Tarfus glared at the Empress for a moment on principle before sweeping the curtain away from the car's window. He blinked and squinted.
Before he could accurately estimate the numbers of the gathered crowd, a hand on his shoulder yanked him away from the window and pulled the curtain shut again. Tarfus spun around, fist cocked and ready to fly before he checked the motion. Auva was holding him, her eyes wide. He dropped his fist and relaxed, prompting her to do likewise. The Empress regarded the two of them coolly, expression betraying nothing.
“You cannot risk being seen closely. If any of the highbloods are able to identify your eye color, it may very well incite a riot,” she said.
Tarfus stared at her for a moment, his mouth working soundlessly before bursting out, “How the hell could any of them possibly see my eye color? They're way the fuck down on the ground, not even close to this damn thing!”
Auva sighed, mouth thinning into a severe line of irritation. “When the Empress makes an appearance anywhere, there are snipers watching from every angle, and even some photographers,” she said.
Tarfus raised an eyebrow. “Who the fuck cares if her snipers and media lapdogs can see us? They wouldn't start a riot unless the Empress snapped her fingers.”
Auva sighed. “Not the Empress' snipers and photographers.”
Tarfus blinked, and then his mouth made an “o” of dawning comprehension. “Oh. Shit. So we’re going to get shot at the moment we step out of this thing? That’ll look fucking incredible, all sorts of dignified,” Tarfus said. “‘Oh, look at me, I’m diving out of my car and rolling behind a barrier, look how great and powerful I am!’” Tarfus continued in a mockery of the Empress’ regal tone. “Yeah,” He spat, “That’ll go over real well.”
The Empress remained silent. Auva sighed again and ran a hand through her hair, mussing it slightly. “That is precisely why we are waiting. The Condesce’s counter-snipers are identifying and neutralizing their counterparts as we speak.”
Tarfus rolled his eyes and sat down. “Politics," he spat.
There was a thump from the roof above them, prompting the occupants of the car to look up. The Empress frowned for a moment, and then shuffled several inches to one side. An instant later, a silvery blade flashed straight down through the flimsy ceiling of the car, impaling the space the Empress had occupied moments ago.
She sighed and stood up. “There’s always one,” she said, shaking her head.
The Empress grabbed the flat of the blade with her fingertips as the would-be assassin above them attempted to free it. With a sharp tug, she jerked it back downward, and thrust her trident through the ceiling in the same motion. There was a wail, then the Empress twisted and it cut off abruptly. When the Empress pulled her trident free, the tines were stained with viscous, light green blood. She sat down and began absentmindedly cleaning her trident with a much-stained cloth retrieved from beneath her seat. “Indeed. Politics,” she drawled.
After a moment, the Empress looked up and appeared to focus on something neither Tarfus nor Auva could hear. She narrowed her eyes briefly, and then nodded to herself. “The way is clear. Threshecutioner, you will follow a discreet distance behind the infilterrogator,” she said to Tarfus. She pulled a small huskboard box from her royal dress and handed it to Tarfus. “Inside, you will find a pair of maroon contact lenses. You will wear them.”
Tarfus took the box automatically, and without a further word, the Empress turned and opened the car’s door. He watched closely as one of her guardemolishers unfolded a retractable set of steps from the car's undercarriage for the Empress. Tarfus noted that the Empress paid her guardemolishers no mind, instead scanning the crowd. It made her appear attentive and involved, and displayed her disdain for her aides—a very effective, if subtle display of power.
Dammit. She was good at this. She’d even thought of tinted ocular vision enhancers (he'd be damned if he would use the over-flowery high-blooded term. “Contact lenses” indeed.). He'd worn them since he was old enough for his blood color to show in his eyes, but had lost his last pair in those frantic, bloody minutes on the steps before the Imperial palace several nights ago. The set the Empress had procured would make his eyes appear maroon, like the ones he’d used before.
Tarfus was about to take the top off the box when he paused, and looked up at Auva. “Madris. You’d tell me if these were going to dissolve my ocular spheres, or rigged to shoot a ridiculous tiny harpoon through my thorax and rip it out, right?”
Auva stared for a moment, one eyebrow raised. “I can assure you that if the Empress intended to kill you, she would have done so in a much more direct manner long before now.”
Tarfus stared hard at Auva for a moment before tearing his eyes away from hers and looking back at the box. With a grimace, he balanced the box on his left wrist and reached toward it with his good hand, half-expecting a tiny ravenous insect to leap out and attempt to devour his face. He turned his head away, squinted, and gingerly pried up one corner of the box. When nothing immediately tore his face off, he turned back toward the box, and lifted the top further.
It contained a small plastic case with two round protrusions at either end. Ocular vision enhancer holders. Either the Empress expected him to drop his guard and flippantly open the case, only to be immediately eaten by a tiny horde of flesh-eating insects or…she was actually being genuine about this.
Tarfus thought about it for a moment, and couldn’t honestly say which outcome he expected more. With a disgusted snort, he popped the top off of one side of the case with a thumb and peered inside.
Resting harmlessly inside was a single piece of soft, malleable plastic. They were rust-red and when worn, would make his eye color indistinguishable from that of a maroon-blood’s.
Tarfus closed his eyes, took a deep breath and, after hesitating briefly, popped it onto his ocular sphere. He held his breath while he waited for it to begin eating away at his eyeball. After several moments of nothing happening, he let out his breath and growled at himself for being so paranoid. He put on the other contact lens with equally little happening.
He huffed in disgust and pounded his fist against the wall of the car. He was getting tired of being completely unable to predict the Empress. A tiny voice in the back of his head nagged at him that maybe it was because he was as blind as a sonic-screechbeast, but he ignored it ferociously and looked up.
Auva was already outside of the car and walking away. Tarfus swore and scrambled to follow, bashing his forehead against the top of the car’s open doorway in the process. He stumbled out of the car and onto the dirt, clutching his forehead and swearing. He climbed to his feet, arm splayed wide for balance and surveyed his surroundings.
Behind him, the guardemolishers were watching him stoically, and an aide was cleaning the body and blood off the top of the Empress’ car. In a line behind the Empress’ car were several other cars, disgorging occupants. Tarfus himself was standing in a cobbled driveway, clearly intended as an unloading space for the cars. He turned away from the cars and found the Imperial palace dominating the entire left side of his field of view. To his right, an enormously wide set of stairs led down to a walled, courtyard. Gathered in the courtyard was one of the largest nonmilitary crowds Tarfus had ever seen. A low rumbling was emanating from the gathered crowd. Tarfus wasn’t sure if it was a tense rumbling or an excited rumbling—he wasn’t close enough to accurately divine that.
He shook his head and realized that if he didn’t move, he was going to lose Auva to the throng of aides and officials surrounding them. She was rapidly moving away, and would soon be lost in the small crowd of guards and aides unobtrusively following the Empress. Tarfus made to follow them, when a hand landed heavily on his shoulder.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing here, rustbloo—” a lisping voice began from behind him.
Tarfus’ elbow whipped backward reflexively and a sharp needlepoint pain flared through the tip of it, as he felt something crunch under its impact. He whipped around and found a sputtering yellowblood wearing a hideous yellow coat, sprawled on the ground. The yellowblood was ineffectually trying to pull his ruined red-and-blue glasses off his face. Tarfus’ elbow had shattered both lenses and bent the bridge inward, and they were now stuck, pinched to the other troll’s nose.
Tarfus stared for a moment, before shaking his head and blinking. “Lybnis? What the fuckbucket are you doing here?”
Alesmian pried the ruined mass of metal and glass shards of his nose before making a face and flinging them away. “You son of a bitch, you broke my glasses!” He lisped.
Tarfus rolled his eyes and extended his good hand. “Call us even for the door-bashing you gave me, you moody fuck. Never grab a solider from behind.”
Almesian slapped the proffered hand away and climbed to his feet alone. “I don’t want your help, asswipe,” he spat, brushing dirt from his coat.
Tarfus smirked. “Just thought I’d repay my chauffeur with a little respect after kicking his ass. That was you getting out of the driver’s compartment, right?” Tarfus continued, his grin graduating from friendly to shit-eating in a moment, “I figured it’d be you, what with Little Miss Fishbitch loving to get into your head, use you for your abilities, that sort of thing…those four-wheeled automobiles are psychically powered, right?”
Almesian’s hands curled into fists and he gritted his teeth. “Shut the fuck up,” he breathed, red and blue sparks dancing around his eyes.
Tarfus rolled his eyes and took a step toward Almesian, face inches from the other man’s. “Truth hurts, doesn’t it? You really want to try to take me surrounded by a crowd of riled up morons and edgy guards? They’d stomp us flatter than a goddamn caegar in a second flat. So rein in your flashy fucking fireworks and keep walking before the ‘demolishers decide we’re a little too lowblooded to actually be part of the party up here.” Tarfus stepped back and stared at Almesian for a moment before pointedly turning around and walking toward the Empress’ receding procession.
A moment later, Tarfus felt more than heard Almesian hurry to catch up and match his pace. Tarfus' shoulders relaxed infinitesimally.
“Consider this a stay of execution, asswipe. I’ll get you back when I won’t get guardemolisher sickles jabbed through my spiracles for starting a fight,” Almesian snarled, staring straight ahead with narrowed eyes and a disgusted curl to his upper lip.
“I’ll sleep with one eye open just for you,” Tarfus replied with nary a trace of grin to be found.
Almesian actually growled and clenched his fists. Tarfus made a mental note not to push him too far—he was one precarious step away from the edge at all times. He shook his head, grinning inwardly. It was much too easy to enrage the average person. He’d spent too long among soldiers and worse. That or he'd just spent too much time around his soldiers. They'd either developed thick skin or tried to kill Tarfus in a fit of rage, which led to them either getting themselves killed, or in the unlikely event they survived, transferred.
Speaking of “or worse”, he was nearing the Empress’ entourage. He had already lost Auva, and Her Royal Bitchiness was nowhere to be seen. He recognized a number of miscellaneous aides, the unmistakably immobile profiles of the guardemolishers and—Tarfus grinned maliciously—Corvus. Best of all, Corvus was facing the other direction. Tarfus sped up and clapped his hand heavily on Corvus’ shoulder, barely concealing a snicker at the way the blueblood jerked.
“Would you look at that, it’s my favorite flunky,” Tarfus said, spinning Corvus around. “Where’d the Empress and her pet infilterrogator go?”
Corvus hesitated a moment before recognizing Tarfus and shrugging out from under his grip. “What—why should I help you? Even if I wanted to, I can’t be seen speaking to a mutant-bl—mmf!”
Tarfus slapped his hand across Corvus’ mouth. “Ah, ah, ah. Can’t have you blurting secrets out in public. And…” Tarfus leaned close, muttering into Corvus’ ear, “What do you think would happen if the Empress were to discover that a certain blue blood was carrying around a certain revolutionary badge? The words “culling fork” come to mind…” Tarfus leaned back, and patted Corvus’ shoulder companionably. “What’s the matter? You’re looking awfully pale,” Tarfus said, plastering a look of honest concern on his face.
Corvus’ eyes widened, and he went rigid, staring at something behind Tarfus. Tarfus’ shoulder blades began to itch and, very slowly, he turned around. Auva was standing there, her face the picture of tranquility, standing utterly motionless. She was less than a foot away, and Tarfus hadn’t even heard her approach.
“Ah, there you are threshecutioner. And the Royal Mathematician,” She said, nodding to Almesian. “If you will kindly end your conversation with the Imperial Treasurer,” She said, turning back to the Tarfus, “The Condesce has requested your presence. Follow me,” she finished, turning and walking away without waiting for a response.
Tarfus turned back to the shaking Corvus and favored him with a raised eyebrow. “You? Imperial Treasurer? Well shit, that sure explains a hell of a lot.” Without a further word, Tarfus removed his hand from the other troll’s shoulder and turned to catch up to Auva.
When Tarfus had reached her side, she addressed him without turning to face him, speaking through clenched fangs. “I would take it as a courtesy if you did not terrorize the royal officials if at all possible. That happens to be my job, and I take a certain amount of professional pride in it.”
Tarfus frowned, trying to imagine Auva in a position of power, interrogating stubborn bureaucrats, skulking in darkened halls, extracting answers—or blood—at the Empress’ command. He found that it was frighteningly easy, and suppressed a shudder and replied in spite of himself. “That bottom-of-the-bucket slurry spawn knocked me out and tried to recruit me. I think I’m justified in kicking his ass around a little. Besides he even…” Tarfus trailed off, turning slightly and spotting Almesian still skulking some distance behind them. “…Maybe I’ll tell you about it later,” he said, thinking of Corvus' badge weighing heavily in his pocket. “Now, are you going to tell me what the frond-waggling grubfuck the Empress wants me here for? You were right, she wouldn’t have bothered with the colored ocular enhancers if she planned to kill me. So what’s the goddamned deal?”
“Like I told you earlier,” Auva huffed, “I am not privy to the Empress’ plans regarding you. So you will simply have to wait and see. Now, take your position here and wait for…anything, I suppose. I have other things I need to attend to,” Auva said, pointing to an otherwise-unremarkable section of the platform enclosed by flimsy plywood walls.
Tarfus nodded, and paused for a moment to take in his surroundings once more. The confrontation with Almesian and then Corvus had left him distracted.
In front of him was a large, portable stage, assembled from rolling square sections of metal and thick, reinforced huskboard. The stage was roofed with thin plywood planks and hung with curtains at the edges to conceal the sides and the backstage area from the assembled trolls in the courtyard. To Tarfus’ right was a series of portable barricades lined with grim-faced guardemolishers, and to his left were the imposing front doors of the Imperial palace. He frowned for a moment before he realized what was so familiar about this scene. He mentally shifted his perspective several yards forward and halfway down the stairs before he realized what it was. The stage was set up at the top of the stairs, on very nearly the exact spot he and his band of revolutionaries had made their final stand. He clenched his one remaining fist and grit his teeth together so hard his temples began to ache. That bitch had done it on purpose, he knew she had.
He forced himself to walk calmly up the steps leading to the elevated backstage, ignoring the piercing glares the guardemolishers sent his way, marching resolutely into the gloomy, curtain-shrouded backstage area. When somebody behind him spoke, he nearly impaled them with his sickle before he realized who it was—then when he realized it was Almesian, and wondered why he’d stopped himself.
“So you don’t have any idea what you’re doing here either, rustblood?” Almesian sneered, unaware of how close he had come to death moments ago.
Tarfus blinked, momentarily confused. “What, you don’t know why you're here?”
Almesian’s glare intensified. “No, I don’t know why you’re here. And after you tried to beat the shit out of me, it’d be enlightening to know why.”
Tarfus rolled his eyes. “Get over it, already. You kicked my ass, and I all I did today was break your moronic glasses. I think you still came out on…” Tarfus trailed off, as he realized that his voice sounded strangely loud in his auricular sponge clots. The murmuring of the crowd had suddenly grown silent. Tarfus walked around the dividing wall separating backstage from the wings of the stage proper and he nodded in understanding.
“What is it?” Almesian said from behind him, enmity momentarily forgotten.
“The Bitch is about to speak,” spat Tarfus.