Un Conte Cruel

by Paulus the Woodgnome

The King (may he live for ever !) cannot sleep. His Majesty is laid every night upon sheets of silk under hangings dyed the colour of the midnight sky and sewn with gold and seed pearls, but he cannot sleep. The word has gone all through the Court, from the high officials to the lesser, and of course the servants (who know everything first) have spread the news beyond the hidden gardens and the jade-tiled walls of the palace into the town and the surrounding countryside. The King cannot sleep, for light-fingered, light-hearted Zethel, son of Zithiriel the demiwitch, has stolen away from the palace and stolen the rest from His Majesty's soul.

Now the King's temper, always a little high, has grown more unreliable than ever for want of sleep; only a certain aristocratic ennui has prevented him from having all the Court officials boiled in honey, or starting a small war as a distraction. The Court Physicians have all been dismissed, without a pension, for the failure of their syrups and linctuses: not drowsy poppy, nor spiky Cretan lettuce, nor valeriana that nods red in the rocky gardens of the West can bring Sleep's dark wing to the royal bedchamber.

If it were only the physicians, mind you, there would be little to trouble anyone, but all the rest of the court has suffered. Most especially, handsome youths, of whatever station (normally such a feature and an adornment of the Court), have had a hard time of it, and those in particular whose misfortune it is to have long dark hair, sparkling grey eyes and lithe tanned bodies (as, many recall, did the never-to-be-sufficiently-maledicted Zethel) are liable to provoke a storm upon entering the Presence. A new fashion has grown up, for cropped blonde hair and muscles.

Today it is the turn of the wizards. They have come and gone, dismissed with harsh words and without success. Until, at the very end of the queue of petitioners comes a mountebank dressed in the style of the East, very shabby, a small sorceror such as make their living among the souks and the caravanserais with illusion and clever patter and the small magics of finding and hiding. And he speaks at length to the First Minister, whose countenance has grown near as haggard as his master's, and shows him a document, and for the first time since the beautiful and unreliable offspring of the demiwitch quit the palace the First Minister is seen to smile.

Then the First Minister with his own hands has taken a document and written upon it that he requires all who are presented with it to give aid to the bearer in the King's name, and sealed it with the Lesser Seal, which is the seal used for all official business less terrible than successions, marriages, and capitulations. Thus armed the mountebank in turn has busied himself among the carpenters and device makers and silversmiths and makers of musical intruments, requisitioning aid and supplies with equal liberality. And in truth, the various artisans and craftsmen have been glad enough to lend their aid, for when the Court sneezes, it is said, honest working folk catch cold, and commissions and payments have been scarce enough in this uncertain time. Finally, this ragged outsider, this stranger, this uncertain and unreliable saviour, has gone through the ranks of the army and the rabble of the town, through the souks of the merchants and the silken hangings of the court, searching for those young men with the bravery and the talents and the will to serve their country.

In a disused courtyard of the palace a large awning has been erected to hide the work from the eyes of the curious and the rays of the sun. The workmen work with hammers padded with wool, that the noise of hammering may not disturb His Majesty and cause him to enquire about this most secret project. Other noises have come of late, strange caterwaulings and cries, hastily muffled. At last, it seems the work is done. The courtyard stands empty again, dreaming in the sunlight, and the lizards return to claim it for their own.

And that night, as the King (may he live for ever !) prepares wearily for another night of tossing and turning he sees, as his gentlemen of the bedchamber escort him to the high divan dressed with silk, that a hanging, a veil as fine and grey as mist, lies across the far end of the chamber where his musicians (now dismissed and working in taverns for a poorer but more appreciative audience) were wont to sit.

His brow grows thunderous.

"What is the meaning of this ?" he asks, with a sullen restraint that bodes ill for the author of such an unauthorised change in the royal decor.

"Your Majesty," says the First Minister, appearing as if by magic, "this is my doing. But I pray you before you dismiss me, who has served you and your father before you faithfully these 47 years, that you will hear me out, whom I love like a son as well as a monarch."

The King thinks that this is certainly insolence and possibly lese-majeste, and is just about to open his mouth to enquire the statutory penalty for the latter when the minister claps his hands, the veil falls, and the King gasps and then falls silent.

"Your Majesty," says the little sorceror, seated at the keyboard, "I present a music that I trust will be to your taste."

For at last revealed, the design, so roughly sketched out on his diagrams and made solid, workable, and beautiful by the craftsmen of the court, is a musical intrument. An organ, perhaps one might deem it, of a most refined and unusual kind. So refined and unusual, indeed that it might very well catch the aesthetic attention even of such a subtle monarch as our own.

The keyboard is of ivory and rosewood, and the inlays are of sandal and electrum, and the carving - the carving is exquisite, and detailed and quite unusual in content, since it depicts scenes of flagellation and punishment with the nicest precision and clarity of line. But the best part, ah by far the most interesting part, judging by His Majesty's transfixed gaze, is the music-making mechanism itself as it rises up above the instrumentalist.

Affixed to twelve wooden supports are twelve young men. All are naked, and lithe, with sunkissed golden skin and long dark hair. Twelve mirrors of polished silver, carefully positioned, permit one to see their faces, which would otherwise be hidden since each is bound face down by chains of steel. The padded wood beneath them is shaped and curved so that the most prominent part of each is the buttocks. Each young man is regular of feature, and grey of eye. They are arranged by order of height, from a slim, short youth who seems scarcely more than a boy, to a strapping young soldier well above two yards in height and with shoulders to match. And poised above the buttocks of each is a wheel bearing an array of short leather straps.

The shabby stranger turns to his keyboard and begins to play. As each key is depressed the rotating wheel lowers, delivering a stream of sharp blows to the helpless buttocks pinioned below it. And the boy yells. High and low they yell, making a curious, but not unpleasant music. Not unpleasant, at least, it seems to the king. For His Majesty seems quite entranced by the spectacle. After a brief rendition, the mountebank rises and bows again.

"Your Majesty's skill at all the arts is well known. Would the King's Majesty care to try this unworthy instrument ?"

As if in a dream the King, who has still spoken no word, walks down to the keyboard vacated by the bowing sorceror and seats himself at the console. He looks up at the twelve naked bodies, the buttocks glowing a pretty red from the first tune, and for the first time in a week he smiles.

"We think We might play something . . ." he pauses, "quite long." The youths above him stiffen in their bonds, but there is nothing they can do. The buttocks twitch and strain as they grow first vermilion, then crimson, then rose madder and royal purple, but they cannot escape, no, not by the width of an iota can they escape the cruel leather that stripes the tender flesh.

The king finds the recital quite energising, particularly once the intricacies of the foot pedals are explained: "This for louder, Majesty, as it speeds the wheel, and this for softer, which slows it." His third effort, an attempt at the second movement of Lurazio's "Little Concerto in D" is particularly good even if it is interrupted while his Majesty recovers his breath from laughing so much. But no-one is too concerned - it is a pleasure for all who love him (as of course all his subjects do) to see the monarch restored to such good humour.

Standing up at last from the keyboard with a last basso yelp from the strapping (not to say strapped) youth at the end, the King clasps his First Minister to him and kisses him.

"Dearest of servants," he says, "what should I do without your wisdom ?" and he grants the First Minister the dukedoms of Evanesce and Parity on the spot. The mountebank too, is rewarded, with generous amounts of gold and the usual blinding to prevent any further such instruments being made (a hazard of the trade of which the First Minister inexplicably failed to warn him). And while the King retires to his bed with a small snack of capons, fruit, cheese and three types of wine, together with an extremely pretty and extremely blond boy with whom he will make energetic love before sleeping soundly the clock around, the organ is quietly wheeled to a place of honour in the Hall of Devices, while the music-making parts of it are taken - lying on their stomachs - to the Royal Infirmary, where the attendants will anoint their purple and swollen buttocks with soothing unguents, cognizant of the sacrifices these young men have made for King and Country.

Copyright © 2001

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