Whom Emperors Have Served, Chapter 5: Gremlins in the Gears

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It was monumental.  It struck awe.  He had gotten many a glimpse of the vessel from his various stations across the harbor, but aboard, inside, in person, The Prince’s Emblazoned was a veritable wonder of human experience.  Beau Pierre was indefatigably thrilled to be here, and not even the other guests’ dismay at his presence could deflate that.  Oh boy were they dismayed, though.  Unfortunately for him, the voyage was not crowded, given the celebratory and exclusive nature of the event, and the lack of crowds meant there was little to obfuscate his presence from the other passengers, who, it turned out, were about as unlike him as people could be.

Beau was not the only person out of place here.  Beyond Hawberk’s insular crowd of Manhattan socialites, there were a number of clear business connections–officers of the Army and Navy, a particularly boozy delegation of Hawberk’s employees from London, a reserved cabal of longtime industry collaborators from Bombay, a set of cagey and rather rude Austrians whose connection to the group Beau could not intuit, and one lost-looking bourgeois gentleman whom he surmised might be the replacement player Wilde was so upset over–but even among them, Beau stood out.  These groups weren’t part of the scene, and their interactions with the New York group were tepid, polite, and experimental.  Beau couldn’t be part of the scene.  Any scene.  His dress, his mannerisms, his social intuitions were all unignorably wrong, and even without accosting a single passenger, he earned a week’s worth of derisive stares each time he stepped into a room.  Hildred’s performative anger the previous morning aside, Beau had been given neither the time nor the resources to craft an upper crust persona, and he would just need to work with what he had.

What he had were out of the way alcoves, a rapport with the crew–which he was nominally a part of–and an evolving dossier of “the situation”.  Between Wilde’s briefing and some pointed questions to his crewmates, he had pieced together a reasonable depiction of who all was here for what.  The New Yorkers and Londoners were here to party, and they seemed to be a mix of the sort of people who made parties–like aviator-turned-playboy, Lamont Sterling–and the sort of employee or connection who might be bribed with an invitation to such a party.  The Indians and Austrians were here for business meetings, whether the kind explicitly scheduled or the kind they were hoping to have ad hoc, Beau didn’t know which, and still others–Hildred’s brother, Louis, and Constance Hawberk–were there just to make the appropriate appearance amidst Hawberk’s display of his empire’s reach.  Most aspects of it made sense.  What still eluded him, though, was why Wilde was so pissed about it all.

The meeting with the little man had been fascinating.  Beau could see well enough why he struck such visceral fear into the degenerates of his King in Yellow society.  The man knew everything: every dirty secret, every guilty pleasure, off-hour schedules, first loves, forbidden loves, your stupid shellfish allergy and the date you learned about it.  It was a crazy array of dirt and data that a well-funded spy network would struggle to collate, all stored in the diminutive crevices between the little gremlin’s brain and his ledger.  Beau found it hilarious.  Threatening, certainly, but he was caught up in the insanity of the ride, consequences be damned.  

What became clear immediately upon Wilde’s explanation of Beau’s responsibilities on the voyage was that his declared reason for being there was bullshit.  The stakes of today’s poker game were $10,000 per player, for a total of $60,000.  The winner would receive half the total pot, and the remainder would be donated to a set of homeless shelters in New York City, meaning the sum total of what Beau could even save the company was…$30,000.  Worth his ticket price, sure, but it was pennies to a conglomerate like Hawberk’s.  And Beau was sure that much more was being spent just taking this ship for a ride in the first place.  It was odd that Wilde would even care about the small change, but whether or not he actually did, he cared about something on this voyage a lot.

It was easy enough to see that Wilde was a…characteristically irritated person, but Beau took note of his particular irritations.  A common theme among them seemed to be xenophobia–he spent nearly an hour the first day at sea interrogating members of the Austrian and Indian groups that were unlucky enough to be separated from their companions at the wrong times–but it could just as well have been a paranoid hatred of surprises.  Wilde seemed every bit as peeved with Mr. Fontaine, the bourgeois late-add, despite him being possibly the most American American Beau had ever met, and this was to say nothing of the man’s preoccupation with the horizon.  Beau had come upon him and Hildred the previous day atop the viewing deck to find the little man perched upon the railing, anxiously scanning the distance with a spyglass.

He inquired as to whether Wilde had concerns as to the possibility of a pirate attack.  The man responded by beating him angrily with said spyglass.

It was all very suspicious, he thought, but it was also frustratingly opaque.  Today, he was trying to glean more from the loose ends that weren’t Felix Wilde himself.  He’d washed and pressed his clothes so as to shrink the gulf between him and the other guests, and now, amidst the post-lunch preparation for the much anticipated poker match, he was lingering by a buffet table in the dining room, trying to eavesdrop on the Austrians, who had not yet left their table.  His German wasn’t great, and he was having a hell of time following the particulars of their dialect, but he was piecing their body language together with the words he did understand as best he could.  They were stressed, that was certain, and it seemed to be a matter of being ready for a meeting this evening–or a boxing match?  The former was probably more likely, but he made a mental note to check the lower decks after the poker game.  He was a betting man, after all, and free money was free money.  At that moment, he caught an angry glare from the one he assumed was the boss–an intense man with side-slicked hair and a square tuft of mustache on his upper lip–and he failed to notice the other individual who took that moment to approach him.

“Tell me what you’re doing here.”

Beau twitched to attention, suddenly registering the woman next to him.  She was pretty, brunette, in a smartly-tailored jacket and skirt ensemble that more closely resembled a man’s business suit than the fashionable, vaguely formless dresses the other female guests wore.  She didn’t seem happy with him, though he had no idea why.

“Sorry, what?”

“I’d like to get it out of the way before the game,” she said, putting a hand on her hip.  She had a British accent, but he didn’t recall seeing her with the London group.  “What does Wilde have you doing here?  What weird thing is that weird, little man trying to inject into all this?”  Beau nodded.  Yes, that was right: She was another of the players.  He glanced down, flipping his notepad to the list Wilde had given him.

“Ah, yes, Miss…” he said, struggling to decipher his chicken scratch under pressure.  “Glossington-Cla–”  He suppressed a yelp as the woman grabbed him by the arm, nearly hard enough to dislocate his shoulder, and all but dragged him from the dining room.  “Wait, Miss, I’m–”

She pulled him around a sharp turn, through the doors, and shoved him into what appeared to be a pantry.  Beau noticed that the color had drained from her face, and a frightening rage had ignited in her eyes.

“My name is Carol Jones,” she hissed, drawing a revolver from her jacket.  “What did you call me?”  Beau froze, eyes fixed on the gun and the spectral possibilities emanating from it.  Odds were…one to two that it fired in the next minute.  Not comforting at all.

“Um,” he searched.  “I’m sorry, uh.  Maybe Mr. Wilde’s list was wrong?”


Beau winced as the woman stepped forward, jamming the revolver into his neck.  He looked down, frozen, trying to keep calm.  Carol was still pissed as hell, but her expression was more desperate now, as if she was trying to read something from him.  And the gun…odds were one to five now.  Better, he guessed?

Shaking, he slowly raised the notepad, open to the player list, offering it to her.  She snatched it, taking a step back and shoving him into a rickety, can-laden shelf with the barrel of the revolver.  She glanced at the notepad and, taking the gun off him for just a second, tore the page from it.

“Alright,” she said, pocketing the page and reorienting her aim.  “Tell me everything.  Who are you?  What are you doing on this ship?  What does Wilde want?”

“Uh, my name’s Beau,” he stammered.  “I’m here because Mr. Wilde wants me to win the poker game to save the company money–”  He raised his hands as she put her finger on the trigger.  “And–and I know it sounds stupid and fake, and I think it’s just an excuse, and I’m trying to figure out what he actually wants too!”

He held his breath as she kept the gun trained on him for ten more seconds of silence.

“Fuck!” she spat again, lowering the gun.  She turned, shoving a stack of canned beans to the floor.

“If it helps any–”  He gulped as she turned her gaze back on him.  “If it helps, I think he’s pretty worried right now.  Like he thinks something is about to happen.”

He caught his breath as Carol paused.  She seemed surprised by his conjecture, but it was hard to tell why.

“It’s probably not about me, then,” she said.  “Still, fuck!  This entire time!”  She refocused on Beau.  “Alright, first thing, again: My name is Carol.  Miss Jones, to you.  Forget what Wilde told you, forget what you wrote down.  If you ever repeat that other name again, I will make you regret it.  Understand?”

Beau nodded eagerly, happy at the turn the confrontation had taken and relieved that his chances of being imminently shot had grown remote.

“Second, how much is Wilde paying you?”

“I mean, he’s mostly blackmailing me,” Beau admitted.  Carol groaned.  “But.  But!  I’m totally willing to negotiate if you think you can keep me away from the French authorities.”

“Okay…” Carol mused.  “Okay.  And here I was thinking this trip might be a deescalation, but I guess now’s the opportunity for…something.  We can compare notes at the very least.  If you don’t sell me out, I have some resources that could help you.  And if you do…”

“Regret, yes, got it.”  Carol nodded, apparently satisfied.

“Details then: What is it that has him so worr–”

She was interrupted by a deafening blast of the ship’s foghorn.  The sound resonated through the pantry, shaking the shelves and causing the various stacks of cans and foodstuffs to sway precariously.  Carol sighed.

“Damn,” she said.  “We’ll have to talk later.  That was the thirty-minute warning, which means we’re expected in the ballroom.”  She turned to leave.  “I’ll see you there, I suppose.  And take care with what you report to Wilde–I’ll be listening.”

With that, she exited, hastily returning the revolver to her jacket pocket.  Beau sighed and slumped against the shelf as the adrenaline seeped out of him.  He had no idea how she intended to listen in on his conversations with Wilde, but he didn’t really intend to betray her.  Not yet.  In this mystery of a battleground–or battleground of a mystery?  It was certainly some combination of the two–he was interested enough to just explore the sides.  Still, he made a mental note of one planned transgression:

Charlotte Glossington-Clarke.  He didn’t know the name, but perhaps he should.  If he made it back to dry land, unperforated by any revolvers as it were, he would need to make a point of looking it up.

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