Master of the King
by Bryan Lindenberger
Queen Sera’s love for Ybn came as no surprise to the court sorcerer Jamish, though some considered the affair a secret. Sera had grown up the daughter of a shopkeeper. His ailments kept him home most days, and at age thirteen Sera took employment in one of the town’s many dingy taverns. She soon blossomed amid the drunken stares and the moldy floors, wearing the same mended kirtle she had worn as a girl. It fit her differently now, tight in the hips and seams stretched beyond modesty or reason. Word of Sera’s beauty spread and King Geonn, long of tooth and haggard by age, took note of these murmurings.
“Kill her,” he ordered his men, because no mere barmaid should rival the beauty of his young wife, a nobleman’s daughter.
Jamish stood idly by in the Great Hall as several royal guards descended upon town to carry out the slaughter. Then a young steward with a gift for rumors stated that Sera knew the touch of no man. “Yet,” he described with a dramatic flair common to the court, “her trysts with fellow barmaids are notorious.”
“A virgin?” King Geonn blubbered over his wine.
“Presumably, my lord. Yes.”
Jamish recalled a chill as King Geonn’s back straightened for the first time in months, bones creaking as his bushy eyebrows curled like caterpillars. “Call back the assassins!” the king shouted.
A courier was dispatched. He saved Sera from murder and delivered her to Geonn as a wife. The years passed in less than wedded bliss, a fact that the queen—now dressed in jewels and silks scented with jasmine—shared all too willingly with Jamish. A rather intricate experiment occupied him, and Sera often proved an unwelcome distraction.
“I never forgave him,” she complained, referring not to the king but to her father. “Mere shillings and a tattered cottage—that is price he sold me for!”
“His barter saved your life,” the sorcerer replied.
“Some life! Gaunt, scraggly little man—I could break him in two if I felt like it!”
“You must mean the king?”
“Better to have been killed like his former wife. Do you know what Geonn makes me do? Downstairs in that bed of his while the guards watch?”
No. Jamish did not know. And he didn’t care to imagine, though the same could not be said for most of the castle staff. Alone in his laboratory high within the castle tower, sunlight peeping through the shutters as the fields below plumped with fragrant strawberries, Sera’s presence did not so much enamor the aged sorcerer as irritate him. His world was not of the body—more often a source of disease than pleasure—but of the mind and spirit. For this reason and others, King Geonn trusted his beautiful wife with no man but Jamish, a point of increasing vexation for someone who desired only to work alone.
“What happened to your ferret?”
Jamish thumped a vial down hard enough that it should have broken. “An experiment,” he smiled through his teeth.
“But his face—his body, it’s disfigured.”
“That, my queen, is what happens when a balm is formulated amid distractions. But I don’t think you came all the way up here to discuss ointments or even the plight of poor little Ryan in his cage. So please tell me—”
“The servant girl?” he shrugged. She was a boyish thing—awkward but pretty in a long-forgotten way and just bright enough to cause accidental mischief. Jamish snorted before returning to his experiment. “Take her. Geonn doesn’t mind.”
“No, he rather enjoys it.”
“I love her, Jamish.”
“You’ve loved many.”
“Not like her,” Queen Sera said. She swooped upon him in his chamber, hands falling over his bony shoulders. The scent of jasmine did not so much intoxicate Jamish as cause him to sneeze, and another experiment was ruined. Sera told him, “I want her to be the One.”
In olden times, villages sacrificed their leaders at midsummer to ensure the growth of corn. Chieftains surrendered not only willingly to the pyre, but they danced their way to certain death. Artisanship changed all that. Strong walls of masonry brought wealth and comfort and created a man called king, yet the old gods’ appetites remained. They still demanded sacrifice, and so the Festival of Change was born. For a week high traded places with low—merchant with beggar, nobleman with slave, king with servant—until the flesh of the One once again fed the fire. Gods appeased—tricked, some might say—the true king would again emerge from rags to rule yet another year. Queen Sera certainly understood all this. She’d watched it happen for nearly a decade, first with protest and then with resigned silence amid the blood thirsty crowd. Yet the human heart was unlike the stars and elements Jamish studied—chaotic and driven by passion rather than law. Ybn was a young woman. She served wine and ale in the Great Hall of castle, and she cowered when drunken noblemen’s hands became full of her half-moon shaped ass. Sera had much in common with her besides desire, and so perhaps the queen had overlooked the obvious.
“She has his build,” Jamish said, attentive to the silence in the room. He was aware too of the grayness in his skin and the crookedness of his hands resembling that of his mind. “Unformed, you might say. If anyone could fool the gods, I suppose she could. You understand, she must burn like a—”
“I want her to be mine for a week.”
“Then I shall make it so,” he told her when a knock at the door startled the disfigured ferret. It hopped in its cage and wheezed from a face which a failed balm had made look more like a slug’s than any rodent fashioned by gods. “Your escort is here!” Jamish said, cheerfully leading Sera to the door to be rid of her. “I will advise the king of your wishes!”
“No. Tell no one! This is your idea. Convince Ybn to volunteer, and I promise you the solitude you desire.”
“Fine enough, fine enough,” Jamish agreed as the guards led his irritant away. Alone at last, he began his experiment again.
King Geonn busied himself the next day by tormenting rabbits with bullet and arrow. His squires tied the little varmints down so that they wouldn’t move around so much—easy targets, and Jamish felt much the same way about Ybn. He found her cleaning up alone after morning repast, hands full of dishes and her cheek starting to swell from the slap of some young knight used to having his way. Still her blue eyes sparkled like a distant sea when Jamish took her past the gates and over the River Baedun, into the nearby foothills to gather mushrooms, beetles, and other organics. Her flaxen hair bristled faintly in the morning breeze like haycocks of autumn. Jamish understood that Queen Sera had manipulated him quite brilliantly, acknowledging the annoyance of her daily visits while promising an end to them. His respect for her had grown tenfold and he could almost see the beauty in Ybn as she hunched down, gathering the most useless mushrooms, it seemed, that she could find.
“Are these the right ones?”
“Perfect. Put them in your basket.”
“You know, this is the first time I’ve been outside in nearly a year!”
“Enjoy the outdoors, do you?” Jamish said, having dissected enough creatures to know exactly which organs ached when he was forced into making small-talk. “We could not have chosen…a more…pleasant day. Indeed.”
“Oh yes! No one believes I’m good at anything, but I maybe I found my calling!”
“A sorcerer’s apprentice?”
“If it would get me outdoors! Oh, could I?”
“I will suggest it to the queen. I am quite close to her.”
Ybn stopped prancing over the moss-dressed rocks for just a moment, a trickle of cold water filtering between her toes. Her grandfather had served as an ambassador when the previous king died and Geonn stepped in. High-minded negotiations fell apart under new rule, and Ybn’s grandfather was dishonored by Geonn’s arrogance. Simple as Ybn maybe appeared to be—and humbled as she was by circumstance—she had dreams of restored nobility beating through her veins. More importantly, she knew the comfort of the royal bed and had tasted the salty flesh of a low-born queen. “Sera knows me too,” she hinted. “But those moments of bliss are far between, sorcerer.”
Systems, patterns, causes and effects—human impulse made little sense compared to chemical reactions and the movements of the stars, yet people had their predictable side too, like a recurring theme in a complex work of music. Restoration of name and honor, a week to consummate her love for Sera in private, and even a chance to humiliate Geonn who’d brought her family’s shame: these were things Jamish would offer. He began by taking the scrawny, scab-kneed girl by the hand and looking into her eyes. “You could never become my apprentice, lowly one.”
“I might have known,” she smiled, though she seemed more willing to spit.
“No fear. The gods might have an even greater plan for you.”
Clerks ordered shopkeepers to sweep floors.
Servants demanded food of their lords.
Peasants lay with masters’ wives.
The Festival of Change began with the usual coarse banality that each year made Jamish more weary of man. Dressed as nobleman and knight, peasants gathered not to undo the foolish edicts of King Geonn, but to indulge in drink and animal desire. Excess of power was demanded in confirmation of hierarchy turned upside-down, twisted and perverted in a puppet sideshow to trick the gods for another year. Ybn laughed beneath her king’s crown in a Great Hall throbbing with celebration. Adorned in jewels and silk, flaxen hair lopped off and breasts taped to make her boyish figure even more resemble a male king, she clapped her hands to set the time while Geonn danced beneath the dais like a fool in rags. He seethed as Sera in her mended kirtle cheerfully rubbed Ybn’s hands and feet in oils before retiring with her to the solar for a night of lovemaking. So this is what a servant does with kingly power, Jamish mused, the only man spared from this atrocity. And so it was every year. The kingdom became a Joker’s nightmare, chaos manifesting as though to make the normal routine seem sensible by contrast. At dawn of the second day, the smell of wine imbued the tapestries, and broken dishes littered the floor where the drunken minstrels now slept. New guests entered for the midday repast. Noblemen served roast turkeys, cranberries, and hot cakes while Ybn, glowing with the queen beside her, offered toasts and made inane jokes at Geonn’s expense.
“You wear the crown well, Ybn,” Jamish told her. “Authority suits you.”
“I’ve considered some decrees for this evening,” Ybn replied. “I will announce that all nobles must wear one shoe and one stocking! What do you think? Amusing, eh?”
“You should empty the jail,” Jamish replied.
Ybn’s childish grin fell like an anvil. “What? You mean, free the prisoners?”
“All of them.”
“No. No, Jamish. That’s going too far!”
“Then I like your other idea. The one about the shoes.”
Ybn grinned again. “Do you really think I should?”
“I understand children are already gathering sticks for the pyre,” was Jamish’s response, one that he regretted because Sera now wanted his attention.
“With the queen’s permission, I would like a word with the sorcerer.”
“Granted.” Ybn winked and smiled before receiving a deep kiss on the mouth, Sera’s hands around her too-slender waist. Jamish had to admit that Sera looked more beautiful than ever. He first thought that peasantry suited her but no—it was the glow in her eyes, the rose returned to her cheeks. She had experienced love. Even an old sorcerer could see that, and he felt pity for her as she led the way to a private chamber.
“She plays the part well, does she not?” Sera smiled, closing the door behind them.
Jamish sighed. “She’s as honorable of a monarch as any in recent memory.”
“No. I mean playing the part of a fool to avoid suspicion!”
Sera’s eyes narrowed, and Jamish felt a chill he had not known in years. “I have a plan, Jamish,” she said. “But I need your help.”
“I’ll have her killed,” Geonn said. He was down on his hands and knees, scrubbing the floor of the Great Hall he until yesterday ruled while former duchesses lay behind him on rugs, panting and groaning as former slaves whose flesh had grown bulky and bronze through hard labor indulged in an orgy of carnal pleasure. The duchesses seemed not to mind so much as their scrawny and pasty husbands swept.
“You’ll have who killed?” Jamish inquired.
“Sera! Ybn’s screams of agony on the pyre will pale by comparison to what I have in store for her when this infernal festival comes to an end!”
“Careful what you say. The gods might hear.”
“Damn the gods!” Geonn cried, and a hush fell even from the duchesses and slaves as his voice echoed from walls of masonry. “These peasant women have gone too far! They’ve made a mockery of me!” He looked up, beady eyes beneath bushy eyebrows and lips quivering. “Can a woman die from pain?”
“I am a healer.”
“No. Not today. I want Sera’s screams to echo for generations, do you understand? I am king, dammit. I will always be kin—now invent something before I have you killed as well!”
Jamish looked down at the hatred in Geonn’s eyes, so different from the love in Sera’s. He comprehended neither—lacked understanding for either side of human passion—yet he knew which one he preferred. It was clear now, and Jamish allowed himself a simple smile. “You’d already convinced me when you damned the gods … my lord.”
Jamish spent his days in his laboratory, high within the castle tower, sunlight peeping through the shutters as the fields below plumped with fragrant strawberries.
An experiment gone wrong.
A painless, blistering balm.
A disfigured ferret wheezed and watched down upon him as the sorcerer worked, mixing powders and soft metals while Ybn’s rule became more eccentric by day, her lovemaking in Sera and Geonn’s royal bed of satin echoing through the halls of masonry by night. Geonn, whose weakness of age and decrepit mind might have led him to fall dead from shame and exertion after all Ybn put him through, remained alive through sheer will of hate and lust for vengeance.
“Have you done it?” he demanded of the sorcerer on the seventh morning, when Jamish found him lying on the floor of the Great Hall with a brush in his hand. There were no ecstatic groans or wicked demands cast by servants at their former masters today. The castle was silent, and it seemed even the peasants desired a return to order. Geonn’s eyes grew wild. “Did you invent a torture for that peasant wench I took as a wife?”
“A potion that eat her painfully from the inside out,” Jamish replied with his gnarled hand placed almost lovingly on his lord’s weary heard. Geonn slapped it away, and Jamish continued: “But we have greater concerns. This is Ybn’s last day as king, and rumor has spread that she intends to empty the jails. Furthermore, Sera has manipulated her into agreeing to recant some of your most wise and powerful laws. As we speak, they prepare couriers for dispatch. They will declare war where you have made peace, and offer treaty where you have made war. In essence, my lord, they intend to undo all the good you have done.”
Geonn gasped. “Sweet merciful me!”
“Indeed,” Jamish sighed. “But there is hope. Even Ybn, who has enjoyed this rouse so much at your expense, realizes—excuse me, my lord, but are you feeling all right?”
“Get on with it!”
“Your eyes are rather red.”
“I have not slept, now tell me—”
“Even Ybn realizes things have gone too far. She offers a solution.” Jamish produced two plaster artifacts from his robe.
“What are these?”
“Masks, my true lord,” Ybn said, drawing up from behind Geonn’s outlaid figure. She offered a hand to help the king to his feet but he refused.
“What is going on?”
“So no one will recognize us!” Ybn replied and then explained. “I am no king. I cannot stand up to Sera’s demands. But you can. You are truly wise and powerful. Now hurry. We must go!”
A flicker of understanding crossed Geonn’s weary face. At last he stood, bones popping from his back and knees, and Jamish regarded him alongside Ybn. One scrawny, the other boyish—not dissimilar, and the plan might work. “Hurry!” Jamish told them both. “Before Sera returns!”
King posing as servant posing as king.
Servant posing as king posing as servant.
Ybn and Geonn exchanged clothes hurriedly before placing on their masks.
“What is this … stuff?” Geonn grumbled as the first guests arrived for morning repast.
“A balm, my lord,” Jamish said anxiously. “An adhesive to hold the masks in place. Now…hurry!”
“It tastes damn awful!”
“Swallow, it won’t harm you. Now hurry—there is still time to stop the couriers!”
“Yes, of course!” Geonn said, hurrying away in his king’s clothes and mask as Jamish turned to the assembling guests, most of them wearing one stocking and one shoe. They looked puzzled, thinking Ybn to be Geonn in her servant’s clothes and mask.
“Another game!” Jamish laughed. The sound seemed alien even to his own ears, but he recovered and slapped Ybn on her ass. “Go fetch us some wine, you dumb whore!”
And that seemed to amuse everyone as they sat down to await their food.
Citizens gathered sticks for the sacrificial pyre at village center as debauchery gave way to ceremony in the Great Hall. Jamish recited words of holy prayer as attendant guests peeped from bowed heads, glancing between King Geonn and Ybn, each indistinguishable from the other. No one was certain who was who, and Jamish had lost track himself. It really didn’t matter anymore.
Hymns completed, the sorcerer descended from his altar near midnight. His heart pounded. In each hand, he carried a wreath. One was alive and green with leaves and summer fruits; the other adorned only with thorns. Jamish brought the wreaths before King Geonn and Ybn at their knees and placed them on their heads as crowns. All eyes waited to see who would live and who would die.
“Remove your masks!” Jamish pronounced.
Sera gasped. Worn with anxiety, she nearly fell from her station.
Yet neither Ybn nor Geonn hesitated.
Horror knows no hierarchy.
Disgust holds no regard for heraldry or caste.
Lords and servants alike gasped at the sight of the king and false king. A few fainted. Some shrank away and hid their eyes while others expunged ceremonial feasts from their bellies. Geonn and Ybn stared at one another, neither aware that the image in front of them was a mirror.
The failed balm had worked beyond Jamish’s expectations. Ybn and Geonn were horrors, the both of them. Hair singed. Skin burned. Festering blisters oozed so that flesh appeared as though cast in lumpy yellow gravy to make hopeless any attempt at recognition. Even by the gods.
“What evil is this?” Jamish cried. His voice echoed through the hall, and he threw himself upon the ground. “Who among you has so angered the gods during this week of celebration?”
The audience shrank, heads filled with disgust and the prayers they’d recited.
“Someone—” the sorcerer declared, shaking his fist, “—someone has transgressed the will of the gods! Let this man or woman step forward now and receive penalty!”
Every man and every woman felt shame.
“Which of them is the true king?” someone said.
“Disrobe them so we might see!” cried another.
Sera, returned now to her post and smelling of jasmine, ordered that man slain by the castle guard. Even before the sword was withdrawn damp from between his shoulder blades, she called for order. “No such impropriety is required!” she said.
For only she knew the true taste of her beloved husband’s lips.
“It is allowed,” the sorcerer agreed and Sera strode across the Great Hall as torches were lit and villagers chanted in the streets below. With open mouth, she kissed one waiting king and then the other. Passionate and deep—one kiss for hello, and the other for goodbye.
Sera wiped her mouth on her hand as the clock struck twelve and said “I have made my decision. Only he is the true king.”
The congregation roared in approval.
“No! No, there is a mistake!” Geonn cried as a mass of hands lifted him, passed him overhead from the Great Hall, through the door, out the gates, and down into the village. The balm had left him wheezing, his voice little more than a creak as his throat had melted much like his face. “I am king, damn you! Damn all of you and damn the gods!”
Sera and Ybn followed, hand in hand through the village streets. They kissed as the king was tied, shouting rather than dancing like the chieftains of old, and Sera’s hands were full of Ybn’s released breasts as the pyre was lit. Love was in the air, and soon the scent of smoke and burning flesh. Geonn screamed as the fired licked at him, tasting him before deciding to eat him whole. Neither Sera nor Ybn seemed to mind, delighted in fact that he was gone as the villagers sang the praises of gods at midsummer. Jamish wondered at all of them as ash rose to mingle with the stars. The people—these people—could never be cured of the passions of the world. But they could be improved. He’d have time alone to do it—time for elements and starlight, balms and potions. Sera had promised him that much, and already he felt improvement on the way.
>Bryan Lindenberger recently graduated with his M.A. in professional communications. He enjoys writing and research and now works producing marketing plans and feasibility studies for entrepreneurs. Still, his love is reading and writing fiction. He recently had work accepted for the Clash of Steel: Demon anthology and some magic realism by the magazine 69 Flavors of Paranoia.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
"Master of the King" stems from a series of short stories based upon actual customs practiced in medieval Europe and elsewhere. I enjoy going back to early source material and visiting anthropological texts to understand the motivations behind ordinary customs, some of which linger with us, in diluted forms, even today.