Pazniec wasn't really a king, but he felt as though he was. "King Paz"—it had a certain ring to it, didn't it?
After all, if you were charged with writing the laws of Altador, you really were quite important. King Altador might hold all the power, but when he decided to issue a decree, who was the one who decided how it should be drafted? Who was the one who translated King Altador's wishes into linguistic shape, and breathed life into the law? Why—it was Pazniec.
Every morning, when the little Usul put on his smart maroon robes, he was filled with pride. The faux fur lining and the gold buckle made them look quite majestic. He'd step out of the house, a jaunty wide-brimmed cap on his head, and smile at the bustling city. Altador was a successful city, and it was successful because the law was logical, fair and certain. All because of Pazniec.
But pride—as they say—comes before a fall.
* * *
It seemed to be a day like any other. The robes, the city, the smile. Pazniec strolled to work his usual way, down past the Colosseum—empty, of course, at this time of year, after the Altador Cup—and basked in the beautiful early sunlight. As he nipped in the backdoor of Altadorian Archives, he called out, "Morning, everyone!" and heard a grumble from the archivist's office.
Pazniec generally worked in the library. Altador had quite a history, and he wasn't the first lawmaker. That was where he headed today, his mind already beginning to work on the problems that had struck him the day before. For example, King Altador wished him to draft a law to ensure all Altadorian Neopets in the Pound were treated properly and kindly by the Pound staff, and while Pazniec was quite sure he could draft such a law without unduly pressuring the already overburdened staff, his worry was more that they could easily ignore the law. The Pound was not in Altador, so there would be nothing the king could do to enforce it. But Pazniec felt he had seen some kind of historical precedent for an Altadorian pound; and that would certainly allow special treatment for Altadorian Neopets, with the added bonus that others would not be jealous.
As he rounded the corridor corner, a noble white Lupe with shimmering silver armour stepped in front of him.
"Pazniec!" boomed the king, in his familiar deep and melodious voice. "I need your help."
"Yes, your majesty?" said Pazniec, catching his breath. He made the customary bow, even though he had known the king for many years; it was partly out of his general law-abiding nature, but mostly out of respect. The request for help was itself usual, and Pazniec felt the usual mix of nerves and excitement he felt before receiving any new legal problem.
"I have been called out of Altador unexpectedly. I leave early tomorrow and return that evening. Who should run the country in my absence?"
Pazniec stared at the king. This was not what he had expected. It was a practical problem, not a legal problem. "You're leaving Altador, sir? But why? You've never left the country on such short notice before. We've always had time to prepare."
"King Skarl and King Hagan have requested my presence," said King Altador gruffly. "With the Altador Cup over and the land quiet, I cannot refuse. Now tell me, Pazniec, who should run the country? Keep in mind that, even in a single day, a great number of issues arise in our land." As he asked this last question, he sat down on a nearby wooden bench, and motioned Pazniec to sit beside him.
Pazniec sat, and considered. The answer was in principle obvious: one of the heroes. But who would be most suitable?
Fauna was the most kind and reliable, but as the Gatherer, was more concerned with running the agriculture sector, and ensuring Altador had enough food. The same would go for her partner Florin, the Farmer. Both were sensible enough to know that they could not discharge that duty while also running the country, and both would refuse the task if offered.
Torakor, the Gladiator, was a formidable warrior, but had a tendency to act rashly and not think before he acted. Both he and Marak, the Wave, were indispensable in battle, and in law enforcement, but neither could be expected to understand the political nuances of dealing with taxation and the provision of water and other day-to-day kingdom matters.
By contrast, Gordos, the Collector, was an expert in taxation, but was greedy and could not be trusted. He did not see taxation as a means to an end, but as a means itself: the higher the tax rate, the better, and never mind that everyone would leave Altador if they had to pay all their earnings in tax. Kelland, the Thief, would be an even worse ruler; not only was he greedy, but by the time King Altador returned, the country's coffers would be empty and Kelland would be nothing but a name to curse.
Sasha, the Dancer, and Psellia, the Dreamer, were both trustworthy, but flighty and unreliable. They would have the best of intentions, but be unable to stand the tedium of political decision-making.
So clearly it would have to be Siyana, the First to Rise, or Jerdana, the Protector. But as Pazniec thought about the two of them he realised that neither of them would do at all. Those roles were more symbolic than practical. And though the country would surely collapse without them, the practical realities of ruling were inescapable. Siyana would look sweetly benevolent on the throne, and Jerdana would look strong and powerful, but neither would know what to do when faced with, say, a request for farming subsidies.
"Ah," said King Altador, with a wry smile. "I see you are struck with the same problem."
"The heroes are great protectors," said Pazniec. "But they need you, sir. They need a leader. Even if only for a day." He knew that Kelland could drain the kingdom dry in hours. And even though he was the only one who could be described as actually malicious, ignorance alone could still do much damage.
"Too many cooks spoil the broth," mused King Altador. "But who else understands the kingdom as well as they do? Or as well as I?"
Pazniec could think of no one. Except—"Sir, what about me?"
He blushed as he said it. But King Altador did not seem offended. "You?"
"I've been lawmaker for years now, sir," Pazniec said. "I know Altador. You came to me with your problem before anyone else, did you not?" He was careful to sound neutral, though 'King Paz' flitted across his mind.
"This is true," the king said thoughtfully. "Very well. I shall give the necessary orders." He turned and walked away, whistling.
Pazniec was used to the king's abrupt dismissals, and as he scuttled along to the library, his mind was humming with excitement. Ruler of the country, him! Even if only for a day. In his most private innermost thoughts, the thoughts he wouldn't admit even to himself, Pazniec felt he could do just as good a job as King Altador, or even better. He'd often felt King Altador could be more involved in the daily running of the country. He had too much of a tendency to step back, and let the people sort things out themselves. Pazniec felt sure this wasn't the right way to go about things.
Pazniec smiled as he ducked into the library. He was going to enjoy tomorrow.
* * *
As it happened, things started to go wrong the moment Pazniec arrived at the Hall of Heroes the next morning. He arrived at 9am sharp, as he knew King Altador did, wearing his smartest cap and his smartest maroon robes, with his newly polished buckle glinting in the sun. He kept his chin high in a manner he felt befitted the newly appointed deputy-first-in-command of the realm.
This turned out to be a mistake. As soon as Pazniec stepped in the door, the floor slipped under him, and he landed with a thud and a splash. "My apologies, sir," said an orange Yurble, leaning on his mop. "I am still cleaning the floor. The king normally enters through the back entrance."
Pazniec blushed furiously as he stood up, soaking. "I'm so sorry."
"The bathroom is down the corridor and on your left," said the Yurble, looking Pazniec up and down. Pazniec could see he was trying to hide a smile. "If you wish to clean yourself up."
"Yes, yes, thank you," Pazniec said, hurrying off, feeling somewhat less than regal.
By the time he made it to the Council Chamber, his robes still slightly damp, the ten heroes were already seated and chatting amongst themselves. They quietened as Pazniec entered. Pazniec began to apologise for his tardiness, stammering, but Siyana smiled kindly at him and said, "It is no trouble. In fact, the King normally does not show up this early."
He smiled back, gratefully. "Thank you, Siyana." He sat down on the empty throne, and took out his notebook, and took a deep breath. He had dealt with all the heroes before, but only individually; never as a group, and certainly never as their leader. "I understand that the first item on the agenda is hearing petitions from the citizens." He tried to say this in a matter-of-fact way. As he spoke, the doors to the Chamber were opened, and a motley crowd of Altadorian residents shuffled in, made up of peasant and merchant and noble Neopets of all species and sizes.
The whole idea of petitions unnerved Pazniec. He vaguely accepted, of course, that the King should have the ability, where necessary, to personally intercede in disputes. But the "necessary" part was troublesome. After all, Pazniec and his predecessors had written the law, and surely it would answer any questions people had. Why would the King ever need to personally involve himself, if not to give someone a right they did not lawfully have?
He found out when the petitions began. As Pazniec tried to get himself comfortable on the throne, Jerdana explained the situation to the crowd, and although there was some grumbling that King Altador himself would not be there, it quietened once they understood that Pazniec had the same authority as the King.
The first petition came from two neighbours, a Gelert and an Usul.
"My lord," began the Gelert. "My neighbour's Meepits broke into my back garden and ate my pumpkins. I seek an order that she recompense me."
"They did no such thing!" said the Usul angrily, clutching three pink Meepits. "My poor little dears don't even like pumpkin." The Meepits stared up at Pazniec with innocent unblinking eyes. "I seek an order that he recompense us for our hurt feelings."
Pazniec lent over to Jerdana. "So it's a he said, she said?"
Jerdana nodded. "Most of these petitions are. The king must use his wits to decide who he believes."
Pazniec was not used to that. He did his best, but he spent most of the day feeling like he was making the wrong decisions. The Heroes occasionally gave their counsel, but it did not necessarily help. Fauna told him that Meepits loved pumpkin, but Florin disagreed, saying they only liked hard vegetables they could sink their teeth into. Eventually Pazniec made an order in favour of the Gelert, only for the Usul to collapse in tears. She had to be carried from the court, and Pazniec was very uncomfortable about the way the Meepits looked back at him, baring their sharp white teeth menacingly. They no longer looked quite so innocent.
His other orders were equally badly received. After he allowed a Shoyru to open a new bookstore in an area where there were already several bookstores, the other shopkeepers nearly caused a riot, and had to be subdued by Torakor and Marak. His order that a little elderly Ogrin repay her debts to a large and wily Skeith was greeted by horrified gasps, and the Heroes—even Gordos—seemed uncomfortable with the decision. Pazniec nearly reconsidered, but did not want to seem as though he would flip-flop on key decisions. When he refused to grant aid to a farmer whose crop had been destroyed by a freak Mootix plague, the farmer was led from the room in tears, to accusations of heartlessness and cruelty from the crowd.
By the time the petitions were over, Pazniec was nearly in tears himself. How did King Altador deal with this every day? He had never realised how many issues arose in the kingdom on a daily basis. Nor did he realise how little the law was involved in these disputes. And even when it did, often a strict application of the law would lead to unfairness.
He couldn't help but sigh with relief when the crowd finally shuffled out the door, though he was saddened to see some of the petitioners turn and glare at him. Siyana put her hand on his arm. "Never mind," she whispered. "Everything will turn out for the best."
The orange Yurble entered through a side entrance, wheeling a tray of stuffed figs and gyros. "Lunchtime!" he announced cheerfully. The heroes descended happily onto the tray, gorging themselves with food, and gossiping about the residents who had been there for the petitions.
Pazniec was not hungry, and sat quietly until only a few crumbs were left. He then reluctantly continued with the business of the day. "I believe the Altador Cup is the next item for discussion," he said, as the Heroes sat back in their seats.
"Aye," growled Gordos, an imposing yellow Skeith. "We came seventeenth last year, and seventeenth this year. Seventeenth! Something must be done." The other heroes nodded and murmured in agreement. Gordos was not likable, but neither was the Altador team's poor showing in the Altador Cup.
"What do you propose?" Pazniec asked. He'd heard a lot of Altadorians complain about this very same problem, but no one yet seemed to have a solution.
"Shut it down," Gordos announced. "No more Altador Cup. It's an embarrassment."
"We will do no such thing!" Marak said, with a sudden crash of anger, like a wave breaking on a shore.
The heroes all began talking at once. Torakor was the loudest, yelling that Gordos was an unpatriotic swine and a greedy traitor and all manner of other unpleasant things. Even the normally quiet and peaceful heroes like Sasha and Psellia were outraged and asking Gordos what in Neopia was wrong with him, or telling him he was ridiculous. Kelland, meanwhile, started arguing that the only way the team was going to win was by cheating.
"Can everyone be quiet a moment?" Pazniec said, but nobody listened to him. Even when he stood up, he was still smaller than the heroes were sitting, and they simply talked over him. He turned to the closest hero, Siyana, in desperation. "What do I do?" he mouthed.
She pointed to Pazniec's left, and he saw a gavel. He banged it hard on the stone chair, and the heroes were quiet, though Gordos shot him a murderous glance.
"Thank you," Pazniec said, his voice stammering slightly. "I think this is something the King should deal with on his return. The next item on the agenda—"
He never finished his sentence. The door burst open. Pazniec smelt the scent of pumpkin in the air, absurdly, and chaos erupted. Someone shrieked, "Meepits!"
A torrent of pink sharp-toothed petpets entered the room, jumping and pouncing and biting on everything in sight. A pile of Meepits set upon a screaming Kelland. Sasha and Psellia bounded up from their chairs and made for the side doors, but not fast enough to avoid the rising pink tide. Fauna and Florin hid behind a chair, throwing olives, but to no effect; the olives simply bounced off the Meepits' smooth fur. Torakor and Marak roared and leapt into the fray with swords drawn, only to find that the little Meepits moved too quickly to land a blow.
Pazniec looked around wildly. He saw Siyana frantically beckoning from behind the lunchtray. As he stumbled towards her, though, ripping his robes on the edge of the table in his haste, a Meepit screeched. It had seen him, and it leapt towards him. Pazniec cowered, covering his face with his paws.
Time seemed to slow as he tried frantically not to think of the sharp white teeth, or the way they could pierce fur and flesh, or the murderous look in the Meepits' eyes.
No. Time hadn't slowed; the Meepit simply hadn't landed.
Pazniec looked up.
"Oh no, you don't," said the King to the Meepit firmly, clutching it at its neck. The Meepit endeavoured to look contrite and innocent. Indeed, all the Meepits were suddenly looking very innocent again, despite the carnage around them. Some of them were whistling as they hid broken items behind their backs or pushed aside crushed food. The Heroes were groaning, exhausted, as they returned to their seats. Torakor gave a Meepit a bitter whack with the blunt side of his sword.
"Your majesty!" Pazniec said, astonished. "Where did you spring from?"
King Altador smiled. "I thought I'd pop by the kitchens when I got back. Heard a bit of a ruckus coming from the Chamber."
Pazniec nearly burst into tears. "Sir, I—I'm so glad you're back. I'm sorry everything is in such a mess."
"Nothing so bad it can't be cleaned up," said the King. He turned to the Meepits, who were now attempting to shuffle back out through the door. "Stay where you are. You'll be dealt with later." He turned back to Pazniec. "So. Fill me in."
"Gordos wants to get rid of the Altador Cup, and I got all the petitions wrong," Pazniec said miserably.
"Is that all?" the King said, laughing. "Gordos?"
The tax collector clutched his pen. "Yes, sire?"
"I know it's a constant source of disappointment to you that tax revenues are lower during the Altador Cup," the King said. "Altadorians work less so they can attend the matches. But getting rid of the Cup is not the answer. We should instead consider replacing some of the existing income tax with a sales tax so the extra money visitors spend on goods has some benefit to the city."
A grin spread over Gordos's face.
Pazniec couldn't believe he hadn't realised. Of course Gordos wasn't bothered by the poor Altadorian record in the Cup. Why would he be? Gordos was the least patriotic of all the Heroes. What had concerned him was the loss of tax revenue.
"As for the petitions," the King said to Pazniec. "You are an excellent lawmaker, and your role is important. As you have seen, running the kingdom is a different matter entirely. Common sense is just as important as the law, and often the way you deliver a decision is more important than the decision itself."
"I'm sorry, sir," Pazniec said ruefully.
"But you meant well," said the King kindly. "And that was all I wanted for the day. Someone whose heart was in the right place. Someone who cared about Altador the same way I do. If I'd left someone else in charge, I might not have had a city to come back to."
Pazniec began to smile. "That's what I should be proud of, sir? Not destroying the city in a day?"
The King grinned back at him. "Ruling is harder than it seems. Something tells me your laws will be even more well-written after your practical experience. Now, let's get these Meepits brooms. They have some cleaning up to do."