"I think Mendanbar needs an adventure," confided Cimorene, Queen of the Enchanted Forest. She was sitting with her best friend, the witch Morwen, in the East Conservatory, sipping tea and watching the late morning sunlight filter in through the windows.
"Is that why you asked me and Telemain to visit?" Morwen said, half serious. "Not that we don't enjoy seeing you, but I don't think either of us are any good at making up problems. We've found solving them is more our forte."
Cimorene smiled affectionately. "You've always been good at that," she said. "But no, not really – maybe just to pick your brains. Mendanbar's doing all right for now – this morning he decided to go down and finally sort out that roc in the Western Woods who's been picking on passerby every decade or so – but I think there's only so many little things he can find to do before he starts getting bored and, well, looking for trouble."
Morwen privately thought that Mendanbar was extremely lucky to be ruling a kingdom that only needed minor administrative work, but knew it wouldn't be a wise thing to say under the circumstances.
Telemain arrived, bearing an armful of dusty scrolls and looking quietly pleased. "Good morning, Cimorene," he said. "I hope you don't mind my having coffee while I look at these?"
"He's very conscientious about liquids and reading material," Morwen reassured her. "Or at least, he is now after the incident with my copy of Seasonal Gardening for Unintuitive Magic Users."
Cimorene laughed. "Of course, as long as you don't try to talk to me about them," she said to Telemain. "I'll put the pot on."
Telemain's coffee had just brewed when Mendanbar appeared suddenly, standing in the middle of the conservatory, sweating, flushed and with his crown even more askew than usual. "The sword isn't working for me any more, not like it used to," he said. "I just had to defeat a sixteen-foot bird of prey in honorable single combat, and do you know how hard that is?"
"Bother," Cimorene said, "I was worried something like this would happen."
In the Blue Room, Telemain and Mendanbar hovered over the sword anxiously. Morwen, remembering how it badly had burned her the last time she picked it up, stayed back.
"It's acting as if it's made its choice for a new king," Telemain said. Indignation coloured his voice, as if he were personally affronted that the sword had dared do something unexpected. "But it can't be – Mendanbar is clearly, well, still alive."
"Thank you for noticing," Mendanbar said.
Morwen had lived long enough with Telemain to know when to push him and when not to push him. However, she had no such specialist knowledge of Mendanbar, and chose to err on the side of not annoying the still-reigning King of the Enchanted Forest. She muttered something about finding cream for the cats – an excuse that still worked after seventeen years, she was satisfied to see – and left the room, only to run smack into Daystar, who was listening at the door with a worried expression on his face.
"Young man," Morwen began severely, preparing her well-rehearsed (and disappointingly often-used) lecture on people who lurk outside doorways. Daystar looked panicked and pulled her into the Yellow Room – a room which Morwen knew should be on the other side of the castle. She sighed. Clearly the royal family's disconcerting habit of being able to move around at will inside the palace, at least, hadn't been hurt by whatever was affecting the sword.
"Please don't tell my father," Daystar said. "I know what's wrong with the sword."
Morwen was too surprised to remember to glare, especially with the miserable expression on the boy's face. She almost felt sorry for him; he was only seventeen, after all, an age at which Morwen remembered being spectacularly useless. At school Telemain had twice had to help her repair a hair spell gone awry, until she'd given up forever on witchy midnight-black curls and resigned herself to her natural straight ginger. But this was clearly something significantly more serious than teenage vanity.
"It's all my fault, but I think I know how to fix it," Daystar began, and Morwen warmed to his predicament immediately. If one was going to err, that was the best possible thing to follow it up with. "You see – well. It all happened when Shiara and I were sorting out our little problem," and Daystar began to blush furiously. Morwen felt her patience beginning to slip away. "Telemain said he couldn't directly take off the enchantment that meant we both got what we want, but he could make it so we replaced it with something new. Something else we wanted."
"I dearly hope nothing that might cause difficulty with the line of succession has happened," Morwen said mildly.
"Oh, no!" Daystar said. His embarrassment had clearly been replaced by indignance at the presumed slight against his character. "Mother didn't raise me to do anything...untoward!"
"Good," Morwen said, then realised she would need to do a bit more to soothe his ruffled feathers. "I apologise for impugning your honor, Daystar." Cimorene's emphasis on politeness had done well for the prince, but Morwen did wish he'd stand a little less rigidly on ceremony sometimes. (Unsurprisingly, he and Willin got along famously.)
"I humbly accept your apology," Daystar said, and Morwen had to try very hard to keep from smiling. "Anyway, what happened with the sword was – Telemain surprised me, really. That was how it happened – I'd expected him to give us some more time to think. I just thought of the first thing that popped into my head, and then I couldn't un-think about it. Even though I was trying very hard to think of something easy, like a pair of boots that would never wear out, or a sense of righteousness that would never fail–" Morwen rolled her eyes "–or something. But I just had it stuck in my head and I couldn't get it out."
"And this wish was?"
Daystar gulped. "Have you ever read the political essays of Polonia Nigellus?"
"Yes." Morwen was surprised to hear Daystar had, but on reflection it was exactly the sort of reading material she could imagine Cimorene raising a young child on.
"I...sort of...wished for that."
Morwen stared at him, then started to laugh, half-outraged, half-proud. "You've made the Enchanted Forest into a republic?"
"By accident!" Daystar looked like he wanted to crawl into the wall – which he probably could if he wanted to.
"What did Shiara ask for?" It wasn't really the appropriate time to ask, but Morwen wanted to know.
"A notebook that organises anything you write in it alphabetically," Daystar said.
"Good choice," Morwen said, pleased. She'd only met the young fire-witch for a few minutes, and hadn't been impressed with her, but clearly Kazul was having an excellent influence.
Morwen pulled Telemain off to the kitchen to help her look for spices for a new cider recipe she was interested in trying, while Daystar explained the situation to his parents. It was an unnecessary diversion; within minutes Mendanbar was striding determinedly through the door, Cimorene with her arms folded behind him and Daystar slinking in last of all.
"I'm assuming you can fix this," Mendanbar said to Telemain. He turned to Daystar. "Again, no one is angry at you. It's just a problem in need of a solution. Everything is under control," he said, with a bit too much regal authority to be really believable. Cimorene raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
"I'm going to let Telemain explain this one," Morwen said, and stepped over to Cimorene. "Cider?"
Telemain had nearly succeeded in catching them up on the magical aspect of the problem when Willin appeared, book and quill in hand, and looking slightly concerned at the Queen of the Enchanted Forest drinking cider out of a chipped mug.
"We've sorted it, I think," Mendanbar said. "The sword won't allow hereditary power any more, but I think there's a bit of a loophole – we'll just have Willin draw up a constitution. Will–"
"I'm fairly certain that's not going to work," Morwen said, pushing her glasses up her nose and giving him a firm look through them. "Willin, could you describe the process by which you acquired your current position?"
Willin looked confused. "My mother Mirilena was the head of household for Mendanbar's great-uncle, the King Almoud, and then–"
"I thought so," Morwen said, and turned to Mendanbar and Cimorene. "I'm afraid you're going to have a vote, Your Majesties."
Telemain and Cimorene both nodded, and Morwen was surprised to see a small smile flicker over Cimorene's lips before she pressed them firmly together.
"What does that mean?" Mendanbar asked.
"Well, I suppose first you'll have to take a census," Telemain said hesitantly. His fingers were tapping the abandoned scrolls he'd brought in earlier – a telling sign he was excited but didn't want to show it – and Morwen smiled.
Although she hadn't had the chance to say so to Cimorene, she and Telemain had found that solving the problems of passerby (of which there were many in the Enchanted Forest) was one of their favourite marital hobbies. Morwen enjoyed making the world a slightly more orderly place and Telemain was always interested in the new snippets of magic that travellers tended to bring with them. He'd even suggested they set up a part-time consulting agency, but as a witch Morwen had been trained to was avoid appearing too friendly to the general public, and had vetoed the idea. An issue of this magnitude concerning their close friends was right up their alley.
Happily, it turned out even cataloguing the Enchanted Forest's many inhabitants was within Willin's considerable skillset, and Mendanbar remembered too late the relish with which the elf had recounted tales of censuses past. Telemain helped Mendanbar modify his seeking spells – which fortunately still worked, at least for the time being – to detect sentient life. A small argument broke out over who, and what, living in the forest was properly alive and deserved a vote, with Morwen finally suggesting that anyone who was capable of communicating their name, residence and occupation was certainly capable of determining who they'd like as their head of government.
"We're going to have to write a constitution," Cimorene said, her head in her hand.
"We'll have to come up with a parliament formed of duly elected representatives of the people first," Telemain reminded her.
"Daystar certainly hasn't made it easy for us," Morwen commented, and Cimorene and Mendanbar shared a quick, instinctive look of pride.
After several weeks, Willin finally had a reasonably accurate account of all creatures living within the borders of the Enchanted Forest. Daystar politely said he was disappointed that citizens who were enchanted in the form of rocks or trees or other objects weren't in the account, and Telemain ran his hand through his hair and said that kind of magic detection would take years, if not decades, and that Merlin von Freetenberg had been working on a similar extrapolation when he'd been turned into a pebble by the Great Southeastern Mirror Pond, and Daystar even more politely said he was sorry he'd asked and thanked Telemain for his hard work. Morwen was extremely impressed.
"We'll have to, er, ask people to propose candidates from their local neighbourhoods, won't we?" Mendanbar said. "Should there be districts? Are there any historic districts, Willin?"
No one knew. "I suppose we'll have to–" Cimorene interrupted.
"–have the new parliament decide," everyone chorused.
"I'm assuming you'll stand for prime minister yourself, Mendanbar," Telemain said. "Or Cimorene, of course. Who knows the Enchanted Forest and its modus operandi as well as you do?"
Mendanbar shook his head. "I'm afraid not," Cimorene said.
"I don't think it would be in the spirit of the thing," Mendanbar said.
"I don't mind contradicting the spirit of things, for the record," Cimorene said. "I just don't think it would work."
Election day was a bright clear March morning, and Willin's team of palace scribes were hard at work transcribing and noting all the paper votes that were cast. There was a magical tally, but Mendanbar insisted there be a hand count as well, to ensure no foul play. At sundown, as the last few votes floated into the ballot box by air, the chief scribe set down her pen, cracked her knuckles and sat back in her chair.
"There's a clear winner," she called out. "Just so you know. No runoff needed or anything."
"Thank you, Yosafa," Mendanbar said. "It's...oh!" His demeanor brightened, so much so that Morwen became concerned.
Cimorene peered over his shoulder. "What? Oh! Well, that makes sense."
"What's this?" Telemain said.
"Congratulate your wife," Cimorene said, looking past him to smile at Morwen. "Well done, Madame Prime Minister."
"I beg your pardon?" Morwen said sharply.
Telemain was beaming with pride, an expression she'd never seen on him before; it suited him surprisingly well. "It makes perfect sense," he said, slipping an arm around her waist. "It's just like our consulting agency writ large, really. The subjects – citizens – must have recognised that."
"Consulting agency?" Mendanbar asked.
"Never you mind," Morwen said defensively, shooting Telemain a pointed look. "People just like to be listened to sometimes, that's all."
"And everyone knows how you've helped defeat the wizards at least three times now – and how they haven't come back since the last time," Cimorene said. "Strong on defence, no nonsense. People like that."
"That just sounds xenophobic," Morwen said.
"And you're close enough friends with Cimorene and I that there'll be a fairly smooth transition, but since neither you nor Telemain is of royal blood, there's no need for people to worry about a new dynasty sweeping in and taking over," Mendanbar pointed out. "In a word, you're ideal."
Morwen looked suspiciously back and forth between her friends. "You and Cimorene look ten years younger just thinking about abdicating," she said. "And I'm not sure this doesn't mean I'll have to spend all my time dressing up and greeting visiting queens and princes, and opening schools, and however it is you two fill your time."
"We'll stay on as heads of state for a little while," Cimorene said reasonably. "I remember one of Mother's friends was just head of state – Queen Alexandra, I think. It sounded like terrific fun for retirement."
"Not that we're entirely ready to retire," Mendanbar said hastily. "I'm sure we can find a quest or two that needs doing. You know, only a hair from the head of the King of the Enchanted Forest will restore this ailing queen to health, et cetera."
"Think of all the scrapes we may run into," Cimorene said, a happy look settling firmly on her face.
"Think of all the travel we'll get to do," Mendanbar said, looking much the same. "I've only been outside the forest the once, you know."
"And think of all the time I'll be able to spend in the palace archives," Telemain said in reverential tones.
Morwen looked at him fondly. "I don't suppose I have a choice," she said.
"No," everyone said together. The sword, still resting where Telemain and Mendanbar had left it on the oak sideboard, seemed to glint at her. Morwen walked over to it and patted it on the hilt, and was pleased to feel a firm, soft purring not unlike a cat.
"Well," she said, both to it and to her husband and friends. "Let's see how we get on, shall we."