Sunday Fiction: Malfeasor’s Feast

Author’s Note: Victoria Rollison posted recently about rich wankers, and it inspired me to provide this week’s fictional fare. Check the tags for subject content, and as always I hope you enjoy!

Lord Malfeasor looked over his gathered guests that lounged about the long oak table draped in food and exquisite tablecloths, content until now with how the evening’s feasting progressed. “My ladies and gentlemen, we are all equals here,” he said, his eyes alight with not a little drunkenness, “and because of this, we should all be honest and open with each other. We all own lands here, at the dispensation and good mercy of our King, and because of this, we should all be happy with our wealth and station in life. But I’ve noted that something dour has cast a pall on this fine evening’s revelry. Where we should be happy, there is sorrow. Please, let us talk about it, that we may assuage each other’s pain, and we can continue in our merrymaking.”

The gathered assembly murmured at this lofty intimation; they were indeed troubled, but none present that night had dared to broach the subject of their apprehension. Lady Venin, the wife of the recently deceased Lord Venin, smiled with her crimson painted lips, and in her soft musical voice said, “Your concern is as generous as the vittles you’ve laid before us this evening, Malfeasor. Indeed, your hospitality for people of our station is known throughout the land. And, in that spirit then, I would like to be the first to bring this matter to light.

“Indeed, part of me had hoped the troubles of myself and the company present would not have troubled us on what should be a most pleasant of occasions. Alas, this is not to be so, and, to put my grievance succinctly, my peasants cry out in anger at my management of my lands. Not only do they cry out, but they scream obscenities and hurl baseless accusations at my reputation. Why, the other day, one such miscreant accosted me in my carriage and said such hateful things to me. He even accused me of poisoning my beloved husband!”

Finishing her soliloquy, the Lady’s smile turned to a grievous frown, and the present company could see her fighting back tears when she mentioned the accusation. All the others nodded sympathetically at her plight, and they gave her a moment’s silence to allow her to regain her lost composure. Lord Malfeasor cleared his voice and raised his glass, saying, “My good Lady, my heart bursts with compassion for your most unpleasant story. Please, let us take this moment to toast your beloved, and let us be thankful he was not there to hear such lies from your subjects.” The assembly all raised their glasses, and Lady Venin was taken aback by such a compassionate display, her face turning almost as crimson as her lips.

For a brief time, the dinner continued with spirits raised somewhat by the show of support for Lady Venin against her peasantry. The wine, imported from a foreign country at great expense and risk to Malfeasor, loosened everyone’s tongue, and soon the others felt themselves secure in each other’s company. In particular, they enjoyed the stew. When a bowl emptied, Malfeasor summoned a servant to bring more over. And although the nobles could not identify what was in the stew (Malfeasor would only smile and say it was locally acquired), they all agreed it was quite delicious and provided them with some comfort.

One lord, though, did not brighten his countenance for a while, and soon he cast a frightening look upon his gathered associates. Malfeasor, sensing his friend’s discomfort, placed a gentle hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “Please, Lord Toilmore, I renew my original supplication to you all; let us share in your burden, and I promise you will feel better for it.”

Lord Toilmore, head of the most industrious parcel of land in the kingdom, gazed upon each person present and frowned. He was known for carefully measuring his words as if each breath had to be accounted for and taxed appropriately, and he lived up to this reputation. The others patiently waited, and after a few moments he ceased his measurements and began to speak. “I must first confess my sorrow at continuing to sully what otherwise should be a merry occasion. But, recent events being what they were, I cannot cast aside my fears and angers with the ease of others here. My peasants have been as every bit as contentious as the Lady Venin’s. However, I would warrant they have gone somewhat further in my lands.

“I mean, by this, not that the Lady Venin hasn’t suffered as greatly as I. Were I accused of murdering someone, I’m afraid I might not have handled it as well as the Lady here. Be that as it may, those on my lands have taken to vagrancy and idle business in greater degree. I do not know if this is because of their recent display of immorality, or whether it is from some desire to avoid gainful employment, but the result is the same. One example first in my mind is of a group of lazy serfs I saw milling about one of my villages. When I approached, they straightened themselves up and began to murmur. I asked them what they were doing away from their work, and one of their number replied, ‘My Lord, we peasants are 99 out of every 100 in this kingdom. And yet our great numbers do us no service; we must break our backs while you do nothing.’

“Now, I must admit, I lost my noble composure at that allegation. Who was this nobody, this landless peasant, to call me idle in my own lands? I drew my sword in anger and struck him down where he stood, defending my honor with my steel. The gathered crowd began to murmur louder, and I readied myself to stand against their tide of misfeasance. But, seeing me ready to stand for what is just and righteous must have made an impression upon their simple minds, and they backed down from their intended injustice against me. The mob, as quickly as they moved to stand, dispersed from their location and went back to their lawful and productive labors.

“From thence I cleaned my blade and continued my journey throughout my lands. As you all know my lands, and I do not mean to boast, are the most productive. And they were also the most troubled from recent events, which, to my dismay, greatly surprised me. I demanded much from my peasants, and they never failed to meet to those demands. As we all know, productive labor is good to quiet the idle mind, it raises the peasant’s spirit, and peasants receive fair compensation for their labors and pains. Since these people are of the lesser classes, they are unable to conduct their minds in a complex fashion, to understand the world, and so their labor is their only way of expressing themselves with good humor. But although this is true, nonetheless they rose up along with the peasants in other lands. It’s as if I, as a noble father to my wayward children, failed in steering my charges along their straight and moral path. Having encountered those idle peasants, even after their fruitless rebellion was quelled, has caused me to ask myself what I have done wrong in my lands. Since I have found no answer to this vexatious question, I am troubled, and that is why I am unable to share in our festive merrymaking.”

Toilmore, reaching the end of his speech, picked up his goblet, and quaffed a large draught of wine from it. Uttering that vile word from his lips, rebellion, resounded throughout the others in a shockwave of misery. The others looked to each other with guilt in their eyes and in their hearts, and finding only more guilt in each other, they remained silent. Only Malfeasor, who himself had been spared from the ravages of the rebellious lower class, sat with his head high and his countenance empty of wrongdoing. Although he wished his colleagues well, he sat in relative silence. Motioning for more stew, he bade his guests to sup upon it with a smile.

All of the nobles save one eagerly accepted the new serving. Lord Usury, a man of great girth, set his spoon down angrily and wiped the stew gravy from his ample beard. Standing from his chair, he drank some wine before starting, “Malfeasor, this party has been quite amusing to say the least, but I for one cannot exorcise my doubts with stew and wine. To be sure, the Lady Venin’s account of her peasantry touches my heart, and I am saddened that she has had to endure their accusations. Furthermore, Lord Toilmore’s account is a cautionary tale for me. For although we have succeeded in stopping our peasants from upsetting the natural order of things, they may still attempt something just as vile in the future.

“My experience with this rebellion was somewhat more muted than some of those present here. I am aware, for example, that in the Lady Venin’s lands they almost killed her late husband during the hostilities. It was most unfortunate that he died mysteriously when the fighting was over. Unlike Lord Venin, though, I was not in personal danger. But I was subject to something perhaps just as outrageous as a threat on my life by a commoner. In short, the peasants in my lands sought to steal from my personal wealth and belongings. What end they wished to achieve by this robbery is beyond me; whether they wanted money for personal amusement or to fund their fellow criminals elsewhere will be a mystery that can never be solved.

“It is that mystery that confounds me, and it denies me comfort. For during that time when I witnessed the common folk in my castle, taking my things, and looting my household, two sentiments they expressed rang out the loudest. Indeed, even as the ringleaders were on trial for their attempts at conversion of noble property, these sentiments were echoed again. And when they were about to hang, they echoed the sentiments a third time. As we all know, commoners are simple folk, incapable of higher reason. Thus, their brains cannot hold many thoughts; most are blessed if they can keep one in their heads at any given time. Because of this, one expression from the serfs was bad enough; it could have been a fleeting notion or merely repeating some slogan heard elsewhere. The second outburst days later indicated to me that the sentiment had stayed with at least some of the peasants. But the third expression, when the commoner is face-to-face with his destiny, and after all the time had passed, showed me that these sentiments were permanent fixtures in the minds of some of my serfs. As such, I am at a loss on how to counter those sentiments and remove them from my commoners’ minds.”

Lord Usury sagged his shoulders, as if a tremendous burden had been placed upon them. His eyes plaintively searched his colleagues for comfort and strength, but he could only find solace in Malfeasor’s gaze. Lord Malfeasor raised his glass in sympathy, and said, “Please, Lord Usury, your pains are duly noted, and they are shared in varying degrees with the rest of us. You are a wealthy lord, maybe even the wealthiest of us all. An attack upon your property is an attack on the fiber of your very being. Perhaps if you shared the sentiments of your peasants with us, we can provide rebuttal for them, and you can find comfort.”

Lord Usury steadied himself, summoning the courage to continue. For a few moments, he looked downward and gathered his thoughts. He began anew, “I shall tell you all then, and you can be the judge of whether I should allow myself to be shaken by my serfs, or whether I should continue to be worried. The first sentiment the serfs expressed was this: that my property was gained through methods tantamount to theft. This thought, on its face, does seem quite ludicrous. However, I think some context is appropriate to fully describe the depravity of my peasants.

“You see,” Lord Usury continued, “peasants are tied to our lands through the law of our good King. The form and manner of the tether, however, varies depending upon each noble’s needs. Usually, serfs are required to labor to produce things to earn their right to live peacefully in the kingdom, much like in Lord Toilmore’s lands. In my lands, though, I have operated a different system of justly requiring peasants to earn their keep. To keep things efficient, to reduce fraud, and to promote equitable payment to His Majesty, I have monetized my peasants’ rents. What I mean by this is that the taxes the peasants pay have a money value, and everything I give them in return has a money value. Every month, the sum the peasants provide should add up to the amount they owe.

“This system is the fairest I’ve been able to come up with. But the commoners, being the lazy and simple folk they are, do not always abide by it. I charge them a rent to live on the land, and sometimes they don’t pay it all. Being a benevolent noble, I then loan them money to make ends meet, or to buy farm implements, or anything else they need. I charge them a reasonable amount of interest that varies depending upon the season. I even try to explain the terms of each loan to them. And although they accuse me of doing this solely to keep them indebted to me, I do not enjoy having to evict my serfs and seize their property when they are too in debt to pay the loans.

“It is at this point, then, that the peasants’ first accusation comes to play. They claimed that my loans were vile and insufferable chains, that I schemed to rob them, that I had no one’s interest at heart but my own! But I reminded them that it was their actions that brought themselves to ruin; they were not coerced into taking loans from me. Indeed, I reminded them that it was their fault for entering into an agreement without thinking of all the ramifications, to borrow without asking what strings were attached.”

At this point, Lord Usury became slightly spent of breath, and paused his speech. He took a small hunk of bread, gripped it tightly in his large, pudgy fingers, and sopped up some soup with it. In one bite he devoured the sustenance, and it seemed to give him an unknown comfort. Sipping some wine from his glass to renew his vigor, he continued, “But as I said earlier, there were two accusations levied upon me.

“This second indictment from my peasantry shook me to my core. They claimed that even if I did not steal from them I still owed them the precious things and property placed in my keep! How depraved were their minds that day! How insidious their ravings! I, who had achieved my wealth through contract and fair dealings! It was then I realized I was not dealing with peasants; no, I was dealing with rabid animals!

“Their reasoning, and I do use the term only in that of the reasoning of a wolf, was that they were in need of my property to conduct their labors. When that excuse (because I dare not call it a valid principle) was uttered, I sprang forth to action, summoned my guards, and began the bloody work of dispatching the rabble from my home. And like the wolf upon seeing wounded prey, they persisted in their indictments to the point of uttering them as their last words!” Usury ceased his ravings for a moment, and stared at the assembly coldly. “And that is precisely why I cannot find comfort, knowing there may be more predators in my flock!”

At that, Lord Usury landed in his chair, making it groan in protest at the force applied by his weight. Lord Malfeasor, satisfied his great friend had finished, stood to address his guests. “Gentle men and women, let us all thank Lord Usury for sharing his plight with us.” One by one, each person save Malfeasor mumbled words to Usury that did not ring of gratitude. When this was done, Malfeasor said, “But we are not here to dwell upon what our peasants say they think! No, we are here for another reason entirely.” Others began to talk amongst themselves, wondering if they would ever get peace after hearing Usury’s tale.

His voice quiet, the others slowly broke from their deliberations to attend to what Malfeasor spoke of. “My friends,” he began, “I have gathered you here today to celebrate our victory over those in our King’s lands who resorted to violence to do us wrong.” He turned his gaze to Lady Venin, Lord Toilmore, and Lord Usury, and affixed them with a stern, yet compassionate, expression. “They brought to the fore this evening that which frightens us. It is our noble stature, our place in this life above the peasantry, which enables us to comprehend the complexities of the world around us. Without our nobility, a right granted to us by our birth and the blood in our veins, we would be as base and as corrupt as the common folk.

“This is the fundamental basis for our superiority as nobles. We have more because we ARE more. Our noble blood allows us to fathom the mysteries of the universe. It gives us more vigor to manage the complex affairs of politics. Nobility requires us to defend not only our own honor, but the honor of our fellow nobles, our knights, and our King. And our duties are not limited to honor; we must care for our King’s lands and see them flourish. So, with all of these responsibilities come important rights. We do not physically labor, we do not deign to dirty ourselves in word and deed, and we do not forsake our lot in life because we envy someone else.

“Contrast this lofty assessment, my friends, with the common serf. No noble blood flows in his veins. Because of this, he is quick to anger and slow to understand. He knows only his passions and prejudices, and this makes his station in life barely above the beasts he uses to till fields. Complexities and subtleties are lost upon his simple brain. And, flowing from this, the results of his actions are quite understandable. Since he doesn’t understand us, and why he must follow us, he reacts out of his passions. He rises up with his fellow serfs, takes up his farming tools, and moves to strike against those who have done nothing but help him his entire miserable life.

“But this knowledge in and of itself is no comfort this evening, and therefore I will offer further proofs to assuage your grief over recent events. Aside from their passions, I know why the serfs rebelled. They simply covet what we have. I know, even at this moment, a serf will look up from his labors, see this castle, and tell himself he wants what I have. All he does every day is rut around in the ground like a beast. But who takes the things he grows and makes arrangements to sell it? Who provides him with a home and honest work? Who keeps him and his family fed? We do, of course, but the serf thinks his labor has monetary value. He thinks he owns his own time. He actually thinks his life is worth more than labor, and he therefore he covets what does not belong to him. Think on this a moment, my friends,” Malfeasor said, eyeing the people gathered, and noting the looks of utter horror painted upon their faces. Letting the point hang in the air like a wicked sword dangling over everyone’s head, Malfeasor drank from his goblet before speaking again.

“The question now becomes, how can I, who just confessed a known danger to us all, supplicate each and every one of you to feast and make merry?” He paused again, stirring his audience’s fear and panic even further. Clearing his throat, he continued, “I shall tell you: because I know of the danger, I can take appropriate steps against it. That is why we are all safe here, why my peasants do not rebel against me, and why my lands remained complacent while others stirred up in turmoil. My peasants are allowed their base instincts and vile impulses; they are base creatures, and I cannot realistically expect more from them. However, when they communicate and share those impulses with others, that is when I spring into action.

Malfeasor paused a moment, appraising his audience like he was selling champion horses from his personal stables. “To the covetous peasant, I invite him once only into my castle, by force if he does not come willingly. From thence, he is taken to my kitchen, where he can deliberate over his impending fate.” Taking another sip from his goblet, he motioned for a servant to come forth and ladle more stew into his bowl. When the servant retreated, he stooped down and spooned some of it into his mouth. Chewing the meat, a grin formed on his face when he was done and swallowed the mouthful. “From thence, my friends, the offending serf makes it to my table, where we can dine and deliberate over his treachery.”

The gathered nobles raised their eyebrows and glanced at their soup in unison. Lady Venin, a smile painted on her crimson lips, said, “Oh my, this soup is delicious.”

For the rest of the evening, Malfeasor’s halls were filled with the sound of the nobles’ good cheer and high spirits.