Ian and the House of Straw
by Anta Baku
Part 23 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read Part 1)
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Look, I really was just trying to compliment Beth’s pyjamas. I know it’s intimate, but when somebody’s sleeping on your couch, you can’t help seeing their pyjamas, and Beth had the nicest pair I’d ever seen. Sure, it didn’t hurt that it was her body inside them, but I didn’t say that. I might have thought it really loud, though.
She let that go by just like every one of my previous clumsy attempts at innuendo. Even though, like I said, this really wasn’t one. I just really thought her pyjamas were nice. They were a rich blue-green and looked both warm and comfortable, and even after a full night’s sleep they never got out of place or wrinkled.
Not that I was looking at them every morning hoping they would get out of place. But if I had, I would have been disappointed. Though they clung to her body so well that I didn’t have a lot of reason to be.
I don’t think I’m really getting my message across consistently here. I thought the pyjamas were nice and I said so. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. And if it bothered her, she didn’t mention it. She just told me where I could get a pair.
“I got them from the Empire,” she said. “Maybe even the same designer who made that blue thing you were wearing.”
The very large blue thing that was currently eating all of my closet space., because I worried that I might have to go back. There had to be some way to get the Empire to stand up to the invasion of the Pig Merchants’ Guild, but I had no luck.
“I learned a lot about pyjamas in the Empire,” said Beth. “I was even the Imperial Pyjama Warden for a while.”
“Wait, you were the pyjama warden?” I said.
“Yes, I was,” she said. “Until I told the Emperor something he didn’t want to hear, and they kicked me out.”
I wasn’t awake yet, but this new information was making connections in my head. “I heard about you,” I said. “They’re still talking about you in the Empire.”
“How is that possible?” said Beth. “I was only the pyjama warden for a few days. I didn’t do anything important.”
“They seem to think you saved the entire garment industry,” I said. She just looked baffled. “And they basically run the country. I think if you went back there you could get anything you asked for.”
“I guess if you look at it from their point of view, that might be what happened,” said Beth. “But I was fired very definitively. I didn’t think I could go back.”
“It might be the one place left in Fairyland that you can go,” I said. “Richard’s influence keeps growing, and you know he has it out for you. But he hasn’t taken over the Empire yet.”
“And if I go there, maybe I can get them to defend themselves,” she said.
“It’s worth a try.”
So Beth got dressed fancier than I’d ever seen her and went to the Empire, to use her notoriety as best she could to convince them to stand up to the army of the Pig Merchants’ Guild. But the blue costume stayed in my closet, because I didn’t have time to accompany her. I was behind in the competition to acquire the most cell phone towers, and time was running short. So was space.
There weren’t a lot of kingdoms left that weren’t under the control of either the Empire or the Guild, and Booker had both of those sewn up. At least, he had the Imperial contract sewn up. He didn’t seem to be making as much progress within the Guild as I had been expecting, given that he was working with them now. I shouldn’t have been anywhere close to his score at that point, but the pigs just weren’t putting up towers for him, and that kept me in the game.
There was one significant place left that hadn’t taken a position in the conflict. The expanding empire of the Guild was on one side of Fairyland’s biggest lake, and the Empire was on the other. But in the lake there was an island kingdom, just trying to protect themselves and stay out of the fighting. They didn’t have cell service yet, and I was determined to be the one to bring it to them. Of course, I expected Booker to have the same idea. With war imminent, this might be the last chance either of us had to make progress in the competition, and I meant to get a last-minute come-from-behind victory.
So of course Booker beat me there again. I don’t know how he does it. He always seems to be one step ahead, and I have a sneaking feeling that it might be because he’s just better at this than I am. But being first doesn’t always mean being best, and I was determined not to let him beat me this time.
We were met by the Prince-Consort, who seemed eager to meet us. That was a surprising change from the usual situation in Fairyland. But the island kingdom was unusual in many ways.
“I haven’t been to a country that has both a Prince and a Prince-Consort before,” I said.
“Oh, yes, we’re very modern here,” he said. “And please call me Harry.”
“Thank you, Harry,” said Booker. “It’s always nice to hear that. You’ll be wanting to ensure that you have the best cell-phone service available.”
“Oh, we definitely will,” said Harry. “But there’s something else we need even more than that right now. Something I hope you can help us with.” He was leading us down to the harbor, not into the castle. I couldn’t predict why.
“I’m always happy to help in any way I can, of course,” said Booker. I thought he was laying it on a little bit thick, but I suppose with me standing right there he was nervous about his standing in the competition. It was good to know I had him worried.
“So am I,” I said. “Our company prides itself on the highest standards of service. I have more experience supporting customers both inside and outside of Fairyland.”
“I heard that you two were in some sort of competition,” said Harry. “So I thought I’d set you a challenge.” He had brought us to a long dock with just about the last thing I expected to see in Fairyland: a half-dozen seaplanes. They looked to be antiques, from the interwar period, maybe. And they looked to be armed.
“You really are modern,” I said. “In a way, anyway.”
“We’re not afraid of metal here,” said Harry. “Why, I used to be called Iron Harry, when the Prince and I were traveling in exile. We want to use everything we can from your world, especially now when we need to be so concerned with our own defense. That’s why we purchased these airplanes.”
Maybe they weren’t afraid of metal, but somehow they’d ended up with wooden-framed airplanes. I wondered if they’d bought them that way on purpose, if someone from the real world had assumed those were the only planes he could sell in Fairyland, or if they’d just had a bunch of replicas offloaded on them because they were naïve enough not to know how outdated they were. But I couldn’t think of any way to ask the question. And even if they were obsolete, if they were the only air force in Fairyland they would be very effective.
“The problem is,” said Harry, “we were able to purchase the planes, but we weren’t able to convince any of your pilots to move here to operate them.” Not really a surprise, since only re-enactment pilots would be qualified, and they undoubtedly weren’t interested in coming into a Fairyland war. If he was going to ask us to find him pilots, I had no idea how I was going to do that. Maybe some current small-plane pilots could figure out how to operate one of these things, and as long as there weren’t any fighters on the other side they’d be safe enough. But finding more than one or two curious enough to try it out was going to be a challenge.
Harry had an extra twist to it, though. “We have it on good authority that pigs make the best seaplane pilots,” he said. “So whichever one of you can find the most pigs willing to fly our planes will get the contract.”
Great. It seems like everywhere I go, Booker has the advantage. He had the entire Pig Merchants’ Guild available to him, if not quite at his command. And I had bupkis. Booker grinned and shook Harry’s hand, anxious to get away as quickly as possible and start recruiting from his pig friends. I stuck around a little longer, left a little slower, because I had no idea where I was going to start looking for pigs who wouldn’t arrest me on sight.
Of course, there’s always the obvious answer. There was one set of pigs who were too busy building new houses for themselves to join the Guild, and I knew just where to find them. I just had to hope three would be enough.
The first pig, as you might expect, was building his house out of straw. But someone had taught him how to weave wooden strips into it and pack the whole thing together with mud, and he was getting a pretty nice wattle-and-daub construction out of it. Sure, it wasn’t a modern house, but as archaic buildings go, it looked both comfortable and sturdy.
He was almost done, and willing to entertain the idea of making his next project learning to be a seaplane pilot.
“I just need my house to be secure,” he said. “If you can keep those big bad wolves away, the ones who keep threatening to blow my house down and eat me, then I could go away and learn to do something else. With the new materials coming in from the World of Chaos, there’s not much call for straw-building skills anymore.”
That seemed fair to me, and I didn’t think there was any chance of his house being blown down by anything short of a jet engine exhaust. I didn’t have to stick around very long before a voice came from outside.
“Li’l pig, li’l pig, won’t you please let me in?” it cried. The cadence was odd, and slightly familiar. The voice was reedy and high, definitely not what I would have imagined from a big bad wolf.
“Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin,” yelled the pig.
“You’re clean-shaven,” I observed.
“It’s a traditional response,” said the pig. “It doesn’t really mean anything.”
The small voice called again from outside. “I’ll huff and puff and blow your house, um, in.” It didn’t have a lot of confidence.
“I’m going out there,” I said to the pig. “I don’t think that voice is any threat.”
So I boldly thrust open the door to face the villain outside, only to find a blonde boy about half my size. It was kind of a waste of a dramatic moment. I didn’t care how much he huffed and puffed, he’d have a hard time blowing the seeds off a dandelion.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” I said.
“My name is Richard,” said the boy. “Soon to be a wolf.”
“I don’t think you’re going to become a wolf,” I said, although I had seen weirder things in Fairyland.
“By species no, but Big Bad Wolf’s a job,” said the boy in his strange singsong cadence. I was remembering where I’d seen him before.
“You’re the Duke of York,” I said.
“A name by which my uncle sought my death,” he said. Which was true. I had been there. But things got mixed up, and the elder Richard went to the pigs while the Princes were kidnapped. By the Big Bad Wolf, in fact.
“So now you’re threatening pigs for a living?” I said.
“I am apprenticed to the Big Bad Wolf,” said the Duke.
“I don’t mean to spoil it for you,” I said. “But you are neither big nor bad, and you don’t make much of a wolf. You’d better come with me instead.”
So I took him away with me. The pig with the straw house was relieved, and agreed to meet me at the island. The Duke and I went on to the next house, although I already had a suspicion of what I would find.
The pig who was building his house out of sticks had put up a simple but strong A-frame and was tricking it out with gingerbread decorations. The decorative style, not the baked good. In Fairyland you have to be sure to specify, because gingerbread houses can be as sleek and modern as anything else. These were fiddly decorations all around the edges, but made of wood.
This pig was clearly getting bored, and he was openly enthusiastic about the idea of getting out of there and learning to fly a seaplane.
“I can’t just leave my house alone, though,” he said. “There are big bad wolves always trying to destroy it.”
Again I didn’t have to wait very long before a threat came from outside. “Li’l pig, li’l pig, won’t you please let me in?” The cadence was familiar, but at least the voice was a little bit deeper this time.
“Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin,” said the pig, who didn’t have any more of a beard than the previous one.
I just went ahead out the door while the boy was giving his next line. “I’ll blow and blow and puff your house away!” he said confidently if a little bit off-script. Then he was startled to see me come out, with his brother trailing behind me, probably the only person in Fairyland this kid was bigger and badder than.
“You’re the Prince of Wales,” I said.
“My name is Edward now,” he said. “to save my life.”
“Yes, I know all about your uncle,” I said. “He’s taking over Fairyland and I’m trying to fight him.”
“I’m learning how to be a Big Bad Wolf,” he said.
“You’re not very good at it,” I said. “You were better at being Princes. Maybe you could help me beat your uncle and be Princes again.”
“The Wolf would never let us leave his care,” said the Prince.
“Leave that to me,” I said. “I think I know where to find him.”
This pig with the A-frame house not only agreed to meet me at the island, but was willing to take the Princes along with him. I was happier with the idea of taking on the Big Bad Wolf without them in tow. And who knew where their loyalties lay, anyway.
So I moved on by myself to the house of bricks, which honestly was probably the weakest of the three on an architectural level. It didn’t have much in the way of structure, and I wasn’t sure there was anything holding it together but mortar. I couldn’t have huffed and puffed and blown it down, but I wasn’t sure pushing hard in the right place wouldn’t do the job just fine. It hadn’t been built to handle shear stress at all.
It didn’t matter, though, because the pig was out on the front porch serving tea to the Big Bad Wolf. They were chatting happily like nobody there had ever even thought of wanting to eat anyone else present.
“We’ve been talking about a truce,” the pig explained. “There’s no point in us rebuilding our houses and him getting stuck in chimneys over and over.”
“I hate chimneys,” said the wolf, who at least sounded like I thought a Big Bad Wolf ought to. I mean, more whiny, but the voice was deep and rough.
“And I’d be straw next time through the rotation,” said the pig. “What’s the point of that? You know you’re going to lose the house. It’s just a waste of time.”
“So we’ve agreed on terms,” said the wolf.
“Mostly,” said the pig.
“We’ve agreed in principle,” said the wolf. “I just need to find some way to provide for my apprentices.”
“I think I have the answer to that,” I said.
So I helped them finish out their treaty, and they both agreed to help me overthrow Richard and get the Princes their positions back. The brick house pig wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea of flying a plane, but he agreed to come along to the island and see how it went. The wolf told me he’d meet me back at my apartment, which was a little bit disturbing, later, when I realized that implied he already knew where it was.
I took the brick house pig to the island, where the other two were waiting for us, along with the Princes. I sent Wales and York off to get a sandwich or something, on the theory that I didn’t really want Booker to know I’d found them again. He’d be obligated to tell Richard, and then where was the element of surprise? The pigs and I went down to the docks, just hoping that three would somehow be enough.
And amazingly, it was. Booker, with the entire population of the Pig Merchants’ Guild to choose from, had only managed to come up with two pigs who had any interest in flying at all. And he was cranky about it.
“There’s no sense of adventure in these pigs,” he said. “They’re all afraid of heights. Or small spaces. Or engines. Or air. There were a bunch of them who were afraid of air, Ian.”
“That’s just too bad,” I said. “Maybe your new friends aren’t as strong as they think.”
“They don’t have to be strong, they just have to be driven,” said Booker. “And Richard is driving them. They’re going to take over all of Fairyland.”
“Not if I can stop them,” I said.
“Come on,” he said. “You don’t have a chance. You’ll never be able to win.”
“That’s what they said about the promotion competition, too,” I said. “And look at me now. After this, I’ll be ahead and I don’t think you have time to catch me.”
“I’m still better than you,” said Booker.
“Probably,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind while I’m giving you orders.”
He just growled at that and stalked away. “Bad manners in that one,” said Harry.
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s only smooth as long as he thinks it can get him something he wants.”
“I suppose you’ve won the competition,” he said. “But there are only five pigs here, and we have six planes. What are we going to do about the other one?”
“Oh,” I said. “I have an idea about that. Wait just a minute.”
So the island air force got itself a Duke of York to lead it against the forces of the Guild. I didn’t have to drag him there from the coffeehouse. He was as excited about flying, and careless of danger, as any modern kid. The hard part was keeping his brother from pulling rank and taking his place.
“Why do you keep me from the joys of flight?” said the Prince of Wales. “I would prefer to fight them in the air.”
“You can’t,” I said. “We have a bigger job to do. You and I are going to a council of war.”
Part 24 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is Ian and the Call to War.
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