Even the Wingless (Fiction)
The first book of the 6-book Princes' Game series covering the Chatcaavan War.
- Series: Princes' Game
- Book: 1
- Publication Date: September 2011
- Editions: Ebook, Paperback, Audio
- Revisions: several
The Alliance has sent twelve ambassadors to the Chatcaavan Empire; all twelve returned early, defeated. None of their number have been successful at taking that brutal empire to task for their violations of the treaty. None have survived the vicious court of a race of winged shapechangers, one maintained by cruelty, savagery and torture.
Lisinthir Nase Galare is the Alliance’s thirteenth emissary. A duelist, an esper and a prince of his people, he has been sent to bring an empire to heel. Will it destroy him, as it has his predecessors? Or can one man teach an empire to fear… and love?
Tags and Content Notes
- Tags: psychological games, high stakes politics, dragons, furries, elves (space)
- Rating: R for emotional, sexual, and physical violence
In A Nutshell
Lisinthir, an Eldritch, becomes the thirteenth emissary of the Alliance to the Chatcaavan Empire. Plunged into a depraved kingdom, he ends up finding himself and, amazingly, love
Expanded by Chapter
Part 1: Sky Longing
Lisinthir meets the handler for his Ambassadorial mission, Alon Levy. Levy gives him a test to see if Eldritch are as advertised: shaking his hand, which Lisinthir passes with flying colors. The two have a brief conversation on the mission and the past 12 ambassadors the Alliance has sent, along with Lisinthir's lack of entourage.
Meanwhile, after observing a vessel on approach to the Throneworld planet, the Slave Queen contemplates life and her loneliness while summoning Khaska, a Seersan slave, to brush her hair. The Slave Queen notes the shuttle, and Khaska informs her that there had been several that she had not seen due to her entertaining Second and Third. Collectively, the two speculate as to what the shuttles could mean the Queen suggests going down to the Emperor's Harem to see if they know anything, asking Khaska to join her. They happen upon the harem in a state of tension, as Third and his Hand have come to enjoy Flower. According to the Mother, they are using Flower harshly because Third has captured "irregular slaves" that the Emperor intends to use against the next Alliance ambassador. The slaves were so special, Third was given leave to kill Flower.
The Slave Queen and Khaska return to the Slave Queen's quarters, where they speculate as to what 'special slaves' means. Khaska tells the Queen that they could find out, as she knows where new slaves are kept. While unsure if she would be admitted, the Queen makes the decision to find out anyway, descending to the bottom of the tower.
Meanwhile, Lisinthir reflects on the opportunity his Queen gave him in this assignment as he transfers to the Chatcaavan shuttle set to take him to the Throneworld. The Pilot of the vessel asks him where the rest of his things are and his escort, and Lisinithir tells him he has none while attempting to read Chatcaavan's body language.
Back to the Slave Queen, who reaches the bottom of the tower and says she wants to examine the new slaves to the guards. After some conferring with each other, they don't see any harm in it and let her in. There's no light, and as her eyes adjust, Khaska tells the room's occupants that they are friends, though they do not speak Chatcaavan. Khaska manages to translate for the Queen as to what they are talking about, and offers to the soon to be slaves where they are and what is to happen to them. During this, one of the slaves, a Malarai, begins crying, and Khaska introduces the Queen to the concept of it. The soon-to-be slaves also reveal that there is a third they have been protecting: an Eldritch. Rumors of the Eldritch, and their ability to feel feelings through touch, have already reached the Empire, making her the special prize that Third has found. The two leave, and upon reaching the top of the tower again, Khaska reveals after the Queen questions her that she told the slaves that they plan to break the slaves out.
Lisinthir, meanwhile travels in space toward the Throneworld. They stop in the middle of space, and he goes to the bridge to find out what is going on: They await the arrival of Third, and when he arrives, Lisinthir is transferred over to his shuttle. Upon arrival, he immediately dislikes his lodgings and demands to be given a proper room, since the room was too "soft."
Awoken in the pre-dawn hours by the Mother, the Slave Queen hastens to accept a piece of jewelry from the now deceased Flower, the first death-marker she'd accepted in two revolutions. The Mother also warns that that there will be a presentation in a day, to herald the arrival of the new Ambassador. Lisinthir arrives on the Chatcaavan Throneworld in the evening. He fends off Third's clumsy attempts to needle him, and follows him to where the court is convening while noting the beauty decorating the savagery of Chatcaavan architecture.
Meanwhile, the Slave Queen prepares for the presentation. With the help of Khaska and two of the harem's lesser members, she decorates herself for the proceedings, hating it for what it made her: "An objet d'art." The Queen and Khaska are led at the bottom of the tower to the presentation by Chatcaavan guards. When led to where she usually is kept during these presentations, the Slave Queen notes that everything seems fancier than usual, which means the Emperor is minded to play. When the Ambassador arrives and is Eldritch, the Slave Queen sees why Third was richly rewarded. After some minor pleasantries, the Emperor shows off the newly acquired slaves, the new Eldritch one to cap it off. However, the Eldritch Ambassador does not show any emotion, contrary to how Eldritch are supposed to be, even when shown a slave of his own race. In fact, the Ambassador says the Eldritch slave is "too short" and upon being questioned, offers tips on how to display her. Delighted at the Ambassador's artistic sense, the Emperor sends guards so he can show off the Slave Queen. The Ambassador comments on the aesthetics of the Slave Queen's arrangement, which delights the Emperor enough that he speaks of himself as a person, and not an abstraction. After extending an invitation to eat with him, the Emperor leaves and ends the audience.
Lisinthir takes a moment to compose himself in the face of the fact the Chatcaava had not only taken an Eldritch slave, but the heir to the Eldritch throne. He is then led to the Emperor's towers, noting a live Chatcaavan made up as a statue. Then, Lisinthir and the guard begin the interminable ascent to the Emperor's quarters. Upon arriving there, Lisinthir is given the honor of killing the meal, an animal that he dispatches by breaking its spinal column while it struggles in fear. The Emperor continues to show fascination with the contrast between Lisinthir and previous ambassadors. He then asks what symbol it is that Lisinthir was wearing, saying his newest slave had a similar one. After accidentally cutting himself in surprise, Lisinthir dissembles and says that it's a sign of patriotism. The Emperor says that the Eldritch deserved her fate and dares Lisinthir to respond. After Lisinthir admits that he would not agree with the statement, the Emperor remains amused and dismisses Lisinthir.
Once back in her chamber, the Slave Queen finds Khaska weeping upon their return. When asked what was wrong, Khaska says that "[p]erhaps at last the Alliance has sent an ambassador who can prosper at the court" and inadvertently introduces the Slave Queen to another aspect of crying. The Slave Queen attempts to comfort Khaska, then abruptly asks her what her real name is, as she is aware that names are important to aliens. She posits that maybe she can learn more of Universal and thereby see something of the outside world and learn more about aliens in general. Khaska gives her name: Laniis.
Lisinthir arrives at his opulent quarters, studying the chatcaavan room arrangement and what it could mean to a race of flyers. While unpacking, he gets a knock at his door and finds a chatcaavan female, who gives him a note and goes to his bed. Realizing that he had been given a concubine for the night, he tells her to leave, using as an excuse the fact that she was from the gift harem and not the Emperor's personal one.
The Slave Queen is interrupted from settling in for sleep by the arrival of guards, who bring the newest slaves to her chambers. The Eldritch is unwell from too much handling, according to Laniis, and she and the other slaves that came with the Eldritch go get some blankets to comfort the Eldritch.
Lisinthir wakes just before dawn and bathes and dresses. He further inspects the apartments, and the moment he steps out into what he presumes to be a study, Second lands on a perch for presumed visitors and introduces himself, referencing a flag that Lisinthir has no idea about. Lisinthir asks about food. A confused Second, since previous ambassadors brought their own chefs, promises to have the staff see to his feeding. Lisinthir also insists on Second not using you-the-alien, since he's able to understand some of the implications of that pronoun. After again insisting that he's hungry, Second flies off to see to it. With Second gone, Lisinthir finds the flag Second mention, and that it's in tatters plus out of easy reach. When he recovers the flag, he sees that it has been shredded. By the time Second returns in the afternoon, Lisinthir is quite angry. Armed with his sword, he advances upon Second, confronting him about the flag. Second admits to ignorance, and Lisinthir accuses Second of defacing the flag, which Second denies but assures Lisinthir that the perpetrator will be found and punished. Lisinthir demands Second hang the new flag up and that lights are installed to keep it lit at night, and a new pole, saying also that his availability for meetings will be signaled elsewhere. Second also tells him that the Emperor has invited him to supper.
The Slave Queen reflects that it's crowded in her chambers now, with the addition of three new people. She takes a bath to cleanse herself from the rigors of the presentation, but observes the Eldritch climbing into one of the lower bathing chambers. After watching her bathe and leave, crying and shaking the whole time, The Slave Queen privately assess that she will be the first of the slaves to die.
Dressing for dinner, Lisinthir reflects how annoying it is to do so alone since he brought no entourage. As he does so, he receives a message on his tablet from his contact, who writes in Eldren for an additional layer of obscurity. Lisinthir reports that he's found the Eldritch heir, while speculating on who, exactly, he is speaking with.
A servant brings him to the Emperor's chambers, where he finds both The Emperor and Second, who kills for them. The first topic: Lisinthir finding the Emperor's gift insufficient. Lisinthir refuses any further gifts on the grounds of not wanting charity. Second stares, but the Emperor laughs. The second topic is Lisinthir's sword, which he says he never travels without. The two Chatcaava disdain the use of them, but Lisinthir offers his perspective and there is a discussion on the cultural merits of killing ones opponents versus not killing them. The Emperor then decides to personally show Lisinthir his personal harem, directing Second to fly there. During the walk, Lisinthir brings up the flag issue, which the Emperor brushes off. Lisinthir and the Emperor have a brief confrontation about the flag, what it represents, and the poor showing previous ambassadors have made on the Empire.
Upon arrival at the Emperor's personal harem, the Emperor shows off the lounging females. Lisinthir -- though he tries to hide it -- expresses his lack of interest in them, saying it was because of the four arms. The Emperor then exits that harem, passing a surprised Second, and ascends to the Slave Queen's chambers.
Meanwhile, the Slave Queen is getting used to the room's new occupants when she is alerted by Laniis that there are soon to be visitors. The Ambassador soon appears in the doorway, followed by the Emperor, and infrequent guest to these chambers, followed by Second. The Emperor asks if the Ambassador cares to use the Slave Queen, and the Ambassador declines, citing dinner. The Emperor orders the Slave Queen to serve as a foot stool, and the Slave Queen notes that Second is nervous, wondering if he was guarding the Emperor.
The Emperor and the Ambassador have a conversation about aesthetics that segues into whether the Alliance is sending spies. The Ambassador replies that escaped slaves are the best spies, since they are so cheap. Then, the Emperor wishes to show off his latest prizes, and directs the Slave Queen to bring her, who asks Laniis to bring them. Laniis comes back with the Tam-ilee and the Malarai, and when the Emperor asks about the Eldritch, the Ambassador interrupts, positing the Eldritch is near death. After disdainfully suggesting that Eldritch females are remarkably fragile, the Emperor leaves to discuss things with Second while inviting the Ambassador to pre-bed drinks. Recognizing that this male is dangerous and intelligent due to this invitation, the Slave Queen moves to protect the others. The Ambassador asks to see the Eldritch woman while saying that he will not touch anyone. The Slave Queen will not have any of it, but Laniis tells the Ambassador where the Eldritch is, to the Queen's consternation. Abruptly, the Ambassador offers his hand, stating that it will make him uncomfortable and clumsy. The Slave Queen takes the hand, thinking of her longing for the sky. This causes the Ambassador to weep, and through tears of the Slave Queen's reflected misery, he asks her to help him free the slaves.
Lisinthir asks since the Slave Queen knows herself to be a person, and also settling into the reality of Chatcaava as people. The Seersa directs him to sit, and by her body language and spacing, he finds that she knows a lot about Eldritch. Her crude use of the language confirms it, and he learns this Seersa was Fleet Intelligence, captured a year ago while investigating rumors of traffic in Eldritch slaves. She then leads Lisinthir to Bethsaida, the Eldritch royal heir, who does not respond to his gentle entreaties. After asking the Seersa to help treat her and promising that he will do what he can to free them, Lisinthir leaves for the Emperor's tower.
Several hours after, the Slave Queen, still affected by the Ambassador's request, guesses that the Emperor will soon test the Ambassador by taking the Eldritch female in public at an audience attended by the entire court and many servants. Security would be lax, providing an opportunity for the slaves to escape. All that would be required would be for her to insert herself as the Eldritch slave, and take her pattern. She attempts to Touch the Eldritch, which wakes her, after which she asks to take her shape. The Eldritch's protestations wake her guardians, who push the Slave Queen away. After calling Laniis over and having her calm down the guardians, the Slave Queen explains her plan to help the slaves escape and what it would take. After some translated entreaties, the Eldritch slave acquiesces, but withdraws her hand after touching the Slave Queen's mind which is "full of anger and pain and darker things." Thus, the plan hits a roadblock.
Lisinthir arrives again at the Emperor's tower to find all the guards gone. What interests the Emperor, however, is recent evidence of Lisinthir weeping, since Chatcaava are unable to cry. Slavery becomes the subject again, and Lisinthir tells the Emperor that though he finds slavery morally reprehensible, he pitched the pragmatic issue of possible spying to dissuade the Emperor from continuing the practice. The conversation meanders into whether the world is harsh because it is or it is made so, and the Emperor states the Chatcaavan principal of the strong being entitled to the weak. Lisinthir asks leave to go, and before he does the Emperor gives him leave to use his harem in its entirety. Once safely back in the ambassadorial chambers, Lisinthir fears how far he will have to go in order to spring the slaves and free Bethsaida, and survive his full two-year term.
The next morning, the Slave Queen finds herself upset at the aborted Touch, so much so that she doesn't notice the Ambassador arriving until he speaks. When he allows himself to be vulnerable to her, she is surprised. She questions why he is asking her, of all people, and he tells her that she's lived longer here than he ever had so she might have useful information. For example, the number of horns a male has is significant, and stronger males break the horns of rivals to humiliate. The Ambassador again asks her if she can help him, and she pitches to him her idea and the concept of a public test, since the Emperor will not conduct business with one whose mettle he has not tried. While explaining the plan, the Slave Queen tells the Ambassador that wings determine what Chatcaava can change shape, and the Ambassador offers that he will need more items brought from the Alliance, which allows an avenue for the slaves to escape to. Then, the Ambassador offers his own pattern for her to finish the Touch. After it settles, she Changes for Laniis and the Ambassador, who proclaims that this might just work, and informs her that the Eldritch slave is the heir to the Eldritch throne. The Slave Queen dispatches Laniis to listen for anybody arriving, and the two converse, during which the Ambassador reveals that if he stays after liberating the slaves, this will force the Emperor to notice him and he might get somewhere in negotiations. During this, the Ambassador, in trying to help her from being disoriented from the Change, notices she has the Eldritch ability of sensing emotions through touch.
Back in his quarters, Lisinthir converses with his contact through tablet, stating a need of food and other innocuous things in order to hide the shipment to rescue the slaves with. He restates a desire to stay after the operation, since he isn't here just to rescue slaves and there would be a need to send someone else if he does leave, someone with esper abilities. The contact pitches a Glaseah but is quickly shot down. After ending the conversation, Second arrives. Lisinthir needles him while receiving a message that dinner will be soon and a servant will be sent to escort him. This gives him time to dress and send for a box to receive mail from his contact.
Lisinthir is guided to the field and, based on where he is seated, surmises that he is put in a place of disrespect. Still, he has ample opportunity to observe, noting the courtiers, the poison-tasters, and Second acting as a poison-taster for the Emperor. After some time, Second stands and gives an example of the Emperor's justice: Firestorm's Heir, the one who admits to desecrating the flag, challenges for the right to evade punishment. The fight is over very quickly, with the Chatcaava dying by being disemboweled. The Emperor shoots Lisinthir a look to make sure he knows this was done for him.
The Slave Queen is surprised by the sudden arrival of the Ambassador, who she recognizes as looking unwell. He makes a joke about asking for a harem's special skills, though through it he asks for them to help him relax while he asks the Slave Queen about the Chatcaavan justice system. The Ambassador reiterates his desire to stay despite the fact that he may face death if he does so, stating that males protect their people. The Slave Queen corrects him, saying males use, claim, fight over, then dispose of the weak. Laniis informs the Ambassador of the dungeon at the base of the Queen's tower, and he departs, saying he will be back tomorrow while thanking them for the distraction and renewal of purpose. After he leaves, the Slave Queen and Laniis have a conversation about the difference between slavery and servitude as Laniis throws her lot in with the escape plan.
The following morning, Lisinthir arrives at the Slave Queen's chambers only to find Bethsaida being helped by Laniis. Beth tries to cover herself, and Lisinthir remarks that Beth's priorities are not in order if she is worried about being naked around anyone. Bethsaida reminds Lisinthir of Eldritch customs, and Lisinthir states that he has no desire to marry her. The Slave Queen joins them and Lisinthir asks her about the guard patterns on the stairs. When asked why, he pitches having Laniis guide the slaves to the dungeon at the base of the tower so that the cargo-men coming to deliver Lisinthir's belongings will extricate them from the dungeon. He also tells the Slave Queen that Laniis is not just an interpreter.
Back in his quarters, Lisinthir takes a bath to soothe his aching limbs from all that stair-climbing. On his way back, he finds Third's Hand sifting through his desk. The Hand introduces himself, but Lisinthir objects both to the Hand's presence and that he is not Third himself. After rejecting the Hand's reasoning for dealing with him instead of Third directly (prior Ambassador's have, natch), Lisinthir moves to leave after telling the Hand not to insult him by sending the Hand again. The Hand attacks and Lisinthir dives into his room and gets his sword. At swordpoint, Lisinthir backs the Hand out of his chambers, telling him never to come again. Shaken by the encounter, he is relieved when the data tablet chirps and his contact informs him the shipment will arrive in two days. Lisinthir tells him of the plan and that he's abetted by "a vixen lost by her superiors. Soot points on argent."
Meanwhile, Third and his Hand barge in on the Slave Queen's apartments, demanding to see the Eldritch to bring her to the Emperor. The Slave Queen states that she is indisposed, and Third sends off Laniis, then his Hand to go fetch her when Laniis doesn't move. Third decides to amuse himself by hurting the Slave Queen who, remembering the Ambassador's calm, doesn't give him the satisfaction of outwardly showing her fear. There's a crash from the other room, and Third brings the Slave Queen to observe Laniis fighting Third's Hand for the Eldritch. Third throws Laniis from the fray and grabs the Eldritch, who faints with a scream from merely touching Third's emotions. Third demands the Slave Queen wake her up, and when she reports that she doesn't think she's able to, Third starts slapping the Eldritch to try and wake her. The Slave Queen manages to convince Third not to drag off the Eldritch slave anyway, and he and his Hand leave. The Slave Queen checks on Laniis, and together with the other slaves, they check on the Eldritch and try to comfort her. Abruptly, Third returns with the Emperor, who notices the new bruises on the Eldritch's face. The Emperor punishes Third by breaking his hand and sends him away, then charges the Slave Queen with seeing to the Eldritch slave's health.
At dinner on the Field, Lisinthir receives a message from a server that the Emperor has required his presence post-dinner. Entering to a prowling Emperor, Lisinthir and the Emperor get into a discussion as to why the Eldritch are soft and why the Chatcaava are hard. During this Lisinthir lets slip that he doesn't much like the Emperor's notion of fun, and the Emperor seizes on that to try and discomfit him again. After being dismissed, Lisinthir figures out that something happened to Bethsaida and he heads to the harem tower.
Unsurprised that the Ambassador knew and arrived, the Slave Queen asks if the Eldritch was going to die. She finds she had to ask him twice, and he explains that he hasn't seen any Eldritch like this. After naming her assailant, the Slave Queen and the Ambassador go over their options, and the Ambassador comes up with the Slave Queen playing the Eldritch as a convalescent. The prospect frightens her greatly. The Ambassador takes off his glove and offers his hand for her to touch, and when she does, he pleads with her to help. This convinces the Slave Queen to do it.
The following morning, Lisinthir gets the message that tomorrow the rescuers will be in the area, and the delivery made on his call. He hangs the scarf in the afternoon and is visited by the Crown Surgeon. The Surgeon explains to him the concept of Outside, and then allows Lisinthir to dress for dinner before showing him to the clinic. Here he emphasizes again, as he did when explaining Outside, that he will heal honor wounds, and not poisoning or illness.
At dinner, the Emperor announces that the planned festivities are postponed and moved to two days from now, and that he will be guarded by Second and the Throneworld Thorn. Third wonders if he'd been replaced, and the Emperor informs him that he is displeased with Third, and tells him to guard the spaceport instead. Another male asks about the special entertainment, and -- staring right at Lisinthir -- the Emperor tells all assembled that he intends to take the Eldritch slave. Lisinthir stands, then calmly turns his back on the Emperor as he leaves. He maintains his outward calm until he gets to his apartments.
Meanwhile, the Slave Queen practices the Eldritch shapechange and contemplates the sea. She's surprised by the Ambassador's arrival, and the two converse about what can be done about Third. Again, the Ambassador asks the Slave Queen's help, and the Slave Queen decides to solicit help from the females of the harem.
Back in his quarters, Lisinithir passes along to his contact the specific time to arrive. In return, he gets a message to pass along to the snow-ember: that the mission is a broken parachute. Getting a knock at the door, he opens it to find Laniis, who begs him -- in Universal -- for protection. He's startled by her out of character performance before understanding that she was sending a message: she was able to get to his quarters without being stopped or questioned, could bring messages from the Slave Queen if necessary, and that he was probably under surveillance. He sends her away, telling her the message from her superiors.
With the Mother's guidance, the Slave Queen recruits four members of the harem who are masochists and haven't been used in a while. After making an eloquent pitch about how Third needs to be properly sated to once again fulfill the Emperor's aims, all four volunteer. She returns to her apartments and reflects on the nature of power and how she was starting to think of herself as a person. Before she gets too melancholy, Laniis warns of the Emperor and Second's approach and she Changes to help the ruse. After checking in on the Slave Queen as an Eldritch, the two leave.
Lisinthir converses with one of Second's lackeys about how he is to set up appointments with the Chatcaava, since he has no computer access locally. When the Chatcaavan leaves, he reflects on his second objective: finding out if the Chatcaava will make war on the Alliance, and if so, when?
Overcome with nervous energy she can't explain, the Slave Queen and the others tidy her suite. The Slave Queen finds the Eldritch has come awake, and summons Laniis to translate. Together, they reassure her that she need only hang on until tomorrow. Then, the Slave Queen heads to the use closet to pick out things for the four distraction females, finding herself suddenly uncomfortable with things that she was dispassionate about before. And, that she wanted to please the Ambassador. As if on cue, the Ambassador arrives to see her with a basket full of "toys".
Asked to fetch the lantern, Lisinthir does, and gets a good look at the instruments of torture held within the closet. The Slave Queen tells him that some instruments haven't been used in some time, with the current Emperor's ascension, and that humiliation and cruelty are better than death. She then surprises him by telling him the racks are meant for males to test one another, "to force your will on other males in as violent and humiliating a way possible. The first to bend his neck is the lesser of the two." She then assures him that he won't be tested that way, since he's an alien.
Next morning, the Slave Queen distributes the toys and the four distractions: two in the harem proper, two in the Queen's suite. She prepares for the day with a bath and a light meal. Lisinthir converses with his contact and prepares for the test, knowing he might have to lengthen it with a comment or two and wear a mask of nonchalance. A Chatcaavan arrives on his doorstep and tells him that a shuttle is here with his delivery. He goes to the Field.
Laniis warns the Slave Queen of Third's approach, and also that she's leaving with the others. The Slave Queen gets a hug and a goodbye, then Laniis hides while she Changes. Third arrives and laments that he can't at least be present for the torturing of the Eldritch slave, then cops a feel, overwhelming the Slave Queen with Third's depravity. Before she could lose the form, however, two of the distractions begin their work. Third takes the bait and passes off the responsibility of leading the Eldritch slave/Slave Queen to the presentation to his Hand. Thinking quickly, the Slave Queen dives into the harem when they reach the landing, and Third's Hand is hooked by the remaining two distractions. She is then led by the guards alone.
At the presentation, the Slave Queen hears the Emperor and the Ambassador banter before she is pulled to a cold, austere setting. The Emperor descends and the presentation begins.
At the end, the Slave Queen shivers. There is more posturing between Emperor and Ambassador, and the Slave Queen is taken away.
Back in the relative safety of his apartments, Lisinthir finds the chest that had arrived, and the fact that it is a bit of an audacious in-joke among Eldritch undoes him. He allows himself a moment to grieve for the Slave Queen, her despair, and her bravery. After washing his face, he examines the contents of the chest, puts it away, then goes to bed. When a sufficient amount of time has passed that he might be seen as deeply asleep, he slips out of bed and checks the hidden compartment, uncovering a set of claw-knives and a secret amulet rampant.
The next day, Lisinthir organizes some trade requests and does other mundane things he doesn't need to see anybody about in obvious view. In the evening, he gets a message from his contact that the slaves have successfully escaped. However, the signal is soon jammed, and he has enough time to dress in his coat when Third barges in with guards, dragging him to see the Emperor. Said Emperor is in the middle of decorating the Slave Queen when Third interrupts, announcing that all the Alliance slaves have escaped and fingering Lisinthir as the culprit. When questioned, Lisinthir admits it, which makes Third almost strike him. The Emperor orders everybody else out of the room, then questions Lisinthir further, even grabbing his chin and forcing his emotions onto the Eldritch. After saying that he's going to kill one of his harem, the Emperor moves to leave, but then Lisinthir asks for continued use of the Slave Queen. The request is granted, and the Emperor leaves.
The Slave Queen is shocked that the Ambassador is still alive, and further shocked that the Ambassador reports that the Emperor is too impressed to kill him. The Ambassador wishes to test his mettle against whatever the Emperor has in store, regardless of the consequences. In addition, the Ambassador asks to count her as an ally, and she does so in exchange for him teaching her Universal.
Part 2: Masks
Symbolized by his move to a pillow fifth from the Emperor's seat, Lisinthir allows himself to feel satisfied at liberating all Alliance citizens from the Emperor's harem. However, this new move comes with a standstill: for a solid week, neither Second nor Third paid attention to his flag when he flew it to conduct business. However, one night Third is late to supper, and the Emperor confronts him about his Hand killing one of the females that distracted them, along with the fact that their distraction allowed the slaves to escape. Taking it as a sign of disobedience and posturing toward the crown, the Emperor attacks like a force of nature. The duel ends with no death, but the Emperor snaps off two horns from Third and sends him scurrying away. Going back to his place at his pillow, the Emperor invites Lisinthir to post-dinner drinks. Lisinthir, back in his apartment, briefly dithers on what to take to the Emperor's invitation before he decides to visit the Slave Queen instead, since he has several hours before he is to be there.
Things are quiet for the Slave Queen following the slaves' escape, but when the Ambassador finally visits her, she is tense, picking up on the Ambassador's uncertainty. It turns out, the Ambassador wants to apologize for not seeing her in the intervening week, and to ask forgiveness for not thanking her for her part earlier. The Slave Queen, after taking a moment to unravel this alien chain of logic, is surprised that he'd want to ask forgiveness. The Ambassador also reports the Emperor broke off two of Third's horns, lamenting that was the only cost of two women's death. The Slave Queen figures out that the two are the one Third's Hand killed, and the one the Emperor said he killed after going down to the harem. The Slave Queen tells him that when the Emperor found out that Third's Hand had already killed someone, his anger was deflected away and he did not end up killing another slave.
The Slave Queen reports that the Emperor was away for two days and that Second doesn't like the Ambassador, who takes that he's been ignored for only two days. She informs him that actually, the week of respite is a sign of respect, since it took that long for the Emperor to choose how to test the Ambassador and recoup his strength. However, the Slave Queen emphasizes that this is no normal invitation to drink: this is an invitation to accept the test, and the Ambassador must challenge the Emperor. Put another way, he has to insult him. The Ambassador is very surprised by this, and the Slave Queen informs him that having proved he could go against the Emperor's will when dictating duty, the Ambassador needs to insult the Emperor personally. In this, he has the potential to go further into the Emperor's confidences.
From the Slave Queen's chambers, Lisinthir goes directly to the Emperor's, dread haunting the interminable climb. Inside, Lisinthir bows and the two converse. To Lisinthir's despair, however, he sees them retreading the same ground. When the Emperor pours for them, Lisinthir gets an idea: imply that pouring for someone else is weak and womanly. He gets only a split second before the Emperor attacks him, throws him onto a nearby couch, tears off his clothes, and rapes him, with mind and body. At the end, Lisinthir finds himself sweating from the pain. The Emperor offers him a drink, and he accepts. With a suggestion that he see the Surgeon before he goes to bed and throwing him a robe since his existing clothes were destroyed, the Emperor dismisses Lisinthir.
Halfway down the stairs, Lisinthir collapses, reflecting on the scattered impressions from the Emperor's mind: that while not a Chatcaavan, Lisinthir still fascinated the Emperor. Faced with this being his new normal, Lisinthir wants to bolt, even though he'd been invited to the true tests of a Chatcaavan courtier. Battered and bleeding, he declines to go to the Surgeon's and instead climbs more stairs to see the Slave Queen, collapsing at the door.
Surprised he didn't catch himself, the Slave Queen goes for the comm panel and calls for the Surgeon. Unsure as to whether her touch would harm the Ambassador further, the Slave Queen tries to examine him to see if there is anything she can do for him. The Surgeon arrives through the window, commenting that he didn't think the Slave Queen understood what she saw. Unsure how to treat the Ambassador since he's an alien, he asks the Slave Queen if she knows anything, and she replies about the Eldritch's esper ability. The Surgeon decides to treat the Ambassador right in the Slave Queen's suite, enlisting her help to do so. Together, the two of them strip the Ambassador, and the Slave Queen takes in the sight of the naked alien male. While the two are examining the extent of the wounds, the Surgeon drops that the Emperor warned the Surgeon that the Ambassador might accrue honor wounds. The Surgeon finishes and leaves, and the Slave Queen is left with the Ambassador, aware that she is larger and more likely heavier than he is. Instead, she gets some pillows and tries to make the Ambassador comfortable while struggling with the Ambassador coming to her tower as an apparent refuge, and more signs of her personhood. Confused with how to arrange him, herself, and her thoughts, she waits with the Ambassador's head on her lap.
Lisinthir wakes to alien thoughts of unease and discomfort, similar to his own. Unable to fight the outside emotions, he doesn't and opens his eyes, looking up at the Slave Queen. She tells him that he's been out for 4 hours, and that he's been tended to by the Surgeon with her aid. As he feels her puzzlement, she also says that the Emperor warned the Surgeon that Lisinthir might need his services. With her calm still taking hold of him, she details that Lisinthir is in a unique place: ambitious males the Emperor disliked get humiliated by either having their horns broken off (if useful) or their wing vanes stripped (if not); ambitious males the Emperor respects get killed. Rape is reserved for those who are between respect and usefulness; a private humiliation. Lisinthir thinks that being used as a female is a form of admiration, and the Slave Queen corrects him: he was given a choice, and fighting was counted in his favor. Lisinthir apologizes, and as the Slave Queen wonders if she's putting him off, he reveals that her feelings are his as well for the time being, and if he was just himself, he'd be more unsettled. At the suggestion that he do as his predecessors do, he states that he can't conduct business as a wingless freak. Someone has to do what he's doing, and if not him, then who? The Slave Queen tells him that he'd either rise to be respected and killed or fall to be publicly humiliated, which Lisinthir finds untenable. If he can't find a path between those two, then everything he's done so far will be for nothing. The Slave Queen predicts that this will lead to him being killed, but Lisinthir -- finally sitting up -- says that he isn't Chatcaavan and therefore can find a different ending. After asking the Slave Queen if it gets better (solid maybe), Lisinthir asks her if she has access to anything he can wear. She leaves to get some harem members to fetch clothing, and as she returns, he asks to see her in the mornings after breakfast to fulfill his promise.
With the Ambassador gone, the Slave Queen takes a bath, wrestling with her feelings. As she gets out, Second arrives, and to her confusion, refuses his normal service of having his wings oiled. Second asks if the Ambassador was here the night prior, and after being confused that Second was actually addressing her, the Slave Queen answers that he was. Second also asks if the Ambassador had honor wounds, and starts pacing when being told that he did. Second peppers the Queen with questions, betraying anger and worry that the Ambassador did not intend to leave after suffering abuse as aliens count it. He leaves, and the Slave Queen is caught between wonder and anxiety.
Lisinthir wakes late in the day to another note from the Emperor, inviting him to another drink. He has a minor crisis thinking about explaining his current situation to the Alliance Diplomatic Corps, Fleet Central, or worse, the Eldritch contact he had. Steeling himself for what must be done in order to accomplish his aims, he bathes, dresses (initially discarding white for red because he didn't want the Emperor to see the amulet), and makes his way to the Emperor's apartments. The Emperor expresses surprise that he answered the invitation, clarifying that he was surprised Lisinthir was able to answer the invitation. Lisinthir scoffs and again implies the Emperor is womanly for pouring for him and is again attacked and raped. This time he fights back, furious, but fails to prevent his rape. At the end, when the Emperor again offers him a drink, Lisinthir sees that he managed to injure him somewhat.
Warring with whether to prepare for the Ambassador's impending visit or simply wait for him to fail to appear, the Slave Queen chooses optimism and prepares, and the Ambassador rewards her trust in him. She notices that he's hurt, though the Ambassador says that he's been to the Surgeon and been patched up. The Ambassador finds the song book he'd forgotten there earlier, then muses on the Emperor's invitation, so soon after his last, with the Slave Queen. After some pleasantries that the Slave Queen finds bizarre, the Ambassador begins his lesson, stating explicitly that in order to teach her to speak, he had to teach her to think as non-Chatcaava do. The Ambassador also tells her that the song book is in Eldritch, and he's translating from Eldritch to Universal to teach her the latter. The Veil technically prevents him from telling outsiders anything about the Eldritch, but he's parting it because she's earned his trust. Of course, this reignites the Slave Queen's struggle with being treated like a person, since the Surgeon and Second have talked to her expecting her to talk back. The Ambassador tells her to send him away if his actions disorder her so, but that he can't treat her like other Chatcaava do. When she expresses fear, the Ambassador offers his hands, stating that all he is offering is a connection, and a choice. After hesitating, the Slave Queen chooses to hear the stories.
On night 4 of these encounters, the Emperor tangles himself in a couch and Lisinthir is able to rape him. After seeing the Surgeon, he reflects that what he just did would have him in stocks at home, and tried and possibly imprisoned in the Alliance. Yet, he feels no remorse, and he hadn't been unwilling. However, his requests for meetings continue to go unanswered. Lisinthir uses this time instead to recover from the whiplash of the nightly contests and teaching the Slave Queen of love and personhood and freedom, set upon entering the Emperor's confidences.
The Slave Queen, meanwhile, is completely taken aback by the Ambassador's stories, and that he continued to come at all. Not just that he was obviously tired in some instances, but that the Emperor had not killed him yet. The Emperor also had not seen her until he visits her one day, humming tunelessly. After posing as the statue the Emperor was decorating her as the night the Ambassador was brought before him under guard, she reflects that he isn't agitated at all, a rare occurence. Second visits, and the Emperor invites him to sit. Though the Emperor tries to engage Second in idle banter about what concept he was trying to get the Slave Queen to represent, Second's request to speak leads him out of his reverie. After expressing concern that Third -- who is on assignment from the Emperor -- has been gone for too long, Second gets to his real concern: that the Emperor has spent almost three weeks of evenings with the Ambassador. After fending off Second's contention that giving honor wounds to an alien might devalue honor, the Emperor states a curiosity with the Ambassador's persistence and unyielding. The two argue over whether the Ambassador is truly worthy to be tested when Second suggests the Ambassador is weak becaused he was too soft to watch the suffering of others. This catches the Emperor's attention, and he accepts the suggestion that he test this particular aspect of the Ambassador. The Slave Queen is left, tied in an artful curve and unable to warn the Ambassador.
Lisinthir finds the Emperor one night in the back of his apartments, lounging on a bed. After inviting him to serve his own alcohol, the Emperor orders him to undress. Lisinthir declines, but the Emperor insists that he's already destroyed 24 of Lisinthir's outfits. Lisinthir continues to decline, but instead of getting into a fight, the Emperor grabs him by the hair and forces him to his knees. The Emperor then proposes that he take out his desires on one of the kept, and when Lisinthir tells him he'd do it anyway, he tells him that he's the Emperor who has killed the least of his possessions. The Emperor then infers that he can make Lisinthir obey by threatening innocents, calling him Beauty. Lisinthir, shaking with rage, agrees, and the Emperor forces Lisinthir into oral sex.
The Ambassador finds the Slave Queen still tied up the following morning, and unties her. As soon as he does, she collapses into his arms, and hopes frantically that her thoughts did not distress him further. Bringing her to a divan, he reassures her that she doesn't and offers to bring her something. The Slave Queen begins to object, but the Ambassador tells her that tonight was possibly the gentlest night he's been with the Emperor, though there are places no medic can touch. Expanding, he tells the Slave Queen that the Emperor has discovered that his obedience can be compelled if the Emperor threatens others. Confused, the Slave Queen notes that there are no more Alliance citizens before figuring out that the Ambassador meant the females of the harem. Even though the Slave Queen tries to minimize herself and the other females as unable to be saved, he remains adamant that he can prevent their harm for a little while. But then, the Slave Queen remembers that the Ambassador is not Chatcaavan, yet is male, and the Emperor remains fascinated with him. When asked if his sessions with the Emperor are healthy, the Ambassador admits that he's losing the line between himself and the Emperor. The Slave Queen reminds him that what moves him makes him what he is. She warns him that the Emperor will press this weakness, but bolstered by the Queen's earlier words, the Ambassador remains adamant. The Slave Queen then asks if there's anything she can do to help, and the Ambassador tells her that coming here, where emotions are healthier, is a boon.
Lisinthir finally gets time to see Second in his office. Second questions how long Lisinthir is staying, and Lisinthir returns that he's supposed to be here for at least two years, then gets right to the first point: Chatcaavan military near Alliance colonies. Second disputes that they are there, and intimates that Lisinthir would have much to gain from accusing the Empire of breaking a treaty. He then breaks off the meeting, and Lisinthir returns to his apartments, wondering how he can break through to Second, and changes for dinner. As he does, he reflects on the state of his wardrobe, and the fact that Second wants to send him away, and that what he did had the potential for more power than he thought wise.
The Slave Queen is surprised when a female asks for her presence, since the Mother has been sequestered in labor for three days. The retiring room is the one place of refuge in the entire harem. When the Slave Queen enters, the Mother is pacing, skin slick and pale. She is having trouble giving birth. When the Slave Queen examines her, she finds troubling signs. She encourages the Mother to continue walking, while she bears silent witness. After some time, the Ambassador comes to see her, and the Slave Queen exits the retiring room, telling the Ambassador that the Mother will soon die due to her troubles with the child. The Ambassador asks where the Surgeon is, and the Queen retorts that females are beneath the Surgeon's notice. Abruptly, the Ambassador asks for the nearest comm unit, and asks also for the Slave Queen to help him operate it. When she does, he asks for the Surgeon, and the clinic dispatches him. Over the Slave Queen's objections, the Ambassador challenges her belief that the lives of females are empty of meaning. She turns and finds the harem studiously not paying attention to the possibility of better treatment.
The Surgeon enters, noting the Ambassador isn't injured. When the Ambassador asks him to treat the Mother, the Surgeon refuses. The Ambassador then challenges the Surgeon's skill and experience, stating that helping the Mother will save the life of the Emperor's offspring. Then, the Ambassador ropes the Slave Queen into the conversation, asking if it is true that, as with the Eldritch, the Chatcaavan mother often takes the child with her if she dies while birthing. Then, the Ambassador proposes that it might be a son, stating that all males are worthy. After a moment, the Surgeon enters the retiring room. The Ambassador and the Slave Queen converse quietly and wait. Several hours later, the Surgeon exits, proclaiming that it's a boy, and leaves through the window. The Slave Queen rushes in, overjoyed at the sight of the Mother, alive with her newborn son.
Back in his apartments after supper, Lisinthir tells his contacts that he is solidifying his credibility before he goes to the Emperor's tower, finding the Emperor at a window. As the Emperor doesn't speak, neither does he, and he is pleased to find himself still wearing clothes. Finally speaking, the Emperor notes that he has a son, and Lisinthir is responsible. He does not, however, understand why, having raped Lisinthir several times and forced him under threat of violence. Lisinthir states that the Emperor doesn't know him, and when confronted states that he serves life despite the Emperor, making the Emperor's power over him meaningless. The Emperor still doesn't understand, but invites Lisinthir to drink, and only drink, toasting the health of his newest progeny.
When the Mother at last leaves the retiring room, the Slave Queen makes to leave amid the celebration, but is instead asked to stay and is asked to hold the baby. The Mother credits her with saving her life and the life of the child. When the Slave Queen attempts to pass off the credit, the Mother insists, and by the looks on the faces of the other females, the rest of the harem agrees. The Slave Queen stays for a time, but then flees to the relative silence of her tower. Unable to escape her thoughts, she stays up all night. In the morning, she asks the Ambassador to explain this morning, why the light seems different today, why the Mother and he are both alive and nothing is the same. When pressed, she explains that he has made hers, Laniis', Second's, the Emperor's, and now the Surgeon's lives different, asking for a story that might explain what is going on. Instead the Ambassador laughs, and she notices that he looks a lot better than he had been of late. He relays that the Emperor thanked him for his son. The Slave Queen asserts that is why he did it, but he tells her it isn't, and she knows that. He tells a simple story of a woman who so loved the world she died to save it, and the Slave Queen protests that this makes no sense. Instead, the Ambassador tells her that it is enough that Laniis is free and the Mother is alive. He reminds her that it's not wrong to lean on another at the end of one's strength, but the Slave Queen warns him that he will die of it. He counters that neither of them are dead. Yet.
Later that day, Lisinthir is frustrated. Third is still missing, Second is refusing his invitations, and his Alliance mailbox is "full of smothering worry" and requests for updates. It was enough to almost skip supper, but he went anyway... to find a servant directing him toward the second pillow. Second protests, but the servant tells him the Emperor has already decided. Second moves. Lisinthir sits, reflecting on how far he's made it, considering his former spot at the far edge has now been occupied by some junior court member. The Emperor takes his place, lifting a heavy chalice and asks Lisinthir what it is. Lisinthir tells the Emperor that Second drinks before the Emperor does, and the Emperor clarifies that he's testing the wine. Second breaks in that he'd still do it, and after a pause, the Emperor tells him that he'll do it again once Lisinthir proves himself unworthy, dies, or flees. Though the Emperor frames it as a respite, Second frames it as a test given to one who cares most fiercely for the Emperor's welfare, not someone who shares the Emperor's bed like a female. The Emperor turns this onto Lisinthir, and Lisinthir replies that no one there is worth the Emperor's smallest finger, especially since they don't command his attentions every night. Second pleads to remove Lisinthir, but the Emperor proclaims that he stays. Second loses his appetite and leaves. The Emperor asks if Lisinthir knows what the goblet is again, and Lisinthir replies that "the goblet's first sip belongs to he who most values the Emperor." The Emperor leans forward, whispering "Some say that the feeling is mutual." Lisinthir -- after suppressing a moment of surprise -- takes the goblet and sips, toasting to the Emperor's health.
Second abruptly arrives at the Slave Queen's tower, pacing thoughtlessly and nearly knocking over a vase. He mutters to himself and sits on a bench, though the Slave Queen notices his wings are extremely dry, so she crawls forward and leans into his space, asking to be of service. After initially deflecting the request, Second assents to her insistence. The Slave Queen goes to get the supplies to oil his wings, and is astonished at the state of his vanes. Being the oldest Chatcaavan she'd ever seen, she'd never seen wings in such a state, but Second seems to respond to the ministrations, though is possibly hiding despair. Third arrives, being blocked from the Slave Queen's view by Second's body, and asks why Second isn't at dinner. Third replies to Second's hissing that he's been busy, which is why he was gone so long. Second fills in Third on the Ambassador's ascent to the second pillow, and Third expresses confused doubt. Even so, Third dismisses Second's concerns, stating that life on the second pillow will do the wingless freak in, and that he has more important concerns: finding something to give to the Emperor to reenter his good graces. The Slave Queen, after Third presumably leaves, tries to keep calm.
Post-test, the Emperor lets slip that he likes Lisinthir's throat, and that it's almost long enough to be a proper neck. Lisinthir tells him that it's the way they're bred along with the gravity on their home world. The Emperor casually threatens him, but Lisinthir doesn't allow himself to react... or simply trusts in the Emperor's lulled emotions. Lisinthir mentions that one grows accustomed to compensating for frailties, but his interest is drawn by the Emperor's continued talking, hoping that he might actually be hearing confidences. The Emperor eventually compares the Alliance to females -- since they do not have strength not borrowed from steel and riches -- and states they aren't worth conquering before attacking Lisinthir.
The Slave Queen, worried for the Ambassador's safety, checks his condition when he arrives the following morning. She gives the reason as Second thinking he is a threat and that he tried to convince Third of this. The Ambassador shrugs this off, then tells her that he's finally been able to reap what he has sown; the Emperor's confidences. The Ambassador also admits to being troubled, and when asked, tells the Slave Queen that he doesn't know how he got there, doesn't quite understand the Emperor, wonders if he is considered a male of sufficient respect or merely a well enamored courtesan. The Alliance isn't worth conquering, yet he is, and the Ambassador needs to figure out why and what might change his mind. The Slave Queen asks if the Ambassador will relay this to his superiors, and teach them all the Chatcaava's weaknesses, and when she hears the answer, says this is good. After all, his presence here, and his ability to not break has caused change in the Empire. When pressed further, the Slave Queen elaborates: The Empire was not always this way, and the Slave Queen was once the Queen Ransomed, and that the challenges once honed an edge to a keen blade. But now, the Empire and the Chatcaava worship themselves, stopping their change. The Ambassador goes to a knee before her, stating that he does this to spare innocents within the Empire, since presumably war is not kind to Chatcaavan innocents, either. Realizing she doesn't want to lose him, she asks if this knowledge is worth his body and soul. The Ambassador replies that "one man is nothing beside the welfare of millions."
Lisinthir had barely fallen asleep that night to be awoken to the sound of footsteps. Usually this meant that his food was arriving, but he trusted his instincts and investigated, finding a male Chatcaavan with no emblems to identify him uncapping a vial above his tea-wine. As the male does the same over his food, Lisinthir seized him by his wing joints, threatening to break them if the male moved. After getting the vial, Lisinthir asks who sent the male, and he answers that Second did. Lisinthir shoves the male off, and then finds himself shaken by the implication that Second would resort to poisoning him.
The Slave Queen confirms the Ambassador's suspicions: it is poison, one that can devastate non-Chatcaavan bodies but holds no harm for Chatcaava: Hekkret. After telling the Ambassador that partaking would have killed him, the Ambassador reveals that it was Second who commissioned the crime. What's worse is that the drug is common enough: it's used recreationally by Chatcaava. The Slave Queen suddenly recalls a conversation she heard, noting that he could smoke the hekkret and build up a resistance that way. She offers to find him some rolls, wondering if he was going to exit the Empire a dragon.
Angry, Lisinthir goes to Second's office, punching the guard and proclaiming himself Second's engagement. He waltzes into Second's office, puts down the retrieved vial, and waits. Second asks what this is, and Lisinthir accuses him of being female and that he wanted to hear that Lisinthir died. After Second proclaims innocence, Lisinthir leans into Second's space, telling him not to stand in his way. Second tells him he won't be the favorite forever, and Lisinthir pops open a hekkret roll and blows the smoke in Second's face. Lisinthir expects to see Second the following day and tell him about the military vessels that keep appearing in Alliance space. Second agrees, under duress.
The Slave Queen worries, and finds herself focusing that she never knew who arranges for the flowers that decorate the suite, and how strange they actually are. She turns and finds the Emperor, freezing in her tracks. After a moment of silence, he asks her if the Ambassador comes here every morning as rumor would have it. The Slave Queen hastily falls to her knees and answers. When being pressed on what, exactly, the Ambassador does, the Slave Queen tells the Emperor that he simply talks to her, and thinks of females as persons. Anticipating a blow, the Slave Queen instead feels the Emperor's caress as he lifts her chin, confirming that the Ambassador comes every morning. However, the Emperor leaves instead of using her, leaving the Slave Queen unbalanced and afraid, because the Emperor has become someone whose actions she could no longer predict.
Outside Second's quarters, Lisinthir finally lets himself cough. A second pull at the roll started to make him feel fluid, and he goes through two more rolls as he travels to his quarters. At supper, Lisinthir eats from the Emperor's plate instead of his own, smokes a fifth roll, and is pulled from the meal by the Emperor in the middle of it. They tussle the entire way there, and by the time they reach the Emperor's bed, both their clothes along with the bed sheets are torn to shreds. After commenting on Lisinthir taking up hekkret and receiving a compliment, the Emperor compliments Lisinthir on his cleverness, and also that he's surprised Lisinthir makes for a good male, since he lacks wings, scales, fangs or claws. The conversation turns to the Change, with the Emperor saying that the Change sullies the flesh of Chatcaava. Lisinthir wonders aloud if the Emperor is afraid of the change, but the Emperor ultimately deflects the accusation, changing the subject to assassination attempts on Lisinthir. Lisinthir declines to retaliate, and the Emperor eggs him on, and the two have brief fight/sex. After, Lisinthir states that the physical contest between the two is uneven, and it's the Emperor's mind that he wants. Having started to signal the end of their play/test, instead the Emperor takes this up, stating that without the body, the mind is nothing. The two playfully banter and Lisinthir takes his leave.
During one of his visits, the Slave Queen tells the Ambassador that the hekkret doesn't agree with him, observing his bloodshot eyes and pale, dull skin. He complains that the hekkret is making things more bearable, and that the pain doesn't bother him as much. The Slave Queen decides to change the subject to tell her about his ring, and he takes it off so she can see closer. He tells her of Eldritch symbolism and how his family name is passed on. This segues into how the Chatcaava speak of family and how the Eldritch pass along wealth and connections through family. The Ambassador laments that the name that comes with the ring he wears has fallen in value, though perhaps when he returns home after this, it will rise. However, they are interrupted by Second, and the Slave Queen watches the change come over the Ambassador as Second states that he's come to have use of the Slave Queen. The Ambassador states that he isn't done yet, though Second returns that he looks done. The Ambassador asks if this is an insult, and begins menacing Second, who quickly backs off. Stating that the Slave Queen's mornings are his, he dismisses Second, who leaves. The Slave Queen asks if challenging Second is wise, but the Ambassador tells her that it seems to work.
Lisinthir finds a communiqué when he returns to his quarters, and after reading it and the attached data while smoking a hekkret roll, heads straight for Second's rooms. Once again, he barges in, and at Second's objection that he comes when unexpected, he counters that he's never expected. Pressing the advantage, he throws the tablet onto Second's desk, which contains evidence of Chatcaavan vessels around Alliance colonies, and demands an explanation, threatening Second in the process. Second picks up the tablet and starts looking at the evidence, frowning. Second tells Lisinthir to talk to Third, and Lisinthir demands Second summon Third, which he does when Lisinthir reminds him that it would be good to know what Third is up to. Upon Third's arrival, Second throws Lisinthir's tablet at Third, and Third proclaims the data as fake. Lisinthir makes to leave, and when stopped, says that since the Chatcaavan vessels don't exist, so too will the debt forgiveness for Chatcaavan colonies. Second promises to look into this, since accidents happen, and Lisinthir gives him a day to do so. With that, he leaves, though he shows pain in order to hear what he expected: the two arguing. Satisfied, he goes back to his quarters and lies down, finding his skin too sensitive. Thinking it due to being touched too much, he pours himself a drink.
The Slave Queen is being tied into another statue when Second arrives, though she can't see him. The Emperor and Second make brief small talk, with the Emperor saying the Alliance's border patrols are strengthening because Third is growing careless. Second counters that the Ambassador is warning them, further explaining that he is not satisfied with denials. The two talk about the peculiar way the Ambassador uses the Slave Queen when the Emperor suddenly asks Second if he's ever Changed. Second replies that Chatcaava are defined in their ability to Change and their choice not to. The Emperor tells Second to stop fretting and to negotiate with the Ambassador, dismissing him. The Slave Queen reflects that she could tell the Emperor what it's like to Change, but she didn't know how to tell him, and he would never ask.
Lisinthir feels proud of himself, since it took greater than usual effort to ascend to the Slave Queen's tower. The Slave Queen herself, however, states how terrible he looks, and Lisinthir replies that he's running on an hour's sleep, mostly because the Emperor kept him up all night. After the Slave Queen notes that he hasn't looked in one piece, Lisinthir lists off the alcohol and the hekkret, along with the constant vigilance from poisoning, haven't made him feel his best. The Slave Queen offers to bathe him, and Lisinthir objects, citing his touch-sensitivity. The Queen insists, and he relents. At the Queen's offer to undress him, he says he wouldn't mind help. The Slave Queen undresses him partially and he does the rest, wondering how this would change their relationship as he goes into the bath. However, he finds himself relaxing as the Slave Queen takes soap Laniis left and massages along with bathing him. Until the Emperor arrives.
The Emperor challenges Lisinthir to use the Slave Queen as she was born to be used. Lisinthir declines, the Emperor insists, and Lisinthir tells him he will not torture her. The Emperor waves this off and insists again, and Lisinthir states that he will not use the Slave Queen without consent. Lisinthir counters that the Emperor had never asked her, but also sees that this will be interpreted, rightly, as attempts to squirm out of this and destroying all his efforts thus far. The Emperor turns to leave, dismissing Lisinthir, and Lisinthir rises from the pool, going to the Slave Queen, who kneels and addresses him as Master. Choosing the thing that would require the least of them both, Lisinthir orders the Slave Queen to give him oral sex. At the end, the Emperor checks in with the Slave Queen, then asks Lisinthir if he enjoyed it. Lisinthir replies that the Emperor would have done better, and the two fight, reminiscent to Lisinthir of the first fight. Just as quickly they stop, arms tangled in each other's hair. The Emperor admits that he still can't understand Lisinthir, touching his lips. Lisinthir plays with the Emperor's fingertips, fascinated that he's so captured the attention of the Emperor of the Chatcaavan Empire. By the Emperor's reluctance to pull away, the feeling is mutual, though once the Emperor does, he is as usual. Lisinthir almost follows him, but finds the Slave Queen at his arm, looking away.
while carefully drying Lisinthir off, the Slave Queen tells him that the Emperor is truly taken with him, and that usually the Emperor takes days to put a male in his place. Lisinthir asks about exceptions, but gets distracted when the Slave Queen opens a chest he'd never seen her open and gets a robe to put on him. She guides him to a couch and gives him some tea-wine and a hekkret roll, and only after the drugs set in does he remember his question. One was a noble who wouldn't take the yoke who required several weeks, another a lord who refused the Emperor's sovereignty and died after a month of public tortures. Female Alliance slaves he spends several weeks with out of curiosity, and sometimes tests randomly. Lisinthir questions her use of the word "Master" in reference to him, and stops her protestations: he doesn't want a piece of furniture or a servant, he needs someone to talk to. The Slave Queen tells him that it wasn't the oral sex that set her away from him, it was the fight. Lisinthir tells her that he just needs to understand how the Emperor's mind works, and then he can go home. Suddenly realizing how badly he wanted that, he rests.
Left alone some time later, the Slave Queen cleans up, finding herself haunted by the Ambassador's eyes, when Second and Third arrive on the landing together. The two have a conversation about some plan Third has, and Second encourages Third to work quickly, as the Ambassador is no doubt at his study. Third turns his gaze upon the Slave Queen.
Meanwhile, Lisinthir arrives at Second's suite to be confronted by an aide. He rolls a natural 20 on Intimidate and frightens the aide into warning Second that he's here, and the aide then flees. Second tries to stall, even attempting to direct Lisinthir to the Emperor, but Lisinthir will not be moved. Finally, Second offers a random mook as the culprit, but Lisinthir blows that off, accusing the Empire of having a policy of stealing from the Alliance if there's gain to be had. Second cries poverty, so Lisinthir proposes lifting import taxes, to which Second initially objects. After a touch more bullying, Second proposes reducing the taxes, and the two begin negotiating.
The Slave Queen's world continues to be upended: She accurately predicts that she is coming into a period where she will be used frequently by the Emperor, but he never asks for something she expects. In the afternoon, he asks for a massage, one she notes the four-armed females can deliver better, and yet he wants one from her. Unfortunately, this gives her some time to daydream about the barrier crossed with the Ambassador, which she has to shake off in order to concentrate on the massage.
Third comes in, saying that Second is going off the rails and has halved the import tax on some items and reduced them to a quarter on essentials, also complaining that it's Third's fault this is happening. The Emperor, however, asks Third why he was caught doing what he was doing. Third tries to brush that off, but the Emperor tells him to "tend to your own burning house." Third, however, stays long enough to ask for use of the Slave Queen, who hesitates for a second. The Emperor refuses him, citing his habit of breaking things and the fact that he's still in the doghouse, and sends him away with a reminder to not come to the Emperor with gossip. When Third has left, the Emperor calls the Slave Queen out on not liking Third. Though she doesn't answer, he tells her she was prettier torturing the Ambassador with her obedience. The Slave Queen asks if she's to be serving the Ambassador more, and is both disappointed and full of trepidation when the answer is no.
Returning from his evening with the Emperor, Lisinthir finds a gleeful message from the diplomatic corps celebrating the reduction of import taxes, then asks him if he can work that same magic on the piracy issue. Lisinthir, however, is more concerned as to his liberty-taking with the Slave Queen, and growing ambivalence about the violence in the Emperor's bed, ultimately with how and if he's changing. After wondering if he truly belonged in this depraved court, he falls asleep. He dreams of himself in Chatcaavan wear, bowing before the Queen, then taking liberties with a submissive and scared Queen. He wakes, heart pounding, and also ashamed that he also climaxed during that dream, and starts crying.
The Ambassador enters the Slave Queen's chambers looking haggard from lack of sleep. Seeing the usual set-up, he asks for something stronger, and she pours him some tea-wine. However, the look in his eyes compels her to reassure him, touching his arms so he feels her sincerity. The Ambassador apologizes for treating her like an object, but the Slave Queen brushes it off, telling him he had to and that she didn't mind. As he remains unconvinced, she allows those feelings of attraction to him to well up, and he finally meets her eyes. The Slave Queen expands that the Ambassador has been nothing but kind, even trying to protect her when he was forced to use her, picking something gentle. The Ambassador then relates that he can't tell whether he hates or wants the Emperor. Hearing this, the Slave Queen directs him to a couch, pushing him back down when he tries to rise, saying that he has work to do. Instead, she implores him to rest. He reaches out for her, and she leans into it. It's here that the Ambassador notices the collar, asking if it hurts to wear a sign of ownership, but the Slave Queen deflects, saying she's never known freedom, and wouldn't know what to do with it. He then asks how they got it on, learning of how it was soldered on and cannot be removed easily. The Ambassador reflects on the contradictory nature of the Chatcaava before the Slave Queen again implores him to rest, saying that the Emperor will ask much and more of him, and suggesting he teach her words of equality. He tells her that he'd have to teach her the words for trust, understanding, and love. Love is somewhere in the Chatcaavan Empire, but not in the Emperor's harem.
The Emperor complains that his fights with Lisinthir are getting boring, but Lisinthir rightly calls him out on his lies. Passing the Emperor a hekkret roll, he wonders aloud at Third's infrequence at supper, and the Emperor reveals that testing Lisinthir seems to test the court as well, since they don't consider him male. The Emperor insists that Lisinthir isn't, though he relents under the Eldritch's playful(?) threat of tearing his chest open again, saying that Second seems to think him dangerous enough. This seems to bring the Emperor around to his actual point: that Lisinthir is too weak to survive since he will bow his head on behalf of others, and that he wants Lisinthir to crawl into a harness to appease him. Lisinthir objects, but the Emperor threatens to kill the Slave Queen. Lisinthir realizes he'd underestimated the Emperor's involvement in court, and that the Emperor had underestimated him in turn, and thus had to ensure that Lisinthir was under his thumb. Since Lisinthir has proven to be a very intractable male, the Emperor proposes to put him on a rack, to which Lisinthir insists that it only happen in the Emperor's chambers. And so, the Emperor does, and at the end, asks if Lisinthir knows his place. Lisinthir pleads for release, but insists that he is the Alliance Ambassador and nothing else. The Emperor laughs, and tells Lisinthir that it will happen every night until Lisinthir understands he can't cow the Empire, and after releasing one limb, leaves Lisinthir to do the rest himself.
Lisinthir eventually releases himself and flees for his bedchambers, wrapping himself in a bedcover, shaking and preventing himself from weeping. He leaves for the harem, but after hearing growls, he flings off the blanket and finds Third on top of the Slave Queen. Lisinthir pulls Third off, and the two argue, Third mentioning that the Emperor hasn't been damaging her as he should, and Lisinthir threatening to tell his indiscretion to the Emperor, highlighting that he's further in the Emperor's favor. After Third leaves, sneering, Lisinthir rushes to the Slave Queen's side. The Slave Queen protests, telling him that he revealed his weakness, something Lisinthir thought the court knew already. Still, it doesn't matter, since he reveals to the Slave Queen that the Emperor collared him, and he cries against the Slave Queen.
The Slave Queen comforts the Ambassador, knowing that if the Emperor came in now, it would all be finished. She still can't get over that he let himself be collared for her, feeling unworthy of this storm of emotion. The Ambassador asks her how she stands it, and objects that all the Emperor has over him is her, accusing her of having learned nothing of who he is and what he's taught. She returns: "What is my life measured against the lives of millions of others?" The Ambassador crumbles, stating that he cannot let the Emperor kill her, because of how much he has come to rely on her. The Slave Queen laments that this road will come to a terrible end, but the Ambassador regains some resolve, telling her that it's not over yet.
During this new period of testing, Lisinthir becomes an alcoholic and stops eating as much while regularly smoking hekkret, convinced the rest of the court is also trying to poison him. However, he can't bring himself to request more food from the Alliance, since that would invite further questions. Third is gone again, and though Second remains, he can't predict how these meetings will go. One morning before an appointment with Second, Lisinthir runs to the toilet and vomits, spotting blood in it as it's flushed down. Unable to tell if it's poison in his food or from the rolls he's smoking, he orders several rolls and drinks to dull both his stomachache and faint hunger, then goes to Second's office, angry.
Second is obstinate when he brings up the slave trade, unusually so. When Second makes a crack about using the Slave Queen "properly," Lisinthir pins him against the wall using a table and grabs his neck and a wing joint. The two posture, but Second backs down, telling Lisinthir that the majority of slaves are not stolen from the Alliance, but sold by Alliance citizens. Second tells Lisinthir that he'll get a list of people the following morning.
Second bursts into the Slave Queen's quarters, accuses her of selling out the Empire, beats her, and rapes her. The Slave Queen reflects that this is way out of character for Second. When he finishes, he threatens that she is replaceable and leaves. She wonders to herself if Second will say something to the Emperor, but moves to the window to let the pain pass, planning to clean herself up and let Second hang himself by his own rope.
The Emperor introduces Lisinthir to a whip as he's suspended in the rack. The first strike on his back just hurts, but the second draws blood. Lisinthir tries to simply bear the pain, but the Emperor touching him makes it worse. The Emperor threatens to keep him there all night, and reflexively Lisinthir says 'no', then denies he is the Emperor's pet, even though the Emperor points out that he keeps coming back. Regardless, Lisinthir insists that he belongs to himself, the Emperor taunting him, until the latter takes it too far and suggests that Lisinthir would become Chatcaavan by taking the Emperor's lust and cruelty into himself. Lisinthir thrashes against his restraints and breaks something, nearly passing out from pain. However, blissful oblivion doesn't come. He feels himself being released, then hearing a conversation where someone admits this being an unplanned event, and that it won't happen again. He finally passes out when someone touches his wrist.
The Emperor wakes the Slave Queen gently in the pre-dawn hours with a hand against her throat. She begins to move toward her knees, but the Emperor tells her to stay, examining her with something that almost looked like... concern? He asks her if he did this, and who did, and the Slave Queen answers, guessing her bruises have gotten worse overnight. The Emperor leaves, having a hushed conversation with someone, then further surprises her by picking her up, bringing her to the couch, and examining her for further bruises or pains. Second arrives as he finishes, and the Emperor asks him what made him do this. Second tells him that the Slave Queen has been speaking to the Ambassador, guiding him on Chatcaavan ways. When confronted, the Slave Queen confirms this, and Second suggests the Emperor kill her as a traitor. When asked why, Second cites that the Slave Queen has been lending him a Chatcaavan soul, which the Emperor dismisses. However, he does ask her if, without her aid, the Ambassador would be otherwise incapable of what he endures. The Slave Queen tells him "He is what he is. I could not change him," and Second seizes on the use of a non-female pronoun. Second further denounces the changes the Ambassador has wrought on the Emperor and Slave Queen both, and since he was initially tasked with assessing threats, tells the Emperor that the Ambassador is the largest threat that has ever entered the court and to kill him. The Emperor muses while studying the Slave Queen distantly that he can break the Ambassador's arm by telling him he might become Chatcaavan. Second remarks that the Ambassador is not fragile, and the Emperor agrees. Because he is facing the Slave Queen, she is able to see the Emperor's grimace when Second suggests he simply bleed the Ambassador too much during play. The Emperor dismisses Second with thanks, then sits next to the Slave Queen, asking her directly if she tells the Ambassador state secrets. After clarifying that he was, indeed, addressing her (and telling her to stop with the female pronouns), she admits that she has no idea what state secrets she even knows and begins to shake. The Emperor gently shushes her, telling her he will not strike her. The Slave Queen says that she's simply told the Ambassador of Chatcaavan history, proper male behavior, the Emperor himself, how to guard against hekkret, that Second fears him, and that he is not alone. She pleads with the Emperor not to punish the Ambassador for seeking solace in her, but the Emperor shocks her by replying that he does, too. He then tells her to tell him about the Ambassador. Starting with that he's male, despite all these weak feelings, she says that he wishes to best the Emperor to advance his people's aims. The Emperor interprets this as a rival shooting for his throne, but the Slave Queen gently corrects him, saying that the Ambassador believes the two civilizations can coexist, despite the universe's limited resources, and does not wish to see the Empire suffer. The Emperor asks if the Slave Queen would miss the Ambassador if he killed him, and if she enjoyed pleasuring him, and she answers yes to both, adding that the Ambassador feels ashamed since he believes the Slave Queen cannot choose out of free will. Laughing, the Emperor asks finally if the Slave Queen is enthralled by the Ambassador, and after getting the affirmative answer, admits that he is as well.
The next time Lisinthir is on the rack, he loses track of time. The Emperor's lust-filled touch undoes him, and he spasms uncontrollably. Abruptly, he's released, and the arms that hold him are full of concern and shock. He is covered with a blanket and pulled into an embrace of legs, tail, and wing tips, fingers lightly stroking his face, the only emotion tender worry. When he is able to open his eyes, Lisinthir finds his head in the Emperor's lap, naked with no collar on him. The Emperor brusquely informs him that they are done with it. Though he knows he shouldn't, Lisinthir asks why, and receives that the Emperor likes Lisinthir better sane. There is an echo of something profound and gentle, then the Emperor casually flips him to his back and assaults him, and as Lisinthir fights back, he remembers how to laugh.
Before dawn, the Slave Queen is awakened by claws on her landing. It could be anybody except the Ambassador, though she's further confused when one set of feet turn out to be many. Third waltzes into the Slave Queen's suite, followed by his Hand leading sixteen beaten and abused aliens. Seven male, the rest female, and among them humans, Aera, Hinichi and one centauroid creature she doesn't recognize. Third orders her to have the slaves collared and stripped for a presentation this afternoon, and to clean up evidence of their use. The Slave Queen chastises Third for using the Emperor's belongings, and is hit for it, after which Third leaves. With the slaves staring at her, the Slave Queen addresses them in Universal, telling them what is going to happen and that it's best not to resist if they want to stay alive. When one questions what good the Ambassador is, the Slave Queen states that he's the best the Alliance ever sent. With the help of the guards Third left, the Slave Queen leads the slaves down to the Preparation Room. She relays Third's instructions, but with a twist: she tells the Preparation Room Master not to clean or bind their wounds. Then, she leaves to find the Ambassador.
Lisinthir spent all night fighting the Emperor, and they both enjoyed it so much neither wanted it to end. After a roll and some brandy, he heads to the Slave Queen's suite thinking to fall asleep in her lap... except she isn't there. The guards and females one flight down have also seen nothing. He begins to pace when she finally arrives, out of breath and reporting Third's return. What's worse is that he brought slaves. This, of course, angers Lisinthir, and he gets all the relevant information from her as to when, how many, and how she found out. The Slave Queen asks Lisinthir what he intends to do, telling him also that there is a presentation this afternoon, and also her twisting of Third's instructions. Lisinthir, torn between rage that they'd already been hurt and something glorious and painful, gives in to the latter and carries her to the couch, managing a laugh at her astonished expression. The Slave Queen admits she wants Third dead, though she also asks him how he will rescue the slaves, considering the court is watching. Lisinthir admits that he doesn't know yet.
Lisinthir naps, bathes, and dresses for the afternoon presentation, sitting where indicated next to the Emperor. Third appears and gestures for the slaves to appear, and Lisinthir keeps a tight lid on his anger. Of the sixteen, 7 were men on a separate chain. 10 humans, two Aera, two Hinichi, one Glaseah. Lisinthir makes note of each bruise, cut, and injury, accentuated by the Master of the Preparation Room, and upon seeing one human woman with evidence of being raped, he marks Third for death. A courtier cries out that the Emperor tries out the slaves now, not noticing Third's consternation or the Emperor's anger at the affront of already-abused slaves. The Emperor proclaims that he will use them later, compliments Third, orders them sent to his chambers, and the presentation ends. Lisinthir digs into the false bottom of the jackal chest and puts on the claw-knives, taking a moment to feel the shift wearing them represented. He hides them under gloves and goes to the Emperor's chambers.
Back in the Slave Queen's suite, one slave loudly objects to the Ambassador's lack of action on their behalf, and the Slave Queen objects, telling them that an emotional outburst would have gotten him killed, and that the Ambassador is working on getting them released. This causes some consternation among the slaves, until one brings up that she introduced herself as the Slave Queen. Why is she trying to reassure them? The Slave Queen tells them after a moment, the story of a Seersa female who was sent home thanks to the Ambassador.
With the Emperor lounging, two slaves at his feet, Lisinthir demands he release them. The Emperor taunts him, but Lisinthir simply reiterates his demand. The Emperor calls his bluff and taunts him again, and Lisinthir attacks, unsheathing the claw-knives.
After getting the slaves to sleep, the Slave Queen guesses the Ambassador would occupy the Emperor's attention, but she wasn't sure. She hears claws coming up the steps, and Second ambushes her, throwing her to the ground and blaming her for the Emperor being put into the clinic. If he dies, he says, either Third or himself will become Emperor, and while he'll just kill her, he implies Third will torture her. The Slave Queen barely has time to process the information before Second leaves, and she finds herself surrounded by the slaves in a loose, distant circle. One asks if that happens often, and she replies that it's usually being raped and slapped. She directs them to stay and to try to sleep while she leaves. She's halfway to the tower's base when she realizes that yes, she is leaving her tower to go to the clinic. While unthought-of previously, she has to go see them both. At the bottom of the tower, she's stopped by the guards. She tells them she needs to go, citing that the Emperor is in the clinic and that her presence may benefit him. She also asks them to escort her, and they, surprisingly, acquiesce. The Slave Queen walks up to Triage and asks to see the Emperor, and Triage gives her directions. Thanking him, the Slave Queen ends up running to the last room. Both the Surgeon and the Emperor are there, and the Slave Queen abases herself at the Emperor's feet, telling him she was worried about him. After hearing it was Second who told her, the Emperor plays it off like it was an exaggeration. The Surgeon, however, interrupts, saying that he put the Emperor's digestive organs back into his body. After some meaningless posturing about worse injuries survived, the Emperor orders the Surgeon out of the room.
Once alone, the Emperor asks if she truly came out of fear for him, and the Slave Queen surprises herself when she answers that she did, mostly due to his recent streak of gentle treatment. She wants to ask about the Ambassador, but knows that she can't. The Emperor, however, bids her to follow him as they go to a room filled with tanks, and suspended in one of them is a grievously wounded Ambassador. "He'll live, too," the Emperor said. "We think."
Lisinthir wakes, floating in a gel-tank, his gaping wounds reduced to pink and blue shadows. Beyond nervousness, he floats and reflects on his fight with the Emperor, hoping his instinct had been right.
The Emperor waltzes into the Slave Queen's suite, proclaiming that it's too crowded, and laughing that the slaves are so scared of him. The Slave Queen agrees, but is surprised that the Emperor invites her to participate in a test on the giving side. She sits beside him, head on his knee, and watches as he stares at the slaves and causes them to squirm in terror. The Emperor proclaims them predictable, and the Slave Queen can't help but add that they're Third's attempt to curry favor. Agreeing with a laugh, he orders her to summon Second. She does and returns to her earlier position, surreptitiously watching him frown and become lost in thought. Some time later, Second arrives, who expresses relief that the Emperor is ambulatory, but the Emperor brushes off his concern, even after Second insists that he had knives and recalling the state of the Emperor's chambers when Second went to check on him. The Emperor insists he was never in true danger, knives or not, and that the Ambassador is in a gel tank, then orders Second to send the slaves back. Second, after an initial shock, asks how he is to explain their state, and the Emperor effectively shrugs, uncaring, telling him to say that he's changed. Second questions if he has, and the Emperor growls at him, telling him to execute his orders. Second leaves long enough to get some guards, telling them to round up the slaves. The slaves panic, but the Slave Queen tells them -- in Universal, and drawing the Emperor's fascination -- that they're going home. That the Ambassador bought their freedom and hangs near death. The slaves -- too orderly for Second's liking -- follow the guards out, and the Slave Queen has to wonder if Second was right and the Emperor has changed.
The Emperor visits Lisinthir after he's been drawn from the gel-bath (and a relapse), and is intent on the Eldritch. Licking on Lisinthir's chin to his lips, the Emperor tells him that he let all the slaves go. After telling Lisinthir that scarring on his wings would be a death sentence for Chatcaava, Lisinthir dares the Emperor to kill him, and the two banter in a combination threat- and love- play. The Emperor pulls back, stating that the slaves had served their use: the Emperor has something new to test Lisinthir with. With a demand that he speed his recovery, the Emperor leaves.
The Slave Queen hears screaming coming from the harem below her, and she finds herself in the harem, wondering how she got there, and more importantly why she had run. Seeing Third and his Hand drunkenly lurching about the harem, she -- to her own surprise -- tells them they aren't supposed to be there, and that they transgress against the Emperor if they take a female. Third starts to go after the Slave Queen, only to be stopped by his Hand. Third shakes off his Hand with the confidence of the drunk, saying that the Emperor isn't paying attention to anything that isn't the Ambassador. The Hand, a better subordinate than Third deserves, keeps trying to redirect Third to another female. The Slave Queen cites the witnesses in the harem, and when that doesn't sway Third, the witnesses guarding the chamber. Third, still drunk, still bold, taunts the Slave Queen with a previous rape that the Ambassador witnessed, but the Slave Queen counters that the Ambassador answered himself, which Third dismisses because he's still alive. Delivering a warning that the court is watching them, Third finally allows his Hand to lead him off with a threat to the Slave Queen. The females of the harem stare at the Slave Queen long enough that it makes her uncomfortable, and a crying baby gives her an exit so that she can return to her tower room, reflecting that Third let slip that the Ambassador was alive.
Meanwhile, Lisinthir is chafing at his recovery process, but the Surgeon isn't having any of it. After finally getting Lisinthir to sit, the Surgeon questions him on his hekkret habit and the fact that he's been vomiting blood. The two banter for a bit, when the Surgeon drops that he's protecting Lisinthir by keeping him in the clinic (which is Outside) as long as the Emperor, who is touring the naval yards, is away. Saying also that he's uninterested in weaning Lisinthir off hekkret, the Surgeon instills a regimen of the stuff to maintain Lisinthir's immunity.
The Slave Queen is lonely and bored, feeling cut off both from the company of the females in the harem due to her standing up to Third, and from the Emperor and the Ambassador, who are gone and convalescing, respectively. Neither sea nor sky can comfort her, since at some point, she'd decided she was a person. That night, she uses her Eldritch form to cry. In the morning, she returns to her Chatcaavan shape, having woken up in time to see the glorious dawn. What she doesn't expect is the Ambassador visiting her, and she marvels at him, whole and alive. The Ambassador agrees with the assessment that the Emperor spared him, and also that he missed her as well, apologizing for causing her grief. Recounting her episode with Third in the harem, she counters that the Ambassador was only part of the grief. After all, she's changed as well, telling him she is a person. They take a moment to celebrate, which the Ambassador says he has to cut short because he has pressing business. However, the Slave Queen fixates on him calling her Beauty, as that's the third time he'd done so. The Ambassador tells her he got it from the Emperor, and she tells him of the origins of the word in religious texts: Things that have Beauty approach Perfection. Shocked to momentary speechlessness, the Ambassador tells her that he will still call her Beauty, and her heart fills with joy.
Lisinthir's good mood of reflected joy from the Slave Queen lasts until he sees his ransacked apartments. The only thing not left in disrepair are the claw knives that Second left; even his swords are missing. Lisinthir digs out his hidden cache of food and weapons, finding a mirror and contemplating where to hide the throwing knives. Then, he waits.
Sauntering down to supper, insolently late, he inspires a hush in the court, and stops in front of Third's pillow, challenging him. Third tries to brush off the challenge, and Lisinthir gives him ten seconds to come down and fight. Hesitating, Third goes down under Lisinthir's assault, and Lisinthir drags him to the center of the room. When Third leaps to attack, Lisinthir throws a knife through his throat. With Third dying, Lisinthir tears open the wing vanes with the claw knives, then breaks off every single horn Third has. Lisinthir finds Third's Hand in the crowd and kills him too, not bothering to further humiliate him by breaking off more horns. Proclaiming his honor satisfied, Lisinthir rejoins the dinner, where the Emperor whispers to him that the tests will begin the following day.
The Emperor wakes up the Slave Queen and asks her to go bathe herself. When she's finished, he carefully decorates her with jewels, then finally allows her to ask why he's doing this. It's apparently the newest test for the Ambassador, though he reassures her that she'll like it as she only has to serve the two of them together. All she has to do is do her normal thing with him, and The Emperor will arrive after some time. With the instruction given, the Emperor turns to leave but finds Second on the landing, who's been looking for him. However, Second refuses to speak with the Slave Queen present, but when the Emperor moves to leave again, he lets it out: He is objecting to the Ambassador killing Third on the Emperor's watch. According to Second, wingless freaks don't honor-kill; they murder, particularly because they use weapons, but he is astonished that the Emperor seems okay with that. The Emperor returns that Second has tried to dispose of the Ambassador and failed, and Third's attempts to ingratiate himself to the Emperor have failed also, so who really is the problem? Second tries to protest, but the Emperor shuts him down, twisting the knife by ordering Second to walk before him so he can watch his own back.
Lisinthir wakes up in the Emperor's bed, disoriented by that and the fact that he'd killed someone without remorse, hesitation, or regret. Nor does he have the decency of feeling shame at the act, and this causes him to shake. He's too distant from the Alliance, from home, so he dresses in robes from last night and goes to see the Slave Queen. As he arrives, dawn lightly illuminates the Slave Queen's dress, and he wonders if he should find the jewelry adorning her beautiful. She marvels at him being alive since he killed Third, and he tells her in return that he wanted Third dead at his hands. The Slave Queen guides him to the couch and offers him tea-wine and a lit roll, then tells him that if he can challenge Third, others can challenge him, even at the same time. At this point, he admits that he doesn't quite care what happens to him; acting this way gets the Alliance what it wants. The Slave Queen objects, and Lisinthir tells her he isn't fully himself anymore, since he finds her enticing not just for who he is, but that she reminds him of the Emperor. The Emperor announces his presence by hugging Lisinthir from behind, telling him that the new test is adding the Slave Queen to their play. The test commences.
Later, Lisinthir rests on scattered pillows, the Emperor by his head, the Slave Queen over his waist. The Emperor questions his silence, and Lisinthir tells him that they didn't hurt the Slave Queen. The Emperor insists she enjoyed it, and the Slave Queen backs him up. Noting Lisinthir's ambivalence, the Emperor asks him about it. The Slave Queen says that Lisinthir thinks she's incapable of giving consent, which dampens his pleasure. However, this was definitely something she wanted to do. The Emperor calls them both perverts, but Lisinthir accuses the Emperor of finding her willingness distasteful. The Emperor defines his sexuality as "dominant," then asks Lisinthir why he's so different. Lisinthir counters with why the Emperor is unique, but the Emperor laughs it off and presses. Lisinthir says, basically, why can't he be so different from other Alliance members, since the Emperor is so different from other Chatcaava?
The Slave Queen is surprised that both the Ambassador and Emperor stay in her suite for several days, leaving only for dinner on the Field. The only time to herself was when they were asleep, and she uses the time to learn contentment. On the fourth day, they fight again, and when they fight, they only involve her if she was within easy reach. One time she's beneath the both of them, and can't keep the pain from her cries. After the Emperor falls asleep, the Ambassador goes to the window, clearly troubled, and begins weeping. When she touches him, she sees his horror, and insists she does not call him "Master." It seems he's very disturbed that he felt her pain but it didn't affect him. The Slave Queen confesses that so long as it's him or the Emperor that deal or benefit, she doesn't mind the pain, calling it a relief. She states it is different when one is a person and chooses suffering. The Ambassador asks her not to confuse him further, and she holds him and says nothing.
Lisinthir has another dream, in which he has the Eldritch Queen naked and supplicant on her hands and knees. She gets up, dressed, and he slaps her back down, stripping off her clothing once again.
The Emperor taunts Lisinthir with himself when he makes as if to leave the love nest they've been involved in. Lisinthir says he has to get his things back from Second, since he's trying to exert power over him and through him, the Alliance. With a chuckle, the Emperor says he'll see him at supper and Lisinthir dresses and leaves, putting on the claw-knives. The guards at Second's door don't even bother to stop him, and he stands before Second, dressed in Chatcaavan clothes, mussed and scarred by the Emperor's violent affections. Second makes an objection to Lisinthir's claw-knives, and after the two banter about them, Lisinthir takes them off. Lisinthir asks if Second feels safer, and Second counterasks if Lisinthir feels weaker, which he, of course, doesn't. After remarking that Lisinthir is not what he was when he first came here, he asks what Lisinthir is here for, and Lisinthir states his demand for his things back. Pointing out that he can't get into the data tablet, Lisinthir tells Second he wants it all back, then just wants it all. Second grumbles and says that Lisinthir can have his stuff back, particularly his clothes. Lisinthir then insinuates that Second is actually Third, and when Second objects, he menaces Second. Second makes a move, and Lisinthir traps his arm behind his back. He tells the Chatcaavan that he wants respect and everything else he asks for, and Second interprets this as destroying the Empire. This dampens Lisinthir's mood and he drops his hold, exposing his back to Second. As Second blubbers in confusion, Lisinthir tells him that he's not interested in the destruction of the Empire, or even of Second.
The Ambassador drops by the Slave Queen's suite before supper, and when she calls him Master, he insists that she stop calling him that. Instead, he asks her to call him "my lord," in Universal, since it reminds him of home. The point of his visit, however, was to show her a viseo Laniis made for her, in part thanking her for making her time in the Empire bearable and her escape possible. She also says that the 'broken parachute' is a rating from Fleet Intelligence of how possible it is to survive a mission. The Ambassador shows her more viseos of the rescued slaves giving their thanks, and her heart is full. The Slave Queen tries to object, but the Ambassador tells her that she knows she can't mean that, and that she had been tricked into thinking she was powerless. They cry together.
Lisinthir, replete from the day, talks with the Emperor about Second restoring his chambers, and says that he nearly raped Second but doesn't. Lisinthir replies that he didn't need to force Second, and he wouldn't have enjoyed it, because he wasn't the Emperor. The two begin to tussle, and Lisinthir finally sees the line between him, how his desire had grown more violent and the Emperor's more gentle. Later, the Emperor presses Lisinthir about whether he's bothered by killing Third and his Hand. In Lisinthir's eyes, however, Third earned his death and utter humiliation since the court needed to see that the Alliance will not be crossed. The two tussle and have sex again.
Lisinthir is awoken by his data tablet with a message from the diplomatic corps. The end of it suggests that the war with the Empire is not an immediate danger at this time, and when Lisinthir goes to type "yes," he stops and drops it.
Woken up by a sound, the Slave Queen finds the Ambassador hunched over and goes to nuzzle him. The Ambassador jumps, then pleads for her help: All the trouble he's gone through to make the Emperor see him as male, and that he is the Alliance, the Emperor will want to test himself against the Alliance since two males must settle who is dominant before co-existence. The Slave Queen agrees, gradually waking up, and is not sure if it's too late to change the Emperor's perception of the Alliance. She suggests that he enslave himself, but he rejects that since he'd go insane if he did. Then she suggests that the court could rule the Emperor, and force him to be rid of the Ambassador or kill him if he lures the Emperor further into his arms. The Ambassador gets an idea, and apologizes in advance for involving the Slave Queen, who says she doesn't want to hurt either of them. After promising that he will do his best to spare her, he reflects out loud that starting now might be too late.
The following night, the Emperor makes mention of Lisinthir's hollowed cheeks, and that he prefers him healthy, even offering to personally have food prepared. Lisinthir shrugs that off as he's just a wingless freak, and when the Emperor lays claim to him, he says he isn't entirely the Emperor's. There he lays his trap: he challenges the Emperor to Touch him and Change, framing it as stealing his very cells. After repeated goading, the Emperor flips Lisinthir over and rapes him, at the end Touching him and stumbling backward. The Chatcaavan struggles with this new him within him, and Lisinthir presses him to Change. The Emperor does so, and marvels at his lack of wings and tail, struggling to regain his balance. Touting the benefits, he touches him, then shows him that the Eldritch feel through their skins. Lisinthir kisses the Emperor, then rapes him. Later, they share a hekkret roll and converse, with the Emperor changing back into his dragon form before they fight again.
It's been a week, and the Slave Queen has seen neither the Ambassador nor the Emperor, and fears that either had hurt or killed the other, or both had forgotten her. However, they both show up, and both seem quite taken with one another. The Ambassador tells the Emperor to change, and after some hesitation, he does, showing off his new Eldritch form. Then the Ambassador asks the Slave Queen to come closer, bidding the Emperor to touch her, and he gets her surface of fear. When told to sink deeper, and he is delighted by her supplication. The Ambassador suggests having her this way, and the Emperor pulls the Ambassador in as well, the Slave Queen reflecting that the Ambassador seems to have fallen with him.
The plan seems to be going swimmingly, as the Emperor required no effort to distract from his duties. Lisinthir spends most of his waking hours with either the Emperor, the Slave Queen, or both, and he sleeps either tangled with the others or in the Emperor's suite. Of course, Lisinthir is being distracted from his own duties as well, and Alliance communiqués are piling up. One summer evening has the Emperor wearing his borrowed shape and asking Lisinthir to concede. Lisinthir does not, telling the Emperor that he has yet to win against his mind. Knowing he's transgressing and hoping for forgiveness, he tells the Slave Queen he wishes to teach the Emperor to weep. The Emperor laughs this off, but Lisinthir tells him he is the Emperor's master when it comes to suffering and understanding the hearts of others. When the Emperor tells him that such knowledge is not worth having, Lisinthir challenges him, telling him "to bear the misery of others takes ten times the strength of bearing your own." Then, Lisinthir bids the Emperor touch the Slave Queen, telling the Slave Queen to "show him how the wingless need the sky." She holds nothing back, and Lisinthir bears witness. It ends abruptly, the Emperor turned away from them. He demands Lisinthir leave, and he does.
The Emperor Changes quickly, but his eyes are wrong; they've lost their fluorescence, and Changing had not dried the shed tears. When asked what he'd done to her, the Slave Queen replies that she was a work of art and therefore an object. He asks if wings make her feel the feelings of males, and she replies that wings do not make people people. The Emperor questions her willingness and desire, how she could have felt things for someone that did such things to her. She replies that he has changed, and is still changing. Instead of sending her away like she expected, the Emperor pulls her to him, her head on his lap. It takes her some time of his deliberate stroking of her hair before she figures out that he's trying not to hurt her.
Lisinthir comes to the Slave Queen's suite to apologize, with her looking out at the sky again. She tells him that his plan is working, and though the Emperor had not summoned them yet, he will. She does reveal that he's changing the Emperor, but the change will kill him, and that he stroked her hair all night. It was kindness, and kindness in the Empire earned an early death. The two discuss what else can be done, and when the Queen suggests Lisinthir becoming a slave again, she rejects it herself because he will not be what he is, either. They stand together in sorrowful contemplation when they are summoned and walk together, fingers intertwined, to the Emperor's chambers.
The Emperor, lying on the bed and looking out the window at the stars, gestures to a corner that holds the rack. He makes a request, and Lisinthir says yes before he can say no. Lisinthir takes off his shirt, and kneels. The cuffs are merely leather. The collar was harder to stomach, but he allows it and the blindfold. He begins to shake, though there is nothing, but then hands light on his cheeks: the Emperor's Eldritch ones. Before the Emperor can fully free him, however, Lisinthir tells him that to truly understand, he needs to do all of it. The Emperor hesitates, then asks how he is to hold the whip, when the Slave Queen suggests that the Surgeon do it, since he is Outside, and can fix what he breaks. Lisinthir and the Emperor agree that it is a good idea, and the Slave Queen asks to leave as a reward. She calls the Surgeon on her way out. The Emperor leaves to get "suitable instruments" and returns with the Surgeon in tow. They begin to set up and Lisinthir does not watch. He sits still as they put him on the rack, though he bites his tongue to bleeding to remain still. There is a gag, a blindfold, and the Emperor cupping his face, and he asks the Surgeon to begin. Lisinthir struggles to prevent himself from crying, but it comes anyway. Lisinthir begins to disassociate, but is called back by the Emperor, and finds himself in the Emperor's arms. The Emperor orders the Surgeon to tend to him, and promises to never do that again, calling him Perfection. The Surgeon finishes, is thanked by the Emperor, and leaves. The Emperor then brings Lisinthir to the bed and fetches water, then gets into bed behind Lisinthir. After a moment of silence, the Emperor asks if it was that way every time. This time, though, Lisinthir's tears did not delight him, and he reacts poorly to something he feels in the Eldritch: a joy that touches suffering. The Emperor questions how Lisinthir allowed this, and Lisinthir says that he trusted the Emperor since he always kept his word. The Emperor realizes Lisinthir no longer fears him, but, when asked if he will be quit of Lisinthir, shushes Lisinthir, telling him that testing and questions are done, and that he [the Emperor] will keep him [Lisinthir] safe while he [Lisinthir] sleeps.
Three hours later, the Slave Queen is summoned to the Emperor's tower, and finds him in his proper shape. He notes that the Ambassador sleeps heavily, but he is fidgety. Then, he asks for a massage and to help him tend to the Ambassador. After confirming that he did, indeed, ask, she does so with more energy and contentment than she thought possible, though it takes a long time. The Ambassador startles them both by asking if the Emperor is done with learning, and if the Slave Queen is done with the sweetness of agony. After assuring her that there will be no more pain, the Ambassador asks the Emperor to check his understanding on the Chatcaavan word for 'pet': a step above slave, sideways from female. Then, he asks the Slave Queen to change, and in so doing reveals her role in the initial escape. Upon questioning, the Ambassador reveals that it was both of their idea, but mostly hers. The Emperor questions that she indeed conspired against him with "[a]n alien freak," and she, feeling both of their wary concern, confirms she did. The Ambassador tells him that he did not compel her, and there are more ways to gain cooperation than by force. The Emperor decides she needs a new name. When presented with treasure, the Emperor dismisses that, explaining the differences between treasure and Treasure, in that nothing is lower than an object, but nothing is higher than an abstraction. The Emperor settles on Treasure for her, and Perfection for the Ambassador, though he playfully suggests the Ambassador call him Master, upon which the Emperor laughs. The Ambassador suggests they take the Slave Queen as an Eldritch, then asks her if she's willing. Her reply? "Oh, yes."
The days stream past, each in the arms of one another, Lisinthir and the Emperor neglecting their duties. He and the Slave Queen come to realize that the Emperor could be replaced, and the replacement will want no war or deaths, save one. They lament that they can't have both the Emperor alive and what they've created with him, now that he has become Greatness.
One day near the end of summer, the Slave Queen seeks the Ambassador but finds him by the sound of his retching. He tries to shut the door, but isn't fast enough to prevent her from seeing the blood dripping down his throat. He explains that if the Emperor and he go to supper in the Field, the cup is poisoned. The Ambassador recognizes that the culprit is using hekkret, and suspects Second but will not kill him without proof. Moreover, if he kills Second, that would change things, and he doesn't want anything to change.
The afternoon after next, someone pounds on the Emperor's door loud enough to be heard from the bedchamber. The Slave Queen goes to answer it, and returns after some time behind Second. Second accuses the Emperor of reneging on his responsibilities, and that the court is growing restless because the Emperor barely shows. Second challenges the Emperor to meet him on the Field and leaves. Lisinthir tells the Emperor not to go, but the Emperor dismisses him, saying he will not look away from a fight with his own Second, who has been loyal for so long. The Emperor asks the Slave Queen to wait in a specific hiding place he told her about 25 revolutions ago. The Emperor leaves, and Lisinthir dresses, aiming to at least witness this challenge. He runs down the stairs heedless and arrives panting, seeing Second standing as the Emperor descends from the table to meet him. The Emperor gives Second one chance to take back the challenge. Second refuses, and they engage. Second cuts the Emperor's back open, but the Emperor attacks again, blood spraying everywhere. Again, the Emperor demands Second give up the duel, but Second again refuses and leaps for the Emperor's neck. The Emperor intercepts the lunge and tears out Second's neck. Then, the Emperor rolls Second onto his back, watches him die, then screams out his anger and triumph, laying claim to the court once more. Lisinthir goes back to the tower to wait.
The Surgeon greets the Slave Queen and guides her into the clinic. He sends off Triage and gets a blanket for the Slave Queen, inviting her to his office. The Surgeon surprises her by asking who it was, and she replies Second. He tells her that it won't last long, because Second is old. The Slave Queen waits, but then hears footsteps. The Emperor enters, dripping blood and sweat and with torn wings. He asks the Surgeon's aid, and the Surgeon leads the Emperor to the main clinic, with the Slave Queen following and setting herself up in a corner to watch. The Surgeon pronounces the Emperor's wings serviceable in a week, the rest of him by tomorrow. The Emperor asks him if the Surgeon cares who rules here, then chuckles as the Surgeon replies that he doesn't. The Surgeon leaves, and the Emperor sighs, deflating. The Slave Queen makes to crawl to him, but the Emperor sees this and commands her to stand and walk, then proclaims her safe. The Slave Queen, however, asks if she has to return to her tower, stating a desire to comfort him. The Emperor says that he needs to take care of someone, and the Slave Queen tells him not to hurt the Ambassador, revealing that he had planned the Emperor's downfall. Genuinely amused, the Emperor idly asks if the Ambassador knew what he was doing before saying that he has to deal with him, without her distracting either of them.
Lisinthir waits in what had become their shared bed. When the Emperor comes, he remarks that Lisinthir had been waiting for him. To Lisinthir's surprise that his wings are reattached, the Emperor says that Second wasn't going to demean him by ripping open the wings, and that he's been Second since the Emperor got there. Proclaiming him dead, Lisinthir advances upon the Emperor, who presses him down on the bed. He tells the Emperor that he's won the fight for domination, and admits to planning this downfall. The Emperor asks why. Initially, it was to save the Alliance so that the Emperor wouldn't live to test the Empire against the Alliance. The Emperor asks if that would be such a bad thing if it results in what the Emperor and Lisinthir share now, but gently chides Lisinthir for having wingless thoughts when he remarks that there was never a guarantee. But by the middle, Lisinthir confesses that he saw what the Emperor could become, and wanted to see that end. Not for any consequences, but that it was important, and Beautiful, and he couldn't stand in the way. Lisinthir tells him that the Emperor took into him the best of himself, and perhaps that is the point of the Change. However, Lisinthir had lost, thinking that he'd make the Emperor less than what he was, but instead made him more. Lisinthir invites the Emperor to take the spoils of the war fought between Empire and Alliance, and they spend the night "fighting" until dawn.
When Lisinthir next wakes, he finds the bed empty. As he goes in search of either the Emperor or the Slave Queen, he finds himself noting the details of the suite. He finds the Emperor in a room they'd never made any memories with, and they share a glance. The Emperor throws a data tablet at him and orders him to pack; he's going back to the Alliance. When asked why, the Emperor tells him that Second considered him dangerous from the beginning, that no male had ever broken a horn off him, but Lisinthir had slowed him, and the Emperor now needs to cast Lisinthir away before he goes too far. Lisinthir tries to get him to reconsider, but the Emperor refuses, again ordering him away. Lisinthir leaves, and almost turns back when he remembers the agony and effort the Emperor had made in order to send him away. Despondent, he makes his way to the Slave Queen's suite, knowing it would be for the last time. The Slave Queen sees the look on his face and knows instantly what happened. She implores him not to weep, and then tells him how to go back, and with her, they finally name what they have: love. Lisinthir goes to his quarters, packs, and enters the shuttle, taking one last look at the receding planet.
The Emperor visits the Slave Queen in her tower, stopping her from her listless attempt at flower arranging and bringing her to the couch, her head in his lap. He tells her that he'll need to replace Second and Third, and that Second-who-was was right in that he's neglected much of his work. However, the Slave Queen notes that he said "us," and he replies that he will not become what he was before by sending the Ambassador away. The Emperor asks for forgiveness for all he has done to her and others, and asks her to stand by his side instead of kneeling at his feet, re-titling her as the Queen Ransomed. Overjoyed, she accepts, then grows quiet as the magnitude of the task ahead comes to her. Then, she makes a request: to see the sea, because she has never felt the ocean before. Together, they reflect that they already miss him.