“Thanks Aunt Belinda,” Anne said as she hugged the short, round woman in the doorway. Anne smiled as she spied the twelve-gauge Remington leaning in the corner of the doorway. Aunt Belinda was still the practical woman Anne remembered. That was one of the reasons that Anne led the group this deep into the old city.  

“Oh, it’s no bother. I do so love having company these days. Even if it’s under rather unusual circumstances,” Aunt Belinda said, ushering the group into her small, comfortable house. “Anne dear, did you know that there’s a BOLO out on the four of you?” 

“Been listening to the police scanner again, Aunt Belinda?” Anne asked as she shut and bolted the door. Anne did a quick check around the neighborhood to see if they had any followers. The street didn’t have any unusual cars or lights on.  

“Well, I like to keep my hand in the game, you know,” Aunt Belinda answered as she scurried from the door and down to the short hallway to the kitchen. Anne, Samantha, Princess Anya, and Veritas followed her back. Anne felt part of her relax as the smells of home-baked brownies and coffee floated down to them. 

“Sit, sit,” Aunt Belinda said, motioning to a worn kitchen table and chairs. Steaming mugs of coffee and a plate of brownies seemed to materialize the moment the four sat down. 

“We should not relax yet,” Veritas said, “They are bound to be checking all of your family to see if they are harboring us. We probably don’t have a lot of time.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” Aunt Belinda said, “It’ll take a few days before they’ll think to look here. Besides, we should at least have a couple of hours warning before they show up at my front door.” Anne smiled as Samantha and Veritas did quick re-evaluations of the elderly woman. 

“You have my most heartfelt thanks, madam,” Princess Anya said. Aunt Belinda’s eyebrow crooked the tiniest bit upward at Anya’s accent. Anne restrained the giggle, but Aunt Belinda must have heard something because she bestowed one of her rare glowers on Anne. 

“Okay, Veritas, time to spill,” Anne said, looking at the elf, “What in the hell is going on?”

“Language, Anne. A lady shouldn’t speak like that,” Aunt Belinda reproved. Anne gave the older woman a look of contrition. 

“With all due respect to our host, I can’t discuss this in front of her,” Veritas said, and gave Aunt Belinda a small bow. The respect in the elf’s voice and gesture caught Anne off-guard.

“Aunt Belinda can keep a secret,” Anne said, “We’re trusting her not to report us to the authorities.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Anne. I’m not offended. After all, if I don’t hear what’s happening, I can’t testify about it later,” Aunt Belinda said, “Help yourself to anything in the kitchen, just please make sure to clean up after yourselves. I have some knitting to attend to.” She patted the three woman on the arm and dashed out of the kitchen.

“Okay, Veritas, talk,” Anne said, sharply. The elf looked back down the hall before turning back to the group. He looked like he wanted to ask about Aunt Belinda. Instead, he took a deep breath and looked down at his wristwatch.

“Three hours ago I discovered two men trying to place a bomb below the bedroom of the prince,” Veritas said. Princess Anya gasped. 

“We didn’t hear anything about that,” Anne said.

“Of course not, because I didn’t report it through the normal channels,” Veritas said.

“Why not?” Anne asked. Veritas gave her an exasperated look. 

“Would you stop interrupting, Detective?” Veritas asked. Anne folded her arms beneath her breasts and nodded at the elf. 

“I interrogated the two men who were setting the bomb,” Veritas said, “They were just local mercenaries in the city’s criminal ecosystem. They were hired through a local middleman named Yamin. They had no idea where the money originated and were even provided the explosive to be used. The device was one of the Navy’s medium limpet mines. Used properly, it would have easily blown through all of the normal and magical defenses surrounding the prince.”

“Wait, the American Navy or the Imperial Navy?” Samantha asked. 

“American,” Veritas answered. Samantha let out a string of curses that surprised Anne.

“So, someone on this side of the gate wants my husband murdered?” Princess Anya asked, confused. “I thought the purpose of these negotiations was to cement a stronger relationship between the Emperor’s government and the American government.”

“No, your highness, it wasn’t the Americans,” Veritas said, “Or at least, those of us in OSI don’t believe it was the American government.”

“Well, if it wasn’t the Americans who set this in motion, then who?” Princess Anya demanded. 

“The Saint believes that there is a coterie among the aristocrats who are not happy about your father-in-law seizing back his traditional powers,” Veritas said. “Not surprising considering the Emperor destroyed a hundred years of precedent that gave most of his power to the House of Lords.”

“If they didn’t want their powers taken away from them, then they shouldn’t have cowered behind their walls while the Commandante was wreaking havoc across Avalon City,” Princess Anya said with the first hint of true malice Anne had heard from the woman. Samantha snorted, and the princess glowered at the psychic. Veritas cleared his throat to continue.  

“That may be true, your highness, but it doesn’t change their actions,” Veritas said. 

“So, how did that bomb figure into Kurt giving us the ‘go-to-hell’ code?” Anne asked.

“I rendered the explosive in the mine inert and then enlisted the aid of Mr. Schneider and Agent MacMurtry. I thought it would be better if they discovered the bomb, considering the current tensions between the various security teams. If people on this side of the gate alerted the security teams to the presence, it was doubtful that the Americans would have been behind it. Plus, we were hoping that it would flush out the conspirators. Such was not the case.”

“Are Kurt and Jason okay?” Anne asked, not sure if she wanted to hear the answer. Veritas nodded and Anne felt like she could breathe again. She hadn’t realized exactly how worried she’d been about Kurt. 

“It seems someone else alerted the security teams about the bomb,” Veritas said. “Fortunately, the responding team of the Imperial Guard assumed the three of us had just stumbled onto the criminals and took them down. It was through them that we found out that the reported target was not the prince, but you, your highness.” Princess Anya paled and held her hand to her mouth. “Once Mr. Schneider found out the target, he asked me to get you out of the building.”

“Why would they want to kill me?” the princess asked.

“Because then they can get their own choice as the prince’s new consort,” Samantha answered without a hint of compassion for the princess. “Everyone knows that Prince Rupert is easily swayed. Having their own princess tow whisper what they want in his ear?” Princess Anya looked about to unload another salvo, but Anne held up her hand before the two women could even start to bicker. Much to her surprise, they both backed down. 

“So, as far as everyone back at the hotel is concerned, Kurt and Jason were just in the right place at the right time?” Anne asked. Veritas nodded as he sipped at the coffee in front of him.

“Won’t they learn otherwise from the two who were setting the bomb?” Princess Anya asked. 

“They didn’t survive interrogation, I’m afraid,” Veritas answered. Princess Anya stared at the elf in shock. Anne was also startled by the elf’s casual response, but Samantha didn’t seem surprised. Anne guessed that the death of certain prisoners was considered a normal outcome for those in the Office of Special Investigations. It was those kinds of revelations that rubbed Anne’s nose in the fact that her friends came from a very different culture. Anne out those thoughts away and pondered on their current situation for a long moment. 

“We have no idea who was behind the attempt?” Anne asked, finally breaking the silence.

“Not really,” Veritas answered. “OSI thinks Earl Dorn of Oyster Bay is the leader of the coterie, but we’re not sure if he is involved in his members more energetic plans.”

“Not surprised,” Samantha said, “Earl Oyster Bay is one of the staunchest conservatives in the House of Lords.” 

“I’ll let you three deal with the politics. Do you have pictures of the two men?” Anne asked. Veritas produced a phone from inside his jacket and handed it to Anne. She recognized both men as freelance hitters, although they both tended to stick to working for one of the city’s mafia families. Anne paced up and down the kitchen as she thought over what had happened and what she knew. 

“Okay, we’ll stay here until tomorrow night,” Anne said. “Then we’re going to question who hired these two and find out who is behind this.”