Exhale. The wine merchant is asleep. I will reach him before he wakes, because I am soft and silent. As a eunuch of the palace, I may go where I please. No one will ask me what I am doing in his chambers. Grip the sword. Feel the wood beneath your hand. That length of tempered steel is the killing tool. Breathe. I creep with silent steps across the marbled floor. Look at him. His skin sags. He is like a flaccid bladder when he sleeps. Can this be the Butcher of Tarsus?
It began in the third year of the Drought. Back then, we could still remember rain. The three rivers that fed the capitol where like trickles of piss in the mud. Emperor Lazhar appointed me minister of the public granaries. I took his tally-stick and seal and I passed a host of new laws. I froze the cost of grain and bread. I ordered imports from the lush lands beyond the hills. I begged Lazhar to authorize a new trade policy, and after many long nights he agreed to pay a bounty of weighty gold to the little kingdoms that were yet filled with rushing waters.
When I was twelve, my manhood was taken from me by the imperial physicians. My father, yearning for an ear close to the triumphal seat, made this decision for me. I have older brothers, of course. They would inherit the great estates of my family name. I inherited only the pain of the heated shears, the training of the rhetors, and the discipline of the lash to learn humility, service, supplicance. I did learn those things. I learned to crawl on the tiles and to eat dirt so the mighty would know I was nothing. This, my family gave to me.
Still, the city was glorious. Even with the wailing that filled the streets, the marble avenues and public temples reminded us that we were part of a lineage that stretched back to a time before time. Gods of all shapes and sizes gazed down at me as I did my work, and never did I find more comfort in it. They had come from all the corners of the world, brought on the backs of the conquered and the conquering, come to give their people comfort. For, until she died, until she squirmed like a ravished matron under the hands of cruel war, the city of Tarsus was the very heart of the world.
It beggars belief now, to say it, but you could walk down the colonnaded street at any hour of the day or night unmolested and unharmed. Lights were always burning. Every building was required to provide lamps and lanterns, every shop and warehouse, every manor by law to provide a portico so the Emperor could walk, if he so chose, from the heights of the Sarasant Palace to the very mouth of the Harbor even in rain without so much as feeling a drop of water.
This, then, was Tarsus-that-was.
In that third year of the Drought, there were riots in Tarsus. My own policies and recommendations to Emperor Lazhar caused the Bakers Guild to tear down a statue of Hormus, the god of Androgynes. It was not lost on any citizen what this meant. “Kill the Eunuch!” the bakers sang. But the Guardsmen protected me, and the riots were dispersed.
In that third year of the Drought, there were many deaths. Tarsus ate up all the food. My trade policies guaranteed that outlying provinces would have less than enough to eat. The City consumed it all. I wept in my chambers. Emperor Lazhar made a great show of divesting the imperial household of its excess. He sold plate and golden statues. With the proceeds he bought and distributed grains from the little kingdoms to those who were suffering. It was not enough. I begged him again. This time I said, “Take away the great banquets of the wealthy. Strip the nobility of their golden necklaces. Please, my emperor!” You see, I plead so hard because I knew these horrors lay at my doorstep. But this, this final act, Emperor Lazhar stopped short of doing.
I understood why. His other counsellors advised against it. It would weaken his power, threaten to topple the very state, if the nobility felt he was against them. Still, I wrote him frantic letters in the darkest hours of the night, wasting precious oil to compose them. He returned them unread, the seals unbroken, his own rescript in crimson ink on their parchment faces. “ENOUGH.”
In that third year of the Drought, there arose in the southern provinces, many hundreds of miles away, a great and awful rumbling. Generals along the borders could not keep their soldiery in check. Clashes with the desert peoples became full scale battle. Emperor Lazhar gave them permission to lay siege to ancient cities long choked with sand. And before that year was out we heard the first whispers of the name Dorai.
Who was this Dorai? A wine merchant. Fat with profit, he evaded imperial tax collection, shifted his coin into foreign lands, and bought up grain, spelt, millet, and rye to sell to the imperial household and the city grain supplies. But that is not why we heard of him. News came that a new general had been acclaimed without the emperor’s word. As was usual in those days, when an emperor died, the Senate and the Army proclaimed a new one. But this was unprecedented—a merchant being elevated to the status of General, a sacral position that required decades of training under the rhetors and priests? Who was this Dorai?
He did not seek the wars on the southern borders. As soon as he was acclaimed, the fat merchant called Dorai began to speak against the Emperor and the imperial family. He shrieked that the old gods were offended by centuries of laxity. His words reached us in reports from the imperial spies as the soldiers under his new command moved with him toward Tarsus. “Emperor after emperor, year after year, line after line, spits upon the old cults and adds these new, foreign devils to the city that was once sacred. Burn the new temples! Tear down the new gods! There are foreign slime in our holy city even now, brought by generations of failed wars against the East. Execute them! Sell them back into the slavery from whence they came! We need no Eastern weakness!”
The emperor raised his armies. I wish I could tell you more of the fight, but I was never privy to the war councils. I know only that, like lightning, without warning, he was at our gates. The Guardsmen were summoned. I steeled myself for a siege that we would undoubtedly win. Tarsus, as you know, had never been taken by force since the walls were built. Nor would it be—not now, not ever. As Emperor Lazhar stood upon the Field of the Guardsmen and summoned up his last armies, I stood by his side. From where we stood on the Hill of Executions I could see the whole city.
The Guardsmen were arrayed before us in the field. A wind whipped through the grass and their armor jangled like bells. Beyond, Tarsus, swollen with heat and sick from lack of water, was a marmoreal tomb yard. Dorai’s armies, which had sounded weak and feeble from the dispatches, were large enough to encircle us, to cut off every gate, to stand before every stretch of wall. No matter which way I turned I could see their hateful red cloaks.
As the Guardsmen drew up into final formation, as I readied my heart for rough-faced war, a messenger came from the Harbor Gate. He was crying. “My lord emperor,” he shouted, breathless. “My lord emperor. The guard posted at the Harbor Gate have betrayed you.” Like that, Tarsus fell. Those foul men had sided with Dorai. Why? The price of grain. The elevation of many foreign-born men to high positions of rank. The prominence of the Imperial Eunuch. May the Gods hound them to their graves.
The Harbor Gate was thrown open. The armies under the wine merchant poured into the city. The Emperor did not fight. He met Dorai in the Plaza of Judges and bowed stiffly. Our Emperor Lazhar gave the imperial baton, the crown, the belt, and the gloves of his sacred office freely from his hands, knowing it would spare a greater butchery. And so Dorai became emperor. Emperor Lazhar was permitted to leave the city, but he would not live long. The wine merchant’s soldiers strangled him two years later, in the villa Dorai had appointed for him.
The rule of the wine merchant was swift and brutal. “Tarsus for Tarsens,” he said. There was not enough food to feed the city? Very well, he would execute those who had been born outside the empire. The three rivers were no longer trickles of piss. They became torrents of blood. To appease his men, all the gods from strange lands, the gods that had long been held in Tarsen hearts and taken to Tarsen chests as our own gods, were torn down. Their statues were burned for lime. Their temples were looted for gold. Their priests were chained and taken to the very fringes of the empire, where they were expelled. Every man or woman who had a name that sounded strange to the ear was stripped of their office.
I remained. The wine merchant, fat and flush with victory, swaggered to my chambers on the day of his conquest. He was truly a hateful man, face cracked with hideous pleasures. “You’ve been useful to the bastard,” he said, referring to Emperor Lazhar, who he now publicly maintained was the product of incest with a goat. “You’ll be useful to me.”
Coward that I am, I could not say no.
In those first months I wrote him many letters of advice. I drafted edicts. I tried my best to convince the wine merchant to stop his campaign of slaughter. He did not send them back with rescripts. I do not know that he knew how to read. His chief advisor, a silver-haired general named Parthon, told me to stop up the flow of my ceaseless complaints. It was Parthon, I learned, that had supported Dorai at the critical juncture, when it was unclear if the soldiers would actually turn and march on their homeland.
Parthon was, if anything, worse than the merchant. Here was a studied politician of the old imperial caste, but who wanted all the things the wine merchant wanted… and more. He was clad in the upright dignity of imperial garb, unlike the swaggering buffoon of an emperor who, even on the day he set for his own coronation seemed to be little more than a clown from the mime. But Parthon and his clutch of serpents… ahhh! There were men who, I pray, the Gods will send to eternal punishment like the villains of old.
Now, I have heard that there were those places in the empire that resisted the wine merchant. Even in the throws of his goriest moments in Tarsus, there were governors and generals who defied his laws. The other great cities of the empire cast out his emissaries and shut their gates. But I did not know that then. All I knew was that the capitol was in his thrall.
He listened to my advice, the wine merchant did. But he mocked me as well. He burned a statue of Hormus before me as a jest, but let me keep mine own in my chamber. It was Parthon who, later, stalked me in the halls of the palace and stripped it from me. With frothing anger, he reminded me of what I was: “A weak, womanish thing, fit only for raping!”
For three years, for THREE YEARS, I was counsellor to the wine merchant and Parthon. For three years I tried to temper their rule. Rebellions broke out across the empire. Fires began which would not cease. The Drought continued.
Tarsus is not a city I recognize any longer. New Gaurdsmen, from the wine merchant’s own armies, patrol its streets. His face has replaced the panoply of gods. Great stone heads of the wine merchant lay before each gate. His name is etched into the stone of the palace. I wept in my cups.
Now I crawl like silent vengeance. My heart is in my hand, in the length of blade I hold. I will send him down to the screaming shadows of the underworld. I will do this thing. It is not for me that I strike. No, though Parthon may take the seat. I will slay him, if I can. But my life is already forfeit. It is for you that I strike. It is for you, now, the future, that I approach the bed of the wine merchant who would be emperor. No longer will I watch idly by.