“This is much better,” Lucien quipped, gazing around the lobby they had toured just the previous day.
“Yes, well enjoy it while you can,” Pierre said, adjusting his vest and suit jacket. “At the rate things are going, the press will have us all lynched before dawn. This way, please.” He gestured for them to follow and led them up through the main foyer all the way past the pillars, this time to the left. On the previous day, they had taken a right into the main hall, where Mayor La Cour had bored the Barreau boys half to death with his meticulous seating arrangements for the welcome gala. So much had changed since then, and yet it remained the same. But to Max, Morcourt Hall seemed to have taken on a much darker tone in light of recent events. He could feel it permeating the air like the hot desert sun back in the Outlanders’ villa that had forced the sweat from his pores and left his clothes clinging to him like static soon afterward. It was a feeling of disgust, of something in the air left unresolved, and the shadow of what was yet to follow.
The young elder did his best to stay one step ahead of Lucien on the way to wherever Pierre was leading them so the boy didn’t cross into his peripherals. He hated being reminded of the fact that it was him—not Bernard—who had accompanied him to this meeting. And yet still, perhaps it would afford him the unique opportunity to read his old friend and plot his next move. Lucien had thus far remained one step ahead of Max, and god only knew how far those slender hooks of his extended. The lanky boy sprung up beside him soon enough. Max rolled his eyes but said nothing.
Pierre took a right around the next corner, leading them both up a side stairwell and through another corridor past the Green Room and around the rotunda balcony to a set of double doors on the right lined in gold, art deco-styled trim. He produced a skeleton key from inside his jacket and unlocked one side, gesturing for them both to move through as he opened it. Max and Lucien walked through to find themselves in a rather lavishly decorated office study. Mayor La Cour sat behind a desk at the far end surrounded by six of his cabinet officials. All of them wore grim expressions on their faces, the likes of which belied an even darker tone than the mahogany shades present in their surroundings. None of them acknowledged the two boys, save for La Cour himself, who at least made an effort to feign enthusiasm.
“Ah, gentlemen!” he exclaimed, forcing a smile. “Glad you both could make it. Please, have a seat.”
Lucien shoved his way ahead of Max and plopped down in one of the two remaining vacant chairs in the semicircle, but the young elder moved for the large circular window behind the desk to keep watch over the roaring crowds below. The office was positioned above the main entrance of Morcourt, so one could see everything from up here. None of it looked pretty. As it was, much of the glass had already been clouded by a smattering of rotten vegetables hurled from below that slid down, obstructing a good portion of the view. Mayor LaCour squeaked backward in his rickety chair.
“Maxwell, would you like to sit?”
“I’m fine with standing,” the elder crossed his arms.
“Please,” the man glared at him. A large tomato suddenly splattered against the window in front of Max’s face, and that was all the encouragement he needed.
“Pierre, can we close the curtains, please?!” La Cour huffed, running a hand through his silvery hair.
“Of course sir!” The butler rushed over, pulling the large crimson drapes shut. More vegetables came flying as he did. Max felt his heart skip a beat with every thump against the glass, though in surveying the circle of faces he and Lucien now found themselves a part of, no one else seemed particularly on edge. Even the mayor himself seemed more content to pore over a newspaper than to address the crippling silence taking hold of the room. For several moments, the only sounds one could hear were the old grandfather clock ticking in the far left corner and the din of the angry crowd below. La Cour rustled through his newspaper, though he at last broke the silence after throwing it down on his desk in annoyance. Max glanced over at the headline:
OUTLANDERS ATTACK WEST GATE, INVADE CITY; MULTIPLE CASUALTIES, SEVERAL DEATHS SUSPECTED
“These crowds get their first whiff of blood in the afterlife and suddenly it’s anarchy. But of course we all know this is not the afterlife,” he sighed. “I want to know who leaked this.”
“Probably that hack journalist, what’s-his-name,” Vice Mayor Beatrice Castile thought aloud.
“Benoit Laurent,” grumbled one of the other old councilmen.
“That’s the one,” La Cour nodded. “I’d love to hang his body upside down from the roof!”
“Does it really matter?” Louis, his aging, timid-voiced accountant sighed. “There’s no coming back from this. We’re finished. Might as well start swallowing the cyanide pills.”
“I prefer arson. Easier to hide,” Beatrice added.
“Now stop it, all of you!” the mayor snapped, rising from his chair. “I called you here to help me formulate a plan, not sit around like a bunch of corpses waiting to desiccate! Christ, you all look as if you might croak at any moment, save of course for these two young gentlemen from the Barreau District. What we need right now are answers, because those savages decided to attack the city wall on the week before my welcome gala! You cannot tell me that doesn’t reek of suspicion.”
“All due respect,” Louis shrugged, “but holing yourself up in Morcourt doesn’t exactly bode well for your public appearance, either. The crowds are already screaming for blood, and even if you do choose to address them now, you’ll face assassination. Also, this is not the most secure location and we all know it. There are no underground tunnels or secret passageways leading in or out. Captain Gerard and his teams can only hold back the mob for so long before they break down the bloody doors, and when that happens-”
“Oh just go and kill yourself now if you’re that faithless!” La Cour cut him off. “Don’t you think I’ve already accounted for that? We’ve got tight security and armored cars waiting out back. I pray we don’t have to use them, but there’s a clear path for the Serreines province should it become necessary. I plan to address the crowds.”
“That’s suicide,” Beatrice muttered.
“And just what are we to tell the new arrivals as everyone starts to riot here, then? Someone’s got to speak to them sooner or later! I’d prefer not to cancel an event with weeks worth of planning. We must encourage ongoing positive morale in the capital city. Besides, General Rodin assured me that investigative reports concerning the attack on the wall are forthcoming.”
“In that case, sir,” his publicist chimed in, “perhaps it is best we postpone the celebrations until a definitive conclusion is reached. They’ll be more apt to trust you.”
“I’m not calling it off!”
“Sir, I didn’t say-”
“What’s the point of postponing? Either our own citizens riot in the streets, or we have a bunch of rats running around causing all manner of mischief because they haven’t a clue what to do with themselves! I want this contained, and quickly. God forbid anyone else dies!”
“Sir, if you’ll allow me to finish,” his publicist sighed. “Might I suggest the possibility of moving the gala to your summer villa at the Verdevale Province Air Field? It’s not too far from the city. There is more space and it’s an open atmosphere, not as congested. People will feel safer, perhaps more welcome there. The trains will arrive on site as well. We could plan for fireworks.”
“What about the market right next door? Security will be more dispersed than I’m comfortable with, especially after the loss of several Dispatcher squads. And that still doesn’t solve the problem of what to tell these goddamn reporters!” La Cour grumbled, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Anyone else want to offer some bright ideas? Max?”
“Sorry, what?” The elder had caught himself zoning out as he rested his chin on his knuckles. Now that all eyes were trained on him with the expectation of an answer, everything went blank. The political climate in the Metropolies was of little concern to him compared with the loss of Quentin the previous night and the survival of his boys. He had his suspicions of course regarding Lucien’s possible role in the attack, but that’s all they were. If he was going to prove his old friend was in fact a traitor, he would need evidence, and that would take time. At least he knew the La Cour family might be on his side, given that the mayor favored him enough to show him adoption papers the previous night—an offer he’d refused, though still struggled with. That’s when he came up with a plan. Stand your ground. Don’t let Lucien know you were thinking twice. “Why are you asking me for answers? That’s what your advisors are for.”
“I thought I might use the two of you as field consultants to gauge public opinion,” the mayor admitted, pacing around his desk. “Both of you have lived here since before I was elected. You remember what Cavarice used to be, what it stands for, and what it should be. When I started my campaign, I built it on the premise of change. A return to the glory days, if you will-”
“First off, cut the shit!” Max snapped. “I can tell you right now that nobody wants to hear it after last night’s attack, least of all me! The people are angry because you’ve lost control. Any idiot could see that. It’s time to stop lamenting the good old days and focus on calming them down before your approval rating sinks any lower. You said reports from General Rodin are coming, yeah?”
The mayor was suddenly cut off by a loud bang from across the room as a squad of Dispatchers in black leather trench coats stormed through the ornate double doors with such force that the top hinge on one of them broke off. Everyone jumped out of their skin while Max and Lucien bolted out of their chairs and stood at the ready, exchanging worried glances. The elder grit his teeth. He hadn’t thought to bring a phase unit, and considering his brief encounter with Antoine the previous night, there was no telling what this squad’s motives were.
But rather than apprehend anyone, the young men in black quickly stepped aside to make way for a pale blonde woman in a green miniskirt and matching business jacket. A small hat with a fishnet veil sat atop her bob of wavy, golden locks. She was beautiful, and yet exuded a presence much like a destructive force of nature. Her large, blue eyes seethed with hurricane fury, her pouty lips twisted in a bright red lipstick snarl that looked like a rose about to explode. And explode she did.
“Would you mind telling me just what the HELL is going on?!” the woman roared, charging up to the desk.
“Constance!” La Cour choked nervously. “Good of you to join us.”
“Not so good for you, I’m afraid!” she spat. “I was gone for a mere two days securing business deals in the Falvarre province and I come home to rioting in the streets! Apparently, I can’t leave you alone for five minutes without holding your hand like a bloody child.”
“Please, if you’ll allow me to-”
“News travels fast, by the way,” she snapped her fingers, prompting one of her Dispatchers to step over and toss a newspaper on the man’s desk with yet another distressing headline from the Falvarre Daily:
TERROR IN CAVARICE; OUTLANDERS RETURN, WEST WALL BREACHED
“As I recall, I’ve told you to have more security stationed at the west gate. This should have been addressed immediately, before you had a crowd of angry people ready to break down your doors!” she huffed. “By the way, what is this riffraff doing here?” She gestured back to Max and Lucien. The young elder’s heart was thudding in his chest at the sheer power of her presence. So this is why La Cour backs out of confrontation.
“I invited them as advisors on public opinion, as they have experience-”
“Ha!” Constance chuckled. “Unless you’re bloody blind, you already know how the public perceives you. Take a long, lovely gander,” she stomped around the back of his desk and flung the crimson curtain wide open again, “at THAT! Ah, the sweet smell of dissension. So many angry citizens, fed up with the stale rhetoric of their tired old leader. As it so happens, the timing could not be more perfect.”
La Cour balked. “What are you talking about?”
“My candidacy for mayor, of course,” she turned back with a grin. “The people are crying out for justice. They need a proper leader to ensure their protection against terrorists both foreign and domestic. And with election season right around the corner, what better time than now to announce my campaign?”
“You wouldn’t dare!” the man bellowed. “Not with your conflicts of interest.”
“Oh, I have my ways, darling,” Constance assured him. “The beauty of it is that it would hardly matter. You’ve managed to create one blunder after another, to the point your approval rating has gone down the shitter. Meanwhile, my stocks continue to rise, and you…well, without my help and your current title, you’re one step away from bankruptcy, aren’t you? Now, if you’re quite done sitting in your office sulking with the rest of these crusty old heaps, we’ve got damage control to address. And not to worry. I’ll be speaking ahead of you. And lest you make any more of a mockery of our administration, my Dispatchers are here to keep things tidy. Any questions?”
“You’re a real bitch,” La Cour muttered.
“Proud of it. Shall we?” Constance hooked her arm around his and gestured to her private squad. “And show our little ‘public advisors’ to the door, will you? They’re stinking up the hall.”
“Of course, ma’am,” the captain answered. “Let’s go, you two.”