At long last the evening came. The Hedgehog had spent the whole afternoon running around and extinguishing fires, as its fellow toys seemed intent on engaging in arguments over the smallest comments. It was with a sigh of relief that it saw the guests head for the door one after another, and soon the Humans had cleaned up the place, taken out the garbage and locked up the shop for the night.
“Well, well,” Hera said. “This was a fine opening.”
The Hedgehog thought that it was nothing short of a miracle that it hadn’t evolved into a redux of the Peloponnesian War, but it kept mum.
The Duchess of Plaisance removed the hairpins on her head to let her hair down and sighed dramatically. “It was exhausting to answer so many questions from ignorant people. Can you believe no one knew that the building that hosts the Byzantine Museum used to be my mansion?”
“Neither had anyone heard about the fountain that bears my name,” Haseki grumbled. “And it’s sitting right in the middle of the Agricultural University. We have our work cut out for us.”
Thucydides smiled. “This is precisely the reason for our existence, my friends. Today, a few people learned some valuable historical facts in an enjoyable way.”
“And none more valuable than my existence!” Nicephorus Palaiologos’s shrill voice cut through. “I, for one, am extremely satisfied with the way this day proceeded. I must inform Ioannes Gatatzis that his Chronicles will be selling out!” The Hedgehog noted with relief that the other toys ignored the despot studiously.
Empress Theodora took off her stem and placed it carefully on the shelf. “I believe we should all rest as tomorrow is bound to be as busy as today. Can I tempt you with a nightcap before we go to sleep?”
Most of the toys declined politely. Nicephorus Palaiologos, however, brightened up. “I would be delighted, my dear Empress. It has been a while since I had a personal chef, what with being erased from history and all.”
There was a flash of anger in Theodora’s eyes. “I’ll have some too, if it’s all the same to you,” Hephaestus said before she could come up with an acid retort. “I can’t really count on my wife to look after me, can I?” He looked askance at Aphrodite, who was sitting in a corner with Ares. The two were engaged in a whispered conversation and didn’t even pay attention to him.
The Classical Grandmother rose to her feet. “Let us take care of this together, darling,” she told Theodora. “Nightcaps are my speciality.”
The two women vanished to the kitchen, followed by the Serpent Goddess who was muttering something about helping out with cleaning – although the Hedgehog was quite certain she was merely taking her leave from the next conflict that was bound to arise. The remaining toys, however, seemed to have no intention to fight among themselves. The Albanian Butcher went to introduce himself to the Olympian Gods, Constantine the Great and Suleyman the Magnificent took Thucydides on a tour of their city, and Haseki approached the goat-like Demon of the Bronze Age to ask it for tips about black magic – for what nefarious purpose, the Hedgehog didn’t know. But it didn’t have time to wonder about it, as Nicephorus Palaiologos approached it.
“There is something we need to talk about,” the despot whispered conspiratorially.
Listening to yet another one of Nicephorus Palaiologos’s pompous diatribes certainly wasn’t what the Hedgehog’s idea of light bedtime entertainment, and it opened its little snout to phrase a lame excuse, but the despot grabbed its arm and pulled it closer. “This is of the highest importance, not only for me but for the continued existence of this store. Andronicus has an agent among our ranks.”
Would he ever stop, the Hedgehog wondered. Being an only child itself, it had never experienced sibling rivalries, but Nicephorus Palaiologos’s obsession with his brother seemed to verge on the paranoid. “I am certain that the Humans have screened everyone, Your Highness,” it squeaked carefully. “There is nothing to worry –”
“You do not understand,” the despot interrupted. His tone was as aloof and haughty as ever, but there was a true sense of urgency in his voice. “Andronicus is devious and he is a man of many means. I have been receiving threats.”
The Hedgehog arched an eyebrow. “Threats? … Your Highness?” it added as an afterthought.
It was quite revealing of the importance Palaiologos attached to this matter that the despot didn’t even note the lapse in protocol. “Yes, threats. See for yourself.” He extracted a folded note from inside the stuffing of his doll body and handed it to the Hedgehog. “This was found in the box of the Naval Battle of the Aegean.”
The Hedgehog glanced at the scrap of paper. A note was scribbled on it, apparently with a quill: “Return to oblivion where you belong.”
Now this was indeed truly serious. As much as it disliked Nicephorus Palaiologos, the Hedgehog took its role as the shop’s mascot very seriously, and the Humans had entrusted it with making sure that everything went smoothly in their absence. It rose to its full height. “I will investigate this with all due diligence, Your Highness. Be certain that no harm will come to you.”
The tension on the despot’s face eased a little. “Excellent, excellent,” he said, patting the Hedgehog on the shoulder. “I am henceforth making you the head of my personal guard.”
“I am honoured, Your Highness,” the Hedgehog said politely. “However –”
He was interrupted by Theodora, who was returning from the kitchen. Volutes of steam rose from her cup. “The Classical Grandmother is indeed an expert at nightcaps,” she said. “It seems that we might still have a few things to learn from Antiquity.”
She held out the cup, but Nicephorus Palaiologos stopped her with a raised finger and pointed at the Hedgehog. “If you will kindly pour my portion in my bodyguard’s cup,” he said sharply. “Royalty cannot share utensils with commoners, as you well know.”
“Commoners,” Suleyman the Magnificent repeated. “Now we’ve seen it all.”
“And why does he get a bodyguard and not us?” Constantine the Great wondered. “Governor Haseki, would you like to assume that role?”
“I would rather die,” Haseki thundered. “Me, a bodyguard to a Byzantine emperor?”
The Albanian Butcher rolled his eyes and tapped him on the shoulder. “Dude. You died 200 years ago.”
The situation was going downhill again, but the Hedgehog decided to ignore it and hope for the best. It gestured for Theodora to pour some of the draught in the cup it was carrying and inhaled the fumes deeply. It smelled of honey and spices and another scent it couldn’t quite identify, and it seemed delicious. It would definitely ask for some the next time it was on offer. Nicephorus Palaiologos slurped loudly as he downed the contents of the cup in a single gulp. In the back of the room, Hephaestus seemed just as satisfied as he drank from Theodora’s cup.
“I believe Haseki should be my bodyguard, not yours,” Suleyman was telling Constantine the Great. “Perhaps you should instead select a figure from the Byzantine memory game?”
“I definitely should,” Constantine said haughtily. “At least their loyalty will never come in question.”
“ENOUGH!” the Serpent Goddess shouted. “Everyone go back to your shelves now and get a good night’s sleep.”
“There is no ‘but’,” the young woman said menacingly. “I have had enough of your bickering. Go back to your shelves, or I will unleash the Beasts of the Bronze age on you.”
The Hedgehog couldn’t agree more. It headed to the cupboard behind the counter and settled comfortably in a mug for the night.