~ · ~ CHAPTER ONE ~ · ~
‘In three weeks’ time, you will face the Oracle and submit to Their test. If you survive Their judgement, you will take my place on the throne of Kigal, as the new Queen of the Ziti,’ says King Lugal, nibbling on a delicious filet mignon. ‘Can you pass the salt, please?’
Nirgal chokes on her steak upon hearing the words of her father. In spite of her usually unfazed demeanour, the young Princess of Kigal starts coughing and spraying half chewed meat all over the person sitting right in front of her: Nakki, her tutor.
‘What did you say!?’ both of them yell, gazing at their royal host in disbelief.
‘You heard me all-right! Ha, ha, ha! I quit!’ roars the King, happily. ‘I’ll retire in three weeks and in order to succeed me, my dear child, you must pass the sacred test of the Oracle. In twenty-one days, no less! So get a move on! If you survive, you’ll be crowned and you, Nakki, will become her Great Chancellor. Now… Can someone pass the salt?’
This strange scene takes place in the royal dining room of the Sata Castle, sitting atop the city of Zink, capital to the kingdom of Kigal. It is a large hall, host to an endless table where more than a hundred people could feast, and which is now occupied by only three people eating cosily in a corner. Solemn arches and slim columns set up a stage of opulence and royal dignity, and through the large windows that oversee the old city, the warm light of the setting sun shines upon trophies of years past.
‘Your Majesty, be reasonable. This cannot be,’ says Nakki, wiping his face while trying to cope with such sudden news. ‘It is absurd! What need is there to retire? You are still young and powerful, you have all your life ahead of you.’
‘You’re absolutely right, my dear boy! I have all my life ahead of me, and I don’t want to spend it all sitting on that stupid throne. So, I decided to fix myself an early retirement. I want to travel and enjoy myself, dilly-dallying all day long, not a care in the world!’
Even though he craves retirement, King Lugal looks as healthy and cheerful as ever. His chubby frame reveals that whatever reason he has to turn down the crown is not nerve-wrecking stress nor want for an abundance of fine meals. It may have something to do with the unquenchable thirst for adventure he was famous for when he was still young and vigorous – a thirst that his only daughter seems to have inherited. Princess Nirgal is not even ten yet, and she has travelled far and wide within the boundaries of Kigal. She has even joined her father when he ventures into the many nations of Ki, their world.
And naturally, where she goes her tutor follows suit, a grave and sour-faced young man bent on teaching her the ways of royalty and more importantly, to control the innate powers she (and everyone in Ki, regardless of their origins) is bestowed upon at birth. A set of very useful yet dangerous skills that need perfecting before the age of eleven, when the time comes for every child of royal birth to prove their worth in front of the mysterious Oracle. It is Their role to judge whether the contender is fit to rule their people – and, as sometimes happens, to claim their life if they don’t.
This is the challenge Nirgal has been set up to face, out of the blue, in three weeks’ time.
‘You know, dad – I think you’re right,’ says Nirgal, trying to sound serious in spite of her devilish grin. ‘Why not? Make the best of your time while you’re still plump and sane and healthy. Go have fun! And leave the kingdom to me.’
‘Absolutely not!’ cries Nakki, standing up in horror. ‘Your Majesty, forgive me, but I must object! The Princess is but a child! It’s too early! She still needs to perfect her telepathy skills, and she hardly has any experience in mind duels.’ The royal tutor opens his hands and forces a smile on his face, in an awkward attempt to appear reasonable. ‘And even if she were to pass the test, you must agree that a ten-year-old is hardly fit to rule a country. There is still plenty of time to complete her training, she may face the Oracle when she is older and wiser – or just older, at the very least!’
‘What do you mean, wiser? I’m plenty wise,’ replies Nirgal, standing up as well. ‘I’m skilled enough to beat the Oracle, and I know Kigal well enough to rule it. Being queen will be a piece of cake, you’ll see!’ Then she turns to her father, and pats him on the shoulder. ‘Dad, this is the best idea you’ve ever had. Out with the old, in with the new, right? Go on holidays and I’ll reign with an iron fist!’
‘That you will, I’m sure of it. I might as well get packing, you seem to have it all under control,’ says the King, nodding approvingly.
‘But – but – but –’ is all that Nakki can manage, unable to believe his ears. ‘Are you even aware of what you are saying? The implications? The consequences? Why this decision, all of a sudden? What has gotten into Your Majesty, if I may ask?’
‘Well, Nakki, consider this: it’s been a while since we had a fine, lasting peace like we do now…” The King lets out a sigh, absentmindedly cutting his fillet. ‘I thought I’d never see the end of the Lobster War, but here we are! Peace at last, and I can finally hand over the crown to Nirgal without constantly thinking of war cabinets and crisis. It may seem a tad early, but she’s smart enough to catch up easily on the affairs of state, and you’ll be there to guide her anyway. Plus, she’s more than ready for the test. She’ll kick the Oracle’s but in no time at all!’
The Princess beams, her grin widening, and Lugal ruffles her hair. ‘Oh, isn’t that precious? Daddy’s little pumpkin, all grown up to be Queen! My, time does fly. We all knew this day had to come eventually… So much better to get it over with now, rather than to wait for the next catastrophe to pop up, am I right?’
Nakki sits back, baffled by the King’s logic. Nirgal hurries to his side and puts an arm around his shoulder.
‘Cheer up, Nakki! Don’t you worry, we’ll do great, you and I! With your brains and my unbreakable spirit, we’ll put the country in shape! Ha, ha, ha!’
‘That’s my girl! Ha, ha, ha!’ Lugal echoes cheerfully.
‘May the gods have mercy…’ whispers Nakki darkly, concealing his grimace behind the pretence of wiping some leftover meat off his brow. ‘Why, of all the royal households in all the world, why did I have to end up in this nuthouse?’
Happily ignoring her tutor’s misery, Nirgal turns sharply towards the King. ‘Daddy, tell, tell… What’s the plan? Where will you go? The Hursag hills, perhaps? Or the hot springs in Kuroe? We liked it very much, last winter. Or maybe you’ll swing by Glik, to visit that friend of yours, whatshisname, the king of the tiger people ‒Right, King Animur!’
‘None of that, pumpkin! I want a nice, long break from politics and diplomacy, somewhere no one recognises my handsome face… So, I figured I’d go to Earth for a while. Since the humans look just like us, I’ll blend in perfectly! And you know, one of my lifelong dreams is to take myself a cute little motor home and travel around that exotic world… It’ll be fun!’
‘The King of Kigal, in a motor home!’ Nakki snaps out of his downcast stupor, unable to hold in his outrage anymore. ‘Like an earthling commoner! Wandering around that backwards, sad excuse of a planet!’
‘Oh, dad! That’s so exciting! Can I come, too?’ Nirgal clasps her hands, delighted.
‘Of course not!’ yells Nakki, bewildered.
‘Of course you can come see me,’ retorts Lugal, and Nakki’s face loses what little colour it had left. ‘But only occasionally, mind you, and then again you must remember that time works a bit funny on Earth… You’d stay there just a day, and a whole week will have gone by here! And lots of things can happen in a week, so better be careful with that.’
‘Oh, yeah… I forgot about the time thingy. It goes seven times slower, wasn’t it? Why do earthlings lose time like that?’
‘I think it’s because of Earth being in a parallel dimension and all that. It’s got to do with quantum stuff, Galam explained it to me one day, and I’ll be damned if I understood half a word he said…’ The King scratches his beard, lost in thought, and then brushes these complicated concepts aside. ‘Well, never mind. Come visit anytime you want – we’ll make sure to taste the local cuisine, catch up on my snapshots and get you back home before Nakki and the Royal Council notice you were ever gone. Deal?’
‘I can hear every word you say!’ protests Nakki.
‘Deal! And maybe sometimes you can come visit me,’ adds Nirgal, beaming with self-importance. ‘After all, I’ll be the queen, and I expect to be very busy fighting off outlaws, and pirates, and all sorts of invaders who want set their ugly feet on our kingdom!’
All of a sudden, she grabs a swordfish that was waiting peacefully on a silver platter for someone to taste it and jumps swiftly on top of the table, swinging it heroically against an unseen enemy.
‘Ahoy! Back off, ye scoundrels, ye ragtag misshaped felons, away! I fear you not!’ she bellows, fencing madly across the table, kicking silver cutlery and fancy tableware left and right. ‘Let the enemy tremble upon seeing our banners raised, for I, Nirgal Sata, shall protect our rice crops with me own life!’
‘Nirgal! Get off the ‒ Rice crops?’ cries her tutor faintly, flabbergasted by the psychedelic turns the conversation is taking. ‘What are you on about? There isn’t a single rice field in all of Kigal!’
‘That’s hardly the point,’ says the King with a smile on his chubby face and a large stonewurst in his hand, and then lets out a grunt of conceit. ‘Huh! A puny princess like you, protect the crops? You and whose army?’ he growls, covering his face with a wide lettuce leaf and jumping on the table with unexpected agility. ‘I shall steal every last grain of rice! Fear the might of Kanasul!
Nirgal lets out an excited giggle, but immediately regains her bold poise, bravely facing the new challenger. ‘Impossible! Has the Reptile King crawled out of his den? Well, la-di-da, no big deal! I have a good mind to wipe the floor with your ugly scaled face!’
The princess-turned-warrior launches forward and strikes her foe, but he manages to dodge the attack and spin around, smacking the small of her back.
‘Auch! That was a low blow! But the Ziti Queen is not so easy to beat! En garde, lizard!’
Nirgal rises her juicy blade, but instead of striking again, she kicks a small tureen as hard as she can. However, Lugal seems unfazed by the onion soup pouring on him ‒or rather, through him. The tureen also flies through him instead of banging against his head, and rolls wildly across the hall. Thunderstruck, the Princess realises that the King in front of her is merely an astral projection, and although she is quick enough to perceive his presence right behind her, she doesn’t even have the chance to turn around before feeling another smack.
‘Foul play!’ she snaps sulkily. ‘That’s not fair! I don’t know how to do an astral projection yet, dad!’
‘Dad? What do you mean by ‘dad’? I am Kanasul, supreme leader of the Musdagurs, and I will usurp your throne and steal all your rice crops! Mwahahahahaha!’ Laughing evilly, the pretend reptile king disarms the girl with a precise jerk of his improvised weapon. The swordfish flies across the hall, misses Nakki by half an inch and splats against the wall behind him.
‘We don’t have any rice!’ the tutor insists, desperately following that one track of simple logic against the black hole of madness before him. ‘Kigal imports all its rice from ‒ Oh, why bother.’
He stands up, folds his napkin neatly and bows down, purely out of habit, because neither royal pays him any heed. The clamour of battle still rings behind him as he heads towards the door, and once he reaches the safety of the threshold, he risks one last glance back. The Princess has found a bucket of steamed lobster claws and is throwing them in an oddly sea-inclined ninja-fashion, forcing the King to deflect the nasty projectiles with a large ham. Nakki walks away gloomily from the ricocheting seafood, and starts scribbling on a little notebook he takes out of his pocket.
‘Three weeks! I have three weeks to shape that carefree little ditz into a proper match for the Oracle! All because the King wants to go on holiday!’ He keeps stomping down the corridor, still hearing distant cries (‘No-no-no-no-no – How dare you throw that stinking cheese at me!?’), and buries his head further in his notebook, scratching frantically. ‘All right, then! Bugger my efforts to compose balanced training schedules. I’ll have her work on her powers nonstop from dawn till dusk!’
Note in hand and muttering grimly to himself, the young man is hardly aware there is a servant in his way, hanging a new tapestry to replace its moth-bitten predecessor. Nakki would have certainly run right into him had he not managed to stop dead in his tracks, much to the surprise of the servant, who looks back to face a point-blank death glare. The terrified man bows mechanically and hurries away, his chores immediately forgotten.
‘Oh, the poor thing… You scared him! It’s hardly his fault that you don’t look where you’re going, sweetheart,’ says a pleasant voice behind him.
Nakki turns around. An elderly lady is coming his way, nodding gracefully at the servant’s bow. Despite her age, there are still traces of a once legendary beauty: her elegant composure, her silver hair bound in an elaborate chignon and her wise, blue eyes, shining warmly at him.
Sighing, Nakki hides his dark thoughts under a polite poker face.
‘Greetings? Oh, darling, what kind of a dull thing is that to say to your mum?’ she chides him, hugging him and kissing both his cheeks.
‘I ‒ uh ‒ I’m happy to see you,’ he mumbles, embarrassed. ‘Why are you here, Mother? Did you come to meet the King?’
‘No, I’m not here for Lugal. I’ll go check on the royal cook – the fideuà we ate last week was simply divine, he must give me the recipe. Oh, and the boys of the Royal Chamber of Commerce have been begging me for ages to take over as president, so I guess I could pop by for a visit.’
She shines her smile at him, but he’s too busy coping with his feelings to react. ‘Honey, you are far too young to look that cranky. Come, tell me ‒ what is the matter?’
Nakki hesitates before saying, ‘The King has summoned the Oracle to test the Princess in three weeks’ time. If she is successful, His Majesty will abdicate in her favour and then ‒ in his own words ‒ will go on holiday.’
‘Oh, my! The little bumblebee will be Queen? But darling, isn’t that just wonderful? We’ll have a crowning festival, and a whole week of banquets ‒ I must have my lilac dress mended ‒ Little Nirgal, Queen… And who knows, maybe in years to come you might be appointed Great Chancellor!’
‘I will ‒ I mean, I already have. I’ll take office as soon as she is crowned, the King said so nonchalantly not ten minutes ago.’
She shrieks in delight. ‘Goodness! My baby, Great Chancellor! Such great news! Oh, we must celebrate‒’
‘No!’ snaps Nakki in spite of himself. ‘It’s not good news! The Princess is too young to pass the test, too young to rule‒ Gods immortal, am I the only one who sees how wrong this is?’ He checks his notes again, muttering, ‘I’ll have to rearrange years’ worth of training in three miserable weeks so that His Bloody Majesty can have his damn holiday and the kingdom can be rid of an irresponsible buffoon, to be replaced by an even younger irresponsible buffoon…!’
‘Let it go, sweetling, let it go,’ she says, embracing him tight so that he can let off some steam. ‘Don’t you worry your pretty head about that. I’ve heard you praise that child’s prowess a hundred times, she’ll do fine with the Oracle.’ He tries to reply, but she hushes him. ‘I know the King can be a bit eccentric‒’
‘Eccentric? They’re having a food fight as we speak!’
‘Well, let them! So Lugal and Nirgal are a couple of airheads, so what? That’s royalty in a nutshell. Kings can be silly, or charming, or erudite, or stark raving mad, that’s the way it’s always been. Let them be, darling, and let us take care of the boring nuances of ruling the country.’
Nakki ponders on her words, while she spruces him up and makes sure he’s perfectly well-groomed.
‘Mother… You knew well enough what kind of people the King and the Princess are. Why, then, did you set me up with them?’ he asks, with the slightest hint of reproach in his voice.
‘Now, now, don’t be so modest, you’re here on your own merits. I merely pulled some strings. Of what use is it to be a senior member of court if I can’t give my darling son a nice job opportunity? The King needed a tutor for his daughter, and you needed a job.’
‘I had a job! On Earth! And I was very good at it!’
‘Of course you did, sweetling, you perform wonderfully in anything you set your mind on. But it broke my heart to see you wasting your talent on that silly earthling company. And you came to visit so rarely… Now you are where you belong.’
‘Babysitting a looney?’
‘Counselling Her Royal Highness on her way to the throne, which in turn makes you the second most powerful person in the kingdom.’
He opens and shuts his mouth, taken aback. ‘I‒ I hadn’t thought of that.’
She glances at him fondly, and gets on her tiptoes to kiss his brow. ‘Oh, Nakki… You mustn’t let your concerns trouble your mind. The answer is always there, you just have to focus and find it. You’ll do just fine. And whatever happens, I’ll always be proud of you.’
There is a moment of silence, followed by a soft ‘Thank you’.
The mood is promptly shattered by an increasingly loud clanging coming from the end of the corridor. An odd-looking kettle with what looks like half a workshop welded to it comes bouncing on the cold stone floor, and rushing after it there is a skinny boy with messy hair, thick glasses and dressed in a lab coat one size too big.
Mother and son break apart immediately, assuming an air of indifferent dignity.
‘Come dine with me this evening, my son. Such news deserves a proper celebration. Until then, may you have a good day,’ she says with perfectly formal composure, to which Nakki can only answer with a deeply respectful bow. She marches on, crossing paths with the speeding young scientist and letting out a sweet ‘Good afternoon, Galam.’
‘Uh? Wha‒ Good afternoon, Ma’am!!’ he babbles, looking back to greet her mid-run, which turns out to be a fatal mistake.
Galam, who never was much of an athlete to begin with, stumbles on his own feet and comes crashing down with a painfully sounding thud. The kettle rolls merrily past Nakki, beeping and twitching ‒ several tiny lightbulbs blinking at random amongst the bolts and strings ‒ and then stops.
‘Galam, what are you doing?’ Nakki asks, helping the boy up. ‘Same as usual! Why are you always so careless? You must watch your step, or else‒’
‘Oh! It’s you, Nakki! Didn’t see you here,’ Galam pants, adjusting his glasses.
‘Of course you didn’t. What in the world are you doing chasing kitchenware down the royal halls?’
‘Kitchenware?’ Galam blinks, his face a paragon of absent-minded naiveté, and upon seeing his high-tech kettle is suddenly reminded why he was here on the first place. ‘Of course! The prototype!’
He jumps, picking it up and presenting it to Nakki. ‘Check this out! Combining the Kadingir technology of the Passageway with a flux radar, so that we can monitor real-time dimensional friction, and channelling the energy within the dimensional rift to kick-start the controller, I managed to miniaturise the‒’.
‘Galam, you’re making zero sense,’ says Nakki, pushing away the kettle dismissively, but the young genius is too excited to listen to him.
‘‒so we’re stepping into a new era of dimensional travelling! This baby can take us to Earth anywhere, anytime! Yippee! Can’t you see how awesome my creation is?’ Galam puts the kettle under his arm, takes out a pencil from the depths of his coat and starts writing complex formulae and elaborate diagrams on the wall. ‘It’s actually pretty simple, you see. We take x as the randomness of the pandimentional friction points, and y would be the variable to represent‒’
‘‒of course, the friction unpredictability calculations alone are humongous, but a powerful enough microprocessor should‒’
‘Galam!!’ Nakki insists, raising his voice to no avail.
‘‒in order to detect a margin of safe passage through the rift into the other dimension, thus avoiding the uncertainty principle‒’
‘GALAM!’ yells Nakki, turning him around and looking him dead in the eye.
This seems to have some sort of effect, because the boy’s blank stare starts to gain some focus and his hand stops its attempts to keep writing on thin air. Galam blinks a couple times, awoken from his scientific possession.
‘Galam! This is hardly the place, time or way to show me whatever mad conception you’ve come up with. I can’t understand a word you say! And should I remind you that sketching charts on the walls of the castle is something a royal engineer should never do? If you want to parade around your new invention, I suggest you request a hearing with the Great Chancellor, and if she thinks it’s something worth bothering the King with, you’ll‒’
His speech is most harshly interrupted by the kettle, still under Galam’s arm, as it starts humming louder and louder. A little bolt on the side spins madly, a red light blinks with nasty intent and the whole thing starts shaking as if there were a nuclear reactor compressed inside.
‘Oh, dear,’ says Galam, producing a screwdriver out of thin air.
‘Oh, dear?’ repeats Nakki, stepping back as if the kettle were seconds from exploding. ‘Galam? What have you done?’
‘It’s probably nothing,’ he says, tinkering nervously with the little machine. ‘It’s not supposed to go o‒’
The kettle rumbles like a particularly angry beehive, and lets out a sudden bang. Galam drops the screwdriver in a fit of panic and seizes Nakki’s wrist, giving him a look of miserable helplessness. Before neither can speak, a bolt of solid light dashes out the kettle spout, enclosing them in electric whiteness. Trapped in the still eternity of a sigh, they feel time stop, sound vanish, threads of reality rip all around.
In less than a millisecond, the bulb of impossible light implodes silently, leaving nothing behind. It is a very special kind of nothing, though. Not only does the light disappear, but also everything within it: a circular chunk of flagstone of 2 metres in diameter, part of a cupboard full of cleaning supplies, most of a solid gold candlestick, half a metre worth of corridor wall with the lower corner of a long tapestry ‒ and of course, a young engineer and the tutor of the future queen.
Two heads peer curiously at the empty corridor from the corner, one covered by a large lettuce leaf, the other with a casserole ‒still dropping carrot soup‒ posing as a helmet. It is Lugal and Nirgal, who have left their food fight aside for a while to investigate on the mysterious wave of energy they felt just a moment ago.
‘Uhm… What do you think happened, dad?’
‘I don’t know,’ says the King, gazing at the falling debris from the patch of missing wall. ‘It looks like one of Galam’s inventions, doesn’t it?’
‘Why, because half the corridor is gone?’
‘Yeah, that’s a giveaway… Oh, well, at least nothing caught fire this time.’ The King sighs, scratching his beard. ‘Oh, well, if that’s Galam’s doing, we’d better not interfere. You know how mad scientists are, it’s better just to let them work, feed them now and then, check on their progress when the explosions from the basement become all too frequent, and all that jazz.’
‘Furthermore, we still have some unfinished business,’ he says, his voice turning into a rasping growl. ‘The rice crops war!’
And he graces her behind with a new smack.
‘Dad! That’s not fair!’ she yells, outraged, raising half a cheese menacingly. ‘We agreed to bury the hatchet and go see what’s up! You cheat!’
‘Bury the hatchet? Don’t make me laugh! I am Kanasul, the evil overlord of the lizards, rancid and rotten to the core! And I never play fair! I’ll steal your rice, your crown and your kingdom!’
‘Like hell you will! Come and get it, you decrepit reptile!’ she retorts, charging against the false Musdagur King with a wild grin on her face. ‘You craven twat! Come over here! I’ll have you hanging by the tail from the highest tower before you know what hit you!’
~ · ~
This is the first chapter of the fantasy novel The Queen of Kigal from the KADINGIR series. For more information in English, please contact with us: email@example.com