Invito Rex – Chapter 11

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“Of all the finest noble clans, house Becket is surely the most entertaining. It is said by the historian Ebersman that ‘every house has held the big stick at one time or another. The Beckets were the only ones to play fetch.’

Whether by marriage or conquest, it is generally accepted that, if a Becket is in power, the next ruler will be of a different house; and if any other house is in power, a Becket will succeed them. There have only been a few notable exceptions, including the reign of King Sigler, whose bastard son succeeded him, and King Richard whose sons both reigned in turns.

It is often said that the Becket’s reigns have acted as a calming force for other houses, as any massive overtures made by one generation are generally struck down by a Becket in the next generation. When King Oliver the third declared all federal prisoners to be vassals who had given up their agency to the state, it was a Becket who was heralded for freeing the slaves and wresting control of the nation away from him. When Mad King Aaron declared war with Luna, a settlement of his own country, it was Daniel Becket who picked up the sceptre after the Mad King’s sudden demise.

This is not to imply that the Beckets have always been a calming influence. It is well known that the Cutpurse King was a Becket, whose controversial reign could hardly be described as calm.”

— An excerpt from “Our Nobility, Our Noblemen, a Treatise on Government” by Kirstin Jacobs

The procession was just as Dizzy had pictured, though not on any scale he would have imagined. The funeral shut down all of Broadway and ran more than thirty miles. Commoners travelled from across the nations to be there and witness the funeral of their monarch. They were packed ten levels deep, all craning their heads to see the procession. Fathers hoisted their children onto their shoulders so they could see the momentous occasion.

The head of the procession was a dark velo covered in roses, with a mechanized petal spreader that ensured the king would walk in rose petals one last time. It played a powerful orchestral dirge that filtered through the streets, just slightly louder than the murmur of the crowd. The velo had a large hologram of King Cadvan growing out of the roof, standing proud and dignified. For most of the crowd, this was the first time they had ever seen the king’s face. Following that was a set of six white horses, combed and groomed to perfection, pulling a hovering hearse, with garlands of white running along the roof and sides. The guards walked alongside the hearse, looking like odd pallbearers.

Dizzy’s velo rode behind the hearse, with Wendy, Olivia, Astor, Jus, and his mother. Their velo drove with the tinted, bulletproof glass raised. Dizzy looked out the windows and frowned. He opened his mouth to speak, but his mother said, “No.”

Dizzy pouted, “I was just going to say-”

“No.”

He pushed on, “If we just rolled down the window-”

“No.”

“How do they even know we’re in here?”

The Dowager Queen smoothed her black dress across her seat and refused to meet his eye, “They know you are here because you are in the new king’s position. They don’t need to see you for that. And they don’t care about anyone else.”

Dizzy threw himself back into his seat, “If I’d come all this way to see the funeral, I’d be pretty upset to see nothing but a line of black cars.”

“This is not done for the people, your majesty. This is done for the memory of King Cadvan, may he find ecstasy in eternity. It is the duty of the people to show what respect they have for the king.”

Many people were, in fact, throwing flowers into the procession. Dizzy saw some women weeping. It staggered him that people had such a strong reaction to the death of someone they could not have possibly known.

Following their car, other nobility travelled in similar dark velos. Above them, fighters flew in the missing man formation, carrying banners with Cadvan’s name and face, animated as they flew. Fireworks followed them as they passed overhead.

The procession ran from Yonkers all the way past Harlem into Manhattan, to a church just off of Battery Park. From there, they could see the ancient statue of Illumination which shone night and day as a demonstration of the power and security that the monarchy provided.

The press of people was maddening as Dizzy and his entourage left the velo, but the guards kept them far out of reach. They were well accustomed to King Cadvan’s view on commoners, and knew how to keep them out of the way. Dizzy kept a somber look on his face, and waved once to the press as they entered the church.

The immense structure seemed bigger on the inside, with curved ceilings that seemed so tall they might never come to a point. Stained glass windows colored the room and shone on the single aisle between the rows of pews. At the top of the steps sat Cadvan’s casket, with the hologram beside it. Dizzy couldn’t shake the slightly creepy feeling that it was Cadvan’s spirit looking over the casket.

Once everyone was settled, the priest came out and spoke of the eternal life Cadvan had received in death. He read from his book and asked them to sing along with him. The choir in the hidden rafters were powerful and exquisite. They made Dizzy want to stop singing and just listen, even as he knew that there were dozens of cameras on him.

The priest asked others to step forward and say a few words of remembrance about the deceased. Lord Dunem was the first to respond, as was his right. He spoke of the King’s diligence, his faithfulness to duty, and his love of the country.

Dizzy had been half hoping that there could learn something of his brother from all this. But as one nobleman after another came up to speak, Dizzy heard the same things. No anecdotes about the king’s kindness. No specific remembrances of friendly things he had said or done. Everyone spoke in a general tone about a man that they only knew by his works.

Then, when it seemed like the most minor nobles were speaking, the priest walked back up to the podium. He said, “At this time, I would like to ask the deceased’s relatives to come up and say a word of remembrance.”

Everyone turned to look at Dizzy. Everyone. He could feel the gaze of a thousand parishioners all focused on him. He stood slowly, and walked up to the podium.

Dizzy looked out over all the expectant faces. People who had fought for seats to this event, had newly-tailored outfits just for this occasion. People who gave fealty and claimed love, but did not know the man. And they were all listening to him, another stranger, to say something about the man they didn’t know. Were they hoping to learn from Dizzy, the same way he had hoped to learn something from them?

Dizzy took a deep breath and said, “Alas, poor Cadvan. I knew him not at all.” He paused for a moment of light-hearted chuckling, but got nothing. He nodded and pressed on, “Many have come up here to say how my brother had changed their lives. They have talked about how his policies have improved the safety and lifestyle of the people. They have discussed his military savvy and his domestic protection. But I don’t think anybody knew him.”

He shrugged, “Now I had an excuse. I was more or less hiding out. Nobody even knew who I was, least of all Cadvan.” Dizzy gestured at the hologram, and noticed that the man was almost exactly his height. Now that he looked at it up close, the man did look a lot like him. Dizzy realized that he never would have known that, if the king hadn’t died.

“But you didn’t have that excuse.” He turned back to the crowd. They didn’t react, but he could feel them growing colder, “You lived with him, worked with him, saw him every day. You knew him better than anyone, and yet no one gave an accounting of what a good friend he was, or how they loved him. To my mind, there are only two possible reasons for that. Either he was a royal pain in the ass-” The crowd gasped at that, but he expected it and rolled on past, “Or all of you kept your distance.”

“I can imagine what it’s like, having to work with the king. People are bowing and scraping so much, there’s no time to be friends with him. Even if you have the time, what could you possibly talk about? How do you talk to the man who has to decide whether you are prosperous or penniless? How can you be friends with the man who sends your sons to war? You can work with such a man, even respect him. But as you see here, nobody really loved him.”

Dizzy looked back at the hologram, “I don’t think Cadvan was a pain in the ass. I think he was trapped in a bubble of proper distance. And having lived inside that bubble for even a little while, I can tell you… He’s in a better place.”

Dizzy turned and nodded to the priest, then walked back down to his seat. The priest stepped up to the podium and said, “As requested in his will, the King will now provide a final, pre-recorded statement.”

The hologram snapped into life. It put it’s hands on its hips and said, “Thank you for coming to my funeral. I appreciate your attendance, and thank you for your many years of fealty. Our time together has been too brief. I have done all I could to make our country the strongest in the world. We have increased the GDP by an average of seven percent per year for the last decade. I have increased crop yields by more than thirty percent in my reign. We have liberated Somalia, Korea, Cuba, and Western Greenland.” Heads nodded in the crowd as noblemen thought of all the good King Cadvan had done.

He held his open hands out, “Alas, there is only so much one man can do. Despite your help, there are still so many things left to do. So many out there who still yearn for the support and protection that only a strong king can give. They will need a great man, and I fear I am no longer that man.”

Dizzy frowned, wondering if he was the only one to hear the pompous tone in his brother’s voice. Cadvan’s ghost raised a hand to the crowd, “While I am sure this is a terrible time for those who survive me, I must ask you to keep the peace. You must quell the riots and help the people to heal from this terrible injury. I only wish I could be there to comfort them myself.”

Dizzy fought the impulse to snicker, even as he realized that Cadvan was probably entirely serious. He truly thought himself so important that the people would be rending their clothes and tearing out their hair. For days, Dizzy had tried to understand this man, to live the way he did and be the kind of leader he had been. And only now that he had given up and chosen to be his own kind of king did he find out what a vapid, egotistical narcissist his brother was.

“I am sure that parliament will come to a quick resolution and find a worthy candidate for my successor.” He smiled playfully, “While I’m sure there are many candidates, I believe I know who the top contenders are. I wish them all luck in their efforts.”

Dizzy’s mouth fell open when he heard that. Cadvan knew that the major houses would try to fight it out in Parliament, and he let it happen. More than that, he all but encouraged them to attack each other in an attempt to take his place. Dizzy turned to his entourage, and found the noble children frowning. They took his meaning, and they expected it. They knew what he was, and they served him still.

Cadvan’s ghost raised a hand again to the middle distance, “Until parliament comes to a decision, though, I would ask that you all follow my most loyal advisor, Lord Ashford Dunem, in his attempts to hold my legacy together. I trust him as I do my right arm, and I know he will provide for the country.” The hologram paused for a moment, so still that Dizzy thought there may be a glitch in the recording, then he looked out at them, appearing to search through the crowd, “Tell Heather I’m sorry.”

Dizzy looked back to see the lord, standing tall and proud, but seemingly unaffected by the words. Dunem always looked tall and proud. There was even a hint of a frown tugging at the corner of his mouth.

Cadvan’s ghost took a deep breath and said, “I realize that you may have already found a worthy successor, as Ashford is an efficient and thorough planner. And so, if a new king has already been chosen, I would ask him to step forward now.”

Dizzy stood and began to walk up to the podium. Distance sensors in the base of the hologram recognized that someone was advancing, and the hologram continued, “I would have a few words alone with the new king. I thank you all for coming today, but I must pass on wisdom which is not fit for all ears.”

For a moment, no one moved. A small sensor counted faces in the crowd and the hologram responded, “This is no jest. I want to talk to the new king alone. Get out.” He waved them away, “All of you. Go on!”

The whole group shuffled out quickly, still muttering words of kindness for their former king. Dizzy watched them file out, and saw Lord Dunem standing perfectly still until the very end. He watched Dizzy for a long time, then nodded once and took his leave of them.

Dizzy turned to face the hologram, “All right. What do you want?”

The face in the hologram changed suddenly, as the system re-oriented on his position, “I don’t know you. I’ve recorded thirty-seven different versions of this speech, tailored to the people most likely to replace me, but this recording hardware can’t find your face in any of them.”

He stomped the base of the hologram once, despite the futility of the movement. Then he continued, “If this message is playing, then Dunem has seen to my proper burial, which means that no one has supplanted him. That also tells me that, whoever you are, you are also his choice. His puppet. Well, Pinocchio, you had best keep that nose in check when you speak to him. He is an unforgiving master.”

Dizzy frowned at the hologram. Just moments ago, when he had the chance to unmask Dunem, the king chose to praise him. And now that they were alone, he showed, what? Fear?

The king wrung his hands together, “Understand this. As long as you are king, you need not fear him. Don’t worry that he put you in this position. He does not own you. You are still king. That may be your only weapon.”

The hologram looked up suddenly, as if he heard a noise, then turned back to face Dizzy, “Play them for friends. It is the only way they will let you run free. But never think that they are on your side. Trust no one.” His voice dropped to a whisper, “Something is coming. It is bigger than me. I’ve been trying to get a hold of it, but it is all around me. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about my death. Honestly, something this massive is too big to care about assassinating one monarch. But you need to be ready.”

Dizzy looked back at the closed door to the church. He wondered how private this conversation could truly be. The hologram continued, “Trust no one. Find your own friends. The ones that come with this life are snakes and puppets. I know they are watching me, and mine will not be the first death.” He looked up suddenly again, stepping closer to the hologram camera. He whispered, “I can’t help you any more. I wish I could, but I just don’t know how far this goes. Destroy this recording when you can. It won’t keep you safe, but it may buy you time.” He tapped the brooch on his chest, “There is only one recording you can truly trust.” Dizzy took the meaning immediately, one hand moving to the crown on his head that hummed slightly.

He straightened up and said, “Whoever you are, I wish you a long life, and better luck than I had.”

The hologram winked out. Dizzy stared at the empty air for a moment, then walked up to the base of the machine. He ejected the hologram data slip, and crumpled it up in his hands. He could hear the crunching of the paper as connections shattered and melted in the warmth of his hand.

He sat on the altar steps for a long time, first worrying, then planning. By the time he stood up to leave, he had a plan in mind. There were people he needed to talk to.

Dizzy left the church to find a host waiting outside the door. The press had apparently learned that this king did not punish reporters, and so they pressed up against the security walls, calling out his name. Mourners for Cadvan mixed with well-wishers for the new king. Dizzy looked out past the velos, to see the street covered in a mass of commoners. Some held signs saying, “Cadvan was my King” and “Gone too soon”. It wasn’t just the reporters shouting his name, either. Commoners were pressing forward and shouting “King Augustus, King Augustus.”

It was strange and unnerving to Dizzy. He’d spent most of his life trying to slip away from people’s attention, and to be faced with a throng of people chanting his name was just… wrong.

He raised a hand to shoulder level and waved at the people, then jogged down the stairs and got into the nearest velo. Inside, his group was already waiting. They all looked at him expectantly, trying not to show too much interest. Dizzy just looked out the window. There was so much to do, and he was already so far behind.

Astor finally broke the silence, “Well? What did he say?”

Dizzy blinked at him for a moment. He was so far away mentally, it took him a moment to understand the question, “What? Oh, yes. Well, he said it was a difficult job, and that I must remain strong. You know. The standard ‘passing the torch’ kind of speech.”

Dizzy turned to face the Dowager Queen. In a very still, deliberate voice, he said, “I wonder, my lady, if you would take a private walk with me in the gardens. We have an extensive topiary set up outside the East wing.”

His mother caught the tone and said in the same voice, “I should be glad to accompany your majesty. When shall we take this walk?”

His voice was flat, “Immediately.” He fell back into the plush seat and frowned out the window.

They sat in silence for the remainder of the trip. As soon as the velo stopped, Dizzy dashed back into the palace. He headed straight for the gardens as soon as he entered.

Dizzy reached the Eastern gardens a few minutes before his mother. They were exactly as he had pictured them, huge and ornate. Flowers bloomed inside the carefully-sculpted topiary that ringed the center of the gardens. Inside that ring, all manner of blossoming flower bloomed, creating a mosaic tapestry of beauty. Dizzy was sure there was a pattern in their colors and placement, but he couldn’t see what it was. In the center stood a large bandstand gazebo, with a bench that ran the circumference, and a table in the center. The gazebo was made of ancient wood, sturdy and well-worked. Master craftsmen had carefully sculpted the railings and pillars that held the gazebo up. The trailing corners of the white linen tablecloth fluttered in the breeze. A pitcher of water and two glasses were set atop the table. Dizzy wondered at the efficiency of a staff that knew ahead of time where he was going and who would be with him. It wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Past the gazebo stood a hedge maze more than twelve feet high. Dizzy considered the hedge maze for a moment, then changed his mind, thinking that might be overkill.

“My liege,” Dizzy turned to see his mother waiting. She curtseyed slightly when he faced her. He was a bit surprised to see that such a stately woman, wearing so much jewelry, could still move so silently.

He nodded to her and said, “Would you join me in the gazebo?”

“As your majesty wishes.”

She held out her hand, palm down, for him to lead her up the gazebo steps. It was unnecessary, but Dizzy could tell she was taking the same precautions he was. They played the parts of noble lord and lady until they reached the table. Dizzy pulled out the chair for his mother, then sat across from her.

He said, “If you will forgive me for a moment, I’m afraid I must do something a trifle unorthodox.”

She snapped her fan open and waved it lightly, “After that eulogy, I should expect nothing less, my liege.”

Dizzy grinned and looked up at the ceiling of the gazebo. As his mother looked up, he tapped the gauntlet on his wrist, “Are there any listening devices around here?”

There was no response. Dizzy sighed, “You have targeted speakers, she doesn’t need to hear anything you say, and I have no intention of giving up your identity. Now I know you are capable of scanning for listening devices, probably even jamming them. So please, answer your king’s question.”

The Dowager Queen looked back down at Dizzy, who now stared at the middle distance. She frowned a bit, and continued fanning herself.

Dizzy heard the voice softly in his head, “No.”

“No, you won’t answer, or No, there aren’t any bugs?”

There was a short pause, then the voice said again, “I detect no listening devices nearby.”

“Could you set up some kind of destructive frequency that would stop any listening devices?”

“That is not my purpose.”

“But can you do it?”

“Yes.”

“Please do.”

“No.”

Dizzy wanted to slam his wrist into the table. The only thing stopping him was the fact that it would make it too obvious who he was talking to. He simply smiled instead, “Your king is ordering you to jam any nearby listening devices.”

The voice raised in volume, “That is not my function. I will not break my primary function so that I can help you with a temporary inconvenience. If you wish to discuss this, may I recommend a time when we are alone, so that you will not jeopardize my mission in the way you are doing now.”

Dizzy forced himself to keep the smile, “Very well. We will discuss it later.”

He turned to his mother, “I’m sorry about that.”

She shrugged, “Nothing so odd about it. You have a confederate here in the palace, someone you can communicate with. Hidden earbud?”

“Ah, no.”

She fanned herself again, “None of my business anyway. It’s good that you have people here you can trust.”

Dizzy sat forward, “That is the very crux of my problem.” He paused for a moment, “No one can hear or see us right now. So let’s drop the act. I need to talk to Vicki Veevers.”

She blinked at him for a moment, fanning herself lazily. Then she leaned forward, snapped the fan shut and said, “Only if I get to call you ‘Vinnie’.” Dizzy recognized that smile from years of seeing it in the mirror. “I suppose you want to ask about your father.”

“I- well, actually… yeah, sure. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I guess it’s okay to tell me about him, huh?”

“Sure. Well, the first thing you should know is that he was a good man. I don’t mean he was a good king or a noble ruler or any of that crap. I mean that, if he had nothing, he would still have had any woman he wanted.”

Dizzy raised an eyebrow, “I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing I was hoping to hear about.”

She slapped him lightly with the fan, “That’s not what I mean. I mean that he was the kind of man people loved. He was strong, loyal, brave, and kind. When he walked down the street, people waved at him and called out to him.”

Dizzy chuffed, “Of course they did. He was the king.”

“No, you silly boy.” She frowned a bit, “What have they told you about King Richard?”

He shrugged, “Nothing. I mean, my history training didn’t go much into modern monarchy, and honestly, I spent more time learning about how to infiltrate the lower nobility. I never cared about the higher echelon until… well, a couple of days ago.”

She nodded, “And no one’s talked to you about him while you were here?”

“It’s only been a couple of days. I’ve been busy screwing up the country, losing games for high stakes, and learning how what I eat becomes a matter of national importance.”

“That’s fair.” She sat back in her chair. Dizzy was surprised at how quickly she changed from the prim and proper lady to a normal commoner. She sighed, “So, your father hated this job.”

Dizzy smiled, “That seems to run in the family. From what I can tell, Cadvan didn’t like it any better.”

“Yeah. See, at the time, I was working a long con on a quickly-rising nobleman. I was going to be his dusky secret desire.” She smiled and laughed at an unspoken joke. “I was invited to a royal ball, which made me a little nervous.”

Dizzy nodded. He knew the feeling well, “You were afraid you’d be found out?”

“Oh, no. Well, not for myself, I mean. If anyone had asked me, I’d tell them I was a commoner. It would hurt my boy toy’s reputation, but that wasn’t my problem.” She stared off into the middle distance, “I think he wanted to be found out. Being unmasked at a ball would be easier, in some ways, than having to admit to his wife that he loved someone else.”

She sighed, “But then, while at the ball, I happened to dance by the King, who took a fancy to me. He invited me to dance, he sat and talked with me. In some ways, I think he solved my escort’s marital problem for him, but I doubt the boy toy would thank Richard for it.”

Dizzy marveled at how easily she referred to Good King Richard, first of his name, so casually. She said, “At first, the very first I mean, I think he was attracted by my looks. I was so much more beautiful then.” She sighed and another grin touched her face, “But when he found out I was a commoner, well, he was sold. He asked me all kinds of questions about my life. How did one get a job, how do you know how much food to buy without it going rotten, what do you do when you’re not working in the coal mines? I’m sure he’d seen commoners before, but I don’t think he’d ever had a glimpse of how they really lived, and it fascinated him.

So I figured, here’s my new pigeon. I was still working the long con, but good grief, you only get so many easy marks in life. I figured I had to grab this one, and after all, he wasn’t too hard on the eyes. I offered to show him what it was like to be a commoner.

He would, every so often, duck his security and come out to Brooklyn, where we had a house. He told everyone he was a carpenter; Woodworker, really. It’s a position that’s got some prestige among the lower classes, because you deal with the nobs, but you’re not nobility yourself, if you get me.”

Dizzy nodded, “So, you’re telling me that the King of all the Americas went to Brooklyn and played at being a commoner?”

She shrugged, “Everybody’s got a secret. He gave me cash so I could rent a place. Then, every couple of weeks he came out and we played house for a while. Never more than a few days at a time.”

“What- I mean, what did he DO when he was out there? Just walk the streets and say, ‘Hello, fellow commoner’?”

She grinned, “Nah. He would go to the bar, hang out with the guys, complain about the new healthcare quotas, same as all the other laborers. He listened to them tell their tales of woe, shake his head at the unfairness of it all, then go back to the lap of luxury.”

Dizzy frowned, “Don’t look down on him for that. This life isn’t exactly easy. There’s a lot of commoners who have it better just because they’ve got a living and don’t have to worry about anybody else.” He pointed a finger South, “There’s people out there who have clothes on their backs, a roof over their heads, and not a care in the world because we are watching out for them. All they have to do is some menial labor that they’re well trained and skilled at. We have to make decisions every day that ruin somebody’s life. We have to- What?”

Vicki sat back in her chair, fingers laced over her belly, “Nothing, kid. It’s just that,” she sighed, “You reminded me so much of your father right then.” She took a deep breath and said, “So that’s what he did. Most days I would tell people that he was on assignment making some kind of table or door molding for a nobleman, and then when he came home, we would go to the market. Oh, he used to love going to the market. He was always amazed to see people concentrating so hard on which foods to buy, checking the labels and comparing prices. Don’t get me wrong, he understood why, it was just culture shock.

He would visit with the neighbors, he would go out to the bars with his friends.” She wiped away a tear, “You know what he used to do every Sunday. I mean, if he was home with us, every Sunday he would invite the whole neighborhood over and we would have a big party in the backyard. He said it was his way of thanking them for taking care of his little lady while he was away.

When they had babies, he was overjoyed for them. When they lost family, he mourned with them. When they lost their jobs, I had to nearly hold him down to keep him from throwing money at them.”

Dizzy nodded, “But he didn’t just leave them alone, did he?”

She smiled again, “I couldn’t stop him. I told him it would blow his disguise, but your father was born to help people. He worked through other channels, found noblemen who talked to noblemen, who found a place for these people to work. Nobody on that street ever starved for long.”

The smile on her face began to dim, “I think that was how we got caught. Someone noticed him helping people, and it got back to the palace.”

Dizzy asked, “Caught? How could he get caught? It’s not like he was breaking any laws.”

She shook her head sadly, “There are many ways to get in trouble, kid. And there are far too many ways to get punished for upsetting the apple cart.

One day, I come home from visiting a friend to find Ashford Dunem standing in the living room. He’s got a couple of bruisers flanking him. I figure I’m pinched, and I’m thinking about running, but there’s another one who closes the door behind me and stands there, blocking it.

So I turn back to Ashford, and you know what he’s like. He was standing there, looking immaculate and polished in my dingy little living room, his nose up high in the air, and he says, ‘This charade is ended.'”

She squinted in anger, “Imagine the pompous bastard, just standing there and talking like we were in the middle of a royal dinner. ‘This charade’.” She shook her head.

“After that, it was all business. He didn’t know anything about my past, but he figured me for a grifter, and there’s really only two ways to get rid of a talented grifter. You pay them or you kill them. I lucked out, he chose the money.

He offered me a few years wages for a woodworker, in exchange for me keeping my trap shut. He said he was buying the house from me, which seemed like an odd thing to do.” Vicki pointed a finger at Dizzy, “Keep that in mind. That’s how Dunem thinks. Everything proper, everything explainable. He bought me off by considering how much I would have made in life insurance, then added the cost of the house. None of this, ‘One million dollars or I cut off your head’ nonsense. In his mind, Ashford was just doing business, so every part of the transaction had to have a purpose. In exchange, I had to move out of Brooklyn, I couldn’t contact Robert again, and I couldn’t tell anyone about our time together.

He asked me if I was pregnant, and I lied. I hadn’t told Richard, and I’d be damned if he would hear it first from that dry lizard of a man. He said he wanted tests done, but I wouldn’t let him.”

Dizzy asked, “How could you stop him? I mean, he was the right hand to the king, and he had you caught. How do you just say, ‘No’?”

She smiled, “Well, Ashford was in a bit of a bind himself. I didn’t realize how much until later. See, if he killed me, or locked me up, Richard would have his head. Seriously, had him beheaded. But if he didn’t kill me, he had to make sure I kept my mouth shut. After that, it was just business. He had to ask for everything he could get, and give me as little as he could to buy my silence. If I didn’t like the deal, I could go to the newsies and shout ‘scandal’. See, Richard hadn’t married the queen yet, wasn’t even engaged, but Ashford had already picked her out and started the process. A sex scandal right then would have ruined everything for him. So there was room on both sides for negotiation.”

She shook her head, “And I thought I was so clever. I took the money, moved to Seattle, and started working short cons. I missed Richard, of course, but that’s the nature of the game. You don’t get too attached, right?”

Dizzy could see her eyes glisten as she lied to herself. She took a deep breath and continued, “It turns out, there’s a lot of stuff you can do as a ‘poor pregnant woman’ that you could never get away with as a single girl. The money I saw in those few months was more than I’d ever made on the streets before. And I didn’t even need it, because I still had Ashford’s payoff. But the whole time, I was worried about you.”

She looked into his eyes and shook her head, “I’m not mommy material, Vince. I knew it then, and nothing I’ve seen has ever convinced me otherwise. I live a life of lies, and I know it. I didn’t want to bring up a child who watched me lie to one person after another just to get money.” She stared into the middle distance, “It’s funny. I have no problem with the life itself, but I wouldn’t ever want to raise a child that way.” She shook her head, frowning, “You know, I even thought about doing that old cliche, where you show up in the middle of a fancy party and say ‘I want you to meet your son, Richard!’ I don’t even know what I would have gained from it. More money, I guess. And even though I never would do it, the mercenary side of me said it was a marker I could call whenever I wanted.”

She sighed, “It’s fine to be all philosophical about it when you’re pregnant, but once you were actually born, everything changed. I couldn’t move around the way I wanted to. I had to be there, caring for you, eating into all my savings. I couldn’t work, I got bored out of my mind, and I didn’t know anybody except for a few other grifters I’d met in Seattle. I was seriously thinking about giving you up for adoption.”

Dizzy had been listening with rapt attention, but hearing that woke him out of the stupor. A sneer touched his lips and he remembered just how she had treated him. She stared at him and waited, watching his face, nodding, “That’s right. I deserve it. I was ready to get rid of you just because you were cramping my style. That’s your mother, in a nutshell.

Then one day, I walk into my apartment, and there’s three guys waiting for me. Two knee-breakers and Richard. I was standing there, my hair a mess, grocery bags hanging from my elbows, and no make-up. But he looked at me with nothing but love. He looked at you, and… My God, that smile.”

She took a deep breath and said, “Your father loved you, Vince. He loved you from the moment he saw you there in my arms.

I’ll never know how he did it, tracked me down, got away from Ashford without him knowing. All I know is that he loved you, and he loved me, and it killed him to let us go.

We sat down to talk about it. He watched me change you. He had married the queen. He said she was a fine woman, so I guess it must be true. I could tell he didn’t love her, though.”

She sighed and looked down at her hands, “Or maybe that’s just the view of a vain old woman. Either way, he knew you were his. No question. He wanted to help you so much… He gave me more money, asked if we needed anything. I… ” She frowned, “I asked him to leave us alone. I thought about that con, the one where I introduce you at a party, and it disgusted me. I wanted him to live his life, and I wanted to live mine. I even thought I could figure out something for you.

He didn’t stay long. They watched him closer than ever. I think his wife had a hand in that. In any case, he left us alone again, and I’d swear, I felt more alone this time than the last.”

The lady put one hand to her face and took a deep breath, “After that, it was the two of us on the streets. As soon as you were old enough to walk, you were a distraction for the rubes that let me slit purses. As you got older, I taught you how to lift valuables while I sang for our supper. I still had a fairly decent voice back then, and a girl singing in the L-Way was normal enough that people would stop and throw coins right before you picked their wallets.” She looked at him and nodded proudly, “You had good hands, and a quick mind. For some reason, it never occurred to me that you might get pinched. After all, you couldn’t have been seven by the time we started really working. Who would have suspected you?”

Dizzy remained quiet. He vaguely remembered those days. He remembered his mother’s grinning face as they counted bills and threw them in the air with excitement. She said, “We hung around with other grifters, and you were like a good luck charm for the bunch. They adopted you as much as any parents could, feeding you what scraps they scrounged, sharing their tricks and songs and stories with you. That’s where we met Sully, you know.”

Dizzy nodded. He knew Sully. He knew Sully better than any of them. She said, “So we ran through the money. I was never good with money back then. It all went into games and deco and expensive foods and toys.” She held up one hand suddenly, “Never booze or drugs. I’d seen what happened to those who got into that, and we were gonna be the smart ones. I was the designated driver of the thieving scene. The last one awake at the end of the poker game, if you take my meaning.

But then, one day, you and I were pulling the ‘distressed stranger’ con. ‘Please, sir. Won’t you come help my mother? She’s having fits, and I can’t afford a cab to get her to the hospital.’ It turned out you picked an undercover narc. That wouldn’t have been so bad in itself, as we’d learned how to scamper at the first sign of metal, but this one knew me. I’d taken him before. So when he came to help and saw me, he knew we were scamming him. He got up close, then made a grab for me. I recognized him at the last second, and rolled. You and I were running, and he was hot on our tracks. We knew how to handle it though. Split up and regroup. I told you to find Sully, and that I’d meet you later.”

Dizzy whispered, “The last thing you ever said to me.”

She shook her head sadly, “When we split, he went for me. I coulda got away from him, but he had a partner, and I didn’t know it. Next thing you know, I’m pistol-whipped and out cold. I wake up in holding.”

She took a deep breath, “They didn’t have anything on me, because nobody reported me on the older stuff, and we never actually got anything off of him for this one. They threatened to go for you, but I knew you’d be all right with Sully.”

Dizzy broke in, “Why didn’t my father help you?”

She shook her head, “I honestly don’t know. Maybe he realized that they didn’t have nothing on me. Maybe he wasn’t watching me as close as I’d thought. Maybe the queen wouldn’t let him. No sense wondering over maybes. And honestly, that never bothered me as much as…”

She stared into the middle distance, her face growing slack. Dizzy pressed, “Go on.”

She sucked in breath and said, “So there I was, released. On my own and free to go. I thought they might have a tracker on me, see if I met up with you, but I never really worried about that. If they had anything on me, they’d have already used it. No, I was free and nobody knew where I was. I could go anywhere.”

“So you ran away.”

“When a job goes bad, you start up somewhere new. That’s the oldest rule in the book. I knew how much Sully and the boys loved you. I knew you’d be alright.”

“And I was just getting in your way, anyway. Slowing you down. If you didn’t have to drag me along when you ran, you could have got away clean.”

She stared at him for a long time, then nodded, “Go ahead. You’re right. I thought all of that and more. I didn’t do it for you, I did it for me, and I never looked back.” There was no pride in her voice as she said that. She just shook her head, “I have to assume Sully did right by you. I mean, just look at you.” She tried a smile, but it didn’t work.

Dizzy nodded, “Sully kept me in house for a while, waiting for you. He made up fanciful stories about how you got pinched and shipped off, but you were fighting to escape prison and come back to me. He did that for years, and slowly, we both just accepted the truth.”

She blinked at him, “What did he do with you?”

“Put me in the back, mostly. I was the roper on a few of his long cons, finding the mark and then testing to see that he was financially flush, and morally curious. Sully never let me get into the thick of it. I think he was just trying to find a place for me where I wouldn’t get in the way, but still earned my keep.

Then, one day, he up and tells me he’s shipping me off. I’d been saving my share for years, putting a bit away whenever I could, trying to get enough scratch together to track you down. He knew it, and I think he knew that I didn’t want to find the answer. So instead, he tells me he’s got a better idea. He tells me I have to use all my money to sign up for a finishing school.”

The lady’s eyes widened, “A- ah, I didn’t know that really existed.”

Dizzy nodded, “The Malcolm Rutherford Holden Institute of Regentrification. After that… well, after that I started working much easier cons.” Dizzy paused for a moment, then said, “I think Sully may have been trying to get rid of me, but he did just about the kindest thing he possibly could. He may have saved my life.”

Dizzy looked down at his lap for a moment, then took a deep breath and continued, “And that’s why I called you here. I honestly didn’t mean to spend so much time talking about my father. I need you to do something for me.”

The lady nodded and grinned, “I’m here to serve my liege.” A sad tone followed, “I owe you a lot, kid.”

Dizzy ignored the comment, “Find Sully. Talk to whoever you need to talk to. I can’t do it, because I’m being watched all the time, but you still have some freedom of movement. I need you to talk to him, because I need him to get a team together. There’s people he knows, and I need their help.”

She nodded, “It will be done. Oh!”, she looked up suddenly, a trace of fear in her eyes, “Have you spoken with Lord Valen yet?”

Dizzy blinked at her, “No. Who is he?”

She leaned back in her seat, “Nobody important to the king. I just knew he was looking for you, and I … Well, I just wanted to see if you’d talked to him yet.”

Dizzy nodded and took a deep breath. For a moment, all the different things he was carrying around in his head seemed to spin around him, reorganizing and blurring into one another. He leaned his head into a palm.

The Dowager Queen reached out one hand and placed it over his, “Is everything all right?”

Dizzy shook his head, “No. Not yet. I think I’m to be assassinated, and unless I play my cards right, I won’t live to see next week.”

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