August 31st, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Central City, Mansion Basement
Shorter than most. Her hair messed from the arrest. Her hands clasped firmly on the table. She didn’t fidget. Didn’t blink much. Only stared. It seemed a resolute posture because when Vice President Wheeler entered the dim, gray room, she didn’t move.
This is the one who took a lunge at Spade? Wheeler thought worriedly. He admitted to himself he’d expected something more.
“My name is Eric Wheeler,” he said, and waited for some sign of recognition. “I’m the Vice President.”
She looked at him once, then went back to waiting. What for, he couldn’t be sure.
“I have a sister named Arja Clayton,” he added.
To this, there was tick in her jaw, then she shut her eyes. Not everything decided by the turn of a coin, Wheeler considered with a grim kind of hope.
Wheeler understood the value of silence, and so decided to give her a minute.
He sat down across the table from her. There was only the table, two chairs, and a chain with handcuffs to keep her in place. Outside the room’s single window reinforced with wire, a corridor ran the length of the underground space. There wasn’t much foot traffic. This wasn’t a place many were allowed to know about. It was the kind of place you didn’t keep paperwork on in anything but code. Pipes ran across the ceiling, and the heat radiating off of these betrayed a central heating source most only guessed at.
“I think you misunderstand the purpose of government, Ms. Thorne,” Wheeler said at last. “Even in a democracy, the government isn’t designed to do anything for the people but keep order.”
She didn’t answer.
“The defense of the country, the collection of taxes, the repairing of roads and bridges… It’s all about order, all about keeping the economy going. Whatever economy seems best, any actions or rulings, no matter how beneficial, are only supported along these lines. There is no good or evil that people don’t make themselves when it comes to law and order. The government doesn’t act on the voice of change. It acts on the voice that won’t shut up and let it get along with business as usual.”
She was, it was possible, sitting more still than before. Listening then, Wheeler considered. Good.
“The truth is, there is more order now under the Western Faeries than there ever was.”
He paused. She wasn’t moved to do or say anything, didn’t even react to the fact that he knew.
“They say you came here to kill President Kennick,” Wheeler went on. “Is this true?”
It was a question asked for some reaction, and received none. Perhaps she knew that Wheeler already had the answer. Spade had knocked her and her companions out for their journey from the midland stretch, but they’d been alert enough upon arrival to take the clanking metal stairs down here. She’d come to her senses then. When they were passed into the hands of men in uniform, men whose fixed expressions perhaps she recognized from her brother’s photograph, that had woken her fully. Perhaps she recognized that being in the hands of soldiers who didn’t know you weren’t a traitor would be worse than being the prisoner of those who knew the truth.
“You don’t want to kill us!” she’d shouted, surprising even her two companions by not sounding scared.
“You come here to assassinate the President,” had been Spade’s cold answer.
“What about the others?” she’d countered. “The others I’ve told how to do it?”
A smart move, Wheeler reflected now. Torture didn’t work, but most soldiers weren’t paid to know that, and they wouldn’t know what to really ask about anyway. It meant a horrible time for her and her friends, but it would mean a slightly longer life. Wheeler had been a soldier in his youth. He understood that waiting look in her eyes behind the fatigue. It wasn’t hope. Hope gained something for itself. Rather, this was necessity, the same necessity that made third-world farmers choose radicalism because the bombs wouldn’t stop falling on their children, because some man in a white castle wouldn’t stop calling the fire down from heaven day after day, calling it down and then calling it victory. It was the look that knew it would die either way.
They’ve pushed too hard, Wheeler thought grimly. That strategy doesn’t work if it’s on your back doorstep. And what is Kennick planning tomorrow?
So next he asked, “How do you think you’ll manage it?”
“I mean, do you really know how?”
She didn’t move or look at him.
“Because,” Wheeler went on, “I don’t suppose you understand the chaos that would result from killing the president. You don’t realize how much depends on him now. It didn’t used to. He used to be a man. We used to be able to replace him. If you kill him now, you send that perfect power to keep order right out the window.”
“The result would be chaos, not just here but all across the nation. People would start waking up from the dream, waking up, and realizing how unprepared they are to handle the mess that’s left behind. People have been riding the wave for well over a decade. It’s gotten too easy. They’ve forgotten how to do it from the ground up, and no one new is learning how. You’d be risking complete disorder, a breakdown of perfect order, of relative peace and safety. You know the rules of the Western Fair Folk. You know what they do and why and how. Kill the President and you would have to deal with humans, Ms. Thorne: Flawed, short-sighted, misguided humans prone to make mistakes and ill-informed decisions, contemptible and greedy and fumbling.”
Again, she clenched her teeth. Wheeler had to wonder, was she really going to say nothing? She knew she was past being allowed a lawyer or a trial of peers. She had to know what this place was. Even people who’d never heard of this place knew what it was when they got here. It was a pattern etched into everyone’s primeval mind, an ancient story with new paint on the walls: The dictator builds his tower on the backs of slaves and demands worship for what his own hands have not made. The punishment for dissent: Death by fire. As above, so below, on and on into eternity or until life stopped. Nothing ever changed, not really.
Wheeler leaned forward with both hands on the table. “You’d better have a plan,” he said, softly now. “This isn’t like the past, when they hunted in the woods and a bit of iron held them at bay. They’re good at games. They’ve been playing the longest. We can’t win.”
Footsteps in the hall. The door opened. It was Baton.
Wheeler stood up straight and greeted him with a nod. The older man leaned on his cane a moment, then entered. The first thing he did was reach across the table and slap something down on its edge with a sharp clack in front of Rosalinda Thorne. When he took his hand away, Wheeler finally saw her expression change. Her eyes widened. She stared. Her hands twitched, but she dared not reach for the thing.
“It’s yours, isn’t it?” Baton asked calmly, despite his abrupt entry.
The silver coin gleamed. It was strange that something so old should shine so much, Wheeler reflected.
“Have you spoken to the other one yet?” Baton asked him.
“The President said it’s not safe to touch him.”
“Him? Oh, yes,” said Baton, seeming a bit absent-minded for a moment. “Are you done here? He wants her in the cells soon.”
“In time,” said Wheeler, but he signaled to a guard on the opposite side of the hallway.
He was startled when she spoke.
“The reason you can’t…”
They stopped moving. It was a kind of power, Wheeler reflected, for some words to feel heavier than others. He turned back around. She was looking up at him, the coin sitting on the back of her hand now, the profile of a long dead president facing up under her other raised palm.
“…is you believe in him too much,” she said coldly.
And then she clasped the coin in her fist, and let the soldiers lead her away.
Wheeler watched her march out and down the hall toward the holding cells where the blind man was being kept.
Wheeler frowned, as did Baton. They both looked at the chair she’d emptied.
“I think she can do it,” Wheeler said at last.
“It’s best we prepare for every eventuality,” Baton agreed. “But I can’t keep Spade away indefinitely.”
“Is he worth keeping at all?”
Baton didn’t miss the bitter note that crept into the vice president’s voice. One thing that made Wheeler so indispensable was he usually could check his emotions. Baton reminded himself there were situations that didn’t allow for such things, not for very long at least. Understanding humans was part of what made Baton good at his work. Deciding it best the man be left alone, he nodded, tapped his cane once on the floor, and turned to leave.
Baton stopped and turned back around, and Wheeler found himself momentarily at a loss for words. He’d never asked much of Baton personally. There was information it was assuring to know now and then, but he’d never known the servants of the Slight Twice King to step out of line, with the exception, of course, of the one called Flask.
Wheeler explained, “There is no way to say what truly happened, but Arja will wonder what’s become of her son.”
Baton considered this.
“Perhaps something can be arranged,” he said at last.
Baton gave him a nod and then left. Wheeler listened to the tap of his cane receding down the hallway, then sat back down in one of the chairs and put his face in his hands.