The eulogy had gone well. Her eyes misted over. Sadness had crept in and slain a part of her, surely. It had been the official funeral. Her brothers had died two months ago, had been embalmed, and a magnificent tomb had been erected, and this had ripped open the wound she’d begun to smooth over.
She never cried in public, not even when she gave a eulogy for her dead brothers. In the middle of tugging at one long glove, she found herself staring across the foyer at blurred furniture and walls.
One blast from an orbiting Overwatch satellite and they were scattered pieces of human.
Fuck. Princesses didn’t swear but, fuck.
And here she was expected to run the kingdom. She’d never been destined to inherit the title. Her brothers were… had been the heirs. The celebrated king and prince.
Calliope straightened. She could do this because she must. She must. There was no other carrier of the Dywin genes. One hundred and ninety years ago, Quarantine began—the Overwatch sats had spun into orbit corralling humans here. Dywins had ruled this kingdom since that day.
Face taut, she ripped off both gray gloves and headed around the end of the foyer wall. The ceiling-to-floor window faced her, with the centuries-old view of the destroyed spaceport. The sky swarmed with dark clouds. Foreboding weather and so apt.
She went to fling the gloves onto her chaise lounge.
Only to find… General Vass.
She stared at the hefty brick of a man in the white ceremonial uniform. Parallel scars sliced into his shaved black hair, his face was flushed, and the tips of his teeth showed in a fake smile. A saber hung to his left; a pistol was holstered at his right.
How dare he be here, now.
Her experience with him had been polite nods or a polite Princess before he returned to talking to her brothers or, years ago, to her father. Vass had never paid her much attention.
“General Vass.” Her throat felt sore, as if that funeral speech had pulled something from her, scouring her throat on the way out. “Surely, whatever it is can wait?”
“No. Sign this.” He dropped a thick document onto her coffee table. “Initial each page and sign it within forty-eight hours, Princess. This agreement appoints me as your mentor and guardian for two years.”
She stiffened and heard the rest through a ringing haze. This couldn’t be what it sounded like it was?
“We both know you are not fit to rule, for many reasons—your sex, your lack of training, your infertility. With this, we can deal with all those problems. In two years you will completely relinquish the throne to me. By then the populace will be accustomed to my hand in the ruling of the realm.” He swept his gaze up her body, lingering on her hips. “On second thoughts, I’ll have dinner with you, tomorrow night, and collect the document then.” His smile was almost a leer. “I will accompany you in your bed, now and then, just to remind you who is the ruler. Good day.”
He nodded as he swept past her on his way to the door.
Should she slap him? Scream? None of those were what her father would’ve done. He would’ve had the general shot.
Stunned, Calliope hadn’t turned to follow his path and so was surprised by his next words.
“Stay in your rooms, Princess, until that is signed. After that, I may let you have more freedom. Behave, and I won’t need to have you stripped naked and whipped. Though… that would amuse me.”
The doors clicked shut.
The gods had forsaken her. She’d never realized how foul and vicious that man could be.
She should have kicked him in the crotch, hard. Her Fou Tzu fighting coach would’ve been proud. Vass would likely have punched her back or, the gods forbid, had her whipped as he’d threatened.
What could she do?
She sat in an armchair and stared at nothing; her fingers kneaded the upholstery of the armrests as if she might rip it out.
The general was right about her lack of training. To be queen she needed a grasp of politics, administration, economics, and a whole lot of loyal staff. Her guards might adore her, but most everyone here, even the children she’d attended school with, she’d let fade away in favor of being herself.
She hated the in-fighting and snobbery, the inane things she was expected to like. Instead, the city had called to her, like a smelly, loyal, and loveable hound calling to its mistress.
She could go there, fade away? Be poor and insignificant. Hells, she was insignificant here.
The words of her father came to her—words spoken a few months before he’d died of the green plague. “If you ever need help, and there is no one you can trust in the palace, go to Drake in the lower city.”
Over all these intervening years, that memory had sat waiting for her to recall it.
Drake was a mauleon—the one other species trapped here in large numbers by the Quarantine one hundred and ninety years ago. Mauleons were humanlike but clawed and heavy of body—supreme predators by ancestry. Nothing on their home planet could best them one-on-one. Here, they’d sunk to the bottom of the pile.
Drake was rumored to be a criminal lord, with a claw in every rotten plot, heist, or murder. There was even darker gossip of women made slaves to the mauleons, forced to whore or be impregnated, so others could claim the babies as theirs.
Why would her father think it safe to go to him?
She stood and wandered to her balcony area, her stomach a hard, aching lump.
She often dined on the balcony. Sassi, her childhood robot, followed her out. He was an antique, with a squarish head and rectangular body, more scratches than gray paint, and was probably the last functioning bot in the kingdom of Dywin. The palace engineers knew Sassi’s maintenance was a priority.
Vass would likely countermand every priority of hers, if she let him take power.
She clutched the railing and stared out over the city. Drake. What else? Who else? She had no alternatives. Why plan for dire emergencies and being queen when she’d had a future of zero importance?
Stay in her rooms? Pfft.
“Get my armored suit, Sassi, and weapons. I’ll take Father’s pistols as well as two stilettos. The pistols are in his old study. I’m going into the lower city, the bad sectors.”
“I know where the pistols are located. Expanding, flechette, poison, and explosive ammo should be sufficient. I’ll add a small backpack for extras. I should come with you, Princess.”
“No. You’d mark me as royal. We’ve had this conversation before.”
While a teenager she’d visited the city—slipping out and going to the scenic places as well as the streets of the poor, the streets of the middle-class rich, the interesting places like the hospital baby ward. Infertility was such a common thing and baby watching was a sport, almost. Those cute chubby hands, waving about…
Her father had caught her sneaking out, once. After a severe reprimand about safety and security, he’d allowed her to go again, providing she told him beforehand.
She had friends in the city who knew her only as Calli.
She’d never ventured into the darker, seedier areas where Drake was known to rule, where the mauleons held sway. Only bad humans went there.
Her grip on the railing tightened.
If bad meant wanting to kill a certain general by wrapping him around a tree in a forest for the meat-eaters to feast upon, she qualified.
Her father had trusted Drake enough to suggest him for her last resort; she’d have to trust him too. Sadly, there was no one else. Her palace guards might be traitors. The army was either in the general’s pockets or suckling at his teats.
Drake. That day…
Goggle-eyed, eighteen years old, and astounded her father had any connection to such a pillar of evil, she’d nodded at her father’s advice but tucked it away in her what-the-fuck mental file.
Her father had inclined his head at a murmur of sound and a shadow had blocked the door of the study. She’d swiveled and seen a hulking brute slip from the doorway. The scent of oil and gunpowder had made her at first think he was a guard.
No palace guard was that large or exuded such threat.
The glimpse of claws had made her understand that this brute was likely the man her father recommended.
Massiveness, danger, masculinity… all these she’d detected in his wake. Then he was gone, leaving only a shiver of excitement in her middle.
The mauleon sector was only a part of the lower city. She’d have to ask for directions once deeper in. Unfortunately, there was no map that had a spot on it labelled, Drake lives here.
Calliope stepped over the rusty piston casing sticking up from the footpath and headed down the steep curve of road. Her hands were sweating.
The streets were a muddle of fractured concrete, mangled metal, and craters. After two centuries of no off-world trade or travel, infrastructure and tech had decayed.
With missile and laser, the Overwatch satellites had destroyed any moving motorized vehicle larger than a bike, as well as factories and buildings that housed large machinery. The cities had come to resemble the middle ages on Old Earth. Fancy middle ages.
The sats enforced the Quarantine. It had devastated the planet. Even now no one was sure why it had happened.
The manufacture of most things had become a cottage industry in people’s busy little sheds and kitchens. Instead of cars there were bicycles, motorized scooters, carts, and florses. Florses seemed poorly made plump Pegasuses. Genetic experiments gone wrong? They hopped rather than flew, bopping unwary pedestrians with their miniature wings.
Calli tucked her hands into her jacket pockets then pulled them out again. Nerves, she had nerves, and wasn’t that ironic considering this was her city. She owned it, if she ignored General Vass.
Who was she kidding? She had no power unless she could persuade this Drake to aid her.
“He’s not coming to me. So, I have to find him.” Having convinced herself, she dragged her jacket hood lower over her head, put her dark glasses in place, and set off down the road. Though her boots slid on rubble, she kept going.
Since around the age of thirteen, she’d not been newsworthy and so had not been in any family photos released to the public. Few would’ve known what she looked like as an adult, until yesterday and that eulogy. Ironic, really.
Now they did, if they’d watched the newscast of the funeral on one of the public screens.
The deeper she ventured into this part of the city, the rougher looking the people. She threaded through the groups she came across, trying to be polite yet silent. Speaking would reveal she was female and she felt vulnerable, as if her sex was a weakness.
Signs above shopfronts boasted of skills, some of which she barely understood.
Old Earth Weaponry Calibrated, Sold, Refurbished
Arranged Matings—minimum litters of three guaranteed.
That last sign made her gawp, until she realized people were staring at her, so she moved on. Her biology teacher had glossed over the facts about mauleons.
When a vendor drew up and began peddling his wares, she bought a bottle of juice, just to make herself seem normal. Swigging from it, she walked on, nervously scanning the faces, the body movements. Violence seemed entirely possible.
Sweat dribbled down her neck, sticking her armored suit to her back. Her boots squeaked and rubbed skin from her ankles. Not that the armor was reliable. The slabs of plating were two hundred years old. Hopefully, it would at least stop a knife.
Her father’s pistols rested heavy on her thighs and the backpack bumped at her ass. With every street, every step, they felt heavier. If she needed to use the guns, would she even shoot the right people?
She had to ask someone about Drake, eventually.
“Sir.” She raised a hand and was surprised at how it shook.
The man, who’d been passing, stopped. Yes, it was a human, long-haired, wearing mostly… brown? She squinted, finding it difficult to focus.
“Yes? Need help, miss?”
“I have to find a mauleon called Drake.”
“And you want directions? I know of him.”
“Wonderful.” Her boot slipped off the edge of a small rock. When she staggered, the man frowned and touched her shoulder.
“Need to sit down? I can recommend a place.” A sudden alertness in his features, an eagerness, made her wary.
“No. Thank you.”
Then she walked away, fast, without even receiving those directions, sure they’d be fake. In windows she checked to see if he followed. He was there, behind her, watching. He thought her a victim? Fuck him.
She touched the holsters and strode onward, drawing strength from deep down.
After turning a corner or two, she had to rest.
Everything was swimming.
She’d been drugged. A dart? A skin-absorbent poison on a cloth on his hand?
The dipsticks made to detect poisons were ancient, but she fished one from a clipped pocket and dabbed it inside the neck of the bottled drink. The rapid color change of one of the absorbent squares alarmed her. Antidote? Where could she find that anywhere here?
While thinking through her old assassination lessons on how to avoid being made dead, she started walking again. No time to go back. She could find this guy.
Her feet began to run into each other. Head spinning, she stumbled into a doorway.
The face that appeared before her looked kindly, but the odds were good they’d kill her or steal everything.
She chanced it, mumbled Drake then the name of the poison and the antidote, as her eyes became difficult to keep open.
“Bring her,” someone said a few minutes later. “Be careful. Simkin’s collectors are chasing her. She looks valuable.”