"Is it just me, or does it seem to you I get more than my share of troubles?"
"... AND so, TO recap, the situation is this ..."
I ticked the points off on my fingers, giving my audience a visual image to reinforce my words.
"First, Queen Hemlock wants me to be her consort. Second, she's given me a month to think it over before I reach my decision. Third ..."
I tapped the appropriate finger for emphasis.
"If I decide not to marry her, she says she'll abdicate, naming me her successor and sticking me with the whole mess. Got that?"
Despite my concern over my predicament, I was nonetheless proud of my ability to address the problem head on, summarizing and analyzing it as I sought a solution. There was a time in the not too distant past when I simply would have lapsed into blind panic. If nothing else, my adventures over the years had done wonders for my confidence in my abilities to handle nearly any crisis.
"Gleep!" my audience responded.
Okay ... so I wasn't all that confident.
While I knew I could muddle through most crises, the one situation I dreaded the most was making a fool of myself in front of my friends and colleagues. While they had always been unswerving in their loyalty and willingness to bail me out of whatever mess I blundered into, that didn't mean I was particularly eager to tax our friendships yet another time, even if it was just for advice. At the very least, I figured that when I did approach them, I should be as level-headed and mature about it as possible, rather than babbling hysterically about my woes. Consequently, I decided to rehearse my appeal in front of the one member of our crew I felt truly comfortable with ... my pet dragon.
I've always maintained that Gleep is quite bright, despite the one-word vocabulary that gave him his name. According to my partner and mentor, Aahz, my pet's limited vocal range was merely a sign of his immaturity, and it would expand as he edged toward adulthood. Of course, realizing dragons live several centuries, the odds of my ever having a two-way conversation with Gleep were slim. At times like this, however, I actually appreciated having someone to talk to who could only listen ... without helpful asides regarding my inability to walk across the street without landing myself and the crew in some kind of trouble.
"The trouble is," I continued, "what with all the problems and disasters I've had to cope with over the years, not to mention trying to be president of M.Y.T.H. Inc., I haven't had much time for a love life, like, none at all ... and I sure haven't given any thought to getting married] I mean, I haven't ever really reached a decision on whether or not I want to get married at all, much less when or to who."
Gleep cocked his head to one side, to all appearances hanging on my every word.
"Of course, I do know I'm not wild about the alternative. I had a chance to play king once ... and that was twice too often, thank you. It was bad enough when I was just being a stand-in for Roderick, but the idea of trying to run the kingdom by myself, as myself, and forever, not just for a few days, well, that's flat out terrifying. The question is, is it more or less terrifying than the idea of being married to Queen Hemlock?"
My pet responded to my dilemma by vigorously chewing at an itch on his foot.
"Thanks a lot, Gleep old boy," I said, smiling wryly despite my ill humor. While I obviously hadn't really expected any glowing words of advice from my dragon, I had at least thought my problems were serious enough to hold his attention. "I might as well be talking to Aahz. At least he looks at me while he's chewing me out."
Still smiling, I picked up the goblet of wine I had brought with me for moral support and started to take a sip.
"Oh, Aahz isn't so bad."
For a startled moment, I thought Gleep had answered me. Then I realized the voice had come from behind me, not from my pet. A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed my worst fears. My partner, green scales, pointed teeth and all, was leaning against the wall not ten feet from where I stood, and had apparently been listening to my whole oration.
"Hi, Aahz," I said, covering my embarrassment with a forced smile. "I didn't hear you come in. Sorry about that last comment, but I've been a little ..."
"Don't worry about it, Skeeve," he interrupted with a wave of dismissal. "If that's the worst you've had to say about me over the years, I figure we've been doing pretty well. I do lean on you kinda hard from time to time. I guess that's gotten to be my way of dealing with stress."
Aahz seemed calm enough ... in fact, he seemed to be suspiciously calm. While I wasn't wild about his shouting at me, at least it was consistent. This new display of reasonability was making me uneasy ... rather like suddenly noticing the sun just rose in the west.
"So ... what are you doing here, partner?" I said, trying to sound casual.
"I was looking for you. It occurred to me that you might need a sympathetic ear while you figured out what to do next."
Again, a small warning gong went off in the back of my mind. Of all the phrases that might occur to me to describe Aahz's interaction with me in the past, "a sympathetic ear" wasn't one of them.
"How did you know where I was?"
I was dodging the issue, but genuinely curious as to how Aahz found me. I had taken great pains to slip down to the Royal Stables unnoticed.
"It wasn't hard," Aahz said, flashing a grin as he jerked his thumb at the door. "You've got quite a crowd hanging around outside."
"Sure. Pookie may be a bit mouthy for my taste, but she knows her stuff as a bodyguard. I think she's been tailing you from the time you left your room."
Pookie was the new bodyguard I had acquired during my recent trip to Perv ... before I knew she was Aahz's cousin.
"That's funny," I scowled. "I never saw her."
"Hey, I said she was good," my partner winked. "Just because she respects your privacy and stays out of sight doesn't mean she's going to let you wander around unescorted. Anyway, I guess Guido spotted her and decided to tag along ... he's been following her around like a puppy ever since they met ... and, of course, that meant Nunzio had to come, too, and ... Well, the end result is you've got all three of your bodyguards posted outside the door to see to it that you aren't disturbed."
Terrific. I start out looking for a little privacy and end up leading a parade.
"So, what do you think, Aahz?" I asked.