The Horseman

In the dark ages, a horseman was dispatched from the old capital to bring important news to a faraway country. Every hundred miles, the horseman briefly rested at the post station, mounted a fresh horse, and dashed off into the openness of the highway. All of the horses were beautiful and galloped well, despite their differences in age, height, and coloring. As the horseman traveled, he viewed a thousand landscapes, learned the migration routes of words and beasts, and dreamed of his country–its stone bridges, lampposts, libraries, teahouses and museums. After crossing the frontier on his last horse, he passed through the twilight lands of shapeshifting trees and dissolving beasts. There were sleepwalkers abroad in the land, gathering stones and collecting dead leaves. At last, he arrived at his destination–the cities of mist and sleep. The sleepwalkers lived in great mansions and ate well, but they never got angry; they never smiled or laughed, either. They amassed heaps of broken stones and dead leaves, storing them in their museums, teahouses, and under their bridges. In the halls of the diplomats, the horseman was received with a mixture of courtesy, suspicion and puzzlement. On a great round table, they unrolled the scroll of their official map, which they updated every fortnight. They pointed to the document, and explained that they could not figure out where the horseman had come from. None of the countries he had passed through, not even the old capital where his journey began, existed. The message he delivered–while understandable in its essentials–was incomprehensible, like the relic of some ancient and indecipherable script from an abandoned and forgotten civilization. They offered him sanctuary in their city. Otherwise, they feared he would gallop back into the nothing. The horseman gratefully and politely declined, setting off at once to return to the old capital. At first, it seemed as if the map had been right. The horseman recognized none of the landscapes along the highway, although he saw sleepwalkers raking leaves and hauling broken stones here and there. The frontier seemed lost. Despairing of ever finding his way home, he continued to ride. One day, only a few miles after seeing a band of sleepwalkers inspecting a stretch of dead trees, he came upon a land he remembered, a land far past the frontier in the heart of the empire. It was twilight, and the horse breathed with great difficulty. The old capital was still far, far away.

The Embassy

The ambassador was brought in chains before the emperor. The royal phalanx lined both sides of the great courtyard. The emperor sat in his chair, absent-mindedly swatting flies and staring into the dancing light of the pluvium. The foreign minister, the master of horse, the cupbearer, the dragoman and the scribes had carefully coached the ambassador in the etiquette, laws, and idioms of the empire. After bowing before the emperor, the ambassador awaited the signal. A woman with a lyre struck three chords. The ambassador spoke. At some indefinite time in the past, an event may or may not have occurred that may or may not affect your realm and may or may not bring salvation. That was well said, a royal guard remarked. The master of horse stroked his clean-shaven cheek in deep thought, perhaps even fear. The musician, dragoman, cupbearer, and the scribes shook their heads with deep disapproval. The emperor watched the pluvium. A goldfish swirled around in waves of pale blue and white light.

The Ambassador

The visitor apologized and bowed deeply before the sumptuous banquet, claiming that it was not his custom to eat the flesh of beasts but only the flesh of humans. The empress, courtesans, warriors and scholars looked at one another with great embarassment, and then sank their daggers into their necks. Awed at their generosity, the ambassador began to feast, and feasted for one hundred days. When he had eaten and drunk, he concluded that it would be most fortunate to trade with this empire, and clapped his hands thrice to summon a scribe or diplomat. Nobody answered, for the palace was empty and quickly filling with sand.