Art Pact 167 - Reporting to the Emperor



"Emperor," I said solemnly, bowing my head before the altar. The emperor said nothing, merely flicking its tail as if a horse attempting to swat away flies on a hot summer's day. I looked around nervously at the waiting attendants. Some of them were watching me, others looking away. I paused. Behind me I felt the presence of the liaison. It was an icy-cold sensation in the small of my back, the feeling of being watched by something with ill-intent. Still, I could trust it here, and I had done the things it had asked me in the emperor's service, so I did not feel that I was in any danger of hearing a lie from it. I turned. It was there - I think - a collection of black specks that washed across the front of my eye. "Should I talk?" I asked it. "Or should I wait?"

The proper protocol, it told me, was to wait until the emperor signaled me to continue.

"What will the signal be?"

It shifted lazily, a gesture I understood was its equivalent of a shrug. It moved behind me, and when I turned to try to keep it in my line of sight it moved the other way. Trying to pin it down was impossible. It informed me that I should be paying attention to the emperor if I wished to know when I should continue. Panicked, I turned back to see that the emperor had stretched out one leg. It flexed the muscles of its paw, and I could see four wickedly curved claws slowly emerge from their hiding places.

"I have done as you asked, my lord," I told it hurriedly. Its head turned to focus on me, the strange cat eyes searching out the meaning of my words. I wondered whether it actually understood someone as lowly as I, or whether the there were not some other liaison, some more secretive one, whispering the translation of my words into the emperor's ear. I suppose there were as yet no translations necessary. It was unthinkable that one such as I would come into the emperor's presence without the proper obeisances, nor would I have come if I had not completed the appointed task. Those things being understood, there would be no need to translate my barbarian syllables into more elegant speech. Let it remain the due of the emperor, not to be questioned. "I went to the place you decreed, and waited for the given time. The woman passed by, just as you said she would, and as instructed I said nothing, merely following her to her house. I have the address written down."

I had been about to take the sheet of notepaper out of my pocket, but the liaison, leaning in close from behind, told me that I should just keep the address to myself. The emperor did not need it itself, it already knew where it could find the woman if necessary. I nodded.

"Should I inform the emperor what she was wearing?" I asked quietly. The liaison told me I should. "Emperor, she was wearing the same yellow wellington boots, but a rain-coat in black with chalk-white piping. The coat had a hood, which was up against the rain, so I could not see if she was wearing a scarf."

The emperor flicked its tail lazily and looked over at one of its advisors, the grey rat in the tank to the right of the throne. The rat was digging in its notes, obviously looking for something relevant to my statement, but there were papers scattered everywhere across the floor of its office. The emperor looked back at me and rolled its head. Its stretched arm it now withdrew, and I felt an acute loss, as though a light had been taken away from me. I shuddered, and bowed my head again before its power.

"I do not believe that she saw me, my lord, but there were other people around. Still, I followed your directions. I now know her place of work and her home, I can follow her whenever you command me to. If you have other work for me to do-"

The liaison pressed an icy hand over my shoulder, cutting me off. It warned me that I should not attempt to second-guess the emperor. Patience and silence, it said, these are the virtues of a good subject. To attempt to anticipate the will of a greater being is the sin of hubris, it told me. Was I not ashamed to think such things? The emperor would say what it willed in its own time.

"I apologize, my lord," I said, cowering and falling to my hands and knees. It said nothing, but I could feel its gaze on the back of my neck, the awful raw power of it as it looked down on me as a man might look down on an ant. Then the moment was passed.

The liaison, whose dark strands danced in the corner of my vision, whispered that it commanded me to continue watching over the woman. There are those that wish to hurt her, to corrupt her, it told me. Do you understand?

"I'm not sure..." I said.

It told me that there were forces in the world outside, wires and sounds that inhabited the air, that could be seen by those with sufficient power. The emperor was one of those with that power, of course, and the liaison, and certain other creatures here in the throne room. I would know the forces only by a wrong feeling, an odd sensation that I could not name. Did I understand, it asked?

"I think so," I said. "She has to be kept from harmful influences."

That was exactly it, the liaison told me. It sounded, for once, pleased with me. My hands were shaking, my arms, even my legs trembling on the ground, I felt as though I would be sick. But I knew that I would do what the emperor commanded me to. I would watch the woman, and if anyone asked me why, I would tell them that it was the emperor's decree. No-one could argue with that.

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