Invito Rex – Chapter Six

InvitoRexCoverYou can find the audio version here.

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“The fourth estate, once seen as the vox populi, was altered, and some would say perverted, by the ownership of those tools used to express the will of the people’s culture. While the individual presses each vociferously claim autonomy, it is the worst kind of folly to believe that people who own a thing would choose to let that thing hurt them. As such, it is only natural to paint the majority owners of all news and entertainment reporting systems as the new fourth estate.

For generations now, the Atherton clan has held complete control over all communication systems, whether widenet distribution or personal wave. They have, on most occasions, exerted little control over their tools. However, rabble-rousers who stood in opposition to their plans have found themselves cut off from the net. The Athertons have shown no concern regarding these decisions, refusing to even respond to attacks leveled against them by revolutionaries who can use nothing more than word-of-mouth to organize. It is worth noting that the Athertons have felt no need to stifle complaints or protests against the houses of Oldham or Wilde.

In fact, the current feud between the Atherton and Wilde clans may well be one of the most dangerous dynamics of our generation. In times long past, these two families were seen as a powerful force. There were concerns that a joining of the two families could endanger the power of the throne itself. However, tragedy intervened to ensure such a union would never take place.

Anna and Aldrik Atherton were as close as twins could be. They attended the same schools, kept the same friends, and had many of the same interests. When Anna was arranged to marry the scion of the Wilde clan, there was some concern that her brother would take offense, and perhaps ruin the plans in motion. Whatever ambivalence Aldrik may have held regarding his sister’s husband was resolved in a single instant, with the news of his sister’s death.”

— An excerpt from “The True Story of the Atrocious Athertons”,
a hand-printed book by the late Lord Adams

The king awoke to a shove in the chest, delivered by a silver-tipped boot. He spluttered and rolled over to see the petulant lordling from the night before frowning down at him.

“See? What did I tell you? He doesn’t even bother to dress. Common gutter trash animals.”

Wendy Wilde walked over to the bed and sat on the far corner, “Stay your hand, Astor. He’s had a hard night.” She wore a sensible dress of green, laced in gold, that rose to her knees in front, and faded to a diaphanous train in back. The cut of the neckline was respectfully high, interlaced with a golden necklace that spiderwebbed up to a ruby choker.

The young lad took on a stricken air, “Oh, I do beg your pardon. You’re right. After all, it’s hardly his fault.” He too was dressed for palace working, in a suit top and jodhpurs. His tight jacket and pants were black, laced in gray stripes wide enough to look like an outline defining the boy. The yellow shirt inside puffed up at the throat. He shouted at Dizzy slowly, as if to an imbecile, “Did your parents ever tell you that you should dress for bed? Or even what covers are?”

Dizzy blinked one eye blearily as he sat up, “Did your parents ever tell you they met at a family reunion?”

Wendy sputtered a laugh, one hand flying to cover her mouth. Behind them, Dizzy could see another young woman, eyes wide with fear. She wore an expensive Sunday dress of white lace which surely would have been astonishing in other company, but looked like sack-cloth when compared with the finery of her compatriots. Her eyes flicked from one to the other as she gripped the sides of her dress in her fists. Astor looked back at her, then frowned at Dizzy, “You shouldn’t make such jokes in this palace.” He turned to Wendy, “You see what I mean? Imagine if he’d made that joke in front of Olivia.”

Dizzy ran both hands over his face, “Could someone please tell me why I’m being awakened?” He flashed a wicked smile, “Or is it check-out time? Everyone gets one turn at the crown, then they have to clear out by two o’clock?”

Astor grunted, “If only wishing could make it so. No, I believe we’re stuck with you for now.”

Wendy grinned at them, “And he would know. Astor’s father has had half the lawyers in town up all night, fighting every angle of this.”

Dizzy crawled out of bed, “Really? Who won?”

Wendy shrugged, “Well, you’re still king. Who won is probably a different answer.”

Astor sulked, “Sigler’s law is ironclad. Apparently, he faced just as much resistance to having his bastard crowned.”

Dizzy stood next to the bed, looking down at his feet and holding his head in his hands. He said in a very quiet voice, “Astor, do you believe that I have the power to cut your tongue out?”

He and Wendy shot a look at each other, “You wouldn’t dare!” The girl behind them gasped.

Dizzy didn’t answer. He just tried to wait for the room to stop spinning.

After a moment, Astor said, “Well, technically, I believe it would be within your -”

“Let’s put a pin in that,” Dizzy said as he looked up. His eyes were bright and awake, and they bored into Astor’s. “Let’s just hold that thought in our minds every time you use the word ‘bastard’.”

Dizzy fought past the fatigue to stride purposefully over to the bathroom, “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve been wearing the same clothes for nearly twenty hours, and I am well overdue for my morning ablutions.” The young woman rushed over to follow him. As Dizzy turned to face her, she dropped in a low curtsey so quickly that Dizzy feared that she’d found a sinkhole.

“Your highness, I am Dame Perla Poppek.”

Dizzy nodded slowly and attempted to ask a question without admitting that he didn’t know the answer, “Ah, yes. Dame, ah Poppek.”

“It is my honor to bathe you this day.”

Dizzy blinked at the other two, “Look, did Cadvan do this every night?”

Wendy shrugged, “Different Lords have different customs for rising and resting. Cadvan suffered such attention graciously enough.”

Dizzy nodded and looked down at the young woman who was clearly holding an uncomfortable curtsey, “Look, thank you, but you can get up now.” As she rose, he stared at her thoughtfully, “How did you get this position?”

“My liege, of the thousands of houses, mine was chosen by lot to have the honor this day. I’ve spent a month in preparation, and -“

“Thousands?” He looked back at the other two, “They do this every day?”

Astor made a rude dismissive noise and sat down heavily on the edge of the bed.

Dizzy looked back at the young lady, “Dame Poppek. What were you instructed to do?”

“I was not told, my liege. It would be presumptuous of us to assume anything of our lord, prior to hearing his wishes.”

“So what have you been preparing for?”

She looked up at him uncertainly, “Anything.”

Dizzy stepped back involuntarily as Wendy tittered. He blinked down at the young lady, “Please rejoin your people, Dame Poppek, and tell them that I was well pleased by your offer of service, and that I require no more help today.” He gestured at the door, and she quickly took the hint.

Once she was gone, he looked back at the other two, “Is there a different one of those every night?”

Astor leaned back and sighed, “Every single damned night.”

Dizzy looked over at Wendy, “Did Cadvan ever…”

She shook her head, “Cadvan was no fool. Women threw themselves at him all the time, but the mistress of the king has incredible power, and he would never upset the balance by showing favor to one over the others.”

Dizzy nodded, “Yes, of course. But then, how does one ever meet people?”

Astor chuffed, “Your majesty flatters us.”

“No, I mean new people. If I guess correctly, you are Astor Atherton, and you are Wendy Wilde. You are from the inner circle, and guests of the crown. I’ll likely see quite a lot of you. But what if I just want to meet new people? What if I actually do wish to court a lady?”

Wendy shrugged, “When you feel the time is right, one will be selected.”

Dizzy nodded slowly, “I was afraid you were going to say that.” Looking back to the bathroom, he noticed the tub was still full of lukewarm water. He turned back to face the others, “Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll bathe in private.” Dizzy looked down at the wide, thick bracelet on his wrist.

Wendy and Astor looked at each other, then Wendy crossed to the wardrobe, “I will see to the day’s raiment, my liege.”

Astor pushed past him and said through clenched teeth, “I will attend to your bath, sir.”

Dizzy knew that attitude all too well. When the master is to be thwarted by the servants, they serve him in ways he did not request. Dizzy squinted at Astor, “Mr. Atherton, did you hear me when I said I wanted to be alone?”

Astor turned from the controls on the tub, “I take it my lord has been without servants during his years of hiding?”

“You are correct.” While impersonating members of the nobility, Dizzy could hardly afford faking an entourage.

“Then my lord is unaware that assigned duties must be done, lest the servants become idle.” He reached into a cupboard and pulled out a huge, fluffy white towel, which he hung next to the tub. The massive pool had already filled with hot, soapy water, and Astor gestured him in.

Dizzy frowned at him, still not wanting to concede the point. Astor sighed, “Does my liege require my assistance in disrobing?”

“Ye gods, no. Just… ” Dizzy pulled off his jacket and dropped it on the floor, “Do you really need to stay in here? I mean, what really is your duty here?”

“I’m your valet, sir. It’s my job to clean up your messes.” Astor picked up the jacket and hung it over his arm, “Clearly, one of the most difficult positions in the castle.”

Dizzy turned to face him, “I’m really just not going to like you, am I?”

The young man glared at him, stone-faced.

Dizzy nodded once, then said, “Your duties here are done. Wait outside this chamber, and I will call for you when you are needed.”

“Very good, sir.” Astor closed the door behind him. Dizzy continued to get undressed, thinking about the bracelet.

He whispered, “This may seem a silly question, but are you my scepter?”

The voice in his head replied, “I am, sir. How may I help you?”

Dizzy frowned, “No, nothing. It’s just… well, I thought I’d dreamed that part.”

He continued disrobing slowly. When he reached his smallclothes, he looked at the bracelet again, “Um. So, do you truly store everything?”

“Everything that happens near you, my liege.”

“Right. Ah. Well. I think I’ll just put you in the cupboard then for a few minutes. Posterity, you know.” He reached around the bracelet, looking for a clasp, but could find no lock.

“No sir.” The voice was cordial, but final.

“No?” Dizzy continued working at it. “But I am your king. I demand it. Yes. I order you to let go now.”

“I apologize, my liege. But it is within my required duties to refuse even a direct order from the king, if it violates my purpose.”

“I could have you melted down for that.” He put his hands on his hips, “I mean, really, what’s the good of being king if you can’t even order the robots?”

Sceptre responded, “The last time I was removed, my king was killed.”

Dizzy waited for amplification, then stared at the decoration with new respect, “Wait. Is that guilt?”

Dizzy felt the tickle of whirring going on inside the machine. It finally replied, “I am an automaton, sir, and incapable of base emotions. I pointed out a detail that should be important to you, my liege.”

“Well, you may be superstitious, but … Well, all right. Let’s say for the moment that I just don’t want to argue the point. How do I wash my arm with a bloody great gauntlet wrapped around it?”

“I will transfer to the other arm when needed, sir.”

Dizzy nodded and began to remove his underwear as he remembered what had originally bothered him, “Wait. You say you record everything that happens around me.”

“Everything.”

“So, that’s video as well.”

“From the ultraviolet to infrared range, yes sir. Also multiple radio frequencies and audio ranges above and below human hearing.”

“Yes well. Not to put to fine a point on it you understand but… ah. I’d like not to spend my entire reign wearing the same set of underwear. What did Cadvan do about it?”

“About what, my liege?”

“Nudity, man. How did the prior king handle the fact that you were recording him completely naked?”

“He did nothing. When he wished to wash himself, he would often ask me to take the form of a necklace. When he was with a woman-“

“Wait! Cadvan slept with women? When? Who?”

“I am not at liberty to say, sir. The prior king’s secrets are his own.”

“But you just told me one of them.”

There was a short pause, “You have entered a social circle previously unknown to you, your grace. In that social circle, King Cadvan was not considered a virgin.”

Dizzy thought about that. It made sense that the king could have an entire harem without anyone at his previous social level even hearing about it.

“Very well. So, he took you off while consummating such relationships?”

“No, my lord. I took the form of a bracelet. Once he bedded a woman with me in the form of a crown, but that was by her request.”

Dizzy took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and dropped his drawers. Gritting his teeth, he settled into the tub, trying hard not to think about the thing around his arm.

The warm water soaked into his sore muscles and seemed to pull him lightly downward. Dizzy lay in the water for a time, staring at his arm.

“You know, I still don’t like it. The very idea that I should have a creature watching me every moment of the day and night. It’s an incredible invasion of privacy, and I would think that, as king, I would be afforded more control over my life than a commoner.”

“This is a common misconception among the lower classes, my liege.”

Dizzy blinked, “Was that meant to be insulting?”

“No, your grace. That was meant to be an observed fact. In general, every social class believes that the one above it has more freedom, more power, and less work than they do.”

Dizzy could hardly argue with that, “All the same, it seems hard to believe that the king would be the most surveilled person in the kingdom.”

“Heavy hangs the head, my lord.”

Dizzy’s eyes shot open, “That’s what you give me? ‘Heavy hangs the head’? I talk about surveillance, and you give me Shakespeare? What about ‘Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind?’”

“Henry VI, Act 5, scene 6. But the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

“Julius Ceaser. But you are recording everything, without giving us the chance to explain our actions. The empty vessel makes the loudest sound.”

“Henry the Fifth and King Lear. But no legacy is so rich as honesty. Seriously, your majesty, are you trying to fight with a computer on Shakespeare quotations?”

“You chose Shakespeare, I’m just using his words to make a point. It’s not fair to record everything a person does, with no opportunity to make context.”

“My liege. You have the greatest concentration of political power and notice in this entire kingdom.”

“Yes.”

“Everywhere you go, everyone who sees you will mark your coming and going.”

“That’s all very well, but -” Dizzy realized something and held his arm out in front of him, “That’s what you are, isn’t it? You’re nothing more than a physical manifestation of an imperial reality, aren’t you? As long as I’m wearing you, in the dark corners of my mind I’ll remember that I am being watched.” He put his arm back down on the edge of the tub and hung his head back to stare at the dome above them, “A king shall always act with composure, secure in the knowledge that he is never alone.”

There was a short pause, then Sceptre replied, “I am also useful for remembering appointments and referencing new information, my lord.”

Dizzy watched a cloud through the dome as it moved across the sun, “Shakespeare was wrong for you. It should have been Greek legend.”

The robot paused for a moment, then replied, “Good King Richard called me by that name, sir. At first, he felt very angered by my presence, as you do.”

“He named you Damocles?”

“He did, your grace.”

“And how did you like that name?”

There was a short pause, “I will respond to whatever name my liege chooses.”

Dizzy grinned, “First guilt, now pride. And you say you have no emotions. I’ll figure you out, little golem, if it’s the last thing I do.”

“Then I will be the pattern of all patience. I will say nothing.”

Astor crouched outside the door, a crystal cup held to the oaken surface, “There!” He whispered, “I heard it again.”

Wendy pulled back the fitted sheet and dumped it on the floor next to the folded one, “You’re wasting your time. It’s soundproofed.”

“I’m telling you, I heard him talking to himself,” Astor hissed.

Wendy walked over to a cupboard and reviewed the sheets, “So what of it? He’s hardly the first King to think out loud.”

Astor slid the cup to another part of the door, “Mad kings talk to themselves.”

“I talk to myself. That hardly makes me mad.” She considered a set that matched the color of the new King’s eyes, then thought better of it. She picked a dark purple set to remind him of his duties with the color of regal import.

Astor squinted at her, “You- what do you say?”

Wendy pulled down the sheets, “I beg your pardon?”

“When you talk to yourself, what do you say?”

“Oh, whatever silly thing is running through my head. I work out problems by taking both sides of an argument, or I berate myself for some tiny mistake. It’s almost always a minor thing, but it often helps when making a decision or fighting loneliness.”

Astor frowned, “I don’t do that. I never talk to myself.”

“How odd.” She flipped the fitted sheet over the bed, letting it billow out to cover the space, “I would think that, with your list of friends, you would do most of your conversing alone.”

“Oh, very funny. You have the refined wit of a woman ten times your age.”

“Get away from the door. He’s going to come out of there and find you, and you’ll look a right ninny. Given the abuse you hand out, he’s like to take your eyebrows off for the slight.”

Astor stood slowly and returned the glass to the sideboard. He took a towel and wet it. “It’s not right, you know.” He knelt next to a dried puddle of milkshake, and began dabbing it out of the carpet. “No matter what the lawyers think of, you and I both know it’s not right.”

Wendy tucked a corner of the flat sheet in and sighed, “If you’re to continue in his service, you must divorce yourself of the idea that your house would be the one to take over.”

Astor’s eyes widened, “Are you suggesting that one of the other noble houses could take the throne?”

“The laws regarding succession are deliberately muddied when the ruling house loses it’s heir.”

He sneered, “And you think it could be your father. King Wilde, is that it? Hunting the animals by day and-”

Wendy snapped the sheet tight with a ferocity that echoed off the walls. She said quietly, “Mind your tongue, lordling.”

He worked on the puddle for a moment more, then chuffed, “Queen Wilde. What a sad jest.”

Having finished with the bed, Wendy walked over to where Astor knelt next to the carpet. She sat on the bed and said, “You know. Now that I think of it, that may not be out of the question anyway.”

He frowned up at her, “Your father could never take over the country. If my father didn’t take the throne, it would only be because Oldham killed him in the attempt.”

She smiled, “No. I meant that, while the new King closes doors for you, he opens doors for me.” She sat on the edge of the bed.

Astor frowned at her for a moment, “You wouldn’t.”

“My father sent his most beloved child out here to serve the king. Do you really think he would do that just to settle a slight?” She leaned forward, spreading her dress out over the covers, “I wonder if that was his plan all along.”

Astor’s ears grew redder, “Your father has never shown any interest in becoming royalty.”

“Not by conquest, no. But marrying his vast estates with the Becket clan could only help to strengthen both houses.” She leaned back against her elbows and leered, “The new king is a handsome rogue, isn’t he? I’ve always liked gingers.”

“You can’t! You’d upset the balance of power.”

“By making my family the strongest one, and becoming queen over all of you? I think I could bear that.”

“I’ll tell my father!” The words came out before he realized what he’d said.

She laughed and sat up, “What would you tell him? The wildling girl may marry the King? Do you think he hasn’t been preparing against that contingency since the day I was born?”

She stood and turned, smoothing off the covers, “Besides, you’re right. My father has no head for governance, and doesn’t wish for the job. And I have no wish to be married off to some hidden dandy, just so that people would bow and scrape.” She shot him a playful smile, “You’re the one who wants that.”

Astor threw the towel into a bin in the corner, “Now you’re trying to confuse me. You mention one tactic, then throw it aside, expecting that I will pick it up again and defend against it, while in fact, you are planning an entirely different vector of attack.”

Wendy sighed, “Once again, you have outthought my grand plans. Truly you are the master strategist. Do be a dear and pick out the King’s clothes for the day, would you?”

After Dizzy had finished soaking, scrubbing, and shaving, he donned the towel and stepped out of the bath. Wrapped in a opulent, puffy robe, he left the bathroom grinning at the two of them, “There is nothing so satisfying, I think, than a nice long soak in the morning.”

Astor nodded, “It is good to have a king who sets goals that test his capabilities.”

Dizzy’s grin didn’t falter, “You, lordling, have a skinny nose.” He walked over to the wardrobe, where three suits were set out, “I believe I saw the same skinny nose on your father.”

Dizzy reached out and felt the soft, light fabric of the nearest suit, a conflagration of tunic, vest, and jacket in varying shades of royal blue. “I wonder, if I were to refer to it as a beak in court, would your father notice?”

Astor held very still and waited. Dizzy held the blue suit up to himself and checked the wraparound mirrors. “The Atherton beak. Catchy, isn’t it? I’ve heard that kings are often the source of new fashions, simply by making offhand remarks like that.” He frowned slightly, “I wonder, though, what your father would think of it.”

Dizzy rejected the suit for a green one that highlighted his eyes and contrasted well against his red hair, “Of course, even if the joke is told all through the country, whispered by all the lesser nobility, your father couldn’t possibly blame you for something like that, now could he? He would be fair and see that it was just my impish jape.”

Astor’s lip began to quiver as he shot Wendy a helpless look. She shrugged sadly in response. Astor looked back at Dizzy and said in a soft croak, “Please don’t.”

Dizzy turned to face him, “I beg your pardon?”

Astor glared down at the floor, “Please don’t do that, my liege.”

Dizzy stared at him for a long time, then asked, “Seriously, what is the problem, Astor? What makes you think you can talk to the king this way?”

“It’s not right.” Astor refused to look up from the ground, “It should have been me.”

Dizzy nodded slowly, “That’s not my fault. I didn’t make that decision. So believe me when I say that, however slighted you may feel, I do not accept any guilt for it.”

He stepped up to Astor, “If you want to hate me, you go right on and hate me, but I am not the source of your misery. So if you show anything less than wholehearted support for me in public, I will feel no guilt in striking back.”

Tears dripped from Astor’s eyes as his hands curled into fists at his sides. Wendy stepped into the bathroom to straighten things. Dizzy sighed and said, “If, however, you wish to continue berating me in private, please feel free. It will be nice to have one person who doesn’t toady up to me.”

Wendy re-entered the room, and Dizzy pointed at her, “No. On this one I must be firm. I shall not change clothes in front of a woman. Call me old fashioned or prudish if you-”

She held out both palms in front of her, “It would please me to serve my liege from without.”

Dizzy waited until she left, then turned to face Astor. He still had his head down, scowling. Dizzy shrugged and dropped his robe. He began putting on layer after layer of the green suit, fighting with the flaps and buttons.

Astor mumbled, “You’re doing it wrong.” He walked up to Dizzy and started pulling at the buttons, jerking the chains into order. Dizzy relaxed and let him go about the duty.

Standing close to Dizzy, Astor said quietly, “That wasn’t right. You humiliated me in front of an enemy faction.”

“What, Wendy? She knows you better than I do, and she was practically on your side. She’s got no reason to pass around any embarrassment.”

“That’s not the point. You made me beg in front of her.”

Dizzy frowned, “I never did.”

Astor’s eyes blazed, “I had to say, ‘please.’ I am a noble lord. I can’t say ‘please’ to people. Not a peasant or an equal. It weakens me. But you made me beg. You threatened to humiliate me in front of everyone.”

Dizzy blew out a sigh, “Seriously, Astor, that was all your doing. I was just replying to your constant supply of insults. If you should decide to stop insulting me, then-”

“That doesn’t matter now. All that matters is that house Wilde watched as house Atherton begged the king.”

Dizzy’s brow furrowed, “I really hope you’re wrong. I really hope our nation’s power structure is not so delicate that it could be swayed by such a petty thing.”

Astor finished with the shirt and stepped back, “Tell me, your grace, what kind of breakfast fish do you like?”

Dizzy blinked at him, “Fish for breakfast? If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not.”

Astor walked over to the bedstand, “Last night, at your coronation celebration, the chef prepared a sumptuous seafood soiree.”

“Did he? Well, that sounds lovely. Unfortunately, I was forced to leave early due to-”

“That’s what everyone was told. Pressures of the day, wanting to get a fresh start on the morrow, that was the story spread around.” Astor picked up a folded newsie sheet next to the bed. “Unfortunately, that left the chef in a situation where the first meal he ever made for the new king was spurned over a milkshake.” Astor held out the sheet. Emblazoned across the headline was, “NEW KING SPURNS ROYAL MEAL. CHEF FLOUNDERS.”

Dizzy frowned, “How did something like that get around so quickly? Yesterday, people didn’t even know that Cadvan had died.”

“Lord Dunem was hard at work, making sure no one knew. Because of the secrecy around Cadvan’s death, may his soul rest in the bosoms of angels, people are not sure whether to believe that it’s true. Fewer still realize that a new,” Astor’s mouth pursed petulantly as he formed the word, “successor had been found. Everyone knows that Cadvan had no heirs and no family, so most people either think that the death is still a rumor, or that one of the Athertons has taken the crown.”

Dizzy raised an eyebrow, “A rumor your family is quick to dispute, I’m sure.”

Astor shrugged innocently, “We use what power we have in the media to protect the message of the king, but we cannot control all the talk.”

Dizzy raised the newsie again, “But what about this? If they can’t decide who the king is, how can they have detailed information like this?”

“When people tell differing stories of great import, the news ignores them. But when many tell the same trifling tale, the headlines run. If it were something they would embarrass them to get wrong, they would not get it wrong, but if it’s about the king’s appetite, they care little.”

Dizzy shook his head, “So, they had to have had this same silly rumor repeated by many people.”

“Loose lips abound in the palace, my liege. It is best you either become accustomed to it, or start witch hunts.”

Dizzy nodded and read the article, “It says here that I don’t like fish.” He looked back up at Astor, “I do like fish. I’m quite a seafood connoisseur, truth be told.”

Astor nodded, “That’s as may be, but what is printed is the truth to the people, and what they are reading si that the King does not like fish. This morning, strong letters of complaint were sent-”

Dizzy took over, reading from the sheet, “By major fisheries and sea port nations throughout the Americas.” He looked up again, “Seriously? Complaints because I don’t like fish?”

“Then you admit it. You don’t like fish.”

“What? No! I just said I do like fish. This whole thing has got out of hand.”

“Nonetheless, my liege, Lord Dunem has requested that, when you go downstairs to break your fast, the major newsies will be there to report that you are enjoying -”

“A fish breakfast. It all comes clear now.”

“Some popular choices are the Japanese salted Fish, British Kippers, or Cape Malay Pickled Fish.”

Dizzy handed him the sheet back, “I’ll have the kippers, thanks.”

Astor held his gaze, “The next time I tell you you’ve embarrassed a noble house, remember just what can happen with petty slights.”

Astor collected himself and walked over to the front door, “If you are ready to go, my liege?”

“Just a moment.” Dizzy turned and looked himself over in the mirror again. It wasn’t that many years ago that he was living on the street. In the mirror, he thought he could still see it in the lines of his face, like a dirt one could never truly wash out. He’d joined forces with brigands and thieves, thrown in with con men and liars, and slowly built himself a life of suspect nobility.

Only a month ago, he thought himself quite clever because he was living from one day to the next in the lap of comparative luxury. He had a bit of money, clean clothes, and unearned respect. He never slept in the same bed twice, but he always ate well, and he thought he had finally beaten the system.

But now, to look at that same face, staring at him behind truly regal raiments… Well, it still just didn’t seem right. It still felt trappish. In the back of his mind, Dizzy was always listening for sirens, always expecting the police to crash through a door. A part of him always would be waiting for that.

What kind of king could he make if he was always worried that he’d be discovered?

Astor cleared his throat loudly from the door, and Dizzy squared his shoulders. Sully always said that if you never look caught, they can’t ever get you. He walked over to the doors, and waited for Astor to open them.

As he exited, Astor took a position one pace in front of him, while Wendy fell in behind him, “You look very grand, my liege.”

Dizzy inclined his head in recognition as they continued down the hallway. As they passed another apartment, the door opened, and Olivia stepped out.

Dizzy nodded to her, “Lady Oldham, you look lovely this morning. Will you be joining us for breakfast?”

She fell in behind him, next to Wendy, “Of course, your grace. I understand we’re to have fish this morning.” Dizzy thought he could detect a hint of mirth in her voice.

As they proceeded through the corridors, other youths fell in behind the noble children. They began to form a large procession, all following Dizzy, who followed Astor.

“So tell me,” Dizzy asked, “Whatever happened to the boy who lead me to my chambers last night? I haven’t seen him since.”

Astor looked over his shoulder, “He works the night shift. He’s sleeping now.”

Dizzy quirked an eyebrow, “Really? So you actually have-”

Dizzy looked into a grand stateroom as they passed it. Inside, he saw a large group of serious men standing around a long table. He stopped and looked in, “What’s that?”

Astor waved it off, “Security briefing.”

Dizzy slowed to a stop, forcing many of the children behind him to flock around him in surprise, “What kind of security briefing?”

“It’s nothing. Every day, the military leaders, civic leaders, political leaders, they all gather to report and receive the standing orders.”

Dizzy began walking over to it, “Shouldn’t I be involved in that?”

Lord Dunem appeared at the doorway and despite his thin frame, blocked it from view, “My liege. It is good to see you up and feeling well. The doctor says you should feel ready to begin the business of the day.”

Dizzy nodded, still frowning, “Yes, but it seems the business has begun without me.”

Lord Dunem declined his head minutely, “Yes, your grace. Please understand that this is not meant as an affront to your sensibilities.”

“Damn my sensibilities, is it even legal for you to have a briefing without me?”

The lord blinked at him, and the faintest smile showed on his lips, “Yes, my liege. It is entirely proper. Our nation is strong and dynamic, and the momentum of the realm is great enough to carry it forward for a few days without the steering of a regent.”

Dizzy’s frown deepened, “But it’s the man at the tiller who says the boat needs no steering.”

Lord Dunem shook his head, “Your grace, I assure you. We do nothing here invito rex.”

Dizzy paused for a second to parse the latin, “Against the… Well, it’s not my will if I don’t get a voice. Dunem, are you going to get out of my way, or am I going to call for the guards? How close is this to a coup? Would you even tell me if it were?”

Lord Dunem waited for him to wind down, but stood implacably in place, “One day, my lord. Twenty-four hours. That is all I ask. Take one day to get to know your noblemen, your country, your place in the world. After that, it would honor me to stand beside you as you guide the morning briefing.”

“With all you could do in a day, why should I trust you?”

The old man’s voice softened, “Because I put you on the throne, dear boy.”

Dizzy’s certainty wavered as Dunem continued, “I did not have to do it. King Richard’s legacy could be broken honorably, leaving the kingdom in the hands of… ” He looked over Dizzy’s shoulders to see Astor listening in, “in the hands of others. But I believe in you, and I am taking an awful risk with you.”

Dizzy shook his head, “How do you even know me?”

The old man smiled, light glinting off his monocle, “That’s a story for another day. Just trust me. For one day, trust me. Go to your fish breakfast, sit with your nobles.” A shadow passed over his countenance, “and watch everything. Listen to everything. Notice everything. Just for today.”

He smiled again and stepped back, “I look forward to you joining us on the morrow, my lord. Astor?”

The thin lordling hooked a thumb over his shoulder, “This way.”

As they entered the dining room, Dizzy expected to see a flood of cameras and recorders. Instead, there were two old men holding vidrecs, and a long dining table filled with children who stood next to their chairs. He looked at the two old men, astonished, “Who are you?”

They nodded, and the nearest one spoke, “We represent the press in this matter, my king.” His bushy handlebar mustache was huge and colorful. Behind him, a thinner, older man set up a tripod.

“Yes, but who are you?”

“Ah, I am Sir Reginald, and this is my photography companion, the Earl of Reston.”

“I.. ah, well, I somehow thought the press itself would want to show up.”

The two noblemen shared a look and the older one coughed. Sir Reginald gestured to the seat at the end of the table, “If you would, my liege. I need to test the lighting.”

As Dizzy walked down the long table, looking at all the children, he snagged Wendy’s sleeve. As politely as possible, he walked closer to her and whispered, “There are thousands of press outlets in the nation, and at the first appearance of the king, they chose to send only two old men. Does this mean Astor was wrong about this whole fish thing? Maybe no one really cares.”

She shook her head, “No my lord. Sir Reginald and the Earl of Reston are the only ones who take pictures of the king.”

“But why? Do the newsies just not care about it?”

Wendy reached her seat and turned to face it. Dizzy took a step forward and began to pull the seat out for her. Next to them, Olivia Oldham gripped Wendy’s chair, blocking Dizzy. Through a thin smile, she said, “The king holds no one’s seat.”

Dizzy released the chair and took a step back, nodding thanks to Olivia. Wendy leaned in to whisper to him, while pointing unobtrusively at the old men, “The newsies are run by commoners.”

Dizzy continued to the end of the long table, thinking. As he sat, he heard the scrape of dozens of other chairs as everyone else took a seat. Dizzy sat, of course, at the head of the table, with Astor Atherton at his right hand, and Olivia Oldham at his left. The two old men took a place midway down the table, and called out, “We’re set.”

As soon as the words were said, the doors in back opened, and waiters began bringing plates of smoked kippers, smoked sausage, leafy greens on broken toast, and scrambled eggs. They moved with military precision, a server for each guest, and always serving Dizzy first. Within moments, every cup was full and every dish was set.

Dizzy marveled, not just at the display of exacting precision, but by the fact that they laid such a wonderful meal. There were kippers, to be sure, but placed on a bed of leafy greens with toast and sliced tomato, covered in a light hollandaise sauce. A white wine was served that, when Dizzy tried it, astonished him for it’s clarity, subtlety, and flavor. It was a wine that waited, made to be savored, and it brought the whole meal together admirably.

Dizzy was half way through his fish before he noticed that the others had waited for him to begin eating. He looked over at Sir Reginald, who gave him the “thumbs up” sign and grinned.

Dizzy did his best to look exceptionally pleased with his fish, mugging a bit for the camera. Further down the table, children laughed and chatted amongst themselves. Dizzy turned to Lady Olivia, “Tell me, who are all these children?”

“They are your direct servants, my lord.”

“So, footmen and scullery maids and such? Why would they be eating at the table with us?”

“No, my lord. Footmen and scullery maids do not sit at the King’s table. It is an honor to serve the king, and many families have gladly submitted their children to experience the joy of serving the king directly,” she expertly speared a chunk of fish and nibbled on it daintily.

Dizzy nodded, “That sounds quite nice, actually.” Then, as he was chewing the next bite, it hit him. He almost forgot to swallow before saying, “Wait. they aren’t hostages, are they?”

She feigned shock, “Hostages, sir? The King would never stoop to terrorism!” She dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a napkin, “The king simply extends to different families and nations the opportunity of having a family member serve at court, oftentimes after he conquered their lands.”

Dizzy fell back in his chair, and tried to count all the children. There had to be forty or fifty of them, “It seems King Cadvan did a lot of conquering.”

Astor sniffed, “His military leaders did. Cadvan himself had -” Dizzy looked at him mildly, but Astor blanched anyway. He filled his fork and said, “King Cadvan had great military instincts and strategy.”

Dizzy pushed the remainder of the fish around on his plate, still looking at the children at his table, “Did he take one from each victory? I mean, one child from each conquered noble house?”

Olivia stared down at her plate, “It is a powerful deterrent to rebellion, my lord. For many generations, our kings have been practicing this strategy.”

Dizzy frowned down at his plate, “It just seems so wrong. I mean, I know the world is different for a king than another man, but it just seems like…” He leaned in toward her, asking in a low voice, “What if I wanted to end it? Is that even possible? Could I just say, ‘Everybody go home’?”

The lady scanned him with suspicion and a touch of fear. Her voice was flat, “I honestly don’t know. I think some houses would welcome it, but there is a valid reason for the strategy. There would surely be uprisings.” She looked away suddenly, and in a louder voice said, “I could not begin to guess what disasters such a decision could bring.”

Dizzy sat back again, and watched the children, “We’ve got enough for a pair of polo teams.”

Astor chuffed, “The king hasn’t had much luck with polo of late.”

Dizzy sighed, “That was rude, tasteless, inappropriate, far too soon after my brother’s death, and,” he turned to face Astor, “that’s my brother you’re talking about.”

Astor chewed for a moment, then said in an offhanded manner, “Yeah. Sorry.”

“So, what exactly am I to do with all these children?” Dizzy took another bite, “I mean, it’s not like we’re running an orphanage.”

Olivia responded, “Your grace has given these children a magnificent life. The finest tutors are brought in for them, and they all learn to serve the king by practice.”

“Hmm.. Yes. I still don’t feel entirely comfortable with that.”

Astor shrugged, “You get used to it. You’ve never had servants before, so you don’t know how it works. And in the end, we are really no different from any other servants. After all, what’s the difference between a servant who chooses to work for the King and one who’s ordered by the King?”

Dizzy blinked at him for a moment, considering his words. He remembered Dunem’s comment. There was a whole culture here that Dizzy was just not prepared for.

He saw Sir Reginald waving his arms, and realized that he was unconsciously frowning at a fork full of fish. Dizzy ate it and smiled.

He gestured at the two of them, watching him, “So, I still don’t understand why the whole of the press corps consists of two men.”

Olivia looked over at them and smiled, “Well, they’re both amateur nature photographers, so they are judged best suited for candid photos of the King.”

Dizzy shook his head, “No, that can’t be right. There are photo journalists out there right now who would give their eyeteeth to get royal pictures. I’ve seen them, heading off to the front lines or to the lunar colonies or whatnot. What makes these two so…”

Slowly, the realization hit him. The servants this morning, the party last evening, the advisors…

He muttered through a mouth full of kippers, “You know, I don’t think I’ve seen a single commoner since I was electrocuted.”

Astor and Olivia exchanged a look, as Wendy perked up. Astor coughed into his sleeve, “I beg your pardon?”

Dizzy’s eyes flicked to Astor, then back down to his plate. He shrugged, “Well, I just mean, I haven’t seen a single commoner since I was brought into the palace.” He shook his head slowly, “All these years, I’d heard that the king never let commoners near him, and I never took that literally.”

Astor snorted, “And why would he? In addition to the noble houses you have the lesser lords, dukes, earls, and knights, and all of them have noble children.”

Dizzy grinned, “There are, what, thirty thousand noblemen in the Northern Americas?”

Astor smiled, “A prodigious number, and growing all the time.”

“And around four hundred million other people in the Northern Americas.”

Astor frowned, “Four hundred… what?”

“Commoners. There are around four hundred million of them, and thirty thousand of us.”

Astor shrugged it off, “You talk about them as though it was a military standoff.”

Olivia whispered, “Pray it never is.”

Dizzy pointed his fork at her, “That’s exactly what I mean. We make up, oh, I guess a four-hundred-thousandth of the total population. That’s… ten thousand of them for every one of us. Doesn’t that scare you?”

Astor leered, “If you’re proposing we thin their numbers, I’m right behind you. But it may be exactly the kind of thing that will bring about the revolt you’re worried about.” He chortled and took another bite.

“It’s all tied together,” Dizzy said, dabbing at his lips with a napkin. “This isolation from the commoners, this hostage-” Olivia shot him a sharp look, and Dizzy sighed, “This requested internship. It’s all about control, and it goes too far.”

Astor sneered at him, “End it all then. You’re the king. Let us all go and let the commoners come in. But before you do, promise me one thing.” He speared another piece of fish, “list my father as your noble heir, so I can inherit when they raid the place, tear down your palace, and kill you in your sleep.”

Dizzy frowned down at his plate, “I don’t know how yet, and I’ll admit, I don’t know what will come of it, but this-” Dizzy looked at his wards, sitting and laughing at the table, all pleasantly trapped, “I want to stop this.”

“King Augustus,” Wendy spoke in a quiet, measured tone, but the words caught Dizzy’s attention. He saw her glaring at him, “Before you make any more grand proclamations over breakfast, might I request that you mention them to your chief of staff? I believe Lord Dunem will be quite interested in hearing about how you’ve revolutionized the nation, and civilized the palace.”

There was ice in her words, though Dizzy could not understand why. It made no sense for his hostages to fight against freedom. Already, he’d noticed a pattern of people stopping him at every mention of his use of power. He opened his mouth to say something, but as he brought his hand up, the bracelet hanging from his wrist rang against his plate for a moment, distracting him. He stared at the bracelet and thought about a King’s power.

He took a deep breath, forced a smile, and said, “Well, it seems we are all in agreement that the king is wrong on this, so let us table the matter for another time. Tell me, what are we doing today?”

Astor said, “Today is sport. I’m meeting with a few of the fellows for polo.”

Olivia smiled, “I’m working on archery.”

Dizzy raised an eyebrow, “Oh? You’ve got a keen eye, do you?”

She demurred politely, “No. That’s why I’m working on it.”

Astor pointed a fork at him, “And you have to inspect some flea speck township in Michigan.”

“Me? Why?”

Astor shrugged, “Because it is on your schedule. You and Wendy will be taking a hopper to Flint, Michigan, where you will inspect their algae food production system. After that, you will play a game of human Circus, then return to the palace. Oh, and there is a Lord Valen who wishes to speak to you.”

Dizzy grinned, “Wait! Human Circus? I’m a great fan of the game. Not too shabby at it, either.”

Wendy raised a hand to stop him, “Well, we will have experts available at the game sir. You should turn to them for advice.”

“No. I’m sure I can hold my own. Who am I playing?”

Astor took another bite, “The Belgian Prime Minister. He has been on a tour of the Americas for the last few weeks. He wraps up his visit with this game.”

Dizzy stared at him for a moment, “The Belgian Prime Minister is here?”

“Yes.”

Dizzy opened his mouth, then shut it again, groping for the words. Finally, he said, “We are still at war with Belgium, are we not?”

Astor seemed unperturbed, “At the moment, yes.”

“Well then, isn’t there something we can do about this?”

Astor frowned, “About what?”

“How is it even possible that I can play a game with the Prime Minister when our countries are at war?”

Olivia put a hand on his forearm, “That’s why it’s just a friendly game of Circus. If this were a diplomatic mission, the tone would be completely different.”

“The king is meeting with the Prime Minister. What part of this isn’t a diplomatic mission?”

Olivia’s tone was unimpressed, “You will negotiate no treaties. No one will surrender today. You meet as equals for a game of Circus. This is public relations, not diplomacy.”

Dizzy sat looking at all of them for a long time. He simply couldn’t understand this world. He pushed his plate away and stood quickly. As soon as he did, every chair moved back and everyone in the dining room, from youngest to eldest, stood at attention. Dizzy muttered, “Wendy, I’m ready to look at this flea-speck township whenever you are.”

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