Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Emperor's Court, cont.

On the evening of the social occasion, the Emperor's sister appeared at the door to Ser Karl's suite. "A good evening to you noble gentlemen," she said politely, translated by Wu Xi.

"And to you," Ser Karl replied. "We have just concluded our preparations, as you can no doubt see from our dress. Has it begun? Should we make haste?"

"Not so," the Emperor's sister replied; "it has not quite begun, and in any case, it were best that you arrive slightly late, so as to make the best impression on society. I did not come to instruct you on timing, though, rather, I came to remind you of your task."

"Of course," Ser Karl said. "We had not forgotten."

"Enjoy yourself," the Emperor's sister said. "This is a momentous occasion, after all; very seldom are we visited by emissaries of the Occidental princedoms. But remember: you must be at all times alert, so that you may find the traitor in our midst."

"What if there is more than one?" Ser Erich asked.

"There must be only one," the Emperor's sister said sharply, a tone even the Westerners could hear. "One traitor will damage the credibility of our reign; two would shatter it. Do not come to us with two traitors."

"We understand," Ser Karl said, "and will obey."

"Good," replied the Emperor's sister, her voice as perfectly calm as before. "We hope you have a pleasant time."

When Ser Karl and his party arrived, the gardens were buzzing with activity. Whichever way they looked, there were courtiers gossiping, servants swarming, and country nobility gawking. Immediately around the Westerners, conversation focused on their appearance: their strange eyes, their peculiar skin, their barbarous language and fashion.

"So, what now?" Ser Erich asked. "I don't see the ministers anywhere. For that matter - how will we recognize them?"

"We spoke about this beforehand," Wu Xi said. "We will mingle, and I will listen for references to the ministers. When I find word of them, I will guide us in their direction; then we will make small talk with them, and by this means determine their guilt or innocence."

"And how are we to do this?" Ser Erich asked hotly. "Why did I not hear any of this beforehand? Have you been conspiring without me?"

"You were in the same room," Ser Karl said; "we kept nothing from you. Why you did not hear, I cannot say, though I might offer a guess: were you thinking about - a girl?"

Ser Erich's ears turned bright red. "That's none of your business," he said.

"Keep your mind on the matter at hand," Wu Xi advised. "This will be hard enough if you're thinking with your right head, much less the other."

Ser Erich was blushing furiously now; Ser Karl looked at him a moment longer and then, considering him sufficiently admonished, turned to converse with an approaching courtier.

The first minister they encountered was the Minister of Order, surrounded by a swarm of fan-holding young ladies. He was an old man, gone somewhat to seed; in conversation he was, so far as Ser Erich and Ser Karl could tell through the translation barrier, quite reserved.

"This is where we put our plan into motion," Ser Karl explained to Ser Erich as they approached. "There is a certain question I will slip into conversation, for each of the ministers: 'How would you feel, were one of your fellow ministers discovered as a traitor in this very court?'"

"Hardly lightweight party conversation!" Ser Erich remarked.

"I will soften its impact with context," Ser Karl demurred. "Regardless: by the minister's reply to this, we will take his measure."

"And how, exactly, will this be accomplished?" Sir Erich asked.

"Hark!" Wu Xi hissed. "The Minister has acknowledged us; now you must speak!"

"I would consider it a most uncomfortable thing," the Minister of Order replied when put to the question. "One of my fellow ministers, a traitor? It would cause a most unpleasant hubbub - yes, most unpleasant indeed. Most off-putting to my poetry. No, that would be not a good thing."

"Ah!" cried the Minister of Arms, a thin, cold man. "A disgrace to the Imperial honour - to have appointed such a man! It would be a blow to the entire realm. No, no, that would be most unfortunate, if they were to find a traitor in the court - especially in these troubled times. - Is there one in particular you suspect?"

"I would be pleased, of course," the Minister of Culture replied with considered thought. His wide, jovial face creased as he thought. "Yes, that would be good news. If there is a traitor, better that he be caught then be let loose to wreak further havoc, yes? Especially in such a high position. How could anyone think otherwise?"

"And so?" Ser Erich asked, turning to his companions in a corner surrounded by bonsai shrubs. "Who is the traitor?"

"The Minister of Culture," Ser Karl said flatly. "Guilty beyond the slightest doubt."

"Yes," Wu Xi agreed. "His words condemned him."

"But - how?" Ser Erich asked, confused. "He said he would be happy if they found a traitor!"

"No," Ser Karl said. "He would be happy if they found another minister to be a traitor. What better atmosphere for the guilty to hide in than one in which the innocent are convicted? In such a smoke of confusion, he would be free to work his foul deeds, certain that others would be blamed for his wrongdoing."

"For recall what the Emperor's sister said," Wu Xi reminded. "There must be only one traitor found; more would destroy the credibility of the court. If an innocent man is found to be the traitor, then the true villain is free from worry; he knows that he cannot be named for what he is, even if discovered, for to do so would wreak certain destruction upon the Imperial throne."

"Ah!" Ser Erich said. "Your guile is great indeed. So - shall you now go to inform the Emperor?"

"No," Ser Karl said. "You and Wu will go; I will stay here, to avoid a connection between our party's absence and the condemnation of the guilty. We will not be long here, but it would be ill for us to be seen as too involved in local intrigues. Remember - we are lieges of Emperor Sigismund, not Emperor Zhu Di."

"Myself excluded, of course," Wu Xi said politely.

Ser Erich nodded, somewhat overwhelmed. He moved towards the nearest entry to the palace, Wu Xi at his side; Ser Karl, now alone, turned towards the nearest servant holding refreshments.

"Could I have some of that wine?" he asked in German, gesturing towards the wine.

The servant, correctly guessing at Ser Karl's intent, gave him a glass of wine.

Ser Karl looked elsewhere. "Might I have some of those shrimp?" he asked of another servant.

He was given shrimp.

"Ah - and some of that rice?" he asked.

He was given something with too many tentacles.

"Er," he said, prodding it.

Normally he would give a polite demurral and return the item - but, not having Wu Xi with him, his only choice seemed to be to take a bite or to give mortal offense to the poor servant, probably resulting in an immediate honor-suicide. This seemed a bit much for Ser Karl; so, nervously, he took a bite.

Ser Erich and Wu Xi rejoined Ser Karl midway through his third fried squid, just before the Emperor, in a palanquin covered in gold, made his appearance. Heralds blew trumpets. The court, as a collective, kowtowed. (Ser Karl and Ser Erich bowed; as a matter of honour, they would bend the knee to no monarch but their own.)

"We have an announcement to make," the Emperor's herald read from a scroll unfurled before him. "This man, Our former Minister of Culture, is a traitor to Our person. He will be arrested immediately, and executed tomorrow for his crimes." Already, guards had appeared as though from nowhere, surrounding the very surprised-looking Minister of Culture.

"Well done," the Emperor's sister said, appearing next to Ser Karl with a surprising amount of subtlety, given the number of servants surrounding her. "Now that you have found the villain, the job is done; we will conclude the trade agreement in two days. For now, you may enjoy yourself."

"Thank you, Your Highness," Ser Karl said. "We intend to."

Somewhat later, Ser Erich, very drunk and feeling rather unhappy, wound up lying in a corner, next to a similarly-sozzled Wu Xi and a servant named Bu Teh. "Man, it's just not fair, you guys keeping me out of the loop like that," he complained to Wu Xi. "It's not right. The little guys always get picked on, always. Not fair at all. You know what I mean, right?"

Wu Xi, obligingly, translated.

"Yeah, that's the way of it," Bu Teh agreed. "Everyone steals from the little guy. The merchants steal from the poor, the noble steal from the merchants, and the Empire steals from the nobles. But - you know what?"

"Wha?" Ser Erich asked. "Whuzzat?"

"Sometimes," Bu Teh whispered, "sometimes, the little guys can take something back."

Wu Xi's eyes opened wider. Carefully, he continued to translate.

"Whaddya mean?" Ser Erich asked. "Like breaking into the nobles' houses and taking their stuff? Mostly that just ends with hands gettin' chopped off, from what I see. Wouldn't recommend it."

"No, not like that," But Teh hissed. "Look - you serve the Western prince, yes? You have no loyalty to the Emperor?"

"He's an Emperor, too," Ser Erich said defensively. "Rules over aaalll the Holy Roman Empire. Biggest one in the world, too. Tell you that."

"But you serve him, yes? Not our Emperor?" But Teh asked.

"Yeah, yeah," Ser Erich agreed. "Why?"

Bu Teh considered. "I'll show you something," he said, "but you have to leave the other guy behind."

Ser Erich looked at Wu Xi. "Why?" he asked. "But then we won't be able to talk?"

"That's why I'm showing you," Bu Teh explained with drunken care.

"Ahhhh," Ser Erich agreed. "Sorry, friend."

Wu Xi shrugged, his eyes narrowed. He watched as the drunken men staggered into the palace; and he was still there, but now with Ser Karl at his side, when Ser Erich appeared again.

"And what did he show you?" Ser Karl, just briefed, asked.

"Man, he's got cash just papering his room!" Sir Erich exclaimed. "It's crazy! All this stuff he took back from the tax collectors, and sends back to his people at home! He's got nerves of steel, I'll tell you!"

"Where is his home, again?" Wu Xi inquired.

"Uh, not sure exactly," Sir Erich said. "Ler was the name, I think? Somewhere in the southeast?"

"And who was his employer?" Wu Xi asked.

"Uh... don't remember," Sir Erich said. "Oh! No! He was that Minister of Cultures guy, the one we arrested. Bu Teh was grateful when I told him we did it. Said the guy was a big jerk, the biggest. Go us, right?"

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

"So there's a man who steals money from the Emperor, sends it to his home in the southeast - very possibly in the rebel province of Annan, in the southeast - and works for the Minister of Culture, who we just had arrested because we believed he was a traitor," Ser Karl summarized.

"Yeah," Ser Erich agreed. "And - wait."

He thought.

" mean we arrested the wrong guy?" Ser Erich asked.

Gravely, Ser Karl nodded.

To be continued, again.

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