“They say doing what’s right isn’t easy. That it’s hard to stick to your ideals when the world is oh so very complicated. There are so many compromises that we must make, so many evils we must overlook, but the reality is that those are all excuses.
In each moment, we have the choice to do the right thing. Regardless of what we’ve done before, regardless of what it might cost us, because our prior choices only inform who we are they don’t constrain who we can be, and the costs we can imagine are as often based on our fears as they are reality.
Doing what’s right isn’t easy, but that’s true for one reason only. Until we understand ourselves, and understand the world we are a part of, our understanding of what’s right will be only a guess, and understanding ourselves and our world is the journey of a lifetime.”– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm in the speech which inspired the Great Houses to collaborate on ending her reign.
The funny thing about head trauma is that it can make you hear things that certainly could not be true. Okay, that’s a grossly inaccurate characterization of head trauma, not to mention the fact that I don’t really need my brain (Doxle smirked when I thought that, for which I will being enacting my revenge at some point), but I was really coming up without any better explanations for what the Empress Eternal had said.
“I thought you didn’t want anything to change?” I said, more than a little concerned that my little joke about tearing down all of the Great Houses had offended her? Except she didn’t look offended at all. And she didn’t sound offended.
Delighted. If I had to place an emotional content for her words and her general demeanor, I would have had to go with “delighted”, except for the part where that made no sense.
“I have never said that. I want a great many things, almost all of which require change on a scale which would terrify any sensible being. What I do not want however is to sacrifice everything that is and everything I desire on an ill-considered stunt to assuage my former betrothed’s lingering sense of guilt at not preventing a Calamity which was in no way his fault.”
I glanced over to Doxle at that to catch his reaction, but he didn’t make any, his lips bearing only the slightest trace of a rueful smile before he spoke.
“Guilt or innocence weighs so much less than what we might still do for our benighted realm and, far more importantly, those we love,” he said. I’d expected him to offer a flippant remark. The sincerity in his eyes felt like something I wasn’t supposed to see. Doxle wasn’t the sentimental or maudlin sort. I hadn’t known him long, admittedly, but I’d thought I’d understood him.
He was too old, and too removed to be touched by the world. Everything that happened was something he’d seen before and all the little trials and tribulations which worried us petty mortals so much were nothing more than passing amusements for him.
It made sense that he’d either courted, seduced, or fought a blood feud with everyone vaguely of his social class – or even all of the above – because life was simply boring for him.
What could be important after all that time after all?
The Empress? But she was so cold and remote, even less of a mortal being than he was.
Except she wasn’t.
She was his friend.
Probably his oldest friend.
And then there was the man in the ice. The one his eyes kept seeking out even though every glance looked like it hit him like a jagged knife through the heart.
Doxle was a demon. Demon’s didn’t hold tender places in their hearts. Demons didn’t walk under the weight of unbearable sorrow and hide it from all around them. Demons didn’t love. And Doxle was a demon.
“They are trapped in a frozen moment, unchanging, uncaring, unknowing,” the Empress said, her words clearly a reminder which she’d spoken countless times before. “We’re the only ones for whom the grindstone of time turns and we’re the only ones who carry its weight.”
“It is a most unequal division though, you must agree,” Doxle said, his mask of charm and good humor still firmly in place.
“Of course,” the Empress said, ignoring his seeming and speaking with a compassion which refused to be blinded by the illusions Doxle so carefully wove. “You shoulder far more of it than you must, I skip from day to night like a stone on a pond, time passing me by in the blinks I never take, while you carry on across every weary second.”
“Some are not so weary,” he said and nodded at me.
Which…that made no sense at all.
“If we destroy the Great Houses though, won’t that be the end of the empire?” I asked.
“I should hope so,” the Empress said, brightening at the idea. “I worked rather hard to achieve the end of our wretched creation three centuries ago, and I can’t say that the conditions which drove me to that extreme have improved, or even remained at their previously intolerable state. We have less need of the Empire with every year, and more reason to see it end.”
“How did it get like this?” I asked. “If you’ve been here, working to improve, or even end it, or whatever for three hundred years, why isn’t it better?”
“That’s largely my fault,” Doxle said.
“How?” I asked, boggled at the idea that he was undermining the Empress’s work given how well they seemed to be getting along.
“He’s unwilling to make certain sacrifices which I have long since resigned myself to,” the Empress said.
“By which she means, I am disinclined to allow her to sacrifice herself in order to preserve those within the Great Houses whom she deems worthy,” Doxle said. “A better world cannot be…no, more accurate to say a better world will not be built on the sacrifice of one who has endured as much as she has to see it come to pass.”
“And on this, we have disagreed for centuries now,” the Empress said. “Though, I am not so passionately wed to my own destruction as he is to my preservation.”
“I…I don’t understand. Why would improving the Empire require you to be destroyed? There’s got to be room to make things better without going to that extreme right?”
“There are, and that is why I would be of service to you,” the Empress said. “My authority was built on the acceptance of it by the Great Houses, and the wealth, and arcane might which the Imperial Throne possessed. The Calamity marked the end of the first pillar of my rule and severely curtailed the second. As for the third, I possess a wellspring of power beyond what any mortal or god could hope to attain and yet each mote of it is circumscribed, held in rigidly in place lest they all crash down upon our world. I am the most powerful caster to ever live, or who ever could live, and I can work no magic at all.”
“Really?” I asked, pointing to her clearly magicked projection.
“Well, all rules are meant to be broken,” she said with a shrug. “At least a little bit.”
“It’s this room, isn’t it?” I asked, as I started to feel the shape of the magic which surrounded us. “We’re not…this isn’t within the Empire is it?”
The Empress’s eyes sparkled at that as a broad smile spread across her face.
“It is not,” she said, sounding almost gleeful. “What you see, apart from the ice and those frozen within, is a projection.”
We were not in a projection. That was ridiculous. I could feel the solidly real chair underneath me. I could smell its definitely real aroma. And the carpets. And the walls of books. And the winds that blew in through the open window and the clear…
It was not sky that was outside the room.
It was not sky.
It was not.
I think I screamed for a bit at that point.
Not for long.
A couple of years maybe?
I was quiet too.
It wasn’t anymore than a muffled little whimper.
The nearest mountains crumbled from the pressure of the sound waves, but mountains aren’t that big. I mean they’re just little bumps on the surface of the…
Doxle helped me get back up into the chair, and I saw that the Empress had sat up and was regarding me with a puzzled expression.
“You…hmm, most people can’t see through that,” she said. “How are you feeling now?”
“One second,” I said. “Gotta put all that in the Forget-At-Once bin.”
I didn’t have a Forget-At-Once bin, but that did not stop me from slicing those memories off and casting them into what was either the dark recesses of my own mind or the deepest pits of oblivion.
“Okay. I’m better. Wow. That was a mistake.” I had learned my lesson though. I was never, ever going to so much as glance out the windows in the Empress’s room.
I was firm in that resolve as I glanced up, to just peak out the window again and had to blink. There weren’t any windows. There couldn’t ever have been. The entire room was filled with bookcases. Very real, very solid bookcases. There wasn’t any room for the windows which I definitely did not remember looking out and which I was absolutely not clawing away at in my mind to see again.
Yes. I know I was being stupid. I knew then that I was being stupid. I am occasionally very stupid.
“You are far wiser than you believe,” the Empress said. “And intriguingly more adept.”
“I have a few advantages when it comes to manipulating magic,” I said, most of which boiled down to the fact that I was practicing my spellcasting at every moment of every day.
“Your advantages don’t make you what you are,” the Empress said before turning to Doxle. “Are you sure I can’t give her the Imperial treasury?”
“It would be magnificently disruptive, but I believe neither of you would enjoy the ultimate outcome of that particular brand of chaos,” he said.
The Empress sighed.
“I am fortunate you chose to take the role of Advisor.”
“The fortune was all mine,” Doxle said.
“Not all,” the Empress said and cast a meaningful glance at me that I couldn’t decipher.
It was tempting to be silent and let them have their moment.
So I did.
What? I had a lot to think about. Or not-think about if we count whatever was outside the Empress’s windows.
“If I might make a suggestion,” the Empress said, maybe after a bit more banter with Doxle.
“To me?” I asked once I worked out that she was looking in my direction.
“In their greed the Great Houses have violated not only Imperial law, but natural law as well. You’ve encountered one of the fraying threads of the world’s tapestry they’ve torn loose already. Pull on that and all sorts of interesting things may unravel.”
I could have asked for her to speak a bit more plainly, but in this case I didn’t need her too.
“The Clockwork Cosmos, that’s not something they should be messing with is it?” I asked, already certain of the answer.
“They are courting disaster like the power-mad fools they are, and disaster is most receptive to their advances,” the Empress said. “My recommendation is to make sure the disaster befalls those most deserving of it, and spares those whom the Great Houses would have bear the suffering in their place.”
“I like the sound of that, but I could use some more concrete ideas on how to go about making it happen,” I said, hoping I wasn’t sounding too ungrateful.
“For that I would recommend that you speak to your sister,” the Empress said. “She’s been working on that problem for quite a while now.”