Author's Note: This is a sort of bonus chapter of Death and the Emperor. Originally it was to describe how Death became so involved with Kilan's family. But when I wrote it, Death had other ideas, and it basically became a "day-in-the-life" story. Only not really a day, since it takes place over thousands of years, or a life, since it's all about Death with all the associated dying. It's still got some references to Kilan's family, but it went off in unexpected directions.
Obviously, this is set in the universe of D+E, and features some of the characters from it, but I don't think it's necessary to have read it to understand this.
Warning: contains death (in more ways than one).
The Undiscovered Country
...the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns…
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet
The old man's breaths grew slower and more laboured. Death stepped through the veil between her world and the mortal world, scythe and hourglass in hand. She took no notice of the man's family gathered around his bed. All her attention was on his hourglass. There were only two grains left in the top half. They fell. The man's breath stopped. Death swung her scythe, and his soul slipped from this world into hers. His hourglass vanished as if it had never existed.
She turned to leave, and found herself confronted with a small child sitting at her feet.
The little girl looked up at her with the fearless curiosity of a mortal too young to understand what – or who – they were looking at. There was nothing unusual about that. Other than the dying, children were the only mortals who could see her. But Death stopped and looked at this child more closely than she usually looked at children.
At this time, the planet Niorla was a mass of warring tribes. The last great empire to spread across the planet had crumbled five hundred years ago, and the next had not yet risen. But Death knew it would, and she knew who would build it.
The girl at her feet was only a two-year-old brought to her grandfather's death-bed. But she would become a priestess, and then a conqueror, and then an empress. She would take the world and reshape it in her image.
Death looked at the girl who would found the Carann Empire and the Caranilnav dynasty. The girl smiled at her. Death smiled back, and gave her a bow before leaving.
All through the vast universe, Death and her Reapers gathered souls tirelessly. One day Death was collecting the souls of sacrificial victims on the planet Jik-Diothuz. The next she was walking among the wounded on a battlefield in Renchis. The day after that she went to Totukvam to collect the last living member of a once-great civilisation.
Sometimes her travels took her to Niorla, and the descendants of the little girl she had once bowed to.
And sometimes they took her to Earth.
One sunny Saturday in August, a town was ripped apart by a bomb planted outside a café. Death walked through the burning wreckage, unseen by the firemen, the police and the survivors. She raised her scythe, and a man ceased to cry in agony. Again she raised her scythe, and three souls left the mortal world at once. A mother and two children, who would never return from their shopping trip. Death moved on.
Some of her Reapers, who had once been mortal and still saw the world from a mortal perspective, begged to hunt down and kill the people responsible for such atrocities.
"No," Death said every time they raised the subject. "Everyone dies. You may torment them to your heart's content once they are dead, but do not touch them while they live."
As she left the smoke-filled ruins and returned to her own realm, she thought of how much longer the criminals had to live. Some of their hourglasses had almost run out. Their arrival would give the Reapers some amusement, at any rate.
Some stories were universal. Literally. They played out in thousands of different forms with thousands of different endings, involving thousands of different people. Death herself was one of those stories. So was life itself. But right now, one of the stories being played out all across the universe was the story of a royal family being overthrown.
The family differed. So did the people doing the overthrowing. So did their motives. And each reiteration of the tale had a different number of survivors. But on no less than eight hundred planets over a period of less than a thousand years, the same story was acting itself out.
When Fate liked a story, She adored it. She adored it so much that She had it happen again and again in infinite variations.
Death wouldn't have minded so much if she wasn't left with the aftermath.
A thousand years was a long time to mortals. To Death, it was a short time. And she was getting quite sick of collecting the souls of so many murdered royals.
One day she visited a hospital turned into a prison, where an entire family had been hacked to pieces with ice picks. From there she went to a palace on another planet, where the heir to the throne had been smothered by his own son. And so it went on and on and on, until Death wished Fate had a body so she could scream at Her.
As was their wont, the Caranilnavs were the exception to the rule. Death didn't know why she'd expected anything else.
It was another variation on a well-known theme. A boy and girl, a prince and princess, abandoned in the wilderness by their uncle. Death did not always bother checking a person's hourglass if she sensed they were close to death. She took her scythe and went to collect their souls.
But they didn't die.
A traveller found them huddled in a small cave, their little bodies almost frozen. Death, in-between her world and theirs, watched in bemusement as he wrapped a blanket around them and lit a fire. She called their hourglasses to her. There was still a great deal of sand left to fall in both of them.
Even Death could be surprised.
She nodded at the children who were no longer near death, and went back to her own realm.
Mortals died every day. But Death did not personally attend to all their souls. That was why she had her Reapers. The Reapers themselves had once been mortal, and now they were her assistants. They gathered souls for her if she was too busy to take those souls herself.
Unfortunately, they also caused headaches for her.
There were no words to describe what Death thought when she arrived in her throne room to find a civil war in progress.
At least a hundred of her Reapers were fighting amongst themselves. The usually-silent room was filled with shouts and screams and the clash of scythe against scythe. It was utter pandemonium.
"Enough!" Death roared.
Everyone froze. They gave her the sort of guilty looks usually worn by children caught stealing from the cookie jar.
"What is going on here?" Death's voice was calm, even, and full of barely-suppressed fury.
"Your Majesty!" Ngugelzi, head of the Reapers, struggled through the crowd. "Thank god you're back! These little brats–" she gestured to a group of shame-faced Reapers "–started fighting over gods-know-what, and then more of us got dragged into the fight when we tried to stop it, and by the time I arrived it was a free-for-all."
Death turned and glared at the group of Reapers. They huddled closer together and looked like they wished themselves on the other side of the universe.
"I don't know what this fight was about. Nor do I want to know. But understand this: if it happens again, I will set all of you to work polishing hourglasses and sharpening scythes for five thousand years. Is that clear?"
The Reapers nodded fearfully. When Death said "five thousand years", it was not a figure of speech.
The first time Death met Ranoryin, the latter was a girl of six with a knife-wound in her chest.
The girl who would become Empress Ranoryin was huddled in the back of a wardrobe with her arms wrapped around her chest. Blood soaked her tunic and pooled on the wardrobe floor.
Death knew injuries, and she knew this girl's future. The wound was painful, but shallow. She would survive and walk away unscathed. Unscathed by Death's standards, not mortals', that is.
Ranoryin looked up. Like her ancestor so many years before her, she saw Death. Unlike her ancestor, she knew her for what she was. The future Empress glared at her.
"Go 'way," she hissed, with all the righteous fury that could be summoned by an injured child.
Death nodded to her and moved on. It wasn't her time yet, anyway.
"...And then this massive creature ran at me with its head down, and it nearly gored me with its horns! I leapt to the side, and then I… Mother, are you listening?"
Death sat up straight and tried to look interested. She had been listening to Conquest's story. She just hadn't been giving it her full attention. Conquest always seemed to be running into dangerous creatures, and always defeated them after a fierce battle. There were only so many times anyone could listen to similar stories with foregone conclusions before they grew tired of them.
"I'm sure you were very brave," she said in a conciliatory tone.
Her daughter did not look impressed. "Who is he this time?"
Death blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"Who is he?" Conquest repeated. "You're usually only this distracted when you're courting another mortal."
"Not this time. I was thinking about a war that's about to break out on Earth."
Conquest raised an eyebrow. "Isn't that for War to worry about?"
"The war itself is. But the people who will die in it are my concern. I'm trying to decide which Reapers are sensible enough to deal with the battles."
"Well, whatever you do, don't appoint Reapers who'll take too many souls and win the war for the side who should lose it! Once of that was quite enough." Conquest shuddered at the memory.
Death felt the unusual sensation of embarrassment. That fiasco had been entirely her fault, and she would never be allowed to forget it.
"Which Reapers do you mean to appoint?" Conquest asked, and the conversation moved on to a discussion of the approaching war.
Death and Ranoryin met several times through the woman's life. When Ranoryin's time was up and Death went to collect her, she expected a fight.
She did not expect Ranoryin to try to stab her.
"Leave my son alone!" the Empress roared, lunging at Death with a scalpel.
Common sense would say that Death could not be killed. Common sense would be right, but not even Death liked someone attempting to attack her. She recoiled, raising her scythe to ward off the attack.
The nurses and midwives attending the Empress hurried to Ranoryin's side. None of them saw Death. None of them knew what had caused this outburst. But they knew as well as Death did that the Empress was dying. All the colour had drained from her face, and the sheets on the hospital bed were soaked with blood. Her hands shook as she tried to hold her weapon steady.
"Your Majesty, calm down," one of the nurses said soothingly, trying to take the scalpel out of her hand. "Your son is fine. Listen, you can hear him."
High-pitched cries issued from the room next door, where the newborn Prince was being bathed. Ranoryin hardly seemed to hear them. She never took her eyes off Death, even as her eyelids grew heavy and her breath came in short gasps.
"You will not take my child," she said in the tone she had used for royal proclamations.
Death almost laughed. Many mortal women had said that to her before. Some of them had backed up their demand with the threat of violence. But none had ever been able to change her mind. If she was there to collect the soul of the child as well as the mother, there was no power in heaven or earth that would stop her.
"Come, Empress," she said, stepping closer to the bed and raising her scythe. "Your time here is over."
Each beat of Ranoryin's heart pumped more blood out of her body. She had no strength left to resist the nurse laying her down on the bed and mumbling prayers over her. But she continued to glare fiercely at Death.
"I will go nowhere until you assure me my son will live." She spoke with difficulty, but there was no doubt she meant every word.
Death felt the beginnings of a headache. She had more souls to gather today. Ranoryin's stubbornness was causing an unnecessary delay.
"Your son will live until his hourglass runs out," she said. "That will not be for some years."
Ranoryin managed a triumphant smile, as if she had won a victory even though Fate had decreed her son's survival long ago.
Time passed in the mortal world. Time did not stand in the Land of the Dead. Rather, it didn't exist at all. An unfortunate consequence of this was that there were times – metaphorically speaking – when everything seemed to happen at once.
Right now Death had to deal with arguments between two dead kings (who wished to continue their war against each other even now they were dead), inexperienced new Reapers (who could never get it through their heads that they were to take souls only when the hourglass ran out and not a second before), and squabbling children. Her own children, that was. It was enough to make her consider running away for a year or two.
"Mother, I've told Pestilence time and time again to stay away from my work unless I specifically ask for his help, but he refuses to listen!" Famine paced back and forth in agitation. Death listened to her son's complaints with the weary exasperation of one who had heard it all before. "I've hardly had time to finish blighting crops before he barges in, spreading diseases everywhere, and then everyone claims that my famines caused his plagues!"
"Why are you telling me this?" Death asked, bored. She searched for a suitably ridiculous suggestion. "Get Despair to lock him up somewhere until you've finished causing famines."
Instead of laughing at the absurdity of this idea, Famine immediately brightened up. "That's just what I'll do! Thank you, Mother!"
He was gone before Death could realise what just happened. "No! I didn't mean– Oh, never mind."
Famine would come to his senses before he actually tried anything so silly. And if he didn't, Despair and Starvation could knock some sense into his head. Literally, if he annoyed them enough.
In the meantime, she had work to do.
Death mentally reviewed a list of the souls she had to gather. There was one name on the list – the latest in a long line of Caranilnavs – that had some strange importance attached to it. The girl herself would have no effect on the future; Death knew that perfectly well. But many possible futures diverged from the moment of her death.
It was intriguing. It was so intriguing that she would go to collect that soul first.
Death picked up her scythe and went to collect the soul of little Grand Duchess Varan.