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Beautiful world

by Kate Orman


Morning

Sayl was ready when the alarm went off in his ear. These days he slept in his clothes; he could be needed at any moment.

Tusyl was in the corridor as he emerged. She was as immaculate as ever, her kit tucked under her arm. "What time is it?" asked Sayl, smoothing down his black uniform. "I didn't even look."

"Oh four hundred hours."

"Hmm." He fell into step beside her. "Working late or rising early, do you suppose?"

Tusyl didn't answer. Sayl never had any idea of what was going on inside her head. Like him, she could be called for at any time. Unlike him, the unpredictable summons to duty didn't make her jumpy. He wondered if she actually slept, or just took another stimulant pill every sixteen hours.

Lyrril had never been like that. If anything, she had usually been more nervous than he had. The one time she had been late on a call - it had been all she could do to keep her hands from shaking while she worked.

Tusyl stabbed the lift button with a precisely manicured fingernail. Sayl gave himself a quick once-over in the lift's rear mirror. He carefully smoothed out a wrinkle in one sleeve, flicked his hair back, critically peered at the fine lines sprouting around his eyes and mouth.

"You look fine, Sayl," sighed Tusyl.

"That's easy for you to say." Sayl thrust his face at her. "Give me your professional opinion."

"Make an appointment."

Her manner wasn't hostile. It was just cool. Cool as always.

I wish Lyrril was still here.

The lift door opened. Sayl followed Tusyl out onto the ship's lounge.

The Supreme Commander was alone, drinking something milky-blue through a squiggly straw. She lay on a long seat, reading computer reports, draped in a plain nightdress. Her face was its own colour, her hair even a little messy.

They waited patiently until she had finished reading. "We'll be arriving at Agni Two in forty five minutes," she said. "I have an appointment at five hundred and thirty hours with the Prelate of that miserable colony."

Tusyl moved immediately to the long seat. Sayl clucked his tongue. "That's cutting it a little fine, Supreme Commander."

"It's only a glorified collection of habitat domes. Something practical will do. Oh, and something light - I understand their climate control is malfunctioning, and it's the height of the Agnian summer."

Tusyl was taking tiny jars from her kit, lining them up on the table. "Will you require a sunscreen, Madam?"

"I have better things to do with my time than sort out trade agreements with insignificant planets. I intend to conclude my business on Agni within half an hour, no more."

"Better safe than sorry, Madam."

Lyrril, thought Sayl as he stepped into the wardrobe, would never have dared to talk back. But Tusyl always got her way.

Hmm. Hot and sunny. White, of course. Backless. No fur. No feathers. Definitely no feathers.

Lyrril lying in the jacuzzi, half in and half out, the fingers of one hand pushed into the artificial sand that surrounded the pool.

He picked up one gown, the one with the explosion of silver and white on the shoulder. No - he'd never particularly cared for that one.

The other hand still clutching the scarlet feather boa that was looped tightly around her neck, once, twice, three times.

He rummaged through the new orders. Black, black, red, white but too revealing for harsh sunlight, black... there was a gown made from natural fibre. White, with silver geometric flowers embroidered into the skirt, a glittering line from left shoulder to left ankle.

He went back into the lounge. Servalan was lying back, staring at the ceiling while Tusyl did her lips. The woman's hands made tiny, precise movements, like a surgeon.

Sayl moved into Servalan's line of sight and held the gown up front of himself. The Supreme Commander waited until Tusyl was finished. Then she looked up at him and smiled.

Tusyl with a single red feather falling from her jacket as she pulled it off, not even noticing it until he pointed it out to her.

"Dressed to kill, Madam," he said.

Noon

The white dress was torn and burned. If Sayl had had time to think about it, he would have been heartbroken.

He followed the Supreme Commander as she continued to climb up the mountainside. He could feel the back of his neck and hands burning. But the sunlight was not as hot as the gusts of wind from the valley, great breaths of searing air thick with smoke and ash.

Sayl hauled himself up over one more ridge and lay flat, exhausted. There was a ledge hanging overhead, and the rock under his back was cool, protected by the shadow.

The Supreme Commander was standing at the back of the ledge. "There's a shallow cave," she said.

"I'm dying," protested Sayl.

"Get up," she commanded. Sayl got up, followed her inside the cave. The dress plunged down to her waist at the back. It was a good thing she'd let Tusyl put that sunscreen on.

It was cool inside, blessedly cool. There was even the sound of water dripping, moistness in the air. He wondered if the liquid would be safe to drink.

Servalan stood at the cave's entrance for a moment, looking down into the valley. Sayl had done that, halfway through the climb; the vertigo had nearly made him loose his grip. He hadn't looked again. But in his mind's eye, the little colony was still burning, the roofs of the habitat domes popped off by the expanding gasses inside.

She stalked back into the cave, sat down with her back to the rock, opposite him. With the exception of a dark smudge on one cheek, her make-up had survived intact.

It was a shame about that dress.

"I'm sorry a more useful member of your staff couldn't have survived," he murmured. "I'm sure a guard or even a mutoid would have been more use than your personal tailor."

She waved a hand. Her eyes were like cat's eyes, darkly made-up, glittering in the dimness.

"They killed everyone in the entire colony," he said, "just to get to you."

"Whoever they may be," she said, "I am obviously more difficult to kill than they imagine."

"What will you do now?"

"Search parties will be sent out from the ship."

"Won't they assume that you died in the attack?"

"They won't dare take that chance."

Silence for a bit.

"Madam," he said.

"Sayl?"

"Who do you suppose 'they' are?"

She waved her hand again. Whatever Tusyl used on her nails, it was powerful stuff - the colour wasn't even scratched after the long climb. "If I were to draw up a list of possible candidates, it would be a very long one."

"Do you suppose it was Avon and his crew?"

She shook her head. "Even those criminals would probably balk at destroying an entire colony to get to me."

Silence for a bit.

"Madam?"

"What is it?"

"Why was Lyrril killed?"

"She was a traitor," said Servalan, as matter-of-factly as if they were discussing gloves.

"Madam, I'm not sure that putting your eye shadow on crookedly was an intentional act of treason."

The Supreme Commander actually laughed. "You're such an innocent, Sayl. It's the quality which most endears you to me. She was supplying information to Blake . Didn't you know that?"

Sayl shook his head. Dust and soot fell out of his hair. "I was the one who found her body. Tusyl had made no attempt to disguise the murder. I thought she had done it because she wanted Lyrril's job. But when I reported it to you-"

"I did nothing. That was because I had paid Tusyl to carry out the termination."

Sayl nodded. "Tusyl told me that later. She didn't seem to care that I knew about it. I thought that meant I would be next."

Servalan shook her head, showing pearly teeth as she smiled. She was enjoying this. "There are few of my staff I can call truly loyal. That's why I think I actually prefer your company to a guard, or even a mutoid."

"Mutoids are loyal."

"Mutoids have no choice but to be loyal. Neither does someone who is afraid. You're loyal to me, Sayl. Loyal in a way that Lyrril was not. Loyal in a way that Tusyl is not."

"I'm flattered, Madam. But I don't understand why you don't consider Tusyl loyal..."

"Because she killed for money."

"Ah."

"When I ordered you to kill my last tailor, you wouldn't accept money."

"No."

"But you still killed."

Sayl spread his hands. "I wanted his job, Madam."

Servalan was laughing at him, her teeth flashing in the dim light. "But you did it for me, Sayl. Tusyl did it for money. And that means that anyone who offers her more money could buy her."

Silence for a bit.

"Madam?"

"Yes, Sayl?"

"Is this why you have such a high rate of staff turnover?"

She was laughing again.

Evening

Sayl did not dream. He had heard that everyone dreamed, that people just forgot their dreams when they awoke; but Sayl knew that he never dreamed at all. Once you've sold your dreams, he reasoned, you couldn't rightfully take them back again.

Instead, he drifted in and out of his memories, repair kit tucked under his head. Red tulle, white synthosilk. Creating a basic set of simple, practical gowns in black and white, for everyday conquest and domination. Sewing each individual pearl to the white one-sleeved bodice, by hand, peering through a magnifier. That gown, his finest creation, had been quite ruined by its unkind treatment in the cellar of Servalan's palace.

He hadn't been joking about wanting the job. The most powerful woman in the Federation must of necessity also be the most glamorous, the most dazzling. Her beauty had to be enough to conquer worlds, Sayl had crooned the first time they had spoken. She ought to be able to cast populations low with a flick of a fingernail. Rebellious hordes should tremble at a glimpse of her cheekbones.

It had been the most extraordinary nonsense, but she had been charmed. And more charmed by his willingness to kill to get into her wardrobe.

It had been Tusyl who had changed Servalan's hair. But it was Sayl who revamped her wardrobe. She was forever wearing those high collars, and he wanted to show off her stunning shoulders.

He had, however, burned the frock with the silver insect stuck on the front.

The wind carried the hot smell of ash, but it was cool against his face. Servalan was standing at the entrance of the cave.

"Can you see anyone?" he asked.

"There are teams from the ship searching the surface," she said.

Sayl came to the cave entrance, stretching his cramped muscles. He followed her gaze to where distant black uniforms were crawling over the rocky landscape. In the purple light, the planet had a harsh beauty, hot colours blending into cool, sharp shadows forming a striking pattern across the plains.

"It's a shame we haven't got anything to signal them with," he sighed.

"I'm not certain I would want to do that."

Sayl considered. "Oh. You think that it was someone on the ship who attacked the colony."

"Assuming the pilot wasn't lying, it was the only ship in orbit. And they would have notified us if they had engaged another vessel."

Sayl nodded slowly. "Well, what do you think we should do now?"

"We have nowhere to go. Our best strategy is still to stay where we are. Another ship will come to investigate."

"You're sure about that, Madam?"

"As I said, Sayl," she murmured, striding back inside, "they will want to be very sure that I am dead."

She sat down. She didn't seem perturbed in the slightest, out of control in any way. Perhaps that was why she was so hard to kill. Sayl found her calm comforting.

It was also comforting to know that she considered him loyal. Servalan valued a person the way she valued a good weapon or tool - by their usefulness. Sayl's skills made him useful. He was touched to learn that his loyalty added to his value.

"I was talking to that cloth merchant from Cellos," he said, still looking out at the planet. "He didn't seem to mind that the Federation had annexed the planet."

"Yes?" she didn't seem interested. "It did open up a number of trade opportunities for them."

"There was that. But he also said that we were ugly."

"The Cellosians are a human population. They were one of the oldest colonies."

"He didn't mean it in that sense." Sayl's hand went automatically to the deep furrow on his cheek. "He said that the Cellosians had never gone to war, had never killed anyone. That even though we killed and enslaved the Cellosians, they had survived - and that we were the ones who were truly damaged."

"And how did you reply to this extraordinary propaganda?"

Sayl gently rubbed the scar, a long line running from his temple to his collarbone. Sometimes it still ached. "I said that you were a beautiful woman surrounded by ugliness."

"Is that how you see me?" she whispered.

"Around you, Madam," he said, "people are massacred, tortured, starved. Worlds are destroyed and left smoking. But you remain untouched. Every morning you arise like Venus from the sea." She was laughing again, but she was listening. "Very little that the Federation has produced could be called beautiful. Except for you. In the midst of violence, you are untouched. In the midst of horror, you are immaculate."

"And is that why you are loyal to me, Sayl?"

He took his fingers away from the deep scar. "Someone must protect what beauty we have left, Madam."

She was laughing at his flattery, silently, but he could see her thumb rubbing at the sooty smudge on her cheek.

Night

Sayl had dreamed that one day he would be a good man.

The colony's pale pair of moons lit up the mountainside. Through the magnifier, he could see Tusyl leading her group of guards along a rocky track towards the cave. The Supreme Commander had evidently been right; there was no reason for the make-up artist to be part of a search team, unless she had been the one who had betrayed them.

The magnifier was really only meant for close-up work, and it was making his eyes ache. Sayl tucked it away. Soon he heard the sound of their footsteps.

Carefully, he slid his tailor's scissors out of his kit.

Red on white.

Tusyl had spotted the cave. She held a small pistol. Her face was calm in the midnight, lit from two directions by the moons. He could make out the shape of her mouth, her good eye, the great burned patch of skin that covered the other eye, the melted ear, the side of her scalp where no hair would grow.

A splash of vivid red staining the white fabric.

Sayl had never found out the name of his predecessor. Like all of them, the old tailor had been disfigured, the corrective surgery not completely hiding the deep cuts across his face earned in a street fight years before he took up the profession. When he had been part of the rebellion.

He was the first and only man Sayl had ever killed. He had imagined it would be very difficult, physically very difficult, but his scissors had opened the man's throat at a touch, and the brilliant red colour had splashed across a bolt of fine white silk, staining it irreparably.

He waited until Tusyl was underneath the ledge, about to enter the cave. Then he let himself roll off the ledge onto her.

She did not cry out with surprise. She didn't even cry out when the scissors caught her in the shoulder, pushing deep into her. She was trying to bring her gun to bear, but they were too close together, and he was turning her hand towards the first of the guards who was running up the trail towards them.

He shot the guard. The second guard came over the ridge like a rocket and shot Tusyl, shot her again, aiming badly for the tall, thin man standing behind her.

His third shot hit. Sayl jerked backwards as the blast caught his shoulder. Somehow he managed to keep hold of Tusyl's gun as she fell from his grasp, as they fell together onto the cold rocks.

The Supreme Commander was standing in the entrance to the cave, regarding the remaining guard coolly. She had been playing these games far too long to be afraid, thought Sayl.

Somehow or other he got up and got between them before the guard fired.

She caught him as he fell backwards. He hoped he wasn't bleeding onto her gown.

"I knew I was right to trust you," she whispered.

"Madam," he managed, "I couldn't bear to see that dress damaged any further."

She took the gun out of his trembling fingers, and shot the guard.


I wrote this story for Marvel's Blakes Seven Poster Magazine in 1995 - alas, the magazine was cancelled before the story could be published!


Copyright Kate Orman,1997. All rightsreserved.