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.”
“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.
“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.”