by Robin Gordon
- Auksford -
Part IV: Nanny Scungebucket
Chapter 14: Scungebucket Enterprises
Copyright Robin Gordon, 1996/2004
Exactly a year and a day later the Royal company sat down to dinner. Prince Egbert and Prince Bruce were lean and bronzed and much fitter. Queen Edna and Prince Norman were unchanged. King Arthur was tired and unwell. Queen Elizabeth seemed to be constructed entirely out of aristocratic ice, and Princess Cinderella was on the point of melting away altogether.
They had chosen to dine in a room overlooking one of the inner courtyards, but a constant hum and an indistinct throbbing, more felt than heard, and slightly faster than a normal human heartbeat, gave an edge of anxiety to their evening. From time to time the blast of insistently rhythmic but discordant music invaded the room, and every seven minutes a penetrating voice made inaccurate announcements about the royal palace.
"Things have changed," observed Prince Egbert.
"They have - for the worse," replied his father.
"When we first came back to the city," said Prince Egbert, "we both thought it must be because we had been so long in deserted isolation that it seemed so noisy. We could hear it miles out on the road, a sort of thrumming and humming, but we thought it must be just our imagination that it was worse."
"It is worse," groaned the King. "It gets worse every day."
"The only way we can cure it," said the Queen, "is to regain our past and our future. The people are living entirely in the present with no thought for anything but their own immediate pleasures. Our only hope is Bertie's Quest."
"Complete failure, I'm afraid," said Prince Egbert gravely. "We've searched from one end of the Kingdom to the other, from the Northern Cape to the Icy Mountains in the south, from the Glaciers to the Geysers. We've climbed sheer cliffs and explored almost impassable caves, we've been attacked by mountain lions, eagles, sharks, bandits and pirates - and we've found no trace of Vicky, or of old Hinny McIldhu."
"We'll set off again, of course," put in Prince Bruce. "We'll comb the outer islands and the settlements of the Sea People. We could ..."
"There's hardly anywhere we haven't already explored," interrupted Prince Egbert. "It would be a relief to get away again, but I feel I'm needed here. It's not just the intolerable noise. The whole kingdom seems to have gone mad. The papers are full of murders and robberies. We never used to have murders in New Zephyria. Television seems to encourage it from what I've seen. Surely the Government could do something."
"You had better ask the Prime Minister," said the Queen. "He's due here in a few minutes."
"More's the pity," grunted the King.
"Well, I know you think he's a silly old goat," said Prince Egbert, "but even if he hasn't any ideas himself, surely he could at least listen to us."
At that moment the Royal Butler, the imperturbable Bastable, as steady as ever despite black rings round his eyes, announced Professor James Jolly. Prince Egbert rose eagerly to greet his old tutor, but stopped in surprise. In the year that had passed since the beginning of the Quest, James Jolly had aged ten. He entered, leaning on a stick, and bowed stiffly.
Prince Egbert stepped forward, shook him warmly by the hand, guided him to a chair, and asked how his brother was and whether they had written any more fairytales.
"No more fairytales," croaked the Professor. "My brother, William, is dead. The strain of working through the chronicles against a constant barrage of noise was too much for him. The students, you see, and their music, and the touring buses too. They took him into hospital, but then all the young doctors had what they call a ball in the grounds. I could hear it at home, two, two and a half, miles away. It was the last straw. His unicorn came for him, as the Sea People say. He has gone ... gone beyond the Black Stump, whence none return. Well, I ... that is ... there will be no more fairytales. I can't think of merry Ingland now without thinking of New Zephyria. I would write of noise and pollution, violence and murder, selfishness and disputes, of self-important minorities stirring up hatred between races, between parents and children, between men and women ... I should write of Mad Beast disease, and what would become of old Ingland without her famous Roast Beef, eh? - but you don't want to hear about my troubles. The Quest! Yes, how went the Quest?"
"Badly," said Prince Egbert. "So far we have found nothing. What's more, I feel I'm needed here. Everything seems to be going wrong. Haven't you found any clues in the Chronicles?"
"None," replied the old man, struggling to his feet, "but I'll keep trying as long as my health permits. Goodnight, Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses."
When he had gone, Prince Egbert asked about Mad Beast Disease. The Queen told him. Scungebucket Enterprises had rapidly taken over the whole of the New Zephyrian food industry. Nanny's wonderful soups and stews were far superior to those of all the rival firms. She drove them all out of business, but when she had achieved a monopoly the new improved soups and stews became more and more artificial. Her business expanded into animal feeds and transformed New Zephyrian farming into a factory-style agribusiness. Nothing was wasted. Animal bones and inedible tissues were ground up and fed to herbivorous cows and sheep, thereby spreading a horrific disease. Anyone who ate the meat of an infected animal went mad and died. Chickens were still safe, and perhaps pigs, but many of the ordinary people had given up roast meat altogether and ate only Nanny's "Fresh Country Style" ready-prepared meals.
Queen Elizabeth had only just finished when Bastable announced the Prime Minister, but, instead of the tired old man Prince Egbert expected, in frisked a new Prime Minister: television personality Nigel Crimper.
"Eunnngh! Eunnngh! Your Majesty. How glad we all are to see His Royal Highness back from his quest, sheee hee hee hee! Even if he has been unsuccessful on this occasion, Shee-hee-heeee, but I am sure he will wish to be off on his travels again, for who knows what he may discover?"
"I'm not so sure about that, Prime Minister," replied Prince Egbert, who had taken an instant dislike to Nigel Crimper and felt that the new Prime Minister was far too anxious to get rid of him. "Prince Bruce and I have explored the Kingdom from end to end without finding any trace of the Princess. Now I feel I am needed here."
"Nnngh! Nnnnnngh! Well, of course, I should be delighted to have your Highness's VAST experience of running the country at the disposal of my government, hee-hee shee-hee-hee," sniggered the Prime Minister sarcastically.
"You may need it," said Prince Egbert. "Your own experience is of no great standing. This time last year you were the presenter of a television game show."
"In the new era of opportunity even the presenter of a television game show can become Prime Minister - and, if I may say so, I have the highest popularity rating of any Prime Minister this century."
"You surprise me."
"Why? The economy's booming. Thanks to Nanny Scungebucket we've moved out of the area of primitive agriculture into high technology food production. We shall soon be exporting our produce to Aquilia. Tourism is booming too. Can't you hear the open-topped buses? They pass at intervals of seven minutes, day and night!"
"They could at least use individual headphones," said the Prince.
"Oh, could they?" sneered the Prime Minister. "That's all you know about it!"
"Why couldn't they use headphones?" persisted Prince Egbert.
"Headphones aren't popular," snapped the Prime Minister. "Just ask Nanny Scungebucket. Nanny knows best!"
"I shall have to see about that," murmured Prince Egbert.
"May I remind Your Royal Highness of the constitutional position of the Crown? Sheee-heee-heee-heee! Nnnnnngh! Nnnnnnngh! The King may not interfere in the business of government ..."
"I am not King, and I shall do what I think best," interrupted Prince Egbert. "You may go."
"Nnnngh! Nnnnnnnngh! Nnnnnnnnnnngh! As Your Highness pleases. I shall be in time for the news on television. The round-up of the unicorns should be quite spectacular, sheee heee-heee-heee .... sh-sh-sheee heee-heee-heee-heee!"
"What do you mean, round-up of the unicorn?" interjected the King.
The Prime Minister paused at the door. "Perhaps Your Majesty has forgotten, shee-hee-hee, though you did sign the order with your own hand. The unicorns are to be rounded up for slaughter. Sh-sh-sh-shee-hee-hee. Nanny Scungebucket is going to make them into dogfood. Now that Aquilian pit bull terriers are so popular there should be quite a flourishing market. Nnnngh, nnnnngh! Good night."
"Bertie!" cried the King. "You've got to stop them!"
"Go quickly, Bertie," said the Queen. "Ours is the last herd of unicorn in the world. We must save it."
"You heard what Jolly said," groaned the King. "The Sea People believe the unicorn guide the souls of the dead through the Underworld. There'll be a revolution if we allow Nanny Scungebucket to slaughter them."
"That's probably why she's doing it," observed the Queen. "We've had all sorts of trouble in the last few months with that woman desecrating tapu sites and agitators stirring up every forgotten grievance. The Sea People take all these old superstitions very seriously."
"So do I," growled the King. "When m' dear old Dad was dyin' he said to me, Arthur, m' boy, the unicorn's comin' for me, and when he died I heard the sound of hoofs outside. I've never told anyone, not even you, Old Girl."
"Be that as it may," said the Queen calmly, as she took his hand, "for the sake of New Zephyria Bertie must save the unicorn."
"I'm on my way," cried Prince Egbert. "Come on, Bruce!"
* * * * *
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