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Chapter 13:- Ignatius Superius I
"Fascinating." The emperor stood on tiptoe and leaned out over the railing for a better view of the courtyard. "Where did you find it?"

"Planet Crag," Murray said. She cringed as the ruler of this particular planet leaned out further and nearly fell to his death. Bob reached out unceremoniously and snagged the back of the emperor's trousers in one fist.

Ignatius the Whatever didn't even notice. He rested his weight against the railing and peered down at the giant, pink slug below them.

"She was a wedding present," Zora said. "To me." When the emperor failed to look in her direction,Zora's lower lip slid forward. She frowned at him and squinted until wrinkles threatened to etch themselves into her perfect complexion.

Murray didn't get it. Ignatius May-He-Dwell-In-Splendor the First, had to be the most ordinary looking human she'd ever encountered. He made her look exotic. From his barely five foot frame to his male pattern baldness and the wire-rimmed glasses perched on his slightly hooked nose, everything about the clones' emperor screamed average Joe. He didn't look like an emperor, like the sole power behind a covert planetary government, like the father of a thousand clone children. She squinted at
him, mirroring her sister's expression. The emperor waved his arms at Zora's mollusk and whistled for its attention.

"Turn that thing off!" He hollered down at the remnants of the Bob army, and the faint hum of the sonic emitter faded completely. "There." Ignatius hopped backwards from the railing and spun around to face them. For his age, which Murray guessed to be somewhere between fifty and a hundred depending on his species, the man moved with more grace than his slim frame suggested. His loose, linen trousers and ivory shirt hid most of the details, but the word "wiry" definitely came to mind. "She
should be more comfortable without that nonsense." He brushed his palms against the fabric covering his thighs and smiled at them.

Zora stepped closer to Murray.

"Amazing animal," the emperor continued. "How can I convince you to part with her?"

"You can't," Zora said. Her voice wavered enough to confuse Murray further. She'd expected far more vehemence in Neela's defense.

"Come now, Zora." The emperor lowered his gaze and turned his smile directly on her. "There must be something you want badly enough to trade."

Zora shook her head, but she slid even closer to Murray's side. It was Rook's tinny rumble that answered Ignatius the First.

"We require a ship," he said. "And safe passage out of this system."

The android stood behind Murray, had retained his protective stance throughout their encounter with the clones' leader. Though the balcony stretched a good thirty feet in either direction, Murray felt crowded sandwiched between the three of them. Zora stared at the emperor and practically cuddled up to her right side. Rook's cool bulk hummed its presence at her other shoulder, and Ignatius faced them all, smiling, average, and flanked by two of his adoring children. Ignatius, may his average,
innocuous appearance prove correct, could have taken whatever he liked from them. They had nothing to barter with-not for a ship and not for their freedom-and despite her tone of voice, Murray knew Zora would never willingly part with her newest pet.

"No," Zora said. The strength of her statement confirmed Murray's guess. "Neela belongs to me."

The emperor's smile deepened. He narrowed his eyes at Zora and nodded. "Well then," he said. "Perhaps the two of us can negotiate further over dinner."

Murray watched something flicker across his features, some flash of emotion that vanished before it even registered. She didn't know what his game was, but she felt Zora's shiver in response. She clenched her fists. Zora didn't get scared. Zora didn't squint. Whatever this clone lord thought he could get away with, messing with Murray's sister was one big step too far.

"No you don't," Murray said. "You can negotiate with the lot of us, if you like. We're a package deal."

"But of course!" The emperor relaxed into casual innocence immediately. "Of course you'll all be present. Our meals are hardly an intimate affair, Doctor. I have many guests." He clapped his hands together and then spoke over his shoulder to the clones. "Will you check on the status of our new friends' quarters?" he asked. "And have refreshments brought, please, if we're to have much of a wait."

He made the order into a casual request, as he'd pushed aside any formalities during their initial introductions. Instead, Emperor Ignatius the First, managed to infuse each conversation with an attitude of friendly nonchalance that erased any thoughts of status or power. Murray frowned at him. There was intention behind each of the man's words. He spoke, acted and carried himself exactly as necessary to produce his effect. She didn't like it.

"I'm sure you all are hungry, after your ordeal," Ignatius continued. "Or would you prefer to go straight to your rooms and rest?"

"I do not require a room," Rook said. "I will stand guard."

The emperor blinked at him, but nodded. "I understand," he said. "Though, I assure you, no one here means you any harm."

"We only need one room," Zora said. "Mur and I can share."

"Are you sure you'll be comfortable?"

Murray wondered the same thing. All eyes fixed on her again. The question had been directed at Zora, she was certain, but apparently the answer needed to come from her. "We'll be fine," she said. So long as Zora behaved, so long as they managed not to kill one another, so long as the android didn't get frisky....it seemed like a lot of so longs. But her answer satisfied Ignatius, and he waved them along
into the throne room where a battalion of clone servants hovered and waited for orders from their "father."

His wives had disappeared. Murray scanned the dais, and found no indication that the group of "non-humanoids" had ever been there. Did Emperor Mr. Nice Guy keep them out of sight when he had company present? His throng of children had been selected for near-genetic perfection, after all, and the man had set himself up as the ruler of a Utopian domain. So why the motley band of wives, and what was with the humility act anyway? She wasn't buying any of it. There was something fishy about this innocuous dictator, and Murray didn't care to find out what. She wanted to go home, though she
wouldn't argue with a nice hot bath and some clean clothes first.

The emperor waved to one of the female clones, who curtsied and shuffled to his side. "Maya." He called her by name. "Will you attend to our newest guests, please?"

"It is my enduring pleasure to serve you," the clone said in answer.

Murray groaned and had to turn away to cover the reaction. Only a total egomaniac could enjoy that sort of treatment, regardless of his demeanor. But when they followed the clone's lead and curtsied before turning to go, the emperor managed to look embarrassed. As she tailed Maya down the lengthy aisle away from the dais, Murray had to give the man credit. He put on one hell of a good act.

*

"What do you think he's up to?" Murray stared from the thick silk, swathed bed to the archway that led to one tempting looking floor tub.

"Who?" Zora asked. She flopped across the bed and looked up at the canopy. "God, I'm tired."

"The emperor," Murray said. "What do you think of him?"

"What-what do you mean? I don't think anything of him." Zora sat up and hugged her knees.

"I think he's been unpredictably congenial," Rook said from his post inside the room's door. He stood with his legs wide and his sculpted metal arms crossed in front of his chest. "I should have thought we'd be interrogated at the very least."

"Exactly. Interrogated-or imprisoned, maybe just dispatched."

"God, Mur," Zora said. "When did you get to be so dramatic?"

"I'm not dramatic," Murray snapped. "I'm practical. The guy's whole operation here is under the radar. Why? He has to be hiding something, and then we show up and he acts like we'll all just sit down to tea."

"Maybe he likes tea," Zora said.

"He seems inordinately nice," Rook added.

"Yeah, Mur. Maybe he's just really nice."

"Oh come on! What's the matter with you?"

"I don't know what you're talking about." Zora rolled onto her side with her back facing Murray. "I'm taking a nap," she said. "You should use the tub, Mur. You're a disaster." She sighed loudly and snuggled into the heap of pillows. "I bet your robot would be more than happy to scrub your back."

"Doctor Murray?"

"No!" Murray spun toward the door and held up her hands.

"No." Rook shook his metal head. "No...of course not. Doctor Murray, I only thought you might be more comfortable about our situation if I took a look around."

"Pardon?" Murray ignored Zora's snicker from the bed.

"It might be a good idea," Rook continued. "If I did some scanning of the building, looked around and assessed the security and our..."

"Right. Yes!" Murray nodded fiercely. "Absolutely, you should do that." She waited for him to leave before rounding on the bed. "That was rotten," she accused. "And don't try to pretend you're asleep, Zora. It never works."

"Hmm?"

"Oh forget it." She tapped her foot and glowered at the furniture. The room could have housed ten of them comfortably. Damn Ignatius the First, anyway. "I'm taking a bath," she announced and headed for the arch.

"Good idea, Mur. You smell like a pond."

She ground her teeth together and ignored Zora for once. The promise of a bath trumped even the thought of slowly strangling her sister. The tiles lining the bathroom floor depicted an underwater scene that reminded Murray of her first field assignment. She sighed and peered through the steam. Cataloging micro plankton on Mercur Omega. She hung her lab coat on one of the hooks provided and dropped the tattered remains of her clothing in a heap onto the tiles. The assignment had been a
pleasure, lounging in a deck chair during the day, diving in the evenings amidst swarms of phosphorescent plankton.

She stepped into the tub and sighed--warm water against sore muscles. Maybe she'd been too hard on Zora. Maybe they'd both imagined Rook's odd behavior. She sank up to her neck and leaned against a built-in pillow. She'd had to leave Mercur early....Murray frowned. Zora's third wedding, if she remembered correctly. The bail alone had eaten up her next quarter's tuition. Maybe Ignatius the First was just a really nice guy. She closed her eyes and tried to unclench her jaw. Maybe.

And maybe their space slug was actually a Chihuahua.

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