Maps in a mirror, p.99

Maps in a Mirror, page 99


Maps in a Mirror

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  “I would rather, my Son Ansset, I would rather meet death in your hands than any other’s. Your life is more valuable to me than my own.” Then Mikal turned and went back into the door that led to his private chambers. Ansset and the Captain of the Guard followed, and as they left the whispers rose to a roar. Mikal had gone much farther than Ansset had even hoped. The entire Capital—and in a few weeks, the entire empire—would hear how Mikal had called his Songbird Son Ansset, and the words, “Your life is more valuable to me than my own,” would become the stuff of legends.

  Ansset sighed a song as he entered the familiar rooms where Father Mikal lived.

  Mikal turned abruptly and glared at the Captain of the Guard. “What did you mean by that little trick, you bastard?”

  “I tied his hands as a precaution. I was within my duties as a warden of the gate.”

  “I know you were within your duties, but you might use some common decency. What harm can an eleven-year-old boy do when you’ve probably already skinned him alive searching for weapons and you have a hundred lasers trained on him at every moment!”

  “I wanted to be sure.”

  “Well, you’re too damned thorough. Get out. And don’t let me ever catch you being any less thorough, even when it makes me angry. Get out!” The Captain of the Guard left, Mikal’s roar following him. As soon as the door closed, Mikal started to laugh. “What an ass! What a colossal donkey!” Then he threw himself to the floor with all the vigor of a young man, though Ansset knew his age to be one hundred and twenty-three, which was old, in a civilization where death normally came at a hundred and fifteen. Under him the floor that had been rigid when his weight pressed down on the two small spaces touched by his feet now softened, gave gently to fit the contours of his body. Ansset also went to the floor, and lay there laughing.

  “Are you glad to be home, Ansset?” Mikal asked tenderly.

  “Now I am. Until this moment I wasn’t home.”

  “Ansset, my Son, you never can speak without singing.” Mikal laughed softly.

  Ansset took the sound of the laugh and turned it into a song. It was a soft song, and it was short, but at the end of it Mikal was lying on his back looking at the ceiling, tears streaming down from his eyes.

  “I didn’t mean the song to be sad, Father Mikal.”

  “How was I to know that now, in my dotage, I’d do the foolish thing I avoided all my life? Oh, I’ve loved like I’ve done every other passionate thing, but when they took you I discovered, my Son, that I need you.” Mikal rolled over and looked at the beautiful face of the boy who lay looking at him adoringly. “Don’t worship me, boy, I’m an old bastard who’d kill his mother if one of my enemies hadn’t already done it.”

  “You’d never harm me.”

  “I harm everything I love,” Mikal said bitterly. Then he let his face show concern. “We were afraid for you. Since you were gone there was an outbreak of insane crime. People were kidnapped for no reason on the street, some in broad daylight, and a few days later their bodies would be found, broken and torn by someone or something. No ransom notes. Nothing. We thought you had been taken like that, and that somewhere we’d find your body. Are you whole? Are you well?”

  “I’m stronger than I’ve ever been before.” Ansset laughed. “I tested my strength against the hook of my hammock, and I’m afraid I ripped it out of the wall.”

  Mikal reached out and touched Ansset’s hand. “I’m afraid,” Mikal said, and Ansset listened, humming softly, as Mikal talked. The emperor never spoke in names and dates and facts and plans, for then if Ansset were taken by an enemy the enemy would know too much. He spoke to the Songbird in emotions instead, and Ansset sang solace to him. Other Songbirds had pretty voices, others could impress the crowds, and, indeed, Mikal used Ansset for just that purpose on certain state occasions. But of all Songbirds, only Ansset could sing his soul; and he loved Mikal from his soul.

  Late in the night Mikal shouted in fury about his empire: “Did I build it to fall? Did I burn over a dozen worlds and rape a hundred others just to have the whole thing fall in chaos when I die?” He leaned down and whispered to Ansset, their eyes a few inches apart, “They call me Mikal the Terrible, but I built it so it would stand like an umbrella over the galaxy. They have it now: peace and prosperity and as much freedom as their little minds can cope with. But when I die they’ll throw it all away.” Mikal whirled and shouted at the walls of his soundproofed chamber, “In the name of nationalities and religions and races and family inheritances the fools will rip the umbrella down and then wonder why, all of a sudden, it’s raining.”

  Ansset sang to him of hope.

  “There’s no hope. I have fifty sons, three of them legitimate, all of them fools who try to flatter me. They couldn’t keep the empire for a week, not all of them, not any of them. There’s not a man I’ve met in all my life who could control what I’ve built in my lifetime. When I die, it all dies with me.” And Mikal sank to the floor wearily.

  For once Ansset did not sing. Instead he jumped to his feet, the floor turning firm under him. He raised an arm above his head, and said, “For you, Father Mikal, I’ll grow up to be strong! Your empire shall not fall!” He spoke with such grandeur in his childish speaking voice that both he and Mikal had to laugh.

  “It’s true, though,” Mikal said, tousling the child’s hair. “For you I’d do it, I’d give you the empire, except they’d kill you. And even if I lived long enough to train you to be a ruler of men, I wouldn’t do it. The man who will be my heir must be cruel and vicious and sly and wise, completely selfish and ambitious, contemptuous of all other people, brilliant in battle, able to outguess and outmaneuver every enemy, and strong enough inside himself to live utterly alone all his life.” Mikal smiled. “Even I don’t fit my list of qualifications, because now I’m not utterly alone.”

  And then, as Mikal drifted off to sleep, Ansset sang to him of his captivity, the songs and words of his time of loneliness in captivity, and as the men on the ship had wept, so Mikal wept, only more. Then they both slept.

  A few days later Mikal, Ansset, the Chamberlain, and the Captain of the Guard met in Mikal’s small receiving room, where a solid block of clear glass as perfect as a lens stretched as a meters-long table from one end of the room to the other. They gathered at one end. The Chamberlain was adamant.

  “Ansset is a danger to you, my Lord.”

  The Captain of the Guard was equally adamant. “We found the conspirators and killed them all.”

  The Chamberlain rolled his eyes heavenward in disgust.

  The Captain of the Guard became angry, though he kept the fact hidden behind heavy-lidded eyes. “It all fit—the accent that Ansset told us they had, the wooden ship, calling each other freemen, their emotionalism—they could have been no one else but the Freemen of Eire. Just another nationalist group, but they have a lot of sympathizers here in America—damn these ‘nations,’ where but on old Earth would people subdivide their planet and think the subdivisions meant anything.”

  “So you went in and wiped them all out,” the Chamberlain sneered, “and not one of them had any knowledge of the plot.”

  “Anyone who could block out the Songbird’s mind as well as he did can hide a conspiracy like that!” the Captain of the Guard snapped back.

  “Our enemy is subtle,” the Chamberlain said. “He kept everything else from Ansset’s knowledge—so why did he let him have all these clues that steered us to Eire? I think we were given bait and you bit. Well, I haven’t bitten yet, and I’m still looking.”

  “In the meantime,” Mikal said, “try to avoid harassing Ansset too much.”

  “I don’t mind,” Ansset hurriedly said, though he minded very much: the constant searches, the frequent interrogations, the hypnotherapy, the guards who followed him constantly to keep him from meeting with anyone.

  “I mind,” Mikal said. “It’s good for you to keep watch, because we still don’t know what they’ve done to Ansset’s mind. But in
the meantime, let Ansset’s life be worth living.” Mikal glared pointedly at the Captain of the Guard, who got up and left. Then Mikal turned to the Chamberlain and said, “I don’t like how easily the Captain was fooled by such an obvious ploy. Keep up your investigation. And tell me anything your spies within the Captain’s forces might have to say.”

  The Chamberlain tried for a moment to protest that he had no such spies—but Mikal laughed until the Chamberlain gave up and promised to complete a report.

  “My days are numbered,” Mikal said to Ansset. “Sing to me of numbered days.” And so Ansset sang him a playful song about a man who decided to live for two hundred years and so counted his age backward, by the number of years he had left. “And he died when he was only eighty-three,” Ansset sang, and Mikal laughed and tossed another log on the fire. Only an emperor or a peasant in the protected forests of Siberia could afford to burn wood.

  Then one day Ansset, as he wandered through the palace, noticed a different direction and a quickened pace to the hustling and bustling of servants down the halls. He went to the Chamberlain.

  “Try to keep quiet about it,” the Chamberlain said. “You’re coming with us, anyway.”

  And within an hour Ansset rode beside Mikal in an armored car as a convoy swept out of Capital. The roads were kept clear, and in an hour and fifteen minutes the armored car stopped. Ansset bounded out of the hatchway. He was startled to see that the entire convoy was missing, and only the single armored car remained. He immediately suspected treachery, and looked down at Mikal in fright.

  “Don’t worry,” Mikal said. “We sent the convoy on.”

  They got out of the car and with a dozen picked guards (not from the palace guard, Ansset noticed) they made their way through a sparse wood, along a stream, and finally to the banks of a huge river.

  “The Delaware,” whispered the Chamberlain to Ansset, who had already guessed as much.

  “Keep your esoterica to yourself,” Mikal said, sounding irritable, which meant he was enjoying himself immensely. He hadn’t been a part of any kind of planetside military operation in forty years, ever since he became an emperor and had to control fleets and planets instead of a few ships and a thousand men. There was a spring to his step that belied his century and a quarter.

  Finally the Chamberlain stopped. “That’s the house, and that’s the boat.”

  A flatboat was moored on the river by a shambling wooden house that looked like it had been built during the American colonial revival over a hundred years before.

  They crept up on the house, but it was empty, and when they rushed the flatboat the only man on board aimed a laser at his own face and blasted it to a cinder. Not before Ansset had recognized him, though.

  “That was Husk,” Ansset said, feeling sick as he looked at the ruined corpse. Inexplicably, he felt a nagging guilt. “He’s the man who fed me.”

  Then Mikal and Chamberlain followed Ansset through the boat. “It’s not the same,” Ansset said.

  “Of course not,” said the Chamberlain. “The paint is fresh. And there’s a smell of new wood. They’ve been remodeling. But is there anything familiar?”

  There was. Ansset found a tiny room that could have been his cell, though now it was painted bright yellow and a new window let sunlight flood into the room. Mikal examined the windowframe. “New,” the emperor pronounced. And by trying to imagine the interior of the flatboat as it might have been unpainted, Ansset was able to find the large room where he had sung his last evening in captivity. There was no table. But the room seemed the same size, and Ansset agreed that this could very well have been the place he was held.

  Down in the ship they heard the laughter of children and a passing eletrecart that clattered along the bumpy old asphalt road. The Chamberlain laughed. “Sorry I took you the long way. It’s really quite a populated area. I just wanted to be sure they didn’t have time to be warned.”

  Mikal curled his lip. “If it’s a populated area we should have arrived in a bus. A group of armed men walking along a river are much more conspicuous.”

  “I’m not a tactician,” said the Chamberlain.

  “Tactician enough,” said Mikal. “We’ll go back to the palace now. Do you have anyone you can trust to make the arrest? I don’t want him harmed.”

  But it didn’t do any good to give orders to that effect. When the Captain of the Guard was arrested, he raged and stormed and then a half-hour later, before there was time to examine him with the probe and taster, one of the guards slipped him some poison and he drifted off into death. The Chamberlain rashly had the offending guard impaled with nails until he bled to death.

  Ansset was confused as he watched Mikal rage at the Chamberlain. It was obviously a sham, or half a sham, and Ansset was certain that the Chamberlain knew it. “Only a fool would have killed that soldier! How did the poison get into the palace past the detectors? How did the soldier get it to the Captain? None of the questions will ever be answered now!”

  The Chamberlain made the mandatory ritual resignation. “My Lord Imperator, I was a fool. I deserve to die. I resign my position and ask for you to have me killed.”

  Following the ritual, but obviously annoyed by having it thrust at him before he was through raging, Mikal lifted his hand and said, “Damn right you’re a fool.” Then, in proper form, he said, “I grant you your life because of your infinitely valuable services to me in apprehending the traitor in the first place.” Mikal cocked his head to one side. “So, Chamberlain, who do you think I should make the next Captain of the Guard?”

  Ansset almost laughed out loud. It was an impossible question to answer. The safest answer (and the Chamberlain liked to do safe things) would be to say he had never given the matter any thought at all, and wouldn’t presume to advise the emperor on such a vital matter. But even so, the moment would be tense for the Chamberlain.

  And Ansset was shocked to hear the Chamberlain answer, “Riktors Ashen, of course, my Lord.”

  The “of course” was insolent. The naming of the man was ridiculous. At first Ansset looked at Mikal to see fury there. But instead Mikal was smiling. “Why of course,” he said blandly. “Riktors Ashen is the obvious choice. Tell him in my name that he’s appointed.”

  Even the Chamberlain, who had mastered the art of blandness at will, looked surprised for a moment. Again Ansset almost laughed. He saw Mikal’s victory: the Chamberlain had probably named the one man in the palace guard that the Chamberlain had no control over, assuming that Mikal would never pick the man the Chamberlain recommended. And so Mikal had picked him: Riktors Ashen, the victor of the battle of Mantrynn, a planet that had revolted only three years before. He was known to be incorruptible, brilliant, and reliable. Well, now he’d have a chance to prove his reputation, Ansset thought.

  Then he was startled out of his reverie by Mikal’s voice. “Do you know what his last words were to me?”

  By the instant understanding that needed no referents for Mikal’s pronouns Ansset knew he was talking about the now-dead Captain of the Guard.

  “He said, ‘Tell Mikal that my death frees more plotters than it kills.’ And then he said that he loved me. Imagine, that cagey old bastard saying he loved me. I remembered him twenty years ago when he killed his closest friend in a squabble over a promotion. The bloodiest men get most sentimental in their old age, I suppose.”

  Ansset asked a question—it seemed a safe time. “My Lord, why was the Captain arrested?”

  “Hmmm?” Mikal looked surprised. “Oh, I suppose no one told you, then. He visited that house regularly throughout your captivity. He said he visited a woman there. But the neighbors all testified under the probe that a woman never lived there. And the Captain was a master at establishing mental blocks.”

  “Then the conspiracy is broken!” Ansset said, joyfully assuming that the guards would stop harassing him and the questions would finally end.

  “The conspiracy is barely dented. Someone was able to get poison to the Captain.
Therefore plotters still exist within the palace. And therefore Riktors Ashen will be instructed to keep a close watch on you.”

  Ansset tried to keep the smile on his face. He failed.

  “I know, I know,” Mikal said wearily. “But it’s still locked in your mind.”

  It was unlocked the next day. The court was gathered in the Great Hall, and Ansset resigned himself to a morning of wandering through the halls—or else standing near Mikal as he received the boring procession of dignitaries paying their respects to the emperor (and then going home to report how soon they thought Mikal the Terrible would die, and who might succeed him, and what the chances were for grabbing a piece of the empire). Because the palace bored him and he wanted to be near Mikal, and because the Chamberlain smiled at him and asked, “Are you coming to court?” Ansset decided to attend.

  The order of dignitaries had been carefully worked out to honor loyal friends and humiliate upstarts whose dignity needed deflating. A minor official from a distant star cluster was officially honored, the first business of the day, and then the rituals began: princes and presidents and satraps and governors, depending on what title survived the conquest a decade or a score or fourscore years ago, all proceeding forward with their retinue, bowing (how low they bowed showed how afraid they were of Mikal, or how much they wanted to flatter him), uttering a few words, asking for private audience, being put off or being invited, in an endless array.

  Ansset was startled to see a group of Black Kinshasans attired in their bizarre old Earth costumes. Kinshasa insisted it was an independent nation, a pathetic nose-thumbing claim when empires of planets had been swallowed up by Mikal Conqueror. Why were they being allowed to wear their native regalia and have an audience? Ansset raised an eyebrow at the Chamberlain, who also stood near the throne.

  “It was Mikal’s idea,” the Chamberlain said voicelessly. “He’s letting them come and present a petition right before the president of Stuss. Those toads from Stuss’ll be madder than hell.”

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