Have been too enraged to blog, but here’s a story i wrote a couple of weeks ago:
In the seventeenth year of the fifth Emperor of the Third Dynasty, this humble servant was appointed to the Imperial Commission on its research tour of the Empire with special reference to historical monuments, ancestries, songs, and customs and folklore. I was at this time young and enthusiastic. I had no qualms about leaving my family, I had no wife, I was eager to take on official duties and gain a name for myself.
Time passes, youth is no more, and I suppose my name is now nothing at all. Certainly, when we arrive at a new settlement, even at a major city, we usually find ourselves unwaited and unheard of, and after lengthy explanations and the proper flourishing of certificates and letters and the imperial seal, we are accorded a generally baffled reception; sometimes grudgingly and barely civil, sometimes clumsily warm and fawning. The locals often take us for spies, naturally enough, and shy away from even the most innocuous questions regarding their organisation, rulers, markets, customs. But then we are only tasked with history, and here they are willing to satisfy, even if they almost always fail to appreciate the importance of our mission. For them, history is a tale told to children, something you half-forget and take for granted. They could not be more incredulous if we came to study their children’s games of stick and stone.
Nonetheless, we learn much about present arrangements. But we impart more, for as we are eager to learn of their ancestries and folk legends, they are eager to learn of the Capital, of the wars, of the Emperor and his court, of neighbouring provinces, of trade and trade disputes, of the Great Army, of nomad incursions against the Wall, of torture and cruelty and massacre. Much of our news is old, for we have now been in this service for just over eight hundred years, criss-crossing the empire with our notebooks and our pens and inks. Of course, these eight hundred years are not ordinary human years; for one thing, the Commission has effectively removed itself from ordinary human affairs, and for another there have been four complicated calendar reforms, through which our reckoning of time has been considerably warped, though it is now hard to say if these eight centuries should be adjusted up or down.
We dispatch reports to the Capital at every reputable station. Occasionally we arrive at a town or city to find a sealed letter waiting, in care of apprehensive officials; and then we find we are to proceed to such-and-such a province. Sometimes we find a new Imperial seal and learn that the one we had thought of as “the new Emperor” is now the old, and then we sit at a table in our lodgings, and drink whatever (usually dreadful) wine is available, and tally up all the Emperors we have outserved, in our patience.
More and more, when the people ask for news, we merely relate our more recent observations, how the Wall stands, how the nomads have taken this or that outpost or town, razed it to the ground, taken the young women and boys as slaves, slain all others, how the Great Army has retaken the outpost or town, or at least the ruins thereof. And the captives? they ask. Then we tell of the great desert beyond the Wall, and of expeditions swallowed by that unmeasured space, of the army of a million who disappeared under the ninth Emperor. Then the people shudder and tell their children, Behave, or the nomads will take you!
When we tell of the fifth Emperor and his court, of the great university, the planetarium, the Sky Hall, the astrophysics optic, vast libraries laboriously crafted into the mountain, the endless trains of wagons and barges, the prosperity enjoyed even by the peasantry, our listeners smile and nod at each other, and disbelieve, for these tales are now coeval with the histories we seek, and we ourselves seem as unreal and unreckonable as the fifth Emperor of the Third Dynasty, in our age. The eight centuries are not to be seen in our hair or limbs, we bear none of our time so; but in our speech and our manner we are, it seems, somewhat antique.
We were long accustomed to striking trepidation into the hearts of villagers and country folk, with our courtly vestments, our haughty airs, our perfect speech. But over time we lost much of our airs, and since our silks and sashes and tassles wore away and proved impractical, we are, from afar, indistinguishable from merchants. Close to it seems we appear somewhat outlandish, wearing modern garments with something of an older, incongruous grace, like actors who leave the stage as slain kings, remove their tinsel crowns and robes, undaub their faces, dress in their accustomed dun, proceed to a mean tavern in a beggarly quarter, and yet sit on a rickety chair as it were a throne, and hold a cracked wooden cup as it were a goblet of silver and gold. The sixth son of the Duke of a province that no longer exists sits at table in a barbarous city, and as he orders wine he would be almost unrecognisable to his long-dead family, and yet to the locals – whether base villagers or gaudy barons – he seems to have come from a distant realm; that is, the past, the era of the fifth Emperor. When we speak, however we strive for the modern tongue there is still the accent of vanished kingdoms, of courts that have entered the history we study.
Zig-zagging the Empire we see much, we hear and record histories we have slowly come to precede. In my old province, I see the old town almost unrecognisable, and eventually hear of a certain young scholar and Duke’s son called to the Imperial Court, and never seen again; a very minor tale, in which I slowly recognise myself; and slowly recognise my father and my brothers in the eyes and about the lips of this village cobbler and rumour-monger and storyteller, and I wonder how my lineage has fallen into obscurity and myth; where the great house of my father once stood, there are now huts of mud and twig, pitiful chickens and pigs, shrieking whores, children plastered with filth in lieu of clothing. Where there was once a good library, there is now a kind of rubbish heap on which the children play, hurling stones and shards of broken pottery at each other, tumbling headlong down the mounds and screaming.
The Empire is still the Empire, though to us it has now a dreamlike quality. Old customs are forgotten, old ways despised. We do not bewail this; were it not for our longevity, we would know nothing of the knowledge and art gone into oblivion. As it is, we have been spared to observe, and to rue; yet with age comes patience, or perhaps our original patience has kept us so, exempt from the ordinary toll.
In our youth the Wall was strong and well-manned; some centuries later it fell slowly into ruins, the soldiers fewer and fewer, the nomads bolder and louder. Some years ago the hordes broke through the gates and surged hundreds of miles into the Empire, sacking and burning and raping and killing, and were not so much driven back as bought off, one of these new Emperors paying their chiefs for a time, forever he thought, a few summers as it transpired. For while our Empire has become progressively barbarous, the nomads of the desert are as they have always been. It would do no good to warn the new Emperors or their viziers and counsellors – though I have wondered, what would happen if we returned to the Capital, after eight centuries, introducing ourselves as the Commission, yes the Commission of the Fifth Emperor, these people who have periodically sent historical reports from all over the Empire. Perhaps there would be a fuss, perhaps the doorkeeper would send for the lowest official who would send for the lowest librarian and exhume our reports, and demand explanation. Or upon our return we would collapse in little clouds of dust, and become another minor historical footnote and legend for future days.
It is unclear how the Court would account for us. Presumably, whoever receives our reports, whoever instructs us to proceed to such-and-such a province, takes us for pupils of pupils of pupils (etc.) of the original Commission. Or maybe this is normal, it may be that every Commission, every delegation, every spy, immediately becomes immortal upon leaving the Capital, and if we returned some pomaded courtier would greet us with a sneer, Oh, another lot of eternal vagabonds, and which century are you from, pray?
It is at any rate probable that far from being welcomed as exemplars of the fifth Emperor’s time, we would prove highly inconvenient and be sent on our way with blows or little bags of gold, or disappear into one of the many dark places set aside for this purpose. The degradation and decay we see in the Empire is, we hear, also to be found in the Capital. In the city touted as the second Capital, we were given place at a banquet for some visiting dignitary, a lowly place of course, at a table far removed from the latest Duke, we were in fact stationed by a draught and they would have given us the poorest wines but that my colleague – actually distant ancestor of the fat perfumed Duke at his distant high table – appropriated several flagons of the best; and this was accepted because although clad as merchants, we relaxed into our old customs and speech and the servers and the courtiers and the guests assumed we were of good blood and standing, and my neighbour (wife of a minor baron) asked, Wherever did you learn such perfect Classic? and being rather drunk I smiled and told her, From the court of the fifth Emperor of the Third Dynasty.
No, we would not be welcome at the Capital, with our old manners and our fantastical tales. These are forward-thinking times, the courtiers said in this so-called second-Capital, even as we were advised not to walk home without ample weaponry, even as we found no real libraries and no learning, the scholars half-read idiots, the scholarship a gallimaufry of demotic jargon and nonsense. It should not surprise, then, that the nomads are no longer regarded as a threat; for what should fashionable barbarians fear from barbarity?
The latest Emperor recently announced a so-called alliance with the nomads. Pacts and agreements were signed, with a people who cannot read and are at best entertained by paper. They are our cousins, quoth the Emperor, they will bring us prosperity and enterprise, the Empire will profit from their labour and their energy. Well. Some say he has been bought by those his forefathers sought to buy, others whisper he is senile or has a demon. No matter, he merely marks the Empire’s final form. At his edict, the soldiers unlocked the colossal portals and retreated from the Wall, and even five hundred miles away we find refugees, bearing their few goods and tales of mass rape, torture, and murder, the burning of cities and the cries of women.
The Emperor’s Court has relocated to an unfashionable city, and depending on the speed of the nomads’ little horses, he may live out his days in peace. In a sense, it is no concern of ours, it does not touch our work. We found ourselves in the nomads’ path and observed the destruction of a city, and since there were no survivors we asked the nomads their history, their legends and ancestries. Here there were new tales, and perhaps they will interest future generations, if not this.
We have not heard from the Court for some time, a century perhaps. Presumably our historical researches are filed away somewhere. It is alas possible that our reports are now incomprehensible, for when we write we make no concessions to the modern demotic. My latest report, taken from a nomad chief over a campfire with roast lamb and vile milk, was of a perfect classical idiom. The illiterate nomad chief was highly amused when I explained the marks on the page, the nature of my research, as the city burnt some miles off. He indulged in an enormous laughter, clapped his hands, and then invited me to enjoy some of the captives – girls, boys, young women – and when I declined he surprised me with some knowledge of our demotic: Fucky fucky!
So, as my colleagues surmise, it is possible that no one has been able to read our reports in many years. I privately wonder if anyone read them, after the passing of the fifth Emperor; for we were his men, and this was always his mission. He was far-sighted and subtle, his successors lesser and cruder men. Perhaps, as the old Capital is sacked and destroyed, eight centuries of our carefully-gathered and written history will also burn, one little flame, in the conflagration.
We are not unduly saddened. We will continue to travel and inquire, and record. I suppose we will post our reports to the new capital, as long as possible. The futility of our endeavour is apparent, and of no consequence: when the Emperor orders a thing, it is duty and pleasure to obey. The service itself is enough; and this perhaps explains our longevity.
And the fifth Emperor perhaps intended otherwise than we once thought; it has occurred to me that our purpose was not, truly, to write up the histories and legends of our people. Perhaps we were instead intended to become immortal. We went into the past before memory, seeking after the roots of things, the first causes and origins of our people and our selves, and we accordingly became memory and history. In our dogged perseverance and obedience we have set ourselves at odds with a wasting civilisation; we are all that now remains of the court of the fifth emperor of the Third Dynasty. That was, perhaps, his purpose.
It is late and tomorrow we have a cold breakfast and an early start.
Munich, January 16 2016