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Every Inch a King

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Every Inch a King

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Author: Harry Turtledove
Publisher: Del Rey / Ballantine, 2007
ISFiC Press, 2005

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Otto of Schlepsig is risking his neck as an acrobat in a third-rate circus in the middle of nowhere when news arrives that the land of Shqiperi has invited Prince Halim Eddin to become its new king. Otto doesn't know the prince from Adam, but he does happen to look just like him-a coincidence that inspires Otto with a mad plan to assume Halim's identity and rule in his stead. True, Shqiperi is an uncivilized backwater, but even in uncivilized backwaters kings live better than acrobats. Plus, kingship in Shqiperi comes with a harem. Rank, as they say, has its privileges.

With his friend Max, a sword-swallowing giant whose chronic cough makes every performance a potential tonsillectomy, Otto embarks on a rollicking journey filled with feats of derring-do, wondrous magic, and beautiful maidens-well, beautiful women. And that's before he enters a royal world that is truly fantastical.


I'm Otto of Schlepsig. Ah, you've heard the name, I see. Yes, I'm that Otto of Schlepsig. Some other people claim to be, but I'm the real one, by the Two Prophets. I'm the one who was King of Shqiperi. I ruled the Land of the Eagle for five whole days.

No, I wasn't born blueblooded. By my hope of heaven, I wasn't. As a matter of fact, I was born in a barn. Truly. Literally. It was either that or make a mess of my parents' traveling caravan, and my mother--a trouper among troupers--would never have done such a thing.

I could lie to you and make out that Mother and Father were more famous than they really were. Why not? You'd never know the difference. But what's the point of telling a story if you don't tell a true story? So... They were sideshow performers, and that's the long and short of it. I grew up among more or less trained monkeys and bearded ladies and sea snakes and drunken, down-at-the-heels sorcerers and flea circuses and demons and all the other strange odds and ends that might make a mark want to part with some silver--or, a lot of the places where we played, with some copper.

I daresay it warped me for life. But I've had fun.

In the forty-odd years--some of them odder than others--since my mother waddled off to lie down in the hay, I've done a lot of things. I've been an actor. People still talk about the way I played King Clodweg in The Maiden with Seven Boots. Sometimes they don't even throw things when they do. I've climbed all 287 steps on the way to the top of the Temple of Siwa--and I met another traveler from Schlepsig when I got there. I've been an acrobat. I've rescued a princess. That she didn't particularly want to be rescued wasn't my fault. I've served not one but two hitches in the army of the Hassockian Empire. (Whether that says more about how desperate I was or how desperate the Hassocki were, I leave for you to decide.)

And I've been King of Shqiperi. That's what I want to tell you about.

No, I didn't set out to be a king. Who does, except a crown prince? I was in a third-rate circus rattling around the Nekemte Peninsula in the middle of the Nekemte Wars. First-rate outfits never go down there: not enough money to be made. They stay up in Schlepsig and Albion and Narbonensis and Torino and the more civilized parts of the Dual Monarchy. The second-rate companies had cleared out when they heard dragons shrieking and crossbows being cranked. That left... outfits like mine, I'm afraid.

Dooger and Cark's Traveling Emporium of Marvels was just as bad, just as pathetic, just as hopeless as the name would make you guess. The roustabouts drank. When the tent went up, it went up sideways as often as not. The fortune-teller couldn't have seen a roc falling out of the sky. The sword-swallower coughed. That wasn't Max of Witte's fault, but it sure didn't help his act.

We were in Thasos the night everything got started. Thasos, most of the time, isn't a bad town. It's a bigger place, a fancier place, than Dooger and Cark's miserable little outfit usually gets to play. But, after belonging to the Hassockian Empire for something close to five hundred years, it had changed hands, quite suddenly, in the Nekemte Wars.

Frankly, it looked like a place that had just been sacked. The walls were battered. About every third building had a chunk bitten out of it, and fires had burned here and there. It smelled like a place that had just been sacked, too. Once you get a whiff of the smell of death, you never forget it. Mix it with old smoke and fear, and that's what a sack smells like.

And Thasos felt like a place that had just been sacked. A lot of the Hassocki pashas and beys had got out of town when their army ran off to the west, but most ordinary Hassocki--tinsmiths and ropemakers and butchers and what have you--hadn't had the chance to flee. The ones who were left alive sat glumly in their coffeeshops, robes drawn tight around them, turbans perhaps a bit askew, long faces somber. They drank tiny cups of sweet mud and sucked on the mouthpieces to their water pipes and tried to pretend the whole thing never happened.

Meanwhile, the Lokrians in Thasos were out of their minds with joy. Thasos has always been a mostly Lokrian town, even though Lokris lost it all those years ago. Now it was back under the Green Dragon, and men in short skirts and women in long ones danced in the streets. If you're not a Lokrian, the kind of music they play sounds like skinning a live cat with a dull knife. If you are... you dance. When they weren't dancing, they jeered at the surviving Hassocki.

After the sun went down, Lokrian warships in the harbor (junk Schlepsig and Albion didn't need any more) shot off fireworks. I hoped they were fireworks, anyway.

You're wondering why anybody in his right mind would want to bring a circus into a mess like that. You've never met Dooger and Cark, have you? One of them is from the wilder parts of the Dual Monarchy. The other speaks every language under the sun, and all with the same weird accent. If they had any idea what the demon they were doing, they wouldn't have touched the Traveling Emporium of Marvels with a ten-foot pole. Since they owned it...

Since they owned it, we got to Thasos a bare handful of days after the Lokrian and Plovdivian armies did.

Hassocki wizards should have planted salamanders under the roadbed and in the fields. That would have slowed down the Lokrians and probably the Plovdivians (who are wild men), and would have stopped civilian traffic in its tracks (although only Eliphalet and Zibeon know what Dooger and Cark would have done). It didn't happen. By then, the Nekemte Wars were going so badly for the Hassocki that they didn't think about much except running. The only places where they still held out and held on were in the fortress of Edirne, which guarded the approaches to Vyzance, and off in wild Shqiperi, where nobody was trying very hard to push them.

But that's another story. I hadn't even thought of the Land of the Eagle yet. To tell you the truth, I wouldn't swear I'd heard of the Land of the Eagle yet. I'd been a lot of places in my time, but nobody in his right mind went to Shqiperi. So I thought then, anyhow.

Our wagons rattled and thumped down that unsalamandered--I hoped--but potholed--I knew--highway to Thasos. I sat next to the roustabout driving mine. In my spangled shirt and tight trousers, I wanted to be seen. I combed my mustaches, trying to make them as splendid as I could.

Behind me, in the wagon, Max of Witte coughed. He's had a cough for as long as I've known him, and we go back a ways. Sometimes I ignore it. Sometimes it starts to drive me crazy. This was one of those times. "Stop that, Max," I said.

"I'd love to," he said in his foghorn bass, poking his head out to look around. Max is a lot taller and a little skinnier than people have any business being. His joints show more than your usual fellow's, too, so watching him is like watching a not very graceful marionette. He coughed again.

"One of these days, you'll do that while you're performing," I warned him.

"Only way I'll ever make the journals," he said dolefully. "First person in the history of the world to cut his own throat from the inside out. Something to look forward to."

"If you say so," I answered. Max isn't Max unless he's complaining about something.

We pitched our tent in a vacant lot not far from the Grand Temple of Thasos. That temple is all Lokrian; it was there for a thousand years before the Hassocki took the city. You could see the two spires piercing the sky whenever you turned your head that way. (The Lokrians, of course, are Zibeonites, and built his spire taller than Eliphalet's. Being a modern, tolerant man, I pass over in silence the ignorant heretics' errors.)

The Hassocki had built a fane to their Quadrate God next to the Grand Temple. It gave them a place to worship in Thasos. Other than that, I have to say, it wasn't a success. The four low domes on its roof aren't so much of a much compared to those two spires, even if the wrong one was taller. (No, I was going to pass over that in silence, wasn't I? My apologies, kindly reader.)

I got the feeling the lot hadn't been vacant very long. Whoever'd cleared the rubble from it had plainly won the contract on lowest bid and made up for that by not clearing a good bit of it. Bricks, broken bottles of arrack (if there'd been any unbroken bottles, the rubble haulers had taken care of those--oh, you bet they had), and roof slates argued a building had lived there not very long ago. Crumpled papers might have come from it, too, or from anywhere else in Thasos. They blew by, now in flurries, now in blizzards.

And we added our own papers, as if Thasos didn't have enough. We pasted flyers for Dooger and Cark on anything that didn't have a mouth and ears. There are at least half a dozen languages in the Nekemte Peninsula. Dooger and Cark, being too cheap to have wizards use the law of similarity to reproduce them in every relevant speech, solved the problem by not using any. Probably Cark's idea; he's the one who was born speaking no known tongue.

So our flyers showed a pretty girl wearing not very much (have you ever known a circus without one, or more than one, to give the marks something to stare at?) turning cartwheels, a lion and a unicorn on their hind legs like the supporters of the arms of Albion, a two- headed man (actually, José-Diego quit a while ago, after he got into an argument with himself), a clown brawling with a well-hung demon, and, soaring above them all, an acrobat doing an obviously death- defying flip.

Me. Yours truly, Otto of Schlepsig. Star of Dooger and Cark's, Prophets help me.

I lugged a pastepot while Ilona carried flyers. She's the pretty girl on the poster--a redhead from the Dual Monarchy with a temper like dragon's breath. "Hurry up!" she snapped at me, as if I were her slave. Well, I've heard ideas I liked less.

"You're carrying paper," I pointed out. "I've got this bloody heavy bucket, and my arms will be as long as a forest ape's by the time we get this job done."

Ilona said something in Yagmar, the language she grew up speaking, that should have set the flyers on fire. We'd been using Schlepsigian up till then. It's my birthspeech, and Ilona knows it because the Dual Monarchy crams it down everybody's throat in school, like it or not. Almost everybody in the circus business picks up some of it-- except the Albionese. They think other people ought to speak their language.

Ilona wasn't in costume. She would have caused a riot if she'd gone out on the street wearing what she almost wore when she performed--and not a friendly kind of riot, either. Hassocki can have harems, but they start pitching fits if they see more of a woman in public than her hands and her face. You figure it out--I've given up. And Lokrians, probably because they've had the Hassocki next door for so long, are almost as straitlaced.

Costume or not, she still got stares. She's a damn good-looking woman-- I already said that. And she has red hair down to about the small of her back. In a place like Thasos, where just about everybody's swarthy, she stood out like an honest man in parliament.

A fellow in a skirt and tights said something in Lokrian. Seeing us look blank, he tried again in Hassocki: "You're... circus people?"

Hassocki I speak--a lot better than he did, in fact. They beat it into you when you join their army. "Of course not, sir," I answered politely, adding my best bow. "We're in the chicken-giblet business. I can give you a fine bargain on gizzards."

It didn't faze him. Nothing much fazes Lokrians--either that or they start pitching fits. He jerked a thumb at Ilona. "Sell me her giblets."

"What does he say?" she demanded. Without waiting for an answer, she called the Lokrian something that made what she'd said before sound like love poetry. That didn't faze him, either. He swept off his broad-brimmed straw hat and bowed almost double. She turned her back on him. Considering some Lokrians' tastes, that might have been ill- advised. But this fellow just sighed and went on his way.

Such is the glamorous, romantic life of a circus performer. Makes you want to run away and join, doesn't it?

Actually going out and performing is always a relief. You may hate traveling. You may hate shilling (although nobody in his right mind hates Albionese shillings--they're the soundest money in the world). But if you hate performing, you wouldn't be out there in the first place.

With the usual jitters, I watched the crowd filter into the tent. If the house is lousy, the owners have an excuse for stiffing the crew. Of course, the owners will try to stiff the crew if the house is full, too--especially if they're Dooger and Cark--but at least then you know you're getting screwed.

Things looked pretty good. The portable stands on either side of the ring were filling up. Roustabouts steered Lokrians to one side, Hassocki to the other. Why borrow trouble? You get plenty even when you don't borrow it.

Hassocki complained they couldn't see the lions as well as they wanted to. Lokrians complained they couldn't see the clowns as well as they wanted to. Everybody complained about how much we charged for wine and pistachios. Hassocki aren't supposed to drink even a drop of wine. That doesn't stop them, or not very often. They flick out a drop from a cup, as if to say, There, I didn't drink that one, and then they go on. Sometimes I think they enjoy wine more because they don't just get drunk--they get to feel guilty, too.

Out swaggered the ringmaster, in an outfit that would have made an Albionese duke at a coronation feel underdressed: top hat, tailcoat, white tie, knee breeches with silver buckles, shining white hose, and patent-leather cambridges with even bigger silver buckles. And Ludovic had a whip--how can you be a ringmaster without a whip?--and he had waxed mustachios just as black and just about as long. Ludovic is a piece of work, all right.

Copyright © 2005 by Harry Turtledove


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