And when the two harlots had been carted off, thrashing and crying and screaming, and their baby sent to be cut in half, Aritcio leaned back on his throne and was pleased.
"I like being Heir," he murmured sotto voce to his military advisor, a thin man in tight-fitting clothes and a tight-fitting face. To his other side stood the religious advisor, a woman with her hair set up in a tight bun and held in place with two golden miniature spears.
The military advisor nodded. "We have more cases, milord."
The gigantic doors opened slowly. They were bronze, and decorated with all manner of religious icons. As might be expected, Doriam II figured quite heavily; his appearance and highlights of his reign dominated the aeneus reaches of both doors. It was tradition that they be opened to let in each new complainant but closed right after. The only exception was for those cases where the grievance was so vast that the horde of plaintiffs would fill the royal court, in which case the doors were kept open for onlookers. Those cases were rare: These days, the only people who put their fate in the hands of Aritcio were the ones who'd been practically forced there at gunpoint. You could refuse his judgment, of course, and you would be summarily executed for your trouble.
A young man walked in, hesitantly. He was dressed as a Holder nobleman, but his hair was unkempt and there were dark patches under his eyes.
"You, I don't recognize," Aritcio said.
The man kneeled in front of Aritcio and said, "I'm Fazian Shalah, milord. I have not been in your presence before."
"And what is your complaint?"
Fazian rose again. "Milord, I-"
He was momentarily distracted by a noise outside, a faint roar dopplering on the windows, then continued, "Milord, I am desperate. I have had my property confiscated, my accounts frozen, all my business brought to a halt."
Aritcio gave a thin smile. "And why is this?"
"I, uh ... in all honesty, milord, it was a moment of stupid drunken revelry. I made a rather impolite comment about Serude Sakekoo."
The military advisor leaned in and whispered to the heir, "She's head of the Imperial Chancellory."
Aritcio raised an eyebrow. "Rather?"
"Yes. Well. Very."
"Would you care to repeat the comment?"
Fazian swallowed audibly. "In all honesty, milord, I'd rather not. It had to do with the forehead decoration she wears, and what I think it looks like. But I'd really not want to repeat it."
"Good. That's good," Aritcio said in amused fashion, wagging a finger at him. "You're learning."
"Every day, milord. But I'm repentant now, and desperate. I cannot feed my children, no one dares loan me money, and none of my contacts are of any use. Milord, I beg you, please intervene."
Aritcio glanced at his religious advisor. "What do you say, dear? Should I intervene?"
"I'm sure milord will make the correct judgment, as always," she replied in a resigned fashion.
Apparently pleased with the reaction, Aritcio turned back to the Holder. "I think it was petty revenge by the Imperial Chancellor to put you through this. I hereby proclaim that your accounts shall be unfrozen, your property returned or you be reimbursed by the claimants with an equivalent monetary sum, and that you be restored in full glory to your former place through whatever other recourse deemed necessary by an independent party."
Fazian fell to his knees again. "Oh, thank you, milord. Thank you so much. I shall remember this forever."
"Yes, I do believe you will. Stand up, please. I trust you have learned your lesson in manners and discretion."
"I have, milord, I have," Fazian said, standing. "Thank you so much."
"Don't mention it. But to ensure that this lesson remains learned, I will have your lips cut off. Next."
The Holder, stunned in disbelief - a fairly common reaction in Aritcio Kor-Azor's court - was led out by guards. The instant the doors opened, the noise outside rose to a dull roar.
"What is that?" Aritcio asked.
His military advisor gave a faint shrug. "Nothing of concern, I'm sure, milord," he said, then gave one of his men a brief look. The man immediately made an exit through a side door.
The bronze doors started to open.
"Milord, the next man is a mime, and-"
"Cut out his tongue and make him eat it. Next!"
The doors closed again.
The guard sent out by the military advisor returned, walked to the advisor and whispered into his ear. The advisor whispered hastily back, but was interrupted by Aritcio.
"Is there anything I should be concerned about?" the Heir asked.
"No, not in the least," the advisor replied. "But it would appear we have a special visitor on the way."
"A Speaker of Truths."
The religious advisor stiffened up, but said nothing.
The roar outside couldn't be ignored any longer. It was as if a tsunami were about to wash over the palace. The guards looked to one another, though they remained firmly rooted in place. And outside the doors there now sounded ... not screams, not yells, but a hoarse barrage of noise, as if the first wave were about to come crashing in.
There was a thunderous roll of staccato knocks on the doors, made by innumerable fists.
Aritcio shifted slightly in his chair. "I suppose we had better open," he said.
The doors slowly parted, revealing an agitated mass of people outside. The guards put their hands on their weapons, but the military advisor raised a hand. "Steady, now," he said.
A small figure detached itself from the group and walked into the court. It was an old man, wizened and grey, in the traditional robe of high religious officials. He walked with the aid of a tall staff, the head of which curled into a circle.
"Speaker of Truths," the religious advisor said in awe.
"The same," the man replied and smiled kindly to her. "I wish this were an informal visit, seeing as how I haven't been here in, oh, a century now at least. But as you can see from my fellow visitors, we are now forced to deal with a very serious matter."
As he spoke, several members of the mob marched in his wake. They were all Holders and as such were allowed to enter the court unimpeded; refusal of entry to a Holder was considered an offence, although once let in, the Holder could be removed at the Heir's whim without consequence.
The Holders, roughly two dozen, formed a half-circle around the Speaker. All faced the throne, staring fixedly at Aritcio. The doors were kept open, as per tradition when a full house was at hand, and several members of the mob held activated video cameras. In deference to the Heir's presence, they kept their hands over the camera lenses, but the microphones were very much active.
"What's this?" Aritcio said. "Why are you here?"
"I'm surprised to be here at all," the Speaker said. "Certain parties seemed intent on ending my journey prematurely."
"That doesn't answer my question," Aritcio said.
"No, milord. It doesn't. But now you have answered one of mine."
"Make sense, man."
"Very well," the Speaker said. He gestured at the people behind him. "These men and women have grievances which must be righted. The ones in the corridor have ones of their own. And that roar you hear outside, that's from the ones who heard of my trip here and decided to follow. I have travelled a long way, milord, and the journey has been fraught with danger, even more so than I expected when I set out."
He marched closer to the throne, stopping short of the steps that led up to it. He spread his arms, opening them as one might when welcoming back a lost soul, or equally when proclaiming its banishment. His voice, though far from loud, was heard clearly; it was the only sound in the room apart from the hum of recorders and the muted noise of the people outside. "As to why I am here, milord, it's really quite simple. I have come to kill you."
No one said a word. For a few moments, no one even breathed.
Then the silence was punctured by a noise: a choked, high pitched giggle that turned into a rasping neigh, then a guffaw. Aritcio laughed so hard, he nearly fell out of his chair. "You?!" he fairly screamed at the Speaker. "You're mad, old man. You're mad!"
"Be that as it may, I appear not to be the only one," the Speaker said, quite calmly.
Aritcio, trying unsuccessfully to put on a serious expression, said, "Who sent you?"
"Why ... you did, milord."
"What? Oh heavens, this keeps getting better."
The Speaker turned to the people with him, pointing at a man standing to his right. "This is Rakban Vennegh," the Speaker said. "His father was put to death for theft, on the word of a man nobody but you has ever seen. Beside him stands Suki Natasa. Her son was tortured for flying a kite into the trees of the royal yard, and now does nothing but stare at the wall. And over there is Etu Gassa, whose beauty charmed you so that you ordered she be forced to dance naked in the court square every day at noon, in order that she not selfishly keep her beauty to herself. You had her husband murdered, too, on account of his selfishness of keeping her all to himself. Everyone in this room, this palace, this entire place has been hurt by you, or has a loved one who's been hurt by you. Every one of them, milord." The Speaker spoke in a quiet monotone, but there was a barely detectable emphasis on the milord honorific.
"You created this," the Speaker continued. "If I am here, milord, it is because you called me here, even if you were not aware of it. The Speakers are arbitrators second only to the Emperor, and we go where we are needed."
He adjusted his cloak slightly, and said, "Right now, milord, there's an army of people outside who want restitution for your acts. More specifically, they want your blood."
Aritcio said, "Fat chance."
The military advisor added, "He is an Heir to the throne. They cannot touch him."
The Speaker of Truths fixed him with a steely glance. "As a matter of fact, milord, they can."
Before they had a chance to respond, he said, "I'm not sure whether you're aware of an old religious law - actually, to be honest, I'm perfectly sure that you weren't, because otherwise we'd never have descended to state of affairs - a religious law whereby an injured party can claim restitution from the injurer, in the form of flesh and blood. Eye for an eye, pound of flesh, pluck out his eye, etcetera."
The religious advisor said, "We're aware of that law. It's from the oldest texts, those of the angry god. It has no real bearing here."
"Oh, but it does," the Speaker said. "Should someone be harmed beyond reason by an outsider, and should the act be judged as unreasonable by an official arbitrator, the law of restitution can be invoked. Official arbitrators are the Emperor, of course, along with the five Heirs, certain Holders. And the Speakers of Truth."
"You are not touching me," Aritcio said.
"He can't do a thing to you, milord," the religious advisor said to Aritcio. She turned to the Speaker. "You've left out half the law. There is a sliding scale."
"Indeed there is," the Speaker said. "And it says that if an act has been judged unreasonable, the restitution takes into account the social positions of both victim and perpetrator. If perpetrator is markedly higher, the amount of restitution, the pound of flesh if you will, shrinks accordingly. If a commoner were to claim restitution from the Emperor, he might receive it, but it would be an infinitesimal speck, little more than a flake of skin from the hands of his Holiness."
Aritcio said, "So what's the problem? Even with the people outside, you'd hardly have enough to give me a haircut."
The Speaker replied, "These are just the ones who joined in my march. Word is reaching us from everywhere in the area. There are a lot of people who are very angry at you, milord, and should they all stake their claim at once, you will be reduced to atoms."
Aritcio, who had grown increasingly sombre in tone, turned to his religious advisor. "Is this true?" he said. "Does this man, this ... this Speaker of Truths," he spat the word, "does he have judgment rights?"
The religious advisor said nothing, merely closed her eyes and nodded.
Aritcio turned to his military advisor. "Does he?"
The advisor was stunned. "Well, I don't, that is, well-"
"Answer me. Does this man have the power to bring me to execution?"
The military advisor lowered his head, stared at the floor. "Yes, milord. I do believe he does."
Aritcio turned back to the Speaker. "I don't see why I should act according to your demands. Why shouldn't I simply have my guards execute you?"
"If they attack me," said the Speaker, "not only will they be excommunicated and their names stricken from the Book of Records, their lives and personas becoming nonentities, but you will have gone against the word of a Speaker, which means that you risk being stricken from the Book of Records as well. You would be dethroned, milord, and stripped of your rights and your immunity. I do not imagine you would stand much of a chance afterwards."
The Speaker closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, then said, "This is it, milord. This is the end of the road. This is the sins come back to ruin."
"It's an uprising, is what it is."
"No, milord. It's a revolution."
Silence descended again. Not even the roar could be heard now. There was the hum from video cams, whose recordings were undoubtedly being broadcast to the hordes outside and to a myriad of homes elsewhere.
The military advisor stepped forth. "We ... can't let this happen," he said. "If the Heir is dethroned, if there truly is a revolution, then the house will fall. Outside forces-," he didn't say the other houses, but it was on his mind as well as everyone else's, "Outside forces will destroy us. The Heir may have angered people in his time of rule, but we have to find some way to preserve him. We must. If not, if we go the path of open revolt and regicide, our people will forfeit any chance of having him or any other Heir ascend to the throne in future times."
The Speaker leaned on his staff. "And what do you suggest, then?"
"Is there ... no, I know there is no chance that the people will be dissuaded from this," the advisor said. "But are there some that might be persuaded to wait?"
There was a roar outside.
"All right, perhaps not that many," the advisor conceded. "But still. Are these people willing to risk the repercussions of a bloody revolt? Will they suffer through the economic turmoil that's sure to follow, and the possibility of military interaction? Will they risk their livelihoods, and their very lives?"
"They will not be dissuaded from their claim," the Speaker warned, quite calmly. "That much has become clear."
"Then grant us this," the advisor said. "Have those people come forth who have the most grievous claims. Let them have their retribution. But please, for the love of the house and everyone in it, let the Heir live."
"I agree," Aritcio said, and was ignored.
"I don't know if the people will agree to that," the Speaker said.
"I hope they will. Because even if the Heir won't die, we will bring him to the point of oblivion."
"What?" Aritcio said.
The advisor continued, "If a million comes forth, then we shall remove an arm. If another million comes forth, we shall remove a leg. We shall cut and cut and cut, we shall rend flesh and drain blood until there is nothing left but the bare essentials."
"Are you insane?" Aritcio said.
"All I ask, for all our sakes, is that there be enough for the Heir to live, and continue functioning to some degree. After all, a person needs not limbs to govern, nor all his senses. One eye suffices; one ear; and some remains of tongue, teeth and skin."
"I'm not standing for this," Aritcio said.
The advisor turned to him and said, "Then you will die, milord. They will tear you to pieces."
"You will tear me to pieces."
"At least this way, there will be something left, milord. And we can regrow the rest."
The Speaker said, "Cloning is forbidden. You know that."
"Only if the person dies," the advisor said. "But if we keep him alive and put him through accelerated cellular regrowth, we violate no law, and the people can have their pound of flesh."
"Do you think that's enough?" the Speaker said.
"Honestly? No," the advisor replied.
"I'm still here, if anyone wondered." Aritcio said.
The advisor turned to him, "Milord, as much as I love and honour you, we are on the brink of a revolution that could have your head a spike in a heartbeat. Do you understand the situation? Do you understand that if there is any kind of dissatisfaction with its outcome, you will die?"
Aritcio fell silent.
The advisor turned back to the Speaker. "If he should make any kind of decision that the people greatly disfavour," the advisor said, "then they can come in en masse and demand their restitution."
"And, with it, his life," the Speaker said.
"And his life," the advisor said. "Do you think the people will settle for that? A new ruler, to replace the old. A new man. In every sense of the word."
The Speaker gave this due thought. Aritcio had fallen silent.
"Yes," the Speaker said at last. "Yes, I believe they will."
The hordes outside raised their voices again, so loud that the palace floor trembled. But they were not roars this time. They were cheers.
Aritcio lay strapped down on a surgeon's table. Video cameras had been affixed to the ceiling, and a small one to the surgeon's forehead.
Using an electric scalpel, the surgeon slowly and methodically cut off pieces of Aritcio's skin. The Heir's blood was immediately sucked up by a proliferation of plastic tubes that fed it into a dialysis machine, from where it was pumped back into his body.
No anaesthesia was applied. The Heir had a rubber mouth guard affixed to his mouth with leather straps, and bit down on it with such force that veins stood out in his forehead. With each cut there was a raspy noise that onlookers had at first thought to be disturbance in the audio section of the broadcast, but turned out to be the Heir's hoarse voice, screams that got no further than his throat.
Sometimes the doctors would use lasers, so as to immediately cauterize the wounds, but since lasers also killed nerves, the public had deemed it grossly unsatisfactory. Scalpels were now the tool of choice.
The military and religious advisors sometimes attended the sessions, watching dispassionately as their master was dismembered. The religious advisor had made no comment since the sessions started. The military advisor had said little, too, except for a brief, secret conversation with the head physician and certain military personnel, where it had been explained to the full understanding of everyone involved that the Heir would not die. And should he expire, well, his captors and caretakers were expected to take whatever steps necessary to ensure he would live again, regardless of personal morals and religious law.
Aritcio himself said little as well. There was such demand for his elements that he hardly had any time to rule at all.
The surgeon cleaned his scalpel, and spoke slowly into the camera. "That's the last finger skinned. Notice the tendons. We'll be working on those next."