The raids took place overnight, our time. The first I knew that they were all over was when Darm woke me. His father was requesting a meeting with me over breakfast.
I panicked. What should I wear? How should I address him? He might be Darm’s father, but he was the emperor! I’d only ever seen him as a distant figure on vision broadcasts when he was making state visits or giving an occasional address to the people of the federation. I had never taken any interest in politics or the imperial family, which explained why Darm had needed to tell me that he was the crown prince.
Darm managed to calm me down. He made me take a hot shower (“It will help you to relax,” he said) while he sorted out something for me to wear. Then he told me to treat his father like I would any other adult. “He’s human, just like you. As long as you’re polite he’ll be happy. He doesn’t like smart-alec kids.” He grinned. “I found that out the hard way.”
We met the emperor in the dining room. The empress was with him.
He was an imposing figure, and looked just as I remembered him from the public broadcasts I had seen. He stood tall and straight, with a trim white beard and white hair. The only difference was that on this occasion he was dressed in casual clothes. He had a gentle manner and a quiet way of speaking, and I soon felt comfortable in his presence. From what Darm had told me, however, the emperor was anything but a soft touch. He was decisive, he was cool under pressure, and he could be ruthless if a situation warranted it. Darm looked up to his father and respected him because, he told me, “He’s always fair, and he always practices what he preaches.” I was also to find that he was no mere figurehead; he was a hands-on ruler.
The empress was tall, slim, and elegant. She had a longish face framed perfectly by long black hair draped over her shoulders. She gave me a warm and friendly smile, and told me to call her Julia. I liked her immediately. We all sat and helped ourselves to the food laid out.
The emperor told us the raids had been successful. The crooked officials were all in custody. The corruption charges were serious because the crime in this case was considered to be one against the people of the federation. The evidence against each official was overwhelming, and each was likely to be executed. They had known that would be their fate should they be caught, yet they still allowed their greed to outweigh their fear of discovery, so the emperor didn’t have much sympathy for them. He was angry that they had deprived needy people of the support they deserved, making so many families destitute. Every arrested official’s assets had been seized under proceeds of crime laws, and would be either sold off or recycled to help those for whom the stolen money was originally intended. The emperor had already signed orders appointing replacements for all of the corrupt officials. Disruption would be minimal and, all being well, it would be a matter of business as usual in each administration affected by the arrests.
“I imagine some staff may be a little surprised when they arrive at work and find they have a new boss,” the emperor said. “My people will be looking out for anyone who appears unsettled or worried, but the research was very thorough, and I’m confident we’ve caught everyone.”
He looked at me. “Now, we need to address your situation, Echo. There are two things to be aware of. First, the arrests have eliminated any remaining threat to you or your family from the people who targeted your parents. The other is that your company secretary is also in custody. However, unless there proves to be a link between him or your company and the corrupt officials, he is in a different boat from the others. His crime, assuming one has been committed, is against you and your company, but even there it’s not cut and dried. By apparently concealing your supposed death and installing a bogus Lucien he thwarted your parents’ and the founder’s wishes, but in a way he’s done you a favour. If the company had been wound up, as should have happened, you would no longer be able to inherit it. To his credit he seems to have run the company competently and wisely, and it appears to be in as good a shape now as it was when he took over. My people will interview him to get his take on everything he did, and why, but it will be up to you to decide what action to take.
“I’ll have to think about that,” I said. “One thing that bothers me at the moment, though, is who kidnapped me, and why. Do you have any idea what was going on, there, sir?”
“Echo, there’s no need to call me sir. We’re pretty informal in our private lives. Please call me Marcus unless the situation requires something more formal.”
Without thinking I blurted out, “Wow, I’m on first-name terms with the emperor!”
Darm gave one of his cute giggles. The emperor roared laughing.
I felt my face redden. “Oh, crikey. Sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to be rude.”
Still chuckling, he told me, “Echo, that was a response from the heart. I like directness. Please promise me you will never stop being natural. Many people put on airs and graces when I walk into a room. I would much prefer that they were themselves. So… Marcus, okay?”
“Okay, and thank you, er, Marcus.”
He smiled. “Much better! Now, the answer to your question is not yet, but I hope to have more information later today. The pilot of the skyrover will be questioned this morning and that should give us some answers.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I have another question…” I hesitated, feeling like I was way out of line. After all, I was bothering the supreme ruler of the federation, and I’d only just met him, which made it seem worse.
“What will happen to the boy who thinks he is me? Where did he come from? Has he been involved in the running of the company?”
Marcus chuckled and wagged a finger at me. “That’s three questions, young man!”
Darm rolled his eyes. “Don’t mind him, Echo. You’ll get used to his attempts at humour!”
The emperor gave his son a withering look, but his smile took the heat out of it. He continued, “We think the boy was probably taken from an orphanage. It seems he was tucked away and cared for, and his only role in the company was to prevent it being wound up. I wonder if he even knows that. It’s possible that he simply believes himself to be an orphan being cared for by his family’s staff and watched over by his guardian, your company secretary. The corporation has probably been meeting the costs involved, so, really, it comes down to whether you are willing to keep providing for him.”
I made a quick decision, surprising myself. “I can’t just dump him after all these years. That would be cruel. It’s not his fault. I think I’d like to meet him, though. Someone will need to explain everything to him.”
“That is a very sensible and charitable approach, Echo, and one your parents would endorse, I’m sure.”
I grinned, pleased that he approved.
“Now, Echo, I’m not sure what will happen at the corporation today. Obviously the secretary won’t be there, and I don’t know how the rest of the organisation will react to that. At some point you will need to go there and make your presence known, and you might need to appoint a new secretary.”
I shuddered. This stuff—being owner of a huge corporation, and everything it entailed—was way outside my experience and expectations. My focus in life for as long as I could remember had been to survive the orphanage. My only ambition was to finish my schooling. I knew I had a home and education there until I completed high school, but once that happened I would be on my own and would have to find my own way in the world. I had hoped that I would do well enough to gain a scholarship that would pay my way through a university course, but I hadn’t given much thought to what that course would be because it seemed more like a dream than anything that would actually happen, and it was still several years off, anyway. Now, suddenly, with absolutely no experience or qualifications, I was owner of perhaps the biggest company in the federation. Suddenly, again, I wondered whether I was dreaming.
I slumped in my chair, feeling overwhelmed.
Before I knew what was happening, Darm was behind me, wrapping his arms around me. “Echo, it’ll be all right. You don’t have to do everything on your own.”
“Darm’s right, Echo. You have very competent executives at the company and I’m sure it will continue to run smoothly for the moment without the secretary. In your absence he was the head honcho. Yes, you are head honcho now, but there will be many people you can call on for advice, both within and outside DöhmCorp. It seems overwhelming now, but it doesn’t have to be. As Darm said, you don’t have to do it all on your own.”
He got up and moved to my side of the table, took my arm gently, and pulled me up into a hug. I burst into tears, probably of relief. Marcus held me tight and gently stroked my back.
“It will be fine, Echo. You’re not an orphan anymore. You now have a family here in the palace, and you are welcome here any time.” He chuckled. “After all, I need to keep on the right side of the biggest entrepreneur in the federation! Darm will enjoy your company, and Julia and I will be here for you. I know Darm wishes we were around more but we do have obligations that take us away.” He chuckled again as he let me go. “It’s not easy being the imperial family!”
Darm groaned. “I hate to admit it, but he’s right.”
We all laughed.
“On a more serious note…”
I tensed up.
Julia smiled and wrapped her arm around my shoulder. “It’s all right, Echo. Marcus was only going to say that we’re concerned about your safety, so we would like to invite you to stay here in the palace until the future is clearer. We can give you a suite of rooms in Darm’s apartment. Would that be satisfactory? That would give you a place to call your own.”
“A s-suite? Blimey!”
The emperor and empress chuckled. Darm giggled.
I blushed, realising I was being ‘natural’ again. “Um, yes, that would be really good, thank you. But are you sure you want to do that? I don’t want to…”
“Echo,” the emperor began, “you’re all alone in the world, and now that you’re in the public eye there may be people like the kidnappers who would wish to harm you. You ended up in the palace through a random series of events but now that you’re here we would like you to stay. From here it will be easier for you to take the action you need to take, and talk to the people you need to talk to. We would be honoured if you would be our guest.”
Darm almost shouted, “Yes! Say yes!”
“And it would make Darm happy,” his father added, drily.
“Okay… yes,” I said, which got me a high-five from Darm.
The empress said, with a serious look, “There is, however, a downside—at least for you two.”
Darm and I looked at her.
“You have already missed a lot of school, Echo, so I have arranged for Darm’s tutor to test you to see where you are academically. If he is satisfied that you are at a high enough level, and I’m sure you will be, he will tutor you along with Darm. He will be here tomorrow afternoon to see you.”
Darm spent the rest of the morning showing me around his domain. It was as if some of my history lessons had come to life.
Our city was about a thousand years old. It occupied a coastal plain and hugged the shores of a fine natural harbour.
The present palace, commanding the summit of a rocky hill on the south side of the harbour, stood on the site of an earlier mediæval castle. The hill afforded extensive views up and down the coast as well as over the harbour and much of the plain. It was the obvious place to build a defensive castle, because its lookouts would have had ample warning of an attack from land or sea. The harbour was once protected by gun emplacements on both headlands at its narrow entrance, but those sites were now historical parks.
The castle itself had never been breached. On the east, the ocean side, it was protected by tall cliffs stretching as far as the eye could see southward from the harbour entrance. Although the cliff under the castle was lined by a narrow strip of beach, any seaborne invaders would have had to negotiate the rocky barrier I had seen from the zimmer, and if they had succeeded in landing, would have been easily picked off by defenders in the castle. On the south side the hill ended abruptly with a long drop to the surrounding land. To the north it sloped gently down to a cliff at the edge of the harbour.
A rugged mountain range running north and south formed a barrier between the coastal plain and the inland. The mountains gave rise to many small streams which merged to form a large river draining into the harbour. For many years the mountain range was thought to be impenetrable, but the discovery of alluvial gold in its streams, and the promise of gold seams within the range, enticed prospectors to roam further afield. Eventually they found a pass through the mountains, and mining became a major industry for many years after other minerals and ores were discovered.
The mining boom led to a huge increase in population feeding the mines’ hunger for workers. Over time the mediæval town grew into the sprawling metropolitan area that I knew. The focus had long since changed from mining to manufacturing and service industries, but the city continued to expand. It had been the capital since the federation was formed.
Darm took me up to the top of the central tower, the oldest and highest building on the site. From there we had an amazing view over the city centre just below us to the west. Even the tops of the skyscrapers were beneath us. A little to the north of the city was the port, tucked into a fold of the harbour and packed with cranes and huge container vessels. To the west, north, and south the suburbs fanned out into the distance.
The original mediæval town that served the castle was largely preserved, situated on a level area between the palace hill and the harbour. I had been there on a history excursion and it was a fascinating place, with its narrow cobbled streets and half-timbered buildings. From where Darm and I were standing it looked like a solid mass of low old buildings, since the only streets and alleys I could see were those that lined up with my viewpoint.
“Unreal!” I said. “Everything looks so different from up here.”
“Yeah, I love spending time here, just looking down on the world.”
I laughed. “Is that a metaphor for your place in the world, looking down on it from aloft?” I managed to dodge the punch aimed at my shoulder.
“Cheeky!” Darm grumbled, laughing at the same time.
Between us and the city centre was the main north-south highway, busy with traffic. There were lots of electric buses and a lesser number of electric commuter cars. Sprinkled among the buses and cars were electric trucks, probably owned by local delivery companies. Freight was transported by very fast electric trains from centre to centre or to regional hubs, and from there was delivered by local firms. Internal combustion engines had been outlawed during the previous century. The only time we ever saw (or heard) one was during occasional vintage transport displays. To my ears, which had only ever heard the hum of electric vehicles, they seemed very noisy. Some people obviously liked them, though, because the vintage events were always well attended. Or perhaps they attracted the crowds because they were odd curiosities of a time gone by.
There were some skyrovers passing by, mostly entering or leaving the city centre. These craft were prohibitively expensive, out of reach for ordinary people, so I assumed these were either government or company vehicles, or owned by wealthy families. There were numerous scooters flitting about, too. These were tiny craft that could carry a rider and a pillion passenger. They had a flight ceiling of twenty metres because of the danger of accidents and to keep them out of the way of larger, less manoeuvrable craft. I’d never been on one, and I didn’t really fancy them. They were so small and moved so quickly I reckoned any crash would be fatal, although they seemed to have a good safety record. Watching all the craft moving around I was glad we had strict air safety regulations.
Almost right beneath us to the east was the ocean.
“That’s the stretch of beach where the entrance to the IG hangar is located,” Darm said, pointing. It was in the shadow of the hill, so that prying eyes could not see the comings and goings of IG flights. The hangar itself was inside the hill, somewhere beneath the palace complex.
The palace had been modernised and enlarged over the centuries until it occupied the whole top of the hill. Government buildings had been constructed below it. As needs arose they had been extended and they now formed a solid arc around the base of the hill on the west side.
“I suppose it makes sense that the palace and the government offices are all together,” I said. “That must be easier than having stuff all over the city.”
“Yes, but one well-placed bomb would probably destroy the whole kit and caboodle,” Darm said. That was a sobering thought. He did modify that statement to add that there were extensive defences in place, so it was unlikely that anyone with a bomb, whether airborne or on land, would get close enough to detonate it.
Our vantage point in the tower was a good place from which to get an idea of the extent of the palace complex. It was like a walled city within a city, and Darm was happy to point out the various parts.
“That’s the secretariat.”
“What is the secretariat?” I asked. I’ve heard of it but don’t know what it’s for.”
“Oh, the people there manage the palace and administer the office of the emperor.”
“Ah, so it’s like a government department that just looks after the palace, and serves your father?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”
“What’s that old place there?” I asked, pointing to an elegant white building.
“That’s the imperial guard headquarters, what you can see of it. Most of it is actually hidden inside the hill.”
We could see clearly the layout of the inner palace, too, and Darm pointed out the private family apartments, the state rooms where receptions and audiences took place and where official guests were accommodated, and palace security (which included guard members assigned to personal security).
The private family apartments took up the highest tier and they were complemented and enhanced by private gardens that surrounded the tower. The state rooms took up the next tier, and the secretariat and procurator’s office were on the lowest level. There were service areas on each level.
Darm took me on a tour of the state rooms. It was like visiting a museum. Several of the guest suites, used by visiting heads of state and other dignitaries, hadn’t changed much in a couple of hundred years. They were all vacant, so he was able to show me each one. They were sumptuously furnished and decorated. Some of the furniture dated back to the days of the mediæval fortress.
“Man, I’d be scared to touch this stuff in case I broke something.”
Darm laughed. “Well, it’s lasted for several hundred years. I’d say it’s not fragile.”
There was the Council Room, where in earlier times rulers had met with their ministers. Then we looked through the Blue Room, a small reception space that, as its name suggested, was decorated in several tones of blue. It contained nineteenth century paintings and sculptures. Next to it was the Red Room, which was larger and filled with eighteenth century artworks that fitted its red theme. Beyond it was the Gold Room, a huge ballroom. Its theme was gold, and its walls were hung with paintings from the seventeenth century. Each of the reception rooms had its own pretty courtyard and the three rooms could be opened up to form one gigantic space if needed. Finally, Darm showed me the gallery. It was a beautiful showplace for artworks—paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures and bronzes—arranged so that they told the history of civilisation.
Our tour also included the palace library, which took my breath away. It was circular, with a dome containing skylights that bathed the whole room in soft, almost shadowless light. Spread over three levels, each filled with floor-to-ceiling shelves, the library housed thousands upon thousands of volumes, including some very early printed books and many very valuable first editions. A central, round service area housed librarians and the lending desk. (The library was open to anyone who lived or worked in the palace.) Reading was my favourite pastime. It took me to faraway places and times, and enabled me to dream. I hoped I would be able to spend a lot of time in the library!
Back in the family apartments Darm showed me the private reception rooms and galleries. The artworks there were owned by Darm’s family and the collection had been added to by successive generations.
I think I had experienced a mild case of Stendhal syndrome by the time we completed the tour. I had never seen many works of art before. Between them the state rooms and private areas were home to thousands of works, many by the best known names in art, and I found it rather overwhelming. Darm was able to tell me the names of the works and the artists in many cases—a result, he said, of having grown up wandering around the collections.
When Darm and I returned to his apartment I received a pleasant surprise.
While we were out my suite of rooms had been prepared. It was almost identical to Darm’s, and across the corridor from his. I had my own study, complete with computer and communications, and a sitting room with comfortable furniture and a voice-activated music system. The emperor had sent staff to the orphanage to collect my clothes and other belongings, as well as all my school stuff, and there were several large boxes waiting to be unpacked. I was pleased to find that they had even packed all of my books.
After lunch we were in my bedroom putting my clothes away when I suddenly realised I had spent two nights in Darm’s bed. Where had he slept?
“Oh, I kipped on the couch in my sitting room,” he said when I asked him.
“Ouch. I’m sorry, Darm, I kicked you out of your own bed!”
He laughed. “Don’t worry about it. You needed the sleep and we wanted you to be comfortable and safe. We thought you would be better where you at least knew me, rather than being put in a strange room on your own. Besides, with you sleeping in my bed and me in my sitting room I was close by if you needed anything.”
I shook my head; it was almost too much to believe. Darm and his parents were going out of their way to help me.
We finished unpacking my stuff and putting it away. It took up a fraction of the space available. “I don’t have much,” I said, “and it looks even less now, in these rooms!”
I was still wearing Darm’s clothes, and they made my things look shabby. “I think I’m gonna have to get new clothes, but I don’t know if I have enough money,” I told him.
The orphanage provided all the kids with clothes and shoes of reasonable quality but we only had what we needed. I had one ‘best’ set of clothes and one pair of dress shoes. Everything else except for my school uniform was workaday stuff. We each received a small allowance so we would have a little money of our own. Most of the time I had saved more than half of mine and banked it, so I had a fair amount put away. Never having had to buy clothes I had no idea of prices, however.
“Don’t worry,” Darm said. “I’ll take you to my tailor. He’ll let you have stuff on account and you can sort it out later.”
“Yeah. Father will vouch for you.” He grinned, “And if you default he’ll take it out of your hide.”
He sidestepped neatly and missed the flat hand aimed at the back of his head.
Darm looked at his watch. “Hey, it’s nearly time for dinner.”
We cleaned ourselves up and headed for the dining room.
Copyright © 2020 Alien Son