Storytime: The Monarch

May 3rd, 2017

It was a beautiful blue sky.
Most people would give a lot to see that kind of sky.
But at that particular moment, naked and bleeding on his back, in that meadow, the king would’ve given more and more besides to make it go away behind those tiny white wisps of cloud.
“Knives! Torches! Pinchers! Salt!” screamed the king, and collapsed even farther in on himself, with a thump.
One of the little white clouds detached itself from the sky and landed on the tip of his nose.
“Hello,” she said.
“Begone, my subject,” said the king. “I am suffering in silent dignity.”
“Goodness,” said the cloud. “That must be hard. Why are you doing that?”
“I am the rightful king, and I have been deposed and betrayed and backstabbed and exiled and stabbed.”
“You said stabbed twice.”
“The second time was less metaphorical than the first.” The king winced. “And now I am left to cook to death on my back in this damnedable meadow of mine. If the thirst won’t take me first.”
“This meadow is yours?”
The king glared, and if his eyes were feeble oh his brows so very much made up for that. They beetled with the fury of a full jungle topsoil. “ALL things here are mine, as I am king. This is my meadow, my grass, my boiling, awful sky, and you are my subject and MY cloud, damn you. Why you do not cloak this sun from me, I do not know. More treason, no doubt.”
“I am a butterfly, actually,” said the butterfly as politely as she could. “And I didn’t know I was yours. Is there anything I should do to help?”
The king wheezed out a grand, slow sigh.
The king’s eye twitched.
The king’s pulse wobbled alarmingly, then hiccupped reluctantly back to normal.
“Oh dear.”

When the king woke up again, he sputtered. His mouth was full of soft sweetness, mixed with the tiniest granules. His face smelled like flowers.
“Don’t spit it out! Don’t spit it out! It’ll take AGES to get all that nectar back in you!”
The king swallowed, then passed out again. The next few days were like that.

“It was my sons, you see,” he told the butterfly.
“Was what?”
“Who committed the grandest of treasons, my subject. They turned upon me for an early inheritance, to take what was mine from me and divide it up amongst themselves. But I’ll warrant they’ve already fallen to their own backbiting – the first betrayal makes the second so much smoother. Swine! Filth! I’ll have them placed in a gibbet and garroted! I’ll have them scalded with branding irons, then placed in iron maidens! I’ll see them drawn and quartered in this very meadow, under this damned, burning, always-searing sky!”
“Oh that sounds very nice,” said the butterfly. “When you’ve finished drawing them, may I see the pictures?”
The king tried to explain, but as he rasped he shifted and writhed in pain. “Ah!”
“Is it the backstab? You said there was a backstab-”
“The sunburn. The sunburn. Always the damned, damned, damned sunburn,” he moaned. So he turned over – painfully – onto his stomach, showing his pale spine to the world and hiding his reddened face under his beard. And he refused to say another word but made his way to painful, prolonged sleep.
His dreams were full of whispers, a soft susurrus that didn’t come from anything as complicated as a mouth. Tiny, hairy legs brushed his ears, and he whimpered until he was gone again.

When he woke, he was covered in the lightest, airiest sheet he could’ve imagined, something between a robe and a blanket. It was pale in the morning glow.
“What is this?” he asked the butterfly.
“Spider-silk,” she told him. “Most of them are quite friendly if you’re too big for them to eat. And I’m a little too big, and you’re MUCH too big, so they were a little friendly enough to feel much too friendly. Is it nice?”
The king hadn’t felt anything so smooth since his childhood cradle. And here was where he found his problem: he couldn’t nod regally to signal his gratitude, because his head was squished into the dirt against his beard.
So he did something else, something he hadn’t done for. Well. Maybe ever.
“Thank you,” he said. And he meant it.

There were good days and bad days.
On the good days, the king stood up, and walked all the way to the tree at the edge of the meadow and back.
On the bad days the king tripped over a root at the tree and fell over on his injured back and couldn’t get back up again, or even turn himself over.
There had only been one bad day. But it had been enough.
“Are you alright?” asked the butterfly.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” said the king. “It’s nice and shady here, anyways. It’s good to have a break from the sun. Nobody should be boiled like that.” He yawned. “You know, I had people boiled once.”
“Really? What for?”
The king shrugged. “Foolishness.”
“They must have been very foolish indeed to need it boiled out of them like that.”
“Oh no, the foolishness wasn’t theirs.” The king scratched at his beard. “This is a good meadow. I feel silly to have never seen it until now.”
“But you said it was yours.”
“Oh, everything is mine,” said the king. “But most of it I hardly had any use for. A real pity. I feel like I could’ve done a lot with that. It’s all over now, though. I don’t think I can be a king anymore. No throne, no court. No crown.”
“What’s a throne?”
“A sort of seat.”
“Well, you have the tree. What’s a court?”
“A bunch of subje – of people, who help you.”
“You have us. What’s a crown?”
The king tried to left his hand to his brow, but all his arm would do was shake. “A sort of hat. It goes on your head. Goodnig” and that was the end of that conversation, as it had been so many.

When the king woke up at sunset, there was weight in his lap. Not much, but weight.
Reeds and stems, willow and weeds. Woven in silk, beaded with water, and smelling just a little like fresh pollen.
“You’re still a king now, aren’t you?” asked the butterfly.
The king smiled. “I suppose so. But still, not for much longer. Do you know, I’m seeing more than a hundred of you?”
“There ARE more than a hundred of us. How do you think we carried the crown here?”
The king was covered in little white clouds, each as delicate as a baby’s breath. He wanted to laugh, but was afraid to hurt them. Or his lungs.
“Thank you,” he told them. “Thank you all so much. But even if I was well, I think you’d be much finer monarchs than I ever was. You should keep this. I can’t wear it.”
“But we don’t have crowns, or thrones, or courts,” said the butterfly.
“Those aren’t the real things that make a king or queen,” said the king. “It’s what others think about you. And right at this moment, I am most definitely your subject. And I will show you exactly what I think.”
And the king reached up with one trembling, withered finger to his brow, and with another he tapped the tip of the butterfly’s face, and when his finger came away the butterfly had turned from the whitest of clouds to the bright strong orange of the cloudy evening sky.
“Thank you,” said the old man. And he died.

The monarchs ranged far, after that, and travelled wide and furiously.
But they remembered the little places and things wherever they roamed. And one in particular.

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