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Lord Percy

This follows on from Granny’s Visit. (Proof read a little bit. No substantive changes.)

To some extent, when you are my size, the problem in life is to be taken seriously by intellectuals.  Someone who applies themselves repeatedly to a task can become proficient at almost any skill, provided that they are not hopelessly unsuited, and become passing good at it.

This I had endeavoured to do in many things, but the thing that came most easily was fighting with the sword and the mace, and next to these things all other tasks required more dedication than I necessarily had time to give.  In truth though I have always been stubborn when it comes to knowledge and knowledgeability, and have stuck to tasks long after other souls would have abandoned them, so I become proficient in languages; those of the dark people, residing under the earth; those of the noble god-kings in the equatorial lands, and their mathematics and geometry too; and the language of the flying things, the people of the light and the flower people.

The insights this gave, I find hard to describe, but I see that the world is not always as the culture and traditions of my birth would have it, we are a parochial people by nature, private and severe.

One of our most severe traditions is trial by combat.  Any man may challenge his better, that would be me right now, I’m the Emperor, and the man challenging me is Lord Percy a foppish idiot who had the temerity to question my word over something as foolish as asking for the room.

I know why he did it, witchcraft is against the law, something I very soon intend to change, and I was entertaining a witch who had the self-assurance to walk right into the palace and give me a bit of any inspection.  M’Lord Percy couldn’t tolerate that and now I might be forced to end his life over it.  What a stupid reason.

Granny Wakefield left and I arrived outside the door to the palace with my second, my good friend, Berkshire, Lord Berkshire of Montrose actually, and Carruthers, my manservant.

“I’m a serf actually, your Majesty.”  Said Carruthers.  I stopped mid-stride.  His talent for writing as we walked was invaluable, and yet he’d just told me he wasn’t even paid as such.

“I thought serfdom died out, I thought you were paid.”  Carruthers sighed.

“Alas no, Your Majesty, you predecessor saw fit to reintroduce the institution as soon as he ascended the throne.  Most of the Palace staff live in as a result.” He said.  I ground my teeth somewhat.  I reached back and grasped his lapel on his uniform.

“Gently.”  Said Berkshire.  I let go and patted the man back into shape.

“My apologies Carruthers.  Soon as we sorted this Percy business out, that’s our next order of business, alright?”  Carruthers looked unflustered.

“As you wish, sir.  Shall I made a note of it.”  His pen was poised.

“Carruthers, you can interrupt whatever distractions I get into, in fact, it is your duty to interrupt whatever distractions I get into after this, in order to keep me on track to fix this.  Understood?”

He scratched away with the pen, “Understood, Sir.”  Berkshire looked at me.

“There’s been a lot of damage in ten years.”  I clapped him on the shoulder and smiled.

“No rest for the wicked.”  I said.  “We’ve got a lot of fixing up to do, so you better gird your loins.”

“It’s not my loins I’m worried about.  It’s my brain.  Have you seen the state of the paperwork?”

“Yes, well never mind that now.  Let’s sort this ass out.”  We went out.  I rolled my eyes.  Percy was done up like something out of some sort of mummers play, and he had two seconds, and as far I could make out some thirds, fourths and a small crowd of fifths and hangers on too.  This was going to be a show.  He really only had to bloody me to show that I wasn’t immortal, or some sort of demi-god and people would question everything.

Thing is, I want them to question things, but in an orderly way.  I have some ideas, but they are not well formulated yet.

In the meantime, I had to bring him to heel.

At least the gathered crowd had the grace to give a small smattering of applause.

I smiled and waved graciously.

“Perhaps I should take your cloak, Your Majesty?”

“Most kind, Carruthers.”  I said in a loud voice.  “Thank you for your consideration.”  He bowed slightly, and I bowed, not as deeply, in return.  The sounds of susurration reached us clearly.  Berkshire stepped over and opened a wooden box he had been carrying.

“Have you ever thought of working on just one thing at once?”  He murmured.  I looked into the box and the rapier with the huge handle, which he’d had made, by the evidence, sometime in the recent past.  “How did you know I’d need this?  And no, I haven’t.”

“I knew it,” Berkshire said, “as soon as they started making you carry that damned pin.”  He fingered the end, which had a small brass ball on it.  “You won’t stab anyone with this, but the blade will have a fearful whip about it in your hands, if you so fancy.”

I took the weapon, if you could call it that, up out of the box.  It fit my hand very well, but was not longer than any other rapier, at least scale wise, which gave me a clear six inches on the good M’Lord Percy.  Berkshire was right though, I wouldn’t stab him with it.  I noticed that the ball was not polished though.

“Bit of a rough finish there wot?”  I said, examining the pitted surface more closely.  It looked more regular than I expected.  “What’s this about.”  Berkshire in response brought out a large piece of chalk from his doublet, wrapped in wax paper, and exposing the chalk rubbed it vigorously on the little ball.  A great deal of the chalk stayed on it.

“Go fight.  Don’t get stabbed.”  I gave him an old-fashioned look.

“I’ll do my very best not to.”

I approached the clearing the crowd had so kindly left for us.

“M’lord Percy.  I understand you’re dissatisfied with my orders.”  I said and waited.

“Your Imperial Majesty.  I, Lord Percival Montague the Third, son of Percival, Lord Montague the second, son of…” He droned on for some time and Carruthers can fill in all the details later if he so desires, but really you don’t need it, it took some time and my mind wandered.

What it wandered to was this.  Most of the crowd was stood behind Percy, but there was another crowd coming up the hill, and it was made of farmers and peasants and tradesmen and women, the less well to do ones, the ones who scraped by.  And leading them was a fresh-faced young woman with blonde hair, well dark blonde anyway, and deep blue eyes.  She was clearly recently scrubbed up and dressed and looked like she’d run half way to the castle and been carried the rest.  She as pinching her cheeks to make them look rosy, but saw me looking at her, somewhat of a rose among the thorns, and put her hands down by her side.  She dropped her eyes briefly, trying to be demure or something, but I was holding her gaze and she returned mind almost defiantly, and then after a minute, yes, Percy droned on for that long, put her hands on her hips and dropped one, tapping her other foot.

I smiled.  This was Marjorie.  I was sure of it.

The sun touched the horizon.

“Let us fight, M’Lord, before we lose the light.”  I interrupted.

“Right,” he said, uneasily.  “Are you sure you want to fight me with that toy?  You cannot draw blood without a tip you know.”  That annoyed me.

“I do not want to waste a man today, M’Lord, so this will mark you when I strike.  If you draw blood you have your point and I will do what thou will in the challenge.  So state it formally.  If you cannot strike me, cannot draw blood, then you will swear fealty, and for a period of one year, you shall go about in public with a sign of my touch upon you.  Agreed?”

“Agreed.  Suffer not a witch to live for she is a blight upon the land.  Your Imperial Majesty entertained one such and took no steps to correct her, nor punish her, nor imprison her.  The royal person entertained her and did service upon her and dismissed the beloved courtiers and servants of the royal household, and I seek satisfaction for the slight upon the royal house.”

Nothing like a little arrogance in the face of certain chalk, I thought.

“We’ll stop when you get tired.”  I said.  “From fatigue or humiliation.”  I added.  That really made him cross.

“En garde!”  He said.  I assumed the position.

Now, about this time I guess you’re expecting some technical description of the fight, and indeed the elves, from whom the term “En garde!” comes, had taught me well.  I was younger then and didn’t have time for theory; I had time for the young elf women, who thought me most extraordinary and I’m a little ashamed to say that I took full advantage.

It was an education in many ways.  For one thing I learned a lost of history.  The Elven language in its original form is called Français, we would say French; and is thousands of years old.  Unlike other languages though, it is preserved unchanging from a time in which our entire planet and way of life was different.  It was the only language preserved because the native speakers valued it being static and unchanging, writing many books about how it was to be spoken and written.  French was one of the ancient languages from before history was history, and it has words we have know idea the meaning of, only that they relate to ideas and concerns that have long passed from memory.

Most of all though, I learned to dance, with light young ladies, and with a rapier, and it takes nothing to recall a memory of better times.

I remember the weapon being a dance, a ballet.  Its use is a lightness of being, a drift in clouds compared to the brutal clang of the broadsword and the mace.  A barely heard sweep is the sound of the rapier, not the swoosh of the air being brutalized by the cut of iron.  It is better to pad in slippers with such a thing, than to clomp about in steel shoes, and Percy might as well have been wearing full armour for all the grace he showed as he stamped and trust toward me, keeping a single line, feet parallel, a yacht to be keeled over as he knifed along his imaginary perch.

I danced from side to side, I pirouetted, I soared, I floated, I danced and flirted, I bounded, and I was upon him, steel together, and then I darted away again like a bird, a small “pof!” of sound where I struck him in the shoulder. A large white mark puffed up while he spun around, discomfited.

I retired.

“You know,” said Berkshire, “if you hit him a bit less hard, the chalk lasts a few hits.”  He took the sword and chalked it up again.  “And you’ll break his collarbone if you do that too often.”

“I don’t want to humiliate the man by playing with him.”  I replied.

“You won’t be humiliating him if you let him cut you by accident.”

“Please.”  My tone could possibly be described as derisive, yes.  I didn’t say it loudly.

Percy took up the position again.

“End it.”  Whispered Berkshire.  I looked over at Marjorie.  She had an undecipherable look on her face and she jutted her chin out in Percy’s direction, urging me to get on with it.

I looked at the man and, not raising my sword, waited.  After a few reluctant seconds he said,

“Touché, your majesty.”

I raised my sword.

Honestly, I thought the man had lost his mind at this point, because he just rushed at me it seemed.  When I looked at it again later in my head, I realised that he had employed good technique, generally, but he was really cross, and not thinking straight, so I stuck the ball in his other shoulder.  He still barrelled into me, not the form, and bounced off, falling awkwardly.  I instantly reached out to catch him, but his sword was up and I caught this instead, gripping it tightly.

What came away was a bent mass.  He looked at it from his prone position, and then mustering as much dignity as he could manage, got up and went to his seconds.

I was a bit embarrassed to tell the truth, and I motioned Berkshire and Carruthers to silence as I waited to see what the man would do.  He returned a few moments later with a fresh rapier, corked and presented me the hilt while kneeling.  He then ritually removed the cork and placed the pint against his heart, head bowed.

“My life is yours, Your Majesty.”

“What?”  I said, without any grace or aplomb whatsoever.

“My life is yours Your Majesty.  By custom, tradition and law my life is yours because I have threatened the royal personage and found myself to be in the wrong.”

“Is this because I tried to help you up?”

“Yes your Majesty.  Even while I was trying to harm you, you tried to help me.  I am humiliated before God and the populace.”

“Get up, man.”  He looked up.  “Damn well get up.” I repeated.  He rose.

“We’ll have a longer talk in private.  But I want everyone to hear this.”  I raised my voice.  “Lord Percy challenged my actions upon a point of law, a law which I feel is unjust and is, because right now I’m in charge, going to change for the better.  I don’t want to hear of any man or woman from now on raising their hand against the witches.  I know they serve the peasants and the commons, and that’s their place.  I know they have a lot of respect, and I respect them too, so anyone raising their hand to a witch will answer to me personally.  Lord Percy had really only one recourse to challenge me, and that’s stupid, so we’re going to change that soon as well.  In the meantime he’ll pay his penance, as agreed, but not blame attaches to this brave man.”  I raised his arm up as far as I dare.  “A cheer for Lord Percy for standing up for his beliefs and the law.”  A ragged cheer did go up, and I let the man go.  Then a man in the crowd shouted,

“A cheer for our merciful Emperor!”  And a much louder cheer went up, which, to be fair, to, well, ah me, was very gratifying.  But one didn’t cheer.

There she was, standing alone, the crowd a little away from her, and she started clapping slowly, almost sarcastically at first, but I could see a smile on her face.  Around Marjorie others took up the clapping and it became a cheer and talk and clapping and pats on the back and handshakes and our workers, not serfs, not servants; employees, started bringing out beer and cold cuts and bread and all manner of good things for the assembled, and torches were lit and tents raised and late, late into the night, just before dawn, when the last of the revellers were just falling asleep, a few singers trying to hang on to the very last, a hand slipped into mine.

Silent, Marjorie led me to low hill nearby, where we could see the silhouettes of trees and the river flowing below, just visible in the mist before sunrise.  And there we sat and talked about many things, one of which was Empire.

“You own everything as far as the eye can see.”  She said.

“I suppose I do,” I reflected, “technically.”  She looked up from where she was leaning on my shoulder.

“Technically?”  I shrugged a little.

“How much can a man truly own.  In my experience it’s the horse he rides, the land he tills and the house he has built.  Nothing more.”

“But you’re the Emperor.”

“Aye.”

“So you own everything.  By right of might and the armies you command.”  I looked down at her.

“Oh well if might is all that matters, I do own everything, but where’s tomorrow’s food coming from if no-one farms it.  From my hand, so I’m a farmer.  Where’s the water to come from?  A well, so I’m a digger.  And where’s all the waste going to go?  So I’m a composter.  Wood, from the forest…”

“I take the point.  So you need servants.”

“I need people to service the government, and I need someone to cook for the household, because I have not the time to do it and rule.”

“Servants.”

“Employees, people free to come and go.  People who choose to work for me because I am a good employer and treat them kindly.”

“There are none of those.”

“Then perhaps it is time there were some.”

“Will you really change the law on witches?”  She changed the subject.

“I have changed it.”  I shifted a bit to face her better. “Technically I’m a tyrant.  When I spoke, that became law.  It’s not right you know, that sort of thing.”

“Oh?  Why?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”  She arched an eyebrow,

“I want to hear you say it.”

“Alright.”  I took a deep breath.  “I have taken lives, my brother’s for one.”  I paused, carefully watching her face.

“I am aware, do carry on, we all know what he was.”

“So, when I do that, it’s my responsibility, not the state.”

“State of what?”

“No, I mean not the Empire, I might be acting as ruler, but it’s me deciding, not the position.  It is the act of a man, not an institution.”

“Why is that important, you’re one and the same.”

“No, we’re not.  It’s important because anyone could act on behalf of the state and make that decision, but not carry it out.  They would not have to face the consequences of their actions.  When someone faces me in battle, they and I know it is them or me, unless one of us gives quarter.  It’s been known.  I’m well aware of my natural advantages, so I’m careful with that power.  As Emperor I have that power a hundred-fold, a thousand-fold.  If decided every firstborn child was to be put to death a fanatic like a Percy would see to it.  I wouldn’t have to see a single dead child.”

“You’d have to be some sort of monster to do that.”

“You said that you know, everybody knows, what my brother was.”

“Yes, point made.  That’s not you.”

“No.  Anyway, that would be the state acting, and the state should not have the power of life or death over its citizenry.  Whatever the circumstances.”

“Why?  And you don’t have citizens, whatever they are, you have subjects.”

“Subjects are owned by the state.  From now on we have citizens.”  I said, carelessly.  She got up and curtseyed.

“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty.”  I must have looked a bit wild eyed because she laughed and sat down again.  “You did sort of phrase it as a command.”

“Sorry, you’re right, I did.  I wish I could decree it though.”

“It wouldn’t do any good.”  I think it was that moment I fell in love with her, because she understood.  She got it.

“No, it wouldn’t.  At least someone understands.”

“I do.  Granny educated me well.”

“You’re special.”  She laid her head on my arm again.

“So are you.”  She said, and together we watched the sun rise.

Flight

I used to fly.

I don’t mean on an aeroplane, like ordinary mortals.  I mean I used to fly, free and unencumbered, by my own power.

It was freedom.  It was bliss, a greater joy than you will ever know.  I was like… like a superhero, an angel.

I felt inside as though I shone brighter than the sun, not with heat, but pure light and lightness.

The sheerest pleasure I could feel was to sneak out of my bed at night and arise into the sky free and clear.

~

Here’s a few things you don’t necessarily know as a child.

Air gets a lot colder as you go up.  It’s only as an adult that I can truly appreciate that the need to wear warm socks, two pairs of thick trousers and multiple upper layers when above five thousand feet is common sense.  And gloves, covered by thick mittens, with possibly a charcoal handwarmer.

My parent rushed me to hospital more than once after I’d been “sitting on the roof” with hypothermia.  As a child I had remarkable powers and remarkable intelligence in some areas, but I was dumb as a post in others.

What didn’t help is that I didn’t understand either about wind chill.  Wind chill is the enemy.  It causes one to freeze up even faster than fly up high.  Problem was if I couldn’t move, I couldn’t steer.  I’m lucky to be alive, because I’m not invulnerable, though generally my bones don’t break, (I have broken a toe, some crazy how), so hitting the ground from a great height really hurt.

The human body appears to be naturally hydrodynamic.  It is not naturally aerodynamic.  I didn’t have; some magical or naturally occurring force-field to keep the wind out of my face, super-strength so I could punch my way through the air, or, a natural resistance to friction.

I wore swimming goggles, the ownership of which my parents attributed to my deathly fear of water.  I do in fact have an absolutely hydrophobic fear of being surrounded by water, this is why I will go swimming from time to time and dive.  We don’t let our fears define us.  I don’t drink water unless I absolutely must.  I drink coffee, grandma.

The swimming goggles kept the worst of the bugs out of my face and stopped the wind-chill freezing my eyeballs to blindness.  You want fear?  Try being a few hundred feet up, blind, and not knowing which way is up or down while feeling, essentially, weightless.  Actually don’t do that, it’s terrifying.  I’d rather a monster came out of the wardrobe.

I don’t know how I got my eyesight back.  There’s been some damage I’m paying for now.

The air gets thinner.

So there I am, with the greatest power and freedom in the world, I can fly, just take off, out my window, but I’m what eight years old?  So I know that the atmosphere gets thinner, but I don’t understand the consequences of that.  I think I’ll just take deeper breaths or faster breaths or something.

That wasn’t going to, well, ah, um, fly.

Dad worked from the house very often, so I stole a small oxygen cylinder that he used for welding from the garden.

I tried to steal a small oxygen cylinder that he used for welding from the garden.

What I actually did was unlatch the cylinder from the frame he wheeled it around in and then stayed under the fallen device, barely able to breathe; I’m sure you’ll appreciate the irony, until morning.

Never do this.

Do not try to explain to you parents either that you needed the oxygen for high altitude flying.  What this gets you is a lot of shouting and screaming, a bloody good hiding, (for lying), and then some long silences and then some protracted visits to the psychologist’s office where you have to clamp your mouth shut at all time lest some unguarded word or deed escapes you and you’re confiscated by the government for probulation.  I was described as “intelligent but the most uncooperative child I’ve ever met.”  I didn’t even look at this man for two years, I still don’t know what he looks like.

There were toys though.

So it turns out that I couldn’t lift the heavy things, so no oxygen for me.  Apparently, the clothes on my back were about as much as I could manage.

I wasn’t a superhero, that was clear.

Oh, unless you have binoculars you don’t really have to go very far up so that you can’t see anything significant on the ground.  I lost many pairs and got into a lot of trouble for it.  Put the strap around your neck.

Don’t fly so low that you run into power lines.  Electrocution is not the problem, not grounded see, but it hurts and they’re not visible at night at any kind of speed.

Don’t buzz helicopters.  They are the scariest thing in the sky, I still have nightmares about getting my head cut off mid-flight.  I think the pilots have those nightmares too.

Oh, and once last thing.

On any day that I flew I was using up all that energy, thousands and thousands of calories.  I ate all the time and hardly ever slept because I was hungry and also hopped up on caffeine, Gran.

I have diabetes now, and I’m overweight, and no matter how much exercise I get, it’s not flight, so I don’t lose weight.

But that’s not what stopped my flight.  What stopped it was that it was boring and dangerous and somehow, I was always in trouble even though no-one could see me fly.

Although, if I’m honest, truly honest with myself, I stopped because no-one could see me fly.  No-one clapped and cheered for the joy of it.  No-one said, “Wow that’s amazing!”  I never got a costume, never got plaudits.  Just flew by myself, frightened and in the dark, where I was alone, and scared of the dark.

I miss it though.

Granny’s Visit

So I have won. The great general and now they crown me Emperor and for what?  A mess of pottage, all the gold in the kingdom and all the malfeasance the kings and barons of the country can get away with.

Oh yes, it’s been said before but bears repeating, who rules in my stead?  A body of thousands, in essence.  All the petty civil servants and backstabbers and let us not forget those who genuinely believe in what I’ve done.  At least they are actually loyal, and the best of them are not loyal to me, but an idea, an idea bigger than me to be sure.  I count it fortunate that it is thus, perhaps when I am assassinated by some rogue or wizard the Empire will continue for a time in relative peace before the chaos resumes.  Oh yes, there is always chaos, even though my predecessors said that they would set up a dynasty that would “rule for a thousand years”, oh yes, men of vision.  Usually that vision extended to some poor wench they found desirable and at least their beauty lasts in the portrait gallery even if they didn’t.

Someone should remember them.  I have clerks tracking down their families, I think the treasury could spare a little compensation.  It’s the poor that pay the taxes after all.

Oh how they cringe and fawn when they come to see me, grovelling and shuffling.  I’m an intimidating figure to be sure and the trapping of office can only increase that sense of smallness, but really, have we bent the back of the common man so that he cannot stand?

Truth is, it is likely that we have, well, my antecedents anyway.  I make them sit down with me at table, sup wine, or milk if that is their fancy, take meat.  I fear some of them have not seen a piece of crackling in many a good year.  I have clerks on that matter too.  I hear there have actually been protests, but I swear that there will be a good crop next year, or at least the year after.  These people have not even heard of crop-rotation let alone had the use of tools or irrigation.

I wondered what the treasury had been used for, it was so depleted.

I am a fratricide now, because I found out.  I reasoned that such a one should not live, because a mind that would keep those records is one which cannot be contained.  I shall not detail them here lest this fall into the hands of more delicate persons.  Frankly, I count myself among them, after that.  I didn’t draw it out, and I did not place the responsibility in the hands of another.  In fact I pensioned off all the “inquisitors” and executioners and told them that they might perhaps be better off retiring to a quiet corner where they were less well known.  Most of them took that advice.  Those that did not, well, the citizenry can be cruel hard judges.  I will not be instituting jury trials for miscreants for some time to come.

Anyone put to death will die by my hand.  The state should not kill, I’m responsible, so I’ll do it.  When I really must.

It’s the one thing that the citizens appreciate, they understand it, and I think it has reduced the fear that pervades everywhere.  Oh the solders are still something fierce and cruel, and I’ve issue a few commands backed up by a large fist.  It’s good to see the sergeants nodding in approval.

~

An old witch came to see me.  She was very wizened indeed, but puissant.  I’m surprised, witchcraft has been outlawed a hundred years, but I know the peasants have always hidden the good midwives among them.  I was going to ignore it, but she just walked right in as if she owned the place.  One of the guards tried to restrain her, it wasn’t pretty the way she dislocated his shoulder like that.  Got her a reputation right off, and then some fool tried to shoot her with an arrow.  I wasn’t quick enough, but she was, turned it right around and got him in the shoulder.

When I did get there she just stood and looked at me, and then blow me down with a feather, she rolled a cigarette with one hand.  I went to light a match, but honestly the look she gave me, I think I must have blushed, because most of the court looked away.  She smoked the whole thing before she said a word.

“So, you’re him then.  The new high and mighty.”  I could see how this was going to go unless I headed it off at the pass.  I nodded, but said,

“Yes Little Mother, perhaps I could make you a cup of tea?”  She looked at me with gimlet eye.

“You mean get one of your milksop lackeys to pour me a cup of barely seen the leaf?”  She accused.

“Indeed no, Little Mother, I have a kettle and the making of strong tea by the fire here.”  I’d had them keep a fire going since moving in, the whole place was damp.

“And will a cup of team made by an Emperor fix me lumbago, cure gout and make beer a penny a pint?”  She said irritably.  “And don’t you offer an old woman a chair these days?”  I offered her an arm so that we could walk the very short distance to the comfortable chair by the fire, but she looked it disdainfully.  “I’m old, not crippled.”  And she stamped off to the chairs. She fussed about arranging her skirts and stick and baggage, I’m sure all witches come with baggage, while I brought the kettle to the boil and poured a pot of tea with two extra spoons of tea leaves.  I made sure to choose the extra fine strainer.

“Milk or lemon, madame?”  She looked horrified.

“Milk!  What d’you think I am, some sort of airy-fairy aristocrat?”  She peered at me again.  “I’ll take a lemon to ward off the scurvy though,” she said, shrewdly.  I made a gesture and one of my trusted flunkies scurried off to fetch what I was sure would be a whole bag of lemons.  I handed her the tea and held some sugar tongs.

“One lump or two?”  I said proffering the bowl.

“Six!” She said instantly and took the tongs and loaded the tea.  I wondered if it would have the capacity, but after the fourth a piece of wax paper appeared about her person and she wrapped the last two in it and secreted it in the fold of her skirt.  After this she sipped the tea, and, the gods blessing on me, closed her eyes for a moment as she drank.

“Well then,” she said, replacing the cup in the saucer and holding it out to me.  I refilled it, “you can make an old lady a cup of tea and no mistake.  But are you fit to be Emperor?”  The was a huge intake of breath from the assembled.  She looked about, and the chattering stopped.

“Would you excuse me for a moment, Madame?  Perhaps you would like a biscuit?”  I handed her a heavily laden plate while standing.  I turned to the assembled.

“My lords and ladies, I’m sure you all the important duties to attend to, so perhaps you would go and attend to them.”

“You’re, you’re dismissing us?”  There’s always one.

“Yes, my Lord Percy, I am.”

“But,”

“If you have a problem with my entirely reasonable request, perhaps we could discuss the matter later, at sunset, when unencumbered by the presence of ladies who might be offended by the presence of blood,” I paused, “et cetera.”  And I placed my hand on the hilt of my sword.

Now the thing is, that really I attempted to place my hand on the hilt of my sword, but habitually I carried around a two-handed bastard sword that it took typically two men to lift, unless they were about my size, and it would take any four of Lord Percy; but I’d been persuaded that a six foot long sharpened metal bar was not suitable attire for palace wear, so unfortunately I had look for it.  Someone had furnished me with some that looked the size and shape of a knitting needle, and only my first two fingers would have fitted into the hilt.

The flunky, I shouldn’t call him that, Carruthers, came back with the lemons.  he sized up the situation and retained one even as he, quite graciously, game the lemons to the witch lady, who I noted mentally, had not as yet, graced us with her name.

Percy was smiling.

“If, your Imperial Majesty, you intend to challenge me with that weapon, should I allow some time for you to become proficient with it?”  There was an “oooh” from the crowd.

“That won’t be necessary.”  I said, as coldly as I could manage.  I took the knitting needle, sorry, rapier, out of the holder thingy, it was some quaint clip arrangement.  Holding it by the pointy end I said, “Pull!” and Carruthers threw the lemon high into the air.  I threw the sword as hard as I could and stabbed the lemon through the heart of its flesh, the sword continuing to the stone work vaulting of the ceiling and burying itself to the hilt in the lemon, which dripped.  On Lord Percy.

“Any questions?”  I asked, mildly.  Everyone except my immediate flunkies, sorry, civil servants, filed out silently.  “Sunset, Percy, out the front.”

“Yes, my Lord.” He replied bowing out of the room.  I felt his voice was quite broken.  I sat down and tried to take a biscuit from the plate but was thwarted by its vast emptiness.  The witch had enough social graces to look a little sheepish and then in the other direction as I held the plate out to Carruthers.

“Carruthers, I find that this plate is empty, quite an unacceptable state of affair when entertaining a guest, don’t you think?”  He took the plate.

“Quite so, Sir.  I’ll rectify the situation immediately.”  He might have had a faint smile hovering about his lips, hard to tell.

I looked at the old woman.

“Perhaps you could get some of the posh ones.”  Her head snapped around.

“I don’t need any airs and graces…”  Carruthers interrupted smoothly,

“With the thicker chocolate?  The ones that don’t travel?”  I looked at her again.

“A few airs wouldn’t go amiss I suppose.” She gave, grudgingly, “But no graces, mind.”

“Perhaps few, suitable for, ah, immediate company.”  I said.  The man bustled off.

I sat.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit Madame…”  I left it hanging.

“You’re a good bully.” She said, ignoring this.  “Is that all you can do?”  She held the cup out again and I refilled it.

“I can make tea suitable for witches.” I said, evenly.

“Oh, can yer?  I thought you was making tea for a poor old woman, not a hoity-toity witch.  I think you got me mixed up with someone else.”

“No, Madame.  Please what should I call you?”

“Well you can stop calling me Madam, I ain’t never been no-one’s Madam.”  She declared, loading up her tea again.  It struck me later that she had very good teeth for someone who consumed such a large amount of sugar.  I guess she might not always have had the chance to do so, so I couldn’t begrudge her.  I saw her face relent slightly from its habitual suspicion.  “You can call me Mrs Wakefield.”

“Granny Wakefield?”  I enquired.

“That’s none of your beeswax you young whippersnapper!  There’s them as call me that, but you ain’t earnt that privilege yet, so you just mind your tongue.”  Carruthers leaned over, and to be honest I was glad to see her eyes widen slightly, she hadn’t heard him.  She took two of the thickest coated biscuits and then turned on him.

“I thank you for the food, but don’t you be creeping up on an old lady like that!  You nearly startled into a spell.”  She caught herself.   “A funny turn for a while is what I mean.”

“I do apologise Mrs Wakefield.  I’ll make sure I make some noise when I move.”

“You do that.”  I tried again.

“To what do we owe the pleasure, Mrs Wakefield?” I asked again.

“I come to see if you is getting’ our blessin’ or our cursin’.”

“Our?”  I ventured.  She gestured impatiently.

“The coven.  We comes in threes you know.”  I was vaguely aware that where you got one witch you got a couple of others, and there was usually a convocation once a year, but I didn’t know there was a rule.  “It’s not a rule, it’s just to make sure we don’t run to the bad or do a difficult birth alone.”

“Right, right.”  I was a little at sea.

“Anyway, one of us has gots to get a look at you, and that’s me.”  She held the cup out for tea again.  I looked in the pot and turned the kettle to boil again.

“And now you have seen me Mad… ah Mrs Wakefield, what do you think?”

“You seems like a man off of his elephant.”  I look at her blankly.

“Off of my…”

“Out o’ place.”  I poured and stirred.  “It might be a good thing.”

“Do you think so?  I feel, just as you say, off of my elephant.”

“But you thinks before you does things.  You takes responsibility for the hard things.”

“I do my best.”  I reached for the pot, but stayed my hand, she likes her tea strong.

“Like I said, you thinks before you acts.”

“I need a wife.”  I don’t know why I said that.  But I did and did.

“I’ll send a girl, our Marjorie is wanting a husband.  She’s pretty enough for you and no more, and sensible.”

“But what about falling in love, what if we don’t like each other.”

“Then I daresay you’ll send her away with a bundle o’ clothes a warm cup o’ tea in her belly and some o’ oranges I hears so much about.”

“I could get some for you…” I began, but she waved this away.

“Marjorie’s a good girl, but she’s fussy about what sort ‘o man she wants.  She wants someone as is strong and a thinker, and we don’t get many ‘o them around here.  She’ll keep you on the straight and narrow, if yer take to each other.  I’ll give you a piece of advice though that’ll see you through.”

“Alright,” I said, “I’ll listen.”

“Give her a good loaf and show her you’ve a read a book or two and you’ll stand a chance.”

“You know I killed my brother?”

“We know all about that, he was a monster, he ‘ad to go.  You didn’t want the job, but now you’ve got it.”

“Right, I have.”  I stood up.  “I think you should come with me for a moment.”

“You’re not goin’ to shut me up in a tower are you?”

“I wouldn’t dare.”  I led the way to a certain room.  “I’d fear for the tower.”

“Damn right you would.”  The double doors just concealed the sound of many people working away.  I opened the doors, and Mrs Wakefield could see the library before her, books being moved in from the other end.  The room didn’t stop but slowed as I let her take it all in and waved at people in acknowledgement.  A young intern was standing stiffly to attention, looking around as she noticed that no-one else was doing so.  I walked up to her, noticing that her page’s uniform was crisp and unsullied.  She couldn’t be more than fifteen.

“Millie, isn’t it?”

“Yessir.”  And she curtseyed, deeply.  I gestured her up.

“You’re in uniform, a short nod is ok if you must genuflect, but you’re working, I don’t want to disturb you.”

“On no sir!” She cried. “You couldn’t possibly do so.”

“I can, and I have, and I am sorry for it. But since I have, could you show Mrs Wakefield and I to the social sciences?”

“It would be my pleasure sir.”  I rolled my eyes, but the old lady just stared at me.  “Here you are Sir.” The young girl said, and hovered.

“Thank you, please go about whatever business you were about and don’t worry about me now.”  She started to curtsey again, but then remembered, and just nodded before moving away.

“Social sciences eh?”  Said Mrs Wakefield.  “I’m sure I don’t know what that is.”

“It is about the behaviour of the sentient species.  I have many books upon the rights of man, and the other sentients, about crime and punishment.  Books about philosophy and about fairness and distribution of wealth.  I do not know, Madame, how to rule a kingdom well or justly, but I can read, and by the gods I can learn.  This is what I intend to do.  There have been too many madmen on the throne, too many ignorant men, too many arrogant men.  I think it is time for someone with the humility to realise that they know nothing to arise to the task with learning in mind, learning to be good, don’t you, Mrs Wakefield?”

She looked at me with something like tears in her eyes, something I had never expected to see, and reached out a gnarled hand to clasp mine.

“It’s Granny Wakefield to you lad.”