…‘The road, Doda’ he urged.

‘You know most of what the road is for already’ said Shinsota, with a surprising directness.

Zyso realised this meant that the time was nearly up.

Shinsota continued: ‘Who does the road belong to?’

‘You, Doda,’ said Zyso, in a sloppy, half-comic voice.

At this, Shinsota roused himself, and gently began disentangling his son from his position. Ah, thought Zyso, in a moment he will be gone.
‘Who does the road belong to?’ asked his father, patiently but deliberately.

This time, Zyso answered quickly and clearly.

‘The emperor.’

‘And who is the emperor?’

‘He is the guardian of the law.’

‘And what is the law?’

‘The law is the Way.’

‘And what is the Way?’

‘The Way is…’ Zyso faltered in the catechism a moment. ‘I forget, Father: what is the Way?’

Shinsota frowned briefly, and completed unwrangling his son from his neck and beard.

‘The Way is All, Zyso. And where and how do we keep the Way? In the Book of the law. And who guards the law? The emperor. The emperor, the law, the Book and the Way – this is our life, this is all. So’ – putting Zyso away from him, so the boy was standing – ‘the road is for our life, and our life is for the road. Time for bed.’

The last words came out clipped definitively.

‘But Father – I don’t understand,’ said Zyso.

‘It will take your life to understand, little Zy, So of Shin,’ his father replied as he stood up with a final, flitting, reminding glance at the gathering darkness. ‘Don’t be in such a hurry.’

Zyso tried, but couldn’t quite let go: ‘But I don’t understand, Father. What is the emperor?’

‘He’s the guardian of the law. Come now, bed – you promised.’

‘I’m going, Father, I promise, but – what is the emperor?’

Shinsota, with his clever, strong hands, quickly rotated his son through 180°, and began propelling him firmly towards the bed.
‘You wouldn’t understand, Zyso. Later, when you’re grown up.’

‘Alright, Father. I defer myself.’ Zyso thought he’d better throw a deference in, almost conversationally – but followed it up with a last, despairingly casual question as the small wooden ladder to the upper bunk touched his fingers: ‘But the emperor – what is he like? Is he like the sky? Like the clouds? What, Doda?’

‘Undress,’ murmured his father, ‘make prostrations and go to bed.’

‘I will, Father.’

Zyso, conceding defeat, began undoing his robe. He waited for his father’s rough, quick kiss, the hands upon his head and the blurred grating of the whiskers against his skin. But, for a moment, the kiss didn’t come.

Oh, thought Zyso. This is a pause. I thought it was the end.

It was quite a long pause – a four-button pause. Zyso also kicked off his right slipper as he worked on the small neat buttons and the button-holes.

Then the pause ended, and something like a new world began for Zyso.

‘The emperor is a man,’ said his father.

Still undressing rapidly, kicking off the left slipper, Zyso half-turned to Shinsota.

‘What is a man, Father?’

Shinsota laughed out loud – a short, half-joyous sound that ended suddenly.

‘A man? Why, I am a man, Zyso.’

‘And the Wizard Brix’ Zyso responded: ‘He is a man. And Captain Bustle…’

Uxo: they are just characters in stories, Zysoshin. They are not real. But the emperor is real. The emperor is a man like me. Only… Higher.’

Zyso wriggled out of his trousers, and stepped away from them, the soft leather making little broken leg shapes on the floor.

Then he paused for a moment, as the thought became too much to ignore, and too great to defer in any way.

‘Do you mean, Father, that there is more than one man?’

‘Too late, now, little So of Shin’ his father murmured. Here, the kiss came, a scuttle of whiskers around the softness of the lips, just touching Zyso’s forehead.

Shinsota also leaned over his sleeping daughter, and kissed a loose strand of her hair.

It was beginning to get dark in the room now, and Zyso knew his father must go up.

The Goodnight came, setting all the bones of the world into the right place, allowing the stars to come, giving sleep permission to hold sway now.

‘Goodnight, Father.’

Shinsota ruffled his son’s hair affectionately.

‘Make your prostrations.’

‘I will, Father.’

Now his father was at the thick, heavy door leading from the parlour to the tower.

Again, when the end seemed to have happened, it hadn’t – it was another pause.

‘And yes, Zyso – there is more than one man. But the way things are, you may never see another. Pray for me, and for your sister. Make your prostrations.’

Shinsota said this over his shoulder, as he moved into the stairwell, and then there was the swing-to, the smooth click as the massive wooden door, hung on the hinges of the light, violet metal that doesn’t rust, shut conclusively behind him.

More than one man?, thought Zyso. Two men? The emperor, and my father?

Is that what the road is for? So that the emperor can come down it? Like in the fairystories? The emperor, who is the guardian of the law?…
But how can there be more than one man? And if there is more than one man, why did Doda say I might never see another? Maybe he is already coming. Maybe he is coming today…

Did I say it was often winter there?

Excerpt from The Sentinels, Volume 1 of Dustless

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