Wednesday, July 16, 2008



Emperor Camargo smiled. “Indeed you are, Flavius. A very lucky man, indeed. Not many men get a second chance at life, or a third or a fourth or whatever the case may be in your unique situation.”

“All things being equal, I’d just as soon make this chance last a while. There’s nae anything pleasant about dying.”

“Truer words, Flavius. Truer words.” Emperor Camargo waggled a finger in Flavius’ face. “As a man who disdains death in all its forms, I have a warning for you. Please, Flavius, take it in the spirit of genuine compassion and concern for your well-being in which I offer it.”


“Within the various layers of the Empress Malinche’s garments are woven threads of nuse which have been steeped in the blood of your predecessor. Should they be loosed--that is, should the Empress happen to become disrobed in your presence--the nuse would immediately seek you out and do as nuse is wont to do.” The Emperor suppressed a small shudder. “No offense to your integrity is meant, you understand. It’s actually more a symbolic gesture than anything else. You know how dramatic court politics can be.”

“We are thanking you for the deliverings of such courtesy,” interrupted Parric. “I am assuring you, Flavius’ attentions lie far away from scandal.”

“Right. Furthest thing from my mind,” Flavius said, pointedly averting his gaze from the Empress’ direction. Even so, he could feel her stare boring into him.

“Our journeying is proving most stressful,” Parric added. “Our enemies leave us little opportunity for thinking of anything save food and sheltering.”

“Enemies?” Emperor Camargo raised an eyebrow.

“A longing story,” answered Parric.

“They always are,” Emperor Camargo agreed. “You’ll have to illuminate me as to the circumstances of your latest adventures over dinner. I confess we were just about to sit down to sup when word reached us regarding your unexpected arrival. It’s not a formal dinner, I fear--simple fare for a quiet evening--but you will, of course, join the Empress and myself to dine. I’m certain the chefs remember your distinctive dietary requirements, Parric, and can prepare something acceptable for you in short order. Flavius, as I recall, may eat freely from our table with no distress.”

“Your Imperial Majesty’s hospitality is knowing no bounds,” said Parric, bowing slightly.

“Now, not to put this matter too delicately,” said the Emperor, lowering his voice, “but you reek. Terribly so. Flavius in particular. Your previous rooms are currently unoccupied, so you may go to them and refresh yourselves. You may join us in the petite dining hall thereafter.”

Flavius opened his mouth to answer, then thought better of it, sniffing himself instead.

Emperor Camargo gestured toward the gathered staff, and immediately a squat creature that’d been lurking in the background trotted forward on all fours. Little more than half the size of Flavius, it’s stocky body was covered with knobby blue-gray skin with thick tufts of black hair growing at the joints. Round, dark eyes dominated its flat face, and irregular teeth jutted up from a pronounced underbite. The turquoise livery it wore seemed particularly ill-fitting.

“This peq will guide you to your rooms. If you’re in need of anything, all you need do is ask.” The Emperor look down at the peq. “Isn’t that right, peq?”

“Quite right, Your Imperial Majesty,” the peq answered in a throaty, rumbling voice. “Our pleasure is to but serve. The guests will be extended every courtesy.”

“Excellent. Then I will see you shortly.” Emperor Camargo abruptly turned and returned to the dias, where Empress Malinche rose to greet him. The staff were already filing out of the hall.

Without further ceremony, the peq turned and trotted off toward an open door, so quickly that Flavius and Parric had to scramble to catch up.

“Well, that dinnae go the way I’d expected.”

“Indeeding. Emperor Camargo is a little too happy to be seeing us, I fear,” Parric said. “I’m finding our initial receptioning by his militia is less troubling.”

“Maybe he feels a wee bit guilty for killing me,” Flavius suggested.

Parric’s antennae turned toward Flavius.

“Yer right. Royalty nae ever feels guilt,” Flavius sighed. “Maybe the peq knows something. Ho, lad, ya look familiar. Did we meet on our last visit?”

“Maybe, maybe not. I couldn’t say for certain,” the peq answered, his stumpy tail bobbing energetically as turned and led them up a flight of stairs. “You smell familiar, sirs, but guests of your sort all look alike to me.”

“What’s the word among the staff, eh? What’re they saying about us?” Flavius scanned the corridor walls as he talked. The surroundings did look familiar now. “Do ye ken what the Emperor’s feelings are?”

“I wouldn’t presume to know His Imperial Majesty’s feelings on any matter, sirs. Our pleasure is to but serve.” The peq stopped before a familiar door and stood up on his hind legs to open the latch. He gestured to Flavius with his forearm. “Your room, sir. Do you know how to operate the flow valves in the spherical bath? My apologies, sir, but I have to ask. More often than not our otherwhere guests don’t know.”

“No need to apologize, lad. Yer just doing yer job.”

“Thank you, sir. If only our guests last week were as understanding.” The peq dropped back down to all fours and motioned to Parric. “If the T'ul-us Tzan would follow me...?”

Parric turned to Flavius. “We’ll be talking more later. But for now, be staying out of trouble. More importanting, be staying out of the Empress.”

“Ya think?” Flavius answered, sending Parric off with a rude gesture. As he closed the door, the memory of nude Empress filled his thoughts, mixed with that of her intense gaze in the audience hall. Flavius slumped back against the door, suddenly very drained. “Easier said than done, Parric. Easier said than done.”


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