Monday, 9 December 2013

Empires!

Well, I always say, if you're going to be late, you might as well make it very late! I have finally managed to stop working, Christmas shopping and all the other things people need to do like eating and sleeping to finish last months pictonaut challenge, only 9 days overdue and way longer than it should by rights be. This one got away from me a little bit and I think it has now turned into the prĂ©cis for a full length novel. We shall see if I ever get the time to achieve that goal, but I find it highly unlikely. Anyway, without further ado, I present to the internet the drama, the mystery and the intrigue of Empires!



Sandra Valhir surveyed the empty room ahead of her. Empty of people, more specifically, and even that not for long. Still, besides its personal emptiness, the room contained a great deal. For instance, it contained opulence, and it contained this in abundance. From the two dozen empty, ornate mahogany tables, each of which would seat half a dozen comfortably; to the large leather and felt covered, solid wood, throne like chairs that supplied the seats themselves; to the individual crystal chandeliers above each and every of these tables; to the marble floors, the stone pillars, the vaulted, painted ceiling, the wall made entirely of glass looking on to the vast oil paintings in the corridor beyond; the room was, if a room could be, extraordinarily rich.

Sandra enjoyed these moments by herself, surveying the work done, taking quiet ownership of things so luxuriant before she was required to pass them on to The Charade. This particular event had been something of a coup and Sandra was, for the first time since she had begun what had now become her entire life, proud of what she had achieved. Not proud of the purpose, not proud of what might happen once those grand, gold encrusted doors opened and the games began, but proud of the ingenuity that it had taken to pull off what should have been an impossible feat. The feeling would not last. It would be moments more until the spell was broken by the marching of imperialistic feet and Director Valhir would sink from reverie into soulless pragmatism.

And then it happened. The doors opened, the first footfalls from foreign feet echoed around the great hall. The Director span to view the newcomers, her tight, straight pure grey suit falling neatly about her person, her sleek, black boots clicking together in a unanimous display of strength and respect, and her clipboard coming sharply under her arm. She allowed the man who had entered the room take several steps towards her before she moved forward the short distance left between, saving some amount of face.

"I trust security arrangements are to your satisfaction, General?" Valhir asked.

"Never," The General replied with masked emotion. General Kirchhoff was a rotund man, with a dull, scarlet face, whose body forced against the sides of a grey uniform that fitted him half a decade ago. His medals, now tarnished and oranging with rust, still glinted in the soft firelight of the spiralling black candles that made up the centre piece of each table.

"I must say, I'm impressed," The General offered to Sandra and she inflated with a deep breath of hubris but allowed the air to leave her again without adding a word. The General received her message. "To business then," he said. The Director nodded and began her brief.

"In a little under an hour," she explained. "This building will begin celebrating its centenary. The emperor shall arrive in just over half an hour to celebrate his own hundredth illustrious year on the throne."

"Yes, very good." The General smiled at The Director with satisfaction, but was repaid only with an impatient glare which he found he could not hold against. With his gaze to the floor, The Director continued.

"After a five course meal, there shall be a short fireworks display. The emperor will have a choice view from the balcony beyond the door at the back of the room." The Director indicated the door. "Where upon he shall be showered with adoration by his loyal subjects."

The General nodded with a smile, understanding the cleverness of the arrangements Director Valhir had undertaken. She continued. "The emperor shall return for dessert which shall be unsatisfactory. The chef will have to be punished I'm afraid."

"Is he one of ours?" The General asked.

"He is not," Director Valhir responded. "He took our money far too readily. He will sell at almost any price."

"A pity. Will he be missed?"

"Not by the staff of this building," Sandra said. "He doesn't work here. Nor can he be by lovers who do not exist."

"I see," The General said. He nodded solemnly. "And what of this room? Was it not needed for the celebrations?"

"The owner of the building is one of my girls." The Director smiled at the statement. The General sneered in response, but this only broadened Director Valhir's grin. "Those below have been led to believe that this room is for those above; those above that it is unworthy for their private amusement and so has been allocated to those below. They both have their own areas kept apart and never the twain shall meet. Interclass fraternisation does not happen in this town."

"And in return for her service, your 'girl' is allowed the grace of remaining under your domination," The General growled, low and soft, yet meant to be heard. Director Valhir's expression - cool yet agreeingly receptive up until this point - shifted into a dark and silent storm, impatient, resentful, pitying.

"Your continued ignorance as to the nature of our network is what keeps you outside of it, General." This last word of rank was barely vocalised, and what sound did escape Sandra's clenched teeth carried with it no respect. The palpable aggression between the pair may have heightened to levels of violent consequences, had they not been rescued from the situation by the fanfare of the beginning of festivities and the roar of the emperor's motorcade.

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Clarice smoothed down her skirts and straightened her small black hat. It was her first day on the job, and her last. Of the first fact, Clarice was painfully aware. There was an infinite cascade of ever decreasing butterflies within butterflies inside of her that relentlessly caused unending hurricanes on the other side of the world. This job, this night, was her chance, perhaps her only one, at a better life, and she felt the full weight of a moment in time on her shoulders. She was not aware of the latter. With a deep breath, Clarice took hold of the tools of her new trade, napkin and plate of h'orderves, and headed out of the kitchen, into the gathering crowd.

The centennial was in full swing. Many of the most important, the most fashionable guests had already arrived and the great crowd of the more common revellers was nearly at capacity. Most of whom the staff labelled the 'Downstairs Guests' were thronging outside around the front of the building, hoping to catch a glimpse, a touch, or even a word with those of the higher echelons of society. Anyone of these fancymen and fancywomen could take a liking to a commoner and change their lives forever. It was a commonplace enough modern fairytale. Clarice herself, however, had no time for flights of fancy. She would work to her own betterment, rather than wait for handouts from the fortunate and become a victim of fortune herself, trapped forever by unearned splendour that might be struck from her hand as swiftly as thrust into it. She could see the lie of it, and it repulsed her. Clarice's path to a new life was laid of different material than gold.

Clarice's duty took into this baying crowd of hopefuls, to serve light refreshment for those finding the closeness of the mass of bodies too much for them. These might be the Downstairs Guests, but Clarice was well aware that they were still a good few floors above her own station, and that sensibilities grew more delicate when at greater height. As she moved around the people, occasionally stopping to lighten her load at someone's request, she too watched the sleek black cars that delivered the Upstairs Guests. Here a politician entered the fray; she was perhaps half way to the top of the stairs. And next, a religious dignitary, who stood one third up. Finally, the district mayor - top three steps- swung her legs in a wide and elegant arc as she slid out of her car. Her business like evening gown was the perfect blending of function and style, and showed enough of her figure to remain flattering in the fashionably understated colours of the cloth. Clarice could not help but admire this woman and, just for a moment, she too wanted to be whisked away into the high arched rooms of the central government complex that stood, bold and dark, in the very centre of the district towering over all it surveyed. Clarice shook herself from this fantasy in time to see the final motorcade of the evening passing through the crowd, almost unnoticed with all eyes resting on the mayor. The car slid through, lights dim and engine silent, depositing no star or dignitary or leader as it went; merely slowing slightly as it reached the densest point of the congregation before moving around the side of the building and of sight and out of mind. Out of mind of most, at least. The mysterious car and its possible contents were still in Clarice's thoughts when the fanfare began to bring the merrymakers inside.

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From the grand golden arch that marked the main entrance to the Great Hall in which Sandra and Kirchhoff stood, ran a short flight of red carpeted steps. The feet that now placed themselves gently, precisely, upon these steps, in order, one after the other, never skipping, never missing, never out of place, were long and thin. These motifs of form and function propagated throughout the body above. The long arms were held rigid, one by the side, one at the lapel, speaking promise of the valiant heart that lay beneath. The spindly legs bent at the knee at precise angles, never wavering from the rhythmic motion of their march. The head was bald and bold, with eyes that did not move and did not blink. And the whole package was wrapped neatly in pristine dark grey cloth, fitted to the perfect form of the man who lay within - the emperor.

The formidable sight of this man, great in stature if nothing else, was further enhanced by the retinue that moved with him. Men to the last, and all attired in a colour to match, but not outdo, the emperor's own garb, they stood motionless along the short flight of stairs, watching the infinity at the end of their vision as if their dreams could be realised there, as the emperor sauntered past.

At the bottom of the stairs, Director Valhir waited patiently for her ruler. There would be no words between them, this was forbidden. With gestures alone, The Director led the emperor to his table, central amongst the vast empty room, and indicated the itinerary of his meal with a wave of her hand to a card on the table.

While the tables may have been empty, the room had filled upon the arrival of the emperor's motorcade, and before him now stood his staff for the evening. The small corps of waiters, waitresses and chefs, a few dozen strong and far too many to serve a single person, were nervous and respectful in the perfect measure to instil a sense of great importance on the man for whom they had been assembled. There was some fidgeting amongst their number, which gave The Director the perfect opportunity to display her complete control of the situation, by chastising and correcting the behaviour of those who could not keep still with a single, withering glance.

With a palpable tension filling the room, the very particles in the air stopped dead in anticipation, the emperor surveyed the scene before him with a critical eye and presently, pleased with what he could see, he sat. A spell was broken by this simple motion, and the statues that had surrounded the emperor a moment before sprang to life. The General made a series of quick motions, and his men moved from their guard on the entryway and staircase, to widen their net to include all the entrances and exits of the hall, and one long parade of military force along the corridor beyond the glass wall. The chefs scampered away into their kitchen with nearly too much haste, but still respectful enough to never turn their back on the emperor, and the waiters and waitresses positioned themselves around the room to be called upon at a moment's notice, it is true, but mostly to give the illusion of a less empty and depressing hall.

With the serving of the first bottle of high end imported wine, the festivities had begun.

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So far, Clarice had managed to navigate the evening with little effort. She had at one point confused a bottle of red as being an import when in fact it was a county wine, but this small misjudgement seemed to go unnoticed by the men and women at her table. Otherwise, the job was simple; empty is replaced with full unless a raised hand indicates submission from a guest, and Clarice found she had attention enough to share on her surroundings. In stark contrast to the Great Hall in which the emperor sat, Clarice could not cast a glance in any direction without her view being immediately blockaded by some body or another. Most people were sat, it was true, and this helped to give the somewhat lower-ceilinged room a bit more of an impression of space, but every table had at least three people serving it and six people to table, and there were dozens of tables. Clarice found the whole affair more than a little stifling and was greatly relieved when a soft bell rang, gradually increasing in volume as it decreased in pitch, a falling crescendo that was concluded with an almighty bang that came from the skies.

As one, the entire room began to stand and head out to the half dozen or so large double oak doors which lined one wall of the dining hall as people made their way, painfully slowly, out into the cool night air to enjoy the fireworks. As one of the help, Clarice was forced to remain indoors until all the guests had vacated, suffering herself to only hear and guess at the wonders which were being displayed in the darkening sky outside, aided by the occasional, particularly brilliant, colourful flash. Clarice waited with patience, however, confident that the best of the entertainment would be reserved for the finale when she and her fellow servers would also be able to soak in the colour and the splendour, and happy that she could finally let in and out deep, refreshing breaths of the cooling breeze that came in through the gaping doorways.

Clarice was not disappointed when she finally made her way outside. The sky was alive with a vibrant transience of light, colour and sound. Golden cascades of shining beads fell from a central explosion, tracing lines like giant chandeliers that terminated in brief sparks of brilliant blue; bright spirals of scarlet spun out into the blue-black night sky surrounded by a halo of piercing green fairies; and through it all, the house orchestra blared out the stirring brass and bass of the national anthem.

As the light show went on, Clarice became aware of a growing murmur around the crowd. As one, the revellers had been intent upon the sky, a single mind, a single idea shared and intensified. But now, that intensity faded and the focuses shifted onto a new intrigue. Clarice she felt this pull of social unity drag her gaze upwards, towards a balcony being showered in small blue and green sparks. A figure stood there, amongst these ghostly and inconstant stars who was singularly unique to Clarice by his attention which, rather than be on the sky along with the masses was turned down towards the society itself, soaking in all the wonderment and awe that poured from them, intercepting it on its way to the skies. Clarice was entrapped by fascination in this character, regally in dress as well as in demeanour, and steely in vision. Presently, she became aware of a sound coming down towards her from up on high. A light and pleasant voice which called to her softly. She struggled to hear it and was broken from her spell once she realised that, in fact, the source was far closer to home, coming from her side rather than the heavens, and was far less pleasant than she had at first presumed.

"Clarice isn't it," the head caterer scowled at her, clearly unimpressed with her daydreaming. She could only nod in response. "Well, cut out that staring. They'll be none of that with Those Above. They hate to be watched while they eat." Clarice nodded again. "Well, don't just stand there. I'm telling you you're transferred girl. Get going."

With a final, far more emphatic nod, Clarice relieved herself of her tray and hitched up her skirt to trot back into the Dining Hall and make her way Upstairs. Upstairs, she thought to herself and smiled. They must have been impressed with me.

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There was a difference in the sound when the emperor placed his desert fork down on the plate, subtle but noticeable to those who knew the man. Or perhaps Director Valhir had imagined it, as she had known it was to come. There were a few moments of palpable silence as the emperor wiped his mouth clean before he spoke.

"Bring him to me," he said. The General nodded in response and waved a hand swiftly to one of his officers. A moment later, The Soldier returned, a worrying man dressed in the traditional white and red trim of the chef trailing behind him. The destitute baker's eyes were cast at all times to the floor, never to the emperor.

"Explain," the emperor demanded. The chef looked up to The Soldier, The General, The Director in turn, desperately seeking an explanation to the question. It came, finally, from Ms Valhir.

"The emperor was not satisfied with your work. How dare you serve such swill as desert to our illustrious emperor?" Her tone carried with it explicitly all that the emperor's question had implied.

"I... I... The pastry... well..." the chef babbled to the dust at his feet, searching for an excuse there, and finding none.

"Dispose of him," the emperor ordered. The General nodded once more and another complicated wave brought forward a man carrying a musket. The sight of the weapon, caught in an upward glance by the hapless wretch now grovelling on the floor, reduced the chef to tears. The General gave the order to take aim but was stopped short of the final deed by Sandra as she bent towards their victim, kneeling by his side and leaning into his ear.

"You have played your part perfectly," she whispered to the chef. "You'll be fine."

As she got up to allow The Soldier to carry out his task, her sight was cast in passing along the long glass wall of the room to the far end of the candle lit corridor beyond, and the blood drained from her face.

"Your excellency," she said, not taking eyes off the maid in the corridor who stared back at her now in terror. "I must attend to other matters." And without awaiting leave from the emperor, she headed toward the corridor with the ringing of a single gunshot echoing around her turned back.

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Clarice turned marbline, a statue of fear. She could do nothing but meet the stare of the well dressed woman on the other side of the glass. As the woman stood and walked towards her, never moving her gaze, Clarice wished earnestly that she could turn and flee, yet she remained powerless, motionless. Until the gunshot. At this terrible sound, the spell was broken and Clarice turned her head just in time to see the lifeless body of the chef collapse to the ground, blood already pooling around his head. Clarice couldn't process anything that she saw. Who was the poor man who had just been shot? Who was the professional looking woman bearing down on her now, with fire in her eyes? Why had the man sat at the table ordered the other man shot? Endless questions and no hope of answers jolted her into action, and she turned to flee.

"Hold her!" The Director ordered to The Guard at the furthest end of the corridor. A hand was on Clarice's shoulder before she had even taken a step. "What the fuck do we pay you for?" Sandra barked quietly at The Guard as she approached her new prisoner. "Didn't you see her watching?" The Guard said nothing in response. His loyalties lay with The General. Ms Valhir took out a small electronic tablet device and held it up to the girl to take a photograph. A few finger swipes later, and Director Valhir was presented with everything there was to know about Clarice Yegorov.

The great glass doors in the transparent wall of the hall flew open again to allow the passage of The General into the fray. The Director had moved off to the side and was pouring over her tablet.

"What the hell is this?" The General asked. "Did she see?"

Director Valhir nodded without a word, flicking through page after page of data, furiously assimilating it all as fast as she could.

"What are you waiting for then?" General Kirchoff barked. "Take her out and shoot her!" This order was directed at The Guard, who saluted with his free hand and turned to go.

"Wait!" Sandra almost shouted, but kept herself in check lest the emperor overheard. The General's voice was softer, but less controlled in its response.

"Damn it, Sandra! She's seen, she knows. If she tells anyone, if word gets out, we're finished!"

"She's no one to tell," The Director explained, holding the screen of her device up for Kirchoff to see.

"The more people who know," The General continued to protest. "The more chance of a leak."

"Don't get too carried away in your role, General, with your toy soldiers and your guns," Sandra hissed, expressing her anger freely at last. "The decision is not yours to make." General Kirchoff only scowled in response. "And it's not mine either," The Director concluded. Sandra moved over to the girl now quivering and whimpering on her knees and moved into her, a perfect replication of her motion towards the chef.

"You have a choice my girl," Sandra whispered. "You are a problem for us now. We need to turn that problem into a solution." Clarice stared at Director Valhir, scared and confused, barely hearing the words spoken to her. "Now, there are two ways we can achieve this goal. Firstly, these men could shoot you in the head." The blunt expression brought a violent sob forth from Clarice's belly, but she was quickly hushed by The Director. "Alternatively," Sandra continued. "I can spare your life. But do not misunderstand me. You will still lose your self, to me rather than the General. You may at any time be called upon to do something you will later regret, something that might make death seem more preferable. But you will get to live. It's your choice." With that, Sandra Valhir unfolded her hand to reveal a small silver ring, a plane band without distinguishing features of any kind. Clarice's eyes widened.

"I know who you are," she stammered gently. "But... you're a myth."

"Mostly," Sandra smiled. "But this part is true."

Clarice was awestruck. What could she do but accept or die? Still, she hesitated slightly as she took the ring and slid it onto her right index finger, a perfect fit. There was a sharp pain around where the band touched her flesh, just for a second and then it passed. Instinctively, Clarice pulled at the ring.

"That won't be coming off, my sweet," Sandra said. "Now, you get one question. Just one. A little tradition. A gift from me. Think carefully, for it shall be your last." Clarice did not have to think. There was just one thing she wanted to know. She moved her sight towards the hall and the tall, slender man, sat bolt upright in pride, surveying the slowly bleeding corpse before him.

"Who is that man?” Clarice asked. “Who is he to have another man shot, and be surrounded by guards, and have you in his service? Who is it I am giving my life for?"


"Him?" Sandra said as she helped The Waitress back to her feet, power once again resting in the girl's limbs. "He is... nobody important."

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