Monday, November 5, 2007

6. The Spoils of War

After fifteen years of grueling, costly combat, from the Corinthian Nebula to Apollo’s Horn, His Majesty the Emperor Impromptu I of the Grand Galactic Imperium won a decisive victory in the Third Galactic Conflict. History books already hailed his bold alliance with the FLAW as a strategic masterstroke, temporarily uniting two once-warring factions to decisively rout the forces of the Dark Matter Armada. The Emperor’s triumph cemented his place among the Imperium’s greatest rulers, and ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity throughout the galaxy.

The Emperor never stopped regretting this.

When, as a fresh-faced lad of seventeen years, seated next to his father Deciduous IV in the Imperial box at the Grand Opera House amid the rings of Bucephalus, he had seen an assassin’s beam turn his father’s head neatly into vapor, he knew his life would be forever altered. For one thing, he could finally change his name; up until now, it had been Hedley, after his mother’s favorite uncle.

And when, some six years later, he led the legendary charge up Echo Hill, knee deep in mud and things that historians only politely describe as mud, with the Imperial standard aloft in one hand and a trusty Crouch Industries Ever-Maim repeating rifle in the other, he believed that he had seen the greatest horrors his life could possibly hold.

Now, as a middle-aged ruler of an exasperatingly peaceful and thriving empire, his weekly meeting of ministers proved him wrong in that regard.

“… And now, your highness, we come to the matter of the farm supports for the Joad system,” the Minister of Not Starving to Death droned. This was not his official title, of course, but the Emperor had developed little tricks over the course of his tenure, mostly to keep himself from upending the table and reaching for the nearest broadsword. The Empress had, of course, removed all the broadswords, or even broadsword-like objects, from the Ministers’ Chamber. She claimed redecoration, but the Emperor had his doubts.

“Farm supports,” the Emperor nodded, attempting to look sage. “Indeed.” The Minister of Not Starving to Death seemed to be excelling at his job, at least on a personal basis. He gently wobbled as he spoke, his three distinct layers of chin undulating hypnotically. The Emperor, who prided himself on still more or less fitting into his campaign uniform of ten years past, never failed to picture the man without an apple stuffed in his mouth.

“The farming collectives complain of punishing competition from the imports allowed under our trade pact with the outer FLAW planets,” the Minister continued, jellylike. “They suggest that if we might hike the tarriffs…”

“… we would risk angering the FLAW, thereby losing a five billion-laurel annual opportunity for the export of our goods,” interrupted the pinched, hawkish Minister of Selling Our Things to Others at a Steep Markup.

“We absolutely cannot reduce the farmers’ taxes,” the Minister of Holding Our Citizens By Their Ankles and Shaking Until the Money Falls Out blurted, preemptively. “I’m just throwing that out there.” He was a gray and bloodless man with pale, watery eyes. Those eyes which now roved the room, daring anyone to challenge him, to even suggest that the Empire loosen its grip on any of its billions of purse strings by so much as a single half-laurel coin.

“What do we have in the budget for farming improvements?” the Emperor asked hazily. “We could perhaps invest in our agricultural worlds’ development, get them ahead of the FLAW factories. Increase productivity.”

In his head, the blood-spattered, armor-clad Emperor of twenty years previous stood and gaped at the older him in mute, open-mouthed disgust. The Emperor ran a finger idly up and down the pad in front of him, making the meeting agenda scroll back and forth wildly. Would that he could make the meeting itself pass so quickly.

Of course, he could, technically. He was the Emperor. He could order all these men beheaded and fed to his wife’s sharks, and sit back and watch with a bowl of pickled sea cucumbers, laughing all the while. But everything he’d learned about the running of a peaceful empire told him that such a course of action, over the long run, would likely result in fires and explosions and angry mobs. His less-than-august predecessor Flavius the Frivolous had discovered this firsthand. No one erected monuments to Flavius, unless you counted that crater on the fifth moon of Tiriel that you could see from orbit. The one that was almost no longer dangerously radioactive.

So the Emperor sat, not wishing to be remembered as a faintly glowing hole in the earth. He summoned his iron will, and listened and nodded at all the horrible people he paid far too much to do all the important things he wasn’t good at, and waited for the meeting to end.

And at last, thank the gods, five bells chimed up through the floor and the walls of the Ministers’ Chamber. The light glinting off the ocean vista out the chamber’s high, arching windows had begun to mellow from bright blue to shades of red and gold. In the gathering shadows and slanted light of early evening, the assembled Ministers rose and bowed formally, then swept from the room in their long black robes, leaving the Emperor alone in blessed peace. He settled back in his gilded seat of power, inhaled deeply, and closed his eyes. Only twenty bells until he had to do this all over again, and at least four of those would be wasted on sleep.

At last the Emperor rose from his chair, feeling his lower back creak slightly. He had lately begun to admit, if only to himself, that if combat did once again break out, he’d be in no condition to actually participate. Assuming his wife would even let him in the first place.

No, Pug would have all the fun in his stead. He’d be the one with the vaporized head, sitting strangely still and upright in his seat despite its absence, never to know how the second act of Glory and the Handmaiden ended. (Kind of predictably, really, so no big loss in that regard.)

Peace was all he was good for anymore.

It was the kind of thought that woke the Emperor in the dead of night, covered in cold sweat.

The doorway behind his chair, at the end of the room only he ever used, led into his private study. A golden bust of his younger self stared back at him from a pedestal by the door, prompting the Emperor to run a scarred, calloused hand over his own features. Even the statues were mocking him now.

He strode heavily into his study, tossing his hand-embroidered ceremonial cloak carelessly across the immense, priceless geode he’d had carved and shaped into a desk. Dinner wasn’t until six bells half, which left him time enough to indulge in—

A bloodcurdling scream kicked the Emperor’s combat reflexes into high gear. He lunged for his desk, drew the pistol from its concealed holster beneath, and leveled it at his youngest child.

Dent looked back at him blankly, calmly, with the expression of someone who’s learned that these situations are usually survivable if one stays very, very still for long enough.

The Emperor exhaled a sigh of relief, beginning to lower the gun. The he noticed the tiny, painted tin soldiers in each of Dent’s upraised hands, and saw where his son was standing, and wished he’d gone ahead and pulled the trigger.

“Accident!” the Emperor bellowed. “You will replace those miniatures at once!”

Dent was kneeling right in the midst of the Emperor’s longtime pet project, a painstaking scale model of his own charge up Echo Hill. Every detail, every footprint, every shrub, was as accurate as the Emperor could make it. Old comrades, documentarians, the Imperium’s finest factmasters, had all been consulted to confirm the correctness of the Emperor’s memory. (Not that any of them would have dared to disagree.)

The model consumed the entirety of the Emperor’s mapping table -- a table with greater square footage than nine adjacent servants' quarters on the lower decks -- and threatened to spill out onto adjacent chairs and bookshelves. In the all-too-brief hours between the tedium slowly devouring his life, the Emperor found solace in painting the tiny figures himself, applying tiny flecks of blood to the miniatures with a brush made from a single eyelash of a virgin concubine of the Maharajah of Guljuloon.

And now his son was, apparently, picking Captain Morse of the Third Light Cavalry out of his crucial spot on the Emperor’s right flank and waving him around, making little explosion noises.

The Emperor wondered why his son had not complied, and then realized the gun still trembling in his own hand. His eyes narrowed, and he lowered the pistol, slowly and carefully. Dent did likewise with the miniature Captain Morse. Well, at least the boy was learning something about effective negotiation.

“Accident, what have I told you about my study?” the Emperor growled, holstering the pistol reluctantly beneath the desk. “It is not a playroom.”

“But you have all these cool toys,” Dent said, carefully stepping over the Emperor’s rear artillery support and hopping down off the table.

“So do you,” the Emperor glowered. “Aren’t they good enough? Your mother goes to a lot of trouble to select… to select…”

“The Young Gentleman’s First Guillotine?” Dent suggested, then repressed a shudder.

“Yes, exactly,” the Emperor murmured, hurrying over to his model to adjust the precise position of Captain Morse at the head of his cavalry. He noticed a shrub a quarter-measure out of place and began to gently nudge it with his finger. “So I don’t see why you have to interfere with my important historical documentation.”

“I like it,” Dent said, and meant it. The tiny world, the figures contorted in valor or agony, fascinated him. He almost thought they would take to life, begin scrambling over the imitation hills and off the sides of the model, to rappel down the table legs and begin digging trenches in the panther-hide carpet.

“It’s not to be liked,” the Emperor snapped. “It is to be appreciated. Thoughtfully. This is history recaptured. You see this here? That’s where the Armada’s lines broke. The rain was pouring down in our faces, only the lightning and the explosions to see by, but…”

And for a brief, wonderful moment, he was taken back to the noise and the mud, the screams and the shouts, the surety of the banner in his hand, the delicious terror that spurred him onward. At the time, it had been perdition itself. Now, gilded in retrospect, the Emperor recalled it fondly as a period in his life when no one ever asked him anything about farm supports.

He snapped out of his reverie to find Dent staring at him, waiting. The boy was soft, passive. He did too much staring, asked too many questions. Perhaps he came from some idle, disused stretch of the Emperor’s genetic code.

“It’s not a story for the young,” the Emperor huffed, and turned away to retrieve his cloak.

“But I want to hear it!” Dent pleaded. “I still don’t understand this part here, where the men seem to be running away—”

“I told you,” the Emperor said flatly. “You’re too young.”

“You told Pugio about it, I bet,” Dent insisted.

“That’s different,” the Emperor said curtly, draping the cloak over the back of his desk chair.

“Why is it different?” Dent asked.

“Pugio is useful,” the Emperor said. “As something other than a handy receptacle for supplementary organs.”

That was how the Empress had sold him on the idea, ten years back. Of course, she had been out of her head with champagne at the time; they both had, giddy in the glowing aftermath of his victory in the Third Galactic Conflict. Sticking their fingers in the respective gene-sampling ports of the Gestatrix had seemed like a far less grand idea the next morning, in the throbbing, painful light of day. But by then, the machine cheerily informed them, it was far too late.

“Pugio just kills stuff,” Dent scowled, his arms folded.

“Yes, and very well at that,” the Emperor retorted. “There’s nothing wrong with killing stuff. The Imperium was founded on killing stuff, and killing stuff keeps us strong. You will respect your brother.”

“I won’t,” Dent spat, although if that were true, he would have been blabbing all about Pug’s china tea service. And he wasn’t.

“You will respect your brother, and you will respect me!” the Emperor thundered, donning his best battle voice. “I’ve just sat and listened to this nonsense from my ministers. I don’t need to hear any more!”

Dent stared at his father, but his gray eyes shone now, and his small, dimpled jaw tightened to the point of trembling. He said nothing.

The Emperor sighed, and began to move papers around on his desk in a way he felt looked important.

“Everyone in this family sacrifices, Accident,” he said. “Everyone earns their keep. Your brother, your mother, your sister. Everyone but you.”

“Nobody ever asks me,” Dent said, so low that the Emperor almost didn’t hear him.

It was a fair point, almost, the Emperor had to concede. But then, what would the boy be good for? Aside from a supple set of healthy new kidneys, anyway. So the Emperor ignored the question.

“You shouldn’t be in here,” he said instead. “I’ve told you that. I don’t know how you charmed the guards, but if they let you in again, I promise you’ll wish they hadn’t. And so will they, twelvefold.”

“Okay,” Dent mumbled.

“You know that’s not the proper answer,” the Emperor demanded. “And don’t mumble. It’s unbecoming.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Dent said, sounding out each word loud and clear.

“Out you go,” the Emperor nodded sternly. “And don’t be late for supper again.” He touched the chime on his desk that instructed the guard to open his door, and did not bother to watch his son clomp out with heavy, measured footfalls.

The Emperor stared at the morass of papers on his desk, and then up at the model.

In the corridor outside, Dent looked straight ahead, though his eyes felt hot and blurry. He kept his jaw set tight, and curled his hand around the tiny metal figurine he’d taken from his father’s model — just a nobody, forgotten, behind a tree at the very edge of it — so tightly that it hurt his fist.

He let his feet guide him up toward the watchtower in Spire Three, lost in thoughts of the world’s unfairness, and very much needing to talk to the one person in the palace who both understood him and never tried to slice him into pieces.

That lack of concentration was a mistake on Dent’s part, as it turned out. For it meant that he failed to hear the distant, trailing echo of clack-clack-clacking treads.

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