After the emperor’s courtesan Keirinia left discouraged, another interruption to their private conversation turned up in the form of Priscilla, the second of Ma Ju Ro’s favorite lovers by preference, but Luca sent her away as well, to Lentz’s elated laughter, trying not to look at the alluring black triangle.

But Priscilla’s nudity — she wore only an airy transparent shawl — lit a fire in Luca, just as it should. At the end of the day, he was a seventeen-year-old boy, and now in the body of the lustful and shameless emperor. Ma Ju Ro was still showing off his naked body, and the reaction of a certain rebellious part of his body was eloquent. Fortunately, Priscilla had already left before she could see the moment of her triumph. The chief imperial healer maintained a tactful silence, deciding not to draw attention to the blood-filled organ.

For some time, Lentz continued to bring Luca up to speed on events until First Advisor Naut interrupted them with the master of the guard, Hector. The first dropped to his knees just in case.

“Your command is done, my ruler! I brought Captain Hector!”

“You brought me, did you..?” the aforementioned captain frowned. “What do you need from me so early in the morning? Naut dragged me from my table as I took breakfast! My food is getting cold! If there is no good reason for it, then I swear on the Sacred Mother, you will be sorry!”

The grey-haired and powerful man with his eagle’s nose and massive shoulders looked around. He was dressed in a shirt carelessly tucked into his trousers and clean high-top boots. Luca realized that this was the captain of the palace guard, and much depended on whether he could bring him on side.

The situation was familiar: Esk’Onegut’s legacy in the boy’s memory instantly brought him examples and templates of behavior. Judging by the fact that neither Naut nor Lentz looked surprise, this sort attitude was typical for the captain of the palace guard. But Luca-Esk was astounded by Hector’s arrogance. Seriously? That’s how he speaks to his Emperor? It seemed the body’s former owner had let his authority fall to rock bottom.

“There is a good reason, for-now captain of the palace guard. Just an assassination attempt against your ruler.” Ma Ju Ro shrugged and smiled wryly. Lock the door, Hector. This is a conversation that should not be overheard. Oh, and don’t let him leave!”

Hector deftly grabbed Naut, who seemed to suddenly have important matters to attend to elsewhere, and then punched him in the gut. And then, kicking his fat ass as a preventive measure, he locked the door and looked at the emperor with interest.

News of an assassination attempt was almost boring. They happened nearly every month or two. But Ma Ju Ro’s reaction contrasted sharply with what he was used to seeing: there were no hysterics, stamping of feet or demands to ‘stake up every last one of them’! Or had the pig just smoked too much Tassurian weed?

“I gather it was Naut who made the attempt? But how? He can’t even hold a spoon for long.” Hector looked at the first advisor with disgust as he moaned and writhed on the floor.

“The former first advisor Naut used his position to administer a poisonous substance during the procedure. Unfortunately, he betrayed my trust.” Lentz bowed his head with shame. “The emperor is aware and has already decided my punishment.”

“What?” Naut wailed, trying to stand. The captain smiled and kicked him again, pinning him to the floor under his boot. “It wasn’t like that!”

“Shut him up!” the emperor ordered. “I know how it was.”

Hector pulled one of the first advisor’s socks off and stuffed it in his mouth. Thinking over what he had heard, he frowned even more and chewed his lips before speaking.

“Ruler...” It was clear that such respectful language came with difficulty. “As captain of the palace guard, and therefore the person bound to protect you...”

“Bound to?” Ma Ju Ro raised an eyebrow. “Oh, dear Hector, I don’t want to ‘bind’ you to do anything! I value that you find yourself able to overcome your reluctance and... disgust? But I would rather you performed your duties willingly. Or do you wish me to sign a corresponding order? Lentz, call the second advisor. We must discuss the structure of the new government.”

Turning a deep red, Hector slowly fell to one knee, thinking furiously. Something strange had happened to the emperor, but it wasn’t clear what. The captain, forged in decades of covert intrigue as he was, decided to play along for now. The palace guard and the inquisitors were on his side, yes, but Hustig, the general of the army... He hated the captain so much that he would attack him at the slightest hint from the emperor without hesitation.

“Forgive me, ruler. I am an old soldier and rhetoric is not my strong suit. I merely wanted to say that Chief Imperial Medic Lentz is perhaps being... disingenuous. Allow my inquisitors to question him! They can confirm the healer’s involvement in the attempt on your life! I doubt this wimp,” Hector spat on the cowering Naut, “could have organized it all himself!”

“Stand up, Hector. We will discuss that later,” the emperor nodded. “In the meantime, take care of Naut. Lock him in a cage and let your boys deal with him. Confiscate all his money and property into the imperial treasury and isolate his family until we’ve cleared things up. Make sure you keep a particularly attentive eye on anyone close to Naut, see who twitches after his arrest, who talks and what they say, who meets with who...”

The emperor continued to provide detailed and surprisingly intelligent orders, and Hector’s jaw dropped. The same happened to Lentz, and even the former first advisor on the floor stopped writhing and sniveling. The healer was at least prepared, knowing the emperor’s true new nature, but for the other two, his words were a complete shock.

Ma Ju Ro had never cared about details. He usually just waved a hand and said “Handle it,” and the most qualified person would then handle whatever “it” was. The head of the merchant’s guild was complaining of exorbitant taxes? “Handle it,” the emperor grumbled without raising his head from Keirinia’s ample bosom. The northern barons were asking for protection from mutant raids? General Hustig would take care of it. Only attempts on the head of state shook up Ma Ju Ro, but each bout of hysterics (which could be safely ignored) always ended in the same words: “Handle it!”

It was also worth noting that oftentimes Naut, Hustig and Hector solved such problems behind the scenes in ways that fattened their own pockets. The merchant was given a tax rebate, with a percentage fee paid directly to Naut. A legion was sent to the north, and sacks of Tuafian hops and grain added to General Hustig’s personal stores. In a similar manner, Hector took control of the capital’s market and seized the villa of an aristocrat who fell from grace.

The master of the palace guard was the first to collect himself.

“It will be done, my ruler! The only thing is...” He hesitated, but then plucked up his courage. “I am afraid that observation in the form your imperial majesty requires is not possible. I have requested many times that you raise the budget allotted to the inquisitors and observers, but both you and the first... the former first advisor Naut have always found reasons to refuse me!”

“Naut, you old rogue!” Lentz delighted. “How did you know that Hector’s chained hounds aren’t to be fed?!”

Naut bellowed something. Ma Ju Ro nodded and Hector pulled out the stocking.

“And I see you’ve managed to wriggle your way out of this, Lentz,” Naut spat in fury. “You’ll see, I’ll tell them everything...”

Lentz looked at the emperor nervously, and at the captain’s listening ears.

“I know everything about Lentz’s involvement in the conspiracy, and he is forgiven,” the emperor said. “As for the lack of funds for observers, use those confiscated from Naut, Hector. We have lost control over the Empire and we are losing it over the city. The people are poor, and the barons, my cousin Rezsinius and the mutants are tearing the country apart. The day has come to do something about it!”

Captain Kolot Hector saluted with his fist to his chest. He wasn’t wearing his breastplate, so the sound wasn’t right, but the gesture impressed Lentz anyway. The captain usually only performed that salute at the military parades that Ma Ju Ro held every year. And Naut and Hustig had initiated those parades — they cost almost no money, but demanded a significant amount of the city budget.

In the meantime, Naut threw himself at Luca’s feet and started begging for forgiveness. Hector wanted to stop him, but Ma Ju Ro signaled to let him speak.

“My emperor! My ruler! For years I have served you faithfully and honestly! When you were... busy with other important matters, I practically bore the weight of ruling the Empire! Taxation, the army, the economy, laws... Nobody but me is capable of grasping all the intricacies of our country’s politics! Forgive me, my ruler, and I can still be useful to you! My heart bled when I saw you losing interest in matters of state! What is this physician to you? He knows nothing!”

“It is very clear to me what your ‘ruling’ has done to the Empire!” Luca said fiercely. “However, that is exactly why I have not ordered you beheaded right here and now. You may indeed still be useful... If you pay for what you have done. Hector, get on with it.”

The captain picked Naut up and dragged him to the door. When it slammed behind him, and his agonizing wails in the corridor faded, Luca found his clothes on the floor, his armor and imperial tunic. He pulled them on with the healer’s help and shrugged his shoulders. His body was still refusing to obey him. He needed time to get a handle on it, to get used to his center of gravity with all this weight.

“What do you think, Lentz, should I lose some weight?” he asked, preparing to give the order to his metamorphosis.

“Most assuredly, my ruler!” the healer answered. “But this must be approached delicately.”

“How do you mean?”

“It must be done very, very carefully. Gradually,” Lentz traced a flowing, just slightly sloping curve in the air. “The people see you once per year and will be very surprised if they suddenly see an athletic man in place of the well-fed emperor they know and love. Your profile is printed on all the coins, and you aren’t thin there at all! Never mind the full-length portraits of your Imperial Highness! They may suspect an impersonation, my lord!”

“Very well,” Ma Ju Ro agreed reluctantly, ordering his body to reduce his fat deposits by five percent over a week.

His obedient metamorphosis ability accepted the command, and it occurred to Luca that it wouldn’t hurt to go for runs along the shore. It would make a good explanation for his future weight loss.

The sound of the emperor’s rumbling stomach could clearly be heard in the reigning silence.

“Would his imperial highness like to have breakfast?” Lentz asked, gulping. “On my way here, the most breathtaking smells were coming from the kitchen...”

“We will break our fast together soon, Lentz. But right now, I have a delicate assignment for you. I would like to somehow thank the family of this boy,” he nodded toward his former body. “Invite them here and bring them to the palace, but so that nobody finds out about it. And when you go for them, take medicine — the mother has swamp fever. Don’t ask how I know, I just know.”

“Fever? Then I must hurry!” Lentz nodded and automatically repeated Hector’s gesture, striking his chest with his fist. “Consider it done, my ruler!”

“And something else... A week ago, a certain Terant was languishing in the city jail. Find out how he’s doing.”


About the author


Bio: 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.

This account is publishing texts written by authors of Magic Dome Books.


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