The Collapsing Empire: Chapter Three

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible—until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war—and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal—but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals—a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency—are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi’s all new interstellar epic, is available March 21st from Tor Books, and we’re pleased to be running excerpts all this week! Read chapter three below, or head back to the beginning with the prologue.

 

 

Chapter Three

Technically speaking, upon the moment of the death of Emperox Attavio IV, Cardenia became the new emperox. Realistically speaking, nothing is ever that simple.

“You are going to have to officially declare a period of mourning,” Naffa Dolg said to her, in what had suddenly and officially become her office. It was now only moments after her father had died; his body was currently being removed from his bedroom—her bedroom—via a litter that had borne the bodies of nearly all the emperoxs who had been lucky enough to actually die at home. Cardenia had seen the litter, stored away in one of the other rooms in the private apartment, and thought it a ghastly bit of business, and realized that one day, it was very likely her bones would be carted out on it too. Tradition had its downsides.

Cardenia laughed to herself.

“Car?” Naffa said.

“I’m having morbid thoughts,” Cardenia said.

“I can give you a couple of minutes for yourself.”

“But only a couple.”

“The transition of emperoxs is a busy time,” Naffa said, as gently as possible.

“How long is the official mourning period supposed to be?”

“It’s traditionally five standard days.”

Cardenia nodded. “The rest of the Interdependency gets five days. I get five minutes.”

“I’m going to come back,” Naffa said, getting up.

“No.” Cardenia shook her head. “Keep me busy, Naf.”

Naffa kept her busy.

First: the official declaration of mourning. Cardenia went down the hall to the office of Gell Deng, her father’s (and now, unless she chose otherwise, her) personal secretary, who would transmit the order. Cardenia was worried that she would have to dictate something that sounded official, but Deng had the declaration already ready for her—which shouldn’t have surprised her. Many emperoxs had come and gone during the time of the Interdependency.

Cardenia read over the declaration, its contents hallowed by time and consecrated by tradition, found the language ossified and musty, but was in no condition mentally to revise. So she nodded her assent, took a pen to sign, and then hesitated.

“What is it, Your Majesty?” Deng said, and some part of Cardenia’s brain noted that this was the first time anyone had called her that officially.

“I don’t know how to sign this,” Cardenia said. “I haven’t chosen my official name yet.”

“If you prefer, you may simply sign it with the imperial seal for now.”

“Yes, thank you.”

Deng got out wax and seal, melted the wax, and gave the seal to Cardenia to press. She did, the seal lifting off the imperial green wax, revealing the crest of the Wu family with the imperial crown above it. Her crown.

Cardenia handed the seal back to Deng and noticed he was crying. “This makes it official,” he said to her. “You are the emperox now, Your Majesty.”

“How long did you serve my father?” Cardenia asked.

“Thirty-nine years,” Deng said, and looked about to break down. Impulsively Cardenia reached over and hugged him, and after a moment broke the hug.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“You’re the emperox, ma’am,” Deng said. “You can do anything you want.”

“Keep me from inappropriate familiarity from now on, please,” Cardenia said to Naffa, after they left the secretary’s office.

“I thought it was sweet,” Naffa said. “That poor old man. He’s had a rough day.”

“His boss died.”

“Yes, but he also assumes he lost his job. Normally by this time the new emperox’s set of cronies are busy installing themselves into positions of power. His is a position of power, nominally.”

“I don’t have any cronies,” Cardenia said. “I mean, besides you.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll have volunteers.”

“What do I have next?”

“You’re meeting with the executive committee in half an hour.”

Cardenia frowned at this. “We can’t get to Xi’an that quickly.” The executive committee, as with nearly all of the imperial apparatus of state, did its work in the immense space station above Hub.

Naffa arched her eyebrow at this. “You don’t have to go anywhere,” she said. “You are emperox now. They come to you. Dr. Drinin informed them several hours ago that your father was fading. The committee had hoped to be present to comfort you when he passed. Those are their words, by the way.”

Cardenia thought of the nine members of the executive committee hovering over her father’s deathbed, robbing the two of them of their final, as-intimate-as-possible-under-the-circumstances moments together and suppressed an itchy feeling. “I’ll have to remember to thank them.”

Naffa’s eyebrow arched again but she said nothing. “They’re in the formal ballroom at the moment. That’s on the other side of the building.”

“Thank you.”

“Of course. What would you like to do now?”

“I think I want to pee.”

Naffa nodded and walked Cardenia to her suite of rooms. “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes,” she said to her boss.

“What will you do with your free time?”

“Same thing as you, in a slightly less luxurious commode.” Cardenia smiled at this, and Naffa walked off.

Inside her rooms, part of Cardenia’s brain noted everything she was doing as a first. This is the first time in this room as emperox, it said. This is the first time picking up a tablet as emperox. This is the first time in this bathroom as emperox. This is the first time I’ve unzipped my pants as emperox. First time sitting on the toilet as emperox. Aaaaaaand now this is my first pee as emperox.

So many firsts.

“Tell me about Emperox Grayland,” Cardenia said, to her tablet, as she sat on the toilet.

“Emperox Grayland reigned from 220 to 223 FI,” her tablet said, in a pleasant voice, popping up a search page. The Interdependency started its calendar from the founding of the empire by Prophet-Emperox Rachela I, which was arrogant—there had already been a perfectly good calendar system in use, in which the founding of the Interdependency took place in the late twenty-sixth century—but Cardenia suspected it was no less arrogant than what any empire did, given the chance. “Notable events in her reign include the founding of Lamphun, the disappearance of Dalasýsla, and the emperox’s assassination by Gunnar Olafsen in 223.”

“Why was she assassinated?”

“At his trial, Gunnar Olafsen maintained the emperox did not do enough to rescue the citizens of Dalasýsla.”

“Was this true?”

“I am a search function. I do not have opinions on political matters.”

Cardenia crossed her eyes in irritation. Fair point, faceless computer, she thought. “How was Dalasýsla lost?”

“The Flow stream access to it disappeared in 222,” the tablet said.

Oh, right, Cardenia thought. Her elementary school Interdependency history lessons came back to her now. Dalasýsla was one of several early settlements that had met with a bad end before the Wu emperoxs and the religious and social tenets of Interdependence had entirely locked down most opposition. Most of those settlements, however, had been lost to war or famine or disease. Dalasýsla was lost because suddenly there was no way to get to it, or from it, through the Flow. It had just… disappeared, off the map entirely.

Cardenia called up an encyclopedia article on the assassination, complete with a photo of Olafsen, a ship engineer from Dalasýsla, who had been stationed on the Toun Sandin, the imperial tenner. He had assassinated the Emperox Grayland, along with more than a hundred of her retinue, by sealing off the ring segment her staterooms were in, and, while the Toun Sandin was in the Flow, returning from a state visit from Jendouba, jettisoning the ring segment out of the time-space bubble surrounding the ship, into the Flow itself, where it promptly stopped existing.

“Well, this is cheerful,” Cardenia said to herself. She was not entirely sure why her father had suggested the name Grayland to her, unless he was confident she would be assassinated by a disgruntled minion. This discomfited her somewhat. She skimmed through the rest of the entry and noted that Grayland had apparently actually ordered the evacuation of Dalasýsla, based on data provided to her by scientists, but that the evacuation had been opposed in parliament, including by Dalasýsla’s own ministers, and by the guilds, which delayed an evacuation until it was too late. Olafsen blamed the emperox for the delay, when the blame should have properly set elsewhere.

But there is only one emperox, Cardenia thought. And she was on his ship.

“Hey,” Naffa said, from the other room. “Are you about done?”

“Almost,” Cardenia said. She finished her business, washed up, and walked out of her bathroom, to see Naffa holding up a very serious uniform, tailored to Cardenia’s measurements.

“What is that?” Cardenia asked.

“You’re about to meet the nine most powerful humans in the universe, not counting yourself,” Naffa said. “You might want to dress up a bit.”

• • •

The Very Serious Uniform chafed, but not nearly as much as the executive committee.

As Cardenia entered the cavernous ballroom, the nine members of the committee approached her and bowed deeply. “Your Majesty,” said Gunda Korbijn, archbishop of Xi’an and nominal head of the executive committee, from the depth of the bow. “Our deepest sorrow and sympathy this day, on the passing of your father, the emperox. He will undoubtedly be seated with the Prophet in the Beyond.”

Cardenia, who knew of the emperox’s utter lack of religiosity, despite being the official head of the Church of the Interdependency, suppressed the smallest of wry smiles. “Thank you, Your Eminence.”

“I speak for the entire council when I say to you that we pledge our unending allegiance to you, the Imperial House of Wu, and the Interdependency.”

“Sure, and we thank you,” Cardenia said, using for the first time the imperial “we,” and the somewhat more formal imperial style of address she’d been coached in over the last year. That’s going to take some getting used to, she thought. She glanced over at Naffa, who offered no arched brow at the switch. She would no doubt offer it later.

The committee remained in a deep bow, which confused Cardenia until she realized they were waiting on her to release them. “Please,” she said, only a little flustered, motioning for them to rise. They rose. Cardenia motioned to the long table that had been set in the center of the ballroom. “Let us sit and proceed with business.”

The committee sat, senior-most closest to the emperox’s chair at the head of the table, with the exception of Archbishop Korbijn, who sat opposite of Cardenia. Cardenia noted the dress of each—the church bishops in fine red robes lined in purple, the guild representatives in their formal black and gold, the parliamentarians in somber blue business suits. Her own Very Serious Uniform was imperial green, dark with emerald piping.

We look like a box of crayons, Cardenia thought.

“You’re smiling, Your Majesty,” Archbishop Korbijn said, as she sat.

“We were remembering our father, who often spoke of meeting with this committee.”

“He spoke well of us, I hope.”

No, not really. “Yes, of course.”

“Your Majesty, the next few days are critical. You must set forth a period of mourning—”

“We have already done so, Your Eminence. We shall observe the traditional five days.”

“Very good,” Korbijn said, giving no sign of fluster at being interrupted. “During that time you yourself will unfortunately be quite busy.” She nodded to Bishop Vear of Hub, sitting to Cardenia’s right, who produced a leather folder and from it, a thick sheaf of papers, and offered them to Cardenia. “We have produced a proposed schedule for you, to assist you. It includes a number of briefings, plus formal and informal meetings with the guilds, parliament, and the church.”

Cardenia took the papers but did not look at them, handing them over to Naffa, standing behind her chair. “We thank you.”

“We wish to assure you that during this time of transition, everything will be handled smoothly and with the utmost care and respect. We know this is a difficult time for you, and much of this is new. We want to be able to help you transition smoothly into your new role, Your Majesty.”

You want to help me transition, or to manage me? “Once more, we thank you, Archbishop. We are warmed by your concern and solicitousness.”

“We have other concerns as well,” said Lenn Edmunk, one of the guild representatives. The House of Edmunk held the commercial monopolies on cows and pigs and all products deriving thereof, from milk to pig leather. “Your father left unresolved a number of issues with the guilds, including monopoly transfers and trade route clearances.”

Cardenia noted Archbishop Korbijn pursing her lips; clearly Edmunk was speaking out of turn. “We have been led to understand that these matters must be sent through parliament, then for us to give our assent or refusal.”

“Your father gave assurances these matters would be dealt with, Your Majesty.”

“Would this be in a way that circumvents the privileges of parliament, Lord Edmunk?”

“Of course not, ma’am,” Edmunk said, after a moment.

“We are glad to hear that. One of the things we would like not to do at this early juncture is to give the parliament the opinion that their role is merely an advisory one, subject to the whims of the emperox.” She turned to Upeksha Ranatunga, the ranking parliamentarian on the committee, seated to her left, who nodded her thanks. “Our father believed in the balance of power that has allowed the Interdependency to thrive: the parliament for the laws and justice; the guilds for trade and prosperity; the church for spirituality and community. And above them, the emperox, mother of all, for order.”

“With that said, ma’am—”

“Do not forget that the House of Wu also has a guild,” Cardenia said, interrupting Edmunk, who was clearly put out by this point. “We would not thereby discount the interests of the guilds. We are also mother of the church and a simple member of parliament. We have interest in all, to be fair to all. We shall address guild matters in their time, Lord Edmunk. But we are not our father. His assurances to you are not unheard. But neither am I bound to them. I am emperox now, not my father.”

There, Cardenia thought, and stared levelly at Edmunk. Suck on that for a while.

Edmunk dropped his head in a bow. “Ma’am,” he said.

“With regard to parliament, ma’am, there is another, serious issue,” Ranatunga said. “Word has come to us that the rebellion on End has moved to a new and more dangerous phase. The Duke of End has sent assurances that everything is under control, but the assessment of the Imperial Marines commander stationed there is rather less optimistic. He expects the duke to fall within two standard years. Of course this note was sent nine months ago. Who knows what the situation there is now.”

“Have our marines intervened?”

“It was your father’s policy, and the policy of the several emperoxs before him, to let End handle End. The marines are mostly there to keep anyone from leaving the planet without permission. The commander tells us the only watch they have set from the emperox—the previous emperox—was to monitor the safety of the Count of Claremont.”

“Who is that?”

“I remember him, ma’am,” Korbijn said. “A minor noble from Sofala, whom your father enlarged. A friend of your father’s from university. A physicist who studied the Flow.”

“Why did our father exile him?”

“Your father offered the title to him just prior to his marriage to the Lady Glenna.”

Well, that was an unsubtle hint, Cardenia thought. The archbishop was all but implying that her dad and this count were an item prior to Batrin’s marriage, which was very much one of those dynastical marriages, the House of Costu heading one of the most powerful guilds.

The idea was mildly surprising to Cardenia, since in all the time she knew her father, he never came across as anything other than blandly heterosexual. But there was a time and place for everything, and it was called “university,” and in any event this count wouldn’t be the first inconvenient lover an emperox shunted out of the picture with a title upgrade, somewhere very far away. It would also explain the marine watch.

Cardenia nodded her understanding. “For now we will continue our father’s posture, but we will want a full briefing.”

“It’s one of the briefings listed on your proposed schedule,” Korbijn said. “And while we are at least tangentially on the subject of marriage—”

“You are going to bring up Amit Nohamapetan, aren’t you?” Cardenia said, in a somewhat less formal tone than she’d previously been managing.

“The Nohamapetans are being insistent,” Korbijn said, almost apologetically.

“We are not our brother. We made no assurances to marry a Nohamapetan.”

“With respect, ma’am, the House of Nohamapetan believes the assurance was not between your brother and Lady Nadashe, it was between the House of Wu and the House of Nohamapetan. And precedent suggests their argument has validity. In 512, Crown Princess Davina was engaged to a member of the House of Edmunk and died before the wedding. Her brother, who would become Chonglin I, married a cousin of the original betrothed on the reasoning that the arrangement had already been set into motion.”

Cardenia turned to Naffa. “How did Crown Princess Davina die?”

“Suicide, your majesty,” Naffa said. Cardenia knew that she would know off the top of her head, or would look it up instantly. “Out of an airlock at Xi’an. Her suicide note suggests she did not believe the betrothal to be in her best interests.”

Cardenia turned to Lenn Edmunk. “We hope you do not believe this sets you in any negative light, Lord Edmunk.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Ma’am, may I also suggest to you that you at least consider Amit Nohamapetan’s suit,” Korbijn persisted. “Aside from any theoretical agreement between your houses, the House of Nohamapetan is a power among the guilds.” Korbijn glanced over at Edmunk, who, as he was looking at the emperox, was unaware. “Many potential problems and issues with the guilds could be dealt with expeditiously with this alliance.”

Cardenia smiled grimly at this. “And there are no houses who object to this pairing?”

“No, ma’am,” Edmunk said.

“Well,” Cardenia said, impressed. “This is a rare show of unanimity among the guilds. Almost unprecedented in a millennium.”

“I believe everyone agrees it is in the interest of the Interdependency to have any questions of succession settled sooner than later,” Korbijn said.

This rankled Cardenia. “We are pleased, Archbishop, that this committee appears unanimous that the most important part of us is our uterus.”

Korbijn had the good grace to blush at this. “Apologies, Your Majesty. Nothing could be further from the truth. But surely the emperox must be aware that should something happen to you, there will be contesting claims to the throne within the House of Wu from your many cousins. Many of them were less than pleased when you were—rightfully—put into the line of succession behind your brother. A clear line of succession staves off any questions.”

“Staves off a civil war,” Ranatunga said.

“Do we agree that it seems unlikely that we will be dead prior to our coronation?” Cardenia asked the committee.

“That seems reasonable, ma’am,” Korbijn said, smiling.

“Then may we suggest that we table it until after then. If you like,” Cardenia nodded to Korbijn, “you may give the House of Nohamapetan excellent seats to the coronation and we will speak to Amit Nohamapetan afterwards.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Emphasis on ‘speak.’ We hope we are understood on this matter and not otherwise represented to Lord Nohamapetan.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Then is there anything else?”

“One small thing,” Korbijn said. Cardenia waited. “We need to know your imperial name.”

“We are Grayland,” Cardenia said, after a pause. “Grayland II.”

• • •

“I hate the imperial ‘we,’ ” Cardenia confessed to Naffa.

After the meeting with the executive committee, the two of them had lifted to Xi’an, the heart of the Interdependency, in order for Cardenia, now Grayland II, to begin the formal transfer of authority from her late father to her. Upon arrival Grayland II was immediately surrounded by advisors, courtiers, flatterers, and assistants, all with their own agendas and plans. Cardenia was tired of it in the first hour and there was all the rest of her life yet to go.

“What bothers you about it?” Naffa asked.

“It’s so pretentious.”

“You are the emperox,” Naffa pointed out. “You are literally the only person in the universe who may use it without pretension.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do. I just think you’re wrong.”

“You think I should use it all the time, then.”

“I didn’t say that,” Naffa said. “But you have to admit it’s a pretty fantastic power move. ‘Oh, you have an opinion? Well, screw you, because my vote counts as two.’ ”

Cardenia smiled at this.

The two of them were alone, finally, in the cavernous private apartments of the imperial palace of Xi’an. All the assistants and courtiers and advisors had been shoved out the door by Naffa. There was only one more thing Cardenia had to do with her day, and it lay behind a door here in the private apartments. A door that could be opened and entered only by the emperox.

Or so Cardenia explained to Naffa, who frowned. “Only the emperox.”

“Yes.”

“What happens if anyone else enters? Are there dogs? Lasers that will burn you to ash?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Can your servants go in there? Or technicians? Are you, as emperox, responsible for tidying up? Is there a small vacuum cleaner in there? Are you made to dust the place?”

“I don’t think you’re taking this very seriously,” Cardenia said.

“I take it seriously,” Naffa promised. “I’m just skeptical of how it’s being presented.”

They both looked at the door.

“Well?” Naffa said. “You might as well get it over with.”

“Where are you going to be?”

“I can stay here if you like and wait for you to be done.”

Cardenia shook her head. “I don’t know how long this will take.”

“Then I’ll be in my quarters, the ones across the palace, you know, where the palace majordomo has exiled me.”

“We’ll get those changed.”

“No, don’t,” Naffa said. “You need your time away from everyone, including me.” She got up. “We’re still in the same house. I’m just sixteen wings away, is all.”

“I don’t think the palace has sixteen wings.”

“It has twenty-four major sections to it.”

“Well, you would know.”

“Yes, I would,” Naffa said. “And soon so will you.” She bowed. “Good night, Your Majesty.” She left, smiling. Cardenia watched her go, and then turned her attention to the door.

The door was ornate, like everything in the palace, and Cardenia realized that “ornate” was a design motif she was probably stuck with now; she couldn’t just burn everything down and start with clean lines and spaces, tempting as it might be. She was emperox but even they had their limits.

The door had no knob or access panel or anything else that suggested that it could be opened. Cardenia, sheepishly, put her hand on it to feel for a secret button.

The door slid open.

Keyed to my fingerprints? Cardenia wondered, and then walked through. The door slid closed behind her.

The room inside was large; as large as the bedroom in the imperial quarters, which made this single room larger than the apartments Cardenia grew up in. The room was bare, except for a single bench that jutted out from the wall to her left. Cardenia went and sat on it.

“I’m here,” she said, to no one in particular.

A figure of light appeared in the center of the room and walked toward her. Cardenia looked up as the figure approached; microprojectors in the ceiling were creating the image walking over to her now. Cardenia idly wondered at the physics behind it, but only for a second, because now the image was directly in front of her.

“Emperox Grayland II,” it said, and bowed.

“You know who I am,” Cardenia said, skipping the imperial “we.”

“Yes,” the image said. It had no identifiable signs of gender or age. “I am Jiyi. You are in the Memory Room. Please tell me how I may assist you.”

Cardenia knew why she was there but hesitated. “Does anyone other than the emperox come in here?”

“No,” Jiyi said.

“What if I invite someone?”

“Focused light and sound waves would make it unbearable for anyone other than the reigning emperox to come through the door.”

“Can’t I override that?”

“No.”

“I am the emperox.” And I am arguing with a machine, Cardenia thought but did not say.

“The injunction was made by the Prophet,” Jiyi said, “whose order is inviolable.”

This took Cardenia aback. “This room dates to the reign of the first emperox,” she said.

“Yes.”

“Xi’an didn’t exist then.”

“The room was moved from Hubfall, with other elements of the palace, when Xi’an was founded. The rest of the palace was built around it.”

The image of the space station of Xi’an being built around the imperial palace popped into Cardenia’s mind, so absurd as to be almost comical. “So you are a thousand years old,” she said, to Jiyi.

“The information I store dates back to the founding of the Interdependency,” Jiyi said. “The physical machinery it is stored on is regularly updated, as are the functional elements of this room and the manifestation you see in front of you.”

“I thought you said no one may enter this room but the emperox.”

“Automated maintenance, ma’am,” Jiyi said, and Cardenia thought she heard just the slightest edge of humor in the voice. Which made her first feel a bit stupid, and then curious.

“Are you alive, Jiyi?” she asked.

“No,” Jiyi said. “Nothing you encounter in this room is alive, excepting you, ma’am.”

“Of course,” Cardenia said, only a little disappointed.

“I sense we have carried this specific conversation to an end,” Jiyi said. “May I assist you otherwise?”

“Yes,” Cardenia said. “I would like to speak to my father.”

Jiyi nodded and faded out. As it did so, another form coalesced, in the center of the room.

It was Cardenia’s father, Batrin, lately Emperox Attavio VI. He appeared, looked toward his daughter, smiled, and walked over to her.

The Memory Room was established by the Prophet-Emperox Rachela I not long after the foundation of the Interdependency, and her ascendance as its first emperox. Each emperox was fitted with a personal network of sensors running through their body that captured not only every sight seen, and every sound heard or spoken by the emperox, but every other sensation, action, emotion, thought, and desire apprehended or produced by them as well.

Within the Memory Room were the thoughts and memories of every emperox of the Interdependency, dating back to the very first, the Prophet-Emperox Rachela I herself. If Cardenia wanted, she could ask any one of her predecessors any question, about them, about their reign, about their time. They would answer from memory, from the thoughts and recordings and the computer modeling of who they were, girded on decades of every single thing about their internal lives recorded for this very room.

There was only one destination for this information: the Memory Room. There was only one audience for it: the current emperox.

Cardenia subconsciously touched the back of her neck again, in the place where the network seed was implanted, to grow inside her. One day, everything I do as emperox will be in here, she thought. For my own child and their children to see. Every emperox will know who I was, better than history will.

She looked at the apparition of her father, now directly in front of her, and shuddered.

The apparition noticed. “Are you not happy to see me?” it asked.

“I saw you just a few hours ago,” Cardenia said, standing up from the bench, and looking over the apparition of her father. It was perfect. Almost touchable. Cardenia did not touch it. “You were dead then.”

“I still am,” Attavio VI said. “The consciousness that was me is gone. Everything else was stored.”

“So you’re not conscious now?”

“I’m not, but I can respond to you as if I were. You may ask me anything. I will tell you.”

“What do you think of me?” Cardenia asked, blurting it out.

“I always thought you were a nice young lady,” Attavio VI said. “Smart. Attentive to me. I don’t think you’ll make a very good emperox.”

“Why not?”

“Because right now the Interdependency has no need of a nice emperox. It never does, but it can tolerate one when nothing consequential is going on. This is not one of those times.”

“I wasn’t particularly nice to the executive committee today,” Cardenia said, hearing how defensive the words sounded coming out of her mouth.

“I’m sure that in the wake of my death, for your very first meeting with them, the executive committee made a fine show of being restrained and deferential. Also, they are seeing at what length of chain you’re most comfortable, in order for them to get every single thing they want from you. They’ll yank on that chain presently.”

“I’m not sure I like this entirely honest you,” Cardenia said, after a moment.

“If you like we can adjust my conversational model to be more like I was in life.”

“You’re telling me you lied to me in life.”

“No more than to anyone else.”

“That’s comforting.”

“In life I was human, with an ego, just like anyone else. I had my own desires and intentions. Here I am nothing but memory, here for the purpose of assisting you, the current emperox. I have no ego to flatter, and will flatter yours only if ordered to. I would not suggest it. It makes me less useful.”

“Did you love me?”

“It depends on what you mean by love.”

“That sounds like an evasive, ego-filled answer.”

“I was fond of you. You were also inconvenient until the moment you were needed for succession. When you became the crown princess I was relieved you didn’t hate me. You couldn’t have been blamed if you had.”

“When you died you said you wished you had had time to love me better.”

Attavio VI nodded. “That sounds like something I would say. I imagine I meant it in the moment.”

“You don’t remember it.”

“Not yet. My final moments have not yet been uploaded.”

Cardenia dropped the subject. “I chose the imperial name of Grayland II, as you suggested.”

“Yes. That information, at least, is in our database. And, good.”

“I read up on her.”

“Yes, I had planned to ask you to.”

“You did, before you died. Why did you ask me to name myself for her?”

“Because I hoped it would inspire you to take seriously what’s coming next, and what it would require from you,” Attavio VI said. “Do you know about the Count of Claremont, on End?”

“I do,” Cardenia said. “An old lover of yours.”

Attavio VI smiled. “No, not at all. A friend. A very good friend, and a scientist. One who brought me information that no one else had, and that no one else would have wanted to see. One who needed to do his work and research insulated from the stupidities of court, and government, and even of the community of scientists in the Interdependency. He’s someone who has been collecting data for more than thirty years now. He knows more about what’s coming next than anyone else. A thing you must be prepared for. A thing you are not in the least prepared for, now. And a thing I worry that you will not be strong enough to see through.”

Cardenia stared at the apparition of Attavio VI, which stood there, a small, pleasant, distracted smile on its face.

“Well?” Cardenia said, finally. “What is it?”

Excerpted from The Collapsing Empire, © 2017 by John Scalzi.

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