In the fourth book in the Princelings series, Lord Mariusz of Hattan narrates, in his own Chandler-esque style, how he came to explore the world on the end of the time tunnel, and why he adopted the pseudonym Hugo in the first place.
In the Princelings world of 2001 we meet old friends as their much younger selves. You think Victor is cute? You should see him eight years younger – “a bundle of flying legs and hair”! Prince Lupin is much as he ever is, but Baden has yet to escape the succession wars at Castle Powell. Saku is, of course, well established as Lord Mariusz’s ingenious professor at Castle Hattan, but we find he knows more about the workings of time than we imagined. The Honourable Smallweed is only getting started on the trail of deceit and meanness that will characterise all his future dealings. And we journey to new places, Sowerby, Powell, and a strange city full of females, hidden in a forest. We also discover that stories of ghouls, ghosts, vampires and werewolves are not just tales to frighten children after all.
It was a long steamy August day, and I was stretched out on the silk sheet that the Rajah had given me in India to seal our agreement on the rights to produce Wozna Cola over there. It was cool in my apartment, well, if you could call anything cool with the dial topping 100 outside. The water dripped over the stones just like the Rajah’d showed me, and I felt a slight shift in the air as someone entered through the fly screen.
“My lord,” came a squeaky voice that I knew would be Squeak. We called him that for obvious reasons, and however hard he tried to change his voice, it still came out as a squeak. I beckoned him over. “There’s something strange in the courtyard, sire,” he said.
I didn’t much like being called “sire”. It seemed to hark back to the olden days of knights and things. I thought we were past all that, here in the great city of Hattan with its shining towers and modern technology that had made my dad’s fortune. Mine too, come to think of it. I stretched a little and said “What” in a lazy sort of way.
“You’d better come and see, sire,” was all he said.
I frowned but decided Squeak knew better than to disturb me on this sort of day, at this sort of hour, for no reason. I got to my feet and went to the doorway. I paused and looked out to give my eyes a chance to adapt to the glare outside. I could feel the floor humming beneath my feet, a sign that the production line was in full swing. The great thing about these kinds of days was that everyone would be gasping for a nice cool Wozna when they finished work, and if they couldn’t get the real one, they could go for the new diet kind. Wozna Diet was the New Thing in Town. All the Hattanites wanted it, and we were at full stretch to supply them.
I stepped out through the screen and saw people hanging around in the yard. A few of them stopped lounging as I came out of the shadows; a few stood back from the far wall that Squeak was leading me to, to let me pass, and then crowded in behind me, hoping to overhear anything I said.
The professor was standing next to the wall, gesturing at it and muttering under his breath. He was a brilliant person to be sure, but on another planet sometimes. Had he flipped? Was that the problem?
“Ah, Lord Mariusz,” he said, “I felt it was best we should call you, alert you to this manifestation. Please accept my apologies for disturbing your rest.”
I nodded. He was a bright guy, but sometimes it took a while to get through to the meaning of what he wanted to tell you. What exactly was a “manifestation”? I knew better than to ask as the meaning would become clearer quicker if I said nothing. He stopped waving his hands about and stepped back. A hole had appeared in the wall, an entrance hole, neatly lined with an arch of bricks as if it had always been part of the structure. It hadn’t been there the last time I’d walked past. I could guarantee it hadn’t been there, not that I hadn’t seen it.
“This arch appears to have appeared in the wall overnight,” said the professor.
I nodded, chewing my lip. That certainly summed up the situation all right. I stepped forward and took a look inside. There was a little string of blue-white twinkly lights like a ribbon round the tunnel about six feet inside, and beyond that it was dark. I stepped back.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Um, I’m sorry to say I have no idea,” stammered the professor, “nor do I know how it got there.”
“Like yesterday it wasn’t there and today it is?” I asked, looking around at the others. “Who first saw it and when?”
One of the guards shuffled forward. He was an apology for a guard really, brown and weedy looking, like one of my nephews twice removed that had to be given a job somewhere to stop his mother scrounging off me.
“Well?” I asked, not expecting much coherence in his reply. I wasn’t disappointed. It had been there at dawn when he came on his shift. No one had seen it arrive. It hadn’t been there last night.
I spoke to the duty officer and made sure that a search for strangers was carried out, including the process plant. We couldn’t afford industrial espionage, nor could we let strangers wander around our castle. I told the professor to check over every inch of the plant to make sure that sabotage had not been attempted. He looked shocked. The world was a benign place to Saku – the world he lived in anyway, the benevolence stemming mainly from me.
Back in the relative cool of my apartment I mulled over the tunnel, if that was what it was. Where had it come from and where did it lead to? I sent for one of my trusted aides, a sturdy guy named Willow, veteran of many of our campaigns that are best kept quiet. He slid in as if he’d been waiting for the call.
“Yes, boss?” was all he said.
I was inclined to send him down the tunnel to find where it led, but I was equally intrigued and wanted to have a bit of adventure myself. I’d been sorting cola production and sales for too long this year; it would do me good to have a change of scene.
“Does this tunnel come out somewhere else in the castle?”
He shook his head. “I looked all over, Boss.” I knew I could trust him to have looked already. Some of my guys would tell you anything they thought you wanted to hear. You could always tell. They didn’t last long, even when they were second cousins.
I wandered over to the window and looked out at the shimmering city below, the rivers in the distance like golden mirrors in the sunlight. Send Willow or go myself? Let’s just test it, I thought.
“Ok,” I said, turning back to the cool of the room and picking up a can of Wozna. “I want you to go through the tunnel and find out where it comes out. If it takes longer than an hour to come out anywhere, come back. I’ll expect you back here within two hours. No search party.”
He nodded and left. It was good to know you had some people like that, no questions, just action, with enough brain to use a little initiative but not too much.
I returned to the silk sheet and sipped my Wozna. Two hours would fly by.
There was a knock at the entrance. What now, I thought, but called them in anyway.
Willow walked in. Unlike him to have questions on a simple assignment, I thought.
“Urr, what?” I asked.
“I went, I came back. The tunnel was still a tunnel after an hour,” Willow replied.
“Whada’ya mean?” I asked. “You only just left!”
Willow looked at me.
“I thought I got some odd looks as I walked across the yard,” he said, which was the longest sentence I’d heard from him in years. “I went in, it all went strange. I kept walking, it was a dark tunnel. I came back.”
“Sort of lights, whooshing, feeling light, then dark tunnel, solid ground again.”
He stood there solidly, matter-of-fact, steady as always. Like I said, it’s good to know you have people like him. He’d not been away more than a minute, but he’d been away two hours. How long could you be away and still be back a minute later? It was almost like time travel. I had to have a piece of this!
I thought for a few minutes. There was nothing I needed to do in the next few days. If I went away for however long it took to find the end of the tunnel I might still be back a minute later. Even if two hours meant one minute and twenty hours meant ten minutes I could still be away for days and nothing important would happen here in my absence.
I waved Willow over to the seat by the water fountain and called an aide.
“Get me provisions for a two-day journey including negotiables and water. Now,” I added. I checked myself over in a mirror. A dark face looked back at me with black brooding eyes. A regal countenance. Black hair with a distinguished white flash. A fit guy, well built, looked like he could handle trouble. Smart black coat, with a nifty white stripe on the side and over the back that went into a snazzy Zorro mark. One black foot, one white, nails neatly trimmed. Well groomed with a touch of class. Yeah, presentable for any occasion, I thought.
“I’m going to take a look,” I said to Willow. “If I’m not back in half an hour you follow me. With luck I won’t be more than three days ahead of you, wherever we’re going, and you should be able to pick up my trail. Ok?”
He nodded. Good ol’ reliable.
The aide came back with my provisions. I stepped out into the midday heat, crossed over to the archway, and entered the cool of the tunnel. I turned and looked at my subjects looking at me.
“Be back in a few minutes,” I said, turned again and walked forward towards the string of lights.
Copyright© Jemima Pett. All rights reserved.