The milky marble columns shot with gold glinted in the stray rays of sunlight bursting through the tumbled grey clouds. They soared a full three stories dominating the rocky plateau.
Shielding his eyes with his left hand, he clutched together the flapping edges of his robes with his right. A gust of chilly wind tugged the cloth in an attempt to set them to sail.
Quarried stone steps rose to a portico shading the main doors to the royal assembly.
The guards at the tall doors watched his approach, hard eyes examining his struggles with his clothing, scanning for the telltale sign of a hidden weapon. Crossed pikes barred entrance as he approached the living statutes then swung aside to permit entrance.
Breathless from the long climb, he slowed his pace and tugged his toga into the proper folds, then straightened his back, drawing himself up to his full height. He still needed to crane his neck to look up at the soldiers as he passed between them.
The shaded interior temporarily blinded him as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. Additional soldiers lined the interior, weapons at the ready to strike down anyone foolish enough to force entry.
The cavernous chamber was filled with row upon row of carved marble benches. The public chamber ringed the throne speech chair, set on a raised dias in the middle of a shallow pit that allowed for concentric rings of security.
The benches were largely empty with a scattering of people here and there, certainly not the numbers who normally attended public hearings. But then again, recital of the outstanding tax roll was hardly a popular subject and most of the lordlings would be busy passing a bribe or two in a back chamber, rather than listening to what they already knew.
The few people present were representatives of the various estates, sent to plead for a reduction, which was largely ignored and considered a waste of time by most estate petitioners. The commoners, however, needed to see that the King was attendant to their pleas and assessing the tax rates democratically to all.
Skirting the upper row of seating, he wound his way over to a staircase that lead up a short flight of steps to the royal scribes box. The balcony box allowed for a clear view of the assembly proceedings, to encourage the accurate recording of the debts assessed to each petitioner.
His satchel swung up onto the solid writing surface and he pulled a high stool closer to the ledge and scrambled up onto it, then began unpacking quill, ink, sand and parchment and several paper weights.
More people sifted into the room, Women in brightly embroidered togas, their hair beaded and plaited down their backs. They seated themselves beside their scribes and chatted with neighbors and the soft hum rose to a chatter as the seats partway filled.
Suddenly the door at the rear of the dias swung open and a column of security entered the room and marched around the pit, filling the moat with soldiers dressed in rough spun garments covered with shiny metal chest plates and gauntlets that flashed in the few strands of light piercing the high windows.
Behind the soldiers came the king, resplendent in a purple toga embroidered around the hems with golden vines and leaves. A circlet of pure gold vines and leaves adorned his curly sandy colored hair, framing a face etched with deep frown lines and his fat fingers covered with rings.
He climbed the dias and swept his royal robes to the side before settling back into his chair. Without glancing sideways, he held out a hand and a crystal goblet of amber liquid appeared, placed there by a servant, who bowed and backed away from the chair.
His imperious eyes swept the chamber, noting the lowly nobles seated in the room.
The speaker, dressed in a toga trimmed with purple, stepped to the front. The murmuring died off and silence descended in response to his raised hands.
“The honorable Dionysus, purveyor of vineyards, keeper of the treasury, beloved of the Gods, will now hear your petitions. Approach and kneel.”
His hands clapped above his head then linked his fingers and lowered his hands and pointed to a small circle of polished blue stone imbedded in the creamy travertine tile.
No one moved. No one wished to be the first to approach the dias.
Dionysus slurped noisily from his frosted glass, beads of water dripping from the curved base, to splatter on the arm of the chair. He stared bleary eyed around the hall.
“Well don’t sit there like lamblings” he hiccupped “approach and be heard!” he bellowed, causing a woman in the act of rising in the front row to hastily sit back down.
Then a tall woman, her black hair shot with grey and coiled into two intricate braids atop her head, stood and slowly approached the speakers circle. Her fitted grey linens, neither fine nor embroidered, hung off of a slender frame that had shrunk in the recent past, whispering of hardships unspoken.
Her eyes were downcast, her movements careful, placing slippered feet with care and precision.
Damocles leaned over the short wall of the scribes box, arrested by her regal procession to the speakers circle. All eyes of the hall followed her progress.
She stepped onto the blue circle, arranged her clothing and then gazed directly into King Dionysius’ rheumy eyes.
“Your Excellency” she said, dipping into a curtsy while maintaining a bold stare at the same time “my name is Phonecia and I come to appeal to your mercy on behalf of my father’s estate. We are located on the northern border of the realm, where the fighting has been the most intense. Weekly, the barbarians come down from the hills and attack the villages. We have lost many people including the banker, the butcher and our smithy, their homes raided and burnt to the ground, their families dragged into the streets and executed. The people of the village are abandoning their homes and fleeing for the relative safety of larger villages and cities.”
“My father’s olive groves are ripening and the fruit is falling to the ground and rotting as there is no one left to pick the fruit. We are attempting to harvest the fruit ourselves, but the raids continue. The barbarians have begun to burn the orchards, we have lost a third of our trees to this.”
She sighed and looked around that the others in the hall, a silent appeal for support. Her green eyes met Damocles who’s quill hand was frozen in mid-air, arrested by her story. She turned back to the king. Damocles blinked and began furiously writing on the parchment.
“We have two simple requests: We ask that you send some of your soldiers to the Northern Reaches to engage the barbarians and push them back over the pass, so that our workers can return in safety.”
“We also ask that you provide us with a pardon for taxation for this year, as our crops are in jeopardy and we cannot be assured we will have a crop to pay the requisite taxes, as they payable in advance based on anticipated returns. Please hear my plea, your highness.” She curtsied again, lower this time and then stood with hands folded.
Damocles paused and looked up from his parchment.
Dionysus took another noisy slurp from his goblet, the wet ale darkening his moustache. He gazed around at the other lordlings and belched. He wiggled a finger with his left hand and a waiting attendant bent over to hear his words. Straightening, the man turned to face Phonecia.
“His Excellency advises that the estates are responsible for the safety of the peasants who work them and that it is their duty to provide security for their workers. These raid are minor skirmishes at most. The taxes will be payable on the prescribed due date and not a day more. His Excellency has spoken and his word is law.” The speaker stepped back behind the royal chair.
Damocles shot to his feet, before he realized what he was doing.
“Your Excellency!” he hollered. All eyes in the hall turned to him in the scribes box. His face flushed at the sudden attention focused on him. His throat dried up, his voice coming out in a squeak.
“Surely your Excellency wishes to protect his realm and the great people within it? This woman” he gestured with his quill hand “and her father are loyal subjects who support the kingdom with their production. You are known throughout the civilized world as a man of honor, of courage and of mercy. Surely you are more than a simple man? I believe you approach the status of the Gods. Perhaps you could reconsider your judgement, your Excellency?”
Damocles sank back onto his bench. Why did he burn with the need to intercede for this woman?
Dionysus frowned at him, snapped his fingers again. This servant stepped forward and leaned over listening to his instructions then backed away.
Dionysus stood. He towered over the assembled people. “Damocles. Approach my chair.” He snapped his fingers and the sentries gathered up Damocles and escorted him to the throne, a path opening for their passage. Damocles bowed and then climbed the steps to the chair.
Dionysus stepped the side and said “Sit! Have a seat on my throne, that you may see events from my perspective.” Rough hands forced Damocles down into the throne chair.
Dionysius then pulled a sword from the belt of the sentry closest to him. He showed it to all the people present.
“That you may know I do not make decisions lightly, Damocles is going to show how difficult it is to govern with justice, in these times.”
The sword was taken from his hands, and at the same time, Phonecia was grabbed by both arms, her hair unwound and a long strand was pulled from her loose hair.
The strand of hair, tied to the hilt of the sword, was hoisted over the throne and wrapped around a narrow beam in the ceiling above.
“Here you will sit, Damocles, until justice is served. Fetch another scribe!”
English Idiom: “Hang By A Thread” also “Hang By A Hair” – to be in a risky or unstable situation…This expression already proverbial in the early 1500’s alludes to Damocles who vexed king Dionysius with constant flattery. The King invited him to a banquet where Damocles found himself seated under a naked sword suspended by a single hair, symbolizing his insecure position at the court.
– Courtesy of The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, by Christine Ammer
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