August 03, 2015 11:51:49 PM





The sun rose and everything fell. It would not have been so bad, Alex thought, if it had fallen all at once, but it did not. At first it grew slick and shiny, perspiring in the faint dawn light. Then it began to drip, cold rivulets of water coursing down its sides and puddling on the ground. Finally, as the sun was a quarter into its journey across the sky, the entire structure groaned tiredly, collapsed upon itself, and lay, melting, on the hilltop. Alex sighed, clambered up the hill to survey the mess, and waited for the king to arrive.
When at last he emerged from the surrounding woods, dressed in his finest finery and astride his finest steed, he looked for a moment everything the mighty king that he was supposed to be.
“Alex, where is my new palace?” said the king, whose name was King Beowulf XXX, as he dismounted his steed.
“It melted, your highness,” said Alex.
“Melted? Impossible.” His foot caught in the stirrup of his saddle and he fell unceremoniously on his face. Alex lunged forward to help him up, but he shooed her away, scrambling to his feet and continuing as though nothing had happened. “Crystal doesn’t melt.”
“Respectfully, your highness, ice crystal does,” said Alex.
“Whose brilliant idea was it to build my palace from ice crystals?”
“Respectfully, your highness, it was your brilliant idea,” said Alex. “If you recall, the Royal Architect proposed a number of more durable, albeit expensive, building options, but you got angry and fired her and held a public contest to find a new architect, and that shady businessman told you he could build you an ice-crystal palace for thirty-five dollars, and you said it was too good of a bargain to pass up, and I warned you –”
“I have an idea,” said the king, and began to stroke his beard. Alex braced herself and waited. After five minutes or so, he stopped stroking his beard and said, “We hold a contest to see who can build my palace for the cheapest. You know how I'm a sucker for a good bargain, Alex.”
“That’s the exact same strategy you tried last time, and you ended up with –” Alex gestured towards the heap of slush and ice slabs that were slowly melting into the hillside.
“We’ll have to specify, then, that the palace must be able to last for – oh, let’s say, a thousand years, minimum. And, of course, we’ll bar that shady businessman from entering again.”
“As your royal advisor, I must advise you against this,” said Alex. “I suggest you hire back the Royal Architect and allow her to –”
“Alas, I will ignore your advice,” said the king. He turned straightened his posture, gazing out across the horizon, which, due to their close proximity to the tree line, was no more than ten feet away. “I will build the cheapest palace, thus showing that hot peasant girl that I am worthy of her love. Come with me and we’ll spread the news to the people of this great kingdom that whoever builds the cheapest palace will receive…” He broke off in deep thought once again. “It’s traditional to offer one's daughter’s hand in marriage as a reward, but I don’t have any daughters.” He glanced at Alex. “Perhaps you would be willing –”
“No,” said Alex, vehemently. “Your highness,” she added.
“How about a gold statuette of myself on my steed?”
“That should suffice.”
“Then it’s settled. Come along, we have work to do.” He turned and galloped away.
“Your highness, you forgot your horse,” called Alex.
“Right,” said the king. He galloped back and Alex helped him up into his horse’s saddle. Then he galloped away again. Sighing, Alex jumped onto her own horse and galloped after him.

On the way back to the king’s old palace, they passed through the kingdom’s vast and fertile farmlands. In the light of the early autumn sun, ripe wheat glowed bright and golden, swaying in a cool breeze. Happy peasants laid down their scythes to wave and smile at the king as he passed. Unhappy peasants picked up the scythes laid down by the happy peasants and chased after the king, but Alex fought them away from him with her sword before the king noticed.
As they passed a small and humble farmhouse on the edge of a small and humble wheat-field, they slowed their horses to a trot. Together they rode up to the farmhouse door and stopped. The king turned to Alex.
“Do you have any advice for me?”
“I thought you didn’t care about my advice, your highness,” said Alex indignantly.
The king stared at her mournfully and she begrudgingly relented. “Take off your fake beard. In my experience, peasant girls don’t like big grey fake beards, your highness,” Alex finally said.
The king nodded solemnly and pulled off his beard, took a deep breath, fell off his horse, scrambled to his feet, and knocked on the hot peasant girl's door.
Once, perhaps, such a courtship would have brought scandal to the royal court, but by the time King Beowulf XXX had come to the throne, such activities had become prosaic. The king’s father, King Beowulf XIX, had also married a peasant girl, as had his father’s father, King Beowulf XVIII and his father’s father’s father, King Beowulf XVII, and so on and so forth, all the way back the paternal royal line.
Just as the king named Beowulf came from a long line of kings named Beowulf, Alex came from a long line of royal advisors (whose names, thankfully, were more varied). Her mother had been the advisor to the old king, King Beowulf XIX, who had both died in a tragic accident involving twenty thousand geese and a blimp when Alex and Beowulf XXX were only twelve, an accident that could have been prevented had King Beowulf XIX listened to her mother’s advice. But he hadn’t, and they had died, and their respective children were forced to fill their places. That was how it worked in the kingdom – king raised the next king, advisor raised the next advisor, advisor advised king against doing stupid things, king did stupid things anyway and blamed advisor. Somehow, the kingdom had managed to survive for hundreds of years in this way. But Alex was the youngest royal advisor in the kingdom’s history, and King Beowulf XXX was the youngest king, and at times Alex worried they would also be the kingdom’s last. Had King Beowulf XIX been as stupid as his son? It didn’t seem possible to Alex. She felt a pang of longing for her mother’s guiding wisdom. But, thanks to twenty thousand geese and a blimp, her mother was gone. She would have to keep the kingdom together on her own.

“I need you to plan a wedding,” said the king as they rode home. He said a lot of other things, most of which were about the hot peasant girl, whose robust figure, flaxen hair, and apple-red cheeks he had construed as a grand metaphor for the fruitfulness of his kingdom’s crops, but this was the first thing he said that caught Alex’s attention.
“A wedding? Who is getting married?”
“I am,” said the king. “I told the hot peasant girl I will marry her as soon as the new palace is built. You must plan our royal wedding.” He held out his fist for celebratory fist bump. Alex did not return it.
“Shouldn’t the Royal Planner plan the royal wedding?”
“I fired her. You know how much money we save without a planner?”
“But I thought you needed me to advise you on the prospective palace builders –”
“You can manage both. You’ll see.”
“If you say so, your highness,” said Alex.

News traveled fast in the kingdom. By the time Alex and the king reached the city, the air was abuzz with talk of the king’s wedding and his new palace-building contest.
“How do the people know all this already? Didn’t you just tell the hot peasant girl?” asked Alex. “In order for everyone to know about this, she would have had to someone beat us back to this city, which means she would have had to ride on horseback, but no one passed us on the road, and there are no alternate routes for miles around –”
The king waved his hand dismissively. “News travels fast in the kingdom,” he said.
A crowd had already formed on the palace drawbridge when Alex and the king reached the palace in the center of the city.
“You do realize that leaving the drawbridge down defeats the purpose of having a moat,” said Alex as they navigated the crowd, but the king wasn’t listening. He had turned, raising a hand in a grand vague gesture, and begun to address the people.
“Comrades. Subjects.” He smiled, and the crowd cheered. Alex cheered along, reluctantly. “As you already know, I’m going to marry that hot peasant girl.” The crowd cheered again. “As you also know, due to an unforeseen complication involving faulty building materials, the new palace which I hoped she and I would inhabit is gone, so I am holding another contest which will be exactly the same, only with the added requirement that the castle must be able to last for one thousand years, and that the shady businessman who proposed the failed palace is barred from entry. So, my people, if you have a proposition, please form a single-file line and wait your turn.”
In the Royal Stables, Alex dismounted her steed and waited for the king to do the same. He swung his leg over his horse’s flank, fell, stood, and turned to her. “While I evaluate each proposition, you will plan the royal wedding.”
“Oh, of course.” Alex felt her blood pressure rising. “Would you like me to make you supper, as well?”
“That would be nice, since I fired the Royal Chef,” said the king. “Also, tomorrow afternoon, I need you to lead the kingdom’s army into battle against our enemies from the West.”
“I take it you also fired the Royal War General,” said Alex tiredly.
“You won’t believe how much money I’m saving, Alex! Actually, you will, when you balance the royal checkbooks, since I also fired the Royal Accountant. Now come along. We have a palace to build.”

In the Throne Room, the king met with each aspiring architect one by one. Alex, meanwhile, whipped up a salmon pate, then ran to the tailor’s to pick out the king’s wedding suit, then to the performance hall where the kingdom’s Symphony Orchestra was practicing to negotiate for them to play at the royal wedding, and then to the papery where she designed and ordered seventeen hundred royal wedding invitations. During her lunch break, she threw together some battle plans for the next day’s siege on the enemy kingdom to the west. By the time she returned to the palace, it was
nearly nightfall, and the king was meeting with the last of the prospective palace architects.
“Oh, Alex, there you are.” The king beckoned her over. “I was just about to hear this man’s proposal.”
Alex crossed the room and abruptly gasped.
“You,” she said. “You have some nerve.”
“Me?” The man pointed at himself incredulously. He wore a very yellow pinstripe suit and very yellow top hat and a very fake yellow moustache.
“You’re the man who designed the last palace. The ice-crystal palace. The one that melted three hours after its completion.” She withdrew her sword and held it under his chin. “You’re even wearing the same clothes you wore when you came here to propose the ice palace. Did you even try to disguise yourself?”
“Um,” interrupted the king, gently restraining Alex’s sword-wielding arm. “This is quite palpably a different man. That man did not have a moustache.”
“It’s understandable you might be confused,” said the man. “The yellow pinstripe is a commonly worn suit.”
“No, it’s not, actually,” said Alex.
“Enough.” The king spoke commandingly for what was quite possibly the first time in Alex’s memory. “At least let him make his proposal.”
“Fine.” Alex sheathed her sword. “Propose.”
The man straightened his posture and his moustache and swept off his hat to reveal a thatch of greased yellow hair. “My name is Stancliff, and I propose a castle that is made of a…transparent material.”
“Like ice?” Alex frowned.
“No, no, nothing quite that…tangible. This material is… indescribable. Indiscernible. It blends right into the scenery. It allows you a great view of the forest and the mountains. It will be warm in the summer and cold in the winter, but then, so is this palace. Unlike this palace, however, it will be just one story tall, but its beauty lies in its simplicity, and the way in which it incorporates elements of the land into its design. It also happens to be easy to assemble. So easy, in fact, that if I started building tonight, I could be done by morning.”
As Alex watched, the king’s eyes seemed to light up. “What you have described sounds enchanting in its innovation,” he said. “But there is one very important factor you have failed to mention.”
“Price?” Stancliff grinned, revealing a set of teeth as yellow as his hair. “Why, that’s the best part. It’s free.”
“Free?” The king leapt from his throne and shook the Stancliff’s hand. “You’re hired.”
“Your highness, I would advise you to look into this further before you –”
But the king ignored her. “I expect it to be completed by sunrise tomorrow. Then, I will present you with your reward.”
“You can count on it, your highness.” Alex could have sworn Stancliff was smirking at her.

Alex slept fitfully and dreamed that the king was piloting a yellow blimp shaped like a moustache over the kingdom.
“Why is it so small, Alex? Why is my kingdom so small? Who shrunk my kingdom?” The king pointed emphatically over the side of the blimp, and while Alex tried in vain to explain that it only appeared small because they were up so high, he didn't seem to hear her.
Then a shadow fell across the blimp, and she looked up in time to see the ducks descending…

She awoke in a cold sweat to the sound of someone pounding on the door to her quarters. “Hello?” she called.
“It’s me, the king.” His voice was muffled by the wood, but the excitement it contained was apparent nonetheless. “We must go to see my palace.”

In the morning they set off to inspect the new palace. The king brought along his fiancée, whose name was Gwendolyn, and whom Alex determined to be very pretty and very sweet and very stupid - almost as stupid as the king.
As they rode through the forest, Alex tried once more to warn him. “You understand that Stancliff's explanation of his design was profoundly vague? In that not a single concrete detail was ever specified?”
“No, nothing concrete. The man who proposed a concrete palace said it would cost forty thousand dollars. I sent him away.” The king snapped the reins and his horse broke into a gallop. “Come on!”
Stancliff was waiting for them in the clearing. “I worked all night,” he said. “I present you – the new palace.”
He swept his arm towards the hilltop and Alex’s gaze followed, traveling up the lush green hill still damp from the melted ice to reveal –
“There’s nothing there,” she said, but she was speaking to no one. The king had already fallen off his horse in excitement and was now running full-speed up to the top of the hill, hand-in-hand with Gwendolyn, his fake beard flapping wildly. Stancliff followed, smiling with satisfaction, and Alex dismounted and chased after them.
“Here is the entrance,” said Stanciff, gesturing towards nothing.
Alex swung around to stare at the king, to watch him realize he’d been cheated, but the look of betrayal never came. Instead, he smiled, and reached out as though to touch the imaginary door. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said the king.
“That’s because you’re not seeing anything,” Alex shouted. “There is nothing here.”
“I think it’s lovely,” said Gwendolyn in her charming voice. “I’ve always been a fan of minimalist architecture.”
“Have you both lost your minds?”
“Alex, don’t be rude. Open the door for us,” said the king.
“You’re all lunatics,” said Alex. “My god, I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this job. Can I request a transfer? I’ll be a seamstress. Or a knight. Anything.”
All three gazed at her as one might gaze at a fly butting against a window, again and again.
“Open the door, Alex,” said the king again, slowly, as though addressing a very young child. “Just grab the door handle.”
“The knob’s right there,” said Stanwood helpfully, pointing at nothing.
Oh, Mother, Alex pleaded silently, give me your strength. So that I won't kill the king. So that I won't lose my mind. And, most importantly, so that I can keep this kingdom together.
She opened her eyes. She glanced at the king, who smiled encouragingly, and at Gwendolyn, who smiled prettily, and at Stancliff, who smiled victoriously.
Alex stared at the door handle and slowly turned the knob.