The king had stood naked and vulnerable before his people. The only person who acknowledged the exposure was a small child, and he was quickly hushed. There were rumors that to look directly upon a member of the noble family would render one a fool, or blind, or unfit for service; it would cause one’s deepest shame to be revealed, would cost one’s inheritance, or render one sterile and heirless. He exposed himself to them all.
The experiment in vulnerability was not considered a success. He wanted to convey that these rumors were not true, were unfounded, yet only prevailed in terrorizing his entire kingdom. He was only a man like any other, he wanted to say. But no, his wise sister insisted, he was not like any other man. He was a ruler, and thus, he must rule. The people did not want to serve and follow a man like themselves; in fact it would be dangerous folly to do so. Common men were built for common matters, equipped for planting and harvesting, for managing crops and animals, or buying and selling and crafting goods. A king had to be above all of that, in order to oversee all of that.
“He is only a man,” the child cried out in the middle of the procession, and the king had smiled at that, expecting the people to slowly acknowledge and accept this. He was a man. A man of privilege, who bore great responsibility. A man who would do everything that a man could do for them, and would uphold his duty. But a man, not a god, not one who could heal and guarantee peace and good crop yields and fertility and prosperity. He didn’t control all that.
“You must learn to,” his sister advised him. “If you can’t, they will kill you.”
That was what he was trying to avoid. Revolution had come to the next kingdom, and the entire noble house had lost their heads. Their economy had faltered, followed by a drought, and it required kingsblood to remedy. They didn’t say so – the executions were secular matters of state nowadays – yet the formula held. The old ways demanded that the gods be given kingsblood when things got bad, and in return, things would get good again. After the executions, the rains had returned to the neighboring kingdom. It was hard to argue with results like that.
So the king devised a plan. He would show himself to be a mortal, frail and limited and human, just like they were. His sister advised against it. But he was king, and surely that meant something, so he did what he had decided.
The reports trickled in over the following days. Reports of people struck blind and falling into madness. Reports of secrets revealed and the peoples’ justice being meted out for social infractions, mobs descending on homes and shops.
What had he unleashed?
He sent his soldiers out to quell the riots. Even their numbers seemed diminished over the past few days, he noticed.
He called for his sister. “It can’t be undone,” she said.
“How do I move forward?” he asked.
She told him, “I have a robe crafted by the three spinners of old, made of golden thread, and stitched by our wisest seamstresses. It will let you pass unseen. We can go into exile and return after this has all settled down.”
“Leaving won’t help our people.”
“Let the people help themselves. They aren’t yours anymore. They don’t want you except as an offering to their own fears.”
There was a shift in the demeanor of his household guard as the days went by. They still watched over him, followed him as he moved from place to place, stood guard at doors and windows. Now, rather than a protective presence, he began to feel they were keeping him in.
In the council room, as he passed by, he heard the accent of the neighboring kingdom. “The time to act is now,” the voice said. “The wealth of this land has been bled away, and it becomes more wasted with every day that passes. It is time for the common man to take his place before god and destiny, to be the true master of his own -”
One of his guards stepped in front of him, blocking the council chamber, and pulled the door closed. “My lord, we should continue on.” The king was ushered into his audience chamber, as he was each morning. No one had come to seek audience with him since the procession.
He called for his sister again. A servant was dispatched, but she never came. He waited, he felt he was patient, and then he stopped a maid in the hall. She ducked her head, but he saw her stealing glances at his face. Her cheeks were flushed. Did she still think she shouldn’t look on him? “Where is my sister?”
“My lord, she can’t be found,” the young woman answered. She looked over his shoulder at the guard, and then hurried along her way.
His sister must have made good on her escape, he thought. He should have gone with her when he had the chance. He needed to get some air, to sort out what all of this meant. He knew exactly what it meant, of course, but he couldn’t bring himself to accept it, to even acknowledge it. At the doorway, the man guarding the door looked to the man guarding the king. They shared a wordless exchange, nodded, and then the guard at the door stepped aside, and the king stepped out into his walled garden. His sister had always loved this space, and he felt calmer here, as though he might gain the benefit of her advice simply from being in the place she had passed so many hours.
What to do? What to do? He paced and kicked a pebble along before him as he went. He had made a gamble, he had trusted in his people, and he had lost. He stretched, looked up, and over the wall he saw the upright planks of a scaffold being built. His stomach turned. “What’s being built over there?” he asked his guard.
The guard looked for a long moment, then shrugged. “We should go back inside.”
The king was not allowed to return to the garden.
Walking up and down the halls of the palace made him feel caged, and so he began to take meals in his rooms. He watched out the window as the scaffold went up and when it was completed, his fears were confirmed.
The morning came when the house seemed alive with a strange new kind of energy. People walked with quickened steps. His breakfast was pushed in with a hurried lack of ceremony, and his dresser never followed. He heard the crowd gathering outside, beyond the garden walls. He could see the tops of peoples heads and saw his ministers seated on chairs along the platform. There were also strangers there, in places of honor. One of the ministers was speaking, but he couldn’t hear the words. And then a woman was led up onto the platform. The minister’s voice raised. The people cheered. His sister’s face was pale as the executioner lowered the noose around her neck. He saw her speak, heard her voice, but he couldn’t make out the words. Then a black cloth was lowered over her face, and the trapdoor opened, and she fell. The people cheered. Though every other sound came to him muffled and distorted, he clearly heard the crack when the rope reached its limit.
A day and a night passed. No one came. He barely noticed. He couldn’t tell if the pain in his gut was hunger or loss or fear. Finally someone came and cleared away the remains of his breakfast from that terrible morning. His guard came soon after that, stood just inside the door, silent.
“My sister?” the king asked.
“Gone,” the guard said. He already knew the answer, he wanted to hear it though, to gauge some reaction in these people who had until so recently been his people.
“What did she say?” he asked.
“My lord…” The guard hesitated. “I don’t remember…”
“Please. What did she say?”
At last the guard spoke, quietly, slowly. “I die guilty only of the name I was born to. May these gods my life is given to appease bring justice on this land. And…” He hesitated. “And, long live the king.”
The king bowed his head.
“She asked that you be given this.” The guard set a bundle on the edge of the dressing table.
“How long do I have?” the king asked.
“Tomorrow. Mid-morning,” the guard answered, and stepped out of the room.
The king opened the bundle and unwrapped a finely woven cloak.
A version of this story was originally published in Enchanted Conversation on August 30, 2017