Eloise Hydra Gumball III, Future Ruler and Heir to the Western Lands and All That Really Matters, raced across the Culpability Courtyard, trying not to get slammed by a pack of people twice her size. Centuries before, criminals, miscreants, traitors and minor offenders had been dragged into the courtyard and flogged, pilloried, beaten or soundly chided. Now, the castle’s internal field was devoted to the third most popular pastime in all the realms: hockey sacking.
The hockey sack in the 16-year-old princess’s left arm was light enough to carry easily, but heavy enough to feel substantial and to slow her down a little as she sprinted toward the far end of the field. Eloise had snatched the hockey sack from the Them team’s grunter as he bounced it on his knees and elbows. She’d snuck up behind him and snagged it with a diving catch, then rolled out of the dive, scrambled back to her feet, and headed off. As changer, it was her job to get the hockey sack to the other end without getting creamed by a defensive girder or having it stripped from her by the left or right flutter. There, she’d either try to knee-knee-kick it through the basket-shaped goal, or knee-knee-knee-ankle tap it to the middle splendid, who’d belly-trap it then elbow-elbow-elbow-elbow it past the other team’s retainer and into the brass vase beside the goal.
Eloise had a changer’s shape—willowy and lithe—and her handmaid, Odmilla de Platypus, had tied her unruly, dark curls into a changer’s braid, which thumped her in the back as she pounded down the field. Eloise dodged one defensive girder, slipped past a second, then spun to get away from a third. As she got close to the basket, she decided to be fancy: knee-knee-foot-foot-head (left)-head (right)-dropkick. The kick was supposed to swish into the back of the goal, bounce out, then rim back in for two points instead of one. She would have sunk it, too, except the extra moves gave the other team’s left defensive girder time to blindside her. The girder, a woman with the build of a decent-sized shed, flattened Eloise into the turf, grabbed the hockey sack out of the air, avoiding a down, and ankle-ankle-ankle-ankled it to her own changer, who rushed away.
Eloise spat out several blades of grass and accepted the woman’s hand to help her up. In other circumstances, the princess would have waved it off with a polite smile, allowing her habits their sway (it was easier than wondering what agues might lurk in their systems). But here on the Culpability Courtyard, she always swallowed back those inclinations in favor of the camaraderie of the game. Hockey sacking was the one great equalizer at Court. Everyone played hard and played their best, be they royal, noble, or naught.
Jerome Abernatheen de Chipmunk, Eloise’s friend for a decade, was too small to play, so he kept score. When Eloise went down, he raised a purple flag with his tail, rang the gong once, and called out, “Point to Them for stripping the hockey sack.”
The defensive girder punched the air, triumphant. “Go, Them!”
Eloise whirled and looked at Jerome. “Really, Jer? You gave her a point? For that? Were you even watching?”
“Easy there, Princess Eloise. No arguing with the scorekeeper.”
“I wouldn’t argue if the scorekeeper did his job properly, instead of wafting off with his cup of haggleberry tea.”
Jerome set down his cup and saucer. “The changer for Us should focus on where she’s carrying the hockey sack, as well as the relative positions of the Them players, instead of taking issue with the impartial, attentive and exceptionally fair scorekeeper, who carefully balances his calls of ‘Go, Us!’ and ‘Go, Them!’, thereby demonstrating said impartiality.”
Eloise snorted in mock outrage. “The scorekeeper’s attention extends to his tea and, if he stretches, to his plate of Chef’s almond butter chews.”
Jerome wiped almond butter chew crumbs from his whiskers and gave the princess an exaggerated I-don’t-really-want-to-do-this-but-you-made-me look. He raised the purple flag with his tail and rang the gong again, saying, “Point to Them. Sassing the scorekeeper and mocking his almond butter chews.”
Eloise blew a raspberry at him and he returned the gesture, adding a sarcastic tail shake and whisker wobble. She turned back to the game just in time to catch the hockey sack as the Us left flutter lateraled it back to her. She sped away toward the goal, hotly pursued by both Them defensive girders.
Hop a Cart
After the game, which—to Eloise’s embarrassment—had ended in Them winning by a single point, both teams and the small crowd moved to a sunny area for a post-game convivium. The long tradition of food and beverages after the final flag helped ensure that any on-field rivalry melted back to friendliness, thereby keeping peace at Court. Servants (a couple of whom had just been playing) served bubbling cider, haggleberry tea and haggleberry chai, bowls of fruits that were surprising to see this late in autumn, a savory jackfruit curry, and abundant platters of Jerome’s almond butter chews.
Eloise and Jerome sat on a bench with a lovely view of a sycamore, whose leaves wafted down in the occasional breeze. “I didn’t deserve that penalty point,” the princess said. Taking a knife and fork, she sliced a rectangular almond butter chew into exact quarters, then eighths, arranging the pieces into pairs by combining one and eight, two and seven, three and six, and four and five. She would eat them in that order when she was ready. Her rituals were her rituals, and her habits were her habits. She simply preferred doing things just so—it made her feel better, or at least right, for a while.
“Of course you deserved it. You’re lucky I approach scorekeeping with benevolence and tolerance. It might have been two points.” Jerome sipped his tea (never sweetened) and sighed. “Chef really can brew a perfect tea, when she has a mind to. I can tell from the taste when she’s feeling relaxed and happy, and when she’s hassled and passed the tea preparation to one of her scullery hands.”
The pair sat in silence, enjoying the food, the breeze and the spectacle of the leaves. “I’ve missed this,” said Eloise. “Spending time together.” She rubbed her calf, feeling a sore spot. There would be a deep purple bruise by nightfall, a souvenir of the game.
“Court makes it harder, for sure. You’re busy all the time. It’s not like it used to be, when our biggest concern was distracting Chef enough for one of us to snatch a couple of brioches, or worrying about memorizing one of the Venerable Prelate Herself’s interminable devotional lists about Çalaht. I mean, the lists in the Scrolls of Çalaht are bad enough on their own. But the Venerable Prelate Herself’s tutelage also had all of those lists she created, supposedly to help with learning.”
“I know,” said Eloise. “The 18 Miraculous Visions Involving Cutlery.”
“The 23 Supplications to Use on Snowy Days.”
“As if anyone would care, or even use them.” Jerome sipped again, then nibbled a slice of peach, which must have found its way from The South. “How about the 52 Tedious Passages That Really Are Important?”
“That one I have to give her,” said Eloise. “They were definitely tedious. Incredibly so. But if you want to understand the foundational teachings from the Divine One, they do help.”
“I wouldn’t know,” said Jerome. “I couldn’t bring myself to read them.”
A few more minutes passed as they ate in comfortable silence.
“You know what would be fun?” said Eloise.
“Going somewhere. Just sneaking off for a day. Away from the demands of Court.”
“Good luck with that. The queen has you booked solid.”
“Tell me about it. If it isn’t a reception for an olive enthusiasts club visiting from the Eastern Lands, it’s a reception for a wart cream merchants association from the Half Kingdom. She says it’s good for me to attend these things, that it will help me get used to hobnobbing and kibitzing, and start making connections with people from the four-and-a-half realms.”
“Wart cream connections could be important someday.”
“Crucial to peace in our times, I’m sure.” Eloise took another almond butter chew and placed it in the exact centre of the folded serviette on her tray, but did not cut it up yet. “I love the colors this time of year.”
“When I was a pup, my mother used to take me to Waft! An Autumnal Festival.”
“A local festival at Mooondale that celebrates autumn. It’s named after the leaves that waft down from above.”
“Never been. That’s, what, half a day’s cart journey from here?”
“Less. Much less, depending on how you travel. Mooondale has huge stands of deciduous trees, like gingko, smokebush and maple. At this time of year, people come from all over to see the colors and drink the famous secret punch that’s made from a carefully guarded blend of yellow, orange and red ingredients.”
“Sounds fun. I wish could go.”
“Can’t. Too much going on. Really can’t.” Eloise put her plate down on the tray. “But nice thought, anyway.”
“Come on, El. Let’s go together. You really think the wart cream enthusiasts will miss you?”
“It was olive enthusiasts, and no, they probably wouldn’t. It’s not like they’re here to see me.”
“So, play hooky. Feign an ague. We could catch a ride with a merchant going down the Queen’s Road, get to Mooondale, see some trees, have some punch, hop a cart coming back toward Brague, and have you at the dinner table in time to say, ‘I’m feeling better now, thanks.’ Easy.”
Jerome jumped up, excited. “You should see the trees, Ellotastic. Yellows and golds and oranges and auburns and reds and every shade in between.” He pointed at the sycamore. “It’s like this, times a hundred. Times a thousand.”
“Would it work?”
“Of course it would work, El. Come on. Live a little.”
“Whizzing off in secret for a day is really not the sort of thing I do, Jerissimo.”
“All the more reason to do it. Soon, Court is going to suck up every second of your life. Even more than it does now. You think it will be easier to sneak away then?”
“So, let’s sneak away now.”
“Mother will kill me.”
“Only if the queen finds out. Which she won’t.”
Eloise poured another cup of haggleberry tea and placed it and the pot equidistant from the edges of the tray. She checked in with her habits about the excursion. None of them were screaming, probably because the travel would be brief and by cart. And Jerome was right. The pile of obligations and commitments would only grow. Waft! An Autumnal Festival sounded lovely, and not that far away. Would anyone really miss her? Not her twin sister, Johanna. They weren’t talking that much anymore. Odmilla might, but Eloise could make sure she disappeared after breakfast, when Odmilla was busy handling laundry. She could send a messenger herald to let her mother know she wasn’t feeling well and would have to miss whatever it was that was going on.
“How would we find a cart?”
“Radishes. The radish mongers from Lower Glenth go past Mooondale to get here. We just have to find one of them heading home. I can find one. What do you say?”
“I say this is a bad idea.”
“El, do you remember passage 36 from the Venerable Prelate Herself’s list? The one where Çalaht praises the leaves of a liquidambar, and talks about the impermanence of all that one grasps onto as precious?”
“I thought you didn’t read them.”
“I read that one. The liquidambar thing happens right before that whole horrible episode with her thumbs. But it’s dull, like the Venerable Prelate Herself says, so people skip it.”
“Are you suggesting that slinking out of the castle for a day of foliage observation would be an important step in one’s spiritual understanding of the life of Çalaht?”
“Nope, but that sounds like a good argument.”
Eloise picked up a sycamore leaf and twirled it in her fingers. “See what the radish monger situation is. I’ll see what’s on the agenda for tomorrow. I might be feeling a bit peaked after all.”
“That’s the spirit!” Jerome bowed formally and went down on one knee. “It would be my honor to abscond with the princess to enjoy a few hours of autumnal gazing at Waft! An Autumnal Festival.”
“Thank you, Master Jerome.”
“Now, are you going to eat that last almond butter chew, or what?”
In a Circle
That night, Odmilla brushed out Eloise’s curled mess of hair, a ritual Eloise enjoyed. Before the platypus became her handmaid, having a nanny or servant do her hair was a penance at best, and a torture at worst. But Odmilla’s clever, patient paws could coax out even the most determined knots, a knack Eloise swore bordered on weak magic. She learned to relax as Odmilla methodically separated her hair into strands and tugged it gently with wide-toothed combs, and sometimes, if the styling was ambitious enough, narrower combs.
“Princess, what sort of braid do you fancy this evening?” asked Odmilla. Her rubbery platypus snout and her heavy, rural Southie drawl made it difficult to understand, but Eloise was used to it by now.
“Whatever suits, I guess. Something simple and tight. We’ll save frilly, complicated, and message-laden for another time, don’t you think?”
“As you wish, Princess. Do you have a preference for ribbon color?”
Eloise thought about the outfit she planned to wear the next day. “Navy blue, please.”
“Oh, a change. Well, you know what they say. A change is as good as having your blood replaced.”
“Not a great phrase, really.”
“No, Princess. Not really.”
Her hair done and dressed for bed, Eloise bid her handmaid goodnight and blew out the candle. She then drank a full volume of water to make sure she woke up early.
In the pre-dawn light, Eloise dressed herself in sensible clothes suitable for travel at that time of year, left Odmilla a note that would not cause alarm, slipped out of the family living quarters, and went to the rendezvous point Jerome had specified: the Dangling Participle, a public inn favored by poets, bards, and sticklers about language.
The cart that Eloise and Jerome rode on belonged to a stout radish monger named Bööster Böyden, who everyone called BB. His “going to town” crofter’s clothes looked well-mended and clean (Eloise suspected a loving spouse), his complexion reminded Eloise of a turnip, and his hair shared the exact texture, form and shade of brown as a particular flocked rug in one of the castle’s guest rooms. They sat on the back of the cart, feet dangling off, leaning against the crates. Jerome had even organized a cushion and blankets to keep them warm and keep dust off Eloise, which would help keep her habits in hand.
The cart was pulled by a chipper, chatty bay horse named Basilio de Bardigiano, who went by BdB. Jerome had found them waiting for their radish crates to be filled with pears for their return trip to Lower Glenth. BB and BdB were equal partners in a transport enterprise. Their cart sported a jaunty, hand-painted cartoon of a giant radish with cart wheels featuring cartoon likenesses of BdB and BB. Below this were the words “Radish Rollers: Transporters of Fine Radishes and Radish-Related Products.” Then, in smaller letters: “You have Radishes. We have wheels. Let’s roll!!!” They’d been happy to accept a few of Jerome’s coins in return for a spot on the back of their cart, no questions asked. As the cart rolled down the main road, Eloise was relieved it was full of pears, and not something with a less appealing smell, like durian, pukeweed, or used socks.
The one tricky moment was exiting the castle gates. To almost anyone, she’d look like an ordinary traveller sitting on the back of a cart. But that day, the duty guard was Lorch Lacksneck from Lower Glenth. Eloise was not friends with him, but knew him well enough to say hello. He was a dedicated, respectful wall of muscle and rectitude. Lorch chatted with BB and BdB as he checked them through the castle gate, noting them on the exit scroll. “Say hey to my folks if you see them,” he said.
“Will do,” BB said.
“And if my mother holds true to form, you’ll need the following answers to her questions: Yes, he’s eating. Yes, the fungal issue has cleared. No, really, it’s cleared up. No, he’s not married. Yes, he would tell you beforehand. No, you should not be holding your breath. No, he hasn’t forgotten how to write. Yes, he loves you.”
As the cart pulled through the gate, Lorch looked up from the exit scroll and caught Eloise’s eyes. His brow furrowed, puzzled. He looked down at the scroll and back up at her. She gave him a small wave, then put her index finger across her lips in a “let’s keep this quiet” gesture. His furrowed look deepened, and he cocked his head in an unspoken question. Eloise held her thumb and forefinger three weak lengths apart, hoping the narrow gap conveyed a short amount of time. Then she pointed to Jerome, showing that she was not on her own.
Lorch let the cart go, but his face remained neutral and his eyes on her until BdB rounded a corner and the castle gate was no longer in sight.
Eloise’s stomach tightened. Would he rush off and tell someone? Would there suddenly be a squadron of guards ready to haul her home? She hoped not. She was really looking forward to a day out. But if a retrieval crew showed up, well, so be it.
They rolled past the town walls and out into the countryside, following the Queen’s Roadway for a few strong lengths before turning off onto a smaller road toward Mooondale and Lower Glenth. BB and BdB kept up a steady flow of amiable conversation. It had been BdB’s first trip to Brague, and the horse’s chatter revealed a gossipy fascination with the castle and town, especially with its equine goings-on. “Did you know, BB, did you know, did you know there are establishments in Brague that are just for horses? Horses only, BB.” The horse trotted, neck crooked, keeping one eye on the road while the other looked up at BB in the driver’s seat.
“Actually, I had, indeed, heard such things, yes.”
“And you didn’t tell me beforehand? You left me to figure that out on my own?”
BB wiped a hand across his face. “Never occurred to me to say anything. Sorry. But it’s not like you asked, either.”
“How am I to know to ask you about something that I don’t know exists?”
“Do you know what goes on in those places?” BdB looked scandalized. “Can you guess?”
“I’m guessing that one might have something to nibble and something to drink. And one might enjoy the company of other horses.”
“Yes, yes. Of course, there’s that. But gambling, BB! Gambling! They gamble using oats for wagers!”
“BdB, are you telling me that there is gambling taking place right under the nose of our fair queen?”
“Under her nose? No, she wasn’t there. Not that I saw.”
“Figure of speech, BdB.”
“Oh. Sorry, I can’t always tell. There was one Percheron there, a huge stallion who wore something that made him smell of flowers.”
“Flowers, BB. A stallion who smelled of flowers. Like wisteria and frangipani. I smelled it with my own nose. He had a Hanoverian mare on one side and an Arabian mare on the other. He called them his ‘good luck charms’. Colt, oh, colt, they were pretty. Anyway, the Percheron was wagering bushels at a time. Bushels, BB! Of oats!”
“Is that a fact, BdB?”
“It is! It is! I saw it with my own eyes, BB.”
“Well, that’s something. What were they gambling on? Cards? Dice?”
“Humans! They were gambling on humans running foot races! They had this circle, and humans raced around it.”
“You don’t say, BdB.”
“I do say, BB. I say it very much. Humans!”
“Why would anyone wager perfectly good oats on a bunch of humans running in a circle?”
“That is the salient question, BB, I daresay. Made no sense to me at all. No sense at all.”
Eloise had never heard of such entertainment in Brague. She caught Jerome’s eye and gave a questioning shake of her head. Jerome shook his back. It made her wonder what else went on that she was ignorant of.
“So?” asked BB.
“So, did you place a wager, BdB?”
The horse stopped talking, although the cart kept moving. The pause stretched. Suddenly, Böyden let loose the deepest laugh Eloise had ever heard. “Why, Basilio de Bardigiano, you bet on a human!” His guffaws were infectious, and Eloise found she could hardly keep from laughing herself.
If horses could blush, BdB would have looked like a beetroot.
“Did you… Did you…” BB could barely get the words out through his laughter.
“Did I what?” The horse sounded indignant. He held his chin up and trotted down the road without looking left or right.
“Did you… Did you win?”
Another long pause.
BB howled with laughter, tears trickling from his eyes. “I’m gonna… I’m gonna…”
BdB stopped and turned his neck all the way around, so he was looking straight at his business partner. “Don’t.”
“I’m gonna, I’m gonna tell your missus!”
“Please, BdB. Please, don’t. She wouldn’t understand.”
“She wouldn’t understand? I don’t understand. You wasted perfectly good oats wagering on humans running around from nowhere to nowhere. Ludicrous! I thought you had more sense than that, BdB.”
The horse hung his head, ashamed. “Apparently I don’t,” he whispered. “I thought it would be fun.”
“Was it?” BB’s laughter faded.
“No. I felt sorry for the humans, being forced to run around like that. Poor bloody things. I wanted to take them all home with me.”
“I’m sure they’re fine. Some humans like racing around.”
“They didn’t look fine, BB. They looked sad. And they didn’t look like they had much choice about being there.”
That stopped the laughter. It wasn’t such a fun or funny idea if someone treated the people badly, or forced them to participate in something exploitative.
The cart rolled down the road for a dozen strong lengths in silence. Eloise thought this might be something she should take up with her mother when she returned.