The diplomatic courier bag arrived in my office this morning, lugged by a scruffy girl with wide eyes and no body fat. I tipped her a few extra coppers, noting her eager pride with which she adjusted the tin badge our runners wear when on official errands. I quirked a smile as she deftly made the coins disappear into some hidden pocket without ceremony and bolted from the room. I hoped she spent them on a sandwich.
Tenk normally didn’t ask me to review the correspondence – he had always been particular about having first crack at the reports, given the peculiar intensity with which he viewed diplomatic affairs. Something in Tenk’s past had made him phobic about the possibility of inter-steamland conflict, and after the disastrous outcome of my unauthorized overtures to Antiquity in my first month as Maceholder, he had delicately insisted on handling such matters himself.
But that had changed. Recently Tenk had been away on a series of extended trips abroad, the destinations of which he had not disclosed even to his closest staff. Each time he had debarked from the Excelsior on his return, he had looked more worn and disheveled. More worn and disheveled than he usually looked, I mean. He refused to comment any further. In his preoccupation I had taken on the job of receiving the pouch as it arrived.
The diplomatic bag contained the usual – routine correspondence, visa applications, bills of lading, berthing permits from visiting official vessels. But another document caught my eye.
It was an image, embossed on a scrap of onionskin paper by an engine-driven needle printer. Clearly the image had been taken surreptitiously by one of our agents from a position of hiding. It was a pier – or more properly an entire quay – teeming with activity. Stevedores and sailors and airmen were thick on the ground, loading and servicing a flotilla of vessels, both air and water. I squinted to make out the vessel classes and uniform markings, and failed to identify either. Clearly these were preparations of a massive scale, but for what I couldn’t discern.
The marks on the printed page were in red oil pencil, and addressed to Tenk. “Evidence, as requested. – RQ” I didn’t recognize the sigil either.
I looked up from the page and jumped – Tenk was standing in front of me. Amazing how easily he could sneak up on you. He extended his hand wordlessly. I folded the paper back into thirds and handed it over. He inclined his head.
“My apologies. Please bear with me on this. All will be revealed.” He pocketed the paper in his lapel pocket. I nodded and adjusted my pince-nez.
“Fleet Week preparations are going well?” he asked casually.
“Indeed. A peaceful gathering of military might, all in one place. The schedule was just updated. It should be quite a spectacle. ” I replied.
He nodded. “Enjoy it. Things may be changing.”
He turned on his heel and left without another word. I watched him go and turned back to my desk, blinking with unanswered questions.