Ventus – Day 90 of 135

He glared at her. “You are the rightful monarch and heir, blessed by the Winds. We would all be honored to die to defend you.” He walked quickly away.

Galas stared after him. She felt a stab of pain in her chest–sorrow made physical–and hugged herself miserably.

Dawn had just broken. Morning light slanted in through the ruined windows of the great hall. The shattered flame pattern worked in stained glass seemed like a centuries-old joke only now reaching its punch-line. To hinder Lavin’s men from gaining access to the tower through the thin walls of the hall, Matthias had doused everything in here with oil. This great chamber would be an oven soon.

Men in heavy battle armor ran back and forth, faces blank with concentration or fear. One or two even laughed, but it was forced bravado; they knew she was here, they wanted to prove themselves to her even in this situation.

She should be doing something.

“You!” She pointed at one of the running men. He stopped dead in his tracks.

“Your majesty?”

“I wish to give a… a final address to the commanders. Are they here?”

He shook his head. “They’re dispersed about the walls, your highness. To call them back would be…”

She waved her hand. “Go on. I’m sorry. Go on.”

They were bringing in ladders to lean up against the tall windows. She was just in the way now. Galas stepped back to let a procession of men past, then flipped the hem of her dress up over the pooling oil, and stalked back into the tower.

It was even worse in here–pandemonium as blacksmiths, carpenters, and anybody with nothing better to do tore up the floorboards of the tower’s back entryway. Armiger had some use for them; no one questioned the sanity of the move. Only half the first floor was wood anyway; the front reception area had a floor of marble. She hurried, hopping up the wooden servants’ stairway while sweating men tore the steps out behind her.

“Can I help?” she asked one of the sappers, who was straining with a crowbar against the ancient wood.

He lost his grip and stumbled. “Your–your highness?” He went down on one knee, inadvertently stabbing his shin on an upthrust nail. He ignored the injury, and awaited her orders.

She reached out. “Please–I want to help. Tell me what to do.”

He jerked back in horror. “Your highness, no! This is hard work, and it’s not safe. You should be above, in the stone halls where fire won’t reach.”

“I see.” She made her face into the royal mask again. With a curt nod, she left the man to his work, ascending to the marble-floored corridor that led to the tower’s entrance hall.

She came out on the first landing above the main entrance. This part of the Summer Palace had been held sacred by the defenders until last night. It had remained as she remembered it from infancy, the paintings, chandeliers, statuary all in place, the servants ready in their niches. Now the great bronze doors were invisible under piled stone and bracing timbers, and the deep carpets and tapestries were grey with powdered stone and sawdust from the effort of blocking up the entrance. There was no one here now, but overturned tables and other barricades lay ranked like pews aimed at the entrance. Should the attackers get this far, the defenders would assail them from behind these barricades, killing and dying to prevent even so much as a single man from running up the stairs that had been built to welcome visitors. They would all die in the end, of course, and they knew it. Lavin’s men would spill into the tower; they would force her duennas up against the walls and kick down her door. By then she would be dead. Everyone knew that too. But nothing in heaven or earth could alter the course of things.

Except one thing…

Galas’ breath caught in her throat. She nearly fell, and braced herself on the stone balustrade that she had slid down once as a girl–when she was merely the mad princess.

If she were to die now, the siege would end without further bloodshed. It was simple.

“Oh,” she said aloud. If she cast herself from the tower, in full view of both attackers and defenders, then Matthias would live, Armiger and his Megan would live, her maids and cooks and the refugees from the experimental towns would be spared. They would be so disappointed in her, of course; and no one would ever follow the teachings of a suicide.

They won’t understand, she thought, as she walked slowly up the flight that led to the audience chamber. “How could they?”

She had no one person to love. Of necessity, she had to love all those around her–her defenders, the naive and idealistic fools who had swallowed her half-truths knowing them for what they were but keeping faith that she had reasons to lie, that she would lead them to earthly salvation. In the end, her written ideology, the philosophy and new morals she had preached, were all means to an end. That end could never be reached; Armiger had taught her that. If so, then what mattered their disappointment, their disillusionment? They would hate her for leaving them alive, but they would be alive, and a life lived in bitterness was still better than a death colored by useless fanaticism.

She entered the audience chamber. Three of her duennas stood about the room, looking aimless and scared. They rushed to her when she entered, but said nothing. Their eyes searched out hers.

“Every enlightened path can turn on itself, and become a new tyranny,” she said. “The process begins the moment you truly, in your heart, believe in yourself.”

“Your highness, are you all right?” Their hands touched her arms, her dress. Like everyone else, they were coping with the fear of death by displacing their concerns on her.

“Leave me!” She stepped out of their grasp. “I am as I have always been.”

Before they could answer or follow, she ran across to the side entrance that led to her apartments. Slamming the door behind her, she bolted it.

Two more of her maids stood here in the little chamber where she had met with Lavin. They were staring at her, openmouthed.

“Go away!” She swept past them.

Ah. The stairs to the roof. This was all too simple, really. She had done her best, but the majority of people would simply never understand her. Armiger was right–the only paths forward for humanity lay in the tyranny of some demagogue or an inflexible ideology, or worst of all the tyranny of condescension. There were no queens or kings in the great interstellar civilization of which Armiger spoke. There was no one who stood in a position to gaze down upon it all.

She was half-way up the steps when her legs gave out. She wasn’t winded; some force seemed to push her down against the stones.

It was like a black cloud on the edges of her vision–some thought she was denying herself. What had she been saying to herself just now? Tyranny–yes, the tyranny of condescension. Her reasons for this were–they were–

The world had narrowed to the grainy stones centimeters below her. She was gasping, unable to breathe. The kingdom–her plans–


She gave a shriek and lurched to her feet, stepping on the hem of her gown and tearing it. Zig-zagging, bouncing off the walls of the stairwell, she stumbled to the rooftop.

There were men here; catapults. They were staring out at the smoke. Distant thuds signalled incoming missiles from Lavin’s steam cannon.

There was an open coign, across an open span of roof. She only had seconds now to endure this certain knowledge that the one person whom she had loved had come to kill her.

There were no more defenses. The guardian thoughts, her plans, the abstract perfection of her self-built ideology, lay in ruins. Galas was alone with the unendurable pain of her own failure, and so she ran to the edge of the roof with one hope in mind, that the stones of the courtyard would raise a wall against the pain once and for all.

She flung herself forward, saw the stones below and knew release–

–and was pulled back from the brink by shouting men.

Galas screamed, and fought, and screamed again. Struggling, screaming, she was dragged back across the roof and down the stairs, to the waiting arms of her duennas.

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