[A Kingdom Story]
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 endeavored 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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
Published January 2019