A Tale of Long Ago by Quentin Bates

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‘Good day at the imperial palace, dear?’ asked the most High and Revered Empress of all the lands betweeen the jagged mountains and the Ocean-That-Has-No-End.

His regal majesty, the Emperor, Scion-of-the-Gods and Destroyer-of-Unbelievers, eased off his jewelled codpiece. He threw it over his shoulder and an imperial eunuch caught it in flight.

‘That blasted ivory throne,’ he complained. ‘It plays merry hell with my piles, you know.’

The Empress clucked in sympathy and clicked her fingers. Another eunuch appeared on silent feet and the Emperor groaned as the ebony-skinned giant gently kneaded his feet.

‘You want to get that High Priest to work a charm on them Chalfonts of yours, innit,’ she said.

‘I wish.’ The Emperor shook his head and his ancient and imperial headdress wobbled alarmingly. ‘The His Holiness is too busy with some top-secret smiting spell. I can’t ask him to come out of his enchanted trance. Strategic priorities, y’know.’

‘Aw, bless. You want me to send down to the harem so you can have a quick concubine before yer tea?’

‘After, maybe,’ the Emperor decided. ‘Gently with my feet, unless you want to give the sacred crocodile his dinner.’

The eunuch bowed his head and acquiesced to the demands of the Lord High Exterminator of Infidels, dipping the Imperial feet in the milk of wild asses and massaging them gently dry.

Someone coughed discreetly in the doorway.

‘Come in, woncha?’ the Empress invited and the Grand Vizier of the Imperial Court unhurriedly prostrated himself on the marble tiles.

Prostrating was one of the downsides of the job, he reflected, wondering if he should have gone into some safer line of work, such as sailing the Ocean-That-Has-No-End in search of yet more imperial wealth. His back complained as he rose his feet. It hadn’t been like this in the old Emperor’s day. The empire’s going to the dogs, he thought, and he noticed the Empress looking at him from narrowed eyes. It had been a grievous mistake, he reminded himself, to allow the Imperial house to accept that wild princess from an island far, far to the north and west where the natives reportedly wore blue paint and frequently little else.

‘The, er…’ he began. ‘There is unrest in your eastern provinces, sire.’

‘Why? What are those ungrateful wretches whining about now?’

‘Bread, sire. There is no bread,’ the Grand Vizier intoned, refraining to mention that no bread also meant no beer, a danger signal any emperor worth his salt would ignore at his peril.

The Imperial brow knitted in thought.

‘If I might suggest…?’ the Grand Vizier offered.

The Imperial brow unknitted in relief.

‘Go on, then.’

‘Repeal the tax increase, your wondrousness. It is a grave burden on the poor.’

‘You wot?’ the Empress demanded, her voice shrill. ‘Lower taxes? Whaddaya think this place is? You tell ’im, dear. It sends a message, innit,’ she added darkly.

‘The Emperor sighed. ’You heard.’

‘But, sire…’

‘Keep the tax rate as it is, and make sure every shekel is collected.’

There was iron in the Emperor’s voice and the Grand Vivier knew that anything short of agreement could be unhealthy.

‘As you wish, sire.’

‘Fiscal integrity,’ the Emperor said, smacking one fist in the the palm of the other hand. ‘We cannot allow provinces to get away without paying the levies. Otherwise we’d have, well, anarchy. The state must enforce its will and have gold in its coffers for our great enterprises.’

‘He’s not wrong, y’know,’ the Empress said to the Grand Vizier, jerking a thumb at the Emperor who had lain back on his golden chaise longue, its cushions stuffed with dodo feathers. ‘I mean. If the taxes wasn’t paid, we couldn’t build your mausoleum, would we? Like, for when you become a God like yer old man.’

‘The golden dome is proving a sore burden on the Imperial treasury,’ the Grand Vizier said. ‘We were thinking…’

‘Thinking what?’

‘A bit of silver looks lovely.’

‘What? I will have gold!’

‘Gold’s class, ain’t it?’ the Empress confirmed. ‘You’ve got to keep up appearances. What would the neighbours think if we had silver?’

‘She’s right. The Ruler of the Evil Empire in the East’s mausoleum is having ivory floors. A bit vulgar, I thought,’ the Emperor decided. ‘But once I’m a God with a golden mausoleam, I’ll be able to smite all sorts of enemies from the next life.’

‘Indeed, sire,’ the Grand Vivier said, privately unconvinced. The late Emperor’s post-decease record of smiting had been dismal and there was no sign that his son’s smiting would be any more effective once he had become a God, which he quietly hoped would occur sooner rather than later. ‘Indeed,’ he repeated, bowing his head.

‘What else?’

‘Sire?’

‘You saying “indeed, sire” in that tone of voice normally means more bad news.’

‘The Black Fleet approaches, sire. Our scouts warn they are a day’s sailing distant. A thousand sail, they say.’

‘We’ll pray for a storm to dash them to the rocks. A few sacrifices, you think, dear?’

‘Deffo. That’ll do the trick,’ the Empress agreed, her golden headdress tinkling as she nodded her head. ‘My old Dad always swore by bit of sacrifice. Some unbelievers and a criminal or two to make up a dozen?’

‘See to it, will you, Grand Vivier?’ The Emperor instructed. ‘I want taxes kept high and collection enforced. And while we’re about it, let’s have a tax on being left-handed, and on-the-spot all-worldly-wealth fines for stepping on the cracks in the pavement. An edict tonight, and sort out that lovely golden dome for my mausoleum. Capiche?’

‘Indeed, sire,’ the Grand Vivier acquiesced, wondering to himself if neglecting the Imperial fleet had been a smart move, although it had undoubtedly diverted much-needed gold elsewhere.

‘And spread the word. The storm will devastate their fleet. We shall be victorious, as always,’ the Emperor decreed. ‘Oh, and have a quick word with the High Priest, will you? Make sure his devotions are in that general direction. Just to make sure, you see.’

A storm at this time of year? The Grand Vivier thought. Yeah, pull the other one.

He prostrated himself once again, slowly, his back aching. Maybe it was time to retire, he thought.

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