Sitting around and waiting isn’t much of a life for me, but it does give me time to catch up on doing things that need doing. For instance, we had a successful first test of the shield generator. It’s more my design, but the guys at the Institute of Science said they built in a few redundancies for the sake of security. When I asked for specifics, since the entire thing’s made for our security, they showed me fake panels on it that just look like you’re doing stuff if you mess with it. Now that it’s functional, they’re going to wire those panels so that messing with them sends a signal to myself and the men and women of the Riccan Armed Forces.
It also gave me time for a nice lunch meeting with Hu that I didn’t rush. It was overdue, but I wanted to prepare first. Part of that preparation involved a nice lunch outside on a balcony. Yes, I have balconies. I’ve sometimes imagined I’m never going to keep finding rooms and other areas on this house. I’m going to notice a door I never opened before, look inside, and find an entire dead menagerie of exotic animals. The smell will be horrible. But at least I knew about the balconies. Being outside, missing them would be particularly egregious.
I munched on some lumpia as Hu was sent out to meet with me. “Hey there, Hu,” I said, waving him over with the fried, flaky roll in hand. I moved a file folder out of the way as he sat in the only other chair available. Instead of files, I pushed over the plate of lumpia. “Care for one? I made them myself.”
“Thank you, your majesty,” he replied.
“You’re welcome.” I set one on a plate that I pushed toward him. “They’re not really all that authentic, since I focus on meat and don’t care for the normal mix of veggies. But I didn’t say they were authentic, just that I made them.”
“Are you alright, Empress? Have you been drinking again?” He took off his shades and pulled out a wipe to clean them off. He appraised me with bare eyes and I gifted him with a smile. He set his glasses down to try a bit of my lumpia.
“No, silly. Just offering you food here. And I offer all my people of Ricca my protection and services as the sovereign. I am the state, so they don’t have to. I enjoy cooking, and I enjoy ruling. And despite the fact that I am a vicious killer known to utilize chemical, sonic, and dimensional weaponry, I’m trusted with both. You trust me to rule, and you trust that I didn’t poison you on a whim just now.”
He looked down at the roll he’d taken a couple bites of. Then he looked up at me and sat back. I held up a hand to reassure him. “Nope, I didn’t poison you, but the point is that you know I cooked it and you trust me. It’s just lumpia.”
I lifted the plate up so I could grab one underneath it and throw the empty plate at the floor, smashing it.
“Empress?” asked Hu, still no longer touching his lumpia.
I smiled. “I wanted to be dramatic and smash a plate, just not while wasting the food. I think it’s damn good lumpia.” I set the plate down and continued. “There is an enormous trust placed in me that is not put in you. You are not the one people look to when things go wrong. When rebels storm the palace to throw someone’s neck into a guillotine, it’s mine they’re after, not yours.” I grabbed the file and set that on his plate, then flipped it open. “These signatures creating a paper trail, though, are not mine. Some people know how much I dislike paper these days. Plus, I’m a career criminal even if you don’t count my time in politics. Creating more evidence someone could use if a team of heroes decides to make their name delivering me to the UN? Not smart for me.”
“I can explain,” he said.
I nodded. “Good, because that’s why I invited you. I want to know why you’re issuing orders in my name for the sorts of things only I can sign off on. It was apparently quite the secret.”
“You hadn’t been entirely well after returning from captivity. I’ve been led to understand your nightmares are worse. You had been irritable, more murderous. Instability is the bane of nations. I used my own judgment to moderate your impulses militarily so that your disregard for human life did not extend to the grandiose crisis created by your predecessor. I feared you would lash out and create a similar situation to the one that required his removal.”
“What about my demeanor and drinking?” I asked. I wanted to keep the questions as open-ended as possible. Let him create a story to be tested and knocked down, if need be. Knowing how much I was messed up, I went back through the recordings of my memories.
“Your substance abuse convinced me I was right. Heavy drug and alcohol usage is a sign of distress after a traumatic period. I began researching therapists as well, but this is a delicate and private matter.” Hu picked up his glasses and tapped the side. A file appeared in my own augmented reality with a few names of therapists with dossiers attached. I checked to make sure they were real, then I skimmed to see if he’d done more work than a Wikipedia entry. Everything looked legit from that brief view.
“Doesn’t matter. Talk to me. Question me constructively. Suggest better alternatives. Let me know when I screwed up. I welcome that kind of interaction to help me improve. It’s better than not figuring out my mistakes until I have Eschaton halfway up my ass. And by all means exercise your power to do what you think is best. Issue your orders. But you don’t get to issue my orders.”
Hu sat there in silence for a minute after I stopped, then bowed his head. “Empress.”
“Intelligence Chief Pagan will see to your replacement. Take the day to organize the files for the continuity of your successor. Then you will be put on leave for the immediate future while Pagan decides your reassignment.”
Hu sat for a moment, then reached for his lumpia. He took a last, deliberate bite. He set it down and stood up, then bowed low. “By your leave, Empress.”
I got to eat another one before my next meeting was shown in. She sat across from me, smiling. “Hi baba!”
“Hello dear. What’s this I heard about you making fun of another student?”
“I don’t know.” She bowed her head but looked up at me.
“You don’t know?” I asked. I moved aside Hu’s plate and tore a roll of lumpia in half for her on her own plate.
She took it and began to munch happily, at least until she remembered what this was about. “The kids at school made funna this boy who had a bow in his hair and I said ‘Did you assume his gender?’ like you do to be funny and everyone laughed.”
I may have made a mistake. “Hon, let’s have a little chat, and then we’re gonna make a deal that involves ice cream.”
It’s a good thing most kids can understand all this gender stuff pretty easily. I explained to her about the differences between gender and sex, and how some people might be a certain sex but realize they’re a different gender, and this is just how people are. “And you shouldn’t make fun of people for that,” I finished, not adding that it’s really too lazy. Any asshole can make fun of someone for that, and they do. Just a constant stream of identical assholes, all needing to be torn up. “And you helped me realize that joke I made is a lazy one that works like how those bullies act even if I didn’t mean it that way. So from now on, I want you to let me know if you catch me saying it. Let’s try it for a week first. If we both get through it without using that joke, we’ll have big sundaes.”
She giggled. “Ok, baba.” Of course, then she had to sit up all excited and go, “I get it, because, because, because they’re just like you!”
I looked at her, wondering how I was going to explain the thing that is Psycho Gecko to my daughter, when she hopped out of her chair and walked over to hug me. “I’m sorry, mommy.”
Ok, let’s just leave that behind and focus on the other big major meeting that’s way more important and relevant and not gushy and in no way involves warm, fuzzy feelings or ideas about raising a child to be a better person than the parent or anything at all like that. We are dropping further discussion of Qiang calling me mommy from here on out. It’s dropped. It’s done.
After another day of observation to see how, if at all, Mix N’Max took my discussion with Hu, I invited him along to go fishing with me. Just the two of us on a little catamaran, switching off playing Kevin Costner as we headed out into the water. We each brought our kit: dynamite for me, pescacide for him. That’s fish poison, and that’s why I wouldn’t eat seafood from our fishing trips even if I did eat seafood. And even if he claims to have a way to treat them to make it safe.
Far out in the water, we opened a cooler, I pretended to drink, and began setting our lines. He took a jar out of the cooler and tied it to a rope before poking holes in the lid. I fetched out a bagged chicken, threaded it with fishing line, stuffed the dynamite inside, synced a blasting cap to a detonator, shoved the cap in there, and tossed the chicken overboard. The secret is to get good distance on the throw, and to include a bobber that lets you know when it’s a safe distance away to detonate. You really don’t want to lose track of an explosive cock. It’ll sneak up behind you and, bam!
I let us enjoy the fishing for a bit. Even set a timer for it. Max noticed when it went off. “Is that the Godfather theme?”
I reached up and squeezed the tip of my nose, shutting off the alarm. “Yeah, just to remind me of something.” I checked around to see where my bobber was. I’d had some nibbles, but nothing big, so I pressed the button. The water blew, causing the boat to bob a bit. I waited for the seas to settle before standing. “Well, guess I better get that net.” I walked on over to where we had this big net on a pole in the middle section. Max was sitting on the rear of it, legs dangling out over the water in some cheap flip flops. He’d smeared himself with something to avoid darkening his gothly-pale skin. “Hey, Max… just why have you been drugging me?”
He turned to look at me, standing there behind him next to a pile of dynamite, a net and pole in hand. “Are you going to kill me?”
“I’d rather not. I’ve buried enough friends. But I want to know what you’ve been doing to me and why.”
He shifted to the side so only one leg was dangling and he could better look at me. “I wanted to help you. I was trying to medicate your mental health.”
“Without discussing it with me.”
“You’ve been worse than ever and you never want to work through this stuff with anyone. You keep collecting traumas to carry on your psyche without ever offloading it.”
“Why the fuck is everybody so fucking worried? I function! I do more than function, this is how I win. It fucking sucks, but it’s made me the awesome being you see before you today.”
“Nice sarong by the way,” he said.
“Oh, thanks,” I showed off a little. I’d picked that shade of pink for its potential to cause blindness from how the brightness, and because it matched my bikini.
Max tied the end of his rope to a metal loop, then turned all the way around to face me while sitting. “It’s great that everyone is worried for you. It means you have people who care. That’s new for you, because you were alone for so long that you resented that and saw it as weakness. You’re still kickass, but think how much better you’d be if you were healed up there. Not to take away who you are as a person, but to get rid of the damage that’s keeping that person from being 100%.”
That made a frightening amount of sense to me, and I’d made sure my drinks on the way out here weren’t spiked. I turned away from him to contemplate this and scooped up floating fish from my dynamite blast. After a moment, I called back, “Never do it again, dude. And seriously, you’re on some Buddha level shit right now.”
“I haven’t felt my face for days!” he called back happily.