Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Monarchs

Here's an old story I did in 2007. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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         “Here they come!”
         “The Monarchs are here!”
         The kitchen was teeming with rushing servers, screaming cooks, and the best dishes a small inn by the border could possibly prepare. That night was an important night for the people. That night would test just how much influence lowly peasants had over their rulers.
         “Remember,” the head of the kitchen reminded her staff as they hurried about. “Everything must be perfect! The Monarchs must have nothing to complain about.” It had been dawn when she started preparing the inn for the evening's gathering. She had given long hours overseeing the cleaning and cooking for this event. She was tired, and her disheveled appearance was evidence to that.
         “Fine,” a young waitress grumbled as she brought the head of a roast pig, almost dropping it a couple of times, to the kitchen counter. “I don’t know why all of you are being so fussy about this. Monarchs do this all the time. It’s not like it’s anything new. I ought to deliberately trip and dump this roast pig on the Queen. That would spice things up a little.”
         “Don’t you dare!” The kitchen head shook the young server in annoyance.
         “I-I was j-joking!” The waitress stuttered, startled at the violent reaction of the older woman.
         “You silly girl! Don’t you realize that if the Monarchs don’t sign that contract, we, being located at the border, are going to suffer most once they decide to wage war against each other?! And patience is a virtue neither the Queen nor the Emperor possesses.”

*****

         Fifty or so peasants were present at the gathering. Most of them had lent a hand in fixing up the inn for the arrival of the Monarchs. They had repaired the damaged wooden rafters to the best of their abilities. Their wives had polished the creaky wooden floors until they almost shined, and their children had done their best to scrub the dirt and grime off the cracked walls and its two tiny windows. They had done everything they could. Now, all they could do, as they held their breaths in suspense of how the Monarchs would react, was hope and pray that the leaders would succumb to their request.

         “His Majesty, the Emperor of the Northern Empire of Kuron.”
         The entire common room fell silent as the imposing figure of the Emperor entered. He was tall. Every fiber of his being exuded regality and power. His pale face was like that of a statue, chiseled and ageless. And his golden eyes, though not unkind, demanded loyalty and obedience from all who beheld them.
         He walked through the room, all eyes following him and the eight men that comprised his party. The men who followed him were big and brawny. Though the men wore the colors of the Empire, they did not appear to be soldiers. If they were armed, they did not show their weapons.
         They followed their ruler as he walked to the middle of the room and stopped before a low table prepared for him. He did not sit down but stood waiting.

         “Her Majesty, the Queen of the Southern Kingdom of Ginta.”
         The Queen entered and the silence among the people turned the whispers. She was indeed as beautiful as the rumors said. And as frightening. Unlike the Emperor, the Queen was visibly young, no more than eighteen summers. Though she was a head shorter than the Northern Monarch, she was no less imposing. The dark gold curls that fell down the sides of her cheeks made one expect an angelic young lady, sweet and smiling. But her delicate features and slightly tanned complexion ran in direct contrast to the iciness in her lavender eyes. She and her entourage of six armed ladies-in-waiting and two royal guards proceeded to another low table across from the Emperor's.
         When the Queen stopped before the table, she and the Emperor took their seats.


         “Ah, your Majesties!” Their host, the bespectacled innkeeper with oily hair, stood beside the Queen. “It is a very great honor to have you here today. We have prepared a feast for you. We have also made sure we have ample supply of wine at your Majesties’ disposal.”
         While the innkeeper droned on about how privileged he and the people were to have the Monarchs accept their invitation to this gathering, if one would pay attention to the two rulers, one would see that their eyes never left the other’s, whether it was because they were sizing each other up or because they were watching the other for any sign of an attack.
         Their host slipped a piece of paper and a quill on the table before the Queen.
         “We’ve prepared some diversions but perhaps her Majesty would like to get the business part over with?”
         “No,” the Queen answered sternly, still without taking her eyes off the Emperor. She took out her fan and started fanning herself.
         “Ah! Of course,” flustered, the innkeeper quickly moved the contract away from the Queen. “Business can wait until later.”

         He cleared his throat, and announced, “Now for some entertainment.” After he clapped his hands twice, three young girls in long flowing skirts with fans in each of their hands came up on the stage.
         “This is a very special type of dance,” the innkeeper explained from beside the Emperor this time. “It involves what is called the Language of the Fan. Does his Majesty know of it?”
         “I know it,” the Emperor answered.
         Though his voice and face were devoid of emotions, his eyes were anything but uninterested as he watched the Queen draw her fan across her palm.
         I hate you. That was what it meant.
         “I know it very well.”


         Dinner was a simple three-course meal of roast meat and in-season produce. Though the Monarchs ate little, they made no complaints, and dinner proceeded uneventfully. It had just finished and the second set of distractions had just begun when the Emperor discreetly took out a fan from within his sleeve.
         Forgive me, his hands said. Holding the fan open, they were clasped together in a silent plea for pardon.
         No! The Queen’s fan responded with an obstinate tap on her left cheek.

         “And now,” their host announced, oblivious to the wordless conversation that had just occurred between the leaders, for although the dance he had introduced was called a Fan Dance, he knew nothing of the true language of the apparatus. “Our talented harpist will play us a song.”
         As the harpist started playing, the Emperor closed his eyes. He knew the song. It told of war, of love, and of loss. It reminded him of every reason why the peasants wished to get him and the icy Southern Queen to enter into agreement.
         After a few seconds, the Emperor opened his eyes and caught the Queen’s cold gaze. He had asked her to come, and he knew she was not happy with his method of ensuring her attendance.
         He touched his fingers to the tip of his fan. I wish to speak to you.
         But her reply was to cover her left ear with her fan. I wish be rid of you.
         The Emperor frowned slightly. You are cruel, his hands said by opening and closing his fan several times.

         The Queen looked away uneasily. She hadn’t meant to be rude. Though he had used the circumstance involved in their first encounter as blackmail for her to attend this gathering, the Emperor wasn’t forcing her to sign, and was acting very gracious before her.
         She stole a glance in his direction. He was still looking at her. She quickly turned away.
         You have changed. She brushed her fan over her forehead.
         The Emperor smiled, and then mimicked her last fan movement. So have you. The turning up of the edges of his lips was slight, but his smile was pleasant and warm nonetheless.
         Blushing, the Queen tore her gaze away from the Emperor and fanned herself furiously. Please! I am engaged now.
         The Emperor gave a knowing smirk. Not yet, the tap of the fan on his left cheek said.
         Negotiations are underway, her wriggling index and middle finger said. Then with as much haughtiness as she could muster, she fanned herself again. I am practically engaged.
         But the Emperor persisted by opening his fan wide and slightly inclining it to her direction. I have been waiting for you.
         The Queen’s fanning slowed down and stopped. Though his message was equally affecting, what caught her was the Emperor’s intense gaze. Strong emotions emanated from the dark depths of those eyes, and the Southern Monarch couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to be at the receiving end of those emotions.
         The Queen caught herself staring. She quickly looked down, but not without a blush and a satisfied smile.

         The harpist stood up. The audience clapped and cheered. But the Monarchs were preoccupied with other things.
         The Emperor touched the handle of his fan to his lips. Kiss me.
         The Queen, surprised and a little scandalized by such a request, blushed profusely. She tapped her closed fan on her palm in a manner she hoped looked threatening. Do not be so impudent!
         The Northern Ruler smiled. He held his fan in his left hand and made one small fanning movement toward him. Then come and talk to me.
         The Queen looked to the side. Still blushing, she twirled her fan in her left hand. We are being watched.
         When may I be allowed to see you then? The Emperor asked, touching his closed fan to his right eye.
         The Queen looked about uneasily. She was not used to this type of flirting. She was not used to any type of flirting. What she was used to was respect and distance.

         When the Southern Monarch did not respond, the Emperor repeated his question. When may I be allowed to see you? Then he partially opened his fan to reveal eight sticks. Eight? Seeing that the Queen’s full attention was focused on the fan and his hands, the Emperor slowly and sensuously pulled one more stick. Nine? The expression on his face was one of teasing, one that was proposing certain possible activities later in the evening.
         The Queen blushed redder. No! Her hand screamed as she practically slapped the fan on her left cheek.
         Amused, the Emperor covered half of his face with the fan on his left hand. I wish to know you better.
         Why? The Queen asked, her closed fan resting on the right side of her head.
         The Emperor’s expression became serious. He positioned the fan before his heart. Because you have captured my heart.

         The Queen was taken aback. Then her expression turned serious, too, and a hint of sadness found its way to her face. She tapped the closed fan on her nose. You lie.
         The Emperor’s expression softened. He rested the fan on his left cheek. No, I do not lie.
         But the Queen quickly put forward her open fan. Stop! With a sad expression, she held the open fan over her mouth, her hand making a ‘p’ sign by touching her thumb to the first knuckle from the base of her index finger. We both know it’s politics.
         Holding the middle of the fan’s first stick, the Emperor made a small hitting movement that sent the other sticks of the fan cascading downwards, opening the fan. This time…
         Then he made an upward movement that quickly closed the fan, and he grasped the fan tightly. …I’m just being selfish.
         He opened the fan and brushed it lightly on his right cheek. I love you.
         The Queen let out a small gasp.
         The Emperor closed the fan and extended his arm forward, offering the fan to the Queen. Do you love me?


         It was not only the Queen who was speechless. The host and the peasants stared at the two Rulers in confusion and fear. Why was the Emperor pointing at the Queen? Was it a declaration of war? Until now, all each Monarch had done was to glare at the other and fan his or herself. What had triggered the Emperor’s displeasure?
         The innkeeper was beside the Emperor in no time. “I-is there something wrong, your Majesty? Did… Did the harpist not please you?”
         While their host was busy trying to appease the Emperor, and all the other peasants were staring and hoping that the Emperor’s irritation would abate, nobody quite noticed the Queen looking at the Emperor with a soft expression on her face.
         The Queen pulled the contract and quill that the innkeeper had left on her table towards her, and signed it. Only when she stood up did the people’s attention shift to her.
         The Queen covered half of her face with the fan on her right hand. Follow me. Her fan told him. With a teasing smile, she placed the half-opened fan on her lips. I just might allow you to kiss me. And she turned around and left.
         The Emperor smiled. He stood up and approached the Queen’s table. He stamped the contract with the seal on his ring, and proceeded to follow the Queen down a narrow corridor.
         In the hall, both Monarchs’ parties were in confusion, not quite knowing what they were expected to do, and wondering whether they should follow their Monarchs to their chambers.

         And their poor harassed-looking host just stood there, dumbfounded, with the paper the Monarchs had signed in his hand. They had signed it. He thought, not quite daring to believe it. They had actually signed it. But they didn’t even talk. And it even seemed like they were on the verge of war.

         But it didn’t matter now. The people had triumphed. The Monarchs had signed it. That was what was important. There would be no war between them. The Marriage Contract in his hand was binding.

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