Ebony Drawing Room
The Royal Palace
1 Õkina Movantra
7 January 2023
10:01 AM Tavari Standard Time
Instead of the venue, the first meeting of the Council of State in the new year was, at the Emperor’s insistence, to be held in Žarís Nevran Alandar’s least favorite room in the royal palace, the Ebony Drawing Room. She had not stepped foot in this room, or anywhere this deep in the labyrinthine royal residence, since the dawn of the Acronian crisis when she had needed to have a… critical conversation with the now former King. It was a different King now, this one much more agreeable, but there was still a nagging feeling at the pit of her stomach as she entered the room. There was just something about the dark wooden cladding and blood red draperies that simply unsettled her.
The Tavari Council of State had met almost every Saturday morning since the turn of the 18th century, and it had become something of a tradition for Prime Ministers to always be late. A common misconception that this was borne from some symbolism of the elected civil government expressing supremacy over the unelected, constitutional monarch—a message that it was the people, not the monarch, who set the state’s schedule—but there was no such convention. It was simply that, for some decades, the various meetings and obligations of the Prime Ministers of Tavaris had tended to run late. It was also true that, unlike Žarís, the various cabinet ministers and legislators who made up the Council of State didn’t work on Saturdays, so they could simply roll out of bed and come straight to the palace for what amounted to them as a weekly half-hour or so to chit-chat with the Emperor.
“Your Esteemed Majesty,” said Žarís with a deep bow. Emperor Otan IV had, of course, never been late to anything in his life. There he was, sitting at the head of the long table, waiting for the Prime Minister to take her seat at the other end. The young man, approaching his 33rd birthday, smiled in return but did not stand. The sitting was normal—he was an Emperor, after all, and bowed for no one—but typically the response would be to clasp his hand on his chest and nod his head. The feeling in the pit of her stomach became stronger as she realized that this could only be intentional. Otan IV was, after all, the son of Zaram V. He ate, drank, and breathed royal protocol.
“Good morning, Prime Minister. A delight to see you as always. How are the ferrets doing?”
Žarís blinked. His father had certainly never asked her that. Perhaps she was overreacting.
“Oh, they’re doing great. Marshmallow was sick over New Years and we were worried, but he’s fine. Linai really wants to get a jungle cat, but I’m not sure if they’ll get along.”
The Emperor chuckled. “I hope it doesn’t become too much of a marital dispute.” His tone was light, but he had added emphasis to the last two words in a strange way. “Ah, but I do believe it’s time for our meeting, hm?”
“Of course,” the Prime Minister said, pulling a violet folder out of her briefcase. “The good news is that we don’t have too much to go over this week.”
The Council of State was a ceremonial body, essentially a smaller subset of the Cabinet, plus the Leader of the Opposition, that existed to advise the reigning monarch on the usage of their constitutional powers. It was here that the monarch granted royal assent to acts of the Diet and issued orders-in-council, which were the formal name for executive orders issued by the Prime Minister or the Cabinet. Like other constitutional monarchies, the Tavari monarch was legally mandated to act according to the advice. The meetings, therefore, were formalities—but the regular contact between the monarchy and the civil government was crucially important for the functioning of Tavari democracy, and so they were formalities that were strictly observed. Prime Ministers might often be late, but unless they were dying, dead, or kidnapped, they certainly were never absent.
“The Diet passed a package of legislation this week that formally transfers the responsibility of the Kingdom of Tavaris to conduct diplomatic affairs on behalf of Metrati Anar and the Tavari East Cerenerian Isles to the Tavari Union,” the Prime Minister began, pulling a sheaf of papers from her folder and passing them to the Emperor. Otan accepted them with a slide of his hand but did not look at them, instead keeping his eyes focused directly at the Prime Minister. “Er, ah, they’re Public Acts One through Six of 2023. The, uh, the signing page for all six is right there at the-”
The Emperor broke eye contact for a brief moment to sign the page where indicated, only to look straight back up at the Prime Minister with a mouth that was a thinner, flatter line than the one he had just signed.
“Your Maj-, er, Your Esteemed Majesty, is there-”
“Please proceed,” said the Emperor in a voice that was flatter than his smile.
It was obvious now that there was something deeply, deeply wrong, but before Žarís could ask, the Leader of the Opposition spoke first.
“I think we should skip ahead to item three on the agenda.” Kolai Šandra Vencrandíl, the Leader of the Opposition, suggested. Having forgotten what it was, the Prime Minister looked down at the first sheet of paper in her violet folder—and once she did, she felt like an idiot. It should have been obvious.
Item 3 was a drafted Order-in-Council that postponed the royal wedding between the Emperor and his fiance, Duke Hendrik of Vistaraland. This would be the fourth postponement. The Prime Minister hadn’t even thought of it because she had considered it a routine, boring sort of administrative action. The Acronian crisis had blown a massive hole in the government’s discretionary funding allocations, and one of the funds that Žarís had exhausted in order to pay for emergency public safety expenses—rightfully so, she would have argued to any other person at any other moment than this person, right now—was the Silver Court’s Special National Events fund.
Ordinarily, this fund was a veritable pot of money that governments drew on all the time because it was used only for “major ceremonies” that were “of significance to the entire country.” This basically referred only to coronations and royal weddings that happened once in a reign, leaving the funds to sit and gather both dust and interest, and in times past even just the interest payments could be diverted to cover major unexpected outlays. But after it was determined that the Royal Marshals were themselves a security threat—infiltrated by a number of fascist, anti-Akronist nationalists who were using state resources to commit acts of violent terrorism—she had emptied the entire pot of money because she needed extra funds for the investigation into the Marshals that came from outside the Ministry of Defense, which Marshal leadership would not know about and could not control or delay. They had planned to replace the taken funds, of course, until the recent Bana crisis had again raised the need for emergency defense funding, meaning there would again be no money to cover the steep costs of the wedding.
This was, as far as the Prime Minister was concerned, a simple necessity and a justified action. But now it had come time to tell that to the Emperor, and suddenly it wasn’t so simple.
“Your Est-” Žarís began, but the Emperor spoke over her, still with those cold, cold eyes that made his father’s look practically loving in comparison.
“Allow me to cut to the chase, as it were, Ms. Nevran Alandar. I will not issue this order. Item 3 on this agenda is denied.”
“I- er…” It felt as though someone had served a volleyball directly into the Prime Minister’s face. What words she had managed to come up with to try and reassure the Emperor
“That isn’t constitutionally possible,” said the Attorney General in a firm voice, matching the Emperor’s expression. Žarís looked over to her with wide, panicked eyes. Why was she already escalating? This was exactly what she didn’t need.
The Emperor of the Tavari pulled a folded piece of paper from his breast pocket, unfolded it, and slid it to the Attorney General without breaking eye contact with the Prime Minister even once.
“This is an instrument of abdication,” said the Attorney General in an incredulous voice. “But we just pro-”
“Vedra!” Žarís slammed her hands on the table. “Don’t you dare finish that sentence.”
“I want to hear it,” the Emperor said flatly.
“I… I apologize for my… I sincerely apologize for my improper-”
“Finish the sentence, Attorney General.”
“We just promoted you,” she said lamely.
“Promoted. Yes,” the Emperor said, his voice absolutely dripping in scorn. “How egregious of me to speak out of line when you’ve been so kind as to shower me with all these new titles and new responsibilities and twisted and wrung me like a dishrag to squeeze every last drop of political credibility in me to shore up your minority government. How absolutely inappropriate of me.” His voice was level, at a normal volume, but still so hauntingly flat.
The expression that Žarís had “promoted” the King of Tavaris to the position of Emperor of the Tavari had emerged almost the minute the ink was dry on the Ranat Accords, and Žarís had been desperately trying to quash it ever since. It reduced the dignity of what was supposed to be an honor and turned what was meant to be the dawn of a new unifying symbol for the Tavari people and culture into a cheap joke about how the constitutional monarch was “subordinated” to the civil government.
And now, the Attorney General of Tavaris had made it sound like it was a quid-pro-quo—a favor to the monarch that came with attached expectations of doing what they asked. That was a disaster even without considering the other elephant in the room, the abdication, which would be an absolute and unmitigated disaster.
The room was as silent as a grave until the Emperor spoke again, still with his eyes locked on the Prime Minister. “I have read every single intelligence regarding the Bana situation the minute they reached my desk—which, I will note, were all delivered to me late, after the statutory deadline of 72 hours after they were written-”
“We- with the demilitarization of the Marshals, we-” began the Minister of Internal Affairs, who was indeed mired in absolutely harrowing amounts of critical, time-sensitive work as part of the process to essentially build an entirely new intelligence community from the ground up. He had tears in his eyes, Žarís could tell he was inches from a nervous breakdown, but the Emperor was unmoved.
“One typically does not speak to the monarch unless spoken to,” Otan snarled. The Minister of Internal Affairs burst into tears and ran from the room with his hands clasped over his face.
The Emperor continued nonplussed and undaunted. “If I am interrupted one more time, I am going to hammer this letter on the announcement board in Palace Square myself, and then you’ll really be fucked.” At the utterance of the swear, his demeanor changed as if a switch had flipped. His face scrunched up, he bared his tusks and lower teeth, and tears began to fall from his own eyes. The Emperor of the Tavari slammed his fists on the table so hard that the Attorney General’s coffee spilled—all over the instrument of abdication.
“NOT TO WORRY,” the Emperor said with tears streaming down his outraged face. “I BROUGHT ANOTHER.” He slammed another piece of paper from his breast pocket and slammed it down on the table in front of him. “AND THERE’S MORE COPIES WHERE THAT CAME FROM. I MADE EXTRAS IN CASE YOU TRIED TO COVER THIS ALL UP.”
“I- I- My King, er, my Emperor, I-”
“You know, Prime Minister, I really am happy for you. You got to get married. You were able to just waltz down to the courthouse and fill out a little form and boom. Married. Do you have any idea—any idea—how badly, how desperately, I wish I could? I know what you were going to say, because it was the same thing you said the last three times. It’s too expensive. We can’t afford the expense because of all the wars. We can’t afford it because we lost so much of the tax base. You were about to sit here and tell me that because some Banian pilot accidentally crossed the border that I can’t get married for, what, another year? What, were you hoping you might finally actually DO something in Suvania by then, Žarís? I would have walked down to the courthouse myself and paid the thirty five našdat filing fee myself except—you know why, Žarís? You know why I can’t? Because I don’t have a wallet. I have to send a purchase order to the Treasury to pay for anything whatsoever. And even if I did have my own money, I don’t have any goddamn ID, do I? My passport is locked in a safe in your office and it takes a whole damned vote of the Cabinet to get it out, doesn’t it, Žarís? And I sure as hell can’t have a driver’s license, I can operate a spirits-damned aircraft carrier but the stupidest legal fiction in the history of time says I can’t have a driver’s license because I issue them myself. How is it that I issue every ID card in this country but I can’t even… I can’t even…” With a sharp, deep breath and a sigh, and a pinch on the bridge of his nose that gave Žarís a run for his money, the Emperor forced himself into silence.
Žarís said nothing. No one said anything. Even the birds outside the window seemed to have ceased to chirp.
“You get the point,” the Emperor finally said. His eyes had dried and, though it was hard to tell, he might have even been embarrassed. But his eyes were still—still—drilling holes through the Prime Minister’s skull.
Finally, Žarís took in a breath to speak, but this time it was she who was interrupted.
“Do you know how badly I wish I could have an argument with my spouse about what kind of pets we keep in our house, Žarís? Do you have any idea… ANY IDEA…” The Emperor’s hand flew again to the bridge of his nose and he took in a shaky breath, but it seemed this time he couldn’t stop himself. “ANY IDEA WHATSOEVER HOW MUCH YOU… You’ve taken EVERYTHING from me, do you know that? You told me I could be in the Navy, and then you told me I couldn’t. You told me I could be an ambassador, and then you told me I couldn’t. You told me I could get married and time and time and TIME AGAIN YOU TELL ME THAT I CANNOT. AND, LOOK, I’M A GROWN MAN, I KNOW THINGS CAN’T ALWAYS GO MY WAY, I KNOW THAT MY FATHER COULDN’T REMAIN KING AND THAT I COULDN’T BE A SAILOR OR AN AMBASSADOR FOREVER, BUT DO YOU KNOW WHAT I AM GOING TO BE FOREVER? A PERSON. AN ORCISH PERSON, ŽARÍS, WITH THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS AND A HEART, AND MAYBE IT WOULD HAVE BEEN EASIER TO STOMACH THE LOSS OF THE JOBS I ACTUALLY ENJOYED IF I WASN’T SO… SO… LONELY!”
At that, the Emperor finally shattered. Like the Minister of Internal Affairs before him, the Emperor held his face in his hands and sobbed. Žarís had seen plenty of people cry before, both real tears and fake tears, and these were no fake tears. These were the tears of a broken man, a hollow man. A man who had been wearing a mask of composure and calm, almost certainly for months, who had been nobly keeping his upper lip stiff for as long as possible for the good of the country—but who had reached his limit. These words were not coming from the Emperor’s mouth, but his heart.
It took minutes—three long, agonizing minutes of the angriest, most embittered crying Žarís had ever heard—before the Emperor could speak again, but his anger was still not exhausted. “I HAVE NO ONE. NO ONE. MY MOTHER IS DEAD, MY FATHER IS A PARIAH YOU’VE BANISHED FROM THE CAPITAL, MY ONLY COUSIN IS THE GODDAMN QUEEN OF ELATANA, WHATEVER THE HELL THAT MEANS… EVERY FRIEND I’VE EVER MADE IS STILL IN THE MILITARY OR IN NOVARIS…” He slammed his fists down on the table. “I WANT TO GET MARRIED, DAMN IT! I LOVE HENDRIK. WITH ALL MY HEART. I HAVEN’T SPOKEN TO HIM IN THREE WEEKS AND I HAVEN’T SEEN HIM SINCE MAY. MAY! I TRIED TO CALL HIM AND YOUR PERSONALLY APPOINTED INTERNAL AFFAIRS HANDLER OF MINE PHYSICALLY PREVENTED ME FROM PICKING UP THE PHONE. I’VE MET WITH THE QUEEN OF CRYRIA MORE THAN MY OWN FIANCE. SHE GOT TO HAVE HER SPIRITS-DAMNED TROPICAL VACATION OF A STATE VISIT RESCHEDULED THE MINUTE THE AKRONISTS SET THEIR GUNS DOWN, BUT YOU CAN’T FIND TIME IN MY SCHEDULE FOR ME TO EVEN MAKE A GOOD NIGHT PHONE CALL. YOU, DESPITE BEING THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF OF—WHAT, THREE, FOUR WARS NOW?—GET TO TALK TO YOUR WIFE EVERY SPIRITS-DAMNED DAY. WISH I COULD WALK DOWN TO THE PET STORE AND PICK UP A COUPLE OF RATS LIKE YOURS, MAYBE THEN I WOULDN’T BE HUMILIATING MYSELF IN FRONT OF THE ENTIRE POLITICAL ESTABLISHMENT, BUT HERE WE ARE. ARE YOU HAPPY? IS THIS WHAT YOU WANTED? TO BREAK MY SPIRIT AND FINALLY GET THOSE PESKY, UPPITY NUVO ŠOLOSARS OUT OF YOUR HAIR? IF ALL I AM TO YOU IS A MEAT PUPPET TO MAKE DANCE AND EARN VOTES THEN CAN I AT THE VERY LEAST BE A MARRIED MEAT PUPPET? OR CAN YOU SIMPLY NOT COUNTENANCE ALLOWING THE SON OF ZARAM V ANY HAPPINESS?”
“That isn’t true,” Žarís managed to croak. “I don’t… I’ve never… I’ve never… Prince Ot- I mean, Ki- Emperor Otan, I swear to you on everything that I am, I swear to you before the souls of each and every Nevran who has ever lived, this has nothing to do with your father, and nothing to do with you. It’s just money. I know that isn’t what you want to hear. I know that you’re… I know now that you’re in such pain, I can’t imagine how hard it is, but we don’t-”
“But you won’t swallow your pride and ask Vistaraland to pick up more of the bill. Should I just ask them myself? Maybe I should just move to Vistaraland and live a quiet life as the Duchess of Koersland. Do you think if I show Marium how I memorized her titles she’d let me in without a passport? Do you think she would let me get married?”
Every word that exited the Emperor’s mouth was like a razor blade, dripping in only barely passive aggression, that sliced straight through her. “Please… please, I’m not trying to… You will get married. You will, I promise, I will move spirits and Urth to-”
“Your friends in Republican Alternative won’t vote for a separate outlay for the royal wedding. You’re too proud to ask Coalition Right for support. You don’t have a majority, even with the nationalists behind you, and spirits know that she won’t vote for it either,” the Emperor said with a dismissive sideways nod to the leader of the opposition—the notedly anti-monarchist Socialist Green Party for Democracy had already gone on the record stating that the royal wedding was too great an expense. “So I get the business end of the stick because I’m apparently the path of least resistance. I can’t legally resist you, after all. I’m well aware that every Tavari monarch since 1793 has been a meat puppet for the Prime Minister, and they will continue to be. I believe in constitutional monarchy and in democracy, and I don’t want to be the Kaiser of Tavaris. But I simply cannot continue to serve in this role if you are going to keep treating me like this. I can’t do it anymore. A monarch needs a consort. A monarch needs… dignity! And this is undignified!” The Emperor gestured widely with his arms at the room, and then toward himself with another broken facial expression. “You don’t care. You’re going to tell me I have to wait. And what if… what if he won’t wait for me? What if the Vistari won’t let me? As if the prince marrying some… big ugly orc wasn’t risky enough, I’ll be a decrepit old man before you finally find time to let me marry the love of my life! What if something happens to me?” The Emperor couldn’t contain another set of wracking sobs. “What if I die?”
The Prime Minister’s first thought was that this was ridiculous. Otan IV was the healthiest, most in-shape person to ever sit on the Silver Throne, and of course Prince Hendrik would wait. If Prince Hendrik felt even remotely close to Emperor Otan as the Emperor did of the Prince, as she had every reason to believe was true, he would wait. But Žarís realized then that that didn’t matter. The Emperor was afraid. Terrified, even. This was not a rational fear, this was existential. As Otan had just made clear, he didn’t have anyone to talk to about any of this, so all of his worst fears had simply built up and built up in his head and in his heart until they had exploded out of him. She had been blind not to see it, and downright cruel not to think of it.
Here was a young man whose family had always been so small, so tragically small, afraid of losing one of the only people who had ever entered his family instead of leaving it. She knew then that the Emperor must have lied awake at night, tearing himself up inside over the anxiety of losing the best thing that had ever happened to him. She imagined him standing in front of a mirror, obsessing over wrinkles that weren’t there, forced to remember over and over again that, as an orc, his lifespan was to be shorter than most. Otan Nuvo Šolosar, who would be 33 next month, was by no means an old man, but he was approaching the halfway mark of the average orcish life expectancy. He was already doomed to have less time on Urth than the one he loved, and he had been forced to silently watch as what limited time he might have with Hendrik was taken from him time and time again without so much as a second thought by the government that ruled in his name.
“We will vote to fund the wedding,” said the Leader of the Opposition in a quiet voice. “Whatever the number. Whatever the date. We will vote for the funding. I swear it.”
The Emperor’s eyebrows shot up, and for a moment it seemed as though he was about to launch another bitter quip at the Prime Minister, but instead his bottom lip quivered and his voice broke. “Thank you,” he said.
“I have a lot to apologize for,” Žarís finally said.
“I don’t want your apologies. I want to get married.” He gestured down at the letter in front of him, on which even from across the table Žarís could read the words “INSTRUMENT OF ABDICATION.”
“Emperor Otan, there are things I can do and things I cannot. I can’t promise what I can’t deliver. It will take time to allocate the funding, even with opposition support. I swear to you, I will get it done and I will get it done as fast as I can. And when I do it, if Kolai supports it as well, it will come with attached legislation to restore the privy purse of the monarch and allow you to spend some money on your own, and an order-in-council to issue you an identification card. You… you aren’t a meat puppet.”
“Is there to be a constitutional crisis, or will you hold back the postponement order?”
“Well… the simple truth is that we just aren’t able to hold the wedding at the currently scheduled ti-”
“Is there to be a constitutional crisis, or will you hold back the postponement order?” The Emperor’s voice had returned to that hauntingly cold flatness.
Žarís relented. “We will not issue the order-in-council.”
“And the Internal Affairs handler who physically stopped me from making a phone call?”
“Your schedule coordinator will be fired as soon as this meeting is concluded. I will consult with you regarding their replacement as soon as possible.”
“And the Attorney General?” Otan’s voice had risen perhaps half an octave and gained just the slightest tremor.
There was a pause. “It… would be… unusual for the monarch to-”
“I resign. Immediately,” the Attorney General answered.
The Prime Minister’s throat was dry and she found it hard to breathe for a moment, but she did not have the freedom not to say what needed to be said. She hadn’t been intimidated by Otan’s father and no matter how much her heart hurt, she would not be by Otan either. “Your Esteemed Majesty, if it reaches the press that the Attorney General resigned under pressure from a monarch who was offended by the legal advice she gave…”
“FINE.” The sudden outburst seemed to surprise even the Emperor, who immediately hunched down his shoulders and muttered a quiet “excuse me” under his breath. He turned to the Attorney General. “Ms. Dendrodek, the Prime Minister is right. You should not resign because I am upset with you.”
Her gaze was still fixed on the table in front of her. “No. I resign. I should have resigned with the rest of the Akronists in March.” With perhaps too much force than necessary, she grabbed a sheaf of paper from her bag and shoved it down the table to the Prime Minister. “Can’t have these anymore. They’re classified. Thanks for so boldly sticking up for me, Žarís. Really appreciate the ministerial responsibility,” she spat. Briskly and with bloodshot eyes, Vendra Dendrodek stood up and rushed herself out of the room in much the same way the Minister of Internal Affairs had. That felt like a lifetime ago already.
The room was dead silent once more until Kolai spoke again, in a voice that suggested she was desperately, desperately trying to change the mood. “Thank the spirits the wire report guy didn’t show up this week.”
No one replied. The mood remained crushingly, overwhelmingly unchanged.
But then the Emperor chuckled, exactly once. “TavariFax knows not to send people when the Council of State meets in the Ebony Drawing Room.”
Something slowly dawned on the Prime Minister. “Emperor, it would be a… a significant… concern… if it were to be found that you are having contact with members of the media outside of formally established government channels. Not only does this have concerning implications regarding the media’s role in holding the government accountable, this would challenge the confidence the government places in you when it sends you classified information.” She held her eyes on Otan’s and forced herself to ignore how bloodshot they were.
“If you stop sending me the national security briefing, will you let me get married?”
“I will not be emotionally manipulated! This is a severe breach! You… you’re just like your father!” It was Žarís’ turn to slam her hands on the table as her usual vigor returned to her. “Pushing at the boundaries… trying to shout the government down… if what you’re implying is true, then it isn’t acceptable. Frankly, sir, it sounds like the Silver Court’s phone calls should be restricted more, not less.”
The moment the word ‘more’ escaped her lips, the absolutely furious facial expression on Otan’s face told Žarís that she had said exactly the wrong thing. “Not- not to Hendrik- Emperor, you know I didn’t mean… please don’t…”
Otan seemed to force his face back into a less severe expression. He had hunched himself down, as if he were physically restraining his head from shooting off his neck like a rocket. However, he did not speak. He did not speak for a long, long time.
“I should abdicate,” he finally said.
“My emotions have compromised my ability to perform my job within constitutional parameters,” he said with a creaking voice. “It’s… it’s done. It’s done. It’s over. I resign. I abdicate. I’ve caused two constitutional crises today and I threatened a third because I was impatient about a wedding. I never should have done any of this. I… I’ve violated my oath. I abdicate. Get Vedra back in here so she can acknowledge the instrument. I should never have done this.” The Emperor stood up, his head hung low, as if he were about to walk out of the palace right then and there. Almost by muscle memory, everyone else in the room stood up with him, and nearly all of them held their arms out as if they wanted to stop the Emperor from leaving, but none of them moved forward even an ímonai. No one wanted to be yet another government official to tell the Emperor no.
For a moment, Žarís considered the abdication. She would be lying if she said that His Esteemed Majesty did not have a point. Indeed, the very idea of government officials being reluctant to tell the Emperor no held significant constitutional implications and threatened the idea of Tavari democracy. Emotions were not supposed to figure into the work of government, not as far as she was concerned, and the monarch wasn’t supposed to influence the work of government either.
But as she thought about what words she could say that would both accept his abdication and de-escalate the situation, there came a knock at the door. A purple-uniformed royal guard walked in and said aloud “Mr. Devri Natolan Õdraq of TavariFax,” he said.
There was a moment’s silence. The Prime Minister’s eyes met the Emperor’s, and the Emperor looked downright confused.
Žarís shrugged. “Send him in,” she said.
The guard opened the door and a horrified young man, perhaps not yet even graduated from university, rushed in and bowed so deeply he fell on his face. With just the slightest little scream, he jumped up before the guard could even start to help him up and said “Your Est- Your Est- Y- Your…” He took a deep breath. “Please excuse my tardiness, I… I forgot… er, I… I- I- I- forgot about…”
“Take a deep breath, son,” said Žarís.
The young reporter cleared his throat. “If your most noble excellencies can forgive this improper one’s tardiness, this humble one would be most appreciative and in the greatest of debts to you,” he said in the most polished Tavari Žarís had ever heard. “This… forgetful one most foolishly-”
“You don’t need to use a different adjective every time,” the Emperor offered in a soft voice. “Although it’s also okay just to say I.” He smiled, and Žarís had to admit that seeing it made her feel better even if it wasn’t directed at her.
“I forgot to set my alarm because I’m not used to working on Saturdays,” he groaned in embarrassment.
“You’re not actually that much more late than the Prime Minister,” said the Emperor with something that looked dangerously close to a well-meaning smirk. “Welcome to the palace. Members of the media may sit in any of the chairs along the wall. Did you, ah, find the room alright? Traditionally, when we schedule these meetings in the Ebony Drawing Room, your counterparts in the media tend not to show up.” The Emperor looked sheepish, almost awkward.
But the reporter snorted. “Oh, that old myth? I asked my boss about that and he just laughed.”
“What myth?” Žarís’ voice came out quite sharp, so she tried to make her face look calm and casual when the reporter looked over at her with panicked eyes.
“W-well… begging your pardon, Your Ex-”
“Devri,” she said in a much softer voice. “Please try your hardest to speak to me like I’m a normal orc.”
He cleared his throat. “There’s an old, uh, like a myth at TavariFax, like, a thing old people- er, um, older colleagues say that, like, when the King puts the Council of State in the Ebony room, we’re not supposed to show up because, like, that means the meeting is classified. When I saw that the meeting got moved, I asked my boss about it, but he laughed and said… um.”
Žarís arched an eyebrow. “Well now I want to know, don’t leave us hanging.”
“He said, uh, ‘We let the Silver Court think that so that, when they put the meetings there, we have an excuse not to send someone and we can save a few našdati on weekend overtime pay.’ And he also said, uh, um, he said, if you ask about it…” Devri was pushing his pointer fingers together in the gesture that indicated he wasn’t sure if he should say what he was about to say.
Well, Žarís thought, it wasn’t as though anyone else had stopped themselves from saying something they shouldn’t today. “Well?”
“He told me to say TavariFax had never taken any orders from real government officials and it certainly won’t take them from fake ones like, um… the Emperor. It’s just that, um. Sometimes we don’t… care. About the agenda. Um, he also said that we show up wherever and whenever we damn well please, and that we don’t care if the Emperor wants to secretly shout at the Cabinet, because, um, they probably deserve it.”
The room was silent again, but it was a very different silence, heavy not with rage or sadness but instead the urge not to laugh.
“Well,” the Emperor finally said, “I’m not going to say that isn’t fair.”
The Prime Minister shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Devri seemed to finally take note of his surroundings. “Aren’t there supposed to be nine people on the council?” He looked around the room and then his eyes seemed to linger on the Emperor, in particular his bloodshot eyes.
“SORRY WE TOOK SO LONG,” said a male voice loudly from the hallway. The entire room turned to see the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Attorney General standing just outside the door, both with strange smiles plastered on their faces.
“Oh…” said Žarís, praying to every god that would listen to erase the confusion from her voice. “You’re, ah, just in time, actually.”
The Emperor surreptitiously slid his hand along the surface of the table to pull his two letters of abdication—one still somewhat damp with coffee—back toward him. At the same time, with somewhat unsure feet, the two ministers returned to their seats.
“The Emperor… spilled my coffee,” the Attorney General said to the reporter. “And I… said some things I regret, and I think the Emperor said some things he regrets, so I had to leave the room for a few moments.” None of this, Žarís was sure to note, was untrue.
“And I left to… help her… but we’re here again and we’re ready to get back to the meeting now… presuming everyone else is ready to go back to the meeting?”
“Are we?” Žarís looked at Vedra with uncertain eyes.
“I am ready to get back to the meeting. As Attorney General,” she said. “I feel much better now about the coffee.”
“I am genuinely sorry about the coffee. And I should not have treated you so harshly about what you said about the coffee. I regret what I said.”
“Emperor, you have been under a lot of stress. More stress, I think, than any of us knew. And it’s also true that all the rest of us are under a lot of stress, too. Especially Vakar,” said the Attorney General, nodding toward the Minister of Internal Affairs. “He’s been under so much pressure because his portfolio is gaining the entire law enforcement and intelligence apparatus. You know, the demilitarization of the Marshals.”
“That… did slip my mind. So I’m sorry that I snapped at you, Mr. Nelandri Venat.”
“About the coffee,” the Minister added.
“About the coffee.”
The reporter’s eyes darted from person to person in the room, narrowing just slightly, but after scrawling a few notes on a notebook produced from his pocket he seemed to be satisfied and settled back in his chosen chair along the wall.
“So… ah, as I’ve signed the bills regarding item one on the agenda, shall we move on to item two? The, um,” the Emperor looked down at the meeting agenda, clearly having forgotten it. “The Nuclear Power Facility Safety Inspection Act of 2022. Really rolls past the tusks, doesn’t it?”
Somehow, muscle memory kicked back in and the Prime Minister found herself reaching into her folder and producing the packet of legislation for the Emperor to sign as if there had never been a delay at all. “You will see there in the executive summary everything it does, the major item is reducing the time between mandatory inspections from three years to two and various changes to the standards the inspections are required to-”
The Emperor had already signed the bill. “I don’t actually need to know what the bill does, you know.” He winked at the reporter, who laughed so hard he snorted.
“So… item three…” the Emperor said in a somewhat more awkward tone.
“Ah. Yes.” The Prime Minister turned to her Attorney General. “So, while you were gone, I’ve given it some thought and I’m not sure the time is right to delay the wedding. While it’s quite true that we do need to get legislation passed to allocate more funds, I think it would be prudent to attempt to work on that within the timeframe we already have. So… as unusual as this may be… in fact I think this may be the first time ever, I am going to move that the Council of State advise the Emperor to veto this proposed Order-in-Council.”
The room was, once again, silent for a moment—but this time it was almost certainly because no one was truly sure what to do. Each person at the table looked at everyone else as if waiting for someone else to speak first. “All in favor?” It was the first time the Deputy Prime Minister had spoken that morning.
Nine hands slowly rose into the air as the Tavari Council of State sheepishly and awkwardly made history.
“Your Esteemed Majesty,” Vedra said as she rummaged through her bag and revealed an entirely unremarkable stamp. “I have the distinct honor of presenting you with this. It has never once been used. Please stamp it right there on the signature line.”
The Emperor took the proffered stamp and firmly applied it to the paper. When he pulled it away, there on the signature line in violently vibrant scarlet ink was the Tavari word ÍTAK—in this context, it meant “negated” or “denied," though generally it also just meant “no.” It was clear that the Emperor took a great deal of pleasure from issuing his first veto. “Well I’ll be damned,” he said to himself.
Vedra took the paper and, with her own stamp, affixed the Great Seal of Tavaris. “This Order-in-Council is hereby officially void, null, and of no legal effect,” she said brightly, with a broad smile on her face.
The Emperor, too, was smiling widely. “Does that conclude our business for this morning, Prime Minister?”
“Well, it concludes our formal business, but there’s something else I wanted to run by you, Emperor. I wondered what you might think about a vacation. You’ve been working so hard lately, doing so much more than any Tavari monarch ever has, and I know you’re… very much looking forward to your wedding, that has been delayed far too much already. So how about we clear your schedule of all non-festival items for the next few weeks and let you spend some time with your fiance?” Žarís offered a smile, an earnest smile, and though she didn’t know it, her facial expression betrayed her nonchalance and quite clearly showed how desperately she hoped the Emperor would believe her sincerity.
At first the Emperor said nothing, and the Prime Minister’s stomach sank. But when the Emperor spoke again, his voice was cracking once more. “I would appreciate that very much,” he forced himself to say. His eyes, no longer locked on Žarís, darted sheepishly toward the reporter, perhaps afraid he might be embarrassing himself, so Žarís did what came naturally. She stood up, walked over to the Emperor, and wrapped him in a hug.
The Emperor reciprocated, and in his arms, Žarís could finally—finally—relax.
But she leaned into his ear and whispered to him. “Just because your guy at TavariFax didn’t listen when you told him not to send a reporter doesn’t mean it’s okay that you asked. You won’t receive a single classified briefing when you’re away and you might not when you come back, either.”
Otan did not stop warmly patting the Prime Minister on the back. “If I’m not married within a year of my accession to the throne, I’m renouncing my Tavari citizenship and moving to Vierbak permanently,” he whispered just as plainly. “And I will burn every single bridge leading back to Tavaris when I do it. You have until June 4th.”
The two pulled away from one another and stared into each other’s eyes. Both very clearly considered what the other said to be entirely unfair, but they each knew it was the only good ending they would be able to make that day.
“Very well,” the two whispered in unison. They stared at each other for just one more moment, and then both turned away. The meeting was over and their business was done. Žarís had a phone call with the Ambassador to Vaklori five minutes ago—and Otan had a phone call that he had been wanting to make for three weeks.