By Jeff Patterson
I. They gathered in the isotope-rich light of the Vaundin Involute to deliver their offerings, great formations of null-inertia ships ascending from protospace and unfurling their weapon arrays in honorary configuration. They decelerated at several hundred gravities, sheding their energy in great subquantum ripples, and took positions according to the standing and prominence of their Guilds, yielding to the rigid hierarchy enjoined by today's events. Precise order was the rule when fleets were in the presence of the King.
On the great charts rendered by the Guild of Cartographers the Involute was described as a gaseous spiral approximately one half light-year in diameter that marked the spinward border of the Realm. This was the manner of passionlessness that had earned that Guild the reputation as Masters of Understatement, for the Involute was nothing less than a testament to the clockwork machinations of the cosm. From its swollen sub-luminal core of inert vapors sprung a radiant trail, yellow and crimson braids of gases and rilolithic plasmas that wrapped around the core in an ever-increasing arc. This plume etched a resplendent whorl, weaving twelve full orbits before fading to incohesion. The entire structure turned like a flywheel, the outer regions moving exponentially slower than the center. Taken as a whole, it was overwhelming. The Guild of Paleo-Anthropologists recorded no less than seventeen ancient cultures that worshipped this stellar oddity.
However the true wonder of this object was the fact that, at one time in ages unremembered, it had been a nebula. It birthed stars and sang in electromagnetic voices until its heart was pierced by a rotating singularity plunging through space. Gravity was shattered, heavy elements were sacrificed to the wild dark of space, and the whole of the cloud was sent spinning and set ablaze. Over a billion years the great forces that maintain the galaxy and keep the stars true to their darkling courses communicated their influence, and in doing so stabilized the wounded nebula, affixing its new form upon the firmament. The Guild of Analogists likened it to a god adding his signature to a completed masterwork.
That the events of today were taking place in proximity to the Involute was symbolic in two ways. Firstly, the overall shape was reminiscent of the stylized galaxy icon that adorned the center of the royal crest; and secondly, it called to mind an anachronistic, yet appropriate, proverb that had (as all good proverbs do) clung tenaciously to civilization through all of its changes: that which goes around, comes around.
All of this was unimportant, for today the Involute simply fed precious light and energy to the ships that had congregated. The stage of today's events was the planetless blue main sequence star that casually punctuated the edge of this sculpted inferno.
It was called Puun-Rhiad, and it was the King's favorite.
II. Ages end, honor endures. Ha.
Eelius sighed as the transcaster's indicator chimed. That made twenty times in as many minutes. Where are those thrice-damned drones? The chime sounded again, and he turned to the circular console to silence the wretched sound. As he drove his finger into the "mute" key, his nail cracked. Damn. In these last few days he had suffered bruises, abrasions and damaged nails on three of his hands. Such was the nature of work, he supposed. As much as he missed his ceremonial robes, he was glad that they did not have to suffer the same battery of minor, cumulative indignities that he did. The gray, ill-fitting overalls were far more resilient. They also made him feel much smaller.
With a touch of a smaller hand he called up the transfer manifest. Data rolled across the screen. The incoming payload was from the Guild of Dreamers. It was a single spherical module carrying the imaginings and mad hallucinations of a hundred different worlds. These were real dreams, not the pale duplications routinely marketed by the Guild. For a moment Eelius considered rejecting the gift, blocking the transcaster signal or reflecting it into the void. After all, the Dreamers had openly defied the King's decrees many times, and had given aid to his enemies at least twice. Oh, to have a chance in life to spurn the tribute of the Dreamers! He knew the King would never approve, he was far too gracious, and the time for bitterness was past. He clapped his two larger hands and authorized the cargo.
The phasing nodes lowered from the sloped, convex walls of the transcaster chamber. A faint violet glow ignited on the platform's center. Eelius felt the cilia on his neck stiffen, and squinted his inner eyelids against the lightning strobes as the 'casting began. It sharply reminded him how sore his eyes had become lately. In the service of the King he had stood at his side in witness to many appealing sights and spectacles, and he realized how easy his job was on the eyes. The residual nimbus faded, and thin metallic arms unfolded from the ceiling to haul the sphere off the platform. Eelius checked the console, no other incomings were in line. Thank the stars. The arms stacked the sphere with the other containers that had come though the 'caster since he had relieved the drones. He had thought that sending them to assist in getting the goods to the storage holds was a efficient idea. Instead the backlog now sitting here in the 'caster pod was twice its size from an hour ago.
Oh, but what a backlog! Here before him sat such treasures. There were barrels of spiced fruit from the Guild of Gourmands, scrolls of ancient secrets painstakingly chronicled by the Guild of Whisperers, relics of dead pantheons collected by the Xenotheologians, tanks of liquid currency representing a full day's winnings from the Wagerers, concubines held in stasis from the Slavers, maps of distant unknown space from the Cartographers, and, most incredible, a box from the Lightsmiths containing dozens of small gems. Within each was locked a sliver of the light from a different star in the Realm. Eelius knew that in the days to come he would gaze upon such gifts and share in the joy of his Master, but here and now they were so many tons of bulk matter to be stowed and inventoried. A near-infinite task to accomplish in a very finite time. It didn't help his nerves that such a bounty was being amassed so close to the edge of Realm space, in uncomfortabe proximity to the places where the Unguilded dwelled.
There was a clamor in the archway behind him. The three drones spidering their way through the passage were tripping over each others' ungainly legs. "ForgiveUsChancellorWeAreTardyInOurTasksOurLaxityIsInexcusableWeHaveMuchToDoThere
The drones fell still, lenses focused on the mound of goods piled before them.
"You must be extremely cautious with these, they are gifts for our King."
Eelius shot a larger hand into the air and they went silent again. This is futile. I would do better to free the concubines from stasis to help me. The chime sounded again. Eelius turned to the console, but before he began reading the screen a voice filled the room.
"All Chancellors to the Scarlet Hall. Repeat, all Chancellors to the Scarlet Hall. His Eminence is coming aboard. Repeat..."
By then Eelius was gone.
III. The Writs of Disinvestiture were quite specific when it came to the matter of ceremonial offerings to a departing sovereign: "It is permissible and honorable for the Guilds to present the Exile with favors, grants, boons and bequests, as befitting the station of one whom has duly served the Realm."
The Guild of Historical Interpreters had always purported that the spirit of this statute was one of mercy. A sovereign exiled would need exchangeable goods to negotiate passage through foreign space, or to establish citizenship in one of the distant unions, and so the Guilds would present tokens of great value to aid in this endeavor. Exile, it was said, should not entail being thrown naked and unprotected into the wild stars, however the traditional assumption was that these gifts would quickly be bartered for survival. The Realm was then free of guilt, for had they not insured that the Exile was well-provided for?
So it came as a surprise to many in the Realm when the Guild of Mechaneers presented the King with the Imperium. It was a magnificent vessel, long and slender, bristling with pods and arrays, and possessing the mass of a small moon. It had been grown by the Mechaneers in a well-hidden womb from the finest materials. The frame was nine-strand hyperfiber bracketed with ceramic alloy pinions. The hull consisted of triple-layer selenium lined with interlocking vapor-crystal membranes dense enough to diffuse most energy weapons. There were rumors that it could withstand the interior of a sun for months.
The Imperium's vast interior layout consisted a series of ventricles and anterooms, with some chambers large enough to house habitats. One such chamber contained a thousand acres of lush forest from one of his favorite worlds, another was a grassy home to great lumbering creatures, still another contained a vast ocean. These were marvels of engineering, the trademark of the Mechaneers, but it was the smaller cavities near the core of the Imperium
where this most fickle of Guilds had exceeded even its own standards. There were halls of mirrors, halls of living smoke, halls where time itself was stretched and refracted and slowed to a crawl. One chamber was populated by the ghosts of the King's long-dead friends and companions (satisfying a debt owed by the Necromancers), another was a null-gravity sphere displaying a real-time composite image of the ship's external opticals, creating the illusion that one was flying through space. Dozens more held spectacles and wonders beyond experience.
The Imperium had two modes, formal and stealth. In formal the vessel appeared to be a floating palace, with long trains of light along its baffles and great solar webs that glistened a thousand different colors. In stealth mode it was dark and silent, reaching high reletivistic velocities while remaining invisible on every part of the spectrum. The null-inertial mechanisms shunted the excess energy back into the engines. It had no exhaust, no waste heat, no drive signature, and no gravitational wake. This concerned some who thought the King could use such a vessel to stage war against the Realm, for very few ships in the fleet could rival it. There was also reason to believe that the Mechaneers were hoping for such actions.
The Guild of Rumorers claimed it was of great concern to the Queen.
IV. Look at us
The Scarlet Hall was as splendid and ornamented as the King's audience chamber on the Throneworld. Situated at the front of the ship, the tall sloping windows afforded an excellent view of Puun-Rhiad, the Involute, and the gathered Guildships. The rest of the chamber was an expanse of red trimmed with gold and grey. Blue light from the star gave a violet cast to the room. The reflective floor was etched with the twin-sun-and-lightningbolt signet created for the King by the Designers' Guild, ringed by the motto chosen by the King himself: "Ages end, Honor endures." At the head of the room stood a throne flanked by a score of knights in bright formal tunics, mostly older soldiers loyal to the King who had requested to continue service under him.
Eelius felt uneasy at the sight of the gathered Chancellors, twenty-two in all, outfitted in such drab dress within such a hallowed place. Their casual movement, accompanied by soft woodwind music, reminded him of specters. In a sense, we are. Up until a handful of days ago these women and men had been members of a royal court, now they passed the hours preparing systems and organizing schedules. They were becoming a crew, transfering their dedication from the workings of the throne to the running of a ship. From the state of some of them Eelius considered himself lucky to be receiving cargo, his assignment could have been much worse.
"Eelius, darling where have you been hiding?"
So much for my luck.
Chancellor Timmona, as always, was a vision of grace. No amount of labor or hardship could make her anything less than elegant. Her overalls were sashed tight to reveal her figure, and colorful scarves adorned each arm like bright insignia. A turban of checkered cloth and matching work gloves gave her a practical flourish. The tools hanging from her hips were caked with bits of soil, no doubt she had retained her job of overseeing the King's gardens, only now she worked the grounds herself instead of commanding the ranks of servants.
"I have been religated to the cargo channels, my lady, and burdened with drones of such ineptitude that I fear the Robotics Guild would see us dead before departure."
"Nonsense, darling, they owe His Eminence too many favors. He did grant them an extra seat in the Guild-Parliment."
"But you, Eelius, working the docks like a mariner! This I must see."
"No more than I must see you on your knees, churning the dirt beneath you,"
They both smiled
"So how go the gardens?" he asked.
"Oh, they are such a joy! Chancellor M'mynyn and I transplanted only the finest specimens from the Throneworld, and the ventricle we've planted in is perfect. Good humidity, excellent lighting, even the pollinating insects seem happy."
"Insects. How revolting." Came a voice too deep to be human. It was Chancellor
Xypel, one of the three synthetics in the King's service. Eelius liked Xypel, but was always disconcerted by the way his own face was distorted in the ceramic-ringed lenses that studded his chrome head. When he addressed him he tended to look at the oval voice module that embossed the broad, segmented trunk.
"And what great task have you been assigned to, Xypel?"
"I and my two brethren have been communing with this magnificant ship, of course, organizing on-board protocols for His Eminence."
Timmona's eyes widened. "Has he told you where we are going?"
"No. His Eminence has kept no company or partaken in any communication on his journey here from the Throneworld save Chancellor Vel-Greltian, who has no doubt kept our King well fed and intoxicated."
"If I didn't know better," said Eelius "I'd think that was sarcasm."
"No, Eelius. It was irritation." the synthetic spun on his slender legs and faced the window. Puun-Rhiad roiled below. Timmona gave Eelius a look he couldn't quite decypher.
"There are" Xypel continued " at least six Governments that have offered His Eminence asylum and residence, all of them entreatied to the Queen. He could live a life of great importance in any one of them, even regain some manner of office if he chose." one flexible arm gestured to the view. "Instead he requested the Mechaneers deliver this craft here, to the farthest corner of the Realm. We are light-years from the nearest trade lanes, light-centuries from any recognised world. His eminence does not make such excursions without reason, especially to the borders of our beloved stars. He will certainly bring us into the space beyond."
"And what is the problem with that?" asked Timmona.
Xypel turned back. "Chaos is the problem, my lady, the Imperium sits on the edge of chaos. The space beyond the Involute is rife with war. Tribes of starfaring savages squabbling over territory. No Guilds, no castes, no order. I fear our King intends to live out his exile as a warrior."
"Or he could just love adventure." said Timmona. "It isn't unheard of for a fallen sovereign to go out and explore, visit unknown worlds, and exchange ideas with strangers. You expect our King to seek safe harbors, but what if seeks freedom instead? After a life of royal responsibilities and ceaseless oaths to uphold, don't you think he deserves to travel where he wishes? Frontiers are for delving into, dear Xypel, you would have us cringe from the unknown because of its mystery. Besides, this vessel is certainly capable of facing a challenge."
"Indeed it is," agreed Xypel, "but it is not our defensibility I question. There is a point where the line between royal behavior and folly breaks down, and I fear..."
Eelius folded both pairs of hands into a gesture similar to prayer, wordlessly indicating that he must excuse himself. Such gestures had been common on Throneworld, where Chancellors were forever slipping out of conversations to attend to other matters. It seems like years ago. They would gather in the great halls and debate the possible actions of the King for days on end. And now, together in one room with nothing to occupy their minds, they fell into that habit so easily. All around the Scarlet Hall, the Chancellors were clustered in groups, waving their arms and raising their voices. He supposed he should find an interesting discussion and join in, after all it had always been his favorite activity, but right now he needed to think.
Xypel had struck a nerve a minute ago. He was right about the space beyond the Involute, it was known to be unsafe. The Guild of Chroniclers recorded that a King some seven hundred years ago had cast out all those without Guilds to that place, shunning them to a life without society to support them. Eelius had pondered this recently, and it troubled him. In a short while the King would abdicate, volitionally divest himself of all authority. He would no longer be of the Royal House. They would certainly continue to address him with respect, but the fact was he would have no power. This ship would be the whole of his domain. If he took the vessel to another governed region of space, he would at least have a social structure around him to support his position, and be respected for having Honor and reputation.
But out there in the dark reaches he had nothing but the regard of those with him. If he made a decision unpopular with the Council of Chancellors, or his Knights, what recourses would he have? Once disinvestiture had taken place, there was nothing to prevent the amassed Guild ships from focusing their weapons on the Imperium and trying to annihilate her. It was all very confusing to Eelius, who was also wondering how the drones were doing with the cargo. He was looking around for a terminal to check on their progress when the King entered the Scarlet Hall.
V. The Queen's decree had not been unexpected.
When her first husband died some nine decades earlier, she was determined that the Realm would not suffer the same unrest as it had when her father had died and she had ascended to the Throne. After a suitable period of mourning she forged a treaty with the fledgling kingdom light-years beyond the Realm. The worlds of this kingdom were rich in resources but nearly defenseless, such a treaty was impossible to refuse. She chose a prince of the kingdom to wed, and secure the bond between them. The new King took to his life quite well, conducting himself as befitted a sovereign. He was given limited ruling powers and a strong voice in the Parliment, allowing him to partake in governing the Guilds. In time he was given a Council of Chancellors as the Queen had, although his were augmented with only one extra pair of ceremonial arms, unlike the Queen's council who bore two pair.
The King fathered two sons for the Queen, and loved them greatly. He soon garnered a reputation as a man with a compassionate heart and a fair since of justice. While the Queen involved herself in matters of trade and accord with other soveriegn governments the King assumed the role of arbitrater between the Guilds. He ended disputes and settled claims over allotment of resources, even formed new Guilds to deal with emerging arts and sciences. As a prince in his own kingdom the King had studied the strategies of war, and partaken in the sorely limited military, so it was only natural that he involve himself with the Knights of the Realm. He applauded their sense of honor.
The Knights welcomed this, and with good reason, for they feared for their future.
For most of the Queen's tenure there had been peace with the neighboring governments. Automated vessels patrolled the borders for raiders and trespassers. Worlds of the Realm had their own methods of internal policing. The Knights were utilized primarily for guarding the Throneworld. The King was troubled by this. The Knights had a proud history reaching back to the founding days of the Realm. They had withstood devastating campaigns and vanquished terrible enemies. They had been instrumental in the success of the Realm. It saddened the King to see Men and Women of such relentless honor reduced to decoration for the Royal court. He would have none of it. He decreed the construction of memorials to Knights past and held celebrations of Remembrance. Many were assigned to other Guilds as consultants, others became teachers in the great academies. The Knights were elevated to a place of prominence and glory. Tournaments were staged and broadcast to all worlds to display their skills. Once again they were the pride of the Realm, and the King was credited with returning them there. His position was secured.
And then the war came.
In the years since the treaty, there had been discord in the King's home Kingdom. Factions had arisen which detested the alliance with the Realm and demanded that all trade covenants be nullified. The protests were ignored, and soon a coup erupted. Reports came in that the usurpers were gathering an armada to raid outposts on the borders of the Realm. The Queen feared the rebellion would trigger sweeping imbalances in the Realm's other trade agreements. The stability of centuries would be derailed if such impudence went unanswered. She called for the Knights to move against the aggressors.
The King was outraged that the proud warriors he had lifted from near-obscurity were being dispatched to take arms against his home. He decried the Queen's actions, claiming that he could quell the situation without resorting to military action. The Queen ignored him, and ships of the Realm streamed through protospace towards their targets.
The Chancellors advised the King to keep silent about the matter lest a rift occur within the Guild-parliament, but those wheels had already been set in motion. The Guilds began choosing sides. The Weaponeers supplied the Queen's troops, but the Armorers refused to provide protection. The Agrarians shipped provisions, but without aid from the Preservers the cargo rotted in the bellies of transport ships. The Educators demanded that the Queen's words must be forever unquestioned, while the Financiers condemned anyone who ignored the King's wisdom. The Chancellors feared that skirmish wars between the Guilds might ignite, at a time when such internal strife could be fatal. There were few options.
And so the Queen summoned the King to a private audience, which lasted days, and was a source of great occupation for the Guilds of Rumorers, Speculators and Wagerers. When the Royal couple emerged the King immediately declared his support for the Queen's actions, and the Queen announced that as soon as the rebellion was dealt with, the troubled Kingdom would be absorbed into the Realm. The Guilds ceased feuding. The Knights went in, the war ended within days, and the Kingdom was no more.
The Knights returned to the Throneworld and gathered before the King and Queen. It was there that the Queen decreed that the Writs of Disinvestiture be enacted against the King. He accepted without protest.
The Realm had expected this, and wondered what secret agreements had been made in that private meeting, what hidden plans were falling into place. Behind it all there was a cold realization of an uncomfortable truth: for the first time in the history of the Realm, a King was abdicating.
VI. Eelius realized, with more than a touch of sorrow, that this could very well be the last time he heard the royal anthem. This elegant composition of winds and strings had announced the King's arrival so many times that for Eelius it was a subtle symbol of the lasting strength of the Realm. In the time before the war, when Eelius was a younger man, he thought of the King's reign as a constant, an eternal element of life. Guilds could quarrel, covenants could be made and broken, but the rule of His Eminence had endured. It had stood like an immutable obelisk in the mind of Eelius, and the melody of the anthem was a wind that forever sang around that obelisk. Hearing it now served notice to Eelius of how detached he felt from the proceedings. Like the King's rule, It would be missed, and its absence would be almost palpable.
His Eminence beamed with pride as he strode through the oval doorway. His wide frame was draped in black and shadow-green vestments, his white hair pulled back tight, and his crown hovered at brow level like a halo. The scepter of office was tucked into the side of his thick, jeweled belt like one of Timmona's tools. His arms swung wide as the anthem ended and the Chancellors broke into applause, most of them using both pairs of hands.
The two Princes entered behind him. This was quite unexpected. Eelius could almost feel a skip in the tempo of the room. They had not been seen since before the war, and both had grown into fine young men who wore their stations well. They flanked behind their father as he crossed the great crest to the throne.
Behind the three of them came Chancellor Vel-Greltian, grandiose as always. His four hands entwined over his vast stomach, the emblems of heraldry tattooed along the expanses of his arms, and his bald and painted head sitting like rare piece of pottery on the plush pillow of his neck. He looked ironically out of place in his bright robes and lace collar amidst all the overalls.
Two rows of Knights lined the approach to the throne, lifting their sabres in salute as the King passed. Vel-Greltian steered his great mass into the group, and Eelius watched him. Eelius had never been enjoyed the Senior Chancellor's arrogant brand of company, but he did admire the man's talent at playing out court intrigue. Ever since he had been assigned to the King's Council, Eelius had understood why this man was recognized as a master manipulator. Vel-Greltian was cunning, subtle, and always in control. Even now he moved among the Chancellors casually, smiling but avoiding all eye contact, knowing full well that everyone gathered desired to know the King's plans and making certain they knew he was privy to them.
The King stepped up to his throne, and the applause died down. He paused for a moment, and ran his hand along the ornate armrest, smiled, then turned to face his audience.
"My friends," he said in his big, sweet voice, "I wish to thank you for joining me this day, and for your tireless work preparing this excellent vessel. We have much to do, and a great journey ahead of us. I know you have questions. I beg your patience."
The King sat himself onto the throne and summoned the princes and a few of the Chancellors to attend him. The others went back to their conversations. Drones entered with trays of drinks and finger foods and began to circulate. A pair of multi-lensed watch-pods floated down from the ceiling, positioning themselves to transmit the proceedings to the Guildships and across the Realm. Eelius observed the room, Vel-Greltian specifically. The fat man was eyeing the others, smiling as he read their faces. At regular intervals he made a quick glance to one of the windows. Eelius followed the trajectory of the glances, and found Xypel. The synthetic who usually mingled with other Chancellors and dominated conversations, was alone, looking out at the space beyond the Involute.
VII. When the Queen had granted the King his Council of Chancellors, Vel-Greltian seemed a natural choice for the senior advisor, not so much for his expertise in the fields of diplomacy or decorum but for his ability to draw attention away from His Eminence. Vel-Greltian was a man who surrounded himself in controversy, and stoked its flames whenever prudent. His family had been part of the Brewer's Guild, supplying ales and spirits to the Royal family for several generations. Unconfirmed reports claimed that long ago his family had been unguilded, and joined the Brewers to avoid exile. This alone was cause enough for the Rumorers to establish a committee focused exclusively on him.
He was, despite the calculated showmanship, quite capable as a Chancellor. From the start of his life in the Royal court he learned the arcane and monolithic structures of power, mapped the dynamic workings of government, and devised unique ways of navigating them. His hand guided the King when arbitration was needed, it was he who drafted the many covenants and consortia between Guilds, his designs kept the webs of influence within the Realm at a state of symmetry.
It was obvious that the King considered him a fast friend, and that His Eminence understood the value of having an advisor of such colorful and effective aspect at his side. With Ven-Greltian's aid he had become more than a figurehead. So when the Queen had summoned the King for the private audience, it was Vel-Greltian who accompanied him on the long walk to the door of the royal conference room, and it was on that walk that plans were laid.
During the second day of the audience, Vel-Greltian called a secret gathering of the Chancellors. They met in the great garden of the King during the small hours.
"Will His Eminence step down?" the Chancellors asked
"Most certainly, but do not lay blame upon the Queen," he told them, "given the King's actions during this troubled time she will have no options save requiring his abdication. For her to do less would be placing the King above the Realm. She is too dedicated to her subjects for such disregard."
"But what of us?" the Council asked.
"Ours will be the most difficult task of all, for we must accompany the King on his new adventure. This is not the close of a reign, but the birth of a new challenge. Remember, ages will end, but honor endures."
IIX. "Chancellor Xypel, why do you not join the others?"
Eelius regretted asking the question almost immediately, it was far too fashioned to direct at the synthetic. He had learned long ago that Xypel remained quiet only when troubled. He prepared himself for ridicule.
"We are being watched."
Xypel's lenses did not move. "The Imperium detects engine signatures and inertial wakes under stealth technology somewhere beyond the Involute. It cannot read a precise location, but it has picked up passive scan waves as well."
Eelius looked out at the void, an almost ominous darkness behind the majesty of the Involute. An itch rippled through his nerves.
"Are there weapons?"
"The ship cannot tell."
"What about the Guildships?" Eelius asked, turning his gaze to the gathering fleet, "Do they detect anything?"
"The Imperium has far more sophisticated sensory arrays than any of the Guildships, and the space between us and the fleet is saturated with transcaster signals. I doubt that they can detect these...observers."
Eelius felt he should draw some conclusion from this information, as if he was burdened with the task of making a decision. It was another habit recently abandoned.
"We should inform His Eminence."
Eelius turned to approach the King, but was stopped by Xypel's lesser hand gripping his arm. He could feel the cold alloy, even through his sleeve. The synthetic looked at him.
"Chancellor, do you recall if an offering from the Queen was received?"
The question confused Eelius for a moment. He was about to reply when he felt a meaty pair of hands slap his back.
"What are you two whispering about over here!"
Vel-Greltian was smiling as usual, holding a drink in his smaller hand. He seemed even larger than when Eelius had seen him last on the Throneworld, and his eyes pierced even deeper. Xypel turned to him and folded his hands into the gesture of salute. "Chancellor," he said, his voice dropping a register, "the Imperium has detected..."
"A fleet of hidden vessels, yes. I know. We were expecting them."
"Does he know?" asked Eelius looking at the King, who was placing his signet on a variety of scrolls.
"Of course he knows."
"Eelius, you are in no danger. None of us are."
"Then perhaps," said Xypel, "you can explain the objects currently being launched from the Guild fleet, and taking up position around Puun-Rhiad below us."
For the first time in Eelius' memory, Vel-Greltian looked surprised.
There was a sound of bells over the speakers, and all eyes fell to the King. He stood with all the regal bearing he had ever possessed, and pulled the Scepter of Office from his belt. The watch-drones drew closer to him.
"My loyal Chancellors, honorable Knights, and all subjects of the Realm. For over eight decades I have served you humbly and to the best of my ability. My time as your King has been a period of great happiness for me, and I pray that history will remember my time among you with favor. I have always placed the state and sanctity of the Realm foremost in my heart and soul, and it is on that virtue alone that I..."
This is how it ends, thought Eelius. No warfare, no climax, just a regal figure releasing his office like a flock of doves. The King continued his speech, transferring his responsibilities to the Queen, removing himself from his role in the Guild-parliament, and sincerely asking the populace of the Realm to remain fiercely loyal to their Queen. To Eelius it sounded like a father telling children to behave while he was away, but such was the King's nature. He would not have his legacy include unrest in his absence.
"By the stars, he's good."
Eelius turned and saw Timmona slipping two arms into his. She cast an eye towards Vel-Greltian, who nodded. The King was winding down his address now, showering compliments on the Queen and the Guilds, and praising the glory of the Realm.
"When is he going to tell us where we are going?" Timmona asked.
"Soon, my lady." said Vel-Greltian.
The King finished, and bowed to the Chancellors. Applause roared. He bowed again, smiling tearfully. Music swelled, glasses were raised, and an air of absolute joy solidified within the Scarlet Hall.
Then a blinding surge of brightness poured through the windows, and all went silent.
IX. On the Throneworld a bank of generators hummed, and massive crystalline pylons cast cohesive beams of coded photoplasm into the void. At several planetary diameters out the beams converged, resonated off each other's frequency and velocity, and slipped into the upper fringe of protospace. They corkscrewed across nine-score light-years in moments, re-entering normal space near Puun-Rhiad. There, the beams unraveled into strands, which fragmented into particles, which danced and arranged themselves into electrostatic patterns before releasing the light they carried.
The image of the Queen was colossal, it dwarfed both the Guild fleet and the Imperium. From the perspective of all who watched there was no way of measuring exactly how large the facsimile was, it appeared as if the Involute was merely a set piece acting as a backdrop with the Queen projected in front of it twice as bright. She appeared in a radiant gown of white and azure with a headpiece of a thousand jewels. Her eyes burned with ice-blue flame that rivaled any stars in the Realm, uncompromising in their duty. She was the unquestioned ruler of ten-thousand stars, but she looked like every goddess that had ever been worshipped.
Her voice spanned all wavelengths, cascaded along the myriad strata of parallel amplitudes, and flowed between the pulses of every electrical circuit. Her voice was everywhere.
"Beloved subjects of the Realm, history is a force that cannot be halted. The acts we commit and the positions we take flow into it drop by drop, until it is a torrent of unrelenting power. We rise and fall on its tides, and hope for safe harbor, but it flows nonetheless. It fills every cove and crevice of our lives without preference or compromise. We can only move with it on its course.
"My beloved husband, on this sad day I accept your abdication. Your influence in the Realm has been proud and honorable. The Realm is a far better place than when you joined me on the throne. I pray you remember us fondly."
The luminous face of the Queen smiled, and for a moment her eyes shone with happiness.
"In keeping with the tradition of offerings, I present you with a gift. Of all the wondrous places within the Realm, your favorite has always been this star, Puun-Rhiad. It is humble and worldless, but it is bright. I can think of no more fitting a gift that this. As I speak, an array of gravistat engines are encircling the star. They will allow you to bring it in tow with you on your journey.
"I, and the rest of the Realm, hope you find your soul's dearest desire."
There was another great flash, and she was gone.
X. Eelius wiped a tear from his eye, and felt Timmona's grip on his arm relax. "That's it," she whispered "ages end."
"And some begin," said Vel-Greltian.
Eelius arched his eyebrows. What does that mean? He was about to ask when light flooded the room again.
The image of the Queen appeared before the Throne. In this manifestation she nearly reached the curve of the ceiling. The Chancellors stepped back away from the projection, giving her plenty of room.
"One more thing, beloved," she said.
"Of course," he replied. He stepped down from the throne and stood between his sons. To one he handed the Scepter of Office, to the other he handed the crown. They bowed to him. Eelius realized they would not be accompanying their father, they were simply here to retrieve the royal artifacts.
"That isn't what I meant and you know it. The Guild ships report the Imperium's navigation system plotting a course into the wild stars. The Mechaneers claim they read stealth vessels approaching your location. I want to know where you plan on taking this ship of yours."
Eelius felt the room fall still. All attention was drawn to the man who had been king. He smiled.
"I'm going to forge a new empire."
Eelius saw Xypel turn back to the window, Vel-Greltian was already there. He pulled Timmona to join them. Beyond the Involute, space was beginning to glow.
"The Guild ships have sounded an alert," said Xypel.
The glowing seemed to throb. It pulsed from blue to violet as it churned, pulling itself apart into smaller clusters and coagulating like an image coming into focus. There were flashes snaking between the clusters like slow motion lightning.
"They are shedding their stealth fields," said Vel-Greltian, "it's magnificent."
"What is happening?" cried the Queen, her voice feeding back over the hall's speakers.
The man who had been king said nothing.
Out of the fragmenting glow came ships, old vehicles bristling with vanes and baffles. They looked as if they had been built from the remains of different craft joined together. Legends in strange languages were etched along the hulls, and odd colored lights swept the space in front of them. The last of the glow curled off the hulls as they stopped over the star.
These are ancient ships. Eelius could not recognize them. A crackling sound became audible, a hissing and clicking growing louder.
"They are transmitting," said Xypel, "the Imperium is retasking receivers to lower frequency."
The sound grew thin, then dopplered, then quieted.
"Hail Imperium. Hail Imperium. This is the Yamnari, pointship for the Tribes of the Unguilded. We welcome you to our space, and place our fleet in your service."
Eelius looked at Vel-Greltian, whose smile now threatened to split his face.
"You arranged this, didn't you?"
"Of course he did," said Timmona.
The image of the Queen bent close to the man who had been king. "What are you doing, old man?"
"Doing you a favor, my dear. For years you have feared the wild stars, afraid of what lurked beyond the Involute since your ancestor exiled the Unguilded. For centuries they existed without guidance or leadership, riddled space with in-fighting over resources, and effectively closed off the border on this end of the Realm. I intend to change that."
"How?" asked the Queen. "By using this ship to conquer them?"
"No. They've asked me to be their King."
There was a rumble of chatter in the hall.
"They wish to establish a stable government. They have an excess of tradable goods, thousands of worlds ripe for colonization, not to mention quite a space-faring culture. They need someone with..."
"A strong opinion," said the Queen.
The man who would be king smiled.
Eelius shifted his attention to Vel-Greltian, who was speaking to Xypel. "...so when they heard about the war, they contacted me. They had been looking for someone with a honorable reputation."
"No doubt they wanted to avoid a conflict with the Realm," said Xypel.
Eelius stepped away from the group. He was just happy that they were going to have a purpose. The thought of tramping around space for the rest of his life had never really appealed to him.
"In honor of our former Queen," shouted the man who would be king, "we will tow her gift to the heart of the wild stars and place this vessel in orbit around it. It will act as the capital of our new empire."
From where Eelius stood, the image of the Queen bowed, then sparkled, then vanished. He watched as the Chancellors instantly broke into groups to begin discussing this chain of events. Timmona stepped towards him and whispered "I wonder if we'll get new robes," then bounded off into the gathering.
Eelius chuckled, but felt oddly numb. He had just stood witness to what would no doubt be viewed as a historic event in years to come, and all that came to mind was whether the drones had damaged anything in the transcaster bay.
XI. In the hours that followed, the Chancellors returned to their posts. The holds were filled, the habitats were tended, and the drives were tuned. One by one the ships of the Guilds sank away into protospace to return home until all that was left was the Imperium, the Unguilded, and the waiting star. Soon the engines were ignited, and the procession left the Realm. The first day of the new Empire had begun.
2003 Bad Day Studio