The End of a Dynasty or The Natural History of Ferrets

by Angélica Gorodischer

Fri 20 Oct 2017 - Filed under: Free Stuff to Read, Short Stories | Leave a Comment

The storyteller said: He was a sorrowful prince, young Livna’lams, seven years old and full of sorrow. It wasn’t just that he had sad moments, the way any kid does, prince or commoner, or that in the middle of a phrase or something going on his mind would wander, or that he’d waake up with a heaviness in his chest or burst into tears for no apparent reason. All that happens to everybody, whatever their age or condition of life. No, now listen to what I’m telling you, and don’t get distracted and then say I didn’t explain it well enough. If anybody here isn’t interested in what I’m saying, they can leave. Go. Just try not to bother the others. This tent’s open to the south and north, and the roads are broad and lead to green lands and black lands and there’s plenty to do in the world—sift flour, hammer iron, beat rugs, plow furrows, gossip about the neighbors, cast fishing nets—but what there is to do here is listen. You can shut your eyes and cross your hands on your belly if you like, but shut your mouth and open your ears to what I’m telling you: This young prince was sad all the time, sad the way people are when they’re old and alone and death won’t come to them. His days were all dreary, grey, and empty, however full they were.
And they were full, for these were the years of the Hehvrontes dynasty, those proud, rigid rulers, tall and handsome, with white skin and very black eyes and hair, who walked without swinging their shoulders or hips, head high, gaze fixed somewhere beyond the horizon, not looking aside even to see their own mother in her death-agony, not looking down even if the path was rough and rocky, falling into a well if it was in the way and standing erect down inside the well, maintaining the dignity of the lords of the world. That’s what they were like, I’m telling you, I who’ve read the old histories till my poor eyes are nearly blind. That’s what they were like.
Livna’lams’s grandfather was the eighth emperor of the Hehvrontes dynasty; and his father—well, we’ll be talking about his father presently. That is, I’ll be talking, because you ignorant boors know nothing of the secret history of the Empire, occupied as you are in the despicable business of accumulating money, decorating your houses out of vanity, not love of beauty, eating and drinking and wallowing your way to apoplexy and death. I’ll talk about him when the time comes. For now, suffice it to say that the pride of the Hehvrontes had elaborated a stupid, showy, formal protocol unequalled at any other period of the Empire except that of the Noörams, who were equally stupid but less showy and more sinister. Luckily for people like you, the Noörams killed each other off, and nobody believes the story that a servant saved from the bloodbath a newborn son of the Empress Tennitraä, called The She-Snake and The Unjust, though nobody can disprove the story either. . . .
The Protocol of the Hehvrontes involved everything. It filled the court and the palace and filtered down into public charities, the army, schools, hospitals, whore-houses—high class whore-houses, you understand, since anything that fell short of a considerable fortune or a sonorous title lacked importance and so escaped the protocol. But in the palace, oh, in the palace! There the black-eyed, black-bearded lords had woven a real nightmare in which a sneeze was a crime and the tilt of a hatbrim a disgrace and the thoughtless twitch of a finger a tragedy.
Livna’lams escaped none of it. How could he, the crown prince, the tenth and, I’ll tell you now, the last of the Hehvrontes, only son of the widowed empress, on whom were fixed the eyes of the court, the palace, the capital, the Empire, the world! That’s why he was sorrowful, you say? Come, come, my good people, ignorance has one chance at good sense: keeping its mouth shut. Or so say the wise. But I say that if you’re utterly, hopelessly ignorant, there isn’t room in your skull for even that much sense. Come on, now, why would the Protocol make him sad? Why, when nine Hehvrontes before him had been perfectly happy, well maybe not nine but definitely eight—had been so happy that, attributing their beatific state to that very protocol, they devoted themselves to augmenting and enriching the hundred thousand minute formalities that distinguished them from everybody else? No, he too might well have been happy and satisfied, being a prince, made like any other prince for the frivolous and terrible uses of power. But he wasn’t. Maybe because the men in his family line had changed, since his grandfather took as his empress a Southern woman reputed to be not entirely human. Or maybe because of the ceremony which his mother, the Empress Hallovâh, had added to the Protocol of the Palace. Or because of both those things.
So, now, let me tell you that the Empress Hallovâh was very beautiful, but I mean very beautiful, and still young. The young heart is wide open to life and love, say the wise, and then they smile and look into the eyes of the child eager to learn, and add: and also open to sickness and hatred. The empress always dressed in white, long white tunics of silk or gauze with no ornament, nothing but a fine, heavy chain of unpolished iron links round her neck, from which a plain locket hung on her breast. She was always barefoot, her hair loose. In expiation, she said. Her hair was the color of ripe wheat. Remember that she was a Hehvrontes by marriage only. By birth she was from the Ja’lahdahlva family, who had been moving upward rapidly for the last three generations. She had grey eyes, a fine mouth, a slim waist. She never smiled.
Precisely one hour after sunrise, seven servants, each dressed in one of the colors of the rainbow, entered Prince Livna’lams’s room and woke him by repeating meaningless words about fortune, happiness, obligation, benevolence, in fixed phrases hundreds of years old. If I were to try to explain these words to you and tell how each man dressed in a different color each day so that the one who came in wearing blue today tomorrow would wear purple and yesterday wore red, if I tried to describe their gestures, the other words they said and the clothing they dressed the boy in and the tub they bathed him in and the perfumes assigned to each day, we’d have to stay here till the Short Harvest Feast, spending what’s left of summer and the whole autumn and sitting through snow and frost to see false spring and then the ground white again and the sky all thick with clouds until the day when the shoots must be gathered before the sun burns them or the hail destroys them, and even then we’d have trouble getting through the ceremony of the Bath and the Combing of the Hair, and not just because of the torpid sluggishness of the tiny intellects inside your skulls.
The prince opened his eyes, black Hehvronte eyes, and knew he had twenty seconds to sit up in bed and another twenty to get out of bed. The servants bowed, asserted their fidelity and respect in the formula proper for that day of the year, undressed him, and surrounding him closely escorted him to the bath, where other servants of inferior rank had prepared the tub full of scented water and the towels and sandals and oils and perfumes. After the bath they dressed him, never in clothes that he had worn before, and again surrounding him in a certain order, they escorted him to the door of the apartment, where another servant unlocked the lock and another opened both leaves of the door so that the boy might cross the threshold into the anteroom. There the lords of the nobility, clothed in the colors of the imperial house, received him with more bows and more formulas of adulation, and informed him of the state of the weather and the health of the Empress Hallovâh, which was always splendid, and recited to him the list of activities he was to perform today in the palace, and asked him what he wished to have for breakfast. The prince always gave the same answer:
“Nothing.”
This, too, was by way of expiation, said the empress, except that it was a farce like all the rest, since nobody expected the child to die of hunger. Yet it wasn’t a farce, because Livna’lams was never hungry. The nobles pleaded with him to eat so that he’d grow strong, brave, just, handsome, and good, as an emperor should be. The little boy assented, and they all went on to a dining room where a table was spread and eleven servants looked after the plates, the silver, the goblets, the platters, the napkins, the decorations, the water the crown prince drank and what little food he ate, while the noblemen looked on and approved, standing behind the chair of ancient, fragrant wood covered with cushions and tapestries. Every dish, every mouthful, every sip, every movement was meticulously planned and controlled by the Protocol of the Palace. And when all that was done, another servant opened the door of the room, and other noblemen escorted the emperor-to-be, and now came the moment, the only moment in the day, when the son and the mother met.
Even misfortune has its advantages, say the wise. Of course the wise say stupid things, because even wisdom has its foolishness, say I. But there’s no question but that being down has its up side. If Livna’lams hadn’t been such a sorrowful prince, in that moment he might have been frightened, or angry, or in despair. But sorrow filled him till he couldn’t feel anything. Nothing mattered to him, not even the Empress Hallovâh, his mother.
She would be sitting dressed in white on a great chair upholstered in white velvet, surrounded by her seventy-seven maids of honor, who wore bright colors and were loaded with gold and jewels, crowned with diadems, shod with embroidered satin slippers, their hands and wrists beringed and braceleted. As the prince came, in all the ladies bowed deeply and the empress stood up, for though she was his mother, he was going to be the emperor. She greeted him: “May the day be propitious for you, Prince.”
He replied, “May the day be propitious for you, Mother.”
Even you ignorant louts who don’t know beans about anything let alone palaces and courts can see how differently they behaved towards each other. But then, while all the ladies in waiting stayed bowed down to the ground in submission, the Empress Hallovâh acted as if she felt tenderness towards the child: kissed him, stroked his face, asked him how he’d slept, if he’d had good dreams, if he loved her, if he’d like to go walking in the gardens with her. The prince would take one of the woman’s hands in his and reply: “I slept very well and my dreams were happy and serene, Mother. I love you very much, Mother. Nothing would please me more than to walk in the gardens, Mother.”
When this section of the Protocol was complete, the prince and the empress walked side by side holding hands to the great glass doors that opened on the gardens. As they reached them, the woman would stop and look at her son: “Though we are happy,” she would say, “we cannot enjoy our good fortune until we have completed our duties, painful as they may be.”
“I was about to suggest to you, Mother,” the prince would reply, “that as leaders and protectors of our beloved people, we owe our happiness to them, and our principal task is to see that justice is done to the living and the dead.”
“The dead can wait, Prince.”
At this point in the dialogue the ladies, still all doubled over curtsying, felt some relief at the thought that soon they’d be able to straighten up their backs and necks.
“That is so, Mother; but not the people, who await our judgment on which of the dead were great men and which were traitors.”
The ladies straightened up. The prince and the empress were already in the gardens. Sun or snow or rain or wind or hail, lightning, thunder, whatever the weather, the two of them, the little boy and the woman in white, walked every morning to the central fountain, where eight marble swans opened their wings to the water falling from a basin of alabaster. South of the fountain, paths ran through a grove, and following one of them deep into the shadows—green in the sunlight, dark in storm—they came to what once had been a statue. Had been, I say. There wasn’t much of it left. The pedestal was intact, but the pink-grained marble had been scratched all over with a chisel to erase the inscription, the names and dates. Above that nothing remained but a shapeless lump of white marble, whether pink-grained or not you couldn’t tell, it was so battered and filthy. It might have been the figure of a man; looking carefully you could make out the stump of an arm, a ruined leg, a truncated, headless neck, something like a torso. In front of it the prince and the empress stood and waited. The noblemen arrived, then the ladies, then the officers of the palace guard and the soldiers, magistrates, lawyers, and functionaries. And behind them came the servants, trying to peer over the heads of the gentry to see what happened.
What happened was, day after day, the same, always exactly the same. Some moments of silence, till everything within the palace walls seemed to have fallen still. And then suddenly, at the same instant, the joined voices of the mother and son: “We curse you!” they said. “May you be cursed, may you be damned, hated, loathed, despised forever! May your memory waken only rancor towards you, your face, your deeds. We curse you!”
Another silence, and the empress spoke: “Treason degrades and corrupts all that it touches,” she said. “I vow to heaven and earth and all the peoples therein to expiate for the rest of my life the guilt of having been your wife, of having shared your throne, your table, and your bed.”
Again everyone was silent. The boy prince took a whip which one of the noblemen offered him, a pearl-handled whip, seventeen strands, tipped with steel hooks. With it he struck at the statue, what was left of it: twenty blows that echoed through the grove. Sometimes a bird got the notion to start singing just at that moment, and this was considered a lamentable occurrence to be discussed in low voices during all the rest of the day throughout the palace, from the throne room to the kitchens. But we know that the birds and beasts, the plants, the waters all have their own protocol, and evidently have no intention of changing it for a human one.
And what happened next, you ask? Oh, good people, everything had been arranged, as you can imagine. Or can’t imagine, since if you could imagine anything you wouldn’t have come here to listen to stories and whine like silly old women if the storyteller leaves out one single detail. So, next, another nobleman received the whip from the hands of the prince, who then approached his mother. The empress stooped, because her son was still a little boy, and held out the polished locket that hung from her neck on the chain of black iron links. She opened it. The boy spat into it, onto a face and name cut in the white stone and half scratched out with a sharp tool, the face and name of the dead man, the emperor, his father.
No, I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you the name of the ninth emperor of the Hehvrontes dynasty, because I don’t know it. Nobody does. It’s a name that is not remembered. His guilt and treason, so they said, had been so horrible that his name was never to be pronounced again. Moreover, that name was erased from the annals, the laws, the decrees, from history books, official registries, monuments, coins, escutcheons, maps, poems. Poems, because the emperor had written songs and poems ever since he was a boy. Unfortunately he’d been a good poet, good enough that the people got hold of his verses and sang them, back in those happy days when he reigned in peace. And to tell you the truth, many of his poems survived despite everything, and it’s said that Livna’lams heard them sung in distant provinces when he himself was emperor. But memory is weak, and that’s a blessing, so say the wise. And I know, because I know a lot of things, that it was a wise man who said or wrote that time’s mirror loses all it reflects. Memory is weak, and people had forgotten where those songs came from. What mattered was that the name be forgotten. And it was.
So the empress left the despicable locket open on her breast, turned her back on the broken statue, and started back to the palace with her son. Then came the procession. Everybody, the most important persons first, the others following, finally the servants, passed the statue, and all did their utmost to express hatred and contempt. Some spat on it, some kicked it, some struck it with sticks or chains or their belts, some smeared it with mud or muck, and some, hoping that their exploit would reach the ears of the empress, went so far as to bring a little bag full of yesterday’s turds and empty them out on the marble.
On their return to the galleries of the palace, the prince and the empress saluted each other and parted. She would spend the rest of the morning in meetings with her ministers; in the afternoon she was occupied with affairs of justice and official proceedings. The little boy met with his teachers and studied history, geography, mathematics, music, strategy, politics, dance, falconry, and all the things an emperor has to know so that later on he can do everything that makes him feel that doing it makes him the emperor.
I said he was a sorrowful prince, young Livna’lams; he was a bright one too, alert, intelligent. There’s another of the advantages of sorrow: it doesn’t dull the intellect as depression and rancor do. His teachers had soon discovered that the boy learned in ten minutes what might take most boys an hour, not to mention totally moronic princes incapable of learning anything. And as he was seven, an important age, and as the noblemen were always present during his studies to supervise the process, they had arrived at a tacit agreement to depart, secretly, from the Protocol: the teachers taught what they had to teach, Livna’lams learned what he had to learn, and then everybody could go do what they pleased—the schoolmasters could burrow into their books, or write boring treatises on themes they believed to be original and important, or get drunk, or play dice, or plot crimes against their colleagues, and the prince could seek a little solitude.
Sometimes he found it in the music rooms, sometimes in the stables or the libraries. But he always found it in the far corners of the palace gardens. Only if he was extremely lucky could he touch an instrument, talk to the horses and the mares with young foals, or read a book, without a music teacher appearing, or a riding master, or a librarian, bowing and scraping and asking to be of service or just standing around waiting for orders. But almost never, or in truth never, was there anyone under the garden walls, among the dense thickets, the hidden benches, the bricked-up doors, the dry fountains, the pergolas. I don’t know what the prince did there. I think he just let time pass. I think he saw and heard things that had not been included in the Protocol. I think that, sorrowfully as ever, he tried to love something—beetles with hard, iridescent wingcases, sprouting weeds, the dirt, stones fallen from the walls.
Now listen carefully, because one day something happened. The day was grey and muggy, and what happened was this: the prince heard voices. I don’t mean he went mad or was divinely inspired. He heard somebody talking, and it alarmed him.
Weren’t the librarians and the riding masters enough? Was he going to have to start hiding even from the gardeners? He looked around, thinking that was it: some idiot had discovered these forgotten corners of the garden and decided to acquire merit by getting the paths sanded, the trees pruned, the benches restored, and worst of all, the thickets cut down.
“I think you’re as crazy as I am,” said a mild, slow voice.
A burst of laughter, and a second voice said, “Friend, I can’t say you’re wrong.” This voice was deeper, richer, stronger.
Those aren’t gardeners, Livna’lams said to himself. Gardeners don’t talk like that, or laugh like that. And he was right. Do any of you have the honor of being acquainted with a gardener? They are admirable people, believe me, but they don’t go around making comments on their own or other people’s mental condition. They stay close to the ground, and know many names in different languages, and nothing in this world impresses them much, since they see life in the right way, as it should be seen, from below looking up, and in concentric circles. But what do you know about all that and how could it interest you? All you want to know is what happened in the palace garden that day when the prince heard voices.
All right, all right, I’ll tell you what happened, just as truly as if I’d been there myself. Those aren’t gardeners, the little boy said to himself, and so nobody’s going to come and clear out the thickets; and that pleased him. And since he was pleased, he got up from the steps he’d been sitting on and walked, trying not to make noise, towards the place where the men were talking. Now, he wasn’t used to walking silently in an overgrown garden; he might manage to be noiseless in the palace corridors, but not here. He trod on a dry stick, a pebble rolled under his foot, he brushed up against a bush, and then, there in front of him, was a huge man, the tallest, broadest man he’d ever seen, very dark, with coal-black beard and hair and eyes. The man took hold of the prince’s arm with a gigantic, powerful hand. The prince squeaked out, “How dare you, you insolent fellow!”
The giant laughed. It was the deep, tremendous laugh Livna’lams had heard a minute earlier. But he didn’t let go. “Ah ha ha ha!” he went, and then, “Come see what we’ve got here!”
He wasn’t talking to the prince but to the owner of the other voice, who was standing behind the big man. This one was shorter and slighter, lanky, also very tanned, cleanshaven, with tangled black hair, bright black eyes that looked amused, a wide mouth and a long, delicate neck.
“I think it might be best to let him go,” he said in a lazy, quiet voice.
“Why?” said the giant. “Why should I? No telling how long he’s been listening. Better not let him go. Better give him a good beating to teach him not to spy, so he forgets that he even came around here this morning.”
“No beatings,” said the other man. “Unless you want us shorter by a head.”
The big fellow considered this possibility, and you can bet your puny little life savings that he didn’t like it; he opened his fist and let the boy go. The prince brushed off his silken sleeve and looked at the two men. He wasn’t afraid. They say princes are never afraid but don’t believe it, it’s a lie. They’re afraid not only when they ought to be but sometimes when there’s nothing to fear, and there have even been some who have lived in fear and died of fear. But Livna’lams wasn’t afraid. He looked at them and saw they wore coarse clothing like fieldworkers or bricklayers, ordinary sandals, a worn pouch hanging from the belt. He also saw that they weren’t afraid of him, which didn’t surprise him—what was there to fear?—and that they didn’t seem disposed to bow or do homage or await his orders in silence. That did surprise him.
“Who are you?” he asked them.
“Oh, you’d like to know that, wouldn’t you now!” said the great big fellow.
This totally non-Protocolish reply, this rude and blustering reply, didn’t offend the prince at all. He liked it.
“Yes, I’d like to know,” he said, crossing his arms.
“But I’m not going to tell you, snotnose.”
“Hey, hey, Renka,” said the other man.
“And I’d like to know what you’re doing here, too,” said the young prince.
“We’d just finished our work, Prince,” said the shorter man, “and we were taking a break.”
“How did you know who I am?” said the prince, at the same time as the big fellow said, “This tadpole is a prince?”
The man answered Renka first: “Yes, which is why I told you that if you gave him a lick they’d have our heads,” and then, to Livna’lams: “By your clothes.”
“What does a bricklayer know about what a prince wears?” the boy asked.
“Listen, tadpole,” said Renka. “Listen up, because I don’t care if you’re a prince. We aren’t bricklayers. We’re adventurers, and therefore philosophers, and therefore although we aren’t going to beat you up, being fond of having our heads attached at the neck, neither are we going to play monkey tricks and bob up and down in reverence to Your Majesty.”
At this the boy did something really wonderful, really magnificent. He uncrossed his arms, threw his head back, and laughed with all his heart.
“We aren’t clowns, either,” said Renka, deeply insulted.
But the other man, who was called Loo’Loö, which isn’t a name or if it’s a name it’s a very unusual one, threw his head back too, and holding his sides he laughed right along with the prince. Big Renka looked at them, very serious, and scratched his head, and when Livna’lams and Loo’Loö quit laughing and wiped their eyes, he said, “If you want my opinion, you’re both crazy. I’m not surprised. Philosophers and princes have a definite tendency to go crazy. Though I never heard of a tadpole with sense enough to go crazy.”
The boy laughed again and then all three sat down on the ground and talked.
They talked about a lot of things that day, but when the sun was high in the sky the prince stood up and said he had to go, they’d be expecting him in the palace for lunch.
“Too bad,” said Renka. “We’ve got cheese,” and he gave a loving pat to the pouch that hung from his wide belt, “and we’re going to buy wine and fruit.”
The prince took this as an invitation. “But I can’t,” he said.
“How come?” said Renka.
Young Livna’lams turned away and set off. After a couple of steps, he stopped and looked back at the two men. Loo’Loö was still sitting on the ground, chewing a grass-blade. “I don’t know,” he said. “Tomorrow, when your work’s done, will you come here again?”
“I say no,” said Renka. “I say we’ve sweated enough in this damned part of this hellish city, but he insists on staying, and since I’m kind and generous and have a heart as tender as a dove in love and can’t watch a friend suffer, I let him have his way.” He sighed.
“Until tomorrow, then,” said the prince.
The two waved goodbye.
“What’ll you get to eat, tadpole?” Renka shouted after him.
“Fish!” the prince called back, running towards the palace.
He had never run before. You realize that he was seven years old and this was the first time he’d ever run? But within sight of the palace he slowed down, and walking as the princes of the Hehvrontes walked, he entered the dining room where the nobles, the knights, the servants were waiting for him, the whole jigsaw puzzle all ready to be put together. The prince sat down, looked at his empty plate, and said, “I want fish.”
It was like an earthquake. The Protocol in no way prevented an hereditary prince from ordering whatever he wanted for lunch, but nobody had ever heard this hereditary prince open his mouth to express any wish, and certainly not a wish for some particular food, since he’d never had any appetite. It cannot be determined whether a cook actually had a nervous breakdown and two footmen fainted, but the story is, and it seems to be true, that when informed, the empress raised an eyebrow—some say it was the left eyebrow, others say the right—and lost the thread of what she’d been saying to one of her ladies of honor. The young prince ate two servings of fish.
Next day—no. I’m not going to tell you everything that happened next day, since it was just the same as the day before. Except for one of those things the Hehvrontes couldn’t prescribe in the Imperial Protocol: it was sunny. How do I know that? Ah, my little man, that’s my privilege, you know. And I have a further privilege, which is that you don’t know what I know nor how I know it. So it was sunny, and the lanky fellow was lying in the grass, half hidden by some shrubbery, and big Renka was standing watching the overgrown path that led from the palace. It led to the palace, too, but Renka was watching for somebody coming.
“Think he’ll come?” he asked.
Loo’Loö was watching a lazy lizard, maybe, or the weeds over his head. “I’d like to say he will,” he said.
Now even you people, with all the sensitivity of paving-stones, have figured out that the two adventurers, we’ll call them that for now although only one of them really was one, had been drawn toward the young prince by more than mere chance. We may ask ourselves—ask yourselves, because I’ve done it already and come up with the answer—whether chance rules humankind or if all our acts are foreseen, as if by the demented Protocol of the Hehvrontes. And it’s no use asking this curious question of the wise, because some will insist that everything is chance, others will say it plays no part, and maybe all of them are right, since they all suspect, behind chance or non-chance, the workings of a secret order. The lizard scarcely moved, enjoying the sunlight, elegant and silvery as a new coin.
“He’ll come,” said the lanky man. I don’t know—this I don’t know—whether he believed in chance.
“He’ll come,” he said again, and put his hand on the old leather bag that hung from his belt.
And he came. He said, “Hello!” and stood there.
He just stood there because he didn’t know what else to say to them. To escape from the Protocol was thrilling, and he’d had a wonderful time the day before, but today our young prince realized that it might be dangerous, too. Yes, dangerous: think a little, if you’re capable of thought, and you’ll see that it’s safer to obey a law however stupid it may be than to act freely; because to act freely, unless you’re as wicked as certain emperors, is to seek a just law; and if you make a mistake, you’ve taken the first step towards power, which is what destroys men.
And so that you can understand me once for all, I’ll tell you that the little boy said nothing but hello because the Protocol didn’t tell him how to behave towards these two men who were humble laborers, and adventurers and philosophers, according to Renka, but who were also something else, something indefinable, mysterious, great, attractive, and frightening.
“Hello, kid,” said Renka.
The other man said nothing.
“I’ll tell you something,” said the big man. “I didn’t call you tadpole because I’ve decided that maybe you aren’t a tadpole.” He smiled. “Maybe you’re a ferret. Do you like ferrets?”
“I don’t know,” the prince said. “I’ve never seen a ferret.”
He sat down near Loo’Loö, and Renka sat down too.
“I’ve got a present for you, Prince,” said the lanky man.
“Silence!” Renka thundered. “I’m about to give a lecture on ferrets!”
In that moment, Livna’lams thought that he didn’t like being a prince, and that instead of commanding and deciding and giving orders he’d rather obey Renka, even if that meant he had to wait for his present.
“Ferrets,” said the black-eyed giant, “are small, tawny animals with four paws and a snout. They use their front paws to dig their underground cities, to hunt rats, and to hold food and baby ferrets. They use their hind paws to stand up, to mount females, and to jump. They use all four paws to run, walk, and dance. They use their snout for sniffing and to grow whiskers on, for eating, and to show their kind and benevolent feelings. They also have a furry tail, which is a source of pride to them. Justified pride, moreover, for what would become of a ferret who wasn’t proud of being a ferret? Their congenital trait is prudence, but with time they acquire wisdom as well. For them, everything in the world is red, because their eyes are red, that being the appropriate eye-color for ferrets. They are deeply interested in engineering and music. They have certain gifts of prescience, and would like to be able to fly, but so far have not done so, prevented by their prudence. They are loyal and brave. And they generally carry out their intentions.”
Renka looked at his companion and the little boy, smoothed his beard and mustache, and said: “I have done. We may apply ourselves to other tasks.”
Livna’lams clapped his hands. “Good, Renka, very good! I like ferrets! I agree to being a ferret! And now, can I see the present Loo brought me?”
“Why not?” said Renka.
The lanky man opened his pouch and took out a folded, yellowish piece of paper. The prince put out his hand for it.
“Not yet,” said Loo’Loö.
“You’re a very young ferret,” Renka said, “proud, prudent, but not yet wise enough.”
The prince was taken aback, perhaps embarrassed, certainly confused. But you know what? He wasn’t sorrowful. Of course since Renka was right and he was a very young ferret, he didn’t know he wasn’t sad any more, just as he hadn’t known that the deep-hidden core of his imperial body had been a core of sorrow. Loo’Loö unfolded the yellow paper once, twice, three times, seven times, and when it was entirely unfolded it was circular. From the center dangled a long, fine, strong thread. Loo’Loö unwound it. Then he pulled on it, and the circle became a sphere of yellow paper, delicate, translucent, captive. Livna’lams held his breath. “Now what?”
“Now you blow into it,” said Loo’Loö.
“Where?”
“Here, where the string goes in.”
The prince blew. The yellow sphere bounced up. Loo’Loö put the end of the string into the little ferret’s paw, and the balloon rose up into the air.
You have memories, you people listening to me—try to remember and spare me the labor of describing what the prince felt when he saw the yellow sphere rise up so high, and ferret-pride filled his heart. Do you feel anything, can you recapture some faint memory of those days? The prince returned to the palace with a stiff neck, and with a little folded yellow paper hidden in his fist. And with an appetite.
No, nobody knew anything, not yet. The days went by all alike, all settled beforehand, perfect, dry, and hard, as they had been since the first of the Hehvrontes. The ceremony of contempt took place every day at the ruined statue in the wood among the trees in which sometimes a bird sang; but it didn’t matter to the prince. He no longer hated his nameless father, if ever he had hated him as they had told him he should do, because he loved Renka and Loo. Every misfortune has its lucky side, say the wise. And I’d add that every good thing has its disadvantages, and the disadvantage of love is precisely that it leaves room for nothing else, not even the prudence of ferrets.
On the day after the day of the yellow balloon, Renka taught the ferret-prince a poem which told about the night wind, forgetfulness, and a man who was sitting at the door of his house, waiting. Next day they told fortunes. Next day they got down on all fours on the dirt and crawled around looking for ferrets, but couldn’t find any.
“Too bad,” said Renka. “I’ve wanted for a long time to go down into their subterranean cities.”
Another day Renka and Loo’Loö taught Livna’lams how to braid leather thongs, and he wanted to teach them how to play the rebec, but they laughed at him and told him they already knew how. Then he told them how he passed his days in the palace and they listened gravely. Another day it started raining while the three of them were discussing the several ways of rowing upstream in rough water, and the two men built a shelter with branches and covered the ferret-prince with their heavy smocks and the three of them sang at the top of their voices and completely out of tune with the ceaseless song of the rain. Another day the adventurers described the hunting and trapping of tigers, and Renka displayed a scar on his shoulder which he declared was from the claws of a tiger which he had strangled with his bare hands, and Loo’Loö laughed a lot but told Livna’lams that it was true: “Whereas I, Prince, have never hunted tigers. What for?” said he.
That night before he went to sleep the little boy thought about hunting tigers. He thought that some day he’d challenge tigers, all the tigers in the world, and Renka and Loo would be there, backing him up.
Another day they played sintu and Loo’Loö won every round.
These days the prince got through the tasks his teachers set him so quickly that he often had to wait a long time for the two men in the deserted corner of the gardens, and when they came he’d say, “Why did you take so long?” or, “I thought you weren’t going to come,” or “How come I can always get here before you do?”
Renka and Loo’Loö explained that they had to finish their work and it took a long time because there were a lot of latrines to clean in the servants’ quarters of the palace. It occurred to the ferret prince, of course, that two men as unusual as Renka and Loo shouldn’t be cleaning latrines, but should be doing important things while wearing clothes of silk and velvet. But they told him he was mistaken; because, in the first place, jobs considered despicable by the powerful are those which favor philosophical discussion; in the second place, keeping servants’ latrines clean is more important than it seems, since servants notice that somebody’s paying attention to them and their well-being, which puts them in a good humor, and so they wait diligently on their masters, who in turn are satisfied and so incline towards benevolence and justice; and finally, because coarse linen is much more comfortable than embroidered velvet, being warm in winter and cool in summer, while rich fabrics are chilly in winter and suffocating in summer. The ferret prince said that was true. And it is. It is, of course it is, and it’s why the wise say that gold is sweet in the purse but bitter in the blood. But who takes any notice of the wise, these days, except storytellers or poets?
Renka and Loo’Loö agreed with what the wise say, being wise themselves, even if they didn’t know it. What happened in those days proves it. In those days that were all alike, yet different from the earlier days that had been all alike, there occurred two notable events. Notable is scarcely the right word, but I use it because I can’t find a word to signify total change in all respects, external, internal, political, cosmic. The first notable event was provided for in the Protocol and occurred annually; the second was not, and occurred once only. Now listen to me while I tell you the first event.
One morning the ferret prince arrived later than usual at the abandoned corner of the garden, and this time it was the brown men in linen and leather who asked him why he’d taken so long. The little boy told them that he hadn’t had lessons that day because it was the anniversary of the death of his uncle, the younger brother of his mother the Empress Hallovâh, the Lord of the Shining Glance—for such was the name he had merited in death for what he had been in life, scion of the now very powerful Ja’lahdahlva family—the sixth anniversary: and so the prince had had to attend the ceremony of remembrance and homage.
Renka spat on the dirt. “Bah,” he said. “All that wasted on unscrupulous scum.”
“Don’t talk that way, Renka,” said Livna’lams.
“Why shouldn’t I, little ferret?”
“My uncle was a great man.”
Renka spat again. “You’re sure about that?”
The ferret prince thought hard about this uncle whom he hadn’t known, and about the memorial observance. He thought about the noblemen and lords and magistrates all dressed in black, the veiled ladies, his mother in white. He remembered that his mother the empress wept only this one time in the year, and remembered the words of the elegy which it was his duty to speak. He remembered the gold urn that held his uncle’s ashes, and the portraits of a fair man with eyes so clear they were almost transparent, wearing not linen, but brocade. He said, “No.”
“Ha!” said Renka.
“What was the ceremony like, Prince?” asked Loo’Loö.
The prince told him, but don’t expect me to describe it all to you, because it isn’t worth it: it was nothing but the reverse of the ceremony of contempt for the nameless emperor, and it was a farce. As was the other one, as you’ll soon see by what I have to tell you.
The second notable event of those days that were all alike happened to the two adventurers and the ferret prince one morning when a storm made its presence felt by thundering on the other side of the river, though it didn’t break till the afternoon, which got dark all at once, as if the world were a kettle and somebody had decided to beat on it after throwing cold water onto hot grease. But all morning the storm just crouched, waiting, and the three of them were crouching too, silently watching a busy scarab beetle rolling tiny balls of mud.
“Why’s it doing that?” asked Livna’lams.
“Making a nest,” said Loo’Loö.
“What’s happening,” said Renka, “is that the Lord of the Scarabs is provident, and when he knows that the moment has come, when his hard wings tremble and his jaws clack, he hurries to gather little balls of mud.”
“But what for?”
“Don’t rush it, because he doesn’t rush it. He’s ready, but he doesn’t let himself be rushed,” Renka went on. “When he’s got a lot of little balls of mud, I don’t know exactly how many because I’ve never been a scarab, but enough, he goes scuttling off to where a Scarab Lady is, and he finds her, infallibly. If there’s another male beetle around, he opens his jaws wide and bites off its head. Then he brings the Lady of the Scarabs to where the little mudballs are, and they do together what they have to do, and she lays eggs and he covers them with the mudballs and hatches them, and she goes off, airhead that she is, hoping to meet another Scarab Lord. It’s even possible she may say nasty things to him about the first one.”
The ferret prince put out a finger towards the beetle.
“Don’t bother him,” said Loo’Loö. “He’ll feel very bad if you interrupt him.”
“Great Ladies do things like that,” Renka said, “and I don’t like Great Ladies, not that I’ve known many.”
“Come on, Renka,” said Loo’Loö, “let’s not start that again.”
“I’m going to tell you a secret, little ferret,” Renka went on as if nobody had said anything, or as if somebody might have said something but he hadn’t heard it—“Your mother, the Lady Hallovâh, is a Great Lady, and your uncle Lord Hohviolol, scion of the ambitious Ja’lahdahvas, was a shameless, feeble, greedy, vicious turkeycock who, instead of dying in a soft bed of a fever like an honest man, should have been stoned to death in the public square. And your father was not a traitor.”
Now, you good people listening to me, know this: the ferret prince was not surprised. Know it as surely as I do, as if he himself had come from death across the years to tell us. Know that, instead of surprise, he felt the core of sorrow in him was gone, and in its place was a core of anger. And he was aware that it wasn’t Renka who had made that change just now, but that he’d been making it himself, slowly, for a long time, with infinite patience and secrecy, but not alone. No, not alone. Strange as it seems, his mother the Empress Hallovâh had helped him in his great task, and so had the Protocol of the Hehvrontes.
“That’s enough, Renka,” said Loo’Loö.
And now the ferret prince was surprised. What surprised him was hearing the familiar voice speak in an unfamiliar tone, as if the strings of a lady’s lute were to play a march to battle. And what surprised him was the look on the face of the lanky, gentle man who was or wasn’t named Loo’Loö as he looked at him, at the prince, while he spoke to Renka. He heard and saw a tone and an expression that seemed familiar, though he didn’t know why.
“Renka, will you tell me everything?” said Livna’lams the Ferret.
“Sure I will, little ferret,” said big Renka.
“You will not,” said Loo’Loö.
The two men faced each other, and the ferret prince remembered the tigers. Not that Renka was a tiger—he was a mad elephant about to charge. The prince had seen an elephant gone wild, seen it sweep men and arms and wagons aside, trampling on whatever got in its way, heard its furious trumpeting while it killed and while it died, defeated at last. The other man, Loo’Loö, was the tiger, a splendid, supple tiger, serene and dangerous, defending his territory against everyone and everything. The ferret prince thought for a moment that the tiger was going to spring and sink his claws in some vulnerable part of the elephant’s hide. But they both held still, watching each other.
“I don’t want that,” said Loo’Loö.
“You don’t, eh? Why did we come, then? Why are we here?”
“For other reasons.”
“Ha!” Renka said again. “They’re terrific, your reasons, it’s a real treat the way you can string reasons together, pal.”
“There are some things it’s better not to meddle with,” Loo’Loö said quietly. “I thought we agreed about that.”
“We did,” said Renka. “A long time ago. So long ago I don’t remember. But now we know him, and we’ve raised him to the rank of Ferret, right? He’ll be emperor some day, right?”
“Yes,” said Loo’Loö, smiling, and his smile filled the world of the ferret prince the way Renka’s laughs and bellows filled it, but with light, not thunder.
“So,” the big man said, “he needs information, he needs to know something more than music and politics and which foot to put first when he enters the council hall and which color of pen to write with on the third day of the week. I’m going to tell you something, pal: he needs to know everything, he needs to hear and see and touch and smell and taste and suffer everything so he can find out some day what kind of emperor he’s going to be—right? At whatever cost.”
“I agree,” said Loo’Loö. “But I don’t want that.”
“You’re lying!” Renka roared. “You’re lying, there’s nothing you want more!”
Again the ferret prince thought the tiger and the elephant were on the point of destroying each other. But again Loo’Loö smiled.
“I don’t want it,” he said. “He’s very young and shouldn’t be troubled. He should be let alone, like the beetles. And the ferrets.”
“He’s no beetle, he’s only a boy. But a prince, worse luck for him,” said Renka. “Beetles know a lot more than he does. Not to mention ferrets.”
And that, strangely enough, seemed to settle the question. Loo’Loö turned the fierce, steady stare of his dark eyes away from Renka and sat down on the ground and listened. And Renka told all, as he had said he would. And now I’ll tell it to you people, who will never be emperors. I’m not telling it in the hope that you’ll understand me, or understand the ferret prince, but only because the wise say that words, being daughters of the flesh, spoil if they’re kept locked up.
“Your father was a good man, little ferret,” Renka began, “I can tell you that, since I was his friend for many years, and his only friend for many more years.”
Yes, Livna’lams said to himself, yes, that’s how it must have been, that’s how it was. And he listened. Renka told him about a handsome man, black-eyed, black-haired, a tranquil, moderate, just man, an emperor who protected his people and composed songs and built cities and enriched farmlands. A man who won the love of everyone who knew him, except his wife, who loved another man.
“An idiot,” said Renka. “Which doesn’t reflect much credit on your mother. An idiot, shameless, vicious, boastful, cowardly, greedy, and ambitious, which reflects even less credit on her. I’m sorry, but it’s better that I tell you, so you don’t find it out little by little, and keep telling yourself no, no, no, and filling yourself up with so much pain that finally the only way out is to say yes, yes, yes.”
“Let’s stop there,” said Loo’Loö. “You can go on about his father, since the only way to stop you would be to cut out your tongue, and I don’t know that I want to. I don’t think I do. But don’t talk about his mother.”
Renka laughed his usual laugh, just as when he told about his adventures or made fun of himself because he’d lost at sintu. “I always said you were crazy, partner,” he said.
But believe me, the conversation didn’t end there. Renka said nothing more about the Empress Hallovâh, but he told the ferret prince how, when war came, when the enemy approached the borders of the Empire, his father the emperor called the generals together and the army marched away. Flowers rained down, said Renka, armfuls of flowers, on the soldiers, and the emperor, who wasn’t an ambitious coward like the other man, who was hiding in the palace pretending to be sick, and was sick, with fear—the emperor marched at the head of his troops. They fought on the border, Renka said, and they were all brave, but the bravest was the Ninth Emperor of the House of the Hehvrontes. But the other man had stayed behind in the palace, very pale, very blond, very scared, being looked after by his sister the Empress Hallovâh. And both of them expected and hoped that the emperor would die in battle.
“Not that it would have done them any good,” said Renka, “since although she didn’t know it, she already had you in her belly, little ferret.”
And he went on with the story: Not only did the emperor stay alive, he defeated the enemy. Then, when news came that the invaders were retreating, when victory was certain, the two in the palace had to find another way: treason, since death had failed them.
“But the traitor wasn’t your father,” Renka said. “It wasn’t him!”
And he told how somebody had made sure that the ministers found supposed proof of the emperor’s treason.
“I said it was somebody,” he insisted. “I didn’t say it was her.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Loo’Loö. And, to the prince, “It really doesn’t matter who it was, prince. What matters, since Renka wants it so, and maybe I do too, is that you know that he didn’t betray you. Even though he didn’t know either that you were going to be born.”
“The proof,” said Renka without looking at either of them, “was a letter, a secret copy of the secret letters kept in a very well-hidden drawer which now, inexplicably, wasn’t well hidden. In this letter the emperor offered unconditional surrender and permanent submission to the enemy in exchange for gold, enough gold to fill his chests, enough to buy luxury, folly, vice.”
The ferret prince sat up and looked, not at Renka, but at Loo’Loö. “Didn’t he come back to say it wasn’t true?”
It was Renka who answered: “A good question. Yes, little ferret, sure, he came back. But he came back in hiding, as if he really had been a traitor, because it’s a very short step from the ministers to the generals, from the generals to the troops, and from the troops to the people. Good sense is inversely proportional to the number of brains, so say the wise. If you don’t understand that, it means that the more people there are to think a thought, the uglier and more crippled and deformed the poor thought gets. So, if the ministers believed it, why not the generals and the troops and the people, eh? And why not, if the emperor’s personal seal was on the letter, eh? Of course somebody had access to his seal, who knows who, pal. Who knows . . .”
The three were silent for a long time, listening to the rumbling of the black, indecisive storm on the other side of the river.
“And then?” Livna’lams whispered.
“I don’t know anything more,” said the giant.
“It’s true,” said Loo’Loö. “It’s true, we don’t know anything more. Nobody does.”
“He died?” asked the little ferret.
“Maybe so, maybe not,” said Renka. “Nobody knows. People say different things.”
“What things?”
“They say somebody surprised him trying to enter the palace and killed him, nobody knows who, just somebody. They say nobody killed him. They say somebody else, I don’t say who, some friend of his, warned him in time and so he got away. They say he killed himself. They say he didn’t kill himself and went wandering over the fields, into the mountains. A lot of people say they’ve seen him disguised as a shepherd or a beggar or a monk, and in more than one city they’ve stoned and killed some poor fool who never dreamed of being emperor and had nothing to do with the Hehvrontes. They say that when your mother learned she was pregnant with you she wept and screamed and beat her belly to try to force you out. But you were very small and very well protected and all she could do was put on white clothes and go barefoot with her hair down and no jewelry. They say that the other man beat her when he found out, because she’d promised him to have nothing to do with her husband and to keep herself for him, and because your birth meant that it wouldn’t be their blood, pure Ja’lahdahlva blood, but your father’s Hehvrontes blood that would rule the Empire. There was, evidently, one solution.”
“You’re just guessing,” Loo’Loö said.
Renka burst with a “Ha!” and the storm echoed him. “The solution was to wait it out, then say you’d been born dead and show your poor little corpse around for public mourning. What saved you, Prince Ferret, was a prostitute. The other man caught a deadly fever from her. For over two years he lay in bed, really sick this time, burning up. And in that condition no man could engender sons, as everybody knows. Doctors and treatments and drugs that made him howl and writhe did no good. He died.”
The storm shouted something very loudly in the distance but the ferret prince didn’t know the language of storms the way gardeners do, and didn’t understand it. Maybe he didn’t hear it. Imagine, if you can: his world had changed utterly.
The wise say everything has its season, and each stage in a man’s life has its sign, and it must be so, since the wise know what they’re talking about and if sometimes we don’t understand them it’s not their fault but ours. What I say, and this is something I thought myself and never read or heard, is that in the ferret prince’s life the years of sorrow had ended and the years of anger had begun. The worst thing about sorrow is that it’s blind, and the worst thing about anger is that it sees too much. But the prince’s anger wasn’t the kind that flares up and dies down in a few minutes, not like the stupid raging of a drunk or the fury of a jealous husband. It was growing unseen, unknown, hidden, in him, as he had grown in the Empress Hallovâh’s womb. Now and then it made a little movement that showed it was there, as when Renka spoke for the first time of the nameless emperor. But then it would quiet down till it seemed not to exist. And since the anger wasn’t fully formed yet and the sorrow was gone, all that was left was indifference, which is a heavy burden for a child of seven.
So it was that the little ferret went back to the palace that morning and performed all the acts expected of him and said everything that he was supposed to say and knew he was going to say. So it was that he went on playing his role in the life of the palace and in the ceremony of contempt, too, day after day, beside his mother in her white dress. So it was that he went on studying and taking part in official duties, escaping late in the morning to meet Renka and Loo’Loö and play and laugh and explore the ruined garden with them and sometimes ask them about his father. They always answered his questions, especially big Renka.
And all this time the anger never ceased; he felt it burning inside him, and his mother guessed it. The empress didn’t know exactly what was going on, but every day she felt more uncomfortable with her son, and when she didn’t see him, when he wasn’t there, still she seemed to hear and see him through the walls and rooms of the palace. Occasionally he looked directly into her eyes, and that was the worst of all. Or he turned his head away so as not to look at her, and that was worse than the worst of all. She increased what she called her expiation, spending the nights on the bare marble floor of her rooms instead of in bed. When that did no good, she ordered the richest food for her table, but lived on bread and water for forty days. That did no good either. She kept on coughing and shaking with fever, shivering in her white clothes. The forty days of fasting and penitence were just ending when one morning in the ceremony of contempt the ferret prince looked up at his mother and, instead of spitting on her medallion, spat in her face.
Perhaps the lords and ladies and magistrates didn’t notice, perhaps they did. Nobody said anything, nobody looked surprised, nobody moved, including the Empress Hallovâh. She decided, however, to kill her son. And so, on the pretext of her illness, she had a doctor come to her room, and asked him for a drug that would cure insomnia and help her sleep soundly at night, and the silly fool gave it to her with a lot of advice about the dosage. The empress kept the drug in a sealed glass flask and waited for the moment to use it.
She didn’t use it, obviously, since you’ve all heard of Emperor Ferret, his life, his works, his madness, and his magnificent death. Fooling herself, telling herself she had to know when it would be safe to give Livna’lams the poison, she had him watched by one of her servants. And so she was informed of the existence of Renka and Loo’Loö.
If you’ve ever lived with somebody in trouble, or if you’ve ever been in bad trouble for a long time, you know the relief unhappy people feel when they find something or somebody to blame their trouble on. That’s exactly what the empress felt. They say she even smiled. I’m not certain I believe it, but I know they say she smiled. And I know she sent for the captain of her bodyguards and ordered him to wait for her in her chambers with ten armed men and the executioner. Then she went barefoot, dressed in white, splendid, her eyes bright and her hair loose and her cheeks burning red, to perform the ritual farce at the broken statue among the trees.
Late that morning, the ferret prince and the two adventurers were playing a game of skill in which the one who was quickest and most skillful at making a fifteen-foot rope ladder would win the right to make three wishes, which the other two had to grant. Renka and Loo’Loö had brought the ropes all carefully measured and cut, and the big man handed them round, making sure that all three had the same number of pieces in the same condition. And it looked as if Loo’Loö was going to win.
“Captain, these two trespassers are to be taken and executed at once,” said the empress appearing between the leafless bushes, her feet bruised by loose stones, her face very white, her hands very shaky, her cheeks very red.
Renka looked up and smiled. Loo’Loö stood up. Anger filled the young prince, forever.
The captain took a step forward. The weapons were raised and aimed. The empress cried out aloud.
It was a desolate, furious cry that had struggled to get loose for years, a cry far deeper and stronger than she was, a noise too big to come from that weak throat, those lips cracked with fever.
“Wait!” she said, defeated, when she could speak.
Nobody moved, nobody spoke, and a long while, a very long while passed in that unmoving silence.
“Who are you?” said the pale empress.
“Two humble workmen in the service of Your Majesty’s palace,” said the enormous brown man. “I’m called Renka and my pal’s called Loo’Loö, a very unusual name. So unusual that I’ve often thought it isn’t really his name. But I’ve never been able to find out, because he knows how to keep a secret.”
And then Renka smiled still more broadly, pleased with his speech, perfectly happy and cheerful, as if he weren’t in danger, as if there weren’t ten men pointing their weapons at him and Loo.
The captain of the guard, on the other hand, was disconcerted; he didn’t yet know why he was there and whether he ought to kill these two fellows, or go silently away, or await further orders from his lady. A captain of the guard is invariably a brainless brute, but some, not always the least brutish, acquire a certain training, which in the best cases may lead to subtlety, making them act as appropriately as if they were capable of thought or reason. This captain knew, knew in his guts, that he was out of place in whatever was going on here. And so he signaled his men to lower their arms and step back, and he himself stepped back a few paces, and they waited behind the empress in case she needed them.
“You must die,” she said, but she didn’t sound as if she believed it.
“We all have to die, my lady,” Renka said, still smiling. “In our case it’s a pity, because there’s a lot of foreign countries we haven’t seen yet, a lot of rivers to cross, a lot of wine we haven’t tasted, a lot of sweet women to cheer us up and for us to cheer up, nights. In your case, who knows?”
That was an insult, in case you didn’t notice, and yet the captain didn’t stir from where he stood. It was the ferret prince who spoke: “I pray you, Mother, take care,” he said. “It is not my wish that these men die.”
That wasn’t an insult, it was an order. Remember what I told you at the start, remember that Livna’lams was heir to the throne, and when he was a little older or when his mother died, he’d be emperor. The empress kept her gaze fixed on one of the two men; she didn’t look at her son, and paid no heed to the captain and his men or the executioner.
“But, thanks to the generosity of the prince,” she went on as if nothing had been said, “your lives will be spared, on the condition that you leave the palace and the capital at once and never set foot again in the eastern provinces.”
Renka got up; he made a heap of the unfinished rope ladder and shook the bits of hemp off his hands. “What do you think of the deal?” he asked.
“The lady is generous,” said Loo’Loö.
“Oh really?” the big man sneered. “She’s so generous, maybe you should ask her for another favor.”
“It’s all right, Renka. Let’s go,” said Loo’Loö, still looking at the empress.
“No,” said Prince Ferret. “I don’t want you to go. Renka, Loo, stay here.”
“I hate to let a ferret down, but this time there’s no help for it. We’re going, young ’un.”
“It is an order,” said Livna’lams.
“Aha, ha, ahaha!” Renka boomed. “I don’t like saying this any better, but there it is: Nobody gives us orders.”
Loo’Loö turned to Prince Ferret. “Renka’s always joking, Prince,” he said. “But we can’t stay here. Not now. It wouldn’t be a good thing.”
The future Tenth Emperor of the Hehvrontes dynasty understood. “Where will you go?” he asked.
“Oh, my little ferret,” said Renka, “who knows, since we don’t know? All the provinces aren’t in the east, you’ll find that out when you’re emperor. In the western provinces there are mountains, in the north there’s snow, in the south are marshes where barbarians live who’ll kill you at a word and give their life for a friend. So long, prince, be a good emperor, and don’t ever forget the things you’ve seen and heard.”
Renka put his immense, dark hands on the prince’s shoulders and looked down at him smiling, and then drew away from him and turned to go without a glance, even of mockery, at the empress. Loo’Loö, instead, bent down and hugged the little boy, and Livna’lams rested his head for a moment against the man’s chest.
“Good-bye,” Loo’Loö said, and looked at the pale woman, and went.
The two men disappeared among the branches. When the sound of their steps could no longer be heard, Prince Ferret called to the captain of the guard.
“Highness!” said the brute, squaring his shoulders and clicking his boot-heels.
“You will answer to me with your life for the lives of those two men,” said Livna’lams in his high little boyish voice, in which you could already hear the tone of an emperor giving orders. “You will follow them without their seeing you. Others will be following you without your seeing them. You’ll look out for them without their knowing it, and you’ll be watched without your knowing it. And you will not come back to the palace till they’re safely across the border of the eastern provinces.”
The captain saluted again and marched off with his soldiers and his executioner. Prince Ferret looked at his mother with a certain icy curiosity, and she endured his gaze until she was doubled over by a spasm of coughing. Then they walked back to the palace, he leading, she following with bruised, bare feet.
You’ve all read something somewhere or heard something about Emperor Ferret’s reign. Whatever you’ve read or heard, I tell you that he was a just man. He was mad, but he ruled well. Maybe you have to be a bit touched to be a ruler, good or bad. For, as the wise say, a sensible man looks after his garden, and a coward looks after his money; a just man cares about his city and a crazy man cares about the government; and a wise man studies the thickness of fern-fronds.
He was the last emperor of the Hehvrontes dynasty. During his reign, the Protocol so laboriously constructed by his ancestors began to deteriorate, and unforeseen phrases and unrehearsed gestures entered palace life. Very soon after the two adventurers left, while he was still a child, he stopped attending the ceremony of contempt for the nameless emperor, his father. Some say that the day before he stopped going, he had a long conversation with his mother, or rather that he talked for a long time and she listened, but this isn’t written down anywhere and frankly I don’t believe it. What is recorded in the history books is that the Empress Hallovâh never went back to the wood either, and so the ritual ceased. She locked herself up in her rooms, where she slowly withered away, seen by no one but her maids, giving her orders through an opaque screen. Young Livna’lams succeeded to the throne when he was ten, upon the death of his mother, whom he did not go to see when she was dying. He had her buried with all due honor, but he did not attend the funeral.
He married when he reached marrying age. He had a principal wife who was crowned empress, and six secondary wives. But he never slept with any of them, or as far as I know with any woman, or man, or animal—nobody, nothing. He ordered all the noble families with children to leave the court and the palace; they could keep their goods and privileges, on condition that they never return as long as he lived. And more: any servant, soldier, magistrate, official, who had children or whose wife got pregnant, had to leave the court. And at the same time as he gave such orders, he was dealing out justice wisely, distributing land, founding schools and hospitals, beautifying the capital, the cities, and the towns, making food and water and medical help available to everybody, peacefully consolidating the borders, protecting the arts, and helping anybody who needed help.
Unfortunately, one of his untouched secondary wives got pregnant. She was very beautiful, stupid, and soft-hearted, and had a lovely voice.
He didn’t punish her, as everybody thought he would. He let her go, free, rich, and healthy, with her lover, an assistant fencing-master in the officer training program, who was also beautiful, stupid, and probably soft-hearted, though quite unable to sing. Three days after that, Emperor Ferret signed an insane decree: every man who wished to stay at court must be castrated. He was mad, no doubt of it; but the men who preferred mutilation to leaving the court were madder. And there were plenty of them, since it was from among them that Obonendas I, the Eunuch, arose. He wasn’t a bad emperor, though many would disagree.
Emperor Ferret never lost his anger, though in fact it didn’t keep him from being sensible, just, mad, and possibly wise. And he was never a coward, for our songs still tell the glory of his death, even after so many years, lifting their triumphant rhythms in taverns and town squares, quarries and sawmills and battlefields. But that—as they say another storyteller used to say—is another story.

——

Kalpa Imperial

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