“Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”
~ Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda
Proxima watched as a lark sang on a tree-top, its young light-brown feathers just distinguishable in the early morning and its voice a beautiful melody. As she watched, Proxima wondered how it felt to be so free. Perhaps ‘free’ wasn’t the correct word. ‘Happy’, she supposed, was better. After all the lark was free from being hunted, it wasn’t free from sickness, or death or any other issue that could harm it.
There was no such thing as complete freedom.
Though, thought Proxima, Some were more free than others.
The Half-Castes were no longer in their camp at the Laebnisos Forest. They had travelled to Escarr in next to no time after their conversation with the Twelve. Roderigo had told her she was just trying running away from an existing problem, and that it wouldn’t help. Proxima had retorted by saying that she wasn’t running from a problem. She was just doing what Cornelius had ordered them to do. She’d already killed her possible father. She didn’t want to be responsible for the death of her lifelong father-figure also.
Though, she would have preferred going to kill the Minster of Propaganda on her own. It was too bad that Federico and Medea insisted on coming this time. And Roderigo wasn’t helpful.
He’d said: “Jus’ take the miserable pair! Maybe they’ll learn something or the other.”
All four of them were lodged in a hotel – the tallest they could find and the closest to the town square. Medea had been more than overjoyed when she was ordered by Proxima to go around snatching as many purses as she could. She got caught twice, but each time had burst into tears and explained to the victims that she was so poor, and had no parents, etc, etc. The victims usually took their purses back and muttered some sympathy, then left. It was a good way of gaining enough money anyhow. And it was necessary for the plans Proxima had allayed.
Proxima’s plan was simple: She’d buy a rifle or a musket, climb onto the roof of the hotel, and shoot Madam Lenea Meszog with one of the diamond bullets from Cato’s revolver.
‘Death from above’, she called it.
All the instruments had been bought and, by sheer luck, the rifle could shoot the .900 inch diamond bullets. And now it was the day of the assassination. Proxima sighed again as the lark flitted away, and she headed back to the hotel. The Minister of Propaganda was going to be in the square at 2.00 p.m. That left plenty of time for Proxima to mentally prepare herself. As she stepped into the lobby of the hotel, she nodded a greeting to the attendant at the polished counter and refused a drink from a servant, smiling at him politely. The courtesy of the people in Escarr reminded her of Old Grams. Proxima wondered how the old woman was faring, and hoped that she wasn’t being persecuted for holding Proxima.
Apparently, no-one in Escarr knew about the death of General Jier Rustin, as the tabloids and broadsheets made absolutely no mention of the man, and thankfully Proxima had the sense not to mention it. As it was, the authorities were keeping the information a secret to the people. That or the general’s death had not yet been uncovered – which would be extremely unlikely at this point in time. Scaring the Methist people with the death of the most powerful man in Methum would serve no purpose except to worry the entire population. No wonder so many guards had been placed in and around Escarr…
Proxima clambered up the steps and entered her room. Everything would have been perfect – the pink carpeted floor, the linen net curtains over her window and the freshly washed sheets placed on her bed by a servant. But when she found Roderigo sitting on her bed, a long brown bottle in one hand, Proxima groaned.
“Roderigo…?” started Proxima, and then shook her head, “What are you doing in my room?”
“Oh, you know, just waiting for you to quit kicking yourself,” he said. Roderigo’s voice was slurred.
“Have you been drinking again? At this time of day?”
“No, no, of course not,” he said with a drunken chuckle, “Why would a thirsty alcoholic do such a thing?”
“That Methist rubbish isn’t good for you.”
Roderigo laughed, “Like you’d care,” he took another swig from the brown bottle, “Don’t matter anywho. We’re all gonna die today, you o’ all people must know that!”
Roderigo stood up, stumbling as he did so, and tripped his way to Proxima, spilling the cheap wine all over the floor, the carpet sucking the horrid substance in immediately. The owner of the hotel was not going to be happy. As Roderigo neared her, Proxima noticed the sour smell on his breath.
He leaned against the doorframe, taking another draught of the sickening substance, and said, “How’s about you and me get something going to celebrate, eh?”
“Roderigo,” said Proxima, taking the bottle from his hand, “I think I’d prefer dying at the hands of the Methists, thanks,” she smashed the bottle against the wall and stepped into the room.
An attendant flew by, “Is everything all right in here?” he asked, feigned fright in his eyes. He wrinkled his nose at the sight of the mess all over the floor.
“Just fine,” said Proxima, smiling pleasantly, “My, er, cousin over-does stuff when he’s drunk. Don’t give him any more wine, please.”
“Should I bring some coffee to sober him down somewhat?”
“That would be great,” nodded Proxima, “My thanks.”
The attendant left and Proxima closed the door.
She turned to find Roderigo licking the wine off of the floor. Proxima rolled her eyes, folding her arms and making her mouth a straight line.
“Get up, man!” she said, “I know you’ve lived like a hobo until recently, but I can’t have you acting up! Of all days, at least not today!”
Roderigo sat up and cocked his head to a side, a stupid smile on his face, “You is so pretty. I ever tell you that?”
Proxima smacked her forehead, “This is going to be a long day…”
Roderigo laughed foolishly, “It sure is, after I’m done with you.”
A knock came at the door, and Proxima turned to answer it gratefully.
“Two coffees, ma’am,” said the attendant, holding a tray bearing two steaming cups.
Proxima sighed in relief, “You couldn’t have come sooner,” she took the tray, tipping the boy at the same time, and closed the door.
“What’s that, love?” said Roderigo.
Proxima didn’t reply. She took one cup and spilled the steaming coffee over Roderigo’s face. He screamed as the coffee hissed and sizzled on his skin.
“Finally woken up?” she said after a moment.
Roderigo growled, and stomped off to the bathroom. Proxima heard the tap run for some time, and then Roderigo came back into the room, dabbing his painfully tingling red face gently with a linen towel.
Proxima held out the second cup of coffee to him, and he leapt back in fear.
“This one’s for drinking,” she reassured.
Roderigo looked at her murderously, but took the cup and sat down.
“That was uncalled for,” said Roderigo sourly, sipping slowly at his cup.
“Are you kidding?” said Proxima, leaning against the wall opposite, “Were you listening to yourself? Cato would have killed you.”
“Yeah, well I weren’t talking to Cato,” he said, “I was talking to you. Sure I was behaving like a douche, but you got to admit: I’m charming when I’m drunk.”
“You mean: As long as you act that way with a whore who’s cutting your purse loose?”
“Why, what did you consider yourself to be?”
“Just the cut-purse.”
Roderigo laughed, “You may not be a whore now, but – believe me – if you’ve learnt anything about those fools sitting in the Decagon, they gonna make you one soon.”
“Well, not today,” said Proxima, considering the idea bitterly, “Just a bullet to the Madam today. That’s all.”
“You really think it’s gonna be that easy, eh, Vixen?” said Roderigo, uneasily.
Proxima shook her head, “I’ve got a bad feeling. Something’s going to go wrong.”
“Ah, so you feel it too, eh, kid?” Roderigo whispered.
“I should have left you all behind,” said Proxima, looking away, “Hell, I don’t want your deaths on my head.”
“Aye,” Roderigo agreed, “Especially that nitwit Federico. I ain’t ever seen a bigger screw-up in my life, and I seen plenty of screw-ups!”
“Like yourself, you mean?” said Proxima slyly.
“Oi, we’re getting on Fed’s case, not mine.”
“…Do you reckon we’re being too hard on him?”
“What? A fat-head like that? What does it matter if we’re being soft or hard on him? He won’t listen either way. His skull’s too damn thick. It’d take a bloomin’ tank to break into that thing.”
“So what should we do about him?”
“Well,” Roderigo looked up at the ceiling, “I’d say we kill him, but it’s pretty obvious you ain’t gonna agree with that.”
“You are more charming when you’re drunk.”
“But there ain’t nothing more we can do, Vixen. We’ll take him onto the roof with us. If he screws us up, then he screws us up. Hell, we can’t put him to sleep – he’ll screw up after he wakes. He’ll throw a flippin’ tantrum, he will, and wake up the whole city! We’ll all be hanging from the gallows from our nostrils in no time! The only way we can fully trust him, is if he’s dead. But, like I said, that clearly ain’t happening.”
“Hmm,” Proxima sighed and conceded, “I suppose you’re right. There’s no other way. It’ll be a miracle if this assassination is a complete success.”
Roderigo smirked, “You still up for celebrating?”
Proxima snorted, “If you’re that desperate, there’s a bordello across the street. Just don’t come back bow-legged, a’right? There’s plenty trying to kill us as it is.”
* * * * *
The whole team was on the roof. It was 2.00 p.m. and they were all prepared. Roderigo was fully sober. Federico was awfully calm also. Proxima wore her long coat, keeping the pashmina hood low over her eyes. The rifle was ready. They lay on flat on their bellies; Proxima was using binoculars to scan the proceedings below. All there packs were beside them, prepared.
The second part of the plan was simple: Shoot and, whether it hit the target or not, they run like hell.
I would have been so much more relaxed if they’d all agreed to stay in their rooms, thought Proxima trying to focus on the crowd that had grown below.
The inhabitants of Escarr teemed below, a thousand or so heads chattering excitedly, whilst others held banners and flags. They were all clearly ecstatic about having the Ambassador honor them with his presence. There was a huge gap in the square, sealed off by barriers and guards, clearly the landing spot for the Ambassador.
Proxima knew which of the people below was Meszog. She knew her from all the pictures in the newspapers and on the advertisements pinned to the street posts. Madam Lenea Meszog had flowing black hair, and large green eyes. She was beautiful by all standards, perhaps even out-shining Empress Byzantia. Today she wore a purple gown and something in between a tiara and a headband on her head. The Minister held a sheaf of papers which she was showing to a possible colleague and was chatting to him.
But Proxima could not fire with so many people crowding around the target. She’d get her chance; she just had to be patient.
If only that doubtful feeling would leave my gut! she thought miserably.
“Look,” said Medea, pointing skyward.
A small black jet, which appeared seemingly from nowhere, was hovering over the huge space that the Methist people were crowding around. It landed and the steam hissed as the engine was cut off. A stairway was brought up and a red carpet thrown onto the floor. The people began to cheer and whistle and applaud.
“Get ready,” said Roderigo, putting a reassuring hand on Proxima’s shoulder.
A few people she didn’t recognize stepped out of the jet first, and then Ambassador Mose Ruict stepped out leisurely. The cheering in the crowd grew, deafening even the assassins who were up so high. Madam Lenea Meszog began to wade through the crowd of people. Proxima trained the rifle on the moving figure, perspiration sliding down her temples and her fingers quaking in anticipation.
Steady, she thought, Steady…
The target stepped onto the red carpet and made her way to the Ambassador, fixing a sheaf of papers and smoothing out her dress, a huge smile on her face.
She dropped the rifle immediately, and, picking up her pack, ran in the opposite direction, preparing to leap to the next rooftop, but she stopped abruptly. Some weight left her pocket, and a two more gunshots followed and rang through the suddenly silent air. She turned to see Federico holding Cato’s smoking revolver…