By M.J. Austins
“Mister Bug,” Princess Valonia Hemlock Labellum Myristica Shrike gurgled happily. She grabbed at the large beetle crawling across the dungeon floor and tried to shove it in her mouth.
“A-a-ah no, I don’t think so!” Dale snatched her fingers away from her mouth. The princess looked up at him and smiled innocently. Her fingers opened to reveal empty palms and Dale noticed her cheeks bulging. “I said no!” He cried, fully exasperated. This was the third beetle this morning. He was determined to keep her from swallowing it this time.
She swallowed with a look of vindictive pleasure on her face. “Bug- Bug is gone.”
Dale groaned. He hadn’t planned on being a babysitter for a villainous two year old who seemed to be obsessed with eating insects.
“Ball.” The imperious princess demanded.
“No.” Dale snapped, losing patience with her. She’d already asked for the ball several times this morning. “You eat bugs, you don’t get a toy.”
As if on cue, the princess’s eyes welled with tears and her chin began to tremble. Her lips turned into a pouty frown. “Meanie,” She accused.
“Bug-eater.” Dale shot back.
The princess scowled at him. “Am not.”
Dale scowled back. “Are to.”
“You are!” The princess exploded.
“Oh really?” Dale raised an eyebrow. For a two year old, the princess had an excellent vocabulary, but the paths she used to reach her conclusions were amusing more often than logical.
“I want ball!” The princess shrieked, clearly at her wits end. She was clearly unused to having things she wanted withheld from her.
Dale folded his arms and leaned against the bars of the cell. “Well, guess what?” He asked in as friendly and cheerful of a voice as he could fake.
The princess perked up immediately. “Ball?” She asked hopefully.
“No. You’re not getting one.” He replied flatly.
The look of shock and astonishment on her face was almost comical. Almost. Her scream of utter outrage was not. Dale covered his ears and stood there, waiting it out.
A minute and a half later, the scream began to die out as the princess ran out of breath. She glowered at him as she huffed for breath. Dale smiled politely at her and lowered his hands.
“What is that horrid racket?”
Dale winced and turned to see his employer glaring at him from outside the cell.
“You see,” He began, a bit desperately, “She wanted a ball.”
The villain raised his eyebrow. “And you gave it to her.”
“No!” Dale exclaimed. “She was eating bugs!”
His employer turned to leave. “Then let her eat bugs. And next time give her the ball!” He stormed off.
“Discipline is important at this stage!” Dale yelled after him.
“So are my eardrums!” The villain yelled back.
Dale slumped against the bars of the cell and groaned. This job felt more like a punishment to him than to the king who had slighted his boss. But… He glanced at the princess, who was tugging a fat worm from the soft dirt of the cell. She had a fiercely determined look on her chubby face. He felt a pang of guilt at the idea of quitting. He couldn’t just leave her here with no one to take care of her.
She succeeded in pulling the worm free of the dirt and shrieked in gleeful satisfaction. For a moment, she let the worm dangle from her fingers, watching it wiggle.
She looked at Dale and he looked back. “Fine, eat it. You earned it.” He told her.
“Bad Bug-Bug.” She told him authoritatively. She threw the worm against the cell wall. It bounced off and gratefully burrowed back into the dirt. Dale furtively hoped it somehow escaped the dungeon and lived a long and uneventful life in the cool shade of a forest somewhere.
The sun was visible through the cell window. Dale glanced at Princess Valonia, who was curled up on the couch, gnawing on a bone leftover from luncheon, a bone Dale suspected she’d stolen from the dogs. She should probably be put in the crib for a nap. He sighed softly and stood up. She opened her eyes and blinked sleepily at him. He sighed again and picked her up, tensing for the anticipated scream.
None came. She allowed herself to be put in the crib without protest. Dale thought about taking the bone away from her, but from the way her fingers were curled around it and the fact that it had teeth marks in it, he decided it wasn’t worth it. Besides, it was too large to be a choking hazard.
“Dale?” A tentative voice whispered loudly.
Dale turned to see Collin fidgeting nervously outside of the cell. He walked over. “Yes?”
“Is she asleep?” Collin whispered, looking concerned.
Dale sighed. It had only taken a couple days to get used to the way all the other guards tiptoed around the princess as if she were made of porcelain. “Yes, she’s asleep.”
“Oh, good.” Collin relaxed. “Because the…ah… well the villain wants to see you. He said it was important.”
Dale frowned. “Well, I suppose you should probably unlock the door, then.” He tried to keep the exasperation out of his voice, but all the guards knew he was locked in here with the toddler.
“Oh! Right,” Collin’s laugh sounded more strained than usual. He fumbled with the key ring. Dale waited patiently for him to find the right key, a process that could take anywhere between thirty seconds and five minutes.
Finally, the cell door swung open. Dale slipped through and closed it firmly behind him. He headed for the stairs, trying to ignore Collin’s clumsy footsteps close behind him.
The villain was in the winter parlor with an older woman. He seemed to be trying to feign interest in whatever the lady was saying, but it was clear he was close to dying of boredom.
Dale knocked on the open door, and the villain looked up immediately.
“Ah, you’ve finally arrived.” He exclaimed with a touch of relief, cutting the woman off. She gave him a lofty, offended look before turning her attention to Dale.
Collin bobbed into the room, past Dale. “I’ve brought him, my…my villainousness?’ He said the word tentatively. The villain sighed.
“Thank you, Collins. You may go now.”
“Yes sir!” Collin bowed awkwardly and shuffled away, leaving Dale to his fate.
“Dale, this is Ms. Klystale. She will be taking over the care of Princess Valonia.” The villain said.
Dale felt an unnecessary surge of irritation. He was being replaced by a…he paused his train of thought to form an opinion of the woman. Replaced by a fat, ugly, wrinkled, snooty, lazy, slob of a woman who clearly didn’t understand the principal of not mixing patterns. He frowned at the distressing muddle of stripes and spots that made up her patchwork dress.
“What makes her qualified to care for a Princess?’ He demanded in a polite tone of voice.
The woman stood up straight and glowered down her hooked nose at Dale. “I have been qualified by my fifty years of experience, young man.” She huffed at him.
Dale ignored her, turning to appeal to the villain. “If she’d had fifty years of experience, there are fifty years worth of princes and princesses to check up on!”
“Check up on…?” The villain looked slightly nonplussed.
“Check up on!” Dale reiterated energetically. He began to pace. “Check their education, their maturity, whether they were able to find spouses, how politically influential they are…whether they’re still alive!” He pointed a finger at Ms. Klystale, who seemed offended by the line of conversation.
“I cannot be held responsible for the welfare of my charges after they leave my care!” She protested.
Dale spun back toward the villain. “She said it herself. She doesn’t care how her treatment of the child affects its growth. She could traumatize them and they could end up going insane and throwing themselves off cliffs and you’d let her take care of the Princess you’re holding ransom?”
“Dale.” The villain said quite firmly. “I hardly feel this necessary given the circumstances. Ms. Klystale is a very capable woman who has been taking care of royalty for a good while. The Princess will blossom under her guiding hands. You, however, are a guard who has been trained to kill people. For all your doubts about the good lady, can you really consider yourself better suited for the task?”
“Yes I can!” Dale fumed.
The villain raised an eyebrow.
“I had seven younger siblings and when I wasn’t taking care of them, I was babysitting the millers triplets or the bakers dozen.” Dale elaborated.
Ms. Klystale sneered. “You took care of commoners. Your callous training hardly makes you fit to tend to a princess.”
Dale glared a glare of sheer hatred at her. It was one thing to steal his job. He didn’t really care other than the insult that was being replaced by someone so distasteful. But to insult his ability to do said job? He narrowed his eyes. This was war.
The villain looked slightly worried. “Dale. I’m afraid I must ask you to step down and cool your temper while you’re at it.”
Dale opened his mouth to protest and was cut off.
“That’s an order.”
Dale saluted smartly. “Yes, sir.” He said crisply. “Will that be all, sir.”
“You may return to your post.”
Dale left the room, closing the door quietly behind him. With a spring in his step and a terrifyingly evil grin on his face, he headed to his room. He had some plans, and several people were not going to like them, Ms. Klystale most of all.
* * *
Dale pushed the guard tower door open with one foot and carefully maneuvered the huge box through the door.
“Hello, Collin.” He smiled widely. “I need your help with something.” He walked over to the table where the younger guard was sitting and set the box down with a loud bang.
Collin looked up at him worriedly. “Yes?”
Dale opened the box and pulled a large robotic dog out of it. “Tell me honestly, do you think the princess would fit inside this?”
Collin’s eyes widened. “This…this is above my pay grade.” He started to protest.
Dale shushed him. “Just answer the question. You’re too deep now to back out anyway.”
Collin sighed a sigh of deep, fearful regret, the sort of sigh a man who knows he is utterly doomed sighs before facing said doom. “Yes,” He moaned, slumping and resting his head on the table. “The princess would fit inside. Can this please, please be the last one?”
Dale’s smile widened. “Excellent.” He set the dog back in the box. “Don’t worry, my good fellow, all this is coming to a grand finale, you’ll see.” He patted Collin’s arm consolingly. He didn’t feel particularly guilty, but the young guard did look like he was reaching a breaking point.
Dale picked the box and grinned at the guard. “There’s nothing at all to worry about.” He gleefully walked out the door, plans on ruining Ms. Klystale’s day filling his thoughts.
Dale ignored his superior’s shout and kept walking toward the south garden.
“Dale! Get to your post!”
Dale lifted the box into the air, so it could be seen. “I have other work to do, Sir.” and he promptly disappeared behind a tall bush.
“Dale, get back here!”
Dale sprinted down the path, the heavy box banging against his chest. He slowed down once he was out of hearing range and pushed his way through a pair of prickly bushes so he was no longer on the path. He slunk through the neatly trimmed ornamental grass toward where he knew from copious amounts of illegal surveillance that the princess and her nanny would be spending the afternoon
He reached to decorative hedges surrounding the area and peeked carefully over the top.
Ms. Klystale was asleep on a bench and Princess Valonia Hemlock Labellum Myristica Shrike was lying on her stomach beneath the bench holding what appeared to be a dead bird. She was hitting a rock with it.
Dale smiled fondly and set the box down next to him. He trusted Collins to keep watch. He was, after all, a watchman, so if he couldn’t do that, than the villain was right and he was useless. He pushed the thoughts aside. Collin Collins wasn’t his problem. Ms. Klystale was. He smiled wider, a bit uncomfortable with how much he’d been doing that lately, and pulled the robot dog out of the box. He pushed it through the bushes and set it on the grass on the other side. He picked up the controller, very glad Collin hadn’t asked him where he’d gotten the dog, as it would’ve been inconvenient to explain that his uncle was a mechanical genius who was considered a magician in the court of King Shrike, the Princess’s father.
And it would be even more inconvenient to explain that the reason his uncle could make such robotic wonders was because he was a time traveler.
Dale flipped the controller on and began carefully maneuvering the dog towards the princess.
The princess, of course, immediately noticed the metal dog. Her first reaction was to throw the dead bird at it. It bounced off, which infuriated the princess for some reason that escaped Dale, and she crawled out from under the bench and ran unsteadily toward it. Before Dale could do anything, she tackled the dog, tipping it over.
Dale pushed the red button. “I are a good doggy to ride on.” Said the metal dog.
The princess glared suspiciously at the dog.
Dale pushed the red button again and the dog repeated its message.
The princess hit the dog angrily. “Am!” She yelled, and Ms. Klystale started snoring.
The princess turned and gave the nanny the most offended look Dale had ever seen before turning back to the robot dog. “You am a good doggy to ride on.” She hissed angrily. She flipped the dog back onto its wheeled feet. “And I will ride you, good doggy, if you will be my steed.” She climbed onto the dog. “Onward!”
Dale pushed the ‘go’ lever all the way up and the dog took off, the princess clinging to its back.
There was an ominous throat-clearing sound behind Dale and he turned to see the villain standing imposingly with Collin cowering behind him.
Dale saluted smartly. “Sir.”
“Dale, this must stop.” The villain looked more irritated than ever.
Dale moved the levers of the controller around at random. He had no clue what was happening since he was no longer facing the princess, and he really hoped he wasn’t driving her through rose bushes or something.
“Dale. give me the controller.”
Dale carefully felt his way up the controller to the auto-pilot overdrive and flipped it on. He handed the controller to the villain, unable to keep a small, evil smirk off his face.
The villain looked at him for a moment, and then dropped the controller onto the ground and stomped it to pieces. In the distance came a shrill scream of toddler anger and disappointment.
“Dale. You have been a good guard and have served me well for most of my villain-hood.” The villain began. He continued loudly over the top of Dale’s protests. “And although you never once reported to guard duty or even bothered to try to listen to your commanding officer, you were a loyal, intelligent guard and an excellent fighter. Unfortunately,” He gave Dale a pointed glare, “you’ve taken things too far. You corrupted an innocent young man into being your accomplice by bribing him with treats you stole from the kitchen, which caused much unnecessary accusations among the kitchen staff and resulted in two of my best pastry chefs quitting. And all your little escapades have caused enough trouble to bring an entire kingdom down. I don’t know what you intended to accomplish, but I’ve had enough. I hate to do this to someone as able as you, someone I consider a friend,”
Dale coughed to hide a laugh.
The villain glared at him and continued with some irritation. “But I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave my service.”
Dale stared in disbelief at the villain for a moment. “Are you firing me?”
* * *
Dale folded his clothes and set them in his box on top of the seven knifes and the tomahawk he’d ‘borrowed’ from the armory.
There was a knock on the door and he sighed. “Come in, Collins. It’s rude to loiter uncertainly.”
Collin came in nervously. “I’m really sorry you got fired.” He said.
Dale sighed again. This was Collin’s way of saying ‘I told you so.’ “It’s fine. You did warn me.” He waved away the younger man’s apology.
Collin relaxed, his duty done. Dale had acknowledged that it wasn’t Collin’s fault and that he had, indeed, warned Dale of the danger of his activities.
An alarm bell suddenly began ringing and Dale looked up out the window. What could possibly be happening at this time of day to need an alarm bell? He dropped the gold goblets into his box and headed for the door. “Come on, we need to make sure everyone is alright.”
Collin followed him worriedly.
The courtyard was full of guards and servants. Dale shoved his way to the front to see what was happening.
The villain was standing across from a familiar redheaded prince.
“I challenge you,” The prince cried, pointing his sword at the villain. The crowd got very quiet. “To a battle of the wits!”
“I accept.” The villain replied without batting an eye.
The prince sheathed his sword. He gestured to a blanket that was lying on the ground next to him. Two goblets and a bottle of wine were sitting on it. “Sit with me.”
The villain sat, looking a little uncertain.
The prince sat as well. He poured wine into both goblets and pulled a small package out of his pouch. He held it up for everyone to see. “This is iocane powder, the most deadliest poison known to man.”
The villain raised an eyebrow and Dale buried his face in his hands, wishing for a hole to crawl into to die.
The prince opened the package and dumped all the powder into the villain’s goblet. “Now,” he said, meeting the villain’s eyes, “you pick a glass and drink.”
The villain stared in open bafflement at him.
“The battle of the wits,” the prince explained, “is that you don’t know if what I put into your glass is iocane powder, or a substance which will neutralize the poison I already put into the bottle of wine.”
The villain paled slightly, realizing he’d been outwitted already. Dale shook his head and groaned again.
The villain picked up the goblet in front of him and lifted it in a salute to the prince.
The prince reached for his own goblet, but at the last second grabbed the bottle instead and bashed the villain across the head with it. The villain collapsed and Dale winced. He knew exactly what that felt like.
The prince leapt to his feet. “The villain has been defeated!” He yelled, and the crowd cheered halfheartedly, most of the people still confused as to what had happened. He bowed to the crowd and then ran toward the mansion, yelling, “There is a princess to be rescued!”
Dale stared after him, wondering whether Princess Valonia would bite his hand off when he tried to pick her up.
“Should we stop him?” Collin asked.
Dale looked at him. “I’m not going to. I got fired, remember?” He turned and headed back to his room to finish packing.
More Stories by MJ Austins