20 Time #1 – Dangerous Disguise

For background, see Finally on a Roll.

   I sipped my drink and gazed lazily over the party crowd from my table off to the side, like a queen on her throne. All these nobles flouncing around like they were better than everyone around them, and here I was in their midst, stronger, faster and smarter than them all. They were like chickens running about with their heads cut off. I pitied them. They had to spend their whole lives like this, tied down by culture and precedent and etiquette and law
But not me. I smiled to myself. My pockets were at least twenty gold pieces heavier, and the night had hardly begun.
“Excuse me.”
I looked up.
The Inspector girl who we’d ran into last week stood before me, hair all done up, draped in jewels and a silk gown. This was the last place I expected to run into her, knowing her ferocity on patrol. My heart jumped into my throat and I fought to keep my features neutral. “Yes?” I asked.
“May I sit?” She gestured to the chair opposite me at the table. “If I sit with another woman, I won’t be approached by so many would-be suitors.”
“Of course,” I smiled. This was a dangerous game I was playing. “The price of having a pretty face, am I right?”
“Quite so,” she sighed, alighting on the seat.
I eyed her in my peripherals. Obviously, she didn’t recognize me in my masquerade mask, but I knew her well from our brief encounters in town. She was quick, she was clever, and she was no fool.
Dangerous game, so be it. I’d found a worthy match amid fools at last.

   She looked over. “I’m so sorry, I haven’t introduced myself. Jenna LaRue, niece of Chief Inspector Estella.”
“Martina Robenspahr, daughter of Heinz Robenspahr, a goat-hair rug merchant from the north.” The tale rolled off my tongue with ease. “The Chief Inspector is your uncle?”
“Yes,” she said.
I swirled my drink in its flute. “Aren’t you the lucky lady. He’s filthy rich, isn’t he? I envy your station, Mademoiselle LaRue.”
A dark look fell over her deep, blue eyes. “He shouldn’t be as wealthy as he is,” she murmured. “None of the Inspectors at this party deserve to be here.”
I narrowed my eyes, intrigued. Was she against the institution that I knew she worked for? “What do you mean?” I asked airily. “They’re Inspectors. They keep us safe from ruffians.”
Jenna sighed and leaned closer. “Between you and I, Mademoiselle Robenspahr, and I speak from firsthand knowledge, the real Inspectors don’t do the safekeeping.”
I covered my mouth in false shock.
“What do you know about how the Royal Inspectors operate?” asked the girl.
I told her what I knew. “Well, they go out into the streets and catch thieves and other unsavory types, who are sent to the dungeons. Sometimes, they’re publicly executed.” I hesitated after that. That was the sentence my family and I faced. “They’re… they’re so very brave, charging in swords drawn.”
She nodded darkly, then pointed out a fat man in a butter yellow jacket, stuffing his face with roast boar leg. “That man?” she said. “That’s Inspector Gelique. I doubt he’s picked up a weapon since he was promoted to officer. He sits in his estate all day while his patrol does all the work. They catch the criminals and file reports outlining their crime, and all he has to do to get credit for capturing them is to sign it. Two strokes of his quill and he could be signing away the life of an innocent, but he wouldn’t care. Each signature is a payment for senior officers.”
I was genuinely hanging off her every word. She was spoon-feeding me insider information and I ate it up. “Goodness, are all of them like that?” I asked.
“Most of them. I’ve seen them barely skim the documents before greedily reaching for the quill.”
“How awful.”
The Inspector spied another culprit in the ballroom. “And that man, Inspector Luke.” She singled out a grizzled, lanky old soldier glowering down his long nose into his wine. “He’s the worst of them all. Not only does he also lounge around indoors instead of going out and working, but he’s the official link between the Inspectors and the hangman’s firm. He gets paid based on the severity of the crimes the death row criminals commit. It’s supposed to be compensation for dealing with dangerous people and putting his life on the line, but he abuses it.”
“How so?” I asked.
She pressed her palms together and pointed her fingers toward me. “Here’s how the Inspectors really work. The patrols catch the criminal. They file reports and send them to their superior officers in their homes. The officer puts his name on the capture and gets paid.”
Her beautiful, demure court lady facade was breaking down as she plowed on in heated fervor. She couldn’t fool a fly into thinking she was suited for dresses and jewels. We were both women of action.
“Now,” she growled, “if the criminal has committed multiple offenses, the officers usually take that to mean they should be hanged.”
Hanged. I swallowed. “Just like that?”
“Yes. It doesn’t matter how minor the crimes may be. Gold is all they care about.” She paused as an Inspector strode by our table, then resumed. “Those criminals have their reports passed on to Inspector Luke, who is supposed to review the crimes and make the final decision on whether or not they’re severe enough to merit death. He sends everyone brought before him to the gallows.”
“Atrocious,” I said.
She nodded. “But, see, Luke has to give the report to the hangman’s firm, and they don’t accept minor crimes, which is usually all that is on there. They’d never execute a man for something like a drunken brawl. So what does he do? He rewrites their crimes.
“No!”
“I’m afraid so. He’ll make up far more severe offenses just so he can get paid for dispatching dangerous criminals. And the hangmen, none the wiser, execute them.”
He makes up the crimes. I had no doubt she was telling the truth, after seeing her anger so raw on her face. Funny, how our little nemesis turned out so helpful.
But it only made me increasingly concerned. We were really in for it. If any one of us were caught, it’d be the gallows for sure, or worse. And we really do commit severe offenses. If it was that bad for innocents, what would our sentences be like?
The others needed to know. I excused myself from the table and left the party, headed back out into the comfort of the night.

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