His Royal Majesty - The Eternal Emperor - hereby requests and requires that all his subjects join him at Arundel Castle on Prime World, March 15-17, to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of his empire. Special guests to include Sten, Alex Kilgour, Ian Mahoney and oceans of Stregg.
"Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies." —Groucho Marx
"Politics, noun. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage." —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
"Let me tell you about... politicians. I make them. I make them out of whole cloth just like a tailor makes a suit. I get their names in the newspaper. I get them some publicity and get them on the ballot. Then after the election we count the votes and if they don't turn out all right, we re-count them and re-count them again until they do." (Johnny Rocco, played by Edward G. Robinson in 'Key Largo.' From the play by Maxwell Anderson, script by Richard Brooks & John Huston.)
(The following is adapted from Sten #5 - Revenge Of The Damned - by Allan Cole and the late Chris Bunch)
THE ETERNAL EMPERORclumped down the ramp of the Normandie, his Gurkkha bodyguards pressed tightly around him. He paused at the bottom, then breathed a silent sigh of relief. As per his orders, there were no welcoming crowds at Soward, Prime World's main spaceport. Instead, a short distance away, there was only his personal gravcar and its escort to take him back to his dreary makeshift quarters beneath the ruins of Arundel.
He would have to do something about that, he reminded himself. Time to give the rebuilding program a boot in the butt. It was not the image of pomp and splendor he missed but the carefully built-in comforts and, above all, privacy. Just to be alone for a little while with one of his nutball projects—like reinventing the varnish used on a Strad violin—would be an immense relief.
At the moment he felt that if one more being asked him for a decision or brought some trouble to his attention, he would break down and sob. The problem was that emperors who sobbed publicly were never eternal. Still, that was exactly what he felt like doing. Just as his face felt as if it was going to fall off from smiling at vidcameras, and his fingers were bleeding from shaking the hands of so many grateful subjects. They were all anxious to tell him what a hero he was.
He thought of another hero and winced, with a small smile. After a decisive battle, one of the man's aides had told him what a great hero he had become. Sure, the new hero had observed. But if I had lost, I would be the greatest villain in our nation's history. What was the guy's name? Who knows. Probably something Prussian that starts with Otto. So much for clottin' heroes.
The Eternal Emperor pulled himself together and headed for his gravcar. A few years earlier he would have slept the clock around three or four times, then donned his Raschid identity and gone on a long drunk at the Covenanter, with maybe a tumble with Janiz for old time's sake. But the Covenanter was gone because of treachery. As was Janiz. Both gone, and it was his fault, dammit! He had let it get away from him somehow.
The master of doublethink. Bah! Maybe that's your problem, Engineer Raschid. You overclottin' complicate every clottin' thing. Keep it stupid, simple, and a whole lot of folks might still be breathing—instead of dead or, worse, on their knees, praising your name.
The Eternal Emperor was feeling every year of his 3,000-plus span as he reached the car. Then he saw Tanz Sullamora's smiling face, and he groaned and almost groaned again as Tanz stuck out a hand to be shook. Instead, he took it—gingerly.
"Welcome back, Your Majesty," Sullamora gushed. "We're all very proud."
Sure you are, the Raschid side of him thought. You just can't wait to figure out how to intrigue me out of a few more warehouses full of credits. But the Eternal Emperor side of him made him merely smile and mutter a polite thanks.
"I have one small request," Sullamora said. "I know you're anxious to get home, but…"
The Emperor raised an eyebrow. He was about to be put out. He was too tired to speak, so he just motioned for Sullamora to continue.
"It's the spaceport employees," Sullamora said. "They've been waiting for hours and…"
He glanced over where Sullamora was pointing and saw a small mixed-uniform crowd near the main gate. Oh, no! More smiling. More hand shaking. More… Ahhh…
"I can't handle it, Tanz," the Emperor said. "Get Mahoney to do it. He's back on the Normandie taking care of some last-minute business. He'll be out in a sec." He stepped to the door of his gravcar.
"It won't be the same, sir," Sullamora insisted. "It's you they want to see. I know these beings aren't real fighters and all. But they have done their best in their own ways. So, won't you please…"
The Eternal Emperor resigned himself and changed direction for the gate. He wanted to get it over with, so he picked up speed until he had his Gurkhas trotting on their stumpy legs to keep up.
The little crowd broke into cheers as he approached them, and the Emperor, who was too professional to disappoint under such circumstances, painted on his most Imperial smile and started shaking hands. He made sure he asked each being's name as he took the outstretched hand with his right and clasped the elbow with his left. It was a handshake guaranteed to generate warm feelings, and at the same time he could use the elbow hold to move them gently to the side as he pulled back his shaking hand and stepped to the side to take another.
He was about a third of the way down the line when he came to the man with the pale face and too-bright eyes. The Emperor asked the man's name and went into his hand shaking act. He could not make out the nervous mutter he got back so that he could repeat it, so he just grinned more widely and started to withdraw his hand and pass on.
The hands stayed clasped.
The Eternal Emperor had only a heartbeat to puzzle at what was going wrong, and then he saw the pistol coming up in the man's other hand. And he was falling back, trying to get away, but he could not let go as the pistol went crack-crack-crack-crack and he knew he was hit but could not feel a thing except maybe that his stomach was bruised and—
The Gurkhas were on Chapelle, slashing with their deadly kukris, and the man was dead even as his trigger finger kept pulling in reflex and the gun was clicking empty. It happened so fast that only then the crowd began to get the idea that something awful was occurring. The first screams began.
Tanz Sullamora stood there for a frozen moment, shaken at being so close to violence, even though it was of his own making. Then he turned and started to drop to one knee before the Emperor's body.
There was only a small bloody splotch on the Emperor's dress uniform to mark where the bullets had penetrated, and for a moment Sullamora was not sure if he had even been hurt.
A minute later, the worry was over. The Eternal Emperor was dead.
Then the privy council turned up the joker in the Emperor's deck.
The bomb implanted in his body exploded. The size of the blast had been determined thousands of years before. Sullamora died. And the Gurkhas. And the sobbing crowd. And anyone and anything within a precise one-eighth of a kilometer.
Odd things happened in all explosions, and that one was no exception. A week later, a tech from the pathology lab found Chapelle's face. That was all—just his face. There was not a blemish or a mark on it.
Chapelle's face was smiling.
MAHONEY PRESSED HIS thumb against the print sensor, and the door to the Eternal Emperor's study hissed open. He hesitated before he entered. This would probably be his last time. There were only a very few beings the sensor would pass, and for an hour or two more Mahoney was one of them.
After that, the memory would be wiped and a new order of permitted presences would be installed. Mahoney knew there was no way his name would be on that exalted list, just as he had known there was something very wrong almost as soon as he had scattered his handful of dirt on the Eternal Emperor's coffin and stepped back to let the others pay their last respects.
The five surviving members of the privy council stood slightly apart from the other mourners on a small grassy knoll, just beyond the screen of rosebushes the gardeners had hastily planted to fulfill the Emperor's burial wishes.
But there was only one rose blossom on the entire span of bushes. It had no hidden meaning, but Mahoney found it strangely apt, and as it drew his attention, he made note of the presence of the Council of Five.
They stood together, but at an apparent measured distance, as if they were afraid to be too close. Not a word was whispered between them, and their faces were stony and guarded. It was as if they had something to feel guilty about, Mahoney thought; then he wiped away the thought as a product of Mick romanticism.
But the image nagged at him, and when he saw the news feed that night, he marked the announcement that an emergency session of Parliament had been called. Now, what could be odd about that, my friend? Mahoney thought. This is an emergency, isn't it?
Sure it is, Ian, but bless your sweet dumb Irish behind, don't you see it? The session was called by the privy council. Mahoney did not have to be a legal scholar to realize that such an action was well beyond their constitutional authority. All right. So why didn't any member of the Parliament complain? Or, better yet, refuse? Simple.
Because it was wired, dear Ian, dear Ian, wired.
The Emperor had been murdered, and Mahoney knew who had done it, and it was not the poor mad fool the livies were going on about in their endlessly recycled analysis. It was not Chapelle.
Sure, Chapelle had pulled the trigger. But the real guilt rested with the five lone figures on the grassy knoll. And there was not a thing Mahoney could do about it because, even if he wanted to, he would not be part of the new order. Just as he knew that the hero of Cavite had better get on his horse and haul butt out of town before they came to really thank him.
Mahoney stepped into the clutter of the Eternal Emperor's study for the last time. He was not sure why he had come, except for the mad hope that there would be some clue about what to do next.
He was so used to his old boss having every base covered that it had not quite sunk in yet that this was one contingency that had been impossible to plan for.
Mahoney looked in dismay at the many scattered books on the shelves, some lying open just as the Emperor had left them as he searched for some arcane fact or other.
The study was jammed with the idiosyncrasies of his old boss: from ancient windup toys that clattered about with no purpose but to amuse to experimental cooking tools; plas bags of spices he was considering; scattered notes and scrawls; and even music sheets crammed with marginalia. An entire division could not have found a clue in that mess in half a thousand years.
So Mahoney decided to have a drink. What else could he do?
He walked to the Emperor's desk and slid out the drawer where the boss kept his Scotch. He noted that the seal on the bottle was unbroken. That was strange. The Emperor never put an unsealed bottle in his desk. He always took a snort first.
Mahoney shrugged, pulled out a shot glass, and reached for the bottle.
As he picked it up, something small and white came unstuck from the bottom and fluttered to the floor. Mahoney stooped over to see what it was. When he saw the scrawling on it, he almost let it drop from his fingers in shock.
Mahoney dropped heavily into a chair. He held the piece of paper before his disbelieving eyes. His face was flushed, sweat leapt from his forehead, and his pulse rate jumped into triple time.
The message was for him. From the Eternal Emperor. And this was all it said:
"Stick around, Ian. I'll be right back."
Mahoney sat back, stunned by the note. Was it possible? Nah. On the other hand, once when he'd gotten bagged the Emperor - just one of many toots they'd gone on together - he'd heard his boss brag that he'd survived more than 160 assassination attempts - only three of which had been successful.
Could that even be possible?
The Emperor had been around ever since anyone - no matter how old - could remembered. And he'd always looked the same. Acted the same.
Been the same?....
Mahoney polished off his drink and poured another.
He wondered what was true and was myth?
More than anything - he wondered how it had all begun.
NEXT: WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
THE STEN COOKBOOK & KILGOUR JOKEBOOK
Two new companion editions to the international best-selling Sten series. In the first, learn the Emperor's most closely held cooking secrets. In the other, Sten unleashes his shaggy-dog joke cracking sidekick, Alex Kilgour. Both available as trade paperbacks or in all major e-book flavors. Click here to tickle your funny bone or sizzle your palate.
The MisAdventures began humbly enough - with about 2,000 readers. When it rose to over 50,000 (we're now knocking at the door of 100,000) I started listening to those of you who urged me to collect the stories into a book. Starting at the beginning, I went back and rewrote the essays, adding new detail and events as they came to mind. This book is the result of that effort. However, I'm mindful of the fact, Gentle Reader, that you also enjoy having these little offerings posted every Friday to put a smile on your face for the weekend. So I'll continue running them until it reaches the final Fade Out. Meanwhile, it would please the heart of this ink-stained wretch - as well as tickle whatever that hard black thing is in my banker's chest - if you bought the book. It will make a great gift, don't you think? And if you'd like a personally autographed copy you can get it directly through my (ahem) Merchant's Link at Amazon.com. Click here. Buy the book and I will sign it and ship it to you. Break a leg!