Flavius coughed, waving the smoke away. “Aye. That I noticed.”
“Indulge me, Flavius. I am curious,” Emperor Camargo said. “Were you wise enough to heed my advice, would you depart the same way you arrived?”
Flavius took a cautious sip of ja’na winic. Even without a mouthful of troesken, it imparted a sharp sting that wasn’t entirely pleasant. “To be honest with yer Imperial Majesty, I’ve nae given it much thought. The gap we arrived though, it were a three-day hike through yer mountains there.” He prodded the troesken suspiciously, then speared one of the roving berry-like things. It emitted a puff of gas, deflating. “With nae much to eat along the way.”
“Three days’ hike? Most interesting. I was under the impression--mistaken, obviously--that every Nexial gap within a 100 kaa radius had been collected and anchored inside the palace. My security director’s explanation should be quite... entertaining.”
Flavius’ skin prickled. No matter how tenuous his position was, he wouldn’t change places with the security director for anything.
He stared at his plate, the entree growing more revolting to him by the moment. His stomach churned with the exotic fare he’d already put down. Flavius looked up at Emperor Camargo, a man who’d killed him once already and could well stage an encore on a whim. Flavius’ eyes roamed across the crowded dining hall, finding Parric’s phantom near the musicians, pointedly ignoring a courtier--an Ajaw probably--babbling away at the conjoined tables. Farther back among the dining crowd, Flavius saw several peq herding drifting tables away from Empress Malinche’s field of vision, so she could keep an unobstructed eye on Flavius.
A feeling of abandonment and exposure settled over him. Alone among a crowd that regarded him as little more than an amusing animal, vulnerability did not sit well. He and Parric had come to the Eternal Dominion in order to catch their breaths and plan their next move. It was pretty clear--to Flavius at least--that Camargo wasn’t behind the moironteau attacks, but this mysterious Crafter Not-of-Onimik skewed the situation in ways he didn’t fully understand. Too many unknowns had intruded. The Eternal Dominion was no longer a haven of even dubious safety, if it ever had been. Damned Imperial court intrigues threatened to doom Flavius even if the moironteau never reared their ugly footheads again. Chaotic Tradefare may be a cutthroat morass of opportunistic betrayal, but at least the dangers there were familiar ones.
“Yer right,” Flavius said suddenly, pushing his plate and drink away. “Yer Imperial Majesty is absolutely right.”
Emperor Camargo barely concealed his surprise, then narrowed his eyes at Flavius. “About what, friend Flavius? Some of my predecessors have argued for infallibility in every Imperial thought, word and deed, so specific examples would help my studied evaluation of such claims.”
“Why, the bit about the leaving, of course,” Flavius said. “Yer Imperial hospitality’s been grand, but yer right that I dinnae belong here. Even yer food, fine stuff that it is, no doubt, is too much for my simple tastes. So, aye, I’m leaving.”
“And when do you plan to depart?”
“Immediately, if nae sooner.” Flavius stood, wobbled a moment, then bowed politely. His head swam more than he’d expected. “May we meet again in better times. And by better times, I mean with fewer bodies trying to put me in an early grave.”
With that, Flavius turned and briskly wound his way through the drifting tables, trying not to stumble too noticeably. Emperor Camargo’s laughter rose up behind him abruptly, following Flavius through the hall. A hush fell as conversation trailed off and the musicians put down their instruments. Even the aerial waiters caught themselves in mid-air, holding to their thread and watching the curious events below. All eyes followed Flavius as he made for the door.
“All right now, just make it to the door without anyone cutting ya down from behind and yer home free,” Flavius muttered to himself under his breath. He felt the heat of a hundred sets of eyes on him. He didn’t have to look at Empress Malinche to know she wouldn’t be as amused as Emperor Camargo.
Flavius reached the great double doors, pushed one open and stepped through. Once safely in the hall, he exhaled. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath.
“Is the distinguished guest in need of facilities?” the doorman asked. “I can have a peq guide you.”
“Nae, lad. I’ve had my fill, ya could say. I’m just away to my bed.”
“Before the ninth course?” The doorman raised his eyebrows, but quickly regained composure. He gestured to a peq slouched in an alcove across the hall. “Of course, sir. This peq will see you to your room and address any need you may have.”
“Our pleasure is to but serve,” the peq said in acknowledgement, plodding off in the direction of Flavius’ room.
As they walked down the hall, Flavius tried and failed to identify the peq as the one who’d waited on him before. Peq had a startling sameness about them, and the drink fogging his head didn’t help in telling them apart.
Flavius noticed a slight limp in the peq’s hind legs when it mounted the stairs. A knot formed in his stomach. “Say lad... er, that spondl served in the dining room earlier, you weren’t... I mean--”
”They grow back,” answered the peq simply. “Your room, sir.”
“Thanks, lad,” Flavius said, opening the door. “I’d have nae found it on my own.”
“I will be out here in case sir needs anything,” the peq said. “Our pleasure--”
“Is to serve. Aye, I got that one the first time around. Well, g’night.”
Flavius closed the door quickly, shielding himself from the madness of the Eternal Dominion. The room threatened to begin spinning, but Flavius stilled it to a persistent jitter through force of will. He stood in the dark, starlight filtering in through the window. He shut his eyes, drained and exhausted, but not as hungry as he’d been before, at least. Forcing himself to concentrate, he weigh whether he should grab what sleep he could and depart in the morning or find Parric now and flee as quickly as possible.
The room seemed to breath about him.
Flavius’ eyes snapped open. It wasn’t the room breathing. Someone was there with him.
“All right, whoever ya are, show yerself.” Flavius gripped Memory, half-drawing the sword. “I’m in nae mood for games.”
She stepped from the spherical bath alcove tentatively, head down, submissive. Starlight silhouetted her six bare breasts.
This was not the assassin he’d expected. “Wha...? Who are ya, and what’re ya doing slinking around my room all starkers?”
“You don’t..? I-- I’m Anacaona. We sat together at dinner,” she answered in a wavering voice. “We discussed... ah, we discussed...”
“Anacaona?” Drink-tinged recollections came to Flavius from Memory. His weariness abruptly fled. “Oh! That Anacaona! Sorry, lass, but it’s been a bit of a night for me.” Flavius thought for a moment. “But wasn’t I supposed to go to yer room?”
She didn’t raise her head. “W-When you said you’d have me on your terms, I understood that as an ultimatum. So I came directly here to await you. I thought that your desire. I apologize if I am in error. It is not my wish to offend--”
Flavius stopped her, slipping his finger under her chin to lift her face. Fear mingled with excitement in her eyes. And something else, something furtive, like a thief caught in the royal treasury. For a noble of the Imperial court, Anacaona’s condescending arrogance was in surprisingly short supply. Flavius bent forward and kissed her lips, gently at first, but then with urgency.
“Then you’ll have me?” Tears of joy welled in her eyes. “Thank you. Oh, thank you.”
“A sweet bonny lass like yerself has nae need to beg.” Flavius slid his hands across her body. He pulled off his shirt, then drew her back to him, cupping each breast in turn. He was delighted to find her navel perfectly centered between the third pair.
He led her to the bed, shedding his kilt and unbuckling his swordbelt. An image of Empress Malinche flashed through his mind, of himself casting aside his sword an earlier time. He reconsidered, then, refastening the belt. “If ya dinnae mind, though, I ken I’ll be keeping my Memory with me.”
Friday, October 3, 2008
Flavius coughed, waving the smoke away. “Aye. That I noticed.”