The Young King
by Nicole Votta
An old king, an ugly king, even one regarded fondly, knows that men must be coerced into dying for him, and that their good regard rests on a very thin edge. It is so easy for a kindly old fool or a stern old gentleman to turn into a senile lunatic, a withered, grasping fiend: Time and Death reaping the young in vain wars. His age and impotence are a betrayal of his nation. But a young king, a beautiful king, they fight to die for him: if one must be sacrificed, at least let it be to a fair idol.
Our young king looked very fine at his father's funeral. A severe black suit, no dandy's weeds, not a touch of jewelry. His boots gleaming, alike his hair: he will wear nothing on his head until he is crowned. A pale king, grave and mournful, his face like a bisque figure from Preva, that unaccustomed to sorrow, that suited to it. At the crypt, two tears were seen on his cheeks, finer than leaded glass, purer than diamonds. A king not quite yet a king, a prince until tomorrow: in a way, it was his own funeral.
They threw white lilies for him as walked in the procession from the cathedral. White lilies from the hands of virgins and their matrons, from old men and their sons, from tramps and bankers. He never looked up, never caught one and blew a kiss to the lady his eye caught, but they loved him more for that. He was so solemn, so beautiful, that he moved along a different, grander street – paved with jewels in a stained glass city – and it was by an act of grace that he could be glimpsed from our crooked avenue.
He is a dangerous king, and I think he will be more dangerous if he doesn't know that.
In the royal offices, the young king stares gravely past my shoulder and does not listen. I expect this; I have educated myself on his nature and habits since the coronation. I called on his tutors, his confessor, his colonel; even his mother, although I was careful that the woman never guessed the purpose of our meeting. I knew so little of the prince before. I expected his father to live for many more years: they all did, tutors, maman, colonel, to their great consternation. They all relied upon his father the king living into his dotage, and by then, surely, the prince would be a steadier man, a practical man. He, I suspect, believed that his father would live nearly forever, and he would have time to learn the business of running his state eventually, time to avoid the responsibilities and sober duties that he is so opposed to. He is a dreamer, our young king, withdrawn, haughty or shy. He was dutiful in his studies, but inclined to study only what pleased him. He was stubborn to the point of hostility in the face of military training; made a captain only because it would have been a scandal not to promote him. He was equally adverse to giving or taking orders. He has, at least, beautiful posture, and cuts a fine figure in uniform. He hated his father the king. They could hardly be in the same room without quarreling. What did he weep for as his father was buried?
He has a friend, Leonid, Prince of Ettigren, a byword for vice, although after two weeks I am still unable to locate the young king in that habitat. He is not overly pious, but his confessor has not yet been bribed out of his confessions.
Now, in the royal office, at his great-grandfather’s desk, dry pen ticking nervously at the papers in front of him, the young king ignores me as I explain why he should not sign the Cacique’s treaty. He is still charming: when Beauty ignores you, you are grateful to at least not be dismissed. He could, perhaps, be taught to use this on diplomats. He wears a scarlet jacket and a pearl drop in his ear, as fashionable young men have begun to do. His great-uncle was a famous dandy, and sent himself into exile and penury by it. Perhaps this is his sin, a simple thing to hook him by; he could, perhaps, be made to agree to a war or two in exchange for tailors from Fels.
“Do you think,” he interrupts me, “I could replace the tapestries in here? I was thinking of asking Carle Van Lymens. He’s very young, but he studied under Defevre. I saw the tapestry he made for the Exposition, The Garden of Eros. I thought I might ask him for something on a subject from legend, perhaps The Knight of the Rose, or The Return to Swanhaven.”
“Your Majesty.” I smile politely. “Everything in here is part of the wealth of the nation, you cannot simply change it to suit your taste. If the tapestries were fraying or faded they must be replaced. But Parliament would have to issue a contest for a public commission, and we would have to fix a price, and, of course, we should look after the pride of our own artisans. It’s quite impossible right now.”
“Oh.” His is looking at me now, blinking, as if I am not what he expected to see, not what he wishes to see. “I didn’t realize….”
“Of course,” I say generously, “you may do as you like in your private apartments. That comes out of your own fortune, Your Majesty, but this Van Lymens would still have to apply for a visa and there are very many more, ah, pressing applicants. Although you will mainly be in the State Chambers here, and at the summer palace you will use the Royal Apartments as well once you marry. Which, Your Majesty, we all hope you will begin to consider as soon as we have settled matters with the Cacique.”
He looks as heartbroken as he did when he wept at his father’s grave. His gaze sweeps the room: the fusty, ugly wall coverings, the coat-of-arms drapes, his father’s and grandfather’s accumulated bric-a-brac, the heavy, hideous furniture worth twice its weight in gold. Then to me again, his lovely eyes brimming with a painful realization, not simply disappointment over his silly tapestries, but as if I am a judge who has pronounced sentence on him and led him into the prison cell. And truly I have, and he on us. I know, now, that he will ruin us. Over wall hangings: over a dozen things that his mind will seize on and which we must oppose as we must oppose all that he wills and wants for his own sake, in order that our power might check his. It will reach the newspapers, not this time, but some other, the common gossip, and people will mark his anguished gaze, his beauty blooming to sorrow as only youth can, and no matter the folly of his will they will choose their young king.
If I am not the king's friend, I am at least his sole available confidant. The Prince of Ettigren has had to go into exile: an unpleasant business with some actresses and a horse, which I was happy to pass on to the press through my agents. It was a delicate situation, but I convinced our young king that it was best to publicly distance himself from Ettigren. The king sent one letter to Ettigren, which I intercepted and personally brought back to him. I was very understanding, and since then, because he has no one else, he has begun to confide in me. Therefore, I am expected to accompany him when he abruptly leaves the capital for his country palace, when he takes it into his head to ride in the woods, but not to hunt, late in the day. I would regret my scheme if I had not already learned so much about him; I would be proud of my scheme if I had learned something more than that his chief vice is his feckless intractability.
“We should go back, Your Majesty.” It's past dusk, I have indulged his discussion of novels I haven't read, yet still his jaw tightens and he urges his horse forward, down the path we have traversed several times this evening. “Your Majesty, I must insist. They will have a fine dinner waiting on you, and I would not want to alarm the household guard.”
He looks back at me, more wistful than arrogant. “Is it any good being king if you can't stay out past dinner?”
“It is a great good being king,” I say. “A good king who minds his office and the people who serve him, and gives them no cause to worry.”
He is not malicious, not yet, so he is contrite and turns his horse back.
“Do I, madam?” he asks. “Do I give you cause to worry?”
“It's a minister's job to worry. We do wish that Your Majesty would listen to us more, and that you will not cancel any more cabinet meetings.” He frowns and takes out a flask; he brought two, and this second one must be nearly empty. He drinks too much, although I have never seen him drunk, and it is, unfortunately, only the state of intoxication that can be counted as a vice. “We also wish, and I believe that I speak as a minister and as a fond subject now, that you would appear in society more often, perhaps begin looking for a suitable woman to wed. A courtship, at least, would hearten us.”
“Is it so desperate then?” He speaks sharply, sadly. The young king is not eager to marry, but it's not mere reluctance that darkens his voices, that pales his face.
“Your Majesty is still young, but it would please the people to see their handsome young king marry a beautiful young lady. There is an advantage to settling the political alliance, of course, and to establishing the succession.”
The king gives me a strange look. “Will I die so soon? I mean not to. Besides.” They would be surprised by how cold our young king can look. “There is a succession, in the bloodline and the name. I have cousins; they are already my heirs.”
“Your Majesty.” I must be careful, or I will never discover what he's hiding. “That may be, but your father had cousins, yet he knew his duty. I understand that a young man doesn't wish to consider the bonds of marriage, but you're a king, not a young man. Is there a reason you're so against it?”
I can tell by his expression that he will yield his secret; I've learned his ways, how he averts his eyes, his lips tremble. “Yes.”
“You must tell me,” I say sternly.
“I.... You'll think I'm mad.” He takes another drink from his flask, shakes the last drops onto his tongue. “I'm already married. I've been married for almost two years.”
“Your Majesty!” This must be a jest, a trick to panic his cabinet. I have studied him, I know where he goes: he has no mistress, no low-born lover, has never even had a particular favorite among the whores. There can be no secret wife. “To who?”
“I... oh, it's impossible, even Leonid said....” His mouth droops in despair. “I was at the summer palace. I rode out to Lake Raizille to be alone... I never see anyone out there. There was no one there. But there was... a song.” He stares above his horse's head, hands loose on the reins, face softening in wonder, some wondrous memory. “It was... I mean that to call it a song is to diminish it, but it is, it is the sound all music aspires to. It is the most beautiful sound in the world. I've never heard anything like it. It's not played on any instrument we might make, by any human musician. It is... I can't call it heavenly, it is not....” He ducks his head, although I see his flush, how he licks his lower lip, drags his teeth lightly over it. “It is not purely spiritual.”
He is silent long enough that I must prompt him. “And? Was there someone playing this music? A girl with her pipes?”
The young king looks up at me: he is a dangerous king because his gaze dissembles nothing, lays his heart bare, and it is by its innate heartlessness that beauty can best be defended against. “No,” he whispers. “Just the music. It is... the sound of creation. The gods speaking to each other. It is not merely music.”
“I'm afraid I don't understand,” I confess. “Who did you meet there?”
“No one. There was no other person there,” he says. “There was only myself, and the sound.”
This must be the joke. “Your Majesty, you don't mean to tell me that you married a song?”
“I am pledged, in all the ways that matter,” he says stiffly. “I will not marry another.”
“But... you can't have, ah, consummated such a union.” I smile hopefully; he is only teasing, he must be.
The young king gives me a look of such wounded pity, such cold distance, that I begin to fear — that I know — he is not playing a trick. “Must we always stoop to the merely physical? There are more types of consummation, Felizen, than that.”
“Of course,” I say. “I understand your meaning.”
What the king meant, without his even realizing it, is that he is mad, and his monomania will stand in for the absent sins I hoped to hook and hold him by. Except I am sure that I would prefer it if he was a dandy or a debaucher.
The Cacique was an excellent host, a sybaritic host, and I would rather be caught in a blizzard on the Tivola Pass road than in the Cacique's palace celebrating our new amicable relationship. I had bet, perhaps too heavily, on leading the young king to quarrel with the terms of the Cacique's treaty. There were other factions in the government who had bet against me, but their victory is not to their own credit. The king has already begun burning their letters without reading them. This was his own doing. I thought to guide him gently, through friendship, but he will need a shorter leash in future.
Fortunately, the good citizens of the capital are suspicious of this alliance. It has been speculated, gossiped, that the king will marry one of the Cacique's daughters, and his heirs will own themselves as vassals of our old enemy. Outside the capital, the people celebrate that they will not lose sons to the Cacique's legionnaires; but the papers are infamous for ignoring the country outside the capital. The burghers' cold mood won't last the season, but I intend to make the most of it.
It isn't that our king is unused to hard treatment, to disapproval, but because he is so absolute in his passions, and his mania, he takes all things to heart. He can't understand that the capital is made of fickle people, the descendents of ambiguity and uncertainty, but firmly wed to tradition. It was their tradition to hate and fear the Caciques, and, for a moment, when the king overturned their venerated tradition, they let their fear get the better of them. When we returned from the Cacique's court, the king, the chill of their opprobrium still frosting his heart, arranged no grand promenade, no royal appearances at cathedral or theater. The king went away to the summer palace, and let the country citizenry fete him. The capital has repented: the mayor came begging pardon on behalf of the city. They miss their young king, but even now that I've brought him back, he refuses to give a signal of forgiveness.
The king has grown troubled: I am his confidant, if not his friend, and none of the other ministers thought to gain that position. The lapse in his people's love bewilders him, and so he listens to me as I explain why he must not make concessions, why he must make war this time.
“There's no other way?” He has asked that before. He is sunk listlessly into his chair, picking at the fabric, drinking glass after glass of champagne. I still haven't seen him drunk. “This is what they want?”
“Your Majesty, you don't understand common people. If a carter insults a greengrocer, they settle it with their fists. If you quarrel with your neighbor monarchs—”
“But I don't.”
I pause only long enough to smile indulgently at him. “Then, they expect you to do the same; it's what they understand. If you deprive them of the honor of defending your honor, our nation's honor, well, then they might deprive you of honor as well.”
He pours another glass of champagne, and gives me a very shrewd, knowing look. He is much cleverer than I initially expected, than anyone else really knows.
“Your Majesty....” I have that hook to catch and twist him on; I have been generous and spared him such measures. “Do you hear that music... often? Do ever hear it in the capital?”
How the king stares at me! He finishes the champagne in one long swallow, reaches for the bottle to pour another. “Not often. At Raizille, always, but only sometimes here. Very late at night, once at a meeting of the Congress.”
“Your Majesty, I don't entirely understand, but I sympathize... I believe.... For a man such as yourself, prodigiously gifted in mind and senses, with such a rarefied spirit, yes, I can accept it. But they will not. They will not understand, and what they don't understand they hate.”
The young king's fists are clenched on the arms of his chair. His face is stricken, bleak, furious, clouded as a plain turned battlefield under the cannon smoke. He understands.
It was easier to get the king to give the order for war than it was to convince him to make a token, ceremonial tour of the troops. He fled the capital, claimed illness – migraines, a leg sprained in a riding accident – then disappeared into the countryside to make urgent investigations of the hunting lodges he inherited from his mother's uncle. I ran him to ground, finally, at Lake Raizille, where I suspect he was the whole time. He begged me, movingly, not to insist that he go. We are winning, but it seemed that the more I detailed our victories, the more desperately he refused to go, changing from tearful to wild-eyed. So I reminded him of his secret, this lunatic marriage to a song, a sound that he swears is debased to be described in the same terms as popular tunes or tragic operas. He is a monomanic, I must remind myself of that, even though he seems sincere enough that before we left Raizille I found myself straining to hear... something I would never hear. The force of his belief, which is so compelling, is also the clearest sign of his madness. Gestallan had a mad king in my father's time: he was an easy fellow, biddable, for nearly twenty years. I would rather not, but we must manage as they did; this is not the time to disrupt the government with a forced abdication.
I am well rewarded for harrying the young king to the front. He is such a lovely idol, and speaks so tenderly to the soldiers, if not to the generals, that even the usual soldiers' discontent is banished. He spreads enchantment like a sweet disease, a kind madness. It is easier to die for youth and beauty. He is sincerely grieved for the wounded, and they clamor for his touch as if he is a sainted king from pious legend who can heal them. He takes it all too much to heart: he sleeps very little since we arrived, although his marked pallor, the spring violet shadows under his eyes, convince the soldiers that he suffers with them. The generals all hate him, but the common soldiers and the junior officers adore him.
The strain, however, argues more eloquently than his pleas in Raizille to cut our tour short. When he appears before the troops he is composed and attentive, but in private, or with the generals, he is withdrawn, short-tempered. He sits now with his head bowed, one hand resting against his brow, fingers spread like a fan over his eye, as General Ector discourses on a proposed action. The king truly has nothing to add to this, his knowledge of military strategy being attenuated by distaste, but his blatant detachment is petulant, rude enough that Ector will talk for twice as long. Our young king, however, does not hear him; he wouldn't hear me, even, were I to lean across the space separating our chairs and whisper in his ear. I know the look on his face, I have observed it at the capital, at Raizille: he is listening very attentively for something we will never hear.
It's a shame that he couldn't have a different vice: gambling, a mistress, a string of mistresses with bastards, even the infamous Ettigren as his lover. This vice, this madness, will not be a kind master, and I can admit now that we will not have twenty years with a gentle lunatic; because his madness has strains of religious mania, of romantic obsession, it has him between its jaws like a great black dog. It will be a shame to lose him: a young king, a beautiful king is dangerous, but the people love it so. Even we, sober ministers, outraged generals, must bend a little, he is that compelling; and I listen, again, for what I know is not there, as I prayed to what I knew was not there at my daughter's funeral.
I hear shouting, a racket of feet and equipment rattling, and a whistle like a thread, drawn by a needle through a tapestry. The whistle grows louder, reaching the same pitch as the shriek of men and animals outside the general's tent.
I will recover. I was not badly wounded. General Ector may lose a leg, some unfortunate lieutenant was blinded by shrapnel, and one of my colleagues, Rittner, was killed outright. These are regrettable but not insurmountable losses. The king, however, the king must be saved.
At first, it appeared that there was no cause for concern. The explosion left him nearly deaf for a day or two, but there seemed no sign of permanent damage. The soldiers were both horrified and heartened by their young king's exposure to real danger. Their pride and outrage will carry the war. Our unmilitary young king has secured a greater victory than his great-grandfather, the famous strategist, ever did. And yet, the doctors will not release him from their care, and their reports of his condition are so vague that I have left the front and have traveled, with my wheelchair and crutches, to the summer palace, where our young king was sent to convalesce.
Now, I sit patiently, politely, as the king's personal physician hedges his answers as carefully as a diplomat, and I press him toward the truth, as I have done with more skilled emissaries, in his temporary receiving room in the palace.
“It's impossible to make any absolute diagnosis in these matters.” The doctor taps at his glass of brandy. “There is a specialist in Preva....”
“Doctor, we will, of course, authorize any treatment His Majesty requires, but what we wish to know is for what injury he requires a specialist from Preva.”
He fidgets. “Madam Chancellor, I believe that it would be unwise to present the details of the king's condition to public scrutiny.”
I smile, which I know will not put him at ease. “I agree with you, but a member of the cabinet, our king's chief adviser, is hardly the public.”
“Then please, doctor, as a faithful subject help your king's adviser to do her duty. Tell me why His Majesty is not well enough to return to the capitol or meet with his ministers.”
The doctor hesitates for a brief, significant moment. “He was very concerned that his hearing might have been permanently damaged.”
“Yes, I recall that he was greatly disturbed, but it was his first exposure to real warfare and the morphine calmed him. You said before that there was no permanent damage.”
“The king is... physically sound.”
He licks his lips, reluctant, afraid, as if by telling me he will cause his suspicions to be true. “He has not recovered from the shock. His nerves are troubled. He wouldn't sleep, madam, were it not for the morphine, but it has begun to disturb his dreams which further effects his nerves. He is convinced that he has suffered permanent injury to his hearing. We have performed all the necessary tests and shown him the results, incontrovertible proof, yet he insists that he cannot hear. He can, Madam Chancellor, I assure you. It's shock he suffers from. The specialist I recommend to the cabinet treated similar cases in the Traub-Mina War.”
“I'm sure your specialist is very competent. I would like to see the king for myself.”
The doctor frowns. “I'm not sure. He has been.... I can't keep him sedated constantly.”
“Sir, I don't think I can be barred from him. However, I believe I understand your reluctance. You are held to treat His Majesty's physical ills only. I am aware that His Majesty has always had certain peculiarities of temperament.”
He nods and rises, calls the nurse to guide me slowly down the long corridors to the spartan chamber that is the king's sickroom. The nurse opens the door and announces me and is very, very careful to bow and show every deference although the king never turns to see or acknowledge us. He is sitting in a plain, straight chair in front of a large window. He ignores us so completely, with so little effort, that I wonder for a moment if the physician lied to me and the king is, in fact, quite deaf. But as my crutch scrapes across the bare floor the king flinches and his shoulders tense. I make my way across the room to stand in front of him and bow, as best as I may.
The king is very pale and his bloodless cheeks make the shadows under his eyes appear very dark, indigo-purple, like bruises. He is dressed well, but simply. There are marks on his hands, half-healed wounds made by splinters of wood and metal. He ignores me, stares past me out the window, and there is a look of intense concentration on his face. There is nothing of apparent interest outside: wooded hills tumbling down and Lake Raizille glinting in the midst of them like a treasure folded in a deep pocket.
“You Majesty,” I say. He frowns. “Your Majesty, I have come to inquire after your health and to wish you, on behalf of the government and the people, a swift and complete recovery—”
“Go away!” He clenches his fists and his face contorts in immaculate, exquisite agony. “Leave me alone! I need everyone to leave me alone! Go, and take the doctor and the damn nurses and the servants!”
“Your Majesty, I will do anything to help you — but I cannot do that.”
He looks up at me for the first time since I entered the room, and I am reminded of that day in the royal offices when I refused to let him change the tapestries. There is something different today: he is less gentle and I am less sure that he will obey me or I will resist, and this change is my doing, I know it. He grew desperate at the front. He had never seen such death and mutilation and I know now it was a grave error to reveal that to him, not because I believe his nerves are irreparably shattered but because he has grown ruthless in response. My reproaches, my appeals to his gentle nature, the opinion of the citizenry, his reluctant obligation to good government, are based on values that he discarded absolutely in the those long, silent hours, as Rittner bled to death on him. He has grown cruel, and the dreamy edges of his beauty have sharpened to match, but it will not be enough to save us from his despotism if he recovers.
“Your Majesty, you will be needed back in the capital very soon. We expect an offer of surrender any day.”
He gives me a very knowing look, as if he was privy to my thoughts of a moment ago. “How fortunate for you, Felizen. I don't wish to go there, though. The doctor is on my side in that.”
“Your Majesty.” I shift my weight on the crutch. I must be cruel in kind, in more than kind, if I am to master him again. “The doctor says you believe you can't hear.”
He looks so bereft, so afraid, that I almost regret my words and would take them back: but this will be my hook as it was before, because I understand what the physician does not. I guess what he can no longer hear.
“Your physician wishes to bring in a specialist in nervous disorders. I told Your Majesty before that I understand, but your physician does not, and this specialist from Preva will not, and I recall telling you how men treat that which they do not understand. You remember? I don't say that I know how to set Your Majesty's loss to rights, but perhaps it would be best to put your mind at ease, and that could be most readily accomplished by taking up familiar, necessary work in familiar surroundings with no room for brooding. It is, perhaps, merely an effect of nerves after all, but one which I doubt the specialist could treat. It is the wish of my heart to see Your Majesty well again and I beg you take my council as that of your adviser, your subject, and your faithful friend.”
I have frightened him, and through that fear I can make him doubt his new convictions, at least long enough to take him in hand. Perhaps this time I will rule him better. Perhaps, in the absence of his mystical, intangible spouse, I might find ways to fill his days with duties and diversions of our choosing. Perhaps, and I am thinking too far ahead, hoping too much, we might convince him to marry; a girl he won't love, preferably, and I might then arrange Ettigren's return to favor, and the king, unhappy and eager to escape his unfortunate queen, could be moved to turn to Ettigren to provide him with escape. The common bitterness of an unhappy marriage, the outrageous but common vices Ettigren would introduce him to, would spoil and degrade his beauty, relieve him of that divine aura that commands love, and save us, his faithful ministers, from having to fear him. We might preside over a quiet country, a competent and unexceptional reign. It is dangerous to have a young king, a beautiful king, and I might still save us from him.
The nurse opens the door before the king can answer. “Your Majesty. Madam... His Majesty takes his walk now.”
“May I come?”
The young king says nothing. The nurse looks doubtful. “Are you well enough?”
“I'm fitter than I look. Would it be your pleasure, Your Majesty?”
He takes a long time to answer. “Yes, Felizen. If it is yours.”
We move slowly on my account. We follow a fortuitously paved path down the hill toward the lake, and, although I hoped to speak privately with the king, I am grateful at the steep parts for the nurse's steady arm. I attempt light conversation, which the king predictably ignores and which the nurse, evidently uncomfortable conversing with a chancellor in lieu of the king, responds to only feebly. I am given to understand that upon our return the king will be given an injection and although it will relax him considerably he will be no less taciturn. I will not yet countermand the doctor's orders, but I have already begun to plan to return to the capital, our young king in tow, by the end of the week.
“What was that?” The king stops abruptly, eyes wide, now narrowed, lips parted.
“I was saying, Your Majesty, your Master of Horse has asked whether—”
No,” he snaps. “Not you. That.”
“Your Majesty?” I glance at the nurse, who has already moved closer to the king.
“There it is.” A shudder runs through his body and he makes a sound of wonder, of exquisite desire. “Oh.”
“I'm afraid I don't quite understand....”
“Can't you hear it?” There are tears in his eyes and he clasps his hands and laughs, like a soul saved, as I did when I was told at first that my daughter would live.
“I hear the wind in the trees. Birds. Perhaps some animals. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“I can hear it again.” The young king, his face shining, more beautiful than he has ever been, steps forward. The nurse, who were he alone with the king would not have hesitated, looks to me for permission and I nod.
“Your Majesty, we should go back.”
The nurse takes his arms and begins to turn him back. The king is, for a moment, docile, still too enraptured to quite notice what is happening around. But then he understands that we mean to take him back, and he struggles wildly. On his face is that look of pain and confusion, that look by which I knew he would ruin us. He breaks free from the nurse, knocks him down on the path and pushes past me so violently that I fall back into the trees. I get my knee under me, then my crutch, and pull myself up, but he has already disappeared. The nurse, dazed, staggers to his feet.
“Go after him! I'll make my way back and send help. But don't stand there, go!”
He runs, limping, unsteady, down the path after the king. We cannot lose the king, not now. Even mad he serves us better than any of his cousins might; but, as I struggle up the hill, I hear only the nurse's uneven steps echoing off the stones behind me and nothing, no matter how hard I listen, of the king.
The young king was right, after all: there is a line of succession, carrying both name and blood. Our new king is middle-aged, steady, pragmatic, wed more firmly to his very ordinary vices than to his wife. He is the type of king we wished for, and we should all feel relieved.
We never found the young king. We never found any sign of him at all, no track trampled through the trees, or from the end of the paved path to the shore of the lake. We dragged the lake for a month, and turned up a score of curious items, but nothing of the king: no pale corpse, no clothing, not a ring slipped from his hand. He vanished and left not so much as a footprint to indicate in which direction his apotheosis took him. We did not, of course, let the public know. After enough time had passed that the public had already begun to regard him, in their hearts, as their dead young king, we procured a body which, in its present state, might resemble the king's corpse, and announced that we had finally retrieved his remains from the lake. It could not, of course, be presented for viewing, owing to the extent of decay that had set in, but the procession and public ceremonies of mourning were all the grander to make up for that.
He has become, in death, the kind of figure he could never really have been in life. He would have destroyed or failed these people who loved him without knowing them, but now he has become a kind of national saint, an untarnished image of our strength and unity: the very image of our desire. I have seen little shrines set up for him, venerated and decorated as if he was a martyr, and I am glad that they believe it was his own beauty and divine nature that martyred him, and not us. Of course, it wasn't really us: it was a delusion, some regrettable flaw in his mind that we failed — that I failed — to ever take seriously enough. I do regret that I never brought in specialists who might have at least kept our young king from harm; I regret that often during conferences with the new king. I was too cold, too determined to master him, too afraid of him by far. Yet, he was so beautiful, his power was so absolute and unjust, that I can think of no other way I might have handled him. He was, after all, no more than a representative of a name and a bloodline, an ancient prerogative that we continue to uphold for purely political reasons: he, in the particular, was irrelevant. See: he is succeeded by another representative of that name and bloodline. It was more important that I survive and continue the vital work that only I, in particular, can do. I couldn't allow myself to be enchanted by him and his delusions. I acted, therefore, in the only way I could.
I wonder what became of him. Did we simply miss some clue that might have led us to him? Has his body been a feast for foxes and crows? Or – and this is folly, this is only proof of how dangerous our poor young king was – was there, in truth, some unearthly song that revealed itself to him on the shores of Raizille? I find myself listening sometimes.
Nicole Votta is an editor and writer who has logged a lot of very mundane bylines, and a few more satisfying ones. She likes consistent proofreading marks, semi-colons, her indolent habits, and psychedelic sci-fi/fantasy book covers from the ‘60s and ‘70s. She dislikes 9th chords, whisky served in Styrofoam cups, and frantic notes from people wondering what happened to their Oxford commas (although she likes Oxford commas).
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
I receive inspiration from Barbey d’Aurevilly, Gustave Moreau, Aubrey Beardsley, Lou Reed, the Venus Grotto at Linderhof, accidental sleep deprivation, swans, nature, pretending that I’m somewhere else when I ride the subway, and being forced to write creative non-fiction. There’s nothing that drives me to write fiction like creative non-fiction.