Ian and the Lost Princes

by Anta Baku

Part 9 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read Part 1)

The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is also available in paperback, Kindle and Kindle Unlimited from Amazon.com.  


Subtle, false, and treacherous. That was what I thought of my new trainee, Booker, who I had invited into my home, offered my hospitality, and who repaid me by becoming better friends with my roommate than I could ever be. Harp had been living with me for a few months at that point, since I rescued her from Fairyland, or at least helped her get out from under an unreasonable employment contract. 

She’s an excellent roommate, since she doesn’t eat, sleep, or take up much space. Harp’s not just her name, it’s what she is, a magic harp who used to work for a weather-controlling giant. She lives on my kitchen table, and the only resource she ever uses a problematic amount of is my internet bandwidth. But I’ve got a pretty good deal on that since I work for a mobile service provider. Well, an OK deal, anyway.

She seemed to like living with me, too, although it’s possible she would have thought that about anyone willing to let her live in the real world and spend as much time online as she liked. But we didn’t have much in common, or much to talk about. She knew more about Fairyland than anyone, and was a great source of information when I needed it, but she didn’t want to talk about those things if she didn’t have to. She wanted to talk about internet memes, and politics, and hockey, and why would a living harp want to talk about hockey? I only know enough about hockey to get by living in Minnesota. I’m sure we could be good this year if only the goaltending holds up. 

I hadn’t seen any sign that Booker knew anything about hockey either, so I figured he’d get along with Harp about as well as I did. But the week he started work for me was also the week that Harp got obsessed with theater. She caught a streaming performance of Hamilton somewhere, and followed the recommendations from there, and pretty soon had watched every musical she could find on the internet, and most of the regular plays as well. She was reading criticism. I never thought I’d live with someone who thinks it’s a good use of their time to read theater criticism. Then again I never thought I’d live with anyone who reads a hundred thousand times as fast as I do, either.

Booker thought it was a good idea. In fact, Booker thought it was a great idea, and wanted to spend hours with her talking about the minutiae of staging and casting decisions. At my kitchen table. My apartment isn’t big enough that it would have been comfortable to have a human roommate. Having Harp living there only worked because she didn’t take up much space. Having Booker around constantly really made it feel cramped. Besides, we were supposed to be working. I introduced him to Harp so that she could help him learn about Fairyland, not so that she would distract him. I tried, at least, to turn the subject back toward our actual job.

“Is there anything in these plays that would make a good place for a cell phone tower?”

Booker looked at me like he was surprised I was even there. “You think these things exist in Fairyland?” he asked.

“They’re myths, aren’t they?” I said. “Most of them, anyway.”

“Some of them are,” said Booker. “You could get to The Nutcracker or The Magic Flute or Midsummer Night’s Dream. I don’t know about things that are closer to reality.”

“If you think you can get there, you can get there,” said Harp.

“Have you seen any of these things?” I asked.

“Sometimes I see things in plays that I recognize,” she said. “But it’s hard to tell if that’s because the play exists in Fairyland or because the thing that exists in Fairyland inspired the play.”

“Why not test it?” said Booker, who is always ready to just try things. It will make him a good negotiator, if he survives.

“How?” I said. “Pick something real that exists in a play and see if we can get there in Fairyland?”

“That seems like a good idea,” said Booker. “We just need to think of something tall and solid.”

“How about the Tower of London?” said Harp.

It was Booker who got us there. All I remember about the play is something about a miserable winter, and thinking that surely England has never known a winter as deserving of discontent as our average one here in Minnesota. Anyway, when we got there it was late spring, so I have no idea what that dude was on about. A few trees were still blooming, but most of them had finished, and the city had gone to green, while the streets were full of dried-up blossoms. It was as far away as winter ever could be. 

The Tower of London isn’t much of a tower from right outside it. We had arrived right at the gate, which was an imposing display of stone guard towers, but they weren’t all that tall, and we couldn’t see anything above them. Booker, who apparently had been to the real London, said there was more on the inside, and it looked better from farther away. Lots of castles are like that, even in Fairyland, but I was expecting something a little more dramatic. It wouldn’t matter how tall it was inside if we couldn’t pass the outer walls. 

We had just determined that the gate was closed to us when a party of people came along, a few men escorting two young boys, all dressed in expensive clothes. With the wall on one side of us, and the river on the other, there was no way to avoid them, so I stepped forward with Booker behind me. He may have known more, but this was my job. 

“Good morning to you, gentlemen,” I said. “Are you heading to the Tower?”

A middle-aged man stepped forward to meet me. “I am Lord Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain. My mandate to protect the Prince of Wales. How come you to the Tower of my Lord?”

“We seek access to the tower,” I said. “We wish to store our valuables there, and are willing to pay for the privilege.”

The youngest of the two boys joined the middle-aged lord. “The Tower surely holds all things secure. Our subjects must admit our Royal will has kept the kingdom’s gold from ill deceit.”

“Yet what the Tower holds from here today,” said Hastings, “must all the kingdom’s gold before be pale. These men who come before you to request this favor must acquire another place.”

“Yet all the highest treasures of the realm,” said the boy, “may hold the space alone that they are coin’d. The rest may be apportioned to the least.”

“I hear the wisdom of the Duke of York,” said Hastings, “But it should fail if Gloucester disapprove.”

“How do we find this man, then, Gloucester?” I asked.

“We left him but a moment on the road,” said the young man. “A swift pursuit may harry him as yet.”

I was ready to hurry, but Booker stopped to whisper something in Hastings’ ear before we departed. As we hurried along the riverside, the doors to the Tower opened and admitted their group. Once they were gone I asked Booker what he had done.

“The man we go to meet now is a villain,” said Booker. “Richard, Duke of Gloucester, soon to be King Richard III, after he has all those behind us killed.”

“All of them?”

“Hastings, and the two boys. The one you talked to was the Duke of York; his brother the Prince of Wales, soon to be crowned King Edward V, except Richard will prevent it.”

“So what did you tell Hastings?”

“That Richard would betray him yet this night, and to flee if he valued his life and the life of the Prince.”

“Will he do that?”

“I don’t know. In the play, he stands by the rights of the Prince, to death. But he doesn’t have a chance to do anything else. I wanted to give him that chance.”

I wanted to quiz him more, but we were approaching a single man, finely dressed but with a misshapen walk. We caught him up quickly, as he was anything but fast, and from the front he had the visage of an early Hollywood villain, bent by scoliosis and with the face of a man who shaped his pain into ambition and cruelty. I could believe that he would have such hearty men as Hastings and the princes killed without qualm. Even with relish. There was something in his eyes that belied my experience of disabled people in reality, and spoke more to a magical world where a crippled body was necessarily the avatar of a selfish and vindictive soul. People in Fairyland were healthy, unless the narrative demanded otherwise.

Booker took the lead this time. “My lord Gloucester,” he said. “I pray a moment of your valuable time.”

“My time perhaps is worth a bit of prayer,” he said. “Would that the Woodvilles felt so of my pantry. What would such travelers from afar request?”

“As you have sent to the Tower what most occupies your mind, so would we,” said Booker. “We wish only a small high place to hold our valuables secure, and would gladly give compensation.”

He considered for a moment. “Tomorrow come to see me in my hall,” he said. “The road is not the place for schemes of trade.”

I didn’t think this deal was so complicated to deserve being called a scheme, but I was just as glad to have an excuse to get out of there. The way they all talked was bothering me, and so was the way Booker seemed to be starting to emulate it. Besides, I wanted to talk to my sister about all of this before we started changing anything else.

Anna is my oldest sister, and she’s always been the one I go to when I want to know something about books. She lives by herself in a three-bedroom apartment in a West Bank high-rise, one that’s decorated entirely with bookshelves. Some of them are books related to her job as a professor of English Literature at the University, but just as many are there purely because she likes books. She’s the one who would always read to me when I was little, and who was disappointed when I turned out not to be interested in reading very much beyond what I had to for school. 

Anna lived at home for college, and while she was working on her Master’s. So even though she’s a lot older than I am, we lived together for most of my childhood. While Diana and Pol were dating, and partying, and figuring out what they were doing with their lives, Anna stayed home, read books, wrote papers, and watched the baby brother. She moved into her own place about the time I started to be interested in dating and partying, so we never really got to know each other as people. To me she was the quiet sister with the big stack of books. To her I was probably the clumsy little kid who knocked over her stacks of books.

So even though we lived together for so long, we don’t really know how to talk to each other about anything. I’m not sure Anna talks very much to anyone, in fact. The rest of the family seems annoyed that they never hear anything about her personal life, and they keep pestering her about it without success. I figure if she doesn’t want things to be my business, they probably aren’t. So I just talk to her about books. Maybe that’s why she always seems happy to see me. 

I called ahead so she knew I was coming, which of course meant that she would have a cheese board ready for me. She’s got a nice little nook for two people to sit and talk in her living room, surrounded by all those bookshelves to make it cozy, with two armchairs and a coffee table. And unless you take her by surprise, that coffee table is going to have various cheeses and weird little jams on it when you arrive. She likes weird little jams almost as much as she likes books. That’s a taste that she developed as an adult, so I always associate cheeses and jams with going to Anna’s house. I tend to take cheeses as they come, but at Anna’s they come full of flavor, and in types I’ve never encountered anywhere else. I’m not sure if it makes everyone feel like family, or just me, because I am. 

“I want to know about Richard III,” I said, after the usual small talk had finished.

“The king, or the play?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “The play, for sure, but maybe I met the king, too?”

“Met him?”

“In Fairyland. We’re learning that we can get to all sorts of made-up places, not just fairy tales.”

“So you went and met Richard III? I don’t think that would have been my choice.”

“I didn’t really choose,” I said. I explained about Harp and Booker having the idea and dragging me along.

“All right,” she said. “The man you met. Did he have a hunchback?”

“He had pretty severe scoliosis,” I said. “It looked painful.”

“Not the real Richard III, then,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Shakespeare made the hunchback up. To caricature him more thoroughly as a villain.”

“Well, it worked,” I said. “He looks like everything the culture has taught me a villain should look like. It was hard to get past my first reactions and see him as a person.”

“Oh, you shouldn’t do that,” said Anna. She saw the offended look on my face. “I know you think it’s important to do that in real life, but this isn’t real life. When the world gives someone a disability or a disfigurement, of course you should be fair to them. But the world didn’t give Richard his hunchback. Shakespeare did.”

“And Shakespeare was an ableist jerk?”

“Shakespeare was a jerk in a lot of ways.”

“I won’t tell your department you said that.”

“They know. I say it to them all the time. If I specialized in Shakespeare instead of Victorian fiction, I’d have said it in a bunch of papers by now. Although they might not have been published, because it’s not really news to anyone.”

This was not the view of Shakespeare my high school teachers had tried to instill in me. Anna often has a way of looking at books that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the world’s expectations. I don’t know if that makes her a good professor, but it made her a useful person to talk to about the Richard III that I would be interacting with.

“So Richard is a real villain?”

“In the play? Richard is as much of a villain as you could want. He even thinks of himself as a villain, something I can’t imagine the real Richard ever did. He kills all sorts of people to get himself to the crown, even when he probably doesn’t have to. Be careful of him.”

“I don’t intend to be a threat to him,” I said. “I just want to put an antenna on his tower.”

I don’t know who manages Richard III’s calendar. There must be someone, but it was all invisible, as we were let into the palace and allowed to roam freely before our meeting. Whatever this kingdom was at this point, it wasn’t very well organized. Nobody even told us where to go, so we had to poke around the rooms of the palace looking for the soon-to-be King. We didn’t find him right away, but we did find another old friend, or old acquaintance anyway. 

I’d told Booker a little bit about Angie in the beginning of his training, and that we were likely to run into her at some point. She seemed to keep turning up in the unlikeliest of places. She was a private detective, looking to expand her practice into Fairyland the same way I was, and we had ended up on the same side, or at least parallel sides, a few times. She’d helped me fake one magical death already, which might be a useful skill with Richard around.

She and Booker didn’t have a lot to say to each other. At least everyone I knew wasn’t going to end up like Harp. I asked her what she was doing in England.

“Bounty hunting job,” she said. “I’m looking for a wolf, and I heard he was sighted around here.”

“We haven’t seen any wildlife at all,” I said.

“Unless you count the White Boar,” said Booker.

“What’s that?”

“Richard. It’s his emblem, and his metaphor.”

“Whatever it is, it isn’t a wolf,” I said.

“Not my problem, then,” said Angie. “Let me know if you see a wolf, then, would you?”

“What did he do?” asked Booker.

“He robbed a bunch of Grand Avenue merchants, and tried to eat one of them.”

“He tried to eat a merchant?” said Booker.

“Most of the merchants in Fairyland are pigs,” I said.

“And that makes it OK to eat them?”

“No, just that it makes sense for a wolf to try.”

“He didn’t manage it,” said Angie. “There was a teenage girl there, who apparently saved the merchant by kicking the snot out of the wolf and dumping him in a back alley.”

“That sounds a bit familiar,” I said.

“Doesn’t it? Anyway, the pigs banded together to hire me to find the wolf. He’s completely out of his storyline now, and nobody knows what he’ll do.”

“If we see him, we’ll let you know,” said Booker. I was still thinking about the girl. I had a feeling she was someone I had met before. In fact I was having a psychological flashback to one of her kicks that I’d been the target of myself. (She apologized.) However big and bad he was, that wolf couldn’t be having a good time. No wonder he was running around places he didn’t belong.

Angie wandered off in the direction we had come, and we kept looking for Richard. We eventually found him by himself in a big dining room. He was cutting off rough pieces of a cured ham, and eating them with his fingers. After the conversation with Angie, I couldn’t help thinking about what it meant to be eating a pig in Fairyland. But perhaps this pig had never walked, or talked, or dressed, though at the moment it was dressed with some sort of sour cabbage. Then again, maybe it had. You can never be sure, with kings.

“Now is the winter of our discontent,” said Richard. “Made glorious summer by this ham of York. Such flesh so fine is only fairly shared.”

A king’s invitation might as well be an order, so we both joined him at the table and took some chunks of his ham as he offered them to us. “If you should wish I’d send for thee some bread,” said Richard. “My brother ate a sandwich every day. A habit I have never understood.” We told him not to take the trouble, that his ham was excellent as it was. I tried not to think about whether it had been a shopkeeper. Booker was more interested in business.

“My lord, we have an object which is valuable to us, which needs to be held in a secure place which is also high off the ground. We seek your leave to place it in the Tower of London.”

“In commerce my consideration reigns,” said Richard. “What have you for the kingdom in return?”

“We have gold, or supplies. Luxury items from the World of Chaos. You need only tell us what you desire.”

“The richness of this land is famed afar,” said Richard. “Of gold and food no lack, nor opulence. But should you place your riches in my Tower, perhaps some worthy jewels could be removed. Too much is held in place within that place.”

I had a bad feeling about this. “What is it you want us to do, my lord?”

“The tower holds two things which vex me strong,” he said. “Can you predict the names of England’s foes? Foes to my rest, and my sweet sleep’s disturbers? To death with them! Their names are Wales and York!”

The Princes! These two deaths would not be as easy to fake as the one Angie and I had done before. Richard was indeed a villain, but he was no fool. He would see the Princes slain, and us as well, if we were to fail. Yet what could we do but agree, standing there before him, eating his ham? If we demurred now, he might well have us killed before we left the castle. So we took the task, neither of us with any intention of fulfilling it. In fact I had the intention of going straight home and never coming here again. But Booker convinced me otherwise.

“If we should leave, Richard will simply have the Princes killed by someone else. There are those who would be willing, for his favor.”

“I feel for the young man who spoke to us,” I said. “But what can we do? Is there any way we could save him? And his brother?”

“I don’t know, but we should at least go to the Tower and find out.”

There was a boat tied up on the river outside the Tower of London as we approached this time, but the walls were just as forbidding. Richard’s pass got us through the gate guards with a minimum of delay, but I couldn’t help noticing that the walls were as effective for keeping people in as for keeping them out. We could easily end up stuck here ourselves, let alone finding some way to spirit the Princes to freedom.

If we could even find them. The Tower of London isn’t a tower, really, it’s a collection of towers, more than a dozen of them, all built at different times and with haphazard connections between them. It would be hard to build an intentional maze so effective at confusing someone new to the facility. Booker didn’t know where to go any more than I did, but he had a suggestion.

“In the center is the White Tower,” he said. “If Richard still means to make it seem like the Princes are staying here before the coronation, they’ll be in royal quarters there.”

I was glad to give that a try, since the White Tower stood alone in the middle of the complex, and seemed the least likely to make us irretrievably lost. We entered easily, as Richard apparently thought guards on the outer wall were sufficient. It was nice to get something of a break.

We started at the top, and indeed there were royal quarters there, which showed signs of being occupied. There were no princes, but a reasonably nice view over the river and the city. Not for the first time in Fairyland, I wished for portable cell phone equipment that I could set up myself. Just lean out a window, glue it to the stone walls, and who would ever care? Job done without all the politics, and without having to kill anyone or even pretend to. 

But it wouldn’t suit corporate to do it without contracts, and I’m not at all sure they cared about keeping the body count down anyway. They never seemed to when it was church steeples I was working on.

We worked our way down the strangely empty tower, hallways clearly built for servants and messengers quiet except for the echoes of our footsteps. It was a strange prison, but a prison nonetheless, and I began to wonder whether we would find any living inmates at all. Had the Princes escaped somehow? Or were they lying in a cellar somewhere, our errand anticipated by someone loyal to Richard, the job done before we could even think of preventing it?

When we found them it was in a cellar indeed, but sitting, eating a bit of cold roast pheasant, drinking from a cask of small beer, and laughing with each other. If they knew they were already marked for execution, they certainly weren’t showing it. In fact they seemed delighted to see us, and offered us bits of the bird, without question as to what we were doing there or how we had gotten past the guards. 

Booker tried to explain it to them, talking even stranger now. “From Gloucester we are sent to take your lives.”

“A murder?” asked the younger boy. “Uncle makes his move at last.”  

“If these two meant to murder they’d be silent,” said his brother, the Prince of Wales. “And so would we, but here they come unarm’d.”

“We’ve come to take you away from here before you can be killed,” I said. 

“Yet any day from now I shall be King,” said the older boy.

“Not once while Gloucester lives, I tell my Lord,” said Booker. But the boys had stopped paying attention to him and were looking above and beyond us to the door of the cellar. I turned, though I already knew that there would be a hunchback at the top of the stair.

“Not while I live indeed shall he be King,” said Richard. “Though Hastings has escaped through means unknown. Perhaps the two new strangers know his fate? Their time is too well-planned to stink of truth.” He closed the door behind him, and slowly, achingly descended the cellar stairs. “Alone I am and lonely I must stay, for every ally’s fated for the axe. It must be done, but done by I alone. This goose is killed, and cooked and sauced and et.”  He had a sword, and while his movements were stilted, he held it with a confidence that suggested many prior uses. The Prince was right that we were unarmed, and though there were four of us, I suspected that none would make it out alive. 

Then the door opened again behind him, by someone who made no pretense of stealth. Richard tried to turn just as a large burlap bag went over his head and down far enough to constrain his arms. The sword thumped to the floor at my feet, and Angie grinned at me from the bear hug she was giving the prospective King to contain his struggles. 

“Got him!” she said. “My client will be pleased.”

“He’s not the Big Bad Wolf,” I said. Booker nudged me, in the universal language of trying to get Ian to shut up. I have a lot of experience with that one. 

“Isn’t he?” said Angie. “I feel sure I heard him say he was about to eat you all up. And he definitely smells like he’s eaten a pig recently. Close enough for me. Besides, a villain’s a villain.”

“And I’m sure you don’t mind saving my butt,” I said.

“I owed you one for the little girl’s heart,” she said. “Now we’re even again.”

“All right,” I said. “Thank you.”

She lifted Richard into a fireman’s carry and lugged him up the steps. “Booker owes me one now,” she shot over her shoulder as she left. 

We were, once again, alone with the Princes, though presumably with no reason to have to fake their deaths anymore. “Perhaps you will be crowned King after all,” I said to the eldest. 

“Perhaps,” he said. “Within our chambers your reward. To follow I, and York, above to reign.”

So we followed them up to the main floors of the Tower. I was thinking about how to explain cell phone equipment to two kids from the Fifteenth Century, and was distracted enough to let the Princes get a little ways ahead of us on the route back to their quarters. It didn’t seem like too much trouble, since we knew where they were going. But they must have been fifty feet away from us when a door opened in between and out popped a wolf, walking on two feet and dressed in a ratty pair of overalls. He looked at us, looked at the Princes, looked back at us and sneered, then ran toward the boys.

Booker shouted and we started after him, but he was faster than we were and had a head start. Before we were even at full speed he had scooped up one Prince in each arm and was headed out of the White Tower. They yelled and kicked but didn’t seem to do him any harm. We chased him to the outer wall without making up any ground, but I hoped that the gate guards would stop him, or at least slow him down. However, when we got there we discovered that the guards were unable to put up any sort of a fight. They’d been secured to the gate hinges with zip ties, presumably Angie’s handiwork. The doors had been wide open to the wolf.

By the time we got to the riverfront we were too late. The boat we had seen tied up when we came in was pushing out into the harbor, the wolf using a pole to guide it away from the bank, and it was already too far out for us to jump to, even if action-movie heroics were in either of our job descriptions. 

Instead, well, I’m not too proud to admit it. We went home. It had been a long day, and we hadn’t accomplished anything. I think we both just decided to hope that whatever the wolf had taken the Princes for, it wasn’t to eat them. They didn’t look very appetizing, especially compared to a big fat pig. 

I did idly wonder about one other consequence, as we made our way out of Fairyland. “Who do you think will become King there now?” I asked Booker.

“Richard’s son? Or Clarence’s son, maybe. They’re even younger than the Princes we met.” 

“So there’s no one left to negotiate with?”

“There will probably be a war.”

“Maybe somebody will write a play about it.”

“Not me,” said Booker.

“No,” I said. “I think we just won’t come back. Take tomorrow off. I’ll do the paperwork.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday.”

“Even better. We can do the paperwork later.”

Part 10 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is The Kiss of Beth.
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