Fullprince-In-Splendour Ryarn Callican, Duke of Radox Sound, Keeper of the Seven Worlds, seventy-ninth of his line and heir apparent to the entire Eternal New Sol Empire, sat forward in his seat and contemplated how unfair life was.
He smiled tightly at the absurdity of the thought. It was delicious, but thick, like the heavy cream his mother favoured on her sweet courses. His people, his subjects to be, would howl with outrage at the idea that the Emperor-Of-All's eldest child could have the slightest cause for complaint in his charmed life. He was, after all, by any objective measure among the galaxy's safest and well-treated inhabitants. No war would ever touch him; a hundred worlds could fall before he need even bother to ask whether their palace had defences. Hunger was a word he knew only by definition. The slightest cough or variation in internal temperature would be responded to almost instantly by the most talented physicians and medicomps the human race still had access to.
But that was only one half of the story. It seemed to Ryarn that the price of such safety through scrutiny was the loss of something simple and yet fundamental: freedom. Yes, no human being had been so protected and pampered since the Second Fall of Vega. Yes, his every view was breathtaking, his every meal delicious, and his every lover astonishing to behold and desperate to please. But despite, or even because of all that, he felt like one of the crude track-bound locomotive engines of steel-tech worlds and the holdings of the Neo-Luddites. No matter how picturesque the scenery, the route was essentially unchangeable.
This trip today was a perfect case in point. If he considered all the activities the heir of Antrew VI Callican could have be engaged in on the day before his eighteenth birthday, travelling to a dingy standalone array on the fringe of the Imperial System skulked in a place far beneath the sunlit portions of the list. It wasn't that he didn't grasp the importance of the trip. He could scarcely be unaware of the cultural importance of the hadithi - at least, he could scarcely be unaware of the its cultural importance to the Kambi, which meant it was important to the Imperial Huber in the way his maternal grandmother's birthday was important to his father: a thing of utter irrelevance in itself that acquired supreme importance through the weight placed on it by others. The Kambi, as Ryarn's father took pains to remind him on a seemingly daily basis, were the only entity in the human galaxy with sufficient might to threaten the Empire. They could only be kept in check through their own disunion, and that disunion could only last so long as the Empire took pains to not insult them in their entirety.
There was no part of that line of reasoning that struck Ryarn as unreasonable. But understanding the need for something was hardly a guarantee of enjoying the process. At the very least, he thought, absently toying with the medals on his dress uniform, the damn Hadi-Sheha could've built their damn facility closer to the Throneworld.
"How can we possibly not be there yet?" he demanded, trying to let his show of Imperial impatience burn clearly, free of petulance. The shuttle pilot, half hidden from view behind banks of automated systems and baroque friezes depicting Imperial victories, turned her dark, incurious face towards him, and for the briefest moment looked as though he intended to speak. At the last second she thought better of directly addressing her Huber passenger, however, and instead cast her gaze towards Ryarn's decrepit adviser, Kloke.
The deferral bothered Ryarn. Partially this was because of his almost bottomless feelings of aggrieved dissatisfaction with and for Kloke, a man who looked only slightly more ridiculous than he behaved. Having no information nor interest in the man's heritage, Ryarn could do no more than speculate about how this plump mass of mottled pink flesh and sagging flaps of stippled skin came to be. In those moments at court or at dedications or in transit when he was sufficiently bored that even speculating about his staff's past seemed worth trying, Ryarn would try to piece together a theory that might somehow explain the man. Currently his assumption was that Kloke had been created - at least two centuries earlier - as part of an experiment to determine whether a human fetus could survive the infusion of turkey DNA and, if so, whether it could carve out a career as an adviser without ever once allowing an original thought to lodge itself in the sallow grooves of its brain. Kloke was a truly pathetic figure, neither smart enough to directly embrace politics nor freakish enough to gain employment scaring children in dimly lit theatres.
The larger part of his frustration, though, was with the assumption that he was not the kind of Huber to accept direct comments from those whose roles put them at a far remove from his social and political circles. It bothered him that there were those who considered the term "Huber" to mean a higher caste, or even some kind of divine title, rather than a simple label of those who directly influenced Imperial policy and thereby the Empire at large. Ryarn held no illusions; he was destined to be Empire purely because his father was emperor now. But the hereditary transfer of power had nothing to do with a belief in pure bloodlines of Gods-given provenance, it was simply the easiest way to ensure that whomever took the mantle of Emperor or Empress could be taught from birth how to be worthy of the title. How to rule justly and wisely and well. He had nothing but contempt for those Huber who wielded their titles as a cudgel, but neither was he any great fan of those, like this shuttle pilot, who simply assumed he was among their number.
"In fact, your Eminence," Kloke began, his syrupy tones of obsequiousness clashing horribly with the foul nasal assault of his ancient breath, "We are now less than thirty kilometres from Pahlavi Station. If you wish to see the facility for yourself, it is currently viewable from the starboard window."
More by reflex than anything else, Ryarn turned his head to the right, catching sight of a small but intricately-designed facility hanging against the backdrop of stars. It was tall and thin, crowned at what Ryarn assumed was its upper levels with tapering cones clustered so densely as to seem to ripple if he shifted his focus. Much of it was the matte white used for facilities in the void - high visibility generally meant nothing given the speed of the average star-going vessel, but low-velocity collisions were both still possible and something worth avoiding - but there was a central band running along the length of the structure in a shade of yellow close to brown.
As a series of design choices, Ryarn conceded it was more than a little out of the ordinary. Even so, it was still just a tube in space for humans to live in. He had seen no small amount of those.
"My subconscious has betrayed me," he said to his adviser, sat beside him like some decrepit nursemaid, "Turning my head is a small expenditure of my energy, of course, but even such tiny losses sting when they are done without good reason."
Absurdly, Kloke responded by breaking into a fit of coughing, hacking into his hand like a child hoping to hide their reaction to their first taste of strong alcohol. "Your eminence?" he asked, once he could trust his throat enough to do so. "I'm afraid I don't understand. At this range you can clearly see Pahlavi Station's unique-"
"I can see that I can see it," Ryarn interrupted, struggling to keep his voice calm. "My point is why can I see it? If I can observe the facility to which I am heading through a starboard window, then it follows with unbending logic that I cannot be heading to where I am heading. I would think it polite at the very least if someone would explain to me why that is."
Kloke bobbed his head in distress; the motion did nothing to weaken Ryarn's conviction in the accuracy of his origin myth for the man. "The architecture of the Kambi leaves many baffled at their ingenuity, your Eminence, I had thought you might want to observe the facility we were approaching without needing to leave the comfort of your seat," he said.
"What I don't want to leave," Ryarn replied, "Is the comfort of the Imperial Palace. Which means when I do so, I want to return as quickly as possible, which means in turn that I want to get to Pahlavi and get off it again, not hang in space cooing at it."
More bobbing, this time accompanied by swallowing. "You wish us to resume our course?" Kloke asked.
"Yes," Ryarn said coolly. "Please. Quickly."
The craft's pilot might not have been willing to speak to the heir apparent, but her ears clearly worked just fine. Ten minutes after sighting the facility, she was lining up to the airlock at the end of the facility opposite the mas of spires and talking in low tones to the station chief, or possibly a low-end AI. A recording of the first six notes of the Imperial Anthem let Ryarn know everything was prepared for his arrival, and he stood, smoothing his uniform. "Thank you" he said, nodding to the pilot. She cast her eyes downward. "You are welcome, your eminence," she mumbled, as though apologising for hearing him. He fought down the urge to shake his head in exasperation.
His adviser chose that moment to try and justify his existence. "I beg you to remember, your eminence", he began, "That the Kambi are a prideful people. Honourable yes, in their own way, but mercurial. They view their heritage and culture as no less crucial to their identities than do we. To them the hadithi is to all intents and purposes sacred, and should you mock or insult that-"
"Have you really come all this way simply to state what would be blindingly obvious even if I didn't know it?" Ryaran asked, his patience exhausted. "This trip has wasted your time more than it has mine."
Before Kloke could summon up the courage to respond - unlikely in any case - the door to the shuttle slid open, and Ryarn stepped out into the vactube tunnel. Under normal circumstances several members of the elite Velatinate Guard would have preceded him, but this was Pahlavi Station, and certain... irregularities existed regarding the attendant protocols. The lack of personal guard did not mean he was unprotected, of course. Three of his father's most heavily-armed cruisers sat two light-minutes out, captained by three of his most level-headed yet decisive captains. If the Kambi hoped to attempt an abduction of the heir apparent during his hadithi - and they never had, not once in the five hundred years the tradition had been honoured - the absolute best result they could hope for was that Ryarn died alongside every other inhabitant of the station when the Imperial Marines cut their way through the hull.
If, indeed, anyone actually dwelt on Pahlavi at all. Ryarn had no hope of hiding his astonishment when he exited the tunnel into the facility and found himself greeted by... nobody.
Ryarn wished fervently at that moment that High Sollic contained a stronger word than "unprecedented". Back on Throneworld, it was a rare day that Ryarn had no-one to receive him when he stepped from the bathroom after clearing his bowels. To step from a shuttle for an official appointment and not be greeted... well, it was just as well he had less interest in the pomp of power than did his father.
And did his happen to father as well, the thought occurred. When Andrew Callican arrived for his own hadithi, did he find himself alone, his arrival unremarked? And if so, why didn't tell me what to expect?
Still, whilst the lack of an honour guard or even a welcome reception was a serious breach of etiquette, it wasn't actually an impediment to progress. The small chamber Ryarn had found himself within had only a single exit apart from the airlock itself, so there was no chance that he could get lost; at least, not yet. And the Kambi clearly didn't want him to feel out of place any more than they wanted him getting turned around; the chamber might have been small, but it was lavishly decorated in the very latest Throneworld fashions. Lebrulli crystal cast rainbow slivers across purple velvet and died blue lellbeist hides. Wood-carved triptychs recounted the Battle of Du'nai and the Third Exodus with a skill that outstripped many of the artisans Ryarn's father kept on retainer to power the endless circular renovation of the palace. And everywhere, images of Antrew VI Callican himself appeared; portraits and busts and holo-busts and more portraits. The standard joke back home was that each time the Emperor- or Empress-of-All died, the necessary updates to Throneworld drained the Imperial coffers so much it would be cheaper to bribe every person in human space to pretend to not notice that the face no longer matched the coins.
All in all, this was a profoundly impressive display. The Kambi, he had to admit, had certainly done their homework.
As soon as he got close enough and the door slid open Ryarn could tell it led not to a corridor but to a lift. He stepped inside and turned to study the buttons to try and figure out which to press, only to find there weren't any. A moment later, the door closed again, and Ryarn felt the slight pull of g-force
that announced he was moving upward. It was only a few moments before it stopped again, and the doors whispered open to reveal another chamber, It was, Ryarn judged, of identical dimensions to the room he'd just left - a common approach in space-borne facilities, when the other kind of space was at a premium, but otherwise the two places shared nothing in common.
Actually, that wasn't quite true. Both were sumptuous in their decor, it was just that this room was decked out in the trapping of New Hellespont rather than that of Throneworld. Ryarn new both style and planet well. Only a few light years distant and with regular wormhole openings, New Hellespont was a vassal world that was under direct Imperial administration, rather than simple tithe-payers like the worlds in the Kambi. During his last state visit the locals had decorated their low, deep villas with endless paper friezes of endemic wildlife and strange, double-folded chairs carved from stone. According to what he saw here, the friezes had become a little more martial and the seating even more baffling in their contrivance. These might have been inaccuracies, of course, but given the pitch-perfect rendition of Throneworld, Ryarn thought it more likely his own recollections were simply outdated. He wondered for a few moments whether he should enter the room, despite it being no more occupied than the last one and lacking an airlock in addition, but then his nostrils caught the scent of burnt ozone that betrayed the presence of a holding field. Peering closely, Ryarn could just discern a faint shimmer across the entrance to the lift, like a heat haze but without the same sense of something rising. Clearly this presumably perfect reconstruction was something for him to view, not visit. Perhaps a minute after the lift had stopped to show him this chamber, the doors closed once more and once more he felt the tug of upward movement.
The next time the doors opened it was to the smell of ozone and a room arranged to look like it sat upon the nearby Kambi world of Nekohachi, all pillars and acute angles and long, mournful masks.
On and on it went; paintings and statues, reeds and roses, matt walls and painted mats, antique shields and shiny new boreguns, curtains and fountains and crystal horses suspended in the air. Worlds Ryarn knew or thought he knew, worlds he recognised but couldn't name, worlds that pricked recollections buried so deep in his mind he couldn't be sure if they'd been born from his experiences or carried across the stars in the memories of his race. An occasional airlock marred illusions of planet-bound locations - emergency alternative exits, Ryarn didn't doubt - but otherwise only the smell of the force-fields reminded him of where he really was.
The last room he arrived in had no barrier to keep him in the elevator, and was empty apart from two simple wooden chairs, an equally simple table holding bowls of fruit and drink dispensers, and a woman.
"Master Callican", she said warmly, standing from where she had been sitting on the chair furthest from him. "My name is Heri. Won't you please sit down?"
Ryarn raised sculpted eyebrows at the greeting. The treatment he had been receiving since stepping onto Pahlavi Station had rather stopped being curious and moved into impudent. He always prided himself on his acceptance of the odd ways of those from Kambi worlds, but it would be a strange theory of human interaction that suggested respecting others required you to let them disrespect you in turn.
"Well met, Kindest Heri," he said, taking pains to offer the accepted greeting to those of unknown station. "I have no wish for our first words to be sharp ones, but I hope you will forgive me for pointing out the established way for Kambi citizens to address the heir apparent is as 'Fullprince'."
Heri nodded once. She was, Ryarn thought, somewhere in her late twenties, though he shared the standard teenage ability to predict the ages of those younger than him with phenomenal accuracy and those older than him with almost no success at all. Her black hair was cut short, but still curled up against her black skin. She was wearing a simple, mid-brown smock and wide, solid shoes. The simple garb struck Ryarn as perversely exotic. It wasn't a look he was particularly used to, even the palace maids he occasionally tumbled finer clothes. Combined with her dark skin and clear brown eyes, she presented a passively attractive proposition. He briefly considered putting in the effort necessary to seduce her, but decided he was probably not insulting her too much by concluding she was not desirable enough to risk bringing about a galactic war.
"A citizen of the Kambi, yes," she said, looking at him intently. "But that is not who I am."
"It isn't?" Ryarn was too confused to remember to pretend to not be confused.
She shook her head, smiling slyly. "No."
"I am the Kambi".
The silence that followed that sentence was one that Ryarn allowed to go on for quite some time.
"You are the Kambi?" he asked at length, once it became clear Heri would say no more without a response. "Our last census put the population of the Kambi worlds at somewhere approaching two quadrillion, give or take a planetary system or two.
"My congratulations, then, on having lost so much weight."
He had expected the comment to annoy, or even amuse, for all that it wasn't his best joke. There was no sign of either across Heri's round, smooth face.
"You do not understand how such a thing can be so, I can see. And yet that is what I am," she said, her voice thick with memory. "I am he forests of Ixtlilxochitl, the endless seas of Galaup's Grave, the black razor-rocks of Caldera. I have been chosen to be them, those fishers and hunters and teachers and soldiers and politicians. Pale and dark, sun red and desert brown. The sum total of a ten thousand worlds. I bear their every hope. I nurse their every fear.
"The Kambi sent me so that I could be them."
Ryarn nodded. The specifics of Heri's speech were unfamiliar, but in general terms he had no trouble grasping what she was telling him. With some small tinkering, it could be exactly the sort of thing his father would say: that to have authority over someone was to represent them, and that to represent them was to become them in some sense.
"I understand," he assured her.
For a moment Heri maintained eye-contact. Then she bent over, overcome with laughter. No-one had ever laughed at Ryarn before, other than his mother; those with Imperial blood tended to consider laughter beneath them, and those without - even other Huber - were generally too cautious to risk offending a Callican. As a result, Heri's giggling fit made her seem absurdly maternal, a link to a fading past. Ryarn assumed that was why this reaction to his understanding didn't bother him nearly so much he would have said, if asked, that he thought it might.
"No", she gasped as her hysterics ebbed. "No, you do not. How can any one person claim to be the Kambi? Every skin tone, every gender, every approach to love and sex and self? I have two legs that carry me around; how can I be the Kambi who cannot walk? I can see you clearly enough to read the bafflement on your face; how can I be the Kambi who are blind? I am no more representative of my people than my ridiculous list of scenery could somehow encapsulate the planets I attached them to. What kind of towering self-regard and ignorance of humanities infinite, bewildering diversity would I have to cling to if I were to believe I were more than a tiny fraction of a whole?"
Ryarn resisted the urge to point out the obvious contradiction - it was so glaring that there could be no doubt it had been deliberate. He was being told something, something just short of explicit.
"My father refers to himself as being the Empire," he said after a few moments thought. "And as being the Huber, too. You're saying claiming to represent an entire culture to that extent is grotesque arrogance."
By now it was entirely clear that Heri intended to continue down this road until she found the absolute limit of insults to his station and his family that Ryarn could stand. It was equally clear that this was a deliberate strategy; the Kambi wouldn't have chosen their Hada-Sheha to run the hadithi if they had any suspicion they might insult the heir apparent in ways they didn't fully intend. Once again Ryarn wondered how his father's own haditha had unfolded. Had his Hada-Sheha been as calculatingly impudent as this one? How had he maintained his temper?
Perhaps he had seen it was a ruse as well. When someone goads you, it's because they want you to rise to the bait. And when someone insults you, giving them what they want would be entirely too generous.
"I think," Ryarn began, "That you are very lucky I have more tolerance for impoliteness than the Emperor-in-Splendour himself", he told the woman. "But let's leave that aside. I'm more interested in the rest of what you are saying. Surely your own argument suggests your mission was doomed to failure before I ever set foot on this station. How can you alone represent the whole of your people?"
A shrug. "I can't. Not totally. I can only strive to come as close as possible, and ensure whoever else gets the opportunity next time is as far from someone like me as it is possible to get."
"But why? Why attempt something you're convinced is impossible?"
Heri fixed him with a glare that made him absurdly uncomfortable.
"Do you fight battles only when you believe you can win? Or do you fight battles whenever you refuse to surrender?"
That was the kind of defiant, martial statement that Ryarn could fully appreciate. "I see your point," he granted, smiling fiercely.
"Do you?" she asked. "I do so apologise. I try so hard not to be didactic, though I suppose a few obvious truths offered in the beginning are no vice. This will go far easier if we both know who we are, after all"
Too much of this was going over his head, which he found uncomfortable. "You're saying you brought me here to learn?" Ryarn asked, grabbing at the most plausible inference she had scattered about the room
"I'm saying I brought you here to listen," Heri said, sitting back in her chair and gesturing once again to the one opposite. "What happens after that is very much up to you."
Ryarn took the proffered seat, and Heri leaned forward as though about to offer the most delicious of secrets.
"Let me tell you a story."