"That turned out rather well,"
said King Xau, triumphant,
happy as I'd ever seen him.
The other counselors
studied the patterned rug
on the floor of his tent.
Even Artoch, who had shouted
at the King two days ago,
had nothing left to say since
the King's rashness had led,
"Good outcomes are not proof
of good decisions," I said.
"So you think our decision was poor?
"What should we have done then?"
King Xau directed the full beaming force
of his pleasure upon me --
the lowest of his counselors,
there only as a courtesy
for having drummed
the barest hint of algebra
into his royal head
when he was the least and youngest
of four princes.
"Should we have killed him as Artoch wished?
"Yes," I said. "Or ridiculed him --
cut off his braid, or spanked his bottom,
or merely laughed at him."
"So we could make an enemy rather than a friend?"
He looked decidedly less pleased.
"So we could take his horses by force,
rather than having them come to us?"
"So you could live."
All trace of pleasure left him.
I imagined what he would have said
had the two of us been alone --
that it wasn't a life he wanted,
neither prudence nor diplomacy nor war.
He wore power well, but he wasn't one
who craved it, not like his eldest brother.
In another world, he might have been
a farrier or a groom.
In this world, he stalked out of the tent.
"That turned out rather poorly," I offered.
"Perhaps," said Artoch. "But what you said
needed to be said."
"Perhaps," I said. "But he's unlikely
to thank me for it."
"Where do you think he went?" said Artoch.
"To his horses."
When the King returned, a long while later,
I saw by the quietness in his face
that I had guessed correctly.
"There are lessons we do not like to learn."
He nodded first to me, then to Artoch.
"We will ... strive to be more cautious,
but we will not hide.
We will not watch from the hilltop
while our soldiers fight our battles below us."
He sat down cross-legged on the rug.
"Sit with us. Eat with us. But no more advice.
It is hard not to admire him,
but I do my best not to show it.
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