I woke up today feeling particularly irritable. I am not entirely sure why I was irritated- I simply was. When I glanced outside into the courtyard, the light was pitiful. It was dull and the sky was full of clouds. The wind a bit gusty too, and I did not look forward to walking to the morning assembly. Reluctantly, wishing I could simply sit by the side of my bed and stare quietly into oblivion, I donned my good clothes which did nothing to imbue me with any particular pleasure.
Being as I was, clean and dressed and, according to all appearances, awake, I found my morning meal by the stove. I chewed the carefully prepared breakfast out of consideration for its value as energy, but truly I was not hungry. My sister wandered in at some point and endeavoured to have a conversation with me. This did not last long for my replies were kept to vague polite grunts; nothing profound or demonstrating any real intrigue. I believe she was speaking about some flowers or herbs or whatnot she had found along the path that morning (she rose earlier than I, and was actually a sort of nymph-girl who spent more time among the trees and springs than anyone else. Her stories were generally interesting, but not this morning.)
That was my morning. And thus, in my mental state of half hypnosis, I found myself walking to the Assembly expecting and hoping for things to pass by quickly without incident. (Incidents did not usually happen and there was no reason to imagine they ever would).
That’s when I bumped into a gentlema- no wait, he was a scruffy street beggar of some sort, and he smelled like the worst parts of the city. His hands were clean at least, which I noticed because they grabbed my shirt and held me. I looked from his grip to his face, which was also clean, and smiling.
“You, Young man of the Assembly, well-dressed. Young man with a future of leadership, and of prosperity. Young man with every opportunity for glory and fame and hopeful things. Young man of youth and virulent things, filled with passion and ignorance and desire. You, young man, what are you doing here?”
He did not even ask my name. But here this stinking fellow was, speaking to me with a mocking tone in him. He touched upon my status, my values, my institution…
“Stop thinking young fool! I ask you what are you doing, answer me unless you wish to be sorry.”
Sorry? Was that a threat?
“What. Are. You. Do-ing. Here!?”
His eyes bulged, redder, and his grip tightened. I looked around nervously- no one in sight. I was probably late…no one would be outside for awhile- they were already in the Assembly, and the guards (who we generally did not require to be on high alert) were obviously else-
“Ow!” I winced. The bastard had slapped me in the face, hard! He then let go of me and walked a few paces away to sit on the steps to the hall. I wanted to glare at him, but instead I took care to dust off my shirt and start up the stairs away from him. This indifferent exit was horribly interrupted by a splitting pain in my chin, created by the contact it had abruptly made with a stone step. I noticed several different places along my near horizontal body (sprawled out along the wide ancient stairs) which also hurt very badly. I had tripped, and I could hear him laughing. I did not look at him as I hoisted myself from the ridiculous sprawl into a sitting position, and touched my now wet face (yup, it was bleeding). I fumbled for a handkerchief and pressed it against my chin which did not feel fractured or anything, and examined my legs and arms in the places they hurt.
“Didn’t I” he was laughing in hysterics between phrases “tell you” it was a mockingly deep laugh, like that of a seasoned professor “you would” he was even rubbing sweat off of his brow- it was not THAT funny “be sorry?!”
He burst into even more laughter at the end of his question, and while he did, I glanced at the sky. Gods, what have I done to offend thee? Should I entertain the company of this nasty itinerant?
I kid you not- at the very moment I finished the dispassionate prayer, a bird, having taken off into flight from one of the entrance pillars, shit on me. Not on my head, thank the Gods, but on my white front, which was also blotched with blood. I took a deep breath and turned to the man.
“Sir”, I said, standing up again, trying to hold my bleeding chin in a dignified way. He stopped laughing and smiled at me, and then held up a hand (a gesture I interpreted as “hush”).
“What are you doing here?” he repeated seriously. He was no longer smiling.
Why did he care? “I am attending Assembly–“
“No, you are not. You were late. You are often late, is it not?”
I looked at him…how long has he been watching my movements? Why hadn’t I noticed him before? I licked my lips. I figured I might as well confess. “Often Sir”, I confirmed.
“So, what are you doing?” He repeated.
I began to suspect this man was some kind of wise person…one of those lovers of wisdom or some sort…the questioning kind. Perhaps he would reward me for being profound. “Sir, I am here to gain the experience and make the friends that I will need as a future–“
“I don’t care.”
“I said, I don’t care. You are young, your future is your own. I am simply curious as to what you are doing here, right now.” He pointed to the steps several times as if to emphasize the ‘hereness’ of his ‘now’.
I hazarded a guess, “Talking to you…” My voice sort of curled up at the end of that statement. It was not a question, but sort of. He smiled at this; perhaps it was the right answer.
“And so you are,” he said, nodding in agreement. “Your actions do not show faith in this Assembly, or you would not be talking to me at all. You would be in there, among your peers and elders, learning your things. Is it not?”
Ought I confess? I mean, I did not exactly NOT have faith in the Assembly. I wanted to be good at what I was to become in the future, but I was fairly senior in my training and we are allowed a bit of lax–
“Stop thinking man. Tell me the truth. Who am I going to share your secrets with?”
I looked at him…he was naked. Yes, I forgot to mention that. He was quite dirty all over (except hands and face, and probably the bits I was too polite to look at long enough to confirm). Many beggars are clothed poorly, but he was actually entirely exposed. He was not exactly in a position to tell anyone anything they would believe.
“I prefer not to attend many days,” I said as honestly as possible.
“Do you know why?” His beard was a dark walnut brown.
Why did I not prefer not to attend? It was a good question. “It’s not necessary for me to—”
“So you believe you are capable of making decisions without understanding their discussion?”
“Well, that’s not what I-“
“Why don’t you attend? Even if they are not necessary you have a choice to attend, but you come often late. Why?”
He was quite the interrogator, but I glanced at my shirt with its colourful new stains and decided to play along. “It’s not very interesting I suppose”.
“Not interesting. What is interesting young learner?”
What? My sister’s stories are often interesting. A nice day is interesting…
“Young man, you do not seem to be very quick witted. Perhaps this is why you do not find it interesting.”
I scowled at him. “Sir, no-“
“Tell me what is interesting.”
I hated that the only thing I could think of were things about…stories, my sister, games. “Stories”, I said, feeling it was the least childish thing of them all.
He really must have been a philosopher. Only they wonder these types of things. “They are compelling I suppose.”
“Ah”, he smiled. “What is compelling?”
“Um, the drama I suppose. The suspense.”
He stood up and walked up to me, bracing my shoulders. He leaned forward and I was for a split second terrified he would kiss me, but he whispered in my ear, “What is suspense?”
I stood very still. His face was still close to mine and I could smell his breath, which was not pleasant, but not unpleasant either. It smelled like dirt, really. He laughed and stood back, letting my shoulders go as his arms rested at his sides.
I exhaled. Then I said, “Uncertainty, high stakes. That is suspense.”
“Complexity of relationships and helpful or harmful choices.” I answered fairly quickly to avoid what he might do next. I bit my lip. He smiled and sat down. I relaxed and decided to sit down as well.
“What else is interesting?” He said.
“Games” I admitted. I looked away. I hoped he would not ask what else because I did not want to mention my sister. What honour is there in finding your little faerie-sister interesting?
“What games?” He titled his head curiously.
I started to name a few- which he was unsure of, so I needed to explain. He questioned me about all the rules. I explained their logic, how they were played. He began smiling a lot which made me stop talking.
“Do games involve uncertainty, high stakes, and complexity of choices too?”
I thought about this. “They do. And concentration…they require focus on several variables to manage.”
“Tell, why is this Assembly not interesting to you?”
I was taken aback but this sudden reference back to the Assembly. I had almost forgotten where I was. “Well, is it meant to be interesting?” I questioned.
“Is a student meant to take interest in their subject of study?” He questioned back.
I looked up. How long was this going to last? “The best generally do I suppose.”
“And the worst?”
“So what kind of Assembly man are you going to be?”
I resented this. I could see where his logic was going. Was he scolding me for not being interested enough in Assembly proceedings?! What was he, a beggar?! What did he know about–
“Tell me, do you know yourself better than a stranger?”
I looked at his feet. His toe nails were black, and his soles were too. I decided that this was a trick question but figured I might as well say something, so I said “Yes, I know myself better than a stranger”.
“And if someone were to make decisions about you, legally contracted to do so, what would you require of them?”
“Well, that they know me and my interests well enough to make such decisions.”
“And if they did not know you or your interests?”
“I would not think they were making a decision on my behalf.”
“And what would you do about that?”
“I would probably nullify their obligation; until they knew me well enough I suppose.”
“And your Assembly is making decisions on behalf of whom?”
“The public.” I straightened up. Despite its low points, the Assembly served an honourable purpose.
“Do you come to the Assembly to know the public?”
I looked at him sceptically. I was not sure if I should say anything. Finally, I spoke up, a little more assertively than I intended, “The public entrusts–“
“When do you make decisions?”
“I- during Assembly.”
“And when you do get to know your public?”
I frowned. This was causing my head to ache, and I was not sure why. Meanwhile, he twirled his beard.
“They send representatives–“ I started.
“Are these representatives the same as your public?”
I shook my head slightly to imply ‘Not exactly’.
This was not a good answer, because he got excited, his eyes widened and he shouted: “Then who are the representatives representing!?”
For the love of the Gods. “People! Bloody people! It’s a system. It works!”
He looked very surprised that I shouted back. “How do you know it works?” He asked, in a suddenly calm voice.
“Because it does.” I said, also in a calm voice. “The people from each locality appoint a representative who come to the Assembly and meet with the Republic Legislators to make decisions—”
“Do you know how these people appoint their representatives?”
I sighed. “That is up to each locality. It is based on a tally.”
“What about the people who do not make the tally?”
I rolled my eyes. “Well they don’t get counted I suppose.”
“So they are not represented.”
“No I suppose not. It is not a perfect system if that is what you are getting at.”
“But it is good enough? Is it good enough for women, children, those with no rights, those with no land, no home, those who are ailing physically, or mentally, those who cannot travel, or suffer exhaustion? Is it good enough for them?”
I nodded defiantly. It had better be good enough because it was what we had. My brain was really hurting.
“How are these uncounted people considered?”
“The representatives are meant to—”
“So you are telling me, the fate of all those people rests on the shoulders of the representatives who are not chosen by them, and the decisions they make on their behalf, given those stakes and that complexity, is not interesting to you?”
I was probably blushing. He was scolding me like a professor. It was not our custom to attend every single hearing, and it was impossible to represent everyone’s interests. Why could he not see that? To imply I did not care…
“Your actions and your words indicated a lack of interest in your Assembly, young man.” He said it as if he could read my thoughts. Why did I admit that to him earlier? And, why didn’t I find it more interesting? It was terribly important.
The man was standing again, playing with his nipples on his chest. I watched him absent-mindedly. If I started off the day irritably, I felt I would end it in misery and self-doubt. I hated to think of myself as one of those stale faced legislators, making decisions that the balding representatives were trying to push forth to win their locality some benefit. A benefit that was no doubt mainly for their houses or their clout. Those men competed with each other, and while they wanted the help of our unity, they threatened to be entirely independent when we made demands upon them in return. Reasonable demands. My father often comes home after late nights of work (sharing drinks with, and writing correspondences to men and concerned nobles about their interests), and says, “By the Gods, if the Minotaur was a statesman, Theseus would have been devoured before stepping foot in the Labyrinth”.
My father’s passion came from his conviction that he could change minds. I’ve found that these men don’t change minds; if they do anything, they delay and scheme. Their company was exhausting, and uninteresting.
The itinerant, now stretching his arms up and down, frowned at me. He stopped his exercise and said: “Do you know the public through the representatives?”
“Well, not thoroughly sir.”
“Would you like to?”
I shifted. “Sir, this is how the system works. It’s the best we can do. Our population is in the hundreds of thousands. We cannot represent them all honestly all the time.”
The man smiled. “If you could know them even a little better, and make your decisions based on what more you could know, would you endorse this method to your Assembly and the public?”
“The representatives would never hand over their auth—”
“If you knew a better way, would you endorse it?”
I took a doubtful tone. “IF there were a better, practical way, then yes, I am sure.”
“Would your Assembly?”
I hesitated. I knew those men. I knew my father among them. There was no better way and they staked their lives on it. I could not imagine anything new being implemented. No kingdom outside of our own has implemented cooperation as successfully as we have. At least, that is what everyone believes- and their pride would not allow criticism. I doubted it was possible to do things better…He could have been asking me about capturing a live Titan and I would have found that more plausible. But…knowing the public ‘better’ did not honestly feel far-fetched. And these men were mostly good men. I knew my father. He hated failures and injustices, but he accepted them because it was, to him, the best we could hope for.
Finally I said, “The Assembly believes in its cause. If there were a better way, practical and everything, they would endorse this. Now, are you going to tell me some magical way to do things?”
“Well, would that be interesting to you?” He smirked. Well, he looked genuinely curious actually, but I felt like he also smirked.
“It would be interesting if such a thing exis—”
“As long as you know what is interesting. A hero would be fairly lost if he did not find his quest captivating. But if you insist on being lost, go join your old men.”
He shooed me away and added, “Go tell them how you were accosted by a madman. Tell them I was drunk and belligerent.” Then he sat down some distance from me and closed his eyes. It was amazing how he at once blended into the backdrop of the steps. He was barely visible, even when I knew he was there. I wanted to forget about him, and it seemed an incredibly easy thing to do.
In the Assembly Hall, I wedged myself into a back row, sitting on a hard bench in a dark corner. I had to hide both my tardiness and my stained shirt. I listened to the man currently speaking, a wirey haired middle-aged man representing the Drake locality. He spoke with an insistent tone, reading some proposal. Looking around I saw that many appeared much like how I felt this morning. We knew this was all for show- the real negotiating already happened behind closed doors, in the correspondences and talks that people like my father initiated.
I sat forward to hear what they were saying but my thoughts wandered…How much of what he was saying was reflective of his locaility’s public? There was no way of knowing…not the way things were. I found myself wishing around for an impossibility, wondering, is there a better, and practical, way to do this? That thought held my attention for quite some time. I believe I was the last to exit the Assembly Hall at the end of that day.
Story Copyright: Saying Sooth 2018
Image: Jules Bastien-Lepage, “Diogenes,” Musée Marmottan, Paris, 1905.