Saturday, November 10, 2007

10. The Empire Abides

“Ruined,” the Empress said, holding up one cracked crescent moon of a dinner plate.

“Majesty,” said Janos of the Midnight Guard, through chattering teeth. Night brought chill ocean winds rushing across the veranda and the palace’s roof. “Let the servants attend this. We are too exposed here. Not safe.”

If the Empress felt the cold, she did not show it. “This was Mother’s favorite pattern,” she sighed. “I had to poison three of my sisters to get it. Utterly irreplaceable.” She let the dish drop and shatter to the deck with the rest of its brethren. The brittle stump where the dining table had been ripped away rose pathetic and forlorn, a foothill amid flatlands of broken porcelain.

Janos thought he knew what this was about. “We will find your child, Majesty, and return him safely.” Alas, he had been hired more for his effective strangulation technique than his psychological insight.

“Did I say anything about my child?” the Empress said, without looking at him. She stooped, and sifted through the clinking, clattering wreckage with one long, cautious hand. “Children are what my father called a risk-reward proposition,” she said. “The more you have, the greater your chances that one enough will get greedy for the throne, and knock you off in your sleep. I’ve always regretted not stopping at two.”

She found an intact saucer, and stood, shaking bits of debris off it. In the light from the algae globes, she studied the fine pattern painted under the glazing. “Time was, you paid good money for a well-executed kidnapping. I should be thanking this Captain Corsair for taking him off our hands for free.”

With a little sigh, she flung the saucer over the railing, and into the sea. She’d never liked the pattern anyway. She’d simply wanted it to be hers.

“You can always make more children,” the Empress said. “Good china is irreplaceable.”

Janos escorted her back to the pneumovator, eyes always roving for threats. Even here. In the shadows, somewhere on this deck, two of his men also stood guard. If he’d known where they were, they wouldn’t have been his men.

“Janos,” the Empress said, just before she stepped into the capsule.

“Yes, Majesty?”

“Do not presume to know my heart,” the Empress told him, each word freezing in the air.

What heart?, thought Janos.

But the Empress was right, in a way. No one knew her heart. Not even the Empress herself.

The tigerleech’s carcass twitched once, twice. It rose into the air and flopped over, and from beneath, slick with its entrails, Pugio Magnificus rose.

“Again,” he said to Maurice and the empty arena.

“But Majesty,” the trainer began, pointing to the bandage still wound around Pug’s head.

“Again!” Pug bellowed, driving his spearpoint nearly a foot into the sand at his feet.

“Majesty, we’re…” Maurice wondered how best to phrase this. “We’re all out.” He gestured around him, to the bloodied piles of hooved, horned, fanged, winged, scaled, clawed, taloned, venomous, and occasionally just plain unlucky beasts steadily staining the arena floor. Flies had begun to gather, and invite their friends. “Zoomaster Genus says he can get another shipment by twelve bells dayside tomorrow.”

“Then bring up the garrison,” Pug grunted. “I’m not done.”

“Two-thirds of the garrison are on high alert,” Maurice said, “with the other third on enforced rest.” Which was a shame, he thought, as Maurice could really have gone for a steam bath about now. “And none of them would particularly like to be killed by you.”

Pug gritted his teeth. The big woman in the coveralls had set up residence in Pug’s head, and no amount of combat could get her to leave. Usually, when he was upset, high tea with his usual guests would calm him down. Now he just wanted to hit things, and break things, and pick things up and throw them around.

These were not the exact biological instructions his body was sending him, but they were the best translation Pug’s brain could muster.

“She got a lucky shot in, Majesty,” Maurice ventured, cautiously. “It happens. I always said, girls — nothin’ more dangerous in the galaxy. You just get some sleep, maybe. Things’ll shake out in the morning.”

That copper hair, Pug thought. The slither of muscles beneath the skin of her arms. Her flawless technique with a hammer.

“The nautatorium,” Pug said, not so much to Maurice, but more in his general direction. He smeared guts from at least one animal off the front of his tunic. “I should go there. Yes. Clean. I need to clean off.”

“I’ll tell them to warm up the pool,” Maurice nodded.

“No!” Pug interrupted, a bit too quickly. In a curiously strangled voice, he added, “Cold. It should be cold. I want very cold water. Please.”

And without another word, Pug began walking very quickly toward the readiness rooms, his head down and his eyes on the dirt.

Maurice’s ghosts had all sorts of interesting observations about this. He told them, as always, to shut up.

“What are you wearing now?” her mother had asked, with the strong implication that it was the latest in a long line of terrible decisions.

“Oh,” she had said. “He… he said I… um… looked cold.” Her mother’s eyes had bored through her for a very long moment. It made the throbbing pain in her ankle, twisted during the fight, suddenly seem almost pleasant.

“Burn it, for Pantheon’s sake,” her mother had said at last, shying away. “It almost certainly has… diseases.”

But Lis hadn’t. She couldn’t. It was a soft cloak, and warm. It smelled like orange blossoms. And when she wrapped herself in it, she felt blessedly invisible.

“My regrets, Your Majesty,” yawned Librarian Glew, emerging from the shadowed stacks with an upraised algae-globe. He’d been awakened from a particularly lovely dream about dictionaries for this, and was eager to get back to it. “I can assure you, you’ve read every book there we have on, er, that particular subject.”

“Are there more?” Lis asked. “Could we send for more?”

“Yes, Majesty,” the Librarian nodded, sleepily, “but to be honest, I doubt they’d tell you anything you haven’t already discovered. From reading or… ah… experience.”

“But there has to be something,” Lis protested. “I can’t have… gaps in my understanding. It doesn’t befit the Ministress of Love! It’s unbefitting!”

Librarian Glew, being a man of words, knew he had to phrase this carefully. “If you could perhaps… elaborate on the, ah, the specifics of what you wish to know. Not in any, er, sordid or prying sense, of course. I mean intellectually speaking.”

Lis thought hard. For once, her tongue could offer nothing to this particular challenge.

“It’s something like… when someone does something nice for you, and you didn’t want them to,” she attempted. “And you kind of hate them, and you’re infuriated. And you can’t stop thinking about how much you’re infuriated, to the point where you kind of… don’t want to not be infuriated? Maybe?”

It took even Librarian Glew a few seconds to parse that. He looked at the red flush rising on Lis’s cheeks, visible even in the greenish light of the algae-lantern. He saw the way her fingers kept straying toward the rose blossom still clinging to her … to the… to her garments, Glew decided was the most appropriate term. (“Cleverly arranged tiny bits of fabric, and also some chains” seemed indecorous.)

The corners of his mouth curled up slightly, like pages fluttered in a breeze. He held up one finger, asking Her Majesty’s patience, and vanished into the stacks.

A click or so later, he came bobbing out of the darkness, blowing a thick layer of dust off an equally thick, gilt-bound volume.

“I believe this may prove enlightening, Majesty,” he said gently, handing the book over. In the algaelight, the letters on the cover glimmered: Poems of Love, by Jahlil Al-Khabahti. “One of the great discourses on the subject in question.”

Lis flipped it open, impatient. Her brow furrowed, and she looked up. “There aren’t diagrams. Should there be diagrams?”

“Not in this field, I’m afraid,” Glew said, dutifully not smiling. “But as a young man, I found this particular book very, ah, very educational.” That ravishing young clerk at the Bibliocademy, so many years gone, pinning her hair up teasingly, a finger vertical across her lips. The smell of binding glue and old paper, sweeter than perfume. It took a moment for Glew’s eyes to refocus.

“Give it a chance, Majesty,” he added hastily, as if trying to catch up with his train of thought. “I have further volumes in this field, should you require them.”

Lis looked again, traced the lines with her finger. Her lips moved soundlessly, reading inside her head. She stopped, and looked at the page quizzically, intrigued. Then she slowly folded the book to her chest, and drew herself up, authoritarian once more. “Thank you, Librarian,” she nodded. “That will be all.”

“Good night, Majesty” the Librarian nodded, and headed back up the ladder to his hammock, slung between the end of History and the beginning of Science.

Lis walked very slowly, very carefully, very inconspicuously, favoring her wrapped ankle. She went out of the library, and up the pneumovator, and back to her chambers, the book encircled in her arms all the while. The rose against her collarbone purred softly.

The Emperor stood, scarlet just beginning to fade from his face, his knuckles white where he’d slammed his fist down against the surface of his desk. The bones of his hand began to throb from the impact.

“Read it back to me,” he said, slightly hoarse from the preceding shouting.

“Majesty,” said Guard Captain Rendell. He cleared his throat. “Drawn, quartered, disemboweled, racked, hanged, shot—”

“Bludgeoned,” the Emperor said darkly, working the flesh of his pained hand with thumb and forefinger. “Bludgeoned goes between ‘hanged’ and ‘shot.’”

“… Hanged, bludgeoned, shot, boiled, decapitated, skeletonized, and the skull made into a trophy for elderly ninepin players,” Rendell finished.

“Incontinent elderly ninepin players,” the Emperor added.

“So noted, Majesty,” Guard Captain Rendell nodded.

“Good. Send it out to all Guard stations and Corps divisions in the whole of the Imperium,” the Emperor said, letting himself sink back into his chair. “By the Gods, Rendell, if I’d been ten years younger. The gall of that… that savage. To compromise us so.”

“We have technicians working now on every satellite in the grid,” Rendell said. “If there was sabotage, or malfunction — even a stray meteor — we’ll find it and fix it. Air Marshall Vliet and her squadron are running constant patrols until they do. Farther out, I have the Imperial Navy on high alert; by eight bells dayside here, they’ll be fully mobilized. Descriptions and imagery of the craft are out on the network. We’ll find that ship, Majesty.”

“No quarter, Rendell,” the Emperor said, swiveling back and forth in his chair. “Any soul who sights that ship is to blow it from the stars.”

“After your son is retrieved,” Rendell added, slowly. “Am I correct in that, Majesty? The ship should be destroyed after His Young Majesty has been secured?”

The Emperor blinked, meeting Rendell’s steady, obedient gaze. “Yes,” the Emperor said. “Yes, of course.”

“Very good, Majesty.” Rendell paused, his posture straightening. “There is also the matter of my failure, sir. My squad had the intruder. I allowed him to escape. I take full charge for his. If you wish my commission… if you wish my life…”

The Emperor shook his head. “After you carried me through the rain at Pellephon Heights? No, Rendell. You safeguarded Imperial blood, then and tonight. You did your duty.”

“With pleasure, Majesty,” Rendell said, bowing.

“Do you ever miss it, Rendell?” the Emperor asked softly. He was staring at his model of Echo Hill. The trees on the ridgeline didn’t seem quite right, he thought. “It all seemed so simple. So clear.”

Rendell met his gaze, and for a moment, in the strangeness of the other man’s expression, the Emperor felt as if he and the Guard Captain were staring at one another through powerful telescopes, half a planet apart.

“I try not to think of it at all, Majesty,” Rendell said at last.

“Dismissed, Captain,” the Emperor said, waving his hand. Rendell bowed smartly, and left him alone.

The Emperor wandered out from behind his desk to once more study the model, wondering if he should summon some ice for his rapidly bruising hand. He found himself, in minature, halfway up the hill, holding a tiny painted banner and the half-defined nub of a rifle. For once, the undisputed ruler of the Grand Galactic Imperium, in his seashell palace, on his private planet, at the heart of his galaxy, felt very small indeed.

And then his eyes happened to stray to the edge of the model, to the single tree at the base of the hill. And the Emperor realized that something was missing.

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