“Brigadier James?” said the clerk, standing beside the padded armchair. “I have the information you requested.”
The Brigadier put down the newspaper, glad for the excuse. The news was nothing but bad. Kelvon ministers continuing to blame Helberion for breaking informal but almost universally followed international trading conventions. Troubles in the provinces where open violence between activist workers groups and the authorities was breaking out with rising frequency, and Carrow continuing to prepare for the invasion of his homeland, which the writer of the article seemed to be looking forward to with eagerness. He wished he could get his hands on a copy of the Marboll Times, but by the time a copy could be brought all the way to the Empire it would be over a week out of date.
He took the brown folder from the clerk, nodded his thanks, and opened it. Inside was a thick sheaf of hurriedly typewritten papers full of spelling mistakes, but the Brigadier didn't mind that. He'd asked that the information be gathered as fast as possible, and that was the price you paid. Around him, a couple of other members of the Embassy staff, also enjoying a few restful moments in the common room, looked up from their newspapers curiously, then went back to their reading.
The folder contained all the information the Embassy currently had on the most senior members of the Kelvon Ministry of State. The first file concerned Minister Skelby himself, but he gave it only the most cursory of glances before putting it aside and looking at the second, the one concerning Undersecretary Tiver. The author of the report had clearly been deeply offended by the man's physical appearance, if the choice of words in the description was any clue. Fat, his face covered with sores and boils. Almost perpetually perspiring, surrounded by a foul personal odour that suggested a lack of personal hygiene. The Brigadier paid little attention to this, though. He wanted facts, not opinions that may have been shaped by the author's own prejudices and preconceptions.
He paid more attention to the rest of the report, therefore. Tiver virtually ran the ministry now, Minister Skelby still being incapacitated by illness. It looked as though Skelby might soon be required to resign, in which case Tiver was tipped to be his replacement. The tides of political favour were fickle, though, and there were still any number of other candidates who might rise to prominence, despite the fact that so many had been forced to leave politics forever because of scandals and accusations of criminal actions. A far higher number than in any other Ministry, the author noted. Almost as if someone were thinning out the competition...
It occurred to the Brigadier that, if someone other than Tiver got the job, his first act would probably be to appoint a new Undersecretary, leaving the current occupant of that post languishing in the political wilderness. Until his position as Skelby's successor was absolutely secure, therefore, it was in Tiver’s interests that the Minister remain in his current position. Unwell, and thereby forced to leave the running of the Ministry to his deputy, but still occupying the post and thereby blocking the appointment of a replacement. The perfect situation for Tiver.
The Brigadier paused and looked up from the report. Surely other people must be having the same suspicions. Why had nobody acted to put a stop to Tiver’s machinations? He turned back to the Minister’s file. It said that he had been visited by several doctors, some at the urging of political rivals, and they had all stated that Skelby was suffering from a genuine illness. He wasn’t being drugged or poisoned or something. Maybe his illness really was genuine, the Brigadier thought, and Tiver was simply taking advantage of the situation. Or maybe the doctors were being paid off...
He leafed through the other files, looking for the man Ryan Tarnor had met with during the Emperor’s reception. None of the physical descriptions mentioned face powder, though, and their descriptions differed on other ways as well. He frowned, then placed the files back in the folder and stood, making his way to the door.
He went to the receptionist by the main entrance. “Excuse me,” he said, showing her the folder. “Who compiles reports like these?”
“The intelligence staff,” she replied. “They live on the second floor.”
The Brigadier thanked her and headed for the stairs. At the top, a pair of guards stopped him and asked his business. When he'd explained, one of them accompanied him to a large room at the end of the corridor and entered, coming back a moment later with a short, red haired woman wearing a simple, no nonsense green dress and a flat pair of shoes. “Did you compile this report?” asked the Brigadier.
“I helped with it,” she replied. “They said it was a rush job, so we all mucked in.”
“There’s a man I was hoping would be included in this report. Unexceptional in appearance, but his face is covered by powder, as if he has port wine stains or something.”
She nodded. “I know the man you mean. We didn’t include him because he isn't an official member of the Ministry. His name’s Rastor Fienwell. Tiver meets with him on occasion, we think he's his dirty tricks consultant. Uses him to get rid of rivals, clear obstacles from his path, that sort of thing.”
“Do you have a file on him?”
“We certainly do. We can have a copy for you within the hour.”
The Brigadier thanked her and returned to the common room to continue reading the files on the other members of the Ministry staff. They seemed to be an unexceptional bunch. Typical government bods, no different from those who did the bulk of the pencil pushing in every human nation everywhere, except that these ones were cheerfully trying to turn the Empire into a fascist dictatorship under the excuse of countering civil unrest. He put them aside with a tired sigh. There was no point bothering with any of them, he knew. The problem lay at the top. With Tiver and Rastor Fienwell. It was time to start making some house calls.
As he was thinking this, the red haired woman from upstairs entered the room, glanced around at the occupants and headed for the Brigadier. “There isn’t much, I'm afraid,” she said. “That's why it didn't take long.” She handed a single sheet of paper over, and the Brigadier thanked her as he took it.
It was indeed very brief. A description (average height, average weight...) that mentioned his use of face powder. His address, no part of which he recognised, the fact that he'd often been seen meeting with Tiver and the fact that he spent almost all the rest of his time at home. He seemed to have no social life, no family, no friends. The Brigadier read it over and over again, then went out into the Embassy's foyer to look at the large map of the city that was pinned to the wall.
It took him a long time to find Cannon Street, the street on which Rastor Fienwell lived. He studied it for several minutes, plus the streets and districts surrounding it, then he went up to his rooms to change clothes.
He'd gone shopping for some ordinary, working class clothes a few days earlier, in case he needed to go about the city incognito, and he dressed himself in them now. Then he looked at himself in the full length mirror he'd had installed at the same time. He still looked aristocratic, he thought. It was his stance. He was standing too upright. He stooped a little, mussed his hair. Better. His beard was still cut in the aristocratic fashion, but a working man might well wear his beard that way, in mockery of those who considered themselves his betters.
He studied himself critically. If he met the man in the mirror while walking down the street, would he judge him to be truly working class? He tried to convince himself that he would, but there was still something niggling at him and he waited patiently until it came to the forefront of his attention. His clothes looked new. All of them. A real working class man would buy new clothes for himself from time to time, of course, but he wouldn't wear an entire, new outfit all at once. He cursed under his breath. He needed used clothes. He'd steal them, he decided. Take them from someone's washing line, leave his new clothes in their place. A perfect solution! Satisfied, he left his rooms and set off.
It took him two hours to find a house with clothes in his size hanging from a washing line that couldn’t be observed by casual passers by, and five minutes later he was dressed in them, walking down the street with a slight stoop and scratching at himself as If he had fleas. Don't overdo it! he cautioned himself. Less is more. He examined his reflection in a darkened window. His face was still too clean. He took a handkerchief from a pocket, wiped it against some wood panelling to pick up some dirt and grime, then rubbed his face and hands with it. Better. Just don't speak to anyone if you can possibly help it, he thought. I can disguise my appearance, but I can't disguise my voice.
Finally as ready as he could be, he set off for Cannon Street. On the way, he watched the working class people he passed for their reactions, but none of them so much as glanced at him. He passed a small group of suspicious looking people loitering on a street corner, probably cutthroats waiting for a wealthy target to pass by, and his hand moved towards the pistol be had hidden under his jacket, but even they paid him no attention. He'd clearly done a good job of disguising himself. Feeling more confident, he picked up the pace and hummed a tune he’d heard one of the Embassy staff whistling the day before. A folk tune of some kind, he assumed.
Cannon Street was so named because this area had once been owned by the army, centuries before. Once, it had been barracks and parade grounds, munitions storage and target practice ranges, but it had all been torn down and replaced by cheap housing when the army had moved to larger premises on the other side of the city. The street names were all that remained to remind people of what it had once been. The Brigadier passed Arsenal Road, therefore, and Warrior Street, Garrison Terraces and Gunners Rise and other streets similarly named before he came to Cannon Street, a street the same as all the others with the same small, brick houses with small, grimy windows and front doors that opened directly onto the cracked and weed strewn pavement. It was getting dark by then, and the Brigadier paused by a streetlamp to light a cigarette, trying not to inhale the smoke in case the coughing gave him away. My beard and moustache are white! he suddenly realised. Not stained yellow, as they would be if I was a real habitual smoker! He crushed the cigarette under his bootheel and cursed himself for his stupidity. Thankfully, he'd realised his mistake before it had given him away, and he cautioned himself to be more careful in future.
He tried to give the impression that he was waiting for someone as he studied house number 216, the house where Rastor Fienwell lived, according to the Embassy files. There were no lights on in the house, despite the fact that night had almost fallen. There were plenty of lights on in neighbouring houses, though, and he saw people moving around in them through windows that lacked curtains. There was no way he could approach Fienwell's house from the front without being seen by at least a dozen humans, and in addition there was a Radiant hovering above the rooftops a couple of hundred yards to the south, illuminating the scene like a bloated, misshapen moon. It was able to look in all directions with the row of primitive eyes that circled its ‘equator’, the Brigadier remembered, but from its current position it could only see the front of Fienwell's house. What about the back?
He went to the end of the street and found a weed choked alley between the houses of Cannon Street and the houses of Victory Street, running parallel to it. Someone had trodden down the weeds in the middle, probably half raised animals playing there, and it meant he could make his way along the alley without tearing his clothes on the brambles along the way. There was a wooden fence separating the alley from a tiny yard at the back of each house, broken and rotten in many places. The fence beside Fienwell's house was strong and in good condition, though, the gate securely locked. He would have to climb over.
He wasn't as young as he used to be, but he was still fit and healthy and the climb wouldn't be a problem. Watching the neighbouring houses for people at the windows and seeing none, therefore, he reached up to the top of the fence, jumped up, swung one leg over the top and dropped over the other side. He paused a moment while he regained his breath, then crept stealthily to the house.
Reaching the window, he paused for several minutes to listen with his ear pressed to the glass, but heard nothing. If Fienwell was inside, he was asleep. He drew his knife, therefore, and pushed it under the window to move the latch. He scratched the paint in the process, but not enough to notice unless someone made a point to look. Then he took hold of the window and exerted a gentle upward pressure.
The window was stuck and wouldn’t move. He pushed harder, painfully aware that it would probably make a loud squeal when it did eventually move, but there was nothing he could do about that. If Fienwell was in the house and awoken by the noise, he would just run. Fienwell would think it was just a burglar and put the incident out of his mind when he saw that nothing was missing.
The window did indeed squeak, quite loudly, and the Brigadier froze, waiting to see if there was any reaction. He gave it five minutes and nothing happened. There was nothing but darkness and silence in the house. The window wasn't open enough for him to enter yet, so he pushed it further up. There was another squeal and he waited again with bated breath and pounding heart. Still nothing. If Fienwell was in the house, he was evidently a deep sleeper. Either that or he was waiting silently, weapon in hand, to catch the intruder... What would he do if he entered the house and found himself staring down the barrel of a pistol? He gave a mental shrug. He was a soldier. His life was all about taking risks. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves, therefore, then slipped in through the window.
It was dark inside, but there was no pistol waiting for him. He waited for his eyes to adapt to the darkness. He was in the spare bedroom, he saw. Unused, thankfully. There was a bare cot against one wall and a chest of drawers against the other, both covered in dust. The floor was bare floorboards. He checked the drawers and found them empty except for a piece of cloth that he examined, then dropped back where he'd found it. He checked under the bed and behind the chest of drawers, then checked the floorboards, finding them all securely nailed down. There was nothing in this room. He went to the door, listened for a moment, then opened it.
There was a short corridor inside leading to the front door. Doors on either side led to another bedroom, a kitchen, a living room and a bathroom. The door to the bathroom was open and he glanced into it as he passed, finding only what one would expect to see. He went past it without entering, going to the two rooms at the front of the house.
Fienwell's house lacked curtains, he remembered. Once he went into either room, he ran the risk of being seen from the street, and from houses across the street, and by the Radiant, if it was still there. He turned the handle of the door to the left, therefore, then dropped to his knees, grunting with the effort. Most men his age spent their days relaxing in armchairs, being looked after by servants or younger family members. Knees his age weren't supposed to be pressed to hard floorboards! He cursed the years that had robbed him of his youthful flexibility, then pushed the door open and crawled in.
It was the living room. There were three comfy armchairs, a couple of cupboards and a small coffee table standing on a floor that was covered by a cheap carpet. The carpet was soft enough to give some comfort to his knees, though, and he gave a grateful sigh as he made his way to the nearest cupboard. If he was right, Fienwell was one of the most senior people involved in the Radiant’s plan to plunge the Empire into civil war. Fienwell was connected to the Ministry of State, so he needed to find something to connect him to the workers activist groups, to prove to the Emperor that both sides were part of the same conspiracy. He wasn't certain what he hoped to find. A document, perhaps, written by one of the suited men Malone had mentioned at their last meeting. A set of instructions written by whoever was at the very top of the conspiracy. He would just have to look, and hope that he would recognise it when he found it.
He found nothing, though. Nothing that you wouldn’t expect to find in someone's living room. Some cups and saucers, some dusty board games, some books on boring subjects that clearly hadn't been opened in years, a box full of old bills from the water and gas companies that he searched through without finding any hidden documents. He tugged at the edges of the carpets, finding them to be securely nailed down. He lifted the seat cushions, tugged at the fabric covering the wooden framework of the chairs themselves, searched every inch of the patterned paper covering the walls looking for rectangular edges where a secret cubby hole might be hidden. At one point he saw movement in the corner of his eye and threw himself to the floor, just in time as someone walked past in the street, just inches from the bare window. Once the pedestrian had passed by, he competed his search of the room, still finding nothing, and it was almost midnight before he gave up and went on to the kitchen.
He found nothing there either. Nor did he find anything in the bathroom. That left just one room, the main bedroom. The room within which Fienwell might be asleep at this very minute. The Brigadier tensed up nervously. If he was in there and woke up, the Brigadier would have no choice but to flee, as fast as he could. He didn't dare fight. He was confident that he could win any fight easily, but displaying combat skills would give away the fact that he was more than just a common burglar. Also, he couldn’t take the risk of killing him. The conspiracy would simply replace him with someone unknown to the Brigadier, and he would have lost his only lead. If Fienwell was indeed a lead. If Fienwell was, in fact, connected to the conspiracy at all. The Brigadier briefly contemplated the possibility that Fienwell might be completely innocent, totally unconnected to any illegal activity of any kind, in which case he was completely wasting his time here...
His thoughts were interrupted by a noise at the front door. A fumbling, the sound of a key in the lock. The Brigadier threw himself back into the living room and crouched behind one of the armchairs as the door opened and a dark figure entered. Fienwell! He'd been out somewhere, and now he was back! He won't come into the living room, he told himself. He’ll want to go straight to bed!
He breathed a sigh of relief as the figure did indeed go past the living room and entered the master bedroom. The Brigadier waited as noises of undressing came from the room, and then the door opened again as the figure went to the bathroom. A glow went with him, he must have been carrying a night light of some kind. The noise of running water came from the bathroom, and he took the opportunity to ease himself into a more comfortable position. Now he'd be trapped in the house until the man was fast asleep! He cursed himself for not having searched the bedroom first. He could have done it in perfect safety, the man out of the house! Now he'd have to do it with the man right there, asleep on the bed, running the risk that any slightest noise might wake him!
Time went by, and the figure remained in the bathroom. The sound of splashing water came from the sink. He heard the sink being emptied and tensed himself for the man's emergence, but then he heard the sink filling again, followed by the sound of more splashing. What was he doing in there? If he wanted a whole body wash, why not just take a bath? Curiosity got the better of him. This could be important. This could be a clue. He crept from his place behind the armchair and moved to where he'd be able to see the corridor when the man finally emerged. Hopefully, the darkness would hide the Brigadier from the other man's view.
He saw light under the bathroom door. The light seemed to be moving as the man inside moved. That was strange. He should have put the light down somewhere while he did whatever it was he was doing. He drew a sharp intake of breath as a possibility occurred to him, something he should have thought of before. His pulse raced with excitement. If he was right...
Finally the bathroom door opened, and the Brigadier's suspicions were confirmed. The man was naked, and his whole skin, still damp where he'd washed his powdery disguise away, glowed with a soft, silvery light! The man had been adopted by the Radiants, just like the men in the Radiants’ city, just like the curator of the Hetin museum! The skin powder hid the glow, allowing him to go out among normal humans, talk to Tiver and others without their realising what he really was! And at any time he could be communicating with any nearby Radiant by telepathy without anyone suspecting! There was a Radiant nearby right now! he remembered. That man might be communicating with his Radiant master even now!
He suddenly realised the peril he was in, the peril he'd placed the whole human race in! If Fienwell realised the Brigadier knew about him, the Radiant would know! All the Radiants would know! They would know that the humans were on to them and they would strike immediately, before they'd discovered the weapon they needed! The Brigadier imagined human cities being destroyed by storm and earthquake, thousands dying, thousands more fleeing in terror, all because of him! Because of his carelessness! He froze, and mentally urged Fienwell to go to his bedroom and go to sleep. His one priority now was to get out of the house without Fienwell knowing he had ever been there!
While he waited, thoughts continued to chase themselves through his head. They'd always assumed that the Radiants' most senior operatives were adoptees, but they'd assumed that the glow of their skins forced them to remain in hiding and that the next rung down the organisation would have to know about the Radiant connection. The skin powder, though, meant that people like Tiver and the King of Carrow might have no idea that they were pawns of the Radiants. If they could be shown the truth, their whole organisation might collapse! Also, they could identify top level operatives just by looking for people who wore skin powder...
Mandeville! Matron Darniss' contact with Carrow! The one who gave her her orders, to whom she reported every few weeks! Darniss had revealed that the man wore skin powder, to hide skin blemishes, he’d claimed. The man had been an adoptee! The man had also been a wizard, the Brigadier remembered. He’d cursed the agent sent to follow him back to his animal form! Did that mean that all adoptees were wizards? If so, that meant that he was trapped in a small house with a wizard right now! A man who could strip him of his precious humanity if he discovered him...
A primeval fear filled him, and he forced it down with an effort. He'd faced wizards before, the trick was to prevent them from touching you. But demons could curse you from a distance, without skin contact. Did that mean that adoptees could as well? Assume they could, just to be safe. He could let nothing prevent him from getting this information back to Helberion!
It seemed to take forever for noises to stop coming from the bedroom, and the Brigadier gave it another hour just to be safe. He crept silently back to the spare bedroom, where the window was still open. A cold breeze was blowing through it, but fortunately the closed door had prevented it from chilling the rest of the house. A noise came from the other bedroom and he froze, but it was just Fienwell turning in his sleep. He gave it another five minutes, then slipped through the window.
Once safely in the yard, he gave the window a single hard yank to close it all in one go. It closed with a loud thump, but the Brigadier didn’t care any more. He could just run for it, and Fienwell would think it had just been a burglar, trying his luck. He waited anyway, hoping for the best, and when there was still no reaction he used his knife to slide the latch back into place. Apart from a little scratched paint, there was now nothing to show that he’d been in the house. Breathing a sigh of relief, he climbed back over the fence into the alley, then made his way back to the Embassy.