After she finished her shift handover Rune changed and went outside to wait. If the Admiral had been at the official vigil then he would have to get back here to the Old Headquarters from the bonfire up on the Halderspur. Even with this morning’s minimal traffic she didn’t think she’d keep him waiting. She was right. The official car, hydrogen-engined and armour-plated, slid into the space at the kerb in front of the building. The Admiral opened the rear door himself and climbed out to hold it open for her. “Come on, get in,” he told her while looking approvingly at her outfit of long boots and dark green winter coat with matching knitted hat and gloves, “Our solstice feast is waiting and we don’t want my brothers to start without us.” She climbed into the rear of the car, her leather satchel slung over one shoulder, to find the vehicle empty except for the driver. “We’ve already dropped off my staff officer and aide-de-camp,” added the Admiral as he slid in after her. “After he’s deposited us, Larssen is off to his own celebration, aren’t you Larssen?”
“Yes sir.” It was a cheery response from the middle-aged man behind the wheel but he didn’t take his eyes off the road.
Rune had decided to raise one point early. “I noticed, sir,” she began carefully, “that you and Special Agent Vlindersspar don’t use the same surname.”
“And you still came?” He sounded like he might be teasing her.
She nodded and saw no need to mention the numbered line entry left in the duty officer’s diary or the letter she’d left in her locker.
“Vlindersspar is an alias he uses. Sjeldnjar is a difficult name if you want to be obscure.” Rune knew what the Admiral meant. The Sjeldnjars were all through the history she’d learnt in school. Back when the country had been an elective monarchy the crown had usually been on the head of a Sjeldnjar or a member of the current royal family with the other eligible families only getting a candidate elected one reign in four.
“If I am who you think I am, what does that mean for me?” The question hung there like fog from her breath.
He reached over and patted her hand in an avuncular fashion. “I think we should save that discussion until you’ve met the others.”
In another official car, more luxuriously appointed than Admiral Sjeldnjar’s and with all its back seats occupied, the First Councillor said, “I wonder why Sebastian Sjeldnjar dashed off so quickly after sunrise?” Her daughters, mustered as they so often were on these occasions to provide a supporting chorus, kept their faces straight and their mouths shut. Princess Ravnhild, the only granddaughter making up the numbers in the car and apparently oblivious to the miasma of a sneaked cigarette wrapped around her, said cheerfully, “I heard him saying something to his driver about picking someone up. I think he said niece, but I could be wrong.”
“That’s interesting,” Princess Citrine, the Queen’s First Councillor and sister, said slowly. “Be sure to air yourself before you come in to eat, Ravnhild.” Her daughters conveyed volumes to each other with their eyes.
“Yes, Grandmother,” Ravnhild replied obediently and the journey continued in silence.
When Rune followed the Admiral out of the car she found herself on the footpath outside one of the massive houses in the Old Quarter. Its portico opened onto the street but the rest of the house was set back so that there was almost a traffic lane and a half between the front of the building and the iron railings along the footpath. She looked around, trying to place herself in the city’s geography while Admiral Sjeldnjar had a few words with his driver.
"This is Thingborden, isn’t it?” she asked as the car drove off.
“Yes,” the Admiral acknowledged her question with a smile, “we back onto the river. Landislav’s Palace and the Althing Hall are about three blocks away.” He looked up at the four storey building with its wide-set windows, brick and stone detailing. “It had to be rebuilt in the seventeenth century because the old fortified manor burnt down. There’s a story that the ladies of the family set fire to it in the hope of getting decent plumbing.” He rubbed his hands together. “Come inside where it’s warm.”
He led her up the steps and knocked on the door. It was opened by a porter in subdued livery. Rune suddenly began to feel very out of place despite her invitation.
The porter’s face split in a smile. “Vorherr Sebastian, Damma Graymalk, please come in.” The Admiral led the way and the porter carefully closed the door behind Rune with a gentle ‘snick’. Rune followed the Admiral’s lead in taking off her winter coat but before she could hang it beside the Admiral’s the porter was at her side saying, “Please, allow me to take that, Damma.” He carefully hung up the winter coat, the scarf she’d had on underneath it and her hat. She was allowed to put her gloves in her satchel. “May I say, Damma, how happy I am to welcome you to the house?”
Rune had time to murmur a quiet and slightly confused, “Thank you,” before the Admiral took her further into the stately building. “They’ll be in the Brown Sitting Room,” he said confidently, leading the way.
Fortunately it wasn’t far and Rune didn’t think she’d get lost if she had to make her way back to the front door on her own. The Brown Sitting Room itself looked as if it had been expensively furnished long enough ago to have eroded down to comfort. The windows, framed in brown curtains, looked out over snowy terraces to the river and the snow covered Botanical Gardens on the low side of the river beyond. There were three tall men in the room already, much of an age with the Admiral and each other.
“You already know Constantine,” Admiral Sjeldnjar indicated the thin man she knew as Special Agent Vlindersspar. Rune and the skinny man nodded cordially to each other. “This is Algernon,” the Admiral moved on to the thin man with mostly grey, curly hair and a sharp nose, “he’s head of the family. This,” he moved on to the wiry man remaining, the one other then him with a military hair cut, “is Caliburn.”
“Uncle Caliburn,” the man corrected, his moustache tweaking over his smile. “Would you rather have aquavit or Olvera?” His hands hovered over the bottle, decanter and glasses.
“Neither, thank you.” Rune smiled back and added apologetically, “I’m back on duty at six this evening.”
“That seems a bit harsh,” protested Algernon.
“I volunteered,” Rune replied. “After all, I didn’t think I had anywhere to go today, sir.” She tacked on the ‘sir’ because if Algernon was head of the Sjeldnjar then he was the Ruhtig and that put him one step below the Royal Family. ‘Uncle Caliburn’ in his jumper and leather jacket must be Major General Sjeldnjar... Suddenly Rune wanted that alcoholic drink and to sit down in one of those very big armchairs and disappear because these very important people thought she was their relative, and...what if she wasn’t?
“I’m Uncle Algernon,” he corrected kindly.
“On what evidence, sir?” That sounded panicked and she regretted it as soon as it was out of her mouth.
“Here,” that was Caliburn putting a glass in her hand. “This is plum cordial. Not a drop of alcohol in it. Connie, say something, will you?” He looked over towards his brother. “The poor girl is beginning to look like a deer caught in the headlights.”
“You look very like your mother.”
“I don’t think that helped,” Caliburn observed. The Admiral had disappeared. Some detached part of her mind suggested that he’d probably gone to change out of his uniform.
“You have our mother’s nose,” observed Algernon dispassionately. “You’re standing the way Constantine used to when he was nervous, before he trained himself not to.” Rune looked down and straightened her feet so she wasn’t pigeon-toed anymore. “I’m satisfied that you’re who you say you are. Now we just need to confirm that you’re who Constantine believes you are. I’ve arranged for the Assembly of Nobles to have someone available to collect your samples here tomorrow.”
“Why is the Assembly of Nobles doing genetic,” she hazarded a guess, “testing on me?”
“Look around you,” Algernon indicated the room just as Sebastian came back in through the door. “This is the full membership of the senior branch of the Sjeldnjar. Constantine is my heir. If you are the acknowledged child of his body, that makes you his heir, before Sebastian, Caliburn and a rather dreary cousin. Displacing established heirs, that makes it the Assembly’s business.”
“And no fouls to you if the tests come back negative,” added Sebastian. “We were the ones to approach you.”