A sandstorm howled outside the shuttered windows of the estate as the Demarian servant made his way down the long corridor with a silver tray bearing a pitcher of cold tsai juice and a tall fluted goblet. His bluish-black tail swayed back and forth from beneath the hem of the knee-length brown robes he wore.

Guards waiting on either side of the iron-braced stone doors ahead of him clutched the affixed rings and pulled open the doors.

He found the Imperator waiting inside, crouched at his work desk and using his good hand to tap data into the glowing display of a computerized pad. More guards in Demarian Militia regalia held station here in the royal work chamber.

“Something cold to drink, Imperator,” the underclasser said, stopping a few feet from the desk so as to properly maintain a respectful distance from the ruler of the realm.

“Damnable storm,” growled Stumppaw Sandwalker. He peered at the underclasser, whiskers twitching. “How many days has it been raging now, Nightmane?”

The servant bowed his head as he stepped forward to place the goblet on the Imperator’s desk. “Four, sir. The meteorologist anticipates at least two days more before it relents.”

A grunt from the Imperator. “The drifts are going to swallow some of the sand eel ranches on the desert fringe.” He glanced over at one of the soldiers and said, “I want orbital scans. Put rescue teams on standby.” The soldier acknowledged the order with a bow, then retreated to broadcast a message to the Skyclaw orbital battle station. Stumppaw watched as the underclasser poured juice into the goblet. “While I wait for the report, Nightmane, I am curious about something.”

Nightmane finished pouring, but left the pitcher on the desk next to the goblet. He stepped back, tray in hand. “Sir?”

“Was he telling the truth? That big fellow with the horns and the sparky hardware? What he said about infinite parallel universes? Any of that true?”

“Oh, yes, indeed, sir,” the servant replied. He had arrived at the estate two weeks ago as part of the Medlidikke pirate Vard Bokren’s entourage. Bokren had offered to sell rift drive technology to the Imperator, and had given Nightmane to him as a show of good faith. He would return tomorrow for an answer from Stumppaw Sandwalker. “The Demaria where I come from was never blessed with your leadership as Imperator. You were gunned down by criminals on Sivad.”

Stumppaw’s fangs clicked together as he contemplated the underclasser’s assertion. “The storms are going to increase in frequency and strength. The suns are dying. The Great Watchers will take this Demaria with them when they go.”

“A tragedy, sir,” Nightmane said.

The Imperator sighed. “A lucrative opportunity for Vard Bokren, no doubt. If he’s lying, my legacy will be shame and humiliation for the Sandwalker name. But if I do nothing, if I refuse, my legacy will be dust and ruin.” He drank from the goblet. A soldier approached and informed him that at least three farms were in danger of being consumed by the encroaching desert thanks to the storm. Stumppaw bobbed his snout, then said, “Initiate rescue efforts. Save them, if they can be saved.” He looked back toward Nightmane, shrugging, and said, “I cannot refuse.”

By Brody

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