Part 9: Kindness
"Look. I'm not the bad guy here."
"I know you've probably heard some shit about me. Like that I impale people for fun. Or that I'm a bloody-handed warmongering religious zealot. Or that I'm a cruel, wrothful, envious, paranoid tyrant who makes the lives of all those below him a living hell. Yeah, it's probably easy to think that life sucks when you're living under a guy as supposedly monsterous as me.
"But people probably say a lot of shit about you, too. Otherwise you wouldn't be up here."
The wind whistles around the Duke and the weeping merchant who recoils from Ernst's outstretched hand as if it is a serpent. The two stand together on the ledge of the castle roof. The crowd down below looks on with fascination as the brutal tyrant gently sits down and starts talking, voice firm enough to carry to the listening audience.
"At least hear my side of the story. Then you can make your decision." Duke Ernst sits down where he is and smiles, perhaps even kindly.
The merchant cautiously swallows, wipes his eyes, and sits down on the ledge as well. "All right. I'll hear you out."
"Right then. It started with a war."
"The Pommerian pagan tribes declared a foolhardy war on the land of Denmark, and the King raised a mighty army to crush them. I was a young man, barely twenty three, and I saw this as an opportunity. I declared my own Holy War in retribution against the pagans, and planned to use the superior might of the king's defensive army to cover for my own aggression."
"Fairly cunning if I do say so myself. I also personally stuck with the King's army, and I won many glorious battles. People became quite admiring of my martial spirit."
"I wasn't expecting this, because I had previously been something of an oafish blunderer with a sword. One of my friends was so nervous of my blundering that he refused to duel me without being compensated for medicine in advance."
"So when the king's army withdrew, it was just my forces against the pagans. A fairly ideal situation."
"I even captured a local bigwig of some description and put him in the dungeon. By which I mean wine cellar - you know, none of my ancestors ever thought to build a dungeon? It was all Jesus-this and cost-benefit-analysis that. No vision."
"I also enlisted one of those Holy Orders to back me up and help me break the sieges. This war thing wasn't that hard, I thought."
"See, I figured it out early. It's all about fear.
"It's not enough to kill the Pagans, because caveman-Jesus told them that they'd go to some kind of awesome beer drinking contest or something when they die. Knowing that, they'll jump on Christian spears if it gets them close enough to spit tobacco on a clean doublet. Happened to me more than once. But if you capture them at the brink of death and tie them to mobile torture engines and line them up on a hill, for example, and then release several boxes of venomous snakes around the hillside for them to walk over, and then set the hill on fire when they're trying to rescue their friends and escape the snakes and then shoot them with arrows then they realise that caveman-Jesus can't actually save them after all.
"Show 'em a little brimstone and they realise just how badly they need God's mercy. I mean, God did create the Devil for a reason, right?"
"Massacre a town here and there, it's all good."
"Unfortunately, that only works for the guys that actually see the burning torture snake thing. People who just hear about it are like, 'Psh, whatever, I can take that guy', and they rolled up with five thousand of their buddies. I had to pull back and think about that one."
"Army half their size and no way in. I impaled a few locals to pass the time in the year it took to build up the funds to hire a mercenary company to break the stalemate."
"But that's all people talk about these days - the impaling. Waah waah, Duke Ernst tortured and murdered my entire family for stealing from him."
"Which actually happened at right about that time, actually. Ironically, this was how my great-great whatever grandfather died. Sparked a vendetta that still isn't finished, you know?"
"But my point was, even though I won a crushing victory over the pagans using much of my own hard-earned money to do so, all people focus on was the fact that I charged into battle wearing the mutilated skins of my captives like a cloak. Does nobody care about the results I get? Is all people can see the details, like who was wearing's who's skin?"
"Had to dismiss the mercs right about then because I was out of cash. I thought the mop-up wouldn't be difficult. Also they were also complaining about the smell of burning flesh and screaming prisoners like fucking children. Waah waah. Waah."
"And, heh, I got summoned back to court by the king, who was a kind, gentle, womanly coward, you know? And the last time he'd seen me I'd been just as effeminate, a druken dandy concerned with Scheming, right? So I walk in there with my human skin cloak and barbed armour and gauntlets dripping blood, straight off the front line, and bend knee to the little girly man. And he just kind of decides that of all the people who could be committing horrible violence in the realm in his name, he'd prefer it to be me.
"After all, better it's in his name than my own, right?"
"Strategic blunder. Thought I saw an opening and lost eight hundred men to it. Had to regroup and wait for an opening again."
"But then I saw this. Apparently all the pagan's allies were so terrified of continuing to fight me that they went home. Even in victory they lost."
"Not one to look a gift pony in the mouth."
"Finally got a foothold and started the siege. Unfortunately the pagans were massing again and I was starting to doubt if I had the resources to pull this campaign off."
"I got called away from the line to go to the tournament. Gave me time to think."
"Waah waah waah, Duke Ernst didn't fight by the rules. Waah waah cutting out the eyes of downed competitors gets you disqualified. Fucking pissants, wouldn't know a real war if it bit them in the ass.
"But this was when I met my daughter."
"God, she was fucking smart. You know? Like, smarter than me at basically everything and she's six years old. And she's beautiful too. And that kind of... changed me. Parenthood does that. You start to realise just how amazing the world is when you're a dad.
"I took her back to the front lines with me and taught her as if she was a son. But she taught me more than I taught her. Ten years ago, sure, I was that horrible blood-stained tyrant everyone knew me as. But I'm not. I'm not any more."
"So anyway, the war hit a turning point when the Swedes jumped on my conquest and killstole it for themselves, the assholes."
"I got ripped off, but I was honestly just glad it was over at that point."
"Nice little realm my family had carved out in Denmark, about thirty percent of all provinces. Pretty good."
"And I thought about that. You know? I was pretty lucky. Dominating political position. Genius daughter. Shitbag sons, but genius daughter. Feared by all. Blessed by God. Sanctioned violence-maker of the Kingdom of Denmark. Big feather bed. I didn't have it that bad."
"One day my daughter starts talking shit about Jesus, you know, about how he wasn't as manly as me and how he never conquered nothin'. So I hit her, 'cause that's the done thing, but then I get this weird feeling of... I don't know. Like there were things I'd rather be doing than hitting a little girl. Never got that feeling before just then."
"So I sit down with her and talk it out, and I'm like - so Riki, you're smart. So be smart. Don't talk shit about Jesus, because that gets you in political trouble. You know what politics is? And she's like, yes, it's the interactions and divisions of power backed up by the military industrial whatever."
"And I'm like, yeah, that sounds right, except you want to be the guy with the power. All right?
"She said all right, and it was fucking adorable. You know?"
"There was so much... stuff I wanted to be able to tell her. I stopped focusing on being an asshole and started focusing on being a better person."
"Unlike my asshole son. God, what a shitbag. Was I ever that bad? Seems like so long ago now."
"Married him to some French tart without two brain-cells to rub together. Mistake."
"But when I figure out that a buddy of mine has gone full-on heretic, I was about to stab him to death right there on the banquet table and drink from his gurgling throat, you know, to make my ancestor Christina proud? But then I stop and am like, 'Wait. What if I... don't do that?'
"And it turns out that not murdering people is actually really easy."
"I didn't have to wash the blood out of my robes that night or beat the tailors to make a new suit or nothin'."
"So anyway, the Swedish predictably come after my shit and they're big-shots now."
"Big army rolled in from east. I had to raise my own levies to back up the King."
"It was a good fight. Won by the skin of our teeth. And the skin of their backs. I got a new cloak!"
"Turns out catholics are even more skittish than pagans, who knew? So we won that one."
"But what's the moral of this story? I guess it's that children can make you better. It's that you don't have to be an unrepentant murderous asshole in order to win wars and terrify people. As long as there's one, good thing in life that you care about, you can improve yourself. Make a better world for your kids. Haters going to hate, and just because they call you a murderous tyrant doesn't mean you have to be one. That's what I learned today.
"So come on down. Let's do this together."
Duke Ernst extends his bloody gauntlet to the merchant. He smiles.
"I'd rather die," said the merchant, and stepped off the balcony.
Duke Ernst looked down at the corpse and the stunned crowd below. What seemed like the entire city was looking up at him.
"Duke Ernst killed that man!" said one voice.
"And now he's going to KILL US!" screamed another.
"RUN!" the sentiment spread through the crowd. Fathers trampled sons in the mass flight from the black-armoured tyrant towering atop the castle rooftop.
Duke Ernst watched them go. He felt a tug on the end of his human-skin cloak. He looked down at his daughter.
"Did you mean all that, daddy?"
"You know what?" said Duke Ernst.
"I think I did."