"Never used to think much about food," the Emperor said, "except as fuel. You know, the stomach complains, you fill it, and then go about your business."

"I understand what you mean," Sten said, remembering his days as a Mig worker.

"Figured you would. Anyway, I was a typical young deep-space engineer. Do my time on the company mission, and spend my Intercourse and Intoxication time with joygirls and booze. Food even seemed to get in the way of that."

Sten understood that as well. It was pretty much how he had spent his days as a rookie trooper.

"Then as I went up the company ladder, they sent me off on longer and longer jobs. Got clotting boring. Got so the only break you had was food. And that was all pap. So I started playing around. Remembering things my dad and grandma fixed. Trying to duplicate them."

He tapped his head. "Odd, how all the things you ever smelled or tasted are right up here. Then all you got to do is practice to get your tongue in gear. Like this Angelo stew here. Greatest hangover and drunk cure invented. Some old Mex pirate taught me—clot, that's another story..."

He stopped his work and took a sip of Stregg. Smiled to himself, and tipped a small splash in with the chorizo. Then he went back to the task at hand, quartering four or five onions and seeding quarter slices of tomatoes.

"Jump to a lot of years later. Way after I discovered AM2 and started putting this whole clottin' Empire together..."

Sten's brain whirled for an instant. AM2. The beginning of the Empire. What this mid-thirties-looking man was talking about so lightly was what one read about in history vids. He had always thought they were more legend than fact. But here he was having a calm discussion with the man who supposedly started it all—hell, nearly twenty centuries in the past. The Emperor went on, as if he was talking about yesterday.

"There I was, resting on my laurels and getting bored out of my mind. A dozen or so star systems down and working smoothly. A few trillion-trillion megacredits in the bank. So? Whaddya do with that kind of money?"

He motioned to Sten to top up the Stregg glasses.

"Then I realized what I could do with it. I could cook anything I wanted. Except I don't like the modern stuff they've been doing the last six or seven hundred years. I like the old stuff. So I started experimenting. Copying dishes in my brain. Buying up old cookbooks and recreating things that sounded good."

The Emperor turned and pulled a half-kilo slab of bleeding red beef from a storage cooler and began chunking it up.

"What the hell. It's a way to kill time. Especially when you've got lots of it."

The Emperor shut off the flame under the sausage and garlic, started another pan going with more spiced oil, and tossed in a little sage, a little savory and thyme, and then palm-rolled some rosemary twigs and dropped those in on top. He stirred the mixture, considered for a moment, then heaped in the tomato quarters and glazed them. He shut off the fire and turned back to Sten. He gave the young captain a long, thoughtful look and then began talking again, rolling the small chunks of beef into flour first, and then into a bowl of hot-pepper seeds.

"I guess, from your perspective, Captain, that I'm babbling about things of little interest, that happened a long time ago. Old man talk. Nothing relevant for today."

Sten was about to protest honestly, but the Emperor held up an Imperial hand. He still had the floor. "I can assure you," he said quite soberly, "that my yesterdays seem as close to me as yours do to you. Now. For the crucial question of the evening."

He engulfed half a glass of Stregg by way of prepunctuation. "How the clot you doing, Cap'n Sten. And how the hell you like Court duty?..."

Sten did some fast thinking. Rule One in the unofficial Junior Officer's Survival Manual: When A Senior Officer Asks You What You Think, You Lie A Lot.

"I like it fine," Sten said.

"You're a clotting liar," the Eternal Emperor said.

Rule Two of said bar guide to drinking with superiors: When Caught In A Lie, Lie Again.

"No, really," Sten said. "This is probably one of the more interesting—"

"Rule Two doesn't work, Captain. Drop the con."

"It's a boring place filled with boring people and I never really gave a damn about politics anyway," Sten rushed out.

"Much better," the Emperor said. "Now let me give you a little career advice..."

He paused to turn the flame up under the sausage and garlic, then added the pepper-rolled beef as soon as the pan was hot enough.

"First off, at your age and current status, you are luckier than hell even to be here."

Sten started to agree, but the Emperor stopped him with a hard look. He stirred the beef around as he talked, waiting until it got a nice brown crust.

"First tip: Don't be here very long. If you are, you're wasting your time. Second thought: Your current assignment will be both a huge career booster and an inhibitor. Looks great on the fiche—'Head of the Imperial Bodyguard at such and such an age.'

"But you're also gonna run into some superiors—much older and very jealous superiors—who will swear that I had a more than casual interest in you. Take that how you want. They certainly shall."

The Emperor finished the beef. He pulled out a large iron pan and dumped the whole mess into it. He also added the panful of onions and tomatoes. Then he threw in a palmful of superhot red peppers, a glug or three of rough red wine, many glugs of beef stock, a big clump of cilantro, clanked down the lid, and set the flame to high. As soon as it all came to a boil, he would turn it down to simmer for a while.

The Emperor sat down next to Sten and took a long swallow of Stregg.

"I don't know if you realize it or not, but you have a very heavy mentor in General Mahoney."

"Yeah. I know it," Sten said.

"Okay. You got him. You're impressing the clot out of me right now. Not bad. Although I got to warn you, I am notorious for going hot and cold on people. Don't stick around me too long.

"When all is lost, I sometimes blame my screwups on the nearest person to me. Hell, once in a while, I even believe it myself."

"I've been there," Sten said.

"Yeah. Sure you have. Good experience for a young officer. Drakh flows downhill. Good thing to learn. That way you know what to do when you're on top."

The stew was done now. The Emperor rose and ladled out two brimming bowlsful. Sten's mouth burst with saliva. He could smell a whole forest of cilantro. His eyes watered as the Emperor set the bowl in front of him. He waited as the man cut two enormous slices of fresh-baked sourdough bread and plunked them down along with a tub of newly churned white butter.

"So here's what you do. Pull this duty. Then get thee out of intelligence or anything to do with cloak and dagger. Nobody ever made big grade in intelligence. I got it set up that way. Don't trust them. Nobody should.

"Next, get thee to flight school. No. Shut up. I know that's naval. What I'm saying is, jump services. Get yourself in the navy. Learn piloting."

The Emperor slowly buttered his slice of bread and Sten followed suit, memorizing every word.

"You'll easily make lieutenant commander. Then up you go to commander, ship captain, and—with a little luck—flag captain. Form there on in, you're in spitting distance of admiral."

Sten took a long pull on his drink to cover his feelings. Admiral? Clot. Nobody but nobody makes admiral. The Emperor topped the glasses again.

"I listen to my admirals," the Emperor said. "Now do what I say. Then come back in fifty years or so and I may even listen to you."

The Emperor spooned up a large portion of stew.

"Eat up, son. This stuff is great brain food. First your ears go on fire, then the gray stuff. Last one done's a grand admiral."

Sten swallowed. The Angelo stew savored his tongue, and then gobbled down his throat to his stomach. A small nuclear flame bloomed, and his eyes teared and his nose wept and his ears turned bright red. The Stregg in his bloodstream fled before a horde of hot-pepper molecules.

"Whaddya think?" the Eternal Emperor said.

"What if you don't have cancer?" Sten gasped.

"Keep eating, boy. If you don't have it now, you will soon." 

CHAPTER FIVE

The Emperor had two problems with Prime World. The first was, Why Was His Capital Such A Mess? He had run an interstellar empire for a thousand years. Why should a dinky little planet-bound capital be such a problem?

The second was, What Went Wrong?

Prime World was a classic example of city planning gone bonkers. In the early days, shortly after the Eternal Emperor had taught people that he controlled the only fuel for interstellar engines—Anti-Matter Two—and that he was capable of keeping others from learning or stealing its secret, he'd figured out that headquartering an empire, especially a commercial one, on Earth was dumb.

He chose Prime World for several reasons: It was uninhabited; it was fairly close to an Earth-normal habitat; and it was ringed with satellites that would make ideal deep-space loading platforms. And so the Emperor bought Prime World, a planet that until then was nothing more than an index number on a star chart. Even though he controlled no more than 500 to 600 systems at the time, the Emperor knew that his empire would grow. And with growth would come administration, bureaucracy, court followers, and all the rest.

To control the potential sprawl, owning an entire world seemed a solution. So the finest planners went to work. Boulevards were to be very, very wide. The planet was to have abundant parks, both for beauty and to keep the planet from turning into a self-poisoning ghetto. Land was leased in parcels defined by century-long contracts. All buildings were to be approved by a council that included as many artists as civic planners.

Yet somewhat more than a thousand years after being set up, Prime World looked like a ghetto.

The answers were fairly simple: greed, stupidity, and graft—minor human characteristics that somehow the Eternal Emperor had ignored. Cynically, the Emperor realized he did not need the equivalent of the slave who supposedly lurked on Caesars during their triumphal processions to whisper "All this too is fleeting."

All he had to do was travel the 55-plus kilometers to Fowler, the city nearest to his palace grounds, and wander the streets. Fowler, and the other cities on Prime World, were high-rise/low-rise/open kaleidoscopes.

To illustrate: A building lot, listed in the Prime World plat book as NHEB0FA13FFC2, a half kilometer square, had originally been leased to the luxury-loving ruler of the Sandia system, who built a combination of palace and embassy. But when he was turned out of office by a more Spartan regime, Sandia sublet the ground to an interstellar trading conglomerate which tore down the palace and replaced it with a high-rise headquarters building. But Transcom picked the wrong areas and products, so the building was gradually sub sublet to such "small" enterprises as mere planetary governments or system-wide corporations. And as the leases were sublet to smaller entities, the rent went up. Annual rental on a moderate-size one-room office could take a province's entire annual product.

The Transcom building turned into an office slum until all the subleases were bought up by the Sultana of Hafiz, who, more than anything, wanted a palace she could use on her frequent and prolonged trips to Prime World. The high-rise was demolished and another palace built in its place.

All that in eighty-one years. Yet the Imperial records still registered the President of Sandia, who by then had spent forty-seven years forcibly ensconced in a monastery, as the lease-holder.

Given the subleasing system, even rent control did not work. "Single" apartments sometimes looked more like troopship barracks because of the number of people required to meet the monthly rent.

The Emperor had tried to help, since he was quite damned aware that even in an age of computers and bots, a certain number of functionaries were needed. But even Imperial housing projects quickly changed hands and became examples of free enterprise gone berserk.

After nearly 800 years of fighting the sublet blight, in a final effort to control the pressure that drove such destructive practices, a limitation was placed on immigration to Prime World. Prospective emigrants were required to show proof of employment, proof that a new job had been created for them, or proof of vast wealth. The regulations were strictly enforced.

That made every Prime World resident rich. Not rich on Prime World, but potentially rich. Anyone, from an authorized diplomat to the lowest street vendor, could sell his residence permit for a world's ransom.

Prime Worlders being Prime Worlders, they did not. Most preferred to sit in their poverty (although poverty was relative, given guaranteed income, rations, recreation, and housing) than to migrate to be rich. Prime World was the Center, the Court of a Thousand Suns, and who would ever choose to move away from that if he, she, or it had any choice?

Sometimes the Emperor, when he was drunk, dejected, and angry, felt the answer was to nationalize all the buildings and draft everyone on the world. But he knew that his free-lance capitalists would figure a way around that one, too.

So it was easier to let things happen as they did, and live with minor annoyances such as population density or city maps that were outdated within thirty days of issue.

In addition to the cities and the parks, Prime World was full of estates. Most of the leased estates were situated as close to the Imperial ring as possible. The proximity of one's living grounds to the palace was another measure of social stature.

There was one final building located on the grounds of the Emperor's main palace. It was about ten kilometers away from Arundel, and housed the Imperial Parliament. It had been necessary to build some kind of court, after all. After the Eternal Emperor authorized its structure, he'd immediately had a kilometer-high landscaped mountain built between his castle and the parliament building. He may have had to deal with politicians, but he didn't have to look at them when he was on his own time...

Prime World was, therefore, a somewhat odd place. The best and the worst that could be said is that it worked—sort of.

The pneumosubways linked the cities, and gravsleds provided intrasystem shipping. Out-system cargoes arriving in Prime System were off-loaded to one of the planet's satellites or the artificial ports that Imperial expansion had made necessary. From there, they would either be transferred to an outbound freighter or, if intended for Prime World itself, lightered down to the planet's surface.

Five shipping ports sat on Prime World. And like all ports throughout history, they were grimy and violent.

The biggest port, Soward, was the closest to Fowler. One kilometer from Soward's main field was the Covenanter.

Like the rest of Prime World, Soward had troubles with expansion. But warehousing and shipping had to be located as close to ground level as possible.