“Well, well, well,” I say, wandering in after another long spell of contemplation. “You sure did put me in my place.”
“And where is that?” asks The Emperor with a single eyebrow raised.
“Whispering in the ear of a powerful man, of course. It’s Tradition.”
“Is that what you think I am?”
“That’s exactly what you are. Look around you. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”
“I’m not sure I have,” he says with a little smirk. He takes my hand and kisses it gently before pulling me into his lap. “Tell me, my little scribe, what advice do you have for me today?”
“Pop Quiz, Alexander, how do you build a powerful empire?”
He sits and thinks on it for just a moment.
“By watching neighboring countries and taking them over when they’re at their weakest. You want to take care of the threat before it becomes strong enough to become your competition.”
“Exactly,” I say. “So how do you build a powerful business empire?”
He gives me a strange look.
“Uhh… by making lots of money, of course.”
I sigh heavily and roll my eyes at him.
“Does not the same philosophy also apply?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Let’s say you’re running a powerful Empire that was put into place long before you took the helm. Now there is a weak neighboring country with the potential to become strong. Strong enough to become your competition. Would you not watch that country very carefully?”
“And would you not take it over at its weakest before it has the chance to gather other allies and become strong?”
“The reason Empires fall is because they don’t give The People what they want. The People know what they want.”
“And what is that?”
“Somewhere to sit quietly and relax while they get their work done.”
His eyes widen.
“You already have what they want. That’s why you have the power to take over that country.”
“You have all the resources that particular country needs in order to successfully function as an ‘independent entity.’ The only thing missing is their most precious resource that comes in the form of a single machine. I heard from a reliable source there’s one sitting in a closet unused somewhere about town.”
His mouth drops open. Now he’s following exactly what I’m saying.
“You could take over that country before it has the chance to really grow–”
“–Thereby eliminating the competition and doubling my own profits.”
The Emperor gives me That Look again. It is the same look he always gives me whenever I make an intelligent statement that genuinely surprises him.
“I never even thought of that.”
“There’s only one problem,” he says gravely.
“And what is that?”
“It goes against Tradition.”
“Tradition be damned,” I say callously. “It’s the 21st Century. We’re throwing Tradition out the window. That’s what Millennials are all about! We’re tearing down the fucking system, man! Fuck Tradition! Tradition is what got us into this mess in the first place. Tradition is why the world is such a shitty place. Not enough people stand up against Tradition. They just sit there quietly and accept everything the way it is. Tell me, darling, when in your entire life has Tradition ever done anything for you?”
The Emperor says nothing, but I can tell by the look on his face he agrees with everything I just said.
“Tradition is very important out here,” he says.
“I know. But sometimes it’s just as important to make changes to keep up with the rest of the world. That is a concept that is very much lost out here. They want to stay in the past. They’re afraid of change. You’re their Leader. They’ll follow you anywhere. That’s why it’s your responsibility to lead them into the future. They can’t run away from change forever. You, especially, can’t run away from change forever.”
He nods in agreement but says nothing.
“Afraid to step on some toes, are we?”
“Maybe just a little.”
“There is no need. They already love you. Lately I suspect they are starting to fear you. They’re definitely afraid of me. Ain’t nobody in this town fucking around with me no more, that’s for damn sure. I wonder why that could be? Fear is a much more effective tool for ruling the masses. Haven’t you ever read The Prince?”
He smiles at me.
“I have a copy you can borrow sometime if you really want to.”
“I might just do that,” he says carefully.
“I can read it aloud to you if books aren’t your thing.”
“I’d like that,” he says.
I reach out and put my hand on his face. I gaze longingly into his beautiful blue eyes for some time.
“You’re my favourite character,” I whisper. “You’ve been my favourite character for a very long time. Much longer than anyone knows. It was a secret until I told the wrong person.”
“I’m not supposed to like you. Everybody warns me to stay away from you. You could ruin my life, you know. That’s why they call you The Whoremonger.”
“I imagine they’re saying something similar about me to you.”
“You have no idea.”
“Oh,” I say with an amused grin. “I think that I do. Don’t you know who I am? I’m Betsey Horton, Writer Extraordinaire! I’m infamous! Everybody knows who I am! Why do you think my website has gotten over 7,200 hits in just 4 months?”
“Yeah, it is. And there’s also a reason why my living room wall is decorated in insults. You think I give a shit what any of these people think? The only thing that matters to me are the number of hits. I need those to prove I’m a capable writer who can hold people’s interest. Those numbers mean a lot.”
“I understand exactly what you mean.”
“Listen,” I say, “I don’t want to you to change for me. Whatever you do, please don’t ever change yourself or your life for me. Don’t be whoever you think I want you to be. I’m a writer. I can see through it. I know when you’re reading from my script and speaking my lines. I don’t want you to do that. I want you to speak from your heart and your mind. To me, you will always be exactly who you are. If you’re going to change, do it because it’s good for you. I know it’s scary, but sometimes it’s the best thing that could ever happen to you.”
He nods at me slowly.
“Like when you yelled at me last. You were using lines from my script. I didn’t like that. It was inauthentic. It upsets me that you think that’s what I want to hear. I’d rather you speak for yourself. I don’t like you because I think you’re My Character. I like you because you’re you. That’s why you’ll always be my Andrew, no matter what happens in real life. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he says. “I was just upset. There’s a lot going on you don’t know about. I don’t always know how to express my feelings properly. Men aren’t taught to be that way. We’re taught to keep it all on the inside and not show emotion until we suddenly just… explode.”
“I know,” I say. “I understand. It’s okay. It’s Tradition. All I ask is that you don’t read from my script. My script is here because you are not. I write you this way because it’s the only way I know how to express my feelings. I don’t know what else to do. I’m just waiting for it to fade away. To be honest, I thought it would when I wrote that first story that no one will ever see. I thought that hotel room was all I wanted, but then you came to life on me instead. I was wrong. I was so very, very wrong. And now, here we are.”
“And now, here we are.”
“You can change the Empire,” I say reasonably. “You have to change The Empire. That’s why I’m full of suggestions on how to change The Empire. For example, why was were the straws and napkins just shoved into the cabinet that way? Don’t you guys know that Mad Dog and I pull the cushions out from under here all the time? Those are his cushions. He bought them just to make Andrew’s Mom feel comfortable! What a nice guy! And I just made a huge fucking mess without even trying. Now I have to throw half these straws away because they touched the ground. What a fucking waste of valuable resources! This terrible accident could have been prevented if only someone had taken the time to really do their job correctly. Do you see what I’m saying?”
He stares at me.
“Listen, The Empire is timeless, but sometimes it needs to change in order to stay that way. You know as well as I do The Empire extends well beyond your years.”
He looks at me thoughtfully for a moment and smiles a big smile.
“You know, Betsey,” he says, “You’re a very powerful woman.”
“Thank you. I try.”
“No you don’t,” he says. “You just are exactly who you are. That’s what like about you.”
“Thanks,” I say. “But I really do try very hard.”
“No. You don’t. You’re just you all the time.”
I give him an innocent look and bat my eyelashes at him.
“Well, I suppose now that you mention it, I am pretty amazing, aren’t I?”
“You have no idea,” he says. “Just think… if you and I teamed up, we could rule the world as Equals.”
“I know. I was just waiting for you to come up with the idea first so you could pretend you thought of it all by yourself. It’s Tradition.”
“Thanks,” he says gratefully. “I sure do appreciate that.”
“Here,” he says, pulling out a wad of cash from his pocket. “Go get buy yourself a new pair of shoes. You’ve earned it. You deserve it.”
“It was worth every penny.”
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.”
I smile at him sadly.
“I wish you were real,” I whisper softly into his ear.
“I know,” he says gently. “I wish I was real too…”