The White Palace.
After Private Speers had performed her due diligence (very diligently) and left, Figaro took a shower. There was a scanner in the bathroom which he used to check his body for any trackers Speers may have managed to insert into him. He hadn’t felt anything go in, but he had been distracted, and she was a highly trained operative.
He found nothing, which only meant she had planted the device somewhere else. He dressed in the special outfit that had been prepared for his trip — special in that it was completely unremarkable and looked like the clothes worn by the general Enayan population on a daily basis. Loose trousers tucked into low cut boots, a swirling top of multi-layered fabric and a hooded cloak.
His normal attire was much more restrictive and close-fitting, and more gaudy in its colouring. This outfit was designed to carry dirt and dust without showing it. He went into the bathroom and scanned himself once more. Nothing.
He returned to the room and picked up his jacket, one of many identical ones. It declared his rank, his importance, his affiliation to the Ollo name. It identified him all too well. The second button down from the collar was rubbed smooth so that Aurelias Ollo’s head was barely visible. Figaro had a habit of rubbing that button on all his clothes when he was thinking about something, gliding his thumb over it again and again. He pulled the button off and was about to put it in his pocket as a keepsake but on a whim he went into the bathroom again and scanned the button.
The tracker was stuck on the back, a transparent sticker, less than a micrometre in thickness.
How had she known he would take this button with him? A good guess or thorough research? Did she know all his moves, too? Or was there a similar sticker on all his buttons?
He hadn’t seen her do it. He wasn’t even aware of any time when she could have. It was impressive how well she’d managed to keep his attention on other things, but then, she had probably been chosen because she suited his tastes so well. Fiercely independent, athletic of build, competitive to a fault — he shook the thought out of his head. She was a Seneca Corps woman first and foremost.
She had correctly identified his attachment to the button, what else did she know about him while pretending to only be interested in his well-developed body? Had she learned the history of the Ollo family? Most probably. Aurelias Ollo had been a name to fear in the early days of organics. He was one of the first, if not the first — historical records from other quadrants contested the claim — person to integrate with an artefact.
One of the first to encounter a strange alien object he had no understanding of or any idea what it would do to him. He fused with it anyway and became one of the most powerful organics to have ever existed.
But he did not remain on Enaya to rule, he left that role to his sister while he travelled the quadrant pursuing adventure, what those who stood in his way called crimes. Figaro wondered if his own relationship with his soon-to-arrive sister would follow a similar path.
Figaro left the button on the side of the sink and went to find his father. He knew where he’d be and Figaro wanted to get his approval for the way he looked. Despite having numerous expert tutors throughout his life, his father still had the keenest eyes of anyone Figaro had ever encountered. He could see a problem well in advance and would usually have a ready solution. Or know when to allow a flaw to run its course. His perception and insight were second to none and if there was anything about Figaro’s appearance that wasn’t quite right, he would spot it immediately.
Figaro walked down to the simulation room where his father and a couple of assistants were checking results from the latest tests. The white machine in the centre of the room made a low hum, as it always did when it was idle. When it was operational, only the test subjects were able to stand the high-pitched whine it made.
“Ah, yes, yes,” said his father as he examined Figaro from top to bottom. “Much better. You look like a real Ollo man now.”
His father was referring to the loss of his hair, which he had often suggested should be shaved off. His own hair was small black curls that barely covered his scalp.
“What about the outfit?” said Figaro. “Inconspicuous enough.”
“Hmm. Yes, it should be fine. Perhaps roll around in an alleyway when you get to the city. If your mother catches you, don’t tell her it was my idea.”
“How would she know what I did in an alley?”
“It might seem unlikely, but you would be surprised. That woman knows things she can’t possibly know. It’s how she’s managed to keep me confounded for all these years. Watch yourself, my boy. You never know when she’s watching.”
He made it sound like there was some terrible dark secret behind his wife’s powers, but there was a degree of fondness to his warning.
“I don’t think she’ll be able to keep tabs on me in the Fourth Quadrant,” said Figaro.
His father raised his eyebrows like he wasn’t so sure, but he didn’t say anything.
“Will I really learn anything at this training facility that I couldn't learn here?” Figaro walked up to the machine and gave it a friendly tap.
“There is so much more for you to learn,” said his father, “and sitting around this quiet place won’t teach you any of it. A controlled environment isn’t worth much compared to the chaos of real life.”
“Then why not let me go into Tethari with you? You know I can handle it.”
His father smiled, a small consolation prize for the attempt.
“It’s not the same as in here.” His father banged the machine, alarming the assistants. “The simulation is nothing like the real thing. They may have stripped the second floor of all its treasures, but the defences are still fully operational. One slip…”
“When was the last time I made a mistake?”
The machine, built at enormous expense, was able to recreate a one to one simulation of the entire second floor of Tethari. Figaro had been diving into the virtual version of the lethal city since he was twelve. He knew it as well as anyone, and had even come up with some novel tactics that the delving teams had used in practice. But the simulation wouldn’t kill you. Tethari would.
“When you come back, no, listen to me Figaro, when you come back, then you will understand. And, hopefully, you will be ready.”
“I can break through to the third floor, I know I can.”
“I have no doubt you have the potential. But running into danger without fear will not turn you into the man you wish to be. And more than likely it will make your mother put you under house arrest.”
Figaro didn’t doubt his father was right, but it still felt like a waste to travel so far across the galaxy just so he would be able to enter the city only an hour away.
Figaro looked at the machine with its four connection portals with their spotless white skeins. “Can I see the coronation one last time?”
“You can see it on the screen.” His father nodded to one of his assistants, who pressed the required buttons on the tablet he was holding.
The central screen between the four portals lit up, flaring brightly and then settling down. As well as recreating Tethari, the machine could replay old holos from the Ollo archives.
Figaro was especially fond of watching the only known recording of the coronation of Lyra Ollo, Aurelias Ollo’s sister.
Most people only got to see the edited version, but Figaro had been taught the full history of his world, both good and bad.
Lyra Ollo appeared on screen, her skin like ebony, her gown like a night full of stars. She was seated on the Senayan throne, now a relic in the city museum. The picture quality had not diminished in five hundred years. It was even more startling real when you viewed it while connected through the portal, like you were in the room with them.
Figaro leaned on the console and fast-forwarded through the part everyone had seen many times in their history classes, to the part he had first seen in his history class of one.
The newly crowned queen rose and was met by jeering and demands for her to step down. A cabal of powerful men approached, the guards stepping aside to let them pass.
“You are a child, you are not fit to rule.”
“Abdicate or face the consequences.”
“We will not stand by and watch you squander what we have built.”
They shouted their demands at her, speaking over each other in their haste to browbeat her into submission.
She stood there, a young woman barely in her teens. She waited until they quieted, and then said, “My brother placed me on this throne. When he commands it, then I will step down. Until then, I suggest you make your complaints to him.”
The leader of the insurrectionists stepped forward, a tall, lordly man. “Then bring him here. If he is to stand for you, let us hear him say so in his own voice.”
For a moment, the girl-queen looked at a loss. And then the air behind the throne shimmered. A figure appeared, his skin dark and unrevealing, his hair as short and wiry as Figaro’s father’s, his eyes as black as coal.
“I am here Karrack. I speak for my sister.” His voice was cold and electric. It wasn’t a fault of the recording, it was the organics infesting his body. Sparks ran up and down his arms and fell off him in showers. Lightning arced between his fingers. “I left her as my vassal. Do you contest her position?”
Karrack’s face wasn’t visible. If he’d been connected to the machine, Figaro would have been able to move around the throne room, but he had done that enough time to know the expression of fear and hatred and unsatisfied ambition he would see.
“We only wish to safeguard Enaya.”
“Then don’t,” said Aurelias. “I have no need of help in that regard. Let me show you.”
He was gone, and then reappeared next to Karrack, his blue arm smashing through Karrack’s chest. He moved too fast to be seen, leaving only afterimages. Next, the traitorous guards fell one by one. The accomplices cried out and fell, their massive wounds cauterised before they hit the ground, not dead and writhing in agony.
The assembled crowd watched in horrified silence. Aurelias appeared once more beside his sister.
“Do not test my patience again,” he warned the gathering. “I will not be so kind next time. You.” He pointed at a soldier still standing. “You are the new commander of the guard. Betray me or my sister, and I will disintegrate everyone you have ever loved.” The soldier fell to his knee and bowed his head in fealty. Aurelias turned to his sister. “I leave the rest to you.”
“But what do I do with them…” She looked at the men squirming on the floor. “And what about their followers?”
“Find them, eradicate them. As many as you have to. They are all replaceable, you are not. I have faith in you.” He rose into the air on a pillar of lightning, and then vanished. Viewed from in the machine, you could smell the ionized air.
The newly-promoted commander looked up. “My queen, your orders.”
Lyra looked mildly annoyed. “Take them away and cut their throats. And try not to make too much of a mess.”
Soldiers began to drag the screaming schemers out. Lyra returned to the throne and sat down, an amusingly burdened teenager.
Figaro turned off the viewer. He wondered if he’d be able to be as merciless and decisive when needed.
“You know,” said his father, “they say the Seneca Corps took their inspiration from Queen Lyra, but I think it was Aurelias they truly admired — not that they would ever admit it. Sometimes I think my Aurelian blood is the only reason your mother agreed to marry me.” He smiled mischievously. “Anyway, we better go see the old assassin. Don’t tell her I called her that.”
They left the simulation room and made their way to the North Tower where his mother’s rooms were situated. They entered after knocking and then waiting for the guards to take a defensive position, just in case.
“What did you do to your lovely hair?” exclaimed his mother when she saw Figaro.
She was flanked by two bodyguards, as usual. Captain Tek wasn’t present. There were several other Seneca soldier stationed around the room, tense and ready for an attack, as usual.
“I cut it off,” said Figaro.
“Don’t you like it? Don’t you want to look like you’re my son?” She had a pained quality to her voice that would have made a weaker man crumble with guilt. Figaro had the protection of eighteen years experience against this particular weapon.
“It will grow back, Mother.”
The door opened again and Ellie the maid came in carrying a tray. Figaro was thrown off balance by what he saw. She wasn’t moving correctly. Nothing about her seemed right. The Seneca guards were letting her pass by without a second glance, but Figaro couldn’t let her get to his mother.
“Figaro, what’s wr—”
At the mention of his name, the maid looked startled. She hadn’t recognised him without his hair. She looked terrified.
Figaro ran towards his mother’s chair. The guards realised something was wrong but only moved to stop him. He dodged them with ease, shot past his mother and grabbed Ellie, lifting her off her feet, running with her and jumping through the window in a shower of broken glass.
Chapters one week ahead on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino