The palace was open to the general public on Empire Day, when huge Imperial Guard gravlighters carried the tourists in. During the remainder of the year, only palace employees boarded a high-speed pneumosubway thirty-four kilometers away in Fowler, and were blasted to their duty stations.
Since attendance at Empire Day on Prime World was roughly akin to being presented at Court, the Emperor had figured out long ago that many more millions of his people would want to go than there was space for. So he'd set up attendance much like what he'd described to an uncomprehending official as a "three-ring circus." Nearest to the castle were the most desirable seats. These the Emperor allowed to be assigned to Court Favorites, Current Heroes, Social Elitists, and so forth.
The second "ring," and there was no easy way to tell where the dividing line was, went to the social climbers. Those seats could be sold, scalped, threatened for, and otherwise acquired by those people who knew that seeing Empire Day on Prime World was the culmination of their entire life.
The third area, farthest from the Imperial reviewing stand itself, was carefully allotted to Prime World residents. Of course, many of these tickets ended up in the hands of outworlders rather than in those of the Prime Worlders they'd been assigned to, but the Emperor felt that if "local folks" wanted to make a credit or two, he certainly had no objections.
Seating was on bleachers that were installed weeks before the ceremony, on the banked walls of the bailey that surrounded the parade ground.
Technically, it didn't matter where the attendees sat; huge holographic screens rose at regular intervals atop the walls, giving the spectators access to instant close-ups as well as to occasional cut-arounds to those people in the "first circle" who were somehow Noteworthy.
Some events, such as Sten's "rescue", were only held at the far end of the parade ground, next to the castle itself. But most were set up to run continuously, down each area to an eventual exit at the far end of the parade ground.
Empire Day was the most spectacular staged event of the year. The Court still proclaimed itself the Court of a Thousand Suns, even though the Empire numbered far more systems than that, and Empire Day was when those suns shone most brightly.
It was also a night on which anything might happen...
Wheezing, Sten leaned against the wall of the concrete tunnel—a tunnel normally sealed by heavy collapsed-steel blast doors. Now the doors were raised to permit the Empire Day participants entry onto the parade ground.
Beside him, panting more sedately, was Havildar-Major Lalbahadur Thapa. The other Gurkhas had been praised and dismissed, to spend, for them, a far more enjoyable evening devoted to gambling and massive consciousness-alteration by whatever substances they chose.
"That was a famous display," Lalbahadur grunted.
"Yuh," Sten said.
"I am sure that, should any evil man desire to hold our Chamberlain for ransom, he will never do it on the edge of this castle."
Sten grinned. In the three months he'd commanded the Emperor's Own Gurkha Bodyguard, he'd learned that the Nepalese sense of humor matched his own, most especially in its total lack of respect toward superior officers. "You're cynical. This has given us much honor."
"That is true. But what puzzles me is that one time I made my ablution in one hand, and waited for the other hand to fill up with honor." Lalbahadur mocked sadness. "There was no balance."
"At least there is one thing," Lalbahadur brightened. "Our heroism will be shown to the parbitayas back home, and we shall have no trouble finding new fools who want to climb walls for the glory of the Emperor."
Sten's comeback was broken off as a band crashed into noise behind him. The officer and the noncom straightened as the Honor Guard of the Emperor's Own Praetorians thundered forward. Sten and Lalbahadur saluted the colors, then shrank back against the wall as the 600-plus men of the palace guard, all polished leather, gleaming metal, and automata, slammed past.
At the head of the formation the Praetorian's commanding officer, Colonel Den Fohlee, ramrodded a salute back at Sten, then snapped his eyes forward as the honor unit wheeled out onto the parade ground, to be met with cheers.
"My father once told me," Lalbahadur observed, "that there are only two kinds of men in the world. Normally, I do not listen to such nonsense, since it is my thought that the only two kinds of men in the world are those who see only two kinds of men in the world and those who do not." He stopped, slightly confused.
"Two kinds of men, your father said," Sten prompted.
"Yes. There are those who love to polish metal and leather and there are those who would rather drink. Captain, to which group do you belong?"
"Pass, Havildar," Sten said with regret. "I'm still on duty."
Sten and the noncom saluted, then the small, stocky man doubled off. Sten had a few minutes before guard check, so he walked to the end of the tunnel to watch the Praetorians parade.
They were very, very good, as befits any group of men and women whose sole duties and training consisted in total devotion to their leaders, an ability to stand motionless for hours on guard, and colorful ceremonious pirouetting.
Sten was being unfair, but the few times he'd been told off for parade duties, he'd found it a pain in the moulinette. Parading soldiers may be interesting to some types, but those people could never have spent the endless dull hours of shining and rehearsal that a parade takes.
Although Sten had to admit that the Praetorians were highly skilled. They paraded with archaic projectile weapons; the stubby, efficient willygun wasn't spectacular enough for any manual of arms. And the willygun had no provision for a bayonet. By the fortieth century, the benefits of mounting a can opener on the end of a rifle were long gone, save for ceremonial purposes.
And so the Praetorians jerked to and fro in intricate array with near-four-foot-long rifles.
The soldiers initially had their weapons at the shoulder. On count, the weapons came down to waist-carry, the bayonets gleaming before them like so many spears.
Marching in extended order, on command, each rank would wheel and march back toward the next rank's lowered bayonets. Sten winced to think what would happen if a noncom missed a beat in the continual chant of commands.
The unit pivoted back on itself, then wheel-turned in ranks. By chant, they began a progressive manual of arms; as each line's boots would crash against the tarmac, that rank would move from carry arms to port arms to shoulder arms to reverse shoulder arms.
Simultaneously, squads broke apart and began doing by-the-count rifle tosses—continuing the progressive manual, but after the shoulder arms command each soldier would pitch his weapon straight up and backward, to be caught by the next person in ranks.
Sten, watching with give-me-strength cynicism, had never studied history enough to have met the old line: "It's pretty, but is it war?"
Certain beings everyone loves on first sight: They seem to live on a slightly higher plane than all others. And yet those noble ones find an echo of themselves in all other living things. They see life as art, so therefore can be somewhat pretentious. Yet they also mock their own pretensions.
Marr and his lover, Senn, were two such beings, twittering superlatives over the Praetorian Guard.
"My, what lusty fellows," Marr said. "All those muscles and musk. Almost makes a creature want to be human."
"You wouldn't know what to do with even one of them if you were," Senn sniffed. "I should know. It certainly has been a long time since you tried your wicked way with me."
"I was merely admiring those wonderful young men. They please the eye. Nothing to do with sex. A subject you always seem to have on the cranium."
"Oh, gonads. Let's not fight, Marr, dear. It's a party. And you know how I love a party."
Senn softened. Perhaps he was behaving like an off-cycle human. He leaned closer to Marr and let their antennae twine. Parties always got to him, too.
In fact, there were very few beings in the Empire who knew more about parties than Senn and Marr. Celebrations of all kinds were their speciality—a little gutter, a little tack, interesting personalities tossed into a conversational salad. Their official function on Prime World was that of the Imperial Caterers. They were always deploring the fact that the Eternal Emperor's get-togethers put them in the red. They were, however, much too good businessbeings to deplore too loudly; the Emperor's "custom" was the reason their catering service was booked years in advance.
In an age not generally known for permanent bondings, the two Milchen stood out. They had been sexually paired for more than a century and were passionately determined that the relationship should go on for a century more. However, such stability was not unusual in their species; for the Milchen of Frederick Two, pairing was literally for life—when one member of a Milchen pair died, the other would always follow within a few days. Long-term pairings among the Milchen were always of the same sex.
For want of a better description, call it male. The other gender—put the "female" label on it, it's easier—was called Ursoolas. Of all things in the many universes, the Ursoolas were among the most beautiful and delicate, beings of gossamer and many-changing perfumed colors. They lived only a few short months, and during that time it was all loving and sexual intensity. If a Milchen male pair was fortunate, it might enjoy two or three such relationships in its lifetime. Out of each bonding came a "male" pair and half-a-dozen dormant Ursoolas. The mother would whisper a few last loving words to her broadsac and then die, leaving the care of the young to the father pair.
For the Milchen, life was a never-ending breeding-cycle tragedy, that bred the kind of loneliness that can kill a loving race. And so they evolved the only system open to them—same-sex bonding. Like most of their people, Marr and Senn were passionately devoted to each other, and to all other things of beauty.
They were slender creatures, a meter or so high, and covered with a downy, golden fur. They had enormous liquid-black eyes that enjoyed twice the spectrum of a human's. Their heads were graced with sensitive smelling antennae that could also caress like a feather. Their small monkeylike hands contained the Empire's most sensitive tastebuds, and were largely the reason for Milchen's being among the Empire's greatest chefs. The Eternal Emperor himself grudgingly admitted they surpassed all other races in the preparation of fine meals. Except, of course, for chile.
The two Milchen cuddled closer and drank in the ultimate spectacle that was Empire Day. Busybodies that the Milchen were, the beings around them were at least as interesting to them as the Imperial display.
Marr's eyes swept the VIP boxes. "Everyone, but everyone is here."
"I noticed," Senn sniffed. "Including a few who ought not to be."
He pointed to a box across from them as an example—the box that held Kai Hakone and his party. "After the reviews of his last masque, I don't know how he can even hold up his pвtй in public."
Marr giggled. "I know. Isn't it delicious? And the silly fool is such a bore, he even agreed to be the guest of honor at our party."
Senn snuggled closer in delight. "I can hardly wait! The blood will flow, flow, flow."
Marr gave his pairmate a suspicious look. "What did you do, Senn? Or dare I ask?"
Senn laughed. "I also invited his critics."
"They were delighted. They'll all be there."
The two chuckled over their evil little joke, and glanced at Hakone again, wondering if he suspected what was in store for him in few short days.
Marr and Senn would have been disappointed. Kai Hakone, a man some people called the greatest author of his day—and others the greatest hack—wasn't even thinking of the party.
Around him were a dozen or more fans, all very rich and very fawning. A constant stream of exotic dishes and drinks flowed in and out of the box. But it was hardly a party. Even before the celebration had begun, everyone had realized that Hakone was in "one of those moods." And so the conversation was subdued, and there were many nervous glances at the brooding master, an enormous man with unfashionably bulging muscles, a thick shock of unruly hair, heavy eyebrows, and deep-set eyes.
Hakone's gut was tightening, his every muscle was tense, and he was perspiring heavily. His mind and mood was ricocheting wildly. Everything is ready, he would think one minute, and his spirits would soar. But what if there's a mistake? Gloom would descend. What has been left undone? I should have done that myself. I shouldn't have let them do it. I should have done it.
And on and on, as he went over and over each detail of the plan. Thunder arose from the crowd as another spectacular event crashed to its conclusion; Kai Hakone barely heard it. He touched his hands together a few times, pretending to join in the applause. But his mind churned on with constantly changing images of death.
The last of the marching bands and dancers cleared the field, and the crowd slowly chattered its way into semisilence.
Two huge gravsleds whined through the end gates—gravsleds loaded with steel shrouding, lifting blocks, and ropes. They hummed slowly down the field, each only a meter from the ground, halting at frequent intervals. At each pause, sweating fatigue-clad soldiers jumped off the sleds and unloaded some of the shrouding or blocks. Ropes and cables were piled beside each assemblage. By the time the gravsled stopped next to the Imperial reviewing stand, the long field looked as if a child had scattered his building blocks across it. Or, as was the case, an obstacle course had been improvised.
As the sleds lifted up over the castle itself, two large targets—solid steel backing, plus three-meter-thick padding—were lowered from the castle walls to dangle 400 meters above the field. Then six bands marched in through gates and blasted into sound. Some military-trivia types knew the tune was the official Imperial Artillery marching song, but none of them knew the tune itself was an old, bawdy song sometimes titled "Cannoneers have Hairy Ears."
Two smaller gravsleds then entered the parade ground through the gates. Each carried twenty beings and a cannon. The cannons weren't the gigantic combat masers or the small but highly lethal laserblasts the Imperial Artillery actually used. The wheeled cannons—mountain guns—were only slightly less ancient than the black-powder, muzzle-loading cannons staring down from the battlements.
After the forty men had unloaded the two mountain guns, they doubled into formation and froze. The leader of each group snapped to a salute and held it as a gunpowder weapon on the castle battlements boomed and a white cloud spread over the parade ground. Then the forty cannoneers began.