The Kingmakers

The young man sat in front of the hearthfire, the ancient behind him like a tall, thin shadow in the air. Sweat beaded the young man’s face and collected on his lightly stubbled chin, and glistened in the ruddy light of the coals, which provided the only light in the dark room. His wide-set eyes were open wide and white with fear, and his lips trembled uncontrollably.

“It is simple enough, Master Tulane,” the Ancient whispered. “Thrust your finger into the coals.”

“I… I…” The young man swallowed convulsively. The skin of his hand had reddened from the heat, and the tip of his finger was beginning to blister.

“I can’t do it!” he shrieked, and yanked his hand away from the fire. He cradled the burned finger in his lap and rocked back and forth, as sobs racked his shoulders.

“I’ve failed. I’ve failed. I’ve failed,” he chanted in time to his rocking.

A monk approached from near the door and led the young man away, still chanting his failure like a mantra.

The old man turned away from the fire and sat heavily in his own chair. His shadow stretched across the table that lay between him and the deeper shadows where the firelight did not reach. He filled a small glass with wine from a decanter on the table, and swallowed it in one convulsive gulp.

“Pace yourself, Brother Anselm,” said a voice from the darkest corner. “It won’t do to have them smell wine on your breath. Or for you to fall into the fire yourself.”

Anselm spat a curse. “I know, I know, Brother Michael. But I dread this next one. This Tulane fellow was perfectly predictable. Eldest son of a landowner down on his luck. Pressure to succeed, no aptitude or desire. There was no question he would break. The next applicant….” He shuddered, and poured himself another half-glass.

“Equally predictable,” said Brother Michael, invisible in the shadows.

“Then we both agree. Why not turn him away now, and spare him?”

“You know the answer to that, Brother Anselm.”

“Of course I do. My mind has not yet gone to rot.”

“Then let him venture the test. We can’t deny him that opportunity.”

Anselm sighed. “No, we can’t.”

“Do you want me to take this one?”

Anselm hesitated, then shook his head. “Thank you, Brother Michael, but no. You had to deal with the D’Onofrio boy.”

A grunt of assent issued from the shadows. “Aye, that was unpleasant.”

They both sat in silence.

A patterned knock came at the door. Anselm stood and faced the hearth, and composed himself. The door opened, and the monk led in a second young man. This one resembled the first as all healthy young men resemble each other in the eyes of old men. Beyond that, however, they were entirely different. The first had had a soft face; this one’s was hard, even cruel. The first had worn his hair somewhat long, as was the fashion among the wealthy, and his beard stubble was soft and patchy; this one had shaved his head as well as his chin, and the stubble was coarse and black. The first had moved like an aristocrat; this one strode into the room like a warrior.

Anselm gestured to the seat in front of him.

“Sit,” he commanded, all trace of querulousness gone from his voice. His age-hooded eyes looked blind in the dim light.

The young man moved swiftly to the seat, and planted himself in it, claiming it as his own.

“Brother Rupert,” Anselm said, softly. “Attend the fire.”

Rupert stepped to the bellows attached to the hearthfire, and began to pump. Anselm let it reach cold-forge heat, the coals nearly white and hot enough to work copper, before he signaled for Rupert to stop.

“State your name,” Anselm said, his tone formal.

“Marcello Boniface DuBuque, the Third,” the boy said. His tone was proud and unafraid, even a touch arrogant despite the formality of the occasion.

“You wish to be King?”

“Of course,” the young man said, casting aside all pretense of humility.

“You undertake these trials of your own will?”

“I do.”

“You understand that these trials themselves may end in your death?”

“I do.”

“And that passing these trials does not guarantee our endorsement?”

“Yes.”

“Then let us begin. Thrust the index finger of your right hand into the coals.”

The young man hesitated.

“Is this a test of courage? Have I not already demonstrated that on the field of battle?”

Anselm stood silent.

“Bah!” the young man said. “It is but a finger. I have ten, and more courage in each of them than most men have in their entire bodies. I can do this.”

He thrust the tip of his finger into the fire. Yellow flame leaped up. The stink of burning flesh, then of burning bone filled the room. The young man held his finger in place for a moment longer, then screamed once before his eyes rolled back in their sockets and he fell from his chair, pulling his hand free from the fire. His fingertip burned with a greasy yellow flame like a candle. Anselm bent forward swiftly and plunged the boy’s burning hand into a bucket of water that stood near the fire.

Rupert ran to them, and bore up the young man on his shoulders. Anselm opened the door for Rupert and his burden, and then closed the door and leaned his head against it. He stood silently for a long minute. Then he walked unsteadily back to his seat and collapsed into it. He poured himself another glass of wine with shaking hands.

“Perfectly predictable,” Brother Michael said from the shadows.

“Yes.” Brother Anselm’s voice was a whisper.

“Why did you make the fire so hot?” Michael asked. “Did you hope it would discourage him?”

“No,” said Anselm. “There was no discouraging that one. I wanted a clean cautery. You were right. He is entitled to the Questions, now, assuming he survives the shock and the amputation. Who knows, he might surprise us. Perhaps this will have knocked some sense into him. If it does, it would be a shame for him to succumb to infection.”

“Ah,” said Michael.

After a moment of silence, Michael continued, “So what of this third candidate?”

Anselm took a deep breath. “I don’t know. He puzzles me, and I don’t quite trust him. I can’t put my finger on it.”

“He puzzles you? You mean you can’t predict his responses?”

“His answers so far have been unpredictable, yes, but also too … smooth. As if he already knows the questions, and their answers. Is it possible that our protocols have been breached? Are we being manipulated by one of the factions?”

“Which faction backs him?”

“None of them. He is unaffiliated.”

“Which merely means that we don’t know which faction is backing him.”

“Yes.”

Michael mulled this in silence.

“Perhaps,” he said at last. “But if anyone knew, one would think the DuBuque clan would know, in which case the DuBuque boy would not have been so phenomenally stupid.”

“That’s true,” Anselm said. “One of the renegade clans, perhaps?”

“That’s hard to imagine. They have no libraries. They do not value learning. They have sacked only villages and small towns. They would have had to wring the knowledge from one of our members, and all of us who are conversant with the Trial Lore are here right now, and accounted for.”

“Your reasoning is sound, but I am still … unsettled.”

“Perhaps he already knows the questions and answers because he is an avatar of a past King.”

Anselm snorted. “You know I don’t believe in that superstitious rot.”

“Your disbelief does not make it impossible.”

Anselm squirmed in irritation. Then he relaxed. “Now is not the time for our debate, Brother Michael. Much as I enjoy your wit and your twisted logic.”

Michael chuckled drily.

A quick knock sounded on the door, and Brother Rupert stuck his head in.

“Brother Anselm. The physicians say that the boy will likely live. He has survived the shock. He will lose the finger, and most of the dexterity in his right hand, but he will keep the hand and will be able to use it.”

Anselm slumped as the tension in his shoulders released.

“Thank you, Brother Rupert. I’d like to get the third candidate out of the way, and then go to my bed. It has been a trying day. Please show him in.”

Rupert bowed and left, and Anselm resumed his position facing the fire. Rupert returned a moment later with another young man, so like all the other candidates in his youth and health, but as different from the last two as to be a different species. His hair was long and wild, standing up in spots like stiff grass. It was clear he’d tried to tame it with a brush, but the result was to make it look wilder than ever. Even in the dim glow of the coals, his pale eyes seemed unfocused. His limbs were willow-thin, and he walked with a slight limp.

Anselm gestured to the chair in front of the fire. “Sit,” he commanded.

The boy did not obey immediately, but instead turned about several times, surveying the nearly-dark room. He hesitated, then bowed slightly to the shadowed corner where Brother Michael resided. Then he bowed more deeply to Brother Anselm and dropped into the seat before the fire, and unkempt tangle of unruly hair and limbs.

“State your name,” Anselm said.

“John Travers.”

“You wish to be King?”

The boy stared into the red coals, silent. Protocol forbade Anselm from asking that particular question again, and he was about to dismiss the boy, when he began to speak.

“My father… was a master leathersmith. He made shoes, mostly, and purses. Sometimes fancy, beautiful things for people with money. I loved to watch him work. He was so careful. Every mark on the leather, just so. Momma loved him, too. I had two big brothers, and a little sister, and we were … happy.

“Then the Black Clan came, and burned our city. Papa and Mama died, and my brothers, and my sister. I was captured and sold to bandits. I was too small for heavy work, so they made me do little jobs around the camp, like bring food and water to the people they robbed and held for ransom, and those people always said the same thing: they said if there was a King, this sort of thing would not be allowed.

“When I got old enough, I escaped. I traveled a lot, on foot, and I found out that things were bad everywhere. And everyone said the same thing, no matter where I went. If there was a King, things would be better.

“But there was no King. The last King was over a hundred years ago. They said no one could pass the Trials. I asked what it took to pass the Trials, but no one could tell me. They said it was a secret, a mystery. They said either you had the stuff of Kings in you, or you didn’t. They said to go ask the Prophets, and they’d give you the Trials, and then you’d know.”

The boy turned around to look at Anselm.

“I don’t know if I’ve got the stuff of Kings in me, sir, and I really don’t know if I want to be King. But I want there to be a King, and there won’t be one if no one tries. So I’m here to try.”

Anselm cleared his throat. If this answer was genuine, it was the best answer he’d ever heard. It reeked of artifice. Whoever had schooled this boy had done it well.

“You undertake these trials of your own will?”

“Yes.”

“You understand that these trials themselves may end in your death?”

The boy hesitated, and turned back to the coals. He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders.

“I do,” he said.

“And that passing these trials does not guarantee our endorsement?”

“Yes.”

“Then let us begin. Thrust the index finger of your right hand into the coals.”

The boy flinched, like he’d been struck. He twisted around and looked at Anselm with wide eyes. He held up his index finger.

“This?” he said. “Are you joking?”

Anselm stood impassively.

The boy turned and stared for a long moment at his upraised finger. He slowly reached toward the coals. The ruddy glow painted his hand in crimson and orange. He stopped. His hand inched closer. He stopped again.

Then he withdrew his hand and put it in his lap.

“No,” he said.

Anselm gestured, and Brother Rupert approached and led the boy from the room.

Anselm sat, slowly, with a sigh like steam escaping from a hot sausage. He reached for the wine decanter, but then let his arm rest on the table.

“Well, it is the only sane and sensible response, after all,” said Brother Michael. “I’m always surprised by how many fail the test, one way or the other. But I see what you mean. He didn’t even put up a fight. He just said, ‘No.’ Certainly odd.”

“Perhaps.” Anselm’s tone was pensive.

“What are you thinking now?” Brother Michael asked.

“He almost put his hand in the fire. Every motion said he was thinking about doing it. His arm, his neck, his back. And then he changed his mind, and drew back. If he was schooled in this, Brother Michael, his acting skills are astonishing.”

“Yet his answers are too perfect, I agree. How do you explain that?”

Brother Anselm poured himself a small amount of wine, and swirled it under his nose.

“I’m thinking that perhaps he is an avatar of a former King.”

Brother Michael chuckled. “If you’re considering that, then it seems miracles are truly afoot.”

Anselm laughed, then drank the wine.

“Good night, brother Michael. Sleep well, if you can. I know I won’t.”

-#-

Tulane, the first boy, left the monastery at dawn, still apologizing for his failure. The monks did not encourage him to stay. Brother Anselm wondered sadly how many years it would take for the boy to get past his belief in his inadequacy — if, indeed, he ever did. Between his father’s ambitions and the Trials, the boy had probably been broken beyond repair.

They chose to wait until the DuBuque boy had recovered enough to face the Questions. After two days, the physicians said he was ready, so long as no physical stress was required. They assured him that there would be no physical stress.

They met at midday, in one of the libraries, well-lit through large louvers in the ceiling, designed to admit daylight but no moisture. Brother Rupert led Marcello DuBuque into the room. Brother Anselm and Brother Michael both sat comfortably in deeply-upholstered chairs, and Anselm gestured to a third chair that faced the other two, forming an intimate triangle.

“Please sit, Marcello Boniface DuBuque the Third,” Anselm said.

Marcello’s face was pale, and his eyes shadowed. His right hand was heavily bandaged, and held high against his chest in a cloth sling. The physicians had given him some medication for the pain during the first day, but had weaned him off it the second day, so that he could continue the Trials with a clear head.

“Do you wish to delay the Trials, in light of your injury?” Anselm asked.

Marcello shook his head sharply, with a scowl, though he did not meet the eyes of either monk.

“Do you still wish to be King?” Brother Michael asked.

“Yes,” Marcello snarled.

“Then let us continue the Trials,” said Brother Anselm. “We will begin by asking you to explain why you put your hand in the fire.”

Hot anger swept across Marcello’s face. “You know damn well why I put my hand in the fire! Because you—“ Marcello suddenly pinched his lips together, and his face went pale.

“Because you made me do it,” Anselm thought. Or perhaps, “Because you told me to.” At least he had the sense to not finish that sentence.

Anselm and Michael waited quietly for Marcello to continue.

“Because it was a test of courage,” he said, striking a pose, though still seated. “A test of raw, physical courage. Which I passed, as befits a future King.”

“Mmmm,” said Brother Michael. “And what would you say you learned from this test of courage, Marcello Boniface the Third?”

“Learned?” said Marcello, his eyebrows rising, along with his voice. “Learned? I learned that it hurts to put your finger in the damned fire! What was I supposed to learn from your stupid test?” He started to rise from his seat.

Brother Anselm clapped his hands twice, and two large monks quickly flanked Marcello on either side. Marcello looked like he wanted to fight them right then and there, but thought better of it, given the condition of his hand.

“We will speak again tomorrow,” said Brother Anselm. And the day after that, and the day after that, until you grow tired of hearing the same two questions over and over, and go home.

This one would never be King.

Rupert approached and gestured for Marcello to precede him back to the infirmary. The two large monks followed close behind.

Brother Michael leaned toward Anselm. He was almost as old as Anselm, but portly and soft, and a wicked humor gleamed in his eyes.

“A week,” he said.

“Three days,” Anselm responded, with no change in his dour expression, though his eyes also twinkled behind his heavy lids.

“He has too much ambition. He’ll hold out for a week out of pure stubbornness.”

“Too impatient and reckless. Three days.”

Brother Michael chuckled. “We’ll see.”

After a few minutes, Rupert returned with John Travers. They invited him to sit with them.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Do you still wish to be King?” Brother Anselm asked.

“Yes, I’m still willing to be King,” John answered.

“Then let us continue the Trials,” said Brother Michael. “We will begin by asking you why you did not place your hand in the fire.”

John nodded slowly.

“At first it was fear. The bandits branded me when I was sold. I’ve felt the pain of burning, and I was afraid of it. But then, I thought this must be some kind of test of bravery, and if I didn’t do it, I’d fail the test. So I decided to do it, come what may.

“But then my hand got closer to the fire and it started to hurt, and I lost my nerve. That’s when I realized something. You never gave me any reason to put my hand in the fire. You just told me to do it. And I thought, ‘What kind of King just drops his trousers and starts dancing on his hands any time one of his advisors tells him to do it?’ That’s when I knew that the right answer to the test was to refuse. That’s what a real King would do.”

Michael and Anselm glanced at each other.

“And what,” said Brother Michael, “would you say that you learned from this test?”

John scowled. “Obviously, that a King needs to know the reason for his actions.”

“What else?” Anselm said.

John’s scowl deepened.

At last he said, “I don’t know. I need to think about it more.”

“We will speak again tomorrow,” Michael said. He clapped his hands once, and Brother Rupert approached and led John away.

“What do you think?” said Michael.

Anselm steepled his fingers, brow knitted. “ He didn’t dismiss the question, which is good. He avoided the trap of ‘The King Must Know Everything’, like it had never occurred to him. That was also good.”

“How deeply do you think he’ll answer?”

“I don’t know, Brother Michael. But I’m beginning to hope.”

-#-

When John returned to the library the next day, he wore a faint scowl and an expression of irritation.

“Does every King face the same Trials?” he asked without preamble.

“No,” Anselm answered. “The Trials are intended to allow us to see into the heart of anyone who wishes to become King. If the Trials became rote, people could train for them as they train for battle, or for an examination. They would tell us who had purchased the best trainers, and trained the hardest, but little else.”

John nodded thoughtfully. “That’s why the Trials are a mystery. So that no one can ever prepare for them.”

“Exactly.”

“So you won’t answer my next question. I want to know what Trial the last King faced at this point.”

Anselm smiled, with an apologetic shrug. “You are correct. We won’t answer that.”

“Then can you tell me about the last King himself? Can you tell me what kind of a man he was?”

“We have detailed histories and biographies of all the Kings, back to King Trevor, the first King after the collapse of the Old World.”

John’s face fell. “I can’t read. Only a few words.”

Anselm smiled again. “You should learn, but there is ample time for that. For now, we will assign a novice to read to you, if you wish.”

John’s expression cleared. “Yes, that would be wonderful.”

“So you do not wish to answer the question today?”

“No. I have no answer. Yet.”

“Then have your reader notify us when you are ready to answer,” Anselm said. He clapped his hands, and Brother Rupert took John from the room.

“Better and better,” Brother Michael said. “Do you still believe we are being manipulated?”

“That’s harder to believe with every meeting,” Anselm answered. “He doesn’t seem to know any of the answers he could give. But he’s asking all the right questions.”

“So is he an avatar?” Michael asked.

A chill went up Anselm’s spine. “Superstition. Nonsense.”

Michael studied his face, and then smiled. “But you are no longer entirely sure of that, I see.”

Anselm made a face. “You know me too well, Brother.”

Michael chuckled. “By the way, we both underestimated the intelligence of the DuBuque boy. He left this morning, like a bad storm blowing away to the East.”

Anselm smiled. “Intelligence, or pride?”

“Intelligence. Had he stayed the three days you predicted, or the seven I predicted, it would have been pride. To leave this morning meant he had already worked out that he’d failed the Trials, and there was no point in continuing.”

“He will be trouble for the new King.”

“Or his most loyal and valued subject,” Michael said.

-#-

A week passed. Word reached Brothers Anselm and Michael that John spent long hours with his reader, learning about past Kings, and his remaining time walking through the gardens and the forest that adjoined the monastery lands, accompanied always at a short distance by a minder who would observe and report any meetings with others. John, however, met with no one — he seemed to walk for the solitude.

He spent a few hours each day tending the gardens with the other monks, and one afternoon high in the coppiced trees of the firewood grove, harvesting wood — he said that heights did not bother him, and he did seem fearless, twenty feet above the ground with only branches and empty air beneath him.

There had been twenty-seven Kings, most of them with very short reigns in the tumultuous years after King Trevor. As the aftershocks of the slow crumbling of the Old World subsided, people began to govern themselves locally and trade, and eventually King Emmett abdicated in favor of the First Constitutional Trade Confederation. There were only four Kings after Emmett, and the last, King Olander, had died a little over a century ago. John had started his studies with Olander, then expanded to the others.

A second week passed, and the reader reported that John had begun to focus almost exclusively on King Olander and the previous King, particularly on the laws they laid down and enforced. Then, one morning, John sent the reader away, and spent the entire day sitting on a rock in the gardens. He sat through an afternoon rainstorm, and though he thanked the monk who brought him a towel and dry clothing afterward, he remained seated on his rock well into the night.

The next morning, he requested a meeting with Brothers Anselm and Michael.

“Do you still wish to be King?” Brother Anselm asked, formally, once they were all seated.

“No,” John answered. “If I had a home to return to, I’d want to go home.”

“Then you do not wish to continue the Trials?” Brother Michael said. Disappointment colored his voice.

“I didn’t say that,” John snapped. “I answered the question you asked.”

Anselm smiled. “So then, are you willing to be King, should we choose to endorse you?”

“Yes. I am willing.”

“Then let us continue the Trials. What lesson have you learned from the test of fire?”

“I learned the purpose of pain.”

“And what is the purpose of pain?”

“The purpose of pain is to warn us against damaging ourselves. It wasn’t until I felt the pain in my fingertips that I realized how hot that fire was, and how much damage I was about to do to myself. It wasn’t until then that I thought about what I was doing, and realized I had no good reason to do it. Without pain, I would have no finger, now, maybe no hand. I might already be dead or dying from poisoning of the blood. That’s the purpose of pain. To warn us against being stupid.”

“Why do you think this test is one of the Trials?”

“Because a King must feel pain. He must feel the pain of his people. Of his kingdom. Of its most remote parts, like the fingers and toes. Pain is what will warn him against damaging his kingdom. A King who doesn’t feel pain will always make bad decisions. He’ll sacrifice an outlying district to bandits, because it’s too far away. He’ll sacrifice his subjects, because their local customs are inconvenient, or because they’re poor and need help. He’ll sell off land and water for a quick profit in gold. He’ll betray allies, and turn them into enemies. He’ll start unnecessary wars. He’ll do all of this because he feels no pain to warn him against being stupid.”

John stared into the space between Anselm and Michael.

“The King will always feel pain. Because your Order doesn’t raise up Kings unless there is pain in the land, does it? You raise up Kings only when there is pain. And the King must feel that pain. What sane person would want that job?”

“Do you feel that pain, John Travers?” Brother Anselm asked, softly.

An expression of deep sadness crossed John’s face, and a single tear escaped from his eye and ran down his cheek.

“Yes,” he whispered.

“Then that is the answer to your question, John. The only sane person who would want the job is someone who already feels that pain. As a commoner, all you can do is suffer. As King, you might — might — be able to do something about it.”

Brother Michael leaned forward in his chair. “So, John, are you still willing to be King?”

John’s unfocused gaze went from Michael, to Anselm, and back.

“I will have advisors?” he asked.

“Who will always give you reasons,” Brother Michael said with a smile.

“Which you may disagree with,” Brother Anselm added.

John nodded, slowly.

“Then yes, I am still willing.”

“Then we will speak again tomorrow,” Brother Anselm said. He clapped once, and Brother Rupert came and took John away.

The two old men sat in silence for a time. Then Brother Michael turned his head to look at Anselm.

“Avatar?” he asked.

Anselm sat quietly without answering.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “But I think he will be a good King.”

This entry was posted in Fiction.

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