Of all arts, the most difficult was the art of reigning.
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in hell:
Better to reign in hell than serve in heav'n.
In that tyme… reygned a grete pestylence.
Watch, Dennis. Watch.
Dennis Hamilton watched. He had no choice. He was once more a captive of his dream, a slave of the very emperor he had himself been for the last quarter of a century, the character he had created. And now that character came to life before his eyes, stood there grinning as nakedly as if the skin of the face were transparent, revealing the skull beneath.
Who, Dennis wondered, would the Emperor kill tonight? Which of the people he loved? His wife? His son? John, his manager, or Marvella, his costumer, or Curt, his stage manager? Night after night, he had taken them all in dreams, killed them all by grasping their necks in his left hand, which seemed as huge and monstrous as the necks seemed thin and frail, and shaking them until those pencil-necks snapped with the sound of cracking twigs, and the bodies had fallen like empty sacks, and the grin had widened until it threatened to raven the world, and Dennis would awake with tears in his eyes, and turn and clutch Robin's warmth, waking her to comfort him.
Who tonight? Who? He saw her then, dimly at first, as through a fog, or a gray-tinted window, but he recognized her immediately. Though twenty-five years had passed, he knew her, for he had never forgotten, never stopped feeling what he had felt when he was so young, when emotions had been taut as wires, sensitive as exposed flesh in winter.
She was older, but still as lovely as he remembered. Her honey-blonde hair was shorter than it had been, but still long, falling to her shoulders like a veil. She wore a dress – or was it a gown? – of white. She seemed, Dennis thought at first, dressed for a wedding.
But when the Emperor stepped into the frame of his sight, he knew instead that she was dressed for a sacrifice.
Ann's neck did not change, did not diminish and thin as the others had. And the Emperor's hand, when he grasped her, no longer grew in size. A hand it remained, though one with great strength. It squeezed, and Dennis saw Ann's face go white with pain, though there was no fear in her eyes. She looked, not at her attacker, but at him, and in her gaze was mingled a plea and a longing, both emotions mirrored in his own thoughts.
He moved toward her as he had with all the others, to save and to protect. But unlike before, when the thick and fluid bonds of dream held him back, now he flew forward with a dazzling speed that blinded him, and when he could see again, he knew that it was his hand that was clutching Ann's throat, his eyes that were blazing into hers, those green spheres clouded with approaching death.
He gasped, and tried to release his grip, loosen the fingers that dug into the flesh so deeply that the tips were hidden.
He could not. The fingers, his but not his, pressed harder. The eyes refused to obey his demand to close, the mouth, rebel to his will, grinned with teeth he could not see, and Ann faded away as she had on that day long ago, from his sight, from his love, from his life
Dennis Hamilton awoke weeping. His body was slick with sweat, and he felt hot and cold at once.
'Dennis?' Robin's voice, full of love and concern, echoed in the darkness. 'What's the matter? What's wrong?'
He grasped at her, and when he felt her arms go around him, he let himself go completely, let the sobs shake his body.
'The dream?' she asked. 'The same dream again?'
'Yes,' he said. 'The same.' It had come at irregular intervals, unpredictably and unexpectedly, for nearly a year.
'Who this time?'
He didn't answer right away, and he could sense her curiosity in the dark. To give him time to decide what to say, he reached up and turned on the dim reading light over his side of the bed.
'You're sweating,' Robin said. 'Do you feel all right?'
He nodded. 'It was you,' he told her. 'I dreamed that he was hurting you… choking you.'
She looked so young in the rose-colored light. Her dark hair cupped her face like a pair of gentle hands, and the edge of the sheet was draped over her waist, exposing her full, round breasts. Dennis felt desire trying softly to usurp his previous apprehension.
'It's just a dream,' she said, reaching out and smoothing the damp hair back from his forehead. 'Dreams can't hurt you.'
'But it frightens me,' he said, taking her hand and pressing it to his cheek. 'It seems so real, and I worry about… about what it might mean.'
'We've talked about this before,' she said with a sigh, 'and you're not angry at me, darling. You're not angry at any of the people you've seen hurt in your dreams, even if you are the one who's doing the hurting.'
'I'm not the one,' he said. 'It's the Emperor, I told you that. It's him every time, not me.'
She touched his cheek. 'After tomorrow there won't be any emperor anymore, will there? You can replace him with another dream – a dream you've had for so long. One that's going to come true.'
He smiled at her, remembering. 'Yes,' he said finally. 'I guess it will.'
'Can you sleep now?' she said. 'It's going to be a big day. A very big day. Shall I call Sid? Have him fix some warm milk to help you sleep?'
'No. No thanks. It's all right.' He turned off the light and put his head on the pillow. Robin leaned over and kissed him.
'Sleep well,' she said. 'Sweet dreams now. Or no dreams at all. I love you.'
'And I love you,' he said, meaning it. But he went back to sleep remembering Ann.