The Trade of Queens

The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross Read Free Book Online

Book: The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross Read Free Book Online
Authors: Charles Stross
and by the time they located the correct headquarters building it had already been evacuated. And the poison-pen letter addressed to Lady Patricia Thorold-Hjorth—lightly spritzed in dimethyl mercury, a potent neurotoxin—never left the postal office, owing to an unusual shortage of world-walkers arriving to discharge their corvée duties that day.
    In fact, nearly two-thirds of those targeted for assassination survived, and nearly a third of the would-be assassins were captured, were killed, or failed to carry out their missions. As coup d’état attempts went, this one might best be described as a halfhearted clusterfuck. The conservative faction had been on the back foot since the betrothal-night massacre, many of their most effective members slain; what remained was the rump of the postal committee (cleaving to the last to the trade that had brought them wealth and power), the scheming grandmothers and their young cat’s-paws, and a bedraggled handful who had fallen upon hard times or whose status was in some other way threatened by the new order.
    Only one element of the conspiracy ran reliably to completion. Unfortunately, it was Plan Blue.
    *   *   *
    In a humid marsh on the banks of a broad river, there stood a scaffold by the grace of the earl of Dankfurt. The scaffold lacked many of the appurtenances of such—no dangling carrion or cast-iron basket of bones to add to the not inconsiderable stench of the swamp—but it provided a stout and very carefully surveyed platform. Here in the Sudtmarkt most maps were hand-scribed in ink on vellum, and accurate to the nearest league. But this platform bore stripe-painted measuring sticks at each corner, and had been carefully pinned down by theodolites borne by world-walkers. Its position and altitude were known to within a foot, making it the most accurately placed location in the entire kingdom.
    Five men stood on the scaffold beside a cheap wheelbarrow that held an olive-drab cylinder the size of a beer keg. Two of them wore US army fatigues, in the new desert pattern that had come in with the Iraq war: outer-family world-walkers both, young and more tenuously attached to the Clan than most. The other three were clad in fashions that had never been a feature of that time line. “Are you clear on the schedule?” demanded one fellow, a thin-haired, thin-faced man whom Miriam had once likened to a ferret.
    â€œSir.” The shorter of the two uniformed men bowed his neck formally.
    â€œTell us, please,” said one of the other fellows, resting his hand on the pommel of his small-sword.
    â€œAt T minus eight minutes, Erik takes his place on the barrow. I then cross over. Emergence is scheduled for level two, visitors’ car park block delta three. There will be cameras but no internal guard patrols inside the car park—active security is on the perimeter and at the doors.”
    The ferret-faced man nodded. “Kurt?”
    The tall, sandy-haired soldier nodded. “I dismount. We have sixty seconds to clear down any witnesses. Then we wheel the barrow to the stairwell. By T minus six the payload is to be emplaced in the place of the red fire extinguisher, which we will place in the barrow. We are then to proceed back to our arrival point, whereupon Jurgen will take his place in the barrow and I will bring us home no later than T minus five.”
    â€œWhat provisions for failure have you made?” asked the fellow with the small-sword.
    â€œNot much,” the Ferret admitted. “Jurgen?”
    Jurgen shrugged. “We shoot any witnesses, of course.” He tapped one trouser pocket, which was cut away to reveal the butt of a silenced pistol peeping out of a leg holster. The uniforms weren’t very authentic—but then, they only had to mislead witnesses for a few seconds. “If we can’t cross back because of a surveyor’s error, we turn the barrow upside down and Kurt

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