“All that glisters is not gold.”
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Cato didn’t actually stuff Roderigo back into the boot, but Roderigo’s appalled expression gave them all something to laugh about. The journey thereon was mercifully uneventful and quick. Roderigo scowled miserably when he saw the Decagon. No doubt, he hated the place with every molecule in his body. He was even more outraged when he saw that Dr Sheldon Holmes was still about. And when they asked him for a blood sample, skin sample, urine sample and Sheldon’s bad joke of a sperm sample – Roderigo exploded. Like Proxima, he too had been sterilized.
But days wore on, and Roderigo got used to it – even if he still muttered curses under his breath. After his surroundings had become… bearable, the Emperor sent out invitations to everyone important.
“I don’t get it, Cato,” said Proxima, looking at the letter that was sent to her. They were in the cafeteria having breakfast when a Senate worker had delivered it to Proxima.
“Of course you don’t,” replied Cato taking the letter from her, “It’s in Latin.”
“Do you know how to read it?”
“You really think I could have come this far if I didn’t?”
“When you say far–?”
Cato put a finger on her lips, “Don’t you dare.”
Proxima laughed. All the items they’d retrieved from Cato’s Gallery had been cleaned, sharpened and washed. In the sorry case of the Kevlar suit, it had indeed shrunk, and – to Proxima’s thorough amusement – Cato cursed wildly. She’d had to get a new one from Legate Cornelius [who was also laughing at the size of Cato’s old suit].
“What does it say?” asked Proxima.
Cato put down his mug of coffee, and skimmed through the letter.
“If it wasn’t from the Emperor, I’d say it was rubbish,” said Cato grudgingly, “but it is. It’s an invitation to some sort of get-together he’s holding.”
Cato shrugged, “I told you he was a nut.”
“So, does that mean…” Proxima thought a moment, “Hell, I don’t want to meet him on my own.”
“You don’t have to,” said Cato, “It says ‘Senior M.O. Proxima FitzGerald + 1’.”
“Senior M.O.?” Proxima raised an eyebrow at the title.
Cato nodded, “Senior ‘Media Ordinis’ – ‘Half-Caste’. Apparently, you were right when you said that you had a higher standing than Petra.”
Cato ignored the comment, “You practically have as much power as the Legate, or a little less than him, I think. You still have to take orders. Proxima… do you know what this means?”
Cato said the last sentence so seriously it scared her.
“No,” she whispered.
“It means,” said Cato, all aghast, “I have to call you ‘ma’am’.”
“Cato!” she shrieked, laughing.
* * * * *
Cato was busy getting dressed for that night. The get-together was in an hour and he hoped that Proxima would be dressing also. But it was a vain hope. Proxima hated dressing up. He shook his head, unsurprised, when he found that she was still busy filling out a crossword puzzle [which she’d started ages ago] in her trackies and t-shirt. She chewed her fingernail, but dropped the pen when she saw that Cato was shaking his head at her.
“Classy,” she commented.
He was wearing a crisp white shirt, creased black trousers, and a black tie. He hadn’t worn his shoes yet, but Proxima knew he’d be wearing those black loafers he’d got a few hours ago.
“Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” said Cato.
“For?” said Proxima, turning her attention back to the crossword.
“Hello? Are you still with us, Proxima? The Emperor wants to meet you.”
“But I don’t like him.”
“I don’t want to dress up.”
“Proxima, come on!”
“Can I just finish this first?” Proxima pointed at her crossword.
Cato looked at it, “Mackerel – Jolie – Persia – Taekwondo – Teal – Purgatory. There, all done. Now, get going.”
Proxima groaned, but trailed off into her room.
“And it’s a formal gathering not a freak-show!” he called behind her, “And a bit of make-up wouldn’t kill you either!”
“That’s rich coming from you,” she called back, laughing, “You could do with a bit of foundation cream for that map of the Grand Canyon on your forehead!”
Cato rolled his eyes, and didn’t bother with a comeback. He cleared up the newspaper and pens, and sat on the sofa, switching the TV on. Finding nothing but propaganda [as he called it] running around on the screen, he switched the thing off. He waited impatiently, whistling his Legion tune. The meeting was on the bottom most floor of the Decagon, and they’d be late [knowing that there were no lifts] if Proxima didn’t hurry up.
A knock came at the front door.
Cato got up, and opened it.
“Sempronius?” he said, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to pick up Proxima,” replied the Senator.
Cato looked like he’d been smacked between the eyes, “You what?”
Sempronius laughed, “Works every time with you. I was just passing by.”
“Why is there something wrong with me dating ‘our savior’?”
Cato blinked, “Do you want the honest answer?”
Sempronius tutted, “Typical Cato, always the buzz-kill.”
Cato ignored him; “I don’t think Proxima would appreciate dating a fifty-year-old Senator with a head that could pass as a bulldog’s chew-toy, who sent her on a suicide mission.”
Sempronius raised his brows, “Well, that was harsh.”
“And what do you mean, ‘suicide mission’?”
Cato crossed his arms, “She nearly got killed by Dyonuxiot poisoning! She was lucky that I had that Dyonuxiot blood stowed away.”
Sempronius regarded him for a moment, “You’re not pulling a fast one, are you?” he paused, and then, “I’m sorry, Cato. But it wasn’t me who came up with the idea, and it wasn’t Cornelius’s either in case you wanted to rail against him too. The Emperor set the task, we were just delivering the message.”
Cato shook his head, “Would it kill you to argue with him once in a while?”
“Well, since we’re talking about the Emperor…”
“Cato, I’m–” Proxima peered out of the doorway, “Oh, hello, Sempronius.”
“You look marvelous, Proxima,” he replied.
“Hmm,” Proxima regarded him, “Nice bed-sheet.”
Sempronius frowned, “Ah, yes, the toga. But uniform is uniform, eh?”
Proxima considered this, then shrugged and said to Cato, “Can we go now?”
Sempronius looked from one to the other, “Are you two always like this?”
“Nope,” said Proxima, “I just overtly excited about meeting the man who sent me on a suicide mission.”
Sempronius’s mouth fell open, “Cato, what have you done to the poor girl?”
“Has he stuck that junk in my hair again?” said Proxima.
“Oh, you know I wouldn’t do that,” mused Cato, grinning, “You look so cute.”
“Cato, stop that.”
He laughed, and then said, “Right, let’s get going then.”
* * * * *
On the plus side, Proxima got to meet the other two Half-Castes.
Federico Lamarke was a burly guy; Black like his guardian, Viola, and his startling green eyes did just that – startle. Federico had dark freckles too [as this was the marking of a Half-Caste] and he had the tendency to always look like he was going to bludgeon you to death – though he was really a nice guy. He looked mighty uncomfortable in the suit he had donned, [which, no doubt, Viola had begged him into wearing] and kept twitching. Maybe because the label itched. Maybe because he hadn’t got over trauma.
The ten-year-old, Medea Wang, was in fact fourteen – but she had partial AVSD, so she was frailer and shorter than most of her age group. Medea had blonde hair and her greens eyes had the glimmer of intelligence, though her face bore a very innocent look, and Proxima was shocked to find out that she was a first-class pickpocket. She stood rigidly behind her guardian – a lithe Chinese woman named Claudia Wang – for most of the time, but had this unruly interest in Proxima’s red hair. They became friends quickly.
Oh, and Legate Cornelius was wearing his best suit – which, in Proxima’s opinion, would’ve suited a gorilla better [not that the Legate looked particularly proud of his outfit…].
On the down side… the party was so b-o-ring. People – high-ranking legionaries, Senators, the rich and the famous who could not go uninvited – were everywhere, chattering about idle subjects, whilst Senate workers unabatedly served steaming food and sweet drinks. Musicians stood around – not a hair out of place and not a note out of tune. Cato, who came to like Federico very much, rambled on and on about sports or politics, whilst Viola and Claudia gossiped amongst each other, but Proxima and Medea were both trying to balance spoons on their noses [yes, they were that bored]. And all of them were tiring. But at least the food was good. Wine had also been broken out, but Proxima or Cato hadn’t touched the stuff. Cato was strictly a teetotaler and Proxima followed his example. Besides, they both agreed the taste was horrible.
Proxima was about to ask Cato about leaving for the umpteenth, when she spotted Roderigo standing by the buffet table, not really doing anything. She gestured to him, and Cato nodded. She left the table and made her way to Roderigo. He nodded a greeting.
“How have you been?” said Proxima.
Roderigo shrugged. “You look nice,” he said.
She examined at his humble manner of dress mutely. Not even she would be able to dress that bad. Roderigo was practically dressed in his bedclothes.
“You look like you didn’t bother dressing up,” she commented.
He shrugged again, “I’m not too bothered with anything nowadays,” he paused and corrected, “any days.”
“Did you meet the others?”
“The Black guy and the kid? Yeah, I met them. Uninteresting bunch, eh?”
“Uninteresting place, you mean.”
“Meh, all the same.”
Proxima cocked her head to a side, “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, fine… except for the fact that I’m so bloody bored. When is this nightmare going to end, d’you reckon?”
“When the Emperor shows, I suppose?”
“Are you dumb? When he gets here, there gonna break out the real food. This night will never end!”
“There’s more food?!”
“But I’m stuffed.”
“Tough, you eat or they’ll force feed you. It’s part of the custom.”
Proxima sighed, “Why don’t you come and join us?”
Roderigo shrugged, “I don’t like meeting new people. Not very good at it either,” Roderigo smirked, “as you should know.”
Proxima half-smiled, “You sound like you’d be happier at a funeral.”
“The funeral hasn’t started yet.”
Before Proxima could ask what he meant, trumpets blared and drums rolled. The chattering died down, and everyone’s heads turned to the lavishly decorated podium, which was joined to a set of staircases leading into a right and left wing. Slowly, [and arrogantly, thought Proxima] two persons – a man and a woman – descended. The woman could only be described as the very epitome of femininity. Her hair was several tones of color – going from a dark brunette to a rusty blonde – and was clasped together by a decorative hairpin. Her skin was tanned, resembling golden porcelain, and her eyes were a kaleidoscope of color. She wore a long red dress that trailed several meters behind her and a golden shawl was draped over her narrow shoulders.
That was Empress Byzantia – ‘short-lived tyranny’ in the flesh.
Descending with her, holding her hand, was her physical opposite [depending on how you looked at it]. The man was so grave and thin that a corpse could have looked more lively. He was bald, and deep lines were carved into his forehead and around his mouth. He had a beak of a nose and his lips were so thin that when he closed his mouth you couldn’t see where it was on his face. But his eyes… his eyes were a deep midnight blue, and no matter what mood he was in, no matter which emotion he was feeling, his eyes radiated vanity – hunger – power. A golden circlet – a wreath – clung to the back of his head, and he wore a silk toga and red leather boots.
That was Emperor Iago Comneus.
Proxima stared at the man. She couldn’t help it; she was surprised… bewildered even. Proxima didn’t really know what – or, rather, who – she’d been expecting; perhaps a military general like Julius Caesar or Mark Antony, or perhaps [as Cato kept pushing at] a madman like Caligula or Nero. But not this. She found it hard to believe that a skinny man in a bed-sheet was running the entire Empire. Proxima – as creepy as it was – found herself wondering if Emperor Iago was even wearing underwear.
Proxima went and sat back next to Cato and Medea.
“I told you so,” whispered Cato in her ear.
Proxima nodded grimly, “Awfully mismatched.”
The Emperor let go of his Empress’s hand and strode up to the podium. A holographic image of the Empire’s emblem appeared behind him. He cleared his throat, and the barely visible microphone resting on his lapel amplified the noise. He scanned the silent room – like an eagle scanning for cute little bunnies.
“Dear warriors,” he began slowly, “Senators, guests, ladies and gentlemen. People of New Rome. I welcome you, and thank you for attending this very, very… joyous gathering.
“We are in hard times, crucial times. Nearly five hundred years ago, aliens invaded us; but we stood firm and broke from their tyranny. Now they have again attacked us, broke the Pact of Ceasefire, and ravaged our Gateway. But we have retaliated and held the enemy at bay; and tonight we show them that we can still celebrate. No matter what they throw at us, we are still able to eat, drink and be merry!”
There was some exaggerated applause, then the Emperor continued, “But, dear people, the Dyonuxiots will not tarry on our planet, on our land, in our homes for very much longer, for we have found – our – saviors!”
All turned to the table at which the Half-Castes were seated, and applauded again. Proxima shifted in her seat uneasily.
“These, our four champions, shall journey to the black heart of the Dyonuxiot empire and uproot our foes. They will plan, they will plot, and they shall succeed. And,” Emperor Iago paused for effect, his dark eyes glinting mischievously, “that planning will commence – now.”