Saturday, December 12, 2015

Arcana Imperii

     Hand-carved obsidian and ivory chess pieces battled across solid silver and gold fields on a board detailed with blazing phoenixes. The intricate board held plenty of fascination for young Archel, who gawked over it hungrily. However, Archel’s true interest lay in understanding the movements of each magnificent piece.
     “Wait. Why did you do that? I thought that prawns could only move forward or take diagonally,” Archel said.
     “En passé,” Fintan answered.
     “An pass, say what?” Archel asked.
     “‘En passant’ is the name of the move,” the Kaiser corrected.
     “Potatoes,” the old bard replied.
     “Fintan. I had the impression you were teaching the boy.”
     “Aye. History. Not chess. Chess is a game for Kings,” Fintan developed his queen-side bishop.
     “You can threaten me all you like. But you are no king. How do you come to play?” Imler chuckled.
     “You well know how. I play as all before me. An equal to the lords of these lands. King of Know-Land,” the one-eyed bard did a little bow and wave. 
     “No-Land? Is there such a place?” Archel asked.
     “There is, boyo,” Fintan smirked, “it’s a place where knowledge is king.”
     Kaiser Imler laughed. Nobody spoke. Archel stood captivated as piece after piece slowly knocked down defenses. He stood stiffly leaning against the table. Time stretched. Archel’s legs began to moan. Finally, the old poet sighed in defeat.
     “Shall we begin again?” the Kaiser inquired, a little poke in the middle of a fresh bruise.
     “Archel plays winner. Trade me places, kid. Set up the board for your liege,” Fintan slowly edged out of the chair, “I’ve a song needs out.”
     “I’ve never set up a board before,” Archel admitted.
     “I’ll help,” Imler responded kindly.
     “You’ll do no such thing. Archel, go into your memory. Be there. Then, be here setting the board up. Let us know when you’ve finished,” Fintan instructed.
     “Aye,” Archel answered.
     The Kaiser stood next to his burgundy chaise lounge, flexing every muscle in his body. Sensing as many cells and atoms as he could imagine, he tried to force the change, but nothing happened. In truth, he was glad he couldn’t just think himself into form. Suppose I’m mid-stride with some beautiful maiden, when ‘poof’ out comes the griffin? Iphi forbid! The Kaiser shook the image off.
     Fintan got up from his chaise, walked about singing softly:

“Yesterday’s heroes are tomorrow’s old,
we kneel before them when they scold.
Stars are born. Stars will die.
It’s not for us to wonder why.

“Too many lessons learned to justly teach 
a student who doesn’t practice or reach.
Poets are chosen. Poets will fade.
We only know how they’re made.

“Under the sun we labor, day after day,
those who don’t toil have nothing to say.
Cities are built. Cities will fall.
Unto Destiny all heed her call.”

     As Fintan sang, Kaiser Imler rolled his shoulders stretching one then the other. The Kaiser considered how best to approach the sheer logic and strategy involved in this, the Game of Kings. Always start lessons with the basic building blocks, the voice of a much younger Fintan whispered in the Kaiser’s mind. He eyeballed the table, focusing on Archel’s face. The boy was lost in remembrance. His hands moved gracefully over the chessboard. While Archel’s eyes sparkled with intelligence, his face remained a smooth mask. The boy looked just like his mother did when they told her she couldn’t have a child if she deigned to be a Justice. Imler huffed, Oh, Seeley. What have we done? The boy had a satisfied gleam in his eye when he turned to announce completion.
     “Archel, do you know what the pieces are named?” the Kaiser asked.
     “There’s that priest guy.”
     “Aye. The Bishop.”
     “The horse.”
     “Aye,” Imler bemusedly shook his head, “the Knight.”
     Finished with the song, Fintan groaned, pulling out his long blue hair. He rolled his eyes and acted like he would be sick.
     “Pay him no mind, Archel,” Imler reassured the boy. “What are the rest of the pieces called?”
     “Um, well, there’s castles, kings, and queens. Oh, and prawns.”
     “Castles are called Rooks. Prawns are shrimp. Those roundheads are called Pawns.”
     “Pawns,” the boy repeated.
     “So, you know the pieces. Now, let’s fix the board, you’ve got the Kings and Queens in the wrong places. Two things to remember: the Queen goes on her color and the King is always right.”
     “Oh, pish! Technically, he’s talking about placement. I’ve known a couple of kings that were always wrong,” Fintan stared at Kaiser Imler, “and, you know to whom I refer.”
     “That reminds me,” the Kaiser said, “Archel, I’ve told Fintan about our discussion in the Gardens yesterday. Is there anything else?”
     “Just what I told you then, sir,” Archel answered.
     “Go into your memory,” Fintan chided, “don’t just answer. Think, boyo.”  
     “Okay,” Archel said. He closed his eyes, leaned back into the giant chaise lounge where Fintan had previously sat. When he opened his eyes, he asked, “what’s an empire? I thought we lived in a kingdom.”
     “Answer that for yourself,” Fintan replied before the Kaiser could respond, “recall your lessons about the Unified Poterits? The answer?”
     “Oh. Um,” Archel scrunched his face, he repeated as if reading straight from the text, “the Unified Poterits were an empire made up of the three independent kingdoms of Poterit Don, Poterit Montis, and Poterit Dan.”
     “So,” Kaiser Imler asked, “what is an empire?”
     “Just a group of kingdoms,” Archel answered.
     “Not just.” Fintan growled, “what else?”
     “Um, unified?” Archel guessed.
     “Right.” The Kaiser looked hard at the Bard, before asking the child, “are our kingdoms currently unified?”
     “No. But, my lord,” Archel looked confused, “why would the Chief say ‘our empire’ when he knows Poterit Don is your kingdom?”
     “That is one question I should like to ask him,” the Kaiser confided.
     “Think harder, boyo,” Fintan ordered, “did he say anything else?”
     “I don’t know. Maybe.”
     “Think!” Fintan raised his voice.
     “Easy,” Kaiser Imler placed a hand on Fintan’s shoulder, “I know it’s been a rough week, but look at him. He’s thinking.”
     Fintan sighed, “rough week? You don’t know the half of it. I’m exhausted. The next bard is training. I don’t know if he’ll take, he’s worse off than I ever was. And, he hates his bird.” He rubbed the corner of his eye, shrugged his shoulders, breathed deeply, then said, “Archel, you must remember. Is there anything else? The fate of the kingdom may well rest on your recall.”
     “See, Archel? No pressure,” Kaiser Imler laughed, “Fintan, you never learned to put a pupil at ease during a test. Wait…don’t you still hate your bird?”
     “Test day should make one nervous. If you can’t perform under pressure, you’re not fit to lead,” Fintan retorted. “I will never stop hating Aeolus. The damn thing is worse than death knocking at my back. Try having sex while seeing the world through the eyes of a falcon hunting its dinner. You’re just as likely to puke as you are to come. Damned bird wrecks havoc on my performance.”
     “I guess, we’re lucky I perform best under pressure.”
     “As well you should, Rudolpho,” Fintan snipped, “kings are under unending pressure from every direction.”
     Archel watched and listened as the two men mock-bickered, finally he interjected, “he saw you change. That’s the only other thing. He said, ‘Did my eyes deceive me? No. I saw true.’ So, that means he saw you change. Sir, how could he see you when he wasn’t there?”
     “Obviously,” Fintan said, “he was there, boyo.”
     They sat in studious silence while each contemplated their next moves. The king mulled over Adonis and how convoluted a conspiracy must be for the Chief Justice of the Antigone Courts to get involved. The old bard searched for an easy answer to the question of building a bard from a battered boy. Archel worried if the Chief had seen the Kaiser change, then did he also hear their conversations? And, worse, was he currently watching?
     Archel needn’t worry for at that moment, Adonis was all the way across the Templus de Ambros in a secret underground chamber watching the interrogation of Ms. Darin’s family. Through a one-way mirror he could see an old man seated across from his wife and daughter; all three were naked, gagged, and bound with thin cords to cold steel chairs. The leader of the infiltration team stood caressing individual tools in a kit filled with at least 20 sharp implements; he rarely had to use more than four. This group had proved more resilient to the hint of actual torture than the last family he had interrogated. Even so, no one held once the tools pried into them. He smiled a tight-lipped, crooked, cruel smile that lit up his brown eyes.    
     Still smiling, he turned to the father, “you’ve got a choice to make. It’s not an easy choice. It’s always hard for a man to choose between women.” The interrogator laughed, he placed a hand on the old man’s shoulder, “I’ve repeatedly asked, ‘who was the girl’ and ‘where did she go’? I don’t like repetition. That’s something you need to learn quickly if we’re going to get along. Now, my friend, what you may not realize is that these four men,” he pointed to his compatriots, “were chosen because of their uniquely horrifying gusto for barbarism towards women.” He paused, “I know you understand my meaning. Perhaps, you doubt my sincerity?” Pointing to the man on the far right, a twig with bulging eyeballs, “Mr. Butano, here, has a penchant for circumgyration. He enjoys the caterwauling that ensues from twisting off limbs.” He indicated the acne-scarred man left of Mr. Butano, “preferring silence or whimpering, Mr. Gasoleo has gone to great lengths to ensure that no one can escape the knots he ties. You have him to thank for your gags and bindings. While the duumviri,” the interrogator motioned to the remaining two men, “Misters Jougs and Vorant, take pride in their knack for divide et impera.       
     “As for me?” the interrogator moved towards his tool kit, “I’ve always been an inquisitive man. I find the capacity to ask questions one of the supreme delights of life. Moreover, eliciting accurate answers is the height of pleasure. My methods are without doubt questionable to some. Personally, I think they’re not nearly as edifying as any of my compeers’ methods. Of course, in the end, I am merely the Inquisitor. You will have to judge for yourself as to whose methods suit you best. As I said before, the choice is yours and yours alone.” The Inquisitor held up a paring knife and said, “Gentlemen, if you please,” he nodded towards the door. The men slowly filed out of the dingy chamber. “I’ll give you five minutes, after which I will make the decision for you.”

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