“‘ No ’?” echoed the space emperor. “‘ No’?! No one. Ever . Tells me. ‘No’.”
He advanced, close enough that the threads on his rich robes could be counted by the naked eye. After a furtive glance over his shoulder, he dropped his voice to a desperate whisper and said, “Could you… could you do it again? Please?”
The space emperor’s eyes shone like embers as he leaned forward, clasping his hands in front of his face. “So this… this ‘ democracy ’ you speak of. You’re telling me that people might… disobey me? They wouldn’t have to do everything I tell them to?”
“Not if they disagree with you.”
“They can do that?! ” He licked his lips, trembling with excitement. “And voting! You say I… you say I could lose?! ”
“Yeah, uh. And you probably would.”
“ Incredible,” he breathed. “Why, I could kiss you!” With a surprised laugh, he stopped himself mid-step. “But—you wouldn’t like that! Right? You’d have an ‘opinion’? Gosh… do you think other people have those?!”
The space emperor let out a long, melancholy sigh and turned to the hero, his lip trembling with delicate misery. “I’m going to miss you,” he sniffed. “I don’t think I’ll watch, you know, when they… when they do it.” The tear that had been clinging valiantly to his eyelashes finally broke free and rolled down his cheek. “Oh!” he cried, and threw his arms around the hero’s neck with a great, shuddering sob. “ Yours will be the only skull I drink from ever again—I promise! I will think of you every time, and I’ll pretend you’re still here with me!”
“Or you could just… not have me executed.”
The space emperor inhaled sharply and took a step back, his face red and puffy from crying. “That’s an option ?!”
The serving-woman stood with her back ramrod straight and her eyes fixed firmly on the floor. Every muscle in her body looked tense, and only the rapid rise and fall of her shoulders betrayed her terror.
“You’ve ruined my gown,” said the space emperor, regarding the growing purple stain on his sleeve. “These fibers were harvested on Lutoya-29, a planet that was demolished six units ago. There is no other like it in the galaxy. I could have you harvested for washing-water for this.” He looked up and met the hero’s eyes, his thoughtful expression melting into a delighted grin. “But I don’t have to, do I?”
“No, Your Incandecense,” whispered the woman. Her sweat-beaded skin had grown translucent with fear.
“I don’t even have to have you killed at all!” he exclaimed. “I could… I could…” he cast around the chamber, as though searching for inspiration in the lavish furnishings.
“Please, Your Incandecense.” The woman’s voice was low and unsteady, but her gaze remained fixed on the floor. “I’ll do anything, please, forgive—”
“Anything! You’re right!” He clapped his hands and rubbed them together, stamping his feet in a little dance. “I could do anything ! In fact—” he reached over the table and clasped the hero’s hand in his own. “Nothing is anything! I could do nothing! Nothing at all!” He giggled merrily and then froze, gingerly releasing the hero’s hand and leaning back. He tapped one bejeweled finger against his temple and gave an exaggerated wink. “Oh, right. Consent .”
The serving-woman’s eyes flickered to the hero’s for a moment, nervous questions burning in them. The hero gave a barely-imperceptible shrug and a very tiny, reassuring smile. The emperor did not seem to notice.
“Is there more wine?” he asked. “Splendid. Please. Do it again.”
“What…?” The woman’s skin flashed an alarming yellow.
The emperor gestured enthusiastically between himself and the crystal pitcher. “The wine. My gown. I think you should reacquaint them.”
“He wants you to spill the wine on him again,” explained the hero. “No, really. He’s, uh… he’s having an interesting day.”
“I am learning so many things,” said the emperor. “Did you know that you have feelings, too? It’s not just me! My new friend has feelings, that man over there has feelings, that… whatever that thing is has feelings!” He stood up and threw his arms wide in a sudden, emphatic motion, flinging droplets of purple liquid from his soiled sleeve. “Maybe everyone has feelings! Maybe robots! Maybe my enemies! Maybe—” he stopped, and the delirious grin vanished from his face. “Maybe the Lutoyans have feelings…” His voice dropped to a whisper, and he stared at the hero with a strange expression. “But… there aren’t any more Lutoyans…”