Invito Rex – Chapter Two

InvitoRexCoverYou can find the audio version here.

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DateTime: 24997584600 UTC (RST)

Subject: Agent Klienko
Handler: REDACTED
Fragment 14 of 73 follows:
“…get to him. Observation has found no openings. The king is attended at all times. Romantic coercion has failed. Fraternal bonding has been rebuffed. We have turned one of his confidantes, but were unable to place anyone in his circle.

If he has a weakness, it is his isolation. No parents, siblings, or children. The king is alone and surrounded by underlings. This may be exploited, if we could arrange an escape. Our contact in his circle considers it impossible, but I believe we can convince him to come to us.

This isolation also makes him a timed target. If the king dies without heir, the country follows. This opportunity will not last forever. I have mentioned it in council, but as yet, our superiors have…”

Chester Harrington woke that morning with a song in his heart, and nearly danced his way through the most important day of his life. First among his duties was to oversee breakfast for his noble parents, then to help prepare the bears, coordinate with the other boys regarding outfits and prepared the halftime revels.

His was a smaller house of no great standing among the nobility, which made this day so frightfully important. As subjects to Lord Wilde, it was the greatest honor that the Harrington family had known in years, to host a Bear Polo game with the king among their ranks.

Their rivals for the day were Oscar Oldham’s team, second-raters to be sure, and one easily beaten. But that was no excuse for slacking off. Every boy knew that there would be no quarter given for treating this as though it were only a game. Thousands of the kings loyal subjects would be watching, with millions more tied in by remote wave. Each boy knew his parents would be harshly judging every movement on the field, as they rode alongside the King himself!

Chester’s hands began to shake when he thought about it. Should the King notice him, perhaps for his riding skill or leadership on the field, he might share a word with Chester. People might see them talking privately. A thing like that was valuable currency with his father and the other elder noblemen. And should the King, perhaps, find him charming and witty, laugh at a joke or slap Chester on the back…

Chester shook his head to clear it of silly notions. The place was an active anthill, breaking down the breakfast, preparing for the luncheon following the game, setting up the awards ceremony (the King’s medal for victory had been ordered more than three weeks ago, and had only just been delivered the day before, causing a minor stir among the servants), everything had to run smoothly.

The day bounced frenetically from one small meeting to another as Chester checked up on safety harnesses for the mid-game show acrobats and color-coded saddles for the bears. It seemed almost no time at all before the game was on, and all the boys scrambled into their newly-tailored uniforms before mounting their beasts.

They shuffled through the dark, crowded tunnel under the stadium, lining up based on their rank and performance that season. Chester was proud to be first in line, a right his father had fought and paid for. The boys in line waited nervously for the announcement whistle. The bears shuffled back and forth, trying to break out of the line, unnerved by standing so long in the darkened tunnel.

From his place in line, Chester could hear the cheering of the throng through the heavy oaken door. He leaned forward a bit to hear better, just as the doors sprung open with the hiss of a pneumatic press.

Chester blinked at the glare of the bright light that flooded the tunnel. The light and the roar of the crowd washed over them, battering them with its intensity. For a moment, Chester only blinked and stared, agape. His eyes, ears, and mind all tried to adjust at the same time, as one of his friends slapped the back of his helmet, “Go on, dunderhead!”

Chester shook his head and spurred his bear into motion. He kept a careful pace, letting the bear amble carefully out at the gait they were trained for.

One of the main reasons bears were chosen over horses was their flexibility in movement (the other main reason being the rise in horseflesh consumption among the more poor of the commoners). Bears run as fast as a horse in a sprint, they stop much more quickly, they can run sideways if needed, and they learn how to step much better.

For weeks, Chester had been teaching his bear, “Bruv” to trot. Such movement was very awkward for the bear and looked a bit sissified to Chester, but the trainer said that it was a noble and proud gait for a bear. Bruv raised its head aloft, and brought two paws up high every time it put the other two down. The cheering from the crowd was instant and powerful, and Chester grinned inside his helmet. Every soul loves a dancing bear.

As each of his players came out onto the pitch, the announcer called their names, and received a round of polite applause. Chester led his group in a short circle around the center point of their half of the field, then put them in a line facing the center.

Once they were all in line, there was a loud crack, and the Ursa Majors took to the field. They ran out onto the field at full tilt, shouting and whooping, as though they could frighten Wilde’s Warriors with their sprinting ability. The Majors were all wearing the sickly off-yellow and green that Oscar Oldham’s house was known for. In response to their appearance, the crowd showed ambivalence, with some polite applause, and even more uncouth booing. The announcer called out their names as they took to the field then a hush fell over the crowd as the announcer said, “The Empire now asks all loyal subjects to raise a hand to our hearts and renew our vow. Please join our special guest, Myra Palmer, in her recitation of the vow.”

Everyone raised one hand to their heart, and looked up at the vidscreen which showed a tiny, blonde girl in a blue dress, standing just offsides at the center line. Chester grinned to see the little moppet, barely able to stand alone without messing up her pretty new dress. She shifted from foot to foot as the camera zoomed in on her from above. Her words, though muttered and indistinct, were blasted over the entirety of the stadium.

“Um. I swear my undying… my under… votion to the King, and all he stands for.” Her practiced words quavered, as the attention of a thousand people weighed her down.

As the crowd parroted the young girl’s words, a new sight appeared on the field. From offsides, the King rode in on a mighty Kodiak.

He was a brilliant, sparkling vision of royalty. His jersey and cloak were gold, and he wore no helmet, letting his own blonde hair blend with the bright, shimmering power of his outfit. The bear was massive and beautiful, with rippling muscles under its gleaming coat, and the clear focus of a well-trained beast.

The girl continued, so caught up in the pressure of her speech that she failed to look around, “His grace protects us and leads us and holds back the night.”

The murmurs of surprise and amazement shifted through the crowd as the King continued to amble over to the child. Those who had only been mouthing the words of their vow now found themselves cheering the child along as she led them.

“May all the lords above grant me the grace and power to… fend hims and his works, and may I lay down my life in serf… service to his grace.”

The king’s bear reached the child, and she looked up to see him. That moment froze in the minds of everyone watching, and would be used in clips for years, as the beautiful little child gaped up at her sovereign in joy and amazement. He smiled down at her, resplendent in his high saddle and shimmering in the early morning sun. He reached down and scooped the child up into his arms. The king placed her on the saddle in front of him and held her. He smiled and murmured, “Go on.”

The child grinned and shouted, “My love and my life for my king!” The king kissed her forehead.

The crowd went wild.

Following the opening ceremony, the king rode over to the Warrior’s line and nodded to the boys. Everyone gathered together in a circle near him. Chester took the lead by right as head boy, saying, “All right, everyone. We’ve beaten Ursa Major before, and we’ll do it again. If you remember last time, they were strong on defense, but have no powerful strikers. So Guentzel and Cromer, I expect you to stay on their forwards. Harris and I will follow the ball, and the rest of you try to stay spread out.” Chester found himself talking louder than he’d intended, and shut his mouth suddenly. He was in the presence of the king, speaking to the king, giving orders in front of the king. If that didn’t show leadership, nothing would.

Chester cast a worried glance over at the king, “If that’s well with you, my liege.”

The king nodded distantly, “Yes, of course. As you said, you’ve beaten Oldham before, and I’m sure this will be no different. I’ll do my best to stay out of your way, and try to tuck in where I see an opening.”

Chester grinned, “It would be an honor, your grace.”

The king looked up from the scrum, “It is a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

The boys shot each other worried glances, though everyone loudly agreed with him.

Chester broke up the group, and they trotted into place. From atop a panda, the referee blew his whistle, and everyone rode into the fray.

Chester was one of their strongest players, and if he committed any sin that day, it was trying too hard to gain the king’s attention. His swings were wild and overpowered, he sprinted his bear from place to place, and shouted orders to his boys. The king himself seemed fairly detached. He floated around the edge of the group, taking only those shots that were already coming to him. The king was a fairly competent player, and Chester realized that he wasn’t lacking for skill, just interest.

Oldham’s men lacked for nothing. They seemed to take it as a personal slight that the king would ride with Wilde’s Warriors, and they fought hard to punish the Warriors for that. Chester had never seen them play so viciously before, and after losing two points to them, he began to re-evaluate his situation.

At the first quarter break, they dismounted and turned their beasts over to the grooms who hurried onto the field. As the bears were watered and brushed out, the men began to walk off field for their tea service. The king, however, stood in the center of the field, staring up at the collected people in the stadium, and at the sky in general.

An immaculately-dressed servant pushed a tea trolly out onto the field. He bounced over the rough, scarred terrain, but lost not one dish. Nor did he spill his tea with his quick movement. As soon as he reached the king, he began serving the tea. The king invited his teammates to join him, and they all gratefully accepted.

They stood, sweaty and breathing hard, holding beautiful bone china cups, and having tea with their sovereign in the middle of a polo field. Chester could not have been more pleased. In his mind, this was already the best day of his life. The king spoke amiably with the boys about how the game was going, but Chester could sense his distraction. His comments were light and friendly, without any serious consideration or concern.

Once the quarter break was finished, the grooms brought out their mounts, and the teams took their positions again. The king rode up to Chester and said, “I know I haven’t been a great help thus far-”

“Oh, no, my liege. It’s been wonderful having you… “, as he saw the passive blankness in the king’s face, Chester realized that he’d interrupted the man, and snapped his mouth shut.

“As I said, I haven’t been a great help, but I promise you, I will be of use to you in this quarter.”

Chester didn’t trust himself to answer, so he only nodded. The king continued, “You should know, as soon as I take up an active role, they will attack in force.” Chester frowned as the king shook his head, “They have been given the right to play against me. There is an implicit right to play hard against me. When men are given that power, they tend to abuse it. After all, how often do you get the opportunity to unseat your sovereign?”

Chester’s eyes went wide as saucers, but the king just smiled sadly, “Don’t let it vex you. There are some who would never consider it. Others would be too afraid to upset me. But I’ve looked into their eyes. These boys will push their limits.”

The king took a deep breath and said, “I only tell you this so that it won’t surprise you when it happens. They will likely gang up on me. In this way, I may be of more help, because while they want to brag about knocking me down, they would never dare to do me any real harm.”

Chester nodded mutely, so the king added, “I can be bait. I can pull men off the scent. But you’ll need to be ready for it. You’ll need to be able to take advantage of it. Can you do that?”

Chester’s heart beat fast as he considered the words. The king was offering himself as a sacrifice? How could any loyal servant agree to that? But then, could a servant who refused his king be called loyal?

After a moment, the king nodded as though he’d received his answer. As he rode away, Chester noticed something odd. The king wasn’t wearing his sceptre. He thought the king always travelled with his badge of office.

Play resumed, and true to his word, the king dove into the fray. He scored two points for Wilde’s Warriors before the Ursas even began to take him seriously. After that, they had two men on him at all times, riding up next to him to sour his swing, pulling in front of him to break his bear’s stride, and occasionally colliding with him in an attempt to knock him off.

Chester did what he could to protect the king, but he knew the game would suffer if he covered the king instead of moving the ball. He took his eye off the game for too long, and suddenly the Ursa Majors were even with them for score. At that point, the game began to turn ugly.

When a group swarms after the ball at the same time, the group packs together, with people trying to swing at the ball or sour other’s swings. This “packing” was fairly rare in civilized games, where gentlemen allowed their opposition access to the ball if they reached it first. Wilde’s Warriors, however, were not about to lose this game in front of the king, which made them all play a little more desperately. The ref had to break up two packs before the end of the quarter. In one of them, Chester’s power forward took a nasty blow to the upper arm, and gameplay was paused for the doctor to examine him.

The third pack was a disaster. The ball was deep in Warrior territory, and Oldham’s men were pushing it vigorously. Chester had never seen such a powerful offense from the team. It was coming up to the half, and the ball came to rest in the center of the entire group. As Chester ran to join the pack, he saw the bright golden flash of his king, riding the fastest bear on the field, into the fray.

The pack came together like a crashing wave of bears and mallets. People swung wildly, bears bellowed and screamed, swiping at each other with their massive forepaws. Chester had never seen anything like it, and in the heat of the moment, he couldn’t tell friend from foe, or even figure out how to get away.

They could barely hear the referee as he rode into the pack. He fired a starting pistol to get their attention, then stopped the fighting. One by one, boys rode out of the pack, some bears limping and some boys nursing wounds.

When the whole pack was broken up, the referee found the ball, and next to it, the body of the king.

“Who are you?” The old woman snatched her hand from Dizzy’s grasp.

He stayed as still as he could, despite the cold anger rising inside him, “When you knew me, I was called Vincent.”

Her voice lost its continental lilt, “Fine, Vinnie. I don’t know you, and I don’t owe you anything. I don’t know how you faked your way in here, but if you’ve come to collect for somebody, you won’t make it out alive.” Bracelets jangled as one hand reached under the table.

Whether she was going for a weapon, or calling the guards, Dizzy knew he had little time to make his case, “You remember Vincent? Vinnie Veevers?”

The old woman’s eyes widened, but her hands stayed where they were, “How do you know that name?”

He let a tense moment pass, unsure how to convince her, then said, “Look at my face.”

The hand she held under the table moved slightly, and the soft lighting blinked out. It was replaced by the harsh glare of a spotlight between them, “I don’t know you. I never met you. How would I recogn-“ She squinted at him as the ends of her mouth dropped into a look of abject sorrow, “Oh, dear gods. You have your father’s eyes.”

He nodded slowly for a moment, then said, “I didn’t know that. So, you remember me, mother?”

She clasped her hands over her mouth and nose, “Oh gods, no. Not you. Not now.”

“I’m sorry to come to you like this-“

“Why now? Of all the demons in hell sent to torment me, why you? Why now? When I am this?” She threw her arms out wide.

Dizzy sat still, suddenly feeling guilty for coming, “I had questions. I never was able to find you before.”

Her bracelets rang out as she stabbed an accusing finger at him, “You won’t get an apology from me. You won’t.”

Dizzy frowned, feeling himself an impetuous child, “I ask for no apology.”

“What do you want then? You come to me now? You come to haunt an old crone with her past sins?”

He stood up, “I came with questions.”

“Ask them, then, and -“ Her throat choked on the words, “Please go away.” The old woman turned away from him and left the table. Facing away from him, she said, “It was so long ago. I was so young.”

The old woman stared down at her hands, “I thought I could have it all. The perfect scam. The perfect mark. The ultimate long con.”

Dizzy took a deep breath, “I want to know my father.”

Her head swiveled to lock on to him, “No. Not that. Catalogue my mistakes if you wish, hold me accountable for my sins if you must, but that part of my life…” She shook her head sadly, “I can’t let you know. I won’t talk about him. Not to you. Not to anybody ever again.” The old woman bit on a bejeweled fist, “My boy. My only child.”

Dizzy frowned, “You know who my father is, though.”

She scowled at him, “That’s low, that is. What do you think I am?”

Dizzy’s gaze dropped to the floor, but he held his ground, “I don’t know anything about you. The last thing you told me was that you’d come back for me. I was eight years old then.”

Her breath came to her in a hiss, “If you’re going to just bludgeon me with it, I’d prefer you got it over with. Call me a whore, if you want. Call me a faithless woman.” She hugged her arms over her immense bosom, “It may be no better than I deserve.”

“I’m not here to insult you or hurt you.”

“You don’t have to, though, do you? You don’t have to do a thing, say a word. All you have to do is show up.” She looked up at his face, “Just stand before me with his eyes.” The old woman put one palm to her forehead, “You could hardly cut me deeper.”

“You know who he was. Something happened. Did you split up? Did you leave him?”

“It doesn’t matter now.”

“Is my father still alive?”

She blinked at him for a moment, then looked away, “That’s a valid question. Of course, now that you’ve seen the wreck that your mother was, you’d want to track your father down and see if he is any better.”

Dizzy’s frustration was starting to build, but years of training helped him handle it. When blocked by emotion, always use charm, “Not such a wreck. My mother’s the Dowager Queen. How many fellows can say that?”

A thin, hopeful smile raised her lips, “It’s just a name. Just another part, like any other two-bit cover.”

He shrugged, “You’ve done well with it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done so… so brazenly.” He frowned at her suddenly, “How could you take such a risk? Half the world knows of you. Aren’t you afraid someone will figure out who you are?”

Her smile deepened, “Oh, honey, I’m so far ahead of you, it’s sad. Before I ever get out of bed, I check on the people most likely to ruin my life. Two of them owe me a debt of gratitude they can never repay. Three of them fear my wrath, and four more would kill anyone I wanted just to keep me from revealing their secrets.”

She began moving around the room, picking things up and cleaning absently, “I have queens and princesses whose lives would be ruined if I spoke a single word in the right ear. They watch my back for me. I still have roots going to the underworld, deep enough to disappear if this gig ever went south. I’m covered six ways to Sunday.” She cocked her head to one side, evaluating him, “What about you? Earl of Viborg?”

Dizzy nodded, “It’s a living. Not too pretentious, not too low-born.” He paused again, and took a deep breath, holding his hands behind his back, “Is he alive?”

For a moment, the old woman blinked happily at him, then her face fell again, “No.” She dropped the things she’d been collecting onto a chair.

Dizzy’s mouth was a hard line as he frowned down at the floor. A well of emotion pushed up from his chest, but he fought it with everything he had.

Dizzy had grown up without parents. He had adjusted to the idea that he would never know his mother or father. Finding the Dowager Queen changed all that. While he knew they could never be a normal family, hope sprang anew. There was a chance to connect with them, find out about them, and himself.

But that would never happen now. Dizzy could read it in the flat, simple honesty of that one word. His father was dead. No chance of asking him about his family, his loves or dreams. Not even a way to ask him why.

His words were pushed out of a gravelly, dry throat as he asked, “How did he die?”

The old woman waved it away, “No. You’ve got all you’re going to from me. He was a good man, and now he’s dead. Don’t go looking for him, don’t go asking around about him.”

Dizzy glared at her, “Did he leave us? I remember you, but I don’t remember him. Did he leave you because of me?”

Her voice was distant, barely more than a whisper, “He barely even saw you.”

“And now he’s dead!”

“Trust me, son, you wouldn’t want to go looking for him if he weren’t. You think he would take you in with open arms? You think he would want to meet his child now?” She shook her head, “No. If he knew you were alive, he’d run from you. He would-” Her head raised up suddenly, “I said I wouldn’t talk about it.” She squinted at him and one side of her mouth twitched up in a wry grin, “You’ve a bit of his silver tongue, too.”

Dizzy didn’t soften, “Whose tongue? Give me a name.”

She shook her head again, “You won’t get it. Not from me, not if I can help it.”

He raised his fists to his temples and pressed them into his eyes, “So this is what I know. My father was a good man, but he’d disown me if he knew I was alive. He left you, abandoned us, and then died.” He glared at her, “You know who he was. Did he have another family after he left us?”

“This isn’t helping. You’re going to make yourself sick worrying about -”

“I’d wager he did. I expect he had a better family, not associated with such low-life base-born gutter trash as us. So this good man of yours kicked us out onto the street-”

She took two short steps toward him, and slapped Dizzy across the face. His head rocked back with the impact, and he tasted blood as he turned back to look at her. Through the swelling lips, he said, “And then you abandoned me, just like he did. Was there anyone in my life who didn’t leave me?”

“Get out.” She said it in a flat, even voice, “Get out and may you never darken my door again, you horrible child.”

Dizzy stepped backward toward the door, “Of course, mother. I wouldn’t spend another moment in your presence.” Anger coursed through his veins as he stormed out, his hands balled into fists at his sides.

As Dizzy entered the elevator, he heard the hiss of pneumatic presses slowly dropping the car. In the bronze elevator door, he saw his face beginning to swell on one side. Dizzy pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at the trail of blood running from one corner of his mouth.

The servants at his apartment would talk, of course. He could have his doctor see to the face, but they would still tell tales of how the dowager queen had slapped him. In a distant, small part of his mind, he realized that it would improve his standing in court to be considered so dangerous that such an important person would physically accost him.

He looked past the injuries to see the face in his reflection. He looked into his father’s eyes. And this was all he would ever know.

Dizzy had thought that the worst consequence of this meeting would be that she could say he had the wrong woman. Looking at the sallow lad in bronze, he marveled at how wrong he had been. His mother was a confidence trickster, and his father was a nameless coward. He was better off ignorant.

As the elevator bell rang above him, he thought of the enemy he’d just made. She may be a grifter, but she had power. Politically, he was nothing compared to her. She could still destroy him on a whim.

He walked down the hallway thinking about her anger. She had certainly hated him enough to kick him out, but would she want him truly removed? Would finding out she had a son be reason enough to have him removed?

As he neared the inner door, he realized that the doorman wasn’t at his post. For the briefest of moments, he saw the flash of blue. The average pedestrian might not have thought twice about it, but Dizzy knew a police light when he saw one. His mind began to race as he headed for the back stairs.

A new thought occurred to him. Would she hate him enough to turn him in?

The locker room of Wilde’s Warriors was abuzz with people running in and out as onlookers, well-wishers, and officiates demanded attention. In the center of the room, a collection of the most prestigious doctors in the land stood quietly, watching the surgeon general as she moved around the king. People shouted orders, gave updates, and coordinated on the outside of the ring. On the inside of the ring of people, it was very quiet as everyone concentrated and listened to the old woman muttering.

A golden sphere hovered near the doctor’s head, recording everything she looked at, and everything she said. The old woman clamped an exposed vein in the back of the head, then sprayed a dispersal aerosol that cleaned the wound and evaporated exposed blood.

“The minor cuts and bruises suffered to the arms and legs are no more than one would expect from a bear polo pack. They are consistent in pattern and severity to other such injuries. The blow to the back of the head is clearly the cause of death.”

The king lay on his chest, uniform cut away from his body and legs. His head was turned to one side, to expose a deep depression caving in the back of his skull near his spine.

“The blow was powerful enough to shatter bone, but from the angle of incidence, it does not indicate a direct blow. It is more likely that the hit was a glancing blow by one intending to hit the ball, or something else on the low part of a swing.”

Lord Ashford Dunem spoke up, “We’ve found the player responsible, and have him in custody. There was blood on his mallet-”

The old woman waved him off without looking up, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to stay on topic.” She continued to examine the wound, “Skull is broken evenly and consistent with a single strike. From the state of the eyes and hands, I believe death was instant. We have an ambulance on route. Once the full autopsy is done and pharmacology is back, I can confirm. My preliminary diagnosis is death by misadventure, though.”

There was a generally supportive murmuring among the surrounding doctors, but no one spoke up loud enough to argue her diagnosis or to offer support. The surgeon general’s diagnosis would remain the standing order unless any other doctor wanted to lose their license.

The surgeon general grabbed the golden sphere above her head and squeezed it shut. As the recording shut off, she asked, “Could we have the room, please?”

Doctors and dignitaries were shuffled out, grumbling about important work and contaminating the scene. Once they were all gone, only Lord Dunem, General Elling, Sir Cartwright, and the surgeon general were left.

She looked over the group, “Well, gentlemen. I have to ask. How the hell did you let this happen?”

Dunem leaned forward, “We’re alone now. No recordings. You’re absolutely sure that it was unintentional?”

She shook her head, “Absolutely. That boy you’ve got in custody will probably spend the rest of his short life as part of a conspiracy theory, but he didn’t do this on purpose.” She pointed at them, “No, this is your fault.”

Dunem stepped back, blinking, “That’s a serious accusation. If you mean to say-”

“I mean to say that this was incredibly stupid and reckless! Your sovereign; a man without family, siblings, or heirs. You put him on the back of a wild animal, and threw him into a game with other people riding wild animals and swinging hammers. You put him in a game with two blood rival teams, and gave him no padding? No helmet? No safety preparations at all?”

General Elling shook his head, “We couldn’t have given the King more padding than the other boys. He’d have looked weak. It would undermine the whole purpose of the exercise.”

The old woman gestured at the body on the table and fumed, “How weak does he look now?”

Dunem turned to the General, “What’s the international situation?”

General Elling crossed his arms over his chest, “We’ve suspended forward movement in most theaters, telling men to hold position until further orders. The word isn’t out internationally, and I’ve got Atherton’s assurance that no news about this will leak outside the country for at least twenty-four hours. After that, we can expect Argentina, Northwest Canada, Iceland, and Greece to open up as new targets of opportunity.”

Lord Dunem frowned, “Is this really the time to be thinking about advancing?”

“You misunderstand me. I mean our enemies will see them as targets of opportunity. There are certain areas that will open up to us in the next few days, as long as we can appear to be without a governing head, but that’s gravy. Right now, I’m putting most of our effort towards a holding action.”

The surgeon general put her hands on her hips, “We need a governing head. I’m not talking about succession, that’s for the parliament to decide upon later.”

Dunem frowned, “I don’t want to put that kind of power in the hands of parliament. It will turn into a civil war right now. There are too many families who want to take over.”

Terry Cartwright, the financial advisor cleared his throat, “I don’t think it’s a question of what we want. The hereditary line is broken. The law dictates that parliament determine who our next king will be.”

The surgeon general shrugged, “That’s for tomorrow. Dunem’s right, that parliament will be fighting this for weeks, if not months. Right now, we need someone in place.”

The general nodded, “Yes. An interim lead while we wait for parliament to deliberate.”

They all waited for a long, nervous moment, looking at each other.

Sir Cartwright asked, “How can we do that? I mean, where do we get the authority to decide something like that?”

Lord Dunem took a deep breath and said, “This is primarily a political decision. If no one else has a complaint, I’ll take over.”

Cartwright raised one tentative hand, “Ah. No. See, this is a very delicate time. If we don’t handle this to the letter of the law, people will charge us with treason. They’ll think we’re talking about back-room deals with star chambers and people choosing the nation’s leader without any concern for the rule of law.”

Dunem waved it away, “Don’t worry about that. We’re a monarchy. Whoever we put into power will stand behind our decision and decide that it was entirely legal.”

Cartwright pointed at him, nodding, “Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing they’ll string us up for saying.”

General Elling nodded, frowning, “Dunem’s right. I’m going to have my head in the game, dealing with foreign wars, and neither one of you know the inside of the palace like his Lordship here.” He turned to Lord Dunem, “But you realize, you won’t be able to hold it long. Parliament will want to vote on a interim lead at least. With no hereditary successor, they will go to war before they let you keep the position.”

Ashford said, “I know. That’s why I want to be the one who takes this. I think I could find an interim lead for us.” He looked around the room and asked, “What if king Cadvan had a brother?”

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