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The Emperor's Backscratcher

a short story
by Anna Tambour

A long time ago in the kingdom of Ch'u, history, one day, stopped. So said the Lord High Chief Philosopher, Hwang Tu Soh, who declared that Spotted Lily - Anna Tambour's new noveleverything worth discovering had been discovered; all stories that could soothe the evening's fears and the daily boredom, written; all enemies crushed to insignificant grains of sand; and the peasants of Ch'u as stilled forever in their place as the light of darkness in the deepest well in Ch'u.

The Emperor, though godly, was surprised to be apprised of this intelligence--and pleased.

The place was the Throneroom, the time was shadowfree, and the news made the Emperor's stomach jump. How he hated the daily Conferring! But since his head had reached his father's knee, he had been forced to attend. Conferrings had always made him ill. All that advice gave him headaches and sometimes dulled his appetite. All the problems he had faced in his five years on the throne had wearied him. Which advisor gave the best advice? Whose path should he take? How could he ever sleep at night entirely free of care with all these advisors pestering him, and a frightening world outside the walls? But now, at last, a Conferring had brought him joy. While the blood of his last enemies still perfumed the air in the Chief Historian's account, the Chief Philosopher in the land now brought him news that he, the Emperor, had accomplished what no other ruler had. He had slain the biggest enemy of all: history itself, whose lifeblood was change. Now nothing ever would.

He sat for a few moments, pondering Hwang Tu Soh's pronouncement. His stomach began to tingle as it filled with joy.

"Tsioh!" A sound like the cough of a tiny bird cut the pendulous silence.

The Emperor sighed. Sometimes he wished he could just forget about the Empress. He wondered at the curse for doing away with her. Was it true?

He turned and raised an eyebrow.

The Empress was, as always, timid with him as a fox, and as beautiful. Would locking her in the Tower of Perpetual Sorrows invoke the curse?

"Dear Godly One, dear Magnificent Golden Staff, dear Emperor-Husband Whose Glow Blinds my eyes," she began, as she always did. And she leaned sideways so that her head came close to his, but not close enough. He had to lean towards her to allow her to do as she clearly intended. He leaned, heaving a bellow of a sigh.

When he was close enough, she whispered in his ear...

The assembled Lord High advisors heard nothing except their own hearts beating. They stole glances at the Lord High Chief Philosopher, who for his part, regarded the Imperial couple as an ancient father does, his lovable but dimwitted child. Not that he could actually see them as anything but magnificently coloured blobs.

While the Empress talked, the Emperor remembered, yet again, why he kept her at his side as he ruled the world. Annoyed, he waved his hand and she straightened in her chair--a painted doll again.

"So what has happened about the money?" he snapped, so loudly that pigeons exploded from the roofbeams. He examined his fingernails as he asked his question, the exact nature of which was as easy to pin down as a cup of water poured upon sand. This habit of his was extremely distressing to his counsellors--all except one. Hwang Tu Soh remembered this Emperor's father, whose skill at terrorizing with a few vague words was artistry itself.

Several Lord Highs felt their hair follicles contract, but said nothing. Had there been a theft? A fire? Had taxes not been adequately collected?

The Emperor rose slightly in his chair, turned his head with magnificent slowness, and spat. His aim was excellent.

"The paper money, the paper money," piped an UnderLord from the Treasury. "We are still looking for a solution." He spoke as if he would have liked his hand cut off rather than make that admission. Well, the hand might still be cut off.

The Godly One, Magnificent Golden Staff was not pleased. "You have had four days to find a way to make paper notes that no one can match," he pointed out, with chilling calmness. "Four days more that I am losing wealth as the counterfeiters work."

The Emperor's anger was rising fast, and now it switched direction. "Hwang!" he snarled, "What's this about history being over when this very task hasn't been carried out! When, for every counterfeiter I order flayed, more fake paper money is made in some other corner of my land?" The Emperor's voice now took on the sound of steam escaping from a kettle, as he reached a thin, high scream. "You told me to stop the loss of metal through this change to paper, and I did. For what? For you to bankrupt me?"

Hwang Tu Soh, the Lord High Chief Philosopher, stood as if deaf and blind, or turned to stone.

The Empress imitated the little bird, and the Emperor waved his hand impatiently at the same time as leaning over to hear her whisper...

Now, the Emperor was even more annoyed, but she had to be right. She always was. He turned to the Lord High Keeper of the Treasury, who had tried to hide behind a department scribe.

"Fan Fa'h!" the Emperor roared. "It was your advice. Do you covet my coins now useless in their caskets? Speak!"

The Lord High Keeper of the Treasury's eyes showed their whites like two fried eggs. A few sounds escaped his throat, but none of them were words. He was equally terrified and outraged.

The problem had started in the distant past, but by the time this Emperor's mother died and he came to the throne, the lack of fresh sources of metal had become serious. The custom of burying the coinage of Ch'u with the dead to pay officials in the Afterlife not only stole the coins from legal circulation, thereby stealing them from the Emperor, but took them out of the Emperor's hands should he want their metal for another purpose. The Palace had continuous and unpredictable needs, and it was silly to use good metal as symbols of worth, for anyone to trade in return for what they wanted. The Emperor wanted metal, and therefore, it made sense for people to trade something easily supplied and almost worthless--paper--when all the Imperial Palace had to say is: "This little piece of paper equals this much silk, or rice or meal." And the dead would have their own special death-bribes printed, too. The supply of paper was vast, mulberry trees growing wild and tame throughout the realm.

Thus, the Edict of the Coin had been declared, and all coins held by the citizens had been handed to the Palace's representatives, in exchange for the new paper money made in the Imperial Treasury's Paper Money Manufactory, two buildings of venerable age and dilapidation in the Treasury compound, only steps from the Imperial Kitchen itself.

But soon there was far more wealth in the Kingdom in paper than there ever had been in coin. The advanced state of civilization needed many artisans with superior skill--far too many in the very trades of papermaking and printing that paper money required. So every advancement that the Imperial Manufactory achieved, to make its paper stock more distinctive, the printing on its notes more elaborate--was quickly copied faithfully enough that even the Emperor's workers in the Manufactory could not tell the difference between the products of their efforts and a plethora of impostors. A locust plague of artisans had descended on the challenge of making money for themselves, and succeeded brilliantly, despite the punishments and the many inspectors roving the realm--inspectors who could well be profiting, too. The urgency of creating a counterfeit-proof note was imperative. Imperially imperative!

And now, it had been four days, or it was the fourth day? No matter. Every day was another day of theft from the Emperor, and now the UnderLord stood there like a gibbering ivory statue, saying that he still had no solution to offer.

Disgusted, the Emperor turned again to Hwang Tu Soh. "How can history have stopped," he asked, "if there is still this problem?" His molars squeaked against each other, his teeth were so tightly clenched. "How can you say, Chief Philosopher, that everything is perfect and there is nothing more to know, and nothing more will change," and here he pounded his throne, "when this most important problem is still not solved?"

He glared at the old man, who gazed back with the expression of an egg in its shell.

"Are you saying that this won't change?" the Emperor yelled. "That I'll be thieved from forever!"

The Lord High Chief Philosopher almost imperceptibly shrugged. He had been old in this Emperor's father's time. All Emperors enraged themselves over matters of little consequence.

"Dear Emperor Husband." The Empress didn't try to whisper, but used her speaking voice, as delicate as the breeze from a passing butterfly. "You know he's so forgetful, and--"

"The answer is easy," the old man said, cutting off the Empress if indeed he heard her at all. "Make a paper so special it cannot be copied."

He'd said it so simply, as if he were above all, bored, that the Emperor raised his own hands to clap them in unbounded glee--and stopped. The Treasury's people would have discounted that already. There were no rare trees in the Palace grounds from which paper could be made. Everything, in fact, used to make the Emperor's money came from outside the Palace, and was plentiful, even the pigments. So was the old man trying to talk in riddles? The Lord High Chief Philosopher was a trying character, but this Emperor's father had instilled respect for the man, so the Emperor stilled his anger as he remembered: Hwang Tu Soh is the Chief Philosopher, and though his body is earthly, his mind is in the clouds, it is so superior.

"And how," the Emperor asked, with impatient patience, "do you advise us to make our money paper of such incomparable uniquity that it cannot be copied?"

"By including in the wood mash, the macerated hearts of all the Royal Writers and their attendant scribes. They are no more wanted, as we know everything that can be known, and have written everything that can be written, including every story that can ever be. And the Royal Historian, after he records today's events, which mark the end of history."

The Emperor expelled a great sigh. This little wizened man had again proved why he'd been the Lord High Chief Philosopher for forty years. Against his brilliance, his forgetfulness was a gnat to a dragon.

The Emperor approved the plan instantly, and the Emperor's Guard escorted what amounted to a quarter of the assembled away, and seized the rest of the required from their chambers in the vast Palace complex.

The plan was carried out exactly as advised, but a little more so, because after a little something in his stomach and a little sleep in the afternoon, the Emperor woke gloriously refreshed, and in that state of restfulness and active mind saw almost blindingly, the glow of glorious freedom that the end of history had brought.

No more need for daily Conferrings, for everything was fixed. There would be no more strife, no need to counteract, no more subterfuge, no more thieving of his riches, no more war (which gladdened him because war wearied him), for he'd vanquished all his enemies. There would be no need to refer to history books, or science, or philosophy, no need to read books at all. So the magnificent bindings of the Palace's library could become the stuff of jewellery and furniture, and collars for his menagerie of boars and peacocks and fish. And there would be no more need for advice.

So he issued the Very Last Edict of History, a little after the fact of its End, but in terms of history, only a moment late--a gnat.

His edict improved on the Lord High Chief Philosopher's advice. To the pulp mash used for the Emperor's counterfeit-proof money, the Emperor ordered added: all books and learned works, and all the macerated hearts of all of the advisors in the Imperial Kingdom, including and especially Hwang Tu Soh's--to add incomparable uniquity to the mash and because there was no further need of them.

The bodies of all those whose hearts were used, except one, were donated to the citizens for their pigs to fatten upon. The Lord High Chief Philosopher's bodyflesh was cut into little strips and dried as treats for the Emperor's menagerie, and the long philosophical fingernails were mounted on the end of an ivory stick as the Emperor's backscratcher, for remembrance.

When the macerated pulp contained everything ordered in the Edict, the next parts of the royal command were carried out. The Treasury's Paper Manufactory produced the special paper in one huge, irreproducible batch--making enough paper stock for all the money that the Kingdom would ever need. Then the Treasury's Printery printed all that paper, and sliced it into many thousands of pieces, and with that last task, the pieces became money. Then the workers destroyed all the equipment they had used to produce the money, according to their orders (an afterthought of the Emperor's, not in the Edict), and then (another afterthought) the workers were destroyed by the Emperor's Guard, according to its orders. And then the Emperor handed the Very Last Edict itself to Thunder, his favourite tusked boar, who relished it.

After history stopped, the Emperor could do anything. The Palace was bared of all but his servants and slavegirls and Guard. Because he could do anything, the Emperor watched his peacocks strut and cry, dallied with Thunder, teased his hawks, and fed his carp. He slept whenever he wanted to, which was very much, and he ate with the same abandon. He was delighted not to have to concern himself with the past any more, but even more excellently delighted not to have to concern himself with anything outside the Palace grounds. So, for instance, though he never disbanded the Imperial Army, it wasn't because he thought he might need them. It was because they didn't matter any more, so he just stopped paying them. Whether they knew that history was over was not his concern. They'd learn soon enough and adjust, as he had.

Day followed day, for a week, or maybe as much as two. Exactly how long, the Emperor didn't know, and was relieved not to have to care. All the calendars had been destroyed as unnecessary, and he had never needed to look at the moon. The Empress couldn't tell him. After all, she'd been his most intimate advisor. Regarding the decision to include her in the mash, the Emperor had wavered weakly briefly, but in the moment of wrenching himself free of superstition, he felt old Hwang's spirit of approval warm him as the long fingernails scratched his back.

As for all that new, uncounterfeitable money, the Very Last Edict had decreed that all old money had to be handed in to the Imperial Collectors (some of the Emperor's Guard) and was worthless for trade otherwise, and the Collectors would calculate oldworth and hand out the new notes in return, and anyone caught using old money for any other purpose would be paid in death. That was last part of the Very Last Edict, but after the Emperor visited the Treasury's most important room and saw all the stacks of new notes, pillared from floor to roofbeams, he was loathe to part with this precious wealth, minted at so vast a price. So he commanded his Guard to guard it and not to let any out.

So when the people of the Kingdom handed in their oldworth paper money (as they had once done, their coins), they were handed notes in return, which said, "By Imperial Decree" and nothing more. They looked so official that, since most people could not read, they couldn't tell that there was no value whatsoever to the notes they now owned. But soon enough, within days, the message got around. Your old money is worthless and you won't get any new. Old money was therefore used to cook with and to stuff in mattresses or in draughty cracks. The new money was an egg, traded for a piece of wood, a pig's foot for a cup, a horn for a jug of milk. And for those with nothing to trade, a grumbling belly for an answering grumble from the lips. And the army traded blows and death for anything they could get their hands on.

Since the Emperor's accounts were all on long-term credit, his money lay untouched, its incomparable smell delighting the Imperial Nostrils in his daily visit to his hoard.

One day perhaps three weeks past history, a woman slipped into the army's garrison and asked to see the Commander there. The soldiers who hadn't deserted gave her a knowing leer. She was delicate as a little bird under all that grime. She was, however, escorted to the Commander, more out of amusement than any other reason. He, however, wanted nothing of this whore, till she lifted her filthy hair and pushed the rags of her garment down her back till her shoulderblades were exposed.

Instantly, the Commander threw himself to the ground. This woman bore the Imperial Tattoo. Only the Palace tattooist had those pigments--and his heart had gone into the mash, along with his pigments for good measure. This woman's heart beat strong, and though the Commander had heard she had been slain by Imperial order, His order must have been weaker than Her something in the hand, and vanquished in the expectancy of more to come.

The Commander's prostration was partly the result of the plan he had just been working on, on a scrap of bark on the table top. The Empress glanced at it.

"There is an easier way," she said, her commanding voice belying her delicate form. "You may rise."

And so the garrison, what was left of it, marched, one by one, like a band of thieves, and entered the secret passage that the Empress told them about, and the Commander knocked the special knock on the thick wooden door at the end, and furthermore, said the secret code word and delivered the message of deliverance to the Empress' faithfully bribed retainers--and slew the Emperor's Guard who were all sleeping because the Emperor was, had a merry time with all the slave girls and the cooks, and remembering their allegiance (the Commander was a commander, he knew in his heart--no ruler) marched out of the Palace Gate with the Imperial palanquin and returned with the beggarwhore in style. And in the midst of all this, they of course, slew the Emperor. And also, in the midst of this, though the blood that flowed of the Guards and such was very much and very wet, somehow the Treasury room in which the pillars of money were stored was quite dry. Dry as tinder, which the money resembled as it caught fire, and burned with a unique stench, till all it was, was commonplace ash.

And later that day, the menagerie entertained the Commander and his troops as a magnificent feast.

Thus, like a gong that has been silent but is hit again, that which had stopped, started again, resoundingly. The sounds of it reached the Palace's outer walls and beyond, where the townsfolk had gathered, listening to the sounds within. When the Palace Gate opened enough for a body to be thrown out and then shut, a few brave souls approached. Its heart looked the same as theirs. Although it was naked, they recognized it as the Emperor from the peculiar hair, and the legendary fat. As more townsfolk gathered, peasants who had come in from the countryside joined them, watching as His Imperial Godliness was fought over by two sows.

Crowds formed. The Palace owed them all, and all the soldiers, now inside those gates, were thieves ... But there weren't as many soldiers as there were townspeople and peasants ...

And so history, from that point, raced madly, like a horse kicked at the starting gate.

And that state of madness lasted for a while, but how long is unknown. It is said by some, though I cannot prove it, that in the peak of the best time in Chu's history for its pigs and some of its citizens, a warrior army raced down from the north, surprising pigs and citizens alike, slaying as many as the visitors could pack into a few days of unbridled joy. And as this horde lived on horseback and valued no sleep nor stillness, they used their time in the Kingdom to destroy its very trace.

And so, for Ch'u, history ended, as Hwang Tu Soh had declared. And it ended so completely that it is debatable whether it ever began. As for the Lord High Chief Philosopher, his accuracy was a little faulty, to be sure, but as he often said, a little time is of little consequence.

© Anna Tambour 2005.
This story is published here for the first time.

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