Sten stepped back and examined the Emperor's wardrobe. It was crammed with hundreds of uniforms and ceremonial robes and suits, each item meant for a specific occasion, some as simple as a dazzling white togalike garment, others as complex as a form-fitting suit of many and changing colors.
A vid-book in Sten's room told the history of each piece of clothing. The toga, he remembered, had been for the Emperor's visit to the small system of Raza, where his official title was Chief Philosopher. And the suit of many colors, he was pretty sure, had something to do with something called Mardi Gras. Sten hadn't had time to memorize them all yet, since he'd only been on the job officially for a few months and his mind was still learning the hundreds of duties required of the captain of the Emperor's Own Bodyguard. So far, he had been concentrating on his primary function, which was to keep His Majesty safe from plotters, schemers, groupies, and other fanatics.
The Emperor's security was a many-layered force. First were the military and police forces on Prime World. Within the palace itself was an elaborate mechanical and electronic blanket. The Imperial Household had three Guards units. The most noticeable were the Praetorians. Not only were they used as spit-and-polish, highly visible palace factotums, but they could double as riot police in the event of major disturbances, if there ever were any.
Second were the members of the Imperial Household itself, recruited to a man (or woman) from the ranks of Mantis Section, Mercury Corps, or the Guards.
Lastly were the Gurkha bodyguards, one company of 150 men from the Earth province of Nepal. Most came from the Thapa, Pun, Ala, and Rana clans, all charjat aristocracy. They were technically mercenaries, as many of their people had been for more than two thousand years.
Small, stocky men, the Gurkhas combined cheerfulness, humor, devotion to duty, and near-unbelievable personal fortitude in one package. The Gurkha company was led by one Havildar-Major, Lalbahadur Thapa, who was overseen by Captain Sten, the official commander and liaison with the Emperor and the Imperial Household.
His new post was not like being in Mantis Section, the superthug unit that Sten had so far spent most of his military career assigned to. Instead of dressing casually or in civilian clothes, Sten wore the mottled-brown uniform of the Gurkhas. Sten was somewhat grateful that he was assigned a batman, Naik Agansing Rai, although he sometimes—particularly when hung over—felt that the man should be a little less willing to comment on the failings of superiors.
Sten would, in fact, through the rest of his military career, maintain two prideful contacts with the Gurkhas—his wearing of the crossed, black-anodized kukris emblem on his dress uniform and the kukri itself.
Now, waiting for the sniffer to finish, Sten was armed with a lethal kukri on one hip, and a small, Mantis-issue willypistol on the other.
The sniffer completed its tour of the closet and scuttled back out to Sten, squeaking its little "safe" tone. He palmed the off-plate, tucked the bot away, and stepped back. His Majesty's personal quarters were as safe as he could make them.
Sten began mentally triple-checking the security list for the rest of the wing. Changing of the guard had already passed... He had trusted lieutenants posted at...
"Captain, I don't like to bother a man at his work, but—"
And Sten was whirling around for the voice just behind him, the fingers of his right hand instinctively making the claw that would trigger the knife muscles in his arm, and—
It was the Eternal Emperor, staring at him, a little bit amazed, and then relaxing into humor. Sten felt himself flush in embarrassment. He stiffened to attention, giving himself a mental kick in the behind. He was still a little too Mantis hair-trigger for palace duty.
The Emperor laughed. "Relax, Captain."
Sten slid into a perfectly formal "at ease."
The Emperor grinned, started to make a joke about Sten's way-too-military understanding of the word "relax," buried it to save Sten further embarrassment, and turned away. Instead, he plucked at the party clothing he was wearing and sniffed distastefully. "If it's okay with you, I'd like to change out of this. I smell like a sow in heat."
"Everything's fine, sir," he said. "Now, if I may be dismis—"
"You disappoint me, Captain." The Emperor's voice boomed back from the changing room. Sten flinched, running over his potential sins. What had he missed?
"You've been on the job now—how long is it?"
"Ninety-four cycles, sir."
"Yeah. Something like that. Anyway, ninety-odd days of snooping around my rooms, getting on my clotting nerves with all your security bother, and not once—not once have you offered to show me that famous knife of yours."
"Knife, sir?" Sten was honestly bewildered for a second. And then he remembered: the knife in his arm. "Oh, that knife."
The Emperor stepped into view. He was already wearing a gray, nondescript coverall. "Yeah. That knife."
"Well, it's in my Mantis profile, sir, and—and..."
"There are a lot of things in your Mantis file, Captain. I reviewed it just the other day. Just double-checking to see if I wanted to keep you on in your present position."
He noted Sten's look of concern and took pity. "Besides the knife, I also noticed you drink."
Sten didn't know how to answer that, so he remained wisely silent.
"How well you drink, however, remains to be seen." The Eternal Emperor started for the other room. He stopped at the door.
"That's an invitation, Captain, not an order. Assuming you're off duty now." He disappeared through the door.
Sten had learned many things from Mantis Section. He knew how to kill—had killed—in many ways. He could overthrow governments, plot strategic attacks and retreats, or build a low-yield nuclear bomb. But one thing he had learned more than anything else: When the CO issues an invitation, it's an order. It just so happened that his current CO was the Big Boss Himself.
So he made an instant executive decision. He throat-miked some hurried orders to his second and rostered himself off duty. Then he braced himself and entered the Eternal Emperor's study.
The smoky liquid smoothed down Sten's throat and cuddled into his stomach. He lowered the shot glass and looked into the waiting eyes of the Emperor. "That's Scotch?"
The Emperor nodded and poured them both another drink.
"What do you think?"
"Nice," Sten said, consciously dropping the sir. He assumed that officer's mess rules applied even with the Eternal Emperor. "I can't figure why Colonel—I mean General—Mahoney always had a problem with it."
The Emperor raised an eyebrow. "Mahoney talked about my Scotch?"
"Oh, he liked it," Sten covered. "He just said it took getting used to."
He shot back another glass, tasting the smoothness.
Then he shook his head. "Doesn't take any getting used to at all."
It was a nice thing to say, at that point in the conversation. The Emperor had spent years trying to perfect that drink of his youth.
"We'll have another one of these," the Emperor said, pouring out two more shots, "and then I'll get out some heavy-duty spirits." He carefully picked up Sten's knife, which was lying between them, examined it one more time, and then handed it back. It was a slim, double-edged dagger with a needle tip and a skeleton grip. Hand-formed by Sten from an impossibly rare crystal, its blade was only 2.5 mm thick, tapering to a less-than-hair-edge 15 molecules wide. Blade pressure alone would cause it to slice through a diamond. The Emperor watched closely as Sten curled his fingers and let the knife slip into his arm-muscle sheath.
"Clotting marvelous," the Emperor finally said. "Not exactly regulation, but then neither are you." He let his words sink in a little. "Mahoney promised me you wouldn't be."
Sten didn't know what to say to this, so he just sipped at his drink.
"Ex-street thug," the Emperor mused, "to Captain of the Imperial Guard. Not bad, young man. Not bad."
He shrugged back some Scotch. "What are your plans after this, Captain?" He quickly raised a hand before Sten blurted something stupid like "at your Majesty's pleasure," or whatever. "I mean, do you really like all this military strut and stuff business?"
Sten shrugged. "It's home," he said honestly.
The Emperor nodded thoughtfully.
"I used to think like that. About engineering, not the clotting military, for Godsakes. Don't like the military. Never have. Even if I am the commander in clotting chief of more soldiers than you could... you could..."
He left that dangling while he finished his drink.
"Anyway. Engineering it was. That was gonna be my whole life—my permanent home."
The Eternal Emperor shook his head in amazement at this thousand-year-old-plus memory.
"Things change, Captain," he finally said. "You can't believe how things change."
Sten tried a silent nod of understanding, hoping he was doing one of his better acting jobs. The Emperor caught this, and just laughed. He reached into the drawer of his antique desk, pulled out a bottle of absolutely colorless liquid, popped open the bottle and poured two glasses full to the brim.
"This is your final test, young Captain Sten," he said. "Your final, ninety-cycle-on-the-job test. Pass this one and I okay you for the Imperial health plan."
The Emperor slugged back the 180-proof alcohol and then slammed down the glass. He watched closely as Sten picked up the glass, sniffed it briefly, shrugged, and then poured white fire down his throat.
Sten set the glass down, then, with no expression on his face, slid the glass toward the bottle for some more. "Pretty good stuff. A little metallic..."
"That's from the radiator," the Emperor snapped. "I distill it in a car radiator. For the flavor."
"Oh," Sten said, still without expression. "Interesting... You wouldn't mind if I tried some more..."
He poured two more equally full glasses. He gave a silent toast, and the Emperor watched in amazement as Sten drank it down like water.
"Come on," the Emperor said in exasperation. "That's the most powerful straight alcohol you've ever tasted in your life and you know it. Don't con me."
Sten shook his head in innocence. "It's pretty potent, all right," he said. "But—no offense—I have tried something stronger."
"Like what?" The Emperor fumed.
"Stregg," Sten said.
"What in clot is Stregg?"
"An ET drink," Sten answered. "People called the Bhor. Don't know if you remember them but—"
"Oh, yeah," the Emperor said. "Those Lupus Cluster fellows. Didn't I turn a system over to them, or something like that?"
"Something like that."
"So what's this Stregg swill like? Can't be better than my pure dee moonshine—you got any?"
Sten nodded. "In my quarters. If you're interested, I'll send a runner."
The Emperor raised the glass to toast position.
"By my mother's," he said through furry tongue, "by my mother's... What was that Bhor toast again?"
"By my mother's beard," Sten said, equally furry-tongued.
"Right. By my mother's beard." He shot it back, gasped, and held on to the desk as his empire swung around him.
"Clot a bunch of moonshine," the Eternal Emperor said. "Stregg's the ticket. Now what was that other toash... I mean toast. By my father's..."
"Frozen buttocks," Sten said.
"Beg your pardon. No need to get—oh, that's the toasshtt—I mean toast. By my father's frozen buttocks! Sffine stuff." He lifted his empty glass to drink. He stared at it owlishly when he realized it was empty, and then pulled himself up to his full Imperial Majesty. "I'm clotting fried."
"Yep," Sten said. "Stregg do that to you. I mean, does that you to—oh, clot. Time is it? I gotta go on duty."
"Not like that, you don't. Not in this Majesty's service. Can't stand drunks. Can't stand people can't hold their liquor. Don't trust them. Never have."
Sten peered at him through a Stregg haze. "Zzatt mean I'm fired?"
"No. No. Never fire a drunk. Have to fire me. Sober us up first. Then I fire you."
The Emperor rose to his feet. Wavered. And then firmed himself. "Angelo stew," he intoned. "Only thing save your career now."
"What the clot is Angelo stew?"
"You don't need to know. Wouldn't eat it if you did. Cures cancer... oh, we cured that before, didn't we... Anyway... Angelo stew's the ticket. Only thing I know will unfreeze our buttocks."
He staggered off and Sten followed in a beautifully military, forty-five-degree march.
Sten's stomach fumbled hungrily as he smelled the smells from the Eternal Emperor's private kitchen. Drunk as he was, he watched in fascination as the equally drunk Emperor performed miracles both major and minor. The minor miracles were with strange spices and herbs; the major one was that the Emperor, smashed on Stregg, could work an antique French knife, slicing away like a machine, measure proportions, and... keep up a semi-lucid conversation.
Sten's job was to keep the Stregg glasses full.
"Have another drink. Not to worry. Angelo stew right up."
Sten took a tentative sip of Stregg and felt the cold heat-lightning down his gullet. This time, however, the impact was different. Just sitting in the Emperor's super-private domain, added to the fact that it was indeed time to get his captain's act together, had the effect of clearing away the boozy haze.
The kitchen was four or five times larger than most on fortieth-century Prime World, where food was handled out of sight by computers and bots. It had some modern features—hidden cabinets and environmental food storage boxes operated by finger touch. It also was kept absolutely bacteria free and featured a state-of-the-art waste disposal system that the Emperor rarely used. Mostly he either swept what Sten would have considered waste into containers and returned them to storage, or dumped things into what Sten would later learn were simmering stock-pots.
The most imposing feature of the room was a huge chopping block made of rare hardwood called oak. In the center of the block was an old stainless steel sink. Set a little bit lower than the chopping block, it was flushed by a constant spray of water, and as the Emperor chopped away, he swept everything that didn't make Angelo stew into the sink, where it instantly disappeared.
Directly behind the Emperor was an enormous black cast-iron and gleaming steel cooking range. It featured an oven whose walls were many centimeters thick, a single-cast grill, half-a-dozen professional-chef-size burners, and an open, wood-burning grill. From the slight smell it gave off, the stove obviously operated by some kind of natural gas.
Sten watched as the Emperor worked and kept up a running commentary at the same time. From what Sten could gather, the first act of what was to be Angelo stew consisted of thinly sliced chorizo—Mexican hard sausage, the Emperor explained. The sausage and a heaping handful of garlic were sautйed in Thai-pepper-marinated olive oil. Deliciously hot-spiced smells from the pan cut right through the Stregg fumes in Sten's nostrils. He took another sip from his drink and listened while the Emperor talked.