Friday, November 16, 2007

15. Plans In Motion

Quarrington Crouch stood before the wall-sized viewport in the dark, in his stocking feet, collar undone. He watched the stars. They shone clear and bright through the endless dark of space, and he wanted, as he always had since childhood, to stretch out an arm and sweep a fistful from the sky. He wanted to feel them burning in his palm, then blow them like pufferseeds back out into the dark.

Instead, he rattled the ice cubes in the sweating glass in his hand, and opened an audio channel.

“Sir Leslie,” he said.

The voice that answered was thick with exertion, out of breath. “Quarry,” Sir Leslie’s voice rippled across the stars. “What have you for me?”

“We have a pluck off one of our transmitters — an Imperial relay at the corner of nowhere, nowhere, and nowhere. Our thief, sending a note home to your little morsel’s parents.”

Crouch could have sworn he heard Sir Leslie’s stomach growl over the channel. He politely ignored it.

“Do we have a location?” Sir Leslie asked, hunger creeping around the edges of his voice.

“Check your signals,” Crouch said, and drained the last of his Shantaram. The ice cubes clattered and clinked. “It’s waiting for you. How’s the special delivery?”

“Snug and sound,” Sir Leslie replied, pleased. “I’ve got my wee ones seeing to it.”

“I expected no less from a man of your caliber,” Crouch smiled, thinly. “Good hunting, then.”

He closed the channel, set the glass, and put a hand out against the chill glass of the viewport. His palm blotted out one thick cluster of stars. Slowly, Crouch drew his fingers shut, until his knuckles rested against the glass.

Then he went to bed.

Circled by nightsharks, the Empress sat in her firefly cloud and listened once more to the message that had arrived by secure channel the previous morning. She’d spotted it as it arrived, and deftly plucked it from the Emperor’s queue. So far, hers were the only ears to hear it.

The Emperor, gods help him, was after all a romantic sort. That was partly why the Empress, gods help her, loved him. (Not that she would ever admit it.) He would get into a red-faced fume about notions of honor and duty and integrity and rot. Sooner or later, the notion of a threat to Imperial blood — as if it were some precious, finite commodity, as if they couldn’t just make more with nine months and a brief finger-prick from the Gestatrix — would prod him to actually launch an earnest effort to find the boy. The current sweep by the Imperial Fleet was more like public relations.

The Empress needed her husband focused. Chasing around the galaxy, reliving his war days with an extra helping of lower back pain, would serve the Empire not at all. The question of whether she would actually miss the boy — whether she actually did miss the boy right now — was irrelevant. An Empress must have larger concerns.

But she listened to the message all the same, more out of amusement than anything else.

“… So you see, Your Majesties,” Captain Corsair’s voice said through a faint haze of static and jitters, “the exchange of your son for the ransom I have humbly requested is mutually beneficial. You are spared any undue embarrassment, and my partner and I, we receive the most infinitesmal portion of Your Majesties’ magnificent wealth, which will of course be more than adequate for our relatively meager needs…”

A Castellan, definitely, but the Empress had known that the first time he’d opened his mouth. One of the better ones, she wagered, or at least he had been; the pristine pronunciation of his vowel sounds had begun to slip, sullied by at least a decade in the company of more common tongues. Had she wished, she could have consulted the chart of the Castellan families, but geneaology invariably put her to sleep, and she wanted to finish the poison-cozy taking shape beneath her knitting needles.

He was really an amusing fellow, this Captain Corsair. If and when he was captured — the Empress was of two minds on this, as his apprehension would seem to naturally accompany the boy’s return — she would have to come up with a truly whimsical way to kill him. He’d probably thank her for the effort. The very best Castellans had just that sort of breeding.

The door-chime sounded. It was just twelve bells, so that would be Cook, wheeling in lunch. The Empress silenced the recording with a precise flick of her eyes, and kept knitting, waiting for Cook to trundle in her familiar one-armed gait.

The tray appeared, but Cook did not carry it. The Empress dropped a stitch, and her mouth went dry for a moment before she recognized the girl. Ellentine, yes. Cook’s daugher. The Empress’s elbow edged away from the panic switch hidden in the arm of her chair.

“Majesty?” Ellentine asked in a small, nervous voice, completely oblivious of how fortunate she was to be unvaporized at this moment. “I — I brought your lunch…?”

“It’s not a question,” the Empress said, needles working. “Why are you here?” Her hands shook slightly, and she nearly dropped another stitch. This ought to be Cook, and if it wasn’t Cook, the Empress should have been expecting it. The Empress expected everything.

“Cook’s taken ill, Majesty,” Ellentine said, cautiously wheeling the tray forward in a way that was not quite the exact same way Cook did. The Empress felt her teeth set themselves on edge. “Just a touch of the blue roses,” Ellentine said. “She’ll be right and rigged in a day or so, Doctor Deuces says.”

“Someone should have told me,” the Empress snapped. Which was not entirely true; the Empress should have known.

“Begging your pardon, Majesty,” Ellentine said meekly, bowing. “I checked all the protocols, and there wasn’t a mention.”

That was true, the Empress realized. There should be protocols, but there weren’t. She had never needed them. Why?

“Shall — shall I leave it here, Majesty?” Ellentine asked after several seconds had passed.

“Wheel it over to the scanner there,” the Empress said, in tight, controlled syllables. “Then you may go.” Ellentine did, and went. But the Empress’s heart hammered on all the same, and her hands shook so that the needles began to rattle.

There were gaps, the Empress realized, in her surveillance. Gaps in her crucial knowledge. This would not do. She could not feel safe. Who had failed to tell her of the change in routine?

The answer took a click or two to come to her. And when it arrived, she did not like it.

“… If Your Majesties would do me the considerable honor of sending the requested amount, in jewels and other non-traceable forms of fabulous wealth, to the location I have described,” Corsair’s message concluded, “I will be entirely happy to return His Young Majesty and his tiny, light-deprived friend to you in the most excellent health. You need not trouble yourselves with, say, an armada of angry corpsmen! That might lead to shooting, and other unpleasantness, and I am sure you would not wish any misfortunes to follow such an occurrence. An unobtrusive venturecraft, piloted at most by one or two souls, will more than suffice. I thank you profusely for the courtesy of your cooperation, and eagerly await your arrival in six days’ time.” The message dissolved into a clamor of static, and ended.

The Emperor sat stone-still in his chair in the cabinet room, breathing slowly and steadily, as his physicians advised. Truly, the Empress thought, removing all broadswords and broadsword-like objects from the room had been a wise decorating choice.

“When did this arrive?” the Emperor said, through gritted teeth.

“Yesterday morning,” the Empress said, thus concluding the truthful portion of this particular statement. “But I only just heard it. It must have gotten lost in the queue.”

“Trouble myself?” the Emperor snorted. “Ha! I’ll damned well inconvenience myself! I’ll send a whole battle group. See what polite remarks he has about that.”

“Um,” said Pug, from his seat by the windows. “The Sightless Nebula. Where he said to meet?”

“Yes?” the Emperor said, drumming his fingers restlessly on the table to a martial beat. His thoughts were already halfway into combat.

“Isn’t that kind of… big?” Pug ventured. “To bombard, I mean. Even with a battle group?”

“Yes, but…” the Emperor said, and inconveniently ran out of incredibly persuasive comebacks.

“And didn’t you lose two capital ships and a squadron of Dreadnoughts in there, back during the war?” Lis added, swiveling back and forth in her chair on the opposite side of the table from Pug.

“Misplaced,” the Emperor insisted. “Not lost. They could be alive and well and enjoying a nice supper right now, for all we know. The debris proved nothing.”

“Besides,” the Empress added, “mass bombardment might endanger our own Imperial blood.” This prompted the rest of her family stared at her for nearly a solid click, until the slow rise of one of her painted-on eyebrows reassured them that this was not, in fact, a clever replica of the woman they knew.

“It’s a risk-reward proposition,” the Empress sighed. “All this Corsair ruffian wants is money. He seems trustworthy, which I consider his first mistake. We pay, we get the child back —” because he listens in all the places I usually don’t, the Empress did not add — “we’re spared the ridicule of an entire galaxy, and we can always dispatch Corsair later. Maybe a slow-acting poison on the — yes, I am feeling well. I will thank you all to stop staring.”

The Emperor cleared his throat and pointedly looked away. “Well. Yes. Put that way, I see the wisdom of it. That boy — the aggravation he causes…”

The Emperor had been distracted these past few days. First by the empty space in his model where that one figure was supposed to be, which nagged him like a missing tooth. And second by the realization that the only person who’d actually showed any interest at all in the model in twelve turns or more was the one person he hadn’t wanted to talk to about it.

“We’ll need a two-soul crew,” the Emperor mused. “Rendell, perhaps, and the Air Marshal…”

“I should go,” Lis said, very quickly. “I should go deliver the ransom. For… revenge! I want revenge. Yes.”

“Revenge for what?” the Emperor asked, uncertain.

Lis crossed her ankles under the table, her fingers knotting together as she wracked her brain. “He… uh… I might be useful. Him being, you know, a man. And handsome. I mean, ruthless. Him being ruthless. I have wiles. I could deceive him with… my wiles. Maybe.”

“I also want to go and have revenge,” Pug interjected, the words spilling out in one gelatinous mass. “Bloody revenge. Father, the woman bested me in combat. With her large, muscular arms. I can’t be Minister of Violence if I let that go unanswered. Her arms. Or her.”

“Revenge,” The Empress said slowly, drawing out each syllable as if she had it strapped to the rack on Unpleasantness Deck. Her eyes fixed on one child, then the other. “I see.” She imagined the gods laughing at her, and asked herself what she’d ever done to birth such utterly, dismayingly transparent children.

To the Emperor, this plan smacked of throwing good genetic material after bad. But as he thought it over, he realized that keeping this whole sordid mess as close to the family as possible, especially beyond the walls of the Palace, made a grudging sort of sense. And who was a father to deny his children a little healthy revenge? They seemed so endearingly eager. That was his side of the family, the Emperor thought proudly — the old Imperial bloodlust, rearing its head.

And if he couldn’t go himself — this was a more flattering option than admitting to himself that his wife wouldn’t let him go — well, he pitied that blackguard and his hired muscle when his son and daughter caught up with them.

“Tell Vliet and Doren to make ready our sturdiest Zephyr,” the Emperor relented. “No Imperial markings, though. You’ve got to travel incognito. Have the servants pack your things, get Lucremaster Hoord to prepare the ransom, and make ready to leave by the turning of evenside. At pluslight, you should just make it in time.”

Pug and Lis almost entirely managed to look utterly somber and dignified. Their enthusiasm for revenge, if it could accurately be called that, managed even to trump the horrible prospect of spending several consecutive days in each other’s company.

The Empress sighed quietly. Oh, yes. This would definitely not go horribly wrong. She wondered whether the Gestatrix would need servicing after so many years of disuse.

Beyond the door to the corridor, a high-pitched robotic giggle could faintly be heard, followed by an unsuccessful attempt to stifle that giggle, and then a swiftly diminishing clack-clack-clacking.

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