Authors: Sean Cullen
In the daytime the old quarter was host to an open-air market of crafts and farmers' wares, but at that late hour there was no one about. The empty stalls stood silent and dripping with rain and the arcades
were deserted. The pedestrians
had long since gone home
with their purchases, leaving the streets to less savoury types.
Mr. Sweet and Mr. Candy were definitely of the less savoury variety.
The two Grey Agents stood dripping before a shop with the gilded sign
S CONFECTIONS AN D CHOCOLATES
. The large front window was covered with a metal shutter. The awning that usually shaded the window was wound back into the wall. The door was shut and a sign saying “closed” hung in plain view. Light seeped out from under the door, though, denoting that someone was inside.
Mr. Sweet turned to watch the street as Mr. Candy glided forward. He took hold of the doorknob. His overlong fingers clamped tight on the cold brass. The agent squeezed and twisted hard. A squeak of tortured metal was muffled by the drumming rain. With a soft snap, the lock shattered. Mr. Candy nodded to Mr. Sweet and opened the door. They quickly ducked inside and closed the door behind them.
Inside, the shop was a wonderland of chocolate. Shelves covered every wall and every shelf was itself covered with
some form of delicious chocolate confection. Wrapped in beautifully coloured foil were bars of chocolate in multiple flavours: butter cream, caramel-filled, nougat, cherry, peanut butter. A long glass counter ran across the entire shop. Inside, trays and trays of individual chocolates lay arranged in perfect rows. The person who had created these displays was obviously someone who loved chocolate, and who had raised the craft of chocolate-making to an art form.
The artistry was most brilliantly displayed in the window. When the shutters were raised people outside could see the most incredible sight: dioramas made entirely out of sweets. There was a chocolate castle built of tiny chocolate bricks with candy soldiers defending its ramparts against a vast dragon of spun sugar breathing clouds of candy floss. A chocolate waterfall fed the moat, a rippling stream of pure dark chocolate in which marzipan crocodiles floated, their candy eyes glaring. A village of gingerbread houses nestled at the foot of the chocolate hill below the castle, roofs constructed of hundreds and thousands of tiny chocolate tiles. Cotton-candy sheep grazed, herded by tiny chocolate shepherds. It was truly a candy masterpiece. Any human being with a soul would have been moved by the attention to detail and the palpable love poured into the display.
Of course, Mr. Candy and Mr. Sweet had no souls to speak of. Ironically, though they were named Sweet and Candy,
they were unmoved in the presence of their namesakes.
They stalked through the darkened shop in their agile yet awkward way, all pointy limbs and darting heads. They went around the glass counter towards a doorway hung with a red velvet curtain. At the curtain they stopped, cocking their heads to the side to listen. A golden light emanated beneath the curtain and they heard a man humming softly. They nodded to each other and ducked inside.
They found themselves in a workshop.
A long table sat in a pool of bright golden light. Over the table was a metal grid suspended by chains at its four corners. Dangling from the grid and within easy reach were tools of every description: drills, sanders, chisels, hammers of various sizes, pliers, and electric saws with strangely shaped blades.
The tools were amazing enough, but what was on the table itself was truly awe-inspiring. Hundreds of chocolate carvings in various states of completion stood silent in the golden light.
The surface of the table was taken up by an oval structure composed of a series of chocolate arches. The detail
was breathtaking. Each brick was individually cut and fit into place. Tiny flags of spun sugar stood on tiny candystick poles all around the top of the walls. Contained within the walls, terraced seats contained hundreds and hundreds of tiny candy Roman citizens, each in a tiny toga made of white frosting.
Sitting with his back to the door was an old man. His white hair was neatly trimmed around the shiny bald spot on the top of his head. His shoulders were hunched. He wore a white linen jacket of the sort that a doctor might wear.
The agents glided across the floor until they stood at the old man's elbows. So silent were they in their approach that the old man didn't even notice they were there until they grabbed him by the elbows and lifted him from his stool. The old man dropped the chariot he had been working on. It shattered on the floor, sending a spray of chocolate fragments shooting across the room.
“Ach! What do you want? The shop is closed.”
Mr. Candy and Mr. Sweet held the man off the floor, his little legs kicking as he scrambled for purchase in the air. Finally, he ceased struggling and hung limp in the agents' grip. He was terrified of the strange grey-coated men with their dripping hats and cold black eyes.
“You are Reichard Fulcher?” Mr. Sweet said.
The old man blinked, his eyes watery behind thick spectacles. Attached to one lens was a magnifying device, called an ocular, of the type that jewellers use for fine
work. It had the effect of magnifying one of Reichard's eyes grotesquely.
That didn't bother the agents. They fixed their goggled eyes on the old man in a predatory fashion. He felt a desperate urge to run, but while his feet were out of contact with the earth, running was not an option.
“What is the meaning of this intrusion? I am a simple chocolate maker. Take what you want and get out. There is some money in the cashbox at the front counter.”
“We don't want money. You know who we are, don't you?”
Reichard was about to splutter a denial, when Mr. Candy slapped him across the face with the back of his hand. Reichard's glasses were knocked askew to dangle by one arm from his left ear. The jeweller's ocular fell to the floor and shattered. The agents threw him roughly to the ground. Mr. Sweet stood over the cowering old man while Mr. Candy perused the detailed sculpture work on the tabletop. Reichard, shaken and stunned, sat on the floor adjusting his glasses.
Mr. Candy leaned low to look at a tiny statue of a gladiator in full armour with a trident raised in one hand.
“Detail,” said the agent. “So important in every true work of art.” Mr. Candy picked up a small paintbrush with only a single bristle in its head. He dipped it in some red candy paint and drew a frown on the gladiator's chocolate face. “And you, Herr Fulcher, are an artist. So are the people who designed your history to disguise your past.”
Reichard's stomach dropped. He had no idea what these strangers were talking about, but just seeing them made him feel deeply uneasy. He decided to be blunt. “I don't know what you're talking about.”
“I think you do.” Mr. Candy picked up a lion from the coliseum floor. The animal fit into the palm of the agent's gloved hand. “We looked into your background and found something very interesting. You were an orphan, weren't you?”
“According to the official files, you were brought up in a state-run orphanage in Basel. On the day you turned sixteen, you discovered that you had a long-lost uncle who died and left you a healthy amount of money. Enough to buy this shop and start you off in the chocolate business. What a stroke of luck.”
“I was very lucky, yes. What does it matter to you?”
Mr. Candy held the lion up and admired it under the light. “It matters a great deal to me. Because it is all a pack of lies.” He crushed the lion, sugary crumbs tumbling through his spidery fingers as he ground the creature to dust. “We've checked into the orphanage. We were very thorough, interviewing all the people who were there at the same time you were supposed to have been there. No one remembers you. Do you know why?”
“I kept to myself.” Reichard began to feel peculiar. The stranger's words seemed to jog something deep in his
memory, but it remained just beyond his mind's grasp. He also felt that if he did remember, he mustn't tell the sinister men in grey.
“You were never there, that's why no one knows you. I have a theory. Do you want to hear it?”
“Not particularly,” Reichard said with a defiance he didn't truly feel.
Mr. Candy picked a hammer from the rack overhead. He tossed it in the air and caught it, the metal head spinning end over end above the elaborate model of the ancient Roman Coliseum rendered in such scrupulous detail. The model represented hundreds of hours of devoted craftsmanship. “I believe you are one of the orphans from the mythical Hollow Mountain, a ward of the King of Switzerland, our mortal enemy. I believe he provided you the cover story, planted those lies in the public records, and gave you the money to start this enterprise.” Mr. Candy stopped flipping the hammer and stared at Reichard. “What do you think? Is that a good theory?”
The old man looked completely confused. He laughed in disbelief. “I â¦ I really don't know what you are talking about. Truly, you are quite mad. A hollow mountain? There is no King of Switzerland. Switzerland is a republic. Everybody knows that!”
Reichard felt the viselike grip of Mr. Sweet as the agent pressed down on him, grinding the bones of his shoulders in a long-fingered grasp.
“I don't believe you are lying. I think you really do believe you don't know what we're talking about.” Mr. Sweet let go of one of Reichard's shoulders and tapped his gloved finger on Reichard's forehead. “You have the knowledge but you don't even know it's there.”
The chocolatier squirmed, trying to escape the prodding finger. “How is that possible? How can I know something and not know it at the same time?”
“You have been made to forget it,” Mr. Candy said, smiling. “But don't worry. I will help you remember â¦”
Mr. Sweet held his victim in place as Mr. Candy removed the glove from his right hand. He held the hand up. Reichard found the pallid flesh of the agent deeply disturbing. Waxy, greasy, plastic â¦ the flesh looked almost artificial. The old man's skin crawled at the thought of the agent touching him. As he watched, his eyes went wide. From Mr. Candy's fingertips, tiny wriggling threads appeared like the heads of tiny worms. They strained blindly in the light. Mr. Candy lowered his hand towards Reichard's face.
“No! No!” The old man desperately tried to turn his face away, but Mr. Sweet grabbed his head and held Reichard fast. Paralyzed by terror, he watched the wriggling worms descend. The tiny filaments wriggled sickeningly against the surface of his skin as if thousands of little tongues were tasting him. With a sensation like needles piercing his flesh, the tendrils burrowed into his face. For a sickening moment he felt them squirming like maggots, writhing up through
his sinus cavities and through his skull. After that he remembered nothing more.
EICHARD WAS ON HIS KNEES
in front of his burning shop when the firefighters arrived on the scene an hour later. A firefighter knelt beside the old man, wrapping a blanket around him. The flames crackled and blazed despite the drizzling cold rain. The firefighter tried to shake Reichard, but he just stared into his hands.
“Sir. Sir? What happened here?”
Reichard suddenly turned and stared into the face of the firefighter. His eyes were wild.
“It's too late.”
“No,” she said. “We may save some of it yet.”
“No,” Reichard cried. “No. It's too late for the King of Switzerland. The Hollow Mountain will be destroyed. The end is coming. The King of Switzerland will fall.” Having uttered these strange words, the old man fell in a heap on the wet pavement.
The firefighter called for the paramedics. While she waited she held the man's head in her lap. His breathing was ragged and his skin grey.
“Poor old fellow,” she murmured. “Obviously, he's delirious. Everyone knows that Switzerland is a republic.”
The King of Switzerland had decreed that the wedding of Mr. Kipling and Mrs. Francis was to be the most lavish and wonderful the Hollow Mountain had ever seen. George had been very busy making preparations for the happy event. Through his raccoon surrogates he had spent the better part of a week transforming the Royal Park in Frieda's Cavern into a wonderland.
Every tree and bush had been meticulously groomed. Every blade of grass was trimmed, all the weeds pulled, every flowerbed manicured and pruned. The result was stunning. The colourful flowers, already beautiful, had been coaxed forth until they were breathtaking to behold. Their sweet scents wafted gently over the park, adding an air of magic to the day.
Every branch of every tree had a bright silver streamer woven through it, the effect magnified when the Daniel's Panels shone down from above, striking the streamers' reflective surfaces and casting spots of light over the entire cavern. It seemed to be filled with water, rippling and shining.
White and silver balloons bobbed on threads all around Hakon's Fountain. The younger children batted at the ones they could reach, laughing and calling to each other. Their laughter mingled with the sound of the orchestra that was set up on a temporary stage on the lawn. The orchestra comprised the most gifted musicians among the children of the Hollow Mountain. Dressed in beautifully tailored, identical white tuxedos sewn by the students in
the clothing and fashion department, they played their instruments with studied precision. This was the first time many of them had played in public and they wanted it to be absolutely perfect. Their faces as they followed their music and their conductor, an older girl with a severe, scowling expression, were serious and concentrated. No one wanted to make a mistake.
The children were all dressed in their finest tunics, cleaned and pressed. The George raccoons had made them wash behind their ears
and scrub their hands and scour their fingernails before they were allowed to come down for the ceremony. George was very strict about personal hygiene.