A Debbie/Jennifer collaboration.
Chelsea walked out to the front railing of the Crimson Gale, where Sam was gazing out at the sunset. He turned slightly as she approached and leaned on the railing beside him.
“Finished laughing?” he asked.
“I may never be,” she answered with a grin, in a surprisingly quiet voice. “How are you? Your supposedly-gone relatives keep turning up in the strangest places.”
Now it was Sam’s turn to laugh, holding his head in both hands for a moment as he let himself consider the full absurdity of the past month. “They keep turning up in your places, Chelsea! In a house you claim was yours before the Uprising, and in Hell itself, where you used to live! Got any more of my family hidden away somewhere?”
Chelsea smiled as though she really were keeping some mischievous secret from him. “None that I know of. Not yet. Maybe I worked with some Iselsi Akuma, hiding behind codenames.”
Sam stopped laughing very abruptly. “You think so?”
“Well…” Chelsea began slowly, “after losing ties with a powerful family, left with nothing, even without trust, because of why they were cast out…what do people tend to do?” She gave him an even stare.
Sam turned that over in his head, and recognized himself in the question. “Forge alliances with demons and Anathema, I suppose.”
“Exactly,” she said with a grin, and poked him in the middle of his chest, telepathically. She seemed to shed her serious tone very suddenly, and Sam guessed there was more to it than just a jab at his heritage.
“Would you know something about that personally?” he asked.
“Hmph.” She stared at the deck boards for a moment. “Actually, it was the Yozis who approached me, not the other way around.”
“Really,” Sam answered, hearing a note of pride in her words and striving hard to keep any judgement out of his voice.
“They never fully explained how they knew I was in a desperate place,” she continued. But they sent a…recruiter. He offered me power and status, yes, but…beneath all that, it was a job. A place in the world; a chance to change it, when I couldn’t see any other future ahead. So I accepted. I’d been expelled from the university; I didn’t know where else I would go. My life’s path was set in only one direction, and that was gone.”
“Expelled? Why?” Sam asked quietly.
Chelsea searched Sam’s face for whatever signs of understanding or disapproval might be there, but he guarded his thoughts well. “Well, I probably could have been first in the class if I’d just submitted my project and not screwed with anyone else’s, but I wasn’t quite sure. And with what was waiting at home, and the plans they gave me, I had to be sure. What was I supposed to do when ‘exceeds expectations’ was what everyone expected? It turned into a loop; the expectations were infinite! Having my parents and not ranking first in everything would be like being in a Dragonblood family and not Exa–” she caught herself, suddenly remembering her audience. “Well, at least, I always imagined that would be bad, but I guess you know better than I do.”
“So, a matter of life and death?” he asked, trying hard not to let too much emotion seep into his voice.
Chelsea blinked. “Sometimes it turned into that. We had some suicides, after big tests. I could have lived, I guess, but…then I’d have just been a laborer, or a common whore, without…this.” She pulled a spare bolt out of one pocket and floated it around a bit. A sudden thought occurred to her; Sam could see exactly when it happened when the bolt came to a sudden stop and dropped back into her outstretched hand. “That’s how serious it is? For your families? ‘Cause I’ve heard of mortals with Dragonblood names that still had respectable professions.”
“That’s how it was for my family,” Sam said, turning away and gazing into the distance. “My family had a long history of Exaltation, and I knew it was important to my parents. I didn’t know how important until after my sister’s ‘accident’ at school. She was getting to the point where she wasn’t expected to join the rest of us as Exalts… she was disappointed, but I think she’d have been okay.”
“Damn. And here I thought Pyrian cultists were perfectionists,” Chelsea replied. Sympathy wasn’t her strong point, so she let the silence hang for a moment. “That was Dora? The one in the portrait?” Sam nodded. “I guess she got a little supernatural help too. Missing the path wasn’t the end of her story either.”
“That’s true,” Sam replied. “As strange a way as it was to see her again, I’m grateful for it.” He took a deep breath and brought himself back to the present. “So the Yozis gave you a place, but you gave that up,” he prompted.
Chelsea turned back and glared at the horizon. “Their busy work for my colleagues took it away. You want to build a better watch, you take the old one apart, sure, but not with a sledgehammer. Ja de Veon was a sledgehammer. What else was there to do?”
Sam nodded, accepting the explanation. They stood quietly for a while as the colors shifted in the sky. Finally Chelsea broke the silence: “How is she?”
The pronoun was name enough.
Sam shook his head. “Still shaken, but I can’t blame her. Couldn’t blame anyone. We had dinner. Edelweiss and I tried to put together something a little nicer; we hoped it would help bring her back to the present a bit. Something that would remind her of what’s normal for her…but this isn’t exactly a fancy Imperial kitchen, and I’m five hundred years out of date for what’s in style.”
“She wants your throne.”
Sam raised an eyebrow. “Is it mine already? I thought there was going to be all kinds of war and intrigue first.”
Chelsea raised an eyebrow back at him. “If you want that throne, you’re going to have to believe that it was rightfully yours all along.” She turned and faced him, and replaced seriousness with a smile. “What do you think you’ll do, day one? When you can change the world with a command…what will you say?”
Sam paused for a moment, contemplating the question perhaps more seriously than Chelsea expected. “The changes I care most about will take time. A lot of time, even with me in command. Initiating those changes won’t be easy, so it’s important to start off properly. I’ll have to think about what those first steps should be.” He paused again. “I suppose at this point, I’ll need to prepare myself further. As I said before, I’m out-of-date in a lot of areas. I’ll need people I can trust to help me catch up.”
“Trust is in short supply,” Chelsea acknowledged, and smiled again, a little ruefully. “Not going to share any grand visions with ‘the demon’?” she asked, recalling Txori’s words with some bitterness. “Even if you don’t know how to start?” She went on before he could answer: “You do realize I’ll probably approve of anything that doesn’t involve siccing the Wyld Hunt on me. Or destroying things that the makers of the world have forgotten how to make.”
“Please don’t misunderstand,” Sam said. “It’s not that I’m unwilling to share; it’s just that I haven’t yet had to put this into words. But I’ll try, and I’d appreciate having your input.”
He took a deep breath and continued, “A Realm education is very thorough. Many of these things we learn are factual, but there are a number of widely-held beliefs that I now know to be untrue. Our beliefs about Solars, for instance. While there are certainly some who are greedy and power-hungry, as we’ve seen, there are others who are wonderful, trustworthy people. Honestly, my experiences with Solars were why I was willing to trust you, albeit only in limited ways when we first met. If Solars, these Anathema, could be good people… well, who am I to write someone off because of their background? Without even giving them a chance?”
Chelsea stifled a laugh. “Where I come from, rulers don’t ask questions like that. But demons don’t organize revolutions like humans do, so maybe you have a point. If you did manage to give us a real place in your society, you’d be rewriting centuries of Immaculate tradition. That would be as big an accomplishment as getting the throne itself.”
“It’s a fine line to walk. I need people I can trust, but I also need to introduce the public to ideas carefully. Figuring out what to say, and when, and to whom… it won’t be easy,” Sam noted. “If I come across as a new ruler who breaks suddenly with tradition in some pretty drastic ways, there could be doubts about whether I was right for the throne. But if I don’t break with tradition soon enough, I risk losing valuable opportunities for change.”
Chelsea mulled that over. “You may reach a point, as I did, where taking a once-shocking action seems the only viable option. The only hope. Maybe during the war ahead. Maybe my old masters will find a way to strike back at us, or the civil war will let the Raksha back in. Maybe…” She considered a moment. “Maybe you’ll have to engineer something from whole cloth. But if you can make the case for change to your subjects as well as the Yozis made it to me, you’ll be in business.”
“‘Engineer’ a crisis? Like my parents arranged ‘accidents’? That’s not a legacy I’m eager to continue,” Sam fumed.
“If it’s any comfort, I’m sure it’s much more likely that you won’t have to,” Chelsea said calmly.
Sam sighed. “You’re probably right.”
Chelsea turned him a curious gaze. “So, assuming for the moment that the transition goes well…what would such a system look like? The last time Solars, Lunars, and Dragonbloods weren’t at each others’ throats, Solars were the ones in charge. How would you arrange things?”
“Well, right now, Dragonbloods hold more power in society, and it’s hard to imagine that changing quickly. But of course, while we have numbers and the support of most people, Solars and Lunars are more powerful individuals. If they could be integrated into society somehow, that seems best,” Sam speculated. “But it’ll take a lot of work in order to do it. Right now, I think many of them feel a source of pride and independence. We don’t want to take that away; we just want to welcome them back as people rather than Anathema. Of course, they’re people who have incredible powers compared to ordinary folks, but if society can accept Dragonbloods, why not Solars and Lunars some day?”
“I don’t think your mortal subjects will be the hard part,” Chelsea explained. “I mentioned before, the source of my power once belonged to a Solar–more correctly, a line of them. I remember some things that they remember. There was a Deliberative, not unlike the one I’ve heard of today’s Realm having now…there was one Solar who was considered queen above the others. But it was a rough thing, keeping everyone in line. All I remember is she had obtained her title from far, far, back–from the Sun himself, it was said…or else there would have been many who would have tried to take her place. Each of us Exalts is much like the one who Exalted us…so…you will have to give every Solar a large sky of their own to shine in, or else they will come after yours.” She pondered this a moment, until a thought struck her. “Sam, remember when we were in Malfeas, and the sun was green?”
“Yes!” Sam replied, remembering. “I meant to ask you more about that–it was flickering, like a candle with the wick trimmed badly. But there were so many strange things closer at hand that I forgot to wonder about it.”
“That was Ligier, the heart of Malfeas. And I am told that he used to shine over Creation.”
“Really?” Sam asked, trying to imagine the surrounding landscape lit in green. The bright orange of the sunset made this very difficult.
Chelsea nodded. “Ligier at the top of the sky, and Creation’s gold sun”–she did not use his proper title–“circling the edge, to keep out threats from outside. If you want to stay safe on a throne in the center, maybe that is where you will have to send the Solars: out to take land back from the Wyld and rule there.”
“Hmm…” Sam pondered. “A farther back time than I’d expected to draw from, but that’s an idea.” Indeed, it wasn’t unlike the idea he’d had all the way back at the beginning of his adventure. And then an obvious thought came back to bother him. “How about you, Chelsea?”
“What place would you want in this world I’m making?”
She chuckled. “Hmm…I would like…an island.”
“An island?” Sam asked.
“An archipelago, if it’s not terribly inconvenient. The craftsmen of long ago used to build their workshops on such places, far away from anything that could be harmed by their experiments. I was planning to test my device on such an island, until a bunch of idiots stole it.”
“I suppose you’ll be wanting your old house back,” Sam guessed.
Chelsea nodded. “Step one would be appeasing your family, of course. We could work on that together. But…I would like that. Once the profanity’s cleared out, it’ll be a nice place again. And you’ll have your own manse to redecorate. Gonna install fountains in all the Empress’ rock gardens?”
Sam smiled. “Now that you mention it, that sounds like a wonderful idea.” The thought stuck, and he pondered it a moment. “Maybe leave the rocks there and put them around ponds.”
Chelsea relaxed as the mood lightened. “Arright. Your coronation dinner–what are we having?”
“Hmmm…fondue,” Sam answered after a moment’s thought.
“Fancy ballroom dances, or masquerades?”
“Ooh…I used to like costume parties…but…if I have to play the host at that level, I can’t use much of a disguise,” Sam mused. “You’ll have to invite me to yours so I can be the guest sometimes.”
The sky had nearly turned dark. “One more thing. If your predecessor was ‘Scarlet’…what will you be?” Chelsea asked. “You’ve got time, of course, but we’ll need a battle cry.”
“I’m not sure yet,” he said, “but I think ‘Crimson’ is out for a number of reasons.”
Sam gazed off at the dark horizon. “It still seems so far away. There’s so much to do.”
“Yes, but it’s real now. Now that it’s real to you, someday it can be real to everyone.” Chelsea took a deep breath of the still-warm desert air. “I have tomorrow to prepare for. Goodnight, Your Aspiring Imperial Majesty.”
Sam laughed. “Goodnight, Pending Chief Imperial Craftswoman.”
Chelsea was laughing again as she went back to her cabin, and Sam let himself do the same for a minute.
It was good to be moving forward.