The Wrong Princess
by Richard K. Lyon
As he looked around the elegant oak-paneled conference room, Professor Yates was uncomfortably aware that this was a role reversal situation. When he lectured university students, he could flunk them if they didn't understand his lecture. Explaining things to the board of directors of a multinational corporation was different: they could fire him if they didn't understand what he told them. If they did understand, they might still fire him.
As soon as the CEO introduced him, he announced with a confidence he did not feel, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the problems you've been having with your computer system are a result of evolution. Two years ago you put all the books in your print-on-demand system into a single supercomputer. After that you rapidly added massive amounts of public domain fiction, creating an electronic universe inside the computer. Like our universe, it evolved...
In a room black as midnight, Thoth Amon chanted the words of power.
1150 FORMAT A:
l160 OPEN COM
1170 ON ERROR GOTO 2090
1180 ON L=1 GOSUB 200, 330,1*30
1190 POKE &H5AOO,7HFF
1200 COPY C:\PRINCESS\*.* A:*.*
1220 LOAD eye of newt
1230 LOAD ear of bat AND blood of dragon
1240 PEEK Library of Congress cat no 946.783.382
From the dungeon beyond the wizard's workroom a woman was shouting.
"Thoth Amon, I want to talk to you!"
"Silence, foolish woman!" Thoth Amon snapped angrily, as he continued to form the words of power. The vastly dangerous thing he did required total concentration. The practice of black magic, the summoning of demons, was doubly perilous for the demons themselves would destroy him given the slightest opportunity and such contact violated the commandments of the central processing unit. While he knew the CPU was not the omnipotent omniscient being the pious imagined -- how could It be and demons and other evil still exist? -- still ITs powers were vast. The countless worlds were all ITs creation, dreams floating in ITs mind, given reality from moment to moment only because IT imagined them.
1250 IF AS="Princess" THEN GOTO 980
Small wonder the pious worshiped IT blindly and only the very clever few, of whom Thoth Amon was chief, were shrewd enough to see that the power was nearly all mechanical, that the CPU gave almost no heed to what IT was doing. A man cunning enough to avoid receiving Cookies could easily gain wealth and power by the practice of evil magic.
"Damn it! Wizard, listen to me! Iíve a bargain to offer you, one that's very much in your interests."
Knowing her words were but a clever way of pleading for mercy Thoth Amon paid her no heed as he continued to work his dire spell. It must be perfect before he said RUN. Demons existed by eating information, the little ones by eating the scenery, sucking a stray bit from a rock here, a byte from a tree there, the greater ones by devouring whole characters, complete living people. Only when his spell was finished and ready for the mighty command of power RUN, did Thoth Amon turn his attention to his female captives.
Three of them there were and all beautiful princesses, or at least all three were beautiful and had been brought here by a GET "Princess" spell. Two lay on the floor of their iron barred cell, silent except occasional desperate sobbing, wetting the straw with their tears. Well could they quiver in fear, for their kings had failed to pay their ransoms. Three days Thoth Amon had given them for payment. Three days now gone which meant the hapless pair must be sold as demon food.
The third was a more recent addition to his collection and still possessed her pride and spirit. Her small fists clutching the iron bar of her cell, her eyes angry, she faced the dark mage and demanded, "Alright! Are you finally willing to listen to me?"
Quickly taking his silence for agreement she continued, "Wizard, I donít know what all you go through to summon a demon, but obviously itís a great deal of work. Wouldnít you like me to show you a way to make the same or better profit with less work?"
Thinking about how this haughty royal beauty would scream when the demon ate her, Thoth Amon smiled and replied, "I hear you."
"Look, I have three days left and these poor dears have none. Let me give each of them one of my days. That way if the ransom is paid you get rich. If it isnít--" she shrugged.
"I would," he finished the thought, "need only summon the demon once to eat all three of you instead of having to do it once for them and then later for you."
One of the doomed pair rose to protest, "No! Your Highness, you must not endanger yourself for us!"
Laughing Thoth Amon declared, "Youíre a braver fool than any Iíve ever met before. Very well, itís a bargain done and sealed!" As he spoke, Thoth Amon admired the womanís bravery and wit. She actually dared attempt to trap him. A clever effort that might destroy a lesser wizard. Though sheíd implied that she knew naught of magic, twas doubtless a lie. She hoped heíd leave his spell floating there and so give her the opportunity to slip a small error into it.
Grinning unpleasantly the dark mage thought that she would find matching wits with him to be a very expensive game.
785 APFRT stone dragon
1270 IF PA="demon" THEN GOTO 785
There it was done. The spell was modified. It was time for RUN. As the awful word of power was set in motion the very nature of reality quivered. A sense of enormous might filled Thoth Amon at the fearful thing heíd done and he gloried in the terrified screams of his captives. When twas over, when the walls and floor were solid again, he gestured with pride at a window high in the dungeonís nearer wall. Since the dungeon floor was not far below ground, its window looked out on his castleís courtyard. His female prisoners could see the courtyard and what it now held. The stone statue of a dragon now transformed into a living firebreathing monster stalking about with hunger gleaming in its yellow eyes. Thus confined in the statue, the demon would have to wait the extra day for its feeding and the danger of having his spell damaged was removed.
Though the Princess should have been dismayed at his cleverly evading her trap thus, she appeared unimpressed. In fact, she was smiling, as though heíd just entered a trap. "Wizard, would you please answer a question?"
After a thoughtful pause, he replied, "Yes, one question and only if you agree to tell me your story, the whole truth about yourself."
"Done!" She snapped, "Tell me, is it not true that a wizard, though he may show very bad faith to his promises, is still bound by their literal meaning?"
"Yes," He answered softly, "under most circumstances, one can not use magic to break a promise." Perhaps, the dark mage decided, heíd made a mistake. While this woman was clearly working on some plan, it wasnít what heíd expected. Probably twas some foolhardy notion born of her ignorance and fear. Still it would be prudent to dispose of her as rapidly as possible.
"Good!" She exclaimed happily, and, turning toward her fellow prisoners, continued, "Ladies, we can all relax now. Weíre going to be safe!"
"Your Highness," Ophelia said, "Iím sorry, but twas a terrible mistake for you to waste your concern on me, when your own life is in great peril. Even if the present dangers can be averted, I fear my story is not one meant to have a happy ending."
"I share your dreads and regrets," Cinderella added. "I cannot understand why Prince Charming did not arrive in time with my ransom, and I fear the worst."
To this, Ophelia added, "Matters between King Claudius and Hamlet are so ill, I doubt he was able to leave Denmark."
"Pray cease your witless chattering!" Thoth Amon commanded. "Woman, you made a promise, and the part of your story I want to hear first is your birth and rank." The eyes with which she stared back at the wizard were as hard and cold as his. Was there, he wondered, any chance that she understood the dilemma she faced? There was one situation in which one could use magic to break a promise, when the other side had previously defaulted on their promises. A promise not to harm her today bound Thoth Amon for the moment, but sheíd some secret she obviously wished to keep. If she overtly refused to keep her promise, or lied, Thoth Amon would immediately be free to give her to the dragon.
"Why," she replied cheerfully, "Iím as much a commoner as Cinderella here. The fact is, Wizard, that your princess kidnapping spell isnít very accurate. None of us is a kingís daughter, which is the proper definition of a princess." Turning back toward her fellow captives, she added, "And Ladies, please donít worry about your princes. Iím sure they both set out bravely to rescue you and were promptly captured by the bandits Thoth Amon here has stationed along the trail. That is your game isnít it, Wizard? Instead of letting the princes deliver the ransoms, your thugs rob them, allowing you to make a second profit selling us to demons?"
Though Thoth Amon said naught, his face showed the truth of this accusation. "I hardly," Ophelia said softly, "see any good news in this."
"The good news is that my Ex will also be traveling that road. The bandits don't have a chance against him, and, Ophelia, after weíre all rescued, my Ex and I will stop in Denmark on our way home. He has a unique approach to complex political problems."
"Your what?" Cinderella asked.
"My ex-husband, the King. Iím a princess only in the sense that Iím the former wife of a king."
"Few men would pay any great ransom for an ex-wife." Ophelia said glumly.
"Oh I donít expect him to ransom me," she replied cheerfully. "My king will come in his own person to fight for me."
The wizard shrugged. "In that case I shall let my dragon eat him...as an appetizer before the three of you."
She shook her head firmly. "On our honeymoon alone I saw him kill three reptiles, all of them bigger than your dragon."
"Impossible!" the wizard snapped, "no armored knight with sword and lance could best my dragon!
"Actually, more heís the mighty barbarian type. Never saw any use for weapons. Just kills things with his bare hands, breaks their necks."
Was she mad, Thoth Amon wondered? There seemed no other way she could tell such absurd untruths without lying. "Tell me," he demanded, "of your marriage to this unusual king."
"Thereís not a great deal to tell. It was an arranged marriage. I didnít meet him until our wedding day, which for me was quite an emotional experience. Not exactly love at first sight, though I can honestly say that when I saw him I felt the earth move. Of course, it was doomed from the start. Iím a city girl, New York, the greatest city in the world, and I'd just landed a starring role in a major motion picture. I had to tell him that I couldn't give that up to be queen of some little nowhereville island. Of course he'd fallen for me real hard and was pretty hurt, but--"
"Enough," Thoth Amon snapped, "Tell me why you're sure your King is coming."
"My King walks with quite a heavy tread my Ex would be here soon because Iíve been keeping my ear to the ground. As for my married name it was the Danish word for king."
Before he could demand that she explain, Thoth Amon heard a sound from the courtyard outside the dungeon, a sound like that of someone breaking a chickenís neck...though rather louder as if the chicken were very large.
Glancing toward the barred window to see what was happening in the courtyard to make that strange sound, the wizard stared in stunned horror.
The window was filled with a single enormous eye staring back at him. As suddenly as it appeared, the eye disappeared, replaced by a vast paw that swept into the dungeon, snapping iron bars like so many noodles. Struck by it, Thoth Amon was knocked flat as three women jumped into the open paw. In the brief moment before they were pulled from sight and the castle collapsed on the wizard like a pile of blocks knocked over by a child, she answered his question. "I," she shouted, am the former Mrs..."
The rest was lost in the thunder of falling stones and as far as Thoth Amon was concerned the story was over.
© 2008 Richard K. Lyon
Bio: Mr. Lyon is an honest-to-goodness SFWA member, surely entitled to have his bio posted verbatim! "By profession I'm a research scientist/inventor. After 26 years with Exxon Research, I took early retirement to join a small firm, Energy and Environmental Research doing contract research for the DOE, NSF, EPA, DoD, etc.
My writing is a much enjoyed hobby. All by myself I've done a fair number of novelettes and short stories that were published in magazines and on line. A collection of these (TALES FROM THE LYONHEART) is available at B&N, etc. In collaborating with Andy Offutt I did three paperback novels (DEMON IN THE MIRROR, THE EYES OF SARSIS, and WEB OF THE SPIDER) and a novel serialized in Analog (RAILS ACROSS THE GALAXY."
E-mail: Richard K. Lyon
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