May 2018


I wondered why I was always cold, and then I learned that the world I came from was two and a half degrees warmer.

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I was very ill when I was little. My parents told me that too much stress, too much exposure to germs, or even a small cut could kill me.

They said I’d understand when I was older.

I could never go out to play, and the other kids couldn’t come in to see me and bring their nasty germs. So I just kept to myself in my room, alone. I wrote letters to the ther children, but my parents would only read me te replies, not even letting me touch the paper.

Aside from my toys, I used to love looking outside my window. The glass was thick, reinforced, hermetically sealed, but I still loved it. I loved that clean, bright, still image that was a serene daytime landscape which stood almost endlessly in front of me, separated only by the glass.

The week before, I noticed that the power had begun to flicker a bit. Nothing too alarming, just blips here and there. My parents remotely closed the shutters, keeping me from seeing outside, while they dealt with what they said were generator problems.

But day by day, things started going wrong. The blackouts and brownouts were longer and more frequent. The only contact I had ith Mom and Dad were the meals they left for me when I was asleep.

Eventually, I decided to open the shades myself. They were electric, but using one of my toys, I was able to lever them open. I climbed up on my chair to look out the window.

The image MOVED.

Why did the landscape outside of my window look like was moving like a curtain? The leaves still swayed gently, birds still flew overhead, but they were like television pictures projected on a screen. And behind it…darkness and blinking lights.

That’s wen the alarm sounded. “Subject Delta Containment Breach! Engage emergency protocols. Strike team inbound. Lethal force authorized.”

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“The body that was found, the body that began my investigation…it was always assumed to be that of Sary Saloth, a young and rising courtier in your service. My Empress herself confirmed this upon viewing the body. And yet, how could my Empress have recognized a body in such poor shape? Those who knew Sary Saloth have called her quiet, observant, and someone who avoided drawing attention to herself. Would my Empress have known her well enough to identify her through some small quirk, some secret mark?”

Inspector Xan continued. “No, if there were any courtier my Empress knew well enough to identify from a mangled corpse, it was Kiang. And yet my Empress let Kiang–her lover–go along with her entire personal staff. Poor lovesick Kiang has accepted a position as a choregirl just to remain close by an Empress who no longer wishes to be near her. Granted, the need to choose a consort and produce heirs meant that Kiang’s hope was always a vain one. But empresses throughout history, down to The Beloved Empress, have kept their forbidden favorites close even as they did otherwise in public. Old Ieng, for one.”

“This leads us to one, inescapable conclusion. The body as not that of Sary Saloth, and yet my Empress has a very intense interest in showing that it is so. Why?”

The Empress smirked. “You tell me, Inspector,” she said. “After all, you have convinced yourself that these fantasies are the truth.”

“Yes, the truth,” agreed Xan. “The truth can only be that the body was not that of Sary Saloth…but, rather, it was that of Empress Shien Khou Vu.”

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The Empress was serene, calm behind the dazzling white court makeup. “My personal staff had been wearying to me for some time,” she said. “Rather than answering the hundreds of smaller slights that had accumulated, I opted to sweep them clean. They were well-compensated for their service.”

“I see, my Empress,” said Inspector Xan. “What about the bonus?”

“Bonus?” Shien Khou Vu said, airily.

“I have heard it from several people employed in jobs that were not turned over–seamstresses, washerwomen, a gardener–that your personal staff had recieved a large bonus several months ago. If you were dissatisfied, as you say you were, why did my Empress see fit to reward them?”

The Empress glowered. “I had hoped that it would prove to incentivize them,” she said. “I was wrong.”

“I see,” said Xan. “A thirty percent bonus is a most generous incentive for such purposes, my Empress. I am told that you insisted on the number and had the calculations delivered personally that you might check them.”

“One can never be too thorugh,” said the Empress.

“Curious, then, that the Imperial records speak only of a twenty percent bonus,” said Xan. “Curiouser still is the Imperial Accountant. She speaks highly of my Empress’s head for numbers and figures, yet notes that my Empress has seen fit to call on her advice more in the past six weeks than in the entire five years of her previous reign.”

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“Her entire staff?” Inspector Xan said. “How is that possible? I have seen and spoken with many people here that seem very familiar with the Empress and her grandmother.”

“A second complete, trained reserve staff is present at all times, to step in upon any death or vacancy,” said Ieng. “Apologies. I assumed that you had a greater knowledge of the inner workings of the palace you had been asked to investigate and disrupt.”

“If there is a disruption here, it is that of an old woman with a tongue as sharp as her needlework is not.”

“Ha!” Ieng laughed. “I spent thirty years being demure and biting my tongue, Inspector, and I vowed that those days ould die with The Beloved Empress. And that bitch is deep in her cold, jade tomb.”

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“The Empress has been more aloof than normal, and yet less so,” said Kiang. “I realize that sounds contradictory,” she added a moment later.

“Indeed it does,” said Xan. “Please elaborate.”

“Empress Shien Khou Vu–long may she reign–is required by imperial protocol to be somewhat distant. It is necessary to avoid the appearance of favoritism, though any of the attendants who served during the reign of her grandmother The Beloved Empress will tell you that such favoritism still exists.”

“I have learned much about The Beloved Empress that the official history has…overlooked,” said Inspector Xan. “Please continue.”

“Empress Shien Khou Vu–long may she reign–was particularly close to a coterie of courtiers with whom she had grown up. She had not been expected to inherit, after all, and did not recieve any formal training until after her two elder sisters were carried away by the great plague. But she has grown suddenly distant from them, and those who have attempted to ply their old bonds for the usual favors have been cast out and in one case executed.”

“I see.”

“Furthermore, there are always hangers-on at court attempting to influence the Empress. It is, of course, her prerogative to allow whomever she wishes into the court. But the court has lately been entertaining the most base rabblerousers and insolent commoners.”

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“Hmph,” said Hezikiah, pretending to sweep a mote of dust off her shoulder. “A curse, was it? Let me guess, a clumsiness jinx? A boil hex? The Itching?”

Marika squirmed. “A Lucksucker Curse,” she mumbled.

“Oh, dearie, wow,” laughed Hezikiah. “This isn’t my first rodeo, you know, and you try a Lucksucker? I’m used to a bucking bronco, and this is a prancing pony at best. Maybe even a dead horse, fully flogged.”

Red and sweating, Marika could only mumble in response.

“Tell you what, dearie,” Hezekiah continued. “I’ll give you ten seconds to explain yourself. Then I hit you with a countercurse, maybe Perfidious Abdomen. It’s a favorite of mine, you won’t be able to digest anything for two weeks and will split your time between the porcelain throne and the porcelain bus.”

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