Barbarous was sulphurous.
She crushed the piece of parchment in her white-knuckled fist.
“So the rumours were true,” she said quietly. “The Steward of Gnash has returned to lick his wounds.”
There was a pattering of sandals in the corridor. Bertus, Napierion’s court jester, was wearing what appeared to be a woven straw plate on his head and a transparent shell in one eye. Sensing her dark mood, he struck up a cheeky pose, one hand on his hip and the other resting against a pouting cheek.
“What about a song?” he chirped.
“Or a poem …
There was a queen called Barbarous
who was pretty jolly marvellous,
even to the fatherless.
May she reign all over us
Never leave us harbourless
Hide like a rhinoceros …
Barbarous fixed him with a steely gaze. Bertie jumped with fright as his highly polished quartz eyepiece magnified one of her eyes into a huge balloon.
“What do you know of The Steward of Gnash?” she asked.
“I understand he’s a top fellow,” replied Bertus nervously.
“Everyone seems to like him. I hear he has a loyal following of disciples who call him the Red Baron of Beneficiaries, the Prince of Paupers, the Lion King of Leaseholders. They say he can perform miracles like healing the lame, curing the sick and even raising the dead.”
“Didn’t have much success with his leader,” snorted Barbarous.
She shut her eyes and gritted her teeth. She hadn’t expected the ambitious young politician to return to Napierion after only a few months. He was supposed to have been away for three years at least. He’d gathered a lot of supporters before being defeated by Torus Party senator, Simon Spikehair. He’d gone to Wellingtonius with a secret plan to help his leader, Davidus the Shearer, create a golden fleece to make himself visible.
Barbarous knew his reappearance was bad news. The Steward was young, with political flair. He had built a loyal constituency among the Labourites, a nomadic tribe who ruled during the recent Hellenistic period. Their port worker ancestors had settled on the shores of Napierion, until most were wiped out during the cruel reign of Containus Cranium.
The Steward had added the mysterious acronym G*N*A*S*H to his hoardings, offering several explanations to his followers. He would tell elderly supporters that it meant he was a Good Napierion Who Always Stays Home. Once he told a group of teens that it meant Go North And Spend Heaps, and on another occasion told money lenders at the temple that it meant God was Never A Speculator in Housing.
Barbarous knew that The Steward had returned for her job. Now that the Torus Party had amalgamated the clans of the great northern city of Jaffa there was talk that Hawkus Bay was only three years away from similar treatment. Whoever wore the mayoral chain of Napierion would be in a strong position to challenge for the ultimate prize, the Throne of Heretuscany.
Two days later, as a cold mid-winter wind swept off the sea, a dark figure strode along Naperion’s west shore. The Steward quietly cursed his ill-fortune. He had been convinced his ancient potion, passed down by his Druid forebears, would make Davidus visible. But a rare species of Franciscan mould had corrupted his experiments and to his horror, his leader had now vanished entirely.
The Steward had fled unseen with the fleece back to Napierion. He had set up a clandestine organisation called Unexplainable Napier, dedicated to preserving Napierion as an independent state. But The Steward had heard that merger proposals were secretly being drawn up for the rest of the country. Was it his destiny, he wondered, to sit on the Throne of Heretuscany? There was only one way to find out.
A noise made him turn. The Oracle of Ahuririum, a wrinkled old hag with one eye, sat behind a rock which was covered with small bones.
“I see a man in a red cloak sitting on a golden throne,” she cackled.
“Throne?” gasped The Steward. His mind raced. He looked down at his sack-cloth robe. There was a red wine stain down the front. In certain light the robe would probably look red. Then he thought of Lawrencus Yulus, ruler of the Hustings district.
“Does he have graying hair, a toothy grin and a thickening girth?” asked The Steward anxiously.
“Hard to tell,” replied The Oracle, squinting her good eye. “Reception’s not that good here. I think it’s the old infirmary,” she said, nodding toward some ruins on the hilltop above Napierion.
“But he’s quite tall, dark, wears a robe and sandals … oh and he has a beard.”
The Steward’s heart pounded. That was him, surely. Admittedly Lawrencus was quite tall and dark, but he didn’t wear a robe and wouldn’t be seen in sandals. He preferred something with heels, the higher the better.
“And you clearly saw this in those bones?” he said.
“Oh no,” said the Oracle. “I had chicken wings for my lunch. Like some?”
The Steward walked quickly up the shingle beach. He had plans to make. Lost in feverish thought he didn’t notice a dark caped figure following him. The Steward reached the stable he was sheltering in and quickly bolted the heavy door behind him. He was breathing heavily. His wife, clad in a blue shawl, was gently rocking their baby child as it lay on a bed of straw.
“How would I look with a beard?”