‘Is it that bad?’
‘Oh.’ The emperor stared deep into his aviary. Birds he almost understood, in as much as an emperor needed to understand anything. After all, he had advisors for that sort of thing. But people, he did not understand people. He glanced up at the chancellor. ‘Why are they revolting?’
The emperor could see that the chancellor was struggling to make sense of it himself. The chancellor turned to the soldier in the ragged uniform with the soot marks – and what looked like dried blood – across his breastplate. The emperor didn’t often – if at all – see soldier’s breastplates he couldn’t see his own reflection in.
The soldier stepped forward, not looking at either the chancellor or the emperor in that way soldiers have of not seeing anyone in command above them, often for good reason.
‘Do you know why they are revolting?’ The chancellor said to the soldier. The chancellor sniffed discreetly.
‘They are starving, my lord.’
‘Oh,’ the emperor stepped forward himself, face to face with the soldier. ‘Why are they starving?’ The emperor had been hungry himself, several times, especially when state occasions delayed the meal. He had some sympathy with his people now. ‘So why don’t they get some food then?’
‘The harvest was bad this year, Sire, the drought, then the floods.’
The emperor remembered the harvest. It was something picturesque that happened out in the fields beyond the city walls. Something that involved lusty wenches singing and young men stripped to the waist toiling hard so the sweat beaded on their tanned….
‘Can’t they buy food from the rest of the empire?’ The chancellor knew about some taxes that came in from the transportation of foodstuffs at the city gates and on the dock. He had tax gatherers, and they were good at their jobs.
‘The people are poor, my lord.’ The soldier looked as though he was about to say something else.
The emperor and the chancellor waited, but the only sound was the chirping of the birds in the aviary. The emperor knew the birds were waiting to be fed, but it did seem… unpolitic to feed the birds while his capital city was starving. He’d wait until this meeting was over.
‘I don’t recognise you, captain. What is your family?’ The chancellor said.
The emperor turned back, away from his birds. He knew the chancellor prided himself on his knowledge of the great families of the Golden Empire, their political connections, how much they were all worth and which of their sons had paid exactly how much for their military commissions.
‘I don’t have a family,’ the soldier replied. ‘I rose up through the ranks.’
The emperor and the chancellor both took a step back, as though ordinariness was contagious. The chancellor sniffed again and wiped his nose with his scented kerchief.
‘Can you stop it?’ The emperor said.
‘Stop what, Sire?’
‘Only with massive loss of life on both sides, Sire, and a lot of anger, destruction and blood.’
‘A significant loss of life?’ The chancellor edged the emperor out of the captain’s earshot.
‘A significant loss of life.’ The emperor shook his head sadly. These were his people.
‘It would mean there would be more food to go around.’
‘Chancellor, I’m shocked. Are you suggesting…?’
‘It is most likely that it is the troublemakers themselves who would die… at first, anyway.’
The emperor turned back to the captain. ‘Captain?’
‘Quell the riot with all necessary force. Understand?’
The captain looked down at his feet, clutching his dented helmet so tight his knuckles turned white. ‘Yes, Sire.’
He turned and left, soon followed by the chancellor.
The emperor returned to his aviary to feed his birds.