Invito Rex – Chapter Four

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It is well known that there is a higher echelon of nobility, above that which you or I can see. In the same way that we are able to look down at the commoners who scratch and toil for their every cent, there are others who look down upon us as well. We know the king to be at the top of this pyramid, but very little is known about those who sit just below him.

Among our order are many levels of which we are aware. The lowest nobility is, of course, the family of the ennobled. Sons of dukes and daughters of earls. Above them, we have the lower noble classes, the titled land-holders. These are the knights, dukes, and earls. Some of them serve in Parliament, even if they have no holdings or vassals.

Above that order sits the higher nobles. These are the lords and ladies who rule over the lower nobility. A knight may think himself independent, but he will soon find that he is living on another man’s land, and under another man’s rule. The noble lords are all land owners, and have, at minimum, a working force of greater than a hundred vassals and servants. They are almost all members of Parliament, and even their children are above the lower nobility in rank and privilege.
While all this is understood to the youngest of children as the right and proper order of importance, the higher echelon is almost never mentioned. While we, the noble lords, may consider ourselves captains of industry, these higher Lords would surely be the admirals.

The average noble lord has lands and holdings valued at around twenty to fifty million dollars. These higher lords are said to be worth tens of billions of dollars on average. They have their own conscripted forces, some reaching almost a third of the strength of our nation’s armed forces. Lords at our levels rarely think about it, but when we refer to ourselves as land owners, we are, in fact, leasing that land from one of the higher Lords.

This power they have can be seen best by their anonymity. It is known that the upper echelon exists, and they can often be seen traveling with the king, but almost nothing is known of the people themselves. It is said that there are three to five small families that wield this awesome power, but very little is known about them, save what we hear from the media.

Newsvids are almost certainly owned by these families, as they often shape news stories to help one agenda or another. This is not conspiracy ranting, but rather a lifetime’s research into the media. Occasionally, one can see the lords sniping at one another, such as the printed rumors of Lord Wilde’s bestiality. In general, though, their influence is subtle, slight, and pervasive.

The chronicler would like to point out that there is no illegality or impropriety in this action, as it is well understood that a man who owns a thing can control that thing. It is only right and proper, and he thanks the higher lords for allowing him the opportunity to publish.

These higher lords tend to keep to themselves, socializing only with each other. It has often been suspected that, at important events such as coronations or royal weddings, the nobility will gather for a celebration, and the higher nobles will enjoy a more lavish and personal party elsewhere. These suspicions are unfounded, though, as no one from our level has ever been given audience before them.

I quote now from Lady Almalthea, the sixth daughter of the Earl of El Paso, and one of the few who can claim to have seen these parties:

“When I was five years old, I was brought to an opening for one modern art exhibit or another. It was in Queens, I remember that. I was too young then to realize what an honor my family had been paid, but my father and mother were making the most of it, chatting up all the higher nobility they could find. I quickly tired of the whole event, and decided to wander. Behind the drapes, I found a door which lead to the kitchen, and I remember thinking how odd it was that a museum would have a kitchen. I wandered through unhindered, as everyone else was running about all higgledy-piggledy.

On the other side of the kitchen was another door, and when I passed through that door, I saw the most stunning display I’ve ever known. I remember jeweled staircases, immense statues, and buffet tables with every type of dessert. There were several people inside, all dressed in such exquisite gowns and suits as I’d never seen. It was the most beautiful party I’d ever seen, or ever would.
There were several families there, but I remember there were only four important men. I could tell from their bearing and everyone’s deference to them. One was a large, stocky, bearded man who laughed with a deep, boisterous tone. Another was a tall, thin man with bright eyes like a hawk. He smiled only when he was watched. There was an old, bald man sitting in a chair, who did nothing but scowl at people. But the man they all looked at, well… I knew he was the king, you understand. I mean, I knew from his picture on the coins. But I’d never seen him in person before. He laughed and joked, and slapped the thin man on the back.

Then he turned and saw me, and I remember him saying, “Well what’s this? A little lost lamb?” Everyone turned and looked, and once the king showed interest in me, everyone else flocked to me. They smiled and cooed, and played with me. The king even walked up to me and hoisted me in the air. He said, “Now this is what I want. Someday, I’ll have one just like you, sweetling.” He spun me around until I giggled with nervous excitement.

Then suddenly, everything seemed to stop. The room got quiet as everyone turned to see my father standing at the door. His eyes were wide as saucers. It was the first time I’d ever seen him frightened. The old man hissed at him, “Private party. Get on with ya!”

My father, dumbstruck by the group, could only raise a weak hand to point at me. The king put me down and said, “There you go, back to your family then.” He squeezed my shoulders once, and pushed me in my father’s direction. We went back to the party, and my father immediately gathered our family and took us home. He tells everyone we meet, as though we were best friends with the king. Of course, I’ve never seen them since.”

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

Dizzy awoke with a massive headache. His whole body was numb and heavy. He was smart, and even before he was fully awake, he understood that he was in a noble house. The air smelled sanitized and refined, the cushions beneath him were form-fitting, soft and supportive. He kept his eyes closed and his breathing regular. He wanted as much information as he could get on the place before “waking up”.

He wasn’t bound, which was a good sign. Whoever had captured him didn’t want him for torture. At least, not yet. The sound of the air in the room indicated that it was spacious. From the clipped footsteps outside the room, he could tell by the echo that this was an official room. Not the lower basement of the linen closet or anything like that. It sounded like the walls and floor were of marble, like a library or a mausoleum. That thought gave him pause. Did they bring him into a crypt just to gloat before snuffing his light out?

A little way away, Dizzy heard something coming. It was rattling, deep and chortling, like a pack of dogs, snuffing at a trail. It grew louder and closer. As the volume grew, it echoed off the walls, building in menace and strength.

Suddenly, Dizzy could bear it no longer. He sat bolt upright and cast about, looking for the stalking creature. He was seated on a raised dais in the middle of the room. A great hall stretched out before him. As he had guessed, it was covered in marble, from the floor to the columns. Rows of chairs sat in lines facing the center of the hall. On the walls, tapestries and vidscreens showed moments of great patriotism.

Above him, the ceiling reached hundreds of feet up, with buttresses covering supports every thirty feet or so. It looked like a giant webwork of intricately-carved ivory scaffolding.

Dizzy heard the sound again, and looked down to see an old man sleeping in one of the audience chairs. He was snoring loudly, causing the sound that had menaced Dizzy into wakefulness.

The old man in the chair was dressed in military finery. For a moment, Dizzy thought he recognized the man, but couldn’t place him. Rather than wake the man, Dizzy continued looking around the room. Tall stained-glass windows ran along the walls, showing battle scenes of great American victories. The marble floor was a single long sheet, which was an expense most nobility could only dream of. Whoever wanted him captured, they didn’t suffer for money.

Dizzy thought briefly of the Baron Stein, who had sworn to kill Dizzy if he ever set eyes on him again. He thought of Sir Bruce, who had sworn to hunt him to the edge of the Earth, or Lady Bruce, who swore she would cut out his heart. Too many names, too many enemies, and none of them as powerful as this.

He looked at the chair he was sitting in. It was simple oak, intricately carved, with gold filling the carvings so that it remained smooth and comfortable. He saw sigils of the nation carved alongside the curliques and carvings.

None of his enemies were strong enough to do this individually. Perhaps several of them pressed the police at once, demanding that they turn over possession of Dizzy. Perhaps it was all of them together. When he wasn’t watching, all his enemies joined forces and used their political power to wrest him away from the police, giving them assurances that they would kill the boy before they were through. Dizzy’s eyes flitted back and forth throughout the room. This time, he looked for weapons.

He leaned forward in the seat. They hadn’t restrained him at all. Not even to stop him from running. Was this to be some macabre game? He’d heard of Lord William Wilde, who was rumored to hunt men in his game forests. If that were the case, Dizzy decided, I won’t give them the satisfaction.

The old man shuddered suddenly, and came awake. He blinked rapidly, running a hand over his face and smacking his lips. Dizzy sat very still and watched him. Something Sully used to tell him, “When in danger or in doubt, hold still and find a way out.”

The old man blinked at him and shouted, “The boy’s come to!” His gravelly voice bounced and echoed off the walls.

Scarcely a moment later, a door behind Dizzy burst open, and a tall, thin, perfectly-dressed older man strode in. He had one hand to his ear, and a monocle that was clearly streaming data to him. He muttered as he walked over to Dizzy, “Confirmation? You have my confirmation that the situation has stabilized, we have an alternate, and I will alert the press momentarily. If you want anything more, just make up stories amongst yourselves. You’re good at that.” As the bald man stepped up to Dizzy, he extended a hand, “My name is Lord Ashford Dunem. I am-”

Dizzy’s eyes were as huge as saucers as he interrupted, “Political advisor to the king.” Suddenly it all made sense. Dizzy had long thought of himself as the greatest of the noble impostors. Now that all the nobility had gathered against him, what better punishment than to have him publicly executed before the king.

Even as he felt the trap close around him, Dizzy took the offered hand with both of his and fought the urge to ask for an autograph.

The bald man gestured back to the seat, and Dizzy nodded politely, sitting again before he even considered the gesture. Lord Dunem placed his hands together, one finger from each touching his mouth in thought.

“Mr… ah, how should I address you?”

Dizzy blinked up at him, “My name is Disreali Augustus McCracken the third.”

Lord Dunem nodded, “I see. So it is your intention not to stick with Veevers then?”

Dizzy’s eyes shot open. He was about to ask how they knew that name, when he remembered how he’d been caught. The police had him leaving the home of the Dowager Queen. If they knew his name was Vincent Veevers, then they must already know who she was and how they were related.

He frowned at that. Had she called in some favor? Spared him the police by asking a favor of the king? Could she even do that?

And why would she? Just earlier that night, he’d considered that she was the one who called the police on him. He couldn’t trust her any better than them. Dizzy looked around at the gentlemen standing over him. At this point, he couldn’t trust anyone.

Dizzy took a deep breath and settled into the seat. He repeated, “My name is Disreali Augustus McCracken the third.”

Lord Dunem nodded absently, “Just as well. It sounds better. If I may recommend, though, I would leave the McCracken out. Augustus sounds far better for your station.”

Dizzy blinked up at him. Were they mocking him? Dizzy knew his station, and if they knew it as well, they had no reason to offer him advice of any kind. Dizzy decided to change the subject, “A strange sort of home this is. A man could die of thirst before anyone offered him a refreshment.”

None of them took the bait. They just kept staring at him. Lord Dunem asked, “What do you know of King Cadvan?”

Dizzy said in an instinctual mutter, “long may he reign.” Dunem looked over at General Elling who only raised an eyebrow. Dizzy continued, “I met him once. Briefly. That is to say, I attended a royal ball once, but was never afforded the opportunity to visit the royal presence.”

A cold chill ran through Dizzy, as he saw the situation laid bare. Dizzy was a graduate of the Hidden Institute. He was attending a royal ball with a fellow alumni named Cliffy. At that party, assassins had attempted to kill the King, and it was Cliffy who saved the King’s life. For that effort, despite his low birth, the King had knighted Cliffy.

But Dizzy also knew that the King hated commoners. He hated the brotherhood of the Hidden Institute most of all for their presumptuous goal of infiltrating the nobility. Could this be why the King had brought him here? Cliffy was untouchable, having been raised up by the King himself, but Dizzy was a comparative nobody. He was an impostor who, once unmasked, could be made an example of. He was easily disposed of, should the king wish his head.

The door behind him slammed shut with a reverberating echo. The sharp clack of heels in a deliberate walk announced Dr. Hazel Turnock, the surgeon general. When Dizzy saw the doctor approach, he stood, “Ms. Turnock.” He extended a hand, palm up, offering to kiss her hand.

She took his wrist between two fingers and her thumb. With her other hand, she reached up and pried his eyelids apart. Dizzy blustered and took a hesitant step back. She growled, “Hold still now.”

After a moment, she let go of his wrist and held her fist in front of his face, thumb upraised. The thumbnail glowed brightly and she watched his eyes as she moved the thumb back and forth across his field of vision.

She held his head in both hands and pushed down hard under his cheekbones with her thumbs. Dizzy’s mouth opened involuntarily and she looked in, asking, “What was the last thing you had to eat?”

Dizzy tried to answer, but his words came out as a mush of vowels. The doctor reached around the back of his head, feeling for tender spots, then squeezed his collarbones, his upper arms, and his chest just beneath the ribs.

Dizzy tried to laugh it off, “I’m honored, my lady, that you would take such a personal interest, but-”

She didn’t bother looking at him, “He seems all right. Some nervous system damage, but that was likely due to the electrocution.” She squeezed a pressure point just above the back of Dizzy’s knees, and he nearly fell down. For a moment, he felt like a sacrificial virgin, being prepared for the volcano.

Lord Dunem asked, “So you feel he’s competent to take the oath?”

Hazel looked up at Dizzy with deep, canny, sharp blue eyes, “I’d say he’s physically ready. Only time can tell about the rest.”

General Elling frowned, “We should make him sign first.”

Dizzy was sick of this oddly-polite interrogation. He raised his hands in protest, growling, “I’ll not sign anything. Nor will I swear to any culpability. If you wish to wring a confession from me, it will take more than a few pensioners.” He scowled back at their frowns, “Now, if you want to charge me with something, I have the right to an attorney. I have the right to representation. I have the right to face my accuser. I have the right to face the king.”

General Elling looked at him levelly and said in a flat voice, “The king is dead.”

Dizzy stood very still for a moment, then eased back into the chair. King Cadvan was dead. The idea was just too big, and the situation too strange. The nation was without a leader. He was young and powerful, and now he was dead. He was dead, and the news wasn’t out yet. He was dead, the news wasn’t out yet, and they’d brought Dizzy here. They had brought the one that Cadvan wanted to hunt down, and they bring him to the palace because…

His eyes shot open, “Oh, no. You’re not getting me for that!” Dizzy dropped into a defensive Torat Shav stance, “I’ll have no part of your back-room dealings. Whoever killed him, however he died, I will not be held on trial for the king’s death. You’re going to have to drag me away in chains, gagged and bound.” He glared at each of them in turn, “Because if you let so much as one other person talk to me, I’ll spill everything.”

Lord Dunem looked genuinely shocked, “Sir, I assure you, I have no intention of -”

Dizzy’s voice rang in the palace hallway, “Kill me now, if you dare! Kill me now, because I will never be silent about this. I won’t go gracefully to the gallows out of some misguided sense of duty.” Another thought hit him, “Do you have my family? Did you find Sully? Is that it? Are you planning to use my family to assure my silence? Because I swear to you, that won’t work. I will shout at the top of my -”

Lord Dunem shouted him down, “Of all the ungrateful, ridiculous, jumped-up, pathetic guttersnipes-”

There was the whisper of metal, and the tip of General Elling’s sword touched Lord Dunem’s throat. Everyone stopped in amazement, as the grizzled old veteran frowned at Ashford. Lord Dunem blinked at his friend of twenty years, “What are you doing?”

The General’s gaze was cold, “If that young man is who you say he is, then you will show some respect. If not, then this is all just a waste of time.”

Lord Dunem blinked at the blade, then looked back at Dizzy, “I apologize, sir. Perhaps we are going about this the wrong way.”

Dizzy was stunned, but in the face of doubt, held on to his position, “I won’t take the fall for this. I want to talk to my lawyer, I will talk to the press.”

“Oh for all the god’s sake,” The surgeon general walked past them, pushing General Elling’s sword out of the way, “As long as he thinks this is some kind of star chamber, we’ll never get anywhere. If he wants to talk to people, let him talk to people.” She reached for a bell pull next to the seat. “Let him talk to all the people.”

She pulled the cord, and a loud bell rang out. The doors at the far end of the hallway burst open, and a wave of nobility streamed in. They were dressed in every possible color, looking bright and resplendent in their finery. Dizzy had met most of the nobility before, and he knew the cut of truly fine clothing. The lords and ladies, knights and princesses, earls and duchesses who entered were clearly dressed for a formal occasion.

And every one of them was wearing a black armband.

They poured through the doorway, and filled the room. A complicated dance of pleasantries and plots surrounded their attempts at finding the best seating. They all looked at him, and turned to one another, gossiping and evaluating. Dizzy’s heart caught in his throat. Every single person who had ever wanted him dead was here, in this room, ready to pass judgement.

General Elling stood off to his left and Lord Dunem stood to his right. The others fanned out from there, ordered by rank. Once most of the room was seated, a fanfare sounded from the doorway. Two trumpeters played the traditional song announcing the arrival of the king. Dizzy stood up from the chair, wondering what it could mean. Hadn’t they just told him that the king was dead?

Lord Dunem walked stiffly forward, to stand in front of Dizzy. He dropped to one knee and said, “I am Lord Ashford Dunem, advisor to King Cadvan, King Richard, and King Stephen before him. I swear now to serve the blood-born heir to King Richard, brother to King Cadvan. I swear my life, my lands, and my service to King Augustus, third of his name. Long may he reign.”

The whole room echoed with the sudden shout of “Long may he reign!” Dizzy dropped into the chair and, as he gripped the armrests, he realized something. The seat in the middle of a palace is a throne.

Lord Dunem waited for the shouting to die down, then said, “My lord. I give my oath of fealty, the first of many. Will you swear to protect the land and people of this nation against all threats? Will you guard over our children and our soldiers in the field?”

Dizzy’s head was still spinning. All he could think to do was whisper, “Please stand up.”

Lord Dunem said, “Yes, my liege. I rise a humble servant to the king of the Americas.”

The shout echoed off the walls, “Long live the king!” Somewhere, revelers had started a cheer, but were shouted down by more perspicacious viewers.

Lord Dunem looked off to one side and called a name, but Dizzy couldn’t hear it through all the shouts. A young fair-haired boy ran out into the center of the hall, holding a deep purple pillow before him. He stopped and knelt before Lord Dunem. In the center of the pillow was a golden crown.

Lord Dunem turned slowly and lifted the crown with both hands. He turned to face Dizzy and took one step toward the throne. From somewhere in the rafters, musicians began playing a rousing anthem.

Dizzy had the all-too-common feeling that he was making a mistake. But surrounded by this lot, he couldn’t think of how to get around it. Lord Dunem took another step forward and Dizzy held up a restraining hand.

“No!” The call came from far back in the hallway. Dizzy dropped his hand back to the armrest as everyone turned to look. A tall, thin, immaculately-dressed man stepped out of the line and repeated himself, “No, this is not the king.”

Lord Dunem took a step back, and turned to face him, “Lord Atherton. You have misgivings?”

The tall man pulled a small pinch of cloud and snorted it, “I have no misgivings. I know the law. This man is not part of the line of succession, and these proceedings are therefore an illegal travesty.” He turned to face the crowd, “I recommend an emergency meeting of parliament, that we may determine our own interim regent.”

There was a bit of muttering from the crowd, but most looked to Lord Dunem for a rebuttal. He nodded politely, “I have full authority over this, by right of the law of the Byblow king.”

Lord Atherton raised his head higher, “Without proof of his blood, your suggestion is baseless.”

Dizzy had the most peculiar feeling buzzing around in his head. What had started out as fear, wishing he could just get out of this, turned into something else. A tiny, little giggle of the soul. The idea was so immense, so ridiculous, he couldn’t help but like it. The thrillseeker part of him, which had so recently been tamped down by fear and confusion, finally started to surface. Why couldn’t he play king for a while? He’d played just about every other part in the aristocracy.

And with it came another realization. This was not a joke. It was no temporary dalliance that would eventually be discovered and lost. If he had the strength to take it, he could truly play this part. That wasn’t thrillseeking, but it was something akin. It was a willingness to take on a greater power than he’d ever known. It was a chance to be truly important, with no one able to argue that he was a fraud.

And as he watched Lord Dunem consider the challenge, Dizzy decided. He stood up, and all eyes turned to face him.

“Lord Dunem is a noted scholar on the monarchy, having served several kings himself. He lists legal precedent for this transfer of power. Now we have a challenger who gives no precedent. He gives no plan of action. In fact, Lord Atherton, your only suggestion seems to be to let Parliament adjudicate without consent of the king, bypassing the law altogether.”

They all stopped for a moment, and Dizzy took a deep breath. There was one moment where you get past the setup, and you truly sell the con. At that point, you either hook the pidgin, or get run out of town on a rail.

“As the keeper of the law, I will not stand for that.”

A gasp rose up among the throng. All eyes turned to him, and Dizzy refused to show any weakness.

Lord Atherton took another pinch of cloud and snorted it, never looking away from the young man on the throne.

Dizzy turned to lord Dunem, “Please continue, sir.”

There was a new light in the Lord’s eye, as he lifted the crown. He whispered, “I think this is yours” and placed it atop Dizzy’s head. The crown was heavier than it looked. It hummed with a life of its own, and quickly adjusted to just the right size for Dizzy’s head.

As Lord Dunem stepped back and bowed, the room erupted in applause.

A parade of noblemen stepped up to greet him, never offering a hand to shake, but rather dropping to a knee and giving one kind of oath or another. Some were flowery and vague, offering their thoughts and prayers for his safety and the strength of his loins. Others were more visceral, offering their own joyful disembowelment if it could be given in the defense of his majesty. Several oaths given were of a strikingly intimate nature, with women swearing their bodies and “unquestioning service” to his will. Dizzy nodded politely to each, hoping that he wasn’t expected to respond to such offers in the middle of the palace.

As one such woman curtsied low before him, ducking her chest down so that he could not miss her intent, a quiet voice sounded in his ear, “Congratulations on your coronation, my liege.”

Dizzy held very still, for while he was certain he’d heard the voice, he was just as certain that there was no one standing beside him. The voice continued, “It is a good idea not to talk to me now, as it would only draw attention.” Dizzy very casually looked over his shoulder, as though seeing something in the corner of his eye. He knew he wouldn’t find the source of the voice before he even looked though, because he could feel where it was coming from. Deep inside his head, he heard the timbre of a measured baritone voice. Whatever else he may believe, he knew he was hearing voices inside his head. The voice continued, “I will speak to you again later, tonight when you are alone.”

Dizzy continued nodding to the collected gentry while the back of his head spun with concern. Of course the voice would visit him in the night. Isn’t that when all the ghosts come out? He had been king for all of an hour, and he was already hearing voices. Shakespeare would be so proud.

The musicians continued and filled the hall with a bouncy song of joy and progress. It reminded Dizzy somewhat of a political rally he’d seen years ago. Food was brought in and a buffet was built along one wall. The center of the great hallway was cleared so that people could dance, though no one did.

The line of supplicants snaked all through the hall and seemed to have no end in sight. Dizzy looked at Lord Dunem, wondering if he realized how long they would all have to sit here and accept oaths of fealty. Dunem appeared to be looking at a particular place in line.

Some noblemen were too far away, or unable to leave at such short notice. But Dizzy knew enough of the high court to realize that the front of the line was stacked with high noble lords and parliamentarians.

Dizzy tried to see what Dunem was looking at. A few hundred yards away, waiting patiently in line, was Lord William Wilde. He stood out, as his shoulders were twice as wide as any man. The lion’s skin he wore on his back blended well with the golden doublet he wore, but it clashed badly with his black hair and beard. As he stood in line, he looked over the people around him with suspicion. A few supplicants approached him, shaking his hand and offering greeting. He nodded thanks and dismissed them without a word.

Dizzy looked back at Lord Dunem. Why was he so interested in Lord Wilde? Dizzy’s attention was brought back to the line as a petitioner made the rather ridiculous-sounding offer of “All my angels and angles for the king!”

Dizzy opened his mouth to ask about it, but the voice inside his head said, “Lord Cuttington is famous for his carpentry. Specifically, engraved wooden angles that lend artistry to a room.”

Dizzy tried not to show any notice of it, but nodded and said, “Your loyalty is well appreciated, Lord Cuttington.”

Eventually, the line of petitioners proceeded to Lord Wilde. Dizzy could feel a tension coming off of Lord Dunem as the big man proceeded up the dais. He stood, towering, over the seated Dizzy for a moment, then slowly lowered to one knee. “My life for the king,” he muttered.

Then, as he looked up, there was a brief flash of hate in his eye. He whispered, “How is my daughter?”

Dizzy opened his mouth to answer, but Lord Dunem stepped in. He addressed the court in a loud voice, “My Lords and Ladies. The high lords have given their oaths, and the king is satisfied. We shall receive the remaining oaths at a later date. For now, let us celebrate the dawning of this new era.”

Lord Wilde began to stand up, but Dunem put a hand softly on his shoulder. When Wilde shot a glare at the hand, he saw Dunem’s finger pointing subtly toward the veranda. The giant man’s face split open in an unabashed grin.

Lord Dunem turned to Dizzy, “It is customary for the King to have the first dance, sir. Would you please take Wendy as your first partner?”

Dizzy looked, and saw a striking young woman standing away from the crowd. She wore milky-white satin that gathered around her center and pooled on the floor. Pearls of the same shade were gathered in ever widening ringlets about her neck. Her raven hair was pulled back to cascade down her shoulders, and a web of precious jewels covered the tiara on her head.

Dizzy blinked, but kept his composure, “I would be delighted.”

Dizzy crossed to meet the young lady, and held one hand out to her. She accepted with a brief curtsy, gathering up her dress in her free hand as she did so.

The minstrels waited for them to reach the center of the room before playing a slow, regal waltz.

Dizzy had been caught off guard by the events of the day, but one thing he could always do was dance. He tested his partner briefly by leading more decisively than needed, but she was an able companion. She flowed gracefully from one step to the next, with the kind of fluidity that could only come from training and practice.

After a few minutes, the people applauded politely, and began to join them on the floor. Dizzy looked around as they danced, at the bright, shining throne room. The columns were lit with a diffuse internal glow, shaped and gilded by master artisans. The floor was dark marble, polished to a sheen that gave the impression of permanence, tradition, and nobility. The walls, the slowly-shifting tapestries, the high ceiling with it’s stained glass dome, they all spoke of the pinnacle of nobility and excellence.

He smiled to the lady Wendy, “Beautiful.”

After a moment, he realized how that must have sounded to her, and as she bowed her head in acceptance of the compliment, he allowed the sentiment to stand.

Lady Wendy was not a beautiful woman herself, but her good breeding, her dress, and her bearing made her lovely in this setting. She was clearly chosen to be the consort to kings.

As the thought hit him, Dizzy’s eyes widened. Ye gods, he hadn’t ever considered taking that plunge. He recovered his composure quickly, “Ah, I don’t believe I’ve ever had the pleasure, miss.”

She nodded, “I rarely stray from the castle, sir. Were you a close compatriot of your brother, you would have seen me more regularly.”

Dizzy heard the rebuke, but didn’t see any need to answer it, “I don’t know how much you know about my situation regarding my brother.”

She smiled, “You have, to my knowledge, never visited him. He never spoke of you, and you are listed nowhere in the line of succession.” The dance brought them close, and she whispered, “I doubt very much that there exists any situation regarding your brother.”

As they parted, Dizzy shrugged it off, “The ink on this day is not yet dry. Who knows what surprises tomorrow might bring?”

As they took a turn, Dizzy chose a new subject, “It seems passing strange that Lord Dunem would suggest you as my dancing partner. Surely he must know of your… concerns about my legitimacy.”

Her smile faded, “The snake wishes only to curry favor with my father.”

It only took Dizzy a moment to guess, then he looked out at the crowd and found Lord Wilde. The large man danced awkwardly with whatever chattering young woman asked the favor. While he stayed on his feet, the Lord looked clearly distressed. He kept his eyes always on Wendy.

Dizzy turned back to her, and saw the sad smile she gave to the Lord, “So you would be the lady Wendy Wilde, daughter to Lord William.”

Her look turned icy as she faced him again, “You know very little about the monarchy, for a monarch.”

Dizzy shrugged and grinned, “It’s only my first day.” As they turned again, he said, “My history has been spent in studying the lower levels of the aristocracy. I know my minor lords and ladies quite well, but I was kept well away from the major lords.”

She replied in a flat voice, “I’m sure you will find them all quite fascinating.”

“Court intrigue, I take it? Plots within plots?”

“You mock us, my liege.”

There was a sad look in his eye when Dizzy said, “No. Not mocking. Just concerned.”

Dizzy looked back and saw Lord Wilde misstep as he danced. His concentration was clearly on his daughter, rather than the dance. Dizzy smiled at her, “He has great love for you, but I wonder at how he dotes. I don’t believe he’s taken his eyes off of you all night.”

The lady nodded, “He hasn’t seen me in three years.”

Dizzy blinked, “Well! Then this must be quite the reunion! No wonder he is so pleased.”

Lady Wendy stopped suddenly, breaking the flow of their dance. Her voice was cold and flat, full of menace, “Cruelty does not become my liege. Were you any other man, I would scratch your eyes out.”

Dizzy looked uncomfortably around at the gathering crowd. He ran one hand over his mouth in thought, then said, “I apologize for my mistake. Please do me the curtesy of explaining my error to me while we dance.”

She looked around them, clearly thinking of the articles that would be circulating in tomorrow’s newsies. She inclined her head slightly and offered him her hand again. Dizzy took it gratefully, and rejoined the dance.

From the corner of his eye, Dizzy could see that Lord Wilde had stopped dancing altogether. He stood and watched Dizzy and Wendy as though afraid the new king had struck her. After a moment, he continued to go through the motions.

Dizzy looked over at Lord Dunem, who showed only slight concern. His eyes barely flitted away from a genial conversation with Lord Oldham.

For a long moment, Dizzy danced with the lady, trying to muster his thoughts. He finally said, “I meant no offense, my lady, and I sincerely would like to know how I have so wounded you.”

She continued the dance for a moment, refusing to look him in the eye. The thin smile she wore fooled no one. Between frozen lips, she muttered, “A king does not apologize.” Dizzy decided to take the comment as nothing more than a helpful suggestion. He held his tongue, in the hopes that she would elaborate.

After what seemed like an eternity of consideration, she asked, “You truly know nothing of the royal court?”

Dizzy shook his head somberly, “I have spent years traveling among the minor nobility. I have seen pockets of intrigue and camaraderie. I have known treachery and kindness the likes of which I did not think possible for our station. But in the end I must admit, I have never been privy to the inner workings of true royalty.”

Her brow furrowed a bit, “How could you follow only the lower nobility, without tracking the steps of the royal families?”

Dizzy flashed his famous smile, “I spent quite a lot of time trying to avoid the truly royal. You see, my lady, there are hundreds of lords, thousands of earls, dukes, knights, and such. It is easy for a man to lose himself among those of lower nobility. But there are only five or so royal families.”

She snorted, “In truth, only three. The Reed house is easily dismissed, and the McMillans are in decline. It is only a matter of time for them. That leaves only the Oldhams, the Athertons, and the Wildes.”

Dizzy’s smile remained, “You see how little I know, miss? I have travelled the world, living among nobility from all different nations, but I never-” Dizzy cut himself off there. How much could he admit? If he was truly king, he could absolve himself of all manner of iniquity. All the same, he couldn’t be sure how much of his story could truly be open.

“Four.” He finally stated.

“Four?”

“Yes. Four. You mentioned the Oldhams, Athertons, and Wildes.”

“What other family is there?”

“Mine.” Dizzy’s gaze drifted away, though his feet kept perfect time, “My family must be one of the noble houses.” His voice faltered as he said, “You know, I don’t even know my own last name.”

She raised an eyebrow, “You were secreted away for most of your life, the last hope for your royal family, and now that you’ve returned, you don’t even know who they are?” He nodded, still staring out to space, then he turned back to her.

The look in his eyes seemed honestly lost, and she took pity on him, “Becket.”

“Becket?”

“My liege, King Augustus, third of his name, defender of the crown and last scion of the house of Becket.”

Now Dizzy’s feet stumbled. He let go of her hand as he sidestepped, and regained his footing almost too late. As people turned to see his misstep, he twirled lady Wilde, making the entire move look intentional. She played along, but once they were close enough to whisper again, she said, “You’re not ready for this world.”

Dizzy felt the room closing in on him, but he fought back with the favorite weapon, exaggerated confidence, “This world’s not ready for me.”

One corner of her mouth twitched in the hint of a smile, “You stumble at the sound of your own name.”

“Just think of what my enemies will do at the sound of my name.”

She shook her head, “The king’s brother, estranged and roaming the world among the lower houses. Whatever possessed you to do that?”

Dizzy took a deep breath and tried to change the subject. “Tell me, why haven’t you seen your father in three years?”

Her eyes flashed rage again, but Dizzy held up one finger between them, “Ah, now. Let’s not do that again. I already told you that I don’t understand the situation.”

She inclined her head to him and said, “Lord Wilde is a good and loyal servant to the crown.”

Dizzy nodded, “That is, of course, good to hear.”

She continued, “I am his only heir.”

Dizzy covered his confusion with compliments, “And he should be well proud of you. You are a charming young lady, and quite the dancer.”

She looked away, “Some years ago, my father supported an initiative to help workers in the peninsula of Florida. Local lords were having trouble keeping workers from fleeing to the Southern nations.”

Dizzy nodded, “Yes, I remember that. They called it the Cane Rebellion.”

She nodded, “King Cadvan, may he rest in peace, felt that it was treachery to leave, punishable by death. My father did not argue the sentence, but he publicly disagreed with the sentiment. Lord Wilde said that any man who cannot appreciate the wonders of our land is punished enough by leaving it.”

“Ah. So they disagreed philosophically, but your father held with the king’s law.”

“He did so after I was invited to be a guest of the crown.”

Dizzy nodded for a moment to keep up with the story. Then, in a moment of clarity, he frowned, “The king brought you here to the palace. And he kept you here for three years?”

“I am proud to serve the king directly, rather than from some distant holding.” Her voice was flat and expressionless.

Dizzy muttered to himself, “Cadvan bought his loyalty by kidnapping you.”

The young woman’s teeth were clenched as she said, “Such words are treason. I would never utter them.”

Dizzy continued dancing on automatic as the idea spun through his head. He frowned at her, “It seems barbaric.”

Her eyes gleamed for just a moment, “The grievances of one king need not be the concerns of the next. As I go to my chambers tonight, I will pray for wisdom to guide my king’s thoughts.”

A wild thought struck Dizzy, and while a more perspicacious man would reject it as dangerous, Dizzy was wont to cultivate it carefully in reflection. He cast a glance back at Lord Dunem. The old man still seemed distracted, surrounded by minor lords and ladies. Dizzy strengthened his grip slightly and led Wendy a bit more forcefully, “What I do now…”

She frowned at him, surprised by the change in course, “My liege?”

He grinned at her, “What I do now is an act of friendship and kindness. It changes nothing legally. Do you understand?”

She flashed a quick look over her shoulder to see where they were going, then frowned back at him, “No.”

Dizzy shrugged, “You will.” He stopped suddenly as Wendy blinked at him. As she looked around, she saw that they were standing next to Lord Wilde and a young woman, swaddled in a frilly yellow dress.

As they stepped closer, Dizzy held Wendy’s hand and turned to her father, “Lord Wilde, I appreciate you attending my coronation. I hope you will not mind if I cut in?”

The huge man blinked at him, slightly agape as Dizzy placed Wendy’s hand in his and turned to the frilly yellow thing, “I fear you’ve been dominating one of the most lovely dresses I’ve seen all night.”

The lord shot a glance at Dunem, then nodded once at Dizzy. His gravelly voice was choked to a mutter, “I won’t forget this.” He took his daughter’s hand as if she was made of some light merengue, and danced away with her. As they moved, Dizzy could see that his skill at dancing improved immensely.

He then faced the young lady who was turning three shades of crimson. For a moment, Dizzy thought about this woman, and how she would have shunned him outright only a day previous. She would likely have spit on him and called for the constables if he dared to speak to her. Now as he extended a hand, the young lady clawed at it with surprising strength.

She began to drag Dizzy back out onto the dance floor when another voice cut in, “If we are changing partners, may I have this dance?”

Dizzy turned to see Dr. Turnock standing next to him. The frilly yellow thing looked incensed by the notion, but Dizzy nodded, “Why, I would be delighted, madam.”

Hazel’s partner was a comely young man who led the frilly yellow lady away, even as her eyes mourned the lost opportunity. Dizzy held the old woman’s hand lightly as they began the dance.

Dr. Turnock did not move with the smooth grace he had expected, but her movements were measured, clipped, and timed perfectly. She moved with precision, but not grace. She wore a gown of green and olive that shimmered around the waist and shoulders.

Dizzy smiled at her, “Thank you for all you’ve done. I’ll admit, I don’t completely understand what’s going on.”

She nodded, “That’s what I’m afraid of. Tell me, what month is it?”

Dizzy blinked, fearing some trick question, “Still April, I believe.”

“And who won the Bear Polo Invitational last year.”

“That would be the Wilde Warriors. Best bears in the game.”

“And who rules the Americas.”

“King Cadvan, first of his name.”

“That’s what I thought.” She stopped and held his hand, “I’m going to give you some sedatives and send you off to bed. You’ve got a lot still to digest, and it may take some time.”

Dizzy shrugged, “I feel fine, though.”

She nodded, “Yes. I understand. You’re going to bed now.”

“Honestly, I don’t believe that I need mothering from-”

“Do you know how easy it is to depose a monarch on medical grounds?”

Dizzy stopped and considered, “It seems to me I wouldn’t want to find out.”

She smiled and gestured for a young boy standing in the wings. He came running over to the two of them. The surgeon general said, “I’ll make your excuses for you.”

There was a sudden commotion as Lord Dunem strode angrily over to where Lord Wilde and his daughter were dancing. Dr. Turnock said, “You’d best go now, before people start demanding explanations.”

Stan and Lou looked down on the celebration from their perch in the rafters. Stan propped himself up on the wide broom he’d been using to clean the glass, “Now that’s a thing, and no mistake.”

Lou sat on their railing, his long, spindly legs dangling over the party. He looked up at Stan, “Wozzat?”

“The boy, just this evening, picked up by the blues for subterfuge.”

Lou frowned down at Dizzy, “Izzat the same as earlier?”

“The very one, my duck. Before, a running cuckoo, hunted by the constabulary. Few hours on, and half the world ready to pucker up.”

“The one what was gettin’ pinched for impersonatin’ a nob?”

“I say again, yay.”

“Well, that’s a thing, innit?”

“I believe I said it first.”

Lou frowned down at him, “Seems an awfully long way for the nobs to go, just to get one boy outta the clink.”

Stan put his head in his hands.

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