The little flitter swept out of the murk, faithfully following its assigned path to the customs platform below. It settled onto the steel deck and the window hissed open as the guards approached, letting cold air in along with the scent of something synthetic.
"Papers, please." The voice was unemotional, not even bored. The prince who sat in the front seat looked out at the guards, three men, all neuroenhanced and probably cyborgs too, and felt himself to be small, soft, merely human. The guard waited, not at all concerned that he might be a threat, knowing he could not be.
From behind, the prince's Companion passed forward a wodge of paperwork, which the prince obediently gave to the guard. The guard's expression did not change even as he scanned the long string of titles belonging to the passenger in the flitter. He stamped the last page, all in order, and gave the paperwork back.
"Enjoy your stay," he said perfunctorily, and turned away. One of his fellows gave the flitter the all clear, and it lifted away from the platform again, smoothly carrying its royal passenger into the mists that surrounded the tall, rectangular spires of the city. The prince leaned his head against the window and sighed, very quietly.
"Go and talk to the city nobles," his father had said. "They need reassurance." Of course. And he could provide it, apparently. How a single, unenhanced individual could possibly help in the current situation, he did not know, but he was sent anyway. He had not protested. He had a feeling his father was hoping he'd find a wife somewhere along the way, after he had rejected every single one of the many applicants who had been sending in their forms since shortly after he had turned sixteen. No doubt there'd be more when he got back.
The Companion, a young, eager man named Gavaith, sat forward so he could talk to his prince. He was also neuroenhanced, of course, being young, from a wealthy family and keen to advance his lineage. The prince thought it was rather funny, when he wasn't feeling quietly inferior besides his Companions, all skilled, trained individuals with the best enhancements old money could buy.
"What are we going to do, highness?" Gavaith asked cheerfully.
"Right now, head for our hotel." He tried to keep up with his supposed peers, but it had been a long journey and he wanted to relax. Gavaith stared out of the window at the skyscrapers, their bottoms hidden in the mist, his expression enraptured. The prince closed his eyes instead, and waited for his automatic pilot to land them at the hotel.
In the hotel, the prince shooed Gavaith into his bedroom and closed his own suite door firmly, to get a bit of space. His father had given him all the documents, of course, and he wanted to have the chance to read them through properly. His arrival would be noted all too soon, and the brief spell of peace and quiet he had now was precious. He plunked down on the big bed, opening the slim folder to read the prints.
The first incident had been four months ago, and the victim had been a moderately wealthy banker. The item stolen was a vase, worth a lot of money, but more in prestige and antiquity. It had vanished from a room with barely-adequate security, but instead of turning up on the black market half a year later, a ransom note had been left in its place. The banker was to sign a cheque donating a not inconsiderable sum of money to the Loony Raver party, an apolitical group of cheerful nutcases who liked to provide citizens with someone to vote for if they didn't like any other party. He had done so, and the vase had been returned, the thief untraceable. That had been odd itself, but nothing more than a brief stir in city life.
The second theft caused more of a fuss. This time, a painting had been taken from the mansion of a minor noble, and the ransom requested that he perform as one of the clowns at a charity festival. The third theft, and request, had been worse, and so it had continued until now the whole city was seething with rumours and whispers and wonderings. Who would be next victim of the 'Forfeit Thief', and what would be their penalty?
The prince put the papers down and rolled over on the enormous bed, staring at the ceiling and wishing he had thought of those thefts first. And that he had had the guts to carry them out. Whoever the thief was, he found a certain admiration within himself for their daring exploits. They're not in danger, anyway. Not from me.
Gavaith knocked on the door. "Sire? There's a man at the door with a message."
Of course. The brief spell of peace was over. Still..
"Tell him to come back in an hour," the prince instructed, and heard his Companion pad away across to the door. Surreptitiously, he locked his bedroom door, and went to the ensuite bathroom, attempting to stretch his solitude just that little bit further.
The messenger had been, as expected, from the Guild of Bankers, eager to get in with the visiting royalty. The inevitable invitation to dinner the following evening was duly accepted. Why not? There were victims among the bankers, one of whom had had to run naked through the city streets. The prince hoped he would be able to contain his personal opinion of both that particular prank and its victim. He feared that laughing in the man's face might be a bit provocative.
As well as the dinner invitation, there was also one to a ball two nights hence, and multiple requests for brief visits. Maliciously, the prince gave Gavaith the task of replying to them all and making up his schedule that night, and went instead to the balcony of the hotel. It projected from the wall, with a view to multiple similar skyscrapers, black and pierced with tiny stars where lights shone through the window. The occasional flitter flicked by below, but their room, being the best the hotel had, was above the flight ceiling for the small flying machines. The mist swirled around his face, cold and damp, and he closed his eyes.
He jumped back at the voice, so close to his ear, and stared around wildly. "Who? What?" Up above, the mists closed around a darker figure, and he squinted, trying to make it out. The Forfeit Thief? Surely not...
"Who's there?" Gavaith burst through the door burst open, having heard the exchange from inside the room. He was brandishing a small, lethal pistol. The prince turned round, raising one eyebrow and taking a little pleasure in the crestfallen look on his Companion's face.
"I'm sorry," Gavaith said. "I thought I heard something."
"It's not a problem. But everything's fine, as you can see."
"Yes, your highness." Gavaith went inside again, and the prince felt briefly bad for him. He glanced upwards once more, but there was nothing to be seen but the smooth black side of the hotel, punctuated here and there by balconies, and the endless mists all around.
In the morning, the round of engagements began. Gavaith had proved an excellent secretary, managing to fit everything in without overburdening the schedule. The prince's flitter departed the hotel at the leisurely time of 9:45, bearing its two passengers to the City Hospital, where he was due to open a new wing. By day, the city was less mysterious than at night, and consequently less attractive. The sun picked out the flaws in the skyscrapers and mercilessly displayed their dirt and grime for all to see. It also glared off the windows which covered every tower, so that by the end of the brief flight, the prince already had a headache.
The City Hospital was a large, white building with a huge flitter pad, providing room not just for visiting dignitaries but also for the big air ambulances. Two sat on the pad right now, engines idling, crews standing by. They watched as the prince and his Companion disembarked and were ushered across to the main entrance.
Inside, the hospital was as hospitals are everywhere. Clean, smelling slightly of disinfectant and full of people everywhere, either showing obvious injuries or wearing hospital uniforms. There was an air of quiet, competent bustling. The director, who had met them on the pad, showed them into his office and expressed his enthusiasm and gratitude that the prince had come.
"I'm glad I could oblige," the prince said, when he could get a word in edgeways. He nudged Gavaith's foot, and the Companion picked up the cue.
"I'm afraid we have another appointment at 10:45," he said, and the director was on his feet immediately, all apologies and contrition and keen to show them to the new wing that was supposed to be the reason for his presence.
The new wing was on the far edge of the hospital, and their arrival was anticipated. A number of the more mobile patients had gathered on one side, and on the other, where the symbolic ribbon stretched across a hallway, a small group of journalists had gathered. As he approached, they began asking questions, one on top of the other in a cacophony of enquiries.
"How long do you expect to stay here?"
"When will you announce your engagement?"
"Your highness, what is your impression -"
"Prince, your father the king said -"
"You've really come about the Forfeit Thief, haven't you?"
That question, posed in a quiet female voice with a hint of amusement behind the professional tone, stopped the prince in his tracks. He glanced round and saw a slim, red-headed journalist, dressed neatly and bearing a pad, as they all were. She wagged a pencil at him, clearly waiting for a reply even as the questions continued around him.
"And if I have?" he asked her directly, intrigued.
"Aren't you wasting time here, if that's your real purpose?"
"I've not come to play detective, Miss..."
She let the unspoken question slide. "Then you have come to show your face and sympathise with the victims?" It could have been an unfriendly query, but the tone of her voice and expression on her face said otherwise.
"I will do my best, of course."
"Sympathies do not require empathy, after all."
"Indeed." And what are you implying?
The director led onwards to the ribbon and away from the impertinent journalist. The prince cut the ribbon obediently, and offered a few words of congratulations and encouragement to the hospital staff who gathered nearby. There was a reception, with drinks and nibbles, but the convenient 10:45 appointment meant he was spared the duty of small talk with people who only wanted to say they'd spoken to him. The director saw him off, smiling and thanking him repeatedly, and the ambulance crews watched him go as impassively as they had marked his arrival.
In the flitter, the prince darkened the windows so the glare could not get in. "So," he said, turning to look at Gavaith. "Where are we next?"
Gavaith consulted his papers. "11:15," he said. "You're to attend a garden party in the roof garden of the Oblique department store."
"I thought you said 10:45?"
"I wanted to make sure there was time." Uncertainly, Gavaith glanced up. "I'm sorry -"
"No, no, don't be. That's great." The prince leaned back in the seat and smiled. Plenty of time.
Gavaith had prudently allowed a couple of hours before dinner, time to relax, bathe, get dressed and think. The prince appreciated it; the day had been full, if not uncomfortably so, and all the people in suits bowing and thanking him had begun to run into one demanding mega-director in his head. The proper responses had been drilled into him from the time he could speak and walk, and he had had days far more demanding, but even so, time to clear his head was an unexpected pleasure.
The red-headed journalist's questions kept returning to him as he lay relaxed on the bed, carelessly rumpling his waistcoat. I've not come to play detective, he had said, but the notion had taken residency in his head and would not leave. I don't know this city. I don't know its people. How can I find one individual among so many?
How many are that skilled? How many would want to pull these... stunts? Why?
In the middle of his pondering, he dozed off, and was woken by Gavaith with barely half an hour to wash and dress for the dinner. The flitter left the hotel just on time, but even as it soared into the misty night sky, the prince returned to his musing. I should find out more information on each of the crimes.
The dinner was exactly as expected. The prince chose to arrive fashionably late, and was ushered in by three important-looking men wearing the style of the moment. There was a moment of hush as all eyes fell on the little party, and his escorts self-importantly showed him to his chair. Gavaith trailed behind, more obviously the bodyguard than usual, and stood by the wall, out of the way. The prince might have felt sorry for him, but he was too busy feeling sorry for himself, as his neighbours took turns at attempting to gain favours and offer gossip. By the time they had finished the third course - small birds marinated in wine - he was feeling thoroughly verbally battered. For some reason, the red-haired journalist and her pert questions came to mind, and he remembered his half-made resolve of the day before. He had not caught the names of either neighbour, but glancing surreptitiously at the name stands provided the answer. Neither man had been the victim who had streaked through the city to regain a priceless tapestry, but the man to his right had had to publicly announce that his fortune had been made by gambling on slug racing, and apparently had very nearly not capitulated. It had been a small figurine that had been stolen, the prince remembered. He tried to put a smile on as the servers bent over to place a bowl of soup in front of him, and turned to the man to his right.
"So, Mr. Delacre...."
The victims were less interesting than he had hoped. They all wanted to talk about the terrible thing that had happened to them, of course, and loudly bewail what they had been forced to do or admit, but none of them knew much about the security of their estates. One had not even known where precisely his painting had been hanging before it was stolen. The prince brooded in the flitter on the way home, nursing a headache and wishing he didn't have at least three more similar dinner parties to attend.
The prince hesitated. He had been about to ask if it was possible to cancel the other dinners, but then, other victims might be more useful. What else would be useful? If I'm being serious about finding the thief...
"Arrange a meeting for me, please," he said, on the spur of the moment. "I wish to speak to the chief of police."
"Yes, sire," Gavaith said, unperturbed by the request. Satisfied, the prince sat back against the soft cushion as the flitter swooped through the busy, brightly-lit flyways, ducking the mist on its way back to the hotel.
"He's here!" The not-very-subtle whisper came from the young policewoman on duty at the desk as the prince and his Companion came through the door of the police headquarters. She flushed bright red and averted her eyes, trying to stammer a hasty apology.
"Shut up, Sana," said a figure standing opposite, and she fell silent, hunched in her chair. The man advanced, revealed in the light to be in his early fifties, grey-haired and obviously still physically capable. His enhancements were visible, functional but not beautiful, probably police issue. He was not wearing a jacket, but still radiated authority, so the prince was not surprised when he announced brusquely that he was chief of police Gregory. He followed the chief inside, Gavaith behind him, jumpy for no good reason.
"Sit down." Gregory turned into an office and waved his hand vaguely, himself going to the single chair behind the large desk that dominated the room, covered with piles and piles of paper. He shoved two of the piles to one side, making them wobble alarmingly and revealing a collection of mugs. The prince located two more chairs in the room, one buried under a coat, and sat down. Gavaith chose to stand, allowing the coat its position.
"What can I do for you?" Gregory was polite but not obsequious. The prince felt like a supplicant on the chair before him, and a little outmatched.
"I've been sent to look into the business of the Forfeit Thief," he started. "I would appreciate any help or information you could offer."
The chief raised an eyebrow. "Your highness, you already have a bodyguard. I would be happy to provide an escort, but the situation -"
"I meant information," the prince interrupted. "I would like to know all the information you have on the thefts so far. Including maps of the houses."
The chief was silent for a moment, and then sighed. He put both elbows on the table and leaned forwards to look more directly at the prince.
"I take it you wish to investigate, then," he said. "Your highness."
The chief scowled briefly, then sat back. "Well, I can't refuse you," he said bluntly. "I will make the records available to your hotel terminal. I would ask, please, that you do not interfere with our ongoing investigations, however. We are coming close to identifying the culprit, and it's a delicate matter."
All of which meant, stay out of this, amateur. That didn't matter; he had what he wanted. The prince stood up and bowed elaborately.
"Thank you most kindly," he said, and left before Gregory could escort him out. In good spirits, he waved at the on-duty policewoman on the way out and she even waved back before blushing pink again.
That evening, there was another dinner appointment, this time with a collection of city nobles. It was, apparently, fashionable to have the entrée buffet-style, so the prince wandered from table to table, taxing his Companion's ability to keep up, keep watch and stay unobtrusive all at once. He did not participate in conversation, but listened instead, although it was hard to listen anonymously for long.
"Your Highness!" gushed Lady Dianne, a tall, striking woman with an elegant blonde sculpture of a hairdo. She put one hand on his arm and drew him into the circle on which he'd been casually eavesdropping. Her friends immediately left the subject - the Forfeit Thief, of course - and started asking him about the fashions in court, a subject on which the prince was woefully uneducated.
"It's obviously someone from the lower classes," said a voice loudly and scornfully behind him. "Those scum!".
"How do you figure that, Reynold?"
"No-one with enhancements could do a thing like that. We're prevented." The prince risked a sneaky look over his shoulder. 'Reynold' appeared to be a large, hirsute individual in a badly-fitting suit, clearly enhanced and probably new money. For him, the enhancements were a status symbol. "At least," he went on, "no-one with legal enhancements could do it, and anyone with illegal enhancements or none at all must be of the lower class." He beamed around, pleased with himself and his reasoning, ignoring the warning jabs of his friends as they noticed the prince's interest.
"I could do it," the prince said quietly but clearly, and Reynold jumped, glaring round at the interruption and then starting back when he realised who was speaking. The prince's words percolated into his head slowly, and he went pale and shrank back, mumbling something into his beard.
"I'm so sorry, your Highness," Reynold's wife put in, giving her husband a scathing look. The prince smiled noncommittally and took the chance to escape the chatty women, heading back to the buffet table. It was going to be a long night.
The hotel room had become something of a refuge. The prince relaxed into the seat in front of the terminal which had now become his link to all the information the police had. He tapped the keyboard to activate the screen, and selected 'manual' for the data entry. And paused, uncertain of what to do with the obediently blinking cursor.
"Who could be gaining from all this?" he said out loud, realising that all the information in the world would be useless without the right questions.
"I think perhaps first... you should ask why these citizens fulfilling the forfeits is a gain. Then you can see who might want that gain."
The prince looked round, mildly surprised at the reasoning. Gavaith was quietly polishing his boots and did not look up.
"Hmmm. So then, why would the forfeits be a gain?"
The screen was as unresponsive as ever. In irritation, the prince typed in the commands to provide a list of all unenhanced people in the city. For all Reynold's crassness, he had been correct in one thing. No legally enhanced individual could carry out those thefts.
The screen filled with lists, and the prince scanned through them as quickly as human eyes could. He stopped, puzzled, halfway through, realising the list was incomplete.
"I'm not there." He felt almost insulted.
"I think that's residents only, highness," Gavaith offered from the couch.
On a hunch, the prince told the computer to filter based on wealth and print the results. The filtered list was much smaller, as he had hoped. A short selection of wealthy individuals from the lower classes - people who, despite their money, had chosen not to be enhanced. With criminal intent? Although the list was small, it was not small enough, and there was nothing to select any one individual over another. Annoyed, he left the sheets on the table and went to bed.
In the light of morning, the list seemed very sparse. The prince puzzled over it as he picked at the room service breakfast. Most of the people on the list were well-educated individuals with a good position in society. Why choose not to be enhanced? He returned to the computer to query the filtered list for medical problems that might prevent the operation, and shrank the list by 20%. None of the remaining members had any links to crime, of course. That would have been far too easy.
How about families? He entered the command to filter for children who had not had enhancements, and the list was further reduced, to less than half its current size. People may feel themselves too old to change, he mused, but would not deny that advantage to their children. And of the remainder - did any of them have children?
One man did, one man alone of the entire list. The prince felt his pulse quickening as he scanned the entry.
He glanced round. "Yes, Gavaith?"
"I'm afraid we have to go now..."
The printer chattered, the prince grabbed the profile of his suspect and cheerfully followed his Companion to the first engagement of the day.
Two hours and four engagements later, the prince ducked the journalists waiting outside the Technical College with speed born of recently-acquired experience and escaped to the flitter waiting patiently on the College pad. Another slew of paparazzi clustered as close as they could get to the flitter, which was protected by a circling ribbon, a flimsy barrier. They turned as their prey approached, and the questions began again, questions about his parents, his little sister, his supposed fiancée, prospects for the city, the capital, the border conflicts.
"And how are you doing with your search for the Forfeit Thief?"
The question broke through the prince's refusal to listen. He recognised the voice, and his eyes met those of the red-haired journalist. He bowed slightly.
"I am pursuing prospects," he said, and at the sound of him answering one of them, the hungry pack changed tack and bombarded him with Forfeit Thief questions. Gavaith, aided by the porter from the College, cleared a path to the flitter and the prince escaped at last.
As before, her questions niggled at his thoughts. Was he pursuing prospects? He examined the printout profile of the main suspect; a man named Thomas Grey. He was a surgeon, a respectable man, with two daughters both under the age of ten.
"Is there a list of our appointments today?"
"Ah... not in print form, your highness. I'm sorry." He meant he had it in his electronic diary.
"Never mind. Tell me, are we going to the Southern General Hospital?"
"We are, sire. Tomorrow morning."
"And the rest of our appointments?"
Gavaith, not understanding, reeled off a list of engagements with schools, universities, businesses, guilds, more hospitals, and several newspaper interviews.
"Are there any meetings with the trade unions?"
"I haven't scheduled any."
"Did any of them ask for one?"
"Yes, two unions did." Unions, hospitals and schools. That would probably do.
"Rearrange the schedule," the prince said. "I'd prefer to meet with the unions."
"But sire, there's no time -"
"You said there were some newspaper interviews, correct?"
"I'll give a press conference instead."
"Uh - yes, sire!" Gavaith turned his attention to contacting people. The prince sat back in the flitter, hoping he had given the Forfeit Thief enough options. And what makes you so sure he will turn up?
He remembered the hotel balcony. Because he is a show-off, he answered his own question. And that itself is part of the gain. Anonymous publicity.
That evening, the prince collected a copy of every single newspaper published in the city and brought them to his room. He scanned their pages for news the of Forfeit Thief. The Financial Review had nothing, and neither did the Times, as expected. The Daily Times, its small sibling, on the other hand, had a long article on page 5 about potential suspects. As far as the prince could tell, none of the article was based on anything other than guesses. Two of the individuals were enhanced anyway, according to the computer. The overall impression, however, was interesting. The Forfeit Thief was evidently a hot topic among those papers aimed at the lower classes and the nobility. Obviously the rich and privileged were interested, because they could be next, but the other papers wouldn't be running articles if the lower classes didn't care. Why did they care?
He went out on the balcony while Gavaith was bathing. The night air was cold and clean, the mist reduced somewhat. No-one was there, and he felt slightly foolish for his assumption but waited nonetheless. If nothing else, it was pleasant to be outside, to have a little solitude. It had been a busy day.
"Are you having fun, highness?"
The low-voiced question came from above him. Deliberately, the prince did not look up.
"It's been all right," he replied, keeping his tone casual.
"And are you any closer to your answer?"
"I'd like to think so."
"Do you even have a motive?" The voice was closer now, and the prince's fist clenched on the balcony railing.
"You like showing off," he said, provocatively.
"I do?" Overtones of laughter in the voice.
"Why else would you be here now?"
Only silence greeted that question, and of course, when the prince eventually looked up, no-one was there.
The appointment at the Southern General Hospital was halfway through the morning. The prince was not disappointed; his suspect was one of the seven senior medical specialists introduced. He was a man of medium height, trim and in shape, with greying brown hair and a ready smile. The prince noticed strength in the man's hand when he shook it, but was taken aback by his voice when he spoke.
"Welcome to our hospital, your Highness," the surgeon said, his tones bass and gravelly, totally unlike the smooth voice of the character on the balcony. Are there two of them? The prince covered his confusion with a pleasantry, and turned to the next man.
He did have another chance to speak with Mr Grey after the hospital tour. The staff had thoughtfully allowed half an hour for refreshments, welcome after the ward visits and the repeated polite phrases uttered each time. The prince drank hospital tea and wandered among the staff, who at least pretended normality. He appreciated their acting.
Mr Grey was standing alone by the window, so the prince ambled over. Royalty had its advantages; starting a conversation was easy and personal questions would probably be answered, even if somewhat rude.
"You have a splendid hospital, Mr Grey," he started.
"We do our best," the surgeon replied. "We aim to treat all citizens equally, regardless of their social standing." There's an agenda there.
"Is that why you turned down enhancements?" the prince asked bluntly. Grey raised an eyebrow, and then grinned suddenly.
"It is," he said. "While they are not available to all, I would prefer to demonstrate by my actions that they are not necessary for success." By your actions, mm?
"Even though neuroenhancements would be helpful when doing surgery?"
"Even then," Grey confirmed. "Although the records will show that there is no difference between my performance in surgery and that of, say, Dr Carlsson." He gestured to his colleague, standing across the room apparently chatting up the tea lady. He smiled at the prince. "Surely, your Highness, you have also come to similar conclusions?"
The prince felt wrongfooted. No, no, I haven't. I am at a disadvantage. In no way can I measure up to the enhanced. If I could, I would order the procedure tomorrow. But he couldn't say that to this idealist, a working man twice his age who had retained his principles and his resolve. Feeling suddenly very small, he made a bit more polite conversation and escaped to brood by a pot plant and drink his tea.
If he really is the Forfeit Thief, I don't want to arrest him. The voice could be changed, of course, with any number of legal and illegal implements. But he didn't think it was Grey. Somehow, it didn't fit.
The police chief would not approve of intuitive guesses.
That's fine, he can do the work himself.
The next engagement, thankfully, was an easy one, a garden party thrown by the women's association. There would be nobody with ideals there, no challenging surgeons, no idealists. Certainly nobody unenhanced; the women's association was strictly for ladies of leisure.
And journalists, of course. The flitter was greeted by a seething crowd, and the prince looked over it with resignation, which changed to anticipation when he spotted a red head among the horde.
The hired bouncers cleared a path for him and his Companion to reach the cultured ladies of the association, and he made small talk in the way he had been trained since before he could walk. Charming, brainless.
He found himself with a little breathing space when the lunch buffet began. Unlike the dinner party two nights ago, nobody was talking about anything interesting, and he wandered, deliberately putting off those who might approach, turning his back on supplicants.
"Your highness," said a familiar voice, and he looked round to see the red-haired journalist. He smiled before he could help it, and she smiled back directly. How did she get past the cordon? He looked over to the area where the journalists were sequestered, but they were all still there. Except for this one.
"Might I have the pleasure of your name, this time, madam?"
"Catherine Ellison, your Highness. May I ask a few questions?"
"How did you get in here?"
She smirked. "I have connections. Now - how is the hunt for the Forfeit Thief going?" She widened her eyes at him, deliberately mocking the flirtatious women all around.
"I'm not hunting for the Thief," the prince lied. He wondered how much of this would end up in the papers.
"Then you have come to this city just to -"
"To show my face, yes, and to sympathise with the victims," he quoted.
"Have you found them in need of sympathy?"
He looked at her sharply, surprised by the barbed question and the tone of her voice. She smiled innocently, wagging the pencil, waiting for his reply.
"They appreciate being able to air their grievances."
"Of course. Why are you not searching for the Thief?"
"I'm hardly the right person to play detective, Miss Ellison."
"Oh, I don't know. You have a unique perspective, after all."
"You are unenhanced," she said bluntly. "Nobody who is investigating the crime is, and yet the perpetrator must also be unenhanced."
"I did get that far," the prince said, nettled.
"So you are investigating?"
"No. I can't investigate someone whose motives are unfathomable."
"Oh, I'm sure they're not," she said blithely. "Think a bit harder. Imagine. Wouldn't you have enjoyed watching rich Mr Harcourt performing as a clown?"
The prince stared at her, and she smiled professionally. "Thank you for the interview."
"You're very welcome," he managed, and she sauntered away, gracefully lifting a glass of wine from a passing server. Flustered, he found refuge in his own glass, but her words kept swimming round his head.
In front of the terminal once again, the prince typed in 'Catherine Ellison', and the police computer obediently relayed its information. To his surprise, she was a minor noble, not native to the city but here for a short time, which was almost over. Like him, unenhanced, although that was unusual for one of her status. She had chosen to spend her time working for the city paper, unlike most of her peers, the ladies of leisure from the garden party. She did indeed have connections. Has she decided to leave the city in style? But it was hardly the sort of leaving splash a well-bred girl would choose. She's not a normal noble either. He pondered her words, her insinuation that he would have enjoyed seeing the forfeits carried out. I wouldn't have enjoyed it, but others might. Well... perhaps I would have too.
If the objective was humiliation of the rich and privileged, the Forfeit Thief was acting on behalf of those who resented them. Acting with considerable skill and intelligence; some of the residences penetrated by the Thief had impressive security. Catherine Ellison clearly had the intelligence and probably also the flair for it. She, too, was a show-off, someone who enjoyed walking close to the edge. Did she have the skill and the motive?
"Your highness, we're due at the ball in forty minutes."
"Thank you, Gavaith," the prince said distractedly, and pulled himself away from the monitor, locking the system down. He wondered if she would be at the ball.
She was, as it happened, but he did not get a chance to speak to her. His attention was monopolised by the high and mighty crowd, the noble mothers with their pretty daughters, out for their first ball, the men with their sports and their talk of agreements and arrangements. He had never enjoyed politics. The dancing was almost a relief; he quite enjoyed it, and the majority of the ladies he danced with were practised and skilful. Their conversation could be ignored, responded to with a murmur or a nod, unless it was actually interesting.
Four dances in, it was. The lady he was partnered to was one Alice Greaves, the daughter of an Earl he knew vaguely in court. She was a pleasant-natured, pretty girl, already betrothed to some Duke or other, and therefore not out to snag a royal prize, which made for a much more relaxed dance.
"I saw you talking with Catherine at the garden party today," she said as they stepped back and sideways to a bright waltz tune.
"Yes, that's right," the prince said, concentrating on his footing and not bumping into the less practised couple heading towards them.
"She's changed a lot." Alice sounded wistful. "I knew her when we were children, you know."
"I didn't, actually," the prince said, more interested now. "Why, how has she changed? What happened?"
Alice shrugged minutely. "I don't know. She went away. She went for enhancement, but something went wrong and she spent a year and a half somewhere else. Recuperating, I suppose."
She did try, and it failed. I wonder why the system didn't report that. The medical records are probably separate.
"What was she like before?"
"Oh, she was lovely - bright and cheerful. She liked dancing, and riding, and gymnastics... she was always entering some competition or other. She was really good. I don't know if she's still doing anything like that... she didn't get back in touch when she returned."
"That's a shame," the prince said, thinking over his conversation with Catherine, and the information Alice had just given him. None of it was really sufficient for an accusation, and he was surprised to find himself relieved at that. The music came to a stop, and he handed Alice to her fiancé with a bow. Another pretty girl was put into his arms, and he returned to the floor to a foxtrot, still thinking about Catherine Ellison and her history.
He got back late that night, his feet aching, feeling like he had overindulged on petty gossip and man talk both. Gavaith had the decency not to speak during the ride, and went straight to bed when they reached the rooms. As the sole Companion, he had done more than his fair share of dancing as well, and he wasn't so used to it.
The prince unlocked the terminal and sat down, but did not type anything. What was to ask? He had a suspect, of clear skill and intelligence, with a likely motive. How better to prove that one could do just as much, be just as good, as the more privileged than by humiliating them? Did she sympathise, he wondered, with those of the lower classes? Those who could not afford the enhancements that she could also not receive. On a whim, he asked the computer where the Ellison family had been for the past fifteen years. They had spent some time - a year and a half - in this city, when Catherine would have been about twelve. Mr Grey had worked in the Southern General for the past twenty years. That would cover the time period. Had she been his patient? The hospital records would not be available without a specific request and a reason, and the prince was not of a mind to give his reasoning. Certainly, he could not take his finds to the chief of police. He didn't actually want to, anyway.
He got up, and went to the balcony. It was raining gently, the kind of rain that is one step above mist, that silvers the hair without drenching it. He raised his face to the rain, and waited.
"Are you satisfied, my prince?"
"Actually, yes, I am." He didn't turn round, or open his eyes, but she sounded much closer than on previous nights.
"What about this riddle?"
"I have solved it," he said, displaying a confidence he did not really feel.
"Will you announce it, then?"
"I will not."
"Why not?" She sounded almost disappointed. The voice was different, but not different enough; the sort of change easily produced by a cheap modulator. Now he knew, it was clearly not a man's voice, and he wondered how he had ever thought it was.
"My choice. In any case, if I'm right, it won't be a problem for much longer. In this city, anyway."
Above his head, he heard her laughing quietly.
"It's a shame you will not be able to vindicate yourself."
"It's the result they will be expecting." He was resigned to the impression he knew he gave; well-meaning but ineffectual, not up to the job. Well, all he had really been asked to do was reassure people anyway. Hopefully he'd managed to do that much.
"It's still a shame."
"And whose fault is that?"
There was silence from above, lasting so long that he thought she had gone. He was about to open his eyes when she spoke again.
"At the press conference tomorrow," she said, "tell them you've caught the thief, and that his identity can't be revealed but the city will suffer no more attacks."
"It's true. In a sense. Tell them," and then she was really gone. The prince waited, but there was only the rain, and the silence of height, and the pinpricks of light from the skyscrapers opposite.
In the morning, he gave his press conference, stating that he had enjoyed his visit to the city and encouraging the people to keep working hard. A nice, bland message, the sort they should have been expecting. There weren't many questions, and Catherine Ellison was not there. He was almost disappointed, until the final question came from a fellow reporter on the same paper.
"Were you able to do anything about the Forfeit Thief?" he asked.
"I have identified the individual concerned," the prince said, straight out without even thinking about it, and the press erupted in shouts and chaos. Out of the middle of the hullabaloo, a voice yelled for the identity.
"I -," he started, but the shouting was too loud, even with the microphone. Irritated, he twiddled the output and bent to it again, producing a screeching wail which had the desired effect. Resetting the microphone to produce the right sound took more fiddling, but eventually he was able to say his piece.
"I cannot give you the identification," he said. "But rest assured, the city will suffer no further attacks."
There were more questions, of course, but they could be ignored. At the edge of the crowd, the chief of police was clearly desperate to talk to him. The prince allowed himself the privilege of rank, and left without listening to or answering any questions, feeling a little confused, quite relieved and slightly concerned that something would now go wrong.
If she really does enjoy humiliating people, it would be so easy now to do it to me. Why on earth did I trust her?
Gavaith kept his silence on the long flight home. He was going to be an excellent Companion.
Back in the palace, the king and queen welcomed him politely and his little sister jumped on him as soon as they were out of sight. Grinning, he twirled her round and bounced her, laughing, as glad to see her as she was him.
"So, how did you find the city?"
"It's an interesting place," he replied to his mother, handing over the princess.
"I'm afraid there are more brides to look at," she said, and he heard the regret in her voice. She knew he disliked the duty of scanning applicants, but it wasn't like anyone else could do it. "You do know," she went on, "that your father had hoped you would find someone in the city."
"I was hardly there to go courting, mother."
"You went to several dinners and a ball," the queen said sharply, then relented. "Well, the folders are in your room. Let me know." There was a note of hope in her last comment, which he ignored as he climbed the stairs to his room.
The room was as he had left it, sunny and large and totally his, down to the big white cat that lounged on the bed and yawned indolently at him. On the table, as his mother had promised him, was a collection of resumes, potential brides suitable for a prince, nobles of pure blood, unenhanced and therefore supposedly acceptable. He picked up the resumes and leafed through them, dropping each one to the side as he lost interest, until he came to the most recent one, which had only been delivered that morning. Catherine Ellison's image jumped out at him from the page. The photo was a good one, catching the glints on red hair and the laughter in her eyes.
"You caught the thief," she had said. "In a sense," she had said.
The prince smiled.
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