“Is that it?” asked Thoris.
Percival looked up at the insignia carved into the rock above the cave mouth. “It is.”
“I knew that, of course,” said Thoris. “I just wanted to make sure.”
“Of course. Can we go in? Is he inside?”
“On most days, he’s in. Though on some days he goes to market.”
“To buy a fat pig?” asked Percival with a smile.
Thoris didn’t understand the joke. “Hedgehogs, more often, and he prefers them to be thin.”
“Oh. Can we go straight in?”
“Be my guest,” Thoris said, shrugging his massive shoulders.
“No, it’s his guest I want to be,” Percival corrected him. He knocked on the cave wall with his cane. “Hello?” he called.
“What?” snapped a voice from inside.
“It’s King Thoris and a friend,” called Thoris before Percival could say something less-than-cordial.
“Come in, Phils,” said the voice.
As they went in, Percival’s eyes adjusted to the light of the single oil lamp in the corner enough to see his surroundings. The walls were covered in woven tapestries he thought he remembered from the Castle Under the Cloud’s formal dining room. The floor was sectioned into a few pens, containing hedgehogs. The open area contained a fireplace and a rock table and chair. All in all, not a bad hermitage.
Percival was at a loss for what to say, however. He couldn’t just ask, “Are you going to have a descendant named Ralph anytime soon?” And, since he didn’t know the man’s name, there didn’t seem any other way to broach the subject.
The hermit broached it for him. “Hello,” he said cordially, offering a hand. “I’m Tom, Lord of the… Cave.”
Percival shook the hand, but Tom resisted. “No, you must do it correctly. Watch me and the King first, and then try.”
Thoris and Tom shared a rather complex handshake including various gestures which made absolutely no sense to Percival. When Tom turned to him he imitated it to the best of his ability. The hermit sighed but didn’t complain too vehemently.
“Sit, please,” said the hermit, gesturing to the floor.
Percival sat. Thoris tipped and settled.
Thoris began. “We’re here to talk about—“
Percival held up a hand, cutting him off. “Are these hedgehogs?” he asked, pointing to one of the pens. When Tom nodded, he asked, “Are they related to wild gophers?”
Tom shrugged. “It’s possible.”
“May I see one?”
Percival picked up and inspected a hedgehog, especially around the mouth, as Thoris continued to speak.
“We’re here because he wanted to see you,” said Thoris, pointing at Percival.
Percival pried the animal’s mouth open and looked inside. “That’s right,” he said. I understand you’re the man with this sign—“ He drew the sign from outside in the dirt.
Tom nodded. “I am. As were my fathers. We were a family of hermits.”
Percival let it slide. “Would you be interested in purchasing a strangely-placed castle anytime soon?”
“Why be Lord of the Cave when you could be Lord of the Castle?”
“Where is this castle?”
“It’s upside down, on a cloud that could be anywhere over earth at the present.”
“How do you know where it is?”
“I don’t yet.” Percival turned to Thoris. “The last time I came, did I give anything to you?”
“Yes, a chart,” said Thoris. “Why?”
“I need it.” Percival turned back to Tom. “I can find out where it is, however, and you can take possession.”
“Is it empty?”
“Who built it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who owns it?”
“No one, I hope.”
“Yes. It’s a nice thing to do when you aren’t completely sure.”
“And I’m just supposed to take you up on your word and become Lord of this castle?”
“That’s about it.”
“Why aren’t you its Lord?”
“For all I know, I could be.”
Tom and Thoris looked very confused. Percival was still looking down the hedgehog’s throat. “Have you ever had evidence of things travelling through time in a hedgehog’s mouth?” he asked casually.
“Of course not, of course not. Can I borrow a rock?”
Percival picked up a rock from the floor and fed it to the hedgehog, who coughed it back up immediately. “So it isn’t true… Perhaps if he swallowed it?”
“Stop that,” cried Tom, grabbing the rock from Percival as he tried to force it down the hedgehog’s throat. “These are my livelihood!”
“No, the hedgehogs.”
“Pretty flimsy livelihood. Who buys goph—hedgehogs around here?”
Tom pointed at Thoris.
The fat man shrugged. “The Phils have been buying hedgehogs from Tom for a while now, building up to a massive practical joke one of our number thought to play on the Not-So-Black Knights.”
“You’re going to get rid of them with hedgehogs?” asked Percival.
“It was the best we could come up with,” said Thoris apologetically.
Thinking hard, Percival held up a finger. “I’ve got a better way to get rid of them.”
“Phoenix, how do you feel about being sacrificed?”
Phoenix’s head snapped up to glare at Liam. “What?” she snapped.
“I’ve offered you as a sacrifice to the Aardvark’s army. I hope you’re okay with that.”
“I thought you were joking…”she said quietly.
“You won’t die, of course,” said Liam. “I think.”
“You know, you can be really comforting when you want to,” said Phoenix sarcastically. She bent back over the music score in front of her.
“You’ll be burned at the stake.”
Phoenix looked up, a smile beginning to form. “Great,” she said. “When do we start?”