I was thrust into a back room, illuminated only by a single overhead bulb. I think Œ sat casually slouched on a folding chair directly beneath it; I’m not sure because the figure there was clad in baggy cargo jeans, an oversized hoodie, a ragged baseball cap, big dark Ray-Bans, and a drawn bandana with a skeletal grin printed on it. It was impossible to tell their age, gender, or anything else about them, other than the fact that some kind of flesh filled those tattered raiments.

“A little theatrical, don’t you think?” I said. One of the others, dressed similarly to Œ, set out a folded chair for me and I took a seat. “If you really wanted to be anonymous we could have talked more on the phone.”

“But you want theatricality, Mr. Cummings,” Œ said. Their voice was distorted by one of those vox boxes you sometimes hear in cheap horror movies, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disconcerted by it. “You’re enough of a narcissist that you have to see your little investigation as a titanic struggle between you, the hero, and us, the blackest evil. If I were sitting here, ordinary and unmasked, you’d be devastated.”

I stung a little from that observation. “I just want the truth. What is this ‘Project’ you’re working on, and how do all these little bits and pieces fit together?”

“The truth?” Œ’s laughter was modified into an ominous chuckle. “It’s never been about the truth. It’s been you tilting at windmills from the start, sacrificing what little journalistic integrity you had for the sake of bad puns. The fact that you can’t see the bigger picture is indicative of your failings as a person: petty, narcissistic, lazy, with a latent but distinct fascist bent.”

Who was that rag-clad hobo to call me all that? I was trembling by now, the way I always do during any kind of a confrontation. “If you wanted to insult me you could have just sent a letter to the editor. Now either give me something about your ‘Project’ or crawl back into whatever hole you came out of and go back to sharpening your hammer and sickle.”

Œ laughed again. “The Project is the perfect small-scale experiment. What is a university but an ironclad despotism, with a vast disenfranchised population at the whims of a privileged few, just like any other system? Those people have the power to be awakened and moved to action. That’s what we’re doing, and it’s just the start.”

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During Stephen’s Anarchy, the power of the Earl grew tremendously. It happened that the Second Earl, who had ruled under King Henry, died shortly after Stephen’s accession.

The Third Earl was the first who was “born to the purple,” as it were, as his great-grandfather the First Earl had been elevated by William the Conqueror and his grandfather the Second Earl had known early years of hardship in Normandy before the Conquest.

The Third Earl, though, had long been the favored and only scion of the line, and doted upon by relatives after the early and consumptive death of his father, who would have been the Third Earl had he lived. When he acceded in 1137, his personal popularity among his vassals and serfs was high.

That soon changes as the Third Earl revealed himself to be of a vainglorious temperament, obsessed with the idea of his divine right to rule and the absolute autocracy such right provided him over vassals. Ordinarily such a noble would have had their power swiftly checked by the Crown, but Stephen was a weak ruler and distracted by war and intrigue.

By 1153, the situation was such that the earldom had begun to resemble a personal cult in the Eastern mold, with everything that was “of the Earl” celebrated in word and song and anything deemed “not of the Earl” scorned and attacked.