Volume 1 Number 1


Winter 2002

The Fall

Asher Black

I know they can't let me live. Not after what I've seen. Not after that day. Not now, now that I'm so close. They'll be coming for me, probably tonight. Maybe in the morning. When I think of it, I can't decide if they'll choose secrecy and do it in the night... an accident, or so it will seem. It'll have to be a convincing one. Walking too near the edge of the parapets... a late night stroll. And I'll fall over the edge. There will be strong liquor on my clothes. I'll have complained of being tired, overworked. I'll have felt under the weather lately, which fits with not having been seen in public these last two days. Or perhaps in the morning, they'll march me out under the sun, that same sun, under which I saw... and they'll call me a criminal... say that I've been found guilty of treason, that I plotted against my lord... against that thing. They'll put me out on the scaffold, and give me to the axe, and the headman will ask me to forgive him...

Or they might do something worse. There are ways to make a sane man mad... ways of damaging a man. And then what I've seen will be just a delusion. Even I will believe that I have been mad for some time. Or perhaps, when they're done with me, I won't even know... whether I know the truth... whether there is any truth... it's hard to write like this... hard with a blinded eye... hard to use one's own urine... hard to put it into the pages of holy writ... begged from a friar, granted as a last request... a man from the country who doesn't even know who I am, only that I am here for some crime... he wanted me to confess, and I confessed all my sins, all my many sins, though since then I have remembered some more and wish dearly now that I had thought of them in his presence. I was nervous. Nothing can prepare someone for this. For the beatings from the guards. For the rats, my brethren in this cage. In this tomb from which I will rise tomorrow a dead man. Ah, perhaps even you will think I'm mad, if I ramble like this. See the unsteady hand. See how it shudders. I can't eat the food. It's not food as you might think of it. The piss or the rats or the pages of this book would be better nourishment. I'm rambling. Like a madman, indeed.

So, I had best get to the point.

The throng was not a happy one. No matter what they say, for fear. For dread. Most of us were beaten or threatened or just too willing to believe that we were privileged to attend his little parade. And they didn't come through the stalls where there was barely enough fish left to sell rather than for the stallkeep to give to his own hungry family. No fruit. That hadn't come in years, except for horse apples. There were some bug-eaten turnips. Some greens. The occasional basket of toads. Meat that smelled good, you knew was rat meat. And it wasn't uncommon to see an old grandmaiden happy to have gotten a few centipedes or crickets for too high a price before her competition gladly made off with it.

They certainly didn't go beyond the walls, either. There was the risk of disease. Those that didn't come into the walls for this and weren't there with something to trade, or a few coppers, were either spending the last of their strength digging in the rotten soil, hobbling about from malnourishment or festering in their tents with disease. Even the petty landlords were little better off. There's only so much you can collect from tenants and squatters before you kill them. Even if you're starving.

Are you surprised that I have letters, that I can put down learned words? I was a landlord's son. I was educated in the Church. I had been an altar boy once, when there was something left in pockets to give to God. Before they sent us away, and a lonely old priest said the Mass for widows and blind men and those that had no warmer shelter than a few hours in God's house could provide.

But it was two years before the old King died and the young prince declared himself Emperor of all he surveys. Two years, and lost parents, and nothing for it but to use my cursed intelligence and damned curiosity to survive within the walls. Yes, I'm still a boy, as they count boyhood. I wasn't very big to begin with, and I'm smaller now. And if you were to look at me, I'd stand only chest high to a man, if I could still stand without wobbling and losing my balance.

They've done this to me. He has. This prince who became an emperor. This thing that isn't human. Yes, I sound mad, but I saw.

In the end they plowed a new road for His Magnificence. The soldiers tore down, but not without looting either, all the stalls on the East side of the market. They made a path fitting greatness. They made it smooth. They made the stallkeeps clear away "the trash", by which they meant anything the soldiers didn't want, couldn't use or sell, wouldn't eat... anything spilled on the ground that was not picked up by men in armor with an imperial standard.

And then... a fortnight ago, under the brightest sun, he came. Until then, I don't think anyone but his father's closest advisors and personal guard had actually seen him up close. And most of the advisors weren't around to tell. But he came, and I swear to you they were all blind.

They bowed and they murmured and they cheered. He was dressed very fine. A suit of snakeskins. A mask... the head of a giant snake. Glistening in the sun, moist... they said it was the finest silk. A remarkable illusion. A visage and a coat worthy of an emperor. I swear that as many bowed in awe and some sort of pride at being ruled by a man so magnificently arrayed as out of fear or reverence for the potentate.

The imperial banner was a snake wrapped around a sword. The helmets of the soldiers were serpent-like. The royal fool had a large snake, the kind that can crush a man and devour him, and was dancing with it at the head of their line. The Prince cum Emperor and his entourage were truly awesome in appearance.

The procession stopped and the soldiers signalled for silence, and the Emperor asked what we thought of his new clothes. He didn't ask it himself, but rather his slave did. His mouthpiece. His herald. He asked what we thought of the new attire, and of course we all cheered. The soldiers glanced about in case anyone was not cheering. I confess, I cheered too. What of it? It was all I could do at the time. It was all I should have done. Among the soldiers were two men, finely dressed, strangely pale... foreigners. They were were dressed outlandishly, and there were serpents tatooed on their foreheads. It would have been an insult to His Supremity to have paid them any attention for all that, but then at a sweeping gesture from the herald, a bit of his particular art of showmanship, all eyes were upon them. All but mine.

These were the imperial tailors, the herald said. These were the designers of the imperial robes, of the mask. These men were to be greatly honored. But I wasn't looking at them. I was still looking at the emperor. And I was thinking. Foolishly, I was thinking how warm the emperor's clothes must be. My own rags didn't suffice to keep me properly covered, often enough. Here was the emperor, not only with new clothes but with such warm ones. Fitted out in a suit from head to toe. Well, you couldn't see his toes. They bore him in a kind of device that only allowed a view from the waist up... from what one assumed was his waist.

And that's when I saw it. It was only the barest flicker, but I saw it. The herald was still talking about the great honor bestowed upon the two fine craftsman, when I saw the emperor's tongue. For just the smallest moment, it darted from his mouth, a tiny fork at the tip of it. And I knew. Somehow, looking at him, the perfect seamlessness of his apparel, the moistness of him, how he glistened, the odd way his eyes seemed to shine in the daylight...

And I shouted. The most foolish act of all foolish acts in my boyhood. No prank, no petty theft, nothing could compare with the utter unwisdom of having uttered in that high voice,louder than the breathing and murmuring of the throng, exceeding that of the herald, "The emperor does not wear clothes!"

I saw him whisper to a guard, and before I knew it I was carried on that guard's shoulder as the praises for the tailors abruptly and prematurely ended. Faces smiled at me, and older folk commented on how "cute" it was that I had made such an easy mistake. One or two of the clerics stroked their beards, wondering, I think, whether there were any profound wisdom in what I'd said. Perhaps some double meaning, for which I was being so honored.

But there was no wisdom in it. If only I had kept silent.

It was announced that I would be an imperial page. I was given new clothes, wine to drink, real food, and the run of the palace within the castle. Most of it. I thought it odd, as a page, that I was never actually called into the presence of the emperor, since I had quite by then forgotten any nonsense about monsters. I put it down to my imagination. Hadn't mother always said I was a queer one for daydreaming. I had been famished, dazed by the sun and short of breath from the crowd. Caught up in the excitement.

I adjusted very quickly to my new surroundings. Especially being fed. Whatever meat it was they gave me was splendid. It had been boiled 'til it fell from the bone, and tasted of heavy brine and vegetables. And if in my dreams I slept a little fitfully... nightmares about being in a bed filled with snakes, I forgot that by morning and, having no duties imposed upon me, and no chores, spent my time running and playing around the parapets. As high as I could go. And eating. And drinking wine.

I wonder if the meat will fall from my bones. I wonder if I will taste like salt.

They put it out that I was honored by the His Supreme Effulgence. That I was an example for other boys, though I never got to play with any of them again, and the soldiers regarded me with a cold tolerance. They said I was wise beyond my years. And then... I was forgotten. People had enough to think about with trying to find enough to eat and stay warm. I've worked it out since then. I got tired of the heights and had the irresistable urge to wander below the castle. I knew there were dungeons, like this one. I knew there were things best left undisturbed. Rooms, like those below any castle, where unwholesome things occur. And that was part of the attraction.

When I found the catacombs, as they are called... they are not, they're tunnels... I did something else foolish. I went there every day. I made my absence obvious. No one hindered me. One is not prevented from going down. It's only coming up that one encounters a direct, searching glance from a guard. But I was the imperial page, so I was never barred or questioned.

I found that the tunnels went beyond the castle. They went even beyond the walls. And they stank. The soil was blackened and oozing. Barely large enough for me to crawl through. It could have been the abode of dwarves. But these were snake tunnels, I knew. And I knew then why the soil festered and produced nothing these days but sparse and rotten crops.

I should have escaped then, and reported what I knew... but to whom? Believe me, I considered it... considered going to the priest. But I had never tried to leave the castle. And the tunnels didn't show me an exit. By then, in fact, I was so comfortable that I wasn't really afraid. With something to explore, you might even say I was happy.

And then, as I lie in my dreams in a bed of snakes, writhing and sighing in my sleep, they came for me. They were rough. The guards treated me like any other prisoner. I think it must be a rule that prisoners are beaten before they are thrown into a hole like this one. That's how my eye got damaged. And since then, I've had only thought for the irony of it. I was called wise, but I wasn't wise. I was the held aloft in humility, and I took pride. I have been comfortable, at the expense of a weary and suffering people.

I understand they are even composing a story about me, up there. I overhead one of the guards say it. Something to be remembered in place of the real reason for my death. A boast in place of a lament.

No, I did not confess everything to the friar. The sins I have committed were greed, loving my life above honor, and pride. Pride in what I hadn't earned. Pride for having spoken when others were silent. Pride for seeing what others did not see. Tell him, if you could be so kind. Tell the friar for me. I've no one to confess to now but you. And I hear sharp steps clacking down the stone stairs. So, it's to be night and a fall from the heights after all.