During the holiday season it’s a good idea to take stock, and––as we congregate with our relatives to celebrate the season––give thanks that the people we’re related to probably aren’t as bad as they could be. Yes our distant cousins and politically incompatible uncles may be grating, but things could be far, far worse.
And as an aide to anyone who might be having trouble believing this, I thought I’d toss in a bit from my book to help put your own family difficulties in perspective.
Also some other things to be thankful for that seem appropriate to bring up on a blog related to fantasy and other things with a medieval tinge to them:
- For the most part our parents don’t get to pick our romantic partners.
- We live in a modern age of central heating and indoor plumbing.
- The level of leech use in modern medicine has declined sharply in recent centuries.
- You don’t currently live in a state governed by a Dark Lord or Necromancer… (Though admittedly an Evil Wizard or Demigod would probably still have a higher approval rating than the United States Congress…)
- That the only place you’re likely to see rampaging orcs or dragons in the near future is while safely ensconced in a movie theater watching The Hobbit.
- That we live in a world with modern electronics––you just know every wizard kid from the Harry Potter universe would go muggle in half a second to get their hands on an ipad.
- That, if you can scrounge up a few hundred bucks you can probably get to a place every bit as fantastic looking as something out of Tolkien in a few hours:
- That you aren’t actually stuck in a horrifying fight to the death between good and evil.
- That mattress making technology has improved as civilization has staggered forward over the centuries.
- That Dave Brubeck Existed. (RIP and thanks Dave): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kc34Uj8wlmE
Happy Holidays! And as promised the bit from the book:
Note: Our heroine has just seen her new and quite odious tutor from her bedroom window arrive at the castle.
For the record, the Princess’ expression was one of general revulsion, mixed with a hint of resignation and a fairly large dollop of astonishment. More astonishment than was normal actually. The Princess was used to the arrival of the tutors by now––she’d put up with thirty-seven of them––but never before, she thought staring down at the bedlam in the courtyard from her window, had her father subjected her to someone as overtly and obviously disgusting as…that…thing… The Princess watched the man waddle towards the keep until he’d disappeared from view, then sat back on the ledge by the window and sighed. “Where in the hell,” she muttered to herself, “does he find these people?”
It wasn’t the first time she’d asked the question.
Aletheia, the first child and only daughter of His Royal Highness Edward IX, had amassed a tremendous amount of experience in dealing with imperious bores, fatuous blowhards, pretentious pedagogues and overeducated and under-enlightened nitwits generally.
Not that this was a good thing.
She began to mutter soft obscenities in Italian, then, deciding that Italian wasn’t expressive enough, she switched to German, and then Greek. Very old Greek, just for kicks. Aletheia had spent the last three years battling to keep herself free from the pernicious effects of ‘an education suitable for a young lady of means,’ and the strain was beginning to show. After a minute she stood and began to pace back and fourth across the expanse of her room. She ran out of Greek and switched over to Latin. Old-school Latin, where you pronounced the ‘C’s with feeling. Aletheia could speak eleven languages––twelve if you counted a smattering of Flemish––and she’d never learned a word of any of them from the tutors. One of them had tried to teach her how to read––he’d been rather flabbergasted when Aletheia had calmly walked over to her bookshelf, picked up a copy of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, opened it to a random page and started reading: Let us now speak first about definition, to the extent that it is not spoken about in the writings on the analytic art, for the impasse that is stated in those discussions will contribute to the discussions about thinghood… That particular tutor, realizing that he was profoundly outclassed, had turned tail and fled the castle. He had been one of the better ones.
Aletheia ran out of Latin. She briefly considered switching back to Greek, but rejected the notion, trudged over to the mirror in the corner of her room, closing her eyes before she could see her own reflection. Then, after taking a deep breath, she opened them.
The face that stared back at her was too angry.
Aletheia laughed in spite of herself and shook her head. This tiny hint of pleasantness lessened the glower in the mirror. But not enough. The thought rankled. But anymore a lot of things rankled. The tutors were really only the tip of a rather large iceberg (an interesting metaphor Aletheia had recently picked up from a terribly lost Norseman). More and more Aletheia was coming to the conclusion that she had been born in the wrong century. Not that Aletheia didn’t fit in; she was a Princess, and princesses––by virtue of being very wealthy, and very, very royal––tend to fit in more or less automatically. Whether they liked it or not.
Aletheia didn’t happen to like it.
There was a knock on the door. Aletheia forced something resembling an actual smile onto her face, and opened it. A tall and rather serious looking guardsman loomed out in the hallway, bowing just enough to obscure his face. Aletheia stifled a grimace, and tried to sound at least slightly pleasant, “Yes?” Clipped, but not badly; if the guard noticed he didn’t react. “Your Highness,” he said, a little too gravely, “The new tutor has arrived.”
Aletheia felt the frown come out in spite of her best efforts. “Thank you guardsman,” she said with slightly stilted politeness. “Am I required to come now?”
“Ah––yes, your Highness.”
Bugger it with a radish. “Very well then.” The stilted politeness became even more strained. “We shall––” get this the hell over with “––Accompany you.”
“Very well your Highness,” the guard said, extending a hand down the corridor, “If you would come this way, the King awaits…”
Yes, I’m very popular, Aletheia thought as she walked briskly down the hallway, the guardsman right at her heels. A little too popular…
The attention, if it had been lavished on her by almost any other century, would have been flattering. But not the thirteenth. The 13th century annoyed the hell out of her.
There had been a time when she had fretted over this, actually. She could remember sitting down in her room one dark winter evening, after an especially tedious royal ball, pondering long and hard about what it was that made her feel ill at ease. She’d considered and discarded a dozen explanations in turn. It wasn’t that she was antisocial; it wasn’t that she was intimidated by others; and it most certainly was not the case that she had trouble starting conversations––if you’re a Princess everyone wants to talk to you. And then, after an hour, Aletheia had had an epiphany. She couldn’t be certain why she felt out of place, she had thought at the time, but it probably had something to do with the fact that she was constantly surrounded by slack-jawed, drooling morons… This sounds harsh. It had sounded harsh to her at the time. But it also happened to be true.
There were cultured and sophisticated people alive in the 13th century, but they tended to have their hands full propping up the tenuous remains of western civilization, and generally weren’t available to make witty small talk at parties. That task was left the nobility––folks who, as a rule, possessed more money and power than sense. And who looked on Aletheia as the ultimate trophy-wife.
It didn’t help that Aletheia looked like a Princess.1 She wasn’t perfect of course; she was of only a little bit more than average height, and her nose wasn’t quite perfectly aquiline. Better complexions than hers could be found by mounting a search of only moderate intensity. But royal blood could minimize any bodily flaw, short of Aletheia’s actually being a man, and every aristocrat from a hundred miles around came, each determined to woo her in the most asinine manner possible. Aletheia commonly found herself listening respectfully to grown men jabbering on about the quality of their French made armor––sometimes more than one knight would decide to jabber at the same time, and Aletheia would find herself mediating heated disputes between men who believed themselves to be at their most persuasive when they were screaming. After a while Aletheia had realized that it was simpler to steer the conversations herself. And that was where the trouble had started…
Ten minutes after the guard knocked on her door Aletheia glided into the immensity of the great hall. She was far later than necessary, having taken the most aggressively Byzantine path from her door to the hall that she could think of. Partially this was to delay the inevitable, but mostly she did it to annoy the hell out of her father. Which was only fitting. After all, the tutors had been his idea.
His Majesty Edward IX was, by any and all accounts, a man of his age––and his age was not well aquatinted with the concept of book learning. The King was a robust physical specimen, practically addicted to any number of outdoor sports––hunting, riding, jousting, hawking and wrestling all enthralled him, and if roused to do so, he could lecture on at great length about how any of these activities improved the constitution and toughened the soul (or perhaps the reverse.) Indeed if really pressed the King would pursue any activity whatsoever with gusto so long as it insulated him sufficiently from the tiresome business of running the kingdom, and was not chess. Which was why, on the face of it, his obsession with his daughter’s education was so strange…
Aletheia’s gaze fell upon her father the moment she entered the great hall. This was the idea; the King was perched atop a suitably monstrous throne, glowering menacingly at everything that moved, if only from force of habit. The usual cavalcade of hangers-on fanned out around him–– courtiers, knights and noblemen, revelers, the new tutor, half a dozen of the King’s drinking buddies and––nestled away behind them all, in a position calculated not to draw attention––the most important man in the kingdom.
Off to the side a royal crier unnecessarily bellowed Aletheia’s arrival. At this point everyone but the King bowed, even the tutor–– though he didn’t bow so much as he nodded his head rigidly, his lips snarled in apparent distaste at the imposition. Aletheia frowned and strode rather un-daintily towards the royal throne, never quite taking her eyes off the man, even as she reached her father’s feet and bowed. “Your Majesty,” she tried not to sound too contemptuous, but it was hard. Very hard. After all, the distaste was reciprocated.
The King rose solemnly from his throne, looming impressively over his subjects through height alone. Edward’s virtues may have been few and far between, but there was no denying that he looked like a King. Indeed people who didn’t know any better could often be fooled into thinking that he actually ran the kingdom. There were even days when people could even be convinced that he cared. For as long as ten minutes at a stretch. This was not, however, stacking up to be one of those days. Edward glanced towards the horizon through one of the hall windows, sighed, and turned his disinterested gaze down to his firstborn. “So daughter,” his tone of voice implied that he was addressing a not entirely desirable rash, “As I’m sure you know I don’t want to have to be here––” On a normal Tuesday he’d have killed something by now. Probably several somethings. Frankly, the pent up blood lust was making him cranky and irritable. “––So let’s make this as quick and painless as we possibly can–– and, God help me, if, just once you would accept the nice new tutor like a good, sweet, little girl, then I would be a very, very happy man.”
The King, his little speech now over, gesticulated towards the castle crier, who promptly jumped to attention, cleared his throat and started shouting, “Your Majesty it is my honor to present before you the most honorable Professor Weltschmertz, of the Saxcoburg-Gothan Weltschmertz…”
The tutor stood, haughtily puffing himself up––though it did rather stretch credulity to see exactly how this was possible, considering his innate girth. Aletheia forced herself to smile, vaguely hoping that the muscles in her jaw would hold. The crier continued, “…He is a man of the finest credentials, well versed in all the chivalric arts and blessed with a superior mind. We humbly present him as a candidate for the post of royal tutor…”
Bloviation. Aletheia’s attention began to wander; after a few moments her gaze fell upon the man standing behind Edward’s throne, himself attempting to stifle an expression of really extreme boredom and failing. He noticed Aletheia’s eyes on him and smiled.
Augustine Cicero Gustav von Metternich-Hohenzollern––Gus to virtually everyone who knew him well––shouldn’t have been that important. The ancestral Duke of a smallish province located somewhere down river from the castle, Gus would have been fated for obscurity were it not for a familial reputation for cleverness that had prompted a previous King Edward––every bit as lazy as the current Edward, but endowed with rather more wit––to summarily burden Augustine’s great grandfather with the job of running the kingdom. The royal line had lived in a state of merry absentia ever since; abetted by Augustine’s forebears who had come rapidly to the conclusion that it was best to keep the kings completely uninformed about absolutely everything, lest one of them should be tempted to make a decision. When any of the kings, Edward included, took an interest in virtually any activity outside of a (very limited) circle of competence colossally unfortunate things tended to happen. As Aletheia knew all too well.
Aletheia regarded Augustine as a father figure and with good reason; Edward didn’t want a daughter, and hadn’t wanted one when Aletheia had been born. When it had been announced that the Queen had given birth to a girl, Edward had been propelled into such a profound melancholy that he had given the task of naming the child over to his chief advisor, as was the King’s custom when confronted with any duty he considered inconvenient or depressing. The King had vaguely assumed at the time that his underling would choose a sensible name such as Mary or Catherine or Anne and had been rather palpably surprised when the child had been christened with an apparent nonsense name that, upon inquiry, turned out to mean ‘truth’ in Greek. Not that the Edward had bothered to do anything about it. Girls were essentially useless in the King’s mind and any thought of Aletheia’s wellbeing could only have distracted Edward from more pressing considerations like the hunt––indeed within a couple of weeks the King had seemingly forgotten that he had a daughter at all. Augustine had been left with the child more or less by default, and had raised her in the manner which he saw fit. Which was an ideal arrangement for all concerned. At least until Edward found out about it.
Fourteen. That was when the trouble had started. On a cold winter’s night just after Christmas, during a snowstorm, when there had been nothing to do but sit down in the royal apartments with Gus and discuss Aristotle. They were just getting around to the Prime Mover when Edward had burst in.
The King might have fancied himself as being macho, but even he wasn’t going to endure a night outside in a blizzard. Not that he was happy about the turn of events. He had barged unpleasantly into the dining room, nearly taking the door off its hinges, loudly barking for a flagon of brandy and a plate of whatever was being served; he had then collapsed into a chair, eyeing his daughter and his chief advisor with more than a modicum of suspicion. An uncomfortable silence had pervaded the room for about minute and a half, and then––once alcohol was delivered––Aletheia and Gus had tentatively resumed their conversation, assuming the King would rapidly intoxicate himself past the point where he could possibly keep track of what they were saying.
Seemingly this happened. For a long time the King had simply sat there, nursing his brandy, and observing in silence. For a time both Gus and Aletheia had kept their conversation simple, but then slowly they’d forgot about Edward’s presence and their words had gradually become more and more esoteric. Then, after twenty minutes, with the King’s eyes gone shut and his head on the table, Aletheia had let the words ‘Prime Mover’ escape her lips, and the King suddenly shot upright, as if a bolt of lightning had surged up his spine. He’d cast his now empty flagon against the fireplace, and began to screech incomprehensibly at the top of his lungs, “S’not right! S’not right a’tall t’ave me offsprin’ gibberin’ on n’suchlike.” Here he’d stopped to collect his alcohol addled thoughts then turned to Gus. “Why ‘ave ‘ou been fillin’ me daughters ‘ead with ‘ese riddicoolis idears? ‘Ownright indecent it is!” He’d turned to walk towards Aletheia, but after only a few short steps his sense of balance gave up on him altogether and he ‘d come crashing to the floor. Without hesitation Aletheia went to help her father, but Edward had brushed her away and began wagging a figure in Aletheia’s general direction. “Alayder- er Altea- er Ay-lay-tay- ow ‘ang it all! You girl! T’aint right d’ave the datter of a King goin’ roun’ spowtin’ off ‘ese ‘ere impossiber notions! No wonder ever’ man that comes around ta woo you’s running out the castle gates in biffer daybreak. Yous makin’ yurself bloody impossibibble to marry oft! And what ‘ood is a daughter if you can’ marry her oft!? I is gonna see to’t ‘at you ‘ave a proper eddycashun, suitable fer young laddies! ‘earn to cursey and sow and ack in a proper fashin…” More came, but neither Gus nor Aletheia were able to make any sense of it. Gus called for the two men standing guard outside to come and take him away. The guards had hoisted the King onto their shoulders and proceeded to drag him from the room. A few moments later they could hear a muffled noise that might have been singing.
The next morning Aletheia had barely gotten out of bed when she had encountered her father, massively hungover and utterly determined to do exactly what he had drunkenly swore to do the night before.
Which was just a little strange. Granted Aletheia had had little actual experience dealing with her father up to that point, but he’d never struck her as being the type to follow through with something. But he had followed through with this. Tirelessly…
The tutor’s voice popped into Aletheia’s ears. Immediately she snapped back into the real world––and found, to her considerable distaste, the porcine man was now doing his best to loom over her. “…Therefore, I humbly accept the position, and thank his Majesty for his municipleness. Moreover I wish to assure him that his daughter will be in very good hands…”
Not bloody likely. Aletheia’s gaze flicked over to Gus, who rolled his eyes and shrugged expressively. A moment later he mouthed something unflattering about the new tutor in Greek. Aletheia subtly nodded her head in agreement. He was going to be bad, he was going to be very bad––and, Aletheia realized with a start, he was glancing at her. “…and I have no doubt that her Highness will be most interested in commencing with my benefaction immediately.” Aletheia automatically pretended to be interested, “Oh, of course,” she said with a polite nod of the head, “and if I may say so, welcome to the castle.”
Weltschertz snorted, sending waves rippling through his girth. “Ah yes,” he said with a caustic glower, in a slightly withdrawn tone of voice that implied inner monologue, “A lovely welcome if the incompetents outside can conduct my luggage without incident. Insolent rabble…Not sufficiently repressed…” Suddenly his attention flitted back to Aletheia, “…Ah yes, your Highness, it is…Good…To be here…”
“Good.” Aletheia gritted her teeth and forcibly stopped the polite wisp of a smile on her face from evaporating. I will give him one honest opportunity to prove that he is not an ass before I break him, “We hope that you enjoy your stay here–”
“Oh yes,” The King butted in, “We are quite sure that the tutor will be enjoying his stay with us. And we should all hope that his stay with us will be a very long one.” Aletheia, assuming that a glower was being directed at her at that moment, didn’t bother to turn round to confirm her suspicion. Edward rose, “And now, pressing business calls. I bid you all a pleasant morning.” With that the King descended from the royal throne and turned to Gus. The pair exchanged a few quick words, and then exited from the room. Those remaining, not wishing to stay within the tutors presence for one minute longer than absolutely necessary, followed suit. Within half a minute Aletheia and Weltschmertz were the only people left in the room, swallowed up in an awkward silence. It was a moment before Aletheia could force herself to speak, “So,” she said, “shall we begin?”
“Certainly,” Weltschmertz responded, “Where are your apartments? I would begin my tutelage in someplace private.”
Aletheia’s response was more or less automatic, “Oh, it’s right this way Mr Weltschmertz, if you would follow me…”
Again the tutor snorted unpleasantly, “Your Highness,” he said pompously, “the first lesson that I shall give you is this; I am no mere ‘Mr.’ I am Professor Weltschmertz. Of the Saxcoburg-Gothan Weltschmertz. If you don’t learn a proper respect for a person’s station in life then you can never hope to progress anywhere in society. Remember that.”
Stunned silence followed. It was half a moment before Aletheia could force herself to utter a single, token,“Right.” By then any semblance of a smile had vanished from her face, and she could do little more than gesture for the tutor to follow her down a corridor. It was a few moments before the rage that suddenly filled her settled down into a single, coherent thought: This one, she thought caustically, is going down.
Just as she’d thought three dozen times before.
Aletheia sighed. She was tired. Tired of the idiotic, wearying struggle that never seemed to entirely play itself out, tired of the nonsensical morons who were imposed on her, tired of the bloody thirteenth century. Which she was forced to take one day at a time. And this was only Tuesday.
Aletheia was in for a very unpleasant Tuesday.
She wasn’t the only one though.