The Majestic Exculpation

by Amalasuntha

“The trouble with me is…”

And then he dies.  And, and I’ve spent so long telling people what he said as his parting gift to us remaining that I can say it to myself backwards and it still makes sense to me.  Well, I didn’t know what to do, I mean every Royal has Exculpation before they transcend, it’s traditional.  And, and, and because the messenger was late getting to the High Clerics Quarters, and the High Cleric wasn’t in, and only I was and I panicked, couldn’t find the book at first.  The Majestic Exculpation, the Gold Book?  I knew where it was supposed to be, but I’d never written in it before.  I mean it’s not every day that you catch the last breath and record the messages of royalty as they pass over.  Found it in the back, by the… never mind, you want to know why right?  I grabbed the bag, book and coins and left with the messenger.  He couldn’t wait, you see?  I guess no-one could.  The royal carriage took us there, speeding through the streets and tipping round corners.  Stopped all the traffic on the Street of Bells, never seen it so quiet.  There had been some kind of accident on the corner, I know because suddenly we were going down Ladystreet the wrong way.  The cobbles bounced me off the seat and the candles all spilled onto the carriage floor from my bag.  I spent most of the remainder of the journey collecting them back up again and checking I had the chain of office on the right way round.  Once we stopped, I felt sick, though whether it was from the imminent situation or from speeding most of a fast carriage journey on my knees I couldn’t tell you.

I guess I am really.  You’re right; dignity should prevail at a time like this.  You just need to know why.  Well, when we got to the First Gate of the Royal Enclosure no-one stopped me; I mean I’d been in training for three years right?  Time enough to learn the most important of duties.  I had the chain of office on, the right way round I might add and the High Cleric was sure to catch up, he would hear about it and come running.  They would have scoured the city for him.  I wouldn’t end up there on my own.  The carriage door was opened and a Steward was waiting to escort me to the second gate.  The whole courtyard was deathly quiet.  I could sense people watching from the windows, but there was no time to do more than register pale faces through the glass as we rushed past.  The Steward set a fierce pace, she was reciting all the rules and regulations, but to be honest, I was so nervous they went in and out just as quickly.  By the time we got to the Third Gate I was out of breath and sweating, and she just wasn’t.  It’s strange what you notice.  I can remember the exact colour of her crested tabard and the loose thread floating on the breeze, but not the instructions she was earnestly imparting to me as she must have done to more important guests a thousand times before.

She stopped at the Third Gate and two Kingsguard took over.  They said nothing, which made me feel worse.  I had never been this far into the Enclosure before; I guess they didn’t know that.  They led me up and up, past columns and courtyards and banners and walls, everything quiet.  I guess the whole place knew by then: the King was dying and they had sent for the High Cleric to perform Exculpation.  Our Beloved Ruler, who had held the country together for twenty years of peace and prosperity, expending borders, growing trade connections and creating a wealth of economy through sheer force of personality.

And then suddenly we were at the doors of the Royal Chambers.  It struck me then that there was no music, no laughter and no singing.   No sound of any kind.  No bells no wailing and no prayer.  I wasn’t too late.  The doors to that chamber I will never forget; great painted plaster frescoes of leaping bearded bulls and the Royal five petalled lotus, stars and great swathes of blue ribbons. The doors opened silently and I walked in alone.  The outer chamber led to another, with no-one around I walked through listening to my own loud footfalls on the polished floor, grateful for the rugs which silenced them, and guilty for stepping on the Royal Rugs.

When I first saw the man in the high back chair, I thought he was a steward taking an illicit break.  He was nothing special, a man with a closed eyes, worried expression, untidy brown hair and a plain green woollen tunic with lotus flowers embroidered into the hem.  I asked:  ‘Is this the way to the Kings Personal Rooms?’ struggling to get the Gold Book out of my satchel and looking round for a way to light the required candles.  He opened his eyes, sat up straighter then, as if I’d caught him, but carrying on the ruse by staying seated, as if not wanting to admit he’d been caught sitting down on the job.

“It is,” he answered “They’re through that door, but you’ll have to wait.”

Poor steward, he must have been working hard, to have to stay up and direct visitors to a dying king.  A great strain on someone, that, I commented not knowing what else to do.  I mean, I had to go find the King, but this was one of the Kings personal stewards telling me to wait, and so wait I would.  It would give the High Cleric chance to catch up, he must only be round the corner somewhere.  Maybe at the main doors as I stood here moving from foot to foot, not knowing precisely where to stand.  Then he would be up here in a few minutes and we could go on together.

The man nodded.  He looked tired.  I fidgeted, my robes seemed to itch suddenly, and we stayed silent for a moment before he rummaged down the side of the chair and brought out two slightly misshapen round apple pastries in wax paper.  “From last nights buffet” He said by way of explanation, offering me one.  I took it out of politeness and we furtively ate, not wanting to be caught in the act.

“Been on your feet all day?”  The offering of pastries and my desperation to fill the silence created a tentative bond between us.

“For too long” he answered. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another”  I could sympathise, the High Cleric expected certain things doing, and doing now, and doing right.  It had taken a long time to understand the schedule he wanted keeping.  I smiled and nodded.  “I understand what it’s like to serve, but maybe not like you, not working for the King directly.  I serve the High Cleric with whatever he needs, keep his diary, arrange meetings, learn rituals, prayers and processes.  One day I’ll take over, but not yet.  Not like you, I mean you personally serve the King every day, what’s it like?”  I was aware that I’d been talking too long and should be focussing on the job at hand.

“It has its days,” he grinned.  I grinned back.  We waited, more comfortable with the quiet.  The Chain of Office felt suddenly heavy.

“The trouble with people in charge,” I ventured “Is that they don’t appreciate the people who have to go out and do, you know?  Like you and I, we have to organise and plan and fix and mend and maybe they just don’t listen.”  I perched on the chair arm opposite him, to take the weight off, ease a potentially long wait, but easy enough to stand up if someone should happen by.

But you’re an executioner and not interested in what was said, just what was eventually not said.  Are you? No subtlety in these last moments, just a desire to have the facts laid bare and to have it defined one way or the other.  It was richer then, more colour and depth and more than mere words.  It was rich and vibrant and every day was a new promise of better things to come.  Here I stare my own mortality in the face and all you want to know about is a few words.  Have you no dignity, no shame?  Here is a life offered up to you and you just want a simple yes or no before I am neatly dispatched and you can move on to the next.  Or is this talk of a life lived too uncomfortable for you?  You wanted an explanation of what was really said, so let me give it before your new KingsGuard Captain over there gives the order.  It’s the only chance you’re going to get to find out what happened, so I’m going to explain every little detail to you in the hope that it will sink in, leave something of worth behind and, I don’t know, be a measure of my actions in those days gone.  Give my regards to your Lord afterwards, won’t you?  It’s regrettable that he couldn’t be here himself, but I expect he had more important things to do now he rules.

We talked, that steward and I, conversation becoming easier the more we shared in common interests of serving things bigger than ourselves.  The lamps carried on burning and never went out, as if time had suspended there in that room, both of us waiting.  Waiting for something.  Something to happen, something to change.  Nothing did, we talked and talked and talked, and I had just told the ribald joke about the Prince, the donkey and the bucket, and we were both laughing and I was wondering out loud what it would be like to sit and record someones last moments, their last breath, last words and confessions and regrets and the guilt that they had carried all their life, and sadness and fear of what was to come, and we both lapsed into crushing silence.  Thinking about why we were really there and the reality of it all.  The Kings son would take over and he was not a moral man.  I can say that now.  My own confession before dying, everyone thinks it, I’m just in a place where I can say it.  The son would ruin everything the father had worked for, and we wondered, he and I, what it would be like to carry that knowledge in passing over, to know that every piece you had painstakingly built up would be squeezed dry of wealth and power and depth and active thought until the country was ground down into powder and spat out as the husk remains in pursuit of war and hatred and power.  We both agreed that would be the worst thing that could happen to a man.  I would have no sons, I told him, I had chosen too early in my life, the trouble with me was that I had taken a path too early and regretted my choice.  Sure I would be High Cleric one day, but the experience of not having a family would be one I would have liked to have had.  I didn’t apply myself to my studies, and I really could have achieved more within my first three years of study.  The trouble with me was that I was lazy, I reflected, I didn’t apply myself when I should, was happier staying without the responsibilities of First Adjunct.  My trouble was that I didn’t want the power, didn’t want the responsibility, and certainly didn’t want to be here on my own without the High Cleric.  It seemed as if we were both in the mood for our own personal Exculpation.  There was a pause whilst he considered my confessions, he said “The trouble with me is…” and then he died.  I sat there for a long time waiting for him to finish the sentence.  To breathe.  He had already passed on.  I was alone and the High Cleric still had not come.  So I created the words he would have said, knowing him for that short time, his fears and thoughts and the confessions he would have made to the High Cleric.  I opened the Gold Book wiped away my tears and knew I had to write something.  I lied and wrote it down as the truth, words that passed between us, feelings and the things he wanted to pass on for the future.  I wrote it in the book as clear as if he’d said it to me himself, and in a way he did.  So this is my exculpation, my soul is unstain’d before death.  And now you know.  I’m glad I’m not staying here, glad that you caught the High Cleric on his way to the Royal Chambers that night, stabbing him as he ran away from you, glad that I got to the King in time.  You never expected that, I’m grateful that you didn’t.  I caught the Kings last words and wrote them down, a message of hope that has spread through the people, causing an increasingly difficult rule for the King-in-Waiting.  He can’t rule without the agreement of the populace, and he doesn’t have that.  Not now.  Then you caught up with me, finally figuring out where I’d gone.  It wasn’t difficult when you think of it.  But by then copies of the Last Exculpation had been taken to the Copyhouse at HornPoint.  They made enough copies that even you couldn’t destroy all of them.  So, now you know, I’m sure it’s been occupying your thoughts for a while now, or at least your Lords thoughts.  How the Kings Exculpation was recorded and known to the people.  I’m glad I won’t see your Lords rule, it’s going to be hard on everyone.  I heard the WarBells sounding last night, even in the Deep Cells.  I should expect that you’re going to be very busy as the Executioner in the next few years.  When you’re ready to give your exculpation, I’m sure you’ll find someone other than me to hear it for you.  I forgot, your Lord had all the Clerics killed, even the Youth-in-Training.  I should expect that your Lord won’t give it much thought until he needs someone.

I’m ready now, that’s all of it.  You can tell the Captain to give his order.

Read more about Amalasuntha HERE

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