She stared at her thumb.
Once, the woman had had a name. It was lost now, forgotten. Her identity was secure, though: she was the emperor. Just Emperor now. She knew what she was and a name was not needed.
Her thumb contained some of her identity. It was dark on one side and light on the other, golden and warm. The nail was white like the inside of an oyster shell. The pad had lines that swirled and twisted like eddies in a tide-pool as the waves go out.
“Emperor, we have brought you a prisoner.”
Her guard-captain. He had a name also but, like Emperor, was reduced to a function. His function was to guard her person and follow her orders. Her function was to conquer.
“Who is it?” she said.
“A local resistance fighter. Militia, she calls herself, but her cell were armed with butcher knives.”
Emperor’s attention moved off of her thumb and into her room. The floor was tiled, the walls mosaics. She sat in a tall chair with its back to the single door. Her eyes skipped over scenes of conquest told in tiny stones of blue, silver, brown, all cemented together to make a greater whole.
One stone caught her attention. It was perfect. An ovoid of pleasing proportions, green just the hue of the deep sea at sunrise. One perfect stone in an array of perfect stones, each selected for their individual properties.
The door opened again and the prisoner shuffled in, alone. Emperor’s ears were keen. Everything about her was keen, sharpened, distilled down to its most basic essence. She stood, knowing the visitor could not see her yet, and came around the chair.
The woman looked down on her, feigning contempt through her fear. Her hauteur was shallow, though, and neither was fear her basic nature. Emperor knew it by looking.
“You are smaller than we imagined,” the prisoner said.
“Is your name Militia, or only your function?” Emperor asked.
“So many flaws.” Emperor approached. She walked behind, viewing the prisoner from all sides. Once her circuit was done, she sat back in her chair.
“I could kill you,” the prisoner said.
“You could not kill the thing inside of me. Tell me your name.”
“Sounds base. Are you base?” Emperor closed her eyes and let her other senses explore Grund. Inside of her, above her stomach but below her lungs, the blue thing shifted. It never slept and nevertheless it woke now. It moved out, grew, expanded. It reached her skin. It made tendrils, invisible to the prisoner, that reached out and covered the space between them.
“Why did you bring me here?”
“I want to get to know you.”
“Some part of you is useful. I will find that part and discard the rest.”
Grund offered some complaint, some bit of arrogance that still failed to conceal her terror. Meanwhile, blue tendrils crawled into her nostrils unnoticed. Through her pores. Into her heart and deeper, into the basic nature of her being.
She plays at it but she could be it. Too many other concerns. Look here: love for her family. That will never do. Concern for her own safety. Cut it away and what is left? But here is love for what passes for a nation in this part of the world. Hatred for me and also admiration. Nurture both.
Half those thoughts were her own and half belonged to the blue thing that rode along inside of her. She had left many selves behind along the way to this moment and might leave more. But now was not the time to cut away at herself. Militia needed her attention.
She cut. The blue thing cut. Everything unneeded fell away.
“What have you done to me?” The voice was doubled; there were two of her now, and both recoiled in pain. One stood back to her full height in a moment, setting the hurt aside to take stock of the situation. The other hesitated. She let the pain dominate her.
That would be the left-over. The dross.
Emperor’s summons was obeyed at once. He stepped into the room with brisk feet. “My Lady?”
“Don’t call me that. I am Emperor and no lady. Take this one...” she pointed at the weak woman who had spoken. “Take her and put her in the arena for the next show. Let her fight for her family. Take this one and put a uniform on her. She will defend this city to her last breath. Isn’t that right, Militia?”
The new woman looked at her old self with open hatred in her eyes. “I didn’t know I was so weak,” she said.
To the eye, she seemed exactly as the one Emperor had cut her away from. Same build, same stance, same hands and hair and teeth. Any weakness of body both would have shared. But as the old version was led away, struggling and kicking at Captain, Emperor knew she had perfected what was left.
“Are you Militia, or is that only your role?”
“What’s the difference?” the new woman said.
Captain came back in a few moments to lead her away and Emperor returned to contemplating her thumb.