Invito Rex – Chapter 13

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It was dame Abigail Kovacs who made the first Kovacs engine, of course. The project was begun in the summer of 2070, with no more than a team of engineers, and plans for a self-contained engine. When asked about it, she told the world bluntly, “I want my house to fly.”

Newsies took interest initially for the humor, but when her first self-sustaining engine was revealed at Her Majesties Symposium on Scientific Works (MSSW73), the laughter ceased. The engine appeared to all attending as a tall, thick cylinder, with fusion generators, wind turbines, and solar collectors wrapped around it. The central cylinder sucked air in from the ventral ports, and out through the dorsal ports. It was little more than a directionless jet engine, but it shocked the world because it could run for a hundred years without maintenance, and could hold twice its weight in ballast. Her first major demonstration involved “The house that would never touch the ground.” Several of her engines were mounted to the perimeter of a platform. Upon that platform, a simple house was built. Again she made the news, with pictures of her beaming face and a flying house hovering over a field of Kansas City wheat. There is simply no way of saying this without employing some form of vulgar pun. Sales of her engines took off.

Citizens replaced their stilt houses with Kovacs. They built lake houses which hovered over the lakes. The engines were still remarkably expensive, but given their longevity, they were assumed to be sound investments to all. With the sudden influx of cash, Abigail was able to build on her platform, extend it to allow the addition of other buildings, and improve upon the engine’s design. In 2079, Abigail announced the first Kovacs-powered city, with a population of only two-hundred. The platforms held shops and restaurants, hydroponic gardens and homes, and every hotel had a view of the wide expanse of land around them.

By then, the government was ready to take her seriously. They started investigations into zoning and airline regulations. Environmentalists questioned whether she was affecting the jet stream, and what damage could be done by constantly blasting air down on a countryside. An outpouring of public support coupled with her impressive legal team managed to keep regulations from shutting her city down, but she was never one to wait on others for permission.

In 2085, Abigail Kovacs had engines mounted at a 45-degree angle along every edge of her city’s platform. A year later, when construction was finished, she flew the city out over the ocean, to uncontested land, where no government could touch them. By that time, the city had grown to more than five-thousand people, and they all stood behind Abigail and her dream. She was still in litigation with the mainland of America when the Western War started.

In 2117, when the economic meltdown dissolved most major nations, the Kovacs city remained largely untouched. It seemed an unintended blessing that the city had become self-sufficient, and able to survive a devaluation of all terrestrial currency. However, as family members were brought on board, saving them from the hunger and homelessness of the mainland, they brought with them their prejudices. Every nation who had been fighting with sanctions and devaluation brought their hatred for the other nations that had devalued their own money. Each saw their neighbor as a tyrant, trying to pull them into slavery.

Many say it was a blessing that Abigail died in 2120. She did not live to see her dream literally torn apart by imported nationalism. The city was torn by looters, rioting, and infighting. People disconnected sections of the platform, announcing that they were keeping their section “pure”. One section was disconnected from too many other engines and dropped into the ocean, killing hundreds.

By 2125, the Kovacs city was reduced to a series of city-states that moved to remote sections of the world. Some continued to grow, becoming important financial centers in themselves (The New Chicago Kovacs, for instance, is considered a tax haven for the most affluent), while others have specialized in agriculture (The Bremen Kovacs is well known for it’s fifteen layers of hydroponic crops, hovering off the Western shore of Dakhla).

Many of the rich and famous still purchase Kovacs engines for floating homes, but the stories of whole flying cities is generally discounted as a logistical impossibility from our distant past.

- Excerpt from “Man and his sky” by Cary Stefanek

Dizzy stood in the center of his office, and watched Olivia walk away. He muttered, “What is going on there?”

Astor sneered, “Let’s just say she doesn’t love her family enough.”

Dizzy turned and grinned at him, “There are times, Astor, when I could knock that sneer right off your face, and I don’t even know why. Seriously, I don’t even understand what you’re talking about, and I’m still ready to put you on the ground.”

Astor fumed, “I’d like-”

“No, you really wouldn’t like to see me try it. Aside from the fact that I probably could paste you one, there’s also the lingering fear in your eyes of what would happen if you raised a hand in anger to your king.” Dizzy sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He turned to Jus Cos and said, “Well, what do you think of them?”

“Buncha whiny, privileged warmongers. They send men off to die, then get teary over some animal.”

Dizzy frowned, “How many men?”

Justin blinked at him, “Dunno. All of ‘em.”

“No. I mean, how many are dying? I can probably get those numbers, but I suppose you can just rattle them off from memory.”

“Nah. Media blackout keeps the plebes in the dark.”

“But surely there are funerals. There must be wailing widows.”

“It ain’t proper, mockin’ the grief.”

“You really don’t know, do you? Can you name a single dead soldier?”

“Yeah.” Justin scowled down at the ground, “Yeah. I know a couple.”

Dizzy crossed his arms over his chest, “A couple. That’s all you know?”

Astor sighed, “Are we done here?”

Justin took a step toward Astor, hands balled into fists. Astor smiled, “Oh, yes. Please do.”

Dizzy stepped between them and said, “Don’t.”

Jus scowled at him, eyes blazing, “Why not? You may be untouchable, but he’s just a stupid lordling.” Jus looked over Dizzy’s shoulder at Astor, “Do you have any idea how much I’d love to literally strike a blow to you nobs?”

Dizzy ran a hand through his hair, “You’ve got a left hook, he’s got an entire security regiment. You won’t win.” Dizzy leaned in, “By the way, your accent’s slipping again. Why do you bother with it?”

Jus sighed, “Gotta stay relevant. Wanna be the people’s voice, gotta learn the people’s speech, sabe?”

Astor sighed, “Seriously, are we done chatting with the scum?”

Dizzy turned on him, “You have somewhere you need to be?”

“We both do. We’re expected to go hunting today with the Schuberts.”

Dizzy’s lip curled, “Hunting?”

“Yes. They’re lower nobles serving Lord Wilde. I wouldn’t have thought you needed to shore up your position with that family, but after today’s debacle, it looks like a piece of serendipity.”

Dizzy grinned, “You don’t think that was a good move? I managed to get rid of a favor owed to the old buzzard.”

“Yes, but you traded it for a vendetta from that beast of a man. It wasn’t a good trade.”

Dizzy waved it off, “I’ll make it up to him.”

Astor stepped closer to him, “No. You may not have time.”

Dizzy frowned, “What do you mean?”

“No one tells a higher lord what to do. They work with the king to keep the peace between families, but if they can’t work with the king…”

Dizzy’s eyes narrowed, “If they can’t, then what?”

Astor looked over at Jus, then back at Dizzy. He cleared his throat, “Nothing, my liege. It’s just- Look, I’m only saying this for your benefit. I mean, I have no great love for you, but-”

“Your resentment for the king is well documented, sir. Now tell me, what happens if they can’t work with the king.”

Jus barked a laugh, “Ain’t it obvious? Warmongers only think in terms of allies and corpses.”

Astor shrunk back. He shrugged and said, “Well, many kings find that their reign is shorter than they’d like.”

Dizzy sighed and looked back at Jus, “You see what I have to deal with? Now I give this man a gun and we go riding.”

Dizzy tried not to worry. The sultry woods were quiet and still. Humidity swaddled the trees like a sodden blanket, heating the air. Fir trees circling the copse of woods left a dense carpet of pine needles underfoot. Two or three small birds timorously tried to break the swelter with song.

And then the breeze. The air swept up from the small river just south of the forested hill, bringing with it a breath of relief. Broadleaf trees sang as coolness swept through the old growth, toward the center of the woods. The larger birds began to stir and flew above the canopy to the river. And as the air stirred, the clouds swept in, giving relief from the punishing heat of the sun.

Today’s quarry was hyena. Normally a nocturnal animal, these were given lots of cover, but no food at night. The Schubert’s had spared no expense ensuring that the group would be able to find and bag one of the vicious animals.

Dizzy wore jodhpurs, and held a gun, but had none of the spirit of the hunt. Hyenas moved quickly, so whenever the group saw movement, they would spur their horses into quick pursuit. Dizzy stayed back, letting the rest of them pursue the quarry. Justin stayed with him, having similar tastes for the hunt. He acted as petulant and uncomfortable as Dizzy felt.

Dizzy watched him as the pack took off after another loping scavenger. He asked Jus, “Why did you give yourself up?”

The younger boy started, “Wozzat?”

“Why did you surrender yourself to the police?”

Jus shrugged, “Somebody’s gotta stand up.”

“But you’ve been fighting this fight for years. Why make such a big demonstration now? Is there a media blitz waiting for your incarceration?”

“Nah. Nothing like that.”

“You were lucky to have been brought before me. If you were handled by the magistrate, you’d have been summarily executed.”

Jus frowned and looked back at the pack of noblemen, “S’pose so.”

Dizzy laced the reins of his horse around one hand, then pulled it free. He frowned at Jus, who refused to meet his eye, “So, you expected to get killed. Was it some kind of martyrdom? Suicide by cop?”

Jus spurred his horse into walking. Dizzy thought about calling him on the temerity of walking away from the king. Instead, he followed Justin, “Why did you decide to martyr yourself now? Why not a year ago, or a year from now. What changed?”

Jus scowled at him, “Ya can hold me if ya want, but I won’t be grilled.”

Their horses ambled for a moment longer, as Dizzy looked through the treeline, searching for the others. He turned back to Jus, “You said you knew a couple of soldiers-”

“God damn it!” Jus roared, “You want it all? Well, I don’t have to answer you! I don’t answer to killers! I’m not going to let you use my brother’s-” Jus’ mouth snapped shut as he caught himself.

Distant guards turned to face them, but Dizzy held them back with a gesture, “Your brother?”

Jus glared at Dizzy, and looked like he was ready to bolt. Then, just as suddenly, he deflated, “Got the news last week. My brother was proud to serve. He was always disgusted by what I did, but…” He waited, as though hoping for another interruption. Eventually, he shook his head, “I was just trying to get him home before it happened.”

Dizzy nodded, “I’m so sorry.” Jus’ head shot up, but Dizzy held out a restraining hand again, “I really am.” He took a deep breath, and said, “I know it won’t mean much to you – another promise from another nobleman – but I am doing what I can to end this.”

Before Jus could answer, Astor rode up to them. He glared at Jus, and looked back at Dizzy, “Is everything all right, my liege?”

Dizzy nodded, “Yes, we’re fine. Go on back to your game.”

Astor smiled, “What’s wrong, sir? No stomach for the hunt? These are vicious predators, you know.”

Dizzy frowned, “I thought they were scavengers.”

Astor shrugged, “They’ll kill when they want to eat. Besides, if you don’t want to kill one, you can still go for the capture.”

Dizzy leaned back in his saddle, and said, “Listen, both of your. I think I’m being followed.”

“What?” Astor looked around them, standing in the stirrups. Dizzy groaned, “Thank you so much for being subtle about that.” Justin chuckled at them both.

“I don’t see anyone.”

“Nor do I, but I keep seeing some movement out of the corner of my eye. I feel stupid even mentioning it.”

“Maybe it’s one of the brutes?”

“I doubt it. Whatever it is, it’s pacing us. It’s been with us for most of the day.”

Astor shrugged, “It’s probably your nerves then.” He grinned at Dizzy, “You know, I just realized, you should have asked your friends from the press out here. They’d love to see this.”

Dizzy looked back at Jus, “With people writing songs about how we hunt while men die, I don’t think it’s quite the image I want to get across.”

Justin rolled his eyes and looked away. Astor shook his head, “A king shouldn’t worry about his image. It should come naturally, and everyone should just have to accept it.”

The rest of the hunting party caught up with them again. “You missed it! Wendell bagged a big one!” They pointed at the youngest of the group.

Dizzy smiled at the young man, “Congratulations. You must be very proud.” The boy beamed with pleasure at the praise.

Astor frowned at the young man, looking between him and Dizzy. He shouted, “I’ll get the next one!” and took off into the woods. Dizzy sat shaking his head at the lordling.

True to form, the others dashed off after him, and just as they did so, Dizzy saw the shape in the forest move to intercept them. He didn’t bother looking at it this time, but spurred his horse on toward the movement. He galloped straight into the treeline, not worrying about seeing his quarry, but turning every time he saw it’s movements. Branches tore at his hair and clothes, but Dizzy leaned down to put his head against the horse’s neck, and spurred the animal on. Each time he saw it move, Dizzy turned to intercept.

The creature was fast, but the king’s horse was a beast of incredible breeding and training. It leaped easily over bushes and branches, tore into greenery that blocked him, and followed Dizzy’s every instruction.

But despite the highborn steed’s immense strength and speed, the quarry faded away. He simply couldn’t see it moving any more. Dizzy reined in his beast and sat panting in the saddle. His mount was lathered and shivering with exertion. Dizzy stood up in the saddle, casting about to see if he had just missed it.

He frowned and sat down hard in the saddle, “Dammit.” He stroked the horse’s flank, “Must be a mechanical. I’m fairly certain no flesh-and-blood creature could best you.” The horse chuffed and pawed at the ground, as though ready for the next run.

Dizzy grinned, and looked around, trying to get his bearings. At some point, he had become so intent on the pursuit that he lost track of where he was. Dizzy wheeled the horse around in preparation for their return when the tree next to him burst open in a cloud of splinters and chaff.

Dizzy ducked instinctively, then looked back at the tree. Smoke was issuing from a hole in the tree just inches away from where his head had been. He dropped low against the horse and hissed, “Sceptre?”

“High velocity projectile. Shot came from the northeast. Likely a rifle based on the time from report to striking.”

“Who?”

“Too far away. You should get to safety, my liege.”

Dizzy turned his mount around, “Northeast?”

“I wouldn’t advise it, sir.”

Dizzy spurred his mount into a run. Again, the horse ran at an astonishing speed, undistracted by the surrounding flora. They ran true and broke out of the treeline to see the rest of the hunting party standing around.

Dizzy stared at them, and they all stared back. Most of the lower nobility blinked at him, shocked. Astor seemed unsurprised, and Justin just sat quietly, watching him.

He was still panting as he said, “Who just fired?”

Astor answered, “When, my lord?”

“Just now. Back that way.”

Astor shook his head, “Nothing that way, my liege. We were hunting to the East. We’d just returned when we realized you hadn’t joined us. I heard the report, but assumed it was you shooting.”

Dizzy looked back at Justin, who was still wearing the angry expression he’d had when Dizzy left. Dizzy looked at the gun still cradled in the crook of his arm. Could it have been Justin, as revenge for his brother? Or Astor, in the hopes of his father’s ascension? He looked at the minor nobles, who all seemed uncomfortable just being there. Any of them could have been a hired gun, bought by Dunem, or even Lord Wilde.

“Were you all together just now?”

Wendell spoke up, “Yes, my lord. Well, most of us. It got a little confused when we spotted the quarry.”

The king raised a hand and asked again, “Who was there? Who wasn’t?” Dizzy could hear the impatience in his voice.

The lower nobility all started pointing at each other, muttering and trying to reconstruct the last sortie. Justin’s eyes narrowed, “Why the questions? You see something that spooked you?”

Dizzy frowned at him, “Didn’t you hear the gunshot?”

Justin shrugged, “Just these moo-brains, lettin’ off in hopes of impressin’ you with their kills.” He nodded at the lower nobility, “That how you work, then? You get jollies off death?”

Dizzy waved him off, “Not now. You seriously didn’t hear anything.”

Astor blinked at him, uncomprehending, “I seriously didn’t hear anything.”

Stan poked at a wrapper, expertly spearing it on his pointed stick, “You have to admit, it’s a lovely day for it.”

Lou fumbled with a can, poking at it over and over, but never snagging, “Lawks yes. Lovely. Kind of day one aught to be out of doors.”

“Truly.” A shot rang out over their heads, and they looked at each other suddenly, “Can’t say I’m enjoying the birdsong, though.”

Lou screwed up his forehead and concentrated on the can sitting two feet away from him, “Never was much for hunting, myself.”

Stan twirled his stick around his wrist, landing it expertly into the trash bag on his hip, “What of the king? Do you think he enjoys the hunt?”

Lou shrugged a bit, “S’pose he must, if he rides along.”

“I wonder, will he go for the canary or the cub?”

Lou looked away from his target to frown at Stan, “I should think the yellow lady would make the better Queen, but I don’t think she’s game.”

“No, but these days, the bear girl’s claws are out.”

“Ah, so the king is left at razor’s edge. Two choices, neither interested.”

“Not just the two. There’s a slav in the wings, if tales be true. Widowed before she was wed, I believe?”

“Russians. More bears. Well, I doubt the new king has any taste for that treat.” Lou took another stab at the can, which rolled lazily out of the way, “Is he even prowling?”

“He’d best be. Homeland needs an heir. Near collapsed at the last untimely.”

“Truth. And not exactly endearing himself to them what would make another untimely. Have you heard of the king’s deal?”

“I had it from the maid that he’s paying the lizard by stealing from the bear.”

Lou put one foot down carefully on the side of the can, holding it in place. “I’m sure the new king had naught but best intentions.” He stabbed at the can with the point of his stick, and pierced his foot. Lou held perfectly still as he let out a “meep” of pain.

Stan looked over at him, and pulled the stick out, “It would seem, my duck, that even good intentions can bite a kindly soul.”

Somehow, Dizzy knew he would find Lord Dunem in his secret office. He strode into the small room, and pointed a finger at the chief of staff, “Where were the guards?”

The old man blinked down at him, “When?”

“Just now.” Dizzy waved a hand toward the veranda, “Out there. Hunting.”

“You were on royal grounds. You were never outside the perimeter. It would make the king look weak to have guards escorting him through his own palace. We keep guards on some doors inside the palace mainly as a ceremonial position or to protect the privacy of your rooms.”

Dizzy frowned at him for a long moment, seeing the truth of it. He thought about how far to trust the chief of staff, then said, “Someone shot at me. I don’t know who, but it was no accident.”

Dunem’s eyes didn’t widen in shock. He didn’t ask if Dizzy was okay. He walked directly to the door, one hand touching the outer edge of his monocle, “I am in the King’s chamber. I want two guards from two different regiments here in the next two minutes. Tell General Elling we are moving to status level three.” Dizzy could see from the reflection on the old man’s monocle that he was speaking to several different people at the same time. “I want military investigators here now. Detain everyone who had access to the royal preserve. Sequester each of the men who were traveling in the King’s hunting party.”

Dizzy fell into the chair as Lord Dunem paced in front of his desk, “Let none of them speak to the others. I need investigators on each of them. Get me a full statement from each. I need inventory on their weapons, and match ballistics to any animals shot. Any missed shots need to be tracked to determine if any of their guns were used as the attempted murder weapon. What? Now. Yes. All of it. There has been an attempt on the king’s life. If I read about this before tomorrow, I will know it was one of you who leaked it. Now go.”

He turned back to Dizzy, his glowing monocle dimmed to its usual level of inactivity, “Now tell me, your majesty, how are you?”

Dizzy grinned a bit, “Now? After all that, you’re going to ask me now? I could have bled out waiting for you to notice.”

The old man stood up straighter, fingers laced behind his back, “You weren’t bleeding when you walked in, and you were shouting about guards. From that, I deduced that you were feeling well enough to complain, which meant you hadn’t taken any grievous injury, and were not overcome with shock.” He walked around the desk to look closer at Dizzy, “So now, let me ask again, how are you?”

Dizzy shrugged, “I don’t – I mean, I’m fine. What do you mean?”

Dunem took a deep breath and stared at him, “A man just tried to shoot you. You’ve only been king for a few days, and someone hates you enough to kill you. You have friends and loved ones who would be ripped away from you by an assassin’s bullet. Any future dreams of home or family that you may have had were set aside by someone who felt that their wishes were more important than anything you may ever want or need. Someone invaded your home, they hunted you down in the place where you should be the most safe, and they shot at you. What’s more, you don’t know who did it, so you can’t be sure that they’re gone. You can’t trust anyone, and you have to live under a roof with dozens of people you can no longer trust. So once more I’ll ask you. How are you?”

Dizzy blinked back at him, “Well, I’ll admit, I was feeling a damn sight better before you put it like that.”

“How is your body handling it? Any shaking, dizziness, shortness of breath?”

Dizzy frowned, “No. No, I feel fine.”

Lord Dunem nodded, “Then it hasn’t hit you yet. It will soon. You should retire for the night.”

“It’s only six o’clock!”

“I’ll have the doctor give you something to sleep.”

“What about the concert! Tonight’s Jus Cos’ concert.”

“We will postpone, sir. All the preparations will be in place.”

“You got us a Kovacs for the venue?”

“Yes sir. The miscreant’s band have been brought in by hopper, and they are already set up. I’ve ensured that all of the upper nobility know about the concert.”

“And the commoners? They’ll be there too?”

Dunem sniffed, “If they can afford airfare up there, then yes.” He took a deep breath, “My liege, the investigator will want to talk to you before too much time passes.”

Dizzy raised his hands, palms out, “Really, that’s not necessary. I mean, it’s not…”

The old man raised one eyebrow, “Not that important? I believe that is the shock speaking. The nation nearly lost its second regent in a week. That matters to us. You’ll find that we investigate all threats on the king’s life. No offense, your majesty, but you have just been a witness to a major imperial crime. We will, of course, attempt to make it as easy on you as possible, but you are currently our best witness.” He gestured at the door of the office, “If you would give us just an hour of your time, my liege.”

As Dizzy was leaving the office, a whole group burst into the king’s bedroom. Four guards, a doctor, a military investigator, and his assistant. The doctor got to him first, shining a light in his eyes, prodding his whole body for injuries, bruises, or unexplained marks. She held his neck for a moment, counting to herself, then let him go without a word. She wrapped a thin cord around his bicep, then held one eye open. The cord changed color, going from black to red, then settled on a soft green. She ripped the cord off his arm and started making notes on a smartboard as the investigator walked up to him.

The investigator was a barrel-chested bald man, wearing a fine suit. His assistant was a nebbish little man, burdened with tools, books, and papers. The investigator shook his hand, “Your majesty, it’s an honor to meet you.” His voice was soft and smooth, comforting and warm. He lead Dizzy over to the bed, “If you could just have a seat, I had one or two questions I’d like to ask.”

Dizzy nodded, “Yes. Yes, of course. Fire away.” He thought he could catch the investigator off balance with the joke, but the man only smiled warmly.

“Why didn’t you fire back?” Dizzy blinked at him, so he asked again, “When they shot at you, why didn’t you fire back? You had a weapon, didn’t you?”

“Of course, but, well, it just didn’t occur to me.”

“I see. It’s perfectly natural to want to run away in a situation like that.”

Dizzy straightened, “I didn’t run away. In fact, I turned in the direction of the shot and took off after them.”

“Why did you do that?”

“Well, to catch them, of course!” Dizzy couldn’t understand this line of questioning. It seemed so obvious when he was doing it.

“So, you had a weapon, and you were faced with someone who was armed and dangerous. You didn’t flee, but you didn’t fire on them either. What were you planning to do when you caught up with them?”

Dizzy took a long moment to answer, “I guess. I guess I thought I’d reveal who they were. I was more curious than scared, I suppose.” Looking back on it, he felt like a fool. He frowned at the investigator, “Where are you going with these questions?”

The man smiled, “I just want to put you back in the moment. Now that you’re in the moment, tell me, why didn’t the shot kill you?”

The young woman refused to sit at the table in the small, grubby room. She was dressed in white, from her cap and veil down to her petticoat and shoes. Fine silk gloves clutched the small coinpurse she held in front of her. The gloves ran all the way up to tuck under the sleeves of her sleek white dress. The dress was a classic style, but the lines were sharp and fashionable. Vestigial buttons ran down the sides of the dress, halting at the ruffled belted center. Behind the veil her blue eyes were wide and frightened. She stood as close to the center of the room as she could without touching the table or chairs.

The interrogation room was old and scarred. The dirty white walls had grown yellow with nicotine residue and evaporated sweat. Brown stains marred the walls at about shoulder height. One wall was a darkened mirror, showing nothing but the frightened girl and the worn, hardwood table. Initials had been carved into the table, as well as stab marks and toothmarks. One inscription read, “Last Stop.” Below the table, a chain was bolted to the floor, with a pair of disabled handcuffs piled onto the chain. The table was dark brown and the seat opposite the mirror was stained with the same blood-brown color that was on the walls.

The young woman looked down at the table, and at the hard, heavy chair sitting in front of it. It was gnarled and twisted from attempts to wrench it apart or whittle into it’s arms. The seat of the chair was stained as well, and smelled vaguely of transients.

As Captain Gallant Trumble entered, he nodded at the young lady, “Sorry for the accommodations, miss, but I’m afraid this is some nasty business we have to discuss.”

She blinked at him and nodded, “Yes, ah. Yes sir.”

“Captain.” He sat with his back to the mirror, “Have a seat, won’t you?”

She nodded kindly to him, “Thank you very much, but I’d prefer to stand.”

“That’s fine.”

She held a dainty hand out to him, “You must understand, it’s not a personal thing. I have nothing less than the highest regard for the working classes.”

Trumble sat back in his chair, raising one eyebrow, “I’m not sure I take your meaning, miss.”

She backpedaled, literally, “I only meant that it wasn’t because of you. It’s just.” She waved a fluttering hand at the seat, “I just couldn’t possibly sit on that. My tailor would have me flayed.”

Trumble grinned, “Have it your way, miss.” He opened up the folder he’d brought in, “Now, how much do you know about a group called ‘The Silks’?”

She shook her head, still gripping the purse, “Oh, very little indeed. They’re something of a fascination among my girlfriends, but I pay little attention to such chatter.”

Trumble asked, “And what do your girlfriends say about them?”

“Oh, they’re the most monstrously good detectives, sir. I’ve heard they can spot an adulterer by his walk, or by his shoes or something of that sort.”

“And impersonators?”

She blinked, “Impersonators?”

“People who impersonate the nobility.”

She laughed easily, a delicate tinkling sound. She covered her mouth with one hand, “I’m sure I’ve never heard anything of that sort. I mean, the Silks may be legend, but noble impersonators are just ghost stories.”

“So you’ve never seen either? Silks or impersonators?”

The young woman brought herself up imperiously, though her fear of the police seemed to keep her from turning haughty, “I’m sure I would never associate with anyone who knew such a person.” Trumble waited as she turned away for a moment, then turned back, a bit of an excited gleam in her eye, “Don’t get me wrong, it would be deliciously exciting to actually meet one of the Silks, but I’m sure I’ve never seen one of them.”

Captain Trumble frowned down at his manila envelope, “You don’t know the Silks and you don’t know about any noble impersonators. So tell me, does the name Vincent Veevers mean anything to you?”

She shook her head, “Well, one does meet so many people. Of course I couldn’t be absolutely certain, but I would think I’d remember such a name.”

“What about Martin Ashton?”

She shook her head mutely. He sighed and said, “How about Disraeli Augustus McCracken the third?”

She tittered again, “Oh, my. The king? I’m sure I’ve never met the king before.”

Trumble leaned forward, rubbing his chin. He wondered vaguely if his source was just playing him, saying this girl could help him find some history on the Veevers boy.

The young lady leaned forward slightly to catch his gaze, “If that’s all, may I go?”

Trumble’s mind raced. This was his last chance. The trail ended here. Everything pointed to this girl who honestly didn’t seem to know anything. If he let her go, it was over. “No, miss. I’m afraid I’m going to need to hold you over for the evening. Tomorrow, I’ll present you to the magistrate and you can explain to him why you aren’t giving us anything.”

She blinked at him, “The magistrate? Why, that would be Magistrate Avery for this district, wouldn’t it?”

“Uh, yes.” Trumble had never met the man before, but he knew the name well enough.

She waved a hand at him and pulled a com out of her tiny bag, “Oh, well let me call him for you. He’s a dear friend of my father. They play darts most evenings. I’m sure we can handle this quickly.” A little crease formed on her forehead as she looked at the projected contacts screen, “It is after work hours, but I can just call his home.”

Captain Trumble shot up to his feet, reaching for the com, “That’s not necessary. You have a trusting face.” He smiled uneasily, his forehead sweating, “If you say you don’t know, then you don’t know.”

She blinked at him innocently, “Are you sure? It would only be a moment. I’m sure he’ll understand once I tell him that I’m in police custody.”

Trumble could feel his social aspirations slipping away,“No, no. That’s fine. I’m sure it’s not worth worrying him. Please. I insist.”

The door banged open and the large figure of Sir Bedragare pushed through the frame. The young woman’s face drained and she crumpled into the chair, “Ordure.” The unused com dropped to the table and shut itself.

The large man turned his sightless eyes on the girl, grinning, “Language, my lamb. Now we have played our games. That time is past. Now we come to the time of truths.”

The young woman threw her purse on the table and leaned back against the chair, “Of all the people in all the world…”

The large man took a step closer to her, wagging his finger, “You don’t know how long Bedragare looks for you, little lamb.”

“Well you have me now, you sightless maggot. What’s it going to be? Thumbscrews and hot iron brands?”

Captain Trumble blinked, looking from one of them to the other, then sputtered, “N-no! I just- We want answers. What do you know about the Silks?”

She looked at Bedragare, “What do I get?”

The man held two huge hands open, “One can only say what you will get if you don’t.” Her eyes widened a bit as her imagination took hold.

Trumble leaned in, “The Silks? You know something about them?”

She rolled her eyes, “I’m second in command of the Silks. Next question.”

“Ah- uh, what about noble impersonators?”

Her head rose with pride, “I’ve taken four out myself. Not a record, but still pretty good for my age.”

“You- you’ve taken down? Who?”

“Nobody you’d know.”

Bedragare made no move, so Trumble stood and pointed at her, “Now listen, missy-”

“Sit down.” She looked at him with cold, dead eyes. Trumble sat before he realized he’d done it. She sneered, “Everyone I’ve caught is now dead. So if you’re thinking of collaring them, you should get back to your questions.”

Trumble nodded, looked down at his folder, and thought about taking notes. He didn’t have a pen. He looked back up at her, “Disraeli Augustus -”

“The white whale.” She interrupted him, “Yeah, we’ve been looking for him longer than you have. I mean, he’s so damned obvious, it was insulting that we still hadn’t caught him.” One hand curled into a fist, “and now he’s untouchable.”

“Maybe not.” Trumble leaned forward.

“You’re going to take down a king?”

“I’m going to take down a man. If I can get him to abdicate in shame, then he’s mine.”

Her beautiful eyes narrowed behind the veil, “What would he be ashamed of?”

“That’s what I’m hoping you can help me find out. Now first,” He found his pen inside the folder, and touched it to the paper, “I need to know everywhere he’s been. More importantly, I need to know about every time he’s disappeared.”

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