Bitterness

As Tal walked the halls of his castle, he felt the omni presence of the codex following him. It liked to float around him from time to time but it never revealed itself. Tal knew it was there though. He could feel it following him. Tal sighed and tried to shake the feeling of how creepy it was to have an unpredictable, albeit harmless, mass of what resembled water follow him.

"What in Dark's name does it want now?" Tal thought as he turned a corner.

A huge mass of water suddenly amassed itself in front of Tal and formed into a three by two meter canvas. The surface was like liquid steel but strangely enough, it still resembled clear water. Chosen script suddenly appeared on its luminescent surface.

"I want to pass on a message," it said.

"Since when does the most ancient artefact of the Chosen pass on messages? It makes the mythology of the All-knowing Codex seem rather trivial doesn't it?" Tal asked the Codex as if he were speaking down to a child who was stupid.

"I was originally made to spy on others and report to my maker. Yet only they knew how to procure an answer from me. It was a secret way of communication for them," the Codex replied answering Tal's sarcastic remark.

Not in the mood to be humoured, Tal pushed by the Codex and in an irritated tone formed a question that would give a straight response.

"What is your message and who asked you to pass it on?" Tal asked still walking straight down a large and open corridor.

"Master Ebbitt says to ignore the politics and go and see him as soon as you can be spared from the old dim witted gaggle that call themselves the council," the Codex shimmered as it flew alongside Tal as it spelled out the message in Chosen script.

He couldn't help smiling at the message. Tal had just spent four hours in a meeting with the council and they were giving him absurd and trivial information about the castle's conditions and current affairs. He didn't trust them to give him any real information of the unsteady truce between the Freefolk. As much as he wanted to do away with the old council and renew it with forward thinkers, politics and the thought of abrupt change saw to it that they remained for the time being.

The council were a board of advisors but now they seemed only to advise and inform of things that did not matter yet were just as important as settling on a new regime. The state of the fish farming ponds beneath the castle for instance. Today they spent the better half of an intense meeting discussing how to put the Underfolk back to work and how to drum out the notions of freedom that had somehow ingrained itself into their minds.

Naturally, Tal put a slight pause to their thinking and was finally able to make the old council members open to the possibility that Underfolk were people too and didn't like being pushed into jobs they didn't like. However, if the Freefolk didn't clean and farm fishponds the whole castle would fall into ruin and anarchy over something as simple as hunger. If the underfolk didn't work then the whole hierarchy would be disrupted and nothing would work without a radical shift of power. This would involve civil war between his people and he wanted to avoid that so Tal reluctantly agreed and decided to talk to the Freefolk himself about continuing a steady supply of food and other necessities transported to the upper levels. However, before that, he would see what Ebbitt wanted.

"So where is my Great Uncle?" Tal asked heading towards a laundry chute.

"On the top levels of the Violet tower," the Codex made the words disappear after Tal had read them and then proceeded to reveal a map of the Violet towers and blinked a red dot to show him where Ebbitt currently was.

"What is he doing there?" Tal asked rhetorically.

A better question was how he had managed to get there without the Violet Keystone.

"He wishes to explore to upper levels to find anything useful the Chosen Ancestors left behind," the Codex answered before melting into the wall and disappearing from good.

Tal looked at the laundry chute he was in front of and sighed. He had wanted to enjoy a nice trip back down the tube ever since he had become Emperor. He hadn't had as much time to do the things he normally did before. Tapping the door to the chute nostalgically, he headed off towards the Throne room. To get there he had to go through the very beautiful Mirror Field.

The Mirror Field was an artistic tribute to him from old friends and new enemies alike. The construction took less than a day so Tal had no objections except for the fact that it was a pointless waste of space. The Mirror Fields were made of crystals and the mysterious golden mirrors found commonly used in the Violet Tower. Stylish spikes of twisted metal and crystals lined a straight path towards the Throne room doors where a pair of his royal guards stood at attention with their spears held casually in their right arms.

Tal couldn't help but look at his reflection in the golden mirrors as the crystal lights caught his eye. As he continued to walk on down the path, he slowed his pace and looked at each passing reflection with slight interest. The golden spikes were set at a measured distance from each other so each time he passed one, another spike was ready to show him another full length reflection of the man he had become over the years he had spent being Emperor.

A regal scornful look graced his face at that moment. It was a frown he wore ever since he met the council years ago. Suffice to say he had little time to practice smiling. Tal thought back to his younger years to when he stood in front of a mirror and tried to practice his smile to stop him from appearing slow witted to others. Tal stopped in front of a spike and tried to smile. The best he could muster was a strange forced smile he didn't care to make anytime soon. Shaking back into what he thought was his normal look; he marched on down the long path, already forgetting meaningless child obsessions he used to think were important. Tal had more pressing issues to worry about nowadays.

His station clearly showed as he neared the Throne room doors as the guards stood at attention and saluted before hastening to open the doors. Tal returned the salute and walked into the empty room, his long white overcoat billowing in his wake. Tal reached the Throne and sat in it feeling the regal power of his predecessors. He felt the same inadequate feeling in the pit of his stomach as he always felt when he sat in the ornate chair. The Throne was such a daunting place to sit. It was large and not exactly comfortable or cosy. To sit in it was definitely an experience he wanted to feel worthy of. Tal touched the Violet sunstone around his neck and it flashed Violet. As if in answer, other sunstones lit up around the throne. Soon Tal was bathed in Violet light and before he was ready the Throne was shooting up the Violet tower.

Feeling the force of the slowing Throne, Tal readied himself to disembark from the large platform. It sunk slightly as he moved but didn't sink completely to Tal's relief. It was a very long way down and he was all but willing to fall to his death before he had a chance to live his life. Quickly hopping off the ancient contraption, he finally let out a breath of relief from his lungs. He always hated riding the Throne.

Coming to the large spiral walkway, Tal was hit with a torrent of memories and had to shake them from his head. Painful memories of battles lost were never welcome with him. Guilt always burdened his tired mind. He had a long time to think or dispel his memories of past trials as he walked the long and winding path up to the keystone pillar room. Slightly panting, Tal finally reached the top after an hour slow walk of deep brooding.

Ebbitt was no where to be seen at first but then Tal spied an old man in simple white robes standing at an open window. Tal approached and looked out the window before he looked at his Great Uncles' enigmatic smile.

"You summoned?" Tal said hoping to break his uncle out of his daze.

"Had long walk did you?" Ebbitt asked still peering out the window with the same expression on his face.

"Well why waste the opportunity to take the walkway? Gives me an excuse to be late for the next meeting I have to get to," Tal said leaning on the window next to Ebbitt who continued his stupid grin.

"You could have flown up here," Ebbitt said tearing his gaze from his interesting target for a moment to examine Tal's reaction to the absurd comment.

"Yes I could have but I decided that walking would be a better excuse for procrastinating," Tal replied taking Ebbitt's weird comment in his stride.

"Well we all have our problems I suppose but a bit of flying would have cleared them away in no time," Ebbitt said as he went back to gazing at his interesting mark somewhere on the ice.

"What's that suppose to mean?" Tal asked not really listening.

He was caught in another painful memory as he thought about the last time he was here. Adras had been ripped from him right at the very spot he was now standing. Tal recalled what it had felt like. It was as if a limb had been taken right off his body. However, the really sad thing was that it was the last time he had seen Adras. He wasn't the brightest Spirit Shadow, but his bravery was unquestionable.

"Tal?"

Tal focused on the voice that had been calling him. Ebbitt now looked very worried. Tal hadn't the slightest reason why. This made it even more creepy. Ebbitt rarely showed distress. He was always a man who always had some sort of plan or at least a crackpot idea that had a high percentage of working.

"What is it?" Tal asked, "You looked worried. What was it you wanted to talk about?"

"I wanted to talk about you," Ebbitt said bluntly.

"About me? Why?" Tal asked truly taken aback.

He had thought they were there to discuss intrigue or something more sinister that was going on in the castle. Talking about him seemed trivial when compared to the state of the Castle and its inhabitants.

"Your parents and I have been talking and we've been thinking about your future," Ebbitt started before Tal blurted out a short snort of amusement.

"Is that all? I thought we'd bee talking about the Freefolk or the Renegade Chosen still running loose. My future kind of pales in comparison when held against those matters don't you think?" Tal asked.

"It's good that you think of your people more than yourself but I must be blunt. With all due respect, you aren't heading for a promising career as Emperor if you continue the way you are," Ebbitt said.

Tal was now confused. Wasn't it Ebbitt and everyone else who said that he was the most qualified to be Emperor?

"What exactly are you saying?" Tal asked.

"I'm saying that your parents and I see what others mistake for a hard exterior. We're worried for you. Such a heavy responsibility was never meant to be yours to burden in the first place. I blame my own arrogance for that. I sometimes forget that you're still a boy," Ebbitt said sighing sadly.

"Twenty two years is hardly an age that could be considered child like," Tal said placing a hand on Ebbitt's shoulder, "Tell me Ebbitt, what is it that you're trying to say? Just spit it out,"

"Not a day goes by that I or your parents don't regret making you the Emperor but what is done is done. For the sake of the Castle you must remain the Emperor even as the burdens and responsibilities strip you of your happiness and replace it with duty and obligation; you must remain the Emperor,"

Tal took a moment to think about what Ebbitt was saying and finally tapped his shoulder again in reassurance.

"Fear not. If you think that I carry the entire Castle's problems on my shoulders, think again. I do have Light and Dark Viziers," Tal said trying to lay the old man's worries to rest.

"Indeed you do. But they cannot give you what you require most," Ebbitt said cryptically.

"What do you think I need most?" Tal asked starting to get a little frustrated at the fact that he knew what was best for him.

Ebbitt let out a steeling breath before continued.

"Your parents and I both agree that it is time for you to take a wife," Ebbitt said.

Tal stood shocked and awed for a moment before he laughed so hard that he couldn't stop the tears flowing. Ebbitt however didn't seem amused.

"You really do need to find a wife, Tal. Twenty-two is a common age for anyone to wed and start a family. As you said it's not an age to be considered child like," Ebbitt said now standing his at his full height, which dwarfed Tal by a good inch or so.

"That's absurd! How would I find a wife now? I have so many other things to worry about right now. I honestly don't have the time," Tal said recovering from his fits of laughter.

When Ebbitt didn't say anything Tal started to squirm invisibly under Ebbitt's worried gaze.

"No," Tal said to the unanswered question in Ebbitt's eerie eyes.

"You'll need a wife Tal. Even if she's someone to take the edge off the loneliness of your empty bed,"

"Ebbitt! That's too much said…" Tal said going a slight shade of pink.

"Look Tal. I think it's time you faced the truth. You can't escape this decision. Eventually you'll have to deal with it. Your happiness may not matter when you compare it to the Castle's problems, fair enough, but in twenty years time when your past caring for something bigger than yourself, you'll be left with nothing but regret and you'll wake up one day and wonder why you didn't listen to me or your parents."

"I'll never place myself above the Seven Towers. The Castle will always come first." Tal said firmly.

In this matter he was firmly set. Nothing could be more important than his people's happiness and well-being. He would see to it that his people came before his happiness. If he had to suffer then so be it. His suffering would not be wasted. A wife would only complicate matters and weaken his resolve.

"You think its smart to push away your life and live it for others? An Emperor is devoted to his people, true enough. However his people are also devoted to him. Would they be happy knowing that they were being led by a bitter man who scorned his happiness for others? What hypocrisy is that Tal?" Ebbitt asked.

"It's setting an example for others to be more giving than to be selfish. If you think about it, that's what this Castle needs. In the past, people only aspired to raise their families to the next order. That was a selfish goal and a pointless one at that," Tal said.

"I didn't come here to talk to you about politics. I came here to save you from making a big mistake. Your parents asked me to talk to you because they thought it would make more sense if I told you. They were worried that you'd turn out like me," Ebbitt said the last part quietly.

"Like you?" Tal asked confused.

"Yes like me. A bitter old man who never found time for love because he was too self absorbed with raising his status,"

"I'm Emperor, I'm the highest status there is. I don't need love when I have the love of my people," Tal said arrogantly.

"Then tell me truthfully Emperor; are you happy?" Ebbitt asked quietly.

Tal opened his mouth to say that he was but, with Ebbitt's piercing gaze on him, he faltered. Why did he falter if he was firmly set in his beliefs? Ebbitt waited for an answer and Tal cleared his throat.

"Yes. I'm content," Tal said trying to sound convincing.

"I see…" Ebbitt drawled sadly but did not take his eyes from Tal.

Ebbitt's gaze turned sad but still held the piercing quality.

"I have news of an Icecarl ship approaching the Castle. They should be at the welcome hall by tomorrow. You should be there to greet them. It is your duty after all. You can confirm details with Malen and the Crone Embassy," Ebbitt said oddly dispassionately.

Tal wondered how he must have felt to fail to convince Tal. Did Ebbitt think that Tal was going to turn into an eccentric old man like him? Tal nodded and took the long winding walkway down to the waiting Throne. Was he going to turn into Ebbitt? Ebbitt wasn't lonely. He had family and friends didn't he? It was a distant family but family nonetheless. Tal rarely saw Ebbitt's friends but he did know that he had some…maybe fewer than Tal thought. Who could tell how old Ebbitt really was? Maybe they all died already.

Tal shook such thoughts from his mind and kept reminding himself that he wasn't Ebbitt. He had a family that cared about him. He had friends and he had the Castle inhabitants that cared for him. Or so he told himself.