Saturday, November 24, 2007

20. Puffcakes and Peril

Of the estimated thousands of Dark Matter Armada warships to take part in the Third Galactic Conflict, only one was recovered intact. Sir Augustine Winthrop-Wong, on a private pleasure-cruise of the very combat sites he had so assiduously avoided during the actual war, discovered it orbiting the dark side of the gas giant Porphyrus. The conflict had been over for five years.

Sir Augustine promptly claimed the ship by right of salvage, although he didn’t actually bother to tell either of the interested governments of his new find. He briefly considered exploring it himself, but that sounded distressingly like effort. The far braver souls he hired for the task reported endless, mazelike corridors, bay after bay of jettisonned escape pods, and everywhere, lifeless servant droids scattered in slicing heaps of prongs and spires on the cold onyx decks. Sir Augustine absorbed all this information, mildly fascinated, and then arranged for the exploration teams to have a dreadful mishap with their vessel’s oxygen supply. It was his standard means of avoiding debts.

Sir Augustine knew that nothing was a proper secret until someone else knew about it. But he had to choose his confidant carefully. His betters in the pan-galactic aristocracy would condemn him for flights of fancy, or worse yet, report him to the Imperium, the FLAW, or both. And Sir Augustine was keen to keep this new toy to himself, at least until he struck upon the most lucrative means of profiting from it. But if he were seen slumming with any of the hangers-on around the lower rungs of the aristocracy, the gossip on the club circuit would surely be intolerable. After much consideration, Sir Augustine chose a happy medium of sorts, sagging away from the middle ranks of the social hierarchy, but possessed of the sort of vaguely unsavory reputation that made him the most deliciously scandalous guest at all the best parties.

It was a careful choice, but ultimately not a wise one.

“Do tell,” Sir Leslie Murther had grinned, in the dimly lit booth on the Copernical Club in orbit off Celestine.

Sir Leslie offered to buy the craft from Sir Augustine, the number of zeroes at the end of each offer growing consecutively longer. But Sir Augustine was a proud man, and a covetous one, and had no interest in parting with his prize discovery. He entertained the offers only because they were generally accompanied by free dinners, and Sir Augustine had his resources to think of.

At last, Sir Leslie struck a deal he found difficult to stomach. But while it proved difficult on his teeth and his digestion, he surely came out of it far better than the unfortunate Sir Augustine. (Or, for that matter, Sir Augustine’s many creditors.)

Sir Leslie towed the craft personally to orbit the green-gray, drizzly, dreary world of his birth. The finest and most discreet mechanics and artisans were summoned from across the Imperium and the FLAW, sworn to absolute secrecy. They repaired the ship’s strange engines and power systems, patched the burns and rents in its bristling hull, reprogrammed and refitted the servant droids, and remodeled the interior to Sir Leslie’s eccentric specifications.

Any one of these technicians might have spilled word of the strange craft to the galaxy beyond. None got the chance. Sir Leslie had his own way of avoiding his debts. It involved quite a lot of heartburn on his part, and frequent doses of bicarbonate of soda.

Now, even as the battered Imperial Zephyr was captured for docking, the black ship it had pursued through long days of plus light drifted patiently nearby, nestled in the shadow of the gas giant’s largest moon. And at its very heart, in one of the few chambers of the whole of the ship bereft of any reflective surface whatsoever, Sir Leslie ran and ran and ran.

Sweat arced in speckled cascades off his pale skin, beading on fine curls of thick black hair along his chest, arms, and back. He wore loose-fitting breeches, and softly padded shoes, and he wheezed and staggered his way through an infinity of nothingness. All the while, a voice shouted in his ear.

“Lollygagger!” it snarled. “You greasy gobbet of old suet! You fat, bloated beast! Look at you ripple! Look at you lurch! Disgusting! Faster on, you circus tent, you elephant! Faster!” The voice was his own, prerecorded.

Moisture shone in tracks along Sir Leslie’s face, running into the flopping tangles of his beard. It may have been sweat. It may have been tears.

At last, he felt the treads below him slow. The voice faded away, as if receding into the distance. It contained the distinct promise of returning. Sir Leslie clamped his thick-knuckled hands to his knees and sucked in great lungfuls of air, his hair falling loose and bedraggled into his eyes.

When he’d recovered enough to move, he staggered from the exercise chamber directly into his bath — a chamber equally black, and equally bereft of mirrors — and bathed himself, dried and toweled and perfumed himself. He donned his smalls, and then wriggled into his Special Device, and pressed its activation clasp. The Device shifted around his torso, squeezing and lifting, and Sir Leslie once again felt fully himself: slim, straight, tall. Every inch the man of breeding.

He flung open the double doors to his bedchamber, admiring the rich, silken bounce of his flowing locks and well-groomed beard in the mirrors on the walls and the ceiling. Around the room, his treasures hung mounted from the ebony support pillars. Sir Augustine’s walking-stick, cracked in half, still bearing teethmarks. The pliers of the dentist who’d redecorated Sir Leslie’s mouth, and then promptly and permanently left his practice. Mummy’s favorite brooch, with most of the dried blood off, except for the cracks and corners. Sir Leslie loved souvenirs.

Two of his Wee Ones trotted up lovingly to meet him, their reflective faces showing him the handsomeness of his own. They brought him clothes, freshly pressed and scented and clean, and helped him dress. His boots gleamed as he let the Wee Ones slide them up and on to his legs. His cutlass, shined and sharpened, was a reassuring weight against his hip. He made one last pluck at the lace ruffle of his shirtfront, and rose from his dressing table.

It was time for high tea.

Crouch called, of course, as he navigated the corridors to the sitting room, the voice following him as he wound through the mirrored maze.

“I’m not disturbing anything, I trust?” Good old Quarry. Not of noble blood, to be certain, but considerate to a fault all the same.

“Just on my way for tea,” Crouch said, licking his lips, careful after years of practice not to cut his tongue on the edges of his teeth. “I’m saving supper until after I’ve delivered your little gift.”

“Very good,” Crouch said. “It’s ready, then?”

“Armed as we speak in the forward bay,” Sir Leslie nodded. “Next to that ship you’re so keen on. Waiting for the launching when it’s time.”

“You’ll want to stick around for this one,” Crouch said, the sound of a smile in his voice. “At a safe distance, of course. Indescribable, really.”

“If I’m not busy with supper,” Sir Leslie replied, “I might do.”

The Wee Ones had come and gone by the time he arrived at the sitting room, pleasantly musty and lined with all the old books that his family had proudly passed down unread from generation to generation. Above the fireplace, flickering with mock holographic flames, Sir Leslie’s family portrait hung — a great sturdy barrel of a man, his black beard streaked with gray rivulets; a pale and puckered woman, her tightly wound black hair bunched upon her head like a nesting spider; twin sons, tall and strapping, grinning fierce mischevious grins toward the painter; and off in the corner, indistinctly in shadow, a small round shape that might have been a little boy.

For all the times he’d seen it, Sir Leslie’s breath still caught in his throat as he surveyed the full table laid out along the length of the cozy room. Above the black silken tablecloth, a fairy-kingdom of sugar-dusted spires rose on silver serving trays, bursting with merry candy colors. The macaroons and the kitten-ear biscuits, the snickerdoodles and the frosted gingerstars. And the puffcakes, oh, the puffcakes, with their airy, faintly crunchy crust, the solid square sugar granules that fell fat against your tongue, the thick creamy filling with hints of fruit and almonds.

Sir Leslie’s mouth began to water, a common occurrence. He dabbed at it with a black handkerchief. One mustn’t start eating before company was seated; Mummy had taught him that, with harsh words and the occasional rap of a silver serving ladle across his knuckles. But, oh, the ship’s miraculous robotic chefs had prepared so very many of those tantalizing puffcakes. Surely one would not be missed.

The puffcake was in Sir Leslie’s hand before he even realized, and then into his mouth, and he shut his eyes while the flavors mashed themself against his teeth and tongue and the insides of his cheeks.

Sir Leslie gulped it down and reached for another one. Just one more couldn’t hurt. But the scribble-scrabble of the Wee Ones’ legs on the corridor decks outside told him that company was soon to come, and he froze, waiting for a scolding. None came, of course. Sir Leslie laughed to himself, and fastidiously wiped away a dab of custard from his moustache. He walked around behind the table, before the fireplace, and stood with arms folded, awaiting his guests. The door slid open soundlessly.

Two clusters of Wee Ones walked in, having formed themselves into armchairs of sorts, spindling along on four spiny limbs apiece. In each of the high-backed chairs, securely bound by the Wee Ones’ appendages, the boy and the girl sat, pale (paler, in the girl’s case) and disheveled, blinking in the relative brightness of the sitting room.

He had expected their faces to light up, as his had, when they saw the delicious tea laid out for them. But they did not — just stared at him, sullen and just a touch fearful. Within him, Sir Leslie felt familiar storm clouds begin to gather, and he cleared his throat.

“Hello, children,” he said, careful to smile closedmouthed this time. Too much adrenalin, too many stress hormones, made for a stringy, acrid meal. Much better to sweeten things with a healthy dose of sugar. “And such lovely fit children you are, at that. You must be His Majesty. And who is your friend?”

“I’m Dent,” the boy said. “This is Pebble.” Sir Leslie had expected more blubbering, perhaps some pleading. But the boy just stared at him levelly, calmly. A touch of the royal blood in him, then, for certain. The girl, with perhaps a few more nervous glances at the boy, did likewise. They looked too different to be brother and sister; Sir Leslie wondered if she’d been part of the crew of that ship Crouch was so interested in. He also wondered if he’d have to employ some sort of marinade with her; she looked a bit on the stringy side.

“You may call me Sir Leslie,” he said, and bowed with a flourish, as his father had taught him. “Your friend — does she speak for herself?”

He noticed the girl Pebble’s hands fluttering, making some sort of signals. The boy Dent watched them, and his eyes widened slightly. “I’m not going to say that,” he whispered sharply to her. “That’s not nice.” He looked at Sir Leslie. “She doesn’t like talking.”

“That’s quite all right,” Sir Leslie said, rounding the table toward the boy. His fingers twitched, wanting to snare a gingerstar, just one, and pop it in his mouth. He had to remain strong. Indulgences were, by nature, occasional. Anything more frequent was base gluttony. He knew that.

“Is there something wrong with her tongue, perhaps?” Sir Leslie asked, all honey and jasmine. The boy shook his head. “Ah, good,” Sir Leslie relaxed. “The tongue adds such a lovely flavor.”

He put out a hand and tested the flesh of the boy’s arm. Wonderful; plenty of muscle, just a bit of baby fat. Some onions, some mycoprotein slabs to soak up all that fat when it rendered out. Maybe with a few lemons. “Ohh, I see why they were hiding you. A fine young boy you are. Plenty of fresh air for you, yes? Plenty of exercise, good food? Your family must just eat you up.”

Dent looked at him as if he’d grown an extra head. “Why does everyone keep saying that?” he asked. “Did you ever meet my family?”

The memory suffused Sir Leslie with a warm glow, and for a moment, the storm clouds thinned and rolled back. “Indeed I did. The Midwinter Ball, two years back.” He was fifth cousin, several times removed, to one of the distaff lines of the Imperial family tree. Visiting the Imperial palace had felt like coming home. And oh, the food.

“So that was you?” Dent asked, looking at Sir Leslie quizzically.

“Ah! Your family remembered me, did they?” Sir Leslie puffed up with pride, or started to, before his Special Device kicked in.

“My mother said you had the manners of a droolhound,” Dent told him. It was not the comment that wounded Sir Leslie — it was the look of apology, of pity, on the boy’s face. “She doesn’t like anyone, really,” the boy said, as if that made it better. The storm cloud thickened, and Sir Leslie’s palm fell to rest on the hilt of his cutlass.

“Your mother,” he said, grinding his teeth like his own mother had always told him not to, “shouldn’t talk about people behind their backs.” He felt sparks dancing in his mouth from every scrape of his diamond dentition. Sir Leslie stopped, took a deep breath. Smile, mouth closed. Fear makes the meat bitter. No point spoiling a good meal now.

“The both of you must be hungry,” Sir Leslie purred, mastering his temper. “Wouldn’t you like a sweet?” With a wave of his hand, the Wee One chairs uncoiled the restraints around the children’s left arms, and scooted close enough for them to reach the table.

The boy and girl looked at one another, hesitantly. The girl gave a little shake of her head. The boy looked at him and said quietly, “No thank you. We’re not hungry.”

“Not even you, little miss?” Sir Leslie asked, all outward concern. Inside, the storm clouds had begun to blacken, and the wind picked up. “Don’t be frightened. It’s all very good. Here.” Sir Leslie reached out with a hand that didn’t quite tremble in anticipation, and plucked another puffcake from the top of one silver serving tower. Tactically necessary, he told himself. It’s not gluttony if you’re putting your guests at ease.

The children seemed unconvinced. Very well — perhaps just one more. Who cared that the Special Device had begun to pinch a bit?

“Mmm,” Sir Leslie exulted, mouth full. He turned to the children and smiled, waiting to speak until he’d swallowed the last of it and swathed his teeth clean with his tongue. “See? Go on. Have some.”

“No thank you,” Dent said quietly. In Sir Leslie’s mind, distant thunder rumbled.

“Not good enough for you?” Sir Leslie said softly, his smile freezing, beginning to crack around the edges. “Is that it? Is the food better in your private seashell palace, Your Majesty? Are the cakes sweeter? How very trying this must be for you, then.”

As if of its own volition, the hand resting on the hilt of his blade began to slide it slowly in and out of the scabbard, just an inch or so. The sound of knives scraping always pleased Sir Leslie.

“Never had to scrape for anything in your life, did you?” Sir Leslie continued. He plucked a macaroon off the table and began to nibble on it in neat tiny bites, talking all the while. “Never had to look up at anyone, eh? Got everything you wanted, every time. Lucky you.”

“Actually—” Dent began. Sir Leslie slammed his macaroon-eating hand down on the table, making the silver rattle. He bent his shaggy head to Dent’s level.

“We do not speak when others are speaking,” he said, mouthing each word. Flecks of coconut danced on his lips. Then he stood, and discreetly smeared the bits of smashed cookie off the palm of his hand and onto the tablecloth.

“Must have been a lovely life for you,” Sir Leslie continued. “Secret son of the empire. No one to pity you, to whisper behind your back. No one telling you to straighten up, tuck in, stop snacking between meals.” In the artificial firelight, something terrible danced in Sir Leslie’s eyes, black as thunderheads. “I’ll wager you were never Mummy’s little butterball, now were you?”

He stretched out a hand and gently cupped the boy’s soft, slightly plump chin. The boy looked down at the hand, shying his head away, and then up at Sir Leslie.

Sir Leslie squeezed, forcing Dent’s mouth open. The boy cried out, squealing flattened syllables between outward-bowed, distorted lips. The girl let out some kind of prevocal shriek, and the boy clawed with his free hand at Sir Leslie’s arm.

“It is a basic rule of common courtesy!” Sir Leslie roared, grabbing a fistful of delicate pastries from the table. “Eat what you’re given! Every last bite!” He smashed the sweets against the boy’s mouth and pushed his jaw shut. Dent choked, lips smeared with custard and jam, and his eyes shone with tears.

“Now,” Sir Leslie smiled, with his full mouth of very sharp, very shiny teeth, “what does a proper boy say?”

Dent spat the entire mouthful back into Sir Leslie’s face, and all over his shirt.

Sir Leslie bellowed in revulsion, the inside of his mind lit in sudden sharp flashes of lightning. He smeared his face mostly clean with one sleeve, unsheathed his cutlass, and kicked the boy’s chair backward to the floor. The Wee Ones’ legs flailed for purchase, and the girl shrieked again.

“Not one more sound from you,” he snarled, leveling the blade at her. “Not a wee peep.”

Sir Leslie gave Dent’s chair a kick to get the Wee Ones back on their feet. “A fricasse and a stew, I think.” He walked behind the chairs and grabbed the girl’s head by her unruly mop of hair, hearing her whimper softly. “We’ll get the stew started first; they do take the longest, to soften up the tougher cuts of meat.”

“When I tell my family,” the boy said, sniffling and spitting from his chair, custard all down his shirtfront, “they’ll take your head.”

And Sir Leslie looked into the boy’s eyes, a gale now howling inside him, and exulted. Because he saw that Dent did not believe his own words.

“You’d better hurry, then,” Sir Leslie chuckled. “Two bells from now, you’ll have no family left. I’m going to gobble them all up. Say, now — that’ll make you Emperor, won’t it?” He grinned again, his teeth beginning their soft ultrasonic song. “I’ve never eaten an Emperor before.”

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