Tarot Stories #48: The Emperor

There is a land far from here that was once ruled over by a man whose beard had grown long and whose heart had remained softer than was probably wise. He had become the ruler of this land because he was born to it and because it seemed that no one else who wanted the job was suited to doing it. The old man was cursed in two ways. First, ruler of a mountain kingdom though he was, what he loved more than anything was the sea, which he had glimpsed only once, longer ago than he cared to think about. And second, he was cursed with wisdom to know the truth of things as they related to duty, and through this wisdom he knew that the people of his lands would suffer if a lesser ruler sat in his place.

And so, the doubly cursed ruler took the scepter and while he could not harden his heart, he wore armor to protect it and served as well as he could, presiding for a long, long time indeed.

Then, one day he was visited by a god. The old man knew it was a god because of their shifting eyes and their silvered tongue and the fact that they appeared out of nothing, without noise or preamble. Just one moment, the god stood before the old man and said, “I know your secret.”

The old man sat back on his stone throne warily, knowing enough about gods to know that he needed to tread very lightly now. “What secret might that be, honored one?” the old man asked, carefully, carefully.

“I know what you have not revealed, what lies under your strong armor and your fine cloak. I know why your throne is near the stream and, too, why you face away from it,” the god said, their eyes gleaming with sudden intensity and shifting no more, instead locking onto the old man’s.

Now, a clever thing to do might be to deny the god’s claims, and a wise thing to do might be to speak around the truth and while not quite lying, maintain the fictions that often serve humans and gods alike in their polite endeavors. But while the old man was passing clever and cursed with wisdom, the god had spoken words that had been held away for too long to deny, and the old man’s tongue was lacking cleverness and his heart would allow no wisdom. So he said only, “What of it?” and his voice was heavy with bitterness and pain as he did so. For while the old man knew his own secrets as we all do, he had also kept them out of sight for so long that it was almost like learning about them for the first time.

The god said, “I will trade you. Three secrets of my own for the ones you carry.”

The old man laughed. “The secrets you already know, Divine One? That seems a poor trade, and I think this is some trick.”

The god heard the old man’s words, and being a god, also heard what the old man actually said in that moment, which was, It hurts, please don’t make me say it aloud. And the god, being a god, had very little sympathy. “We will trade,” they said with just a hint of power that gods carry within them, and the old man answered the command in a way that he could not bring himself to answer a request.

“Beneath my armor and my fine robes lies a cracked heart, pumping seawater through my veins where blood used to flow. The seawater came when I saw the open ocean but once, and the heartbreak when I realized that my duty would keep me from it.” Each word came out as if it was clinging to the old man’s throat, reluctant to emerge.

The god nodded. “That is one secret. The next, now.”

“My throne is near the stream because that is the closest thing we have to an ocean in this rocky land,” the old main said, “and I cannot bear to be far from it.” This secret came out more quickly, but the old man looked ashen as he said it all the same.

“And the third,” said the god.

“I face away from the stream because I can’t stand to look at it, because if I do I know I’ll show my people what you in your divinity can see so easily. That while I am of use here, each day spent among these mountains opens the cracks a little wider.” The old man was sweating with exertion as his final secret (though it was known to both himself and the god already) was spoken aloud for the first time.

The god’s gaze softened a fraction, almost imperceptibly. “I honor my bargains, and so here are my secrets in return. First, I am the god of these mountains that you have ruled for your whole life, and I have seen your sacrifices. Second,” and their eyes lit up with the sort of amusement that the gods can’t help but carry with them when they treat with mortals, “I would sit upon your throne for a time, and serve the people as you have done, and I would do so as wisely as I am able.”

The old man, for his part, struggled to focus on the god’s words and their meaning, but he managed to say, “And the third?”

The god’s smile was as gentle as a deity of rock and mountain can manage. “Third,” they said, “all streams run to the ocean, eventually, if you will follow them long enough, and all those with seawater in their veins are welcome there.”

There is a land far from here, ruled over by a man with a long beard and a soft heart, and if his eyes shift around more than they used to and his words are a bit more silvered than once they were, well, nobody notices that too much. And off on a shore, another old man approaches the sea at the end of a long journey. He wears no armor, and so his cracked heart is exposed to the air, and the seawater that flows through his body sings as he returns to the home he has only seen once.