Authors: K.J. Parker
Phormio, governor of Upper Tremissis, to His Divine Majesty Nicephorus V, brother of the invincible Sun, father of his people, defender of the faith, emperor of the Vesani, greetings.
It is with great regret that Phormio begs to inform His Majesty of the death in combat of General Lamachus. The general died bravely and with honour in the act of leading his troops into battle, and the engagement was successful.
He was a steelneck, and besides killing people his only interest in life was dirty books. That said, damn.
They made a surprise attack on the wall. At least, that's what they thought they were doing. He was there waiting for them, again, and we made a real mess of them. They'd already broken and were about to run; Lamachus saw an opportunity to cut them off and led the charge in person. But something went wrong; he and his guards got there just a bit before the main force, he was surrounded and killed. Once our men realised the general was down, they more or less lost interest, and the bad guys got away. Even so, we killed sixty-two of them and caught another dozen. I don't know if they realise they got Lamachus; I think they probably do, and if they don't they soon will. How much of a setback this will prove to be, I don't know. Damn it, he was making real progress. He made fools of them twice; a few more times and I think they might lose their nerve. Well, it's up to me now.
Listen to me. It's getting so I'm afraid to go out in the rain, in case my neck rusts.
I don't know who you'll choose to replace him. I do believe we need a fighting general up here. But it's got to be someone we can control.
His Divine Majesty Nicephorus V, brother of the invincible Sun, father of his people, defender of the faith, emperor of the Vesani, to Phormio, governor of Upper Tremissis, greetings.
His Majesty acknowledges Phormio's report concerning the death of Lamachus.
Enclosed herewith, please find a letter. I got it two days before your last report. You can keep it; I don't want it back.
Phormio, what the hell are you playing at?
Phormio to Nicepborus
I have a confession to make.
Yes, he was alive when I got there. I honestly thought he was dead. But no, he was sitting up in bed, bitching at the nurses. He was bored, his head hurt, the bedlinen was a disgrace, the food was rubbish. Hello Gorgias, I said.
He told me what had happened; Thanassa, and afterwards. All more or less what you'd been told, except for one thing. He was on his way up here to join the insurgency, with a view to taking it over.
What the hell do you want to do that for, Gorgias? Well, he said, I've had a lot of time to think, and I've come to the conclusion that it's got to go. What's got to go, Gorgias? The empire, you idiot. It's all got to go. Pull it all down and start over.
Don't talk stupid, I said, that's Nico you're talking about. I know, he said, and then he grinned—you know how he grins when he's really upset about something. If it'd been anybody else, he said, I'd probably be able to let it go, I'd just give up on everything and go somewhere, get a job, die. But Nico's betrayed us. He's gone back on everything we agreed.
What are you talking about, I said. He scowled at me, like I was stupid. Everything, Phormio, he said. Everything we talked about, everything we decided on, everything we agreed, back in Anassus, when we were still thinking straight. And then he pointed to his coat and told me to look in the pocket, and there was the book.
You remember the book, Nico. It's in your handwriting; proceedings of the board of inquiry into the condition of the world. He made me give it to him, and then he leafed through and found the place. Then he made me read it out loud.
You remember the bit, Nico? It goes—
Proposed by Nicephorus Tzimisces; that all power (political, military, economic) is an abomination; that Mankind is addicted to servitude through long use, but is capable of surviving without it; indeed, can only survive if the addiction is broken; that all and any means are justified in the struggle against power. Further proposed by Nicephorus; that in the unlikely event that he should succeed to the Imperial throne, he would immediately dissolve the Empire and give power back to the Senate, subject to an overriding agenda to disband the standing army, grant self-determination to the provinces, break up the major trading corporations and put in place all measures necessary and expedient to reduce power and government to the absolute minimum necessary, until such time as Humanity is ready to do without it altogether. Put to the vote and passed unanimously.
Come off it, Gorgias, I said, we were just kids.
He looked at me. You don't mean that, he said. And I thought about it, and he was right. Then he took the book back, and found another bit. Remember this?
Proposed by Phormio; Man is born free. As soon as he is born, he is subjected to authority; that of his parents, his educators, the government. Each submission to authority diminishes him, so that as the body grows, the soul withers. He learns away his freedom, his divine essence, until the day comes when, fully educated in the skills of the slave, he denies all his potential, forswears everything he might have done or been. Proposed, therefore, that the members of this board of enquiry shall make a solemn undertaking to remember this moment, when they could still see clearly, and to acknowledge that on this day, at this moment, the seventeenth hour of the sixteenth day after the Calends of Triptolemon in the fifth year of the Emperor Actis IV Tzimisces, being one thousand, two hundred and fifteen years from the foundation of the city of Vesa, they agreed and declared that the following precepts were unalterably and unequivocally true; that power is the greatest evil; that evil must be resisted; that compromise is betrayal; that the fight must never end. Put to the vote and passed unanimously.
I looked at him. I did say that, didn't I?
He nodded. And Nico wrote it down in the book, he said. Look, there it is, in his truly terrible handwriting.
I shook my head. Fine, I said, you look at it. That's kids talking, Gorgias. Notice the unique blend of cockiness, pomposity and ignorance that identifies the voice of youth. So when I was nineteen, I wanted to abolish the Empire. Big deal. When I was eleven I really wanted to be a cavalry captain. I made a promise to myself that that's what I'd be. But I grew up, I said to him, and I'm not bound by that earlier undertaking, and I'm not bound by this, either. Idealism is like spots and wanking; it's a phase you go through, and then you grow out of it. But he just looked at me and shook his head. It's me you're talking to, he said. I know you better than that.
And you know what, Nico? He was right.
God, we were pompous in those days; and cocky, and very, very ignorant. We'd read a few books, thought we'd understood them, thought we could see so much more clearly than our stupid parents and grandparents and a million generations before them. Like the kid who wanted to be an explorer, so he set off from home and after half an hour he came to a place he'd never been to before; so he said to himself, I've discovered a new country. But.
They trained me in logic, rhetoric, analytical thinking and adversarial disputation. Somewhere there's a bit of paper with a seal at the bottom that says I'm fully qualified in the above; so it's hardly surprising I can win arguments, even against myself. I can win this argument any day of the week. But that doesn't mean a bloody thing. If I close my eyes and ask myself, were we right or not, and I only give myself one heartbeat to answer, the answer's got to be yes, we were right. We were stupid kids, but we were right.
You should've seen the smug look on Gorgias' face, Nico. I hat look.
It hasn't been easy. The main thing was to play for time. Gorgias has been raising money for the cause (I'm sorry, but I can't tell you where from) and building an army. The little piddly raids and bits and pieces he's done so far are really just training exercises, though they served a more important purpose; to get you to send me an army of my own. It was a bit of a blow when I found that Lamachus came with it. Gorgias (he learned it all from the Book, would you believe; you and I read it too, but he understood it. I always knew he was the clever one) played it quite well, I think. He let Lamachus have his victories, to get his blood up, make him feel good. Then he and I laid the trap; or rather, we let Lamachus lay the trap, and we tweaked it a bit. All I had to do was transfer one lieutenant (one of our people) to command the company that should've backed Lamachus up, but didn't. I regret that. I regret all the dead, on both sides. My trick with the barrels of wire was actually genuine—I didn't even tell Gorgias what I was doing until afterwards, because it had to be perfect or it wouldn't have been convincing. And you were convinced, Nico, and that was all that mattered.
It's a comedy, isn't it? In order to eradicate the evil of the misuse of power, I've been misusing power like few people in the history of the world. Wicked of me, but it's got to be done. Of course, I couldn't have done it without your help. You gave me everything I needed. I now have a field army large enough to march on the Gity. I have supplies, equipment, the very best; my troops are the only regulars in Imperial service who have boots that are younger than they are. Thanks to your generous funding for the wall project, I have the money to pay them, plus a HS 500 incentive payment (I think that's what your father used to call it)—in other words, I've bought them, in the traditional manner. Five hundred down, another thousand each when we've won the Empire. You were kind enough to send me the best troops in the army. Even if any of the steelnecks are minded to fight for you, which I'm inclined to doubt after your really quite savage attacks on their pay and privileges, with my army and Gorgias' forces, we can take them all, one at a time or all together. Please therefore accept this as my formal declaration of war. Sorry, Nico.
But, of course, we don't have to do that. Absolutely no need. All it'd take would be for you to walk into the Senate, issue the dissolution decree and the rest of it—disband the army, provincial autonomy, dismantling the monolithic corporations—and not a drop of blood need be shed. You'd have in your hand a letter from Gorgias and me, guaranteeing the reforms, undertaking that as soon as they're in place, we'll pay off our army and disband it. Think about it, Nico.
Why are you Emperor? Not because you wanted to be. I know that's the case. Because you were the third son of Actis IV; because your father and both your brothers and your uncles and their sons slaughtered each other in an orgy of violence that was remarkable even by Vesani standards; because after all the other Tzimisces were dead, the army wanted an unquestionably legitimate ruler, born in the purple, and they practically had to drag you by the hair. I understand that at the outset there was no way you could've dissolved the Empire, because the steelnecks would've killed you. But we're past that now. Menestheus and Strato and Aristaeus have seen to that; and you, of course. You've been trying to keep your word, Nico; that's what decided me to go along with Gorgias. Deep down, you know we were right. You're trying to do it, but you're afraid—not of being killed, of course not. You're afraid of failure. You're afraid that if you're not careful, you'll play into the bastards' hands and we'll end up with another civil war, worse than before, and an even worse Empire after that.
If I thought you wanted the job, if I thought you didn't hate every minute of it, I'd have told Gorgias to go to hell. Same with Menestheus and the others. They're trying too, but they're just as scared as you are. Well, it's all right now. Gorgias and I have dealt with all that. We're coming with an army that the steelnecks can't beat; they'll see that, and there won't be a military coup and thirty years of civil war, and we can do what we agreed to do.
Isn't that what you really want?
Sure, you're angry with us both. You wouldn't be human if you weren't. Two of your closest friends have been plotting against you; it doesn't get worse than that. But ask yourself this. Why would Gorgias and Phormio do something like this? If we thought it wasn't the best thing, for you as well as everybody else, we wouldn't be doing it.
Think about it, Nico; really think. If you carry on the way you've been doing, what do you suppose your chances are of reaching thirty? Pecking away at the steelnecks and the bureaucrats and the merchant princes and the landed aristocracy; all that'll happen is that sooner or later you'll push them too far, and then that'll be it. That's what's always happened before. Remember your history, for crying out loud. Theonides' reforms. Sinon and the redistribution of public land. Basiliscus and the Franchise Act. As soon as the established interests decided that they'd had enough, what happened? Blood on the floor, and back to how things have always been. The plain fact is, there are certain things that the emperor, brother of the invincible Sun and father of his people, simply can't do. We recognise this. We know it's up to us. If you want, we can wait until our army's camped under the Gity walls; you can tell them it's the only way to avoid a terrible siege followed by a murderous sack. You'll go down in history as the emperor who voluntarily gave up his throne to save his people; what could be nobler and better than that? And it won't just be myth and spin, it'll be the whole truth.
Think about it, Nico. See what the others have to say. Then, if you really must, you can hate us. Or, in a year or so's time, we'll look at all this clearly, like we used to be able to when we were arrogant, ignorant kids, and we'll see that we all did the right thing, when it mattered.
His Divine Majesty Nicephorus V, brother of the invincible Sun, father of his people, defender of the faith, emperor of the Vesani, to the criminal traitors Phormio and Gorgias, defiance.
His Majesty commands the aforesaid, criminals and traitors, to disarm immediately and surrender themselves to the garrison commander at Sybas, there to await transportation to Vesa for trial.
Well, I've got to write something. The courier's been waiting in the corridor outside for two hours already, while I've been here staring at this stupid sheet of parchment, trying to think what I'm going to say. So, I figure that if I just start writing, maybe