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To Gudge's bride, Queen Artemisia of Hydrangea, are born a set of royal triplets. But traditional Gorgorian belief holds that triplets are a sure sign of the mother's adultery--for which the tradition Gorgorian punishment is death. And Gudge is nothing is not a traditionalist.
So in secret the Queen sends her faithful servant Ludmilla on a desperate mission, to bear the girl and the younger boy to the secret forest redoubt of the last Hydrangean resistance. The oldest boy will remain, to be raised as the heir.
Unfortunately, Ludmilla takes both boys instead...
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Lawrence Watt-Evans has been a full-time writer and editor for more than twenty years. The author of more than thirty novels, over one hundred short stories, and more than one hundred and fifty published articles, Watt-Evans writes primarily in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and comic books. His short fiction has won the Hugo Award as well as twice winning the Asimov's Readers Award. His fiction has been published in England, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Poland, France, Hungary, and Russia
He served as president of the Horror Writers Association from 1994 to 1996 and after leaving that office was the recipient of HWA's first service award ever. He is also a member of Novelists Inc., and the Science Fiction Writers of America. Married with two children, he and his wife Julie live in Maryland.
The scream from the north tower of the Palace of Divinely Tranquil Thoughts was loud and shrill enough to shatter seven stained-glass windows in the banqueting hall below--six of them among the handful of remaining works by the master artisan Oratio, dating from some fourteen centuries back, and the last a cheap imitation installed during the reign of Corulimus the Decadent, a mere millennium ago.
As shards of glass rattled across the table King Gudge, Lord of Hydrangea, looked up from his wine at the sudden influx of daylight and growled, "What in the name of the five ways to gut an ox was that?"
Trembling at his royal master's elbow, Lord Polemonium replied, "I think--I think, Your Omnipotent and Implacable Majesty, that it is the ebullient and convivial exultation of Her Most Complacent Highness, Queen Artemisia, your connubial helpmeet, as she experiences the transitory distress of parturition, preparatory to the imminent joy attending the nativity of your supremely longed-for progeny."
King Gudge plucked a sliver of blue glass from his goblet and munched it thoughtfully as he considered this reply. Then, moving with the remarkable speed for which he was known, he drew his sword Obliterator and lopped off Lord Polemonium's head, adding to the mess on the table.
"Now, let's give that another go-around, all right?" the king said, wiping the gory blade clean on the lace tablecloth as he gazed at his remaining ministers. "I'll ask one more time: What was that?"
"The queen's having the baby," said Lord Filaree, with all dispatch, watching Lord Polemonium's head. It was still bouncing.
"Oh." King Gudge thrust Obliterator back into its scabbard and picked up his wine. "About time." He swilled down the measure, getting most of it in the black tangle of his beard.
Farther down the table, out of earshot and swordreach, Lord Croton nudged Lord Filaree in the ribs. "Is it just me, or did our royal lady holler 'Three'?"
Lord Filaree shrugged, not really paying any attention to the question. Every time he was "invited" to one of King Gudge's council meetings/drinking parties, he only had eyes and ears for His Majesty. It might have been the same sort of morbid fascination that made commoners stop and stare at a particularly gruesome cartwreck, or perhaps just the fact that any minister caught not having eyes and ears for King Gudge alone wound up not having eyes and ears.
"I said," Lord Croton repeated testily, "why would she scream 'three'?"
"Maybe she and her handmaid are playing a round of gorf," Lord Filaree hazarded without turning.
Lord Croton snorted quietly. "Filaree, the correct gorfing cry is 'five on the loo'ard side and mind the pelicans!' Any fool knows that. Besides, pregnant women never play gorf."
"My dear Croton, you know how these women are when they're giving birth. They say all sorts of nonsense. Didn't your own wife...?" He let the question hang unfinished.
"Well, yes," Lord Croton confessed. "While she was in travail, my darling lone called me a bubble-headed, lust-crazed, self-indulgent, slavering babboon. And she swore I'd never lay a hand on her again as long as I lived. Which was not going to be too much longer because she was going to kill me as soon as she got her strength back. All very well, Filaree, but she did not yell 'three.'"
"Well, perhaps Her Majesty has decided that our new sovereign-by-right-of-conquest already knows that he is a bubble-headed, lust-crazed, self-indulgent, slavering babboon," Lord Filaree suggested.
"Knows it! He'd take it as a bloody compliment."
Filaree nodded. "Indeed. Therefore, let us assume that Her Majesty is not exclaiming 'three' but 'whee!'"
"'Whee'?" Lord Croton echoed doubtfully.
"A cry of joy," Filaree explained, "denoting that her labor has been successfully accomplished and that she no longer needs to remain in isolation in the north tower, according to ancient Hydrangean tradition governing pregnant queens."
Lord Croton shook his head. "I don't know, Filaree. Now that the baby's here and she can come out of the north tower, it also means that she'll have to go back to sleeping with King Gudge. That's not the sort of thing I can picture any sane woman celebrating."
"Well, it makes a heap of a lot more sense than caterwauling numbers!" Lord Filaree countered. "Anyhow, why on earth would Queen Artemisia shout 'three,' tell me that!"
Lord Croton thought about it. "Right," he concluded. "No reason for it at all. 'Whee' it is. Was. Should be." He doodled on the council table a bit with his pen-knife for awhile, then said, "You know, it's funny, Filaree; this ancient Hydrangean tradition about isolating pregnant queens..."
"I never heard of it before Artemisia brought it up."
* * *
"Three?" shrieked Queen Artemisia from the bed. "O merciful stars, don't tell me there's three of them!"
Old Ludmilla stood by the royal receiving cradle and looked helpless. "Oh, my darling lambikins, you know I'd never tell you the eentsiest thing as might trouble your dear thoughts at a time like this." The green silk-wrapped bundle in the crook of her arm began to wail. "Certainly not, not when my precious Missy-mussy has just been through such a strain, bearing up like the adorable little brave trouper that she is when other girlies would be a-weeping and a-wailing and a-carrying on something disgraceful to..."
"Three!" howled the queen. "Three, three, three, the pox take all Gorgorians and the horses they rode in on! There is--there is most definitely--there is going to be--"
All aflutter, old Ludmilla laid the swaddled newborn in the huge ceremonial cradle with its scarlet hangings and gold-leafed dragon headboard and hastened to her lady's bedside. "Lawks and welladay, sweet Missy-mussy, whyever are you panting so? And your face! I do declare, it's gone the most unbecoming shade of lavender, it has. Oh, wurra-wurra and--"
"--there is going to be a third one," Queen Artemisia said with jaw taut and sweat drenching every inch of her body. "And here it comes now!"
Some time later, old Ludmilla lifted a beautifully formed little boy from the Basin of Harmonious Immersion-one of the oldest pieces of the Old Hydrangean royal house's childbirth accessory set--and whipped a green satin swaddling cloth around his trembling limbs before showing him to his mother.
"There, now, Missy-mussy," she said, as pleased as if she'd handled the business end of the birth herself. "All washed and neat and tidy. Isn't he a lamb?" She bore the babe to the receiving cradle in triumph, but before she laid him down in it she paused and turned to her mistress. "Ah...not any more coming, are there, love?"
"No," said the queen, lying pale and limp against an avalanche of overstuffed pink brocade pillows. She sounded near the brink of total exhaustion. She also sounded more than a little cranky.
Old Ludmilla cocked her head, the better to turn her one functioning ear in Queen Artemisia's direction. "Quite sure, are we?"
"We are positive," the queen returned.
"You were wrong before, you know. Of course, arithmetic never was one of your strengths. I remember saying to your dear, departed, decapitated da, King Fumitory the Twenty-Second, I said to him, 'Our Missy-mussy has her charm, but she couldn't add a wolf to a sheepfold and get lambchops.' That's what I said."
"And I say--" Queen Artemisia's clear blue eyes narrowed, "--I say that if you call me 'missy-mussy' one more time, I shall ask my husband--may his skull crack like an acorn under a millstone--to give me your liver roasted with garlic as a childbirth gift. What do you say to that?"
Ludmilla gave an indignant sniff. "I say there's some people who've grown a shade too big for their breeches, that's what. My liver roasted with garlic indeed! When you know as well as I that garlic gives nursing mothers the wind something scandalous."
She placed the satin-swathed infant in the cradle and then turned on her mistress in a fury. "But that's just my opinion, isn't it? And who am I to you, eh? Just the woman who raised you from a nasty little snippet of a royal Hydrangean princess, is all! Only the one who stood by your side on the royal city ramparts while your dear, departed, decapitated da, King Fumitory the Twenty-Second, was doing his best to fight off the invasion of those loathsome Gorgorian barbarian hordes! Merely the loyal soul who helped you hide in the royal turnip cellar after that thoroughly rude Gudge person did for your daddy right there in the Audience Chamber of the Sun's Hidden Face and got all that blood worked into the carpets so bad that three royal housekeepers have quit in disgust! Simply..."
"Three," groaned Queen Artemisia, and yanked a pillow out from under her head to slam over her face. Still from beneath the downy bolster came the pitiful, half-smothered whimper, "Three."
"Well...yes." Ludmilla pulled her tirade up on a short rein, taken aback by Queen Artemisia's obvious despair. The crone cast a myopic eye over the contents of the ceremonial cradle. "And the steadfast handmaid who saw her own darling Missy-mussy give birth to three beautiful, cuddly, perfect..."
"Death sentences," said the queen, and threw the pillow at Ludmilla.
The ancient waitingwoman sighed. "I'll make the tea."
Later, as the two ladies shared a pot of well-steeped wenwort tea, Queen Artemisia recovered some of her self-possession. "They are beautiful," she admitted, gazing into the cradle at the three drowsy bundles. Ludmilla had most thoughtfully lugged the heavy piece of ceremonial furniture near Artemisia's bed so that the new mother could look at her babes in comfort. Instead of the dreamy maternal smile Ludmilla expected, the queen's expression grew stern. "Too beautiful for Gudge to sacrifice in the name of his beastly Gorgorian superstitions!"
"Ah, well, you know how these men are, dearie." Ludmilla poured more tea. "They do have their little ways....
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