Million Dollar Mustard
By Curtis C. Chen
“I’ll give you a million dollars for that jar of Fweran mustard.”
The man standing in the doorway of the kitchen was tall and burly, everything one would expect a career military officer to be. Especially one who had risen in the ranks under the current administration.
“Sorry,” I said, keeping one hand on the now-open jar as I turned to face the man. “My wife would kill me. And I suspect you don’t actually have the cash on you.”
The man chuckled. He probably meant it as a friendly gesture, two blokes sharing a late-night joke over a midnight snack, but I knew too much about him. It was definitely a threat, whether he intended it or not.
“Fair enough,” he said, walking over to stand on the other side of the counter. “Can’t blame me for trying, can you?”
I counted to ten before speaking again.
“Although,” I said slowly, “we might be willing to share it. If you don’t mind accompanying me back to our suite?” I held up the stack of two plates, a butterknife, and the unlidded jar of mustard for him to see. “I just came down here for the hardware. All the software’s upstairs.”
I held his gaze while waiting for him to respond. It turned my stomach to look at that face for so long, but I kept reminding myself that this was all part of a larger plan, a higher purpose.
“This isn’t some weird sex thing, is it?” he asked.
“Certainly not!” I didn’t have to work too hard to show indignation. “My word. I realize we’re on the Fweran border right now, but my wife and I are Thann, born and raised.” I nodded at the mustard, which scent was filling the room now. “We acquired this during our recent travels.”
The man’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Strange time for a holiday.”
“Oh, I agree.” My hands were sweating, but I didn’t dare put down my cargo for fear of seeming unsteady. And I wanted to keep the smell in his face. “We’re agricultural scientists. We were conducting farm surveys for the imperial census.”
His eyes returned to normal. “I see. Perks of the job, eh?”
I did my best impression of a smug bureaucrat. “Well, you know, if a fellow subject of the throne wishes to bestow a gift upon a humble civil servant, it’s certainly not my place to refuse the honor.”
The man chuckled. “I actually don’t have much cash on me.”
“Money? Perish the thought!” I drew the plates—and the mustard—back toward my chest with my best theatrical flourish. “And if you were to offer any sort of compensation, I’m afraid it would be down to my wife to decline politely.”
I’ve never understood all the Thann customs and traditions surrounding gift-giving and hospitality. But I know them well enough, since not following the rules gets people like me imprisoned or executed.
The man smiled broadly and waved at the door. “Lead the way, then, my good citizen.”
Medrah must have heard our footsteps approaching on the narrow, winding staircase of the old cottage, because she was waiting by the door with her scalpel. As soon as the soldier stepped through, following me over the threshold, she moved forward and slit his throat in a single stroke.
I hadn’t expected so much blood, or for it to spray so far. Medrah barely noticed it as she shut the door, lowered the still-twitching dead man to the floor, and rolled him onto his stomach to cut the ident implant out of the back of his neck. I managed to set down my plates, without spilling the mustard, before fleeing into the bathroom to vomit into the toilet.
When I came back, she was done with the body and washing the implant clean in the ceramic bowl on the dressing table. The water had gone pink. I gingerly stepped around the corpse now soiling the rug behind her and sat down in the chair she had moved beside the vanity, under the window.
“Ready?” she asked.
“Yes,” I lied.
She planted a gentle kiss on the back of my neck and swabbed it with alcohol.
Two hours later, I was approaching the central district in my stolen vehicle, and the throbbing pain at the base of my skull had almost subsided.
Everything had gone to plan so far. Medrah and I had identified a settlement on the border where Thann soldiers were being lodged, and we had used the Fweran mustard—a delicacy little seen farther inland—to lure one of them into a secluded location. Then my wife, the former surgeon who had been forced into hiding by the purges, killed the soldier, extracted his military identification implant, and re-homed the device in my own body.
We had been planning this for years now. It took time to discover how the Thann implants worked, time to reverse engineer them and find that they would not operate unless the host body had specific Thann genetic markers, and much more time for Medrah and her cohort of medical exiles to develop a gene therapy that would change a Fwere into a Thann. At least chromosomally, just enough to fool the implant.
She wept when the tests revealed that I was one of the few in our camp whose genome was suitable for the therapy. I, too, initially bristled at the thought of being turned into anything like our oppressors, even if it was at an unnoticeable, microscopic level. But Medrah and I both agreed that this was a necessary thing. We had suffered too much already—our families, our friends, our communities—and we needed to do something.
It had to end at some point. And this way, at least we would have some control over the time and manner of our deaths.
My heart sank when I exited the Princes’ Bridge onto Capitol Island and saw crowds of people with signs milling in the street beyond the checkpoint. There were all kinds there, young and old, skin colors running the entire spectrum from the lightest mountain Thann to the darkest coastal Fwere, and their signs bore slogans like END THE WAR and BRING THEM HOME.
“What’s with the parade?” I jokingly asked the guard at the checkpoint as he scanned my implant.
“Flippin’ protestors,” the guard grumbled. “Seems like more of them every day.”
“They do this every day?”
He gaped at me. “For months now. Where have you been, friend?”
“Out on the border,” I said, my mouth dry.
The guard scoffed. “Welcome home. You’re all clear.” He waved at the shack behind him, and the barricade opened to let me through.
“Thank you, friend. By the way, it’s been some time—what’s the best way to get from here to the Royal Gallery?”
“Through all that?” The guard waved at the crowd of protestors and shook his head. “Good flippin’ luck.”
I spent a fruitless hour trying to navigate my way around a maze of roadblocks and throngs of people marching and chanting. I could hardly believe this was the same Capitol Island I’d visited as a child, on a school trip. Back then, it had seemed so orderly, so clean. And even though I now understood that the facade of a well-behaved citizenry was sustained by the brutal application of secret policing, it still seemed a shame that such a beautiful place was now playing host to such a rabble.
Finally, I gave up on driving anywhere and abandoned the vehicle in an alley. As I walked away, a small group of protestors found it and began coordinating their efforts to topple it onto its side. Shortly thereafter, by means which I could not discern, the vehicle caught fire. My stomach did an anxious somersault at the sight of wanton property damage, but I wouldn’t be needing the car anymore. Our plan didn’t include me leaving the island alive.
I meandered through the crowd for a while, only being gently jostled as I sometimes went against the tide of the marching direction. After a while, I had to admit defeat—I had no idea where the Royal Gallery, and the computer control center hidden beneath it, was. I searched the crowd for the most Fwere-looking man I could find and accosted him, asking directions.
“The gallery? Ain’t you heard, man? Everything’s closed! That’s what a hundred straight days of protesting will do to a city!”
He whooped, raising a fist in the air, and those around him joined in the cheer. I frantically made up a story about how I had lost my wife in the crowd, and our agreed-upon fallback plan was to meet each other in the plaza of the Royal Gallery should we become separated. The man accepted this and pointed me in the right direction.
The automated security fencing around the Royal Gallery recognized my implant and let me through. I shook while stepping through the barrier, but regained my composure as I walked into the empty building. Being hidden from view of the street calmed me somewhat, and I sat down on a bench in the lobby to collect myself and remember the instructions I’d been given for accessing the computers.
I closed my eyes and visualized the gallery’s floor map, the hidden security door, the tunnels down to the vault, the entry to the data center. The codes I would need to unlock the main cage. The command I would enter into the central terminal to trigger the system’s self-destruct function.
There wouldn’t be enough time for me to get back aboveground at that point. This place would be my grave. I had made my peace with that. To be laid to rest with some of the empire’s greatest artistic treasures—even if most of them had been pillaged from neighboring civilizations—that was more than the child of a humble farmer could ever have imagined.
I opened my eyes and saw the painting displayed across the lobby from me. It was one of the mid-century Harwols, a colorful pop-art rendition of a jar of Fweran yellow mustard in three vertical frames. The top showed the closed jar; the middle showed two hands opening the jar—one dark, one light—and the bottom showed the jar toppled on its side, the contents spilled out. Aside from the hands, every color in the painting was some shade of yellow.
I remembered the smell of mustard and the feeling of Medrah’s lips on my skin.
Before I could rise to continue my final task, a booming female voice came vibrating through the closed doors on my left. It sounded like a loudspeaker.
“Citizens! The king has abdicated. I repeat, the king has abdicated! We have confirmed reports from—”
The rest of the announcement was drowned out by cheers and yelling, a storm of vocalization that rumbled the ground. For a moment, I thought it might be an earthquake. I ran for the door, remembering the old advice to be outside a building during a quake.
The noise was deafening. The crowd seemed to be surging in every direction, and too late, I realized I had left the security gate to the gallery open. A stream of protestors rushed into the plaza, then past me into the museum itself. Some of them stopped to clap me on the shoulder, or embrace me, or merely shout or laugh excitedly at me. I nodded at each one, still dazed and unable to process what was happening.
My feet carried me toward the announcer, and eventually her words became clear again.
“The king and his court have abandoned the palace! The senate have appointed a provisional minister, and a special election will be held next week, in which all citizens will vote on a new future government!”
The woman was standing in the back of a truck, holding a bullhorn in one hand and a dataphone in the other. She seemed to be reading off the screen of the latter. Behind her, three men danced, holding aloft a banner with the hand-painted words ALL EMPIRES FALL.
I looked around at the crowd of people, a protest turned into a celebration. I spotted a teenage boy looking at his own phone. I made my way over to him.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Is it true? Are you seeing this on the news?”
The boy looked up at me with tears in his eyes. “Yes. It’s true, my friend. We won.”
He held his phone out to me, and I looked at the screen. It was a report from one of the few remaining free press sites in the empire, a Fweran news agency, and it detailed how the pervasive and ongoing protests that had sprung up in every part of the empire over the last three months had at last forced the king and his cronies to cede power.
They were leaving. Not because they had been assassinated, or because their guards and armies had been destroyed, or because they had been conquered by another regent. They were stepping down because the people no longer wished them to rule, and enough of the people had expressed that in no uncertain terms.
And all of these protests, these marches, these demonstrations had been nonviolent. No matter how much the police and soldiers and royal guards pushed back, injuring or even killing people, the citizens stayed peaceful. They had not filled the streets because they wanted to cause trouble. They had taken to the streets to end the trouble.
My legs felt weak. I thanked the boy and walked back to the gallery plaza, which had become an impromptu music venue and dance floor. I found a bench in a distant corner and sat down.
It was true. All these people—these people especially—would not be celebrating without certainty. And with the king gone, the reason for my mission to destroy the computer center was also gone.
I didn’t have to die here.
I sat and watched the dancers and listened to the music for a little while. Then I dried my tears, stood, and walked back into the museum.
The alarms went as soon as I touched the painting in the lobby, and continued as I wrenched it off the wall, but nobody heard it over the noise outside. Nobody cared about someone stealing a bit of art when the empire had just fallen.
I tucked the painting of a jar of mustard under one arm and began the long walk back to my wife.
Originally published on Curious Fictions, 2020.