The Empress shifted around a few documents on her desk and studied them intently. She was looking over various reports and proposals from the last decade, learning about the state of the Empire. She had been performing this exercise for three days. On this particular occasion, she had just begun to study the details of our Empire’s economic status. I stood at her side, ready to answer any queries she might have, as long as it was within the boundaries of my directives.
The directives Master had given me were three in number:
First, not to do anything that might disadvantage him.
Second, to observe and report on the actions of the Empress.
Third, to do anything that the Empress required of me, insofar as it did not contradict the first two directives.
When the Empress had requested that I stay by her and provide her with answers to her many questions, I had concluded that acceding to her request was required by the third directive. As a result, I had acquiesced, and had thus spent the last three days answering the Empress’ questions.
“Alpha, could you please explain this bit here to me?”
“Certainly. What would Your Majesty like to know?”
“According to this report, our Empire has a surplus of luxury textiles produced within our borders. However, the common person has no means to buy it, and those who can afford it do not purchase nearly enough to warrant the surplus. Why have the production levels never been lowered to accommodate the lack of demand?”
“That is because the villages that produce them have an ongoing contract with various lords to supply them with a predetermined amount of those textiles, on a yearly basis. The contracts were drafted in a time when the fabrics were more popular than they are today, and the amounts that were agreed upon reflect the demand of that period.”
“Has nobody thought of cancelling or altering the contract?”
“Many of the villages involved depend on the money from the textiles to make a living. Cancelling or altering the contract would cause many to starve. It is for this reason that the previous High Chancellor declared that the Imperial Court would purchase all of the surplus fabric.”
“Even though it’s an annual drain on the Treasury?”
“Even so. Master Julio agrees with the proposal, as it would affect too many people to rescind it at this time.”
“So many years before the contracts end?”
“If we are to start counting from the current year, the contracts should expire in fifty-six years’ time.”
“…Never mind. I want to ask you about something else. According to the author of this report, the textiles purchased by the Court are placed in storage for years, with some items in the storehouse having been there for more than thirty years, undisturbed. He suggested that perhaps we could dispose of our excess stock by exporting it. However, while his suggestion seems reasonable, it says here that it was rejected. Furthermore, he was demoted and later imprisoned on charges of conspiracy. While I don’t particularly care about his imprisonment, I don’t quite understand the reason for his being rejected. It’s not written in here, either, so could you please explain it to me? As the High Chancellor’s aide, you must have some insight into the rationale behind his decision, right?”
“Pardon my insolence, Your Majesty, but it is not my place to question the decisions of Master Julio. I am but a servant.”
“Well, in that case, give me a hypothesis about why you think the proposal was rejected.”
I briefly considered the request. Deciding that providing an answer would be in line with my threefold directives, I told the Empress about what I considered to be the reason for the rejection.
“Our country has practiced a policy of isolationism for the past 180 years. I presume that the rejection was due to the proposal’s challenge to this policy.”
“Hm. It’s true that foreigners are rarely, if ever, seen in our borders. In fact, aside from merchants, I don’t think there are any foreigners allowed on to our soil…”
I blinked momentarily. The Empress seemed to hold a strange misconception. I decided that fulfilling my third directive required me to correct it, and so I interrupted her.
“Forgive my interruption, Your Majesty, but that is incorrect. Our country practices total isolationism. Even merchants are not allowed to enter.”
“Hm? But I thought that the Court provided special visas for qualified merchants?”
“Indeed, a Trade Visa does exist, but the Court has not issued one in over a century.”
The Empress narrowed her eyes. Did she happen to know a case to the contrary? I made a note to report this reaction to Master.
The Empress glanced at the report again and frowned, then shook her head and moved on to the next report.
As the day passed, I left the room once to retrieve her meal and tea. For that brief time, she was not within my field of vision, but I used my magic to hear the sounds in her surroundings through her shadow. Throughout my absence, I kept hearing the sound of paper being shuffled, suggesting that she was continuing to read the reports in my absence. At some point, her male attendant, Glint, entered the room, but they only spoke of trivial matters. The constant tapping of her fingers against the wooden table would have proven distracting if I had then possessed the ability to be distracted, but my circumstances at the time made it a non-issue. It was impossible for me to be certain of anything about the scene, due to my magic only having the capability to transmit sound and traces of magic usage. If I could somehow improve the spell to show me an image of the room, it would be a much more effective surveillance tool. However, Master had not ordered me to carry out that research, and I lacked the initiative to perform it without his command. Thus, I had to make do. Regardless, it seemed that she was not doing anything suspicious during the time I was not by her side.
When I re-entered the room with a tray of food and a teapot, Glint had already left. The Empress continued to read the documents, seemingly oblivious to my presence. When I set the tray down, she turned towards me.
“Ah, excellent timing. I found something else that I wished to ask you about.”
If I was capable of questioning anything, I might have wondered why the Empress was so interested in policy and process, especially since her only duty as Empress was to soothe the Emperor and to bear his children. However, being incapable of such thoughts, I simply replied,
“Certainly. What would Your Majesty like to know?”