I’ve been working non-stop to try and find the Claw. I’ve also kept Citra, Silver Shark, Beetrice, and Qiang under constant surveillance by bugging all of them. I wasn’t going to stick around them all the time. Especially Beetrice. I need my hip. And my nuts. I found Lefty. He’d gotten scared and decided to hide in his shell. I know balls don’t have shells, but he didn’t. Had to pop the little bugger down.
But, you know what they say: what doesn’t kill us traps us in a hole in its basement and makes us put on lotion. That one really means a lot to me. Someday, I’m going to put it on a plaque. Probably hang the plaque over the pit in my basement.
But enough about future tailoring options, I was searching for the Claw. He still hasn’t made his existence known to a wider audience, which suggests something of a strategy to me. I think he wants peace. I expect that’s something of a tall order, unless he fakes his death.
So that’s why I’ve been working my way around, testing people around here. Mainly the humans. It doesn’t take much. Just some bodily fluid of some kind or another. For the guys in the palace, that means a little trip to the Imperial Glory Hole. I’d like to take all the credit for that, but someone in the Kim family wanted the full sex bathroom dungeon experience. You don’t want to use the shower there.
After carefully testing dozens of men, I have eliminated them from possibly being the Claw. A quick DNA test showed no oddities in DNA. It’s all human. No weird radiation, or animal-DNA, or anything like that. There aren’t nearly so many women here. I don’t know if that one’s the Claw or the Kims, but dictators tend to prefer using women only as baby factories. Having been uncomfortably close to one while she was giving birth, I doubt many soldiers would want to see that rolling toward them on a battlefield with a gun in hand. Even worse if you could get the opposing army’s mothers. “Francis, what the hell do you think you’re doing out here, running around with a sword?! You could get hurt! And just look at your uniform. You take that off this instant and go to your bunk so momma can clean it, and don’t you even think about coming out of there until I say so, young man!”
Cue Private Pyle shooting himself.
My work on the women is more subtle. I walk up in a nice suit, whisper sweet Romanian nothings, hold my cape over my mouth, then bite their necks. I have fangs, after all. In addition to molesting them for their blood, I’ve done the staff here a great public service by dissuading them from every getting involved with vampires. Getting your neck bitten hurts, and then there are the infections. That reminds me, I should tell all the guys from the Emperor’s Glory Hole to get themselves checked, too.
My little rumpus in the restroom hasn’t turned up the Claw just yet, but I like to think it has prepared me for the peace talks. I was mainly meant to be there as a figurehead, but now I have to try and figure out international diplomacy on the fly in a country where almost no one has been taught to think for themselves since World War II. I ended up conscripting a couple of Riccan generals and having Beetrice show up for the big meeting.
As much as I’d love to go deep in depth on that one, we’re talking about a combination of drudgery, formality, and potential execution. The most important part of it for me involved the ambassadors and who they brought. It was the American who decided to spring the surprise on me, perhaps because I had been a pain in her country’s ass more than any other. “There is one last party who wished to be attached to these negotiations. They approached us with concerns about their jurisdiction. They made a good case, so they will be sitting in on these negotiations.”
I shrugged. “As if I know what a normal peace talk is like. I’m usually not involved in these sorts of things. Well, not on the talking side. Made my fair share of talkers disappear, or people who didn’t want to talk. Who do we have here? The Master Academy?”
The ambassador motioned toward the doorway to the conference room I had the staff throw together. This place is a jumble. I’m expected to talk on behalf of a nation that’s barely a nation anymore, made up of a bunch of people unified solely in terror of the last guy who was in power. I’m going to have plenty of rebellions as people ask themselves the fairly reasonable question of why they should listen to me, follow anything I decide, or perform any orders I give. After all, they certainly didn’t vote for me. Strange men sneaking into palaces and pulling out hearts is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, even if that mandate lies purely on avoiding being killed.
I think we know how well that worked out for me last time. But I digress, both here and in the events in question. Because the special guests walked in. The one leading the way wore a uniform with a red longcoat. His second-in-command wore blue, though her hair was of a more rebellious style I recognized from the lower class on my world. Like cornrows, except lots of shaved mohawk rows instead of braids. I barely avoided growling the word “Rangers” under my breath. It’s a habit, much like the even less family-friendly words I swallowed when the third member of the Ranger delegation entered. This one still wore an inky black costume that looked like a walking hole.
And here I was without my armor. Mine was locked up in a very secret room where I spent some of my late nights going over it with a fine-tooth comb looking for any tampering or interference. It’d go easier if I could get nanites, or the machine I had that produced some. Unfortunately, we left that machine on a boat that has disappeared, and Ricca seems to be completely out of nanites. They had been sent to the front lines and rapidly used up. The island of Ricca was the only production center for the Empire, and it still lacks any sort of power. I had to resort to manual labor to do the job, and do it thoroughly. I killed Oligarch by messing with his power armor and setting off the self destruct. I’d rather something similar not happen to me.
I pointed to the last one and addressed the American. “This one has already tried to assassinate me and is still dressed for battle. There are weapons on that armor. Are you really sure I won’t say something that won’t start this person starting a fight around a bunch of frail humans like yourselves?” I grinned at her. The United States had a tremendous fucks deficit concerning my life, but she almost certainly cared about her own. And I’m exactly the sort of guy who could provoke a fight that gets other people killed. I think the recent war proves that one.
That one put their arms akimbo on their waist and disappeared in a brief flash of light to be replaced by a man around the same age as the Rangers. He had the glare of someone I personally wronged, and held my gaze. “You’ve been awfully intent on killing me,” I said in our shared language, cleaned up in this to avoid the constant headaches of dealing with an accurate translation that resembles a heap of typos. “Should I know you?” I asked him.
“You killed my father,” he said.
At least Inigo Montoya gave a name. I shrugged. “Should I know you?” I asked again in emphasis of the point. Then I turned and headed toward my end of the table. Beetrice and one of the Riccan generals waited for me there. I announced our side, called in someone to drop off some finger foods and drinks, and we prepared to get underway.
“Should you trust him?” asked Beetrice in a whisper, nodding toward the general on the other side of me as we sat down.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I tested him.” Meanwhile, the general grabbed my hand under the table and attempted to guide it to his crotch. I slapped his hand away and turned to quietly inform him, “This is not the time.” Then Beetrice’s hand came roaming for my crotch and I had to push that away too. “Not the time,” I reiterated.
On the plus side, I might be able to sex an entire nation into loyalty. Might have to install a new asshole to handle that.
The meeting wasn’t all that productive. I informed them that the guy who had been talking for us before turned out to be something of a traitor, but I’d be willing to at least consider the framework of what he agreed upon. My real goal is to leave the island of Ricca with nothing but the island and other stuff it had before all the recent expansion, but I told them I wanted a peace without renouncing claims to any territory Ricca has taken in its recent conquests. There was some talk of military occupation of Ricca. They sounded like they meant it, but nobody likes that kind of thing nowadays. It’d get them their revolts and they’d stand a great shot at putting friendly governments into power, but they’d be leaving their own personnel right there in the middle of a revolting country and immediately legitimize resistance to the new regime by painting them as foreign puppets.
Just because I usually don’t think doesn’t mean I can’t think, and a person can at least use their mistakes to learn. This public service message brought to you by Fixodent. Fixodent, ruining blowjobs for old people since ’69.
I don’t know how the discussion took so long, but we soon came up on a break, then another one, then we called it a day. We hardly did anything, but a we’d been at it for hours. It was like Mormons fucking.
After I’d ducked Beetrice, I headed back to my quarters. I found Qiang and Citra tied up together in bed, muttering through gags and straining to see through blindfolds. I also saw a sheet of parchment on the floor with a flash drive. The paper turned out to be some sort of list of demands about the talks, including an insistence on keeping power for myself. Curious, I let my body connect to the flash drive to hopefully provide some context.
It contained a video file that began in the palace kitchens. I’d stopped by there to make myself a midnight snack a couple of times and to meet the people who would be cooking for everyone. It wasn’t so much about testing them as it was getting the lay of the land and thanking the little people for doing a good job. Do not ignore the plight of those who fix your food or clean your toilet, lest they think to conspire together.
The view shifted to focus on a chef, who smiled. His face rippled into a many-folded yellow thing with a huge mouth of fangs before settling back into looking merely as grotesque as your average human. “Greetings from his most sublime Emperor of Ricca to the pretender Psychopomp Gecko. Every being on this pitiful planet exists to serve me, even those who insist otherwise. I now bring you into the ranks of the enlightened, who know and do so willingly. This,” he raised up a glass containing a clear liquid that could have just been water. “is a poison beyond the reckoning of the primitive peoples of this planet, such as this one.” He swung the camera around to show the cook he’d replaced, tied similarly to Qiang and Citra. I should probably let them up sometime soon. The Claw took out a syringe and filled it with the liquid, then punctured the gag and sprayed it into the man’s mouth. The man squirmed, but could do nothing but sit there and take what Claw gave him to swallow. After my loyalty tests, I could commiserate.
The Claw set it down and lifted another glass, this one filled with brown liquid. “Either half of this poison stays within the human body for months at a time. Either is completely harmless.” He tossed aside the first syringe and pulled another, which he then used to force feed the captive chef the same way. Almost instantly, the hostage tried to yell with everything he had, but his voice petered away into nothing within seconds. His skin went ashen grey, then pulled in. The man dried up, like a mummy. The claw then picked up the first glass and stepped over to a pair of trays containing food.
It abruptly cut from the kitchen to my quarters, focusing the same trays that had been eaten from, and the tied up Qiang and Citra on my bed. The Claw smiled and laid the parchment on the floor. “I am the eternal Emperor, and you will do as I command knowing how easy it is for me to force this poison upon your loved ones and yourself. You will be the instrument by which I remake Ricca, beginning with peace on my terms. Do not disappoint.”
I may be the instrument, but the Claw’s a damn tool. I’m gonna break that hoe.