The Part Where I Play the Devil (Chronicle)
Let me tell you about the mad man and the wonders he performs.
I have not been doing this job for long and already it is a marvel beyond anything I had imagined. I do not sleep much. I eat at irregular hours. I hold conversations - brief, fleeting words, and of a servile nature, but still spoken out loud and answered - with men who operate at the highest level of government, and with men who operate only in the shadows.
My lord has not always been loved. There was a time where he was considered merely a shrewd politician, fitter to rise than to rule. There was also a time where he had ruled so terribly, and done such awful things, that the people rose against him. A religious man intervened, a Speaker of Truths, and he saved my lord, but for such a price that I cannot speak of.
When he returned to his duties he was a new man. He was also a kind man, one who thought very hard about the lives of his subjects and how to better them. He has been on that mission ever since: To improve the lives of the people who serve him and whom, he strongly emphasizes, he serves in turn.
Part of that rejuvenation was to bring on a new group of people, ones who could help him rule his heirdom in the most humane, efficient way possible. I am one of his new recruits. I took my exams, and without divulging how I did on them, I can attest that I did not fail in my duties.
When I was interviewed the lord asked me whether I was faithful. I said I was. He asked me whether I was faithful to the people, the ruler, or my lord God. I said that as far as I was concerned, these three were indistinguishable. He smiled, for the first time in our interview. A day later I was brought on.
One of the ongoing missions begun by my lord is to travel around his kingdom, both to familiarize himself with his people - and them with him - and to ensure their lives meet the standards he has set for a Kor-Azor person. This applies equally to Holder and Commoner. It even extends to slaves, whom my lord believes are no less worthy, in their way, than the people they serve. In this he is assisted by a cadre of able people among whom I proudly count myself. I am trusted with secrets, and I believe my lord sees something in me that I may not see myself, for he routinely has me on hand in meetings of a most delicate nature. He does not ask my opinion, but he does enquire of my analysis on certain court matters. I suspect he may find my perspective of some use, unfettered as it is by actual experience with political intrigue.
Our agents had determined that the subjects on a particular planet in my lord's kingdom were ... not fomenting rebellion or anything of that sort, but certainly murmuring in increasing unrest. This had not, our agents stressed, been reported nor acknowledged in any official capacity, and thus my lord would have to be careful of political repercussions if he were to present himself as a peacemaker.
The main problem with this planet, they explained - and one of the factors in the unrest of its people - was the political machinations inherent in its rule. The people were governed by several lords - Holders all, of course - each of whom in turn owed their allegiance to a continental overseer. Those overlords served under a planetary representative, who in turn filed regular reports directly to my lord and master. We noted that in his recent reports there had been no mention of any trouble.
This setup of governance was not the typical one in our Empire, and had been put in place long before my lord's ascension to heirdom. Not only was it tied down with strings that would prove costly to cut, but the planet's economy was so enmeshed in labyrinthine pacts by the ruling body that were my lord to intervene in a lawful and justifiable way, it would be a long time before we could even hope to wrest control of the planet over to us. This struck me as a strange state of affairs, but my lord explained that it was in fact a common one, and that the Heirs, even with their ecclesial authority, did not have as much secular power as they liked to pretend. He added that despite this state of affairs and our agents' reports of planetary issues, we should not necessarily assume that there would be trouble. Many of the most highly complex, politically sensitive problems of our age could be solved with a simple, elegant solution that more often than not did not tackle the problem head-on, but instead caused it to cease to exist. All one needed to do was find the right angle, and to act decisively, with the solution clear in one's mind. Never waver, he said, once you know what you need to do, and never lose heart.
We arrived in terrible weather. The space elevators, secure though they might be, made me nauseous. It wasn't merely the travel - though the occasional sense of sideways pressure never failed to remind me that we were swaying in midair halfway between the earth and the stars - but the idea of traveling back from the skies and down to solid ground. There are people, and I know many of them, who prefer to stay on solid ground all their lives, making it the bedrock of their faith. I cannot do this. To me, ascension is literal; I feel that to be closer to God, Man needs to rise to meet Him. For some this might be a metaphysical ascension, for others a physical one. But to descend again, into a strange place where I would meet people who lived their entire lives out of preference under what they saw as a closed-off, threatening, solid metal sky - that descent would truly put me among strangers to my faith.
My lord arrived to great fanfare, none of it of his own making. Speeches were expected and given, and we took a few days merely to travel between areas, visiting different locales and gauging the crowds' reactions to my lord's presence as much as his words. It became clear, through the murmurs and our hushed listening, that they did not want him here. They were receptive to his presence, which sounds contradictory to their standoffish reception but was not a surprise. To them he did not represent hope - and it was clear these people needed more hope - but merely another leadership figure in a long line that grew ever more threatening and unpopular the higher up they looked at it; and the fact that he was speaking to them with a message of positivity merely made him a novelty. Or, in some of the more hostile areas, a politician and a liar.
Nevertheless we sensed an openness, a subdued willingness to hear what he had to say. The people turned up in droves, and as much as they might not believe in my lord's words or what he stood for, they listened attentively to what he said.
I must add that the continental overseers did not quite follow suit. For every word of praise or support my lord spoke to the masses, the leaders, in turn, spoke a subtly negative one of stilted progress; or, even worse, they spoke not at all. Before too long it had become clear that they were very happy with this situation and had no intention of allowing my lord - the presumption these people had! - of allowing my lord to intervene, no matter how unstable and unpleasant the life on this planet had become for the poor commoners.
Thus the first few days and nights passed. I prayed in the evenings while my lord met with his private councilors. Many of them arrived at his quarters, spoke briefly, then left for parts unknown.
Eventually he knocked on my door and informed me that the next part of our journey here would commence. The time for speeches was over and the time for inspection had begun. If I had not known my lord's ways as well as I do, I would have thought of him in much the same terms as the poor, earth-bound people on this planet: As a politician, who, having spread his prattle, now intended to make a few symbolic appearances in mock fellowship with the locals. It was a rote item of schedule for many politicians in all parts of the world.
My lord, however, had his own reasons for ambling down this well-trodden path. The public appearances required neither his presence of mind nor his oratory faculties. He could attend, no matter how tired and worn, and have the brunt of the effort undertaken by those he was visiting. And at night, when no one saw, he could undertake the true purpose of this part of our mission.
The true measure of a people is not the attitude they have towards their leaders or visiting dignitaries, no more than you can judge children by how they speak to their parents or guests of the house. Those whose minds represent the truth of their selves will have the sense to keep up their masks at all times, or at least maintain proper decorum, and those who cannot even do that are usually too crazy to be useful as barometers of temper and mood. If you want to see how children truly feel, don't look at the way they behave towards their parents; spy on them and find out how they treat their siblings. You may have to wait until there is a crisis, something that puts pressure on the children to interact with each other, but then you'll surely see it: Who pushes their brothers into a corner, and who embraces them.
Our people went out into the night to find out these things, and my lord did the same.
I can not think of any politician or ruler who does this. Even if they tried, I cannot imagine any who could do it to their advantage. It takes an extraordinary degree of precision, finesse, insight and ability to react to go out there into the open and be amongst people as if they were your own.
They would come in during the mornings, tired and worn, and confer with each other on the night's progress. My lord wore his protective gear, of course; morph fields that blocked him from sight and identification, and permeation-proof lightweight armor that would protect him from direct assault. He remained partially vulnerable to natural disasters - floods, fires and building collapses - but he took care with those, he said, and did not put himself at undue risk. My lord routinely did this on the trips he went on, and while I will admit that at first it gave me grave suspicions - I have never quite trusted those stories of high-borns going out in disguise among the public, suspecting as I do that their disguises were highly transparent and that their social explorations were carefully steered by their retinue - I soon noted that he had a skill for it, and a Commoner's instincts for survival, that served him well. He had never been found out.
I had always had my suspicions about my lord's nightly endeavors, and that they might be about more than merely sizing up the temperament of the local populace, but I was shocked when I saw him stumble in one morning, leaning against walls and clearly having a difficult time with movement. When I asked him whether I could be of assistance, he let out a little laugh and asked me to help him out of his armor. I did, and gasped when I saw his back.
Something had fallen on him, hard enough to rupture the armor's defenses, and it would likely have left bruises had there been any unblemished skin to affect. My lord's back was burnt and scarred, as if he had walked through the hellfires themselves. I asked whether he needed the services of a doctor, at which he let out a wheezing laugh and declined my offer. He had, he said, suffered the services of the doctors in the past. These days he preferred to let his own body rebuild itself
His hands and feet were sore, too, reddened and worn, but the gloves and boots he'd worn had luckily taken most of the brunt. They were gone, he said, their tatters left somewhere on the streets of this strange earth.
He did not explain the burns, but merely said they had taught him all he needed to know about inhabitants on this planet. They were not a distant or rebellious people, he added, but they needed a proper rallying cry, along with someone they could trust to shout it from above.
I did check the next morning's news and discovered there had been a massive fire the night before. Volunteers had arrived from all over in an attempt to extinguish it and save innocent people from harm. Pursuant to this I combed through any available articles for a mention of mysterious strangers, or a vision of some blurred corner in a picture of the fire, but found none.
Some might have felt he was wasting his time - not in saving people, which is never a waste, but in spending his time among them like this. But he has told me often that the big picture is made out of many small details. You must be among your own people, he says. You must. If you lose that connection, you stand to lose so much more.
He had his dreams that night; the ones where he screams. But in the morning he was very calm.
The penultimate part of our journey was a meeting with its planetary leader. As I explained, the economic and political situations on this planet were very much intertwined. Old independence agreements, most of a financial bent, had held off any direct changes brought from the outside, while the extremely complex interplay between various internal forces on the planet meant there was no way for my lord or anyone else even to squeeze in among the cracks as a private investor and start working any change in that manner. The intermediary continental leaders had given us no support. Unless we received backing from the planetary representative, we were going to have a hard time enacting any change in this place, no matter how positive.
The representative had invited us to his office, at the penthouse on one of the tallest buildings on the planet, but my lord politely declined the offer. Instead he asked that the meeting be held in his own quarters, which had been furnished with his personal belongings and were spacious enough to hold a platoon of soldiers. The representative was quick to accept this counteroffer, sending us a brief acknowledgment to that effect. I suggested to my lord that the man was eager to see us gone from here, and he nodded, adding that before this happened, changes would have to be enacted. He asked that I remain in the meeting as a secretary of events and a representative. When I enquired whether it would not behoove my lord to present a show of strength - a small cadre of stronger men to better face off the team our representative was likely to bring - he gave me a brief and not very humorous smile, and said that if his suspicions about the man and his persons were correct, he would not be bringing anyone at all.
I could scarcely imagine anyone insulting my lord like that, but I agreed to his wishes.
Shortly before the visit I went through the room to ensure nothing was out of place. I aligned my lord's copies of the Pax Amarria, and his selections of ancient scriptures. The banners were hung in the appropriate order, while the ceremonial weapons were kept, at my lord's request, well at the back. Subtly hidden among them was the Khumaak, a weapon not many Amarrians would dare keep in their possession. I had always had my own sentiments about my lord's reasons for keeping a copy of this bloodied relic among the more proper holy ones of our own people, but what happened later that evening cast its presence in a new and disconcerting light.
The administrator came in and was immediately hostile to my lord's suggestions. He said, in response to my lord's worries on the increased instability in various regions, that he did not intend to let anything disturb his rule of this planet. Leaving aside the dictatorial attitude reflected in that comment, it was a vicious and grossly inappropriate jab at my lord's attempts to improve the life of his constituents. I had seen some of the intermediate members of the heirdom act like this after my lord returned to his duties, though thankfully they were growing ever rarer.
My lord asked if the governor simply intended to quell any opposition from the commoners, and the governor said that he would. When my lord added that the Caldari governing board had thought the same, and that it had not turned out so well for them, the governor grew visibly flustered. He cast me a look - I had sat in a corner of the office and barely been noticed by the man - that seemed to imply I was responsible for my lord's approach, as if I were one of the poor Commoners he ruled and clearly disdained.
The governor told my lord that, in all honesty, life on this planet was going to continue unaltered, and that while my lord's benevolent probings - he actually used those words - were certainly laudable and guaranteed to carry favor with our newly elected Empress, they were far removed from the political reality of the world this governor ruled. There would be no change while he was in office, and given his political ties with others on this planet, there would be no way that my lord could attempt to oust him, no matter how many of those filthy little people - that language again - he brought to bear.
I was speechless by the man's audacity. My lord, on the other hand, calmly got up, walked over to the governor and, smiling wide, extended his hand. It took the governor a few moments before he extended his own and smiled back. My lord said that the situation was clear and that he truly did appreciate the situation: That as long as the governor was in power, no matter what instability reigned, things would go on as before. He understood this, he said.
The governor made as if to speak, but my lord continued, saying that how unfortunate it was to have any unrest, tend as it did to spiral completely out of control. He added that despite this, and despite the fact that this unrest, once it did spiral out of control, would inevitably end up at the shores of his own royal offices, he did understand the governor's way of thinking. After all, he said at last, he had once held much the same viewpoint.
The governor fairly yanked his hand out of my lord's grasp, but maintained his smile.
My lord turned to me and politely asked me to leave.
I was surprised by this, but said nothing and got up from my chair. I walked quietly by the walls and towards the exit. My lord followed and met me at the doors, opening them for me. I gave him a quizzical look
"This is the part where I play the Devil," he said, with such a mixture of regret and relief as I have never heard from a man.
He saw me through and closed the doors after me.
Not knowing what else to do, I stood outside the room, waiting for the meeting to be over. I did not spy or eavesdrop; I could not have even if I had tried, for the walls and the doors were made of thick material. After a brief while, though, I heard raised voices, mostly from the governor. The voices rose until one of them became a shout. It was punctured by several muffled thuds, rising to a near-shriek, before falling quiet altogether.
The door opened a crack, and when I saw my lord's face peer through, I let out a long exhale that I had not even realized I'd been holding in. His hair glistened with sweat, though he seemed to have thoroughly wiped it off his face; and his eyes were wide open. He asked me to call up certain members of his retinue, for he had something they needed to take care of.
This I did. I did not mention to them or anyone else that I had seen the Khumaak lying on the ground behind my lord.
The day after, I saw a glut of news reports, all of them detailing the governor's disappearance. It seemed that his p.v. had malfunctioned while in mid-flight and crashed into the ocean, hours before his scheduled meeting with my lord. The news included a quote from Heir Aritcio Kor-Azor where he exclaimed not only his profound sadness over the loss of this great man, but his disappointment that their meeting on the political and economical future of the planet had not taken place. The papers went on to quote my lord in that he hoped he could still hold meetings with the various overseers of individual continental entities, and that these meetings could conclude with a better outcome than this terrible, terrible occurrence.
When my lord embarked on the last series of journeys over this strange earth, his speeches received a much better reaction from the workforce. This might have been helped by recent concessions announced by the continental leaders, who had decided to embark on massive audits of commoner health, safety and economic troubles. Unfortunately, this sudden development meant they were all too busy to meet with my lord, but he took it with his usual good humor, and we started preparing for our departure.
As we were travelling back up to the waiting ship, in that hellish elevator, my lord turned to me and said that the lives of everyone on this planet would be improved. He asked if I was happy with this.
I understood the question that he had asked, and the one he had not. I said that yes, I was.
He smiled and said that was good; for he wanted everyone to be happy.
I believed him.
We rose to the skies.