|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 2||January, 1999|
"His Glory, Patriarch Masao, will see you now," barked the splendidly liveried palace guard. I quickly stifled a nervous cough and wiped my damp palms on the hem of my skirt. I had met many heads of state in the course of my career as a journalist, but this interview was different. Not only was Oliver Masao the single richest man on the planet, but he was also quite insane.
The guard touched my arm, and I jumped. Why was I so nervous? I had been a combat correspondent in Saragossa, where I had been fired upon by both sides. A simple conversation shouldn't be so unnerving!
After snapping my attention back to reality, the guard took two mechanical steps through the massive portal and then bowed deeply. "Milord. I present to you Amanda Hess, the reporter from SNS."
"Do come in, please!" came the musical reply. The guard executed a perfect about-face and marched from the room.
I was stunned to discover Patriarch Masao lounging in a bathtub the size of my SNS office. He was hemmed in by a trio of shaven-headed sisters who giggled as they played, idly tracing invisible lines across his bare chest with their fingertips. He held a volume of Shelley's collected works in one hand, and a delicate glass of elohar in the other. His lips quirked in an amused smile as he registered my shocked expression.
"Ah, good!" he purred. "I see you've heeded my recommendation and left your cameraman behind." I suppressed an unladylike snort; a man as accustomed to having his way as the Patriarch never made requests. "I don't like to be trideotaped unless I'm at a public function. My humble abode is much too shabby to permit a camera." He waved his arm expansively, the gesture encompassing his entire lavishly furnished quarters. The entire room was decked with gold fleur-de-lis and other Rococo moldings. His room looked like the palace of a sun god, with light shining off every surface. "Besides," he said, almost as an afterthought, "it makes things so much more intimate with just the two of us." He gave a sultry grin, biting his lower lip.
Masao sat up suddenly. "Leave us, my pets!" he demanded, making shooing gestures with his hands. He playfully slapped one of the retreating girls across her soapy-slick buttocks with his leather-bound volume of poetry. The three dripping sisters withdrew from the Patriarch's chambers, hand-in-hand.
He threw back the rest of his wine, then rose, ringing a golden bell. I kept my eyes locked on his, avoiding his nakedness. I could feel my ears burning. He was doing this on purpose; my instincts as a journalist told me that he was trying to keep me off guard, to control the interview. I would do well to watch him closely; Patriarch Masao was proving to be quite the cunning individual.
A matronly attendant rushed out of the woodwork, carrying a large, thick towel. She was bent nearly double with deference, averting her eyes out of great respect and tremendous fear. She trembled visibly as she dried His Glory, the Patriarch. My eyes involuntarily strayed to his milky white skin, so unlike the ruddy tan of most Terranovans. He had the trim body of a gymnast. How could one so beautiful, with that serene harlequin face, hide such a brutal heart?
Frustrated by my mental soliloquy -- I sounded like a schoolgirl mooning over a crush! -- and Masao's subtle games, I began to tap my foot impatiently. The attendant padded off back to whatever closet she had originated from, leaving the newly dried and powdered Patriarch dressed in a pair of purple silk pantaloons. He leisurely slipped his shoulders into a white Mekong-manufactured kimono, taking care to adjust the gold chrysanthemum emblems on the sleeves and breast. He deliberately took his time, trying my patience even further.
"Shall we begin the interview, Patriarch Masao?" I said, trying to keep my tone light.
He looked up at me through a screen of pale blonde hair, then finished tying his obi sash. "Why, certainly, Amanda!" His casual use of my given name would have irked me if I hadn't known it was such a measured attempt of getting under my skin. "May we dispense with these nonsense formalities? You needn't call me 'Patriarch Masao', my dear Amanda. 'His Eminence' will do quite nicely, I should think." He nodded to himself thoughtfully.
"Yes," he said, finally. "Let us begin the interview. Shall we take a walk?" He stepped into a pair of ornately jeweled sandals, wiggling his toes.
I thumbed the record stud on my microphone.
The gardens of the aptly titled Ethereal Palace were as beautiful as the legends described. The colors were more vibrant and varied than an artist's palette, such a striking contrast with the golden savannas and drab gray-green jungles making up the rest of the Emirates. Every imaginable tint and hue of johar blossoms were to be found in abundance, as well as the meter-wide flowers of the Amorous Plant. I was grateful I had left off my perfume; seeing me enveloped and pollinated by an Amorous flower would have delighted Masao to no end.
I also noticed that many of the plants were of the deadly variety. Skyscratcher briars were a common sight, and many of the larger ferns were draped with the suffocating Mekongese creeper vines. Pleasant to look at, but dangerous. Much like Oliver Masao, himself.
"You have taken quite a bit of care with your garden," I began. "Jade greenstick doesn't easily exist alongside northern saguaros." Admittedly a softball opening, but it would make the real "meaty" questions seem even more hard-hitting.
"Yes," he nodded, maintaining his casual strolling pace. "Many of these plants come from very different climates; indeed, some are even natural enemies. The situation is much the same here in my Emirates, in fact. I rule a diverse people, some more compatible than others. Some conflicts are bound to erupt, but I guide my nation like I tend this garden. As you can see, both are flourishing." He spun around once, arms outstretched. A nice platitude, if a bit trite, but an inaccurate one. I would bring up the Basal situation later.
"Ah, here we are!" the Patriarch declared, rounding a corner past a Prairie Jackal-shaped topiary. "This is my favorite ornament in the garden." He pointed to a circular recess housing an immense two-meter tall redjacket nest. Almost immediately my flesh began to crawl, watching the ten-centimeter long bugs navigating their way through the papery hive.
"Is this the same nest that caused the death of your mother, the Matriarch?" I hazarded.
"Yes, yes." He waved his hands, apparently quite untroubled by the subject of his deceased mother. "If you look towards the left, there, you can still see a trace of the damage Mumsy caused when she fell." One slim finger pointed to a faint impression, visible despite the passage of two decades.
The historical records maintained that the Matriarch had fallen into the nest, provoking the soldier redjackets. Part of me wondered, however, whether a youthful Oliver couldn't have been behind the unfortunate "accident." Even at the tender age of 18 cycles it was easy to envision him doing his mother in, thus accelerating his rise to the throne.
"I won't hurt you," Masao purred, suddenly uncomfortably close to my ear.
"What?" I gasped, startled.
"I said, 'They won't hurt you.' The redjackets. They only attack if they sense a threat to the nest."
Infuriated by all the mind-games, I was determined to drag this interview back on track. The gloves were off.
"You've been criticized for not creating many new policies. Is there a reason why you choose to follow the late Matriarch's agenda instead of pushing your own?"
He shrugged, despite my antagonism. "Most governments subscribe to the 'if it's not broke, fix it till it is' philosophy. A good, consistent leader doesn't need to constantly change his politics. Besides, I prefer to give my Emirs a fair degree of autonomy instead of meddling with their affairs. They are my representatives, and they respect me enough--" 'Fear', I amended. "--to ensure the purity of the Masao name. It's quite an efficient form of government. They busy themselves with local matters, while I attend to the issues of national importance. I see no reason to change the system when it works so well."
This was going to feel good. "If this is true, if your Emirs are independent leaders, why have you involved yourself so heavily in the Basal affair?" I fought hard to keep my smug satisfaction from showing in my tone of voice.
His eyes widened. Suddenly he was at a loss for words. "I, ah... Well it's a matter of pride, that's why!" he spat, for the first time losing his cool.
"What are you so afraid of?" my voice rose, twisting the knife. "Are you so afraid the rest of the Emirates will see that they don't need you anymore?" I abruptly fell silent, feeling that I had just crossed a very dangerous boundary.
He snarled hatefully, one dainty hand curling into a fist. He raised it threateningly. "No!" he screamed. I flinched, expecting him to strike me. The transformation from charm to rage had been frighteningly sudden. He thought better of hitting me, instead stabbing a finger in my direction. His voice dripped with contempt: "You foreigners cannot even hope to understand! I am the Eastern Sun and the Eastern Sun is I! The states can NOT exist without me! Apres moi, le Deluge, do you understand that? After me, the Flood!" He took a step towards me.
I stumbled away from the furious Patriarch, fearing for my safety. My heel caught on a root, sending me shrieking backwards towards the redjacket nest. My fall was arrested by Masao's hand on my sleeve. I stood there a moment, teetering off balance, dependent on this madman for my very life. I could actually see the debate going on behind his eyes: should I save her, or should I let her go?
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of deliberation, he pulled me back, allowing me to regain my footing. He turned his back on me as I regained my composure.
"We will continue this discussion later," he whispered over his shoulder. His voice was calmer, now, but the underlying anger was still present. "For now, I suggest you prepare for dinner."
The dinner, as with everything else in the Ethereal Palace, was sumptuous. The main course had been the most tender springer sirloin I had ever encountered, garnished with greens from the Patriarch's own garden. Wine was served in bejeweled golden goblets, most likely forged with ore mined from Emirate soil. Each dish was seasoned liberally with spices unique to the ESE, creating a heady, intoxicating aroma that was almost as filling as the meal itself.
Patriarch Masao acted as if his earlier outburst had never happened, but there was no substantial conversation over dinner. The only sounds were the clinking of the cutlery on the fine china plates.
I kept replaying the day's events in my head. In my zeal to provoke the Patriarch I had destroyed all chance for a worthwhile interview. Like an overeager cub reporter I had let my personal politics come into play; the end result was an audio-disc full of an unprintable screaming contest. All that was left was to try to end the evening with some modicum of grace and dignity.
Upon the meal's completion, I rested my palms on the edge of the table and pushed my chair back. "It's been a pleasure--" I lied.
"Leaving so soon?" he interrupted. "You'll miss the entertainment I've arranged!"
I panicked. I wanted desperately to leave, but my search for viable excuses was in vain. "All right," I conceded, hesitantly. "I can stay awhile longer."
"Good!" he said, his voice showing some of his earlier charm. "If you'll just come this way..." He stood up from the table, wiped his mouth, and then moved towards an arched doorway.
He glanced back at me. "Yes, I'm sure it's already begun!"
He led me through a long corridor, seemingly stretching for kilometers. The numerous palace guards interspersed along the hall snapped to attention, and a pair of them joined our party.
Passing through another door, into the night outside, my senses were immediately assaulted. The humid dusk was filled with the sounds of chattering gunfire and the shouting of a vast multitude. I threw my back up against the stone wall of the palace exterior, my eyes instinctively searching for nearby cover. Had the Basal rebellion reached Strathclyde already?
It was then that I noticed Masao and the two guards' scrutiny; all three had curious expressions. The guard's faces showed obvious concern mixed with slight suspicion. Masao was grinning with delight, one eyebrow raised peculiarly. "It's all right, come here!" he coaxed, his voice gleeful.
Fighting to regain my dignity, I saw that we were on a large balcony overlooking a sizeable rectangular stadium, lit by floodlights. The yelling I heard was not the rebellious cry of invading freedom fighters, but rather the throaty cheering of the crowd below. However, the crackling of machinegun fire rising up from the playing field was unmistakable.
"Do sit down!" instructed a smiling Patriarch, indicating a fern-wood chair next to his own golden throne. Taking my place, we both gazed with interest at the events unfolding below.
The coliseum was walled on all sides by tall iron bars, like a cage. Instead of a playing field, the stadium floor was made up of thick mud, kept moist by an elaborate set of sprinklers set up high on framework scaffolding. At one end of the field there was a pair of sandbagged machinegun nests; at the other was a system of trenches. "Ooh, it's World War I day!" Masao exclaimed excitedly. "Looks like the Battle of the Somme."
A high, piercing whistle cut through the air and suddenly the trenches flooded with a thick, heavy, yellow cloud. A swarm of muddy figures launched out of the ditches and into the path of the gunfire. "Nerve gas," Masao explained. "It gives them that extra incentive to charge the nests. Don't worry; the gas is heavier-than-air, so it won't get out of the trenches."
Each figure carried a rifle mounted with a slim bayonet. With none of them making any attempt to fire, I realized that none of the rifles carried any ammunition. They were forced to charge heavily protected gun positions while equipped only with knives.
"Who are these people?" My voice was little more than a dry whisper. "Rebels from Basal?"
Masao nodded cheerfully. "They all are, on both sides. They're fighting their own countrymen; the crews manning the machinegun nests are from the same captured platoons as the grunts in the trenches. I'm a big fan of irony. They wanted a civil war, and now they truly have to fight amongst themselves."
The staged battle flowed in waves. The whistle would blow, and men would erupt from the trenches into the constant fusillade. Once the trenches cleared of gas, the remaining survivors would retreat, on their bellies, to the trenches. The horrible, bloody pattern was like clockwork.
The Patriarch was eating chocolates.
Occasionally Masao would chuckle as a man fell flat on his face, literally torn to shreds by the machinegun barrage. Often the bullets would stray out of the cage and into the audience, killing several commoners. They seemed as callous and carefree as their leader, usually stepping on the bodies of fallen in order to get a better look at the bloodbath.
My hands suddenly began to ache, and I noticed I had a white-knuckle grip on the arms of my chair. I was suddenly very nauseous. "I've got to get out of here," I moaned.
Masao placed a restraining hand on my arm, unable to turn away from the massacre. "You're going to miss one of the best parts!" he cried, his eyes gleaming with madness.
At that moment, one of the guns ran out of ammunition. The terrified, frantic rebels swarmed the bunker, spearing the crew chained inside. They were still facing bursts from the other machinegun, but they were soon able to overwhelm the remaining gun through sheer desperation. They suffered heavy casualties in the process, however, and only three prisoners remained at the battle's end.
"Bravo!" the Patriarch stood, clapping. "Bring the lucky winners up to me!" Masao instructed the guards. He turned to me, mopping his forehead with a lacy handkerchief. "Was that ever exhilarating! I honestly didn't think any of them would survive!"
My throat was dry. All I could do was stare, numbly. As a reporter I had seen almost every atrocity imaginable. Nothing I had ever seen compared with this.
The heavy door banged open, and the guards returned with the three surviving "lucky winners". They were bloody and caked with mud, almost unrecognizable as human beings. One of them, a teenage girl, wept silently, her tears cutting two clean lines down her dirty cheeks. The two male survivors accompanying her merely stared at Masao with cold, dead eyes.
"You win!" exclaimed Masao like a cheerleader at a soccer match. "You get to live!" I couldn't believe my ears. The girl began to sob incoherently.
"Show some gratitude!" demanded Masao, approaching one of the men. "I'm giving you your freedom." I wondered if Masao even knew the meaning of the word.
The man took a faltering step forward, and then spit on Masao, hitting him directly in the face. Everyone froze; Masao was shaking with rage. The Patriarch snatched a pistol from one of the guard's holsters, brutally forcing it into the rebel's mouth. He paused for a moment, watching the blood seep from the rebel's broken teeth, then pulled the trigger. The lifeless body crumpled to the floor.
Masao wasn't finished.
He executed the other two rebels in quick succession, their corpses joining the first on the parquet tile. Their blood mingled freely on the floor, they were comrades even in death. Oliver Masao brusquely wiped the spit off his cheek, then threw the silk handkerchief onto the body of the first. He spent a moment gazing down at the dead rebels.
Finally, he turned back towards me. He raised his hands, palm up, and shrugged. The heavy black pistol hung limply from his dainty hand. At last he grinned his familiar grin. "They're savages, what else can you do?"
|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 2||January, 1999|
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