Monday, January 28, 2008

27. Endings, Some Happy

In Story’s absence, there was no specific person designated to care for Dent on the Imperial flagship, as it made its way back to Imperia. Dent’s father, once he’d gotten past clapping his grimy, smelly, beaming son on the shoulder and smiling at him in a way that made both of them feel like they’d just conquered at least fifteen planets, found himself at a loss. As for the Empress, the idea wasn’t even broached.

To the Emperor’s considerable surprise, there was no shortage of volunteers to fill in for the boy’s care. Despite a rather earest bid from Mechanic Doren, Cook won out in the end — one does not wish to antagonize the person who prepares one’s food — and thus became the first person outside the royal family to hear the full tale of Dent’s adventures. It was a lengthy tale, told partly through a mouth full of cook’s sandwiches, and partly with glubby intervals of bubbles during the royal bath, and often with quick interjections of signings from the strange, lovely, silver-haired girl who Cook recognized at once, if only from her own imagination.

It took some doing with just her one arm, but somehow Cook got both the children safely bundled into a pair of spare bunks down in the guard quarters. Dent’s story petered out, and all his many adventures finally seemed to catch up with him, and he yawned loudly and relaxed into the rare comfort of a bed not designed to asphyxiate him.

“Will you leave a light on?” he asked Cook, and she smiled and nodded, remembering similar requests many years gone from Ellentine.

“And you?” Cook asked of Pebble, the girl’s eyes already drifting closed, slow and inexorable as cloudbanks. “Anything you need, little marzipan?” Pebble shook her head, a little warily.

The door to the cabin chimed, and slid open, and Cook snapped to attention. Several shadows that might or might not have been heavily armed guards passed across the light spilling in from the corridor, and then the Empress entered, slowly, in small steps.

“Thank you, Cook,” the Empress nodded, and Cook bowed and headed for the door, most definitely not deliberately stepping on the toes of any hidden guards on her way out, or smirking about it privately.

Dent sat up in his bunk, shucking the well-worn, wooly blankets. In her bunk below, Pebble drew back slowly against the bulkhead, and watched the Empress with wide, unblinking eyes.

“Accident,” the Empress said quietly. “Come down here.”

The boy did so, hesitantly. He’d thought that, after all his adventures, his mother no longer held any terrors for him, but this was not entirely true.

The Empress took a deep breath and looked her son in the eye. She made a small adjustment to a bracelet on her wrist.

“There,” she said. “I’ve turned off the alarms. You have thirty seconds.” She shut her eyes very tightly, pinched her lips shut, and held out her arms stiffly.

It took Dent a few seconds to realize what he was supposed to do here. And then, for the first time in his entire life, he stepped forward and gave his mother a hug. She smelled nice, actually; she smelled like flowers, and the front of her gown was as soft as he’d always imagined.

Even as her brain ran through all the decontamination and disinfection procedures she’d have to undergo as quickly as possible, the Empress realized that she did not entirely mind this thing she’d heard about, this business where children and parents sometimes made contact. Maybe she would try it again. Perhaps next year. But first, she would speak privately to her surgeon about the way it made her heart flutter so strangely.

Dent turned back and looked at Pebble, still huddled against her bunk. The memory of the face his mother had made, the way her right eye had started twitching, when he’d explained earlier who Pebble was and where she came from, and how his mother really shouldn’t kill her because of how she’d helped Dent save the entire family, was vivid in his memory. But Dent was in an optimistic mood.

“Come on,” he said to Pebble. “It’s all right.”

The Empress opened one eye, and fixed it on the little girl. Pebble shook her head quickly, and did not move. And the Empress smiled.

“I like your little friend,” she told Dent, as he stepped away and her personal defense systems came back online.

“Mother?” he asked, as he climbed back up into his bunk. “How is Captain Corsair?” They hadn’t let him see the Captain since the doctors clustered around him in the hangar and carried him off, and Dent was beginning to grow worried.

The Empress paused, wetting her lips. “Our finest doctors are caring for him,” she said at last. “I expect we’ll know in the morning.”

And she left, accompanied by shadows. The door hissed shut, and the cabin was dark save for the light Cook had left on. Dent settled back into the bed, listening to Pebble breathing steadily in the bunk below, and fell slowly into sleep.

Anatomaster Cadeucus stepped through the disinfecting mist into the waiting room, and bowed first to the Emperor, and then to Pug and Lis in turn, and not at all to Bosun Little, Commodore Crestfall, or the armed guards attending both.

“He’s conscious and responsive,” the Anatomaster said, in a voice as resigned and colorless as his face. “For a little while yet.” He was thinking of something else suitably professional to say, but was spared the necessity when Bosun Little shoved him bodily aside and ducked through the mist and into the Imperial surgery.

They’d taken away his cloak and his jacket, his sword and his boots. He wasn’t a Captain anymore; he was just a very small, very pale man on a sleek white table, in the middle of a chilly, empty room. Lines fed into his arm, and the table pulsed with light in time to the rhythm of his vitals. The Bosun paused, and for a moment, gravity seemed to crush her. Then Captain Corsair turned and smiled at her, the same way he had the night she’d been about to physically hurl him from the bar where they’d met.

“Hello, my enormous friend,” he said, in little more than a whisper. “The Empire has kindly provided me with numerous, truly excellent drugs. You should request some for yourself.”

The Bosun’s cheeks speckled and danced. “See?” she said, kneeling down next to the table to rest a wide flat hand against his brow. He was burning up. “You go running off without me, and this is what happens.”

“I fear I will not collect the enormous riches we so thoroughly discussed,” the Captain said, and coughed. “You may, of course, have my share.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” the Bosun shook her head, and felt her face pinching itself, walling off the tears, against her volition. “I wouldn’t know how to spend it, square? You’ve gotta advise me.”

“I am sure,” the Captain said, drawing in a rattling breath, “you will do admirably in my absence. But… if you were, in fact, to fill an entire room with emeralds, and then roll around in them, on my behalf… I would consider it an honor.”

“Funny little man,” the Bosun said, and sucked in a messy breath of her own, and shook a little. The Captain’s hand found hers, and squeezed, so frighteningly feeble. “You always made me feel ten feet tall.”

Captain Corsair shook his head. “Twelve,” he smiled. “At the very least.”

The mist parted, and Lis walked through, arms hugged around herself, and only partly because it was very cold and she was wearing one of her usual outfits.

“Ah, the lady,” Corsair smiled. “Bosun, if you would give us privacy?”

“Always you and the frails,” the Bosun grinned around her tears. “Don’t think I’m done with you, square? I’ll catch up in the Shadowlands, give me time enough. Bigger steps, see.”

“I shall keep a weather eye for you,” Corsair nodded, and coughed again.

Bosun Little got to her feet, and shouldered her way past Lis without looking at anyone, her cheeks a scramble of dots. Later, Lis would see the big round dent in the wall of the waiting chamber, and know exactly how it happened.

“You’re a terrible bandit,” Lis said, and tried very hard to smile.

“It is a great pleasure to see you, too,” the Captain replied. Lis sat on the edge of his platform, marveling at how very cold it was, and feeling it pulse in time with Corsair’s own ebbing life. She took his living hand; it, too, was far too cold, even as she saw the beads of sweat dribbling along the Captain’s brow.

“I have to know,” she said. “That last reason, why you gave me your cloak. I’m going to stay here, and not let you go anywhere, until you tell me.”

“Ahhh,” the Captain smiled. “How can I refuse Her Majesty?” He let his eyes slide shut, and Lis saw a light pulse beneath them. She’d seen this before — it was impressive, difficult work, very custom, very rare. Video screens, implanted on the inside of the eyelids, to play a certain loop of footage again and again. It was most frequently found among the grieving, the inconsolable.

“I gave you my cloak,” the Captain said with his eyes shut, his words trailing off into whispers, “because you look … just the tiniest bit … like her.” He smiled, and spoke a name that fell from his lips like music, and was not Lis’s name. Then he said nothing else.

Glissandra Voluptua sat there for a very long time, holding the Captain’s cold, cold hand, long after the light behind his eyelids had flickered a last time and gone away, long after the table on which she sat had stopped pulsing and faded from glowing white to a dull, listless gray.

She thought about bandits, and all the things they could steal.

Lis had not wished to join them on the observation deck, saying she was tired. Whether it was true or not, the Emperor let it pass. Bosun Little was forbidden, by protocol, from joining them; she would pass the evening in training with the Imperial Guard, after which neither she nor the twenty-odd guards matched against her would really feel that much better.

So it was simply The Emperor and Empress, and Pug, and their honored guest, Commodore Crestfall, taking light refreshment under a dome cut from solid diamond, and the twinkling stars beyond. The Commodore and the Emperor had traded war stories, and even laughed at times, remembering certain generals on both sides with strange facial hair or unusual tastes in music. The Empress sat with her knitting, and pretended not to notice Pug nibbling his way through entire plates of finger sandwiches.

“This one fought particularly well, Majesty,” the Commodore nodded at Pug, catching him halfway through a triangle of watercress and cucumber. “You should be proud.”

“Well fought, then, Pugio,” the Emperor nodded to his son. “We should have a proper spectacle for you, when we reach Imperia. Maurice tells me he’s procured three adult Ogodsnos for you; one of them has some sort of chafing, apparently, so he’s extra irritable.”

Pug flexed his thick fingers and stared at them thoughtfully. He looked at the sword resting next to his chair, and the half-demolished plate of sandwiches on the table next to him.

“Uh, Pop?” he ventured. “Yeah. About that…?”

Maurice would be so very, very disappointed.

And as Pug haltingly explained, and the Emperor sat silently in ever-growing disbelief, the Empress nodded toward Crestfall, who approached with his customary courtesy.

“May I be bold with you, Commodore?” she asked, and he nodded. In a single, deft movement, she spun a knitting needle in her hand and plunged it toward the center of his chest.

It wavered there, hovering, repelled by some thick, rubbery force.

“Ah,” the Empress smiled. “So nice to have one’s intelligence confirmed, then.”

“So nice not to be perforated,” the Commodore smiled. “No offense, Majesty.”

“An actual heart of gold,” the Empress marveled. “And those would be magnets, then, propelling the blood?”

“The Dark Matter Armada did a thoroughness on my ticker, yes, Majesty,” the Commodore said. Behind his spectacles, his eyes grew distant. “Now I serve at the pleasure of the Duly. And not a moment longer.”

The Empress smiled one of her little smiles. It was not in her nature to take an enemy into confidence, but then, she had never really liked the Duly Elected. Democracy made her skin crawl.

“As you may imagine, Commodore,” the Empress said, “my knowledge of the galaxy is… rather extensive. Reaching even into your own borders.” She leaned forward, smiling, thrilling just the tiniest bit to this wicked confidence. “Would you like to know a secret about that heart of yours?”

The Duly Elected were unaccustomed to visitors, even one as august as Commodore Crestfall. Especially when those visitors came unannounced, in the middle of the day’s discussion. The Commodore could not see their faces behind the one-way slabs of black transparite that concealed their identities, nor the lights that shone forth from the base of each of their pedestals, but the thought of their collective shock warmed his golden heart something mighty.

“Commodore,” the Duly’s voice chimed at last. “We did not summon you.”

“You did not,” the Commodore said, keeping his hands loose and steady at his sides. His traveling cloak hung still against him in the breezeless gloom of the Duly’s chamber.

“We would prefer that you made an appointment,” the Duly ventured. “Our registrar—”

“Was only too happy to make room in your schedule, right at this very time,” Crestfall said. “Especially for the great Commodore Crestfall, hero of the Third Galactic Conflict.”

“You… you look unusually presentable,” the Duly intoned, and the Commodore ran a hand over his newly shaven cheeks, and nodded. “We are grateful for the safe return of our craft. It would have been ideal if the Imperium had not been able to study it so, but…”

“I had little choice, sirs,” Crestfall said, with an audible absence of regret. “They were my obliging hosts.”

“We understand you have commissioned a second?” the Duly asked.

“Indeed,” Crestfall said. “A Corinthian, former military. She was in the Echo Hill campaign, and I saw her do some violence in this last adventure. She’s a good hand.”

“That’s… very good, Commodore,” the Duly said. “Now, if you will excuse us, we have important matters that need deliberation.”

“Indeed you do,” Crestfall said. If his heart could have pounded now, it would have, but he was resolute. “I’m resigning my commission.”

He took great satisfaction from the whispers of shock coming from behind the panels.

“That is unacceptable,” the Duly said, but with more of an edge of desperation than it might have wished. “You are a valuable asset to the FLAW. Your service is essential.”

“My service is good relations,” Crestfall said. “It keeps you all snug in your seats. But a man grows restless. I’ve done my time as the hero of millions, thank you.”

“We must remind you,” the Duly warned, their unified voice darkening, “of certain measures at our disposal.”

“Oh, I know about them,” Crestfall smiled. “All about them. You just go ahead and press that kill switch you’ve been holding over me these many years. Go on. I’ll be a mess somewhat on your floor when I go, but I’m sure you’ve seen worse.”

“We will activate the device,” the Duly rumbled. “Do not try our patience, Commodore.”

“I’m waiting,” Crestfall said. “Hmm. Must not have done it yet, then. I still feel my blood moving, and such.”

The Duly were silent, and the silence expanded, until Crestfall felt it appropriate to fill up the gap with words of his own. He swept aside his cloak and put a hand on the scabbard of Bad News.

“Bet you’re reconsidering the notion to give me armament about now,” the Crestfall said. “Let’s open a parlay, shall we, you all and I? Let’s talk about what it is keeps this blade in its scabbard. What say you?”

The Duly Elected had plenty to say indeed.

“Sit, Mr. Crouch,” the Empress said, to the sound of birdsong. “There’s refreshments, if you like.”

Quarrington Crouch was substantially more nervous than when he’d entered Foliage Deck. For one thing, when he’d entered Foliage Deck, he’d had a full complement of armed security. Somehow, they’d managed to all vanish along the garden path, leaving just him in his charcoal suit. But he had been to the Imperial Palace many times before, and it would not do to show fear now. This was just a discussion about munitions sales. That was what they’d told him. That must be it.

The Empress nodded again to the exquisite spread of tea cakes, and kept on with her knitting. Crouch studied them all, their exquisite frosting and jams, and remembered what he’d heard about other people who’d sampled refreshments in the company of the Empress.

“Apologies, Majesty,” Crouch demurred smoothly. “Some digestive troubles of late, my doctors tell me. I would not wish to be rude.”

“Of course,” the Empress said. “So. I wish to express my regrets about the tragic passing of your Dr. Grolescht. I understand he was quite invaluable.”

Crouch nodded, and refused to look surprised. No single soul outside his organization, and precious few within it, knew what had happened to Grolescht.

“We’ll manage,” Crouch said, and smiled, and crossed his legs, leaning back in the chair. “Thankfully, he left considerable notes behind.”

“I’m sure he did,” the Empress nodded. “Are you sure you won’t at least take something to drink? That decanter’s full of your favorite Shantaram.”

Crouch eyed the amber liquid uncertainly. “My doctors advise moderation of late,” he sighed. “The digestion, you understand.”

“Say no more,” the Empress said.

“If her Majesty is amenable,” Crouch said, “I’m happy to provide a full listing of our very latest munitions, each ideal to compound the might of the Imperial military.”

“One model in particular piques my interest, yes,” the Empress said. “The BHB.”

Crouch’s blood froze. Colder than its usual temperature, at least. “That’s not in our catalog, majesty,” he said. “Perhaps some misguided employee, through a spelling error…”

“Do not insult me, Mr. Crouch,” the Empress said. Her voice remained calm and mild, but she managed to make the “Mr.” sound like an epithet. “Let’s have some honesty, shall we?”

“I… I am given to understand that some rogue employees of mine may have appropriated a prototype device, and used it in some mad coup plot,” Crouch said. “If they were not already dead, I assure you, they’d be dealt with harshly. As a gesture of apology, I’m prepared to offer the Empire however many of the devices it may wish.” It was painful for him to add these next words, foreign as they were to him, but he felt it somehow necessary. “Free of charge.”

“Very generous,” the Empress nodded. “We shall take it under consideration. Are you quite certain you will not take refreshment, Mr. Crouch? We would be quite the poor host not to offer, at least.”

“Your Majesty’s graciousness humbles me,” Crouch smiled. Provided no armed men sprang from behind the topiaries, he might be able to chalk this up as yet another victory. “I must once more refuse.”

“Wise, Mr. Crouch,” the Empress said. “They were all poisoned, of course.” For the first time in their entire conversation, her eyes met his. “You underestimate me grievously, Mr. Crouch. I am only too accustomed to threats against my life — against the very Imperium. You cannot imagine that you are the first such soul to conceive of such ambition, can you? I expect such measures. I respect them, even.”

She rose from her chair to depart, and Crouch tried to follow suit. “Tried” being the operative word. His legs no longer seemed to obey him. Nor did any other part of his body, for that matter.

“But when such designs,” the Empress continued, her voice thickening, “threaten the life of an Imperial heir…” She stopped, as if the words were difficult to get out. “Threaten my son,” she said again, the look on her face suggesting that the concept was a revelation to her.

Then she turned her eyes again toward Quarrington Crouch, and he saw in them a fury whose depth and intensity he had seen only once, in his father’s eyes, as the outer airlock door began to cycle.

“The Empire will not abide that,” she spat. “You should be gracious, Mr. Crouch. The FLAW, I understand, wished to make a public end of you. We prefer your end to be private, and miserable, and uncelebrated.” She swept past him as the paralysis reached his lungs, and he could only stare straight ahead, listening to her voice as it retreated down the garden path behind him.

“You really should have eaten the refreshments,” the Empress said, without looking back. “Their poison would have ended you quite painlessly. The vapor in the air, however…”

The birds sang, and the artificial sun shone. Throughout the whole of Foliage Deck, the wind rippled, purring its way across arbors and hedgetops. But the man in the chair at the center of the garden sat very, very still, even as the attendants came in their heavy hazmat suits to clear away the refreshments, not one so much as sparing him a glance. Artificial day mellowed and goldened and sank into artificial night, and still the man in the chair did not move.

He was mere ornamentation now, no different from the grass or the statues or the hedges or the trees, and most certainly no longer the CEO of anything at all.

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