Chapter 2: The Keeper
We weren’t expecting much of a reception committee. We weren’t disappointed. The shuttle set down on a parched plain a few hundred meters outside the city. One, lone figure stood there, his face covered to ward off the dust kicked up by the small vessel. The ramp went down, the troopers formed an honor guard at its foot, and then the Ambassador and I descended.
The robed and dusty figure slowly clapped his hands. “No one can put on a show like the good ol’ Imperium. “ He offered his hand. “Justin Chang, at your service. Uh, which one of you is the Ambassador?”
Ari raised her hand and coughed. She had gotten a bit choked at the still swirling dust.
He bowed and kissed her hand. “You’re Syrenkan aren’t you? I served under a Syrenkan once. He was chief engineer on a bulk-freighter. He could scoot his tail across an engine room deck like nobody’s business. Drank like a fish too, beggin’ your pardon.”
I cleared my throat to get the man’s attention.
“Oh, right. We should be gettin’ her ladyship out of the sun and dust. Follow me.”
Our small party marched off toward the city. After we had gone a short way, the shuttle took off and began its climb through the steel-blue sky back to the orbiting Agamemnon.
Ari swallowed and then addressed the trader, “Mr. Chang, are Imperial visitations so common, that the Rii don’t even bother to greet one of His Majesty’s representatives?”
Chang looked uncomfortable. “Ma’am, I’m afraid His Majesty’s been getting scant regard lately. And, unfortunately, I expect things to get worse.”
“What makes you think so? The getting worse part, I mean.”
“Look at the guards when we pass the gate. You’ll understand.”
Chang moved over to me and spoke in a whisper, “Has the Diplomatic Service gone stupid on us?”
“What?” I was a bit taken aback.
He looked about, nervously. “If they’d done an ounce of research, they’d know the Rii are misogynist to the bone and not to send a woman!” He hissed. “The Rii also have strong body image and fitness taboos. They’ll see our ambassador as an inhuman cripple!”
“The Emperor’s diplomatic representative is to be given as much respect as the Emperor himself in person! If the Rii don’t know that, they’ll have to learn! Bugger their petty prejudices!” I hissed back.
Ari turned toward us, “Alright. What’s all the hissing about? You sound like two tomcats.”
Chang looked embarrassed, “Ma’am, I’ve lived among the Rii for almost ten years now. I feel I know them as well if not better than any man alive. They are a fierce and noble people, and if they accept you, you couldn’t find more loyal friends in any part of the Lord’s great galaxy. But they have certain ways. Their ways, not mine. They…”
“They don’t like women and they don’t like people who are different.” Ari sighed, “Did you think I didn’t know that? Did you think that this hadn’t already been weighed and considered before I was sent here?“
“I meant no disrespect, that’s their way, not mine.”
“I understand that, and I appreciate your concern.” She gently placed her hand on the older man’s arm. “Rest assured I know what I’m doing.” She turned her chair and we proceeded once more to the gate.
The city, also (rather unimaginatively) named Rii, looked like a pile of mud bricks, which was precisely what it was. It looked like some hod-carriers had had an unfortunate accident. As we approached, we could see that there was no wall around the settlement; the gate was symbolic and decorative rather than defensive. The guards posted there, an unlikely lot, lounged about talking or smoking. They seemed peculiarly, almost disdainfully uninterested in us. I discreetly looked them over as we passed and understood what Chang meant.
“Are those Mk III auto rifles?” Ari asked.
“Either that, or a very good imitation,” I replied.
“A month ago, they would have been carrying muzzle loaders,” said Chang.
“Any idea where these weapons came from?” continued Ari.
Chang shrugged. “I have an idea, but no proof, none whatsoever. About three weeks ago; poof! They all had them. The Keeper’s body guard also.”
“I hear Van Zant’s troops use a knock off of the Mk III,” I said.
“That’s what I hear as well,” Chang stopped in front of one of the larger piles of brick. “Well, this is it - my shop, my humble abode and the closest thing the Empire has to a consulate on this world.” He opened the door and we followed him into the cool darkness. Without needing to be told, two of our escort stationed themselves outside.
It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust. The room was a cluttered emporium of goodies from throughout the realm. There were articles of clothing from the practical to dresses in styles the Court had abandoned only a decade ago. There were single-shot rifles of a design at least a millennium old, to shoot supper; solar cookers to prepare it; and fine ceramic plates and stainless steel utensils with which to eat it. There were many kinds of tools, including sewing machines, and there were books made of real paper.
“Hmm,” Ari sniffed. “I smell tea, spices and…coffee!” Her eyes lit up.
Chang took the hint. “I’ll heat some water.”
I turned to the sergeant. “How are you and your men doing?”
His visor slid back so he could speak to me directly. “Since we have air filters and chillers, I suspect better than you.”
“I suspect you’re right.” I grinned and slapped some dust off my sleeve. “What about those Mk III’s?”
“The Mk IV’s we carry now are marginally superior, but that’s a moot point since the Rii don’t have armor.”
“What about your armor?”
“Less than fifty meters and things get dicey. Less than twenty and they’ll start cracking us like lobsters.”
“And here we sit in an urban environment.” I shook my head. “Hopefully, the shit won’t hit the fan.”
Windridge smiled grimly, “Remember the first rule of The Emperor’s Luck. ‘The shit always hits the fan.’” His visor snapped closed.
Chang threw a handful of coffee into a tall glass cylinder then filled it up with boiling water. Soon the shop was infused with the aroma.
“Ah!” Ari clapped her hands together. “That ought to cut the dust in our throats nicely!”
I pulled up a box and sat next to her. “I should have asked how you were doing first.”
“Nonsense, always see first to the needs of those who are protecting us.” She shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “I do need to stretch my tail and freshen up a bit though. There wouldn’t possibly be anything like a bath tub here would there?”
“’Fraid not,” said the merchant as he handed us each a steaming mug. “Water is one gram of silver per liter if you go over the five liter-per-person ration limit. There is a bowl and sponge on the table behind the curtain there.”
“That’ll do. Could you set them on the floor for me?” She handed me her mug while she, slid off the chair, pulled herself over to a wall and leaned against it. “I’ll finish my coffee first.” She took the mug back, flexed and fanned her fins and curled and uncurled her sinewy tail while sipping. “That feels delicious, and so is this coffee; my complements, Mr. Chang.”
“Thank you. It’s Terran. I sell only the best.”
“So,” she set the mug on the floor. “Will the Keeper see us today?”
“Yes, I was meaning to tell you. You have an audience in three hours.”
“Good, I think I’ll take that sponge bath now. Dri, would you mind carrying me over to the curtain? I can take care of it myself from there.”
Three hours later, we were waiting at the palace gate. The palace, I noticed, was made of marble, but was so encrusted with dust that, except in size, it was hardly distinguishable from the rest of the city. It rose higher than any other building and covered more area but the architecture was far from impressive. I couldn’t identify the style, but it was very old.
They kept us at the gates for only a few minutes before they opened. As expected, our escort was not allowed inside. We dismissed them back to the consulate. They also took my side arm and communicator. I had a smaller version of the latter hidden inside my ear. They didn’t find that.
The throne room was large, perhaps the size of an ordinary school gymnasium, but not exactly imposing. The walls were lined with about a dozen of the Keeper’s Guard. A red sash was the only thing that differentiated them from the regular guards or the general populace. They were, of course also armed with those Mk III weapons. At the end of the hall was a large dais with a marble seat in the middle, surrounded by about a dozen individuals wearing more colorful and richly apportioned versions of the native dress. There was only one female, great with child, who stood with one hand placed on the left arm of the man who sat on the throne.
He, evidently the Keeper of the Rii, was a tall, thin, elderly gentleman with a beard and long gray hair topped with a modest silver circlet. He stifled a yawn, but there was something in his manner and carriage that told me he was anything but bored or indolent. In his right hand, he held a long white staff with which he tapped the shoulder of one of the nobles who stood to his right. This individual leaned over the Keeper who whispered something in his ear. He nodded and straightened.
The guards who escorted us bade Ari and me to halt a few meters in front of the dais. Then, from somewhere to our rear, a baritone voice announced us.
“Lady Ariadne of Clan Spindrift, Representative of his Imperial Majesty Michael IV, Lord of Terra and by the grace of God, Emperor of the Known Universe, and her Consort, Lieutenant Rhodri Morgan of the Imperial Navy, beg audience of his Highness, the Keeper of the Rii.”
Consort? Whose idea was that?
“You bear fancy titles!” said the Keeper. A ripple of laughter followed.
The man who had just given his ear to his master stepped forward, turned and addressed those on the dais, “Is it meet for a woman to sit in the presence of a man? Especially when that man is the Keeper?” There was a growl of disapproval from the courtiers and the guard. Someone shouted, “She must stand!”
Such disrespect is outrageous! Can’t they see she’s Syrenkan! I stepped forward to speak.
Hush! It was Ariadne’s voice in my head. This is a calculated provocation. Don’t fall for it!
How do you think my people communicate under water, silly! Now give me your arm! I need it for balance.
I held it out for her. Ari took hold and slowly raised herself upon her tail. From the top of her head to the fringe of her fin she was near two meters and a half in length. Even with two feet of tail and fin splayed behind her, she was still nearly as tall as I am.
How long can you do this?
As long as I have to. She grimaced. Just pray God they don’t ask me to dance!
There was dead silence in the audience chamber. It was clear that they did not expect Lady Ariadne to stand. It may have been my imagination, but I thought I saw a slight smile and nod from the young, black-haired woman at the Keeper’s side.
Finally, the Keeper spoke. “What is the Emperor’s business with us?”
Ari smiled graciously and began. “It is ever His Majesty’s desire to inquire after the welfare of the people who dwell on his many worlds; to give aid or justice where it is needed, also to reward the faithful or,” she lowered the pitch of her voice for emphasis, “to punish the wicked.”
The old man shifted restlessly on his throne, “We are…grateful,” he bowed his head slightly. “It has been many years, since the time of my long-departed youth in fact, since we have seen aught from the Empire other than the annual tribute ships. Pray tell us why his Majesty’s eyes are now cast upon my humble world and its faultless inhabitants?”
“With ten thousand worlds under his care, it may be many years between visitations for a well-governed planet.”
The Keeper bowed again at the complement. “I grant you then the freedom of this world. You may go where you wish and question whom you will. I hope you and your imperial master who sent you find this visit both enlightening and reassuring.”
“I expected nothing less from such a gracious lord and host.” Ari smiled and, somehow, managed to curtsey. The silence that followed, however, gradually stretched into awkwardness.
Is that it? I thought.
Ari gave me the mental equivalent of a shrug.
Finally the Rii ruler tapped his servant on the shoulder again. The man, whom I presumed to be some sort of chamberlain, clapped his hands and said, “This audience is at an end.”
I guess that’s it, thought Ari. Now the feasting begins.
Are we invited?
Of course. That’s why I had you announced as my consort. I wanted you close by, not stuck with the servants.
From behind the dais, serving women entered and began bustling about; putting up tables and benches and setting those tables with plates, utensils and drinking bowls. There was a slight, but noticeable, decrease in tension. With the court’s attention shifted away from us, Ari sighed with relief and sat down. We were politely directed to a table where space had been provided for Ari’s chair. I sat across from her.
“This table is about as far away as one can get from the Royals,” Ari whispered while not altering the smile she was giving to those around us.
“Perhaps to keep them out of the line of fire when they open up on us?” I replied. By the way, how long have you been reading my mind?
She gave me a mischievous grin. Why? Have you been having wicked thoughts? Do you bear a guilty conscience perhaps?
You’re the one who’s been in my head. You tell me.
Touché, she laughed. “Wonder what this tastes like,” she said aloud as she picked up a bowl that had just been splashily filled.
I eyed the contents of my own bowl rather doubtfully.
“Well, Dri, I think you can carry me much more easily than I can carry you. I’ll be the guinea pig.” She took a sip. “Hmn…not too bad. Some kind of ale, I’m thinking.”
I took a sip. She was right but rather too generous in her judgment. I looked about and came to the conclusion that Rii feasting involved a lot more drinking than eating. The quality of the food placed on our plates left me in no doubt why.
Watch out for the gray stuff. It may look like hummus, but it’s not. I thought to her.
Thanks. The bread’s powder-dry, but if you dip it in the ale, you can swallow it.
I think I’ll just drink the ale and leave the bread to resole my boots. Ari laughed so hard she nearly choked. She was well into her second bowl. I was beginning to wonder if I would have to carry her later.
After a few minutes, my feasting was interrupted by a crackling noise in my ear. Cover for me, Ari. The communicator’s activating. She watched me, ready to make responses so it wouldn’t look like I was talking to myself.
“Mister Morgan.” It was Winslow.
“Bad news. We’re under attack.”
“Attack?” I said, trying not to show any outward reaction. I glanced at Ari, only her raised eyebrow betrayed any emotion.
“Four heavies and a carrier just popped out of warp. They also had a wing of fighters hidden behind the second planet. The fighters will be here in ten minutes. Where are you? Can we get you out of there?”
“I’m afraid not. We’re in the palace right now. The squad is at Chang’s. Can you get them out?”
At that moment, Ari’s eyes widened and she opened her mouth, but before she could say anything to warn me, the table rose up and met my face. Afterwards everything spun down into a gray mist.