- 7 -

O, Mighty Caesar!

IT WAS ANOTHER cloudy day in Imperial Rome. The downtrodden remained in the dust, injustices met no retribution, answering machine messages remained unanswered. It was a truly dark hour for the human spirit.

Although the human spirit was rather sickly, school spirit was well enough to go outside and play. Which was why the Trojan High School Marching Band was taking the bright yellow school chariot to the palace of the incredibly mighty Caesar, emperor of all Rome, and, as they supposed, the entire world. (That's not true. As we now know, the entire world is run by a syndicate of toaster oven manufacturers, and always has been. All history boils down to toaster ovens. What, you don't believe me? Fine, baste in denial.)

I have mentioned the travelling accourterments of Sumerian god-kings: the average, everyday Sumerian god-king travelled about in a golden chariot stuffed to overflowing with eunuch guards, preceded by a train of lotus-strewers and conceded by a company of bowing and curtseying Sumerian peasants, who were compelled to touch their toes every time the royal chariot passed.

Anyway, that has little to do with a chariot full of rowdy Roman schoolchildren of teenaged years except perhaps the smell. Awful in both cases. Combine that with the noise, and I should suppose that about the only thing worse than a cloudy day in Rome with a group of high-schoolers would be a dinner date with a rabid marmoset. I might be wrong.

Since I'd rather not talk about this, I will quickly cut off this train of thought and head immediately to Caesar's court in the mighty imperial palace.

Ah, the glories of Caesar's court! The peacock feathers dangling off the celing! The bright red carpet made of angora fur! The bejewelled dancers roving about strewing silken veils all over the place! The goldleaf pillar thingies with the flourishes at the top... oh, you know what I'm talking about!

Those assembled in Caesar's audience chamber held a reverent hush. The last stand-up comedian had just waved good-bye with a crack about the government's new gun control policy, and the floor show preceding the ceremonies was over. Babbling, fluent murmurs streamed like water from the antechambers behind the cushy throne. Caesar was coming.

He emerged with little pomp, really, for all the glitter and shine of the court. People began throwing themselves about his feet; it was quite the job for Caesar to step over them all. He foibled in stepping on one of his cupbearers' hand; the shrill yelp made everyone cringe. As Caesar assumed his throne, a great oohing and aahing rose from the crowd; Caesar acknowledged their adoration with a smart nod of his head.

A glorious fanfare was played by the aforementioned Trojan High School Marching Band in the corner. Dulcimer and cymbal sang their praises to the Roman leader. A choir of rapturous voices, intent and focused on their object, sang the chorus: "O, mighty Caesar! Hail, mighty Caesar!", which was then repeated, held out as long as the strong and youthful singers could manage: "Oooooh, mighty Caesar! Haaaaaail, mighty Caesar!"

Caesar nodded at the singers, who increased their fury. "O, mighty Caesar! Hail, mighty Caesar! Oooooh, mighty Caesar! Haaaaaail, mighty Caesar!" Several of the altoists were by now in tears; many of the more hispid members bellowed out in incredibly verbating voices, and made vast sweeping gestulations with their arms. The fervor of the singers was very embarrassing, indeed.

The court hated it; the emperor loved it. He clapped his hands together and smiled broadly. "Wonderful! That's simply wonderful. Look how our glorious Rome has shaped these fine youths! What was that, Centurion Incredulous, about the unbridled chaos in the streets wrought by our children? Are you not glad that they are not running about the streets, murdering and raping like a hoard of Visigoths?"

Centurion Incredulous nodded his head grimly. "Indeed, Rome has shaped them well. Look at their weak buckling; observe their prostrations. They're clay whose legs have been vandalized by their sculpturer, dug into deeply for their youthful substance and strength. How can an empire stand when its strongest members have weak legs?" Indeed, the singers were now bowing and on knees, laying prone and throwing themselves against the masonry walls, singing their hale and hailing praises. It was a pathetic show.

"They're not Vandals, by sight, nor do they associate with that ilk, I should think," said the clueless ruler.

Centurion Incredulous merely covered his eyes with his hands.

Caesar glanced to his royal scrivener, who was nibbling the end of his stylus.

"Hear ye, hear ye!" Caesar said, motioning for silence. The band stopped playing and the singers stopped singing so abruptly that Centurion Incredulous almost fell backward. "It is time for an imperial edict!"

"Ooh, an edict!" the sophmore girls giggled, clapping their hands in glee. "Hooray for imperial edicts! Let us hear Caesar's edict!"

"It is now, and shall henceforth and forever be," Caesar began in a majestic tone, "that within the bounds of the Roman empire... which is the entire world," he added for his royal scrivener, who was hurriedly writing the edict on a waxed diptych, "attempting suicide will be a capital offense for all Roman citizens!"

"What a happy decree! How wise Caesar is! How happy it will make people!" said the sophmore girls, bouncing up and down. "How much fun to be in an emperor's court!"

The scrivener, having finished taking the edict down, gave the diptych such a forceful period that the stylus stuck in the wood, and had to be yanked out with some effort. The emperor, seeing this, added, "And may all of Caesar's decrees be as boring as this one."

"Hear, hear." Centurion Incredulous seconded.

"You, servant!" Caesar addressed a hapless peon, who looked about nervously, fidgeted his hands together, and meekly answered, "Yes, m'liege?"

"Fetch me a mercury-tainted goblet of wine, and be quick about it! I'd pay an underling's life for a drop of vine today."

The servant hurried away, bowling over a couple of over-eager band members in the process, and presently reappeared with the requested wine.

"Thank you, good servant. Set yourself in the dungeon while I decide whether to spare your life or not; I suppose it depends greatly upon how drunk I become."

Two of Caesar's guard carried the wretched man to the dungeon.

"Now, what is the latest news from the Asian front, Centurion Incredulus?" Caesar asked.

"I meant to tell you, sir Majesty. General Flummox was run through in battle with a wooden fork, General Querious drowned in the fording of the Hellespont, and Legion Forty-Second was ambushed by a touring party of Galatians. All higher ranking officers were slain, and the minions were shackled and sold into slavery in the Orient."

"That's not good news, Centurion Incredulous. Tell me something cheerful, or face execution." Caesar's goblet of wine had somehow become a dainty dematasse, made of porcelain, and filled with steaming water. He raised the cup to his lips and pinkied the water, with a studied grace, down his throat.

"Well, your Caesarship shines like the sun, and speaks like an angel, and smells like a rose, and overall is as peachy keen to a degree exceeding even your most elevated stature."

"That's better. Are any of your children thinking about entering the armed forces?" Now Caesar cupped a tall, frosty glass bottle in his hands. He uncapped it, and downed a drink of milk. As he removed the bottle, he left a hideous milk mustache, which did not fit his imperial dignity at all. One of his servants approached him with a washcloth and tried to wipe the milk off; Caesar began to brush the man away like a mosquito. "Get away from my massive edifice! Have you no respect for the right, holy and over-all nice stature of your ruler? Are you so impetuous as to bib your emperor with a washing towel?" Caesar was (with no concern for his regal modesty) now bunched up in his throne, flailing his legs in the air, trying to kick the poor man away. "Guards! Guards! Shouldn't you be killing this man or something?" At this, the servant wisely backed away, leaving half of the milk mustache still mantelling his emperor's lip, the other half smeared all about his chin, cheek and nose.

"Band! Play more praises to me. It is about time for some royal audiences!" As Caesar gave the order, a drop of milk fell from his chin.

The drums beat. The chimes rang. The voices assaulted. "Oooooh, mighty Caesar! Haaaaaail, mighty Caesar!"

"Oyez! Bring in the first of today's newly-captured and humiliated kings, that he may prostrate before me and vow his eternal allegiance!" Caesar ordered.

In came two soldiers escorting a tall tribal chief, shackled at the arms and legs in thick chains. The chief was very impressive, clothed in the skins of animals most present could not identify, in robes lined with gorgeous white feathers. The guard at his right carried his ceremonial spear, the handle of which was encrusted with turquoise.

"Who are you?" Caesar asked.

"I am sorry. Do you not have a court announcer?" the chief answered.

"Yes, I do have one, but he was summoned to the Oracle of Delphi to judge their annual brownie bake-off. Since my crier is out, it would please me to have you introduce yourself."

"That is fine. I am the warrior chief of the Kayhaial tribe, outside of Gazi, exit three on Appian Way 5. We and our forefathers are the keeper of many secrets unknown to your culture. We have seen the source of the Nile, we know how to extract poultices from the deadliest viper snakes, and we dexteriously weave clothing of reeds stronger than any of your bronze breastplates."

"That is most interesting," Caesar said, twiddling his forefingers. "Tell me, what are those blanch plumes protuding out all over your costume?"

"They are feathers from a sacred ibis, greatly revered by my people. They are very rare birds anymore; I myself have never seen one. These feathers have been in the ceremonial gown of my tribe for centuries."

"That is also an intriguing offering. But, to business."

"I pledge my allegiance to you, the Roman emperor. I and my people vow to subjugate to your decrees, although we hope to keep a measure of domestic rule for ourselves, and hope for freedom to carry out our native festivals and ceremonies unhindered."

"Nicely said. That done, cavort, gambol!" Caesar ordered, with much relish. "Debase your humanity for us! Act idiotic and foolish, that we may be appeased!" Here Caesar used the royal plural, as nobody in the court enjoyed these games like he did. They bore the load as they had to: Caesar's court was a tiring place for a man of sense, and an enraging place for a man of pity.

The noble king did not reply, but looked dumfounded at the Roman emperor. The guarding soldiers removed his chains so he could carry out Caesar's fancies.

"Well, go about it. We don't have all day. Jump around like a ninny for us! Humiliate yourself! Oh, perhaps you need music! Band, strike up the drums and play some vaguely savage music for us!"

The chief scowled viciously at Caesar, but obliged him with a harvesting dance of his people.

"No, no, that's too dignified!" Caesar shouted over the drums. "You're not acting silly enough! Be barbarous! Act uncivilized! Flaut yourself about, flail your limbs some more!"

The chief danced with more frenzy, but did not disgrace himself to Caesar's liking. "Stop! Stop!" came the shout, and the band and the dancer both stood silent. "Take his feathers from him, centurion."

Centurion Incredulous did as he was told, much to both his and the now-dethroned king's dismay.

"Now, pluck one off." The centurion knew what was coming next, and didn't like it one bit.

"Tickle him with it!" said the voice of doom.

Harrowed, Centurion Incredulous took to the man with the long ibis feather. The king, much to Caesar's delight, turned out to be very ticklish, and was soon rolling on the palace floor in a fit of choking laughter. Despite his laughs, there was obviously rage and disgust mixed in the man, and Centurion Incredulous couldn't tell whether the king's tears were from the cruel tickling, or from the downfall of his people. Centurion Incredulous sniffled.

One of Caesar's attendants sidled closely to his regal master, and spoke, "Great Caesar, you do realize that you are setting precedents for your people and Caesars who will follow you, don't you? Such vulgar habits have a way of propogating... and if today you make the conquered dance in debasity, perhaps tomorrow you will seek turnings in more... shall I say, carnal endeavors. A forced genuflect for your pleasure may grow into massacre."

"If that's the case, it's not my worry; I'll be drawing the sword! Ha, ha, ha! O, ha ha ha!" Caesar twittered in his disgustingly stuffy laugh. It seemed to assault everything a laugh was meant for.

At this time, a red silk bellcord dropped from nowhere to hang next to Caesar's throne. He stared at it, let its presence register, and not giving it a second thought, tugged at it. It came undone and fell to the ground in coils. Caesar looked to the heavens a while, waiting for a response, and then, greatly disappointed, turned back to his evening entertainments, still squeezing the end of the bellcord tightly in his fist.

"That's enough humiliation." said Caesar. Centurion Incredulous immediately stopped tickling the only reasonable ruler in the place, and helped him to his feet and back into his shackles. "Oh, how edifying it is to beat somebody into the dust! I shall teach my sons and daughters to relish it as I do. Say, where are the precious little tykes?"

"You sent them to the temple of Bacchus for some coming-of-age rites." somebody answered, rather timidly.

"Good heavens, did I really? I don't remember doing that at all!" Caesar said.

"You were carousing with Bacchus yourself at the time, as I recall."

Somebody in the crowd realized that this unpleasant train of thought would get somebody killed, and motioned to the high-school kids. The band began their oblation afresh, only this time set in a key a few steps higher and more frenzied: "Oooooooh, mighty Caesar! Haaaaaail, mighty Caesar!" And this time, they even added a refrain: "Oh, Caesar is the best... he is the greatest ruler that there is.... there's never been a dictator of the world like Caesar!" This refrain had been written by a young frosh, who was very proud of it.

The ineffable Caesar sneezed.

"That was very sweet! We enjoyed it very much," Caesar exclaimed in the royal plural, handing a laurel to one of his servants to present to the young songwriter.

"I never knew a plural could be used to describe something so little." Centurion Incredulous said under his breath. Fortunately, nobody heard him.

Caesar clapped his hands together for more attention - the baby. "Come now, bring me the next exalted ruler so I can steal his glory from him, belittle him, taunt him, and engage in like bullyish activities. It's fun!"

Centurion Incredulous stepped forward. "There are no more rulers to humiliate."

"That's it? We only toppled one crowned head today?"

"Yes, all our other campaigns were vicious failures."

"Hm. Maybe we'll have better luck tomorrow. Is there any one else who desires the royal Caesar's audience?"

"Yea, one other. He calls himself 'the Voice of Things Future,' from Bristol."

"What, another prophet? Another soothsayer?"

"Actually, he identifies himself as a rag-and-bones man, a jack-of-all-trades, a number of other compounded hypenated titles I didn't recognize, and a tickler... I mean, a thinker, nay again, he's a trinker... no, a tinkler... dreadfully sorry, a TINKER. Excuse my lisp. I bruised my lips kissing your hand."

"Your lisp is excused. For all the names, he may be amusing. Send him in."

"Aye, m'liege."

The vast double doors were opened. A strange and small figure entered Caesar's chamber. He was dressed in ragged, but curiously clean, clothes; his brownish hair was dishevelled but oddly symmetrical; and wisps of fog trailed around him like some kind of ethereal robe.

He slowed just inside the chamber to look all about him. His mouth hung open, his eyes shone widely and bright. He glanced at one of the tittilating veil dancers Caesar enjoyed so much, sighed with pity, and seemingly from nowhere drew a grey cloak, which he set around her shoulders.

Centurion Incredulous raised an eyebrow. He didn't think Caesar would like this man.

The strange man picked up an ibis feather from the floor, and stood for a minute looking down at it; nobody could see the expression on his face. He walked to the high school kids carefully stowed in the corner behind the eaves and started motioning them in pairs. He finally came before Caesar himself, ruler of the world. Nobody could guess whether this man had journeyed years to see Caesar, or whether he was just a wanderer who had happened to be in the neighborhood.

"I shall announce myself to the mighty Caesar!" the man blurted, giving a bizarre salute. "I am the unique Voice of Things Future, born in Bristol, reared on the milk of second sight, tutor of oracles, he who sees starshine when he closes his eyes, he who dreams nightly of what is soon to pass and he whose noon premonition lays out the sequence of events far in the future. I see so obtusely beyond my lifetime which such acuteness that many cannot believe me; they will never see that which will prove me correct. I will advise you. I will expound your soul, if you can bear the telling before this... eh," here he gave an uncomfortable pause, "audience."

"You are the audience," Caesar retorted. "Your speech is strange. You don't have a Bristol accent."

"That may be understood. You see, in my youth, I was exposed to a multiplicity of ethnicities as should astound even you, ruler of a farflung empire. My infant barber was a Russian, my yearling mutton-merchant a Turk, and my childhood piano teacher a Swede. All of their accents have combined in me, and in my cacophonous surroundings I've adopted a rather palatable tongue gumbo, which fits me well, if it fits me only."

"No, your speech itself is strange," the bewildered Caesar replied, "not only your accent."

"I must admit that, in my Pentecostal surroundings, where all tongues mesh and become one, I've adopted oddities of speech which should disturb a master of the conventional such as yourself, Most High Longwindedness. Weavers of scarves wide and long do not concern themselves with hemming the fringes, but only extending the whole, and assuring an overall pleasing appearance. A tatter at the sides is all I am, and pleased to be of Your Loftiness' service."

"You say you are the Voice of Things Future? Then tell me, what does the future hold, good oracle?"

The Voice of Things Future gravely shut his eyes. His facial muscles relaxed, and he wore an odd grimace that would have made Centurion Incredulous smirk, had the occasion not been so solemn: here was a man about to prophesy to the ruler of the entire world.

"I see... Oh, heavens! I see!" the Voice began. "I see... blood! Daubs of blood!"

"You see blood in the future, oracle - what kind of blood?"

"Red! Oh, so red!"

"No, that's not what the great Caesar meant. I demand to know more of this vision!"

"I see blood... not meaningful blood. It is not the blood spilt in old age, or on the battlefield, and it is not the bloodshed of childbirth. This is bootless, causeless, meaningless, empty blood!"

"This is a horrible revelation, indeed. What is the instigator? Can causeless blood have a letter?"

The Voice of Things Future opened his eyelids... but not his eyes. His stare was blank and fixated; nobody in the court could tell what manner of trance the Voice was caught in.

"Blood stains your toga!" He shot his pointing finger at Caesar. "Yes, your toga! Ha! Your fine snail-dyed trappings are coated, covered, in blood! Not blood spent just yet, but, oh! The day will come! The day will come, Your Majesty! The time is arriving, Royal Highness! 'Till then, I'll sneer by the sun, and mourn by the moon. The means to end one million lives graces your pinky like a thimble - what dreadful accords are found in the whole! What wonders will be wraught by your progenerate! What a vision I see for your future... oh, I cannot relate, I cannot it tell!"

Caesar grew red with fury, and soon everyone else saw Caesar as the Voice saw him. "You must die! You must die! You must..." and here he became so furious he could not stammer "you must die!" anymore.

One of his attendants took him aside. "Sire, you made an edict only last week that you cannot put a man to death without first pronouncing his name. Remember? The executioner asked it for taunting purposes..."

"Oh, yes. Even the mighty Caesar is not greater than the law... unless he chooses to be. Voice of Things Future, I demand to know your name!"

"My name? You shall know my name, even if it is to kill me. But, oh, it has been so long since anybody has spoken my name to me! I've been feared, taunted, avoided, but never called by my name. The mud I habit takes me as I am."

"You're mad, but I'll know your name, if I must ask Rumpelstiltskin."

"My name.... I am... I am Nathan! Yes, that is who I am! Call me Nathan! I'll accuse you, Caesar! I am a Nathan!"

"Then a Nathan you shall die! Carry him out, and then carry his execution out... and swiftly."

It was dusk as the soldiers led Nathan the Voice out the side of Caesar's palace toward the execution grounds. The Trojan High School Marching Band boarded their hornet-colored school chariot and headed home. It had been a long day, and they needed to get some rest. Tomorrow they were taking a field trip to the Colosseum.

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