Old City, New Friends, New Enemies.
On Tallura, Dawn and the others may be safely out of Glory’s reach, but their adventures are only just beginning. And safety is always a relative condition. Pairings:
I don’t own Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stargate SG-1, or Stargate Atlantis. Notes:
Continued from Fate’s Little Plaything Vol.1
(it will only make sense if you’ve read that story). Antiquarian Book Shop
, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 29th December 2000 (Earth Date)
The Old City, Joyce reflected, had some similarities with many old European cities she’d visited as a student. A maze of narrow streets, with tall and sturdy stone-built combined shop and apartment buildings along each side, often fronted with covered arcades, and punctuated here and there with open areas, used for markets and other gatherings. The Old City was built on a hill, the streets – many of them quite steep – winding their way up to the walled Imperial Palace on the summit. Another wall at the base of the hill physically separated the comfortable old stone buildings of the Old City, from the glistening crystal and metallic spires and towers of the New City, which had spread across the plain. There was a definite Olde Worlde feeling about this part of Yaherin Var, dating back fifteen hundred years and outwardly almost unchanged in that time.
A Gravity Car whined overhead, reminding Joyce that the Tallurans were, nevertheless, several centuries ahead of Earth. Ground transportation was almost non-existent anywhere in Yaherin Var. Airborne Gravity Cars and their cargo-carrying equivalents were mainly to be found in the New City, as there were few landing zones in the older part. The New City also boasted a nearby spaceport and an underground magnetic train system. Dotted throughout Yaherin Var, both Old and New, matter transporters allowed people to move instantaneously between different parts of the city.
In the Old City, most people simply walked. The area wasn’t overly large and, as far as Joyce was concerned, it was always a pleasure. The Craft and Artists Guilds were mainly located around here, workshops often visible from the streets outside. As an art dealer, she wished it was possible to take some of their creations back home. Practicality, however, reminded her that their origins would be difficult to explain.
She paused outside a narrow-fronted store, with panes of glass, signage and a wooden door that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a production of a Dickens novel. It was, she realised gleefully, some sort of antique book-store.
“Do we have time? I’d love to look around here...” Joyce turned to her bodyguard, Decurion Ephichara Aquiliani.
The other woman smiled. “We have as much time as you wish.”
Initially, Joyce hadn’t wanted a bodyguard for herself. Indeed, given the incredibly low crime rate and the fact that there was no apparent threat to the human visitors, she was beginning to wonder if Dawn really needed Faith and SG-15 in attendance each time she set foot outside the Imperial Palace. Drayana, however, had insisted. The Empress, having given her word to the Asgard, wasn’t about to renege on her promise to keep them safe.
After some discussion, Joyce had accepted a single regular bodyguard. Aquiliani was one of only a handful of young women serving in the Empress’s Imperial Guard detachment. While the Imperial Defence Forces recruited women for all roles, until recently the Guard tended to recruit only the largest and most-imposing men. With a very young Empress on the throne, however, it had been recognised that she might feel more comfortable with at least some female bodyguards. Drayana, for her part, decided that Joyce might also prefer a woman. Aquiliani, in her late twenties and only a few inches taller than Buffy, was proving to be an ideal choice.
Joyce opened the door – inevitably it had an old-fashioned bell attached – and glanced around. Shelves stretched from floor to ceiling, lined with books of varying ages. Paper and bindings might be made slightly differently around here, but the smell would have been unmistakable to any bibliophile from Earth. Giles would certainly feel at home here, she decided.
“Woops...” too busy looking around, Joyce almost missed three steps, leading down into the shop.
Arms flailing for balance, she only just stopped herself from falling on her face, Aquiliani quickly grabbing her arm .
“Be careful! May I help you?” an elderly man stepped out from behind a desk, a thick white beard reaching halfway down his chest.
“I’d like to have a look around for now, if I may...” Joyce replied.
“You are not from around here. One of the outer colonies?” the storekeeper obviously wasn’t taken in, either by Joyce’s Talluran dress or the artificial accent and words produced by her Asgard translation implant.
“A little further away,” Aquiliani told him. “Joyce is a Terran, visiting the Empress.”
The owner’s white eyebrows rose, as he curiously eyed Joyce. “A Terran, by the Ancestors? The first contact for three thousand years and more... What will our young scamp of an Empress think of next!”
“We don’t look so different, do we?” Joyce chuckled at his scrutiny.
“You certainly do not, young woman,” the storekeeper responded, eyes twinkling.
It had been a long time, Joyce reflected with amusement, since anyone had called her “young” anything. Not that she minded.
“You must be an honoured guest, to be given one of the Imperial Guard as your escort... But please, take as much time as you wish to peruse my stocks.”
The owner turned to Aquiliani. “As for you, Decurion? I have a message for our beloved Empress... Tell her that my books are growing lonely – she hasn’t visited for some time.”
“Her Excellency is extremely busy,” Aquiliani pointed out mildly.
“I understand - matters of state and all that – but remind her that she is always welcome here,” the storekeeper responded.
He’d spent many happy hours with the Empress and Imperial Tutor, disputing the contents of some dusty tome. In his own small way, the book collector hoped he’d helped to shape Drayana into the outstanding young Empress, who was now making her influence felt in every corner of Talluran society.
Fifteen minutes later, Joyce was deeply immersed in the history section of the shop. She needed help with the translation in most cases. The implant allowed her to speak fluent Talluran and understand every word, but reading was a different matter. Fortunately, her bodyguard was on hand.
“Heirs to the Alterans – a History of the Talluran People in Fifty-Two Volumes
...” Aquiliani translated the title of an enormous book, its companion volumes occupying a vast area of shelf space.
“Sounds like the kind of thing Daniel Jackson might like...” Joyce mused aloud.
“It is far from being a complete account,” the storekeeper piped up. “The last volume was produced two hundred years ago and interpretations have changed.”
Aquiliani shook her head. “It is still the definitive account of our post-Ascension history.”
“And how would a young Imperial Guard be so expert about such things?”
“Because this young Imperial Guard studied Talluran History for seven years at the Yaherin Var University, and interned for another three in the Imperial Archive,” Aquiliani replied smoothly – clearly there was more to her than elite soldier.
“It’s a lot of book...” Joyce wasn’t sure whether or not to buy this, but it would be a major contribution to the SGC library.
Besides, if she started now – and worked hard at her Talluran reading skills - she might even have finished the first volume by the time the Asgard returned.
“It is, perhaps, too much book for some people,” the bookstore owner admitted. “These volumes have been occupying space for six years. I am sure we can come to some sort of equitable agreement. For instance, a nominal fee in return for a few hours of your time, each week you spend on Tallura, to tell me and a few friends about your planet...”
“Shall we say, fifty Green Empires?” he proposed.
The Empress had made sure her visitors all had sufficient financial resources for the duration of their stay. By local standards, fifty Green Empires – small coloured crystals – wasn’t a great deal. Besides, the offer was a good one. Yaherin Var was a fascinating city, but Joyce had the feeling she’d soon be looking for something else to occupy her time, aside from sightseeing.
“Have them delivered to the Imperial Palace and you’ve got yourself a deal,” she decided with a grin.
In the street outside, Ilarius’ spy noted the latest development. He wondered if it was merely coincidence that this human woman had just walked into the shop owned by one of Arius Myrrn’s oldest friends and, during the Regency, one of Ilarius’ most vociferous opponents. He’d almost lost sight of her in the crowd, something his master would not have been pleased about. But this target was trickier to follow than the others. Just two women, as opposed to the travelling circus of the Empress and her human friend, plus their respective bodyguards. If and when the Regent decided to move on the alien interlopers, this woman would certainly be the easiest to seize or kill. Aelina’s Tavern, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 29th December 2000 (Earth Date)
Like many taverns and eating houses in the Old City, Aelina’s establishment was below street level. It was quite basic in appearance – almost like something from one of Earth’s previous centuries - with low-beamed wooden ceilings, subdued lighting, and rows of simple wooden tables and benches. There were stacks of wooden barrels behind the bar, and a range of coloured beverages – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic – in strange shaped bottles. A thin haze of pleasant smelling smoke filled the tavern, since many Tallurans smoked pipes filled with a harmless, but calming herb. The delicious odours coming from the kitchen were also wholly unfamiliar to Dawn, but were still making her mouth water.
The clientele was an eclectic cross-section of Talluran society. Government functionaries rubbed shoulders with the craftsmen who tended to run their businesses from the Old City, while soldiers and traders mingled with financiers from the newer part of Yaherin Var. Most of the customers were adults, but there were still some children of various ages. Just as in the marketplace, Drayana’s entrance caused little more than smiles and nods of recognition. The Empress, it had to be said, didn’t stand on ceremony.
“The finest food in the city,” Drayana claimed, sitting down at a table. “Though I would never hurt the palace cook’s feelings by telling him that... And Aelina is Arius Myrnn’s granddaughter. I think you will like her.”
Dawn resisted the temptation to read the menu on the table, not that the dishes listed would necessarily mean anything to her. The youngest Summers had made a pledge to herself on this trip. Namely, that she’d never ask what she was eating. All of the foods were, inevitably, different from those she was accustomed to. Fruits and vegetables weren’t so much of a problem, but if Dawn couldn’t associate a meat with a particular species, then she really didn’t want to know its origins. At least Tallurans and humans had pretty much the same dietary needs, so she could be pretty certain none of the dishes would poison her. And if it wasn’t a matter of a slow, lingering death by poisoning, all Dawn cared about was the taste.
“That’s all pretty much Greek – or Talluran – to me... But I’m Slayer-level hungry, so what d’you recommend? ” she pointed to the unopened menu.
“Aelina’s special dish of the day is always the best choice. Always surprising, but never disappointing,” the Empress replied.
Dawn nodded. “ “Surprising” works for me. Mom and Buffy always say I’ve got weird eating habits.”
Personally, she could never see what was wrong with peanut butter pancakes, topped with tuna and mayonnaise
At the other end of the table, Faith was suspiciously examining a tankard containing some unidentified bright purple and extremely viscous liquid, with an equally unnatural-looking lurid green foam topping, bought for her by one of the Imperial Guard.
“I don’t drink on duty,” the Slayer prevaricated, wary of anything that looked like a mixture of toxic chemicals.
“This is a non-intoxicating ale,” the Guardsman assured her.
Faith eyed him darkly and took a wary sip. “If this stuff makes me come out in hives, or I fall off my chair and start singing? I’ll beat it out of your fricking ass on the sparring mat, dude!”
Dawn rolled her eyes at the Empress. “So much for diplomacy. Diana’s more of the “hit-first, negotiate-never” type.”
“Perhaps she could apply that approach to the Council of Proconsuls,” Drayana replied dryly.
“There are days when I would like nothing more than to crack their squabbling heads together. Instead, I must always seek a consensus,” she admitted.
Dawn snickered. “You ought to meet my middle sister. Combination Slayer and elite soldier. Doesn’t believe in tact.”
“Perhaps I ought to ask her for some lessons,” Drayana grunted.
The Proconsulate, together with the Empress, formed the equivalent of the executive branch of government back home, with the Proconsulate comparable to a US President’s cabinet. The Empress had largely replaced most of Ilarius’ appointees with reliable, efficient and honest Proconsuls. That, however, didn’t mean that they were always easy to work with. Drayana was the first to admit that she was still inexperienced in the art of ruling an inter-planetary empire. No matter how gifted she’d proven herself in studying politics, history and economics, the reality was still always more complicated.
For the next couple of years, the Empress could still escape to the schoolroom. Then there was the possibility of four or five years’ further study at Yaherin Var University, the finest seat of learning on Tallura Prime. Drayana, however, could not escape her hereditary obligations, and the heavy burden of ruling ten planets would only grow in time, especially when the transitional Imperial Advisory Council was dissolved in two years.
Not that the Empress would ever abandon her duties, even if the mechanism existed to permit such a thing. As far as Drayana was concerned, a sacred obligation was exactly that, and she’d been raised and trained accordingly. Besides, most of the time she enjoyed the challenges, though the Proconsular bickering grated on her nerves at times. Still, the Empress was already learning to prize periods of simple relaxation and time with a new friend, especially one who had no personal political or social agenda.
A plump, jolly-looking woman, perhaps around Joyce’s age – though it was sometimes hard to tell with the long-lived Tallurans – approached the table. SG-15, Faith, and the Imperial Guard detachment each gave her a quick eyeball, before the latter’s CO confirmed that she was the tavern owner.
“Ah – always nice to have Imperial patronage. It is good for business, Your Excellency,” Aelina grinned, indicating the busy tavern.
The Empress chuckled. “I could disappear from the planet tomorrow and you would still have just as many customers. The food speaks for itself.”
The tavern-owner beamed at the compliment. Not many of her competitors had the Imperial seal of approval, for what was merely traditional Talluran fare.
“Dodging lessons this afternoon? Or are you avoiding the Proconsuls, this time?” she joked.
The Empress shook her head. “Both finished for the day. Besides, I would never dare absent myself from your grandfather’s classes, without a suitable excuse. Such as a mortal illness...”
“So how is that old tyrant, Arius?” Aelina wiped the table with a flourish.
“I barely escaped a “conversation” with Livia today. Instead, he just tickled my hands with his stick...” Drayana admitted wryly.
“When my grandfather feels that a more vigorous and embarrassing lesson needs applied to – ah – the Seat of Imperial Power, then Livia still deals with the matter,” Aelina explained to a puzzled Dawn.
“Got it,” the youngest Summers nodded.
Livia Vispensia was the Keeper of the Imperial Household and the closest the Empress had to a mother for the bulk of her childhood. On the death of Drayana’s parents, she’d been given guardianship of the young Empress-Elect. Needless to say, the Regent Ilarius was enraged that the deceased Emperor and Empress had bequeathed the task of raising the heir to a servant. There was little he could do, however, as it would have been regarded as the height of impropriety to even question the last wishes of the dead sovereign.
Not that it had made any difference to the child’s upbringing. Drayana was still raised pretty much in isolation from others of her own age, according to custom. The Empress had also been reared according to strict standards of behaviour and high expectations, though Livia had been – and remained – a loving and caring parental substitute. Just like Arius Myrnn in the classroom, at home Livia had always permitted, even encouraged, the youngster to retain her spirited and mischievous streak.
More importantly, both had opened her eyes at an early stage to the corruption of those ruling alongside Ilarius and the general dissatisfaction of the people. And years before her coronation, Drayana had vowed to take swift and decisive the moment she came to power.
The young Empress hadn’t been on the throne for long, but Aelina and the whole population of Tallura Prime were already noticing the difference. True to her word, Drayana had moved swiftly and ruthlessly against the incompetent and corrupt in government, weeding out and replacing the offenders whenever they failed to match her exacting standards. As a consequence, both the three reinvigorated Consular Houses and the population at large were solidly behind their Empress.
“What did you do this time?” Aelina grinned expectantly – Drayana’s mischief was invariably inventive, often spectacular, and an excellent outlet for the pressures of her Imperial duties.
The Empress giggled. “I discovered that the sap of the Occalian Plant causes itching. So I spread it on Arius’ chair and desk and waited...”
“If you did that to me, Your Excellency...” Aelina pursed her lips in mock disapproval, then laughed.
“Everyone knew that trick when I was your age, but it seems to have been forgotten,” she added.
The tavern-owner turned to Dawn. “And you must be the Terran girl Arius has been talking about...”
“Dawn Summers,” she replied a little shyly. “And Terran? What’s that?”
“My people’s name for Earth. I will explain later,” Drayana replied.
Perhaps a professional storyteller might be the best way to introduce Dawn to her people’s more distant history and links with Earth/Terra. The historical record for that period – over a million years before – was quite patchy and therefore largely avoided in Talluran schools. Myrnn similarly tended to skirt a topic that was as much myth and supposition, as evidence-based. The best accounts actually tended to come from oral histories, passed down through the Storytellers’ Guild.
“Guessing Arry – Arius - said nothing good...” Dawn smiled.
“On the contrary, my grandfather described you as “delightful”,” Aelina replied.
Drayana elbowed her young friend in the ribs. “What was that term you taught me a few days ago? “Ass-kisser” I believe...”
Dawn pouted. “Won’t be calling me “delightful” after today...”
“Arius does not change his mind about someone, simply on account of a few pranks. You may still have to face the consequences, but that is a different matter,” the Imperial Tutor’s granddaughter assured her.
“So shall I bring you both the special, as usual?” Much as she wanted to chat, Aelina still had a business to run.
“Two specials, two chilled Rekhesha Berry desserts, and two House Ales, please.” the Empress replied quickly.
The tavern owner raised an eyebrow. “House Ales, indeed! Nice try, Your Excellency! Two – children’s – ales...”
“Of course,” Drayana smiled sheepishly. “Our guards will also wish to eat. On my bill, as usual?”
“My pleasure,” Aelina moved over towards SG-15 and the others.
“Bah! Empress of ten worlds and twenty-two billion people, yet I still cannot order a proper ale for two more years,” Drayana complained lightly.
Dawn shrugged. “Worse on our world. Or in my country, anyways... You have to be twenty-one – and chances are we wouldn’t even be allowed in the door of a place like this.”
The Empress twisted her neck, in an effort to work the knots out. “I think I need some time in the pool and steam-caves this evening. And perhaps I will also arrange a massage and what you call “pampering” services. Do you wish to join me? Perhaps your mother, Diana and Caroline will also wish to come.”
The caves below the Imperial Palace contained numerous hot springs, some feeding a small subterranean lake, which was used as a wonderfully warm swimming pool by both the sovereign and her staff. Other springs effectively created natural steam rooms. Drayana spent much of her relaxation time in the caves, especially after particularly arduous sessions with the Proconsulate, usually combing a steam session and swim with a massage and a makeover.
With a potentially contentious meeting scheduled for the following morning, focusing on a growing piracy problem and a wholly unexpected famine on Thenatrix, one of the larger colonies, the Empress knew she had to completely unwind tonight. That way, with a solid night’s sleep, she could face the eternally wrangling Proconsuls with a clear head, first thing in the morning. Just when they were at their most vulnerable.
Dawn was still slightly ill-at-ease with the Talluran custom of nude single-sex bathing. The locals clearly had different ideas of modesty from those back home. Or at least those she was used to – her friend Janice, in Sunnydale, had once admitted to skinny-dipping. In any case, the Empress had looked at her new friend as though she’d grown a second head when, prior to Dawn’s first visit to the caves, the human had asked where she could buy a swimsuit. Faith, unsurprisingly, had stripped off without a blink, and even her mother hadn’t seemed unduly perturbed. Caroline Lam was a little more hesitant, but eventually joined in and, of course, Dawn didn’t want to offend her friend. Now, after several sessions, she was slightly more used to the practice, but still felt slightly uncomfortable. No doubt she’d get used to skinny-dipping.
“Count me in...” the youngster shrugged gamely.
This was, Dawn reminded herself, a different world. Over the next five months, she’d probably find that they did all sorts of things very differently. Perhaps a little nude swimming would be the least of her surprises. Faith’s Apartment, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 29th December 2000 (Earth Date)
Lam was gradually increasing the interval between Faith’s counselling sessions. Back at the SGC, the Slayer had met her psychiatrist on a daily basis and - after some initial scepticism and innate distrust of pouring forth her innermost thoughts and feelings – she’d rapidly come to appreciate such sessions. So much so, in fact, that Faith was beginning to think Buffy and the other Scoobies could benefit from regular counselling. Her sister Slayer and the others were, after all, involved in a war that could never end, with little chance of extended respite. From what the brunette Chosen One had so far gleaned about combat psychology and stress, they were perfect candidates for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And Faith really didn’t want to see any of the Sunnydale people coming apart under the strain. That way led to questionable moral choices, erratic behaviour, killing people and prison.
Still, if someone had suggested to Faith – even two years earlier – that her big, bad Slayer-self would actually benefit from counselling sessions, she’d have laughed in their face.
“So are you satisfied with your coping mechanism, Diana? After all, there are no vampires or demons on this planet, so your Slayer’s instincts must be feeling unsatisfied... Like in prison, perhaps?” Lam prodded gently, leaning slightly forward in her chair, hands clasped in her lap.
Faith shrugged and tried to act nonchalant, maintaining eye contact with the combat psychologist. She’d very quickly come to realise that Lam had the best bullshit detector in the business. Evasion, deception, bluster, self-denial – none were effective with this woman. The Slayer could certainly tell she was a General’s daughter, even if she’d quickly discovered that was a no-go area. One of these days, Faith told herself, she’d meet someone who didn’t have parent issues on at least some level.
“I’m kinda antsy,” the Slayer admitted. “But it’s not like in prison, you know? Exercise and training keeps the bitch at bay. In jail, I beat the crap outa the punch-bag. Here, I beat the - spar with Colonel Logan and his guys. Sometimes with the Empress’s bodyguards, too. I don’t have an urge to go out and kill something – or someone - all the time. Or, really, any of the time...”
At least Cave Ho, as Faith christened the primal Slayer spirit, rarely made herself felt these days. The presence was always there in the background, but not nearly as noticeably as it had been when she came out of the coma and went after Angel in LA. The bitch only really popped up when she was Slaying, something the brunette still really missed.
Faith fervently hoped she’d never have to take another human life. Queen C apparently had no problems shooting the bad guys, and her body count was bigger than Faith’s. But Parachute Barbie wasn’t a full Slayer, and nor had she trained with a Watcher who constantly drilled that no-no into her head. Quite the opposite in fact. On top of her admittedly reduced-power Slayer package, Cordelia had special operations training specifically designed to make her as lethal as possible. Even Faith had to admit that was a pretty scary combination.
As for Buffy, so far as the brunette was aware, her Slay-Sister had never been faced with the awful prospect of killing someone. Faith, reformed or not, still had nightmares about Finch and the professor.
“Anything else?” the psychologist asked patiently.
“Yeah... Said it wasn’t like prison. Not being caged like some animal makes a helluva big difference – but you could probably say the same about anyone who’s been in the slammer.”
“What about the rest?” Lam made a few notes.
“You mean the horny and hungry? Slaying just makes these worse, but I don’t have to dust a vampire to feel like I could fricking eat for America. That’s just metabolism, according to Giles and Doc Fraiser. And the hornies? Guess that’s mainly me, though I sometimes wonder about B after a patrol. One time, I was pretty sure she was going to throw me against the cemetery wall and fuck me ragged right there...” Faith smirked, unable to resist an opportunity to throw her counsellor off-balance.
Pretty sure the brunette was probing for reactions and having heard much worse, Lam didn’t react visibly to that mental picture. This was, nevertheless, a steep learning curve for her, too. Slayers were psychologically different from other people in subtle ways and also tended towards eccentricity, to some extent or another. She didn’t know Buffy, Cordelia or the Varrini Protectors, but all seemed to have their own distinct personality quirks. Diana Prince’s were simply a little more in-your-face than others.
While such character traits weren’t generally enough to make a psychiatrist sit up and take note, to Lam’s way of thinking they were an essential coping mechanism. After all, on a nightly basis, Slayers fought against people’s worst nightmares made real, and generally without let-up until they finally died in the line of duty. In other words, enough to send weaker-willed individuals running straight into the nearest mental unit, screaming their heads off.
“Have you made any attempt recently to satisfy your needs?” Lam asked.
“You kidding? Gotta pulse, don’t I! These SG-15 guys are totally stud-like, but they’re pretty much the one-woman type. Even if the one-woman is a zillion miles away. Whole lot of manly meat amongst the locals, too... I mean, have you seen the Imperial Guard?” Faith whistled and shook her head longingly.
She folded her arms. “Not gonna jump into bed with the first guy who shakes his fricking dick at me, doc. They gave me a job to do here and nothing’s gonna happen to little D, just ‘cause I was getting a happy at the wrong time!”
“There is only one of you, Diana,” Lam reminded her.
The Slayer had taken little time off since arriving on Tallura, spending virtually every waking hour shadowing her young charge, often to Dawn’s exasperation. Faith had even commandeered the rooms opposite the latter’s suite, so that they weren’t far apart at night. Not that she thought SG-15 were incompetent, but the Slayer wasn’t taking any chances.
“That’s why I won’t – can’t - let the squirt out my sight for one fricking minute!” Faith responded defensively.
“As a Slayer, even you can lose that essential edge, Diana. You must allow yourself a reasonable amount of downtime. Let Colonel Logan’s people handle some of the load – they’re all well-trained SpecOps troops, after all,” the combat psychologist pointed out.
She smiled. “After all, it’s not as if there are enemies lurking around every corner, just waiting to pounce on a human child.”
“Maybe not around every corner, but...” Faith didn’t seem so sure.
The Slayer wasn’t just being overly cautious, Lam decided. The brunette had clear concerns about a specific threat, or at least something – or someone – she considered to be such. And she wasn’t very good at concealing the fact, with indecision and unease written all over her face.
“You know something’s wrong – or you’re at least worried, Diana. So spill!” Lam ordered.
Faith grimaced awkwardly. “Probably nothing. Hell, I’ve never been the best judge of character, or any kind of a forward planner. Give me an ugly demon critter to pummel and slay and I’m five-by-five. Anything else...”
“Who – or what – is worrying you?” the psychologist persisted.
“What d’you want me to say, doc? If you really want to know, I’ve a feeling in my fucking gut that the Regent isn’t on the level,” the Slayer responded bluntly.
“Regent Ilarius?” Lam’s eyebrows almost climbed off her forehead.
Faith growled softly. “The same guy who’s made us feel about as welcome as fricking sand in the crotch... Who’s either been following us in person since we got here, or sends his flunkies to watch... The one who hates the Empress and everything she stands for. And guess what? I think the bastard’s up to something. I’ve a really bad feeling, doc.”
“Does he activate your Slayer sense?” the combat psychologist wondered if there was, indeed, a demonic presence on Tallura.
The brunette shook her head. “Nope. Not demon... Just the sense that he’s trouble – the sort of survival sense we all developed in jail, that warns you some bitch is planning to jump you in the showers, and push a shank into your fucking spine.”
Faith paused. “I’m not being paranoid, doc. Not even over-cautious... But what the Hell can I do? Not like I’ve a shitload of evidence. And even then? We’re just the visitors to this planet. We don’t know how things are done, who to trust – anything like that. Most folks might not like the Regent, but I’ll bet he’s still got powerful friends!”
Lam nodded pensively. Diana was quite correct, especially for someone who mistakenly claimed not to be much of a thinker. Their options were indeed quite limited, even if Ilarius was a genuine threat. Their knowledge of this planet’s laws, customs, and protocol were sketchy at best, even if they’d been warmly welcomed by most people. She tried to put herself into the local’s shoes, wondering how she’d react if a handful of off-world visitors suddenly accused the de facto ruler of the empire, for the last fifteen-odd years, of plotting something. Without, by the way, knowing what he was plotting, suspicions only based on gut feelings, and lacking a shred of evidence. For all Lam knew, they could quickly find themselves locked up on charges of fomenting trouble.
The Asgard had brought them to a planet where there were no existing supernatural threats. The alien threat, from a number of neighbouring races, was also kept at bay by the threat of Asgard intervention, while – at least individually - none of the races hostile to the Tallurans even approached the Goa’uld as a danger. Lam was also, however, pretty sure that the little grey aliens hadn’t even considered the potential risks posed by disaffected politicians.
“I’ll talk to Colonel Logan and Joyce tonight. The only thing we can really do at this stage is keep our guard up – but without making it too obvious. And I’ll have to be careful how I phrase this to Joyce. If she gets spooked, she probably won’t let Dawn out of her sight. That won’t really help anyone – and it might just tip off Ilarius that we suspect something. Also, we don’t tell Dawn anything at this stage – no sense frightening her unnecessarily.” the psychologist suggested.
She shrugged. “I agree that the Regent is a first-class asshole, who I wouldn’t trust far as I could throw him. But it could just be that we’re the ones making him paranoid. Guy’s a xenophobe – only barely tolerates the Asgard, who’re the only people keeping half-a-dozen alien races from invading this planet – and we’re the first humans to visit Tallura. Ever. We might look like them and have a lot of the same values, but we’re still outsiders.”
Outsiders from a race millions of years younger than their hosts, she reminded herself. The technological gap might not be so big in the wider scale of things, but the Regent still considered them to be primitive and unpredictable.
“Then add the fact that Ilarius is bitter as Hell about losing his political power – and doesn’t like having an enlightened Empress on the throne, who’s a mere child in his eyes? No wonder you’re getting bad vibes from the slimy bastard,” Lam offered.
Faith didn’t even appear slightly convinced. “One thing you learn as a Slayer and in prison, doc. Always go with your first instinct, no matter how screwy. And first impressions? They sure as Hell matter!”
“For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to agree, Diana. And ‘til we leave this planet? I won’t even be taking a shower without my Zat...” Lam assured her. The Guardroom, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 29th December 2000 (Earth Date)
Logan was getting along extremely well with his Talluran Imperial Guard opposite number, Centurion Shar Vesarian. From the outset, the SG-15 CO was astonished that the commander of the Empress’s bodyguard would allow armed aliens, whom he’d scarcely even met, anywhere near his sovereign. Vesarian had simply shrugged, as if it were of no consequence, and pointed out that the Asgard had vouched for Logan and his team. The Imperial Guard officer clearly had absolute trust in the Tallurans’ advanced allies. Besides, as Vesarian pointed out, what agenda could a small group of aliens – brought by the Asgard from several galaxies away – possibly have? With no prior contact with any Tallurans, or one of the other races in the Vedda galaxy, they couldn’t exactly be chin-deep in a conspiracy to overthrow the Empire.
In any case, SG-15 had very rapidly found themselves operating as an extension of the Empress’s guard detachment. With Dawn spending much of each day with Drayana – they only seemed to be apart when the latter was engaged in matters of state – the duties of the two groups had, inevitably, overlapped. SG-15, therefore, unexpectedly also found themselves acting as the Empress’s guards at times.
It was, Logan reflected, a heady and wholly unexpected additional role. He just couldn’t imagine the Secret Service acting in the same way back on Earth. Not only would that degree of trust not exist, but issues of professional jealousy and legal jurisdiction would no doubt further complicate matters.
Vesarian and his team weren’t exactly like the Secret Service, either. Whereas the latter were essentially law enforcement officers, with specialised training, the Imperial Guard were real soldiers. Only those serving with the elite SpecOps units of the Imperial Defence Force could be posted to the Imperial Guard. All had seen extensive combat service against a range of foes on the fringes of the Empire, in addition to serving in an SGC-type armed exploration role. SG-15 immediately felt quite at home with them, in a way that just wouldn’t have happened with the President’s Secret Service detachment.
The Imperial Guard officer finished polishing his short sword, replacing the weapon in its sheath on his left hip. It was, Logan noted, pretty much indistinguishable from the Roman gladius he’d seen in museums and on a History Channel documentary. Given that Talluran sounded very much like archaic Latin and many of the words had a similar meaning, even if the characters in the alphabet were radically different, that was another intriguing link to Earth. Daniel Jackson would, doubtless, be in archaeological raptures over the possibilities.
The Colonel wasn’t sure exactly how to handle his most delicate task for the day. The previous evening, Lam had appraised him of Diana’s suspicions and Logan had to admit that the Slayer had a point. Perhaps he was overreacting, but he really needed a feel for the Imperial Guards’ opinions.
Therein lay a potential problem. SG-15 had gained their trust almost immediately and he was reluctant to risk that in any way. Furthermore, his secondary mission on Tallura Prime was to secure relations with these people, primarily in the hope of negotiating a technology transfer. As allies, a race who lived in a distant galaxy might be of limited usefulness, but they could still be a useful source of both ideas and more concrete items. The Colonel had, for instance, already negotiated for half-a-dozen Talluran plasma rifles and associated power-packs, in return for one of the spare M4s as a souvenir and a Zat for technology exchange. From a cultural point of view, the Tallurans were also fascinated by the DVD movies Dawn and some of his team had brought from Earth, and copies were rapidly turning into useful currency. Somehow, Logan didn’t think the long arm of the copyright police would reach quite this far.
The Colonel also knew that one wrong word could potentially jeopardise the goodwill he was working hard at building up. They would, after all, be here for some months. On the other hand, the safety of his charges and team were paramount.
“What d’you think of Regent Ilarius?” Logan ventured carefully to his Imperial Guard counterpart.
A look of intense dislike briefly passed over the Talluran Centurion’s face. It certainly wasn’t the reaction SG-15’s CO had been expecting to his neutrally worded enquiry, but it was certainly an interesting - and telling - response.
“I would say that the Empire is better out of his hands. He is a bitter old man, power-hungry and rooted in the past,” Vesarian replied, with surprising vehemence.
“He is universally disliked amongst the Imperial Guard. His ultimate intentions towards the Empress are unclear and many of us do not trust him,” the Centurion added flatly.
The Colonel decided to share his own misgivings, as Vesarian and his picked team seemed of like mind.
“Funny you should say that... Diana has a very strong feeling that he’s plotting something. Nothing solid, just the feeling and the fact that him – or one of his people – always seems to be watching us. And I have to say, I agree with her,” Logan hoped he hadn’t gone too far.
“Of course, it could just be that he’s suspicious of aliens,” he added.
Vesarian pondered that for a moment, then shook his head. “The Regent is pathologically mistrustful of off-worlders, but I do not believe that is the whole story. My men and I have had our suspicions that he is, as you put it, “plotting something, for some time before you arrived. Unfortunately, like you, we have no evidence to support that supposition. Certainly not enough to report him to the Security Bureau for investigation.”
The Imperial Guard fingered the hilt of his short sword. “I do, however, give you my word that no harm shall come to your people, either at his hands or those of others. On Tallura, the protection of guests from harm is almost a sacred duty. Though you all – and especially Diana – seem quite capable of protecting yourselves.”
Only two days previously, Vesarian and his team had sparred with the formidable Slayer. It had been a singular experience for his Imperial Guard detachment, who were regarded as the elite troops of the Empire. The brunette, smaller than any of her opponents, had taken them all down – singly, in pairs and as a group – almost in the blink of an eye. No doubt, Diana Prince was as proficient in the use of weapons and the Centurion could easily imagine her locked in combat with the forces of evil.
“But if Ilarius and his followers try to harm my Empress? It is unlikely that they would survive the attempt. Even if they did, High Treason Against the Imperial Sovereign remains the only capital offence under our laws. And Ilarius knows the mandatory penalties, as well as anyone...” Vesarian growled.
“Which are...?” Logan wasn’t sure if he wanted to know.
“Most of the more barbaric penalties have long since been removed from our laws, but High Treason still technically allows for public evisceration. No one has suffered that penalty for many centuries – and now it is likely that any perpetrator would simply be beheaded – but the possibility still remains,” the Centurion replied.
From the Imperial Guard officer’s demeanour, Logan was pretty sure that he’d quite happily have Ilarius disembowelled, just on principle. The Triconatus Estate, Outside Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 29th December 2000 (Earth Date)
“This is your fault, Ilarius,” ex-Proconsul of the Treasury, Marius Triconatus, irately wagged a bony finger at the former Regent.
“You have had years to make sure that some harm came to that brat... Or at least to ensure she was more malleable,” he growled.
The anti-Drayana faction were meeting at a large estate outside the capital tonight. For the sake of security, Ilarius had kept the group small, with only five present. Not that the number could be increased much more, given the whelp’s popularity. Five, however, was a good number for a conspiracy – once they actually decided on a plan.
“If you and the others had been slightly less greedy – or at least more subtle in transferring funds – you might still have a seat on the Proconsulate.” Ilarius pointed out acidly.
The Regent might despise the Empress and vice-versa, but he’d at least given the Empress no reason to dismiss him from the Imperial Advisory Council. Only extensive proof of misdeeds could remove him from his constitutionally guaranteed seat and last vestiges of power. Not that he could accomplish much under current circumstances, since Drayana continued to publicly sideline him at every opportunity.
“Does she suspect anything?” former Proconsul for the Interior, Dar Tiburion, demanded.
“There is, as yet, nothing to suspect. A mutual dislike – which we both acknowledge and publicly downplay – is insufficient to even launch an investigation. Right now, most of us would simply appear to be friends, enjoying an evening together,” Ilarius pointed out dryly.
Not that any of them could really call any of the others “friend”. Every member of this group was quite capable of stabbing any of the others in the back, both literally and figuratively, to advance him or herself.
“When I held Interior, the Security Bureau would soon have reported that something was afoot,” Tiburion shot back.
The Political Research Directorate, a network of spies established by the ex-Proconsul, had been amongst the first of Drayana’s targets. The Empress recognised the need for the Security Bureau’s counter-intelligence capabilities, but she regarded the widespread covert monitoring of even benign political opposition as unconstitutional. Disbanding that wing of the Security Bureau also meant that Ilarius and the others now lacked much of their previous sources of information. Indeed, several key members of the Directorate were now languishing in a penal colony, having been found guilty of bribery and blackmail against members of the Consular Houses, amongst other crimes.
“Even the most unobservant of the Security Bureau would recognise that I am not a “friend”,” another member of the group rasped.
Jugrub was a Ch’Hanis, a reptilian species native to the Vedda Galaxy, and one that was not on particularly good terms with the Talluran Empire. For the moment, the latter held the upper hand, however, and the two competing powers remained in an uneasy peace. Jugrub could have cared less, making his living from space piracy and smuggling amongst any group, whether his own people, the Tallurans or anyone else.
“We went to great lengths to ensure that you arrived unobserved,” Ilarius pointed out, barely able to disguise his distaste for the alien.
“You also paid a great deal,” the pirate hissed in amusement, tongue flickering in and out.
Jugrub, however, while he might be an alien – and in some ways even less welcome than the humans – was useful to the Regent. The pirate had access to things that would be essential in any attempt to topple the Empress – a sizable fleet of small raiding ships and trading vessels, sources of weapons and finance, and the will to use them, if properly recompensed. The Ch’Hanis might not be the only alien race Ilarius would ultimately be dealing with, but he was keeping that firmly to himself for now. Before they discussed actual plots and plans, the Regent needed to know what his potential co-conspirators were actually made of.
“So what do we plan to do about this Empress?” Tria Flivius, ex-Proconsul for Infrastructure, asked bluntly, toying with her lengthy blonde hair.
Ilarius leaned back in his seat, phrasing his words carefully. “I was under the impression that we merely met here tonight to discuss the state of the Empire, Citizen Flivius.”
“The state of the Empire, Regent, is that the people adore the child. So do the fools in the three Houses. She can do no wrong in their eyes and the economy is thriving...”
“For now, perhaps...” Triconatus put in – Drayana’s reforms did not fit his preferred economic model in the slightest.
“And the Imperial Defence Forces are – more-or-less – loyal,” Tiburion added.
There were a handful of units out on the edges of the Empire whose leaders were disillusioned with their career paths – or lack thereof – and who might be persuaded to join a coup, but they were a tiny minority. It was also debatable whether or nor their troops would lift a finger against their sovereign.
“I note that our beloved Empress is displeased with the famine on Thenatrix...” Ilarius noted almost casually.
For now, he was looking for weaknesses and opportunities, however small. Especially those he’d help to foment. The germ of an overall plan, nevertheless, was already forming within his head. But he’d probably need more effective allies than these dullards.
In the bushes outside the mansion house, a figure adjusted her cloak and continued to monitor the conversation. No one was, as yet, saying anything that amounted to treason or sedition – though the presence of the Ch’Hanis pirate was an interesting and unexpected twist. To all intents and purposes, this was merely a group of individuals – albeit mainly disgraced Proconsuls – expressing their dissatisfaction with the regime. That wasn’t a crime – and never would be under the constitution. The Empress should, nevertheless, be very interested in the gathering though, on principle, she might not approve of this little intel-collecting operation. For now, the Regent and his acquaintances would simply be watched, but if these meetings turned out to have a more sinister purpose, then the Security Bureau and Imperial Guard would have a vested interest. *In addition to separating Fate’s Little Plaything into two separate volumes, I’ve also decided to make the Dawn-arc a separate story, as it didn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the tale. If it seems a little slow, for now I’m mainly concentrating on building a world (the Tallurans as a non-Ascended offshoot of Stargate’s Ancients) and setting up the basic plot elements. Unlike the main story, I’m still not entirely sure where the Muse will take me this time. My take on the Ancients’ history, when I finally get around to that part, might be somewhat AU from the version given in later episodes of Stargate: SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, as I was never wholly happy with that. Hope you enjoy this.*