It began in ashes.
Click. Click. Click.
The Scarlet Lady’s heels beat a tattoo that echoed through the stone corridors like a heartbeat. She was furious, and making no effort to conceal it; her rage, far too violent to be contained in a mere skull, discharged itself through her personal aura and into the nearest available object in arcs of fat, purple lightning. She stormed through the hallway with a glittering corona of violet energy trailing close behind her. You could have mapped her progress by following the scorch marks.
There was a cheery little tapestry at the entrance to the lobby: “Welcome to Crawford, the heart and soul of Texas!” it said, and, “Vivat Imperium Deviae Stellae!” Some cunning wag with a paint-pot had added the graffito “You don’t have to be a sadistic plutocrat to work here, but it helps!” The scarlet lady stared at this little addition unto the paint began to bubble and the threads smoldered. She stalked off.
She found the General in the rearmost withdrawing room. She didn’t give him the opportunity to trade pleasantries. “What’s the meaning of this, Petraeus? Why was there no welcoming party to greet me upon my return? Where are my aides? My servants? I snapped two carriage axels and rode three horses to death escaping from darkest Florida, and now that I’m here, I’ll be damned if I’m going to pour my own damn bathwater in my own damn home!”
“Hi, Condoleezza. Pull up a chair.” The General waved a hand airily. “Share a carafe with me, won’t you? Sweet Napa Red, fifteen years old, white-casked oak. Last of the vintage.”
The Scarlet Lady’s eyes narrowed. “Are you drunk?”
“I ain’t sober!” He announced cheerfully.
Dangerous sparkles filled the air around her. The light in the room, cast from a single blazing fireplace, flickered and dimmed. She became, if anything, more beautiful; for anyone that knew her, this was warning enough. The Scarlet Lady was at her most alluring just before she killed. And then, because she was by no means stupid, everything ceased. She pursed her ruby lips and, with an effort, reigned in her crackling aura. The fire in the hearth blazed back to life.
She folded herself into a plush chair, facing the General. “Something has gone badly wrong,” she said. It wasn’t quite a question.
The General licked the last purplish-black drop from the rim of his glass – a brandy snifter, now that she bothered to notice – and grabbed the bottle. “You sure you don’t want a glass? Never see its like again.” She waved it away. “Pity.” He topped up his glass, gazed speculatively at the now empty bottle… and hurled it into the fireplace. It exploded into blue flames and glass shards. “Bottoms up!” he shouted gleefully, and drank away the entire snifter in one long pull.
She stared at him. When this turned up no new information, she used an old trick: she closed her eyes and extended the reach of her aura until it encompassed the entire castle. With vague, indeterminate senses she probed the corridors of Crawford Castle. “So the rumors are true,” she said eventually. “The Emperor is dying.”
The General paused. “You can sense that?”
Her eyes snapped open: for a moment, they were a dull, dead black, and then her pupils shrank back to their accustomed size. “I sense… nothing. There is no one here. The servants and guards have fled. Beyond this room, I can taste only the barest glimmerings of life.”
The General nodded solemnly. He seemed to pull himself together and, with cracked solemnity, he pulled a leather bottle from beneath his chair cushion and uncorked it. This was no fine vintage, and the blue-black liquid that oozed into his glass blurped and burbled like crude oil. He raised his glass high and said, with a kind of frighteningly genuine sincerity, “To his imperial majesty, King George the second, Golden Emperor of Texas, Duke of the greater Crawford area, and ruler of the Allied Southern Territories, the second and last of his line. May he be remembered fondly.” He drank.
The Scarlet Lady was unmoved. “They are all gone then? Even…” She hesitated. Some names were never said. “Even Him? Even his Shadow?”
“Mr. Che—“ The General paused: he wasn’t quite that drunk. “The Grand Vizier is at his imperial majesty’s side, night and day. Only his careful and loving ministrations keep the Emporer alive.” He sipped his awful, awful wine and shuddered.
“What of Rove?”
“The Roving Man has played his last tune in these halls, I fear.” The General sneered into his glass. “That ought to have been our first clue that things were about to turn sour: Rove just disappeared one night. Vanished into thin air. He left with nothing but the clothes on his back, his golden flute, three nubile serving women, and half the treasury.”
“A tidy severance package indeed.” The Scarlet Lady steepled her fingers. “I’m sure that old Rover is already singing sweet lies into the ear of some other Lordling by now. Or perhaps leading children off to drown. It matters not. And all the rest are fled?”
The General belched, but circumspectly: he was highborn, and mannered, after all. “Fled, or dead: some were executed. Por encourage le rabble. We went through a number of Attorney Generals. I stayed, of course, out of loyalty to the Emperor.” And not the least because of several secret inducements: if he survived, he would be one step below a Beltway Lord himself, with an option for promotion if he could survive and play the Great Game well enough. That was the way of politics: anyone could thrive, as long as they were rich or devious or lucky or, preferably, all three. “I have been planning our defenses.” He waved a hand at three low-slung and ornate tables covered in maps and papers.
“Defenses? Why, are we at war?” She paused for a beat, before answering her own question. “Of course we are at war: we have always been at war. But are we more at war now than we were when I was last here?”
“Go look out the window,” he said. “Tell me what you see.”
After a lengthy pause to smooth her skirts and rearrange the intricate silver bells woven into her hair – that had sounded a little too much like an order, and she did not take orders from anything short of a monarch – she went to the window. “I see the setting sun. I see the shadow of the castle as it lies upon the nearby village. And I see… I see… sparkling lights?”
He said, “Campfires. Thousands of them. By noon tomorrow, we will be under siege.”
“Who dares attack us? How can an army have penetrated so far into Texan territory? How dare they approach us here, at the heart of our strength?”
“What strength?” the General muttered. “As to the attackers: they are vultures. Jackals. Eaters of carrion and devourers of offal. Skulking, slinking, stalking cowards who prowl the dark places and lick their chops and wait for their prey to grow sick and weak before they crawl out of their shadowed lairs. They are like cackling hyenas, craven and cruel, who crack the bone to lick up the marrow. They are low men in stained overcoats and horrid women with slattern’s eyes. They are parasites with no compunction about slaying their hosts, they are filthy vermin who abandon one sinking ship only to gnaw holes in another. They are the lowest of the low, the palest, most cowardly, most loathsome things to ever crawl beneath the skin of the world.”
“Who?” she asked.
“They are the Media,” he said. “They have smelled the Emperor’s weakness, and now they crawl in close to jockey for position at the kill. They were our bosom friends so long as we had the Roving Man with us, but now that he is gone, they spit in our faces and sharpen their knives.” With a long, slow gulp he drained the glass. Almost conversationally, he added, “This morning we received a visit from one of the Choosers of the Slain.”
This fact shocked the Scarlet Lady more than all the rest. “A Valkyrie? Which one? Was it Campbell-Brown, or…“
“It was Maddow.” He said. He peered disconsolately into the empty bottle. “In the flesh. Raven’s wings, gleaming spear, blood-besprinkled corsets: the whole ball of wax. She showed up on the battlements this morning, raised a bronze-banded, brindled horn to her lips, and blew thrice-three-times the Call to Doom. Just like something off of a tapestry.” He sighed. “We tried to point a siege-cannon at her, but she flew away.”
The Scarlet Lady tapped her lips. Though her face was smooth, she was considering furiously. “What if we appealed to the people for help? The citizens militias—“
“Don’t like us very much,” the General finished. “Besides: did I just here you suggest that we appeal to Texans for mercy?”
“So we are doomed?”
Wine had made the General gallant. “Not at all, my dear Condoleezza! We are simply in a very… ah… tight corner right now, but all hope is not lost. He still hold the superior position, after all. And I will… I… I am sure I will be able to think of something.” The color left his face, and he murmured, in a whisper that he didn’t think she could hear, “Because if I don’t, Olberman will feast upon our bones and Koppel will drink the sweet tears of our misery.”
The Scarlet Lady shuddered. “I believe I will have that drink after all. Would you like a refill?” She brought him the glass, and he drank it down greedily.
The Breath of Barbitos was odorless, colorless, tasteless, and dissolved instantly in any liquid. It source was an ancient secret, but all knew that the key ingredient was the pulped rheumy eyes of elderly eagles. It had no known antidote, and the only cure for its effects was immediate and voluminous bloodletting of the infected parts. The Scarlet Lady considered all these facts as she stared at the crystal vial in her hands.
The General made a pleased sound as he reached the bottom of the glass. When it took him, it took him quite gently: he fell over with a sigh.
She patted him on the neck. “Sleep well, Patraeus. Dream of victory.” The dose had been non-lethal, of course. She had no use for a corpse at this time. She did actually hope that he succeeded; if the Empire survived, she was reasonably certain she could return to her old post. And if it didn’t… well, there were always other Lords in need of advice, weren’t there?
Once more she strode forcefully through the stony halls of Crawford Castle. To her certain knowledge there was a good horse in the stables, a lively little gelding, and a secret niche behind a stone in the castle’s outer wall containing a change of clothes, a warm woolen cloak, and a wig.
Her future looked bright.