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Vayne despised the Judges, not hated, despised. They were useful in their way but their reliance on the coarse tools of violence disgusted him. This is not to say that he scrupled to order that tool for his own purposes, however he preferred the subtle, smoothness of suggestion or, if necessary, poison. Violence was almost always the result of incompetence and he resorted to it only when he wished to make his resolve clear and unmistakable.

The Judges were a necessary evil in his eyes and he courted their support in his on-going battle with the Senate which distrusted him to the same degree as he distrusted most of the political schemers who circled around him like so many predators. He stroked the length of his elegantly narrow nose. It was a frequent gesture of his, one which strangely comforted him. He was glad he had inherited that feature from his mother and was not cursed with a short upturned nubbin like Larsa.

Larsa - now there was another thought. The Senate and many of the Judges, including some of the Judge Magisters, misinterpreted his intentions in the matter of Larsa. Just because it was widely rumoured that he had been behind the unfortunate and early demises of his two older brothers, they thought he posed a danger to the youngest. How foolish of them. They had misjudged him so completely he despised them more than ever, this time for their stupidity. He had learned over time that to openly assume power was to invite assassination. Who should know that better than he? He was devoted to his young brother and when the time came for a new Emperor, Larsa was welcome to the throne so long as he, Vayne, could stand behind it whispering in the ear of the throne-sitter and pulling the marionette's strings.

With a brittle laugh, Vayne threw himself down in the large chair which was not quite a throne and not quite an ordinary piece of furniture. He looked around him. The rooms in this building were too big, high and filled with shadows and echoes. It was difficult to tell when eyes were watching and that made him uneasy. It was unpleasant to have to remain in this palace and was also a burden to have to wear the traditional armour with its sharp protrusions and awkwardly fitting sections during his waking hours because he might be called upon at any time to preside over some petty squabble or personal quarrel. Governance took its toll. He hoped Larsa would enjoy the ceremonial aspects better than he did.

How did the Judges bear the constant heaviness of the full-body mail they wore at all times? Vayne could not remember ever seeing one of them in ordinary clothes. At best, they would remove their helmets as a sign of courtesy, otherwise they relied upon the unique distinction of their shells to identify them to one another and the populace at large. He, in contrast, was permitted to breathe the fresh air, free to see without a visor's interference and able to move without clanking or looking like a robotic war machine. Small victories, but real ones for all that.

The Judges and the Senate, his mind returned to his central problem. They formed an ever shifting ground filled with pitfalls for him. He must tread carefully to keep them at one another's throats and away from his own. The times when they formed their occasional alliances were the dangerous moments and he had to strike swiftly to break the confederations. Yet there remained those in both camps who were willing to set aside their traditional enmity in order to plot against him. Among the Judges, Drace was the most solidly opposed to him. She was the only female amongst the Judge Magisters and did not trust him, principally because of her attachment to Larsa and her doubts about his intentions toward his young brother. It would be to his benefit to turn her if that was possible or eliminate her if it was not.

Drace. Vayne called up his recollections of her. They were few. He had seen her face from time to time when courtesy had compelled her to remove her helmet. It was an intriguing face, young and stern but with a hint of softness under its formal mask. He wondered what she would look like without her exoskeleton. This might be the time to find out. He was usually successful with women. There was no reason to think he would be less so with a female Judge. And if he was, there was always the other way.

"You there! At the door!" When the attendant made a knee before him, the Consul-Governor directed, "Tell the Judge Magister Drace that I require her appearance before me at once."

The servant bowed and turned toward the door. Vayne ran a hand over his chin. "You! Wait. Send my barber to me first." He had felt a bit of stubble along his jaw. It would never do to rasp her skin which was probably tender and delicate from being shielded by her armour. The first duty of a gentleman was to protect his woman. He smiled. Hungrily.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008