Tamias Nettle's Storytelling
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The Empress and the Witch

Several hundred years ago, on the far side of the world from where I’m sitting as I tell this, was a vast empire. It was ruled by an empress who lived in a huge stone castle, in a huge stone-walled city, in the foothills of the mountains that formed the southern border of the empire. It was said that that was the largest empire the world had ever seen, and it was said that the empress was the strongest go player who had ever lived.

In a cabin on a mountainside, not far from the capital city, lived a witch. The witch mostly kept to herself, but two or three times a year, she would walk down the steep, rocky path to the village at the base of the mountain, and trade at the village market. She made medicines from herbs that grew in her garden, and traded them for the things that she could not make for herself, like metal tools.

One sunny day, at the beginning of the harvest season, the witch heard a surprising rumour in the market. Some people thought the Empress was sick, others thought the Empress had gone crazy, some said that she was fine, she was just pretending to be sick as part of a complicated strategy to outwit her enemies, others thought it was her enemies who were spreading the rumour that she was sick, and someone else had heard that the Empress had given up talking with humans and started talking to cats, but was otherwise healthy. To hear a rumour about the Empress at all was unusual. News about the Empress was usually proclaimed, loud and clear, by her official messengers who rode in on horseback, said what they had to say, and rode on. To hear rumours about the Empress being sick was obviously unsettling to the villagers.

It occupied much of the witch’s attention, too, as she walked home to her cabin that night. It was still on her mind when she got up before sunrise the next morning.

“If the Empress is sick,” she thought, “maybe I can help. I’ll go find out.” She started walking.

Just before midday, the Witch came to the big wooden gate in the stone wall that surrounded the capital city. Many people were going in and out, and at the gate stood two guards who asked everyone coming into the city the same question: “Whom do you serve?”

Everyone walking in gave the same answer: “I serve her majesty, the Empress.”

The witch heard that, and understood that she could get into the city unnoticed by mimicking this standard answer. She decided not to. It didn’t feel true. Her turn came, and the guard asked,

“Whom do you serve?”

“No one.”


“Well, I dunno, maybe myself.”

“No, I asked, “Whom do you serve?””

“Myself, and my nettle patch, and the stream that runs through my garden ...”

“Stop babbling, and listen,” the guard interrupted. “I’m asking, “Whom do you serve?” You’re supposed to answer, “Her majesty, the Empress.”


“Well, what do you think you’re doing, coming to the capital city, then?”

“I came to see if I can help the Empress.”

The guard stared at the witch for a long time. A small traffic jam was forming behind her. Help, but not serve? This was way above his pay grade.

He whistled loudly, and another guard stepped out from a side door to take his place.

“You’re coming to talk to my boss.” The first guard grabbed the witch by the arm and pulled her in through the side door, up a spiral staircase, along a hallway and into his boss’s office.

“Why is this person here?” asked the boss.

“She won’t answer the question, Boss. Seems to think she doesn’t serve the Empress.”

“Well, you know what to do about that.”

“With all due respect, Boss, no, I don’t. It’s never happened in the fourteen years I’ve had this job.”

The boss stared at the witch for a minute, then said, “Rats. Neither do I. Take her to my supervisor.”

A few minutes later, in a larger office, the supervisor gave the same response: “Well, you know what to do about that,” and the guard said, “No, I don’t, and I bet you don’t, either.”

The supervisor paused. “Oh, well. Take her to the commander.”

The guard, still with a grip on the Witch’s arm, walked her out through an iron door, along the top of the wall, down a set of stairs to a street, and through the city to the commander’s office.

The commander’s secretary asked, “Priority?”

“Second rate, sir,” the guard replied. He and the witch were told to wait while several other people took turns seeing the commander. When their turn came, the guard explained the situation, and then the commander turned to the witch.

“Why are you here?”

“This guy dragged me here.”

“No, I mean, why did you come to this city?”

“To see if I can help the empress.”

“That’s what we’re all doing, honey,” said the commander. “The words we use in the city are, “I serve her majesty.” It’s just a formality, but you’ll get along so much better around here if you just behave yourself like everyone else. Let’s do a practice run: Whom do you serve?”

“No one,” said the witch. “Even with the mountain and my garden, I’m more into partnership than servitude.”

The commander was speechless. He had asked this question hundreds of thousands of times, and always received the same answer. What in the Empire was this ragged, barefoot hippy trying to do? His second most important rule in life, after “Obey orders,” was, “If you don’t know, ask someone of higher rank.”

“Take her to the general.”

Again the guard and the Witch walked through the city, this time to the general’s office in the Eastern wing of the Empress’s palace. The general had several secretaries and three waiting rooms: One for nobles and officers, one for privates and commoners, and one for mysteries and anomalies. The waiting room for mysteries and anomalies was one of the more pleasant places the Witch had seen in the city. It had a large skylight, and there was food and water provided, which she needed by then. The guard left, so she had a chance to eat and drink by herself. Half an hour later, a secretary came in and ushered her into the general’s office.

The general didn’t ask any questions. He’d already heard what the guard had to say about the witch. He’d already figured out that he didn’t know what to do with her. He had to ask someone of higher rank, and only one person in the palace had a higher rank than himself. He got up, beckoned, and led the witch through a door, along a hallway, up a staircase, across a balcony, down a staircase, through six or seven different doors, down a ramp, across a courtyard, in another door and up another tall spiral staircase.

The Empress had finished her lunch and was just leaving the dining room. She stopped when she saw the witch, and looked questioningly at the general.

“An anomaly, your majesty,” said the general.

“Hi,” said the witch.

“Hi,” said the Empress.

“I hear that you are the ruler of all this vast empire,” said the witch.

“Yup,” said the Empress.

“I hear that you are the strongest Go player who has ever lived,” said the witch.

“Yup,” said the Empress.

“I heard something about you having a some health problems ...” but the Witch noticed immediately that the Empress looked uncomfortable, so she dropped that topic for the moment, and said instead, “I have an idea that might be fun. Let’s have a game of Go!”

The Empress could never resist a game of Go. She led the way to the Go room, where there were cushions to sit on and a Go board and stones laid out ready to begin a game.

“Take as many handicap stones as you want,” said the Empress.

“I was hoping to play an even game with you.”

“Really? Well ... okay. I’ll flip a coin, if it comes up heads, I’ll take black, tails, you take black.”

The coin landed showing a picture of the Empress’s face, and for the first time in years, the Empress played a black stone.

The witch played a white one.

They played in silence, all afternoon. It was a long Go game. It was a complicated Go game. No one could have told at a glance who was winning, or what was going on in the game at all. When the sun set and the skylight began to grow dark, a servant came in with lanterns, and a cup of tea for each of them. Finally, they both passed.

They didn’t even count up. The witch waved her hand at one corner of the board and said, “I think it’s seki,” and the Empress said, “Yup. You win by three points.”

As they put the stones away, the Empress said, “You’re absolutely brilliant. I haven’t played black in fifteen years. I haven’t played black and lost in sixteen years. Thanks for the game. By they way, you’re not here to take over the empire, are you?”

“Who, me? Become an Empress? Not at all. I’m so much happier being a witch. I came to see if I can help you. I heard that you had some kind of health problem. Sometimes I have useful intuitions about what people need. It’s tricky, though, because you live so differently from anyone I’ve ever met, I’m a long way from understanding what it’s like to be you. Hey, I have an idea that might be fun. What about, I stay with you for three days, and try doing all the things you do, and learn a bit about how it feels to be an Empress?”

The Empress said, “That does sound like fun. Here’s how being my guest works: You can order anything you want for your own comfort and entertainment. If you want to bathe in dragon’s tears, someone will find a dragon, and make it cry. But don’t give any orders that aren’t about yourself, don’t intervene in any disputes, don’t give anyone any advice except about how to interact with you. I think some of my clothing will fit you. Dressing you in my clothing, with no jewelery, will help remind the servants to treat you royally, as my guest, without assigning you a rank in the hierarchy. On that note, let’s get you something decent to wear to dinner, and I have to get dressed, too; I wouldn’t want to be seen wearing the same thing at dinner as at lunch!

The witch said, “Okay!”

So, for the next three days, the witch stayed at the palace, followed the Empress around, wore her clothing, ate her food, and tried doing most of the things she did. The Empress made all the decisions and did almost all the talking. The witch followed and listened and occasionally asked questions, but not many questions were needed. Every part of the palace, every person there, every object in every room, reminded the Empress of a story she wanted to tell her guest.

First they went to the Empress’s dressing room, where, after the witch had had a quick bath, servants dressed each of them in a long, sky-blue silk gown, with tiny pearls and sapphires stitched into the sleeves. The Empress’s hair was combed and braided for the third time that day; the witch’s hair was combed and braided for the first time that week. What the Empress called “no jewelery” sure looked like jewelery to the witch. Strings of pearls got braided into her hair, and a necklace of opals woven together with gold thread was gently put around her neck. But she didn’t wear dozens of bracelets and anklets and rings and pins and necklaces and a tiara, like the Empress. The Empress’s slippers were slightly too small for her, but someone soon found a pair that fit. The Empress and the servants coordinated all of this with a few hand gestures and no words, as the Empress continued telling her stories.

Still surrounded by servants, they walked through a door, along a hallway, down a spiral staircase, across another hallway and through a high, open doorway into the dining room. The long tables were set with covered dishes, and a hundred people were standing beside their chairs, waiting for the Empress to sit down first. As soon as she did, servants uncovered all the food, and there were a hundred different things to eat, many of them things the witch had never seen before and couldn’t identify. She was about to serve herself, and then noticed that no one else was doing that. Two servants were serving food onto the Empress’s plate, and everyone else was waiting. When the Empress’s plate was full, one of the servants turned to the witch.

“Um,” said the witch. “I’d like to try a bit everything Her Majesty is eating.”

She did her best to mimic the Empress’s table manners, and the various nobles, officers and dignitaries at the table did their best not to stare. The witch was glad the villagers had taught her how to use chop sticks. At home, she always ate with her fingers, and that didn’t seem to be the thing to do at the Empress’s dinner table. Feeling thirsty, she drank all the water in the bowl beside her, and then figured out later that everyone else was only drinking tea; the water was for the servants to use to clean any unexpected spills.

After dinner there was music, played on harps and drums and flutes, and then they went to bed. The Empress’s bed was big enough to share; it was ten metres wide, with more duvets and pillows than the witch had ever seen in her life. After the servants had helped them change into to pyjamas, and left, the Empress started laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“Your table manners! Were you doing that on purpose, or are you just from really far away?”

“Wasn’t I copying everything you did? I sat up on a chair and used chop sticks and didn’t lick my plate.”

“You had your chop sticks in your left hand! And you held them in the middle, not at the end! And you actually stabbed pieces of meat, rather than pick them up like the rest of us! And you looked in all the wrong places at all the wrong times, and the poor servants were so confused, they kept getting conflicting hand signals from you. And you had an odd number of rice grains in your last mouthfull, and had a bite of greens before your first bite of meat, and ...”

The list of the Witch’s mistakes went on and on, until they were both laughing uncontrollably.

The next day was their first full day together. The Empress and the Witch went walking all over the palace, out on the balconies and along the tops of the walls. The Empress started talking as soon as they woke, and carried on all day, telling story after story after story, about herself, her life, her family, others who had lived in the palace, or come to visit, how each part of the palace had been built, and when, what was going on in the various rooms that they passed, or in places she could see looking down into the city, or out past the city wall, plans for the future, unsolved mysteries from the past, major decisions she had made as Empress, and how she felt about them now. The witch went to bed with her head full of stories, and dreamed that she was an Empress trying to be all the people from all those stories, trying to do all those things at the same time.

On the second day, the Empress gave the witch some grappling and kickboxing lessons. The witch had never tried either, and the Empress was not at all used to practicing with beginners, so the witch really got thrown around. Fortunately, the one technique she picked up easily was breakfalls, so she had a fun morning and didn’t get hurt.

In the afternoon, the Empress had an important meeting with her Imperial High Ministers and some diplomats from neighbouring kingdoms. The witch, who was not invited, took the opportunity to dress in her own clothing for a few hours, and go outside, and climb a tree.

That evening, after the servants had left, the witch said, “You know, it’s been two days, and I sure am having fun, and I’m copying everything you do, and I’m beginning to get used to the way you live, but it doesn’t make any sense to me yet. I don’t feel like an Empress at all.

The Empress laughed and said, “Of course you don’t. You haven’t given any orders yet. You haven’t so much as asked for a glass of water.”

The witch said, “Oh, right. Maybe I’ll try that tomorrow.”

The next day the Empress held court. There were hundreds of people waiting for her attention. They waited patiently, with their questions and their complaints, their conflicts and their grudges, their impossible requests and their unlikely stories. The Empress dressed in full regalia, and sat on her throne, and the witch stood behind and a little to the side, where the Empress had stood years before, when her father held court and she listened and learned. She had had fun that morning, dressing the witch in the kinds of clothing she had worn in those years, so the servants would understand that that was the witch’s role.

It was an intense role to have, the witch soon discovered. Though nothing was expected of her and no one was paying attention to her, her own attention was kept busy just trying to understand each person’s story. She couldn’t imagine how the Empress did the much more difficult job of responding, explaining, making people’s decisions for them or, in some cases, just listening to them until they saw the hypocrisy in their own stories, and went away laughing, or crying, or apologizing, or whatever.

The Empress took a break for lunch, and another short intermission in the afternoon, with about a hundred people still waiting and hoping that their case would be heard before the end of the day. The witch decided it was her turn to try giving an order. She said to the nearest sevant: “Excuse me, would you please bring me a glass of water?”

The servant bowed very low and walked away, and the witch turned to the Empress, who said, “Okay, we’re gonna have to talk about this. For one thing, that’s not the glass-of-water-bringer. That’s the Third Imperial Slipper Fetcher. Also, even though the Third Imperial Slipper Fetcher is four and a half ranks above the glass-of-water-bringer, you do not say “please,” or “Excuse me,” to the Slipper Fetcher.”

“Oh,” said the witch. “Is that why she turned white in the face?”

The Empress said, “Yes.”

The witch said, “I’m sorry. I’ll tell her when she gets back that I’m sorry.”

The Empress said, “No. Let me handle this. Just accept the glass of water with a nod.”

When the Slipper Fetcher had handed over the requested glass of water and the witch had responded with the required nod, the Empress said to the Slipper Fetcher,
“The sorting of slippers to accommodate my friend’s forseeable needs will be your task this evening. You are dismissed until dinner.”

The Slipper Fetcher bowed very low, took five steps backwards, and walked away. As soon as she was out of earshot, the witch said,

“What ... What? The sorting of slippers? I don’t have forseeable slipper needs! We haven’t even talked about whether I’m staying, or leaving tomorrow morning!”

“That’s not the point,” the Empress said, “This way, the slipper fetcher gets some reassurance that she is still my Third Imperial Slipper Fetcher, and she gets an hour or two off, to recover from the shock of thinking she’d been mocked, insulted, and demoted four and a half ranks for no reason she could understand. By referring to you as “my friend,” I let her know that I understand that your place in the palace is confusing to her. No one around here has a title as vague as “friend.” The impossible task implies that I have remarkable faith in her slipper-sorting abilities, but that’s just a bonus. I needed an excuse to talk to her directly.”

The Empress resumed holding court, and the witch resumed her place behind the throne with a new appreciation of the incredible complexity of what the Empress was doing.

That night, the witch couldn’t sleep. She wasn’t surprised; she’d had no physical excercise all day. She lay in bed for a long time, rehashing case after case, wondering why the Empress had said this or that, how she figured out what had happened, how she knew what people needed from her, and above all, wondering how on Earth anyone could keep that up all day. Almost everyone who brought a case to court had left satisfied, humbled, ready to go back to what they’d been doing or move on to what they would do next, and 100% loyal to the Empress.

After lying in bed for a long time, the witch said very quietly, “I don’t feel like sleeping.”

“Neither do I,” said the Empress.

“Well,” said the witch, “what do you do when you’re already in bed but you can’t sleep?”

“I wait.”

“For how long?”

“Until I fall asleep.”

“How long does that usually take?”

“Sometimes I see the sky begin to get lighter, and just get a very short sleep before it’s time to wake up in the morning, but more often, I’m awake for about the time it takes for a star to move all the way across the skylight.”

“So... two or three hours?”


“What if you don’t want to lie in bed?”

The Empress said, “There’s nothing else to do, it’s bed time.”

After a pause, the witch said, “Would you like to hear what I do, when I can’t sleep at night?”

The Empress said, “Yeah.”

“Well, I put a sweater on, and my fur boots if it’s cold out. If I have a fire going in the fireplace in my cabin, I stoke it so it’ll burn slowly and still have live coals in the morning if I’m out all night. I go out and greet the night air, and the stream, and my garden, and I walk up the path that goes to the top of the mountain. I walk until I feel ready to turn back. After an indoor day like today, I’d probably go all the way to the top of the mountain. Sometimes the full moon is out, and I can see everything. Other times, I walk by the light of the waxing moon, or the stars, or sometimes it’s cloudy and I find the path by feel. Sometimes it’s raining or snowing, but my feet know the trail, even in the snow. If the sky is clear, like tonight, I might pause at the top of the mountain and greet the stars by name. The surrounding mountains are all familiar to me, and it’s comforting to see them in the starlight. I walk carefully on the way back to my cabin, paying attention to my footing, but not so slowly as to get chilled. By the time I get in the door, I’m usually ready for a bite to eat and a warm bed.”

“That sounds lovely,” the Empress said, “I almost wish I had a mountain to climb tonight.”

The Witch said, “Well, there’s the palace.”

They climbed out the window together, onto the roof of the next room over. The crescent moon was low in the west, and a warm wind was blowing from the south.

The Witch climbed up onto the bedroom roof, and around the skylight, and the Empress followed. The Witch led the way up onto another roof, around a tower, across a balcony, along the top of a wall, over a railing, and so on and on up to the very top of the palace, where they finally climbed, carefully, on all fours, up the round, pointed roof of the highest tower, which was almost too steep to climb on. It had a flagpole at the top, and at the base of the flagpole was a narrow ledge. The Witch and the Empress stood on the ledge, held on to the flagpole, and watched the moon set. They greeted the stars by name, and found that they knew almost all the same names for the brightest few hundred stars out of the thousands that were visible from that high place on that clear night. When they ran out of star names, the witch said,

“I’m getting chilly.”

The Empress said, “Me too. My feet are cold.”

“Oh, dear!” the Witch whispered. “An unforseeable slipper need!”

The Empress laughed a little bit, but then added, “It’s really dark out here. Without the moonlight, I don’t remember how to get back to my bedroom.”

“I do,” said the Witch. “Would you like me to describe what I’m doing, to help you follow?”

The Empress said, “Yes.”

So the witch talked all the way back down to the bedroom, perfectly retracing her steps, describing every move so the Empress could copy it, pausing often to wait, occasionally even reaching out to guide the Empress’s foot to a tricky foothold.

After the climbed in through the bedroom window, the Empress asked, “Do you do hugs?”

“Of course. Do you?”

“Tonight I do.”

They hugged and then went back to their opposite ends of the bed, and immediately fell asleep.

The Witch was woken at first light by the Empress’s voice saying, “Wow! I feel better then I have in years! Thank you! Thank you so much!”

The Witch asked, “What feels different?”

“Everything --- it’s a bit tricky to describe --- Everything is just a little bit more comfortable, and more interesting, and I feel ready to get up and do things, including some things that I’d been avoiding without meaning to because they didn’t seem fun. Being alive and awake feels fun again. I knew something was feeling wrong, but, wow, I’d forgotten how good it feels to feel good. Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” said the Witch, and got up and started putting on her old clothes.

The Empress asked, “Can I give you half my empire, or something?”

“No, thank you, absolutely not. I told you at the beginning, I’m just here to help. I’m going home now.”

“Don’t you want to stay?”

“Not even remotely.”

“Oh... Well, what can I give you in return for your help?”

The Witch said, “It’s okay, I don’t need anything in particular, I’m just happy to help,” and started for the door.

The Empress said, “Wait... At least let me walk you to the door.” She put on her kickboxing uniform, because it was the only clothing she could easily put on without any servants, and together they started walking through the palace toward a door out into the city. As they walked, they were silently joined by servants who noticed that the Empress was up a bit earlier than usual: first the dressing assistants, then the glass-of-water bringer, the Second Imperial Slipper Fetcher, the Empress’s Executive Personal Messenger, and so on. The Empress kept offering things to the Witch as payment, or a token of gratitude, or just a souvenir of the palace, and the Witch kept refusing them. Then, as they walked through the Go room, the Witch picked up a gold coin off the floor. It was the one that the Empress had flipped to decide who would play first. She said,
“Okay, here’s an idea. Put one stone on the Go board, and I’ll take home this coin.” She put it in her pocket. “Tomorrow, put another stone on the board, and send me two gold coins. The next day, another stone, and four gold coins, and so on, one more stone and twice as many coins each day until the board is full.”

The Empress looked at the go board for half a minute, then said, “That’s in the Quinquatrigintillions? You came a long way to play go with me, did you?”

They both laughed, and then went their separate ways, and that might be the end of the story about the Empress and the Witch, if it weren’t for the Empress’s Executive Personal Messenger. He didn’t figure out that they were joking. He didn’t figure out that quinquatrigintillions of gold coins would not fit in the observable universe. He knew that the Witch was allowed to order whatever she wanted for herself. He had heard the Empress offer her whatever she wanted a minute before. He knew that the Empress’s orders must be obeyed. He put one stone on the Go board as the Empress and the Witch walked away.

The next morning, the Empress's Executive Personal Messenger put one more stone on the board, got two gold coins from the treasury, and took them to the Witch’s cabin. When the Witch answered the door, he handed them to her.

The witch went, “Really?”

The messenger said, “The Empress’s orders must be obeyed.”

The next day he brought her four coins, then eight, and so on. On the tenth day he found a backpack, because 512 gold coins didn’t fit in his pockets, and by the end of the day, he was tired.

The Empress’s Executive Personal Messenger got up the next morning feeling stiff, put the eleventh stone on the Go board, and said to himself, “I need some help.”

He filled the backpack with 1024 gold coins, and sent the Empress’s Second Personal Messenger to carry it to the witch’s cabin. The next day, they each carried a full backpack. The next morning, the two messengers put the thirteenth stone on the go board, looked at each other, and said, “We need more help.”

They got a donkey, and loaded it with 2048 gold coins, and each carried 1024 themselves. The next day, they got a cart for the donkey to pull. The day after that, the cart was full, and too heavy, and it broke down as they turned off the road and onto the mountain path, so the messengers and the donkey had to make multiple trips up the mountain to get all the gold coins to the witch, who said to add them to pile she had made on the rock just downhill from her cabin because she was tired of having so many gold coins in her cabin. The messengers found someone in the village to fix the cart while they went up and down the path, but even so, they got back to the palace well after dark, and very late for dinner.

The next morning, they met in the Go room, put the sixteenth Go stone on the board, and looked at each other.

“We need more help.”

They went to talk to the generals of the army. There were three generals in the palace, and a few hundred soldiers in and around the city, and the generals were often looking for new and different things for the soldiers to do for physical training. The generals sent 32 soldiers to the treasury, and the messengers counted out 1024 coins for each of them to carry. They arrived at the Witch’s cabin, and knocked at the door, and she answered it and said, “Really?”

And they said, “Empress’s orders must be obeyed.”

The next day, 64 soldiers showed up, the next day, 128, and the next day, 257 soldiers came to the treasury, 256 to carry gold coins to the Witch’s cabin, and one to inform the messengers that the generals had decided that the soldiers had had enough of this kind of training for the moment, and that the messengers would therefore have to look elsewhere for beasts of burden.

The next morning, the messengers looked at the Go board. The stones only covered one row. They put the first stone on the second row, looked at each other, and said, “We need some more help.”

There were 1024 servants in the palace. The messengers summoned them all to the treasury, one after another, and spent all day counting out gold coins, giving an average of 512 to each servant, but distributing the load to suit each servant’s physical fitness, because not everyone in the palace was used to long walks or able to carry a heavy backpack. There were large servants and small servants, fat servants and thin servants and muscular servants, tall servants and short servants, young servants and old servants. They all started at different times and walked at different speeds to the Witch’s cabin, so all day, from mid-morning to late at night, she had servants arriving at irregular intervals and adding coins to the pile.

The next morning, the two messengers put the second Go stone on the second row, looked at each other, and said,
“We need some more help.”

They delegated the counting to the Imperial Treasurers, and went out into the city, and recruited whoever they could find who was fit and strong enough to carry a full backpack of gold coins. By midday, 1024 people from the city had been issued backpacks with 1024 gold coins each, to carry to the Witch’s cabin, and the messengers returned to the palace, hoping for lunch and a much-needed nap.

There were a few others things going on that day. One was that the treasury was getting empty. When the last backpack was filled and carried out, there was only one gold coin left in a corner. Another was that the Witch was getting grumpy. The pile of coins had become a small mountain of gold coins, and then started sliding down into the valley, more like a river of gold coins. She was kept awake by the clicking, clanking, sliding, slithering sound of them. In the morning, she decided enough was enough, and started walking down the mountain path, toward the village and the road and the palace.

The Empress was also feeling grumpy. She had had a very hard day, the day before. All of her servants had been missing all afternoon. No one served her dinner, or even cooked it. The great fires in the kitchens, which usually heated the palace, had gone out. For the first time in her life, the Empress had plain, cold leftovers for lunch, and nothing at all for dinner, because no one lit any lamps and she couldn’t find her way down to the kitchen in the dark. She did get to her bedroom, in the last of the daylight, cold, hungry, frustrated and extremely confused.

In the morning, all the servants were back in their places. “What were you doing yesterday?” the Empress asked.

“Obeying your orders, your majesty,” they said, with varying degrees of terror. She asked another servant, and another, all morning, and kept getting the same answer. She could tell that the unusual question, or the anger in her voice, must be stressing the servants out so badly that no one was able to really answer her. Just as she was about to sit down for lunch, her Executive Personal Messenger arrived, and she realized she couldn’t remember where he’d been or when she’d last seen him. He took his usual place for the first time in weeks, standing behind her chair and a little to the side.

The Empress looked him in the eye, and asked,

“What were you doing yesterday?”

He answered, “Obeying your orders, your majesty,” as the colour drained out of his face. He saw that there had been a mistake somewhere. The Empress never asked what he was doing. She always knew exactly what he’d been doing, because he was always doing exactly, precisely what she told him to do.

The Empress said, “Okay, you were obeying my orders. Now, tell me, in detail, what were you actually doing yesterday?”

“Sending gold coins to the Witch’s cabin, your majesty.”

“How many?”

“Two million ninety-seven thousand one hundred fifty, your majesty.”

“And how many are left in the treasury?”

“One, your majesty.”

Now it was the Empress who was shocked. She had made a mistake. She never made mistakes. Something was terribly wrong.

“This is absurd!” she yelled. “Following orders is absurd! Everyone stop following my orders!”

Everyone in the dining hall gasped.

“Just figure things out for yourselves.”

Everyone in the dining hall was stunned, immobile, speechless. Everyone, that is, except the Witch. She happened to walk in the door just in time to hear the Empress say, “Everyone stop obeying my orders,” and she thought to herself, “This might be an empress who could use some more help.”

She came quietly to the Empress’s side, and said, “I have an idea that might be fun. You come to my cabin for three days, and do what I do, and learn a bit about being a witch.”

“That does sound like fun,” said the Empress, so together they walked out of that room full of shocked, silent people, out of the palace, out of the city, and all the way to the Witch’s cabin.

To the extent possible under law, Tamias Nettle has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to The Empress and the Witch. This work is published from: Canada.