On the three-hundredth and fifty-ninth year of the Second Regime of the Second Age of the Highly Noble Realm of Nonbec, two great and significant events occurred.
First, the census reported that the Highly Noble Realm had attained, at last, a population of one million free and fine and flourishing citizens.
Second, on the day of the grand parade to commemorate this occasion, Tigly, the Grand Marshall of Nonbec, had his pocket most audaciously picked. Were it not for the keen eyes of his Upper General at his side the thief would’ve escaped; as it was the scoundrel was apprehended after not more than a dozen paces, and after the parade she was brought before the courts to stand trial, be sentenced, and be imprisoned, in something like that order.
Tigly himself stood in witness, from behind a discreet and unobtrusive bit of panelling, for he was most surprised at the events that had unfolded.
Was this not the day that Nonbec had swollen to one million free citizens? Was not this cause for all to rejoice? Was not he, himself, Grand Marshall Tigly, the most beloved to ever hold his post? With baited breath he awaited the thief’s explanations, their rationale, their motive, their defense.
“Defend yourself,” intoned the judge, ceremony and boredom mixing into a rich porridge of indifference.
The thief remained silent.
“Defend yourself,” repeated the judge. “Defend yourself. Defend yourself!” and sixteen times more the judge repeated those words, until the prisoner was taken away with defense still unuttered.
It was a scandal. It was a wonder. It was unheard of. A criminal’s explanation could not harshen their sentence, only soften it. Lies might be spoken, but if uncovered, could not change this. It had been long centuries since a common pickpocket had been imprisoned – the fate of the despicable and uncontrollable only, now used for a mere thief.
If a doctor had been consulted, the explanation for this turn of events, unprecedented in all the years of the Second Age, might have been rendered visible: the thief was deafer than a post, and dumb to boot. But there was no doctor present, and so the Grand Marshall was left to his own bewilderment, and his own doubts.
“Tell me, my Upper General,” he asked the next morning at breakfast, “am I not loved?”
The Upper General’s face creased with downright geological thought as she consumed her first hard-boiled egg of the day; whole canyons carving themselves through her face. “More than some,” she said at last. “Less than others.”
“What?!” exclaimed Tigly. “But I have led Nonbec into the greatest flowering of free citizens ever to live? One million within our borders!”
“No one can be loved by everyone,” she said with a shrug.
“And would those who do not love me, harm me?” he asked.
The Upper General thought about this for three more eggs. “Maybe,” she decided.
“Do you know who these persons may be?”
“Would they set a pickpocket upon me, in the time when all were expressing their greatest love for me?”
The Grand Marshall fiddled with the shards of her last egg.
“Maybe. It is a wide world, and a full country. All things are possible, none unthinkable.”
The Upper General had been appointed to her post on account of her two qualities: unflinching determination in war and a ruthless commitment to absolute honesty. Many things might have been kinder, later, if she had been just slightly less scrupulous.
In the evening the Grand Marshall summoned his Head of Servitors. It felt wrong, to make the request he spoke under a full blue sky.
“There may or may not be plotters against me plotting uncertain things of unknown magnitude and unverifiable malevolence or malice,” said Tigly.
The Head of Servitors bowed. He always bowed. It was the only manner of communication permitted to the Head of Servitors, and in the nuance and flow of his bow there was much information – some of it graspable by the most unlettered farmhand, some of it interlayered meaning instructed only to the Grand Marshalls in their hidden and illuminated manuscripts. Nobody knew how the Heads of Servitors taught each other. Perhaps they had their own books, unknown even to the Grand Marshalls. Perhaps they simply got the hang of it.
The particular bow of this particular Head of Servitors relieved Tigly, who slumped happier in his chair. “Good. Please. I ask of you, find the guilty ones. Find them and halt them. Please. And do not kill them! We must know what is causing this.”
By morning there were seven trials running, whose defendants ranged from petty nobility to ostentatious nobility to a single highly disgruntled Servitor still in his blackened night-shift armour. All defended themselves in a most vigorous manner and specifically and thoroughly rebuffed the very inkling of a notion that they would ever hide and plot against the Grand Marshall in the shadows.
And Grand Marshall Tigly watched from behind his discreet and unobtrusive panelling and despaired, for in their eyes he saw the sullen embers of resentment and disgruntled tempers, and he knew that they wished him ill. By his hand he wrote, by the Head of Servitors it was carried, by the judge’s eyes it was read, and by evening all seven defendants were down in the cells. The one and only Highly Noble Prison of Nonbec was completely full, a situation that had not held sway since the Wicked Birthday of Grand Marshall Hom in the First Regime of the Second Age.
This caused many murmurs, which, like ripples, spread quicker than they look. They started in the courts and they seeped through the streets and they slid out to the very borders of Nonbec where they rebounded and reverberated backwards through the country over and over, a growing mutter and fearful fuss.
That month, as the Grand Marshall presided over the launching of Nonbec’s newest ship, voices mocked him from the crowd.
That night, as the Grand Marshall spoke to the Head of Servitors, quiet feet slipped into the city.
The next morning, as the Grand Marshall worried over his breakfast again, the cells were double-filled.
“Tell me, my Upper General,” he mumbled. “Am I not loved?”
“By some,” she said. “But fewer than before. There are rumours.”
The Grand Marshall turned paler than his omelette. “But I locked them up!” he wailed. “The Highly Noble Prison of Nonbec is double-filled! How can I fix this?”
“You can’t lock up everyone,” said the Upper General.
“No,” said the Grand Marshall miserably. “No.”
But he thought about that. And that very evening, the Head of Servitors fetched the Head of Construction, and soon the sound of fresh masonry became common throughout the palace. Nonbec Castle, like Nonbec, was growing. Downwards.
The new cells were barely built before they were overflowing. The markets in particular were rife with rumourmongers, all in the sway of the mysterious forces that spoke against the Grand Marshall. Servitors lurked there day and night, hiding in the shadows, under carts, on roofs. People hunched in the streets, eyes darting, hiding something and not sure what.
The Grand Marshall made his yearly address to the city, making much of the historical one million free citizens, of the fine new work being done in Nonbec Castle, of the fine harvest, of the orderliness of the markets. Nothing was said of the rumours.
The rumours, however, spoke for themselves. An old woman laughed at him as he finished his speech, too elderly for anything as silly as decorum.
“They will rise up!” she told him. “They will rise up together! Idiot! Dolt!”
Grand Marshall Tigly made no reply, so aloof was his dignity and majesty and also his hands were shaking. The servitors were already in motion as he quit the balcony.
Cells could not be constructed fast enough. Old chambers were repurposed. Wine cellars. Basements. Ancient nooks and crannies where foundations had slipped were hollowed and expanded. Some of the deeper rock was porous, and the caves were utilized. And overutilized.
Nonbec was growing emptier. Nonbec Castle, however, was overflowing. In its guts.
“Tell me, my Upper General,” asked Grand Marshall Tigly, “am I not loved?”
The Upper General considered this, then stood up, three eggs left uneaten. She took Tigly by his arm and led him out of the room, up to the stairs, up to the very highest room in the highest tower of Nonbec Castle, where she began to point.
“There, in the south streets, you are feared. You locked away their governing council. There, in the north ward, you are hated. You imprisoned the patron of the orphanage. There-” and she pointed beyond the walls “-in Kensilwalk, you are despised. Every mason was jailed, for not working diligently enough in your prison. There, in East Elsin, you are loathed. The doctor was taken, and his surgeon. And there, in Manymaps, there is no one there to love or hate you at all, because every single one of them is imprisoned beneath our feet.”
The Upper General then left Grand Marshall Tigly and his terror, and never again had breakfast with him. The Head of Servitors found her before noon.
The anniversary of the census arrived. One million free and fine and flourishing citizens. What more would this day bring?
The answer, as presented to Grand Marshall Tigly upon a clean wax tablet by the clean, waxen hands of the Head of Servitors, was less.
“Six hundred thousand?” he whispered. “Where have the others gone? Have they hidden them away? Have they left, betrayed us to our neighbours? Where have they gone? Where are they plotting? Unless. Unless.”
He bit his lip. He dared not ask questions of the Head of Servitors. He dared not ask questions of anyone, not since the Upper General’s answers had seared him so very badly.
But the questions asked themselves, and they asked them fiercely and unendingly and so very hotly that he would wake up sheathed in sweat and screaming.
So he ordered, and it was done.
It was not done neatly, but it was done.
It was not done quietly, but it was done.
It was not done quickly, but it was done.
It was not done easily, not at all, not even a little, not by the end.
But it was done, and in the end, Grand Marshall Tigly stood at the doorway into darkness, staring into the gaping throat of the quarry that had swallowed all that malice and resentment and spite, the Head of Servitors at his side, and he felt… better.
“You have performed your duties admirably and fully,” he said.
And the Head of Servitors bowed most deeply. And with a little nudge of Tigly’s foot, there was one more.
The Grand Marshall woke up.
There was no sound.
There was never any sound, that was the beauty of it. No mutters. No mumbles. No rumours. No whispers.
He was alone and he was loved.
He’d woken up. In the middle of the night. Alone.
And his hands were shaking again.
Grand Marshall Tigly followed the shaking of his hands with the soft slapping of his feet, all the way up they took him, high above, high above. To the tallest tower. To the highest room.
And there he looked, and everywhere he looked, everywhere he saw, he knew the answer to his question.
But his hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
He stuck them in his armpits and hissed, turning his back on that happy, empty view that did not ease his worry. No, no, no. They were all gone now. They couldn’t hurt him anymore. They were in the dark, packed together, packed under stone and crammed in crannies and gone, gone, gone, gone.
“Am I not loved?” he asked, for the first time in how long.
“No,” said the Upper General.
Grand Marshall Tigly did not want to turn around. But in some things, the mind has no say.
Three hundred thousand had gone into the cells after the Upper General, and four hundred thousand before her. Then three hundred thousand atop them all.
A million free and fine and flourishing people, packed together, down there in the dark. Growing mad, growing together.
He recognized the Upper General, he was surprised to see. Not her face, not her body – both had run together with a million others – but her geology. The thing before him was a stratigraphic nightmare, in flesh.
(Average age of Nonbec Citizen: thirty; thirty million years of history)
It was taller than his tower.
Grand Marshall Tigly opened his mouth to say something, or anything, or everything.
But for some reason, no matter how long the moment seemed to stretch, he couldn’t speak a single world.
And they rose up. From below.
The Third Age of the Highly Noble Realm of Nonbec is most easily distinguished from its predecessors by a simple metric: from that night onwards, the measurable population of the country has never altered from ‘one.’