EMPRESS


Ray Anthony
Published by ACE - £6.99
ISBN 978 0 9526287 1 2
eBook $3.99


EMPRESS

She was the only one who could reunite the Empire and restore to its citizens the security that this brought. Without any doubt she was, singularly, the most important being alive. She and her cousin were the last of an Imperial bloodline. But her cousin could not easily supplant her. For Hial to sit on the Imperial throne, she would need to be victorious in a bitter and bloody war. Such a war was to be avoided if at all possible. Therefore the primary task for Empress Morturina I, and those who served her, was to ensure her survival - at least until she had borne an heir to the Imperial throne.


History

In the millennium when mankind discovered the super light drive, it slowly and ponderously began to swarm from its solar system into the vastness of the cosmos. It expected that, sometime, somewhere, it would meet other sapient races. It went armed with the most destructive weapons its primitive technology could then design. Sooner or later there would be disputes over territories and negotiations over trading rights. Whatever levels of intelligence or advancement it encountered, mankind did not intend to be the vanquished.

The human drive to discover, explore, conquer and exploit reached new heights. In the centuries of Rapid Expansion towards the galactic centre, each new decade brought further advancements in ship drives and scouting techniques. Vast colonising armadas relentlessly pressed onwards from the last settled sector. The Earth soon lost its significance as the home of mankind and the centre of government; though most colonists, as a matter of pride, could still trace their lineage back to the original star voyagers. Mankind would not forget its homeworld but its homeworld was no more than a backwater, out in a remote and insignificant spiral arm.

Throughout the period of Rapid Expansion the expectation of meeting sapient aliens did not diminish. Mankind had already learned that the Earth was not the only planet on which life had evolved. Scores of such planets were discovered. A few were even found that had species with emerging intelligence. These planets were quarantined, though there was no real rational behind this - possibly it was mankind's unconscious desire to invest in the future. But no planets were found that had any species that could be described as being close to sapiency.

Still, it would only be a matter of time. Every explorer and colonist was drilled in Contact Procedure. On encountering alien intelligence the following drill was to be carried out: raise the alarm; assess the alien; attack if possible; defend if necessary. Any extraterrestrial engaged should be left with a sample of the might and the will of mankind. This would be essential to, and the basis of, any future negotiations.

During this era weapon development was only surpassed by technology in the terra-forming sciences. Whole planets could now be made ready for human habitation within a decade. Hundreds of thousands of planets were terra -formed. Yet the human population continued to increase exponentially. Planets became overcrowded, their resources exhausted, and then the humans moved on. Terra-forming moved from the realms of science into the world of art. Planets could now be designed to whimsical specifications. At its pinnacle the terra -forming art had master designers who could, and did, remake whole solar systems. Enormous energies were squandered to provide circular orbital, non -seasonal, fixed weather planets. Serious scientist moved on.

What could be made, could be unmade. Terra -deforming became the principal weapon development area. Military strategists argued that previous assumptions and procedures were invalid and outdated - why engage an enemy in a long and costly war? The latest star drives created the opportunity to travel undetected. Provided the planetary mass was compensated for, one could ‘materialise’ in orbit around the enemy's homeworld and, in one swift strike, wipe out the indigenous ecology and remake to suit.

During the sweep across the Galactic centre, where older solar systems existed, evidence of intelligent life forms was discovered. The evidence showed that over millions of years there had been a succession of great civilisations, the most recent building on the ruins of its predecessor. The pitiful remains of these civilisations were almost unintelligible to the human mind. The thrust of scientific effort shifted to alien archaeology. It was believed that immense knowledge was hidden in the remains of these civilisations. If only mankind could decipher it, who knows what might be found? But gaining understanding of these alien intelligences proved almost impossible. In order to gain understanding of whatever artifact was being studied its use had to be interpreted. This interpretation could only be made using human frames of reference.

Even the simplest artifact, did not fit human references. An object that looked like a bowl and was found in abundance, in what was supposed had been densely populated areas, ought to be considered to be a bowl - except that it was porous and under electronic scanning was found to be made of a high temperature super semiconductor. What was its purpose? Even estimating the shape and size of these aliens was difficult. The ruins were shown to have been gigantic structures, but scale could only be measured in human terms. Where these structures in fact dwellings?

What was beyond question was that these civilisations had been powerful and far reaching. They had constructed continental size structures, the purpose of which could only be guessed at. Ruins were found mainly on planets whose atmosphere had a high oxygen content. Was it safe to assume that they were oxygen breathers? Should the assumption be made that they did in fact breathe? The remnants of these civilisations were only found near the Galactic centre. How they had arisen, and why they fell, could only be guessed at. There were no signs of large scale destruction, only of general decay. Some visionaries began to suspect that, for the moment, mankind was the sole sapient heir to the Galaxy. Its riches were theirs for the taking. Over the next century more people came to the same conclusion. Mankind, with its militaristic ethos, armed to the teeth, with nothing to fight, turned on itself.

***

In the next three and a half centuries there followed what historians now term the Generation Wars - thousands of isolated and protracted battles raging between successive waves of colonists. All across human occupied space colonists defended their planets, or solar systems, from others who had exhausted the natural resources of their own planets and moved on to plunder more. The population pressure had finally outstripped the rate at which planets could be terra -formed. Weapons of mass destruction were not, could not, be used. Habitable planets were at a premium.

If the invaders were strong enough, from their space borne bases, they would isolate a planet or solar system. Then, systematically, they would wear down the defenders. If they were a weaker force, they found toe holds on moons and planetoids. From these they launched desperate and often suicidal attacks against the targeted planet. The planetary defenders had the advantage of global resources and fixed bases. The invaders had numerical superiority and the desperation brought on by limited materials. These battles were of such ferocity and total commitment that, whatever the outcome, there were few survivors. And those who were fortunate enough to survive were isolated and weak. To them was left the legacy of rebuilding, but they were in no condition to do so.

Mankind's development and expansion throughout the Galaxy ceased.

***

In the times of The Rapid Expansion there was the loosely arranged infrastructure necessary for interstellar travel. It was not a government as such, it was more akin to an accepted standard of behaviour. When the infrastructure faltered, mankind was left in disarray. Thus, cooperation; organisation; and common purpose was lost. Individual pockets of humanity clung to islands in the cosmos, cut off from and ignorant of their neighbours. With only planetary resources and the lessons learned from the times of Rapid Expansion mankind cherished their new homes. Most planets had been terra -formed with flora and fauna that offered no danger to man. Communities that could loosely be described as 'civilisations' scraped an existence on these planets. With no danger and ample space and resources, humanity regressed. It was as if mankind had burnt out all its ambitions and was happy to simply exist. These were the lucky ones.

Other planets had been terra -formed with less expertise. Without the constant and technologically heavy-handed interference of man, these planets started to revert to their original state. Here man fought a relentless and losing battle. Sooner or later the fragile ecological balance shifted to an environment hostile to man. Billions perished. In time, even the knowledge and skill required to build the super-light drive was forgotten. Technology became part of most people's folk lore, its true meaning and value was lost.

***

In no more than three centuries the human population of the Galaxy was reduced to a minute fraction of its former self. In a few cases, death was at the hands of other humans. In others, irresistible forces - too powerful to control - brought about a slow and painful end. Mankind, despite its pretensions, was set to become no more than a mere sentence in the book of Galactic history. But on one very special planet the need to explore and find other alternatives became paramount. Mankind's drive was rekindled.

Sapphire had been a terra -forming experiment. The first and only attempt to terra -form a gas giant. The ‘artists’ wanted to demonstrate that it could be done. They produced a planet with a huge diameter. In order to keep the planet's gravity within the limits tolerable to humans, and to stop excessive platetectonics, unusual steps were taken. The terra -forming artists removed most of the heavy elements from the planet's core.

Sapphire was a stable planet, but one with rapidly diminishing resources. The more enlightened inhabitants realised this. It would only continue to support them if their meagre civilisation could survive without the use of metals. Their technology had retrogressed too far for them to manufacture substitutes. A small group of learners sought a solution to the problem. Methods of extracting the extremely scarce metals from the land or the oceans were explored. No practical solution was found. To get the heavier elements that they so desperately needed they had to turn to the heavens - space...

They first ventured out into their solar system by much the same means that man had first left Earth. Around them were several other planets, and these were also gas giants, which had enough heavy elements to last for centuries. But the knowledge and technology necessary to work under the tremendous gravitational pressure in order to harness these elements was not at hand. Sapphire's future depended on finding a retrievable source of heavy elements. They looked to other Solar Systems.

Folk lore stated that man had not originated on Sapphire, but had crossed interstellar space to get there. What was once known, could be rediscovered. The learners sought a means of travelling interstellar distances. Through their untiring efforts, and the deciphering of many ancient texts, the super light drive was rediscovered.

***

After the rediscovery of the super light drive the meagre metal reserves of Sapphire were further depleted. Three heavily armed super light cargo ships were built. Traders were dispatched to nearby star systems to find raw materials. They were to trade whatever Sapphire had that others considered valuable. The Captains of the ships were empowered to sign treaties and to make pledges on behalf of the people of Sapphire. The one thing they could not trade was the secret of the super light drive.

When the Traders returned, with their cargo holds full, they told tales of the nearby inhabited systems. Planets where the population had degenerated to savagery - there was no need to sign treaties, these planets were theirs for the taking. Measures were swiftly taken to send further expeditions. Permanent bases were established and extensive mining operations started. Within seven standard years Sapphire ruled five inhabited planets in neighbouring systems. The indigenous populations were kept technologically ignorant and ‘recruited’ to providing manual labour. Sapphire's immediate raw material needs were satisfied by these five planets. But soon the growing demand of Sapphire's expanding industries began to outstrip the rate at which these raw materials could be imported. More star ships were built.

The Traders explored further afield and discovered even more inhabited planets. On some, the population was more civilised but not as advanced as their own. On these planets they found it harder to impose their will. Treaties were signed; ambassadors exchanged; licences granted and promises made. But with its monopoly of interstellar transit, Sapphire knew it had the advantage. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, these planets were put under direct rule.

Where technological superiority was not enough to establish and maintain this direct rule, force was used. The Sapphians developed a formidable volunteer Armed Force which extended Sapphire’s rule to twenty-seven planets. In time, the framework for a system of government, taxation and defence evolved which encompassed all twenty-seven planets. This system gave individual planets autonomy to govern their local affairs, but the centre of power and the secret of the super-light drive remained with Sapphire - the Galactic Union was born.

All super -light ships continued to be built on Sapphire. Those who controlled the super -light drive controlled the Union. For the next three decades the Sapphians consolidated their hold on the Union. As more inhabited star sectors were rediscovered, they were welcomed into the Union. The influence that the new sectors exerted in government was directly proportional to the number of inhabited planets they contained. Over the next century the Union continued to expand. Driven by the knowledge of its permanent lack of resources, and its temporary control of the super -light drive, Sapphire sought other ways of tightening its grip on the Union. It declared the Galactic Union a Galactic Empire, with Sapphire providing the centralised government.

***

With the formation of a Galactic Empire, the star sectors were organised into Royal Households. A system of Imperial Government was devised and laid down in The Imperial Charter. Only the Empire could now legitimately have an Armed Force of considerable size. The Royal Houses could maintain a reasonable force for ‘policing duties’ but all others were to be handed over to the Empire. Only the Empire could write statutes and it was the final arbiter in any dispute. Most star sectors readily agreed to this - it promised long term stability and an end to interstellar conflicts. Sapphire finally had the security it sought. In the next two centuries peace, order and stability were maintained under the benevolent but firm control of the Empire. The Imperial Navy became the enforcement arm of government. It was a most potent force. Mankind prospered throughout the Galaxy.

During the reign of Xexy XIV, in the third century of the Empire, the Emperor and his Imperial Fleet Commander had a series of policy disagreements. In the end the Imperial Navy revolted and attempted to lay siege to Sapphire. Other branches of the Imperial Armed Forces remained loyal to the Emperor. They, and a few Royal Houses, set about the defence of the Emperor and Sapphire.

To make a stand against the vastly superior Naval forces would have been foolhardy. Instead, the defenders launched hit and run strikes against key Naval installations and formations. They drew the Navy into hot pursuits and ambushes - away from Sapphire. These widely dispersed but coordinated mini battles threw the Navy into disarray. The Navy was trained for set -piece battles or civil suppression. Naval commanders argued over the correct tactics to use and indiscipline broke out amongst the enlisted ranks. The revolt began to lose its momentum.

This dissension, more than any single military action, brought the mutiny to an end. Some Naval commanders, in a final act of revenge and frustration, launched punitive strikes against the leading Royal Households that had supported the Emperor. These loyal Households were: the Purple Plume, the Tezu, the Federal States and the Great Sowarn. They had all committed, unconditionally, their men and resources to the defence of their Emperor.

But it was the Tezu who had borne the brunt of the fighting. It was they who had inflicted the most damage on the mutinous Navy. In their final retaliatory attack, the remnants of the Navy massed around the distant Tezu starsystem. During the onslaught the Navy penetrated the Tezu's defences and attacked the planets. One planet was destroyed and others suffered the grim result of the Navy's scorched earth tactics. Hundreds of billions of Tezus died.

After this battle the Navy was finally brought to heel. Most of its senior commanders were executed. Once the Emperor was again secure, one of his first acts was to reward the loyal Households that had stood against the mutinous Navy with additional kingdoms and domains. All except the Tezu accepted; instead they returned to their star sector to salvage and rebuild from the desolation that lay over their surviving planets. Imperial assistance was offered but it was declined.

In time, the brave acts and sacrifices made by the Tezus in the name of the Emperor were forgotten. The Purple Plume, the Federal States and the Great Sowarn Houses became the three most powerful Royal Households in the Empire. Since the mutiny, most of the spouses to subsequent Emperors or Empresses and all Imperial Fleet Commanders were selected from one of these Households.

***

It had been a millennium since the last major crisis had befallen the Empire. However, another difficulty was brewing and this one was potentially far more damaging. The seeds of this maelstrom had been sown two generations earlier. During pregnancy, Empress Elaina XXI of the Fourteenth Dynasty was informed that she carried twins. So stringent were the conventions regarding the succession that Empresses and Imperial Consorts were compelled by law to forego all available technological aids for artificially developing a foetus. They had to carry their children to full term. History had shown that twins immensely complicated the succession. Perhaps it was because of the recent death of her Prince Regent, but instead of having one of the embryos surgically removed, as advised, Elaina swore her retainers to secrecy and continued with the pregnancy through to full term.

She gave birth to two boys, identical twins. Whilst presenting the first born to Court and Empire, she wove an intricate pattern of lies and deception and suckled both infants. This conspiracy was very necessary, if knowledge of the twins had leaked to the Court, the second born would have been instantly put to the sword. Imperial Law required it. Helped by good -intentioned servants and close advisers, Elaina was able to have the second born adopted at age one month. As far as the Court and the Empire were concerned there was only one child - heir to the throne, Prince Diam.

Elaina XXI abdicated in favour of her son on his 43rd birthday and the Empire celebrated. Emperor Diam reigned for four months and fifteen days. He died with his Consort in a star ship warp -out. This was one of those unfortunate but rare incidents that sometimes affected super -light drives. At the time, foul play was not suspected. The Empire mourned the loss of their Emperor, his Consort, and the entire crew of the destroyer. Diam's six -year -old daughter, the now orphaned Princess Morturina, was proclaimed Empress. A doleful Elaina retook the throne as Empress pro -tem.

Soon after Diam's death, vague references began to be heard about a Shadow Empire. There was talk that Diam had an twin brother. The official response was to ridicule this suggestion but it did little to reduce the speculation. There then followed an official ‘categorical’ denial. But the rumours continued. Some lesser Royal Houses were believed to have secretly pledged their alliance to the Twin. Not only that, it was rumoured that he was building an armada and that he had instigated the assassination of Emperor Diam. This military force was being recruited from various malcontented groups. The Twin was also said to be organising a Shadow Coronation. ‘Reliable sources’ were said to have seen him in the flesh and reported that there could be no doubting his fraternal relationship to Diam. At Court, questions were asked of Elaina.

Realising that her weakness had jeopardized not only the blood line of a dynasty but the very cohesion of the Empire, Elaina confirmed the existence of Diam's twin brother. She then ordered the hunting down and execution of her second son. Imperial troops and Comet Marines were instructed to ‘shoot on sight’. Some Royal Houses expressed the view that it was, ‘too little, too late’. The legality of such an order was questioned by others. The Imperial Government was thrown into disarray. In an effort to stem the tide of outrage and dissension at Court Elaina summoned a conference of Imperial heraldic experts. After only brief deliberations the Heraldic experts proclaimed that the Twin had as legitimate a claim to the throne as did Morturina. Elaina had already abdicated. She could not hold the throne. If the Twin were to have a coronation, be it shadow or otherwise, he would become Emperor.

Upon this proclamation the Imperial Fleet Commander ordered all Imperial formations and personnel to adopt a ‘neutral’ position in the Twin situation. Imperial troops and Comet Marines returned to their bases. Using her personal security network and calling favours owed, Elaina redoubled her efforts to find the Twin. As news of a Shadow Coronation gathered momentum, she planned her strategy. The Twin would need a sizeable and credible audience to witness and report on his crowning or it would have no meaning. No matter how tight his security, information would get to her ears. With the Imperial Forces neutral, he might feel more inclined to come out into the open and when he did, she would be ready.

Without the consent or knowledge of the Imperial Court or government the covert ‘seek and destroy’ operation continued. Finally, after over a year of getting no nearer to the Twin, Elaina's intelligence sources reported that they had uncovered the proposed time and place of his Shadow Coronation. On some insignificant little world, in a remote corner of the Empire, the Twin planned to become Emperor. He was gathering witnesses and his renegade force. Skilfully, and in total secrecy, Elaina marshalled her own forces.

At a given date/time/space coordinate the entire Household Fleets of the Purple Plume and the Federal States dropped out of super -light. Already in attack formation, thousands of craft swept through the defending picket ships and on towards the planet. It was no more that thirty-eight seconds before the attacking formation went back to super -light, but behind them they left one planet, and its two satellite, airless; blackened; lifeless rocks in space.

Most Royal Households and government ministers were not even aware that there was to be a Shadow Coronation, let alone the attack. Those that did know were not inclined to talk about it. The Twin situation was about to be quietly forgotten. But the scandal of the attack was leaked by the surviving fragments of the Shadow Empire. Again Elaina was forced to admit to her unconstitutional actions. She did not implicate either the Purple Plume or the Federal States, but there were only a handful of Royal Households that could muster fleets of that size - they were all under suspicion.

The lesser Royal Houses were quick to seize the opportunity presented to them. In a full session of the Imperial Court they accused Elaina and the greater Houses of using Imperial position and power for personal ends. At the conclusion of a fiercely contested debate Elaina was committed for trial, the charge was High Treason. The verdict of the trial was already a certainty - she was sentenced to be executed. Having lived a long, fruitful and eventful life, she made no plea in mitigation, nor did she ask for clemency.

Elaina should have died knowing that her death was not wasted. Her efforts, be they treasonable or not, had protected the Empire. But on the day of her execution news broke of the reemergence of the Shadow Empire. It was said that the Twin had a young daughter, Hial. She had survived. She and her followers would continue her father's fight for the throne. And because of Elaina's actions Hial's quest was already beginning to gather momentum. Elaina went to her death knowing that the Empress she left behind was only a child. A child who would soon have to guide the Empire through the greatest challenge it had yet to face.


CHAPTER 1

MORTURINA I

At age nine Morturina's childhood abruptly ended. One moment she was playing with the other children in the nursery/study, the next she was being was escorted by a very serious looking official and equally serious soldiers to the Chamber of Ministers. En route she was informed by the official that this particular suite of rooms was set aside for Regents to hold audiences with their Ministers. She arrived in the large, and slightly unsettling, officiously appointed room. Thirty or so old-looking men and women, who she was told were the Ministers of the Imperial Government, were present. She was led to an ornate, oversized chair and asked to sit - this she did. Then, puzzlingly, the Ministers bowed to her and in unison uttered some sort of descant, which she didn’t quite understand but inferred was an oath of allegiance. She'd never been in that chamber before but was not too overawed by the official surroundings. She felt comfortable - comfortable despite being surrounded by these solemn grey-haired strangers. She had always known, because for as long as she could remember she’d been told, that one day she would be an Empress. But until that moment she hadn’t really stopped to consider what an Empress was - or did.

Calmly and patiently the senior Minister, the Prime Minister, explained the function of the Chamber of Ministers; her role as Empress; and the duties of her advisers. Throughout his explanation Morturina felt that she wasn't expected, at this time, to make any decisions - only to familiarise herself with the workings of what was dutifully referred to as ‘the government’. She also knew, without being told, that something unusual was happening and that it was not a good thing. All this Morturina accepted as calmly as it was stated.

Later, when all the Ministers except the Prime Minister had left, two men and two women were led in to bow before her. Until that day no one had ever bowed to her, or treated her, or responded her in anyway other than as friendly tutors or play leaders; why were they bowing, what did it mean? She was informed by the Prime Minister that they were her telepathic advisers. Though she had never before seen any of these advisers, she had a feeling that somehow she knew them. The two women were introduced as Astra and Rebart and the men, Prut and Womar. She could tell from their skin colouration and physical appearance that all four came from different parts of the Empire. To date she had only seen native Sapphians in the flesh.

Sapphians were considered the norm for human appearance; dark straight hair, darkly tanned skinned; dark almond-shape eyes; oriental features; and slim build. From her studies, she knew this to be the result of the intermixing of the many pure races from old Earth. She also knew that her appearance deviated somewhat from the norm. Her hair was dark but loosely curled; her skin was lighter in shading than most and though her eyes were brown they were a hazel colour, not the dark brown of her playmates. But most of all, she was taller than all the other children of her age.

With childish indiscretion she examined the telepaths with interest. Rebart and Womar were both tall and slim. Rebart's hair was tightly curled and black, whilst Womar's was similar to Morturina's. Prut could have been a native Sapphian except he was heavy set and round eyed. Of the four, Astra was the most unusual. Her hair was blonde and she was short and stocky. Astra’s legs and torso were huge, meaning that her home could only have been a high G planet. And here, for the first time in her life, Morturina was face to face with someone with blue eyes. Eyes that were not just any blue but the blue of the hologram she had seen of the deepest oceans. Gawking she wondered whether having blue eyes made Astra see the world around her differently.

***

Morturina had never thought of herself as special in any way. Her transition from child to Empress was businesslike - and to her, quite natural. It was reasonable for her to assume that most nine-year-old’s would have reacted as she did. She studied and began understanding the voluminous information on Imperial Geopolitics, as she had been advised she should. Those around her, especially her nannies, did not act as if they found her behaviour in any way unusual. She was now Empress. It was all perfectly normal.

What she did find unusual, and questioned, was her relationship to her telepaths. Morturina did not know what a telepath was, nor was she given any explanation as to what they were supposed to do. She was only told that they were duty bound to serve her. But they were not like any of her other servants (now she understood that she had servants - even the nannies were servants, not just adult friends as she'd thought); these all had specific tasks to perform. The telepaths didn't appear to do anything, and they were only about ten years older than her. At first Morturina thought of them as tutors, but it soon became apparent that they weren’t. If she asked any of them a question - any question at all - instead of giving an answer, they gave several possible answers. She would then have to decide which of these answers she felt was most correct.

The telepaths were different in other respects. Over a period of several months, she gradually began to realise that she always knew where they were and what they were doing. Morturina started to experiment to see if there were other things that she could discover about them, simply by thinking about it. To her surprise, she discovered that they also always knew her whereabouts and her activities. Moreover, they knew that if she tried she could always find them, in fact they were waiting for her to attempt this experiment. The telepaths were waiting to see which one of them she would form the closest ‘link’ with.

Shocked and dismayed at this invasion of her privacy, she fled to her chamber and locked herself in. The Prime Minister and the four telepaths came to her and requested an audience. Morturina knew that the Prime Minister was always terribly busy; he would not ask to see her unless it was of importance. Also, she knew that she was being childish and so she allowed them in. The Prime Minister asked that she sit next to him and this she did. Because she did not have a point of reference, she did not realise that he was being avuncular. All she recognised was that he was not as grave as she seemed to remember him being. Amicably, he explained that all Regents had telepaths. Their function was to reveal to the Regent the thoughts of the individuals with whom they dealt - they were a Monarch's closest advisers.

She could see the good sense in that, but that did not diminish her disquiet at the thought of someone always knowing what she was doing or thinking. The male telepath, Prut, continued the explanation. No one said that he was the one that she had formed the closest ‘link’ with, but somehow she knew it was so. He said that she would always be spatially attuned to them and, until she was mature, they would be spatially attuned to her - but after that she would be telepathically independent of them. She was not telepathic. However, they were developing her empathic senses.

Indirectly, the Prime Minister pointed out that until she was mature, her mind was susceptible to telepathic influences. That was why the telepaths did not suggest, or tell, her anything that was not totally factual. What he did not say, but again she somehow knew, was that this was one of the reasons why there were four telepaths - to keep in check each other's influence on her. She enquired as to 'when' she would be considered mature. Prut answered that it was not physical or mental maturity that they spoke about - it was para-mental. They couldn’t give a time scale. When Morturina, by her own will, broke the telepathic link then she would be mature. As they departed, the Prime Minister patted her hand reassuringly.

After this incident, she returned to the routine of continuing with her assigned subjects of study. Added to the burgeoning programme was empathic training. Most of this she did with Prut. From the start it was easy to tune in to the thoughts of the telepaths. In fact, she discovered that they could not hide their thoughts from her. She, however, could not interpret those thoughts unless they allowed it. It was not as simple as overhearing a conversation - people did not simply think in words.

She wondered if the telepaths modified their thoughts in some way, to make it more palatable to her. As sometimes happened, Prut answered a question which she had asked of herself: All four telepaths thought patterns were now similar to hers. They were selected soon after her birth to superimpose her thought pattern on their own. Prut then went on to answer a further question, even before it had fully formed in her mind: The ability to alter one's thought patterns, at will, was what defined a telepath. A temporary realigning with another person's thought patterns was how a telepath empathised. With her, the bond they made was more permanent.

Finding out that this had been happening since her birth explained why she felt that she knew them when she first met them. It also meant that what was happening to her now was supposed to happen and had been planned well in advance. She'd never been given any choice or voice in the matter - she was not, and never had been, just another little girl. For the first time Morturina began to understand the burden that she was born to carry as Empress. Also, for the first time, she became angry at what had been, and was being, done to her without her permission. But what could she do about it, she was only a child.

Over the following four years she continued working closely with all her telepaths, but primarily Prut. She learned to receive and then interpret any series of thoughts or emotions that they sent her. Not only could they tell her what another person was thinking, they could allow her to ‘feel’ that thought. She did not do this ‘feeling the thoughts of others’ often and never out of choice. She found the mental activity of other people disturbing and thoroughly unpleasant. It was like being in a totally alien world - which of course, it was.

During one of the sessions with Prut, he let slip that being Empress and having telepaths was not the only way in which she differed from other girls. There were also slight but significant differences in her genetic make-up. This made her immune to most human diseases and her metabolism could naturally resist all but the most potent poisons. Morturina did not want to know this - it frightened her. With callous insensitively, which was unusual for Prut, he continued: her body could also repair damaged tissue considerably faster than any normal person's. What all this meant was that she could expect to live an unusually long and active 190 years, or more. She did not want to be different, she did not want to hear any more!

Without any thought or effort she broke the telepathic link.

Sitting apprehensively in her room, she waited. Prut, or one of the other telepaths, was bound to reestablish the telepathic link that she’d accidentally broken but she did not want it reestablished. Even with her still limited understanding of Imperial Law, she knew that any manipulation of human genes was illegal - punishable by death. Distressingly she remembered a passage from one of the texts that had caught her attention because, at the time, it seemed rather severe: All issue of such manipulation are aberrations and are to be exterminated. She waited in abject fear for their thoughts to intrude on hers. Instead, there was a signal that there was someone outside her chambers. It was the Prime Minister. With him were all four telepaths. She was not certain that she could stop them entering if they really wanted to. Allowing them in, she then ran to stand in a corner of the room.

The Prime Minister approached, then bowed. “Majesty, I have been informed that the telepathic link has been broken.”

She cowered further in the corner. “I did not mean to do it!”

The Prime minister smiled paternally. “Whether you meant it or not is of little consequence, Majesty. The fact that you have broken the link and can maintain this state shows that you have reached maturity.”

As she considered this, she realized that it was not the thought of ‘extermination’ that made her afraid. Though the idea of being considered an aberration still concerned her; she was Empress; they would not, could not, do that to her. It was silly of her to think that they would. Her underlying fear was caused by an unfamiliar feeling, a feeling that it took her some time to put a name to - loneliness. She had never before experienced it because never before had she had her thoughts totally to herself. It was now obvious that even before she knew of their existence, she’d always shared her thoughts with the telepaths. Now she felt isolated. Was this what it was like to be a normal human being? It was frightening.

It was Prut who then spoke. “You are probably experiencing a mild shock, Majesty. It is best to try and remain calm.”

She was indeed shocked, this was the first time a telepath had called her anything but her name. Everyone else, even the Prime Minister, treated her with respect and reverence but the telepaths never did. They didn’t have to, they were her most intimate friends, they knew her every thought. How could there have been any formality between them? Suddenly she was aware of the return of the telepathic link, but somehow it had changed. There was a new distance in the telepaths' attitude towards her. She could sense it. She wished that this was not so. She wanted her friends back. Whereas before ,Womar, Astra, Prut and Rebart were her only true bosom friends - now they regarded her with something approaching awe. At another time and in a different setting she would have found this ridiculous.

She became aware of an overpowering sense of relief. This caused her momentary confusion, then she realized that Astra was conveying the emotions of the Prime Minister. But he didn’t even look as if he had been slightly bothered! Why should he be feeling such relief? She considered the Prime Minister to be the silver-haired but spritely embodiment of unruffled calm. He was never hurried; never concerned; never agitated; never puzzled - that was why he was Prime Minister. He had all the answers. Whatever it was that was causing him this anxiety must be something terrible.

‘The Imperial Court and Government have been waiting for several years for you to mature. He is relieved that at last the moment has come.’ Prut sent a clear message.

‘Why?’

‘He is about to explain, Majesty.’

The prime Minister beckoned for her to come away from the wall and sit with him, so she did. Taking her hand he smiled, then became businesslike. “Majesty, until you were mature, we - the Imperial Government - could not hand over to you the full mantle of the Empire. In addition, the regrettable death of your grandmother, Empress Elaina...”, ‘She was executed for treason.’ Prut interrupted. “...has left the Empire functioning without a Regent pro -tem.”

She now understood enough of the workings of the Imperial Government to appreciate just how serious this state of limbo had been. At the time, when she was perhaps four or five, the death of her grandmother had been explained to her in terms of it being peaceful and as the result of old age. A telepath had never before interrupted whilst someone was speaking to her and had never contradicted anything she had been told. She began to see just how useful they were going to be to her. She nodded her understanding and the Prime Minister continued.

“The Government consist of civil servants such as me. Our administrative functions are straightforward and have continued smoothly. However, the Imperial Court is more volatile - it needs the presence of a visible Monarch. In the absence of one, there have been certain difficulties.”

She had known that there had been problems at Court, but the little that she had been told suggested that there were always problems at Court. “Are you saying that I am now ready to sit in The Imperial Court?”

The Prime Minister looked uncertain. “We believe that the time is now right for you to do so.”

‘What he means Majesty, is that he thinks that you are still emotionally immature. But effective government cannot continue for much longer without your presence.’

Emotionally immature? Of course she was emotionally immature, she was still a child. “When will I be introduced to Court?”

The Prime Minister looked pleased. “The representatives of most Royal Households are always available. A sitting could be called as soon as you wish, Majesty.”

“I wish one today.”

The Prime Minister appeared mildly surprised. “There are a number of rather sensitive matters that you need to be briefed on before calling Court to attend you,” he said respectfully.

“I wish to be briefed.”

The Prime Minister, her Prime Minister, began the long and detailed explanation of the crisis within the Empire. He was direct and to the point, it was the first time that she had seen him being this brusque. Was he trying to frighten her? Prut did not interject, which she took to mean that the Prime Minister was telling the whole truth. Calmly she absorbed all that the Prime Minister had to say, only interrupting when there was a point that she did not understand. When he finished, she came to the conclusion that there was now even more reason for her to meet the Imperial Court that day. This she told the Prime Minister and again he seemed surprised, but not disappointed. Craving her indulgence, he left to issue an Imperial Summons to the Imperial Court. He promised that there would be a full sitting within two hours.

She knew that she should rest and prepare for what would be a most important occasion. The future of the Empire could rest on her giving confidence and credibility to the throne. To her knowledge, she would be the first to sit on it whilst still a minor...

‘Your genes have not been manipulated in the sense of biological interference, Majesty. The Imperial bloodline has been enhanced over many generations by selective breeding,’ Rebart answered the question that she was only partially aware was still troubling her.

Selective breeding? That, she was fairly sure, was what was done with animals used for sport. She’d heard the term, ‘Imperial bloodline’ many times but hadn’t given it this literal interpretation - so, she’d been bred! She resisted the urge to cry. ‘Thank you, Rebart,’ she was not in the habit of thanking her telepaths, but sensed that there was something bothering him. It occurred to her that she could order him to tell her, but she wasn't sure if he would. And anyway, you don’t order your friends to do things, do you? ‘Is there something else?’ she inquired.

His uncertainty became almost unbearable. ‘For public engagements you need to be escorted by your personal guard.’

As far as she was aware there had never been any special attention paid to her personal security. She did not have a ‘personal guard’. So this announcement from Rebart was puzzling. Considering it momentarily she concluded that, as Empress, she could be a target - and therefore needed to be protected. But she had been Empress for a number of years, why only now...? She waited for Rebart to supply an answer. Belatedly she realised that none of her telepaths were aware of her thoughts.

She also realised that if she was to be an effective Empress she could not depend too heavily on them - she needed to be able to work things out for herself. For as long as she could remember she had lived in The Imperial Palace, she had never been outside it. She knew that, that in itself was not usual. Sapphire was the largest inhabited planet. The Imperial Court occupied one entire continent. The Imperial Palace itself was at the centre of The Imperial Court and it was larger than the largest city anywhere in the Empire. She had only seen a small part of the Palace but with its gigantic pilaster domed buildings, botanical gardens and elegant boulevards she had never felt confined.

She guessed that within the Palace her safety was guaranteed. Today she would leave it for the first time. Obviously, the government did not feel that The Imperial Court was as secure as the Palace. Now that she had thought it through it seemed perfectly logical and obvious. Why had Rebart made such an issue of it?

‘Is there more, Rebart?’

‘Well, Majesty...’ It was Prut who answered and his unease was at an intense level. ‘Your personal guard are not the same as the troops you see patrolling the Palace. They... they are more specialised.’

That was only to be expected, there had to be more to it? ‘Yes, go on, Prut.’

‘There are many electronic devices that constantly monitor any threat to you, Majesty. But, to give you maximum protection, your personal guard have the capability to confuse any would-be assassin.’

‘What do you mean by, “confuse”?’

‘An assassin would have difficulty selecting you as the correct target.’ She sensed Prut taking a mental deep breath. ‘Your personal guard - The Amazon Guard - all look the same as you. They will dress the same as you.’

She had never heard of The Amazon Guard, nor had she ever seen anyone who looked remotely like her. But still, she realised that there were many things affecting her life that she knew little about. The stratagem of confusion seemed a logical one but surely anyone bold enough to attempt an assassination would not be fooled by guards that looked like her. Obviously it was only one of several strategies concerning her safety.

‘Do all Regents have such a specialist guards, Prut?’

‘They have a personal guard, but picked from Imperial Special Forces. Not only do your Amazon Guard look similar to you. They are identical to you in every respect. They are your genetic clones.’

She could now understand their anxiety in telling her this. Today had revealed a series of amazing facts about her. ‘Why?’

‘You are an Empress in very unusual times. Special arrangements had to be made for you. It was decided to graft and then cultivate your clones,’ he replied almost apologetically.

‘A clone is an identical replica, isn't it?’ She felt that she was going to cry.

‘Yes, to the last detail.’

From the little she knew about these things, she guessed that cloning was not gene manipulation. Genes were not altered, simply duplicated, which did not break the letter of the law. The government of the Empire was a series of wheels within wheels. She was only now beginning to learn that. This led her to make another educated guess; that the sprit of the law was altogether a different matter. Within the Empire, her Empire, individuality was celebrated - cloning flew in the face of this. The government, her government, hadn’t broken the law, just severely bent it. So, she’d been bred - then cloned! Tears were again forming but she tried to conceal them.

‘How do I know that I am the Empress and not a clone?’

‘Your Amazon Guard are, by any definition, your sisters. But they are hollow imitations. They have neither the knowledge nor the skills that you have acquired. They have only one function - to defend you.’ Prut tried to soothe her.

She wasn’t convinced. ‘How can I, how can anyone, be sure I’m me and they are them?’

‘We can tell the difference, Majesty. However, for non-telepathic identification, each clone has a unique mark tattooed inside their eyelids.’

‘Do they know about this identifier, Prut?’

‘No, they do not, Majesty.’

This was appalling. Again here were people being treated like animals. ‘Do I have any such identification marking?’

‘None that we are aware of, Majesty.’

At least that was something. ‘How many of my clones are there?

‘There are 34. Twenty-eight make up your permanent guard, the remainder are reserves.’

Thirty-four clones! ‘Prut, why was I not told about them?’

‘There are many things about the governing of the Empire that you could not been told until you would fully understand them, Majesty.’

Surprisingly, she felt that she accepted the situation. ‘Will there be other surprises like this, Prut?’

‘Undoubtedly, Majesty.’

‘Do you have the same telepathic link with the clones’ She knew it was childish jealousy that forced her to ask the question but she couldn’t help it.

‘Their brain patterns are similar but their minds are empty compared to yours. Which Imperial gown will you wear, Majesty?’

***

This was to be her first journey outside The Imperial Palace. Of course, she knew that one day this would happen but had never considered that it would be an adventure. The Palace, and all it contained, had more than enough to occupy her curiosity and energy. Wearing the most formal gown she could find, she was accompanied by Prut as she made her way to The Great Hall to meet her Amazon Guard. She was recognised by the people they passed, of course. As she approached people they stopped, politely bowed from the waist, and then went on about their business. Wearing the gown made her feel more grownup and it also seemed to give her an air of authority.

Because it was several kilometres from her domicile, none of her many explorative forays had ever taken her as far as The Great Hall. It was the sole entrance to The Imperial Palace and reputed to be the largest enclosed space in the Empire. She was so looking forward to seeing it and strolling along the enclosure. After all, it was her Great Hall because it was her Imperial Palace. Only in passing did she wonder how she would react to meeting her doubles, she intended to better comported than Prut expected.

When they reached The Great Hall, despite her expectations, its enormous size still shook her. It was certainly a sight to behold; at least a kilometre high, several kilometres wide and she couldn’t even begin to guess at its length. Standing there, taking it in, she looked on at all the government officials who scurried about, either on foot or in various forms of transportation. The Great Hall was aptly named, but it suddenly seemed too big, too bold and too brash. Why all this waste of space?

‘It is a killing ground, Majesty. This is the only point where a large force could enter the Palace. Should such an attack be launched it gives the defenders a clear field of fire. Those recesses, over there to the left, are artillery emplacements. Some of the floor tiles are, in fact, blast mines, and I'm sure that there’s more weaponry that I know nothing about.’

She reacted to Prut's answer with a start. She thought to her self, ‘I really must learn to control and separate out the thoughts that are mine and those I that want to share with the telepaths.’ She couldn’t help wondering, was nothing about her, or the Palace, what it first seemed? ‘Why have a killing ground? Who would dare to attack The Imperial Palace?’

‘It dates from the times when the first Palace was built; it was a precautionary measure. It was necessary then and, tactically at least, it still is now. The defences of the Palace are such that it could never be partially invaded, only totally destroyed.’

‘Oh!’ She thought that there was something desperate about such a defence strategy.

At distance of about 300 metres she saw a group of girls marching in perfect formation as they appeared along one of the many avenues that led from The Great Hall. They wore identical dresses to hers. As they approached, she could see that they were all ‘almost’ identical to her. But even from a distance she could also see that there were differences. Their posture and movement, for a start, were those of soldiers - she never walked like that! They marched up to her and Prut, then halted. She the had the surreal experience of watching 28 mirror images of herself bow to her. Although Prut had tried to prepare her for this, she could only stand and stare. It was almost like being in a room full of mirrors.

Herselves, her Amazon Guard, then took up position around her. Nothing was said but Prut moved aside and as one procession they moved off, heading for the entrance to The Imperial Court. She realised that she wasn’t in the centre of the group, neither was she at the periphery. The guards lost their military gait. Now they all strolled with the same casual assuredness as she did. How could they managed that?! This was an outrage! Nothing to do with them having the same genes - it had taken months and months of clandestine practice for her to perfect the appearance of regal aplomb. This was so unfair!

She wanted to stare closely at one of them, or perhaps start a conversation. Surely they weren’t all called Morturina? So what were their names and how could they...?

‘Majesty, your survival may depend on you not differentiating yourself from your guards. Please react in the same manner as they do.’ Prut's calm and reassuring thought came to her.

‘This is unbearable! I cannot go on! Prut, I want to speak with them. I must! They are me!’

‘I know you find this difficult, but they are not you. They are only facsimiles of you, Majesty. They were only created for one purpose, and that is to protect you.’

She tried, but could not bring herself to accept that harsh abstract notion. ‘I must stop, Prut,’ she pleaded.

‘Majesty, we sympathise with your distress, but we ask that you continue to The Imperial Court.’

She felt rising panic but began to sense, for the first time, that her disquiet was causing her telepaths not only discomfort but something akin to actual pain. Without being told she realised that this was a control mechanism. The bond they shared with her was more than merely mental, they were hard-wired into her distress. Why hadn't she realised that before? She forced herself to be calm.

Prut continued, ‘Should there be any attempt to harm you, if necessary, your guards will sacrifice themselves for you. You must leave them to do just that. Your task is to survive.’

‘Oh, Prut, I could never do that! I just couldn't stand by and watch myself die. I don't want to be Empress!’

‘Majesty, you have no choice. You are Empress.’

She began to feel regret and sorrow but as soon as those emotions surfaced they were forcibly quelled by some inner calm. It was almost as if some entity had mentally slapped her in the face. Objectively she began to consider her situation. Her Empire was all of human occupied space - virtually the entire galaxy. She had thousands of billions of subjects. In these uncertain times, all their futures depended to a greater or lesser extent on her. Several unusual measures had been taken in order to aid her in the monumental task of repairing the cohesion of the Empire. Her Amazon Guard were only a minor part of these measures.

She was the only one who could reunite the Empire and restore to its citizens the security that this brought. Without any doubt she was, singularly, the most important being alive. She and her cousin were the last of an Imperial bloodline. But her cousin could not easily supplant her. For Hial to sit on the Imperial throne, she would need to be victorious in a bitter and bloody war. Such a war was to be avoided if at all possible. Therefore the primary task for Morturina, and those who served her, was to ensure her survival - at least until she had borne an heir to the Imperial throne.

These were her thoughts, but they startled her. They were cool, calculating and distant, as if they originated in a remote part of her consciousness. She knew that to be an effective Empress she would have to think like this. But still, she felt that she had lost something. Was it her childhood, or was it her innocence?

Feeling more assured she drifted with the procession as it continued along The Great Hall. As they neared another side-opening that lead to another vast chamber, she noticed that they were being flanked by a battalion of heavily armed Comet Marines. This was no ceremonial escort. With their javelins at the ready, they were sweeping ahead and to the side of her group. She had not seen from where they had emerged.  They were suddenly there. Where had they come from? She started to turn to see if they were behind as well...

‘Do not look around, Majesty.’ A stern command from Prut.

‘All right, Prut,’ she answered irritably. She was only going to look. ‘Why do they carry only javelins?’

‘Energy and projectile weapons are only allowed in certain parts of The Imperial Palace or The Imperial Court, Majesty.’

‘Oh.’ She hadn't known that but now that she thought about it, it seemed logical. It also explained why she had seen many troopers but never a laser rifle although she knew they existed... ‘Prut! How can they - my clones - tell me apart from themselves?’

‘They have studied your every mannerism in order to imitate them, majesty. But they cannot be totally you, so to speak. Each one is constantly aware of exactly where you are in relation to them. They have set procedures to follow in the event of an attack.’ Prut answered reassuringly.

She considered this and thought that she saw several possible shortcomings. But she understood enough to accept that The Amazon Guard was only one part of her protection.

‘We are approaching The Central Palace of The Imperial Court. The representatives of all the Royal Households are in attendance. You will enter from the rear of the hall and move directly towards your throne. Once you are there, you will be surrounded by force fields. You may then move from cover and sit on the throne.’

She understood what he meant by ‘move from cover’ - separate herself from her clones. Try as she might, she could not bring herself to accept that they were no more than cover for her. Suddenly a picture of The Central Palace flashed into her head. She saw a huge semicircular arena. Around its circumference were concentric rows of seats. At its centre in a slightly sunken area were two thrones. The thrones appeared to be no more than oversized chairs. They were not fancifully decorated; their positioning conveyed their status - all seating looked down on the them. They were the very focus of The Central Palace; separated by a gap of about 200 metres from the nearest row of seats. It was difficult to judge the scale but she guessed that The Central Palace was only slightly smaller than The Great Hall. It looked capable of seating several hundred thousand persons.

The scene shifted to show the route they would take from the passage along which they were travelling, to the throne. Prut had projected all this into her head, and she was still somewhat surprised. This was the first time the telepaths had done something like this. Then she realised that Prut had projected more than just a visual image. Now she not only knew that this was The Central Palace, and the exact route to it, but on which of the thrones she should sit. Why were her telepaths... no, not the telepaths, the government, choosing today of all days to reveal so many new aspects of her existence?

An answer didn’t readily suggest itself to her so she concentrated on processing the information projected directly into her mind. She appreciated the significance of the seating. The representatives of the most powerful Households would sit in the rows closest to the throne. A Household's standing was signified by the distance it sat from the throne. She did not think that this was altogether a fair way of allocating the seating. The greater Households ‘always’ got the best seats. Maybe this was something she could change? How could those at the back even see the throne clearly?

‘There are vision and sound amplifiers in all seats, Majesty. Everyone in attendance will have an unrestricted view of you. And, of course, you of them.’

She really must learn to keep her thoughts to herself. ‘Thank you, Prut. What ceremonies will be performed and what part will I play?’

‘There will be no ceremonies as such, Majesty. You will not have to speak or do anything. This will be the first opportunity for the Royal Households to meet you in person. Your presence in The Central Palace is significant in itself.’

‘I do not understand, Prut.’

‘As you know, in theory, all Royal Households are bound to the Imperial throne. Their very existence is supposed to testify to their allegiance to it. You are Empress. Your place is to sit on the Imperial throne. Only civil officials need to swear allegiance.’

‘And in practice, Prut?’ She felt that there was much more to be said.

‘In normal times, practice and theory are as one. But without a Regent pro -tem, causing you, a minor, to sit on the throne, there is some distance between the two.’

‘You mean some of the Royal Houses are aligned with Hial?’

‘The Imperial Government believes so, Majesty.’

‘And by sitting on the throne today I will be reaffirming the unity of the Empire? It is purely symbolic but necessary?’

‘Yes, Majesty. That is the purpose of today's summons. In the future you will give Imperial Commands summoning the attendance of a fully constituted Court.’

She sensed that Prut was very pleased with her answer. She could tell, without looking, that he was smiling. They were now approaching the Monarch's Entrance; an arch that was small in comparison to the corridor. There appeared to be jewelled inlays all around the arch’s border and shining holograms of past Emperors and Empresses along the walls leading to it. All this had been omitted from Prut's mental picture. Was this deliberate? The arch and its surrounding, she thought, were some of the most beautiful things that she had ever seen. However, halting the procession to admire the arch, she knew, would be out of the question. In sharp contrast, the actual door leading into The Central Palace appeared to be a single slab of tarnished metal which slowly sank into the floor as they neared it.

Why such a plain door? Carefully shielding her thoughts from her telepaths and remembering not to make any assumptions, she pondered the question. She could not think of a reason why such a door would be allowed to mar what would otherwise be an exquisite work of art. As her guards changed formation to double file she realised the purpose. The doorway was barely wide enough to admit two abreast.  It was a choke point. A small group of soldiers on either side could defend their position against a much larger attacking force. Presumably the door itself was made from some hardened material to aid in such a defence. Momentarily pleased with her deductions she took her place in the formation, then the absurdity of the situation struck home. Who would launch an attack against The Imperial Palace from The Central Palace, or vice versa? Surely either event was unthinkable? She opened her thoughts to Prut and whilst she passed through the Monarch's Entrance he answered.

‘I am pleased that you noticed the Monarch's Entrance. The Central Place is the administrative centre of Imperial Government.  All government ministers' departments and offices are here. The Monarch's Entrance is a mixture of symbolism and function, Majesty. Collectively, the Imperial Court can deny the Monarch access to The Central Palace. In effect the Monarch would cease to rule. This is laid down in the Imperial Charter. It protects the Empire against a despot. The Monarch is also assured protection against one or a number of Royal Households trying to seize the Imperial throne.’

She could now understand the balance that this struck. As Empress, her power was almost limitless. But a united Imperial Court could impose limits. Therefore, she needed to maintain a cohesive but not totally united Imperial Court. Was this what was termed politics?

With her escorts she travelled along a short passage before entering The Central Palace. Her Amazon Guard started fanning out. She noticed that neither Prut nor the escort of Marines had entered with them...

‘Members of Royal Households are the only military personnel allowed into The Central Palace, Majesty.’ He added an after thought: ‘It is not common knowledge that Monarchs have telepathic advisers. There is a special room set aside for me.’

Her party stepped onto the relatively narrow aisle which led directly to the two thrones and she saw The Central Palace in all its grandeur for the first time. The farthest rows of seats were but shadows on the horizon. There was a riot of colours made by thousands of draped Household and heraldic banners. The sky-coloured ceiling was so high, that for all she knew, she might have been standing in an amphitheatre. She immediately felt small and intimidated by the sheer size of the arena. She now considered The Central Palace to be just that, an arena. Perhaps if she kept things in perspective, she would be less overawed. The Imperial Court was the size of a continent. At  the centre of The Imperial Court was The Imperial Palace, the size of a city. In the centre of her city-sized Imperial Palace was The Central Palace...

‘You should now move directly to your throne, Majesty.’

Hesitantly, she started to cover the 50 metres or so to her throne. Her Amazon Guard followed in extended line, and this only added to her sense of isolation. She saw that there was a thin scattering of Courtiers, with only a small fraction of the seats occupied. This was a sitting of the Households' permanent Court representatives. This eased some of the anxiety that she felt, knowing there would be no high Peers present.

As she went to stand in front of the throne on the left, she noticed that a few of the Courtiers were still seated. When a Monarch entered a room, all the occupants immediately stood, bowed from the waist and remained so until the Monarch sat or instructed otherwise. No one in The Central Palace should have been sitting. This was a sign of gross disrespect. Was it because of her age? She paused, slowly looked around the entire Central Palace, then sat.

Those that were standing also sat. An amplified baritone voice boomed across the chamber. ‘Today we greet her most regal majesty, Morturina the First, our divine Empress. As her most noble countenance is presented before us, we of the Imperial Court salute her.’

Not only was she surprised at this greeting, she couldn’t determine the source of the voice. Although it was loud, it was not deafeningly so, nor was there any echo...

‘That was the official welcome to The Imperial Court. It is not necessary nor expected that you respond. You may give a nod of acceptance and then depart,’ Prut informed her.

She was keen to get away but felt that she should at this stage do something to redress the lack of respect shown to her. There was one particular Courtier, sitting almost directly in front of her and about fifty rows back, who was especially irksome. Not only had he failed to stand when she entered, he had looked on with obvious disinterest during the welcoming announcement. From his seating position she assumed that he was the representative of a medium to large sized Household.

She wanted to take him to task but knew that it would be uncouth to shout. She continued to stare indecisively at him. Suddenly a quarter sized, one -way hologram of him appeared a metre in front of her. It took her a moment to realise that it was just that - a hologram. Most of her study devices produced one -way holograms of course. But they operated manually or on verbal commands. Was this Prut's doing? She thought not. By experimenting she discovered that a quarter sized hologram was produced of any distant object that she focussed on. She could not begin to guess the sophistication of the control mechanism, but it was very effective.

‘The Central Palace has a network of empathic devices, Majesty. Although primitive when compared to our telepathic link, they can detect and respond to simple thought impulses such as the wish to see a distant object more clearly.’

She tried to look at objects in the most distant parts of The Central Palace. After a few moments, a quarter sized representation was produced before her. She also noticed that when she looked at a person, additional information; their name, title and Household was also shown in large letters next to the holographic figure.

Again she focussed on the offensive representative and his hologram reappeared. Baron Arvrin Holton, Chasit Household, the letters read. She wanted to say something but...

‘Remember that your voice will be amplified, Majesty.’

She looked away from the baron and stared off into the distance. “Baron Holton.” From the corner of her eye she saw the man sit bolt upright. “When you are Emperor, you may remain seated during the entrance of an Empress. Until such a time, relocate yourself to the two hundred and twentieth row.”

She looked at someone in about the two hundredth row. A hologram of an old and rather overweight woman appeared. She had stood! The Dowager Alison Remitto, Bugle Household. “Dowager Remitto, please take his place.”

As Morturina stood, all present shot to their feet. Without waiting to see either the Baron’s or the Dowager's reaction, she turned and left The Central Palace without a backward glance. Once she was through the Monarch's Entrance she realised that something strange had happened to her whilst she sat on that throne. Again it was as if another part of her, a cold and distant part, had surfaced. It was incensed at the Baron and all those who had not stood on her entrance. Now the Chasit Household was stripped of all its domains and territories. These were now the property of the Bugle Household. The Court representatives had been given a demonstration - the demonstration! A lesson had been learned. Their reaction on her exit was proof of that. Shortly, news of her actions would be with the heads of all Royal Households. It was their reaction to what she’d done that would matter. This was politics.

She knew that she didn't really mind if they stood or not, yet she had just stripped a Household of its accumulated wealth because of it. She also knew that she was Empress.

***


She was again surrounded by her Amazon Guard as they made their way back to The Great Hall. The Comet Marines were back in their flanking formation. She ambled along deep in thought. There were two things that greatly concerned her: firstly, she was now appalled at what she had done to the Chasits Household. The more she thought about it, the less justifiable it seemed. At the time it had appeared to be judicious and necessary, but the more distance she put between herself and The Central Palace the less palatable it was for her to accept. She began to suspect that when sitting on that throne she was not totally in control of her actions. Linked to this suspicion was her second worry; all her telepaths had been rather reticent during the audience and she had been left to flounder. Her actions may have been a grave error, but neither Prut nor the others had offered any advice. Did they have anything to do with the feeling she had of being ‘controlled’? She desperately needed to have the answer. How could she truly govern if she was no more than a mouthpiece?

‘Prut, what is your assessment of my first encounter with the Imperial Court?’

‘Majesty, I believe that you have shown the Empire that it now has an Empress.’

He had given a fairly direct answer. Still, she wasn't sure if that was all there was to it. ‘Don't you think I overreacted?’

‘Overreacted Majesty? Only the Prime Minister's officers can give you a full analysis of the political implications. But in my opinion, your reaction was exemplary - you made an example of only one Household. This shows you to be firm but not intolerant. You could have demanded considerable contributions to the Imperial coffers from all Households that had not shown the proper respect. I think your warning will be heeded. I presume that this was what you wanted?’

Didn't he know what she wanted? ‘How would the Prime Minister's officers know what happened?’

‘The Government and the Military may only enter The Central Palace during an Imperial Command. But they do monitor the proceedings in order to carry out any policy decisions.’ Prut seemed surprised that this was not known to her.

‘Do you believe that my actions were tempered but politic?’

‘Yes, Majesty.’

‘Why did you not offer greater assistance, Prut? Don't you know when I need your help?’

Prut gave the equivalent of a mental shudder. ‘Majesty, when you are with your Imperial Court, you are governing. In those situations we, your telepaths, cannot interfere. We can only give assistance if it is requested. In addition, we always know your general state of mind but cannot know what you are thinking unless you allow us to.’ He had interpreted her question as a criticism. Not only was he apologetic, he was also anxious.

‘Can you lie to me, Prut?’

She sensed not just Prut's but all four telepaths’ fear. Prut took a relatively long time to answer. She guessed that he had communicated with the other three. ‘We might have information that we would not share with you, Majesty. But we cannot tell you falsehoods. You would know immediately if we did.’

She was satisfied with his answer and wanted to alleviate their growing fear of her. ‘I have sound reasons for asking these questions. The actions of the Empress in The Central Palace, I don’t believe to be entirely my actions. There was something... affecting me.’

‘You are learning to make decisions that have far reaching consequences, Majesty. Questioning what you have decided is surely part of this learning process. There will always be uncertainties.’

She knew that there was something else that Prut, to use his own words, wasn't sharing with her. But she decided not to press him on it just at that moment, her telepaths were still unsettled. As they entered The Great Hall the Prime Minister and a few officials were milling around waiting to greet them. She didn't need Prut to tell her that the Prime Minister was confused; unable to tell her apart from her guards.

She drifted out of the formation and approached the Prime Minister's group. Her guards continued on, back in their marching formation, presumably making their way back to their quarters. Watching them go, she wondered now that they had met her, what they thought about her; their purpose for being. The Prime Minister and his officials bowed when she stopped in front of them, but they appeared uncertain. It was not until Prut came to stand beside her that they seemed sure that she was the real Morturina. Here was another role for her telepaths - they could identify her.

“Majesty, your audience with the Imperial Court appears to have gone well.” The Prime Minister addressed her in his usual tone, the one used when talking to a favourite niece.

She was Empress, she would not be spoken to like a child. “Prime Minister, what is your assessment of the Court's reaction?”

The Prime Minister straightened slightly at her abruptness. “Hail’s cause has been considerably weakened. To have simply punished the Chasit could have been interpreted as too harsh. But the promotion of the Bugle, a lowly Household... Well, that was a masterly stroke, if I may say so, Majesty.” His tone was that of a Minister addressing their Monarch.

She accepted the apology and compliment with a slight nod. “When will you have an analysis of the reaction of the Heads of Households?”

He seemed to focus inwardly. “A full analysis will take two to three days to compile. But our preliminary guesstimations suggest that the larger Households will now give you their full support, as will the lesser Households. As usual, the medium sized Households will show varying degrees of dissent.”

That was in line with her own summary of events. The medium sized Households were large enough to exert some influence, but too small to really affect policy. They tended to have one thing in common - ambition. “And your suggestion for our future strategy, Prime Minister?” Now that he was being respectful to her, she would reciprocate.

He sank deeper in thought. “It is considered that an Imperial Command, the summoning of the full Imperial Court, should be your next step. This is customary and also expected of a new regent. It would also give you an opportunity to deal directly with the Heads of Households.”

‘He is expressing the collective view of the Imperial Government. His personal opinion differs.’ Prut interjected.

The Prime Minister knew about the telepaths. He knew that Prut could reveal his thoughts to her. There were many ways to manipulate someone. She appeared to consider the Prime Minister’s statement. ‘Prut, is he consciously thinking of our telepathic bond?’

‘No, Majesty.’

She focussed her attention on her Prime Minister. “I see. Is there a counter argument to this, Prime Minister?”

At first he appeared reluctant to answer, then pulled himself up to his full height. “There is, Majesty. Firstly, you are not a new regent. You have been regent-in-fact, if not in practice, since the unfortunate death of your father. Secondly, a strong ruler should govern through systems that are already in place. Their dictates should become acts, or take effect, without any overt effort on their part. Nor should they appear to patronize any particular groups or individuals.”

She wanted to test his resolve. “Do you subscribe to this latter view?” she asked sharply.

“Yes, Majesty,” he answered with dignity.

‘He does, Majesty.’

“I tend to agree with you Prime Minister. There will be no Imperial Command.”

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