Walker walked out onto the balcony before a cheering crowd. A magistrate in flowing purple robes stood holding a large metal rod.
As the crowd noise died down, Hugh struggled to understand everything that was said through the haze of last night’s festivities. He only heard bits and pieces, as the magistrate seemed to mumble through the ceremony.
“With this… for all… you swear to…”
Walker put his hand on the rod, and looked out over the crowd, shouting clearly, “On this scepter, I swear to uphold the law of the city, to defend her from all dangers, both within and without, and to be ever mindful of the city’s wellbeing in all of my decisions.”
The magistrate let go of the rod, and proclaimed in a loud voice, “I present to you: Chancellor Edward.”
The crowd roared, and Hugh winced. He looked over at the twins. The giant was cheering loudly. The dwarf was holding his stomach with one hand, breathing laboriously. Hugh turned to him and put his hand on his shoulder. The dwarf looked up for the briefest moment, then vomited on the feet of all three of them.
Hugh just kept patting the dwarf on the back as the giant looked down in disgust.
Walker set down the scepter and approached the railing. He leaned forward on it with one hand and waved his other. After his gaze had panned across the crowd a few times, he motioned to the crowd with his palms downward. Everyone quieted.
“Only in Polity,” said Walker. A huge roar rose in the audience. Walker smiled and turned to someone behind him to say something. He faced the crowd again, smiling and laughing. “Only in Polity could a humble farmer ever hope to one day rise to the highest position in the city he has lived in and loved his whole life.”
The crowd cheered again. Walker drank it all in for awhile.
“I’m not one for long speeches. I’m like you: simple. So, I will give you simply the greatest spectacle you have ever seen.” More cheers. “I am pronouncing a celebration, complete with free public access to the arenas, race tracks, and theaters, which will be entertaining you from dusk ’til dawn for three days straight.”
As the crowd cheered, women carrying baskets circulated through the crowd, handing out small cakes wrapped in rice paper, tied shut at the top with a little red ribbon bow.
Hugh was handed one. He opened it and popped the moist, white cake into his mouth whole. It was softer than anything he had ever eaten, like how he imagined a cloud would feel in his mouth. There was a hint of citrus over the savory-sweetness. It was enough to make him forget about his head pounding rhythmically amid the din of the ceremony.
A little girl walked up to Hugh and pointed to the ribbon in his hand. He gave it to her and she smiled before running off. Hugh noticed many of the girls in the crowd were tying the ribbons into their hair.
The giant looked to Hugh with her eyes wide open as she took a bite of her cake. She smiled while chewing.
“I’ll save mine for later,” the dwarf said, blinking erratically and wiping bile from his beard.
Walker outlined some things he planned to do, and before long he was leaving the balcony to deafening fanfare.
As the crowd began to disperse, the three of them looked at each other.
“Now what?” the dwarf finally asked.
“We need to plan a burial,” said Hugh.
“Okay… and how do we do that exactly?” asked the dwarf.
“Walker promised us he would help us if he won,” said the giant.
“Right,” said the dwarf. “So… I guess we just go ask him?”
“I suppose so,” said Hugh.
They looked at the balcony where Walker had been standing. They walked up to the building and around it to the front. Outside two large double doors were two guards.
“Hello,” said Hugh. The guards stood silently. “We need to talk to Walker for a moment, it won’t take long.”
One of the guards snickered, then he said, “No one sees Chancellor Edward without an appointment.”
“Here’s the thing,” said the giant. “We’re guests in his house. He has the dead body of our friend in his basement. I was wondering when we could expect him to get a sea burial.”
The guard who spoke before looked at the other, who doesn’t move, before saying, “The Chancellor is not to be disturbed. He is still finalizing the plans for his victory celebration, he has council positions to appoint, and… he’s more than a little hung over. We were instructed to let no one enter the Chancellery.”
“You talk too much,” said the other guard without turning to look at him.
The chatty guard turns to the other. “Come on, don’t you recognize them? Do you think it’s some other cyclops with two huge companions?”
“You’re over-thinking the job,” said the other guard. “Just keep your mouth shut and do as you’re told. Don’t look for exceptions, just obey.”
“You’ve been doing this too long,” said the first.
“And you, not long enough,” said the other.
The first guard hangs his head and sighs. “Look, guys. I suggest you go catch a play or gladiator match. Just have a good time. It’ll be a while before the Chancellor will be able to attend to you. Your best bet is to wait for him as his home tonight. He has not yet made arrangements to sleep here, so I know you can catch them this evening.”
“You see, right there,” said the other guard, “If they were trying to kill the Chancellor, you just gave them a roadmap.”
“Oh shut it,” said the first guard. “I know for a fact the Chancellor wants to talk to them. They’re part of the entertainment.”
“What?” asked the giant.
“Rumor has it you’re going to be the first woman to fight a man in the arena.”
“She will be,” shouted a distant voice from high above them. Walker leaned out a window a few stories up. “Though not today. Today, I will need to employ your services as hunters. It seems we’re a liger short for the grand finale on the third day. I already sent a courier to Hank, so head back to my house and tell them you’ll be leading the expedition. I’d hurry if I were you.”
The three of them ran to Walker’s estate. They found Henry sitting in the garden writing.
“Walker wants us to get the liger,” said the dwarf.
Henry looked up. “Very well.” He immediately looked back down and crossed a few things out.
“What about the body?” asked Hugh.
“He is currently in the mausoleum covered in fire-dried sand. It will preserve his body from rot and decay for weeks.”
“Weeks?” asked Hugh.
“Don’t worry, we’ll make arrangements for longer storage soon,” Henry said, still looking down and writing. “Hopefully it won’t take longer than a few months.”
“Well, I would hate for our liger hunt to take a few months,” said the giant.
Henry smiled, wrote for a few more seconds, looked up, and said, “My dear, you will do well here. But I assure you, the Chancellor is very busy at this point. The burial of your friend is low on his list of priorities.”
“It’s such a small request,” said Hugh.
“Is it?” asked Henry. “Sea burials can only occur on the day before a new moon, so there can only be one per month. The next one is in eleven days, and it has been reserved by that person for twenty-six years. He was a member of the High Council, and he died three months ago. Is that a small request?”
“But here’s the thing,” said the dwarf. “It could be on the night of a full moon for all I care, I just want him buried at sea.”
Henry squinted at him. “Is this a joke?”
All three said no.
“You don’t care what day he’s buried at sea, or what time?”
Again, all three said no.
Henry stared at them, mouth slightly ajar.
“Is this insulting?” asked Hugh.
“Not to me,” said Henry, “It’s insulting to your friend.”
“How so?” asked the giant.
“If you’re buried during a full moon, there’s basically no chance you will ever become a star.”
“What?” asked the giant.
“Do you have any idea what a sea burial is?” asked Henry.
The three of them looked at each other.
“We thought it would make it easier for him to get to his mansion under the sea,” said Hugh.
Henry blinked a few times, then laughed, and he laughed in that awkward, uncontrolled way that people who don’t often laugh in public tend to do. It was kind of embarrassing, really.
“It’s the desire of everyone to be given a sea burial, because you are put onto a ship that is set out to sea, then lit aflame, and it will sail you into the heavens to become a star, but you must avoid the Moon, for she is jealous and will swallow up those who try to get too close, thereby drawing attention away from her.”
“But wait,” said Hugh, “If you set a ship in the water on fire, it will sink to the bottom of the sea.”
“I suppose, yes,” said Henry, “That is what happens. But you should see it. It looks like the ship is sailing over the horizon and into the sky itself.”
“Since I don’t think he’s aiming for the stars, I don’t think he has to look out for the moon,” said the giant.
“Well, if you just want his body to be at the bottom, why don’t we just have a boat take you out, and you can dump him over?” asked Henry.
“I want to see the boat thing,” said the dwarf.
“It will save you the cost of a boat,” Henry said.
“How about this,” said the giant, “We’ll dump the old man’s body at sea so he can get to his mansion. Then, we’ll stick around for the sea burial that we don’t have to pay for.”
“Works for me,” said the dwarf.
“Alright,” Henry said, “This will be much easier than I thought.” Henry got up and motioned for them to follow him. He moved into the house and handed his writing tablet to a man just inside the door, who took it and ran off. Henry turned to the three of them. “Let’s get you on some so you can set out to meet the hunting party.”
“They’re already out there?” asked the giant.
“If all is going as planned, they’ve already located an assembly of ligers.”
“An assembly?” the dwarf asked.
“That’s what a group of ligers is called,” said Henry. “There are semi-permanent hunting camps on the outskirts of the savannah, which is a full day’s ride from here. We’re going to have to get you mounted up and on the road with a guide to direct you, and you should arrive early tonight. The next morning you’ll rendezvous with the group that is tracking the nearest assembly.”
“Which is a pack of ligers,” said the dwarf.
“Thanks…” the giant said.
Henry looked at Hugh. “I don’t think you can go.”
“Why not?” asked Hugh.
“You need to ride on horseback to get there, and we don’t have any horses that could carry you. Maybe a few could bear your weight, but none of them could carry you at the speed you must travel over the terrain you will need to cover. There may be horses in the north that can carry you, and we’ll be on the look-out for one to add to our stable, but for now I’m afraid you’re bound to the city.”
Hugh looked at the twins. They had never in their lives slept out of his sight. Hugh felt uneasy. The giant looked back to Hugh, smiling with only half her mouth. Her eyes looked sad.
“How are we going to trap a live liger?” asked the dwarf.
“I’m not an expert on that,” said Henry. “I imagine some sort of net, as you can’t hurt the animal at all. It has to be healthy for its appearance in the arena. Come, we’ll get you saddled up.”
To be continued…