Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Empire Thanks You

His Majesty the Accident is shorter than my first stab at noveling, at only 88,906 words, and took far less time to complete -- a mere three months and two days, even with all the slacking. Alas, if only I could say it came out better, or would require less rewriting, than its predecessor. (=

If you're just now discovering this site, you can start from the first chapter.

Many thanks to everyone who read and endured -- enjoyed, I mean enjoyed -- the story, and to the family and friends whose feedback kept me writing. You've helped make this whole endeavor a very happy accident indeed.

28. The Man Behind the Tree

Two turns passed. And, at least for Dent, surprisingly little changed.

“Kill you!” his older brother screamed, lunging forward at the boy with an axe as big as two Dents, and considerably deadlier.

Dent leapt to one side, out of the aisle and into Dhuei Decimal System codes 234.5 - 278.9 (venomous reptiles to maritime law). The axe blurred down and neatly halved a poor, unsuspecting library cart.

The stacks of Library Deck were an excellent place for Dent to retreat, slowed as he was by the weight of Captain Corsair’s saber. The space between shelves was just slightly narrower than the width of Pug’s shoulders, forcing his brother to shimmy himself into a less-than-ideal stance for axe-related murdering, and giving Dent a few precious extra seconds to gain some distance.

The boy leapt up to the nearest shelf and began to climb, disgorging large, heavy, incredibly expensive volumes (A Painstaking Study of The Biting Vipers of Malodorous V, Marmoset Hypnosis and You, So You Want to Dispute a Salvage Claim!) to rain with musical thuds against his brother’s helmeted head. With insufficient room to get a good swing going, Pug was forced to poke ineffectually at Dent’s retreating heels with the very end of the axe, which did far more damage to the bookshelves than to Dent himself.

Reaching the top, Dent took a moment to steady himself, then leapt perilously to the next stack over. Behind him, the shelf on which he’d just stood trembled as Pug flung himself against it, bellowing something about murdering Dent’s entire face.

Dent held the saber out in front of him for balance, like a tightrope-walker’s pole, and proceeded to jump three shelves more (Imperial history to unimportant non-Imperial history) before wobblingly climbing down the edge of the shelf. His brother had gone quiet, but Dent trusted that he could hear Pug’s heavy footfalls in time enough to avoid him.

A few shelves shy of the floor, Dent discovered that his brother had learned to walk quietly at some point.

“Face! You! Murder!” Pug roared, red-faced, still up on his tiptoes. Dent’s eyes widened as Pug charged into the stacks, holding his axe ahead of him like a pike. Quickly, the boy tightened his grip on the nearest shelf, tucked his legs up, and kicked into the books, squeezing himself through the gap in the shelves. He landed tailbone-first in the next stack over, just as Pug’s axe thrust through the gap in the books to batter a complete set of The Food-Related Poetry of Emperor Consumptious the Indigestive.

Dent scrambled to his feet and made for the next aisle over, hoping his brother would keep poking around with the axe. But no sooner had Dent skidded out into the open than Pug appeared, drawing a sword from the belt of his full combat armor. Pug wasted no breath on face-murdering-related utterances this time; he simply struck.

Dent brought the saber up in time, the shock of the blow wobbling through his arm and down into his boots (not unlike his experiences with The Young Gentleman’s Convenient Excuse for Electrocution Kit, come to think of it.) Pug swung again, and Dent ducked, thrusting the sword up at his brother. Pug dodged, just, and seized his brother’s sword arm with one massive hand. With the other, Pug brought up his own blade, and prepared to prune a branch from his family tree.

“Your Majesties!” Librarian Glew harrumphed, his arms overflowing with rare volumes he’d sought to save from the carnage. “That is truly quite enough.”

Pug and Dent hung their heads sheepishly as the Librarian advanced. “I seem to recall,” Glew continued, “that we currently occupy some sort of a palace, in which there are a great many rooms not containing the extremely fragile cultural treasures of the Imperium. I suggest you both go find one of them, and practice murdering one another there.”

“Sorry, Librarian,” Dent said, shuffling his feet.

“Got carried away,” Pug shrugged apologetically. “You know how it is.”

“Indeed,” the Librarian nodded, poorly concealing a smile. “By the way, Your Elder Majesty, I located those volumes you requested on etiquette. They’ve been delivered to your chambers.”

“Yeah,” Pug grunted. “Thanks.” It was his equivalent of squealing with excitement, and possibly doing a little dance. He turned to his younger brother, who looked up at him with earnest, serious eyes. “You did good, twerp.”

“Really?” Dent asked, wiggling his sword arm slightly. “This thing’s so heavy.”

“No, that was a good thrust,” Pug nodded. “Almost got me. But next time, don’t go for the armor, ‘cause that’s like, tough. Look for the seams. You, uh, sure I can’t get you a smaller sword just to start with? I got heaps of them.”

Dent’s face turned grave, and he shook his head quickly. Since Bosun Little had given the boy Captain Corsair’s sword, Dent had scarcely let it out of his grip, and his family had nearly learned to stop asking him about it.

“So, hey, did you like how I said I was gonna murder your face, when I totally wasn’t?” Pug beamed, lifting his helmet to wipe sweat from his brow. “That’s called subterfuge.” Pug had been studying.

“I was completely fooled,” Dent only partly lied.

“Okay, good fight,” Pug said. “I gotta go meet with Vestimaster Mezzure about some formal suits, and then see if I can get Maurice outta his room today.”

Upon his return from offworld, Pug’s titled had been switched from the Minister of Violence to the Minister of Conversation. This did not necessarily excude conversations that involved large, dangerous weapons, but nonetheless, Maurice was so crushed at his charge’s perceived betrayal that he’d spent the last turn and a half locked in his private quarters.

Ellentine, charged with delivering the grizzled old trainer a full container of sylvanbean ice cream each afternoon, reported soft, blubbery, despondent noises issuing from behind Maurice’s door.

“See you at dinner?” Dent asked, and Pug nodded, and punched him amiably on the arm. Dent found that he was still accumulating bruises these days, but they were at least more kindly intended.

Librarian Glew shooed the both of them out, asking Dent to send for a repair crew up when he next encountered Mechanic Doren, and the brothers parted ways in the corridor. As Pug clanked off, mentally reviewing the proper order for using one’s forks, Dent maneuvered the Captain’s blade awkwardly into the scabbard that hung from his Adventure Belt. If he angled it right, as Dent was learning to, it didn’t quite clunk along on the floor as he walked.

Dent spotted a tiny insect darting through the cool, slightly salty air of the hallway. Since neither Imperia nor the palace had any native insects, outside of Zoology deck, Dent waved amiably at the bug. A tiny camera transmitted his image invisibly through the decks of the balance, through a relay station, and neatly into the retinal overlay worn by his mother the Empress, who smiled, and kept at her knitting.

“That’s my son,” she confided to Mr. Gnash, her very favorite nightshark. Mr. Gnash gnawed futilely against the transparent flooring of the Empress’s chamber before thrashing off into the watery gloom, and the Empress turned her attention back to the rapidly dwindling political fortunes of the current Duly Elected.

As Dent waited for the pneumovator, he caught himself staring up at the ventilation duct, hoping for a flash of reflective eyes. That was silly, of course; by Imperial decree, Pebble was now entirely welcome in the whole of the palace (save perhaps the Empress’s deck, but a few more months of regular bathing on the girl’s part might prompt Her Majesty to reconsider.)

Pebble had only been gone a little more than a turn, and would only be away for a few turns more, but Dent already missed her terribly. But she deserved to spend time with her family, now that she’d helped Mechanic Doren and his men to unseal the linkages between the palace and his boilers, and reports from the Imperial Anthropological Corps indicated that the girl was proving invaluable in smoothing over any misunderstandings between the two divergent cultures. The boiler people had almost entirely stopped referring to Pebble as “the angel,” even.

In the interim, Pebble had taken to sending him notes via the palace’s newly reestablished pneumonetwork. Apparently, her parents and little brother were all quite keen to meet him, and Dent was pretty sure Pebble was joking when she’d warned him to wear body armor before letting her mother hug him.

On the way up from Library deck, the pneumovator stopped to admit a young woman. She was trailed by Scribe Third Class Nibbins, who nodded kindly to Dent as she boarded the carriage.

“… I mean, sure, OK, princes and ambassadors, fine,” the other young woman was saying. “That comes with the territory. All I’m saying is, could we maybe get some poets into the rotation? Maybe a painter? Some musicians? There have to be a few among the aristocracy.”

“I’ll pass along the request, Your Majesty,” Nibbins nodded, dutifully recording, and then cleared her throat and shot a glance in Dent’s direction. The young woman turned, and Dent realized with a mild shock that it was his sister.

“Hey, creep,” Lis smiled at him, and did a quick turn, showing off the diaphanous folds of her clothing. “Like the new outfit?”

“There’s… there’s so much of it,” Dent marveled, and compared to his previous experience with his sister, this was true.

Lis’s gaze fell briefly upon the saber dangling perilously from Dent’s belt, and for a moment her smile faltered, and sadness veiled her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Dent said quickly, and turned, trying as best he could to block it from her view. But Lis, with a small effort, only grinned at him, and sighed.

“It looks good on you,” she said, her voice catching a little in her throat. “You’ll make a great bandit yet.”

“I don’t know,” Dent said, studying the floor. He was reconsidering his banditry-related career plans. This week, he thought he might rather be an astronomer.

“Oh, come on,” Lis smirked. “Somebody’s gotta be the family disgrace.” Dent stuck his tongue out at her, and she responded in kind, and ducked out of the pneumovator on Recreation Deck, trailed by Nibbins, who was deciding whether blowing a raspberry was the sort of thing one transcribed.

The pneumovator rushed onward, and soon Dent found himself in the rarefied, gilded halls of Imperial Deck. A parade of ministers were shuffling from his father’s conference room, and each nodded and bowed to Dent, now that they were allowed to acknowledge his existence. He waved cordially to the guards at his father’s door, who half-bowed back, and knocked for admission. The door slid open.

His father sat behind the massive geode desk, paging through datascrolls, and did not look up when Dent entered his study.

“Accident,” the Emperor intoned, “I want you to go have a look at my model.”

“Yes, Majesty,” Dent nodded, a little bit fearful, and wondering what he’d done this time. He walked quietly over to the table, hands at his sides, and studied the frozen, miniature combatants on the scaled-down contours of Echo Hill.

“Do you notice anything odd?” the Emperor asked. “Anything… missing?”

Dent looked at the very edge of the model, to the empty, unpainted space just next to the tree, and swallowed hard. Things had been going so well, really, and now Dent feared he would slide back into being the annoyance, the obstacle, the obligation.

When Dent looked up, his father was crossing the room toward him, noble face stony and impassive. “I noticed one figure gone from the model several turns back,” the Emperor said. “During your… excursion. I suspect you know what happened to it.”

Dent had glossed over certain details of his escape from the prison cell on Sir Leslie’s shop, hoping to avoid just this sort of questions. Now he looked his father in the eye — turning his gaze anywhere else would have earned him a scolding — and nodded.

“Do you know who that figure represented?” the Emperor asked sternly. “Do you know why he was important?” Dent shook his head, setting his jaw, preparing for the inevitable lecture.

His father knelt down then, next to the model, on Dent’s eye level. It startled the boy, and he took a half-step back. His father knelt for no one, but here he was, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“I didn’t either,” the Emperor said. “Not for a good two, three years after the battle, even. I might not have ever known, if Rendell hadn’t brought it up after consulting with the historians.” He looked at the empty spot next to the tree, and Dent saw again that strange distance in his face, that summoning back to the combat of the Emperor’s youth.

“His name was Merriwell,” the Emperor said. “Scout, Second Grade. His sergeants deemed him too small, too distracted for frontline combat. They made him a spotter, bringing up the rear guard. Hardly a position of honor.”

The Emperor pointed to his own tiny figure, leading the charge up the hill. “There I was, you see, about to break through the Armada’s lines.” He traced his finger across the map to a small, distant hill, covered with tiny model foliage, and for the first time, Dent noticed black, beetle-carapaced models of Dark Matter Armada troopers huddled there, all but invisible. “And here was an Armada sniper squadron, with a full complement of particle cannons, and a clear line of sight to my position.”

The Emperor sighed, and shook his head. “It was a trap, you see. I thought I was smashing their lines at the weakest point. But they were deliberately weakening their fortifications there, taking a chance to lure me in. And I never would have seen it. But Merriwell, it seems … Merriwell did.”

As Dent peered closer at the model, the Emperor traced a line between the Armada snipers and the empty space beside the tree. “It was pitch dark,” the Emperor recalled, “and the rain was pounding hard upon us. But Merriwell caught a flash of their dazzlescopes through the gloom, and trained his field glasses, and saw them. And when his superior refused to let him call in an orbital strike, Merriwell apparently stole the access codes and ordered it anyway. I remember the beam as it lanced down, brilliant, burning away the clouds, but it was just one of many things going on around me. I didn’t understand why it mattered, at the time.”

The Emperor looked at Dent now, and to the boy’s considerable surprise, his father’s features softened into something approaching kindness. “Had I known, I would have given him a medal. Gods, I would have given him a title, perhaps even a moon. But I didn’t. And he died the very next day — stepped on a hidden earthcharge while clearing out the fortifications. A sad end for a man who saved the Empire, don’t you think?”

Dent nodded, and the Emperor brought up a closed fist, and then opened it slowly. In his palm, Dent saw a freshly repainted replica of the soldier he’d stolen. “He saw what no one else was looking for. He cared about people who gave not a breath for him. And he did right, when even his own opposed him. That’s why he’s important,” the Emperor said. “That’s why I want you to help me put him back where he belongs.”

Hesitantly, Dent picked up the model Merriwell, and stuck him back on the miniature grass, next to the tiny tree. Then he frowned, curiously, and pointed to another lone soldier, charging up the hill at the Emperor’s flank.

“Who’s this?” Dent asked, always curious. The Emperor smiled.

“To explain that,” he said, “I’ll have to tell you how we got to Echo Hill in the first place…”

And peace, for the moment, abided among the Imperial family, and within their seashell palace, and across their private ocean planet, and throughout the whole of their fine and glittering galaxy.

And, as these stories are rightfully supposed to end, they all lived happily ever after.

… At least, until the the Dark Matter Armada returned.

But everyone already knows that story.