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Half of the Empire

a short story
by Bruce Holland Rogers

A young man from a fishing village once went to the Capital to see what he would see. He left his little boat hove up on stony ground beneath the docks, and he gave no thought to the possibility that someone might steal it. He wandered the streets from the fish market to the workshops and foundries, on toward the farm markets and dry markets. The smells of vendors roasting nuts or searing meats made his mouth water, but he had no money. He had only salted fish in his pouch, and after he ate that he was still hungry. Although his stomach growled, he savored the smells more than most men with money would have enjoyed the tastes.

As he went farther and farther from the sea, he marveled at the clothes that grew finer and finer and the manners that were more and more refined until he scarcely knew his own countrymen. He kept going as the streets widened and led into the hills toward the marvelous white palace, which he stood before and admired for a time. The sun sank low in the sky, and a haze settled over the city. When the young man looked back at the way he had come, he could not see the sea.

As night fell, golden lanterns glowed on the streets. The paper windows of the houses were lit from within. There was no beauty like this in his village, though his village was comfortable enough and had a homely beauty of its own. He had planned to sleep beneath his boat, but with no waves beneath his feet and the stars hidden from view, he had turned so many times that now he had lost his way.

He knocked at a door, thinking that he would ask his way to the docks. He forgot what he meant to say, though, when the woman who answered was the most beautiful he had ever seen. For all her beauty, she looked sad, and her eyes were red as if from crying. Though she appeared to be no older than he was, she met his stare, and when he did not speak she said, "Why have you come?"

The young man said, "To, ah, to see...the master of the house."

"You will regret it," the woman said. She began to weep. "You should turn around and go right back the way you came."

"But I can't," the young man said.

"Because you are so very brave," the woman said. "I know."

"Bravery has nothing to do with it," the young man said. "I'm lost is all."

The woman's weeping ceased. She looked surprised. Indeed, she would have looked no more surprised if the young man had suddenly turned himself into an eel. "No one has ever said that before." Then she frowned. "But you aren't prepared. You're empty handed and perhaps empty headed as well. Are you sure you want to see the master?"

"I am sure."

She led him down a corridor and to a screen. Then she withdrew. As she went away, he could hear her weeping again. "She seems to have sorrows and worries aplenty," the young man said. "I wish I could do something for her." Then he slid the screen aside and stepped into the room behind it.

In the middle of the room sat a giant roasting meat over a brazier. He wore armor and two swords. When he saw the young man, he stood up, unsheathed the longer sword and said, "Why have you come?"

"To see the master of the house. Are you him?"

"I am the master's captain, and to see him, you must come through me. Prepare yourself."

The young man said, "If I have to fight you in order to see the master, I might as well pass the night here instead. It's warm with the brazier burning." The meat sizzled and smoked, and the young man's stomach growled.

"But haven't you come to see the master?"

"To tell you the truth, it's only by chance that I came here. I wanted to see the city, and now that I have seen it, I am ready to go home. But I got lost. When I came to the door, the woman who answered was so beautiful that I forgot what I had meant to say and asked to see the master. That woman is as sad as she is pretty. Do you know why?"

"She weeps for the men who come seeking to claim her. They all die in this room at my sword."

"And have many such men come?"

"Dozens and dozens for years and years."

"I see why she's sad. They must love her very much."

"It's the power they want, for her dowry is half the Empire."

"She's a princess, then?"

"I am surprised that you hadn't heard."

"I'm not from around here," said the young man. "Will you tell me the story?"

The giant lowered his sword. He and the young man sat on either side of the brazier, and the giant told how the princess had been enchanted by the master, who was a powerful sorcerer. She had not aged, but neither had she loved. Several times a year young men from the great cities of the empire came to win her, even though every suitor before them had died.

"She is very pretty," the young man said, "but at the moment the thing I am most interested in is getting something to eat and having a warm place to sleep."

"This is quite irregular," said the giant, "but since you didn't really come to fight me, I suppose it would be all right if you stayed as my guest." He drew the shorter sword and used it to cut the meat from the bone, and he gave a portion to the young man. They ate, then sat talking into the night about how to fight with a sword and how to cast a net. "Ah, how this makes me long for my soldiering life," the giant said, "when we would drink wine and talk like brothers, knowing that we might die the next day."

"That's not so different from life in my village," the young man said, "where we drink rice wine by the fire, and the next day one of us may drown." They spoke of wines, then, of which were better, the dry ones of rice or the sweet ones of fruit. The talk of wine made them as drowsy as a drink of wine might have done. At long last, they both fell asleep.

The coals in the brazier burned themselves out. The room grew cold, and the young man woke with the shivers. The giant snored. The cold seemed not to bother him at all. The young man thought that rather than waking the giant, he would see if he could find some more charcoal himself. He slid open the screen to the next room, which was not really a room at all, but a corridor like the one the woman had led him through. At the far end another screen glowed dimly.

"How strange this place is," the young man said to himself. "In my village, we build the rooms of a house next to one another." He walked down the corridor and opened the screen at the other end. The room he stepped into was very large, with wooden shelves lining the walls everywhere except for the place where he had just come in and a screen on the other side. Books and scrolls were stacked on the shelves, and they rose toward a ceiling so high that the young man couldn't see it in the darkness. The books might have gone up forever.

In the center of the room was a table where a bald man with a long white beard sat reading by the light of a candle. The young man crossed the room, and stood before the table. The white-haired man did not look up. He rubbed his temples as he read.

"Are you the master?" the young man said.

The old man looked up with a start. "You're here!" he said. "No one has ever come this far!" He patted himself as if to see if he were dreaming. "The master? No, I'm not the master. I'm his librarian, and I hadn't expected you. I haven't read quite all of them yet."

"I'd like some charcoal. The brazier has gone out," the young man explained.

"Brazier? That's of no importance. You've come to the library seeking the secret of the maze. Let me see, now. Which riddle shall I ask you?" He carried the candle to one of the shelves and squinted as he held the flame close to the bindings. He groaned. "The ink fades every year. It gets harder and harder to read these."

"Perhaps the brazier doesn't matter to you," the young man said, "but I'm quite cold sleeping in the other room."

"Pay no attention to the cold," the librarian said. "If you're to see the master, it's the mind that matters. What a man wants is knowledge and a sharp wit."

"What I want is fuel," the young man said. "Or a blanket."

The librarian was about to take a scroll from the shelf, then stopped and looked at the young man. "From the provinces. Ho! I know the one. You'll never get it." He crossed the room and selected a book. The binding was tied closed, and the old man was some time plucking at the string with his fingernails. At last he loosened the knot and opened the book. He squinted at the page, rubbing his temples again. "How my head aches. If only the candle burned a little brighter."

"I don't mind riddles," the young man said, "but what I really want..."

"Solve the riddle and you'll see the master," said the librarian, "and the master will give you your heart's desire. Now listen." He bent very close to the page until his nose almost touched. "The marks are so very faint. Hardly there at all. 'I proceed until I am no more, but there I am behind me once again.'"

The young man thought a moment and said, "A wave."

"No!" the librarian said. "It's the Emperor."

"Are you sure?" the young man said. "Is that what's in the book?"

The librarian looked at the page again. "To tell the truth, I can't make it out, but I am sure I remember this one. It's the Emperor."

"But a wave is just as good an answer. Where I come from, it's a better answer because we see waves every day, but we've never seen the Emperor."

The librarian frowned. "I picked this one because of course you haven't seen the Emperor. It's supposed to be hard." He stroked his beard. "But I suppose you are right. Not all wit or learning are already in books. Some of it still needs thinking up and writing down. I could write in the character for 'wave,' and then that would be the right answer and I could tell you how to pass the maze." And that is what he did.

The young man opened the screen and went through the branching corridors according to the librarian's directions. The corridors branched and turned, turned and branched. The young man came at last to another screen. He opened it, and there in the center of a large room, a brazier burned with a yellow flame. Next to the brazier was a pile of charcoal. A great heap of treasure gleamed in the firelight. There were rings and swords, a robe suitable for an Emperor, coins and pearls, boxes of jewels. There were other, more common things as well: a lamp, a mirror, a silken kerchief and a jar of wine.

The flame grew brighter, and a voice from within it spoke and said, "Take what you will."

The young man filled a sack with charcoal. Then he took up the lamp, the kerchief and the wine. To the flame he said, "How do I find my way to the docks beside the fish market?"

The flame told him the way to take. Then the young man retraced his steps. He left the lamp with the librarian, who lit it and found that it burned very bright indeed. How it would relieve his aching head! In the captain's room, the young man rekindled the brazier and slept near it until morning. He made a gift of wine to the giant, who was as pleased as he was amazed. At the front door of the house, the young man met the woman and gave her the silken kerchief, saying, "Dry your tears. Not every story here is a sad one. I have seen the master, and I did not die in the attempt." Then he made to leave.

"But if you have seen the master," the woman said, "then you have become a great lord and half the Empire is yours." She knelt. "If what you say is true, then I am to be your bride and Empress."

"I have never seen a woman more beautiful," said the young man, "but I am not a man of the Capital or any city. My life is on the sea. It is a hard life that would not suit you."

He left her. He followed the directions that the master of the house had given him. He recovered his little boat from beneath the dock, and he sailed home to his village. In time, he married a girl who had grown up nearby and they had children. In time, they grew old and had grandchildren. In time, they died.

Some say that the young man was a fool to turn down half the Empire.

Others say that if a mere fisherman had taken half the Empire, the other half would have gone to war against his rule and he would have come to ruin.

And a very few say that he had already possessed half the Empire before this story began, and that what he had refused was the other half. But the few who say this are strange. Very strange.

© Bruce Holland Rogers 2002, 2005.
"Half of the Empire" first appeared in Realms of Fantasy (October 2002).
It was also included in Bruce Holland Rogers' Short Stories by E-mail.
Thirteen Ways to Water and other stories by Bruce Holland Rogers Bruce Holland Rogers: Short Stories, Volume 1Wind Over Heaven: and other dark tales by Bruce Holland Rogers
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