At breakfast one morning the emperor surprised me.
“Echo,” he began, “Julia and I would like to visit the scallies groups. In particular, Breaker, the Ferals and the Wolfgirls. Do you think that could be arranged?”
“Holy cow!” I exclaimed. “They’ll have kittens!”
Marcus laughed. I was probably being ‘natural’ again.
“Uh, what did you have in mind?” I asked.
“We just want to talk to the boys and the girls, to get their perspective on the circumstances that led to their being on the streets,” Julia said.
“So, to make a ‘regal tour’ as natural as possible,” the emperor said, using air quotes around his words, “how would they react if we just dropped in unannounced one day? We want their honest opinions, not something they prepared because they knew we were coming.”
I couldn’t help it. I roared laughing. In my mind I could see the IG performing sweeps of the buildings and grounds to clear the area of snipers, bombs, weapons, and suspicious-looking people. Surely that would give the game away? And if that didn’t, what about the gazillion bodyguards that always accompanied the royal couple everywhere? Or the media pack that always shadowed them? Not to mention all the transport involved.
“Unannounced? Is that even possible? What about the guard and the media?” I asked, when I regained my composure.
The emperor chuckled. “Actually, the IG can be discreet, you know. And the media, despite their best efforts, don’t know everything we do or everywhere we go.”
“Hmm,” I said, “So… you would like to visit the guys on their own turf, and sit down with them and have a chat?”
Julia smiled. “Yes, that sums it up. What do you think?”
“Well, if you can forego the pre-tour security sweep and the huge IG presence when you actually visit, and shake off the media, I guess it could be done. I reckon the Breaker One kids would be up for it. I’m not so sure about Rix and his guys, or April and the girls, though.”
“You have their confidence, don’t you?” the emperor asked.
“Yes, I suppose I do, actually. Rix has been fine since he got to know me better, and I think April trusted me once she realised that I was genuine.” I chuckled. “They’re both still a bit dubious about me living in the palace, though.”
“Since they are comfortable with you, how would they feel about talking to us if you were present?” the empress asked.
I opened my mouth to speak, but stopped to collect my thoughts. “All right, I think that might work. It would probably be good if Darm was there, too, because they all know and like him. It might help if they saw you as a family just dropping in for a visit. We would have to work out the logistics, though—obviously, we wouldn’t be able to visit all three groups at the same time. And once we’d seen the first group the others would be alerted.”
Marcus and Julia nodded. “What do you think, Darm?” his father asked. “Would you be willing to be part of this?”
“I know you want to meet with the guys. You mentioned that ages ago, and we actually told Kashuba and the others when we first met with them. As for how to do it, well, I think it will have to be as low key as you can make it, or you’ll scare them off.” He thought for a moment. “Then, again, the Breaker One guys weren’t fazed by Amy King, and she’s more formidable than you two.” He gave his parents a cheeky grin and received glares in return.
I burst out laughing again. “Actually, you know, that’s it. If you can convince the scallies that you’re just ordinary people by acting like normal people, I reckon they’ll go for it. They already trust Darm and treat him as one of the guys, so that’s a good start.”
“Right. How do we do it, then?” the emperor asked. “You tell us what to do, Echo, and we’ll handle the logistics.”
We decided to visit Breaker One first, since they’d already experienced the Amy King interview and the cameras. As it happened, I knew that Kashuba was organising a ‘family meeting’ for his gang. I was invited, as was Darm, and it would be a rare opportunity to catch everyone together. I suggested we gate-crash that. I figured I could cope with any fallout later. Darm countered by suggesting that I ask Kashuba if I could bring a couple of guests who were interested in meeting him and his gang.
“They’ve heard a lot about you guys and they’d love to meet you all,” I told Kashuba when I next spoke with him. Fortunately he didn’t suspect anything, and readily agreed. The emperor and empress rearranged a couple of appointments and we were set to go.
The IG, rather ingeniously, I thought, placed several personnel in the building by having them pose as patients attending the medical clinic. People were used to me flying in with my bodyguards, so no one took much notice when two cruisers landed and a group of people headed into Breaker headquarters. Inside, the reaction was somewhat different.
“Holy–” Kashuba exclaimed when he realised who my guests were. I wondered whether he would ever forgive me when I saw the look on his face. Masoko was quicker to recover from her surprise, and became the perfect hostess. Darm took charge of his father and began mingling with the kids.
I did the same with Julia. Everything went well until we came to Haza. “Man, you’ve got some balls!” he exclaimed, surprising Julia, and making me wonder what was coming next. “But I love you for it!” he added, giving me one of his crushing hugs. He turned to Julia and gave a little bow. “Um… welcome, ma’am…”
Julia smiled and gave Haza a hug. I wished I’d had a camera to record his look of surprise. She stepped back and said, “You’re the one who thought Echo was full of bull, aren’t you?”
Poor Haza looked like an animal caught in a spotlight. I laughed. I’d never before seen him speechless. His mouth was working but he was struck dumb. Julia chuckled. “Do you still think he’s full of bull?” she asked.
“Heck, no!” he replied when he got his faculties working again. “He’s the bomb!” He laughed. “He’s never let me forget that, though.”
“So, what do you think of…” Julia began. I moved away and left them to talk. If anyone would be able to give the empress the raw truth it was Haza. I had a feeling he’d met his match in Julia, though.
Darm and his father were deep in discussion with Rey, so I found Kashuba to apologise for springing such a surprise on him. He had regained his composure by then, and graciously forgave me. “I can see that they would have wanted spontaneity,” he said. “But I am glad I do not have a weak heart!” he added, with a grin.
We spent several hours at Breaker One. The emperor and empress made a point of speaking with every one of the boys personally, and then for about ninety minutes they conducted a question and answer forum with the whole group. Marcus and Julia wanted to know what it would have taken to change the circumstances that led to the kids’ life on the streets, which generated a fruitful discussion. In turn that led to further questions. The answers the kids gave were enlightening. I was fascinated. My emphasis with HI was on fixing problems after they had occurred. In that context I had never asked anyone at Breaker what would have prevented them from ending up on the streets.
For the last half hour Marcus and Julia fielded questions from the guys. Mostly, they wanted to know about life in the spotlight and what it was like to live in the palace. The supreme ruler and his wife were a hit because they didn’t balk at a single question, nor talk down to the kids. They took every question seriously—even “Do the bathrooms in the palace have gold taps?” and “What sort of toilet paper do you use?”! From my perspective as a palace insider I knew they answered every question truthfully. They ended the visit by issuing an invitation to everyone at Breaker to visit the palace.
On the way back to the palace we all agreed that the visit to Breaker One had been a resounding success. Now we just had to replicate it at Breaker Two and Sullivan O’Keefe House. The emperor and empress were impressed with the Breaker guys.
“For kids who have had such a rough ride in life they are amazing,” Marcus said. “They are scarily intelligent!”
“Even Haza,” Julia said, laughing. “He projects himself as such a hayseed—and a not very bright one—but I found that’s just a front. The rough speech is the result of the way he grew up, but inside he’s a deep thinker, and he has some very definite ideas as to what he wants to achieve.” She looked at me, “I think you’d best watch him, Echo. He’ll be an excellent executive in the future.”
I nodded my agreement. Julia had summed up Haza nicely.
The emperor continued, “They are all very articulate, too, and they gave me a lot of good information—including ideas I will be able to use in helping the people caught up in the corruption scandal.
“I agree with Julia about Haza, but he’s not the only one to keep an eye on. There are other potential executives there.” He paused for a moment. “Whether they want to follow that path might be another matter, though.”
“Hmm, perhaps I need to set up a training program for those who would like to get into management.”
“I think that would be a great idea, Echo,” Marcus said. “Now, any ideas on how to approach Rix and April’s scallies?”
I took a deep breath. I had managed to get Kashuba, Masoko and Rey together during the afternoon, and asked them for suggestions. I thought back over our conversation before I answered the emperor’s question.
* * *
“Well, I do not think you should descend on Sullivan O’Keefe House without warning, like you did here,” Kashuba began. “I believe April would go ballistic.”
Masoko agreed. “Yes, April thinks the world of you, Echo, but her trust is still fragile. I think you need to take her into your confidence and allow her to plan the visit with you. Perhaps the emperor would be willing to invite her to the palace first. That way she would be able to meet him and the empress, and get to know them a little.”
“That might work,” I said, “but would that mean the visit would lose spontaneity? The emperor and empress are very keen to see everyone on their home turf and in a situation where they haven’t had a chance to think ahead. That’s why they came here unannounced. They wanted unrehearsed responses to their questions.”
“Yes, I see that,” Masoko replied, “and it worked well with our boys. If they had been warned the emperor and empress were coming they probably would have been so nervous they would not have been able to contribute. Surprise works with our lot.”
“But with April and her girls,” Kashuba said, “I think you would be better to engage them first. They are mostly older and have more life experience. With them, I think you would get better answers by allowing them time to consider what they want to say.”
I had to agree. The Breaker guys were laid back and able to take things as they came. On the other hand, April and her gang had needed every internal resource they could call upon just to survive on the streets. As I had discovered when I got to know them better, even April’s foray to Breaker Two that day had been planned out in detail. I had thrown their planning into chaos when I turned up, and April was discombobulated. Yes, we needed a different approach for the regal visit to Sullivan O’Keefe House.
“Okay, you’ve convinced me. I’ll talk to the emperor and empress and we’ll talk to April. Now, what about Rix and his guys?”
Rey spoke up. “Rix is still pretty insecure. He’s come a long way, and he trusts you implicitly, Echo, but his confidence needs to be built up. He hasn’t yet got used to being a manager, which is why he called you when April and the girls turned up that day. He felt intimidated, and he just didn’t know what to do.”
I nodded. “Yes, I can see that. He was scared stiff. April had him in a corner, literally. I saw the relief on his face when I arrived. So, do you have any suggestions?”
“We-e-ell,” Rey began, “the Ferals Training Squadron and the yacht club have a regatta coming up soon. Why not make it a Royal Regatta, to take place in front of the emperor and empress, with them inspecting Breaker Two afterwards?”
I thought about it for a few moments. “Rey, that’s geniustic!” I exclaimed. “That way the guys will know the emperor and empress are coming, but they won’t know the true nature of the visit!” I clapped him on the back. “Geniustic!”
I’d hit Rey so hard that he staggered and Kashuba was forced to catch him. I apologised profusely. Kashuba and Masoko were laughing at my being ‘natural’.
* * *
“I got some pointers from Kashuba and Masoko, and Rey,” I told the emperor. “Here’s what I think we should do…”
Fortunately Marcus and Julia could see the wisdom of the suggested approaches, and we worked out a plan of action. It seemed that the visit to Sullivan O’Keefe House would be easier to pull off so we decided that would take place first. The regatta was several weeks away, and we would need every day of that time to organise it as a Royal Regatta.
To get that underway, the first thing we did was arrange a meeting between the protocols office in the secretariat and a small planning group representing Breaker Two, FTS and the yacht club. It comprised Rix and his deputy leader, and the FTS and yacht club commodores and their deputies. Darm and I were also present, but more for liaison and oversight than real involvement. Once lines of communication had been set up and everyone knew what needed to be done they went their separate ways and set to work.
The emperor asked me to invite April and her girls to the palace for an informal getting-to-know-you luncheon. His thought was that he and Julia would chat with the girls during the meal and let them know what they had in mind. April and the girls could then take as long as they needed to formulate their responses. When they were ready we would arrange the regal visit to Sullivan O’Keefe House.
I figured that talking to April face to face would work best, so I called and asked if I could drop in some day for a chat.
“You’re asking me?” was her response. She seemed nonplussed. “But you’re the boss!”
“Well, perhaps I am, but I’m not your boss—and, even if I was I wouldn’t just rock up and expect you to let me in.”
There was a loud sigh as she exhaled. “Man, you’re unbelievable,” she said, after a pause. “Of course you can bloody come for a visit!”
That set me off laughing, which brought dire threats that would have made me fear for my safety had I not known April fairly well by that time. “Okay, when would suit you?” I asked, still chuckling.
The following day after my classes were finished my escort flew me to Sullivan O’Keefe House and we landed in the grounds behind the building. April and a couple of the girls, Su and Arai, were waiting on the terrace, where they had afternoon tea set out. I received hugs from each of them.
“Still can’t believe you thought you needed to ask to come here,” April said gruffly.
“April, this is your home. Everyone who doesn’t live here should respect that—and that includes me, even though I’m head of HI.”
She was about to say something further, but I added quickly, “You and the girls need to know that you’re safe here. I don’t think you can do that unless you control who comes into the property.”
“He’s right, April,” Arai said. “Remember how we felt in most of the places where we squatted? We never knew who was going to show up, or what they would do. I agree with Echo. We need to be able to control who comes here.”
“But, Echo owns this place. We’re only here because he allows us to live here.”
“Yes,” Arai agreed, “but he’s giving us the freedom to be who we want to be, in safety, and part of that is controlling who we let in. By asking if he could come visit us he was being gracious. He didn’t just assume he could come in because he’s the top dog, he allowed you to say yes on your terms.” She grinned at me. “And I’m betting that he wouldn’t have argued if you had said no!”
I laughed. “Yep. She’s right.”
April looked defeated. “All right, all right, I get it. Sorry, Echo, I’m still not used to guys showing respect. But, apart from that, I assumed you would just pop in any time you wanted because of who you are—the head of everything. I can see now that it’s precisely because of who you are—Echo, the really nice guy—that you won’t do that.” She seemed to be fighting back tears when she added, “And I love you for that!”
Things were feeling a little awkward. I was always uncomfortable being praised for doing the right thing. Those thoughts were shattered, however, when April took a deep breath and asked, “Now, what did you bloody want to talk about?”
We chatted as we enjoyed afternoon tea together. The girls were very surprised when I said they were invited to the palace to meet the emperor and empress. “I’ve told them how the Wolfgirls survived for years, and how you would appear and disappear. They’re really intrigued, and would like to know more about you. It will be an informal lunch, and it will be you guys, the emperor and empress, Darm, and me. You’ve met Darm so you know what he’s like. His parents are just like him, really.” I looked from April to Arai to Su. “So, what do you say?”
“Holy cow!” said Su.
“Ditto,” Arai said.
“I… I…” April’s mouth was opening and closing but nothing was coming out.
Su laughed and looked at me. “How do you do that?” she asked. “You’re the only person I’ve ever seen render her speechless! And now you’ve done it twice!” I remembered that Su and Arai were with April the first time we met.
April glared at Su, then at me. “Yes, you little… how do you do it?”
“I dunno,” I said. “I guess I’m just awesome.”
We all laughed, and the moment passed. After they’d made sure I wasn’t joking about the invitation they promised that all the Wolfgirls would attend. I just needed to ask the emperor to set the day. I told the girls I would arrange transport to get them to the palace.
The luncheon took place a few days later. It had to be planned to the minute because the emperor and empress had several other engagements that day. My guard took Darm and me in a skybus to collect the girls. I thought they would feel less intimidated if Darm and I travelled with them. As it happened one of the off-duty IG guys who had helped the girls months earlier was now one of my bodyguard detail. April recognised him straight off, so that helped ease the girls’ nervousness.
Marcus and Julia quickly won over the Wolfgirls, and they ended up chatting like long-lost friends. The meal was simple but filling, and April and the girls readily agreed to host a regal visit to Sullivan O’Keefe House. They undertook to discuss among themselves their history and the circumstances that saw them homeless, and would have something prepared for discussion during that visit.
Darm and I escorted them home. It was a happy journey because the girls had lost all of their fears about being in the presence of the emperor and empress.
Two weeks later Darm and I were back at Sullivan O’Keefe House, this time with the emperor and empress. As before, we landed in the grounds and were met by April, Su and Arai. They were a little nervous, probably because this time they were the hosts, but Marcus and Julia’s friendliness soon calmed them.
The three girls took the royal couple on a tour of the house, while Darm and I hung out downstairs. The other Wolfgirls were all in their rooms, and I hoped they wouldn’t be intimidated when the empress and emperor looked in on them. I need not have worried. Before too long I heard loud voices and laughter coming from the stairs. Marcus and Julia emerged with a group of girls, several of whom were talking animatedly.
April was grinning from ear to ear. Arai and Su just looked relieved.
“Looks like the charm offensive worked,” Darm commented wryly.
I laughed. “Hey, your parents don’t need a charm offensive, they’re just really nice people. Anyone who doesn’t respond to that has no heart.”
April and the girls had prepared a very nice meal and we sat down to eat at the wonderful Regency dining table. Marcus and Julia were a hit with the girls, who opened up and shared all manner of stories and observations. They also offered plenty of ideas. After the meal we all settled in the informal living room and bounced ideas around. Everyone was given the opportunity to speak, and everyone contributed.
When it was time for us to return to the palace April presented the emperor with a thick sheaf of papers. “Manifesto is probably too grand a word for this,” she said, as she handed it over, “but it’s a summary of the discussions we’ve had here since we were at the palace. You’ve heard most of the ideas today, but you will find a few more in there, as well as some suggestions as to how they could be implemented.”
“Thank you, April. Julia and I will work our way through it. If we have any questions, may we contact you?”
“Of course! And thank you for being willing to listen to us.”
The emperor leaned down to give April a kiss on the cheek, but found himself enveloped in a hug.
Chuckling, he said, “Well, we thank you for being willing to talk to us and share your thoughts. We are very grateful for your help.”
“Blimey, let’s get out of here before they get any more soppy!” Darm said.
Everyone laughed. “Go on, get out, then!” April replied. “Give us back our peace and quiet!” She sounded grumpy, but Darm received a hug, so I guessed she was just being April.
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