Yes, it’s an excerpt from my novel, “I HATE Your Prophecy” – but it’s also a standalone piece about the tribulations of being a Dark Lord. Or, as we say on Twitter, #DarkLordLife.
Grumpy servants were—once again—cleaning up the mess in the smaller and more private of the castle’s two throne rooms. It has always been a quite practical chamber; its general role was to offer a slightly simpler greeting to more frequent guests; it was not always optimal for either party to have each formal visit marked by a massive assemblage of troops, courtiers, nobles, flautists, loutists, jugglers, poets, and so forth. It was hard to have conversation over a glass of wine when people kept putting vast tables groaning with assorted butchered meats between you and your intended conversational partner.
Now, the room was mostly used for the approximately-every-full-moon visit of some murderous Chosen One.
The staff didn’t like it. It was a calculated risk, which made it an improvement over the vast majority of risks people take on a regular basis. Putting it briefly, there are relatively few situations where it makes sense to permit yourself to be attacked, in person, when you command an army and various tools, technological and sorcerous.
How plausible is it, really, that a group of even the most determined and skilled killers can make it all the way from civilized lands, through a hostile realm, and into the extremely hostile territory of a particularly loathsome foe, especially one with certain powers of divination?
Unless one has a point to prove.
There are warlike cultures wherein the leader must be ready to defend against any and all comers, at any and all times, to prove one’s perpetual supremacy in battle.
These are generally cultures which don’t hold a lot of territory, because, realistically, even a leader who is capable of defeating much younger foes for a prolonged period of time is still going to suffer from the time, energy, and (in at least some cases) wound recovery necessary to schedule ‘wait for some young jerk to come and kill you’ into their daily life. To say nothing of the obvious point: while a powerful warrior can inspire an army in battle, being skilled at personal self-defense does not necessarily mean being good at commanding an armed force with maximal skill and (if possible) minimal casualties.
Sure, soldiers have plenty of reason to resent a leader who sits in a sumptuous pavilion, drinking wine and engaging in various fleshly pleasures, while they go out and fight; but that’s misuse of the privileges of rank. In theory, at least, one takes care of high-ranking officers, not because they deserve better wine and more comfortable cushions than anyone else, but because their actions and choices affect the largest number of people. A general who hangs back, surrounded by bodyguards and trying to get intelligence on the battle as a whole, is likely doing the right thing. Oh, there are times when you want someone brave of heart and strong of arm to lead the charge against the foe; but there are a lot more times when you don’t want the silly idiot giving orders to get killed, because nobody really wants the chain of command disrupted and destroyed in the middle of extended combat.
(Unless one is simply a terrible commander, and one has a very, very capable second-in-command; but that’s a tale for another time. Besides, that’s quite rare, compared to one who is a moderately capable commander, and has a lieutenant who has spent so much time plotting and scheming that there just ain’t much room left to actually get good at the job they covet.)
So no-one really loved the fact that The Dark Lord had decided to let Chosen Ones get through.
But one of the perks of power is being able to insulate yourself from things which might upset you, hurt you, annoy you. It may not be cost-effective to torture the bearer of bad news, but it sure feels good.
Only it’s not the bearer of bad news which needs your attention; it’s the bad news. Narratives get this wrong quite a lot. The more you’re able to harm your servants with impunity, for example, the more they will fear you, yes, and that has certain advantages; they’re less likely to try to take advantage of your good nature if you show them you don’t have one. But it’s not necessarily good for inspiring loyalty. You need to be fairly dumb or fairly unimaginative to stay loyal to someone who might have you tortured on a whim, and those aren’t the best qualities in an ally. If there’s one lesson Alice had learned, it people will often betray you for stupid, thoughtless, or foolhardy reasons. It’s not a good idea to provide more reasons for someone to act against your interests. The Dark Lord winced, internally, at a twinge in her left shoulder blade.
Scars are good. They help you remember some of your most idiotic moves, so that you’re less likely to repeat them.
People like to live out their stories. The Dark Lord could hardly blame them; while vast, foreboding fortresses atop mountain peaks are an excellent defensive choice, there’s something to be said for trying to be terribly clever and living in a little pocket dimension or a remote island—or, even better, living in one of those places while putting forth the rumour that you live in some particularly bleak craggy stronghold. She had her reasons, but she also wanted to live here. The Dark Lord, with the Dark Soul, in the Dark Fortress, on the Dark Mountain; it might not be the very smartest choice, but it was the one she liked, and that alone was worth some of the disadvantages.
And: she wanted real exposure to the people who were here avowed enemies.
Not reports on what they were like. Not whatever visions she could manage to scry (scrying is difficult). Not just ravens, repeating their words, or captured scrolls, giving her their information. She wanted to hear what they said and did when they got to her, when they thought they’d passed the guards and thought the Dark Lord was most vulnerable.
She wanted them to stand in front of her (they almost always did) and say, to her face (to the shadows which hid her face, specifically)—just who they thought they were, and what they thought they were doing.
There’s nothing like a primary source.
They persisted—time and time again—in believing this exciting narrative: they almost got the Dark Lord. It was very close. It was very tragic.
They truly seemed to believe she was one or two steps away from being utterly destroyed every time. They were right, although if they were wise, they would have
They wanted to believe that they had come very close, and just needed to try again, and then it would all work out the way they wanted it to.
Because that’s what humans do.
And that’s why she wanted to look at their faces, see the rage in the eyes of total strangers, hear them scream nonsense about their genealogies and absolute rubbish about her, accusing her of things she’d never even considered doing.
Because she was human, too, and she had to remind herself: if you really want to survive, as a member of this species, you need to constantly check your wants against your realities, or you will go insane with wishful thinking.
And she wanted the reminder, the constant reminder, the very physical, approximately once-every-month reminder, as a new Chosen One made their way to her door: it’s actions which make you what you are, and it’s actions taken in the grip of delusion which make you a corpse.
My name is Jeff Mach (“Dark Lord” is optional) and I build communities and create things. Every year, I put on Evil Expo, the Greatest Place in the World to be a Villain. I also write a lot of fantasy and science fiction.. You can get most of my books right here. Go ahead, pre-order “I HATE Your Prophecy“. It may make you into a bad person, but I can live with that.