The Least of Men, Part 1

“The least of men –“

“Knows never to believe nonsense.” Bendaevi broke in as he strode under the canopy which sheltered the tutor and his student.

Isboset glared at the intruder. “And wise men never interrupt a teacher. What is it, Advisor Bendaevi?” He gestured to his young charge. “The young prince is in the midst of an important lesson.”

“Every lesson is important to you.”

“Indeed. Every lesson builds upon the last and reaches toward the next. Prince Badani needs an unbroken chain if he is to rule wisely.” The old tutor stopped himself before going any further. “I’ll not argue with you. Say what you’ve come to say.”

The shorter man grinned through his dark beard. “Patriarch Kaden has summoned his son.” He shifted his gaze to the silent, watching boy. “Prince Badani, if it pleases you, join me.”

Badani thought for a moment before responding in a voice that cracked at just the wrong moment, “Advisor Bendaevi, I will come when my lesson is completed. My thanks for your service, and may you find water.” The boy turned his back to the advisor and locked eyes with his tutor.

Isboset attempted not to smile.

The bearded man hesitated before bowing and returning to the oppressive sunlight between canopies.

Isboset waited until the man had disappeared into a distant tent before muttering, “My prince, you have every right to ignore your father’s advisor, but I would not suggest ignoring your father. He who scorns the sun will soon feel heat.”

Badani shrugged.

Isboset shook his head once, reaching for a date on a nearby platter. He held it before him. “As I was saying when we were interrupted, my prince, the least of men is worth more than all Garethen can offer. Sometimes this will be so easy to see. If Garethen should appear to you and offer you this date in exchange for your father’s life, what would you say?”

Badani snapped, “I would slay Garethen where he stood!”

“The Patriarch of Lies is not so easily slain, my prince, that one as young as you could do it.” Isboset waited a moment before continuing, “But, I must admit, your sentiment is correct. Deny him even the chance to speak his deceptions. But understand that he knows exactly when and how to make every lie so appealing that even you might choose this date over the life of your father. Imagine he has rejected you. Imagine you have wandered the sands without a pathfinder for several nights. In anger and hunger you might choose even one date in exchange for the life of your father. But in that exchange, you would embrace a lie. You would have forgotten that even the least of men, even servants of the earth, are worth more than any kingdom Garethen might offer. If you are to be a wise patriarch, if you are to divide truth from lies, you must remember this at all times.” Isboset’s eyes flickered to the tent into which Bendaevi had vanished. “At all times.”

Badani waited quietly.

“My prince, our lesson is concluded. Would you like me to accompany you to the tent of your father?”

Badani smiled. “Only if you give me that date.”

The tutor chuckled as he handed the fruit over. Badani devoured it, as any boy that age does. He then stood and bade Isboset to join him. They marched beyond the shade of their cloth canopy and onto the stretch of burning sands to the grand tent of the patriarch.

Isboset pulled aside the flap, and Badani entered and dropped to his hands and knees as soon as the shadows encompassed him. Isboset joined him on the deep carpet, head down. They both waited.

A regal voice addressed them. “My adviser tells me you have chosen your tutor’s words over my own, my only son. He says that you have shown me great disrespect and you should be punished. He advises that you be left in the sun until you beg my mercy.” The voice avoided all emotion. Its sonorous tones filled their ears. “Tell me, my only son, is my advisor correct?”

Badani did not answer. His face rested on the carpet and he breathed in the scent of the perfumed material. Finally he spoke, “Your advisor is wise. He protects your honor, my father. He wishes to serve you to the best of his abilities.” He paused again. His words came stuttered as he pondered each phrase, turning it about in his head. “Yet I chose to serve you by obeying what you had ordered before when you told me to listen to my tutor and learn from him.”

Isboset allowed himself to smile. After all, who could see his mirth when his face was filled with carpet?

A regal laugh greeted Badani’s words. “Stand, my son. Stand. Look upon your father without fear.”

Badani rose to his knees but kept his eyes low. “Father, I beg your forgiveness for showing you disrespect. Please forgive your servant, your son.”

The regal laugh increased. “You need no forgiveness. No, stand!”

Even as Isboset remained bowing, Badani obeyed and saw his father. The regal voiced belonged to a regal man. He reclined on opulent cushions and wore a blue silk turban around his head. He reached out his right hand to his son. “Come, join me. It is time you learned something from me, something that only a father may teach a son, no matter how learned his tutor.”

Bendaevi stood behind the patriarch and nodded. “You are wise to teach the boy by your strong example, Patriarch Kaden.”

Badani’s father waved the words away. “You are here because you know how best to deal with other patriarchs. I do not need your flattery.” He turned to the boy as he perched himself on a firm green cushion. “And what shall we do with your tutor, who allows you such a choice?”

Badani’s eyes flickered to Bendaevi. Behind the patriarch, he grinned a malicious smile. Badani refocused on his father. Again, Badani’s words came in short bursts as he pondered each phrase. “My tutor chose only to obey his prince. If you are to punish him, you must also punish the one who commanded him.”

The patriarch searched his son’s eyes. “Does the son of a patriarch seek to stand beside a servant of water as his equal?”

Isboset struggled to keep his tongue.

Badani glanced down at his tutor and back to his father. “I seek to do what is honorable in the sight of my patriarch.”

Patriarch Kaden’s face broke into a smile. “Very well, my son. You do seek to do what is right. I hear you struggle to learn. Good. I have brought Isboset into our household because he teaches wisdom to deal with your own household, even as Bendaevi will teach you the guile you will need to deal with other households. You will need to balance both to follow me.” He paused. “Isboset, stand beside the prince as his advisor until the prince sees the judgment I must make.”

The tutor’s knees creaked as he stood. He circled to stand behind the mound of cushions, mirroring Bendaevi’s position.

The patriarch clapped twice. Two servants of fire entered the tent, falchions at their sides. They carried a struggling servant of earth and threw him to the ground. The man trembled so badly he kept falling over.

The patriarch gestured. “This lowly worm is a servant in our household, Prince Badani. He has done us great dishonor. He has chosen to run from our protection, from his position, into the sands. Tell me, my prince, what is the punishment for a worm such as this, who flees his master?”

Badani’s voice shook as he recited, “From the slave who flees, the master is to force payment. If the slave cannot pay, he shall suffer under the sun until his family is grieved.”

The patriarch nodded. “And it is so. This is the way it has always been. But this is the lesson you are to learn today. Good men suffer for doing what is right. This slave is a good man. His daughter fled into the sands, and he went to retrieve her. He sought to protect her from punishment, and was caught while returning with her. He did not intend to flee from his slavery, but to return a fleeing slave.”

Patriarch Kaden addressed the servants of fire, “Take him so he must remain in the sun until his family is grieved. Prince Badani announced his punishment.” The guards obeyed their command, dragging out the servant of earth. The old man made no sound except choked sobs.

Badani did not speak for a moment. “My father, must we punish him? He wanted to honor us, or else he would not have returned.”

The father nodded, his head heavy. “If we do not obey what we have been taught, there is no use for the lesson. The sands offer no mercy. If we were to allow any to break what has been commanded, Garethen would use that chance to break us all. Sometimes, a good man suffers for doing what is right. That is what has happened here.” Kaden swallowed. “But know this, my son. If a patriarch rejoices in a good man’s suffering, it is worse than if Garethen himself had enslaved the entire household. Never rejoice in another’s suffering. For that, too, is a lie told by the Patriarch of Lies.”

The patriarch focused on his son. “Prince Badani, my only son, it is time for you to begin your training under Advisor Bendaevi. Starting tomorrow, he will train you from morning until the sun demands we rest. Isboset will tutor you in the evening. Now, you may go. And may you find water.”

Read part 2 here.

17 thoughts on “The Least of Men, Part 1

  1. I very much like this world. Arabian of a sort, but with an otherworldliness that’s clear from the beginning.

    It does leave me with questions though. How do these people distinguish between the servants of each element? Do they wear different clothes, have different color skin? Is one element above the rest? When Isboset is called a “servant of water” it sounds demeaning.

    But the overall story, a son learning the harsh ways of the world, struggling with a black-and-white mindset in a world full of greys…I love it.

    1. The distinctions between the servants will hopefully be made clear through context; you’ve properly seen that they’re different, but I’d rather let the story let that come out. I hope, anyway!

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