The guard's voice echoed in the vast bathhouse, "You reek." Then silence, punctuated only by the creak of the closing doors and the click of the city guard taking their positions.
The serpent's words echoed in his mind too: deliver the Emperor to the flowing mountain waters of the bathhouse. Perhaps a cleansing would soften the impending deception of the Princess's marriage, sway her to accept another instead of the Fool. Yet, uncertainty gnawed at the guard.
Meanwhile, in the steam-filled chamber, servants stoked the fires beneath the baths, stirring fragrant herbs and petals into the water as if anticipating a throng of noble bathers.
The Emperor recognized this place; the vast square baths lined with smooth pillars reaching towards the elegant ceiling like a canopy of trees. A year ago, they had been a familiar comfort, a place to indulge in cleansing washes. Now, after a year in a grimy cell, even his own filth seemed inconsequential.
With slow, deliberate movements, he stripped, revealing limbs caked in neglect. The door creaked open briefly, and servants materialized, laying down folded clothes that appeared remarkably new. Upon closer inspection, he even saw a beautiful gold pin, his emblem intricately etched upon it.
The Emperor barely acknowledged these tokens of luxury, already mesmerized by the clouds of steam swirling above the water's surface, their delicious aromas tugging at his senses. He couldn't resist the promise of warmth and solace waiting for him.
Gone were the days of regular massages, ointments, abrasive sponges, and strong yet gentle hands that kneaded away his aches. He had never been alone in this haven before.
Every step echoed loudly in the cavernous space. Once submerged, the sloshing water mocked the silence. He spread his limbs, surrendering to the warm embrace, floating and gazing at the familiar statues. Memories whispered: gentlemen chatting on benches on one side, ladies-in-waiting gathered on the other, veiled by the misty embrace of the steam.
"This used to be all mine," the Emperor murmured, floating on the surface, "yet never meant for solitude."
A flicker in the corner of his eye – the little ghost again, perched on the edge of the vast bath. His son, the crown prince, stolen too soon by an enigmatic illness no doctor or alchemist could conquer. The Empress' words reverberated in his memory: "Now I have lost daughter and son. Only you remain to lose."
Memories swirled, as vivid as the echoing whispers of her plea. "Stay home," she had begged. "Stay with me. We have each other. No one can take that away."
But another child never graced their lives.
Time blurred in the warmth of the bath. Morning surrendered to afternoon, then dusk dipped its fingers into the steam. If this was meant to be torment, the Emperor mused, it failed miserably. He found solace in the ghost's company, in the echo of his laughter.
The boy, ever playful, pointed excitedly at the water. "Daddy, look! Look!"
A smile tugged at the Emperor's lips. Oh, how he loved him. His son, the embodiment of his heart and soul. Losing him to that cruel twist of fate, the Dead Rider's unwelcome visit on his tenth birthday, had marked his true defeat.
"I'm looking, my darling," the Emperor replied, his voice husky with emotion.
The ghost giggled, diving playfully in the warm water, reappearing with a splash. Blissful,the Emperor thought to himself. Blessed. That was the word. A life brimming with joy, now a distant memory.
The doors flew open with a jarring thud. Soldiers dragged in a large, ornate mirror, positioning it to directly face the Emperor. From its depths, the Sorceress stared at him, her eyes gleaming with malicious amusement. She had deliberately kept him hungry for a day, a tactic the Emperor was sadly accustomed to.
He rose from the water, stunned speechless.
"Look at us now," she rasped, her voice distorted by the glass. "I, imprisoned in this mirrored cage, and you, trapped within your gilded palace. All because of your precious daughter."
The Emperor remained silent, the only sound the gentle lapping of water against the marble steps.
"What do you want?" the Emperor finally asked.
"Merely curiosity," the Sorceress replied, her eyes sweeping over the vast bathhouse with a hint of nostalgia.
"Feast your eyes then," the Emperor offered, a hollow echo of his former grandeur.
Silence stretched between them, pregnant with unspoken memories and the weight of their shared past. "What more can a conqueror conquer," the Sorceress mused, her voice tinged with bitter amusement, "once they've already claimed everything?"
"I don't know," the Emperor sighed, the echo of defeat in his voice.
"Nothing," she declared, a chilling finality in her tone. "A conqueror who conquers all becomes, in essence, useless. All they can do is watch."
"Watch what?" he managed to ask, a flicker of defiance igniting in his gaze.
"Everything… slip away again," she finished, her voice softer now, laced with a touch of sadness.
"Is that so?" he challenged, a hint of his former fire returning.
"Yes," she said, her words carrying the weight of experience. "Emperors rarely outlast their empires. Watching everything they built crumble – that's the fate of a conqueror who cannot cherish his conquests. But to cherish, of course, requires the ability to… stand still."
The Emperor knew she spoke the truth. The silence that followed was thick with unspoken guilt and acceptance.
"That was never your talent," she added, her voice laced with a hint of both accusation and understanding.
He listened patiently, a skill honed to perfection during his imprisonment.
"You always pushed forward, relentlessly," she continued, "supposedly for the good of all, yet even you knew you were leaving everything and everyone behind in your relentless pursuit of the next new thing, the next battle, the next conquest."
He shook his head dismissively, but then caught a glimpse of his emaciated reflection in the water – a stark reminder of his fallen state. He didn't lash out, surprised by the familiar melody in her voice, a faint echo of music from a lifetime ago.
"I believe this was the last place I truly felt your love," she said softly, her voice laced with longing. "A tender kiss, a loving caress, dancing in the mist… Do you remember?"
"I remember," he admitted, his voice barely above a whisper.
His gaze drifted to the ghost of his son, swimming endlessly in the water. An unsettling feeling gnawed at him.
"Is this why you keep me here?" he asked, the question heavy with suspicion.
The Sorceress idly traced the snake biting its tail on her ring, a cruel smile playing on her lips.
"Follow the Council's every decree, and perhaps you'll be spared further torment. That's the new reality for everyone in your former empire."
"Former," the Emperor repeated, the word tasting ashes in his mouth.
"This isn't the legacy I envisioned. My monument was to be a nation of bold spirits, driven by ambition and courage."
The Sorceress fought back a laugh, the sound cold and humorless. "Do you truly believe you have a choice, Emperor?"
Suddenly, the doors burst open again. Soldiers flooded the bathhouse, their grim faces reflecting in the steam. The Sorceress gestured towards the spot where the ghost had tirelessly pointed. As chains and ropes clanged, a steaming, dripping statue slowly rose from the water.
The Emperor's breath hitched – it was an uncanny likeness of his beloved Empress, frozen in her final moments.
His heart shattered like the mirror reflecting their twisted reality.
"If you hadn't been so blinded by your own reflection," the Sorceress hissed, her voice laced with venom, "you might have spent your final moments with her."
His world crumbled around him.
"No... it can't be true!" he roared, his voice echoing in the vast chamber.
Iron-clad soldiers swarmed him, dragging him back to the cold embrace of his dungeon, another agonizing wait for the serpent's summons.
The ghost, oblivious to the tragedy unfolding, bounced excitedly around the statue, his cries of "Mama! Mama!" lost in the suffocating silence.