Chapter 03 [Revised]: A Case of Identities and Loyalties

Guinevere. You are Guinevere.

My mind raced wantonly as Vivian half-led, half-dragged me down the hallway. I kept catching glimpses of people as we went -- young guy with goatee and dark glasses: Percival, joy -- and I couldn't stop -- middle-aged woman with grim haircut and cheerful pumps: Elaine, pity and jealousy -- seeing them as if I knew them. The Personae behind their faces were practically screaming their names to me. There: an Arthur-type! My heart did a little flutter.

I was losing my grip.

Vivian's insistent tugging on my hand was not helping. Touching her was like licking a battery: it sent tingles all up and down my arm, sparking into and out of my brain with the tantalizing promise of more than I could handle. She led me directly down the hallway, jaw set, and it was as if the seas parted before us: people steered around us as if veering around an iceberg. They seemed almost unconscious of it, or if they were they sure as hell weren't making eye contact with either one of us. People who were obviously walking in pairs slid to either side as Vivian plowed us through their midst, only to merge smoothly back into step with one another as they passed around us. Even people whose backs were to us seemed to unconsciously steer out of our way. We could have run full-tilt through the crowded hallway - at the speed Vivian was walking, we nearly were - and not jarred a single elbow.

"Here," she hissed, “in here.”

The door beeped as she ran her security badge over the scanner and practically shoved me in. The conference room inside was small, and as we squeezed into it, the five men who had crowded around the table looked up in surprise.

“Hey,” objected one , starting to stand, “we’ve got the room until-“

»Hi. I'm Vivian.« Her voice vibrated up and down my spine, a tuning fork in the key of sex. I shivered, deep down. Turning to her, my breath caught as she undid the top button of her blouse.

»My number’s on a bathroom stall somewhere on the third floor. First one to call gets more than he bargained for.« She licked her lips. Where her tongue passed, they seemed to glow for a second, with a promise of much more.

They practically fell over themselves scrambling out of the room. The last two to make the door found themselves with her palms resting gently but firmly on their chests. She turned to the smaller of the pair, on the right.

»Forget the bathrooms. Two mochas. Extra whipped cream. Five minutes, on the dot. Make me happy and you can lick it off the toe of my boot.« He trembled, and vanished through the portal.

She hadn’t removed her hand from the chest of the other man. He was a big guy, extra athletic, like he did couples Crossfit by himself. There was a sharpness to his gaze, though, as if his eyes could pierce the veil of reality. A Merlin-type, I recognized. She ran her hand over his pecs as if they were oiled. I could see the goosebumps rise on his neck, and felt them on mine.

“Vivian’s at her most powerful when she’s using sex as a weapon,” she said, the words once again sounding normal on her lips. “The bit players can’t help but become part of the story.”

Not moving her hand off of her mark, she turned her gaze to me. “Isn’t that right… Guinevere?”

I swallowed. “I… I don’t know.”

“That doesn’t sound very regal to me. Does it sound regal to you, baby?” she purred to the big man. He started to answer, but she cut him off. “Shut up and learn about rhetorical questions, or I will find something for you to do with that mouth.”

Then she shoved me, hard, in the chest. I didn’t see it coming, and could do nothing but topple backwards into a recently-vacated chair. It was still warm.

I looked up at her in shock and hurt, and then it was my turn for my breath to catch in my throat. The hand that had shoved me was covered in an ill-fitting red glove.

“Had to get you all to myself, honey,” she purred. “Because, you know… you’re Guinevere. Or so I hear.”

She put a red-gloved finger to her pursed lips, eyes wide in Betty Boop surprise. “How lucky for me! It’s awfully convenient that the new Guinevere just happens to be in town when the old one dies under murderous circumstances days before Arthur begins his ascent towards the throne. Awfully convenient for the Red-Handed League’s hidden spy, anyway - that’d be me - that the new Guinevere is a terrible judge of character.”

I couldn’t read a thing off of her. My supposedly fine-tuned sense of other people putting on an act wasn’t going off at all. But she was so over the top!

“You’re not-“ I started.

Prove it,” she snapped. She turned to her beefcake.

»Kill her, and I’ll tie you to a hawthorn tree and work my magic on you until it feels like you’ve been there for all eternity,« she ordered. Then she gave me a playful shrug. “You want real results, you invoke the story as much as possible. Don’t you agree, Highness?”

Oh, dear. She wants you to-

No shit, Sherlock. She wants me to go full Persona on this guy. Gwen Drake could do it… did it to me, even. All I have to do is be the Queen, order him to stop. Guinevere could do it.

The man was lunging at me, his hands grasping for my throat. He was going to choke me to death while this red-gloved bitch laughed.

She wants you to make him stop. The ill-fitting glove isn’t hers: she found it in the Library. She does not belong to the Red-Handed League: the glove is misdirection. She does not trust that you are who Doyle says you are. She is testing you.

How comforting. And how long is she going to let him choke me to death before deciding that I’m a disappointment?

She wants you to be Guinevere. If she truly were convinced you were a spy, she’d have killed you herself. She wants to believe. You have only to allow her to confirm her belief by making this man-

“Stop!” I shouted. He paused, fingers hovering inches from my neck.

Vivian leaned in. I had one second.

I took a deep breath. My eyes flew desperately around the room. I could hear the blood gushing in my own veins. A scrap of an aroma flew into my nostrils. I drew it all in… everything.

I laughed.

“Panama,” I gasped, breath short from laughter, not choking. My attacker withdrew as if I’d struck him.

“Oh, honey,” I purred, rising out of my seat. “You don’t want any part of this. You seem very confused - you’re confused, aren’t you? She almost made you do something awful. Her. If she gets a chance to talk again, who knows what she’ll make you do? You should silence her.”

He hesitated, turning to Vivian with a wild look in his eye. She sighed audibly, pulling the glove off with a roll of her eyes.

“You’re gay, aren’t you?” She snorted. »I have all the same holes a boy does. Now get lost before I rub the other one on you.«

Even I blushed. My erstwhile attacker didn’t have a chance. The trickle of sweat that started to run down from his forehead didn’t have the time to make it to his temple before he’d sprinted from the room. The droplet hung in the air for a moment, as confused as he was, before plummeting to the ground.

The smaller guy—an Arthur-type, I now realized—was back with the mochas, and had flattened himself to the wall to avoid being bowled over as the door crashed open. He was starting to look panicked when Vivian leaned out the doorway and planted a long, slow kiss on his lips. As he melted under her attentions, she reached out with both hands and retrieved the drinks, hands moving independently of her tongue. Drawing back, she tugged his lower lip in her teeth for a moment, before letting him go with a snap.

»Thanks, hon. Now scoot. I’d break your bones.«

He followed on his fleeing compatriot’s heels.

As the door clicked behind him, she appraised the drinks. “Clumsy gay boy. He sloshed this one when he bumped Mr. Limp Kisser.” She handed the jostled drink to me. When I slitted my eyes at it in her outstretched hand, she glared back at me. “I didn’t tell him to poison it. You heard. Take the damn mocha. It’s got extra whipped cream. Good for your nerves. You’ve had a hell of a morning.”

“Caffeine is terrible for the nerves,” I countered. “You just tried to kill me.”

“No,” she corrected. “The gay man who I made want me tried to kill you, but he did it very gently. Maybe I’m losing my touch? I’m pushing twenty-five. Am I showing my age?”

“Only in the way that you problem-solve.”

“With my boobs? Don’t worry, sweetie, you’ll learn. You’re what, nineteen?”

“Eighteen.” I took the mocha. “I do like whipped cream.”

“See? You’re learning already.”

“I already liked whipped cream.”

“But by grudgingly agreeing to take this lactose sugar bomb, you are oh-so-graciously saving me from having to drink two mochas by myself, and you already know that I’m concerned about losing my charms. Do you know how many calories these things have? I’d have a muffin top in ten minutes flat. How am I going to play a G-string with thunder thighs? So basically, you’re saving me from myself. You’re my goddamn hero. Now we are besties and can do each other’s nails and have slumber parties while singing pop karaoke. Isn’t it fun to be a girl?”

I was confused, but I couldn’t help but smirk. “Maybe button your shirt back up? You’re starting to remind me of my mother.”

She did not adjust her buttons. From what I could see of her bra, it had more straps than it needed. “I am either very mad at you or want to get nasty with your mom. I’ll let you know later. You don’t act like Guinevere.”

The last was said with no pause, no transition, no change in voice or posture. Vivian’s test wasn’t over.

“I don’t know how Guinevere acts,” I countered. “All I know is that you mojo’ed that guy to come after me, and I ordered him to stop. And he did.”

“You distracted him.”

Languidly, she sat down, and I followed suit, banging my knee on the table as I fell into a chair. She took the top off of the cappuccino and dipped a finger in, coming back out with a puff of steamed milk. Slowly, she drew her tongue down the finger, licking the foam away. It was as if I could feel her tongue in the small of my back, working its way delicately up my spine… Her feline eyes watched me all the while.

I shuddered, uncertain if this display bothered me, or if I liked it. "Do you do everything like a porn star?" I asked.

"You should watch me eat a jelly donut," she winked. She whipped her tongue out to catch the last fleck of foam on the tip of her finger, then licked her lips.

She repeated herself. “Distracted. Not ordered. I thought we trusted each other. What’s a bestie to make of that?”

“That she doesn’t know everything?” I suggested.

“That’s what worries me,” she replied, head cocked. She repeated the finger dip.

I reached out, wrapped my fingers around her foam-covered one, and jerked my hand back quickly. A little squirt of froth shot into the air.

"Why don't we skip all the foreplay?" I suggested.

"Foreplay is for nice guys," she agreed. “I finish first. You going to throw me up against the wall?"

"Depends on your ability to get to the point," I snapped.

Her yellow cat’s eyes glittered. “You just learned about Personae twenty minutes ago, yet you're able to draw a bit player into your story enough to stop him from murdering you when he's in thrall to a supposedly more experienced Persona. But you do it all wrong. You're supposed to be a queen, but rather than just ordering the guy not to murder you, somehow you're able to call up a single word that reminds the guy attacking you about a personal detail that distracts him enough that you can act like what you're really doing is commanding him to stand down and hope I'm as dumb as I pretend to be." She shook her head. "Sorry, kid: you're not the only one who can act. But you do act calm when suddenly confronted with violence. Most people who get shoved around and then threatened with death get panicky, but you're cool as a cucumber. You laugh. And you think clearly despite the danger: did you believe the red glove thing for even a second? Also, you're eighteen, but you can banter about hand jobs with an adult sexpot, and no, I don't have illusions about what character I'm playing." She paused for breath.

"Lance and Doyle may not look above your boobs, but I am a much badder bitch than they are. You don't fool me." Her eyes were blades. "So. Who. The fuck. Are you?"

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, composed myself. It wasn’t an act. I was scared.

“My name is Gwendolyn Ivana ar-Rahmani DeGrace. I grew up in Yemen and am the adopted daughter of a controversial Senator, so today was not the first timethis week that I’ve had someone threaten my life. It’s the first time anyone’s called me Guinevere, though, and I’m terrified that it might be true, but also that it might not be. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

I opened my eyes, met Vivian’s. “But I do know that you’re scared. You’re scared of the same thing that I am: that I might not be her… or that I might be. I don’t know what to tell you. I wish I did, but the Guinevere thing… I just don’t know. It’s Doyle who’s so sure, not me.”

I shook my head. “I’ve read every Arthurian story in the Library. I know Guinevere. If I’m her, I must be Guinevere the girl, before Arthur met her, because I’m for damn sure not a noble queen - or an adulteress. Maybe it would be good if I were her? It sounds like you need a Guinevere. But if I’m not, and I screw this up… it sounds like that’s bad, too. I don’t know what to want.

“But…” I hesitated. “I… I think there’s one thing that I do know that I want: I want you not to be scared… not of me. You… I left the Library with you because I felt a connection there. I trusted you, like… like you’re part of my story. There’s something about you… something like putting your tongue on a battery. I know I should pull away, get out of here. But I want more. I want this to be slumber parties and karaoke, not death threats. I… I don’t want you to hate me.”

She stood motionless while I spoke. Her eyes didn’t un-slit themselves. Her mask didn’t crack.

“Guinevere… Guin Drake… she’s the reason I’m here. Camelot’s always been a club for boys, and New Camelot isn’t really any different. Every now and then you’ll get a gender-swapped Persona, a female Bedivere or something… but this Camelot is the usual sausage-fest. And there’s really no reason for me to be involved: Arthur doesn’t want a Merlin in Camelot, so he damn sure doesn’t want a Vivian. But Guin, she’s… she was… decent. She was decent. She had mercy that Arthur wouldn’t let himself have. Arthur’s not a bad man - he’s a great man, and maybe that’s just as messed-up. But Guin Drake never had any illusions about her humanity. She was decent. She let me in. She made them let me in.”
 Her jaw clenched, and I watched the tendons of her hand stand taut as she fought herself off from crushing the paper cup in her hand outright.

“Vivian’s never been of Camelot, even though she’s part of the myth. Guin knew that. She could see it in my eyes, that I won’t be around here forever. But she let me in anyway. She told me once that she saw storms in my eyes… and that she loved thunderstorms. She told me that I wasn’t anything to be afraid of. And then…” Vivian swallowed. “Then she shook her head and said that they would be afraid of me anyway. She said she was sorry.”

Vivian laughed. “Then she told me that if I tried to fuck her husband like the Vivian in the stories, she’d cut open my belly and choke me to death with my Fallopian tubes. Yeah. Graphic. I’ve steered clear of the whole slew of knights, just to be on the safe side.”

The mask dropped. There was genuine pain written across her features. “So I’m going to give you a shot, kid. But you had better fucking know: I’m not loyal to Arthur. I’m loyal to Guin. If you screw over her memory-“

She drew herself up. Composed herself again. Put the mask back on.

“But you won’t do that, will you?” It wasn’t a vote of confidence. It was a promise.

“I don’t want to,” I promised back. “What… what do you want?”

“I want my friend back,” she snapped.

There was something there. I tugged a little. “I’m really sorry. I’m probably not much of a comfort right now. You heard Doyle, at least. Arthur will see to it that her killer is punished.”

Arthur,” she sneered. “Doyle’s supposed to be Sherlock-Fucking-Holmes. Why isn’t he doing it?”

“Maybe Arthur wanted dibs?”

“Maybe Arthur doesn’t give a shit.” She sighed, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “No, that’s not fair. Whatever else they were… he loved her. I saw them together. When they were in the same room, he was just a guy who loved a girl. He looked at her even when she wasn’t looking back. But now… Arthur’s a great man. He’ll do what he has to do. You’ve got a tough row to hoe, kid. Or Arthur does? At least you’re legal.”

I shuddered. “You mean… he’d really… me? Sex?”

“Not that it would be any good, is my guess.” She laughed, throaty and deep. “Nice looking guy, don’t get me wrong, but he probably wears that suit even when he’s naked. Nothing but suits, all the way down. But you’re eighteen; you don’t know any better.”

“If I spend much time with you, I’ll bet I learn a lot. So Arthur would sleep with a teenager before his wife is even in the ground, but you think he might not go looking for her killer?” I shook my head. “What kind of great does that make him?”

She straightened. “A Persona. The kind with his eyes on the prize. And it ain’t you, girl. He just needs you to play your part. Your public and… private parts.”

I snorted. “You were going to say ‘pubic’, weren’t you? You’d get along with boys my age.”

She smiled. “I was. Don’t know why I didn’t. I must be trying to behave myself in front of the Queen.”

I squirmed. “Does… does that mean you think I’m her?”

Vivian sighed. Her perfect features sagged into mere beauty for a moment. She looked exhausted.

“I don’t know, kid. I’ve known who I was for a long time now… long enough to have outlived one Persona, only to meet his replacement. It’s… confusing.”

“Really?” I asked. “Who was it?”

“Sir Percival,” she lied. I knew immediately that it was a lie, the way she searched my face the split second after she said it.

Her cat’s eyes saw my head cock, and the mask came back up. The fatigue and sadness washed away into glistening beauty, the kind you wanted to lick. It made my brain go fuzzy, made my heart flutter, made a warmth bloom deep inside me. Good grief, when she turned it on, she turned everyone on!

I’m sorry, Vivian. We’ve all got party tricks.

“You shouldn’t call me kid,” I changed the subject. “I’m only what, three or four years younger than you?”

“You flatterer,” she purred. “Tell me more… if it pleases your Highness.”

“Highness…” I mused. “A girl could get used to that. But let’s stick with ‘Gwen’.”

“Whatever you want, your Gwen-ness,” she smiled, lips pulling lazily apart. Whatever it was that I’d won in that little exchange, I’d pay for it by having her guard up all over again.

“Whatever I want?”

She looked coyly down, and undid another button on her shirt. At this point there weren’t that many left. She tossed her hair back over he shoulder, dipped her head, and looked up into my eyes.

“Whatever.”

I scrambled backwards, heart pounding. “Jeez- put those away! I was going to ask for your lunch money just to see if… Not everything is… I… you…!”

She laughed merrily. “Don’t tease the sexpot, your Gwen-ness. I’ve only got two speeds, and one of them is ‘sweaty’.”

Then she did button herself up to a decent state, and dialed back the mojo to something more compatible with my hormones. She looked back up at me and smirked again.

“If it makes you feel any better,” she offered, “I grabbed Guin Drake’s ass the first time we met.”

I raised an eyebrow at the mental image of the woman who’d made parked cars scramble out of her way getting goosed. Then I grinned. “Well, the day’s still young. What are we doing next?”

She sighed and rolled her eyes. “I have a book report to write. On you. For Arthur.”

“Will it be about how to seduce me?”

“Oh god,” she made a face. “No. I may not have principles, but I do have guidelines, and you just got out of diapers, k- your Gwen-ness. Ew. I will let you two awkwardly fumble through that encounter without any professional help and now I am thinking about it and he’s unzipping his pants and it’s all suits and diapers and wooooo-sah…”

She fanned a hand in front of her face while I glared at her. “You were just vamping me not a full minute ago, and now you’re going to be like that…”

“His cock is almost three times your age.” She made a sound like a cat with a hairball.

After a second, so did I. Then we both erupted into a fit of giggles.

As we recovered, she put a hand on my shoulder. “Oh, honey,” she wiped away a tear, “find yourself a Lancelot-type as quick as you can. Iceman McStabbins isn’t your speed, and I think you’re going to need a friend.”

“You seem friendly,” I said.

“And I’m handy with a strap-on,” she agreed, “but I’m very good at seeming and very bad at actual being. You can do better.”

“I could do worse,” I insisted. “Don’t argue. Royal command.”

She straightened, paused. The mask was up, but it was hiding something conflicted. “Okay, Gwen.”

I let the moment go on. For the first time since the Library, I felt like we were on the same page.

Then I spoiled it. “So what goes into the book report? Do I pass the New Camelot loyalty test or whatever this is?”

She shook her head, unreadable once more. "You found out about New Camelot twenty minutes ago. You don't have any loyalty yet. Points of leverage for you are gratitude at saving your life - minimal, which is interesting - and curiosity about Personae, New Camelot, the Red-Handed League, blah blah blah. There's a whiteboard somewhere."

I tilted my head forward and raised an eyebrow. "You guys have had meetings about how to manipulate me?"

"Yep," she affirmed. “Emergency ones. This morning. Also about how to determine if you're a plant. There's no way to know if you're the real deal, even if Arthur does say that this Doyle guy has the best algorithms on the planet. The Red-Handed League has been targeting us. You could be an assassin."

I nodded. "The whole scene back there, it could have been a setup to get me on the inside, so I can take out Arthur. Still: I'm not a very good candidate for an assassin."

"I told them the same thing," she agreed. "You're too public. I mean, you're from Yemen. You throw up red flags just by existing. {You only missed the immigration ban by a few years: much later and you wouldn’t be able to come over at all. I know for a fact your name is in the Registry, and don’t start on the ‘I’m not a practicing Muslim’ thing, because you know that’s not grounds for removal.} Add to that the fact that you're the daughter of somebody on the Senate Intelligence Committee? Someone who's a friend of Arthur's? No way. It’s only possible if you're brainwashed. Are you brainwashed?"

“Only when you’re moving at warp speed: sweaty.”

She bit her lip, grinned. “Yeah, okay. You get a good book report. Get back to me when you find yourself a Lancelot and I’ll get you into fighting shape in no time.”

“I’m not sure fighting is what you’re all about.”

She snorted. “Don’t kid yourself that what I do is any different than what Arthur does. I fuck people. Up. Like the Lady Iliza says, this ain’t a push-up bra, baby: it’s a suit of fucking armor. Mascara? War paint, bitches. The Round Table has got nothing on these lady lumps.”

Her nostrils flared.

“So yeah. Arthur can take his shot at finding his wife’s murderer. But I’m going to be the one who finishes the job.”

I swallowed. “I believe you. Where do I sign up?”

“Uh-uh,” she shook her head. “You’re the Queen. I sign up to you.”

“I…” I hesitated. In this moment, disappointing Vivian seemed suicidally unwise. “I’m eighteen. How would I know how to find a killer?”

She leaned in. “Sorry, Gwen. You don’t get to weasel out of this one. You think Arthur’s got demands of you? Hah! He gets to be the King, and that means doing whatever he wants and the rest of us getting in line. You’re the Queen, honey. That means being everything to everyone. To him. To Lancelot. To me. And I need this. Your Majesty.”

I swallowed. She didn’t move a muscle. She was right: she had two speeds, and the other one was “waiting to pounce.”

“Pennyroyal,” I blurted.

Gwen!

I hadn’t meant to say it.

That is not for you to reveal, not yet.

You look at her, and you tell me again not to say anything. Look at her. Look at The Woman.

I-

My inside voice went silent again.

Vivian was still staring. Her predator’s eyes hadn’t blinked.

“Pennyroyal tea,” I elaborated. “Guin Drake was drinking it. Before she died.”

One blink. “Tell me,” she hissed.

“It’s an herbal tea. Very uncommon. You’d have to know what you were doing, make it special. You’ll never find it in the grocery store.”
 “Why?”
 “Because it can cause abortions.”

Neither of us said anything for a long moment.

“No,” she broke the silence. “That makes no sense. Guin couldn’t have babies.”

“How do you know?” I asked, softly.

“I… you know the story. No heir for Arthur.” She shook her head. “How do you know this, anyway?”

“My mother’s doctorate is in cultural anthropology. You’d never believe the weird stuff I’ve picked up over the years.”

“And you just happened to recognize the smell of abortion tea?”

“I… keep a collection of rare herbs. I went through it last night.”

“You… keep a collection… of rare herbs.” She tasted the words. “And you smelled your way through it last night? Identifying a scent that you’d been exposed to hours before, for a couple of minutes tops?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re sure? You’re not just telling me something because I want to hear-“

»Guin Drake was drinking a tea that can terminate a pregnancy and this is a clue to her murder,« I thundered. The world vibrated.

Vivian’s mask fell.

“Oh my god,” she whispered.

“Damn straight,” I stood. “So let’s quit fooling around and get to work. There’s a killer out there.”

She sat dumbfounded. “But… you know that I’m…”

“Of course,” I smiled. “But don’t feel so bad. I don’t know how you did it, with the guy you tried to have kill me. How’d you get him to do what you told him to?”

The mask was down, and the smile on her face was genuine. “The temptation to leave you in the dark is palpable. But then I wouldn’t get to tell you how I did it.” She laughed. “That part is the most fun.”

“I know,” I chuckled. “Now spill.”

She pushed the door to the room back open. “Jack? Donny? Nice job, guys.”

As she held the portal ajar, Mr. Crossfit and Mocha Guy rejoined us. The smaller of the two grinned at me, and his large companion looked sheepish.

“Uh… no hard feelings?” he grinned at me. “I hope you know I would never… I mean… it was just a…”

I laughed, shaking my head. “You were plants. The whole room. The whole time. You guys had been waiting for her to bring me here.”

Vivian looked like the canary she’d swallowed was settling very nicely. “Never hurts to be prepared.”

“You had a room full of guys waiting just in case you got me by myself after you met me. What else did you have?” I asked, shaking my head.

“There’s a shaped charge under your chair,” she answered, humor drained from her face. “My mocha had one of the triggers in it. Donny kept the other as a backup, just in case.”

I went pale. “Shaped charge… just in case what?

“Just in case you weren’t who I needed you to be,” she answered, eyes sparkling.

“You were going to blow up the room if I turned out to be a spy?”

“No,” she shook her head. “If you were just a spy, I was going to beat you senseless and drag you up to Arthur to decide what to do with you. War paint, remember? The explosives were just in case you turned out to be Morgan le Fey, or someone equally nasty.”

I shivered. “Arthur’s idea?”

“Mine. Arthur’s too trusting. I’m not going to let it get me killed. Shaped charges can turn you into constituent molecules and leave me at arm’s length with nothing worse than a ringing in my ears.”

I nodded slowly. “I’ll remember that.”

“Do that. Your Majesty.”

“But we’re cool?” I asked. I eyed the chair.

She laughed. “We’re cool, Gwen. Here,” she tossed something at me.

I snatched it out of the air. A small rectangle, with a tiny red button on it. I paled.

“Vivian! Don’t throw around the detonator!”

“Oh, Gwen,” she chortled, opening her palm to show a smaller, more digital-looking device. “Remember, I’m very good at seeming. That’s a clicker.” She waited for me to follow, and then elaborated. “For dog training.”

Cavill licked my hand, and then cocked his head at the thing on the table.

“Wait… clicker? Dog… how the… how are you here?” I asked.

“Came in with us,” big Jack replied, seeming not to think anything of it.

“He came in with you?” I echoed.

“What?” he shrugged. “He’s cleared. Arthur says.”

I blew out a long breath, and scratched Cavill behind the ears. He scooted forward, presenting his rump for butt-scratches. I gave it a halfhearted scratch, and he backed that thing up right into my bubble, insisting on more.

I clicked the clicker, experimentally. Think of it as a trust fall.

CLICK!

Suddenly, Cavill was on point. You could have laid a yardstick from the top of his head to the tip of his rump, and it would have touched his back the whole way down. He didn’t… growl, not exactly. There was a hiss of air with the faintest hint of a rumble, and without any other cognition, I was on point, too. Thousands of generations of co-evolution reared up, and every sense I could name and more than a few that I couldn’t focused on the door, and what was on the other side of it. The hallway was carpeted, but there was the faintest hint of a groan as a man’s weight pressed softly down…

Vivian’s eyes met mine: hard, flat. This was an unexpected guest.
 Cavill rumbled.

BEEP! went the door. It swung back.

“Oh, good, you’re both here,” clipped Doyle. “WATSON said there was an eighty-seven percent chance of that.”

He looked somewhat cross, like my father when he was talking about President Triumph’s latest debacle. Like he was perpetually disappointed by the universe’s failure to disappoint him. His hawklike visage seemed old beyond his years.

“You two,” he barked at Jack and Donny, “we’ll need the room. Take the dog.”

Cavill rumbled.

“Or perhaps the dog should stay,” Doyle amended. He waited while the other two filed out.

“You’ve got a report to write,” he snapped at Vivian. His voice was strained, though… there was something unsaid in it. The same unsaid something there had been in the Library.

“The timetable has accelerated,” he continued. “Arthur needs whatever you’ve got in the next hour. Don’t bother coordinating with Lance; just send it over.”

“Why?” she glared back. “What’s the big hurry?”

“In light of recent events, Arthur is convinced that the drawing of the sword is closer than we thought. We need to be prepared in case the enemy makes a move at today’s hearings.”

”I believe your stepdad puts my husband in the hot seat on the regular…”

“The intelligence hearings?” I asked.

Doyle gave me a look that said, Can you not see that mommy and daddy are talking?

But his words said, “That’s correct. Arthur is giving testimony on the leaked intelligence report that indicated that {the Wall with Mexico} is being used as a recruitment tool by radical extremists.”

“He’s giving that testimony to my father,” I replied.

Doyle and Vivian looked at me blankly.

“My father… Leo DeGrace. Arthur… Leodegrance? Who Arthur saves from… oh my god…” I put my hand to my mouth. “Dad’s the minority leader on the committee. The majority leader is Senator Rance. Don’t you two read?” I practically shouted.

Their expressions didn’t change, other than the blinking.

“Arthur saves Leodegrance from King Reince, after Leodegrance pledges fealty to Arthur! That’s how he and Guinevere meet! And now you’re telling me that Arthur thinks the hearings where Senator Leo DeGrace and Senator Rance will be fighting it out about Arthur’s testimony… he thinks those hearings are in danger?”

“Er… yes?” Doyle was clearly just getting up to speed. After is eyes refocused from the infinity of his data-displaying contact lenses, he nodded smartly. “All the more reason to get you to safety. Arthur has a secure location prepped for you.”

“Like hell,” I growled. “That’s my dad out there. We’re going to Capitol Hill. Saddle up.”

Vivian reached out gently and put her hand on my arm. Concern was written across her eyes.

“We don’t know what we’re up against here. Could make the scene back there in the Library look like a fairy tale. You sure you’re ready for this, Gwen?”

“When it comes to fairy tales, go Grimm or go home.” I raised myself up and withdrew my arm from Vivian’s restraint.

“You want to see a bad bitch? Mess with me.” I pulled Guin Drake’s red fingernail polish out of my pocket.

“War paint. Now let’s go to war.”