The Guest (Citadel of the Last Gathering Supplemental #3)

The Guest
By: Erin L. Snyder

It was no surprise to Emperor Si-Gurin when a messenger stepped into his court and motioned with his left hand, signaling that an ambassador had arrived. Si-Gurin had only to point to his left, and the messenger would convey his order to have the ambassador put to death without being heard. It would have been the prudent course of action, in keeping with the decree the emperor was planning to make as soon as his honored guest departed.

But his honored guest had caught sight of the messenger, and the emperor paused. Did his guest know of the ambassador? Was this some kind of test?

Si-Gurin felt hot, which was absurd: his court was never too hot or too cool, and his physicians’ magic ensured he’d never been sick a day in his life. But there was little to be done for his nerves. He inhaled slowly, noting how dry his mouth had become, and called out, “Is there news? I would hear it.”

The messenger, to his credit, did not pause or betray surprise at his emperor’s command, but hurried forward past musicians strumming harps whose cords released ripples of light with each note. He stepped by dancers who moved eloquently while enchanted vines mirrored their every turn. When he reached the reflecting pool, he stepped onto the water, which held him as if he were a feather.

When he reached the emperor’s side, he bowed quickly, though not even he was disciplined enough to keep from looking towards the guest. To glance at another while honoring one’s lord was a serious offense, but Si-Gurin would not punish the man. He’d expect nothing else - his subjects were more devoted to his guest than to him. As they should be.

“Rise. Please,” he said softly.

“My emperor, a stranger has arrived in En-Jirit’s Chamber. He bears a chest and begs an audience.”

“I am sorry,” Si-Gurin said to his guest, who simply watched, pausing occasionally to make a note in a stack of pages he’d brought with him. At his side, the guest wore an unassuming cloth bag, which Si-Gurin had spent the previous hour trying not to stare at.

The guest shrugged, as if this meant nothing to him. Perhaps he would think nothing less of the emperor if Si-Gurin ordered the ambassador killed. Perhaps that was still the wiser course: surely the guest knew a great deal about what was happening here. In all likelihood, he already knew what the emperor did not. Besides, while it was unlikely the ambassador would be able to win the favor of his guest, the possibility remained. Though it was no less likely the ambassador was here in the hopes his death would disturb Si-Gurin’s guest, leading him to rethink the favor bestowed on the empire.

A lifetime of philosophical study should have prepared Si-Gurin for this moment, but he found himself unsure how to proceed. Logic dictated one course of action, but his heart feared what his guest would think.

“We should not have been disturbed,” he said at length, glancing towards the guest in the hopes he’d react in a manner the emperor could decipher. But the guest simply made another note and waited. “Bring him,” he whispered, in a moment of weakness he regretted immediately. But he feared appearing indecisive most of all, so he did not contradict himself. As the messenger hurried away, the emperor stepped to the reflecting pool and knelt down to tap the water’s surface. A moment later, a purple fish three feet long surfaced then ducked under again. The emperor turned to see if the guest was impressed by his pet, but he found the man dispassionate. If his guest was interested in the hue of the fish or the properties of the pool that would support a man’s weight but allow its occupants to swim unimpeded, he concealed it well.

“Why didn’t you wish to receive him?” the guest asked after a moment. There was no hint of judgment Si-Gurin could detect, only curiosity.

“It is a dangerous precedent in times like this,” Si-Gurin blurted out. “My actions this day will be the subject of history. If I permit one such an appeal, there is no telling how many others I may find myself contending with. En-Jirit’s Chamber may fill with visitors from a hundred eras seeking audience.”

“Wouldn’t that serve your interests?” the guest asked. “Surely it would place you in a position to negotiate.”

“One ally, no matter how strong, is little consolation against a hundred adversaries. We are fortunate enough to be blessed with an era of stability and peace. I would extend that forward as far as possible.”

The guest jotted down notes, leaving Si-Gurin to wait anxiously for the ambassador. At last, he arrived, surrounded by the emperor’s soldiers. It was left to the ambassador himself, an old man with grey and thinning hair, to carry his own chest, which clearly placed a strain on his shoulders and back.

“Greetings, Si-Gurin-Tay-Ven-Githas-Diram--” The ambassador paused as Si-Gurin glared at him. Then he cleared his throat and skipped to the end of the emperor’s formal name: “-Laur-Alem. The wisdom of your philosophy is known to me, both what you’ve written and that which you’ve yet to write.” He approached, crossing over the enchanted pool without hesitation, and set the chest down.

“And you are?” Si-Gurin asked.

“Of your blood, Emperor. From a time six hundred years beyond this one. We know of this day and its significance to the empire that is, that shall be, and that which would have been.”

It was no surprise that the ambassador was a descendant of his - Si-Gurin had expected as much. But it hardly mattered. “If you know of this time, then you know of the guest to my court, the Grand Scholar Kraiseph,” Si-Gurin said plainly, mostly to have it in the open.

“To share a moment with a member of the Gathering is an honor far beyond my worth,” the ambassador said. “To gaze upon him is far greater still.”

“Please pay me no mind,” the guest said, glancing up from his papers. “I only wish to observe. And maybe ask a few questions later; that’s all. But mostly I’m here to get a better understanding of how you govern and interact. Just pretend I’m not here.”

A lifetime spent in contemplation of etiquette granted Si-Gurin the focus to avoid laughing out loud. The ambassador was only here because of the guest’s presence. The same was true of the emperor’s decree preventing such visitors, not to mention his ill-advised decision to suspend that rule. All of this was because of the guest; there was no version of what followed that was otherwise.

But Si-Gurin was honor-bound to obey to the best of his ability, so he nodded and asked, “Why is it you have come before us?”

“I have been sent to honor you, Great Emperor, and to present you with these.” He knelt to undo the clasps holding the chest shut, then lifted the lid to reveal several dozen marbles. They looked like glass with swirling clouds inside. “Are you familiar with the purpose of these objects?”

“I am,” Si-Gurin responded quickly. He took a small amount of satisfaction in seeing the ambassador’s expression betray fear.

“I’m not,” the guest said, stepping forward to get a better look. “I’m sorry for interrupting, but if it’s not too much trouble, I’d appreciate some context.”

The ambassador looked to Si-Gurin, who nodded for him to go ahead and explain. The ambassador smiled uneasily and began: “Each of these contains more knowledge than a hundred books. They hold images and songs. There is an epic poem written by the greatest of his craft. Only five men were permitted to hear it recited, and they swore it was the finest they had ever heard. All five were put to death along with the poet, to ensure no part of the work would survive outside of the case. No other can offer such a gift.”

Si-Gurin glanced to the guest, who looked surprised to hear of the poet’s fate. Surprised, but not upset, he noted. “I am unsure we can accept such a thing,” Si-Gurin said. “Shortly, I will proclaim this day as one that none are to visit from the future. You must know this from your histories.”

“It was known to me that my life would be forfeit if I came,” the ambassador said, “just as it was known to the poet and his audience that they had to make a similar sacrifice. But I beg you, accept this gift and add it to your library. You will find magical techniques far beyond those of this era. Images of art and architecture to please the eye, and songs to fill the heart with hope and longing.”

“We have no need of your songs or portraits,” Si-Gurin said. “Nor do we need your magic. In truth, I cannot accept your gift, as I have already accepted another.”

The ambassador grew flushed. “It is the fourth dynasty of Ba-Thraw, isn’t it? Theirs is an era that has forgotten wisdom and beauty, a time of decline. You would do better to rid yourself of their refuse and take instead the art and philosophy only we can offer.”

“I am sorry,” Si-Gurin said. “Others came days ago, and we reached an agreement. If you are at war with them, it is no concern of ours. Nor of yours any longer, I suspect.”

“I beg of you, reconsider. This is everything my people are. Our culture has reached its zenith, and it should be preserved.” The ambassador was shaking and looking around anxiously.

“I am sorry,” Si-Gurin said, motioning for his guards to approach. “But my judgment is final. You shall be put to death in the morning, and these objects shall be placed beneath the hammer. The memory of your age will live on only in the histories of those who came after you. Their knowledge shall aid our development, not yours.”

The ambassador blubbered and pleaded as Si-Gurin’s guards rushed him out of the room. Through it all, the musicians continued to play, the dancers continued dancing, and the heads and fins of decorative fish emerged from the surface of water that boots would not break.

Once the ambassador was gone, Si-Gurin turned to his guest, to the scholar from the end of time. “I am sorry you had to see that,” the emperor said. He doubted it was the right thing to say, but he could think of nothing better.

“Nonsense. I’m here to experience this era. I do have a few questions, though.”

“All you ask, I will endeavor to answer,” Si-Gurin said.

“Yes. Thank you.” The guest cleared his throat and looked quickly over his notes. “I suppose I’m confused by all of that. Why he’d bring you that information and why are you going to destroy it? Were you worried there was something deceptive in there?”

“It would not serve his interests to deceive us,” Si-Gurin replied.

“What were his interests?” the guest asked. “By creating a deviation in the past, he was almost certainly ensuring his civilization would be replaced temporally. Why bring you artifacts of a time he was ensuring would never come to pass?”

“Because whether or not his people sent a messenger to this time, they knew others before and after them would. The end would be the same: a transformation of time and new future civilizations. Under the circumstances, that was unavoidable, so they chose to try and salvage their culture through us, to have us make their art and stories a part of our own. That way, a piece of their legacy might endure.”

“But why now?” the guest asked. “Why is he so certain that this time will endure unchanged?”

Si-Gurin turned to give him a confused look. “That is why you’re here, is it not? To record a moment in time that is unchanged?” A lump formed in the back of Si-Gurin’s throat as he whispered, “That is what your presence here implies, is it not?”

The guest looked silently at him for a few seconds and replied, “I’m only gathering information. We want a better understanding of this age.”

“Yes,” Si-Gurin said, partly relieved, despite the vagueness of the response. “That was my understanding.” He glanced up at his raised throne and wished he could sit in it to rest, but he did not want to place himself above his guest. He was reasonably certain now he was not being tested, but still he felt uneasy. He glanced over to his guest, hoping to gain some better understanding of the man’s purpose, but found the visitor adding to his notes with the same interested but reserved expression.

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