Beads of perspiration trickled down the beard of Bull Doltus as he soaked in a private hot pool on the Paradus Marinus.
Napierion’s new ruler breathed deeply as steam billowed around his face. He felt he thought best with his head in the clouds but today he was building up a different head of steam.
Doltus was desperate for some strategy to fight off compulsus amalgamatus, a deadly administrative virus spreading north from the Capital. It was rumoured to have been secretly released in the Bay of Hawks by provincial governor Lawrencus Yulus.
Doltus knew the virus would wipe out Napierion’s policy of splendid isolation, leaving her citizens at the mercy of rampaging sheep-worshipers and hordes of red-skinned apple growers from the dark lands to the south.
But he also knew he could not turn his broad back on the legacy of his fighting predecessor, the Iron Maiden Barbarous Arnottus.
Suddenly an idea flickered in his mind. Turning his back was the answer.
“Eureka, I have found it!” Doltus bellowed, clambering naked from the pool and leaving a large vapour trail as he pounded down the street to his chambers.
That afternoon, Doltus called a special meeting of councillors.
“I have a plan to defend Napierion that came to me in the bath,” he announced.
The councillors nodded but said nothing. One took off his straw boater and scratched his head.
“What’s the point?” he said. “The warlords in Wairorus and The Central Bay of Hawks don’t want Lawrencus anywhere near their flocks after seeing his collection of sheep statues.”
Doltus nodded grimly.
“But Lawrencus is a crafty sod. He knows if they hold a vox populi on amalgamation we don’t have the numbers to beat it. So if we can’t keep our necks, let’s at least save our faces by making it look like we’re preparing for battle.
“Firstly, we need a large, symbolic banner to rally our people, like the oriflamme the kings of the Franks carry into battle. Something iconic that sums up Napierion.”
His councillors frowned.
“You mean something like a big Pinus Norfolkus tree?” one asked. “Or what about a large chariot carrying piles of logs down the Paradus Marinus?”
A second councillor spoke up.
“We have the relics of our patron saint Artus Decus — the sole of his left sandal and that fragment of the sackcloth singlet he wore without washing for 40 years. And we’ve got that pile of Sacred Rubble from the ancient town destroyed in AD31.”
Doltus shook his head.
“Not any more. When they built that new plaza at the top of the main street they discovered rats had eaten the sandal and made nests out of the singlet. And someone used the Sacred Rubble to replenish our shores.
“So I’m thinking of an Artus Decus banner, featuring a straw hat woven in gold thread, with rampant fox furs on each side, and a thick border of silk stones, representing our beaches.”
There was silence in the room. A seagull squawked overhead. Something landed on the roof.
Sensing some wavering of support, Doltus pounded the table with his fist.
“The flag’s just the start. I’ve got a battle strategy that Lawrencus would never expect, even in his wildest dreams.”
His councillors shuddered at his words. The dreams of Lawrencus Yulus were rumoured to involve cider-drinking contests, a wild herd of shaved goats and winemakers wrestling sheep. They gripped their chairs.
“My strategy is not to face our attackers but to turn our backs on them,” bellowed Doltus.
“It’s always worked for us. By turning our backs on the rest of Heretaungus we have preserved Napierion from the ravages of progress. Our drains and sewers are all original, just as they were laid after Neptune decided to destroy our town in AD31.
“So while Lawrencus thinks Napierions will have their backs to the wall when he arrives, we will actually have our backs to him.”
Nobody spoke for several minutes. Then one councillor cleared his throat.
“Is turning our backs on Lawrencus safe?” he asked. “It sounds a bit like the strategy the Franks always use. It hasn’t exactly been a great success for them, although to be fair, it gives them a good head start when they retreat.”
His colleagues nodded. Then one spoke up.
“Will you be standing with us when we face – or back on to – Lawrencus?” he asked.
“Symbolically, of course,” replied Doltus, “but on the day of the battle I’ll be leading from the front, which, because we will be facing away from the enemy, means I’ll be on the opposite side of town from you.”
Again the room grew silent as councillors tried to envision being attacked from behind by the enemy, with their leader far in front of them.
After a few minutes, one of the councillors raised his hand.
“It’s an unusual plan all right,” he said slowly, “but what if old Lawrencus reaches us before we can turn around? Won’t it look like we gave in without a fight?”
Doltus gave a hearty laugh and slammed his hand on the table.
“That’s the beauty of the whole plan,” he said.
“We know we can’t win but we have to put up some sort of show. So when we get overpowered by Lawrencus we can simply do an about-face, or volte-face as the Franks would say, and declare we accept amalgamation after all … apart from Lawrencus’ bad debts.
“That way we might lose the battle but, like the Franks, we can say we have won the war because we have kept our integrity and our dignity intact. Simple.”
His councillors stared at him until one slowly nodded and broke into applause. The others followed, clapping and cheering as they lifted him on to their shoulders and carried him into the street.
“Drop me off at the hot baths,” shouted Doltus. “I’m feeling a bit light-headed.”