The benches were covered with gloom and dust. The smell of feces filled the air, filling each prisoner’s nose and mouth, a symbol for their sorry situation. Dim orbs hung in the air, casting light upon the room’s inhabitants, revealing their places, making sure they did not try to escape. One man, however, was under particular scrutiny.
Bloody Reuben had had a long career. He had grown in expertise throughout, becoming the highest paid professional (of his kind) in the state. His targets had been high profiled, one of which was even the Lord Duke Emerald. On another occasion, he had killed the very daughter of Harold The Forceful.
That ended tonight.
He cracked his knuckles leisurely, and the other prisoners on the bench edged away. His time had come. He had always known it, known that he wouldn’t be able to escape the long hand of the law when it came, although might as well put it off for as long as possible. The jobs? He had enjoyed every minute of it, it would be no use crying crocodile tears.
There were others in the field who said that one must act in a distanced, clinical manner. If you have emotion, this job is not for you; if you’re a sadist, this job is not for you. So they claimed.
They were wrong, all of them. What’s the use of being an assassin if you don’t feel pleasure in it? Each cracking bone, the victim moaning in pain…Ahh, the pleasures of life.
Even Mother had thought him an abomination. She had brought him to the resident magician to cure him of his sadistic tendencies. Bloody Reuben had gotten back at her for that, putting dune wigglers in her bed. How she had screamed when they bit her; he grinned at the memory.
Then frowned. Mother may have been bad, but the magician had been useless, able to perform little more than magic tricks. Reuben had decided then that the only virtue was power. The Emperor had power, and everyone honored and feared him, those who believed in God feared him because he, too, had power.
The magician died from food poisoning a few days later. Mother had been suspicious, but had not said anything. Even then she had grown weary of Reuben, not so eager to risk his wrath anymore. She was scared, he noted approvingly. That’s right Mother, you fear me because I have power over you. Because I can kill you, that is the only thing that is worthy of respect.
And here he was, soon to meet The Emperor himself, the subject of his adulation and dreams. He wondered if The Emperor would measure up; if he didn’t the solution would be simple.
His name was abruptly called; he got up and followed the jailer. This was it, the day of reckoning. He considered overpowering the guard, running away. But no, it was no use. His hands were bound in magic, even if he did escape they would be able to track him through it. He had looked death in the eye before, he did not fear it.
Torches lit the walls and misty air filled his nostrils as they traversed through the deep, dank tunnels of the castle. This was another achievement. He was no ordinary assassin to be struck down in a regular courtroom. Only The Emperor, he whose knowledge knew no bounds and controlled all with the threadways of the mind, alone could deal with him. Truth be told, he was surprised that it had taken so long for him to be apprehended, given The Emperor’s claimed omnipotence, but he could wait for the answers, he was in no hurry.
They arrived at a large wooden door. “Enter,” a voice boomed.
Bloody Reuben shivered in his magical cuffs. Standing on the eve of his destiny, he recognized with a clarity never revealed to him before, who, exactly, he was about to meet.
The highest of all mortal beings, and perhaps immortal as well, stood behind the door. He was shoved inside by the steward, and the door slammed shut behind him.
The Emperor looked nearly exactly as he had imagined. He had a flowing gray beard, gold circlets surrounded his waist, arms and head, and his eyes burned with the most ferocious fire Bloody Reuben had ever seen. When he spoke, his voice, although deep, sounded as compelling as a tortured victim, yet as prestigious as Reuben himself.
“You have perceived yourself fit to end the lives of my subjects.”
Reuben said respectfully, “Well, yes. I’m sorry about that.”
“You are to be commended.”
“I am?” For the first time, Reuben felt a modicum of relief. He did not, he realized, want to die just yet. Too many things left undone, debts gone unpaid…
“Of course,” said The Emperor. “Did you think that I would have let you live if you had not been fulfilling my desires, albeit unconsciously? Every life that you have ever terminated has been because of me; many have been through my messengers, of course, although most did not know at the time that they were so.”
“Indeed? Your powers are really so far reaching? I thought the rumors of mind reading were just…rumors.”
The Emperor laughed softly. “Mind reading? You think too small, young pawn. All actions trace back to me. If I do not know something, it is simply because I am not paying attention. I am omnipotent as well as omniscient. I am, for all intents and purposes, a god.” He frowned. “The only thing that I am not is omnipresent, but that is no matter, because I will live forever.”
Something seemed off to Reuben. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, although The Emperor seemed to be…boasting? Aloud he said, “So I am not to be killed?”
The Emperor tilted his head. “Of course not. As I said, you are to be commended for rooting out all the vermin that threaten my empire. You are a true servant of the state. I have decided that you will be my personal assassin and bodyguard.”
If you’re so powerful, how can there be those who defy your rule and seek to assassinate you, Reuben wondered. He flinched and looked up fearfully, half expecting a lighting-bolt to strike him down for his treasonous thoughts, but none came. Was this one of the times that The Emperor was not paying attention? Or perhaps, Reuben grinned an inward feral grin, perhaps the all-powerful Emperor is not so all-powerful after all. Reuben did not like those who pretended to be stronger than they were.
“Do you accept?” The voice was deep and rumbling, unaccustomed to waiting.
Reuben started. “Of course, of course. There is the small matter of my bonds?”
“Certainly.” The Emperor snapped his fingers and the invisible bonds parted.
“And a weapon? It is easier and cleaner than killing with one’s hands.”
The Emperor narrowed his eyes. “I have seen your exploits. You do not often use weapons; but very well. There are no weapons in this chamber; when we leave you shall be given one.”
“Excellent.” With a single leap Bloody Reuben was at The Emperor’s throne. His nimble fingers found the sweet spot that he had spent so many long years finding; the Emperor managed only a single gasp. A quick crack, then the deed was done, The Emperor dead.
Wisps of magic dissipated from The Emperor’s corpse. They swirled and coalesced, heading toward Bloody Reuben. The assassin smiled as power flowed through his veins. He was overcome with sensations, the sweetest of smells, mixed with the finest of sonatas, yet he felt high, exhilarated.
He was Emperor now. And the best thing was, now he could kill whomever he wanted and it wouldn’t even be wrong. After all, there were unlimited enemies of the state of which he was now the protector.
From his view on the dais, he saw the beautiful golden decorations spread about the room; mosaics of the magicians of old stood out among gaudy surroundings. A feral smile crossed his lips imagining his inheritance; rows of bowing subjects on the crimson carpet, trumpets blowing in honor of his coronation.
All in the name of the state.