August 30th, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Central City
Arthur Spade sat at a long conference table in a long room with no windows. He was the last of two members of the presidential advisory committee to wait there. The cabinet had just filed out. The Slight Twice King remained, in his best blue-black suit, his mouth twisted into a smile, very pleased with himself. Spade could feel the pride like a halogen bulb shining in his eyes. Still, he got more amusement than annoyance from their leader, so he endured it. This time he stayed in his seat on a particular promise.
The other man was Regus Baton, who leaned heavily on his cane by the wall behind his fellow, staring at a projected image on the screen by the door, frowning at the lines of red marked out below the Tenoan border.
The door finally shut behind the last department head. The King leaned forward on his fists, over a handful of scattered papers he’d not bothered to skim over more than once. They didn’t matter. He was all about delegation anyway.
“Gao,” he said shortly, and Spade nodded.
“Still at the border,” he agreed. “He’s playing with us. He must think he’s immortal like his old man.”
“He won’t attack,” said Baton thoughtfully.
Spade looked back at him. “What?”
Baton pressed his lips together tightly. “If I had more information from the Tenoans, or even the people of the South Pan Atlantic Alliance…”
“You don’t?” the King asked. “I thought you were the one who had these things—the connections. Why not? Why don’t you have any connections all of a sudden? That’s your thing.”
Baton waited for the mild tirade to end, then explained, “The last offensive at the border in June lost me all but a handful of spies. Even so, Gao won’t attack. He’ll let the fear work for him. His tactics have been observed before. Even secondary sources promise this to be more a waiting game than anything.”
The Slight Twice King laughed. He clapped his hands with a small slap, then rubbed them together devilishly like a businessman anticipating a deal. “Well, that’s perfect,” he declared. “That’s the most wonderful news I’ve heard all day, far better, in fact, than all the theories of those liches just now—Something about never dying, it makes people stupid, I think.”
Baton waited with saint-like patience for the King to explain, which caused the monarch to deflate in disappointment. He turned to Spade for validation.
“Mr. Spade understands me, don’t you, Arthur?”
Spade considered a spot on the table under his pressing finger. He’d been half-distraught, what with a delay in the promise of war, and had been comforting himself thinking about pressure points that could knot the nerves into five kinds of pain. At the question, however, he was quick on the uptake.
“I think I do, Mr. President,” he said. In private, the title was something of a joke. “Right now, the people of Westfall do not realize the threat they are under. We’ve assured them too much, kept back too much information.”
“And so,” the King said gleefully, “we’ll decide where Gao attacks next.”
Baton’s lips pressed together in a very thin line as revelation dawned.
“Until,” the King concluded, “they want us to end it all, despite the risk. They’ll be begging us for a hero.”
“You intend a nuclear assault,” Baton concluded levelly.
“I have my speech already prepared: It is with grave thoughts and a heavy heart, that we have spent these final hours, preparing in the sight of the gods, the only answer to this threat to our race, our common faith, our way of life…”
Baton wore a strange, passive expression as the Slight Twice King rehearsed his somber, Churchillian rhetoric. When the speech’s gravity finally proved too much for his majesty, the big man broke off laughing, his wide shoulders shaking all the more as Spade joined in.
“You do see?” the Slight Twice King insisted next, perhaps because the dark shadows brooding around Baton were starting to bother him. He preferred a perpetual spotlight.
“Yes, I see,” said Baton, belatedly. “You’ll need to find those four from Jonestown then? You were going to blame them for the delay.”
“Gao’s sent no word since our Mr. Farthing met his end,” said Spade irritably. “Odds are he’s killed them too or…”
“He’s not so wasteful. His father wouldn’t be,” Baton interrupted.
It was unusual for there to be an interruption from the calm one, Spade reflected. The next moment he had a thought, and let his displeasure twist his mouth into a sneer. “How could we forget, Mr. President? Mr. Baton’s dear, old friend?”
“A friend apparently not so close with Alfred,” the King agreed, and now his amphibian smile puckered irritably. “I value Mr. Baton’s word, Arthur. Flask wouldn’t raise a fool. A fool wouldn’t conquer continents. It truly is time to invite our little rosebud and her suicidal miscreants in at last.”
Baton nodded stiffly. “I’ll see to it then.”
“Not at all.” The King’s laugh stopped him halfway to the door. The King wagged a finger as he looked back. “I have a person on the inside already.”
Baton’s mouth went flat and thin again. “Then why haven’t we…?”
“It was a matter of perfect timing,” the King shrugged. “You’ll be less taxed by the matter than Mr. Spade and I, rest assured.”
Baton turned his cane beneath his hand worriedly and Spade smiled at his colleague’s startled look.
“Apologies,” Spade said, unapologetically. He pushed himself up out of his chair. His suit fit him closely, betraying the fact that the muscles of the virile body beneath the stiff material were more animal in its surest movements than civilian. “This requires my expertise, Regus.”
The King rounded the table, his eyes already taking on a dim look that said he was getting bored. He tugged his cellphone out of his pocket and strolled to the door, unlocking it and saying, “I’ve presidential things to do.”
He flipped the phone once in his hand. He’d hit the speed dial before both feet were out the door.
“I’ve other business to see to then,” said Baton immediately. “If you need me, I’ll be with the Vice President.”
“Still grooming him?” Spade suggested nastily.
“We must prepare for every eventuality. You’ll tell me when the four have arrived? I’ve a person of interest among them.”
“Small world,” said Spade, peeling back his lips in a wolfish smile. “So have I.”
Baton walked down the corridor in the opposite direction as Spade’s own departure, his cane making small thumps as it left dents in the plush carpet.
There were few turns to navigate before reaching the Vice President’s office. Even so, the wing had been renovated deliberately in recent years as a kind of maze for the sake of privacy, noise reduction, and security. Even the King had gotten lost the first few weeks, leading to initial scrutiny from the press, which was more intrusive back then and more free to speak its opinion about heads of state who couldn’t navigate their way to a toilet. Baton had quietly taken it upon himself to map the floors in his mind and provide guidance as needed thereafter. Being Secretary of Intelligence had surprising applications in this new age.
He reached the single white door that led to the VP’s new office and knocked.
“Who is it?”
Baton pushed at the door and slipped inside.
The room was quiet. Vice President Eric Wheeler spent his mornings looking over intelligent reports in silence. It was quicker that way, he’d explained once. One by one, he’d pick up the sealed envelopes from Baton’s officers. And one by one he’d slit them open to retrieve their pages. Baton smiled to think Wheeler had as much skill wielding a letter opener as men of old might have with a sword. One by one, envelope and contents passed from one side of the desk to the other. At the fulcrum of the tipping scale was Wheeler’s leather-bound notebook, turned open to a fresh page for each file, his questions scrawled in cryptic shorthand.
Wheeler did not look up as Baton walked in and so Baton took a moment to study him. He was a much younger man than the President. He had come on board after the previous Vice President had had a convenient heart attack (due to a conflict of political interest, Spade had explained), but he was still old enough to be vetted in the Capital’s ins and outs. His hair was white and cropped short, and whereas the Slight Twice King was boisterous and showy, Wheeler’s clothes were modest and gray. Wheeler was not the sort of man who would stand out, not unless he did something extraordinary—
—like lead a nation out of a war, Baton considered gravely.
“Might I have a moment of your time, Mr. Vice President?”
“Is this about our previous conversation?”
“Half a moment…”
While Wheeler finished the last pages of his present report, Baton crossed the room to a plain-looking wall. It was the wall standing against that of the Grand Office (as the President liked to call his seat of power). Anyone with an interest in architecture and free range of the building might have noticed that the walls of both rooms didn’t quite account for three meters of the hallway outside. It had been part of the renovation.
Baton let his fingers trace something in the chair molding halfway up the wall, and found a telling seam.
“Sorry for the wait, Mr. Baton, what is it?”
Baton dropped his fingers and turned around. He now faced the empty fireplace across the room and the gaudy golden mirror hanging over it. To this, he pointed.
“Firstly, I’m required to tell you that the President would like to trade mirrors,” he said. “He mentioned it at the cabinet meeting.”
Wheeler’s serious tone of voice did not change. “For such an important concern, should I be ashamed to have been absent?”
Baton felt the corner of his mouth twitch upward. “Your labors here are most appreciated,” he said sincerely.
“I’ll have notes to discuss with you later about these labors,” Wheeler said pragmatically, and tapped the notebook once. “As to that mirror, what’s wrong with the Turkish one in his office?”
“It’s made of glass.”
Now Wheeler, too, glanced at the golden, sun-like circle over the hearth. It was curved so that the room’s edges were thrown far from the center of it. The rim was a showy garland of sunflowers.
“He can have it if he wants it. Is that all?” Wheeler’s hand reached pointedly for another manila envelope, and hovered.
“I’ve also been told that the investigation of the four terrorists will be in the hands of Mr. Spade.”
And again, the narrow blade gutted a packet.
“I’m sorry,” Baton added.
“Has the President opened up peace negotiations with Gao yet?”
“We’ve received no answer across the border.”
“No answer but the waves of bombs landing on our civilians?” Wheeler suggested, but as he did so he leaned forward, the letter opener suspended horizontally between two fingers. It actually was fashioned like a little sword. Wheeler lowered his voice. “Remember to add that, if you have to report to the watching press, Mr. Baton, and I suggest you express all due ire.”
Baton smiled ruefully despite himself. He nodded, courteously. “Of course, Mr. Vice President.”
“But what is he up to, really?” Wheeler added, more practically, leaning back. “I need to know. We can’t lose sight of our enemy through our own teargas, now can we?”
“A fair point, sir.”
The ironic term was not lost on him. “Pry them away from Spade as soon as he finds them, Mr. Baton,” said Wheeler. “Especially the leader. I need to know what our enemy knows. We can’t underestimate him, especially if he’s half one of you.”
“I’ll see you at our afternoon meeting then. Good morning.”
Even so, Baton waited a moment more as Wheeler turned back to his work. Wheeler was, he reflected, one of the few officials in the government with a real job. He was kept better informed than most and allowed free reign of his powers. He understood the system but never upset it. He knew how to wield it, but never dared pushed his limits. He was the ideal face for international relations, the best TV personality for a tiebreaker in the pageantry of the Senate, and overall a most necessary mortal to have so near at hand when real problems, rather than dreams, were at the gates.
If this nation had a future, Baton considered, Mr. Wheeler would be prepared to stand at the helm of its schooner—granted, not because he might steer any differently, but because he would be the one man who still knew how to steer.
And, so long as he didn’t get ambitious, these secret little discussions Baton was sure the others knew about would be allowed to continue.
“Is there something else?” Wheeler asked presently, noticing Baton still standing there, lost in worried thoughts.
“No, sir,” said Baton, and nodded respectfully. “I’ll bring you the minutes of the morning meeting as well, as soon as possible.”