|Conan's footsteps echoed off the stone walls and down the dark corridor.
The door he sought stood ajar, a darker shadow with a faint glow along
its darkest edge. He paused and felt the handle of the knife in his belt.
The note summoning him had been signed with the royal seal, but he had
never regretted caution. He opened the door.
The glow came from the fireplace at the end of the room. Walls filled
with books and punctuated with ladders disappeared high above into the
shadows of the ceiling. On a coat rack by the door hung a black cloak embroidered
with the mystic inscription Team Banzai. A table piled with books
occupied the middle of the room. Beyond it, two high-backed chairs partially
blocked the view of the fire, but not of the high stone mantle with the
royal crest carved in the center. Two goblets and a bottle sat on a table
between the chairs.
"Come. Sit by the fire," said a familiar voice, "and close the door."
King Thomas' long frame slouched comfortably in the chair. He still
wore his ceremonial robe, but the crown was gone and his salt and pepper
hair was uncombed. His expression was both serious and slightly amused.
He offered Conan a goblet of wine and took a drink himself. Conan thought
the wine tasted better than what had been served at the banquet.
"I wanted to speak with you privately," the King began, "because there
are perils on your journey that you may not know."
The back of Conan's neck prickled. No one outside the temples knew the
Web better than Thomas the Bruce.
"As you know," he continued, "the third kingdom lies within the Wide
Web of the Worlds. Most of what is commonly believed about the kingdom
is myth, because so few have been there. But now comes a greater puzzle,
for there has been no communication from the third kingdom for many months."
He took another drink and gazed into the fire. Its shadows danced over
his face. "The Web has grown over the past year. No one knows how much
or to what effect. Even BigEar is having trouble keeping up with it. The
message I have had this night is that the links that formed the great trade
routes to the third kingdom have disappeared. My best trackers have been
unable to locate the host. We thought it only fair to share this information.
And a piece of advice."
"I am in Your Majesty's debt."
"Merely recompense for the safe return of the AACR2 to the temple."
The king took another long drink of wine.
Conan shifted uneasily in his chair.
Finally, the king set down his goblet with a metallic crack and pierced
Conan with a sharp gaze. "Seek out the Webmasters," he intoned, "You will
find them at the top of Mount Krakatoa. It is the best guidance I can give
you." He made a dismissing gesture with one hand and turned his gaze back
to the fire. Conan rose from his chair and dropped to one knee.
"Thank you, Your Majesty."
The king nodded and Conan started to go.
"One last thing," said that commanding voice, "If anyone asks, you heard
nothing here about...Java."
© 1996, by Hadley V. Baxendale