The bookshelves ate up most sounds during the daytime. But at night, every small noise was echoed and amplified.
It seemed that way, at least. Two knights stood guard on the other side of the enormous cherrywood door to this place, and Crush could hear their armor rattle every time they shifted their weight. He never took notice of that kind of thing in daylight hours. There was something unnerving about being all alone in an enemy city’s library, long after everyone but the watchmen were asleep.
He gave no real thought to escape, though; his plan took a different tack. Hour after hour, he mechanically flipped pages under the light of a hovering green powerball, scanning the last written chapters about side after doomed side.
Most of those unfortunate people had known their end was near. Rulers usually made some final gesture of defiance (spending their treasury on city upgrades), or desperation (hiring natural allies, casters, or mercenaries) or capitulation (signing a contract of surrender). But Crush was only looking for cases where the side hadn’t been aware of their imminent demise. He’d gathered up a stack of good examples to hold onto.
Glancing at the pile, it seemed he had nearly enough now. Still, there must be a perfect case in here, somewhere.
A distant sound caught his attention: a human voice (not a pretty one) and the slapping of leather soles on stone. Someone was walking through the halls, humming. No, singing...
With a gaping hole torn in the tush,
The better to receive a push!
The sissy King of Squashcourt!
Now Scrofula was sorely vexed
But t’was nothing to what happened next
To the drunken, brainless, oversexed,
And useless King of Squashcourt!
His angry subjects gathered ‘round
To stomp his scepter to the ground.
But the little-bitty thing could not be fooooound...
At this point, the latch to the library door rattled, and the door swung inward. A small, grinning man in a checkered cotton nightshirt stood in the doorway. His wild eyes darted and flashed in the yellow light of the powerball he carried. Crush wouldn’t have recognized his face out of makeup and costume, but the nasally voice was unmistakable; he was the King’s fool.
“Oh, lucky King of Squaaashcourt!” sang the man. His high voice was a hurled brick, smashing through the reverent silence of the library. “There are eleven other verses, but you look like you’ve had enough. Are you the prisoner from, ah, ahh... Where are you from?”
The fool clumped the door shut and wandered into the room.
“Firstpost,” said Crush, not rising to his feet. He wasn’t sure what to make of the courtier’s sudden appearance here, but maybe the fool could give him some news. Crush hadn’t seen anyone but his guards today.
The fool strode up to the table where Crush sat behind a fortress of books. “I’m sorry...”
“I said, Firstpo—”
“I heard you,” said the fool, “and I said I’m sorry. You’re never going to make a weapon and armor out of those,” the little man said, pointing at the books. “It’d be minus a million against fire attacks, for one thing.”
Crush raised his eyebrows. “Thank you. I’ll be sure to take all my battle advice from fools, henceforth.”
“Oh how the world would be, if only every warlord would!” proclaimed the fool, as he clambered up to the tabletop and sat cross-legged on a pile of Crush’s notes. The man picked up a book from the top of the “keeper” stack and waved it in the air. “Imagine. These books would tell the tales of when great armies met upon the field of battle, engaging with down pillows and buckets of ice water! Hurling pies and insults until one side lost their sense of humor about it and went home crying. That would be a sight, would...it...not?”
Crush had to agree it would be a sight. “Can I help you with something, um... fool?”
“It’s ‘Dunkin.’ Dunkin McClown of the Clan McClown.”
“There’s a Clan McClown?”
“I am the only member,” shrugged the fool. “Unless you wanna join?”
“I don’t think clans work that way,” said Crush, leaning back and scratching his wrists where the sweat under his shackles itched. He wondered how many hours it was until dawn.
“Eh, says you,” said Dunkin. “Anyway, yes. Yes, you can help me, Warlord Crush. You are a problem, and that’s funny. I am in the funny business.”
“For the King! You bother him. You didn’t do what he brought you here for, and that has him seriously horked off. And that is funny.” The fool put the book down on the wrong pile and leaned forward. “I need some new jokes. About you.”
Crush raised his shackles up and showed them. “King Scrofula is a little more of a problem for me than I am for him, I think.”
Dunkin laughed, his mouth hanging open obnoxiously. “That’s good! That’s good, I’ll use that. Very nice.”
Crush picked up the book that the fool had moved, and placed it atop the precious stack of good examples.
The fool watched with a twinkle in his eye. “It goes there, does it?”
Dunkin shifted on the pile of notes, crinkling the papers under his rear end. “How come?”
Crush shrugged. All day long he had wanted some company in here, someone to talk to. Now he was reconsidering his wish.
“There are two schools of thought on you,” said Dunkin, folding his little fingers and adopting a serious, academic expression. “Scrofula thinks you’re a genius, and Prince Axe thinks you’re a wart on a war pig’s poop hole. Which is it?”
Crush could only shake his head and look around at his situation. “I couldn’t tell you.”
The fool picked up the book again and opened it in his lap. “Why does this book go here? It seems very important to you.”
The Chief looked blearily at the little fool. “Those books are meant to make a point.”
“Oh yeah? What point?”
Crush sighed. For whatever reason, he didn’t feel like being cagey about it. “That stable alliances of more than three sides generally fall to an outside entity. The outsider makes friends with one of the member sides.” Crush leaned forward and put his hands on the table. “But it never goes well for the side that breaks the alliance. They almost always get wiped out.”
Dunkin tilted his head and gave a lopsided grin. “You’re gonna tell Scrofula he screwed up!”
“Essentially,” said Crush. “There’s a historical inevitability to this scenar—”
“Ahahaha!” bellowed the fool with laughter. “Good luck! Good luck, sucker! Hahahaha!”
Dawn came, and with it a better plan than the one Crush had been counting on.
“Look, he’s got his pride. He’s about 90 percent pride,” Dunkin had told him. “And 10 percent farts. The King has the most Titans-awful, rancid ale farts you ever smelt. Seriously, like an outhouse caught fire and exploded. Anyway, you don’t ever tell a man like that he’s made a huge mistake. He will double all his bets, just to show you.”
“He is wrong,” said Crush. He reached over and touched the stack of keepers. “I can show him.”
“You can’t show him nothing. Only person that could ever stand up to him was Prince Racket. Scrofula’s full of dumb ideas, and Racket was always telling him, ‘No. No way. Are you an idiot?’ Which, of course, he is.”
Crush couldn’t tell how much of what Dunkin was saying was true, and how much was just him playing his role as court jester. Firstpost had a fool as well, but she wasn’t as relentlessly vicious about the Queen as Dunkin was about his ruler.
“Yes,” nodded Crush. “I feel like I am here because he wants a replacement for Prince Racket.”
Dunkin made a sour face and looked skeptically at the prisoner. “But you never could. You’re too calm.”
“Well...maybe I should stand up to him. Get mad and yell at him,” said Crush. “He needs someone to tell him no, right? I could definitely do that.”
Dunkin repeated the sour face and added a head shake. “Nah, he’d never take it, coming from you. Had to be Racket. Racket could yell. Racket was louder than anyone. Of course, he...” The fool’s face went slack and distant for just a moment, then he waved his hand dismissively. “Nah, never mind.”
“Seems very important to you,” said Crush, leaning forward to hit the fool back with his own persistence.
Dunkin shrugged. “Well, maybe he didn’t take it from Racket, either. You know what I’m saying?”
“The Prince got ambushed while traveling alone. Racket was a tough fighter. They never found whatever ferals did him in.” For once, Dunkin looked very serious indeed. “We have only Scrofula’s word about what happened.”
“You think he...disbanded his own son, and lied about it?”
Dunkin shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first ruler in history to do that.”
Crush looked at the stacks of books and knew that to be true. All too true, in fact. “Then what do we do? I don’t think you want what’s coming to Squashcourt any more than I want the Union to be conquered.”
“Well,” said Dunkin, snapping back to life and rubbing his hands together. “You gotta give him a way out. Don’t just tell him he’s wrong, show him what to do instead. If at all possible, make him think it’s his idea.”
Crush actually did know roughly what Squashcourt should be doing: a classic double cross. Scrofula should negotiate with the Union to plan an ambush. If Squashcourt broke alliance and turned against Bullyclub in the middle of a key battle, then the four Union sides in concert could wipe Bullyclub off the map.
But he had no idea about the specifics.
“I’m going to need your help,” said Crush. “This is asking a lot. I need you to bring me battle maps, and all current intelligence on the entire war.”
The fool’s eyes widened. “You want me to commit treason?”
“If it saves your side, it’s not treason,” said Crush.
Dunkin shook his head. “I ain’t no commander. I can’t make a call like that. Duty just means I gotta report that you asked me to do it.”
“No, you’re the court fool,” said Crush. “So you do it to ‘hork off’ the King. It’s what you live for.”
Dunkin McClown blinked a few times, then grinned. “Trudat.”