Three moons and six days, since the last ship had come. Ierois III Kaniour, who had worn the Imperial circlet for fifteen glorious days, went down to the shore of the Sea of Dreams, to await the food that his jailers were due to bring.
The island had no name. It had been named, once. There had been two villages, one by the shore, one up in the hills. Long before Ierois had been acclaimed by the Senate, before he had been deposed by his brother, that name had been erased, the villagers... well, the houses still stood, some of them.
Something, beneath his foot, as he walked out across the burning sands to meet the sailors, as they rowed the ship’s boat out to his island. He picked it up, and it sparkled in the sunlight, a diamond the size of a pigeon’s egg, clear and perfect.
At first, he had believed in such things. After he had stopped believing, he had hoped that the sailors would believe in them, and that he could buy his freedom with them. And then he let them go. The Sea of Dreams was wide, and nowhere else did it wash so pure. Ierois held the gem, forced the dream away, forced the gem to revert into a lump of stone, nothing but stone, no shine, no sparkle, and let it drop back to the sand.
The Sea of Dreams washed pure, on the beaches of the nameless island, but it lied; it always lied.
The sailors rowing the boat were not alone. There was a boy standing in the boat with them. Everything about him—his halo of black curls, the richness of his mantle, and the purple of its border—marked him as being of the Imperial blood. And the fact that his nose was gone, leaving behind two gaping holes, like the nostrils on a pig’s snout, showed that he had been the candidate of a weaker faction. If the boy had worn the diadem, he never would again.
As the sailors unloaded the ship’s boat, Ierois III Kaniour waited nearby, not looking at them. He had no interest in seeing the contempt or pity on their faces. When he heard the oars once again splashing through the waves, he took up one of the amphora of oil that they had left on the beach, took up an inlaid chest, which would hold clothing perhaps, or other objects he might need.
The boy had been left as unceremoniously as the other things the sailors had brought. He stood watching the boat until it rejoined the ship, unmoving, back straight, head held high. Then he gave Ierois the same look he’d given the sailors—the look of a prince, who expected deference from those beneath him.
Ierois turned and left the beach, not saying a word. There were two of them, and the island was not large; they could not avoid each other. But he was no nanny, no servant. He had been emperor, and he was the elder. In time, the child would learn his place.
Ierois knew both villages, knew every fallen stone and shattered beam in every house. Of the two, he preferred the inland village, where the sea was hidden behind forest and hill. The houses there were more orderly, not so large but better built; these had been people who did not seek out the lies of the Sea of Dreams.
One of those houses he had claimed as his own. He had repaired the roof, he had built up a door and set it on its hinges. He took his amphora there, his box which had a clean tunic in it, and sandals, and a book. Back to the beach for an amphora of flour, another of oil, one of strong wine. He took half of what the sailors had left; that was his usual portion, and ample to his needs. The child might have seen him, might not have, but that was no concern of his.
The oil and flour became a bread for his evening meal, and by the time it was ready, he had almost forgotten the unwelcome intruder that had come to his island. Fresh wheat flour, with few maggots—it was a thing to look forward to, to savor, the way he intended to savor the book he had been given.
There was a rap on his door. Ierois opened it, and the child was there, head back, eyes sharp. “You shall tell me—”
Ierois shut the door. He had not thought to have a bar for it, so he moved his chair to block it and sat down in the chair. There was another rap, softer, but he ignored it. The first page of the book told him that it was of ancient speeches. Another world to live in, for a time. Again, an even softer tap. He ignored that one as well. It would be well for the child to spend a night in the darkness, alone.
Ierois expected that the next morning, he would find the child sleeping on his doorstep, or that the child would soon seek him out. But he did not. Nor the next morning, nor the morning after that. The child was not dead. The portion of supplies that he had not taken earlier now were gone, and there was a wisp of smoke rising from one of the buildings in the village by the coast.
It took until the next full moon before Ierois went down from his village in the hills, to seek out the child. It was not becoming to the dignity of a man who had worn the diadem, of course, and it was not right for the elder to seek out the younger. But it had been very long since he had spoken to someone, and it would not do to lose a companion through stubbornness.
He found him at the shores of the Sea of Dreams, a little before midday. The child was walking along the sand, purposefully. Bending down to pick a thing up, discarding it, finding something else, keeping it.
It was a lure, it was a snare, it was lies. Ierois waited at the edge of the forest. The child looked up to see him, but he did not come forward to meet him, merely looked back down and continued what he was doing.
Very well; Ierois came forward, down to the beach.
“You are my great-uncle Ierois,” said the child. “The traitor.”
“And what do they name you now?” said Ierois. “Father of your people? Defender of God?”
The child flushed a deep crimson, more anger than shame. “They may fling what names they like,” he said. “They know that they have crowned an impostor. I am Artois VII Kaniour, anointed by God as emperor of all the world.”
Ierois shook his head. “You are a boy with no nose, on an island with no name. You will live here, you will die here, and you will be forgotten.”
“No,” said Artois, and he held up a piece of sea-green jade, as long and as wide as a finger-joint, pierced on either end. “When the barbarian fleet closed in on Artois I Kaniour, he leapt from the ship, wearing the armor of Kaniour the Great, that it should not be defiled by their hands. No one knows where that ship was sunk, but it must have been near here. There—see? It is the seal of the rose and the thorn, carved into every link.”
“It is the Sea of Dreams,” said Ierois.
“It is the Armor of God!” said Artois. “I have found five pieces already. When they return, to bring us food, they will see to whom the armor has been returned, and they shall bring me back to my rightful place.”
“What do you see here?” asked Ierois, holding up his stick.
“A wooden stick,” said Artois.
“It was gold when I picked it up,” said Ierois. “And it was surmounted by diamonds and rubies.”
Artois turned away. “Nonsense,” he said.
Ierois looked across the beach. There; he walked over, pulled a helmet loose from the sand. It was in the antique mode, high cheeks, burnished bronze crest. “And this,” he said. “What is this, boy?”
“A helmet,” said Artois.
Ierois turned his will upon it. For a moment, the helmet remained, but then it was a crab’s carapace, brittle, cracked.
“There,” he said. “You see? Lies.”
Artois shook his head. “No,” he said. “That helmet might have been a lie. But this plaque of jade—it is real. The armor was lost somewhere, great-uncle; I have found it here.”
Ierois looked at the length of jade, and it remained jade. He shook his head. “So you choose to believe it more than I disbelieve. But that does not make it real. And when the sailors all turn their will upon your armor, it will become crab shells and driftwood and potsherds and seaweed. It lies; it is a lie, that you are believing.”
“No,” said Artois. “It is a dream.” He turned away from Ierois, back to the sand.
There was nothing Ierois could say; he made his way back to his house and took up the book he had been given. But there was something stale in the words. Over the years, he had been given nine other books, but they had become outworn, nothing in them to distract him. He busied himself with making a porridge for dinner, and eating it, but that was not enough. He left, prowled the hills as the day wore itself out.
He found himself down at the beach, after the sun had set and the stars had come out, in their glory. It had been so long since anyone had talked to him, even two words together, that disagreement troubled him so.
The Sea of Dreams was as placid as a pond that night. There was no riffle of wave or wind; the sand was so clear he could make out Artois’ footprints by the light of the moon. His footprints, and here and there, spatters, as if of a light rainfall, or tears. And then, there was the prince of the line himself, curled up on the sand, still clutching two handfuls of jade scales. Ierois had spoken only truth, but the line of Kaniour did not give up easily; the child would have to learn from experience.
Ierois stood there for a time, silent, watching. Then he turned and headed back. By the side of a heavy, twisted piece of driftwood, there was something sticking out of the sand. Ierois picked it up. A polished bronze mirror. The Sea of Dreams was cruel, in its lies. Ierois had no interest in seeing the ruin they had made of his face; he forced the mirror to become a broad and decaying leaf, then tossed it to the side. It was a lie, all of it.
Only there—where Ierois had pulled out the mirror, there was a length of jade. He picked it up, held it in his hand, felt the cool weight of the stone, saw the rose and thorn hallmark carefully and perfectly cut.
It was another lie of the Sea of Dreams, crueler than the mirror. He could force it to tell the truth, that it was some splinter of pottery, some pebble that had washed up on the beach, that was pretending to be something that it was not.
But he did not. He walked back to where Artois lay and put the scale beside him. Then Ierois returned to his house up in the hills and slept, the matter resolved.
The next morning, there was a knock on the door.
For some moments, Ierois lay in bed. Had Artois knocked again, or even if that first knock had been a hair more imperious, he would not have answered it. But he didn’t, and while it had been loud enough to wake him, it had not been overly loud or incessant.
Regretting what he had done, but not willing to stop doing it, Ierois rose from his bed, and opened the door. Artois was there, carrying a section of armor, the jade scales held in place with the purple threads of his cloak.
“Please,” he said. “Will you help me?”
“It is,” said Ierois, “a lie.”
“It is a dream,” said Artois. “And it is what I have. Will you help me to dream it?”
“What’s the point?” asked Ierois. “We scrape and claw at the beaches, assemble a cloak of oyster shells and seaweed. Yes, perhaps we dream that it is jade and gold, but it remains garbage.”
“When the sailors come, they will see—”
“No!” said Ierois. “How do you think that my scepter of office became a length of wood? No matter how beautiful the dream, the sailors who bring us the supplies we need to live are not romantic men; they will see things as they are.”
“Then they will see the armor of God,” said Artois. “It is a dream, perhaps. But if it is a shared dream—with the sailors, I mean—they will see the dream for the truth that it is.”
Ierois shook his head. Artois did not mean ‘with the sailors’. He meant for Ierois to share his dream, but Ierois could not.
“I am past dreaming,” said Ierois. “There was a time I tried to call up everything I lost, and the Sea of Dreams gave it to me, piece by piece, and then took it all away again, when my concentration wavered.”
“My concentration will not waver,” said Artois. “Please, though—help me find the scales, help me weave them into a whole. I cannot do this alone.”
So Ierois III Kaniour left his house in the hills and went down to the shore of the Sea of Dreams, to seek jade scales and to bind them into a corslet.
The scales were not easy to find. Although it was easy enough to start a dream, the Sea of Dreams was not easily turned toward a sustained purpose. But Artois was relentless.
Ierois had lost the diadem because he was impetuous, because he did not accurately weigh the risks against the gains, because he allowed his passions to rule him at times when he should have kept them in check. Artois... From what Ierois saw, from what he had told Ierois, from what he refrained from telling him, it seemed that the boy had lost his crown due to an accident of age; that he was removed because he would have become a formidable emperor, rather than for any fault in his nature.
Days and nights walking along the shore of the Sea of Dreams, seeking and finding, twisting threads of purple and gold. The moon waxed and waned, waxed and waned, until the time came when the boat returned to the island without a name and Artois waded out to meet it, the jade scales of his armor as green and white as the foam of the water.
Ierois watched him walk out, fought to keep seeing a child with the armor of Kaniour the Great hanging loosely from his shoulders, a face lit from within by a glorious sense of purpose. He fought to not see driftwood and sea-wrack and weeds, and failure and exile unending.
The sailors took Artois aboard their boat and rowed him back towards their ship. Ierois waded into the surf himself, gathered up the supplies which they had brought. He stood on the beach and watched the ship’s boat return to the ship, and watched the ship sail off, until even the peak of its sail could not be seen.
The Sea of Dreams told great lies and small, beautiful and horrible. If he let himself believe, this could almost have been real. Perhaps it was—perhaps there had been a child, who had dreamed and forced the world to dream with him. Perhaps he would not have turned to sea-wrack and broken toys, had Ierois turned his will upon him.
It was a fine thing to believe, that the Empire was in the hands of a child who had been mutilated, who thought that dreams were different than lies. It was a fine hope, that when the crown was securely in that child’s grasp, a ship would come to take Ierois back to the world of men, as a mentor, as a hero, as someone who had aided the emperor when all other hands were against him. It was a fine thing to believe, that not all diamonds were bits of rock and broken glass.
Ierois III Kaniour went up from the village by the shore to the village in the hills, and took with him the supplies that he needed in order to survive his exile.