Chapter art by Holly Heisey.
From the author: You've just lost your empire. Does it make you the worst ruler in the history of rulers to be glad you lost the war?
You never wanted to be a ruler. You are third-born, but two bloody series of wars have taken out your father, his second husband--not your father, and he'd never let you forget it--and your two elder siblings. And now, those wars are about to take you out, too.
The First Empire has fallen. Two days ago now. And you sit in the cushiest of jail cells--a penthouse suite in a London high-rise with so many guards on each floor you cringe at the thought of fighting through them, not that you ever would. Sunlight streams through the windows after a spate of rainy days. The light is too cheerful, almost profane.
You sit on your unfamiliar bed in unfamiliar clothes, which are stylish, but bear no colors or crest of the Empire like you're used to. You've rarely worn a crown, but since you took the throne, you've always worn the heavy chain of office around your neck, twisted gold and titanium. You have no idea where it is now--probably around the neck of one of the traitorous colonist rebels who deposed you. Or even one of their alien allies, God forbid.
You rub your face with your hands. No, that's not right. Despite how you were raised, you've never been xenophobic. You've known from the start the preemptive wars against the Empire's alien neighbors, and then its neglecting its outer colony worlds to fight those alien wars, spurring the colonies to rebel, were wrong. You even tried to make a case to your father to settle things peacefully. And then your eldest sister. And then your second sibling. But you've always spoken softly and backed down when the conversation got too heated. You were never supposed to have strong opinions as a third-born.
You twist the edge of your borrowed shirt in both hands, clenching and unclenching your fists. If you're honest with yourself, truly honest, you are so glad the war is over. Maybe you're deposed. Well, no, you're definitely deposed. But, maybe that's a price worth paying for peace.
Does that make you the worst ruler in the history of rulers to be glad you lost? To think humanity might be better without the centralized fist of Home System choking its outer worlds? Without the xenophobic paranoia that drove the Empire into destroying or conquering its alien neighbors?
A chime sounds and the lift rises in its pale blue glass casing.
You turn and meet the eyes of Chairman Olivia Derry, a woman in her late fifties with eyes like flint in her round, dark face. This is the woman who has deposed you.
"Highness," she says, inclining her head.
You turn fully. "Don't mock me, Chairman."
She shrugs. "Not an insult. I respect your position." She emphasizes the last word, and you know there's more meanings there than you can parse just now.
She approaches the bed where you still sit, looks around, and pulls a wing-back chair close to sit near you.
Your breath is quickening, but you stay still. Composed. Third-born you might be, but you were still an emperor's child and raised with the social training of a diplomat.
Derry, leader in the Colonist Rebellion and now Chairman of the newly-formed Council of Worlds, is alone. She has none of the dozen guards that have followed her since she arrived to take the Imperial capital and its spoils. Does she think you are so cowed you won't try to take her out in a desperate bid for your own freedom?
She's right. And you hate yourself for it. You hate, too, that you just thought of killing her to gain your freedom. And where in all the worlds would you go? What does a deposed emperor do, even if you have surgery and gene alteration, after being an emperor? You have no idea how to be an ordinary person. You never have been one.
And you can't kill. That would do far worse to blacken your soul than losing a war.
The chairman watches you. You have the uncomfortable sense she knows what's playing out in your mind.
You force yourself to hold her gaze. You might be deposed, but you still have your dignity.
"I didn't want this war," you say. "It wasn't mine to begin with. I've done my best, when the Empire fell on my shoulders, to not let it topple while I've tried to pull apart the pieces that were making it rotten."
"Spoiled meat can't be magically unspoiled," Derry says.
You shrug. It's an inelegant, even rude gesture. But you are done with being elegant and polite.
You stand, looking down at the chairman a brief moment before moving toward the balcony doors. There is no forcefield protecting against an accidental fall from the balcony, some hundred and thirty floors below. You checked. Do they want you to fall and save themselves the trouble? You're sickened by the thought.
"Chairman, I know we're on different sides of this conflict. I know neither of us had a choice in that matter."
"I had a choice," Derry says, coming to stand beside you. She stares out at the view, at the Thames barely visible in the jungle of buildings below. "You had a choice. You could have abdicated."
"And given the Empire to my cousin? To General Okuda, that monster?"
Derry smiles. "It might have been a swifter fall."
"It would have been a greater bloodbath," you say. "I know my people think I'm weak. I know I'm unpopular. But Okuda would have pushed and pushed and worn all of us thin until all the human worlds were ripe for any predator race to devour, realizing his worst xenophobic fears. Or maybe we'd just have destroyed ourselves. We're good at that, aren't we?"
You find Derry studying you with an intensity that rocks you back.
"You can finally speak your mind," she says. "In all our conversations over comm, our holograms dancing around each other, and when I took your surrender--that was public. That was an emperor needing to be an emperor. To hold an empire together. Because no, there can't be anarchy. But now...this is you. This is the person you only let show in barest glimpses. You were just as oppressed by your Empire and its Home System fanatics as your subjects."
You flinch. It's true and you won't deny it. It doesn't make it an easier truth.
You shrug again, heavier this time, and turn back to the balcony doors.
"Does it matter?" you ask quietly. "You'll still put me on trial. It will be public, and probably messy. I'll have to play the role of the deposed ruler. Rage that you took my empire away. It gives you a villain to unify against. It helps cement you and your Council's administration of the human worlds. And for our alien neighbors, it takes the blame off humanity and places it on one family. One person." You bite your lip. "And you'll find me guilty of all my crimes."
Derry touches your arm and you try not to pull away. The touch, which you're pretty sure is meant to comfort, feels like a violation.
"We don't have to kill you. The Empire might have loved its death penalty, but I'd like to think we're more civilized than that."
"And you don't want a martyr," you say.
"Oh, no. You'd hardly be that."
Your stomach twists. She's right, no one loved you. The least favored choice to rule at the end of an already failing war. You will take all the blame for both sides.
"I'm here to offer you a job," the chairman says.
"What?" Her words, at first, have no meaning. "You--what?"
Derry smiles and holds out her hands. "Join the Council of Worlds. Speak for Earth--no one is more qualified to know what Earth needs in the galactic scheme of things than you. None of us on the Council were born here, and of those in the movement who were...well. None are more qualified."
You barely keep your jaw from dropping. Your ears are ringing. This has to be a joke. This has to be a sick ploy--are there cambots around? Filming this to broadcast your utter disgrace?
"No," you say, your voice sharp. "You deposed me, or did you forget that?"
Derry is unfazed. "I deposed an emperor. You are no longer an emperor. I would like you to be a councilor."
You read no deception in her, and you are good at reading people. Bafflement rises in you, along with something else: hope.
"Why?" you croak. "Why the hell do you want me? I just lost the bloody war--"
"Yes," Derry says, eyes narrowing as she leans forward. "And you did it with grace, and with as few casualties as you could manage. On my side as well, and I thank you for that. You've wrestled the bull, to use a colony expression, and it's down. You think I'm going to let a mind like that go to waste by letting you rot in a cushy prison?"
"But--but--the trial--" This is ludicrous. She wants you to continue to rule?
No, not rule. A Council member wouldn't rule. They'd lead, in concert with others.
"There will still be a trial," she says. "There must be. However, if you are willing, I will bring forth what evidence I can that you are not your father, or even your siblings. I will show your humanitarianism. Show you did the best you could in a horrible situation. Show you couldn't surrender sooner without collapsing your economy, without doing so much more harm than the course you chose to take in continuing, but de-escalating, the war."
Your shoulders shake. You're not sure if it's a laugh or a sob. You had hoped--you really had hoped someone would see through all your layers of diplomatic facade. That someone would see you were not as grossly incompetent as you looked. That someone would see you weren't evil, either, as you rode the sinking ship all the way down.
"The people of Earth would never accept me as a leader," you say. And add, "Again."
"They will when they see the other side," Derry says, and there is utter confidence in her voice. She is the kind of person you have never been--a born leader. Someone who inspires confidence. Someone who, despite your efforts not to be swayed, is starting to inspire you.
"They'll see I'm a—" You can't say "traitor." Because it isn't true. You didn't go to the rebels' side. You did the best you could to ease humanity into peace. There is a difference. You might be a deposed emperor, but that doesn't mean you don't care for your people. And want fiercely to protect them, even if from themselves.
"And in any case, it's only for two years," Derry goes on as if you hadn't said anything. "We'll settle things down, then open general elections. If you want to keep your position, you'll have to campaign for it." She smiles. "As will I."
You snort. It's ludicrous. All of this is ludicrous.
Derry touches your arm again, and now you see she has something in her hand. It's a small tablet, the screen pulsing with a message alert. "This might help your decision."
You take the tablet and she backs away--not just further into the room, but to the lift. She's leaving you alone with this, giving you time to think.
The tablet in your hands feels slick and heavy. You know it will have something you're not prepared to see. But you also know it will drive you mad to let that tablet sit, blinking away, and not know what it holds.
You press the message alert and text fills the screen. You skim it, briefly, before your eyes flood with sudden emotion. You have to wipe them with your sleeve before you read again, more slowly.
On the tablet screen is a listing of recommendations from five of the eight non-human races that allied with the Colonist Rebellion in the last war. Who allied against you.
From the Ete-Kepattet: "We are pleased with the handling of the war's end by this new emperor. We recommend keeping Earth under this leader's stewardship."
From the Ohoron Nata: "We have not lost any of our warships since joining your rebellion effort. That is due in large part to the current human ruler's drive for diplomacy over brute conflict."
From the Jish: "We recognize the human ruler is not well loved by war-loving humans. This is an admirable trait among us, one to be evolutionarily encouraged."
Five out of eight recommend you. Despite your father's and your siblings' atrocities. Despite the Empire's xenophobic policies. They saw past that. They saw you, and what you were really trying to do.
You can't swallow around the lump in your throat. You hadn't thought you'd truly made a difference. You'd thought you'd failed everyone, Empire and Colonist Rebellion both. Who were never truly separate in your mind--all of humanity was always who you had in mind. And their children, and their children's children. And the aliens who just wanted to live in peace. To share their cultures with humans. To enrich all your lives. You wanted a better universe for all of them.
You sniff hard. You don't know whether to run after Olivia Derry--if you can, if the guards don't stop you--and try to hug her, or yell at her for giving you evidence that you were not as much of a failure as you thought. For knowing that yes, this will bring you to a decision.
The burden of humanity falls back on your shoulders. You still care for your people. What better way to serve them than to lend your voice to shaping a new and, God willing, better system going forward? The war is over. But the fight for humanity is not.
The weight of responsibility is different this time. This time, you think it's a weight you can carry.