From his high parapet, Prince Jaspin watched the last-minute preparations for his coronation. Below, on the greens of Askelon, a hundred brightly colored pavilions had blossomed like early summer flowers. Lords and their ladies strolled the lawn while servants fluttered among them on errands of pending importance.
The air fairly billowed with the fragrance of a thousand bouquets and the savory aroma of meat roasting in the pits and sweet delicacies being prepared for the high feast. Everywhere he looked, color and festivity met his gaze, and even to Jaspin’s jaded eye the sight dazzled and delighted.
He rubbed his pudgy hands and hugged himself in paroxysms of pleasure.
Jaspin had readily assumed the appearance of a king. Rings rattled on every finger; gold chains hung about his neck; his rotund form fleshed out a handsome brocaded jacket with wide, lacy sleeves; a flattened cap, embroidered with gold, perched upon his head; and his long brown hair had been curled for the occasion. On his feet he wore boots of gilded leather; his legs were stuffed into the finest stockings, which issued forth from his short velvet trousers, fastened at the knee with silver buttons. He, though he hated to admit it himself, had never looked so splendid.
His entrance into the city the day before had been no less grand and majestic. All his lords, bedecked in their finest armor, astride their best horses, rode with him in triumphant procession through the town. The streets were thick with throngs of onlookers who sent their cheers aloft as the occasion required. To an objective ear the cheers could have been more effusive and heartfelt; nevertheless, to Jaspin, caught up as he was in his own pomp and circumstance, the tidings seemed the greatest possible adulation. In fact, the perceived acclaim so overwhelmed Prince Jaspin that he unaccountably loosened the strings of his purse and began flinging ducats of gold and silver into the throngs. This, of course, produced a heightened approval from the populace, most of whom made up the lower echelons of the realm. Those who had no great love for Jaspin, the more sincere citizens, stayed away from the procession altogether.
A more objective eye would have noticed that his praise poured forth from the throats of what might be termed a scruffy rabble. But to Jaspin, they were lords and ladies, peers of nobility every one.
After the parade there had been mummery and feasting and drinking far into the night. Jaspin, quite unlike himself, had retired early so as not to spoil his happy day with the wrath of the grape.
And now he beamed down upon the scene of his glory like the sun itself, sending down a rare beneficence to all who passed beneath his scan.
A shadow slipped fleetingly over his eyes, and he looked up to see a great bird gliding overhead. He turned and went back to his apartment to finish readying himself for the ceremonies soon to commence, which would continue for several days. He heard a croak from outside on the parapet and turned to see the bird he had glimpsed moments before alighting on the balustrade. Before he could think or speak, the bird changed, grew larger, its shape shifting and transforming. In a blink the dread form of Nimrood stood in the doorway, blocking out the sunlight streaming in. A cold finger of fear touched Jaspin’s heart.
“What do you want?” the prince gasped.
“Come, now. We both know what I want. Why pretend otherwise?” The sorcerer smiled his serpent’s smile. “I want what was promised me.” His tone had become an insinuating hiss.
“What I promised? I promised you nothing more than I have already given. You wanted the king—I gave him to you. That was our agreement.”
“And did you think I would be satisfied with that? How innocent you are.” Nimrood’s black eyes flashed with fire. His wild hair waved as if in a wind. “No! You promised a piece of your realm to any who would help you gain the throne. I have given you the throne. Given it to you, do you hear?” The wizard paced and raved. “Now I demand payment!”
“And what payment would you have?” the prince asked cautiously. If pressed, he was prepared to rave as loudly as any mad magician, where it concerned his wealth.
“Half your realm.” Nimrood smiled grotesquely. “Half your realm, my princeling.”
“That you shall not have, by Azrael! You dare ask that? Be gone, you miserable—”
The words suddenly clenched in his throat. Jaspin gazed in terror into Nimrood’s narrowed eyes, which flashed red in their depths. “I could crush you like a bug, Prince. Do not play with me. I am your master.
“You wish to be king? Very well. You shall be king—but at my price.”
“And if I refuse?” Jaspin whined miserably.
“You cannot refuse.”
“Can I not?” The prince became sullen. “What can stop me? In two days hence I will wear the crown. I will be king regardless.”
“I wonder if your pretty regents would hand you the crown so readily if Eskevar suddenly appeared.”
“You said he was dead. You sent his ring . . .”
“As good as dead. He is close by; well hidden—you cannot find him. But he may be revived to claim his throne once more. Of that I assure you.”
“You would not,” sneered the prince. “It would undo all you have done; all your schemes would come to naught.”
“Ah, but the sight of two brothers locked in mortal combat would greatly cheer me. And I need not tell you who would win.” Nimrood’s eyes shone in triumph as he drew himself up to full height. “So which shall it be? The crown, or Eskevar’s return at a most inopportune moment?”
“You black serpent!” Jaspin threw his hands into the air. “All right! All right! You shall have what you ask. But what am I to have of your surety? How will I know that you will do as you say?”
“You have, Prince Jackal, the surety of what I will do if you cross me. Beyond that? Nothing. Nimrood does not condescend to any mortal.”
Jaspin’s countenance reddened with rage, yet he dared not express his anger toward the necromancer. His fear formed the greater part of his discretion; he held his tongue.
“So it is agreed,” soothed Nimrood. “I will return in a fortnight to receive the necessary titles to my new lands. And I will bring you a token, a reminder of your pledge . . . and what may be your fate if you renege.”
Nimrood spun round, his cloak flying in tatters behind him. He hopped upon the casement step, leaped to the balustrade, and hurled himself off, to Jaspin’s horrified stare. But in the instant of his falling, his form changed, so quickly it seemed he had not changed at all but had always been the huge black raven that lifted its wings to the sky.