The Royal Surveyors drove their machine through my fields at midday; it took six hours to put all the fires out.
They didn’t stop. A flag depicting the new Emperor’s crest, depicting his own face in profile, whipped and snapped in the wind. They came from the direction of our farm’s northern border, from Ommen Birku’s land, at the same plodding pace as my two-horse plough, but taller, wider, spitting fire like a storybook dragon, armored like a beetle.
Catastrophe can happen at any speed. I thought of that as I watched the machine cut its slow ten-meter swath through my sunflowers. A horse could trample someone quickly, but that person might take weeks or years to die. A swarm can descend overnight and leave nothing for the harvest come morning.
This was a slow catastrophe. I had time to estimate the rows. Time to check which way the wind was blowing, if it would spread in the direction of our home. Time to spare a thought for Birku, to wonder if his own cover crop had met the same fate. Time to be thankful that this was the season of soil nourishment, of secondary crops. Twenty-five rows of sunflowers was a smaller catastrophe than twenty-five rows of hay or redwheat. Burning enriched soil too.
I stood at the kitchen window, clutching the mug of mint tea I had put to steeping just before my eye caught movement in the field. The mug cooled in my hands.
“What are you watching?” Lara asked me, coming into the room. When I didn’t answer, she followed my gaze. “What is that? What are you standing here for? We need to put out the fires before they spread!”
I shook my head, pointed to the banner. “Better not to get in their way. Wait until they’re gone.”
“Then at least we could prepare buckets. Take the horses somewhere.”
She was right. Those were the words needed to break the window’s spell. We set the children to fetching water.
“Go out the front door,” I told them. “Don’t let the machine see you.”
“The people in the machine,” Lara said, giving me a look. Right again. No need to scare them with invented monsters.
I went out the front door with them. There was no way to stay hidden and get to the barn, but the monster was already past the barn and the house. No way to know if anyone was watching from the machine’s side or back.
The horses greeted me with agitation, stomping feet and swishing tails. They smelled fire. Star was the cleanest, so I saddled him and haltered the others. Leading three horses while mounting a fourth wasn’t easy in the best of times; I was glad I had taken the time for a saddle instead of trying it bareback. They were all half-draft beasts, all calm by nature, but the fire and my own clumsy distraction added to their restlessness. It would all have been made easier if I had brought one of the kids. I wasn’t thinking. My mind wasn’t on the fire but on the crest that flew atop the machine.
The road was wide enough to perhaps act as a firebreak if we didn’t keep the flames under control, if the wind picked up. If we needed to, we could send the children across. That was what I told myself as I led the string up our drive, then across the way to the Maris place.
We’d never gotten on with the Maris family, but Ellum took one look at me and opened the gate to an empty corral.
“What’s burning?” Ellum asked as I unsaddled Star and dumped the saddle beside the gate.
“My sunflowers, but I don’t think only mine. Big machine, flying the royal crest.”
He nodded. “Boys!” he called back toward his house. The door opened and his oldest, Ianno, leaned out. “Get your shoes on. Fire at Kae’s place. She’s going to need us all.”
The air behind our house was thick with smoke. We hurried back together, saying nothing. It didn’t matter that we disliked each other’s farming methods, or that he still resented our refusal to sell him our land. An unchecked fire at my place could destroy his as well.
By the time we had the hose unwound and pumping from the pond, the machine was at our property’s southern end. It took six hours to put out the main fire, even with all of the Marises and all of our family working on it. We drained half the pond, a problem we’d have to deal with later. We were lucky; the fire didn’t want to spread.
“Thank you,” I said to the Marises, knowing they would feed and water our horses from their own stores when they returned home. “I’ll get them in the morning.”
“Nothing you wouldn’t do for us.”
All that was left to do was spend the night walking the burned swath, putting out any embers that flared. Darkness made the chore easier, despite the exhaustion creeping in around the edges. Lara took the children indoors to put them to bed; she was better at settling them.
She came back out after a short while. “They were both asleep on their feet before we got in the door.”
We walked down to the southern perimeter, the great stones of the ancient border broken and scattered like pebbles. To the south, the sky was lit with flame.
“What are they doing?” Lara asked as we turned north again.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“It was so precise.” She kicked a burning stalk we had missed, ground it into the soil with his boot. “Did you notice that nothing has burned outside these rows? If we hadn’t put the fire out, I think it would have burned out on its own. Taken these rows but none of the others.”
“You’re saying we wasted all our effort?”
“Not necessarily. I might be wrong. And they might have a way to keep the adjacent rows from burning, but if they can’t control the wind, we’re still better off being careful.”
We walked, kicking divots, grinding embers. My feet ached, my back, my shoulders. Not the familiar aches I went to bed with most nights; these were the kind that would have me waking sore.
The fires were the only subject of conversation at the next market day. At the first stall, Shin Davi caught my wrist in her firm grip as I reached to scoop from her barrel of dried brownbeans.
“Is it true?” she asked. Her knuckles stood out like mountain peaks, bones visible beneath paper-thin skin. “The Conqueror’s troops, here again?”
I pried her fingers loose one by one, squeezed her hand and put it down. Even after fifteen years here, the people always touched a little too easily for my northern comforts.
“They flew his crest, but I don’t know if they were his soldiers or his magicians or his dogs run loose. They set fires, they kept moving. They didn’t stop to talk.”
“Have you spoken with any of the others? Do you know how many lost crops?”
“Birku, as you know, and the next three farms to the north. At least four to the south of you as well. All in a row.” She drew a line in the air, north to south.
She shrugged. “Who knows? Information only carries so far.”
“They never wavered?”
“Not on the path they took through this area. If they turned somewhere, or stopped to eat or piss or sleep, it wasn’t here. Kae, remind me, you’re not from the same place he came from, right?”
He. The Emperor, the Conqueror. “No. He came from somewhere to the west, over the sea. He came to us in the mountains first, though. Sixteen years ago, long before he came here the first time. Built his fortress there.”
“He’s why you left?”
“He’s why I left when I did, yes. But I was twenty-five and antsy, and I likely would have gone anyway, sooner than later. I’d always wanted to live somewhere it would be easier to farm. Not that it’s ever easy, but the soil is better here, and the winter isn’t as cold.”
She dumped an extra scoop of beans into my sack and waved away the payment I offered.
I walked through the market, wondering as I always did at how the offerings here differed from those of my childhood. Back then there had been stalls full of electronics now no longer permitted outside the emperor’s own walls. In the north our markets had been full of dried goods, anything that traveled well; when someone arrived from the sea with salted fish or from the south with fresh fruit or vegetables, their wares would be gone in minutes.
Here, people grew their own produce, but the rows were lined with a different sort of practical. Anything someone might find it easier to buy than to make, we could find here. Textiles and clothing, jewelry, pots and pans, bits and bridles. Lara and I made our own clothing, but we understood how hands that ached from shelling might not want to knit or churn or stitch leather at the end of the day.
At every stall, the vendors wanted to speak to those of us who had lost crops. Some of the interest was prurient, some practical: if the machine had come once, it could come back. They all put extra portions in my bags, and I revised my feelings about southerners for the hundredth hundredth time. They stood too close when they talked, but nobody wanting was left to struggle, nor even to ask for help.
“I didn’t buy extra,” I said when I returned home, dropping my overladen saddlebags on the kitchen floor. “Everyone wanted to give something.”
“I remember when you would have been too proud to let them give.” Lara hefted the beans. “When I met you, you would have refused anything that might be construed as charity.”
I put my arms around her, buried my face in her thick hair. It smelled like sweetgrain. “When you met me, I didn’t have a family to feed.”
“I should hope not!”
Her teasing always lifted me. I let her swat me, and we set to putting the food away.
“Anyway,” I said after a moment. “I was too young to understand that sometimes people need to give.”
Lara and I were working in the kitchen garden when they arrived the second time, a month later. We both had our heads down, our knees in the dirt, and the ground was soft from recent rains. We didn’t even hear them until they were nearly upon us, their horses’ hooves churning up the rows between the sunflowers.
The lead horse reached out and broke off an entire stalk as they reached the field’s edge. That’s how they approached us: three riders, three black horses, one dragging an enormous yellow flower.
We stood, dropping our tools in the soil so we wouldn’t look aggressive. Not that they looked aggressive either. No banner, no machines, but their saddlecloths and jackets bore a crowned head in profile, red on gold. This ruler didn’t waste time on symbolic representation. He was his own lion, his own castle, his own symbol of power.
“Are these your fields?”
“You are to keep the burn barren and free of weeds, by order of the Emperor.”
I fixated on the sunflower. The horse was still chewing the stalk, the flower bobbing up and down, up and down. It made the soldiers less intimidating. “How do we survive without the revenue those fields would have brought? This is a small farm. Twenty-five rows are not insignificant.”
The soldier shrugged. His look was almost sympathetic. “I can’t say. But I wouldn’t defy the order if I were you. Better to pretend that land is gone than to waste time and money planting only to have it burnt again.”
They turned back toward the fields. I would have liked to tell them to take the road, to stop trampling our remaining crops, but I knew better than to rile them. The speaker’s horse dropped his flower as they disappeared back between the rows.
“What possible reason could they have to do this?” Lara asked when they were out of earshot. “Is it to be a new road? We already have a road.”
“I don’t know. Better to do what they say than have them come back with machines and magicians, I suppose.”
She knelt and picked up a spade, attacking the roots of a weed that had sprung up among the winter greens.
“Can we do it?” I asked, still looking at the abandoned flower. “Can we afford to leave that much land unplanted in the spring?”
“We can if we don’t lose anything at all to blight or weather or insects. The margins will be thinner, and none of that is within our control. But I guess it could be worse.”
With soldiers, with emperors, it could always be worse. After a moment I knelt beside her.
The Marises came to dinner that night. We’d tried to be friendlier with them since the night of the fire had brought us together, and it seemed to be working, mostly. Ellum had baked redwheat loaf, sour and sweet, and we all tore hunks to dip in my bean soup.
“I don’t understand what they’re doing,” Tari Maris said. “Why don’t they simply take the land?”
“It’s smart,” Lara said. “If they take the land, they have to find people to maintain it. This way they leave us to do the maintenance, and they still collect taxes from us as the owners.”
I hadn’t even thought about the taxes. “Can they do that? Tax us at the same rate we were paying when it was considered arable land?”
“They can do anything they want.” Ianno Maris made faces at our twins, who giggled. He spoke like an adult now, even if he still acted the child when he was with the younger ones.
“I’m just glad they came through our land, not yours,” Lara said. “You have so many more mouths to feed. And with less to plant, maybe we’ll have more time to help you when you start to need it.”
Tari smiled and rested her hand on her belly, where she was just beginning to show. “We’ll help each other.”
The third visit came in the dead of winter. I was in the barn oiling harnesses when the twins came running.
“It’s a THING,” said Ash.
“In the SKY,” said Sable.
I took another swipe at a dried sweat spot on the girth I’d been cleaning. “A bird?”
“A thing,” Ash repeated. “It’s shaped like a fat fish. And it flies different from a bird.”
“How big is it?”
Sable held up her fingers. “But it’s in the sky. A greathawk far away looks like a sparrow, and then it comes close and...” she spread her fingers wide until they were greathawk wings.
“Smart girl. Show me the thing in the sky.”
I dropped my rag and followed them out into the gray daylight. We hadn’t seen sun in a week. It was cold enough we’d had to break ice to water the horses, but no snow had fallen.
“See?” Sable asked. Something large and fish-bellied was sinking below the tree line to the north. I caught a glimpse of a red-on-gold profile.
“You’re both clever to have called me. That’s an airship.”
“An airship.” Ash tested the word. “Why have we never seen one before? Can you ride on it?”
“In it,” I said. “You’ve never seen one because the Emperor keeps technologies for himself. He has airships and all kinds of things that he’s taken away from us, some of which are quite useful. Some of them are good things and some are very bad things. And what I need you both to do is run across to the Maris house, and stay there until I come and fetch you. Run now, extra fast. Tell them I was testing to see how fast you could run together. Stay with each other!” I added the last bit as they took off.
I knew they would tell Ellum and Tari about the airship, and the two of them would figure out I had sent the children for safekeeping. I went to clean myself up for the visitors.
They took several hours to arrive. The Emperor’s party came from the road this time, by hovercar. I hadn’t seen a hovercar in years, not since the annexation, just after I had come south.
We were outside waiting when they arrived; better to meet them there than to let them in the house when we didn’t know their intentions. There were six in their party, three women and three men, one small and dark, from my region or near it. Another woman wore the Emperor’s red and gold, though it wasn’t the infantry uniform we had seen in past years. She alone among them stood with military bearing, and she alone had a visible sidearm.
The man who spoke was stooped and angular, with a long narrow jaw that left his teeth crowded and his speech slightly forced. “The Emperor requests your assistance.”
“Requests or requires?” I asked.
Lara shifted her weight to step on my toe. I stood my ground. I knew better than to goad them; this was clarification, not goading.
Narrow-Jaw folded his arms. “Requires, yes. The Emperor requires your assistance. He has sent his Royal Surveyors up in his airship, and—”
I couldn’t help it. “That’s you? The Royal Surveyors?”
“Love, why don’t you stop interrupting His Majesty’s emissary, so he can explain his purpose?” Lara had given up on subtlety.
“Sorry,” I said. “I won’t interrupt again.”
He started over. “The Emperor requires your assistance. He has sent his Royal Surveyors up in his airship, and determined that your lands must be kept in sunflowers in all seasons possible.”
“All of our lands? What reason could he have for that?” I couldn’t help it. “And does he know that isn’t even possible? Crops have seasons.”
“All seasons possible,” he repeated.
Lara tried to be more diplomatic. “I think what my partner is trying to ask is whether the Emperor understands that the flowers will naturally follow cycles of growth and decay? Or that they won’t grow in winter, even here?”
“The Emperor understands. You’ll still be able to grow a kitchen garden, and you won’t be expected to raise flowers in winter. The Royal Agriculturists will provide a schedule so that you and your neighbors achieve peak bloom simultaneously and repeatedly.”
“Repeatedly. We’re not allowed to grow redwheat or grasses for hay at all? How are we supposed to survive on sunflower income alone? Or feed our animals? We can’t feed horses on a kitchen garden or sunflowers.” I tried to match Lara’s calm tone, but my questions felt shrill even to my own ears.
Narrow-Jaw held up his hands and shrugged. He looked uncomfortable. How many farms had he been to already that his own message still made him uncomfortable?
I continued. “For that matter, how are those of you in the mountains going to eat without our farms producing redwheat and beans for your markets?”
“Not everyone will be growing sunflowers. There will be a large group of redwheat growers to the west of your stripe.”
Lara’s turn to be incredulous. “Our stripe? And are they expected to grow redwheat all year long, while we grow sunflowers? Your Royal Agriculturists know that soil can’t sustain more than one crop of redwheat a year, right? That without cover crops or burning in between, the nutrients in the soil will disappear and future growth will be stunted?”
“Our Royal Agriculturists are working on the answers to all of these questions.”
“Why?” I asked. “What’s the point of all of this? We’re the Emperor’s farmers. There’s been no sedition. We don’t need to be broken or proven.”
Narrow-Jaw had done all of the speaking until then, but now one of the women in the group stepped forward. She held out her hand to reveal a small button, which flowered into a map projection.
“This is a view of the Emperor’s lands from his airship. He was travelling in late summer last year with his children, when his daughter pointed out that a particular stretch of rocky coastline in the north looked rather like his nose. See, here?”
She zoomed the map in on an outcropping that did indeed look like a nose. “And then both children began to expand the idea. A mountain lake, his blue eye. The northern mountains themselves, his crown. Once they showed him the resemblance, he was delighted. ‘You see, these lands were meant to be mine,’ he said.
“He insisted on touring the whole continent to see how far the resemblance carried. Here in the south, the areas that would be the edges of his robe were lined with gold—your sunflowers—as is his favorite robe. He determined that everything would stay just so: red cloak with gold lining, for as much of the year as will grow.”
Neither Lara nor I spoke. We stared at the map, dumbfounded. The rocky nose and chin, the eye, the mountains his crown, the fields his robes. Our family’s ruin laid out in gold. A question grew in me throughout the surveyor’s explanation, but I couldn’t quite bear to ask it. I didn’t want to know the answer, even if I needed to.
Lara had apparently been thinking the same thing, and gave it voice. “You say we’re the outer lining of the robe. What happens to those outside the border? There are further lands within his empire to the east. Neighbors in our community.” She traced a line down the map.
The woman shook her head. “The Emperor isn’t interested in maintaining lands outside of his image. Those places no longer exist as part of his empire.”
“No longer exist?” I asked.
“Their land is not part of his empire. Those people are no longer citizens. There aren’t many. The border is remarkably clean.”
“Clean,” I repeated, thinking of our own fields east of the line, and our neighbors beyond that. “And is there any risk that the Emperor will choose to, um, cleanse those lands further? If their crops interfere with his colors or lines?”
Another woman in the group, the slight one, spoke. Dark skinned as me, dark eyeglasses, and with an accent I hadn’t heard for years, not that distant from my own. “Would you doubt it for a second?”
The military woman gave her a jab in the ribs, and she amended her comments. “Our new Emperor is a master of consistency. We should all commend him for this brilliant idea, which will bring glory to all of his people.” She didn’t sound like she believed it.
“We’ll be the planet’s largest work of art,” said one of the men. “Glory to the Empire.”
“Glory to the Empire,” I said drily.
Lara shook her head. “Please convey our thanks to the Emperor for this opportunity. You’ll be going now?”
“When will you be back?” I asked. “Do we have time to harvest the redwheat we’ve already planted?”
“Depends on when you harvest. The Emperor has given us seven more months to create the complete tapestry. As long as your fields are gold by the time we survey again...”
As they turned to go back to their vehicle, the small woman stepped toward Lara and clasped her hands. “Good luck too, yes,” she said, as if we had made the same wish to her.
The military woman had waited and took her arm. It wasn’t a gentle gesture, and I couldn’t quite tell whether she was guiding a woman who couldn’t see well or escorting a prisoner. “You know you can’t do that,” I heard her say as they walked away.
We watched them drive down the road and turn toward the Maris house.
“Ellum will be taken by surprise,” I said. “Everyone’s assumed only the farms on the burn line would be affected.”
“I wonder if she has the same good wishes for everyone she encounters,” Lara said.
She glanced toward the road, then opened her hand to reveal a handful of small seeds. “The woman with the glasses. She slipped them into my hand. Do you recognize them?”
I took the seeds from her and rolled one between my thumb and palm. Nodded. “They’re from a northern plant. Lavaflower. We grew it all over the sides of mountains where nothing else took root. Why would that woman give the seeds to you?”
“She may have guessed—correctly—that you’d have withdrawn your hands if she had grabbed them.”
“Okay, yes, that’s true. But why lavaflower?”
“What color are its blooms?”
“Blood red, red-orange, red-gold, gold,” I said. “Hence the name. It looks like rivers of lava. It’s hardy as anything—it’d probably grow down here too—but it only blooms every eighteen years.”
“And? You’re a farmer now, Kae. How’s it useful?”
I sighed and thought back. “I saw it bloom twice before I left home, once when I was a small child, and once just after I’d reached adulthood. My mother took me up into the mountains to harvest it by the armload.”
“For my father to turn the fibers into cloth. It makes lovely cloth. Smooth as a horse’s summer coat. And then my mother boiled the flowers for dye. If the dye was made right, it took on all the colors of the blooms. Our Queen herself bought cloth from my family before the Emperor drove her away.”
“Why would that woman give us seeds that flower red if we’re not allowed to grow red?”
I shrugged. “Her own small rebellion?”
“She picked the wrong people if that’s the case. We have children to look after. And we’re too old to cause trouble.”
“She didn’t know we have children.”
She gestured at the swing hanging from the tree.
Fair point. “All right. She knew we had children.”
“Maybe she saw in you a fellow northerner.”
Lara walked toward the house, and I followed. In the kitchen, I placed the seeds in a bowl. Looked out the window at the winter growth of our redwheat, scrubby and green still.
“I wonder,” she said. “How fast does your lavaflower grow, did you say?”
“Sixty days? Ninety days? Quickly, I think. The bloom comes in the first days of summer in its first season, but then doesn’t return again for eighteen years.”
“And it can grow beneath the crops? Between the aisles, or beneath the wheat or the sunflowers? Would it interfere?”
“Interfere with what, love?”
“Will it choke the crops? If we introduce it here?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“We could make him a new cloak, out of your lava plant. A fine cloak with all those colors mixed in...”
I considered. “I think there’s a serious risk it could take over, but if we planted and harvested it before we plowed the whole field under, and cleared all the individual roots by hand, we might be able to kill it again after a single season. Or—wait.”
I sat down at the table, closed my eyes. Tapped my fingers on my forehead.
“Love, what are you doing?”
“Math, Lara.” I kept my eyes closed a minute longer, double checking my figures. Looked up, grinned. “She didn’t say ‘good luck too, yes’. She said ‘good luck, two years.’ Two years. In two years the lavaflowers in the mountains will bloom for the first time since his arrival.”
“If she’s giving seeds to other northerners scattered from their homes, I think she wants everyone to plant for a bloom in two years’ time, to coincide with the bloom in the mountains.”
I closed my eyes, picturing the bloodstains rising everywhere on the map-portrait, spots blooming on his majestic nose, his golden hem.
Opened my eyes again to Lara’s frown. “And what if he punishes those who do it? Or misses the bloom? What you’re talking about is a symbolic action, like your tomatoes. If he doesn’t understand the significance, it will all be for nothing.”
She was right. The other idea appealed to me, but hers held promise too. “You’re right, love. We’ll plant the seeds now. We’ll make the emperor a cloak.”
The lavaflower seeds took well. By the time they bloomed, our last redwheat had grown tall enough to conceal them. I taught Ash and Sable how to harvest the stalks and flowers, as I had for my mother when I was a child. We saved the seeds in case we would need them again.
The Marises made a brocade, trading at the winter market to get silver thread and black dye. They came over often to help with the tedious process of converting fiber to textile.
We had just enough to make a cloak worthy of an Emperor. If we couldn’t get him to change his plan, perhaps we could get him to change his taste in clothing. Our gifts, not only to the Emperor but to all of our neighbors as well.
The Emperor’s festival fell at the beginning of autumn, in the season of peak sunflowers. We were all sick of sunflowers by then.
We curried our horses until they looked palace-kept. I put Ash and Sable to work shining the harness and sweeping the wagon. Lara wrapped the cloak in a blanket to keep it free of road dust. Tari Maris was ready to birth her baby at any moment, so she and Ellum stayed home, sending only their son Ianno with us.
For the last ten years, since he had instituted this tradition, the Emperor had arrived in a fine horse-drawn carriage, to show he was a man of the people. This time, we saw his airship tethered in a field near the festival.
“To inspect his artistry from above, no doubt,” Lara said with no small trace of bitterness. The horses pulling us were grass-fat and sleek now, but we both wondered how they would survive winter without stored summer grains and hay.
“Can we go closer?” Sable asked, leaning out of the cart. “I want to see it!”
I grabbed her collar and pulled her back into her seat. “Not now. Enjoy it from this distance. We have to get in line.”
We left Ianno to watch the horses and ventured into the market square, made over with garlands and banners for the Emperor’s visit. The line for giving tribute was already long.
“Why aren’t we leaving the cloak in the gift depository?” asked Ash. In the past, we had always left our gifts there, since we hadn’t wanted or needed an audience. I’d never had any desire to meet the Emperor face to face.
“We’ve never made anything worthy of giving him in person before,” Lara said, a far more diplomatic answer than mine would have been. Better not to give the children the idea we were ever less than happy with the Emperor, lest they turn around and say as much. When they were old enough to have discretion, we could explain. Assuming the thing we were about to do didn’t get us all killed.
When we took our place in line, we let the children run off to play in the market aisles. We stood behind Shin Davi and her grandson, who were holding a basket of sunflower seeds between them. The type of gift we had given every year in the past: seeds, oils, hulled redwheat for the Emperor’s winter stores.
There wasn’t much point to standing in line with such a gift, unless you wanted to catch a glimpse of the Emperor himself. Or maybe it was a better gift than I thought: the grandson shifted it in his arms at one point, and I saw that the basket itself was adorned with the words “He Who Is The Land And The Land is He.” Grammar aside, it was decent flattery.
“What do you have there?” the old woman asked, leaning over me to catch a glimpse of what I had wrapped in my arms.
“A cloak, Shin Davi,” Lara told her.
The day was hotter than usual for this time of year, and the insides of my elbows sweated under the blanket and cloak. I held it away from my body so I wouldn’t soak it.
Another hour passed, and we reached the last straightaway. The line ended at a table of inspectors. Beyond that, the tent in which the Emperor sat, waiting to receive those who were chosen to present their tributes in person. Lara kissed me on the cheek and left me to deliver our gift on my own. That was what we had decided, that we wouldn’t risk both of our lives to deliver the message. She had offered to be the one—”You aren’t the most tactful person, Kae”—but I insisted on doing it myself.
One more hour, and I reached the inspectors’ table.
“Name?” asked my inspector.
“Kae Bakari. I carry a gift from my family and the family Maris. We made it together.”
I unfolded the blanket and shook our tribute free. A red and gold cloak, soft as a horse in summer, with colors intermingled. A red and gold cloak with silver and black brocade, colors we could never duplicate in the land. A red and gold cloak with a shape that billowed to encompass all the farms cleaved and set loose by the narrow cut of a gold-trimmed robe.
The inspector rocked back in his seat. “That’s a fine garment,” he said, his tone suggesting surprise. “You may deliver it to the Emperor in person.”
I nodded, swallowing back my fear.
I was ushered past the table and into another, much shorter line, just outside the Emperor’s tent. I took my place behind a woman carrying a thirteen-strand braided bread in the shape of a sunflower. There were only two people ahead of her, then one, and then I stood alone before the closed tent, staring at a frowning guard.
The tent flaps parted, and the guard nodded to me. Inside, the tent was both cooler and brighter than I had expected. I knelt, careful not to let the cloak touch the ground.
“Rise, and let me see what you’ve brought.”
I rose, and lifted my eyes. The Emperor sat on a golden throne, on a dais. My first thought was how heavy that throne must be, to be carried around from town to town. Electric lights in the corners lit the space. Fan machines pushed air past him, rustling his hair beneath his crown.
The years had been kind to him. I had last seen him riding a hovercar through city streets, a glimpse long enough to take aim at him. He’d been young and haggard then, a warrior with a warrior’s concerns. I still recalled the look on his face when the first tomato hit his head, fear and fury and embarrassment.
His face was softer now. The profile on his banner made him look taller and leaner than he actually was. I supposed nobody could live up to the frozen perfection of a portrait at every moment of their life, even an Emperor.
Two children sat at his feet, playing with mechanical horses that galloped on their own when released. They were about the same age as Ash and Sable; I tried to imagine how an offhand remark by children of that age could be allowed to dictate the fates of thousands of farmers.
I pushed the thought from my mind and unfolded the cloak again, setting the blanket down. With my arms stretched wide, I held it aloft. The electric lights shone through the lavaflower reds and golds and oranges. I couldn’t see past the cloak, but I heard his intake of breath, and when the tiny horses stopped galloping, they weren’t wound again.
“Look, Father!” One of the children said. “It’s like stained glass.”
“It’s beautiful, Father!” said the other. “You’ll take it, won’t you? You should take it. It’s nicer than the one you have now.”
My arms shook, but I didn’t dare lower them.
“Thank you,” the Emperor finally said, and someone arrived to take the cloak from me. I was left standing empty-handed. “That is a tribute of remarkable quality. I’ve never seen anything like it. I shall wear it with pride, and remember your region with favor. Thank you.”
He lifted one soft hand and flicked two fingers. A guard appeared beside me and took my elbow.
I gathered my nerve.. The cloak itself might be enough, even without me saying anything else. It might be enough to convince him to decree different colors the next year, allowing us to rotate our crops and harvest enough to survive, but how could we rely on that?
“Your Royal Highness,” I said. “If I may.”
His hand still hung in the air in front of him, as if he’d forgotten to return it to his lap. The guard tugged at my elbow again.
“Please,” I said.
The Emperor’s daughter paused in winding her mechanical horse and looked up. “Nobody ever stays—”
“—after Father does that finger thing.” Her brother got to his feet as well, looking at me like a toy that had done something unexpected. “Why are you still here?”
“I... I have twins too, about your age,” I said. “They sometimes finish each other’s sentences like you do. I’m worried they’re going to starve.”
“What’s starve?” asked the girl.
I risked a glance at the Emperor. His hand no longer floated in midair, which I took as a good sign. I took another deep breath and began.
“This idea of turning your whole Empire into a portrait of yourself. I’ve seen the coastline myself, in my youth, and I think the resemblance is remarkable. But if you accept that you are the land, or the land is you, you’ll have to accept the ravages of bad seasons as well as the beauty of the good ones.”
He looked angry for a moment, but didn’t speak. I continued.
“There will come winter, and a corner of your cloak will grow ragged. A year of drought or locusts, and your robe will look threadbare. A bad storm might change the coastline and disfigure your chin, or cause the lake of your eye to flood your entire face. And the mountains, your crown, the mountains have secrets. I come from the mountains, and I can tell you that there are things there that can’t be tamed.
“This idea to carve your Empire in your image is a wonderful one”—I glanced at his children—”but wouldn’t it be truly special to say that this land was briefly a portrait, and to draw maps and paintings to celebrate your likeness, but then to allow the land to do what land does, and to let farmers plant according to their needs, according to the needs of your citizens? Something fleeting is often more valuable than something lasting.”
I knelt again, begging leave, then fled before he could say anything. I realized when the flap had closed behind me that I had left our blanket inside. I wasn’t going back for it. The expression on his face had suggested he was considering my words; it was all I could ask.
If the cloak didn’t convince the Emperor to let us return to our proper crops, in two years the lavaflowers in the mountains would bloom for the first time since he had arrived from across the sea. In two years, the mountains would run red, a bloody crown to shame him, and the surveyor’s flowers would stain his robes. If he hadn’t changed his mind by then, or abandoned the idea altogether, perhaps that would change it. That was the seed I had come to plant; now we just had to wait for it to take root.
Return to Issue #195 - Science-Fantasy Month 3