Meet me at the Menura in three days, at 10 past noon. Come alone. I’ve reserved a table under the name Johannes.
Sofia reread the note for what must have been the hundredth time, as if by virtue of her gaze the grey page’s contents would change. The note had been sitting on her desk the night she had returned from the hospital, and now the meeting was upon her. She might’ve spent the rest of the evening there, sitting on the edge of her bed in a black dress if it weren’t for a light rap at her door. Busco stepped into the room.
“We’re running late,” he said, jerking his head in a beckoning motion. She nodded.
“I’ll be out in a moment,” He was already gone by the time she finished speaking. She tucked the note back into its envelope and set it on the desk beside her bed, placing upon it an empty glass which had held water the night before. Then she hurried down the hall after Busco.
Their trip would take them out of San Selen, some ten kilometers to the west past fields and orchards. Busco sat opposite her, august, austere, and silent. Beside him sat a servant dressed in bold orange, who she wished had been Andrea so that she’d have someone beside Busco to talk to at the feast. The pair remained silent so she looked out the window and watched as the evening sun began to set behind the Imperial Palace. Each moment it grew larger until at last it was upon them, and they stepped out of their vehicle. It was a great glass pyramid, looming over them beneath pink clouds - a cotton candy sky.
“This way,” said Busco, offering an elbow to her. She locked her slim arm around his and they progressed with measured strides, as the servant followed closely behind them. Busco stared straight ahead at the Palace doors, but she looked around and in every direction saw herself reflected in the noble pairs approaching those same doors: men in dress, women in dresses, and servants close behind them. They all stared straight ahead like Busco, with elbows locked together.
A flock of palace servants waited to hold open the doors for the flood of guests, squawking “Welcome. Please enter,” at any who approached. Beyond the doors was a single huge room with high, sloping ceilings in which much of the human torrent had stopped to socialize. Nearby was a vast chandelier hanging over an elaborate marble fountain, from which golden water shimmered.
“Where are the tables?” she asked Busco, almost yelling to be heard over all the conversing. He laughed and pointed at the center of the room, where a strange sort of wall rose to the interior apex of the pyramid. Along the wall’s face were a dozen elevator doors which nobles were entering into. The very instant that she noticed the elevators Busco began toward them, pulling her along at his side.
“I just noticed there’s music playing,” she said to him. He tilted his head ever so slightly closer to listen, then nodded, never turning toward her. They maneuvered past varied groups of notables with haste until they finally arrived at the wall and entered into an elevator room.
“Throne room.” commanded Busco. The three of them were alone as the doors shut, and at once the descent began. The walls of the elevator were glass, allowing Sofia to watch as thirty floors flew by - offices, ballrooms, kitchens, cafeterias, quarters, all deserted. The final stop was the throne room, a well-lit space as large as the first floor had been, though they were deposited at the back of it rather than the center. Four huge tables were set, with fifty seats on each of their long sides. At their center was a fifth, larger table made up of four tables pushed together to form a hollow square, set only on the outermost side and thus seating two hundred.
Past the tables at the wall opposite the elevators was a raised platform where a lone throne sat, barely more than a cushioned chair. Busco gestured for her to follow, and together they found their reserved seats at the central table. Upon sitting, Busco dismissed the orange servant. Then, after a couple minutes of settling in, a short man in a brown suit began to give a welcoming speech in Mandarin. Busco translated at the expense of most of the man’s jokes, and so she soon grew bored of listening and instead turned to watch as elevator-loads of nobles began to filter in. She made a game with herself of spotting the most oddly dressed among them. At some point Busco must’ve noticed her non-attention and stopped translating.
It took half an hour for all the seats to fill. Everyone applauded as the short man concluded his speech. Sitting beside her was an old grey-haired couple that spoke only in Mandarin. Beside Busco was a beautiful young woman, apparently some friend of his who had requested to be seated beside him.
“Marina, this is Sofia, my brother’s fiancée,” Sofia nodded respectfully, but Marina was not content with such a brief introduction. She smiled widely like a shark and put a tan hand upon Sofia’s.
“Luca’s fiancée? From Marsonovo? What brings her all the way out here?” Her gaze remained fully fixed on Busco who glanced cautiously at Sofia.
“She mines asteroids, and is here to seek a charter from the Emperor,” Marina’s smile twitched as her eyes glanced over at Sofia, taking note of her for the first time.
“How exciting,” she stated, her voice brimming with forced courtesy. For a moment her smile faded, then she shifted her attention to Busco. “Oh, did you see my ring?” she asked, lifting her hand off Sofia’s and holding it in front of Busco. On her finger was a golden ring set with a huge diamond. Sofia was unimpressed having seen diamonds many tons larger in the impact craters of several dozen asteroids. Busco was equally puzzled, glancing from the ring to Marina’s proud face. “It comes all the way from earth, mined the proper way back when that sort of thing was still being done there.”
“Impressive,” remarked Busco. A moment of silence fell on the trio as Marina smiled contentedly.
“What is it that you do?” asked Sofia, as politely and genuinely as she possibly could. Nonetheless, Marina recoiled as though she had been slapped. She squinted angrily at Sofia for a second until Busco stammered out a sound, drawing both their attention.
“She’s the head of the Nahua family, and heir to their dynastic fortune. They played an integral part in the foundation of Porta Novae as you see it today.”
“Ah,” said Sofia. “Forgive my ignorance,” Marina inhaled deeply to regain her composure.
“Yes,” responded Marina, “I was only surprised Busco hadn’t mentioned me to you.”
“Well, I meant to,” said Busco. “But, her ship landed only a few days ago, and there’s been some complications since -”
“You have your own ship?” Marina turned toward Sofia with undivided interest. “Why, you must be very wealthy!”
“Well, I -” began Sofia, but she was interrupted by the sudden beating of two great drums which drew the attention of the entire room.
Busco leaned closely to Sofia. “The entry of the Emperor,” he explained. The drums beat again, and the nobles began to applaud and knock rhythmically on the tables. She could see the emperor descending from the platform at the rear of the room, flanked by four regally dressed guards. The emperor himself was quite the sight to behold, though a youth of about sixteen. He wore a flowing silk robe, navy blue with small pink and white flowers upon it, and jewelry in great abundance - rings set with blazing opals, a brilliant necklace of coral beads, and large hoop earrings depicting the sun in gold and the moon in silver. With each proud step a sabre emplaced upon his right hip rose and fell. His dark eyes were shrouded in thick black eyeliner with a white crescent moon painted upon his forehead. When he took a seat he placed a hand upon the table, and she saw that his left arm came to a stump just past the elbow. The drums stopped beating. The applause died away, and conversation once again took its place.
“Do you see his necklace? Coral from the oceans of earth. Incredibly expensive,”
“Hm,” Busco replied. To Sofia this entire ordeal suddenly seemed very silly, that all these many proud people; this entire planet in fact, should be subject to the whims of this child, and now she was a victim of this same fate.
“The tables will be set with the first course soon,” explained Busco to Sofia. “Typically something very light; like a thin soup or fruit. Then, the Emperor will deliver an address. After that -” Sofia interrupted with a nod.
“I need to be back in San Selen by 10. Will that be possible?”
“Should be fine,” Busco said calmly. “If the feast is still ongoing, though, you’ll be able to leave. People will be coming in and out the entire time.” As he replied a pair of servants arrived and set before each of them salads on grey-silver plates, with glasses of white wine. She looked up to see the emperor being served the same dish, and laughing as he spoke to a nearby noble. Without the fanfare and drums he seemed no different from anyone else in attendance.
The wine was exquisite. The salad was bland. Marina and Busco spoke with one another for about ten minutes until the emperor suddenly stood, and all the room fell silent. His voice was rough, but carried well. Busco leaned close and began to translate in a soft whisper. She shivered.
“ ‘Friends, it is both an honor and a pleasure to be here dining with you tonight. I have only good news to share with you this evening. I have made negotiations that the Crown Prince some . . . some two light years’ - he means Keid Three, the star. He’s talking about the terraforming project in that star system, the planet Eshu, I believe. ‘I’ve arranged that the terraforming company will construct facilities upon our planet to aid in the transmission of materials to Eshu.’ ” Busco paused to take a sip of wine. “ ‘- the construction of a solar farm in the northern desert, and finally negotiations are underway to mine an asteroid within our own system . . .’ Oh - he’s addressing you, stand up. Get up!”
Sofia rose quickly to her feet. All eyes had turned to her as the emperor’s voice continued to echo through the room. She stood still, helplessly ignorant to what he was saying, though it was clear by his gestures he was still speaking of her. Her heart was beating in her ears and behind her someone coughed. Finally, after what had seemed to be an eternity, the emperor turned to her.
“So-fia,” she heard him say, though she couldn’t understand the rest.
“Bow slightly and sit,” hissed Busco at her side. She did so. Busco seemed as relieved as she was, neither of them had taken a breath for the entire ordeal.
“Well done,” said Busco after the emperor had made his closing remarks. “He said that he looks forward to discussing your charter,” Sofia smiled and took a drink.
“I was a bit surprised that he was so young,” she said.
“He’s been the emperor since he was thirteen, following the passing of his mother,” Marina explained.
“I’m sorry to hear about his parents,” said Sofia.
Busco nodded. “He fills the role well, though.” The servants began to lay down the second course: a white soup topped with a sort of bio-engineered onion derivative, and served with rice. Sofia looked around for a clock.
“I’ll probably have to leave after eating.” Busco nodded again and glanced around the room, looking to get the attention of the servant dressed in orange.
“Going so soon?” asked Marina.
“Yes, unfortunately I have a meeting to attend.”
Busco suddenly stood. “What’s the point of bringing a servant if I have to go track him down. Ladies, please excuse me.”
“Of course,” said Marina. She waited for him to walk away. “Have you met Busco before?”
“Briefly. A few years ago now, before he had moved here. He fits in quite well.”
“Yes, he does. It’s pathetic isn’t it?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Marina answered. A moment later Busco returned to the table, the servant following closely behind him. Sofia focused on finishing her soup.
“Whenever you’re ready, he’ll take you back to the car and then wherever you need to go.” At that Sofia stood.
“I’ll be going then; I’ve had a wonderful time.” Marina and Busco offered their farewells and she departed, across the room, up the elevator, out of the pyramid, and back to San Selen.