there would be a session of court lasting until the day bell.

As he was the first to arrive Peregrine was the first to present himself before Lord Spireshine. He stood straight and proud before the ruler of the kingdom and waited for the gossiped enquiries at his back to silence themselves before speaking.

"Lord Spireshine," he said, "My name is Peregrine Pagebinder, it is my honour to present myself before you and my pleasure to offer my services as a tutor to your youngest child."

Lord Spireshine sat forward a little in his chair.

"I did not send for a tutor for Anabyl," he said. "She is, perhaps, a little young for the business of education."

"If by 'a little young' you mean 'the eye in a continually swirling typhoon of chaos'," Peregrine replied. "Then I sympathize with your perspective. I have references, signed and sealed, from many other monarchs of the One Hundred Kingdoms all of whom have been delighted to retain my services in the past. I specialise in challenging students."

Now Lord Spireshine didn't just sit forward, he also sat up.

"I do not think, Master Pagebinder, that you have, perhaps, ever encountered a challenge like Anabyl," he said. All the Spireshiners could hear the subtext of the remark clearly as: 'This is your last chance to run, take it and never look back you lunatic.'

"Maybe so," Peregrine said. "Neither do I think that she has encountered a scaffold for growth, development and discipline such as my good self."

"I hope for your sake that you are correct," Lord Spireshine said. "You are retained for the trial period of a fortnight. Chamberlain, find Master Pagebinder suitable quarters."

"It would be my pleasure," said the chamberlain, a jowly, unpleasant man who was already enjoying the mental image of the state in which this jumped up bookworm would leave the castle after Anabyl had finished with him.

Peregrine was given a small room in the cellar of the castle. It had a plain pallet bed which was not even made and a wardrobe with space for maybe three sets of clothes and half the door missing.

"Unfortunately," the chamberlain said. "We are somewhat pressed for space at the moment. I shall send someone to make up your room after evening bell, if that's agreeable." And if you're still here you poor fool, he thought to himself.

"I'm sure I shall be," Peregrine replied.

"Then I shall leave you to settle in," the chamberlain said. It was only ten minutes later that he realised that Pagebinder had responded to something that he was certain he had only thought.

After placing his serious book on the shelf of the broken wardrobe Peregrine left his room and walked up through the castle towards the quarters of Lord Spireshine and his family. Once he ascended above the court mezzanine he found it quite easy to pick his route, he only needed to follow the distant cacophany of shouting and screaming.

As he drew closer actual words and phrases began to make themselves heard amid the general clamour:

"I've got her ankle!"

"Grab the sponge, quick!"

"Why isn't it wet?"

"Wet it now!"

"She's wriggling, I think she's trying to bite me."

"The water's not soapy! What about the plan?"



"Why did you let go?"

"She bit me!"

"There's no blood."

"But it hurt."

"Look we've got her in the corner, come and help."

"What about the sponge?"

"We can deal with the sponge when we've got her again."

"She's making a run for it!"

"Stop her!"

There followed a series of bangs and crashes, a couple more howls of pain. Peregrine was drawing close to the doorway onto this scene of carnage now. A girl dressed in a striped bathing suit that covered her from neck to wrists from wrists to ankles came pelting out into the corridor a look of determination on her face, a small, tight grin lighting up the otherwise serious expression.

She hurried towards Peregrine without actually seeming to see him. She ducked left, presuming to dodge past him. As she passed him by on his right hand side he moved, swift as a snake, gripping the striped bathing suit in the middle of the back and hauling the princess into the air. He oriented his head so that they were almost nose to nose.

"Good morning, Princess Anabyl," he said.

The princess, having a fine set of instincts, wrinkled her nose and narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

"Who are you?" she asked, and then a moment later. "Put me down."

"I am your new tutor," Peregrine said. "And no."

"There's a man," came a voice from up the corridor. "He's got her."

"Has he?" another voice. "That won't last."

"You could just listen to them," Princess Anabyl said. "It won't last, you may as well just put me down. You don't have to get hurt."

"Are you threatening me, Princess?" Peregrine asked.

"Not really," the princess said. "I never intend to hurt anyone, it just sort of happens."

Peregrine smiled.

"Sir!" a voice called urgently, "you might want to consider putting Her Royal Highness down and backing away... slowly. No sudden motions."

"They seem concerned," Peregrine said.

"People usually are when it's bath time," the princess replied.

"Ah, bath time," Peregrine said, nodding sagely. "You don't strike me as someone who would be afraid of a little bit of water."

"I'm not," the princess pouted. "It's the principle."

"I must admit to being unfamiliar with that principle," Peregrine said.

"They want me to do something, I can't just let them do it to me," the princess explained.

"Why not?"

"It's the principle."

Peregrine did not say anything for a moment, his gaze slid sideways for a moment, the princess began to wriggle, the gaze slid back instantly.

"Here's how it's going to be," Peregrine said. "You'll have your bath, or vice versa."

"Vice versa?" the princess said. "What does that mean?"

"You can have your bath now," Peregrine said. "Or you can find out for yourself."

"Well," the princess said, "I'm not going to have my bath, I don't care what stupid words you use."

"Very well," Peregrine sighed, his voice tinged with a not-quite-sincere note of regret. "I'm putting you down now."

"Sensible man."

Peregrine let the princess go and she took off down the corridor as if her feet were on fire.

"He's lost her!" shouted the maid in the corridor.

"Doesn't surprise me," came another voice.

Peregrine moved up the corridor towards the bathroom, past the maid in the door way and into the scene of carnage that lay beyond. The room was very well lit from a high window that reflected the sunlight off a mirror across one wall. Steam hung in the air, picking out the underlying debris in pleasant swatches of rainbow colour.

Sponges, brushes, bars of soap and towels were strewn here and there about the room. All of these were responding in their own manner to the lake of water covering the floor. The bath that formed a backdrop to this forlorn and sorry scene looked pristine, untouched by the wriggling limbs of chaos.

Within this vignette of bath time hell were three maids, two standing, one seated. One of the standing ones was holding a lonely, soapy sponge, the other stood with her hands on her hips, incongruously her face bore a look of slack resignation and defeat. The seated maid sat on a low stool, morosely clutching her arm where red tooth marks were clearly visible.

"Ladies," Peregrine addressed the gathered maids. "You may wish to move aside."

All the maids, past the point of arguing, did as they were told. Peregrine stepped up to the bath and held aloft his wooden switch. In a flurry of wrist motion he described an incredibly complicated path with the tip of the switch in the air and then tapped the edge of the bathtub.

The water in the tub began to bubble, as if it was boiling, or as if there were something large beneath the water's surface that was about to emerge, dripping and angry. Neither was the case, instead the water itself surged upwards, forming into the approximate shape of a very large man that hopped out of the bathtub onto the wet floor where it proceeded to add to its bulk by sopping up the spilled water.

Not slowing for a second Peregrine tapped a bar of soap, two brushes, a sponge and a couple of towels with his switch. All of these items leaped into the air at the contact. The soap buried itself in the water man's chest and instantly dissolved turning the water a soapy grey-white. The brushes attached themselves to the man's hands, the sponge flew in after the soap, the towels wrapped themselves around his head like a turban.

"Excellent," Peregrine said. "If the girl won't have a bath then the bath must have her. Go and wash her, whether she likes it or not," he instructed the water man who ran out of the door after the princess.

Much of the disorder had been reversed, the bathroom was almost clean. The maids stared at Peregrine jaws slack with amazement. A final swish of the wood switch and a broom stood to attention in the corner and began busily sweeping up the rest of the mess.

"Marvellous," Peregrine said, a tightly disciplined space for a grin being allowed to light upon his lips. He turned to address the maids: "Good morning, Ladies," he said. "Now, if you'll excuse me I must catch up with my student. Important that we don't miss out on lesson review."

With that Peregrine strolled out of the bathroom and down the corridor. The maids, once the amazement that froze them in place had thawed a little, hurried to follow him. Bath time had been a monthly torture for the staff of Caer Spireshine to endure, if this was to be revenge for multiple soakings then no one was going to miss it for the world.

By the time they reached the courtyard the show was well under way. The water man had turned into a roiling sphere of soapy water, a planet of cleaniliness. The brushes, the sponge and the towels orbited the planet like moons. Unlike moons every so often one or another of them would dive into the ball of water and emerge moments later to resume their previous course.

The princess's head could occasionally be seen emerging, a damp and horrified expression upon her face, from within the water long enough for her to take in a lungful of air. Then the tide would suck her back in for a few moments as the brushes and sponges did their work.

A small crowd had gathered to watch the bath at work, there were a fair few faces that wore expressions of grim satisfaction. There were plenty more that were openly laughing, pointing at the helpless princess, washed whether she wanted it or not.

As quickly as the bath had begun it ended. The sphere of water shot into the air and over the castle walls, dumping itself in the moat. The sponge and brushes arranged themselves neatly on the courtyard floor, the towels swooped in, one wrapping itself around Anabyl's head, the other draping itself over her arm. The princess floated gently to the floor and stood, pink, clean and furious surrounded by a circle of satisfied onlookers.

"Next time," Peregrine said to her companionably, "I would possibly be tempted to have the bath. Vice versa's really no fun, is it?"

"Who are you?" demanded the princess.

"As I explained, Princess," Peregrine said. "I am your new tutor. My name is Peregrine Pagebinder. Now, shall we return to the dressing rooms so that your maids may make you presentable? Or do we want to do that the hard way as well?"

The atmosphere in the courtyard thickened. It appeared as if everyone was rooting for the hard way. Something even more remarkable happened.

"Well, then," the princess said. "I guess we'd better get it over with."

Pouting she presented herself to the maids who, with an air of suspicious gratitude, took the freshly washed little princess inside to get her dressed.

"I will see you after noon bell," Peregrine called after her. "This afternoon we begin your education."

Some of the crowd heard the princess as she passed by them mutter: "We'll just have to see about that, Peabody."

It looked as if things in Caer Spireshine were going to get a little calmer and a great deal more interesting.

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