THE MASTER’S WOES
A bright, golden sun cast its shining rays freely over the basin surrounded by charred and ancient cliffs and stones. Through it ran a thin stream, barely visible from distance, with vain, yellow grass rising up from dry rock surrounded by thick, leafless shrubs. Eternal wind blew through the basin, one barely strong enough to sway the few grasses as though it was a mother singing lullaby to a rocking baby.
Within basin’s depths, beneath an out-stretching cliff which appeared like an umbrella for land below, shielding it from the scorching sun, was a small pond, full of clear, slightly chilly water. It wasn’t terribly deep, perhaps up to knees of a grown adult, and it was the size of an average house. It was bereft of any form life, plant or animal alike, and was steady despite the wind.
Surrounding it was a rather tranquil-looking scenery, with flowers seemingly specifically groomed to follow a certain pattern winding around into a strange, spiraling shape with several empty circles in-between each. Flowers were all of equal height, much like pond up to a man’s knees, and sported a gradient-like shade of rainbow colors with white and black at the very edges.
Further back were few trees that the basin had, forming a wall-like structure, seemingly barring anything from passing through and reaching the flower field and the pond. Pine trees glistened in light green, rising upward of four meters, though incredibly thin in their structure.
It was the basin’s most special and unique corner, one which set it apart from the rest of the world; it was hidden away from the world, hidden away from the eyes of the curious and shielded by numerous runic formations, though none which were of advanced stage.
That was the sole reason Felix was able to immediately spot the special corner and move past its basic barriers. He stealthily followed his strange Master over, as latter never spoke of himself, making Felix know little to nothing about the man he respected the most.
Yet, the moment he stepped inside, he had regretted his decision greatly. The entirety of land beyond the forest was flat, blending further into a rising cliff, which made it easy to spot the beggar-dressed man. He was currently standing outside the field of flowers, his shoulders appearing sunken from behind, his form lacking that transcendence Felix was used to seeing.
In those shoulders, the young Felix saw pain; he saw sorrow and grief his Master never even showed a hint of elsewhere. It was a tempered sight, as the image of a perfect, other-worldly being in Felix’s mind slowly crumbled. Yet, replacing it was something much closer to him; a living, breathing person with a heart and soul just like he himself.
Casting his gaze past the sunken shoulders and looking at the rhythmic, circular openings in the field of flowers, Felix quickly understood the source of it all. Numerous gravestones stood erected in those circular openings, each made of gray rock, with somewhat rugged carvings littering their surfaces. Yet, it was those rugged carvings that oozed emotion which he’d rarely seen when visiting gravestones of his ancestors.
It was then that his revered Master suddenly turned around and looked at him. It was an uncomfortable gaze, perhaps not so much in and of itself, but because of Felix’s regret and guilt for following the beggar here. The man’s eyes were still clear, though now appeared far more complex than Felix had ever seen them as.
“... you’re a cheeky disciple, aren’t you?” the man asked shortly after, turning back toward the field of flowers and entering one of the circles upon which he began to clean the place up of stray grass and rocks carried on by the wind.
“... I... I’m sorry...” Felix mumbled feebly, lowering his head in shame. “I... I didn’t mean to...”
“Yes you did,” the man said. “Don’t ever undermine your desires. Even if they are wrong, at least acknowledge them. That’s how you keep your heart strong.”
“Are you curious?”
“...” Felix wanted to say yes, though his shame wouldn’t allow him, keeping him silent.
“Every life is beset with blemishes,” the man said, getting back up onto his feet and looking at Felix yet again. “I always truly believed that, as my childhood wasn’t exactly full of honey falling from the sky. So, I did my best to steel my heart; if you never care, you can never be hurt, no?”
“It’s futile, though,” the man continued, smiling faintly as he glanced at the gravestones. “One way or another, others, so long as they are honest about it, find their way inside. It’s not through some grand words or gestures, not through saving your life from utter collapse, strangely enough. It’s most-often through the simplest of things: a gentle touch when words are worthless, a beaming smile, that look in their eyes. It’s irresistible.”
“... w-were... were they Your friends?” Felix finally gathered enough courage to ask as he noticed that his Master wasn’t so terribly averse of talking about it.
“... yes, friends a man can only hope but never search for,” the man said, sighing faintly. “Do you have any friends, Felix?”
“... I... I think so?”
“Then you don’t,” the man shook his head. “But, don’t worry. They’ll come. They always do. I think it’s high time I told you about why I’m doing the things I’m doing at the moment.” Felix’s ears perked up as he was incredibly interested in his Master’s reasons for causing so much chaos in the City of Sun. “I hope your expectations aren’t too high, because my reasons are mainly selfish.” the man smiled yet again. “I’m looking for a friend.”
“Haii, what’s with that stupefied expression? Didn’t your Master always teach you to, no matter what you feel inside, keep your expression placid?”
“Ah, I’m sorry!”
“I’ve made promise with her, many years ago,” his Master said. “That I would find her, no matter where she may be. Unfortunately,” he quickly scratched his head in frustration. “My endeavour didn’t go... as well as I had planned, I suppose. So I had to resort to a bit more of a chaotic method. I had hoped that, by now, she would hear rumors about the guy causing chaos in the City of Sun, under Emperor’s eyes, seemingly indifferent to it all. Perhaps she did... and just doesn’t care enough to come looking for me.”
“...” Felix, indeed, was stupefied; he imagined numerous reasons as to why his Master was causing so much trouble, but even his wildest one - with his Master coveting the throne itself - flattened when compared to the actual one. He imagined all those Ministers and Courtiers and Nobles brainstorming day and night trying to guess the odd beggar’s intentions... yet, they are so... pure and innocent at the end of the day.
“Seeing as it hasn’t paid off even when I’ve gone so far, it’s time to stop,” the man said. “You can go back to your former life now.”
“:.. I... can I say something, Master?”
“... you appear to be ignoring literally everything I teach you.” the beggar said, frowning. “Speaking your mind in front of everyone... that ‘everyone’ includes me as well!”
“Just speak, for crying out loud.”
“Thank you!” Felix exclaimed, smiling faintly. “While it is true that we could simply stop all that we’re doing and go back to the way things were... I also have a selfish proposition for us to continue.”
“... I’m certain Master has noticed, but the Empire is... weak internally. Even my Father, who has never once in his life indulged himself in Court’s games and remained firmly a militant Duke waging eternal wars in the far north is being called back from the frontier and forced to align himself to one of the numerous sides. Due to sheer number of titular Nobles that the Empire sports - especially those living in the Capital - making any new legislation is nigh impossible. This, in my humble opinion, is terribly counter-productive for not only the Empire itself, but also its people. However, even as a Duke, my Father’s political and even financial influence is incredibly limited; the one’s with any actual say are strictly nominal Princes of the Empire, and Emperor himself.”
“... the problem is the division there as well, no?” the beggar added.
“Yes. They all want to secure the throne, and they hardly care for the means they use to achieve that. Though, on the surface, City of Sun seems imposing and ever-expanding, it’s slowly dying, being eaten away from inside out. Master... you have single-handedly united countless Nobles with a singular goal. For the first time in decades, they are ignoring their differences in pursuit of something else.”
“My head?” the man tilted his head sideways and asked.
“... yes, but probably in a different way than you imagine,” Felix smiled bitterly as he replied. “They want your intellect, instead. They want to buy or obtain your loyalty any way possible. Whether you are aware of it or not, you have become a quint-essential piece of their games for the time being. If I may selfishly request... you do not withdraw yet from being that piece.”
“... you seem to care for this place greatly.”
“... I do.” Felix said. “Not only me, but my sisters, brothers, my Father, Mother and all Ancestors who came before us... this land has raised us, in one way or another. Countless men and women are shedding blood day and night to protect us, while those in safety of their own homes bicker about things weighing less than half of that.”
“... what plans do you have for me, then?” the beggar asked, smiling.
“... I would like if Master continued the current story,” Felix replied. “While others value your intelligence, they do not consider you a threat in any way, shape or form... yet.”
“With your agreement, I’ll start rising a small militant group of direct Noble Descendants,” Felix said. “We, of course, will not threaten the Throne or the Imperial Family itself and will remain impartial as to who ascends there. However, we will try to reduce the number of Nobles present as well as their overall influence altogether, trying to create small, more nuclear-like groups. What does the Master think?”
“... it’s not enough,” the man shook his head, sighing. “Don’t consider yourself a norm in the grand scheme of things, Felix. Other direct Descendants are by now mostly instilled with principles and followings of their parents. You had the luxury of having a Father and a Mother who didn’t impose their will on you; that isn’t the case for everyone. From what little of it all that I had seen, the reason Emperor is ignoring everything at the moment - including me - is because he’s already chosen the next person to ascend the throne and is in the process of transferring over political and financial power over to them.”
“W-what?!” Felix exclaimed, somewhat shocked.
“... you have a very idealized version of an Empire, Felix,” the man smiled yet again. “Neither Nobles nor Commoners get to choose who ascends the throne. They can shout and bellow all they want, but it’s useless. Tell me... if Emperor appeared in the skies tomorrow and ordered all Nobles to remain house-confined for the next ten years... how many would ignore that decree?”
“... none.” Felix replied dejectedly.
“Exactly. Rather than forming an idealized, outside-the-political-struggle group of children, associate yourself with the next Emperor and grow closer to them. Then, at the very least, you’ll have some political power to change things in the future.”
“... does Mater know who the next Emperor is?”
“It’s Empress, actually,” the man said. “One you’re very familiar with.”
“Eh? Y-you... you don’t mean Lady Evelyn?”
“You don’t need clairvoyance to spot it,” the man said, turning yet again toward the gravestones and walking over to another one. “You just need to look at the current political sphere to spot all its underlying currents. She’s hiding in the shades of the Third Prince, acting out her own orders through him as to remain outside the public eye. Most Dukes either support her or a faction that’s at least secretly allied to her. Most of the individuals who carry any influence have already been transferred over to her by the Emperor. I’d even wager Emperor is currently nowhere near the Capital. Just as I was using the City for my selfish needs, she was using me and my actions to further her own goals. You said it yourself; she’s a manipulative vixen.”
“... b-but... why would she send you to me if she has that kind of power...” Felix was slowly losing his mind over the matter as it was simply incomprehensible to him.
“She was directing me.” the man explained, bending over and cleaning up another grave.
“Aye. Toward a young descendant who’s yet to be brainwashed. She knew I lacked upper-nobility influence, and you were the vessel for it. Before ascending the throne, she wants to thrust the entire Empire into a chaotic, or at least near-chaotic state.”
“... but why?! It’s only hurting everyone!”
“... because it’s in the chaos that the truly brilliant thrive,” the man explained. “And that all truths come unfolding like carpets before the King. No King or Queen wants to ascend the throne blind, Felix. Early years of ruling are the hardest ones, and she simply wants to remove potentially threatening variables before they even have a chance to undermine her in the future. You should be careful,” the man’s tone suddenly grew even more serious. “For now, you and your father still have use for her. I implore you go toward her and surrender your loyalty. You can even claim it my intention, as to make it seem less suspicious as to how you suddenly know her situation. As an ally, you’ll never find a better one; as an enemy, never a worse one. You can leave now,” the man said. “I’ll come find you after you’ve accomplished it.”
Felix almost reflexively turned around and left, still dumbfounded. He felt additional layer of shame over how blinded he was with his own vision and with the lack of accurate knowledge; according to his Master’s words, Evelyn must have been chosen to become the next Empress at least a few years ago as domain of her influence is too large to have started expansion just recently.
Even as a personal pawn of her games, he still failed to realized it. However, all of this increased the respect he had toward his Master even more; even as a mere beggar with little to no influence over the upper strata of the Empire, he had already noticed it all. It was also when he thought of his Master that the images of those gravestones came to his mind; though he was curious who they were and how they died, he knew better than to ask.
As he was too far away, he only managed to read a few names here and there, and all were completely unfamiliar to him. Aeala, Smite, Fish... though they were nobodies to him, they mattered beyond words to his Master. In the end, though, it didn’t matter; if they were cared for by his Master, they must have been great people. In Felix’s eyes, after all, the beggar-dressing Master was by now taller than the sky itself, sharper than ever-seeing eye of Seers, and smarter than all those scholars living in the libraries, breathing and eating books day and night. Yet, even so, Felix realized, he was still a human... with a heart that can still bleed like any other.