A crowd of people immediately gathered around the Emperor, his two attendants warning them not to press too close, and the Brigadier saw that there’d be no chance of his speaking to him any time soon. Maybe not at all that night. There were far too many people whom the Emperor knew, people he had to keep on good terms with for political reasons. He would have no time for strangers. He muttered a curse under his breath. He’d been a fool to think that getting close enough to speak to him would be easy, he now saw. Leothan had spoiled him. His close friendship with the King of Helberion, the King’s willingness to speak to him any time he wanted, had prevented him from realising just how unapproachable world leaders generally were. His request for an audience with the Emperor had gone unanswered. It now looked as though nothing less than a personal request from Leothan himself would be enough, and considering how bad relations currently were between Helberion and the Empire, even that might not be enough.
As the band began playing again, he decided to put the Emperor on the back burner for the time being, therefore, and carry on with his other mission. The distraction had caused him to lose track of the group of people the pale man had inadvertently pointed out to him, but after searching the room with his eyes he spotted one of them standing near the band, taking a drink from a waiter. Alone, good. The Brigadier made his way towards him before the man could become engaged in conversation with someone else.
“He certainly draws a crowd,” he said, taking another drink from the waiter and placing his empty glass on his tray. He took a sip from it, then used it to gesture towards the Emperor.
“Everywhere he goes,” the other man agreed. He was dressed almost entirely in green, with tight breeches that clung to every muscle of his legs and a long cape that hung almost all the way to the ground. Other than that, he was dressed rather plainly, except for the large, green brooch he was wearing on his chest. It looked expensive at first glance, but the Brigadier had seen plenty of real jewels at receptions held by King Leothan and this one didn't look the same. Glass, he decided, his heart dropping, but he consoled himself with the thought that a crooked politician would hardly flaunt his Ill gotten wealth at an event such as this. No matter how extravagant his private lifestyle might be, he would have to put on an appearance of frugality when in the presence of his peers and superiors.
“Weyland James,” said the Brigadier, holding out his hand. “Brigadier, from Helberion.”
“Ryan Tarnor,” replied the other man, taking his hand. “Junior assistant to the Undersecretary of State. Very junior.” He smiled self deprecatingly. “My office is a pump room in the basement, full of pipes. Whenever anyone runs a hot tap anywhere in the palace, it becomes too noisy to hear yourself think.”
“It's an office in the palace,” the Brigadier pointed out, “and someone must think you're important enough to invite to an event like this.”
“I'm the guest of my wife, Sandra. She’s the important one. She's deputy assistant chief of staff to the Emperor. That's her over there.” He waved over at a group of women standing by the sweets table, and one of them, also dressed in green and bare from the waist up, waved back. She was wearing a finely linked gold necklace across her fashionably flat chest. “We’ve just adopted a beautiful golden haired terrier.”
“Thanks. We're going to call him Murphy if he decides to be a boy, after my grandfather, and Isobel if she decides to be a girl, after Sandra’s mother. She went back into the earth last year. Lung cancer.”
“I'm sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you. Maybe she'll be human again one day.”
“Maybe she'll be Empress one day.”
Ryan Tarnor smiled. “Maybe. She’d make a good Empress, if the way she ran her family was any indication.”
He looked across at a group of people standing nearby, and the Brigadier sensed him wanting to go over and join them. He spoke hurriedly therefore, to keep hold of him. “So. Junior assistant to the Undersecretary of State. That must be quite a responsible position.”
“You think? Junior assistant to the Undersecretary of State. I'm two full levels, and several minor, unofficial levels, away from the Secretary himself. My job mainly involves intercepting and tackling officials from other ministries who want to bother the Minister. I'm basically the Minister's bouncer, keeping undesirables away.”
“I heard that Minister Skelby is ill. He hadn’t been seen in public for some time.”
“Stress, they say. His doctors have advised him to take some rest. He hopes to resume his duties very soon now.”
The Brigadier heard the false tone in his voice, though. The man was lying. He knew something he wasn't telling. He wasn't going to say anything to a stranger he met at a party, though, so the Brigadier simply filed the information away for now. “Still, for the time being, Undersecretary Tiver is effectively running the ministry, and you're one of his assistants. That must mean that, until Skelby recovers, you have more power than you did when he was fulfilling the duties of his office.”
“My duties are much the same,” replied Ryan Tarnor, though. “I'm still the Ministry’s doorkeeper.”
“Are you in line for greater things? A promotion up the ladder one day, perhaps? Senior assistant to the Minister? Personal assistant to the Minister? Maybe even the big chair itself, one day?”
“That's what I‘m hoping. Keep doing my job, don’t screw up. Make sure I'm spotted...”
“With a good wife to help out, who knows? She did well to get you here tonight. You'll have to make sure you're spotted by the Emperor.” And when you are, I'll be right there beside you, he thought. “Are there any other people from the Ministry of State here tonight?”
“No, just me.”
“Then you're probably guaranteed a word or two with the Emperor. He'll probably feel obliged to acknowledge the representatives of every major Ministry and department here tonight, for political reasons. Any Ministry he misses out will take it as a deliberate slight, use the ‘insult’ as a way to leverage things they want out of him.” Ryan Tarnor nodded thoughtfully.
“Where is everyone else from the Ministry, anyway? Why aren't they here?”
“They're at a big meeting. Deciding what they’re going to do about the insurgents in the provinces. New powers for the guards, heavier sentences for acts of sedition, that sort of thing.”
The Brigadier nodded gravely. “Something needs to be done,” he agreed. “We witnessed an incident on our way here from Helberion. A group of malcontents causing trouble, the guards trying to keep things under control. I've heard that such incidents are becoming increasingly common.”
“So they say, but if you ask me I think we’re stoking the fires, right here in the capital. A lot of the trouble is people reacting to the harsh new measures we’re bringing in. The provinces have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed. If they did that, I think most of the trouble would just melt away. Instead, they treat the provinces like conquered countries. Arrest anyone who dares speak out, bring in curfews, ban public gatherings... Of course people are up in arms! It's almost as if Tiver wants to start a civil war!”
The Brigadier cursed inwardly. Damn his luck, finding an honest man! Nevertheless, he had a role to play, and this man might tell all his corrupt friends what a warmonger the Brigadier was. “I'm afraid I have to disagree,” he said, therefore. “The trouble we saw in Invermirren was locals looking for trouble. Deliberately targeting the guards, looking for an excuse to start a fight. The local guards had no choice but to clamp down on them. If that’s what it’s like in the western provinces, then your Ministry has got its work cut out. As a military man, I know the importance of maintaining order. The people have to fear the authorities. It's the only language they understand.”
“I think maybe you just had some bad luck, what happened in Invermirren. I know the place, it’s always had a reputation for being civilised and peaceful, but even the best neighbourhoods have their bad apples. The trouble is the type of people being hired as guards these days. People who should on no account be given any kind of authority.” He took another sip of his drink. “Ah well, what do I know? Tiver may be no oil painting, but I’m sure he has the best interests of the Empire at heart. Maybe you're right. What do I know?”
“Does Tiver make all these decisions himself?” asked the Brigadier. “Does he have an advisor? Someone he listens to more than anyone else?”
“Not really. He has advisors, of course. Lots of them, but then all Ministers do. Speak of the devil...” Something had caught his eye and the Brigadier followed his gaze to one of the small doorways behind the musicians. There was a man standing there, beckoning for Ryan Tarnor to come join him. “Duty calls,” he said. “Something must have come up at the meeting. Excuse me.”
The Brigadier watched helplessly as the man made his way to the doorway, where the other man said some things to him while Ryan nodded, a frown on concern on his face. The Brigadier cursed again. He'd lost him! He wouldn't be able to re-engage him in conversation without the man knowing that he had a special interest in him, not that there would be much point even if he could. There was no way Ryan Tarnor was a member of the conspiracy he was looking for. He was too honest, and there was no-one else from the Ministry of State at the reception. He was in the same room as the Emperor, but his chances of getting to speak to him were essentially nil. There was nothing else he could do, therefore, but keep on playing the role of corrupt blackmailer and hope that it bore fruit sometime in the future.
He looked at the man Ryan Tarnor was talking to, in case he was a man he might be interested in in the future. He was dressed in an expensive suit, the kind of thing mid level bureaucrats wore all across the human world, and he had an unexceptional face. The Brigadier doubted he’d be able to recognise him if he saw him again, except... There was something about the colour of his face. Pink, but unnatural, as if he was wearing a thick layer of skin powder. He was probably ones of those people whose skin still bore the coloration of the animal he’d been raised from. Such people were rare, there probably weren't more than a dozen or so in the whole Empire, and most of them bore their colours proudly, or at least stoically. The Brigadier nodded to himself with satisfaction. It should make it easy to identify him, if he needed to. He turned his attention back to the room at large, therefore, and looked for another group of people to talk to.
He mingled for another hour or so, during which he dropped hints regarding a large, dubiously acquired fortune desperately looking for a place to be invested, and he was pleased to find more and more people who had already heard of him. It seemed he was becoming a major talking point at the reception, which pleased the Brigadier. He was just beginning to think that he’d accomplished everything he could reasonably hope to accomplish and that the time might have come for him to make an exit, when he was approached by one of the guards who'd come with the Emperor. “Brigadier Weyland Smith of Helberion?” The man asked.
“I am,” confirmed the Brigadier.
“His Majesty the Emperor wishes to speak to you. If you would accompany me, sir?”
Slightly stunned by his good fortune, the Brigadier followed the guard across the room, to where the Emperor was holding court, surrounded by a large crowd of ambitious, or merely curious, members of government and the nobility. They parted to let the two men through, and then the Brigadier found himself face to face with the most powerful human being on the planet. The Emperor's large, exquisitely groomed moustache twitched as he studied him for a moment, and the Brigadier waited patiently, knowing that protocol explicitly forbade him from speaking until he was spoken to first. This was his big chance, a chance he hadn't dared hope for, and he had no intention of messing it up.
“The Brigadier himself!” The Emperor said at last. “The great man about whom so many great tales are spoken.”
“At your service, your Majesty,” the Brigadier replied.
“Except it seems you may have a dark side,” the Emperor continued. “People are talking about you, Brigadier. They seem to think you have an illicit source of income. Your nights at the Smokescreen Casino, where you lose a small fortune every time without batting an eyelid. Your vague hints regarding having money to invest in whatever industry the person you're talking to happens to be involved with. If you were any other person, one might think you were some kind of con artist, looking to fleece some unsuspecting victim.”
A ripple of laughter ran through the surrounding crowd. “I assure you, your Majesty, that I have done, and have no intention of doing, anything illegal. I have had some luck recently, that is all, and after having spent a lifetime trudging through the most inhospitable terrain our world has to offer, I wanted to spend some time enjoying the good life in the greatest city in the world.”
“I am immensely reassured to hear that. May I enquire after the nature of the good fortune you have so recently enjoyed?”
“As you have no doubt heard, your Majesty, I recently had the honour of helping save the Princess Ardria, daughter of King Leothan of Helberion, from a terrible condition inflicted upon her by enemies of the Kingdom. The King was so grateful that he gave me a substantial financial reward for my efforts. I could have hoarded it, put it in a bank and left it there, but I was already comfortably well off, well enough that I will have no monetary worries when age robs me of any desire or ability to go travelling any more, and so I decided to enjoy it all in a few weeks of indulgence. And where better than Farwell, the jewel city, whose riches and beauty are spoken of even in the furthest corners of the human world!”
The Emperor nodded to himself. It was a plausible explanation, which was a massive problem for the Brigadier. Everyone at the reception, everyone in the city, might well believe it, which would undo everything he’d tried to do since arriving in the Empire. He could hardly have pretended to be crooked in front of the Emperor himself, though. This was a man whose trust he desperately needed to earn.
“Well, I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in our city, for as long as you decide to stay here.” He began to turn away, and the Brigadier felt his heart sinking. Was that it? Was that all he’d wanted? The Brigadier couldn't let the conversation end so quickly, but the only way to prolong it was by committing a massive breach of protocol, something that might get him thrown out of the palace on his ear and end forever any chance of winning the Emperor to their cause. There was no time to think, no time to weigh the pros and cons. Another half second and the Emperor would be talking to someone else. Up to the elbow, he thought, and made his decision.
“Your Majesty, if I may, there is a matter that I must speak to you about. A matter of the utmost importance and urgency.”
Some of the people in the crowd looked shocked. Someone gasped, someone else laughed, and the guards moved to place themselves between the Emperor and the Brigadier. One of the Emperor's attendants gestured towards the guards standing discretely by the wall and they began moving forward, their eyes hard as they regarded the Brigadier.
The Emperor turned back to face the Brigadier. “What matter?” he asked, and everyone relaxed. The Brigadier breathed a sigh of relief.
“It would be better if we could speak in private, your Majesty. I have a suspicion, that is all. If I am right, the repercussions could be enormous, but if I am wrong I would become the laughing stock of the Empire. To save myself from embarrassment, I would prefer that as few people as possible hear what I have to say.”
“Well, you've aroused my curiosity, Brigadier. I have to hear what you have to say now or I'll be wondering for the rest of the week!” Another ripple of laughter ran through the crowd. “Accompany me please, Brigadier.” The Emperor moved elegantly and sedately towards the great double doors that formed the main entrance to the room, and his guards, his attendants and the Brigadier went with him.
They went out into the corridor, followed it along passages and around corners until they came to a small room containing two chairs angled towards each other in front of a small table. The Brigadier stared in wonder at the paintings on the wall, the urns standing on pedestals and the plush carpet on which they were standing, and contemplated the fact that there was probably more wealth in this one room than in King Leothan's entire palace. Even the curtains hanging beside the window were sewn with gold thread, and yet the Brigadier somehow had the impression that they were the first people to enter the room, apart from the maids and cleaners, for several weeks.
The Emperor and the Brigadier entered, along with one of the Emperor's guards, while the rest of the Emperor's entourage waited outside. Emperor Tyron gestured for the Brigadier to take one of the chairs and the Brigadier went to stand in front of it, only sitting when the Emperor had seated himself in the other. “Now then, Brigadier,” he said. “What is this matter that runs the risk of so embarrassing you?”
“Your Majesty, I said that in order to give a plausible reason for asking that no-one else be present. The real reason is rather less humorous. Your Majesty, I have reason to believe that there is a conspiracy at work within your Empire, working to plunge it into civil war.”
Tyron stared is astonishment. “You had better explain that remark, Brigadier.”
“I will, your Majesty, but first I must say that this plot is, I believe, only part of a larger scheme. To throw down all human civilisation. Not just the Empire, but Helberion, Carrow, Erestin, all human nations everywhere. To destroy all that we have accomplished in the last thousand years.”
“And who would want to do such a thing?”
The Brigadier paused before answering. If he screwed this up, all of human civilisation might suffer as a result. This might well be the most important answer anyone had ever given anyone, ever. “Your Majesty, what I'm about to say will sound incredible, but I assure you that we have good reason for our suspicions which I will be glad to lay before you here and now. I brought a chest with me today, a gift to you. It contains some of this evidence. If we could have it brought here, I would be glad to explain its significance.”
The Emperor made a gesture to the guard, who opened the door and spoke to the people outside. Then he closed the door again and resumed his place against the wall. “You said we,” the Emperor pointed out.”
“King Leothan shares my belief, and has commanded his government to act on the assumption that it is true. Helberion is prepared to act alone, if we have to.”
“There may very shortly no longer be a Helberion if the Carrowmen have their way.”
“We can handle Carrow, your Majesty. This greater threat is another matter.”
“You have not yet told me what this greater threat is.”
“The threat comes from the Radiants, your Majesty.”
The Emperor sat in silence for several moments, digesting the statement. He'll say I'm mad, the Brigadier thought, his body tensed up as tightly as a bowstring. He'll have me thrown out of the palace while ignoring all my pleas for understanding and assistance, or perhaps he’ll just laugh, thinking I’m playing a joke on him. There was a look on the Emperor's face that gave the Brigadier cause for hope, though. As if he was actually considering the idea, trying to decide whether there might be any merit to it. “You said you had evidence,” he said.
“Most of the evidence comes in the form of things I discovered during my most recent mission, to Mekrol, near the Uttermost Range. More of it is in the form of artefacts discovered in the ruins of a city of the Hetin Folk. Some of those artefacts are contained in the chest that your people are even now bringing to us. It is proof that we are not descended from survivors of the Hetin folk, as we have always believed. There is, in fact, no kinship at all between them and us, except for the fact that we resemble them somewhat. The Hetin folk are completely extinct.”
“And why is this significant?”
“Because we believe that their civilisation was destroyed by the Radiants, which shows that they are willing and able to destroy an entire civilisation when it suits them to do so. We have evidence that neither Radiants nor Globs existed back in the time of the Hetin folk. Their coming coincided with the demise of the Hetin folk. That cannot be a coincidence.”
“One may have caused the other, perhaps, but which? Or perhaps they were both caused by something else. Either way, I don't see the connection with our modern world.”
“With your permission, Majesty, I will begin at the beginning and recount how I came upon each individual piece of evidence.” He waited, and was relieved when the Emperor gave a slight nod. “Thank you, Majesty. It all began, as I have said, when I and a small group of men set off to Mekrol in search of a cure for Princess Ardria. Our quest took us to a man called Parcellius, who had been excavating a city of the Hetin folk...”
The Emperor listened patiently as the Brigadier recounted their meeting with Parcellius, during which he had shown them the books and artefacts he had discovered. He then told of their visit to the Radiant city, where the curator of the museum of the Hetin folk had told them that no books had survived from that time, something that they knew to be false, showing that the Radiants were desperate to hide something. He told of their return to Mekrol and their discovery of the book that Parcellius' assistant had partially translated, and as he did so the door opened and a pair of men carried in the chest, which they laid on the ground beside the small table. “That is remarkably good timing!” said the Brigadier, opening the chest and searching through it for the thin, bendy book and the sheaf of papers containing the translation. “This is the very book, your Majesty.” He handed it across and the Emperor leafed through it, his eyes widening with interest. His eyes also had a tired look, and the Brigadier was reminded that it was well past midnight. For a moment he was tempted to ask that the meeting be resumed in the morning, when they were both well rested, but there was no knowing what important affair of state might suddenly take precedence, and once he lost the Emperor’s attention he might never get it back. He had the Emperor now, and no matter how tired they both were, he had to take advantage of this opportunity while he had it.
“If this translation is accurate, then it seems to confirm what you say,” said Tyron. “It speaks of attempts to eliminate the globs, the most harmless creatures in the world. It speaks of a failure to procreate their kind, to use the translator’s choice of words. No mention of adopting animals...”
“They procreated differently,” said the Brigadier. “They were anatomically different from us.” He produced some of the nude statuettes from the chest, and the Emperor studied them carefully. “I will have to have my own people do their own translation,” he said. “To ensure its accuracy. Even if it is true, though, I fail to see how this is important. It would be of interest to historians and archaeologists, of course...”
“Your Majesty, it shows that the Radiants are willing and able to destroy an entire civilisation.”
“Yes, yes, but even if that were so, why would they want to destroy ours?”
“Because they fear us. They fear our science. A few weeks ago, one of our research facilities was destroyed, a facility doing research into electricity.”
“Yes, your Majesty, and if it were not for the testimony of Princess Ardira, we might think the same thing. During our visit to the Radiant city, though, we discovered that half raised humans develop the ability to communicate with Radiants telepathically, and I wondered whether the Princess, in her half demon form, might share that ability. When we returned to Marboll with the cure, the King and I asked her whether she could communicate with the Radiants in the city. She was able to, and she learned that the Radiants are moving to destroy our civilisation, to eliminate the technological advantages we have made in recent years, which they fear.”
“With respect, Brigadier, she may have been delusional.”
“She was able to give us information that we were able to confirm by direct observation, information she could only have gotten from the Radiants themselves. Your Majesty, I believe that the threat is real. So does the King, and we both believe that the campaign against us has already begun. We believe that the war with Carrow was engineered by agents of the Radiants, humans working for them, and we believe that they are also working to plunge the Empire into civil war.”
“That is pure speculation!” said the Emperor leaning forward, a warning gleam in his eye.
“Perhaps so, but as the largest and most powerful human nation, the Empire would be right at the top of their hit list. We believe that the unrest being felt by the common folk is being fuelled by agents of the Radiants, spreading lies about Imperial injustices, and that they also have people in your government, making sure that the guards clamp down hard on Innocent people, in order to increase the anger and resentment of the common folk. You cannot deny that the troubles in the outer provinces seem to be spiralling out of control.”
“You go too far, Brigadier! I trust my people! If they are taking firm measures in the provinces, then I have faith that those measures are needed. A suspicious man might think that you merely wish to trick us into helping you fight the Carrowmen, by making us think that they are somehow a threat to us.”
“Carrow is no threat to you, your Majesty. The powers supporting them are.”
“That will do, Brigadier. This had been very... diverting, but I have pressing matters that demand my attention.” He stood, and the Brigadier stood also, a sinking feeling in his heart. “Thank you for your gift. My people will show you the way out.” He then left the room, his mind already on other things, leaving the Brigadier to stare after him, desperately wondering what he could have said or done differently to convince him. He'd accomplished more than he’d dared to hope, and it hadn't been enough. What would he do now?