A Word in Your Ear, From Father to Son (Part 2)

Last time on The Supreme Pancake, we saw…

King Peter IV beset on all sides by the Black Queen and her horde of ogres,

King Robert IV staring down a foul and all-powerful gargantua terrorizing the countryside,

King Peter III without a kingdom, absconded with by the time-wizard Ioannus Mallorium and transformed into a nation of automata,

King Robert III held for ransom by an armada of all the nations of the world, while his people are forced to remove their excess gold after an alchemical mishap,

King Peter II, his once-dead beloved beside him, poised to lose his kingdom and his life alike to a united front of once-dead souls,

King Robert II wandering the weird abbey, caught in the trap of an alluring and wily reality-bending sorceress,

King Peter I forced to either bend the knee to the maniacal mind-reading Hierophant or face certain death,

and

King Robert I, the Dragonslayer, about to do exactly that:


 

“‘”‘”‘”…the land back then, my boy, all those years ago, was nothing like the kingdom today. One rich, powerful man gathered land and power, and fought against another rich and powerful man who had also done so. One had little choice but to hold allegiance to whichever potentate was on top of all the others, then switch to the next as soon as that man was laid low himself. It did not help matters much that there was also a fearsome dragon who soared the skies, already stained black with smoke from the constant fires of war and added to the burnt battlefields with his own fiery breath.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, I had a burden upon my own mind as well. My family gave me a choice between two noble ladies to become my bride: the White Queen of the Third Sea of Rhye, or the reigning beauty of the neighboring land, the Red-Haired Princess of the Second. Both were lovely ladies and I enjoyed the time I spent with them all, but in the end, I chose the latter Princess. Even though my peers warned me that to spurn the advances of the White Queen would spell disaster (as it was whispered that she and her mother practiced witchcraft behind the closed doors of their grand manse and under the cover of midnight darkness), she nonetheless took the news of my betrothal well enough and departed my family’s estate as a friend to them all. It worked out in the end, but I could still not shake the weight of that decision from my mind.

Well, the dragon had appeared along the countryside not long after the wedding, and, for whatever reason, it seemed I was the strongest, brightest, and bravest young man around to rid the land of the thing once and for all. What choice did I have? What could I really tell them, no, you have me all wrong, I’m not as impressive as you all think I am? I rode off the morning after it was decided, after I kissed my newlywed wife, embraced my mother, and shook my father’s hand, hopefully not for the last time.

I rode for three days before I finally approached the lair of the dragon. It was not difficult to find, for one needed only to head toward the black peak in the horizon that blackens the sky around it, and the more the smell of sulfur filled the air, the closer it was. I dismounted and bade my steed to wait no more than two day’s time, and should I not return, gallop back to my family’s estate, in which case they would surely receive the news of my demise. I then held my breath and ascended the black mountain.

I reached the summit and saw the dragon sleeping upon a pile of gold and treasures. As I approached closer, it opened its huge yellow eyes and sprang into action, wasting no time with me, as if it could hear me in its slumber.

The dragon swung its formidable paws down toward me, first the left, then the right, and I parried them both.

It then took a deep breath and expunged its fire onto me. I all but boiled to death within my hot chain mail and light steel armor, and some of those armor burns still scar me even to the day I write this letter, my boy, but thank the God and His Son that my great shield, as tall as it was, kept me safe from the conflagration.

It then took to the skies, swooping below to swipe and gnash its jaws at me, spit another breath of flame at me, when my heart suddenly filled with courage and zeal to bursting. I ran to a jagged crag of rock and leapt, I met the dragon mid-air…

…and plunged my blade into its heart.

It was… an easy victory. Almost suspiciously so. I’ve had more grueling fights with drunkards who stumbled into my family estate than I just had with this beast, I realized with a faint creeping dread as I relished in my victory all the same.

Dragon-Slayer
It was… an easy victory. Almost suspiciously so.

We fell from the sky together and the dragon broke my fall as it landed on the mountaintop with a thud and a screech of agony. It alarmed me, the death rattle of the beast. It sounded almost feminine. I took another look at my defeated foe and what I saw astounded me.

It was no longer the dragon lying on the mountaintop, dying with my blade still in its heart, but the White Queen of the Third Sea of Rhye!

I pulled my blade from her heart and cradled her head in my hands as I demanded what is the meaning of this?

‘You refused my hand. I gave my whole heart to you, and you rebuffed it like I offered you a clod of muddy earth. You and your red-haired lady laughed at my heartache, at my misery, while you danced and ate cake and drank wine with your friends and family and later consummated your union. Therefore, if you won’t have me, no one will!’

I assured her she was grievously mistaken. I took no pleasure at all in refusing her hand. It was the hardest decision I ever made in my life, the hardest ordeal the God above had ever put me through, even now.

‘Liar! Tell me why then, or be known in my heart forever, or for what little time it may beat yet, as a liar and a villain! Why did you pick her? What was it that made her the better woman over me?’

I sighed and looked away for a moment, pushing back tears. I then told her the truth, the terrible truth: I loved you both equally. That is to say, I did not love either of you at all. She let out a terrible laugh and choked on her blood.

‘Then who?! What fair lady in all the land could possibly…’

I answered her truthfully, for there was not a soul among us, and she had mere moments to live herself. I owed her that truth:

He was the gilder’s apprentice. I first met him when I was a lad of ten and six.

‘…what?’

I had to bring my father’s ceremonial armor to the master gilder to repair an accidental dent. His apprentice was washing his face in a basin when I arrived, when he looked up and dried his face and shook the water out of his hair.

When we first saw each other.

He had long red hair, deep hazel eyes, a smile that could illuminate the whole room, he had… freckles all over his cheeks and his back. Even though he was strong from the hard work he did every day, he almost never left the smith house, so his skin was pale white like a lady’s.

I’d pretend I’d be out hunting with my falcon, or practicing horsemanship or swordplay, but instead I’d be out in the woods with him, swinging in the trees, wading in the streams, swimming in the lakes, laying in the fields and letting the sun dry us, just doing nothing. It was a fool’s dream, but I wanted him to be the lord of my estate by my side one day. And so it was, a fool’s dream, I mean. He was reassigned to another master gilder, in a town miles away from my estate, and I was to choose one of two noble ladies from the Seas of Rhye to be my bride.

The truth, my lady, the God’s honest truth, is that though I loved neither of you, I liked you more than the red-haired lady. But I knew one day I’d be forced to… to do the deed, and secure an heir to my family’s good name and estates. And if I had to do that… I figured… she just reminds me so much more of the gilder’s apprentice. His name was…

His name was Peter.

I set out to tell her the truth and nothing more. Her face in response revealed a mix of sorrow, contempt, and hopeless love for me all at once, so I cannot say to this day whether it was what she needed to hear or not. But I do know, that with the last shred of her life, she broke away from my grasp and rose as much as she could, and spoke to me thus:

‘It is done. I set out to put my curse upon you, and so I have.’

I asked her what curse she meant. All I knew then was that I had slain a dragon, and it was almost no trouble at all.

‘Precisely! I have cursed you with a legend. From this day until the end of your life, your legend will stick to you like a black stain, and no matter what you do to wash it out, it will never disappear from the eyes of everyone you know! You are cursed with a standard you will be forced to reach for but never be able to grasp for the rest of your days, and your children and your children’s children will crumble under the burden of your impossible legend, until the fall of your house entire!’

She breathed her last and died, falling back into my arms, and I carried her from the mountain back to my steed.

I did not stay long when I finally arrived back at my estate that night, but journeyed the next morning to her homeland, where I presented the body of that noble lady to her family in the Third Sea of Rhye. What else could I tell them but that the evil dragon had snatched her away to his lair, and though I did what I could to slay the beast, with its last gasp of life it embedded one of its dread talons into her heart? If the dragon could not have her, no one could.

You know what happened after that, my boy. All the powerful men in the land bent their knees to me as the most powerful of them all. They secured the boundaries of all their domains and crowned me as ruler over them all.

The White Queen died before I had the chance to respond to her curse. If she hadn’t, I would have told her the vow I made in my own heart on that day. Listen to me, Peter my boy, and listen well:

I defy the curse of the White Queen! I defy it now and to my dying breath, and even after I expire, with this letter I write to you. I beg of you, my son, whatever happens to you in your reign, that you only compare yourself to me as another man, one who lived and loved, one who succeeded and failed, and one who only set out to do the very best he could in all things. I beg you, even if you lose your kingdom in a day, that even then, you don’t destroy what you see, your country to be. No, my son, just keep building on the ground that’s been won.

It’s funny, my boy, you don’t hear a single word I say. But my letter to you will stay by your side through the years, until the loneliness is gone. I don’t know your present condition, my son, and I cannot tell you your future. I cannot say what will happen to anyone at all, not even to the very world we live in, aside from what it says in our family song: kings will be crowned, the world goes around, from father to son to son. Joyful the sound, word goes around from father to son to son. Sing it if you will, but know that the air you breathe, I live to give you, and know that while you live and breathe, you are powerful,

 

King Robert I.”

 

My father’s words struck me to my core. It was as if voice from behind me, an angel, perhaps, spread its wings and spoke to me, remember to deliver with the speed of light a little bit of love and joy, for everything you do bears a will and a why and a wherefore, a little bit of love and joy. And with joy welling up in my heart I replied to that voice, don’t destroy what you see, your country to be, just keep building on the ground that’s been won!

What a violent storm that must have raged deep within my father’s heart for his whole life! And yet, for as long as I could have ever remembered, I never knew him as anything less than a man who was good and just, stern when necessary but never severe, full of joy and magnanimous to a fault when the occasion called for it, and above all devoted to the proper upbringing of myself, his only son, and devoted to his lady the Queen, even up to his very last breath, for whom, it shocked me to discover, he had not a shred of true love in his heart.

These words were what I needed to hear at that dire moment in my own life.

Dawn had arisen, and I was ready to meet my fate at the hands of the mind-reading Hierophant and his pack of armed and mounted dogs. But I did not intend to bend my knee in allegiance to this man, nor did I set out to willingly place my neck upon his chopping block.

The Hierophant allowed me to appear before him the next morning in my full kingly regalia, including my sheathed sword. He must have thought nothing of it, since he was surrounded by his personal guard of armed monks. No doubt he could hear in my mind that I was plotting something against him, and the lack of response I got from him as I approached his throne told me that he wanted me to feel more than welcome to try it!

I said nothing at first, and slowly made a show of bending my knee, careful to kneel as much as I could without letting it touch the floor. It was the only brief moment I needed to draw my sword and attack the first monk-knight that advanced on me.

I fought them all ferociously as they swarmed upon me, but I nonetheless held back on my thrusts. These poor dupes were not my enemy, not my true enemy at least. At any rate, no one needed to die on this day.

I spent the whole night before, at least when I was not asleep, thinking hard, thinking that all I had to do was take the listening horns away from the Hierophant and distribute them all to the men, letting them hear for themselves what in his deepest heart their leader thought of them, thought of everyone, thought even perhaps of the God above he served. There was no other thought that anyone could hear passing through my mind save this one. The Hierophant no doubt heard these thoughts, and so sent every man he had against me, far away from him. If none of his men were near the horns, so he must have thought, then there was no danger of them listening to his deepest thoughts within his own heart.

That was exactly what I wanted him to think!

I bent my knee to the monks again, in a show of surrender. They were taken aback for a moment, and I used their hesitancy to leap in the air and walk over the armored shoulders of them all! I leapt off the last of them and ran over to the fat Hierophant. With no one there to stop me, I took one listening horn that was bent in a curve and stuck the little end in his right ear, with the bell end curving all the way to the back of his head. I took another curved horn, stuck the little end in his left ear, and bent it so the bell encompassed his entire heart.

You see, my boy, though I thought it all night, and though I made it the loudest of all my thoughts, it was not my true thought. The armed monks were followers and they followed only power, no matter the source, and no matter if it made rational sense to them or not. The gathered men in arms were not the ones who needed to hear the poisonous true thoughts of the Hierophant.

No, it was the Hierophant himself!

evil_priest_final_by_aglaart_dcv5ufl-pre
What a tempest of emotion and conflict that must have raged in his mind!

The armed monks gasped and took a few steps back, not sure what to do for their master. The Hierophant let out a shriek as his own thoughts poured into his own head, loud and clear for him to hear and impossible for him to misinterpret or misunderstand.

What a tempest of emotion and conflict that must have raged in his mind! Memories of the women he loved in his youth who did not love him in return, or women he abandoned when he took up a life of the cloth, wicked thoughts he suppressed against his mother or father, maybe a schoolteacher, maybe a fellow colleague or priest, blasphemous notions about the God and His Son, notions he struggled to understand, or even worse, understood all too well, despite the scriptures’ direct contradiction.

He howled and screeched and writhed on the floor as he begged me to take the accursed horns out of his ears. I gave him a few moments to stew in his own poison before I finally obliged him. He could say nothing after that, and just stammered and blubbered for a long while, so I bent my knee and lowered my gaze to his level.

Hierophant, I told him, know this. In all men, good or evil, even you, there is a war that rages in their hearts and minds. Every man struggles over what is the just and good thing to do against what is the expedient but wicked thing to do. A virtuous deed, then, is the temporary victory in a man’s heart against the evil ever-present inside it. But you, Hierophant, mistake the mere presence of evil upon the battlefield of the heart for its victory, and for that you punish all men, be they good or not.

It is well-known, Hierophant, that even the scriptures say to render to the king what belongs to him and render to the God what is His. Listen well, then, to the new arrangement your church and my kingdom will enter into on this day. You may keep your throne here, and you may keep your pomp and ritual and fine trappings if you like, but you will disband your pack of armed monks. You will remain the people’s spiritual ruler, and you will guide their hearts and minds toward the heavens and the God and His Son, as it is your task and your right to do so. But never again will you hold any temporal power in my kingdom. It is my task alone to judge the good and the wicked men of my kingdom, should they break my laws, not yours. I am the one who will pass judgment upon the deeds of my subjects, and never their mere intentions.

I had no need to finalize the arrangement with the Hierophant in writing, nor did I have to destroy his contraption myself, as I knew that, the moment I left his throne room, he would see to both of those tasks himself and with all haste. To this day, my boy, my kingdom and the church of the God and His Son enjoy a peaceful coexistence, and I intend to see it continue long after my passing.

Perhaps it was a challenge I found too daunting, being the first to preserve the great kingdom my father had established, and in my despair and lack of confidence in myself I was tempted to cede my authority to what I thought at the time was a higher power, a power administered by superior men, men who seemed to be divinely inspired to serve this power, a direct conduit to the God Himself! But no man is superior to another, not the Hierophant and his clergy, not even my father, and certainly not I. Everyone is at war with themselves, and everyone deserves mercy and justice alike as they wage this never-ending war for their lives entire.

In this way, my boy, my dear Robert, I continue the great task started by my father, the first of your name. I defy the curse of the White Queen! I defy it now and to my dying breath, and even after I expire, with this letter I write to you. I beg of you, my son, whatever happens to you in your reign, that you only compare yourself to me as another man, one who lived and loved, one who succeeded and failed, and one who only set out to do the very best he could in all things. I beg you, even if you lose your kingdom in a day, that you don’t destroy what you see, your country to be. No, my son, just keep building on the ground that’s been won.

It’s funny, my boy, you don’t hear a single word I say. But my letter to you will stay by your side through the years, until the loneliness is gone. I don’t know your present condition, my son, and I cannot tell you your future. I cannot say what will happen to anyone at all, not even to the very world we live in, aside from what it says in our family song: kings will be crowned, the world goes around, from father to son to son. Joyful the sound, word goes around from father to son to son. Sing it if you will, but know that the air you breathe, I live to give you, and know that while you live and breathe, you are powerful,

 

King Peter I.’

 

When I finished reading the words of my father, which struck me to my deepest of hearts (as if a voice from behind me, an angel, perhaps, spread its wings and spoke to me, remember to deliver with the speed of light a little bit of love and joy, for everything you do bears a will and a why and a wherefore, a little bit of love and joy, and with joy welling up in my heart I replied to that voice, don’t destroy what you see, your country to be, just keep building on the ground that’s been won!), and folded the pages and placed them back in my breast-pocket, I found myself upon the ceiling of the jelly-walled abbey, the mad monk bouncing up and down and reciting his one mad refrain, which I’m sure you’ll be pleased to learn I won’t bore you by relating here once again, my boy.

What amazing stories my father and my grandfather had to tell! I was struck by my grandfather’s blunt honesty even in the face of total defeat, and my father’s bravery against the tyrannical Hierophant, his risky stratagem that worked for him in the end. While my disgust for the Hierophant’s behavior might have predisposed me to forsake these brothers of the cloth in kind, I nonetheless took pity on the tonsured monks besieged by this perverse sorceress. They were simple men of peace, as far unlike the corrupt clergy that menaced my father, and so did not deserve this treatment in the slightest. I never like to see anyone punching down from their higher position, no matter who it is, and this galvanized me to keep going forward.

Or up. Or left. Or whichever way I needed to…

The laugh I let escape from me must have distressed the monk beside me, or maybe I did so at the same time the sorceress uttered her usual laugh. You never really can tell when these things come to you. All I suppose I needed then were the comforting words of my father to make room in my mind for exactly the realization I needed:

I could go whichever way I wanted!

The monks, you see, and for the most part everyone in religion, assumes inviolable rules that the world agrees upon. Here was an entire building that flouted those rules with every step, no matter how much I expected the rest of the world not to flout them. What reason, then, did I have to expect that a door that shouldn’t be there should stop me anyhow? Or a hallway that bent itself into a Gordian knot was one I had to follow?

I turned from the monk and headed toward my foe, whoever it may be, sorceress or not! The floor was bouncy? I ignored it. There was a wall in my path? I walked through it. I had one goal in my mind, find where my enemy was hiding. Was it to be the abbot’s private quarters? Perhaps.

I went on this way until I left the building, after what seemed like walking for a couple hours! The weird abbey disappeared like smoke from an extinguished candle and left in its place a peaceful woodland grove. Birds flew upon branches and sang their songs, deer approached babbling brooks and drank, unafraid of my noisy advance. I scanned the forest grove, relishing in its beauty all the while, until I finally found who I was looking for.

It was a boy, a lad of maybe ten and five, and though he donned a monk’s robe like the others he had a full, un-tonsured head of unkempt blond hair. He lied upon his back, his eyes closed and he smiling and humming all the while, as if enjoying the stage production of a mummer’s troupe in his mind. His feet were bare, just like his brothers, and they swayed back and forth, one of them splashing in the brook beside him, as they kept time to a tune that same troupe behind his eyes was playing only for him.

He woke and leapt to his feet as soon as I advanced, making the deer scamper away in fright.

‘So you figured it out, eh? That just proves it. They think they’re so smart, but all they’re good for is stuffing themselves with cheese and beer, and farting and belching it all out again!’

I already knew most of the poor lad’s story before he even needed to tell me. This was no doubt a boy forced into the abbey against his will, perhaps the son of a farmer, but too scrawny and clumsy to take up the care of the family homestead, or perhaps a high-born son who had not the stomach for riding a horse and swordplay. This was a boy whose father had given up on him, and at his wit’s end he sent him away to learn, if not how to be a pious man of the God, then at the very least to learn to read and write. But I could not have guessed how…

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I already knew most of the poor lad’s story before he even needed to tell me.

‘I read it all in a book one day. There are so many books in there, and they haven’t read them all, or the one I read… they’d have burned it years ago. It taught me how to do what I want. How to change the rules.’

Change the rules, I asked him, Which rules do you mean?

‘Any rules I want! I can have anything I want to eat, whenever I want!’

He pointed beside me, and I saw a marvelous spread of all kinds of delights, roast meats and vegetables, cornucopias of fruits, sweetmeats piled high. The boy first took a leg of roast chicken from the table and then snapped his fingers, and the rest of the spread was gone in an instant.

‘I can make it winter if I want to, a winter where it’s so cold you’ll never want to leave your bed for the whole year, for everyone except me!’

With his mouth still full of chicken and with a wave of his hand, a thick layer of snow fell all around the grove and an icy wind blew through my armor.

‘Or the hottest summer, where everyone boils and stews even underneath their own skin, all except me!’

Just when I could no longer bear the cold, the boy waved his hand away and it was in an instant a hot summer day. I took off my helmet and wiped the sweat away from my brow, before he snapped his finger once more and it was back to the crisp autumn day it had been.

You still wear the robes of a monk, I told him. Couldn’t you conjure for yourself some finer garments? Or maybe a fine pair of boots?

‘I’ve worn this wooly thing for so long, I can’t imagine myself in anything else. I don’t want a fine suit of gold brocade, but if I make this robe not itch my back so much it will suit me well enough.

He let out a deep breath and sat himself underneath a great tree with a grunt, splaying out his feet and wiggling his toes as if it had been a while and he had just remembered how.

‘And I’ve walked barefoot along the cold stone floor of the abbey, and on the prickly briars outside for so long, I can no longer imagine myself in anything else. I don’t want fine boots that will wear out one day, and which I have to take off and put back on again, that is, if I don’t lose them somewhere else either. If I make sure the grass beneath me is always soft, and the water I might wade into is always warm, I can walk where I like and think no more of it.”

I was impressed with the wisdom of this youth, the likes of which I had not seen in men who lived three times as long as him. Any man in his place, if he encountered a genie who promised to deliver him any three things he could imagine, would no doubt ask for a pile of riches that not even my kingdom could contain, or power over all the nations of the world, including my kingdom, and even those beyond the Seven Seas, or the most beautiful woman in all the world, never mind if that woman reciprocated his feelings for her. Such a power would show at once the limits of a man’s imagination and corruption alike. But here was a boy, who discovered exactly that ability all by himself, who in turn wished for nothing more than to be comfortable and left alone in peace. Perhaps his brief stint of monastic life did a bit of good for the boy’s upbringing after all.

Well, I replied to the lad, as I approached and sat beside him under the tree, you have everything settled. Anything you could possibly want to have, you can have, and anything you can imagine to do, you can do. You are clearly well within your abilities to quit the abbey and forget them forever, so why play with their lives like a cat plays with a dying mouse? Why torment your brothers?

‘They’re not my brothers,’ he snapped at me, ‘and they all deserve what I do to them!’

The sky above the grove began to blacken, and a hard rain began to pour. As the boy grew angry, I could hear first the faint rumblings of thunder, and then lightning strike.

‘They whip me when I blot a page in their manuscripts, they slap me when I forget a line in prayers, they beat me when I spill a mug of their beer! They think they’re so righteous and good, with their rule, with their nice and orderly days, well, let us see them abandon their rule when there’s no order at all! Let’s see if they keep their vows, or let’s see if a pretty lady can convince them to do what they all want to do anyway, no matter how much they deny it and cross themselves!’

It was wrong of them to abuse you so, I told the boy, but neither is it right to abuse the abbey likewise. For every one cowardly monk who whips your back for his own failures, there are five among them who are simply trying to figure out their place in the world and their relationship with the God and His Son.  

‘Liar! They’re all the same, every one of them!’

I don’t think you really believe that, I replied.

‘I do!’

What if, I told him then, and this I could not have done without my father’s aid, what if you could design a contraption that would let you hear the private thoughts of everyone in the world? What if you could hear every man’s hopes, his fears, his dreams, all at once? You could easily conjure one up right now. And no need to try to imagine it, as I just described it to you. Would you want to do so?

He frowned, and muttered to himself for a while, before he finally grumbled a faint no. Perhaps it was because he knew I was right, or maybe he was afraid of what such a contraption would do to his own mind. The rain finally dissipated and the thunder above us silenced itself.

I have an idea, lad. I would never dream of taking away from you this marvelous power, for though this mischief against the monks is a wicked thing indeed, I do not think you yourself are wicked entire. That said, it is not just that you wield this power over those below you. Why not transform this ability from something that comes from within you, to something from without? Localize the power into a single place. This grove, perhaps.

‘Are you trying to trick me?’

Not at all, lad. I am the king of this land, and I want everyone in it to be happy. That includes those fat beer-guzzling and cheese-eating monks, and that includes you… Localize your power in this place, and do what you like in it, and when you are ready, you can come out and experience the world around you, exactly as it is, and you can meet other people exactly as they are. And then, when those people enjoy your company, and when those people become your closest friends, and maybe later on when you find a young lady who loves you as much as you love her, won’t it make you happy to know that they care for you because of who you are, and not because you made them do so?

The boy waded into the stream and frowned, folding his arms and sulking, but I could tell he was mulling it over in his mind. I entered the brook myself and offered my hand to shake on our deal. He regarded me a few moments more before he cracked a faint smile and accepted my hand.

I left the boy and went on my way, back to my palace and my family, back to my beloved Queen and to you, my boy. As I made my way out of grove, I could tell that I left the boy’s influence after walking a span of several yards away from him. So he kept his word after all, as I knew he would. I never once heard a report from the local abbey of any evil lustful sorceresses after that day (and all the brothers who left in shame, though it took a bit of coaxing on our part, all returned in the end, all of them finally realizing that, since they were beset by illusions, and that they “broke their vows” to mere illusions, they did not in fact break their vows at all).

But I did, my dear boy, hear reports of a baron who mysteriously emerged years after that incident. This young man impressed everyone who met him with what seemed like the experiences of a man who lived ten thousand years; there was not a single minute piece of trivia he did not know, or no difficult feat he could not perform. When he settled down in a manor near the old abbey and finally took a wife, it was said that every day in the man’s house was a day filled with joy and merriment, and there was nothing he owned within that he would not give to another in need. The only truly peculiar thing about him, so it was said, was that for all his days the young man never once wore shoes upon his feet.

I am an old man now, and I still hear no complaints from the old abbey, and even now I still hear rumors that children will often run off to some spot or other in the woods, “somewhere around that old abbey,” and not return for days at a time. It gladdens my heart every time I do.

My father taught me in his letter to me, my boy, that for all the power that comes with being the king, sometimes it is better to just listen, just be lenient, just be patient. In this way, my boy, my dear Peter, I continue the great task started by my grandfather, the first of my name. I defy the curse of the White Queen! I defy it now and to my dying breath, and even after I expire, with this letter I write to you. I beg of you, my son, whatever happens to you in your reign, that you only compare yourself to me as another man, one who lived and loved, one who succeeded and failed, and one who only set out to do the very best he could in all things. I beg you, even if you lose your kingdom in a day, that even then, you don’t destroy what you see, what could be your country to be. No, my son, just keep building on the ground that’s been won.

It’s funny, my boy, you don’t hear a single word I say. But my letter to you will stay by your side through the years, until the loneliness is gone. I don’t know your present condition, my son, and I cannot tell you your future. I cannot say what will happen to anyone at all, not even to the very world we live in, aside from our family song: kings will be crowned, the world goes around, from father to son to son. Joyful the sound, word goes around from father to son to son. Sing it if you will, but know that the air you breathe, I live to give you, and know that while you live and breathe, you are powerful,

 

King Robert II.”

 

I was amazed at the words I read from my father. Could I even remember him as an old man? And yet, here was his voice, unmistakably his, as if he was right beside me. Even at that moment, when the hordes of once-dead surrounded the palace with torches and pitchforks and axes, it was as if a voice from behind me, an angel, perhaps, spread its wings and spoke to me, remember to deliver with the speed of light a little bit of love and joy, for everything you do bears a will and a why and a wherefore, a little bit of love and joy. And with joy welling up in my heart I replied to that voice, don’t destroy what you see, your country to be, just keep building on the ground that’s been won!

It gave me the courage I needed to face them, alone if need be, down to the very last once-dead man among them. I drew my sword and told my beloved to stay behind me, vowing to her that if any of them would get to her that night, it would be over my dead body.

She sighed and put a pale white hand upon my shoulder.

“My love, you know there is only one way to stop them all, and it is not your blade. Come now, put it back in your sheath.”

I did as she bade me, and truth be told, I knew precisely the way to stop the revenants that she spoke of, but I did not want to admit it to her, or, least of all, to myself. My worst fears were confirmed when she took off her ring, the same I placed upon her dead finger, the same one that gave back her life, and placed it in my own hand.

“The half-lives of every half-alive man and woman down there sprung forth from the spring that was this charmed ring, my love. When you destroy this ring, so will you destroy their half-lives, and so destroy their plot against your life and the life of our son.”

I could not accept what I was hearing from her. It was my first instinct to dismiss the matter outright, to put the ring back on her finger and bid her to never discuss it again. Anything was preferable to that, perhaps we had some stores of Greek fire left that we could turn on them, anything but…

But then, I remembered what my father before me endured, the weird abbey, the strange wizarding boy, and how he quelled him not with the strength of his arm, but simply by grace and patience. It was hard to do, but I stopped myself and turned to my love.

I know what I would do at that suggestion, my love, I told her with a tear in my eye, but what would you have me do? You do realize what this means, don’t you? You’d be gone from me forever, again…

I could hear the revenants below the palace, banging on the gates. Even amid that terrible racket, that portent of doom, she smiled at me. I was stunned to realize that it was the first time I could remember, ever since she first returned to me from the dead realm, that she smiled at me at all.

“My love” she told me then, “that was the first time, since the day I returned to you, that you ever asked me what I wanted. You know well, when you heard news of a way to bring me back to you from the realm of the dead, that you first did not ask me if I wanted to come back. You then spent every waking moment since with me, without asking what I wanted to do with you, or even if I wanted to be with you then at all. And you only agreed to allow those others to return when I first pressed you.”

How could she say such things to me? I had no idea how to respond to her, where to start. Of course she wanted to be back here with me, why on earth would I have asked…

“My love, try to understand,” she replied with a sigh, “yes, I left this world unexpectedly, I left you and my child unawares, but I also left with nothing but happy memories of you. I went to the dead realm with the memory of a perfect life together with you. And yes, I was happy to see you when I returned. But after I returned, things changed. I, of course, had changed greatly, with this white skin of mine, this flaxen hair, these blackened eyes. But you had accustomed yourself without me for too long, and so you yourself changed. We grew tense with each other on some days, we grew ever slowly apart. Don’t you see? Our time here has introduced memories of us unhappy together.”

The God and His Son, she was right. She was absolutely right.

“Please, my love. Send them all back, and with them, send me back. Let me go. And when it is your turn to come to the dead realm, I will be waiting for you. And I will remember all the joy we shared together, and stave off as much of our shared sorrow as I can.”

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“I, of course, had changed greatly, with this white skin of mine, this flaxen hair, these blackened eyes. But you had accustomed yourself without me for too long, and so you yourself changed.

I said nothing for a long while, deep in thought. At the exact moment the revenants knocked down the palace gates, I kissed my love one more time, then went to the doors and offered them a parley.

Listen, you hordes of once-dead, I said to them all, holding my love’s ring aloft for all to see. I have in my hand the very wellspring of your half-lives, and all I have to do to end it is smash it before you.

The mob of once-dead gasped at this news, and staggered back as I held the ring before them.

I do not want to do that, however, at least not yet. But I can imagine how much you all are suffering right now, the pain of being alive when you should be dead, the pain of not belonging to the world that even now you share with your loved ones. I want to make it right with you, but I do not want to rip you away from your friends and family so soon, when they just accustomed themselves to you all. Let me make a deal with you, then. Spend this one night, and the following day, with your loved ones, and cherish every moment you have with them, as much as I am sure they will with you. When the sun sets tomorrow, I will break the ring in my hand and give you the peace you all so desperately crave, and the peace you all deserve.

Every one of them fell silent at this. Only one among them dared to approach and crow at me with his insolence. That same man who once fought beside me as a general in my army, and now he the architect of this dead plot against me.

“I reject your offer. I claim the right of kingship by trial of single combat!”

He drew his rapier and advanced upon me. What a ridiculous figure he cut, even for a living, walking corpse. I held the ring aloft and made a show of placing it on the floor between us before I drew my sword.

This is the source of your second-life, old friend, I announced to everyone as much as to him. If you can take it from me, your life and my throne are yours.

He roared and swung his blade at me. Though he was a fool indeed, he was nonetheless a dangerous foe. Though I was at an advantage in that I only had to keep him away from the ring, and make him surrender, I even so had no idea how to hurt him, how to incapacitate him. Being already dead, I could not very well run him through the heart!

Things grew worse for me, however, as I discovered the dead man could contort his limbs into strange positions. I was forced to parry his blows while he folded himself like a pocketknife, or arched his back and walked like a crab, or even when he had his back, but not his face, to me. It was as though everything I learned about swordplay I had to reject and start anew. I needed to learn how to defend myself from such bizarre contortions not heretofore possible for a man, and where to attack while ignoring spots I once thought were lethal to a man, and I needed to learn all this in seconds, or else forfeit my life and kingdom.

I don’t even truly know how I chopped off his right leg, but somehow I did. As I expected, it did not faze him in the slightest, though it made him slightly less mobile than before. He simply walked upon his contorted arm and intact leg, using his free hand to keep up the sword fight with me. I was at an advantage now, also, as he had no free hand to pick up the ring, which I kicked away from him each time he came close to it.

Once again, I don’t know how I did it, but somehow the second leg met my blade and came off. Now the fight was mine. I pointed my rapier’s tip at his chin, as he hoisted himself up with his two arms, resting upon his torso.

Do you yield?

“Never! A new dynasty of the once-dead is upon the land! En garde!”

I let out what I think now was a noticeable sigh to the others gathered. I humored him a bit before I chopped off his sword arm.

Now do you yield?

“Never, while I still have my blade! Defend yourself!”

Though the gathered throng did not say so, I could tell they were just as exasperated with him at this point as I was. I don’t even think I was looking at the man when I chopped off his last arm.

and what about now, old friend?

“I’ll never give up! I’ll… why, I’ll even…”

“Oh, don’t say it, Archibald, please! We’ve all heard that joke before a million times over…”

“…I, then… then I… yield. I… will not bike your ankles off.”

“Agh! Archibald didn’t we just say…”

The last holdouts of the dead insurrection gathered up the man’s limbs and carried him back to his family’s homestead, and the rest of the once-dead finally accepted my deal, as I thought they would. As they returned to their friends and family for one more day in the world, I also returned to my love. The next day, we spent much of our time with you, my boy, but we also talked about many things that were on both of our minds, we instructed the palace cooks to prepare for us a few more dishes we never had before, and at the end of the day, we watched the sun set. Then, with the other once-dead gathered all around us, I broke the ring before them all. A moment later they were gone, all of them, even my love.

It was thanks to my father that I learned this lesson, my boy, though it was a hard one indeed. Like the boy in the enchanted grove, it would not have done for me to live my whole life flaunting the natural laws of the world, even if it brought an ostensible good to me, like the return of my dear departed Queen. Even so, however, I learned from my father that a little compassion and a little patience could achieve much.

In this way, my boy, my dear Robert, I continue the great task started by my great grandfather, the first of your name. I defy the curse of the White Queen! I defy it now and to my dying breath, and even after I expire, with this letter I write to you. I beg of you, my son, whatever happens to you in your reign, that you only compare yourself to me as another man, one who lived and loved, one who succeeded and failed, and one who only set out to do the very best he could in all things. I beg you, even if you lose your kingdom, that you don’t destroy what you see, what could be your country to be. No, my son, just keep building on the ground that’s been won.

It’s funny, my boy, you don’t hear a single word I say. But my letter to you will stay by your side through the years, until the loneliness is gone. I don’t know your present condition, my son, and I cannot tell you your future. I cannot say what will happen to anyone at all, not even to the very world we live in, aside from what it says in our family song: kings will be crowned, the world goes around, from father to son to son. Joyful the sound, word goes around from father to son to son. Sing it if you will, but know that the air you breathe, I live to give you, and know that while you live and breathe, you are powerful,

 

King Peter II.”

 

Don’t destroy what you see, your country to be, just keep building on the ground that’s been won! What incredible words from my father, and from indeed all my illustrious ancestors! They were exactly the words I needed to hear!

The golden armada of the world was taking me the God knew where, and only the God knew the moment I’d ever lay my eyes upon my homeland again, if ever. Amid that hardship weighing down my heart, I began to suspect something odd about the admiral in charge of the ship I was on. He seemed shapelier, more slender, more refined, more graceful in his movements in some odd way, compared to the rest of the dirty and uncouth crew. Even in my captivity I began to cherish the moments I spent with him, and… the God help me, I think I was starting to fancy him! Was I, in my grief and homesickness, becoming like my ancestor, the Dragonslayer King Robert I?

Not that there was anything wrong with that, per se…

On a clear and calm night, as I snuck out from my quarters to gaze upon the stars as old friends of mine, I heard something which quelled that aforementioned anxiety of mine while piquing another interest in my heart. I heard the voice of a beautiful woman, singing a short but lovely operatic aria. I followed the voice, and who should be the owner of that wondrous voice but the admiral!

So I was falling in love with a woman after all! The admiral, however, did not share any admiration for me upon being discovered; she drew her rapier and attacked! It took me a moment to parry her thrusts and cause her to chop off the restraints upon my wrists, and a moment or two more to find a blade of my own to hold off her attacks.

We exchanged blows for a long while until we could no longer hold our blades aloft, the wind gone from both of us.

No one in all my kingdom, I told the admiral breathlessly, can handle a sword the way you can, my lady!

“In all my home country, there is no one alive who is better with a sword than me, and that I can say without boasting. I have more years of sailing behind me than any man in my country’s entire navy, and I’ve lived through every gale, hurricane, and squall the god of the seas can send my way. But because I am a woman, it is my lot to marry, and to submit to a man in all things.”

She then pointed the tip of her blade to my throat.

“And that is why, villain and knave, if you reveal any of what you saw to anyone aboard this ship, I will take your life the moment I lose my admiralty!”

I assured her I would do no such thing. A pity it was, her situation, for surely within my kingdom, should we have ever needed a standing navy, I would have never let her immense skill go to waste.

“I have no choice but to do this, to disguise myself as a man,” she lamented as she looked to the stars, “for there’s nothing in this whole world I love more than the sea, the starry sky, the horizon… the promise of new lands to discover, new sights to add to the map. Could you even imagine it… a map of the whole world? But only a man could be trusted with a fleet of his own. And not even a man could be trusted with such a foolish wives’ tale as… as plans to sail… to sail beyond the Seven Seas of Rhye.”

What if, I asked her then, she was not beholden to the laws of her homeland? What if, perhaps, she was married to a foreign king, one who would more than allow her to perform this service she loves so much, and so excels at?

She did not have to ask who I meant. She only had to look at my foolish smile, my ridiculous countenance of deep longing for her, to once again draw her sword and point it at my throat.

“And so I have found another man I could have easily mistaken as one from my homeland! A man who thinks I need a man to complete me!”

There is nothing farther from the truth, I reassured her, than what you just said. You have far more skill at sailing and swordplay than I could ever dream of. But I know the elements, I know mathematics, geometry, and astronomy. You want to explore the world? So do I, my lady. I know there is no hope for my people if they dig for earth for the rest of their days. I want to find a far-away land, far beyond the Seven Seas of Rhye, where the men there are as anxious to accept my gold and give me their dirt as I am to surrender my gold and take their precious earth! I don’t want to complete you, my lady, I want to complete us! Consider it an alchemical union, two unlike elements come together to form a new and beautiful thing!

She sheathed her sword and frowned at me.

“You’re a fool,” she scoffed, “I don’t love you at all. And you could hardly love me, as we just met tonight.”

Not at all, I replied. I’ve been falling for you ever since you dragged me on your ship and threw me into your brig. Look, let’s just have another captain of the armada marry us, so we can bring about our little deal. If, by the end of our adventures, you don’t learn to love me, you can always cast me overboard and claim a storm did me in. Till death do us part, after all.

She was not happy with my proposal at first, and she rained many a hard blow upon my face, but in the end she accepted. We were secretly married by a sympathetic captain that night, and the following morning she announced to her stunned crew that she was the Queen of my kingdom, sailing under the direct authority of myself, and not a soul among them raised an objection.

With my alchemical skill, and her nautical prowess, there was not a corner of the world we did not see for ourselves, not a single ocean or island or tiny hamlet or vale we did not map out for posterity. The only concern I had was that some despot might usurp my rule during our travels, a concern which my lady reassured me was undue; the kingdom was under the stewardship of the international armada, to be returned to me or a descendant of mine should the necessary earth be procured. With that burden off my mind, we proceeded to the ends of the world.

What adventures we had! I saved her life many times, most notably when I rescued her from a corrupt doge’s perverse seraglio, and she saved mine just as many times herself, most notably when she knocked down a coward who meant to stick a knife in my back while I was in the heat of a dread pirate lord’s attack! But my boy, even amid these grand adventures, even though we learned to grow quite fond of each other, and even became great friends, we still did not fall in love with each other.

No, it was not until our golden ship suffered the worst hurricane we ever encountered, and a massive wave overturned our vessel and almost sent us below the sea, and it was not until that moment my wedded lady was set to drift away forever unless I held her against the most forceful winds I’ve ever known, held her through the waves and wind and briny spray, held her until as if a miracle from the God himself the waves stopped and the sun shone once again, that we kissed each other’s lips and embraced and did not let go for the remainder of the day.

What strange lands we found, and what strange races of people we met in the antipodes! Women who were part wolf, with noses that could smell the lies in the hearts of men and sniff out the exact moment one would pass away. A race of one-eyed men, but what alien colors they could see with that one eye, what phantasmagoric sights they saw dancing in the invisible world around us! A peaceful race of tiny, Janus-headed men, who never cheated each other, never stabbed any of their brethren in the back, for, of course, their faces in the backs of their heads that could spot any such treachery. A race of vulgar one-legged men with a single foot larger than the rest of their bodies. When they lay on their backs, their gigantic feet could shield them from the harsh sun and the pouring rain alike. Which… was nice, I suppose.

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What strange lands we found, and what strange races of people we met in the antipodes!

But it was the last race of men that excited me the most. When our golden armada landed upon their shores, we saw men with their heads within their torsos, and within those heads a giant toothy maw each one. They saw some of our men, beside themselves with the fertile dirt all around them, rolling in the filth with joy. Why on earth would they be so overjoyed to roll in mud, these creatures wondered, when they had such a plentiful supply of gold they even wore it on their clothes and built their ships out of it, and all the while they were ever hungry for gold themselves.

Hungry for gold, my boy! Literally hungry, as in, they ate gold!

We finalized our arrangements with a binding contract, though they all the while shook their heads in amazement as to why we wanted to negotiate with them for dirt. Take all the dirt you want, they exclaimed, we have more than we know what to do with. We did, my boy, and true to our word, the armada made many more trips to that island, their hulls brimming to bursting with delicious gold.

I saved my people at last. I returned home at last. And yes, my dear boy, I returned to my throne with my Queen sitting beside me. Every year we stayed in the palace and ruled the land. But every other year, we took to our golden ship, I brought my charts and graphs of the stars, and she brought her golden sword, and together we pursued the horizon once again, greeting old friends and making new friends alike.

One was silver, the other was gold.

I was touched by the story my father related to me, my boy, how devoted he was to his Queen, how he wanted nothing more than her happiness, even if it meant her second death. In all my years with my own beloved, I never once ridiculed her passions and her skills as unladylike, as not proper for her, but rather, I celebrated them. I encouraged her to be the best seafarer she could be and took part in her adventures beside her. It was indeed this love of the sea, this love of exploring the world, that caused her to hear that lovely aria, sung somewhere far off, which she one day overheard in one of her travels, the same song which made me realize she was the woman I’d love for the rest of my life. I mastered the elements, true, but it was not until I met your mother, my dear boy, that I learned what was a true thing of value and beauty.

In this way, my boy, my dear Peter, I continue the great task started by my great ancestor, the first of my name. I defy the curse of the White Queen! I defy it now and to my dying breath, and even after I expire, with this letter I write to you. I beg of you, my son, whatever happens to you in your reign, that you only compare yourself to me as another man, one who lived and loved, one who succeeded and failed, and one who only set out to do the very best he could in all things. I beg you, even if you lose your kingdom in a day, that you don’t destroy what you see, your country to be. No, my son, just keep building on the ground that’s been won.

It’s funny, my boy, you don’t hear a single word I say. But my letter to you will stay by your side through the years, until the loneliness is gone. I don’t know your present condition, my son, and I cannot tell you your future. I cannot say what will happen to anyone at all, not even to the very world we live in, aside from what it says in our family song: kings will be crowned, the world goes around, from father to son to son. Joyful the sound, word goes around from father to son to son. Sing it if you will, but know that the air you breathe, I live to give you, and know that while you live and breathe, you are powerful,

 

King Robert III.”

 

I had plenty of time to read the many, many pages that comprised of my father’s letter, and when I folded them back up, I looked around and still found myself in an empty palace. I set foot outside and saw an empty field where my city used to be. Everything, Ioannus himself, the automata, even the tall buildings, had all long blasted off from the earth and ascended to the heavens, setting root upon the moon. Well, then, a kingdom upon the moon itself. Good for him, I initially thought in my despair.

But I was struck by the kind words of my father. What a magnificent tale of derring-do! I remembered the year-long absences as a boy, and I missed my mother and father terribly each time, but now that I read my father’s letter, I felt he was beside me even during those sad long years alone in the palace. It was as if a voice from behind me, an angel, perhaps, spread its wings and spoke to me, remember to deliver with the speed of light a little bit of love and joy, for everything you do bears a will and a why and a wherefore, a little bit of love and joy. And with joy welling up in my heart I replied to that voice, don’t destroy what you see, your country to be, just keep building on the ground that’s been won!

I knew what I needed to do. I just only had to hope that one of those metal men had left… yes! I found one of those odd skiffs and read its inscription: Space on a Jetski. What an odd thing it is that will come to pass, the future.

I had a “jetski” that would spirit me to the moon, I had a full treasury of gold coins. I had the determination to keep building on the ground that was won, and that was all I needed. I ascended to the night sky to meet this Ioannus.

It was not hard to find him, and neither was it hard to walk on the moon even with the great burden of gold coins all about my person, but rather it was quite difficult to proceed without being astounded by everything I saw. I walked along the curve of the waxing crescent moon! Carriages flew around the tall buildings, signs lit up in colors like the rainbow, and everything that didn’t move by itself, like the automata, or else was bolted to the ground, floated in the air aimlessly. I myself seemed to be pulled to firm ground as I advanced to the technomancer’s gaudy moon palace.

The man was lounging upon a cushion in a strangely-decorated harem, and as many other automata patrolled the room bearing wide blunderbusses, he was attended to by womanly automata that were personally feeding him sweetmeats. One such treat was a gooey substance in the shape of a bear, and before eating the multicolored things, he would place two of them between his fingers and squish them together a few times.

He laughed when he saw me approach, dismissed the automata in his harem, and send the guards upon me. I drew my sword and prepared for their attack, though I feared my blade would not be much use piercing through their hides of metal.

Any one of those metal men alone could fight a man as well as any other, if they were themselves men, but I indeed could not do much damage to them with my mere naked blade. Their blunderbusses, from which they fired at me frightening scattershots of lead and saltpeter from many yards away, I realized were the key to beating them.

I was soon able to disarm one of them, shoot a number of them with my new blunderbuss, then discard it once it was empty and find another loaded one from the others, and repeat the process until they were all a heap of metal scrap on the floor.

“Well, well, looks like someone’s a sore loser. Give me a moment to tidy up, will you? You’ll want to sit on that red chair, by the way, if you don’t want to float away from the moon to the God knows where.”

For some reason, I trusted him and sat upon the red chair he gestured toward. He then pushed a green button by his own chair, which opened the ceiling and revealed the starry black heavens above us, and then a red button, which appeared to dispel whatever force was was holding everything down in the room. All the scrap metal, and all the waste from the food he had been eating before I arrived, floated gently from the floor and up into the black sky until it all but disappeared in the firmament for all time.

So, he was a litterer.

He pushed the red button once again and, feeling the weight of my feet securely upon the floor again, I rose from the red chair.

Not at all, I assured him, in regard to his first statement to me. I admire your city upon the moon. Indeed, I want to make sure it stays on the moon forever. You will never set foot upon the earth again, technomancer. You will never trouble the good people of the earth with your infernal inventions again.

“I don’t think we have an accord on that matter,’ he said with another laugh. ‘In fact, I may take another trip down there right now, if I feel like it. And you won’t even notice I did once it’s done, let alone do anything to stop me. Will you?”

He took out his coin once again and cracked a wicked smile. I learned the lessons of my father and my ancestors well. I learned from them all that people are complicated, and almost never purely evil, and just need to be given a chance sometimes. I gave him one more chance.

Ioannus, I beg you. Leave the earth alone. Do whatever you will on this marvelous city upon the moon, but leave the people of the earth in peace. I’m warning you, I won’t ask you again.

He flipped the coin once more.

While I was disappointed that he did so, I was nonetheless prepared. You see, my boy, though he accomplished far more than I did with the same invention, I was well-versed in the operation of that coin myself. I knew it had a single weakness. Ioannus could not just enter the aeviternity as he pleased. He had to flip the coin, and the coin had to travel in the air, and it had to reach the zenith of its trajectory first.

That action, the flick of his thumb and the flip in the air, gave me enough time to do what I did next.

I emptied the first bag of coins I brought with me and threw them at the technomancer. As I hoped all along, one among the multitude of coins knocked the time-altering coin out of its initial flip. The special coin was lost among hundreds of identical ones.

Not content, I emptied another bag, and another, and another. As the technomancer shrieked and begged me to stop, I ignored his pleas and emptied bag after bag of gold coins. I learned well from my father that too much of a good thing would soon become an evil thing. But in this case, too much of a good thing was precisely what I needed, for the more of my treasury I gave to Ioannus, the more he’d have to sift through them to find his own special coin.

Even worse for him, as the man staggered across the floor, scraping and searching for the coin and slipping among some others, he accidentally fell toward his chair and pressed the red button! I hurried to a chair fixed to the floor and grabbed its backrest, my feet dangling up in the air as I held on for life, while the technomancer floated up into the heavens along with the coins, grabbing and then throwing away one after the other, never finding the one he wanted above all the others.

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I learned well from my father that too much of a good thing would soon become an evil thing. But in this case, too much of a good thing was precisely what I needed.

It was a terrible fate he gave to himself. When he only a moment ago had infinite time at his disposal, he was now going to have infinite space, and limited time, to get it back.

I had a handful of coins left in my pocket, and with one hand still holding on to the chair I did my best to flick one at the red button that would rescue me from a similar fate to that of the technomancer. It took me a few tries, but with my second to last coin I hit the button and safely fell to the floor like a sack of rocks.

I then returned to the earth and destroyed the “jetski,” and with that, the last thing in the world created by myself or Ioannus in the aeviternity. I learned from my ancestor in the weird abbey, my grandfather who brought the dead back to life, and my father who could create wealth from whole cloth, I learned from them all quite well the consequences of flouting the natural laws of the world to accomplish great feats. Never again would anyone create such a marvel to menace the world, save that it was done so in our own time. Never again would a man go to the moon and see the technomancer’s city of automata, save they built another vessel on their own time. And most importantly of all, never would the moon city ever menace the world again, at least not without a human will to lead the automata against us.

I took a look around my empty kingdom and I did not despair. Instead, I vowed that day to keep building on the ground that had been won. In this way, my boy, my dear Robert, I continue the great task started by my great ancestor, the first of your name. I defy the curse of the White Queen! I defy it now and to my dying breath, and even after I expire, with this letter I write to you. I beg of you, my son, whatever happens to you in your reign, that you only compare yourself to me as another man, one who lived and loved, one who succeeded and failed, and one who only set out to do the very best he could in all things. I beg you, even if you lose your kingdom, that you don’t destroy what you see, your country to be. No, my son, just keep building on the ground that’s been won.

It’s funny, my boy, you don’t hear a single word I say. But my letter to you will stay by your side through the years, until the loneliness is gone. I don’t know your present condition, my son, and I cannot tell you your future. I cannot say what will happen to anyone at all, not even to the very world we live in, aside from what it says in our family song: kings will be crowned, the world goes around, from father to son to son. Joyful the sound, word goes around from father to son to son. Sing it if you will, but know that the air you breathe, I live to give you, and know that while you live and breathe, you are powerful,

 

King Peter III.’

 

I had many, many pages to read, my boy, and not very much time to do so. I read the best I could as I dodged the gargantua’s blows from his mighty club, rolled away from his fast-descending heel, parried his formidable fists. Even though my life was constantly in danger, I could not help but be moved by my father’s words. It was as if a voice from behind me, an angel, perhaps, spread its wings and spoke to me, remember to deliver with the speed of light a little bit of love and joy, for everything you do bears a will and a why and a wherefore, a little bit of love and joy. And with joy welling up in my heart I replied to that voice, don’t destroy what you see, your country to be, just keep building on the ground that’s been won!

I hastily placed the large bundle of pages in my pocket, and got to thinking of a plan. My sword would do nothing for me to pierce his thick hide, nor was it long enough to run through any of his vital organs even if it could. Many of my ancestors simply listened to their would-be foes and wisely suggested a solution as it came to them. Maybe I would find such luck, but when was I to strike up a conversation with this large man?

As I leapt out of the way of another devastating blow from his club, I could tell the gargantua was taking deeper breaths. Could it be that I was tiring the thing out? It was worth a try, at least more so than stinging his ankles with my blade and risking a flattening underneath his heel.

I ran around the environs of the ruined village some more, ever afraid I would make myself collapse from exhaustion before I did the same to the gargantua. Miraculously, after what seemed like hours of fleeing from the thing, taking in large breaths while also gagging over the stench of his filth, I appeared to gain some ground away from the large man. He struggled to catch up to me, he took slow, deliberate steps, before he finally, while leaning on his club like a cane, fell first to his knees, and then flat on his back. I braced myself for the impact of that fall, and when the dust finally settled, I rejoiced in my heart over my victory.

Now then, I roared to the gargantua, what is the meaning of all this? Why are you troubling the good people of this village?

‘I’m right here, you know, you don’t have to shout.’

I was taken aback by this and apologized to the gargantua with a shrug.

‘It’s alright. Not many people realize I can hear things from long distances away, like all the way down beneath me. I… I wasn’t always like this. A mysterious man approached me and told me to make a wish. I made a foolish wish… I wanted to be the largest, most powerful man in the world, one that could not possibly be larger or more powerful if anyone could try.’

I see, I replied to the large man, and I take it this was one of those wishes in which one should be careful what they wish for? There was some sort of ironic twist to the wish that made you regret it?

‘No,’ he replied with a sigh, ‘and that’s the problem. I got exactly what I wished for. You can’t imagine what it’s like, being this full of power. Every day is a bore to me. There’s no one I can fight against, since everyone is smaller and weaker than me. I can’t love anyone or care for anyone, as even the smallest gesture of affection from me would cause them to break apart in an instant. I have to constantly hold back my emotions or they might cause an earthquake, or a tidal wave, or who know what… Sometimes I feel like I’d rather die than keep on living, but I’m so strong I don’t know what could actually kill me.’

Hm… No, that line of thinking won’t do at all, friend.

I knew what needed to be done. I was once again to come to the aid of my would-be foe, and it was to be through the experiences of my ancestors that I would solve his problems once and for all.

It seems you’re just lonely. You want interaction with others like you, but you can’t be around them for your immense power. What if you had a listening horn, a magic one, that could hear words from miles away? Suppose you had a friend, and they had one too? You could then both…

‘You’ve already forgotten, haven’t you? I can already hear from miles away just with those big ears of mine! And to tell you the truth, I wish they’d all shut up once in a while!’

He was right, of course. I simply needed to try harder, find a better solution.

You just don’t belong in this world with all the little people in it. I know of a small grove, near an abbey not very far away from here. The normal rules of the world don’t apply there, you see, and… well, you can do anything you want! You can be small for a day if you want, you could even talk to the ants…

‘Sounds promising, but do any little people of the world know about it?’

Well, erm… I think some children might, er, wander in and… but that’s not the point, you see…

‘Forget it, then!’

How about… what if i told you there was a way to bring back the dead? And you should see them, they can withstand anything! You could hack off all their limbs and they’d still come at you to bite your ankles off! They’d be the perfect adversary for your-

‘Absolutely not! I’d wager there are consequences for mucking about with the natural order of things like that! I’m sure whoever first discovered that macabre art learned some hard lessons himself, and knowing that as well, you should be ashamed of yourself for even suggesting that to me!’

…quite right. Well… I know of a faraway land, past the Seven Seas of Rhye, where the people have their faces in their chests. They eat gold there, you see. I saw you swallowing those cows without even chewing them. They must not be very nourishing for you at all, are they? No, you need far stronger fare, and believe me, we have more gold than we could ever need-

“Yeech! I hate gold! Far too soft, melts in my mouth before I can get a good chew, and far too salty for my tastes!”

Right. You have a point there. Gold is far too salty and soft for a gargantua like you… of course. I should have known.

Well, now I was stuck. I thought the experiences of my ancestors would help me in my hour of need, but perhaps I was wrong. I just hoped I didn’t come off as too exasperated by his pickiness.

You wouldn’t… want to live on the moon, would you? Secluded, lots of rock, a city full of automata. They don’t say or do much.

The gargantua scratched his chin and mulled it over a moment.

‘No. Too far away.’

It’s too far away, he says. Of course, the moon is too far away!

The sun was beginning to sink into the horizon as it colored the sky red and purple, and so the gargantua stretched and let out a foul yawn before falling back on his back.

‘Well, little king, I imagine when I wake we will resume our unfinished business. Till then, good night.’

Good night. Good night, he said. It was to be the worst night’s sleep of my life. Now what would I do? I had failed again, and this time there was no second letter from my father to read. The gargantua would wake, and I would try fight him, and he would squash me under his heel, exactly as he promised when we first met.

He awoke the next morning and found me meditating on a map of all my domains. I could not tell you, my boy, why I picked that to be my last bit of reading material before the large man was poised to flatten me. He stretched and let out another revolting yawn before he rose to his feet and looked over my shoulder.

‘What’s that? That ugly stretch of black over there.’

It is a mountain range that borders my kingdom and the Empire to the East. It is called the Fanghar Range, and it is a black, bleak, desolate place, impossible for any little person of the world to live in…

Could it be? While it was true that I found my courage thanks to my father’s letter, could it be that I found a solution to the problem by mere luck? Because I happened to be reading a map of my kingdom when he awoke, and not, perhaps, a small booklet of courtly poetry?

…and it is a black, bleak, desolate place, impossible for any little person of the world to live in! It is nothing but hard volcanic rock for miles around! Plenty of rock, then, to smash about with your fists if the mood strikes you, whatever mood that may be. And underneath the ground is a store of much harder precious gems and metals, emeralds, rubies, diamonds, even pure iron ore. It is an utterly miserable place. You’d love it!

‘Hm… it’s not too far away, is it?’

It is not too far away!

‘Hm… That does sound rather promising, actually…’

Splendid! How would you like to live there?

“I think… I could at least try it. But what about others like me? What am I going to do by myself there?”

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It is an utterly miserable place. You’d love it!

Well, there’s nothing I can do for you there, not at least until that genie of yours turns another woman into a gargantua. But aside from that, if you are willing to stay there, and never bother my good little people of the world again, I am willing to cede that entire range out from my borders and give it to you entirely as a sovereign nation. All I require in return is enough riches and ore from your land to pay back the damages caused by these rampages of yours, and not a single jewel or pebble more.

“You will give up a part of your kingdom just for me? And no doubt, your ancestors must have fought hard to-“

A large kingdom is worthless to me if all of my people live in fear of your misery. I want everyone to be happy, and that includes the little people of the world, and that includes you, my large friend.

The gargantua soon accepted my offer on a probationary basis, in which time he spent a week in the scorched range. As I thought he would, he loved it there. And true to my educated guesses, that mysterious wish-giver encountered another who wanted to be the strongest of them all, and as luck would have it, it was a woman indeed. There were quakes and thunderous booms to start for sure, and a stray boulder or two found its way past my borders, but even that began to decrease after some time. I was happy to offer my help to this large man, and I shudder to think what would have happened if he was born in a society that was unwilling or unable to help him at all.

The scores of men I sent to quell the gargantua were not dead, in fact, but had simply cowered and turned tail all to a man, and once word had spread that the large man was no more menacing the kingdom they all returned en masse, begging my forgiveness, which I was more than happy to grant them, all to a man. It took some time, but everything slowly went back to normal. In the meantime, I’m sure both the gargantua and I both have our work to do, to keep building on the ground that’s been won.

In this way, my boy, my dear Peter, I continue the great task started by my great ancestor, the first of your name. I defy the curse of the White Queen! I defy it now and to my dying breath, and even after I expire, with this letter I write to you. I beg of you, my son, whatever happens to you in your reign, that you only compare yourself to me as another man, one who lived and loved, one who succeeded and failed, and one who only set out to do the very best he could in all things. I beg you, even if you lose your kingdom, that you don’t destroy what you see, your country to be. No, my son, just keep building on the ground that’s been won.

It’s funny, my boy, you don’t hear a single word I say. But my letter to you will stay by your side through the years, until the loneliness is gone. I don’t know your present condition, my son, and I cannot tell you your future. I cannot say what will happen to anyone at all, not even to the very world we live in, aside from what it says in our family song: kings will be crowned, the world goes around, from father to son to son. Joyful the sound, word goes around from father to son to son. Sing it if you will, but know that the air you breathe, I live to give you, and know that while you live and breathe, you are powerful,

 

King Robert IV.”

 

Amazingly, King Peter IV finished the massive letter even before the ogre hordes of the Black Queen could breach the city gates. Those gates must be stronger than I thought, he told himself.

The king bundled up the pages and did his best to fold them into some sort of shape it resembled when he first broke its seal, and while he was caught up in that his top general finally showed himself into the king’s private chambers. It had been a few hours or so, after all, since he started to read the thing, and of course, there was still, in this general’s words:

“…the Black Queen, Your Majesty. Her ogre hordes will breach the gate any moment now. They’re singing a song, you know. Come tonight! Come to the ogre site! Come to ogre battle, fight! We must act now, we must… were you… were you reading a book just now?”

“No, my friend. I was reading a letter from my father, that probably should have been a book! And what a wonderful letter it was! I feel like there’s an angel beside me, telling me to spread my wings, to spread a little bit of love and joy! There’s always a why and a how and a wherefore, you know! Yes, a little bit of love and joy! Yes, we must rebuild upon the ground that’s been won! Oh, the God and His Son! I have so much I want to do, I don’t know where to start! We have to figure out this business with the Black Queen, don’t we? She can’t be that frightening, can she? I mean, it was an ugly business, me rebuffing her hand in marriage. That is never easy for anyone, and I mean, she’s, well, she’s the Black Queen! Of course she’s a little upset about it, who wouldn’t be upset about that?! And I without even talking it over, just, you know, no. No thanks. I mean it wasn’t exactly like that in so many words, but you know… well, of course she’s upset! But it’s not as though I enjoyed it! I took no pleasure in breaking it off, none at all! Why would anyone think that anyone enjoys admitting such a thing, that there is no love in one’s heart for another. We didn’t even talk about it, maybe she just wants to talk! And maybe I should! Maybe I’ll learn to like her! Maybe I’ll even learn to love her, who knows! It’s not impossible! It’s just she was so… intense. So scary. I guess it was, maybe an exaggeration to say there was no love in my… But I mean, there’s that, and there’s the ogres! Ogres, you know? They’re scary too! They’re gaunt, and green, scaly skin, sharp teeth, those piercing black eyes… But maybe ogres aren’t so scary either! Maybe when they’re not on the warpath, you know, maybe ogres are quite nice! Maybe they’re… I don’t know, maybe they’re great dancers, or wonderful cooks. Maybe they sing beautifully. I mean, you just heard them sing yourself, are they beautiful singers? Well, I’ll find out soon. The point, my dear friend, is that I know what I need to do now! Or at least I know I need to do one of a few possible things, or maybe all of them somehow and in some order. I think.”

“…right, Your Majesty. Straight away, Your Majesty. To, erm… to the gates, then?”

“Yes, yes indeed! To the gates! Gird me with my finest armor, bring me my sharpest blades, and I promise you, I promise all of you, my dear friends, I will be with you as you will be with me! Whatever happens tonight, I vow to you that any ogre who destroys even a single brick of our city will receive no mercy from me, no quarter! Onward, my friends! Excelsior, forward!”

The King, of course, already had his finest armor upon his shoulders, and his sharpest blade beside him, but none of his top generals or noble lords bothered to upbraid him for this. Instead, they drew their own blades in kind as he led them out of the palace and before the city gates, at the precise moment the ogre hordes knocked them down and poured into the city limits.

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“Excelsior, forward!” He sang the words of his family song and his friends beside him joined along as they entered the fray.

Maybe he’d engage in single combat with the Black Queen, or maybe he’d beg her forgiveness and offer to try this thing out all over again, whatever it is. Maybe a hundred ogres would fall beneath his blade, or maybe he’d make a hundred new ogre friends. What was to be the outcome of this battle was not certain to King Peter IV, but what was certain to him was that in no way whatsoever did he intend to die that day. He had a letter to write to his son, one day, for him to read when he truly needed it, in his darkest hour, his most dire moment of urgent need. And until that day came, he knew that while he lived and breathed, he was powerful. And the air his son would one day breathe, he would live today to give him.

He sang the words of his family song and his friends beside him joined along as they entered the fray:

Joyful the sound, word goes around from father to son to son

Kings will be crowned, the world goes around, from father to son to son

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