Years after the coming of Tromp the Usurper, the deposed and now despondent Emperor Yeswecan handed his faithful retainer, Lord Bidentime, the last great treasure still in his possession – the master files for the campaign posters that bore what was both his Imperial Name and his message – and went away, taking with him only his long-suffering companion MaBelle.
Though he was not old by the calendar, long brooding on the former splendor of what had been his realm had aged his body and crazed his mind, driving him to folly and destruction. He and MaBelle conspired to evade his secret escort and, having done so, left his motorcade of one in a parking lot at the end of the Long Bridge, and walked out onto the Mall, the Emperor’s Grounds.
When he got to the Imperial Residence, the gate, inexplicably, was open. MaBelle begged him to beware, but he paid her no mind, and he walked proudly into the mansion as one who claims the authority of election. But as soon as he did so, the guardians returned, slammed the gate shut, and shooed MaBelle away. And Yeswecan did not come out. That day, or the next, or the next. MaBelle, dodging security, vagrancy, and coronavirus patrols, kept vigil.
Finally, on the morning of the fourth day, there was a commotion at the gate, and a body bag was tossed through it. MaBelle, fearing that this was Yeswecan, but wary of detection and ashamed of her by-now conspicuously disreputable appearance and smell, started to creep closer. Then a loudspeaker positioned on the other side of the gate blew her cover.
“We see you, woman. And smell you. Pee yew. Come here, and make it quick. We have a job for you.”
MaBelle, seeing no alternative, stood, came out into the open, approached the bag. It was transparent, and inside were Yeswecan’s mortal remains. They had not been treated gently; MaBelle was caught in that horrid space between sobbing and retching. Then she noticed the roman numeral XLV, scrawled on the bag, carved into Yeswecan’s forehead. XLV – the Usurper’s mark. Through her sobs, she heard the private jibe that Yeswecan used to share with her, and their inner circle: “We can be thankful that he didn’t choose XLII as his mark.”
There was a chorus of harsh laughter from inside the mansion. And then the loudspeaker blared again.
“Thus shall all who claim fraudulent authority be treated. Go. Tell them. Tell all of them. I am the rightful Emperor of this realm, and so shall I remain. Go. And take your fee.”
A paper airplane flew out of the gate, smacked MaBelle in the chest, dropped to the ground. She stooped, picked it up. It had been folded from an expired official document, an application for coverage under the now-defunct Imperial Health Assurance program, decreed by Yeswecan. Its nose had been weighted with a dime.
Such was the tale that MaBelle, after a shower and a change of clothes, brought back to Lord Bidentime and his retinue. And when Bidentime had wept and tore his shirt (he having neither hair nor beard to tear), he fell silent. A full week he sat and said nothing. Then finally, he stood and screamed “This cannot be borne!” There was no response. The room he was in was empty. He grabbed his phone, texted “This cannot be borne!” to MaBelle. She replied, “No shit.”
The War of Restoration had started without him. It had previously been a bloodless war, waged in the dark and dank cisterns of the internet, but now it was on the surface. It had started slowly, with the call to arms met with a deafening chorus of “What? You mean me?!?“, but the viral videos of Yeswecan’s mangled corpse swayed enough of them to beat down Tromp’s minions and lay siege to the Imperial Residence. It was not easy, or quick. Both sides were as pitiless in combat as they had been online, and there was death and cruel deeds aplenty. Finally, a massive frontal assault overwhelmed the Residence, and from its wreckage, the warrior Kamhar pulled Tromp, cringing and whining. He was buried in sand up to his neck in the Rose Garden, the dime was branded to his forehead, and a stack of expired Imperial Health Assurance application forms was laid nearby, with a sign encouraging passersby to use the forms to have a saw at where the Usurper’s Adams apple used to be. He lasted four days.
But there was no feast or song at the passing of the Usurper among the Restoration forces, for their dead, from the war and the accompanying viral plague, were beyond the count of grief. Fewer than half of them were hale, or had hope of healing even if Imperial Health Assurance had still been a boon to grant. Nevertheless, Bidentime stood before them and proclaimed, “We have the victory! The Empire is Restored!”
They answered, “Why do you emulate the Usurper and plague us with fake news? If this is victory, our hands are too small to hold it.” And, in turn, leaders from each of the dozens of tribes represented in the Imperial forces stood, and pronounced: “And all the time, treasure, and lives spent on this wastage should have been spent promoting our cause!” By the time all these proclamations had ceased, there was an angry buzz among the assembled forces, and four of the clans had already formed battle lines against each other.
Bidentime turned to his inner circle, the last survivors of Yeswecan’s entourage. “Surely you will stand by me, by Yeswecan’s legacy, will enter the Imperial Residence with me and begin the process of Restoration?”
The warrior Kamhar rose, faced Bidentime, spoke. “We will stand by you. We have bled and died here for you here, and will again at need. But we will not enter the Residence. You will not enter the Residence. Only I have been inside, and I tell you that, through the carnage, the Emperor’s Bane has survived, and lies in wait for you. Some more powerful hand than ours will be required before we, or anyone else, can enter the Residence and hope to prevail.”
A fell mood struck Lord Bidentime. He squeaked, “I will enter the Residence and face the Bane.” Ignoring all entreaty, he strode through his entourage in the Rose Garden, stopping only once to pat a pretty girl on the head (precipitating yet another crisis in the ranks). Picking his way through the debris at the entrance, he entered the mansion and, calling a challenge, passed through its wreckage-littered halls.
He found the Emperor’s Bane in the Audience Room. It bore no weapon, made no aggressive movements. It simply stood there, a vast viewing screen wreathed in supernatural fire, showing shifting panoramas of citizens of the Empire, what they were doing, what they were thinking. Bidentime stared, transfixed, while scene after scene depicted Restoration forces dissolving into petty squabbles, while the Usurper’s supporters marshalled their resources and, in a cruel irony, bided their time. And meanwhile, most of the citizens of the Empire returned to their prime activity of watching funny cat stills and videos for hours on end.
Lord Bidentime’s confrontation with the Emperor’s Bane lasted only a few seconds. He crumpled to the floor and knew nothing more. A low, sinister chuckle rumbled through the Audience Room.
With apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien.