“Fetch my bathrobe Belinda,” commanded Emperor Leopold. The maid approached from her position at hand, in the corner, with the bathrobe hung over her arm. She proffered it to the emperor in his ornate bathtub and retreated, turning away so as to politely shield her eyes.
Leopold rose, warm water cascading down his lean, naked form. The emperor was growing wise with age, but he felt he had kept his physique slim and fit. The maid needn’t turn away, he thought, he was proud of his body and did not shy from admiring stares.
The emperor shook himself, scattering the marble architecture of the bathroom with water droplets. He wrapped the absorbent robe around his form and, lifting one leg then the other, exited the bathtub.
“How long until the feast?” Asked Leopold.
“I’ll go inquire with the chef now Your Grace,” Belinda curtsied and scurried from the room, leaving a curling of steam in her wake.
The Emperor approached the arched window of his bathroom and gazed out across the private grounds of the castle. A verdant paradise swept before him, tended to by a multitude of gardeners. Beyond the walls of his paradise lay the lands of his domain, lived on at his acquiescence by his people.
He noticed a boy, just beyond the castle wall, pacing up and down. He suspected the beggar brat was a poacher, searching for an opening into the grounds. The guards would soon have the boy before he could do any such thing however, the emperor thought.
He left through an oaken door marked with his heraldic symbol. It was not the same door as Belinda had used, a servant’s entrance that led to a maze of corridors used by his people to traverse the castle quickly.
Beyond was an antechamber, clear of steam, designed for him to rest and recuperate in after his ablutions. Cushioned seating lined the outside of the small, curved room and the table in the centre was laden with incensed candles and a plate of succulent fruit.
Emperor Leopold seated himself, leaning back and rested as his body drip-dried. Quarter of an hour later two short knocks rang on the next door.
“Enter Samuel,” Leopold commanded. The door opened and the emperor’s personal manservant entered, dressed finely as befitted a high-class servant.
“The feast will begin on your arrival, would you care to be dressed Your Grace?” Said Samuel in clear tones.
“Yes, I think the blue satin today.”
“As you wish, Your Grace.”
Leopold rose and passed the bowing Samuel into the next room, his personal quarters. There were a few doors to this central room, one leading back to the bathroom and antechamber, another to the bedroom, one for the dressing room, his study, the special guest room and the door that led to a hallway; and beyond that the various other rooms of the castle.
The pair passed to the dressing room where two servants and a tailor made short work of clothing the emperor. Leopold was left resplendent in his finely woven fabric, the rich blue bold against the grey stone and red decorations of the castle architecture. The robes and tunic lifted his frame, squaring off his shoulders and cinching his waist to give him a more masculine and imposing figure.
Samuel retrieved Emperor Leopold’s crown from its protective cabinet and placed it on top of the emperor’s greying head. The crown, crafted in commemoration of Leopold’s ascent from king to emperor, was made of silver and gold, with a gemstone embedded in it from each of the twenty-four vassal states of his empire.
The two servants carried a full-length mirror before the emperor and awaited his nod of approval before lugging it back into the corner of the room. Dressed, the emperor dismissed the servants and bade Samuel to escort him to the great hall.
A pair of his personal guardsmen, dressed in finest livery, awaited the emperor outside the huge, oaken double doors that led to the hall. They bowed and each opened a door simultaneously.
The great hall had been under preparations for today’s feast for the past month. The floors had been waxed and the walls restored to appear brand new. The columns were sanded to a smooth finish and gold leaf plastered on them reminiscent of creeping grape vines.
The tables, for the hundreds of guests, dignitaries and nobles alike, had been positioned behind the columns, away from the central aisle, that was lined with a rich, red carpet. At the head of the hall, on a raised dais, was the emperor’s table, already heavily laden with luxuriant foods.
Emperor Leopold swept through the vast hall, attended to by a procession of servants and maids who subtly attached themselves to his entourage as he moved. The room had descended into silence at his arrival and every man and woman watched in reverent awe as he made his way to the head table. His transportable throne had been manoeuvred into the hall for this particular occasion and he sat in it, relishing the familiar comfort of the velvet cushioning.
The servants and maids dispersed to the sides of the hall inconspicuously and Samuel took his place just behind the throne, on hand. The emperor cleared his throat.
“Welcome lords, ladies, ambassadors of the many kingdoms and countries of this fair land. I am pleased you have been able to attend this banquet in honour of the subjugation of another vassal to this great empire!
“The food and drink you see before you has all been sourced from my own lands, the richest and finest food you’ll ever taste! But before we lavish ourselves on this spread I wish to formally welcome the nation of Tanaka into the ranks of the empire.”
The emperor paused at the interruption. He clicked his fingers before carrying on, a guard detached himself from the wall and headed into the audience.
“As with all components of my empire I shall honour Tanaka with a place upon my crown. Bring me the gemstone,” Leopold commanded, turning his head to the gathering of servants at the side of the head table.
A handmaiden detached herself from the group, she had been tastefully dressed in the foreign clothing of Tanakan culture, though she carried signs of being uncomfortable in the unfamiliar garb. She carried a green velvet pillow on which rested a magnificent ruby, clear cut and big enough to be clutched comfortably in the palm of a hand. As she approached the interrupting voice called out again.
“There’s no such place as Tanaka you know.”
“Who said that! I demand to know which of you defiles my banquet?” Leopold cried out with unconstrained anger.
The voice laughed. “That would be me.” Leopold looked at the gathered audience and saw a boy with his hand raised to single himself out. It was the same boy Leopold had seen from the window earlier, evidently he had climbed the wall and gained entrance to the castle. The soldiers on duty would be punished.
Guards, bring that insolent child before me,” yelled the emperor. The guards started forth but stopped when the boy moved out of the crowd and into the aisle unaccompanied.
“Don’t worry, I’ll bring myself before you, oh great one.” The sarcasm was palpable.
Leopold rose from his throne to stare down at the boy. He appeared to be a simple farmhand, his clothing fitted and did not bear the previously discarded wear of a beggar’s outfit. Yet he had dirt on his face and hands, signs of hard toil in the fields, or possibly of a traveller.
“Are you aware of whom it is you stand before?” The emperor asked.
“No, at least I don’t know anything more than what I see before me.”
Leopold chuckled, eliciting sympathetic laughter from the guests. “If you do not know who I am, than how can a simple peasant boy know of a far away place such as Tanaka? Allow me to introduce myself. I am Emperor Leopold IV, ruler of the land on which you now stand.”
“Oh forgive my ignorance my lord,” said the boy giving an exaggerated, mock bow. “But all I saw was a decrepit old man talking to himself.”
Leopold’s face flushed with rage, he clenched his fists, whitening the knuckles before barking, “Guards, seize him and throw him into the dungeon!”
Six guardsmen charged up the aisle from the entrance to the hall. They drew swords and surrounded the boy but he appeared completely unfazed by the action.
“What guards? What dungeon?” Said the boy shrugging his shoulders.
“Are you blind child? Or do you have a sincere wish to become a corpse!” Threatened Leopold. “Do you not see these armed soldiers before you? Men of my empire who would do you harm for the slightest insult to my person. Can you not see the lords and ladies who have arrived at my behest to celebrate this great empire?”
The boy shook his head. “You’re mad.”
“Me!? Mad!? It is you who cannot see what is before your very eyes! What of the food of this banquet?” Leopold gestured to the table in front of him and its gluttonous spread.
“I don’t see it.”
What about this castle, this fortress where you now stand within its sturdy walls?”
“You are a fool boy. Tell me what it is you do see then.”
The boy licked his lips and glanced around him at his audience. “There’s not much to see. We’re in an old quarry. I see stones and rock and more stones and more rock. There’s you, oh great emperor, but no one else here. You stand in front of one particularly large rock, which looks a bit like a seat, I guess,” the boy turned his head to the side as he stared at the throne.
Leopold was furious, but as the boy spoke, describing the surroundings, doubts seeped into the emperor’s mind. The people and the castle walls faded to transparency like ghostly images. Behind them a vision of the quarry and rocky landscape the boy described began to appear with staggering detail. Leopold turned to look behind him at Samuel. The manservant too was faded, revealing a standing rock in his place that carried the faint resemblance of a male figure. Leopold shook the madness from his head quickly and the castle and its inhabitants returned to their true opaque appearance.
“As for you, why you appear to be nothing but a homeless old man, half starved too and delusional to boot,” finished the boy.
“I want him killed!” Screamed the emperor.
The boy waved his hand dismissively at Leopold and walked away. He passed through a gap in the guardsman’s circle, the men slow to react, and made his way into the crowd. The guests backed away from the strange boy, women falling into hysterics and hiding behind men for protection. The boy passed out of Leopold’s sight, behind a pillar, and disappeared.
Immediately, gossiping whispers and murmurs sprang up from the gathering. Leopold collapsed back into his throne, exhausted from his outbursts. A doubt still lingered though and he turned to Samuel.
“You are real aren’t you Samuel?” He whispered.
“Of course I am Your Grace.”