One Thousand and Two

She knows how much they hate her. Of course she does. It’s her job to know. It ought to make it easier, when she spends her days decrypting and listening in as Thumb and his comrades spew their vitriol over the airwaves. It ought to feel good. It’s proof that she’s doing her job, that she’s keeping the populace fighting the good fight, that she’s a threat to the rebel’s high-minded, thoughtless rhetoric.

Or so she tells herself, but though she can convince the throngs of the lower classes of anything that she needs to, she’s never managed to persuade herself.

She isn’t stupid. If she was, she wouldn’t be alive today. And she’s smart enough to question herself.

Scheherazade. Silver-tongued, swift-minded. They accuse her of lies, of twisting the truth, of manipulating the masses. And she has to see herself like that. You need to be able to get into their minds, understand the warped, twisted lens through which they see the world, in order to counteract it. She knows the truth. She doesn’t lie, doesn’t mislead; even when what she says isn’t objectively true, she’s a worker of myths, a spinner of stories, creating a fiction powerful enough to reveal the underlying truth in a world where Thumb and the rebels have begun to twist the minds of the populace into places that simple facts and figures can no longer reach.

The stories she tells are powerful and they cut to the heart of the world, make it the way it should be. True, Rose had never volunteered as the template for the Crown forces, but that was her weakness, not a fault in the King’s rule. Had she been stronger, less corrupted, the way her copies were, she would gladly have thrown aside her petty personal desires for the good of the Empire. Scheherazade knew full well that it had been the King’s forces responsible for what had become known as “the Wedding Day Slaughter”, but the Slaughter had captured the public imagination in a way that the insidious destruction of order by White’s rebels never would. And in any case, as the first act of betrayal by Snow, who had been given so much trust, so much responsibility, in a greater sense, was it not truly the first destructive act of the rebels? Had Snow been able to accept, like a good citizen would, the sacrifice made by her sister for the greater good, there would be no war. There would be no conflict. The centuries of peace that King Cole had presided over, impassive and untouchable, would never have been shattered. The actions of Snow on that day had caused the death of millions.

The kernel of truth that lies in the centre of every story. Every word carefully placed, carefully thought out, all for the greater good.

She tells herself this with every word she writes, every time she opens her mouth to spin yet another disastrous mishap back into Crown control, but every night she lies awake, eyes open, staring into the darkness, and she wonders. Before her eyes thrash the images that will stay with her until she dies. The tortures, the executions, the bloodied bodies of children and the screams of the dying as the Rose Reds march through blood and fire with merciless eyes. She’s rarely there in person, of course, but the blood stains her hands nonetheless, and the sounds echo in her ears long after her work is done and she switches off the vidfeeds.

And now the rebels are all but at the door. She can hear their battle cries. A stolen Behemoth rumbles over her subterranean hideout, and through the rock and the steel above, she hears the pounding of their infernal battle hymn. She can no longer pretend to herself that she has a hope of survival. Even if by some miracle the Rose Reds drive the rebels back, it’s too late for her. She’s kept herself alive, day by day, for almost forty years now, with her sharp mind and silver tongue. But now she has made a slip that can never be forgiven. Somehow, word has got out about what really happened on Briar, and her failure has brought the rebels crashing down on the very stronghold of the King himself.

Heart pounding, mouth dry, Scheherazade crawls across the small room, as quiet as she can, to the chest in the corner. She opens its false base with methodical calmness, and lifts out the small, locked box that holds her dearest possessions. At the top is a las-cut image of her sister, Dunyazad, long since lost to the camps. It hurt to give that order, more than she’d ever thought anything could hurt, but it had been her burden to carry. Dunyazad may have been a traitor, but she was still her sister, and it was her and her alone who should bear the responsibility for her downfall.

She chews her lip, the sharp edges of the small frame cutting into her palms as she thinks of Dunyazad. In the end, was it really worth it? All this heartache, every day of staring into images that branded into her soul and hearing the broadcasts that damned her to hell, as though she hasn’t been living there in the deepest depths of her heart since that fateful order? Day by day she’s bought her life, paying with stripped-away parts of her soul, and now it runs out, down here under the dirt, away from the sunshine where she’d once had such hope.

Once, she would have fought alongside the rebels. If she’d only known how this would end. She began so idealistic, so high-minded, just like them. If she’d only known. If she’d never tried to fight the King herself…

She still shudders to remember those days. Even now, so close to death, she can’t imagine anything worse. The tortures, those she could stand, they bought her lies and they believed the stories she spun, and she could wrap them around her finger. But then came the day she first stood before the King, shaking, body warped, but still standing straight and defiant.

He had looked at her, with his deep, coal-black eyes like the death of suns. When those ancient, unthinkably knowing eyes fixed her, she had felt all the lies, all the illusions, every deception, stripped away under his gaze. Those eyes pierced to her core, made her question everything she’d ever believe, and then he had made her an offer. For her life, and for the life of her sister. He hadn’t said much. He hadn’t needed to. She understood. She stayed alive as long as she was useful to him, as long as her silver tongue kept moving, as long as she kept telling those stories which made the truth so easy to manipulate.

She’d been young then. Foolish. Day after day, as she penned the genius words that had made her so invaluable to the Crown, she’d dreamed of rebellion, of escape. Of change. Back then, she’d seen, like the rebels, like the people they’d turned against their king, only the pain. Only the torment. She’d used those same blind words in her thoughts. Tyrant. Dictator.

But over the years, her eyes had been opened. She was able to see her former ideals for what they were, naive delusions. From within the walls of her office, those delusions were stripped away, and in the newscasts and spy reports she saw for the first time the brutality of the proletariat she’d put so much stock in. How they squabbled and fought for power, how they scrabbled and fought, venal and greedy, to seize more than they’d earned. She could see as she read through accounts of failed revolutions and fallen warlords how, left to their own devices, most people had no scope, no vision. They would grope for power in a blind rush of blood and fire, and leave worlds scorched and empty but for the corpses of both sides. She’d grown up under the King. She’d read so much, but for so long she’d never truly understood how impossibly chaotic, brutal and short life had been before his guidance had shaped the near-utopia they now maintained.

Dunyazad had still clung to her blind beliefs, though, despite the comfort Scheherazade had earned for them both, no matter how Scheherazade showed her the books and told her the histories. It was incredible how she could sit there and twist the white-hot truth that she shared with her into yet more proof of the brutality of the royal regime, but it hadn’t been a problem until the day Dunyazad confided in Scheherazade, told her the plot she’d concocted to bring down the King. Despite everything, she still thought Scheherazade was on her side.

She’s blotted out most of what followed from her memory. She had to do what was right, but the guilt still wakes her in the night, the sucking emptiness of the room next to hers where Dunyazad once slept. Sometimes she dreams of marching feet and dragging chains as her sister screams her name, but she wasn’t there. It’s all in her head. Dunyazad was disappeared, as cleanly as any of the thousands who’ve had to meet the same fate in the service of order and stability.

She does what has to be done. It’s all she’s ever done in King Cole’s service.

She looks down at her hand. There’s blood oozing from her palm. She must have been holding Dunyazad’s picture tighter than she ever thought possible.

What a waste. The sacrifices that have been made, the blood that’s been spilled to protect order, and above the rebels smash everything those people died to protect, screaming the names of the dead as they do it. Don’t they understand how the world works? Don’t they understand that with every world they drive into the chaos of “freedom”, they make the deaths of those they claim to avenge a little more pointless? Do they think that destroying the order their kin were killed to prevent is going to bring them something back? As if she doesn’t understand that this sacrifice hurts, and never stops hurting! And yet she makes her sacrifices willingly, the price paid for the ordered and peaceful society that they treat like a punishment!

In a sudden burst of uncharacteristic anger, she drops the portrait of her sister and grinds it under her boot, the glass crazing and splintering. It’s all so meaningless. So pointless. And she’ll die for their blindness, another body in the rising tide. They’ve destroyed everything she ever worked for, everything that’s worth fighting for. One way or another, now, she’ll be dragged out to the firing squad to die and she’ll be the latest to disappear under the wave of death and chaos that the rebels carry with them across systems that had once glowed with life and moved in perfect order.

She doesn’t understand.

She’s always been so good at understanding people. She was even like them herself, once. She knows how they think. But how can they stand in the ashes of worlds they’ve torn apart and still believe themselves heroes? How can they be so dogged, so blind?

She bends to scoop up the remains of Dunyazad’s image and freezes, heart in her throat. The sound has changed. Now the echoes of the shouts and gunfire tell her that they’re in the tunnels. They could find her any minute. She has to move fast. She never lived by anyone’s beliefs but her own, and she refuses to die by them.

She stacks her books into the chest, packing them in tightly. The diaries of decades. Perhaps someday a child of the revolution will read them, and understand how things once were. Perhaps a child will learn. Perhaps someday they will bring about order once more. Unlikely, but it could happen. The chest, she locks tight, protecting her precious writing from at least the initial rampage of the rebels when they find her. She contemplates leaving a note, a last will and testament, but why? They won’t take any notice. They won’t care.

Now. Her own body. She wants to die with dignity, but her options are limited. Even now, as she fumbles for her robes of office (stripped off hours ago, with the cooling systems broken the tunnels are as hot as sin), her heart is slamming against her chest, adrenaline coursing through her veins. There! Was that the sound of someone falling against the door of her chamber, or has someone found her so soon?

The robes don’t matter. There’s no time. She lowers herself to the ground with excruciating slowness. Silence is crucial. Sitting against the wall, eyes closed, faced with oblivion, she raises her gun to her head. Through all her life she’s questioned herself, been plagued with doubt, with guilt, now, as the end beckons, she has no regrets. She has no doubts.

She did what had to be done for the greater good. She did all that could be done. And though she failed, though at the last the darkest nature of humanity won out, she faces the end of her story with dignity, for she understands what they never will.

A door bursting open. A gun flaring in the caverns. Books burning with the bodies. The end of worlds.