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The Jade Dragon

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I: The Missing Prince

The first thing I noticed that night, the night this whole mess started, was that the chief looked exhausted, even more exhausted than I felt. ‘Bittern,’ he said. That’s my name all right. ‘Good,’ he said. And that’s where he went wrong. Nothing good ever started from being woken in the middle of the night by a couple of goons and dragged up to the palace for questioning. Nothing good ever came from trusting Bittern to save the day. And this damn case was no exception.

Never work with dames or pocks, my old man used to say, and if he didn’t bother to slap dragons on the list it was because they no more existed than the Nameday Fairy. Now I’m expecting her to come tap-tap-tapping at my office door with some damn fool tale of missing presents and oh, by the way, the end of the world.

But back then I didn’t know any of that. Back then I barely knew anything at all. Back then I was dumb enough to be glad it was the chief on the far side of the table and not some jumped-up punk who figured a beak like mine was just begging to be broken…

‘Bittern,’ said the chief. ‘Good. Sit down. What took you so long?’

I pulled up a chair in the pool of magelight and tipped the thing back as nonchalantly as I could manage with the light playing silly buggers with my eyes. It wouldn’t fool the chief for an instant but it might annoy his sidekicks, and they were the kind of guys it was a pleasure to annoy. ‘I was in bed,’ I said. It was true and the chief always liked truth.

The chief waved his men out. ‘Just after midnight? I hope she was pretty.’ He didn’t illustrate the point with his hands the way most men would. The chief wasn’t like that. He lived for his job. He never made small talk. Which was why this conversation was making about as much sense as a bunch of red roses on a stall down the fish market.

‘In bed and asleep.’ That was true too. There wasn’t a broad in the city with bad enough taste to go for a guy like me, unless she wanted something besides the obvious. And that’s where I drew the line. My talents were for hire, sure, but payment in anything but gold or ivory was strictly by negotiation.

‘I thought you’d given up on sleep, gone for hazia-root.’

‘I’m clean. Been clean for months now.’ Actually it was two years and change, but a man’s drug habits were nobody’s business but his own.

‘You mean you’ve run out of cash, and no-one but a fool would give a man like you credit.’

‘You didn’t have two of your finest haul me out of bed gone midnight and drag me up here to hash over old times, Sedge.’ If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought he was sounding me out for a job. But the chief hated drugs. He’d sworn he’d never give me work again, and he never went back on his word. ‘Get to the point, if there is one, or I’m off back to bed.’ I sat up straight and scraped my chair across the stone floor to show I meant business. But he’d hooked me by then. I wouldn’t have left even if the two goons hadn’t still been standing right outside the door.

The chief looked at me then, right at me, the way folk rarely bother to do with a washed-up old wreck like me. He looked even wearier than before, wearier than a man with a conscience as clean as his had any right to look. Then he nodded, just the once. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘There’s a case. You’ll know soon enough. The entire city will know. The prince has gone missing.’

‘He’ll be out partying somewhere,’ I said. ‘Home before daylight. Even you must remember what being a student—’

‘No, really missing. The Ministry swears he’s alive, but there’s no trace of him anywhere.’

‘No trace of him in the city?’

‘No trace of him in all of Earthsea.’

‘You’re joking,’ I said, but he shook his head, and anyway, the chief never joked. ‘That’s impossible.’

‘Apparently not.’

‘They’re having you on. And I thought those Ministry flunkies had no sense of humour—’

‘That’s what I thought at first. But they’ve sworn by their true names he simply isn’t showing up anywhere. I know terrified men when I see them, and they were terrified.’

‘What’s it to me?’

‘The king’s asked for you. By name.’

‘I’m surprised he’s remembered it.’ Frankly I was surprised he’d remembered anything.

‘You made an impression on him.’

‘What’s it to me?’ I repeated. I’d have tipped the chair back again but I didn’t fancy what all that cold stone on the floor might do to the back of my head.

‘Have you no loyalty left?’ He made a little clenching move with his hand and if it’d been anybody but the chief my nose would have been history, for sure. ‘Does the fact the king has asked for your help – begged for it, actually – mean nothing to you?’ He said it as if he was genuinely baffled. ‘You swore an oath once, Bittern.’

‘You threw me onto the fucking street!’

‘I could overlook you coming in late. I could even overlook you not turning up at all. For days. Weeks. But to turn up at headquarters spaced out of your head on that bloody root!’ The chief never swore. ‘What did you expect me to do!’

The man had a point. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘So I swore an oath once.’

‘Do you need me to remind you that your oath can only be rescinded by death?’

‘Is that a threat?’

‘Fuck you, Bittern, I’m offering you your old job back! All the usual terms. At least until the prince is found.’

The chief pushed the familiar silver badge across the table towards me. The rowan flanked by arrows beneath the crown. I rubbed my thumb back and forth over the branches a few times and then pinned the damned thing to my cloak. And that was it. I was a City of Havnor Officer of the Peace again.