The King of the Dead People sat on his throne and glared round at his court. It was meant to be a benevolent gaze, but, lacking eyelids, he could only glare.
“Good morning, everyone.” The King beamed round the assembled nobles and courtiers. “I see we have a large gathering today. What’s the order of business?”
“Your Majesty.” The Prime Minister who stepped forward had been dead so long he was almost a mummy. He bent his wizened face floorwards, but not too much, lest his desiccated back snap like a twig. “We have plenty of petitions, but, first, there is sad news.” He paused. “Majesty, your great rival the King of the Living Dead has finally become dead dead.”
“Ah well,” the King of the Dead People said cheerfully, “that is sad news indeed. We’ll just have a minute’s silence in his memory, shall we?”
Complete silence fell. There was not even the sound of breathing – there wouldn’t have been, of course, since almost everyone present was dead and therefore not breathing. So complete was the silence that the sudden buzz of a bluebottle echoed around the room like a chainsaw.
The King of the Dead People still had the complete use of his ears, and he leaped up, pointing with his finger, tracking the insect by its buzz. His subjects craned to follow his direction. They were all up now, their attention fixed on the tiny darting speck, high up near the ceiling.
“Destroy that thing,” the King whispered. His vocal apparatus had not held up as well as his ears, so that a hoarse whisper was the best he could manage, and that on a good day. Today was a good day – or had been, until the accursed bluebottle had appeared. “Destroy it before it lays eggs on someone!”
Human slaves rushed forward from the shadows, wielding fly swatters on long poles. The fly zigzagged frantically, easily evading their clumsy blows, and came zooming up the hall towards the King himself.
“Save me!” the King whispered, and dived under his throne for shelter. “Save me from that horrible, maggot-generating insect!”
But instead of surging forward to save him, his subjects – petitioners, courtiers, ministers, even the tall bodyguards flanking his throne – fell back in terror. Everyone feared the horrible, flesh-destroying maggots of the bluebottles above all else. And, as though homing to a signal, the fly headed straight for the King, its ovipositor thrust forward like a dagger, all the better to extrude eggs with. A moment more, and it might have been all over, but for the hatching and the eating.
But no! From behind the throne darted a female slave, a swatter held high in her delicate hand. She swung it in a vicious arc, and the bluebottle turned into a smear of wings, legs and yellow intestine.
Still trembling, the King emerged from under his throne, and shambled to where the human slave stood, breathing, her breasts rising and falling under her diaphanous robe.
“Thank you, child,” the King whispered. It was not usual to thank a slave, but the King liked breaking social rules whenever he could. “Thank you for saving me.”
“It was my duty, sire,” the slave replied, curtseying. “Anyone else in my position would have done the same.”
“Is that so?” The King looked contemptuously at his ministers and bodyguards. “You nobles and soldiers,” he said, his whisper cutting like a knife through the rising hubbub, “abandoned your duty towards me, your king – but this, this living human slave, this creature from the lower depths, had more integrity than the lot of you.” He stared at them out of his lidless eyes until they looked away. “Go away,” he said at last. “In the interests of efficient administration, I’m adjourning business for the day.”
Not waiting to see their reaction, he turned his back on them contemptuously, and walked away.
“What happened at work today?” the Vice-King asked. “I’ve been hearing all kinds of things.”
“What kind of things?” the King demanded. He had never had much patience with the Vice-King, who had actually undergone autopsy before coming back to life and as a result lacked viscera; a “gutless wonder”, as the King thought of him. “What have you been hearing?”
“Uh, well,” the Vice-King said, evidently put off by the King’s aggressive tone. “Apparently you humiliated the court by comparing them unfavourably to...” He hesitated. “A human slave,” he finished.
“And what if I did? That slave saved me from becoming maggot food, while the rest of them didn’t lift a finger to help. Did your sources mention that? I thought not.”
“I’m not at liberty to betray my sources by quoting what they told me,” the Vice-King said stiffly.
“Perhaps then you’d be better off not passing on their talk at all,” the King replied.
Long after the Vice-King had left, the King sat brooding at the perfidy of his courtiers and bodyguards. The lot of them, he thought, were worth less than one miserable human slave. Their oaths to be true to him for undeath meant nothing when the time had come.
From there his thoughts wandered to the slave herself. With her long hair and flawless skin, she was a fetching wench, almost pretty enough to be the consort of a King. It was a pity she wasn’t dead.
Suddenly, the King realised that he was spending time thinking about a human slave, something that was usually considered a social gaffe of stupendous proportions. But he was feeling rebellious, so, almost masochistically, he continued thinking about her, bringing her up in his mind’s eye for inspection, from her braided hair to her heaving, pointed breasts, down to her dimpled navel and painted toes.
All of a sudden he could stand it no more. He wanted to see her again, to thank her properly, he told himself, for saving him from becoming a home for maggots. He considered having her summoned to his quarters, but then he realised that he did not know her name. And there was no telling where she would be put to work the next day, so he couldn’t rely on her being in the great hall again.
There was nothing for it but to visit the slave pens and try to track her down. It was almost feeding time, so the slaves would be assembled, their hungry, living mouths disgustingly agape, glistening with saliva. The thought made the King feel quite ill, but he wouldn’t let such minor considerations divert him from his purpose.
There was a problem, though. He couldn’t exactly go down to the slave pens just like that – Kings weren’t supposed to even acknowledge the existence of slaves, let alone visit them in their quarters. He already had a reputation for eccentricity. He could not afford to acquire a reputation for dangerous eccentricity, not if he wished to keep his position and not wind up dead dead like his late rival the King of the Living Dead. He needed a disguise.
Fortuitously, he had just the thing. It so happened that a few weeks previously, the King had been presented something which purported to be an insect-proof robe. He had only tried it on once, and found it so excruciatingly uncomfortable that he’d decided to risk the insects rather than wear it again. But it still hung from a hook on his wall, and it had the great advantage of covering him so completely as to make him unrecognisable. It even had a hood with a mesh that covered his face.
Sighing mentally – not being able to breathe, he couldn’t literally sigh – at the trouble he was putting himself to, the King pulled on the robe. He adjusted the sleeves, drew the hood down over his features, and – after peeking outside to ensure the coast was clear, and that no spy, servitor or bodyguard was lurking in the corridor – quietly left his rooms. The passages, fortunately, were deserted, and the King reached the service stairs without meeting a single person.
The service stairs were narrow and dark, but safely anonymous and used only by the slaves and other lesser orders, unlike the grand staircase to the front. Besides, only the service stairs went all the way down to the slave pens from this level.
As has already been noted, the King’s ears were exceptionally keen. He was still well above the slave pen level when he heard a rising hubbub, which he immediately identified as that of a hundred and fifty-seven slaves shouting all at once, though he had never heard such a thing before. At first he thought it was their normal shouting at feeding time, but after descending only a few more steps he could make out that they had been disturbed by something. And when he had rushed down to the bottom of the flight of steps, and had passed through the entrance to the slave pens, he saw what that was.
The slave pens, which should have contained only humans at this hour, were full of people – among whom he recognised his own bodyguards and the minister who had bowed stiffly to him earlier in the day. Some of the guards had pushed the humans into the far corner, and holding them there at halberd- and pike-point, while two others were dragging one of them forth by the arms. With no surprise, the King recognised in the struggling, screaming figure the slave who had saved him from the bluebottle.
“Stop!” he whispered, with the special sibilant tone he’d honed over the years, which could cut through even the shouting of a hundred and fifty-seven human slaves. “Stop right there!”
The old minister hardly glanced at him. “Whoever you are,” he snapped, “go away, retreat, buzz off, get lost. You’ve no right to be here.”
“No right!” The King drew himself up to his full and, despite post-mortem shrinkage, still not inconsiderable height. “Who has better right than...” But he trailed off when he saw that nobody was listening to him, and remembered that he was in disguise.
“Is this the wench, sir?” one of the guards asked the minister, dragging the slave’s head back by the hair. “Is this the one you wanted?”
“Yes,” the old minister said, peering at the human. “This is the slave, right enough – the one who was the cause of our humiliation. Drag her upstairs, so that we can try and execute her. And,” he added, as the slave spat out a curse at him, “gag her, shut her up.”
“Try and execute her?” the King demanded, grabbing hold of the minister’s shoulder. “On whose authority?”
“By the Great Grumble of George Romero,” the minister swore, rounding on him. “Let go of me, or I shall order my minions to hack you to pieces. Who are you to interfere in royal matters?”
“Royal matters?” the King asked. “So this is all under the order of the King?”
“Who else but the King?” the minister demanded. “He has decided that this slave wench must answer for her sins.” Shrugging off the King’s hand, he turned back to the guards. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go.”
Ignoring the King, the ministers and guards streamed up the service stairs, those bringing up the rear still holding the other human slaves at bay with their halberds and pikes. Puzzled and not a little alarmed, the King followed after them, pausing only to kick away a couple of humans who attempted to drag him back by the robe.
The old minister led the procession to a minor hall at the back of the ground floor of the palace, where even the King had almost never ventured. Here, the guards flung the slave, who had struggled desperately all the way, on the floor before a tall chair, on which was perched the Vice-King, the gutless wonder himself.
“This,” said the old minister, pointing a rigid, accusing finger, “is the human slave who was the cause of our humiliation. She dared save the former King from the bluebottle, thus obstructing your own ascension to the throne. Punish her, Your Majesty!”
Former King? Your Majesty? The King edged forward, listening intently.
“The punishment is clear enough,” the gutless wonder said lazily. “She must answer with her life. But what of my predecessor? What fate are you planning for him?”
“Tomorrow morning at dawn,” the old minister announced, “we will arrest the knave, and bring him before you on charges of favouring humans over people. And you – still in your official capacity as Vice-King – can sentence him to whatever punishment you deem fit, so long as it is condign enough. And once he is sentenced, Your Majesty...”
“...I can officially declare myself King,” the gutless wonder finished, gleefully rubbing his hands. “I think I shall have him staked out on a dunghill, for the bluebottles to feast on.” This terrible punishment drew forth a gasp of delighted horror from the ministers and guards. “Must I wait till morning to savour the delight of sentencing that bleeding-heart liberal fraud to the punishment he so richly deserves? Why can’t we do it right away?”
“Your Majesty, Your Majesty,” the old minister said, in chiding tones. “Don’t forget that your accession must be in complete accordance with the rules. Your predecessor has an unfortunately high level of support among the people of the slums, and even among the human slaves. You must understand that these stupid people will look for excuses to doubt the legitimacy of your succession. Unless your predecessor is tried and deposed in the full light of day, in the open court, they will whisper that you are a usurper, and will never accept your rule. We must wait till tomorrow. Be of good cheer, Majesty – it is but a matter of a few hours.”
“In the meantime, where is the knave? In his quarters?”
“Aye, and securely guarded.” A momentary confusion flashed across the old minister’s features. “I must admit we hadn’t anticipated the resistance the human slaves put up to the arrest of this wench, and we had to call for reinforcements, owning to which the guard had to be withdrawn for a few moments from his door. But fear not, sire, they are already back on station. He is safe and sound, waiting to be arrested at dawn to await your pleasure.”
“Good, good.” The gutless wonder rubbed his hands together again with manic energy. “All right, destroy this slave and let’s take a break. We all deserve it.”
“If I may interrupt,” the King asked, unable to stop himself, “just how do you intend to destroy this slave? Simply kill her?”
Everyone stared at him as though they had never seen him before, even the old minister. “Who are you?” the gutless wonder asked, frowning. “I’ve never seen you before.”
The King realised that the hood and mask disguised his voice enough that they couldn’t recognise it any more than they could see his face, and that gave him a surge of sudden confidence. “I’m the Royal Executioner,” he said. “The King – I mean the former King – appointed me. I’m an expert in extermination, whether of people or just slaves. Take this creature, for instance,” he said, pointing at the gagged figure of the slave. “You’re planning to take her out and cut her throat for her, I suppose. And then what happens?” He paused dramatically. “Why, she comes back as one of us. Instead of a despicable human slave, she’s one of the people. Is that a punishment, I ask you...or a reward?”
There was a baffled pause. “He’s got a point,” the old minister said at last. “Well, man, what solution do you have?”
“Give her to me,” the King said. “I’ll take her out and destroy her with such consummate skill as no fragment of her will ever be reanimated again. Not even the Holy Romero, on whom be eternal happiness, could resurrect her after I’m through. Give her to me, and I will be back by dawn to await your orders.”
“What other orders?” the gutless wonder asked.
“Your orders on the former King. For,” the King added, “you lot are amateurs at the killing art. Stake out someone on a dunghill for the bluebottles, will you? Which self-respecting bluebottle will ignore the dung and lay on your victim? And just how are you planning to keep him staked out?”
“Uh, well, we’d have him closely guarded, of course, to make sure he didn’t get away.”
“Really? And how many of your guards will be willing to keep their station with a few thousand bluebottles buzzing about?”
Nobody said anything.
“So,” the King said at last, “can I take this slave and dispose of her now?”
“All right,” the old minister said. “But two guards shall go with you.”
“Of course,” the King said. “I will require them in any case, to keep her under control.” He waited until two brawny guards stepped forwards and jerked the slave to her feet. “Follow me.”
The slave, who had spent the intervening time recovering her energies, waited until they left the palace and then, just as the King had anticipated, she began to fight again, frantically, kicking out with her feet and trying to drag her arms free. So frantic were her struggles that the guards were fully occupied with controlling her, and it was no trouble for the King to pick up a heavy stone and club them both unconscious.
“Wait,” he called to the slave, before she could turn on him. “I’m not your enemy. I’m trying to save your life – and mine.”
“Yours?” She peered at him suspiciously. “Why should I believe you? I heard you say you were an executioner.”
“I’m the King,” he informed her. “The real King – the one you saved from the bluebottle.” Clumsily, he dragged off the hood and mask long enough for her to discern his features. “Come on – we’ve got to get away from here.”
“Where to, sire?” The slave seemed suddenly doubtful. “It seems to me that there’s nowhere to run.”
“Didn’t you hear them?” the King asked, taking her lightly by the arm and hurrying her along. “It seems that the poor people, the slum dwellers, are on my side, and so are the human slaves. We’ve to seek shelter in the slums, and rouse the population on our side.”
“Well, that may be true, as far as the slaves go. We have not had as good a master as you.”
“The fact is that they believe it, and are frightened of the fact, so it’s probably true of the people as well. In any case, there’s no other way. We have to gather our supporters.”
He ignored her question. “In fact, this is probably a blessing in disguise. It’s often seemed to me that the divide between the people and humans is undesirable. We should work together for the common good, not separately. This is our chance to end this useless separation.” He thought for a moment. “There’s a place open,” he said, “for someone to stand by my side, someone I can depend on absolutely, a consort, lover and partner who can at the same time be a bridge across the races. I would be honoured if you would agree to fill that role.”
“I don’t know, sire,” the slave replied, her voice full of doubt. “How can I agree? You are a King, and I, a mere human slave. Your people rule over mine, and I have never heard of any relationship between us but that.”
“Remember,” the King said, “I’m still the King – that lot haven’t even got around to formally booting me out yet, so I’m still the legitimate monarch in every sense. And by virtue of that position, I formally emancipate you. In fact, I emancipate all the slaves – all humans. None of you are slaves any longer! Now, as a free agent, tell me – will you be mine?”
Even in the darkness, he saw her smile, and felt her hand steal into his. “You know my answer to that.”
They walked on for a while in silence, feeling the happiness rise inside them.
“Since you’re no longer a slave,” the King said at last, “and since you’re about to become my queen, isn’t it time you told me your name?”
“My name?” the ex-slave and future queen said, smiling,. “Well, it’s very embarrassing actually...”
The night wound towards the dawn, and silence gathered. Only their footsteps sounded in the darkness, and the only voices they heard were each others’. In all the world they might have been alone.
But it was enough for the moment. Danger might threaten, but they had each other, and for the first time in as long as they could remember, they were content.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012