I had never seen a ceiling so high, taller than five of my family’s huts stacked one atop another. The great hall was a cavern, with white pillars as broad and round as giant’s legs. The floor was laid with stone slabs, as pale as the tombstones in our parish graveyard.
I followed the man in the red cloak. One would think that any noise one made in a room this large would be swallowed by the cavernous ceilings. But every one of the red cloaked man’s footsteps struck with a sound like a pick ax against rock. For once, I was glad for my leather shoes. Every time he turned his head and snarled at me to hurry, his voice echoed like the voice of a hundred men.
The double doors of the throne room loomed before us, made from heavy wooden beams carved in the intricate designs I recognized as those unique to our region. My father – God rest his soul – had schooled me in these things. I barely had the sense to study their intricate beauty, however, my vision blurred as it was with fear.
As the minister pushed open one large door, I started back at the unnatural brightness within – the product of light from a thousand torches. People in my village whispered that the lights in the throne room never went out. The king ordered them to be kept burning all day and night. The bodies that hung from the castle walls, some said, had belonged to those servants who hadn’t tended their flames.
I wrung my hat in my fists, ruining the feather my mother had so lovingly attached to the brim only that morning. I had tried to get up the courage to argue with her, to tell her that sending me to a madman king would do nothing to further my chances in life. But the words stuck in my throat. They were treasonous, after all. Everyone knew the king was insane, but no one could speak of it.
Immediately within the doors, the red caped man sank into a low bow. I followed his example. We remained bent over in this posture for a time that seemed eternity, before he sprang up again, took a few steps more, and bowed a second time. I scampered after him. As we made our slow progress to the head of the throne room, I caught my first glimpse of the king.
The throne stood on a pedestal, surrounded by an entourage of servants. The king sat, robed in a patchwork of velvets and satins, one leg swung over the arm of the throne. An ugly monkey perched on one shoulder, grooming the lice from his hair.
In the king’s lap sat a great, gold crown encrusted with precious stones. If I were to sell even one of those stones, I thought – remembering only at that moment to return my gaze to the floor – the price would feed my entire village for twenty years. The fear that such an idea could be read upon my countenance, however, made me bend my head still lower. Nothing to me was more frightening than a madman with power.
“Who do you bring, Minister?” The king’s voice was shrill. We were barely half-way down the hall to the throne, but at the sound of his voice, the red cloaked man sank to the floor. I followed with such a terrified abandon that my knees cried out with pain as they glanced against the stone. For a moment I feared I’d ripped my good pair of breeches, which would not only frustrate my mother, but might be the end of my life if the king noticed and took offence.
“A blacksmith’s apprentice,” said the red cloaked man, his head still bent low. “He has come to beseech an audience of your majesty, in accordance with the written law of our land, to beg to be allowed to begin work in the trade in which he has been trained.”
“He’s very small,” said the king. “How old are you, boy?”
My cheeks burned. Mother had told me to say I was fifteen, the legal age for beginning a trade, but I was really only twelve. To lie to the king – well, that was treason indeed. I whispered a goodbye to her under my breath; dear mother, who meant well, who had both our interests at heart when she sent me to petition here. It wasn’t her fault my father was dead and we had no other means to put bread on the table than by the blacksmith tools he’d left behind. “Fifteen,” I answered, making my voice as deep as I could muster. My life depended on it.
“He’s as big as the monkey!” roared the king. “Fifteen, indeed! I doubt he’s even as skilled as the monkey. Though you are very skilled, my small Abijon….” My head was bowed, but I could only guess he was speaking to the animal on his shoulder. The monkey screeched a reply and then fell quiet, busy, I had no doubt, grooming the king’s mane of ebony hair.
A silence as blank as the stone floor swept an ever tightening bond around my heart.
“Approach me!” cried the king.
I trembled, not sure to whom the king was speaking, until I felt the minister’s hand grip the top of my arm and yank me up.
“Approach the king, boy,” he hissed in my ear, his breath the foul odor of rotted sugarcane. “But, if you value your life, look him not in the eye!”
I kept my head bowed, and approached the throne.
"And your name?" he cried, when I reached the foot of the steps leading up to the throne.
I opened my mouth to speak the truth. My name was Christina. But only then did I remember I was meant to be a boy.
"Christian," I said.
Thanks to Christina who inspired this story with her words pompous, patchwork and entourage. If you'd like to provide three words of inspiration for a future story, click here.