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Fontagu’s Folly – Paul Collins

Fontagu Wizroth the Third had never been accused of losing his head. He was far too crafty for that. Besides, as one of the self-proclaimed outstanding actors of his day, he hardly needed to remind himself a great actor played the role and did not let the role play him.

Perhaps that's why Fontagu's present circumstances were so galling.

Things had gotten so out of hand.

'Got nuthin' to say, pog?'

Fontagu managed to crane his head — getting an awful crick in his neck — and peered up the his huge and hooded executioner.

'Sir, I assure you, I could deliver a three page speech that would bring tears to the eyes of the most hard-bitten tyrant, I could make a eulogy that would crack the cunning of a King, I could —'

'Shut up, is what you could do!'

Fontagu opened his mouth to reprimand the fellow, then thought better of it, probably because of the murderous tightening of the man's hands around the axe haft. Riff-raff, thought Fontagu. The sort they wouldn't even think of letting into the Grand Playhouses of Quentaris... except that he wasn't in Quentaris. He was in Tolrush, a city not especially well-known for its support of the arts, unless you counted the military kind.

'If you got nuthin' more to say — and you better not 'ave! — then I got to carry out my sworn duty, and...' The executioner fumbled for a scrap of leather on which he'd scrawled his exact orders. 'And remove your 'ead from your shoulders forthwith.'

'F-F-Forthwith?' stammered Fontagu, his voice trembling as much as his body. He was on his knees, his hands bound painfully behind his back, dressed in the most outrageously banal prison frock. Had they never heard of colour ? of frills ? pleats ? Barbarians! He had been forced — oh, indignity! — to crouch with his head upon the chopping block, which wasn't all that hygienic either given the congealed blood, flies and those tiny wriggling white things.

'Yeah, fah-fah-fah-forthwith,' said the executioner, chuckling at his mimicry.
Fontagu groaned. It was the bane of his profession that everyone thought they could act.

The executioner raised the monstrous double-sided axe.

Fontagu's eyes widened and the blood drained out of his toes.

'I jest gotta test it for sharpness,' said the executioner. He placed a large melon on a back-up chopping block, then brought the axe crashing down. Fontagu shut his eyes at the last second, but when he risked a peek he saw that the melon was wedged like a cork on the blade. The executioner glanced at his fear-crazed prisoner. 'Aim's good. Gotta admit that, ha!' He stuck his boot on the melon and pulled the axe free.

Fontagu swallowed.

'The executioner brought the blade up close to his face. 'Ain't all that sharp,' he mused. 'Ah, well, I'll sharpen it for the next 'un.'

'C-c-couldn't you sharpen it right now? I'd pay you.'

'How much?'

Fontagu named a price. The executioner thought about it, and nodded. It was quite common for those about to die to pay for such services: an executioner who missed, or failed to do a clean job caused considerable pain to their victims. Everyone had a private stash of funds somewhere. Getting victims to offer it up for a speedy, painless death was an art form all in itself.

While the man sharpened the axe on a grinding stone, Fontagu reflected on his past sins. Oh, woe is me, he thought. How did I get myself into this wretched mess?

In fact, he was overlooking the fact that he'd been caught red-handed trying to defraud the king's spinster sister, Esmeraldis, of her emerald brooch. Of course, the only reason he'd been trying to restore his fortunes at all was all the fault of a rival actor that he'd met outside a squalid playhouse. He'd assured Fontagu that Esmeraldis was a secret admirer of the theatre, and that if he could woo her, such romantic success would guarantee Fontagu a part in the upcoming play, Rissole & Joliet, the very part for which he was about to audition. But he hadn't countered on being so successful.

Of course, it wasn't really Esmeraldis' fault. Fontagu was a devilishly handsome man: debonair, jut-jawed, and of heroic stature. Women could rarely resist him, as witnessed by the poor Esmeraldis. Her heart had been his from the moment he uttered several lines from his most famous role, that of 'Scurrilous, the Cad from Simesia'.

He had been so taken by the extraordinary emerald-laden brooch (surely worth a king's ransom — why, with such a brooch he could buy his way into any part in the land!) that he was quite unprepared for what happened next. Esmeraldis, whom the actor had described as being of divine beauty, had removed her veil.

And Fontagu had almost gagged.

Esmeraldis' looks were far from divine, unless the rear end of a dung-brigader's donkey was considered divine.

Having secured the besotted Esmeraldis' brooch in record time, Fontagu quickly made plans to beat a hasty retreat. Somehow the king's men had gotten wind of his little charade and had pounced on him the moment he'd left her ladyship's chamber.

'I'm ready, pog,' said the executioner, snapping Fontagu out of his reverie.

Fontagu noticed that a crowd had begun to gather. A palanquin, carried by four huge slaves, suddenly parted the crowd. Fontagu's eyes went wide. The man being borne was the king's advisor, Genkis, a man of some influence — and an avid theatre goer.

'Oh, dear sir! May I have your attention for one moment!' called Fontagu, in his most pleasing voice. The executioner spat in annoyance, but Genkis signalled the palanquin to stop. It was considered unlucky to deny a condemned man his last wish.

'Speak quickly, villain,' said Genkis, in a bored voice. 'I must attend the king before the hour strikes, or mayhap, it will be my head that shall soon be parted!'

'Oh, you jest sir, surely, though a very fine jest it is,' Fontagu added quickly. 'Yet my plight is a sad one, for I am as innocent as —'

But Genkis was frowning. 'Are you not the actor, Fontagu Wizroth the Third?'

Fontagu almost denied it. He had so many creditors — not to mention injured parties — that he rarely claimed ownership to his own name, unless he felt it was safe to do so.

'It is, isn't it?' said Genkis, stroking his neat goatee. 'I have seen your art, sir. Commendable! I especially loved your Scurrilous. To this day I'm not sure whether it was parody or otherwise, but genius no matter what. Why, I have not laughed so much since we sacked the city of Hyceum. Executioner, what is the fellow's crime?'

The man related the sad events that had brought Fontagu to this pass.

Genkis nodded. 'Ah, yes, I recall. I do believe the... er... fair Esmeraldis was more upset at being jilted than robbed.' Genkis tossed a bag of coins onto the scaffold. 'Release the man to my custody. He may yet redeem himself — in the service of our fair city.'

One week later, a thoroughly frightened Fontagu was spirited into Quentaris, clutching his actor's leather case to his chest (strictly against orders, but who would know?)

'What am I, chopped liver?' asked a growling voice in his ear. ' I know.'

Fontagu quaked. The voice belonged to a rather nasty, and quite invisible (and disembodied) djinn , one of those sour-tempered spirits the Tolrushians specialised in conjuring up, unlike most civilised cities, who preferred more traditional and reliable magic.

'A thousand pardons, oh great and wondrous Hamm.'

Hamm snorted (invisibly). 'Don't try sucking up to me. Save that for the addle-brained Quentarans. Now get on with your mission, you great cross-eyed git, else it'll be back to the block for you, and that scrawny chicken neck of yours.'

Fontagu's hand went to his throat automatically. He was very fond of his neck. His skin, too, come to that. Which was why he was here — to commit theft, and do magic.

Of course, he could see Tolrush's point of view.

Quentaris was laying siege to that city, inconveniencing everyone. Why, just last week they'd run out of Vesperian grapes — the king's favourite fruit! They were also cornering the market on exotic adventures and riches via their profitable control of the rift caves. How else was it financing its war against Tolrush?

Utterly intolerable!

It had to stop, immediately, or so Genkis had said (echoing the words of the boy-king, Kull Vladis — a blood-thirsty little despot if ever there was one!)

'Watch your tongue!' snarled Hamm.

Fontagu stopped himself from pointing out that it had been his mind talking, not his tongue. It didn't pay to get too nit-picky with grumpy djinn .

'You better believe it, pog!'

Shortly before noon, Fontagu took up residence in a tavern renowned for its ales and ordered several; solely as part of his 'cover', he insisted, in answer to Hamm's scornful and rather hurtful remarks. It was no coincidence that he sat facing the Magicians' Guild, a formidable-looking building with tall spires and a constant coming and going of airborne hags and the few real magicians who didn't really like consorting with one another.

'Most of 'em are out of the city,' said Hamm.

'You can sense that, can you?' said Fontagu, trying to return some of the djinn 's scorn.

'What am I, chopped —?'

'Liver, yes, yes, I get it.' Limited vocabulary, these djinn .

Hamm growled, seemingly reading Fontagu's thoughts. 'So what's the plan , oh great and brilliant mastermind?'

'The plan? Er, yes, the plan... well, the plan is to... ah, come up with a plan...'

'Good plan,' said Hamm. 'Guess that's why you're a has-been actor and not a military genius.'

'Sarcasm is so plebeian.'

'And beheading is so undignified.'

'All right, all right! I'm thinking.'

'Think faster!'

Several pints of the finest ale later, and Fontagu had still not come up with the cunning and crafty solution he'd promised Genkis back in Tolrush. And he was beginning to sweat.

He knew the djinn had the power to transport him instantly back to Tolrush, and that would happen the moment he became convinced that Fontagu could not live up to his end of the bargain. Of course, if Fontagu looked set to obtain the 'package', then Hamm would depart.

A magical contract had been signed by both sides, and could not be altered.

As Fontagu sat there, watching the comings and goings at the guild, a plump dark-haired woman emerged from the entrance. Fontagu immediately sat up, his eyes dancing with delight.

He rushed out of the tavern (forgetting to pay his bill — or not forgetting) and fell into step beside the woman.

'And now the sun shines upon all the world,' intoned Fontagu, doffing his hat with a flourish, which sort of took in all the world, 'and my heavy heart is lifted.'

The woman eyed him, and her face congealed.

'Don't you go trying that sweet talk on me, you scurrilous bit-actor!'

'Why, Paffny-wuffny, my angel, my love, my heart's desire —'

'My foot! And don't wuffny me, you swindler.'

'Oh, you wrong me!'

'Wrong you, sir? I'd like to throttle you!'

'This is going well,' said Hamm in Fontagu's ear.

Fontagu rubbed his ear, giving Paffny a look of purest misery.

'You are my sunshine,' said Fontagu, while Hamm made puking noises. 'My all, my everything...'

'What do you want, Fonty? I haven't forgotten that you promised to marry me, and get me a part in that play.'

'Ah, dearest lady, if only you knew the trouble I've seen!'

'If you only knew the trouble you're about to see, if you don't spit it out! What do you want?'

Suddenly, Fontagu was all business. He flashed a gold royal. 'The coin is yours — for a little information.'

Paffny made the coin disappear. Fontagu remembered she'd once been an ace pickpocket.

Fontagu lowered his voice. 'You still work at the Magicians' Guild?'

'What's it to you?'

Fontagu said irritably, 'It's the gold royal you just stashed in your ample bosom, that's what it is to me.'

'I works in the kitchen, what of it?'

'Might I buy you a goblet of the best ale?'

'Another royal.'


'You heard me. One more, or I'm on my way.'

'Why, that's scandalous! That's daylight robbery!'

'That's business. But I'll take that as a no.'

She started to stride away. Fontagu swallowed his anger and his pride. ('What pride?' said a voice.) 'Wait! Dearest Paffny, I was merely jesting. Now about that drink —?'

An hour later and Fontagu actually had something that looked like a plan.

He now knew the layout of the guild, and even where the icefire gem was located. In the end, it had cost him rather more than two royals, but it was all in a good cause.

'Yeah,' growled Hamm, 'the cause of keepin' you in one piece.'

'And a noble cause indeed!' replied Fontagu.

'There's just that little snag,' said Hamm, cheerily, 'and I do mean "little".'

'If you're referring to the method of penetrating the building, then you should know that I've taken that into consideration.'

'Translation: you haven't got a clue!'

'I'm working on it,' Fontagu said angrily. 'Now let me think.'

He was striding down a cobble-stoned lane when he heard a faint cry for help.

He peered around. There was no one about. Was there another djinn in the vicinity?

'Why don't you try looking under your feet?' said Hamm. His voice managed to suggest someone rolling their eyes in exasperation.

Fontagu looked down. He was standing on the grille of a storm drain, or maybe it was a sewer opening. He peered down into the dark pit.

Dear me, what do we have here? wondered Fontagu. There was something stuck down there. A boy or a girl, he couldn't tell which. 'You appear to be in something of a pickle...'

'I'm stuck ,' said the child. 'Could you lend me a hand?'

'I? Surely you're jesting? I am Fontagu Wizroth the Third. Himself. And I make it a rule never to lend anything to anyone. Especially oversized sewer rats stuck in drainpipes. Good day to you.'

Fontagu headed off.

'Are you forgetting something, pog-brain?' said Hamm.

'I'm concentrating on my plan, if you must know.'

'Which, if I'm not much mistaken, requires someone quite small to crawl through a very small pipe? Isn't that right?'

'What of it?' Fontagu stopped abruptly and struck his forehead. 'I'm a fool! No, I'm a genius! I've just had a brainstorm.'

He hurried back to the storm drain. (Something, somewhere, made a very rude noise.)

'Mmm,' said Fontagu.

The child glared up at him. 'What do you want now?'

Fontagu made a humming sound as though deliberating the child's question. In fact he was trying to drown out the noise of the departing djinn . It appeared that Hamm was   satisfied that his mission was completed. That his charge was well and truly on the road to making good his contractual promise.

'It may be that I was a little... er... hasty,' Fontagu began...


For more of Fontagu's story, read The Spell of Undoing by Paul Collins, book one in Quentaris — Quest of the Lost City.

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