Friends and Foes

Gunther's prophecy, at least, was fulfilled. The next day, several hours before noon, the "Argo" finally arrived at its destination: Rorosion, the capital city of Dojum. Yes, it may sound odd to hear of a nation containing more than one city, now that you've been hearing of city-states for so long, but Dojum was a largish island. Additionally, Dojum had a few possessions elsewhere in the Starving Sea, so it really was a kingdom in the European sense, even if it was much smaller and weaker in relation to the other nations of the world than the medieval kingdoms of Europe were in comparison to their Terran contemporaries.

Remember how I said that Pewpik was one of the Sea's richest cities? Rorosion was the richest city in that verse. It had a legacy, too: amidst the newer-looking houses and office buildings were structures of older architectural styles, some so venerable that their ages could be measured in centuries.

Everybody wanted to get off the ship again, but, as it turned out, Dojum was not Hoon. The little, beady-eyed official who met the Argonauts as they tried to disembark asked their business and then briskly informed them that yes, "His Majesty" would grant them an audience sometime tomorrow, and no, they weren't otherwise allowed to wander about the island. Jason walked around in circles impatiently for a day, and then, at the appropriate time, he, Roland, and Talbot walked onto the pier.

"You may leave this child behind." said the official to Roland, glancing at Jason suspiciously.

"I'd like to come, actually." said Jason, glaring at the man. "I am one of the leaders of this expedition."

The official stared at Roland as if to ask "What's with him?"

"What he says is true." said Roland. "If you don't mind, he'll be coming as well."

The official looked back at Jason again. "Leader of an expedition… fine! But he'd better behave himself. His Majesty will not tolerate insolence from anyone."

<I only wish I could say the same for myself.> thought Jason. He considered sticking his tongue out at this pretentious, spontaneously unfriendly character, then thought better of it.

Akolos was apparently very much into the whole monarchy motif. He lived in a grand, sprawling castle, the interior walls of which were lined with huge windows, tapestries depicting scenes from religious canon, and soldiers standing at attention. (The latter didn't have chain-mail armor or swords, at least.) Roland and Talbot walked side-by-side, with guards to the right and left; Jason was told to walk behind his foster father. He did so, indignantly.

The throne room had been made to be awe-inspiring, and to some degree it still was. It was decorated with tapestries yet bigger than those Jason had seen before, and larger-than-life sculptures of what Jason assumed were past Kings of Dojum, wielding maces and shields. Two fountains, one resembling a large, striped saber-toothed feline and the other a bull with antlers, flanked the long, bright-yellow carpet that led across the hall.

The king, a large man in his forties, sat on a high, shining throne. His hair was a dirty blond, his hazel eyes, suggesting a haughty, capricious personality, were set wide apart, and his mouth was rather large. He eschewed the standard suit for a long, purple robe and other colorful clothes. Except for a great silvern crown, he had no jewelry, and he lacked a scepter, though Jason noticed a dagger in a little gem-studded sheath at his waist.

To Akolos's right and left sat many young men and a few young women. All were noticeably less decorated than he was, and their relative ranks were differentiated by further degrees of adornment and distance from him. Most were adults in their twenties, but there were also a few teenagers and one little boy who looked younger than Jason. If Akolos had a queen consort, she was probably absent.

At one point, a long distance from the throne, the trio's escorts instructed them to stop and bow. Roland and Talbot instantly fell to their knees. Jason absentmindedly bowed at the waist, then noticed what his companions were doing and quickly hit the floor.

"Who is this urchin?" a booming tenor voice called.

Jason figured the speaker was Akolos, but he couldn't be sure at the moment, since he was staring at the carpet. At any rate, he decided to answer the question himself, so he stood up, saying "Jason Amadeus Blue."

The king scowled. "Such impropriety! To the dungeon with him."

<Aw, drat.> Jason thought. He was struck with a sudden, familiar sense of cold, and then immediately fell unconscious.

"Whatever happened to diplomatic immunity?" Jason mumbled. He was lying on a pile of straw in a jail cell. This cell was of the old-fashioned variety: the walls and ceilings were of crude stone blocks, and the floor was nothing but packed dirt. The door was barred, like the one in the Jilothic cell, though through this one Jason could see another cell, which was empty. The only hint of modernity to be seen was a dim lightbulb hanging from the ceiling.

Jason waited for about two hours. He could smell a few other people nearby, none of whom made a sound. Eventually, he heard footsteps, and smelled a new arrival: a young boy. The stranger walked up to Jason's cell and looked at him. It was the boy he'd seen in the throne room.

The boy was chubby—not from a portly build, it appeared, but from a poor diet. He had dark-brown hair and eyes, and skin of an intermediate tone, while his mouth, currently set in a wide, earnest grin, was reminiscent of Akolos's. He still had on the emerald-green robe he'd been wearing when Jason had first seen him; otherwise, he was wearing less gaudy garments, including, of all things, sneakers.

"Hi!" said the boy.

"Uh… hello." said Jason. Then, remembering how he'd ended up here, he quickly bowed on one knee and tentatively added "Your, uh, Highness?"

The boy laughed. "Aw, you don't have to do that. That's silly. You can call me Curtis. My name's Curtis Malloc Debyeamo."

"Oh, Allah be praised!" said Jason, gratefully standing up. "May I ask why you're speaking to me?"

"Sure, go ahead." said Curtis, laughing again.

Jason almost laughed himself, though he was annoyed. "Why are you speaking to me?"

"'Cause you're an awesome kid, and I wanna be blood brothers with you."

"You wanna what?" Jason sputtered, as some other prisoner who'd been listening to the conversation guffawed.

"Be blood brothers!"

"And, uh… what, precisely, does that entail?"

"You know, you and me cut each other's arms and bleed into the wounds and agree to be like brothers forever and ever."

Jason grimaced. "Ah, yes, the uglier side of children's street culture."

Actually, this particular practice had a much longer and richer history than hopscotch and cooties. In particular, Jason was reminded of a tale from Norse mythology. Loki was a frost giant, and one of the most powerful among them: his shapeshifting ability was better than the average giant's, and while most of his cousins were big and strong but dull-witted, he had charisma, eloquence, and great cunning. It was the latter quality most of all that caused Odin, king of the Æsirgods, to offer to become blood brothers with Loki.

As expected, Loki was a powerful ally. But because of his wanton malice and spitefulness (qualities nigh-universal among giants), he proved to be more of a liability than an asset. When Loki finally toed the line by committing a truly heinous crime, Odin broke the blood-brother oath and had him punished, which circumstance eventually helped bring about the end of the world as the Æsir knew it. The whole episode neatly underscored Odin's two chief mistakes—consorting with the powers of darkness and breaking his promises—that proved the death of him and his pantheon.

But anyway, this whole blood-brother thing was gross, and Jason would have nothing to do with it "No way." he said, gesturing emphatically.

"Aw, c'mon!" Curtis pleaded. "I'll get you out of the dungeon if you promise."

"You will? How?" Curtis pulled a bunch of keys out of a pocket of his robe and dangled them in front of Jason. "Oh. Well… there's surely guards here. I can't just mosey out the door, can I?"

"Oh, if you don't want to walk, I can teleport you out."

"Teleport? You can cast spells?"

"Can I cast spells!" Curtis scoffed. "I'm one of the best Imagination mages in the multiverse! Of course I can cast spells!"

"You… you are?"

In response, Curtis cast a spell. A small blob of light appeared, hovering over his outstretched palm, and then formed itself into a moth-like creature with intricate, glowing patterns on its wings. (The patterns reminded Jason of those on the surface of the sense-enhancing potion.) The thing lifted off Curtis's palm and flew about for a few seconds until Curtis slapped it, at which point it fluttered weakly for a moment, then disappeared in a burst of blue flame, leaving only the smell of ozone behind.

"Neat." said Jason.

"And I can make much bigger things, but I'm not going to waste my energy just to show you now. So, what do you think?"

"Well, come to think of it, aren't the guards overhearing what we're saying?"

"Yeah, so what? I can blow them away!" He pointed his index finger in an arbitrary direction, and a few sparks shot out from it. "Nobody messes with me."

"I guess you're right, if nobody has." said Jason.

"Will you do it?"

"Hmmm…" Well, this seemed like an easy way to escape, and certainly, humoring this fellow by participating in his nasty little ritual was a small price to pay for that. "Sure. Please, get me outta here."

"Promise?" said Curtis, his eyes lighting up.

"So long as you're true to your own word, I do promise."

"Great! Okay, I'll get you out first." He unlocked the door and opened it; Jason happily walked out. "So, where do you wanna go?"

"Well, uh… are the men I was with still talking to Akolos?"

"No, I came down here when they left."

"All right, can you take me to the "Argo", then?"

"I can't teleport you there, 'cause I don't remember what the seaport looks like. We'll walk, okay?"

"Wouldn't you have to deal with the guards and soldiers here? I mean, whether or not―"

"Oh, really, they're not a problem. Akolos says they have to obey me, 'cause I'm a prince."

"You're a prince?"

"Oh, yeah!"

Jason shook his head in wonder. "Let's go, then."

Jason had somewhat doubted this penultimate assertion of Curtis's. His doubt was soon dispelled when Curtis spoke to a guard, kindly informing him, for the purposes of record-keeping, that he was removing a prisoner. The guard sighed despairingly, as if prisoners were assets and nothing could be done if Curtis wanted to take one out, and said only "Yes, Your Intelligence."

"That's my official style." said Curtis to Jason as they walked up a flight of stairs, out of the castle, and along the streets of Rorosion. Passers-by seemed to recognize Curtis, and stay clear of him. "Isn't it stupid?"

"Ironically, yes." said Jason.

"I tell everyone in the castle to call me Curtis or Curt, like a normal person, but only a couple listen. It's so stupid."

"But Curtis, tell me a bit about yourself. You want to, uh, be my blood brother, and yet I know so little about you."

"Oh, well, I'm eight-and-two-thirds years old. I'm one of the best Imagination mages in the world. I was bred for talent with magic. I'm really good at math, too. I'm up to trig functions now."

"You were bred for talent?"

"Yeah, my mom's a magic wife. She's got a great pedigree. Two of her maternal uncles, her father, and her brother were all great Imagination guys. And Imagination's a rare, tough domain."

"A magic wife? You mean she's a spellcaster?"

"She can't cast spells! She's a woman, dummy!"

"What does sex have to do with spellcasting ability?" said Jason, realizing as he spoke that he'd never even heard of a real-life female wizard. Mysterious…

'Everything! What, did you think girls could cast spells? Boys can't have babies, can they?"

Jason held his hand to his forehead briefly. "I… I think should talk to Roland about this. Tell me what you meant by a magic wife, if not a spellcaster."

"Well, you know, Akolos has different wives for different things. A magic wife is one he has children with to make good natural mages."

"Ah, polygamy and eugenics—better together!" The Yankee within him reviled at the thought. "You're Akolos's son?"


"Wow. Were you and the other people sitting next to him all his children?"

"No, he's got plenty of others. Dojese kings have lots of children, but they only choose a few to become princes and princesses. He made me a prince 'cause I'm such a good wizard, even though I'm ugly."

Jason smiled. "I get it. Do you like being a prince?"

"No way! Akolos is crazy, my mom doesn't care about me, and I have to sit through all those stupid meetings. That's why I want to run away."

"Run away? Where to? You can't really take care of yourself, can you?"

"I'll be with you. Duh. We're going to be blood brothers, remember?"

"Hold on. Where along the line did you mention that blood brotherhood involves traveling together?"

"The 'be like brothers' part. Brothers live together!"

"Oh. Oh boy." Jason hadn't bargained for this one. He'd hoped this promise would be such a vague one that he wouldn't have to break it—an important matter, since given the prince's great apparent power, there was no guarantee that he could break it. Not to mention that it remained to be seen what Roland would think of the whole dilemma. "Well, Curtis, let me ask you this: you called me an 'awesome kid' before. What did you mean by that?"

"You're really smart. I saw you on TV talking about how you tricked that old Memory mage, even though you couldn't cast spells and barely understood magic at all. And I heard about how you tricked the dragon on Hoon, too. That was awesome."

"Why, thank you." Jason was actually a little disturbed to hear how much his name had gotten around. He still wasn't that well known outside of Gyeeds, but the media's reports of his adventures on the "Argo" had apparently increased his celebrity. "So you plan on living with me and Roland from now on?" Curtis nodded. "Don't you fear what will happen when Akolos realizes you've run away?"

"Nope! I'm not afraid of anything."

<And I thought I was cocky.> thought Jason.

Jason and Curtis walked onto the "Argo" to find Roland and Talbot deep in conversation with each other.

"Speak of the devil." said Talbot.

"Jason!" said Roland. "Thank goodness. We were just discussing what―"

"Curtis Debyeamo?" Talbot interrupted, noticing the newcomer.

"That's me!" the little prince chirruped.

"How did you two end up together?" asked Roland, raising his eyebrows and looking at Jason. "And, more important, how did you escape?"

"It's, uh… it's a medium-length story." said the ten-year-old. "First, if you don't mind, could you tell me what went on in the throne room in my absence?"

"Actually, that's what I'm going to report in our next mess meet." said Roland. "We've been delaying that in the hopes that we might be able to get you back easily. I take it from your leisurely pace that you haven't been pursued."

"Doesn't seem like it." said Jason, glancing backwards. "At any rate, I don't think we're in any kind of hurry."