Despite the concentrated patrol defenses, the Emperor’s space yacht slipped down to the surface of Klo, second moon of Jursa, without incident. Only recently, such a show of force would have drawn a flight of torpedo rockets from the rebellious planet; but the Jursan agitators for a scientific renaissance had at last been beaten to their knees.
A landing tube was connected between the ship and the transparent dome that had been constructed on this airless satellite for the convenience of the lord of the system. Notables in military posts or present on some other excuse gathered to greet their master.
“By Pollux!” gasped one onlooker. “Those guards must all be seven feet tall!”
The file of magnificent soldiers, who gave the impression of being almost entirely armor-plated, deployed on either side of the landing tube exit. They were followed by a figure glittering enough to be an emperor; but since he was attended by only four officials in bejeweled scarlet the crowd recognized him for a chamberlain.
“His Illustrious Sublimity the Lord Vyrtl, Viceroy for Terra, Emperor of Pollux, and of all its fourteen planets, and of all their thirty-seven satellites, and of all the nations thereon, Co-ordinator of the planet Hebryxid--”
It went on at some length, but the man who led the next little parade out of the landing tube paid no heed. The part about Terra was a vestige of centuries before communications had lapsed, and served no purpose but to remind him that new contact with the original planet was one of the Jursans’ aims. The rest of his titles he could, by now, recite backwards.
The crowd of officialdom gaped at him as he stood there. He was a tall man, which conveniently helped conceal a tendency toward obesity. Under the excess tissue, his face had a massive strength, with broad bones and jutting chin and nose; but the gray eyes were weary and cynical.
“Wilkins!” he ordered in a bored monotone. “Find which yokel is in charge, and burn a jet under him!”
A resplendent aide hustled forward to where the official in charge of the dome was wetting his lips over his rehearsed greeting. It was quickly made plain that His Illustrious Sublimity desired transportation and a look at the quarters he would have to put up with until the jackals on Jursa came to their senses.
The official had tried to provide for every known imperial fancy. He smirked delightfully when Vyrtl caught sight of the lozards tethered at one side.
“By Pollux!” exclaimed the Emperor, his eye brightening. “We hadn’t expected the pleasure of riding till this was over.”
“He tells me they have built a forest, Sire,” reported the aide. “About half a mile square. At least, you will have some relaxation.”
“Good! It is all very well playing the soldier and roughing it informally, but a man must have something!”
He surveyed the reptilian mounts that were led forward and chose one whose eight legs were a trifle longer than average. With reasonable agility, considering his bulk, he hoisted himself into the saddle and set off toward the miniature palace awaiting him. His guardsmen trotted alongside while the rest of his retinue mounted and followed as best they could.
He drew rein once, to gaze up through the dome at the yellow-green disk of Jursa. Wilkins overtook him.
“Note the dark line in the southern hemisphere, Sire,” he said. “The result of Marshal Tzyfol’s sweep--the one that broke through their fleets and led to their plea for terms.”
“Excellent!” said the Emperor. He lowered his gaze and stretched his neck uncomfortably. Vyrtl was unaccustomed to looking up at anything or anybody. “They will bear our mark.”
“It will teach them the lesson they deserve,” agreed Wilkins dutifully. “Autonomy, indeed!”
“Quite,” said Vyrtl, urging his lozard forward. “Who are those fools to think they can demand exemption from established imperial laws ... they should be satisfied with the standard textbooks and forget their puttering! Ha--what’s this?”
He pulled up before a small replica of the palace.
“The dome engineer built it for your wives, Sire.”
“Twenty of them volunteered to share the rigors of the campaign. Their special transport arrived just before us.”
“Humph!” grunted Vyrtl, riding past.
Early the next morning, after the engineers had arranged a dawn for his benefit, Vyrtl called a council of his commanders. Chief-of-Staff Robert Tzyfol reported on the situation.
The rebellious Jursans were sending a representative to ask for terms. In the Marshal’s strongly expressed opinion, no leniency was necessary. The imperial fleets were slowly but surely stamping out all resistance, making Jursa unlivable.
“Abject submission is their only course,” he declared.
It was the sort of declaration with which Vyrtl might have agreed, had he been able to voice it first.
As it was, he announced that he would keep it in mind when judging the fate of the rebels. He had no inclination to destroy a perfectly good, tax-paying planet if he could whip its inhabitants into line by other means.
He ended the conference by stating his intention to ride in the artificial forest. He enjoyed the glances of relief among the generals--especially the older and more brittle ones--when he gave them leave to resume their military duties instead of attending him.
A few hours later, Wilkins found Vyrtl and a small retinue resting beside a pool at the edge of the forest.
“The rebel envoy has arrived, Sire,” he reported.
Vyrtl kicked a pebble into the pool and spat after it. “We shall see him immediately,” he announced. “No use wasting ceremony on the villain.”
Returning to the palace, he strode into the audience chamber and signaled for the envoy to be admitted. Still warm from his ride and insultingly disheveled, he sat in the imitation of the great throne on his capital planet, Hebryxid.
“If he isn’t brisk,” he muttered to Wilkins, “we may teach him promptness by hunting him through the forest tomorrow.”
Above the whispers of hastily assembled officers, courtiers, and a few of Vyrtl’s wives, a chamberlain announced, “The Jursan envoy, Daphne Foster.”
“A woman?” murmured Vyrtl.
“So it seems. She looks quite ... distinguished.”
“Ha! The witty Wilkins! A pretty choice of words.”
The woman approached the throne amid a low buzz from Vyrtl’s attendants, and bowed gracefully. Gracefully but not too abjectly, considering the situation and his own position, Vyrtl thought. She raised her head and endured his deliberate scrutiny.
She would have to be a rebel, Vyrtl told himself. He supposed they had scoured all Jursa for a real beauty to dazzle him; but they would discover that it would not work.
At first glance, she had seemed slim, but he saw now that, though tall, she was very well proportioned. A net of tiny, glittering jewels was woven into the black hair that hung to her shoulders. Her features were regular, but expressively alive compared to the artificial placidity of the court beauties.
But what disturbed the Emperor of Pollux most was the way she looked at him! He felt that it was stretching diplomacy a bit far.
A smile in deep blue eyes was pleasant, when someone was sufficiently accomplished to muster it in his presence; but this was a shade too familiar. She seemed to put herself on a level with him--as if to share an amusement beyond the others present.
The next moment, he was trying to decide just what quality made hers the most beautiful female voice he had ever heard. Consequently, he missed most of the formula about “the gratitude of all Jursa” at his receiving “his humble slave.”
That smile lit the blue eyes again. It was hard to tell if a ghost of it lingered at the corners of the full lips, but the total effect was of anything but humility. He pulled himself together, aware that Wilkins had noticed his hesitation.
“So the Jursans seek to soften our just anger?” he said. “They send their surrender by one who is obviously the loveliest jewel of their misguided world.”
A few of the courtiers snickered dutifully. Vyrtl was annoyed; he had not meant to be funny. He glanced swiftly at the half-dozen wives present, but their expressions showed no jealousy. He decided that the empty-headed creatures had at least learned not to embarrass him publicly.
“Your Illustrious Sublimity is too gracious,” replied the envoy. “I regret that my message is not unqualified surrender.”
Vyrtl frowned. “You dare ask terms?”
“I must carry out the commands laid upon me by the Council.”
She smiled into his eyes and made a rueful little gesture with both hands, which she allowed to fall gracefully to her sides. Vyrtl’s gaze was led up and down her figure again.
He forced himself to meet her glance. Rather than expressing any resentment of his appraisal, it suggested that her resistance to his demands would be merely formal.
They’ve sent me a clever one, he thought, but they will find I cannot be bought off so cheaply. Still, it can do no harm to show that Vyrtl can be the diplomat as well as a soldier.
“We are unprepared for any discussion,” he said aloud. “Since we are not disposed, however, to be hasty in our judgement, you may wait upon us in the council chamber in two hours.”
The envoy stepped lithely aside when he rose. With some difficulty, Vyrtl kept his eyes front as he strode from the hall with Wilkins and his personal guards at his heels. He hastened to his own chambers for a bath and change of clothes.
He allowed himself to be bathed, scented, and dressed in the most imperial costume he had brought from Hebryxid. Blonde Xota, his official favorite who had taken no chance of losing her place by absence from his side, admired his dazzling jewels and scarlet silks extravagantly. Vyrtl permitted her to serve him a light lunch, paying little attention to her chatter.
Once, when he had taken her from the Co-ordinator of his sixth planet, he had fancied himself in love with her; now he merely amused himself guessing from day to day to whom she sold her supposed influence. He sometimes wondered if any wife he owned were innocent of spying.
He rose, summoned Wilkins, and led a small procession to the council chamber. They found the necessary quota of high officers waiting. Daphne Foster was summoned.
Vyrtl took his place on a dais at the head of the table, and his aide arranged the gold-stiffened ceremonial robe. The generals made little professional jokes, each striving to act as if the victory had been mostly his own doing. Even the lean Chief of Staff, Tzyfol, looked satiated.
The Jursan envoy was announced.
Once again, Vyrtl was so fascinated by the girl that he paid scant heed to the ceremonious greetings. He decided she was younger than he had thought earlier.
Finally, the conference got down to business.
“My people,” said Daphne Foster, “ask but a few minor concessions, which we believe will benefit the remainder of the Empire as much as Jursa.”
“We are disposed to believe your good intentions,” said Vyrtl encouragingly.
He caught himself smiling, and immediately resumed the mask of dignity.
The Jursans, it developed, would give up demands for autonomy and resume allegiance to the Empire. They pleaded, however, for freedom of scientific research, promising that their discoveries would be placed promptly at Vyrtl’s disposal.
In the matter of indemnities, they were willing, Daphne Foster said with an intimate glance for Vyrtl alone, to rely upon his generosity. They asked only that they be allowed a reasonable time to restore the damage suffered in the fighting and that they be permitted to make part of the payments in the technical equipment they were so skilled at manufacturing.
Some of the officers raised objections that Vyrtl thought well-put, but he overruled them. The main point, he pronounced, was to restore a valuable possession to productivity. There would be no looting and destruction.
He felt less sure of himself when old Tzyfol protested that free research was one of the roots of the trouble. Consequently, perhaps, the imperial glare that silenced the Marshal was the more withering.
After that, Vyrtl sat back and allowed his cohorts to promulgate a number of minor, harassing conditions. These would satisfy their egos to some degree, keep the Jursans aware of the folly of questioning his authority again, and show their envoy how things might have gone had Vyrtl not been merciful.
In the end, he added one condition of his own.
“It will be necessary,” he said, “to hold frequent conferences on these affairs. If the Jursan Council should appoint their envoy as permanent ambassador to our court, we should be inclined to approve.”
It was tantamount to a command, but the girl showed no resentment. Not that Vyrtl expected anything so rash as outward reluctance--but a lifetime of piercing the flattery of courtiers had made him a shrewd reader of facial expressions.
He granted permission for an immediate broadcasting of the treaty, overriding Tzyfol’s desire for deeper consideration in favor of Daphne Foster’s plea that delay would cost lives.
After having copies of the rather simple document drawn up for the facsimile broadcasters, Vyrtl gave her leave to depart. Without seeming to watch, he admired her gait as she walked from the conference chamber.
Afterwards, he left the generals to their post-mortem and retired with Wilkins to a private balcony for a bottle of wine.
“How did it go?” he asked, leaning back more comfortably when his aide had removed the heavy robe.
“You were most generous, Sire, or so I thought.”
“It is a virtue that requires a public display now and then, to strengthen the roots of the myth that grows from it. Too bad old Tzyfol failed to see that. Why do you suppose he tried to be obstinate?”
“I expect, Sire, he disliked having an old woman seem to get the better of him after he had won the military victory.”
Vyrtl laughed indulgently and sipped his wine.
“Even Tzyfol,” added Wilkins, “might have been generous had she been young and pretty. Unfortunately, I suppose, it takes an old head to be an envoy.”
The Emperor set his glass down very carefully.
“What did you say?” he demanded evenly.
Wilkins stared, with the expression of a man who fears he may suddenly recall having used an obscene word in polite company, or having bragged falsely and unwittingly of tax-evasion to an imperial collector.
Vyrtl repeated his question in a tone a note higher.
“I-I-I said that if she were young and p-pretty--”
“How old do you think she was?” rasped Vyrtl.
“About s-s-seventy. Maybe seventy-five.”
He surged to his feet, overturning the table. Immediately the glass doors opening on the balcony were flung back with a splintering crash.
Four gleaming guardsmen charged out with drawn weapons, each obviously aching to become a hero. Wilkins prudently stood rooted, peering at them from the corner of his eye.
Vyrtl recovered his poise with an effort.
“As you were!” he ordered. “Help General Wilkins pick up the table I knocked over. Clumsy thing!”
It was done, and the guard captain apologized for the doors.
“Relax, Wilkins,” said Vyrtl when they were again alone. “It just occurred to me that I ought to have another word with that woman. Have someone get hold of her at once!”
He left the disordered balcony and waited in a nearby library. The books lining the walls were real, he noticed idly--another painstaking point by the designer of the palace.