Something had changed, or at least the City believed itself to have been changed in some way. To Matt, this was apparent at the moment he’d come through its gate. O the tannery was still there with its smell, just the same alright, and the pox-barn with its remote fires, and, well, it was all still there, but it felt different, somehow. And though a city, when you thought about it, could not really be said to have a belief, not per se, a city was, in the end, made up of nothing more than its constituent persons, so Matt stuck with his initial assessment, that the City indeed believed itself to have been changed in his absence.
He hadn’t seen people, the constituent persons, this riled up since old lady Hoover gave birth to a baby with two heads, and that was so long ago now. Perhaps there’d been another two-headed birth! Perhaps that was what all the riling was about, though this felt different, to Matt.
He scanned faces, all immersed in consultation or else gossip, and he searched for someone familiar. Any familiar face would do. The one he found was Abby’s. Upon her pleasingly ample breast, she balanced a bundle of some sort, yet another young child, probably. As he greeted her, too warmly perhaps, he stared at the bundle’s coverlet for telltale signs of multiple baby heads.
Abby said, “Haven’t you heard?” She said, “We’ve been conquered!”
Matt said, “Conquered?! Who in the blazes would ever want to conquer us? Seems like a waste of a perfectly good battle!”
But Abby was not to be swayed by this show of skepticism. She said, “An emperor! And he’s wonderful and kind and he cares about families. Livin’ in the mayor’s old place. You should go down and introduce yourself.”
He wondered what had happened to the old mayor, who owed him quite a lot of money, a pair of boots, and also a chicken. If this emperor fellow had gone off and beheaded the mayor, then Matt was just out the lot, he supposed. Or maybe, Matt did not know the ways of the law, a debt would pass on to the mayor’s successor.
And after Abby, he spoke to Bob Twain, who informed him the emperor possessed a quiet intelligence, and after Bob Twain, Dirk, from whom he learned the emperor was quick with a joke. And everywhere Matt went, every man, every woman, and every child was abuzz with stories and descriptions of all the very wonderful things there were to describe about their new emperor, who’d conquered them.
At last, Matt sat next to the tavern to think. He took a turnip from an interior pocket and had a bite. He thought maybe he again should leave town. Maybe it would pass, this… civic enthusiasm. This just wasn’t for him.
So he thunk and he thunk and right when he could think no more, that’s when he remembered Bran. Bran was no mere skeptic, no mere cynic even, but a full-fledged, unmitigated misanthrope. Bran, there was a real man and one who would never go in for all of this conquering emperor stuff.
He found Bran nailing together a new gallows within the city square. Like always, he was wearing his hood. Matt said to him, “Business been good?” Shrugging his bare and meaty shoulders, Bran exchanged the hammer for the humongous ax which Matt knew him to greatly prefer and leapt from the platform. Matt said, “Have you met this new guy yet?”
Swish. Pensively. Matt believed Bran to be swinging his humongous ax pensively. Bran said, “Yeah, I can’t really get a read on him.” Swish. “I’ll tell you what, though. He knows what garbage the people of this city are, I’ll tell you that. You can see it in the eyes. He’s going clean the rot out.”
Bran said, “You should go see him, Matt.” He said, “Maybe he’ll pay you that chicken the old mayor owes you.”
Well, that did it. Hardly does it even need to be said, though I will say it here anyhow, that Matt was going to have to march down to the old mayor’s hut and make his presence known to the new emperor. To size him up for himself, which is something he liked to believe he was good at, when the need struck him, as it did then. So he marched – it is not too strong a word – you should have seen him marching! He marched straight down the path to the old mayor’s hut and straight up to his door, where two soldiers with funny-looking metal masks parted to allow him access, and he marched right in.
Inside was darker than he expected. No candles and to see by, only the light from a convenient wind hole. The furniture looked like Matt’s, was Matt’s, probably. Emperors did things like that, didn’t they? Seize property? No matter how humble that property might be?
Matt said, “Hello?” and stood there staring at his old kitchen table. Through a doorway at the back came the sound of… Chimes? Tinkling? He could not be sure.
When the emperor came, eventually came, Matt believed him to be wearing, at first, a sheet over his head. It was not a sheet. Bits of light fluttered across the walls. He was about Matt’s height and as he approached, Matt took the measure of the man. Found his eyes amidst the tinkling.
Matt saw his shifting eyes, like slits, were those of a traveler. A man on a mission, a man who was owed something, a man who was never to be satisfied with the consensus of the constituent persons.
He moved, circling the new emperor, and almost magically, his face moved with Matt’s as the bits of light upon the walls danced in time. Shifting flashes from whatever it was that covered him.
Matt knew that face. There swept over him the shock of recognition and then also the recognition of why it was that Abby found the emperor to be a family man, and Bob Twain a quiet, intelligent man, and Dirk a joker, and Bran a hatemonger.
Matt laughed and exactly then, the face in the Mirror Emperor laughed too, recognizing itself.