The Blue, Beautiful World
The emissary kept on digging his own grave, centimeter by centimeter, word by word. He had been ill served by a poorly trained spy service, but that was no excuse. A coronation was a time for traditional platitudes and ceremonial courtesy, all the small flourishes and grace notes that such formal occasions demanded to ensure that the usual hierarchies were firmly in place and the new names alongside the ancient titles would be honored and respected.
It was certainly not a time to bring up family gossip.
The newly crowned monarch all but glowed with attentiveness, and her attendants, knowing the trap well, made no attempt to hustle the emissary away and move the next dignitary forward. They waited. One idly adjusted the fall of ice-blue fabric that poured from the monarch’s left shoulder to puddle at her feet. Snow white her robe, ice blue her mantle, platinum bright the embroidery on her vestments, telling in symbol and sign all the tale of her dynasty.
The dynasty the emissary presumed to speak of.
How her mother must be proud of her . . . at last.
How their blood had returned to the purity of prior generations . . . eventually.
How reassuring it was that her brother—apologies, adopted
brother—would no longer embarrass the chronicles of their line with his whims and oddities.
The monarch made no reply but smiled and smiled until at last the emissary, uncouth as he was, faltered in his performance, like an actor who realizes he must have missed a cue somewhere.
“Esteemed Lady, where is
your brother?” No nonsense about his adoption then, the old fool. Simply a direct question that she could answer freely in the comfortable knowledge that the information was too late to be of any use to anyone.
She matched the now-sincere smile on her lips with a gleam of hungry humor in her eyes. “Paris, my dear ambassador. Did you not know?”
In Paris, the streets were screaming.
Not literally. But nearly. The sound reverberated from every paved road and brick wall. A vibration of thudding feet strummed through lines of traffic stopped by bodies moving too thickly to be pushed aside by mere motors and machinery. Up ahead, a few cars still managed to press forward through the crush of the crowd. One car, anonymous with dark-tinted windows, made as if to break away. The crowd scented quarry and surged toward it.
Another car took advantage of the space temporarily created to nudge its way into an alley. To the uneducated eye, in the darkness of evening, this vehicle appeared to be normal in every respect. The make and age were common, and the occupants were visible behind clear glass—but then the left rear window rolled down, and the high-tech VR glass flickered, dropped its display of an upset and frustrated family of four, and showed instead the pop star, his driver, his manager, and his security.
The family had been fake, but the frustration in the car was real.
“Get that window back up,” the manager snapped.
The pop star gave her an apologetic glance, quickly blew a stream of smoke outside, and obediently put the window, and their disguise, back in place.
“Can’t you do something about the crowds?” the bodyguard asked him quietly, as if already knowing the answer.
The star took another drag on his cannabis cigarillo and exhaled slowly, not caring where the smoke went. His eyes were very tired. His fingers trembled slightly as he leaned forward and tapped the ash into a used mug sitting between his feet. “Well,” he said simply, “it’s a lot.”
The driver said nothing. In a few minutes the street behind them cleared. The decoy had done its job. The driver maneuvered the car around with a precision that was entirely her own human skill and turned onto the main road.
Behind them, the streets continued screaming. OWEN OWEN OWEN!
Only the rich could buy that special kind of identity—the fame of a single name, the hush of origins unknown. Whoever he had been in the past, he had been wealthy enough to completely bury his old self before embarking on a new career. Which, given the fawning curiosity of the world of film, virtual reality, and media, was still amazing.
People considered the manager, Noriko Fournier, to be the real brains of the operation, but to what degree was anyone’s guess. Did she pluck him from obscurity and train him in the way that she wanted him to go? Was she the Higgins to his Eliza? She was legitimately, verifiably pre-moneyed when it came to the Owenmania industry, thanks to her family’s banking roots. She could have done it. But what would make her want
to do it?
She was famous for her scowl, her brusqueness, and her general air of hating her job no matter how many billions it made her. People said the only reason Owen put up with her was to get a break from the incessant adoration. If so, she delivered and then some, and not only to him.
She glared across the table. “You will entertain no other bids. Owen will pay whatever you ask.”
The man in the pale linen tunic cleared his throat nervously, no doubt unaccustomed to being threatened with large sums of money. “It’s not us. There’s a procedure. Our laws require sealed bids and approval by a committee.”
Noriko raised her eyebrows in disbelief and displeasure. “There will be no other bids,” she said again with greater emphasis. “Owen’s offer is to the players, not to the club.”
Linen tunic looked helplessly to his left. His colleague, a heavyset man made more imposing by a deep red jacket, spoke with all the care and caution of a man trying to defuse a bomb. “The players have contracts with the club—”
Noriko whisked away the explanation with an impatient brush of her hand and completed the gesture by slamming four well-manicured, hard-lacquered nails into the wooden surface between them. The men flinched and eyed the black tips with concern.
“You have not
read the proposal that I sent in advance of this meeting. You are wasting
our time. Compensation for amending the players’ contracts is included
.” She breathed out and repeated softly, “There will be no other bids and this offer will expire within twenty-four hours.”
Red Jacket slid a black leather folder from a space ten centimeters to his left to the exact center of the table, where it was perfectly aligned with his breastbone. He laid his fingertips on the folder with a light but firm touch. “But we have
read the proposal. Thoroughly. And we cannot help but wonder . . . why is Owen so desperate to own a football team? And why this
“He has his whims,” Noriko stated in a tone that was too flat to even register as disapproving.
“Why this one?”
“He sees that they have potential.”
“We are sixth in the league and falling. There are other, more successful teams for sale at the price you’re buying. Why this team?
Unexpectedly, Noriko smiled. She flexed her hand from tense claw to resting palm down, mirroring his own hand. “He sees their potential, and when your players rise to the top of the league, there will be no doubt that their success is due to him.”
In the small moment when he could not think of what to reply, she touched her own fingertips to the proposal and shifted it five millimeters farther under his hand. It was the softest, most subtle movement she had made all day.
Then she stood abruptly and tossed a small black chip onto the table. “Should you or your committee manage to make a decision within that time, you can reach me via this closed network.”
She stalked out without a farewell. Madame Noriko Fournier was also famous for her indifference to greetings, apologies, and small talk of any kind.
The luxury carriages of the Magistrale Privée were soundproofed. State-of-the-art shock absorbers dampened even the smallest vibrations of the train’s motion. As far as overnight trains went, you couldn’t ask for anything better, but Owen wasn’t sleeping. For once, he wasn’t even smoking, though he restlessly turned a cigarillo over and over in his right hand while staring out the window at the starlit sky and the mirroring scatter of lighted human habitation in the landscape. His bodyguard reached over and took it away. Owen didn’t react.
“You should be sleeping.”
It was an observation, not an order, and Owen replied to the question lurking in the shadow.
“Even the cannabis doesn’t help,” he explained with a brief glance xat his bodyguard’s expressionless face. “Anyway, Tareq is joining us in Munich.”
“You don’t have to be awake for that.”