The Prince was still in the commode, and Dudley Lane was wondering if he shouldn’t get up and check on the boy. He took a gander at his watch, but the dial was a blur. He brought it closer to his face and gave it a good squint, waiting as the numbers and hands sharpened a bit then lost their resolution then began to pulse between states in time to his heartbeat. He dropped his hand onto the small table he was half slouched under, and knocked over the base of a tower of tiny bottles he’d been endeavoring to build for how long he could not say. He looked about the bar for a server, and then remembered that it wasn’t a bar, it was in fact a King’s Marines jet. A damn comfortable one, mind you, a UC-35D Abraham corvette. Not like the Hercules transports he deployed in back when he had done things like jump out of fixed wing aircraft and all that.
He closed his eyes for a moment and had a very clear and distinct sense of free fall. He started to tumble, whirling. Well, Captain Dudley Lane of His Majesty’s King’s Marine 1st Flying Camp knew how to stop that. Eyes still closed, he splayed his arms and legs, stretching as best he could while seated with half his body under the tiny table. The maneuver did nothing to stabilize his tumble. Damn. He was going to break his neck. Falling at those speeds, he’d be whipped about and break his fucking neck. Open his chute like this and he stood a good chance of tangling the lines. Besides, he was too high to open. God only knew where he might drift.
“Captain Dudley, sir?”
Who was that? Who was that?
He opened his eyes and saw the King’s Marines lieutenant who was their escort back to the capital.
“Are you alright, Sir?”
“What’s that braid on your shoulder?”
The lieutenant looked at his braid as if checking for himself.
“King’s Marines, Queen’s Regulars, Sir.”
Dudley patted the young man’s arm.
“Good for you. Good for you. Where’d you get your packet for this jaunt?”
The lieutenant began picking up the tiny bottles that had been scattered on the floor.
“We were at Fort Odessa on a Senate commission to the Panhandle Estates.”
Dudley grimaced at the thought of the Panhandle Estates. That grubby string of casinos and whore houses stretching from Glenrio to Shamrock along Highway 40. Oil Estates of old, all their current wealth came by way of the liberality of their gambling and pandering laws, and their legendary intransigence when it came to enforcing the statutes of the Exchequer. It was an eternal embarrassment to Dudley that he spent so much damn time in that wallow. So much time, in fact, that he’d had little trouble tracking his nephew the Prince to the especially squalid clip joint where he’d been hiding from the future.
He began sorting the tiny bottle still on the table, looking for one that had a little life in it.
“Something to do with natural gas, I expect. Fracking.”
The lieutenant looked up at him as he scrabbled a bottle from under one of the seats.
“Your Senate commission junket. I expect they were being treated to Panhandle hospitality by fracking lobbyists. Looking for an easement on Royal resource rights.”
“Above my pay grade, sir. I just prep the aircraft cabin, and facilitate. No one tells me anything but who and where. And sometimes not even that.”
Dudley huffed. None of the bottles had any damn thing in them. Well he’d planned it that way, hadn’t he? Bought a few handfuls of them to nurse the Prince back to the Capital. Just enough for the two of them to stay properly drunk. Functionally loaded, as he was fond of saying. Of course there was the big bottle in his briefcase, the one he hadn’t told his nephew about. He could take a quick drink of that while the Price was still in the john. What was he doing in there anyway?
“I expect you hear a great deal, however little your told.”
The lieutenant had collected the empties and was dumping them in a small plastic bag.
“Hear what, Sir?”
“On these transits. Senators, General staff, nobility, Lords of the House. You get an earful, I'm sure.”
“I wouldn’t know, Sir, I don’t listen.”
“Good. Good for you. So listen.”
Dudley felt the pockets of his suit jacket, hands crawling in and out until they found his tin box of cigarillos and his lighter. He opened the tin and offered it to the lieutenant.
“No, thank you, Sir.”
Dudley snapped the tin closed and tapped the end of a cigarillo against the crest on its lid.
“House of Lane finest Carolina Estates Blue. Sure I can’t tempt you?”
The lieutenant stuffed the plastic bag of garbage into a seat back pocket.
“You have tempted me, Sir Dudley, but no thank you.”
Dudley puffed his cigarillo to life.
“You are a proper cabin mate, for certain. Queen’s Regulars. Indeed.”
“Proud to be, Sir.”
“So, listen, as I was saying. All this discretion you clearly possess. Professional decorum. All that. I’d appreciate it, personally, I mean, if you could especially manifest all that good character as regards my nephew the Prince and the state in which he came aboard. That’s clear enough, yes?”
“Very clear, Sir.”
“Good. Good for you. So. Senate commission to the Panhandle one minute, delivering the Prince in mourning the next. Adventures of the King’s Marines. Some life. Some life. Oh. Eh. Lord Sharpe, it occurs to me, Lord Sharpe has Panhandle concerns doesn’t he?”
The lieutenant shook his head.
“I couldn’t say, Sir.”
“No. I’m certain of it. The Sharpes are quite thick in the Panhandle. Senate commission, huh? Yes. Any Sharpes on board for that?”
The lieutenant began fussing again, hunting for any tiny bottles he might have missed picking up, but there were none.
“I don’t make myself familiar with Franklin’s Book of Houses, Sir. Show me the silhouette of an airframe and I’ll tell you if it’s a Russian Imperial Eagle or Israeli Gideon. Nobility, peers, Senators, that’s all cargo to me, Sir. Not much of a portfolio by your standards, Sir.”
Dudley waved that off.
“Don’t poor mouth your own service like that. Doesn’t do you or the Marines any credit. A mission is a mission and what part it plays in protecting America is not for us to know.”
The lieutenant stopped looking for non-existent empties and stood at near attention, quite eager.
“Still, I went to jump school and thought I’d have a few adventures of my own, Sir. Blood and treasure.”
Dudley began pawing his pockets again.
“The downside of peace is a bored military man, I suppose. King Ben, rest him, he’d rather see a squadron of drones flying the royal colors than put boots on the ground.”
“Not like Bruce’s day, Sir.”
Dudley puffed his cigarillo.
“As a King, Bruce had limitations, but a lack of belligerence was not one of them. Where is the damn thing? Ah. Here. Look at this.”
Dudley pulled a small cylinder of age-darkened wood from his pocket, ivory inlays yellowed by sun and sweat.
“Got that in Turkey. The McNamara expedition. Before your time.”
The lieutenant leaned forward for a better look.
“We studied it at the Academy, Sir. Quelling Turkish adventurism in Syria. The Israelis again, as I recall. A Mossad operation.”
Dudley worked his thumbnail into the slit that ran down one side of the handle and unfolded the collapsable knife’s short blade.
“That’s right. No end of trouble, them and their oil money. That’s one we’d all like to have back. Should have put in with the Saudis. Well. It all comes around in time. Here. It’s nothing too special, really. Wish I had some story about taking it off Uzman after he used it to try and cut my throat, but I picked it up in a bazar after we’d quelled things. I did get a chance to stick it in a man once, though. Here, feel the edge.”
The lieutenant took the knife and scraped the whorls of his his thumbprint sideways across the edge, nodding appreciatively as he felt it try to bite.
“A fine piece, Sir. Old?”
“Very, I think. Had a man at a function, something at the Royal Museum of World History, had a man there who told me he thought it was a hundred years old and then some. Nineteenth century, for certain. Carbon steel. That’s the blueing on the blade. Have to oil the thing every couple days whether you use it or not. Pay attention to this. A drop of oil will do or the wet of your brow even. But don’t forget or it’ll rust and pit and there goes another tiny piece of history.”
The lieutenant nodded, and offered the knife back, handle first. Dudley shook his head.
“No, no. I want you to have it. Memento of foreign adventures.”
The lieutenant shook his head, embarrassed.
“I’m not allowed to accept gifts, Sir.”
Dudley took another long drag off his cigarillo.
“You’ve got something, there, Lieutenant, stuck in the button of your epaulet. See there? Bit of kelly green twill thread. That color green, that’s House of Sharpe. I recon you swapped your house braid before we came aboard. Gracious, you are out of uniform.”
The lieutenant tugged the bit of thread from where it was snagged on the button that clasped his epaulet and held his pledge braid in place.
“Sir. Just something that got caught there while I was bussing the cabin, Sir. I told you we had Sharpes aboard for the Panhandle commission.”
Dudley pointed the coal end of his cigarillo at the young man.
“No. I said that. You said you didn’t know who you had aboard. So. That knife, I want you to keep it. Not as a gift but as a promise. You carry it always. Never have it off you. I see you again, I’m going to ask you to show it to me. You don’t have it, I’ll make some trouble. King’s Marine out of uniform on a Royal commission? Why you might be a spy in service to a foreign power for all I know. Get hung for that. Don’t splutter and make excuses. I know who you work for. You’re House of Sharpe and no doubt of it. Just do as I say. Keep that knife so I can always see it if I ask. As for the promise of it. Here now. If I ever have reason to think you’re working against me or mine or my House or the Prince, I’ll come find you out. And I’ll take that knife and stick it in you. Promise. So keep it oiled and sharp and close to hand. Do that, and mind your business in the coming election, and I promise you’ll do well enough.”
Dudley flicked fingers at him, brushing him from the cabin.
“Fuck off to the cockpit. We’ll serve ourselves the rest of the way.”
The lieutenant backed away a step, looked at the open knife still in his hands. He cut himself while closing it, but didn’t do more than wince. Sucking blood from his fingertip as he opened the door to the cockpit.
“Oil it now, Lieutenant,” Dudley called after him.
The cabin door closed and Dudley got himself to his feet. Fucking palace intrigues already. No surprise, just he’d hoped he might get the Prince home and locked away before it all began in earnest.