The idea of turning into the emperor came to Luca as soon as he realized what level two metamorphosis gave him. He didn’t know what he’d do with Ma Ju Ro’s original body yet, or how to explain to Lentz how his own had disappeared. All he knew was that he had to escape by any means.
But after the idea came the decision. Luca realized that if he did have to explain anything to anyone, it wouldn’t be to him. Rulers didn’t have to explain themselves to anyone, right? But in that form, he could surely help his mother!
It was decided!
All he had to do was think it. There were no buttons, interface icons, nothing but the will of the carrier.
Copying requires physical contact with the subject.
Luca slid off his lounger and sat on the neighboring one. The former emperor’s fat body left him almost no room, and the boy had to push his cold arm off the couch. That was when his level two metamorphosis got the physical contact it needed.
Species match: 100%.
Subject satisfies copying requirements.
Luca nodded unwillingly and got a range of warnings.
The body of carrier Luca Dezisimu will be transformed into the subject Emperor Ma Ju Ro the Fourth.
Estimated copying time: 6 hours.
As soon as Luca thought again about how he might hide Ma Ju Ro’s real body, and how Lentz would take the slave’s disappearance, metamorphosis suggested a solution.
Do you wish for the subject Emperor Ma Ju Ro the Fourth to transform into Luca Dezisimu?
Do you wish to record the genetic code of the body of Luca Dezisimu?
Do you wish to overwrite the carrier’s memory?
Attention! The carrier’s memory will be partially lost!
“Yes! Yes! No!” Luca nearly shouted, panicking out of fear that the ability might not understand him correctly.
But it worked. The ability performed his mental commands as he wanted: it left him his own memory, the essence of his self, and entered the information on his own body into the archive.
Copying process started.
The percentage points rose, and Luca started itching like he never had before. His entire body itched, and then tiny probes finer than a human hair started emerging from his every pore. Thousands of them kept growing and growing until they reached the emperor’s body and melted into it.
The very sight of it made the boy feel sick, and the skin on his shaven scalp tightened, non-existent hairs raising on the back of his neck. Luca fell to the floor, curled up and prayed for only one thing: that all this would end quickly. He didn’t just feel himself changing. He saw it. The ability grew his bones, his muscle fibers, his tendons and ligaments, actively generated fat cells, forming the same strategic supplies that Ma Ju Ro the Fourth had.
The changes didn’t come in stages, but all at once all over his body: his hair grew, and everywhere, since Ma Ju Ro was very hairy. His vision turned poor, his teeth rotted, his liver cells withered and the walls of his veins thinned...
At the same time, the ability caught its carrier’s wishes — Luca was going insane from the itching — and reduced his sensitivity. The itching stopped. The boy stopped feeling anything at all.
Metamorphosis created a perfect copy, two at the same time. Esk would have told him it would have been easier to swap minds, but Esk didn’t exist anymore, and Luca’s thoughts were too chaotic and entangled. What next? Why was he transforming into the Emperor if his first conversation would give him away as an imposter? How were mom and Kora doing? What should he do with the Tsoui points he’d earned? Spin the Wheel, or save them? Why was his heel itching?
His heel itched with incredible ferocity, and his ability was too busy with the copying to fix it. Luca tried to reach down, but his body refused to obey...
By the time it all ended, the boy’s mind had switched off entirely, and the first rays of sunlight shined through the shuttered window.
Copying process completed.
Finished with the operation, metamorphosis went to sleep, having exhausted all its reserves. The transformation had devoured everything. It hadn’t touched the emperor’s fat supplies, since that contradicted the command to make a perfect copy.
But Luca woke up. He intuitively felt that Lentz would appear at any moment. It would be a shame to screw up at the first stage of the plan he came up with in a moment of doubt before starting the transformation.
Through sheer strength of will alone, twisting from the ache in hisw stomach, almost falling over from hunger with this new, heavy and clumsy body, he carefully lifted up the puny and small body that he recognized as his own and placed it on the sofa he had been lying on. It was important not to break the tethers, which turned out to be difficult, but possible.
Then he lied down himself, on the seat the emperor had been on. Something stung in his chest, and he instinctively activated his ability to find out what it was.
Attention! Detected increased blood clotting in heart vessels and chambers!
Attention! Harmful microorganisms!
Blood clot detected!
Blood clot detected!
Blood clot detected..!
A column covered his entire vision, screaming about the avalanche of ever new blood clots. Luca realized that he was dying, and as he was dying, he wanted more than anything to live. His desire matched the action his metamorphosis had already begun, having decided that the carrier’s health was more important than the copy’s accuracy.
His fat supplies provided enough energy to neutralize all the harmful microorganisms, break up all the blood clots, and then the metamorphosis seemed to take a liking to the job and started fixing his organs.
Luca was lying down with his eyes closed when he heard someone enter the room. There were two of them. He recognized one by his voice.
“Good morning, my ruler!” Lentz said with exaggerated enthusiasm and volume.
“Good morning, Your Imperial Highness!” the second added in oily tones.
The boy in the Emperor’s body wanted to respond to the greeting, but something told him that he shouldn’t react for now. Moreover, it was best not to reveal that he could hear them at all.
“Did it work, Lentz?” the second one asked in a whisper.
“It surely must work, Naut! The injection I gave him before the procedure had a delayed effect for half a day. If I’m right, his heart has already stopped!”
“I hope you knew what you were doing!” Naut whispered hotly, the first imperial advisor, as Luca had managed to determine previously. Rezsinius will nail us to the wall if we let him down!”
“Stop worrying!” With those words, the chief imperial medic walked to Luca and touched his neck, feeling for his pulse. “Two-horns!” He’s still breathing!”
“Did he hear us?” Naut asked in horror.
“I doubt it. But even if he did, what does it matter? His blood is thickening with clots as we speak. They’ll kill him soon enough.”
Luca heard the physician’s clothes rustle as if he was shrugging his shoulders.
“What do we do now? Wait for him to die, or call the Council? We could say the Emperor is ill, the transfusion procedure went wrong...”
So someone wanted him dead here too! Luca mentally went through all the curses he knew and those he’d learned from Esk, naming in vain a range of otherworldly gods. Then he sat up sharply and spoke.
“You know, Lentz, it seems the transfusion procedure really did go wrong.”
First Advisor Naut screamed like a girl and fell to the floor as his legs gave way. Lentz behaved with more courage. He just whispered:
A few years before, when the entire country was lousy with thieves and unemployment, some of the population fell into unprecedented poverty. But as in all times, there was another side to the coin. There were always enterprising people in society that were willing to earn off anything and everything. Nemania Kovachar, at that time trading in vegetables, was one of them. A smooth, slippery and unpleasant character who would sell his grandmother for a copper.
Easily and with a smile, Nemania cheated citizens that were already poor enough: he had his fingers on scales, he made old produce look fresh, he short-changed and swindled, and all the while was in his element.
It seemed there were so many complaints against the dishonest merchant that the Sacred Mother had listened to the aggrieved. Or perhaps he himself was guilty by cheating someone he shouldn’t have. Whatever the case, his dark reputation played a cruel trick on the cunning fox. Thieves found out where he hid his ill-gotten gains and cleared him out in full.
It was like a hammer-blow to the gut, losing spoils so hard-earned through backbreaking labor that had nearly sent the merchant to his grave. But time went on, his well-fed and healthy body had no intentions of dying, so he had to keep living. Nemania had no intentions of being poor.
In his despair he decided that he didn’t have much left to lose, and went to the thieves’ guild to request an audience and mercy.
His trading skills, the ability to converse with anyone, even a fellow shyster, and his endless, but measured flattery helped him to cosy up to one gang leader. A captain, as such criminal bosses called themselves.
History is silent on the subject of what Nemania promised the captain, but aside from getting back part of his lost money, he was also given a building for a small watering hole, where all the gang members could go at any time, to spend time without fear of getting caught by the guards, to discuss their illegal activities and celebrate the guild’s victories.
By hiring poverty-stricken workers willing to be paid in the most meager food, Nemania continued down his path to riches at double the pace.
On one of those days, the young and naive orphan Irma came to him, wandering around in search of alms and finding the inn. Perhaps it was their similarity that drew the innkeeper’s attention to the girl, or perhaps the circumstances aligned just right, but the position of barmaid became hers.
The girl had a watchful eye, a calculating mind and a strong fist. She quickly realized that cushiest spots were where coins rang. And she had been marching staunchly toward her goal for many years, searching a path upwards, to riches and prosperity. Away from the dirty, befouled tables eternally stinking of sour beer, away from the ever drunk, fetid, brawling peasants. As far away as she could get from the tortuous and stuffy nightmares of poverty that plagued her day and night. To a place where the ring of small, lonely bouncing coins grew into ringing streams, and the coppers within them, spinning, their metal edges gleaming, fell into rivers of money, which in turn merged with the magnificent ringing echo of a golden ocean.
And maybe this was it, the first small step to that dream? Irma kept hold of the girl with a death grip.
“You don’t understand anything! Let me go, idiot!” the girl hissed. “Don’t take me to Nemania! I just need money! Now!”
“Worried about your cripple brother, are you?” Irma chuckled. “Stop struggling and shouting, fool girl! As if I’d share with that skinflint! He’d swindle milk from babies!”
After realizing that Irma was only interested in selling the candlestick, the girl even relaxed a little at first, and walked obediently along a couple of streets, letting the girl lead her. But then she got worried again.
“You know, this is my candlestick! And I almost got killed when I got it! Let me go, you hear me?!”
Irma turned and spat in response,
“If you don’t shut your mouth, little bitch, I’ll finish you off myself so you don’t suffer! You forgotten where we are? Look around and shut up!”
The words had no effect on the girl.
“Irma!” Kora dug in her heels and yanked Irma by the arm. “I said stop!”
Irma took a deep breath to try and calm down. She kept her eyes on the bundle in Kora’s arms.
“If you don’t want to come, then don’t!” The barmaid dropped the girl’s arm and grabbed the candlestick. She pulled it from Kora’s weak grasp and shot her a spiteful glare. “Only I’ll take this with me.”
The girl finally lost it. Kicking out at Irma, she pulled the valuable find back. Irma just laughed, watching as the girl’s eyes widened in her vain efforts. The skinny, fifteen-year-old Kora with her barely noticeable chest and the grown-up, wide-hipped, always well-fed Irma, who hadn’t felt a lack of food in many years. The inn’s customers appreciated the ever accommodating barmaid’s services enough to feed her from their own plates. The barmaid’s powerful build and healthy diet made her good at fighting for a place in this world. Sometimes she personally dragged limp drunkards out into the nearby ditches without the bouncers’ help.
One more pull and the girl fell on her ass on the sidewalk. Irma chuckled victoriously, held her newly won prize close and hurried away.
The girl didn’t give up. She jumped up and scurried after her. Soon Irma realized that the girl had decided to change her tactics.
“Irmy, honey,” Kora began to snivel and pluck at the barmaid’s skirt, “they forced themselves on me, and they wanted to take me away and leave me outside the city. I played dead and just managed to get away while they were in another room. I took that candlestick specially! There has to be at least some kind of payment...”
The words resounded in Irma’s heart with something familiar and close to her. She stopped. Subconsciously, she had always envied Kora’s natural beauty and she knew that in a year or two, she’d make a serious competitor. Maybe that was why she’d always given the girl the cold shoulder and chased her out of the inn? Although sometimes, usually when she’d been drinking, sympathy awoke within Irma, and then the barmaid wiped away her tears and complained of her rotten life, of how men were ungrateful pigs. All they wanted was to get off, and as soon as it came to payment, they’d start arguing. There were exceptions, of course, but they were very rare.
Kora kept talking, and Irma listened.
“My mom has swamp fever, Irma! If I can’t pay for a healer, she’ll die! They already killed Luca! And soon,” the girl sobbed, “they’ll get mom and me too. Please... I need this money...”
Irma stood holding the candlestick to her chest. She chewed on her full, wind-chapped lips and shifted in doubt. Money was all she ever dreamed of and thought of twenty four hours a day. When she’d seen the precious object, she hadn’t even considered sharing with the girl. Now she hesitated. The picture she saw developing before her was far too familiar for her liking... She had had nobody to help her when she’d needed it.
Biting her lip until it turned white as if trying to decide something, the girl freed one hand and began to estimate the cost of a healer with her fingers. A couple of minutes later, Irma sighed heavily.
“Ugh, you dumb pesky chinil, fine,” she muttered and smiled crookedly. “What are you staring at? Let’s go! But be quick and quiet!”
The port district was not famed for its cleanliness and tidiness. Although both girls were used to that in their own district, the stink of rotten fish seeping from every inch of the place made their eyes stream.
“Ugh! Where are we going?” the girl asked nasally as she pinched her nose closed.
“Shut up and keep up. I hope he’s there.”
Irma walked decisively to one of the port’s huts with Kora barely keeping up behind her. A drunken and discordant choir mixed with curses drifted from the entryway The songs extolled the virtues of the sea king, a rich life and dockside whores all at once.
“Abyss! It’s the morning and they’re still hammered. This is the third day since they moored up and they’re still boozing. Stay here, I’ll be quick,” Irma said to the girl.
“Fat chance!” Kora knitted her brows decisively and stuck with the barmaid. She didn’t want to let her treasure out of her sight for an instant. “I’m coming with you!”
“Hah... Sure. Come on then. Entertain the boys. Since when did you get so brave? These guys aren’t like sweet old Vindor. And this district is much more dangerous!”
But the girl didn’t want to hear it.
“I’m coming with you!”
“Go where you like. You don’t have anything left to lose!” Irma laughed hoarsely at her own joke and ducked into the low entryway.
From that point, events developed so quickly and unexpectedly that they didn’t have time to know what was happening. A man flew out of the door and nearly bowled Irma over. And that would be fine, but then another came rushing out with his fist raised, cracking the first one in the jaw. Flying to the side, that one knocked the package from Irma’s arms and the brawling crowd forced her away from the hut.
More and more drunk men ran out of the house and jumped into the melee with victorious cries of “For the Sea Father!”, indiscriminately beating whoever was closest. The dirty priceless object lay at the entrance, trampled into the mud. None of the men paid the slightest attention to it.
Irma saw Kora choosing her moment to slip between the brawling men, grab the candlestick and start to slowly retreat around the corner of the house. Sacred Mother forbid that they see her and take it!
But the girl didn’t even have time to scream as someone grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and dragged her into the black maw of the entrance.
The room was gloomy, and after the light of the street the darkness seemed particularly creepy. There were two tiny holes beneath the ceiling in place of windows, but they let in practically no light.
Tripping over the threshold and falling, Kora nimbly scurried on all fours away from her attacker until she banged her forehead into a wall. There the girl froze, listening, seeing nothing before her and not knowing where to go.
“Gotcha, little slut!” a sinister voice whispered.
Kora heard some sort of rustling nearby, someone unfamiliar swearing and a catty shriek from Irma. Suddenly she felt freer, nobody was holding the girl anymore. Irma stole up to her and quickly grabbed her by the leg. Kora wailed loudly.
“Don’t fall behind!” Irma whispered angrily. “What’s the matter with you? Follow me and stay quiet! And keep your head down...”
Kora, sighing with relief, shuffled after the barmaid. A long walled corridor of roughly hewn planks brought them to a small cubbyhole. The entrance was covered with a lop-sided sheet. Irma moved the cloth aside as if she owned the place and walked inside.
“Irma?” the ragged man sitting in the small room said in surprise. “What’re you doin’ here? I don’t have time for this!”
“Look what I brought.” Irma unfolded the package. “We need to sell this at a good price.”
“What’s this?” He turned the candlestick in his hands, bit it. “Where’s it from, huh? And who’s this piece?”
“From nowhere special,” Irma cut him off. “And the girl is with me. So are you gonna help us?”
It was crowded for the three of them in the tiny room lit by the stub of a candle. The short and scrawny Ramo looked like a teenager next to the full-bodied Irma, but at that moment he held himself proudly, puffing out his meager chest. He was a new recruit to the thieves’ guild and hadn’t had a chance to stand out yet, but this shiny trinket could turn into a feather in his cap and a pass into the inner sanctum. If Irma understood anything, it was this world. Ramo’s boss, Bakhr, was highly selective. It cost a lot to become part of his clique.
“Nobody saw?” Ramo asked, his eyes narrowing.
Irma shook her head. He nodded, pulled a rag from under the bed in a businesslike fashion and wrapped up the loot.
“That’s good,” the thief grinned, his teeth gleaming with metal.
Alex (Aleksei) Bobl is a literary agent and a science fiction writer, author of 13 novels. An ex-paratrooper, he used his military knowledge and experience to write his debut novels for S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a bestselling science fiction action adventure series set in a post-apocalyptic Chernobyl.
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