My feet stopped just shy of the corridor that held the entrance to the Emperor’s chamber. What did I intend to say? Rather, what was there for me to say? Neither of us had any illusions about the nature of our relationship. I bore no love for him, though he was my husband. Yet, it was my duty as his spouse to at least visit him, if not care for him, in his sickness – a duty which would cast doubts on my character if left unfulfilled. I resumed walking – a careful, calculated gait: fast enough to betray signs of anxiety and concern, but slow and measured enough to retain my dignity as Empress. The two guards stationed outside the large double doors to the Emperor’s chamber snapped to attention as I came into view. I gave one of them a cursory nod. He turned and rapped on the door, announcing my arrival.
Before long, the door was opened before me, upon which I was greeted by several maids and the royal physician, kneeling before me. In the corner of the room, directly across from the door, stood Revingriz, the Captain of the Imperial Guards. His face was as vigilant and unreadable as the day I had first set eyes on him, when he accompanied the Emperor to the performance on that dark day, more than a year ago. He stood at attention, but otherwise showed no reaction to my entrance.
I acknowledged him with a nod, then went up to the physician, who was still kneeling, head bowed. I offered him my hand, which he graced with a kiss, then helped him to his feet.
“How is my husband, Doctor Valtz?”
The doctor shook his head and spoke quietly.
“Not good. I am ashamed to admit that I cannot tell what is afflicting him – it shows the symptoms of various illnesses combined, and it is difficult to say which exactly is the malady that has taken his body. At the moment, he is stable, but weakening. I will continue trying to learn what I can of his condition, but…”
“Please do, Doctor.”
Turning away from Valtz, I turned my attention to the bed. Though his skin was pallid, and his cheeks were beginning to hollow, he radiated a sense of pride and authority despite his sickly figure. His chest heaved up and down, clearly having some difficulty in breathing, but he gave me a weak smile when he saw me. As etiquette dictated, I spoke first.
“I apologise for taking so long to come and see my lord. I would have come earlier, but various duties have prevented me from doing so since my initial visit. Know, however, that my lord has ever preoccupied my thoughts, and I have not been able to sleep soundly this last fortnight, for worry about my lord’s condition.”
“My love. These two weeks have been nothing but heavy, suffocating darkness, and they felt like an eternity of pain. Yet now, seeing you before me, I cannot seem at all to recall that once absolute darkness, for no shadow can remain before your radiance.”
I gave my husband a smile and ignored the chair that had been placed next to his bed, instead seating myself next to him on the bed itself – a position I had occupied many times in the last two years. I slowly helped to ease him into an upright seating position, so that our eyes were level. I gave him a meaningful glance, then directed my gaze to the servants in the room, many of whom were sneaking glances at our display with interest. Several of the maids had their heads turned away to hide their blushes. Those who had noticed my gaze went pale, most likely realising that their behaviour was inappropriate, possibly wondering how they would be punished for it.
At my command, all the maids stood up, bowed, and exited the room. Doctor Valtz did the same. Only Revingriz remained, looking at the Emperor for confirmation. My husband nodded.
“Do as she says, Revingriz. In this, and in all things. Stay just outside the door, if that will appease your worry.”
Revingriz wordlessly bowed to both of us in turn, then exited the chamber, closing the door behind him.
The two of us sat in silence for a while. The Emperor broke the silence first.
I wordlessly nodded and removed my hairpin, letting my hair spill across the surface of the bed. He took his sickly hand and ran it through the ends of my hair. This much, I was willing to allow.
“Such beautiful locks. Though not nearly as beautiful as the one who wears them. Though I have been married to you two years, each time I look on you, I notice your loveliness anew, my dear.”
“And yet you have not bedded me, even once.”
“A shame, indeed. Not once, but many times would I have made love to you, had you been so willing.”
“You are the Emperor. Is it not the prerogative of an Emperor to take what he wants, whether or not the taken is willing?”
“If we were speaking of enemies, or possessions, then yes. You are neither my enemy nor my possession – you are the love of my life, and so I desire nothing of you which you do not freely give.”
I smiled wryly. This was not the first time we were having this conversation – it was not even the tenth time. Over the last two years, each time I spent the night in the Emperor’s chambers, we would have this conversation, or some variant of it. Each time, we would banter in this way. Each time, I would spend the night in my husband’s bed. Each time, the night would pass without him laying a hand on me.
I held out the note that Doctor Valtz had slipped into my palm when he kissed my hand.
“Looks like it’s poison after all. Though we already knew that to be the case.”
The Emperor laughed.
“Well, knowing my brother, it is likely to be something uncurable, or at the very least close to uncurable.”
“I’m surprised that you can be so jovial about the fact that you’ve been poisoned.”
“This was always going to happen. Julio hates me far too much to let me die a natural death. It was just a matter of when. It was good foresight to buy off Valtz before Julio could offer to, by the way. He knows not to spread the news, I assume?”
“Yes. At least, not until we can gather enough evidence to implicate Julio without a doubt – assuming it exists.”
Even though we knew for a fact that he had been poisoned, making that news public would have merely destabilised the court if we had no way to prove that Julio had done it. In that case, it was safer to keep the Emperor’s sickness as being caused by ‘a mysterious illness’ for now.
I held up the note in my right hand and snapped with my left. Instantly the note burst into magical flames, burning itself away. I turned to the Emperor and took his hand in my own.
“After today, I won’t be able to visit you for a while. Possibly I might not be able to visit you at all, until the end.”
“Yes. I know. I am sorry for leaving the tedium of managing the country to you, though I suppose that you have been doing that long before this poison invaded my body.”
“Well, when I’m married to the Fool Emperor, I have to make up for his shortcomings, do I not?”
“I apologise for being a fool, then.”
We lapsed into silence for a while. He held my hand with a gentle touch. Taking comfort in my presence, without beseeching my affection. After a moment, I spoke in a quieter voice.
“That’s how history will remember you, you know. The Fool Emperor. Even though you’re anything but.”
“Then my foolishness will be the backdrop that lets your brilliance shine ever brighter. I care not for how history remembers me – I will be dead and gone, by then. Let history call me a fool. Let history mock my actions and deride my decisions. Let history say what it wants about me, because nothing it says could possibly erase my greatest achievement: that I married the woman who would lead this Empire into a new, brighter age.”
There was no sarcasm in his voice, no mockery – he sincerely believed that I would be able to lead this country to glory.
“I’ll do my best to live up to your expectations.”
“I know you will, my love. From the moment I first laid eyes on you, you have exceeded all my expectations, and I fully expect that to continue.” He started coughing, and breathed heavily. “And now, this poison is starting to take its toll on my body. I would like to rest for a while, I think.”
I helped him to recline back down unto his pillow, upon which he released a sigh as if relieved of a great burden. Sitting up must have been more painful for him than he let on.
“Thank you, Rosalind. I leave things to you, my love.”
“Rest well, Lucius.”
My husband’s lips curled upwards in a satisfied smile as I called him by his name for the first time in our marriage.
I stayed by him until sleep took him and he let go of my hand, then I stayed by him a bit longer, accompanied by the sound of his breathing as he slept. As the sun changed from its bright yellow to a warm red, marking the end of the 3rd hour of my visit, I stood up from the bed and left for my own office. There was much that needed to be done, and not nearly enough time to do it.