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The Wolf in President's Clothing

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The Constantine Palace
Brisa, Eulycea

It was still early enough in the morning that the sun hadn't come over the mountains to the east. Instead, the whole sky was bright pink and filling the city streets with an expectant air for important business. But today was Saturday, so no important business would be carried out. Only the shopkeepers and distributors drove about at this early hour to beat the traffic and deliver their goods before stores opened for the weekend shoppers.

The Constantine Palace faced the western end of King Peter's Way, the broadest thoroughfare of the city, which at this moment was busy with fruit trucks and shop vans turning off the avenue's many side streets. With the keenness of hawks, the eyes of the palace guards—soldiers of the Royal Army's 1st Regiment of Foot—watched each and every one of these vehicles for any sign of suspicion. They paced down the building's roof, their brightly-striped uniforms half-concealed by the top of its facade. Others stood in the guardhouses posted every thirty meters or so down the curving sidewalk. The greatest concentration stood about the wrought iron gate to the palace's inner courtyard. The gate did well enough to stop pedestrians and the armed guards wandering tourists, but modern concrete bollards kept any vehicles from attempting to ram through and breach the ceremonial fortress.

The roar of a motor caught everyone's ears. The guards turned to see a navy blue sedan bobbing and weaving between trucks and vans, paying no heed to angry horns and gesture-throwing drivers. As it headed like a bat out of hell straight for the palace gate, the guards placed their hands on their rifles. The sedan charged on, engine revving as it shifted up again. If he didn't lay his feet on the brake in the next split-second, the driver would end up a red smear on the cobbled driveway before the palace gate, car totaled against the immovable bollards. With expert—or lucky—touch, however, he did just that. Tires screeched until the sedan's hazardous race was over. The luxury car had pulled to a halt beside the guardhouse, engine purring smoothly, bumper just a few meters from meeting the bollards.

The sedan's window rolled down. Out of the guardhouse filed the gatekeeper, nerves frenzied by the moment.

"State your business," he said a little more sternly than usual for guests of the king.
The driver yanked off his sunglasses and straightened his hair. He was wearing a nice suit and an even nicer watch on his wrist, which glistened in the morning sunlight as he tossed his identification at the guard. "Listen, I've got a meeting with the king," he spoke before his breath had caught up. "I'm Percy Arminger. I'm with The Times."
"The Times?" the guard asked.
"Yeah, of Eulycea. Can you let me through please?"
The gatekeeper turned and went into his little guardhouse, checking the digital ledger for scheduled visitors. Sure enough, Mister Arminger of the Times of Eulycea was due for a six o'clock audience with His Majesty, King Charles IV. The gatekeeper double checked the name and the photo on the identification, holding it up to his computer monitor. He had royal invitation to enter, but the guard was hardly satisfied with letting such a reckless man in. He returned Mr. Arminger his identification, then nodded to one of his comrades, who brought a guard dog to sniff around around the sedan. The shepherd dog stuck out its tongue and panted, just as exasperated as its handler to find nothing suspicious about the vehicle.

"Let him through," the gatekeeper ordered. He pressed a button on his own console and the bollards retracted. Two guards walked into the entry and swung the gate open. Mr. Arminger's sedan bounced over the cobbles and into the interior courtyard. He circled around the central fountain to a waiting valet at the far end from the gate.

Dressed in an even better suit than Mr. Arminger's, the valet strode up and opened his door for him.
"Your keys, sir," the valet put out his white-gloved hand.
Mr. Arminger obliged quickly. "Which door am I going in?"
The valet gestured to one of his fellow servants, just as impeccably groomed and dressed, who gave Mr. Arminger a small bow. "If you'd follow me, sir."

The entrance corridor alone was more finely-decorated and finely-kept than any room Arminger had ever seen in his life. B
The valet gestured to one of his fellow servants, just as impeccablroad mirrors lined the walls, which already bristled with master-carved accoutrements. Arminger adjusted his tie for the lump in his throat in one such mirror as they passed. The blue carpet, spotted with fleurs-de-lis, muffled their contented pace.

"Can't we walk a bit faster?" he asked the servant leading him down the hall. "I have to see him at six. I have to get back to the Times before printing at seven."

The servant only smiled politely. He stopped and knocked on the tall door beside them. It opened, and to Arminger's disappointment, a boy no older than twelve greeted them, dressed in an elaborate cream tailcoat and silk cravat. The boy bowed to Arminger and led him deeper into the palace. They walked down another hallway, passing every member and piece of the servile class: maids carrying fresh bed linens, manservants pushing dinner carts. Arminger balled his fists and picked up his feet as he walked, trying to rouse a more dignified air but only looking indignant. As a young journalist for the Times, he had more than a few words to say about the kingdom and how it was governed. This servant's passage and everyone in it, probably awake since four to attend to all the pampered needs of one rich family, spoke a hundred more volumes on the injustice of so-called "noble birth" than his weekly column ever could. The young page led Arminger up an ornate staircase to the second floor, where their pace slackened to a snail's.

Arminger groaned. "C'mon kid, I'm already ten minutes late—"
"Shh!" the page hissed him with a finger to his mouth. "Their Majesties are still in bed."
Arminger balked silently at the impolite motion from a serving boy, but carried on like a kicked puppy around another carpeted turn. They stopped at last at their destination. The boy knocked against the door very softly, as only to disturb the one inside and no other on the second floor.

"Come in," rumbled a man's voice from the inside.

The boy opened the door gingerly and motioned Arminger inside. Arminger's heels clacked against a hardwood floor. At the other end of a dining table for twenty-four sat Good King Charles, alone at this early morning hour, sipping coffee and scanning a messy spread of documents set on the table. His silk nightwear was still wrapped in a cashmere bathrobe embroidered with his initials. His feet sat snug in two slippers. His eyes glanced skeptically up from behind low-sitting glasses at his visitor.

"Mr. Percy Arminger, Your Majesty," the page announced before whispering to Arminger a stiff command: "Bow."
Arminger made a hurried, overly-pronounced bow, rising with cheeks flushed and a strand of blonde hair draped over his forehead. Once he had, he noticed that the boy was gone, slipped out the door they'd just entered, leaving him alone with the King of Eulycea.

The king's skeptical look gave way to a warm smile once he had surmised his guest. He returned his gaze to the pressing matters in the documents spread out before him.
"Please, Mr. Arminger, don't just stand there," he called, waving his hand without moving his head from the page. "Come here and have a seat."
Cowed, Percy obeyed and drew his seat at the table, beside His Majesty, who sat at the head.
"Would you like anything to drink? Coffee? Tea?"
"No, no thank you. Er, Your Majesty."
His Majesty shrugged off Percy's embarrassed lack of address and drove straight to why he'd invited the young man to the Constantine Palace.
"Tell me what the Press Office censors said to your bosses at the Times last night."
Percy gulped. "T-they said, your Majesty, that we couldn't run the Democratic League article."

The king hadn't looked Percy's way for the entire duration of their conversation so far, but suddenly his soft eyes looked him over quizzically. Percy realized that he was shaking before the king. He tried to steel his nerves with an iron grip around his own thighs.

Charles IV reached into the front pocket of his bathrobe and fished out two cigarettes from a pack covertly stashed there. From another pocket, he produced a silver lighter. He set down his coffee and offered a cigarette to Percy. Percy shook his head and opened his mouth to offer another polite apology, but Charles cut him off.
"Have a puff and calm your nerves. I'm only a king."

"Only a king," Percy's mind repeated bitterly, but he took the cigarette and leaned in to let Charles light it with his silver lighter. Percy made sure to blow his smoke down the table. "Thank you, Your Majesty."

His Majesty lit his own and spoke between puffs. "Now, what are your bosses planning to do about the censor?"
"Well, they've talked to the company's legal counsel, and the Free Coverage Act says we can publish an article about Mr. Albani's new Democratic League so long as we don't express outright approval."
For a little while, His Majesty said nothing. Then, he chuckled. "You political journalists must all have law degrees."
Percy offered a hasty smile.
"I have legal counsel of my own, you know. I'm sure you're acquainted, at least from your own coverage, with the King's Attorney, Baron Boniface de Lega."
"Of course, Your Majesty."
"He agrees with you. The government has no right to censor your coverage here."
Percy's eyes widened. He paid no attention to his cigarette, whose ashes fell onto the carpet. "Really?"
"And, for what it's worth, I agree with you as well," Charles continued. "I quite enjoy reading The Times, you know. It's no Republican rag, and it's not The Enquirer either. Usually you boys strike a good balance."
"Thank you, Your Majesty."
"But you must understand that Mr. Albani is attempting to challenge the constitution of this country, and the very foundations of its government."
"Of course," Percy said rather dismissively. Internally, he said to himself: "Isn't that the whole point?"
"The situation is more serious than you think. I don't believe his Democratic League will actually achieve anything on its own merits, but it's lulling Mr. Albani into a false sense of security, couched in so-called popular support. He may very well attempt something...drastic."

The king sipped his coffee. Percy said nothing, for he hadn't really considered Mr. Albani as anything more than a man of words before—certainly not as a man of action. Charles' wistful eyes turned to the golden pools of light drifting in from the tall windows to the city outside. The sun had finally come up over the mountains.

"In any case, I'll overrule the Press Office here. After all, if the article sits with me, then it must sit with my censors."
The king rose from his seat. Percy hurried from his own. His Majesty rang a little bell that had been sitting on the table. Within a few seconds, another page, dressed identically to the boy who had led Mr. Arminger in, entered and bowed.
"Would you show Mr. Arminger here out?" Charles asked. "And, while you're at it, collect my wife and daughter for breakfast?"
The page bowed again. "Of course, Your Majesty. Although, Her Majesty the Princess has gone out for the morning."
"Out? Where?"
"De Torres Street, Your Majesty," the page flashed a glance at Mr. Arminger, hesitating to continue.
Charles prodded him for more details. "Please. Mr. Arminger works for The Times, not The Royal Reporter."
"She's gone to have coffee with a...boy from university."
"Ah, yes, I remember her saying so at dinner. De Montedei or something like that."
He turned to Percy. "Well, Mr. Arminger. You may tell your bosses to go ahead with what they were planning to do anyway. But do remind them to be considerate of the consequences."

After the warmness His Majesty had shown in their brief meeting, Percy met the king's soft smile with a little more proper of a bow this time. "Yes, Your Majesty."


Edited by Eulycea (see edit history)
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