Invito Rex – Chapter 14

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His majesty, King Augustus the third, began his reign in a tumult. The wars, of course, would seem to wreak havoc upon any leader, but this was not the greatest of his concerns. Much of what is known is apocryphal, with wild tales of shootings and bombings, police chases and music. There is even one story that say he let a queen take his place while sitting high above the world.

Many of the stories can be validated with footage from the many vids taken during that week. It is true that he was the first king in years to meet with the commoners while surveying his holdings. The stories regarding his ignoble birth have, by now, been well verified.

But the most interesting, and unverifiable, story is the one surrounding the concert he arranged. Despite multiple vid feeds from the thousands who attended the tragedy, it is still impossible to say how it started. There are some who even say it began over a disagreement about a bear…

– Justin Foote, Archivist and author of “The Veever King”

Questioning the king continued for some time, with the investigator asking leading questions, and Dizzy trying his best to answer completely. He knew the investigator was considering multiple possibilities, but every time he thought he understood where the questioning was leading, the investigator would ask something that lead them in a new direction. His assistant sat just behind Dizzy, with a flat, ridged tool folded out on his lap. The tool had a few antennae hanging off of it, all pointed at Dizzy. The thing hummed and churned, and whispered exhaust as it read information from him. During the questioning, the investigator would periodically look over at his assistant, who either nodded or shook his head. It made Dizzy uncomfortable, having this secret conversation going on around him. They never even bothered making eye contact. The assistant never looked away from his screen.

At one point the leading questions took them down the direction of collusion between Jus Cos and Astor Atherton. Dizzy was about to suggest that they would never work together, when the investigator took a long breath and slapped his knees, “All right. Thank you, my liege. I hope not to have to bother you again.” He extended a hand, and Dizzy shook it without answering. “If we have any other questions, we will contact you. I’ll update your man on our progress.” He jogged a thumb at Lord Dunem, who nodded in response.

As he and the silent assistant left, Dizzy turned to Lord Dunem, “I feel like my head’s been turned inside out. What was the point of all that accusation?”

The old man asked, “Whom did he accuse?”

Dizzy blinked for a moment, then said, “Come to think of it, I don’t think he directly accused anyone. But those lines of questioning. Surely he was trying to find out who to accuse.”

“I wouldn’t know, sir. However, it seems to me that while you were looking for an accusation, he was extracting details surrounding the incident.”

Dizzy wondered briefly whether Lord Dunem was really more astute than he was, or if the old man was just trying to tweak him on his grammar. The doctor came back over to them, “Is the king ready?”

Dizzy nodded, and Lord Dunem said, “I believe the king is prepared to retire for the evening.”

“Very well.” She turned to face him, “Take this.” She passed him a tiny pill, which Dizzy promptly dry-swallowed. The doctor nodded and said, “It’s powerful. Lie down quickly. I’ll return upon the morrow, and we shall evaluate your recovery then.” She turned back to Lord Dunem, “Have you given thought to counseling?”

Dizzy waved it away, “I’m fine. I wasn’t hit, I am all right. I don’t need counseling.”

Lord Dunem looked back at the doctor, “We will give it due consideration. Send me a list of qualified and discrete candidates.”

She nodded, “I’ll return tomorrow. Until then,” she turned back to Dizzy, “please don’t swallow anything given to you by someone whose credentials you have not checked.”

Dizzy winced and nodded to the doctor as she turned to leave. He took a deep breath, “I’m never going to stop learning about how this job works, am I?”

One corner of the old man’s mouth twitched upward, “The only kings who rule with certainty are tyrants.”

Lord Dunem began ushering the others out of the room, and when it was down to just the two of them, Dizzy said, “You were in here when I returned. In my bedroom.”

The lord nodded, “Yes, your majesty. I was preparing to explain certain realities about our current military situation.”

Dizzy pointed a finger at him, “Right. Yes. And I want to hear that, because so far, it sounds like a bureaucratic mess.” His eyes started to lose focus as he crossed to the bed, “I don’t like it being such a mess, either. I’m going to be the king who cleans all that…” he groped for a word. He slipped and grabbed the edge of the bed, falling into a seated position, “up.”

Lord Dunem clapped his hands once, and the door opened. He gestured at the king, and Astor came in to help prepare the king for sleep. Dizzy was unconscious before he was under the covers.

Dizzy woke late, which didn’t surprise him at all. The sedative was powerful, but left no lasting damage. He awoke refreshed and prepared for the day.

Astor was waiting for him to stir, and entered just as Dizzy was leaving the bathroom. As Astor set out the King’s clothes, Dizzy asked him, “How did your father take yesterday’s trade?”

Astor shrugged and looked away, “Well, I don’t see that it affects our house at all.”

“No? The king openly trading favors between houses?” Dizzy shrugged into a shirt with pleated forearms, “I’d have thought he’d be very interested in it.”

Astor chuffed, “Well, maybe if it became a constant thing. Right now, I think everybody just sees it as you trading one mistake for another.”

Dizzy stopped, one hand still holding the cuff of the other arm, “Really? Is it that bad?”

Astor folded his arms over his chest, “Your first mistake was getting the crown to owe Oldham a favor, but then to show favoritism to Oldham by taking Wilde’s prize bear away, and to do it in front of everyone…” He shook his head, “Well, your majesty has a very innovative interpretation of diplomacy. That’s all I have to say on the subject.”

Olivia stepped up behind Dizzy and straightened the shoulders on his shirt, “Ah, the promise of silence. Sweeter words you’ve never spoken. And may the lord above make it true.”

Dizzy turned to face her, “What about you? Do you think it was a mistake to pay the debt with Wilde’s bear?”

Her mouth hardened, “Don’t bring me in on this. I want nothing to do with those three.”

Dizzy nodded, looked away, then shook his head, “No. I really want to hear what you have to say, because it sounds like there’s something serious going on with-”

She cut him off, “You are the king. All of this talk about whether you made a mistake by giving or receiving favors is so much wind. If you favored my father, if you favored Lord Atherton, it doesn’t matter. In the end, you are the king, and every lord has bent the knee in support of that fact. You give them all power when you decide to play their game.”

Astor shook his head, “The king needs his lords. We are what keep the country running.”

“None of those men are stupid enough to hurt themselves in this balance of power.” She looked back at Dizzy, “If you did anything wrong, it was taking the bear away from Lord Wilde. Not because it was a favor or a payment or any of that. It was wrong because it was wrong. You saw something that Lord Wilde loved, and you took it away. That was real.” She looked back at Astor, “The rest is just rich men whining.”

Lord Dunem walked in just as Astor began to respond. He looked at the three of them, and said, “If the king is ready, I would like to speak with him.”

Astor and Olivia gave their polite, but brief, goodbyes. Astor closed the door behind them. Dizzy turned to Lord Dunem, “I wish I could get that kind of respect from young Atherton.”

The lord nodded, and headed back into the private office. As Dizzy followed him, he shut the door behind them. “I’ve just about decided to let Lord Wilde keep his bear. I’m not sure how to do it without losing face, but it’s worth the attempt.”

The old man put a disc down on his desk, and turned back to face Dizzy. He frowned for a moment, then said, “Oh, your domestic squabble. Yes, well, I’m sure you will figure out a way to handle it.”

Dizzy smiled as Lord Dunem turned back to the disc. He knew the lord hadn’t forgot what was going on in the palace. This was just Dunem’s subtle way of saying that there were bigger fish to fry.

Dizzy took a deep breath, and held his hands behind his back. The bigger fish would be a problem for him. He knew this was going to explain their military strategy, and he already knew he wouldn’t like it. More than that, he knew that Dunem would probably insist, and would have a list of perfectly sound arguments to explain why they should work peaceably with their enemies. But he also knew he would never agree with them.

Lord Dunem said, “I’ve been holding onto this for a long time,” and stepped away from the disc as a hologram snapped into view above it. Dizzy frowned for a moment at the three-foot-tall image of a man. Then he pointed, “Is that-”

The hologram cut him off as the recording began, “I am King Richard, second of my name.” The man was broad-shouldered and powerful, with a slim waist and form. He had dirty-blonde hair and a short, severe beard that defined a powerful jawline. His mouth was wide across his face, and his eyes matched Dizzy’s exactly. On his brow, he wore the crown that now wrapped around Dizzy’s forearm. His arms were crossed over an immaculately tailored suit of tan and green.

The dead king continued, “I doubt this will ever be viewed, as it seems ridiculous that both my son and I should die before the birth of any new heir. It is my hope that young Vincent never need to take on the mantle of leadership. Nevertheless, my chief-of-staff feels it is important that I prepare for all contingencies. And so here we are. Hello, Vincent.”

He paused for a long moment, frowning at nothing, then said, “I held you today.” He cupped his hands and looked down into them, smiling, “It was amazing. You were so tiny, so beautiful, and so much like your mother I stood amazed. The shape of your face, the hair… You are beautiful.”

His smile faded, “But I also saw the royal blood in you. The wide mouth, the sharp eyes. I thought, if anyone knew, your life would be in danger. My chief-of-staff, Lord Dunem, suggested that we pack you both off to some remote location and make sure you couldn’t come back. I won’t do that, though of course, I can’t very well bring you to court, either.”

The king’s frown deepened, “I think he would have you killed, if I were not watching.” Dizzy shot a quick look at Dunem, who remained entirely composed, never taking his eyes off the hologram.

The king continued, “Lord Dunem, well, you probably don’t know him. He’s either dead or impossibly old by the time you view this. If he is still working, you should know; He’s a good man, and loyal, but he’s loyal to the crown.” Richard looked up to the camera and pointed a finger, “Remember that, he’s loyal to the crown, not the man.” The king looked away again, hands on his hips, “I told him that I wanted to take care of you, but he forbade it. Said it would bring too much notice from our enemies. I understand, and I know he’s right, but all the same, I’ve told him to watch you and make sure you are safe. I suppose, if you’re viewing this, he did.”

He took a deep breath and said, “Of course, it also means that I’m dead, and left no heirs… I have a child coming. He will be the younger brother, but will inherit the kingdom, as a trueborn heir.” The king looked sadly out at them, “I’m sorry about that, in a way.” He stared down at the floor for a moment, “I honestly don’t know what to say. I keep thinking of tidbits of information that, I’m sure, will be useless to you. I want to tell you which factions to trust, and who to fear, but any information I give you will be outdated by the time you see this.” He snapped his fingers, “The Romanian Chancellor. Call him ‘Ruffles’ and let him know you’re my son, and he will always be there for you. He’s a good man, and he loves our family well.”

He looked back down at the floor and muttered, “I really am sorry.” King Richard took a deep breath and crossed his arms over his chest, “The fact that this is being viewed means that the worst-case scenario has come true. You were never trained for this job, and you probably grew up thinking you would have a simple life, where you were able to strike out and find your own fortune.”

King Richard ran a hand through his hair, “Well, you can’t. I’m sorry, but there’s just too much involved in running a country. A king gets to decide very little in his own life. There are many things I’d like to tell you, but this is the most important. You are not your own master. Not now, not ever again. You will want to rebel, you will want to fight your way out, or run away, but in the end, the job will hold you.”

He squared his shoulders and continued, “That is not a trap, it is not a blessing. That is just how our lives are. You will learn to accept it. It is our duty.”

He looked around himself again, then said, “I can’t think of anything else, except to say that I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make you part of our lives, and I’m sorry that I’m now pulling you out of yours. Like I said, I honestly hope this recording is never viewed.” He made a cutting motion across his throat, and the hologram flickered out.

“Duty,” the old man intoned. “Your father knew it well. He was a good servant to the crown and saw to it that -”

“Where did you get that?” Dizzy stepped up to take the disc out of his hands.

Lord Dunem showed no surprise, “It was given to me by your father many years ago.”

“And when were you planning to show it to me?”

“Just now.” The lord stared him down, and Dizzy found himself distracted by the datacrawl that colored the inside of his monocle. The old man continued, “My intent was always to show it to you at the first opportunity where we could schedule time together. As you can see by yesterday’s appointment, it is difficult to arrange time with a king.”

“Well, someone did try to shoot me.”

“My point exactly.” He took a deep breath and started again, “Duty. Your father understood it. Your brother understood it. Duty to one’s position. Duty to one’s people-”

Dizzy chuffed and turned away as Lord Dunem said, “Duty to the perpetual war.”

Slowly, Dizzy turned back to face him, “Say that again.”

“A man can exist for no reason at all. A government cannot exist without any reason.”

“I don’t understand.”

Lord Dunem began walking slowly around the room, gesturing as he spoke, “If you ask the man on the street what the King does for us, he may tell you that the king protects our economic well-being. He may talk about the King’s use as a figurehead for diplomatic missions. But the thing he is most likely to say is ‘The King protects us from the enemy.'”

Dizzy nodded, “Exactly. So how are we protecting them from the enemy, when we’re giving money or guns to the enemy.”

Lord Dunem nodded, “Your majesty, what if there were no enemy?”

Dizzy frowned, “Now you’re just talking nonsense.”

“No, my liege. Let us say that we have solved, through war or diplomacy, all arguments with all other countries. Let us say that, through your own heroic effort, you have removed all threats to the country.”

“Well, that would be a good thing, then. People would be safe. No more dead soldiers. Economic prosperity.”

Lord Dunem waved it away, “We could discuss the political horrors involved in a Utopia at another time, my liege. But if we were to have no enemies, what would that same man on the street say? Would he say ‘The King protects us from the enemy’?”

“I suppose he would fall back on one of those other answers. Figurehead for diplomatic whatevers.”

Lord Dunem shook his head, “I think he might be more likely to say, “You’re right! What do we need a King for?” The old man shook his head, “We live in a stable society, where every man knows his place and works to keep the great machine producing. But we often forget that, at any moment, the people could rise up and tear the machine to pieces.”

He pointed to Dizzy, “Duty. One of your duties is to keep this government together; to keep the people from tearing the entire government down.”

“And we do that by supporting our enemies? How does that make any sense at all?”

“We are not supporting our enemies. We are supporting the war.”

Dizzy just blinked at him, stunned by the baldly evil nature of that statement. Lord Dunem continued, “In these wars that we’ve constructed, people go to die, knowing that they are fighting for their country. Most of them don’t even know the countries they are fighting against. No one knows who the collected enemy is, or how to tell when they’re actually beaten.” He took a deep breath and said, “A great man once wrote, ‘It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist.'”

“We are at war just so we can stay at war? What possible good can come of that? How can we possibly win?”

“As long as the war is ongoing, we are winning. As long as there is a state of war, the different noblemen are willing to make sacrifices to the war effort. As long as there is a state of war, the crown can keep dissent limited by calling it unpatriotic. As long as there is a state of war, the crown stays strong.”

“And the men who give up their lives for our strong crown?”

“Regrettable. But people die every day. More people die by slipping in the shower or velo collisions than by war. It is a price we pay, but it is a small price, compared to the alternative.”

“How can peace kill more people than war?”

Lord Dunem sighed, “In war, people sometimes know they are going into harm’s way, and may die. They are kept safe until they are deployed into controlled battlegrounds. In the anarchist peace of a weak government, people die over small disputes, domestic squabbles, political arguments. In wartime, a nation comes together to protect the collective. In peacetime, a nation will eat itself with small, petty, selfish concerns. While we are at war, people do extra work to help the war effort, which improves the economy. While we are at war, the government can buy weaponry and supplies enough to keep domestic production high, while requiring the nobility to sacrifice in order to pay for those costs. While we are at war, we control the economy, and we can keep it stable.” He took a deep breath and held his hands behind his back, “A king who loves his country will always keep it focused and strong by giving it a goal they can all strive for, no matter how unreachable that goal is.”

Dizzy blinked up at him, unsure of what to say. He understood the argument, understood that this man believed wholeheartedly in it. He knew that, if he tried to fight Dunem in this, the old man would use every power at his disposal to protect those wars. Dizzy understood then that, if he were to oppose this, he would most assuredly fail.

No one with any power would stand beside him. No nobleman would come to his aid. No royalty from any other nation would help him. If he turned to the common man, they would tear down the government in rage, just as Dunem said. There was simply no way he could win this fight.

But at the same time, Dizzy knew he had to fight it. Even if Dunem was right. Even if it would cost more lives, ruin their economy, destroy their seat of power. Even if…

Deep in the pit of his stomach, Dizzy felt something tickle. It was a laugh of an idea that spread through his body. He ducked his head down for a moment and covered his face, as though deep in thought. The idea ran through him and made him chuckle inwardly.

Even if it meant that he was the last King. Dizzy would fight this, even if it meant destroying the crown itself.

After all, he was the bastard King. The illegitimate one. He was never made to be King anyway.

Dizzy composed himself and looked back up to Lord Dunem, his mind still rushing with plans. He was the King they were not prepared for. He was the King who grew up among the commoners. He was the King who didn’t value duty over truth.

He did not smile at Lord Dunem as he said, “I’m going to have to think about this.” He paused to make it look like he was mulling over Dunem’s words, “I don’t want to get in the way of what’s best for the people.”

He looked right into Lord Dunem’s flashing eye, and told a delicious lie, “I just don’t understand the wars well enough yet.”

Lord Dunem nodded and began to leave, as Dizzy gestured to him, “Um, I don’t think I should take a big role in military decisions for now. In fact, I was thinking that I should probably defer my foreign decisions to the council.”

“For the moment, my liege, I think that would be wise.”

Dizzy put a finger to his lips, “With that in mind, I thought I should concentrate my energies on purely domestic issues. That problem with Wilde’s bear, for instance.”

Lord Dunem smiled, “Yes, your majesty. I think that would be an excellent use of your time, whilst you prepare for more complicated duties.”

“And the concert tonight.”

Lord Dunem’s smile froze in place, “Yes, your majesty. That is a necessary duty that is probably best handled by you.”

“So we have reserved the Kovacs?”

“Yes sir. The venue seats about twenty thousand, and generally operates at an altitude of two thousand feet.”

“Close enough that people can hear it on the ground?”

The old man sighed, “Yes sir. The whole city will be able to hear the miscreant insult the nobility.”

Dizzy pushed unmercifully, “And you told everyone about it?”

“It has been promoted by wave for the last two days. Day and night, the announcement has been projected across the sky.”

“Wonderful.” He waggled a finger at the diplomat, “I’m telling you, people will love me for showing that I support the same things they do.”

“People will know that the king allows people to openly mock him. They will know that he supports being mocked.”

“And that will make them more comfortable with me. It will make them see me as someone they can relate to.”

The old man frowned, “It will make them see you as a man. A man who can fail; a man who can bleed.”

Dizzy grinned and held his arms wide, “Just like them. I can be the first king to be friends with the nobility and the common man.”

The Lord shook his head, “Whatever that boy says about you, whatever happens, it will be waved to the rest of the world. The whole world will see it.”

Dizzy clapped him on the shoulder as he ran past, “Let’s hope the whole world is watching.”

As Dizzy entered the main foyer, he saw the huge, hulking mass of Lord Wilde waiting. Astor ran up to the king and hissed, “The bear just got here.”

Dizzy frowned, “Where do we normally receive visiting lords?” He unfolded Sceptre from his wrist, and placed the circlet on his head.

Astor sneered, “Let’s put him in the throne room.” Dizzy understood immediately and rolled his eyes. Seeing him in the throne room forced him to remember who was in charge.

Dizzy headed toward the man, saying to Astor, “You’ll never make a good advisor if you remain that transparent.”

He smiled as he reached the giant, “Lord Wilde. This is an unexpected honor. Did you come for the concert?”

Lord Wilde looked uncomfortable in the tailored finery, “No, I’m not one for shows. I’ve come here-” He shot a look at Astor, and the entourage that surrounded them both, “I’ve come to speak with you privately.”

“Nothing would give me greater pleasure, milord. I don’t think I’ve seen you out here since the coronation. Please, walk with me.” Dizzy walked before the huge man, leading him out of the foyer. He shot a glance back at Astor, “the young Atherton lordling will ensure that we are not disturbed.”

Astor stopped following in mid-step, then scowled at Dizzy. He turned to the others and pulled them off, telling them to move along.

The lord stayed silent during their walk, paying no attention to the ornate decoration or to Dizzy’s attempts at small talk. The king lead him outside, over to the stables. As they neared, the large man seemed to stand straighter, look around more. He brightened and smiled a bit as they entered.

Dizzy asked, “Have you visited the royal stables before?”

“Not for many years. Cadvan had very little use for them.” He examined each animal as they passed, occasionally commenting on them. “The calf’s underfed, and you’re not watering the filly enough.”

Dizzy nodded along, “Sad to say, I’ve had very little time to visit the stables. I’ve been very busy this past week.”

Lord Wilde huffed, “Not too busy to stick your nose into other men’s stables.”

“That’s fair.” They neared a stall with the name “Cinnamon” burned into the wood. Dizzy unlocked it and let them in, “If I’m not misinformed, this is the bear you gave to my brother.”

Lord Wilde walked up to the creature and took it’s head in his hands. He looked into her eyes then pushed his forehead against the bear’s forehead. He threw his arms around the neck of the bear as it leaned in. He closed his eyes and said, “She’s a good girl. She was always a soft temperament, but strong and loyal.”

Dizzy stood away from them, recognizing the bond that the lord shared with all his animals. The large man’s eyes opened and he looked at Dizzy, “She hasn’t had any attention the last few days. Her coat is matting, and the fur between her pads is getting too long.”

Dizzy looked at one of the corners of the stall, “I think that’s the corner where they found my brother’s scepter, just before he rode this beast to his death.”

“Wasn’t her fault.”

“No, but I imagine it explains why the groomsmen haven’t been seeing to her.” Lord Wilde scowled at Dizzy, and he relented. It wasn’t the bear’s fault, after all, “I’ll see to it that she gets the proper attention.”

The huge man’s black eyes flashed as he nodded once. He stared intently at Dizzy for a long moment, until the king broke the silence, “So, I haven’t seen Wendy in some time. How is she doing?”

The Lord said, “She’s fine. Enjoying time with friends she hasn’t seen in years. She speaks of you often.”

Dizzy grinned, “Does she?”

“She says you’re stubborn, quick to act and slow to listen. She says you rarely listen to advisors, and you consider chaos a virtue.”

Dizzy blinked, “Ah.”

The man’s stare never wavered, “She speaks of you often.”

There was a tense moment as Dizzy realized what the man meant, then he cleared his throat, “Well, she is a delight. We were glad to have her as our guest, and are overjoyed to see her returned to her home.”

The lord nodded, looked away, then squared his shoulders. He faced Dizzy again, “Don’t take Sapata.”

Dizzy stared at the bear, “I can’t change course now.” He sighed, “In the past day, everyone seems to want to tell me that I’ve exchanged one mistake for another. I realize that the bear means a lot to you, but I can’t go back on it now.”

“You can. It was easy enough for you to take her from me. So walk it back.”

“I announced this decision in front of all three noble lords. If I walk it back now, the others will have no faith in my word.”

“Is it that important?” The scarred man shook his head, “All this playing at diplomacy. Does it really matter whether they trust you or not?”

Dizzy rubbed his chin with one hand, “Very soon, I am going to be in a bad situation. I think there will be war soon.”

“There’s always been war. I don’t know if your handlers have explained it to you, but -”

Dizzy nodded, “Yes. I know. But I’m going to be making some unpopular moves regarding that, and I’m going to need to know who is on my side.”

“What has this got to do with loyalty?”

“Because the people who are on my side are going to be the ones who followed me even when they didn’t want to. Even when it didn’t make any sense. The ones I trust will be the ones who made sacrifices without a promise of personal gain.”

Lord Wilde glared at him, “She wasn’t wrong.”

“How’s that?”

“She said you were stubborn.”

Dizzy walked over to Cinnamon and stroked the beasts flank, “This was one of your bears, wasn’t she?”

Lord Wilde nodded, “Cadvan took her. I don’t think he even wanted the bear, but Dunem took her to show the power of the crown.” He sneered as he said it.

Dizzy nodded, “I’d be glad to give her back to you.”

Lord Wilde shook his head, but Dizzy continued first, “Not as a replacement. She’s not as good a specimen. And not right away. I can’t let them think that we have any kind of secondary agreement. But I’d like to give her to you as a gift.”

The lord stared hard at him for a long moment, “You’re right. She’s not even in Saparta’s league. I came all the way out here to keep what’s mine. But this… This is a hollow gesture.”

Dizzy sighed and nodded, “I understand. I’ll have my men come next week to transfer Saparta. I’ll make sure she’s well cared for.”

The lord growled, “Don’t do it.”

Dizzy frowned, “Is that a command?”

Lord Wilde threw his hands down into fists, “Does it matter? I’m not playing your games. I’m not going to suggest, cajole, coerce, or order. I don’t go to court to play political games. I don’t build alliances to protect this lord or attack that knight. I speak plainly, openly, and I stand by my words. Now I’ve asked politely, I’ve told you why you can’t take her. Now just DON’T DO IT!”

Dizzy took a deep breath, then said, “Perhaps, Lord Wilde, if you had spent more time at court, building alliances and making friends, you would not be the most obvious choice for sacrifice. Now this is going to happen. I will do what I can to make it up to you, but you do not ever order me again.”

He walked out of the stall. As he reached the door, Dizzy turned, “Just out of curiosity, when did you arrive here?”

The lord blinked at him, “Here? I got into town yesterday morning.”

“But when did you reach the palace?”

The large man glared back at him, “Yesterday afternoon. Your man put me up for the night. What does it matter?”

Dizzy’s mind spun over the possibility. Lord Wilde loved that bear enough to travel all this way and beg to keep it. He was in town, in the palace even, at the time of the assassination attempt. Lord Wilde was one of the greatest marksmen in the country, well versed with hunting outdoors. And Dizzy had just given him motive.

Dizzy stared at him for a long moment. Would he have got one of his men to do the dirty work, or would such an honorable man insist on doing his own killing?

Dizzy’s voice had a slight tremor as he said, “If you’ll excuse me, I have a concert to attend.”

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