:: previous – Matters of the Sky
I skim over the text on page twenty-six. Luckily, Khiana Grim’s personnel file is slim enough to quickly digest.
Name: Khiana Grim W – 44
Other Names: Khiana Nightbell
Native Land: Concordance
Occupation: Former Crown Forensic Accountant – Hostile Termination
• Reported missing (after termination from FA employment) by House Grim of Black Mountain and House Nightbell of Concordance.
• Divorced from Weston Grim.
• Strained relations with younger brother Ehren Nightbell of Nightbell Law.
“Khiana went missing last year.” The woman continues. She stands in the aisle clutching her own microphone. “She worked here for the crown.”
The woman’s disheveled white hair styled in a loose bun ages her, and the lumpy brown cardigan and oversized glasses she has on finishes her downtrodden librarian look, unattractive attire for a crown press briefing.
“And your name is? I’ll also need your press association.”
“No you don’t,” she snaps back.
“Just answer.” Dayen says in my ear. “We’re cutting her mic.”
I take a deep breath and clear my throat.
“We are aware of Ms. Grim’s missing status, and hope for her safe return. On behalf of the Crown, many blessings to her family. Regarding your statement about her employment, Ms. Grim was released from her Forensic Accountant position last year. If you have any additional questions, please contact the personnel department. Next question.”
I point to a raven-haired man in a white-collared shirt and dark slacks.
“Ugo Abbey, Synestia Press—”
The woman snatches his mic away. “The Crown made Khiana disappear!” she yells.
Whispers rise from the crowd.
“Finesse. Reinforcements are on their way.” Dayen says.
“The Crown does not condone malicious acts of any kind. While we are sorry to hear that Ms. Grim is missing, again, we hope for her safe and prompt return to the hands of her family. As for yourself, please wait to be called upon going forward. Thank you. Next question…” I look at Mr. Abbey. “Ugo—”
“Why is the King locked away?!” Without a mic, her voice carries well over the stone silence.
“Excuse me!” All eyes drift behind me when a mighty silhouette of a crown soldier separates from the stained-glass window. He walks past me and into the crowd. “The King is in the southwest region of the old United States rockhounding—”
“LI—” the silhouette appears behind the woman out of nowhere.
She paces backwards through the crowded middle row as it pursues her.
“Ma’am, security will escort you out, so if you’ll go with…” she hisses at the silhouette. One by one, glowing red lights on each camera turn off. Some of the crowd scatters to get away. “Decorum, please—”
The woman turns and points at me. Her cardigan spreads apart, revealing a gaping black hole between her small breasts as a surge of snakes burst out from within her.
I drop to the floor behind the podium as screams and the clatter of chairs falling fill the room. “Dayen?!” I ask in my earpiece. The carpet is rough against my knees. “Are you there?!” Black and gray snakes crawl across the walls to the left and right of me.
It won’t look good if I leave…
Inhaling the fear swirling around the room, I rise to my feet. Everyone crowds the exits, screaming and pleading to get away from the slithering river that used to be the briefing room floor.
“Friends! Please be careful and exit in an orderly fashion!” I shout, but my voice is hoarse. “It’ll be okay!” No one listens.
Attendants tear through the room, quickly wrangling the intruders inside cloth bags. Mr. Zubin, a motionless silhouette, stands in the center of the chaos, gripping a crimson-colored chunky snake in his raised fist.
They’re disgusting but seem harmless.
“Please, everyone!” A woman trips and falls over another woman. “Oh, my—are you okay, miss?” She doesn’t answer and limps out with one high heel on. The room clears as the screams fade down the hall. “More updates to come…” Mr. Zubin approaches with the crimson snake. “Thanks… everyone.” I power my mic off and remain at the podium, watching him. “No… ew. Out, out. Take it up to the Press Affairs department, please and thank you.”
He nods and goes through the private exit.
. . .
“Dayen! Are you there?” I ask in my earpiece, rushing back to my office.
“Yes, ma’am, apologies. We were controlling the reptile situation. Are you hurt?”
“No…no. What was that about? Who was that woman?”
“Inga Incognicio, an Instructor at Black Mountain University. She recently renewed her journalist license, which reactivated her credentials to be in attendance today. She was on the crown press beat during the reign of Barasa Wolf ages ago. Front row.”
“Front row? I’ve never heard of her… This is nonsense, Dayen. It makes the crown appear unstable.”
“I disagree. You handled yourself well out there. The crown will recover. If anything, you were certainly the victim this morning. I can see the headlines now: Attack at the Press Briefing. Madwoman Bursts Into Snakes, but the Crown Prevails. Another day, another blessing. In the meantime, reinforcements have revoked Ms. Incognicio’s credentials and an arrest warrant is pending if you wish to pursue further action. Either way, you’ll never cross paths again.”
Thank goodness. The way she scowled, pointing that bony finger at me… It felt malicious.
I take my earpiece out and unlock the door to my office. Dayen’s inside, leaned against the stained-glass window in his black service uniform. He’s busy scrolling through his tablet and overseeing the careful placement of a Clovis point, peridot, pottery, and paintings into a Royal Artifact chest by his staff.
They pack up fast and leave.
Exhausted, I take a long-awaited seat behind my desk.
“How long will this charade continue, Dayen?”
“Until your brother King escapes his troubles. Or, once your father returns, whichever comes first. Luckily, there are enough artifacts from September’s personal collection to continue the ruse for a hundred years.” His smile drops when he notices I’m not. “A joke, ma’am. Not to worry, this is what your father instructed us to do during his time away. It’s all part of a plan.”
“It’s lies. And now we’re in the middle of something serious with that tick-tock crap in the sky while everyone thinks my brother is gallivanting on Earth. They need to see the King’s face, not mine. It makes it seem like he’s… unsympathetic to the situation here.”
“Your face is just as powerful. Don’t forget. You represent the Crown. Besides, everyone knows communications to Earth are shaky and unreliable. We can barely get in touch with September there as is. The King’s cover fits.”
“Father used to contact nightly. It’s been a week.”
“If you concern yourself with worry, Winter…”
“Do you think it has something to do with him?”
Dayen leans against the window smirking to himself. He’s lost in his tablet. “…The Hourglass?” He finally responds.
“What if it’s a message?”
“From whom and for what? A letter or call would suffice these days.”
“I feel like it means something.”
Dayen sighs. “It’s likely a dirty sky trick conjured by a bored fool. I warned Crow years ago of the consequences if we provided Earth Studies courses in the universities. He didn’t listen. And here we are, a press briefing concerning an object in the sky.”
“You blame that planet for everything.”
“‘And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.’ Genesis six verse five.” He smiles kindly. “An unconquerable sickness lives there. A sickness no one understands.”
I shake my head. Despite its past, I believe Earth is a special place. “I’ll go one day.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less, ma’am.”
He hands me his tablet.
On the screen is a news flash out of Black Mountain with a photo of a hot guy in dad clothes and sunglasses. In another photo, he hugs a woman close.
“An issue… if he receives any more attention.”
Mr. Emilian Grim and Ms. Misa Honey of Long Rifle Drive. The caption below the photos read.
“In an attempt to reach the hourglass,” Dayen continues, “Mr. Grim flew his drone in the air, which subsequently crashed to the ground, narrowly missing his fiancée, Ms. Honey. Reports show the drone, SkyGrim it’s called, burned to a crisp, although witnesses didn’t see a fire. This has birthed a heightened sense of fear concerning The Thing Beyond the Clouds. Some are now calling it. Videos of the incident are circulating.”
“Atmospheric phenomena.” Morons. How many times do I have to say it? “Why wasn’t I informed of this before the briefing?”
“It happened while you were speaking. Most reporters were already buzzing around Black Mountain since the hourglass has lingered there. Once word traveled that a man was launching a drone to investigate it…”
“Absolutely ridiculous.” I look at the enormous crowd and panicked faces in the article. “Not sure why he took a drone up there, anyway. Stirring everyone up like this. It doesn’t help.”
“General curiosity. Which… some suggest is because of the Crown’s delayed response to this incident.”
“Excuse me? We waited a few hours to speak. It hasn’t been up there for a full day yet, technically.”
“Yes, because of the lack of information we had yesterday, the choice to wait was accurate. Yet, whispers of Mr. Grim’s bravery in attempting some action versus the Crown’s inaction are making rounds and growing in volume.”
“Grim… Grim… Is he—?”
“Yes, he’s the son of Mr. Weston Grim, owner of the advanced technology and defense company Grim Systems.” He sighs. “And… his mother is Khiana Grim, mentioned by our reptilian visitor.”
“I see… and who is Inga to Khiana?”
“Close friends since childhood. So close that Inga sent Khiana weekly personalized reports to her crown email regarding Mr. Grim’s academic performance.” He takes his tablet back. “Speaking of the son, ma’am, he put lives at risk flying his drone in a residential neighborhood. Now everyone thinks his drone hit the hourglass, then burned and crashed because of it, which has left some to believe this atmospheric phenomena is a threat. This is precisely why matters such as these are best left with the experts, which Mr. Emilian Grim is not. We could cite him for the unauthorized flight and disturbing the peace. Perform a sweep of the wreckage, perhaps. Collect any photos or data the drone captured of the hourglass. That would help quiet the SkyGrim chatter.”
“…We already said there’s no risk and I don’t like the idea of the crown busting doors for data. Maybe his drone malfunctioned. Does the article state what went wrong? Can you send it to me?”
He nods and types on the tablet screen.
“Done. And no, the article does not elaborate, nor has Mr. Grim spoken to the press. Yet, witness statements from his neighbor’s match. He flew the drone, it crashed, a woman was saved. Quite the blessing.”
“…Was this staged? Let me guess, the husband saved his wife with strategically positioned cameras rolling?”
“Mr. Grim and Ms. Honey aren’t married yet, but this incident is authentic. And it was the neighbor who saved his fiancée, a Mr. Mark Paper.”
“Citations and fines… This man’s mother is missing… We’ll seem heartless. It would look like the crown is involved in Khiana’s disappearance, like Inga said.”
“I disagree. The crown’s hands are clean of this Khiana matter and is best left for the authorities to solve. But Mr. Grim’s actions on Long Rifle Drive were careless and brought unwanted attention to Black Mountain.”
“Ridiculous. Hourglass, snakes, drones, a missing woman.” I shake my head. “I don’t need this—”
The door unlocks and cracks open slightly.
“When it rains, it pours. I’ll handle Black Mountain, ma’am.” Dayen says with confidence. “Not to worry.”
Rose pokes her head inside. “Winter, the budget call is starting in ten. And the Governor of Fortune has requested a private word. Shall I consult your calendar to schedule?”
“Yes, please Rose, thank you…” I wait to hear the door latch shut and lower my voice. “Dayen, is my brother truly aware of what’s happening?”
“Our King doesn’t open his curtains. Or his chamber doors, ma’am.”