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The Jade Dragon

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CHOP shared a place with CHOSS down by the Old Docks, five minutes from Half Moon Street and no more than half a mile from the university as the seagull flies across the bay. Lebannen the Great had obviously been hot on law enforcement because it was one of the biggest, grandest, most over-decorated buildings in a city full of big grand over-decorated buildings. The man seemed keen not to lose track of his peace rune again: it was spattered all over the place, starting with a bloody great thing cast in bronze right over the main entrance. The seagulls used it for target practice.

I hadn’t darkened HQ’s door since the day the chief had tossed me out on my arse. It wasn’t the kind of experience you want to repeat. But he’d ordered me to report before the first hour was told, so I quit stalling and hauled myself through the archway just as the city’s hundred and one clock-towers began to blare their tinny tune out into the morning smog. Once I was inside it wasn’t so bad. It was quieter for a start. A few folk stared as I went past but mostly everybody was too damn busy to care. The décor hadn’t changed much in five years and the smell, that hadn’t changed at all. By the time I got to the top floor to be greeted by the chief complaining I was late, it felt like I’d never left.

The chief hustled that prissy woman-lieutenant out of his office, shut the door behind her and leaned on it. He looked terrible. He’d raked his fingers so many times through his grizzled hair it’d started to come loose from its queue, and his eyes were red under their thick black brows. It seemed safe to assume the young prince was still top of Havnor City’s missing persons list.

‘Tell me you’ve nosed out something useful,’ he said.

I didn’t think ‘not really’ would cut much ice, so I ran through what little I had. It didn’t take very long. I held back my big surprise to the end but the prince’s gift was old news to the chief. ‘So Malachite’s got to be top of the list,’ I concluded. ‘No sign of him across the bay at QSU. His dorm hadn’t been slept in.’

‘The palace guards picked him up a couple of hours ago climbing over the arboretum wall.’ I knew the part he meant. I’d been over it myself once or twice in my time. ‘I interviewed him personally before I came down here, and if he had anything to do with it he’s a better actor than I am interrogator.’ The chief was actually a better interrogator than you’d think from his namby-pamby attitude to the whole violence and intimidation schtick. He had a gift for cutting straight to the heart, to what made people tick. ‘He was suitably embarrassed to admit he’d spent the entire night at the Jade.’

‘Embarrassed? Proud, more like.’ The Jade Dragon sold itself as a nightclub. They had tables and a little dance-floor sure enough, but up its fancy stairs folks danced to a different tune, if you get my drift. If its reputation was any guide they hired some of the more inventive broads in town, not that a man like me could afford a look in. ‘What is he, sixteen? Seventeen?’

The chief nodded. ‘Seventeen. And before that, at the time when the prince actually disappeared, he was over a mile away at the Little Theatre – which my men confirm – at what he called “an avant garde reworking of the Deed of the Young King,” with, if you can believe it, Morred played by some Person of Kargish Heritage.’ The chief was the only man I knew who could spit that mouthful out with a straight face. ‘He claims his party included Prince Serpentine and the lords Bell and Raven.’ The keeper of the royal seal, the keeper of the keys and the head of the fleet. Quite a trio. ‘He’s friends with the playwright, apparently, and was hoping to squeeze some sort of municipal arts grant out of Lord Bell. We’ll have to check, of course, but if he’s suborned those three…’

‘You’d have a coup on your hands.’

‘And everything else seems quiet, thank Morred. Anyway, the story’s just too bizarre to make up.’ In my experience nothing was too bizarre to be made up, and a man like Malachite was bound to be skilled at spinning just the right blend of truth and lies to suit the ears of whoever was listening. ‘I’ve put in a formal request to the Ministry of Names for his logs, just to be on the safe side, on the grounds that he could be the next target. And if someone’s targeting the succession, he could well be.’

Malachite was only third in line to fill his grandpa’s boots, but his mother hadn’t set her dainty toes on Havnor Isle in years. That little royal problem fell squarely at the big flat feet of the officers of Hort Town.

‘Nothing says he didn’t hire someone,’ I said.

‘Nothing says you didn’t hire someone. Nothing says I didn’t hire someone. Nothing says anyone in the whole of Great Port didn’t hire someone.’ The chief was pacing up and down now, chopping the air with his hands in time with his words. ‘But the logs should help. If the Ministry agrees to hand them over.’

‘Will they?’

‘I’ve an appointment with Prince Serpentine as soon as he’s had his breakfast. If I can persuade him to support the request…’ He shrugged.

Serpentine had taken advantage of the king’s ‘indisposition’, as everybody always called it, to turn the keeper of the seal job into one of the most influential in the empire. The man was distantly related to the old queen, who’d been a princess in Shelieth before she was a queen in Havnor. The gossip columnists hinted he wanted an even closer relationship to the throne. They hinted at an awful lot of things in that kind of rag: you know the kind I mean, the kind best kept for wrapping round fish. Trouble was the things they hinted at usually turned out to be true.

‘Serpentine’s got to be on the list,’ I said. ‘Isn’t he making up to Coral?’

‘Everyone’s courting the royal princess. You’ve seen her. I’d be courting her if I weren’t almost twice her age.’ The chief could have been the subject of one of those sickly tales of marital bliss that crammed the pink pamphlets SPAM handed out on street corners and everybody else used for paper in the public toilets because they were too flimsy for wrapping fish. He’d been married to the same woman for close on four decades. I’d never met her but everybody who had agreed she was quite something.

The chief cut short his pacing and slumped down in a chair. ‘Let’s try another angle,’ he said. ‘Forget Coral. Forget Serpentine. Forget Malachite. Get back to the prince. Hope, I mean.’ This case had too damn many princes in it for my liking. ‘You know the story of his mother the queen?’

Everybody in the city knew that story, but I wanted to hear the chief’s version. ‘Humour me,’ I went.

The chief shot me a look from under those bushy black brows of his. He knew exactly what game I was playing, and he was just desperate enough to play along. ‘The old queen dies leaving three daughters,’ he began. There was a hint in his voice of that old-fashioned sing-song tone people sometimes put on when telling the old tales. ‘The king is distraught. He … seeks consolation.’

‘Don’t beat around the bush, Sedge. He couldn’t keep his prick in his trousers. Everybody knows that.’

He ignored me. ‘Several of his mistresses fall pregnant, but only one is said to be carrying a son. His son. The king marries her.’

‘And despite all the pomp, everybody knows she started out as a scullery maid.’

‘Do they? I suppose so. It was just before Chief Sycamore retired. I read his notes. He decided against having all the kitchen staff executed to keep the thing quiet.’ The chief screwed his face up like someone had snuck a slice of lime into his warm milk. I didn’t think he was rueing the missed opportunity. ‘And five or so months later the royal prince is duly born.’

‘You know they say he’s named Hope because the king hoped he was his?’

The chief winced. ‘Another daughter follows. The palace gives out that the queen’s slow to recover. She’s never appeared in public much. And then they give out that she’s died.’ He glanced up at me. So this was the part he hoped I didn’t already know. ‘And they ship her back to Karego-At.’ The sing-song lilt had all leached out of his voice.

‘I’d heard that rumour. Along with the rumour she’d been poisoned.’ And the rumour she ran as mad as her husband the king, and a dozen more besides.

‘But the bit you won’t have heard – or at least I sincerely hope not – is that someone puts her at the prince’s nameday celebrations. A reliable witness. One of my best informers, in fact. He’s worked at the palace for decades. Swears it was her.’

I whistled. He was right, that I hadn’t heard. ‘Back from the dead. Neat trick if you can pull it off.’

‘I’ve got everyone I can spare downstairs combing through what the Ministry’s coughed up on the prince. They’ll be at it for days.’ He sighed. ‘That bunch of bureaucrats won’t give you the time of day when the trumpets are telling it, and now they’re emptying out their filing boxes by the cartload! I’ve requisitioned a couple of Patterners to make some sense from the stuff, but they haven’t shown up yet.’ He sighed again. ‘But at first glance the only thing that sticks out is that he’s been paying visits to the Kargish Quarter. Without his guards. Two or three times at least since his nameday.’

‘So you think he’s been slipping his leash to pop down into Poxtown and visit his mum, like a good little boy?’

‘Perhaps. It’s hard to tell. Scarcely anyone in that part of the city has been properly named. Including the queen.’ He glared at me. ‘Religious reasons they say.’

‘He could’ve just been buying hereth spice,’ I said, mainly to change the subject. That was one tired old argument the two of us just hadn’t got time for this morning.

‘Or hazia-root.’ The chief hauled his bones out of the chair and propped himself by the window and stared out at the fog pressing against the pane as if it might give us all the answers if he only stared hard enough. He had the look of a man who wished his retirement party had been and gone. It was a bad look on a man who’d always loved his job.

‘I wish the Ministry had seen fit to inform me,’ he went after a while. ‘I could have had him followed. For his own safety, if nothing else.’

‘Did you tell them about the queen’s miraculous resurrection?’

It wasn’t a question he was meant to answer, and he didn’t. ‘Whatever the prince went in there for, someone might have recognised him. Followed him back.’

‘You’re thinking KLF?’

‘Or HFH. Or ARP. Or half a hundred others.’ He sighed yet again. ‘They’ve all got some sort of motive.’

The chief was right. Between the Kargish separatists who might want to do away with the heir to the throne in the name of self-governance from Awabath, the Havnorian xenophobes who’d do the same for the colour of his skin, the Poxtown crime syndicates out for ransom money to expand their line in hazia imports, and the Axis agents who might as well have come down from the moon for all anybody could ever fathom what they wanted, there was no shortage of suspects who didn’t have a drop of royal blood coursing through their veins. So why did my thoughts keep on turning back to Princess Coral?