Empire: Part Two
The carriage rocked slowly side to side as it made its way down the mountain road. Shan busied himself by unrolling the scroll Sarah had stolen.
He raised an eyebrow as he read it.
“Do you know what you attempted to steal?” he asked.
“Of course,” Sarah answered. “I wouldn’t be a very good thief if I just stole any old document.”
“Then why does he want it?” Shan questioned. “Qin, I mean, as we both know you are working for him. This is a royal pardon, Sarah. Such things are not stolen lightly.”
“I’m a thief, not a therapist; how should I know why Mr. Jennings wants it?” Sarah told him, taking care not to use the Krawk’s original name. “He tells me what to steal and I steal it.”
Shan beheld the document in his hands. It was a royal pardon, with the name left blank. With it in his hands, General Qin’s crimes would be acquitted. His exile would be over.
“Maybe he wants to put this entire thing behind him?” Sarah added. “He owns Neopia Central now; what good is a feud with the Emperor? It’s a hamper to trade if anything. Everyone knows the Emperor’s been blocking gold getting to Neopia Central.”
“The Biyako does not change his stripes,” Shan scoffed.
“But Neopets can,” Sarah countered.
Shan considered this for a moment, before shaking his head.
“I don’t need to take the advice of a thief,” he said dismissively. “You choose a life with no morals whatsoever.”
He returned to studying the document in his hands. Silence consumed the innards of the carriage.
“You think I chose this?” Sarah asked eventually.
“There is always a choice,” Shan replied confidently.
Sarah laughed. “Maybe for you, born into a noble house in Shenkuu, I should imagine. Don’t think all of us have the same luxury.”
“There is always a choice,” Shan repeated.
“I was born in Bogshot,” Sarah explained. “You’ve heard of the place? A village built in the very heart of a putrid swamp. Poverty was the rule. That would have been alright, we all would have lived... had it not been for the sickness.”
Shan remained silent.
“My mother was one of the first to come down with it,” Sarah continued. “It was only ever me and her, and without her, there was no food. I was only a girl; stealing food was the only thing I could do.”
“I see, so breaking into the Imperial Palace keeps your mother fed?” Shan smirked. “I had no idea that General Qin paid so poorly.”
“Of course not!” Sarah snapped back. “She’s long since gone; the cure wasn’t discovered until after. I left Bogshot soon after that, too many painful memories. Still, when I reached Neopia Central I didn’t exactly have career opportunities. You try explaining what you were doing for five years without mentioning theft, or why the only skill you can list is the ability to pick a lock. By the time I reached the city, I only had one road open to me.”
“There is always a choice,” Shan repeated defiantly.
“Between living as a thief and starving to death?” Sarah asked. “That’s not a choice.”
Shan was silenced.
“I thought you’d understand,” Sarah continued. “You serve under the Emperor. His will is the law. You have no choice; you must do as he commands.”
She leaned back. “Case in point, this robbery. You know full well that if Jennings got hold of this pardon then his gripe against the Emperor would be done with. Shenkuu needs to sell gold just as much as Neopia Central needs to buy it. Yet, here you are, following the Emperor’s commands to bring me back in – just because he can’t let Jennings get away.”
“The Emperor’s judgement is absolute,” Shan told her. “His will is the will of the Empire.”
“So you don’t have a choice either.” Sarah smiled. “Jennings made a choice, and he was exiled for it.”
The two of them sat in silence for a while.
Suddenly, without warning, Shan leaned forwards and banged on the wall of the carriage. A moment later it began to slow down.
“What are you doing?” Sarah asked.
Shan handed her the scroll. “Proving that we all have a choice. This goes to Qin on the understanding that he leaves the Empire well alone.”
“They’ll know you helped me,” Sarah observed.
“They know what I tell them to know,” Shan replied as the carriage came to a stop. “Now go!”
He kicked open the door to the carriage, and without a second glance Sarah darted out into the mists, taking the two guards outside by surprised.
Shan emerged straight after, stumbling slightly.
“She took me by surprise,” he lied to the guards. “Fan out and look for her.”
It was madness, Shan later decided.
What other explanation could there have been?
He had betrayed the Empire. He had let a sworn enemy escape.
And why? To prove that he had a choice?
Sarah had said it, Qin had made a choice. Did Shan really want to be like him?
There was something else, something he came to realise as he once more kneeled before the Emperor.
The Gelert’s features were sunken, his face etched with worry and restlessness.
Since Qin escaped Shenkuu, there had been a change in him. The Emperor had become obsessed with the disgraced General. The increase in palace security was only one element of it. The borders of the Empire had largely been closed, and there were routine checks on the citizens.
Regardless of Shan’s feelings towards Qin, he understood that the feud between the Emperor and his former General needed to end. It was tearing the Empire apart.
Perhaps, with a royal pardon in his hands, Qin would be one step closer to letting this all go.
“Twice, this Sarah has escaped you,” the Emperor said gravely. “Twice you have failed me.”
“I cannot apologise enough, your highness,” Shan replied. “I have shamed the Empire.”
“Indeed you have,” the Gelert replied. “Yet... there is perhaps a way for you to redeem yourself for these actions.”
Shan lifted his head. “How?”
“Qin has made his intentions clear,” the Emperor replied without any hesitation. “The Empire will not allow itself to be harassed by its enemies. Qin must be dealt with quickly and with finality.”
“Sire?” Shan questioned. “I’m not sure I understand.”
The Emperor’s face was emotionless, as if all the anger he felt had evaporated, and been replaced with some sort of madness.
“Qin controls Neopia Central,” he replied. “He has sent an agent to attack the Empire. This is a declaration of war. We shall answer it.”
“You are going to attack Neopia Central?” Shan asked.
“Qin will feel the full force of the Imperial Army,” the Emperor explained. “You will lead the assault; Qin is to be recovered dead or alive. If he resists, you know what to do.”
Shan paused for a moment.
“You want me to kill the General?” he asked.
The Emperor nodded.
Shan stared blankly at his commander.
“Sire...” Shan tried to question.
“Do you doubt my judgement?” the Emperor snapped.
“I would request you reconsider, Highness,” Shan said diplomatically. “Neopia Central is defenceless. Perhaps it would be better to wait until Qin makes his next move. He may decide to leave this feud behind him now.”
“My word is the law,” the Emperor stated firmly.
“Sire... I mean no disrespect,” Shan added. “But the situation between you and Qin threatens to tear apart both countries. The Empire is faltering, and flattening Neopia Central in response is not the answer.”
Shan saw the instant of anger wash over the Emperor’s face, and knew he had gone too far.
“I see now,” the Emperor hissed. “You were Qin’s greatest pupil before his betrayal. I should have suspected earlier that you would go the same way. I wonder now, if you have been a spy for him all along?”
“Sire, please, I am loyal to the Empire!” Shan protested.
“Qin said that, once,” the Emperor replied. “If you will not obey my orders then you will be replaced.”
The Emperor moved his gaze to the guard behind Shan.
“Remove General Shan, he is to be exiled from Shenkuu,” he ordered. “Those who make choices as Qin did will be treated the same.”
The guard nodded wordlessly, and took Shan by the arm. He forced the Mynci to his feet.
“Please, don’t do this!” Shan begged.
It was useless; the Emperor merely stared past the former General as if he was no longer there.
When Shan was removed, the Emperor turned to the remaining guard.
“Bring me Captain Zhang,” he instructed. “He is to be promoted.”
Sarah placed the scroll on Mr. Jennings’s desk and stood back proudly.
“Did you encounter any problems?” the Krawk asked.
“Nothing that we didn’t foresee,” Sarah answered smugly. “Shan had me, but then he let me go.”
Jennings paused as he read the document, before glancing back up towards Sarah.
“Interesting,” he commented. “We can assume that Shan will soon be removed from the position of General then.”
“That’s a big gamble,” Sarah noted with more than a hint of scepticism.
Jennings smiled. “Indeed. However, I’m increasingly aware that I am an optimist in a world of pessimists. Regardless, I don’t make gambles unless I’m reasonably confident that the game is rigged in my favour.”
Jennings turned to the green Grarrl standing nearby. “I imagine the Emperor will appoint Zhang as the new General. He was a foolhardy soldier back in my day, and will follow his orders to the letter. Soldiers who follow orders to the letter are always more difficult to deal with. Manipulating Zhang is a fool’s errand, so we must be prepared for a full invasion. Appropriate precautions should be taken to make sure that the Imperial Army doesn’t cause any lasting damage when they get here. As ever, Mr. Black, make sure Judge Hog doesn’t get wind of what’s happening until it cannot be helped.”
Mr. Black nodded, and left the two of them alone.
“As for you, the second half of your contract is yet to be completed,” Jennings instructed. “You will return to Shenkuu and wait until the time is right.”
“It’s not my speciality,” Sarah told him.
“You are a thief,” Jennings told her. “You steal things. All I am asking you to do is steal a person, and what is that but a thing?”
Sarah nodded begrudgingly, and left Mr. Jennings to his thoughts.
To be continued...