The Empire's New Emperor, by Sarah Deeming
Father’s body lies in the crypt, observing the traditional three days wait to ensure he is dead and not in an enchanted sleep. He isn’t. I was there when he keeled head first into his turnip soup. I watched him for a long time just in case he needed saving, but there were no air bubbles.
So, there is no need to wait before his interment, but it doesn’t hurt me to observe this tradition, nor the one about the amount of incense that should be burnt to mask the smell of decay. Also, it gives me time to think while the capital holds its breath to see what sort of emperor I will be.
I’m not sure, if I’m honest. Father expected me to rule as he did. A change of management, not management style. He had been a stern emperor, formidable, cold, heartless. I believe it wasn’t always so, but then The Event happened, and everything changed.
Father was the only person who openly spoke of The Event. He told me he was young and foolish, listened to other people too often, and allowed them to influence his behavior too many times. Two men tried to take advantage of the situation, but Father turned their trick on them, went along with it to show that his advisers were shiftless sycophants only interested in advancing themselves.
I have my doubts. Father was not the sort of man to suffer fools. He was more likely to send them for re-education in the dungeons than parade naked through the street. Plus, no one else can speak about The Event. If anyone does, particularly in the capital, Father’s soldiers round them up. Any man, woman or child who even mentions The Event in any way other than a cunning plan by my father is re-educated in the dungeons. Except those who talk about the size of his . . . ahem, empire. They’re never seen again.
"It was a damned cold day, my boy. Takes a real man to do what I did. A real man," he would say.
My brother always agrees, nodding like his head’s loose. I don’t, but then my brother was taught to lead an army based on the emperor’s orders. I had other lessons.
A good ruler never listens to lesser men. They give petty advice because they have only petty concerns. They cannot think beyond their own gain to the good of the empire.
A good ruler has a strong army. Without a loyal armed force, a ruler is a puppet at the mercy of his court.
Do not waste time or finances on frivolous purchases. Fine clothes and good food are for weak men.
No one slanders the Emperor. To do so is to undermine the foundation of authority the empire is built on and punishable by re-education.
All small children are banned from public events.
Those were the lessons I have received since birth. My younger brother learned warfare, re-education, and to say “yes" to the emperor a lot, which is sycophantic behavior according to Father. Expressing that opinion almost got me sent for re-education. I learned to think for myself within reason. I still needed to agree with Father which is hard when you’re taught to think for yourself. I often worry that Father was more successful with my brother than me. He was never threatened with re-education.
I fidget with the stiff collar of my shirt. Father is in his armor. He never took it off except to go to bed and then he wore mail. His skin was rust-red. I have no idea how he produced children. My brother wants a continuation of Father’s style of rule because he can’t see another way. Perhaps he is the only person who doesn’t hope I will be different to Father. Father tried hard to make me another version of himself, but I don’t think I am.
Will I be sort of ruler who bans my subjects from public events because they are not afraid to speak the truth?
Am I so insecure that I torture people so they “forget” my questionable decisions?
Will I hide behind soldiers because I feel impotent in front of my own subjects?
Is there a place somewhere between taking everyone’s advice and no one’s that I should strive for?
When I was little, I crept into the forbidden room in the tallest tower. It was full of clothes, the finest I have ever seen, made of materials so soft I thought I was touching heaven. So soft, so luxurious. There are only two types of clothing in the capital, soldiers in their armor and civilians in suits like mine, black high-collared jacket and formal trousers with white shirt or blouse. There is one design for men and another for women. Don’t come here if you want a job in tailoring.
I asked my nanny about them. She said they belonged to Father. That was all. I didn’t see her again. I am sorry I never knew the man who wore those clothes, that I only knew the man who banished a woman from saying they belonged to him. I hope she was only banished.
I didn’t understand Father’s single-minded desire to rewrite history then, but I do now. He never got over the shame of being fooled into walking around the capital naked, or the realization that he meant so little to his people, they valued their jobs over his dignity. I understand why he didn’t want to be The Naked Emperor but from what I’ve seen, The Armored Emperor is no better.
I undo my top button and take the deepest breath of my life. Strange, I never realized how suffocated I was until this moment. With the weight of an empire settling on my shoulders, I feel free. There is no more fear. No heavy expectations of an iron-fisted rule. No one looking over my shoulder. Whatever I do now will be compared against a tyrant. I can’t fail.
The impulse grips me to remove all my clothes and run through the palace, screaming. I throw off my black jacket and fumble with the buttons to my shirt. I throw my shirt, and it flies like a bird. I laugh as it lands on Father’s face. Next, I grab my belt buckle. Even in our rooms, nakedness was permitted only for the briefest time while we changed into our bed clothes. I am emperor now and can do whatever I want.
In the wildness of freedom and the urge to rebel against a lifetime of oppression and repression, a voice warns me against overreacting. Doing whatever he wanted and not keeping his trousers on is what led Father to wear armor until he died. There is danger in ultimate freedom. Father learned that the hard way. I don’t want to become him, either side of him. There must be a line in the middle where respect and fear are separate, and laughter doesn’t send people to torture chambers.
I retrieve my shirt and my jacket, fold them, and leave them covering Father’s clasped hands on his chest.
"I cannot be the emperor you wanted me to be, but I will try to be the emperor you wanted to be," I say.
I leave the crypt and find my brother outside, dressed in armor, ready to obey me. He raises an eyebrow at my state of underdress, but says nothing. Behind him, one-time advisers stare at me. I run my fingers through my hair, freeing my natural curls from the gloop used to matt them down.
"The day of Father’s interment, there will be a parade," I say. "Take the clothes from the tower and all the unused black material in the capital, and turn them into bunting, alternating color and black. I want children front and center so they can see their history. Empty the dungeons, there is no further need for re-education of my subjects. The past is the past. And someone fetch me a tailor. This suit has many qualities but I want to make a few changes. Black just isn’t my color."
My advisers are running to obey before I’ve finished speaking. Only my brother remains. This will be hardest on him.
"Go on," I say smiling, "fetch me a tailor."
Sarah Deeming is a fantasy writer who has recently been published in Timeless Tales: Arthurian Legend edition and Three Drops a Cauldron. She has loved stories since she was old enough to pick up a book and has been writing them since she could hold a pen. Follow her on Twitter @SarahLDeeming.
Art by: Amanda Bergloff