King Godfrey the 9th died on the wintery night of an eclipse. Word of his demise spread faster than a colony of ants upon a fresh horse’s corpse.
Hundreds of horsemen roamed the vast kingdom of Somnenia, rushing through every crowded town square and marketplace. They yelled one phrase and one phrase only.
“The King is dead!”
The shouts repeated so often, the words stuck to people’s minds like honey.
The King is dead!
The King is dead!
Before the sun rose twice, everyone knew of the grim news. However, not everyone received those news the same way; some with grieving gasps, and some with gloating giggles. There were tears of sorrow on a face and tears of joy on another. Entire towns mourned, while others celebrated.
Mr. Marion Silker sat alone in the darkest corner of a lively tavern, where the stench of sweat and alcohol matted the air, and a single lantern hung in the middle of the room. He raised his teacup to his rugged, unshaven face and took a copious sip. It was as though the tea’s boiling heat could not scald his tongue anymore.
Once he downed the rest of his unsweetened black tea, he knocked on the teacup with a small silver spoon. The clinks were barely audible through the celebratory music and the frenzied dancing, but a barmaid managed to grasp the signal and came tiptoeing.
“Yes, sir?” She said, holding a battered platter to her bosom.
“More.” Mr. Silker’s beady brown eyes stared blankly at the empty seat before him even as he spoke.
The stout, blonde barmaid noticed his patchy jacket and fingerless gloves as she poured him more. “Are ye from here, sir?”
“No.” He took the cup from her and tried its heat with his bare fingertips. He took a testing sip. Swished it across his taste buds. Swallowed. He seemed satisfied, even though his weary face did not show a hint of a smile. “I’m a passerby.”
“But ye must’ve heard.”
“King Godfrey the Ninth died?” For the first time, he looked at her. “When?”
“Earlier today, sir.” She spoke those words through beaming lips as a happy bride would.
“And this is how they mourn a King here?” Mr. Silker said as he gestured to the dancers and clappers.
“Can’t ye see? He’s dead!” The barmaid said with a toothy grin. “Everyone’s been waiting for the old git’s heart to stop beating for ages.”
Mr. Silker put down his cup and hooked his palms together. He drew in air slowly. Exhaled. “What’s your name, woman?”
“Dorothy.” She said, yellow teeth and all. “Dorothy Herring.”
“Charmed.” Mr. Silker said with a blatantly fake smirk. “Have a seat.”
“I can’t, sir.” Suddenly, Dorothy looked nervous. “The owner would–“
“I’ll pay for the time you don’t spend cleaning tables. Sit.”
“Now tell me why everyone here seems so jolly that their ruler has died.”
“Ye really aren’t from here, are ye?” Dorothy shook her head and grinned again. Mr. Silker hoped she wouldn’t do the latter anymore. “Godfrey was a menace. A tyrant, even! I was only a handful of years old when he first placed his royal bum upon the throne, and even back then, he was as much of an arse as he was yesterday.”
“I don’t think that’s appropriate, Ms. Herring.” Mr. Silker muttered respectfully. “Regardless of what the man did, he is dead now. The dead do deserve the courtesy of remembering them for what good they did.”
“What good would that be? The only good he’s ever done for us was dying! Am I right, boys?!” Dorothy exclaimed those last two parts.
Everyone roared in agreement.
“Well, I think that’s just plain rude.” Mr. Silker frowned.
“Rude?” She raised her voice and, for the first time, lost her hospitable manners. Others within the tavern began listening as she said, “I’ll tell ye what’s rude. The King’s Guardsmen crashing into our humble house and knocking three of my husband’s teeth right out of his mouth for late taxes. The King’s orders to shackle beggars on sight and execute the crippled, because ‘the food wasted on them is better off given to those who can serve the Kingdom.’” Dorothy mimicked the late King’s voice in that bit, eliciting a few cackles. “The King’s palace brimming with slaves, whose only payments for their restless labor are crumbs of bread!”
Once again, everyone in that feebly lit tavern cheered.
“He was nothing but a selfish prune, unfit for his crown.” Dorothy murmured through gritted teeth, her eyes fixed on Mr. Silker’s, her fists clenched and quivering. “Every bit of harvest we gather, every pint of mead we brew, and every sliver of gold we save all went straight into his guts and pockets. Do you still want us to cry over his rotting corpse? Do you?”
“I…” Mr. Silker looked baffled, and color was flushed from his bony face. Every pair of eyeballs in the pub was locked on him and the loud barmaid. In his hesitation, he swallowed his own tea-flavored spit.
“And let me tell you about his mourners from the city,” she was yelling now, “They’re the reason this kingdom is in the gutters. They never say no, and if you never say no, you get stepped on like a stair in a stairwell.”
“To Hell with them!” A beer-chugging peasant yelled.
“Arse kissers!” Another bellowed among the cheering.
A broad and bearded man slammed his table to grab attention, and said, “The cowards of the cities sleep on feathers of angel wings, bathing in the King’s gifts as they lick his boots, while we of the villages bite the dirt!”
Everyone hailed in unison.
A dirty, skinny old man in another corner raised his fork and yelled, “I SPIT ON THE KING AND HIS DOGS!”
The entire room exploded with jeers and sinister laughter.
Mr. Silker tugged at Dorothy’s sleeve gently to grab her attention. “I… did not know the King did such things. I’m sorry.”
She yanked her sleeve out of his clutch with an ugly frown. “How could ye know? Ye’re just a passerby.” She shook her head and began to leave Mr. Silker’s table. “Leave what ye owe on the table.”
For ten long minutes after she was gone serving other tables, Mr. Silker was looked startled by the conversation he just had. However, he managed to resume sipping his favorite beverage. He then tossed a few silver coins on the table, placed his patched bowler hat upon his silky, brown head of hair, and walked out into the rainy night, leaving behind a pack of roaring villagers.
Even outside, villagers were openly ‘celebrating’ the King’s demise. A group of children scurried by merrily as the oddly dressed tea-lover untied his horse. A few women gossiped and giggled, and beaming men sang songs over foaming mugs.
As he rode away with his wagon, Mr. Silker still appeared perplexed. One could not easily fathom the very thought of reveling in someone’s death as if it were a holiday, let alone a King.
Miles later, the tea-lover’s wagon was halted by two armed guardsmen at the gates of Bigough, the capital of Somnenia.
Bigough was walled with bulwarks of stone and steel, and behind those walls towered beautiful buildings of ivory and red. Behind them all, at the top of the highest hill in the city and smack in the middle of Somnenia, lay the Odna Crona; the Royal Palace.
Every night of the year, the palace’s every room and wall were laden with lanterns and chandeliers, making it the brightest structure in the city; a gem among stones. Not tonight, though. This was the night after King Godfrey’s death, and customs were putting out all lights within the Odna Crona for seven days. Now, the Odna Crona appeared like a colossal dragon’s carcass resting atop the grimly dark hill.
“No trades after sundown, stranger.” One of the guards said with enough monotony to suggest that he had to deliver these exact words a thousand times before, while the other guard walked around the wagon to inspect it. Several other guards sat silently a few yards away around a fire. Mr. Silker did not leave his seat or leash.
“Trade? I’m here to deliver a shipment of salt, is all.” Mr. Silker tipped his hat graciously. “I’ve brought it from the villages as requested.”
“He’s got plenty, even.” The guard examining the back of the wagon confirmed loudly.
“Requested? Nobody sent for any salt.” The guardsman tapped the blunt side of his spear on the wagon’s wooden wheel. “Turn it around and come back in the morning.”
“But I came all this way…” Mr. Silker seemed to hide a frown.
“Turn it around!” The guard repeated impatiently.
“Can’t you just let me pass? Bigough’s elderly love salt. All I’m doing is—“
“What’s the matter?” A higher-ranking guardsman came from the fireplace, his thick moustache hiding his thin lips. His entire platoon followed him to examine this newcomer.
“This bastard won’t turn around!” The angry guardsman was pointing with his spear at Mr. Silker, who still did not budge.
“Watch your tongue, son.” The captain placed his palm upon his underling’s spear and swerved it down gently. He then turned to Mr. Silker. “I apologize for the lad’s behavior, merchant. The boys have been having a rough day since the King’s passing. May the heavens greet his soul with open gates.”
All the guards patted their chests in respect and grief. Mr. Silker looked around at the solemn faces of the guardsmen; their sadness was as sincere as that of children who lost a caring father.
“State your name and your business, merchant.” The captain said, his voice rich and authoritative.
“My name is Marion Silker. I’ve come to deliver salt. Forty-two satchels, to be precise. You may inspect the goods if you wish, but I believe one of your fine men already has.”
“I can’t see why you couldn’t have waited at whatever village you brought your salt from, right?” The captain folded his arms. “Why now of all times?”
“I was going to, but the man I buy my salt from arrived late, and I couldn’t spend the night at any of the villages. It was quite noisy.” Mr. Silker explained. “They were celebrating, I think.”
“Celebrating?” The captain wore most confused expression. “Celebrating what?”
“The King’s death.” Mr. Silker said. He felt his heart forcing its way out of his throat as he saw the anger in the eyes of every guardsman around his wagon.
Spears rose and more guardsmen gathered around the wagon. “Are you jesting?!” One guardsman shouted. Another spat on the ground.
“Who in their right mind would celebrate King Godfrey the Ninth’s death?” The captain was glaring, his teeth bare and his hand was ready on his hilt.
“Wasn’t the King… a tyrant?” Mr. Silker spoke sincerely and slowly.
Every guardsman around the wagon snarled in rage.
“How DARE you?” The captain yelled, and his subordinates took it as a command.
“Get off!” A guardsman said as he climbed onto the wagon and shoved Mr. Silker out of his seat. The tea-lover landed at the captain’s feet, his hat rolling away and his face slathered with dirt.
The captain sat on one knee and grabbed Mr. Silker by the collar of his yellowing shirt. “What village are you from, merchant?”
“I’m not from any of them, I swear!” For the first time, Mr. Silker looked genuinely afraid. Over a dozen guardsmen encircled the tea-lover as he tried to explain himself. “I just buy and sell, that is all I do! I was at a tavern and the people there were quite jolly. I thought it was a festivity of sorts. When I asked why, they told me it was because of the King’s death and that he was a tormenter and a thief. That he stole from their crops and earnings.”
“And what do you think about the King, Mister Silker?” The captain said through gritted teeth.
“I’m not even from here! The only things I know about him are what I heard!”
“I’ll tell you, then.” The captain let go of Mr. Silker, who immediately stood up and dusted off his odd attire. When the captain stood and turned away, the guardsmen backed away a step. “When the kingdom fell into famine after our victory against the invaders from Kostland, King Godfrey emptied his own wealth to feed every hungry mouth within our borders, and he himself fed on nothing but scraps for a year. These once hungry mouths stand with me, here and now…” Guardsmen slammed their fists against their chests in perfect unison. “… to guard the land he starved to protect.
“So, Mister Silker,” The captain said and turned to face him now. “Do you still think our glorious monarch was a tyrant?”
“I simply convey what I hear, milord.” Mr. Silker said, leaning against his wagon and still compulsively swatting dirt off his jacket. “And none of the villagers mentioned that story.”
“Ingrates,” murmured the captain through a grimace.
“Does that count as treason?” Mr. Silker asked, wiping the last crumb of mud off his unshaven cheek.
“It is!” One of the guardsmen said.
“No, no. It’s not treason until they raise weapons against the kingdom.” The captain said.
“They might as well have.” Mr. Silker said, his mind recalling the skinny man with the fork.
The captain pondered silently, then said, “This better not be a wife’s tale, merchant. If I send my men to the villages, will they be able to confirm your claim that the villagers speak ill of our late king?”
“Undoubtedly.” Mr. Silker said with a nod.
“So be it.” The captain said. “Fillip, give Beller and Alton four men each and send them to any two villages to make sure the intentions of the citizens are clean. Now. And come with me, I want to see with my own eyes these… celebrations.”
In a flurry of loud commands, all guardsmen were gone. Save for one, who was commanded to stay with Mr. Silker and keep a watchful eye on him.
“Is there an entrance fee to the city?” Mr. Silker said when everyone was gone.
The young remaining guardsman stared at Mr. Silker blankly.
“How about… a wagon full of salt?”
The guardsman smiled.
The following night, in the Odna Crona, a fat man sat in the dark.
“Would that be all, sir?” A beautiful servant asked the fat man.
“Close the door behind you, darling.” The fat man answered pompously, waving her away.
He sat on a leather armchair near a dead fireplace, a single candle lit next to him. The candlelight was weak, but with it, one could see the sheer extravagance of the large room. A floor of marble tiles, walls of red and gold, and a massive chandelier hung from the high ceiling.
In his chubby fingers he held a pipe, and with his lips he took a sip of gaseous pleasure, filled his lungs with it, and exhaled a cloud of smoke. He watched as the ghastly flower floated away from his face.
The door opened again.
“I thought the royal palace forbade candles for seven nights.”
“I’m sorry, old friend.” The fat man said without looking at the room’s new occupant. “I can’t enjoy my nightly smoke if I can’t see it, can I now?”
Mr. Silker smiled. “I’m sure you can, Mr. Browley.” He said to the fat man as he hung his bowler hat on a wall hook, his hair now groomed and flowing.
His face was clean and shaven, properly showing his sharp jaw. He replaced his traveler’s garbs with a fine night suit, and his ripped brown gloves with clean white ones.
“Have a seat and tell me, Marion.” Mr Browley said, tapping the tip of his pipe against his fat cheek. “Tell me how you did it.”
Mr. Silker raised an eyebrow as he sat across from Browley. “Did what?”
“You know exactly what!” Mr. Browley laughed, the fat around his chin jiggling. “You deceived an entire kingdom.”
Mr. Silker entwined his gloved fingers, looked at the fat man and said nothing.
Mr. Browley carried his heavy self off the chair and slowly walked to the window, staring out into the night. “The poor, foreign salt merchant, who went to every village and every city, pretending he knew nothing, and sent the army against thousands of villagers… You started a war, Marion.”
“I thought you would be interested in the why more than the how, Mr. Browley.”
“Tell me how you did it, and I’ll tell you why you did it.”
“Very well.” Mr. Silker said. “Simple, really. Give two men two ideas, and they’ll argue. Give twenty men two opinions, and they’ll fight. Give two hundred thousand men two beliefs, and they’ll kill each other.”
Mr. Browley said nothing.
“Like a rainstorm, a man’s conviction to defend his beliefs gets bigger for each man that joins his beliefs. One raindrop over another forms a torrent that will destroy everything in its wake.” Mr. Silker explained calmly, his eyes never leaving Mr. Browley’s back. “All I did was redirect two torrents towards each other.”
“I’m impressed, Marion. I expected nothing less from a royal advisor.” Mr. Browley said. “However, it’s a shame these raindrops always seem to forget that they came from the same cloud.”
“A shame, yes.”
“Everything that happened, Marion, happened because of you.” Mr. Browley took another lungful of smoke. He breathed it out as he continued. “Every good deed and bad deed entitled to the king was really yours, wasn’t it?”
“The king was neither hero nor tyrant. He was a fool. Everything I advised him to do, he did without question.” Mr. Silker stood up. “Over the years, this… contrast in the actions of the ‘king’ formed two different opinions of him. Two opinions were enough to form a rift.”
“I’ll tell you why you did it. Wealth.” Mr. Browley said, still peeking out of the tall window. “You didn’t even bother to change your name, so that must mean you eventually wanted to be known. Wars are costly, and by starting one, you force the kingdom to open its reservoir of gold, which happens to be in this very palace. With the kingdom’s vault wide open, stealing can never be easier. Am I right, Mr.–”
The moment Mr. Browley turned, he saw Mr. Silker’s pale face centimeters away from his. Mr. Silker shoved the fat one against the window.
“What is the meaning of this, Marion!? Are you insane!?”
“Alas, your guess is incorrect, my old friend.” Mr. Silker’s eyes locked with Mr. Browley’s, one hand closed tightly around the fat one’s neck, the other hand firmly holding a long, serrated knife with a white handle made of a carved bone.
“Let me go! HELP!” Mr. Browley dropped his pipe and tried to shout, but with Mr Silker’s long, gloved fingers closing on his neck, he couldn’t raise his voice.
“Only a fool makes wealth his goal. Wealth is merely a method used to attain bigger goals.” Mr. Silker said with a wide grin. “For example, the death of a king, the fall of a kingdom, et cetera.”
“You’re…” Mr. Browley eyes widened in shock. He noticed the knife’s bone handle. “You’re from Kostland!”
“Bravo, Mr. Browley.” The tea-lover said. “Now, I’m afraid our friendship has lasted exactly as long as intended.”
“You can’t kill me! I’m the Head Advisor!” Mr. Browley struggled and kicked aimlessly. “YOU CAN’T KILL ME!”
Mr. Silker giggled. “You seem to have forgotten one small thing, Mr. Browley.”
Very slowly, Mr. Silker inserted his long, thin knife into Mr. Browley’s heart.
“The King is dead.”