Luca was left alone. He heard voices beyond the door, but the newly rejuvenated emperor was still apprehensive. Without Lentz’s support and hints, he might make a mistake, fail to remember a name and thereby raise suspicion.
He might have sat on his own for a lot longer if it weren’t for a knock at the door, followed by a hoarse old voice.
“Where should I serve your breakfast, ruler?”
Who was that? A name came to the tip of his tongue, but the shallow memories from Ma Ju Ro failed him. Or maybe Ma Ju Ro just didn’t know his servants’ names? Fully possible. However, one piece of knowledge came to Luca clear as day: the man beyond the door was an old servant.
“Bring it all there, but not before I come out!” Luca said as harshly as he could. “I’m busy! I’m thinking about the people!”
A surprised silence hung beyond the door, but it didn’t last long. With hushed voices in the background, the old man coughed hoarsely.
“It will be done, my ruler!”
As he left, the old man whispered to one of the people in the corridor: What a wonderful emperor we have, always thinking of the people... He’s with some whore again! He could’a just let us in, pretty sure we seen it all...
It was said with a great deal of sarcasm, and the laughter afterwards confirmed it. Luca realized he’d slipped up. By all appearances, attempts on Ma Ju Ro’s life were a common affair. And if so many were eager for the real emperor to shuffle off the mortal coil, then Two-horns himself would be after the new fake one! The fact that Luca wasn’t who he appeared to be would be clear from such details and oddities in his behavior. That spiteful old servant had probably known the emperor from the teat!
He had to prepare and take measures. He had no fear of poisons, his metamorphosis would handle them, especially with its endless supply of fuel in his fat cells. Physical attacks were another matter.
An axe to the neck, a knife to the heart, or they could even just cut him to pieces! Could the ability handle that? He didn’t want to find out. He’d had enough of pain and suffering.
The emperor locked the door and thought for a moment. To start with, he wanted to strengthen his skin so that no treacherous knife or huge halberd could pierce him, but he imagined the consequences: he had to sometimes come into physical contact with people, to shake hands for example. Should he leave his hands as they were? No, they’d be vulnerable. And what if he were to lie with one of his courtesans? Leaving them alone entirely would stir up even more rumors than if he got slim.
Luca went red at the thought, although there was nobody with him to see it. The chance that this would happen that very day aroused him thoroughly, but he tried to drive away his fantasies. Useless things. And those girls were old and... too available. Although now everything in the Empire was available to him... That thought calmed Luca. The easily obtainable lost its attraction and couldn’t possibly cause the same anguish that had come from secret dreams of a neighbor girl when he was paralyzed.
He delved back into thoughts of strengthening himself. The skin... He could leave the skin as it was, but... He felt his entire body from his ears to his heels. There was fat all over. Even his fingers were like Tuaf sausages! Remembering one of his favorite treats of childhood, when his father’s paycheck let them eat well, he felt another sharp stab of hunger. But Ma Ju Ro ate less than a day ago!
Whatever, let his stomach moan, Luca was no stranger to hunger. So, the fat. A thick, blubbery layer, and if you created a fine super-strong film over it, hard enough and still elastic, then his internal organs would be protected. As for his head, he could completely strengthen his skull.
It should be metal, but which metal? The most durable in the world! Luca began to recall the most unfamiliar names from Esk’s legacy: tungsten, osmium, iridium, titanium... One after another, messages floated before him.
Carrier request accepted: strengthening subcutaneous fat layer, strengthening durability of visceral fat around vital organs, strengthening skeleton.
Transformation impossible. Not enough tungsten in body!
Transformation impossible. Not enough osmium in body!
Transformation impossible. Not enough iridium in body!
Transformation impossible. Not enough titanium in body!
The same happened for ruthenium, chrome, beryllium and rhenium. Luca went over to the medical instruments left on Lentz’s table, picking up one after another in the home that at least one of them might contain some of the metal he needed.
Activated enhancement mode!
Detected available materials: 73% iron, 9% nickel, 17% chrome, 0.07% carbon...
Scalpels, scissors, forceps, retractors, needles and saws — they were all made of surgical steel. The tools, which had doubtless traveled a long path through the large country into Lentz’s possession, dissolved right in the emperor’s hand. The chief medic would be very upset.
His entire body got horribly itchy. Luca couldn’t stand it anymore, he took off his breastplate and tunic and started frantically scratching everywhere he could. Everywhere itched, but mostly his head. His fingers moving furiously, the emperor nearly tore the skin off his skull. But it all stopped just as suddenly as it started.
Luca’Onegut, based on your request, the following has been performed:
— added 0.1 mm thick layer of fine-meshed chromium steel to internal subcutaneous and visceral fat deposits
— skull bones strengthened by 762%
— skeletal bones strengthened by 369%
— skin enhanced by 92%
It is recommended that you source material for strengthening skin and hair for increased fire-resistance, chemical and radioactive protection!
Attention! Non-organic energy reserves exhausted!
This was the first time he’d heard of chemistry and radiation, but some examples popped up in his mind as if they’d been there all along. Popped up and astounded him. It amazed Luca that invisible lethal rays and existed in nature, and liquids that could melt even the strongest metal. Promising himself to learn as much as he could about this later, he got dressed, and just in time. Although perhaps at just the wrong time, considering what happened next.
The voices beyond the door had long since faded, but the emperor had only just noticed it. He heard the tapping of high-heels on the marble floor of the corridor, and someone tried the door handle and then rapped on the door lightly.
“Your imperial highness!” a sonorous women’s voice said. “I have come to beg my lord for forgiveness! Master, please let me in and I will atone for the little misunderstanding I caused.”
“Keirinia?” Luca recalled the name of his first courtesan. “I’m busy, you can atone after dusk.”
“But, my lord!” she said in playful tones. “I can’t wait to get started, there’s a lot of atoning to be done! I’m so hot for you, my emperor! And, forgive me, but this is so unlike you!”
Another oddity in his performance. He had to fix this, otherwise his offended lover would start flapping her tongue, and tomorrow the entire capital would be whispering that the emperor had changed. He had to let her in and let her ‘atone.’ Otherwise she wouldn’t leave him alone.
Ma Ju Ro opened the door. Keirinia was leaning against the door frame with her hand on her alluringly curved waist. She smiled, baring her delicate and even teeth, then slowly swept her tongue along them.
“Come in, Kei,” Ma Ju Ro said. The correct mode of address came to his tongue on its own, and he took a step back to let his lover enter. But she didn’t hurry to do so.
“Here?” she smiled again, pressed herself against him and whispered in his ear intimately, “Piglet, let me atone for my guilt where you’ll be most comfortable! Let’s order them to bring your breakfast to the bedroom, drink some wine and stay in bed all day? The weather outside is awful, and you had that assassination attempt! You’ve been through so much already today, piglet, you need to rest from all this hassle! If you like, I can call Priscilla and Olga! You know I don’t usually like that, but for your sake...” She embraced him and looked him in the eye.
Not knowing how to react to such grandiose plans, Luca frowned just in case, and Keirinia interpreted it in her own way. She fell to her knees before her lord, lifting the hem of his tunic. For the first time, he felt the touch of a woman’s hand there. And not just her hand! Sacred Mother!
Luca let out a moan and drew back reluctantly. Confusion flashed in his lover’s greedy, lustful eyes.
“Is something wrong, my lord?”
Detected intrusion of toxic substance!
Effect level critical.
Analyzing reaction options...
Unable to release neutralizing agents — insufficient non-organic energy reserves!
Cannot generate antidote — does not exist!
Luca felt that agonizing itch in his body again. It seemed to penetrate into his very bones. It became difficult to breathe. He felt a stabbing pain in his heart. The emperor was covered in sweat. Grabbing at his throat, he tried to say something, but all he could do was wheeze indistinctly. Then he fell in a heap at the feet of his first courtesan.
Keirinia rose lightly. She kicked the emperor’s head carelessly. His wheezes got weaker, rarer. Pulling a small vial from her stocking, the courtesan poured the contents into her mouth, gargled it and spat it out.
A triumphant smile danced in her eyes.
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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