The Revolution Will Not Be Serious
Legend tells us it all began with a single snicker, a laugh of derision.
The avalanche that brings down a mountain can begin with the kick of a single, small rock. The snicker was that rock. The kicker of that snicker is unknown, but is revered in our folklore as Saint Mirth.
On that day, the Boy King, as the people called him — among other epithets — was delivering one of his usual long-winded, rambling, self-aggrandizing speeches, his favorite thing to do in all the world. Everyone in the kingdom was required to attend these speeches, excepting only soldiers on the frontier, merchants plying their trade in far off lands, and women actively in labor. One could buy an indulgence — a “Get Out of Speech Free” card — from a priest, if need dictated. Say, if one wished to attend a dying mother or harvest the few, meager stands of one’s remaining wheat before the rain, for example. But the cards were very expensive and required proof of the dying mother or rain. Most people found it easier to simply show up and cheer when prompted.
Between the scripted cheers, the miserable citizens would quietly groan, mumble and cry, worrying about their dying mother or stands of wheat, while their empty bellies rumbled, their overworked muscles complained, their sad hearts sighed, and their frowning mouths cursed the Boy King for being… well… for being himself.
Being himself meant pontificating about how wise and kind he was, how just his rule, how the kingdom was flourishing and how happy and healthy the people were, lie after subterfuge after deceit after hyperbole after falsehood. The people, lacking the touch of insanity needed to believe such drivel, knew that their kingdom was crumbling, their health and happiness nearly gone, and that their king was a mad, wretched bully of sub-par intelligence, a coward and a cheat and a heartless charlatan of a man. After years of his rule, all were certain they were close to doom. Those in the courtyard that day could barely be troubled to cheer and clap when required, even in the presence of the heavily armed guards surrounding them, many of whom were ready to beat a slacker for reason or simply for sadistic fun.
But on that fateful day, in that fateful hour, at that fateful moment, a new sound was heard above the chorus of sadness and despair. No one remembers today what exactly the king was saying when it happened. It mattered little, as any statement was as ridiculous as the next. The sound of a short laugh, natural and spontaneous, arose without warning. Whoever made the sound tried to suppress it, but managed only a sort of quick, rough, explosive exhalation forced back into the throat.
The sound was unmistakably a snicker, or perhaps a chuckle or chortle. Opinions among experts differ to this day. Regardless, while no one could quite tell where it came from, everyone knew what it meant.
Everyone except The Boy King, that is. He was not sure what the sound meant. It couldn’t be laughter, surely.
“What was that?” he demanded, halting his prepared remarks. “Did somebody say something? Did somebody cough? Sneeze? Is one of you sick or something? Fess up. You need a doctor? I’ll send out one of the Royal Medical Corps if somebody’s sick. Huh? What? C’mon people, I don’t have all day! You know I care about you all very much. So, if you need help just say something. Huh?” The king cocked his hand behind his ear in a pantomime of listening.
After a few seconds of poignant silence, three more snickers rose from the crowd. Again, no one could tell who was doing the snickering, but once heard, it didn’t matter. The first small rocks were beginning to tumble down the mountain. One or two more escaped. Those who remained silent could still be heard, in a manner of speaking; their non-existent laughter disturbed the air as a hundred quickening heartbeats. More and more felt the ripples of mirth reach them, landing in their ears and traveling swiftly to their throats, then speeding on via their chests toward their bellies.
“Well?” What’s this about? You all know how very patient I am. Nobody’s more patient than me, believe me. But there’s a limit. Somebody tell me what’s going on, okay? Really, tell me, I care! You all know I care. Nobody cares like me! What is it?”
It was too much. The entire audience burst into laughter. Every imaginable sort of mirthful noise rose from the crowd in a great wave of guffaws, giggles, shouts, roars, snorts, chuckles, chortles and titters. Grown men of serious demeanor were soon bent and red-faced, howling until breathless. Stately matrons giggled like schoolgirls and slapped their thighs, finally falling to their knees in the dust when they could no longer afford the energy to stand. Children rolled on the ground, exulting in the release of their open throated merriment. Coughs and snorts and sniffs and helpless cries of “Oh, lord!” soon punctuated the music of hilarity as grace notes.
The Boy King stood twenty feet above the crowd on a balcony, protected by a parapet of heavy stone blocks, but still the tumult rose and pushed him back on his heels. The shock he felt for the first full minute gave way to a furious anger that suffused his entire fat, squat body. Watching the crowd of peasants below him laughing with abandon — laughing at him — the Boy King quickly surpassed his normal, everyday level of loathing for his subjects. It rose within him so quickly and vehemently that he reached abhorrence in seconds, swept past it and sped on toward murderous hatred.
Seeing this emotional tumult play out on the Boy King’s face only fed the crowd’s hysteria. Now they pointed at him, jostled their neighbors with elbows to indicate the king’s florid face and grimace, redoubling their merriment. By now, several people were flat on their backs nearly incapacitated, begging for relief, holding their aching sides and desperately trying to catch breath. One or two were on hands and knees, choking on spittle, still laughing as they struggled to avoid dying. Only three minutes had passed since The Snicker, but the people were already reduced to incoherence and physical exhaustion.
If the Boy King’s eyes could manifest what his heart desired in that moment, every one of the pathetic beings below him would have been engulfed in flames and screaming their last lungful of air in agony, right down to the tiniest babe in arms.
Forgive me for beginning my story without preamble. You are visitors to our fair country, yes? Ah, well then, I want very much to tell you the story of the Boy King. My wish is that you stay long enough to attend our yearly festival of salvation, now only two weeks away. I know you will enjoy yourselves to the utmost.
Since you may find some of our ways odd, my story will make clear how we came to live as we do. You’ve no doubt noticed how often and how freely our people take to laughing? Yes, we laugh almost as we breathe. It is quite contagious, and if you stay with us until festival, I’m confident you will find yourself exercising your lungs and facial muscles more than you ever have before.
But as jovial and contented as we are today, we were equally miserable and despondent in the years that preceded The Snicker of Salvation. May I continue? Excellent.
You see, the people had thought poorly of the prince, later the “Boy King”, almost from the day he could walk. He was a horrid child, cruel to animals and other children, spoiled and given to tantrums, greedy and gluttonous. As he grew to manhood he worsened. Talk of him became routine — “What is it now?” — as one outrage after another was gossiped from ear to disbelieving ear. After some years no ear was disbelieving. Shock gave way to cynical expectation. “What is it now?” gave way to “I’m not a bit surprised.”
The love and respect the people felt for the king, his father, stood in sharp contrast. From the day he was crowned to the birth of the prince, about a dozen years, is still considered a golden era, for the king was kind and wise and just. The people flourished. The land was fruitful, neighbors were helpful, merchants were honest. The few quarrels, fights and petty crimes that did occur were handled fairly and swiftly by magistrates hand-picked by the king for their wisdom and sense of justice.
Yes, the people loved their king, but as the prince grew into boyhood and adolescence they began to resent him, more with every passing year. “How could he let the boy do that?” became a common question asked, soon after the “What is it now?” question was answered. It was baffling to think that such a wise and fair king could raise such an awful child. Some said he was indulgent because the queen had died in childbirth, and he could not bring himself to discipline the son who was the last link to his beloved wife. Others said the boy was just a bad seed, and no amount of fatherly guidance could change that.
But no matter the opinions as to why and how and who was at fault, the growing enmity engendered by the prince’s astonishing egotism, stupidity and malice tainted their affection for the king. The golden age evolved into tarnished brass. The age would transform again, like reverse alchemy, into dull pot-metal, when the inevitable came to pass.
The prince was 19 years of age when his father died. The king was nearing 50, still young in body and heart, strong and hearty, but mortal. A bad fall from a spooked horse is enough to send any man into the next world.
The people were broken and crushed with grief. Demonstrations of their love and loss were many and spontaneous. Farmers left their fields, merchants left their shops, sailors left their ships and gathered outside the castle bearing flowers and tears and tales of the great king’s exploits. In all the lands that historians have known and recorded, no kingdom has ever so grieved the loss of their king.
Then, before he was coronated, before he was made the rightful king by pomp and circumstance and official blessing, the prince began his reign in the worst possible way, to no one’s surprise.
He published his first edict, which demanded that all the people of the realm mourn the king’s death for thirty consecutive days. No one required a command to lament the death of so great a king. But the thirty-day rule became difficult, then impossible, to obey. Once everyone had a good cry, had rent their garments until they had nothing untorn to wear, had thrown ashes on their heads until they were gritty and filthy and wanted nothing more than a good bath, it was time for life to move on. Fields needed tending. Shops needed sweeping. Ships needed sailing.
But as soon as the people began to talk of anything other than the dead king, began to greet each other in the square with “Good day to you”, began to smile at the blue sky and white clouds that heralded a lovely morning, the true spirit of the Boy King was made manifest. Guards, hitherto simply men in the village of no great notice, men whom one would greet with a nod or a word as one passed, changed overnight into the arms and hands of the young, black heart sitting on the throne.
It was only Day Twelve of the Great Mourning when the worm turned.
“You there!” shouted a young guard standing near the village bakery. “Stop that smiling in the Name of the King!”
“What? Me? Was I smiling?” answered the old man everyone knew as Dirty Simon. Yes, Dirty Simon was smiling. He was watching the young women do their laundry near the village well, as he trudged along the cobbled street with his huge bundle of sticks strapped to his bent, aging back. Dirty Simon always smiled, and everyone knew why. He was harmless. He just always had a dirty thought to keep him company and make him grin. Now his grin would be made a crime, and it would disappear along with the hopes of the people.
The guard approached Simon with purposeful strides. “Yes, you were smiling, you old goat!” he shouted. “You know the King’s edict! No smiling, no laughing, no pleasantries! You are to groan and wail and gnash your teeth and mourn the death of the King’s Great Father!”
Simon’s smile faded, but not his wit. “Well, officer, I’ll do my best, but I’m not too good in the gnashing department as I haven’t enough teeth left for a decent gnashing, you see?” Simon showed his few teeth and his many gaps in a broad smile. The twinkle in his eye lasted only until the guard drew his truncheon and slapped the back of his left knee, making the old man buckle, then topple over as the weight of the heavy bundle shifted. He lay on his side, holding his leg and crying out in pain.
Every eye in the square was fixed on the guard and Simon as the ugly scene played out. The guard pointed his truncheon at Simon’s grimacing face and bellowed, “You will lament the death of the King’s Great Father now, or I swear I will beat you until you do!”
Simon groaned and cried, then forced himself to declaim, through tears and snot and labored breath, “Oh, the King, the… glorious King is… dead! Hear… me! Our beloved… king… is… dead!” He then turned his grizzled face to the cobblestones and cried for the pain in his swelling leg, hoping the guard would think it was for the dead king.
Another guard trotted to where Simon lay crying. “This old sod giving you trouble?” he asked his partner, slightly out of breath from the short run. The two officers, like all the other guards under the new reign, were now laden with weapons they had never carried before: a heavy sword, a dirk, a dagger, a pike, a truncheon, as well as being clad in mail shirts and iron helmets. It made running difficult. It made just walking, or standing in the noonday sun, uncomfortable. It made them grumpy.
In the days of the old king they dressed like other folk except for a royal standard sewn on their tunics. They carried a truncheon and a dagger and wore leather helms, rarely drawing the truncheon. Now, still days away from wearing the crown by right, the Boy King demanded that they be ready for any emergency. Even, he warned, an uprising, for he knew full well the people hated him. He hated them back just as much, if not more.
The guards were not his greatest fans either, but he paid them in so much gold and privilege they became grudging allies. License to be brutal is also a coin some men will take in payment, given the right times.
“Nah” sneered the first guard. “He’s no trouble at all.” The people gasped again as he drew his dagger and knelt, fearing they would see the murder of a man as well as their world. The guard cut the ropes that held the bundle to Simon’s back, then grabbed him roughly under his arm. His partner did the same on the other side, and they lifted him to his feet. Simon howled as he put weight on the injured leg, then lifted it and hopped to gain his balance on one foot.
“He’ll be no trouble at all, spending a few weeks in the dungeon, will ya, grandad?” The smiling sneer on the guard’s face was as repulsive as a rotting carcass, revealing as it did the corruption in his heart. One or two of those looking on recognized him and remembered him as a decent fellow.
“No trouble at all” repeated the other guard with a hard smile. He looked up and turned his head to sweep the square, seeing for the first time the faces frozen in shock and bewilderment. The villagers had not moved since the first guard shouted. Some stood with tasks still in hand.
“Let this be a warning to you all!” he yelled. “The King’s edicts will not be ignored! See how swift and harsh will be the punishment for anyone who dares break the Great King’s laws!”
“And a Great King he is!” added the other. “A really, really Great King! Greatest King ever, believe me! So great that his laws are… are… great!” The man inside the armor was losing his train of thought and some of his swagger, so he bolstered himself with harsh words. “And we’ll beat any of you peasants bloody if you dare to insult our King by breaking his rules… seeing as how he’s so… great!”
There was a pause as the last echoes of his words made their way down the streets that led from the square. A dog barked somewhere in the distance. A child with one of the women near the well coughed. Simon was as quiet as he could be, breathing hard against the pain, not sure if he should be lamenting now or remain silent.
“C’mon, let’s go” whispered his partner. The guards jostled Simon away roughly, half-lifting him as he hopped and limped along, grunting with every other step as the bruise on his leg was forming up and the muscles knotted and the nerves howled. They walked Simon out of the square and down the street toward the castle, where he would be locked into a dank cell and fed gruel and given no blanket for his bed and no treatment for his wound and would suffer other indignities at the hands of his captors for an indeterminate number of days.
His bundle of sticks lay where he’d fallen. After the three men were out of sight everyone in the square looked at it with an odd sense of wonder. The dried wood had been transformed into a symbol for the world that every witness knew was now gone forever. A bundle of sticks, gathered by a man’s labor for a useful purpose, to burn in his paltry hearth in his tiny, drafty home, to warm him, to cook a bit of porridge, to give him another day’s life, now left on the ground, useless and forgotten. And for what?
The bundle lay where it was dropped for another fortnight before someone placed it against the wall of the apothecary’s shop with a hand-written note, reading, “For Dirty Simon, When He Returns”. The bundle remains there to this day.
Thus, began The Reign of Oh God What Now? that would, like the guard’s truncheon, hobble and threaten the people of the kingdom for the next handful of years. The Boy King ruled by whimsical edict, ignoring his own counselors and the Gathering of Lords, whom his father trusted for information and advice. While the old king would carefully consider a matter before issuing a rare proclamation, his son published decrees with nearly every breath.
“I speak!” he would shout several times a day. The First Scribe, a small, nearsighted man with a portable desk, parchment, quill and ink was always nearby, and would spring into action to capture the Ridiculous Ruler’s words. Whatever came out of that set of pouting lips would become law, no matter how unintelligible, and to quote the king incorrectly or to dare edit his words was to endanger one’s cushy job and livelihood, at the very least.
“Henceforth and forevermore even, all men of the realm between the ages of, uh, twenty-seven and thirty-two, will… thirty-two’s a good cutoff for that, isn’t it? I mean that’s… uh… what… six years? Yeah, thirty-two years of age will spend the summer months of every year… summer’s what? May to October? About that. It starts getting warm in May, except that time, uh, three years ago when it was still raining in June? What’s up with that? Rain in June. You gotta be kidding me. Anyway, where was I? Yeah, twenty-seven to thirty-two will spend the summer months helping the farmers in their fields with… planting? Is that what farmers do in the summer? Whatever. Whatever farmers do in their fields from June to November, all men of the realm between twenty-two and thirty-seven will leave their shops and ships and whatever petty little lives they have and help the farmers with… farm stuff. Gotta support our farmers, you know. Farming is very important. Farming is where the food comes from. I know about farming, everything about farming, the way the stuff grows up from the ground and the little pigs grow fat and into bacon I’m hungry what’s for lunch are we having bacon today because I really love bacon I mean who doesn’t love bacon? Right?”
The Senseless Sovereign stood in the middle of the throne room, his arms outstretched, his palms upturned, looking left and right to meet the astounded gazes from the lords and ladies gathered there, waiting for one or all of them to answer what he thought was a perfectly simple question about bacon. The First Scribe was poised over his parchment, quill in hand, wrist aching, peering at the king over his half-glasses, waiting for the next Royal Utterance.
“Sire?” the Scribe ventured.
“Is that… all?”
“Oh. Yeah. I have spoken!”
Everything between “I speak!” and “I have spoken!” was now royal edict and law of the land, including “What?” and “Oh. Yeah.”
The First Scribe finished the dictation and handed the parchment to a runner. The runner sped away to a little room in the basement where the Second Scribe and several Apprentice Scribes waited to make copies of the Imperial Word Salad. The copies would then be sent out through all the land to be read by confused and disbelieving subjects who knew they were expected, on pain of truncheoning, to carry out its instructions. That is, if anyone could discern anything resembling instructions.
So many and so capricious were the Boy King’s edicts that before the first year was out, the people coined yet another title for him: “The Squirrel King”. Within 24 hours, or even the next hour, a new proclamation would arrive that would seem to cancel out the previous one, add to the restrictions or requirements of it, or simply mean nothing to anyone.
The day after the farming edict another was published that said farmers between the ages of fourteen and seventy-five were ordered to help the sailors on alternate Tuesdays because “fishing is very important you know we have to have the fish even though I don’t really like fish except breaded with some dill and lemon”, and so on. Later that afternoon, disbelieving men and women gathered around a posted notice that seemed to amend the previous, saying that, since the farmers would be out to sea every other Tuesday, the bakers should bake special cakes and breads, take them out to the farms and “feed them to the little pigs to make sure they become bacon, because, I mean, you know, bacon.”
The result of this governance, if one may stretch the term, was the breakdown of the people’s ordered lives into something resembling utter chaos. By the second year, crops were failing, ships were sinking and shops were nearly empty. The Bejeweled Bonehead thought himself master of all things economic, social, political or philosophical. Convinced that the kingdom had been bankrupt and disarrayed under his father, he believed that he alone could make it prosperous and efficient again.
The truth was exactly the opposite. His arbitrary and erratic declarations covered every aspect of daily life, from farming and fishing to selling and buying, to how people should dress, when and whom they should marry or divorce, and how many times a day they should exclaim to their neighbor, “What a glorious day, eh brother (or sister)? We have the Great King to thank for it, believe me!”. Like all his laws, the correct number of times this was to be said was unclear; it was somewhere between three and nineteen, depending on which parchment one referenced.
Every day brought new hardship, new confusion, new sadness, and new anger. Babies were going without milk, their mothers without bread and their fathers without gainful employment. The guards became thankful for their armaments and powers of enforcement because crime became more common and violent. Village women ventured into the forests in search of berries or mushrooms or grubs. Often, that was all they could find to feed their malnourished children. Some of these women did not return, killed by wild animals of the four- or two-legged variety. Village men begged the farmers to hire them to work in the fields, or the sailors to hire them for the next voyage, to no avail. Denied honest work some became highwaymen, foraging in a different way for gold coins and ladies’ jewels. A portion of these men also did not return to their wives and children, having thought themselves better thieves and fighters than they truly were.
By the end of the fourth year of the Moronic Magnate’s reign, poverty and misery and seething acrimony was all the subjects of the crumbling kingdom knew. A proud, happy and prosperous people had been reduced to starving, ill, petty, squabbling, despondent paupers. Even the guards were broken in spirit, exhausted from prosecuting myriad conflicting and draconian edicts, and burdened with the shame of enforcing laws that were more criminal than those who disobeyed them. The people distrusted each other, stole from one another, and reported their neighbor’s inevitable crimes to the authorities for a paltry reward of a few coins. They rarely smiled, never laughed, and hated the king with every ounce of energy remaining in their pain-ridden, weakened bodies.
It was a crowd of such people that stood under the balcony and listened to the Sultan of Stupid drone on about himself on what would later be dubbed “Saint Mirth’s Day”. It was a crowd of such people that struck the first blow of what historians would title, “The Hilarious Rebellion”.
The tidal wave of laughter had crashed against the headlands and was receding. Breath was being caught, at long last. Tears were being wiped and noses blown. Chuckles still rippled through the air, but they were of the exhausted kind, followed by long inhales that were let out with barely formed words, like “hwo bwutha”. Men who had been blood enemies a mere ten minutes before were helping each other to stand, slapping the dust from the other’s clothes and man-hugging. Women were smoothing their skirts while still tittering, feeling slight embarrassment at their display but not truly regretting what had been a few moments of blessed relief. The children, on the other hand, had become energized, as if the laughter had been wholesome food. They chased about the courtyard, mocking the Obtuse Overlord with a game they later named “King Tag”. The child tagged as king would waddle with her legs splayed, close her eyes and babble incoherently about how much she cared about her people, didn’t like fish without lemon and loved bacon.
The Egomaniacal Emperor had been staring down at the crowd the entire time, his face red with suppressed rage, his eyes bulging in their sockets, his fists clenched at his sides so tightly he was bleeding from fingernail cuts to his palms. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but the first sound he made formed no words. The sound, in fact, was not immediately recognizable as human. Witnesses interviewed later by scholars struggled to describe the sound. One suggested that it was like the soul of a man had been trapped inside the body of a lobster by witchcraft, and the man-lobster had been dropped into a cauldron of boiling water.
The long, bone-chilling sound began as a low groan that rapidly rose to a howl, then morphed as the pitch rose into a wail, ending at its highest as a screech that raised gooseflesh on all who heard it. Every man, woman, and child in the courtyard stood frozen and silent, staring up at the Boy King, suddenly as terrified as they had been happy only moments before.
They stared in disbelief as he began to take deep breaths, in, then out, slowly at first. He clenched and bared his teeth, his breath whistling in his mouth like high winds through a canyon. His breathing became panting. His face, eyes freakishly wide, grimace of bared teeth and skin flushed with blood, suggested the danger of a rabid animal. When he was finally able to form a thought and speak it, it was as predictable as sunrise.
“Guards!” he bellowed. “Guuuuaaaaaarrrrrdds! Kill them all! Kill! Kill! Death! Die dead death kill death die kiiiiiiil!” He paused and panted some more, waiting for his eyes to see the bloody carnage his mind was already rolling in like a dog in feces.
The guards had stood at attention, silent and unmoving, the entire time. They formed a ring around the crowed, standing with backs against the stone walls of the courtyard. Their captain and lieutenant stood on the balcony behind the king. To a man, they were each so afraid of the king, of their officers, of each other, that not one had succumbed to the infection of laughter. They had stared in astonishment at the orgy of hilarity, unable to believe the plain evidence of their own eyes and ears.
Now that the inevitable order had been given, they remained frozen in confused shock.
To carry out the evil will of the Boy King would be simple for such men, armed and trained and experienced as they were. They could charge into the crowd with their pikes lowered and each skewer perhaps two or three, especially children, in one go. Their heavy, curved swords could then be drawn to hack away at the limbs and necks and bellies of men and women, dismembering some and littering the courtyard with bloody arms and hands, disemboweling others and leaving them kneeling and shrieking, trying to stuff their entrails back into the gaping wounds. If your sword got stuck and irretrievable in a bone, you could draw your dirk and take to slitting throats. Alternately, given that your arm might be a bit tired and sore by now, your dagger could be effective and easier to wield. Swinging it overhand with great fist-pounding arcs into chests and shoulders and backs could be quite effective, especially if the heart can be pierced, something difficult to do through ribs and sternum, but which can be done if you are determined and keep trying.
The king was so caught up with the horror show in his mind he didn’t notice that it was not actually happening. The guards glanced at each other warily; would one of them break rank and wade into the crowd, stabbing and slashing? “You?” their eyes silently asked the other, “You?”
Some looked up at their officers, flanking the king. The captain and lieutenant wore faces as fearful and confused as the men. They turned their heads slightly to meet eyes and gauge the other’s thoughts. They looked back at the crowd, then scanned the faces of the men, seeing clearly that none of them relished acting on the king’s orders.
The Boy King shook his head violently, as if a spider had crawled in his ear. His vision returned to the world around him, and he realized with great irritation that nobody was dying. They were all standing and staring, staring at him. The only sound was that of the flags of the royal standard fluttering in a light breeze on either side of the balcony.
He looked at the guards, his gaze passing from one to the other, his rage increasing as he realized they were not doing as he ordered. The men stared back in awe at the Boy King, unable to believe that as stupid and selfish and malicious as he was, he could wish for the mass murder of innocent men, women and children, let alone order his guards to carry out so evil and grisly a task.
With his next words, he made them all believers.
“What. Is. This? Treason? I said kill! Kill! All of you men, attack! Now! Stab ’em with the pointy ends of your… things whatever they are the sharp sticks with the long… stab them! Stick it in their guts! All of them!”
He paused a moment, believing that his words alone would make the men leap to his command like well-trained dogs. “Why are you just standing there? Get out your knives, I mean the big ones the, the… swords! The big curved swords you all have — you all have them, dammit! Take them out and cut ’em with it!
Another pause, this to catch his breath and his wits, both becoming scarce. “Cut ‘em! Cut ’em and kill ’em with the sharp blades cut their heads off! Slash ’em until they bleed their last and… dammit! Do what I say, I’m the king! I order you to use your stabby things to stab and your slashy things to slash and slash! Slash! Kill them all! Cut ’em into bits and let me watch ’em die oh why aren’t you doing it?”
As he babbled and sputtered and swore, the Unpleasant Imperator jumped up and down and pounded his fists on the parapet stones until they bled. It didn’t seem possible but his face was redder than before and his eyes seemed nearly out of their sockets and rolling around on his pudgy cheeks. He was slobbering and snot was running from his nose into his gaping mouth, mixing with his spit and splattering out in great visible drops with every vicious word he shouted.
“I am the king! I am the king you must obey me I am the king! Kill them! If you don’t kill them I order you to kill each other! How do you like that, huh? You are all traitors if you don’t do what your king says and traitors die so kill the traitors! Got you, didn’t I? I got you dead to rights now! You have to kill each other because you’re all traitors and traitors die! Kill kill kill!
“You there, you! Yes, you with the beard! Kill that guy next to you. The guy on your right… no, left! The guy on your left is a traitor! Kill him! Kill him now! I know he’s too close to use that long thing so throw it down and take out your… oh I dunno pick something you’re the expert!”
As he grew more desperate to see blood and hear screams, his incoherence increased and his energy waned. “I! Order! You! I order all of you! Kill the man to your right… no left! Every one of you kill the man next to you on the left he’s a traitor he’s right there, right there next to you he’s a traitor and you let him live which makes you a traitor! So, kill yourself!”
For a moment, he seemed to take heart in this new tactic, believing he’d found the magic that would grant his dearest wish. “All of you kill yourselves right now, every single last man! Haha! Got’cha! That’s it! C’mon traitors, kill yourselves this instant! Die! Die now!”
His brief flicker of hope dissipated quickly. The Boy King’s vicious tirade slowed and quieted. He laid his arms on the stones and lowered his head to them, continuing to mumble, “Die. Oh, god, please die. Please, I’m saying please. Please, kill, somebody. Somebody please do what I say and kill, die. I am the king. I… am the king. I… am… the… king.”
It seemed even the flags had stopped fluttering, so silent and still it was in that courtyard. All anybody could hear was that quiet, piteous, whining voice, repeating what was perhaps the only true statement he had ever uttered in his entire life. He was, in fact, the king.
A sudden clang of iron on stone startled everyone to the soles of their feet. A unified gasp followed that flushed birds from the castle walls. Everyone turned to the direction of the sound.
It came from one of the guards. He had dropped his pike. He held both his hands clamped tightly over his mouth. His eyes were wide, but crinkled at the corners. He appeared to be choking or about to throw up; his chest and belly convulsed and his throat throbbed as if he was struggling to expel something foreign or to avoid expelling something precious.
A burst of breath escaped through his fingers. Then another. He doubled over as if to spew the contents of his stomach and finally could not contain himself a moment more. Six or seven open-throated laughs passed through the gates of his hands that emptied his lungs of their last bit of air. He then drew breath, still through his fingers, before dropping to his knees, leaning forward on to his hands, and guffawing in a manner that sounded painful.
He laughed as if forced to do so by a will not his own. When his lungs were again empty he inhaled deeply and continued, his open-throated guffaws sounding more like laughter and less like agonized grunts. He drew breath and started again, ending with a series of short chokes, laughs without air, and pounding the cobbled street with his fist.
The guard’s laughter worked on everyone in that courtyard the way a spark matures into a conflagration. Some of the men closest to him began chuckling, then laughing openly and turning to their compatriots on either side, jostling them by the shoulder or punching an arm. These men in turn took to smiling, then giggling, then working their way quickly through chortles and chuckles before giving up hope of control and haw-hawing openly.
The people themselves were too frightened, at first, to let the happy noises reach their hearts. It was a child, a young girl, who became the vector of levity that carried the infection from the soldiers to the civilians. She giggled, her eyes still on the first guard, a child’s giggle that would melt the resolve of the most hard-hearted cynic.
Some of the other children joined in as counterpoint to her melody, then some women, then some men. Before long, as a single flame that finds air and fuel grows to engulf everything it touches, every human being in that courtyard was overcome with merriment, joviality, hysterics and cheer.
With laughter, the people sang in praise of the blessed spirit of joy in their hearts, as with music a church choir sings in praise of the blessed spirit of God in their souls.
Guards threw down their pikes and struggled out of their mail shirts, the better to breathe deeply and go for another round of howling hilarity. Many of them were still on their feet, if barely, but the people were weakened from the first outburst, so most were back on the ground in various states of helplessness. The children ran in circles around the guardsmen, chortling cutely and slapping the laughing men’s bottoms in a dare they knew would draw no punishment in this special moment. Even the captain and lieutenant on the balcony were cackling, leaning against the parapet to keep from falling over, red-faced and breathless.
When the Boy King raised his head and looked out over the courtyard, a change swept over him slowly, then clicked into place forever, like a door swinging shut and the key turning in the lock. The sights of the people that reached his eyes faded, until he saw only the stone walls around him, the cobbled streets below him, the sky and clouds above him. The sounds of the people that reached his ears faded, until he heard only the flags fluttering in the breeze, some dogs barking in the distance, and his own labored breathing. Nature took pity on the man devoid of pity. Nature alleviated the pain of the man who inflicted pain at every opportunity. Nature pardoned the man who was, in the mind of everyone who ever knew him, unpardonable.
With the gestures and gait of a man made of wood, the Boy King turned away from the crowd and walked slowly back to the castle. The lords and ladies who had been watching from the door, themselves laughing regally and doing all they could to avoid falling over and soiling their ornate clothes, stepped back to let him pass. He entered and walked the length of the throne room slowly, his hands at his sides, his face a dull mask. Heaving his corpulence onto the throne and shifting his bulk to settle in, he laid his hands limply in his lap and stared into the distance.
From that very minute, the kingdom had no king. His Royal Uselessness didn’t realize this, and never would. Within minutes he was again giving orders and making proclamations as if nothing was changed. In his mind, he still was king and a king gave orders and decreed laws, even if there was no one to hear them or to carry them out. Everyone in earshot simply laughed at him, or ignored him and walked away, or proffered some rude gesture, but he didn’t notice. “I speak!” he shouted, only to be answered by the First Scribe, flirting with one of the courtiers, “I fart!”
What the people did next to rebuild the kingdom and their lives was as simple as the old ways were complex. The Boy King had no heir, thank God and All His Angels, so the people agreed to a system of sharing the role of leader by lottery.
Names of all adult men and women were written on slips of parchment, rolled tightly and tied with a string. These were then put in a wooden box made for the occasion, with a hole cut in the top. A child was asked to reach inside, swish the contents around three times, then draw a name. That person became First Citizen for a year. Another child would be asked to do the same, and another, and another, until eight more names were drawn. These were the First Citizen’s Council, who would vote on propositions, the First Citizen providing the tie-breaking vote when needed.
Those who performed a year’s duty were not to hold the position again. New names were added as young people came of age. The First Citizen and the Council were not to be jobs, or positions of power and wealth, in any case. It was considered a part-time responsibility. The leaders would meet only occasionally for regular business or quickly when needed for an emergency. That is how we manage our affairs to this very day.
The first ruling to come from that first Council was the repeal of every ridiculous edict that had been made by the Boy King. In all the years since, subsequent Councils have rarely found the need to devise regulations. Only a few reasonable guidelines, it seems, are needed for decent people to work and live and love and make the land bountiful and themselves happy.
What you see around you today is the result of such wise rule: the people are flourishing. The land is fruitful, neighbors are helpful, merchants are honest. The few quarrels, fights and petty crimes that occur are handled fairly and swiftly by magistrates hand-picked by the Council for their wisdom and sense of justice.
And the people laugh. They laugh at the drop of a hat. They laugh at themselves, at each other, at silly jokes and odd happenings. Some laugh just because the morning is pleasant and they have a nice cup of tea and a biscuit, and are sitting on a bench in the square with the sun resting lightly on their shoulders. Others laugh because they see that person with that tea and biscuit sitting on the bench laughing, and cannot contain the mirth they feel rise within their chest at the sight of so simple and good a moment.
Since that fateful day, the people have maintained the upkeep of the castle, but over time they transformed it into a more useful building than it had ever been. They built a school and a hospital in its many large rooms. The throne room is now the meeting hall for the Council where they hear reports and requests from the people and make their deliberations. The guard house is maintained, as well as the jail, because no matter how good people are there is always one nitwit who thinks he can beat the odds and live by guile or violence. The guards, though, went back to simple habits and weapons. They still carry the truncheon, but like the days of the old king it is rarely drawn from the belt.
As for His Majesty the Moron, he remained in his own world. He took to wandering the halls of the castle shouting “I speak” and making proclamations that were never written down, blathering on about nothing in thousands of words, reciting rambling run-on sentences. Those nearby would laugh or simply tisk and shake their heads. The cooks still made meals for him which he ate in his bed chamber, sitting on the bed with a bowl on his lap, eating slowly and sloppily, his addled mind still devising odd statements that he mumbled to himself between slurps of soup.
One day the following year, a woman working in the hospital asked about him. “Has anyone seen the Imperial Imbecile lately?” she asked of the others nearby. No one had, they now realized. They shook their heads in answer, then began looking around as if he might in that moment turn the corner, babbling about bacon. A search was organized. The entire castle, the stables and storehouses, the grounds and the nearby woods were scoured, to no avail. He simply disappeared without notice, which would have been easy to do because no one noticed him much when he was about anyway. He has never been seen since. For a while, his fate was the topic of much conversation, conjecture and jesting. One man won a joke contest in the pub with his story of the Boy King wandering into a far away village and being elected to replace their recently deceased Idiot.
But over time no one thought of him often enough even to use him as the butt of jokes. There was so much more to think about, talk about, laugh about.
Today, the only time he comes to mind is on Saint Mirth’s Day. That wonderful festival is our national celebration of freedom, and no one misses The Gathering for the Speech if they can manage it. Even women in active labor have been known to show up, and one or two brought her child into the world during the merriment. The first sound reaching those baby’s ears was the sound of dozens of people laughing.
And so, on the morning of Saint Mirth’s Day, we gather in the courtyard of the castle awaiting the arrival of the contestants for the main event: “So You Think You’re the Boy King”. The contestants take turns on the balcony and deliver a speech of their own composition. Each is judged on costume and makeup, text and delivery. The winner is crowned Sovereign of Silliness for a day, feted and fawned over, bowed to by all, complimented for good looks, charm and sex appeal, and fed every manner of delectable dish prepared by the best cooks in the land. The honor has been won by men and women alike, and it is the high point of every year.
My costume is nearly ready.
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