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'Faces in the Mirror' -new story by Grey Wolf

Prologue

I arrived one night in the rain, in Winter. I did not know the date then; I was never able to work it out since. Some time in late December, perhaps. Nobody will ever know for sure.
One moment I had been somewhere else, doing something else, living a life that now seems as if it belonged to someone else. The next moment, well there I was, standing in the middle of the street, in the rain with no idea about anything.
I know I wandered in a daze for a while, up and down the same few streets, marvelling at the trams on the road, the hats people wore, the strangeness of everyday life somewhere that until that moment one had not lived. Why was the currency called crowns ? What did 'King James VIII Street' mean ? Who was this 'Delgado' I heard constant reference to, most of all from the newspaper vendors ?
Where I slept that night I do not know, nor the one after that. But I think it was on the third day that I saw it; as I sat alone on a cold park bench in the dirty haze of an early morning sun, and opened the newspaper that some even earlier commuter had left there, I saw the photograph. And I saw myself...
What happens in a mind when that kind of shock strikes it ? I had had only a vague idea of the passing of time until that point. I have even less recollection of the days that came afterwards. I remember, as if it were a half-grasped dream, wandering around with the newspaper, showing it to people, getting them to look at myself and at the photograph. Was it me ? How could it be me ? I do not know what else I did. I remember only that question burning in my mind.
And then I woke up here. How many days passed in between, I do not know. But it was January 5th and I was sitting here, in bed, in blue and white striped pyjamas, and a man was sitting over there, on the chaise lounge with his back towards me. If I was disorientated at that moment, I was even more so ten seconds later. Alerted by some shadow on the dressing table mirror, he had seen me awaken and look around. Perhaps it was the first coherent movement I had made since...well, since my arrival there. But, he knew at once that I was compus mentis. He turned towards me.
And I was looking into my own face !

One - June

"Thank you, Bertram", I took the folded-up newspaper from the servant, dismissing him with a sharp nod of my head. I had been taught gestures like that as one of the first lessons upon my awakening here. It had now become second nature; as indeed was the intention, but it still felt odd, treating people in such a manner.
I crossed the gold-and-green of the deep-pile carpet, and settled myself in the little straight-backed chair by the coffee table. True to its name, a silver tray with a steaming pot and a delicate china cup awaited me upon its surface. I poured myself a measure of the deep dark liquid, and added a little cream from the jug. Sipping at this constant reviver of my spirits, I opened the newspaper upon the knees of my red silk dressing gown, and perused the headlines.
'The Britannia Herald', as if I would read anything else in my position. Its headlines were always sedate, measured capitals that drew the eye but did not scream out at one, a turn of phrase that was almost literary and steered well away from the purient, even if the content of some of the stories themselves could not.
I was not interested in the main story - I knew it to be a lie, a government plant. There was no plan to clamp down on the opening hours of class-2 liscensed premises, but putting the story about that there was, would make the administration seem all the more popular when they later announced the decision to leave things as they were, 'after long and careful consideration' - or none at all, as was actually the case. The details of the non-story were pointless, only the fact of the story mattered at all, and that for reasons that had nothing to do with its apparent subject matter. Of course, not one in a thousand of the newspaper's readers would even begin to suspect that.
No, the real news of the day was along the bottom of the front page, hidden in tight little paragraphs, each story no more than twenty lines long, at the most. They came under the three categories - Business Lead, Diplomatic Circular, and Society Feature. Each was a trailer for a larger story buried deeply somewhere inside. Each meritted a mention on the front page in case those who really cared about such things could not spare the time, or the effort, to search them out. To most people they looked awfully dull. To those who knew their significance, they stood out as if they were written in shining gold capitals, and the rest a dull matt black.
I took in the details. I was one who knew their real significance. In fact, considering what one of the articles was about, I was one of only about ten people who knew its real significance, a significance deeper and more important than even those who considered themselves 'in the know' would understand.


Two - January

So, he had turned towards me and I had seen, and I had known a few things. It had not been me in the newspaper, but this man who looked like me. But I was in his night clothes, in his bed, in his rooms, and he was sitting there looking me up and down, appraising yes, but not altogether without approving also.
"Xavier Delgado", he introduced himself, "And you ?"
I had no idea. I had had no idea since that moment in the street. It was as if my life had not existed prior to that moment, as if all I had were shadows, that I could not quite put any form to. I shrugged.
"I see", he pursed those lips that were exactly like mine, "I was told that you had claimed not to know."
"I do not know" I said.
"I am sure", he did not sound sure, it just seemed to be a turn of phrase, "Adolphus says he found you in Aurelius ?"
I shrugged again; the name meant nothing to me, though I assumed it was the place with the trams, with the peculiarly named 'King James VIII Street' and with that small park - in short, where I had been previous to this.
"You were not exactly been inconspicuous.", he said, this time phrasing it more like an accusation than a question, but for once it was something I could answer.
"I saw your photograph in the newspaper... I did not know if it was my photograph... I thought..."
"You wondered if you were me ?", he laughed a little and rose to his feet. He helped himself to a glass of something looking like sherry from a decanter on the sideboard.
I considered his question for some time, then smiled a little sheepishly back at him,
"I think so", I admitted, "I knew what I looked like, and I knew that the photograph was showing my face, but I did not know who I was."
"You can read, I assume ?" he sipped at the sherry.
"I know it said 'Delgado' under the photograph", I answered the question he had really asked.
"But you did not know if that was your name ?"
"No"
"Hmm..."
He turned away, and was quiet himself for some minutes, walking up and down the floor, and finally ending up at the bay windows, with their heavy drawn curtains, and the watery sunlight that streamed in through the nets. Without turning back to face me, he asked,
"If you were me, what would you do ?"
"Do ?", I asked.
"I assume you read the story that accompanied the photograph ?"
I creased my brow. Had I read it ? It seemed as if I had, but I could not remember any details. Sensing my confusion, he turned back to face me,
"You do not remember ?"
I shook my head,
"No."
"Very well", it seemed as if he had made a decision.
Placing the empty sherry glass upon the wide window ledge he strode back over to where he had been seated when I had awoken, and to my surprise rang a small silver bell that must have been beside him upon the chaise lounge.
Almost instantly the door opened, and a bulky but not unkind-looking man appeared. I thought I had seen him before, but said nothing.
"Adolphus", Delgado greeted the man, or instructed him, "Take our visitor in hand for the day. By sundown I want him to have a thorough understanding of my situation."
He looked up on the wall, to a gold-rimmed clock. I followed his gaze; it was just about eleven now.
"I will return with Sir Arthur for the evening meal. Afterwards, we will quiz our guest on his lesson of the day."
"Yes sir"
Delgado looked back at me, still sitting up in the bed, still dressed in his striped pyjamas.
"Learn well", he said, and then was gone.
Adolphus left too. After a moment, I climbed out of bed, burying my feet in the deep pile of the carpet. There was an ensuite bathroom with its door to the rear of the bed. I made my way in there, and closed the door. I suspected that I had been left alone to get ready, but I had no desire for anyone to walk in on me whilst I was in the middle of my ablutions.
I stopped by the mirror and switched on the overhead light. Yes, that was me, alright. I felt the line of my cheekbones, the light stubble upon my chin. I ran a finger down the bridge of my nose, and looked deep into my blue-grey eyes. Yes, this was me alright, but it was also the face that had looked across the room at me, the face of Xavier Delgado...


Three - June

"The office of the Duke of Mercia", the voice on the telephone was crisp, female and efficient.
"I need to speak to his grace", I stated, did not ask.
"I am sorry, but..." she began.
"This is Xavier Delgado."
"Oh !"
She breathed in and managed to swallow her sqawk of shock. It was another of the lessons I had learnt well; let them walk into a trap, do not say who you are until you have them in your debt.
"Think nothing of it.", I said magnanimously, "If I could speak to his grace ?"
I was all politeness now, now that she needed to feel gratitude and to remember how I had not followed up on the matter.
"At once, sir", she was urgency itself as she transferred the call.
"Mercia", the other's answer was automatic, "That you, Xavi ?"
"It is I", I said.
"I saw your work in the Herald", he chuckled to himself, "That will set the cat among the pigeons."
"Suzette Pargeter is a very thorough reporter", I replied.
"Oh yes", and one could hear his grin, "So I have heard. Now, what can I do for you this fine day ?"
I told him, and he did not like it, but I was not in the business of having people like what they had to do. Sir Andrew Valance, fifth Duke of Mercia was not a man to flinch from his duty, either to his country, his family, or his self. It did not require much persuasion on my part to make him see how what was required of him was in the interests of at least two of the three, and as one of those included himself, well there was no doubt what his course of action would be in the end. But he did not like it.
Hanging up on him, I made a note beside his name in the telephone directory, not a note that anyone but I could interpret, it was simply a jagged line, looking like a tiny lightning bolt. To my eyes it signified that next time I called upon him, I would need to play it softly, praise him, bring him round gently, put the balance of our account back into credit, that kind of thing. But this time, he would do what he had to, even though he did not like it.
I moved across the room, touching the surfaces as I did, echoing a movement that I had been shown, a nervous movement from the troubled adolescence of my then-host. I made my decision, and collected my raincoat from the coat-stand beside the door. It may be a beautiful day now, but the Imperial Meteorological Office had said that rain was a certainty for the afternoon, and I intended to be out for a considerable time.
In the corridor outside, I nodded to the guard, seated at the small table at the junction, looking like nothing so much as an attendant in a museum. I walked quickly, first to the elevator, and then across the coolness of the underground garage to the pool office.
"Who's on ?", I asked before they had had a chance to clock my arrival.
Nervously they rose, muttered greetings, tried to make it look as if they had been doing anything except playing the game of cards that sat abandoned in the centre of the scarred oak table.
"Er, Charlie, sir" said the clerk, looking around nervously, "He has just, ah..."
It was obvious that Charlie was not there. I frowned, the dark, threatening frown that had taken quite some getting used to.
"Eric", I chose one of the other drivers, "You're with me."
"Yes sir", he looked surprised, a mite worried, but also somewhat pleased. It was no picnic driving me around, but it was an honour. And Charlie would be dealt with when we got back.
"The Ajax, I think, Eric."
He took down the keys from the cork board, whilst the clerk made the appropriate entry in the log, then the driver was walking beside me towards the vehicle of my choice.
"Turn left and head down Lindsey."
"Yes sir", he held the left rear door open for me, then closed it behind me and hurried round to the driver's door.
As the shining red brute of an automobile shot forward up the ramp and onto the road outside, I settled back into its leather interior and nodded to myself. Yes, this would work, I was sure of it...

Four - January

I was shocked; oh not morally, or ethically, but simply by the situation that Delgado had got himself into, and the enemies that were circling around his position.
Once washed, shaved and dressed in a lounge suit I found had materialised as if by magic over the back of the chaise lounge, Adolphus had taken me down a seeming maze of luxurious corridors, and via a stairway that had the look of a fire escape we had descended several floors, before emerging in decidedly more spartan surroundings. We never saw a soul, and I was only to see Adolphus all the time that we were cocooned where-ever we were.
It was to be fast-track learning. Adolphus provided material, gave me time to digest it and then took it away and asked questions on it. Once an hour I got to ask questions back, with the proviso that these were questions that I needed for my comprehension of the material. Anything else could come later.
So, I learned all about Delgado's business dealings, about the shady finances, contracts and characters that were involved in these. I learned all about the scandal of the Duke of Hibernia and the teenage prostitute, and how the duke was one of Delgado's oldest friends, and how there was rumoured to be other people than just the duke involved in the story. I even learnt all about Delgado's mistresses of the last two years, their names, ages, lineage and whether they were considered on-going or if the relationship had been terminated, and if so how, at what cost, and on what terms. To all this, I added what I could by means of the hourly questioning sessions.
Yes, Lady Elizabeth Cartwright, one of the most recently terminated mistresses, was indeed related to Sir Augustus Cartwright, co-owner with Delgado of the Onyx Steam Navigation Company; she was his niece, the parting had been amicable, and Sir Augustus took no umbrage either from the relationship in the first place, or the fact of its ending.
Yes, Lady Samantha Tyler had been under-age when Delgado had first met her, but their relationship had not begun until after her sixteenth birthday. Delgado did not take stupid risks like that, I was informed. He had enough of every other sort to deal with.
No, Francesca Delgado was not a relative despite the similarity of name. Yes, Adolphus could be absolutely sure in this as he had been paid to investigate whether she was, on a whim of his master's, and there had been nothing there at all. Perhaps, the similarity had had something to do with the initial attraction, but the young lady's energy in bed was what sustained the relationship.
And no again. The Burgundy Trading Company did not refer to the wine, but to the region of the Empire of France, and no, Burgundy was not a region with any significant autonomy or power, it was simply where the company had originated from and taken its name from.
All in all, I spent six hours of this. Facts, facts and more facts. A lot of it made sense in a vague way, but none of it seemed to connect in any way with the life I could not quite remember from before. But there was not time to dwell upon that. I had a test to pass that evening, Adolphus reminded me time and again, as if I would have forgotten that !

Five - June

"Wait here"
Eric looked uncomfortable at the prospect, but knew better than to comment, certainly better than to argue. I exited frm the vehicle, and crossed the road to the park, pasing between decorative cast-iron gateposts that maybe had once had a gate between them, but certainly did not now.
I walked between the flower beds, looking at the reds and blues, the pinks and yellows, looking with a genuine appreciation, although to say there was a genuine interest would be pushing it. Flowers were flowers. They were attractive, but the details were for gardeners to know, and to keep to themselves if they knew what was good for them.
"Good day", the woman who had joined me was aged about thirty, possessed of a heart-shaped face that was beginning to acquire a scattering of lines upon its surface, and long brown hair that was going prematurely grey and was today gathered into a rough pony tail, hanging down her back over the light jacket she had on.
"Victoria", I greeted her, my tone neutral, "Shall we walk."
"Of course"
We linked arms and strolled amongst the flowers, commenting on this arrangement or that, occasionally pointing to a squirrel or to a bird as it appeared within our field of vision. We walked around the little arbor in the middle of the park, and away towards the aviary. I was glad to see that it was deserted, of human life at least. One could never tell when the sun was shining, and some days it attracted a veritable gaggle of children. But today, it was just the birds - and us.
"Hello, big fellow", Victoria greeted the sombre-looking snowy owl with her customary good humour. It either did not notice, or did not care.
"Twenty thousand" I said, apparently apropos of nothing.
"Fifty" she was still waving at the owl.
"Thirty"
"Done"
I had known she would settle for thirty, but it was all about the haggling. Had she tried to meet midway at thirty-five it would have been a victory to her, but she knew that I could not allow that, so thirty it was. She had settled.
"How long ?"
She straightened and held her sides, stretching her back as if bending to address the owl had caused it to ache. Perhaps it had; I had not seen her medical file. Until now it had not seemed relevant.
"Two days" she answered, "And that is not negotiable."
I made no reply to that. To do so would have given her the advantage. I knew that it was not negotiable, so there was no need to protest that fact. Presumably she also knew that I knew, so there was doubly no need to make a reply to what was in the circumstances an unnecessary comment from her.
"Here ?", I asked. The question was genuine. The decision as to where would be hers, and would be based upon her own security considerations. I could not second-guess them, although I could look into them if I considered it necessary.
"Here, unless I leave word."
"If you do ?", I asked.
"The other place", she knew that I would know where she meant.
"Good", I smiled falsely at her.
Maybe she knew it was false, maybe she was too distracted, or uninterested to care. She smiled back, and it seemed as cold as mine.
"Walk me to my car", she said.
I frowned; this was new, but we had to part in some recognisably normal manner, and not simply go our separate ways from the bird house.
"Dartmouth Street ?"
"Yes"
I looped my arm back through hers, and we walked to the rear gate of the park, passing comment on the empty fountains and the fish that seemed to be frozen in shock, the architect having intended them to appear to be leaping out of the water that was so starkly absent at the moment.
"The black one", she imparted the information sotto vocce.
Looking as if it were something I did every day I walked her along the paved walkway to where a small black sports car sat shining in the sun. A glance at its badge told me that it was a Darius. I nodded, though the name was new to me. Something to look up later in the day; I added it to my mental list.
She unlocked the door and slid into the driver's seat. I stepped back and waved her off, then turned and made my way back into the park. Nobody so much as looked at me as I strolled through its environs. Nobody expected someone of my stature to be walking in their local park. Anonymity was sometimes as simple as that.

Six - January

"Turkey", I replied.
The waitress heaped several large slabs of the meat onto my otherwise empty plate and moved down the table to where Adolphus sat, waiting his turn. I was up near the head, seated on the right hand of Delgado who occupied the apex of the fore-shortened seating arrangement. The new-comer, Sir Arthur I recalled his name to be, sat opposite me, a balding thickset man who so far had said not a word.
"No cabbage, thank you", I told the waitress.
She was young and black, and did not seem to find anything odd in the fact that she was serving two people with identical faces. Presumably she was paid well not to find anything odd, not to find anything odd in anything at all.
"You will have cabbage", Delgado decreed and motioned to the waitress to pile it doubly high upon my plate.
I shrugged; so I would have cabbage, okay. Once our plates were full, and the waitress had departed, Adolphus himself rose to pour the wine, then we settled down to eat.
"I was in Oxford today", Delgado said between bites.
As Adolphus and Sir Arthur presumably already knew this, and made no effort to reply, I decided that the statement had been directed at myself.
"The home of Media Arts Limited, and where the registered office for Franklin Productions is, though the company moved its manufactuiring base to South Wales almost ten years ago now."
He looked at me, then laughed,
"Both of those are true, though Media Arts has a second home, in Nice, and I do not think our French friends would be very impressed if we forgot that."
"Of course", I mumbled as I bit down upon a miniature sausage.
"As I was saying", Delgado went on, "I bumped into Lizzie today, which was not altogether unfortunate."
"Elizabeth Cartwright ?", I asked, unable to think of any other Lizzie from my briefing, and assuming that this line of conversation was for my benefit alone.
"Indeed", he twinkled an eye, something quite disconcerting to see in a face that you considered to be almost your own. Could I do that, I wondered ? Would my facial muscles respond in the same way ?
"The child is not mine."
Adolphus froze, his fork midway to his mouth, a look of consternation upon his face,
"But..." he protested, "We bribed the scientist at the Research Institute to let us know the findings early."
"He lied"
I watched this exchange carefully. Perhaps the conversation had not been for my benefit at all, though it was obvious that I was supposed to be following this exchange, or why have it in my presence at all ?
"Do you have a name ?"
Delgado looked to Sir Arthur who put down his knife and fork, and drew out a folded piece of paper from the pocket of his waistcoat. He tossed it down the table towards Adolphus. He opened it, read it and looked stuck halfway between a laugh and an expression of outrage.
Seeing my watching of this little drama, Delgado motioned for the note to be passed up to me. Adolphus gave him a quizical frown but did as bid. I looked down at the name upon the paper; as expected it meant less than nothing to me.
"William Barnaby ?" I asked.
"Sir Arthur ?", Delgado passed the burden on to the other, returning to his food with a gusto.
"William Barnaby", Sir Arthur began, "is almost eighty years old." He nodded at my surprise, then went on, "He is the owner of the Atlantic Steamship Company, as well as the Lavender Cinematic Production Company and Wells Publishing."
"A magnate ?", I asked, for something to say as the answer was obvious.
"Yes, a magnate, as you say, and then some.", he paused dramatically, "William Barnaby is one of the main backers of Prince Oscar !"
Delgado looked from his friend to me, and burst out laughing,
"Well," he said at length, "Perhaps you really do not know ! Not to worry, we will get to that lesson in time."
"I have it pencilled in for tomorrow, sir." Adolphus spoke up from the bottom of the table.
"Excellent"
Sir Arthur appeared to consider matters for a minute, then sat back in his chair, folding his arms above his ample stomach, and ignoring for the moment the dinner that lay colling on the plate before him.
"Really, it is astonishing" he said at length, "But it puts you in quite a quandary does it not, Xavi ?"
Delgado nodded, and finished swallowing a large forkful of cabbage before he replied,
"There are many ways to skin a cat", he said tangentially.
Inside, I wondered, was I the cat ? And in what particular way would they decide to skin me...?

Seven - June

The heavy reinforced gates slid open, retracting into the wall as the red Ajax automobile mounted the ramp, and then angled downwards into the compound below. As Eric, turned the wheel and brought the vehicle to a halt beside the elevator shaft, the gate above clanged shut behind them.
"I will be about an hour", I told the driver.
"Yes sir", he nodded, needing no more information than that.
I walked the short distance to the elevator and typed in the eight-digit code to summon the thing. That had been amongst the hardest things to learn - all the codes and passwords that an individual needed for modern life, and which someone as paranoid as Delgado could not afford to make the same.
The doors opened and I stepped inside.
"Voice Recognition" spoke a disembodied voice. I knew that it was electronic, though anyone encountering it for the first time could never be sure that it was not someone sitting below in the control room talking directly to them.
"Xavier Delgado" I spoke authoritatively.
"Confirmed"
The doors slid shut, and the elevator began its descent. I ran over things again in my mind, but could find no flaws. Of course, there would be things later that I would regret not having checked up on, but what these were would depend on the vagaries of human nature, and it was not possible to foretell what course these may run over the course of any significant period of time.
Exiting the elevator at the only floor it stopped at, I walked between the gently humming machinery of a scanner, and knew that I passed without a problem - knew for two reasons, one of which was that I would not be foolish enough to bring a concealed weapon down here, and the other of which was that there was no screaming siren and sudden emission of nerve gas in my face. Always reassuring when that did not happen.
Beyond lay the single platform of the underground railway. A train screamed into the station mere seconds later, decellerating quickly to come a halt beside me. I climbed aboard the open carriage, and hung on as it picked up speed again and shot out into the tunnel. It was perfectly safe, I knew that; they would hardly have designed a network that was not, but still the speed and the darkness were somewhat unnerving to me.
A minute or so later, it decellerated again and came to a halt in a much larger station, boasting several platforms and well lit by several overhead arrays. I dismounted, and walked quickly to the elevator shafts. There were three of them, but there was nobody else around and I had my pick. Today, I chose the left-most one and was rewarded by its near instantaneous arrival in response to my summons.
At last I emerged face to face with another human being, the first I had seen since bidding adieu to Eric in the compound. She looked me up and down, and stamped an archaic paper pass. It was simple but clever - the code for the day was entered into no electronic storage device, was issued at the start of the shift in person by the shift supervisor, and thereafter stamped onto paper. It would be no good to anyone on any following occasion.
I took it, pocketed it and walked through the flashing lights of the doorway into a soberly-lit long white passageway. At the junction, I turned right and felt my chest relax as I trod upon the now familiar red carpet. I nodded to the guards in the alcoves and approached the door, the only door set in the wall on the left. Handing the pass to the guard opposite, I rapped on the wood. The guard handed the pass back and confirmed my permission by adding his own affirming knock, again a pattern worked out at that session's briefing and given out by word of mouth alone.
The door was opened by a young child. I had to step back to check out its identity; ah male, I thought, though dress as they all did in gender neutral clothes and with the feline bone structure of the imperial family, it was sometimes difficult to tell.
"Good afternoon, your highness."
The boy stepped aside, and I passed through towards where I knew the emperor would be sitting surrounded by the outward signs of empire.
"Hello, uncle Xavi !"
The girl was precocious, twelve and getting increasingly difficult to handle. I nodded a formal greeting,
"Your highness"
She giggled and followed me in to her father. He looked up and set down his pen,
"Ah, Xavier", he was always formal about names, "Perhaps you had better start at the beginning."
I did...

Eight - January

"We will be joined by Jemima Hartley" he told me.
I looked blankly at him, and Delgado nodded,
"Good", he commented on my apparent ignorance, "She should be here in twenty minutes."
We were now in the drawing room, seated in comfortable armchairs around a roaring fire that made the room almost uncomfortably hot. Sir Arthur had shed his waistcoat and was sitting back just in his shirtsleeves, a glass of port in his hand. Adolphus had a notebook open across his knees, a pencil hurrying across its pages as Delgado, sipping at a glass of sherry, questioned me on the days' learning.
"She will be the last to know", Delgado's tone made it clear that he meant the last of those who would know, rather than any implication of being outside of the channels of communication.
"A woman's touch", Sir Arthur laughed at some joke of his own.
"I do not think it would be wise to submit to Jemima's touch." Adolphus rose to the bait.
"No indeed", Delgado took control of the conversation back with his comment, "Now, tell me about the Onion Eaters Affair ?"
I shook my head,
"Anya Neeters", I said.
"Good", he grinned, "Though someone of my acquaintance thought that I said Onion Eaters..."
"It was Princess Valeria, sir", Adolphus provided the information.
"Oh yes", Delgado almost smiled but did not, "Tell me, then, about the Anya Neeters affair."
I proceeded to do so. It was a convoluted affair, and it had taken me the best part of two hours to fully understand its ins and outs. Principally, it involved a noble woman of Germanic origin, believed to be from the Duchy of Courland but perhaps from Sweden or Lithuania; the stories varied, and she had not been very forthcoming herself on her origins. What was known was that she had money, and had first come to Delgado's attention when she had invested in the French arm of Media Arts Limited, invested so substantially that she was able to attend the then-imminent general meeting and get elected to the board. She had then proceeded to work behind the scenes, subtly changing the direction of the company until it was announced that it was to undertake a major study of the Late Jacobin Age. At this point, the Imperial Court had got involved. Although French-based, the company was a subsidiary of a British one, and its publications fell as such under the laws governing both censorship and libel. Hasty words from the Lord Chamberlain's Office had failed to rein in the French arm, and Anya Neeters had made a public pronouncement that she cared not a wit for the will of the British imperial family and that art and history were sacrosanct. Delgado had been forced to invoke an emergency clause in the subsiduary relationship and buy back the entire stock of the French-based arm, at considerable cost to himself. Anya Neeters had moved on, still complaining, and the French arm was now managed by an administrator appointed by Oxford. It had caused considerable embarrassment at the time, not to mention the hole it had made in Delgado's pockets, a hole that was the direct cause of some of his less than open delaings of the next couple of years.
Delgado listened to my recount, looked over at Adolphus whose pencil was racing across the pages of the notebook, and then emptied his sherry glass.
"Where is Anya Neeters now ?" he asked.
I answered truthfully; after all Adolphus would not have told me if he did not want me to have the information,
"She was last seen in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and is believed by many to have entered a convent, perhaps in the Papal State, perhaps in Tuscany. However..."
"Yes ?", Delgado smiled.
"She is really decaying at the bottom of Lake Como where a hired assassin from the Republic of Venice put her at your instruction six months after the affair."
"Indeed", Delgado showed no emotion at this involvement in another human being's murder, "Who was the Lord Chamberlain at the time ?"
It was unexpected and caught me flat-footed. I had asked the name of the current Lord Chamberlain from Adolphus, in connection with another one of Delgado's companies, but had assumed that the same man had been involved in the Anya Neeters affair when it had come up next.
"If it is not Sir Edward Verne ?"
"No", Delgado wagged a finger at me, rather unexpectedly, "Do not presume", he warned, "Verne has only been in the job twelve months. This happened under his predecessor, Sir Aloysius Cartwright."
"A relative of Sir Augustus and Lady Elizabeth ?", I asked to look alert.
"A late relative", Delgado showed me another one of the hidden traps of assumption, "Sir Aloysius was killed in a hit-and-run accident shortly after his retirement, and no", he cast a grin at Sir Arthur, "I did not have a hand in that."
"I see..."
I was saved from having to make further comment, by a sharp knock upon the door. The young black woman who had served us at dinner, opened it and admitted a frighteningly statuesque woman wearing a large brown fur around her neck.
The others rose to their feet, and I hurriedly did likewise. She looked from Delgado to me, and then back again, then cast her head back and emitted a sharp laugh, almost like a shriek,
"Well, I do declare !" she said, "I do declare..!"

Nine - June


"It is not really sufficient", he bit down upon his pen, safe in the knowledge that the silver would not indent.
"I agree, your majesty", it was always good to agree with the ultimate authority in the land when you could; that was another lesson I had been quick to learn.
"You can afford to agree, Xavier.", he sighed and stood up, letting the pen fall from his grasp, "Come, I have something to show you."
I followed him into the back room, through the curtained doorway, losing in our progress twelve year-old Princess Valeria who knew better than to enter her father's inner sanctum without direct permission.
"Here", the emperor motioned me to a chair in front of an archaic-looking computer.
I sat, whilst he punched up a simple screen and entered a password that looked as if it was something similar to Aurelius, though I could not quite catch it to be one hundred percent certain. Besides, knowing what the emperor's personal password to a stand-alone unit was, was not something I could see any immediate benefit to.
A report scrolled across the screen, and I had to bend forward to read it, before the words disappeared from view. It was much more simplistic than the computers I had seen in government departments, and I supposed that here again the emperor cleaved to the view that simple was best if it could do the job. For something like this, it was sufficient.
"Venice ?", I frowned at the reference.
"The banking house of Lorenzo has its roots there", he pointed out, "It is not a Lombard house."
"Yes", I agreed, remembering why it had settled unease upon me. It would be something to bear in mind.
"As you can see, the so-called independence of the board is anything but."
"Do you know who their ultimate paymasters are ?"
He frowned across at me, and then his face cleared,
"Oh, you mean Lorenzo, not the whole board... No", he admitted, "Their man upon the board has voted with the majority so far."
"It could be useful to test him", I pointed out.
"How would you propose to do that ?", he asked.
I smiled at the emperor and once again had to remind myself of the immense power that this man wielded. Emperor Marcus II, forty-five years old, having spent the last ten upon the throne since the untimely death of his father. He had the feline features that all of his family did, proving that it was his genetic make-up rather than that of the empress which determined the appearance of his five children.
"Your representative could make certain propositions, nothing in themselves, but one detrimental to the French, one to the temporal interests of the Papacy, one to the Habsburgs and so on."
"A process of elimination ?"
"It could work"
"They might get suspicious."
I laughed gently,
"They are already suspicious. If they think that we are testing them, then they may vote contrary to their paymaster's interests."
"Which would not help us in identifying them", the emperor pointed out.
"No, but it may well set up some internal dissension between them."
"As a sort of consolation ?", he asked.
"Yes indeed", it was a very useful phrase.
The emperor nodded, blanked the screen with a single button and rose,
"I will ask Sir Edward to transfer the necessary funds and put it in motion."
"I will be very interested to learn the outcome."
"Presuming there is one, I shall make sure that you are kept informed."
"Thank you, your majesty."
"Thank you, Xavier.", he led me back into the main audience chamber.

Ten - January

It was after Midnight when I got to bed, and I was heartily glad to be out of the presence of Jemima Hartley. I had taken an instant dislike to this loud and over-bearing woman, and it worried me that I had. If she was going to be an integral part in Delgado's plans then I would have to get on with her, have to find a way of tolerating her and working alongside her. I did not relish the prospect.
That night I dreamt strange dreams of mirrors and faces, of a half-seen werewolf in the forest in the dark, and of an unnamed fear that lurked behind it, shadowing me, stalking me, hunting me.
I woke, drenched in sweat and with my heart beating heavily. There was scarcely any light, but the clock upon the wall showed that it was seven o'clock. I lay still, letting my racing pulse die down, and listening. Outside, I could hear the beating of the rain upon the windows, and the less distinct rumble of motor vehicles in the street below. Within, I could hear some voices in the distance, servants perhaps, I could not tell, maybe someone setting up for breakfast ? I had no evidence to back this up, but it seemed a logical possibility in the circumstances.
Deciding that going back to sleep was both an unwelcome option in its own right, and one that would perhaps not sit well with my hosts, I climbed out of bed, noting that the room seemed warm enough even in the depths of Winter.
Twenty minutes later, washed, dressed and sitting reading a book that I had found in the single drawer to the dressing table, I began to wonder about the day ahead. Delgado had intimated that he would be away again all day, leaving me to Adolphus and his lessons on the imperial court, for I remembered he had already promised that over supper. What the plans of Sir Arthur and Jemima Hartley were I did not know. Maybe they would be around, or perhaps they would only be there in the evening ? Speculation on the matter did not seem likely to do any good.
A sharp knock on the door brought me back to myself at exactly half past seven.
"Come in", I managed and the door was opened to reveal the figure of Adolphus standing there.
He looked me over, and took in the book,
"Jane Symonds ?" he asked, nodding at it, "Is it to your taste ?"
I looked down at it, remembered the couple of pages I had read and shook my head. It was some sort of nineteenth century gothic novel, but so slowly paced that it had not been able to hold my interest.
"Good", he laughed, "It would add a curious factor into the equation if it were. Breakfast is ready."
I rose and followed him down the corridor to a small room where a single table was set out with cuttlery, napkin and a hot pot of coffee. He motioned me to the chair but made no move to join me. I poured myself a coffee and took a tentative sip; hot and bitter.
"Bacon and eggs ?"
I turned in surprise. The young black woman had emerged from a doorway hidden behind a curtain behind me. I nodded pleasantly,
"Yes please."
"Both from the master's estates." Adolphus commented.
I could tell that he was testing me again, and wracked my brain,
"The bacon would come from Harper's Court Farm", it was the only holding I could remember where pigs had been mentioned amongst the livestock, "The eggs ?"
"Think" he admonished me.
I thought, then nodded to myself
"The Syrian Palace !"
"Good"
The Syrian Palace was Delgado's London estate, a small palace set in the grounds of the West End parks. Fresh eggs would naturally come from the nearest source - why send them up from Oxfordshire when they were being laid in London itself ?
I tucked into the meal, finding it a welcome repast. However, there did not seem to be another course. Upon completing it, the serving girl removed it and Adolphus motioned for me to accompany him. We followed the rest of the route along the maze of corridors, down the fire-escape stairs and into the spartan setting where yesterday's lessons had taken place.
"Today's lesson ?", he asked.
"The imperial court", that was easy.
"Right", he sat himself down in the chair he had used the previous day, "Now, the imperial court is essentially threefold. First you have the emperor, his immediate family, his personal staff and personal guard."
"Yes", I said for something to say.
"Second you have the Lord Chamberlain, his office, the treasury, and the general household staff."
"Aha"
"And third you have those who move within the orbit of the emperor; the government ministers, the advisors, the businessmen and the ambitious."
"Such as Delgado ?"
"Of course", Adolphus pulled at an errant hair within his ear, "Which category do you believe he falls into ?"
"Well, he is not a government minister."
"No"
"But he seems to be all three of the others."
"Good"; it seemed to have been some kind of test, and I had passed it, "Many are not, though. Some advisors are simply that - experts upon one subject or another. Whilst most businessmen are by nature ambitious, most do not have ambitions that centre upon the court itself. And many of those who are ambitious to rise within the circles of power have a steady income from family estates and are dedicated to the pursuit of personal influence."
"Such as Prince Oscar ?", I remembered the name from the previous evening.
"Yes, Prince Oscar very much falls into the last category. As the emperor's cousin he has enough money settled on his line not to need to pursue business ventures for their own gain, and he has little by way of expertise that cannot be provided by paid staff."
"He just has the ambition ?" I ventured.
"And power"
Yes, I admonished myself; one should never forget about the power...

Eleven - June

"Ah there you are, you bastard !"
It was not a traditional greeting, and I stopped in my swift stride back towards the underground railroad to acknowledge that fact.
"Good afternoon, your highness" I said, pleasantry itself.
Prince Oscar looked me up and down, a sneer upon his face
"If it is, then you have been up to something. I know you, Delgado."
I laughed, again keeping it light,
"One is always up to something", I chose the indefinite article for a good reason, "It could hardly be otherwise."
"What scheme do you have running this time ?" he growled.
"Well, again, your highness, it is a common rule that if one does have a scheme running, one does not tell others about it."
"Hmph", and without a further word he turned on his heel and departed.
I shrugged. and continued down the corridor and through the gateway of bright lights to the outer office. The woman took back my paper pass, tore it into pieces and disposed of these in a waste disposal chute behind her.
"Summon an elevator" she instructed.
I chose the leftmost one, realising that it would be the rightmost one when I exited below; the same choice but a different outcome. My thoughts returned to Prince Oscar. To say we had never got on would be under-stating it, but we were never supposed to get on. He and Delgado had been rivals for years, enemies more recently, and there was no reason why that should change. So, he was from the start my enemy too.
The elevator arrived, rather tardily this time. I thought for a moment it was about to disgorge some worthy, but it opened up empty. Slightly surprised, I stepped inside, and let the doors close behind me. No, Prince Oscar and I could never be anything but enemies, and in a sense it was a necessity in its own right as well. A court always had rivalry. If you destroyed one rival, then another one would rise up. It was the natural way of things.
The doors opened and I stepped out, navigating my way to the correct platform, a skill that had originally taken some doing. It was embarassing to find oneself standing in the wrong place when the train was routed in for you ! No danger of that now, it had become second nature. The train sped in, slowed swiftly and stopped in front of me. I climbed aboard, seated myself in the now accustomed position and suppressed the slight unease that always crept upon me at this moment. The train lurched forward, hurtling into darkness.
No, the best kind of rivalry was with a constant, someone you knew, someone you could read and even if you did not know their plans and every move, someone you could feel certain about many other things with. Prince Oscar was that person, and I would be foolish to look to change it. No, one would keep information that could potentially destroy him in reserve, for emergencies and counter-strikes only. Another lesson that I head learnt well...

Twelve - January

I was not thrilled that evening to discover that Jemima Hartley was joining us for supper. Of Sir Arthur there was no sight, and neither Delgado nor Adolphus broached the subject of his whereabouts. I fully intended to mention it at the right time, but that moment never arose.
"Who is my cousin ?", Jemima Hartley fixed me with a steely glare as I raised a pickled gherkin towards my mouth upon a silver fork.
"Um...", I munched down on the pickle and wondered if this was some kind of trick, or if I was somehow supposed to know. I shook my head to indicate my ignorance.
She turned her steely glare upon Adolphus, a clear reprimand.
"What is the name of the Court Marshal ?" she demanded of me.
"Ignatius Tennyson", I had learned that alright.
"He is my cousin." she snapped.
"It had slipped my mind", Adolphus apologised.
"Details must never escape", Jemima intoned as she returned her attention to the meal in front of her.
I tried hard to eat, but was finding it a trying experience. The gammon steak was wreathed in fat and I was having a difficult time keeping it down.
"It is not one of my favourites either", Delgado informed me, "Eat what you can, but feel free to leave the rest."
I ate the centre of the beast, but left its trappings swimming in a sea of grease. The servants made no comment as they came in to remove the plates and replace them with a sickly-looking dark pudding and custard. At least I could manage sickly sweet, and eating slowly I was able to empty the dish not long after the others had finished. Coffee and liqueurs were brought round, and the subject matter of the conversation, until then desultory, returned once again to the promised 'tests'.
"Who are Prince Oscar's most powerful backers ?", Delgado asked.
I was ready for this question.
"The most prominent among Prince Oscar's backers are William Barnaby", I named the shipping, film and publishing magnate who had come up in the previous evening's conversation, "and Sir Lionel Tyler...but", and I saw Delgado smiled as I said that, "in truth the most powerful of his backers are Severian Turner, the Grand Master of the Black Dragon Society, and the Duke of Dumnonia, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Governor General of Acadia."
"Precisely", Delgado emptied his coffee cup and took a sip from the liqueur, some type of spiced whisky if I did not guess incorrectly, "Never mistake prominence for importance. Barnaby can deliver the wealth of his companies and his own good name.", and here he sniggered, reminded of what he now had on the magnate, "Tyler can bring money and transport, he owns Sylvanian Transport, but neither can deliver a whole movement, ready-made and obedient, nor the resources of a dominion, much less of two."
"I thought His Majesty was going to do something to end that anomaly ?" Jemima snapped, "I know that the Supreme Court ruled that it was not illegal, but it is hardly a good precedent."
"Prince Oscar talked him out of it.", Delgado's tone was sour, making it quite clear what he thought about such a decision, "Until a suitable replacement can be found, the Duke of Dumnonia will continue to hold both offices."
"Until ?", Jemima sneered, "I suppose that means never ?"
"I should think so", Delgado agreed, "The ruling by the Supreme Court made it clear that each term is a discrete entity. There are only two years left on Ireland; nobody is going to put themselves forward for that short a length of time."
This was all new and fascinating to me, though I was well aware of the dangers of information overload. All these names, all these places, the rivalries, the positionings, the dealings, double-dealings and the constant undertone of court intrigue and scandal. It was going to take something to get them all straight in my head !

Thirteen - June

"The last stop", I told Eric.
It was the fifth of the afternoon, though two of them had been only five minute affairs. It was, however, the one furthest afield from our City of London base, being out in the depths of the West End parks. I had toyed with the idea of heading for the Syrian Palace, but in truth I had as little affection for the architectural monstrosity as had Delgado, who had inherited it from his uncle. No, it was simpler just to head to my real destination, and never mind who saw the automobile parked outside. There was never any certainty of secrecy, however much one tried, so it was as often as not not worth trying.
I exited the vehicle and walked up the snaking path of the driveway, shaded by a dozen lime trees, but remaining fully visible from the road. The door was opened before I got there, and a beautiful, if rather plump, young woman gestured me quickly inside.
"It is good to see you" she smiled, and then we were in each other's arms. We kissed for some minutes before I was able to disengage, although not without regret.
"Do you know where it is ?" I asked.
She nodded, the long loose hair that framed her face bobbing up and down as she did so,
"Its through here."
She led me into her father's study, unlocking the door with a key that shone with the newness of a recent cutting. Inside, she ignored the giant desk with the papers and dossiers piled upon it, and knelt instead beside a boxy safe. I crouched beside her, looking down at the creamy tops of her breasts as she strained at the lock. She caught me looking and giggled, then wrenched the door open. A red velvet cloth surrounded the object of our desires. She drew it out and presented it to me,
"Father will kill me if he finds it gone." she said, with no over-dramatisation at all. It was definitely a possibility not to be ignored, should that happen.
I unwrapped it and beheld the compact electronic machine in the palm of my hand,
"I suppose it does work ?" I asked.
"He says it does", she shrugged, "Its hardly something that he could demonstrate at the dinner table though !"
"No", I laughed, "No, that would be...unfortunate."
"You must have it back by Midday tomorrow", she reiterated what I very much knew, "If you don't..."
"I know", I stroked her hair, feeling its silky glossiness, "I will make sure it is returned."
"You won't bring it back in person ?" she had closed the safe door and now rose to her feet.
"The report of one visit would have your father thinking along the usual lines", I stroked her face gently under her chin, "But two visits in two days; it would seem a lot more suspicious."
"He will be angry enough if he even learns of this one", she pointed out.
"I know, Leonie", it was not often that I called her by name, "He thinks we have broken it off."
"There was no one for me but you." she looked up into my eyes and I almost fell into the softness of hers, but I had work to do.
"I know it", I said by way of a reply, "And I will make sure it is back by Midday."
"I know", she ushered me out of the study and locked that door behind us.
We embraced again, and kissed, and then I was out of the house, heading back to the automobile, looking around to see if in fact anyone had noticed my presence there.
"Blue Caspar went past two minutes ago", Eric informed me as I settled into the back seat, "Tinted windows, I couldn't see who was inside, but it could be routine security."
"Hmph", it was bad but not that bad. A routine security patrol would note the pool car, check up on it and find out it had been signed out to me, but they were unlikely to approach any residents directly about the fact. It would be noted, and that could potentially be a problem somewhere down the line, but unless it came up in conversation in the next day or so it would not be passed on. I could live with that - if, in fact, it had been routine security.
We pulled away and into the road, Eric accelerating as we returned as fast as was decently possible to the more travelled roads of this end of London.


Fourteen - January

The next morning I was up at six o'clock though I did not bother to dress. As well as the slow-paced gothic novel, I had also found a writing book and pen in the drawer of the dressing table, and it was these that I placed before upon its surface as I sat in my dressing gown and planned how I was going to organise my thoughts. The idea had come to me as I struggled to slip into sleep the previous night. Too much information was going round my head, too many names, too many facts. Just before going to sleep was when I would traditionally organise the data, go over the day's events and evaluate them, re-examine them and so on. But it was beginning to get difficult, and I had lain there and struggled with it, I had hit upon the idea of writing it down. The thought had soothed me and I had at last slipped into sleep, and now here I was ready to begin. But how ?
I picked a page at random, never trusting to start at the beginning of a notebook, and wrote a name prominent from the previous days' lessons.
WILLIAM BARNABY
I added some details
ALMOST 80 - EXACTLY HOW OLD ? BIRTHDAY ?
OWNER - ATLANTIC STEAMSHIP COMPANY
OWNER - LAVENDER CINEMATIC
OWNER - WELLS PUBLISHING
The facts began to come as if of their own free will
PROMINENT BACKER OF PRINCE OSCAR
COMPANIES WEALTH AND FAMILY NAME AN ASSET
BUT !!!
And it was a big 'But'
FATHERED CHILD BY LADY ELIZABETH CARTWRIGHT
(DELGADO TOLD FALSELY BY PAID INSIDER THAT IT WAS HIS CHILD)
After a moment's thought I drew two lines out from this set of notes, one from the name of Prince Oscar to an area of the double-page spread where I intended to put the details of him, and one from the name of Lizzie Cartwright.
LADY ELIZABETH (LIZZIE) CARTWRIGHT
Now, what did I know about her ?
YOUNG - HOW OLD ? BIRTHDAY ?
NIECE OF SIR AUGUSTUS CARTWRIGHT
(CO-OWNER OF ONYX STEAM NAVIGATION WITH DELGADO)
- WHO IS HER FATHER ?
- RELATIVE OF SIR ALOYSIUS CARTWRIGHT (LATE LORD CHAMBERLAIN) ; HOW ?
I then drew arrows from the names of her uncle, and the late Lord Chamberlain, though I was beginning to feel that much more of this and I would run out of room on the page. But it was working, and there were easy ways the problems of layout. I moved on to the next link
SIR ALOYSIUS CARTWRIGHT
- RELATIVE (HOW ?) OF SIR AUGUSTUS AND HIS NIECE LADY ELIZABETH
- COURT CHAMBERLAIN INVOLVED IN THE ANYA NEETERS AFFAIR
- RETIRED 12 MONTHS AGO
- SHORTLY AFTERWARDS DIED IN HIT-AND-RUN - SUSPICIOUS ? NOT DELGADO
- SUCCEEDED AS LORD CHAMBERLAIN BY SIR EDWARD VERNE
And, with an arrow from Sir Edward leading to the edge of the page, over it went and on a fresh page I began to write down what I knew about the current Lord Chamberlain..

Fifteen - February

At length the day arrived when Delgado arranged for me to meet some people who did not know the truth of things. Of course he would not be there himself - that was the whole point of things; and he did not choose people who knew him too well, no not too well. But people who knew him never-the-less.
I spent the day closetted with Adolphus in what had become known as the schoolroom, asking questions and chasing answers. As it was I who would be dealing with the guests, it was decided that it was for me to outline the areas I felt weakest on, and seek to remedy them. I had amassed a great amount of knowledge on Delgado's business affairs, on his personal life and loves, and on the geography of his holdings and residences. In so doing, I had made connections between many of the players in the drama of his life, and had fleshed out backgrounds on each and every one, committing the detail to the notebook that I still kept in the dressing table drawer in the bedroom. I knew who was who at court, in the household staff of the imperial palace, and in the government. I knew who was bribing who, who was backing who, and who had what weaknesses that could be exploited.
But overall, I still felt that I had only a weak and vague grasp of the world. As the people we would be meeting tonight were representatives of the Serbian royal family, I thought it behoved me to spend the day coming to grips with Balkan geography, power politics and all the internicine rivalries that shaped that part of the world. Prince George Obrenovic and Count Sava Obrenovic, a half-brother, were Delgado's partners in a variety of enterprises, but none of them was actually based near to their home. There was an automobile manufacturing company in Naples, a vineyard in Aquitaine, a banking house in Malta. Delgado and the Serbians were fellow investors, but they had invested in money-making enterprises, rather than in anything close to home.
But I knew all about these enterprises. I could quote the profit and loss sheet from the automobile firm, I could name the sleeping partners in the Maltese bank and tell anyone who could remain awake long enough who the main customers were. I could even name the type of grapes in the vineyard, list the family connections of the locals who ran the estate there, and pontificate on the beauties of the local girls from around about the chateau. But, if either of my guests so much as mentioned something in the Balkans, I would run up against a serious general knowledge shortfall.
It was this that Adolphus sought to help me overcome during the day. Genealogical charts were brought out of storage, maps going back over the previous two hundred years unfolded before me. I drew borders on a blank of the Balkans and then compared my efforts to the maps before me, tried again and corrected my mistakes. I labelled the provinces, and noted the year that they were annexed by the countries that now owned them. I listed the wars of the last two centuries, the national leaders, generals, princes and battles. Then I tried to reproduce the genealogical tables, failed badly, tried again and then again later in the afternoon. I doubted that Delgado had them off perfectly in his head, but I knew that he would have a sound enough grasp of them that any errors would be instantly glossed over.
At last came the pre-dinner gong, amplified over the primitive intercom that Adolphus had set up down in the schoolroom. We returned to our rooms, to wash up, dry off and dress for dinner. I donned one of Delgado's more elaborate outfits, complete with cumberbund and red sash, and joined Adolphus in the corridor. There were notably more people about. I pondered on this as we made our way to the dining room - was it increased security for the visit of foreign royalty, or was it, at least in part, because there was no need to keep me hidden from the staff that evening, if they all believed me to be their master ?

Sixteen - June

It was the first time that I had been back to Aurelius, that township of London named for the second emperor of the current dynasty. Delgado had warned against my ever doing so, concerned that my rambling words and wanderings of the first week of the year would still be remembered. It was only here, after all, that anyone had seen me before Adolphus had collected me and brought me under Delgado's wing. But, tonight I could not avoid travelling that to that part of London. One did not refuse a house call upon the Duchess of Hibernia, especially when her husband was on enforced leave over in the family estates in Donegal.
"Come in, Xavi", she smiled her pretty eyes at me, and beckoned me inside.
A servant closed the door behind us, shutting the noise and filth of the main high street out, and I noticed how sound-proofed the townhouse must me. The loudest noise, apart from the clicking of her heels as we crossed the hall, seemed to be a dull rumbling that I fingered as the boiler, deep in the bowels of the building.
"Sit, sit", she had led me into a lounge, lined with book-filled shelves that did not look as if they were ever accessed.
I sat, and allowed her to play the host. Besides, Delgado would have been here numerous times, but for me it was my first visit and I did not want to appear uneasy rooting around for things that I ought to know where they were kept.
"Sherry", she handed me a glass full of the dark brown liquid that Delgado had grown up with a passion for. I sipped it, nodded my appreciation.
"Well" she said, and her green eyes fairly twinkled, "Here we are...alone."
"Alone", I nodded, looking around and noting the absence of any serving staff, "Alone indeed." I agreed.
"Nial sends his best." she said, leaning back on the sofa and stretching out like a cat.
"How is he finding things ?", I asked part out of politeness, and part out of genuine interest. It had not been thought politic for me to have any direct contact with the duke in his period of exile, and I wondered how he found the life in Ireland, compared to the hectic social rounds he was used to in the imperial capital.
"He is bored", she did not beat around the bush, "He spends his days riding and his nights...well..."
"With the peasant girls ?" I ventured.
She laughed,
"I am sure of it, though he does not say."
"Let us hope he remains free of scandal over there, or else he may be forced to pay an unnanounced visit to his fishing company in Newfoundland."
"Now, I do not think he would like that !"
"No indeed."
Pleasantries over, she placed her glass upon the coffee table, and her hand upon my knee.
"Its been too long, Xavi."
"Long enough, Hermione", I knew she liked to hear her full name at moments like this.
"Shall we go ?"
What could I say ? I rose with her, and we made our way upstairs.


Seventeen - February

"Your highness, Count Sava", I shook their hands and beckoned them to be seated. As a child of a second, morganatic marriage, Sava did not rate the qualification highness, and I was doing him no dis-service in addressing him directly. Had I not done so, he would have thought it frightfully odd of me.
We seated ourselves around the dining table, with me taking the unaccustomed place at the head, where Delgado would normally sit of an evening. To my left sat the Serbians, on my right Sir Arthur, and at the foot of the table Adolphus. The pretty black serving girl broought us soup and breadsticks, and made a concerted effort not to look in my direction. She knew, alright, although I did not think that she had been told.
"What special business are you involved in at the moment, your highness ?" I asked, mimicking Delgado's way of referring to slightly nefarious activities with his business partners.
"The Duke of Courland is at court", Prince George referred to the reigning monarch of the Baltic state, "He is seeking backers for a developmental project on the shores of Moon Sound."
"And you are of a mind to back this project ?"
Prince George laughed, and shook his head,
"Not I", he sipped at the hot broth from his spoon, "It is too large a project for my capabilities. I merely represent my cousin in the negotiations."
"Ah", I nodded a belated understanding, "Something rather more substantial than I had in mind."
"His Majesty is of a mind to back it ?", Sir Arthur interjected, whether for my benefit, or because he simply wanted to know for himself I was not sure.
"The king is ever a man of his own mind", Prince George smiled thinly, then looked me directly in the eyes, as if it were me who had asked, "But yes, he is convinced that it would be a good investment for Serbia."
"And do you agree ?", I asked, genuinely interested in whether he did or not. After all, this was a man who had many business interests in common with Delgado, and one had to assume that he had a fair share of the same kind of instinct for a profit as he did.
"I do not think he will lose money by investing it in Courland", Prince George replied cautiously, "But whether he will make money depends on outside factors over which we can have no control."
"The attitude of the government of Sweden, for one", Count Sava added to what his half-brother had said, "And the dangers of war with Lithuania."
"Surely those are exaggerated ?", asked Sir Arthur.
Sava glanced at me, then turned his attention to the man on my right,
"Exaggeration depends on who is stating them", he told him, "I doubt whether your own security service is exaggerating them, but I note that some of your newspapers are. It depends upon where you get your information from."
"I see", Sir Arthur spooned the last of his soup into his mouth.
"So, King Milosh will invest, regardless of more cautious advice ?", I asked.
Prince George pushed his empty dish away from him,
"I see no point in being the bearer of cautious advice, Xavi. He will invest and I will back that decision. If it proves not to be the wisest decision, well..."
"A little humility will not go amiss from us", Sava completed his half-brother's thoughts.
"Better not to appear omnipotent ?" I asked.
"Exactly" agreed the Serbians in unison.
The servers were once more amongst us, collecting away the crockery and delivering warmed, steaming plates in their place. They moved around depositing cuts of meat, vegetables and sauces as requested, whilst the conversation turned to more mundane matters.
"The weather's a bugger", Sir Arthur rumbled.
"Snow ?" Prince George laughed, "What you have is hardly snow by Serbian standards. Remember that week we spent in Nish, Xavi ? My, that was snow !"
"Yes indeed", I agreed, wondering what week, and why I had not heard of it. I cast a cautious glance at Adolphus but he seemed to be wracking his brains as well.
"And the girls !", Prince George was continuing, "What was her name ?"
"Which one ?", I hedged.
"True !" he laughed, "There were many, but you cannot have forgotten..."
"Excellent beef !", Sir Arthur chimed in to save me, "Does it come from your own estate in Oxon ?"
It was addressed to me, and I wished I knew. I could suppose that it did, but something was scrabbling at the back of my mind. Harper's Court Farm was Delgado's estate in Oxfordshire, a substantial holding with several different types of livestock. Definitely cows, but...
"It is from Angus", Adolphus rescued me, frowning down the table, "The chef has it delivered by train every Thursday."
"Your own farm ?", Prince George looked as if he were asking simply to be polite.
"I do not have a farm in Angus" I said slowly, sure of that, and yet wondering...
"Well, technically not." Adolphus again piped up from the foot of the table, "But this is rented from the Duke of Lomond's estate. The livestock belong to us."
"As I say", I tried to cover up my gaffe, but could not help but notice that Sava was frowning at me again.
I ate for some minutes, then tried to resurrect the conversation that I had felt was settled upon firmer ground,
"What proportion of stock will King Milosh take out of the Duke of Courland's venture ?" I asked.
Prince George swallowed a sprout and licked his lips,
"About twenty, maybe twenty-five percent. The Lombard banks are providing surety, and with Britannia's investment of ten percent, the field is open for others to invest more, but in the certain knowledge that their investment is safe."
"Just that their profits are not ?" I asked.
"Their hopes for profit", Sava either agreed or amended, I could not be sure.
"Who are the other major investors likely to be ?", I asked.
"The Grand Duke of Tuscany, for certain, and perhaps the Prince of Carolath, although you know his ways in these matters."
"Yes indeed", I agreed.
Sava frowned at me again, and asked,
"What exactly are his ways in these things ?"
I was wondering that myself, but Prince George sensed something peculiar and turned to look at his half-brother.
"You know Prince Karl Gerhard ! You met him in Bohemia at the patron's dinner. Remember how he refused all comment, but turned out to have made the biggest donation on the night ?"
"Oh yes", Sava nodded, "I apologise for my lack of memory". Was there just a bit more stress upon the 'my' than there ought to have been ? For the rest of the meal I could not help but feel that Count Sava was watching me, watching and not liking what he was seeing.

Eighteen - June

I awoke in bed and looked around in the darkness. That was not overly helpful, because by its nature the darkness did not provide much illumination upon events. My ears caught up with my brain and I could hear the discordant notes of the telephone.
"Lights" I said, and the voice activation worked, two dimmed spots coming on, to illuminate but not to dazzle. I threw off the single sheet and padded across to the half-table by the door, picking up the receiver, an archaic-looking black plastic affair.
"Delgado" I answered.
"Really ?"
I recognised the voice; it was my own, but with always that degree more of assurance about it.
"How are things ?", I asked, wondering at this call in the middle of the night. The clock above the dressing table showed that it was only four o'clock in the morning.
"Its a beautiful Summer's day and I am lying on the beach drinking cocktails." he said.
"Lucky you", I ventured.
"Perhaps lucky you", there was something in his voice to be wary of, "I hear that you paid a housecall upon Hermione."
"I could hardly turn it down" I answered.
"You disregarded my instructions never to go into Aurelius" he commented.
"I walked from the automobile across six foot of pavement and up a half dozen steps" I protested, "That is as much of Aurelius as I saw."
"I am sure you saw more of Hermione than just a snippet."
"Are you ?", I asked, wondering if now we were getting closer to the real core of the matter.
"You, I may not be able to read one hundred percent", he admitted, "But Hermione I can. She would not have taken no for an answer."
"I did not give no for an answer", I replied.
"As I hear."
"Aha", I wondered if that was the purpose of the call, or if it were simply something he wished to get off his chest. His next words did not enlighten me further,
"Tell Adolphus I want Case Zero closed." he said.
"Case Zero ?"
"Tell him."
The line went dead. Why didn't he tell him himself ? And what was Case Zero ? Was it related to the Duchess of Hibernia, or was it something else entirely. I replaced and receiver on the hook and yawned. Well, I would tell Adolphus, but I certainly wouldn't be doing it at this time in the morning...


Nineteen - February

"Beef !", Delgado spluttered, "You let him trip you up on beef ?!"
"When asked direct questions the mind can go into a literal mode", I offered by way of explanation.
"Sir Arthur's question about it having come from Oxfordshire was not helpful.", Adolphus told his master, either by way of adding his own explanation or of backing up mine, I could not tell.
"And what was this about Nish ?" I asked, pressing my own grievance, "How was I supposed to be able to learn something that Adolphus did not know about ?"
"Hmm...", Delgado stood and walked across the room to the window, "Perhaps I can accept responsibility for that."
"Thank you, sir" Adolphus said graciously.
"Yes, perhaps I had better have a word with Sir Arthur, make sure that if he is going to interject to come to your aid that it is actually of help to you."
"Yes", I felt that brevity worked better in the circumstances.
"Very well", Delgado turned away from the window and ran his hand along the surface of a mahogany sideboard, a sure sign of tension, "We will try again tomorrow."
"Tomorrow ?", I was surprised.
"If you fall from a bicycle, it is best to get straight back upon it." he told me.
"Who did you have in mind, sir ?" asked Adolphus, aware that he would have to be providing all of the background information during the day ahead.
"Sir Lionel Tyler and his daughter, Leonie."
"I was of the opinion that he was of the rival faction ?", I asked.
"Faction ?", Delgado wrinkled his nose, "I dislike that word. He backs Prince Oscar, that is true, but he is not personally repulsive, and his daughter certainly has her charms."
"What else do you know about him ?", Adolphus addressed the question to me, probably probing my knowledge in advance of the following day's session in the schoolroom.
"He is the owner of Sylvanian Transport, and has his principal residence on the edge of the West End parks. His company has recently been looking into advanced fuel systems, and there is a rumour that he will have a whole new design ready to take to market by the end of the year."
"What about his wife ?", Delgado asked, looking closely at where I sat before the fire.
"Deceased. She died when Leonie was a young child."
"She was three." Delgado confirmed.
"He has never remarried.", I was running out of facts.
"His daughter is his only family", Delgado let no emotion into his voice, "and as she is now of marriagable age, he fears that he will soon lose her as well."
"A common fear" Adolphus chipped in.
"Perhaps", agreed Delgado, "But each case is unique to its participants. It never does to tell the broken-hearted that other people get over it. In Sir Lionel's case, it would do no good to point out that he will soon get used to his daughter's being married, and will come to delight in any children that the marriage will produce. It may well be true, but he will not want to hear it."
"I understand", Adolphus rose to his feet, "I will prepare what is necessary and then go to bed."
Delgado made no reply as he left the room. He looked down at me, then sighed,
"What worried you most about this evening ?" he asked.
"Count Sava" I replied without hesitation.
"I assumed so." he sighed again, "It is unfortunate, but it is so."
With that he nodded a perfunctory goodnight and left the room. I drained my glass and followed a few minutes later, heading back towards my bedroom. So, on the morrow I would undergo the torments of this evening once again ? Well, at least there would be a pretty girl there this time...


Twenty - June

Case Zero ? Adolphus said he would take care of it, and there was nothing for me to worry about. I decided to trust him, as far as it went, and to go about my usual business. After an hour in the office, a featureless hole buried amidst the maze of corridors, I had worked out an itinerary for the day, a list of meetings planned that I would go to, and meetings unplanned that I would spring upon people.
The drivers in the pool office had seen me coming. I suspected that after catching them out last time, they had set in motion some kind of early warning system. Five minutes before they had probably been playing cards, and one or two of their number may have been off doing other things. But now they all rose to greet me, pleasant greeetings upon their lips, even Charlie who had not had a comfortable time of it since my return with Eric.
"Who's on ?" I asked. Although I could perhaps try to memorise the rota it was always changing as the drivers traded free days with each other for family commitments, visits to sports stadiums and time with their friends.
"Carla"
She stepped forward, her hair bunched up underneath her cap, the cut of the uniform obscuring at a casual glance the rise of her breasts.
"The Ajax, sir ?"
I was well known for being unpredictable so I demurred,
"Is the black Augusta in the garage ?"
She looked across at the cork board, nodded and slipped off the keys, ring 4 I noted. I was already heading towards the bay when she exited the office and caught me up.
"There you go."
"Thank you", courtesy was occasionally useful, and I let the words out as I slipped into the rear section of the vehicle, more of a small room than a simple seat in a machine of this size.
"Where to first, sir ?", she closed her own door and settled into the driver's seat.
"Orkney Palace, I have a meeting with Sir Balthazar."
It was more than she needed to know, but sometimes a little give at the outset would be returned by a bit of take at the end. And, who knew, maybe I was going to need that this day ? An idea, of sorts was forming in my mind.
Orkney Palace was no bigger than Delgado's own grand-sounding Syrian Palace, a small mansion built amongst the parkland of the West End of London. I had visited the Syrian Palace but once or twice, and never stayed there overnight. Orkney Palace, on the other hand, had a more lived-in feel to it, a pair of black automobiles parked in the driveway, a gardener at work in the bushes to the left. We parked before the house, and a servant opened the door unbidden.
"Sir Balthazar is in the library, sir, you are expected."
It was another of those slightly uncomfortable moments. The servant did not look as if he were about to make any attempt to escort me there, and no doubt Delgado had been to this place several times before and knew very well where the library was. But I didn't.
"Please inform him I will be a moment", I said, my eyes alighting on the bathroom door nearby.
"Very good, sir"
I watched as the man crossed the hallway and exited via a door at the far end, then closed the door on the bathroom. A few minutes later I emerged, suitably washed and perfumed with by the scented soap, and made my way to where the servant had departed. A narrow corridor terminated in a large room, which from the shelves of books all around was no doubt the library.
An old man unwound himself from a sofa and rose at my entry,
"Xavier", he held out his hand and we shook, his grip surprisingly strong in defiance of the appearance of the rest of his body. From my background investigations I knew him to be eighty-five, almost eighty-six years of age.
"It is good to see you looking so well, Sir Balthazar."
He let it pass and gestured impatiently to a seat. I lowered myself into it, and waited.
"Well ?", he growled, "Do you have the starter, or not ?"
"I have it", I agreed, "But I must have it returned by Midday."
"Hmm", he held out a hand, "Let me see it then, Xavier."
I withdrew the piece of electronic equipment from the pocket of my light jacket and handed it across to him. He fixed a magnifying lens onto a monocle and popped the back off, peering in at the electronics with a practised eye.
"Three hours" he ventured.
I looked at the clock upon the wall. I had foregone breakfast and started early, but three hours was pushing it.
"Can you make it two ?" I asked.
"Three", he was unequivocal.
"Very well."
Three hours it would have to be. Sir Lionel's residence was not very far from here, but it would be cutting it very short indeed to pick the device up, travel across there, hand it over to Leonie, and get it back in the safe before her father returned.
"You will collect it in person ?"
"No", I replied for the same reasons that I had given Leonie, "I will send someone to run it over to Sir Lionel's."
"Someone ?" Sir Balthazar was not happy with so vague an arrangement.
"A young lad, you will not know him, but he will have my card."
"If you must play these games, Xavier" he sniffed and rose to his feet, "Three hours, then."
It was a dismissal, and I left. Carla was sitting just as I had left her, no doubt some second sense of an official driver's having alerted her to my return at the very moment I had started it, and giving her time to stop whatever she had been doing, and resume her pose of doing nothing, apart from waiting.
"Newgate", I said.
"Yes sir", she paused, "What do you want to go there for, if I may ask sir ?"
"To see someone"
As I did not elucidate further, she knew better than to press the issue. The black Augusta limousine picked up speed as it came off the driveway to Orkney Palace, and roared onto the radial road, heading back into the city.

Twenty-One - February

Leonie was delightful, her father a crashing bore, but genial. It was a pleasant and relaxed evening, in contrast to the uneasiness of the night before. Delgado and Sir Lionel had been acquaintances before, but they shared neither business dealings or a common holiday in the past. Leonie, for her part, had no more than seen Delgado across a room; for her, and for me, this was a first. By the end of the evening I was determined that it would not be the last.
"Well", I sighed happily as the door closed behind them, and turned to Adolphus who was at my side, "That went well" I ventured.
"It went very well", he agreed, although he did not sound altogether happy about it.
We made our way back upstairs, through the maze of corridors and into the drawing room where the fire was already raging. Sir Arthur proved to be asleep in a chair, a post-prandial glass of brandy still clutched in one paw. Of Delgado there was no sign.
"Sherry ?", Adolphus held up the decanter.
Although I was heartily sick of the stuff, I supposed that I had better accustom my palate to drinking it bat odd hours,
"Please" I replied with as much enthusiasm as I could gather.
"Umf ?" said Sir Arthur, jerking into wakefulness at the sound of voices, "Oh, right", he settled back down as he saw it was us, and sipped from his glass, "I note someone is missing" he said.
"The master has been delayed" Adolphus chose that moment to pass on a message that he had somehow received without our noticing.
"Oh...ahh" grunted Sir Arthur, raising himself to a more comfortable position than that into which he had sunken.
"Delayed as in will be joining us shortly ?" I asked.
"Unfortunately, no" Adolphus sat himself down and I did likewise, "He will not be joining us tonight."
"No post-mortem is necessary ?" I asked jokily.
Adolphus seemed startled, all but springing to his feet,
"What do you mean ?" he demanded.
"Going over tonight's dinner", I explained, though I could not but wonder why I was having to do so, "Did you see anything in Sir Lionel to indicate that he was not one hundred percent convinced ?"
"Nothing", Adolphus forced a smile, "It went well, a good antidote to yesterday."
"Yes"
A strange silence settled upon us...

Twenty-Two - June

The lad was tall for his age, and gangling. The governor at Newgate let him out at weekends now, and at other times that suitably important people requested it. I had learnt that Delgado had first used him the previous November, had first met him myself a couple of months ago, and had had cause to use him once. I had detected no sign that he knew either time what was happening, what the difference was, and today I saw nothing of that either.
"Micky" I said, sitting myself down in the Governor's office, "I've got a little job for you."
"Yes, Mr Delgado ?", his eyes shone at the prospect of some action.
"Nothing too onerous I'm afraid, but it might just have got more difficult than I had anticipated."
"You know I only got caught because my girl shopped me, right ?", he leant forwards towards the desk.
"I know", it was his usual boast; he had never been caught, never been nearly caught. Only a treacherous girlfriend had landed him in Newgate.
"So, what is it ?"
I spread the map of the West End parkland out upon the desk. He leant over it with interest; the prospect of that type of neighbourhood no doubt appealled to him more than anywhere else.
"A little theft ?" he asked, eagerly anticipating my reply.
"The opposite", I shook my head.
"Insertion ?"
"I borrowed a little something yesterday. It needs to be back in its place by Midday today so that the person I borrowed it from does not miss it."
"You have it on you ?"
"A friend has it, here", I pointed to where Orkney Palace was marked on the map, "You can collect it from him at half past eleven."
"And take it to where ?"
"Here", I stabbed a finger at the Tyler's house.
"Phew", he whistled, "Yeah, I can do it, but there's not much margin."
"There's even less", I told him, "You have to give it to a young lady here", I pointed again at the Tyler's house, "She will need to put it back in the safe."
"A couple of minutes work ?"
"It has to be back before her father gets there..."
"And he's coming back at Midday ?"
I shrugged,
"You can probably understand that I cannot be one hundred percent specific about that."
"Yeah, I understand. He ain't gonna sit outside in his motor until the bells start bonging Midday, just to go home."
"Exactly - he could be a few minutes early, or late of course."
"So, we better aim to get it in by ten to ?"
"That's what I was thinking."
He nodded, smiled and sat back in the seat opposite the desk,
"So what's the pay, Mr Delgado ?"
"You mean apart from your having a little excursion and getting to have some fun ?"
"Yeah, apart from that ?"
"Oh", I opened my wallet and peeled off a couple of ten-crown notes, "We can probably manage something - upon completion."
I put them into my trouser pocket for the time being. He considered it, pursed his lips, then nodded,
"Right you are, Mr Delgado. How'd I get to this Orkney Palace ?"
"How about a little walk ?"
"No nice car or nothing like that ?"
"That's right, no nice car."
"Oh, okay", he shrugged, "Don't matter."
"I didn't think it did."
We shook upon the deal, and I rose to gesture for the Governor to reclaim his office,
"He'll be back by nightfall" I promised.
Micky caught my eye and nodded the tiniest nod of thanks. I had just given him the afternoon outside as an added bonus.

Twenty-Three - February

I looked around the little breakfast room in surprise. Adolphus was nowhere to be seen, which was unusual. Sir Arthur sat opposite my table, tucking into his own meal of bacon and scrambled eggs, which was unprecedented.
"Good morning, Sir Arthur", I seated myself down and smiled at the young black woman as she came and dished out my food, identical to my companion's.
"Ah, good morning", he seemed unsettled, ill at ease.
I ate without saying anything. Even when Adolphus was here it was the usual thing. We would be talking enough down in the schoolroom, so let us eat our meals in peace beforehand. Sir Arthur seemed relieved and went back to his meal. At the end, he rose before I and picked up a newspaper which had been folded upon the chair the other side of him.
"I suppose you should see this", he said, and dropped it on my table as he left.
I was doubly perplexed. Where was Adolphus, and did his absence mean that we were not to have a session down below this day ? And if not, what was it intended that I did do ? Well, read the newspaper was apparently one thing. I took it with me back to my room, and sat down upon the chaise lounge to read it.
'The Britannia Herald' was not known for sensationalism, but its headline still made me jump, never the less.
SERBIAN NOBLEMAN FOUND DEAD
I read on, my heart racing, a sinking feeling in my stomach.
Visiting Serbian nobleman, Count Sava Obrenovic, a half-brother to Prince George Obrenovic, was found dead this morning upon the London Embankment, not far from the Temple.
With an opening like that there was little need to go on, but I did. He had been stabbed to death, a single blow to the heart through the fabric of his clothes, an act that had occurred some time after Midnight, although no definite time had yet been agreed on.
There then followed a resumee of his time in London, where he had arrived with his half-brother just under a week ago. Much was made of their appearance at court, no mention at all was made of their visit to Delgado's establishment, here. Was that simple ignorance, or was it deemed irrelevant ? Or, more likely I realised, had that fact been kept from either the newspaper or the authorities ? Or both ?
I folded the newspaper and tossed it onto the dressing table. I could see now why Sir Arthur had been so ill at ease at breakfast. Did he blame himself ? Or was it my fault, I wondered ? Could I accept the blame, I asked myself ? Just what exactly was I doing here ? Who was I, for that matter ? So much had happened since my arrival that such questions had begun to seem irrelevant. I had a job to do, a plan to work to. But did I have a will of my own, or was I merely a pawn ? And had I killed a man by not learning my piece as well as I should have the other night ?
I walked to the window and looked out through the net curtains to the road below. Nobody looked up. Nobody would have seen anything more than a shadowy figure had they in fact done so. But nobody did. Why look up as you walk through the street ? Nobody had a reason to, and I could look down with impunity.
I tried to gather my thoughts, but cohesion would not come. Maybe that was why Adolphus was not around; maybe he knew that I would not be able to concentrate on lessons that morning ? I did not know. I simply had to wait until someone told me, and then trust that what they told me was the truth...or perhaps, wonder whether what they told me was the truth...

Twenty-Four - June

"Ah, Bertram", I collared the servant as he passed by in the corridor, "Have you seen Adolphus this afternoon - at all, today, in fact ?"
It was not so much that I wanted him; I just wondered where he had gone after our brief conversation that morning.
"I believe he booked an automobile out of the pool very early, sir."
I thanked him, and reversed my course, back down the corridor, back into the elevator, and back across the underground garage to where a group of drivers stood looking startled and ill at ease; nobody had assumed I would be returning so quickly. I ignored the evidence of the card game upon the table, and addressed the duty officer,
"What vehicle did Adolphus take out this morning ?"
He opened the log to check, and I looked over his shoulder, noting the time - half an hour earlier even than when I had left.
"The green Sabre, sir."
"Who is the driver ?"
"Eric, sir."
"I see, thank you."
I did not owe them an explanation, so turned and walked away, once more. I had not asked any questions that I would be expected to already know the answer to, so there was no concern there. But I did wonder just what Adolphus was up to - what was Case Zero, and in what manner was he about to close it on Delgado's orders ?
Well, there was work to do as I let the issue stew in the back of my mind. Perhaps something would come to me, perhaps I would simply have to wait and see. I retraced my steps towards the bedroom, freshened up and put on a more comfortable set of clothes, a recent 'fad' that Xavier Delgado was reported by the more chattering of the newspapers to have just taken up. I gathered by that, that he had not worn such looser clothing the Summer before, and that in choosing to do so this year I was making this reported change in his behaviour. Some days such things amused me, but with the memory of the early morning telephone call in my mind, this was not one of those times.
There was nobody about the office as I settled into the cold tubular chair and powered up the computer. It was not as antiquated as that which the emperor had in his inner sanctum, but it was still a long way from the machines that I had seen humming happily away in various government departments. I slotted in the cartridge at the side, and scrolled through the first few files that came up. Ah, here it was. I had thought there was something, but could not quite remember what it was.
Of course, it was simply an enumerated list, and could be anything. It dated back to December, and listed a series of ongoing operations, most of which were now terminated in one way or another. What had jogged my memory was the fact that the first operation on the list had not been numbered as one - but as zero.
I focused in on it, but as beforehand when I had tried to decipher some of the documents that Delgado had left around, I ran into the same problem of not knowing for sure what the words referred to. The note on the list was simple enough :-
00 (ZERO)
Banco 0098 Lorenzo Scarfone

Banco was the Spanish word for bank, which was a mite curious because Lorenzo was an Italian banking house - the Republic of Venice, I remembered from other matters. Scarfone I had no idea, and as for 0098 it could be the end of a bank account...or some such thing ?
Well, I would leave it for now, I decided, and see whether the morrow brought any news that I could tie into these few notes. I popped the cartridge and replaced it in the rack. It must be about time for dinner...


Twenty-Five - February

"Yes, it is your fault", Delgado was back by lunchtime, and for once we took a midday repast together - cold meats, salad and some hunks of rye bread.
"My fault ?", I frowned, shovelling lettuce onto my fork and raising it to my mouth.
"You have to get used to taking responsibility.", he said, biting into a buttered hunk of bread.
"For a death you carried out ?"
"Did I carry it out ?", Delgado raised an eyebrow and took a sip of the chilled white wine before us.
"Did you not ?" I asked.
He made no direct reply, eating in silence for some minutes, before making his next comment,
"Do you feel sorry for him ?"
"Count Sava ?"
"Who else !"
I considered it, ignoring the annoyance in his tone at the end. Did I feel sorry for the Serb ? Well, I hardly knew the man, and had not much enjoyed talkng to him that night, though it was hardly his fault. He had seemed intelligent and conversational. I had not had chance to make any judgments on his character, to decide whether I liked him or not, to decide whether, if I did not, he was still a man I could respect. I simply did not have the information. I put it to him.
"How can I feel sorry for someone I did not know ?"
"Easily", he looked down at his plate and speared a piece of breaded chicken, "People read about the starving masses in the Horn of Africa, or see a photograph of a small child reaching out for a piece of bread. They feel sorry for them, even though they have never met them, will never meet them, ever."
"I think that is a different matter", I protested, though realising we could end up in the realm of semantics if I had to try and define how and why I thought that.
"So", he said looking at me directly again, "Can you be at ease with the knowledge that you killed him?"
"You killed him" I pointed out.
"It was your fault. If you had done your homework properly, Count Sava would even now be accompanying his brother to Courland.", he paused, "I hear the Baltic is beautiful in the Summer."
"I do not know", I swallowed at my wine, then had to break off for a moment, coughing and spluttering as it went down the wrong way, "I do not know what I feel." I wheezed.
"Good", Delgado seemed pleased with that, "Then tomorrow we can up the stakes a bit."
"Can we ?", my speech was almost back to normal.
"But certainly", he smiled, "You have this afternoon and all of the morrow in which to prepare yourself."
"Another dinner ?" I asked, sipping at what remained of the wine in a more controlled fashion.
"Luis Gonzaga was a childhood friend. I have not seen him for ten years."
"I know hardly anything about your childhood !" I protested.
"Then you had better get down to the schoolroom and find Adolphus and begin learning."
I rose to do so, then turned back towards Delgado,
"And will you kill your childhood friend, if I fail the test this time ?" I asked.
"Do not fail" he growled.
I left, though far from happy with the state of things...

Twenty-Six - June

As it was, I did not have to wait to find out the news - it came and got me in the morning. At seven o'clock somebody blew in the door to my bedroom, and two men emerged through the haze, guns with flash-lights built into them sweeping across me as I sat up, stunned, in bed.
"Good morning, sir" one of the men said incongruously, "Would you please accompany us to the palace?"
"I...er", I stumbled out of bed and looked round for my clothes.
"Here you are, sir", Bertram had emerged from somewhere and was holding them out for me.
I dressed hurriedly, and then accompanied the Imperial Guards officers down into the garage and into the waiting personnel carriers. Nobody made to handcuff me, or to otherwise restrain me. It was enough, it seemed, to have got their hands on me.
The vehicles were large, black and mean-looking. Their windscreens were covered in a meshed grille, and a single gold flash upon their sides told anyone who tried to interfere that they were on the personal business of the emperor. One did not interfere with that.
We pulled in over a hump, and then dipped sharply down. Ah, I thought, one of the compounds and indeed as I listened I could hear the electronic gate slide closed behind us. We came to a halt, and the side door was opened from outside. A half dozen guards stood, guns at the ready.
"Please step out of the vehicle, sir."
I obeyed and was led to the elevator shaft. One of the officers used some kind of digital key to summon the elevator and over-ride its usual modus of operation. We descended to the tiny station below, passed through a strangely silent security machine, and out to where a train flew through, past us. I was about to ask whether it should not have stopped, when a much simpler machine, consisting of just three carriages of seats pulled up.
"Sit in the centre seat of the middle carriage", an officer instructed.
I complied and they placed themselves all around me. The train started up and disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel, but this time I could see. The lights from the guns swept around me, cocooning me in light as if I were a performer upon a music hall stage.
We emerged into the light of the main station, and I was motioned to dismount and approach the elevators. The guard officer again used his electronic device to summon one of the elevators, and over-ride the controls. Packed, eight of us into the elevator, we ascended and emerged into the office of the duty person for that shift.
She looked over at me, and passed across a handful of paper passes, already pre-stamped, no doubt in expectation of our imminent arrival. I was allowed to place one in the rear pocket of my trousers, then with just two guards following into the palace I was marched down the white corridor, and right towards the emperor's quarters.
But we did not go in. One of the alcoves opposite proved to have a false back, it slid away like a door and we were beckoned inside by the Lord Chamberlain, seated in the centre of a sterile white room, behind a white desk of moulded plastic. The door slid shut, the two guards taking up positions either side of it.
"Good morning, Mr Delgado", the Lord Chamberlain spoke to me.
"Good morning, Sir Edward."
He smiled thinly and tossed a handful of photographs onto the smooth surface of the desk.
"Look at these, if you will."
I looked at them. Most showed a shadowy black-suited figure crouching, running, moving about on the top of some building with gothic pretensions, the occasional gargoyle or carving jumping out of the scene.
"So ?" I asked confused.
"Is that all you have to say ?", Sir Edward Verne seemed surprised by my answer.
"Who is he ?" I asked.
"That is you"
I laughed,
"That is not me."
"These were taken at eleven o'clock yesterday evening, on the top of the Banco Andaluz in Newgate."
"Well, then" I shrugged, "It could not be me because I was in my apartments from the early evening onwards."
"Which of course your staff will verify."
It did not sound like a question, so I raised an eyebrow at him. He sighed,
"Of course your staff will verify it, Mr Delgado, that is what a staff does."
"Why all this fuss anyway ?", I looked around at the white room, its colour spoilt only by the two hulking guards by the hidden door, "I mean, even if you think I broke into a bank or something, could you not have just asked me here ?"
"Broke into the bank ?", the Lord Chamberlain frowned, "Why do you say that ?"
I was beginning to feel even more confused than I had been,
"I assume its not because this man", I pointed to the photographs, "was simply walking about on its roof ?"
"No", he could agree with that one apparently, "It is not simply because of that."
"Then he broke in, yes ?"
"No, Mr Delgado."
"Oh...", I was rather at a loss as to what to say next.
So, it seemed, was Sir Edward. We remained like for some minutes until he seemed to come to a decision. He reached into some hidden drawer and drew out a document wallet, black leather with several sheets of paper inside.
"Pool car XDS-112 was taken out by you yesterday morning ?"
"Is that the black Augusta ?" I asked, not having memorised its number.
"Yes"
"Then it was taken out by me - well, to be completely truthful, it was taken out by Carla, with myself in the rear."
"Of course", he seemed to already know this, "Around half past nine yesterday morning, this vehicle was to be found in the compound of Newgate Prison."
"Yes"
"Why ?"
"That is confidential" I tried.
He laughed at me,
"You are aware I suppose that Newgate Prison was diametrically opposite Banco Andaluz ?"
"I will take your word for it" I replied, then wondered how wise that was. Had Delgado visited the bank's buildings before ? Would there be surveillance film of him doing so, proving my answer to be a glib and purposeless one.
Sir Edward, though, continued on his own course,
"I put it to you that you were at Newgate to spy out the ground for your night-time operation against the bank."
"How easy is it to spy out the ground from inside ?" I asked, "Specifically, from inside the Governor's office."
"That is where you were ?" he frowned.
"You can ask him, I am sure."
Sir Edward nodded, and depressed a button on the underside of the desk. A hidden door in one of the side walls opened and a young woman came through.
"You have the transcript to hand ?" he asked her.
"Yes, Sir Edward", she sounded efficiency herself with her clipped vowels and sharp tone.
"Then do as Mr Delgado suggests we do, please."
"Yes, Sir Edward", she disappeared back the way she had come, and the door slid closed, once more to become as if it were just another section of the wall in this white, featureless room.
Something was nagging at the back of my mind as we sat there and waited. It was something Sir Edward had said, a turn of phrase or somesuch that was not quite right, but I could not put my finger on it. He said no more until the door slid back open and the same woman came through. She handed the Lord Chamberlain a piece of paper, and then departed. He cast his eyes over it, and smiled.
"Who is Micky ?", he asked.
"Its confidential" I repeated.
"Not to worry", he slid the paper into the document wallet, "The Governor confirms your story, such as it is, but it raises questions as well as answers them."
"No doubt" I agreed, "But I was not there to plan this robbery, or whatever against the bank."
"When it comes down to it, Mr Delgado, we have only your word for that."
"My word ought to be good enough."
The Lord Chamberlain did not deign to make a reply to what, even to my ears, was a nonsensical statement on my part. He simply withdrew another sheet from the document wallet,
"Bank account 32140098 - yours ?"
"I do not recognise that number", I replied, knowing that it was only half a truth, but determined to focus on that half. I did not know that number, not in full, though there was no doubt in my mind that the 0098 found in the 00 (Zero) note on the computer file was an abbreviation of this.
"I have asked the fraud officer of the Banco Andaluz what he remembers about this account, and he tells me it was being used by three agencies - one unknown, one the Venetian banking house of Lorenzo, and a Mr Scarfone of Milan."
"Oh ?", I was indeed interested, but I did not want my interest to come across as worry or concern.
"I believe you were the unknown, Mr Delgado."
"You believe ?", I seized on the word. Surely, if the Lord Chamberlain wanted the information he could get it.
"Unfortunately since your little operation renders it impossible to look into the records, I am left only with belief."
"What do you mean 'makes it impossible to look into the records' ?" I asked with a frown.
"Very droll", Sir Edward leant back in his seat and seemed to consider the ceiling.
I considered leaving things as they were, but wanted to know, simply for my own piece of mind.
"Did somebody break in and delete the records of this bank ?" I asked.
"Delete ?", his eyes twinkled with harsh amusement, "I suppose you could say that."
"What is that supposed to mean ?"
"Records cannot get much more deleted than when the entire edifice is blown to pieces."
"Blown to pieces...?" I mumbled, "You mean somebody blew up the bank ?!"
He stared at me, then depressed what I thought was the same hidden button, but as a different door opened, and a different person stepped into the room, I assumed was actually a button behind the one he had used before.
"Hugo", he addressed the young man who had entered, "Take Mr Delgado to Commander Pye and ask him to issue conditional release papers."
"Yes sir", the young man frowned, "But I thought..."
"Thank you", Sir Edward cut him off.
He swallowed heavily and then turned towards me,
"If you would come this way, sir."
I went, willingly. Behind me, Sir Edward was already reaching for the buttons, to summon whom into his presence this time, I wondered as the door slid shut behind us.


Twenty-Seven - February

The evening was going strangely. It had to be said that that was the best word for it. After a day and a half of studying I was ready to hold court on Delgado's childhood, or at least on that part of it he had shared with Luis Gonzaga, but the evening's dinner guest did not seem at all interested in tossing anecdotes from one side of the table to the other. In fact, he seemed most definitely to be avoiding them.
"Creme caramel ?", the pretty young black woman hovered by his side, dish at the ready.
"No, no thank you, senorita."
She moved on, and down to where Jemima Hartley sat, an equally odd aura about her this evening. She was saying hardly anything, instead watching me, and watching Luis with an equal measure of...of something I could not quite put my finger upon.
I dug into my own pudding, and savoured the taste. One day I would have to meet our chef and congratulate him - or her, I supposed, though it seemed more traditional for it to be a him.
"So, tell me Luis", I made another effort at a conversational gambit, "How is the family back in Galicia?"
"Oh", he shrugged, "Not bad, not bad."
"Even old uncle Herman ?" I asked, putting some surprise into my voice, hoping to convey the information that I knew him to be bed-ridden and in his nineties.
"He has his good days" Luis replied.
"Does he ?", I was genuinely interested, "How does he measure the difference between them ?"
"How does anyone ?", there was a shrug.
Sir Arthur, not always the quickest on the uptake had finally noticed that there was something wrong, not with how I was coming across to our guest, as the latter individual seemed hardly interested in that, but in our guest himself.
"I think something irks you, Senor Gonzaga ?" he asked.
Luis smiled sheepishly,
"Yes, it does, senor, it does."
"Pray tell then, Luis" I tried to conjure up the lightness of mood that Delgado had said was always one of his character traits when dealing with his childhood friend, though if he had not seen him for ten years, quite what value that had I was not sure.
"Is it business ?" asked Sir Arthur, beckoning for the servers to bring across a second help of pudding.
"Is it not business", Luis sounded as if he would have been relieved had it been so.
"A woman perhaps ?" I asked, remembering how popular Luis had been with the girls when he and Delgado were growing up.
"I have never had any problems with the senoritas" he flashed me a grin that vanished almost as soon as it was born.
"Are you going to talk about it ?", asked Sir Arthur, tiring of the guessing game.
"Perhaps over a glass of something - sherry perhaps ?" Luis suggested.
"There is a sitting room just adjacent to here", I offered, "I think the servants can bring the drinks. We would be much more comfortable than remaining here."
Sir Arthur finished up his second helping and pushed his dish away from him.
"Yes, let us repair to the sitting room"
He was ever one for a more comfortable chair. I beckoned for Luis to rise, then followed him, edging him towards the doorway and feeling for the light switch. We made our way inside and sat around the fireplace, whilst the serving woman brought us drinks, and her fellow stoked the hearth. I noticed with surprise that Luis was sipping a glass of sherry himself. Well, Delgado said he had not seen him for ten years. It seemed to be one adolescent hatred that he had overcome.
"So," asked Sir Arthur, "What is your problem ? Is it anything we can do something to help you with ?"
"That is very kind", Luis bent down, "I have the document in my stocking, if I may."
"Of course" I said perplexed.
He retrieved it and rose to his feet in one sudden move. There was a sharp bark of a fire-arm, Jemima emerging from behind the door as Luis stumbled and fell to the floor, a bleeding hole in his chest, and a stiletto slipping from his lifeless hand.
"I...um" said Sir Arthur.
"He was going to stab....me" I muttered.
"That he was", agreed Jemima, turning the body over with her foot, "I wonder who he was."
"Who he was ?" I echoed.
"He was not Luis Gonzaga" she emitted a short sharp laugh.
"He was not ?", I could not avoid repeating her again.
"Xavier killed Luis two years ago and buried his body in a cave system in Southern France."
"Oh..." I struggled through the fog that had come upon my brain, "So, um, Delgado knew it was not Gonzaga ?"
"Obviously" she snapped, returning her miniature pistol to the small leather bag hanging off her shoulder, "The question was who was he and what did he want."
"To shoot me" I muttered.
"To shoot Xavier" she corrected.
I hoped she was right...

Twenty-Eight - June

"There you are, Mr Delgado", the Guard Commander handed me a set of papers - conditional release, and a pass for the main section of the imperial court, or rather all the common sections, but not the emperor's personal apartments. Those were to be off-limits for me for now.
I tucked the papers into my jacket pocket, and turned away from the guards. No doubt they were laughing at me behind my back as I walked away, but there was nothing to be done about that. I moved on into a wide corridor, and stepped aside as a man seemed to angle directly at me.
"Good to see you again" he smiled a mouth of startlingly white teeth.
"Oh, and you too" I managed, assuming that it was someone whom Delgado must bump into from time to time.
"I'm not quite sure what you were doing the other night, though !" he laughed.
"Er", I said, still collecting my wits after my interview with Sir Edward.
"Funny place to meet you, I thought."
"Ah well," I shrugged, "Still, I must be on my way."
"As you say, as you say", he smiled widely once more, and then moved off.
Wondering what that was all about, I continued into the main section of the complex of underground palace and associated areas that made up the collective noun of 'court'. I nodded to a couple of people whom I vaguely recognised but did not have enough wits about me to remember who they were. I must be more shaken up from the events of the morning that I felt, I thought.
I emerged into a large concourse, several storeys high with a grand staircase curving its way upward on the opposite side. Near to me, a dark-wood desk stood like the check-in at an upmarket hotel, a smartly-uniformed woman behind it.
"Good day" I ventured.
"Good day, sir" she said automaticaly, then blinked, "Xavi !"
There was delight in her tone, and I forced a smile to my lips in acknowledgment of the fact,
"It is I. How are you ?"
"I am well" she said, a slight frown denting her features, "Are you too proud to ask after your son ?"
I started and looked around
"You better not be ashamed, Xavi" she said threateningly, "I can make things difficult for you."
"I would not recommend it", I brought one of Delgado's typical put-downs to my defence.
"Yes, so I heard" she too looked around, then bent low towards me, "Blowing up a bank is a bit low, even for you !" she hissed.
"How did you...?" I began.
"Everybody knows. Who else would be so..."
"Stupid ?" I suggested.
"I was going to say 'bold', Xavi."
I was getting tired of this, but my training was finally kicking in. She wore a name badge, black enamel upon gold, saying her name was Christina. I wondered if Delgado called her that, or Tina, or perhaps Chris...or Chrissie ? It was too much of a minefield to try.
"I came to the desk for information" I said, instead.
She stood up straight and pointed to the sign behind her,
"This is the right place then."
"Is the Duke of Mercia at court ?" I asked.
It was not what I had been going to ask, but I did not feel comfortable asking this woman who so clearly knew me so intimately questions that she would perhaps assume I should already know the answers to.
"His grace is in his office on the second floor" she replied without apparently having to look it up.
"Is he alone ?", I asked.
"I am not able..." she broke off, "How the Hell should I know, Xavi ?!" she snapped.
"If you say so.", I tried to force a leer onto my face, but wondered what sort of effect it was having.
"How dare you !"
"You know me" I shrugged.
She turned away and began sorting some papers into pigeon holes,
"I will tell our son you asked after him" she spat.
"As you will"
With some regret I moved away and took the stairs to the second floor, although given the grandeur and ornamental embellishment of the sweeping staircase 'took the stairs' was something of an understatement for the experience.
"Good morning, Mr Delgado.", an Indian man whom I knew I had never seen before paused in the corridor and nodded. I returned the nod, a fake smile upon my face, and then returned to the perusal of the noticeboard. At least this part looked simple; the offices of the Duke of Mercia were down at the far end, on the right. I began to make my way down there.

Twenty-Nine - February

Delgado was laughing, though I failed to see the joke.
"I am sure your performance was as good as Jemima says it was !" he laughed, leaning back upon the sofa, "Uncle Herman indeed !"
"Why did you kill Gonzaga ?" I asked, sipping at the glass of water that I had asked to be provided with.
"Luis ?", Delgado shrugged, "He knew too much, and he was going to use it against me."
"Blackmail ?" I asked.
"Jemima did some research for me, found out what he was up to. I pretended innocence, arranged to meet him in Toulouse."
"Why Toulouse ?"
"Why not ?" Delgado made an expansive gesture with one hand, "Luis was living in the South of France, so it seemed as good a place as any. From there we went down to the caves, and I shot him."
"Just like that ?" I was shocked, despite myself.
"There was not much point in dragging it out. There was nothing I needed to know, and I still had some feelings of friendship towards him - no need to prolong his agonies."
"And you hid the body ?"
"Down there the body more or less hides itself. I gave it a bit of help on its way, just in case."
"And who was the imposter from last night ?" I asked.
Delgado smiled triumphantly,
"I did not know until last night. There was sufficient resemblance to Luis that, had I not seen him for ten years, as he believed, I could have been taken in."
"So..." I pressed, taking another, longer swallow at the water, "Who was he ?"
"The name is unimportant" Delgado told me, "but you can have it if you like - Ramon Peres."
"That is not quite..."
"What you meant ?", Delgado agreed, "No, it was not. What you meant was who paid him, why did they want to kill me, that sort of thing."
"Yes, that sort of thing", my glass was now empty so I set it down upon the table beside me.
"Well, it complicates matters.", Delgado stated tangentially, "He was sent by Benito Lorenzo to collect on a debt, as he put it."
"For arranging matters in the Anya Neeters affair ?" I ventured.
Delgado stared at me, then clicked his fingers.
"Adolphus did not tell you that", he said.
"It is an inference" I admitted.
"We had to get the money to the assassin."
"I think you had to find the assassin first", I had spent some time ruminating on that issue.
"Maybe", Delgado was not going to add anymore. He rose to his feet and motioned for me to follow, "It is time you saw the files I have on the influential"
I followed him out of the room, and into a hithertofore unknown part of the maze. It seemed we had something else in common, too; a penchant for the production of files upon those we considered to be the major players. I thought back to the much scribbled-in notebook in my bedroom, and wondered quite what form Delgado's files would take.

Thirty - June

The Duke of Mercia was pleased to see me, and remained pleased longer than the first few minutes, which made a pleasant change that morning. We sat in his office, the secretary , who had been especially fawning on me, having been instructed to keep out any and all visitors.
"So, what news on our little venture ?", Sir Andrew Valance pressed.
I would have had a good answer, were it not for the events of that morning,
"I was supposed to meet Victoria an hour ago." I sighed.
"Supposed to ?" he looked a bit worried, "Did she not turn up ?"
"I expect she did", I shook my head and drank from the cup of coffee that the duke himself had poured for me, "I was unavoidably detained."
"That is not like you, Xavi." he spoke the truth.
"Apparently, someone blew up the Banco Andaluz last night, and the Lord Chamberlain thinks it was me. I had a rather rude awakening."
"Gosh", he sat back and pondered matters for a moment, "It was not you, was it Xavi ?"
"No" I protested, "With what I had planned for today, it would have not been the best moment to engage in a spot of exposive arson."
"I should think not", he wiped a brow that was suddenly bespeckled with sweat, "I take it that Sir Edward accepts your protestations of innocence ?"
I laughed harshly,
"He accepts only that there seem to be some holes in the story he has concocted of my guilt. I am banned from the emperor's presence for the moment."
"That is unfortunate", Sir Andrew was thinking simply of our joint venture together, but yes it was definitely unfortunate.
"I will have to prod the story again" I decided, "I will see if I can arrange lunch with Suzette Pargeter, get her to write another little piece for the Herald, breathe enough life into the story to keep it going long enough for me to get Victoria back onside."
"And hope that nobody blows up any more banks in the meantime !" he laughed at his own little joke.
"Yes, I will certainly hope that nobody does.", I put a personal stress on the penultimate word which caused him to look peculiarly at me for a moment, then he shrugged.
"My part still stands" he told me, looking a bit sour at the memory of what that part had been, "I certainly be doing that again, so do not mess this up anymore than it already is, Xavi."
"No, I will not", I sipped at the coffee and came to a decision. So what if he thought me odd for asking, he at least was one person who would not lie to me,
"Tell me what you know of my relationship with a woman called Christina who works on the Information desk below ?"
He spluttered over his coffee, then put the cup down rather than to spill it,
"If you wish me to, Xavi, if you wish me to."
"I do", I assured him.
So he did.

Thirty-One - March

Spring was at last in the air, and I walked in the gardens at the back of the apartments, looking at the daffodils and enjoying the riot of yellows.
"Tell me again", Sir Arthur urged, walking beside me, seeing only with his mind as he struggled with the role of teacher for the week. Adolphus was off, I knew not where, and Sir Arthur was filling in as well as he was able.
"Prince Michael is the Heir Apparent, eighteen years of age and currently away at university in Oxford. He is rumoured to have had affairs with several serving girls in the imperial palace and at least one illegitimate child, and at Oxford he numbers the only daughter of the Duke of Lomond amongst his conquests."
"Good, go on."
"Court rumour is off a match between Prince Michael and Princess Leonora of Tuscany."
"Tell me about her."
I smiled at the memory of the photographs,
"She is a very beautiful seventeen, renowned for it in the Grand Duchy and beyond. A body that would be best described as voluptuous, hair that is long and chestnut brown, eyes that are almond-like in every way...except probably their taste", I grinned.
Sir Arthur was not amused,
"And ?"
"She is the youngest daughter of Grand Duke Leopold, very intelligent and precocious with it since she was a small child. He dotes upon her, and well, he would not want her to be hurt by marrying a cad."
"Cad ?!" Sir Arthur spluttered, "You cannot go around calling the Heir Apparent a cad !"
"Can I say he is not one ?", I asked, all mock innocence.
"It would be best not to mention his name in connection with the word at all."
"As you say" I shrugged, "I think you understood what I meant."
"You meant that the Grand Duke could not bear to think of his daughter making an unsuitable match."
"Oh yes, so I did", I smiled.
Sir Arthur nodded and we reached the outer wall, turned to the left, and were soon heading back down the centre of the gardens, on the other side of the daffodils.
"So," he prodded, "Sum it up for me"
"His Imperial Majesty wishes for his eldest son to marry Princess Leonora of Tuscany. Prince Michael probably does not care too much whom he marries, as he is unlikely to change his ways, but when he sees her photographs he will be perfectly happy with the choice his father has made. Unfortunately, it will not be a good match for the girl, will sadden her father and well..." I broke off, "That is about it."
"On one level it is" agreed Sir Arthur.
"What other level is there ?"
At that moment the pre-dinner gong echoed tinnily from the radio receiver upon his belt and we headed down a sidewalk and across back into the apartment complex. Where Sir Arhur and food was concerned, conversation could always wait until afterwards...

Thirty-Two - June

The telephone woke me up again, and this time I was not in the best of moods by the time I had crossed the room to answer it,
"Yes ?" I snapped.
"A more correct answer than last time", he said.
"Who else would wake me up in the middle of the night ?" I asked.
"
 
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