Thomas Bailey awoke to the sun streaming in through his window. It was 25.6 degrees Centigrade outside, which considering the fact that he was in the Antarctic Circle in the middle of summer, it had no right to be. He rubbed his eyes and went up to the window, opening it and looking out at the streets of the Imperial City where his apartment was.
Below him, children from the Summer Court played in one of the many lichen gardens in the noble district. A flightless bird the size of a German Shepherd, which Tom recognized as an Imperial Auk (Pinguinus impennis imperialis) waddled through the streets on a leash, alongside a noblewoman who was wearing a robe with large, poofy sleeves with a green trim, and a pointed cap with some Penguin feathers in the end. Across the street, a courier from the Black Court ran along the walls of the apartments, being kept up only through sheer momentum (And possibly a Blessing). Couriers were only used to deliver eyes-only mail; they would use the telephone for anything like saying that his bills needed paying, or just send it through traditional mail if it was something like an advertisement. So, that meant the mail was for him.
Sure enough, the courier jumped the gap between the apartments- a good 10 meters or so- and sprang right through Tom's open window. The Bailey triplet only managed to get out of the way in the nick of time as the furred man landed on his bed like some form of panther. He was barely visible against the scenery of Tom's apartment, due to the fact that he wore Western Chameleon leather, which made him almost invisible.
The courier, a man named Da'ai the Swift, grunted in Antarctican, "It's polite to keep your window closed if you're expecting us.1"
"I like the view from my window in the morning," Tom replied in the same tongue, crossing his arms. "And I wasn't expecting you; what's this about?"
"Directly from the Institute," grunted the Courier, handing him an envelope with the seal of the IIPES on it.
Tom took the letter and set it aside. It was impolite to open mail in front of a courier. The man coughed, holding out his hand; sighing, Tom surrendered 5 Imperials to the man."Da'ai, you know that you're not supposed to take tips."
"Think of it as a bribe, Thomas Bailey." The Black Courtsman pronounced it "Too-mass Balley". "You give me money, I don't tell anyone what was in the letter."
"…I'll leave my window closed next time," Tom said, stepping aside. Da'ai the Swift climbed out the window, onto the rooftop. Tom heard the man's footsteps run away as he sped off. "…showoff," Tom muttered, opening the letter.
Half an hour later, Tom was driving his 484 Saquah Speeder2 down the streets of the Imperial City, looking around. He drove through the market district, where people pedaled next to him on bicycles, trying to sell him car insurance. Tom ignored them, and took some lichen from his car's snuffbox and chewed on it; it gave a feeling similar to tobacco, but it didn't give you cancer if you used it every day for 60 years. It may make your hair fall out, dye your skin purple and negate any Blessings you possess, but it won't give you cancer.
The radio in Tom's car started playing the Antarctican Anthem as he drove near the Palace, which was at the very center of the city. Tom never got tired of hearing it, despite the fact that he had lived here for the past three years; he suspected that it had a memetic property of some kind that kept it from being boring. The palace itself was carved from the bones of a giant… something that was called Sanak Thiuh, with the skull serving as the entrance. He'd always wanted to get a sample of it, but he'd be executed for vandalizing imperial property if he so much as touched an exterior wall without permission.
As Tom cleared the Palace, he pulled up to an Institute station, and saw a speed bus was pulled up next to it. Exiting it were some more 'northern nobility', or as he knew them, Foundation researchers. He recognized a couple of them as being from 87, but other than that, they were fresh faces. They had probably just arrived from the zeppelin station3, and one of the newbies- a horticulturalist- was bending over to inspect a flower. Said flower jumped up at her face and clung to her nose, where it began to suck the blood out. She flailed around while some Blessed medics tried to pull it off her face, one of them stunning it and the other healing the wound on her nose.
Newbies, thought Tom, shaking his head and heading into the Institute's main entrance.
Tom's assistant, the ever-chipper Yu'nai Bitop beamed at Tom, her dark skin reflecting the soft electric light of the facility as they walked along. The soft lighting was a stark contrast to the bright, harsh lights that Sites like 87 and 19 had; all incandescent, all yellow, all pleasant. The lighting was one of the first things that Tom noticed when he came into an Institute-sanctioned facility. "They're in the assembly hall. You have your speech ready?"
"Yes, Yu." Tom smiled back, holding up some note cards and walking along, humming to himself. He emerged onto the stage, which was more of a raised platform in the center of the hall, carved from the wishbones of one of the last known giant selachimorphic cranes.4
He counted the people out in the hall. There were 40 of them, most of them women, which was a welcome change. He started talking. "Good morning," Tom said. "My name is Dr. Thomas Bailey, and I regret to inform you that for the next two years, you will not be having any coffee. You will not be seeing your significant others. You will be under supervision at all times. You will be led by an authority that does not understand your species- wait." Tom looked at his note cards and frowned, slapping his forehead. "Dammit! I mixed up my notes with the Site 19 orientation."
This drew a laugh from the crowd, particularly a couple of people from 19 itself. "Anyway. I'm afraid I'm serious about the no coffee bit, but they have lizards here that have caffeinated blood. So just try a bit of their meat and it'll wake you up better than any Starbucks ever could." Tom actually pulled out a bit of dried lizard from his pocket; they were in snack bags like M&Ms or Skittles back home. He ate it in front of the crowd, some of whom looked disgusted, but most of them just thought 'eh, once you see a man get turned inside-out by his own intestines, not much fazes you'.
"This place is nothing like the baseline. There are things here that we think are anomalous that are common place, like, say, caffeinated lizards. There are squads of people here whose sole job is killing Giant Antarctic Penguins before they can bite off the heads of Imperial citizens and nobility. Magic is quite real here, and several people can use it; and before you ask, you're welcome to try, if you're part of Occult Studies." This drew a small 'aww' from a few people in the crowd, while a couple of Hispanic women in the back high-fived each other. Tom continued. "Most people here have at least five names, but unless they're nobility, you're free to call them by two. This place is a matriarchy, so, ladies, please don't have me executed for talking your ears off." Tom tipped his wide-brimmed straw hat at a red-headed researcher he recognized from 87; he thought her name was Lara? From theology.
"The first thing you're going to need to know here is how to speak the language, which all of you must know, considering the mandatory language exams you passed to come here. The second thing you need to know is the culture, and sadly, despite my repeated insistence, cultural exams are not mandatory." Tom shook his head, and stepped off the stage. It raised itself into a cylinder, and projectors from around the hall began showing an IIPES picture entitled: "THE HISTORY OF THE THIRD EMPIRE". "It's a three-hour film," Tom remarked. "But it has some good parts. I always cry when they talk about the first empress."
Four hours later, the speed bus dropped off about a third of the newbies in the Noble's Quarter of the Antarctic Empire. The rest would be shipped off to other, more remote parts for anthropological, zoological, botanical or other scientific work. Several of them were going to be studying the Black Court seaward, away from the city and widdershins5. The rest of them would be staying in Tom's building.
Tom's building was a tall structure carved out of fungal limestone; the fungus reinforced the otherwise weak rock, making it able to bear great loads, and also made it incredibly resistant to, say, an anti-Imperialist bomb. It was used to build the foundations of several buildings near the Imperial City. To have an entire house made out of it was a sign of both wealth and paranoia, both things the Foundation and the Institute possessed in great quantities when it came to 'northern nobility'.
"This is it," Tom said, opening the door to the apartments. "Everyone's been assigned a room?" There was a general murmur of assent. "Good. You'll find a welcome package in there. Oh, and, don't worry about the water; it may taste a little weird, but that's just because it's been filtered." Tom neglected to mention what it was filtered by, figuring it was best they discover it by themselves. He let the newbies go to their rooms and eventually made his way up to his own room. There, waiting on the bed, was Da'ai the Swift.
Tom scowled at him. "What are you doing? You'll get fur on the sheets! I don't want the housekeepers spreading rumors about me again!"
"Another message, Toomas Balley." He jumped up from the bed, offering him an envelope. It bore the symbol of house Ka'Ki. They must have spent a lot to get a message to him.
Tom frowned, opening the envelope and tsk-ing. "Another duel challenge? I guess they've at least stopped trying to send assassins after me, which is good."
"They actually offered me 500 Imperials to stick a knife in your neck." Da'ai grinned at him, his teeth black from the lack of dental hygiene in the Black Court.
"Did you take the offer?" Tom asked seriously, looking over the letter still.
"And lose my Blessing? Empress no!"
"Pity. We could have split it. I would have let you keep most of it." Tom put the letter on his bedside and sighed. "You're dismissed. Tell them that I'll consider their invitation."
"…you have courage, Toomas Balley. Especially after what you did."
"All I did was politely ask the Empress to look into it. The Appropriators did the rest." Tom smirked, sitting on the bed. "And didn't I say you were dismissed?"
"You did, you did." Da'ai the Swift turned to the window. "Take care, Toomas." Da'ai leapt from the window, landed on the ground for a split second, before leaping from the ground into a wall, climbing up in and onto a roof, before dashing off into the distance.
Tom called after him, "You're still a show-off!" He shook his head and shut the window, sitting on his bed and sighing. In summer, the sun never set; it just went lower in the sky. So, with that in mind, he closed the blinds, locked the doors, and cracked open a copy of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book he had brought from baseline. He had read this book fifteen times.
Time to start on the sixteenth.
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