Third Quadrant. Planet Enaya. Classification M (moderate).
The White Palace.
Enaya was the third and last planet from the star Solaris II. Its prominence in the Third Quadrant was down to its stunning scenery, its stable civilisation — one of the oldest in the quadrant — but mostly because of the wormhole that stretched out for several million kilometres, filling most of Enaya’s sky.
Anyone could enter the wormhole, if they had a suitable ship, but they could only control where they would come out by using the controls on the asteroid that floated just outside of the wormhole’s gravitational pull.
When people referred to it, they called it Tethari, but that wasn’t the asteroid’s name. The asteroid had no name, it was just the asteroid, a stationary lump of rock that should have drifted off through space, but for some reason didn’t. Tethari was the name of the city, left behind by the Antecessors, or the best approximation of the word over the city gates, written in an alien language no one truly understood.
The controls to the wormhole were on the first level of the city. They had taken decades to decipher, and mainly by trial and error. Travel to anywhere in the galaxy was possible. Anywhere in the universe was also possible, but no one had managed it. Or, at least, no one had come back to confirm it.
The asteroid was owned by the rulers of Enaya, which currently meant the Ollo Dynasty. They controlled the asteroid, which meant they controlled the wormhole. They were also responsible for guarding the city of Tethari. Many people had tried to take it for their own, but not so they could take command of the wormhole — anyone who paid a small fee was allowed to go where they wanted — but because of what lay beneath the city.
Tethari was built deep into the asteroid. Seven layers deep at least. Human technology couldn’t penetrate any further, but the size of the asteroid meant there could be dozens more levels beyond the seven.
The second level had taken seventy-eight standard years to clear. The Antecessors had left behind defence systems so lethal and so alien, it had cost thousands of lives to overcome them. But there had been no shortage of volunteers. The rewards were considered worth the risk.
No one had ever managed to enter the third level.
Hard, white sunlight fell through the window of Figaro Carmen Ollo’s bedroom, offering little warmth as it fell on his face. The curtains had been drawn and the window pane raised. He could hear the groundsmen at work outside, and smell the freshly cut grass.
Figaro lay in his soft, warm bed with his eyes closed. Today would be the last time he lay here. The sounds, the smells, this was the last time he would wake to their accompaniment. Life here would go on without him, nothing would change with his absence, but this room would be empty.
He felt a movement on the other side of the bed. He opened his eyes and turned his head.
“Can I get you anything, Master?”
Ellie, one of the chambermaids, was lying on her side, on top of the bed sheets, her head propped up on one arm.
“Not right now,” said Figaro, not quite fully awake and unable to understand why there was a girl staring at him from the next pillow.
“You really do have lovely hair,” she said. “So… silvery.” Her hand reached out to touch him.
Figaro leaned away. “Um, thank you.” Figaro wasn’t a big fan of his hair. He didn’t think of it as silver, he saw it as white, like an old man’s. It was from his mother’s side of the family, the same in colour as hers. It looked elegant and pretty on her. “Why are you in my bed?”
“I am not in your bed, Master. I am on your bed, ready to serve.” She was a small, dainty girl who had been working for his family for several years. He wasn’t sure how old she was, but probably around the same age as him. He hadn’t really spoken to her much, as far as he could recall. She did her job competently enough. Usually.
“Why are you on my bed? Don’t you usually wait until I wake up before you change my sheets?”
“Yes. But today is your last day here, and I wanted to speak to you, Master, honestly and earnestly.”
He didn’t like where this was heading, but he didn’t want to hurt the girl’s feelings by kicking her out. “Since when did you start calling me ‘master’?”
“I have always called you master, Master. Perhaps you weren’t paying attention?”
“Hmm. Maybe. You don’t have to call me that. You’re an employee here, not a servant.”
“But I like calling you master. Don’t you like it?”
“No, not really.” Figaro sat up. He was wearing pyjamas but he still felt a little exposed next to this odd girl. She had never been this familiar with him before.
It occurred to him she might be an assassin. He had been warned to be wary of strange women who were suddenly friendly towards him. His status meant he was a prime target for kidnapping, but it would take a larger effort with more people to sneak him off the grounds. A simple murder would be a lot easier to accomplish, although there was little to be gained from his death. Revenge? His father had enemies, but none that would be so brazen as to attack him in his own home.
“You aren’t angry, are you?” said the maid, also sitting up.
“Angry about what?” said Figaro.
“That I’m seducing you.”
“Oh,” said Figaro. “Is that what you’re doing?” He really hadn’t realised that was her plan, but saying it out loud made it sound like he was mocking her, which wasn’t his intention.
She pouted and seemed like she might say something abrasive to him, but her shoulders sagged before she could spit it out. “You don’t think I’m attractive?”
“You’re very pretty,” said Figaro, feeling uncomfortable with this whole situation. “I’m flattered that you would make me your seduction target. Thank you.” It probably would have been better to be more blunt, but her eyes were so big and full of hope, he didn’t have it in him. He was disappointed in himself. What kind of future ruler would he make if he couldn’t even deal firmly with a chambermaid?
“Good, then let me speak plainly, Master. I realise a man in your position will take a wife of suitable rank and status.” She was speaking like she had rehearsed this speech many times. “A fine woman who will bear you many heirs.”
“Um, yes. Well, I suppose so.”
“But a man in your position,” continued Ellie, “will also probably have many mistresses and concubines.”
“Will he?” said Figaro. His father didn’t have any, as far as he knew.
“Of course,” said Ellie. “It’s perfectly normal. So I wanted to put in my application now.”
“Application?” Figaro wasn’t averse to being intimate with a young woman, even one well below his social standing, but it usually happened more naturally. No one had offered to put in a formal request before. “For mistress?”
“Yes, for mistress or concubine.”
“I see. Um, the thing is, my ancestors, they did some pretty terrible things when they first settled this planet. Slavery, oppression, tyranny, you know, the stuff we don’t like to talk about.”
“But that’s all over now,” said Ellie. “No one blames you for that.”
“No, no. And thank you. But it wouldn’t really look very good if I was to take advantage of someone like you to satisfy my, um, carnal urges.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” said Ellie, eagerly leaning forward, her eyes even bigger and more hopeful. “We don’t have to tell anyone. I can keep a secret.”
“Good, I’m glad to hear it. But I think it would be best if you found a decent young man to settle down with and raise a family that you didn’t have to keep secret.”
“But I don’t want a decent man, I want you. Oh, I didn’t mean it like… Oh, what have I said.” She suddenly looked very distressed and red in the face.
“It’s fine, really. Look, just put it in writing and I’ll keep your application on file, okay? And if I do ever decide on taking a mistress or a… a concubine, I’ll be in touch, alright? Do you think you could run me a bath?”
He usually took a shower but it seemed the easiest way out of this situation.
“Yes, Master,” she said with a delighted look. Had he just made an agreement he would regret? She scampered into the bathroom, followed by the sound of running water.
Figaro rose and went over to the balcony, wearing only his pyjama bottoms, which he was glad he had remembered to put on, and a silver bracelet on his wrist. He opened the double doors and the sharp sunlight prickled his brown skin, which he got from his father’s side of the family. The wormhole, a black swirl in the pale blue sky, looked down on him, but his eyes were on the large white cruiser hanging silently over the palace. A shuttle was landing on the main pad, its engines making no sound, but dust and debris flying up around it.
He watched as it touched down, then sank onto its belly. A door folded open, turning into a gangplank. The Seneca guards disembarked first, every one of them an organic, every one a trained killer, every one of them female. They formed a gauntlet for his mother, heavily pregnant. She descended slowly, flanked by her two personal bodyguards.
Mother had come to see him off. Which meant Father would be in a bad mood. He hoped they wouldn’t combine to give him indigestion at the breakfast table.
“The bath is ready, Master,” said the maid. “Would you like me to help you wash? I’m very good at washing, and polishing. I think you won’t be disappointed.”
She was making a strange shape with her mouth. He hadn’t seen it on a woman before, but it appeared she was leering at him.
“No, that’s fine. Just put it down in your application. Under skills and attributes.”
He shuffled sideways past her into the bathroom. She followed him in. He gently pushed her out and closed the door. And then locked it.