Tightrope Walker

 

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Introduction

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The Call to Arms

‘Hetta, it’s time.’

The darkness parted like a swirling mist as Hetta lay on her back, staring up at the ceiling. Wavy lines had formed in the smokey shadows that curled into the corners above her head; dawn had not yet properly broken.

Hetta sat up in bed and looked over at her father. He had intended to wake her, but she had beaten him to the punch. It was something she was oft to do. He stood there, a folded envelope in his hand and a limp look about his face.

She knew what was happening.

Dressed and alert within minutes of her father’s retreat back downstairs, Hetta soon joined him and took the letter from his hand. It was hastily written, as always, but it needn’t have been written at all. It was a formality, nothing else. A tradition more than anything, that the Tightrope Walker was sent a letter advising them that there was a battle to be fought. No order or request was made. All the letter did was to make record that the army had now become aware of something the Tightrope Walker had known of for weeks.

Hetta knew the fight was upon her, upon them all. She had felt it. As if its dirty hand had already touched her skin, a filthy mark now left upon her body that was not to be shifted by any conventional means.

There was no need to reply to the letter. And in actuality, a reply would mean the Tightrope Walker had declined to enter into battle anyway. This was something that was not only rare, but a happening which had never before been recorded in The Books of Time, for as long as the practise had been in place.

Hetta gave the letter back to her father and he set it to flame. He held the heavy sheet above the licking red spikes in the rough stone fireplace, letting the heat float up and into his hand, before dropping the letter into the fire and watching it fade away. Hetta was sure he had thought this would be the time, the occasion that Hetta did want to make reply, and signal her defiance to follow the call.

Hetta’s father peered at the flames for a little time. His shoulders were slumped towards the warmth.

‘If you don’t want me to go, I won’t,’ said Hetta. She was almost glaring at his back, his eyes locked as they were, staring into the swirls of orange and white and sharp scarlet flame as they intertwined with each other in a constant but impermanent dance.

‘I could never ask you to do that,’ came his reply, muffled with the clicks and cracks from the fire. ‘And I know you could never do it anyway,’ he added with a more jovial pitch, turning around and looking at her, a fresh smile on his face. It was as if he had stood before the fire just long enough for any sadness in his expression to have been gently melted away.

Hetta stood, still looking at her father, trying to peel the layers of his expression away with her eyes. But he gave her no more chance to do so, and instead trotted off with a little more vigour towards the kitchen sink.

Swords of amber streetlight cut through the kitchen window, slicing up the table and mismatched chairs around it. Hetta took her place in one of them and her father began to make breakfast in the middle of the night.

Scents of cooked bread and eggs and meat soon filled the house.

 

* * *

 

When the time came, the sea crashed against the shores, the water beating hard on the rocks. The wind caught all up in its torrents, the sky throwing bundles and bundles of clouds at the earth, upset with it, angry at what had been allowed to take place. The trees in the great forests leapt and lurched in their roots, the ground shaking with rumbles of men and machines, all a flutter in their places.

This was when war was set to begin. This was when the Tightrope Walker was called for.

When the bells rang, from the towers on hills high, that was when fathers looked up and mothers looked down.

 

* * *

 

So few were there still in existence. She was special. Hetta’s father had told her so. Her mother had told her too, but she couldn’t remember that.

Whether through magic or luck or just correct tailoring, Hetta had never been harmed upon the battlefield. And that was kind of the point. No one knew how or why Hetta was a Tightrope Walker, they just knew that she was one. She didn’t even fully understand herself how it was she did what she did.

Hetta never loved what she did. Nor did she hate it. It was much more complicated than that. But she did it well, and she couldn’t live not doing it. It was a strange spark that resided within her, neither harmful nor warming. It fed a deep hunger inside her body that she never knew was there, and sometimes, wished she never had at all.

Hetta was only dangerous to those who sought to bring danger upon her. Never mind that she was the one person she preached this to the most. It didn’t matter, she knew it was true. Any Tightrope Walker would have known it to be true. Everyone else was a different matter. Anyone, whether they would admit it or not, or even knew it themselves, from the single solider to the totalitarian tyrant, those who sought to bring harm against Hetta’s country, by extension sought to bring harm against her. It was instinctual. She was protecting her family, protecting her own. She was protecting herself. Self defence was not always how she saw it, but it was how she often explained it. It was never easy to explain, and often she just never bothered. But this was easy, not to speak about it, as the few who knew Hetta, would even talk to her, never talked about what it was she did. And she never brought it up. Never. Not really.

Hetta tucked a creased and slightly crumpled photograph into her pocket but took nothing else save the clothes she wore; the army would provide. A blanket of well kept stars still lay made across the sky as she stepped into the front garden of her house, the air like silk with a spring chill coating its fine strands as they floated on a non-existent cold breeze.

Hetta wondered how far away they all were, the stars, and if it even really mattered. What were they for, anyway? Her father had told her the stars were there for different reasons for different people. For some they were there to decorate the sky, to put a pattern on the blackness. For others they were there to guide them, steer their way back home. Hetta didn’t know what the stars were for her. She supposed they were there to look at, a pretty distraction. Because that was all she could ever seem to do with them, her mind always swept clean of anything else whenever she stopped to gaze upon them, their magnificence producing a calming quality that never failed to relax her.

Hetta pulled her eyes back onto the world below the sky and stars and breathed sharp breaths in the chill. Her stomach was full but her chest felt far from contented. They didn’t say goodbye anymore, Hetta and her father. It was now a thing of duty. Hetta had grown old enough to understand the difference between something you had to do, and something you needed to do. But it had become more than that. It was a job. She had about lapsed into that common adult state where feeling floated out the window and you just got on with it.

Hetta shut the front garden gate behind her, flecks of paint from its worn surface falling loose into her fingers. Swiftly, without thinking, Hetta cupped the flecks in her hand. They were dry and brittle. The amount of times she must have touched that paint, how many times her mother had touched it …

Hetta stowed the fragments of paint from the aging gate in her pocket along with the photograph, and felt like she was storing her memories away. She wanted to keep them with her, lock them away where no one else could touch. But they wouldn’t be any good to her now, not yet.

Hetta pulled in a deep breath of cold new day air. It wrapped around her throat and rushed up her nostrils like splinters of ice, slowly melting away with the heat of her skin. She set her course towards the Brush Palace, and off to see the leader of her country, the leader of Rightabouthere.

Rightabouthere was bordered on all sides by countries not only more vast in size, but of greatly larger populations, more intricate economies and higher rum-to-weight ratios too. The three considerably larger countries which enclosed Rightabouthere entirely, like an overinflated life preserver around a stout waist, were Thatplace, There, and Anywhereherewillbefine. However, all four countries were only a piece in the much larger jigsaw puzzle which was the greater continent known as Everywhere. And this was where Hetta, and any humanoid type creature with no more than three legs and five arms, called home. At least, everyone that most three-legged and five-armed humanoids knew of at the time.

It had been the conclusion of modern scholars and learned figures alike that the ancient kings and and renowned settlers of Everywhere, the Four Fathers, where not the most inventive tools in the shed. In fact, at the time, they were the only tools in the shed. The only other living things present on the day of the Small Squeak were tiny and slimy creatures who preferred the dark, out of the way places you’d rather not park your car in at night, even if it is near the main road. Where the Four Fathers themselves had come from was of indeterminate origin, and, therefore, of little concern to almost everyone.

This’lldo, Hetta’s home city and the cosmopolitan capital of Rightabouthere, was a sight to behold as the first small tentacles of daylight crept over the horizon and began to wrap themselves around the sharpest tips of the tallest buildings. As she now walked deeper into the heart of the city and towards the Brush Palace, little fires of life were beginning to ignite behind windows all around her, and be extinguished more closely to hand.

Street lamps were being doused by the I.M.P.S. (Illumination Maintenance and Provision Service), thin men in smart pin striped suits who used ladders attached to bicycles in order to reach the lamps as they were set atop their ornately wrought posts. The small workers scuttled hither and thither, rapidly setting about their tasks in a constant race against time to extinguish all of the lamps in the city before it was time to turn around, ride back in the opposite direction and relight them all again.

Hetta chuckled at their careful work, making the most of the way her smiles felt. Soon she would no longer have the luxury of feeling such an expression trickle across her face, and for Goddess knows how long afterwards. Soon she would see no one smiling.

Aside from the letter, the only other tradition that concerned Hetta before battle was the act of presenting herself to the Queen Regent of Rightabouthere. This short, and in truth, pointless meeting served no more purpose than a gingerbread anchor on a cruse liner. But as Rightabouthere was a strongly traditional, and somewhat nostalgic country of sorts, various time wasting exercises like this were upheld and, annoyingly so, followed through with.

Hetta’s country was run by Queen Regent Terrance Muffin. While Queen Regent Terrance Muffin was not actually a woman, as most other Queens, Regent or otherwise, would be, that didn’t mean he didn’t have a cracking reason for calling himself so.

Throughout history, the Kings of Rightabouthere had been a long and misshapen line of dunderheads. And as Queen Regent Muffin did not wish to be painted with the same unwashed brush, he had elected to take the title of Queen instead of King Regent. This had been a doubly fortuitous choice too, as the people of Rightabouthere had always liked their Queens much better anyway.

Queen Regent Muffin, or as he was sometimes known as, Terry, had won the right to govern the country through a small wager. Namely that of a two bob game of cards. During said game, Terry had been playing against, among others, the King at the time. And when it had come down to the real thick of things, the real custard skin, the King had run out of money and precious metals with which to to bet.

‘You can’t raise me my freedom, Your Highness,’ Terry had said, bravely speaking up amongst the already strained atmosphere that had taken hold of the Stumble Inn, the humble venue for the proceedings on that particular day. A most regal and accepting establishment as you could find in This’lldo, the Stumble allowed all sorts of classes and codes and species to intermingle at will.

‘But I can take it off you – there! It’s gone! Now I can put it on the table,’ said the King, his eyes darting around the Stumble Inn, scanning for anything else of value that he could use to raise the stakes, and also which wasn’t nailed down or mostly figurative.

‘I must apologise, Your Highness,’ Terry had ventured, his eyes on the sword tips of the King’s body guards, ‘but that just wouldn’t work.’

Dismayed but resigned, the King had taken a deep breath and thrown into the mix the only thing he had left of value, his Kingship (he had lost most of his clothes and a quantity of his hair in previous games already, one of which a vain attempt to win back his diamond and ruby encrusted shoes. He still proclaimed to be ‘retaining the right’ to wear his underwear, although it too no longer technically belonged to him).

Terry had balked initially, he could remember it clearly. But not wanting to upset the King any further, he cheerfully acquiesced to the Monarch’s new bargaining chip, and the game went on.

Needless to say, it didn’t go on for much longer.

Rightaboutherians being a peoples who took their wagers terribly seriously, there had been no question about Terry taking over power, and from that day forth he was the man who ran the country. Although, saying that he ran the country wasn’t entirely accurate. His face was on most of the money, and his name certainly appeared in all of the newspapers and was featured on a lot of rather important documents and the like. But in truth, it was never really clear who actually called all the shots. Or who really loaded the rifle, checked the wind, aimed and then fired them either.

There had never been any question of Queen Regent Muffin living in the Brush Palace and attending all the balls and functions that any other ruler of a nation would be expected to attend. And so he did, leaving his old life as soon as he had finished his pint at the Stumble Inn that fateful night, and taking on his new role almost instantaneously. As it was, Queen Regent Muffin used to be a baker, and since his fortuitous win, had mostly enjoyed his role as head of state, one that he would be set to keep until he died. Or as was more likely, lost it in a quick game of backgammon.

The leader of Rightabouthere was traditionally called the ‘Big Guy’, or ‘Big Gal’, as ever the case may be at the time. They also wore a hat in the shape of a Victoria sponge, although not resembling it, whenever they were conducting their ‘official’ duties for the country. The formalities of such occasions as these were the last remaining fossils of a past age. But they were, for reasons best left to themselves, carried out to the full.

None of this, however, particularly mattered to Hetta. She didn’t care for the why to’s and whether for’s of politics, or even the what not’s or which of’s of tradition. And in any case, she was someone who didn’t take any orders from anyone, let alone a sponge cake wearing Big Guy.

The General ran the army, but nobody ran Hetta. She couldn’t remember being brutish about it, no one had ever questioned her at any rate. Perhaps this was part of why so many people were not only scared of her, but didn’t like her one little bit either. They weren’t told that they had to be grateful she was there to protect them, they firmly knew it was true, and this somehow made it harder to take. Hetta had never boasted. Nor had she ever told so much as an abbreviated tale of her battlefield exploits. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop some people thinking that she did, and people didn’t like that. If she ever spoke out at all to refute that she had spoken out, she was then, by definition, speaking out, and that made things even worse. So Hetta, with most everyone, set to keeping quiet and saying not much. This tended to work to the advantage of the rumour makers rather than herself. This, her father told her, was not to be helped.

‘People will find anyone in the world to blame for their troubles except themselves,’ was one of her father’s favourite sayings. Along with ‘the more prosperous a community is, the more people within it will be willing to search for the reasons why. Accept good fortune and move on, don’t try to pick it apart or it might break.’ These were only a pair of his more prominent and well worn verses, the sum of which Hetta knew by heart, and frequently took them there as well.

Hetta’s community, her country, and its capital city, were quite small in comparison to those others that populated the lands around and far off. Being so, they were frequently picked on by other countries which were populated with larger people with smaller spaces between their ears. But what worked in the favour of Rightabouthere was something that many of their immediate neighbours had learnt already – the hard way.

Although defeat at the hands of Righabouthere had never made those surrounding it entirely comfortable in seeking to form an alliance with them, bruised pride had seen to that, it had none the less kept them from picking anymore fights with the country they now called their ‘little sister.’ And knowing that a little sister was liable to bite your kneecaps if you came too close was certainly a good a reason as any to be so cautious of a younger sibling.

Those a little further out from these immediate borders were not yet so enlightened. They merely saw Hetta’s country as a small and fertile looking spot on the map, a nice place for whatever emperor, king or three-headed Morgoth dictator they might have at their helm to build his or her or its new holiday home. However, while being defeated by Hetta’s country had not left her neighbours as friends, they were still not about to warn any of their outer foes about the honey trap they were walking into by picking on the little sis of the geographical family And in any case, there was money to be made from the fighting of other countries, and this was something to be gently fostered for those wishing to be the ones making that kind of cash.

So, with less money to put into war, less people to build into soldiers, and less room to manoeuvre themselves upon any aggressors, what was it? What was it which Hetta’s country did possess, that had seen them remain blemish free from the boots of enemy soldiers for the last eight years? It was Hetta. They had Hetta.

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The Muffin Man

Presently, This’lldo had its current level of bustle set to its morning shiny best.

The city looked like it had just been taken out of its box, bran-new and blemish free, just like a sheet of freshly fallen snow. This was usually the case for the capital of Rightabouthere, until the sun rose further and the people awoke to trample all through it, tarnishing that freshly minted effect.

But as the human and otherwise traffic began to grow, so did the whispering. Hetta was known – she was famous. On the whole most people saw Hetta as a hero, a saviour in battle who couldn’t be matched. However, as with all fame, there were always those less kind in their thoughts and words, people who were jealous of the attention which Hetta received. They could have it, as far as Hetta was concerned. She had never wanted the stares and astonished looks, never asked for the mistrustful glances mixed with shady reverence, even if a fair number of them were followed by cheers and words of praise.

There were those who thought Hetta evil, a strange being intertwined with all sorts of dark and mystical magic. Hetta had to admit that she couldn’t confirm nor deny the accuracy of the latter, the ability to do what she did as much a mystery to herself as it was to others. But she was pretty sure she wasn’t evil. Unless not making your bed at regular intervals was considered a particularly demonic activity (and judging by the way her father went on about it sometimes, it just might be).

As for the origins of her particularly unique ability, Hetta had questioned her father about the subject profusely in the past. But that was only in the beginning. It was now well established that Hetta’s dad was just as in the dark about it all as any other. Tightrope Walkers were rare. Really rare. As rare as a pen crammed with vampire hens in a field of four leaf clovers under a blue moon on an unprecedented thirty-first Sunday in a row. And a girl Tightrope Walker? Well … you may as well start questioning your own existence, and that of everything, everywhere – ever. It was that big of a deal.

When Tightrope Walkers were, they were not girls. As far as anyone knew, Hetta was the first of her kind.

In the deep past, Tightrope Walkers had always been prophesied. They were known about before their great-great-great grandmothers had even been born. However, the times of gathering around the campfire for a good old prophesy telling had long gone. And with modern ways and busy lives getting busier still, Hetta had kind of just snuck up on them all. And truth be told, she had rather snuck up on herself too.

Hetta felt like she had always known she was a Tightrope Walker, even before she had known what they were. There was never anything to mark her so, nothing obvious anyway. She had no gaping scar slashed across her forehead, she didn’t change colour and grow abnormally large when she was angry, and in Rightabouthere radiation was something the heaters in your house did to keep it warm. There was no real funny business about it, Hetta just knew what she was. She knew it. She just didn’t know how.

So far Hetta had been in seventeen battles. And she and her army had come home the victor seventeen times. It was a good record. The best. So that was always something.

As Hetta turned into Long Street and saw the bulk of the Brush Palace gape into view, it was clear that they had been watching her approach for quite some time. The main giveaway was the lack of human or otherwise traffic along her way. Long Street was rather long, you see. It was also the second busiest street in the whole of This’lldo, after The Street, which was for a short while after the city’s founding, its only street. Until, that is, The Other Street and then Yet Another Street was paved through soon after.

Hetta had stopped being surprised and unsettled by walking down suddenly deserted thoroughfares, passing empty public playgrounds and through strangely vacant markets quite some time ago. People removing themselves from her immediate vicinity for fear or awe of what she might or might not do was something she had gotten used to. And besides, it wasn’t that eerie. If you looked really carefully you could still see the thin men hiding behind lamp posts and the small women crouched down next to flower pots; they couldn’t hold in their stomaches forever.

Hetta’s steps now had an echoing quality as the sounds of their existence flew up from under her shiny boots and ricochetted off of anything that didn’t have a heart beat. The run up to the Palace was like walking along the blade of a giant battle-worn sword, the edges of the street blunt and nobbled, but the street itself as strait as you like.

Being one of the city’s oldest streets, Long Street was flanked on both sides by ancient, and in most cases, crumbling architecture. Having once housed the gentry of the time, the buildings there were now home to what were in some eyes a lesser form of the upper classes, while the lower dwellings had been converted into shops and the like. These contained, amongst other things, junk sellers (antique stores), rag sellers (clothing stores), swill merchants (pubs), drivel merchants (newsagents), stodge merchants (food stalls) and florists (those who weren’t really good at selling old things, clothes, booze, newspapers or foodstuffs).

As she moved on along the thoroughfare, Hetta allowed her pondering to dip into what it might be like to live like everyone else, perhaps owning a store along this very street. What she would give to have nothing more exciting or troublesome to do every day than to shoo away wandering vagabonds from her doorstep with an old broom. Her heart gave a tiny thrill at the tiny thought of such a thing.

But Hetta’s life was set in stone.

And as her mind wandered, her body brought her right back to where she was headed. Suddenly, and almost creepily, she was face to face with a brass knocker shaped like a toothbrush, a long swirl of shinny polished toothpaste on the top of the bristles. The whole gaudy arrangement was hanging from a huge and stately door, like some strange looking nose on an overly large and well groomed face.

The Brush Palace had been built during a particularly prosperous stage in the history of This’lldo. At the time, King Raymond the Dental had been in power, and also completely obsessed with oral hygiene. So much so that he had insisted on paying for not only the remodelling of what was once a rather average looking royal palace, but also the alteration, maintenance and repair of the teeth of each and every last citizen in This’lldo, regardless of their wealth or doings. ‘A healthy mouth makes for a healthy citizen’ was indeed the city’s motto for some time thereafter.

The resulting effect from this monarch’s goodwill had been the record collection of taxes, an all time low crime rate (the thieves and other criminals who had mostly lurked and operated within the night now had teeth so white that all they had to do was grin to themselves at the prospect of an impending bag of loot, and it would be like they had flicked on a glowing neon sign over their head which read ‘Look at me! I’m about to nick your pearls!’), and the smallest percentage of beheading notices sent out in recorded history (the King was somewhat reluctant to defile good dentistry work). The extra monies collected from the taxes in particular resulted in such a surplus of funds that roads were mended, houses were fixed and the city of This’lldo grew at its fastest rate in history, before or since.

Hetta pulled the brass brush as far back from the door as her meagre muscles would allow and then gladly let it drop back against the solid oak, causing one large and resounding KNOCK to punch the air behind it. The dull sound was followed by a series of quieter and shorter echoing Knocks which trailed away into nothing, like smoke in the night.

For a moment there was silence.

Then footsteps. Strange sounding footsteps, as if approaching from far away. But somehow, they didn’t quite sound right. The footsteps were muffled in the wrong places and too loud when they should have been softer, barely audible when the audio imprints of the shoes should have been clear. In truth, the doormen had been standing behind the grand double doors for quite some time, waiting nervously for Hetta to arrive. But hierarchy had to be, by name, high, and to have the household of the ruler of the country obediently waiting for a thirteen year old girl to arrive at the door, like a dog for its master, was not the way that monarchs were supposed to behave.

‘Enter,’ spoke a voice that was supposed to be laced with regality, but instead had been sewn up by fright.

The tall carved oak doors slowly swept open and Hetta walked over the threshold, pushing a sideways glance towards one finely dressed doorman. This small look resulted in him crumpling up like an accordion and falling to the ground in a blithering bother. She then looked over at the other doorman and he fell to the floor quicker than the first. Hetta sighed; there’d be someone along to collect them shortly, there always was. Hetta closed the doors herself and walked deeper into the pearly insides of the Palace.

The polished grey stone floor was covered in thick woven rugs with intricate pictures of dancing teeth embroidered into them (remnants of Raymond the Dental’s reign were on display all through the Brush Palace). Hetta cringed. The dancing teeth alone might have not been so bad, but she thought the pink tutus around their daintily depicted midriffs was going just that little bit too far in the way of joviality.

The walls around her were made of an inky black marble that had little sparkly bits in it at intervals, so that if you squinted it was like being a giant god, walking past the night sky for fun. Flaming rings of candles suspended in finely polished chandeliers hung down from the high ceilings, and lit most of the way along the corridor, the odd fire in a wall-secured bracket here and there too. Hung in decoration and respect were painted portraits of all of those who had ruled over Rightabouthere, the regal gold and bronze gilded frames sparkling in the flickering light. The faces were ghostly, even in the crisp firelight, and the eyes of their subjects seemed to follow Hetta as she walked.

When Hetta approached the second double door at the far end of the corridor there wasn’t much to do but wait. She knew they had been watching her, she had seen the actual eyeballs in the paintings to prove it. Hetta looked at her reflection in the black polished marble, the shiny stonework giving her a ghostly outline like the portraits. She looked thin, or at least thinner than she had thought she did before. Her hair looked like a sheet of black silk draped over her head. Her eyes were two uncut diamonds.

Hetta could hear the flames of the fires licking and clicking together in their large wrought brackets, sharp red and blazing orange heads peering down at her as she waited. She hated the formality of it all, the crossing the eye’s, the dotting the tea’s – and that was just the part of the ceremony when you pulled a face while you drew on everyone’s china cups.

There was a high pitched Clink, followed by a shaky Click. It sounded like a coin dropped into an empty jar, but it was more likely a key that had been dropped onto the floor and then hastily shoved into the lock it was intended for, the turner of the key not entirely ready to do so. The doors swung open then to reveal no one. Although, one of the doors was shaking slightly and Hetta suspected the opener was hiding behind it. She paid them no mind and walked on through, now in the Palace’s cavernous Great Hall.

As opposed to the darkened corridor, this space was brightly lit with tall and thin windows that ran the length of each wall, thick shards of strong light thrown onto the caramel oaken floor. The centre of the hall was mostly bare, the furniture all pushed up against the walls, like jittery students at a formal school dance before one brave armchair makes the first move out towards a coffee table it’s had its eye on all year.

Hetta’s boots left carpet and set foot on polished timber as she slowed her pace a little to take in the beauty of the space.

At the far end of the hall was another door, but this one was seldom locked. Not in the handful of times Hetta had been to the Palace during Muffin’s reign at any rate. She strode towards it with a kind of nervous familiarity, not scared of her impending encounter but more anxious for it to be over before it had even begun. The guards where there, she knew, hidden away, not for means of stealth but fears of being turned to stone should Hetta meet any of their eyes.

‘Ah Hetta, you’re here!’

Hetta spun on the spot and her eyes were greeted with the plump man she knew as Terrance Muffin, the leader of Rightabouthere.

‘Hello, Queen Regent,’ said Hetta, her politeness never quelled despite stuffy circumstances.

‘Hetta Rue, our glorious Tightrope Walker! What a lovely surprise!’ trilled the portly man, his crisp silver spangled suit bowing a little around the edges (Muffin preferred to have his clothes fitted. What they were fitted to, however, was a mystery, as they never seemed to fit him).

‘Surprise, Queen Regent?’ said Hetta, ‘I’ve been called to march out?’

‘What? Oh yes, of course,’ replied Muffin, his eyebrows at first attempting to hide in his wispy fringe of salt and pepper hair, but then retreating back towards his bright sticky bun eyes. ‘Lovely day for it.’

‘Lovely day for which it, Queen Regent?’

‘Oh you know … it’s just something you say, isn’t it?’

‘Is it, Queen Regent?’

‘Yes,’ said Muffin with a slightly less jovial sigh, dusting what seemed to be wholemeal flour off of one of his lapels. ‘Can’t say I was ever entirely sure what it was either to be honest. Damn sharp girl I’ve always said. Damn sharp!’

Hetta wasn’t entirely sure if this were a compliment, or even if Muffin were talking to her, so she decided to let the subject fade away and move on to other things. Chit chat was another formality she disliked considerably.

‘Shall we continue on then, Queen Regent? The ceremony?’ Muffin sighed again, but in a resolute rather than tired sort of way.

‘Actually, I though we might not this time.’

‘Queen Regent?’

‘Well, you know I came into this business as an outsider, a mere working stiff thrown up to the highest pedestal.’ Hetta nodded. ‘This is only the fifth battle I have seen you off to, is it not? Although I’ve heard good stories about all of your previous campaigns, only good stories ...’

Hetta’s eyes crinkled.

‘Why, there was the Battle of Dumbting if I’m not mistaken?’ the chubby man went on. ‘Good battle that one, plenty of custard tarts at the end of it if I recall. Damn good battle that one.’

Muffin paused again and looked about, Hetta sure she could see his lips moving ever so slightly as he recited the best recipe for custard tarts under his breath.

‘Anywhosealls,’ Muffin went on at a jitter, ‘I am not of noble blood and, thank Goddess, never will be. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good eye crossing as much as the next fellow in the street, but there’s a part of me that thinks it just doesn’t cut it any more, you know what I mean? We’re a new wave country aren’t we? Rightabouthere likes to keep up with the trends don’t we? Keep stride with the Johnson’s?’

Hetta was now pretty sure she knew who Muffin was talking to, but she had no idea what he was talking about. This was chit chat wearing roller skates with a rocket strapped to its back, and Muffin was holding a match up to the fuse, a manic glint in his eye.

‘Well, Queen Regent, I –’

‘Come on now, Hetta,’ Muffin interrupted, ‘we’re both people of the people here. Call me Terry, please.’

‘Ah, OK – Terry.’ Muffin looked most pleased. ‘Well, I think that ideas should come from the people, of course. But at the end of the day, it is a country’s leader who must decide what is best for their country.’

‘Damn sharp,’ was all Muffin said in reply, a fruity and cinnamon sprinkled look about his face. ‘You know, Hetta, running a country is a lot like baking bread. All the hard work must be done first before you can take a step back and watch your efforts rise.’

‘Yes, Queen Regent – I mean, Terry.’

‘I suppose what I’m trying to say is … well, I think Rightabouthere, and especially This’lldo, is still in it’s kneading stages. A bit more hard work is needed (get it?) before the loaf at the end of the oven bake is in sight. See what I’m driving at?’ finished Muffin with a spongey look on his face, now leaning a little closer towards Hetta.

Hetta puzzled over Muffin’s candour. She put it down to nerves. The Queen Regent had not been in power for long at all, and she was sure he must still be only finding his feet. It was time to change the subject. And fast.

‘Who is it we are to go to war with today, Queen Regent?’ said Hetta, steering the conversation into somewhat more familiar waters.

‘What? Oh, I believe the country is called … Ilikethisspot. Yes, that’s it. Can’t say I’d ever heard of the damn place before. I had to get the old maps out.’ Muffin raised his eyebrows and lowered his mouth to convey exaggerated surprise in a rather grandfatherish way. ‘They seem to have come quite a way indeed. As soon as they were in pheasant range they sent the Act. The poor little fellow delivering it had to be carried in from the city limits, couldn’t flap another inch!’ Muffin gave Hetta a weakly bemused look, his eyes then drifting off around the chamber again.

‘Awfully keen sounding bunch they are. Must have seen us on the map and wondered why we were all still standing. Silly really.’

‘That’s the fourth Act Of War sent this year, Your Majesty – Terry.’

‘I know, funny isn’t it? We really should start putting up warning signs or something. But I suppose you can’t blame them, really, it does always look like a rather juicy piece of property when you see it on the map. But then again, it has been eight years, you’d think the word would have gotten around by now, wouldn’t you?’ Muffin looked at Hetta in an earnest kind of way and winked.

The eight years he was referring to was the amount of time Hetta had been on active duty as a Tightrope Walker, and therefore, the amount of time the army of Rightabouthere had been undefeated.

‘Yes, sir. You would certainly think so,’ replied Hetta.

There had been other Tightrope Walkers in Rightabouthere’s history, which was a bit of an oddity, considering how rare they really were. But that still didn’t stop other far flung countries from ‘having a go’, as the men always put it. The last Tightrope Walker in the country’s history had been over a hundred years ago. And for Tightrope Walkers, that was uncannily frequent.

‘But when you think about it,’ Muffin went on, ‘it really is quite rude of them, don’t you think?’

‘Quite rude, sir?’

‘All these newly formed countries, banging on about “we will storm your Palace” and “we will steal your women” or “we’ve run out of sugar, can we please borrow a ton of your best granulated?” I mean, to say, they really should be doing their research a dash more thoroughly, don’t you agree?’

‘One hundred percent, sir.’ said Hetta, nodding as credibly as she could manage.

‘Never giving me a moments peace these damn rampaging leaders. Oh well, part an parcel with the job I suppose …’

Hetta sensed the Queen Regent’s talk was coming to an end, and thought about beating him to the punch. She loathed these formalities, and was now pretty certain Muffin had never been a fan of them either. But being new, you never want to crash in and start knocking the walls down like you’d owned the place for years, putting in a new conservatory where the Tea and Crumpets Room used to be. It just wasn’t polite. And for everything he was, Muffin was polite.

The more Hetta met with Muffin the more she liked him. And the more she met with him the less she came to be convinced that a man such as he, albeit a reasonable, respectable and kind enough person, was capable of running a village fate, let alone a country. But as anyone with twenty nine eyes or less knows, Hetta thought to herself, kings and queens never ran countries, not really. And in the case of king and queen regents … well … they did have their faces on the money, and that’s always fun. At least a lot of people knew who you were, even if they weren’t entirely sure why they knew it.

‘Is there anything else, sir?’ Hetta asked with a timid step towards the door, her thoughts in her head crossed as well as her fingers behind her back and toes inside her socks.

‘Ah … do we need to … ? No, I think that should be just about it. I’ll defer to you and the General on all these things, you know how I am about these military matters.’

‘I do, sir.’

‘Then all there is left to say is good luck – not that you need it,’ Muffin added with a hefty sourdough wink. There was indeed a doughy kind of weight in his demeanour, soft but friendly.

‘Thank you, sir – ah, Terry.’

Hetta bowed shortly to the Queen Regent and then headed toward the double doors of the chamber she had entered through. She was through them in a flash and didn’t look back, a faint ‘damn sharp!’ sounding softly in her wake. She had made that mistake the first time she had encountered Muffin, looking back to smile in a kindly manner towards the Queen Regent as a matter of politeness, only for it to be taken as a sign she wanted to talk further. That had been a long night. But on the up side, she did now have a wonderful recipe for lemon drizzle cake committed to memory.

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Lone Sharks

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