The private dining room was crowded with Palace staff, making last-minute arrangements. Hari looked up at the huge chandelier with its ten thousand gleaming round glass ornaments modeled after the Emperor’s chosen Worlds of the Galactic Year, then around the hundred-meter-long hall, with its solid prime opal matrix columns and the famous deep green copperstone staircase, imported from the only system yet settled in the Greater Magellanic Cloud-a failed colony, abandoned forty years ago, leaving only this gift as a reminder. His lips twitched at the sight of the staircase. As First Minister, he had cut off Imperial support for that vigorous world, lest it grow independent and too powerful…
So many things done to preserve the Center, so many necessary sins of power. He had made sure that no more far-flung colonies were established, and none had been.
The table was set with thirty plates along its midriff, and thirty high-backed ebon chairs, none yet occupied, for the guests had not yet arrived and, of course, the Emperor himself had not yet been seated.
Klayus I escorted Hari around the hall as if he were an honored guest rather than a last-minute annoyance. “‘Raven,’ I’ve been calling you that, haven’t I? Do you mind? ‘Raven’ Seldon, such an evocative title! Harbinger of doom.”
“Call me what you wish, Highness.”
“A tough moniker to lift properly,” Klayus said with a smile. Hari, never one to miss feminine beauty, caught sight of three dazzling women in the corner of his eye and automatically turned to face them. The women brushed past him as if he were a statue and approached the Emperor, seeming to work as a team. As they surrounded him and two leaned to whisper in his ears, Klayus’s face reddened and he practically giggled with glee. “My extraordinary trio!” he greeted them, after listening for a few seconds. “Hari, you would not believe how accomplished these women are, or what they can do! They’ve entertained at my dinners before.”
The women looked at Hari as one now, with mild interest, but they read the Emperor’s attitude toward this old man with quick, deadly accuracy. Hari was not a powerful figure to be attracted to, merely a toy, less even than themselves. Hari thought that if they had suddenly grown fangs and spouted hair on their noses, they could not have become less attractive so quickly. With wisdom born more out of his long life and from many conversations on human nature with Dors than any equation, he quickly imagined their expert blandishments, warm skin, dulcet voices, masking primordial ammonia ice. Dors had frequently made wry observations of that human sex after which she was modeled, and she had seldom been wrong.
Klayus dismissed the women with a few soft words. As they departed, they strolled around the hall, and he bent over to confide to Hari, “They don’t impress you, do they? Their kind make up a large portion of the women here. Beautiful as frozen moons. My Privy Councilor manages to search out others of higher quality, but…!” He sighed. “Fine stones are easier to procure than gems among females, for a man in my position.”
“It was so with Cleon, as well, Highness,” Hari said. “He made arrangements with three princess consorts throughout his youth, then, in his middle years, foreswore women entirely. He died without an heir, as you know.”
“I’ve studied Clean, of course,” the Emperor said thoughtfully. “A solid man, not intelligent, but very capable. He liked you, didn’t he?”
“I doubt any Emperor has ever liked a man such as myself, Highness.”
“Oh, don’t be so modest! You have great charms, really. You were married to that remarkable woman-”
“Dors Venabili,” said a reedy voice behind them.
The Emperor turned gracefully, his robes swishing over the floor, and his face lit up. “Farad! How nice of you to come early.”
The Privy Councilor bowed to his Emperor and glanced in passing at Hari. “When I heard of your visitor, I could not resist, Highness.”
“You know my Privy Councilor, Farad Sinter, and Farad, this is the famous Hari Seldon.”
“We’ve never met,” Hari said. No one shook hands in the Emperor’s company; too many weapons had been transferred between conspirators and assassins in past centuries that way for a simple handshake to be any other than a gross and even dangerous breach of etiquette.
“I’ve heard much about your famous wife,” Sinter said with a smile. “A remarkable woman, as the Emperor says.”
“Hari has come here to warn me about your activities,” Klayus said with a small grin, glancing between them. “I did not know all you’ve been up to, Farad.”
“We’ve discussed my goals, Highness. What more does Professor Seldon have to add, in the way of information?”
“He says you’re hunting down mechanical men. Robots. From what he says, you appear to be obsessed with them.”
Hari stiffened. This was becoming a very dangerous situation, and he was beginning to feel a noose tighten. He almost regretted having taken this direct approach with someone so devious and unpredictable as Klayus. It would not be at all good to be singled out and marked for reprisal by Farad Sinter…
“He’s confused my goals, though perhaps the rumors have misled him. There are many false rumors about our activities, Highness.” Sinter’s smile dripped honey and bonhomie.
“This genetic study…most valuable, don’t you think, Hari? Has anyone explained it to you?”
“System-wide, and also the twelve nearest Central Stars,” Sinter said.
“It has been explained in the journals of Imperial Science,” Hari said.
“But shooting people! “ Klayus continued. “Why, Farad? To take samples?”
Hari could hardly believe what he was hearing. The Emperor could just as easily have signed Hari’s death warrant. Instead, he seemed to be handing Hari’s head to his Privy Councilor…on a plate, for dinner!
“Those, those are lies of course,” Sinter said slowly, eyes heavy-lidded. “The Emperor’s police would have reported such indiscretions.”
“I wonder,” Klayus said, eyes twinkling merrily. “At any rate, Farad, Raven here has some excellent points to make about this robot search. Hari, explain to us the political difficulties that might ensue, should such charges ever become widely disseminated. Tell Farad about-”
“Jo-jo Joranum, yes, I know,” Sinter said, his lips thinning and his cheeks going white. “A Mycogenian would-be usurper. Stupid and easily manipulated-by you, in part, am I correct, Professor Seldon?”
“His name was mentioned,” the Emperor said, glancing off to one side as if beginning to be bored.
“Actually,” Hari said, “Joranum was just a symptom of a larger myth, with consequences far worse on other worlds than Trantor.” A myth I have not thought about, not measured, not researched-all because of Daneel’s prohibitions! Even now, Hari realized he would have some difficulty discussing the topic. He coughed into his fist. Sinter offered a handkerchief, but Hari shook his head and produced his own. Accepting such an item could also be misconstrued. And would it even be dangerous? Has Trantor and the Empire come to that? Either way, Hari would not fall for such a simple set-up. “On the world of Sterrad. Nikolo Pas.”
The Emperor stared at Hari blankly. “I’m not familiar with Nikolo Pas.”
“A butcher, Highness,” Sinter said. “Responsible for the death of millions.”
“Billions, actually,” Hari said. “In a vain search for artificial humans he claimed were infiltrating the empire.”
The Emperor stared at Hari for several seconds, his face slack. “I should know about him, shouldn’t I?”
“He died in Rikerian the year before you were born, Highness,” Sinter said. “It is not a glorious moment in Imperial History.”
Something in the atmosphere had changed. Klayus had a sour, even a disappointed look, as if he were anticipating an unpleasant duty. Hari glanced sideways at Sinter and saw that the Privy Councilor was studying his Emperor’s expression with some concern. Then it was that Hari realized Klayus and Sinter had been playing with him. The Emperor already knew about the murders of citizens on Trantor. Yet neither Sinter nor any of his tutors had told him about Nikolo Pas, and this was upsetting him.
“I’m not supposed to be so ignorant,” Klayus said. “I really should set up more time for personal study. Go on, Raven. What about Nikolo Pas?”
“In decades past, and every few centuries, Highness, there have been tides and even storms of psychological disturbance, centered on the myth of the Eternals.”
Sinter visibly flinched. This gave Hari some satisfaction. He continued.
“The resurgence of that myth has almost invariably led to social unrest, and in a few extreme cases, genocide. I conducted an interview with Nikolo Pas when I served Cleon as First Minister, Highness. I spent several days speaking with him, an hour or two at a time, in his cell deep in Rikerian.”
The memories seemed to fill Hari’s mind now.
“What did Pas believe?” the Emperor asked. The servants were at their positions around the hall. All the arrangements had been completed, the dinner was being delayed; guests could not be allowed to enter until the Emperor had left, to make a more formal entrance later. Klayus did not seem concerned by this.
“Pas claimed to have captured an active artificial human. He claimed to have placed it…” Hari coughed again. In this context, he could hardly bring himself to use the word robot. He felt badly exposed and even handicapped, for the prohibition against discussion of Daneel’s nature had spread to other areas of thought, memory, even will. “He claimed to have isolated the artificial human”
“Robot. We could be here all night,” Klayus said impatiently.
That seemed to break some barrier, and Hari nodded. “Robot. In very secure quarters. The robot deactivated itself-”
“How frightening, how noble!” Klayus exclaimed.
“Pas claimed his scientists dissected and analyzed the body. And yet the body, the inactive mechanical form, was removed from these extremely secure circumstances and vanished without a trace. This was the beginning of Nikolo Pas’s crusade. The details are far too long and gruesome to be spoken of here, Highness, but I’m sure you can locate them in the Imperial Library.”
Klayus’s eyes were like marbles in the head of a wax figure, pointed in Hari’s general direction. He rotated toward Sinter. “Your point seems obvious, Hari. Professor Seldon. May I call you Hari?”
The Emperor had already asked him that at their last meeting, but Hari did not let on. Once again, he replied, “I would be honored, Highness.”
“The point being that these waves of misery inevitably begin when some high official gets a bug in his hat and begins futile investigations. And when the investigations get out of hand, they cost the Empire many lives and much of treasure. Superstitions. Myths. Always dangerous, like religions.”
Sinter said nothing. Hari merely nodded. Both had beads of moisture on their foreheads. The Emperor seemed thoughtful and calm.
“I’m willing to vouch that my Privy Councilor has no such illusions, Hari. I hope I can reassure you of that.”
“And you, Farad, you understand the depth of Hari’s concern, that he comes here to relay these items of information about the state of bureaucratic and popular perceptions? The citizens! Like a sea of whispers. The Greys! The eternal manipulators of human destiny, the greatest power below the Palace! And the gentry-baronial and aristocratic, aloof, conspiratorial…So important and so often subject to fluctuating themes. Eh?”
Hari did not understand quite what the Emperor meant.
“No hard feelings against Hari, eh, Farad?”
“None, of course, sire.” Sinter smiled sunnily at Hari.
“Still…” Klayus put his chin in one hand and tapped his lips with a finger. “Amazing story! I shall have to look into it. What if the butcher’s notions were true? That would change everything. What then?”
Klayus turned to receive a message from the chief servant of the private dining chamber, an older and very somber Lavrentian. “My guests, including the Chief Commissioner, are waiting,” the Emperor said. “Hari, some day you must dine at table with me, as no doubt you did with the unfortunate Clean and the almost equally unfortunate Agis. However, since you are currently in disfavor with tinge Chen, tonight would not be a good time. My servants will see you off the Palace grounds. Both my Privy Councilor and I thank you, ‘Raven!’”
Hari bowed from the waist and two burly servants, more likely disguised Palace Specials, took positions at his flanks. As he was being escorted out of the chamber, passing beneath the amazing chandelier, the main doors opened to his right, and tinge Chen entered. His eyes met Hari’s, and Seldon felt a peculiar tremor of some emotion he could not identify. He despised Chen, yet the man was playing a very important role in the Plan.
They were intimately connected, both politically and historically, and it gave Hari no satisfaction to detect a certain sadness in the Commissioner’s features, As if he’s lost a friend, Hari thought.
Nearly all my friends and loved ones are dead, too, or just…gone. Vanished. And some I cannot even speak of!
Hari nodded cordially to Chen. The Chief Commissioner turned away as if Hari were of no importance whatsoever.
The two burly servants escorted him from the Palace, and Hari was left by a taxi stand to make his way back to the library and his far more comfortable, if far humbler, quarters.
In the taxi, pressed back into the cushions of the rear seat, Hari closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He might after all last no longer than the time it would take one of Sinter’s police assassins to shoot him. What would he tell Wanda? Had he succeeded, or had he simply made things worse?
It was impossible to know just how intelligent the Emperor actually was, how much control he exerted or wished to exert over his councilors and ministers. Klayus I was apparently a master at the art of concealing his true character and emotions, not to mention his intentions.
Still, Hari had long since known that Klayus was doomed to a short reign. His chances of being assassinated or deposed by Chen in the next two years were as high as sixty percent, no matter what his character or intelligence, according to the near-term glosses distilled from the equations in his Prime Radiant.
In his apartment within the library, Hari took off his clothes and showered quickly, then donned a thin night robe and sat on the edge of his simple frame bed. He checked through his messages. All could be taken care of when he returned to his offices tomorrow.
There were no windows in this apartment, no real luxuries at all; it was a simple two-room rectangle with a ceiling barely higher than his head. In all of Trantor, this was the only place where he could feel comfortable, safe, relaxed.
The only room where such illusions could prevail.