#9 The Ambassadors: Part 1
Time for a party
This week a new story begins in Tales from the Triverse. It’s a change of pace from what’s come before, so do let me know what you think.
I listened to Schubert while writing this chapter. I suggest sticking it on in the background while reading.
Previously: The Specialist Dimensional Command is a branch of the Metropolitan Police in London, tasked with investigating portal-related crimes. To honour their work, the Joint Council is hosting a reception on board an airship high above the city…
Formal dinners were not DC Yannick Clarke’s favourite way to spend an evening, though even he had to admit that the venue was impressive. He put a hand to the window, looking down at the city below, and could feel the thrum of the airship’s idling engines reverberating through his fingertips. This vessel was in a different league to those used for public transport on longer journeys, which tended to have cramped, boxy cabins and communal spaces with uncomfortable wooden seats. She was called the Pluma and was owned by the Joint Council, used for diplomatic gatherings when there was a need to impress.
Clarke fidgeted with his tie and collar, unhappy to be forced back into a uniform. He’d become a detective as early in his career as possible precisely to avoid having a dress code. The dinner was as far from his ordinary surroundings as possible, which is why he was studiously staring through the glass at the rooftops of London, as if he wished to leap through and escape. The interior of the Pluma was spacious and grand, extending almost the length and width of the airship’s entire frame. Every surface was polished wood, or marble, or covered with a luxurious patterned rug no doubt imported from god knows where. They were still moored to the Joint Council tower, atop the the portal station, and it occurred to Clarke that this was his last opportunity to disembark before the airship began its slow, circular tour of the London night sky.
It looked considerably more peaceful from such a height. The city was a maze of yellow and orange lights, with the smog hard to perceive and the clamour of people and trams too distant to intrude. Clarke realised that he was already missing it.
A hand gripped his shoulder firmly and in the window’s reflection he saw the face of James Miller, all smiles and slickness. Detective Chief Inspector Miller, the face of the SDC and a smooth operator. Clarke didn’t like him, didn’t trust him, but couldn’t help but admire his ability to work a room. The man knew how to give a handshake, how to make anyone feel at ease, and how to make the perfect first impression. He had been a decent enough detective but most of his time was spent schmoozing the press, or sweet talking the Commissioner or home secretary. Networking was his thing, always had been. Connections everywhere. Miller was the one to talk to when you needed information or to call in a favour. He’d be in his element here, among the great and the good of all three dimensions.
“Time to say hello to our hosts, Yannick,” he said. “Try to be nice. This is for you, you know.”
Clarke snorted, drawing a startled glare from a nearby guest. “This isn’t for me, it’s for their own egos. Us being here makes them feel good and maybe brings in some extra cash.”
“Well, regardless, there’s food, there’s wine and there’s people to meet.” Miller turned Clarke around and pointed at the chandeliered room, looking every bit like the reception hall of a stately home. “The Commissioner first, I think. Where have you hidden DC Styles?”
There was a barely perceptible vibration as the airship undocked from the tower and began its lazy drift over the city.
Lola couldn’t believe her luck. A couple of months into working at the SDC and here she was, in a beautiful dress on a glorious airship mingling with representatives from Palinor and Max-Earth. She was acutely aware that this was not representative of what she should expect from the job. But right at that moment, she was living a version of her life that she hadn’t thought possible.
The reception hall of the airship was grander than anything she’d ever seen, every surface and material opulent and gleaming, with small waist-high tables dotted about and replete with food and champagne glasses. Canapés, she’d heard someone say. Every guest was wearing an outfit that on its own must have cost more than her entire wardrobe. The only reason she was wearing something even vaguely comparable was courtesy of a convenient - and rarely used - budget line in the SDC ledger relating to parades and ceremonies. It felt exhilarating and not a little odd to be out of her usual practical trousers and blouse and instead wrapped in a flowing, yellow dress. The heels she wasn’t used to but was making the best of it. Fortunately nobody was paying any attention to her.
It was a charity do, a fundraiser in aid of an organisation that worked in the east end with recently migrated citizens from Palinor. It hadn’t occurred to Lola until that evening that it seemed to only ever be people from Palinor that ran into problems when they reached London. You never heard of anyone from Max-Earth getting into scrapes. Maybe everyone was already happy over there and didn’t feel the need to escape to another dimension. Life seemed more complicated for the Palinese, regardless of whether they were aen’fa, human, koth or one of the rarer sentient species.
Talking of koth, she could see an ambassador across the room, talking with human dignitaries who looked like they might be from Earth, perhaps representatives from the Ethiopian portal. The koth was dressed in something resembling a tuxedo, albeit one custom-made for their unique physiology. Big in the shoulders. The ambassador laughed, the sound reverberating around the room. She’d seen koth in London, of course, though it wasn’t an especially common sight, but she’d never been in a room with one.
“You look a little lost,” said a soft, lightly accented voice next to her ear.
Startled, Lola jumped and turned to meet the eyes of a young woman who looked to be about the same age as her, though a little taller and slighter, with skin several shades darker than Lola’s insistently pale complexion. The woman wore astonishing make-up around her eyes, colours arcing away across her cheekbones and merging into her hair. Her dress put Lola’s to shame, evidently designed to make an immediate impression, embroidered with complex patterns and completed by an elaborate headdress. Later, despite her observational training, Lola would be unable to recall the colour or shape of the dress, so captivated was she by the woman’s face. It seemed almost carved and polished from a fine wood, too perfect in its proportions.
“You look a little beautiful,” she found herself saying. She smiled wanly.
“I am Princess Daryla,” the woman said, as if it were the most ordinary introduction in the world, and only then did Lola notice the burlier-than-usual suited bodyguards standing a respectful distance away, hands clasped in front of their waists, watching closely. “I hate these networking events.” She leaned in yet closer. “It’s for a good cause, of course, but do we really need to have all this forced conversation?” She smiled, revealing perfect teeth. “Who are you?”
“I’m Detective Constable Lola Styles, of the Specialist Dimensional Command. So what do you do, as a princess?”
Another smile. “Usually, whatever I’m told to do. Which this week meant travelling through the portal to attend this party.” She pulled a face and looked aghast. “Honestly, I can’t do without magic for this long. If I don’t get back soon I’m worried I’ll forget all about it.”
So she was a wielder. Lola frowned, trying to imagine the slight girl conjuring spells. “It must be strange to lose your powers when you cross over. Is it like forgetting to walk?”
“Something like that, yes. Forgetting how to ride a bicycle, perhaps. You know you should be able to do it, you’ve done it before, but no matter how hard you try you keep falling off.” She laughed a little. “Yes, I rather like that.”
“What’s it like? Doing magic?”
“On Palinor it’s very commonplace, at least for humans,” the princess said, “so one doesn’t tend to think about it much. Coming here at least reminds me to appreciate what we have, I suppose. You should come visit and I could show you.”
Lola’s little heart exploded. Her head buzzed as if a fly had become trapped inside her skull. “That would be…amazing.”
“Fiendishly difficult to get travel passes, alas.” Daryla put a delicate finger on Lola’s shoulder. “Tell you a secret, though,” she whispered conspiratorially. “I’m wearing a spell right now. I can’t do anything with it, of course, and it was cast back on Palinor before we came through, but a well-cast passive spell can last a long time. Can you guess what it is?”
Unsure even of the meaning of the question, Lola fumbled for some sort of answer. The four types of magic ran through her head: visualisation, elemental, micrology, physology. She knew the words, even knew some of what they meant, but it didn’t help.
She was about to hazard a guess when they were interrupted by the sound of DCI Miller, approaching with Clarke. “My dear Princess Daryla,” Miller said, bowing slightly as he reached where they stood, “it is an absolute pleasure to make your acquaintance. I’m sure you don’t remember but we met a few years ago during the Joint Council conference on illegal migration.”
Daryla regarded him, her face neutral and impassive. “I do remember you,” she said at last, “and I remember that conference. A most unpleasant affair.”
“I couldn’t agree more, your highness,” Miller said smoothly. “Let us all hope this evening is more productive.”
There was a sound of silverware being tapped against glass. “If you would please, ladies and gentlemen,” said a white-haired older man with a sizeable moustache, “dinner is served and awaits in the adjoining room. Do follow me.”
There were two tables, running the entire length of the room, laid with formal dinnerware of every imagining. Lola took her allocated seat, which it turned out was on a separate table to Clarke. She shrugged at him apologetically and he rolled his eyes and made a gesture of tying something around his neck. He was determined not to enjoy himself, which made no sense to her.
Next to her was a space without a chair, an absence which was explained by the arrival of the koth ambassador, whose obsidian plating shifted as they sat down onto the floor. Even so they still towered above the table in a way that made Lola feel tiny.
“Do you want me to get you a chair?” she asked, hoping she wasn’t going to insult them.
A deep, booming laugh burst from the koth. “Thank you, but no,” they said, turning their long snout towards her. “I am quite comfortable, and if I were to sit any higher it would really look very silly.” They reached out a clawed hand. “Vakho, ambassador for the Appilan region. I sit on the Joint Council with Lord Hutchinson over there.” They gestured towards the white-haired man, sat at the head of the table.
“Lola, Lola Styles. Detective Constable at the SDC.”
Vakho nodded, scales lifting around their eyes. “Ah yes, I’d heard we had some esteemed guests from the portal crimes squad in our midst. How exciting. Your attendance is not without controversy, Detective Styles.”
“In the twenty years since the SDC was formed your team has been responsible for arresting and repatriating a great many of my countryfolk,” Vakho said, their voice inflected with the sound of chains dragged on stone. “It is a policy for which there is not universal support, shall we say?”
“I’m very sorry—”
The koth waved a huge arm dismissively. “Oh, don’t worry, Detective Styles. I am very aware that none of this is anything to do with you, given that you are only recently graduated from childhood. We must not all be judged on the actions of our forebears, otherwise we would all be found guilty, no?”
There was the tinkle of metal on glass again. The man - Lord Hutchinson, apparently - was standing with his glass held aloft. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, drawing a quiet sigh from Vakho that only Lola heard, “please join me in raising a toast, to the efforts of a great many people and institutions gathered here tonight without whom we would all be in quite sticky wickets. Not least I would like to welcome Metropolitan Police Commissioner Matthew Graves, who is here with several members of his Specialist Dimensional Command. I’m sure you are all aware of the sacrifice made earlier this year by one of that team, a Detective Constable John Callihan, a man I unfortunately never had the opportunity to meet but about whom I have heard a great many very wonderful things. Please, ladies and gentlemen, raise a glass to Detective Callihan and all those who sacrifice so much for so many across the triverse.”
Vakho grimaced again, before taking a sip from their glass - adapted to be drinkable by a koth jaw. “After two hundred years,” Vakho said, “and still you Earthers can’t get your heads around the notion that we are not all of us ladies, or men. Or gentle.”
She smiled sympathetically up at the koth. Glancing across to the other table she saw Clarke sat very still, staring down at the table before him, no glass in his hand.
The food came quickly, an apparent army of waiting staff emerging from somewhere else in the airship to deliver individual plates to each guest. Lola gawped at the rich meal before her, then began to panic as she realised she would have to choose from the myriad of cutlery options laid out before her. Copying the person on the opposite side of the table, she began to carefully slice into the meat, determined not to knock over a glass, or scrape a knife across the crockery, or otherwise make a fool of herself.
“Ah, a true delicacy,” Vakho said, indicating her plate. “Bringing in Palinese pikkori must have cost an arm and a tail.”
“Perhaps they should have just given the money to the charity,” Lola mumbled between mouthfuls. The dish was strange, noticeably different to her palette with a seasoning she couldn’t place.
“Oh,” Vakho said, banging a fist onto the table suddenly. They coughed, a small spark of flame darting from their nostrils, then they tipped back onto the floor, convulsing, smoke bursting from their mouth in broken rings. Lola pushed her chair back and jumped up, then fell to the floor as Vakho’s tail swiped her legs from under her. Crawling back to their side, hampered by the tightness of her dress around her legs, Lola tried to take hold of the huge koth but was immediately thrown free. Kicking off her shoes, she rose to her knees. “I need a doctor!” she shouted, the rest of the room only just starting to react to the scene.
The ambassador shuddered where they lay, their dinner jacket shredded where sharp spines had torn through. Awful noises rattled from Vakho’s throat, then a final jet of blue-green fire spewed from their mouth. The spasming ceased and the koth lay still and silent.
There’ll be more to this story coming up next week.
As someone on the early access subscription, you get to read chapters way in advance of them appearing anywhere else. If you have friends or family you think might enjoy Triverse please do point them in this general direction. You don’t need to be a paid up subscriber to read the opening chapters.
See you next week.
Simon K Jones