Monday, January 31, 2011

Short Story - Wrong Skills

When the benevolent old king died, the kingdom was flung into great turmoil. The feverish King, on his deathbed, in his final moment of lucidity, pronounced that which most of his subjects had hoped he would not – that after him, his son be made the rightful King. The collective gasps from everybody present in the room at the time drowned out the King’s actual last words, ones that he had meticulously prepared and rehearsed over the previous week.

That a ruler’s son would succeed his father to the throne was not the cause for concern. The problem was the son himself. It was a widely held belief that the boy was a retard. Indeed, there were whispered suggestions that he was not even the King’s own son and that the King had in fact enlisted the services of his closest minister to administer the requisite services upon the Queen.

Now, these insinuations, though vile, weren’t entirely unfounded either. It was common knowledge, that the King had, for many years remained childless, despite having changed wives and doctors numerous times, before there had finally arrived the news that the then Queen had miraculously delivered a son and that the King’s succession was, therefore, assured. The skepticism of his subjects found its roots in this miracle, and though the kingdom had rejoiced with great fervor, there had hung over the festivities a perceptible air of doubt, even mild discontent, for there was the matter of the King’s hugely popular teenaged nephew – son of his long dead brother – whom, the Kingdom had regarded as the next King with much fondness and whose life had suddenly become so utterly meaningless.

And then, over the next two decades, their hopes had slowly gathered wind again. From the outset, the young Prince had demonstrated a complete lack of appetite for learning. He fumbled when he spoke. . He couldn’t remember letters of the alphabet. He failed to remember the names of objects. He was clumsy with weapons and armour. He couldn’t ride a horse. He developed a pot belly. By the time he was fifteen, he had begun to go bald.

His only interest, it appeared, was food and it’s cooking. He spent hours in the kitchen with the royal chefs and servants. They were, of course, embarrassed by his presence and begged him to stay away so they could concentrate on their work, but he obstinately stayed on. The King was understandably dismayed by all of this. He forbade the Prince to visit the royal kitchens, to which the boy responded by locking himself up in his chambers for weeks, without food. It wasn’t until the Queen (against the wished of the King) promised to the Prince that not only would he be allowed to enter the kitchens but that she would accompany him there, that he agreed to emerge. Soon after, he became an indispensible member of the chef’s team; he showed such great aptitude for his work that in a year’s time, the chef let the Prince prepare entire meals for the palace, without supervision.

By and by, the King resigned himself to the ways of his son. He began to divert an increasing amount of attention to his nephew, who by this time, had turned into a fine young man. At dinner, the nephew regained his place next to the King and the two of them spent their time at the table speaking highly of the Prince’s cooking. The Prince was thrilled by their compliments. The Queen wept quietly inside the isolation of her chambers. The Kingdom again came to regard the nephew as their next ruler and so it was that when the King pronounced the wrong name on his deathbed, the kingdom was flung into great turmoil. The very next day, the nephew announced that he would leave the kingdom and refused to attend the crowning of the new King. He left and with him left hundreds of his most loyal men and women.

The first request the Prince made, to his appalled ministers whilst they were in consultations on the impending crowning ceremony, was that he be allowed to oversee the grand feast after the ceremony. That is impossible! They told him. They couldn’t let the King become a subject of ridicule! Now that he was no longer just a delinquent Prince but the ruler of a kingdom, there was the matter of keeping up appearances! They reasoned with him. But the Prince remained unmoved. There is only one thing I know to do well and though unworthy of Kings it may be, I believe my subjects should not be denied the best that I have to offer them. He said.

The day of the ceremony arrived. The crowd cheered and then fell silent, while the new King fumbled through his first address to them. Towards the end, some were openly jeering him and when it ended, polite applause was offered, and the kingdom entered the grand hall, venue of the grand feast, in a sombre mood.

But at some point during the feast, towards the end of the second course, they say, a remarkable thing happened. The subjects, quiet and despondent until then, suddenly started to find their voice again. There was laughter, isolated at first, but soon it had spread over the entire hall. By the time the feast ended, the hall was in an uproar. People danced on the tables in manic frenzy and when the King appeared before them, they screamed and chanted his name. The ministers were dumbfounded. They scratched their heads and looked quizzically at one another, unable to comprehend the incredible scenes being enacted before them. The King looked towards them and smiled, although later, in memory, it was to change into a smirk.

The grand success of the ceremony ushered in with it a period of magnificent joy and peace. The King allowed his ministers to decide matters of the state, ill equipped as he was to do so himself. Instead, he spent his days walking around the kingdom and mixing with his subjects. Often, he would stop at a house and offer to cook for them. The food he would cook would melt away the last remaining vestiges of cynicism from the minds of his subjects. The Kingdom prospered.

It went on for many years thus, before, the inevitable news trickled in. The nephew, together with a massive army he had built in the intervening years, was planning to attack the kingdom. The King consulted with his ministers and they suggested that the best course of action would be to send out a team of emissaries to negotiate peacefully. The severed heads, ghastly pale - the skin on the faces had flaked off from lying submerged in stagnant water for there had been a torrential downpour the previous day -, of the emissaries returned in a creaky chest.

Next, a troop of the kingdom’s finest warriors was sent out. At the end of a month, they had not returned. The ministers were at a loss. The King asked if more forces could be sent out, but the Ministers asked him to not do so, for there was no telling what had become of the ones sent earlier and that they would need as many at hand to defend their land when the enemies were upon them. One or two ministers broached the possibility of a surrender so further damage be spared, but this the King would not allow. And so they waited, fearful and desperate, for the dreaded forces to arrive.

The King spent his days increasingly confined to his chambers. He grew dejected and sad, and with him did the entire kingdom. He refused to venture out into the city, although he was urged to, in order to reinstate morale. What can I do! He cried. I can do nothing for them! I cannot save them! What can I do! Cook for them? Someone commented, wryly, that that wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Then one day, the enemies arrived. It was a staggering sight. From their vantage points on the watchtowers, the men reported that the troops stretched for miles and miles; the last of the men weren’t even within sight. There was nothing that could possibly be done, the King was told, other than die a heroic death.

A heroic death! The King gasped. A heroic death! Why, I cannot even hold a sword without cutting myself!

That is when it occurred to him. The last thing, the only thing he could do. And so, he called upon his subjects to gather in the grand hall where his first feast had been, so he could address them in this time of despair.

You have seen the enemy advancing at us! He told them. And much as I would like to calm you, to assure you that everything will be well and we will defend our lands successfully, you know that it is not true. I am not the King that can save you, my subjects! And you have known this all along. We have spent some good years together, feasting and celebrating our lives. But I cannot be the King you will now expect me to be! There is nothing I can do to save you. And so, I propose to do the only thing I know how to do. One last time. A grand feast! The greatest celebration of our times yet! Food that nobody’s ever seen before! Revelry that will resound through times to come!

The grand feast began. The sound of the merriment floated through the wind and reached the enemies. The Nephew, seated at the dinner table with his chiefs, heard it and couldn’t suppress a chuckle. Fools! He laughed. The Chiefs joined in the laughter and when it subsided, returned pensively to their dinner. They lay in their beds staring at the darkness, kept awake by the delirium of their enemies, until suddenly near sunrise, all became quiet.

When they reached the gates, wide open, they found the town deserted. A bewitching aroma lingered in the air. They stumbled around the streets cluelessly, unsure of what to expect, until they reached the grand hall of the feasts, where they encountered the extraordinary sight of thousand s of men and women, piled over one another in wild orgies, eyes open in expressions of mad joy and bliss, stone dead, poisoned by what they had eaten.


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