Background music of this story is Nick Cave’s Loverman and “Mercy seat”.
It is November. Trees are already wearing autumn uniforms. Red, yellow and brown leaves are rustling under empress’ feet. Her royal company was commanded to walk 100 meters behind her. She forbid them to make any sound. If they wanted to talk, they could have stayed in a mansion. Since they chose to go for a walk, they better be quiet as mice. As expected for this time of the year, it was pretty cold. Seeing her own breath in the air convinced her she is alive. Even though she wore brown hood to keep her warm, wind managed to find a way to kiss the back of her neck while whipping her cheeks. Leaves were rustling with every step she made, in the same rhythm as the wind was whispering to her ears,
She did hear a horse behind her but she chose to listen to the whispers of the nature. They were as heady as boiled wine in the winter is. She recognized him by the noise he made while walking. It was her politics counselor. She really didn’t care about the politics but she was wise enough to know she needs someone she can trust on this position so she appointed the only one apt for this job. He was her father’s friend from the times he was a student on a prestigious university. Her father was interested in economics and his friend in politics. Hmmmm…it is really interesting that in all of the stories she heard as a child, but as a grown woman too, whoever was studying on a university, he was studying on a prestigious university. Universities in the story are rarely non-prestigious. Again one of the nonsense of the world we are living in.
“Principessa! Wait up!”
“Call me Empress, I am a grown woman now. How did you know I was here?”
He took a bag of roasted chestnuts out of his pocket. The smell of it completed the autumn memory she wanted to enjoy in during cold winter days.
“I know you well. You usually spend the whole year longing for these autumn walks around the lake.”
Both of them were stripping chestnuts of their shells and eating them like they used to when she was a small girl. Those walks were fun, educating and a warm memory to her childhood. He wasn’t joking and laughing now like he did back then. Something bad must had happened since he rode personally all the way up here with a bag of roasted chestnuts in his pocket. No, roasted chestnuts were probably a gift for her. He wanted to complete her autumn memory in a best way he knew how. Her counselor was worried about something but he was polite enough to wait until she is ready to hear the reason he came to see her.
It was when they sat on the bench next to the lake when he told her. She was chewing the last chestnut and was watching small thin fragile layer of the ice floating in the middle of the lake.
“Your husband was attacked. His personal servant tried to stab him during his midday rest. The emperor is alright, servant missed his heart by three centimeters. ”
“Will my husband be OK?”
“Yes, the wound is almost superficial, you know how agile your husband is, he managed to redirect most of his servant’s strength.”
“Where is the servant now?”
“In the dungeon, waiting for your husband’s decision about his life.”
“Go before me and command my personal guards to protect the servant from other guards’ beating. Don’t worry about my command being contradictory to my husband’s, you will learn he came to the same conclusion as I did. Go now!”
He stood up immediately, bowed discretely and left as fast as he could. She stood up too, but much slower than him. She walked slowly to her carriage. The sound of the nature was getting louder and louder. Even in her carriage she could hear the whispers merging with the sound of the horses’ hooves and wheels gurgling
They were in the city when a child fell on the street in front of the horses. Coachman managed to stop the horses in the last moment. He was helping the boy to stand up when she got to them. Boy’s father was standing on a sidewalk yelling at the kid.
“What is this?”, the empress asked the man.
When he saw her, he took off his dirty old hat and bowed as deep and as graceful as he could. It must have been hard to bow his head in front of a woman but at least he knew how to do it.
“Forgive him your royalty, this clumsy boy was running away from me. I caught him stealing half of my lunch and tried to beat some sense in him.”
“Child limps, he got injured!”, said the empress and wiped the tears off of boy’s cheeks. This made nature whispers go away. She even smiled to the child.
“Oh, no, ma’am. The boy, he limps since he broke his leg.”
“How did that happen? What did you do to him?”
“I didn’t, it happened before I came here ma’am. I married his mother after his father died of the black disease.”
Child was calm now, afraid of his stepfather’s rage.
“Where is his mother now?”
“She went to visit her mother four months ago. She seemed to be at death’s door but it seems the old witch will live forever. She left the boy here to help me but he is a pest if you ask me! All he wants is to read his damn books books books books…that little work I ask him to do…he cost me more than he is worth!”
Child seemed immune to this man’s words, he has been hearing them for almost his whole life. The empress squatted in front of the child.
“How did you learn to read boy?”
“Father taught me, ma’am, he worked as a desk clerk in a harbor during the trading season.”
“How old are you?”
“Please, bring me your favorite book, I would like to know what occupies your mind.”
When the child limped away, she turned to the coachman and lowered her voice.
“Find out what he is doing for living now, offer him a job in the dungeons in exchange for this child. He can tell to his wife that the child ran away from home, I really don’t care what he will tell her.”
She went to meet the boy on his doorstep. He brought a picture book. It was about horses. He drew inner organs on the pictures of the horses. His stepfather was taking him to work to help him clean slaughterhouses. This is where the child gained the knowledge to enrich the pictures.
Again she squatted in front of the child, she needed to have his eyes on the same level as hers.
“Would you like to come with me right now? I can take you away from this stepfather.”
“Yes…but, ma’am, I don’t want to leave my mother.”
“Your mother is not here right now. She has been absent for a long time.”
“Ma’am, she will come back, I know she will come back. She would never leave me with him if my grandmother wasn’t ill. She wouldn’t ma’am.”
“You may not survive long enough to see her get back.”
Tears were running down his cheeks like silent witnesses of this boy’s pain. She stood up and offered him her hand. Child took it and she led him to her carriage. Man was relieved to get rid of the child and happy to get a job in dungeons. Working there is hard, but it brings food on the table regularly. By the time they reached the mansion, boy fell asleep in her arms. It was a combination of a near death experience, crying and vibrations of a carriage. First thing the empress did when they got into the mansion, was to go into her old governess’ room. She woke the child up and explained to him that this woman will take care of him until the next time they meet.
“I trusted her with my own life and now I trust her with yours.”
Boy was frightened but the lady knew how to make him relaxed. Within an hour he was already in a warm bed, fed and bathed, listening to a goodnight story.
The empress then went to see her husband’s servant. She needed a name. When she entered his cell, he didn’t know what to expect.
“Skip the greetings and tell me his name. It was a he wasn’t it? Or maybe a she?”
“Ma’am, it was my own will.”
“No, it wasn’t. If it was your own will, my husband would be dead. You were a butcher, you know how to kill an animal. I expect killing a human is not much different than killing an animal.”
“The emperor was agile enough to deflect my blow.”
“He may be agile but a combination of the element of surprise and your strength cannot be beaten. Now, tell me the name. Who made you do it?”
“No one ma’am, it was me, only me.”
“We will make an example of you and your family, the whole country will know how we punish assassins and their families.”
“Oh, ma’am, please spare my family, do whatever you want to me, but please spare them. They got nothing to do with what I did. It was my own doing. Let me suffer for it.”
“Like I said, the whole country will know how we treat assassins and their families. The whole country will know you and your family are dead. That is, they will know what we tell them.”
She gave him a moment to understand her words.
“Oh ma’am, can you do that? Can you really do that?”
“I do not know who is the mastermind behind it all. ”
“Who approached you?”
“It was a peasant ma’am. The one that brings fresh milk every day to your mansion. He told me they will kill my family if I don’t do what they say.”
“Who are they?”
“He didn’t tell me but he was afraid of them too.”
She got out of his cell and ordered to her personal servant: “Follow the blood trail until you find the principal.”
Stepfather came to apply for the service tomorrow morning. He wasn’t rested, he didn’t sleep well, the autumn cold got to him. His job on the first day was to clean the prison cells of prisoner’s defecation. By the evening vomiting emptied his stomach. The next day he skipped the breakfast and avoided most of the vomiting. The third day he was assigned to clean only one room in the dungeons. It was the innermost room of the dungeons with no windows and a single table in the middle of it. The light there was strong. Those were not the usual candles. He never saw anything like that. When they were lit, the room was full of light, like a meadow at noon.
This time he wasn’t cleaning prisoner’s defecation. He was washing the blood of the walls, floor and that table in the middle of the room. Skipping breakfast didn’t help to avoid the vomiting. He could ignore the blood, the screams of the people that were bleeding there he could not.
There was this prisoner that was entering that room for the last two days. He felt sorry for the man. In those few days he got 10 years older and that blood, stepfather didn’t know a person has so much blood in his vessels.
“You should tell them what they want. They will stop then, trust me, they will.” he told him in the dusk of the second day while he mopped the blood underneath him.
In the dusk of the third day the empress came. Stepfather knelt in front of her, begging for that man’s life or death.
“Ma’am, please, have mercy for this poor man. He has suffered a lot for the last three days, please let him be, he cannot handle it anymore.”
“Don’t worry, this will be the last interrogation. I will either break him or somebody for him.”
She opened the door and a child got out. Child was limping with a blindfold over his eyes. Something bit stepfather’s heart but it wasn’t a good moment to think about it so he ignored it. The empress took a child in her arms. Child’s arms were around her neck, his cheeks firmly pressed to the empress’. When the room door opened, stench of dried blood hit everyone’s nostrils. Child got upset but the empress whispered something comforting into his ear and calmed him down.
Something else entered the hallway when the door opened. It was that bright light and stepfather could now see the child’s face.
“Noooo, not my child, let my child go!”
“Oh, you are concerned for the boy’s well being now, how kind of you to come to support him.”, said the empress. Child smiled. The sound of a familiar voice gave him strength. As the door behind him closed, he said to the empress:
“My stepfather came, he cares about me. See, ma’am, I told you they love me. I knew they love me all along.”
A guard behind him grabbed stepfather and covered his mouth whispering: “If you don’t stop yelling, it will be harder for the boy to go through what lays before him. You gave him to us without asking what will we do to him. Now suffer the consequences.”
Stepfather was trying to stop the sobbing so he can hear what is going on in the room. He heard bones crashing and child screaming. There was empress’ voice too, she was singing to him but the boy didn’t stop crying. More bones crashed and more screams ripped the silence.
“For god’s sake, tell them what they want to know! How much longer does he have to suffer?”, stepfather yelled to the door.
There was no answer, only more screaming, and more bones crashing, and more singing. He fell on his knees broken and helpless. He was blubbering
Screaming stopped. There was no crying either. The door opened and the guard pulled him away from the door. Prisoner was led out of the room and left standing in the hallway. His mouth was bleeding.
“Where is my son, what did they do to him? Tell me!”
Prisoner was just standing there, staring at stepfather. His cheeks were wet. That wasn’t blood, those were the tears. Through the open door he could see child’s body on the table. They covered him with a white sheet. The interrogator took his body out of the room. The empress was right behind him, smiling. Stepfather was held by the guard. His mouth was covered again while the guard whispered:
“You didn’t love him while you had him, you cannot pretend you love him now that he is not yours to love anymore.”
When they all left the room, stepfather stepped in to clean it up. All that blood, screws, screwdrivers, hammers of all sizes and shapes. Stepfather made it all go away, disappear. He thought he owes that to the child. At least that, when he failed him on all other accounts.
That night he left his work place as a ghost. The burden was too heavy for him. He didn’t leave alone though. Somebody was following him. A fragile little shadow was curious to see where is he heading to. He managed somehow to get to his house. On a doorstep he heard a carriage passing by. Stepfather turned and stepped on the street. Maybe he should end his life the way he wanted to end his son’s life. On the other side of the street he saw her smiling, her right eyebrow was raised as if she is challenging him to take one more step. He stopped but the horses were already neighing and the carriage was on him. Last thing he saw was her. Her soft lips were revealing her teeth while she was biting the tip of her right hand forefinger. She was smiling.
Stepfather’s funeral took place a few days after the suicide. Not many people came. Rather, there were only two. One was a woman wearing mansion maid uniform. The other one was a child in a wheelchair. Child had screws in his leg and tears on his cheeks.
“Shed no more tears for this person. He wasn’t a man I thought and needed him to be after your father died. Forget about him and smile, my love, for you will be running in the schoolyard next autumn.”