99.9% of the things I post here are standalone, and should work without other context, even if they’re part of larger narratives.
This one piece is the single (so far) exception – it’s from my upcoming novel, “I Hate Your Prophecy“, and I’m putting it up so people can beta-read it.
Chosen Ones may come and go (sometimes lacking a leg, or a neck, or a set of ideals), but painful, obligatory office furniture is forever. If you think the head which bears the crown is uneasy, you should try having the posterior which needs to endure the throne.
This used to be easier. Because this used to be fun.
It’s not like Alice had ever been normal. No Magician is, and Necromancers are stranger than most. Magic varies from place to place, but Necromancers aren’t a part of any society, anywhere; whether the dead are extremely reluctant or far too eager, there’s no illusion that calling upon them, in almost any capacity, is a very ugly violation of even the most generous definition of “that which is even vaguely natural”. But Alice had been a researcher long before she’d actually become an outcast, and sorcerous research, development, and creation were her deepest passions. She wouldn’t have minded being that rumored witch, the one at the very edge of the forest, the one no one ever sees, the one who spends all her time engaged in strange behaviors, the rare practitioner who leaves behind a carefully-crafted, entirely new body of work on the mystic arts.
And when circumstances—and, admittedly, her own actions—had forced her into the first steps towards being a Dark Lord, a self-quarantined monster who built a vast Citadel, knowing that she’d need layer upon layer of protection just to make it more costly to erase her than to leave her alone…
…she’d secretly loved it. Night after night, she’d made excuses to the Court; she’d left rulership in the hands of Regents and Viziers with instructions not to steal too damn much, dammit, and she’d quietly re-created rituals and re-discovered glyphs and cunningly laid rune over rune to create newly emergent enchanted complexity, and…
…for a brief time, she’d just done magic. There were some particularly unholy experiments, and she didn’t rationalize or excuse them; they were, on the whole, Dark as Hell (or, at least, as Dark as the parts of Hell which are dark; some are very brightly lit indeed, particularly the one sector with the blinding beam of radiance which lays bare every sin and misdeed which has even crossed your mind during life and strips your soul agonizingly naked; and also, that place downtown where there’s a really swingin’ nightclub with blazing jazz and very tall drinks and novelty fortune cookies which, no matter what the fortune actually is, end with, “…but you’re eternally damned, so why worry?”), but, in the midst of these thing, one might note, Alice caused no more suffering or death than did any other ruler going about the general business of ruling.
It had been some of the happiest times of her life.
And one day, she’d been declared Anathema. She hadn’t even known what the word meant; she’d had to look it up.
…and that brought the vast majority of her research to an end, as she devoted herself to building a more powerful nation, creating better defenses, and surviving.
Which left her here. Far from her laboratory. Surrounded by fops and hangers-on—but you can’t judge a Court by its courtiers; some of the vainest space-wasting idiots of the Realm had moneyed or muscled their way on in here; but also, many of the diplomates, merchants, traders, military, and other true gems of the nation were a part of this room. Sometimes they were a bit of both; one could be a military genius, a significant deterrent to enemy forces, a hard-working, hard-fighting soldier…who came to her Citadel while on leave to show off his extremely splendid outfit and speak in excruciating detail about why the warrior who did his manicures had a lot to learn from the warrior who did his pedicures. Court etiquette may be a bunch of symbolism, hokey custom, frippery, foolishness, and vanity; but underneath it was a churning sea of very smart, very powerful people who wanted to network, to connect, to check to see that the Autocrat was still sharp and focused and worth allying with…
…and that was why she fed them exotic delicacies and put out great groaning sideboards of roasts and stews and soups and pies; why they drank from a wine-cellar which might have been assembled by the ambitious ghost of the greatest sommelier of the last hundred years; why she kept them happy, why she kept up appearances, and why she had to keep her damn tail on this damn throne, looking regal, for at least another two hours, with every minute ticking by more slowly than the last.
Akané was here, as well, charming her way through the crowded room with an ease and grace which Alice almost envied; if Alice really had to cut through a crowd like this, her preference would have been less towards a disarming smile, and more towards a very, very sharp axe.
But, of course, The Dark Lord didn’t have to charm anyone. She was the one experiencing the, ahem, privilege and pleasure of sitting on the Royal Throne.
Thrones are a very complicated bit of furniture. That’s not to say they’re necessarily difficult to construct; that depends a great deal on your tools, your materials, and your technology. We’ve found thrones of stone, thrones of bone, thrones in wastelands all alone (which leads poets to assume that they’re at the spot of now-gone vast former metropoles, although anyone who’s ever been obliged to remain upon the damn chairs for any length of time suspects a simpler answer: at some point, some ruler got really tired of this most important and most dislikable bit of regal furniture, and hauled their personal status-seat off to the most trackless wasteland around).
Thrones (like swords) won’t even take enchantment particularly well. And yes, this is a recurring factor in the Universe: a supposedly mundane object, if it is powerful enough in its own right, will absolutely resist the effects of thaumaturgical change. Thrones represent a kind of power which used and was used by humans before anyone had collected enough fragmentary knowledge of Magic to begin shaping the first tentative Words, and long before the earliest-found Names were known to humans as anything other than odd patterns of sound or light, occurring in unexpected spaces. The Throne represents the apex of a pyramid which is formed by the intense focus of many human minds on a central position. One might hate the autocrat; one might be an anarchist; one might despise the very idea of being ruled; but the useful collective fiction of “The State” channels enough symbolic force into the Throne that putting any more magic in will generally make the thing fly apart in a sudden and extremely violent un-integration—partly from a critical mass of too much force gathered into one small space, partly from the Universe’s sheer outrage at trying to alter something which already represents the ability to send tens of thousands of lives towards hope, or pain, or fear, or (sometimes) certain death.
This non-enchantability had frustrated Alice to no end. She found you can’t really levitate on a throne (crash!), you can’t make the wood more accepting of your body (crunch!), and you can’t really counteract the discomfort with spells of numbness unless you want to become un-alert. That might’ve been a workaround—except it was basically just a sorcerous equivalent of chugging muscle relaxant; and many’s the ruler who thought the “seductive” nature of power was a metaphor, until they found themselves held firmly, helpless in its loving, addictive grip. About the closest she’d ever come to being comfortable on one of the things was to have an invisible demon lift her very slightly above the hardwood; but that was extremely resource intensive (you may think you know what demons eat, but trust us, you don’t know this demon’s gastronomical preferences, and if you knew why we weren’t telling you, you’d appreciate it) and eventually (and contrary to rumor) even a Necromancer gets tired of having Hell-spawned hands on her flesh.
So here she sat, wishing she could be elsewhere, wishing, at least, that she didn’t have to actually keep an alert eye on what was going on around her. She’d rather have drifted off into some of the thaumaturgical formulae she’d been scribbling about last night before bed; there was that one equation, about matter, the speed of light, and the screaming of the Damned…
….she shook herself into focus. Because what she was doing now was necessary.
Or, not strictly necessary, but it’s unwise to short-circuit too much symbolic human interaction. A throne suggests many things—one could say all manner of things about the psychological distance between kneeling and looking up, versus sitting at a great height, and being observed high above all others in the room, and you could consider that vanity, or theatricality, or cheap psychology, and note that it won’t work on everyone, which is true. But how about, “See these guards flanking me, next to the dais? Notice how they’re standing up, in full armor, and my braincase is still probably above theirs? They don’t think this arrangement is funny, and, in fact, their expressions indicate they wouldn’t be able to figure out where ‘funny’ is if you gave them a map and a laugh track. Just as this unpleasant chair symbolizes my ability to place my skull above yours in less subtle ways, such as my keeping my head and removing yours, these guards symbolize many, many more guards, such that we are bound to politeness, not merely by common courtesy, but by the implicit dangers of my displeasure.”?
It’s part of why fools and madmen have so much fun in throne rooms; they don’t care. This is dangerous (it’s far better to have people thinking that it would be nearly impossible, and quite painful, to try to cause you harm, than to have people start thinking, “Precisely how well-armed are the troops, how many of them are nearby, and what weapons can we get our hands on before they can respond properly?”) but also, for at least some people, it’s extremely refreshing, which is why certain arrogant, foolish, or incredibly brave individuals are tolerated in a place where obeisance, even if it’s in token form, is considered the most basic of good manners.
And it’s part of the psychological power of a castle. It’s good for stark contrasts. For example, Akané could be granted the freedom (under watch) of the Throne Room, see how the Dark Lord lived…then be returned to a cell barely large enough for one to take about three-and-a-half paces before striking a wall. Oh, the food wasn’t bad, and they brought her some of what she want, within reason (a book of tavern songs, of all things), but it made a very sharp contrast indeed. It said: “You’re locked down there, and I’m sitting high—literally—up here. We live in the same Keep, but in very different worlds, and only by your actions and behavior can you improve your current situation.”
Alice assumed that this message was also not lost on Susane, wherever she was. It was clearly important to Susane that Alice not know, or at least not acknowledge, that Susane could get out of her imprisonment at will. Susane seemed to enjoy giving the impression that she was nothing more than a psychotic killing machine, when, in actuality, she was only almost nothing more than a psychotic killing machine. (And, as is the case with most humans, the tiny piece which was the “almost” comprised an intensely compressed series of doubts, thoughts, curiosities, interests, and an endless weighing of possibilities, which were, most of the time, ruthlessly quashed by her single-mindedness. But again: most of the time. That was the whole difference between ‘someone who can be only one thing’, and ‘someone who is very focused on one thing, but who is not locked into that thing.’ It was also the part which made Susane really interesting; mindless assassins lack a fear of death because they almost lack awareness of life. They basically risk nothing, since dying would make only relatively small changes in their brain activity. A little tiny bit of mindfulness means that you have to rely on your will; that you’re aware of mortality; that bravery, defiance, and dedication were choices, not prisons, for Susane.
Or so The Dark Lord believed. She could be wrong about that, just as she could be wrong about the feeling that Susane was, somehow, stealthily observing the proceedings in some way unnoticed, despite the guards and wards and mirrors.
But she was pretty sure she wasn’t wrong.
There was overloud laughter; Akané had finished some particularly compelling tale, and the crowd was rewarding the raconteur with pleasured sounds in the hope that she’d give them more. A ruler would have to be intensely secure, or intensely stupid, not to be threatened by a charisma that size, wrapped around a personality which was layered, as was the case with many a performer, into multiple performances, with an uncertainty as to which underlying persona represented the actual human under the metaphorical greasepaint.
The Dark Lord was neither that secure nor that foolish, and she did feel threatened by Akané. But that wasn’t all bad. A weapon you fear is a weapon your enemies should fear; it was making sure that the danger was directed away from you, not towards you, which mattered.
The Necromancer sighed. An enormous part of Alice’s job was what might be seen as conversational shorthand. There are not, for example, more soldiers than ordinary citizens, even in most police states. Could the citizens prevail over the military in a pitched battle? Yes, sometimes, especially if they’ve won or bribed the loyalty of at least some of the soldiers’ contingent before the actual battle, as was the case with many revolutions.
Does the mob of freedom-fighters necessarily bring about something better the people than the laws those troops formerly protected?
Sometimes, perhaps. Depending on your standpoint, and your mob, and your former rulers. For example, in a recent survey, 100 percent of all despotic dictators told us their populace was much, much happier since the aforementioned tyrants came to power. They even saved us time by explaining that it was not necessary for us to speak to any of the people; the people were so united in their love of the autocrat that they would be insulted if we consulted them about their current levels of joy.
Putting aside what’s best for the people, does any reasonably sane ruler want the populace to consider the practicalities of overcoming the beweaponed maintainers of society, and seizing the throne? Absolutely not; it may be a damned unpleasant piece of furniture, but removal from the big chair also tends to mean removal of your crown, usually via a very forceful blow to the neck. No government is immune from overthrow, whether its intentions are as benevolent and Utopian as one might dream, or as Kafkaesque as one might fear.
And besides: Someone like Susane is rare, but not rare enough that rulers sleep well at night.
One could reduce the population to (literal) zombies, but that comes with its own sea of problems; also, zombies need very, very precise instruction if you want them to do anything other than shamble about, attack your tourists, and (for some reason) take up itinerant miming.
So it was necessary to use an understanding of human nature, which, to many aneurotypical individuals, Alice included, was basically “lying”.
But (to come back ‘round to the beginning, here) symbolism matters. Alice had a private belief that you could measure the sanity of a society by how much it valued the symbology of an action, versus the consequences of that action. It was one of the reasons she was a very troubled Dark Lord.
Primates (and many other mammals) can be observed in the midst of fights for dominance, all the damn time. Some people seem to think they’re clever wags if they discuss the many ways we use ‘phony’ conversation and actions to establish social contact.
The challenge is there’s not necessarily an optimal configuration for judging intent. A Dark Lord can look into souls, a bit, sometimes, in some ways, but that’s a little like looking into an oven to see if a new recipe is fully baked: even an experienced baker won’t always know if it’s overdone unless your cooker begins exporting smoke and flame, and you don’t always know it’s underdone until you’ve acquired the sort of stomachache usually reserved for toddlers who chew on sensitive alchemical materials because they look tasty.
(Souls are secretive things; even in the blandest individual, a soul is a vast and enormous connection with the Universe, stuffed into the center-of-projection of a being whose astral presence may literally have nothing to do but nap all day, occasionally skimming through the brain looking for a few interesting memories to rerun. Bodies are small and complicated and usually out-of-touch with the core of Creation; souls are infinitely more complex and infinitely larger, even when incarnated into someone whose entire life goal is to achieve insignificance. It’s hard to cage a soul, and harder still to peer into it; if you aren’t sure you can tell what someone’s thinking based on their facial expressions, peering into their spiritual nexus is unlikely to be of great help.)
Right now, as she presides over this…was it a dinner party? A celebration of some kind? Some state holiday? She forgot. Right now, in lots of different places, for lots of different reasons, people were plotting to kill her. Other monarchs, her own subjects, the Order of White Wizards, pretty much every Elf alive, certain factions among celestial beings…
…and she, in turn could bring down Hellfire if she so chose; not without consequence, but she could. She could summon Daemons. She could send armies to set a village aflame or attack a fortress; even start, and probably win, a fairly major war.
But none of those things were useful right now. They were big, sweeping, high-cost actions, measuresto be taken if she was perceived as weak, if she was faced with a direct threat, if there was an emergency.
Because, today, her struggle was to sit on top of this clunky, oversized, hardwood monstrosity, with her back straight and her face attentive, sending out the clear message: “I am well, I am aware, and if you want to look me in the eye for a prolonged period of time, you’re going to get a crick in your damn neck.”
It was hard to imagine that anyone could find this glamorous. Well, Hymnia could. She was sitting in a corner, with a guard who was . The public fiction was that Hymnia was a visiting noble, and the private fiction was that The Dark Lord was keeping a personal eye on Hymnia to test her for unknown and unstated shortcomings. This is cruel and frightening and unkind, but one hoped it might disconcert the girl; likewise, one hoped that she’d find the undesirable blandishments of assorted petty nobles to be as dull and uninspired as the untutored romantic aspirations of anyone in her home village.
No such luck so far; Hymnia was clearly living a dream of glamor and romance, which had not been shattered when two nobles ‘accidentally’ spilled their drinks on her. The poor girl had been so apologetic that Alice had wanted to send lightning bolts straight through both courtiers and say, “NO, NO, THEY’RE IDIOTS, YOU DON’T NEED TO APOLOGIZE TO THEM”—but no; she’d let Hymnia enjoy it and see all the glitz and glamour. It would set back her training, but it was inappropriate (and therefore, weak) for The Dark Lord to punish others for her own miscalculations. Alice enacted a little self-penance by sitting, even straighter, in The Damnable Damned Throne.
And…perhaps Alice was biased. Hymnia wasn’t a fool. It wasn’t as if she’d actually run off for an assignation with any of these third-rate halfwits. Perhaps she was enjoying the situation. She hadn’t exactly attracted an Akané-sized crowd, but she’d also managed to rebuff multiple suitors without apparently ruffling their feathers, and without having them continue to pay her court. That was delicate. Alice knew most of the people in this room. Hymnia had been approached by both some of the most astute operators, and some of the most clueless hangers-on. The first took offense easily; the second tended to notice rejection only after the second broken arm. Navigating both took a deft touch. Hymnia appeared to be blossoming a bit.
Briefly, The Dark Lord wondered what it would have been like if she’d been disillusioned and outcast far sooner, while she was young enough to find everything a little new and a little amazing. For a moment, she felt a tinge of jealousy.
She quashed it with a disciplined act of focus, wherein she forced herself to be conscious of the chair under her. Moving to a physical pain allowed her to let go of the little piece of mental hurt, which was good; we already react, too often and too easily, to imagined slights. There’s no benefit to fostering resentments of the present based on one’s long-dead past. At least, not towards one’s students.
Did Alice have an opportunity to get out of the chair yet? No, not unless she wanted to be buttonholed by any one of a dozen people who wanted her attention, and weren’t worth her time. Back straight. Eyes forward. Stay in the damn chair.
The thing was cushioned, but only lightly. No alert ruler wants to sink into their own royal buttock-warmer. It’s hard to make a cushion which gives good support but doesn’t look like what it is, namely, a big hunk of silk stuffed with the feathers of whatever geese most annoyed the person sewing the pillow. Anything large and soft enough to really aid your glutes was also going to pull you in until you looked like you were melting; not a good look for a mage.
In the back of the room, certain courtiers maneuvered for the position of Grand Vizier, the poor bastards. The Dwarven delegation continued to speak in whispers, and only to each other; this was going to be trouble. Hymnia had managed to wrangle time with the Goblin ambassador; that was rare. He liked these events even less than Alice did, and normally kept to the shadows—any shadows he could find. He wasn’t fond of socialization, or of humans, or of being an ambassador; in fact, Alice had yet to discover anything of which he was fond. Well, apparently he didn’t object to Hymnia; perhaps her enjoyment of the festivities was, of all things, contagious. It wasn’t The Dark Lord’s style; but that was the point of the students, wasn’t it?
A few people were strutting about, at court primarily with the goal of being seen in their extremely stylish new clothes, hoping, for some insane reason, to start a coterie of squabbling fashionistas in the court of a ruler whose armoire contained black robes, other black robes, spare black robes, and a very slightly nicer black robe that she wore for special occasions. And yes, the Dark Lord (hopefully) gave the appearance that she had a watchful eye on everything going on—which she did, to the best of her abilities; but that really did not include caring much about who was currently commanding the highest prices for the most ridiculous ideas.
Some days you battled Dragons. Some days you battled silly bastards with overpowered weapons and nigh-criminal levels of self-unawareness. Some days you battled Demons—inner, outer; or, once in a while, both at once.
Some days you battled to sit upright in a chair and look like you know exactly what you’re doing at all times; because people are daft enough to assume that what you look like is what you are. And that battle mattered, because a little play-acting could stave off a lot of arsenic in your pre-bed nightcap.
Humans play silly games, but they’re deadly silly games. A Dark Lord knows that you can’t win every battle; but a Dark Lord also knows that every battle counts. You don’t always know which victories really matter until you lose.
That’s one thing Alice, and all of the surviving ex-Chosen, had in common: all of them had learned that lesson the hard way.
Alice shifted in her chair. Around her were the chats which would later manifest as “sudden” compromises in assorted treaties; there were ministers, permitted to talk about anything, but drawn, by mutual interest, into an unprompted discussion of certain particularly difficult matters of policy. Those Goblins had apparently made their mind up about something; she’d no idea what, but from what she could read of the surreptitious movement of their eyes, it was something important, and something about her.
It was a good night. It advanced the arcane game of statecraft, and nobody had died. Later on, The Dark Lord would reward her own patience by skimping on some exercise and writing out a few equations.
Preferably, while standing up.
My name is Jeff Mach (“Dark Lord” is optional) and I build communities, put on events, and make stories come into being. 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.