He was a fine figure of a man, was his king, Governor Sylvain thought. Marek Landale, King of Palma and its colonies, was twenty-seven years old, four years younger than the man he'd appointed as Governor of the Motavian colonies. His body was long and lean, showed to perfection in his dress tunic embroidered with gold braid, his face handsome without being weak, his eyes a bright blue that laughed with him.
Teras Sylvain could see why the lady Elysse had chosen Marek; the man was virtually a storybook prince come to life--better than a prince, a king! Brave, kind, loyal, honest--his soul matched his outward appearance. Sylvain could not begrudge him the loss of Elysse. She'd never been Sylvain's to begin with, and after she met Marek Landale it was clear that she never would be.
Whatever made her happy, that had been Sylvain's mantra. It had kept him silent during the courtship. It had kept him silent during the ceremony, even as he stood by Landale's side, his heart breaking with every word said by the old priest. It had kept him silent afterwards, kept him from saying something that could only lead towards pain on one side or another.
It had sent him to Motavia, where he would not have to face the two of them each day. The Governor's manor had become his home. That was where he had been on the day Elysse had died bringing little Alisa into the world. Marek's daughter.
It was that which he still repeated to himself, late at night, when disloyal voices in the depth of his soul told him that, had Elysse not wed Marek Landale, she'd still have been alive.
Did Marek feel it too, hear those same voices? Sylvain sometimes thought that he did. He was bolder, now, more daring--a man who was assured of an heir, and who no longer had a wife waiting for his return.
Of course, it gave Ossale fits. General Alex Ossale, commander of the King's Guard, railed when the king went riding neck-or-nothing to hunt fearsome monsters in Palma's mountains, or when he led the army into battle against tribes of barbarian Motavians who raided the towns of Palma's farmer allies. Or on a day like today, when he stood before a throng of Dezorians outside the entrance to the underground mining town of Skure.
"Alex," the king had dismissed Ossale's concerns, "the Dezorian government is allowing us to set up a town on their planet. I have to show them the respect they deserve."
"Your Majesty, I'm not advising you to snub them or not make the trip. I just think that you should hold the meeting in private. There are elements of Dezorian society that view us as outsiders, interlopers. Ones who wouldn't hesitate to use violence."
Landale had shaken his head.
"That's exactly why everything we do has to be completely open and aboveboard. No secret meetings, no comings and goings in the dead of night. I'm arriving openly and publicly, proud to represent the Palman people as their king."
Ossale's scowl was as much a part of the general's reputation as his weaponskill was.
"Then at the very least wear your armor, your Majesty."
Marek had chuckled at that suggestion.
"What, you want me to appear before the Archpriestess dressed for war? You're a first-class soldier, Alex, but no diplomat."
"That's quite enough, Alex. Protecting me is your job, I know, but I have a job, too, and the needs of mine outweigh the needs of yours. I'm sorry, but that's the bare truth."
Ossale, Sylvain noted, was still scowling even now, as Landale stepped forward, hand extended to take the Archpriestess Baratir's in greeting.
The the scowl was replaced by a shout of fury.
"Majesty! Get down!" he cried, diving for the king.
He was almost fast enough.
There were six of them, green-skinned native Dezorians dressed in coats and hats the scarlet hue of blood. In their hands were the lethal short-barreled flame-guns the Dezorians used in battle. Unlike Palman heat guns, the Dezorian pistols could not spray a target with burst fire, but the single shots they spat were deadly.
One shot struck the Archpriestess in the shoulder. The middle-aged Dezorian woman screamed and fell to her knees, clutching her wound. Two more shots missed altogether.
The remaining three found King Marek's chest.
As Palman and Dezorian guards alike swarmed the red-clad killers, Sylvain rushed to his king's side.
In a story, there would have been an Esper there to cast healing magic on the wound. Or the Dezorian underpriest escorting his leader would have used his litany of curing on Marek before tending the Archpriestess' relatively minor wound. Or at the very least, Landale would have had a touching last word for his friend.
In life, things are not so pat. By the time the Governor reached Landale's side, the king was already gone from this world, and there were tears of fury in Ossale's eyes.
The king's lips, though, were curved upwards in a smile.
* * * * *
"You can't be serious!" Sylvain exclaimed.
Ossale nodded grimly, hand clenched around his cup of neimila, the hot, fermented spiced juice of a thorn palm. The desert nights of Motavia could grow cold, and the heated liquor was popular among Palmans and native Motavians both.
Sylvain turned to Damor, who stood at the window, looking out at the city of Paseo. The soothsayer was one of the most powerful Espers of all Palma, and had served as a kind of "court wizard" for more than two decades.
"Damor, surely you can't be going along with this?"
The white-haired man did not turn around.
"Have you heard about the Regent's latest proposal to the Legislative Council?" he asked, then answered his own question. "Robot police! Lassic wants to take justice and put it into the hands of machines!"
"I would think," the Governor said slowly, "that if those robots can do their jobs, then you would welcome the change. A robot cannot be bribed or tempted, cannot grow lazy..."
"That's what Lassic said to the Council," Ossale declared. "What he failed to mention was that a robot also cannot think for itself. It follows whatever orders it is programmed to follow, without concern, without tolerance, without mercy."
"In short," Damor said, "the perfect tools for a tyrant to use to enforce his will."
"Really, gentlemen, I hardly think that Lassic is the monster you take him for. The Council would hardly have named him Regent if he truly was out for power."
"Once, perhaps, he was a decent man," Ossale declared. "Maybe it's just the taste of power that's doing it to him. Some people are like that, unaware the taint is even in them until they get too close to the prize. You can see it in Lassic's eyes every moment you're with him. He burns for power."
"Not just typical power, either," Damor declared. "He's dabbled in black magic as well, secrets no sane Esper would look into."
"I'm afraid for the princess," the general said. "She's barely one year old, and her fragile life is all that's keeping Lassic off the throne. Every time he goes near her my heart is in my throat."
Sylvain looked back and forth from one to the other.
"Yes, but this? A rebellion against the lawfully appointed Regent? There hasn't been political violence on Palma since Weyes Landale first unified the planet under his rule."
Ossale nodded again, curtly.
"There are men and women ready to follow us," he said, "officers and troops who have seen what we've seen. Espers, too, under Damor's leadership. It won't be a lost cause. With you on our side, though...if you support us, then Lassic will be alone. The forces of Motavia added to ours will insure victory, but the popular support will make actual fighting unnecessary."
Maybe that was true, Sylvain thought. Then again, maybe it was not. Maybe none of it was. Maybe the general and the Esper were mistaken, or paranoid, or just out for power.
The mental picture came to the Governor of Lassic sitting on Marek Landale's throne. To his surprise, he found that it did not seem unpleasant.
"I'm sorry, Alex, Damor," he said. "I can't help you. Not unless Lassic actually does something to prove his ambition."
* * * * *
There was a strange irony to it all, Sylvain reflected as he swore his oath of fealty. Everything Ossale and Damor had feared had come to pass, largely because of their own efforts. When they'd taken up arms, the Legislative Council had pressed forward at once with production of the new robotcops to support the army. Then, the rebels had kidnapped Princess Alisa, ostensibly to keep her safe. She'd never been found, and neither had Damor. When the rebellion was put down, there were no known Landale heirs left.
So, the Regent had become king. The old man had ended up in power because his enemies had feared that he would try to seize it.
Self-fufilling prophecies were always the most reliable ones.
* * * * *
"A new religion, you say?"
"That's right, Governor," the Councilor from Uzo said. "They say that it promises immortality to those who join its ranks. Not real immortality, that of the spirit, but physical immortality here in this world." Councilor Merisa was a good woman, Sylvain reflected, but she did have a habit of being preachy.
"It sounds tempting, I'll admit. Especially to a man like King Lassic, who is not getting any younger."
Marisa shook her head.
"It goes against everything the Church stands for. Why, if one can attain immortality in this life, what is the incentive for us to live righteously?"
"Marisa, I would hope that we do not have to be bribed into behaving well by the promise of an afterlife."
Isn't that what the Church teaches, though? A treat for those who do what Mommy and Daddy say, a spanking for those who don't?
"That isn't the point!"
Sylvain hardly wanted to be drawn into a theological debate with the conservative Marisa, so he changed the subject.
"Who's spreading this religion?"
"They say that it's...alien priests!" she replied theatrically. Sylvain couldn't help raising one neat eyebrow.
"Alien?" he asked. "What makes them so...alien?"
"I don't know. No one's ever seen one."
"How do they convert people if no one's seen them?" This was starting to sound like a bad urban legend, muddled and self-contradicting.
"Presumably, they appear to their followers, just not openly before the general public."
"I see." That sounded a little better, and made a certain kind of sense. Fringe cults often shrouded themselves in needless mystery so as to heighten their attraction to the masses.
"Mark my words, Sylvain; this is a sign of dark times to come."
* * * * *
Sylvain had been surprised to be called back to Palma. Increased monster attacks in the Motavian countryside had him run ragged, desperate for a plan to help his people stop the creatures.
He was also surprised to see Lassic dressed in what looked to be a costume right out of the medieval era--golden armor, a horned helmet, a floor-length cape, and a crested staff. The king's eyes burned with the light of the fanatic, and something else beyond that.
The light of true power
"Your Majesty," Sylvain said, bowing.
He let Sylvain wait for a moment. He knew that the governor was eager to ask what was happening, but for some reason Sylvain found himself unable to open his mouth, to challenge his liege's decision the way he would have with Marek Landale.
This is a true king, not a figurehead with nothing better to do than charm women. One waits upon his pleasure, not addresses him as if one was an equal.
Finally, Lassic spoke.
"No doubt you are wondering about the somewhat preemptory tone of my command that you come here."
"It did surprise me," Sylvain admitted.
"I am going to make a public announcement today by interplanetary broadcast. I want all of the provincial governors beside me when I do that. There will be no Alex Ossales this time, no Damors. I want a show of unity."
"Then, whatever you are going to proclaim must be something of vital importance--something extraordinary."
When Lassic smiled, the sidepieces of his helmet hid the corners of his mouth.
"It is indeed. I am going to declare martial law."
"The problem with monsters has been escalating steadily over the past two years. The army and the Robotcops must be fully mobilized to meet this threat. Constant submission to civilian oversight keeps our forces from protecting the people of Palm. I'm sure you've noticed the troubles on Motavia as well."
"I have," Sylvain agreed. "If declaring martial law can keep the citizens safe, then I'm with you, Your Majesty."
"Good, good." Lassic rose from his throne. His height surprised Sylvain; the Governor had never quite realized that the king was at least three inches over six feet, and was lent even more size by his armor. "Come, Sylvain, the public awaits." He strode from the room, his cape swirling around his ankles.
* * * * *
"King Lassic," the telemonitor blared to the Governor, "declared today that the current system of numbering the years is archaic and too Palman-centered."
Sylvain snorted. He's had his fill of Lassic's pompous declarations. The dreams that had plagued him for the past year left him tired and weary, impatient with the king.
Power is worthless unless used.
He brushed aside the stray thought. There were better ways to use power, such as dealing with the Evilheads, the anti-Palman terrorists on Dezoris that had assassinated the previous king. Or in stomping out the monsters that seemed to breed like flies. Though, to give Lassic his due, the Robotcops were keeping the residential areas safe--but it felt more like the people were animals, herded into pens.
"As our civilization spreads out among the planets of the Algo solar system, it seems only fitting to recognize the efforts of the first to reach the stars. It was on this day, three hundred and thirty-six years ago today, that the first Palman ventured into space, opening the doorway to the future. As was said by the then-President of Camineet, 'This event begins a new era in history. We can truly say that we are living in a Space Century.' In honor of that moment, I hereby declare that all government records and publications shall now refer to the current year as Space Century 336, and that this shall become the official system of dating throughout this kingdom."
Sylvain snorted. Was Lassic so jealous of his power that he had to obliterate everything bearing the name of the previous dynasty? AW dating--After Weyes, for the Unifier--honored a Landale, so it had to be removed?
Better to use that power to crush his enemies.
He might look the part of a king, did Lassic, but that was all. In his chest beat the heart of a frightened child.
Scared of death, scared of weakness.
I could be a better king, the Governor said to himself.
* * * * *
The dreams came every night, now, eating away at Sylvain's sanity. During the day, his lack of rest made him waspish and irritable. He barked orders that called for a harsher hand than he wanted to rule with, took out his irritation on his subjects.
Too, there were his feelings about Lassic. It was clear that the man was becoming a tyrant, plain and simple, but more than that he was an inept one. His brutal rule, heavy taxes, and use of force was steadily reducing Palma from an advanced, peaceful civilization that had ventured out into space to a collection of sheep penned in away from monstrous terrors. It was almost as if Lassic was deliberately following a plan meant to destroy the fabric of Palman society.
Poor, dead Alex Ossale and the still-missing Damor had been right, Sylvain knew. He should have joined them when there was still a chance to stop the king. Now, with his Robotcops, no one could oppose him. Oppression was stamped out savagely by the merciless machines, something else the rebels had been right to fear.
Some days, it was hard for the Governor not to speak out in blunt and offensive terms about the monarch. That would have been a fatal mistake. The Robotcops in Paseo only obeyed the Governor because Lassic had instructed them to. If the king wanted, they would turn on Sylvain in an instant.
Nor would his position as Governor of Motavia protect Sylvain from his king. The provincial governor on Palma had tried to question some of Lassic's policies, such as closing the sea trade routes that brought the outlying regions much of their economic well-being, and had been summarily arrested, removed from his position, and tossed into Triada Prison. He had been replaced by an Esper named Medusa.
Sylvain could not imagine what kind of person would assume the name of the legendary monster said to have been slain by Perseus a thousand years ago. There were even rumors that she actually was that monster, returned to life by some dark magic.
What kind of woman? The kind who does not fear the consequences of her own power.
He was caught, Sylvain knew, in a trap of his own making. A noose that he had put around his own neck. When he'd hand the chance to oppose Lassic he had held back. Now he knew better, but had no power to face the tyrant with.
Power left unused is power lost. Lassic doesn't know this, else he would not waste his time on trifles.
That night the dreams would grow even worse.
* * * * *
For Sylvain, the end had come. He'd known it as soon as the words had left his lips at the dinner party the night before. He'd criticized Lassic before some of the most important merchants in Paseo. One of them, perhaps more, had been quick to try and curry favor by branding him a traitor.
It was the act of a coward, of course, the sort of person that crawls on his belly, but in a tyrant's shadow the toady can grow fat and bloated on power he would otherwise have no access to.
The Robotcops had arrived at four in the morning. Out of respect for Sylvain's rank, they had been ordered to "escort him to an immediate, emergency meeting" with the king.
In truth, of course, they had been there to arrest him.
Ironically, it seemed as if Sylvain was about to get the answer to the question that had brought him to this pass. He'd wanted to know where Lassic was now.
In the past few months, several resistance cells had sprung up in opposition to the tyrant. While generally underequipped and undermanned, they had staged some minor terrorist attacks, including a bombing at the Camineet Government Building. In response, Lassic had fled, run away and hid in an unknown location, running his government through intermediaries.
Some said this was pragmatism. The Governor, foolishly, had asserted that it was due to fear.
He is afraid. He is a coward, terrified of any threat that would cost him the immortality he was promised. He has the power of one who is almost a god, and he squanders it.
Scared or not, though, Lassic clearly wasn't minded to tolerate dissent among his subjects, even one as highly placed as Sylvain. That was why the Governor's private space ship, commanded by military pilots, had been sent en route to Palma and the spaceport near Camineet.
Sylvain leaned back into the comfortable seat of his flight cabin which was, nonetheless, a prison cell. He wondered idly if his fate was going to be a swift execution of a slow death within the boundaries of Triada Prison. Which one would be better, he thought, the living death or the actual?
It was not an entirely moot question, as after all there was one truth to consider.
They had eaten away at Sylvain's sanity over the past four years. He slept as little as possible, often resorting to stimulants to keep him awake late into the night and give him strength in the morning. It was entirely possible that he'd become addicted to the drugs. Denied them, he would have to suffer the torments of withdrawal--and the dreams would return in full force.
Awake, he couldn't even remember what the dreams were. Sylvain only knew that they were horrible, twisting at his soul.
As he considered that, wondered at what his subconscious was hiding, Sylvain yawned loudly. In shock, he realized that he had missed a regular dose of the drugs, and in the absence of chemical help, his system was demanding rest.
Sylvain wanted to fight the urge--not just because of the dreams, but for the simple reason that these might be the last few hours of his life and he did not want to miss any of them. Unfortunately for Sylvain, there are times in life when one's wants are meaningless in determining what one will actually get. This was one of those times.
It took less than five minutes for sleep to claim him.
* * * * *
The face was dark and vast, not a human face at all, but the face of a demon.
Welcome...Governor, it said, and Sylvain could hear the sly mockery in its monstrous voice.
The thing had no body; it was just the image of its face--a twisted mockery of a face with jutting fangs for upper and lower canines, and sunken pits for eyes in which sparks of fire burned. More than that, though, was the terrible menace that it projected, the sense of clear, unadulterated evil that seemed to wash over Sylvain, that lingered in the dreamscape like a poisoned taint infecting the air.
In horror stories, there were tales of dream-demons, saccubi that preyed on the sleeper's will and fed on the life energy of anyone whose dreams they infected. Sylvain had never believed in such monsters, but he did now.
"You know me?"
I've known you for years. Don't you recall?
Its eyes flared, and all of a sudden, he did. It had come to him in dreams before, appearing to him in this fashion. Even when it had not, it was still the source of the night terrors that had plagued Sylvain, for they were linked together by a bond that sent its black thoughts to him even during his waking hours.
"What do you want?"
To save you.
The Governor snarled at the demon.
"Somehow I doubt that, saccubus."
Oh, but it's quite true. All I ask is that you give yourself to me.
Sylvain recoiled from the idea.
Lassic will kill you.
"You know of Lassic?"
As I said, we have known one another for a very long time.
The thing cackled darkly.
I could take you by force, Sylvain, it said. I could make you my servant effortlessly. The drugs have eroded your will. Once you could have resisted me, but not now.
"Then why wait? If my end is inevitable, then have done with your talk and we'll settle it between us."
Brave talk, the governor thought, but he had nothing to back it up. He had no weapons in this dream world, and he knew no magic that could protect himself.
I do not want that. I do not want you as my puppet.
"Or maybe you can't take me by force. Maybe all you can do is threaten."
The demon laughed.
Why should I do that? I need not play games with you to destroy you, were that my aim. I would only have to wait for your king to do it for me.
There was something to that. Sylvain was in a very real way a condemned man.
Or will you hesitate once more?
A vision of the lady Elysse appeared before him, as lovely as a spring day, her eyes laughing. The vision changed, and she stood next to Marek Landale, wearing a formal wedding gown and veil. She turned from Sylvain to the king, melting into his arms, her gown shimmering and fading away as she did so. While their naked bodies entwined, Landale looked gloatingly over her shoulder at the governor.
You did not speak when you had the chance, and so the love of your life became another's.
The vision faded, to be replaced by the figure of Alex Ossale as he had looked at his execution, body broken by torture. Lassic, clothed in an executioner's garb, strode forth, a bright sword in his hand. With a single sweep of the blade, Ossale's head flew from the general's shoulders, and rolled across the dreamscape to come to rest at Sylvain's feet. The grisly relic looked up at him with mute appeal in his eyes.
You did not stand up for justice, and good men died. A friend lost his life.
Now it was Lassic who changed, his clothing metamorphosing into the twisted, regal armor he apparently wore at all times now.
You did not act, and a tyrant came to power. In all these things, you might have taken action and so prevented disaster, but you hesitated. You stayed your hand, Sylvain, and so death came.
Elysse laid out on a funeral bier, in the grave-clothes of a fallen queen. Ossale's corpse hurled into a potter's field, the nameless burial of a traitor.
Now it is your life at stake, Governor. You are the tyrant's enemy. Nothing can save you from his wrath.
Nothing but me.
Will you hesitate again?
It was right. All his life, he'd been afraid, too cautious to risk himself on an untried venture. Too afraid of the consequences of failure.
"What would be the price for your help?" he asked the saccubus warily.
What do you care? I am offering you your life. This is your one and only chance to save yourself.
Choose to live or choose to die.
The monster's voice echoed raucously around him. The Governor could feel its contempt for his past failures. It was certainly not offering this out of respect for him. No, if it was going to save his life, it would strictly be for reasons of its own.
Sylvain wasn't sure he wanted to support those reasons.
Is it any better to walk into certain death? came unbidden into his mind. Is inaction so much a way of life that it is worth refusing to live?
Decide now, Sylvain
He made his choice.
* * * * *
The four Robotcops escorted the Governor from the spaceship to a waiting landrover, an armored multi-wheeled vehicle used for overland transport. This one was manned by more robots, rather than fallible Palman soldiers.
It was not empty, however.
When the machines ushered Sylvain into the rear passenger compartment, a green-robed figure was waiting for them.
"We were not expecting anyone," the lead Robotcop said.
"Command decisions are not required to be discussed with you," replied the figure in a strange, hissing voice. It turned, and the Governor realized that it wore a full-face mask fitted with a breathing apparatus, a long, flexible tube running from the mask's mouth.
A being used to a different kind of air?
"You have been programmed to accept my commands?" it inquired.
"You will return the Governor to Paseo and release him, unharmed."
"We were given orders to--"
"Those orders have been countermanded! I speak now for your king. Obey me!"
"We obey," the machine affirmed.
Dark Force chuckled dryly. Lashiec would be enraged to lose his petty revenge, of course, but a stiff reminder of whom the man once named Lassic served would be adequate to deal with that.
Do you see, Sylvain? it thought to the consciousness that remained trapped inside the Governor's body. As you, I possess even more control over the government than through Lashiec. As a known rival of the king, sooner or later I will encounter any resistance which poses a legitimate threat. Then, I can crush them from within, or, if I prefer, direct their actions for my own purposes.
Trapped in the depths of his own soul, Teras Sylvain could only scream in response.