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The Secret of Castle Cant
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Spring had come to the Barony of Cant. New grass waved beyond the sheepfolds, and the flocks fairly ran to the shears, eager to be free of their wooly winter coats. The streams sang of melting snow, and high clouds grazed the pastures of the sky. Only an eagle troubled the springtime ease of pasture, brook, and sky. It rode the warm air seeking prey, and when its wings crossed the sun they cast a menacing shadow on the land.
Lucy Wickwright saw the bird, but she had other troubles to contend with this morning. She pushed her glasses up her nose and looked down from her high perch on a tower of Castle Cant.
"The grown-ups aren't going to like this," she sighed.
"Wickwright," said Pauline, "would you quit gawking and make yourself useful?"
Lucy turned around. The Adored & Honorable Pauline Esmeralda Simone-Thierry von Cant was bent over the catapult, a strand of hair dangling in her face. She and Lucy had wheeled the weapon around so that it faced the courtyard, and now Pauline struggled at the winch, her tongue sticking out as she slowly cranked down the throwing arm.
"Mistress," Lucy said, stepping away from the parapet, "I don't thinkrespectfullythat this is such a very good idea."
Lucy was Pauline's maidservant and had to address her as "mistress," even though she was a year older and nearly a thumb taller than the Baron's daughter. Except for her weekly half-holiday, on Saturday afternoons, Lucy spent the better part of every day caring for Pauline. She dressed her mistress in the morning, served her at table, and tidied her chambers at night. She was also encouraged (in the words of the Constitution for the Benevolent Employment of Men-at-Arms, Artisans, Husbandmen, & Domestic Servants) "to satisfy all the Whims & Requests of the Noble Person, excepting such as may give rise to Treasons, Gross Offenses, &c."
Pauline, unfortunately, was terribly prone to Whims.
"The trigger!" she said. "Hurry! My arms are breaking!"
Lucy knelt beside the creaking engine of war and guided the iron catch of the trigger into a ring on the throwing arm. Pauline let go the winch, and the heavy beam caught the trigger with a terrible clank! Lucy stepped away as the machine popped and groaned in frustration, like an old man trying to get up from his chair. Pauline brushed her hands on her snowy pinafore.
"So," she said with a satisfied smile, "what do you think now?"
Lucy glanced nervously toward the parapet.
"Maybe we could wait till later," she suggested.
"But then no one would see," Pauline said. "Come, help me to load it."
The ammunition steamed in a wicker basket at their feet. The girls had crept into the baronial laundry and collected the wet heap of underclothes while Mr. Fuller and his assistants sipped their morning tea. There were long bloomers with frilly gathers, balloonish drawers embroidered with the baronial crest, sleek slips, plain vests, and complex corsets with snapping straps. They had stopped to rest three times as they hauled the basket up the winding steps of the tower.
"This is a madcap caper, Wickwright!" Pauline said, grasping a handle of the basket. "I'm such an imp! This will go down in history! On three, then. One! . . ."
Lucy bent over the basket.
"Please to lift with your knees, mistress," she advised.
"Two! . . ."
Lucy gripped the handle.
"Two and a half! . . ."
Lucy held her breath. One never knew how many fractions Pauline might count.
"Two and three quarters! . . . Three!"
They upended the soggy contents of the basket into the rope net at the end of the throwing arm. As the mass of underwear slowly settledlike an undercooked pudding turned out of its moldLucy again glanced over the parapet. Lord Cant had emerged from the castle and now lumbered across the rocky courtyard called the bailey, his progress attended by guards in crimson frocks and flat bronze helmets. Behind him came a crowd of ministers and nobles who gossiped and traded tablets of chewing gum, their elegant robes sweeping the stones. At the rear straggled a whiskered, unhappy-looking man in a chef 's white blouse and hat, who held in his fist the two feet of a clacking, even unhappier-looking hen.
The party reached the prisoner, a well-knit young man who knelt with bowed head on the flints of the courtyard, naked except for a dirty pair of breeches. He had been there since sunrise, guarded by the black-hooded executioner, who stood at attention with his axe. Lucy found her eyes drawn to this prisoner, though she could not say why. Now the bailiff strode from the crowd of spectators and unrolled a parchment. His voice echoed up the castle walls.
"The prisoner . . . ner, ner . . . having been found guilty . . . ty, ty . . . of the grave and infamous offense . . . fense, fense . . . of slandering the noble pastime of chewing gum . . . um, um . . . awaits the Just and Benevolent Execution . . . shun, shun . . . of the sentence . . . tence, tence . . . of Death! . . . death! death!"
"Papa's cap is on crooked," Pauline said, peeking over Lucy's shoulder. "I daresay he's just got out of bed."
Lucy imagined she was right. Adolphus, Lord Cant, the Exalted & Merciful Protector of the Barony, blinked sleepily in the morning light. His unwashed hair curled in wayward tendrils from beneath his baronial cap, and he scratched his belly as an underling approached to offer him a paper on a silver platter. He lifted it in a trembling hand.
"Stay thy hand, executioner!" he said, squinting at the script. His voice was low and wheezyLucy could barely hear it from the tower. He coughed feebly, then went on. "We are touched by pity. Our tender heart . . ."
"Too tender!" chanted the ministers and nobles, their words slightly garbled by chewing gum. Lucy heard a bubble pop.
". . . Our tender heart," the Baron went on, "and the precepts of the Wise Teachers, move us to pity. We command that this sentence be lifted, and that the prisoner, for the example of the people and the good of his mortal spirit, be mercifully sentenced to a term of six months at hard labor."
"Hail the Compassionate Protector!" chanted the crowd.
"Poor chicken," Lucy sighed.
"Yet . . . et, et . . . the ransom of blood . . . udd, udd . . . must be paid! . . . aid! aid!" bellowed the bailiff. "Who brings an offering? . . . ing? ing? What blood shall answer . . . ser, ser . . . for this crime . . . ime . . . ime?"
The cook stepped forward and lifted the hen overhead. The startled fowl, having hung upside down all the while, flapped its wings dizzily as it struggled to stay balanced in the cook's upraised fist. Feathers fell as the bird was carried to the Stone of Justice, where the executioner waited, his axe resting on a hairy shoulder.
"Hurrah!" shouted the spectators.
"Now!" Pauline squealed, pulling Lucy away from the parapet. She pressed the lanyard of the trigger into her maidservant's hand. "I'll count down from three!"
"But don't you want to do it?" Lucy asked. Her nose began to drip, as it often did when trouble loomed. She sniffed, hoping her mistress wouldn't notice.
"I'm the mastermind of this caper," said Pauline. "You're the henchman. Masterminds give orders; henchmen obey."
Lucy heard the chicken flapping and cawingthe cook had laid it on the Stone of Justice. Pauline hurried back to the parapet and leaned out.
"Three! . . . ," she cried. "Two! . . . Just think, Wickwright, you may save a chicken's life. . . . One! . . . Nine-sixteenths! . . . Five-thirteenths! . . . One-twelfth! . . . Pull!"
Lucy gave the lanyard a mighty tug. But the catapults of Castle Cant were never meant for heaving soggy underwear over the heads of ministers and nobles, and when the great beam swung Lucy found that wet knickers, slips, drawers, and corsets made the worst missiles imaginable. They tangled in the rope netting of the ammunition basket and the catapult slammed the dripping mass of laundry against the parapet with a great, horrible squish!
Had Pauline stood a foot to her left she would have been driven like a peg through the slate roof of the tower. She escaped with a drenching of gray, sudsy water, but only a solitary pair of bloomers was hurled into the sky. Lucy, who had fallen on her backside after pulling the trigger, scrambled to her feet as the catapult's arm swung back, its load of drawstring shorts and lisle stockings peeling free and plopping sadly on the slates around her. Pauline stumbled away from the parapet, wiping dirty bubbles from her eyes.
"You soaked me!" she wailed.
Lucy peeked over the wall. The crowd in the bailey gazed up, their attention commanded by the sound of crashing laundry. The hen had got loose and ran from the pursuing cook. The bloomers unfurled and spiraled down like a maple seed, veering this way and that before landing with a quiet slurp on the prisoner's upturned face.
"Oh no," Lucy whispered.
"Seize her! . . . her! . . . her!" shouted the bailiff.
"Run!" said Pauline.
"Yike!" said Lucy.
She dashed down the parapet walk. Shouted orders echoed from the courtyard, and guardsmen raced to the towers. Lucy hoped her mistress could delay them, for it was a long way to the castle keep, where she might run down the corner tower and disappear in the labyrinth of the north wing. Looking over the parapet, she saw that the guards below were outpacing her.
She ran on, her shoes pounding the slates of the parapet walk, and when she reached the corner tower she stopped, her lungs on fire. To her horror she heard the patter-flop of guardsmen's sandals, already well up the spiral stairs. She started back through the arch to the parapet walk, but by now two guardsmen had arrived at the linen-shrouded catapult. One of them offered Pauline a consoling handkerchief.
"There she is!" the other cried.
Lucy flew down the stairs, toward the climbing sandals of her pursuers. They surely thought she had gone mad, running down toward them, and they gave a shout each time a circuit of the stairs brought her into view. For once Lucy was grateful for her outlandish, rubber-soled shoes. They were the only sneakers ever known in the castle, where clothing styles of one hundred and fifty years agosuch as Pauline's pinaforewere considered daringly modern. Down she ran, her feet barely touching the steps, until another turn on the winding stairs would have put her in the guards' clutches.
With a determined hyuh! she swung down a dim passage and sprinted to another flight of steps, steep and narrow and less footworn than those of the tower. She scrambled up, on aching legs, to a landing where an oil lamp burned in a bracket on the wall. There she stopped, wheezing hard, her sandal-shod pursuers following noisily up the narrow steps. She turned the lamp's screw until the flame was drowned in oil, then ran blindly on through the darkness. When it seemed her legs could carry her no farther she gained a second landing. A yellow candle burned there, by an oaken door on which a sign warned
Lucy blew out the candle, opened the door, and entered the familiar, cavernous hall of the Baronial Library. Dusty light fell from the high windows to the floor where, like ancient, molting buzzards in their nests, threadbare scholars sat at tables piled with books. Lucy forced herself to walk calmly, her hands in her pockets. Dr. Azziz, the librarian, glanced up from her tall wheeled chair as Lucy strolled by.
"Good morning, Lucy!" she whispered. "What brings you "
Her greeting was cut off by a tumult beyond the doorthe clang and clatter of guardsmen's helmets striking granite. They had arrived at the darkened first landing, and had tried to put their feet on a step that was not there. Strong oaths barked up the stairs.
"My word!" said the librarian. "What's happening out there?"
"I passed some guardsmen drinking beer, ma'am," Lucy said.
"Outrageous!" said Dr. Azziz. "There are scholars working here!" She beckoned her assistant, who was waving a feather duster at a nearby inkstand. "Carlos, take me to the door!"
Lucy walked away as quickly as decorum allowed. She was a scrupulous girl, careful never to lie, and it was true that she had passed drunken guardsmenmany times, in fact. She saw no reason to tell the librarian exactly when that had happened, for it would be a long story, and she considered herself to be in a hurry. Already the cursing guardsmen were racing up the last flight of stairs.
At the high canyons of the bookshelves she glanced back to make sure the librarian was not looking, then sprinted silently to the other end of the library. She slipped through the door just as the guards thudded against the one behind her. Kneeling, she took a barrette from her hair and wedged it under the door, kicking it tight with the toe of her sneaker.
A long, windowless corridor stretched before her, hung at great intervals with lamps that seemed to shiver in their thin blankets of light. Lucy groaned. Dr. Azziz might delay the guards for a moment, but they would surely catch her before she made it halfway down the corridor. She ran to the first of the iron-hinged doorsof course it was lockedand heard Dr. Azziz crying in protest as the guardsmen stomped noisily across her library. Lucy ran from door to door, testing each stubbornly bolted latch. Her nose dripped horribly. The guardsmen had begun to throw themselves against the jammed door when, at last, a latch gave way to her hand. Despite her urgent terror she stopped to read the plaque on the door, for Lucy was a well-brought-up girl and would never dream of barging in on an utter stranger. She squinted to make out the words in the dim light.
Baronial Commission on Lexicography,
Orthography, & Grammar
DR. COSTIVE GUTZ
Sub-assistant Secretary of Synonyms, Antonyms, & Pleonasms
Lucy stepped inside, closing the door quickly but quietly behind her. The door from the library crashed open and the guards dashed down the corridor. She bit her tongue until they had passed the office of Synonyms, Antonyms, & Pleonasms, then fell back against the door and let out her breath.