Little knowing of the new threat to their schemes, Spittleworth and Flapoon had just sat down to one of their usual sumptuous late-night dinners with the king. Fred was most alarmed to hear of the Ickabog’s attack on Baronstown, because it meant that the monster had strayed closer to the palace than ever before.
‘Ghastly business,’ said Flapoon, lifting an entire black pudding onto his plate.
‘Shocking, really,’ said Spittleworth, carving himself a slice of pheasant.
‘What I don’t understand,’ fretted Fred, ‘is how it slipped through the blockade!’
For, of course, the king had been told that a division of the Ickabog Defence Brigade was permanently camped round the edge of the marsh, to stop the Ickabog escaping into the rest of the country. Spittleworth, who’d been expecting Fred to raise this point, had his explanation ready.
‘I regret to say that two soldiers fell asleep on watch, Your Majesty. Taken unawares by the Ickabog, they were eaten whole.’
‘Suffering Saints!’ said Fred, horrified.
‘Having broken through the line,’ continued Spittleworth, ‘the monster headed south. We believe it was attracted to Baronstown because of the smell of meat. While there, it gobbled up some chickens, as well as the butcher and his wife.’
‘Dreadful, dreadful,’ said Fred with a shudder, pushing his plate away from him. ‘And then it slunk off back home to the marsh, did it?’
‘So our trackers tell us, sire,’ said Spittleworth, ‘but now that it’s tasted a butcher full of Baronstown sausage, we must prepare for it trying to break through the soldiers’ lines regularly – which is why I think we should double the number of men stationed there, sire. Sadly, that will mean doubling the Ickabog tax.’
Luckily for them, Fred was watching Spittleworth, so he didn’t see Flapoon smirk.
‘Yes… I suppose that makes sense,’ said the king.
He got to his feet and began roaming restlessly around the dining room. The lamplight made his costume, which today was of sky-blue silk with aquamarine buttons, shine beautifully. As he paused to admire himself in the mirror, Fred’s expression clouded.
‘Spittleworth,’ he said, ‘the people do still like me, don’t they?’
‘How can Your Majesty ask such a thing?’ said Spittleworth, with a gasp. ‘You’re the most beloved king in the whole of Cornucopia’s history!’
‘It’s just that… riding back from hunting, yesterday, I couldn’t help thinking that people didn’t seem quite as happy as usual to see me,’ said King Fred. ‘There were hardly any cheers, and only one flag.’
‘Give me their names and addresses,’ said Flapoon through a mouthful of black pudding, and he groped in his pockets for a pencil.
‘I don’t know their names and addresses, Flapoon,’ said Fred, who was now playing with a tassel on the curtains. ‘They were just people, you know, passing by. But it upset me, rather, and then, when I got back to the palace, I heard that the Day of Petition has been cancelled.’
‘Ah,’ said Spittleworth, ‘yes, I was going to explain that to Your Majesty…’
‘There’s no need,’ said Fred. ‘Lady Eslanda has already spoken to me about it.’
‘What?’ said Spittleworth, glaring at Flapoon. He’d given his friend strict instructions never to let Lady Eslanda near the king, because he was worried what she might tell him. Flapoon scowled and shrugged. Really, Spittleworth couldn’t expect him to be at the king’s side every minute of the day. A man needed the bathroom occasionally, after all.
‘Lady Eslanda told me that people are complaining that the Ickabog tax is too high. She says rumours are flying that there aren’t even any troops stationed in the north!’
‘Piffle and poppycock,’ said Spittleworth, though in fact it was perfectly true that there were no troops stationed in the north, and also true that there’d been even more complaints about the Ickabog tax, which was why he’d cancelled the Day of Petition. The last thing he wanted was for Fred to hear that he was losing popularity. He might take it into his foolish head to lower the taxes or, even worse, send people to investigate the imaginary camp in the north.
‘There are times, obviously, when two regiments swap over,’ said Spittleworth, thinking that he’d have to station some soldiers near the marsh now, to stop busybodies asking questions. ‘Possibly some foolish Marshlander saw a regiment riding away, and imagined that there was nobody left up there… Why don’t we triple the Ickabog tax, sire?’ asked Spittleworth, thinking that this would serve the complainers right. ‘After all, the monster did break through the lines last night! Then there can never again be any danger of a scarcity of men on the edge of the Marshlands and everyone will be happy.’
‘Yes,’ said King Fred uneasily. ‘Yes, that does make sense. I mean, if the monster can kill four people and some chickens in a single night…’
At this moment, Cankerby the footman entered the dining room and, with a low bow, whispered to Spittleworth that the Baronstown spy had just arrived with urgent news from the sausage-making city.
‘Your Majesty,’ said Spittleworth smoothly, ‘I must leave you. Nothing to worry about! A minor issue with my, ah, horse.’