A grape loudly popped inside a man’s mouth. Chubby fingers picked up another, so dark purple it was almost black, and scrutinized it under beady eyes. The skin of the grape was thick as rubber and snapped as he chewed, sticking around his teeth.
“What are these?”
A page nearby stood reverently, draped in royal blue robes that flowed from around his shoulders straight down to his feet. The fabric trembled. “Grapes… my lord?”
The hunched man glowered up from his gilded seat. A damp fur cowl hugged the perspiring rolls around his neck, and a velvet red robe flowed from it, wrapping him in scarlet until he looked like a tick swollen with blood and ready to pop.
“These aren’t real grapes. This is bioengineered crap from Mars. Are you trying to poison me?” While the steward searched for words, the count shoved his plate aside. “Well? Answer me!”
“No, of course not! It’s just…”
“Hm?! What is it?”
Whatever the page would have said died in his mouth. His face drained white and he simply bowed. “Forgive me. I will see what alternatives the kitchens can provide.”
The Count huffed and settled back into his chair. “See that you do.” A stubby arm stuck toward the vaulted ceilings high above where air vents hummed steadily. “And turn off this damn cold! We build a palace to keep the cold in space, and yet my fingers feel like they’ll fall off.”
The Count’s arm shivered. But as the page bowed, the young man suspected it was not from the cold. He still replied, “As you say, my lord,” with suitable reverence. “Shall I send Monica and Cylia to you? Perhaps they might keep you –”
“Get out,” the Count bellowed. “I don’t need women.” He rose from his chair suddenly, sending his precious wooden chair crashing behind him. He sneered, twisting his cheeks in a snarl. “Actually, there is a woman I need. Send Ataraksia to me. If I am not to make it through tonight, then neither is she.”
The page bowed and turned. A door some fifteen feet tall and five feet wide creaked open and thudded closed, its silver carven depictions of space glistening in the lofty lights above them before returning to its silent resting place in the doorframe.
The Count was alone.
His hand drifted to his chest, pressing against the lush fabric over his heart. Thump thump thump thump thump. His fingers searched for the stem of his crystal glass, fumbling around the table for the delicate cup. Finally grabbing it, he unceremoniously chugged the contents. A bead of red wine traced down his cheek after missing his hungry mouth. It dribbled down his neck, dripping onto his white shirt and staining it blood red.
“Damn you,” he murmured. “I didn’t want this.” His arm recoiled and threw the crystal glass against the wall. It shattered in a splitting crash, littering razor shards around the floor that clattered for an eternity. “I didn’t want any of this.”
He stumbled to a huge portrait behind him, painted in the old way. A weaselly face smirked down from it. The man in the painting wore white breaches and an elaborate red coat with gold lapels and rows of golden buttons. A golden frame surrounded the picture, and at the top, a huge metal crest bearing the double-M of the Marquis’ government sealed the image as an official portrait. The pomp and majesty about the picture that had always appealed to the Count. It was suddenly grotesque.
“This is your fault,” the Count snarled. He stumbled over his fallen chair, across the lavish carpet of his chamber toward the wall where the image hung. The Marquis still echoed scornfully from weeks before. If they want a rebellion, we’ll give them a rebellion. Order new levies until they break the backs of Phobos. The taxes will be the spark to their insurrection. They will rise up and destroy your government. And while the dust is in the air and the fires are burning on your backwater moon, my armies will come from Mars and obliterate the rebellion, making an example of them for everyone on the Red Planet of what happens to zealots. The Marquis had cackled. And the beauty of it is, the taxes that incited the mob will fund its end.
The Count pawed at the painting. His manicured nails scraped against the lavish paint and then tore it. The canvas sheered awkwardly, ripping reluctantly under his fingers, and laying bare the metal backing.
“And what about me,” the Count slurred. He had asked the question weeks before. The Marquis seemed bemused. What about you? You have been appointed to serve my throne. Now serve. His meaty fist beat against the shredded portrait, and he choked. “What about me.”
The gilded door behind him creaked open.
“Count Friedrich,” a woman addressed hesitantly. “You called for me?”
He whirled around and wiped his face quickly. “Finally!” The mercenary the Trojans sent him stood in the doorway. She was imposing, he’d give her that. Her buzzed head and white braid was distinctive and terrifying, but her face for a moment had been surprisingly tender. “Have you apprehended the terrorists? Where are they?”
She pursed her lips and swallowed. “We don’t know. They disappeared after Mudak. They’ve transferred no credits, made no contacts, and used no surveyable transportation. They’ve gone completely dark. But your security detail is arranged across the palace, and I have four of my men stationed outside that door,” she pointed to where she had entered. “It is the only entrance, yes?”
Friedrich nodded. Having one entrance to his chambers had seemed a savvy security measure. But now it felt suffocatingly claustrophobic, like he was rat cornered in the bottom of a bin. “Do you think…” He swallowed again. “Do you think you will catch them?”
“They are a band of common citizens and slaves. If anyone can, we can.”
Friedrich leaned against the wall and slid to the floor. “You didn’t answer me.”
Everything went black.
“What the hell,” Ataraksia cursed. In the dark, she fumbled for the door and shoved it open to address the men outside. “What’s going on?”
“They’re coming,” Friedrich whimpered. The dark of the windowless chamber pressed against him. The pure black dove down his throat when he opened his mouth and gauged at his eyes when he opened them. He pulled his cowl over his head and hugged his legs, pressing against the wall behind him. “They’re coming.”
“They’ve hit the support systems for the entire complex,” someone said from outside the door. “Electricity, oxygen, everything.”
“How did we not have men there?” Ataraksia snarled.
“We did!” another voice protested. “The bulk of the security forces were there. They must’ve accessed it remotely.”
“That’s impossible. How could anyone access a closed system remotely?”
Friedrich felt hot tears brimming in his eyes. He couldn’t see anything, and even his sense of touch faded. The smooth, warm wood behind him. The soft carpet beneath his fingers. The velvet and cotton on his chest all faded away. But the hot tears seared his cheeks as he heard the mindless babble.
Suddenly the lights came back on, and the room was bathed in light. Three armored men stood with Ataraxia in the doorway. The Count’s chair remained where it had fallen, and the torn portrait still hung stoically against the back wall.
A crackle erupted across the palace speakers. “May I have your attention please, may I have your attention please,” an automated woman’s voice drawled. “Intruders have been apprehended in the southwest wing.
Two of the mercenaries cheered. Friedrich’s eyes widened, and he pushed himself up from the floor. “Really? Trojan, is it true?”
Ataraxia shook her head and touched her coms device. Speaking into the earpiece, she murmured, “Codeword vengeance.” After waiting for a reply and nodding acknowledgement at the response, she asked for an update. Nodding again, she gave her thanks and tapped the device’s controls on her wrist. “Three have been apprehended trying to ignite the oxygen reserves in the life support column of the palace. Guards have killed one and captured the other two. They match the description of the terrorists.”
Fresh air poured into Friedrich’s lungs as he gulped in relief. His heart raced excitedly. “Bring them to me.” He eyed the shredded portrait on the wall. “Bring them to me now. We have much to talk about.”