August 31st, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Central City, Capital Mansion
Drogheda Hound had followed the president and his three secretaries from a conference room, down the hall, and into the president’s office—the seat of the capital’s power, she always told herself in silent awe, not to mention some of the most comfortable couches she knew.
Arthur Spade was already there, standing in one corner near the fireplace. When Baton entered last and closed the door, Gheda glanced at both men with some resentment. She had hoped this would be some kind of private meeting. Even so, she looked about next with happy curiosity, as she always did on such privileged occasions. Today the shimmering gold curtains were drawn against any view of the rose gardens outside, making the whole room feel close and private. Everything within the chamber was symmetrical and clean, balanced in shades of gold and ivory, even over the mantelpiece.
“Oh, a new mirror,” Gheda exclaimed, delighted.
“It’s an old thing, but do you like it?” the President boasted cheerfully. “Got it from Mr. Wheeler. I knew it’d look better here. I’ve good taste.”
The President had a special smile for Gheda. He was wearing it now and it set her soul aflutter like a butterfly trying to escape a cage. She knew her use hadn’t gone overlooked in the early days of his campaign, nor thereafter, though a reminder never hurt anyone, especially her.
Gheda found herself turning something in her fingers something. She’d dug it out of the pile of the terrorists’ possessions she’d been asked to examine. It was a large silver coin, the sort you could only imagine turning about a bit, not putting to use at a grocery store counter. She couldn’t imagine it sitting in a cash register’s change drawer (and Gheda could usually imagine anything).
“But, Ms. Gheda, we do need your final say on the matter at hand,” the President added presently.
Gheda shut her eyes to the loveliness of the golden office and tuned into the darkness instead. Very few outside of this room knew she could do it. It had started when she was younger, working as a field hand in New Jersey. You learned things when your hands were busy and your mind was bored. You learned how to listen to the comings and goings of people, to know what words made them angry or calm, roiled or at ease. The darkness was the Fair Folk’s hunter, but like pursued like; it had been made up of captured emotions the Fair Folk had gathered from the greater mood of the captive nation, and it could act like a sounding board. To know it was to know the audience to whom her stories would eventually be spoken.
At this moment, it hovered over the capital like a wounded animal, just as ready to strike its masters as any stranger drawing near to it. What kind of story would it take, Gheda let her prodding mind ask, to call that darkness to heel? That was the trick really. It wasn’t about the truth of words. It was about the truth of feelings. People remembered the feelings. Find the words that worked, speak them out in faith, and they’d never fail you.
“They’re homegrown terrorists,” she announced at last, “we can stick to that part, but… Say they’re the children of immigrants, but they knew they couldn’t act alone, so they went south to bargain, and to buy their lives from General Gao. They’re addicted to sucking Westfall’s teat. They’re willing to help Gao undermine our government and lead the Eastasians to establishing military rule. He just needed people who knew the language and the lay of the land.”
She opened her eyes, feeling quite pleased with herself for this.
“Did they bring back drugs to sell?” Spade asked idly.
Gheda allowed herself a soft snort. “That would be over the top,” she said. Spade had looks, she confessed to herself, charisma even. But he’d never be a president. Gheda beamed at Mr. Kennick.
President Kennick straightened his lapels with a tug and a pleased smile. “Then we can move on to the next matter at hand,” he announced.
Gheda nodded and now let herself look at another inconvenient presence in the room, the young woman balled up head over knees in the corner, seated in a low chair. She’d been shivering in silence, clutching at her blond-brown hair like she might pull it out.
“Why ever did you bring one of them up here?” Gheda asked. She was thinking of those piles of pointless paraphernalia she’d seen dumped before her in the conference room. The underground jail below the bunkers, with its extra cells and gray hallways, was a much better place to store furnace fodder.
“This one’s my favorite,” said the President. Gheda felt a small sting of jealousy and fought an unladylike twist of her lip.
“Whatever for?” she asked.
The President explained the girl’s history to his assistant, including pointedly how she’d led the president and his team to learning about the horrible blind witch. She’d aided in the others’ capture, he went on, though in the scuffle, thanks to her heartless friend, her companion had died.
“A real shame. It’s a really bad shame,” he went on. “You know, he seemed like a good man, a real hero, too bad for his soul.” He stretched a fond smile for her. “I have ideas, plenty of ideas, good ones. Ms. Thorne is going to regret it, all of it, her whole life, everything, for what she’s put this nation through.”
“This nation?” Gheda gasped in amazement. No wonder they needed her to make a story for them, she reflected. Who could handle that truth?
“Because of Ms. Thorne,” the President went on, “Gao’s got all our secrets, hacking all our drones, bombing us left and right. Knowing him, he’ll target her hometown next. Can’t trust an Eastasian. It’s all Ms. Thorne’s fault, you see, making deals with no right to make deals, using people.”
Gheda drew her lips into a line and let her eyes flare open in carefully checked anger. “Well, how awful!” she piped.
“Not to worry,” said the President. He glanced at the woman in the chair and then lifted his chin. “You’ll see what I’m going to do about it. One hero down, well, there’s a vacancy. That’s how I see it. This time tomorrow—let’s say noon tomorrow, doesn’t noon sound all right, Mr. Spade—okay, noon tomorrow, I’m going to be the one to save the world. I’ll be the hero. There’ll be posters and songs, and news all about it. It’ll be in history books by evening. All over the world, even in Eastasia. They’ll have to do it.”
“What will you do?” Gheda gasped, her eyes shimmering now in amazement.
“Oh, I’ll leave that as a surprise,” said the President. He reached up to rub her shoulders rather heavily as she let her eyes glance once again at the shivering person in the chair. Absently, she turned the silver coin between her fingers again. “But I need you, Ms. Gheda, to help me tell the story right. We need to blame Ms. Thorne with having to go so far. She has pushed us to the edge. She’s put everything we know in danger. It’s too late to stop her, she’s that ready to die, she didn’t waste time, but I need to count on you that, no matter how anyone tries to spin it tomorrow, the world will know the truth you’re going to tell them.”
“Of course,” said Gheda, feeling her chest swell with pride. She preened a little, then cleared her throat. She felt suddenly dizzy with all the excitement. “I’ll have an address ready by tomorrow morning,” she promised.
Baton took a turn clearing his throat.
“I should get what intelligence I can from them tonight then,” he said. “Shall I?” He reached out a hand, palm up, to Gheda.
She stared at it. “What?”
He clarified, “I’ll need that coin.”
Gheda reluctantly placed the shiny thing on his palm, frowning with some disappointment as he folded his fingers carefully over it. Somehow, she’d gotten attached.
“Evidence,” he explained shortly. He turned and put a hand on the handle of the hallway door. “I’ll see about destroying it with the rest.”
“No, give it back to her,” said the President with a dismissive wave. “I’ll be speaking to her once you and Mr. Wheeler are finished. It’ll be boring without it.”
Baton hesitated at the mention of the Vice President he’d never mentioned.
“What will you do?” he asked.
The President smiled a proud smile. Baton nodded and let himself out.
Gheda watched Baton leave. He always gave the President that nod when he left, more like a bow really, now that she thought of it.
“What will you do?” she asked next, hoping her own smile could charm an answer from him.
“If you truly want to kill an idealist,” said President Kennick confidently, “you kill the idea first. Everyone loves a martyr. No one can stand a traitor.” He danced a little from foot to foot and even let her twirl as part of his little waltz. “We can’t risk she might have told someone something we don’t want them to know.”
“So you’ll discredit her?” Gheda realized, smiling at the simplicity of it.
“Ms. Gheda, you are indispensable for your speed,” said President Kennick, still warming his own smile. “I have complete confidence in whatever you come up with. You’ll tell me your story first?”
“Of course, Mr. President,” said Gheda, flushing with pride. She fought the urge to giggle.
After the Slight Twice King showed Gheda to the door, Spade turned to him.
“She’s looking thinner,” he noted. “Did you want her to last until tomorrow?”
“If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s knowing the limits of my people, Arthur,” said the President, crossing the golden carpet again. “She’ll last as long as she needs to.”
“I just don’t see what good she’ll make as a lich,” Spade admitted honestly. He joined him by the fire. His eyes wandered, with the sly, sideways distraction of a man in certain magazine shops, to the one sitting turned in on herself in the ivory-colored chair at the hearthstone.
When he looked back at his King, the big man was frowning. His frowns were rare, at least to the public. With it, a dour grayness hung all about him suddenly; the aura of golden light that normally lingered had been pushed back like some cumbersome cloak.
The King lifted a hand deliberately. In the fireplace, a fire roared suddenly up on the logs, throwing shadows out across the room. Lowering his hand, he rolled out his shoulders, then turned to the girl in the chair, who hadn’t noticed any of this, any of before either, or much at all, not since their departure from the motel. She just sat, and shivered, and cringed at things in her mind.
“I’m going to be busy awhile,” the Slight Twice King said, his voice low. “I won’t be disturbed.”
Spade frowned. He despised guard duty and this would be twice in one day. “Can’t it wait?” he asked.
“No, it’s best to work while it’s raw.”
“What about the others?”
“Let Wheeler and Baton bother them.” The King’s eyes remained fixed on the mite before him. “I’ll send you for Ms. Thorne when I’m ready.”
“And the witch?” Spade asked impatiently.
The King did not seem to hear him. “I haven’t done something like this in years,” he murmured, a strange haze pouring through the gaps of reality he’d torn. “You remember the old days, Arthur: We had to break up the pack, take them one at a time, run them ragged. There was a certain elegance to the hunt, at how splendid we all looked at the end, and how wretched they were.”
Spade shivered a little to remember, but it wasn’t from fear.
“Now, we let them break themselves up,” the King went on thoughtfully. “The institutions are all in the mind and just as frail.”
Spade strode to the door. If he wasn’t going to get an answer, he’d make up his own. But he hesitated, thinking, as the King was, of the past.
“I don’t suppose I can stay and watch.”
The Slight Twice King smiled in order to wrap himself up once again in gold. He reached down and laid a hand over one of Jill’s, prying it gently but firmly from her hair to take it between his own. He let his aura swell.
“No,” he said quietly, “no I think she’ll be troubled by that. She needs to feel safe, and she is safe, with me.” To her waiting, unseeing look, he added, “You’ve been wanting that, all this time, haven’t you? Someone to keep you safe? You thought it was from me, but the truth is, you’ve never been safe, you just had the gods to protect you, and they weren’t enough, so they sent you me. I’m the hero, the one you’ve waited for, the answer to your prayers, oh ye of little faith.”
Jill shuddered and looked up enough to stare at her own hand between his. She was pale, and unhealthily so.
“Life is a dream,” the King went on. “It starts out like one. It ends like one. The stories are under the surface, the monsters as unexpected and terrible as you can imagine…. You need a hero, love, I understand that. We fit together so well because, you see, I have always wanted to be the hero, and you’ve always wanted someone else to be.”