The Smugglers

The night was still young when Curtis and Simon appeared before the gates of the imperial city. A great circular wall of solid gray metal surrounded the palace and all the other buildings clustered around it; this was the only public entrance. The city was built upon a hill, overlooking waves of rolling grasslands and forests reminiscent of medieval Europe. A moderate southerly breeze kept our heroes cool in the warm, muggy weather.

Two guards wearing black uniforms with red highlights leaned against the huge portcullis. They raised their eyebrows to see Curtis and Simon approach along with a companion, a pack mule that Curtis had created. The beast of burden tottered under the weight of a large, oblong metal box.

"This'll be interesting, I bet." said a guard, walking up to the group. He held out a handprint scanner to Curtis and Simon, who complied. After looking at the readout on a tiny screen, he said "Baria, you're under arrest for illegal interdimensional travel. And Deb—Debimo… ha! It says you're a prince. You're outside the legal zone of your visit."

"Debyeamo." Curtis huffed, as the guard magically bound his and Simon's hands behind them. (Neither resisted.)

"Our transgressions were justified." Simon said carefully. "I demand an audience with the Emperor, with Curtis and the mule to accompany me."

"Yeah, I saw that coming," said the guard, "but you know, what with all the monsters, she won't see you anytime soon."

"I think she should." Simon insisted. "It's an urgent matter, one concerning the monsters."

"Does it have to do with what's in the donkey's box? No, that's confidential, right?"

"Yes, it is."

"Well, we'll see what the Emperor's domestic adviser thinks of that." said the guard. "First, just to check the obvious…" He cast a spell at the box. Nothing happened. "No poison." he muttered, and cast another spell. This time, a shrill, high-pitched tone emanated from the box for a moment. The mule whinnied at the noise. "Aw, c'mon! This is just a bomb!"

"No," said Simon, "you're detecting live bullets."

The guard frowned at him. "What would you do with those? Open it." He dispelled Simon's manacles and stood back a distance.

Simon walked over to the mule and lifted the lid of the box. It was packed to the top with bullets arranged in tight rows.

The guard blinked several times. "Can't guess what those are for. Well, pack up and we'll go." Simon shut the lid and the guard handcuffed him again. "It's funny," he said, "eunuchs and princes aren't often criminals."

The palace was a strange place. From the outside, it appeared to be a normal-looking, albeit very large, modern building. Inside, one could see how all the different parts of it had been built and rebuilt over the course of many centuries. Some rooms were made entirely of flagstones, like an old castle; others were of plaster or poured concrete. Many combined the work of several times; along with modern appliances like computers and air conditioners, the effect was both anachronistic and antique at once.

"This'll be interesting, I bet." said an aged, portly gentleman. The man, Emperor Ursamor's domestic adviser, sat behind a desk made of some lovely hardwood in a luxurious paneled office—leather furniture, an ornate rug, a fireplace, and all that jazz. The guard had been careful to tell Curtis and Simon to sit only if a seat was offered, and to leave their mule outside. They stood before the desk, Simon tall and confidently, Curtis with great, restrained impatience.

"That's what I said." said the guard, leaving and closing the door behind him.

"Curtis Debyeamo," said the gentleman, "I never expected to meet you in such circumstances. I thought you'd fallen in with Jason, the, ah… Samirin, was it? No, Terran." He propped his elbows up on his desk. "Now, boys, you do know that by demanding to see the Emperor immediately, in this time of crisis, you put yourself in great danger. I've been pretty busy, too." He glared at them. "Explain your business, quickly."

"We have about a hundred thousand Piercers to sell to the Droydanian army." said Simon. "We'd like to make the offer directly to the Emperor."

And so, of course, the box had to be opened again; this time, the other man did it himself. He cast a spell and successfully detected the bullets' enchantment; he was very impressed.

"Where did you get all of these?" he asked, his eyes sparkling with greed.

"I stole them from my father." said Curtis.

"Ah, yes, of course! If only he'd give us the secret, we wouldn't—well, needless to say, the Emperor will find this very, very interesting indeed, especially in these troubled times."

And then, Curtis and Simon (now unshackled) and their box (now carried by four servants) were in the throne room. It was a great vaulted chamber, like a cathedral, but windowless—in fact, it was in the very center of the palace. The distance separating Curtis and Simon from the throne seemed infinite at first; as they drew closer, the image of Ursamor became larger and clearer. The fifty-year-old emperor stared hard at the visitors, her small, pitiless eyes sizing them up like livestock. She smiled upon them as benevolently as a crocodile. Her bony frame, enveloped in a heavy blue robe, slouched on her lapis-lazuli throne, but her muscles were tense: she was secure in her ability to command. A translucent sheet of shimmering cyan energy ran perpendicular to the floor before her. On her right wrist was a simple gold band.

Because the domestic adviser had said this matter should be kept secret, the Emperor had sent away most of the many assistants, courtiers, and heralds that usually kept vigil here. As the adviser walked out the great doors, someone closed them, and all that was left in the hall was Curtis, Simon, four of Ursamor's most trusted guards (standing at either side of the pair), Ursamor herself, and the big metal box.

The pair bowed, and then Ursamor said "My adviser has told me of your offer, and I find it an appealing one. I can't help but wonder why you decided to make this offer precisely at this time."

"We thought that Piercers would be most useful to you now," said Simon, "while your enemies are in disorder, and thus more vulnerable." The guards stole quick, confused glances at each other upon the mention of Piercers.

"I see." said Ursamor, her smile widening at the implication. "How much are you thinking of selling these for?"

Simon quoted a price originally decided by Jason, one far above what Roland had said she'd probably pay. Ursamor suggested something significantly lower, and then the two haggled diplomatically for a while until Simon accepted.

"It's wonderful doing business with you." said Ursamor. "If you happen to obtain any more, I would gladly purchase them for the same price."

There was a brief silence. Then, Curtis hurriedly spoke up and said "I'll… uh, try to get more." (He was having difficulty remembering his lines.) "But it's hard, because… there's a lot of bullets in my dad's… arsenal. And a lot of 'em are magic. So it's hard to find just Piercers. You… um… my dad sold Piercers to you before, right?"

"Yes…" Ursamor said slowly, not hiding her contempt for Curtis's anxiety.

"Can you look at these and say if they're the same as the others you got?"

"A fair enough request, I suppose." said the Emperor. She gestured at the box. It slid along the floor, through the magical shield and up to her throne.

"Wha?" Curtis exclaimed.

"Yes, I'm a spellcaster." said Ursamor matter-of-factly. "Don't let your father know, please." She got to her feet and lifted the lid of the box.

That was the moment Simon had been waiting for. Quick as a wink, he magically moved her right hand to a particular spot—just as a small hand shot out of the box (knocking bullets all over the floor), swiped Ursamor's bracelet, and disappeared. A moment later, who appeared beside Simon and Curtis but Jason Blue, with a gold band around his wrist. He grinned with supreme glee, even as he gasped for air after having to breathe through the tiny holes he'd put in the bottom of the box.

At once, the guards all fired off hostile spells at our heroes. In the meantime, Curtis had created some protective shields, and so they were unhurt. Jason was so enraptured with his own victory that he barely noticed the assault. He looked to see Ursamor's reaction.

"Go!" Simon shouted in his ear.

That brought Jason to his senses. He thought of the old abandoned warehouse, and voila! there he was. Roland was pacing around with his flashlight. When he noticed Jason, he stopped and stared at him.

"Success!" Jason cried. "Thank goodness. It worked out perfectly."

Simon and Curtis teleported in only a few seconds later, and the party rejoiced to have come so close to its goal. They were now in even greater danger than before, but they all agreed to wait until tomorrow before trying to reach Leela; all were exhausted.

First, there was the problem of supper. Jason figured (and Simon agreed) that a bounty might have already been placed on their heads, making it unsafe to be seen abroad in Droydania. So, they returned to Roland's apartment and ate a home-cooked meal. Verseportation would've been nigh-impossible for most of the party, thanks to all the magic they'd used earlier that day, but Jason ferried them across by having them grip the bracelet as he crossed the interdimensional gulf.

Roland's cooking, though terrible, couldn't extinguish the party's high spirits. They discussed how the plan had went, from their various individual viewpoints, as they choked the food down.

"It's good that we were able to make some use of those Piercers, after all," said Roland, "even if we didn't get any money for them."

"It's not so good that they're in Droydanian hands now." said Jason. "And we know they have more. At least they don't know how to make them. I wonder why they haven't been able to bully that recipe out of Dojum, actually."

"'Cause they don't have it." said Curtis. Jason stared at him questioningly. "Jake said he gave my dad Piercers, but not how to make them."

"Ah, you're right, Curtis." said Roland. "Ursamor's adviser may well have been mistaken in thinking that Akolos was merely hiding it from them."

"May I ask what you're all referring to?" said Simon.

"Sure." said Jason, and launched into a full account of all his adventures, despite Roland's cold stare. Simon listened carefully and didn't interrupt except to ask an occasional clarifying question. Jason noticed a kind of sadness pass over the singer's face when he mentioned Roland's murders, but a glimmer of appreciation when he told of the tricks he himself had played on the long-lived wizard Ernest and the mighty mother dragon Thorm.

"Thank you for recounting all that for me, Jason." said Simon. "All three of you, I see, have significant experience dealing with strange, powerful, malicious opponents. If anyone's qualified to investigate the matter of the Supernals, you are."

"I never thought I'd hear myself say this," said Roland, "but I agree with you."

"The Supernals." Jason repeated, as if tasting the phrase. "After all I've seen of the things, I think I have some idea of who they are and what they're doing." He concentrated for a moment. "There are two Supernals: one good, and one evil. The evil Supernal wants to create havoc and kill people, especially the four of us, while the good Supernal wants to protect people and better their lives. The evil one's associated with the color purple, and the good one's associated with red. That all sounds about right, doesn't it?"

"It does," said Roland, "though it brings up the question of why the good Supernal hasn't made any monsters to counter the ones the evil Supernal recently created on such a massive scale."

"Right." said Jason. "Well, there are those unicorns in the woods of Droydania, and I believe the good Supernal sent a unicorn to aid us before, but they haven't attacked any other monsters. Or any people, I think." He chewed and swallowed the last bite of his dinner decisively. "It's hardly a satisfactory explanation. With any luck, we'll get a better one tomorrow."

Once the meal was over, everyone heaved himself from the table and prepared for bed. Problematically, however, Simon didn't have a bed. He walked up to Roland and was about to speak when the adventurer beat him to it.

"No." he said firmly. "You may not sleep anywhere in my house."

"Would you, then, be so kind as to lend me money for a hotel room, since I'm not carrying any?"

"No. In fact, you should leave, now. You may return at dawn."

Simon merely stood his ground for a few moments, silently staring back at Roland's glare. Jason watched the encounter from a distance, wondering at Roland's animosity. (Curtis was brushing his teeth noisily in the bathroom, and was thus unable to hear the conversation.)

"Roland" said Simon softly "is there anything I can do to make myself acceptable to you?" His question was not reproachful or rhetorical, but honest: he was really willing to do whatever it took to win Roland's respect.

Roland blinked. His expression stayed rigid. "Nothing." he said. "Even if eunuchism were reversible, and you did right that hideous wrong, I still wouldn't trust you. It is the fact that you decided, of your own free will, to undergo castration that betrays your hidden evil, whatever it is." He walked forward until his nose was a few inches from Simon's, and brought his voice so low that Jason could barely hear it. "The more you try to hide it, the more I feel the echoes of its presence reverberate through every bone in my body."

Simon turned and walked out of the apartment without a word.

"Roland…" Jason began.

"Don't bother." Roland said crisply.

An hour later, when Curtis was snoring loudly and Roland's breathing was audible from Jason's room, Jason slid off his bed and walked to the front door. He unlocked it, stepped out into the hallway, and settled down beside Simon, who was seated cross-legged in the corner. Simon put down the book he was reading, a Droydanian realist novel written about 120 years ago, to look curiously at the boy.

"What brings you here?" he asked quietly.

"I thought you might be here." said Jason. "Would you like to talk?"

"Yes," said Simon, "actually, I was thinking of speaking to you privately. May I start?"

"Go ahead."

"Thank you. What I wanted to say was, after you told me about your experiences over the last thirty weeks or so, I realized that you have great cunning. You have a powerful talent for trickery, and your skill has increased greatly as you've gained practice. That may not sound like such a useful ability, but in fact, you've used it to surmount formidable obstacles. Your cunning is your foremost asset. If you were to consciously develop it, you would become a force to be reckoned with yourself."

"Wow—you think so?" said Jason. "Thanks! Now that I think of it, I am pretty tricky—all of my plans essentially boil down to some kind of trick. Yeah, that's the classic way for the underdog to come out on top: with cunning!"

Simon nodded. "At the same time, I think you also have a persistent fault which has prevented your cunning from reaching its full potential. The simplest way to express it is, you lack prudence. You are thoughtful and analytical by nature, but you sometimes forget to consider the consequences of your actions, and thus, you pointlessly endanger yourself."

"I do?" said Jason, now looking less ecstatic.

"Yes," said Simon, "as when you took the bracelet from Emperor Ursamor. Your plan was excellent—speaking of which, did I follow your instructions correctly?"

"Oh, yeah, definitely. You pulled it off really well, I think. Curtis was the one who nearly ruined it."

"I didn't think he performed that poorly. Anyway, as I was saying, your plan was excellent, but as soon as we finished executing it, you made a foolish mistake. Rather than teleporting directly to the warehouse, you―"

"Oh, yeah. That—that—well, I was pretty proud of myself, at the time."

"My point is that you mustn't get too arrogant and forget yourself as you did then. You must temper your cunning with wisdom. Otherwise, your enemies might take advantage of your lapses of judgment, or you might become your own undoing."

Jason thought about that. He remembered how he'd paused to gloat over Ernest the cat and to congratulate himself after Thorm and company had flown away. He remembered rushing at the guards in the Jilothic prison when he hadn't stood a chance. He remembered failing to act like a proper Victorian child in Akolos's court and getting thrown into the dungeon for it. Yes, he'd let his success go to his head many times in his career as a trouble magnet. And the consequences of such slips might well have been much more serious.

"I think you're right." said Jason. "I've been pretty lucky, so far, but I can't rely on that." He smiled. "I'll try to keep my head screwed on tight from now on."

"A wise decision, I think." said Simon.

They fell silent, and Jason's eyes traced the patterns on the carpet for a while. "If you were to consciously develop it, you would become a force to be reckoned with yourself." Could he? How far could his cunning go? Perhaps, if he did "temper it with wisdom", he could solve problems that appeared impossible. Perhaps (he thought, looking at the magical bracelet) he could find a way back to Earth!

Jason's inner monologue was interrupted by the voice of Simon. "Do you have any insight as to why Roland hates me?"

Jason kept his eyes lowered. "Yeah," he said, "I think it's essentially because of his macho thing. I don't know why he's so quietly obsessed with masculinity, but he is—always has been, always will be, I guess. I find it a little disturbing, because I think his… willingness to kill stems from it."

"I believe he was telling the truth" said Simon "when he said, this afternoon, that he didn't trust me because he didn't understand me. Perhaps he's unable to imagine that a fellow male could have so little concern for masculinity. Indeed, that's merely a rewording of what he said, isn't it?"

Jason thought for a moment. "Yeah, actually."

"I'm glad that I won't have to deal with him much longer." said Simon. "Bearing his hatred is so painful." He looked at Jason with his gentle eyes. "My feelings aren't generally easily affected, but I do experience some depression, which is aggravated by my eunuchism. Roland's behavior has brought it out in me again, I fear."

"I'm sorry to hear that." said Jason, in what he hoped was a sympathetic tone. "Roland can really hold a grudge, as you know from hearing about our encounter with his ex-wife."

"It should help very much to see my mother." said Simon. "I haven't seen her in years. Mothers can be great comforters."

"Yeah," said Jason, thinking wistfully of his own, "tell me about it."