What you are reading, dear Sparkle, is the first draft of another short story

Lay Noc found herself between a rock and a hard place. Not a literal rock, of course, that’s a metaphor. Lay found herself at a crossroads. There was the Emperor of Cameo, the most powerful single person in all the World. There was also the Hee family, who had their own designs on the Emperor and had already tried to halt Lay’s rise in the ranks. Scandal and murder were every day words and common dinner conversation for them. They were powerful, equal to only the Noc family, and lesser to the Emperor himself. Her adoption into the Noc family had preserved her health, but doomed her former family. Business as usual, she supposed.

This night, Lay would perform a Tea Ceremony against Sook Hee, current favorite to become the Emperor Zeto. Every move must be perfect, the taste sublime. Even the plant from which Lay would pluck the leaves was an important factor into superior Tea Ceremony form. The water had to be purest spring water. The sheer effort that it takes to prepare for a Tea Ceremony is exhausting in and of itself. Now, Lay had one last exertion before the grand event: Socializing!

Lay felt fortunate, the pre-ceremony party was evenly divided between Noc and their supporters and Hee and their supporters. The Emperor himself was there, along with his giant loyal retainers, the Lisers. Other countries represented themselves, eager to see who would become empress. A Judge from Narthus pontificated to some noble about justice and the people. A member of the Teradoc family, the loyal attack dogs of the Arcadian ruling family, Delphine, lounged with his de-winged Valkyrie lover in a corner. He drank nothing he didn’t bring in himself, not caring about insults. Everywhere, Utan, half-human half-animal hybrids scurried, serving drinks and delectables to their honored superiors. One, a long legged rabbit Utan with blindingly white ears, was serving Lay hand and foot.

Escorting her was Lee Noc, heir to the Noc family. Like Lay, he was a pawn of the system, subject to marry a girl he may or may not love, subject to the whims of an Emperor and the head of house. When he would lead the Noc family, the work would not end, and he would have to juggle hundreds of power hungry, backstabbing nobility. At least he wasn’t going to be head of the Hee family. Lay could become reclusive after she married, but Lee would be in the spotlight forever. He was, by self-earned title, a member of the martial nobility of Cameo. She was safe with him like few others. He was her friend.

“Look at that.” He said, nodding at the Emperor. “Surrounded on all sides like a fox at bay. Hee sycophants begging for a treat. ‘Good dogs’ he might say, sending them bounding about like so many hounds.” Lay laughed into her sleeve. She ate a small blue cube of cheese. The Emperor was desperately trying to get away, but diplomatically, but he could not get away for a second. Every breath was taken up by meaningless words that was some variant of… Lee interrupted her thought. “Thank you kindly, but you smell of the butt kisser and I must get something to eat or I’ll starve on your hot air.” Lay giggled again, this time into a white and red fan she fluttered her face with.

A hunchbacked white man in red came up to them, leaning on a cane. He was Beauclerk, majordomo to the Liser family and an influential member of court in his own power, not that many people could ever say they met him. He kept the Lisers from being c0nsumed by the politics and from killing themselves during their childhood. He was covered in a strange calcium-like substance that was replacing his skin. It was genetic and cureless. “Lady Lay Noc, Sir Lee Noc, I bid thee welcome to Barret and the Liser mansion.” He bowed, and as he did Lay noticed the corners of his mouth, and several parts of the lip, were bleeding. Beauclerk noticed her expression and brought out a blood red handkerchief, covering his mouth and wiping away the blood. “A side-effect of my condition. How are things?” The question was polite, but like everything said by a plotting man of court, entirely consumed by double meanings.

Lee stepped in, speaking low. “Terrible, we’ve not been able to get sign or symbol to the Emperor without Hee cronies getting in the way.” Beauclerk already knew this, but his twisted sense of obligation forced him to be asked. He smiled a crooked smile at them, one crooked by the sheer twisted thought behind it.

“I understand completely, lordling.” He turned and showed his back to them. His cane, a black thing no doubt chosen for a hidden blade and to accent the white and red of the man who leaned on it. He stumped toward a giant. Well, a small giant, but a giant nonetheless. Standing a full nine feet tall, Brutander Liser, son of Brundt Liser, stood next to the buffet of expensive confectionaries and was stuffing his face with the treats. Lay figured out the plan in an instant, but felt sorry for him anyway, nearly enough to call Beauclerk back from his purpose. But she knew he would ignore her plea and perform his action anyway, thinking less of her in the future. Brutander never saw Beauclerk coming.

Defying thousands of years and a bad back, Beauclerk leaped onto Brutander via a chair. “You greedy guts!” He screamed, bringing his cane onto the gargantuan head of Brutander. “Eating all the Hors Devour before our guests get the chance?! I’ll fix you!” Brutander roared, more out of surprise than any pain he was in, and tripped over a table, where some Jaedinarian noblewomen gossiped. Brutander’s mother began shouting at Beauclerk from a wheel chair. Brundt Liser muscled his way through the crowd of Hee sycophants to figure out what had happened. The Emperor took the opportunity to slip out the hole stout Brundt made.

The pair passed by. Lay got a very good look at the Emperor. Black hair, olive skin and perfect teeth brushed by in a blur. What caught her were his eyes. They were brown and infused with the finest cybernetics the Camean Empire could produce. The iris rotated to adjust the pupil. He was close enough for her to see the readouts and the shine of the cybernetics communicating with him. They told him her body temperature, what she was drinking and maybe even what she was thinking. They told him her family history, what her relation was to the Noc family and even whether she liked him.

Lee shook her gently, barely whispering above the shouts and growing arguments. “He left something in your drink.” She looked. The torn paper was from the list of events given to all comers.

“Good luck. E.”