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art by Shane M. Gavin

Dark Roads for the Eternal Ruler

A Hugo Award nominee and a Nebula award winner, Eric James Stone is also a winner in the Writers of the Future Contest. He has had stories published in Year's Best SF 15, Analog, Nature, and the Blood Lite anthologies of humorous horror, among other venues. Eric is also an assistant editor for Intergalactic Medicine Show. Read his other stories for Daily Science Fiction at ericjamesstone.com.
Your Imperial Majesty,
Humble though my current condition is, I am proud to write those words to you, for today they are true. The day of your coronation is joyous for the Empire. Most of your subjects believe that you are the prophesied Bringer of Perfect Justice whose reign will be eternal in fact, not just name. Gods grant it be so, if they will still hear the prayer of this, your servant.
Servant? Yes, even imprisoned, I still serve you. For if I--whom everyone knows to be your right hand, your voice, your beloved--if I am not spared from your justice, no one will be. But it pains me that I, your first and most loyal follower, was not able to see you crowned, though I heard the cheers from my cell. I had hoped to stand beside you as Imperial Sorceress (and perhaps more), but I am glad that my condemnation has proven that your justice knows no favorites.
Who could doubt it? Yet there are still some who do. They will seize any opportunity to turn the people against you. And, as you said when you sentenced me: If the people do not believe in your justice, it would not be just to rule them. Fortunately, the crimes of which I have been convicted occurred before I met you, and thus your enemies cannot use them against you.
Was that truly but fortune? Alas, no.
Your sentence is just, but did you not think it strange that my offenses, ten years past, only recently came to the memories of my accusers? Did you not think it strange that I stand unaccused of more recent crimes? Perhaps not. In the goodness of your heart, perhaps you counted my offenses as youthful folly, and attributed the revived memories to my newfound fame as your right hand.
Right and left, both my hands were yours. And more than that: my eyes, my ears, my lips, my heart. But oh, that I were worthy of such good thoughts!
Hand to my heart, the truth is that the accusations are but beginning. Many will be true, for many are those I defrauded before I met you. And for each, I wrote a spell to make them forget what I had done, activating the spells with the town magistrate's seal I stole from my father. But alas, the term of a magistrate is only ten years, and thus the spells expire in their time. I walked in dark roads all my life until I met you, who walks only in the light.
Shall I tell you that, from the day we met, I walked only in the light? But that would be a lie. I did change that day--I had committed many crimes to benefit myself before we met, and I never did so again.
Not to say I never committed any more crimes, only that they were for your benefit. One who walks only in the light could never achieve the imperial throne--unless someone walked the dark roads for him. Did you think it simply good fortune that so many of your possible opponents removed themselves from contention for the throne? I blackmailed, extorted, and bribed where I could, and killed when I had to. But nobody will remember those crimes until four years hence.
Be that as it may, your enemies will use my crimes against you, for I was your right hand: what I did, I did in your name. And if the people turn against you, you will step down even though your eternal rule is what is best for them. Because of me. Is that how I will be remembered?
Remembered as the one who destroyed you?
By my life, I would not have it be so.
Your subjects' benefit is all I have in mind, not mine. To prove this, I write this letter with my life's blood. I shall be dead by the time this reaches you by way of our trusted friend. I hope you will forgive that I have given myself justice at my hand, not yours, and that you will sometimes recall me with fondness.
People will accept your justice as long as they believe in you. Therefore I give you a final gift, my beloved, though I am uncertain you will use it. The first word of each paragraph is part of a spell. To activate it, you must only read those words aloud and stamp this letter with the seal of the Eternal Ruler, and the spell will last forever. For the people's good, I beg you to walk just this once down a dark road. I know your conscience will torture you if you do. Find justice in that.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 20th, 2012


I wrote this story for a weekend flash fiction contest on the Codex Writers forum. During the week before I wrote it, the Christmas present my girlfriend had ordered for me finally arrived from China. It was a stamp of my name in both English and Chinese. Rather than use the phonetic transliteration of my name for the Chinese characters, my girlfriend decided to use the translation of the meaning of "Eric": eternal ruler. Therefore, when I saw the contest story prompt Write a story about a magic-user (wizard, sorceress, etc). Set the story in another country which is primarily non-English speaking and is not a place where you currently live (e.g. France, Thailand, etc), naturally I thought of using stamp-based magic in China (although I later altered it to being just a somewhat China-like imaginary country.) I then used the "Write about a happy event with an unpleasant surprise" prompt to come up with the coronation of a new emperor as the happy event. So that explains where the "Eternal Ruler" bit came from. What about "Dark Roads"? Where did that idea come from? I have no clue--it must just have been something in my subconscious. But I definitely need to thank my girlfriend, Darci Rhoades, for inspiring this story.

- Eric James Stone

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