And Priam, lord of spears, and Priam’s folk.
The Iliad, book VI, line 448
When the word of Pretext’s fall came to Peter Black’s camp the general was seated beneath a conveyer belt on the Twelfth Level, watching a sales presentation made by the scrap men of Antioch Station. Many hundreds of workmen in small electric carts were parading past General Black and his staff officers while they displayed samples of the supposedly uninfected metal they were hoping to sell to the army. The traders had brought acrobats dressed in light armor made of silvery scales, and those agile young men jumped from cart to racing cart to impress the hopefully gullible soldiers. They looked like silver birds hopping across the backs of the ever-moving vehicles. “Bloch, Bloch, Pater Bloch!” the riders shouted each time they passed the general’s retinue, for that is how these men of largely Middle Eastern descent mispronounced his famous surname. The red dust the machines were raising was becoming very thick around the conveyer belt; some of the officers—including Brigadier Harriman, the second-in-command—were choking on the rolling clouds and were frantically waving their hands in front of their faces to make patches of breathable air. One of these officers, a young Spaniard named Arango, remarked to me how well the general endured the dust; the others were making a great show of their suffering while the old veteran remained seated, his eyes held straight ahead and his body rigid. “He is an example to us all,” said the young man. Not until the messengers came with the letter from Garden City did he realize that the general had gone to sleep.
“Thank you, my darling. I will treasure it always,” said my father when Brigadier Harriman touched him on the shoulder and awakened him.
Father blinked at the startled man when he understood he was not addressing his wife. He motioned me to come to him and kneel at his side.
“Your mother is at home, isn’t she?” he asked in my ear.
“Your wife is indeed in Garden City, sir, if that is the one you speak of,” I said.
I did not think it a fit time to explain to him once again what he should know better than any man: he was my father, but the woman on Earth was not my mother.
“Of course,” he said, and tapped himself on the leg. “What are we doing here?”
“Looking to buy scrap metal,” I whispered in his ear.
“Do we need scrap?” he asked.
“Yes, but not this,” I said. “These are mostly infected parts the traders could not sell elsewhere. They are keeping them moving so we can’t examine the damage they’ve covered with red enamel. The entire lot is of suspect quality.”
“Arabs,” huffed Father. “We have beaten them.”
“Many times, sir,” I said. “Presently, however, they are our friends.”
“Clever fellows, though,” he said. “I like how they jump about. If you can’t fight worth a damn, you should be able to do tricks. Could we lie down now? It’s very unpleasant here.”
Brigadier Harriman pointed out the messengers to him.
“Governor General, they have a letter from Mr. Golden,” said the second-in-command, and handed my father a stack of sealed papers.
“Mr. Golden?” said Father, and he had to ponder the name for several moments ere he remembered Mr. Golden was the father of his sons’ wives. “A slippery chap,” said General Black, as he recalled. “Very rich. I wouldn’t buy scrap from him, either. He talks too much. Bit of a windbag.”
The general fell silent again. I could tell he was further considering Mr. Golden. The soldiers standing around him were awaiting his orders and beginning to glance at each other from the corners of their eyes.
“Sir,” said Harriman, after he had awaited a word from his commander for a respectful minute, “the tradesmen from Antioch Station . . .”
“Send them away,” said Father, emerging from his reverie. “They are too noisy for my liking. Send old Golden away, too. Tell him to call on me later. I don’t care if we are related by marriage. I need to lie down.”
“General,” said Harriman, and cleared his throat, “the gentleman is not present. His messengers have brought you the letter you are holding.”
“Yes, yes indeed,” said Father, and was surprised to see he was holding a bundle of papers in his lap. “Well done,” he added to Harriman and the other officers. “Exemplary service. You are dismissed. Not from the army—from my presence, I mean. Go about your duties. Go about your regular duties. I don’t need your help,” he said to me as he leaned forward to stand.
He got almost into a crouching position before he decided he was not going to get completely upright. He grunted mightily when he reached the acme of his progress, as if the sound in his throat would give him the momentum he needed to get to his feet. The sound did not help. Brigadier Harriman and I had to step forward and lift him up, which we were accustomed to doing nearly every time he stood.
“There we go. No need for help. Here we go. Once the old mule takes the first step, he can go all the way home, no matter how long the trip. Here we go,” said Father.
I took his arm and led him from the conveyer belt toward the wide dome housing the military station. The officers saluted Father’s retreating backside, and the general waved to them over his shoulder. He could not have used less ceremony if he were taking leave of a group of children. I noted that the messengers from Garden City were carrying other missives that they distributed to the divisional commanders and to several of the common soldiers as soon as we were a hundred paces from them.
“Good chaps, good chaps,” my father said to the scores of troopers who stopped to salute him as we passed them. (I expect that as soon as we were beyond earshot many of the men commented on how the governor of Mars’s mining stations needed a woman to help him walk.)
Movement always did Father good. As we walked farther, his legs became steadier and his mind clearer. On the last half of the walk home, he was able to let go of me and progress under his own power.
“Old age happens all at once, Justa,” he told me. “One day I was as strong as a bull, and the next I needed an hour to wake up and longer than that to go to sleep.”
The servants at our quarters scurried about like so many geese when they beheld us approaching. Mica, the Siberian butler my father had collected on a campaign in the Far East, came running to us, bowing as he went, and smiling so broadly the corners of his mouth nearly touched his ears.
“The governor general has purchased many tons of fine steel, yes?” he said. “The Arab traders have wonderful scrap. I told you so.”
“We bought scrap, no,” I told him. “Your friends tried to sell us defective metal that has the nano-infestation on it.”
“Not my friends!” protested Mica. “Arabs are liars and thieves! They are the enemies of mankind! Never have I been a friend to Arabs! God bless the noble soldiers of the Pan-Polarian Empire for defending civilization from those evil people!”
He was indignant I should remember he was the one who had approached the general on behalf of the traders. As a member of the religious sect known as the Pristine Ones, a group that was not supposed to consort with criminals, Mica resented anyone who disparaged his moral character. He put a smile over his anger and pulled the door open to let us enter. My father instantly cast off his armored jacket and his long plastic topcoat, and laid himself upon his field cot. While Mica undid the old man’s laced boots, Father gave forth a deep, appreciative sigh.
“Read me the letter, Justa,” he ordered me. “What could Golden want to plague us with now? It’s something to do with money, I’ll wager.”
Those who have spoken ill of my father—or were more afraid of his enemies than they were true to him—have said the governor general of Mars Station was an uneducated man, and that was why he had others read aloud to him. In truth he was born to a wealthy military father who saw to it that Father was proficient in both English and Syntalk while he was still a boy living at home. Father’s problem when he grew to be an old man was not lack of education; it was his failing eyesight. The same blazing tunnel lights and eastern sky that had burned Father’s face and neck as dark as his name had baked his eyes until everything beyond the end of his nose was a little blurry to him. In the declining years of his life he could no more have read handwritten script than he could have won a footrace. Unless he heard my voice, he was unable to identify his daughter when I was standing at a distance.
I tore open the seal on Mr. Golden’s letter and began to read:
“‘My warmest salutations to my lord Peter Justice Black—’”
“‘Lord’?! What is this ‘Lord’ business?” asked my father. “The rascal definitely wants more than I can give him!”
I read: “‘—the hero the Pan-Polarian people have chosen to be—I cannot stop myself from writing it—emperor!’”
“What is the fool saying?” asked Father.
Mr. Golden’s declaration caused Father to prop himself onto the edge of the cot.
I continued: “‘Do not, for humility’s sake, forbid me to call you by that title, and order not the scholar reading this to you to tear apart these lines written by the most insignificant of your supporters. I beg your indulgence: I well know no one would dare to demand it of you. Please trust me when I aver it is my love for your noble person and my faith in the salvation you shall bring to the Empire which makes me, compels me, yea, threatens me with tortures worse than death lest I call you by that title. “The Emperor Peter Justice Black,” I say aloud to myself again and again, so intoxicated am I by that sweet phrase that my family and friends and those I meet upon the streets think I am mad. The Emperor Peter Justice Black. It surpasses all other pleasures to write it and then to contemplate the words that are enthroned upon the paper.
“‘I have been told by certain friends that you know what happened in the Field of Diversions upon John Chrysalis’s failure to pay the Guardsmen of Garden City the gold he had promised them.’”
“I know nothing of this!” exclaimed Father. “Herman Pretext is emperor! Who is this John Chrysalis?”
“Lord Chrysalis, sir,” I explained. “He was a senator. Apparently, he is now emperor. Lord Pretext seems to be gone.”
“They just killed an emperor!” said my father. “How long has it been since we were in Garden City when they killed Luke Anthony?”
“We were there only three months ago, sir,” I said.
I read farther in Mr. Golden’s letter: “‘As you know, the people gathered there, inside the Field of Diversions, and they were furious with John Chrysalis, whom they rightfully considered unworthy of the title Emperor. I was present and can truthfully say that for the first hours of that daylong gathering the air thundered with insults aimed at the impudent slug who would rule the world. Here, a group shouted lewd jokes concerning Chrysalis’s unmanly passions—the which I shall not repeat here for fear I offend a man whose self-restraint in sensual matters is so widely known. There, Chrysalis’s dupes came forth bearing meager sacks of gold coins and tried to buy the public’s goodwill. They were driven from the stadium with stones clattering at their heels. Here again, good citizens railed against Chrysalis’s brazen assumption of the throne so soon after Lord Pretext’s death, and they argued that the usurper had a hand in that kindly ruler’s murder. Then, from somewhere in the crowd arose a rhythmic chant we at first thought was the sound of soldiers’ boots on the street outside. We fell silent and listened. We heard clearly then it was some good men chanting: “Black, Black, Peter Black!” Others followed their brave example. Then more and more shouted your name, the glorious chant rising and yet rising farther in power like the wind rising from the southern deserts, until “Peter Black” was upon the lips of every man in Garden City, save upon the girlish lips set in the midst of John Chrysalis’s flaccid, yellow face. Next someone—if I recall correctly, it was myself—went to the speaker’s platform and gave, in the best words he could summon, a speech invoking Peter Black as the guardian of the Empire and the true heir to the sacred office of emperor. The speaker asked, most respectfully, that General Black not forget his people in these desperate times. This speech, as poor as it was, was greeted with tumultuous applause and shouts of approval. Other far more elegant men of senatorial rank came forward to make similar, but more eloquent, orations in your favor, and each speech was followed by a round of riotous cheering.
“‘I have been told by friends that certain conspirators who love not you, me, or the Empire have whispered to you that those faceless men who began the chant for Peter Black were bribed by this your loyal servant to act as they did. Consider, my friend, that these same liars have before claimed that I have secretly pledged my support to Abdul Selin!’”
“Another name,” said Father. “At least I know that one. Selin is governor in North America.”
“It seems some want him to be emperor now,” I said.
“Everyone, it seems, will be emperor sooner or later,” said Father.
I read on: “‘The scoundrels should get their lies to agree. If I were supporting Selin in his ill-conceived assault on the sacred throne the gods—if they exist and have a number that can be counted—have set above the reach of all ordinary men, would I be bribing riffraff to boom your cause in the Field of Diversions?’”
“I don’t get that,” said Father. “The man cannot write a straight sentence. Crooked words, crooked thoughts I always say. What do you suppose he means by that business about the throne?”
“He means the emperor’s throne,” I said.
“Since when is that sacred?” asked Father. “Some dead emperors are sacred, or so their sects and the Senate have declared them, but the place where they sit? We’re worshiping chairs now?”
“He is being poetic, sir.”
“Poets,” sniffed Father. “A bunch of lisping little fairies. They can’t write a straight sentence, not a one of them. You ask me, they’re ninety percent of what’s wrong with the world; them and all their songs. Well, them and this thing that infects the metal—together they’re ninety percent of the problem. At any rate, they are a bad bunch for anybody to use as a model.”
“‘Were I the African Selin’s lackey,’” I read, “‘which no true Pan-Polarian could be, would I be the first to expose myself upon the speaker’s platform, despite the threats these many conspirators have sent my way? Would I have married my daughters to your sons, knowing the danger to their lives should our designs fail, if I were the Turk’s confidant?’”
“Turk?” said Father. “Who is the Turk? Selin?”
“Yes,” I said, “Mr. Golden is referring to Selin. Selin is of Turkish ancestry and African birth. His hometown is Tunis. To Mr. Golden, Turks and Africans seem to be all the same.”
“Turks, Libyans, Syrians, Iranians, Arabs—they’re all wogs,” said Father, and lay back down so Mica could rub his weary legs. “The sun burnt me black. Old Selin was born as brown as a loaf of bread.”
“As was I, sir,” I said.
He did not mean to be as cruel as he sometimes was. He actually forgot that my mother was a Syrian. At times he succeeded in forgetting I was also a bastard.
I forged ahead in the turgid letter. “‘Would I have solicited money for your cause from the capital’s best families—which monies I shall be sending to you when the time is more opportune—if I were not devoted entirely to you? Would I risk this correspondence with the great General Black if I were not completely his? No, says this honest man. Put me to the test: give me whatever dangerous mission your elite troopers shun; let me die for my friend, my lord, my emperor, my special deity! I am a slave in perpetuity to you; not a common slave who may one day buy his freedom, but one who will remain your property until your death—may God forestall that evil day when you are taken from us! Tell me to cut off my right hand as a sign of my obedience and the messenger who brings you my next letter will bring my severed hand with him. Order me to kill my dear brother, and the same messenger will bring his head to you, for that is the sort of upright man I am.’”
“The man is an ass,” commented Father. “Skip ahead to the pertinent parts, if there are any.”
“Let’s see,” I said. “There are another five paragraphs of self-abuse. He says he would kill his mother for you, were that lady not already dead. He says General Black will not abandon Garden City to ‘the ambling wolf and the hungry raven.’ That’s rather good, for him, I mean. I wonder where he lifted that phrase from.”
“He goes on and on and on,” said Father. “Just tell me what he wants.”
“He rambles on,” I said, scanning through the long letter. “There are some anecdotes here about effeminate men insulting you and the Lady of Flowers. He put those in here to anger you. Oh, this is good; he says some ex-slaves who are currently pimps are calling you a coward because you haven’t declared yourself emperor. Here’s the nub: ‘If you allow Selin to take the throne uncontested, you will lose more than an opportunity; you will lose your life. We are all slaves in this world, my lord Black, everyone except the emperor. Chrysalis is a weakling and may be allowed to live, but Selin will never allow a slave as powerful as you to serve him.’ Then there are some more words of praise for you, and that’s the end of it.”
“That is everything?” asked Father from his cot.
“May I say, master,” said Mica, “that the gentleman is a most interesting writer?”
“The gentleman would agree with you,” said Father. Of me he asked, “Is Lord Pretext really dead?”
“So Mr. Golden says,” I replied. “And John Chrysalis seems to be the new emperor. We will have to make inquiries.”
“Explain again how that mongrel Selin is mixed up in this,” said Father.
“He himself, or someone in Garden City, wants Selin to be emperor after this Chrysalis is dead,” I said. “Selin, according to the letter, is marching on the capital as we speak. He would have the largest army.”
“And Golden wants me to become emperor instead of Selin?” said Father. “I was a sergeant first grade, Justa. Served in the ranks for most of my life. Now this rich fool wants me to stand for emperor? Me? The man is insane. We never should have formed a connection with him.”
“I expect, sir,” I said, “that Mr. Golden has sent a similar letter to every provincial general, offering each of them aid and money. Selin himself probably has a letter from him.”
Father got up from his cot. The governor of Mars Station looked an old man on his skinny, blue-veined legs as he paced the floor wearing only his tunic and his underclothes. He stopped and peered out the window for a long time, though I doubted he could see anything outside in the darkened tunnels very clearly. He was not frightened. Father had been through too much to fear anything any longer. Not even the prospect of his own death frightened him anymore. He was upset because he still cared for his distant family in Garden City and for the Empire, although both his family and the Empire had taken much from him and had never given him much in return.
“There is one true thing in this letter that windbag has sent us,” he said. “Should Selin become emperor, if he marches on Garden City and kills this pretender Chrysalis, then the days of my life are numbered. Selin will suffer no other army commanders. He’ll purge the generals and the provincial governors and install members of that dreadful family of his in most of the dead men’s places. He won’t kill just me. He’ll take my wife, my sons, all my relatives. Selin will do the same to anyone unwilling to carry water for him. I may not know these politicians in Garden City, those senators who want to be rulers of the world and the whispering rich men, but I do know the generals, and Selin is the worst of the lot.”
“We don’t know anything definitely, sir,” I said. “You need not worry yourself over something Mr. Golden has written. You know what a liar he is. Lie down and let Mica massage your legs some more. We will know the full story in a few days. There will be merchants in the marketplace who will tell us. Big news like this always travels with the tradesmen now that broadcast communications are compromised.”
He did as I bade him, and Mica’s soothing hands soon had Father asleep and snoring loudly. When the lights in the great dome over the military camp were being dimmed, he awoke and had a simple dinner of cold polenta cakes and dehydrated vegetables. Father had gone to sleep another time when we in the household heard the soldiers outside chanting his name. Mr. Golden’s messengers had spread their other letters throughout the entire camp, and now everyone knew of the events in Garden City. Thousands of people—Pan-Polarian troops, merchants from the tunnel communities, camp followers from outside the walls of the military post, and some of the now drunken scrap traders—were marching around our little house, proclaiming in a dozen different languages that General Peter Black was the new lord of the Pan-Polarian Empire. Father was completely befuddled. He stood at the window and shouted at the disorderly crowd to be quiet. To every officer he saw tramping past he barked an order to the effect that the men should be gotten back inside their barracks. “Make them stop!” he told his commanders. “I’m not of royal blood! I’m not even one of the Anthony family! I’m a common soldier!” The officers were busy till long after dark getting the soldiers to return to their quarters. After that had been accomplished we could still hear the civilians shouting “Black, Black, Peter Black!” outside the limits of the camp.
“All I wanted to do today was buy some uninfected scrap,” said my father as he lay back down and put an arm over his forehead.
“Now I have a camp full of idiots eager to have me declare myself emperor! We have to have a better plan tomorrow, Justa.”
Fifteen years before the letter from Mr. Golden came to us on Mars, we had first met the last of the Anthonys at Progress, a dreary military outpost on the Amur built of gray stone the near constant snow and wind of that forested region had striped with lines of white patina. Father was by then already a decidedly middle-aged man, vigorous and self-confident, yet as weathered from his years of military service as the stones of Progress’s houses and fortifications were from the snow. My father may have never been a great strategist when at the head of an entire army, but while in the ranks, while serving at the head of a company or in command of a division, he had no equal. Tactics he left to Fate; Father knew the power of discipline and courage, and on those two pillars he had built his long career. He reasoned he had always been strong enough and brave enough to get the job done, and if he were brave and strong in the future, that would suffice to meet all challenges. His heroism in the East during the Fourth Mesopotamian War, when he led a detachment of foreign auxiliaries to glory in the siege of New Babylon, was a story known throughout the Empire, even unto the emperor. We were at that time ruled by Mathias Anthony, whom we remember as Mathias the Glistening, the philosopher-king presiding over that portion of the world between the Isthmus of Panama and the Gobi Desert. Mathias brought Father to the Amur while the gathering army there was preparing to strike across the river at the Manchurian rebels stirring on the southern shore. The emperor had placed under Father’s command an entire division, the famous Twentieth, which Mathias had transferred from Britain for the sake of this one campaign. Father was so proud of his new assignment he ordered the Twentieth’s wild boar insignia sewn into his personal clothing and onto the sleeves of his military tunics. In our household the image of the wild boar was stamped onto our dishes, stitched into our blankets, made the default image on our family’s hologram projector, and was carved into the upright posts of our beds and furniture so that while Father was relaxing at home among his few humble pieces of property he would be continuously reminded of how high he had risen in the world.
In those brave days Father had not yet faced anything he could not defeat with his strong right arm and ten thousand troopers armed with energy weapons. He certainly never needed any assistance when he strode from place to place and from triumph to triumph. Like all men, he was ambitious. Never was he overreaching. I doubt that at the time Father thought there was any higher place to which a man of his background could rise.
Mathias’s son, Luke Spacious Anthony, was with us on the Amur. His father had the year before named him coemperor, albeit the boy was a month from his seventeenth birthday and unready for the responsibilities of his office. Real administrative power remained in Mathias’s hands. The whole world—and especially the soldiers amassing at Progress, who would witness young Luke Anthony’s first public duty—was eager to know more about this boy destined to rule alone after his father’s death. The general expectation was that the son would be a younger and more vigorous version of Mathias the Glistening, the wise and generous ruler who had kept the domestic peace and protected the Empire from foreign invasions as ably as any leader of Pan-Polaria ever had. “A lion does not sire a jackal,” was my father’s estimation of the boy before he met him. (My father was fond of animal metaphors throughout his life, and often shared them with those in his home, sometimes sharing them many times over.) What Father and the world would get in young Luke Anthony would be, as I will tell, something far worse than a jackal.
I was a precocious twelve-year-old when we came to cold Progress in the seventeenth year of Mathias’s reign. My life up to then had been a series of stays at Father’s various postings in the Middle East and in the Asteroid Belt. During my entire existence I had dwelt in the rectangular encampments the Pan-Polaric Army builds everywhere it goes, and I had seen soldiers marching outside our front door ever since I was old enough to be aware of my existence. My father never knew how to explain that existence of mine to other men: to his superiors he said the dark-skinned girl always about his quarters was the child of one of his servants, but to his brother officers of his own rank he admitted I was his illegitimate daughter, one born to a mistress long since dead. Father in those times was not a religious man. (I mean he did not participate in any of the prescribed religions or in any of the mystery cults that had emerged throughout the Empire during the previous century.) Outwardly he was a gruff, downright stern figure in the polished body armor he could never wear too often or shine too diligently. Within his heart he felt more guilt than he dared confess on account of the child living in his home. Father assigned failings to other men, not to himself. He knew the other soldiers, even some of the other officers, had unofficial wives living in the makeshift villages outside the military encampments. Father did not consider himself to be the same as other men. I was a memento of the instance he had slipped as badly as others did every day and as he had disciplined himself never to do.
Father kept a Canadian amanuensis named Clemens to read and write the orders of the day for him before I would perform those duties; this same man had taught me the two great languages of the Empire, and I had devoured every book in the English and Syntalk tongues I could lay my hands upon, which were really only those Clemens could borrow from other learned men and women who happened to be in the vicinity. As is true of most people exposed to a little learning, I was inordinately proud of myself. I did not come near my father without repeating something from Homer or Herman Bing, and I must have been a terrible irritant to him whenever he came home to eat or sleep. My father’s plan was to keep me until I came of age, then marry me to a man suitable to my lowly station—meaning my future husband would at best be a worker or a common soldier, and my learning did not make me a better match for any man I was likely to wed. Father often reminded me of that fact when I showed off my abilities in algebra or my knowledge of world history. While his sense of honor compelled him to provide for me, his sense of propriety obligated him not to tell his legitimate wife in Garden City or my two half brothers that I existed; this family he seldom visited had risen in the social strata of the capital as Father rose in military rank. The three of them could barely tolerate the tough old campaigner when Father managed to travel to that great city, and they most definitely could not have endured the presence of his Syrian bastard. I therefore grew up as an only child, one surrounded by the vivid, noisy atmosphere of the Pan-Polarian Army. I idolized and feared my tall, muscular father, who appeared more muscular than he in fact was when he wore his body armor, but I lived within my treasured books and in the dreamland they inspired in my thoughts.
My father had met Emperor Mathias a year earlier, when the great man made a tour of the Middle Eastern provinces. Mathias the Glistening used a network of informers recruited from among the army’s quartermaster corps and from the petty court officials, tax farmers, and provincial policemen to keep track of the important men within the Empire. Thus Mathias already knew everything about Father, including everything about me, long before he encountered Father face-to-face. Mathias would have known that two men could not have been as different as he and his General Peter Black; still he granted my father the rare honor of a private interview during his stay in Alexandria. What the emperor, one of the great thinkers of the age, and my father, famous among his soldiers for his monosyllabic speeches, could have found to discuss baffles me yet today. It baffled me more that the emperor formed a favorable opinion of my father during their brief meeting. But then Mathias’s judgment of others was a mysterious facet of the great man. He was consistently more compassionate than discerning when he evaluated others. It satisfied Mathias that my father, like himself, was a veteran of a hundred pitched fights and had never flinched from his duty. Mathias appreciated the horrors Father had endured for the Empire’s sake as only another soldier would. At Alexandria, on the southern rim of the Empire, Mathias had promised Father the Twentieth Division and bade him come to Progress the following spring.
Our new home in icy Siberia was a stone hovel within sight of the emperor’s great hall, a massive building that stood at the very center of the military station and atop which were erected the encampment’s primary communication towers. The four of us—Father, myself, Father’s Greek servant Medus, and Medus’s wife, Helen, who had been my nurse when I was an infant—were miserable in that cold, smoky, very crowded little house set in that wet, freezing land that may be a fit home for bears and savage men but offers only frozen ground and vast distances to civilized people. The elder Ming and the natural historian Rodriguez tell us Siberia is so very cold due to its gigantic size and to its low basins in which inversion takes place and traps the cold air close to the ground during the winter and keeps the sun from breaking through during the brief summer; these learned men say that if we laid an electronic grid underneath portions of that forbidding land and powered the grid with nuclear generators, we could make the heated portions as warm and as fertile as California. If there is a sliver of truth in what they write, my two years in Progress convinced me that the first duty of an emperor—should large-scale electronic projects ever again become possible—would be to do whatever can be done to heat that chilly corner of Pan-Polaria. While we were there we had to keep the primitive wood-burning fireplace burning day and night, as did the other souls trapped within the four straight walls of the encampment, and thus there was always a gray cloud around our houses to match the gray clouds high above us. When we did see the sun, it appeared to us a weak, silver circle that was as feeble as the light reflected in a blind man’s eyes. Never did it give off enough heat; it merely illuminated the misty air during the daytime and let us behold what an ugly bog we had as a home.
My old nurse Helen had long been a believing woman. She believed in the Lady of Flowers, in the Christian Jesus, in the Muslim Allah, in the Great Mother, in Minit the god of human sacrificers, and in anything anyone ever imagined could have a power over us, including those things that move in the night and do not have a proper name. Helen knew the secret practices that lie outside religion altogether. Whenever my father was gone from the house and could not object to her nonsense, she would sit before the fire and read the future in the ashes the flames left behind, a trick she claimed to have learned in California, the home of Pan-Polarian spiritualism.
“The Pan-Polarian Army will defeat the Chinese,” she told me one afternoon when she had scooped up a handful of black cinders and tossed them into the air.
“Will this be the last time we attack them?” I asked her.
She stirred the ashes with a stick while she considered my question. My love for Helen prevented me from telling her I did not have any faith in her divining skills or in any of the other superstitious notions she had.
“Yes, this will be the last time,” she said.
Events would prove her prediction wrong a dozen times in the next forty years, but I never upbraided her with facts.
“One more thing,” she said. “This is an unlucky place.”
“I would think so,” I said. “Look outside. Progress is too wet for people, too cold for the fish in the river. It is an unlucky place for everyone but the geese; they get to fly away anytime they want.”
She told me to hush.
“Show some respect for the mysteries of the gods, child,” she told me. “Look at how they have made the world colder,” she added, which was a warning millions of elders had given children ever since—for apparently natural reasons—the Earth had become a couple degrees colder during the twenty-second century. “Look, Justa,” she exclaimed, and spat into the ash pile. “The signs say you, child, are in grave danger here! You should never go outside the door without my permission, and never, never should you go spying around the emperor’s residence!”
Wherever we lived, the gods of the ash heap told Helen I should not go outside. Her gods were a very anxious lot when I was a little girl. Like Helen, they feared the thousands of armed men drilling in the open spaces outside our door, and they wanted me to stay indoors and under Helen’s supervision where I might learn the arts of sewing and cooking every young woman needs to know now that we no longer have the domestic conveniences our ancestors did. The gods’ warnings, I regret to say, never worked on me. I would sneak out of the house regardless of the dangers they foresaw and would go places I should not have, regardless of how much they and Helen fussed. In dreary Progress, the one place the gods and Helen warned I definitely should not go was the emperor’s hall, which was, of course, the one place in the entire station I wanted to give a closer inspection. Hundreds of tall, clanking soldiers came and went through that building’s chromium steel doors every day, as did emissaries from the Senate in Garden City and local officials from Vladivostok, the provincial capital. I stood at the doorway of our little hut and imagined as I gazed at the gray exterior of the emperor’s quarters that the interior of that four-story building must be lined with crystal and metal machines and that inside its central hallway were elegant men in pristine white suits bearing the purple stripe of nobility, and those elegant men would be holding video conferences with other important men back in Garden City as they discussed the affairs of the world with the studied honesty of the philosophers in the books I read. I would be utterly disappointed when I in time found the inside of the hall was as drab as its outside shell and that the men therein were mostly soldiers who looked and acted exactly like the ones I could see on the exercise grounds.
On the day Mathias announced the coming arrival via jet transport of his son in Progress he invited his generals to a banquet that would welcome the young coemperor to that frozen bit of Hades.
“You will bring your daughter, sir,” he told my father in a private conference.
“I have two sons in Garden City, my lord,” Father told him. “No daughters.”
“I am the Empire,” Mathias told him. “I see all, hear all, or so they say I do. You have an unofficial daughter living here with you, Peter. I think it commendable of you to accept your responsibilities to her. She will want to see me; I am the great emperor and so on. I might be quite impressive, to a child of her age. I am curious to see what sort of little girl lives her whole life in military stations. Indulge me, my friend. I am interested in how children develop. But then, most of us are, aren’t we? We think children will explain to us how we each became what we are. Bring her to the banquet.”
Helen took an entire morning to bathe me in Father’s little portable tub and an afternoon to fix my hair into an extravagant pile of curls, which she said was exactly the same style as noble women in Garden City wore. (Perhaps the noble women did, just not in that particular century.) Helen patched together a white gown for me out of the bits of one of my father’s old garments. Once she had checked the fit on me, she made me take off the dress, and I had only my shift to wear till it was time for us to walk to the great hall.
“Don’t sit!” Helen warned me as I waited in the smoky house. “You’ll get yourself dirty! The emperor will think we live like swine.”
“How could the emperor see dirt on my underclothes?” I asked her. “Is he going to peek up my skirt?”
“What a filthy mouth you have, child!” she scolded me. “Come here so I may slap you. Do you think the emperor is a criminal?”
Helen’s threats were hollow. She repeatedly told me she was going to slap me and never did.
“I spoke before I thought,” I said. “I apologize.”
Father told me I should say nothing when we got to the banquet, particularly not to the emperor.
“He has a familiar manner for a great man,” Father told me as we walked through the muddy grounds toward the large building. “He may speak to you directly. I don’t know why. He speaks to a lot of people he shouldn’t. If he does, pretend you are deaf and dumb. Make guttural sounds and wave your hands a bit. Remember this, girl: Mathias is going to be named a god someday. You may not believe in any of that official government nonsense, but some people do. Bow when he gets near you. Whatever you do, do not look him straight in the eye.”
“Is it true that when you were a boy people could just fly from place to place and never have to walk?” I asked him, for I hated wading through the mud in my white dress and having to lift up my skirt to keep it clean.
“Some people could,” said Father. “Now about the emperor . . . ?”
“I will not look him in the eye,” I said. “I promise.” And perhaps at the moment I said it I truly meant to keep my word.
Upon entering the emperor’s tall front doors I saw that his home in Progress was large, but far less than magnificent. The walls were bare stone, and the rafters were exposed beams of rough-hewn timber rather than any sort of composite material one sees inside the monumental buildings of Garden City. Several of the high windows did not even have shutters on them yet, for work on the building was not complete and never would be during our time in the camp. Rather than a central table filled with the sumptuous food one can find at any dinner in the capital, there were only rows of wooden benches and wooden chairs on which the diners were to sit. Some of the more important officers in the front of the hall had pillows to soften their stay on the hard seats; that was the highest sort of comfort I could see inside the big house. Everything looked as though it had been made on the site by military carpenters, and probably everything had been. Carpenters could also have made the food we ate. Each guest had some figs, a small loaf of fresh bread, some apples from Europe, and a glass of whiskey mixed with water to make a concoction that was so weak Father said he could have downed a couple dozen tumblers of it and remained sober. From our bench high on the steps overlooking the main floor, we could see the emperor and his party at the other side of the room, yet I did not realize which one was the great Mathias until Father pointed him out to me.
“He is the one resembling a schoolteacher,” said Father.
The man he indicated wore a simple wool cloak fastened by a brass clasp on his shoulder. On the man’s neck was a metal shell that ran down his spine, for the emperor, like most important men from earlier times, had mechanical implants that allowed him to communicate instantly with computers and with other men in distant locations. His very brain no doubt contained implants that supported his basic functions and allowed him to live longer than others. Mathias wore no crown, carried no scepter, had no emblem of his office other than the large gold rings on his left hand. Two bodyguards, both with implants similar to the emperor’s, followed him as he walked to his dining place. I had thought the emperor would be as tall as his house and would have bigger muscles than the athletes I would one day see in the Field of Diversions; this man of fifty-seven years had thinning hair and limped when he walked because his right leg ached from an old war wound. When several of his more important guests came to salute him, he stood erect, allowing me to see him more clearly. I remember I thought he had the saddest, most weary eyes I had ever beheld.
For our entertainment that evening an actor in Garden City broadcast to us on a hologram projector stood before the emperor and recited the poet Damnmus’s description of Elvis’s heroic actions as told in the sixth book of the Elvisid. We soon discovered why the ham was not in the cinema making real money. In front of the learned Mathias the actor got the names of the ancient cities confused and was saying Los Angeles when meant to say Las Vegas and Miami when he should have said Memphis. I was twelve and I could tell he did not know his lines. The generals—except for my father, who had never read the Elvisid—frowned in recognition of the man’s mistakes. The emperor maintained a fixed expression of approval throughout the sorry performance. Mathias thanked the actor when the dope had ceased ranting and waving his arms in what I suppose was meant to be a dramatic fashion. The emperor was so kind he ordered via his implants that the fool be given two thousand dollars and bade him visit Progress on another occasion, perhaps during the area’s two weeks of summer. Because Mathias applauded the sap, everyone present gave the actor an ovation.
“Mathias is a good fellow, a good soldier, too,” Father told me. “I shouldn’t say he is like a schoolteacher. He’s nowhere as bad as the chaps I had in school. Every master I had would beat us to toughen us up. Mathias would never do that. That is his great fault: he is much too soft.”
“Sir, is that young man near the emperor his son?” I whispered in Father’s ear.
I was of the age when I had recently began to look at men and just then felt a peculiar confusion later in my life I would recognize as desire. When I looked at the tall, blond, actually beautiful young man seated in Mathias’s group I felt more confused than I had before in my brief lifetime. Unlike Mathias, this one stood out from the other men; he had an open, seamless face that was as bright as a candle flame. He was dressed as a young noble should be; he wore polished silk and had gold chains around his neck and waist.
“That is the other emperor,” said Father. “Luke Anthony.”
“He is very handsome,” I announced, sounding as naive as only a twelve-year-old can be.
Father laughed at my innocence.
“Don’t look too long at him, little one,” he told me. “I had a talk with some of the officers accompanying him from Garden City. They tell me young Luke doesn’t like girls.”
“He likes boys?” I asked.
Helen had explained, in her direct manner, such matters to me. I did not fully understand; I was only aware such phenomena existed.
“They say Luke Spacious likes death,” said Father. “That ugly fat chap next to him is Sao Trentex. He travels with the young emperor wherever he goes. Luke Anthony has a whole group of such friends that loiter about him. Some of them are women, so I suppose I should say Luke likes a certain sort of woman as much as he likes death.”
“What sort of woman would that be, sir?” I asked.
“Helen will explain it to you when you are older,” said Father, and he scowled as he did when anyone close to him mentioned matters touching upon sex.
“Why do you say he likes death, sir?” I asked.
“They say he threw a poor cook onto a barbeque grill just because the wretch made his spareribs too spicy,” said Father. “He has kept company with those thugs who call themselves the new gladiators. Some say he has killed unarmed men in the gladiators’ practice arena merely for the thrill of doing it. He and Sao Trentex and other friends of theirs have picked up people right off the streets of Garden City and have done with them what they would.”
“But he looks nice,” I said, and for the sake of young Luke’s beautiful face I disbelieved everything Father had said about him.
I did not note on this occasion that Luke Anthony did not resemble his father in any manner. Mathias was a slender, fine-featured man of Mediterranean and Hispanic descent, while young Luke’s nose and mouth were as large as a German’s. I did not know until years later that Luke was in fact the natural son of one of his mother’s numerous lovers and no one knew which one. It is fortunate Nature made young girls innocent of the world, since I would not have slept for many nights after the banquet if I had known the stories Father had heard of Luke Anthony were true, and only a portion of the horrible complete truth. The handsome face I was gazing upon belonged to one of the worst monsters ever to burden the ground with his footsteps. Now when I think of Luke Anthony and how beautiful he appeared at his father’s welcoming banquet, I think of the lovely black cat Arab mythology says lives south of the Sahara Desert; the beast, it is said, is so pleasing in its aspects and has such a beguiling voice that its prey will come to it whenever it calls, and so the creature may devour its victims at its leisure. To my young eyes Luke was lovelier than any beast of nature or legend. I could not have known that later in his short life he would prove himself to have a larger appetite than all the prey on Earth could have satisfied.
One of the emperor’s Guardsmen making his rounds through the rows of guests stepped to our bench and informed us Mathias was ready to receive us.
“Remember: say nothing,” Father warned me as we went to the other end of the hall.
“Even should he speak to me, sir?” I asked.
“We have been over this,” growled Father. “You are a poor deaf girl.”
We stood in queue for several moments while other officers passed the emperor’s table and paid their respects to him. At our turn Mathias addressed my father by name.
“Ah, Peter, health to you,” he said, and exchanged salutes with Father after Father bowed. “You’ve brought the little treasure. Let us have a better look.”
The ruler of the northern half of the world rose from his seat and limped on his bad leg from behind the table so he might lift my chin. To both his and my surprise, there was a spark of static electricity when he touched me, as sometimes happens when people have shuffled across a bare floor, and I jumped a half-step away from his hand after he made contact. Mathias laughed at my fright. Contrary to Father’s admonishments, I looked directly into his eyes that had seemed remarkably sad at a distance. Up close I could see he was amused about something; whether it was I who made his eyes smile or if he thought the onus of his position somehow ridiculous I cannot say. I can say that I was suddenly unafraid of him.
“Well, Lady,” he said, though I did not merit the title “Lady.” “Peter, she is very pretty,” he said to my father in Syntalk. “Much too pretty to be kept a secret.”
“Thank you, my lord,” I said to him in the same language, which startled my father. He recovered a second later and glared at me as if to say, “You’ve gone and done it now!”
Mathias, contrary to Father’s fears, was yet more amused and took my face in both his hands.
“So you are clever as well,” he said in English. “Beauty and brains in one small body. Did you learn Syntalk in the East, little one? What is her name?” he asked my father.
“Justa,” muttered Father, speaking as unenthusiastically as a dying man uttering his last words.
“You have given her a portion of your name, Peter,” said Mathias. Of me he asked, “Have you read any of the great books, Justa?”
“Yes, my lord,” I said. “I started at the beginning of Western civilization and read forward. I have read Plato, most of Aristotle, Epicurus—”
“Have you now, little one? At your age?” asked the emperor.
“‘No one can be too early or too late in seeking the health of the soul,’” I said.
“‘Whoever says that the time for philosophy has passed or not yet come is like the man who says the hour for happiness has not yet arrived or has already gone,’” said Mathias, completing my citation of Epicurus. “Very good, pretty Justa,” he said, and patted my head as he again stood fully erect. “There are others here who could not say who the Philosopher of Samos was.” (He cast his gaze upon his son Luke, who was tossing bits of bread crust at his friend Sao Trentex.) “You will have to visit us another day,” he said to me. “Tomorrow, Peter,” he said to my father, “I will be talking to some young friends. Send her to me. She will enjoy the experience. We are understood?”
“Yes, my lord,” whispered Father.
The master of everything between the Caribbean Sea and the northern border of China bent down and said into my ear, “You won’t have to dress up like this when you next come to see us. Wear your hair as you like. The natural way is superior to artifice, Justa.” (He playfully touched the crown of my absurd coif.) “Bring your tablet and pencils. Bring a laptop, if you own one that still functions. We have much to learn, both you and I do.”
The soon to be divine Mathias kissed my forehead, and Father and I returned to our bench.
“You don’t listen, do you, missy?” Father snapped at me as we walked away from the imperial presence. “That isn’t some damned jolly soldier of the line you were talking to! That was the bloody emperor! The one man in charge of everything. You stupid, stupid child! Do you know men have been killed for saying the wrong thing to the emperor?”
“To Mathias, sir?” I asked, for I could not believe the man we had just spoken to could be that dangerous.
“Maybe Mathias himself wouldn’t kill you. You can’t tell about those others about him,” said Father. “And when you talk to him, you speak to a thousand others. The way you run your mouth, you are bound to say something that will provoke somebody! Then we will all be executed! You, me, the entire family! I might as well hang myself tonight! That way my sons in Garden City will at least get my house; otherwise the emperor’s people will take everything in the courts. That’s what they do to traitors. See what you’ve done, you prattling, stupid child!”
I felt such anguish at having caused my father’s death I began sobbing. Already I could see Father swinging from the wooden beams of our lowly hut.
“Quit that!” Father commanded me, perhaps feeling a little guilt of his own for having overreacted to my conversation with the emperor. “Nothing has happened, yet. In the future, keep your mouth shut when you’re around Mathias and the other big shots, and maybe nothing will happen to us. But not another word to him. Absolutely nothing.”
I dried my eyes and managed to eat a couple more mouthfuls of the homely food. While I was looking about the vast room for what must have been the twentieth time I noticed an odd-looking little man seated two benches from us; his hair and his beard were like thick black wool, and he had dark, alert eyes that seemed to miss nothing of the activity around him. Though he ate his food vigorously—and noisily—his eyes did not glance at his meal but were kept darting about the rest of the dining room. Seated around him were thirty or so other dark, wire-haired men, each of them wearing a bronze cape clasp that was shaped like the stylized face of the sun.
“That’s Abdul Selin,” said Father after I had pointed out the dark man to him. “Best damn soldier in the army. I pity any Chinaman who crosses the path of that nasty little Turk during this campaign. If all the sons of Ishmael had been akin to him back in the days of the Islamic Wars, you and I would never have been born. He’s smart and he’s vicious. Looks like an ape trained to wear a man’s clothes, doesn’t he? Look sharp; he sees you staring at him. Smile back, Justa. Like smiling at a cobra, isn’t it? We can rejoice he is on our side, the bloodthirsty little beast.”
“Who are those other men sitting around him?” I asked.
“Relatives of his,” said Father. “Selin has lots and lots of relatives. Keeps a couple hundred of them on his staff or as his bodyguards. They’re from the same big tribe of Turks the Empire settled in North Africa a dozen generations back. The ones Selin can’t stick in the army are back home in Tunis and Alexandria and Casablanca; they’re magistrates, judges, and whatnot. You can imagine what kind of justice they dish out down there.”
“What does the sun face mean, sir?” I asked, regarding the cape clasps.
“That represents a god from way back before the times of the Christian Bible,” said Father. “In the African and Middle Eastern provinces they call it Heliosomething. The Selin clan members are all in the same sun worshiping cult. If you ask me, their so-called religion just gives them the chance to meet together in private when they have their secret services. They’re a big gang, really. A big bunch of tax farmers, smugglers, extortionists, and crooked lawyers.”
That was the first time I saw Father’s eventual nemesis. We had no idea then what enmity would one day exist between Selin and our small family; nonetheless he frightened me when I first beheld him. Most of the generals at the banquet, Father included, had done terrible things on behalf of the Empire, and I did not consider them evil men; they were each a servant of the emperor and acted without malice and not out of choice. Such was the morality of the world they were born into. Selin was something more than the other generals. One look at him and a person knew he had the energy of a dozen other men compressed within his small body. He would keep that vigor through the whole of his long life and would not allow it to be diminished by the thousands of unspeakable deeds he would do with the same zest he displayed when he attacked his food at the banquet. Father said that Selin had been a financial administrator—and perhaps a secret informer in the emperor’s service—before he became a general, which struck me as a strange background for a man possessing Selin’s aggressive personality. One could not imagine him sitting at a computer and examining sets of numbers while he kept a seemingly passive eye on the accountants working in the office around him. Mathias the Glistening, again displaying his propensity for choosing unusual men to serve him, had promoted Selin from the ranks of drones slaving in the government’s financial departments into the military hierarchy, where, as Father told it, the African-born Turk had displayed a fine talent for killing both the foreign enemies of Pan-Polaria and his own men.
“The emperor is a—I don’t know what—a la-de-da deep thinker,” said Father. “Then, for some reason only he knows, he promotes a wild-eyed killer like Selin and lets him in turn promote his bunch of money-grubbing cousins. You know why I think Mathias does it? Because he knows most intellectuals can’t fight—particularly not the deep thinkers you find back in the capital. Bear that in mind, my bookworm. Intellectuals and philosophers are good enough when they’re among themselves at their silly get-togethers and talk counts as much as money. The trouble with thinkers is they know so much and take so much time pondering what they know they get to being doubtful of everything, even of the certain things every man believes. Now, if men have doubts, they won’t fight. Mathias knows that Selin doesn’t think a lick about anything he does; Selin just acts and knocks the pieces into some sort of shape after the dust has settled. That’s why the emperor uses men cut from that hairy bugger’s cloth.”
“And men like you, Father,” I would have said, had I been as bold then as I am now.
In those days I was barely bold enough to return to the emperor’s hall on the morrow. The soldiers at the door seemed giants to me when I approached them and gave them my name. I thought them more astonishing when one of them led me into a smaller chamber off the main hall in which the emperor was addressing an eclectic group consisting of young officers, members of his son’s entourage, and a few generals’ children like myself. Unlike the elitist scholars in the Empire’s universities, Mathias thought all learning should be open to everyone, regardless of the scholars’ age, class, sex, or party affiliation. I was embarrassed beyond my powers to express my emotions when the emperor spoke my name as I entered the room and pointed to an empty place I was supposed to sit. More amazing than his casual manner was the extraordinary class Mathias was conducting for his pupils. Like Epicurus, the ancient philosopher I had quoted when I met him, Mathias believed a life worth living was one given to pleasure. He went beyond the Philosopher of Samos and asserted that the only true pleasure was found in leading a moral existence. A happy man, said the ruler of half the world, was necessarily a humble, kind, self-restrained, and generous man, for that was the sort of man partaking of the greatest pleasure the world could offer.
“Forgive others,” Mathias said. “Forgive, forgive, always forgive. Even forgive those who hate you.”
“What about the Chinese across the river, my lord?” asked one astonished junior officer. “Are we to forgive them?”
“Especially them,” said the emperor.
“Then, my lord,” said the confused junior officer, “should we—and I ask this with the greatest respect—should we . . . fight them? Seeing as how we forgive them, I mean, my lord?”
“Our duty as citizens of Pan-Polaria demands we fight the Manchurian rebels,” explained Mathias. “They have made raids across the Amur and have killed people living under our protection. We must chasten them or they will cross the river again and slay more of our citizens. Once we have beaten them and peace is again restored, we have a second duty, as men, to forgive them and to lead them to the true path of life. They are men like us, equal to us in every aspect, except in that they live in the darkness of ignorance, as all outside the Empire do. In the better days to come, we will show them the light of understanding, of that you may be assured.”
If a holy man had spoken those words, I would have long ago forgotten them. That they were said by the most powerful man alive, a man who could extinguish the life of any other human as easily as I might strike at a fly, not only seared them in my memory, it made me wonder if I were really hearing what my ears were telling my mind.
Handsome Luke Anthony and his companions were seated at the front of the room. When Mathias had turned to address the young officer they had been skylarking among themselves and making faces while the emperor spoke his solemn words. As Mathias finished his response to the officer’s question, the young coemperor coughed into his hand the word “Christer.”
This was a deadly insult in the imperial court. Mathias’s old tutor Frons had taught him that the Christians were not good people, as they acted morally to gain heaven rather than for the sake of being good. Moreover, they, like the Jews and the Muslims and unlike the new religions, did not recognize the divine natures of the dead emperors and their Empire. During the previous summer the emperor had yet again suppressed the Christian movement by killing five hundred thousand of that antique sect in Europe and North America. Mathias was not alone in his disdain for the once-dominant religion that had been forced underground three generations earlier; Christians (and the Jews and Muslims) had loyalties that were not connected to the Empire and thus were suspect citizens. The imperial agents who spied upon the outlaw sect had spread the rumor that Christians practiced incest between brothers and sisters, as they called each other by that title even if they were married to each other. They were outlaws in an Empire that tolerated nearly everything else. Everyone knew these same outlaws proclaimed a doctrine of moral living that, except for their belief in heaven, seemed to be much akin to Mathias’s theory of the good life. No one was more sensitive of that fact than Mathias himself. The emperor eyed his impertinent son, and the small room was completely silent while Mathias the Glistening fought against his anger. When the emperor’s self-restraint had triumphed over his wrath, he continued speaking to the class as if nothing unpleasant had happened.
The great Mathias had written a peculiar book during the previous year, a tome that was part autobiography and part a series of high-minded statements on anything that had crossed his mind. During his gatherings at Progress he would often read to us a short passage from this book of his, expound upon the meaning of what he had read, and next allow anyone to ask questions pertaining to the reading. The words he chose to read to us on my first day in his group were: “One can live well even in a palace.”
“Why do we say: ‘even in a palace’?” asked Mathias. “Because the opportunity to do evil is greatest for those who live there. The stockbroker working on the exchange in Garden City can do more harm to others than can the janitor who sweeps the exchange every evening. The sergeant can do worse than the individual soldier of the line. The ruler, who makes choices that touch everyone, can do more mischief than anyone. Thus, the higher our station in life, the more difficult it is for us to be good men and women.”
Mathias spoke as if he were a detached observer of the world and not one holding half the world in his hands. His objectivity made everyone present apprehensive—everyone other than his son Luke Anthony, I should say. That young man pretended to yawn as his father spoke, so familiar was he with the emperor’s discourses. Mathias told the story of his predecessor, the deified Pius Anthony, the palace dweller Mathias held to be the example of one who used power wisely. Next he told of the emperor Marcellus Darko, who he said was the example of one who did not live well in a palace, one who in fact burned his palace and the city around it to the ground.
“Forty-eight years ago, the citizens of Washington, where the capital once was,” narrated Mathias, “believed that the newly crowned Marcellus Darko would be worthy of the title emperor, for he was an athletic, handsome youth, and the people, being shallow thinkers, believed the inner man would mirror the outward appearance of the young man they saw each evening on their interactive screens. They did not know that long before he ascended to the throne Darko had been corrupted by his degenerate companions and, more significantly, by his indulgent, evil mother, the disgraceful Angelina. From the beginning of his reign to his last sad day, when he was murdered in the bedroom of his country estate, Darko surrendered himself to his baser inclinations; he committed murder, theft, rape, and every manner of carnal act decency forbids me to name in mixed company.”
“Plus he was a lousy poet,” chimed in young Luke.
For the second time in that session the father turned his eyes upon his wayward son. The officers present fidgeted in their chairs and wished they were somewhere else. I was a child and was ignorant of important matters; the officers from Garden City knew the references to Darko and his mother were Mathias’s way of speaking of Luke and his corrupt mother Gloriana. The young coemperor’s companion Sao Trentex giggled at the senior emperor’s disapproving frown, an indiscretion for which any other ruler of Pan-Polaria would have removed the fat toad’s head.
“Must you, sir?” asked Mathias of his son. “Of everyone here, you, young man, need to learn the truth concerning palaces.”
“Why?” asked Luke. “We never live in one. We are vagabonds, we in this royal house, O great teacher.” (Sao Trentex and some of his other young companions snickered at the son’s grandiose title for his father.) “We move from place to place, from war to war on the Empire’s frontiers, sleeping by campfires like savages, eating bread and corn cakes the peasants in India wouldn’t touch. Constricted by such austerity, we have to be moral, sir. There are no temptations where we live. Back in Garden City there are people confronting their desires every day; some days they abstain from doing as they would, and some days they surrender themselves to what you, sir, call their baser natures. They do not pretend to be holy eunuchs, sir. They are not hiding themselves out here in the wilderness while real life goes on.”
Two members of Luke Anthony’s entourage shook their heads enthusiastically. They had second thoughts about their actions when the emperor glared at them.
“Young man,” said Mathias, “you should not challenge me in front of others.”
“Am I not emperor with you, sir?” asked Luke Anthony, the pitch in his voice rising as he rose to meet his father’s challenge.
“You have a title,” said Mathias. “I think, young man, the world recognizes one of us as superior to the other. Should we ask some of the soldiers inside and see which one of us they will obey?”
Luke Anthony would in time show himself to be a monster, but he was always more a coward than a monster. The possibility of his father bringing a squadron from the storied Tenth Division into the room quickly brought the more powerful aspect of his personality to the forefront. His face turned ashen, and so did those of his companions, as he and they considered what might happen to them if the young emperor continued to confront his father. Luke’s friend and fellow coward Sao Trentex likewise had a change of heart and decided mocking absolute authority to its face was not the wisest course of action. The fat fellow whispered something to his young friend, and Luke Anthony said to his father, “In the spirit of debate, sir, I was suggesting some alternative possibilities to your—”
“Young man,” said the emperor, “I know what you were doing. You and your companions may leave us for the day.”
Luke and his friends scrambled for the exit, bumping into each other in their rush to reach safety. At the doorway they turned to bow to Mathias before they disappeared into the hall outside. A couple of them tried to speak a few words of apology to the emperor before they left, but Mathias waved them on their way.
“We are young and foolish, my emperor. This is the unfortunate inclination our formative years have given us,” pled Sao Trentex. “You must not think we—”
“You are indeed young and foolish,” said Mathias. “In time, you will no longer be young. Now, go or the soldiers come in.”
The members of Luke’s entourage literally knocked each other aside as they charged out the door.
The emperor held his hand to his forehead for a moment, much as ordinary people do when they suffer severe headaches. When he put his hand down, he continued to instruct the remaining students while he maintained the same detached mood he had before he had been interrupted. Before the session ended that day he engaged a young officer in a lively exchange concerning the origins of private property, and he seemed his normal self again.
“Did you say anything?” Father asked me over dinner that evening.
“No, the emperor talks enough for everyone, sir,” I told him.
“Very good,” said Father. “Let him talk. Like most bigshots, he loves to ramble on. Good. As long as he’s only talking, nobody can get hurt.”
“Sir, does Mathias get along with his son?” I asked.
“How would I know?” growled Father. “You are asking a foolish question. Shows you’re becoming a woman. That’s the only kind of question women ask. Look, Mathias made that pup of his coemperor, so he must like the boy in some way. Why would a person give a gift like that to somebody he doesn’t like? You’ve got to think about these things, girl.”
“Did the Greeks like the Trojans, sir?” I asked.
“That’s from a book, isn’t it?” said Father.
“Yes, a really old one.”
“It may surprise you, Miss Genius, but I happen to recall that comes from a rotten long poem written by that Homer fellow.”
“That’s right,” I said. “So tell me, sir: did the Greeks like the Trojans?”
“It’s another foolish question, Justa,” said Father, and set aside his fork for a moment. “You must practically be a woman to talk like that. You need to have a talk with Helen. Anyway, as I recall, the Greeks hated the Trojans. They were fighting a long bloody war, weren’t they?”
“Then why did they give the Trojans a gift, sir?” I said.
“Well, they gave them that big horse full of bloody soldiers, didn’t they? That is the right story, isn’t it?” asked Father. “This doesn’t have anything to do with that other old story about the man in the red suit?”
“Yes, it’s the wooden horse story.”
“Then that was not a real gift, was it?” said Father. “Honestly, Justa. You are bad as the emperor. You think so deeply you confuse yourself. You see, there are two types of things in the world: those that are simple and those that seem not to be. The simple ones are easy to understand, and the other ones are really simple matters disguised as complicated ones. It’s like what happens in battle: there are brilliant generals and there are slow-witted ones; in the end it’s always hit them on the left, hit them on the right, soften them up with rockets and aerial bombardment, and finally attack down the middle. You see?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and ate my chickpeas.
I attended the emperor’s symposiums throughout that cold first winter in Progress. I said nothing during class time and grasped what I could. Every day Mathias was more attentive to me than I could have rightfully hoped. He addressed me by the pet name “the Most Just” and would speak individually to younger students such as myself at the end of each session.
“What did you learn today, Most Just?” he would ask me as I crept toward the door.
“I learned, my lord, that I do not know what the transmigration of souls is,” I told him one day.
“No one does, Most Just,” he said. “That is an idea that first appears among the Pythagoreans, although they probably borrowed it from the Egyptians, and perhaps it was current in the Indus Valley long before that. Those who believe in it lack imagination, you see. They can envision no other world other than this one. Old Pythagoras and his kind believed the soul would return again and again to this realm in different forms. The Hindus think something similar even today. They did not know the soul is made to live a thousand times ten thousand years, but only once will our souls know this world.”
I comprehended a small fraction of everything he said, yet he was, I reminded myself every day, the emperor, and he must know what he was saying.
“You are very wise, my lord,” I said.
“So everyone tells me,” he said. He bent his head to my ear—so close was he I could see the separate segments of the flexible metal casing on the back of his neck—and he asked me, “You would not be flattering me, would you, Most Just?”
“Perhaps I was, my lord,” I said.
“Don’t do it, pretty one,” he told me, and stood straight once more. “I have a mob of flatterers about me. I want you to give me honest answers, my dear. The emperor demands that of you.”
One thing Mathias had in common with his criminal son was that he too had seen some master actors in the cinema back in Garden City, and he too could act if he wanted to—just not as well as his boy could. When Mathias pretended, the real man always shone through his pretense. On the day I mention here, he had meant to sound stern with me. I could detect the gentle smile within the hard man he was pretending to be, for he could not keep his goodness from shining through.
As much as I loved him, I do confess Mathias was a man with his faults. I do not refer to the brutal deeds he did, for his position and the chaotic state of the Empire demanded he do many horrible things. Nor do I refer to the mistress he kept in his household after his wife’s death, as lust is a weakness known to humans in general. When I speak of his faults, I mean that he enjoyed his wisdom and his own sonorous voice more than a man should. Worse than that was his love of his own virtue. Mathias had condemned the Christians for being good in order to please God. I have since come to think such religious folk are at least wiser than those who love virtue in order to please themselves, and Mathias, the finest man of his age, was often too pleased with himself.
On the second day of spring, when the snows had begun to diminish, the emperor took me aside after one of his symposiums and gave me a composite hand mirror as a going-away present. He told me the time for the campaign against the Manchurians had arrived.
“Look within, Most Just,” he told me as he handed me the gift. “Make your soul as beautiful as the face you see in the mirror. One day in the distant future, the face you see here will disappoint you. Do not despise your looks for being a passing circumstance. Take pleasure in everything that will not harm you; enjoy the small diversions of this physical plane, for nature put those things here to give us intimations of the perfections which forever lie beyond our reach.”
On the following morning he was gone, as were my father and the rest of the army. The combat engineers had built bridges of black carbon filament across the swollen Amur to allow passage to the southern shore. The troop carriers passed two abreast across these black sections straddling the brown water and into the sparse, sandy hills on the opposite bank. Select men in silvery helmets and body armor carried the banners of the separate divisions before the ranks of trucks and armored cars while drummers from the emperor’s marching band marked the even cadence as the traffic crept across the composite planks of the bridges. Mounted infantry from Mexico, recruited after mechanical problems had rendered so many troop carriers unusable, each of them wearing a long wool coat to shield his body from the cold, crossed in double lines behind the Pan-Polarian regulars. Siberian auxiliaries sporting long black beards came after the Mexicans; they shouted to the jet-streaked skies as they proceeded, and a camp follower told me the men were calling to their gods to grant them good fortune on the long trek that lay ahead of them in the hostile Chinese-controlled lands. Last to make the crossing was the grinding baggage train—the ammunition carriers and the heavy trucks with wheels as tall as a man’s head. The entire procession needed a full day to exit Progress. Helen and I watched their movement during the daylight hours from the doorway of our stone hovel. While we lay on our beds at night, we could hear the engines growling on the undulating bridges during our slumbers. Whenever a truck with an infected engine ground to a halt, a group of soldiers would put the machine in neutral gear and shove it out of the army’s path. I counted twenty-six such stricken vehicles within sight of the encampment on the first day of the march toward the south.
Father and his servant Medus both went with the Twentieth Division, leaving Helen and myself in the military station among the other women and children. Most of the other senior officers sent their families back to Garden City or to other places far from the lonely outpost, and in those distant spots the families awaited word of the expected victories. I was terribly alone that long summer and fall the soldiers were gone. I rarely had the company of other children during my youth: my peculiar situation was far too lowly for me to have friends among the offspring of other generals; being the daughter of a legion commander I was far too highborn to associate with the unofficial children dwelling outside the station walls. At Progress I daily wandered like a sparrow through the nearly deserted encampment, playing games with imaginary companions and dreaming of what Father and the emperor were doing beyond the southern horizon.
Luke Anthony had ridden on a personnel carrier beside his father into the Manchurian countryside, and had left his pack of jaded playmates in a cluster of drab buildings near the central hall Mathias had used. Other children left in the station made a pastime of running near to the quarters of the young coemperor’s entourage and shouting the nasty expletives they had learned by listening to their elders discuss Luke Anthony’s friends. The scamps would run away if one of the insulted hanger-ons emerged from a doorway to see what was happening. I stayed away from Luke’s people from Garden City because Helen had told me there were witches from the secret cults among the group. I knew my old nurse was trying to frighten me away from that loud, drunken crowd that partied late into the night after every sunset. I also knew there were certain women from East Africa in Luke Anthony’s group who painted their eyebrows green and wore spangled clothing and certainly looked to my twelve-year-old eyes to be the hawk-faced practitioners of the forbidden arts Helen had told me about in her stories. “Witches eat nosy little girls, you know,” Helen told me. I did not linger near the strange foreign women to learn if she was telling the truth. I preferred staying close to the river and the only living foliage in the region; at least there I could see types of life I could understand, and observing the sparse stands of trees and rusting trucks on the other shore somehow made me feel closer to Father.
Luke Anthony returned to Progress unexpectedly in the middle of the summer. A small detachment of the Mexican horseman was his only escort through the wild countryside on his journey back to us. There had been a scrimmage in the Manchurian wasteland, and despite his reputation for ferocity and his love of staged combats, Luke Anthony had disgraced himself by running from the first enemy gunshots of the campaign. After the Pan-Polaric troopers had routed the suicidal Chinese assault, Mathias had disparaged his son as a coward in front of the entire high command. Report had it that some generals present had laughed at the humiliating quaking the young man did when he suffered the emperor’s rage. I thank Providence my father was not so foolish as those laughing officers. Anyone who mocked Luke Anthony on that day died soon after he became sole ruler of the Empire.
“I didn’t flee,” Luke had reportedly told his father. “My carrier’s engine seized up, and I had to get out and run.”
“Then your carrier was a cowardly machine, young man,” Mathias was said to have replied. “Take it back to Progress. I’ll not have such a faint-hearted machine among these other brave vehicles. When you have found a less nervous transport, one that will carry you toward danger rather than to the rear, you may return to us.”
Luke Anthony apparently had a difficult time finding a better ride in the nearly vacant military camp. He loitered for months on the safe side of the Amur, hunting day after day and reveling with his friends during the warm nights. His teams of beaters daily made wide sweeps through the forest surrounding the station, sometimes driving game right against the stone walls or into the river. These drivers and their dogs (they used real ones, rather than the mechanical hounds that had been popular a few years earlier) attempted to tighten their large arc into a slowly constricting circle that would meet at a point where Luke would kill the trapped animals with his methane and gunpowder-powered rifle. Pan-Polarian troopers have traditionally left the mastery of such conventional weapons to foreign auxiliaries while our men carried laser or particle beam rifles. Luke Anthony had mastered the use of such ancient weapons while hunting and training with Mexican peasants in the hills around Garden City. Everyone agreed he was an expert shot. Those in the station who had seen him mow down the trapped deer, bear, wild boar, wolves, and tigers say he rarely missed, though he rode a motorcycle while he fired, and that the more he killed the more he went into an ecstasy of delight. When he became lost in the frenzy of the slaughter, the beautiful young man with the long golden curls would put a titanium sabot through the heart of some doomed beast and scream, “I am Luke Spacious Anthony! I am the Empire!” After all the animals in a trapped group had fallen, he would hop off his motorbike and run into the piles of dead and find a beast that was still convulsing so he could ask the dying creature if it appreciated the great honor of dying at the hands of the emperor of the Northern Hemisphere. Those telling the story say he waited for a reply and would savage the animal with his sidearm when the beast presumed to die without giving him one.
Once, on a rare cloudless day, I was walking along the river near the remains of a disassembled bridge when I heard the barking dogs and the “clang” of the beaters beating their flails against their body armor as they moved from the north toward me. To my horror, I realized the hunting party was not only headed for the Amur; it was converging directly upon a smattering of small houses built outside the encampment walls a few rods from where I was. The underbrush suddenly flickered to life as animals crashed through the foliage and toward the water. I at once ran onto the remaining portion of the bridge, the middle section of which had been removed, and I lay flat inside one of the concrete foundations, thus hiding myself from the oncoming hunters. I peered over the edge of the concrete shielding me and beheld the beaters’ circle drawing tight immediately west of the end of the bridge. Several deer leapt into the river and swam away before the beaters could get between them and the water. A frightful uproar took place as various creatures and two small boys who had been caught in the sweep dashed into the open, crashing into each other and howling in terror as they found themselves inside the ring of the beaters’ shields. A large bear, its front leg wounded by a rifle shot, charged into the ring and with two swipes of its good forepaw tore open a large dog and ripped the side of one of the terrified boys, both of whom were shrieking to the beaters to let them go. Luke Anthony, looking as dashing as Alexander riding down the Persian army, rode his motorcycle to the outside of the ring and fired once into the bear’s chest, killing it instantly. He was as tremendous a marksman as everyone had claimed. From his mount he fired round after round into the animal melee before him. Every sabot he sent into the chaos went straight into a beast’s vital organs; a boar, three stags, a fox, and a bull from a nearby farm were caught in midflight and fell lifeless on the ground. Luke Anthony then took a flail from a beater and chased the two small boys about the ring on his motorcycle, slapping them with the blunt weapon as he swore aloud.
“You cost me three deer!” he shouted as he struck them from his mount. “Don’t you know who I am?”
The boys were covered in blood. Their screams had degenerated to less than human cries of distress and were more like the squeals of dying cattle inside a charnel house. The boy the bear had mauled soon could withstand no more and collapsed in the dirt beneath the wheels of Luke’s cycle. The other one charged the beaters’ wall, but the heartless men knocked him back with their flails. Unable to escape the scene, the pathetic child curled into a ball on the unprotected dirt where Luke Anthony continued to beat him.
“I am the emperor!” the brave hunter shouted. “I am the Empire!”
He might have pummeled the two hapless boys to death but for the actions of his friend Sao Trentex—of whom I have forever after thought better—for that second young man broke into the ring of beaters and declared to Luke Anthony that perhaps Emperor Mathias would learn of this incident if the two children were killed.
“Are you afraid of him?!” shrieked Luke Anthony, wild with the strange satisfaction violence gave him and raising the flail in the air as though he were about to bring it down on his friend’s pockmarked head.
The boys were fortunate Sao Trentex thought quickly. The cunning fellow dropped to his knees and clasped his hands in an exaggerated gesture of supplication.
“Oh, yes, Luke Anthony!” he said in a semihysterical voice that made young Luke smile. “I fear your father will come back to Progress and give us another lecture on moral philosophy! I know you do not fear death, my lord. I quiver for the both of us when I think we might have to endure another seminar burdened by his vast piety! Please bear in mind that the rest of us are mortal, my lord! We cannot endure as much of his sanctimonious person as you can!”
Luke Anthony laughed, which cued the rest of his group they should laugh with him. Sao Trentex’s joke had broken the bloodthirsty mood that had seemed to grip him only seconds before. Luke gave the flail back to its owner, and having ordered his men to dress the fallen game he rode toward the great hall. The moment he was gone, Sao Trentex had some of the bearers carry the two boys to a physician. He wrapped the most bloodied of the children in his own long coat, and cleaned the still-unconscious child’s face with a loose corner of the cloth. “I am terribly sorry, little one,” I heard him say before the bearers carried the child toward the encampment walls. The ugly man’s kindness was more astonishing to me than Luke Anthony’s cruelty had been. No one today has anything good to say concerning Sao Trentex. History remembers him as one of the fawning dilettantes about young Luke who abetted the soon-to-be emperor’s corruption. History and the rest of us never knew the real man. If he was capable of showing courage and compassion in defiance of Luke Anthony’s irrational fury, I expect there were deep mines of virtue within the man he normally kept hidden lest he offend the unthinking power that throughout his short life was always just a few steps from his side. If the distance between him and Luke had been thousands of miles, if Sao Trentex had been a programmer in Poland or a farmer in North America, he might have been as good a man as Mathias aspired to be. Fate thought otherwise. He was doomed never to be far removed from that evil influence, and being as close as he was he had to be a slave to Luke Anthony’s whims, as was everyone else near the willful young emperor. Since history has overlooked the goodness in the man, I pray some higher power—if any exists—took note of the luckless man’s act of charity beside the chilly Amur and for that deed his soul is today in some better place than that of his thoughtless master.
I did not leave my hiding place on the bridge till everyone in the hunting party had departed. The moment I could no longer hear the dogs yapping, I sped off the pontoon bridge and ran home. I told Helen what had happened by the river, and she tore her hair and threatened to take a rod to me. In the end she merely kissed my face a few dozen times and thanked her numerous gods I was well.
“You see!” she said. “This is what happens when you go near the young emperor!”
“I didn’t,” I said. “I was by the river. He came near me.”
Helen replied that everything in creation, or at least half of it, belonged to the emperor, and he could go anywhere he wanted on his property. The only safe place in the camp was our house.
“He could squeeze you like a flea,” she said, and pressed her fingernails together to demonstrate his power.
For once, I nearly obeyed her. I still went for strolls along the river, but each time I left the encampment I made certain the coemperor was not out hunting game of either the four- or two-legged varieties.
The army was gone the entire winter and did not return to Progress until the rain had changed to snow and back to rain once more. In the early spring the engineers appeared on the other shore and filled in the midsections of the bridges so the soldiers could return to our side of the Amur. The seemingly undiminished force returned largely on foot and brought in its train three thousand ragged Manchurian prisoners, most of them old people and children. There had been no great battles in the sandy hills. When report of our approaching soldiers had reached the isolated settlements in that desolate region of the globe, the majority of the clans who had been raiding southeastern Siberia simply retreated into China proper, leaving behind nothing of value for our soldiers to attack; yet somewhere in the field pack of some tired veteran the army carried home to us the sole important trophy they had won on the long and uneventful campaign: they brought to us the demon called the new metal plague. Every household in Progress sealed its doorway with caulk once the unwanted guest made itself known to us. People purified the air about them with antibiotic sprays and washed their metal possessions in soapy water and mild acids to keep the evil visitor from moving into their machinery. Helen claimed she had felt the plague in the wet soil of this strange country when we first arrived there. She believed it had traveled up the roots and into the trees, and that was why she had seen the unlucky signs in the wood ashes. She believed this although I explained to her the plague was clearly human-made.
What we in Progress did not yet know was that this new curse was not a variation of the human-made virus we had seen corrode our metal goods during the previous forty years. That earlier plague had indeed been a virus; that is, it was a microscopic chain of proteins that excreted an acid capable of corroding metal surfaces. As nearly as the Empire’s scientists could discern, some laboratory in southern Africa had created the old metal virus, which was one of the many designer germs and viruses that have afflicted humankind during the past 150 years. We in the Pan-Polarian Empire had contained the old metal virus by substituting plastics and ceramics for metals when we could, though metalloids and nonmetals from the upper right-hand corner of the periodic table make poor conductors of electricity. We had to coat our metal circuitry in heavy insulation, and even protected electrical systems had to be decontaminated every three or four days, which caused interruptions in communications and interfered with the functions of most computers. What had saved us from the old metal plague was that since it was a true virus it had mutated rather quickly and most of the newer varieties it became were no danger to our metal. Nonetheless, scientists in the Southern Hemisphere continue to create batches of the original metal virus, and it has become the primary reason the Empire (and the whole world) has become poorer and less technologically sophisticated over time. The new plague the army brought back from Manchuria was not a virus or even a living organism; it was in fact a nanomachine only three molecules in size. These tiny machines feed on negative energy, as is found in electricity, which the machines consume and convert into positrons. Normally these tiny machines lie dormant in the soil, feeding on the electrons in sunlight. But when they are in the vicinity of electricity coursing through metal structures, they latch onto the circuitry the way mosquitoes do blood veins. When infected with the new metal plague, machines grind to a halt, generators shut down, and those who have metal implants in their bodies wither away as if stricken by the plagues of the Middle Ages.
That spring in Progress any neighbor with an electronic implant might in the morning be as healthy as a goat, by noon become as sluggish as someone walking in his sleep, and by evening be dead and as stiff as a carbon beam. When we first saw people die from it, we did not realize the new plague could not strike all humans, and we thought we too were in peril. Helen made me and her husband Medus wear amulets she claimed had been blessed at a temple of healing somewhere in Europe. Medus was as superstitious as his wife, and I was terrified by the bodies I every day saw being carried away for burial in the handcarts, so we did as she wanted. My father threw away the amulet she gave him. He vowed he would slay any plague demon that came for him with a flame thrower. He slept with such a weapon at his bedside, ready to strike at any virus daring to venture through our front doorway. Given our ignorance of the new affliction, we thought either the amulets or Father’s threats must have worked, for when the deaths in the encampment waned and in a few weeks ceased altogether, everyone in our household remained well. Our good emperor Mathias Anthony was less fortunate.
Mathias fell ill soon after his return. For five days he lay on his bed in the great hall, fighting the affliction with all the remaining strength he had in the natural portions of his body. When his physicians told him he would become progressively weaker in spite of the decontamination work they had performed on him, he refused food and drink and prepared himself for an honorable death. On the sixth day of his ordeal he summoned groups of his generals and former students into his room to say good-bye to them.
“Why are you weeping?” he asked his lieutenants. “You should be worrying about the plague and what it may yet do to you. Each of us is condemned to die on the day of our birth. My time is now. Take care yours does not come soon hereafter. I suspect this is something the Chinese have created. It has long been obvious that technology will be eventually used to destroy itself. I should have written a book upon the subject. But take heart: our civilization is more than electric lights and thinking machines. Learning, language, the arts, our medicine, our laws, our courage—these and much more will endure, and they will sustain our Empire in the long night to come.”
I was included among the students he called to his bedside. I waited in the deserted banquet hall for two hours while sobbing men entered and left his room. When it was my time, two enormous soldiers dressed in armor they had to move themselves, as it was no longer self-propelling, escorted me to his chamber. He was lying against the wall in his small cot, looking much paler and thinner than when I had seen him last. Like everyone else—including the tall soldiers—I wept when I beheld his wan, yellow face.
“Shhh, Justa,” he said in his weak voice. “This is the fate of mortal things. Do not grieve over what is fated to happen.”
I wanted to be brave for him. Instead I cried the more when I heard how frail he sounded.
“I should be the one weeping,” he said. “I will not live to see you blossom into a beautiful woman. Don’t come too close, little one. We don’t understand how infectious this thing is. I have another farewell gift for you. Over there.”
He pointed to a small table holding a jewelry box filled with golden combs I could wear in my long hair. On the box’s casing was depicted the Judgment of Paris, showing Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, accepting the golden apple. I imagine the present was the emperor’s kind comment upon my appearance.
“Think of this old friend when you put on the combs,” he said. “Most Just, you really must control yourself.”
We had been in Progress for nearly two years. I had turned fourteen in the meantime and was practically grown by the standards of the day. I was nonetheless weak in that terrible moment when I should have been as emotionless as a statue and insisted on weeping before the wasting emperor when he needed me to be strong.
“What will you do when you are older, Justa?” he asked me.
“I will . . . serve the Empire . . . however I can, my lord,” I sputtered through my tears.
Mathias turned his face to the wall. My answer had not pleased him.
“You have been told I do not want to hear that sort of rubbish,” he said.
“I would say anything that would be pleasing to you, my lord,” I told him.
He turned back to me and motioned me to take another step closer to his bed.
“Then say what is in your heart and not what you think I want to hear,” he said. “An emperor hears many words intended to please him. That is our chief duty: hearing such words. People saying them do not necessarily know what I want to hear. I would have been more pleased, Most Just, if you had said you wanted to lead a good and simple life, the sort of life that would belong to you and your family. You should marry a farmer, little one. They are honest people. Some of them are, anyway. Be a good wife and a good mother to a family of honest farmers. That would please me. I would have liked to have been a farmer myself.”
The import of what he was saying was lost on me in my sorrow. Nor could I stop weeping for him.
“If you had not been our emperor,” I said, “then, my lord, historians in ages hence would write that Pan-Polaria was deprived of her noblest, most valiant—”
“Stop that, Justa,” he told me. “Leave us for a moment, friends,” he said to the soldiers. When he and I were alone in the chamber he said to me in a whisper that carried plainly to me ears, “Child, historians ages hence will write the same nonsense they have always written. They will most likely say I was a good ruler, that I saved the Empire from several invasions and did not completely destroy the economy. They will add I made my one great error when I made Luke Spacious my successor. Don’t be shocked, Justa. I know better than anyone what sort of man Luke is, and I have imagination enough to guess what evil he will do after I am gone and there is no one to restrain him. His mother raised him to be exactly the sort of . . . the sort of thing he is. She and the crowd of sycophants she put about him did a thorough job. I could not improve upon her work. Know this, my child: I came not to care what he has become. There once was a time I thought I could educate him, education being the last depot the train called failure usually stops at. In later years I considered raising another man outside my family to be the next emperor, as my immediate predecessors have done. Then, four years ago I returned to Garden City and found him and several of his friends sitting on the palace steps like idlers in front of a convenience store; it was morning and they looked to have been out all night on the streets of the capital, dressed as they were in their heavy cloaks and hoods. He was only fourteen. The gang of them, they had a sack full of something they did not wish me to inspect. I had a squadron of soldiers with me, of course; they retrieved the bag for me, and inside there were the most hideous bits of animal life they had collected during the night, the whole of it cut up in a bloody mess: a cat’s head, a dog’s hind leg, and such. When I poured it all out on the ground, there was a child’s severed hand amid the other gore. The soldiers and I were aghast. We looked at them and wondered. And they, the little murderers, they could only cower like cowards before me. ‘This,’ I told myself, ‘is the Empire we have fought a hundred wars to preserve. Pan-Polaria’s story was endured to produce this.’ I walked away from him and returned to the frontier without staying another hour in the capital. Two years later I named him my coemperor. Leaving him to the Empire and the Empire to him will be the most just deed I have ever done. Pan-Polaria will have the master she has long deserved.
“Now, Justa, your father, General Black, is over fifty-five. He may retire from the army any time he wishes. Tell him to settle somewhere far from the capital. We are losing control of more outer regions every week. The farther away from Garden City he settles, the better it will be for you and for him. Someplace in the far north of America will do. You will meet your farmer husband there; there you can teach your children to aspire for nothing more than to be farmers and farmers’ wives. Never, never, little one, should you or anyone in your family go again to Garden City. Never. Now good-bye, pretty one, and do not mourn for me.”
I hid my face and wept as I ran from the room. I was so distraught I forgot to bow to him before I exited. The soldiers posted at the doorway were shedding tears as plentiful as mine. I knew they were weeping both for the great goodness about to depart the Earth and for the calamity that was to befall us when Luke Spacious took Mathias’s place.
Mathias the Glistening died on the seventh day of his affliction. Because Luke Anthony was in the emperor’s bedchamber when Mathias left us, the rumormongers have claimed the young emperor strangled his father. I know this is a lie, for Mathias’s bodyguards never left his side while Luke was present. After the news of Mathias’s death had spread through the encampment, Luke called the senior officers together at the great hall and addressed them and the Empire via a hazy satellite transmission.
“Our daddy,” he said, putting both his hands over his heart and casting his eyes skyward, “has gone to heaven to sit among the other emperors as a god. He has left us to govern the world while he is away.”
Luke told the world the army units were to return to their various provinces, and he, the sole emperor, was returning to Garden City to bury his father. The Manchurian war was officially over.
My father told us while we packed our belongings at our house that night that the new emperor had cut quite a figure for an eighteen-year-old boy.
“He’s a handsome lad,” said Father. “The ladies back in Garden City are going to love him. Somebody has to. Of course I will serve him as best I can. That’s what his father would have wanted me to do, and Mathias is the one who lifted me up in the world. I won’t betray him just because he’s no longer here to keep an eye on me.”