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[I’ve previously written that I want to write a handbook for writers on how to handle politics and political conflict in our stories. Right now I’m working on a precursor to that handbook—a brief study of different types of political regimes, summarizing and commenting on the work of political scientist Samuel Finer. Here’s a short excerpt from my current draft, a fictional vignette illustrating what one example of the Palace polity would feel like:]

Amanukemba XVII yawned as he completed the last of the sacred rites for the day. The god-emperor had to placate the Ancestors, of course, but now that all of that was done he could pay a quick visit to the harem before finally meeting with his high council. They were a tedious pack of bores mostly, but it wouldn’t do to antagonize them too much or the bureaucracy would just make trouble. He would smile and nod, and then meet with his true advisors in secret later that evening. They were men more to Amanukemba’s liking, ambitious and driven, yet without high station and title—too weak to pose a threat, and totally dependent on his patronage. And unlike the paper-pushers, they got things done.

Which was good, for much remained to be done before the fall. The granaries needed filling, and that meant that the peasants needed squeezing. Yet somehow he had to free up enough men from his conscript armies to ensure a good harvest, without exposing his frontier to barbarian raids. Choices, choices.

The emperor hummed a happy tune as he passed between the eunuch harem guards, who bowed at his appearance. He would ask for Messarina today. She would almost certainly try to flatter him and distract him, and then at a crucial moment she would ask about affairs of state, about which she had no business asking. If Amanukemba were lucky, she would then whisper a suggestion for what he should do, and then he might discover which official had been bribing his eunuchs to gain access to the harem. Not to take liberties with the concubines, of course—it would be madness to risk death by slow torture—but to plot and scheme and do all those things court functionaries seemed to do with their time.

The whole thing was silly, of course. If they were smart, they would all realize that the surest way to wealth and power would be to please the god-emperor, Son of the Ancients. He was too wise and cunning to be taken in by such petty manipulations. Perhaps his grandfather had been, but not his father, and not he…

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