Friday, July 31, 2009

The Emperor's Court

A tale set in a history somewhat distinct from our own.

Ser Karl of Frankfurt, titled Baronet by the Holy Roman Emperor in honour of his expeditions to the east, stood in a large, lavish room, waiting. He was hardly alone; the room was filled with servants, and Ser Karl's most trusted companions, Ser Erich (liege-man) and Wu Xi (native guide and translator), stood at his side. But his attention was not upon them; instead, his gaze was fixed directly forward, upon the two ornate doors at the end of the room.

"This is it," Ser Erich whispered to him. "The big moment we've been waiting for. The end to our long journey."

"Try not to whisper while we're in there," Ser Karl replied, his tone stern. "The Emperor would not be pleased."

Ser Erich shut his mouth firmly.

After several more minutes, the doors cracked open; a servant's face appeared, though his garb was rich enough to make him appear a prince to any who lived outside the palace. He spoke something, quickly; Wu Xi translated it. "The Emperor will see you now."

Ser Karl took a deep breath; then, measuring his step carefully, he entered the audience chamber.

Formalities were exchanged; each side went through a lengthly exchange of titles, trying not to be bested in length or quality. Gifts were presented; rare luxuries, virtually unknown to the Far East, transported all the way from the seat of Sigismund himself. And then Ser Karl made his request; that, for the greater good of both great civilizations involved, there should be a trade route established between the Ming Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, passing over the Silk road through the lands of the Emerald Khan. Should this request be viewed favourably by the Emperor, and granted, it would make Ser Karl's fortune - he should be granted an entire principality, his children Dukes, for this success!

And if the Emperor frowned on it - it was not to be conceived of.

The Emperor, hidden behind a decorative screen, was silent for one full minute. Ser Karl grew ever more nervous; an emotion he sought to keep carefully away from his face, for to show weakness in an affair of state was not to be thought of. Then he gave some answer - Ser Karl glanced at Wu Xi, but the latter shook his head, the Emperor's words inaudible at the distance - and the Emperor's sister, her face hidden behind a fan, walked out from behind the screen. (The Emperor's person, Ser Karl had been informed before the audience, was too holy to be profaned by directly speaking with outsiders - his sister, however, was just mortal enough to endure the experience.)

The Emperor's sister spoke sharply. "Clear the room," Wu Xi translated for Ser Karl. "No-one except for the outsider and his translator is to remain."

Ser Erich looked to Ser Karl for guidance. "Stay here," Ser Karl told him. "You're my liege-man; wherever I go, you go. Tell her that," Ser Karl instructed Wu Xi, who promptly (with much bowing) did so.

When the room was empty of servants, the Emperor's sister walked closer to Ser Karl's party. She spoke quietly; Wu Xi translated. "The Emperor is sympathetic to your request," he relayed as she spoke. "He is willing to grant it - with a condition."

Ser Karl thought quickly. He did not wish to appear ungrateful or insolent, here, now - "We will do it," he replied. Wu Xi translated quickly.

The Emperor's sister, so far as any expression could be read behind her fan, appeared pleased. "Good," Wu Xi translated. "The trouble is thus: in the province of Annan, to the southeast, there is great rebel agitation. It has persisted despite Our efforts to quash it; we believe that there is a traitor in this court, supporting the rebels in hope of personal gain. As a neutral outsider, with no stake in affairs, you may be trusted to uncover the truth."

"How may this be done?" Ser Karl said, measuring his words carefully. "I am certain that you, in your Imperial wisdom, have some plan for how we may uncover the traitor with no knowledge of Your court; we would be greatly pleased to have this knowledge imparted to us."

"There are three suspects," Wu Xi translated. "Our Minister of Arms; Our Minister of Order; and Our Minister of Cultures. These three may be supporting the rebels. We will hold a formal affair this night to celebrate your arrival to Our court. There, you will investigate the three ministers we have named, determine which of them is guilty, and deliver them to Our Imperial justice."

"Why do you suspect the Minister of Culture?" Ser Erich asked, curiosity burning on his face. Ser Karl looked sharply at him, but didn't move to stop Wu Xi from relaying the question.

"On more than one occasion, he has allowed plays to be performed which questioned the infallibility of the Emperor's predecessors," the response came. "He made apologies immediately when confronted on his errors, but We still suspect him of disloyalty."

Ser Erich nodded, his brief bemusement now hidden.

"Why is the Minister of War not under suspicion?" Ser Karl asked. "In failures of war, should he not be the first suspect?"

"The Minister of War is most certainly innocent," the Emperor's sister replied.

"Is he beyond reproach in honor and honesty?" Ser Karl asked. "Such things are rare in matters of state."

"His honour and honesty are great, but not so much as that," the Emperor's sister said through Wu Xi, leaning forward to speak more quietly. "Rather, it is that his control over the upper echelons of the army are strong enough, such that he choose to rebel, he would be certain to succeed. Since he has not, he must consider his situation superior as a servant in a strong state than ruler in a state wracked with upheaval; and so we may be certain that he has no interest in supporting the rebels."

"Ah," Ser Karl said. "Your wisdom is clear to me now. I have no further questions."

"Very well, then," the Emperor's sister said, turning to walk back towards the hidden Emperor. "Rest a while, and take refreshments. Then, tonight, the truth will be revealed."

(The hour grows late; therefore, this will be continued in a second part.)

No comments: