By Godfrey Blackwell
The Empty Casque Tavern was renowned as one of the great locations in Theudis wherein debates on all manner of topic, unhindered by controversy or taboo, were to be had. The king, overly tolerant according to some of his advisors, benignly overlooked the seditious rantings found there. It was thus that two old friends, Santere and Hermand, found themselves catching up, then reminiscing, then arguing across from one another at one of the Casque’s round oaken tables. It had been years since they studied together at the University of Theudis and there was a lot of all three to be had.
Santere had before him a fashionable cup of tea imported by trade caravans from the east, and one of his pretty but over made-up female admirers sitting on his lap. Of the two, he was the most intelligent, considered a prodigy when they studied at the University, although he was also lazy and thus made his living making outrageous speeches in places like the Casque (for in those days in the capital, there were those who could use such eloquent liberals to their political gain).
Hermand, on the other hand, was enjoying the pleasures of a snifter of brandy and an enormous and disreputable wooden pipe that he could nearly rest on his round belly. He was not as smart as Santere, but had worked hard to build a modest legal practice with which he supported his wife and five children. Had Santere been more honest with himself, he would have admitted that he envied Hermand, and moreover that he enjoyed the buttered-rum scent of the latter’s tobacco, but his unswerving devotion to enlightened ideology would allow for neither.
“Hermand, I can’t concentrate on my arguments with that vile smudge pot between us!”
“And I can scarce ponder the depths of two plus two with that strumpet blocking you from view!”
“Really, Hermand, you’ve become such a puritanical, intolerant bigot since university!” said Santere, although he kissed the girl and shooed her away. Heat rose in his cheeks when Hermand continued to puff on his pipe. “What would your wife think of such boorish language?”
“Well, I should think,” said Hermand, blowing a smoke ring up towards the beclouded rafters to needle Santere the more. “She’s wont to call an eggplant an eggplant.”
“What a horrid turn of phrase! What if there were eastlanders here?”
Hermand shrugged and raised his glass as if making a toast. “I’d bid them join me for a drink, purple skin and all, and offer a toast to His Majesty the King.”
“The King!” Did you learn nothing at the university? The monarchy is obsolete --”
“Watch your tongue now, Santere --”
“Aha! Typical of a close-minded reactionary, you won’t brook any contradiction, will you? Dom Berenfroy --”
“Should be defrocked and burned, but for the King’s overindulgence of renegade scholastics!” Hermand knocked back the last of his brandy and his meaty cheeks turned a darker shade of red.
“You arrogant jackanapes!” Santere felt like throwing his tea in Hermand’s face, but settled on banging a bony hand on the table, given the price of the former. “The people won’t tolerate the sort of tyranny you stand for. The oppression will end ere long and we’ll soon have a republic, you’ll see.”
“Please, spare me, Santere. Oppressed? This from an unemployed layabout who’s still well fed in Couronne, the wealthiest nation --”
“And most enlightened! But I suppose you’re too busy churning out more brats to read anything, judging by your proud ignorance.”
“If anyone’s ignorant, it’s people like you who can cling to utopian hallucinations when just over the border there’s republicans all right, and piles of bodies as tall as the cathedral in Waldassen.”
“Bah. In the end, all this doesn’t matter. The future is here, the King is as good as dead.”
“Now you’ve gone too far, Santere.” Hermand stood and clenched his meaty fists. “Now take that back!”
Santere had not mentally prepared himself for the possibility of a physical confrontation. He suddenly found he had no retort and fell backwards off his seat as he tried to rise. But being the favourite demagogue of those of a progressive persuasion at the Casque (which happened to be nearly the whole clientele), there were several drunken brawlers to come to his aid. As Hermand moved to help his friend up and apologise for his angry outburst, he was struck over the head by a bottle, and tumbled to the floor where a quartet of sloshed university students showed him the soles of their shoes.
Santere, having recovered his courage, and quite caught up with the moment, urged his disciples on until Hermand moved no more.
“The people have spoken!”
* * *
Alas, the idealistic brutes were as good at fighting as at dreaming about republics, and Hermand died early the next morning. The King’s Chausseurs did what investigation as they could, given the other unrest in the city, and a warrant was issued for Santere’s arrest. He was able to evade capture for a long time as the king’s power waned and the city convulsed with revolution. However, after seven years, the king did return and the Chausseurs had not lost their store of documents.
Thus, one crisp, sunny morning in late fall, Santere found himself again near the Empty Casque, only this time he was being dragged up to the gibbet that had been erected across from the tavern. The executioner summed everything up as he pulled the trapdoor lever.
“The king has spoken!”