Tansy Rayner Roberts
1. With Snow Comes Beginnings.
Part 2 of 4
Ranulf Godrickskeyridge was the only man left who remained loyal to the last 'true' Emperor. Timregis the Puce had ruled Mocklore for fifty-five years before his champion, a scoundrel by the name of Silversword, had betrayed him and sent the Empire into confusion. Dozens of Emperors had succeeded him, not one of them lasting longer than three months. Nobody else in the city of Dreadnought or in the whole Mocklore Empire gave a purple ferret about Timregis. He had, after all, been a raving idiot. The recent chain of ineffectual Emperors had proven to the population of the city what they had always suspected: one Emperor is as bad as another, so you might as well let them get on with it.
But Ranulf was loyal. For some strange reason, Ranulf cared. Every time a new Emperor popped up, there was Ranulf with his revolutionary flag. Of course, his revolutions had never actually contributed to the downfall of any of the 'pretender' Emperors - most of them had either been executed, evicted for tax-evasion or had absconded from the Palace in the dead of night with a big bag of Imperial loot and a worried expression on their faces.
Ranulf Godrickskeyridge crept in through the window. This is not as easy a task as it sounds, as the window in question was fourteen floors up and the Imperial Palace had not yet installed drainpipes. He gripped his flag, closed his eyes and tumbled forward into the room shouting, "Death to the False Emperor who usurps the rightful power of the..."
The new Emperor reclined on a chaise longue of purple feathers. A silver headdress dripped down over her golden hair, and her long, lithe body was draped in soft silver silk.
She opened her eyes and spoke in a voice of honey and cinnamon. "Hello, there. Can I help you?"
Ranulf smiled weakly. "Wrong palace?" Very slowly, he began to edge back towards the window.
The golden woman raised a languid finger and pointed it in his direction. "Stop."
Ranulf froze to the floor. The idea of disobeying her was too painful to consider. She extended a perfect arm and touched a length of silk which spiralled from the ceiling. A melodious chime shimmered through the chamber.
A servant in black and white livery entered immediately, as if he had been hovering outside the door. "My Lady Emperor?"
The woman gestured at Ranulf with a flick of her perfect manicure. "Take him away and lock him in a barrel with as many tarantulas as you can find. At least a dozen, preferably twenty." And she smiled, a killer smile.
The servant bowed slowly, squaring his round shoulders. "As my Lady Emperor commands." He snapped his fingers at Ranulf, who followed him nervously out of the chamber.
The 38th Emperor of Mocklore smiled at the mirrored ceiling as she lay back on her purple feathered chaise longue. A thousand languid smiles reflected hers. "I could get used to this," she murmured.
The Empire was hers, and hers alone. She couldn't afford it, of course, but lack of finances had never bothered her before when making a major purchase.
Leonardes of Skullcap stretched his long, thick fingers against the desk. "I think we have a problem, Daggar."
Daggar, a seedy looking man who was either trying for a beard or was just bad at shaving, shifted uncomfortably. "Don't know what you mean, Chief."
Cold eyes burned into him from across the desk. "I think you should," said Leonardes.
"Oh, I do," said Daggar hastily, sensing danger. "Course I do. You're not happy, Chief. That's the problem."
"Indeed it is," said Leonardes. He stabbed a finger at the scroll before him. "Your file, Daggar. Petty theft, petty deals, petty profiteering. This is just not good enough."
"Well," said Daggar, swallowing hard, "I don't like to aim too high, Chief. It calls attention to yourself, and I know you don't like us to call attention to ourselves."
"What makes you think that?" said Leonardes mildly. "Attention reflects your success. You just don't like to stick your neck out, so you spend your time, our time, with petty crimes that promise little return. That is no way to be a successful profit-scoundrel, Daggar."
"In my experience, Chief, if you stick your neck out in this city, it gets bloody well chopped off..." Daggar paused bravely. The pause became longer and more dangerous until he added a hasty, "Sir."
Leonardes smiled. Nastily. "If I don't see something substantial on your file within one moon, I am going to have to assume that you have no wish to continue your service to the Profithood. And that means you shall have to be retired."
"Retired?" croaked Daggar, knowing full well that the only way you retired from the Profithood was by jumping into a deep lake with a gravestone chained to both legs.
"Retired," repeated Leonardes. "If you want the protection and rewards of the Profithood, then you will return something substantial. A theft, a deal, a scheme... some kind of profit. It is full moon tomorrow night, is it not? You have one moon from then, Daggar. That is all."
Cheerful noises were coming from the Whet and Whistle Tavern and Grillhouse, now that she had arrived. She was a golden-eyed siren with blood-coloured hair, voluptuous in a costume of knotted silk. There was magic in her voice. She had even managed to cheer up the dismal Captain, who was watching her swinging hips with studied disinterest.
She began to dance now, turning her body upside down and inside out in rapid succession as she sang a fast, breezy song at the top of her extraordinary vocal range. And then the song changed.
The harmonica players, who were exhausted from trying to keep up with her, swapped their harmonica for a collection of old wooden flutes, squabbling only briefly over who got the one with the crack in the end. The siren sang an ancient ballad which told the tragic story of two lovers, various melodramatic complications, a deep river and the ultimately predictable conclusion. Her dancing slowed, becoming languorous and curved. Her whole body grieved for the tragic lovers as her rich voice described their final poignant moments.
Even Bohoris the Boar Basher was weeping into his tankard by the final chorus.
It was then that a scrawny man smelling of sea-salt pushed his way into the tavern. He tramped across the floor until he got to the bar, and slammed a bulky package on to the counter. "I'm looking for Kassa Daggersharp."
There was silence. The flute wavered. Halfway between describing the grief of the various plant-life and furry animals along the riverside, the glorious voice halted. Everyone looked at the newcomer, waiting for what would come next.
"Never heard of her," said Sparky the barman flatly. He slapped a hand on the package. "I'll take care of this."
For a moment, it looked as if the messenger was going to argue. But he didn't need to. There was a rustle as the dancer climbed down from the makeshift stage and made her way around the tables. She stopped a few feet from the messenger and gazed at him flatly. "That would be for me, then," said Kassa Daggersharp, crown princess of pirates.
Chapter 1 of Splashdance Silver|
originally published by Transworld Publishers,
September 1998. Appears with the kind
permission of Transworld Publishers and the author.
©1998 Tansy Rayner Roberts