The Child Emperor–A Snippet

12 Dec

Prologue

The Emperor Roland was the greatest Emperor in a thousand years. He was the smartest and most capable of Emperors. His sense of justice, for human and alien alike, was renowned throughout the galaxy. He was the most desirable man in the Empire, courted by all of the most admired stars of stage and screen; indeed, his portrait hung on every wall. His stand at the Battle of Augustus Reach had saved the Empire from collapse. He had improved the lives of each and every one of his subjects – and in return, they worshipped and admired their Emperor. The Imperial propagandists said so – it must be true.

Roland – Emperor of the Imperial Empire, King of Earth, Grand Admiral of the Stellar Fleets, Warlord of Mars, Defender of the Faiths, Protector of Humanity, and at least another thousand titles, depending on who was doing the counting – knew better. He was thirteen years old and he had been Emperor since he was four, five years after the Battle of Augustus Reach. His grandfather, Emperor Gregory IV, had been cursed by ambition and blessed with the intelligence to nurture his single-minded climb to power. The previous Emperor had suffered a fatal accident and Gregory had stepped in to save the Empire from chaos, or at least that was what the official version said. Roland’s father had been born to the purple, but two years into his reign his ship had come out of warp too close to an asteroid and slammed into it at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. It was an accident. Everyone said so, at least when they thought someone else might be listening.

The Imperial Throne was uncomfortable. It was made out of solid gold, according to the legends, and had been designed for someone rather bigger. Roland knew he looked absurd in it, even though his Regents assured him that he would grow into his role. And that, Roland knew, was the cruellest joke of all. His three Regents had moved swiftly to take control as soon as Roland’s father was confirmed dead. Roland himself was little more than a puppet on a golden throne. They called him the Childe Roland and smiled to his face, all the while considering when they would remove him in favour of another minor from the Imperial Family. There was no shortage of people with a claim to the throne.

Sighing inwardly – he had schooled himself not to show any emotion since he had realised what had happened to his father – he looked up at the petitioners before him. Two of them were human, if from the outer edges of the Empire. Humans were the most numerous race in the galaxy; they had built the empire that had brought peace and prosperity to thousands of alien races. And if some of those alien races had had to be forced into the human-led association…well, they were just barbarians and deserved a good thrashing to teach them who was in charge. The third was clearly alien, a SssLan. There were millions of them out along the edge of empire, with their own small semi-autonomous empire just beyond the edge of human-controlled space. Roland’s Regents had been quite worried about them. The Imperial Navy was far stronger, but it was spread thinly, even with the network of wormholes that allowed instant transit from one galactic sector to another. It was quite possible that the SssLan could cause a great deal of damage before they were finally smashed into submission.

“Your Majesty,” the lead human said, “have you considered our proposals?”

The honest answer to that was no. Roland had not considered their proposals, for the very simple reason he had no power to grant or refuse them. His Regents had studied it, or so they had assured him, and they had made the decision. Whatever Roland thought didn’t matter.

“We have considered them,” he said, gravely. It wasn’t time to defy his Regents. He was allowed some leeway in non-sensitive matters, but never when the Empire – and the power of the three men who controlled him – was at stake. “You propose an interesting concept.”

There was a long pause. He’d been told what to say, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

“We cannot merely cede the sectors to you,” he said, looking directly at the alien. The SssLan were the real players, the puppet-masters behind the scenes. “But we will raise no objection if you take them through an overtly acceptable method.”

The SssLan’s beady eyes studied him, carefully. “That is acceptable,” he said. “There will be no need to alarm the human population.”

Roland snorted, inwardly. The one thing that could unite an increasingly splintered empire was anti-alien paranoia. If the SssLan moved overtly, even the Senate would support a war to the knife. But if they moved quietly, through human proxies…they could take an entire sector and no one on Earth would care. The humans would, out along the rim, but they weren’t important. They certainly didn’t control votes in the Senate.

“No doubt,” he agreed. What did the two humans think? They had to know that they were being used, didn’t they? “It is always a pleasure doing business with you.”

The media would claim that – when they found out, or it was leaked – that it was a masterful act of statesmanship. It would secure peace for a thousand years. They would praise the Child Roland to the stars for his prodigal gifts of diplomacy and his skills in managing the Empire.

And Roland, the most isolated person in an Empire of over ninety trillion humans and assorted alien races, knew that their fine words didn’t make it true.

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