"You've stayed up reading all night again, haven't you, Your Most Imperial Majesty? You shouldn't. You need rest."
"Actually, I got up early, Lord Visiad. Sometimes rest becomes difficult. It's pointless to stay in bed when... Well, either the cough becomes less when I read or I don't notice it as much."
"File: The splatter cultures?"
"I've studied the seventy-three cultures of my peoples and those of the other four imperiums; Cord, Falcairn, Halsade and Toscan. I was looking for something to take my mind off coughing and reading a bit about the oddities of some of them makes me smile. The writer was quite good. The book gives one a brief synopsis of how they came to be, then a few screens of what day to day existence is like in them for the poor, middle class and among the powerful. It's often done in anecdotes that give more feeling of the attitude of the people than a dissertation would."
"Splash! The Variety of Scattered Peoples. It doesn't sound particularly instructional."
"It's not really. It was written by a trader who just wanted to share her knowledge of those wide-spread worlds that were cut off when the center was destroyed."
"Yes. Women are not stupid, Lord Visiad. If they were, we would not be very intelligent either. Half our heritage does come from our mothers."
"I've never considered them stupid, Your Majesty. Foolish, flighty and difficult, but not stupid. Most of them know their place and keep to it."
"True. Sometimes I wish their 'place' brought them a bit closer to mine."
"When you are sixteen, suitable young women will be introduced to you and those you choose will be installed in your hareem and await your coming of age."
"Lord Visiad, we both know how unlikely it is I'll reach my sixteenth year, let alone my coming of age at eighteen."
"Don't say that, please. You may improve."
"That's extremely unlikely. My condition has steadily deteriorated over the last three years. I know I'm weakening."
"Your Majesty, the physicians have hope."
"The physicians say, 'Perhaps you'll outgrow the problem. The genetic disorder didn't manifest until you were twelve. Perhaps it will slowly disappear.' Lord Visiad, I'm not really growing. My body is not developing as it should. The line of Torrence has come to an end."
"Your Most Imperial Highness, we do not wish to consider this."
"All wishes don't come true. I'm glad in some ways. The empire is unraveling. It will not outlast me by long."
"The empire will stand forever!"
"Nothing stands forever. My family has held our seventy-three worlds for forty-seven generations. We have enforced peace between them and defended them against marauders and other, would-be, emperors. Many are no longer appreciative."
"A fleet of ships orbiting makes them appreciative quickly."
"It is not the Torrence way! We stand BETWEEN those who would come to war. We do not use our weapons against our own worlds, even as threat, unless they attack another."
"Quite true, but one sometimes does get fed up with cajoling and coddling some of the outer worlds."
"These are the outer worlds, Lord Visiad. The third great diaspora flung human life onto far distant worlds in search of a thousand different utopias. Your world, your rules. All you have to be is capable of self-sufficiency when war rages across the center of human space and sixty trillion lives and nine worlds disappear in the first two minutes of it. Survive and build or die. No one's looking your way and no one's going to help. On Sadarad, a king arose. He wasn't really pleased they made him king. Toskina attacked. Mouret attacked. Falain attacked. The king's people were fed up. He led his people forth and ENFORCED peace around Sadarad. Several worlds asked to be included under his banner, then more sought the peace he brought to those worlds. Then still more sought his banner and protection."
"Thus was the empire born!"
"Yes, Lord Visiad, that was how it came to be. It was born of the desire of worlds for peace. Peace came to all, but there was one thing about the culture of Sadarad that was quite odd. It was a monotheistic patriarchy. Of course, it didn't insist anyone else be. However, in the last, not quite, millennia it spread. Not the religion, but the intensely patriarchal culture. I'm an outsider now, Lord Visiad. I won't be here much longer. It is intended the House of Torrence end. The dynasty is dead. I'll sire no sons to carry it on. My fathers, for three generations, have died young, each younger than the last. Fate has spoken clearly. Emperors have destinies, Lord Visiad. I'm intended to be the last Torrence emperor. When I'm gone, the empire can reorder itself and the varied cultures begin to develop again. We did a good job for those people, but they don't want what we do anymore. Most of them want their capital on their world. There are a great many who just want to get rid of the Imperial Stellar. Money exchange is a very profitable business and they want to play in a money market so much. For nine hundred forty-seven years there's been peace around here. Old feuds will flare up, but they'll be isolated economically. Cultures will change or die. If there's another true war, it will begin here. From here, death could spread to cover the face of seventy-three worlds. It won't happen that way. The officers of the fleet swear themselves to honor before duty and are VERY adamant about it. Our young Lords are sword-bearing, swashbuckling, glamorous young men protecting the people of the worlds to whom we have pledged it. I fully trust their idealism. I taught it to them. It's what they wanted. Dying, brilliant, boy emperor and the last of a dynasty, and he's an idealist with a VERY good grip on reality. I played with those boys. We were ALL heroes in my games. I've finished my job. I can go peacefully."
"What job, Your Majesty?"
"I've put in place an independent space force oathed to nothing BUT honor. Gave them a couple nice continents as bases. They should be a viable independent culture in ten years. I've moved their families already."
"You lose. I win. You gave me the one thing I needed to complete the task, Visiad, my murder and the end of the Torrence dynasty. Death hovers over me and has my whole life. This is my last day, Visiad. I know it. Go away. Let me at least enjoy this one."
The boy emperor smiled when the man who represented all he had defeated left. The empire was crumbling and he had stopped it from being held together by force. He'd known what was coming since his father and mother had died when he was four. His father had left him behind because he'd misbehaved. He'd been intended to die in the flyer crash too. He knew why his father had been killed. He'd begun to learn and teach. Only the young Lords understood he was teaching. He liked to make vids.
They indulged the "poor sickly" boy. He directed every romantic, idealistic, great play he could find. He drafted boys from the fleet academy prep schools to be in them. At their first meeting he told them he wasn't intended to live long enough to be crowned because someone planned on using them to conquer people. They agreed. The regency was building a war fleet. Forty, twelve to fourteen year old, Lords had gone to work with their seven year old emperor to prevent the conquest of worlds the fleet was sworn to protect. The goal of each and every young Lord and each play was to deepen the concept of honor in every boy headed for the academy and the fleet. Now they were the young officers of the fleet and they had a written set of commands from their emperor. In three days, they would begin implementing them. He began implementing his plan for himself.
"Yes, Your Imperial Majesty?"
"Bring me an araki fruit."
"There are some fresh, lovely, tatori melon slices prepared for you, Your Majesty."
"An araki fruit, Thaina, please."
He watched a person who'd been helping him stay alive head for the kitchen. She'd bring the fruit and try to find a time to dispose of the melon. It was not something he and his nanny had discussed. Here and there, all over the palace, some helped hide the fact he ate nothing prepared in the kitchen if he could avoid it. His habit of just sitting down somewhere at a banquet table and putting one of his counselors at the head of it had reduced the danger of that he couldn't avoid.
When Thaina returned, he told her to go have breakfast. He said he was thinking of a nap. As soon as she left the room, he got to work. He had about twenty minutes to become someone else. He began by tinting and curling his hair and depilating his face. He sighed as he wiped away the beard and mustache that had really just begun to BE a beard and mustache. He looked at the result in the mirror and was VERY surprised. He'd expected to look different. He hadn't expected to like it. He was suddenly rather pleased the tint he'd found in a guest bath was "scintillating copper." The bright auburn looked natural with the light base he'd chosen for his skin tone and made his hazel eyes look much greener. He went to work with his paints.
He carefully made himself up as a demure young Lady. The makeup job was a subtle masterpiece. It had to be. Families spent small fortunes for personal dressers known for their skills. Daughters were cherished. The more one had, the more houses to which one could affiliate and seal the bargain with a daughter for the hareem. A lovely daughter could get a man in many doors and, depending on who wanted her, help his career.
He put on the halter that changed his shape a bit, then the uniform of a Lady in waiting. As he tied on the dustcap, he smiled. The regent's First Wife was a "nasty tempered old witch." Ladies In Waiting changed with great regularity. A new group had arrived the day before. It wouldn't surprise the guards in the palace or at the gate to see a pretty girl, in tears and carrying a traveling case, hurry out of the palace. The pretty ones never lasted more than a day or two.
He carefully stored his makeup kit in his case, slipped out of the library and began working his way across the palace. It took him two hours of hiding, then hurrying, to get from his apartments to the area where a new Lady In Waiting belonged.
He took a deep breath, allowed the pain of leaving his people and the end of the empire to wash through him and tears began to flow. He was watched, but not spoken to, by the guards as he walked through the palace to the gate. He softened his voice and spoke carefully in his tenor range.
"Please order me a vehicle to the spaceport."
"Yes, Lady. Turb, take the Lady."
"This way, Lady."
He watched out the window as the car passed through the capital city. It wasn't his home. He'd never been allowed to explore it. He sighed deeply when the car entered the transportation port gates. His driver noticed.
"Pretty rough on you?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Lady Kiskandic-Visiad has a personal view of what Ladies In Waiting should be like and how long they should stay. There are always a few who don't fit that view. You're far from the first to leave before she even learned her way around the palace."
"I worked to get here."
"That's why it hurts so much. You never got a chance."
"I rather wanted to meet..."
"Nobody, well, no woman, meets the emperor. He's not well and I guess they just don't think it would be good for him. We just hope he has time to sire a son."
"It's almost unthinkable, isn't it?"
"It is. I can't even imagine the empire without a Torrence as emperor."
"I wonder if anyone can."
"Oh, the empire will go on."
"Will it? When the last Torrence is gone? All worlds and all military services are sworn to the emperor, not the empire. The oaths are to the House of Torrence. After this one, if he sires no children, will the seventy-three worlds and the fleet renew those oaths? Thank you for the ride and the comfort you tried to give."
"You're welcome. Don't worry your pretty head about the empire, Lady. It's been around near a thousand years. It's not just going to end."
"A very long time for an empire. That, more than anything else, speaks of the benevolence and wisdom of the House of Torrence. In forty-seven generations, no Torrence emperor has abused his power. It's a record which will probably stand forever. It's a fine legacy."
"Well, I'll still say my prayers for our young emperor's health and keep hoping. He's lived longer than they expected."
"I'm quite sure the prayers of those who wish him strength have aided."
"Do you need help to find your ship?"
"No. Thank you again. Return to your duties, Turb. The gates are clearly marked and I have enough for my ticket. Perhaps my father expected this. I'm well prepared."
"He may have. Safe journey."
The last Torrence made his way across the port, from where ships waited to carry people to other parts of Sadarad, to where shuttles waited to carry people to ships that would carry them to other worlds. He joined the short line for a shuttle that would take people to a ship that would carry them out of the empire. He presented letters of permission to the ticket clerk and purchased his ticket. "She" was being "allowed" to visit a cousin at the embassy on Mirit.
"Mirit is a long voyage. It's out of the empire."
"Suitable companions for a young Lady are not plentiful there. I'm not expecting to return for quite some time. Young cousins far from home need guidance. My rank is acceptable. Companion is a very good position. My father said so."
"You're homesick already."
"It won't stop me from doing my duty."
"Safe journey, Lady."
"Thank you. May I board the shuttle now?"
"You'd better. You've only one hour until departure. This is probably the last."
"Thank you. I didn't realize how close it was. I shouldn't have spent so much time getting ready."
The clerk watched the girl square her shoulders and walk toward the boarding ramp. Her father was a sly one. Duke Simoniad, the ambassador, had five sons and four daughters. Her father didn't have enough rank for his beautiful daughter to interest the marriage arrangers, so he was putting her underfoot in a household with young men whose father would be delighted to have ANY girl of rank interest the two eldest in beginning a hareem.
The young emperor began working as soon as he boarded the ship. He had fifty-two days to change himself beyond recognition. It wouldn't be unusual for a young Lady to remain in her stateroom the entire voyage. Young Ladies did not mingle. He began by ordering a large meal and initiating the carefully constructed exercise program that would add a great deal of muscle to his deliberately under-developed frame.
In the fifty-two days, he made one trip out of his stateroom. He smiled when he returned and pulled off his brown wig. He'd decided he liked his hair red and himself beardless. He carefully applied the chemical compound that would change the color of his hair permanently to his entire body. By the time he'd lightened his skin too, he had blisters in some very tender areas, but looked very different. He really wasn't sorry he'd only waited two days between instead of five, except when he moved. He decided permanent depilation of his face could wait awhile. He'd do it just before landing.
Five days later, he wiped his beard and mustache away forever, changed into the outfit he'd carefully copied from a book on cultural dress as being typical of Mirit, shortened his hair and caught the shuttle down. He didn't leave the spaceport. He bought a ticket for Condor. He'd get off before it was reached. He was going to Damia. It was the one world on which no one would really search for him. Who would look for the emperor of a patriarchy on a world where men were far outnumbered and women ran everything? He spent another thirty-eight days working his body.
On the thirty-ninth day, he once again got out his makeup kit. He subtlely shadowed his eyes, shaded the color of his lips and added a bit to make his lashes more noticeable, then put on the costume he'd so carefully constructed. He pierced his right earlobe and hung a gold hoop in it. That didn't take long. He spent three hours learning to sit in the short kilt without exposing himself.
He took a deep breath and hurried to catch the shuttle down to Damia. He was quite sure no one would recognize the skinny young Torrence emperor in the muscular Damian toyboy. He rather wished it hadn't been the only role he was sure no one would realize he could play. It began before he left the spaceport.
"Well, hello, pretty."
"I'm sorry, but I must report to the lady that I've arrived."
"Too bad. Coral Gate?"
"I beg your pardon."
"Your house. Coral Gate? You look like one of Vena's."
"I'll tell her you thought so. It should please her."
"What's your name?"
"Torrence. My mother had an interesting sense of humor. I go by Tory."
"I like the way your kilt drapes, Tory. I may look you up."
He murmured, "Very, very, much." as he walked away. The woman had given him the one thing he'd needed, the name of a house and its mistress' name. She'd been expensively dressed and hadn't offered a price. That meant she recognized him as being expensive. He hoped. He exchanged his cash, bought and put on a slender ankle bracelet and gold necklace and caught a taxi to the Coral Gate. The driver didn't seem surprised at all. When he arrived, he was shown to Vena's office.
"Very nice and I've never seen you before."
"I'm not from here. I'm a virgin in all ways, but I've studied."
"This is the only place I can stay alive. I've known it a long time. Male prostitutes aren't really looked down upon on this world. Toyboy is actually a respected occupation. Men can't participate in the government, but you don't keep anyone from leaving if they don't like it. Since I'm worth keeping alive, don't you think you should begin helping me convert knowledge into practice?"
"The dye perm?"
"So's the depilation. I've been touched by no woman since I was four. I haven't had a hug since then. I've masturbated at least daily since I was eleven of my years. That's when I realized this is the only place I can stay alive. You'll know I'm telling truth when they search for me. I place my life and the future I built for my peoples in your hands. My name is Torrence, called Tory. I tell people my mother had a strange sense of humor. She told me so the day before she and my father died in a flyer crash. I misbehaved and wasn't allowed to go with them. Several people were disappointed. My father and I had worked out my misbehavior ahead of time. You're beautiful and I've just given you my life. If I leave this house, you will still hold it. No one is more discreet than she who runs a brothel, even on this world. Teach me to give myself to a woman. I want to live. For that, I need a past. This is the one that will allow me to keep my name."
"You sure you WANT to keep it?"
"Oh, yes. You see, I won. I not only beat them, I'm going to live through it. The empire won't, but the peoples will. I took them with me. I set them free too. You'll begin to hear of it soon. I instilled an absolute set of ideals in a generation. No one is going to use MY fleet to attack MY people. Ever. I won. They lost. I told them so the day I disappeared. By now, they've begun to realize how many have been obeying my commands for years. It's quite a shock, I'm sure. They were sure the poison had made me too weak, and they had me too isolated, to command. I began dodging poison at age five. At twelve, they changed it for one that acted more quickly. I seemed to have an unusual immunity. I had help. A great many of my people brought me fruit and snacks and mentioned it to no other. You're the first person I've ever spoken to about this. You'll be the last as well. Teach me to make love. I always will."
"The empire treats women like..."
"Yes, but I changed that too. It'll just take about sixty years to become complete. By then, women will have a right to education and be allowed to vote on every world now in the empire, including Sadarad. True equality on all worlds will take longer, but there will be women in government before then. Some worlds will leap to equality very quickly. On others, it will be a far too slow process."
"We don't have equality."
"You don't use your sons as political bribes either. Any man who wishes may leave. Your world was founded as an Amazonian utopia. Men who come here, or stay here, know that. You don't want many men here, or not a large percentage of the total. Your sons visit, though not very many stay. The fact they visit says this world is not horrible for men. My information about Damia came from a book written by a woman trader and a costume catalog I've been receiving yearly since I began directing plays at age seven. I made it myself. Do you like it?"
"It's good. Got to say you're the most unique applicant for a job who's ever walked in here."
"You're beautiful in that white jumpsuit, Vena. I keep wanting to touch your breasts beneath it. All women are beautiful to me. Set my price high. Be selective for me. I'd like ten steady clients, but if someone walks in who you think I'd find interesting, I'll certainly consider them. Touch me, Vena. No hand not wearing a sterile glove has touched me since my parents died."
"I don't play with my boys. It's a rule I don't break, even for you. This isn't the right house for you, but you picked the right woman to talk to. Let's finish covering your tracks. I'm going to send you to another. Communication. Tolly Forte, the Gilded Moon."
Copyright © 1999 Sharon L 'Spinner' Reddy
All Rights Reserved