Chancellor Kwol’s outspoken stance against imperial policy had clearly been irritating the Emperor’s inner circle.
That is why it was a surprise to him when he learned that, in recognition of his initiative and heartfelt vigor, he had been given the position of Imperial Right Hand. In the interest of fostering fresh ideas, the Emperor would sometimes reward an official who took a vocal stand in service of his district. The Emperor wishes every voice in the galaxy to be heard (so the announcement went), and for having the courage and leadership to give voice to such unorthodox ideas, the Chancellor was to receive a conspicuous promotion.
It was also strange that the Emperor’s inner circle had suddenly become polite and deferring almost overnight, and their former frostiness and grinding skepticism had disappeared. The Chancellor had chalked it up instinctual deference to his newfound power, and meekness for having guessed wrong about the Emperor’s opinion of him. But had he been a more astute man, he might have noticed a patronizing note in their mannerisms.
Something was unmistakably amiss in the first briefing session with the Imperial Third Hand, a thin and over-composed man named Cohrer. Kwol was instructed that it was customary for a man in his new position to affirm everything the Emperor said. It was not that he wasn’t allowed to express dissent, per se (the Emperor valued dissent greatly, he was reassured), it was just a customary way of speaking, like saying “please” and “thank you”, or “good day”, or “bless you” when a person sneezes. When the Emperor speaks to you or asks a question, it is polite to affirm it.
And then you can discuss the matter at hand?
The Third Hand’s face concealed a flash of both irritation and patronizing patience.
No. You must never volunteer that. That would be an irreconcilable mistake.
The phrase “irreconcilable mistake” had a kind of compressed cadence which identified it as a jargon code word.
“And to fail to affirm the Emperor when it is your turn to speak, by the way, that would also be an irreconcilable mistake.”
When he asked how he could perform his duties as hand to the Emperor if he couldn’t express a position, much less a contrary one, he was told that he would come to learn that later. First, he must master and internalize the proper etiquette.
“Things are different in the Palace. You are a smart man and a deft politician. I expect you should have no trouble picking up and adapting to new social decorum.”
The rest of the day was spent drilling this into the Chancellor, with the Third Hand role playing as the Emperor, and the Master of the Hand’s Affairs instructing him on his every blunder.
And so it was, after a week of conditioning, that Kwol was allowed to meet with the Emperor and accompany him on his outing to Aluvia.
Upon their arrival it slowly dawned on him what, exactly, Aluvia was.
The landing green was immaculately manicured; every blade of grass cut to the imperial standard 20mm, at the edges of the walkway tapered to an even 60 degree angle. Everywhere lush plants of all kinds from across the galaxy intermingling in regular arrangements, nowhere a brown leaf. Every tree tied off to regulation height, clipped flawlessly to 1-meter poly form, and planted precisely into its place within an elaborate Khanner-Badorff pattern.
What was alarming was that the attention to detail did not diminish as his gaze wandered out into the fields, and moreover not beyond the fields, up into the hills and further to the mountains— the Khanner-Badorff pattern was still visible, distantly, in what he might have called forests.
Cohrer had told him that there were no droids on Aluvia. In fact, since his appointment as Hand, he had not seen a single droid at all.
In the context of Aluvia, Kwol’s mind reeled. Not only was the entire planet a manicured garden, but it was maintained, every inch of it, by people.
The industry that would have to support them— just the gardeners alone— would fill another planet or two. Billions of families would live out their lives, in service of polishing tiny plot after tiny plot of the planet, keeping it perfect, all on the off-chance (which would certainly never come) that one day the Emperor might decide to fly in and gaze upon it.
Of course it could not be the immaculate sight of all those roses and fecundias that the Emperor cared about— he wouldn’t ever see them, after all, and if he wanted a perfectly manicured planet, he could have one staffed by droids at a far less mindbogglingly gargantuan cost. No, it was the knowledge that his subjects were obediently tending it for him that mattered. The planet was as much a garden of keepers as it was of plants.
And it was clear that this was the same reason for the absence of droids elsewhere in the upper echelons of the Empire— though droids were cheaper and more reliable, the human help was a far more conspicuous luxury.
“Good day for chints, isn’t it?”
Chints is a complex game that takes days to play out. The rules eluded Kwol, but he understood that the main appeal was that it revolved around the suffering of something small and helpless.
It looked like it was going to rain, but the Chancellor caught himself from pointing that out. The Emperor is here to play chints, Cohrer’s voice admonished him. That is why you are holding his chintsing sticks. That is why the hands dressed him for chints this morning. That is why you flew out to this planet today. He is clearly in the mood for chints. Are you suggesting that he do something else?
That would be an irreconcilable mistake.
“Lovely day for chints, Lord.”
Kwol had planned to keep an eye out for the moment in conversation, sometime after the two men had gotten acquainted to each other, when he could begin to edge past the oppressive etiquette and elucidate his ideas to the Emperor.
With every passing moment of the game, that opportunity seemed further away. The Emperor spoke only in brief commands to him, with a superficial civility completely devoid of interest or compassion— requests for this stick or that one, or to re-bind the cuckmouse please, or that’s enough thank you (which he quickly learned was jargon for “stand over there”). The intervening time was mostly silent, and when the Emperor broke it with a self-congratulatory “That’ll do” or a huff about his swing, his entourage would affirm him in a melodic round robin, and Kwol was humiliated to observe himself participating in it.
Kwol was embarrassed, too, to realize that he had failed to notice the difference between the entourage and the inner circle. The Emperor would disappear behind heavy oaken doors and argue with the inner circle, but with the entourage he almost acted as though he were in perfect solitude— Kwol now perceived that the illusion was never to be disturbed. It was almost as if the Emperor had created a small flock of perfectly silent hands to carry his things and tend to the objects surrounding him.
Ugh, it was right there in the job title. So stupid.
The night before he had planned to put in his resignation, the Chancellor dreamt that he was the cuckmouse, and he was placing himself on the tee while the Emperor loomed overhead and practiced his swing.
“This is a lifetime position,” Cohrer told him.
“Yes, I understand that. But I would like to decline it.”
“This is a lifetime position”, Cohrer reiterated. “The position and your lifetime are to end coincidentally.”
And so it became crushingly clear to the Chancellor— after all, he had a lifetime to observe and think about it— the nature of his role. Aluvia was a conspicuous display of subservience, and so was he.