The quiet footsteps in the corridor weren't quite regular as they approached. Ezar glanced at the clock above the fireplace in his private office, and gave a small smile. He'd had a private bet with himself about how long this would take, and he'd timed it perfectly.
He did not look up when his office door opened, instead pressing the Imperial Seal to the bottom of the report he was examining, then picking up a briefing file and beginning to read. He'd seen everything he needed in the glimpse of the boy standing a half-step further from his desk than he usually did. It would be good for him to wait a little longer upon his Emperor's pleasure.
He took his time over the briefing, making some notes in the margins and checking a reference in a file on his console, and at least ten minutes had passed before he finally looked up at his most junior secretary. Lieutenant Illyan was pale, shading to green, as if his hangover was setting in early. His uniform was slightly rumpled, there were smudges of dust on the trousers, and his face, to Ezar, was as transparent as glass. Betrayal, with its companion, anger, well masked; distress; but most of all, fear. All as he wished.
"Not at the party, Lieutenant?" he said mildly. "Did you have a good time?"
"The party's over, sire," Illyan said. The words could have been defiant, but there was no hint of defiance in his tone, only bare truth.
"Indeed it is." Ezar sat up. Enough playing with his prey. "Very well. Make your report, Lieutenant."
"Er--where would you like me to begin, sire?" Two faint spots of colour came to the lieutenant's cheeks. There was a carmine smear of lipstick on his collar, Ezar noted. The boy was realising that his Emperor could demand a report of every drink he'd drunk and every girl he'd amused himself with and what he'd done with them. Perhaps later. For now, he would be content with the important information.
"Did you know they were coming?" he asked. If Grishnov had been sloppy about it, he needed to know. Of course, Negri would happily tell him that, but Illyan was in some ways more reliable than Negri, being more ignorant and with less of an agenda of his own. "Describe their arrival."
"There was no warning that I saw, sire. I saw and heard nothing unusual until they broke the door down." He paused, scanning inwardly to find the correct place in his memory. He could always access his memory like this, Ezar knew from Negri's reports, drunk or sober, calm or furious. Or terrified. "The party is in full swing," Illyan said, and Ezar noted the switch to the present tense: Illyan describing the picture in his head. "Nobody I can see is talking on a commlink, nobody is showing signs of being on the alert. Two men are having a scuffle, but that's not related... there's no sign that anyone is expecting them that I can see."
"Where are you?" Ezar asked.
"I'm standing by the bar with, er, Agata, facing the room. I hear the crash, I turn, I draw my nerve disruptor, I push Agata behind a pillar. Everyone in the room looks surprised and scared. Nobody looks like they were expecting this. Six men in half-armour come in. They are holding nerve disruptors, they're covering the room. Lord Auditor Vorvandermeer is with them. Then Minister Grishnov and more troops come in. They're all from the Ministry. They turn on all the lights. I look for Captain Negri."
"Tell me about Negri. What was he doing when they came in?"
Illyan paused, his eyes oddly unfocused as if he were looking back in time. In a sense, Ezar supposed, he was. "Captain Negri is talking to Colonel Vorreedi and Captain Baudin. They're near the dancefloor, but they're not dancing, they're holding glasses and Captain Negri is eating a canapé. A cheese straw."
Ezar smiled faintly. He could almost see it himself, through Illyan's eyes.
"Captain Negri sees the Lord Auditor and he shouts for us all to stand down. I lower my disruptor. Everyone else who has drawn a weapon obeys him."
"Everyone?" Ezar asked.
A longer pause this time. "Everyone I can see, sire. I don't have a perfect view of everyone in the room. I'm sorry, sire."
He wouldn't have added that extra, barely necessary apology last week, or even this morning, Ezar reflected. He didn't actually expect even his vid recorder to see everything at once; no man could see what he wasn't looking at, and Illyan was meticulous about the limits of his data.
"The Lord Auditor orders us to put down our weapons. Four of the Ministry men supervise the disarming. They make a pile of weapons and guard it. Then they start making everyone sit down in a long line down the centre of the building. I go to Captain Negri, but he waves me back, and I put my nerve disruptor and my stunner down with the rest. And my knife. I didn't keep any weapons back, sire."
Ezar made an impatient gesture. He wanted the story, not Illyan's anxieties.
"I sit down in the line. The Auditor sends Captain Negri to disarm and sit down too, three men along from me." The faintest hint of outrage still lingered in Illyan's tone as he related this. Ezar leaned forwards with a heavy frown, and Illyan flinched back. Ezar flicked his fingers, and the lieutenant visibly steadied himself and continued. "Minister Grishnov goes over to the bar and talks to the girls. They're not sitting down with us, the Ministry men are leaving them alone. When everyone is sitting down and disarmed, they all walk slowly down the line: Minister Grishnov, General Wright and Lord Auditor Vorvandermeer. They look at each man and identify him, and they tell some of them to leave. They make the rest of us sit in silence."
"How were they choosing men? Did you see the pattern?" He knew the answer himself, of course, but it would be interesting to see if this boy was as good at thinking on his feet as he should be.
Illyan blinked several times, coming up out of his half-trance to answer the question. "After a few, yes, sire, I saw it. They sent out all the enlisted men, and all the officers under the rank of captain except for those in Domestic Affairs. They wanted everyone connected with it as witnesses, and all the high-ranking men. So that... we would know."
Ezar nodded. "And then? What happened next?"
Illyan closed his eyes for a moment, returning to his memories. "They reach me, and Lord Auditor Vorvandermeer tells me to leave. But Captain Negri and Minister Grishnov both tell him I should stay. I don't say anything. General Wright gestures that I should stand up, and I follow the Lord Auditor along the line. One of the Ministry guards shadows me.
"We go down the line. The Lord Auditor sends another six men out. Then they come to Colonel Khostov."
The lieutenant's face, already greenish, looked even more sick, and he gave an involuntary shiver.
"General Wright confirms his ID and that he is the head of Domestic Affairs. Then the Lord Auditor says, 'Colonel Ivan Khostov, in the Emperor's voice I pronounce you guilty of high treason. The sentence is death.' Colonel Khostov doesn't say anything. He looks like he's going to throw up. Then..." Illyan's voice wavered. "Then General Wright shoots him with his nerve disruptor. Twice, once to the head, once to the chest."
"And how does Negri react to this?"
"I can't see Captain Negri, sire. He's behind me. The men I can see look shocked. Sick. Afraid."
"I can't tell what he's thinking. He doesn't look any different than he did before."
No, Ezar reflected, Grishnov would not be transparent to this young officer. For this, he needed an image he could look at himself.
"Continue," he said, and saw the sick horror return to Illyan's face as he went back to the scene.
"Colonel Khostov falls. Someone further along the line--Lieutenant Morris, one of Khostov's men, very loyal to him--tries to get up, but Captain Negri shouts, 'Hold positions' and one of the Political Education guards hits him back down with his rifle butt. The Lord Auditor walks away and the guards follow him, and General Wright. Minister Grishnov walks over to Captain Negri, and I follow him. Minister Grishnov looks at Negri, but neither of them say anything. Then they all walk towards the door, but nobody moves until they're all gone. Then--"
Ezar raised a hand. "That's enough. You can summarise the rest for me, Lieutenant."
"Captain Negri ordered some men to take Colonel Khostov's body away, and he shut the party down. He sent me to you, sire, but I would have come anyway."
"Indeed." Ezar leaned back in the chair and said nothing.
Finally Illyan said, "Sire, what did he do? And why--we could have dealt with him ourselves, sire, if he was a traitor. You didn't need to--"
Ezar moved, just slightly, in his chair, and Illyan swallowed his words and stared at the wall.
"I do not require your advice on this matter, Lieutenant," he said, his words slow and deliberate. "Khostov committed a crime that fell under the remit of the Ministry of Political Education. It is their privilege to serve me in this. Do not question me again."
"Yes, sire." Illyan's voice was very quiet, shaken. Beaten. Ezar pushed himself to his feet and circled around the desk to survey his ImpSec man more closely. Illyan's stillness became absolute, like a mouse when a hawk circles overhead, but Ezar could see the pulse racing in his neck.
Terrifying his vid recorder into submission was only a minor part of tonight's operation. All of ImpSec had grown too proud, too certain that they were the Emperor's pets, untouchable. Illyan was proof that they no longer believed that now.
But if you wanted to make a man fully yours, there were two steps. Piotr had taught him that, three decades ago. First you terrified him with your strength, made him know his smallness and weakness. Then you showed kindness. The smallest gesture was enough to make a man wholly yours, then.
"That was a good report," he said. He put a hand on the boy's arm. "Sit down." He pushed Illyan towards a chair; the boy sat as if all the strength had gone out of his legs. His eyes turned up to Ezar, tracking him doglike.
One day, no doubt, the balance of power would shift, and he would use Negri to bring Grishnov to heel and make him know his place. But for now, the proof of his success sat before him, still shivering a little. Ezar smiled then, poured two glasses of the finest brandy and gave one to Illyan.
"Come," he said, "toast Winterfair with me."
Lieutenant Illyan took the glass and raised it. "Sire," he said.