Fifteen years ago.
Five people wearing white lab coats stand around an enormous machine. The room they’re in is partly cloaked in steam, they seem used to it. “Electric currents at 4.10.” One of the scientists says. “Pressure levels are steady, we can increase the outage.” A woman calls from somewhere within the mist. “The liquid amber is doing its job, I’m sure it we will be successful this time.” Another man says, observing the process. “Don’t sell the bearskin before killing it Kinsky.” A woman who seems to be in charge calls from an observatory platform up ahead.
With a great heave the machine starts pumping. Golden liquid flows through class tubes upwards, steam is released from a pressure pipe somewhere in the room and electric static fills the room. “The math is good, this time we will succeed.” Kinsky grumbles. “Electric currents increasing, rising to 4.25, 4.50, 4.75. We’re nearing maximum capacity.” The pressure in the room increases. A low humming absorbs all sound. “Reach…. Ma….. ca…..” Someone shouts, but the words are lost in the humming.
The room explodes into white light. There is no sound, no light, no life, there is in fact nothing at all. It is as if the world ceased to exist in a single moment. As if time and space never happened. A single second lasting an eternity. In that single second there is a tear, and a boy gets through. Then it is suddenly over. The light returns to normal and the room is exactly as it was before.
The five scientists are the same as they were before, they haven’t even changed positions. They are exactly the same, and at the same time they are nothing like they used to be. There is something rattling through their skull. A word. A name. Of what they do not know, but that single name isn’t letting them go. It is a word that embodies the past, present and the future.
It has been two weeks since the revolution started. In some places the fires are still burning, but Victoria is stable. The eastern part of the country is locked up tight by the military. Here Charles rules unopposed. I have little doubt he we reunite the rest of the country soon enough. As the new director of the Internal Security Bureau I’m privy to a lot of information unknown by the public. I know that Charles has another plan, something on an international level. It makes sense, now that he has taken control over the most important parts of the country he wants to take the show on the road.
Roshar and Kievan have gone to war. I wonder whether Charles factored that into his plans, probably. A part of me is permanently annoyed with him. He keeps vital information to himself, even though I can’t prove that, and only sparsely gives me a peak behind his curtains. You would think that I had a way of finding shit out, being in control of the largest spy organization on the continent and all that. Apparently not even the director of the dreaded ISB has clearance for everything.
I’m sitting in my office, my home office these days. The place used to be a bit battered, before it was shot up. Back then there was a lot of brown wood and stately furniture, a bit like a country club. That was before it was shot-up by the mob, looted by revolutionaries and redecorated by my girlfriend. The last being the most damaging of the three.
The whole place now looks more like a French salon than the office of an assassin. Furniture with flower patterns, a large standing mirror, hell I even got a rug. Jesse went all out, going as far as having the walls painted a sort of light blue. I don’t mind all that much, and apparently the whole thing is quite classy. I wouldn’t know, I’m not a bloody interior designer.
The door is thrown open and Jesse enters excitedly. “You ready?” She asks. I nod, signing the last of a bunch of papers. “Yes, let’s go.” I stand up and walk towards the door. She stops, stands on the tip of her toes and kisses me. “You’ve got to wear the hat.” She whispers in my ear. I grimace. The bloody hat. I glance at the monstrosity hanging on the peg inside my office. It is a top hat, but not a regular one. It has a red sash tied around it, a tiny timepiece on the brim and several feathers sticking from it. Of all the objects in the world it is the one I hate most.
Jesse’s smile is so wide I worry her face might rip itself apart. “You can’t find that thing pretty, please don’t make me wear it.” I beg. The sparkle in her eyes tell me all I need to know. I can beg, plead and curse all I want, I’m wearing the bloody hat. I sigh and put the monstrosity on. Jesse snickers, she’s awful. Together we walk towards the front door. Jesse stops at her desk to pick up the veil she’s been wearing since she was hospitalized. I stop her.
“Don’t.” I say. Suddenly the atmosphere becomes tense. “People will stare.” She says, biting her lip. “I don’t care, you shouldn’t either.” I mean it too. With my right hand I trace the scars which form a silvery web across her face. “You know it isn’t as easy as that.” Her hand goes for the veil again. “As long as I wear this hat, nobody will be looking at them, if that is what you fear.” I give her hand a squeeze. “It will be alright.” She glances at the veil again, but leaves it on the desk. “Okay, let’s do this.” She says. Together we step outside, into the pouring rain.
The corridors of city hall are deserted. Charles walks through them by himself. He succeeded, it is all his. The chaos going on in the rest of the country is a carefully crafted illusion. As long as the foreign powers believe Mercia is too weak to intervene in their war they will keep at it. Already he can see it. Roshar will win the war, obtaining lots of land and valuable resources, all the while sustaining heavy casualties. Their armies weakened, their war machine almost out of fuel. At that precise moment he will strike.
Even now, as he strolls through these corridors, he’s raising a new army in the north. It is one unlike Mercia has seen before. An army of men and women capable of impossible feats. It is draining resources, but the returns will be immense. All thanks to Rosharian ingenuity. A lot can be said about the monarchy, but their engineers and surgeons really are top notch.
A woman falls into step next to him. He doesn’t have to look to know who it is. “Getting some late night exercise?” He asks drily. “You of all people know what exercise for me would look like.” She responds, baring her teeth. “You almost scared me there.” He says with a lazy smile. She makes a strange purring sound. “How did your date with your ex-girlfriend go?” It is not her place to ask. She knows that, but she likes to push boundaries, real or otherwise.
“She did what she was supposed to do. The Queen of the South is dead, I received a report this morning.” He glances at her. “What about the retributors?” Oliva cracks her neck. “Two are dead, one fled the country, the last one is leading the rebellion in the north.” Charles nodded. The rebel would die soon enough, when it suited his designs. “The one who fled, any idea where he went?” The woman shook her head. “Might have gone to Kievan or Roshar, but he could also have headed south.” Charles sighed, it would be a problem for later.
Olivia licks her lips. “So, what is the plan now?” They take a turn. “Firstly I’m going to give you what you deserve.” Charles calmly says, looking straight ahead. Olivia stops dead in the middle of the hallway. Her hands go for the collar around her throat, her eyes widen, her lips curl into a snarl. Had Charles been an animal he would have been able to smell her fear. He turned around to look at her and raised his eyebrows. “No reason for panic.” He walks towards her, does something with the lock and takes the collar off.
There is surprise in her eyes when he steps back holding the collar. “But I could still be useful? Why do you discard me?” She says backing away. Charles shrugs. “Oh I still have a use for you, I just don’t think you will leave.” Olivia takes another two steps back. “There is nothing now that stops me from leaving.” Charles raises his eyebrows. “You are an emotionless monster, are you not? Created to kill without remorse. You could indeed leave right now, kill any guards I sent after you, be out of the country come first light.” He smiled. “And yet, here we are.”
He fished a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. “I won’t be kept in another cage!” Olivia barked. “And you wouldn’t be. There is a place for you, by my side.” Charles said calmly, taking a drag. “You don’t have to answer now, get back to me when you decide to stay.” He turns around and starts walking. “Or you could join me and have a couple of drinks at a party.” He looks over his shoulder, the hallway is empty. “See you tomorrow.”
When Jesse and I get to the party it is already in full swing. At the bar people are already drunk. The dancefloor is filled with people. As we enter it feels like everybody is looking at us. Maybe they are. Jesse stiffens, crushing my arm in a dead grip. I bow over. “They’re just jealous of how beautiful you look.” I whisper in her ear. She looks up at me and I smile. With a soft hand I guide her to the dancefloor.
I glare at the orchestra, holding up three fingers. I’m a horrible dancer, all the little steps and extra moves just don’t register. There is only one dance I can dance fully, the waltz. One, two, three, repeat. It is easy, it gets the job done, and with the right woman it is fun. Jesse is hesitant at first, but quickly settles into the rhythm. We swirl and twirl like bloody naturals. At some point I look at Jesse and see a quiet content smile.
Maybe I’ve been chasing after the wrong things all my life. I’ve done horrible things, acts that should have landed me in prison. Instead I was promoted. I’ve tried freedom, and found it to be a lonely affair. I’ve earned and spend fortunes, never sating the hunger I felt. I’ve been a good man, and I’ve been obsolete, neither made me happy. Briefly my thoughts go to Rosa, who kept me something resembling sane six years ago. Could I have had with her what I have now with Jesse? It is useless to think about it, besides I’m here, with Jesse, now. I don’t need or want a different relationship. This is how it is supposed to be.
I smile back, leaving my thoughts for what they are. Sometimes it pays to live in the moment.