Shine Cycle Précis: Desperate Times

Desperate Times is the next planned work in the third arc of the Shine Cycle, following “The Adventure of the Royal Wedding”. It is the third “panel” of what I think of as a “triptych” about a famous detective. Today’s post is a brief introduction to this planned work.

The novelette “The Adventure of the Royal Wedding” left a few “loose ends.” The assassin was apprehended, the hole in the security of the Ministry of Intelligence was identified and presumably closed, and the immediate danger had passed. But that assassin shouldn’t have been in the Empire in the first place, and had slipped in almost unnoticed; who was behind him, and what was his similarly-unauthorized companion—still at large—up to?

Desperate Times begins soon after the end of “The Adventure of the Royal Wedding,” as the detective is closing his side of the case, and considering retirement. Before he can look for any simpler assignment, or think about a “holiday,” another challenging task is laid in his lap, by the one person whose requests he cannot refuse: the King personally asks him to prevent the Empire from declaring war for six months.

Tensions with the Dragon Empire are rising (as usual), and war seems inevitable in the near future. But all the clear-headed analysis indicates that if the Shine and Wild Empire starts the war, instead of waiting to be attacked as it has in the past, it is likely to come off the worse for it, while waiting and counterattacking will likely result in quick victory. Unfortunately, not all the military and civilian leaders are willing to listen to reason on the matter. And the Intelligence Ministry believes that some of the recent tensions have been stirred up by enemy spies—but the Ministry has proved unable to find those spies. And so the King turns to his last resort, the detective who just (arguably) saved the Empire mere weeks ago, with an open-ended assignment and few hints.

And things get worse. The detective has come to rely on Hildegarde, as a partner and friend and not only as a mage-assistant; he was reluctant to take the assignment in the first place, and would have insisted it was beyond his ability had he not understood her willingness to help. But the predicted invasion point—if his mission succeeds—is New Badon, the home demesne of Rebecca, the Minister of Intelligence, so she resigns to give its defense her full attention for the duration, and names Hildegarde as her successor. So she can no longer give this case more than a small fraction of her time, and she certainly can’t accompany him on field investigations. He’ll have to stand alone. Perhaps with a new, essentially untrained mage-assistant, but without a competent equal partner.

Around this time—after he takes the case, and before he leaves for the field—the detective is accosted in the street by a man who introduces himself as “Napoleon Ilium.” This man knows the detective by sight, though he has never met, and expresses some interest in his trade—but something about him doesn’t sit right.

From there, the detective follows the two tenuous leads that the Intelligence Ministry could provide, searching for the Dragon spies “on the ground” first in New Badon, and then in perhaps Kingsfold. In each location, he begins his investigation by looking for suspicious activity in the most likely places—border crossings, where, in preparation for war, movement is recorded but not yet restricted, and the most major towns of each district—and then following “leads” into less populated or trafficked areas.

When he thinks he has more than enough information to not need to return to the district again no matter what he finds elsewhere—since time is short, and arranging for travel takes significant amounts of time—he returns to the capital to report in, resupply, and investigate the clues he found that point to corruption or worse in the capital. While his efforts in the provinces eventually yield valuable information, his work in the capital bears even richer fruit, pointing him to the spies who plant the bellicose ideas in the minds of the legislators and of visitors from the provinces who will carry them throughout the Empire.

After all the investigation, with most of the enemy spies he discovered unmasked and the rest identified, isolated, and watched, he turns his attention to the question of their local spymaster: who is behind all these spies? And the threads keep coming back to the same places as the unresolved issues in the previous case. He collects enough information to make a solid case for an intensive information of his suspect, presents it to Hildegarde and other Intelligence Ministry officials, and then goes to work himself to prove his suspect’s guilt. The investigation culminates in a confrontation in which the man is arrested, tried, and then—since he was never supposed to be in the Empire or even in that universe anyway—deported.

And with the provocation of the public unmasking and expulsion of its chief agent in the Imperial capital, the Dragon Empire declares war. The detective was asked for six months, and in the end it was at least seven.

The chief character is, of course, the detective. Hildegarde is also a major character, though her time “on screen” will be necessarily limited. The villain is has a role of similar size. And if the detective is assigned a single mage-assistant for the whole case, he or she will then have to be a fairly major character. Other characters, I expect, will be minor ones, because except for the ongoing and overarching problem of unmasking the spies to prevent war the story will be somewhat episodic, as the detective moves from the capital to one field location, then back, then to another, and then back again.

I suspect I had some hint of some theme in mind when I began my draft of this, years and years ago, because the name and the first scene arrived at essentially the same time, and the title is certainly evocative. But nothing firm has stuck in my memory.

Do you have any thoughts about this planned novel?

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