Looking at the prostrate First Advisor Naut and Chief Imperial Medic Lentz, Luca the Emperor’s imagination ran wild. He could change his plans with consideration for new circumstances.
It was incredible, but even without Ma Ju Ro’s memory, Luca knew how to talk to these two. The copying had left its mark, and certain templates of behavior and shallow memory remained in Dezisimu from the original Ma Ju Ro the Fourth. It was worth trying to use it. In any case, he could always correct it as he went along.
“Why have I not lost weight, Lentz?” he whined. “What is this, I ask you?!”
He slapped his huge wobbling stomach to demonstrate and knitted his brows into a fearsome frown. Esk’s legacy told him how to behave, and the only correct position in his situation was to demand, insult and attack. Luca decided to hold back his knowledge of their unsuccessful conspiracy and assassination attempt. It could be his trump card. Let them squirm and wonder whether he’d heard.
“Um... Forgive me, great ruler!” The chief imperial medic fell to his knees and pressed his forehead into the cold marble floor. “Something truly went wrong! I will fix this, your magnificence!”
“You have lost a little weight, my ruler!” First Advisor Naut muttered fawningly. “You know that I never lie to you, that is what you value me for, my lord, that I always tell you the truth, no matter how bad it is...”
Luca kicked him in the side in disgust. He’d have to show his cards after all, but he could put pressure on one. If they both attacked him in desperation, he’d have to kill them both, and he needed information.
“What crap are you spouting, worm? Do you think I’m so stupid that I can’t tell myself whether I’ve lost weight?”
Naut shook even harder.
“Master of the palace guard! To me! Now!”
He couldn’t help but reinforce his words with another kick, this time on the first advisor’s fat backside. He overdid it. The advisor’s face crashed into the floor before he could get his hands down, and he broke his nose.
“Do you wish me to summon him, o great ruler?” Lentz offered his services. His eyes darted around. It didn’t take a mind-reader to realize that he was planning to run!
“His Majesty made it clear that the assignment was for me,” Naut wheezed out nasally through his bleeding nose. “I will fetch him, lord!”
He rose up heavily, his knees cracking, and staggered toward the door. There was a reason that Luca had decided to let him go, and not the cunning Lentz. It was best to clarify the conspiracy one on one.
“Stand up and sit on the couch, Lentz. Let’s talk seriously without that dumbass.”
Raising himself from the floor, the chief imperial medic cast an astounded glance at his ruler, something flashing in his eyes. He sat and even went so far as to look into the ruler’s eyes with some scientific interest.
“Forgive me for that little demonstration, but otherwise you might not believe me and might make a fatal error for yourself, my dear healer,” Luca said with a barely visible smile. “Watch closely! And don’t move!”
He lifted his hand palm forward to Lentz. The healer’s eyes widened and his forehead began to sweat. Something living emerged from the center of the emperor’s palm, with oily whitish scales and a gleaming stinger at its tip. When it reached Lentz’s forehead, the tentacle stabbed its sharp tip into him. A drop of blood fell. The healer’s breath caught. He would have run as fast as he could if only he wasn’t paralyzed by fear.
“You see, the procedure really did go wrong. The body of this young man,” the ruler nodded toward Ma Ju Ro, now a copy of Luca, “was home to a divine entity. And in the transfusion, it became part of me. Which means that your treacherous plan to kill me has failed. Now I cannot be killed by any means. You, however, will die if you lie to me about anything.”
Luca ordered the tentacle to pull back. In the main, it was entirely useless. His ability created it from surplus fat cells, adding a little iron to imitate a stinger, but the newly crowned emperor knew that if he had the desire and the building material, he could grow more than just props.
“A part of this entity is now within you. Do you feel it?”
Lentz’ eyes crossed as he looked at the stinger and he nodded, covered in large droplets of sweat.
“If you do or say anything that somehow harms me, you will die. Even if I die, your loyalty from then will be measured not by me, but by the divine particle inside you. Name those party to the conspiracy against me. Who is their leader? You?”
Luca fashioned two new tentacles and jabbed them into Lentz’s temples. He gulped and froze, fearing to move a muscle. Sweat covered his brow.
“Oh, well. I think Naut will be more talkative...”
“Wait, my ruler!” the healer choked out in a whisper. “Promise me that you will not sentence me to death or touch my family!”
“You’re stealing time from yourself,” the emperor yawned. “Naut will be back any minute with Hector, and you’ll both go to the gibbet. Or the block, I haven’t decided yet.”
“Emperor! Ruler!” Lentz begged. “I’ll tell you everything, and you decide, just listen!”
“The Empire is falling into the abyss, my ruler,” the medic said with exaggerated vigor, then winced, awaiting a reaction. Luca nodded encouragingly and Lentz continued. “The high circles of the capital’s aristocracy — and the whole country’s! — is under the impression that...”
“That your majesty is, as it were, not very interested in ruling the country. In practice, your power extends only to the capital, while all the other territories have long been under the control of local barons. They pay no taxes, they ignore the Empire’s laws, their people grow poorer and poorer. Epidemics are breaking out all across the Empire! And that’s without the Wastelands, which has long been a separate country.”
“What’s there, in the Wastelands?” Luca asked. He knew that somewhere to the north was a giant desolate area full of mutants, entirely twisted monsters, those who had been banished from cities and villages for centuries. “Are there problems?”
“The last raid by the mutant horde reached the northern edge of the capital, ruler. This was reported to you.”
“And what did I do?”
“Does my ruler not recall?” Lentz asked with interest, forgetting the tentacles and leaning forward slightly. “Is this the action of the entity?”
“Yes, it is a side effect, Lentz. You will be my memory now, if... If you remain loyal to me and alive after your tale. And I advise you for now to limit yourself to details of the conspiracy. Your time is running out.”
“Your younger cousin Rezsinius, heir to the throne, has decided to overthrow you. The attempt to do this through me is just one of his plans, and not even his main one. He has managed to assemble an army in the south from a number of veterans that you tricked by promising them land and gold after they captured the throne.”
“It is a long story, my ruler.”
So, Rezsinius then... Luca thought for a moment. The original Ma Ju Ro rarely recalled his cousin, long ago sent to the southern province, and Luca could only bring up an image of a skinny boy with a stubborn gaze. He recalled the cousin coming to visit last year, but why?
Thinking of Rezsinius as a cousin suddenly jogged his memory. Family! Kora! Mom! He had to order them to be brought to the palace at once! He could say that he wanted to thank the family for... Himself? Yes, for the boy who gave his life for his emperor.
“Who else among the courtiers is in on the plot? The other advisors? The master of the guard?”
“No, ruler. Only Naut and I. He was promised the Oltonian Mines and to keep his position as first advisor.”
“What were you promised?”
“Nothing special, your majesty. I agreed to this from idealistic motivations, as I could see the great Empire falling into hell. Rezsinius seemed to be more enterprising and... worthy, ruler. I am not worthy of forgiveness!” Lentz wailed, somewhat theatrically.
The emperor raised an eyebrow. “Is that it?”
“I was also promised a threefold increase in our biological and medical research budget, my ruler. As you know, I am the deacon of the university’s medical faculty...”
Lentz bowed his head. At that moment, someone burst into the room. Luca cut off his decorative tentacles just in time. One fell, but the other remained hanging from Lentz’s temple.
The ruler calmly pulled the hanging tentacle from the healer. “What’s this? Something stuck to...”
Girlish laughter behind him interrupted his words. “My little piglet is awake!”
Lentz couldn’t hold back a smirk. Turning around, the emperor saw Keirinia, his current favorite courtesan, a heavily rouged lady with huge thighs hidden by nothing but fishnet stockings. And oh, Two-horns, it had a part cut out! Right there!
The boy blushed and automatically turned his eyes away, but then took a hold of himself and looked at the woman strictly.
“Emperor Ma Ju Ro the Fourth is your ruler as well, woman. Now leave this room, otherwise you’ll live the rest of your life in a pigsty! Where is that damn Hector?”
“You’re so strict today, my little piglet! So it all went well and your blood is boiling, huh? I want to check that right now!”
“I am not joking, Keirinia. Get out and close the door behind you.”
Something in his tone made her believe the threats. She shot a frightened glance at Lentz who nervously twitched his shoulder. Luca didn’t know what that gesture meant, but his ex-favorite bowed low, her breasts popping out of the tiny gown she’d stuffed them into, and, without hiding them, left the room.
Following her with his eyes and making sure the door was shut, Luca came closer to the healer. A broad and happy smile lit up Lentz’s face.
“You truly have changed, my ruler... Carnality and the lower pleasures always clouded your gaze.”
“The entity has changed me, for-now chief imperial medic Lentz. I want more than anything for the Empire to flourish and its citizens to be happy!”
Luca spoke those words earnestly, but whether it was the legacy of the creature Esk within him or his own built-in sense of justice, he didn’t know. It all melded into one single ‘I’ for him.
Lentz slid off the couch to the floor, fell to his knees, rose his head and whispered ardently.
“I trust you unreservedly, my ruler!” He pointed at the door. “I just saw the clearest possible evidence of blessed times!”
Ramo was brought up by the streets. At fifteen, sick of boring and exhausting farm work in the baron’s fields, he fled to the city.
As far back as he remembered, he’d made a living from thievery, focusing his efforts on a particularly hateful village ape whose carts he robbed. There could be anything in the bags: potatoes, cassava, hay, and he’d somehow had the bad luck of standing in a sack of manure, but he didn’t complain.
Thanks to this unsophisticated, but stable source of income, Ramo more or less flourished, and when a couple of more serious jobs turned up, he was even able to save for his own little bedsit. In those days, he felt like he might as well be a baron. Daily strolls and an endless procession of women, half-witted and not very attractive, but available.
But although the life of a thief was fun, it was also short, and one day, the guards caught their band of merry men. The stars on that day smiled on Ramo. He was the only one that managed to get away. All the others were sent to pay off the damage they’d done, some going into slavery, most going to the quarries. None returned from penal servitude at the pits, plagued as they were with the curse of Two-horns, and Ramo mentally buried his partners in crime.
For almost a month, he wandered and hid in the outskirts, fearing to show his face in the peopled areas of the city. He kept thinking that his former ‘friends’ would all surely inform on him, and guards would be waiting at his house. Time passed. A couple of times he even ran into patrols, but they showed no interest in his pathetic figure.
Almost a year had passed since then. He was sick and tired of living in constant fear, looking over his shoulder and scraping by on stolen farmers’ feed bags. Ramo knew that his destiny in this life was far loftier than stealing food from livestock. Following the rich citizens with an envious gaze, each time he imagined himself in their place.
A month ago, he’d appeared at Bakhr’s threshold, a lieutenant to one of the thief captains, Otolik. You couldn’t join the ranks of the ‘elites’ from the streets, and Otolik was considered the right hand of the criminal mastermind Ignatius the Furious. He had to prove himself, draw Bakhr’s attention, otherwise he really would spend his life scratching at the bottom of feed bags. But Ramo hadn’t managed to do it yet in the last month.
His hut was in the dock district, and his roommates were mostly loading hands and sailors. All in the hut held the deepest indifference for each other. The happy residents appeared separately at the threshold of their home with an enviable inconsistency and various degrees of intoxication. There were also group drinking sessions, at which the neighbors sometimes saw each other’s faces for the first time. But every drunken binge ended without fail in a fistfight, and then fraternization all round.
Yesterday’s job, which he’d wasted a whole week preparing for, had failed spectacularly. As was traditional, Ramo drank practically an entire bottle of firewater the night before. In the morning, having woken up with a pounding headache and the taste of cat shit in his mouth, he wasn’t in the best of spirits.
He didn’t have a copper to go toward anything to make him feel better, which naturally did not improve his mood.
When that persistent large-breasted Irma darkened the door of his hut, the man even spat in despair. Back in the good days, he was a regular at Nemania’s inn. He’d met the highly accommodating barmaid there. Once she’d wanted to throw him out into the street for his drunken noise, but she’d felt bad for him and warmed up the poor man, at the same time robbing him for all he was worth.
And now she’d come to him personally. The wench must really be in trouble if she couldn’t think of anywhere else to melt down that obviously expensive trinket. Sensing his mood, Irma got nervous. She bit her lip.
“Well? Will you take it?”
He ignored her question, fervishly thinking through the options. He knew where to sell the candlestick, but Ramo’s next actions would depend on who the girl stole it from. He’d learned to use any chances he had, and now his intuition told him that the opportunity wasn’t in selling the item.
“Where did you get this?” Ramo asked Kora directly.
“Nowhere special!” the girl started to get smart with him, repeating the words of her older friend and nervously shifting from foot to foot. “If you like it, give us money and we’ll leave!”
“Bite your tongue, little girl, before I hit you round the head with that paperweight!” Ramo snapped.
The sounds of the fight approaching began to come from the corridor. Ramo rose rapidly.
“Two-horns’ radiant dick!” he cursed. “We have to get out of here before we all get it in the neck!”
He got out of the dangerous district with Irma and the saucy girl without incident, by putting the most fearsome expression on his face that he could. He already knew what to do with the little thief.
The prestigious area that Bakhr’s house was in was very nearby, strangely enough. A questionable neighborhood, of course, but a house with a view over the sea was considered a worthy achievement, and the land here grew more expensive every day.
It was incredible to watch as the dirty, garbage-ridden streets transformed magically into clear, clean pavement with each step. New expensive houses sprang up on each side, surrounded by trees and flowers, and their tall carved fences astounded the eye with their extravagant and original patterns.
The girls gazed from side to side, their heads constantly turning, the younger one with a certain amount of fear — she expected to see guards around every corner. Irma, on the other hand, had a silent adoration in her eyes. Life in a luxurious home was all she’d ever dreamed of, as she’d admitted to Ramo more than once.
He didn’t notice the magnificence around them, and was too tired to worry about guards. The man deftly and confidently walked toward his only sole target. His consciousness rejoiced, painting him pictures, each rosier than the last. If this worked out, and the object in his hands really was valuable, then this was a real chance to stand out!
“You’ll give me half the money, got it? It’s my candlestick, I stole it!” The little one seemed to be worried that he’d forget her when it came to splitting the profits. So there was nothing left for the girl to do but remind him of herself and nag him.
“You’re like a troublesome fly! Girls nowadays! It’s obvious you’re growing like a weed and have nobody to give you a thrashing!
The girl turned crimson, but didn’t back down.
“I’ll be sixteen soon! And I’ve been feeding myself for a long time!”
“What nonsense!” Irma laughed. “You’re a beggar and a thief! Know your place, little girl, or you’ll be in trouble! Not now, but later, and sooner than you think.”
“You’ll hear my name again more than once!” Kora spat. “One day I’ll turn up in an expensive carriage, wearing silk, on a rich man’s arm! And you’ll both bow at my feet!”
“Alright, enough, calm down! And be quiet, I need to think of how to play this with the boss,” the thief said, ending the conversation. “We’re here.”
The scale of Bakhr’s house was impressive. Ramo couldn’t even imagine why someone would need so much space.
Walking around the house via an alleyway, the company approached an unassuming solid wooden gate covered in ivy, and the thief knocked. After a long wait, a voice came from the other side.
“Who in Two-horns’ name are you?”
“It’s Ramo, I have a gift for Bakhr.”
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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