COME AT ONCE. STOP. THE KING. STOP.
Croesus De Vere re-read the telegram through a haze of lost sleep and steam from his hastily brewed cuppa. He wished he could read it another way – like, come at once and stop the King from doing whatever. Sending telegrams before breakfast, for instance.
But once broken, the code of the telegram’s manner of punctuation allowed little room for misinterpretation. The King demanded the presence of his Court Investigator.
Croesus massaged away the sleep-deprivation, knocked back a gulp of his tea, then threw together his outfit with the same care as he’d taken in tossing the tea bag into the mug.
The morning was as bracing as a torturer’s rack. No sense wasting time stretching his legs. Croesus ran, hurdling the neighbourhood cats who populated the maze of narrow lanes he called home. Although an appointee on the staff of the Royal Court, Croesus was not of worthy enough stock to qualify for quarters within the palace grounds. Truth was, he had been born in a district not unlike this one and risen only so far as was needed to climb in through people’s windows. A shady past, long-since pardoned, followed him like his shadow. And while the King employed him as ‘Thief Of Police’, the royal visage probably held him in about as high regard as the scruffier felines of the Crippling Narrows.
Pah. Kings. What did they know?
‘King’ was the world’s shortest verb. To be king was to do precious little. Duties included a lot of sitting on thrones, which were only a form of chair made grand and impressive enough to accommodate all the sitting that had to be done by blue-blooded behinds.
Ah but, Croesus, some had argued, kings preside and decide over a host of difficult and weighty issues. But Croesus had observed this process in what might be termed ‘action’. Matters were raised, questions begged of the monarch’s ears. To all of which, the kingly head would nod, before turning to ask advice from a collection of counsellors, experts and authorities on this and that. And if a matter fell outside of the comfort zone of any one of the available advisers, new experts were sent for. Once equipped with the facts and a number of possible answers, the King would pick the solution he liked best and, by voicing it while wearing a crown and sitting on the aforesaid throne, convert it into law. It always seemed to Croesus that you could achieve much the same with just the council of experts and a bucket, in which they could chuck little scraps of paper inscribed with the best solutions to any problem. And hold a lucky dip. A governmental tombola.
But until anyone thought to replace the King with a bucket, Croesus was among those experts called upon to counsel and advise. His own purview: crime. And the position provided a steady income. With the only downside being the occasional emergency summons, like today’s.
Warmed up a tad, Croesus slowed his jog for the middle stretch of his journey. Progressing through the market district at a more seemly rate and taking care not to bump baskets out of shoppers’ hands. Then he upped himself to an energetic dash for the last leg, demonstrating a committed sense of urgency once within sight of the palace walls.
Croesus darted across the bridge, running the gauntlet of twenty-foot statues. All of them brandished polearms with blades that looked set to fall on faintly treasonous necks. And thoughts of replacing kings with buckets probably qualified as treason.
The actual ordinary flesh-and-bone guards ushered him through with half-salutes and tips of their helms. But the figure awaiting him in the Palace forecourt was ready with a greeting that had a bite similar to the ‘fresh’ morning air.
He stood to the left of the great needle of shadow cast by the giant sundial that was the courtyard’s centrepiece. As though to imply he had stood there all the while that shadow crawled by over him.
Croesus figured he’d been there a minute or two at most. “What’s His Maj panicked about this time?”
“If I were you, I would not compound my tardiness with disrespect.”
Croesus slapped on a fake smile. His disrespect was all for this bloke. Chancellor Seedgrape always had a pinched-nose look like he was helping down a bad taste. “I was only implying if there’s such a flap on, His Maj is unlikely to be very jesty.”
“Indeed. Perhaps even you will be keen to set such humours aside once you learn what is amiss.”
Amiss? Croesus hadn’t imagined anything was actually amiss. The King was a security hypochondriac. Always perceiving flaws and potential weak points where there couldn’t be any. Because Croesus had devised the system himself and he did not do flaws.
“Go on then – what’s amiss?”
“Everything,” said Seedgrape. “The entire vault has been emptied.”
Croesus swallowed some tea that wanted up again. “Stone me,” he said.
Knowing full well that was one very possible outcome.
[To Be Continued…]