Sunday, November 4, 2007

5. An Audience With the Empress

Click, click, click, click. Steady as a metronome, the needles worked.

It was a risk for Dent, setting foot on Empress Deck to visit his mother. The corridors were bright and empty, conch-pink inlaid with swirls of gold in ornate designs. Servants came and went individually, at preset times, following prearranged paths. That left Dent fewer places to hide, should Story happen by in the midst of his murder-mania. It had happened more than once, and the Empress had later scolded Dent for getting all those ugly laser-marks on her nice walls and ceilings, even though that part had totally not been his fault.

There was also the matter of his mother’s deathtraps. She could see Dent coming on the cameras — one every ten spans of the corridor, always on, always watching — and sometimes she turned them off for him. Sometimes she only turned some of them off. Dent had gotten very good at remembering where they were.

“Two steps left,” he murmured, reciting a private rhyme, “and one step down, hop to the right and spin around.” He did so, and spikes utterly failed to come out of the walls and impale him. He breathed a sigh of relief.

Down the distant hallways, at some uncertain distance, Dent heard the familiar clack-clack-clack of Story’s treadball, and his best friend’s skittering kill-laugh. Dent hurried on.

He was about to take the shortcut to the right at junction three when the ducts high above began to rattle. Dent looked up at the nearest grating, and the dark behind it.

“There you are!” he whispered, smiling. “Did you see the lessons today? I thought I heard you.”

Soft sounds may or may not have come out of the darkened vent.

“Are you sure?” Dent asked. “Cause he usually likes to—”

Another rattle in the vents. Perhaps a very confused crab had gotten into the ducts; they did that sometimes.

“OK, OK, fine!” Dent sighed, holding up his hands in surrender. “I got your sandwich. Do you want it now?”

The vent exhaled.

“Sure I will,” Dent said, and waited for a response. “Oh, come on, I would not! I don’t even like your gross favorites.” Dent was no great fan of sunfish. “I’m gonna try the tower today. See you there at five bells half?”

Dent listened for his answer, and then waved at the vent, and took the long way to the left.

Down the hall to the right, the way he would have gone, a clack-clack-clacking sound rose and fell in volume. A mechanical shadow slid across the wall, and rolled on.

At last Dent reached an apparent dead end in the corridor. A lone camera sat high on the curving corridor wall, staring at Dent with a single red eye. Dent waved at it a little nervously, took a deep breath, shut his eyes, and walked straight ahead into the wall.

And through it. The hologram always tickled, like a thousand tiny bugs running all over Dent’s skin. He emerged into cool blue light and the sound of knitting needles. Click, click, click.

The walls of his mother’s chambers were all in foot-thick glass, bulbous and curving. Beyond them, in immeasurable tanks of blue-black water, luminescent nightsharks the size of Imperial Lancers steered themselves in lazy circles in and out of the gloom. Something about the sharks — their cool black eyes, the seeming disinterest with which they swished through life — always reminded Dent a little of his mother.

Dent passed through the antechamber, pausing to let the electric eyes and veridian rays and sonic probes scan him up and down. They blinked and beeped grudgingly and ushered him onward with a blast of frigid air.

He walked quietly through the humid, slightly dizzying air of his mother’s Poison Garden, ducking away from a tendril of creepervine that got a bit too curious. The garden led into her Hall of Incredibly Useful Liquids; row after row of identical bottles of colorless, odorless fluids. Only his mother could tell them apart, which was a bit silly, since nearly all of them had the same ultimate effect.

Dent walked very quickly and quietly, with his hands in his pockets. Touching most of the things that belonged to his mother, he had learned long ago, was not a wise practice for little boys who wished to grow up at some point.

He followed the sound of knitting to his mother’s Listening Chamber, her favorite spot. It was one big spherical chamber, shimmering stretches of seashell-stuff stretching out from the various entrances to meet at a central platform. Globes of blue fire, methane mined from the seabed deep below, flickered in clusters from the room, illuminating the rows and rows of teeth that appeared and vanished in flashes from the murky water beyond the glass walls.

In the center of the room, in a chair crafted from the fossilized bones of some ancient, deadly creature, Her Majesty the Empress Antarctica Terminia sat knitting a garotte from a ball of psuedosilk in her lap, and listening. It was a gift for the head of her Midnight Guard, Janos; his current model had been getting quite the workout this year.

The Empress’s white-painted face, dotted with rouge at the cheeks, was undeniably beautiful, in the uneasy way that a swell of oncoming storm clouds could be beautiful. Her gray eyes, the same eyes her son had inherited, focused on some point in the intermediate distance, and blinked only rarely, as if she were loath to shut her eyes for even that long. A cloud of what looked like fireflies hovered around her, absolutely still.

“What is it, Accident?” she asked without looking up, her voice as dry and cold as the room itself. She had her high purple wig on today, and her formal gown with the collar like bat wings. “Mummy’s busy with her surveillance.”

Each of the fireflies was a precise, focused speaker, beaming a narrow cone of sound for her ears only. At present, she was listening to five classified military conversations — only two of which dealt with her own military — two top-level corporate meetings, another of the Duke of High Prudence’s absolutely appallingly dinner parties, and three covert transmissions originating from within the Imperial Palace — two standard intelligence bursts from FLAW agents to the Duly Elected, and one on the state of the Imperial Treasury from the Crouch Industries spy on Bureaucracy Deck 4.

Dent’s room was one of the few places in the whole of the palace where the Empress did not have ears. Spymaster Harme had asked whether she wanted the usual installation, shortly after his birth. The question had prompted the Empress’s longest bout of sustained laughter in more than ten years — a remarkable nine point six seconds. And there the matter ended.

“I just wanted to say hello,” Dent said quietly, the toe of one boot involuntarily scuffing against the flooring.

“You wanted to hide from Story,” his mother replied, quickly and evenly. “Didn’t you?”

“That too,” Dent admitted.

“We must face our challenges head on,” she scolded. “Such is the way of the Imperium.”

“But he has lasers in his eyes,” Dent sighed. He’d had this conversation before.

“We must face our challenges even if they have lasers in their eyes,” his mother replied coolly. “You said hello. Now go bother Cook.”

“I saw Cook,” Dent said. “We’re having grilled whale tonight, and kale greens, and tuber mash.”

The Empress’s mind ran through a list of fifty-seven potential fatal agents that could be inserted untraceably in a meal of that menu. “Bother Mechanic Doren, then,” the Empress sighed.

“Can’t,” Dent said. “He’s on Fifth Leg all day unclogging the fish tube.”

“Air Marshal Vliet?”

“She said she had to plan sorties.”

“Zoomaster Genus?”

“I saw him yesterday. The ibex had these wobbly little babies.”

The Empress was only half-listening anyway, absorbed in a fascinating discussion from FLAW High Command, research section, about a certain craft they seemed to have misplaced. Her needles clicked and clicked, and she looked down and realized she’d exhausted her ball of silk. She sighed again, heavily.

“Accident, fetch Mummy some new silk,” she commanded. “It’s in the basket by the candy bowl.”

Dent walked forward quietly and carefully, edging around the very periphery of her mother’s chair. The one and only time he’d ever tried to hug her, years before, her alarms went off. She’d been very cross about that.

The balls of psuedosilk were surprisingly light, the threads silvery and glimmering and ever so slightly sticky. Dent poked one with his finger, and it sprang back with a pleasant bounciness.

“Sometime today, Dent,” his mother ordered, still not looking. “Or would you like a candy, hmmm?”

Dent looked fearfully at the glass bowl of colorful, individually wrapped sweets his mother kept for certain guests. She’d given him one once, smiling in a way Dent had not yet learned to find suspicious, and Story had made him not eat it or touch it or even hold it. Dent didn’t understand until they got back to his room, and Story dropped the unwrapped sweet in a glass of water, and made Dent stand back and wear goggles. The resulting exciting and memorable events made Dent very glad he had listened to Story.

“No, ma’am,” Dent said quickly quietly, and headed back toward his mother, one ball of pseudosilk in his hand. His belt pouch seemed fuller, but only slightly heavier.

Dent stopped a few steps short of the chair, and held out his hand with the silk in it. The fireflies not in use broke formation and swarmed on his hand, picking up the silk and depositing it in the Empress’s lap in a tingle of static electricity.

“There’s a good boy,” she said, in the way one might say, “There’s something on your shoe.”

“What are you making?” Dent asked. His mother smiled thinly.

“If you’re very good,” she said, “maybe I’ll let Janos show you when it’s done. Leave Mummy alone now, Accident.”

“Yes ma’am,” Dent said, backing away slowly the way he had come. “I’ll see you at dinner.”

“Perhaps,” the Empress said calmly, and kept knitting. When she was certain he had gone, she pressed her tongue against the false tooth that activated her personal communications.

“Story,” she ordered. “Empress Tier, junction five. If you hurry, you can catch him.”

“Death!” the high robotic voice shimmered in the bones of her skull and jaw. “Avuncular, perspicacious death!”

“Yes, yes,” the Empress said, and ended transmission.

The Empress did not believe in murder. She believed in gentle encouragement through morally questionable means. She had gently encouraged nine older siblings out of her way, some more permanently than others, to claim the title of Princess Regent of Seven’s Bells. She had gently encouraged that low-born slattern, the Duchess of Whendemore, to spontaneously combust at the Midnight Ball of Aught Nine, clearing her own path to matrimony with the Emperor-to-Be. And when she found herself regrettably possessed of one more child than she considered strictly necessary, she decided to gently encourage him from further drawing breath.

She’d waited long enough for the boy’s father to consider it sporting — he had old-fashioned notions about mortal peril being a healthy component of any young lad’s upbringing — before quietly introducing the program into Story’s cognitive matrix. Originally, she had randomized the periods of peril on a day-by-day basis. But she was a busy Empress indeed, and who had the time to micromanage such things? At some point she’d just given up and left the latest settings in place, and resigned herself to the possibility of having a spare child on a permanent basis.

Still, she held out hope. All sorts of unfortunate things could happen to a young boy…

Her needles clicked steadily inward, and the universe poured its secrets into her ears, and before long, the Empress had entirely forgotten than anyone had come to visit her at all.

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