“What they don’t tell you about being the absolute ruler of the most powerful Empire in the world is how little you will want the job after the first ten to twelve minutes. I was fortunate though, I figured out how to lay down my burden after only a decade of carrying the weight of an entire nation on my back. It was going to be so simple. One little ritual and everyone would be invested with the sort of personal power even the highest lords of the Great Houses would envy. Then, with the populace so empowered, their need for an Empress would evaporate and I would be free to live and love as I chose.
It was a brilliant plan and it would have improved everyone’s lives incalculably, which, of course, is why those already in power decided it couldn’t be allowed to come to fruition.”– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm lecturing a stuffed animal Doxle gave her on the 237th anniversary of the Great Calamity.
I wasn’t supposed to feel bad for the Empress. She was, as she’d said, the absolute ruler of (arguably) the most powerful nation in the world, and, more importantly, possessed of so much arcane power my mind literally could not even try to fathom it. I’d tried to get a handle of just what it was I was sensing and some part of my psyche – the little used self-preservation instincts I’m going to guess – simply said ‘no’ in much the same tone they’d use if I not only tried to win a staring contest with the sun, but strapped magnifying glasses to my eyes first.
Despite all that though, I could hear the weight of the years in her voice. She was tired, and lonely, and well past the point where hope should have ended, but she was still hanging on. The look in her eyes wasn’t unfamiliar.
“How did they stop you though?” I asked, struggling to understand how someone who’d been able to endure what she had for over three hundred years and held so much power could have been undone by anything as trivial as the efforts of a few mortals.
In theory, I should have tried to steer the conversation back to the escrow funds for House Riverbond and beaten as hasty a retreat as possible, but the Empress and Doxle had fallen into banter and reminiscing so easily and she was so far removed from what I’d expected her to be that I found I wanted to know more.
“They used the usual method – treachery,” the Empress said. “No one in the Great Houses had the stomach to oppose me openly, so they worked through proxies to disrupt the spell and got this for their efforts.” She gestured to the garden of frost behind her and the people frozen into the giant frozen crystal block which dominated the area.
“The Great Houses were the ones who encased you in ice?” I asked, absolutely certain that couldn’t be the case. I couldn’t begin to comprehend her, but I knew that even if every caster in the Empire focused on the same spell the Empress could blow it away with the smallest puff of her breath.
“No, no, she did that to herself,” Doxle said, audibly charmed by the idea. “It was really quite clever in fact.”
“Clever? You screamed yourself hoarse when you first saw my work! It’s only been three hundred years, has your view changed so much?” the Empress asked.
“That…I hadn’t lost my composure for the work you did,” Doxle said. “It was for them.”
“Them?” I asked. It shouldn’t have been getting easier to talk to them. Here, at the site of the Great Calamity, neither one of them were hiding who they were and that left me roughly as important as one of the specs of dust I’d carried in. Normally I would had have had the sense to just shut up and turn into something invisible. Like a dust mite. Or a bacteria. Their being at ease though was bleeding into me.
“Our secret loves,” the Empress said, “I’ve had the benefit of their company this whole time where poor Doxxy has been entirely deprived his first husband’s warm embrace.”
I sniffed the air to see if she was drunk. Obviously she wasn’t. I’m pretty sure ghostly phantoms can’t get drunk, though with the amount of power she was carrying, the Empress might have been able to change that little bit of reality.
“Neither his embrace nor hers have likely been all too warm, unless you’ve made progress in the last few years?” Doxle asked. He wasn’t hopeful, but it didn’t sound like he’d given up completely either.
“I cannot progress,” the Empress said gesturing to her unaging, and apparently illusory, form. “Nor can we risk even the slightest bit of change, so do not offer to take my place again.”
“You wanted to take her place? Is that even possible?” I asked Doxle.
“No,” the Empress said at the same moment that Doxle said, “Yes.”
“It is possible in theory,” Doxle said. “In practice however there are certain risks.”
“In practice, the world would most likely be annihilated if I let the ice thaw in the slightest,” the Empress said.
“The world will eventually be annihilated anyways,” Doxle said.
“Yes, but not before we get them back,” the Empress said.
“You know, I’ve spent centuries talk to all sorts of people,” Doxle said. “Why are you still so much better at it than me?”
“I’m not terribly good at conversation” the Empress said. “My thoughts fly all over the place. You merely started off so very bad at it.”
“I was considered very well spoken for a theoretician,” Doxle said with mock offense. “I even managed to speak to you didn’t I?”
“I literally had to kick you to get four words out of you the first time we met.”
“Well you were very intimidating,” Doxle said.
“I was nine years old!”
“And I was only eight.”
“I suppose I did have my crown by then. Blasted thing.”
“I offered to melt it down for you that first time didn’t I?”
“And I asked if you could melt down the responsibilities which came with it.”
“If only I knew then what I know now,” Doxle said, conjuring a drink into his hand which he offered to the Empress.
I thought it would fall right through her since she was made of smoke and mist but it held fast in her grip. Doxle’s magics were fairly ridiculous I decided, though I had to concede that he’d had rather a long time to work out spells which could interact with the Empress.
“If we knew then what we know now, this world would not be here,” she said.
Doxle offered her a silent toast with his glass and a nod of agreement. I’d been lost by most of the rest of what they’d been talking about but that bit made sense. If the spell the Empress had been channeling hadn’t been messed up, the after effects centuries down the line would have left the world unrecognizable from the one we lived in.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Guilty maybe? At one point, not existing in the world had seemed like a wonderful thing. Right after Trina had…I don’t know if ‘died’ is still the right thing to call it. Right after I’d lost her, I’d felt like the entire world was one big ball of suffering and that it was worth it to do anything to leave and get back to where I was supposed to be. I was motivated enough at that point that I might have been able to figure out how to open a rift if I’d really let myself work at it. There was only one problem with that.
If I left then Grammy really would have been all alone and that would have broken me too.
So I stayed. At first ‘for her’, but over time living the life I’d assumed began to feel comfortable. I couldn’t be miserable all the time, I’m just not built for that, and living with Grammy was good. It filled me up. Little by little, I became someone I liked being.
But all that came at the cost of a world that could have been so much better, and I wasn’t willing to trade everything I was for that.
Maybe that was selfish of me but reflecting on it, I was fine with that too. I wasn’t going to waste time regretting who I was, not when I was still figuring out who I could be.
“Can I ask a question?” It was a stupid thing to say, since it was, in fact, a question in and of itself, and I’d already asked several questions, but I was not at all sure where the boundaries for my participation in the conversation were.
“Ask as many as you want,” the Empress said. “One of us will probably answer some of them.”
“You said you can’t change yourself or this situation, so why not change the Empire instead?”
Doxle started to speak but the Empress’s laughter cut him off.
“Look around,” she said. “We’re standing in the greatest monument the world has ever seen to the folly and hubris of attempting to change the Empire. I’ve spent the last three centuries living with the answer to the question ‘why don’t I change the Empire’.”
I looked over at the block of ice.
I looked at the Empress and then at Doxle.
“No you haven’t?” I said, puzzled over her assertion more than I’d been over anything she’d said so far.
“Oh? Do tell me why then,” the Empress said, not moving from her boneless slump on the chair. She had the air of someone who’d heard everything I might possibly say next and had passed beyond the ability to being upset by any of it.
“This isn’t the answer to a question,” I said, gesturing at her, at the room, and everything. “This is the question.”
The Empress slid into a proper sitting position and took on an expression of mild amusement.
“Are you going to suggest that vengeance is the answer?” she asked. “That seems to be a popular choice, moreso when the people I could have theoretically taken vengeance against were still alive. It loses it’s sting a bit when there’s a dozen or more generations between then and now.”
“What? No? I don’t have answers for you,” I said. “That’s my point.”
“I’m afraid you’ve left me a bit behind,” Doxle said, which had to be a lie, though I only smelled sincerity from him. Of course he could lie with his scent as easily as I could breathe so I couldn’t be sure at all.
“Where we are now. This present moment? The ‘present’ in general. It’s always a question,” I said. “What we see and know and can predict? That’s all a statement of what is. Answers are the domain of what can be, or what should be, or what must not be. We find them in the act of living, and from them we see a new present emerge, which holds its own questions – at the very least ‘what comes next?’”
The Empress smiled at that, which was a relief. She wasn’t going to squish me for speaking out of turn. Probably.
“And what question do you see here then?” the Empress asked.
“Lots of them,” I said. “I think the biggest one though is ‘given what you can’t do, what’s left that you can do’?”
“And if the answer is ‘nothing’, the Great Houses won?”
“Then I’d say you need to keep asking question, because that answer is definitely wrong.”
“Is it?” the Empress asked and she was much too happy with were the conversation was going.
“You’re doing something now,” I said. “If you can interact with people like this, you can still learn about how the world is and then act upon it.”
“How can I act when I’m not really here?” the Empress asked and waved her arm through her seat’s arm rest.
“Just like this!” I said. “All you would need is someone you could talk to. Someone who would be willing to be honest with you and would be willing to act in your place.”
“Perhaps, but what would this person gain for their service?” the Empress asked, her eyes gleaming with delight.
“You’re over three hundred years old,” I said. “Even apart from the galaxy sized well of arcane power you’re holding, you’ve got centuries of knowledge to draw on, including the actual history of how we got here. Anyone who wanted to fix what was wrong with the Empire would need all of that.”
“Yes, I suppose you would,” the Empress said, the delight in her words sounding exactly like a trap closing right over me.