By Joseph Markell
One morning, in the beautiful Royal Court of a very special castle, King Bib the Seventh gave an annoyed shake of his bell to call in his royal accountant.
“Henceforth, I shall be known as Splendor the Magnificent.”
“Officially?” The accounted questioned.
“Do as I told.”
“Do as you told?”
The accountant smirked, which bothered Splendor.
“So you shall not be known as Bib the Seventh, but King Splendor the Magnificent.”
“Yes.” The King commanded.
“And so it shall be written.”
They both were silent.
“Is it too quiet in here?” Splendor the Magnificent asked.
“I like the quiet.” The accountant responded.
“Hmm,” Splendor peered at him for a long moment.
“Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?” the accountant asked.
“Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?” Splendor shot back.
The accountant looked irritated but composed himself and said, “No, I did as you told, your Majestry.” The King nodded, then furrowed his brow. He could have sworn his accountant said, “Majestry” but didn’t want to appear neither hard of hearing, nor mistaken, so he chose to stare blankly ahead as if deep in thought. After a moment, he waved the accountant away, who then bowed and left him alone in the great room. Splendor the Magnificent sat on his throne and traced the outline of the metal brocades holding the felt onto the arm rest. He did so at least fifteen times before realizing that he was bored. He reached for the higher pitched bell, thinking to ring his servants to solve his problems, but paused as he had a rare flash of motivation.
“No,” he said defiantly to himself, “I’m not going to let them help me. I’m going to go get something special for the Royal Court!” Splendor pushed himself up to stand regally. He grabbed his cane, adorned with sparkling jewels, and set off to do it himself. His slippers sluffed and his cane clacked in a two to one rhythm as he crossed the long room. While he walked, he wondered how long it had been since he’d been on the balcony to overlook his kingdom.
He pushed on the large chamber door at the head of the room. It was heavy. Or maybe it was stuck. Those servants hadn’t kept it well-oiled as he thought they should. He pushed harder but found that he could not move it. But then, he couldn’t remember if it opened inward or outward. And so, he pulled gently at first, then hard and the door didn’t move.
“Does the Lord wish the door to open?” A muffled guard’s voice said from the other side of the door.
“I can do it!” Splendor yelled.
But he couldn’t do it. He pushed and pulled, kicked and scratched but to no avail.
“Is the lord sure?” The guard said.
“How dare… you question… your King?” Splendor said between frustrated breaths.
It was then, that he had an idea. An even better idea.
He would go out the window, onto the veranda and down the hill so no one would see him. They’d all be amazed when he’d return with it.
“My lord,” they’d say, “How did you come about this?”
“How dare you question your king,” he’d say and they’d write it as legend that Splendor the Magnificent was magical. He could summon objects into existence by his very will. So he sluffed and clacked across the marble floor and came to one of the large stained glass windows. He turned the locking mechanism and pushed on the pane. But it didn’t move. He pulled, but nothing.
“What sort of prison is this?!” he yelled.
“Does my lord require assistance?” the guard’s muffled voice came from the entrance.
“No!” he yelled.
Then he grabbed his cane and stabbed at the window, breaking the panes of glass. Scraping the sills to clear the shards sticking up. There was a large hole in the window now, big enough to climb through. So he threw his cane first, which smacked onto the marble balcony, ejecting one of the rubies, which slid across the ground, between two railing columns and disappeared silently over the edge.
He stared for a moment. After that moment, he awkwardly climbed through, and as he stepped up, his robe caught on a small piece of leaded metal. “What is this nonsense?” He said to himself. He tried to shake it loose, standing up and smacking his forehead on another shard of metal. He winced in pain and rolled the rest of the way, tearing his robe as he fell onto the hard balcony.
Splendor laid in pain and anger.
“Who made those windows?” he asked himself, “for they are evil.”
“My… my lord?” said a voice at the end of the balcony, “Are you okay?”
“Who goes there?” Splendor asked incredulously.
“Sir Archibald, of the royal knights, my lord.”
“Clear the balcony and speak not of this. I am going for a walk.”
Sir Archibald seemed to hesitate but did as he was told and left. Splendor the Magnificent struggled to a sitting position, then worked himself into a kneel. At long last, he stood up. He grabbed the bottom of his tattered cream-colored robe up and dabbed his forehead with it, leaving wet blood stains. He picked up his cane and pondered at the hole where the ruby had been. Splendor wasn’t quite certain of the way out of the castle because he’d only ever gone by carriage. But as the castle was the highest point in the city, he knew he had to go down. He looked over the railing. It was a sheer drop of sixty feet. While he knew he was of royal blood, he didn’t want to chance getting injured in the jump. He needed another way.
He remembered that Sir Archibald had left the balcony cloister via some stairs, so perhaps that was a way out. He sluffed and clacked across the high stone walkway to a curved stairway that led down away from the main chamber. He followed the stairway down and down and down until he came to another heavy wooden door.
“Too many doors,” he said.
“Who goes there!?” An impetuous guard yelled from the other side.
“Shh!” Sir Archibald said, “The king is going for a walk, open the door.”
“Don’t open the door!” Splendor the Magnificent said, “I shall do it myself.”
“But my lord, it is locked.”
“Nonsense,” the King said as he struggled to open it.
There was some whispering on the other side of the door, then a thud. And on the next attempt, the King opened the door.
“All of you,” he said as he entered the small, dank room. “What is this place?”
“Uh, this is the, uh, the guard’s chambers of the south tower, my lord.”
“Don’t tell anyone I was here.”
“My lord,” Sir Archibald said, “Your face is covered in blood.”
“I’m going for a walk, leave me at once.” Splendor said, annoyed. He wiped the blood off his face with his sleeve this time.
As the guards left, Splendor said, “Wait, Sir Archibald.”
Sir Archibald stopped and turned around, looking concerned at the King, “Yes, my lord?”
“Which way is out?”
“Out of what?”
“Out of the Castle. I’m going on a walk to get something.”
“Out of the Castle, my lord?” There was panic in Sir Archibald’s voice.
“Quickly now, which way?”
“I will escort you.” Sir Archibald tried.
“Garbage. I am one of the people now. I am King. I am loved. I do not need escortation.”
“Permission to speak freely my king?”
“Permission denied,” the King said, “now tell me the way out.”
Sir Archibald looked pale but that’s not something the King could control. Sir Archibald pointed to across the room, “Go down that corridor, go down the spiral stairs all the way to the bottom. The final door leads out the back side of the castle.”
“The backside?” Splendor was for a moment mad, then he realized it would be closer to his objective.
“Yes, Milord,” Archibald said.
“Does that lead to the town?”
“Yes Milord, but it’s less…pleasant, than what you’re used to.”
“You’re less pleasant than I’m used to,” Splendor returned.
“Apologies, Milord,” Archibald bowed and stepped aside.
“Tell no one of this,” Splendor directed, as he flared his robe and made his way past Sir Archibald.
The corridor and spiral stairs were nothing to speak of, just drab stone utility ways that didn’t need decoration. They were functional for the guards and he supposed that made sense. He stopped on the stair when he noticed that it felt good to not be annoyed.
It didn’t last long though. He puckered his nose as he neared the door that led outside.
“What is that smell?” He asked, forgetting he had no audience.
He fondled the heavy iron door handle before finally engaging the hook mechanism to exit.
The foul air hit him like the sunlight, all at once and far too strongly. He squinted and raised his hand to cover his nose. A dark sludge slid down a stone rut from vertical tunnels in the castle from above. He stepped closer and bent toward it, holding his nose.
“Mi…milord,” said a nice voice behind him, “are you unwell?”
Splendor turned and saw a handsome woman servant, holding laundry, looking dismayed and confused. She looked strong and to be of his age. There was also something comforting about her.
“What is this…this business here?” he said and pointed.
Unsure of whether it was a test or not, she hesitated, then spoke plainly, “It’s shat, milord, from up above.”
“I know that,” he lied, plugging his nose and recoiling. “Tell me, where is the way out of here?”
“Go down this hill, past the pens and out the servicing gate.”
“Do you see that gate with the two torches and the guards? That gate. Go out there and you’ll be in town.”
“Well done, I already knew that,” he lied again, “and now I can trust you. What is your name?”
“I shall call you Ebba. You shall accompany me to town.”
“B- but milord, I’m not allowed to leave the…”
“Garbage. Your King commands it. Come with me.”
She studied his bloodied, dirtied robe and said, “In that case, we can’t have you leaving the castle looking like that.” She set the pile of laundry on a stone wall and shook out a tan royal bodice. “This should fit you.”
“Be away with that, these are kingly clothes.”
“As you wish.”
“No,” he said, “As I told.”
“As… um, as you told?”
“Do you mind if I put on something more becoming of going to town?”
“Do it quickly,” he said and studied his cane while she sloughed off the servant’s clothes and changed into the royal garb she had been carrying.
They walked together down the cobblestone road of the hill, past the sour chicken coops and the screaming goats. Ebba’s clean sapphire bodice and dress contrasted his soiled royal robe and slippers. Eventually they came to the exit. From above the gate, the guards looked down from the battlement.
“Long night, eh?” one of them said.
“Open the gates for your King.” Splendor spoke with authority.
One of them laughed, then coughed as the other guard elbowed him and panicked with urgency. “Right away, milord.”
“What was that?” Splendor asked the guard who laughed.
“A cough, sir.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Splendor said. The gate groaned open. “Let’s proceed Ebba.”
“May I hold your arm?” Ebba asked.
Splendor stopped and wondered, “Why?”
“For support,” she said.
“Yes, you may.”
She took his arm and looked up at the guards as she walked below. Then over at him.
“This is nice,” she said.
“I know.” He replied, even though he didn’t know until just then, when he realized that it was, in fact, nice.
The rear gate road opened to a maze of stone and wood buildings, seemingly built atop one another, all between one and three stories high. All around them were thatched roofs, hanging signs over doors, plants, wagons, people, children, dogs, chickens, cats. It was full of late morning sunlight and a light breeze carried an endless tapestry of smells.
Something tingled within Splendor. He watched the scene with amazement. It was holding his attention. It was interesting. Yes, that was it. Interest. Something he hadn’t had much of.
“Now, with great behest, we must find an herbalist. It may be a long and hard journey, but it will be a tale to tell.”
“Milord, I believe it is this way,” she said and led him along the road. A dog ran up to Splendor but before it could reach him, Ebba intercepted it and hissed. The dog scampered away. Then she went back to his side.
He felt the warm comfort of Ebba holding his arm and looked down at her, “Ebba. I think you are interesting.”
Her faced turned a little red and she smiled. “Here we are,” She said and read the sign over the door: “Herbalist D’vine.”
The stained wooden entrance was carved with intricate vines and flowers. He reached for the door handle and pushed but nothing happened.
“Allow me, Milord,” she said as she reached up to the metal disc and hit it against the metal plate three times.
“Hold yer goddamned horses,” an old woman’s voice said from within. The floor creaked as she approached. The woman opened the door and saw them.
“Oh, fuck me.” She blurted out from surprise and then curtsied, “Milord.”
“I will not,” Splendor said, “Are you this Herbalist Divine?”
The herbalist looked at Ebba, searching for understanding at what was happening. “Um, yes, that’d be me.”
“I am in need of the coveted Weed I hear guards speak of.”
The Herbalist nodded and then gave him a good look up and down. “I’d say you’re in need of more than that. Please, come in, come in.”
Splendor and Ebba entered the fragrant, musty shop. It looked like organized chaos with herbs, mushrooms, powders and potions strewn about. It was dark but for the sun streaming in through the southern window illuminated by the dust suspended in the air.
“Have a seat, Milord and Milady,” she gestured to a wicker bench.
Splendor moved to the bench, then looked back at the Herbalist and explained, “I’m sitting because I want to, not because you told me to.”
“Yes, of course you are,” she said.
“Ebba,” he said as she sat down beside him, “how are you?”
“I’m great. This is the most interesting day I’ve had in a very long time. How are you?”
He nodded, “Me too. I like this village life.”
Meanwhile the Herbalist was a manic blur, pouring water, mixing herbs, packaging things, tearing cloth and binding. After a moment, she returned.
“First things first,” the Herbalist set a bowl of liquid on the table in front of them. She dipped a rag in it and went for his forehead. To his own surprise, he didn’t stop her as she cleaned and dressed the wound.
“And now, your Weed,” she placed a bundled leather sack on the table with a light thud. “This is 6 crowns worth.”
“I don’t have any money,” he said.
The Herbalist looked at him, then at Ebba, then back at him. Unsure of what to say.
“This is my night robe, see. I don’t carry coins, the accountant does that. What do you think I should do Ebba?”
Ebba pondered for a moment, then said, “She gave you a gift of healing, you have the gift of wealth. Can you give her some of that?”
Splendor thought for far too long, then moved his fingers over his cane and popped out an emerald and a diamond, each the size of a marble.
Both Ebba and the Herbalist made an odd noise – like they both sucked in air.
“Here. These,” he said and dropped them into the Herbalist’s shaking hands.
The Herbalist made a noise.
“Good then,” he said.
“Is there anything else Milord?”
“Yes, I will smoke this weed.”
“Right now? Right here Milord?” Herbalist D’vine asked.
“Yes and yes.” Splendor confirmed.
Herbalist D’Vine looked at Ebba and handed her a pipe. Ebba picked up the leather sack of the weed and looked over at Splendor with a smile, “I’ll prepare it for you.”
Splendor returned her gaze and said, “prepare it for us.”
They smoked together while the D’vine opened the windows and carried smoking sage around the room. All three coughed intermittently as the thick herbal smoke hung in the air.
It was quiet for some time. Splendor and Ebba stared off into the distance, watching the smoke coil from the light breeze blowing in from the window.
Splendor looked at Ebba and coughed. She laughed, then he laughed. “I like how many skills you have,” Splendor told her, earnestly.
“Thank you, Milord,” Ebba said.
“Your Majesty,” Ebba continued, “Why did you come down here to town? Just for the herbs?”
It took a moment for the words to process, but then he answered, “Oh yes! Thank you Ebba.” The Herbalist had sat down with them across the table. She lit a candle and gave them some tea.
Splendor leaned forward toward her, “D’vine, I have one more thing I need.”
“Of course, Milord. What is it?”
“Do you have a cricket?”
“A cricket, Milord?” Herbalist D’vine repeated.
“Yes, one cricket. And I want it in a beautiful enclosure. One that is fit to be displayed at the royal court.”
She put a finger to her chin and thought for a moment. Then looked around. At last, she nodded. “I can make that happen.”
The way back was a haze. Splendor and Ebba giggled and schemed together as they made their ascent out of the village and into the Castle grounds. Behind them, Herbalist D’Vine and a famous glass artist followed with a small, covered wagon. At each turn, the group received odd looks, quiet remarks and fearful adjustments of posture and respect.
As they came to the laundry, Ebba paused and looked sad. “I suppose this is where you leave me?” She stated and asked at the same time.
“Garbage,” Splendor replied without hesitation. “I’d like you to move into the Castle.”
“Mi… Milord?” she stammered, “Where would I stay?”
“You can have the accountant’s chamber. It’s only three rooms, will that be big enough?”
Ebba smiled and curtsied, “I can make do with that.”
“Then it’s settled.”
The next morning, Splendor walked into the Royal Court and took his seat on the throne. In the middle of the large Court, Sir Archibald stood beside the beautiful, ornate glass blown enclosure. As part of his new duties, he misted the plants in and around the cricket’s alter.
Ebba walked in and sat on a chaise lounge with a book, waving to Splendor, who smiled and waved back. To his right, the accountant scowled at her and then at Splendor.
Chirr-chirr. The lone cricket echoed through the large room.
The accountant shuddered. Sir Archibald sighed. Ebba smiled.
“The glass blower designed the enclosure to magnify the cricket’s song.” Splendor told the accountant proudly and smiled.