Jarun Hichame had ascended these stairs hundreds of times in his years as imperial page, yet tonight felt different. Summoned by one of his fellows just as he had changed into his bedclothes, he was at first annoyed that the emperor would call him at such an hour. After all, did he not have servants outside his own bedchamber? He pressed on regardless, hoping to at least be useful briefly to his master before again retiring to bed.
The candle’s dancing flame cast playful shadows across the stone passageway. Jarun walked as quickly as he could without putting out his only light, as the full moon was yet several weeks away. Not since childhood, when he was first brought to the palace following his father’s death in war, had he stalked these corridors at such a late hour. Now, his usual boredom was displaced by curiosity. He arrived at the door to the bedchamber to find two guards standing watch outside, as was the custom.
“The emperor is waiting for you,” one spoke in a gravelly voice as he opened the door. Jarun entered silently. Once he had passed the threshold, the solid door was shut behind him. Silhouetted in front of a roaring fire was the emperor.
“Ah, Jarun,” he said. “It is so good of you to come at such an hour as this. I know it is late, but there are things I must get off my mind.” He spoke again, as if he could sense Jarun’s apprehension. “Come here, boy! Do not be shy.”
Jarun found himself gripped by a strange reluctance. In all his years of service, it was rare that the emperor would say more than a few words of command to him. He was a servant, not an adviser. What advice could he possibly give to the ruler of the known world? Still, he did as the emperor commanded, seating himself in a chair across from his master. It was padded with the finest silk, usually reserved for the emperor’s own robes; rare was the page who would experience such luxury for himself.
“What is it you need me to do, my lord?” he said, trying his best to hide his apprehension at his ruler’s strange manner.
“There is much weighing on my mind of late, Jarun. Things past, as well as things to come.”
“Forgive me for saying so, but you have lived a long and full life.”
“That I have,” Matthieu chuckled. “That I have. Perhaps too full, some would say, yet I cannot do anything to change it. Nor would I...”
“May I ask if this is why you have called me here? Simply to listen?” The emperor took on a more serious aspect then. His eyes went to the fine embroidered rug at his feet, then back to Jarun.
“You could say so, yes, that I have summoned you here to tell you of my life. Truthfully, I could not sleep tonight, nor have I taken many occasions to do so in several months. It is as if I am being constantly reminded of my own mortality. The fear that my history shall be lost to the world haunts the moments before sleep takes me, to the point where it becomes altogether elusive. Waking, I dream of days past, yet real dreams are as fleeting to me as good fortune and old songs. One day, my boy, you will feel as I do, looking back across a life that has taken you places you could not imagine. Tell me: what do they teach you in the university concerning my history?”
“Well,” Jarun replied, “they teach us how you defeated the usurper, Jerra Mianuchur, and gained the throne of Qepperdan for yourself.”
“And before that?”
“Not much is spoken of your birth country, my lord. I am afraid our lessons are a bit incomplete in that regard.” The emperor laughed again.
“That is not too surprising, considering the land of my birth has changed so much since I left it as to be almost unrecognizable. I myself have not even seen it since I first departed, when I was barely older than you are now. A part of me wishes that such things would be forgotten, yet I know that would be a great disservice to future generations.”
“How so?” Jarun asked, puzzled.
“Do they also teach you of the Qenshi crusade? The Mentite War?” Each earned from the page a confused stare. “Goodness, do they not teach you anything in the university?” Jarun was silent still. “Why, when I attended university in Leganne all those years ago, it seemed that we were so awash in knowledge that our mortal minds could not contain it, as if our very beings were aflame in its glow!” The emperor looked Jarun in the eye once more. “And I suppose you would have no idea about Leganne, would you?”
“No, my lord,” he replied. A bemused smile flashed across the king’s face, exaggerated further by the flickering light from the fire.
“Then that is why I must tell you my tale: so that I will no longer be the sole guardian of my history. Heaven knows that I have kept much to myself over these many years, not sharing my thoughts and remembrances... Perhaps, it was because I felt that to do so would be to open old wounds better left alone, or maybe it was that I feared growing close to anyone who could possibly use my own life story against me. But I know that you are not the kind of man to do such a thing, which gives me joy that I have not felt in a long time.”
“Excuse me, my lord, but may I ask why? Why you have chosen me?” It was a long moment before the emperor spoke again.
“I knew your father, Jarun. He was a good man, and I wish I had been able to shed tears at his death. How senseless a demise it was for a man such as he! Yet I was prevented by forces beyond my control from any showing of the proper emotions at that time...” The emperor looked lost in thought for a short while before he continued. “He saved my life, and for that I am grateful to him and to his posterity. There is much in you that I also saw in him; do not forget that, no matter how long you live.”
“But what can one orphaned at my age know of his parents, except that which he learns from stories?”
“You forget, or perhaps they did not teach you, that I lost my parents as well, albeit under slightly different circumstances. I say slightly because it was also during a war, but a much different war than that in which we find ourselves involved today. It is as if life is a many-act play, wherein the plot remains constant but old actors merely retire, to be replaced by new faces, worn by ancient hearts. Of course, many of the men who defined my life before I was emperor are now long dead, their glory as faded as their bones. Only I and my history remain.”
“Tell me of this history,” Jarun said excitedly. “Tell me, that perhaps I might help you shoulder the burdens; ease the pain.”
“We shall see if such pain can be eased,” the emperor responded wearily, “but if it can, I feel that you may be the one to do it. I ask you only one thing.”
“What is it?”
“Are you ready for a very long night? Will you mind terribly watching the sun rise again and bleach out the stars that wheel ever above us before you complete even the beginning of my tale?”
“Yes, my lord. If it is what you desire, then I shall hear you out. All of it.”
“Do more than hear me out, my boy: listen. There is a vast gulf between simply hearing and listening, and if you are to learn any of the myriad lessons I wish to be taken from my life, then you must fervently do the latter. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes. I shall do my utmost.”
“Good,” the emperor said, relieved. “Then we shall begin.”