Artie's Demise (?)
Artie’s Demise (?) - Part I
Somewhere in the National Imperial Council Quarters of the Imperial Palace
‘There’s more to it than “Hmm”’
‘You know, when we started all this out, it was supposed to be purely symbolic, like the old days.’
‘I know, I was there.’
‘I know, we were both there.’
Simon picked a particularly good-looking olive from a bowl I’d had placed on the table, knowing how he appreciated small details. ‘The thing is, Gerard’, he said in his usual, monotonous voice, ‘Anything we’d want to do would require a two-thirds majority to pass. Unfortunately, due to the “special” design of the system, we can never get one even if all seven provinces support us. We’re never going to be able to out-vote him and his chums.’
‘Oh I know.’
‘You were there.’
For once, he’d said something mildly funny, to my surprise. I couldn’t suppress a grin as he straightened his dark blue tie.
‘Lord Sergent’, he said to me, ‘What we’re discussing here is High Treason against His Imperial Majesty’s Holy Person.’
‘Oh, and you’ve always been so loyal to him, huh?’
I knew I had him. Simon had always been a bit of a rebel. Even when he was Prime Minister he’d rebelled against Artabanos – which had ultimately cost him his head. Figuratively, of course, although I wouldn’t have been surprised if political enemies were actually being beheaded.
He remained silent. To not appear awkward, I looked around the room, which was, admittedly, splendid. My eyes followed the massive ceiling fresco and while marble pilasters downward towards Simon, who’d already emptied half the bowl. My watch – a personal gift from the Emperor on the occasion of my becoming a Lord – told me I’d already stayed at the Council for far too long, as usual. ‘Well, Simon’, I said, ‘Think about it. It’s worth a shot.’ I left Lane with his bowl, gathering my paperwork and leaving the room through the thick oak doors, engraved with the Emperor’s personal coat-of-arms. Maybe, one day, I would be able to replace it with a republican crest.
“The most precious possession you have in this world is your own people. And for this people, and for the sake of this people, we will struggle and we will fight, and never slacken, and never tire, never lose courage, and never lose faith”, some random man on TV shouted at me through the news. ‘Who is he?’, I asked Janet, my secretary. ‘Some former IPF guy’, she answered in a disinterested tone, rummaging through some files on my desk, but not seeming to find what she needed. The Inimician People’s Front was a far-right political party in the Empire that had been banned some months earlier.
‘Do you know where your report on Praestoris housing is?’
‘In a drawer somewhere. What’s this guy called?’
‘James Danube, I think. Brother of that loony in Parliament. Which drawer?’
‘Bottom one. He seems interesting, I think I’ll have a talk with him.’
‘It’s not in here, Gerard. Please don’t tell me you’re going to hang with fascists?’
‘Try the other side of the desk. I’m not going to ally him, obviously. He appeared to have a lot of supporters, though, that’s who I’m after.’
‘Good luck getting them to back you. Are you sure you don’t have that report on you?’
I gave her the papers she was looking for – I’d been holding them in my hands deliberately. ‘Thank you, Lord Sergent...’, she said teasingly, before leaving the room. I didn’t know what she wanted with my dull report on the housing situation in the province I represented on the Council, but she said the Emperor had commanded we all make one. The Imperial coat-of-arms on the door Janet had closed behind her looked at me dominantly, trying to remind me of my rightful place. “Oderint dum metuant”, the crest read. Let them hate, as long as they fear, taken right from the worst dictators in history. To the few people who bothered translating the motto, the Emperor’s true intentions were crystal-clear. I stood in my room a few minutes, staring at the crest, but not really looking. How could this country, with its long history of resistance to authoritarian monarchs and dictators, accept this? How could the international community, always so finger-pointing at every other nation’s customs and styles of government, let this happen? My thoughts were interrupted by Janet’s return; she was carrying a small envelope and handed it to me. ‘Here’, she said in her ever-cynical voice, ‘Augustus said it’s for you.’
‘Augustus? I wonder what he wants’, I replied, surprised at the notion of the former regional councillor suddenly slipping me notes. The envelope was sealed with wax, which was a “true conservative” way of sending a letter for a “true conservative” man. I broke through the fancy-looking “S.A.B.” initials and opened the envelope, which turned out to be a letter in itself, folded in a complicated way, and written in Barrington’s own posh handwriting. ‘Look at this’, I said, ‘Have you ever seen handwriting like this? It’s pitch-perfect.’
‘Mr graphologist, get on with it.’
I have heard some very interesting rumours involving you and a possible takeover of power, which would include dragging His Imperial Majesty off the throne or maybe even assassinating Him. I shall not name anyone, but I acquired this information from a reliable source. I have not yet informed His Imperial Majesty of your scandalous plants, but should the rumours turn out to be truthful, I will not hesitate to do so. The Emperor’s authority is not to be questioned, nor altered in any way that would involve Him being demoted forcibly by any politician. I do hope you will keep in mind that I and many other colleagues on the Council will not support you and your so-called revolutionary band in any way, shape, or form.
Hail His Majesty,
Sir Augustus Barrington”, I read out aloud.
I sighed and rolled my eyes. I’d spoken only to Simon, and only about limiting the Emperor’s powers, and now Barrington was talking about executing Him? ‘What the hell, I said. Janet had apparently decided the note wasn’t interesting enough, so she was going through my desk again and didn’t look at me. ‘He was rather pissed off when he gave it to me’, she said.
‘He writes I want to kill the Emperor.’
‘Well...’, she stopped and looked at me sarcastically, ‘You wouldn’t mind.’
‘Maybe not’, I joked, ‘Although Sir Barrington’s replaced Him as #1 on the hit-list.’
‘All you need now is a way to execute the perfect crime.’
‘Obviously that’d involve you seducing both of them, and stabbing them with a knife disguised as a hair pin as you’re taking them to bed.’
‘That would never work. Artie’s more into parsnip than cauliflower, or so I’ve heard.’
National Imperial Council meeting
‘So, ladies and gentlemen, I look forward to seeing your housing reports next week.’
The Emperor stood up, and all twenty-odd members immediately followed. ‘Hail, Your Majesty’, everyone said in unison. Everyone except I. And, surprisingly, Simon. I gave him a quick glance, and he twitched a muscle in his face in acknowledgement. He was on board.
‘Oh, Lord Sergent’, I suddenly heard a familiar voice call from behind me as I left the Council Chamber, ‘Do you have a moment?’
‘For you, of course’, I said when I saw Emperor Artabanos’s jolly bald head.
‘Sir Barrington told me an interesting story’, he said, seeming cynical, ‘Apparently, you’re planning to assassinate me and take over absolute control of the Empire.’
Wow. Just wow. I’d always known Barrington was a prick, but I hadn’t expected this from him. I could be glad he’d exaggerated the rumours so much they’d become unbelievable.
‘Oh really?’, I stammered.
The Emperor pointed his index finger at me like a primary school teacher punishing a child, said ‘Tsk tsk’ a few times, and walked around the corner followed by his security guard, leaving me to think about what he really must’ve meant.
I entered my office to find Baron Rupert Harrison, a fellow Council member, sitting in one of two leather chairs inside. I looked at Janet, who had a facial expression I recognised. It was one saying “I couldn’t help it”, so I gave her a quick nod and turned to Rupert.
‘Baron’, I said, feigning interest, ‘To what do I owe the honour?’
‘To something Simon Lane told me’, he answered, rising from the said.
‘Please, do sit. Lane’s been spreading around falsehoods like wildfire.’
‘Falsehoods, huh? Then why have you put up a United Green Front poster over the Imperial crest, despite His Majesty’s expressly forbidding any such covering?’
‘You have an attentive eye, Baron’, I said, taking a look at the door, ‘Although you have to admit, it’s an improvement.’
The Baron straightened his monocle – a useless thing I’d’ve had binned immediately if I’d been in charge – cleared his throat, and said: ‘You know, you and I might be able to work together.’
I raised my eyebrows, partially in genuine surprise, partially to show interest.
‘Oh yes’, he said when he noted my reaction, ‘We may not be the closest of allies when politics are concerned, but we’re definitely not separated by much. Your Greens and my Liberals have always been able to work together, in Parliament and on the NIC. If you genuinely want to do something about Artabanos’s power, you won’t win without the Inimician Liberal Appeal’s support.’
The ILA had always been a completely non-ideological, unclear party in my socialist opinion, but they might very well prove useful in this regard.
‘Indeed’, I said, intrigued, ‘What exactly are you hinting at, Baron?’
‘I don’t know’, he said plainly, ‘But I do know you can’t win without my support. The Council won’t back you.’
‘The ILA isn’t the Council.’
‘But we are the largest party of the Provincial delegates.’
‘And Artabanos has one vote less than all our votes combined. Add his three chums, and those puppets in the Cabinet, and he’s undefeatable.’
‘With the right amount of... coercive force... both the Cabinet and those three friends can be turned.’
‘That’d require a lot of beating – or a lot of money.’
‘And who has control of all government funds?’
‘The Internal Affairs Minister, who’s firmly on Artabanos’s side.’
‘Ah, but there you’re wrong’, Rupert’s monocle fell to his lap as he switched position, ‘I was Chancellor of the Treasury once, when the position still existed. I’ve so many contacts I could get all the money I want.’
‘Wait wait wait’, I said, realising what we were planning to do, ‘First of all, we need full commitment from both of us – and Simon – and we need allies who are in on the plan. Moreover, we need to find out how we’re going to cap – or reduce – the Emperor’s powers. He can overrule any NIC decision anyway.’
‘And you think we’d accept that, let alone the people?’
‘The people have been swallowing his shit for over a year, Baron.’
‘Oh yes, but not the Council. It’s not been overruled once so far, and the moment it happens, I –or rather, we – will make sure it’s something the Emperor will regret.’
‘And how are we planning to do that?’
‘This is where you come in. You’re much more charismatic than me, my part would be to write up what we want and you can convince Council members to back us.’
‘Including the Zombie, the Cock, the Farter?’
‘Yes, if you mean the people I think you do. Those are some very.... creative... nicknames. But yes, if you do that, I’ll make sure the motion is written and we’ve got enough money to bribe those who won’t follow us.’ The Baron checked his watch and excused himself. I was elated, until I realised I’d been given the worst part of the job. If something went wrong, I would be the one getting into trouble. “Oh well”, I thought “All for the common good.” I handed my office keys to Janet and left for home.
The following day, she came up to me and said: ‘Oh Gerard, that guy on telly you were talking about...’
‘Yeah. He’s in town this week. I could get him to meet up with you if you want.’
‘Would he be willing to?’
‘Maybe if I deploy my cauliflower’, she joked, ‘But seriously, do you want me to?’
‘Yeah. Just make sure I have time for dinner every day.’
That Wednesday, right after the weekly “Question Session” in the Council – which usually involved all NIC members grovelling and praising the Emperor for no apparent reason but their own personal benefit – I took the car to a very prestigious-looking building almost five miles from the Palace, where I was greeted by three well-built men dressed in formal, black uniforms. One addressed me in Latin: ‘Quo vadis?’ I was not used to hearing Latin on the streets, although several Council members had a tendency to use it more often than in the past. ‘Ad magister Hister’, I answered in a heavy accent, Hister being the Latin for Danube.
‘Ah’, he suddenly replied in English, ‘You must be Lord Sergent. Yes, Mr Danube awaits you. Do park your car anywhere you like.’
By some kind of Imperial Decree, I and ever other NIC member was forced to drive these huge Rolls-Royce cars, which slurped petrol like it was lemonade, and which were an absolute horror to park. They also ensured everyone immediately knew who you were as every car had a specific license plate and an individual crest engraved in the doors. Mine was simple: a dove and an eagle, wreathed in laurels. Underneath the coat-of-arms, my favourite line read:”Sequor non inferior”
‘Well well, Lord Sergent. Such an honour’, a pale, tall, slender man with hair as black as his clothes, combed backwards and kept in that unnatural position by an abundance of hair gel. I quickly imagined his barber’s face every time he had a haircut. The poor man or woman must’ve been even more shocked than when I get one.
‘Ah, Mr Danube. Good to meet you.’
‘Coffee? Or something stronger?’
‘No, thank you. I had the honour of enjoying a cup of your cold tea just now.’
‘Oh, this is a rented building. Not my fault’, Danube said as what seemed to be a smirk, but was more like a forced grimace, appeared on his face. I followed him towards a dark, murky, small room, where a strong scent of alcohol and cannabis could be clearly smelled. ‘I notice you enjoy yourselves here’, I said, partially joking.
‘Well we’re not here for enjoyment right now, My Lord.’
‘Oh, those formalities won’t be necessary. I didn’t ask for the title.’
‘Ah. Well anyway, what did you want to talk to me about?’
‘I trust this conversation is strictly confidential?’
‘Of course, Lord Sergent.’
I explained the entire situation. Danube had a very weird twitch in his left eye. Whenever I stressed a word or part of a sentence, the muscles under his eyeball suddenly contracted. It was extremely distracting, but I tried to focus on my story and I managed to completely tell him what Baron Harrison, Simon, and I had been discussing.
Danube sighed. For a moment, I thought he was some kind of loyalist. ‘Well’, he started, straightening his uniform, ‘That’s certainly an interesting plot you three’ve got going there. I don’t know how I could be of help, though.’
‘You can be of help by giving us the popular support we need.’
‘That’s not up to me. That’s up to the people.’
‘You and I both know it isn’t, Danube. You have the power to sway the opinions of thousands with a single statement.’
‘Oh I won’t deny that’, he smirked, ‘But, do tell me, what’s in it for me?’
I hadn’t actually thought this through enough. I didn’t want a fascist to run the country, obviously. I tried get myself out of the tight corner he’d driven me into by claiming something about fair representation in elections, ‘It’s about time this country had some, after two hundred years of deceit.’
‘That’s not a unique advantage, though’, he replied, ‘No, tell you what, I want the Consulship.’
‘The what?’, I asked, wondering what he was talking about.
‘You figure this republican system is going to need some kind of executive? Well, let’s adopt the old system of consuls.’
‘We haven’t thought it through that well, Danube. It’d be unfair of me to promise such a position, since I’m not sure it’ll even exist.’
‘Well then’, he swiped his gel-ridden hair back, ‘I’ll take a senior position in the new government.’
Janet smacked a pile of papers on my desk – she always seemed to carry some with her just so she could throw them on people’s furniture angrily. This time, part of the pile seemed to actually contain something useful, however. ‘Here’, she said, handing me a few A4-sized papers, ‘Ruperts motion.’
“Hi there Gerard, here’s my first draft:
MOTION OF THE NATIONAL IMPERIAL COUNCIL
Moved by Baron Rupert Harrison, Member for Terra Praestoris, affiliated to the Inimician Liberal Appeal
Seconded by Lord Gerard Sergent, Member for Terra Praestoris, affiliated to the United Green Front
- Introduction and Aim:
We, the National Imperial Council,
Having noticed His Divine Imperial Majesty’s blatant usurping of legislative, executive, and judicial powers in the Empire, hereby attempt to limit His expansion of prerogative, by means of this motion;
2. Section I
Having noticed how the Empire, founded as a constitutional parliamentary monarchy, has changed into a practical benevolent dictatorship,
3. Section II
Further noticing how this continuous development of usurping of powers can only lead to civil discontent and international pressure,
4. Section III
URGES His Imperial Majesty Emperor Artabanos to return His powers to the elected bodies of Inimicus,
5. Section IV
Further urges His Imperial Majesty Emperor Artabanos to reinstate the Lower House of Parliament as a permanent legislative body.
Any thoughts? Please let me know – Rupert”
The motion was badly worded, so badly that even if accepted, Emperor Artabanos would find ways around committing himself to the purpose of the entire thing. But it was clear what was being meant and we didn’t stand a chance of passing anyway, so I told Janet to give Rupert the all-clear. He would most likely reword the entire thing twice over despite that, I reckoned.
‘He’s not going to like this’, Janet said.
‘Oh. Well, he’s not supposed to.’
‘You’re not suddenly backing him, are you?’
‘I back whoever’s secretary I’m supposed to be.’
Emperor’s Personal Bedroom
‘Well, well, well’, Artabanos said. He got up and walked to a window, His hands folded behind Him, ‘That’s certainly worth your reward.’
‘I aim to please’, a female voice answered.
‘I can see you do, dear. Well, continue your work, I’d say, and I’ll keep the money tap opened. Find out when this motion is going to be tabled.’ Artabanos picked up a copy of the proposal the woman had brought with her. ‘Thank you for this’, He said, stretching the papers out in front of Him, ‘Are you confident they’re not going to make any changes?’
‘You never know, but they’ve agreed on this version. It was the first draft they produced.’
‘They’re not geniuses, are they? A Legatian cheese has less holes than this.’
‘You’d make a better NIC member than either of them, love.’
Artabanos grabbed the woman’s hands firmly, making her slightly uncomfortable. He looked her in her deep green eyes and thanked her.
‘Can I go now?’, she asked.
‘You’re freer than anyone else in the Empire. Go.’
Artabanos fell down into His recliner after the woman had left, the motion draft in His hands. He looked up at the ceiling fresco, where the Ancient Inimician story of Ikaros was displayed. Ikaros and his father had found a way to fly, to be just as high as the Gods. Ikaros’s father had warned his son not to try to fly too high, however, as that would melt the wax their artificial wings were made of. Of course, Ikaros neglected his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun god, Helios. His wings collapsed, he crashed and died. A better parallel with the current situation could not be found.
Artabanos forgot about the entire situation when His unconfirmed lover, Richard, entered the room though the secret entrance behind Artabanos’s bed. Soon enough, they would get married and the entire world would know of them. They couldn’t wait.
‘How much? Did you say five million Guilders?’
‘I can make it Ƒ10 million.’
‘You’re mad. Where are you going to find the money?’
‘I have my ways.’
‘All right. I’m in for 10 million.’
Wilfred Cocx – “The Cock” – was in on the plan. I’d managed to convince him with much less than anticipated – maybe his salary wasn’t as high as everyone else thought. I shook his hand and gave him a quick wink. His kind face smiled. I’d never understood why he was a Centre-Conservative Union stalwart, and not a Liberal or even, a Green. Since his demotion from the Prime Ministership in 2013, he’d liberalised an awful lot. He hadn’t even been a real conservative as President of the Union of European Conservatives, and I supposed it now showed. If I could sway Wilfred Cocx, then I would have an easy time getting other NIC members on our side. Except, and this is where I still worried, Sir Augustus Barrington and former Emperor Hugh Doyle (I found myself thinking, what an absurd term Ex-Emperor was, and my opposition to the elected monarchy flared up again). Those two hardliners would be the main issue.
Bram Moszkowicz turned without me even hinting at a bribe. His Central Progressive Party was fundamentally liberal, and according to him “more than willing to work” with me, Harrison, and Lane. I went for a walk outside, following random people for round about five minutes each, a tendency I developed when I ran for office and went out canvassing. I tracked two school children – in uniform, indicating they were members of the Imperial Academy, the most prestigious school in the country and the only to be allowed to issue uniforms. The guys walked through the city centre, where cars were banned but the air was just as polluted as everywhere else in town. Some plastic carrier bags were playfully swirling through the air, carried by a strong breeze. I followed one with my eyes but couldn’t suppress laughing when it ended up in an Imperial Guard’s face. I didn’t watch where I was going, however, and the evening sun, almost orange at this time of day, didn’t help my situation either. On the next step I took, I didn’t feel the familiarity of solid ground under my blue velvet shoes, and before I realised I’d reached one of Telum’s many elevations, I cascaded down the five-odd step. My reflexes failed me and I saw the greyish-yellow street tiles come closer at an alarming speed.
I woke up in a hospital bed. Some rough shapes were standing on my bedside, who were saying things I didn’t understand. I didn’t recognise any of the shapes and waited for my vision to clear before giving any kind of signal of consciousness. After a minute or two, I suddenly started feeling very talkative. I explained to the nurse – who turned out to be one of the shapes – my role on the Council, and to my wife – another one of the shadows – what had happened. I couldn’t care less about the fact she probably knew more about my situation than I did myself, I just felt like talking. ‘So, Mr Sergent’, the nurse began. ‘Lord Sergent’, I unnaturally corrected. My wife intervened: ‘Forgive him. The anaesthetic must be having its effects.’
‘Mr Sergent’, the nurse repeated sternly, ‘We’ve had to put you under full anaesthesia to operate your leg.’
I felt fairly dizzy about the thought of having been operated. I tried to refocus my vision. The nurse’s name plate read “Carla”. She continued: ‘But you’ll be in a wheelchair or walking with crutches for quite some time. You made a pretty big smack.’
I had a hard time getting my senses together. I’d fallen and was in hospital, I gathered as much, but where, in which hospital, was I? Who was Carla? Where was my daughter? Before any of these questions could be answered, another shadow moved closer to me, growing generally clearer and gradually turning into Emperor Artabanos, a figure I’d expected least of all. Carla bowed slightly when He walked up to my bed. I saw his bald head in front of me and didn’t quite know what to feel.
‘My liege’, I struggled, trying to sit upwards.
‘No worries, Gerard’, the Emperor replied, putting his hand on my lower arm rather uncomfortably, ‘I see you’ll be out of action for a while.’
‘Hopefully not too long, Sire.’
‘Take a good rest, Gerard.’
Silence. Artabanos looked at me kindly, though there was a strange light in his eyes. His attitude became scarily clear when he ordered everyone leave me with him, moved his head extremely close to me, and whispered: ‘I did enjoy thwarting your little plan, Sergent. Turning your little band inside out gave me an unmistakable sense of enjoyment. As for your secretary, who told me everything... Neither you nor me gave her any enjoyment whatsoever. Very fortunately, no one will miss her, or the people she loved.’ He left the room, leaving me behind alone.
Ever since Gerard Sergent had been discharged from hospital, he’d been unable to find. Even Artabanos’s own Imperial Secret Service had not been able to track him down so far. So, advanced measures would have to be taken. Together with Sir Augustus Barrington and Ex-Emperor Hugh Doyle, Artabanos had been deciding the best course of action. Today was State of the Empire day, when all of parliament – or what was left of it – were gathered, therefore providing the Emperor with a great opportunity to solidify His reign.
As He was led into the central hall of Parliament, dividing both Houses, Artabanos thought of how the final dissidents in His administration would soon be eradicated. Gerard’s secretary had been a useful informant, but one that couldn’t be trusted nevertheless. He’d been uncertain where her true loyalties were. He was slightly sad to never be able to see her again, although he knew she hadn’t felt a thing when her end forcibly came. A sad death, he thought. He didn’t like acting as a tyrant at all, really. He’d rather be a popular monarch enjoying a healthy appreciation by everyone – which, after today, he would be one step closer to becoming.
‘Thank you, my nobles, commoners. Be seated’, Artabanos said after He’d planted His bottom on His throne, ‘Before we start the day’s traditions, I have a few announcements to make. Dame Elizabeth Stuart...’, the Telum Police Director and NIC member stepped forward, ‘I, Artabanos: of the Centurians, Legatians, Quaestorians, Imperatorians, Rosarians, and Praestorians Supreme Emperor; Ruler of all Inimicians, Supreme Autocrat; Defender of the Inimician Faith; Duke of the District of Telum; Commander of the Inimician Armed Forces; and Grand Cross in the Imperial Order of Inimicus; charge you to bring Imperial Justice to the traitor Baron Rupert Harrison, and all who shared his treachery. I condemn him, and cast my wrath upon him. I strip him of all titles and government functions, and sentence him to life imprisonment. Moreover, I hereby declare that Lord Gerard Sergent is summoned to the Imperial Palace to answer for similar crimes. He will arrive within two days, or he will be branded an enemy of the Realm and a traitor to me personally.’
“...and a traitor to me personally.”
‘Jesus Christ’, I cursed, having just listened to His Majesty’s proclamation on a squeaky, static-y radio.
‘How bold’, the familiar voice of the man who was hiding me said. It was a voice many Inimicians recognised as the broadcaster of freedom, the advocate of the end to the former Republic, the speaker of the people. The voice of Emperor William.
‘What do I do now?’, I asked.
‘You do what I did after my “assassination”. Go into hiding. Live off the wealth you’ve gathered – or rather, nicked.’
‘I don’t have an Emperor’s support, though, like you.’
‘It’s different if you actually are one.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘I suppose so, too.’
I went outside on my crutches. Autumn winds were gushing around the small cabin I’d been hiding in for a few days now. Some yellow leaves swirled around my head as I smelled the countryside air. It was one I’d grown up with as a child, but I’d lost the recognition of during my time in the city. Before I could get completely lost in thought, however, I was called by one of the former Emperor’s guards. A visitor. Who? No one knew I was here. To my surprise, it was Moszkowicz, who looked as if he’d seen a ghost when William appeared – which was, admittedly, more or less true.
‘But... what? How? Huh?’, he tried to say, being too flabbergasted.
‘Long story’, William replied, ‘Come, let’s sit.’
The ex-monarch explained how, when he was supposedly assassinated by left-wing extremists, he had actually been forced off the throne by a relatively unknown Artabanos. ‘The explosion at the Palace was entirely staged – how do you think a bomb would get through my security? No, Mr Artabanos had hold of the reigns from the Empire’s founding. He just had to consolidate his own position before climbing to power himself.’
Moszkowicz was too stunned to react, as I had been when I first heard the full story. ‘Parliament was the only body that ever criticised the monarch and was completely independent from him, which is why Artabanos set up the Inimician People’s Front to legitimise first the massive shooting in the Commons Chamber, and second the forging of fraud documents. The Common MPs were actually the most honest politicians this country has ever seen.’
‘But surely’, Bram tried to say, ‘The EU...’
‘The EU are a bunch of blind dipshits – when this is concerned, at least. Pardon my language. They thought, and still think, I and Hugh were the villains, with the Greens and all that. Well, little do they know Jeff Speller is one of Artie’s closest friends and received almost a billion Guilders in donations from the Artabanos economic empire during the Green Party days. Democracy flourished under me and Hugh. It died the day Artabanos got elected.’
‘But what about your insults towards the Greens?’
‘Either fabricated or forced. The Greens weren’t so much Greens, they were a distraction force set up by Artabanos.’
I could see Bram was dazzled and too confused to understand the situation, again, just like I had been. Although admittedly, the entire plot was quite hard to oversee, and I bet even William himself hadn’t fully grasped what Artabanos was up to.
‘But then’, Moszkowicz asked, ‘How did Artabanos find out about Harrison and you, Gerard?’
‘He had my secretary questioned. She told Him everything.’
‘Where is she now?’
‘Officially: missing. Actually: murdered.’
I didn’t say anything. Even though I had not seen my wife or daughter since they came to visit in hospital, it was Janet whose loss I could not get over. If I didn’t appear at the Imperial Court in two days, my family would be questioned, imprisoned, brainwashed, but Janet had already died for my cause. Although, had she? If Artabanos was to be believed – which I severely doubted – she’d initially come to Him willingly. But even so, I would have been able to forgive her. I found it hard to keep a straight face and, using my crutches, slowly made my way outside again, wondering what to do.
Two days later, Artabanos had destroyed my world. I heard news He’s seized my wife, taken my child into His household as His “own daughter”, and of course, killed Janet. He’s also used the opportunity to scold and complain about the “party-political” culture in Inimicus. He’s completely thwarted any plans NIC members had for His demise, and made His position just that bit stronger. Our plot has backfired – more than that. And now? Now, it’s up to incompetent freedom fighters like Bram Moszkowicz or Simon Lane. Maybe Wilfred Cocx is still willing. The motion? I still have my copy, but I bet on one else has theirs. “We the National Imperial Council, having noticed His Divine Imperial Majesty’s blatant usurping of legislative, executive, and judicial powers in the Empire, hereby attempt to limit His expansion of prerogative, by means of this motion”, and so on, and so forth. A nice story to tell my daughter, if I ever see her again. A very nice story indeed. I can only hope a sequel follows, but hope is all I can do.
‘When is soon?’
‘Probably within two weeks.’
‘Damn. We have to start preparing.’
‘All right, Wil. What do you want to do?’
I wasn’t sure. It was odd to be in the plotter’s position. I’d always been a loyalist. I’d always been part of the Imperial Gang. When I was Prime Minister under William and Hugh – one of whom was now dead, and the other ill but alive – I’d always supported the monarchy and the Imperial Household. However, I felt some of the ten million Guilders in my pocket, some of the money the now disappeared Gerard Sergent had given me, before his plot was destroyed. His plot? Our plot. I thought for a while and decided to actively start reinvigorating the rebellious spirit Gerard had left behind. My first person of interest was Lane, a man with a similar history to me, both being ex-Prime Ministers, who I had just been talking with.
‘All right’, he said, ‘What do you want us to do.’
‘I’m not sure. Let’s check the Constitution.’
I reached over to my briefcase, which was leaning against my chair. I took my copy of “The Constitution of the Empire of Inimicus” out of the case and browsed the papers. I remembered how much longer and more precise the founding documents had been when I’d been Prime Minister. Therefore, it took me much less time than expected to find the passage we were looking for: “The Emperor shall be deemed to have abdicated if he contracts a marriage during His time in office without having obtained consent by Act of National Imperial Council.”
‘There’, Simon said, ‘We can have Him with that.’
‘Indeed. Although we have to keep in mind He’s got eleven votes. Thirteen if you count Hugh and Speller.’
‘Let’s just go through the votes we need, Wil. His Maj has eleven; His personal chums – including you – have three; we in the Provinces have twelve – one less than Artie and his effective allies. So, we need some of the four Cabinet votes, because at the moment its 13 versus 13 with the Ministers probably backing the Emperor. Moreover, Sergent and Harrison will hardly be able to vote. It’s not enough.’
‘So, we either buy the Ministers, or we buy the two puppets.’
‘We buy either of them, or we make sure the Cabinet isn’t present when the marriage is put to the vote...’
‘Deliberate plane delay?’
‘Deliberate plane crash.’
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Richard McKinnock, my new fiancé.’
We were all trying to act as surprised as possible, even though we’d known Artabanos preferred men to women for a long time. The room remained silence, putting poor Mr McKinnock to shame. ‘Well’, the Speaker said, ‘I’m sure we’re all very happy for You, my liege.’
Approving mumble, but no clear endorsements. We were lucky He had decided to present us with His groom before the public got to know. ‘May I just ask, Your Majesty’, Sir Barrington said, ‘When do you plan to present Mr McKinnock to the Inimician people?’
‘I’m going to wait until after you as the Council give me approval to marry him.’
‘Ah. I commend Your wisdom, Sir.’
‘Hm. So what do I get out of this?’
‘Power. Influence. Independence.’
‘If it all goes to plan, that won’t mean much anymore.’
Basil Lawson was a hard one to convince. I’d managed to get the Minister for Defence and Nuclear Development, Jacob Churchill, on our side, but his colleague at the Internal Affairs office wasn’t so willing. I’d decided it was best to try to convince the Cabinet in case Simon’s plane plan didn’t succeed. About this, I didn’t know the details at all, let alone what Simon had organised so far, if anything. With Lawson, though, I had to be careful. He was a particularly good friend of Artabanos’s – albeit a bought one – and I had to be careful he didn’t betray me.
‘I really can’t support you’, he said.
‘Why not? Just why not?’
‘My allegiance lies with His Imperial Majesty. Remember, we all swore an oath.’
‘So did He, if I recall correctly. What were the words again? ‘I swear to the peoples of the Empire that I shall uphold the Constitution and the Imperial Statutes; I swear I shall defend the independence and territory of the Empire with all my powers; that I shall protect and maintain the freedoms and rights of all Inimicians and temporary inhabitants, and shall attempt by whatever means the law provides me with, improve the wealth and well-being of all Inimicians, as a just and fair Emperor is ought to do. So help me William and Hugh’’, I answered, being one of the many Inimician politicians who knew our and the Emperor’s oaths by heart.
‘Has He not kept true to His words?’
‘No, Lawson! No, he hasn’t!’
‘Tell me how he hasn’t.’
‘Do you have any acquaintances who have suddenly gone missing?’
‘I haven’t, nor do I know anyone who does.’
‘What about Sergent?’
‘He was a traitor, and rightly banished. Now, speak no more, Cocx. I thought you a loyalist. I won’t help you.’
‘Promise me you won’t tell Him.’
‘You be careful, or I might.’
Failure number one. I knew Lawson had voted in favour of the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in 2013, and I knew he wasn’t pleased with how the Emperor’s international standing was going to suffer because of this - if word got out to the public, that is - but I was surprised at how brainwashed he actually was. I returned to my office – which was completely empty since I’d decided it was safer to act without a secretary, after rumours of what happened to Gerard’s aide has reached me. A note had been slipped under my door. I opened the envelope, which was surprisingly thick and heavy for a letter, and found a pack of 500-Guilder bills inside. I looked for a written acknowledgement or indication of where it had come from, but there was no sign of any sender. I didn’t quite know what to do – accepting money from strangers was never a good idea in Inimician politics; for all I knew, it was a bribe to keep me silent. I hid the money, which seemed fresh off the presses, in a drawer and prepared to try turning my next target: Prime Minister Judy Speller.
Her undoubtedly attractive self was sitting in the Council Restaurant, a few minutes before we’d agreed to meet. I felt bad for not being as punctual as her, as a former Prime Minister I should’ve been fulfilling an exemplary role. I greeted her, and was offered a coffee after sitting down in the soft leather cafe seats.
‘I know what this is about, Cocx’, she said before I had the opportunity to start talking.
‘Well...’, I replied, slightly baffled, ‘Good.’
‘Unlike Basil, I’m willing to help. On the right terms.’
‘What would those be?’, I asked, intrigued.
‘I demand ten thousand Guilders by tomorrow. Otherwise, I might very well be informing a certain bald man about your plans.’
Her attractive appearance hid a devious, cunning mind, apparently. I knew I should’ve been more careful, but I’d made a capital mistake. There was only one way out of this. ‘All right’, I said, remembering the cash I’d found under my door; it could serve as the one and only payment I’d make, ‘But I need your full support without doubt.’
‘For ten grand per week, you shall have it.’
‘Per week for how long?’
‘Until the vote.’
‘Until the vote?’
‘Until the vote.’
I calculated how much money that would cost me. I would have to ensure the vote be brought forward, even though the plan I had wouldn’t require that. Speller sipped her tea and looked at me intently as I ‘considered’ her offer – not that there was much to consider: she was practically blackmailing me. I told her I agreed, and quickly left the room to blackmail the blackmailer.
‘You have to promise me you’re telling the truth, Wilfred.’
‘How long have we been friends, Artie? I could never lie to you.’
‘I can’t imagine Speller is someone who blackmails someone, though.’
‘I wish it wasn’t true, but I’m afraid it is.’
‘The images certainly don’t lie.’
The Emperor and I were looking at my tablet, on which a strongly edited version of the footage I recorded on my hidden camera during the meeting with Speller was shown. “For ten grand per week, you shall have it”, Speller said on the video. Artabanos scoffed. ‘The arrogance’, He exclaimed, ‘Thank you for this, Wilfred. It’s good to see loyalty still exists in these treacherous political times. I’ll see to it she won’t spread any untruths about you, trust me.’
‘Thank you, Artie.’
‘No, thank you.’
The next morning, Judy Speller didn’t show up to Question time. 14 versus 13.
‘I’d like to, but I just can’t.’
‘No, me neither. We’re here to legislate, not to bully.’
‘Rosarum is up for it. Aren’t we, Liz?’
‘Definitely, and we encourage others to join us.’
I’d called a meeting of all provincial delegates – except Sir Barrington, as I knew he wouldn’t even want to talk about so-called conspiracies – and I was currently polling the support for Artabanos’s wedding plans. Currently, only the Rosarian and Centurian delegates were totally convinced. I also found out I’d made several calculating mistakes: Sergent and Harrison’s seats were empty, so they couldn’t vote; and Barrington wouldn’t support us either, leaving us at a mere nine votes to counter the thirteen or fourteen His Majesty would raise. With Jacob Churchill on our side we’d raise it to ten, but we could never get much further than that. We were politically screwed, unless all remaining Cabinet members voted with us.
‘You don’t have enough support, the marriage will pass.’
‘No. It will NOT’, I said optimistically but sternly.
I stood up, not knowing what I was going to say, but feeling the need for something to be said. Everyone had started bickering – the occasion seemed like a genuine Council meeting in that respect – so no one paid attention to me at first. ‘Gents, ladies’, I shouted, to no avail. I repeated the shouts without effect, and became slightly upset. My inner street boy rose in me and screamed: ‘Oi! Bozos. Shut it for a few seconds, will you?’ Everyone turned their heads and went silent, but only after an annoying ‘Oooooohhh’ sound. ‘Thank you’, I continued, ‘Now... Bickering and whining isn’t going to solve anything, is it? I believe, fellow Members, that we all share two key virtues: One, we want the NIC to be in charge; Two, we want this country, our country, to be the Empire it was supposed to be when we gave our own money, blood, lives, for the establishment of it all. And that means a stable yet democratic government. It means strong politics yet accountable politicians. It means one figurehead as international representative and head-of-state, but it also means electoral responsibility. Why did the Kingdom of Inimicus, having been shaped out of power vacuums and internal strife, start flourishing in the late Middle Ages? Because the balance between autocratic power and democratic ‘accountability’ brought peace and prosperity for all Inimicians. It should, then, also be clear to you why the following Republic of Telum, from the shackles of which we freed ourselves in 2011, failed so horribly. The Chancellors and Presidents were absolute dictators, with no accountability whatsoever.
‘Now, gents and ladies, I won’t have to remind you of His Majesty’s long, dreary title. Supreme Autocrat? What’s that all about? And don’t tell me that’s a historical remnant. William and Hugh didn’t bear the title. Neither did any King in days gone by. I can go on and mention all the travesties of politics and power usurping we’ve seen in the last year, you’ll get the point. The thing is, councillors, we have been given this one chance, just one chance, to face up to our fears and doubts, and tell His Majesty this cannot continue like this. We’re faced with the choice of raising our hands at the Emperor’s leisure, or keeping our arms down in protest of this travesty. Let’s force a roll call, let’s face up to this autocratic system. Let’s unite, let’s stand together, and let’s oppose this marriage.’
There was no approval. No applause, not even a nod. At first, I didn’t get why there was no reaction at all, but everything became frighteningly clear when I turned around and saw the head of the man I’d just ranted against standing behind me, partially obscured by His mobile phone, filming everything.
‘Good speech’, He said, ‘That’s going on Instagram.’
He stepped forward and I made way for Him, still baffled by His presence. ‘Councillors’, He spoke, ‘If this is how you want to play the game, let’s play it. Let’s see if you can thwart my marriage plans. Or at least attempt to do so. Do you think I’m going to have my life dictated by people like you? Political nobodies who owe their entire existence in power to me? I will cast a personal overruling upon every single one of you if I have to. Think about it.’ He changed His tone: ‘All right? Cheerio!’
The mood of the entire room had changed drastically after the Emperor had left. The provincial delegates seemed more united than ever to make a statement against His Majesty in a democratic way. We stayed in the room in complete silence for a while, and I returned to my inconspicuous sedentary position. ‘Well, I suppose that leaves me...’, Bram Moszkowicz said, ‘I have matters to attend to in the countryside. One of our allies is supporting us from there, Wilfred. Me and him are on your side.’ He left. Some other Councillors remained silent as others murmured amongst one another.
‘What do we do now?’, Joan Saunders said after a few minutes had passed.
‘We unite’, Simon Lane returned, ‘Show Him who’s boss.’
‘I propose we make a majority decision, and every delegate follows it, whatever the outcome.’
An approving mumble filled the room. This was what I’d hoped for. If we had a majority in the provincial seats – which we definitely did – we’d have the entire body of elected delegates on our side. ‘All right’, I said, ‘All those in favour, raise your hands.’
Almost everyone participated in yes vote.
‘That’s settled then, isn’t it?’
Not being a provincial delegate myself, I received approval of the Councillors to act as a Speaker and clerk for our new extra-consular sessions, which we decided to make a regular feature of politics in Inimicus. We brainstormed and formulated basic standing orders. When we were done, I climbed a table, held the new orders up above my head, and shouted: ‘On this day, the People’s Assembly is founded!’
The others jeered and chanted.
Over the next few days, we managed to get Basil Lawson – who’d been convinced by his Cabinet colleague – and Jacob Churchill – the colleague who’d convinced him – to join us, as well as some Teluminan Regional legislators. When the week was done, there were twenty-five members, excluding myself. We wanted to use the Commons chamber for our meetings, but of course we didn’t receive permission from the Palace, so we resorted to using an old lunchroom instead, and a small podium for the speaker and orator. I, meanwhile, was chosen to act as the Assembly’s representative and overall chairman. Not that we were a legally accepted legislative body at all, but we hoped we were about to change that. Moszkowicz, as Central Voting Agency chairman, was going to change that. We were steamrolling His Majesty’s administration, and it felt great.
‘I like it. It’s basic, inexpensive, and yet it looks like a parliament.’
‘Thank you, Mr Cocx. The final, total bill comes down to Ƒ567 and 62 pennings, please.’
More than I’d expected, but for the rugs, seat coverings, new logos, and all the other wishy-washy ornaments we’d made the Assembly look acceptable with, it was a bargain price. I handed the man one Ƒ500 and one Ƒ100 note, and told him to keep the change (this is what Sergent would’ve wanted me to do with his Ƒ10 million, anyway.)
The room had now been done up somewhat. The podium was covered in ornamental tapestries, the lectern had been upgraded, we actually had curtains and a projector, and our seats had been given some cushions so our bottoms could stand having a session of more than fifteen minutes. My own Speaker’s seat had been made extra comfortable, and had been placed on the small podium. I was We’d also made sure enough TV cameras were installed. I was feeling great. It was like I’d just enjoyed a join with Jeff Speller, ex-Emperor Hugh, and Artie, it was that good. Those times had ended, unfortunately enough, so new enjoyment had to be found.
I got back to my office, and was devastated to find Sir Augustus Barrington anxiously waiting outside, filling out a crossword. ‘Ah, Mr Cocx’, he said as I put down my eyes in shame. I’d totally forgotten about my appointment with him. ‘Do come in, Sir Barrington, I’m frightfully sorry about my forgetfulness.’
‘It’s all right, old bean. Now, shall we?’
I unlocked my door and followed him inside. He smacked down his puzzle on my coffee table and say himself in one of my recliners.
‘Long day today?’, I asked.
‘Rather. What about you?’
‘Broken. Care for a strong drink, then?’
‘Oh, if you’ve got a bottle of something open...’
‘Ah, well, not yet, but...’
I only had some cheap Scotch in my office, but that would have to do. Barrington thanked me, we were both seated, and Barrington began: ‘Well, Cocx, I’ve heard you founded quite the lovely gathering?’
‘Oh, we try our best.’
‘I’ve also heard His Majesty gave permission for you to hold this so-called People’s Assembly.’
‘Indeed He did.’
Barrington scoffed. ‘The old sod. His credibility isn’t what it used to be.’
‘Ooh, the great old Sir Barrington is doubting his Emperor’s motives...’
‘Oh, it’s not quite that bad. I’m not here to ask you if I can join that little ludicrous Assembly of yours, I’m just here to pledge my no-vote.’
I almost spilled my whisky. When the burning in my mouth had faded, I managed to say: ‘Well... I certainly hadn’t expected your support.’
‘A no-vote’, he replied sternly, ‘But nothing more. I don’t want in on any of the anti-monarchist dealings you’ve got going in that place.’
‘I gladly hear your plans to vote no, but are you sure you don’t want to come and attend the, if you will, opening session?’
Barrington had apparently had a very long day indeed: ‘NO’, he said loudly, ‘And speak no more of this?’
‘Now now, no need to get angry about my proposition to have His Majesty reduce your salary.’
‘How dare you?!’, he shouted. He threw his whisky in my face and exited the room, leaving me with burning eyes. It took me several minutes to come to my senses and realise why I’d said what I had.
“Sprouse of criminality and unrest, ten letters”, the crossword read. Barrington’s posh handwriting spelled “IMMIGRANTS”.
Day of the vote
‘All right, people. All councillors better head off to the Chamber to get the final debate going, and vote. Wish us all good luck.’
I and the other NIC members stood up and left the Assembly, leaving the external members to their business. When all of us entered the NIC Chamber, I felt a sense of pride. We were one team, one bloc, standing up against an oppressive regime. We were all seated, and the Speaker began proceedings. ‘”The Emperor shall be deemed to have abdicated if He contracts a marriage during His time in office without having obtained consent by Act of National Imperial Council”, quoth the Constitution, Article XXVIII’, the Speaker said, ‘Therefore, Councillors, I will accept statements concerning the approval or dismissal of His Imperial Majesty’s marriage intentions. We will begin with Terra Legatus, Mr Moszkowicz.’
Bram sprang to attention, quick putting down his cup of tea. ‘Yes, thank you’, he said after standing up, ‘I will keep my speech short, Councillors, Your Majesty, as I think we’re all clear about Terra Legatus’s position on this marriage. We warmly congratulate His Majesty on having found someone to spend His days with, as I think we all are...’ Some approving mumble and banging on the table was heard. ‘But we have to think about the matter for a while...’
His ‘short’ speech lasted over half an hour, which all of us had expected from Moszkowicz. Terra Centurio was next, and Joan Saunders told a similar story. As did Nicola Walker for Terra Dominus, Elizabeth Stuart for Terra Rosarum, and Jacob Churchill for the Cabinet, until it was Sir Augustus Barrington’s turn to speak on behalf of the Praestorians. His creaky voice spoke: ‘Yes, delegates, I’m sure I don’t have to reiterate my colleagues’ kind congratulatory words. However, as a critical opposition voice when it comes to same-sex marriage all my life, I cannot vote in favour of one. That said, I would like to see His Imperial Majesty happy, so I can’t say anything else than that I have not decided yet.’
I’d probably called this upon myself with the salary comment. Nevertheless, his speech was better than I’d expected.
‘Very well’, the Speaker said, ‘Then unless someone else wants to say a few words, I would like to invite His Imperial Majesty to address the Council.’
Annoyance, sadness, anger, and grief, were visible on His Majesty’s face. ‘Yes, well’, He said, remaining seated, ‘There is loads I’d like to say, but I’m afraid we wouldn’t have time. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen – for as far as there are people of class present here – I will just said the following. Imagine you’re unable to sleep. Unable to concentrate on work, on business as usual, on life in general. Imagine you’re just feeling miserable overall. That you’re unable to even think, without every single one of your thoughts, actions, and feelings overshadowed by an aspect of your life greater, more present than anything. Imagine, just imagine, for once, you’re in love.’ By now, I saw Simon Lane had sneakily taken out his phone and switched on his voice recorder. I gave him a quick looked and smiled awkwardly. ‘I know it might be an alien concept to some of you heartless bastards, but just imagine feeling something like it. Your world focused around one person; your life unable to function whenever you think of a certain man or woman in your life. That, councillors, is love. Love is friendship, but more. It is friendship that had, in a sense, caught on fire. Sharing forever, mutual confidence, loyalty through bad and good times. It doesn’t have to be perfect, quite the contrary. It allows for human weakness. True love, really genuinely true love, is like ghosts. Everyone talks about them, but very few have seen them.
‘Now, I am not the biggest fan of souls and soul philosophy, as you will know, but let us honour and accept the words of ancient Inimician philosopher Aichme Aion, who said: ‘[font=Times]`Η αγάπη είναι μία ψυχη που ζει δε δύο[/font]’, or for those less literate among you: love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies. You will most likely get the point, Councillors. Separating or denying the right to love to two individuals who have loved each other for months, is possibly the most evil thing one can do. Take away that part of someone’s life, and you might as well take the life in its entirety. Think about this while voting, councillors.’ The Emperor was almost in tears. I know it was most likely a rhetorical trick, but it had an effect even on figures I’d previously thought emotionless toffs like Barrington. ‘Think about what you’re deciding on. You have the power of deciding on life or death matters. Keep that in mind, and of course you will all be richly rewarded.’
I pretended I hadn’t heard that last, filthy comment.
‘Shall we proceed to voting?’, I quickly proposed.
‘Very well. All those in favour of voting on the matter right now, please say “Aye”.’ Everyone shouted Aye, no one said Nay.
‘I think the Ayes have it. Right, roll call vote, then, shall we? On whether or not to grant His Imperial Majesty the right to marry His proposed spouse. His Imperial Majesty Emperor Artabanos, what say you?’
‘Mr Jeffrey Speller.’
‘Mr Wilfred Cocx.’
‘Nay’, I said. I didn’t dare look Artabanos in the eye. I felt a rush of pain, of betrayal, enter my body. What was I doing?
‘His Highness Hugh Doyle.’
‘Nay.’ The room was almost shaking.
‘For the Cabinet, Mr Basil Lawson.’
‘Abstention’, said the treacherous wench. I looked at Artabanos, who smirked back at me. I knew He was thinking “my two million guilders were enough to turn him back around.”
‘I see Prime Minister Speller is absent. Sarah Gladwell?’
‘Mr Jacob Churchill.’
‘Nay.’ At least he’d kept true to his word.
‘Both delegates from Terra Praestoris are absent, I see. Terra Rosarum, then. Dame Elizabeth Stuart?’
‘Mrs Judy Smallwood.’
‘For Terra Legatus, Mr Simon Lane.’
‘Mr Bram Moszkowicz.’
‘For Terra Centurio, Mrs Joan Saunders.’
‘Mrs Sally Bishop.’
‘For Terra Dominus, Mr Nicholas Benfield.’
‘Aye.’ Quasi-surprising. He’d been with us in the Assembly, but he was and had always been the Emperor’s lapdog.
‘Mrs Nicola Walker.’
‘For Terra Praestoris, Mr Paul Edgecomb.’
‘And finally, Sir Augustus Barrington.’
No reply. We all looked at the poor fellow, who was clearly deep in thought.
‘Sir Barrington, what say you?’
‘Aye’, he whispered, devastating all of us democrats.
‘No, no... I mean... Abstention. Abstention!’, he quickly said, almost crying. I glanced quickly at Simon’s notebook; he’d been keeping track. The scores were thirteen to twelve. We had lost.
I could see the glee on Emperor Artabanos’s face. In a few seconds I was able to read His entire mind. Completely cutting NIC members’ pay – not that we really needed it, every single one of us was at least a millionaire – marrying His fiancé, sticking two fingers up to all democratic institutions in the realm. No one capable of challenging His power, no one to bug Him any longer. No Parliament; a House of Nobles filled with people who did nothing but suck up to Him, having their entire luxurious lives to owe to Him; a National Imperial Council that had effectively been overpowered, and had not a single chance of ever beating Him; and the only national democratic institution, completely powerless. He’d made it, and we all knew He had. I glanced at Lane, who had a look of panic, but controlled panic, on his face.
‘Mr Speaker, before we conclude the roll call’, Lane suddenly said, ‘I have here a note written and signed by Prime Minister Speller.’
The envelope was passed through the Chamber to the Speaker. A look of worry appeared on Artabanos’s face. I hadn’t been particularly nice to Speller, but I always believed Artabanos had had her killed. And indeed, by the look on the Emperor’s face, that seemed to be the case: He couldn’t tell everyone He knew she was dead, thereby proving the invalidity of Simon’s note. A spark of hope was ignited. ‘Mrs Speller lets us know she is indisposed. She votes against the marriage.’
Some gasps were heard in the Chamber.
‘That means’, the Speaker continued, ‘That without a majority in the Council...’ The Speaker got his papers together, leaving us all in doubt as to what the final score was. ‘Erm... sorry about this... Ah, yes, Thirteen votes in favour, thirteen against. This means the marriage is not carried.’
Before any of us could catch our breath, His Majesty spoke softly: ‘Then I hereby declare the Council’s decision redundant by Imperial Overruling.’
The doors swung open. In the door post, three men I hadn’t expected to ever see again in my life. ‘I think not’, said the one standing in front of the other two, and who bore an uncanny resemblance to the late Emperor William – he even wore the same kind of clothes. ‘Artabanos, I have the entire Palace hermetically closed off. You will renounce this overruling, or suffer a fate similar to that of the Prime Minister, Gerard Sergent’s secretary, and all those other innocents who’ve “disappeared”.’
‘I’d hoped never to see you again, William.’
William? So it wasn’t just a resemblance. There was no time to ask questions, however. Ex-Emperor William, whose coffin I personally watched descend into the ground, walked over to Artabanos and His delegates, and put his arm on his colleague Hugh’s shoulder. ‘Good to see you again, my friend.’ And to the wider group: ‘That goes for all of you, actually. I know you might be slightly flabbergasted to see me and my two new friends alive, but let me tell you one thing. My supposed death was not serving any other purpose but clearing the way for one man. It was set up, staged, and ordered, by this one man. I think you know of whom I speak. The country has been dominated from the Empire’s founding by none other than Emperor Artabanos.’ He pointed his finger at Him.
We were all still too stunned by the appearance of a man we’d all loved and whom we thought dead for two years. Somehow, though, I wasn’t totally surprised. I’d always thought Artabanos coming out of the blue like He’d done was a bit strange; being but a mere Duke, He didn’t seem like the most proficient or well-known figure, and definitely not the most popular in Inimician politics. His candidacy and election had always been unexpected to me, but this matter cleared up everything.
‘Fine, fine, I revoke’, Artabanos said, ‘But you haven’t invaded my Palace just to prevent me from marrying.’
‘Indeed I haven’t’, William as he walked to the windowed side of the room. His military uniform – fresh from the late Republican Era – adorned with all his (His?) medals, almost shone as I began to admire again the man we’d all loved so dearly when we’d fought alongside him (Him?) for our freedom. ‘I am here to present you with a choice, dear Artabanos’, he continued, ‘Either you keep calm, give the People’s Assembly Commons status, and reduce your NIC votes to one, or you can consider this a military coup.’
It was then that I spotted what was in Artabanos’s hand, and realised how much of a mistake William had made by entering and taking over the Palace.
There were at least a dozen of them inside the Chamber after only a few minutes. They disarmed William’s three security guards in a matter of seconds, but not before one could fire a shot and incapacitate an assailant, scaring us all off to under the table or behind the relative safety of our own hands. After the quick incident, which left William, Gerard, and Rupert on their knees with their hands on their heads, Artabanos stood up. ‘Thank you, my loyal Imperial Secret Service agents’, He said calmly, turning to the men dressed in black, ‘Especially for coming at such short notice.’
He walked over to the three kneeled men, some ISS agents tending to their wounded comrade in the background. I saw Him sticking the ‘primary school finger’ at them. ‘Tsk tsk tsk’, He said, ‘Very naughty, my dearies.’ The scene was a rather peculiar one. Armed guards dressed entirely in black, with balaclavas and gloves, standing in front of the thick oak doors through which one dead man, one disappeared man, and one imprisoned man, had just entered. There was one motionless body lying on the ground, William’s guards, the other two members of which were sitting on their knees, blindfolded, cuffed, and muffed. Emperor Artabanos, supreme as ever, laughing at His enemies’ failure, walking up and down the row of kneeling foes. It was quite surreal, I almost felt like everything wasn’t actually happening, and I had to remind myself every few seconds that it was.
‘You know, Artabanos’, William began.
‘Who gave you permission to speak?’, Artabanos replied sternly.
‘I don’t need the permission of some bald, fascist loudmouth with a bad temper and an abundance of power to speak, mind you’, he answered whilst standing up. Artabanos showed a reaction that appeared to me like His kind of fear. Maybe there was some old grievance between the two imperialists that no one knew of. Maybe William was the only Inimician He actually feared.
Before I could think of a possible answer to the mental questions, however, and before William could continue, another film-like scene occurred. Some canisters were thrown into the room, and before the ISS could get rid of them, smoke filled the Chamber. I could hear William’s voice shouting: ‘You’d really think I hadn’t prepared for this, Artabanos? Really?!’
Shots were fired – literally. I ducked for cover under the table, joining some of the others who’d already hidden there. I couldn’t see what was happening above the thick table, although judging by the gunshots, the shouting, and the Emperor’s voice screaming: ‘How dare you?!’, I could only guess William’s allies had launched a counterattack. Was this the start of a civil war? The second one in four years? I did hope not. After less than two minutes – which seemed to last more like two years – the bangs ceased. The smoke started to clear. ‘Stay here’, I said to the other NIC members under the table, ’I’ll go and have a look.’ But what I saw was far from pleasing.
Through the increasingly thinning smoke, I could see the bald figure of Emperor Artabanos, standing in the middle of the room, flanked by two Imperial Guard soldiers in full dress uniform. William was on the ground, against the wall, holding up his hands at gunpoint. ‘You really think my own Guards would be bribed to let you into my Palace? As ex-Emperor I’d expected you to do better’, Artabanos said to him. This time, William seemed not to have any plans. ‘Ah, Mr Cocx’, the Emperor turned and said to me, ‘Care for a drink?’
It was weird following His Majesty to His rooms as if nothing had happened. He gestured some guards to take care of the five or so bodies piled up in the Council chamber. I don’t know whether some of them had belonged to Harrison or Sergent, but I was sure I’d find out soon enough. That is, if Artabanos wasn’t going to knife, shoot, poison, or by other means assassinate me and wasn’t simply luring me into His office so my last moments could be spent in the grandeur of His wall coverings, frescos, and furniture. We entered the splendid personal quarters – I had no real ground to deny His invitation with armed guards by His side – and were gestured to sit. I fell down into the most comfortable chamber chair in the Empire and had a cognac shoved into my hand. I downed it in one go and asked for another. My request fulfilled, I said: ‘What the hell was all that about?’
‘I’d rather hoped you could tell me that’, Artabanos answered.
‘I’m as surprised as you, Artie.’
‘Don’t call me that, or I’ll have you “accidentally” shot’, he symbolised quotation marks with his fingers, all the while keeping hold of his glass, ‘You didn’t know William was about to return?’
‘Absolutely not’, I reassured Him, ‘I’ve always tried to fight by democratic means.’
‘William knows shit like that never works’, Artabanos said plainly, emptying His glass, ‘He knows how to run an Empire, I’ll give him that.’
‘Why’, Jeff Speller suddenly but justifiably said, ‘If I may ask, is he still alive?’
‘Because of the same reasons you still are, Jeff’, Artabanos said, emptying what was left of the cognac into our classes and opening a 1982 whisky, ‘You were to prove yourselves useful in the future. Both of you. William had huge backing from the people, and you had a massive green militia at your command. Funded and equipped by me, but no one need know that.’
‘Well, what are we going to do now?’, Hugh asked.
‘First’, the Emperor answered, ‘We’re going to empty this bottle.’ He filled up our glasses again. ‘Then... well, we’ll see what we do then.’
I woke up in the most uncomfortable position I’d ever been in. I was hanging, face down, over the balustrade of His Majesty’s bed, my feet on the mattress, my hands on the floor. My purple tie was hanging in front of my face and my blazer was torn. I tried to get myself together but couldn’t stand up without embarrassingly toppling over and performing some kind of summersault manoeuvre. Fortunately, Hugh and Speller were knocked-out in their seats, and Emperor Artabanos lay on the bed I’d just fallen off of, His jacket removed, His shirt unbuttoned, but His blue-and-white tie weirdly strapped around His head. The thought of quickly and efficiently strangling Him raced through my mind, but I returned to sanity soon enough.
I overviewed the scene. There were half a dozen liquor bottles on the floor (I had never known Artie kept so many in His bedroom), some half-eaten kebabs on the coffee table, and a barely-touched bag of crisps on the carpet. Some curtains were torn, and not a single bed sheet or tapestry had been left untouched. There was a thick white substance – presumably garlic sauce for the kebabs (or something else entirely?) – on the window and ceiling fresco, and two half-smoked joints and a bong “hidden” in one of Artie’s dressing cabinets. [i]What a night[/i], I thought as last evening’s events slowly came back to me. After the second bottle of whisky had been emptied, we’d abandoned serious talking and had just gone for a “drink to forget” kind of evening. It was the first time us four friends had been together since the early days of the Empire. At the same time, however, I couldn’t enjoy myself as well as before. Throughout the night I’d constantly thought of the events in the Council the day before. Therefore, I left Hugh, Speller, and Artie behind – although not before I’d plundered their wallets and taken any Guilders I could find; an old joke of mine and Artie’s which eventually resulted in one of us being several hundred Guilders richer off every night we went out – and made my way to the Council Chamber.
A cleaning lady was busily tidying up the room when I entered. She’d almost finished and as such there was little remaining evidence of yesterday’s events. I had a look around, though, and did see the occasional bullet hole in the wooden wall coverings, splinters in the carpets, and the cleaning lady’s cloth was partially reddened. Poor thing. She’d probably be imprisoned or dead by the end of the day; she’d already seen too much. ‘Your Excellency’, she said as she left the room. I turned on one of the tellies on the wall and turned in to Nuntius Inimici. “Explosions were heard at the Imperial Palace yesterday as what seemed to be a ‘vital piece of legislation’ was being put to the vote on the National Imperial Council”, the newsreader announced, “His Imperial Majesty Emperor Artabanos has released a communiqué saying the Palace suffered a number of gas leaks, and that the situation posed no further safety risk to anyone inside.” What an excuse. I was surprised anyone had swallowed it. And more to the point, how could Artie have released a press statement when, last time I saw Him, His sorry arse was lying on a bed, hungover like a teenager? My own headached self paid no further attention to the matter. “Colin Hoskins reports: ‘Yes, thank you. The Emperor’s communiqué stated a gas leak was the cause of the loud bangs heard yesterday late in the afternoon. As shown on this amateur footage, however, Imperial Secret Service Agents penetrated the Council quarters at around ten past four. We have asked the Palace for an explanation, but have hitherto not received a reply. It does look, however, like this was merely an exercise.’”
At least that vulture Hoskins knew what was going on. I could’ve expected that, though. His prying eyes were everywhere these days. I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew all about William’s return. Before I could further contemplate the possibility, however, the Council doors swung open.
A tall man with short, black hair and a bright yellow tie entered the Chamber. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Sir Augustus, although I was confident he wasn’t actually a disguised Barrington. ‘Your Excellency’, he said, shaking my hands, ‘I’m Maximilian, Marquis de Barrington.’ I looked at him questioningly. ‘Sir Barrington’s brother.’ So that’s where the familiarity came from. I didn’t know Sir Barrington had an aristocratic brother. Maximilian’s tailored suit and golden cufflinks were small signs of his wealth, but his ‘plebeian’ hair and common facial expressions would’ve had me believe he was nothing more than a middle class businessman or local politician. ‘I assume you’re Wilfred Cocx?’, he said, ‘You can call me Max, if you like.’
‘Well, Max’, I answered, ‘What brings you here? How did you even get into the Palace? I’ve never seen you here before.’
‘Oh, I’m an old friend of His Majesty’s. I received a text at 4.30 this morning saying “Mxa yiu shoukd come oive in Oalace. Sorrt for othering yiu – a haopy artie” so I kind of knew what was going on by then. So I decided to see if He hadn’t got himself into trouble again.’
Ah, yes, I remembered the moment Artabanos said He was going to text “every single person in existence” because He knew He would have the power to do so. I wondered if people like Michael Solomon or Paul Craticus had received one. ‘Hmm yes, He might’ve been under certain... influences...’, I said.
‘You were with Him?’
‘Oh I most certainly was.’
‘Ah. Yes, I could’ve known’, Max said, looking at my attire. I hadn’t actually paid attention to my clothing, but I wish I had. My white shirt was stained garlic sauce and ketchup, there were several tears in my blazer and trousers, and my royal purple – or rather, Imperial purple – tie was hanging from my neck half-fastened.
‘I suppose you won that vote they were talking about on the news, then?’
‘W- well, I did. He didn’t. We were opposites.’
‘Ah...’ Somehow he didn’t seem as surprised as one would’ve been, but I supposed he knew Artie better than I did.
‘It was about His marriage plans, wasn’t it?’, Max suddenly said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I know all about it. I was the one to bring Him and Richard together.’
I’d quickly invited Max for a coffee and, after having freshened up and making myself appear somewhat presentable, I sat down with him for a good talk. ‘So you instigated this entire marriage debacle?’, I asked, feeling if my coffee had cooled off sufficiently for me to sip it.
‘Pretty much, yeah’, the Marquis answered, plainly, not apparently knowing what trouble it had caused, or simply not caring at all, ‘I made sure Richard was in the same bar I knew Artie would go when He would feel lonely. It took just one meet-up to let nature take its course.’
‘For one, I felt Artie needed someone in His life whom He could really, genuinely love. Two, I want what everyone in Inimicus wants – or at least every politician these days: influence.’
‘There are ways of getting influence without having to cause a massive political – and violent! – crisis.’
‘Old rascal William’s return had nothing to do with me, mind. Well, almost nothing. It was mostly due to his own doing, though. I was the one to convince Artie – I mean, Emperor Artabanos – of keeping him alive. For further, future use, I told Him. Well, how ‘useful’ William has already proven to be...’
‘Do you know where he is now?’
‘Oh, he was shipped off to the Telum Prison Facility together with his two chums. However, as my loyal followers already proved in 2013, it can be easily breached. William, Harrison, and Sergent are quite all right, I assure you.’
‘Good lord’, I said, sighing, ‘Another dimension of all this political intrigue that’s been uncovered of late. And I’d thought we’d formed a democracy in 2012.’
‘Inimicus has never been a democracy. It was, is, and will always be a cryptocracy.’
‘From [font=Times]κρυπτειν[/font], to hide. I have never ever been elected to anything in my life, I’ve never shown my face in the media, and yet I’ve dominated government policy for almost a decade now.’
I could no longer be surprised at the revelation of political plots. For all I cared, Max was just another player in the game. However, he seemed to be rather good at it...
‘So what’s your role in this cryptocracy?’, I asked.
‘Heh’, he said, and smiling, sipped his coffee. He opened his eyes widely and said: ‘That’s classified.’ He laughed at his own joke. ‘But seriously’, he continued, taking another sip, ‘I’d rather not disclose too much, since some of it is extremely sensitive information. But let me just say I’ve not only been able to fill my pockets, but I’ve also had a...fairly large say in decision-making. I’m sorry to say your dismissal as Prime Minister might have been my doing, too.’
It all became surprising at this point, although I could’ve known Artie hadn’t been alone all this time. ‘Oh really?’, I asked. Before I could get an answer, though, Artabanos came up to us and joined us, His massive hangover overly visible on His face. ‘Your Majesty’, Max greeted Him, standing up. I remained seated. ‘Oh, cut it out, Max’, He answered, ‘Bring me a coffee and two cheese toasties.’
Artie’s wish fulfilled, Max decided to excuse himself. Before he walked off, though, the Emperor said to him: ‘And Max... don’t do go about indoctrinating people in my Palace with your ludicrous lies. Only one rules Inimicus: me.’
‘L’Etat, c’est moi, huh?’, Max said, grimacing somewhat, and left.
‘Indeed. I am the State’, Artabanos softly said, His eyes, deep in their sockets from last night, staring into nothing as He took a bit from an extra greasy cheese toastie. ‘Who is he?’, I asked Him after a few moments.
‘L’Etat’, Artabanos replied.
Sooner rather than later, William and the other rebels escaped – or rather, were released without authorisation. I wasn’t surprised (a remark I’d made very often of late, I noticed.) There was no news report on anything that had happened so far – as a matter of fact, Colin Hoskins’s column on how stable Inimicus had been in the latest months was the most read article in the country. The nation was applauding Artabanos for His rigorous reforms, transparency (how ironic) and sound judgement. Even abroad, He was praised, as Inimicus had not been involved in any kind of diplomatic crisis or military insurgency for half a year. A sheer contrast with how He was faring inside the Palace, behind the gold-plated front doors, where no video camera was allowed, where phone signals were blocked and Wi-fi was unheard of – except for His Majesty Himself, of course.
I met Simon and Bram to discuss the situation. According to Moszkowicz, who had regular contact with the ex-Emperor, William was doing his utmost to keep his entire endeavours completely hidden, but he had already had to imprison two groups of forest hunters who were nearing his campsite. Bram said William was preparing for an all-out offensive against His Majesty, backed by weapons and money from another EU nation. ‘But that means...’, I said, but got cut off by Simon. ‘Civil war. The fourth in history, the second in four years. We can’t let him do that. I’d rather an autocracy than a state plunged in disarray.’ We all agreed, and delegated Bram to say the NIC and the People’s Assembly would not support another violent insurgency – not that the non-NIC Assembly members knew anything about the situation, or that the three of us could speak on behalf of all other NIC Councillors, but we decided to just go with it. ‘Here’, I said, writing our declaration on a scrap piece of paper and signing it, ‘Plonk your signatures on this and give it to William.’
‘What do we do if he doesn’t comply?’, Bram asked.
I looked at Simon, and knew we shared the same thought.
‘We kill them.’
‘Both Artie and William.’
[b]To Be Continued.......[/b]