Chapter 20

Mileyuan, Jiangteng County, Jiaodao Province

Batista woke to find himself in a bed larger and softer than anything he had ever seen in all his life. There was the gentle singing of birds and the sound of water. All around him were trees bigger and greener than anything on the surface. He had never seen anything like it. Only after a moment did he realize that none of it was real. It was like the walls and the ceiling were all one giant vidscreen. Vidscreens were rare on the surface, but he had seen them used in some of the Regulars' equipment during campaigns. Nothing like this, of course.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Rodrigues," a calm voice from seemingly nowhere and everywhere said. "How are you feeling?"
Batista looked down at himself. He was dressed in some sort of light cotton robe. He pulled it open to find no sign of the bullet wounds that should've killed him. He held his head as flashes of memory started to come to him. Masako crying over his body. A medic administering first aid. Turbulence in the dropship. A blindingly white room. Spiderlike mechanical arms going to work on him. The sensation of floating. And then the sound of birds and water.
"Mr. Rodrigues?" the voice said.
"I'm fine," Batista said. "Where am I?"
"You are in the floating city of Mileyuan, the baronial seat of House Ning."
"I thought I was dead..."
"You were," the voice replied, "technically speaking. You had sustained fatal injuries, but at the request of Lady Masako, the damage was repaired and you have been restored to near-optimal condition."
"Where's Masako?"
"Lady Masako is in separate guest quarters. I have been directed to inform her when you awoke."
"So what happens now?"
"You are the honored guest of Baron Ning and have been invited to dine with him in one hour and forty-three minutes. Servants have been dispatched to make the necessary preparations."
No sooner had the voice said this than a heretofore unseen door slid open and three maidservants shuffled in. They came to a stop at the foot of the bed in a triangle formation and bowed to Batista.
Still bowed, the head of the triangle said, "Mr. Rodrigues, with your permission, we would like to begin preparations for you to be received by our lord."
Batista propped himself up with his elbows and asked the maidservant, "What kinda preparations?"
"You are to be bathed, groomed and dressed, sir," she replied.
"I can do that myself," he said.
"Please, sir," the maidservant said, "you are our lord's guest and I beg you not to reject his hospitality."
Realizing this could come back on him as well as the maidservants, Batista decided it would be better to play along. You heard stories about the kind of things Celestials would do to their servants. Who knew how much any of it was true or how much it applied to this Baron Ning, but why make trouble before you had a good reason for it?
Looking at the three maidservants, the prospect of getting the royal treatment at their hands didn't seem like such a bad idea. A couple months ago, he would've jumped at the opportunity, but for some reason there was this part of him that felt reluctant. Was it because they were being compelled to do it? He didn't think so. He'd paid plenty of girls to do plenty of things they probably wouldn't have done if they didn't have to do it and it never bothered him before, so why was now any different?
The maidservants went around to the side of the bed to help Batista out. Much like all the rest of this fuss, he thought it was entirely unnecessary until his legs buckled under him when he tried to stand up. It took all three maidservants to hold him up as he tried to steady himself. Honestly, he was fairly impressed they didn't all fall down with him.
"How long've I been out?" he asked.
"It has been two days since you arrived, sir," the lead maidservant said, trying not to show any strain in her voice as she struggled to support his weight.
Two days? No wonder he was a bit wobbly. One time he'd been knocked out cold for three days straight when some artillery landed a little too close to his position. He was delirious for a couple hours after he woke up and they were about to write him off as a head case when he came back to his senses.
The wall opened up in a different place to reveal a rather expansive bathroom. Much like the bedroom, the walls and ceiling seemed to be a giant vidscreen which gave the impression of some scenic forest vista. He had never seen a real forest before and it was a wonder he even knew the word for it.
The maidservants stripped Batista and sat him down on a stool near the tub, then went off to the side, They took off their outer garments and hung them on a nearby rail, then tied up the sleeves of their inner robes and put kerchiefs over their hair.
"Let us begin, sir," the lead maidservant said.
Batista decided just to let them do their work. Each of them carried a bucket of warm water, pouring it over him one after the other. Next they lathered him up. Rather than a soap cake, the soap they used was some kind of perfumed liquid. They divided the work between his lower body, his upper body and his scalp. They were rather thorough, but for some reason he just couldn't get into it. There was a time he'd have been tempted to blow two months' pay for something like this. What had changed?
For the maidservants, they were just doing their job. They had skilled hands, massaging him and rubbing him down with sponges as they soaped him up, but they weren't like the whores that would feign interest in you or try to stroke your ego in hopes for a few extra chips.
Batista couldn't get over the fact that he wasn't enjoying this. It wasn't like the maidservants weren't reasonably attractive and they were working over every sench of his body, but it was like someone flipped a switch and completely shut down his libido. Was he sick or something? Or had two months of keeping his hands off that girl permanently broken something in his brain?
The maidservants rinsed him off in the same fashion they doused him in the first place, then led him into the tub. The water was green and smelled of strange herbs, but once the initial sting died down, it felt good on his weary muscles.
"Please relax there for a while, sir," the lead maidservant said. "Can I get you anything in the meantime?"
Batista thought of the things he would say, jokingly or not, but instead all he told her was, "Nah, I'm fine."
"Very well, sir."
It was hard to say how much time passed. Batista lazily watched the vidscreen wall, catching the occasional different sight like a bird flittering past or a squirrel jumping from branch to branch. He'd never seen a squirrel in real life either, but maybe that came with never having seen a forest. Where were these forests at anyway? He'd traveled across five provinces and fought campaigns all in Xiyue, Xiaolao and Nokoulu and never seen more than two or three trees within ten meters of each other. Was it only something the Celestials could have in their floating cities, not something for mere Infernals?
"It is time to get out, sir," the lead maidservant said.
The maidservants helped him out of the tub and then proceeded to dry him off with towels much rougher than he would have expected soft Celestial nobles to use, but then the maidservants rubbed him down from head to toe with a sweet-smelling oil and then used different towels that were softer than anything he'd ever felt before, like he was some wooden statue that needed to be sanded down before polishing.
The maidservants led him into a different room with six full-length mirrors arranged in a circle with a gap of about a meter and a half so you could pass between the two halves. He was set down in a chair and the maidservants began to trim his nails and hair. The lead maidservant didn't take much length off his hair, but mostly just straightened the ends and then tied it up in the sort of topknot Batista had seen worn by Celestial officers.
One of the other maidservants, who was shaving his face, looked down at him and asked, "Shall I take care of the rest, sir?"
Batista heard that the Celestials had a particular disgust for body hair, and while Batista was far from the hairiest man in the world, he didn't think it was very masculine to shave anything more than your whiskers once or twice a month.
"It's fine," he said.
"As you say, sir," the maidservant replied, betraying no small misgivings.
Once the one maidservant was done shaving him, she gently caressed Batista's face with some sort of aftershave that wasn't so gentle. He hated to think what it would've been like if she shaved the rest of his body.
When his grooming was done, the maidservants led him into a dressing room. The first thing they put on him was a tight-fitting singlet that extended to just above his knees and elbows. Over that he wore a simple white shirt and baggy trousers and the look was completed by a plain black changshan, the kind you would see worn by low-ranking Celestial officials on the surface, along with a cap that clung to his skull but had a knob in the back to accommodate the topknot. When the maidservants' work was done, Batista could almost pass for the local tax collector or something.
The next room Batista was led into wasn't a room at all but some corridor. The two junior maidservants stood behind the lead, the three of them with their hands folded in front of them.
"Our work is finished," the lead maidservant said. "Go that way, sir, and you will meet with my lord. Good luck."
The three maidservants bowed, then turned and left. With nothing better to do, Batista headed in the opposite direction as he was told. It was not long before he saw some official dressed quite a bit fancier than himself quickly shuffle toward him, about as close as you could get to running without picking up your feet.
"So you are Batista-xiansheng," the official said. "I see they were able to make you at least somewhat presentable. Allow me to introduce myself. I am called Lao Mingli, my lord Baron Ning's chamberlain. I thought it prudent to meet with you first, before you are presented to my lord."
"That so?" Batista said.
Lao sighed.
"I suppose there is not much I can expect from an untrained Infernal, but I would like to make some things quite clear. While you are my lord's guest of honor for safeguarding the life of Lady Masako and my lord is a generous soul, I would have you recognize your position as a commoner in the presence of nobility. You will not speak unless spoken to, you will address my lord as 'my lord' and if you are too uneducated to use honorific speech, you can at least speak as you would to an officer during your conscription. Do you understand?"
"Yeah, I got it."
All of the sudden, a booming voice howled, "SOUND OFF LIKE A SOLDIER, DAMN YOU!"
Partially out of thoroughly conditioned reflex, partially just to show that he couldn't be outdone, Batista snapped to the position of attention and shouted back, "YES, SIR!"
The owner of the voice wasn't Lao, of course. Not only was he not the type, but he also looked so startled that it must have cost him two or three years of his life. A man in the elaborate dress uniform of an officer in the Regulars stepped out in front of Batista.
"You have to know how to deal with his type, Lao Mingli," the officer said.
"Sir Nedak, you startled me," Lao replied.
The officer ignored the chamberlain and instead fixed his attention on Batista.
"Cabo Rodrigues, you have my thanks for the service you have done," he said. "I do not pretend there are no tensions between Celestial and Infernal, nor that you would feel justified in your own sight for lashing out in any way that you could, but I ask you not to scorn my lord's hospitality nor trample on his gratitude by offering him insult. I would be forced to defend my lord's honor and I have no guarantee I would not meet the same fate as the others who have stood in your way."
The officer laughed and clapped his hands on Batista's shoulders. He then leaned in close and whispered to Batista in Infernal, "Seriously, though, don't be an asshole. My boss is a good guy and you should treat him like he deserves. Plus, he patched your ass back together. That's reason enough to play nice, ain't it?"
The officer straightened up and reverted to his stiff, formal Celestial, telling Lao, "He will be no trouble, Lao Mingli. Let us go to the dining hall."
"Very well, Sir Nedak."
They proceeded single file down the corridor. As he was walking, Batista realized that the arches of carved wood around him, the red carpet trimmed with gold at his feet, all of it was nothing more than images projected on the same sort of built-in vidscreens as his room. Was anything real in this place?
It seemed like it took a long while to reach where they were going. They entered into a banquet hall that appeared to be perched on a scenic veranda looking out to the mountains with a large shimmering pool in the valley below, but it was only more fakery. Maybe even the Celestials had never seen any sights like this in real life.
Going on ahead of then, Lao announced, "My lord, I present to you Juan Batista Avilar Rodrigues."
At the head of the table was apparently the Baron Ning everyone had been talking about. He seemed fairly young for the head of a noble house, but appearances were deceiving with the Celestials. He could easily be twice as old as he looked. They said the Emperor was over 200 years old, after all, not that any Infernal was allowed to see what he looked like.
The Baron stood up and motioned for all his guests to do the same. It was only then that Batista realized that the woman at the Baron's left--the right side for anyone entering the hall--was none other than Masako. She was all decked out in fancy robes, wearing an elaborate wig with golden ornaments, and made up all white as a ghost. It seemed to be the style among the noblewomen, though not all of them were made up quite as white nor decorated quite so heavily.
The Baron gestured to the seat at his right hand and said, "Come, Mr. Rodrigues, take your seat by my side and enjoy fully the hospitality of my house."
Batista replied with something between a nod and a bow that prompted several of the guests to hold their sleeves up to their mouths and mutter amongst themselves. Apparently he made some breach of protocol, but he didn't really care about all the knots the Celestials would tie themselves up in for the sake of their pretensions. He took the place that was offered to him and the Baron motioned for all of them to sit down together.
Once they were seated, the Baron addressed his guests, saying, "The Heavens smile on us, my friends. Like me, I know your hearts were grieved when you heard of the brutal and cowardly assassination of Count Suzuki and his household. I owe Lord Kunihiko a debt I can never hope to repay and it seemed that I would go to the grave without having paid a single zhu to the balance, but thanks to this man..." He gestured to Batista. "A surface-dweller with no ties to any house risked life an limb to rescue Lady Masako from death and dishonor and delivered her all the way here, to very border of her own domain. Indeed, is there any among us who could have done the same?"
The Baron did the fist and palm salute reserved for the Celestials among themselves and bowed to Batista, prompting his guests to do the same. Batista found himself wondering if any Celestials had ever bowed like this to an Infernal before. If he were a Celestial, the polite thing to do would be to return the salute, but because he was an Infernal, it seemed the best thing for him to do was nothing at all, though that was probably wrong too.
"Batista-xiansheng," the Baron continued, "the debt I owed to Lord Kunihiko has now, in part, been extended to you. I have used my resources to save your life, but that is but a downpayment. Whatever you would ask of me, if it is within my power to grant, shall be yours. I am at your service."
A baron at his service? Whatever he would ask? Batista could think of a lot. That was why he came this far, wasn't it, the promise of a handsome reward for his troubles? He'd had a lot of those troubles, too, so spending the rest of his life in luxury and comfort wouldn't be an unfair exchange, would it?
For some reason, though, he didn't start rattling off a list of requests. All he did was silently nod.
The Baron gave a low chuckle and told the others, "Our guest is so taciturn." He then said to Batista, "But of course you have never been in a situation like this before. Our ways must seem so strange to you."
Batista nodded.
"Perhaps you would feel less reluctant to speak if there were a smaller audience," the Baron said in a low voice. "I would like to speak with you man-to-man later." Raising his voice for the benefit of the audience, he continued, "But for now, let us eat, drink and be merry."

* * *

Batista didn't have a watch, but the banquet seemed to go on for hours. He lost count of all the courses that were served. The fanciest meal he'd ever seen only had three courses and it was a rare day for him to even have two. They would have several courses, then get up and walk around for a while, gossiping in little groups before reconvening at the table for the next round. There was so much food and so many things he had never seen before. You would think that by now he would've gotten used to seeing new sights, but it never seemed to lose its novelty.
During each break, Baron Ning would have Batista and Masako walk with him. They never said much as the other guests would drop in to lay on various sycophantic platitudes, praising his generosity as a host, the quality of the food, the beauty of the city, and so on and so forth. There seemed to be a ritual quality to it and after about the fourth or fifth round, they would start making various invitations as a way of returning the favor, and after that, they started making requests of him. The Baron was graciously pleasant in response, but never plainly said yes or no to any of the requests. It was all some complex dance Batista could never hope to understand and didn't really want to understand it even if he could.
Once the ninth round of courses had concluded, the banquet was finally over. It took a couple rounds for Batista to mimic the other guests and only take small, polite portions of each course. He wondered what they did with all the leftovers. They probably just threw it all out. He might've railed on Celestial decadence in the face of rampant want on the surface, but at the moment he was too stuffed to think about fellow Infernals starving.
With the guests having been dismissed for the evening, it was just Batista, Masako and the Baron. They hadn't really spoken any the whole time. While the food was being served, there were singers, dancers and poets, and during the breaks in between there was the train of guests with their flattery and petitions.
"So, Batista-xiansheng," the Baron said, "what do you think of what the Italians call la dolce vita?"
"What's an Italian?" Batista asked.
The Baron gave a low chuckle.
"No, I suppose you would know nothing about that. Even at Charter School they are not taught about Old Earth."
"Old Earth?"
"The birthplace of humanity, Batista-xiansheng. Did you not know the meaning of our world's name? Erdi, the Second Earth, though it is a poor substitute as I understand it. Ours is not the only world Man has conquered, you see, but this is the extent of our little empire.
"Centuries ago, the ancestors of the Imperial family claimed all of space as theirs. Unfortunately, not all of space accepted their claim. Their power was broken and the survivors came to this desolate world. There was some calamity that struck years before and the indigenes were eking out their meager existence when we arrived to stake our claim. The idea was that this world would be a refuge while we rebuilt our power to take back what was ours, but I do not believe the current Emperor has any such ambitions. He is content in the Capital and so we remain trapped in stasis, perhaps never to break free until the entire system collapses. The treachery of House Feng may be the very trigger that brings it all down..."
"House Feng?"
"Yes, they are the only ones with a grudge against House Suzuki strong enough to dare such a thing. Oh, we all have our enemies, of course. You could say that no Celestial can trust each other, but few are so brazen. Perhaps Count Feng thinks he can unite the Han who hate the Wo and drive a wedge into the Wo between those who would band together with their people and those who would betray their own kind to save their skins. It will not end so neatly for him, though. He does not have so many friends as he thinks."
"I thought you said Celestials can't trust each other."
The Baron laughed.
"Indeed, indeed. You Infernals are cleverer than we give you credit for. You in particular to have made it this far. If Count Feng had not personally intervened in the matter, Lady Masako would be in Lingmu now, I wager."
"He could not possibly have acted in your territory, my lord Baron," Masako said.
"That was why he used Batista-xiansheng's former comrades as proxies, but even that was too blatant a move to escape notice. Had they traveled by train, my people may not have noticed so quickly, but to send in a force of three thousand men by air could not be hidden, even if he did try to mask them as cargo shipments. I cannot speak for other territories, but my lord Count Edo does not tolerate laxity in inspections of what comes through by land or air."
"Then why did you let them through, my lord?" Masako asked.
"We did not wish to tip our hand too early, my lady," the Baron replied. "We need evidence to present to the Lord High Chancellor if we are to bring charges against House Feng. If we can make our case, Count Feng's allies are sure to betray him to preserve their own standing. He has covered his tracks well, but I am confident that we will succeed in tracking the bribes he has paid to Marquess Dou to release that mercenary company from its obligations to him. The rest will fall into place from there."
All these maneuverings were well above Batista's paygrade. Still, he supposed getting Masako to Lingmu wouldn't count for much if the people responsible were still running loose. He almost wanted to ask the Baron why he and his allies didn't just knock off this Count Feng to return the favor for what he did to Masako's family. He had a feeling the answer would be more complicated than he wanted to hear.
"I have been wanting to ask you this ever since I learned you were escorting Lady Masako," the Baron said. "Why have you gone to such lengths, risking your life time and time again? You sacrificed everything for my lady, but you are no knight to dedicate yourself so. Why then?"
"For the reward," Batista replied, though he knew that wasn't true.
Apparently the Baron saw through him as well, because he simply smiled and said, "You do not make any pretense of virtue you do not have, Batista-xiansheng, which is in itself a virtue, but while Lady Masako may have offered you a reward for your services later, it was not what motivated you to take that fateful first step. And so I ask you again: Why?"
Normally, Batista would stubbornly stick to his story for the sake of his pride if nothing else, but there was some disarming quality to the Baron. Maybe it was because he saved Batista's life and maybe it was because he seemed like such a genuinely nice guy in spite of being just another Celestial overlord. Whatever the reason, Batista found himself being unexpectedly honest in spite of himself.
"I was jus' doin' my thin' at the cathouse when I heard Masako screamin'," he said. "Ain't like I never heard a woman screamin' an' done nothin' before, but it was like I wadn't even in control a' my own body. I mean, why else would I a' gone 'gainst the Coronel? I e'en jumped out a damn winda. I can't explain it..."
The Baron smiled and said, "I thought so." Straightening himself up, he continued, "It was the Mandate of Heaven. That is what we call it. You Infernals have been conditioned to obey the voice of the Emperor, not that you have ever heard his voice before, and to a lesser extent all Celestials. Lady Masako is descended from the Jianping Emperor and it would seem that the Mandate of Heaven is strong with her, or that you are particularly susceptible to its commands."
"My lord, are saying that Batista-xiansheng has not acted of his own will?" Masako asked.
"The Mandate of Heaven is not absolute, my lady," the Baron replied. "It can be resisted, but perhaps there was some unique resonance between yourself and Batista-xiansheng. With your permission, my lady, I would like my scientists to run some tests. A better understanding of the Mandate of Heaven's operation could prove invaluable to the Empire. We might have peace at last here on Erdi, even beyond. Everything under the Heavens and everything above."
"Peace?" Batista snorted. "More like control."
The Baron held up a hand to quiet Masako's objection.
"It is quite all right, my lady. I understand how he must feel, but, Batista-xiansheng, you are a military man. You can appreciate, I trust, the need for a firm hierarchy for an army to survive on the battlefield. I ask you, what greater battlefield is there than life itself? Instead of wasting blood and treasure fruitlessly fighting amongst ourselves, humanity can come together as one to redirect our energies toward the mastery of the stars.
"Or would you prefer the endless cycle of sport campaigns in the Unincorporated Territories, year in and year out? The cream of your people's youth pressed into war to die or fall into banditry after they are cut loose ten thousand li from home?"
Batista didn't want to admit it, but the Baron had a point. He knew the cycle all too well and certainly wasn't a fan by any means, but he never even dreamed of trying to do something about it. As much as he resented the Celestials, were they a necessary evil after all? Scrounging around to survive from day to day wasn't really freedom, was it? That was about all the Infernals could expect on their own.
Before he could tie his brain up in knots any further, Masako spoke up.
"I appreciate the need for your research, my lord, but I would like to return to Lingmu."
"Of course, my lady," the Baron replied. "I have been in contact with Lord Hisatada and we have been making arrangements to get you across the border without any Feng agents noticing."
"Then my father's vassals have not been attacked by the Feng?"
"Bold as Count Feng is, he would not attack four other noble houses when the Emperor has already expressed his displeasure."
"Then there is still hope."
"Yes, indeed. Baron Gong's brother and his wife are going to be calling on Lord Soichiro next. We were thinking about having you and Batista-xiansheng accompany them on their skiff. A small pleasure boat is likely to elude the notice of any Feng agent."
"When would we leave?"
"In two days."
Masako placed a hand over her heart and breathed a sigh of relief.
"Then it will be over soon..."
"Pardon me, my lady," the Baron interjected, "but it will not be over until Count Feng is brought to justice and duly punished for his crimes."
Masako nodded.
"Yes, you are right."
The Baron suddenly became more animated, clapping his hands to disperse the heavy atmosphere that had settled around them, saying, "Enough of cares and woes! Come, my lady, Batista-xiansheg. You have seen many illusions in my Mileyuan, but how would you like to see something real? I am quite proud of my family's aviary, one of the finest in the entire Baihu Quarter."
"I would like that very much, my lord," Masako replied.
All Batista could do was wonder what an aviary was supposed to be.