“Sneaky bugger!” I muttered for what must have been about the tenth time.
We had now finished our dinner and Michael and I sat side by side in the middle of our cell gazing at the jar containing the Emperor’s last dream as it lay on the ground before us.
“I suppose, if nothing else, you have to rather admire the cleverness of it all,” conceded Michael thoughtfully.
“Sneaky bugger!” I repeated with added vehemence.
“The question now though is what do we do with it?” said Michael. There was a long pause. “I suppose we could just hand it over to the guards.”
“Are you kidding?” I exclaimed. “You heard what Amak said. Anyone found in possession of the jar will be executed on the spot.”
“He may have been exaggerating,” mused Michael doubtfully.
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “That speech he made about the palace guard being simple men certainly rang true with me.”
“There does seem to have been a certain stolid-ness to the ones we’ve come across so far,” agreed Michael.
“Exactly. I mean, I don’t know much about the recruitment process for the palace guard but I’ll doubt it includes many initiative tests. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to discover that the entrance exam only requires the applicant to stand stock still in the middle of a circle while the other candidates throw rocks at them.”
“Hmmm,” said Michael. “So what are we supposed to do with it then?”
“We’ll have to get rid of it,” I said simply. “Get it off our hands before anyone has a chance to discover we were ever in possession of the damn thing.”
Michael turned and looked at me. “And how precisely are we meant to get rid of a stolen dream while we’re locked inside a cell twenty feet below ground?” he demanded.
I looked back at him and gave a shrug. “It’s a bit of a puzzler, isn’t it?”
It’s a question we were still puzzling over more than an hour later. In that time we had considered what seemed like countless schemes for ridding ourselves of the Emperor’s dream but we had been obliged to discard each and every one in turn as either utterly impractical or ultimately unhelpful.
Michael’s initial brainwave that we should simply tuck the jar back away in the sack with the rest of the empty pots and wait for it to be taken out with the rubbish had been rather swiftly shot down by Gerel’s distinctly sniffy insistence that neither he nor any of his fellow guards were garbage men. Refuse collection it seemed fell alongside dinner in that category of services which prisoners had no right to expect the Emperor to provide. We would just have to wallow in our own squalor until we were either released or executed.
After that we could think of no way of freeing ourselves of the jar unless first we freed ourselves from the cell but the prospects for any sort of escape looked bleak. The walls were too thick, the bars too sturdy and Gerel showed no sign of succumbing to any of the finest flirting either Michael or I had to offer in our attempts to wheedle the keys from him.
We were still turning the problem over in an attempt to break out of this hopeless Catch 22 situation when a heavy tread of footsteps signalled the return of Gerel once more. Thinking it just another of his regular patrols, I was not inclined to bother looking up until a jangle of keys indicated that he was preparing to open the door.
“Come on, up you get!” Gerel called out, swinging the door open. “Time to get moving.”
Both Michael and I turned and scrambled hastily to our feet. “What’s happening? Where are we going?” asked Michael uncertainly.
“You’ve been summoned to appear before the Council in the Great Hall,” announced Gerel with a hint of awe. “The Emperor himself wants to see you.”
I instinctively threw an anxious glance down at the dream jar which sat alone on the floor, a little way apart from the other dishes and pots. Finally it seemed we were being given our chance to get out of our cell but what were we to do with the jar? If we were about to be presented before the Emperor then we could scarcely take it with us but neither did it seem a good idea to leave it behind. After all, if it were discovered in our cell whilst we were gone then even the palace guard shouldn’t have too much trouble figuring out who they should pin the theft on.
Looking over at Michael I seemed to read an echo of my own concerns writ large upon his face. “What do you suppose the Emperor wants with us?” he asked Gerel, apparently stalling for time.
“You are to be examined before his Council,” replied Gerel. “You’ve spent all day telling me of your innocence of any charges, now is your chance to proclaim it to the Emperor himself.”
I nodded distractedly, unable to think of anything but the dream jar. Sitting all alone in the middle of the floor it suddenly seemed to me alarmingly exposed.
“Do you suppose we’ll be coming back to this cell?” I casually asked, still playing for time while I tried frantically to think of somewhere to hide the jar.
“I suppose that will depend upon the answers that you give,” said Gerel with a touch of impatience. “Come on now, we mustn’t keep His Magnificence waiting.”
Still we both hesitated. “I’m sorry, it’s just we’ve never been introduced to an Emperor before,” said Michael, throwing another nervous glance in the direction of the jar.
“Keep your eyes lowered at all times in his presence, bow from the waist when instructed by the steward and never speak unless spoken to first,” instructed Gerel sharply.
“Right, I see,” said Michael thoughtfully.
“And never forget that the very worst thing you can do is fail to respond promptly to an Emperor’s command,” added Gerel pointedly. “Which is why we need to get moving right now.”
“Of course,” I muttered. My eyes fell upon the sack of dirty dishes in the corner. That seemed to be the best, in fact the only, place to hide the jar whilst we were gone.
“So come on, let’s go!” ordered Gerel with an impatient jangle of his keys.
“Right you are,” I said but instead of stepping out towards him I ducked down to my right. “I’d just better tidy these pots away before we go,” I murmured, hurriedly scooping up the dream jar and turning towards the sack in the corner.
Unfortunately Gerel’s reaction was far quicker than I might have anticipated. With a frustrated, “For heaven’s sake, leave that alone!” he swooped down towards me and snatched the jar out of my hand before I could even open the sack. Then, whilst I was still rising from my haunches with a half-formed cry of protest on my lips, he casually tossed the jar aside.
It’s a very tired cliché that at crucial moments things move in slow motion but just because something is a cliché doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not true. The jar can have spent no more than a second or two in the air but when I replay the scene in my mind it seems to spiral across the cell for an eternity before it finally hit the wall and shattered into several pieces. As the jar disintegrated a strange wisp of something utterly indefinable floated up out of the wreckage and melted away through the ceiling.
We all stood, frozen for a moment. Then Gerel, clearly puzzled by this unexpected flourish from what he had assumed to be an ordinary cooking jar, leaned forward to examine the debris. After a moment of sifting through the fragments he stood up clutching a large shard upon which could clearly be seen a delicately painted dragon. He looked at the shard, then at Michael and I and then back at the shard again before the penny finally dropped and he gave out a sharp cry.
“This is it!” he exclaimed excitedly. “This is the Emperor’s lost dream! You’ve had it all the time!”
“Not all the time actually,” said Michael. He took a deep breath. “Now, you’re probably not going to believe this but…”
“Ha! So much for your claims of innocence,” interrupted Gerel. “You are the very thieves the whole city has been looking for!”
“We’re not thieves, honestly,” I protested. “If you’ll just let us explain…”
But Gerel was in no mood for explanations. “I will take this to the Council in the Great Hall immediately,” he announced, shaking the painted shard of pottery at us. “And you will come with it. I must notify the Emperor at once.”
“Now, are you absolutely sure you want to do that?” I asked him in a most reasonable tone.
“Of course,” retorted Gerel, his eyes flashing angrily at what he took to be a spirit of criminal defiance on my part. Still clutching the pottery in one hand, he laid the other upon the hilt of his dagger. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way but you can rest assured the palace guard always do their duty. I’m sure the Emperor and his council will be most gratified to hear that the thieves are in custody and the Emperor’s dream has been recovered.”
“Except that the Emperor’s dream hasn’t actually been recovered, has it?” returned Michael.
“What?” snapped Gerel.
“I mean, what you’ve got there is just a bit of pottery,” Michael pointed out. “As for the dream, well…” He paused and raised his eyes towards the bit of the ceiling through which the contents of the jar had disappeared.
“But…” Gerel looked helplessly from the piece of pottery in his hand to the ceiling and back again.
“Are you really planning on going to the Emperor to tell him that you’ve just smashed his precious dream against the wall?” I gently asked him.
“But I didn’t… I wouldn’t… I…” Gerel floundered for a moment. “But I thought it was your dinner,” he finally said in a desperately sad tone.
“Perhaps you can explain that to the Emperor,” suggested Michael somewhat facetiously. “I’m sure he’ll prove most understanding.”
Gerel considered the prospects of this for a moment and then let out a low wail. “Alas, I have let down my Emperor and now my life is forfeit!” he cried. “I will be tortured to death, all my goods and property will be claimed by the state and my family will be ostracised.” He paused. “For my older children this is perhaps no more than they deserve but I am sorry for Tarek, my youngest… And perhaps Aliana too – I think maybe she is not such a bad girl after all.”
“I’m sure that’s not strictly necessary,” I protested. “If we just put our heads together I’m sure we can think of a better way out of this.”
Gerel slowly pulled himself together, staring at the floor and gulping several times. Finally, he looked up. “Perhaps you are right,” he said slowly.
“That’s the spirit!” declared Michael.
“Perhaps if we all go now and make our confession together before the council the Emperor will grant us the mercy of a swift execution,” suggested Gerel.
“No, wait a minute. That’s not what we meant,” I exclaimed.
“It is no use,” said Gerel sadly. “The palace guard will continue to search until they discover what has become of the dream. The Great Lord in the Sky will see to it that the truth is revealed to the Emperor sooner or later.”
“Okay, but who’s to say he has to reveal all the details,” I objected. As I thought over our dilemma it occurred to me that Michael and I were really in much the same predicament we had been in for the last hour or so. Sure, now we had a shattered jar instead of an intact dream to dispose of but the essence of the problem was still the same – how to get rid of the evidence without anyone seeing. And with Gerel, a member of the prison guard, involved our prospects had to be a little brighter. “If we could just think of a way of presenting the facts to the Emperor that doesn’t end with our execution…”
“But I am expected to present you to the council in the Great Hall at this very moment,” protested Gerel.
“Then why don’t we just sweep this little mess away for the moment,” suggested Michael, scooping up the shattered fragments of the jar and dropping them in the sack. “We’ll go and say our piece to the Emperor and then come back and figure this out.”
“I cannot lie to my Emperor,” insisted Gerel.
“You won’t have to – we’ll do all the talking,” I told him. “After all, we’re the ones to be examined. Why should you need to lie?”
“Well, I…” Gerel hesitated.
“Look, whatever we do now the Emperor’s dream is gone. You can’t bring that back for him,” said Michael earnestly. “And do you really think you deserve to be tortured to death over a terrible accident?”
“Or that Tarek and Aliana should suffer for the rest of their lives?” I added.
Michael held out his hand for the one remaining piece of pottery, the shard with the painted dragon on it. Gerel hesitated a moment or two longer before finally, uncertainly, handing it over. With a distinct sigh of relief Michael dropped it away with the others into the sack and tucked the sack discreetly away into a corner of the cell. Then he looked up with his best attempt at a confident smile. “Right then, I suppose we had better go and meet this Emperor of yours, hadn’t we?”
To be continued…