IN ROME some time dwelt a mighty emperor named Martin, which for entire affection kept with him his brother's son, whom men called Fulgentius. With this Martin dwelt also a knight that was steward of the empire, and uncle unto the emperor, which envied this Fulgentius, studying day and night how he might bring the emperor and this youth at debate. Wherefore the steward on a day went to the emperor, and said, "My lord," quoth he, "I that am your true servant, am bound in duty to warn your highness, if I hear anything that toucheth your honour, wherefore I have such things that I must needs utter it in secret to your majesty between us two." Then said the emperor, "Good friend, say on what thee list."
"My most dear lord," quoth the steward, "Fulgentius, your cousin and your nigh kinsman, hath defamed you wonderfully and shamefully throughout all your whole empire, saying that your breath stinketh, and that it is death to him to serve your cup." Then the emperor was grievously displeased, and almost beside himself for anger, and said unto him thus: "I pray thee, good friend, tell me the very truth, if that my breath stinketh as he saith?" "My lord," quoth the steward, "ye may believe me, I never perceived a sweeter breath in my days than yours is." "Then," said the emperor, "I pray thee, good friend, tell me how I may bring this thing to good proof."
The steward answered and said: "My lord," quoth he, "ye shall right well understand the truth; for to-morrow next when he serveth you of your cup, ye shall see that he will turn away his face from you, because of your breath, and this is the most certain proof that may be had of this thing." "Verily," quoth the emperor, "a truer proof cannot be had of this thing." Therefore anon, when the steward heard this, he went straight to Fulgentius, and took him aside, saying thus: "Dear friend, thou art near kinsman and also nephew unto my lord the emperor, therefore if thou wilt be thankful unto me, I will tell thee of a fault whereof my lord the emperor complaineth oft, and thinks to put thee from him, except it be the sooner amended, and that will be a great reproof to thee." Then said this Fulgentius: "Ah, good sir, for his love that died upon the cross, tell me why my lord is so sore moved with me, for I am ready to amend my fault in all that I can or may, and for to be ruled by your discreet counsel."
"Thy breath," quoth the steward, "stinketh so sore, that his drink doth him no good, so grievous unto him is the stinking breath of thy mouth." Then said Fulgentius unto the steward: "Truly; that perceived I never till now. But what think ye of my breath? I pray you tell me the very truth." "Truly," quoth the steward, "it stinketh greatly and foul." And this Fulgentius believed all that he had said, and was right sorrowful in his mind, and prayed the steward of his counsel and help in this woeful case. Then said the steward unto him, "If that thou wilt do my counsel, I shall bring this matter to a good conclusion; wherefore do as I shall tell thee.
"I counsel thee for the best, and also warn thee that when thou servest my lord the emperor of his cup, that thou turn thy face away from him, so that he may not smell thy stinking breath, until the time that thou hast provided thee of some remedy therefore."
Then was Fulgentius right glad, and sware to him that he would do by his counsel.
Not long after it befell that this young man Fulgentius served his lord as he was wont to do, and therewith suddenly he turned his face from the lord the emperor, as the steward had taught him.
And when the emperor perceived the avoiding of his head, he smote this young Fulgentius on the breast with his foot, and said to him thus: "O thou lewd varlet; now I see well it is true that I have heard of thee, and therefore go thou anon out of my sight, that I may see thee no more in this place." And with that this young Fulgentius wept full sore, and avoided the place, and went out of his sight.
And when this was done, the emperor called unto him his steward, and said, "How may I rid this varlet from the world, that thus hath defamed me?" "My most dear lord," quoth the steward, "right well you shall have your intent.
"For here beside, within these three miles, ye have brickmakers, which daily make great fire, for to burn brick, and also they make lime; therefore, my lord, send to them this night, charge them upon pain of death, that whosoever cometh to them first in the morning, saying to them thus, 'My lord commandeth them to fulfil his will,' that they take him and cast him into the furnace and burn him: and this night command you this Fulgentius, that he go early in the morning to your workmen, and that he ask them whether they have fulfilled your will which they were commanded or not; and then shall they, according to your commandment, cast him into the fire, and thus shall he die an evil death."
"Surely," quoth the emperor, "thy counsel is good; therefore call to me that varlet Fulgentius." And when the young man was come to the emperor's presence, he said to him thus: "I charge thee upon pain of death, that thou rise early in the morning, and go to the burners of lime and brick, and that thou be with them early before the sun rise, three miles from this house, and charge them in my behalf, that they fulfil my commandment, or else they shall die a most shameful death."
Then spake this Fulgentius: "My lord, if God send me my life, I shall fulfil your will, were it that I go to the world's end."
When Fulgentius had this charge, he could not sleep for thought, that he must rise early to fulfil his lord's commandment. The emperor about midnight sent a messenger on horseback unto his brickmakers, commanding, that upon pain of death, that whosoever came to them first in the morning, saying unto them (as is before rehearsed) they should take him and bind him, and cast him into the fire, and burn him to the bare bones.
The brickmakers answered and said, it should be done. Then the messenger returns home again, and told the emperor that his commandment should be diligently fulfilled.
Early in the morning following, Fulgentius arose and prepared him towards his way, and as he went, he heard a bell ring to service, wherefore he went to hear service, and after the end of service he fell asleep, and there slept a long while so soundly, that the priest, nor none other, might awake him.
The steward desiring inwardly to hear of his death, about two of the clock he went to the workmen, and said unto them thus: "Sirs," quoth he, "have ye done the emperor's commandment or not?"
The brickmakers answered him and said: "No, truly, we have not yet done his commandment, but it shall be done," and with that they laid hands on him. Then cried the steward, and said, "Good sirs, save my life, for the emperor commanded that Fulgentius should be put to death." Then said they, "The messenger told us not so, but he bade us, that whosoever came first in the morning, saying, as you have said, that we should take him, and cast him into the furnace, and burn him to ashes." And with that they threw him into the fire.
And when he was burnt, Fulgentius came to them and said, "Good sirs, have you done my lord's commandment?" "Yea, soothly," said they, "and therefore go ye again to the emperor, and tell him so." Then said Fulgentius, "For Christ's love, tell me that commandment?"
"We had in commandment," said they, "upon pain of death, that whosoever came to us first in the morning, and said like as thou hast said, that we should take him and cast him into the furnace. But before thee came the steward and therefore on him have we fulfilled the emperor's commandment; now he is burnt to the bare bones."
When Fulgentius heard this, he thanked God that he had so preserved him from death; therefore he took his leave of the workmen, and went again to the palace.
When the emperor saw him, he was almost distract of his wits for anger, and thus he said, "Hast thou been with the brickmakers, and fulfilled my commandment?" "Soothly, my gracious lord, I have been there, but ere I am there, your commandment was fulfilled." "How may that be true," quoth the emperor.
"Forsooth," said Fulgentius, "the steward came to them afore me, and said that I should have said, so they took him and threw him into the furnace; and if I had come any earlier, so would they have done to me, and therefore I thank God that he hath preserved me from death."
Then said the emperor, "Tell me the truth of such questions as I shall demand of thee." Then said Fulgentius to the emperor, "You never found me in any falsehood, and therefore I greatly wonder why ye have ordained such a death for me; for well ye know that I am your own brother's son." Then said the emperor to Fulgentius: "It is no wonder, for that death I ordained for thee, through counsel of the steward, because thou didst defame me throughout all my empire, saying, that my breath did stink so grievously, that it was death to thee, and in token thereof thou turnedst away thy face when thou servedst me of my cup, and that I saw with mine eyes; and for this cause I ordained for thee such a death; and yet thou shalt die, except I hear a better excuse."
Then answered Fulgentius, and said, "Ah, dear lord, if it might please your highness for to hear me, I shall show you a subtle and deceitful imagination." "Say on," quoth the emperor.
"The steward," quoth Fulgentius, "that is now dead, came to me and said, that ye told unto him that my breath did stink, and thereupon he counselled me, that when I served you of your cup, I should turn my face away; I take God to witness, I lie not."
When the emperor heard this, he believed him, and said, "O my nephew, now I see, through the right wise judgment of God, the steward is burnt, and his own wickedness and envy is fallen on himself, for he ordained this malice against thee, and therefore thou art much bound to Almighty God that hath preserved thee from death."