There is something to be said for throwing stones in the water and watching the ripples spread outward. When compared to most of the diversions of a ruler of men, it is the most innocent of pastimes. I may toss them in one by one for an hour or more and cause no harm to anyone save the man who cleans the fountain of stones. Even to him I render a service, for if I did not toss stones, the pond in my palace would never need cleaning, and he would have no job.
My life allows few such moments of peace and contemplation, which is the curse of my profession. It is an irony as well, for I once had much peace, was monumentally unimportant, and nobody cared what I thought about anything. Had I not had the time to formulate my philosophy, I should have been forgotten to the world, rather than ruler of the nation that is called the beacon of civilization wherever men know the meaning of the word.
It is a grand and glorious thing, when I think about it. I used to think about it more, but I haven’t the time these days. Those who command men find that they are called upon to command often. Simpler and simpler questions are asked, either because worshipful subordinates think I shall know better on every question than they, or because they fear the consequences if they decide differently than I would have, and so they ask of me and are safe. In vain do I question my officers of the ethics of actions, try to show them how to make up their own minds. This was not what I planned when I proposed an ideal system of government. Indeed, I scarcely thought such a system would ever come into being on this Earth, much less that I should live to see it, and not at all that I should be placed in charge of that which I proposed half in jest.
My tossing of stones in my courtyard was interrupted by the clash of heels on marble floors, the unmistakable sound of a struggling man being dragged forward by armed men. I tossed a pebble with greater violence than before, watching the ripples spread faster and wider, the drops of water hurled up on the marble paving. I resolved not to look, to try to hold on to the peace I had felt for a few moments longer.
It was not possible. I knew that the men at arms were there, patiently waiting for me to notice them, and I knew from the small sounds that whoever they were holding on his knees was making occasional attempts to rise to his feet. In such circumstances it is not possible to hold on to the beauty of a ripple spreading across a pond, rebounding from the sides and clashing with the multiple reflections of itself. I turned from the pond to see who was there.
The captives are always more interesting than the captors. Captors look the same, the clothing and weaponry the same except for the insignia of rank, the hair neatly trimmed, the grim faces identical. Captives come in many flavors, from the iron-backed ones who want to usurp me to the wild-eyed ones who wish to abolish my position and usher in anarchy. I find the latter more interesting for obvious reasons. I was one of them once, and the difference between them and me is merely that I succeeded.
This one was more interesting than usual. The face alone was diverting - he was balding even though still fairly young, with a broad forehead and dark, intense eyes. His clothing and bearing marked him as someone who had never worked for a living, and he reminded me of the professional students I had known when I was younger, the type who are always attending classes and never doing anything with the knowledge gained. Oh, that was unfair. Perhaps they used quotes from my lectures to argue fashionable politics with others of their own class, which is something, but not something useful.
He knelt uncomfortably, held there by the soldiers, while I studied him. The more I looked at him the more I was sure that I had seen him before. Subtract years from the face, add a bit of hair to the head, though not very much, and he was someone I had known. Indeed, I suddenly knew who - from my own days when I argued perfect government to anyone who would listen, to an audience of aristocrats who prided themselves on how different they were from their parents, and then turned into them as soon as it was time to make a living. He had been my best student once, the one who promised to record my teachings so they would live forever, and stomped off angrily when I proved capable of doing so for myself.
He was watching me, saw the moment I knew who he was. “The student returns to learn at the feet of the teacher,” he sneered.
I could not resist asking the question. “Then what have you learned?”
“That no matter what a man says, he will do something different when he achieved power.”
“And have I?” I asked mildly. “I have endowed the schools, reformed the courts, and brought order into men’s affairs.”
“Schools teaching your doctrines, courts enforcing your will, order as you conceive order!” He spat on the tiles beside my pool, beside my pile of stones to throw into the fountain.
“Have I ever said I would do otherwise?” I asked. “What teacher would teach contrary to what he believed?”
He was silent for a moment, and I had to give him credit for thinking. Men rarely think in my presence, preferring to wait until an order is given and obey it. I resolved to find a way to spare his life if I could.
“A teacher who remembered that his own method was to question authority!’ he finally replied. “A teacher who realized that he has killed the intellectual life he sought to nourish. Have you walked the streets, listened in the tavernas? Nobody argues politics, or questions their teachers, or speaks of anything important at all, because they are afraid of your spies, your minions. The city is full of people, but empty of opinions, and you are to blame!”
The guards looked shocked and shook their captive roughly. I addressed the senior of the two. “What is the crime?” I asked.
“Sire, inciting a riot, proclaiming that your kingdom should be abolished and resisting arrest,” he answered crisply.
I looked at the captive again, at the sweat beading on his wide forehead. “Dear me, what should I do with you?” I asked him.
He looked back at me steadily as he replied. “Always more questions than answers, and always leading questions, questions that can only be answered the way you want them answered, until a man hangs himself with his words.” He looked sad for a moment. “I believed in you once,” he said softly. “I never thought it could come true, or that it could be so horrible when it did.”
His leap toward me was completely unexpected, and I would have never thought that he had so much strength in him. His captors sprawled aside, and his hands were at my throat in a moment. I am not as feeble as I look, and I held him off long enough that my guards could recover themselves and club him into submission.
“Over the cliff with him, and onto the rocks, “ I croaked when at last I could speak.
“The philosopher-king’s word is law,” answered the senior of the soldiers. “Hail Socrates.” He hesitated for a moment. “Sire, we shall need to know his name for the records.”
“I have never known it myself,” I answered. “Just his nickname. He was called “Wide One” for his forehead - that is to say, Plato. It will do for the records.”
They left and I drank some watered wine, rubbing my throat. It took a long time after that before I could find peace in my pastime of tossing stones. The actions of men are like stones that create ripples, and even someone so unimportant as that pampered aristocrat could interrupt the stillness of the great lake of my thought. I wish it were not so.
This story originally appeared in The Enchanter Completed (L. Sprague de Camp tribute anthology).