Dinner at Karloman’s
A short writing by Franz Nikolai Sarkozic
I deign to divagate from the matter at hand, that being the eponymous dinner of this book, for as a soldier on no salary I can ill-afford to waste precious ink and paper, but I must begin by pre-preemptively dispelling any sort of notion that my writing of this comes from a place other than astute observation. It is true that I am an officer in the Imperial State Army, and it is true that that my first cousin is His Imperial Highness Joseph Clement de Sarkozy, I am not such a fool as to deny these two facts; however, my time spent in the ISA is best described as a distraction from the pleasantries I enjoy in my daily life, and although I hold love for all of my kin, I have not interacted with my cousin except for a singular nod he once afforded me. This matter of partiality aside, allow me to resume the topic of my dinner at Karloman’s.
It was an unfortunate, rainy night that I went to Karloman’s for dinner. He and I, although vastly differing in our respective careers in servitude of the Empire, for he was a city clerk while I was a military officer, had been inseparable friends since childhood. The occasion for the dinner, dampened only by the miserable weather, was Karloman’s announcement of his betrothal to the sweet, yet sharp, daughter of a local accountant. As most of Karloman’s dearest friends and family lived outside of Helena proper, invitations to this small celebration were only extended to myself and three other friends who resided within the city.
I am not one to be too critical of myself, but I shall curse my penchant for unpunctuality until the day I die! I was the last to arrive of the four invitees, and the rain had left me sopping wet to boot! Such a surreal sight was the subject of laughter, but stronger than my embarrassment was my relief that no great offense had been taken from my conduct. The night went well, and we allowed ourselves a feasting that would only be rivaled by the wedding to come. Karloman’s best wine had to be saved for the occasion itself, but he had a batch of poor wine that he was quite eager to part with- thus we helped ourselves to it. As our cups drained and filled, our tongues became looser, and the topics drifted from the typical to the greatest bane of good spirit: politics.
The first to speak was Karloman’s friend, Petyr, a former Haenseti man-at-arms who had recently opened a small stable. He was a large man, but clearly thought that he could hold his drink better than he was actually able to. As the night had progressed, he had grown louder and bolder in his statements- no matter how outrageous they were.
“I’ll say it- this Empire has gone soft!” he bellowed, shaking his head in his hands. “I had hoped that Lord Protector Adrian, may God bless his soul, would bring us to the path we were meant to venture upon, but his death took us too soon. Now look at who runs this ‘empire’ of ours- nothing but a bunch of frilly pansies in powdered wigs! My sister gives less of a damn about her appearance than they do, and I’ve no doubt she could chuck any one of them across half of the city!”
“Do you mean to suggest that the Empire should go to war with the entire world?” laughed Karloman, his fat fingers plopping another sausage into his mouth. “Besides, did we not just sign a peace treaty with the AIS? The Rubern War cost us many good men, is that not enough for you, you damned oaf?”
“You call that a war?” Petyr scoffed. “Maybe the first few years, but now I can’t find so much of a bandit on the roads, not to mention an enemy army. We make peace with these enemies of ours left and right, but we’ve yet to fight in a battle matching the likes of the War of the Two Emperors. If it wasn’t for Godric’s demise, I don’t think our pampered overlords would know what to do. Why not reshape our nation by exacting revenge on those who sought to tear at us as a vulture does with Carrion? It’d teach these young lads a thing or two, and it would bring glory back to the Imperial name- not apathy, or even amusement,” he finished, his already-ruddy face now violently red. Whether it was from the wine or his long-winded talking I did not know.
“I must agree with Petyr to some extent,” came a third voice. It was Vanyek, a silversmith’s apprentice. “Not with war, such an excursion would be folly, but our government is quite out of touch with the people. The aristocracy entertains themselves with feasts and philosophy and legal talk, it seems like they forget that they are men too. Does the work that men such as I do not matter? While they claim to be champions of the people with their institutions of democracy, I cannot help but feel that they look down on me for not having the same ‘refined’ interests as they do. How do we know that they are not simply puppet masters, and us the puppets, in some large game to benefit the aristocrats of Oren? We need a champion of the people, one who knows our struggles and will fight for our interests,” he confessed, muttering something under his breath and taking another sip of wine. Although he had spoken passionately, I found myself silently thanking him for not making the display that Petyr did. Perhaps civility did still linger in some small circles.
“Never have truer words been spoken,” Karloman concurred, although the bread pudding in his mouth made his words far more intelligible than I account for here. “I daresay that the Empire has forgotten its place as master and its placations as equals. It is as if there is a world we live in and a world they live in.”
“All the more reason to renew the war effort!” Petyr roared, slamming his fist on the table as he grew even more excited. “When I was just a boy, I fought alongside men such as Arthur de Falstaff and Ecbert Devereux at the Great Siege of Helena. Though we may’ve lost, I never felt a stronger bond with those men, and my brothers-in-arms, than in that moment,” he said in a far softer tone. It was clear that his reminiscing brought him back to fonder times, but whether they were better times was clearly questionable. “War brings men together. It unifies them. Fancy legal talk and this constant strive towards meaningless things such as ‘civility’ and ‘modernity’ will only divide us further,” he concluded, triumphantly puffing out his chest.
“What use is any of that if we have forgotten God?” rhetoricized the third friend, Philip, a grocer of middling repute. I caught myself rolling my eyes- an offense that I surely would have suffered a good clout for. Philip’s piety was nigh-legendary, and it was quipped (behind his back, of course) that he knew the Scroll of the Virtue better than the High Pontiff himself. He had eaten and drank the least out of all of us, and had been chastising us all night for our behavior and gluttony. “I, much like you three, have concerns about the direction this Empire is heading. We have begun to scorn God in favor of ‘advancement’- whatever that may entail- and as a result we are becoming subject to the same vices that have ruined so many other kingdoms. Without God’s light, we walk in the same darkness that consumes the other nations of Arcas, and soon, I promise it, we shall suffer the same ills that they have. A day of reckoning will soon come upon us, one that I fear we are ill-prepared for.”
“Now Philip, that is… er… quite the assertion,” stuttered Karloman, picking his words carefully lest he face Owyn’s wroth itself. “I always make sure to attend mass, and I rarely see a soul on the street during the few occasions in which I am unable to make it!” He said the last part with the caution and timidity of a mouse. To the solace of the collective, Philip did not so much as frown.
“Don’t fear, good Karloman, so long as you sufficiently repent I am sure the occasional absence can be forgiven,” he assured him, offering a soft, genuine laugh as to lend further credence to his surprisingly-lenient self. “Mind you, it is not your piety, or the piety of anyone in this room necessarily, barring exceptions,” he added, glancing directly at me, “rather it is the faith and submission to God of Oren, if not humanity as a whole, that gives me concern. Attending mass is the expectation- something that should not bring praise or commendation, but it seems that as we enter a new era this duty is now seen as a feat. Devotion to God goes beyond attendance of mass, or being wed within a church, or even being baptized. It is cultivating a greater faith, and by extension a greater mind by which to serve God, through rigorous discussion and allowing yourself to be challenged so you may counter even the strongest of arguments made against your faith. People cannot be complacent with listening and parroting what they are told- they must understand and comprehend it for the word of God to truly take root in their heart and mind.” As his sermon concluded, I could see complete bewilderment and confoundment in the faces of the other three. Perhaps there was something to be said about his mind rivaling that of the great religious officials of humanity.
Although the mood was still merry, the exhausting talk of politics had rendered everyone speechless, tired, and thirsty. Just as I was about to indulge in another bowl of bread pudding, and perhaps a cup of wine to wash it down, I had the uneasy feeling of being stared at. As I turned around, my fears were confirmed, for all of the men were looking right at me. Sure, I had eaten quite a good deal, but the Imperial diet and training regimen allowed for special days such as this. However, to both my relief and displeasure, Karloman did not speak about the large quantity of food upon my plate.
“Franz, you’ve been uncharacteristically quiet. I imagined that you, out of everyone here, would have a word or two to say about the nature of our Empire. Not only are you in the army, but you are the cousin of the Duke of Helena himself! Surely you aren’t as detached from the matters of the country as you have suggested tonight,” chimed Karloman, earning himself a glare in return from myself. Although I could sympathize with the mostly-rational arguments made by his three friends, my vehement disagreement could lead to the now-reasonable discussion being beset by argument and violent confrontation. What right had I to ruin such a merry occasion?
“Come now, Franz. I beseech you to share your thoughts!” joined Petyr, damning himself to a petty scheme of revenge that I still have yet to think up. “You’re a soldier, much like I was, surely you can represent your country better than this.” I merely groaned in response, but it seemed that my hand was forced.
“Petyr, I must outright challenge your belief that war shapes men as positively as you say. Creating war has brought humanity nothing but grief and despair,” I slowly began, my wine-addled mind suddenly gaining a clarity I had never had before. “How many of our men died at Helena, fighting for a vain cause that ended in failure? Their lives were wasted, their sacrifice was for naught. What men could they have become, what men were they then? Had they not been robbed from us, perhaps their children would have had fathers, their wives would have had husbands, their parents would have had sons, but instead they bled in agony for defeat. Did this create a stronger, better breed of men? No, for all it did was wipe out the current one! How can you dare speak of this generation of men being soft, when all they are doing is ensuring that their sons and daughters are able to live lives that they could not- lives free of strife, death, and uncertainty!” I had, over the course of my counter-assertion, grown more and more vehement. I knew, however, that it was my passion that emboldened me, not the drink coursing through my blood- or whatever drink courses through.
“And what if we are the ones who are attacked? These men cannot be trusted to defend the people they swear to keep safe. Imagine a great thegn of Morsgrad meeting one of our recruits on the field of battle- it wouldn’t even be close!” Petyr protested, rising to his feet in anger, though not fury strong enough to encourage him to provoke a fight.
“I spent my early life as a mercenary serving alongside my uncle Heinrik. We fought with Orenian forces several times, and experienced far more defeats than we did victories. Did the Empire suddenly collapse as a result of this? No! Now it is our enemies who are falling to ruin. They are making peace with us because they now fear the power that we wield, for it was our resilience and spirit to continue the war that strengthened us as a nation. Our leaders know that meeting might with might leads only to disaster- the War of the Two Emperors and the Axios Coalition War prove that well enough. In this day and age new methods are needed to defeat our enemies. What use are great battles if they accomplish less than strong diplomacy, as it has been for decades now? The generals of the past may have won battles, but it will be our leaders now that win wars,” I concluded, turning my attention now to Vanyek. It seemed that my argument had been well-received, for Petyr, for the first time that night, and I’d wager to say for the first time in his life, stood silent.
“It seems that I am to be the next unfortunate victim of your patriotic fury,” chortled Vanyek, peering at me from behind the cup of wine he was drinking from.
“That you are,” I responded, wryly grinning at the silversmith’s apprentice. “Do you not think that much of what the aristocracy is doing inherently benefits the rest of us? I will confess that I did not live under the decentralized feudalism of old, but from what I have read and heard I cannot say that I wish I had. The rule of law then was nonexistent, so it was only through sheer might and tyranny that order could be maintained. When Prince Yury attacked the city of Ves, a vassal of his kinsman, the Emperor Antonius, he was unjustly pardoned and allowed to roam freely- killing and looting as he wished. Antonius ruled arbitrarily, with no empowered legal system to keep his madness in check. A lunatic without any way to temper or check his desires is perhaps the most dangerous man in the world. Would the disaster at Johannesburg have occurred if Emperor Philip had a strong council, or even an unfettered populace, to keep him in line? I think not, but alas I cannot change the world, only think what could have been. The creation of a fine-tuned legal system, governed only by justice, logic, and reason, is perhaps the greatest gift that us outside of the aristocracy could have been given. We no longer have to live in fear that the life we know could one day be changed by a mad monarch,” I thought I had finished with a strong point, but suddenly my mind darted to a crucial fact that I had forgotten. “Er… not that our grand Emperor Peter, God save him, exhibits any of these signs. It is just a precaution for the future, so we may be prepared in the event another Philip or Antonius may rise again.”
“Then why don’t they explain this all to us? Tell us that what they do is for the creation of a greater nation for us all. Many scratch their heads at the seeming disconnect from those in power and those they rule over. Why are they not making efforts to connect with us normal people?” Vanyek asked, yet while it brought up a point I had not accounted for, the manner in which he asked it appeared to come from a place of genuine curiosity, rather than just existing as a counterargument.
“This very conversation here is the reason why. They know that we, despite not having the education and experience that they do, do not lack sharp minds and astute senses. We are trusted to reach these conclusions on our own, rather than be treated as children and given an answer to repeat to anyone who asks. The five of us here are inconsequential men in the grand scheme of things, yet what we have discussed tonight is on a plane of thought akin to those we think are more intelligent than us. They have more faith in the populace than you may think, for they know that we are inspired, if not challenged, by them to pursue knowledge and find truths to the questions that we have.” Like Petyr, Vanyek too remained silent, a small smile on his face as he mulled things over. Perhaps my words had sat better with them than I thought. I regretted not affording them the same courtesy and assumption of good reason and senses that they had given me earlier.
“This is all fine and good, but you forget the most important aspect in all of this: God,” said Philip. “I doubt I’ll agree with whatever points you make, but I am open to listen to and discuss them. I am not uncompromising,” said he who was notoriously uncompromising.
“For a man who places a great deal of importance in rationalizing and understanding one’s faith, something I must completely commend, you concern yourself far too much with procedure and tradition. As I said earlier to Vanyek, it is our duty as people to think for ourselves and begin to see beyond our narrow worldview. I believe you in fact said it best, people cannot be complacent with listening and parroting what they are told. Perhaps this is why we see people turning from the religious customs that have been in place for years. We are the most powerful nation in all of Arcas, by far, and our technological, literary, philosophical, and governmental advancements are rivaled by none. Before, our greatest minds were sent to the church in order to interpret and spread the word of God, but now they have many more options in order to benefit not just Oren, but humanity as a whole. Perhaps it is religion, and the intellectual rigor it demands, that has spawned this era of enlightenment. There are many avenues to benefit our fellow man and serve God, even if it may not appear that way.”
Philip crossed his arms, bearing the same frown that had been creased on his face for the duration of my small speech. Biting the interior of his cheek, the stout grocer leaned forward and rested his elbows atop the table, staring up at me.
“Franz, progress and change may derive from the spirit of our faith and the word of God, but we have many who outright neglect their duties as Canonists. This week alone I met two customers- two!- who said they were atheists. Can it not be said that these distractions from Canonism allow people to lose their faith, and thus never seek to pursue this crucial aspect of their lives? Canals and guns cannot rival the power of God, no matter how much these engineers and architects may wish it so, and as we direct our focus towards other aspects of society we begin to lose sight of what matters most. Not everyone challenges their own faith in order to strengthen it, some just discard it in order to free themselves of the restrictions on sin. How can we not say that our society is being drawn to sin when atheism is higher than in years past and good morals are being loosened for the sake of this so-called ‘advancement’,” retorted Philip, calm and mild-mannered. I could, however, see that he was restraining himself from speaking his true mind.
“Can the Church not take action against this, or is it supposed to just throw its hands up in frustration? I believe this trend towards atheism is a result of the natural human inclination to go against the grain and challenge their perceptions, for how can a man be smart enough to build an aqueduct yet foolish enough to never think of a matter such as faith. While the burden falls upon us to find the answers to our questions, when we are holding these internal debates with ourselves we may ask what we are unable to respond to. In events such as these, it is the priests and acolytes that serve to provide answers. However, I have noticed a seeming lack of presence from them, and I do not speak of numbers here. The clergy needs to realize that people will naturally question their faith, which is natural and fine, but they will also eventually reach a question that they have no answer for. It is the responsibility of our priests to be there to answer these, thus reaffirming the faith of the skeptics. If atheism is a result of the progress we make, we should not suddenly restrict our advance, rather we should encourage the church to hold an open dialogue on atheism and work to reconcile the secularized institutions and strong presence of Canonism within Orenian society. It will truly fall to the church to make a stand against irreligiosity, for if they are right and true then it will be proven so in discourse,” I shot back, though not too harshly for fear of provoking the grocer.
To my relief, Philip seemed too tired to provide a sufficient counter for my points, and I say this with all genuineness, for as we have seen he is not a man of simple mind.
“I would love to respond to what you have raised, but the hour grows late and I must rise early to open my store tomorrow. Perhaps we will continue this discussion another time, Franz. Such talks entertain me, even as they infuriate me from time to time,” he laughed. He then rose from his seat, heading towards the exit. Waving to us before he departed, the grocer graced us with a final word. “I hope you all have a good night. I should think that Franz and Vanyek ought to get married, so we may have the opportunity to gather again like we did tonight. Once again, sleep well and may God grant you all good sleep, just as he, or my wife, may punish me for staying out so late!
Karloman, Petyr, Vanyek, and myself all continued conversing for a few more minutes, but by this time we were far too tired and drunken to carry a discussion as stimulating as the one we just had. Soon Vanyek departed, and Petyr not long after, leaving just myself and Karloman. He was finishing off the last lamb chop, even though it had gone cold, but I could see his eyelids drooping. I rose from my chair, downed the last remains of what was in my final cup, and staggered for the exit.
“You had quite the wit tonight, my friend,” Karloman said suddenly, raising his head to see me depart. “You are lucky my betrothed isn’t here, or my father. Something tells me they would’ve been more fiery opponents than our merry company here,” he guffawed, setting the eaten lamb chop on his plate. “It was a good time, Franz. It’s a shame that marriage is going to shackle me so soon!” he jested, standing up in kind and walking towards his room. “Goodnight, Franz, and try not to get too wet on the way back home.”
I had forgotten about the downpour that had plagued me on the way here, but as I poked my head outside I noticed it had subsided a great deal. During my walk home I pondered the discussion I had just had, and whether my defense of the Empire had come from a genuine, astute observation of the going-ons of Imperial life, or whether I had felt compelled to as a result of my familial ties to Oren. While I did, and still do, have my qualms with the Empire, namely its lack of strong support for the independent study of the arts and sciences, its military training and drilling methods, and its desire to expand Helena proper at the expense of its vassals, I felt reluctant to voice my concerns in an already overwhelmingly-negative discussion. I still do not know why I had felt this way, but I do know that something, perhaps beyond my control, had compelled me to defend the Empire during the dinner at Karloman’s.