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Every so often, an unfamiliar, alien scent wafted in from the world beyond Castle Mount. My nostrils flared.

Right now, Erica’s pungency dominated: a heady combination of leather, sweat, oiled steel and hippocow mince. My bodyguard frowned beside me, letting me know for the fiftieth time that she was nowhere near the happiness neighbourhood.

I wasn’t supposed to be this close to the royal balcony. Public appearances were my robot double’s job. But since I’d discovered I could bribe my ogre, I felt morally obliged to do so for as long as my luck and crown notes lasted. Well, immorally obliged.

My latest payment had earned us a hiding spot in the curtained shadows behind the balcony’s anteroom. I strained to overhear Lord Boron whispering to his ogre bodyguard, Lars. Yet their words were drowned by the goblin mayor, strutting upon the balcony beyond, microphone in pudgy hand. I’d never been permitted to talk directly to Mayor Honesty Viethe, though after the operation that removed his brain and inserted it into a much larger (and younger) orc body, he was easily recognisable. Though the mayor had made himself almost as buff as Lars or Erica, his smirk (and taste for loud suits) remained unchanged.

‘Next!’ Mayor Viethe sneered over his microphone. ‘Monstro City’s own royal freak show. Eyeball ’em while they’re still not rissoles!’

Many hundreds of metres below, cackling rippled across the crowd. I tried to visualise the tens of thousands of monsters crammed into the Great Market Square, their inhuman eyes turned upwards. But I couldn’t. Even the sunlight out there was alien to me, known only through books and distant, filtered glimpses.

Mayor Viethe bowed to the crowd and strode through the anteroom, jabbing Lord Boron in the ribs as he passed.

Lord Boron spluttered.

The robot doubles of my mother and I stepped onto the balcony. Immaculately dressed in purple gowns, the robots waved and gave no speeches.

Mine looked kind of stupid.

The crowd muttered and–


The balcony exploded!

I staggered backwards into Erica’s legs. She wrapped an arm around my chest and dragged me backwards towards the corridor. My head twisted to and fro, my eyes boggling at the carnage.

My double’s head rolled by, sparking and fizzling.

Smoke clouds billowed along the tunnels of Castle Mount. Ogre guards formed a semi-circle around the shattered balcony. Their shouts and curses rose above the ringing in my head.

‘By the Ogre Pope!’

‘Protect the regent!’

‘A cyborg assassin fired his arm like a missile!’

‘Mummy cops have arrested him!’

Erica dragged me deeper into the mountain.

I tugged at her armoured elbow. ‘What happened to my mother’s robot? Let me look!’

‘Certainly not!’ Lord Boron stumbled from the smoke, coughing through his grey whiskers. Lars loomed by his side, eyeballs scanning. ‘You should not be here, Thomas!’ Lord Boron glared at Erica until she released me. ‘We must go away from this place immediately.’

I pushed out my bottom lip as far as it would jut.

Lord Boron bustled me along the curved black tunnel. Lars led the way, his weapons cocked. Erica guarded our rear. We passed the royal library, the weapons storage area, Lord Boron’s personal quarters and numerous other guarded doors I was never permitted to enter.

Finally, wheezing, Lord Boron paused outside the most familiar door of all. Lars turned the knob and entered, crossbow first.

‘Not more jail.’ I kicked the tunnel floor. ‘Not today.’

Lars’ grim head nodded, confirming the room I hated more than any other was clear of monster assassins.

I grumbled in and slumped at my desk.

The ogres assumed their guard positions at the door.

Click. I was sealed inside, a prisoner again.

From the single, spherical wall, my ancestors’ painted faces gazed yet could not see. I breathed chalk-dust and sighed.

Lord Boron attempted a casual smile and tapped his beloved blackboard. ‘I believe we were studying the reign of King Julius III?’

‘Why must I learn this blah?’ I groaned. ‘Don’t you have a city to run?’

Lord Boron exhaled loudly. ‘Certainly I am Regent of Monstro City, a temporary ruler while your mother is indisposed and your father and brother are … absent. However, it is also my task to teach the possible heir–’

‘What if my family never comes back?’

‘Certainly they will return.’

‘What if they don’t?’

Lord Boron swallowed. ‘In that quite absurd scenario, as is my duty, I will hand the reins of power to you on your eighteenth birthday – which is all the more reason for you to learn about our city’s previous kings and queens!’

I threw up my hands. ‘Dead rulers are so dull! I want to learn about the Zombie Wars. About magic! About all the monsters out there!! About why that balcony exploded!!! About cool factoids!’

‘Must we engage in this conversation every other week?’ Lord Boron reached for the engraved snuff box on his desk. ‘You should by now believe that such topics are unsuitable.’

‘Monsters not suitable? Hello? We live in Monstro City! The city of monsters!’

The snuff box twitched in Lord Boron’s hands. ‘All you need believe of monsters is this, Thomas: they want to eat humans! And you, the last human prince, would be the greatest delicacy of all!’

After all these years, had I finally struck a nerve cluster? I thumped my desk. Beneath my right fist, cracks jagged the ancient wood. ‘When I become king, I’ll chop off all the monsters’ noggins!’

Lord Boron’s sigh caused a snuff cloud to waft across the room. He fumbled the box in his rush to pack it away. ‘Alas, kings must first rule their own emotions. There is much you must learn.’

‘Then why don’t you teach me?’

‘Excuse me, I am trying to teach you.’

‘Excuse me, but you’re not!’ My tone vaulted. ‘Stuff teaching me about manners, extinct crest animals and historical blah! Teach me how to chop off noggins! Especially vampire ones!’

‘Oh, if only being king were so simple.’ The regent sagged into the padded chair behind his desk. ‘These days, alas, monsters are far more likely to remove our heads.’

Monsters like Erica? I wondered.

‘Lord Boron?’ My voice fell to a whisper. ‘May I visit my mother?’

‘Thomas, it is not Sunday. Alas, you–’

‘Must be patient!’ I snapped. ‘Old news! Can’t some other kids at least study with me sometimes?’

‘Certainly not!’ Words tumbled from Lord Boron’s mouth. ‘Protecting you is my greatest task! What if these “other kids” were controlled by demons or evil spirits? What if they were disguised chonchon, wokolos, bhuts, Frankens, assassin cyborgs or evil shape-shifters such as ghuls, changelings or halulus?’ His hand shot to his mouth.

My heart pounded. ‘Halulus? What’re they?’

Lord Boron shook his head, realising he’d been manoeuvred into explaining something he’d rather not. ‘A halulu is a man-eating bird that can assume human form. Now–’

I beamed. ‘That’s the type of factoid you should be teaching me! It’s useful. And actually interesting!’

‘And quite unsuitable.’ Lord Boron waddled to the blackboard. ‘Now, before his untimely death, King Julian III fathered five children. In birth order, what were their names?’

Click. The door opened.

‘Lord?’ a deep voice vibrated, saving my backside. I turned to see Lars, his ogre forehead frowning through the door-crack. ‘The mayor is here.’

‘Blast that pushy Viethe.’ Lord Boron pouted. ‘Has he not heard of appointments?’

The mayor’s moss-coloured head poked past Lars. ‘Lord B.’ He mock-saluted. ‘Always wondered if yer name was short for Borin’ Moron!’

Lord Boron’s reply bristled with annoyance. ‘We are in the middle of class.’

Mayor Viethe smirked. ‘I’m bankin’ this here brawny example o’ royal hume youth won’t mind if ya stop borin’ him brainless for a coupla minutes.’ He winked my way.

I masked my smile behind my hand.

‘If I must. Though not in front of– outside, in the hall.’ Lord Boron attempted a dignified stroll to the door. ‘Take a break,’ he said curtly to Erica and Lars. ‘Three minutes.’

The ogres nodded, scowling, and marched away.

Lord Boron and Mayor Viethe stepped into the corridor. The door clicked shut.

Rushing to the door, I crouched and pressed my ear against the keyhole.

‘Why do ya still grasp this joke?’ Honesty’s guttural voice boomed clearly.

‘Joke?’ Lord Boron spluttered.

‘Lemme spell it out for ya in easy-ta-grasp sentences. Yer livin’ way beyond yer means, Lordy Borin’. Ya just lost another balcony and two more royal robots. Have ya eyeballed yer accountin’ books lately? The coffers o’ yer once brawny empire are bleedin’ dry. By my estimates, yer precious hume royal kingdom’s just six months off bankruptcy! Can ya grasp the chaos when yer ogre bodyguards mutiny ’cause ya can’t pay ’em? Or, when ya can’t afford ta pay yer tributes and the dragon rips the roof off Castle Mount and char-grills the last coupla humes? Yer precious real estate won’t be worth five rissoles then!’

My knees sagged to the floor. Total bankruptcy? No money left!

‘Absurd!’ Lord Boron spluttered. ‘How could you possibly know the state of our finances? That information is excellently guarded!’

‘I’m a goblin. Grasp? Business is my middle name. My estimators–’

‘Are incorrect! There are taxes due that will cover our debts–’

‘The taxes may be due, though no monster’s payin’ ’em!’ Viethe’s cackle was followed by what sounded like a sharp knee-slap. ‘No hume tax collector’s got the guts ta vamoose the safety o’ Castle Mount. They wouldn’t last five secs! Mummy cops won’t enforce yer tax laws and neither’ll the centaur courts. Yer only hope’s ta grasp my generous offer. Hand over the last coupla hume royal powers, and most o’ yer royal real estate, and I’ll edyacate ya how a kingdom should run. Ya’ll be free o’ worries, safe on Holly Hill. Ya can even still grasp yer fancy royal titles.’

‘I would never do that! I refuse to plunge down in history as the regent who auctioned humanity! Away with you, Viethe!’

‘Don’t turn all twitchy. I’ll get back ta ya in a coupla months with another offer – though it won’t be half the bargain as this one!’ The mayor’s voice thickened. ‘And don’t even try graspin’ a counter-offer off my sleazy excuse for a deputy mayor.’

‘Of that, I can assure you!’

‘Easy on the chalk dust, Borin’!’

It sounded like the ‘meeting’ was over, so I scuttled back to my desk.

Lord Boron tottered into the classroom as if Mayor Viethe had just punched him in the guts.

I knew how he felt.

Six months! Now my promise to Mother had a deadline.

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