Yllia imperator, first of her name, shoved face-down in the reflecting pool with a knee between her shoulder blades, the bright red curve of her murderer’s Judiciary cloak feathering through the water, as good as blood. Her hands scrabble at the tiles. Her mouth opens and her lungs flood. Marcalla, all her weight balanced on that knee, tosses her dripping hair out of her face and looks up at the starfield through the great quartz-glass windows of the Senatorial bridge. Every star she can see is within the scope of what Yllia controlled. Marcalla blinks tears out of her eyes while insisting the moisture to be pool-water. She is thinking two things at the same time.
First: the end of tyranny is the function of my office.
Second: oh I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.
To preserve a galaxy-spanning empire, large enough that sublight communication has begun to thin out to an insufficient trickle at its edges, months between communiqués, plenty of time to wonder what you’ve missed in the seat of power and to get caught on the centripetal force of local allegiances—to preserve that, and for a thousand years, you need a rough sort of magic.
There’ve been summer kings for as long as there have been people living together under the condition of government. Kings-for-a-year that buy a harvest with their blood. So what if the harvest is light-years wide, the harvesters eagle-painted starships with their bellies full of poets and administrators and all the uglier gifts of civilization? The principle’s the same.
Here’s the trick. For a ritual to work, everyone involved has to believe it’s real.
Look then: Yllia and Marcalla beside the reflecting pool, some time before.
Yllia has an easy grace to her, born of physical conditioning and the sort of charisma that draws all the light out of any room she walks into; at forty-five her face is firm-jawed, lined from smiling and from solar burn. She balances an ankle on a knee, leans back in one of the two chairs she’s pulled out of their half-circle alignment at the back of the bridge. One for her and one for Marcalla. The rest of the Senate is nowhere in evidence; it’s off-shift, and the only person who needs to be here is Yllia herself.
Marcalla feels very young, and very honored, and more than a little like she is being bribed.
“Why did you want to see me?” she asks.
“I’d like the opinion of the Judiciary Committee,” says Yllia, trailing the tip of one sandal-clad foot in the reflecting pool and disturbing the images of the stars, “on the legality of going to war.”
Marcalla has been a member of the Judiciary Committee for seven months, and a Senator for nine. “With whom, Imperator?”
“Oh, would you call me Yllia—” Marcalla finds herself nodding, though she will not call Yllia by name, not now and not ever at all—”the only war worth my personal attention, Marcalla, with whom do you think.”
An empire like the empire Yllia has brought to heel has many enemies, but only one rival. Only one opposite number stretching across the eastern half of the galaxy, lion-bright, eternally foreign: the sort of place that captivates imperators, makes them crash thousands and thousands of lives against that implacable shore, and not care for how those lives break open. Marcalla, hewing to the conservative line of the rest of the Judiciary, has no intention of authorizing such a war.
“Surely,” she says, “if you want to go to war, you could put the notion to a vote.”
“Oh, I could. But I’d like to know what you think of it.”
Marcalla chooses, for a desperate and heartfelt moment, to believe Yllia. They’ve known each other for a long time, since Marcalla was a child and Yllia was a proconsul come back from campaign with star-flowers in her short hair, gleaming like a crown. “I think you’d have to overrule us all,” she says, “and that you’re too smart, Imperator, to want the enmity of your peers.”
(But she’s heard, in the bellies of this warship and others on which she’s served, the excitement of the soldiers, the cheering of the crowds. Star-flower crowns left on statues bearing Yllia’s face—)
Here are some signs which heralded disaster:
Before our eyes the bloated layers of a massive star undergo core collapse, hurling sheets of fire and molten starstuff parsecs-wide, a torrent from burst-open fusion furnaces;
The gravitational centrifuge on the starship Acies Alba shudders to an unprecedented halt. Her decks spasm, plate on plate;
The voices of long-devoured black holes resound through previously silent instrumentation, loud enough for all to hear, and in the falling darkness technicians report seeing phantoms of impossible pallor;
In the same hour, sinister filaments are found in the heart of a bullock vat-grown for sacrifice and comets streak across the quartz windows of the Senatorial bridge;
And who dares say the thousand suns in imperial space were false, when they warned us all that a dark uprising threatened?
Marcalla alone. At the moment she comes to a decision: her face painted red for triumph, red for blood, red as the cloak she wears as a badge of office. Victory-red, although she’s gone to no wars. When a person makes a sacrifice, they must render something up.
Marcalla’s painted her cheeks with cinnabar herself, to march in the procession marking Yllia’s latest conquest. She has a standard to bear, a sanctification to perform. The red on her face marks her out: the members of the Judiciary are a kind of priesthood. It is given to them to safeguard the law, and thus the law has become a sacred matter between them. Marcalla watches Yllia toss credit chips to the crowd as largesse, sees the wide curve of her smile. Feels her own mouth tilt, stretch, the crack of mud under her eyes beginning, scrunch, marred by sentiment and desire—
Knows, clearly, that she’d rather be down in the crowd reaching for Yllia’s hands, shouting Imperator! Rex! than here with the law on her tongue like a stone.
Is it any wonder she decided then what her sacrifice would be?
Don’t think it didn’t hurt her, our Marcalla. Don’t think she didn’t mean it when she wept, Yllia’s heaving lungs under her knee.
The empire’s still here, after all, so the ritual must have took.
The day after the triumph, Yllia casts the cards. Soldier’s superstition, just a little more certain than dice; Marcalla, were she here, would have disemboweled a bird, but Marcalla, as you’ve noticed, is a traditionalist despite her better judgment.
Three cards. Self, situation, solution.
Here is Yllia’s card: a vacuum-drowned soldier, bubbles in the blood, changed all to pearlescent ice. Here is a card for a pile of rocks, an empire to break an empire on. And here is a card for Marcalla, though Yllia doesn’t know it: we’ll call it the wheel. It isn’t a wheel, but it goes around and around again, like crowds of people, walking in a ring.
Yllia disregards every warning. Why shouldn’t she? She’s imperator, the people love her. If she wants a war she’ll get one. Let the Senate try to stop her.
A tyrant is any ruler who does not abide by the laws of the state. Thus, rebellion is internal to the schema of power: the empire survives it. The emperor doesn’t.
This is what Marcalla believes.
This is why the ritual keeps working. Summer king, Yllia rex, drowned bloodless by her own favorite scion: the whole business washed clean again.
One more time: the reflecting pool, tremulous with stars.
Marcalla called the meeting this time. She sent the message personally, asked Yllia to come, to lend her wisdom and her power to Marcalla’s questions. Half the Senate’s in attendance, all of Judiciary and most of Trade, but no one sits in their chairs; they crowd Yllia at the door, they block the exits. Do you suspect she knows, walking down to the poolside, what is about to happen to her? She might. It’s far too late to stop. This isn’t the first time we’ve played this out.
If you’d like, you can imagine Marcalla asking, “Imperator—what wouldn’t you do?”
Marcalla would remember it that way. She’d like to think she offered an escape.
What Yllia replies is unimportant. She’d do whatever’s necessary. That’s Marcalla’s problem. That’s why, at last, she reaches for Yllia’s wrist, and catches it, and tumbles them both into the starshine water. They struggle.
Two mutually interdependent aphorisms, then, to see us out. Marcalla’s soaked to the skin, now, and come up from the pool. She walks on shaky legs towards the rest of the Senatorial chairs and their watching occupants.
First: The empire, not the emperor, survives an insurrection.
Second: You break it, you bought it.
Her colleagues are exultant and afraid. They have gotten what they want. Right order is restored (in this room; the rest of the fleet will take a bit of time), and no one’s hands are dirty; even Marcalla hasn’t got a spot of blood on her. They’ve seen her work, though, seen the fervency with which she defends the law she’s sworn to (and some of them have seen her tears). They think they’ve got her measure, and they’re close enough to right.
The empire needs imperators; the Senate needs figureheads. It is a way of giving dangerous men and women something to do.
They take Marcalla’s cloak and they fasten a garland of star-flowers to her hair, diamond chips; some spare diadem fetched up from storage. No need to fish the corpse out of the pool and denude it.
What, did you think she’d get out clean? No one gets out clean. This is not that kind of magic. This is how to fuel an engine that devours and devours and devours.
After: in the temples ivory images wept for grief, and Marcalla wept with them.
Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a historian of the Byzantine Empire and a city planner. She is currently a policy advisor for the New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department, where she works on climate change mitigation, energy grid modernization, and resiliency planning. Under both her names she writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and the edges of the world. Her first novel, A Memory Called Empire, won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Arkady grew up in New York City and, after some time in Turkey, Canada, Sweden, and Baltimore, lives in Santa Fe with her wife, the author Vivian Shaw. Find her online at arkadymartine.net or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.
This story originally appeared in Unlikely Story, 2016.