The path to becoming a certified mamser was not easy. Ten years of formal education, plus a five year internship, and there was still no guarantee of a secure government post in Upside. It took balls to be a mamser. Heavy balls. Women who became mamsers had to grow a pair; men had to give up one of theirs.
The mamsers of the Emperor’s Palace held one of the most coveted jobs that a Flipsider could aspire to. They lived below the Palace compound and navigated through a labyrinthine series of passages and false walls, quietly accessing most of the rooms. Their responsibilities varied but they all involved the delivery of impeccable service. They cooked the meals, they washed the cars, they tended the gardens, they waxed the floors, they answered calls, they selected the wine, they cleaned the baths, they changed the sheets, and they fed the lions. They were also rumored to perform various sexual favors for the Emperor and his family.
Vangie Capistrano had been a mamser for twenty years. She had joined the Palace staff when the Emperor was a teenager. He never touched her. And for years, she resented it. But like all mamsers who have served before her, it was practical to keep the rumors alive. It secured her power and gave her unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Imperial administration. It didn’t matter if she was actually sleeping with the Emperor. All the public needed to know was that the possibility existed.
Vangie was inspecting the orange topiary near the sun fountains when one of her apprentices ran up to her, gasping.
“Mamser Vangie! Mamser Vangie!”
“What is it, Derek?”
“The Emperor is looking for you.”
“Really?” Vangie checked her wrist phone. She had received no summons. “It’s only six-thirty. He knows that I always visit the garden in the morning.”
“He told me that.”
“Then why didn’t he try contact me himself?”
“He said wanted to test how fast I could run.”
Vangie sighed. “I’m not surprised. How long have you been here?”
“Two years, Mamser Vangie.”
“And when did you see the Emperor?”
“Three minutes ago.”
“You’ll have to run faster next time. Where is he?”
“The throne room.”
“You ran from the throne room in three minutes?”
Derek nodded. He was out of breath.
Vangie knew that this was also a test for her. As a twenty year veteran, she was allowed to meet the Emperor within a twenty minute time frame. But in practice, she was expected to cut her time in half, ten minutes tops. Otherwise, the Emperor would eventually summon another, much younger, mamser.
She walked briskly through the garden. The Palace compound was shaped like a sun with eight sword-like rays, which widened at the tip, each one pointing to eight cardinal directions. The throne room was located in the golden central dome, which was twice as tall as the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. She entered through the east wing of the Palace. She checked the time. She had already consumed seven minutes. She quickened her pace, and broke into a sprint at the final minute.
Orkus IV was waiting for her at the entrance doors of his throne room.
“Good morning, Vangie,” he beamed. “How are my gardens?”
“Looking good, Your Majesty,” she said, trying not to appear exhausted.
“I’m sure they are. You have a keen eye for detail.”
“I try, Your Majesty.” She wondered why he hadn’t invited her into the throne room.
“I’m sure you do,” he said.
The silence that followed became uncomfortable.
Vangie knew best when to break it. After she caught her breath and her heart was beating normally again, she said, “I am at your service, Your Majesty. What will you have me do for you this morning.”
“I’ve canceled all my appointments this afternoon,” he said. “And I want you to take the day off.”
“But Your Majesty,” she stammered, “arranging the holocon with AZTEC took months to prepare. If we cancel today, we might never get another chance this year.”
“I can wait.”
“What did you tell them?”
“That I’m busy with the election.”
“That might work,” she said, still trying to hide her disappointment. “I should remind Your Majesty of the scheduled holocon at seven with the Tikbalang representative. That can’t be moved. Not again.”
“I already have Senator Corpus with me. He was early this time.”
“The senator? He’s inside the throne room?”
“Can I meet him?”
“Sorry, Vangie,” he said, “I really need you to rest for the day. What other appointments do I have this morning?”
She checked her wrist phone, noticing that the Emperor wasn’t wearing his, which explained why he had asked Derek to look for her. She felt secure with her position again.
“Only your eight o’clock intelligence briefing with the I.S.A. Director, and a lunch meeting with Xonshi Czarate. The latter starts at eleven. At Jubilee HQ.”
“I’m pleased to serve, and I serve to please.”
“Spoken like a true mamser,” he said. “One more thing, can you call Derek?”
“Excuse me, Your Majesty?”
“Derek, your apprentice. Tell him that I wish to speak to him.”
“On what matter of business?” Vangie asked, looking worried again. “As my apprentice, I need to ensure he does a good job.”
“A private matter,” Orkus said. “It will be between me and Derek.”
Reluctantly, Vangie pressed her wrist phone and said, “Derek, this is Vangie. The Emperor needs you in the throne room right now.”
She could hear her voice coming out of the Emperor’s pocket.
“Oh yes,” Orkus said, reaching into his pocket. He brought out Derek’s wrist phone. “Please return this to him.”
Vangie took the phone. It was warm, either from her last call or the heat from the Emperor’s thigh. “I will see that he gets reprimanded for leaving his phone unattended, Your Majesty.”
“You will do no such thing,” he said. “I had asked him to lend it to me. Please extend my sincere thanks. He’s doing a fine job.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“I believe he’s in the garden.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. I had instructed him to continue inspecting the topiary.”
“If he can get here in the next twenty minutes, that’ll be great. I’m sure you can manage.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. He will be here in half the time. May I be excused?”
“Of course,” he said. “And Vangie …”
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
“Don’t forget to take the day off.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” she said. “You are so kind.”
Vangie turned and ran down the corridor with a puzzled and worried look on her face.
After her footsteps faded away, Orkus IV, the Aguinaldo Emperor of the Metroplex Archipelagic Empire, returned to his throne room.
The holocon image of Senator Roman Corpus, dominated the middle of the room.
“Was that really necessary?” asked the Tikbalang senator. His speech echoed with ten voices. He stood eight feet tall and had the head of a horse and the body of a dark muscular man. He wore black trousers and a barong, an embroidered long-sleeved shirt that made him look like a senator. But he didn’t wear shoes, and his eyes were as large as the Emperor’s fists.
“Absolutely,” replied Orkus. “Power is based partially on fear.”
“You summoned them for nothing. You could’ve just left a message. You wasted their time. And mine.”
“They needed the exercise. The human body needs at least twenty minutes of cardio to start burning fat. Otherwise, it’s just glucose. How much cardio does a Tikbalang need?”
“You seem to have enjoyed your little charade with Vangie. And that new guy.”
“Derek? You heard that? We were outside the room. I need to play with their heads a little. Derek needs to feel important. Vangie needs to feel expendable. It keeps them on their toes.”
“Do you question her loyalty?”
“I question her confidence.” Orkus adjusted the zoom ratio of the holocon, shrinking the senator to six feet so they could see each other eye to eye.
“And I am beginning to question yours, Orkus.”
The emperor shrank the Tikbalang’s image down to five feet. “Senator, you have my full support. This is my domain. I am in full control.”
“It’s also your first time to handle a Tikbalang election,” said the senator. “It’s a once in a lifetime event. Quite violent. Yet so forgettable.”
“You should hold it more frequently so we’d remember better. Why every quarter of a millennium? Tradition? Whim? I mean, two hundred and fifty years per term is a long time to serve as senator. You’ve already had four terms. While the likelihood of losing is remote, your winning streak can’t last forever. Elections are unpredictable. Victory is never secure.”
“And the lesson never sinks in.”
“But you’ve won each and every time!”
“I see that it’s not confidence you lack, Orkus. It’s trust.”
“I trust no one.”
“Not even me?” said the senator.
Orkus climbed up and sat on his throne. The senator now stared at the emperor’s feet.
“The AZTEC Confederacy is watching us closely,” said Orkus. “They want to know if ube supplies will continue despite the outcome of the election.”
“Ube will flow,” said the senator. “We had a bumper crop this season.”
“Share prices have fallen. We need to rein in supply. And maintain control. Imagine if these AZTEC cunts attack our ube fields. The security measures are necessary.”
“It sends the wrong image,” said the senator.
“It’s all about image to you, isn’t it? This is politics, my friend. Image is nothing without fear.”
“With these elections, fear will reign. I need you to prepare your people.”
“I’ve cleared my entire afternoon and evening.”
“You’ll need more than that.”
“I assure you Senator, I won’t go to bed until you are proclaimed winner.”
“Then prepare for the longest day of your life.” The senator sat down on a previously invisible chair. He crossed his legs and lit a cigar. “Any other concerns then? Where does the rest of the world stand? Humans are petty and peculiar.”
Orkus pulled out a 3D holomap of the globe. MARE floated above the Pacific. With a touch of his finger, it disappeared, making the rest of the world more visible. He rotated the image with a flick of his wrist. “The Earth is carved up into different hegemonies. Much of what was the United States is now ruled by the Anasazi in the west and by the USOvey in the east. The Navajo Union is the primary beneficiary of this arrangement, much to the chagrin of the AZTEC Confederacy.” He pointed at a large crater lake in the middle of North America. “The heartland is where these hillbillies live but no one takes them seriously.” He rotated the globe further. “China is our biggest rival, but we control key technologies. Nuclear inhibition, storm capture, and hovurban tech. The I.S.A. works hard to keep this monopoly.” Orkus looked for some hotspots. “Meanwhile, the Crescent Cities continue to expand toward Africa.”
“The EU is dominated by Russian vampires and Irish faeries.”
“Metaphorically speaking,” said the Tikbalang senator.
“Metaphorically speaking,” said Orkus. “While the European Union hasn’t been around for five hundred years, it’s still prudent to consider them a single economic block. Vampires must make peace with fairies.”
“What about Bollywood?”
“What about it? Everyone loves Bollywood. The Ashkar Awards are tonight, so that would provide the world with enough distraction. I’m betting Rajan Ghosh wins best actor for Mahabharata Mirabilis. Have you seen it?”
Senator Corpus shook his head. “I prefer the original book,” he said.
“How could you tell if you haven’t seen the movie? Careful Senator, you’re sounding like a flipster.”
They ended their holocon at 7:55 am. Then Orkus summoned Derek to enter the throne room; he had been nervously pacing the hall, waiting for his turn when the door automatically clicked open.
Derek walked down the red carpet to approach the throne and bowed. “I’m pleased to serve and I serve to please.”
Orkus noticed that he still wasn’t wearing his wrist phone. He concealed his bemusement.
“I’ve asked Vangie to take the rest of the day off. Did she tell you this?”
“No, Your Majesty.”
“Where is your wrist phone?”
“You took it from me, Your Majesty.”
Orkus suppressed his grin. “Indeed I did.” Vangie didn’t return the phone to Derek as Orkus had predicted. He changed the topic. “Derek, where is my daughter?”
“I will try to find out, Your Majesty.”
“Be discreet. I want her back in the Palace before noon.”
As the mamser left the throne room, he passed by a dark massive man with broad shoulders and a crew cut. The I.S.A. Director walked into the Emperor’s throne room unannounced.
It was time for the daily intelligence briefing.
It was 8:00 am.