THE ETERNAL EMPEROR'S POLITICAL CASSEROLE
It was a beautiful spring day on Prime World and when Mahoney strolled through the Emperor’s private garden he was delighted see that it was in full bloom. The colors and perfume of the exotic flowers and plants teased the eye and excited the senses.
There was a hint of wood smoke on the air and when Mahoney rounded the lemon tree, branches weighed down with ripening fruit, he found the Emperor bustling about his outdoor kitchen, directing several little ‘bots to deposit the ingredients for the meal he was preparing on a long, rough wood table.
“Ah, Ian,” he said, “you’re just in time for my daily “those sons of bitches” session. You do the honors with the booze, while I get the Aubergine Politiko in the oven.”
Chuckling, Mahoney made his way to the portable bar, set up near a beehive-shaped brick oven, a ribbon of mesquite smoke rising from the chimney.
“So, we’re roasting politicians today, are we boss?” he said.
The Emperor snorted. “Ian, if I get much more lip from those scrotes in Parliament don’t be surprised if I have the whole lot of them drawn and quartered and fed to the pigs.”
“We don’t have any pigs handy, Sir,” Ian said, “but give me a couple of hours and I’ll have a grav-truck load ready and waiting at the gates.”
He reached for the Scotch, but the Emperor stopped him. “Let’s start with ouzo, Ian,” he said. “We’re celebrating the Greeks today.”
“Any special reason, Your Majesty?” Mahoney asked.
The Emperor ran his French knife through a large purple vegetable, cutting it lengthwise into thin slices. Grabbed another, and did the same.
“I’m trying to remind myself why I chose democracy back when I set up this whole shebang. Instead of something sensible, like a dictatorship,” the Emperor said.
“Let’s face it,” he continued, “strongman rule is lot more efficient. There is no pretense of consulting anyone. You just do it. If anybody complains you toss them into the slammer.”
He waved the knife. “And if they didn’t work, my less sensitive brothers and sisters of tyranny just cut out their tongues.”
He was smiling when he said the last, so Mahoney chuckled. He wasn’t always sure when his boss was joking, but at the moment it seemed a safe enough assumption. Even so, his tongue suddenly felt a little larger in his mouth.
The Emperor held up one of the purple vegetables. “You see this?”
Mahoney nodded. “I see it, boss, but I don’t have the faintest idea what it is.”
“Its fancy name is Aubergine,” he said. “But in reality it’s only a clotting eggplant.”
“Gotcha, boss,” Mahoney said, pouring a couple of fingers of ouzo into two glasses.
The clear liquid turned cloudy when he added a couple of ice cubs and a splash of water. He set one before the Emperor and took a sip of his own. Ouzo tasted like licorice – not one of Ian’s favorite flavors – but like most booze after a couple of pops it went down just fine.
“Same with democracy,” the Emperor said. “Just a fancy word invented by the Greeks for a political system that is always bordering on chaos and outright anarchy.”
He started the eggplant strips frying in olive oil, then set to work dicing blood red tomatoes fresh from his garden.
“Of course, it wasn’t a real democracy,” he said. “Even in Athens there were more slaves than citizens. And to be fair, it was the rich families who ran things, not your average Joe Papadopoulos.”
Mahoney thought that it sounded pretty much like how things were today. Even here on Prime World where the Emperor took a personal interest in government, it was the rich and well-connected who had the upper hand.
Elsewhere in the Empire, his boss maintained a general hands off policy. As long as they paid their AM2 bills on time and didn’t conspire with his enemies he let them run things pretty much the way they wanted.
But if they crossed him – well, that’s when he sent for Mahoney. Which is why, Ian strongly suspected, the Emperor had invited him to dinner.
The Emperor said, “You know, after being The Man In Charge for a couple of millennia or so, you’d think I’d get used to those guys in Parliament. It goes without saying that they are all greedy backstabbers – that’s the nature of the beast.
“Bet if I commissioned a study from one of my pet eggheads that they’d find that a whopping majority of the drakh-heads were abused as children. Which is why they become politicians. To revenge themselves on an uncaring world.”
“I wouldn’t take that bet, boss,” Ian said. “Never met a politico whose headbolts weren’t on just finger tight.”
The Emperor laughed. Then, using his knife, he swept the diced tomatoes into a bowl, then got busy mincing a half a dozen or so fat garlic bulbs, followed by a palmful of basil. The scent soon had Mahoney’s mouth watering.
Drakh the politicians. He was hungry.
“Normally I take everything in stride,” the Emperor said. “I have my little tricks, you know?”
He paused to polish off his ouzo and slid the empty glass over to Ian, who downed his own and made a couple of fresh drinks.
“Like this dish,” the Emperor said. “Different ingredients that might not always play well together in your belly. But if I assemble them just so…”
He grabbed the pan of sizzling eggplant and layered it in a baking dish. Then he quickly spooned the mixture of tomatoes, garlic and basil on the eggplant and blessed the contents with a few twists of sea salt and a couple of cranks of black pepper.
The Emperor displayed the contents to Ian. “Looks a mess, doesn’t it?” he said. “Just a jumble of veggies that’ll slop off your plate. But then I do this…”
He got out a big bowl of what Ian took to be some sort of crumbled white cheese.
“Feta,” the Emperor said. “Goat’s cheese.”
Mahoney frowned. He’d tried goat before. It was during a barely remembered foray against a nomadic desert tribe. The ripe smell of old goat meat roasting over a dried dung fire brought the memory back and he wrinkled his nose.
The Emperor caught his reaction. Laughed. Shoved the bowl at Ian. “Give it a try,” he said.
Ian hesitated. “Go on,” the Emperor pressed. “You’ll be surprised.”
Mahoney took a pinch of cheese and popped it into mouth. To his delight, the flavor was neither strong, or mild. But smooth and mellow with just a little bite at the back of the tongue.
The Emperor smiled at Mahoney’s pleased expression.
“Most folks think there are only four flavors,” the Emperor said. Sweet, bitter, sour and salty. But my daddy taught me that there was a fifth. He called it Umami. Said it made your taste buds complete.”
He tapped the bowl. “Like this feta cheese,” he said.
With that, the Emperor grabbed up a double handful of feta and distributed it over the eggplant mixture. He repeated the action until the baking dish wore a snow white cap of cheese.
Then he washed his hands, donned some fireproof gloves and moved to the oven. He slid the dish onto a metal rack on one side.
“Now, when that’s done,” the Emperor said, “I’ll have turned an unruly mess into something not only manageable, but delicious. All because I played dictator and imposed my culinary will on chaos.”
Although his boss was speaking in vague generalities, Ian was starting to get the feeling that he had it in for somebody in particular and he started running down a mental list of potential candidates for the high jump.
But he forgot all that when the Emperor reached back into the oven and pulled out a sizzling roasting tray and the tantalizing odor of chicken and lemon and spices filled the air.
His boss placed the tray on the table, revealing a large chicken that was turning a golden brown. It was surrounded by quarter cut, unpeeled potatoes, which had also turned a rich brown.
He flipped the chicken over – breast side down - and stirred the potatoes, exposing the underdone white surfaces. He spooned chicken gravy over the whole thing.
Mahoney had enjoyed this dish once before. It was Greek lemon chicken and potatoes. He knew the Emperor had rubbed the chicken inside and out with mixture of lemon – fresh from the tree in his garden – extra virgin olive oil, Greek oregano, and minced garlic. The potatoes got a similar bath.
He put the pan back in the oven and turned to Ian, stripping off the gloves. Ian dutifully started to pour a couple of more ouzos, but the Emperor raised a hand.
“We’re going to need something stronger about now, Ian,” he said. “Metaxa should do the trick.”
Mahoney smiled. “Metaxa, it is, boss.”
This was a drink that went straight to Ian’s Irish heart. It was an ancient Greek liqueur – a mixture of brandy and wine - the Emperor had spent decades recreating. It had a flavor like no other and had a way of boosting your energy and mental faculties. Very much like Irish whiskey, but without the resultant hangover.
They both downed a couple of shots, then Mahoney refilled their glasses. They would sip these while the Emperor made a Greek salad – mainly greens from his garden with a goat cheese, lemon and olive oil dressing.
While he worked his knife, he said “I assume you heard that Lord Wichman is considering a run for president.”
Mahoney’s eyes narrowed. So that’s what this was about.
“He formed one of those phony exploratory committees,” the Emperor continued. “You know, where they get a group of people together to discuss a decision that’s already been made.”
Mahoney grimaced. “When it comes to politics, Wichman’s a joke,” he said. “He bought his seat Parliament I don’t know how many years ago. From what I’ve heard, after he was sworn in nobody has seen him on the floor of the Parliament since.”
“Well, he’s been a busy boy since his son got himself taken hostage,” the Emperor said. “Seems he’s greased enough palms to buy a seat on the Special Select Intelligence Committee.”
Ian’s eyebrows rose. The few beings who knew anything about the mutiny were on that panel. Mahoney had dealt with the members on and off over the years – usually around budget time.
Normally, they were all handpicked by the Emperor for their ability to keep their mouths shut and increase Mercury Corps funding whenever the Emperor – at Ian’s behest - deemed it necessary.
Apparently Wichman had managed to bypass the Emperor’s control of the panel.
Mahoney said, “Let me take a wild guess, Your Highness. He’s threatening to leak news about the mutiny to force us to take immediate action to free his son.”
The Emperor sighed. “Not to my face,” he said. “Or to any of my representatives. Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation over a nice Greek dinner.”
Mahoney nodded. An open threat by Wichman would have brought the Emperor’s wrath down upon him.
“Doesn’t he know that if we move on the mutineers the first casualty will be his son?” Mahoney said.
The Emperor snorted. “He doesn’t give a drakh about his son,” he said. “Probably worth more to him martyred than alive. He’d be a shoo in for the presidency of the Parliament.”
The light suddenly dawned for Mahoney. “And the presidency would give him a seat at table in any negotiations with the Tahn,” he said. “He’s got visions of trading up from casinos and resorts to some serious war profiteering.”
The Emperor roared laughter and clapped him on the back. “Give that man a cee-gar,” he said. Patted his breast pocket. “Fresh out,” he said. “Filthy habit, anyway.” So he poured them both two more Metaxas instead.
“What do you want to do about him, boss?” Mahoney said.
“Right now, nothing,” the Emperor replied. “In fact, I’m going to buddy up to him as if I don’t suspect a thing. We’re even going to grant him a favor. Which I need you for.”
“He wants a way to communicate with his son without the mutineers knowing about it,” the Emperor said.
Ian thought a minute, then nodded. “I can have Lieutenant Sten try to slip Gregor something when he’s aboard the Flame, negotiating with the mutineers.”
“Will we be able to monitor what is said?” the Emperor wanted to know.
“No problem, boss.”
“Then, do it,” the Emperor said.
“Uh… boss… One other thing?”
“Do we still want to keep Gregor alive, sir? I mean, now that we know his daddy doesn’t really care all that much.”
“Nothing’s changed, Ian,” the Emperor said. “In fact, tell young Sten that if something bad happens to Gregor you’ll bust him down to whatever is lower than a buck private.”
“Good. Now let’s eat.”
And he went to oven and started hauling out sizzling platters of Greek chicken, potatoes and the Emperor’s dish of the day: Aubergine Politiko.
A minute later, and Mahoney was digging in with gusto. But at the back of his mind he couldn’t help but wonder what special kind of Hell the Emperor had in mind for Lord Wichman.
NEXT: THE NAVIGATOR
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