Saturday, November 3, 2007

4. The Ministress's Dilemma

As an infant, pink and squalling and fresh from the gestation tank, Dent had cried loudly and often. The nursery wing of Medical Deck would echo with his confused, ear-grating howls. His brother and sister had enjoyed small armies of trained nurses to swaddle them, rock them, feed them, burp them, and most importantly, change them. Dent had a machine.

It was a very good machine, granted — Crouch Industries’ finest ComfortBot, the ThereThere 5000. It was programmed to detect and properly respond to 57 distinct types of infant cries, from “hungry” to “need changing” to “existential ennui.” It also came equipped with a full library of thoroughly tested lullabies. All the same, it lacked a certain something, and despite long hours of factory-tested Tru-Rock action and its patented BottleWarm technology, little Dent cried and cried and cried.

Unauthorized contact between any servant and a member of the Imperial Family was unthinkable. It meant instant execution, were the perpetrator caught in the act. But a child’s cries have strange and wondrous properties to move all but the hardest of hearts. And if they did not even once remotely stir Dent’s mother or father — assuming, indeed, that the Emperor and Empress even knew of little Dent’s distress — they managed to echo to surprising depths and corners of the Imperial Palace.

One by one, moved by basic human sympathy for the lonely, squalling child, the attendants of Their Majesties would creep to Medical Deck in the very dead of night and risk death to hold the newest Imperial heir, rock him, shush his crying. Cook made a sling of her good arm and sang Dent the recipe-songs her mother had taught her in the cradle. Librarian Glew, armed with a manual on proper burping techniques, recited Dhuei Decimal classifications until Dent’s tiny thoughtful eyes fluttered closed. Mechanic Doren hoisted him with tattooed arms and walked him around the nursery, explaining how all the ceiling conduits connected to one another. Gardenmaster Verden smuggled in flowers at which the child flailed his tiny fists and burbled.

And so forth, and so on, night after night. None of Dent’s night visitors ever knew about the others, and none dared breathe a word to any other soul. But in his own strange, piecemeal way, Dent grew up more thoroughly loved than either of his siblings, or indeed his parents, ever had.

Yet while he had friends the whole length and breadth of the palace, one puzzle still frustrated Dent. He could never get anyone to tell him exactly what his sister did all day.

“Hello?” Dent called, brushing aside the frilly silk curtains that opened into the chamber of the Ministress of Love. His sister’s room smelled weird to Dent — fake and fruity and somewhat sickly, enough to make his head spin. Her toys confused him, too.

Bulbous braziers hung from the arched, iridescent ceiling of his sister’s room, burning chunks of sweetwood and jasmine. The entire floor was pillows, like his tent; Dent had only read about deserts in books, but imagined he was in one every time he stumbled his way across the cushioned sea. Dent admired his sister’s bed, because it was sort of a tent like his; billowing sheets of crimson-pink fabric enfolding the whole thing. Sometimes Dent saw lights inside, making shadow-puppets like the kind he’d make for Story on the walls of his tent on stormy nights. The shapes, of course, were very different.
“Hello?” Dent asked again. He jumped up and down on the pillows, enjoying the soft plush feeling. From the direction of his sister’s bed, somebody giggled, and someone else shushed them harshly.

Dent’s sister spent a lot of time in bed, which made Dent wonder whether she was sick a lot. She didn’t seem sick when she came to supper every night, although sometimes she was all flushed and out of breath. He had asked Story one time whether his sister was sick, and Story had said something long and complicated about psychology that Dent didn’t quite understand.

“Lis? Is that you?” Dent asked, recognizing the tenor of the harsh shhhh he’d just heard. More giggling — not his sister’s — and then a voice — definitely hers.

“Oh my Gods,” sighed Glissandra Voluptua, Empressine-In-Waiting and Ministress of Love of the Grand Galactic Imperium, in deep embarrassment. It was a phrase she employed often, but rarely in this particular fashion. “Dent, get out!”

“What are you doing?” Dent asked. “Are you doing your exercises?” As best as Dent could get it from his various sources in the palace, Lis exercised a lot. She exercised with a bunch of her friends, boy friends and girl friends. And she exercised with important people flown in from the far corner of the Empire — dignitaries and ambassadors and business leaders. Dent often imagined his sister doing jumping jacks with the Cardinal of Khalim, or holding Quarrington Crouch’s feet while he did situps. It didn’t fit, although Dent admitted to himself that it did explain the whole “flushed and out of breath” thing.

“Yes,” Lis said quickly, somewhere behind the curtains around her bed. “Yes, I’m doing exercises. Now go away, you little creep!”

“Hi Dent!” came another voice — Carabella, his sister’s best friend. She slipped Dent candies when no one was looking, and had once taught him how to dance the kai-kadou.

“Hey, little man!” someone else said; Marcus, his sister’s other best friend. Marcus sometimes lent Dent his favorite adventure books, including Mystery at Lighthouse Cove and The Treasure of Fathom’s Height.

“Oh, Gods,” Lis grunted. It sounded like she was reaching for something on a high shelf. “I swear, if you guys encourage him, I will have you exiled so fast…” She wouldn’t, Dent knew; he’d heard this threat many times before.

“Hi guys!” Dent called back. “Is Simon in there?”

“Gods, Dent, you’re a disease!” his sister shouted. “Will you just get out?”

“Simon, uh… Simon can’t talk right now,” he heard Carabella say, as if she were stifling a laugh. “He’s… he’s definitely waving, though.” Dent waved back, just to be courteous.

“Is something wrong?” Dent asked. The curtains billowed; strange, lumpy shadows flickered within.

“Nothing!” Lis snapped. “Nothing is wrong. Everything is fine. Go play with Story.” And die, she did not add, but wholeheartedly meant.

Dent picked up one of his sister’s masks from the nearest cushion and looked through it. It was made of some black, soft fabric, and it had zippers and clasps Dent couldn’t quite figure out. Sometimes he wondered if she were a bandit, like the heroes in his favorite stories. He wasn’t aware of any injustice in the Imperial Palace, and his sister didn’t seem like the type who’d be eager to avenge it. But bandits, he knew, were tricky that way.

“This mask is cunning!” Dent enthused. It pressed on his nose and made him sound different. “Hey, listen to my voice!”

“Ewww! Dent, that is not your mask! Take it off right now!” Dent’s sister didn’t like him playing with any of her toys. That was OK by Dent, since between their strange shapes and their tendency to buzz and wiggle angrily at unexpected moments, Dent was a little bit frightened of them.

“Are you stuck again?” Dent asked. Sometimes Lis and her friends got stuck. Dent didn’t know how, and no one would tell him. The looks they gave him when he asked made him feel like he was better off not knowing. “Should I go get Yasmina?”

“No! Don’t go get Yasmina!” Lis said, and then yelped. “Whoever’s doing that, stop it.”

“I’m not doing anything!” Dent protested; he heard his sister sigh.

“I’m gonna go get Yasmina,” Dent said, wanting to be helpful.

“You can’t get Yasmina!” Lis snapped. “Yasmina is… she’s, uh, already helping me.”

“It’s true,” Dent heard Yasmina say, her voice curiously muffled.

“You’re stuck, aren’t you?” Dent asked.

“Yes! All right? Yes, I’m stuck. We are all stuck! Now will you just get out of my room?”

“I’ll go get the rescue crew,” Dent offered helpfully.

“No, we’re fine, I can just—” Lis began, frantic now, but it was too late; Dent had retreated to the antechamber, and unsealed the speaking-tube that led to his sister’s small private guard of well-trained rescue workers.

In less than a minute, they came double-timing down the corridor and into the Ministress’s room, tipping their hats cordially to Dent as they passed. They were young men, and strong, clear of eye and clean of limb and curiously identical-looking. They wore heavy, reflective black coats and pants, and carried fascinating-looking heavy equipment bulging with nozzles and gauges and tanks of compressed air.

“Can I watch?” Dent asked Guard Captain Fortesque, as he made last-minute adjustments to the pressure levels on his trusty pneumatic jack. Like any young boy, he was enthralled by the operation of heavy machinery.

“No!” came his sister’s loud voice from inside the curtains, and the Captain felt inclined to agree.

Dent sat in the antechamber for the next seven or so clicks, listening to blasts of air and the curt commands of the Captain to his crew. Dent was accompanied by Guard Apprentice Rudolph, who provided His Majesty with a concise explanation of how the pressure of compressed air could pry apart objects tightly wedged together. Alas, he went curiously quiet, and a bit reddish-purple in the face, when Dent brought up the question of his sister’s exercises.

At last, the noises ceased, and one by one people began to file out through the silken curtains. The Guard came first, their eyes strangely glazed with a look that might either have been rapture or horror, or a little of both. Then a procession of Lis’s friends, sheepishly wrapped in robes, beginning with Carabella and Marcus and continuing on far longer than Dent had initially expected.

At last, Dent heard a voice from inside: “Are you still out there?”

“Uh huh,” Dent nodded. “Are you done doing exercises?”

“Mummy and Dad should have left you in the tank,” Lis sighed, and tossed a long zippered boot out through the curtains. Dent ducked it, and took this as an invitation.

His sister sat on the edge of her bed, draped in a thick purple kimono embroidered up the sleeves with bright green squid. She had her long, blue-and-green hair down in ratty tangles around her face, and none of her makeup on, except for dark smudges around her vivid blue eyes. Dent liked her this way; she looked human.

Lis was reading something, a tattered old publication like the kind Dent saw in the library. He craned his neck and caught a glimpse of pictures of young women in loose, lumpy, comfortable-looking clothing, tunics and pants that covered their whole bodies, alongside pictures of the clothing itself. Then Lis caught him looking and smacked him on the head with it.

“Ow!” Dent whimpered, though the blow had been more sudden then painful.

“Serves you right,” his sister smirked. “Creep.” She was older than him by fourteen years, and moved in different and strange worlds, distant from his own. “Did I say you could come in?”

“You didn’t say I couldn’t.”

“I told you to get out.”

“That’s not the same thing.”

Lis opened her mouth to protest, and shut it again. Instead, she stuffed the catalog she’d been reading back under her mattress.

“Get out,” she said. “I mean it this time. I have the Prince Regent of Kranzy Gorskt coming to see me at three bells half.”

“Are you going to exercise with him, too?” Dent asked. His sister rolled her eyes. She wasn’t sure what was worse — the thought that he actually knew what she was doing, or that he actually didn’t.

“First of all, it’s rude to ask,” she sighed, “and second of all, yes, and third of all, go away.”

Dent looked at her thoughtfully, even sympathetically. “Don’t you get tired?” he said at last.

She wanted to go get one of her fine selection of whips and start snapping it at him. She wanted to wring his little neck — Mummy probably wouldn’t have minded, really. She wanted to close all her curtains and eat nectar peaches with whipped cream for a solid hour, while reading an actual book without any sort of elaborate diagrams. But Lis did none of those things, much to her surprise.

She simply looked at her brother, and said, very softly, “Yes I do.”

Dent just nodded, and said, “I’ll let you rest.” He walked wobblingly over the mounds of cushions, and through the curtains, and was gone.

Lis tucked her knees up into her kimono, and wrapped a blanket around herself. She had, in fact, been in something of a jam — literally and metaphorically — when Dent arrived. And while it did not befit a Ministress of Love to show distress in the presence of her comrades, she had also been worried, and hoping someone would show up. A visit from the Guard — the handsome, muscular, extremely fit Guard — was never a dull occasion.

She just didn’t want to feel indebted, in any way, to her creepy little brother.

As she dressed for her upcoming diplomatic summit, she noticed something missing off her table of perfumes and oils and other crucial supplies: A small crystal vial of pink liquid.

There were many varied, exotic, and occasionally medically alarming places where Lis imagined it might have ended up. The pouch on Dent’s belt was not one of them.

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