Invito Rex – Chapter Seven

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“Of the great noble houses, none is so openly hostile to the public as that of the Wilde clan. The Wildes own more property than any other two houses combined. Occasionally, a new scion will make a foray into business, selling off land for influence, but those attempts have never ended well. The most successful of the Wildes have been those who stayed with the family, using rental income to purchase more land, and build upon the largest agricultural center in the Americas.

Little is known of the Wildes, which is not entirely accidental. They are rarely seen in public, choosing instead to engage in pursuits on their own land. When a Wilde is in attendance, it is generally known that the press will be forbidden.

In 2277, Warren Wilde attended Texas A&M, in pursuit of his bachelors in Plant and Soil Sciences. His father was embroiled in an unpopular war in Venezuela, and young Warren found himself harried by local College Station press. In response, the student declared that no members of the press would be allowed on school grounds. The University threatened suit, until it was realized that the Wilde family owned all of the land leased by the University. Young Wilde declared that he would use his power as a landowner to change the lease and evict the University if they did not accede to his demands. This became a larger political issue than his father’s war, but no one could report on it for fear of prosecution. In the end, the Texas State Supreme Court upheld Wilde’s interpretation of the lease, and the University barred all press. This marks the first time in the University’s history that The Battalion, the school’s newspaper, was shut down.

While the story seemed excessive at the time, the lack of any judicial restraint served as a sobering lesson to the rest of the world. After that, the press took a careful view of any story that had ties to the Wilde family, for fear of being “Battalioned”.

At the same time, editorials regarding the Wildes flourished. Many news outlets were owned by the Atherton family, who had the finances and power necessary to fight the Wildes on their own ground. After an Atherton newsie took the Wildes to task for their censorship, the Wildes threatened to evict the newsie from it’s lot. The Atherton family relocated the newsie headquarters while making the argument to the Supreme court that a news corporation had the first amendment rights of personhood. The legal battles were long and costly, and ended with a stalemate of sorts. The news organizations backed away from covering the Wildes, while the editorials continued their full-throated recrimination of the family.

This stalemate came to a head during the reign of the Veever King, when Atherton presses made the allegation that Lord Wilde (who was an avid hunter, falconer, and veterinarian) was engaging in bestiality. The stain of this allegation hurt his only daughter socially, and forced the family into further seclusion. Sadly, the actions of King Augustus only served to worsen this struggle.”

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

“The ‘fluence of a king is not wholly unlike that of a star. Outside his galaxy, he is of little import. A bright spot to be recorded and ignored by all but the cartographers. Within his local system, he is a constant companion, a watchful eye who is always above, pulling common men in with his power and gravity. He is seen as the pinnacle of life, light, and hope. But the closer one gets, the more one notices that this power is distributed evenly, to all men, without regard for station. He cannot change one man, but that he sway all others in the action. As such, his power is constant, unchanging, and ultimately uncontrolled. He is, therefore, not a leader, but a servant of the power.

And once that power is exhausted, his blackness takes in all those around him, and destroys all who followed him.”

– Sir Jasper Ripley, Chief of Staff to King Richard the First

Dizzy sat near the window to watch as the hopper descended on Flint. The town was much larger and more sprawling than Dizzy had expected, and also more gray. The smog of industry hung around long after the factories and commerce were boarded up. As the hopper touched down, Dizzy heard Sceptre’s voice in his mind, “A king is never without his crown in public.”

Dizzy nodded and grabbed at the bracelet. As Wendy turned to face him, he paused, fearing she would see the transformation. She just shook her head, “I am constantly impressed by that thing. Cadvan had it made special, I believe, just to make the sigil more portable. If you turn it one way, it’s a brooch. Turn it the other way, it’s a crown. He never would show us the secret.”

As the crown unfolded, Dizzy grinned at her, “Beginner’s luck, I suppose.”

A line of guards bordered the metal staircase, and as they descended, they met the Duke of Flint. He bowed low, “My liege. It is an honor to meet you. I was so distraught over the news of your brother.”

Dizzy had extended a hand to the Duke, but dropped it back by his side as he realized that the duke was busy bowing and scraping. Instead, he put his hands behind his back, “Yes, it was tragic. He was so young.”

The Duke nodded and bowed again, “So young and so strong. So full of life. The whole city is in mourning.” Dizzy looked around at the gray hanger. A small contingent of nobility waited near the velos, too nervous to approach him directly. Dizzy was guided over to them, and introduced to each. He walked the line and shook hands, nodding to each nobleman. A marching band played the national anthem three times while they talked, making it nearly impossible for Dizzy to hear any of their names.

The Duke was still talking, “We mourn him still, with our every breath, the name Cadvan is a choked sob.”

Dizzy shouted over the music, “Where are all the people?”

The Duke smiled, “I’m sorry sir?”

“The people. From the town. Where are all the townfolk?”

The Duke stood up, his grief forgotten, “You mean the commoners, sir? Oh, well, I’ve arranged it so that our tour today will keep us from being distracted by any base riff-raff. We so rarely get a royal visit, it would be a travesty to mar it with the presence of-”

“Get me a family.”

The Duke frowned, “I’m sorry sir?”

“Find a family. No, two or three of them. And find a reporter. By the time we get out of those velos, I want you to have found three average families, and a member of the press.”

Dizzy turned to face the security lead, “Do we have a problem with that?”

The head of the guards stood one pace back, looking at everything except for Dizzy. He was easily twice the size of Dizzy, with serious, piercing eyes that seemed to take in everything. When he was asked directly, he nodded, “Let my people see them first. I’ll want scans and basic backgrounds, but we can do it.”

Dizzy held an upraised palm to the Duke, “There, the scary man says we can do it. This is your town. I’m sure you can find a few ordinary families, and have them meet us at the factory.”

The Duke bowed again, “It will be my distinct honor to handle this for you personally, my liege.”

Dizzy climbed into the closest X-10 velo, followed by Wendy, two security officers, the Duke, and four sycophants. Dizzy sat in the sofa at the back, and everyone else took seats opposite him. He sighed, “Oh, yes. This will be a fun day.”

As the velos pulled up outside a huge factory, Dizzy saw the tableau set for him. Three sets of people, each with one father, one mother, and one child. All dressed in the nicest clothes a commoner could afford. Dizzy climbed out of the velo and regarded one of the fathers. He was very likely wearing his church clothes. On a Tuesday. To the factory. Dizzy shook his head.

The families were all scrubbed and frightened. The fathers all stood with hands resting protectively on the children’s shoulders. Dizzy couldn’t tell whether they meant to protect the children from the foreman, or to remind the children not to say a word out of place.

A young man was standing next to them, holding a camera by his side. He just openly gaped at Dizzy, unable to believe what he was seeing. His hands fumbled as he brought up his camera to take the new king’s first public photos. His hands moved slowly, as though he worried that any sudden movements would break the spell and get him arrested.

Dizzy walked up to the first family, “Good morning. How are you doing?” He smiled, trying to look as non-threatening as possible.

The mother looked at the father, and the father looked at the foreman. The foreman cleared his throat noisily, “Hastings, the king just asked you a direct question.”

“Fine!” The man almost spit the word out, “All dandy us yah, your grace.” He made an attempt at a bow, but clearly had no idea how it was to be done. What he did looked more like the kind of parody one would see in a comedy vid.

“Well that’s good. I hope that-”

“Lovin’ the life here, no mistake. You’ll viddie no trouble from this quarter sir, no sir.” The man seemed to realize he was babbling before he realized that he’d just interrupted the king. He closed his mouth with a snap, his face turning red.

Dizzy wanted to tell him to calm down. He wanted to console the man, and say that he was just like them. But he could tell they wouldn’t listen. He could tell they wouldn’t believe him if they did hear it. He reached out a hand to the father, who took it quickly enough, but had barely any grip.

Dizzy sighed and looked at the other two families. One of them had a child with a shock of red hair. Dizzy almost laughed at that. They tried so hard.

He turned to one of the other families. There was a child, a little girl, in a white and black dress two sizes too big for her. She had shiny plastic shoes with a buckle on each, and white stockings. While her parents were starkly afraid, she seemed jubilant just to be able to dress up. Dizzy said, “Come here, child.” He knew asking politely would only confuse them, and sure enough, the father practically pushed her over to him.

Dizzy knelt in front of her to put them at eye level. He asked, “What is your name?”

“Cindy.” The child was clearly fighting between her instructions to be quiet, and her need to answer authority.

Dizzy nodded and gestured at all the noblemen, the families, Wendy and the Duke, “Do you know what these people call me?”

She blinked at him, looking for the trick question, “King?”

Dizzy puffed up his chest in mock pomposity, “They must refer to his royal presence as King Augustus the Third!” Then he leaned in and said in a low voice, “But I have a secret name as well. Nobody here knows it. Can you keep that secret?”

The girl’s eyes were wide as saucers as she nodded vigorously. He said, “You see, when I was a child, I loved to spin. I would just throw out my arms and run around in circles, spinning around and around and around until I couldn’t stay up anymore and fell ‘Splat!'” He clapped his palms together. “Do you ever do that Cindy?”

The girl grinned as she nodded. Dizzy continued, “I would spin until I fell down, and when the world stopped spinning around me, I would get back up and do it again. My mother couldn’t believe it, but she said, ‘If you keep doing that, you’ll make yourself dizzy.'”

He leaned back and said, “I told her, ‘I already am dizzy!’ And so I was. From that day on, she called me Dizzy. And when other people met me, they thought that was my real name. For years, I called myself Dizzy. And now, ” he leaned in again, “now that you know my secret, you can call me Dizzy, too.”

The little girl beamed, as a voice called out from behind her. Her father said, “Wouldn’t dream of it, you greatness. We’re proper folk in Flint, and we show ‘spect same as any and better’n most.”

Dizzy looked up at the girl’s father and said in a flat tone, “She can call me Dizzy.”

The man blanched, “I- well- as you say.”

Dizzy picked the little girl up in his arms and said, “Now why don’t you show me around where daddy works?”

She beamed, “Daddy works at the factory with the rest of us. We make slime.”

Dizzy blinked for a moment, then cursed himself for a fool. Too much time with the lower nobility. Dizzy had been looking at the rich for so long, he’d forgot just how poor the poor were. In a soft voice, he said, “Well, why don’t you show me where you make slime.”

The Duke stepped in, “Actually, my liege, the foreman has already prepared an extensive tour of the facility, engineered to give you the best overview of the process.”

Dizzy nodded, “I see.” He put the child down then offered to hold her hand, “Would you like to go with me, Cindy?”

The little girl took his hand and began to stride in front of him, fearlessly leading the silly adult. Dizzy heard a snicker from behind, but Wendy recovered by the time he turned to face her. She held one hand over her mouth for a moment, then said, “My liege will have only the best guides, it seems.”

The foreman lead Dizzy through the upstairs offices first, showing him their general sales records, recent profit improvement, and prospectus on future development. Algae was the staple, he said, upon which all food is built. “If you’ve got algae, you’ve got food.”

Cindy nodded and said to herself, “You’ve got slime.”

The foreman frowned slightly, “Ah, well, as you know, algae is a prime source, not only of food, but for pollution control, fertilizer, and energy production.”

Dizzy raised one eyebrow, “Energy production?”

“Algae is one of the most energy efficient forms of biomass, your majesty.” He lead them to the back of the office, where large bay windows showed the sprawling factory floor beneath. The factory floor was actually an outdoor area, with shallow trenches, each fifty feet wide, and a mile long.

“As you can see, we engineer several different types of algae, to fit the needs of both the culinary artisan and the corporate consumer.” Each of the shallow trenches was filled with different-colored liquid. People waded through the water, stirring up some areas and sifting out material from others. The people working the lanes wore scraps and rags over their tanned, leathery skin. A few wore hats, while others worked shirtless and sweating. A few were passed out in the lanes between the trenches, their arms thrown over their faces.

Dizzy hadn’t even noticed what kind of day it was. He’d been inside the entire time, environmentally protected from the moment he woke up. Looking at the people wading through the trenches, he could see that it was a brutal summer, a terrible time to be working outside.

Dizzy pointed at them, “What are they doing?”

“Ah, well spores need a form of current to spread. But once spread, they grow faster if given a chance to stagnate. Because of that, we can’t keep a current running all the time.” He smiled proudly, “There’s a bit of an art to it, your grace, and I’m proud to say we’re one of the best.”

Dizzy pointed at one of the people in the lane, a little old man curled into a ball, “What about that man there?”

The foreman frowned, “That. Ah, sir we have to give them breaks sometime. I- I’ll have him seen to.”

“No. That’s all right-” but he was too late. The foreman had a comm out and was whispering into it. A few seconds later, a man in company slacks and short sleeves walked out onto the lane and rousted the worker. The old man stood up slowly, waving his arms in indignation. He was shirtless and tanned, with legs stained purple below the knees.

From so far above, behind glass, they couldn’t hear the old man’s protests. They couldn’t hear the enforcer shout, but they saw him jab a finger at the old man and point at the trench next to them. The old man reluctantly picked up his stick and stepped back into the trenches. He looked up at the office, and Dizzy wondered whether he could see them.

Dizzy found it hard to speak, “That was not necessary.”

“We run a tight ship, sir. I’m sorry you had to see that. I assure you, it’s not policy.”

Dizzy looked out at the trenches and saw children Cindy’s age out there. He thought about her pretty dress and wondered if she wore stockings to cover purple legs. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, “Let’s move on.”

The remainder of the tour was rather pedestrian to Dizzy’s eyes. One type of slime looked the same to him as another. Some were chunky, some were viscous, some were brightly-colored. But little Cindy at his side went on and on, pointing things out when the foreman paused for breath. Every time they came up to a trench, she would plunge her free hand into it and offer Dizzy a “sample”. Her parents stepped up every time to clean her hand off, sanitize it, and apologize for her behavior.

Dizzy didn’t mind, though. He could tell that this was her world. She lived most of her life here, and she was proud to show it to a new person. A lump rose in his throat when he realized that she was actually happy here, with no concept of the schooling or play that she was missing.

He ran through scenarios in his head, ways to help the child. He couldn’t very well just take her with him back to the palace. Stealing commoners was exactly the kind of image he did not want to cultivate. And it wouldn’t really solve anything, because he knew that Cindy was only one of many. How many? Thousands?

In the end, Dizzy decided that all he could do was to change the system. He could change by decree those things that he couldn’t change by direct action. He would talk to Dunem, see what the process was. He would declare minimum working ages or daycare centers or something.

When the tour ended, he shook the foreman’s hand and thanked him. Then he bowed to shake Cindy’s hand and smiled at her, “You’ve been very helpful and kind. You were a delight to follow.” Without moving his head, Dizzy looked pointedly at the foreman, “I’m sure you and the other families will be rewarded for your kind service to me, and for taking time from your efforts.”

As he walked away, Wendy snaked an arm into his. She whispered, “That could have been handled better.”

Dizzy frowned, “What could?”

“Talking to her like an equal.” Dizzy cocked an eyebrow, but she stopped him, “Don’t look at me like that. I’m not Astor. But you’re going to have to start acting like a king.” She sighed, “Honestly, I don’t know where they brought you up. Were you surrounded by commoners in that… wherever they were keeping you?”

Dizzy sighed, “Yes and no. I’ve met… I’ve known many different types of people.” He turned to look at her, “That makes it harder. I mean, when you know how different people are, it’s harder to think one is better than another.”

Her lips pursed as she thought about that. “That’s odd. It would seem to me that, the more differences you find, the more different ways one person could be better than another.”

They got back into the velos, and Dizzy asked the Duke, “Where are we off to now?”

The duke fairly burbled with feigned delight, “Now, your majesty, we are going to the game.”

Dizzy opened his mouth to speak, but an ear-splitting horn cut him off. They all turned to look back at the factory. Wendy was the first to ask, “What was that?”

The Duke’s face was a mask of contrition, “I’m terribly sorry, your grace. That wasn’t supposed to happen until after we had left.”

“Yes,” Dizzy asked, “But what was it?”

“That was the whistle.” He shrugged, “It blows at the end of each day to tell the workers when to go home.”

Dizzy thought for a moment of the old man who had just been browbeaten into going back to work. The Duke was nearly bouncing in his seat, “We’re letting everyone out early today for the game.”

The velos pulled away, skimming over the pocked and cracked terrain, “Oh, is it that big an event for the people?”

The Duke held his palms up in a shrug, “Well, you are playing for Flint, after all.”

“Oh, of course.” Dizzy hadn’t realized. When he went to this game, he wasn’t only representing the nation, but also their home town, as the venue of choice.

Wendy put a hand on his knee, “Don’t worry about the game. We had experts brought in to help.”

Dizzy raised an eyebrow, “Help with what?”

“Your game. You are the king. We can’t let you lose this.”

Dizzy looked at her, then over at the Duke who smiled along. He frowned, “I think I’m a bit offended. Do you think I’ve never played Circus before?”

The Duke’s eyes bulged, “Of course not, my liege. It’s just that, with so much on the line, we thought it was a good idea to play the best game possible.”

Dizzy wondered at that. Perhaps they were worried about the war. If the Americas looked bad in front of an enemy, it could be embarrassing to the troops. Still, they wouldn’t have sent him out, with no idea of the consequences, if this were a tactically important move. Dunem would have insisted on coming out here himself, or sending one of General Elling’s tacticians to help him.

Dizzy leaned back in the plush seat. No, this was just the pride of a small township, wanting to do their best before a foreign power. He shrugged, “Well, I don’t suppose there’s any harm in listening to an expert’s advice.”

Most of Flint had seemed very gray and dull, so the bright colors of the stadium stood out as they neared. It was a huge dome, with spotlights on the inside that shone through the translucent ceiling. Long banners hung at regular intervals across the ceiling. The parking alone took up a city block, and every entrance had half a dozen guards. As they came up to it, Dizzy saw the name,

Cadvan Memorial
Stadium

It was written in huge, golden letters that could be seen for half a mile. Dizzy looked at the Duke and pointed at the name, “That’s very thoughtful”. He couldn’t help but notice that the word “Memorial” was in a slightly different font, as though it had been added only recently.

The Duke bowed his head, “It is such a loss. The people were all looking forward to seeing him play.”

Dizzy nodded, “What was it’s name before?”

The Duke blinked at him, “Before what?”

“What was the stadium called before you changed it to Cadvan? I mean, I’m guessing you changed the name because you knew he would be coming, right?”

“Oh, no sir. We built the stadium for this game.”

“Really? I mean, isn’t that hideously expensive?”

“Well,” The duke spread his hands and shrugged, “you’re playing for Flint. It seemed only right.”

Dizzy started to worry about the game, and the overdeveloped sense of pride his people had.

The velos moved through a darkened tunnel that opened deep inside the amphitheater. Elevators took everyone up to the royal box seats, which were, obviously, set to the South of the game field.

The game of Circus is not entirely unlike Chess. The people standing on the field represented different pieces whose moves eliminated other pieces. In the center of the field was a single black circle. Surrounding that was a ring of white, subdivided into quarters. Around that circle, was another circle of alternating black and white tiles, subdivided into eight sections. This pattern continued for two more circles, leaving an outer ring of 32 sections.

The stadium wrapped around these circles with amphitheater seating. As commoners began filtering into their lower seats, Dizzy looked around the royal suite. A buffet was already set up with the traditional hamburgers, hot dogs, popcorn, and s’mores. Dizzy grinned, trying to picture Cadvan eating this kind of snack, and he realized that Cadvan may very well have requested it. The more Dizzy thought about it, the more he realized that he didn’t know much about his brother at all.

He moved to the front of the box, where the windows opened to the game field. Dizzy pointed outside, “I thought Cadvan didn’t like being around commoners. Why would he have allowed this?”

The Duke carefully looked away, suddenly preoccupied with other matters. Wendy just smiled, “That’s mirrored glass. No one can see in. He didn’t mind it so much if no one could see him.”

A small, thin man knocked on the door and entered quickly. He scanned the room and said, “Your majesty, may we go over the rules prior to the game?”

“I take it you’re the expert?”

“I am, sir.” He produced a folio and removed a thin sheet of static paper. He held the page in both hands gingerly, as though it might crumble. He handed it carefully to Dizzy, who treated it with the same reverence. The paper felt heavy and weak in his hands. His eyes wandered over it, waiting for the information to shift or update in some way, looking for the clock on the page. After a moment, he realized that it was true paper, not a data sheet. The ornate calligraphy of the writing was masterful and clean. The paper stated that one “John Nathan Pritchard” had attained the rank of grand master some three years earlier.

Dizzy almost whispered, “This is amazing.”

The man took it back from him carefully, “Thank you, your majesty. It has taken me a lifetime to achieve.”

Dizzy wasn’t entirely sure if he had been referring to the document or the paper it had been written on, but he was impressed nonetheless.

Dizzy smiled at him, “Now, I hope you understand that, and I mean this with the greatest possible respect, you are an advisor here. I am the one who’ll be doing the actual playing.”

The color drained from the expert’s face, “Of course, sir. I would recommend we begin with strategy as soon as possible, then.”

A porter opened the door, “My liege, the Belgian delegation has arrived.”

Dizzy nodded, “Very well.” He turned to face Wendy, “I take it we’re expected to welcome him and such.”

She nodded, “He should be given the full diplomatic treatment, yes.”

Dizzy pointed out the window, “Porter, I want that man to join us.”

They all turned and looked out the window. A family was just sitting down, preparing for the game. The mother was laden with foam decorations, while the father was holding concessions and watching the two boys. The father wore faded fatigues, and struggled with the concessions in one prosthetic hand.

The Duke interceded, “Ah, your majesty, I was not aware you were familiar with any of the commoners in our fair city.”

Dizzy shook his head, “I don’t know the man personally. I just want him there.” He turned back to the porter, “Can you do that? Ask that man to join us on the circle of flame, then tell the Belgian delegation that we will meet them there.”

“Yes, your majesty.” The porter closed the door with a snap.

Wendy frowned, squinting at the father with a hand shielding her eyes from the sun, “Who is that?”

Mr. Pritchard replied, “He’s a soldier.” Everyone but Dizzy turned to face him. The expert looked at Dizzy with a raised eyebrow, “The man’s a veteran, clearly. The king wants someone there to represent the fighting men in this war, so that he can bring a personal face to the game.” Dizzy didn’t reply, so Mr. Pritchard continued, “That puts the prime minister on defense from the beginning, given that he wasn’t expecting this to turn ugly or personal.” He paused, then addressed Dizzy directly, “An obvious move, but one which costs us nothing, puts the enemy on the defensive, and gives him the mistaken impression that we are coarse and obvious in our strategy. A fine move, your majesty.”

Dizzy frowned at the mirrored glass, his back to all of them. It sounded well and good when grandmaster Pritchard said it, but Dizzy knew what it was. Using a man’s sacrifice as a gambling chip. A fine move it may be, but it tasted like dirt. He took a deep breath and said, “Let’s go.”

As they left the box, Wendy watched the porter standing in the bleachers, explaining everything to the very confused-looking veteran.

When they reached the ground floor, in the tunnel outside the play area, Dizzy saw the soldier standing uncomfortably. Dizzy walked over to him, hand outstretched, then stopped as the man shot up into a rigid salute. He came to attention as soon as he saw Dizzy, his artificial right hand snapping up to a straight line at his eyebrow. Up close, Dizzy was surprised at the size of the man. He was easily seven feet tall, and three feet wide at the shoulders. Underneath the baggy jacket, the man showed none of the casual fat Dizzy had come to expect from most of the Americas.

Dizzy decided against shaking hands when he saw the salute, “Ah. Well, so I take it introductions are unnecessary.”

The soldier stood still, looking forward. After a moment, Dizzy realized what he was waiting for. He raised his own hand in salute, hoping he was doing it right. The veteran dropped his hand to his side and remained staring straight ahead.

“Um. So,” The rigid discipline of this man completely shook Dizzy’s composure. He thought for a moment then said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Uh, As you were.”

The soldier looked at him from the side of his eye, then slid one foot out. He put his hands behind his back and stood with his feet shoulder length apart. From Dizzy’s perspective, he didn’t seem any more comfortable. “What’s your name?”

“Sergeant Harold T. Gideon, sir.” The soldier snapped the answer out like a lash.

“I need you to do something for me.”

Sergeant Gideon didn’t move. It was unnerving, and Dizzy wasn’t sure if this was respect or not. From inside his head, Dizzy heard Sceptre say, “A soldier waits for either a question or an order.”

Dizzy blinked at the man. Just a moment ago, the man was sitting down with his family to enjoy a game, and now he was a pillar of strength and determination. “Sergeant, have you served in Belgium?”

“No sir.”

“Where did you serve?”

“Havana, Berlin, Nome, and Paris.”

Dizzy nodded, “Well, that’s… damned impressive, really. Thank you.”

The soldier didn’t respond. It occurred to Dizzy that he’d met robots who were less disciplined than this man. He said, “Do you know anyone fighting in Belgium?”

The soldier said, “Yes sir. I have friends who transferred last month to the hundred and second.”

“Right. Good. Well, you know what this game today is about, don’t you?”

“Yes sir. You’re playing for Flint against the Belgian Prime Minister.”

“I’m about to walk over there and shake his hand.” Dizzy gave him a moment, “How do you feel about that?”

The sergeant took his time to think about it, “I think it’s something you have to do, when you’re talking diplomacy.”

Dizzy nodded, then looked back up at the seven-foot tall man, “I’d like to have you standing with me when I do. I’d like for you to stand as an example of how angry, dedicated, and disciplined we are. How do you feel about that?”

“I am glad to serve my king.” They were words he’d heard before, but Dizzy could hear a note of humor in them. Dizzy nodded. He would do fine.

Dizzy walked out onto the field at the same time as the Prime Minister. They both had a small entourage following them as they walked out to the circle in the middle of the field. They shook hands and the Prime Minister said, “It is a lovely day for a game.”

“It is. I’m very glad we have this opportunity.”

The Prime Minister nodded, then looked up at Sergeant Gideon, “You bring a bodyguard out here to meet?”

Dizzy didn’t look at the soldier, “No. Sergeant Gideon is one of our fighting men, and I wanted to give him an opportunity to meet you.”

“Is that a threat?”

“Only if you’re afraid of meeting people.” He looked around them at the circle they were standing in, “Ironic, isn’t it? You and I standing in the center circle.”

“Yes. Two flames standing in the most contested area, where wars are won.” He looked back at the soldier, “But the lances start further out.”

Dizzy shrugged, “Our lances move quickly.” He grinned at the leader, “Good luck.”

The Prime Minister nodded, frowning, “And to you.”

They both left the field and returned to their boxes.

When he reached his box, Dizzy was surprised to see it almost full. Two new groups had joined them in the royal suite. One group of sycophants surrounded a tall, thin, aquiline man with a long, sharp nose. He had a bird’s eyes, and they fixed on Dizzy as soon as he walked through the door.

The other group surrounded a small, wrinkled man who sat in a seat next to the King’s. He held a cane between his knees, and rested his chin on it, frowning at the field outside.

Dizzy walked over to the tall, thin man, recognizing him by his features, “Lord Atherton. It’s a pleasure to see you here.” The lord took his outstretched hand in a friendly shake. He was dressed in a long, pleated robe, covering a vibrant, ruffled suit.

The lord smiled imperiously, “I am sure it is.”

Dizzy grinned at him, “I don’t think I’ve seen you since you questioned my sovereignty in public.” The lord’s grip loosened, but Dizzy didn’t let him out of the shake, “How is that going, by the way?”

The lord’s smile froze, but did not disappear, “Well, the safety of the realm is everyone’s business, of course. That goal is sometimes vague and patriots are required to stand for what they believe is correct at the moment.”

“So patriotism calls for one to change their allegiance?”

“Of course not. Patriotism requires that men stand up for the safety of the nation.“

“So it’s patriotism that leads you to depose a king.” Dizzy finally let go of the hand.

Lord Atherton stood for a long moment, looking down his nose at Dizzy. He said, “Understand this. If you are validated, mine shall be the loudest voice in support. Until then, I will remain true to my understanding of the law.”

Dizzy nodded, still grinning, “Your majesty.”

The lord’s eyes shot open, “I beg your pardon.”

“Your majesty. Or your grace, my liege, your highness, or else you may just call me King Augustus.” Dizzy waited.

The lord glared at him, and as others turned, noting the tension between the two, he began to redden. Dizzy, meanwhile, continued smiling and waiting. After a moment, the general murmur of the room died down, and everyone turned to watch them. The lord’s eyes flicked left and right as his face reddened, but Dizzy did not move.

Eventually, Lord Atherton said in a low voice, “I will remain true to my understanding of the law, your majesty.”

Dizzy nodded once, “Thank you. Of course, I support the law implicitly, as I am the maker and enforcer of all laws.” He took a step back from the lord, “It was a pleasure meeting you, my lord. You remind me so of your son Astor.”

As Dizzy turned to face the other group, Wendy caught his eye. She covered her mouth with one hand, but couldn’t hide her smile. Dizzy rolled his eyes and whispered, “The apple doesn’t fall far, does it?”

Dizzy walked over to the old man, sitting in the front row. He sat down in his appointed seat and turned to face the man, “Lord Oldham, I presume?”

“No flies on you.” The old man looked at him, but didn’t offer any additional comment.

Lord Oldham was thin and small, bald and wrinkled. His palsied skin seemed folded and pock marked across his skull and neck. His eyes were a rheumy yellow, and his teeth were discolored. The two of them considered each other for a long moment before the old man spoke up again, “If yer gonna try to make me bow and scrape like little Lord Atherton over there, yer barkin’ up the wrong tree. I’m as loyal as anybody, but I’m not a dancin’ bear, and I don’t do tricks.”

Dizzy nodded, “I can respect that. I’ve met your daughter. She’s a kind and friendly guest.”

The old man chuffed and looked back out the window, “Olivia? You can have her.” After a moment, he looked back at Dizzy, “In fact, that’s not a bad idea. Why don’t you take her. It’d make ol’ Atherton’s head explode. Might be worth it just for that.”

Dizzy smiled, “I’m not considering matrimony right now, sir. I’ve only known her a day.”

The old man waved him off, “I didn’t say anything about marriage. I’m not stupid, and I’m not so old I’ve forgotten what young people do.”

Dizzy’s grin widened, “You’re not a very concerned father.”

The old man’s face hardened, “Now don’t you get to thinkin’ that. I love my family. Love em’ more than anything. I would do anything to keep my family together.” He shrugged, “But Olivia? You can have her. Or don’t. No matter to me.”

Dizzy sat back in his seat, still regarding the old man. Slowly, others took their seats, and the pieces walked out onto the field.

White and black, the Circus pieces took their places on opposite sides of the field. The two men dressed in tassels and holographic fire were “The Flames”. They represented the king, and stood on opposite sides of the outermost ring. Spread out in a protective wedge were the Lances, dressed in color-coded, modern tactical armor. There were sixteen on the pitch, eight for each side. Within the wedge stood the remainder of the major arcana. Dizzy knew the pieces, though his understanding of them was somewhat cynical.

The Coin represented the merchant class. It could move as many steps inward or outward as it wanted, but could only move one space in it’s own ring, which represented just how sneaky and unpredictable the merchant class could be. The Book represented the clergy, and could move as far as it wanted within its own ring, but could only move one space inward or outward, which Dizzy took to mean that the clergy had power only among those who travelled in their own circles. The glove, who represented the nobility, was unique in that it could leap over adjacent pieces as many times as it wished, like a piece in Checkers. This movement showed how the nobility only got around by using others.

As the pieces moved into their starting positions, a young woman in a flowing blue gown took to the field. She moved to the center circle, and waved at the throng. The announcer described her as, “Heather Welliver, a rising star in the singing community, with several ballads devoted to her king.” The young woman turned and curtsied low before Dizzy’s suite. He started to wave to her, then remembered that she couldn’t see him.

She began to sing the American Anthem, a haunting, powerful ballad of strength and freedom, of protection and steely reserve. Dizzy had heard it many times before, but she put a new depth to it. Her range was such that he could hear a sadness in the recounting of wartime hardships, and the cruelty of deposed leaders. It was the most beautiful version of the song he’d ever heard.

Then, as the music died down and the crowd’s cheers rose, she turned to face the Belgium delegation’s suite. She sang a quick, lilting, easy tune, that ran counterpoint to a poppy soundtrack. It was full of joy and lighthearted rhyming, though Dizzy couldn’t make out any of the words. As she ended her song, most of the audience was quiet. A few people booed and shouted at her.

Beside him, Wendy seethed, “She should be flayed for that.”

Dizzy shrugged, “For singing a song?”

“For giving comfort to the enemy, after being given the highest honor any base crooner could have. She sang for the king, then decided to embarrass him for some political statement.” Wendy shook her head, “It should not be countenanced, my liege.”

Dizzy sat for a long moment, looking down at the woman who stood shivering in the center of the field. Was she afraid? Was she hateful? Dizzy could feel the eyes of Atherton, Oldham, and everyone else in the room, waiting to see how he handled such indignities. He put his chin on one hand, cupping the fingers over his mouth as he muttered, “Tell me about Heather Welliver.”

A voice close to the king’s head answered in words only he could hear. A quiet moment passed as the king listened to his most secret advisor, then he called out, “Porter.” A young man was by his side in an instant, “I want you to deliver a message to Miss Welliver.”

“Sir.”

“Tell her that I was moved by her patriotism and that her voice was the finest I’ve ever heard when singing the song of our fathers.”

“Yes sir.” The boy took one step back before Dizzy continued, “And tell her that I was very disappointed with her second song. Tell her that it pains me to say she will not be invited before the court again. In my name, wish her luck with the rest of her career.”

The boy’s eyes widened, “Yes sir.” He took off like a shot.

Lord Atherton shook his head, “It would have been kinder to flay her.”

“What’s that?”

The tall man stood, shaking his head, “That young woman has worked her entire life just to get here.”

“I didn’t say she couldn’t perform again. I simply stated that she wouldn’t perform in front of me.”

“Even so, of all the entertainers out there, she will have the stigma of being barred for her political statement.”

Dizzy shrugged, “Some artists thrive on such recrimination. It adds to the power of their statement. I recall a street performer named Jus Cos who deliberately antagonized the nobility.” He looked up at Lord Atherton, “I recall he had a few choruses about you. Whatever happened to him?”

Atherton waved him off, “I don’t know. He’s underground. This young woman-“ he pointed at the girl who strode purposefully off the field, “This young woman is a classically-trained, noble-born virtuoso.”

Dizzy turned away from him, “Lord Oldham.”

Though the old man was watching them intently he feigned disinterest, “Hmmm?”

“The name Welliver. I’d swear I’ve heard it before. Do you know it?”

There was a twinkle in the old man’s eye as he said, “Only Welliver I know is a financial playboy married to Abagail Atherton.”

Dizzy turned back to Lord Atherton, “So, would that make young Heather your niece then?”

“You’ll destroy her career.”

Dizzy’s eyes were cold, “I’ll deal with anyone who challenges me.” Dizzy looked around at the assembled entourage and said, “Now, shall we play a game?”

The referee took to the field, and announced that the king would play the white team, and therefore move first. Dizzy didn’t wait a moment, but told his porter, “Lance 4 South to 3 South.”

Mr. Pritchard muttered, “You leave your glove exposed.”

Dizzy didn’t bother looking at him, “Everyone moves lances on the first turn.”

Sure enough, the Belgian Prime Minister moved one of his central lances inward. Dizzy raised an eyebrow, “My. That is a confident move. What do you make of that Mr. Pritchard?”

The expert rubbed his chin, “Either he is sacrificing the lance in order to open the wedge, or he is testing your willingness to commit to the center.”

“Fine. Glove South 5 North to 3, then South to 2.”

Pritchard’s eyes widened as he saw the man advance three rings and stand nearly unprotected outside the wedge, “What are you doing?”

Dizzy sat back in his chair, “With any luck, that’s what he’s wondering.”

While the expert openly doubted his move, the crowd cheered wildly. They loved to see big, confident moves in a game of Circus.

It was a long time before the Black team moved again, this time shoring up the defense of his rash lance movement. This gave Dizzy time to put support in place for his glove. “There, you see? I’ve spooked him, and it cost us nothing.”

The expert continued stroking his chin, not looking at Dizzy, “It gained us nothing, either.”

Dizzy sighed, “By convincing him that I am rash and impetuous, he won’t trust traditional strategies.”

“Convincing him will only be accomplished by putting pieces in danger, and it will only force him to be more careful and circumspect with his movements.”

The Duke leaned forward to whisper into Dizzy’s ear, “My liege, please heed the words of your councillor. Remember that you play for Flint.”

Dizzy rolled his eyes, “Yes, yes. Go team.” He turned to Pritchard, “So, what would you suggest, then?”

“Your impetuous movement has left a hole in your southern flank. I would shore that up by staggering the lances.”

Dizzy shrugged, “That makes sense. Lance 5 South to 4 South.”

“Thank you, majesty.”

And so the game went, Dizzy would make surprising moves that brought the entire board into play, then cover it with support in the following moves. He tested the Prime Minister, not for defenses, but for his willingness to commit to an open fight. The Belgian was cagey and clustered his units, rather than taking any chances. He only attempted one move toward the center circle, and Dizzy rained support units all around as he did that, forcing him to back off. That advance cost Dizzy two of his major arcana, and three from the black team. Mr. Pritchard disagreed with almost every move, growing more and more nervous.

Dizzy grinned, “This is fun. You know, it’s much more fun playing with real people than it is with wooden pieces on a holographic board.”

Pritchard fumed, “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself, majesty, but your wedge is a wreck. There are several weak points, and your pieces are scattered much too far from each other.”

Dizzy waved him off, “All part of the strategy. He has no idea where I’ll be coming from.”

“Neither do you.”

Dizzy frowned at him, then said, “You know what? I’m getting just a little sick of your second-guessing me.” He turned to the porter, “Coin North 4 to North 2.”

Pritchard shot up out of his seat, “No sir!”

“Don’t tell me no.” He looked at the porter, “Do it.”

The merchant moved forward, nearing the high ground. Dizzy expected that he would lose the coin, but he had a glove ready to move into place and take whoever threatened the coin.

Instead, the black glove jumped over pieces to reach his coin, then jumped over the coin to enter his wedge, and having entered, threatened the flame. Surrounded by impotent defense, the flame was cornered and lost.

In an instant, it was over. Dizzy looked down at the field, realizing his mistake. He raised a hand to his mouth, “Oh, my. Yes. I didn’t see that.” He looked around him, “That was stupid of me. I’m sorry, my temper got the best of me I suppose. Do you think they would go for best of three?”

As Dizzy looked back at the group, he saw the stricken looks on their faces. The Duke covered his face with his hands. Dizzy frowned at him, “Come now, man. I realize how much team spirit means to you, but it was, after all, only a game.”

The Duke looked around at the others, “I – my liege. I’m sorry. I just don’t know what to tell my people.”

Dizzy sighed, “Tell them you win some, you lose some.”

The Duke stood, his face a mask of anger, “No, your majesty.” He growled, “When my people are forced into poverty, when they have to take whatever job in whatever county they can, when they board up the city and sell off the land, I will not tell them, ‘you win some, you lose some.'”

Dizzy looked around at them, a sinking feeling beginning to form in the pit of his stomach, “Now clearly I’m missing something here.”

“YOU WERE PLAYING FOR FLINT!!!” The Duke bellowed. Two guards seized him and pulled him up against the wall. Dizzy was about to call them off when he saw the Duke was actively struggling against them.

Dizzy gaped at him, “But- but what does that mean?”

Oldham chuckled, “Boy, you put yourself in a right pickle. You just flipped an entire algae franchise from Flint to Antwerp.”

Wendy and Sceptre both whispered, “In Belgium.”

Dizzy shouted, “I know where Antwerp is!” He rounded on the old man, “So playing for Flint means playing for a franchise?”

“What it means, son, is that you just took away the only business in town,” The old man looked back at him with something approaching pity. “You sold the only jobs these people have. I expect most of them are going home to pack.”

Dizzy held his hands out in front of him, “I can fix this. I can fix this.” He turned to Wendy, “Ah, what would Cadvan do?”

Her glare was cold, “He would listen to his experts.”

Dizzy turned away from her, looking out at the masses in the stadium. Fights had broken out in the stands. People were rushing to get their children out of the stadium, out of town. Dizzy thought of the little girl, Cindy, with her black and white dress. “I can fix this, I can fix this.”

Atherton sneered, “You really can’t. Hardly surprising. You were never trained to handle royalty. It was folly to expect you to do anything this important so quickly.”

Dizzy blinked, “Dunem knew I was coming out today. He knew I was going to do this. He would have told me.”

Oldham shrugged, “He probably didn’t think Flint was a big deal. Let’s face it, son, you’re king of a whole continent. Who’s gonna care about one little city and their slime farm.”

From the back of the room, the Duke began to sob, still pinned to the wall.

Dizzy turned to Oldham, “You’ve got to help me.”

Wendy’s eyes widened, “What are you doing?”

Dizzy ignored her, “You’ve been at this for generations. You must know a way out of this.”

Lord Atherton said, “Are you seriously asking for a boon from-”

The old man cut him off, “Yeah. I can help you.” He glared at Lord Atherton. He mulled it over for a moment, then said, “I’ve got a kelp farm that’s needing to expand. It’s an iodine shortage thing or something. I could have the franchise open up shop out here.” He scratched the top of his bald head, “It’ll take some re-tooling of your factory, but hell, that just gives them more labor, I suppose.”

Dizzy turned to the Duke, “That will keep the factory open, right?”

The Duke nodded mutely, and Dizzy gestured at the guards to let him down. He grabbed the Duke by the shoulder, “Go. Tell them now, before riots break out.”

The old man called out, “Tell ‘em the king saved ‘em.” Dizzy blinked at him and the man repeated, “Son, you’ve lost face out there. Get to work on damage control, or you won’t need the Athertons to come after you. You’ll have a goddamn revolution on your hands.”

“I- yes. Tell them that I’ve made a deal to ensure that no jobs will be lost. Tell them that I’m very sorry for-” Wendy pulled him back.

She hissed, “No! Do not apologize. You’ve made mistakes enough today.”

“I- okay, yes. Just get the news out there. No lost jobs.”

The Duke ran out of the door, Atherton’s entourage turned and prepared to leave. The Circus expert began packing his briefcase. In his corner near the window, the old man coughed.

Dizzy turned to see Lord Oldham’s wide grin, “Of course, now that means you owe me one, youngster.”

Stan reached for his popcorn, pulling it out of the way of a flailing body, as combatants fought around him, “Well, this is another fine mess you’ve got us into.”

Lou cringed, “Brings new meaning ta nosebleed seats.”

“Take in a game, you said.”

Lou’s eyes were wide as he saw the fighting around them, “Aye.”

“Little break. Monotony of life put aside for a few, just to catch a bitta the nobs fun.”

Lou looked around them, “So this is how the other half lives. All things ‘sidered Stan, we maybe shoulda ‘tended a hockey game.”

Stan shook his head, “Bygones and hindsight make a hollow meal.” He stood up as a man ran past, holding a flaming seat cushion. “I figger we’d be better off elsewhere.”

Lou kept his seat, looking up at the box, “The one I feel for is that boy.”

Stan craned his head up to look, stuffing popcorn into his mouth, “The new king? Why cry for that one?”

“Well, Stan, the way I viddie it, he’s had one day o’ kingin’. It don’t bode well.”

“Very astute, Lou. Very astute. I’d say, from the demeanor on the ground, his show may see the curtain before the lights are dimmed.”

“I hope not, Stan. Every soul deserves their share of stumbles.”

“Would that you were king, Lou. You’d be generous and forgivin’ to all.”

“Oh, no. I shouldn’t like that.” Lou screwed up his face in a wince.

“Howzat, dear?”

“Well, with friends like these,” he gestured at the rioting people around him, “one’s gotta sleep with an eye open, if you take my meanin’.”

They both looked up at the box, and Stan nodded, “True words, my duck. True indeed.”

“Nothing!” Trumble threw down the report. “Nowhere!” He grabbed up another report. “No one!” He threw the report against the wall.

Sergeant Samson didn’t even flinch, “No sir. Not a twitch.”

“He had to live somewhere! He had to come from somewhere!” He kicked a stack of paperwork, “Didn’t we have video?”

The sergeant shook his head, “Nobs won’t have it. No viddie in their quarter.”

“He couldn’t have just spent his whole life under their skirts. At some point, he was a regular child.”

The sergeant raised a finger, “If I may ask -”

“I just know, all right? I can spot a commoner as easily as you could spot a nobleman.”

“And how many impostors have you -“

The sergeant regretted the words as soon as he uttered them. Trumble jabbed a finger at him, “You just keep your smart remarks to yourself. I’m telling you, I know that boy was dirty. And WHEN I prove it, it won’t matter whether he’s King, or Pope or Almighty God, I will bring him in.”

A sudden crash shook the office, stunning Trumble into silence. He and the sergeant ran out of his office to see what had happened.

A hulking man, easily seven feet tall and wide as a church door, was holding a boy face down on a desk. His beautifully-tailored suit was composed of dark colors and sharp creases. He had bleached white hair, and a gleaming mustache. He wore a fur coat that swaddled his shoulders and draped to his calves. The man wore dataglass wraparound goggles that streamed multiple bands of light directly into his optic nerve. With one hand, he held the boy against the desk, and with his other hand, he swung a white cane crazily in the air.

“I will have him! Head man. Bring him here to me!” The man bellowed in a deep, Hungarian accent. Trumble stood staring at the blind giant until he realized that everyone else was looking back at him. He took a step forward and opened his mouth to speak. Nothing more than a squeak came out.

Trumble cleared his throat, squared his shoulders, and shouted, “And who are you sir? By what right do you hold a citizen here, in my precinct.”

The man’s head whipped around to face Trumble, though the goggles did not reflect him, “You are the bossman then, yes? You are leader for these running dogs?”

“I’m the police chief, and if you don’t let that boy go-” Trumble started walking over to the man, then stopped as the white cane lashed out. It stopped only inches away from his nose.

“You do not tell Sir Bedragare what to do. You listen to Sir Bedragare, you learn from him, and then you thank him for what he gives you.”

The boy being held said, “I beg of you sir, stop this lunatic! I wish to press charges! I want to talk to-“

The giant rapped the boy on the head with the crook of his cane, “Enough silly talk. We men here talk business.”

Trumble stared at the end of the cane, which was sharpened to an uncomfortable point, “Sir, if you do not release the boy now-“ He made a small gesture to some of his men, motioning them around to flank the huge man.

“Is not a boy. Is a gift. Sir Bedragare gives the best gifts.”

Trumble decided to keep him talking, “Ah, yes. And what exactly do you intend to give?”

The huge man faced him for many moments, then cast his head around, as if noticing the rest of the precinct for the first time. “You disappoint me, chiefman. Your dogs circle like wolves around the bear, and you think only of chatter.” He swung his cane quickly, rapping one of the officers behind him in the shin. The officer dropped suddenly. “I see you on the wave, chiefman. I know your shame.”

Trumble took another step forward, willing to snatch the cane right out of the blind man’s hand, “That vidclip was taken completely out of context, sir. I will not stand for-“

“Sir Bedragare knows this shame, for Sir Bedragare has felt it as well.” He scowled at Trumble, “Years ago, a boy humiliated Sir Bedragare, stripped him of title, land, and monies. The boy will be punished. The wrong will be avenged.”

Trumble pointed to the young man, still squirming, face down on the desk, “So this boy… you’ve caught him, and you’re turning him over to the police?”

“This?” Bedragare faced the youth and tightened his grip on the back of his shirt, “This boy is nothing. He is a gift. I give you this.” He shoved the boy away from the desk, to land at Trumble’s feet.

The boy scuttled back, hiding behind the officers, “Keep him away from me! He’s mad I tell you!”

“Many years, Bedragare searches for a boy. He does this carefully, slowly. He does not spook the quarry.”

“Just listen to him! You can tell he’s insane!” The boy’s voice was clear, his tones clipped and precise. Trumble couldn’t help but notice the fine cut of his clothes, or his clear skin.

He frowned at the giant, “You brought a nobleman here by force?”

The huge man scowled, “That? Bedragare gives you this gift to help your search. You share his humiliation. If your mission is the same, then Bedragare can give you many gifts like this.”

Trumble blinked down at the boy, “But what am I supposed to do with him?”

“This gift will lead you to the boy.”

The captain knew who he meant. The boy in the vids. The Earl of Viborg. The king. Trumble looked over at the shivering lordling as Bedragare said softly, “I give you one other gift, if you will partner with me. I give you a name.”

Trumble raised an eyebrow, “I’ve got a name. The Earl of Viborg. King Augustus.”

“You do not search for King Augustus, or you chance your neck. You do not search for Earls, or you find doddering old man. The one you search for is Disraeli Augustus McCracken the third.”

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