Invito Rex – Chapter 10

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Can’t stand what I viddie
Fear runs through the city
Nobs sneer without pity
But they fear my ditty.

They all fear my truth
Jus’ Cos I seem uncouth
They spit their vermouth
At the voice of the youth

Viddie well, my bruvs. You are the heart and soul.
You’re the ones dyin out there to win their petty goals.
Viddie well, my bruvs, and I’m hopin’ you can see,
How much power, how much danger, the lot of us can be.

Tha streets’r filled with starfin’ poor
While Wilde and Wooly’s out shootin’ boar
Killin’ animals while his war
Is brought back home to our nation’s shores

Viddie well, my bruvs. You are the heart and soul.
You’re the ones dyin out there to win their petty goals.
Viddie well, my bruvs, and I’m hopin’ you can see,
How much power, how much danger, the lot of us can be.

Our money nobs’r takin’ and
Generals are rakin’ in
Fees so they’re fakin’
These wars that they’re makin’

Our brothers they’re killin’
And blood that they’s spillin’
In graves that we’re fillin’
And for what?

Drop your guns and look around. I pray you viddie well.

– An excerpt from “Viddie Well”, by Jus’ Cos

The throne room looked smaller and brighter than Dizzy remembered it. The last time he had been in here, it was filled with the light of a thousand hanging lanterns. Now, with sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows above, the room was a suffuse, dry, empty thing.

As he walked over to the dais, Olivia put a hand on his arm, “My king. Are you all right?”

He looked at her and nodded, “I- Yes. I will be fine.” His discussion with King Gagan had taken so much out of him that Dizzy could feel his body relaxing into utter fatigue. His hands had begun to shake again.

Astor said, “We can skip this, if you’re not up to it.”

Wendy slapped the back of his head, “Stop it.” She looked back at Dizzy, “Was it really that bad?”

Dizzy spoke quickly, “It was fine. Thank you for asking.” He stepped up to the throne, “What are we doing here?”

Olivia replied, “Holding court. At this time every week, the king settles individual issues for the commoners.”

Dizzy sat, “I thought Cadvan didn’t like commoners.”

“Your predecessor dealt with representatives of the people. Noblemen from the community. And honestly, it was usually the noblemen’s issues he dealt with. I mean, if the local leaders can’t solve their own problems, they’re just begging to be replaced.”

“Very well. So they bring their problems to me, and like some kind of Solomon, I’m just supposed to dictate the terms of their settlement?”

Astor rolled his eyes, “Seriously, were you groomed at all for this job? Do you have any idea what a king does? Didn’t you even see a vid with a -”

“What happened to your eye, Astor?” Dizzy asked in a cold, flat voice.

Astor’s hand flew to his cheek, then he straightened. Through gritted teeth, he said, “The petitioners will be here shortly.”

He stormed off, leaving the rest of them staring at Dizzy. He didn’t like doing that, and didn’t like the way it felt. Most of all, he didn’t like the way the others looked at him. But this was the job, wasn’t it? No apologies, no permission. And if he could not get respect from the people around him, how could he command it from his people? How could he present himself among other leaders, if he couldn’t even get respect from his own people?

Dizzy looked over at Wendy. She was shaking her head, “That was… unnecessary.”

He nodded, “I won’t live my life with him insulting my every move. I have enemies enough as it is.”

She bowed her head and stepped back, “Yes, your majesty.” Something in the way she said it made Dizzy feel ashamed, but she walked away before he could respond. She and all the other wards took their seats in the common area.

People began to filter in, taking the seats provided on either side of the main hall. Dizzy recognized many of the faces from his previous life. At one time, they would have filled him with fear. But that was Dizzy. These people faced the King, and the King had no cause for fear.

Noblemen in colorful finery milled about, chatting with one another, whispering, laughing, plotting. Once the group was assembled, a host of heralds sounded their trumpets, calling for attention. Dizzy looked at Wendy, but it was Olivia who stepped forward. He hadn’t noticed her dress before, but now that he saw her standing in the light of the morning sun, with her glowing blonde hair merging into the embroidery of her mint green dress, she looked unreal. He wondered if the shimmering glow he saw was the same tech that made the golden embroidery warp itself around the cloth and make slowly shifting patterns on the dress. “His most high ruler, guardian of the people, protector of the realm, and keeper of the right, King Augustus the third welcomes you to his first day at court. All who have business before the crown shall now be heard.”

From the other side of the hall, Astor called out, “Mister Gallant Trumble, Chief of Police for New York precinct number 83.” The small, balding man stormed from the back of the room up to the throne. He was followed by a Sergeant in dress blues and a large creampuff of a woman, who made sure to catch the eye of every nobleman. She sneered at them, as if proud to take her rightful place among them.

Chief Trumble stopped short about ten meters from the throne. Dizzy raised one eyebrow at the scowl the small man wore. He was in his dress blues, a good look for most police, but his second-hand uniform was clearly the wrong size for the small man.

He growled, “Your majesty. I have been sent to represent my precinct in apologizing to you,” he took a deep breath, “here, in front of everybody.”

Dizzy waited for amplification. When none came he said, “Apologizing for what?”

The little man blinked, “For attempting to apprehend a criminal. For trying to enforce the laws that keep men from impersonating-”

Dizzy stood up suddenly, pointing at him, “You’re the one who caught me!”

Trumble blinked, his mouth a hard line, “Yes.”

Dizzy’s lips pulled back into his trademark grin as his eyes narrowed, “Yes, what?”

He saw the color rise in the man’s cheeks as he said, “Yes, your majesty.”

Dizzy sat back down slowly, “I didn’t remember you. As you may recall, I was electrocuted by your men without being read my rights, and so I was unconscious by the time you and I met.”

A sudden murmur grew among the noblemen. There were some who had been saying that the whole incident with the police was ginned up by an enthusiastic media, and that the king would never have been out among the people. They thought it impossible that the police would ever try to arrest the king, a concern which Dizzy’s outburst answered.

Trumble shrugged, “The particulars of your… apprehension were not given to me.”

Dizzy frowned down at him, “Funny word, apprehension.” He stood again, and began walking toward the man, “You are conjugating the word ‘apprehend’, but the word ‘apprehension’ has multiple meanings. It can also refer to the anxiety and fear that something bad is coming.” He stood inches away from the police chief, looking down on the man, “You weren’t trying to say that I should feel anxious about meeting you, were you?”

The small man glared up at him, “Do you suspect something bad is coming?”

Dizzy stared down at him for a long moment, then grinned again, “Not with such a stalwart band of enforcers ready to keep my laws for me. Just knowing you are out there, protecting the streets, makes us all feel better.”

Trumble smiled, ignoring the sarcasm. As close as they were, he could afford to speak softly, “Thank you, your majesty. You’ll be glad to know that I’ve already moved on to a new target.”

Dizzy raised an eyebrow and replied quietly, “Oh, and who will you be harassing next?”

Trumble looked off to one side, at a man seated in the gallery, then looked back at Dizzy, “We’re still working on that.”

Dizzy stiffened, and looked up at the gallery. He saw the huge man with the wide smile, the flashing glasses and the fur coat. Dizzy’s grin dropped away as he recognized Bedragare, and he turned back to the throne, “Your apology is accepted, Chief. Please give my regards to the Commissioner. You are dismissed.”

Astor called out, “Lord Cracknell and Lord Hurford.” Two noblemen stood up and fought to be the first to stand before the throne. One was tall and round, the other was thin and short. The short nobleman dropped to one knee as he reached the dais. The other noblemen looked at him, then back at Dizzy, nervously. He slowly descended to one knee, hobbled by his girth. The small man grinned as his opponent struggled to keep his dignity while descending to one knee. He grabbed at a railing to stabilize himself.

Dizzy took pity upon him, hoping to cut off the difficult motion and the unwarranted attention the lord was calling to it. He asked, “How can I help you, good lords?”

They both began to speak, then stopped. They looked at each other with venom in their eyes, then both began to speak again. Dizzy raised a hand to stop them and pointed at the larger man, “You first. Your name, my lord?”

The rotund man stood slowly, “I am Dennis, of the Cracknell line, and ancient and honorable family which served the crown through three wars, and gave up their own sons to the service of our nation in more than six battles between-”

Dizzy nodded, “The crown recognizes the service of your family, and thanks them for their sacrifice.” He pointed at the smaller man, “And you, sir?”

The small man bounced to his feet, “I am Marcus, of the clan Hurford. We are a young family, your majesty, who came to land and money honestly and have served the realm well in our short time among-”

“Good. Thank you. What is the issue?”

Once again, they began to talk over each other. Dizzy let it go on for a moment, hoping he could pick out pertinent points from the chaos. However, as each of them realized that the other might be better heard, they raised their voice to match volume and exceed it. In less than half a minute, they were both shouting at the top of their voices. Dizzy raised his hand again, and they both fell silent.

He pointed to Lord Cracknell and said, “It appears we shall have to take turns. You go first, my lord.”

The large man beamed, “It is quite simple, your majesty. My lands western border is defined by the Keuka river. These lands have been in my family for generations sir, and we have used the river often for recreation and sport. Recently, this man- “, he pointed at Lord Hurford, “bought up the land west of my own, and has been letting filthy animals drink and bathe in the river without restraint. Now, my family has always been tolerant of others and their needs, but I really think that-”

Dizzy raised his hand again, “Thank you, sir. I have the picture. And what of you, Lord Hurford?”

The smaller man held his hands out by his sides, “What crime is there, my lord, in grazing a herd on one’s own land? Or watering them from one’s own river. The criminal here, is this fat pastry of a man whose friends scare off my herd with their noisome rafting and carousing. They pollute the river with their drinking and refuse.”

Dizzy nodded, “I see, so how do you propose to solve this?”

“Keep his parties out of my river!”

“Keep his filthy animals from drinking my river dry!”

Dizzy shook his head, “This sounds like it should be simple. Couldn’t we set up some kind of schedule for it? Like even numbered days go to one of you, and odd numbered days go to the other?”

Lord Cracknell huffed, “The river is mine by right, your majesty. It has been for years!”

Lord Hurford shook his head, “The deed to the land says that it is bordered by the river, not bordered by the shores of the river. My claim to the water is as good as his. And how are you going to tell a herd of alpaca that they can only drink on odd-numbered days?”

Dizzy sighed, “I see. Let us go about this another way. You will both pay the crown a sum of one-hundred thousand dollars.” Both lords eyes widened, but neither stopped him, “That sum will be used for the purpose of digging two trenches which will split at the northernmost point of your lands, and rejoin at the southernmost. The sum will also be used for damming up the river at the headwaters, splitting it evenly between you. You will both give up thirty meters to either side of the river, thus guaranteeing that your lands will not overlap.”

Lord Cracknell bowed, then said, “My liege, the river is more than fifty feet wide. The strip of land between us will measure… “, he did some quick calculation, “more than 75 yards in width. Which of us will own that land?”

“I will.” Dizzy responded, “I will take ownership of it, and send surprise patrols out there. If I find livestock trespassing on my land, I will have mutton for dinner.” He paused, “I doubt the same penalty will hold for revelers, but I assure you, there will be consequences.”

They both stood before him, thinking, but neither spoke. He waited them out, then said, “If you have no further quarrels, gentlemen, I would ask you to make room for other petitioners.”

Neither one wanted to move, but they couldn’t think of an answer to the royal decree. Dizzy looked over at Astor who said, “Guards! The king has concluded his business with these gentlemen.”

At that point, the two noblemen left, frowning and muttering. Dizzy prided himself on the fact that they both seemed equally inconvenienced.

Astor called out in a voice tinged with excitement, “Your majesty, may I present Lady Kreslin, the Dowager Queen!”

Dizzy’s eyes widened as he saw the stately woman flow down the hallway toward him. She was dressed in a sedate sarong, with jewels still flashing from her brow, her ears, and her fingers. Her eyes stayed locked on Dizzy’s, betraying no emotion.

As she passed through the hall, ladies in the court curtsied. The lords and noblemen bowed slightly, and one man genuflected as she passed.

Dizzy sat perfectly still, unable to decide what he should do about this. When she reached the throne, the Dowager Queen dropped into a low curtsy, “Your eminence, it is an honor to come before you today. When I heard of your brother’s misfortune, I rushed to be by your side, and offer my paltry gifts in service.”

Dizzy found his voice, but was still unsure what to say, “The crown… ah… thanks you for your consideration. You are, of course, well known to us all, and your advice is widely sought.” His eyes narrowed slightly, “I would be very interested in hearing what advice you have for the crown today, in this time of sadness and loss.”

She spread her arms wide, “I am here to support you, your grace, in any way I can. My petty whispers have been well received by many noble houses.”

Olivia Oldham stood from her seat and called out, “House Oldham has hosted the Dowager Queen many times, and always to our benefit. She is a welcome guest in the yellow manse.”

Not to be outdone, Astor called out, “House Atherton, too, has proudly hosted Lady Kreslin, and would offer her such assistance as she would ever ask for.”

Dizzy frowned slightly. So, even mighty houses had been taken in by her con. He sighed, and rose from his seat. He walked slowly down the steps of the dais to stand before her, where she held her low curtsy. He reached out one hand to help her up, and pulled her in close.

“What are you doing here?” He hissed a whisper.

“You need me. There are many things we need to talk about,” She said softly.

“You? You’re the one who turned me in.”

She shook her head sadly, “That’s one of the things. I didn’t turn you in, and I wasn’t able to contact you before the police got you.”

“How very pretty, and very convenient.” He fought a sneer.

She looked at him again, a powerful sadness in her eyes, “I told you that night that I would not apologize.”

“You don’t need to remind me of anything about that night.”

“I’m here to apologize.” She held his hand between both of hers, “My son, you have never lived here before. You are not prepared. You’ll be eaten alive without help.”

“And when did you ever live here?” But even as he asked it, he realized the answer. A king’s doxy would naturally see the inside of a palace.

She simply answered, “We have much to talk about.”

He took a deep breath and stepped back, “Thank you, Lady Kreslin. The crown would be glad to hear your advice.”

As he turned and headed up the stairs, she replied, “Thank you, your eminence. You shall have full use of my simple knowledge at any time. And I will remain by your side here for so long as I may be of service.”

Dizzy began to ask what she meant by “here”, then it dawned on him. He looked at the beaming faces all around, and forced a smile, “The crown is glad that you would accept our offer, and I hope you will allow me to prepare a room for you here in the palace.”

She curtseyed again, “I remain your humble servant, your grace.”

The next two cases were noblemen squabbles. Dizzy tried his best to inconvenience everyone, and as little as possible. He was starting to feel hungry, and was about to ask how much longer it would take, when a commotion stirred from the back of the room.

Astor’s grin was a sneer as he said, “The criminal, Justin Coss.”

A slight boy in common garb was pulled up before him, hands zipped together. Dizzy frowned down at him and said, “So what is his story?”

The boy shook tawny hair out of his eyes. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen, not normally old enough to be sentenced by the king. He said, “Same as most. Brought low by such as you, taught to nod and scrape.” He looked back at the guards who held him by the arms, “One day, a body takes to sayin’ he’s full up. He starts sayin’ ‘No’, and starts tellin’ his tale to the streets. Before you can say ‘Jack Robinson’ he’s – ”

Dizzy pointed at him excitedly, “I know that voice! You’re Jus Cos!”

The young man looked shocked, “You know me?”

Dizzy nodded, “I’ve got all your tracks! ‘Pawn Shop Martyr’ was amazing.” He caught himself and tried to play cool, “Of course, I haven’t really listened much since ‘Second-hand Gun.’ But back in the day. Wow. Remember ‘Riot of One’?”

Dizzy put a hand to his forehead, and struggled to remember the words,
“I showed up early for the riot of one.
Alone in the alleyway holdin’ my gun.
I’m the only part of the revolution
Who bothered to stand against all that they’d done”

The boy nodded and grinned wide. Dizzy was so caught up in it that he couldn’t notice the concerned murmuring from the crowd. Jus Cos began to mutter the words along with him,

“They said pretty words and mass waved the meetup
They said it’d be bloody, and we’d all get beat up.
My droogs were all screamin’ and shoutin’ and keyed up
So I grabbed my flash and said let’s turn the heat up”

The boy just kept staring, as though he thought this may be some kind of trick. Dizzy skipped down the steps to meet him, and stuck out one hand, “I’m… well. You know who I am. It’s a pleasure.”

The commoner boy took the king’s hand in his, the shackles buzzing as he did.

From behind him, Dizzy heard a hiss, “Your majesty!” When Dizzy looked, he saw Astor, white teeth glistening through his snarl. Jus Cos was famous among the commoners because his lyrics were inflammatory and called for open war against the nobility. He humiliated the noble houses with his rhymes, and they had been hunting him for years.

Dizzy sighed and nodded. He looked at the guards and said, “Jus Cos has been recording in the underground for years. How did you finally catch him?”

One of the guards said, “He turned himself in.”

Dizzy frowned, “Why?”

The other guard said, “He just showed up and told us who he was.”

The first guard said, “We thought you’d want to see him personally, given his notoriety.”

Dizzy nodded at him. In all honesty, the guard was doing him a great favor. If they’d turned him over to the police, he would have ended up with summary judgment and likely execution. By bringing him to the King, they were giving Dizzy a chance to strike a blow for nobility. They were letting him take the credit for killing a powerful protestor.

Dizzy looked back at Astor, who awaited swift justice. He turned to face Olivia, who seemed reserved, but showed no love for the prisoner. He even looked at Wendy, who showed nothing but curiosity. She was waiting to see how Dizzy handled this.

“Mister Coss.”

“Ah, yer a fan. Call me Jus.” The comment raised a bit of laughter, which was quickly silenced.

Dizzy smiled, “Jus. You’ve made a lot of people unhappy with your music, do you know that?”

He shrugged, “Only unhappy ones are those dealin’ out misery to my people.”

“I seem to recall you had some particular things to say about the prior king.”

“Nothin’ any open-eyed pleeb like myself wouldn’t viddie. Cold, vicious killer, that one.”

Dizzy’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the boy, “You’re talking about my brother.”

He could see fear in the young man’s eyes, but he didn’t look away, “If the shoe fits.”

Dizzy nodded, “You’ve also humiliated members of my noble houses. They’d very much like to see you hanged for it.”

“Warmongers and liars, the lot.”

Dizzy touched his chin with one finger, “What have you said about me personally?”

There was a brief pause, then the boy shrugged, “Don’t know you.”

“But given time, you could be just as insulting to me as you are to them.”

“If you’re as bought as your boys, sworn to needless war, then yeah. You get no quarter from this one.”

Dizzy pondered, “I wonder how that would go.” He seemed to think for a long time, pacing around the boy. “I have no head for rhymes, myself, which means I have no way of guessing what you would say without actually waiting for you to say it.”

He frowned, “It seems to me that, if I imprison you, if I behead you- ” The boy’s head whipped around to face Dizzy as the king stood behind him. “It occurs to me that I would never get to hear what you would have said about me.”

He continued his circuit around the boy and stopped directly in front of him, “Yes, I fear the crown’s curiosity has got the better of him. I must know what you would say about me.”

The boy shrugged, uncomprehending, “Told ya. I ain’t got nothin’ on you yet.”

“So honest. You wouldn’t want to make something up for us here?”

Astor shouted, “Your majesty, please. The criminal should be sentenced, not encouraged.”

Dizzy sighed, “Very well.” He stepped back up to the throne, “Justin Coss. You have been found guilty of supporting revolt against the kingdom, and distressing the nobility. You will be taken from this place to another place within the palace, where you shall be held in my custody for two days.”

The crowd seemed more outraged by the lack of punishment meted out, but as Dizzy held up one hand, they silenced, “If, at the end of that time, you cannot produce a work of sufficient quality, discussing the merits and failings of my reign, I will have your head on a spike, to be displayed on all media outlets once an hour for two days.”

The crowd now seemed impressed by his show of force. A few in the gallery laughed openly. He continued, “If you do manage to impress me with your supposed wit and skill, I may let you live.”

The boy blinked up at him, “I’m ta live here?”

“You have to learn about my administration, if you’re going to write anything useful. You will be given a guest’s amenities, so that nothing distracts you from your creative pursuits. I know how you artists are. You will give a concert in two day’s time. I will ensure that the concert is well attended, and if you fail to please me, your execution shall be just as widely viewed.”

The boy began to say something, but Dizzy waved him away. The guards pulled him him back out of the room, and Dizzy said, “I will retire now to prepare for my brother’s funeral.”

Astor took a step forward and leaned in to whisper, “Lord Valen, who was supposed to speak to you yesterday, has demanded an audience today. He waits for you to call him in.”

Dizzy frowned, “Who is this Lord Valen?”

Olivia, who had silently joined them when she recognized the huddle, said, “I checked yesterday. He is a minor noble, ruling a small set of townships in northern New York. It is not normal for such a low-born nobleman to request an audience with the king.”

Dizzy thought about all the lower noblemen who had reason to hate him. If this one had recognized him, he may be coming for blackmail. If so, the last thing Dizzy wanted to do was meet him in public. He shook his head, “Another time. We’ve got a funeral to attend.”

Olivia stood and called out in a loud, clear voice, “The crown has heard his people, and answered their concerns. If any remain unsatisfied, let him return at this time one week hence.”

As the crowd began to disperse, Dizzy exited the room, humming ‘Riot of One.’

Stan frowned, “Ah well, I suppose that’s that then.”

Lou nodded, “Nice to viddie nobs out for the justice.”

“I suppose.” They sat in the gallery, waiting for the noblemen and petitioners to clear the rows of seats so that they could leave.

Lou looked down at his friend, “You’re upset.”

Stan shrugged, “Well, It wasn’t much to ask, really.”

“Didn’t do your request.”

“Lotsa folk in that line. No shock to find I’s at the bottom of it.”

Lou nodded, then put an arm around his friend, “All the same, woulda have been nice.”

Stan looked down at the paperwork he’d brought, “Such a noble bird, that one. It deserves to be the state bird. Everyone knows it and respects it.”

“Certainly around Thanksgiving.” He shook Stan’s shoulder, “Still, the byblow king’s got lots on his plate this day.”

“This is true. Oh yes. A visit from the Dowager Queen. That’s a full day, and no mistake.”

“I seem to recall he met with her before.”

“Oh, yes, my duck. Not a few nights back, when I took you at Circus for seven games out of thirteen.”

Lou shook his head, “No. Couldn’t have been.”

“Well, five out of nine, then.”

“Ah, yes. Now that sounds more like it. We saw a boy walk into a hotel, and a king rush out.”

The two of them stared out at the middle distance for a moment, then Stan spoke up, “And yet, every other soul, walked through that door, walked out unchanged. How do you suppose that happened?”

Lou raised an eyebrow, “I do recall him using the door to enter, but he used a whole different building to leave.”

Stan nodded, “Now that’s the kind of thing that makes a king.”

Lou began quietly humming as they waited for the collected petitioners to filter out. Stan turned to frown at him, “What’s that ditty?”

“Hmmm? Oh, nothing. A song that young prisoner penned.”

“I didn’t take you for a patron of the arts.” Stan looked on Lou with renewed respect.

“Oh yes. Pa always said, if a fella can’t have breedin’, he’d better get to broadenin’ hisself.”

“Sage wisdom indeed.”

“Made me the man I am today.”

Stan looked at the grubby overalls his friend was wearing, and the dirt-smudged face, “Well, I wouldn’t hold it against him.”

“Howzat?”

Stan changed the subject, “The king seem a bit off to you?”

Lou nodded exaggeratedly, his head bobbing like an olive on a toothpick, “Hard not to notice that. Comin’ into his own, I figger.”

Stan frowned, “Whozzat mean?”

Lou sighed, “A man who finds himself king is gonna do one of two things.”

“Tell me, brother. Tell me both of them.”

“Either he’s going to turtle up and get the shell he needs to keep the world on the outside, or he’s gonna crack and get his stupid self killed.”

“That’s a dark viddie there.”

Lou shrugged, “Wish it weren’t so, but history’s a cruel loop.”

Stan looked back at the door the king had left through, “So which is the better alternative?”

Lou blinked at him, “Which one?”

Stan nodded, still looking at the door, “Which would you rather be: dead on the outside, or dead on the inside?”

Lou shook his head sadly, “Dark viddie, indeed.”

Dizzy lead the way to the dining room. His entourage of prisoners jogged along to follow him. As they caught up with him, Wendy asked, “Where are we off to now, my liege?”

The question gave Dizzy a moment’s pause. Just a day ago, he was asking them for every step. “I’m famished. The security briefing was difficult enough, but the idea that we hold court before breakfast is maddening.” He stopped suddenly, and turned to face all of them, “You realize that it affects one’s moods, don’t you? I mean, not getting a proper meal at the beginning of the day can make a person irritable, unfocused, more likely to make mistakes.” Wendy nodded along with him as he said, “If Cadvan was holding court before he had breakfast, it’s no wonder the people hated him.”

His whole entourage gasped, and Astor took a step back, “Ah, your majesty, no one hated Cadvan.”

Dizzy cocked his head to one side, “Seriously? He was surrounded by sycophants and prisoners all the time. He refused to let a commoner near him. He’s got us involved in multiple, pointless wars, and-”

Olivia stepped forward and slipped an arm into his, pulling him gently toward the dining room, “My, but I do believe you’re right, your grace. Missing proper meals can make a body quite upset. And more likely to make mistakes.”

Astor and Wendy fell into step behind them. Astor grabbed her arm, “Did you hear that? We need to tell someone.”

“Keep your mouth shut, lordling.” She said through gritted teeth.

Astor’s eyes widened as he hissed, “Do you jest even now? What he said was treason!”

“The king cannot commit treason, by definition.”

Astor shook his head, “Someone has to be told.”

Wendy dropped her head and scowled, “Tell Dunem, then, if it is your wish. Let him come to us, and we’ll tell him that an up-jumped child has been spinning tales out of envy over another’s position.”

He held his tongue for a moment, then said, “You love him, don’t you? That’s what this is really about.”

She rolled her eyes, “If you could, for one brief moment, see how twisted and pathetic you’ve become with this lust for power, you would break down crying in shame.”

“My father is the rightful king. Everyone knows it. All of parliament is gathering behind him.”

“Your father is an abusive clothes horse who uses media slander to blackmail politicians.”

“And your father is a vicious killer who only limits himself to the game he doesn’t molest.”

She turned and slapped him. The sound was a whip crack in the hollow hall, bringing the whole procession to a stop. Dizzy turned to face her, a sad look in his eye, “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Stay out of it!” She shouted, then realized what she’d done. One hand flew to her mouth as Dizzy shook his head.

He said, “If you’d slapped the other side, you could have evened out his bruises.”

They all stared at him, and Dizzy could feel their shock. He could feel it inside himself. It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t light-hearted, and it certainly wasn’t like him. He felt something grab him deep in his throat. Dizzy raised his clenched fists to press against his closed eyes.

Dizzy sighed without looking up, “My brother’s funeral is today. I never met him, and yet I was perfectly fine with insulting him personally.”

He took another breath and lowered his hands, “Astor loves his father, and his fervor turns to acid. Even you Wendy.” He looked at her with sad eyes, “I thought you to be one of the sweet ones. Even you have a vicious side, when provoked.” He looked at Olivia, “What about you? Where is your breaking point?”

Astor sneered, “Ask her about her-” His mouth snapped shut as Olivia shot him the most powerful look of pure hate Dizzy had ever seen on a woman.

The king nodded, “So we all have that point. And this change has been hard on us all. There’s nothing in the world that could keep us from destroying the monarchy with bitter recrimination and infighting.”

He felt tired and old and worn out. He was younger than some of his entourage, but they all looked like children to him. The police chief was talking to Bedragere. The people counted on him to deal with foreign powers and undefined wars. Dunem was controlling the administration, and Dizzy wasn’t even sure if that was a bad thing. Everyone around him was ready to lash out, if given the right trigger. And most of all, he couldn’t trust anyone.

The king leaned his head back, stretching and breathing in as much as he could. In a low voice, he said, “There’s nothing that could stop us from destroying the monarchy.” He arched his back for a moment, then snapped forward. His arms flung wide, his eyes sparkling, and his grin wide, “Nothing except me.”

They all looked with a mix of horror and fascination as he walked around them. He fed on their shock. “You see, I’m not like you. Not any of you. I never have been. I’ve lived a dozen strange and beautiful lives. I’ve walked among commoners, and strode alongside nobility. Merchants have spit on me as I begged for food, and noblemen have fought for the right to buy me a drink. Fathers have introduced me to their daughters, while others chased me out of their bedrooms. I am the hero and the wallflower, the artful dodger and the boy who would never grow up. I am not King Cadvan’s successor, I am Disraeli Augustus McCracken the third, and I will never be a proper king. From here on out, I don’t want you to call me King Augustus. I want you to call me Dizzy.”

Astor’s face screwed up in a disgusted frown, “Merchants spit on you?”

Dizzy grinned. “Except you. You don’t get to call me Dizzy. You may address me as ‘Your Supreme Eminence’, ‘my liege’, ‘your grace’, or ‘majesty’. Now where’s my runner?”

Olivia blinked, “Your what?”

“Runner. Gofer. Where’s the person who gets what I want done?”

Wendy piped up, “Oh, today that would be Charles.” She turned back the way they had come, but a small boy was already running over to them. He was a thin boy of not more than ten years, with long blonde hair that hung in front of his face. A single braid ran down the length of his hair.

He stopped in front of Dizzy and dropped into a deep bow, “Your majesty.”

Dizzy put a hand on each of his shoulders and lifted him up, throwing an arm around him, “Charles, I want you to run to the chef and tell him we’ve yet to eat, and I’m thinking Parisian. Then I want you to find my m-” Dizzy’s mouth snapped shut. He caught himself before saying, “my mother”. Was that something that needed to be a secret? Did he care who knew? Did she?

Just to be safe, he said, “My good friend, the Dowager Queen, and ask her if she would be kind enough to join us for breakfast. Once you’ve done that, find out where they’ve quartered that commoner, Justin Coss. Tell him that his presence is requested in the dining room, and that he will be expected to join us at today’s funeral.”

Astor stepped forward, “My liege, no!”

“My liege yes! I want him to sit there, in a room full of people who knew the man my brother was, and make him listen to the kind words said about him. I want him in the velos with us, watching as people mourn the passing of their ruler.”

Astor’s mouth opened and closed reflexively, but no more words came out. Dizzy’s grin turned back to the child, “Did you get all that?”

The boy blinked once, then said, “Tell the chef that you will be dining immediately, and you want Parisian food. Ask the Dowager Queen to join you, and tell the prisoner to come along.”

Dizzy nodded, “I expect the food to be ready for us by the time I get there.” He clapped Charles on the back and watched the boy run off. “All right, off we go, then.”

Astor folded his arms over his chest, “I won’t sit at table with a man who sings of treason and rebellion.”

Dizzy nodded once, “The table will be poorer for the loss. Don’t worry though. You can sit in your room until you’re old enough to obey the will of your king. Guards?”

Astor held his hands up as a guard stepped forward, out of the shadows. The lordling said, “No, no. There’s no need for that.”

Dizzy nodded to the guard and said, “Very well. This way.”

As the others jogged to keep up with him, Wendy asked, “How did you know which way to go? I thought you were lost in the palace.”

Dizzy nodded, “That’s why I sent Charles after the chef first.” Dizzy’s eyes sparkled, “He went this way.”

By the time Dizzy reached the table, it was completely covered in steaming food. A girl ran to pull out Dizzy’s chair before he could do it himself, and another began to fill the plate for him. There were eggs with black truffles, honeyed fruit salad, crepes in salted butter caramel, belgian waffles, and more.

Dizzy poked at one slice of bread with his fork and held it in the air, “I like this. A chef with a sense of humor.”

Astor frowned at it, “What is it?”

Wendy giggled, “French toast.”

Dizzy put it back down and began cutting into it, “I’m just surprised he had the temerity to serve us Belgian waffles.”

The room fell silent as everyone realized the chef’s faux pas. Dizzy chewed contemplatively as he looked at their worried faces. He stood suddenly, pushing the chair back with a loud screech. In a booming voice, he shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen!”

They all looked up at him as he held his knife in the air before him. He waited until the shuffling died down and all eyes were on him. He could hear them breathing. He held the moment, then said, “Lighten… Up.”

He stepped one foot up onto his chair, and the other foot onto the table next to his plate. In the back of the room, Dizzy saw his mother enter, flanked by two large men. She stopped at the doorway and stared at him, snapping a fan open in her hand. He grinned, “For my entire reign, I have been told what I am needed to do, what I am allowed to do, and what I am required to do.”

Behind his mother, Dizzy saw Lord Dunem walk in, his eyes wide. Dizzy hadn’t seen him in here before, and wondered idly whether he was checking on rumors that the king had started acting oddly. Dizzy continued, “I’ve been told that by serious people who know what they’re doing, and I’ve accepted it. But I haven’t been learning how to be a king.”

He looked directly at Lord Dunem, “No. I think I’ve been learning how to be Cadvan. I’ve been seeing his responsibilities, his idiosyncracies, and I’ve been challenged to continue his reign. Well, I won’t do it.”

From another door, near the middle of the room, Justin Coss walked in, flanked by two guards. He saw Dizzy standing in his chair, and raised a curious eyebrow. Dizzy continued, “I am not Cadvan, and never will be. I will serve my people, and I will keep our laws, but I will not be the humorless cadaver that my brother was.” There was a collected gasp, but Dizzy raised both his hands, “I beg your pardon. The cadaver that he still is.”

Jus Cos barked laughter, but no one else said anything. Dizzy pointed at him, “Thank you sir. Tough room.” He looked back at the others, “Right now, Lord Atherton is doing his best to discredit me, and I don’t think anything I do can help or hinder that. If I am the best possible ruler, he will still call me illegitimate. So, nothing I do can really affect that.” He waggled the knife in the air, “This does not constrain me to be careful with each step. Rather, from another viewpoint, it frees me to be as mad as I wish to be. Nothing I do, within reason, will make me any less valid. So, I intend to be mad; at least, a little bit. I’ve seen how Cadvan ruled, and I’ve seen how he lived.”

Dizzy frowned a bit and cradled his chin in his knife hand, “I will not be the same kind of ruler, and I will make mistakes. I’ve already lost one city, and made a devil’s deal to get it back. So clearly my reign is a work in progress. Many of you have offered to be advisors to me. Well, unfortunately, I’m going to take you up on that, and what’s more, I’m going to make it voluntary.”

Most of the people in the room frowned, uncomprehending. Lord Dunem, on the other hand, began walking to the head of the table, “My liege, if I may have a moment of your time-”

Dizzy pointed the knife at Astor, “You! Atherton. Here’s your chance. I release you from my custody.”

Lord Dunem interrupted more strenuously, “Your majesty. If I may-”

Astor blinked at him, so Dizzy continued, “This is no jest. If you wish to, you may pack your belongings and head home today. You, Lady Oldham, I give you your freedom. Lady Wilde, I will not keep you here under duress.”

The king’s chief of staff stopped at his seat and waited, looking out over the room full of children. Dizzy continued, “For various diverse reasons, I’m going to keep all the little ones with me until we can make arrangements with their parents, but you three are of an age where you should control your own lives, and I will not be-”

Wendy cut him off, “I want to see my father.”

Dizzy paused, “Ah, well, yes. Of course. You may-”

“Whenever I wish, I will visit my father.”

Dizzy shook his head, “No, you don’t understand. You’re free now. You may see him as often as you’d like.”

She put a fork in a crepe, “Then I will accept your offer to stay.”

Dizzy blinked at her for a moment, then turned to the yellow lady, “Olivia, what say you?”

“Honestly, I’m hurt, your majesty.”

Dizzy gaped, “I’m sorry. I only meant to-”

“No man who has ever had me has willingly let me go.”

Dizzy stuttered, “Ah, my lady, I’m sure I never -”

He looked in surprise as a wicked grin grew over her face, “Clearly, I have lost my touch, and must remedy that. I won’t leave until you’re begging me to stay.”

Dizzy’s grin matched hers, “Dear lady, I look forward to-”

He was cut off by the loud sound of a woman clearing her throat. The Dowager Queen continued her entrance, picking the seat next to Astor. There was no chair next to him, but as she indicated where she wished to sit, one immediately became available, “Really. Such manners for lords and ladies! I see I have arrived just in time. Like blushing schoolchildren, I declare.”

Dizzy stared at her for a long moment, then said, “Thank you Lady Kreslin.” He turned to Astor, “And what about you? I’m surprised you haven’t sprinted up to your room and started packing already.”

Astor looked down at his plate, frowning, then faced Dizzy, “I can’t let house Atherton be the only one not represented in the palace.”

Dizzy pictured him going home and explaining to Lord Atherton why he was the only hostage considered unworthy enough to be returned. “Very well. Let us be clear. Everyone here, save the small children, are here by their own free will.”

Jus Cos raised a hand to get the king’s attention. Dizzy pointed at him, “Clearly, Mr. Coss wishes to be counted among the small children.” He waved the young man in, “Come join us Mr. Coss. We were just embarking on a Parisian repaste.” Dizzy jumped down from his perch and began walking alongside the table. “So here I have my advisors. Three ex-hostages, each looking out for their own house, one woman of… undisclosed powers, and a prisoner who has cause to make me look good despite his every scruple. Quite an odd company that.”

Astor leaned back in his chair and shook his head, “What’s the point? Where do you go with a group like that?”

Dizzy threw his arms wide, “Today, we go to a funeral.”

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