THE CARNIOLA HOTEL
BRISA, THE KINGDOM OF EULYCEA
In the fifty years since the hotel’s ugly concrete first graced the Brisa skyline with all the charm of a cement mixer, the Grand Ballroom in the basement, with its more traditional furnishings—well-groomed carpets, intricately-shaped décor, and long, flowing curtains—had nonetheless made the hotel a fitting venue for countless events hosted by King Charles and his predecessor. Tonight, instead of the ruling monarch, a man in a fashionable tuxedo stepped out onto the stage to the polite applause of a seated crowd.
As he strode to the podium, he recalled a boyhood memory of watching some diplomatic event on the television at home between the king and his foreign guests, hosted in this very same chamber. He remembered marveling at the golden flutings on the ceiling that concealed the steel beams which bore the roof of this concrete cavern. Even now, between the stage lights that made his eyes squint and burn, he spotted and marveled at them again.
The irony of the moment was not lost upon him. Where kings had delivered addresses and met the leaders of the world, the newly-elected President of the Democratic League of Eulycea, Blaise Albani, now met his supporters. Thanks to the wonders of broadcast television, it was now his face on millions of screens in every city, neighborhood, and hamlet across the nation. Maybe someday, some little boy watching tonight would remember his speech in this beautiful ballroom. That little distracting memory helped him relax his nerves before delivering the most important speech of his political career thus far. He arranged his notes on the podium and began to speak.
PALACE OF SAINT GREGORY
BRISA, THE KINGDOM OF EULYCEA
“—Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests, representatives of the people who have no voice in this country’s government,” the honeyed voice of Blaise Albani filled the quiet room. The balding man centered in the room behind an imposing desk put down the bland report he had been reading and looked to the television opposite him.
“I have to begin by thanking the leadership of the Christian Democratic Party of Eulycea, the Democratic Party of Eulycea, the Youth Party, the Green Party, and the Socialist Party of Eulycea for electing me to this most important position. I thank them because they have given me the opportunity to speak to all those here tonight and watching at home—they have given me the opportunity to say I will serve you, the people of Eulycea. No man can serve you who hasn’t been chosen by you!”
The television thundered with applause at these last few forceful words. The man watching at the desk retrieved a cigarette from his shirt pocket. The blue smoke that swirled across the room with each slow breath did less to obscure the annoying picture of that gleeful demagogue and more to water the man’s weary eyes. He had been working since eight this morning, and would not likely be with his wife for dinner tonight, given how many papers stacked up on his desk he still had to approve.
The man dashed a few ashes into a crystal tray and rubbed his yawning mouth. “If only he knew how much more work the public servant has besides giving speeches,” he muttered towards the television.
A knock rang against the mahogany door across the room. The man sighed in relief that he had an excuse beyond his own irritation to turn off Albani’s speech. As soon as he had done so, the door swung open and a colorfully-uniformed page stepped inside the office. He bowed low to the man at the desk, who replied with a silent nod.
“Your Majesty, the Director of Ambroi House is here to see you,” the page said.
“Very well.” He gestured for the page to show her in.
The page bowed again and strode back out. A moment later, a woman in a fashionable suit appeared and curtsied before the King of Eulycea.
“I must apologize for keeping Your Majesty,” she said.
“Not at all, Michelangela,” Charles replied to his director of intelligence. “Tonight was going to be a working night besides our scheduling conflicts. What do you have for me?”
The woman smiled politely at the king’s forgiveness and took a seat in front of his desk. He finished his cigarette while she gave her weekly report of the kingdom’s intelligence service. As it always had, it featured the religious radicals which had opposed the Christian kingdom since its establishment by those crusaders under Charles’ ancestor Bartholomew. In the past week a small cell of fundamentalists had cropped up deep in the hinterlands near Mount Tarsus.
“What are you doing about them?” Charles asked.
“My operations director, Scutari, has begun refocusing the efforts of our informants in the area towards information about this cell. He says within the month we will have their size, their identities, and their meeting location.”
“What will you do then?” he said as he scrutinized Ms. Palaroi.
“We will embed agents within the cell and certify our informants’ claims,” she answered with a hint of exasperation, like she was speaking to a preschooler and not the King of Eulycea.
Charles’ brow furrowed ever so slightly. Her teeth always seemed to show around the corners of her lips, like she was grinning even when she was deadly serious. Her dark, penetrating eyes made that grin as sinister as a shark’s. He always felt guarded around his intelligence director, though he supposed that made her good at her job.
“If Your Majesty permits it, we would then proceed to eliminate the cell and the threat it represents to the kingdom,” she concluded.
“Are you certain this isn’t some group of underground worshipers, and not a security threat?”
“Yes, we are certain it is a security threat. Underground worshipers, Your Majesty, are still security threats even if they aren’t actively planning anything. They breed radicals.”
She said her final pronouncement so plainly that, while unsubstantiated, it still had some air of authority. Not enough authority, however, for a king, or any thinking person at that rate, to overrule.
“Underground worshipers aren’t enough of a security threat to be ‘eliminated,’” said Charles. He watched her momentarily tense her jaw at his disagreement, but it disappeared as quickly as it came. “I will sign off on your agents collecting evidence for a criminal investigation by the police, but no extraordinary action will be required by your directorate.”
She nodded. “Of course, Your Majesty. The final plan will be sent here to be approved in the morning. That is all for today.”
“Very well. Good night, Michelangela.”
“Good night, Your Majesty.”
He didn’t turn the television back on. Queen Margaret would relate the highlights of Albani’s speech to him over dinner. He rose from the unfinished business on his desk and departed his office not long after his intelligence director.
The thought of Ms. Palaroi’s grin still gave him shivers.
THE CARNIOLA HOTEL
Blaise Albani rode both an emotional rollercoaster and the elevator back to his suite on the twenty-ninth floor. The speech had been wildly successful—his aides had been watching the television ratings soar all night—but it left his knees too exhausted and his nerves too wired afterwards to rub more shoulders with the party bosses in the Grand Ballroom. He had done enough drinking and schmoozing with them beforehand to secure a majority of their votes. Now that he had their votes, it didn’t matter if he didn’t flatter their policies tonight. The tides of democracy were rising in Eulycea, and Blaise Albani could afford to float comfortably while it raised him up to dethrone the king.
Two suited guards at the doors to his suite nodded their salute. He smiled and entered, heading straight for the minibar. Drinking was always more fun in private. He didn’t have to worry about the liquor spilling what he really thought of his political allies--of the people he was forced only by desperate necessity to
“I even have to socialize with socialists,” he complained to himself, more bitter than the whiskey he now nursed. He leaned against the window, watched the city lights glitter below, and felt the alcohol wash over his nerves.
He looked at his watch: five past nine. His face flushed in alarm when he remembered, besides the minibar, why he really excused himself from the Grand Ballroom. He had a meeting with her at nine o’clock. But then he relaxed, placed his head back against the wall. She was the late one here.
The phone rang on the coffee table. He walked over and answered. “Hello?”
“Mr. Albani,” one of his guards greeted him. “There’s a man here to see you.”
Albani blinked. “A man?” he asked.
“Yes sir, a man,” the guard repeated. “He says his name is Michelangelo.”
That wasn’t right. She said she would be here, Albani thought to himself. Who was this man? How had he even gotten up to the twenty-ninth floor? How had he not been turned away by his security detail yet? And why was he using her name?
There were only two conclusions Albani could reach. Either the man was with her, or he knew of her secret meeting with Albani. The first annoyed him. The latter made his heart race with panic. He swallowed and made up his mind.
“Show him in. But come in yourselves and watch him.”
The doors to the suite opened. A young man as tall and thin as a beanpole entered, though his suit was hardly ill-fitting. That would be too conspicuous. Albani knew the boy was here for clandestine business.
“Congratulations on your speech,” he greeted Albani warmly, extending his hand. As Albani shook it, the young man paused, waiting for the doors behind him to close and conceal the subject of their conversation. He continued in lower tones, eyes glancing sideways at the guards who had entered with him.
“My boss says she’s sorry she can’t make it tonight. I have a message from her to give you, but it’s for your ears only.”
Albani looked the young man over. His eyes were untrained in this personal security sort of thing; he couldn’t tell if the boy was armed. He wasn’t trained to fight off an assailant either. All he had was whiskey in his veins to put up a fight if the guards weren’t around to protect him. But Albani liked to gamble, and like any gambler, he believed in the old fallacy. He had already put in enough risk agreeing to meet; he figured her message was worth a little more.
He motioned for the guards to leave. Reluctantly, the bulky men slipped back out the doors to man their post outside. Albani and the young man took their seats on the center couches.
“Thank you for trusting me. My name is Fabrice Scutari. I’m operations director for Ambroi House. As you already guessed, my boss is Director Palaroi.”
“Why isn’t she here?” Albani grunted.
“Affairs of state, I’m afraid,” Scutari replied. “She had to give Good King Charles his weekly intelligence briefing, and this was the only time their schedules allowed.”
“He works this late?”
“He’s rather diligent. Makes him easier to distract with talk about fundies in the mountains,” Scutari shrugged.
Albani returned to the point of his prior question. “I agreed to this meeting on the condition I’d be speaking with the king’s own intelligence director.”
“You are, in some respect. She entrusted me as her representative. I know what she has to offer you.”
“Go on,” Albani waved his empty glass.
“She has a few terms first. She wants a reward for what she’s got to give. Once you take power—with the help of what she’s given you, of course—she wants to be the Interior Minister.”
“To full control of both the police and intelligence services, yes. I would take her spot as Director of the...well, it wouldn’t be the Royal Intelligence Directorate, but whatever its equivalent is in the government you form.”
“So that’s how she got you to represent her tonight,” Albani surmised.
Albani rose and poured himself another drink. He raised the bottle, asking if Scutari wanted some whiskey himself. The young man shook his head. Albani returned to the couch, threw back another gulp of alcohol, then spent a few moments staring into his reflection in the liquor. This woman and her subordinate wanted hefty spoils. He could take solace in their competence; they were certainly going to be more suited to the Interior Ministry than any political appointment he’d be forced to make once the Democratic League had forced the king out of politics. Yet the deal wasn’t that easy to accept. Here Scutari and Palaroi were, in a suite on the twenty-ninth floor of The Carniola, betraying their boss for something as small as a promotion in the bureaucracy. Albani shuddered, realizing there was a strong possibility they would betray him once he was in power, if they saw the opportunity for self-gain.
“It depends on how good the information is that she has to offer,” Albani ultimately decided.
Scutari cocked his head to the side. “Information?”
“That’s what Palaroi said she had for me. Information.”
Scutari chuckled. Even if it came from a baby face who still looked freshly-graduated from university, it carried the same malevolent undertones Palaroi herself had in that toothy grin of hers.
“Well, I guess it is information in a sense. She can tell you of a potential plan. But she’ll only execute it with your permission—and your guarantee of reward.”
“What plan?” Albani ventured.
Scutari leaned forward in his seat conspiratorially. “She and I can make the whole task of dethroning the king that much easier for you. It’s as simple as regicide.”
Albani spat out his drink onto the plush carpet. “You can’t be serious!” he exclaimed.
Scutari said nothing.
“My God, you actually mean it.” Albani rubbed his temples. “You’re crazy. You’re both crazy.”
“Not crazy. Reasonable.”
“Even if you kill King Charles, there’s still two kids—two heirs out there,” Albani countered. “Prince Charles will simply become King Charles V. Once they find out it was you behind it, you’ll be hanged.”
“You’re going to doubt how much thought we put into this?” Scutari growled. He rose and strode over to the window, taking a look at the city for himself. He spoke to his reflection’s sneer rather than to Albani.
“In this city, there hasn’t been a single terrorist attack in fifteen years because of what our directorate does. What Michelangela and I, and all the agents in operations, have done. We’ve stopped every fundie and every wacko trying to bomb a train or shoot the king. There’s been dozens of attempts. There’s been dozens of would-be terrorists. They’re all dead or imprisoned, and not a single person down there knows their names. We are so f*cking good at our job because we think through how we’re going to kill a person. Or a family.”
Albani glanced towards the doors, starting to long for escape. He really hoped Scutari wasn’t armed now.
“They won’t figure out we were behind it,” Scutari continued. “You will be in power, and there won’t be an investigation. Charles and the whole family—Charles Jr., Margaret, Princess Lily, even Christina—they’re all boarding a plane for Ristua at the end of the week. One little missed maintenance check, or one fundie-sympathetic pilot, and we can bring down the Kingdom of Eulycea. If anyone will be blamed for it, it’ll be the ground crew or an insane pilot. You will express sympathy to those grieving, but announce that clearly this country cannot go on with John the Drunk in charge. The country will have no choice but to back the Democratic League.”
Albani rubbed his mouth. It was well thought-out. It solved the problem of chasing every poll of approval. It solved surviving a national plebiscite. Most importantly, it brought down the time scale for democratic revolution in Eulycea from years to days. Yet there were so many things that could go wrong. What if Prince Charles and his wife Christina didn’t board the plane with his father? What if Lily Adrienne didn’t skip her university classes for this trip to Ristua? What if someone was sick, and the trip was canceled? What if someone discovered the sabotage before they took off? What if some investigator just thought it was a little too convenient for the entire royal family of Eulycea to die in a plane crash the same week the Eulycean Democratic League was formed?
He took another swill of whiskey. There was a lot of risk, but Albani was a gambler. For this much of a jackpot, even a lot more risk was worth it.
“Fine. Do it.”
“What was that?” Scutari turned and approached Albani, who was still seated on the couch.
“You have my permission...” Albani trailed off. He stared back at himself in the drink, wondering what he was doing. “...to kill King Charles and the royal family.”
Scutari nodded, and extended his hand. Albani half-heartedly shook it. When he looked up, he shrank with alarm once he saw the pistol that Scutari had in his other hand, pointed at Albani.
“I-I agreed! We had a deal!” Albani stammered.
“We have something better. We have a plan.” Scutari, entirely too pleased with himself, placed the gun back in his coat. “If you hadn’t agreed to it, I would have had to kill you for knowing it.”
Albani gulped and nodded. Scutari stepped away and towards the door. Before pulling it open, he bode good night to the frightened man.
“We won’t be in touch, Mr. Albani. But if you forget about the Director and I once you become a real President...” Scutari tapped his breast, where the inner pocket and the gun was. “Well, you know what we can do.”
Scutari rode the elevator down from the twenty-ninth floor to the sub-basement parking lot. He stepped into the passenger’s seat of a black sedan. In the driver’s seat, Michelangela Palaroi sipped her coffee.
“So, did you get him to say yes?” she asked.
“I convinced him with my youthful, charismatic idealism and then he nearly shit himself once he saw I had a gun.”
“Did you get it?” she repeated.
Scutari fished out his phone from his breast pocket, beside his sidearm. He tapped to stop recording, then tapped again to start playback.
“Fine, do it.” The voice was less-than-honeyed, but it was unmistakably Blaise Albani’s. Even a little boy watching his earlier speech on television that night could tell it was Albani’s voice.
“What was that?” a voice much closer to the microphone asked.
“You have my permission...to kill King Charles and the royal family.”
Palaroi grinned. “Thank you, Mr. President.”