Tuesday, August 19, 2008



Flavius recoiled from the creature, throwing up his arm between them. The thing stared at him briefly, nictating membranes sliding quickly across the eyes before its spindly arms abruptly produced a translucent, frosted dinner plate with crusted orange balls delicately arranged upon it. It deftly set the plate before Flavius as another arm deposited a tall flute of burgundy liquid on the table. It cocked its head without saying a word, the swiftly retreated straight up.

Mouth agape, Flavius watched it go. Half a dozen stubby legs pulled effortlessly up an impossibly thin silken strand to the ceiling of the dining hall. An instant later it disappeared onto a balcony encircling the ceiling, cleverly hidden by an optical illusion of the architecture.

More of the creatures tumbled down from the ceiling, their fat, segmented orange bodies punctuated by rings of long, hairy spikes. An array of spindly forelegs held assorted drink refills, finger bowls and any other luxury an Imperial diner could want. They expertly completed their tasks at the various drifting tables on the floor, and instantly scurried back up its silken thread.

“You really need to eat your spondl before it melts through the crust, Flavius of Clan MacDuff. It defeats the purpose otherwise.”

Flavius pulled his attention from the acrobatics above. His table had joined with another, and the occupant was a familiar one. Like others of the Eternal Dominion, her skin was reddish-copper and her hair a glistening silver, but her features were broader than the delicate Empress’. She was thick-shouldered and muscular by Dominion standards, but compared to the lassies of Scotland she was positively fey. Flavius racked his brain for a name before Memory offered it up.

“Sajal Anacaona, I’d nae thought to see you here,” he said, remembering the Sajal were mid-level Dominion nobility far outside the Imperial line of succession. “Of course, I nae thought to see me here again, either.”

“It’s safe to say many here shared those sentiments. Your departure was quite the topic of conversation.” She picked up one of the orange spondl with long, over-jointed finger and held it to her lips. She nipped the crust with her teeth, then sucked the filling out with far too much skill to be anything other than seductive.

Flavius grabbed a handful of spondl off his plate and shoved them into his mouth. The honeyed crust crumbled between his teeth, releasing a minute burst of alcoholic burn. The creamy brine of the filling made for a pleasant contrast on his tongue.

“Oh my,” Anacaona said, barely suppressing a grin. “I see Her Royal Majesty’s boldness isn’t misplaced.”

Flavius swallowed, eyeing Anacaona suspiciously as her lips worked over another spondl. “And just what d’ya mean by that?”

“Only that spondl is reputed to be a strong aphrodisiac, and Her Royal Majesty had it added as the second course right after your audience in the audience hall,” she said airily. “The scandal is all anyone’s talking about. His Imperial Majesty cannot be pleased with this affront, I would think. And spondl, of all things...” Anacaona shook her head. “I can’t imagine a dish that clashes more with the dry elegance of Brusselia cuisine, can you? At least it’s fresh spondl...”

“Yer having me on.”

Anacaona leaned forward on her elbows, smiling wickedly. “I am not. Ask anyone you share a table with this evening. They’ll tell you exactly what I have.”

“But those whatchercallem, the nuse--”

“Aren’t steeped in Her Imperial Majesty’s blood.”

“Emperor Camargo-- er, His Imperial Majesty said they’d kill me if released.”

Anacaona shrugged. “That’s a risk she’s willing to take.”

Flavius opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it, then resorted to beating his temple with the heel of his palm. “Bugger me,” he muttered.

“That is a possibility. Her Imperial Majesty’s tastes are reputed to be quite varied.”

“If she’s that damn horny,” he said, measuring his words carefully, “why dinnae she just go off and shag Camargo and be done with it?”

Anacaona stared at Falvius, eyes wide and mouth open, only partly scandalized by his use of the Tricentennial Emperor’s familiar name. “You’re serious? You honestly don’t know?”

“Dinnae be a tit, you. I’m nae from around here, remember?”

Anacaona looked away with a hand over her mouth, composing herself. When she looked back, the mirth had gone from her face. “Full citizens of the Eternal Dominion are different from the lesser sentients--”

“Aye, that’d be me.”

She frowned at him, but continued. “There is a degree of physical compatibility with lesser sentients, but there’s a genetic disconnect. Crossbreeding cannot happen.”

Flavius shrugged. “And? That’s one of the first things I learned, going on three lives ago.”

“Try to understand this,” she said in a whisper. “We of the Eternal Dominion, we mate once. Copulation involves a physical bond between the man and woman and lasts weeks, ending only when the man dies, his body utterly spent. Staggered gestations immediately begin in the woman, and continue until her death. Empress Teotalco outlived her Emperor an unheard-of seven years, birthing forty-three heirs. That’s also a record.

“To consummate their union would be the death of his His and Her Imperial Majesties, both. They choose to avoid this as long as possible, you see, but the need remains. Our base drive for copulation defies all attempts to tame it, but it can be sated for a time. That’s why Her Imperial Majesty will have you tonight, nuse or no nuse.”

“This is a bonny bag of shite. If the nuse dinnae kill me, His Imperial Majesty will do the honors.” Flavius considered the situation. “Parric’s gonna be pissed.”

“You have alternatives, you know,” Anacaona said.

Flavius snorted. “Such as?”

Anacaona lowered her eyes, her cavalier confidence suddenly fleeting. “I’m of the Eternal Dominion, too, and share this curse. I’d shelter you this night, Flavius of Clan MacDuff. If you’re willing.”


No comments: