In a grimy Soho bar in November 1975, nobody recognised her when the heir to the Empire of Albion walked in. As a human-saurian hybrid fashionably dressed in nearly-shredded jeans and a tartan waistcoat, she drew no particular attention. She ordered a vodka, received watery whisky paid for with crumpled counterfeit bills bearing her mother’s face, and set to work fomenting revolution.
A band, already drunk and squabbling loudly as they set up their instruments, hid Violet from the disinterested view of the bar patrons. Most were there to see the short-fused gang of criminal miscreants calling themselves the Stegs, though it would be more precise to say the crowd were there to get mean-drunk and assault each other, to the beat of the Stegs’ recent hit “Tastes Like Chicken”.
Violet, on the other hand, was there to see a friend of the family. It occurred to her that the recent radical changes in her appearance – hair entirely shorn but for the glue-stiffened centre plume, pierced nose, ears and top lip, and the livid scar stretching from shoulder to clavicle – might confuse her contact, but Beryl spotted her at once and waved her over to a quiet table protected from the worst of the noise and thrown glass.
Beryl wrinkled her long nose in mock disgust. “This, of all places, is where you wanted to meet me?” Somehow she did not need to shout over the clamour of the Stegs’ amateurish sound check.
Violet waved a hand at the jostling crowd spilling flat beer and cheap liquor on the floor and each other. “Look at them Beryl. What do you see?”
“I see angry skinheads, drunken boors and young ladies who most certainly should consult a dictionary before getting tattooed,” replied the Great Dragon of Albion. In this grotty setting, her human presentation as an elegantly-dressed Middle Eastern woman of late middle age was barely less incongruous than a full-sized dragon would have been. She scrutinised Violet with an air of amused shrewdness. “Why, dear, what do you see?”
“I see a generation on the edge, great Wyrm. I see cynicism and hopelessness. I see the fruits of stagnation and corruption. I see youth with no cause for ambition and no heart for their future.”
Beryl twirled a fingertip in her drink, which was an implausibly colourful layered cocktail, complete with a paper umbrella. Violet has seen no such signs of sophistication when she’d visited the bar. At last Beryl said, “You speak of the youth of Albion, dear, as if you are not of an age with them. Tell me how you feel.”
Violet flushed, equally embarrassed and angry. “Does it matter?”
“Everything matters, my dear. The mind of the Empress is the will of Albion, and you will be Empress soon enough.”
The Stegs began to play something wildly cacophonous, less music than instrumental abuse. Violet’s glass splintered and shattered in her grip, spilling whisky. “That’s just it, isn’t it? What will I be Empress of?”
Beryl shrugged, perfectly able to hear and speak over the Stegs’ din. “The Empire of Albion embraces every corner of the earth, Violet. If that’s not enough for you, I understand there is talk among the more radical elements in the Society for Extranormal Research of mounting an expedition to the red planet.”
“It’s all just talk! All anyone does now is talk and get fat, unless they happen to be one of the billions who work their fingers raw to keep the Empire going.”
“There’s world peace,” observed Beryl. “Well, mostly. I admit things are a bit fractious here and there in the Americas.”
“Most of the world is a slave state making stuff to send back to England, to prop up a bloated, inbred ruling class!”
Beryl raised an elegant eyebrow. “Inbred, dear?”
Violet picked shard of glass from between the fine purple scales on her hand. “You do know that the Imperial Board of Heraldry is planning to recommend I be married off to one of Lord Growl’s great-nephews?”
“Snapmarrow? He seems like a nice lad.”
“He’s my second cousin!”
“So what are you saying, dear? Do you want me to help you get out of an ill-advised marital pairing?”
As the Stegs’ grand clamour climaxed in a collision of clashing drums, wailing guitars and guttural snarls, Violet scratched the symbolic A of the Empire into the table top, then slashed through it with her thumb-talon. “No, great Wyrm. I want you to help me free my people. All of them. Everywhere.”
“Well good for you, love. I think you’re right. It’s about time to move things along.”
Beryl winked. The idea of how it could be done, how their designs would unfold step by step, blossomed in Violet’s mind as if they’d been conspiring for months.
Into the tumultuous din between songs, Beryl issued a high-pitched warble. Every full-blooded and hybrid Saurian in the club, as well as most of the humans, fell quiet. They stared as she chirped something to the Stegs’ lead singer, who snarled quietly at the rest of the band.
“If you lead them, dear,” Beryl said, draining her drink and standing, “they’ll follow you.”
With a grateful nod to the green-faced Saurian singer, Violet claimed the microphone. The crowd grumbled at the interruption to the Stegs’ mayhem, ready to throw whatever was at hand. She silenced them with a full-throated growl.
“I’m Vee! Some of you might know my Mum,” she bellowed into the shocked silence. “I’ve got a message for you, so shut up and listen close. Tonight, every single one of you is going to go home and start a band. Spread the word to the far side of the world.”
She looked around at the Stegs, who took up their instruments, and then at Beryl, the Great Dragon of Albion, seated at the drums.
“This one’s called End of Empire. One – two – three – four!”
Today’s spark of revolution against a corrupt and broken world order is set in the same world as Four Letters Undelivered Due to the Present Difficulties, and is a successor to An Imperial Engagement. You don’t really need to have read them to get this story, unless you’d like to know why some of the characters are dinosaur-people.
I’m having a lovely family holiday in northern New South Wales, where the weather is warm, the surf is cool and the car air-conditioner is – oops, it’s broken. Well, at least the surf is cool.
I wish you all a safe and cheerful end to 2018, and I hope you are doing what you can to recharge and prepare yourself for the year to come. I am sure that 2019 will be historically quiet and unremarkable and not at all one continuous garbage fire of malfeasance, incompetence and general iniquity. All the same it’s probably best to be prepared. Just in case.