Short Story – The Qualities of a Leader

It has been a while since I wrote any journal-like visits to the fantasy world of my earlier short stories; I had written a few and could not think of more topics to write upon. However, after this hiatus I once again had inspiration; the idea of examinations for selecting those to hold public office is a historical detail that has always fascinated me, as has the concept of social patronage. Both details seemed to fit well the fiercely virtuous, pious and studious culture I had created and so this story came about. I have explored in past stories the social climbers, the means by which peoples’ status may improve in this society (marriage, a form of debutante-like social meeting of eligible youths, military service and the simple conspicuousness of being seen at a religious gathering) and so I wrote a piece about someone seeking a patron to sponsor their entering government.

It is the late part of summer and the air is heavy and stormy, seemingly oozing potential rain down one’s back and on one’s brow and ridding one of all desire to work. Work must continue but it is slow, unpleasant going and – for all that the summer at its start feels endless and perfect, an eternity of warm bliss – now people count the days until autumn with its cooler days and then, in time, winter and the hope of a dusting of snow to tint the ground. When the weather is this oppressive even the joys of a summer day – the visit of an old friend, or attending a sermon spoken by a travelling priest or scholar – feel unwanted, for they involve the putting on of formal clothes and who would willingly do that when already dressed in a cage of perspiration?

It is at this time of year, when the sunless heat (for clouds mask the sky and at times rise up as if about to rain causing everyone to look nervously upwards and seek shelter) is at its worst, that we are at our most mortal and vulnerable. We all perspire, and are reduced to damp lethargy. Nobody wants to look as formal as they should, and it is so tiring to merely wake up and perform the necessities of daily life that even the noble and pious look for short-cuts. Perhaps it is a cruelty then that it is at this time of year those young men and women who wish to, come the next elections to the Council, stand for office examinations must begin the obsequious process of finding a sponsor and beginning their tuition. It is a shameful process, for sure. To stand for examination one must receive the blessing of someone already holding high office – one’s town’s magistrate, or sheriff, or tax-counter or some other official nobody ordinarily wishes to visit without some dispute or duty to drive them. Then one must work beyond all believable bounds, study not simply the field of governance which is one’s passion but all of the methods by which a state is guided, and on top of that history and culture and etiquette. One works through the winter, when there is little to do except read books by lamp-light, and then when spring thaws the ground and Her Majesty sings in the new year, examinations are held.

Of course, to study through the winter one must first approach one’s patron in the sweltering, draining heat of late summer. A town of average size will have several potential patrons, such that no official will need to be troubled with more than one or two students – for anyone who has a position of authority is eligible. This does not mean, however, some patrons are not more desirable than others. The higher-status one’s patron, the more – one may imply – intelligent they are for they have clearly passed the examinations more ably. In this town, a provincial governor resides. He travels, when needed, to the capital, but mostly remains here to rule over his domain. His house is large, spread in right-angles over a swathe of the outskirts of the town, and its gardens are highly-regarded across the whole province as some of the most beautiful it is possible to see.

Through these gardens, which are full of delicate hidden passages between high trees and late-blossoming flowers, the silence is broken by the sound of uneasy footsteps on fine gravel. A young boy is making his way to the house that is concealed within, approaching via the paths intended to deter casual visitors from troubling its occupant. He wears a cloth hat in the fashionable style with uncertainty, holding his head awkwardly to prevent it falling off, and is currently being cooked beneath many layers of silks. It is beyond ostentatious, the efforts of a family of only questionable status to impress a patron of the highest status. In his damp, slick palms he grips scroll-cases and writing-materials, and he walks in shoes that do not quite fit.

He waits in the hall of this vast house and his eyes search for something to consider homely and familiar as his body itches and fidgets. He does not know how this opportunity has come about but he knows all too well it will never come again. The panic of etiquette has set in. He has been presented with a plain wooden seat of the type the governor will offer to guests he does not wish to make too comfortable, and there is no table nearby. His hands are occupied with the scrolls and writing-materials, delicate and potentially disastrous to drop for black ink over cream and sage-green silk will be indelible humiliation. Yet he has a feeling he needs to remove his hat out of courtesy. He could stand and put his accoutrements on the chair then remove his hat, but no offer has been made to look after it and carrying it would look too humble and common.

Before he can decide on a course of action he is led through to a study, a room hotter still than outside because of the braziers of glowing coals that are believed to keep scrolls and books dry by removing moisture from the air. Its windows are shuttered unfashionably but practically, permitting enough light to pass by which to read but not enough to damage delicate texts. Instinctively, grasping his belongings all the closer, he falls to the floor in supplication only to be bidden to rise. A stool, the curved seat of a scribe or servant, has been offered for him in expectation that this will be a long meeting. Most have to stand in the governor’s presence. He realises his hat has fallen off as he knelt and reaches to pick it up, dropping a scroll – the most important one. The letter of recommendation that he hopes will get him this man as patron. Yet in these great surroundings it feels inadequate. The letter is only from an uncle, a tax-counter in a smaller town than this.

It is nevertheless read as he stammers his introduction and name. He has yet to sit, because although he has been permitted to stand he has not been invited to do anything else. Besides, standing makes it easier to walk out of the door when rejected. The governor is unimpressed. He stares the boy before him down, compares the squirming nervous wreck with the youth of great character and prospects described in the letter. The uncle has not seen his nephew for years but knows enough statecraft to write a convincing introduction. It is decided after silent minutes that the boy will have one chance to prove himself. He is to take out paper and pen, and – half-remembered advice about governance and finance and history begin spinning out of control in the poor applicant’s troubled mind – write some lines of verse in the classical style about the governor’s garden.

A good leader is cultured and eloquent as well as wise and authoritative in legal matters.


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