Two security guards let Sakhr into the top floor of the imperial spire. It was spartan, like most rooms in the spire right now, but Paul had made a few additions that turned it into a bedroom. There was a mattress made of smaller pieces that fit together like a jigsaw. The pillow and sheet set were light gray. They were tossed aside and twisted. A mattress in the corner of an aluminum room should have looked pitiful, like seeing the inside of a holding cell, but it wasn’t. It was temporary, but in a positive way—like a college student crashing in a friend’s attic.
All other additions were outside on the balcony, where Paul was sitting on a stool painting at an easel. Littering a small table beside him were half-squeezed oil paint tubes. Paul painted with a brush in one hand, and a cafeteria dinner tray in the other which he used as a pallet.
Sakhr wondered why Paul would have all the painting supplies except for a true pallet. Everything in this room that wasn’t bolted down came from an assembler built into the far wall. If it could build a mattress and a table, it could build a pallet. It probably came down to a matter of time. Sakhr had noticed how agonizingly long it took for his own assembler to spit out items.
Interesting then that Paul made the items he did. He could have made a knife. He’d have been waiting for Sakhr just behind the door.
But he made painting supplies. Was it pragmatism, or resignation? It didn’t matter. Sakhr would make sure his assembler would be locked down. No sharp objects. No ingredients for explosives. Surely they had a setting for that. Maybe he should take it all away. But it might not matter depending on how this coming conversation went.
“Can I help you?” Paul spared a glance toward Sakhr.
Sakhr approached and got his first look at the canvas. The citadel spires were the only landscape Paul had to paint.
“A lot of grays and blues,” Sakhr observed.
Paul was painting again.
“Impressionism,” Sakhr said. “I remember when it became popular. The first impressionist paintings I saw were in the Chicago Institute of Art when it first opened. I don’t suppose it meant much to me then, but I remember thinking how strange they looked. At first I thought it was gimmick, just a passing phase, but as I thought that, I realized how many times I’d thought that same thought before. Every new fashion, every new style… it’s a gimmick. I even remember the first time I saw a three dimensional picture. Not a hologram or anything like that. I mean good-old basic perspective. It seems obvious now, but before it existed, it simply never occurred to people. We lived in a world of hieroglyphs and orthogonal views. Straight ahead or straight to the side. I mean, this was a long time ago, before Jesus walked earth, if he did. The first time you see a painting with perspective, your mind has to take a moment to comprehend the 3D concept upon a 2D surface. I’m probably the only person alive who wasn’t a child when that moment occurred to me. It was… a breakthrough, but even then, the first thought in my head? Gimmick. I thought it was a novelty that took away from the art itself, even as everyone around me marveled. It took me years before I accepted it. When we’re young, we can accept change. We’re still learning the world. When we see new things, we see their potential. When we’re older and we see new things, all we see is how it’s not part of the world we know, thus it’s wrong. The hardest lesson I learned was how to accept the world changing around me. New cultures form. New generations come up with their own ideas. The world moves on. We have to accept it, because it will happen regardless. Denying change only puts you in the past.”
Paul kept painting as though he were alone.
“You understand why I’m here,” Sakhr said.
“No. You haven’t told me, but you’re probably not here for painting lessons.”
“I wanted to finish our earlier conversation.”
Paul painted a few strokes before answering. “That conversation was finished.”
Sakhr cleared the paints off the stool and sat beside Paul. “Then I must readdress it.”
“If you must, but nothing has changed.”
“When I asked you before, it was because I believed that I would need your help in maintaining the empire, what’s changed is that I now know I cannot do this unless you help.”
“Thousands of civilizations throughout time have managed without my help. If you really must rule, then I’m sure you’ll find a way. Your kind always do.”
“No empire in the world has been as large as this one. No empire has had to work with the frozen remains of a nuclear holocaust.”
Paul didn’t respond.
“Listen. I’ve been the king for three days now.”
“Queen. Yes. I’ve been queen for three days now. In that time, the empire has already started to crumble. Fourteen countries are in riots. They all saw the death of Victoria as a sign to rise up, and now they’re discovering that the military presence we put forward is nothing more than a front. We’ve had to withdraw from nearly all of them, and as of this morning, China is now talking about seceding from the Pacific coalition. The same with parts of Europe and India. They want their independence back.”
“Let them have it.”
“I’m tempted to do so, but then the world plunges right back into chaos. The power vacuum we’d leave behind would attract any power hungry despot who could take it by force. What little population remains this world would suffer all the more. This is no longer about maintaining power. It’s about protecting the world from itself.”
“Is it?” Paul looked at him dubiously. “Is it really what this is about? You’re selflessly taking the reigns for the good of the people?”
“You think I want this role? These three days have been constant fire fighting. It’s only getting worse.”
“You forget, Sakhr. I know you. We’ve never met, but I learned to make my glyphs on your followers. I’ve seen in their minds the years you shepherded them. You are no altruist.”
“If you’ve seen their minds, then you know what sort of people I’ve had to work with. I did what I had to in order keep them together. I did what was best.”
“What if the best thing for this empire was to change it into a democracy—to step down from your position—would you do it?”
“That’s irrelevant. Given the current state of affairs, a democracy would fail.”
“I understand why you doubt me. I admit my checkered past, but I need you to look past that at what’s at stake here. If I fail, or if I even just walk away, the next world war will begin.”
“These are the same arguments Victoria used with me.”
“Victoria wanted to break the world into pieces so she could put it back together the way she wanted. I’m trying to keep that from happening again.”
“Still the same thing. You’re the hero. The world needs fixing. At least with her, I had the illusion of freedom.”
“Until she put you into a tortoise.”
“Until I threatened to tell the world what she was going to do, yes.”
“I’m never going to put you back into a tortoise.”
“Because I will never tell anyone your secrets. I learned that lesson with her. Any attempt to fight you would be fruitless.”
“You don’t have to fight me, Paul. Work with me. I want your cooperation. If you don’t like what I’m doing, then help. Frankly, it’s been three days, and I’m overwhelmed. I would welcome it.”
“Tell me how you want me to help, and I will. But not through glyphing.”
“Why not? It’s your gift. Why wouldn’t you do the one thing God put you on this earth to do.”
“Because it shouldn’t be used at all, for anything. When I first agreed to help Victoria, it was because she convinced me she could make the world a better place. We were living in a time when governments and corporations were slowly taking control of our lives. Every year it seemed the rich gained more control over the world order. They warped it to fit their needs and ensured its perpetuity. When I was young, I fought against it along like any other naive youth, but just like everyone else, I grew up to learn that the system is too powerful to fight. Then Victoria convinced me that she could replace the system with something better. All she needed was my help, and my glyphs. And like that, I became naive all over again.”
Paul resumed painting. “I gave them to her, and she succeeded. She ruin the world doing so, but she got rid of the immortal corporations and the governments, and replaced them with something worse. This empire is no better than the governments from before. It enslaves. It controls. It spies. Only this one uses powers I gave it. I should have realized then that corruption is just a part of life. You must know something about that. Throughout history the few have always manipulated the many. Victoria was just another tyrant.”
“But I am not,” Sakhr said. “In the thousands of years I’ve lived, I have never sought to control the world. All I’m trying to do now is keep it from falling into the abyss.
Paul rested his palette in his lap and turned to look at Sakhr. “So tell me then, let’s say I agree. Would you suggest we do? Maintain her Exemplar Committee?”
“Initially, yes. We need the exemplars to keep order.”
“Would you hoard the glyphs?”
“I would keep them safe. They would be dangerous if they fell in the wrong hands.”
“But you plan to use them yourself to keep control.”
“No. I plan to use them to maintain order in the empire. I personally don’t know how long I’ll tolerate ruling. I imagine I will step down eventually.”
“Even if it all settles down?”
“And what about me? What happens to me after I give you my glyph. You’d have no reason to keep me around.”
“I would not hurt you if that’s what you’re afraid of.”
“Would you free me?”
“I’d have no need to keep you imprisoned.”
“Even though I know you’re not the true queen?”
“You said yourself you plan to keep that secret.”
“And Helena. What will you do with her?”
“Leave her where she is. She’s not fit to rule, Paul. No one groomed her. You must have known Victoria was planning to steal her body when the time came.”
Paul glanced out over the citadel spires. “Yes. I knew. It doesn’t mean that’s what the girl deserves.”
“If I set her free, or any of the others, they will cause havoc. Listen. There have been many casualties the last fews day. She is just one of many.”
“She’s still alive.”
“Yes. If it gives you comfort, I will make sure she’s treated well.”
“By someone other than your coven.”
“Yes. I’ll give her to you if you wish.”
“And your other victims? Gilles? That girl?”
“You promise to do all these things? Free me? Step down after you’ve restored order?”
“You have my word.”
Paul nodded. After finishing a few more brushstrokes, he set his paintbrush aside and rolled up his sleeve. The moment Sakhr saw paint on Paul’s forearm, he already knew what Paul was about to show him.
On his skin, painted in thin strokes of blue, was a glyph. “I saw Alexander walking on the deck this morning.” He rolled his sleeve back down, took up his brush, and resumed painting. “I’ll miss Gilles,” he said to himself. “At least he’s with his wife now.”
Sakhr glared at Paul as Paul worked. He thought back to all the times in this talk Paul had deliberately looked right at him. Sakhr had looked back every time. He had been trying to act genuine during his lies.
“Here is a truth for you,” Sakhr said. “One way or another, you will give me that glyph, but after I leave this room, it will no longer be me you’re dealing with. It will be Alexander. Tell me, Paul, during your time with Victoria, did you ever have the misfortune of seeing into his mind?”
Paul rested his brush. He stared at the painting for a long while. When he resumed, it was as though he’d only been considering the next brush stroke. Sakhr might as well have not been there.
“Is this your final choice?” Sakhr said.
Paul only painted.
Without another word, Sakhr left the balcony. He headed straight to the door and left the room.
Alex was already there with two of his new “exemplars”. Sakhr walked by without glancing. He didn’t need to see Alexander’s smug face.