Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Emperor's Court, cont., cont.

Ser Erich, an hour later and an hour soberer, lay couchant, discussing the problem of Bu Teh with Ser Karl and Wu Xi.

"There's no doubt of his treacherous intent," Ser Karl said. "The evidence is all too clear."

"Meaning that we have two traitors on our hands," Wu Xi said solemnly. "A most unpleasant situation."

"We have done as the Emperor requested - found the traitor within his court," Ser Karl slowly said. "Were we to say nothing of Bu Teh, our duty would appear fufilled... but," shaking his head as he began to speak with sudden decision, "that is a thing too dishonourable for me to contemplate. I would understand if you preferred it, Wu," Ser Karl said accommodatingly - but Wu Xi, too, was shaking his head.

"I may not have your knightly chivalry to bind me," he said, "but I still hold some code of personal integrity, and abandoning Bu Teh to whatever mischief he plans would certainly violate it. We have uncovered him; it is now up to us to see that he faces justice."

"We cannot simply deliver him to the Emperor," Ser Karl said. "He strictly instructed us to find no more than one traitor - our giving him another would be recieved poorly."

"Are we sure that the Minister of Culture is a traitor, after all?" Ser Erich asked, his voice slightly slurred.

Ser Karl looked at him with surprise. "We did deliver him to the guards and the executioner, on reasons we agreed were valid at the time," Ser Karl said. "What reason do we have to second-guess ourselves?"

"Well, the problem is the answer he gave, right?" Ser Erich asked. "He said he would be happy to see other ministers accused of treason. So: why? We thought it was because he himself was a traitor. Could be. But what if he wasn't a traitor himself, but knew he had one in his employ? Another minister being found guilty of treason then would give him a cover for rooting his own demon out - what sin is it, after all, to have a traitor in one's direct employ, when even the Emperor committed such an error?"

"An elaborate tale..." Wu Xi said, pulling on his beard.

"But, given that we know there was a traitor on the Minister of Culture's service, entirely possible," Ser Erich pressed.

"So - perhaps there is only one traitor," Ser Karl said. "What then? We cannot say, 'we were wrong, the real traitor was this man' - it would be a humiliation, to us and the Emperor! We could arrange some kind of swap - have Bu Teh executed in the Minister's place, let the Emperor exile or rehabilitate the Minister as he sees fit - but I have a hard time imagining the Emperor agreeing to such a scheme..."

"What if we were to present it as a fait accompli?" Ser Erich asked. "Do it first, seek permission later?"

"A bold move..." Wu Xi mused. "Reckless, even."

"Do you have a better scheme?" Ser Karl asked.

"None," Wu Xi replied. "And so I endorse this one. But before we act, we must consider the particulars..."

Bu Teh was roused by the sound of a scritching at his door. He rubbed his eyes; his room was dark, lit only faintly by the glow of the waning moon. There was a whisper in some foreign tongue, then another in Chinese: "Quiet!" it commanded. "Dress and then come outside. Quickly."

Bu Teh, drowsy and increasingly worried, complied. Outside, he met three men - two of whom he recognized from earlier in the night. "You!" he said, pointing. "The foreigner and his translator! What are you doing here?"

"Shh!" the foreigner hissed, and then something else, which his companion translated. (The other foreigner remained silent.) "Remember how you spoke to me earlier of taken back the spoils of the rich men?"

"Yes..." Bu Teh said nervously. "What are you thinking of? Are you the Emperor's man, come to arrest me?"

"Exactly the opposite!" Ser Erich said through Wu Xi. "The Minister of Culture - your former employer - he was a wealthy man, yes? An estate, servants, jewels?"

"Yes?" Bu Teh said. "Most certainly he did - but what of it? He is a condemned man. The Emperor will take it all, as punishment for his treachery. There is nothing we can do."

"Not so," Ser Erich said. "We cannot get it all, certainly - but as a wealthy man, living away from his home, the Minister will have certain valuables left in his safe. These we can get at, and steal quickly away - the Emperor will never know they were there!"

"I am no safecracker," Bu Teh said. "If that is what you wish from me, I must regretfully inform you that you have the wrong man."

"We plan no such strong-armed tactics," Ser Erich said. "Besides - those would certainly leave marks of our presence. We would be hunted. Instead, consider this: the Minister is condemned. Like all condemned men, he will be wracked with guilt, seeking some absolution for his crimes before his death. Were he presented with a confessor, asking for him to give up all worldly wealth before the end - well!"

"And why do you need me for this?" Bu Teh asked.

"Us he would recognize," Ser Erich said. "We two foreigners; and Wu Xi, our translator, who spoke to him just before his arrest. But you - he is an important man, yes? A self-important man. He would barely recognize his servants under normal conditions. Now?" He hefted a confessor's robes in his hands, the hood large and concealing.

"And what would you give me for this?" Bu Teh asked, his voice growing suddenly sharp.

"Why, a full quarter share of the proceeds," Ser Erich said. "It is only fair."

"Half," Bu Teh demanded.

Ser Erich shrugged. "A third."

"Half," Bu Teh said again.

Ser Erich rolled his eyes."Half, then, but no more."

Bu Teh's eyes glinted with greed. "Lead on," he said.

They passed the guards without difficulty, half-sozzled with alcohol smuggled out from the festivities; finding the Minister's cell proved somewhat more difficult, but was managed in safe time. The lock on his cell was simple, and openable from the outside; it appeared that he had been placed in an area of lesser security, the short span of his imprisonment and nature of his character minimizing fears of his escape. Huddled in a corner, the Minister's eyes cracked open as the party slid the door open: "It's not dawn yet, is it?" he asked fearfully.

Confused by his swift reversal of fortunes, the former Minister of Culture was an easy mark for deceit, just as Ser Erich had predicted; Bu Teh was able to worm the location of the hidden safe keys from the Minister without difficulty. Ser Karl had made his way behind the Minister during the conversation; as soon as the last necessary information had been given, confirmed by a nod from Wu Xi, he struck, sending the Minister crumpling to the floor. Bu Teh flinched back. "What was that?" he asked, his voice nervous. "What are you doing?"

"We can't just walk into his suite as we are," Wu Xi explained. "His servants and guards will still be present; they will cast us out as once. You must disguise yourself as a noble to make entrance; and where better to fetch a noble's robes from than the Minister's own person?"

"And we'll have to dress him in your old clothes," Ser Erich reminded. "If the guards find him naked tomorrow morning, they'll be most suspicious."

"This wasn't in the plan," Bu Teh said, his eyes darting about.

"Half the treasure, remember?" Ser Erich said reassuringly. "You'll be a free man, after this. Rich, even."

Bu Teh nodded, slowly, then set about disrobing.

Once the swap was done, he looked about apprehensively. "Nice clothes," he said. "They fit me well - I could even pass for the Minister, to anyone who didn't know him too well, I think."

"That's exactly what we're planning," Ser Erich said. Wu Xi rolled his eyes and neglected to translate the comment.

Bu Teh looked up. "What? What was that?"

A crashing blow from Ser Karl drove him into unconsciousness.

"All these attacks from behind really seem most unchivalrous," Ser Karl fretted.

"In a cramped jail cell, in the middle of the Emperor's dungeon, against a traitor, may not be the best conditions for a duel," Ser Erich noted. "Now, we should get out of here before a patrol stops by."

"Yes, yes," Ser Karl agreed, shrugging off the concerns. "Help me pick the Minister up."

Hefting the courtier between their shoulders, such that an inattentive guard might mistake him as simply unsteady on his feet, Ser Erich and Ser Karl made their way from the cell, Wu Xi closing and locking the door behind them, with Bu Teh (in the Minister's clothes) still inside. Again fortune was with them, and the guards offered them no challenge; passing through the halls of the Imperial palace, the party (after a few alarming minutes in which they feared themselves lost) managed to find their way back to their suite.

"What now?" Ser Erich asked, rubbing his back.

"Now, we tie the good Minister up, gag him, and stuff him behind a couch," Ser Karl said, beginning on just that. "After that, we get a good night's sleep, and watch the fireworks."

When they saw him the following morning, Bu Teh seemed in poor spirits, being dragged kicking and screaming to the center of the execution square. "An ill character to the last," Wu Xi observed. "Condemned by his own greed, just as we knew he would be, he now fails even to live the last moments of his life with dignity or grace."

"They're gagging him now," Ser Karl observed. "Good. Less chance of someone figuring out the swap."

Ser Erich's thoughts were elsewhere. "What sort of execution are they performing?" he asked. "There seem to be an awful lot of executioners."

"It's a new form of punishment, introduced just for the occasion," Ser Karl said. "I missed the name, but I believe it is somewhat similar to our drawing and quartering?"

Ser Erich considered this.

"Do you think it will be thought of as a slight if I turn away during the execution?" he asked. "I have been in battle, yes; I have seen death, yes; but I have no desire to watch a drawing and quartering."

Ser Karl nodded. "Just don't make a show of it, and I think it'll be fine."

Afterwards, Ser Karl, Ser Erich, and Wu Xi had a brief encounter with the Emperor's sister; from what they could tell of her expression, she seemed pleased.

This was not the case on their subsequent audience with the Emperor. In fact, quite the opposite. "Who is this man?" the Emperor's sister asked, pointing to the man kneeling on the floor.

Ser Erich looked at Ser Karl. Wu Xi looked at Ser Karl. Ser Karl decided to do the talking.

"I'm not entirely certain," Ser Karl said. "He appears somewhat similar to your former Minister of Culture, but that person was executed, for all to see. We thought to present him before you, for your consideration."

The Emperor's sister looked at the man kneeling before her; she looked at the Westerners' party. "Who did we have executed yesterday?" she asked.

"Your Minister of Culture, of course," Ser Karl said. "All know that. If a traitor, formerly of the employ of the Minister of Culture, also went missing at the same time, it was most certainly a coincidence."

The Emperor's sister appeared ready to speak again; but, before she could do so, the kneeling man began to babble. Wu Xi listened, his brow furrowed.

"What is he saying?" Ser Erich asked.

"He is apologizing to his Emperor for his betrayal, and asking why his life was spared," Wu Xi said. "It appears that there were two traitors after all."

The Emperor's sister strode to the Westerners, speaking quietly so that the kneeling man could not hear. "Why have you brought me two traitors?" she asked her voice heated.

Ser Erich looked at Ser Karl. Wu Xi looked at Ser Karl.

"I have sought to act in every way in your Imperial interests," Ser Karl said. "The discovery of two traitors would have undermined your court. This we have never doubted. But how many traitors have been discovered? Only one, and he is dead. This man, you may consider a... bonus. To dispose of as you will, without accountability or consequences."

The Emperor's sister looked at them expressionlessly; then she turned, stepping over the kneeling man, and strode to the Emperor's screened-off throne. Some conference was held.

"What now?" Ser Erich asked.

"If they decide that we have acted in Their interest, then we are honoured, rewarded, and sent home flush with the fruits of success," Ser Karl said. "If not - " he made a hand gesture, a sharp slice across the air at neck level. Ser Erich winced.

"Which will it be...?" Wu Xi mused, watching the Emperor's sister emerge.

She stopped before them, something like a smile appearing on her face.

"Is that good?" Ser Erich hissed.

"I don't know!" Ser Karl hissed back.

She stood still a moment longer; then spoke, two words, harsh and guttural.

"Is that good?" Ser Erich hissed.

"I don't know!" Ser Karl replied. "Wu Xi! What did she say?"

Wu Xi translated.

"Well done."

The Case of the Traitor in the Emperor's Court:


No comments: