This is a 2-of-7 chapter sample of “Dark Lord’s Answer”. The remainder is available at Gumroad and Amazon.
Table of Contents
- The Black Castle
- Elaine of Elsewhere
- Santal’s Curse
- The Mage of Equilibrium
- A Silver for an Apple
- The Return of the Prince
- Dark Lord’s Answer
©2016 by Eliezer Yudkowsky.
This was my first attempt at writing in the Japanese light novel style, before I decided that it wasn’t enough fun and I needed to be sillier. (It’s not about Professor Quirrell. Sorry, but it’s not.)
“Dark Lord’s Answer” is only halfway to being in the light novel style, compared to “A Girl Corrupted by the Internet is the Summoned Hero?!” This writing is denser and less humorous. You might perhaps decide that this novella carries more of the vitamin of insight—or maybe not; I don’t know.
If you don’t like the first two chapters, I’d say to give up there.
Content warnings: Sexual abuse, economics.
— Eliezer Yudkowsky, Apr 2016
1. The Black Castle
The dark castle gleamed like blackened steel beneath the sun, rising up from the edge of a cliff at the end of a long winding road. Before us were fields of dark flowers that I hadn’t seen before, as if the master of that terrible castle had emitted a miasma and polluted the light and essence of ordinary flowers. The road to the castle seemed to be paved in bricks, instead of ordinary stones; black bricks, angled and ominous.
Truly, this is an abode of the Dark Lord.
The Royal Guards of our small caravan were all muttering as we came closer. Even the Commander seemed apprehensive.
I signaled Commander Brima to bring our company to a halt. The Commander looked puzzled, because she knew it’s not as if I’d go this far and then turn back.
I stepped down from the horse I was riding, securing my sword on my hip where I could draw it more easily. “I’ll go on ahead,” I said, “so you can just wait for me here.”
“Prince Nama!” cried a guard, and then—“Prince Nama!” cried another. Commander Brima didn’t look relieved.
“Surely—” began the Commander.
“It’s not as if you can protect me from anything,” I told her. “If the Dark Lord wants to kill me, he’ll kill me whether you stand in the way or not.” I’d taken companions to protect me from bandits along the way, not to throw their lives away against the Dark Lord on his throne.
Besides, the Dark Lord requires supplicants to approach him alone, without any companions. Commander Brima should know that, so in the end, she was having the type of concern that didn’t respect the obvious facts.
The dark flowers that had been planted in strips by the side of the road gave off a pleasing scent. Despite the castle’s approaching shadow, the sun remained bright in the sky. That light warmed the exposed skin of my face, and raised a baked-brick scent from where it struck the paved road.
I’d say this weather would be a fine hurrah for my life’s last day, but in truth I have no sentiment like that.
Then what am I even doing in the Dark Lord’s domain?
Well, the answer is that my country has a need.
You wouldn’t expect that a man of such great power and wickedness would be in the business of helping any person who requested it. But whether it makes any sense or not, that’s the reputation the Dark Lord has: If you approach the Dark Lord for help, he’ll give you an answer and your goal will be achieved. The price might be that his instruction says to discard your honor and give up whatever else might have come of your life.
If you ask the Dark Lord how to deal with a corrupt duchess, he might give you a poison to slay her; that’s rumored to have happened that one time. To put it another way, he’s like an ancient wisewoman who lives in a high mountain cave and speaks in riddles, except that he’s a villainous lord. In the few years since the Dark Lord became known to the world, he had already gained that reputation.
My boots clopped over the black brick road until I came to the gates of the castle. I don’t think it would come as any surprise that those gates were also black.
The gates were already open. No one came forth to meet me.
As I approached the gates, I saw a long black-stone corridor stretching ahead. It was windowless, lit only by a long line of lamps which burned with a clearer, whiter flame than the finest candle.
I walked into that long corridor without hesitating. Certainly, this act was a gamble which had its downsides, but I didn’t let that down slow my legs. Once you’ve committed to a motion, you have to follow through; if it’s something that has the potential for disaster, then flinching while you do it won’t be any less disastrous. An ambiguous situation isn’t something you can resolve by halfhearted actions. So I was taught by my Mother, the Queen.
There were many metal doors in that corridor, all of them closed. I tried none of them, since that would have been foolish.
At the end of the passage I came to a great metal double-door of white metal that gleamed like silver, though I doubted it could possibly be silver…
Unless that double-door was worth as much as a city. So that white metal couldn’t be silver.
I lifted the knocker set into the door, and knocked three times. The dull clonking sound didn’t seem like it would travel, but soon after there was a groaning noise, and the double-doors swung open.
The throne room I beheld had windows, high above, but with a black floor and black walls even the Sun couldn’t do much here. The only touch of color in the room came from the strangely white light of fires swinging in pots that descended from the ceiling.
At the end of the room, a great black throne, with two great black horns branching out from it.
Upon that mighty throne sat a gargantuan figure whose chest was clothed in black metal chain-armor and whose arms and legs and face were bare. The saying, ‘his muscles have muscles’, might have been invented to describe him alone. From the cast of that man’s eyes and nose, it seemed that he was a Ruli horse-nomad by birth—or maybe a Ruli halfbreed, since the Ruli don’t have a reputation for sagacity. His expression, as he gazed down at me, gave an impression of supreme arrogance, or rather confidence. Truly, this is the Dark Lord of whom the tales speak.
Behind his throne were various lieutenants with their own armor and weapons, giving cool gazes to me, as if to say, ‘our lord could break you with one hand, but we are here to spare him that effort’.
Also attached to that throne, by a black chain leading up to her slave collar, was a pale-skinned young woman with reddish-brown hair and downcast eyes. The flesh of her body was thick and round like a statue of a fertility goddess, not much concealed by a scanty amount of translucent red cloth. If I hadn’t been fearing for my life just then, I would have needed to suppress a squeaking sound. Sights like that aren’t ever seen in my home country; I can’t imagine that even a prostitute would dress like that, and she was more beautiful than any prostitute.
I walked down the long black carpet that led up to the throne, and knelt upon one knee, gazing up at the Dark Lord. There had been no talk in that throne room since the doors had opened for me, and a solemn air pervaded.
The Dark Lord spoke, a deep voice filled with strength. “What is your name?”
“Prince Nama of Santal,” I replied, keeping my own voice firm.
“What is your question?” the Dark Lord said next.
“My country is ill,” I said, matching his gaze with my own. “Something has turned wrong. The people are going hungry and the fields are poorly tilled, the nobles' ventures are failing and their estates are going bankrupt, the shopkeepers have no wares and laborers sit idle in the streets. No one seems to know anything about why this is happening to us, whether it’s a curse or a conspiracy. My mother’s advisors all give her contradictory advice, and none of it ever seems to help. How can my country be made healthy again?”
The Dark Lord frowned down at me. “Say more.”
“I don’t know what more to say,” I said. I kept my voice in check, not expressing any of the frustration and failure that had driven me across countries to the throne of the Dark Lord himself. “The country of Santal is perishing and nobody knows the source.”
The Dark Lord reached down to the black chain attached to his throne, and hauled up the pale-skinned woman attached to it, who made a strangling sound as her collar pulled at her throat. I suppressed any thoughts of gallant action, because a prince must not be a massive idiot.
The Dark Lord whispered something to the pale woman, and I thought I saw her lips move briefly.
Then the Dark Lord unhooked the chain off the throne’s armrest and threw her down towards me.
As she stumbled and fell close by me, I noticed for the first time that her ears were round at the tips like a beast’s, though in every other way she was shaped like an ordinary person. What the meaning of that was, I couldn’t guess. Her ears didn’t seem scarred or like somebody had shaved off the tips of her pinnae. It was like she just naturally possessed the round ears of a beast. I should have noticed that earlier, I suppose; but when I looked at that girl dressed like that, it didn’t come naturally to focus on her ears.
“I need more knowledge to answer you, Nama,” the Dark Lord said with a grim smile. “This woman will be your slave for a day, and also a night, and she’ll inquire further of your country. When she asks you questions, her ears are like my ears, and when you command her, your tongue is like my tongue. Use her just as you like, except that if any lasting harm comes to this slave, you will die. Your followers will also be given food and shelter here, but they may not speak with you until I have answered.”
“Thank you,” I said, because I was too surprised and dismayed to answer more intelligently than that.
I was silent as the slave conducted me to a huge bedroom, starkly clean with the bed all made up; I recognized a guest room for royalty.
I seated myself on the bedroom’s only chair, and the slave, without being asked, knelt down before my seat, which also gave me a clear sight down her—
No, those are immoral thoughts with respect to someone who can’t refuse my gaze.
“What’s your name?” I said to her.
“Elaine, master,” she said in an accent I couldn’t recall hearing from any foreign ambassador; and it wasn’t a style of name I recognized, either.
“Can I ask a question even though it might be rude?”
“I’m your slave, master,” she said.
That wasn’t an answer. Still, if she wasn’t going to give a signal of objection, then I’d serve my curiosity. “Well, it’s about your ears.”
The slave, Elaine, touched the naturally rounded-seeming tops of her ears, which gave her a cute beastlike appearance. “These? They’re normal for me, master. Where I come from, nobody has pointed eartips like your people.”
“There’s a foreign country where people have ears like that?” I said, astonished. “I thought people were the same shape everywhere… but that appearance is a pleasant one, I think.” I added that last part when I realized what cruel words might already have been spoken to her.
“Master, there’s many questions I must ask about your country of Santal,” Elaine said with her head still bent before me. “However, we have a day, and also a night. If you appreciate the appearance of this humble slave, and there’s anything else I can do for you, or anything you wish to do to me, I am your slave during this time.”
“Ah,” I said with great composure and perspicacity.
“If my service fails to suit you, then instruments for disciplining me may be found in the box underneath the bed—”
“Th-th-there’s no need for that!”
I’ll omit one or two things that were said after that point.
In any case, I did take the time to freshen myself, and I told her to have a meal brought in for me, if that wasn’t imposing too much on the Dark Lord’s hospitality.
Elaine went outside and spoke to someone—meaning there was a guard outside my bedroom, which wasn’t surprising—and then she came back and began to set a single place setting, at the room’s one table.
“What about you?” I said to her as she was working. “Slaves also need to eat, I think.”
“Even if you’ve already eaten this morning, I’m asking whether you’d prefer to eat more.”
“Well, what if I commanded you to eat at the table with me? Didn’t you say I was your master?”
And that’s how Elaine and I ended up moving the table over towards the bed so that she could sit on the bed itself, since the room didn’t contain another chair besides my own.
Shortly after that, two plates of roasted chicken were brought in on a tray by a thin and ugly man naked to his waist, exhibiting many scars of whip stripes all over his body. I looked at those, but only when he wasn’t facing me, since I didn’t want to rub salt in his troubles by seeming to stare.
“Do you know why that man was whipped so harshly?” I said, after he had left and the two of us had begun to eat.
“I’m sorry, master. Those scars are from before that man arrived at the Dark Lord’s castle, and he holds the matter private.”
“I see. Now why did your expression change, like you were almost but not quite smiling, when I asked you that question?”
Elaine looked startled. That’s right, a prince can sometimes tell when you’re suppressing a smile, if we’re watching you closely enough.
“Well, master,” Elaine said, “since you were watching that closely, it’s because you noticed the troubles of a male slave and not just the troubles of a female slave.”
I stared at her. “And why does that matter to you?” What was she implying?
“It was clear, master, that you were acting concerned over me. However, there’s more than one class of person who might behave like that. There’s a sort of man who will notice and act concerned for an attractive woman, and another sort of person who is compassionate toward everyone without exception. But, since both of those people will act concerned towards me, how can I tell the difference between them? The answer is that I can observe them when Loorn brings in a meal, and see if they ignore the ugly man, like the first sort of person would, or if they inquire about Loorn’s scars, like the second sort of person would. I smiled a little at that time, because I consider the second class of person to be better.”
Discerning the motives of others is a familiar problem for princes, but the way she listed out her reasoning was unusual. Just what kind of slave am I talking to?
“You’re very observant,” I said. “Of me. Personally.”
“You do intrigue me somewhat, master, but the real reason is that I’m trying to determine your character for purposes of the Dark Lord’s knowledge.”
Well, that was frank.
The two of us ate a bit more of our roasted chicken. I glanced at the way she held her silverware, and concluded that she lacked a noblewoman’s polish. It wasn’t that she was unpracticed, but her movements seemed free; she didn’t grip the fork the same way twice.
“Why would the Dark Lord’s answer depend on which sort of person I am?” I asked after sating the edge of my hunger. “It’s the country of Santal that needs an answer, not the prince of Santal.”
“The Dark Lord desires to know whether Santal’s prince can carry out the answer given. Master, may I ask you one of the Dark Lord’s questions?”
I set down my silverware and looked at her seriously. “You may.”
“Suppose you were in a hospital, and you saw a doctor carrying a rare medicine to treat a patient. But, you knew that smaller amounts of the same medicine could be used to cure five other patients instead of one. If the whole dose is given to the one patient, her life will be saved, but if the dose is split up instead, it can save five other patients who are less sick but who will still die without that medicine. Do you stop the doctor and tell him to treat the five patients instead of one?”
“Yes,” I said.
“But then the one patient, deprived of her cure, will die. The doctor was going to cure her before you intervened. So, is what you did murder? Is murder acceptable, then?”
“I don’t believe it’s murder,” I replied for the Dark Lord’s ears. It was a little humorous to see such deep questions, which would seem solemn indeed if spoken by the Dark Lord on his throne, issuing instead from a young woman with beastlike ears. I suppose that’s a disadvantage of having a slave ask your questions for you. “The doctor was just making a mistake, and I corrected him. Indeed, it would be like murdering four people if I didn’t.”
“What if the only way to make the medicine in the first place was by killing one patient who otherwise would have lived?”
Ah, I see this trap. “Then that’s different.”
“How is it different?” The slave spoke her Dark Lord’s next question without pause.
“First,” I replied, “sacrificing a human life to create a healing potion is already a very dark Magic that’s bound to corrupt everyone involved with it.”
“Imagine it’s more mundane than that,” she said. “Imagine you’re simply draining the blood from that person and distributing it among the others who need blood; there’s nothing magical about it, just an ordinary matter of those people needing blood.”
This is what you call ordinary?!
After some further discussion and refinement of the Dark Lord’s question, I said—
“It’s a matter of whether you’re troubling people who aren’t involved, or only judging among those whose lives are already at stake. That’s the problem with draining a bystander’s blood to save five other people, even if you say there’s no other way to save them.”
“Either one person lives, or five people live. Why does it make a difference who you call involved?”
“Elaine—” I said. “No, it’s the Dark Lord I’m speaking to, isn’t it? I can see how this act is a metaphor for other choices a ruler makes, and I answer that the ruler must not do those acts for which this is a metaphor. The ordinary people of a kingdom have to live in fear of many things. That farmers must fear bad weather and starvation is a given; nobody can change this. Must they also fear offending the nobles above them? That’s also a given, but we can lessen that fear by setting good judges in place over the nobles' estates. It would still be unwise to laugh at your baron, but at least he can’t execute you on a whim. The fear in which ordinary people live can’t be removed, but it can be lessened. The price of sacrificing an innocent person to save five others, is that everyone in your kingdom needs to live in fear of bad weather, starvation, and being the next one you sacrifice.”
“Then is it all right to sacrifice condemned criminals to make medicine?”
“It’s certainly better than hauling innocent farmers out of their fields, but I’d still worry it was excessive justice. If you execute pickpockets rather than whipping them, it changes how the common people treat your guards.”
“What about if somebody is dying anyway? Would it be all right to take out their organs and give them to other people whose organs were troubled, if that could be done safely and without dark magic? You couldn’t point to someone then and say, this person is dying, who would otherwise have lived. But still five people would be saved. Would you do that?”
“I don’t think I would, though we never know until life tests us. And I’m beginning to wonder, are these peculiar questions really the Dark Lord’s, or are you just teasing me?”
Elaine wasn’t smiling. “It might have been better for you, master, if you were not so virtuous. They say, ‘The Dark Lord will give you an answer and your goal will be achieved’, but—”
“But the price is that his answer might violate the rules of righteous conduct,” I said. “That’s something I’m already resigned to. I knew the tales of the Dark Lord when I came here.”
Elaine held out both her hands, dropping one and raising the other, as if holding weights in a balance. “And yet you wouldn’t harvest the organs of one dying patient to save five other people, because to you that seems to violate the rules of good conduct.”
I see. “Saving five people isn’t like saving my whole country. I’ll throw away my honor if that’s what it takes to save the country of Santal. If it’s a Magical curse that has to be countered by draining the blood of an innocent, then I’ll do that much with my own hands, in order to save the countless ordinary people of Santal who are suffering.” I didn’t let myself flinch as I said it, because indeed I was already determined. “I know, just by saying that, I’ve already thrown away my honor. Coming to the Dark Lord’s castle is the act of a villain in the first place, and I won’t flinch from that. But aside from that, I intend to go on acting righteously in the parts of my life that remain to me. That’s my answer to the Dark Lord.”
We finished eating the rest of our meal.
When we were done eating, Elaine moved the room’s chair back to where it had been and knelt before it without giving me a chance to say otherwise. Then she began to question me about the country of Santal that I was trying to save.
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