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Excerpt: Falstaff’s Big Gamble (1)

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Excerpt: Falstaff’s Big Gamble (1)

PROLOGUE

Sir John Falstaff and his page, Poulet, thundered through the city gates a few minutes ahead of the angry husband and his relatives, and seconds before the gates were locked. A partial moon gave them enough light to pick out the woodland road they traveled.

A few miles from the city of Cintri in southern Gundarland, Falstaff called out, “Slow down, Poulet. My horse is tiring.”

“Next time, steal a horse, not a bag of bones.” Poulet, bundled up in a brown cloak, rode a fine pony.

“Now you’re a connoisseur of horse thievery? Is there no end to your learning?” Falstaff knew his hairy-toed half-pint page was right; the horse was an old nag, but under the circumstances, it was the best he could find.

“How can you expect a horse like that to carry all your excess weight?” Poulet called over his shoulder.

“Don’t start in on my weight. The women like me the way I am.” The fifty-year-old Falstaff wore an expensive dark blue doublet and matching hose. Both garments, a few years old and fitted to a much lighter man, threatened to burst at the seams with a wrong move. A scabbard with a jeweled hilt adorned his left hip.

Falstaffs-Big-Gamble“I’m gettin’ tired of hustlin’ outta town because some husband wants to kill you.”

“Wooing noble women is the fastest and surest way to get money. The sweet thing I entertained this evening gave me a purse of coins to help me get away from her cretin husband. Besides, ’twas time to move on. I’m too well known now to get anyone to invest in a new scheme.”

“It’s good you gotta heavy purse, but we can’t spend the coins in the towns around here. You’ll get hung if we go near any of ‘em.”

“‘Tis not my fault these small towns have silly rules about card sharping and wooing married women. Let’s rest until dawn.” Falstaff dismounted and his horse whinnied in relief. “With first light, we’ll head north to Dun Hythe. I haven’t been there in a number of years. Perhaps we’ll find new faces and new opportunities.” He stretched his muscles, cramped from riding, and slapped Poulet on the shoulder. “I have an itch in my palm and it bodes well for us.”

PART ONE

CHAPTER ONE

Hamlet, Crown Prince of Denmarko, paced the castle battlements late on a clear, cool spring night. He walked with hands clasped behind his back and head down. He had a thin nose with brown hair and eyes. His scrawny build and clean-shaven face gave him the appearance of a starving waif.

He paused, gazed at the multitudinous stars, sighed and continued his pacing. A breeze brought the smells of the harbor: salt water and rotting fish guts. At last, he stopped, thrust one hand to the sky and declaimed, “To bee or not to bee?” He stroked his chin. “Whether ’tis nobler to buy honey from the peasant farmer in the market and thus provide him sustenance and income to support his brood of brats, possibly keeping him from rebelling over high taxes . . . or to grow my own honey thus gaining coins to assert my independence from my noble family and the sordid court? Hmm.”

He paced some more, still troubled by his vexing question. Nothing less than his future depended upon the answer. Because his uncle, and now stepfather, Clodio, had usurped his right to rule the kingdom, he needed a profession and an income.

“Do you always talk to yourself?” a voice said from the shadows.

“Who . . . who goes there?” Hamlet’s head snapped from one side to another while his hand grasped the hilt of his dagger.

“‘Tis I, the ghost of your father. I bring a message for your ears alone.”

Hamlet goggled at the specter who materialized in the shadows of a doorway. “You’re not my father’s ghost. My father was a dwarf and you’re the ghost of an elf. You’re an impostor and a dead one to boot.”

“Hey, your father is busy and he asked me to fill in.”

“Busy? In the underworld? What’s he doing?” Hamlet clutched his red tunic and tugged downward as if to hide his shaking hands.

“He met a good-lookin’ ghost of a female dwarf and he’s wooin her.” “Dead not a month, and he forsakes his wife, my mother?
“You gotta understand. Life on this side — no pun intended — is pretty

borin’. When you gotta a chance to do somethin’ interestin’, you gotta go with it.”

Hamlet ran a hand over his face. Why me? he thought. “What’s the message?”

“His death was no accident. It was murder most foul. Here is his exact message. ‘But know, thou noble youth, the serpent that did sting thy

Father’s life, now wears his crown.’” The ghost paused then added, “Did your father always talk funny like that?”

“Murdered? By whom?”

“Didn’t you listen? The message tells you who whacked him. Your father wants you to send this guy over here so he can talk to him. He doesn’t wanna wait until the guy croaks from natural causes.”

Hamlet watched in awe as the ghostly figure evaporated. A few seconds later, it popped back into sight. “Oh, I forgot to tell you. Your father says, ‘Thy mother the queen is to know naught of this nocturnal visit.’” The ghost disappeared.

His father’s murder shocked him. And the murderer had married his mother immediately afterward. Did the world have no morals?

He recalled his first thoughts when he’d heard of his father’s death. How he admired the perseverance and tenacity his father must have had to commit suicide by suffocating himself with a pillow. Now all that admiration was wasted; the old dwarf had had help.

What to do? He needed to make decisions about bee farming and now he had to avenge his father. Was there no end to the demands on a prince’s time? He said to the stars, “To bee-keep or to avenge? That is the question.”

###

Othello, a dark elf, shouldered his way through the teeming streets of Dun Hythe.

Born in a forest in central Gundarland, he had rarely been in a town, let alone a large city like this. The sheer size of the population and the mix of races staggered him. He walked along the main street filled with the sounds of wagon traffic, cursing drivers, squeaky cart wheels. Together, the sounds produced a cacophony that assaulted his ears.

In the forest where he had grown up, the population consisted almost exclusively of dark elves, and anyone not a dark elf was viewed with suspicion. Dun Hythe had a population almost equally divided between large humans, criminally inclined elves, homicidal dwarfs and hairy-toed half- pints. The city also had a group of maniacal trolls.

Othello wondered why all these hordes of different races, packed together in tenements, didn’t engage in racial warfare. Dun Hythe was beyond his experience and all the history of his tribe. He wondered if this strangeness would affect his ability to carry out his assignment as Minister of Homeland Security for the city.

His wife, born and raised in the city, had told him Dun Hythe had never been attacked. With a history like that, security shouldn’t be much of a problem.

Othello marched up the steps of the city hall. He couldn’t recall another day when he had felt so proud and so confident. He determined this time would be different; this time he wouldn’t fail.

Two members of the Troll Patrol lounged by the door shooting dice. They ignored him. He hesitated a moment, undecided whether to chastise them for not recognizing and saluting their new commanding officer. In a gracious mood, he forgave them because Captain Iago might not have given them the word yet. Inside, he climbed the stairs to the second floor office of Mayoress Glyniss. An empty secretary’s desk sat outside the office door.

He straightened his tan tunic and adjusted his matching tan kepi with a large gold C — for Colonel — on the front. He knocked on the door frame and smiled at the middle-aged woman sitting behind a large desk. Glyniss looked up at the sound.

“Come in, Colonel Othello.” She stood and walked to a conference table near the door. “Let’s get you sworn in, then we’ll talk about your responsibilities.” She gave him a frozen smile. “Raise your right hand and repeat this oath. ‘I swear to protect the city of Dun Hythe and never betray the city’s interests or to put my needs before the city’s needs.’”

Othello swore the oath and sat down, careful not to wrinkle his tan pants. They were tucked into cavalry boots. He removed the kepi and placed it on the table.

“Nice uniform,” Glyniss said.

“Thank you.” Othello had designed it himself and added plenty of gold braid on it. He chose the tan color because it set off the dusky complexion typical of dark elves. Tall and lean, he had short, glossy, ebony hair and bronze-colored eyes. He also had a thin nose, broad lips, a pointed chin and large ears that stuck out from the head. “I’m anxious to get started.”

“We — the Council and I — felt we had to establish this position because of the potential trouble caused by the outbreak of peace throughout Gundarland.”

“I . . . I don’t understand.” Othello frowned. “I thought my position was to protect the city. How can peace threaten it?”

“Countrywide peace is an unknown factor. No one knows what will happen because of it. I used the public scryer network to contact every province in the country. All of them are at peace. I don’t think it has ever happened before. You can see the most visible sign of peace everywhere in the city. It’s the swarm of ex-warriors, almost all dwarfs, that came to the city looking for jobs. Most of them are unemployed and homeless and survive only by committing crimes. Since they are trained soldiers and came here with their weapons, they constitute a threat to law and order. They also present a threat of insurrection. Your most pressing assignment will be to get control of these soldiers and defuse their potential for causing trouble.”

Othello squirmed in his chair. “Do you have any advice on how to do that?” He had thought of his responsibility only in terms of a threat from outside the city, not from inside.

“None at all.” Glyniss stared at him. “I created this new position so I wouldn’t have to solve problems like that.” She pointed to a map of the city that covered most of one wall. “I can tell you they tend to gather around the docks. They sometimes get day jobs loading or unloading ships.”

“I won’t disappoint you,” Othello replied with more conviction than he felt. “I’ll look into the situation immediately.”

“Good. These demobilized soldiers present another threat to the city. They may join up with pirates and attack our shipping. If that occurs, merchants and traders will choose to avoid our port and go south to Cintri. That will mean a loss of customs revenue. The city has four patrol craft to dissuade piracy, but they may be overmatched if the soldiers get involved. You need to develop a plan and implement it to protect our revenue sources.”

Othello recognized that his new job was more complex than he had imagined. Waving a sword around and shouting orders to his underlings wasn’t going to do much to solve the problems.

“The next situation is just as vital. Dun Hythe is a free city. It has no overlord and that is unique. It is a free city because our trade benefits all the provinces. Every warlord and province chief has nightmares about one of their enemies seizing the city and using our revenues to build up an invincible army. The city never had to worry about that in the past because all the warlords were too busy defending their own lands or planning an invasion of their neighbors.”

Othello had a bad feeling he would like his next task even less than the previous one.

“With peace, bands of ex-warriors now roam the countryside. Eventually, they will come together under a strong leader and attack the city. Unfortunately, the absence of a threat to the city for all those years meant the walls weren’t maintained and now they are falling down. Our militia, who are supposed to defend the city, are in equal disrepair. They resemble a drinking club rather than an effective military deterrent.”

“You want me to fix those problems as well?” Othello picked up his kepi and brushed imaginary dust from the brim. His breakfast lay like a lump in his stomach.

“Yes. I can’t give you much money for the wall repairs, but it’ll be enough to get you started on the worst sections. As for the militia, they need discipline and training. Here your military background should come into play and simplify the task.”

Othello gave her a fleeting half-smile. “Can I use the Troll Patrol to work on any of these issues?”

“The Troll Patrol is under your command. Do what you think best.” Glyniss stood up. “I’ll let you get started with your work. Your office is on the first floor. I want frequent reports on your progress.” She went to her desk, sat down and attacked a pile of scrolls.

He left Glyniss and found his office. A female troll sat outside it at a desk, filing her nails. “Are you my secretary?”

She was about five foot tall, yellow-skinned and wore a short, simple kirtle of rough cloth that displayed over-muscled arms and legs. “You Ofella?”

“Othello.”
“Wot?”
“Othello. My name is Othello.”
“Dat’s wot I said.”
Othello had a premonition that this secretary belonged on the long list of

problems Glyniss had handed him. “What’s your name?”
“Emilia. Never saw a darkie before.”

Othello ignored the racial slur. “Do I have any correspondence?” “Don’t know wot corr-is-pondts are.”
“Letters, memos, notes?”
“Iffen I got any for someone named Ofella, I tossed ‘em out.” “Do you know Captain Iago?”

“Married the bugger, didn’t I?”

Othello blinked in surprise. After a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Tell him I want to meet in my office.”

“Okey dokey.” Emilia stood up and yelled, “Iago! Get your stupid butt over here!”

Shaking his head, Othello went into the office and shut the door. He had a lot of thinking to do. His job involved many more issues than he had believed possible. Maybe he shouldn’t have plumped his resume so much.

###

A short time later, Emilia opened the door, stuck her bald head into the office and said, “Got ‘im.” Her head disappeared and Captain Iago swaggered in.

Like all trolls, he had cruel, beady black eyes. He wore the Troll Patrol uniform of brown pants held up by a rope and nothing else — no shirt, no shoes. He did wear a blue sash draped over one shoulder depicting his rank as Troll Patrol Commander. From his walk and posture, arrogance dripped from him like water off someone fresh from a swim. Othello ignored the swagger. Here was his first chance to demonstrate his leadership qualities

and solve one of the city’s problems. He was sure Glyniss would be impressed by his creativity

“You must be de new guy,” Iago said in a voice filled with sarcasm. “Yer in charge of Homeland Security and ya don’t know jackshite about de town.”

Othello started to react, but decided to ignore both the insult and the tone. “Yes, I’m Colonel Othello, your new superior officer.” He pointed to a chair. “Mayor Glyniss gave me several projects to work on and I want to talk about a plan to solve one of them with the Troll Patrol.”

Iago remained standing with his arms folded across his chest. “Da Patrol is mine.”

“I know that. That’s why we’re meeting. Glyniss is concerned about the increasing crime rate in the city. She believes much of it is due to the influx of dwarf warriors. I want you to establish flying squads of trolls. They will show up unexpectedly in high crime areas and make arrests if they see any criminal activity. A few days of that will have the criminals thinking twice about breaking the law.”

“Nope.” Iago sneered at Othello.

Othello wrinkled his brow. “What does that mean?” His first solution seemed on the verge of evaporating.

“It means de Troll Patrol works traffic and guards dis buildin’. Dat’s all we do and dat’s all we gonna do. Ain’t gonna arrest dwarf crooks.”

“You are under my supervision,” Othello growled. “That means you follow my orders. If I give you an order, you obey it. Is that clear?”

Iago’s sneer turned into a smirk. “Da patrol ain’t gonna arrest dwarf scum. Iffen ya make me order ‘em to do dat, dey gonna go onna strike. Da Patrol loves to go onna strike. Iffen dey go onna strike, ya got no one to fix da traffic messes and guard da buildin’. Da mayor gonna wanna know why da Patrol is onna strike.”

Othello glared at Iago while struggling not to shout at the troll.

“Ya need anudda plan,” Iago said as he swaggered out of the office. He slammed the door to emphasize his departure.

Emilia stuck her head into the office again. “Nasty bugger, ain’t he?” She giggled and shut the door.

Othello bit his lip and wondered how he would be able to handle his new job. Its complexities were far beyond his expectations.

###

The Troll Patrol was an institution unique to Dun Hythe. Long ago, the city leaders had recognized the need to control and direct the heavy wagon traffic that flowed to and from the port area. They organized a patrol of citizens for this purpose, and all went well for a while. No one recalls who allowed the first troll to join up, but word immediately spread throughout the

troll community that one of their number had a paying job with unlimited donuts. Soon after that, every opening in the patrol attracted dozens of trolls who brazenly persuaded non-trolls to withdraw their applications. Within a few years, trolls had taken over the organization.

Trolls proved to be particularly inept at traffic control. A member of the Troll Patrol could station himself in the middle of a deserted intersection and within minutes he would create a traffic-snarling mess. To keep the enraged wagon drivers under control, the trolls relied upon truncheons. A whack or two in the head always knocked a driver groggy and made him a lot less noisy.

The Troll Patrol did prove effective in controlling the riots that resulted from their traffic mismanagement. Trolls had evolved from rocks and they had rock DNA in their systems. Hitting a troll in his head was a waste of energy. All it did was damage the weapon and focus the troll’s attention on the head-hitter, much to the head-hitter’s discomfort.

Trolls had a unique perspective on bribery. Often a visitor who had been apprehended by a troll on a charge — often a dubious one — would offer a sum of money to make the charge disappear. The troll always pocketed the money and then added bribery to the charge sheet. The bribed troll scrupulously shared the bribe money with the shift desk sergeant.

Early in the process of changing to the Troll Patrol, politicians discovered that it was impossible to fire a troll and remain alive. The fired troll took the firing personally and considered himself insulted. An insult to one troll insulted the troll’s entire family, who then felt obligated to avenge their family honor by slaughtering the insulter.

###

Before Othello recovered from his disastrous meeting, he heard Emilia talking to someone. Her head popped into the office. “Ya gotta visitor.” A troll with blue sergeant stripes tattooed on his biceps strolled into the office and nodded to him. “Name’s Nark. Sergeant Nark. I’m yer new assistant.”

“You are? How did you get that job? I didn’t request an assistant.” Nark had oversized shoulders, a huge head and a massive chest. He looked top- heavy.

“Iago sent me here.”

“Iago? How odd. He didn’t seem very friendly when we met. Perhaps I misread him.”

“Naw. Iago da most unfriendly troll in da city. He wanted dis job. You got it so him very angry wid ya. Ain’t gonna get any help from dat one. Dat no big deal ’cause him pretty stupid. See, him and me hate each other’s guts and him wanna get rid of me for a while now. Dat’s why I’m here and you gonna need me ’cause yer new in town. Now I got born here. I know

all da streets and stuff. I know all da good taverns and da good bawdy houses, too. Iffen ya lookin’ for a good time, I can tell ya where to go.”

“I’m a married man, so I won’t be needing your advice in that area. But you’re right. I could use someone who knows the city and its streets.” Othello’s mood perked up now that he had a local expert to help him. “What can you tell me about the militia?”

“Dey not too good. Wanna go see ‘em drill tomorrow?”

“Yes, I do. For now, can you show me around the city? I’d like to get more familiar with it.”

“Sure.”
Othello stood up and followed Nark out. “See ya later, Sis,” Nark said to Emilia. “She’s your sister?”
“Yeah. Iago and me are bruddas-in-law.”

###

At the end of his first day in charge of Homeland Security, Othello walked into his home in the elf quarter. Exhausted and more than a little concerned about the scope of his responsibilities, the challenge nevertheless excited him. Dun Hythe was where he would make his mark and claim the fame and glory that had eluded him until now.

His bride, Desdemona, greeted him with two glasses of red wine. She kissed him and said, “Tell me all about your day.”

“It was . . . different,” Othello said as he took a glass.

Tall and lithe, Desdemona was a light elf with reddish-green hair and moss green eyes. They both sat down on the couch and sipped the wine. Besides the couch, the large room held a fireplace for cooking and a table with two chairs. A bedroom and an office — until it became a nursery — filled the rest of the apartment.

He told her about the problems he had uncovered. “The only good thing so far is Nark. He really does know the city. During our walking tour, we visited the port area. It’s impossible to describe to folks who don’t live here. So many ships, so many wagons, so many workers. Glyniss told me I have four small patrol boats to control piracy. Nark told me I only have three because one got rammed by a barge the other day and sank. How was your day? I know you’re glad to be back where you grew up.”

“My day was fine.” Desdemona gave him a ravishing smile. “I went shopping, something you can’t do very much of in Nexus.” Othello was born and raised in the small town of Nexus, and the wedding took place there. “Oh, I received a note from my grandmother. She wants to meet you so she invited us to dinner in a few days.”

“Ahh, I’ll finally get to meet her. You said she raised you, so I was surprised she didn’t come to the wedding.”

“Grandmother never leaves Dun Hythe. She has too many responsibilities.”

Othello paused in taking a sip. “What does she do?”

Desdemona chuckled. “You won’t believe how many projects she has going at one time.”

“Like what?” Othello tried to picture a wizened, old female elf engaged in multiple projects. It didn’t make sense to him.

“Umm, I’m not going to tell you. You can find out for yourself when you meet her. I’ll tell you this though. She’s the most powerful individual in the city. She’s much more powerful than you and the mayor combined.”

Othello felt a surge of alarm flow through his body. His instincts told him the dinner meeting would be fraught with more danger to himself and his career.

CHAPTER TWO

Hamlet sat in his room reading a scroll on how to keep bees happy and productive, a situation that would prevent them from migrating elsewhere. Occasionally, he would stop reading and scribble a note on a scrap of paper.

His room occupied an entire upper floor in the keep. It held a table, a chair and a bed. Opposite the door, a large fireplace heated the room, chilly even in midsummer.

The door banged open and his mother yelled, “Hamlet!” He jumped out of the chair, dropping the scroll to the floor. When his heart stopped thumping, he made a face and said, “Ma! Stop doing that. Why can’t you knock like visitors are supposed to do?” His mother, Gertie, wore a black velvet gown, her widow weeds even though she had remarried a week after her husband’s death. She also wore a perpetual sneer. Her belly-button-long beard was woven into three braids, each decorated with ribbons and gold hair pins. She was much skinnier than the average female dwarf.

“I’m your mother. I don’t have to knock. I came to tell you that the king grows suspicious of you. Clodio is concerned that you are plotting against him.”

“Me? I don’t really want to be king, so he did me a favor by usurping the throne.”

“Nevertheless, you often disappear for an entire day, and he finds that suspicious. Where were you yesterday?”

“In the forest. I studied the bees in the wild. I learn a lot about them on these expeditions.”

“Clodio wishes you would stay in the castle more often. He wants you to help him.” She wagged a finger at him. “Ruling is a tough job, and he wants you to take on some of the chores instead of wasting your time on this bee nonsense.”

“You mean he wants me to stay in the castle where he can watch me.”

“Nonsense. He’s just trying to be nice to you. I’ll tell Clodio you’re willing to help.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You would have said it if you weren’t such a fool.” She left, slamming the door behind her.

Hamlet grinned at his mother’s back. He enjoyed thwarting her plans, especially the plans she thought up without consulting him. He pulled a face and sighed. He wouldn’t be able to study anymore now that his mother had broken his concentration. He decided to go to the harbor and have an ale or two. He could go by way of the market and check out the honey competition.

###

Othello sat in his office taking advantage of Emilia’s three-hour lunch break. He had learned to time his office work with her break periods. Nark strolled into his office and grimaced, an expression that passes for a smile in trolldom. “Quiet widout me sister, ain’t it?”

“How did she ever get hired?”

“Da old mayor lost an election and Glyniss won. On his last day, dat guy fired his elf secretary and hired Emilia. So Glyniss got stuck wid her ‘less she wants a troll vendetta on her hands. Den you showed up.”

“Wonderful.”

“Only way ya gonna get rid of her is to stick her on someone else like Glyniss did. Or kill her, but dat not smart.”

“I guess I can grow accustomed to her.”
“Hey, Boss, da militia gonna drill today. Wanna see?”
“Yes, I do.” Othello stood up. “I have to see how well-trained they are or

aren’t.”
“Dey ain’t. But ya gotta see.”
Five minutes later, they stood on the edge of the city’s parade grounds

where fifty of the militia lounged around on the grass. They sat in racial groups: the elven archers in one group, the pikemen in another, the half-pint slingers in a third and the dwarf axes in still another. They all smoked pipeweed and drank ale from a keg strategically placed in the middle of the groups. A half-pint in a military tunic with gold braid leaned against a tree looking disgusted.

“Dat’s Cassio, the boss of da militia.” Nark pointed to the tree-leaner.

Cassio saw them and hurried over. “Good afternoon sir. Captain Cassio at your service.”

“Captain,” Othello said and smiled to put the half-pint at ease. “I’ve come to observe the drill. What are they doing?”

“Finishing up lunch. I’ll try to get them organized, but they’re a bit sluggish after drinking a keg of ale.”

“What is this, a militia drill or a bachelor party?” Othello chewed his lip. Glyniss’ assessment was correct. How was he supposed to defend the city with this rabble? “Are you in charge or not?”

“Technically, I am. But I’m not a military type and the members know that, so they feel free to ignore me.”

“What? How did you get the job?”

“No one else wanted it, so all the potential candidates’ names were thrown into a bowl and my name got picked. I hate this job.”

Othello put his hands on his hips and growled, “I’ll get this rabble to shape up.” He glared at the militia. “A week at hard labor repairing the walls will give them some discipline.”

Nark caught Othello’s arm and pulled him aside. “Dat’s a good idea ya got, but it ain’t gonna teach ‘em to use da weapons. I gotta nudda idea, Boss.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“Dey need a drill sergeant to help da captain. Wid all the warriors inna town, I should be able to find one quick.”

“Do it. Meanwhile, I’ll tell Cassio.” Nark walked toward the port area.

“Captain, I think the answer to your problem is to hire a drill master. You will still be in command, but you turn over the drilling part to your new assistant.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Cassio looked relieved.

Othello controlled his anger and walked among the groups to introduce himself. The militia seemed unimpressed.

Nark returned fifteen minutes later with a grizzled, scarred dwarf whose lengthy beard was streaked with white. He carried a huge battle ax in one hand. “Dis is Sergeant Dunlap,” Nark said. “He’ll take de job for five silver pennies a month.”

Othello shook hands with Dunlap and agreed to the wage demand. “Get them up, if you please Captain,” Othello said.
“On your feet and fall in,” Cassio yelled in a high-pitched voice. The

militia ignored the command.
“Can I sorta help out, Boss?” Nark said with a playful grimace.
“All right.”
Nark walked up to the biggest pikeman. The bulky human watched Nark

approach. “What’s the militia comin’ to, men? I think they let a troll join up.”

“Da captain said ‘stand up.’”
“Make me, troll.”
Nark casually drew the truncheon tucked under his belt and clobbered the

man in the head. He slumped, unconscious. “Next?” Nark looked around while slapping the truncheon against his open palm.

The militia plopped their iron helmets on their heads and buckled the chin straps before jumping up and pushing themselves into formation.

Once the shoving and shuffling ceased, Othello said, “With me is your new drill master, Sergeant Dunlap. He will report to your captain and will give me progress reports on your ability to defend the city.”

Dunlap examined his new charges with eyes that gleamed with malevolence.

Othello turned to the half-pint. “Take over, Captain Cassio.”

On their way back to the office, Othello considered his luck in getting Nark as an assistant. He was clearly smarter than the average troll and could think his way through a problem without hitting it with his cudgel, although he could do that if the situation called for it. With Nark’s help, one of the problems may have been solved. If nothing else, the militia would become better than they were now.

###

Hamlet entered the dockside tavern known as the Sailor’s Delight. It consisted of a long, dingy room smelling of pipe smoke, fried fish and spilt ale. Several drinkers saluted him by hoisting their mugs over their heads. Hamlet responded by patting their shoulders, calling their names and asking after their families. He was a popular figure in the tavern, the only noble the patrons would ever talk to. Hamlet liked the plain-spoken folks and enjoyed their gossip and gripes. Often, if he didn’t have any coins, they bought him an ale or two.

“What’ll you be drinkin’, Prince?” The elderly elf bartender chortled. All he had to offer was ale.

“I have a thirst on, so I’ll be wanting an ale today.” Hamlet grinned.

The bartender grabbed a pewter mug, wiped it out with a dirty rag and filled it from a large barrel. Hamlet, as nobility, always got a clean mug unlike the other drinkers.

Hamlet took the mug and walked through a side door to the outdoor tables under an ancient oak tree. He sat down at one with three dock workers he had often talked to.

Annee, a rather pretty half-pint serving wench, smiled at him. “Prince Hammy. I wish you a good day.”

“And the same to you, Annee.”

“Prince Hammy, how are ya?” one of the workers asked. Everyone laughed at Hamlet’s nickname. On his first visit several years ago, Hamlet had established that he was not to be treated as nobility as long as he was in the tavern.

“My bee project moves forward. I’m now ready to look for a beekeeper to hire.”

“Never seen them two in here before,” the second said, using his mug to point to a pair of burly men who just sat down at another table.

Hamlet looked at the table and recognized the two swells. They were knights from Clodio’s court. They looked as out of place as a pair of sea gulls sitting at the table drinking ale. They noticed Hamlet looking at them and turned away.

“Excuse me, gents,” Hamlet said to the dock workers and walked over to the other table. “Rosencrantz and Guilderstern. I didn’t think you frequented the docks. I thought you drank in the tavern on the other side of the market.” Both men looked embarrassed.

“Just dropped in for a quick ale,” Guilderstern said. He gulped his ale, stood up and left. Rosencrantz followed.

Hamlet stroked his chin. How strange. He had noticed them a few blocks away in the market when he had observed the honey vendor’s stall. Did they follow him? Did they spy on him? Could they be acting on the orders of Clodio? Could he be after the secrets of beekeeping? Hamlet would have to be more careful in the future lest he let slip important information.

CHAPTER THREE

Hamlet, dressed in leather jerkin, pants, knee-high boots and a floppy hat — his beekeeping outfit — walked in a copse of oak and beech trees with a candidate for bee-chief. Low clouds threatened to drop rain at any time.

He turned and looked back toward the castle. Rosencrantz and Guilderstern were nowhere in sight. Hamlet grinned to himself. He had sneaked out of the castle so the two spies wouldn’t see him and follow. He had learned about a secret door when he was ten. After that, he had used it a lot. He would roam the countryside on his own. He relished romping through the forest, but what he really loved to do was to sit quietly in a meadow and watch the bees collect pollen. He recalled the single time his father had taken him outside the castle by himself. They had sat in a meadow and watched bees buzzing around flowers. The old dwarf explained how bees used the pollen to produce honey. Ever since then, he dreamed about becoming King of the Bees.

The elderly man now with Hamlet walked with a limp, had stubble on his face and smelled of body odor and honey. He claimed to be expert on all aspects of bees and honey collection. “I’ve built hunnerts of hives,” he said. “Sold thousands of jars of honey, I have.”

“So, let’s talk coins,” Hamlet said as he stepped around a large tree. Meadows surrounded the copse and multicolored spring flowers undulated in a mild spring breeze. Hundreds of wild bees swarmed around the meadow. He was eager to get started on his beekeeping project before the bees set up new hives. He needed a bee-chief, but the ones he had interviewed seemed more interested in cheating him than in farming bees.

“Each new hive’ll cost ya a silver penny.”
“Others will charge me half that.”
“Aye, but they build their hives the old way. Mine are built inna different

manner. It’s my secret. I can have a dozen set up inna week. Then ya need to pay me fifty coppers a hive for stuff I use to keep ‘em healthy and livin’ longer.”

“Half a silver each? What is this?”

“More secret stuff. I mix it with bees’ knees and whatnot and the bees love it.”

“And the honey?”

“My jars have a way to keep the honey fresher. I’ll sell ‘em to ya for twenty-five coppers each. Also, I get half the crop to sell meself. That’s me wages, so to speak.”

“So to set up say, twenty hives, I’d have to pay you a total of thirty silver pennies. That’s more than I’d make from selling the honey from those hives and you get half of the honey. See here, I plan to operate this as a business, and I can’t make any profit with the prices you’re charging.”

“Aye, but only inna first season. After that, all ya need is the health stuff. Ya make yer profit next year and the years after that. One of my hives will last ten years at least. Oftentimes much longer. The other hives’ll only last three years, maybe. Iffen ya want to run a business, ya gotta take the long look.”

Hamlet sighed. Beekeeping was so much more difficult than it seemed. While this candidate talked a good game, he was also out to cheat him. Perhaps, he should do without hiring a bee-chief. Why couldn’t he be his own bee-chief? If he bought the hives, he could set them up himself. Once established, the bees pretty much did everything themselves. Empty jars for honey were easy to come by. Wild bees didn’t use secret health treatments. It seemed everyone assumed they could cheat him out of vast sums of coins. Well, no more. He would start his bee empire by himself. He turned to the old man, who eyed him suspiciously. “I think you’re a fraud. You’re out to cheat your prince. Well, you’ll not be my bee-chief, but

I’ll give you half a silver a hive, and I want twenty of them right away. Take it or leave it.”

The old man hopped from foot to foot. “Half a silver? I’ll lose money at that price and ya don’t know wot yer doin’. Not hirin’ me ain’t smart.”

“Well, do you want to sell me the hives or not? I’ve had other offers, you know.”

“Yer cheatin’ me,” the old man growled. “Bad things happen to cheats. I’ll sell ya the hives, but ya won’t get a word of advice from me.”

“Bring them here tomorrow. I’ll bring your fee.”

Hamlet watched him stomp out of the copse. He felt a satisfaction he had rarely experienced before, a sense of accomplishment. His mother, never in favor of his beekeeping plans, would be sore wroth when she heard of today’s deeds.

###

Othello and Desdemona strolled arm in arm through the streets of the elf quarter on their way to dinner with her grandmother. He was curious to meet this female who Desdemona obviously admired. He also hoped to find out why she was so powerful.

The streets became dirtier and less inviting as they progressed deeper into the quarter and further away from the main streets. Gangs of young toughs roamed the quarter. He became aware that the inhabitants eyed him and his uniform with disdain or disrespect. He frequently touched the hilt of his sword to reassure himself. A burly elf followed their progress from the other side of the street. Desdemona gestured with her chin in the elf’s direction. “My grandmother must have sent him to make sure we’re safe.” Twice, Othello noticed their escort wave at groups of low-lifers to keep from coming closer.

The tenement buildings shocked Othello. Born in a rural area where only the very rich had a home with two stories, he couldn’t comprehend living in a four-story building, especially after his wife told him each floor was home to several families.

“I guess it’s time to tell you,” Desdemona said, “my grandmother is also my Godmother.”

“How peculiar.”

“It’s different from you the way you’re thinking. She’s ‘The Godmother’ to hundreds of folks.”

“Really?”

“Yes. All her godchildren are connected by oaths. That’s what makes her so powerful. All her godchildren have sworn oaths to do her bidding.”

“I don’t understand that.”

“Perhaps, she’ll explain it to you. Whatever you do, show her great respect. The name you must use is Godmother, nothing else.” Desdemona stopped in front of a house with gaudy red curtains in the windows and a gilt door. A sign hung outside proclaiming it the Wicked Bed.

“This is a brothel,” Othello exclaimed. “Why are we stopping here?”

“Evenin’, Desdemona,” a heavily-armed elf said and opened the door. “The Godmother is expectin’ you.” He gestured for them to enter.

“This is the Godmother’s home,” Desdemona whispered, “and the center of her operations. From here, she runs all the brothels in the city.”

They entered a large room where all the walls were covered with red velvet hangings. Light came from many candles with red glass chimneys.

An aged floozy in a revealing red gown smiled at them.
“Rosolia!” Desdemona beamed at the old elf. “How are you?”
“You look grand, Desdemona.” The old elf fawned over Desdemona. “You

look even more beautiful now that you’re married.”
Othello felt his face heat up when he noticed a dozen much younger

females in diaphanous costumes lounging around. They all took their time inspecting him, much to his embarrassment. Led by the bodyguard, they passed through the brothel part of the building and entered the rear rooms. Another bodyguard held up a hand to stop Othello. “Your sword.”

Othello bristled. Was his honor to be challenged? Did they dare think he would assault a female?

“Do it, dear,” Desdemona said. “No one gets into her presence carrying weapons.”

Othello handed over the sword while the other guard patted him down. He noticed both guards were missing two teeth on the top, one on each side. How could both of them be missing the same teeth? He then recalled the old floozy also had missing teeth.

Finally, they entered the inner room and Othello gasped. The walls were painted in garish colors of green, orange and yellow. Gold covered even the moldings. Silver and gold statues and artwork filled small tables scattered throughout the large room.

The Godmother sat on a throne-like padded chair wearing a tent-sized green silk robe. Her neck, ears, arms, fingers and toes carried enough jewelry and precious metals to ensure she wouldn’t float if she fell into a lake. A thick pipeweed cigar hung precariously from her rouged mouth. Her dyed green hair had streaks of midnight blue and was arranged in tight curls that resembled an obscene halo. Turquoise makeup ringed her violet eyes, and her costly scent overwhelmed the odor of cigar smoke. Two voluptuous, scantily clad female elves stood behind the throne. Othello noticed the gaps in their smiles and that unsettled him. Why did everyone have missing teeth? And all of them missing the same two teeth?

“Desdemona! My grandchild! How happy I am to see you again! And this must be your husband, Ofella.”

“It’s Othello, Godmother.”
“Come, let me hug you.” She handed the cigar to one of the females. Desdemona advanced close enough for the Godmother to wrap her

massive arms around and squeeze.
Othello winced and hoped the old female hadn’t broken any of his wife’s

bones.
After releasing Desdemona, the Godmother held out her right hand and

said, “You may advance, kneel and kiss my ring.”
Othello caught a look from Desdemona that told him he had better obey.

He took a few steps, went to one knee and kissed the gold ring with a sapphire big enough to choke a mule. He felt humiliated.

“Now, let’s eat.” The Godmother snatched back her cigar and stood with a great effort. The two female aides each grabbed an arm and helped her walk to an enormous table set for three, where they eased her bulk into an oversized arm chair. One of them took up a flagon and poured wine. Othello took a sip and tried to hide his astonishment. It was the best wine he had ever tasted. The other aide clapped her hands and more servants rushed in with platters of food.

An hour later, after the best meal he had ever eaten, Othello sat back and groaned from the enormous amount of food he had tucked away.

The Godmother snapped her fingers, and a female handed her a fresh cigar while the other lit it. “Now to business. You two can go for now and shut the door on your way out.”

Othello waited anxiously, knowing he was about to get the bill for the meal. He had never met a female with such enormous wealth and power before, and he wasn’t sure he enjoyed the experience.

“It cost me a bundle of silver pennies — fifteen hundred of them — to get you put in charge of Homeland Secur —”

“What?”
The Godmother scowled at him. “Never interrupt me while I’m speaking.” Desdemona put a hand on his arm and squeezed gently.
“It cost that much because the city council is filled with greedy politicians,

and that’s what it cost me to get them to put your name in front of the mayor. I expect to earn that money back and to make a decent profit. How, you ask? It’s simple. I want the contract to rebuild the city walls. When you’re ready to seek bids, I’ll let you know the name of the company I’m using. You will see to it that my company is awarded the contract. Is that clear?”

Othello bristled. “I’m sure that’s not legal.”

“It isn’t and I know that for a fact. That’s why I needed someone from my family to be in charge of Homeland Security.”

“Godmother, I’m honor bound to uphold the law. If your company submits the winning bid, I’ll grant you the work.”

“Desdemona, why didn’t you warn me you married an idiot?” She pointed a fat finger at Othello. “Listen up. My bid will be the most expensive one you get and you will still award the business to me. Otherwise, the council will find out about what you really did during the Battle of Twin Oaks.”

Othello’s eyes bulged and he gawked at the female.

She blew a smoke ring. “Far from being the hero who turned the tide of battle, you were a corporal in charge of five archers. Your unit was held in reserve and never even saw the battle line. So, your claim to be a hero in that battle is completely false.”

“How . . . how did you find out?”

“It’s easy to get such information if one is willing to spend money. Once the council finds out you falsified your resumé, you’ll be out of that job. The reason Desdemona and a few others like yourself still have their teeth is because I don’t want others to know you’re part of my family. Once you lose the city job, I won’t have that concern and you’ll have two teeth pulled like almost everyone else in my family.”

Othello tried to say something in his defense but couldn’t think of anything. How did this monstrous female find old soldiers from the battle?

“And another thing,” the Godmother said. “Do something about all these annoying dwarf immigrants and their unlicensed stealing. They’re most vexing.”

“Unlicensed stealing?” Othello’s head spun from the implications of that statement.

“All stealing in Dun Hythe is done by the Thieves Guild, which I operate. Anyone who steals and isn’t a dues-paying member is an illegal thief.” She clapped her hands three times and two female servants reappeared. “You may leave,” she said to Desdemona. “If I have anything to say to you,” she pointed to Othello, “I’ll send a note to your wife.” The servants helped her stand and escorted her from the room.

Othello had never been so humbled in his life. ###

Desdemona left the brothel and glanced at Othello out of the corner of her eye. His forehead was wrinkled and he chewed on his upper lip. She knew he was thinking about the Godmother. Never had he met anyone like her. Not growing up in the forests, he didn’t. Folks like the Godmother needed big cities to consolidate their power and to gain strength. Since Dun Hythe was the biggest city in the country, its Godmother would have the largest and strongest organization in the country.

Othello didn’t realize it yet, but the Godmother affected everyone in the city and many in the surrounding areas. Powerful figures in government and business came swiftly whenever she beckoned and meekly agreed to whatever she demanded. Only Mayor Glyniss refused to come to the Wicked Bed. Glyniss and the Godmother hated each other as only two females could hate.

Desdemona had been surprised by the Godmother’s deviousness. Her marriage to Othello had obviously been part of the plan. She was as stunned as he had been to learn that Othello didn’t get his appointment on his own merits. The wall rebuilding plan was the most devious part of the scheme; the Godmother must consider Othello to be spineless creature.

Desdemona foresaw a possible difficult situation arising. What if someday she had to choose between supporting Othello or the Godmother? She couldn’t conceive of being in a worse position than that. She mumbled a silent prayer that it would never happen.

She was sure Othello had never met anyone with the power the Godmother wielded and he had no inkling of just how powerful she was. Even Desdemona wasn’t sure how much power she really had, and Desdemona had grown up with the Godmother, in her house, and spent much time with her. She hoped Othello took the Godmother’s wishes seriously, because the old female had a bad temper when she didn’t get what she wanted.

It was the Godmother’s idea for her to wed out of the family. Once the Godmother had explained the need to bring fresh blood into the family, Desdemona immediately agreed to the plan. Much to her surprise, she acquired a husband that she liked and even grew to love. Othello was a good male and tried hard to please her. What more could a female ask for?

Walking arm-in-arm with Othello, she looked around the neighborhood and recalled many happy memories. Orphaned at three, her grandmother had moved her into the back of the brothel and raised her. Her father was Grandma’s son, and her mother was the daughter of an underboss. She had heard rumors that her father had been killed in a fight over territorial rights. She knew her mother had disappeared shortly after that. Desdemona had never been able to find out what had happened to her mother, a subject Grandma refused to talk about.

CHAPTER FOUR

The next morning, the old man delivered ten hives with a promise of the other ten in a week. Hamlet spent all day in the fields, searching for the ideal locations and setting up the hives in likely spots. Every hour or so,

either Rosencrantz or Guilderstern would call over to ask if he was almost done. The two groused all day about their lack of activity and lack of castle comforts.

Proud of the day’s work and elated to finally get started in the business, Hamlet returned to the castle followed by the two knights.

In the corridor far from his room, he knew his mother awaited him. Her perfume saturated the hallway. Gertie didn’t believe in bathing and compensated for it by using a quart of perfume a day. Once inside the room, he ignored her and opened a shutter so he wouldn’t suffocate from the overwhelming stench of attar. To gain time to gather his thoughts, he listened to a dove cooing in a tree before turning back to Gertie. The top of her head with curly brown and gray hair only came up to Hamlet’s shoulder. She had azure-colored eyes and a perpetual sneer brought on by a lifetime of being queen and therefore better than everyone else. “Clodio is very upset with you.” She pointed a finger at him. “You haven’t been very respectful to him, and he’s your uncle, your stepfather and your king.” Her voice had a petulant tone to it.

“Why should I be respectful to him? He took my throne. Not that I wanted it, but asking first would’ve been nice.”

“Don’t be absurd. Kings don’t ask, they take. Clodio fears you plot against him.”

“What? Why would I do that? I didn’t want the job when father died, and I don’t want it now.” Mentioning his father’s death brought back memories of the ghostly appearance and the demand to avenge his father’s murder. He had to do something about that. Maybe after he set up the rest of the hives he’d have time.

“He wants to know where you were yesterday.”
“Why doesn’t he ask his two spies?”
“He did and they didn’t know anything except they couldn’t find you in

the castle. The king was furious with them. So what were you doing?” “Tending to my bee business.”
She sighed and shook her head. “Clodio believes you are confusing

Rosey and Guildy so you can meet with other plotters.”
“The king is paranoid. I’m not a threat.”
“And you’re not a help either. Being king is a tough job, and he could use

some help from his family. I want you to stop this bee nonsense and attend the court. Help your uncle. He has projects that would be perfect for you to work on.”

“I’m not giving up my bees. In fact, my business has already started and I’ll soon be rolling in honey.”

“You fool!” Gertie stamped her foot. “You turn down the court preference I could have gotten for you. For what? A peasant’s job. Well, I can’t help someone who won’t help himself.”

“Stop treating me like I’m a dwarfling. I’m twenty-eight.”

“Then stop acting like a dwarfling!” She spun around and marched out of the room. A second later, she stuck her head back in and snapped, “And grow a beard.” Then she was gone. Hamlet smirked. He had shaved originally because of a rash, but once he discovered Gertie hated the look, he’d stayed clean-shaven.

In a somber mood, he pondered the situation. Could Clodio’s suspicions be a threat? Was the king jealous of the beekeeping business? Did he want to be a silent partner? Perhaps he intended it as a sinecure for his two spies. Maybe he should begin a plan to avenge his father. It wouldn’t do to get killed by Clodio. What would he say to his father in that case? He shook his head to clear it of all the unanswered questions he had.

###

Emilia arrived at her desk only thirty minutes late. She flapped a hand at Othello who ignored her. From somewhere in the building, Iago yelled at some poor troll who must have aggravated him. Iago had been in a bad mood ever since Othello had shown up.

Today was her first anniversary, and she thought back to her so-called wedding. It was the first time she had attended the Troll Patrol Benevolent Association weekend party. And she was still paying for it.

Back then, Emilia woke up in bed with a terrible headache. If she got out of bed, she was sure she would fall over or throw up. Maybe both. She flexed her hands and noticed the bruises and cracks. She knew she had a split lip, possibly a black eye and a sore ear, all sure signs of a fist fight. She wondered who she had fought with. It must have been a great party.

She tried to remember what had happened and drew a blank. All she could recall was having a few ales with her brother Nark on Friday night.

A noise grated on her ragged nerves. It slowly dawned on her ravaged synapses that the sound was snoring. She looked to the other side to the bed and gasped aloud. Iago lay sprawled across the bed. His pants and sash lay in a lump at the bottom of the bed along with her kirtle.

Emilia couldn’t believe it. Iago was the last troll in the world she would sleep with. She despised his guts. She examined his inert form. Iago’s knuckles also had deep cuts. He had two split lips and a swollen nose.

Suddenly, she was glad she couldn’t recall the weekend. She wondered just what day it was. The trolls usually took several days — sometimes an entire week — to recover from the Association’s parties.

Another thought made her shudder. Maybe her bruises weren’t from a tavern brawl; trollish sex usually started with a viscous fist fight before ending up in bed or on the floor.

She decided to find out what happened and smacked Iago in his sore ear. He yelped, sat up, saw her and threw a punch at her head. Emilia blocked the feeble punch and bit his hand. Iago roared in pain, snatched back his hand and stashed it under his armpit. “What ya doin’ in me bed, bitch?”

“Dis is yer bed? I bet I didn’t come on my own. Ya hadda kidnap me to get me here.”

“Me not kidnap an ugly troll like ya. Me not dat dumb.”

Someone pounded on the door. Both Iago and Emilia groaned from the pain caused by the noise. “Go away!” he tried to yell. It came out as a loud squeak.

The door opened and Nark walked in.
“Git outta me house. Yer not welcome.”
“Hello, Sis. How’s married life?” Nark snorted and grinned at the two

hungover trolls.
“Me gonna kill ya.” Emilia shook a swollen fist at her kid brother. “Why

did ya let me do dis?”
“Da two of ya looked like ya was havin’ lots of fun. Dis one,” he pointed

at Iago, “even borrowed coins from da Association’s Treasurer so’s he could buy a coupla drinks for everyone in de bar.” He chuckled. “Ya gotta big bill to pay off.”

Iago groaned.

“Dis cheapskate bought drinks for everyone?” Emilia looked at Iago in awe.

“Yeah, dat’s when ya fell in love wid him. Or somethin’ like dat. Den da two of ya held hands and jumped over an ale keg to make it legal like. Course, ya both fell down after da jump and den me and some lads hadda pry ya apart cause ya was embarrasin’ da families with young uns. After dat, both of ya disappeared. Guess ya went on yer honeymoon or somethin’.”

Emilia glared at Iago and vowed to make his life miserable.

She sighed and went back to ignoring Othello who called for her to do something.

###

Falstaff and Poulet rode up to the rear of the Grubby Shoat. Falstaff dismounted from his black charger, the result of a midnight transaction while the charger’s previous owner slept. Falstaff had left his nag as compensation for the farmer.

He shook ten days of road dust from his gray cloak and blue doublet and adjusted his mud-splattered blue hose. He hurt all over, his fifty-year-old body rebelling over sleeping most nights in the open. Poulet, half Falstaff’s age, looked disheveled, but not tired.

Falstaff walked to the front of the tavern, which overlooked the port of Dun Hythe, the largest and busiest in all of Gundarland. Before entering, he ran his hands through his thick curly beard, black with white streaks, to search for evidence of his travels. He removed a twig and the remains of a few leaves. He took a deep breath to tamp down his excitement. He knew Dun Hythe would yield gold coins before long. All he had to do was identify the opportunity and seize it.

He pushed his way into the crowded room. Poulet followed in his wake. Inside, sailors and dockworkers stood three deep drinking their lunch. Falstaff inhaled the air filled with the foul odors of sweaty bodies, old ale and pipe smoke. “I love this place!” he exclaimed. “It’s exactly as I remember it. Except for all the dwarfs with axes.”

Curses, off-key singing, loud talking and shouted boasts assaulted his ears. The noise swelled and faded as if directed by a demented conductor.

Reputed to be hundreds of years old, the Grubby Shoat had no evidence to contradict the claim. Smoke had turned the rafters and plank walls black. The dirt floor held so many obnoxious stains that it appeared to be uniform in color. The table surfaces were thin from knife carvings and an annual cleaning. On his left stood a dilapidated bar heavily scarred from tavern brawls involving weapons with sharp edges. Despite the mild spring weather, a roaring fire spewed light, heat and smoke in the rear of the room.

Falstaff found a table with a bench and sat down. The bench creaked under his weight. “Fetch us pots of ale, Poulet. And be quick about it. I thirst.”

“I don’t suppose they have mead in here,” Poulet said.
“Mead! How absurd. Get the ale.”
Poulet wiggled his scrawny frame in between other patrons and arrived

next to the bar. He stuck two fingers in his mouth and emitted a shrill whistle. The bartender, a filthy-looking, scar-faced man frowned at him, but filled his order. Poulet returned to the table with a mug in each hand. “Now what do we do?” he asked after sitting down. He examined his bare feet with his unkempt toe hair and shook his head. Half-pints never wore shoes in order to display their carefully preened toe hair. His parents had raised him to groom his toe hair like all reputable half-pints did — even the poor ones — but traveling had taken a toll and his toe hair was knotted and muddy.

“The first order of business is to find out what’s happening in town. I recall all the shipping in the harbor, but these warriors are new and a mystery.” Falstaff looked around and spotted a grizzled dwarf warrior with two pips on the sleeves of his leather jacket. He had an ax held in a leather harness on his back. The handle stuck up over his right shoulder. “Corporal,” Falstaff called out. When the dwarf turned his head, Falstaff said, “A moment of your time.”

The dwarf swaggered over to the table. “Yeah?”

To Falstaff’s alarm, the dwarf looked familiar now that he was closer. Could the corporal be from the regiment that he had deserted so many years ago? It was too late to ignore the dwarf. He’d have to continue and bluff if necessary. “I just got into town after an absence of many years, and I’d like to catch up on the news. Poulet, stop admiring your confounded toe hair and get our guest a mug of ale. My name, by the way, is Sir John Falstaff.”

Poulet gave Falstaff a dirty look and slipped through the crowd.

The soldier cocked his head to one side and studied Falstaff. “Ya know, I’ve seen you somewhere before. Ever inna army?”

“No, I’ve never been in the army. I’ve spent most of my life in the diplomatic corps for various dukes and princes. What’s your name?

“Corporal Urquort. Whadda ya want to know?”

“For one thing, why are you and all these other warriors here? I don’t recall a lot of axes when I was here before.”

“Yeah, we’re new. I took my squad and a bunch of others here after we was demobilized. It’s that fricken peace that’s goin’ around. We was lookin’ for work here, but there ain’t any jobs. And no place to stay either. It’s like livin’ in the field and scroungin’ what we can to survive.” He shook his head. “We can barely get up the coins for an ale.”

“Ahh, peace. I heard about that. Pity you got kicked out of the army. What is the constabulary doing about the presence of so many warriors? They must be concerned. You and your lads have to be a threat to law and order.”

“They gotta new guy in charge. A dark elf named Ofella or somethin’. No, wait. Othello. His name’s Colonel Othello. I heard a rumor he was a hero at the Battle of Twin Oaks. I was in that fight and I ain’t never heard of this guy. Anyway, he’s swearin’ he’s gonna cut down on crime by all us dwarf soldiers.” He shook his head. “Don’t know what he’s doin’ about it. All I hear is talk.”

Poulet set a third mug on the table. Urquort drained it in one pull.

“Fetch another round, Poulet, while the good corporal tells me all about the battle.”

Urquort spent the next five minutes talking about the battle while Falstaff’s excitement mounted. When he finished, Falstaff said, “I’m seeking business opportunities in town, and I may have need of a few sturdy warriors. Can I call upon you to fill that need? There’ll be compensation, of course.”

“Aye, me and my mates are up for just about anythin’.”
“I assume I can find you here?”
“Here or inna dock area.” Urquort stood up. “Thanks for the ale. I hope

to see ya again.” He left to join a group of warriors.

Falstaff ignored his itching hand. “Poulet! I need writing materials, and I need them quick.”

“Where am I supposed to find writin’ materials inna seedy tavern like this?”

“‘Tis not my job to tell you where to find them. I refuse to do your job and mine. My job is to write an important letter, and your job is to fetch the necessary materials.”

“Who you writin’ to?”

“Colonel Othello. I just discovered that I fought in the Battle of Twin Oaks. I want to offer my services to an old comrade. Afterwards, you must clean my clothes as best you can and give me a haircut.”

###

Hamlet, wearing a cloak to ward off the chill night air, stood on the castle walls and examined the sky filled with a partial moon and a thousand pinpoints of light. He wanted to see if tomorrow’s weather promised to be dry. If so, he planned to visit the new hives to see if any bee colonies had moved in. It was three days since he had installed the first ten, and he hoped at least some of them would be occupied. He tempered his enthusiasm so he wouldn’t be too disappointed if the hives still were empty.

“Hey!” The voice came from the shadows.

Hamlet grasped the hilt of his dagger. “Who walks the battlements with me?”

“‘Tis I, the shade of your father.”

Hamlet peered into the shadows and sighed. “What is father doing that he must send you, an elf, in his stead?”

“He’s chairin’ a meetin’ of the Former Monarchs Political Action Committee. They’re workin’ for better livin’ — no pun intended — conditions for the dead.”

“What message do you bear?”

“Same as the last one. Your old man wants to see Clodio over here and he wants to know why you haven’t avenged his death.”

“I’m in the middle of starting a beekeeping business. After I install the rest of the hives in a few days, I’ll have time to ponder my filial duties.”

“Your father says you’re a fool to delay.”
“Why do my parents keep calling me ‘fool’?”
“You’re givin’ the king time to murder you as well. Your father says,

‘make haste lest you suffer the same fate as he.’” The apparition disappeared.

Hamlet considered the ghost and the message.

“Oh, and watch out for your mother,” the ghost added after popping back into view. “She’s not to be trusted, your father says.”

Hamlet shook his head. His mother urged him to go to court and join Clodio in ruling Denmarko. His father urged him to murder the king. Surely, he couldn’t satisfy both parents. Did Clodio really mean to murder him also? Was the greedy king after the beekeeping business? If so, his life was safe until the business was fairly established. That meant he had a few months to come up with a plan, so he could concentrate on the bees for a while and then get rid of the king.

Now that he had figured things out, he felt better. CHAPTER FIVE

Othello suffered from apprehension about meeting with Falstaff, whoever he was. Yesterday, he had received a letter from one Sir John Falstaff. The letter said the writer was in town and wanted to meet to reminisce about the good old days and the Battle of Twin Oaks. He also wanted to offer his services to an old comrade-in-arms. He wondered if this was a not-too- subtle way for the Godmother to apply pressure or something less sinister than that.

As reluctant as he was to discuss the battle with anyone, especially a stranger, he was eager to learn what help this Falstaff could provide, if any. Fates knew he was in over his head and it was only a matter of time before the mayor realized that and sacked him. Failure had been his routine for years: selling used freight wagons, warming up crowds at political rallies, reporting for a news-scroll, all failures. Then he had hit on the idea of plumping his resumé with deeds of valor at Twin Oaks. Suddenly, he received offers to speak at patriotic affairs. Politicians sought his advice on tricky issues. He had achieved a measure of success for the first time, even if it was built on a fabrication. He couldn’t believe his luck when Desdemona’s uncle had approached him with a marriage offer that included a sizable dowry. The uncle told him Desdemona’s grandmother had heard of his battle exploits and, in the traditional elf custom of arranged marriages, suggested him as potential husband material. When they returned from the honeymoon, the offer from Glyniss awaited him.

Since then he had learned his real job was to be a front for the hideous old hag called the Godmother. Rebuilding the walls was the most serious problem he faced. If he gave her the contract to rebuild the walls without following proper procedures, he would violate his oath to the city. If he didn’t, the Godmother would violate his mouth. Every time he thought of the evil bitch, his teeth started hurting.

He now knew that landing the job with Dun Hythe was an insidious plot. The marriage offer had been part of that plot and the chief inducement.

Nevertheless, he believed Desdemona loved him as much as he loved her. She was the greatest thing that had ever happened to him.

Somehow, he had to save his marriage and his teeth. ###

Falstaff and Poulet dodged through a troll-made traffic jam and approached the entrance of the city hall building. Two trolls guarded the building by lounging on the steps. One of them snored while the other picked his nose. “Greetings, sir,” Falstaff addressed the more alert of the two. “Where can I find the office of Colonel Othello?”

After a moment’s thought, the troll said, “In dere,” and jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

“Can you be more specific?”

The troll made a gruesome face and scratched his head. Finally, he replied, “Don’t go up da stairs . . . me think.”

Falstaff sighed. He’d ask inside and save himself some aggravation. “Poulet, why don’t you entertain these fellows while I have my meeting.”

Poulet reached into a purse at his waist and pulled out a well-used deck of cards. “Wake up your buddy and we’ll play a game of chance.”

Falstaff entered the building and obtained directions to Othello’s office, where he found an ugly female troll reading a scroll. He stopped in front of her desk and, when she ignored him, cleared his throat loudly.

She looked up from her reading, scanned him toe to head and said, “Whadda ya want, Fatso?”

Falstaff bristled momentarily. “Announce to Colonel Othello that Sir John Falstaff is here to meet with him.”

“Come back inna hour. I’m busy.”
“Busy doing what?”
“Onna break. Announce yerself or come back inna hour.”
Falstaff shook his head in amazement and knocked on the door to

Othello’s office.

###

Othello heard Emilia growling at someone. Falstaff must be here. He took a deep breath to settle his nerves and determined to take the visitor’s measure. “Come,” he said in response to a knock on the door.

A man threw the door opened, and advanced into the room. “Colonel Othello! How pleased I am to meet you. Sir John Falstaff. I apologize for the state of my clothing, but I have been traveling for some time now and haven’t had a chance to buy new ones.”

Othello winced at the visitor’s booming voice. He hadn’t expected anyone as huge as this man who stood in front of the desk. Falstaff was taller than he was and easily double his weight. Most of the visitor’s bulk was concentrated in a large paunch that strained the buttons on his waistcoat. He had a pudgy face with small eyes surrounded by fatty flesh and curly hair. His broad nose ended in flaring nostrils. A neatly trimmed black and white beard hid the rest of the face.

The man stared at Othello and tilted his head from side to side as if to get a better view. “While there is a certain familiarity about you, I don’t believe we met at Twin Oaks.” He sat down in a chair facing the desk. The chair groaned.

“Where were you during the battle?” Othello held his breath.

“On my horse. My cavalry unit didn’t take part in the battle itself, rather we were sent behind enemy lines to ensure that reinforcements didn’t reach the front. Routed an infantry battalion, we did. Then the enemy line collapsed and we harried the retreating rabble. Hot work it was.”

Othello relaxed. Falstaff wouldn’t know about the reserve archers.

“But tell me, Colonel, what can I do for you? You must have problem areas with a position such as yours. Perhaps my wide range of expertise can be of service to you.”

Othello decided to reveal a few problem areas to see if Falstaff could offer assistance. “I’m concerned with the number of unemployed dwarf warriors in town. Right now, they survive by committing petty crimes, but what will happen if they start rioting or threatening the government? Another concern is that they may join up with pirates and attack our trade routes.”

Falstaff pulled a face and stared at the wall over Othello’s head. He shifted his weight and Othello was sure the chair would collapse. Finally, he jumped up and paced the room, hands clasped behind his back. “I’ve seen the dwarfs milling about the streets and share your concern. They are potentially dangerous.” He did a few more laps. “Certainly, if the warriors and pirates unite, they could become a major problem.” He stopped in mid- stride. “Colonel, do you suffer from piracy now?”

“There are always pirates preying on our trade routes. We lose a ship or two periodically, I’ve been told.”

Falstaff paced some more, then stopped and raised one sausage-like finger in the air. “What if . . . what if I used my shipping business to hire some of these idle dwarfs and go after the pirates?”

“You have a shipping business?”

“Not at the moment. I’m here in Dun Hythe to start one. I plan to initially use two cogs. Let’s say instead of cargo, I put twenty-five warriors in each ship. I cruise around outside the harbor looking defenseless, and when the pirates attack me, I attack them in return.”

“A splendid plan.” Othello beamed at his newfound friend.

“Instead of getting profits from the shipping trade, I’ll profit from the pirate loot and pay the warriors and crews from that same loot.” He paced some more. “Yes, that will serve. I can do this.”

“You have experience at sea, I presume?” Othello asked.

“I captained a ship for the navy down south in Cintri. My mission was chasing pirates.” He paused as if the memory was painful, then he sat down.

Othello winced at the sounds coming from the tortured chair.

“A sword wound in my leg forced me onto the beach for a time. Before I recovered, my ship sank during a battle with pirates.” He sighed. “All those splendid officers and crew.” He shook his head.

“I am grateful for your assistance. I agree. Hiring fifty warriors will lessen the pressure from that concern.”

“All my funds will be tied up in buying and equipping the two ships. I’ll need additional cash to recruit the warriors. You see, a signing bonus is expected in these cases. I’m sure the city has funds that can be used for projects like this. Are you prepared to offer some monetary assistance so I can get this project out to sea?”

The demand for funds took Othello by surprise. After a second of thought, he saw the advantage of investing a bit of money to get rid of the warriors. “How much is a typical signing bonus?”

“Two silver pennies each will do it. Every warrior in town will want to sign up, and I can take my pick of the best ones.”

Othello had a coughing fit. “A hundred silver? That’s a small fortune.”

“Think, my friend. I’ll be able to hire the best of the lot. They’re the ones who are the biggest threat to the peace. They’re the ones who would lead during an insurrection. With those potential leaders employed elsewhere, the rest are rabble. You can easily handle them.”

Falstaff’s logic resonated with Othello, but the price was too high. “I can’t do it. I don’t have that kind of money available.”

Falstaff jumped up from the chair and resumed pacing. “I can certainly help your piracy problem, but not without a contribution from the city that I’m helping. I can’t be expected to shoulder the entire financial burden.” After two circuits of the room, he paused and said, “I think I can still do the job with fifty silver. I’ll just have to be a more persuasive recruiter.”

Othello bit his lip. Paying out fifty silver would consume a major portion of his spare funding, but the money would buy a solution to one of his problems. What to do?

“I can’t possibly do this for a copper penny less than fifty silver.” Falstaff wiggled his eyebrows. “I have many other expenses, as you can imagine.”

Othello pulled a face and made a decision. He’d just have to carefully watch the rest of his funds. “All right.” He opened a locked desk drawer, took out a leather pouch and counted fifty silver coins. “I’ll need a receipt.”

“Of course. Shall I fetch your secretary?” He stepped toward the door.

“No! No, don’t do that. If she agrees to write out a receipt —a dubious prospect — she’ll spread the news all over the city. I’ll write it out.” Othello scribbled on a sheet of parchment and handed it to Falstaff, who signed his name with a flourish. He scooped up the coins and said, “I’ve taken up enough of your time, Colonel. I’m off to the port to put our plan into action. I’ll send reports to let you know of my progress.” He stood up, bowed and left.

Othello sat and reviewed the meeting. All in all, a piece of good work despite the cost, he concluded. A major problem had been resolved.

###

Desdemona sat on a park bench at midday and watched the young, slender elf maiden approach. The slight breeze blew Desdemona’s reddish- green hair in front of her face, and she brushed it back with a hand.

“Hello, Sylvia,” Desdemona said to one of the Godmother’s personal attendants.

Sylvia grinned and handed Desdemona a cloth sack. “The Godmother’s chef made us fish salad sandwiches.”

Desdemona opened the sack and took out two bundles wrapped in white cloth napkins. She handed one to Sylvia after she sat down on the bench.

Both females ate in silence. They were the same age and had known each other since they were four years old. That was when Sylvia came to live at the Wicked Bed as the Godmother’s foster child. They quickly became insuperable friends. Together, they played with dolls, invaded the rooms of the females working in the brothel and tried on their dresses and makeup. The brothel females treated the two of them as younger sisters and spoiled them terribly.

After patting her mouth with the napkin, Desdemona asked, “So, how is my Grandmother’s health?”

“Not so good. She’s fading. Slowly, mind you, but definitely fading.” “Tell me what’s ailing her.”
“Well, you know she’s overweight. And she never goes more than five

minutes without one of her pipeweed cigars. She even gets up during the night to smoke two or more of them.”

“I didn’t know she smoked so much. She didn’t when I lived with her.”

Sylvia made a face. “I think she smokes to diminish pains that she won’t tell anyone about.”

Desdemona expressed shock. “Really? Pain?”

“She doesn’t talk about any pain, but we see her make faces as if she just had a bad pain somewhere. This happens quite a few times a day.
Whenever it happens, she immediately calls for a cigar unless she already

has one. Then she takes several big drags to ease whatever pain she’s feeling. A lot of times, she has trouble catching her breath because she is filled up with congestion. She coughs and coughs and eventually gets a breath.”

Desdemona sighed. “I fear for her, Sylvia. I think her time is running out.”

“I believe you’re right. You can be sure we’ll do everything we can to make her comfortable.”

“I know you will.” Desdemona placed a hand on Sylvia’s forearm. “I know you’ll take care of her. I’ll be grateful to both of you and I won’t forget what you did for her.”

Sylvia nodded. “Thank you.”

###

An exhilarated Falstaff left the office and walked past the troll secretary. “Have a bad day, Lard-butt,” she called to his back.
Outside on the steps, Poulet and the two trolls played cards, and from the

expressions on the guards’ faces, the half-pint was winning and in imminent danger of getting pummeled.

“I hate to break this up,” Falstaff said to the guards, “but my batman and I have important business to attend to.”

Poulet scooped up the cards and a pile of coins, stuffed all into his purse and took leave of the trolls who appeared to be working themselves up to mayhem.

Off the grounds, Falstaff asked, “How much did you win?”
“About five silver pennies. A good morning’s work.”
“As your master, I’ll accept half of your winnings.”
“Since my master hasn’t paid me in months, my master can get stuffed.” “I should turn you over to the guards and tell them you cheated.” “You’re the one who taught me how to play cards. What’s Othello like?” “I’d say he’s about thirty-five and thinks that he has talent.” Falstaff

whistled a few notes. “I believe I have met the perfect mark.”
“Where are we goin’?”
“Back to the port,” Falstaff said, “to find Corporal Urquort. We have

business to discuss.”
“What’s goin’ on?”
“I need him to recruit two full ship crews and a number of unemployed

warriors. We’re going to sea.”
“In what? Last time I checked we didn’t have any ships inna inventory.” “Fortune will provide, I’m sure. I’m destined to be an admiral with those

ships.”

Poulet sniggered. “You’ve never been on a ship before and suddenly you’re an admiral?”

“By now, you should have learned I’m a man of many parts.”
“An admiral should have a real sword, not just a scabbard and a hilt.” “Yes, I suppose it is time to invest in a new sword.” He had sold the

sword months ago to get money to invest in a “get-rich-quick” scheme that somehow didn’t. The hilt had been once used as a stage prop, and he had stolen it from an actor in a traveling show.

He took a deep breath and considered his new project. On the one hand, it presented an opportunity to mint money. On the other hand, getting caught meant certain — and sudden — death. It was a gamble, a big one, but the rewards were worth the risks.

###

Poulet grinned; “a man of many parts” certainly described Falstaff. He ticked off some of the parts: con man, liar, storyteller, charmer, scoundrel and now, apparently, a sea dog.

Falstaff had been all those things at one time or another since Poulet had agreed to become his manservant or, more accurately, his half-pint servant.

Poulet had been born in Centi in southern Gundarland to poor, but mostly honest parents. He grew up on the streets in the slum area and learned how to survive and how to spot a mark and an opportunity. He also discovered that he was a fast learner and had a rare ability to analyze situations and see potential troubles in them.

Poulet had worked as a stable hand when Falstaff rode in on an exhausted horse. The horse recovered under Poulet’s care, and Falstaff had made an offer that seemed too good to be true. Poulet’s only career option at the time was mucking out the stable and caring for horses for the rest of his life. He opted to go with Falstaff, no matter if the opportunity was real or not. Getting away from horse manure was worth enduring almost anything else.

Falstaff had been true to his word that Poulet would see Gundarland. They had traveled into every corner of the country searching for opportunities and/or suckers. Poulet wondered where this new escapade would take him this time. Falstaff’s gambits always involved a certain amount of danger and before long they would need to make a quick exit. He wondered how one made a fast escape at sea without swimming.

###

Outside the Grubby Shoat, Falstaff stood looking at the harbor to determine what type of ships he wanted to use. He didn’t have much

choice. Almost all the ships were single-masted cogs. A few galleys with a large number of oars were the only other choices.

Inside, Falstaff found Corporal Urquort amid a crowd of soldiers and waved him to an empty table. He heaved his bulk down on a bench and turned to Poulet. “Fetch us ales,” he shouted over the noise. “Use some of your winnings instead of hoarding them.” His success with Othello and the heavy purse he carried convinced Falstaff his luck had changed for the better and he was headed toward riches and possibly even riches combined with power.

He turned to the dwarf warrior. “I have good news. I am now charged by the city to hunt pirates. I want you to recruit crews for two cogs. Captains, sailors and whoever else is needed.”

“I’m a soldier. What do I know about ships’ crews? And what’s in it for me to do all this work?”

“Loot. Possibly lots of it. Find a beached captain and let him hire the crews. Tell him he’ll get a bonus of two silver pennies for his efforts. I want you to round up twenty-five of your lads for each ship. Mind, I don’t want any trench trash. I want top-notch warriors. You can attract the best by offering them a signing bonus of fifty coppers each. You get two silver like the captain.”

“Fifty coppers? Half a silver? Each?” Urquort replied. “That’ll get their attention. I can get the best for that much money plus a chance at loot.”

Poulet returned with three leather mugs of ale. He saw Urquort’s grin and said to him, “Been feedin’ you a bunch of bull, has he?” He took a sip from his mug.

“Quiet, Poulet. You should know better than to speak when in the presence of your betters.”

Poulet sprayed ale all over the table. “Please don’t jest like that while I’m drinkin’.”

Falstaff ignored his servant and asked Urquort, “When can you have the assignment done?”

“When you gonna come up wid the money?”

“For you and the captain, I’ll pay now and I’ll give you cash for the signing bonuses. Let’s find a quiet and unobserved spot and I can count it out for you. Mind, if they take my coin, they better show up.”

“Iffen you got the coins, I think I can have ‘em all ready by tomorrow.”

“Fine. We’ll assemble tomorrow night. Say, an hour after the city gates close. We’ll meet here in front of the Grubby Shoat.”

CHAPTER SIX

After the city gates shut on the following night, Falstaff and Poulet found Corporal Urquort, the soldiers and the ship crews awaiting him on a moonlit beach. Urquort told Falstaff the dwarfs were all experienced and doughty warriors. Next, Urquort introduced him to the captains, one an old elf, the other a middle-aged man. “Where are we goin’?” the man asked.

“I can’t disclose our plans until we are at sea,” Falstaff replied.
“All right,” the elf said. “Where’s the ships?”
Falstaff waved a hand around the crowded harbor. “Some place in the

harbor. We have to seize them, don’t we? I expect you two captains to ensure we take good ones. I don’t want a leaky old scow in my fleet.”

“You expect us to steal ships?” The elf captain crossed his arms and glared at Falstaff.

“I’ve been appointed Admiral by the Minister of Homeland Security, given an assignment, and I need two ships to carry it out.”

“You have a warrant I can see?” the other captain said. “One that lets you seize someone’s property?”

“I don’t carry secret government documents on my person. The warrant is locked up in my quarters.”

“So, we just have your word?” The elf continued to glare at Falstaff.

Falstaff hadn’t anticipated resistance from the captains. “Poulet! Did I not meet with Colonel Othello yesterday?”

“Yeah, you did.”
“And, after the meeting, did I not tell you I’d been appointed Admiral?” “Yup.”
“There you have it.”
Behind his back, Falstaff heard Urquort snap his fingers followed by the

warriors shuffling their feet. Next came the creak of leather harnesses. Falstaff noticed the captains’ eyes open wide and pressed his advantage.

With one hand on his sword hilt, he confronted the elf, “Anymore treacherous talk from you and I’ll run you through like a dog and leave your body on the beach for the gulls. You took Dun Hythe’s money and now you’ll carry out your duties or die like a traitor. Which will it be?”

The elf took a step back and held up both hands in front of him.

Falstaff turned away from the captains. “Corporal Urquort. Appoint a steady hand to command one troop of soldiers. You’ll command the other and sail with me.”

“I gotta corporal that’ll do,” Urquort replied.
“Excellent. Have the troops fall in and let’s get under way.”

###

In late afternoon, Falstaff stood on the quarterdeck and watched the large, oceangoing ship close on them. Urquort stood nearby. It was the day

after they left Dun Hythe harbor, and Poulet had spent all his time hanging over the rail making disgusting noises. His ship and the one that sailed behind were the largest cogs available in the harbor. Each had a single mast that carried a large sail.

“A merchant, without doubt,” the captain said. “One of those new two- masted ones called a brig.”

Falstaff examined the sleek lines of the ship and lusted to add it to his fleet. He had difficulty controlling his excitement. “It looks like a pirate or a smuggler to me,” he said. “We’ll sail up on our right side —”

“Starboard side,” the captain said.
“What?”
“On a ship, that side is called the starboard, not the right side.”
“I know that,” Falstaff sneered. “I called it the right side for the benefit of

the corporal who is a land-mucking soldier. As I was saying, we’ll approach on our starboard side and tell her to stop so we can inspect her cargo.”

“Drop sail, not stop.”

Falstaff mumbled under his breath. The captain clearly did not see him as admiral material.

Thirty minutes later, Falstaff called to the merchant ship, “Dun Hythe Harbor Patrol. Drop your sails. We’re coming aboard.” His second ship approached from the opposite side.

Falstaff’s captain expertly placed the ship alongside the merchant. “Corporal. Have your men board and neutralize any resistance.” “You’ll be leadin’ us?”
“Don’t be daft. I can’t exercise command and control if I’m crossing

swords with a sailor. No, I’ll be behind you directing the troops if a battle ensues.”

After Urquort boarded and ensured the ship was safe, Falstaff climbed a groaning rope ladder and found the angry captain, an old man, who wore a sword and looked like he wanted an excuse to use it. “We’re looking for contraband or stolen goods,” Falstaff said. “Be so good as to show me your manifests. Urquort! Search the ship. See if you can find anything unusual. I’ll be in the captain’s cabin.”

In the cabin, Falstaff was leafing through a pile of scrolls when Urquort appeared without knocking. “Gotta couple bottles of strange lookin’ wine. They look kinda foreign like.”

“Excellent.” Falstaff ran a finger down the manifest. “I see no imported wine on these documents, sir.”

“The wine is my personal stock.”

“A likely story. Your ship and cargo are confiscated. Corporal, disarm the captain. I’ll take his sword.”

Ten minutes later after destroying the cargo manifest and throwing his sword hilt out the cabin window, Falstaff addressed the assembled crew.

“I’m a fair man, therefore you have a choice. I’ve confiscated your ship and I need a crew for it. You can join my fleet and earn a share in our enterprise.” He paused and looked toward shore, shading his eyes with a hand. “Or you can swim for Dun Hythe. Looks to be about five miles. That’s not too bad. You can make it before dawn tomorrow, I’m sure. What’ll it be?”

The crew joined Falstaff’s fleet, and the captain reluctantly went along with the decision.

“Urquort, detail six of your men to stay onboard and get seven more from the other ship. Appoint someone to take your place on that ship.” He turned to the captain. “This is now the flagship of my fleet. Where is a snug harbor we can use to sell the cargo?”

The man sighed before responding, “I’m guessing you’re not interested in docking in Dun Hythe, so the closest harbor is Denmarko.”

“And where is that?”
“About twenty miles up the coast.”
“Excellent. Denmarko it is.” Falstaff sensed the reluctance of the three

captains to go along with his piracy. He had a few words with Urquort about the captains. The dwarfs would ensure the ships didn’t sail off during the dark hours, but he needed a long-term solution to bind the captains’ loyalty.

He pondered his new problem as the soldiers adjusted their berths. ###

Falstaff, accompanied by Poulet and Urquort, walked down the pier in Denmarko and turned toward the harbor master’s shed at the end of the dock. Squawking seagulls flew overhead and swooped to grab tidbits from the filthy harbor waters.

Before reaching the port, he had solved the loyalty problem with the captains, binding them with additional shares of loot. He had confidence that he was on the cusp of a lucrative project.

Falstaff wore a tan sea cloak taken from a terrified passenger. His two- masted flagship, now named Snatcher, lay against a pier where his crew unloaded the cargo. The ship’s captain had explained what to expect from customs and Falstaff knew he could bluff his way through. Still, he faced a degree of danger. If the official was honest — a remote possibility — he could end up getting arrested. If he faced a dishonest and greedy official — a definite possibility — he could face an uncomfortable negotiating session. The official would have the threat of confiscation, prison and torture as his negotiating tactics.

While the other two remained outside, Falstaff took a deep breath and entered the harbor master’s office. He nodded to the plump official sitting behind a desk. “Good day, sir. My name is Admiral Falstaff. I’ve been

commissioned by Dun Hythe to eliminate pirate fleets from the sea. I captured one, and I’m unloading the cargo to sell here in Denmarko. What do you need from me?”

“A pirate hunter?” The official, a half-pint, raised an eyebrow. “I wish you good luck and much success. I’ll need a list of goods you captured with the ship.”

“Ahh. That list is a problem, you see. The pirate captain didn’t make one for his stolen goods, and my lads can’t read or write so they couldn’t make a list of the cargo. Surely, you don’t expect me, the captain, to make the list? Perhaps we can come to an arrangement that will satisfy all parties.” He reached beneath his cloak and took out a cloth purse. He shook it so the official could hear the coins clinking. Falstaff dropped it on the desk and took out a second, much heavier bag. “The first is to compensate you for your time and effort. The second is to cover the custom duties. I’ve made a generous estimate of what they might be and paid in full.” Falstaff gave the half-pint a quizzical look. “I expect to bring many more pirate ships back here in the future.”

“I think this will be satisfactory.” The official gave Falstaff a grin. “I’ll make up a cargo manifest for you and file it in my office.”

“Excellent. I look forward to many more pleasant visits with you. Mind, don’t mix up the purses.” Falstaff laughed out loud and left the office. “That went well,” he said to Poulet and Urquort. “Let’s avail ourselves of the port’s hospitality in yonder tavern.”

###

Poulet strolled along with Falstaff and Urquort to the Sailor’s Delight, a tavern strategically located at the end of the dock where it would be hard for sailors to miss. Falstaff stopped and placed his hands on his hips while he examined the dark interior. He spotted a door leading to outdoor tables and walked toward it. Along the way, Poulet glanced at the serving maid, a female half-pint. He halted, his mouth fell open and Urquort bumped into his back knocking him forward a few paces. The maid tutted and delivered a round of ale mugs to a group of sailors. As she turned, Poulet said, “Hi. My name is Poulet. My ship just docked in port. What’s your name?” He still gaped at her voluptuous figure on display in a tight kirtle, her pretty facial features, her brown eyes, her short brown hair and her groomed three-inch- long toe hair fastened with brooches holding bits of colored glass. She was the most gorgeous female he had ever seen.

She looked him up and down. When she came to his feet, covered with toe hair stubble and road dust, a look of disgust covered her face and she walked away without answering.

Poulet went outside and found the other two sitting at a table. While he sat down, Falstaff waved a hand to the maid. “Three ales,” he said when she walked over. She avoided looking at Poulet.

“Do you have mead?” Poulet asked in a quavering voice.

“Ignore him,” Falstaff said. “He doesn’t have the coins for mead. When we want a refill, what shall I call you?”

“Annee.” She walked into the tavern swishing her hips.

“Poulet! You should pay me a few silver pennies for the vital information I just obtained for you,” Falstaff said.

Poulet made a face at Falstaff, then said, “I think I’m in love.” After a big sigh, he added, “Did you notice her beautiful toe hair?”

“What’s with you half-pints and the toe hair?” Urquort asked. “That’s kinda weird, ya know, and how come you don’t have long toe hair?”

“I used to wear it long, but I hardly ever got time to groom it. I cut it short onna ship ’cause the sea spray makes it all messy.”

“I think this will end badly for you,” Falstaff said and laughed. ###

Iago was already home when Emilia got there after work. He had been drinking, too. He did that a lot lately. She threw her lunch bag on a chair.

Nasty when sober, he had an annoying habit of getting even nastier when he drank. Emilia could look forward to an evening of arguing, shouting and possibly violence.

The wattle and mud house — a hut really — consisted of an eating area with a table and a fireplace, a bedroom and a pantry.

Emilia grimaced a greeting, and Iago replied with a burp.
“What’s yer problem?” she asked. “Are ya still moanin’ about Othella

gettin’ the job?”
“Yeah, I’m still pissed about it.”
“Get over it,” she said. “Dat happened a long time ago.”
“I’m not gettin’ over it. Iffen I can’t have dat job, me gonna do somethin’

else ta get noticed. Ya’ll see. I ain’t gonna stay wid da Troll Patrol. Me wastin’ me time on the Patrol. Me got bedda things to do.”

“Like wot?”
“None of ya business. Someday me gonna be a bigshot.”
“Yeah, right.” Emilia waved a hand dismissively.
“Don’t talk to me dat way.” Iago made a fist and shook it at her. “Gonna stuff dat fist down yer throat if ya try anythin’.” Emilia stomped

off to the outhouse. She couldn’t take much more of Iago’s attitude. Iago’s stupidity would surely bring disaster to whatever plans he had in mind. And that disaster could affect her and Nark. She would have to keep a close eye on Iago

Excerpt: Falstaff’s Big Gamble (1) was last modified: June 19th, 2013 by Hank Quense

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