The White Palace.
Figaro ate breakfast quickly. His plan was to keep his mouth full at all times. If his mouth was full, he wouldn’t be expected to say anything. It was a slightly desperate attempt to not take sides.
His father, Ramon Ollo, sat at the head of the table, eating a bowl of plain porridge, as he did every morning.
His mother, Nigella Matton-Ollo, toying with a fruit salad, sat at the other end of the table with a bodyguard standing on either side of her chair, weapons drawn. Their guns could blow a hole through solid steel, although the two women were both heavily augmented with organics and could probably punch a hole through steel just as easily. The rest of his mother’s honour guard were stationed around the dining room, covering each exit and window, intently watching Figaro eat.
Steamed fish, warm pastries, boiled eggs and fresh fruit juice all went into Figaro’s mouth without pause. Sliced cold meats, cheeses of various kinds, thin chewy sausages with hot liquid centres followed. He had always had a big appetite, his sudden growth spurt at twelve leading to an insatiable need for energy. The training and the intense physical exercise regime he was subjected to from then on also probably contributed.
“It’s nice to see you still have a healthy appetite,” said his mother.
“Mmm,” said Figaro.
“Did you think he would starve to death without you here?” said his father.
“Why are you being so tetchy, Ramon? Did you miss me so much?”
“A wife about to give birth should be at home, with her family.”
“I am home, aren’t I? But you know how delicate this matter is. The Corps can provide me with the best chance of birthing our child safely.”
“Our child,” said his father with some venom. “Is it our child. Not a ward of the Seneca Corps? Although, I believe there have been one or two cases where women have managed to give birth without a full battalion of mercenary killers on stand-by. I wonder how they managed it?”
The two guards standing like statues on either side of his mother didn’t react to the jibe. Figaro had no doubt they would make a note of it, though, and report back to their superiors. The Seneca Corps suspected all men of having dubious intentions towards their members, even those who were close family relatives.
His mother had once been a decorated soldier in the corps, a mercenary killer. She didn’t look like a trained grunt in her lavish red and black outfit and sparkling jewellery, but like all women with high CQs, she had been claimed by the Corps at a young age and taught how to defend herself. The sharp tongue she had developed on her own time.
“Oh, Ramon, please, not now. Figaro is about to leave home for the first time. He will be all alone out there, surrounded by ne'er do wells and miscreants, the worst the galaxy has to offer. Can’t we spend this time reminding him how upset we’ll be if he lets anything happen to himself? Isn’t that what parents do?” She was teasing him, something he hated, but it meant she was going to stay and make it up to him after Figaro had gone.
Figaro understood the intimate nature of his parents’ sparring better than anyone. They never let each other forget how fragile their situation was, or how important their only child was to their plans. They also knew they had to prepare him for the time when he would rule Enaya, which meant he couldn’t be allowed to sit in a locked room, safe from the dangers of the galaxy.
“If he can’t survive a few encounters with a thug or two,” said his father, “he isn’t fit to lead the Senate. Nothing he faces out there will be as brutal or vicious as the General Assembly.”
Figaro continued eating. His food had been specially prepared with a range of supplements and enhancers that aided his growth and development. This would be the last time for a while his food would be fortified like this. From now on, it would be plain and simple. He would be just another trainee.
“Couldn’t we have sent him to a more prestigious facility, at least,” said his Mother. “Why send him so far away? The Fourth Quadrant is such a grubby place.”
“It’s the ideal place. No one will know him, no one will give him special treatment. He will have to survive on his wits.”
“He is our only child.”
“He won’t be if your crack troop of babysitters do their job correctly.”
The seemingly thorny back and forth was meaningless banter. All decisions concerning his future had already been made, agreed between the two of them. They liked to play out their favoured roles — barely tolerant husband and spoiled, complaining wife — as a way to vent their anxieties, or at least that was the conclusion Figaro had come to. The facts of the matter was that they intended for Figaro to be forged into manhood in the most intense crucible available, not the soft and cosy training halls of home.
He was the product of two incredibly high CQs, and his own was higher than either of them. Great things were expected of him. Great things required pushing oneself to one’s limits.
Figaro stood up. “I’ve finished eating,” he declared.
“Are you in a hurry to go?” asked his mother.
“I want to get in a quick training session with Ganesh before I leave. If I don’t exercise after I eat, I’ll feel sluggish for the rest of the day.” It wouldn’t quite be as bad as that, but he did want to see his combat trainer one last time. And his parents would be able to ease off the sniping if he wasn’t around. He often thought they did it for his benefit. A happy, content home life was known to produce dull and lazy offspring.
He left the room and headed for the training hall. He let himself in, quietly closing the door behind him, and enjoyed the lack of examination.
“Don’t just stand there. Here.”
A stick came flying towards him like a spear. He caught it just before it took his head off.
Across the big bright room, light pouring in through the tall windows that could stand a direct hit from a missile, stood a short man with no hair and a large beard. He was already carrying an identical stick. “Shall we dance?” he asked, and bared his large white teeth in a smile that offered only pain.
They sparred for half an hour, keeping a steady pace of hits and blocks, neither speaking, at least not verbally. Ganesh looked like a grizzled old man but he moved like a tiger; a hungry one.
Gradually, the old man’s smile softened and he nodded in appreciation. The boy was matching him hit for hit, block for block. He was predicting Ganesh’s moves based on the shape of his body and shift in weight.
Figaro was unlikely to meet many stick fighters out there in the far reaches of the Fourth Quadrant, but being able to tell which way someone was about to move would be of help in any situation.
“Very impressive,” said a booming voice from behind Figaro.
He stopped fighting and was instantly rapped on the knuckles. “Ow.”
“Don’t be distracted,” said Ganesh.
“Ah! Doesn’t matter who it is. Protect yourself first, greet new arrivals second.” He lowered his stick. “How can we help you, Captain?”
The person who had spoken was Figaro’s mother’s head of security, Captain Ruby Tek. She had a soldier with her, one of the guards that accompanied his mother when she left her temporary home on the Seneca homeworld. A world no one knew the name of or its location.
Tek was a veteran soldier, a full organic, and a very scary woman. She had always made Figaro feel like he was a horrible burden to his mother and likely to get her killed.
“I’d like to speak to the boy, if you don’t mind.”
“He’s hardly a boy,” said Ganesh, not one to tolerate nonsense from anyone, not even the mighty Seneca Corps. “Perhaps you could address him by his name once in a while, to show you remember it?”
Captain Tek smiled for a microsecond and managed to make it look like she’d just made a rude gesture.
“He knows I have nothing but respect for him,” she said.
Figaro certainly did not know that, but it wasn’t worth quibbling over. “What can I do for you, Captain?” he said, still smarting from the hit on his hand. He took out a tube of numbing gel and applied it across his knuckles.
“Very good. I’d like you to wear this from now on.” She held out a bracelet. “It will tell us where you are at all times, just in case.” She didn’t elaborate on what she meant.
“No,” said Figaro.
“It would put your mother’s mind at ease if she knew you were safe. There’s no point causing her any undue stress in her condition, is there?” She was still holding out the bracelet.
“That isn’t the arrangement, and she would tell me herself if she changed her mind.”
“Quite right. But it’s what’s best for her, in her condition.”
“Says who?” said Figaro. “Your superiors in the Corps? I don’t answer to them, and I don’t follow their orders. Put away your collar and leash, Captain.”
Captain Tek lowered the bracelet but didn’t put it away. “It’s for your safety, too. Things aren’t as safe and organised out there as they are in a training hall. No rules and no safety protocols. No breaks to apply gel to your wounds, either. You might find it isn’t what you expect.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Can you?” said Captain Tek, very clearly indicating she thought otherwise.
“Yes. If I can beat your soldier there in unarmed combat, would that convince you?”
Captain Tek scoffed. The soldier in question raised an amused eyebrow.
“Private Speers, what do you say?”
“Certainly,” said the young woman. She was only a touch shorter than Figaro, with a slim, boyish figure and close-cropped hair. She looked like she could handle herself. “I’ll try not to ruffle your lovely silver locks.”
Figaro moved past her before she had finished her sentence. He caught the lapel of her jacket and turned in a three hundred and sixty degree circle, swinging her off her feet. The momentum prevented her being able to stop him as he released her, and the speed and surprise of the unorthodox attack made her forget to grab onto him. She flew into the air and smashed into the wall.
Figaro held out the tube of numbing gel towards the captain. “Here, she might need this.”