Invito Rex – Chapter 15

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“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”

— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Captain Trumble paced the length of the common area, glaring at anyone who met his eye. Detectives sitting at their desks feigned industry in an attempt to avoid his gaze.

“Nothing again!” He shouted to no one in particular. “I’ve got twenty men out there, shaking trees and grabbing names. I’ve pulled the damn nobility into my office several times now! Every time I do, it endangers this office! We need results, people!” He jabbed an accusatory finger at Sir Bedragare, “I never should have listened to you. Before this started, I was just the police chief. Now I’m the madman who harasses the nobility. Do you have any idea what this will do for my career?”

Bedragare shrugged. He sat at one of the desks, his feet propped up on an inbox, “I care little for your whining. Before I came here, you were man on Video, wetting his pants.”

Trumble’s face turned crimson and he took two steps closer to Bedragare, who did not even bother to face him, “You have found silks. You have got names. You have locations.”

Trumble thumped a fist down on the desk, “And what a lot that’s given us! I know all about the Earl of Viborg. I can tell you anything you want to know about King Augustus, third of his name. I even know where he went to disappear.”

He threw his hands in the air, “You know what I can’t tell you? I can’t tell you what happened next. Nobody knows! He goes there, an abandoned lot next to a hopper station, usually with those Silks hot on his heels, and then nothing. Poof. It’s like he was never there. He disappears for months at a time.”

Bedragare shrugged, “He goes somewhere. He has a safe place to go to, when things get dangerous.”

“Well, it’s apparently safe from us. Nobody can find a schedule for when he gets there, or what happens after he arrives. Those commoners we pulled in… they say whole groups of boys show up, and then just disappear.”

Bedragare stood up, “If prey goes to ground in times of danger, you set a trap and then make danger.”

“No. I’m not sticking my neck out again. Certainly not to threaten the king. I may not be the smartest man in the world, but I’m smarter than that.”

The huge, blind man shook his head and reached for his cane, “You curdled sow. You do not have the oak of a man to take what you want. If you stand up once, you could get more than one boy.”

Trumble blinked at him, “What the hell does that mean?”

The large man’s head dipped, “You are seeking an impostor. The Silks, they whisper about the Hidden Institute. If you were impostor, what better hiding place could there be?”

Trumble frowned at him, “You think it really exists? That hidden, underground school is a real thing?”

Bedragare nodded, “In my country we say, proof is only a large enough pile of rumors.”

“But if that is how he gets to the Hidden Institute-”

“Then you already know how to find them. You threaten the school, and you bring the boy-king to you.”

Trumble’s eyes blazed, “More than that, we could actually take the school… Think about it, maybe hundreds of people engaged in capital crimes. I could take my place in history.”

Bedragare smiled, “That is the oak that finds greatness.”

Dizzy was jogging by the time he got back to the palace. He saw the dowager queen, resplendent in her royal finery. Her dress was twice as wide as she was, with a collar as tall and wide as her head. She wore a burgundy wine dress, with frills running down the arms and pleating the skirt. Jewels gleamed from her fingers, neck, and ears. As she moved, she flowed with a poise known only to the richest of ladies. She was surrounded by half a dozen young women who tittered and looked reverently up to her.

Dizzy jogged over to her, “Good, just the person I wanted to see. You look lovely, by the way. So, how are we doing?”

“Stop.” She said crisply. Dizzy immediately stopped running as he neared her. She popped open an ornate silken fan and patted herself with it, “More haste, less speed, my boy.”

Dizzy looked to the young women, who regarded him with some dismay. He used both hands to smooth back his hair, which promptly sprang out again, “Thank you, my lady. Might I enquire about your arrangements regarding the concert?”

She waved away the request with her fan, “Of course. Everything has been handled. Following the concert, you will meet a friend who can lead you to the next event. I won’t be there myself, of course. I fear I have other obligations.”

He shot a quick look at the girls, realizing that neither of them could speak plainly in front of them. Nonetheless, he knew as much as he needed to, “Wonderful. Wonderful. Well, I hope you enjoy the show.”

“The king is gracious to provide us with entertainment.” She slipped an arm into the crook of his elbow, “I will, of course, be riding the hopper up with you. I understand the event is to be held on a Kovacs platform?”

“Yes. It’ll be brilliant. At the levels Jus plays, people will be able to hear him for miles!”

“So the commoners will be able to hear it as well.” The old woman sniffed, “Ah, well. I don’t suppose it can be helped, and it may do them some good to have a bit of culture. What are you sniggering at, my boy?”

Dizzy realized he was grinning right at her. This baseborn thief was so much better at playing the noble woman than he was, at times he just enjoyed the show. “Nothing, my lady. Your, ah, jewels are entrancing.”

She smiled shyly, “My king is generous. And speaking of your generosity, might I invite a friend to ride in the hopper with us?”

Dizzy blinked at her and shrugged, “But of course, my lady. I would be glad to-” He stopped as he saw one of the women step forward. It was Wendy Wilde, who walked alongside the dowager as though she would have preferred to be anywhere else.

“I thought my dear friend Wendy should be with us. She only just returned to us a day ago, so we haven’t had much time to catch up.”

Dizzy nodded, “That will be lovely.” He tried to catch Wendy’s eye, “You’ve been missed, Lady Wilde.”

She said nothing, but continued to walk alongside the old woman. They walked in silence for a moment, then the dowager queen tapped the girl’s forearm with her fan, “Manners, dear. When the king speaks, one responds.”

Through gritted teeth, Wendy said, “Thank you. The king is generous- ” she glared directly at him, “sometimes with other people’s property.”

Dizzy nodded. It was a fair cop. She knew how important the bear was to her father, and so did he.

Soon, they reached a mini-hopper, which had seating for only their small group. Dizzy entered first, of course, followed by Wendy and Olivia. Astor helped the dowager queen into the hopper, then followed her and closed the passenger compartment.

The hopper rose quickly into the sky on it’s parabolic arc. Dizzy was seated in the middle, between Olivia and Wendy, but he leaned over Wendy to look out the window. He felt like a small child, “There it is!”

In the distance, they could see the massive platform hovering over the city. Along the edge, Kovacs engines created whirlwinds above them, sucking in the air that they pushed out underneath. Each one created a vortex that warped the light above and below, creating a shimmer around the perimeter of the platform.

Inside the ring of engines, Dizzy could see row upon row of seats. The amphitheater employed invisible risers, with long benches held aloft by transparent struts. The total effect was like looking at a stage through horizontal blinds.

Above the risers, hanging like a thick halo over the theater, were the paid boxes of the nobility. The boxes were all opaque, of course, to keep anyone from looking in on those who paid for private seating.

In between it all, Dizzy could see people milling about. They were docking hopper busses to the outer ring, queueing up outside to get their tickets, and wandering around the bleachers, looking for seats. Dizzy frowned a bit at the ticket line, “I told Dunem this was supposed to be a free concert. Why are they buying tickets?”

Wendy pushed him back, “Do you mind?”

As Dizzy fell back into his seat, his mother said, “I expect it’s all some charity or something. Recommended donations I’m sure. I wouldn’t worry yourself.”

Dizzy fumed all the same. He turned to face Olivia, “How are you doing? I haven’t seen you since that meeting with-”

She flashed him a dazzling smile, “I’m fine, your majesty, and thank you for asking.” She looked around the cab, “It seems, my liege, that you are the only one who doesn’t know the history of my house. And as it seems you will speak of nothing else until the situation is explained, allow me to use this time to enlighten you.” The surrounding nobility suddenly found immense interest in the things outside the cab.

She sighed and looked at Dizzy, “My family history is ancient and set in it’s rules. They have done things the same way for generations, purifying and strengthening the line as much as possible through rigid rules and traditions that one does not question.” She looked around at the others who ignored her out of curtesy, “My father holds with some older beliefs that my siblings agree with, and I do not.”

Astor broke in, “Look, Miss Oldham. The scene you’re creating is unseemly given-”

Dizzy shot him a scowl, “Shut it, Astor.”

Olivia took a deep breath, “No. He’s right. I shouldn’t do this here.” She looked out the window and saw that they were nearing the docks. Her beautiful eyes were sad and glistening as she looked back at Dizzy, “Mine is a long and difficult story, my liege. Not one for such a celebration. Let us leave it for a better time.”

When Dizzy turned back to look at the group, he saw Astor frowning at him. The lordling did not shift his gaze until they had docked, then said, “Come on. Let’s go.”

There was no bump as the hopper attached to the theater, but when Astor stood, the door slid open to reveal a gaggle of nobility. When Dizzy saw them, his hand went to his wrist, where the bracelet unfolded to form a crown. As they stepped out, the brightly-colored press of people moved in to meet them, politely pushing their way forward. Dizzy smiled and shook hands, waving and nodding to the minor nobility as he moved through the group. In the back of his mind, Dizzy reveled in the fact that a week ago, none of these people would have even admitted to knowing who Jus Cos was. Now that it was the King’s will, they all pushed to show how much they appreciated the powerful satire of modern music. Dizzy played along, letting them have their dignity.

He stopped suddenly and said, “Wait a minute! Hello there!” He started pushing through the crowd, who scrambled to make a path for him as he walked over to a large, bald man with a cigar. Dizzy stopped in front of him and grinned down at the man, his hand extended, “It’s so good to see you. Sir Stein, isn’t it?”

The wide man looked up at him, incredulous, and stammered, “B-Baron.”

“Baron. How silly of me.” He turned back to his entourage, “The baron here shares a particular interest in professional Bear Polo.”

The bald man tried to step back, blending into the crowd, but Dizzy threw an arm around him, “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. How do you think the Kody’s will do this year, Baron?”

The man put as much courtesy as possible into his angry glare, “I’m sure my boys will make me proud.”

“I don’t know, they’ve had a couple of off games haven’t they?”

The wide man looked around himself, “We’ve worked through all that.”

“I hope so. Because right now, I would guess that the Kody’s won’t even place. What do you think? You think the king is wrong?” Dizzy’s glowing grin showed no sign of dimming.

The bald man said, “I.. think time will prove the King’s words.”

“Well spoken. Very politic. Tell you what… ” Dizzy turned back to face Astor, “We should really get Lord Dunem to sit down with Baron Stein here. His ideas on robotic modification are some of the most innovative I’ve ever seen!”

The man’s eyes were wide as saucers as Dizzy turned back to him, “Well, I’d love to stand here and talk sports and robotics with you all night, but I’m afraid I simply must be going. Don’t be a stranger!” Dizzy fairly danced away from the wide man who simply stared after him, letting his cigar burn unnoticed in his hand.

As they entered the royal box, Astor asked, “Who was that?”

“Oh, just someone I knew in another life. Thought I’d throw a bit of a scare into him.” He looked around the box at all the nobility who grinned back at him, despite not knowing what he was talking about.

“After all, what’s the point of being King if you can’t scare a minor nobleman every now and then, right?” They all nodded back at him, which was shocking in its own way.

“Okay, well. Let’s get seated then.”

The interior of the box was large, of course, with ample seating for a royal party. The front wall was made of transparent bulletproof glass, slanted so that people could lie down on the glass and look out over the stage or the bleachers if they wanted to. Pillows were piled along the edges of the armorglass floor. Temporary seating had been placed in front of the glass, for those too proper to lounge on the floor. While not a throne, the center seat in the front row was clearly more padded and opulent than the others. Sofas and lounge chairs were arrayed behind the seats and along the walls. Behind them was a long bar covered with a buffet fit for a king. A tower of wineglasses stood on either side of a choice of vintages. In the back of the room was a small, discrete toilet and kitchenette with UV oven and a walk-in refrigeration unit. Dizzy reflected briefly that the room was larger than his apartment just a month ago.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t large enough. There were just too many minor noblemen wanting to be close to the King during this celebration. Dizzy knew that his predecessor generally avoided the commoners, but he’d never noticed just how much Cadvan had avoided the nobility. As soon as he gave them some small bit of access, they came crawling out of the woodwork to shake his hand, get him a drink, and generally try to get some nugget of familiarity they could use at later social gatherings.

For years, Dizzy had lived off of those nuggets of familiarity. He had gathered them, cultivated them, and tried to use them to convince people that he was important enough to trust as a fellow nobleman. Now that he had all the power, there was something slightly tawdry about the whole process.

He extricated himself from the press of people and walked over to the glass front wall. As he neared it, a waiter placed a fluted glass in his hand, filled with something effervescent, light, and green. Dizzy looked at it for a moment, then continued to the front window.

The seats were filling quickly, and Dizzy was pleased to see that not all the attendants were nobility. The lower rows were clearly marked off for noblemen, but higher up, Dizzy could see the drab colors of commoner clothes on the patrons. He looked at one old man who had been seated for some time. He was wearing a suit, with dark jacket and slacks, and a faded-white shirt. He wore a gray tie and a battered fedora. His jacket was patched at one elbow, and the slacks had jagged pleats where they had been mended before. It was clear that, though the man was lacking in means, he had put on his very best to come see the show.

Dizzy nodded to himself and thought, “That man. Right there. Him, and the others like him. That’s what I need to work on.” He watched the man for a moment and sipped his drink. It was a queer vintage he didn’t recognize, with the taste of apple, and an odd hint of spearmint.

Down on the stage, Dizzy saw some of Jus Cos’ band getting ready to play. He’d worried that Lord Dunem would have made this more difficult for them, just to exert his power over the commoners. Instead, he saw state-of-the-art equipment, with beat squares, track ranges, and 8-stream synchwinds.

The people setting them up, though, were the lowest form of commoners. Their clothes were ratty and worn, ripped without patches. Their hair was unkempt and their skin covered in tattoos and piercings. Several of them had the sub-dermal tatscreens, which lit up under the skin and displayed anything from the time of day to full vids. The miscreants on the stage, though, had clearly set theirs to violent screensavers, tattoos that crawled across their arms, chests, and heads.

Dizzy had the greatest respect for his subjects, but this group of anarchistic thugs even made him sneer. If he was ever going to get the nobility to take the commoners seriously, these people would be the last ones trusted.

And, it suddenly occurred to him, these were the ones Jus had chosen for his band. Perhaps as a political statement? It made sense in a way, as these people were the most likely to be revolutionaries.

He shook his head and turned back to the polite hubbub of the royal box. They were starting to settle in, which meant the quiet, complex, and deadly serious interplay of power brokering to determine who would get which seat. The high lords, of course, took the seats closest to the front and middle, with hangers-on radiating out from them based on political importance. Dizzy couldn’t help but notice that Lord Wilde was not in attendance, his seat taken by his daughter.

The children of the great lords sat just outside their circle, and beyond that, high lords who jockeyed for position near to the king. The seating had filled quickly, leaving most of the lords standing along the walls or between the rows.

In the center of the front row, Dizzy could see they had left the opulent seat vacant, right between Lord Atherton and Lord Oldham. Dizzy grinned wickedly, then put a finger to his cheek. He walked over to the seat and said, “Well, this isn’t right. There seems to be someone missing.” He looked around the room, and said, “Ah, Lady Kreslin, the great Dowager Queen, as a guest of the crown, you should have a good spot.” All heads turned to see his mother standing at the back of the room. As honorary nobility, with no land holdings, she didn’t rate any seating in this group.

Dizzy grinned at her in the back, “Oh, look at that. A guest of the King, with no seat at all. And look,” he gestured to the front row, “We have a seat open up here in the front.”

Heads swiveled around quickly to stare at him, wide-eyed. The lady herself stared openly at him, momentarily stunned. She quickly recovered to say, “Your majesty is generous beyond words, but I would never dream of troubling your court so.”

“Please, as a favor to the king.” He shot a quick look at Lord Oldham, who raised an eyebrow.

She nodded warily and headed to the front of the assembly. Noblemen made a path for her, desperate not to be involved in the serious breach of decorum. She muttered to him as she arrived, “My liege is entirely far, far too kind.”

He took her hand and seated her in the temporary throne, then looked around, “Of course, that leaves me with nowhere to sit.” Noblemen throughout the room shot up to their feet, suddenly realizing that they were sitting while the king stood. Dizzy turned to Lord Atherton and said, “Could I trouble you, Aldrik, to let me use your seat?”

Lord Atherton, who hadn’t felt the need to stand, glared up at him, then looked over at Lord Oldham. Dizzy gestured at the older Lord, “Lord Oldham is, of course, of advanced age. I would never dream of unseating him so that a younger man could take his place.” He waited a moment as Lord Atherton calculated just what he would lose, then continued, “If it is too much trouble for you to give up your seat to the king, I’m sure I can find someone more amenable to the will of the crown.”

Aldrik looked at Wendy, sitting next to him, and growled, “Move.”

As the two of them stood, Dizzy raised a hand, “Actually, I have business to discuss with Lord Wilde’s daughter. Would it trouble you terribly to move somewhere else?”

By now the whole group was watching Lord Atherton with a fearful expectation. Dizzy wondered just how far he could push the Lord politically. He had upset Lord Wilde by taking something he loved and giving it to an enemy. Now, it looked as though he was stripping Lord Atherton of the political power in court, the commodity he enjoyed the most. Dizzy wondered vaguely if he could push Aldrik far enough to actually strike him.

The lord glared at him for a long moment, then nodded once. He stood up and faced the group, “Giving up my seat is the least of the sacrifices I would make for our nation’s current leader. The Atherton family has ever been faithful to the crown and our great nation.”

Dizzy smiled at him and clapped him on the shoulder, “It’s just a chair Aldrik, I’m not asking you to storm an enemy bunker.”

There was a smattering of laughter as Dizzy sat in Lord Atherton’s seat. Aldrik’s eyes flicked to his son, who immediately stood and gave him the seat. Ripples ran through the crowd, as everyone moved one seat away from their original position.

Dizzy looked over at Wendy and waggled his eyebrows, “Sometimes, it’s good to be the king.”

She frowned at him, “You realize you just put the Dowager Queen on the throne?”

Dizzy raised an eyebrow in surprise, “What?”

She stared straight out in front of them, “My liege should study his history better. In times long past, a king would give his seat only to a successor.”

He raised his hands in mock surrender, “It’s a chair. If we could all take a step back from the politics, life would be a lot more simple.”

She sneered, “No. If we take a step back from politics, the King steals our property.”

He sighed, “Ah. That again. You do realize that it’s just a bear, right? I mean, I’m not taking his land, I’m releasing the prisoners that my brother took.” He pointed a finger at her, “I’m even starting to take a more active role in the military. I’m working on lots of different things, trying to help lots of different people. And yes, I do occasionally make a mistake here or there, but in the long run, I am helping people.”

She shook her head, “Every tyrant has started his term by saying that he was stealing from one for the good of the group.”

“It’s a bear! An animal.”

“It is something he loves, and you took it away. That’s not reallocation of assets. That’s cruelty.”

Dizzy sank back in his chair and looked over at his mother. She remained studiously disinterested. Dizzy opened his mouth to speak again just as the show started.

Throughout the theater, lights started to dim. The massive spotlights above them shut off slowly, leaving nothing but the footlights on the stage. Dizzy could see the twinkling of running lights along the aisle floors, and individual cameras blinking in the distance, making the ground beneath him look like a starry evening.

Silence fell throughout the theater as all eyes turned to the stage. Dizzy could hear the shuffling of people hurrying to their seats, but nothing else.

Then there was an explosion like a bolt of lightning on stage. Every light in the place flashed, as a huge ball of fire burst out of the floor and furrowed upward into a mushroom cloud. A powerful bass chord started low and built slowly as, through the smoke of the mushroom cloud, Jus Cos walked out onto the stage. He was backlit, throwing his shadow onto the smoke, like a massive creature born of destruction.

Laser light filled the air, painting patterns in the smoke between the hanging box seats and the bleachers. As the music built, Dizzy could see the waveform written in light above them, watching it burst into activity at every percussive moment. Fire jetted from different areas of the stage, illuminating a scene of destruction and the horror of war. As the crowd recovered, they roared in appreciation.

Jus was wearing a simple suit, the clothes of low worker. A ragged suit coat covering a thin shirt that said, in slashes and rents, “Let my people go.” He smiled out at the crowd, raising a hand to wave and recognize their applause. After a moment, he shouted over them, “How you viddie, my droogs?”

The roar kicked in again, washing over them all in a wave of noise. Dizzy smiled, realizing that there were probably more commoners down there than Lord Dunem would have approved of.

Jus said, “Howzit we’s here? What brought you excellents to my soiree? This here’s the firsts for mosta you. Just Cos ain’t never done a live show. But I feel love in those seats, my bruvs.”

Another roar of approval washed over him, “That’s beautiful. I gots love returned then. But what made it? What pulled this sewer rat outta his hole? Was it the freedom to say what we want?”

A chorus of “NO”s rattled over the stage. Beside him, Dizzy could see Lord Atherton looking nervous. The king tried not to smile.

“Was it maybe that we finally won? We got our families back, got our fair wages, got our freedoms?”

Another round of “NO”s sounded through the theater. Dizzy looked over at Lord Oldham who appeared more bored than anything else. He looked back at Dizzy, and winked.

Jus pointed one finger high up, at the royal box where Dizzy was watching, “Nah. It’s cause one up-jumped bastard decided he was gonna put me on for a show. He says, ‘Dance for me, little man. An’ if I don’t giddy, you blow your top.’ Now how’s that for a king?”

The murmur of dissent was there, but not as pronounced as before. People knew the king was watching, and most of them were not as brazen as they pretended.

“So you know what I sez? I look him right in the eye, and I sez, ‘Sure, boss. I’ll spin a tale about you, shall I?'”

Lord Atherton made to stand up, “I’m ending this.”

Dizzy smiled and said in a soft voice, “Sit down, Aldrik. You’re ruining the show for everyone.”

Lord Atherton pointed a jeweled finger at the stage, “That man is directly insulting the crown. I have a duty-”

“To follow the orders of your king. Now shush.” Dizzy put a finger to his lips as Lord Atherton sank back into his seat, wide-eyed. As Dizzy looked back at the stage, he thought he understood where Astor got his attitude from.

Jus Cos launched into “Riot of one”, his most popular song. Dizzy listened for a bit,

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

They all fear my truth
Jus’ Cos I’s uncouth
They spit their vermouth
In the face of the youth”

Dizzy whispered to Wendy, “Would it matter at all if I said that I had a very good reason for taking your father’s bear? I mean, I can’t tell you all about it, but there are things happening, bigger than us, and the best way to-”

“If you don’t mind, my liege, I’m trying to listen to the man teach us about tyrants who act against their people.”

Dizzy nodded and leaned back in his seat. He knew the plan was sound. He believed this really was the best way, but you couldn’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. He turned back to listen to the new lyrics,

“Now we watch as Damacles sword
is bouncin’ on a bungee cord
above the head of a bastard lord
who’s writin’ checks he can’t afford.

He fights and flails against the nobs
playin’ games and losin’ jobs
listenin’ to the mother’s sobs
and trying to give back what he robs

But can he break the big machine?
Can he wipe the king’s slate clean?
Does it matter what he means
If nobs don’t help him with his schemes?”

Dizzy’s eyes widened as he listened. This wasn’t recrimination. Jus wasn’t out there calling for revolution. If anything, he was telling the people to support him against the nobility. He gave Lord Atherton a quick glance and saw the man sneering down at the stage. On his other side, Lord Oldham was sitting up. He didn’t look bored anymore.

Dizzy knew that Jus couldn’t actively support him. His whole base was built upon bringing down the nobility. But in those few words, he managed to show the king as noble and fighting, but held down by the aristocracy. The message was clear, and was repeated in other verses. Jus was telling them to support the king, without supporting the war. He was making Dizzy look like a revolutionary leader himself.

As Dizzy gaped at the young man, Wendy leaned over to him, “That is how a leader acts. He shows favor to those who help him, and he brings the good people together so they can make true change. A tyrant plots and keeps his enemies closer. An honest man keeps his friends closer. He joins them in the fight against his enemies.”

Dizzy thought about the plans he’d made. He thought about the damage that had been done over this favor. He considered whether he couldn’t just come clean about his intentions and join forces with those who treated the world honestly.

The set was ending, and Jus told everyone they’d be back in five. The sky lit up with projections of his war-torn video footage, set to the music of his prior albums.

Dizzy turned to Wendy and said, “I need to talk to your father. I need to do it now. Get a wave to him, and have it channeled to this room.” She paused for a moment, incredulous, then got up and headed for the door.

Dizzy stood up and said, “During this brief interlude, I’d appreciate it if you would all give me the room for a moment. There’s an important call I must make alone.” He took the hand of his mother, who frowned at him, concerned. He whispered, “Don’t worry. Everything will work out fine.” He kissed the back of her hand before she left.

The nobility grumbled as they were escorted out by the guards, and soon the room was left empty. Dizzy walked to the entrance as one of the guards was closing the doors. The guard looked at him sadly and said, “I’m sorry. They have my children.” He closed and locked the thick, oaken door.

Dizzy blinked at the door for a moment, confused, then tried the handle. It rattled in his hand, but didn’t budge. He pounded on the door panel, but received no response. He shouted and pounded on the door, but it didn’t open.

Dizzy looked around himself at the empty room again. In the back of his head, he heard Sceptre’s voice, “My liege, you are in danger. We need to leave immediately.”

Dizzy looked back out through the glass wall, his eyes widening in fear. He grabbed the crown and shouted, “Tell everyone. Don’t let them forget what I was trying to do.” He threw it under an iron cake cover and looked around the room.

Sitting in the bleachers, Stan and Lou both looked up at the royal box. They could see people being ushered out of the room. Lou began to stand, but his friend put a restraining palm on his thigh, “No, my duck.”

Lou looked back at him, aghast, “But surely the time’s come. Darkest hour, and all.”

Stan gravely shook his head, “No. It’s a sad turn, and no mistake, but this is not the darkest.”

Lou pointed upwards, “If that boy don’t make it out-”

Stan was stern, “No. Every man’s the hero of his own story, but not every story’s about just one man. That’s the kind of mistake every king makes.”

Lou eased back in his seat and said, “Don’t see how we can-”

They both turned to watch a commotion starting in the bottom seats of the bleachers. Three men in the middle of the front row stood up, pointing weapons all around them. They formed a tight semi-circle facing away from the stage. People ran from them, crawling over seats and other patrons. From the aisles, the bright blue of the king’s guard flashed as his majesty’s protectors leaped forward. They fought through the crowd to reach the armed semicircle of men. A fourth man in the center of the semi-circle stood up and faced Dizzy, a long, thin weapon perched on his shoulder. A brilliant red line of light reached from him to the royal box. He aimed and fired just once.

The rocket moved slowly, almost ponderously toward the target, a plume of smoke jetting out behind it. As it moved, it gained speed, targeting the box. By the time it hit, the rocket was moving fast enough to punch through the bulletproof glass and explode inside the royal box.

The noise was deafening, and the light from the explosion burnt their faces. People threw their arms up over their eyes, and as the sound of the explosion died away, it was replaced with the screams of the people in the bleachers.

The front of the box was nearly vaporized, with pieces raining down on the whole auditorium. Patrons were hit by flying debris as far as fifty feet from the stage. From below, Stan and Lou could see the inside of the box, half a kitchenette hanging over them and burning. The other boxes swayed slightly with the loss of their central stabilizer.

People ran for the exits, choking the tunnels as nobility and commoner alike pushed past each other to get out. But they were on a floating platform, and it takes time to fill escape vehicles. The exits were clogged, and people poured back into the auditorium, looking for other exits. The projected scenes of wartime violence merged seamlessly with the smoking debris throughout the seats. The King’s guard shouted and pushed and called for calm. No one noticed the four men who had blended into the chaos.

In all the screaming, burning, and blaring rock music, Stan and Lou sat quietly. Stan brushed dust off of his best coat, while Lou just stared up at the husk of the royal box, “It just ain’t fair. Boy never got hisself a chance.”

— The End of Book Two in the Noblesse Oblige Series —

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