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The Jade Dragon

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My new boss handed me a miniature of an olive-skinned kid with a long narrow nose and the solemn expression of a goat cornered in a flowerbed. ‘This is the best picture of the prince we’ve been able to find,’ he said. I’d never clapped eyes on the prince but his ugly mug had frowned up at me from countless plates of corn chips at the Crown & Anchor down the docks. ‘The king is … indisposed, but the royal princess has condescended to grant you an immediate audience. My lieutenant will give you all the details, not that there are very many. Good luck.’ The chief slapped me on the back, and excused himself hastily. I didn’t blame him. He had a lot on his mind, and interviewing Princess Coral wasn’t likely to come up with any leads, not any fresh ones at least.

The lieutenant was new since my time. The thing the chief hadn’t said was that he was a broad. That was new since my time too. Not broads on the force, somebody had to make all the tea and file all the paperwork and comfort all the grieving widows. Making lieutenants out of them. She was young and sour and mannish with an accent as scratchy as an old biddy’s paper doily and a figure like one of those fake ivory table lamps that kind of old biddy collects, curves in all the wrong places. She was also so far out of her depth she could have been walking along the seabed, and if the dame didn’t wise up quick, she soon would be. She did manage to use that lah-di-dah voice of hers to fill me in on time and place – last logged just gone fourth hour in some backstreet near the university whose inhabitants were no doubt enjoying their late night visit from the CHOPs quite as much as I had – and she handed over a letter signed by the king. On the face of it, the paper gave me royal authority to go anywhere, talk to anyone and requisition anything at will. I tucked it in my belt pouch. Might come in handy, though these things often came with a catch. In this case, the catch might as well have been printed across the top in flashing mageletters. Not even I was dumb enough to say it out loud, but everybody knew the king was as mad as a spring salmon all the year round. On the whole I preferred to put my trust in the ten in ivory she doled out as an advance on my wages.

A pair of pageboys turned up to cut short the woman’s blathering. They were as alike as if they’d been ordered as a matched set. They probably had. The audience chamber they showed me into had probably looked more impressive before all the gold leaf on the grapes and scrolls and assorted twiddly bits had been stripped off by some contractor in too much of a hurry to bother about scratching the plasterwork. Then the duo folded away part of the wall and I realised I was just standing in some piddling antechamber. The real hall had been put together to impress folk a darned sight harder to impress than me, and the man who’d done it had known his business. The princess was sitting in a window seat on the far side of the room, across a couple of miles of marble inlay. The nails in my boots made quite a racket as I trekked across the stuff.

When I got close enough to make her out, I saw that the princess was one of those women for whom men killed. In my experience, they came in two kinds: the ones who lived to make men bend to their will, and the ones who stood like stone while the world burned around them. So, was the princess a manipulator or a statue? The longer I stood there waiting for her to move a muscle the more I leaned towards statue. From the scraps of royal protocol that’d stuck in my head, sneaking a peek was a lot less likely to book you a one-way ticket to the Reaches than getting the first word in, so I made the most of the opportunity to look her up and down. I was heading southwards from the slender neck when the statue spoke.

‘Officer … Bittern, I believe.’ Her subtle emphasis on my rank suggested she knew just how long the shiny badge had been hanging from my cloak – that and the slight secretive smile that crept into the corners of her generous lips. It was certainly no welcome mat. ‘How might I assist you in your investigation?’

I’d wondered that myself. When the number one suspect was a princess, you could hardly ask whether they’d popped their little brother into an oubliette. I settled for a bland, ‘When did you last see the prince your brother?’

‘At his nameday celebration.’ That was three weeks ago. There’d been street parties for five days to mark the prince turning thirteen. My neighbours had roasted a pig and invited me to share the feast. It was the last time I’d eaten meat. ‘We are not close, Anthar and I.’ She pronounced the prince’s Kargish name with a hard ‘t’, which lent the word an unfamiliar tint. ‘Two decades is quite a barrier to familial intimacy, and the boy takes his studies commendably seriously.’

‘He still keeps quarters in the palace?’

‘Of course, in the Old Quadrangle, adjacent to the king my father’s rooms. A servant will take you there should you wish to examine them. But I believe he usually chooses to sleep in the university dormitory.’

‘With his friends?’

‘I know nothing of his present associates. The Chamberlain’s Office will be able to give you a list of all the noble families who have resided at court recently.’

I pulled out the miniature the chief had given me. ‘This a recent likeness?’

She glanced at it. ‘It’s a copy of the nameday portrait my father commissioned.’

‘Is it accurate?’

‘It’s a recognisable likeness. Somewhat flattering, as is the custom with such portraits.’

‘Flattering?’

‘Anthar is rather … paler than that portrays.’ She reached up one perfectly moulded arm to adjust the comb in her hair. It was the first time she’d stirred. Her skin in the lamplight was the colour of ripe chestnuts. ‘Is there anything else, officer?’

‘Not for now.’ I took my leave. ‘Just one thing,’ I said, turning back as the pageboys were opening the door. ‘Prince Malachite. Is he at court?’ If the princess was my number one suspect, her young nephew came in at number two.

‘I believe he is.’ The trick of projecting the voice effortlessly across airy chambers was clearly right next to sitting for hours as if carved from stone on the curriculum at princess school. ‘As I said,’ she continued, ‘the Lord Chamberlain’s staff will be able to assist you with whatever you should need. Goodnight, officer.’

I hadn’t put a dent in the princess’s serenity. I hadn’t expected to. But she had given me something, more in the words she’d left out than in those she’d put in. The prince. My brother. My father’s son. The heir to the throne. Even the Hardic form of the prince’s name: Hope. The princess had no intention of letting Lebannen VII ascend to the throne of their forefathers. And, more to the point, she didn’t give a flying fuck who knew it. Even when the kid had disappeared into the mists of Havnor City. Either she had nothing whatsoever to do with the abduction, if abduction it was, or else she had some very powerful protectors.

I figured I’d better look in on the prince’s quarters while I was here. Save another trip up the hill if the princess turned out to have been wrong about where her only brother was spending his nights. They’d have been searched already, of course, but the beat CHOPs were paid to have no imagination. That’s why they needed me. All that guff the chief had spouted about the king’s command was just that, guff. He’d never have handed me back my badge if he didn’t trust me to do something useful with it. Trouble was, in a case like this, he might well turn out to have a use for a fall-guy, or a corpse. Or both, my tired brain insisted on adding. At least the city would pay for my funeral, either way.

The security round the Old Quad was impressive. Even with the princess’s twins dogging my every step, my royal pass was looking decidedly crumpled and not a little grubby before I made it to the main gate. And there, not even a letter signed by the king himself was enough to save me from a weapons search by a Finder, and an accredited one at that. No doubt every other Accredited Finder in the city, and by first light half the bloody island, must have hit the streets doing whatever it was that Finders did. All the unaccredited ones would be out trying their luck as well: a quick route to accreditation if one’s luck proved good—not to mention yet another motive. The corridor off which the king slept, or paced, or ranted, was so packed with palace guards I felt a bit like a spring salmon myself. The chief must have remembered just how much I hated crowds. He’d left orders that the prince’s rooms were to be sealed, and Officer Bittern was to be allowed in alone. All it took was a drop of blood on some new-fangled device out of the Ministry of Names, all whirring brass cogs and winking coloured lights, ‘just to confirm your identity, sir,’ and I was in.

In wasn’t what I’d expected. For a start the ceiling was low enough I kept ducking at all the beams. There was more furniture per square foot of polished oak floor than anywhere I’d ever set foot in before. It reminded me of one of those little antiques and collectibles places in the River Quarter, you know the sort I mean. One of those shops where a guy like me wandering in off the street would get the proprietor sending his boy for the nearest CHOP. It was the kind of room that would have been gloomy if it hadn’t been for all the magelights and would have been dusty if it hadn’t been for all the servants. As it was, everything was polished to such a shine that the light bounced round and round and round like a bat trapped in a room with a candle. It was enough to make a man’s eyes cross even if he hadn’t been woken in the middle of the night by a couple of goons.

I plopped myself down on the nearest couch and sucked my finger till it stopped threatening to add little brown polka dots to the striped cream on cream silk. Not the colour scheme I’d have picked out for a thirteen year old boy, but what did I know, I’d never had kids. None that anybody had bothered telling me about, at least. I cast around for something to put my feet up on, but the low tables within reach all had fancy inlay or marquetry tops, and even I wasn’t uncouth enough to put my boots on something like that. So I just breathed out slowly and tried to stop all the little cogs in my brain from whirring, and just be. Tried to let the room tell me what it wanted about the boy who’d lived here once. Anthar. Hope. But if his spirit had ever lingered here it’d been scrubbed away by the cleaners and rubbed away by the polishers till there was nothing left. Wherever the prince was, it wasn’t here. There wasn’t a lot of point in me hanging around either, so I took the cable down the hill to the waterfront.