" - and I really don't think that this Council's valuable time should be wasted on a trivial act of juvenile vandalism," concluded Cedric, with a pointed look at Charon, who kept his expression carefully neutral while observing the reactions to Cedric's little speech.
Dowon was frowning, either because he disagreed or (more likely) because he disapproved in general of anything that smelled of people letting their personal feelings colour their political decisions. He was said to care for only one thing, and that was Avalon. Nothing and nobody else mattered, which meant Charon was usually able to count on him for support.
Giselle looked slightly uncomfortable, probably because she hadn't been at Court to witness Charon, Max and Pain's somewhat dramatic return three weeks ago. She'd have heard about it, naturally, but rumors were a poor substitute for having been there in person. On top of that, Giselle's family was one of the oldest in Avalon, and fairly conservative as a result. Charon's relationship with Pain would not have won him any favor-points with them.
Tamsin, interestingly, looked at the King. Normally, the royal presence counted for little during these meetings; although in theory, the King was the head of the Council, in practice, that thankless task was mostly left to Charon, with Cedric grumbling he was taking unfair advantage of his position but never too loudly, because everyone knew there wasn't any truth to the accusation. Neither Tamsin nor Dowon would ever allow Charon to get away with it - nor to let Cedric accuse him of doing so too openly.
"Someone blew up Charon's Athena-blessed office!" Max exploded, jumping to his feet angrily. "How is that an act of 'juvenile vandalism', you goblin-hugging moron?"
Dowon's frown deepened. Giselle coughed. Tamsin turned to look at Max for a few seconds, before looking at Cedric. Charon closed his eyes and wished he was sitting close enough to Max to kick him.
"Well, it's not as if the attack was directed at the Prime Minister, is it?" Cedric replied with a studied calmness that told Charon quite plainly that Cedric had planned out this whole scene. Unfortunately, there was no real way Charon could step in without playing right into Cedric's hands. And the only people able to intervene seemed quite content to see things play out by themselves.
"Like the netherworld it wasn't!" snapped Max.
"One has to confess to a certain confusion," murmured Giselle. "Given that Charon is, after all, the Prime Minister, any attack on him would seem to be, by extension, an attack on the Prime Minister as well. Perhaps you'd care to enlighten me - us - as to your statement, Cedric?"
Dowon nodded approval. Tamsin looked slightly taken aback, by which Charon concluded that this meeting wasn't quite going the way he'd been given to expect.
"While it's true that Charon is the Prime Minister, his position has got nothing to do with the reason for the attack," Cedric started, and Charon forced himself to keep on breathing calmly. "That reason being, of course, his scandalous relationship with the Royal Inspector, which is a purely personal aspect of his life, and not one this Council ought to concern itself with."
"Unless, perhaps, to officially disapprove of it, eh?"
Dowon looked pensive, Tamsin surprised, Giselle uncomfortable (again) and Cedric in between smug and confused, which was a bit of a comfort to Charon. Clearly, Cedric hadn't expected any kind of royal support - if support it was.
"That would be certainly possible, I suppose," Cedric hazarded. The King gave him a friendly nod. "Yes, that would most definitely seem ... possible."
"Unusual," commented Dowon.
"Unprecedented," scowled Tamsin.
"Uncalled for, surely," opined Giselle.
The King beamed at her. "From the mouths of women and fools ... yes, indeed. Cedric, you're an idiot. Minister Camaxtli, you're out of line. Dowon, you're boring and Tamsin, so are you. Lady Giselle, you're a treasure." She blushed. "Charon, you're my Prime Minister and your enemies are the enemies of Avalon. Find out who's behind the attack and kick their asses, will you? Is it time for lunch yet?"
Max sat down again, deflated. Charon smoothly rearranged the papers in front of him, pretending he'd never had the least doubt of the King's eventual decision. "There's still a few matters left to discuss, your highness."
"Oh, fine." The King yawned and made a waving gesture. "Get on with it, will you?"
" 'He's mine, so back off,' " read Max. " 'Nobody could love him as much as I do'. Well, that's sweet. Smells like roses, too - have you had this checked for poison yet?"
"No, I just thought I'd give it to you and see if you dropped dead," Charon replied absently.
Max paled, then grimaced. "Oh, ha, ha. Very funny."
"It's a very popular perfume - expensive enough to be considered high-class but just cheap enough to be affordable to most of the ladies of the Court," Charon continued. "I've spoken to the perfumer - he's given me a list with the names of people who've bought a bottle of the stuff during the past month, but I'm not holding my breath."
"You can't arrest someone simply for buying a bottle of perfume," agreed Max. "Anyone we know on that list? Like, oh, I don't know, any relatives of Cedric's?"
"No, and if you want to do me and yourself a favor, you're not going to make any more comments like that, to anyone."
"It was just a joke," Max defended himself. "He wouldn't have the guts, anyway. A pity, in a way - a charge of attempted murder would be sure to get him off my back for good."
Charon gave him a look. Max lifted his hands. "Sorry, sorry. Are you going to tell Pain?"
"No," said Charon, picking up another of the letters. Max had been slightly disturbed to see how many there were - clearly whoever it was had a lot of time on their hands.
"He's not going to be happy when he finds out," warned Max.
"Still, I'm sure you wouldn't disobey a direct command from your Prime Minister and tell him anyway, would you?" Charon smiled.
Max swallowed. "O-of course not. But, you know, that explosion was kind of ... well, hard to miss. He's going to hear about that soon enough. And then what?"
"We're going to tell him it was an accident."
"He might recognize the hand-writing," Max tried. "I really think you should consider just telling him, Charon. Why not? He's a Royal Inspector; he's good at investigating things."
"An accident, Max."
Max sighed. "An accident," he agreed.
"An accident, my ass!" Pain said. "Give, Charon. What's really happened over here?"
"I told you," said Charon calmly. "An accident. Right, Max?"
"An accident." Max nodded. "Absolutely."
"Have you gotten any love-letters from ex-boyfriends recently?"
Pain blinked. Charon winced. Max looked at him and shrugged.
"Fine," Charon snapped, pulling one of the notes out of his robes and shoving it at Pain. "Does this hand-writing look familiar to you?"
Pain picked up the note and studied it for a few minutes before lowering it again. He shook his head. "I've never seen this hand-writing before. And believe me, I'd remember if someone had called me his 'sweetest blackberry-pie of joy and happiness' before."
"So it's a fake," Max concluded. "Someone wants us to think it's one of your ex-boyfriends who's sent Charon this note, but in reality, it isn't."
"Well, I haven't exactly gotten notes from every single person I've ever dated," admitted Pain. "Might be a one-night stand, or just someone I flirted with a few times."
"Oh," said Max.
"Now, Charon, I'd like an explanation for you not wanting me to know about someone trying to kill you," Pain went on. "After that, you can properly kiss me welcome back, and after that, say tomorrow morning or so, we'll go and make someone very, very sorry the three of us were ever born."
Max started to slowly edge towards the door as Pain offered Charon a grin.
"I have work to do," said Charon, glowering at Max. "I can't - " Pain tackled him.
Max made a run for it and decided that now was as good a time as any to write that letter he'd promised Nina. With luck, she might even know of a few reliable bodyguards for Charon, and a way to foist them on Charon without his making too much of a fuss.
"How goes the investigation, Prime Minister?" Cedric asked two days later, aiming for 'cheerful' and barely hitting 'trying to sound interested and not doing too good a job of it'. "I couldn't help but overhear you've enlisted the help of the Royal Inspector, so I guess you must be encountering some difficulties in discovering the culprit - or culprits, as the case may be."
"Any relevant information you'd care to share would be welcome," Charon said smoothly.
Cedric chuckled. "Very good, Charon. Nice and elusive."
"Do you have any reason to assume there might be more than one person responsible for the spell that destroyed the Prime Minister's office three days ago?" inquired Pain.
Cedric stared at him with distaste. "No. Of course not. It simply seems logical."
"You mean it seems logical to you that any plot against the Prime Minister's life would involve several people? Because he's that much disliked?" pressed Pain.
Cedric turned to Charon. "A word of advice, Charon. If you want to catch an overly-possessive ex-boyfriend of your lover's, perhaps you'd better not involve that lover in the investigation. He might have reasons of his own not to want you to succeed, and even if you do, you might not like what you find out. You might want to keep in mind that where there's smoke, there's usually fire as well, and the Royal Inspector's reputation isn't exactly one of monogamy, is it?"
"On the other hand, nobody's ever accused me of being a little too fond of goblins," said Pain.
Cedric's smile turned frosty. "A good day to you, Charon, Camaxtli." After a quick nod and a last look at Pain, Cedric swept away.
"Wow," said Max. "I never thought I'd live to see the day. And he even got my name almost right. You must have shaken him up pretty badly, Pain-in-the-ass."
"He sure sounded like he knew something, didn't he?" Pain grinned. "Charon?"
"There was something a bit off about him," Charon admitted. "Still, he might simply be homophobic."
"Only one way to find out, and I'm not going to do it."
"I wouldn't want you to," Charon said. "Still, we've been asking around for two days now, and we're not getting anywhere. Nobody's seen or heard anything; nobody's got any ideas - "
"Cedric had," Max commented. "Granted, they might all be stupid ones, but ... "
"I'm not sure if you're right, there." Charon frowned. "True, he dropped all kinds of hints, but several of them were contradictory. I'm inclined to think he's just putting on an act."
"Still, he's acting pretty suspicious," Pain said. "And as we don't have any other suspects right now, I say we give him a closer look."
"The King ... " Charon began.
"Has only forbidden us from checking him out for conspiring with goblins," Pain said. "This is a completely unrelated case."
"A point well-made, Royal Inspector. Have you ever considered becoming a lawyer?"
"Minister Tamsin," Charon said, mind racing as he bowed politely. "I hadn't heard you approach," he added pointedly.
"That means you either have an exceptionally clear conscience or a deficit in your hearing." Tamsin smiled. "I'll grant you the benefit of doubt and assume your ears simply haven't quite recovered yet from the blast, three days ago."
"How is that giving him the benefit of doubt?" asked Max, confused as well as a little unsettled.
Tamsin smiled. "No one can be a good politician and still keep a clear conscience. Clean hands, yes, but a clear conscience, no. And I have no doubt whatsoever that Charon is an excellent politician."
"With a very un-clear conscience?" Charon suggested.
Tamsin's smile broadened. "Quite so."
"So, where were you at the time the explosion took place?" asked Pain.
"In my office," Tamsin replied. "But then, that doesn't say anything, does it?"
Pain shrugged. "It's a start."
"Actually, it's the end." Tamsin looked at Charon. "You've had two days, and no success to speak of. The King feels it's time to put an end to this and let things get back to normal."
"That's funny - I don't see the King here saying that at all," said Max. "Just you."
"I speak for the King in this," said Tamsin.
"The King ordered me to investigate the incident; the King can order me to stop doing so," said Charon.
Max scowled. Pain looked like he was about to protest, while Tamsin looked pleased.
"By which I don't mean you telling me he did so," Charon added.
Max perked up, Pain grinned, and Tamsin looked considerably less pleased than before.
"As you wish," he said, before taking his leave in much the same way Cedric had, if in a different direction.
There were about a dozen new notes as Max and Charon returned to Charon's temporal new office, none of them including any spells, curses or charms, as far as Charon's watch-dog spells had been able to determine.
"You know, if this guy's really so crazy about Pain, you'd think he could be a little more grateful to you for having saved his life," commented Max.
"He's not, most likely." Charon barely even glanced at the notes before tossing them in a drawer with the others he'd received after the explosion so far. "And that would be during the mission none of us is allowed to talk about, by royal decree?"
Max sighed and nodded. "It's just so ... so stupid!" he burst out. "What's the point? What does he think he can accomplish by sending you all these notes - or even by trying to kill you? Pain's the one ... oh."
"If Pain's the one he wants - and at this point, that's a big 'if' - then I want Pain as far away from him as possible," said Charon. "We're talking about someone here who can slip an explosion-spell past the palace-guards, not to mention the Ministerial wards."
"He's not exactly helpless, Charon," Max pointed out.
"He is, under the wrong circumstances," disagreed Charon. "You and I should know that better than anyone. He still hasn't fully recovered yet, and if I could, I'd have sent him away the minute he got back here, instead of getting him involved in this whole mess."
Max shook his head. "He's no more or less helpless than you are."
Charon offered him a faint smile. "And I spent - what? A month being utterly helpless and completely unaware of who or where I was?"
"I still think it would have been a bad idea to completely keep him in the dark," Max said stubbornly, refusing to think of that period, with Pain slowly but steadily recovering from his physical injuries while Charon seemed to slip away from him day by day. "It wouldn't have worked, anyway."
"That much, I'll grant you." Charon sank down on a seat, looking tired. "Tamsin's right. We should have turned up something by now. Nobody's *that* good at covering their tracks, especially not someone who finds the time to write this many notes of bad poetry."
"Could be a cover-up. Like Cedric pointed out, there might be more of them. One to write the notes, one to sneak them into the palace-mail-system, and one to provide the necessary bribes and spells, maybe," Max speculated. "A family, say."
"Don't start on that again."
"I didn't mention any families in particular, did I?" asked Max, trying to look innocent.
"One of these days, you must tell me what happened between you and Cedric," said Charon. "With me, it's purely political, but with you, it actually seems personal."
"Nina made me promise I'd never tell a soul," Max said. "You wouldn't want her to kill me, would you?"
"Hm," said Charon. "Even assuming Cedric in on it, to a greater or lesser degree, then what about Tamsin? For a man whose middle name usually seems to be 'impartial', he sure came on to me rather strongly, and for what?"
"He was being pretty obvious about what he wanted, I'd say."
"You and Pain were about ready to tell him to stuff it," said Charon. "I'm not convinced that wasn't the intended effect of his words. The question is: how did he imagine things would go after that?"
"We'd run to the King and demand him to tell us Tamsin was lying?" guessed Max.
"That wouldn't accomplish anything, unless Tamsin wasn't lying, in which case, why bother getting you and Pain all riled up? Why bother telling us in the first place?" Charon picked up a stack of normal mail, browsing through it absently. "We're missing something here."
"If only we'd be able to track down the writer of those notes."
"Yes." Charon frowned, smelling a familiar scent. "That would certainly make things ... easier." He discarded a few of the notes, trying to find the one that smelled of roses.
An inventory-list with a faint smell of herbs, a report from Nina, and, lastly, a sweet-smelling note. Charon stared at it, unable to believe he could actually be that lucky - or any conspirator that stupid.
"Hey, I thought you'd told me you had all those notes delivered by a special - " Max started.
Charon bared his teeth in a grin. Max blinked.
"They didn't," he said, incredulous.
"They did," Charon said smugly. "Which means that in less than ten seconds from now, we'll have a name. A lead, at the very least."
Max leaned forwards, gaze locked on the piece of paper in Charon's hands.
Charon opened the note, read the name at the bottom, and started to laugh.
The King refused to get excited.
"Well," he said, "they only blew up your office, didn't they? Nobody actually got hurt - just a heap of papers. Boring, annoying papers you'd have demanded me to read."
"Someone could have gotten killed in an explosion like that," Max noted.
"Charon, to be precise," added Pain, with a pointed look.
The King lazily examined his pipe.
"But he didn't," he said.
"But he could have," said Pain.
"But he didn't," the King repeated. "And I'm the King, and I really don't think you should be talking to me like this. It's very rude."
"I apologize on the Royal Inspector's behalf, sire," Charon said quickly, throwing Pain a look.
"Love makes fools of us all." The King made a dismissive gesture. "Besides, I talked to the person responsible for that explosion-charm and they've promised me they won't do it again, so that's all right, isn't it? All ends well that ends well and everything."
Max made a soft sound in the back of his throat. Pain looked murderous. Charon felt a headache coming up.
"You know who did it, then?" he asked, barely managing to keep his tone even.
"Of course I know."
"Since when?" Charon asked tightly.
The King considered. "Since four days or so. Why?"
Max sounded like he was choking on something. Pain trembled.
Charon closed his eyes and counted to ten. "It didn't occur to you to tell me?"
"No," said the King, lifting his pipe to his mouth. "I can't say that it did. I'd promised I wouldn't, and besides, I thought you could find out yourself. I did give you permission to investigate, after all."
"I see," Charon said.
"I don't," said Pain.
"Nor do I," said Max.
"With age comes wisdom," declared the King, sucking on his pipe. "Trust me on this."