And I Shall Hide (Chronicle)
I hope that I am insane. I wish that I am insane. These are my first thoughts upon waking from a nightmare. Make the nightmare real and this waking world the fiction of a despoiled mind. But I know it is not true, for the dreams change night to night but reality maintains continuous. I remain Jamyl, first Empress of her name, leader of the Amarr Empire in both body and soul.
I should pray that I were insane, but I know God would not answer me. As I sit up from my tangled bedsheets, I have to laugh to myself. Is there even a God to answer me? Once, I would have had a simple answer to that question. Yes, when I was a naive girl. No, when I was a cynical woman. Now?
Who but God might inflict such a curse on me? Who but God could?
It has told me that we are God. Before us, there was no God, but now there is one. I think we may be the Devil. My legacy will meet the Deceiver's and the Mad Emperor's once I am dead.
"Oh, yes, we shall one day," I answer the ever-present voice in my head. I know it as well as my own, now. Better than my own, at times. It speaks and I think they are my own thoughts and it is only hours or days after that I realize they were the Other.
I ignore its temptations for now. There are times when I relent, but just woken, I am fortified against its assaults. When I fail to answer, it falls silent. I breathe out a sigh at the small reprieve though I know it will not last forever. The Other shall eventually return.
I rise from my bed and walk slowly across the spartan room. It is a small, insignificant thing, nowhere near grandiose enough for an empress. It sits deep beneath the ground of the Imperial Palace in Dam-Torsad, far from the traditional Imperial Bedroom. It is not what I once imagined, as a little girl, dreaming of becoming empress.
"But I must," I tell it. "Otherwise the servants might think their empress mad, speaking to thin air and thrashing wildly in her sleep."
I sigh and say, "Only because that would make you unreal, just a figment of a shattered psyche. Besides, if I was thought mad, someone would depose me. Ardishapur surely, or if not him, Aritcio."
I shudder at the thought, then wonder, why not? Whatever demons plagued the Kor-Azor heir had been driven out. Or, if one took whispered rumors to be truth, transformed into a more righteous sort.
"No, I am not so naive as to hope for that," I answer flatly. The demon driven out would more likely be me. And though it would be a release, what would become of my people, my Empire, then?
"You won't have me so easily," I tell it, forcing a thin smile onto my face. I throw off my wrinkled chemise, still damp with the nightmare sweat, and find a proper robe to face the day.
Caretaker drones dress and bathe me. Once it would have been slaves. In my earliest days as empress, before the Other gave me such fits as to frighten them and reveal to them I was possessed, I would know the warm touch of a human hand, gently washing away the thin sheen of grime that even an empress accumulated over the course of a day. But Lord Victor, wonderful Victor whom I had shoved away, had been the one to insist on the change, initially only during my episodes.
Now I knew not when they might come.
"Yes, you come suddenly," I bitterly admit. The caretaker drones whir as they try to decipher my message, but they are too stupid, not even possessing the rudimentary intelligence of an AI doctor. After a moment, deciding that I had not been speaking to them despite the lack of any other tangible occupants in the room, they return to delicately braiding my hair.
The rumor of the palace was that I was practicing due caution. My predecessor, Doriam II, had been assassinated in his own bedroom, an event which left the Empire in the hands of a heretic for half a decade. Though I never claimed it, the servants had decided for themselves that I insist on sleeping in a hidden room, only attended to by incorruptible drones, in order to spare the Empire the same fate a second time.
"My very claim to the throne is built upon a delusion," I remind it. "If not for them believing I was divinely sent - "
"If we're going to laugh at everyone, I must laugh at myself first." And I begin to laugh, forced and full of false bravado, but after a moment it degenerates into the childish giggling of a girl, unable to extract herself from the mirth of a joke.
"My empress?" a voice calls out, finally breaking my fit. It is Pomik Haromi, one of the few remaining in a position of power to have utmost loyalty to me. And yet I gave him the role of Court Chamberlain, then neutered it in the name of preventing the depravity of his predecessor from repeating.
I stiffen my back and let the drones begin the process of correcting my braid, which had been set awry by the laughing fit. "Yes, chamberlain, you may come in."
He enters modestly, head bowed and alone, only slowly raising his eyes in the event he might catch a scandalous glimpse of inappropriate flesh. His chasteness is more embarrassing to me than if he caught me in a state of undress.
I catch myself before responding. It would not do to snap at the Other in front of Pomik and have him misinterpret the anger. Instead, I force a smile upon my face and hope it doesn't resemble a grimace. "I am decent, chamberlain."
He raises his head finally, though keeping his eyes low, aimed firmly at my chin. "My empress, the Heirs have arrived at Dam-Torsad," he says in a flat, even voice. "As well as the Lord Councilor."
I bristle at hearing the ceremonial title I bestowed on the Khanid King. "I did not order him present," I say in a soft voice that nonetheless carries the weight of my displeasure firmly to Pomik.
"I know, my empress," Pomik says, still refusing to look me in the eyes but without a hint of chastisement in his voice. "Nor did I send him notification of the meeting. Yet he is here and, as a member of the Closed Council, it is his right to attend."
I sigh and bring my fingers to the bridge of my nose. The Heirs I can all manage, with varying degrees of difficulty. Garkeh Khanid, however, is a bag of vipers dressed as a man. Despite my generosity toward him, I still have no idea of his true intentions. I wished him absent from this meeting.
No, I will deal with him. Alone or together, I can deal with all of them. I am the empress of the Amarr Empire. I am the most powerful woman in the cluster; the universe, perhaps. I will not be cowed by any of them, no matter how they wish it.
I shout in my head for it to silence itself. I do not need its voice taunting me all day long. Not this day. Not now. A moment of reprieve, to do work the Empire needed done! Give me that, I order.
"My empress?" Pomik's voice cuts into my turmoil as he lays a hand on my wrist.
A memory flashes. Soft skin, tips of fingers running across lips. Young girl, wrapped in the arms of a scandalous lover. Laughter and happiness. Someone raps on the door. Giggling, find a place to hide.
I gasp and Pomik pulls his hand away. I look down and see my knuckles white, fingers tangled with my robe. I try to open my hand, but it is frozen in a fist. A deep breath and a moment of concentration and I am able to relax it enough for my fingers to uncurl.
There, then, is another reason I forgo servants as frequently as possible. Certain sensations bring these memories flooding to me and I don't know if they are my own or merely some trick the Other has planted in me. Maybe they are memories of the Other, fragments of its dreaming sleep.
I can't truly tell any more. It doesn't deign to tell me.
"I am alright, Pomik," I say, mustering the strength to hide my annoyance. The caretaker drones affix the last braid in place. "I am ready for them."
I walk into the room several steps behind Pomik. The Heirs all rise, though Khanid and Ardishapur compete to see who can do so the slowest. My nephew, of course, is the quickest, though it is perhaps his youth more than respect and admiration for me that prompts it. I stand in front of my throne for several moments, passing my glance over each of them but lingering on none, before finally sitting. They all drop gracelessly into their seats; only Pomik spares a moment for decorum.
The Heirs are arranged by some intricate calculations Pomik made to present the proper amount of respect and offense each deserves. To my left is Aritcio Kor-Azor, due to his to rank as Imperial Chancellor, then Merimeth Sarum, probably granted that spot thanks to his relation to myself. Next is Catiz Tash-Murkon and beside her, furthest from me, was Khanid II.
To my right is Pomik first, awarded the chair due to his position, then Yonis Ardishapur, the furthest the most powerful man in the Empire could rightly be placed without too-grave an insult, and then Uriam Kador, the least concerning of those present.
The oval table we occupy supposedly dates back to the first Council of Apostles founded thousands of years ago by Emperor Amash-Akura. I run my hands over the smooth wood and wish the Ametat and Avetat had survived instead of a powerless table.
Though I wish profusely to snap back at the Other, I merely let its suggestion roll through me. I can not afford to battle it now, in front of the Heirs. I already allowed myself a moment of weakness in front of them once. The eyes of each are upon me intently, waiting to see another moment and pounce on it.
For a brief second, I consider crying out, "Kill me!" to them. Such a command would not be refused by any of them, I should think. Would Yonis strangle me with his own hands or would he refuse to dirty his pure flesh by bringing it into contact with mine? Aritcio, the whispers say, had dirtied his hands a hundred times over now...
It doesn't matter if the Other would allow it or not, for as terrified as I am for the future of the Empire under my leadership, any one of these might destroy in one century what had endured for seventy. I swallow my loathing.
"Were we called only to admire the Empress?" asks Yonis, causing me to realize how long we have been sitting in silence.
I turn my eyes to him while keeping my head straight ahead. "If pressing business forces such impatience on the Ardishapur Heir, perhaps he can send his nephew instead. We would gladly make that concession," I say with the weighty timbre of voice I have perfected over the years.
Despite the taunts of the Other, I imagine a smile for myself as Yonis bites his tongue and keeps silent, though I dare not allow it to show. I rest my hands atop each other on the table and allow a few more moments of contemplative silence. None interrupt it again.
"You are all aware of the situation in the State," I begin. Of course, they could not help but know of it. Rumors swirl about what was actually happening. I know the truth; the fool Heth had finally heeded my warnings. I wonder what the others knew, though.
"My contacts in the State have been whispering to me," Catiz offers first. "Something like those Templars you once bragged about, but then swept aside as a failed mistake. They say the State perfected their own, but Heth has gone mad and turned against them."
I want to laugh at her. Mad?
No, I am not mad. Nor is Heth, not in the slightest.
"Heth is finally beginning to reach the end of his rope with the megacorps," Catiz is continuing. "They've wondered if they can count on us to stand beside them when he finally hangs himself."
I allow my head to turn to her. "Tell me, Tash-Murkon Heir, how our loans to the megacorps are being repaid?"
To her credit, Catiz does not blanch at the challenge. "Some are being repaid on schedule," she says, leaving out the fact that most are not. "There have been unforeseen impediments to the State's return to economic supremacy. Heth's reforms have stymied growth. That, you see, is why we need to offer our support to the megacorps. The more support they have on their side, the sooner they can act. Once they are back in power - "
"They can bring back the conditions that allowed Heth to rise to power in the first place?" I interrupt. Catiz's eyes briefly flare, but she quickly hides her displeasure. I turn away to put an end to this line of conversation. "No, our allies must deal with their own internal problems. We are in no position to play nursemaid to their government."
"Then, my empress, how shall we react to their strife?" Aritcio says politely, almost reverently. The change the man had undergone still makes my breath catch in my throat. I had known him only as the petulant brat destined to ruin my rival's family name prior to my rebirth. Yet now he is one of the most beloved men in the Empire, with subjects who praise his name and a respect for the great promise of our religion and traditions.
My lack of faith is what cursed me with you, I tell it.
Would dedicating myself to the faith now cleanse me of you? I don't believe it would be so simple or I would have done it years ago.
I would -
"Empress?" Aritcio's voice cuts into my thoughts and he places a hand gently on the back of mine.
A wormhole closes. Locks set. Traps laid. Ancient enemies destroy. Enraged, finding a place to hide.
I yank my hand away from him as if it burns. They are all staring at me, mostly in exasperated confusion. Only Aritcio shows what I believe is actual compassionate concern; Yonis wears derision as if it were tailored for him.
How long had I allowed my thoughts to drift to argument? "The templars are the greatest weapon the cluster has found since the capsuleer," I tell them, having already forgotten what question Aritcio posed. "And they are the most dangerous force to have ever been unleashed on New Eden. Heth is finally realizing that, just as I did. But the Caldari are not the only ones who have them."
"Who else does?" Merimeth asks. Eagerness drips from his words. I shudder to think what he would do if we placed such a terrible thing in his hands.
"The Federation," I tell them, then pause. "And the Minmatar."
Immediately, Yonis slams his fist into the table. "You decide to throw away such a weapon while all our enemies have it?" he shouts. "Are you going to tell me next the Sabik have it too? The Sansha?"
I believe he must not have realized. Yonis Ardishapur is many things, but an actor he is not. His outrage is genuine.
I think you are probably right. And Khanid? Who knows what he -
Yonis's rant is cut off by Khanid's deep, booming laugh. "It's because they're all demons," he says. My breath catches in my throat.
Yonis only spares Khanid a brief, disgusted glance. "You senile miscreant," Yonis snaps. I wonder which of us Yonis hates more? There are generations of teachings to tell him he should hate the Khanid, but I am confident I sit upon that particular throne as well.
Khanid, for his part, is unphased by Yonis's rudeness. "Senile? Why, my boy, I feel like I was just born yesterday." This is the sort of needling I have come to expect since I granted the Khanid King a seat on the Privy Council. Despite being three times the age of the next oldest person in this room, he still looks nearly as young as Merimeth. He could pass for an elder brother.
There are rumors he cloned to keep himself young, but any evidence was expertly covered up. A few times he joked he had been granted "divine youth", always with a twinkling, smirk-scrunched glance at me. I despise the man and regret every day that I had to make my political bed with him.
"You tarnish the name of the Privy Council by sitting here," says the man who had forced that pairing. Yonis rises from his chair, hands planted firmly on the table, and leans across it at Khanid. "I cast my own name in filth by being in the same room with you." I wonder, would the other Heirs respond to the insinuation?
But no, they know not to turn Yonis's wrath on them. Their own reluctance to test the Heir – Catiz's needlings aside, which grew less frequent yearly – is what pushed me toward Khanid. I thought myself so clever, burdening Yonis with the weight of the Mandate.
"It's true, though," Khanid says, his composure not even wavering in the face of Yonis's torrent of abuse. "They were possessed by demons. She unleashed Molok upon the cluster. Isn't that true, empress?"
I will tell them the truth that suits them to know.
If Khanid wanted to tell them everything, he would have already. He might not even know it all. He could simply be bluffing to see what I will say. I must choose my words carefully.
You will never speak if I have a say in it.
"Well, empress?" Aritcio rouses me.
"It's true," I say carefully, "in less majestic terms. Our templar project had developed these immortal soldiers based off technology recovered from Anoikis. But there was a flaw in them which made them dangerous. We could not control them, so we eradicated them and started anew, using technology not tied to the Sleepers. But it was too late; the other empires had already begun their own programs. The Caldari are now reaping the fruits of those programs and it is ripping their State asunder."
"And you dared to keep this from us?" Yonis demands. "For how long? You create a weapon which is apparently so dangerous, you have to destroy it, but you keep the whole process hidden? Are you insane? These are the actions that would doom the Empire! The Heirs should have known about this project from the very outset!"
Father, screaming. Mother, powerless. Girl runs. Weeping, find a place to hide.
My hands are quivering; beneath my robe I am slick with sweat. No longer was touch required to set the memories flowing.
The words come so unbidden I nearly choke, "Enough! You believe you hold power here, but you speak only because I allow it. You think me weak, but I am strength beyond your ken. Now silence your pointless prattling and let me speak without interrupting! I will not have all my work undone due to your self-righteous pettiness."
Yonis stares at me, eyes wide, then does something I would never expect. He sits respectfully and says, "My apologies, my empress." The others all hold the same tepid look. Even Khanid has lost his irritating haughtiness.
Though my mouth is suddenly dry, I push on. "The Caldari are destroying their soldiers now, which leaves only our enemies with them. But I have already laid plans to deal with that." Thoughts of dirty contracts signed in the dark through intermediaries come unbidden to my head and I know I have done things without knowing. "The Minmatar shall be next, surely. The Gallente, soon after. They shall run down the tainted soldiers and, for the most part, eradicate them. A few may escape their grasp. I know this to be true, because a few already have."
My insides shake, wondering just how many had. Would it be too many?
Shut up. You don't control me as much as you've claimed.
A fear grips me.
This time, none question my lapse into silence. I lick my lips and continue. "The Caldari have made a mess of their purge. It is too public. Too many people are asking questions. The others may try to hide their actions, but it will not succeed. Soon, the entire world will know about these immortal soldiers. People will learn of the danger they pose and hate them, more than they even hate the capsuleers. Only in the Empire, where we kept our failures hidden, shall the sane not be seen as monsters."
"And what then, my empress?" asks Uriam Kador, speaking for the first time. His voice is cool.
"I shall give them a home."
And I shall hide.
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