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Day Twenty: Audience

High Commander Otaiu, keeper of the Riverwalls and one of only three living beings permitted to carry a weapon anywhere in the Imperial Keep, stood in front of the great steel and gold door of the Emperor’s chambers and took a deep breath. He was a soldier. A warrior. A High Commander. High Commanders did not get nervous. High Commanders did not need a pause to collect themselves.

Then again, most High Commanders didn’t have to tell their Emperor that his realm was falling apart. He passed the thick vellum envelope from one hand to another and back again.

Otaiu nodded to one of the doorkeepers, a woman, like all of the Emperor’s inner circle of servants and advisers. In another realm, this might have been the subject of humor or derision. Here, there was nothing but respect. Or, failing that, having one’s tongue cut out.

The doors slid open noiselessly, revealing a vast room that looked totally unlike the sterile metal and concrete palace that had been built in the formerly rich and diverse heart of the city of Quijaj. The palace was spotlessly white, outside and in. From afar, travelers could see it shining in the sunlight from as far as the Raniet outpost, a full hour away by even the best wind-gliders. Even on cloudy days, it hurt to look at the palace, and most of the citizens of Quijaj learned to put it out of their minds.

The inside was just as featureless. An invading force could wander the rest of their lives without finding anything but the rooms they had just left. Without the Spriteguides, it was impossible to go anywhere. Once you found where you were going, the featurelessness continued. Administrative offices were stark and clean-lined. Residences for visitors were utterly unadorned. It was as though no one in the palace was allowed a distraction from either their duty or their thoughts. What purpose this served, only the imperial architect know, and he – according to the best traditions – had been quietly assassinated within hours of the palace’s completion.

So, walking into the throne room required a moment of adjustment for even someone like High Commander Otaiu. Lush greenery was spread about the room, crawling up the walls and overflowing deep red earthenware pots. The walls were covered in mosaics of uncountable colors, depicting geometric impossibilities that could draw you in and entrance you if you were not careful. The floors were a deep, golden brown. Hardwood. And not just any hardwood – the wood from the Fess trees of the Emperor’s birthland. A tiny grove on the other side of the world, and it was razed just to make a floor.

Water ran from fountains that were hidden by drooping vines, and tiny, bright birds flew among the treetops, high in the ceiling where sunlight streamed in. The throne room was like nowhere else in the world.

The guard on this side of the door cleared her throat. Otaiu hadn’t realized he had stopped, and was staring. He nodded to her, but she simply kept her eyes on him, and her hand on the stingstick at her side. Otaiu stepped forward, eyes down, concentrating on the deep and resonant thump of his bootheels against the brightly polished floor.

When the wood gave way to a circle of pale blue marble, Otaiu dropped to one knee, his fingertips right at the edge. He laid the envelope down next to his hands. “I have come, Highness, as you have commanded.”

The voice of the Emperor was all most people knew of him. It was high and reedy, with a nasalness that made him sound perpetually worried. To speak these words, especially in the throne room, would invite instant death, but Otaiu had no problem thinking that the Emperor sounded like a petulant teenager.

Which, for all Otaiu knew, could have been true. He knew that people are born, and people die. He had helped many along that path himself. Officially, however, the Emperor was not truly a man. He had, therefore, never been born, and never died, and there was no evidence to prove otherwise.

“And we’re most grateful to have you, High Commander,” the Emperor said. “We are grateful that you were able to come on such short notice.”

“It is my honor and pleasure to serve, Highness,” Otaiu said. He smelled something from the Emperor’s direction. The smell of mint and good soap. “If it pleases the Emperor, I would like to give him the news he requested.”

“It pleases him,” the Emperor said. His voice sounded like he wanted to laugh.

“I request the First Freedom,” Otaiu said.

There was a moment of silence, spoiled only by the sound of a knuckle being cracked. “You may have it,” the Emperor said after a moment. “Speak your heart.”

Otaiu took another one of those deep breaths that High Commanders never took. “There is dissent in the city of Quijaj,” he said. “Factions are arising among the populace that feel that the Emperor’s reign has served its purpose and needs to be replaced with something more… democratic.”

This time the pause was longer. There wasn’t true silence in the throne room. The fountains continued to spill water into small pools, and the birds still sang as they flew upwards towards the great glass dome. Nonetheless, a certain kind of quiet seemed to radiate from the throne, and Otaiu didn’t want to know what would follow it.

“Democratic,” the Emperor said after a minute’s thought. “As in, allowing the people to rule?”

“Yes, Highness.”

“The people. The roiling masses. The workers and the grifters and the whores?”

“Yes, Highness.”

“The half-wit laborers, the criminals and the drunken artists who can hardly manage their own lives, let alone rule a city?”

“Yes, Highness.”

The Emperor drummed his fingers on the arm of the throne. It sounded like it was made of fess-wood as well. “You know I don’t enjoy humor, Commander,” he said.

“I wouldn’t think of joking about this, Highness,” Otaiu said. Not unless I enjoyed slow death. “My militia network has brought convincing evidence. If it were just one group, we could eliminate them without too much trouble. But it is beginning to become systemic.” His knees were beginning to ache. “If we are to end this trend -”

“And you are,” the Emperor muttered.

“If we are to end this trend, then we need to have a systemic response. I have drafted one for your consideration.” He picked up the envelope from the floor and held it out. A moment later, a pair of small slippered feet appeared at his side, and a pale hand that smelled of honey and flowers took it from him.

“Before I consider your idea,” the Emperor said, “I wonder if you might hear one of my own.” There was a beat of tense silence. “Under the First Freedom, of course,” he finished.

Otaiu knew what that meant. First Freedom or no, his idea was finished. At least for now. “It would be an honor, Highness,” he said, trying to keep the tightness out of his voice.

“Unleash my sons on them.”

Otaiu nearly lost his balance. Everything about that sentence sounded wrong to him. “I- I’m sorry, Highness? Your sons?”

“You knew I had sons, did you not?”

“I was unaware, Highness.” Otaiu cursed in his head, a loud, virulent stream of invective. He knew where this was going.

“I have seven,” the Emperor continued, “born of strong and cunning mothers. And they do get bored easily. Put them in charge of the city. Give them free rein to root out subversion and dissent.” The smile crept into the Emperor’s voice again. “I think you will find this ‘democracy’ nonsense will fade from the public’s mind quickly enough.”

“I see,” said Otaiu, who didn’t. “What skills to they possess? So that I may best utilize them,” he added quickly.

“Their skills lay in dealing death and pain,” the Emperor said. “And they will not be under your command. They will be under no command but their own.” He made a small thinking noise. “Out of consideration for your loyalty, however, I will furnish you with what information you need to know. So that you may assist them if necessary.”

Otaiu opened his mouth to object, to push the First Freedom as far as he could, but he was interrupted. “Your audience is over,” a new voice said. It was a beautiful, cold voice. It was the voice a marble statue would have if it came to life. He stood, and his knees cracked. He kept his head down and bowed in the direction of the throne. “As you wish, Highness,” he said. He turned on his heel, finally able to bring his eyes up, and bit his tongue until he was back through the great gold and steel door.

This would be a disaster. There was no other way for it to be.

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