“No way,” I said again. “I’m not going anywhere with you. You want to talk, we can do it right here.” I was pretty comfy on my rock. It was no worse than the other places I’d been hanging out lately.
The Regent sighed. “I’m an old man, Miranda, and the temperature drops fast once the sun goes out. Are you sure you won’t come back to my house?”
“So some sniper can shoot me with a tranquilizer dart and you can snip off my fingers with bolt-cutters? Nope.”
“Please, my dear. If I wanted you shot by a sniper, you would be well and truly sniped by now.”
“I’m not your dear. And I’m not going anywhere with you.” I crossed my arms, feeling stubborn and proud of myself about it.
“Very well. But I normally take my evening meal shortly after sunset. I hope you don’t mind if I proceed.”
Food. “Knock yourself out.”
He put his hand to his ear and began to speak softly, whispering into some invisible sleeve microphone like a secret agent on TV. “Just a few moments.” He sat down next to me on the rock.
“What’s to stop me smacking you and teleporting you into deep space?”
“For one thing, you aren’t sure it would work,” he said blandly. “The one time you did that successfully you believed your life was in danger, and the jump-engine may not respond the same way to naked aggression against a harmless old man. You’re afraid that if you hit me, and I don’t disappear, the consequences would be grave.”
I almost walloped him right there, just for the principle of the thing, but he had a point.
“Even if you did manage to send me away, I’d be back soon enough. I have a transponder implanted in my body. If I ever vanish from the borders of Nexington-on-Axis, the snatch-engines in the palace will bring me back quickly enough. And if you sent me somewhere else in my city or the provinces, some of my loyal subjects would see me home promptly.”
“Snatch-engines might bring something back,” I said. “But if I sent you to space, or the bottom of an ocean, you might not come back in very good shape. I don’t think you take me seriously enough.”
“You don’t know what you’re capable of,” the Regent said. “I barely know. The jump-engine is untested technology. You can’t control where you send me, but even if I did wind up in some such… inhospitable area… I have greater resources than you realize. The Nagalinda you punched wound up back in the barracks where he was stationed, by the way. A bit dazed, but otherwise fine. He gave me a full report. That’s how I knew you had the engine, and that the device had incorporated you into its mechanism.”
Incorporated me? That didn’t sound good. I liked to think of the jump-engine as something I had, not something I was.
“I am a bit curious how you wound up separated from Howlaa and Wisp,” the Regent said. “But we can discuss that over dinner. Those two are so misguided, the poor things. I hope they come to their senses soon.”
A helicopter appeared in the sky, not one of the weird autogyros I’d seen before but a real black helicopter, the kind you see military guys rappelling down from in movies. It landed a little distance away on a flat spot, scaring a bunch of woolbeasts into a miniature stampede down the hill. The wind from the helicopter’s rotors blew leaves off the trees, and half a dozen Nagalinda hopped out, dressed all in black. I tensed up, but didn’t see any guns… and then they started unloading a long folding table and a bunch of trays and bringing them over. They set up the table near us, threw a tablecloth over it, put plates and silverware and bowls at either end, and started putting trays covered in silver domes down along the table’s length. One came over with a couple of glasses and two sweating silver pitchers of ice water – I was so thirsty – and another put two bottles of wine and a couple of glasses by one of the plates. They even had a vase with a few yellow and orange flowers, and that went in the middle of the table. Finally they set down chairs in front of the place settings, then withdrew a short distance away.
“Thank you, gentlemen.” The Regent rose and went to the table. “We’ll serve ourselves. Kindly take the helicopter away – but on foot, please. I’d hate for the wind from its departure to ruin the lovely table you’ve set.”
The Nagalinda trotted obediently away – and then picked up the helicopter, like pallbearers lifting a coffin, and walked off over the hill with it.
“Show off,” I said, and the Regent actually laughed.
“Perhaps a little. I hope you’ll forgive me. Please, have a seat.” He sat down, uncorked one of the wine bottles, and poured a little red into a big rounded glass. He swirled and sniffed and sipped, then sighed. “Really, Miranda, a chair is bound to be more comfortable than that rock.”
I felt like I was giving in to something, but it didn’t feel like that big a concession, so I sat down.
“Have a glass of water.” The Regent put on a pair of reading glasses, opened up a folder – the Nagalinda must have brought it – and started flipping through the pages inside.
He wasn’t even paying attention to me, and I was crazy thirsty, so I started to stand up and reach for a water pitcher – then stopped and sat back down.
The Regent glanced at me, sighed, and stood up, coming to my end of the table with his own water glass. He filled it from the pitcher by my plate, took a long swallow, and set the glass before me. “See? No poison, no sedatives. Drink from my glass if you’re worried I’ve poisoned yours. I’m not a monster, just a government official with a couple of dangerous rogue employees.”
I picked up his glass and sipped. Water had never tasted so delicious. I tried not to gulp. The Regent shook his head like an indulgent uncle, picked up the water glass I wasn’t using, and returned to his end of the table. After flipping through the folder for another moment, he set it aside, half-smiling. “I think the orphans do things like this on purpose. That they have their own little jokes, a sense of humor as alien as everything else about them. Or perhaps they just like… connections.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Maybe you should try having the whole conversation out loud, instead of just parts of it.”
“Ha. Quite right. Let’s begin at the beginning, then: You are Miranda Candle, age 13. Once a good student, though lately less interested in school work, judging by the number of absences. A note from your guidance counselor ascribes your behavior to the death of your father –”
“You got my file from school?” I couldn’t believe it. Ruler of Nexington-on-Axis with spy satellites and armies of frogmen and monster-soldiers at his disposal? Sure. Capable of having a catered dinner flown in by helicopter at a moment’s notice? Okay. But being able to get my file from the principal’s office on another planet? That was power.
“Of course. I knew the locale where the snatch-engines found the jump-engine. I knew you were a girl of school age, and I knew you were named Miranda, because the Nagalinda overheard the name. I simply configured the snatch-engines to bring me the files from the local middle school. Of course, our controls are not that precise. They took a large chunk of the principal’s office in the process, including all the filing cabinets and a small ficus tree in a pot.”
“You ripped out a chunk of my school?”
The Regent waved his hand. “No one was hurt. The snatch happened at night. Besides, you’re from, ah, Georgia? Tornadoes aren’t uncommon there. People will assume a whirlwind knocked down a piece of the school and carried the wreckage away, I imagine. People are good at explaining things away. This file is fine for the basic information, Miranda, but tell me, what do you want?”
I blinked. That wasn’t something I got asked often, at least not in any sense larger than “What do you want for dinner?” or “What do you want for your birthday?”
“Think it over,” the Regent said into the silence. “It’s a large question, but be assured, whatever the answer is, I can help you achieve it. I would imagine you’re hungry, having subsisted on whatever rations an omnivorous shapeshifter and a person with no stomach thought appropriate for a growing human girl. Have something to eat.” He lifted the lid off a covered dish, and the breeze wafted a savory scent toward me, meats and juices and fennel and bay leaf and white beans – it was a cassoulet, one of the dishes Dad liked to make for special family dinners. His favorite was rustic cuisine, comfort food, and his restaurant specialized in that kind of French country cooking, ratatouille and roast chicken and beef burgundy. Since Dad died we got by on fishsticks and take-out. Mom’s lousy in the kitchen and heart-shaped pancakes aside, her new boyfriend isn’t much of a cook either. Just the smell of that familiar, long-lost food made my mouth water and my heart hurt.
“Go on, eat.” The Regent ladled cassoulet into his bowl. “Please, Miranda. It’s just a meal, not fairy food, not a gift from Hades to Persephone – Never mind. I suppose the reference is lost on you. They don’t teach the classics anymore.”
That just pissed me off. “I’m from a town called Pomegranate Grove, genius, like it says on the file there? It’s one of the only places in Georgia where pomegranate trees bear fruit. We have a friggin’ Pomegranate Queen in the town parade every year. So, yeah, I know the story of Persephone – the god of the dead tricked her into eating some pomegranate seeds, and she got stuck in the underworld for six months of every year. Everybody knows that story where I’m from.”
“My apologies. But please, eat. Conversation is always more pleasant when the body’s needs are met.”
I couldn’t stand it – apples and gross pierogies and tinned peaches just weren’t enough – so I went to the pot and dished myself up a big helping, then opened up the other dishes too. Crusty French bread, a thick onion soup, a whole chicken roasted with herbs, eight different kinds of cheese – I loaded up my plate and bowl and carried the heap back to the end of the table and dug in. The Regent watched me eat, just nibbling his own food, having a few sips of wine. I thought about asking for a glass – I’ve only tasted wine once or twice, and then mostly just a tiny bit of Mom’s champagne on New Year’s Eve – but getting even a little bit tipsy seemed like a bad plan. “So tell me your side of things,” I said around a mouthful of sausage and onion.
“Miranda, I don’t know exactly what Howlaa told you about me, but I can make certain guesses. That I’m a tyrant. A despot. A cruel dictator.” He sighed. “Nothing could be further from the truth. When I arrived in Nexington-on-Axis – long ago – there was no government to speak of. Oh, there was the Queen, and her myriad Kings, but they did not rule the other sentient beings who lived here, they merely… tolerated them. Or, more accurately, ignored them. The royal snatch-engines only took things the Queen and Kings and their children wanted, often for incomprehensible reasons, and whatever living creatures the engines picked up by accident were left to struggle and starve and fight and survive here however they could. And once the Kings died and the Queen began to sicken, even the meager resources of food and building materials that showered down irregularly from the sky began to slow.
“When I was snatched up, in a load of hay and farm machinery from a field near my home, I found myself deposited in a horrible shantytown near the palace. The field of shacks was filled with what seemed, to my eyes, to be terrible monsters. They were, of course, only my fellow citizens, few of whom were interested in eating me. I’ve always had a knack for making friends, for organizing things, and for languages, so soon I managed to make the shantytown into something like a community. Eventually I dared to venture into the palace, where I discovered it was possible to communicate with the Queen telepathically. She’d never much bothered with communication, but she was sick, and worried about her scuttling chittering children. It takes a long time for their kind to mature – I don’t know how long, I don’t even know what the species is called, where they originally hail from, nothing – and I agreed to see that her children were cared for… in exchange for a certain degree of power. And so a bargain was struck, and when the Queen finally died, I took up residence in the palace, and assumed care for the royal orphans left behind. They are just children, you know, willful and easily distracted, quick to anger and quick to delight, and endlessly inquisitive. I’m the only one who can talk to them – their mother told them to obey me, and they are no more capable of ignoring her orders than a falling rock is capable of ignoring gravity. I rule in their place, until such time as they can rule themselves. I help the orphans make the snatch-engines more powerful, which is all they care about, and in exchange they bring me… whatever I need.”
“Like soldiers and black helicopters?” I said. “Chunks of people’s schools?”
“Like infrastructure, Miranda. You’ve seen our food stores – the people of Nexington-on-Axis need never go hungry, because I provide for them. I brought housing. I brought fields, and seeds to plant in them, and the snatch-engines can even bring rainstorms to water those fields. I’ve turned a savage place into a city without equal.”
“That’s not what Howlaa said. She said you have prison camps. That you spy on everyone. That you used to send Howlaa to kill anybody who got in your way.”
The Regent sighed. “The situation here is complex. We have no natural resources of our own, only the snatch-engines. Everything that exists here is imported. The snatch-engines are powerful, but not that precise, and sometimes we bring in things that are dangerous. And, yes, Howlaa Moor was tasked with removing those threats. It’s easy to bring things here, but nothing can get out. Mad carnivores, creatures that eat light, beings that feed on madness, animals with carcinogenic breath – they can’t be allowed to live here and threaten the rest of us, can they?”
“I met Underdwellers who didn’t seem like radioactive monsters.”
“There are more… intellectual rebels as well. Some people just can’t consent to being governed. In the past, yes, imprisonment was the only choice – it’s not as if I can exile troublemakers.” He nodded at me. “At least, until now. That’s why I was building the jump-engine. To make Nexington-on-Axis less a cage, to make it a place where people can come and go freely, where those who dislike my rule are welcome to leave.”
“Then why did Howlaa and Wisp want to steal the jump-engine? Why couldn’t they just apply for a passport and leave with your permission?”
The Regent made a face. “Howlaa and Wisp both owe a debt to this society, for their past misdeeds, and the work they do for me is just… community service. Once their debt is repaid, they will be free to leave, certainly, but they are impatient, and wish to escape their responsibilities. Believe me, Wisp and Howlaa are not treated poorly. Howlaa enjoys drinking alcohol and sleeping on piles of fur and getting into fights, and I provide all those things in abundance.”
“It doesn’t matter how nice their jail cell is, if they’re still prisoners.”
The Regent took a sip of wine. “Idealism is a beautiful thing, Miranda, but it is the province of the young. I am old, and practical. Wisp and Howlaa are useful to me – and trust me, their past actions were dire enough to make a long period of servitude as punishment seem merciful. Surely you have some sense of what they’re capable of? Come with me. Let my scientists get a look at you, and detach the jump-engine from your body. Once that’s done, I’ll send you home, safe.” He smiled.
I think he thought he’d convinced me.
The Regent reminded me of every asshole adult I’d ever met, thinking he knew better than everyone else, just assuming people my age were stupid or naïve. Maybe Howlaa and Wisp weren’t perfect, but at least they didn’t think they were perfect, like this guy did. “Why do you think I want to go home?”
“Ah,” the Regent said. “Interesting. I suppose, if you’d rather, you could stay here with your father. I just assumed you’d want to take him home with you instead.”
I put down my fork. “What. Are you. Talking about.”
He gave me one of those annoying looks of fake surprise. “Oh, didn’t I mention? Your father. We snatched him two years ago. He made the dinner we’re eating now. I had it airlifted from his restaurant in the city center.” He spooned up another mouthful of soup. “Good, isn’t it?”