Friends, Kings, Enemies

I am a servant in a strange kingdom. The kingdom is a large, medieval city, so overbuilt as to be one, vast building that sprawls over uncountable miles. The walls are wood and plaster, light is provided by torches, candles and lanterns. The sky isn't visible - and only the nobles may live on the outer-edge of the city and thus see sunlight. For most of the city-state's inner inhabitants, the sun and sky are almost mythological things.

I work in the king's palace, an overblown doorkeeper. I'm fortunate in that I sometimes catch glimpses of the fabled outside and I can occasionally breath fresh air - inside the kingdom the air is constantly stuffy and noisome - but the job is not without its risks. The leader of the city-state is an absolute monarch - 'tyrant' would be a more apt description.

I'm ill-at-ease. I sense there is something very wrong with my environment, but I can't determine what. At times I feel like a player in an unusually sophisticated game. At other times, I am just what I appear to be, a moderately-ranked serf in the medieval equivalent of an arcology. I'm certainly not a noble, I realize wryly, looking at my outfit of a simple linen tunic that reaches to my knees - I don't even wear shoes and the light shift is all I need in the stuffy environment of the city-state.

The sensation that I am just playing in a game is heightened when the king and his courtiers come to the palace portal I watch over. The king bears a strong resemblance to a friend of mine, Kevin, and one of his courtiers is another friend, Jennifer. For the moment, I am a player in a game and I am concerned with the plot lines that are about to be introduced and which characters they will concern.

I bow and scrape as a commoner should - kneeling and pressing my head to the stone floor - but I commit the heinous mistake of misaddressing the king as "Your Highness" rather than "Your Majesty". A shocked silence falls across the assemblage and the secure sense I had of being in a game starts to crumble. The ambiance and attitude is suddenly a little too intense for just a game - now matter how beautifully produced. My error of syntax is a serious one, made to a man who takes himself very seriously.

My confidence is evaporating as I remain kneeling and wondering what will happen next. The fact that the king likes to be accompanied by at least one executioner when making his progress doesn't reassure me. The king is known for summary - and lethal - punishment of the most minor transgressions and my mistake qualifies as something beyond minor.

The king seems to be considering my fate, much to my surprise. Apparently the job of doorkeeper is more sophisticated than I can recall - half-numb with terror that I am - and it would ruffle some administrator's feathers to find and train a new serf into my position, should I be executed. There is some conversation amongst the king and courtiers. I can't quite hear them, but the general tone suggests the gleeful sadism of the nobility towards the underclass and I start to wonder if I might not prefer beheading to whatever they are thinking of.

The king orders me to prostrate myself again and I do so, wondering if the headsman's axe will take advantage of my position. Instead, I hear the king laugh in agreement to something said by one of his companions. "Indeed, you expect one with eyes looking both ways to be more observant of our ways." He chuckles. Apparently my linen shift is low enough in the back for my tattoo (the eyes of Horus) to be visible. The king's tone is sinister, and I wonder what's going to happen, as I keep my forehead pressed to the flagstones. The granite is distinctly uncomfortable on my bare knees, but I don't dare fidget.

I sense someone stepping close to me. I peer sideways and recognize the hem of the king's robe, which unnerves me to absolute stillness. I feel a light touch on my back, just beneath my tattoo, and then an excruciatingly sharp pain as the king - with his own fingers - digs a sharp divot out of my flesh. The wound feels vast, but the shred of meat that lands on the flagstones is no wider than a quarter. I can feel blood oozing easily from the wound, but I stay down until the king - now returned to his group - orders me to stand.

I don't understand this punishment, but I don't have to. It seems that the king's forgiveness has been earned and I'm allowed to live for another day - albeit with a nasty wound below my pride and joy. I'm proud of that tattoo and not happy to see it defaced but, what can I do? He's the king and I'm not...

Later that day, the king makes a point of coming around to my end of the palace, although I know the drawbridge I watch over isn't the only entrance. I'm winching the entranceway closed, so I must keep my back to the king and his retinue - apparently that isn't a breach of protocol. I can hear the king telling his cronies - apparently they're a different pack than the ones accompanying him earlier - about my mistake and I can hear the theatrical noises of disapproval as the king relates his story and impresses everyone with his magnanimity.

Of course, I don't appreciate being the butt of an unpleasant diversion for a pack of idle nobles, but there's nothing I can do but take a deep breath and ignore them. I'm glad I can keep my back to them.

However, the king won't leave bad enough alone. He has a walking stick with him - an affectation, rather than an aid to walking - and he prods the wound he inflicted upon me with the head of his walking-stick, splitting the recently-formed scab on my back. It hurts like hell, but I can't say anything - the protocols against commoners speaking without permission in the king's presence are very strict, and I don't want to risk execution twice in one day. The king knows this, and he continues to poke and prod at my injury, just to see if I will cry out.

I grit my teeth and inexorably sink to my knees. The wound in my back is surprisingly painful, given its small size, but I'm determined not to give the king and his sickening coterie the satisfaction of making a serf cry. For another moment, I'm seized with the impression that this is just a game, and I'm concerned because I'm not a good enough actor to project what my character is thinking and feeling at this time. However, I'm reassured by the fact that it's not like my friends are sterling actors, either, and that I'm sure we are each performing to the best of our abilities. I wonder if my character is going to survive this incident and if I particularly care. I'm rather excited by how well the game is going, and how lucky the players are to have such a great location, such unusual characters…

...Another jab in my back derails that train of thought as a groan reluctantly escapes me. Once again, I'm a person, not a player-character and I wonder how much more of this I have to endure before the king grows bored and leaves me alone. I have a bad feeling that teasing me has become the king's joke of the moment, and that I'm unlikely to outlive his amusement…




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