News had returned of the latest exploit. Ambush successful. A weapons cache gained, five loyal lives lost.
Another handful of deaths he was now responsible for. Some drop of humanity left in him felt guilty, but the ocean was uncaring. A few families had lost a member. But he'd managed to knock Pyrope down a few long-overdue pegs. And he'd see her face when she realised she'd lost the upper hand. And he'd bask in that scarlet glare, and it would wash away his guilt for a few blissful minutes.
That's what he lived for.
The problem of having a high-functioning mind was that he couldn't stop thinking. He could not say a word without considering all its manifold implications, what people would think, how they would react... All the possibilities were painfully clear, though the mind naturally plucked out the worst case scenario just to taunt him.
If his armies discovered the reason for this war, there'd be widespread rioting for sure. Perhaps he'd even be deposed, or so his pessimism told him. Yet the most pessimistic part was in fact his realism telling him the pessimism was correct.
None of the ordinary people knew why they were fighting. Batch after batch of cloned generations had fought and fallen, memories of peace forgotten with them. They had no cause to fight for. Just an endless slog of fighting to do.
And all in the name of two lovers' rivalry?
With a mind like his, you could rally anyone around to anything. It hadn't been hard to propagandise Pyrope until she was painted in people's minds as nothing but a blemish to be removed.
He had no intention to remove her. That would cease their fun for good.
Their illicit trysts were similarly labelled as "negotiations", and himself as a "warrior of diplomacy" for even attempting them. The teleport pad in the bedroom was "convenience". The lack of advisors, "security".
Funny how people's minds were so malleable that any excuse could become concrete fact, etched into truth for history to remember. It wouldn't work on her if he tried.
And the poster above his bed. That was "patriotism". In a way, it was. Pride in what his empire was doing. Not because it was right -- which couldn't be further from the truth -- but a reminder that it would all be worthwhile on seeing her.
Beneath the caricatured face in glaring red, there was a slogan he'd penned himself. "Purge the putrid Pyrope," he read out loud.
He swivelled, sunglasses effectively masking his surprise. Stealth was another area in which they were fiercly competitive, and he hated to admit that she was nearly outclassing him. On the other hand, he was eternally leading in the art of the poker face: this served him well now.
"I had a natural advantage here, you know," he mentioned off-hand. "It's far easier to spit out the name 'Pyrope' than the name 'Strider'."
"BUT STR1111D3R 1S 34S13R TO SN3333R!" She demonstrated as such.
He sighed. "I'll concede equal ground on the nomenclature front. On the military front, though, I think you'll find -- to coin a phrase -- all your base are belong to us?"
"OH, PL34S3. TH4T 4NC13NT 34RTH M3M3 1S 3MB4RR4SS1NG, 1RON1C OR NOT. 4ND B3S1D3S! MY P4L4C3 1S ST1LL S4F3 4ND SOUND."
"Yeah, you're not even gonna pretend you give a shit about your people, are you?"
"NOP3!" And out come the teeth. They hadn't even needed to emphasise the creepiness of the grin for the posters. It scared him shitless already, but why would he admit that to her? That'd be a defeat far more crushing than any number of lives lost.
"1M UNN3RV1NG YOU, 4R3NT 1?" And holy shit, the grin gets wider. "1 LOV3 1T WH3N 1 DO TH4T! YOU W4NT SOM3 MOR3?" Her face darted right in front of his, foreheads touching, her nose taking a deep long whiff. "OOH, 1 SM3LL F34R! 4R3 YOU SC4R3D, L1TTL3 D1R -- OWW!"
As if punched, she recoiled.
"WH4T TH3 H3LL 1S TH4T SM3LL???"
"Eau de Pyrope, the perfumeries call it. All the nastiest smells they could find: mashed up, juiced and bottled. They spray it on prisoners of war during the parades, or on effigies for Bonfire Night." Her glasses had fallen off, he noted, savouring the rare hint of helplessness in her empty eyes.
Picking herself up and putting her facade back into place, she shot a disdainful, unseeing look his way. "1F 1 3V3R F1ND SOM3TH1NG TH4T SM3LLS N4ST13R TH4N TH4T, 1LL BOTTL3 TH4T UP 4ND S3LL 1T 4S 34U D3 STR1D3R."
"Imitation is the highest form of flattery."
"Isn't that what you came here to do?"
"1F 1 SCR34M 3XTR4 LOUD, DO 1 4L3RT 4LL YOUR GU4RDS 4ND M4K3 3V3RYON3 R34L1Z3 WH4TS GO1NG ON?"
"Soundproof walls. Besides, you wouldn't dare."
"WHY 4R3 YOU SO FRUSTR4T1NGLY CL3V3R?"
"Because you needed a worthy adversary. And I needed something to distract me from myself. And we both needed a diversion from just how boring it is running our respective dystopias. Are we going to do this or not?"
That look she gave him was half a scowl, half a smile. She hated him, and she loved it.
She was never one to let a drop of hate go wasted.