Thirty-three

Hairstreak eased his thumb back off the red button. ‘That flyer is showing the royal crest,’ he murmured, as much to himself as Pelidne.

‘Are we expecting an emissary from the palace?’ Pelidne asked.

‘No, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t sent one.’

‘What are your orders, sir?’

Hairstreak pulled off his goggles. There was a thoughtful expression on his face. ‘Standard procedure, Pelidne. Have our visitor escorted to the landing pad and treated with every courtesy. Alert me once his identity is established. If he has legitimate palace credentials, try to find out the purpose of the visit.’

‘Then stall him?’

‘Yes, exactly,’ Hairstreak said. ‘Offer him refreshment, get him drunk – whatever. Report back to me at once with any information. I shall be in my office.’

‘And the flyer, sir?’

‘Search it thoroughly once the pilot is clear.’

Pelidne hesitated. ‘A royal flyer will have security spells in place. There would be no way of concealing the fact we’d searched it.’

Hairstreak shrugged. ‘They’ll expect us to search it – we’d be fools not to.’

‘Yes, sir.’ As Hairstreak pushed past him, Pelidne asked, ‘The security system, sir?’

‘What about it?’

‘Shall I leave it armed?’

‘Of course. Our visitor isn’t likely to wander. And if he does, he deserves anything he gets,’ Lord Hairstreak told him. He stood up. ‘Contact my office once the craft is down.’

But he never reached his office. Halfway down the stairs to the main hall an excited servant caught up with him.

‘Sir,’ she said breathlessly, ‘Lord Hairstreak, sir. It’s Her Majesty!’ Hairstreak turned to stare at her, his face expressionless. The girl waved her arms in something approaching panic. ‘It’s the Queen, sir. Outside, sir. Come in a flyer, sir, fastest landing I ever seen. Queen Blue, sir. What’ll we do, sir?’

Hairstreak stared at her for a long moment. ‘Queen Blue?’ he said. ‘That flyer was piloted by Queen Blue?’

‘Yes, sir. The Queen, sir. She’s standing outside now, sir. What’ll we do?’

Hairstreak smiled chillingly. ‘Get out of my way, girl. I shall welcome Her Majesty personally.’

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