Authors: Scott Rhine
“Does she know what you meant by that?” asked Niftkin as they followed her through the palace maze.
“No. Please don’t embarrass her.”
As they waited outside the marble columns to the royal harem, the chamberlain brought them portable chairs with taut fabric seats and no back. Several times, they heard giggles from inside. After an hour, a smiling Anna darted out in a new toga. Her hair had been brushed to a shine, and she smelled of rose petals. She grabbed both Pagaose’s hands. “You’ve been so tense; this is definitely going to relax you.”
The three men locked eyes, all hearing the same connotations. The emperor allowed himself to be dragged into the pleasure dome.
The air was warm and moist. He heard a faint waterfall in the distance. Anna led him to the first chamber to the right. “This is your changing room. You’ll want to be down to your loincloth for this surprise.”
She let go of him and scampered off. Stunned, he disrobed and walked toward the sounds of running water. The main section of the dome was covered in green vines and creepers. A polished marble slide with water running down it ran into a central, bubbling pool. Sleeping mats lay off to one side, covered with sponges, scrub brushes, and towels.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” she asked. “How much fun could our furry, little friends have here?”
“Miss Wiggles and Mr. Rumpus . . . the otters.”
He nodded very slowly. “My thought precisely.” He walked over to the mats.
“Violet says she can watch them and I can visit them every day!” She was practically glowing. Gesturing around the room, she said, “Try it out, anything you want.”
Curious, he grabbed the odd square pillow beside her on the mat, and echoes of raw lust flashed through his body like a wildfire. Stupid. It was a harem chamber, what kinds of emotions had he been expecting? The new sensations gripped him and didn’t want to let go.
A distant part of his brain whispered,
Anna knew what entering the pleasure dome meant. She had been warned and still begged to come. She’s teasing me. For many reasons, it would be legal for me to take her now, in this place. The action would even be socially acceptable.
The building fire inside urged him to try it, just once. “Run,” he squeaked.
Anna knit her brow, leaned over, and put an arm out to steady him. “Can I help?”
He could see between her ample breasts, and the voice in his head was no longer a whisper. Dropping to his knees, he crushed the pillow, and feathers floated around him. He was panting and couldn’t hear the water anymore. He could smell Anna’s skin as she put her arm around him in puzzlement. “
A thin, white-haired crone in an immaculate kimono darted into the room. “Push him into the cold water to your left.”
“Now!” the old woman insisted, dragging the mat closer to the target and stepping into the small pool herself to assist. The slippers went into the pool with her.
Anna complied, and the emperor splashed into the icy water.
Gasping loudly, he shouted, “Thank you.” He remained in the chill waters, staring at his feet until he could control his breathing.
Violet immersed the sponge and applied the cold water to his forehead. Then she squeezed the coolness over the crown of his head. “Yes, yes,” he said, still too loud, glancing up at Anna, who was nearly falling out of her robe. “Get her out of here,” he hissed before submerging himself in the cold.
“Go quickly, dear,” the old harem mistress told her. “I’ll explain later.”
When Anna was gone, he hauled himself onto the mat, shivering.
“How long has it been?” she asked toweling him roughly.
She raised a well-plucked eyebrow.
“Oh. Never. I’ve only been an emperor about nine days, though. How do they stay sane?”
She snorted. “They visit here a lot.”
When he calmed, he asked, “How are you permitted here?”
“I’m Myron’s last wife. I never left my post.”
“Thank you. Please don’t tell the others about my . . . condition.”
“I’ve been keeping royal secrets since before you were born,” she said with a wicked grin. “Would you like me to take care of your problem? I’m well-versed in several techniques.”
He shook his head rapidly. “I seem to get those offers a lot lately.”
“From everyone but the one woman you want it from?”
“Something like that,” he muttered.
“You should tell her.”
“She loves another; she’s a kind friend,” he said, combing his hair back into place in a mirror. Why did they have a mirror beside the mats?
“You’re an extraordinary ruler, sire.”
“I hope to earn that praise by my actions, not my inaction.”
“If you ever need to know anything about the aristocrats, I’ve seen all the dirty laundry.”
“Thank you,” he said offhandedly. After a pause, he asked, “What can you tell me about the courts? They wouldn’t let me watch proceedings, saying it would be too distracting.”
“It’s bloated; too many judges that do too little. They’ve made the posts hereditary.”
“The deuce you say!”
“A third of them are blatantly incompetent.”
“How do I get rid of the bad ones?”
can’t,” the only surviving wife said. “Change has to come from within their college. Any action from you will be rejected.”
“Could I appoint a panel of good judges to review the decisions of others?”
“Hmm . . . I would start by making it less personal. Empower the panel to look into reducing expenses. That will give them an excuse to censure the truly horrible ones taking bribes.”
“You’re amazing,” the emperor said. Switching gears, he asked, “About Anna—”
“I’ll warn her about the heat that comes over his highness and what could follow.”
“I shall retain your valuable services and the dome until I find another solution for my difficulty.” The emperor waved around the elaborately decorated room. “You’ve done marvelously well here with very little money.”
Violet bowed. “I earn money by instructing ladies of the court in the arts. It’s more than the purely physical acts people imagine. The house of love is one of welcome and comfort.”
“Ah . . .”
“Are you certain you don’t want a demonstration?”
“Thank you, but you put me in mind too much of a mother.”
She smiled. “Would you like a list of my more talented pupils?”
He shuddered. “Woman, you don’t want me to sleep at all, do you?”
Violet rose and gestured to a cloth and rope hammock in the corner. “Behold, the second secret of the dome. The fabric is changed after every use, and it has never been touched by another. Ideal for royal napping.” She knew about his object-reading ability.
The corner of his mouth quirked up. “Half an hour and you’ll wake me?”
“And no one will know, sire. In exchange for my services, I would beg you to speak of the contents of the dome to no one. The secrecy is half the allure.”
As he tested the hammock, Pagaose agreed to her terms.
When he emerged, refreshed and smiling, half the men in the household were standing outside. He exclaimed, “A wonderful place. We shall maintain it just as it is.”
Niftkin whispered, “What do they have in there that’s so different? What made you shout like that?”
“When you’re emperor, maybe you can find out.”
Moonday morning, a group of retired soldiers joined the guards’ workout. Duwara, their spokesman, was gaunt and had a white, flowing beard. As he bowed at his introduction, the newcomer whispered to the emperor, “Lord Conifer says as far as he’s concerned, you’re emperor today. He doesn’t understand why they’re dragging their heels. You have six fingers, for gods’ sakes. You passed their examinations in every regard, but until they get their ships or money, you get no vote. He is also aware of a faction that wishes you gone before the next test.”
“And he wants you to protect me?” asked Pagaose.
“He wishes to avoid the embarrassment such an attempt would cause the college.”
“So some of you are going to follow me everywhere I go?”
“We’ll mingle with the crowd,” said Duwara.
“This week everyone knows you’ll be at the courts. The gallery is standing-room-only already.”
“Why would people care?”
“Rumor has it you give a good speech and miracles happen around you.”
“I’m hard-pressed to think of a miracle that might occur in the courthouse.”
The old soldier shrugged. “The anti-Myronists are flocking to your banner due to recent comments. Some nobles wish to join your entourage, and many of these wear decorative dots on their foreheads to match you. Violet, Lady Anna, and Nightglow have been telling all the ladies what a gentleman you are. The enrollment for the Dance at the spring festival has never been so high—over thirty women so far.”
“Ah . . . I’ll see you
there,” he said, regretting his new alliances.
The courtroom was overflowing. People spilled out into the halls, watching through open doors. The bailiff pounded his staff on the floor, demanding silence. Three judges flowed in through the side door, taking their seats high above the room. Pagaose was standing inside a ring of circular railing directly below them, in the box of the accused. His position was elevated about a stride above the spectators.
The judge in the center intoned, “Do you have any questions before we begin the examination?”
Pagaose smiled. “What is civilization?”
“Why?” asked the judge.
“I enjoy conducting dialogues. Bear with me. There’s no right answer.”
The three senior justices took turns suggesting answers. “Limiting weapons to those willing to bear responsibly and protect the weak.”
“Safety from robbers.”
Someone from the crowd shouted out, “Beer.”
When the laughter calmed down, Pagaose explained, “As emperor, my job is to preside over my empire, the apex of civilization.”
Several judges and members of the crowd nodded. The chief justice in the center amended, “
we offer our vote.”
“Agreed, but listen to what
have to offer before you ask anything,” Pagaose said. He left the box and strolled to the accuser’s table. “When listing the necessities in the empire, I notice that none of you said more personal laws from the emperor.” One of the judges, the youngest on the left, cracked a smile. “There are too many laws in code Myron. I would make it the cornerstone of my reign to simplify our Imperial law around a few basic precepts, primarily to limit the reach of the emperor.”
The crowd murmured in surprise. The judges were speechless as he continued. “My first principle shall be: no one is above the law, even the emperor.”
The youngest judge, in saffron robes, said, “H-how do you plan to enact this?”
“I will begin, with your expert guidance, to prune code Myron. Together, we shall rescind the rules that we all agree to be arbitrary or without merit.”
“Such as?” demanded the chief magistrate.
“About a quarter of the code,” he replied calmly. “Chiefly those that attempt to contravene existing laws for some desire of the moment. For example, in the rule of first night, the emperor reserved the right to bed each man’s wife first. This is an abomination. Marriage is a sacred bond between the bride and groom. If any other man intruded at sword point, you’d rightly call it rape. Wearing a crown shouldn’t make it right.”
Husbands covered their wives’ ears to shield them from the scandalous speech, but the women present nodded in agreement.
The magistrate to the right, in thick glasses, blustered, “This is unheard of.”
“But not unwelcome,” whispered the youngest magistrate.
Pagaose raised a hand. “I can see there’ll be controversy. Therefore, I want to hold our discourses in private, so none of us will be embarrassed. I’ll endeavor to neither issue or receive correction in public. If you have a problem with me, tell
, not the public or your fellows. I’ll do the same.”
“I want to hear more examples,” said the man in the middle.
Pagaose shrugged. “Let’s extend the metaphor between a man and his wife to a king and his kingdom. I don’t tell them what to do in the bedroom or how to worship. The only time I should get involved in the outer kingdoms is when someone is held unjustly, murdered, or guilty of treason.”
“How will you maintain your rule?” asked the judge with spectacles.
“If I am just and reliable, people will trust me and pay their taxes. If they know I mean what I say, criminals will think twice. I don’t enjoy condemning people to death; it makes my herald cry. However, I can’t let some larcenous cad steal what is meant for others—even if that cad is me.” This last statement was a poke at Myron’s practice of retroactive taxes to seize property he wanted.
“Won’t the aristocracy object?” asked the youngest.
“Not unless they’re breaking the law,” he joked. “In all seriousness, I intended to strengthen the rights of the nobility. For example, as emperor, I can decide who may be fit to inherit or bear titles, but if a lord or lady chooses to marry an untitled person, I would allow them.”
The room erupted into discussion. The bailiff had to smack his staff for a few minutes before the buzz was low enough for the chief magistrate to object. “This flies in the face of centuries of law!”
“Not really. The emperor customarily takes a wife from each kingdom and he doesn’t lose his title.”
“That’s so every kingdom can influence him unfairly equally,” stage-whispered the rake who had shouted earlier.
“That’s a different standard,” said the judge with spectacles.
“That’s the problem. With everyone held to the same standard, everyone will benefit.”
The youngest judge raised a hand. “Pardon me, but you opened the door to this discussion, sire.”
“Ask, if the ladies can bear it.”
“What is to prevent you from making new laws to change all this once you’re in office?”
“I will sign any reasonable procedure you name for removing any royally appointed figure, up to and including the emperor. I will grant the council the ability to impeach a civil servant for wrongdoing. This means his actions and orders, not his opinions or associates. If the wrong is not addressed, he can be removed by unanimous vote of the council.”