wanted scandal—And the Senator's rewrite man, Joe Johnson, wanted scandal, too, because his two-percent royalty share was worth zip, zilch, zero if The Image of a Public Man turned out to be bumpf like this.". . . stopping at the Red Concourse," said the synthesized voice. The car slowed, smoothly but abruptly enough that the attaché case slid on Joe's lap and he had to grab at it. More people got on.Joe flipped the page.—helping Miss LaFlamme carry the bags of groceries to her suite. Unfortunately, the elevator—The People Mover shoop-shooped into motion again. Joe tightened his grip on the case. One of the new arrivals in the car was a crying infant.Joe felt like crying also. Senator Coble had been told about the sort of thing that would go into the book. He'd agreed.An elevator repairman at Poopsi LaFlamme's hotel had lifted the access plate to see why somebody'd pulled the emergency stop button between floors. He'd had a camera in his pocket. That had been the Senator's bad luck at the time; but the photo of two goggle-eyed drunks, wearing nothing but stupid expressions as they stared up from a litter of champagne bottles, would be great for the back jacket. . . .Except apparently the Senator thought everybody—and particularly his publishers—had been living on a different planet when all that occurred."In a moment, we will be stopping at the Blue Concourse," said the People Mover dispassionately.Joe flipped the page. Unfortunately, pornographic photographs, neither of whose participants looked in the least like myself or Miss LaFlamme, began to circulate in the gutter press—And the Washington Post. And Time magazine. And—The car halted. The people who'd boarded at the previous stop got off.Joe flipped the page.—avoided the notoriety inevitable with legal proceedings, because I remembered the words of my sainted mother, may she smile on me from her present home with Jesus. "Fools' names," she told me, "and fools' faces, are always found in public—"Damn! Joe's concourse!The People Mover's doors were still open. Joe jumped up.The paper clip slipped and half the ridiculous nonsense he'd been reading spewed across the floor of the car.For a moment, Joe hesitated, but he had plenty of time to catch his plane. He bent and began picking up the mess.The draft might be useless, but it wasn't something Joe wanted to leave lying around either. The swarthy man—maybe a Mongolian? He didn't look like any of the Oriental races with which Joe was familiar—watched without expression.The car slowed and stopped again. Joe stuffed the papers into his attaché case and stepped out. He'd cross to the People Mover on the opposite side of the brightly-lighted concourse and go back one stop.There were several dozen people in the concourse: businessmen, family groups, youths with backpacks and sports equipment that they'd have the dickens of a time fitting into the overhead stowage of the aircraft on which they traveled. Nothing unusual—Except that they were all Japanese.Well, a tourist group; or chance; and anyway, it didn't matter to Joe Johnson. . . .But the faces all turned toward him as he started across the tile floor. People backed away. A little boy grabbed his mother's kimono-clad legs and screamed in abject terror.Joe paused. A pair of airport policemen began running down the escalator from the upper level of the concourse. Joe couldn't understand the words they were shouting at him.The policemen wore flat caps and brass-buttoned frock coats, and they were both drawing the sabers that clattered in patent-leather sheaths at their sides.Joe hurled himself back into the People Mover just as the doors closed. He stared out through the windows at the screaming foreign crowd. He was terrified that people would burst in on him before the car started to move—Though the faces he saw looked as frightened as his own must be.The People Mover's circuitry shunted it into motion. Joe breathed out in relief and looked around him. Only then did he realize that he wasn't in the car he'd left.There were no seats or any other amenities within the vehicle. The walls were corrugated metal. They'd been painted a bilious hospital-green at some point, but now most of their color came from rust.Scratched graffiti covered the walls, the floor, and other scribblings. The writing wasn't in any language Joe recognized.Joe set his attaché case between his feet and rubbed his eyes with both hands. He felt more alone than he ever had before in his life. He must have fallen and hit his head; but he wasn't waking up.The car didn't sound as smooth as a piece of electronics any more. Bearings squealed like lost souls. There was a persistent slow jarring as the flat spot in a wheel hit the track, again and again.The People Mover—if that's what it was now—slowed and stopped with a sepulchral moan. The door didn't open automatically. Joe hesitated, then gripped the handle and slid the panel sideways.There wasn't a crowd of infuriated Japanese waiting on the concourse. There wasn't even a concourse, just a dingy street, and it seemed to be deserted.Joe got out of the vehicle. It was one of a series of cars which curved out of sight among twisted buildings. The line began to move again, very slowly, as Joe watched transfixed. He couldn't tell what powered the train, but it certainly wasn't electric motors in the individual cars.There was a smell of sulphur in the air, and there was very little light.Joe looked up. The sky was blue, but its color was that of a cobalt bowl rather than heaven. There seemed to be a solid dome covering the city, because occasionally a streak of angry red crawled across it. The trails differed in length and placement, but they always described the same curves.The close-set buildings were three and four stories high, with peak roofs and many gables. The windows were barred, and none of them were lighted.Joe swallowed. His arms clutched the attaché case to his chest. The train clanked and squealed behind him, moving toward some unguessable destination. . . .Figures moved half a block away: a man was walking his dogs on the dim street. Claws or heel taps clicked on the cracked concrete."Sir?" Joe called. His voice sounded squeaky. "Excuse me, sir?"They were very big dogs. Joe knew a man who walked a pet cougar, but these blurred, sinewy forms were more the size of tigers.There was a rumbling overhead like that of a distant avalanche. The walker paused. Joe looked up.The dome reddened with great blotches. Clouds, Joe thought—and then his mind coalesced the blotches into a single shape, a human face distorted as if it were being pressed down onto the field of a photocopier.A face that must have been hundreds of yards across.Red, sickly light flooded down onto the city from the roaring dome. The two "dogs" reared up onto their hind legs. They had lizard teeth and limbs like armatures of wire. The "man" walking them was the same as his beasts, and they were none of them from any human universe.A fluting Ka-Ka-Ka-Ka-Ka came from the throats of the demon trio as they loped toward Joe.Joe turned. He was probably screaming. The train clacked past behind him at less than a walking pace. Joe grabbed the handle of one of the doors. The panel slid a few inches, then stopped with a rusty shriek.Joe shrieked louder and wrenched the door open with a convulsive effort. He leaped into the interior. For a moment, he was aware of nothing but the clawed hand slashing toward him.Then Joe landed on stiff cushions and a man's lap, while a voice said, "Bless me, Kiki! The wizard we've been looking for!" "I beg your pardon," said Joe, disentangling himself from the other man in what seemed to be a horse-drawn carriage clopping over cobblestones.It struck Joe that he'd never heard "I beg your pardon" used as a real apology until now; but that sure wasn't the only first he'd racked up on this trip to Atlanta.The other man in the carriage seemed to be in his late teens. He was dressed in a green silk jumper with puffed sleeves and breeches, high stockings, and a fur cloak.A sword stood upright with the chape of its scabbard between the man's feet. The weapon had an ornate hilt, but it was of a serviceable size and stiffness. Joe rubbed his nose, where he'd given himself a good crack when he hit the sword.A tiny monkey peeked out from behind the youth's right ear, then his left, and furiously. The animal wore a miniature fur cloak fastened with a diamond brooch.The monkey's garment reminded Joe that wherever he was, it wasn't Atlanta in the summertime. The carriage had gauze curtains rather than glazing over the windows. Joe shivered in his cotton slacks and short-sleeved shirt."I'm Delendor, Master Sorcerer," the youth said. "Though of course you'd already know that, wouldn't you? May I ask how you choose to be named here in Hamisch?"Kiki hopped from Delendor's shoulder to Joe's. The monkey's body was warm and smelled faintly of stale urine. It crawled around the back of Joe's neck, making clicking sounds."I'm Joe Johnson," Joe said. "I think I am. God."He clicked open the latches of his attaché case. Everything inside was as he remembered it, including the dirty socks.Kiki reached down, snatched the pen out of Joe's shirt pocket, and hurled it through the carriage window at the head of a burly man riding a donkey in the opposite direction.The man shouted, "Muckin' bassit!"Joe shouted, "Hey!"Delendor shouted, "Kiki! For shame!"The monkey chirped, leaped, and disappeared behind Delendor's head again."I am sorry," Delendor said. "Was it valuable? We can stop and . . . ?"And discuss things with the guy on the donkey, Joe thought. "No thanks, I've got enough problems," he said aloud. "It was just a twenty-nine-cent pen, after all."Though replacing it might be a little difficult."You see," Delendor continued, "Kiki's been my only friend for eight years, since father sent my sister Estoril off to Glenheim to be fostered by King Belder. I don't get along very well with my brothers Glam and Groag, you know . . . them being older, I suppose.""Eight years?" Joe said, focusing on a little question because he sure-hell didn't want to think about the bigger ones. "How long do monkeys live, anyway?""Oh!" said Delendor. "I don't—I'd rather not think about that." He wrapped his chittering pet in his cloak and held him tightly.Joe flashed a sudden memory of himself moments before, clutching his attaché case to his chest and praying that he was somewhere other than in the hell which his senses showed him. At least Kiki was alive. . . ."Estoril's visiting us any day now," Delendor said, bubbly again. Kiki peeked out of the cloak, then hopped to balance on the carriage window. "It'll be wonderful to see her again. And to find a great magician to help me, too! My stars must really be in alignment!""I'm not a magician," Joe said in a dull voice.Reaction was setting in. He stared at the photocopied chapter of the Senator's memoirs. That sort of fantasy he was used to."After you help me slay the dragon," Delendor continued, proving that he hadn't been listening to Joe, "I'll get more respect. And of course we'll save the kingdom.""Of course," muttered Joe.Kiki reached out the window and snatched the plume from the helmet of a man in half-armor who carried a short-hafted spontoon. The spontoon's ornate blade was more symbol than weapon. The man bellowed."Kiki!" Delendor cried. "Not the Civic Guard!" He took the plume away from his pet and leaned out the window of the carriage as the horses plodded along."Oh," said the guardsman—the cop—in a changed voice as he trotted beside the vehicle to retrieve his ornament. "No harm done, Your Highness. Have your little joke.""Ah . . ." Joe said. "Ah, Delendor? Are you a king?""Of course not," Delendor said in surprise. "My father, King Morhaven, is still alive."He pursed his lips. "And anyway, both Glam and Groag are older than I am. Though that wouldn't prevent father . . ."Joe hugged his attaché case. He closed his eyes. The carriage was unsprung, but its swaying suggested that it was suspended from leather straps to soften the rap of the cobblestones.God."Now," the prince went on cheerfully, "I suppose the dragon's the important thing . . . but what I really want you to do is to find my enchanted princess."Joe opened his eyes. "I'm not . . ." he began.But there wasn't any point in repeating what Delendor wouldn't listen to anyway. For that matter, there was nothing unreasonable about assuming that a man who plopped out of midair into a moving carriage was a magician.The prince opened the locket on his neck chain and displayed it to Joe. The interior could have held a miniature painting—but it didn't. It was a mirror, and it showed Joe his own haggard face."I've had the locket all my life," Delendor said, "a gift from my sainted mother. It was the most beautiful girl in the world—and as I grew older, so did the girl in the painting. But only a few weeks ago, I opened the locket and it was a rabbit, just as you see it now. I'm sure she's the princess I'm to marry, and that she's been turned into a bunny by an evil sorcerer."Delendor beamed at Joe. "Don't you think?""I suppose next," Joe said resignedly, "you're going to tell me about your wicked stepmother.""I beg your pardon!" snapped the prince, giving the phrase its usual connotations.Delendor drew himself up straight and closed the locket. "My mother Blumarine was a saint! Everyone who knew her says so. And when she died giving birth to me, my father never thought of marrying a third time.""Ah," said Joe. "Look, sorry, that's not what I meant." It occurred to him that Delendor's sword was too respectable a piece of hardware to be only for show."I'm not sure what father's first wife was like," the prince went on, relaxing immediately. "But I think she must have been all right. Estoril more than balances Glam and Groag, don't you think?""I, ah," Joe said. "Well, I'll take your word for it.""They say that Mother had been in love with a young knight in her father's court," Delendor went on. "Her father was King Belder of Glenheim, of course. But they couldn't marry until he'd proved himself—which he tried to do when the dragon appeared in Glenheim that time. And it almost broke Mother's heart when the dragon ate the young man. King Belder married her to my father at once to take her, well, her mind off the tragedy, but they say she never really recovered."Kiki leaned out of the window and began chittering happily. Delendor stroked his pet's fur and said, "Yes, yes, we're almost home, little friend."He beamed at Joe once more. "That's why it's so important for me to slay the dragon now that it's reappeared, you see," the prince explained. "As a gift to my sainted mother. And then we'll find my enchanted princess."Joe buried his face in his hands. "Oh, God," he muttered.Something warm patted his thumb. Kiki was trying to console him. The measured hoofbeats echoed, then the windows darkened for a moment as the carriage passed beneath a masonry gateway. Joe pushed the curtain aside for a better look.They'd driven into a flagged courtyard in the center of a three-story stone building. The inner walls glittered with hundreds of diamond-paned windows. Servants in red and yellow livery bustled about the coach, while other servants in more prosaic garb busied themselves with washing, smithing, carpentry—and apparently lounging about."The Palace of Hamisch," Delendor said with satisfaction.Joe nodded. A real fairytale palace looked more practical—and comfortable—than the nineteenth-century notion of what a fairytale palace should be.A real fairy-tale palace. God 'elp us.The carriage pulled up beneath a porte cochere. Servants flung open the doors with enthusiasm to hand out the prince and his companion.Joe didn't know quite how to react. He let a pair of liveried youths take his hands, but the whole business made him feel as though he were wearing a corsage and a prom dress.Kiki jumped from Delendor's right shoulder to his left and back again. Joe noticed that each of the nearest servants kept a hand surreptitiously close to his cap.The carriage clucked into motion. There was a stable on the opposite side of the courtyard."Your Highness," said the fiftyish man whose age and corpulence marked him as the palace major domo, "your father and brothers have been meeting in regard to the, ah, dragon; and King Morhaven specifically asked that when you arrived, you be sent—""Is my sister here yet?" Delendor interrupted."Yes," said the major domo, "the Princess Estoril has been placed in her old rooms in—"As the carriage swung into the stables, the driver turned and smirked over his shoulder at Joe. He was the swarthy maybe-Mongolian who'd shared Joe's car in Atlanta."Hey!" Joe bawled as he took a long stride. His foot slipped on the smooth flagstones and he fell on his arse.The coach disappeared into the stables.Instead of making another attempt to run after the man, Joe stood and used the attention that his performance had just gained him to demand, "Prince! Your Highness, that is. Who was driving us?"Delendor blinked. "How on earth would I know?" he said. "I just called for a coach, of course."The nods of all the servants underscored a statement as obviously true as the fact the sun rose in the east.Did the sun here rise in the east?"Well, anyway, Clarkson," the prince went on, turning again to the major domo, "find a room for my friend here in my wing. I'll go see Estoril at once.""Ah, Your Highness," the major domo replied with the fixed smile of an underling caught in the middle. "Your father did specifically
ask that—""Oh, don't worry about that, Clarkson!" Delendor threw over his shoulder as he strode into the palace. "My friend Joe here is a mighty magician. He and I will take care of the dragon, never fear!"Clarkson watched as his master disappeared, then sized up Joe. "No doubt . . ." the major domo said neutrally. "Well, we're used to His Highness' enthusiasms, aren't we?"Joe nodded, though he was pretty sure that the question wasn't one which Clarkson expected him to answer. Joe's room was on the third floor, overlooking the courtyard. Its only furnishings were a bed frame and a cedar chest. There were two casement windows and, in one corner against the outer wall, a fireplace which shared a flue with the room next door.The fire wasn't set, and the room was colder than Hell.Clarkson watched with glum disdain as a housekeeper opened the cedar chest with a key hanging from her belt. She handed out feather comforters to lower-ranking maids. They spread them over the bed frame in what looked like a warm, if not particularly soft, arrangement."Why isn't the fire laid?" the major domo demanded peevishly. "And there should be a chamberpot, you know what happens when there isn't a chamberpot. And on the courtyard side, too!""I don't know where the girl's gotten to," the housekeeper said with a grimace. "I'm sure it'll be seen to shortly, sir.""Ah," Joe said. "Ah, Clarkson? I wonder if you could find me some warmer clothes? A fur coat would be perfect."The major domo stared at Joe disdainfully. "That's scarcely my affair," he said. "I suppose you can talk to the chamberlain. Or to the prince, no doubt."Enough was enough.Joe set his attaché case down and stood with his hands on his hips."Oh?" he said, letting the past hour of terror and frustration raise his voice into real anger. "Oh? It doesn't matter to you, then? Well, Clarkson, does it matter to you if you spend the rest of eternity as a fat green frog in the castle moat?"The maids and housekeeper scurried out of the room, their mouths forming ovals of silent horror. Clarkson's face set itself in a rictus. "Yes, of course, milord," he muttered through stiff lips. "Yes, of course, I'll take care of that immediately."The major domo dodged through the door like a caroming pinball, keeping as far from Joe as he could. He bowed, spreading his arms—and grabbed the handle to pull the door closed behind him.Which left Joe alone, as cold as fear and an all-stone room could make a man.He stared out one of the diamond-paned windows. It was clean enough, but there was frost on both sides of the glass. Maybe one of the half-seen figures in the rooms across the courtyard was the maybe-Mongolian, who'd maybe brought Joe—His door opened and banged shut again behind a slip of a girl in drab clothing. She shot the flimsy bolt and ran two steps toward the cedar chest before she realized Joe had turned from the window and was watching her in amazement.Joe thought she was going to scream, but she choked the sound off by clapping both her hands over her own mouth. Through her fingers she whimpered, "Please help me! Please hide me!""Coo-ee!" called a man's deep voice from the hallway."Here chick-chick-chickee!" boomed another man.A fist hammered Joe's door. "Better not make us come in for you, chickie," the first voice warned.Great."Sure," Joe whispered.The girl was short and rail-thin. Mousy brown hair trailed out from beneath her mobcap. She started for the chest again.Joe grabbed her by the shoulder. "Not there," he said, raising his voice a little because the banging on the door had become louder and constant. He threw back the top comforter."There," he explained, pointing. She gave him a hopeful, terrified look and flattened herself crossways on the bed.Joe folded the thick feather quilt over her. Then he slid up one of the windows—it couldn't possibly make the room colder—and drew open the bolt just as the door panel started to splinter inward under the impacts of something harder than a hand.Two black-bearded men, built like NFL nose guards, forced their way into the room. They'd been hammering the door with their sword pommels.Delendor's weapon had looked serviceable. The swords this pair carried would have been two-handers—in hands smaller than theirs.They didn't even bother to look at Joe. "Where are you, bitch?" one shouted. "We were just gonna show you a good time, but by god it'll be the last time fer you now!""Look, I'm here as a guest of—" Joe began."There we go!" the other intruder boomed as his eyes lighted on the cedar chest as the only hiding place in the room.He kicked the chest with the toe of his heavy leather boot. "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" he shouted.His fellow rammed his big sword through the top of the cedar chest and splinteringly out the back. Its point sparked on the stone flooring.Both men stabbed repeatedly at the fragile wood until it was quite obvious that the chest was empty.They'd thought she was inside that, Joe realized. His body went cold. He'd already put his case down. Otherwise his nerveless hands would've dropped it."We saw 'er come in, so she musta got out the . . ." one of the men said. He peered through the open casement. There was no ledge, and the walls were a smooth, sheer drop to the flagstone courtyard.The two men turned toward Joe simultaneously. They held their bare swords with the easy naturalness of accountants keying numbers into adding machines."And just who the hell are you, boyo?" asked the one who'd first stabbed the cedar chest.In what seemed likely to be his last thought, Joe wondered whether the FAA kept statistics on the number of air travelers who were hacked to death by sword-carrying thugs."He's the magician who's going to help your royal brother slay the dragon, Groag," said a cold voice from the doorway.