The Mask and the Maze
by K. Bannerman
He stood with his hands clamped together at the base of his spine, the light of the rising sun falling in amber waves over his stark, solid features. A day's worth of stubble darkened his chin, but he wore it like a soldier. He was no thin necked executive, no jittery yearling bursting to get home to his wife. It had been thirty-six hours since he'd left the upper floor of the offices; a short shift, for him.
She stopped her chant of numbers and names, and set the clipboard on her lap. "Yes, sir?"
"No more facts, Ellis."
He turned his head towards the window again, with it's high vista of buildings and psuedomobiles and plump zeppelins, their black shark shadows cruising through the rooftop gardens below. He looked passed the city sprawl towards the wavering mountains in the far distance. It would be hot today; the first rays of sun promised a heatwave, and he knew it meant money when the sun shone fiercely. Baran Biotechnical Facilities would fill to bursting with poor souls begging for pureWater, and he'd make it for them, and they'd pay more than their own body's worth for it. Breaking down a human body into elements totalled no more than 18 pesetas, and a single shot of pureWater ('it fortifies and satisfies!' rang the endless jingles) cost 21 pesetas, a week's pay for a lowman or one of the scully castes. He often mused that he could make more if he rendered the lowmen into their basic elements and sold off their parts; sulphur to Korea, nitrogen to his subsidiaries in Francospain, carbon to those damned diamond farmers in Papuaustra. Fake diamonds, pressed out of iron casts and cheapening the market. You didn't know which were real anymore. Damn, even the lowmen could afford diamonds these days, sparkling and flashing their jewelry while they collected the filth from the streets and the dead from the gutters; what was this world coming to? He chuckled at the thought of lowmen buying diamonds made of lowmen.
Her voice was so timorous, it made him cringe.
He turned his head. She sat with her lean legs crossed on the wide leather recliner, the clipboard straight on her lap. She still wore glasses, even after he offered orb implants, free of charge, in any color she wished. But she'd refused; Diedre still had her natural eyes, and when he thought of it that way, he felt a stirring in his groin.
"Do you wish to leave the reports of Wilhelm's purchases until later, sir?"
She motioned to rise, the lavender sweater pulling tight over her breasts, the clipboard clenched in one narrow hand.
Like a dog to its master, she sat.
He strode to the side of the desk and leaned against its edge, facing her directly. "I want to have a chat with you, Diedre."
She paled a fraction. She was afraid of him, but there were men who would’ve pissed themselves to be in this situation, and so he admired her bravery instead of her fear. "She has no idea what I want," he thought with bitter amusement. "I could make her into a queen, I could fire her, I could have her killed. I could want a cup of coffee." For a tense moment they faced one another.
"How long have you worked as my assistant, Diedre?"
"Eight years, sir."
"Please, no 'sir'."
"Yes, Mr. Baran."
Again, the timorous waiver in her voice. He shook his head.
"Call me Aalde."
"Yes sir. Aalde."
The shape of his name looked so odd coming from her lips.
"I wanted to speak with you in regards to my position."
A flicker of confusion passed over her features. "Position?" When a moment of silence passed, she found her tongue and said, "You are the wealthiest man alive, sir. Aalde. You own everything outside that window, as far as the eye can see, including the mountains and sky.” She pushed her glasses up with her little finger. “Is that what you mean?"
"Do I govern this country well, Diedre?"
"Better than anyone dreamed, sir." She faltered. "Aalde. No one starves or sleeps in the cold. Everyone is educated and healthy. We each have a responsibility to this society, and we fulfill our duties because we understand our importance. We live and die under your protection."
"Everyone has worth without freedom."
"We have freedom...sir... Aalde. You give us freedom." She glanced towards the wide wall of windows and the city beyond. "No one dreamed the dismantling of democracy would be so prosperous. The empire thrives because of you." She flashed a wisp of a smile, nothing much. Diedre rarely smiled in his presence. She rarely did anything in his presence that extended beyond appointments and reports and the business of his life. He often forgot she was even there, so much like furniture was Diedre.
He rubbed one hand over his chin, heard the rasp of stubble against his palm. "What if a less scrupulous man was in my position, Diedre? What if I was a tyrant?"
"I don’t know." She seemed more nervous than before. "You aren't a tyrant, though. You have advisors plucked from the populace, and a Senate to bring the concerns of the people to your desk. You listen, and give sound judgment." She lowered her eyes for a moment, her natural eyes, her real orbs. "You bring health and fresh water and longevity to everyone. You are not a tyrant, sir."
"Please, Diedre. While we are in this office, right now, call me Aalde."
She nodded, once, quick as a sparrow.
"If I wanted to sleep with you, would you let me?"
She raised her hand to the top button of her sweater, plucked it open and reached for the second.
"No, no, I don't want..." He dropped his shoulders. "No, I'm only curious."
"Of course I would," she replied, her face stoic but a shimmer of disappointment on her features. "Any woman would. Or any man, for that matter."
"And if I asked you to throw yourself out that window? Plummet a hundred stories to your death?"
Diedre looked over his shoulder to the wide, high view. "I would. I hope you don't, but I would."
"Relax, Diedre. I have no interest in your death," he said with a lopsided grin, pleased that she'd tell him of her hopes, "You're far too valuable to me."
"May I be so bold as to ask why these questions, si--Aalde? I'm sure you're aware of your power."
He crossed his arms. "No one refuses me anything, Diedre. Even the damned diamond farmers cower at my feet and scramble to please me." He pulled a chair close to hers and sat. "One person refused me, and I've not forgotten it. I offered to fix your eyes, Diedre, and you said no."
Her face turned the color of putty. "I didn't... I mean, I thought..."
"You didn't want orb implants."
"Please, sir, please don't be angry, but I--"
"I don't want your excuses, Diedre."
She clamped her lips together, lowered her head. "If my glasses displease you, sir, then I suppose I'll accept."
"No, Diedre, I won't force you to have your eyes fixed." He gave a small chuckle as a fraction of her color returned. "In fact, I like your glasses, quite a bit."
Now her color returned in a flush of pink.
"I'm bored with my life, Diedre."
In a little whisper, she said, "What?"
"I built this empire because there were always challenges to overcome, and now, there's nothing but Utopia. I'm useless."
"Oh, no, not useless," she said. "You can't say that. You're the foundation on which this whole Utopia is built--"
"But I despise it," he replied, "All is mine, to have at my disposal, even the bodies and lives of my citizens. Where's my competition? Men cower before me, women do as I say without regard for their own desires. My joy in life was the fight, Diedre, and now that I've conquered it all, I have no reason left to live."
She looked towards the double doors that led to the alcove. "What if they hear you? What--"
"No one will hear, Diedre, and even if they did, what will they do?"
"But you can't relinquish your position, sir. If you did that--"
"Then the whole society crumbles," he replied. "Yes, I know." He slumped back in his chair. "I doubt I CAN give it up, though, Diedre. All people know my face, all the world watches me, it's impossible for me to rebuild my life after ruling the world. I only have to say my name and they give me anything I want; the only way to escape this is death, I think."
"You can't kill yourself!" she said.
He glanced sideways at her. "Are you commanding me, Diedre?"
Her hands flew to her sternum, her throat warbled. "Oh no, sir, no, I wouldn't dare--"
"Don't retract your statement, Ms. Ellis," he replied with a sly smile, "That's exactly what I want. Someone to oppose me."
She bit her lip, trembling like a hare. Her breasts under their lavender covering rose and fell with her shallow gasps. "Please, sir, I didn't mean any impertinence or insult--"
"None taken," he replied and he leaned forward. Her trembling increased, little beads of sweat broke across her brow. "Diedre, I want you to tell me what to do."
"This will be a game between you and I," he said, "And I want you to devise a way for me to find this...this..." He sought a word to express himself and there seemed to be none, "This challenge to my authority. This threat of losing. Can you do that for me?"
Of course she could. She wouldn't dare say no.
"You may go, then."
She rose and clung to the clipboard as if it were flotsam with no shore in sight. "Thank you, sir."
"We'll tell no one about this, correct?"
Again, that sparrow quick nod. Her eyes dipped towards the pages on her board. "You have a meeting with the Senate at five thirty and a dinner engagement with the heads of Baran Biotech at ten. Senator Wilhelm will be in attendance; I've set him next to you at the table."
"Have my suit pressed and sent up by four, then."
"I want a light lunch at two fifteen. A salad. A roast beef sandwich with the horseradish on the side."
"I want a date for the dinner engagement. The redhead. Persiphae. Get her ready for nine."
"Persiphae is no longer a redhead. Her hair is blonde, now."
He ground his teeth together. "Which ones have red hair?"
Diedre consulted her list. "Melanie and Gabrielle."
"Melanie, then. She'll have to do."
"I'll send her to the restaurant by nine-thirty and tell Persiphae to change her hair back to red. She'll be waiting for you at your apartments when you're finished with the Biotech executives."
This worked well. Melanie didn't have Persiphae's proportions. Still, he found no anticipation of Persiphae or her talents. It would be a release to get him to sleep, nothing more. He watched Diedre move towards the exit, making sharp check marks and notes, and his eyes lingering on the hem of her conservative skirt.
She paused at the double doors, her hand resting on the handle. "Yes, sir?"
He leaned back in the chair, the leather creaking under his weight, and a faintly wolfish grin kinked his lips. "Next time I ask you to sleep with me, make sure you refuse."
Even after Persiphae was snoring gently in the crook of his arm, he remained awake and vigilant. Sex had been quick and mechanical. He slipped his body from under hers and wandered to the kitchen, felt the cold draft sweep over the front of his nudity as he opened the refrigerator door, and he stood for a long time in the dimness, drinking soymalt straight from the container. Thinking.
Aalde had known, right from the moment of his corporation's conception, that a time would come when all his goals would be reached and all he'd hoped for would be accomplished; he simply hadn't thought it would happen so quickly. He thought he'd be an old man in bed when his life became boring. But fortune smiled upon him, and with the HEPA epidemic in the late '60's and the miraculous vaccination developed by Baran's labs, his wealth was secured. After that, supremacy was a piece of cake. He counted governments amongst his acquisitions. He united the eastern states before turning his attention to the Rio border skirmishes, and with a firm hand and rational thought, he swung all sides in favor of his leadership. The borders of his empire, which followed the coastline of the Americas from the Arctic Circle to the spattered rocks of the Falklands, were set and secured. By the early 70's, the development of pureWater became the crowning jewel in his collection of vital commodities; those who lived under Baran's rule were assured long, healthy, happy lives, no matter what their station. He'd saved them from the HEPA plague and fortified their strength with pureWater, he'd built schools and care facilities, he'd surrounded libraries with gardens, he'd bestowed a purpose upon the lives of each man, woman, and child.
He'd created the perfect society, and it grated upon him.
Aalde returned the soymalt to the fridge. In the bedroom, past the shoji screens, he heard Persiphae mutter in her sleep.
Instead of returning to bed, he sat in front of his fone and flicked the monitor to life. Along the bottom of the screen read the words 'At Rest'.
"Diedre Ellis," he said, and the letters became her name, and he heard the buzzing of the processor unit as it sought her contact code from the internal directories.
Ellis, Diedre and Stephen,' read the screen, 'Calling. Please wait.'
The darkened screen opened to the portrait of a young man, lithe and tired, in his flannel pajamas and his brown hair roostering from the crown of his head. "Jerry, this better not be about that damned music, because I turned it down--oh!"
He stared at the screen, swallowed hard when he realized that it wasn't Jerry who'd called.
"I need to speak with Ellis, please," Aalde said, then, remembering that they were both Ellises, said, "Diedre."
"Yes, sir, I--I'm sorry sir, I didn't know who was calling at this hour--"
"That's fine, Stephen," he said in a casual tone, though he'd never met this man before. It was a habit, now, to treat all people like wayward children. "It's understandable. I don't think I've ever called Ellis at home."
"Yes, sir, I'll get her... can I say this is an honor, sir?"
"It certainly is. Diedre, please."
"Of course, of course," and his head vanished from the square view. Aalde looked at their sitting room; small, well furnished but cramped, and the carpet was last year's color. He thought suddenly that he should buy Diedre a new home, close to the sea. Something more lavish than this. She was his personal assistant; surely she should be living in something grander--
"Hello? Sir?" she said as she slipped into view, her hair pulled back and her glasses off. She squinted slightly.
"I woke you," he said as he leaned back in his chair.
"Yes. It's no problem. What do you need?"
"I need to talk to you. I thought that was evident."
She pursed her lips slightly. "Um, I see." It was clear that she didn't.
"We chatted earlier, Ellis. I wanted to know if you'd had any ideas."
"Oh..." Diedre reached out of view, to a table or counter, and brought back her glasses. These she unkinked and set upon her nose, and brought close a sheaf of papers. "I wrote down a few ideas."
"I want you to come here, Ellis. I have no interest in discussing this over an unsecured line."
"Yes. Of course."
"I'll send Juan over in the copter to pick you up. I expect you here by," he checked his watch, the last piece of clothing he wore, tThree."
"Of course." Her eyes flitted to the left, perhaps towards her bedroom door, where her husband waited for her return under a comfortable duvet.
She snapped back to attention.
"You can tell me to fuck off."
He laughed. "Do you want to come here, or do you want to go back to bed?"
"I-- I'll come over."
"Your choice," he replied. "See you at three."
Without another word he flicked the fone into silence, and knew that, in Diedre opinion, he'd offered no choice. He'd have to push her harder to get an honest reaction; they were all so programmed to please him now.
At five to three, a polite knock broke the stillness of the quiet apartment. He sat naked in the chair at the glass wall, looking over the ocean and contemplating their upcoming discussion. Aalde tipped his head back when the knock came, and he commanded the door to open and let Diedre in. When he heard her hard soles on the wooden floor of the entrance corridor, he said, "I'm in the living room, Ellis."
She wore a tweed skirt that brushed her knees and a cardigan in beige. Glovelocked to one hand, she carried a briefcase that contained all the secret treasures of her job: his schedule, his contact list, his preferences jotted down to ensure that she never ordered an inappropriate meal. She unlocked the device with a single word and slipped the glove from her hand, resting the briefcase against the side of the couch.
"Have a seat."
"Hope you don't mind if I keep the lights off," he replied, "I like to watch the sea at this hour."
"It's a beautiful view."
"Do you like the ocean, Ellis?"
She watched the waves crashing on the volcanic shore, far below. "No more or less than anyone else."
"The moon's setting." He watched her look towards the horizon. "You can see the lights of the palace conservatory there, in the dark half."
She squinted. "Ah, yes." Diedre straightened and smoothed out her skirt with her palms. "I'll contact the lunar staff tomorrow and remind them to turn out the lights when you aren't there. It costs a small fortune to keep it running to maximum illumination."
"So focused, Diedre," he said with hooded eyes, hiding his amusement. "I only meant that the moon's beautiful to watch, and isn't it amazing, to see the palace from here."
Diedre lowered her gaze. "Sorry, sir. Yes, it is beautiful."
For a moment, he thought of offering her this apartment, but the impulse passed before he could speak. Leave it to later. They had business to conduct.
"So tell me a couple of your ideas, Ellis."
"Um, yes, Aalde."
He felt that sensual stirring to see his name come from her lips. Maybe he should put some pants on.
"I haven't really had much time to consider your requests, I was busy for most of the evening setting up appointments for next month and sorting out that confusion with the copter repairs. I think I'll get you a domestic model next time." She opened the briefcase on her lap and fumbled through a leather notebook. "But I had one idea. It's really quite silly, but it’s the only thing I could think of."
"I don't have enough silliness in my life," he said before realizing this was a direct comment on her job.
"I can pencil in more entertainment--"
"No, that's fine. I'm not the kind of person who enjoys frivolous things. I'd rather pursue a struggling corporation than spend an hour in a projection unit." He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "What's your idea, Diedre?" He wanted to see her say his name again. Just once, of her own volition.
"Well, you said that people do anything you ask, try to please you. So I thought, if they were afraid of you, they'd run. They'd struggle to get away."
"They're already afraid of me, Diedre," he replied sharply.
"Yes, of course, I know, it's silly, it's really nothing I should waste your time with," she stammered, and he reprimanded himself for flustering her.
"Go on, I'm listening," he said, "Please. I want to hear your idea."
Diedre took a deep breath to steady her nerves. She dropped her gaze to her papers again, trying to compose her thoughts. "Well, I thought if they don't know it's you, they'll run away. So you have a bunch of people that are terrified of you, but they don't know its YOU, so they fight back or flee or.... I know. It's a stupid idea."
He looked towards the smoky surface of the sea. "Not at all."
"You assemble a group of people and set them into a maze with the story that it's a game for them; the first to get out wins pureWater for life, or a million pesetas, or something like that. But in truth it’s a game for me. I hunt them. They become my sport."
"You'd kill them?"
He returned his gaze to her and saw horror flickering in her eyes. "No," he replied, "But we can let them think I will."
"A very intriguing idea, Aalde." She mirrored his smile.
Yes, he should put some pants on, before Diedre inspired an uncomfortable situation for both of them. "I'll be back in a moment. If you want anything to eat or drink, help yourself."
He flicked the light in the bedroom to find that Persiphae was awake, plaiting her newly reddened hair. She sat on the edge of the mattress, her kimono opened and revealing a valley of cleavage, and when he entered she startled a little. "Did we wake you?" he said as he threw open the wardrobe and found a pair of canvas breeches.
"Time for you to go back to your apartment, Persiphae."
She looked towards the shoji, her violet eyes flinty. She was not the brightest of girls and he'd only agreed to take her into his harem on a whim, entranced by her ridiculous, cartoonish proportions. With those gargantuan breasts and waspish waist, she looked like she'd snap in half. Her lipstick had smeared from her bottom lip and her pretty face had a ghoulish tinge. In a hissing whisper, she said, "Is that your first name? Aalde?"
The word came out ugly and ungainly.
"It's not your concern," he said.
"I didn't think you had a first name--"
"Go home, Persiphae."
She lowered her head and tied the sash at the base of her back. "Yes, sir."
When Persiphae left, he and Diedre sat again at the window.
"Remind me not to request her company again," he said.
"In fact, if you evict her from the house, I'd be pleased."
Diedre's eyebrows arched upwards. "Yes, sir." She made a note in the leather book.
"Aren't you curious why?"
Aalde scowled, puzzled. "Are you sure you're not curious? Not even a bit?"
"It isn't my place to ask." Diedre glanced up at him to see him regarding her with great intensity. "You want me to ask?"
"Alright." Diedre took a breath to muster her courage. "Tell me, Aalde, why you want Persiphae out of your house."
"I thought I wanted her because she's beautiful, but I don't find her attractive anymore. It's the same with all the concubines. I should be content with them, but I'm not." He fiddled with his fingers. "There are men who would give up their life for a single night with them, but I have them, and none of them inspire me."
"They give you no challenge."
"Diedre, sleep with me."
She blinked twice, quick as a cat. "No."
He smiled. "Are you sure?"
"Good." he replied.
Ellis oversaw the construction of the labyrinth, and in less that a month the vast complex squatted on the outskirts of the city, it's sheer marble sides offering no clue as to what it held. Excitement ran high; rumors circulated of a contest, and whirling eddies of curious people began to congregate at its entrance, seeking stories of its purpose to tell the neighbors. A new series of gardens? A watercourse? A launch site for the Stellarzepplin Comfortliner to Baran's lunar palace, or the new summer resort on Phobos?
At last she released a media statement, advertising a race for a lifetime supply of pureWater for the winner and their family, and she was swamped with applications for competition.
She brought a pile of profiles and a large plastipape bag to his apartment, and over tiny enameled cups of thick turkish coffee, the two of them chose seven contestants.
"He's too large. He'll knock my head off."
"You're larger, sir, and in much better shape. He'll be no threat."
"And this one? She's a lowman."
Aalde squirreled his hands and realized with fleeting joy that he was nervous. "I've never touched a lowman before."
"Flesh and bone like you and I," she replied, her head down, arranging the profiles. "I'll contact them all tonight. You'll go into the maze tomorrow."
Diedre glanced at him over the rim of her glasses.
"Alright," he acceded, "Tomorrow."
"I haven't been planning and building for you to back out now, Aalde." she said tartly. Her cheeks mottled. He saw how much of a thrill it was for her to treat him like an equal, and it thrilled him, too.
"I've covered that," she said, reaching into the crinkling plastipape sack. "I thought this would do." Out came a withered husk of a head, its muzzle a velvet tan and its mane, the color of chocolate. It drooped two short horns of translucent ivory.
"I commissioned the biotechs to put it together."
He took it gently. It was warm as toast, quivering slightly under his fingers. "It's alive."
"You slip it over your head and those sensor points fuse with the skin to transmit nerve impulses from your face--
"Diedre, this is--"
"Cutting edge technology, sir. The Brazilian labs have been experimenting with short-term tissue fusion for three years." She resumed her shuffling. "If it was a bad quarter, I thought I'd design a bear, but the diamond farmers have been increasing their investments in the market." As he flipped it over, she said, "Once fused, it becomes a second skin, which only releases from the inside with a key word."
"A soundlocked mask?"
"London at night in the rain."
She looked up from her papers. "That's the key. 'London at night in the rain.' If you say that, the sensors detach."
"Ah," he said, running one finger over a horn, "It won't pull off? Not even in a fight?"
"What about lasting damage to my own skin?"
"There's no risk."
He held it at arms length. "I should keep better track of my own research." He peeled back the lower lip and saw the purple logo of the Brazilian lab tattooed on the pink flesh.
"I'm sorry, sir. I didn't think you'd be interested in the trials--"
"I'm not angry, Ellis, just perplexed." The brown marble of one eye glinted, unblinking, and reflected his image.
"You've been busy with the Senate and the Wilhelm scandal, and like I said, this is brand new," she replied. "They had a breakthrough in nerve generation only two weeks ago. Something of this design was impossible last month."
"Hmm." So he was to be a bucephallic monster. Looming out of the shadows of the labyrinth, he would inspire terror in any heart.
"It disturbs you," she said, jotting down notes, "I'll find another method of disguising your face, sir."
"No." he replied, "You've insisted the game to be tomorrow, Ellis, and I don't want to bear the brunt of your temper by postponing it."
She flushed and hid a smile behind her narrow hands.
The walls were sheer and solid, the ceilings high. The nucleus of the labyrinth was a round room with a rose granite floor, boasting a radius of twenty feet and covered by a dome roof. At its pinnacle was a single window. Through this tiny porthole came a shaft of sunlight to pierce the gloom and illuminate the middle stone, and in the silent tomb of the maze, this stone rattled back and forth, came loose and scraped aside, to reveal an invisible entrance.
Aalde ascended into the room from the passage below and pushed the stone back into place, cringing at the loudness of the sound. He wore nothing but deerhide boots to protect his feet, and in his hand he held the mask.
He regarded it again, coolly, and wondered if this was wise.
With a slight tug it slipped over his face, and a curious warmth flowed through his skin like honey, tingling and tickling. His nostrils filled with the scent of musk, and he breathed through the square nose with a rattling sound, steadfast and strong. The weight of the horns upon his brow was heavy but not cumbersome. In fact it fortified him; he flexed his arms and stamped his feet, and when he laughed, the noise was low and fierce.
'Bring them on,' he thought, 'Let them run.'
He'd designed the layout with Ellis but now he walked the corridors that had only existed on paper; she'd added little details that made him smile. Here, at a junction, the floor supported a stylistic mosaic of a bull and a bear, wrestling with heads slung low. On a lintel, three capricious gargoyles capered in a childish dance, their monkey hands joined and their dog faces sporting malicious smiles; the corpulent features of the center devil reminded him of Senator Wilhelm. A mural of his harem ran the full length of a narrow passage; Melanie, Anna, Soren, Saeri, Badura, Gabrielle, Michelin. They were dancing like the gargoyles, ankles exposed from under the hems of their swaying skirts, hands joined, braids flaying the air. The last woman, who hid her face with her free hand and half-turned from the audience, was unmistakably Persiphae. He paused and wondered briefly where she was, not with any fondness but only with curiosity.
A vestibule in jade and malachite, a hallway in alabaster and turquoise, a long passage paved with circular tiles of black jet. He wandered the passages with his eyes round and wide; not his own eyes, but the strange globular vision of the bull which covered a greater scope than his own. When he entered the hall of mirrors, he gave himself a start. Only when the bucephalus raised its hands to its chest in a mimicry of his motion did Aalde realize it was his own reflection.
Ellis was right, he was in good shape, but the shadows and the alien visage made him seem more muscular, more impervious. He'd become an animal, a creature of instinct devoid of reason. He reached up to touch the soft nose, he turned to look at the mane of dark fur reaching down his spine, he twitched the ears and tossed the horns. He was not responsible for his actions because this wasn't him.
The echo of a footstep far to his left.
Aalde stepped back and turned to face the entrance to the hall of mirrors, his heart beating at the cage of his ribs. Quickly, he brought to mind the profiles of the contestants. He retreated to the end of the hall, afraid of what would happen, exalted by the idea of being found in this bestial form.
The hall of mirrors was better illuminated than the other passages, and as the young man stepped into the refracted light, Aalde pressed his back to the opposite threshold, letting the darkness swallow him as he studied his opponent. The fisher carried the brand of his caste on his base of his neck, a black line bisecting a circle in the manner of a weir, and he was no older than twenty years with long, coltish limbs. He pressed his hands into the pockets of his felt coat. His demeanour was anxious but not afraid. His only goal was to find his way to the exit, and he regarded himself in the mirror with a wink and a jaunty step. He passed Aalde, hiding in the darkness, and strolled into the next passage.
Aalde stepped behind him, one tiny shuffling click as his heel hit the floor, and the fisher reeled around, eyes defiant and fists thrown high.
His breath caught in his throat. His Adam's apple jumped like a trout.
Aalde grabbed his wrist and pushed him to the ground, and the man thrashed backwards, screaming in a series of high-pitched yelps. He fought; his leg kicked Aalde in the shin and caught the hem of the boot, and when the shadowed creature allowed it, the man scrambled to his feet and plunged headlong into the darkness, arms flailing.
For a long time Aalde leaned against the side of the passage, savouring the ache of a rising bruise on his leg.
Then he followed at a swift gait, wheeling around corners, following the distant footsteps as his prey fled in any direction. He caught sight of a foot or an arm before it disappeared around a wall. As he entered a straight stretch, the fisher paused at the end to look back, and now Aalde saw that they'd followed a blind alley. The young man was trapped.
Aalde lowered his head in the manner of his alias and neared with measured paces.
The young man was no coward. He was unarmed but he braced his feet and raised his fists, ready to struggle until his fate claimed him. He lunged forward and caught Aalde's hands in his own. Aalde's flesh was on fire, and the fisher's eyes flashed with the madness of survival. They struggled and the moments lengthened into an eternity. All that Aalde saw was his opponent, and he knew only the desire to win, and his heart was full.
They struggled until the young man's strength began to flag, and at last he collapsed to one knee, crying for mercy.
Aalde let him go and stood back, lungs heaving for breath, muscles burning with effort. The man had been a worthy opponent, and now, begging for release and showing his throat in the manner of a beaten cur, he became the picture of a graceless defeat. There was no sense of accomplishment in winning a match from a dignified man; Aalde was more intrigued by stripping him of his pride and reducing him to despair. He watched the fisher writhe in anticipation of a gory death and Aalde was happier than he could ever remember.
"What's your name?" he said at last.
The man startled to hear words. "Dustin Martin," he replied in a rush.
"Get up, Dustin."
He struggled to his feet. His eyes were black dots in a sea of scala.
"You're stronger than you look." Aalde said, stepping back.
"I am?" Dustin panted, his black hair slick with sweat. He watched Aalde pace back and forth, considering his options, and Dustin leaned over and put his hands on his knees.
"What are... what are..." He couldn't get anything more out.
"I'm granting you a reprieve from your life, Dustin."
Before Dustin could raise his head, Aalde brought the side of his hand down to connect with the back of the fisher's skull. A grunt of surprise, and Dustin pitched forward to collapse in a hump on the floor.
"Ellis!" he shouted as he pushed the stone aside and dropped Dustin's limp body into the dark passage. "Ellis! Are you down there?" He followed after, and heaved the fisher's body over his shoulders after pulling the stone back into place.
Lights ahead revealed his personal chambers. His clothes still lay folded on the couch, a bottle of wine chilled next to a vase of gardenias. Compared to the austere stonework of the maze, this candlelit alcove of wool rugs and tapestries burgeoned with comfort, and the low ceiling and lack of windows only added to the warmth. Aalde burst into the room and laid the prone man on the bed in the corner, and bellowed again, "Ellis!"
"Yes, sir, I'm coming-- oh!" She stopped short when she saw him, and one hand flung to the wall to give her support.
His hands clutched at the mask and, muttering it's key words, the skin pried away from his own. His vision drew back, and his face chilled as the bull's head peeled away. "Don't just stand there, Ellis," he growled as she composed herself. "Get me a drink of water."
He downed the liquid in three gulps.
When he slammed the glass to the counter, he saw that Ellis was studying the man on the bed with horror.
"Did you kill him?"
"He's only knocked out." Aalde replied, "Ship him to my estate on the moon. He's a fisher; he can take care of stocking the lake in the conservatory and the ponds in the dining rooms."
"You want me to--?"
"My instructions are clear, Ellis."
"Yes, sir." she said, "Sorry, sir. You startled me with the mask, that's all. I'll drug him with vanocain and send him on the next zeppelin out." She glanced at her leather book, open on the dresser. "There's a stelzep leaving tonight."
"No one's to know that he lived through this, Ellis."
"I'll want the same treatment for all of them, Ellis, except one. We have to have a winner."
She looked up from Dustin's tangled heap of limbs. "Yes?"
Aalde sneered as he tugged the mask over his head again. "This is brilliant."
The next day he slept until noon. It was the longest he'd stayed in bed since the first days of Baran Biotech; absolutely exhausted, he felt every muscle stiffen, and he laughed out loud to be so sore. He thought of the men he'd conquered, even the burly one that he'd originally questioned, and he replayed his pursuit of the two women. He hadn't ravished either one, but they'd certainly thought that was his intention, and they'd begged and pleaded on their knees to keep their dignity. When he assured them that rape was not his goal, the relief on each face was equal to the happiness he felt at being so vehemently refused.
At a quarter after twelve he rose and stretched, groaning with the delightful agony of it. He padded to the fridge, chose a cup of juniper yogurt, and sat on the leather recliner in front of the fone.
"Diedre Ellis," he said around a spoonful of yogurt.
It hissed and whirred. The square of their sitting room appeared as Stephen settled himself in their chair.
"Hello, Stephen." he greeted.
"Hello, sir!" he yelped back. 'A jumpy man,' thought Aalde, 'And not very healthy looking. Always looks startled.'
"Is Diedre there?"
"Yes, of course, any time-- I'll get her for you."
"Thank you, Stephen."
Diedre appeared. "Good afternoon, sir." she said with a coy smile, "I was so bold as to cancel your appointments for today. I hope you don't mind."
"Not at all. Can we leave our meeting until tonight, Ellis? I'm enjoying a day off."
She arched her eyebrows in surprise. "Whatever you wish."
"That means the day off for you, too."
"Thank you, sir." She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "Are you sure you don't want to meet earlier? There's the Senate conference for the Wilhelm scandal --"
"I'm not leaving the house today. Everything can wait. Spend the day with Stephen and enjoy some time to yourself."
"Thank you, sir."
"Did everything go as planned with the contestants?"
"They've been assigned new lives. All of them seemed happier in their new stations, compared to what they thought you were going to do."
"Good, good," he nodded.
"Is that all, sir?"
"One other thing." he replied, his stomach fluttering. "I thought I'd give you this house, if you'd like it."
"Thank you, sir." she said, breathless.
"Good." He smiled. "Come by tonight then, around nine, and we'll discuss tomorrow's activities and I'll give you the access code."
"Thank you, sir."
"You're welcome, Ellis." He clicked the fone off and, after finishing his juniper yogurt, returned to the relaxing bliss of bed.
When she arrived at five to nine, he went to the door himself and opened it, greeting her.
"Thank you, sir." she said as she entered.
"Are you hungry? I made dinner."
"Yes, a little."
He'd set two places at the table by the window, overlooking the ocean. He held out one chair for her and she unlocked the briefcase from her hand, resting it at her feet as she sat. Only candles lit the apartment. She smoothed her cashmere skirt over her lap as he ladled soup into the bowls, and she waited for him to return from the kitchen with a plate of kalamari and a carafe of fruited wine.
They ate in silence.
Diedre nodded as she dabbed the last drops of broth from her lips. She set her spoon into the empty bowl and plucked one twist of kalamari from the pile between them. "We need to discuss your role in the Senate conference tomorrow--"
"I outline the charges against Wilhelm and let the Senate debate his innocence," he replied, "Beyond that, nothing."
"I thought you might want to examine the evidence--"
"I know Wilhelm's guilty of treason against the empire," he replied, "I've been aware of his activity in Papuaustra since last winter, and I've kept a close eye on his bank statement. I already know my adjudication."
"Oh," she said, glancing helplessly towards her briefcase.
"I have other sources, Ellis," he said as he chose a slip of kalamari for himself.
"Of course," she replied, sounding hurt, then asked, "You've chosen an executioner already?"
"Mazury," said Aalde.
He saw a little shudder cross her shoulders. Diedre had no fondness for the man, but she said, "Ah. He does good work."
Aalde studied her face, which was downcast and perplexed. "You have a question, Ellis?"
"Everything is set in place for tomorrow's Senate conference. Wilhelm has yet to be accused, and yet his sentence is already determined and his execution date already set. Why did you need me to come here, then?"
"I wanted to thank you for yesterday and make you dinner in appreciation," he said before tearing the squid with his teeth.
"Ellis, it was amazing! I haven't felt so alive in years; we'll do it again, next month, and this time I want fourteen of them. Can you arrange that?"
"Of course, sir."
"And I wanted to give you this house as a token of my gratitude. All of yesterday was because of you; my life would be a shambles without you, and I rely so much on you, and I wanted to thank you..." He realized he was rambling, and he clamped his mouth closed to keep from babbling like an idiot. "I haven't spoken to anyone today. Sorry about that, Ellis."
"I'm glad it went so well," she replied.
"The designs... I didn't know you had a talent for decorating."
She tipped her head down, modest, and ate the knot of squid in tiny bites.
"Where is Persiphae these days?"
"Oh..." The question surprised her, she fumbled for the answer. "I think... sir, I heard she's living in the German district, working as a corpscully."
"A corpscully?" Not even welcomed into a home, but forced to eek a living cleaning an automated warehouse. "From the emperor's wife to a slave?"
"Not a slave, sir. She chose the position, she gave up her freedom willingly." Ellis folded her hands in her lap. "You said you wanted nothing to do with her, sir."
"Yes, but surely she had--"
"She wanted nothing to do with you, either," said Ellis. "A corpscully was the farthest thing from her position as a concubine."
He shuddered at the thought of sleeping with a corpscully.
"Besides," Ellis continued, "She had no freedom here. The thought of making her own way in the world probably terrified her."
Aalde felt desperate to change the conversation, to banish Persiphae from his mind as quickly as he banished her from the house. He glanced at the white squares of the shoji screen and pushed down the specter of guilt.
"I want you to have this place; it bores me," he said, and with a smile, added, "You and Stephen deserve a nicer home."
She glanced at the tangle of kalamari and the half-empty bottle. "I'll enjoy living here, sir. Stephen won't be joining me."
An awkward pause stretched between them.
She balled her napkin and set it on the table. "Stephen and our son are moving to Madrid. They've booked passage on a zep; he's leaving me in three days."
"Oh, Diedre--" he started, "I didn't even know you had a son."
"Isaac," she replied. Her voice was silky with resignation. "He's eleven."
"Why didn't I know that?"
She shrugged, a slight gesture that was almost invisible. "Our marriage was little more than a theory anyway. I'm never there."
"Diedre, I had no idea."
Her hands flew to her face to cover her features. Her shoulders quivered and she wept.
Aalde stood, pulled Ellis to her feet and wrapped his arms around her in a desperate attempt to comfort her. The action was instinctual; he was holding her before he realized. She cried into the nearest body available, her frame shivering with each silent sob.
He'd never touched Ellis before. She'd seen him in all states of dress and undress, she knew every intimate nuance of his life, she even knew his most embarrassing medical details, but he'd never so much as laid a hand upon her. For the first time he could remember, he smelt the cedar fragrance of her hair and felt the lightness of her body, softer than he'd assumed it to be, and when he pressed her closer, she stiffened slightly. As her despair faded, she realized whose arms surrounded her.
"I'm sorry, sir, I lost myself--" she muttered, shameful. Ellis pulled away and grabbed the napkin from the table, and she took off her glasses and wiped the moisture from her cheeks.
"How dare he leave you?" A seed of rage germinated in the pit of his stomach. That ugly marionette of a man on the fone had brought Ellis to tears, and Aalde couldn't let him get away with that; the adrenaline of yesterday rose in his blood, and he clenched his fists as his side as Ellis turned away to compose herself. "What kind of self-ingratiating coward--"
"I understand, I don't blame him," she replied.
He'd been so happy, it wasn't fair that Ellis was so upset. "He is NOT allowed to leave you, he will stay and you'll--"
"I'll what? Live with a man that hates me?" she barked, her nerves frayed. "YOUR life is MY job. Not the other way around."
Aalde, struck speechless by the venom in her voice, stood and stared.
"Oh, God," she whispered, and in a fluid motion, she fell to her knees at his feet. Her glasses skittered across the floor. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to speak out of turn, please forgive me."
He watched her, still amazed.
"Please, sir, please don't kill me. I was impertinent, I know--"
"I didn't think you were capable of raising your voice, Ellis."
She glanced up, her naked eyes vibrant and emerald without their fortress of glass.
He smiled back.
Aalde held out his hand and helped her to her feet. "Do you love Stephen?"
"No. Yes," she replied as he led her to the couch and they sat, side by side. She trembled but her words were steady. "I don't know anymore. Maybe I used to, a long time ago, and I don't now."
"If you could have anything, what would it be?"
She took a long time to consider her answer.
"I think," she said at last, holding his hands, "To solve my problems myself, and not rely on your influence."
"Stay the night with me."
He kissed her on the cheek like a brother, tasted the salt of her tears. She plucked her glasses from the ground as he ushered her to the door.
His shoulder hit the chest of his opponent like a freight train, and they both crashed into the wall, knocking the breath from four lungs.
Aalde staggered to his feet; the other man slumped against the stones, clutching his ribs and wincing, and after a triad of ragged breaths, he hunched forward and spat out a ribbon of blood.
"What's your name, lowman?"
Kneeling, he curled over until his bald crown almost touched the floor. The man squeezed his eyes shut and gripped the flagstones with one hand. "Hiram."
"Get up, Hiram." When he didn't move, Aalde lunged forward, "I said, get up!"
The lowman struggled to stand, a rivulet of blood joining his nostril to his mouth.
"How old are you?"
"Do you like collecting the dead?"
Unable to speak for the pain in his ribs, the lowman shook his head.
"I have a job for you."
Hiram squinted towards this monstrous vision, positive he was hallucinating the voice.
"Do you want to die, or do you accept my proposal?"
Slumping again, he huffed, "Not die."
'Even the lowmen have a sense of survival,' he mused, rubbing his hands against his thighs.
"See the doorway that's opening? At the end of the hall?"
Hiram peered through the sweat stinging his eyes. "Yeh."
"Go through that door. Follow the woman inside. She'll give you a sedative to dull your pain and take you to a new life. You understand me?"
"Yeh." Hiram nodded vigorously, his simian jaw slackened and his arms clenched around his barrel torso. He shuffled towards the exit.
Aalde watched him vanish through the portal, and it slammed shut after him with a resounding clap.
He'd left the choices of contestants to Ellis, and so far, he'd been pleased with her selection. Aalde rested against the wall until he felt strong, and he trotted along the corridor with his head high and his hands at the ready. All of the men had been fierce warriors, all of the women had struggled against him like cornered tigers. His arms were marked with countless scratches that would take days to heal; he'd have to wear a long sleeved shirt to the Wilhelm execution tomorrow, and every time he crossed his arms while listening to the prisoner's eulogy, the bright pain would remind him of today.
A footstep tapped in one of the passages behind him. Aalde turned and slipped into a shadow.
The figure of a man crossed the junction at the end of the hall.
Aalde ran to the end and peered around. The man, dressed in jeans and a linen shift, vanished around a corner.
For the lengths of five passages Aalde followed him, and as he neared, he saw the man fidgeting and glanced over his shoulder with increased frequency; he sensed he was being tailed. He scrubbed his palm over the short chestnut crest of his hair. With a deep breath, Aalde lowered his head and charged.
The man, caught unaware by the force from the darkness, slammed against the threshold and shouted once, angry and afraid, before dashing backwards to escape. Aalde was faster and caught his collar to turn him.
The light from a high candle fell upon the face of Stephen Ellis.
Aalde stepped back. "You," he said, and the rest of his sentiment left him as Stephen fist connected with his gut.
He buckled and clutched at his stomach as Stephen fled, and Aalde shook the pain off and chased him. Stephen was fast with terror, but Aalde knew all the twists and turns; he caught him in less than a hundred strides. He threw him to the ground again, outweighing the man by more than fifty pounds.
His fists fell like hammers.
The marionette limbs jerked up and down, his legs scissored in search of footing, tiny drops of blood spattered across Aalde's arms. At last he slowed, and staring down at the maw of broken teeth and the swelling eyelids, he took an apprehensive breath. None of the others had received this degree of beating. He'd always given them the opportunity to fight back.
A mewl bubbled from Stephen throat.
"I thought you were gone to Madrid," he growled as he rested on his knees, straddling the man's belly.
Stephen trained his face towards the sound of a voice. "What?"
"You left Ellis."
"No." He hawked and spat a wad of pink phlegm. "Thtayed." He coughed again. "Thtayed for Ithaac."
"Won a plathe in maze. Deedee wanted-- you know about Madrid?" The left eye opened a sliver. "How?"
"It doesn't matter how--"
"What are you?" he hissed, "How do you know Deedee?"
Aalde narrowed his eyes. "It doesn't matter--"
"I know your voithe," he continued, jerking his head to one side, regarding him like a raven out of his good eye,"Baran? Ith that Baran?"
Aalde slammed him fist down and Stephen mouth crumpled.
He'd killed before, but always with a word and at a distance. Wilhelm was proof enough that Aalde could levy a death sentence without too much remorse, but he'd never felt the blood of a man on his hands, he'd always left the work to the state executioner. Stephen death was guttural, feral, tactile, fast. The vertebrae of his neck ratcheted. His chin hit the floor, chest up and his shoulders straight.
When Aalde rose to his feet, his back sore and his calves aching, he felt too cold.
Ellis waited in the chamber below the heart of the maze. "Well?" she said, her brows drawing together. "That was only twelve." He saw in her face that she knew exactly who was missing.
"Send up a team to clean the mess." he replied as he stripped his face of the mask and unlaced his boots. "I need a shower."
For the first time, she saw the blood on his arms through the sweat and grime. "Aalde--"
Ellis squeezed her lips tightly until they were rimmed with white.
"Get me a glass of wine and a salad.... that one with walnuts and figs, you know the one."
"And I'll wear the tuxedo out. There's a dinner tonight, isn't there?" He rubbed his hands through his hair and shook the pounding from his head.
"Yes, sir." She focused on the clipboard, her voice droned like bees. "The National Telecast. The pre-execution party. Juan will be here in a hour to pick you up."
"I want Badura as my date. Have her readied and sent with the copter." He disappeared into the shower and left her to the arrangements.
The dinner went well; most of the Senate was there, fawning appropriately. Senator Toban Desmond and his terrier of a wife sat at the same table; this was the PR department's idea of reaching out to the populace after Aalde shrank from public sight in the last few months, and Aalde despised the man but understood the importance of being civil. 'Ellis will have to schedule a few more of those live telepromotor interviews,' he thought as he smiled for the cameras. 'If it means I can skip dining with Desmond, all the better.'
"--Not nearly as profitable as the drilling." said Desmond, leaning forward and scratching the tip of his beak. "I assure you, sir, that we've been trying to figure the Papuaustra techniques, but we can't mimic their structures."
"Drilling, sir, for oil," said Desmond, hawkish and sharp, "It will always prove more profitable than diamond research."
"Of course, of course," he muttered. Badura slipped her hand over his knee and cast him a seductive smile under a curtain of sable hair; Aalde pushed her touch away. "Do you think it was wise of me to assign Wilhelm to execution?"
Desmond, taken aback by the question, answered, "I would have done the same, sir, if it were in my power."
"You think he was guilty?"
"Yes," came the instant reply, "If you think so, sir."
"Guilty of what?"
The wife (whose name he could never remember, and didn't think it was all that important anyway) wore her hair in a high bouffant, studded with peacock feathers. When she opened her narrow jaw, he half-expected a squawk to escape. "It doesn't matter, sir."
"Of course it matters," said Aalde.
"Yes, of course," said Desmond to his wife, "Of course it matters."
"So what was he guilty of, Toban?" Aalde repeated.
Desmond paused. His tongue flapped. "Treason."
"Treason." Aalde leaned forward and swatted away Badura's second advance. "What did he do, Toban?"
"I'm...I'm not sure, sir," said Desmond, "But YOU know. You levied his sentence, you decided Mazury would perform the execution befitting a traitor. WIlhelm was a man guilty of treason to the empire and, for that, he deserves to die."
They had no idea.
Aalde stood, wondering if the Senate even listened to him anymore. It didn't matter if they did or didn't; the final decision was always his to make, but he hoped on some level that they at least heard and questioned him. It seemed, however, that this was not the case. He could have sentenced Wilhelm to death for farting in public, and the Senate would have bobbed their heads and called it treason and cheered as Mazury hurled the axe.
"I'm going home."
"Very good sir," said Desmond, and to his wife, said, "Come, my love, the party's finished." He took her hand in his and they smiled for the cameras, which now focused on Aalde's departure.
When Juan eased the copter into the portal of his apartment complex, Aalde found Ellis standing on the dock.
"What are you doing here?" he said as he emerged from the vehicle.
She stood with arms crossed.
"Well? I asked you a question."
Diedre looked down and away. "I couldn't go home to Isaac. He's staying with Stephen’s mother." The hum of the hoverdrives filled the air and made hearing impossible, so they stood unspeaking as the copter pulled away. Once it was gone, she looked behind him to the empty aerie. "Where's Badura? I thought--"
"I left her behind. She's annoying."
They stood alone on the dock of the portal, and behind them the city lights spread like a blanket over the midnight landscape. The moon rose behind the distant mountains, its shape cut into a jigsaw piece by the jagged horizon, and a cold salt-scented breeze swept up and through the portal's open sides.
"You coming in?"
Her eyes bore into him. He sensed she was mustering her courage. It made his heart beat a little faster.
"Why did you KILL him?" she screamed, suddenly fiery. "Christ, Aalde, you didn't have to BEAT him to death! What were you thinking?"
She was fierce and shrill; none of his wives dared to speak to him like this. She clenched her fists as if she had the strength to hurt him, and he watched her face blanche under her rage.
"I thought you wanted--"
"I didn't want him DEAD!" she replied, "Cast away, gone, isolated on the moon and never to return, but not DEAD!"
"Don't call me that!" She clamped her hands to her ears. The wind swept a lock of her hair from her clip and dragged it across her features. "Don't ever call me that!"
"You destroyed him! I had to ID him by his wedding ring! You fucking bastard!"
And she fell upon him like a maenad, hands flailing, nails scratching crimson grooves across his face. He seized her by the wrists and held her at arms length as one would hold a flapping swan until her fury deflated her. Exhausted, Ellis slumped against him.
Under her breath, she muttered, "...bastard..."
Aalde dragged her inside and set her in the corner of the couch. When he brought her a glass of pureWater, she took a sip and stared at the surface of the mercurial liquid. "I never drink this shit."
"You're angry at me."
She glared at him.
"Not afraid," he continued, "Just angry."
Her breath stuck in her throat. As he sat in the opposite chair, he watched her struggle with her rage, her desire to fling the pureWater in his face, the urge to beat at him until her hands were raw. He studied her with bewilderment and curiosity.
"Ellis," he said at last, a faint grin gracing his lips, "I think I love you."
She cast the glass aside and it shattered over the floor in an arc of glittering shards; Ellis vaulted the coffee table in a stride, tearing her skirt up the seam, and fastened her hands around his throat.
Again, he pushed her off and held her at arm's length, but this time she sunk her teeth into his wrist. He yelped, pushed her off, looked in amazement at the punctures in his skin. A step and she was back on him, throwing tiny punches into his chest, and he turned her around and pressed her to his body, pinning her arms to her sides with his own. With his free hand, he held a lock of her hair to keep her head high and her mouth away from his flesh.
"Calm down, Ellis," he whispered in her ear. "Calm down."
It was like holding a serpent. She writhed against him. She thrashed and flung her legs but he held on.
"If you don't stop, Ellis," he said, "I'll be forced to take away your son."
Instantly she stilled.
"Now," Aalde said as if speaking to an imbecile, "Will you stay calm? We can talk about this, rationally?"
"Why? Why did you kill him--"
"Because I could," he replied. "You knew that when you put him in the maze. If anyone's responsible for his death, it's you."
"No," she wailed, "No, no--"
"You killed him. I was only the weapon."
He released her hair as she began to sob.
"Is it so bad? I'll take care of you--"
"You can't take care of me, you can't even take care of yourself," she wept. "Your life's so big, it's swallowed mine."
He laid his cheek against hers. "Don't you care for me? Even a little?"
"I can't," she answered instantly, "It will kill me."
They sat together in the darkness of the apartment as the sea crashed against the shore.
"Ellis... Diedre," he said at last, "Don't leave me."
"I doubt I could," she replied with sad resignation. "You won't allow it."
"No. Of course not."
She rested her temple against his shoulder.
"You're bleeding, sir." She pulled away to stand and stepped towards the fone. "I'll call the doctor--"
"I'll bind it, let it heal on its own," he replied.
"It will scar--"
"That's fine; it will remind me of you. Are you hungry, Ellis? Can I make you some dinner?"
"No, sir." She continued to draw away from him, wringing her hands.
"Where are you going?"
Halfway to the door, she paused. "I don't know. I can't go home; I can't face Isaac."
Aalde rested on the couch and set his feet on the coffee table. "I'll send him to the lunar estate with a private tutor and--"
"I don't want my son taken from me."
"He distracts you from your job, Ellis," Aalde replied. "He leaves in the morning. What you want is irrelevant, and I expect you to make all the arrangements for his departure."
She bowed her head. Her fury smoldered still.
"I love your anger most of all, Ellis. It animates you."
She turned to go.
"You won't leave. You'll stay the night here, with me."
"I will not sleep with--"
"Enough of games, Ellis. I don't care what you want."
For a heartbeat she stood in the vestibule, studying him. Finally, she said, "I refused you because you asked me to. I would have slept with you, Aalde, even if you were a lowman, but now," Ellis folded her hands before her and lowered her voice, "I despise you, and I pity you, and I think no sadder creature walks this empire. I wouldn't sleep with you, not even under threat of execution, because you disgust me."
She turned on one heel and left.
He sat for most of the night on the crook of the couch, watching the tide rise. At last, as the sky turned azure with the dawn, he moved to the fone. "Doren Amherst Mazury."
The buzzing, the hum as it sought a number to match the name. The screen flashed to a gloomy office on the other side of the building. In the center, posed at his desk, hunched a gangly middle-aged man with plaits of black hairs cascading from his drawn, pale scalp. He batted his lashless lids like a cave lizard pulled from the endless dark into the desert afternoon, his skin pasty and his lips cracked, and Mazury shuffled forward to see who disturbed his sepulchre. Mazury was neither strong nor intelligent; these were not traits he needed to swing a blade and send a sentenced prisoner to the rending vats. Instead, he boasted an underdeveloped sense of empathy and a heightened loyalty to the emperor, as well as the desirable characteristic of keeping himself in the shadows when he wasn't needed. Compared to the other idiots that pandered for his attention and sought his compliments, Aalde appreciated Mazury's quiet, almost agoraphobic, nature.
"Doren," he said simply. The small, skinny body in the creased black suit snapped to attention.
"I have a task for you, once you've finished this job with Wilhelm today."
"Diedre Ellis has a son. Isaac Ellis."
Aalde nodded once. "You know what to do, Mazury. When it's done, send me his head."
In the following weeks, Diedre lost a great deal of weight; she didn't have much to lose to begin with. Her cheekbones jutted from her face like wings, her shoulder blades poked from under her sweater, and as her breasts had almost vanished from her front, Aalde thought it looked as if they'd retreated through her torso to hang from her back. She still dressed immaculately and simply, her hair was always washed and combed, but parts of her pale scalp winked through the dark tresses.
The head of Isaac Ellis had been suspended in formaligel and set in a gilt-edged tank by the office door. It had an eerie beauty about it; the lilac formaligel lent a faerie quality to the boy's thin features, and if the room was dark, he took on the gangly appearance of his father. Stephen had possessed a large head for his size, and so did his son. Isaac's closed eyes were framed with lacunae of thick black lashes. Those who entered Aalde's office marvelled as the strange piece of art, at the way his skin curled like parchment along the neck's trunk, at the holy expression in his placid face. The little boy was asleep and dreaming of God.
When Diedre looked at the tank, which wasn't often, her eyes were dead.
"I want to record a year's worth of telepromoter spots this week," Aalde said from his desk, and she wrote his instructions mechanically, sitting with her ankles crossed on the leather couch. "Nothing much, five or ten minutes each. It’s such a pain to record a new one each Monday; may as well get them all done now."
"Cancel my appointment with the senate. It's not as if I need to hear their debates to make my decisions. Tell them the loss of Wilhelm from my personal circle has affected me greatly, and I'm mourning him."
"Desmond might not believe it," he mused, rubbing one hand over his chin, "Can you managed to chose Desmond for the game next month? I wouldn't mind hunting him down--"
"You interrupted me, Ellis."
He narrowed his eyes and studied her. "You still mad at me, Ellis?"
"Damn," he answered with a smirk, then said, "Ellis, you're a terrible liar."
This monotonous reply raised anger in him, now, quick and surprising. Aalde struggled to keep his rage in check but he knew his face had flushed, and for a moment, Ellis' dead eyes showed a flicker of... of amusement?
"Sorry sir," she said before he could speak.
Her acknowledgement of his thoughts was the worst insult of all.
"You know too much about me," he hissed.
"I should have Mazury dispose of you."
"Yes sir." Her eyes flashed towards the tank. A wicked smile stinking of madness spread across her dark lips.
"Get out of my sight, Ellis."
"Yes sir." Instantly the madness vanished. She closed her case, stood and glovedlocked the briefcase to her arm. "May I say one thing, sir?"
"If it isn't 'yes sir', then go ahead."
"Perhaps you should have a game tomorrow. Why wait? You, of all people, should feel no need to wait for anything."
He regarded her suspiciously. "What?"
"If you wish Desmond to be your prey, why give him time to suspect his fate? We'll arrange a session for the morning, with no prizes or civilians to get in your way, and you can hunt him at your leisure."
"Alright." He said this carefully, as if he were standing at the abyss and she was enticing him to jump. He was wearing wings of her making; were they steel or were they wax? At last, he added, "A good idea, Ellis." The thought of running in the maze so soon spurred a flutter of excitement in his veins.
"I know, sir, how you enjoy it," she said, "And with your grief of Wilhelm's execution, perhaps it is seemingly to pamper yourself. Pursue your pleasure without thinking too greatly on your responsibilities."
"Thank you, Ellis."
She dipped her head down. "May I be so bold as to ask a question, sir?"
"The diamond stocks that Wilhelm had accrued through his connections in Papuaustra... those fell into your possession with his death."
"And so your empire now includes Papuaustra. You hold enough of the stock to control their stores and their government."
“His treason was nothing more than a power rising to equal yours.”
Aalde bared his teeth, just a fraction.
"Will you send Desmond to Papuaustra once you've defeated him in the maze, or will you kill him as you did my husband?"
Aalde studied her expression; behind the timorous fear in her voice was a shade of defiance, of fearlessness. This was a woman who had lost her husband and son; Aalde loved her, he knew this to be true, but now he had nothing to keep her in check. "You know too much about me already, Ellis," he replied, scolding himself for being brash in getting rid of Isaac. He should have kept the boy hostage rather than made a trophy of him. It didn't have the sobering effect on Ellis as he'd hoped. When she loitered, he pointed to the door. "Get out of here."
He thought momentarily of calling Mazury, of ordering Diedre’s head, and then decided against it. No need to be brash again. After the maze he would order her death, but until then, she had limited use.
He entered the silence of the maze with a hint of foreboding. He hadn't gotten so far in the corporate world with a lack of instincts, and his naked skin crawled with the sensation of anxiety. 'Be careful', he thought under the mask, flicking his ears and taking comfort in the weight of horns on his brow. The image of Diedre’s mad smile surfaced in his mind, and he knew without a doubt that he'd find some sort of trap in the labyrinth.
Other men might have canceled the game, stayed at home, thrown resources into rooting out Diedre’s intentions. Aalde stepped into the stone corridors and squared his shoulders. He ruled the world. Those who stood before him bowed their heads to him. The other countries, the remaining liberated nations that clung to outdated ideologies and struggled to feed their people, recognized that they retained their freedom because Aalde had not yet decided to own them. At times, he even suspected the sun rose to please him and the tide swelled to entertain him during sleepless evenings. Aalde had not built an empire by shying from conflict, and he was loathed to start now.
The thought of Diedre, laying a trap and ensnaring him, was absolutely ridiculous.
The knife in the shaft of his boot had the same quality of weight as the horns. A weapon always gives the bearer a keener sense of strength, and Aalde walked with the confidence of a matador. Let the challenges come; victory was his right, and he would destroy all that stepped before him.
In the hall of mirrors he heard the distant chain of footfalls, and he slipped down a side corridor to wait, to pinpoint the clicks. They drew further away. Aalde paced after them, over lapis and jade tiles, over the tiny round pebbles of jet, over the mosaic of bull and bear. He passed the mural of his dancing wives.
Aalde startled to a stop.
The figures of his wives remained the same: Melanie, Anna, Soren, Saeri, Badura, Gabrielle, Michelin. Persiphae still turned from the others, her hand clamped around Melanie's as if she were losing her balance and tumbling, her slender foot kicking out and seeking steady ground, but her head had been repainted; she no longer turned from the viewer with modesty. Persiphae's face had become slender, with green eyes behind wire rimmed glasses, and her hair was dark instead of red or blonde. This was Diedre’s visage on Persiphae's unmistakable body, laughing, joyous. Her free hand was outstretched and bore a severed head in its grasp, swinging wildly from it's rope of black hair.
"Mazury?" said Aalde aloud, knitting his bullish brow and setting his hands upon his waist. "What the hel--"
A thump behind him, deep and resounding. Aalde's heart beat at his ribs, knowing this was Desmond, casting about in the darkness for an egress. The man was a statesman, not a soldier.
They ran for a long, long while; Desmond was in good shape for a man his age. The sound of his steps were erratic, heavy. At one point, Aalde thought they came from two directions at once.
He reeled through the vestibules of gargoyles, tore through the corridors of malachite. The knife was poised to strike around every turn, but all the halls were empty. Still, the distant thumping continued.
Sweat covered both faces. The bull's mane hung in sodden tangles over his shoulders and down his spine.
Chest heaving, Aalde slowed. He chose a door, little more than a panel recessed in the wall without fixtures to show it's function, and pounded on its polished surface.
"Open up, Ellis!"
"How many are there, Ellis?" he commanded, lowering his voice and wiping the perspiration from his brow.
Her name echoed through the empty corridor and faded into silence. He took a series of deep breaths to even his peaking rage.
A tiny crackling, like a thrown pebble, came from the end of the hall.
His heart raced. It felt like the first time again, in these walls, and he grinned despite himself. "Ellis?" he cooed, "Are you hunting me?"
Aalde moved with noiseless swiftness through the hall of mirrors in the direction from which he'd come. He was aware of a faint shuffling sound, sand against sand, but he couldn't place it's direction. It came from all passages at once; perplexed, he jogged along the mural of his wives, passed the eerie picture of Diedre holding Mazury's head aloft. Tiny fissures crisscrossed the upper edge of the wall; the maze was less than a year old and already the plaster was cracking.
A breeze fluttered through the corridor. He scented a strange fragrance on the wind; sweet, pungent, reminiscent of pureWater left out in the sun, and he followed the trail with his nose held high and his nostrils wide. It grew in steady measurements, now almost unbearable. There, ahead, in the middle of the round room. Set on the central tile was an odd little square under a white cloth.
"A wry bitch, that's what you are, Ellis," he said to the empty chamber, creeping forward with knife extended. "What's in the box?"
The stench filled the space. He squinted against it as tears formed in the corners of his eyes. Aalde reached out with the knife and snagged the fabric, and it slipped to the floor.
The empty tank. Traces of formaligel clinging to the glass. In the bottom, like a deflated balloon, slumped the face of Isaac Ellis.
Aalde crept closer, his blood beating in his ears. It was incredibly dark in the room; the shadows cast by the candles on the walls flickered as the flames sputtered and began to extinguish one by one.
He peered at the face of Isaac. The white nerve sensor points glistened where the neck had folded back on itself, and when he peeled the lips apart, his fingertips sticky with formaligel, Aalde read the logo of the Brazilian lab on the inner surface of the mouth.
He screamed with rage, and throwing his head back, he saw through the blackened skylight that night had come too early.
The fone whirred, clicked, and the screen flashed to life.
"Telepromotor message for Monday, the seventh day of the second month of the twelfth year under the rule of the exalted Aalde Baran, the light of the world, the distributor of pureWater, and he who gives hope to those who rest in his shade. Official reports from the apartments of the Emperor state that, following the execution of his dear confidante Wilhelm abMiera, our lord Baran will retire from the view of the people and grieve in private. He continues to rule and bless us with his leadership, but at this time of greatest sorrow, he asks that all respect his desire to fondly remember and celebrate the life of the departed Senator, whom Baran often described as a brother. Further telepromotor transmissions will be performed by her honor Diedre Ellis, the emperor's personal assistant, who resides with the Emperor at his private lunar estate while he recovers from his fathomless grief.
"As a symbol of his enduring sorrow, Emperor Baran has ordered the games to cease and the maze to be destroyed. Immediately following this command, the entire structure was sealed and buried under stone and sand to create a mountain of divine magnitude. This triumph of man's will over nature is a temple to the glory of Baran's power, and at the summit, construction of a new cultural center has begun, promising to usher in a new era of arts and music--"
Diedre flipped the switch and slumped in the cushions of the reclining chair, letting the rocking motions of the stellar zeppelin soothe her. The scratches on her arm from Mazury's struggles had healed quickly; she rolled down her sleeves to hide the white scars from her own eyes, to keep her memory from replaying the severing and the pushing his body into the trash incinerator and the moping of blood. Diedre shuddered. She had built the maze as a game, not a weapon, and she didn't have the heart of a killer. She read the time from her watch to distract her conscience: three hours more until they reached the palace on the moon. She glanced at Isaac, sleeping soundly on the bed at the back, next to the bar and the Biotech crate.
When he was old enough he'd wear the mask it held, but the thought of Aalde's face sullying the features of her son made her cringe. Still, seven years was a good amount of time for Aalde to mourn Wilhelm's murder, and she knew she couldn't keep the masses at bay forever. The media would proclaim that the emperor returned from his lunar palace a changed man. Diedre would make sure they never knew how right they really were.
© 2003 by K. Bannerman. K. Bannerman's short stories have been published throughout North America and Europe, and her novel, The Tattooed Wolf, was published in September2002. She also co-edits an ezine, Moth Magazine, located at www3.telus.net/throwingsticks. Nocturnal by nature, she enjoys annoying the neighbours by playing her accordion and star-gazing with her loyal rabbit, Renny, at her side.