The Next Emperor

This story is paired with “Repairer of Reputations” from The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 


He could hear the muffled echoes of thunder crashing outside the walls of the palace, although the throne room had no windows for him to see either lightning or rain. Edmond preferred to stay on his throne in his cozy room all day, surrounded by his imperial guard. He did not see the guards in the shadowy corners of the room. He did not even bother to try; it was their duty to protect him and stay invisible, as it was his role as the Imperial Heir to be the very center of all attentions.

The only light in the room stood right above the throne. Edmond could barely make the silhouettes of the peasants who came every day to pledge their loyalty and ask for aid. Not that it mattered; right after his Imperial Recognition, he had decreed that everyone in his presence should wear a mask. He generously distributed richly engraved porcelain ball masks to all of the court and servants, to serve as an emblem of their allegiance to his house. Their faces were as unimportant as their names. They were his loyal subjects, ready to take up arms against the usurpers who had exiled him.

As the afternoon ended, Edmond was almost ready to send for his servants to prepare his bath, when someone knocked on the doors. A moment later, a small, hunched, limping man in a blue lizard-scale mask, who fancied himself a herald — but should double as a fool — crossed the throne room in a hurry:

“Your Majesty! Your Majesty!”

Edmond raised a hand and the herald stopped on his tracks. He took a moment catching his breath before continuing in a half-whisper:

“Pardon me, Your Majesty, but you have a visitor!”

“A visitor, you say? And where does he hail from?”

The man adjusted the mask on his face and looked around before whispering:

“He says he is from America, Your Majesty! And he brings news regarding your enemies, the usurpers!”

Edmond raised an eyebrow. Could it be true? An envoy from America, so soon? As much as he wanted to believe that help was already on its way, his enemies had just recently sent him to this wretched exile. He had not had the time to properly reorganize his forces and distribute titles among those still loyal to him. What if this was an attempt against his life? He pondered for a minute, and then said solemnly, to everyone in the room:

“Very well. We shall grant him an audience. Beware, though; he might be an assassin. Do not lower your guard at any moment!”

In response, the clank of metal echoed in all corners. Edmond straightened up on the throne and checked if his golden, jeweled diadem was in the right position. The herald shambled away and returned a few moments later, doing a poor job of walking with affectation, while pronouncing the imperial eulogy:

“All hail His Royal Majesty, Edmond-Rex! Heir to the Imperial Dynasty of America! Son of Hastur! Our Guide to Carcosa, and the Black Stars above!”

This was the cue for Edmond to raise his hand, as he had rehearsed so many times before. The soldiers saluted in the dark corners. The herald hobbled to a place behind the throne, while the visitor stopped at the edge of the light and bowed his head.

The stranger was young and tall. He had a long, hooked nose and wore round tortoise glasses that reflected the light and made his eyes invisible. He was wearing a formal black suit with a beautiful blue silk bowtie. His short hair was wet, but his clothes were dry. He waited for the Heir to signal that he could address him, as it was customary for noblemen. This one is accustomed to dealing with royalty, Edmond thought before speaking:

“We bid you welcome to our little court-in-exile, Mr. …”

“I am Mr. Wilde, Your Majesty. It is a great honor to finally meet you.”

Edmond blinked, not believing his ears. Was this man trying to test his knowledge of the Truth?

“There must be a mistake. Mr. Wilde died before our time, shortly after our father’s cousin Hildred tried to stage a coup.”

“With all due respect, Your Majesty, there is no mistake. I am the late Mr. Wilde’s nephew. I decided to follow his steps, and recently became the new Repairer of Reputations.”

Edmond’s eyes widened. The tides seemed to be finally turning in his favor! However, he had to be sure.

“That is a bold claim. Do you have any proof to substantiate it? You had better not dare lie to us about such… a sensitive matter.”

The man claiming to be the Repairer of Reputations produced a leather-bound notebook from his suit’s pocket. It looked new, but already showing signs of use at the edge of the pages.

“This is my ledger. As Your Majesty is well aware, the noble profession I decided to pursue is not, unlike Your Majesty’s own birthright, an inherited condition. I have just recently learned of my late uncle’s skills; therefore, I am still learning the tricks of the trade, so to speak. I only have but a fraction of my uncle’s agents and followers.”

“And, what would ‘a fraction’ mean?”

“One hundred men. At the time of his death, my uncle had at least five times that number in his employment.”

Still, one hundred agents in a short time is quite an accomplishment, thought Edmond, studying the stranger. He still had to be sure, though.

“Tell me, Mr. Wilde, why are you so physically different from your uncle?”

“I thought my uncle had died before Your Majesty’s time.”

“Indeed. However, our father described him, trying to scare us with a boogeyman’s tale. He seemed convinced that your uncle was some kind of imp. No higher than a child, with long arms, a small pointed head and no ears. Very fond of annoying cats until they attacked him.”

Mr. Wilde sighed softly and admitted: “My uncle was certainly… rare and eccentric. My own parents never talked about him. I only discovered that he existed when I stumbled on his papers in the attic: his ledger; his research documents; a copy of The Imperial Dynasty of America; and, of course, a copy of that obscure play, The King in Yellow. Just after reading those documents, did I understand the importance of his work, and found my true calling. My parents tried to dissuade me, but I was adamant about it. Reviewing his research, I was able to track Your Majesty’s lineage and, at last, find your court here, in this temporary exile. I prepared myself as best as I could, recruiting some of my uncle’s former agents and reorganizing the ranks of our order, so that I could be of service. And, so, here I am, at your disposal.”

Edmond took a deep, laborious breath. His chest ached and, for a moment, the jeweled crown seemed to weight a ton on his head. His head thundered as the storm outside. So many possibilities, so much work to do and so little time. Even then, however, he had to be sure:

“Tell us, Mr. Wilde. If your parents were against your involvement in your late uncle’s affairs, why did they not burn the papers and books? The esoteric play, alone, has been denounced in pulpit and newspaper, forbidden in several nations. What is your parents’ interest in this matter?”

The man claiming to be the new Repairer of Reputations straightened up with a bold expression and answered:

“Your Majesty is very wise. Indeed, my parents tried more than once to destroy the documents and books, but it seems that the Fates have intervened. They would forget about the papers for a long while. My mother told me they tried in vain to burn the play; she said the attic’s humidity had soiled the book’s pages, but I believe that book and other important documents are under the protection of a Greater Power. I believe it was my fate to find those papers and to be here today. My parents will no longer interfere.”

Edmond’s eyes narrowed for a moment:

“You are saying that you took measures to prevent your parents from interfering, now and forever?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Then, tell us,” said Edmond, cocking his head to one side, “where have you found the Yellow Sign?”

Mr. Wilde blinked:

“Pardon me, Your Majesty?”

“If you have taken actions against your parents’ will, we assume that you have found the Yellow Sign, the royal seal that would give you the proper means to do it. Where have you found it?”

He hesitated for a moment before replying:

“I… I found it in the play, at the back cover of the book.”

Edmond stretched his back on the throne and smiled:

“You know, for a moment you almost had us.”

“Your Majesty?”

The Imperial Heir raised his right hand and shouted:

“Guards! Seize this impostor!”

Wilde turned to all sides in fear, overwhelmed by the clangor of metal and the echoes of steps on the stone floor. The stranger fell to his knees and cried:

“No! O Mighty Emperor, please, hear my appeal! I… I never meant to deceive you, Sire, but they said they would kill my family!”

Edmond made a gesture and the hall fell silent. He leaned forward and looked at the man in front of him straight in the eyes:

“What are you saying, deceiver? Who are you, truly? Explain yourself while you have the chance!”

Wilde raised both hands and sobbed:

“O Most Magnificent, please forgive my weakness! I am indeed whom I said, Wilde is my name and I have found my late uncle’s papers, but I never believed myself capable of following his footsteps!”

“Then, what is the meaning of this charade?”

“Right after I had read the documents, some masked men invaded my house and made my parents captive. They wanted me to find your court in exile; they said that only a true heir to Mr. Wilde’s work could decipher the secrets of Hastur, Aldebaran and the mystery of the Hyades. Only a true believer could find his way through the Lake of Hali and finally come to this magnificent court, to find Your Majesty.”

“And what, pray tell, did these masked men want you to do once you found us?”

“They wanted me to gain Your Majesty’s trust by telling a story that only you, Sire, would be able to recognize. And then they wanted me to become a spy in the court, and tell them of Your Majesty’s every step on the way to your glorious return.”

The color that had left Edmond’s face a moment before returned with a feeling of heat, like a fever. He was furious: at this inferior man before him for his deception; at those awful conspirators who would not give him a moment of peace, even in exile; at that dim-witted herald who had let this spy enter his court; and at himself for having taken so long to recognize the plot. He looked down on Wilde and said solemnly:

“Now, spy and traitor to the Dynasty, beware: your next words may be the last. Did those masked men tell you what to do, in the event that we might discover your farce? Answer quickly and we might grant you a painless death.”

Wilde still moaned and stammered:

“I… Yes, they told me… They told me that, should Your Majesty find out the truth, I would never again see my parents, so I might as well take my own life at the first chance. In addition, they ordered me to relay a final message to Your Majesty.”

“And what message is this?”

“They said… They said that Your Majesty shall never again see another sunrise in America, that your exile shall be permanent; because, after Your Majesty heard the story they told me to repeat before the court, it would be patent that Your Majesty’s reputation is blemished. They said Your Majesty would understand. I know I did not.”

Edmond sat back on the throne and covered his face. The herald approached, hobbling, meaning to offer him something to drink or eat to ease his shock, but he raised a hand, and the small man stepped back in silence.

After eons or minutes (Edmond did not know or care), he raised his head again and looked at Wilde:

“Alas, they are right. The story you told me, it was nothing but a clue to the Truth. I can see it clearly now, they meant for me to see through your deception from the beginning. They wanted you to bait me with my own life history, so that I would fall even more from grace.”

Wilde raised his own head with a puzzled expression:

“I do not understand. They meant me to fail?”

“I am afraid so, my friend”, answered Edmond, who apparently had forgotten the protocol of referring to himself as “we”. He smiled weakly and continued, “We are both cursed men, bound by our family names to dance in a masked ball that has no foreseeable end. And I fear for the moment when we meet its end.” He thought of Camila’s dreadful shriek at the end of the Second Act before continuing:

“But, perhaps, there is light beneath all this darkness. I want you to hear my story, then you will understand.”

“I am here to serve, Sire.”

“My reputation is tainted, indeed, since before my birth, and I’m afraid I turned things worse as the impetuous child I was. My father, a captain of the Navy cavalry, not only denied his own legacy during Hildred’s failed coup, he also married Constance Hawberk, daughter of the Marquis of Avonshire. That brought England into the matter of succession and complicated everything a little more.

“I was born one year after the incident. For ten full years, I lived in blissful ignorance of my dynasty, my rights, and my legacy. Then, one day, I noticed the disgusted expression in my mother’s face as she took an old box of baubles from the attic. She wanted to discard it, but instead she put it back in the attic. Curious, I waited until she left and sneaked past her to look.

“In that box, I found all that remained of Hildred’s legacy: his own research documents and personal diary, a well-worn copy of The Imperial Dynasty of America and, of course, a copy of The King in Yellow.”

“So, that was the turning point of your life”, replied Wilde, without thinking.

“Yes, yes!” continued Edmond, oblivious to the rather rude interruption, which, a few moments before, would have prompted harsh punishment — “that was the defining event of my life, although I did not realize it at that moment. I started to read the documents and could not stop! I read the Dynasty’s list of names so many times I began to know it by heart. I even rehearsed a few lines of the First Act! I could not eat or sleep well.”

“But, Your Majesty,” interrupted Wilde once again, “did your parents not perceive the changes?”

This time, Edmond noticed Wilde’s disruption, but he did not look angry.

“Yes, of course they took notice of the changes. I was only eleven years old, a naïve child discovering a completely new world. In addition, my mother was the daughter of the Marquis of Avonshire and a clever woman; she would try to stop me.

“I had to take action, but with subtlety. I chose to show her the Truth one piece at a time. I confess I had to exert all my willpower and self-control, but eventually, she yielded — first her sanity, then her life. I provided her with ways to take matters into her own hands.”

Wilde’s eyes looked as if they were going to pop out of their orbits, but he did not ask the question. Edmond gave him a few moments, basking in the glory of his triumphant memories, before answering it:

“She took the coward’s way like all of her lineage had done before her. She was so clumsy, though, that she actually tried to poison us all. One of the cooks went to the hospital. Both my father and I survived, of course, but the line of the Hawberks, or, rather, the House of Avonshire, died with her. Father never fully recovered from the ordeal. His love for her was his weakness, and that flaw doomed him.”

Wilde, now barely containing himself, raised a hand in silence. Edmond motioned for him to speak.

“Did your father never suspect?”

“Were you not hearing what I said? Of course, he suspected! Both of them suspected from the beginning! However, I was only twelve then; how could he blame a boy for the suicide of his own mother? Unable to prove anything, he did what he could do — he stayed as far away from me as he managed. I would never have a moment alone with him while he lived. Not that it mattered, though; I was prepared.”

Wilde almost risked a question, but Edmond’s eyes dissuaded him from doing that and he decided to wait. The Imperial Heir, for his part, was eager to continue:

“Yes, I know that you crave answers about that, too. Everybody knows my father died in a duel. I imagine, now, that many people suspect of my hand in that, but they cannot piece the facts together,” he said, leaning forward on the throne once again and adding, “Would you like to know how I did it?”

Wilde just made an affirmative motion with his head; he seemed too fascinated and curious to say a word.

“I discreetly arranged for a younger and handsome officer of my father’s regiment to claim possession of certain letters with… dishonorable contents involving my mother’s name. Then I managed to have my father discover the existence of the documents. Naturally, He was honor-bound to challenge the other man for a duel to the death. What better way for a recently retired, widowed officer to leave this world?”

Wilde’s puzzled countenance was overwhelming. Edmond just smiled to himself, as if he knew a secret joke. Then he produced a small scepter from under his cushions, with a weird symbol carved on its end:

“How did I do it? Let’s just say that the Yellow Sign grants the faithful with certain preternatural abilities. As you certainly know from your late uncle’s account, he used it to bind the minds of lesser men, as I have done here as soon as I arrived. Well, after I had proven myself worthy, by having gaslighted my mother into committing suicide, the Sign gave me a boon: the loyalty of my heirloom — including the prized Castaigne pistols. Did you know? Those weapons were a legacy from an ancestor who had fought in the Secession War. A gift from the President himself! So I charmed them with the blessings of the Yellow King, whom emperors have served in the past, and although my father used them in his petty duel, they were mine to command.

“After the deal was settled, you know the rest. The family’s fortune should have passed to my hands, but as I was still a minor, the State appointed an attorney to manage the assets until I came of age. What I did not know then was the sad truth: that the usurpers were already monitoring my actions from the shadows. They somehow gathered evidence that my mother’s death could have been more than a suicide; and I am sure that they sent for a sorcerer of some kind, who discovered my little enchantment on the pistols. It took them a few years, but right before I could put my hands on the fortune, they seized me, packed me like a bag of potatoes and sent me to this exile. So, here I am, away from my true throne and with a stain in my reputation.”

Wilde seemed stupefied, his face still full of questions he dared not ask for his own life. Edmond saw the perfect opportunity:

“Now that you have heard my story, and are full aware of my powers and torments, will you help me help you?”

The prostrated man blinked in hesitation.

“Help you… help me?”

“Yes. How would you like to wear the mantle of your late uncle, without deception or subterfuge? Would you truly become the Repairer of Reputations?”

Now Wilde was flabbergasted:

“Me, the Repairer of Reputations, for real? But, how?”

“You were so absorbed in self-pity, so engaged in the role my enemies gave you to perform, that you did not notice that, by sending you to deceive me, they actually delivered the most powerful weapon at my hands: you.”

“I… I do not understand…”

Edmond sighed deeply:

“You are not thinking. See, they sent you here to pretend that you were the Repairer of Reputations, but in truth, you, Mr. Wilde, are the true Repairer of Reputations. There is no one else able to continue with your uncle’s holy mission. I tried to repair my own reputation by getting rid of my parents; that proved disastrous. I need a man of your unique skills. If you accept my offer, your first task will be to mend my reputation, so that I will be able to reclaim the crown! I will have my armies ready as soon as you release me! Do you accept my offer?”

While Edmond described his masterwork plan, Wilde’s tears seemed sincere enough. He only managed to whisper a feeble “yes”.

“Perfect! Therefore, I, Edmond-Rex of House Castagne, Heir to the Imperial Dynasty of America, proclaim that you, Mr. Wilde, is from now on the Imperial Repairer of Reputations. Please, go through the necessary formalities to repair my reputation at once!”

Wilde stood up and bowed deeply:

“Yes, my Emperor! I shall take measures immediately! I only have to calculate the proper retainer for such an important reputation. I lack my late uncle’s expertise and will have to resort for his accountant books. Will you wait?”

“Yes, yes, of course. It is your first task and everything must be perfect! I shall wait. Now, off you go!”

“Thank you, Your Majesty, for your generosity! With your power, I shall save my family!” he said as he turned to leave, but then he turned back and asked, “If I may ask a final question, Sire…?”

“Yes?”

“How did you manage to see through my scam? What did that question, ‘where did I find the Yellow Sign?’ have to do with all this?”

Edmond once again smiled his secret smile:

“Everything you said sounded convincing enough, but there were certain fail-proof procedures your late uncle and my father’s cousin had taken to prevent traitors and spies from ever getting in their way. The Yellow Sign in the book’s back cover is a forgery. The true Sign is the one Hildred used to mark the back of a certain page of The Dynasty. As you did not fully assume your uncle’s mantle, the Sign found you unworthy of noticing it when you first saw. The Truth was there all the time.”

“Very clever, Sire!” Wilde replied before bowing again and leaving.

As the door closed behind him, Wilde passed the guards and walked fast to the director’s office. He entered the darkened room, where three men observed a B&W screen. They were monitoring a small, hunched man seated on a wheelchair, wearing a plastic circlet on his head, laughing and waving a plastic wand with eloquence.

“Well, gentlemen,” he began, “have you watched everything? Is it all on record, Dr. Treant?”

“Yes, Dr. Wilde,” answered the asylum’s director, a fat, bald man with a doctor’s white apron over his suit — “Quite the theatrics you pulled there, if I might add. Almost convinced me that Castaigne had you in his little web of deceptions.”

“A necessary action, as I’m sure the City Prosecutor will agree. Don’t you think, Mr. Vance?  I have managed to get a confession from him in a few minutes, while you had no success for almost a year.”

“Yes,” agreed Vance, a tall man with a goatee and mustache that he obviously smeared in creams, “your methods may be unorthodox, Dr. Wilde, but you surely deliver results.”

“Does he?” asked the third man, a gaunt, pale, sickly-looking man, adding “Good luck trying to sell this rubbish to a judge. There was no hard evidence against my client before and there is even less now. Yellow Sign? Magic pistols? Empire of America? Nonsense! No one will buy it. You might as well release Mr. Castaigne right now, Dr. Trent,” he said to the director.

“Nonsense is what you have been trying to pull all this time, Mr. Grimer,” replied Vance, “making that monster look like a weak-minded fool.”

“He is invalid, for God’s sake! He is in a wheelchair and he believes it is a throne!”

“He is in a wheelchair because he got shot and fell from the roof of his own house while trying to escape. Broke both legs and fractured three vertebrae. However, he managed to send two officers to the hospital right before that. One of them might never wake up again.”

“Gentlemen,” interrupted Wilde, “I think you are missing the point here. We all have read Edmond Castaigne’s profile. He is a genius, charismatic, with the ego of Napoleon and the righteous conviction of Julius Caesar. As soon as he arrived at the Asylum, he managed to bend the will of this facility’s strongest, most dangerous inmates. He claims to have used this so-called ‘Yellow Sign’, a magical device somehow connected to that cursed play, The King in Yellow. Of course, no one in this room believes in magic, but he certainly does. He also claims to have gaslighted his own mother and to have framed another man of having an illicit affair with her, in order to force his father into action. And although he certainly did not use magic on the pistols, the ballistics examiner found them to be rigged to backfire. That little charade was our best shot at understanding the processes of his mind. I am sure we will make good progress from now on, perhaps even discover a way to solve the mystery of what I call “synchronized mental illness”. I see prizes and conferences ahead of us, Dr. Trent.”

Trent’s eyes gleamed in anticipation:

“I see that, too. Now, what’s next?”

“Next, I must review the tape and take notes, then compare them with my previous research. And, of course, Mr. Vance here will proceed with the prosecution. What do you think you will be able to get for him?”

Vance looked at him for a moment and then said:

“If it were up to me, gentlemen, little broken Mr. Castaigne down there would move from his wheelchair to an electric one, but I think he will remain in that padded cell for the remainder of his natural life.”

“We shall see,” retorted Mr. Grimer.

“See you in court, then, my esteemed colleague.”

Both men left the room. While Dr. Wilde was getting his valise and umbrella, Dr. Trent looked once again at the screen and then back to him:

“May I ask you a question, Dr. Wilde?”

“Of course, Dr. Trent.”

“There were moments, when you were interacting with him… Well, sometimes it looked like there were other people in the room. You seemed to address someone else when you entered and he changed his voice, put on that mask and did that ridiculous self-eulogy. And, at least once you looked around, startled, as if fearing the approach of people around you. But we all saw you alone in the room with Castaigne. Since he began to order the inmates around, we isolated him in that padded cell. I must confess that, at some point, your conversation seemed… disturbing. What was all that?”

“I just took the necessary actions to make myself believable to him. If I didn’t manage to convince him that I believed in every word he said, all would have been for naught.”

“But, there was a moment when I thought he had found out the truth.”

“That was also part of the plan, Dr. Trent. You see, Edmond is a genius, with a very complex and diseased mind. He is corrupt and manipulative from childhood. In order to gain his trust, I had to have a plan inside a plan, a trick hidden behind a layer of deception. And he fell for it.”

“I almost fell for it, too.”

They both laughed. Wilde shook Trent’s hand and said:

“We shall do great things here, Doctor, in the name of science.”

“Yes, yes! I can hardly wait to work with you again.”

“I shall return next week.”

A guard accompanied Wilde to the building’s massive front gate. The psychiatrist took a moment to look at the plaque that read New Jersey’s City Asylum for the Criminally Insane. As he entered his car and closed the door, he felt the irresistible urge to open his case and look at his notes. Under the car’s yellow lamp, he opened The Imperial Dynasty of America and went through the well-worn pages, looking for the mark about which Edmond had talked. Clear as the waters of the Lake of Hali, there it was! Wilde marveled at his own inability to see it before. Now, with the blessing of the Heir himself, branded as the Repairer of Reputations, he was free to follow his uncle’s footsteps and do much more. Let Edmond Castaigne and his dynasty rot forever within those padded walls. Wilde would be the next Emperor.


NBR5PeretsmallL. E. Peret is a 47-year-old journalist living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, currently working as a press assistant while trying to get a PhD in Sociology. He writes primarily Sci-Fi, fantasy and horror. His favorite authors are Anne Rice, Lovecraft, King, Gaiman, Clarke, Asimov and Tolkien.