"The Queen. She doesn't need to see you or know where you are," Interlocutor Hershey said pulling his finger from the lifeless pulse of Captain Warren Francis the Third, "Her bite is longer than her borders. His journal, yes?"
"In his own handwriting, my lord. The ink is still wet," Hershey's man Kingsley said kneeling over the leather bound journal. Kingsley's eye wandered nervously about the entrances to the hedge maze's resting area. There was the journal of course, and a bottle of wine bearing the noble Francis Label. Outside the castle walls the thrum of the crowd could be heard cheering in waves.
Kingsley's eye rested soon on the noble captain's widow, framed by flowers and silk. With parted lips and fingers near her eyes the nation's matriarch rushed to the captain's still frame, tears flowing, nobility temporarily abandoned. Trembling, she silently wetted the shoulder of the deceased man with her eyes.
Above, ten thousand balloons glittered in the setting sunlight, celebrating the safe airborne return of the man who now lay dead. If anyone in the crowd had been asked why they were celebrating, the answer would have been the same. The impossible had been accomplished. The queen's power was not absolute. The queen's mysterious flight embargo hex had failed. Below, unaware of their lord and captain's death, voices cheered. Hershey looked away from the widow, hoping to spare her dignity. He found solace in the transient spectacle above them.
"I suppose it goes without saying, old man," Kingsley said, drawing Hershey's gaze, "This is bad." It wasn't completely uncharacteristic for Kingsley to look pitiable, but the circumstances for once made it understandable.
"She did this," the widow Francis said, "It will never stop until she rules us all. She waited until now to strike because she knew we couldn't hide it. We're trapped. Trapped!"
"The Spider Bite society," Kingsley said breathlessly eyeing the walls around him. It was just the sort of superstitious illusion Hershey defiantly refused to acknowledge. The Queen of all nations was only rarely referred to by her first title, Annemarie the Sixth of the East Lands. She had never acknowledged the existence of an occult society of assassins, or denied it. Her propagandists did the rest. As her influence spread, so too did rumors of her involvement in an ancient mystical order of craftsmen and priests.
"I assure you," Hershey said kneeling next to her, "The peasant stories of the Queen's magic are complete fabrications. The perpetrator of this murder is no less flesh and blood than you or Kingsley - or myself. They will be found and promptly brought to justice."
"My lord," Kingsley said clutching Hershey's arm and pulling him a few steps out of earshot, "We're standing in a graveyard. This little country will go to war over this. I have no doubt of it."
It was true. Anteria was a small island, an afterthought of a nation hidden at the bottom of a wide globe with only one other flag. That flag was commanded by the queen. The people of Anteria were proud of their ancient heritage and their independence, but most of all they were fiercely loyal to the nation's matriarch. That matriarch now knelt over her dead husband.
"Then," Hershey said, "We must ensure they go to war armed with the truth."
It was only natural that she point at him after her tears were shed. Hershey was more well known than the tub island he was from. Tell someone from Anteria you were from the Ship of Exiles and they would nod slowly and then call the constable. Tell them you were from the same ship nation as the interlocutor Hershey Timmel and they would still call the constable, but would smile with excitement before doing it. The people of Anteria didn't like outsiders. Hershey was one of the exceptions.
Later, Hershey would find himself standing in the coroner's office. It was a surprisingly dark but sterile stone room with a single door that bolted from the inside. As was to be expected there were plenty of tiny filtered air vents, but no windows.
"Nothing," Coroner Shakely said, "No poisons, toxins, humors, parasites, or points of entry for a needle."
"The wine," Hershey said, "An obvious culprit. Has it been tested?"
"His family label," the Coroner said picking up the bottle and pouring its contents into three goblets, "This isn't something I will be including in my official report, but I did test the wine."
"And?" Hershey said.
Coroner Shakely took one of the glasses and gulped it down, stifling a shallow belch before responding,
"Perfectly safe. At a thousand crowns per bottle I would hope so."
"His food," Hershey said, "Has he eaten anything unusual?"
"You didn't know the captain," Shakely said dropping a handsaw into the sink, "People of noble birth like his Lordship often don't have stomachs for solid food. A generator. Condensed nutrients, vitamins, and tonics are dispensed via timed capsules directly."
The Coroner pulled a sheet from the corpse of Captain Francis revealing a small shielded fission generator where his stomach would have been alongside several glass vials of fluid, "And before you start saying it's something else wrong with his machine parts... well, don't. I've been doing this for sixty years and I know every reactive chemical and poison ever used to murder another human being. There was nothing but blood in his blood. Nothing."
"Unfortunate," Hershey said, "Still I cannot help but think you may have overlooked something."
His eyes looked over the various machine parts in the nobleman's body. In his homeland, Hershey would never be allowed to stand in the same room as a dead man with a title such as Captain. As mysterious as the machinations of the human heart were, it was imperative that the machinations of a noble heart be kept more secret. Here a gold lined wire, there a rubber tube. Pumps, fans, filters, vials, pistons, motors, and of course the generator. It was a fire-up and forget fissile generator. A closed system made just enough electrical energy to keep the body moving. It would keep producing energy for decades long after Captain Francis was buried.
It wasn't the additions that the Surgeon's Guild and Captain Francis had made that troubled Hershey. It was the subtractions. Heart, lungs, kidneys. They were machines now. At birth and then again at puberty the enigmatic cloaked surgeons in even this small nation were equipped to improve on the default design of affluent men and women. It would make a murder such as this particularly difficult to solve. A man like Captain Francis wasn't supposed to be murdered. It was unforgivably common for him to do so.
"It's all there," the Coroner said, "Even the blood, in its own way. Don't say it's his blood that's bad, though. I had that tested too."
"I'm certain you are performing your duties superbly," Hershey said taking his own glass of wine and gingerly sniffing around the rim. He winced, shooting first Kingsley and then the coroner a look of disgust, "You said it wasn't poisoned. This can't be anything less." The coroner chuckled,
"What do you mean?" he said smirking and taking the glass from him, "It has a lovely bouquet. Clearly you've overextended your image as a man of breeding. Perhaps in your country they sniff wine but here it is for the drinking."
"Of course," Kingsley said taking one of the glasses and sniffing it with similar apprehension, "Keep the nobles as separate from the common rabble as possible. Fish eggs, live eels, the upper crust does occasionally thrive on what any rational individual would consider disgusting."
"It's even better if they breathe through their mouths most of the time," Coroner Shakely said draining the second glass, "No need to smell it at all. Air comes in through the mouth and down this tube, molecules are separated according to weight convection filters, and then distributed into the bloodstream directly. It's a flawless design. Even helps them keep from being poisoned in the event of a chemical spill, gas attack, or influenza outbreak. I will say this, though, this batch is particularly kind to the gut. Anyone can drink it. Anyone with an element of refinement, that is."
"Brilliant," Hershey said pulling his handkerchief from his pocket and trying to conjure up a sneeze to get the dreadful smell out of his nose, "Really I mean that."
"There is one thing, though," the Coroner said setting down his glass and filling it once again with wine, "Don't ask me what this means. I had a sample of his blood taken when he was brought in for a spectral bad humor and toxin analysis. I think someone's interfering with my autopsy."
"Interfering?" Hershey said.
"As time went on, the vial of blood gained weight."
Hershey stared at the coroner for a long while.
"Was something added to it?"
"Not by me, and I work alone. All the doors were locked, but it was unmistakable. 0.32 micrograms of - - something had been added to the sample, nearly as soon as I opened the vials. I still can't identify what it is or how it got there, but I assure you I was completely alone."
That night news of the captain's death reached beyond the castle's walls. Excited screams and celebrations turned to mourning as quickly as shouts can travel. There was no single announcement. Everyone learned in time according to where they stood. Hershey sat in the tower gingerly swirling a glass of suitcase brandy and staring at a fluffy cloud in the distant moonlight.
"I have arranged a meeting with the Widow Francis," Kingsley said from the door, "The shock of the events of this evening have passed, sir. She's no longer shedding any tears for her husband."
"Does that raise some suspicion in you, Kingsley?" Hershey said, letting his eyes drift along with the cloud.
"While her husband is still warm, rather than seek out her generals to advise war, this woman of supposed nobility has received a demand to marry again. And you won't imagine who it is to. This scandal will know no equal."
Hershey sipped from his glass and set it down standing at the balcony. Where once there had been balloons now fiery lanterns rose to guide Captain Francis to his eternal resting place.
"Kingsley," Hershey said gently, "Live with those voices in your ear - those lives in your hand. Then tell me what humanity is. Imagine a woman like the widow Francis. She carries thousands. More. Millions. A woman like that is not human. I dare say she's something more." He strode to the window staring out into the swirling lights, "Tell me now that the woman she is engaged to marry is from beyond the curtain - that it is a union between our Widow and The Queen of all the world, mistress of all including the Spider Bite Society."
"But how did you know?" Kingsley said, the shock in his voice giving way to a passive resignation, "You've been in your room all night - drinking, might I add."
"You're now going to ask me how the widow Francis, celebrated for her character and loved worldwide could possibly be driven by love to marry her husband's apparent murderer."
Kingsley didn't ask.
"We have uncovered a conspiracy as beautiful as it is brutal. The widow Francis marries the queen. The hex blockade, feared by the superstitious masses falls. Two nations become one. And it only cost the life of one man rather than the extravagance of war or the shame of surrender. We have solved it. And now we must leave. Please pack my belongings."
"No!" Kingsley said clenching his fists, "A man of noble blood is dead. Tell me how she did it!"
"It's too troubling for your ears, Kingsley."
"We are bound by virtue," Kingsley said, "We have no choice in the matter."
"There is no murder, no crime," Hershey said gently smiling and taking Kingsley by the shoulders, "I knew the moment the coroner told me that the man's blood was gaining weight how he died, even if much of the noble's machinery is still - as it must be - a mystery. And now I know why. Francis needed to die to prove the power of his alleged assassin and to save the very illusion he was credited with breaking. And he did it in the noblest of ways with the noblest of gases. Helium."
"Helium?" Kingsley said wide eyed, "How?"
"Distributed to the blood through the same weight convection that kept him alive up until that point. During the celebrations, where Francis was destined to be the guest of honor he had the same sorts of balloons the other celebrators did. Adjourning to the courtyard maze where he knew he would gain some privacy, he sat with a bottle of vintage in one hand and the balloons in the other. He inhaled the contents of a few of the balloons, letting then hang slack, to be carried away by the others once he let go. Oxygen was quickly replaced by the lighter helium, bypassing his respiratory filter and leaking into the pilot's bloodstream. Soon his grip became weak from suffocation and the so-called murder weapon floated away alongside ten thousand others at the scheduled moment."
"So the widow Francis was the one interfering with the blood samples."
"Not at all," Hershey said, "Once released from the body the helium simply began mixing with the air around it. The helium left the sample to be replaced by oxygen from the lab and leaving the blood heavier. It was not the addition of something but rather the removal of helium that caused the change in sample's weight."
"So there it is then," Kingsley said picking up a bottle of scotch and pouring himself a hefty glass, "I'd say well done, but where does this all leave us?"
"Yes," Hershey said, "Where does it leave us? The curtain has been lifted. The two final nations will no doubt join. We may be looking at a world without war for quite some time. Those voices. They will live in a world of peace. Fear of the seemingly omniscient queen and love for the other will ensure no major political coup for a time. And by the time anyone catches on, they'll all be the same people under a single flag."
"Is that right, though?" Kingsley said, "Letting them live in an illusion like that?"
Hershey hissed out a smile and patted Kingsley on the side of his face, draining his glass,
"It's not my job to know. Whatever the rest of the world does, I'm going home. My bags, Kingsley."