24 To Wear the Crown

September 1st, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Central City, Capital Mansion

It was next that Wheeler arrived, taking the room in long quick strides. He clenched his hands around the girls’ arms to drag them bodily towards the open wall. Before Rose could think, they’d crossed a broad threshold, and the wall was swinging shut, first on one side, then the other of a shgcapiort passageway between this new room and the one they’d left behind.

Jill fell against the far wall and Rose dropped into a chair, or rather was dropped, bent painfully over her middle. Hushed words were spoken while she was hurting too much to hear them.

When her vision cleared, she looked up, then around. The room was deep blue, accented with sharp whites. The furnishings were few, but all antiques. There were a few portraits on the wall. The subject of one wore a powdered wig.

There were also mirror shards on the floor, glittering.

Beside these were fallen the disintegrating remains of a Fair Lord.

“Was that Baton?” Rose asked, recovering only to start shivering all over.

A normal door opened and shut.

“Hardly,” came a voice from its direction.

Rose looked over. The man with gray-black hair and pale clothes entered, leaning heavily on his cane. He tilted his head slightly, as if listening towards the invisible seam of the hidden passageway.

Next he looked across at Vice President Wheeler.

“The matter’s in hand, but I should keep up the appearances,” he said. He eyed Rose with an unreadable expression. She still held the gun pointed at the floor, but she’d changed her way of holding it. She looked right back at him, but he ignored her eyes and watched the gun. That was, after all, the intelligent thing to do, and his prolonged stare suggested he did know when a safety was off.

Wheeler said, “And we should see about the arrest of our jealous public relations assistant, for attempted murder?”

Baton didn’t twitch even an eyelash to betray the lie. ”Of course,” he said. “She was the last one seen here tonight.”

Rose understood and felt her chest tighten, something that with the pain already there just made things worse. It had been manageable, so long as she moved slowly, but now she struggled to catch her breath around new pain.

With one more glance at Wheeler, Arthur Baton hefted his cane. He strode back to the only visible door, opened it, then pulled it shut behind him with a snap.

Wheeler turned from his place in front of his desk.

“Then who…?” Rose started to ask of the dust, and couldn’t finish.

“Spade,” Wheeler answered. ”I summoned him. You have some complaint?”

There was, now that Rose looked for it, a substantial smattering of rubies crushed into the carpet around the hearth and the desk. Otherwise, there was little sign of a scuffle. The only thing out of place in the room was something glinting on the desk. Looking more closely, Rose saw a slim letter opener fashioned whimsically like a sword. It had been dropped, as if at random, on a pile of stationary.

Jill said, “But Pastor… Gods above, Rose, what about Pastor?!”

Rose’s vision faded in and out of white. Tori… Could she dare to hope?

“Your friend’s been moved to safety,” Wheeler interrupted. “I won’t say I’ve much hope for him. We are all in a precarious situation right now.”

Jill, on the other hand, started shuddering anew with rage. ”No, you’re lying,” she said. ”You killed him, didn’t you? You just killed that thing”—She jabbed her finger at the vanishing dust—”so of course you’re lying. How dare you!”

“Well, Rosalinda Thorne,” said Wheeler, deciding to ignore her, “you have a gun. You’re in the capitol. Aren’t you going to finish your job and save the world?”

Rose stared at him. She wondered, who was right? This political philosopher or Jill?

Waiting, Wheeler spread his hands. They were empty. It took her another moment to accept the lack of irony in his voice.

She looked down, uncertainly, at her coin, then at the gun.

“Oh, no need to make a choice,” he added. “Unless you consider that General Gao may have had someone on the inside waiting to meet you.”

“You’re a spy?” Rose asked suspiciously. Somehow she managed to keep some sense about her.

“An enemy of the state, you mean?” Wheeler asked, and shook his head. “I’m a diplomat: I bargain with foreign dignitaries as a matter of course. I ease sanctions. I make trade deals and, I hope, broker peace agreements. I keep the country running until an election replaces me. But, by all means…” Again, he made a welcoming gesture and bowed his head, “does any vote matter more than justice?”

“You’re human,” Jill realized, staring at him. She still sat crumpled on the floor.

“I am.”

“There are still humans in charge?”

A vision of Fred appeared in Rose’s mind. Perhaps it was another ghost shadowing her footsteps, she thought, but suddenly the resemblance of the man before her was uncanny. If only Fred had lived so long. She could almost hear him asking, “Can there be justice when only one vote matters?”

Wheeler said, “I’m willing to help you get free of here.”

“So you can get rid of us quietly later,” Rose suggested. She had to decide soon. The white flashes with the pain were getting more frequent.

A rumbling shudder underfoot was followed by an odd stillness.

“What was that?” asked Jill.

”Mr. Baton has shut our furnace off,” Wheeler informed them. “It will take quite awhile to cool but I intend to give it more than adequate time.”

“Just like that?” Rose asked incredulously.

“You have no reason to trust me,” Wheeler agreed. He nodded pointedly toward the military issue handgun. “Again, you’re taking your time, Ms. Thorne? Didn’t your brother teach you to shoot?”

She turned the coin over a few times in one hand, then stared at the profile of a dead man. How had they known?

“Is it so different when your enemy is human and not the spirit of the age?” Wheeler continued. “Have you forgotten who you are? The one who’s going to save the world? Wasn’t that your dream?”

“No,” said Rose quietly.

There was a stretch of silence so tight it seemed to fray.

“I dreamed the world was ending. I couldn’t help it,” she said slowly. “Maybe that part was Flask, I don’t know. But that I had to do something about it…” She looked up. “That part was not a dream. It was a drive.”

“Who’s to say that wasn’t them pulling your strings too?”

“It would be very convenient for them—and you—if I believed that.”

Wheeler studied her a moment, then seemed to make a decision. There was a slight nod he made to himself, that seemed to answer nothing but a question in his mind.

“The King thought it would make him a hero,” he said at last.

“What would?”

“Ending the world,” he said. “Dropping a hundred nuclear warheads on General Gao in Teno.”

Rose felt unsurprised but, and this was surprising, at peace with this answer. Their efforts had worked then? It had all meant something?

Meanwhile Jill looked shocked. “But… he needs people… needed… They need people, don’t they?” She gestured at the mirror shards, at the rising dust. “That’s why they end up like that…”

“They all feed on something human,” said Wheeler. “I never really inquired into what.”

“And you?” Rose asked, hefting the weapon to hold it practically again. “Will you keep this war going? Keep blaming Gao to get the power?”

“Why? The general should be here any day now on my invitation.”

“You’re lying.”

“You’re welcome to wait around and see.”

“You’re still with them.”

“Am I?”

“The Shadow Congress…”

“Dead without the King.”

“The Puppet Congress then…”

“I suppose they’ll have to figure out how to do their jobs. If they ask me for directions, I know what to tell them.”

A pause.

“Baton,” said Rose, shortly.

Wheeler hesitated.

“Baton,” Rose said again. “Kill Regus Baton, and I’ll believe you, Mr. Vice President.”

Wheeler’s eyebrows raised a little. He suggested, “Or else you’ll kill me?”

“I don’t know.”

“He’s not like the rest.”

“He’s one of them. Westfall was once a government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

“Ah. Another dream,” Wheeler said solemnly. “It was also a government that’s continuance depended upon the peaceful transfer of power.”

“That’s what they said when this all started.”

“And they lie even when they tell the truth.”

Rose hesitated again. Wheeler waited. She wasn’t sure what to do. The ones who’d bought into the Fair Folk’s game, it was to save their own skins, wasn’t it? So why was this man willing to die?

“Kill me,” Wheeler went on, “and there will be only puppets left without strings. They know how to do very few things outside the King’s way. Kill me, and let them frantically seek stability in the familiar. I know better ways. I suggest you go and let me use them. Take the gun if you like. I’ll have one of my people show you to your friend and I promise we will help you as much as we can, and then leave you to live or die however you want.”

“Just kill us now and stop lying,” said Jill angrily. “You just don’t want real blood on your carpet.”

Rose hesitated again. It struck her that it had been months—no, over a year—since she’d heard Jill sound so bold.

Wheeler asked, “What more can I do to convince you? If you’d rather die for something than live for something, I can’t stop you, but I’d rather not die for nothing.”

The ashes of Spade were nearly gone, a low cloud of dust rising in the lamplight.

“Kill Baton.” Rose looked up again. Something stabbed into her side. She put a hand to her ribs again. Something had suddenly moved the wrong way, the very wrong way.

“I’ll need Baton,” said Wheeler. “His aura of order can be used for good. Just like that of his colleague in Eastasia.”

“Flask,” Rose confirmed dubiously. Doubling over, she gasped.

Wheeler’s posture changed from podium speaker to worried bystander. He crossed the floor and touched her arm.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Spade. That’s not important,” and waved him back with the gun. She looked him in the eye and tried not to see again the receding hairline that made the face look too round and small, or the angle of his jaw. “Flask built an empire,” she insisted.

“He kept order,” Wheeler argued patiently.

“Not a democracy.”

“I can promise you a human government,” said Wheeler. “And I told you, Ms. Thorne—I warned you—that is the most unstable kind.”

“But…” More white spots. “…it should be the only kind.”

She didn’t hear his answer. There was one last flash of white unlight, then she lost consciousness.

~~~

September 11th, 2031, St. Balder’s North Central City Hospital

In a hospital room, the television turned on, after a tired hand fumbled for its remote. It was never loud enough. Closed caption bands of white on black text, the incessant clucking of television news anchors and speech makers, blocked out half the useful information…

Armies in rank marched into the capital, across an oblong green. The date was… she calculated because of that intrusive text… two weeks later.

A man in the military browns of Eastasia ceremoniously pointed a gun at a man in Westfall blues, who knelt, his hands behind his head, and waited.

The blue gave him a royal look. He’d looked more like Fred in gray.

The gun was ceremoniously retracted. A hand was offered. The man in blue stood. Right hands were shaken. Salutes, given. Polite applause from an armed force acknowledged that a man had made the right choice and not died.

A peaceful transfer of power. In theory.

“What’s happening?” asked the other patient in the room, the one with long black hair.

“It’s Wheeler, Tori. Gao’s giving him back the country.”

“Is he really, Rose?”

“The courtyard’s filled with soldiers.”

“We’ll have to pick our next battles carefully then.”

“Yes, we will,” Rose agreed.

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