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Teaching an emperor is no mean feat and I had my work solidly in front of me that week. I thought to divide the classes up through the day and worked out a schedule for such that allowed leisure time in between the more serious matters. We started at seven in the morning with what I liked to think of as the natural philosophy portion.
For the first lesson, I presented him with a saucer of milk and a platter of dodecylbenzenesulfonate, commonly called liquid soap. I then demonstrated that dye drops when introduced to milk do nothing except maintain their shape sitting on top of the milk. If then a cloth dabbed in soap is introduced to the center of the milk, the dye spreads out blossoming like a flower with all the various colors mixing in bright swirls that continue to move about until the cloth is removed.
The boy thought this was interesting, but not as interesting as his sister who had made an effort to watch the lesson, dismissing her own tutor, a harried looking woman named Ambergris, to do so. I didn’t mind. I wasn’t going to begrudge her anything, but she did have more questions than the boy.
“How does it work?” she asked. “Why does the dye move?”
The Emperor commented that it was a good trick. But I addressed them as if they both had asked.
“Nobody knows the mechanism of action,” I said.
“Nobody knows?” she asked. “Brother Motley, surely with all the books in the library, one of them has to know the answer.”
“Nobody,” I repeated. “But we can surmise a few things. Do you care to take a guess? Maybe your answer will be better than all the philosophers who tried and failed to understand.”
The girl snorted. But the Emperor stood awhile in thought then said, “The dye doesn’t interact. It sits on the milk. The milk and soap must have some sort of antagonisism. The dye is… just carried?”
“Good,” I said. “I do not know if that is true. But it is a good guess. If you test your idea, then the Deity may reward you with clarity.”
“But how can nobody know?” Jeaneve persisted. “Somebody must know.”
“Knowledge is not infinite,” I said. “There are many problems that nobody knows the answer too. Why is the sky blue? How fast is a light beam? Why does the bark of the willow sooth pain, but the bark of the anesepe tree cause madness? One day you may have an insight and explain these mysteries to me.”
The girl laughed. “I doubt this, Motley.”
After the natural lesson, I gave him an hour break. It is strange to command an emperor his daily schedule, but I did it and he returned as promised and I covered a half hour of religious training by having him copy out various commentaries I’d dragged up from the library. I stopped him when the hour was almost up to give me a quick synopsis of what he’d been copying and what he thought about it.
“I didn’t understand it,” he said.
“Oh?” I asked. Since the Doctrine of Vall was no great text, I had to hide my surprise. “What about it confuses you?”
“I don’t understand if the Saints are spirits made flesh then how can they be wounded. Why doesn’t Vall perform a miracle to escape from the fire?”
“Because Vall knows that when he dies, he will ascend to the Deity. There is no reason to escape.”
“But, if his work on Earth isn’t done, wouldn’t it be wiser to escape and continue converting the Easterners?”
“The Deity called him back,” I said. “I do not know why. Perhaps he thought that Vall would be more useful as a martyr than a man. Though, pardon me, I do not mean to presume the thoughts of the Deity.”
At the week’s close, I was summoned before the Imperial Council to report on my progress. The Council, comprised of seven grave men, Lutinus among them, sat around a comfortable parlor to have their meetings. Hardly the auster and magisterial trappings one expected of the governing body of an Empire.
“Very good,” I told them. “His Majesty and often his sister are very interested in practical lessons. I showed them chemistry, great art, politics, history. But what they’re most interested in are demonstrations.”
“Practical exercises?” Lutinus asked. I heard doubt in his voice.
“Chemistry?” asked Platitu, the Treasurer. “She is not some hedge witch. She is the Imperial Mistress, the Empire’s virginal daughter.”
“She does not keep to her own lessons,” I said. “I was not under the impression that I have the authority to throw her out.”
The seven faces looked across the parlor table at me. Only Venvitii, the Commander of the Imperial Army looked distracted. His oiled hair and armored body looked odd, contrasted against the politicians in their perfumed silk robes.
“Be practical with His Imperial Majesty all you wish, Motley,” the squat Treasurer said. “But Her Lady must not be instructed in practical matters. It is not becoming to a daughter of the Empire.”
“Of course,” I said, resolving to be more careful about asides to the Council.
“This is all interesting,” the Commander said. “But we do have a problem far more serious than the education of minors.”
Lutinus did not had his scorn, nor did he even bother to dismiss me. “These heathens in the East can’t--.”
“The East?” Venvitii said. “No, I’m talking about the complete communication breakdown in our Cedonia provinces.”
I stood unsure if I should exit or remain.
“Yes,” Platitu said. “I’m afraid it’s affecting trade. No ships have come out of the oriental provinces since last week.”
Lutinus frowned. “Why was I--.”
“Our spies in the East report the rebel capital is in the grip of a terrible plague,” Venvitii interrupted. “Theodora reports that the plague has reached the northernmost point of the island territories.”
“What?” I said, forgetting my place. “Those are Imperial Territories subject to the Faith.”
“Reports are confused,” Venvitii continued, ignoring me, “but I believe we face a serious problem here. I recommend we close the port to all ships from afflicted nations.”
“No,” Lutinus said. “With the drought ongoing we need all the imports we can--.”
“If we don’t close the port, we may import a pestilence,” the Treasurer said. “It is said to spread man to man. This is only prudent.”
“Brother Motley,” Lutinus said, addressing me. “What does the Faith suggest?”
“I cannot speak for the entire Faith,” I said. “But if the pestilence is as serious as reported, we should do all things suggested. Close the ports, bar the gates, hunt the heretics, burn incense, and pray with massive public displays.”
“I agree,” said Venvitii. “This new tutor you’ve found is smart, Lutinus. I like him.”
Lutinus was outvoted. The city closed up as if for siege. The price of goods exploded. Soon bread cost five marks, and luxury items such as sugar fifteen.
Then news came from Theodora. That city was sick. Additional reports were horrifying. The Emperor himself, which was odd him being so young, called a session where the Imperial couriers from Theodora were commanded to make their reports to the throne. The boy Emperor was far more engaged in these sessions than any of his lessons. The courier, more nervous than I’d seen any man before-- and why not? THe Emperor, his sister, the Priest of the Square Temple, the City Prefect, the Commander-in-Chief all were there-- told us about Theodora.
After the chilling news, the Emperor pulled me aside.
“Brother Motley,” he said, overlarge blue eyes looking scared. “What can we do to arm ourselves against a plague?”
“I… pray,” I said. “I know no other way.”
“Nobody knows, then?” the boy asked. “Is it like in our lessons?”
“Disease is…” I said, hesitating, for I did not know how to proceed.
“... an unknown,” the Emperor said. “My parents died of fever. All the power in the world and a fever can…” he trailed off. “I’ll be in my suite.”
He stalked off.
I, not knowing what to do, headed to the docks to secure my mother.
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