A Free Short Story
by Steven Popkes
The Emperor’s New Clothes
Emperor Thomas had heard about Po and Ho long before he met them. Not that he begrudged two scam artists a living. He liked the Salt Dodge and the False Gumdrop as much as anyone and had a good laugh on how they had modified the Glam and took everything the Widow Stein owned, right down to her porcelain teeth. But all good things come to an end and their end was in sight when the local magistrate hauled them up in front of the Emperor.
When Ho and Po suggested they had something in mind that the good Emperor might be interested in, Thomas was intrigued and kept a close eye on his wallet. The thought of the two of them as master tailors amused him and he let them go ahead for a month — expecting he must bid them a sad but final farewell at the month’s end.
The non-existent clothes exceeded his expectations. An early summer heat wave made the ruffles and brocade hot as hell. A little naked parading was just the right prescription. Everyone saw through it instantly (heh) of course but who was going to say anything?
As the naked emperor wandered in the yard outside, feeling the gentle wind tickle him in places unexposed for decades, Thomas thought: I could get used to this.
A young boy on the wall called out: “He’s naked!”
The Emperor didn’t even have to raise an eyebrow. His Minister of Personal Security had the boy silenced before his next breath. The boy was immediately and publicly dismembered as philosophical instruction to the populace and — more importantly — to members of the court. The Emperor was clearly the final arbiter of fashion.
As Thomas retired back inside — it did look like rain — he considered the possibilities. There were a number of Ladies and daughters of Ladies who could benefit from the gift of Imperial clothing. At least, it would benefit Thomas. And by declaring this gift Imperial, Thomas could insure the quality of the court landscape since no one would be wearing the ephemeral clothing but by his Imperial decree.
The more he thought about it, the less necessary Ho and Po appeared. But by the time Thomas sent his Minister of Personal Security to pay a visit to the two tailors, they were already gone.
The kingdoms of Althamea and Gerk were side by side on the coast, far enough from the seat of Thomas’s empire not to worry overmuch but close enough to smell it if things got too interesting.
Gerk had enjoyed a regular involuntary infusion of Viking DNA resulting in a population that was big, blue-eyed and blond, heavily muscled and ready for action. Althamea’s people, denied these advantages, were short, thin, splay-footed, pigeon-chested, buck-toothed, and myopic. Every few years, the Gerks would convince themselves to attack. The Kings of Althamea would sigh and reluctantly annex another hectare or two. It was a shame, really. The poor sods just didn’t seem to learn.
It was no surprise, therefore, when King Richard of Gerk had a handsome son, Charles. The beauty of King Alfred of Althamea’s daughter, Snow White, was a shock.
Snow White’s name had a double meaning. On the one hand, it signified an innocent lack of guile and a symbol of purity. On the other, like a flat, featureless snowfall, no one could tell what was underneath. She was as smart as they come.
Her stepmother, Queen Rose, had been her father’s mistress for four years before she bore him a sickly son. At that point, King Alfred had Snow White’s mother killed and married Rose. Snow White was fifteen.
It didn’t surprise her at all when Ho, Rose’s huntsman, took her out into the forest. But Snow White’s mother had been one example of how to manage a man and Queen Rose had been another. The huntsman, having been instructed to kill Snow White and bring her wet beating heart back to the castle, was reluctant to fulfill his instructions after a couple of hours’ romp with her. It’s just tough to slaughter a beautiful naked woman.
Instead, he sent Snow White (and her clothes) deeper into the forest. Ho killed a boar, took out the heart, and presented that to the Queen. But figuring that fooling the Queen was likely only temporary, he left town.
Chance plays a big role in most lives and Snow White’s was no exception. It wasn’t chance that Rose sent her away. Nor was it chance Snow White lived to tell the tale — that was pure skill and single-minded determination. But it was chance that brought her to the Trollback Mine successfully operated by seven brothers named, unsurprisingly, Trollback
Whether it was the contaminated water, persistent parasites or inbreeding, all seven brothers were afflicted with achondroplasia. They were dwarves.
The number seven has special significance in fairy tales: seven swans, seven dwarves, seven deadly sins, seven cardinal virtues. It could have been worse. This fairy tale could have been about the seven lepers.
Regardless, not all of the Trollback brothers were equally afflicted. Pedro, for example, was mentally retarded and referred to as Dopey. Karl was consumptive and called Sneezy. You get the idea.
Rupert (Grumpy) was the oldest of the Trollback brothers and had achieved the neat trick of both managing a successful jewel mine and defending the Trollback claim from King Alfred and King Richard, the Emperor Thomas being just too far away to worry about.
Snow White’s appearance out of the forest struck the Trollback brothers like a pickaxe. If she had been the shy, virginal girl her face suggested, she would still have been the only woman available. And since she was anything but, her effect was even more devastating. Pedro and Karl died more from neglect than anything else. The remaining brothers competed, fought, and ultimately murdered for sexual favors that previously they’d never known existed. Finally, it was Rupert and the humorless Guillermo (Happy) who beat each other with oaken staves in front of the mine, the others having died under mysterious (or not so mysterious) circumstances. Rupert struck Guillermo’s eye with his axe but didn’t kill him. Guillermo ran screaming into the forest. But before Rupert could take full possession of Snow White, there rode onto the scene one Prince Charles, son of King Richard, to negotiate the year’s taxes.
Charles, also called “Charming” as a joke, was a bona fide prince with a kingdom nearly his own just going to waste. Snow White seduced Charles and Charles returned with her to his father. Rupert followed, hating himself but still in thrall.
King Richard, a widower with his wife safely beyond harm, died the following spring of a lingering illness. Prince Charles became King Charles.
With a kingdom of her own and a constant revenue stream of jewels, Snow White hired every mercenary she could find and drafted the population without mercy. She smiled to herself. When she was done, Queen Rose would be dancing on red hot iron plates. She wouldn’t be dancing alone. King Alfred would be dancing with her.
Jack and the Beanstalk
There’s an old joke that Saint Peter, bored with his job admitting souls to heaven, began to guess the IQs and occupations of the entrants as they passed the Pearly Gates. 150: surgeon. 135: attorney. The joke’s obligatory third guy showed up. Peter gave him a once-over and, too polite to give a number, said: “Get your deer this year?”
He lived in a Gerklander hovel with his mother in the town of Grunt and spent his time on a soap box in the village square and yelling about the impending menace from Althamea. The Althameans had weakened Gerk by introducing regulations on swordbearing — the real reason Gerk hadn’t won a war with Althamea in two hundred years. They had introduced foreign substances into the water to turn Gerks stupid. (The Gerks in the square, observing Jack, were almost persuaded.) They were corrupting our schools by introducing secular humanism and teaching that the earth was neither the center of the universe nor flat.
Mostly, the Gerks ignored Jack, though some of the more gullible invited him to speak at the enormous church they were building just outside of town. Jack distributed pamphlets on the Althamean menace, abstinence family planning, and God’s plan for Gerk.
Jack would have eventually died of tuberculosis, unknown and nameless, but for the draft. When the new Queen started building her army, each town was tasked with gathering up as many able-bodied men (meaning still warm, able to walk and possessing neither money nor strong ties to anyone important) as possible. The current mayor didn’t want to have anything to do with it, nor his ministers. But, since it came from the Queen, it was a dirty job somebody had to do. Jack was standing in the square shouting at the populace when the Mayor hooked his thumb out the window and said, “Let’s get him to do it.”
Jack was appointed Chairman and Sole Responsible Member of the Grunt Draft Board directly by the Queen herself, since nobody in the Mayor’s office wanted their fingerprints on the deal.
Jack took the office as a sign from heaven. He gave talks to hulking, nineteen-year-old eighth graders in the local schools, using maps he devised to show the true size of Gerk — that is, the size Gerk would have been if it hadn’t lost all those territories to Althamea over the last couple of centuries. The only indication on the map that the territories were no longer under Gerk control were little dotted lines of asterisks and a note at the bottom in print so fine it looked like a smudge saying these were “disputed” lands. Jack didn’t just distribute these maps to potential recruits but to all the students, thinking wisely for perhaps the first time in his life, that this war could go on for a long, long time. Forty young children who didn’t know any better grew up with these maps and eventually settled in the “disputed” lands only to find themselves loyal Althamean citizens.
So equilibrium was established. Jack sent off troublemakers, squints, boys trying to avoid incarceration, and boys already incarcerated. Nobody meaningful was tagged. Everyone was happy.
Trouble rolled up when Jack drafted Edward Serk the Younger. Edward Serk the Younger was the son of Edward Serk the Elder who, himself, was brother to Simon Serk the Mayor.
Clearly, Jack’s usefulness had come to an end.
But now came a dilemma. Jack, for all his faults (and they were many) had been appointed to an office by the Queen. The Queen had not shown herself to be forgiving. It was probable that Mayor Serk, Serk the Elder and Serk the Younger would all serve in the front lines if removing Jack could be traced to them.
As chance and fairy tales would have it, a transient named Ho was just at that moment passing hurriedly through town, backtracking to Althamea given the regime change. As he was obviously on the lam, the Mayor made Ho an offer: if he would take care of their problem, he could continue south without interference. Alternatively, he could be sent to the Queen dressed in the very best ferrous finery the town of Grunt could afford.
Ho agreed to the arrangement. Ever brave, Ho decided the method of choice should be poison.
Ho found Jack sitting outside his mother’s hovel drinking from a jug of spiced wine. (Gerks always spice their wine since their unspiced wine tastes like pig urine.)
Casting about for some basis of conversation, Ho remarked on the fine qualities of the family cow.
Jack realized that anyone who thought the sunken-hipped, fly-bitten, half-dead Bess had any qualities at all, fine or otherwise, had to be more drunk, stupid or shifty than he was. Jack put down the jug. He would need both his wits for this contest.
“I’d love to purchase this cow,” said Ho.
“Sure. Make an offer.”
“I have these magic beans.” Ho opened his (thickly gloved) hand and showed Jack.
“They don’t look like beans,” said Jack. “They look like mushrooms.”
“Like I said. They’re magic.”
Jack took the beans and peered closely at them. “I like mushrooms.”
“You — “ began Ho.
Jack chewed them up and swallowed them. “Don’t have much taste.”
“ — cook them,” Ho finished.
“Or eat them rather,” said Ho hurriedly. “Whatever. Use them any way you like.”
“How are they magic?”
“That depends on the person. After all, everybody has their own dreams, desires, and destinies. Also, size makes a difference in the dosage.”
“All those words begin with the letter ‘d,’” said Jack, dreamily, showing off his education.
“Indeed,” said Ho, starting to leave. Cooking these particular mush rooms was considered necessary for their effectiveness. He’d have to come back and try something else.
“Don’t forget Bess.”
“Right.” Ho dubiously untied the cow and started laboriously leading (dragging) the cow down the road.
Jack sat back down with his jug, wondering how long the magic would take to have an effect.
Ho returned to Grunt mysteriously sans Bess — no one ever solved the mystery of Bess. But then nobody much noticed. After assuring Mayor Serk that his problem would be solved as soon as the mushrooms worked their way into Jack’s bloodstream, Ho expected no further interference. Imagine his surprise to be volunteered for active service by the new Chairman and Sole Responsible Member of the Grunt Draft Board, Edward Serk the Younger. He was never seen in Grunt again.
Later that day, all three Serks found Jack lying in a small impact crater at the base of a great tree. Ho’s estimate of the mushrooms’ efficacy was correct and they had, in fact, not killed Jack. It was completely clear, however, that Jack was indeed dead. The Serks surmised he had fallen from a great height (likely the adjacent tall tree) but no one could figure out why he had climbed it in the first place. The jug next to said adjacent tree suggested a cause but, as none of the Serks had ever climbed a tree while drunk, they thought it insufficient. Jack’s death remained a mystery and fodder for multiple tales told by those who were not required to serve in the Queen’s army but supported the soldiers passionately over a stein of ale and a rack of lamb.
When Mary’s father was caught trying to evade King Alfred’s draft, he claimed his daughter could spin straw into gold.
Po, Alfred’s guardsman, didn’t believe him but had been given instructions that any source of funds should be reported immediately to his superiors. Thus, the outlandish claim reached King Alfred just as he was desperately trying to make a brand new son with Queen Rose, the previous model having shown itself to be defective since it had recently died.
Alfred was desperate and for more than just another son. He needed money in the worst way. His kingdom had never been wealthy except in comparison to Gerk. But now his traitorous bitch of a daughter had an army of two thousand men. How had she gotten control of the Trollback Mine? No. Scratch that. He knew how she had done it. The black-haired slut upstairs had taught him a great deal about how such things were done.
So what did he have to lose? Try the girl. If she doesn’t make gold from straw, hang the father in the yard. He fingered his beard as he watched her from his throne. Not bad-looking, either.
Mary ended up in a stable with a couple of bales of hay. Gold tomorrow equals life. No gold tomorrow — but let us be polite.
Being a young girl and rather dim, she, of course, had no idea how to accomplish anything of the sort. In her life, if she was lucky enough to avoid until her wedding day being beaten and raped by her father, she might live to have the privilege of being beaten and raped by her husband. Thus, while her situation had not improved it had also not gotten worse by much.
From the shadows came a dwarf with only one eye. “I know how to turn straw into gold.”
“You couldn’t possibly understand.”
True enough, thought Mary. “For what in return?”
“Your first child.”
Mary stared at him. “You’re kidding.”
The dwarf stared back at her and it was clear he had never made or understood a joke in his entire life.
Hm. Possible life tomorrow weighed against future brat versus certain death. Mary didn’t have to know calculus to make that calculation. “It’s a deal.”
The dwarf piled the two bales of hay together and brought out curious instruments: ring magnets and coils of copper wire, round cylinders of glass with glowing filaments inside, an icy flask of colorless liquid that seemed to smoke though Mary could smell no fire. From these materials, he constructed a framework around the hay, then handed her a pair of thick, smoked-glass goggles. “Better wear these,” he said, donning a pair himself. A moment later came a flash brighter than the sun and forty pounds of straw became ten pounds of gold dust, the thirty-pound difference being used up by the energy of the transaction.
Since Po had been watching the whole thing (fortunately staring at Mary’s full bodice at the critical moment) King Alfred showed up a few minutes later while the dwarf was still putting away his apparatus.
“You have an uncommon skill, master dwarf,” said King Alfred. “What’s your name?”
“That’s a curious name.”
“Because of my eye. Rumply. Skin. You get the idea.”
“I see.” Crazy as a loon, thought Alfred. “What did you promise him, girl?”
“My firstborn child,” said Mary.
“Ah,” said King Alfred. “May I surmise, then, that the going rate for ten pounds of gold is the future promissory note of a child?”
“Perhaps we can work something out. I don’t have a few hundred babies immediately on hand. Is there some economy of scale we can determine? Why do you need a baby, anyway?”
Rumpelstiltskin pointed to the empty socket of his eye. “Stem cells.” It dawned on King Alfred that this was no common dwarf. “Do you know anything about fertility problems?”
“I do.” Rumpelstiltskin shrugged. “Stem cells.”
“I believe we can do business.” He put his arm around the dwarf and led him toward the castle. When he passed Po he whispered: “Take care of the girl, won’t you? And her father.”
Po nodded. Deciding he had full discretion regarding the girl, and the father, Po hanged the father the following day and married the girl. Mary got a much better deal than she expected. Rumpelstiltskin never claimed her firstborn child and Po surprised her by neither beating nor raping her.
The called Charles “Charming” for the single- minded determination with which he pursued sex. Sex with women, mostly, but there were other tales that could not be easily dismissed.
Cinderella’s father had been born a peasant but managed to accrue enough wealth to come to the notice of a noble but poor family — said stepmother — who married him for his money. Dad was happy with the deal — he was marrying up — but promptly died before he could get any title for himself. The stepsisters came from a previous marriage and had noble blood. Cinderella, sired from the loins of a peasant and being born of a peasant mother, had none. It was no accident, therefore, that she was not invited to the ball King Richard threw to find someone, anyone, who might keep his son in check. There was more than one bastard in the kingdom that looked suspiciously like Charles.
“Be careful what you wish for” are the watchwords of kings. Cinderella sewed up a little dress and crashed the ball. She didn’t have as much material to work with as she would have liked and what should have been ruffles and folds instead form fitted to her décolletage. She had a very pretty face but that didn’t matter much as Charles hadn’t seen a woman’s eyes since he was thirteen.
After a number of clumsy grabs, Cinderella escaped. As stimulating as it is to be pawed by a member of the royal family, the excitement palls. Besides, she had to get back before her stepmother and stepsisters. If the ball hadn’t been masked, she wouldn’t have dared go at all.
Determination being Charles’s most prominent, and perhaps only, talent, he found her footprint and had glass shoes made. He reasoned that although he didn’t know her face (big surprise) and her endowment would no doubt be hidden, she couldn’t hide her feet.
In due time, Cinderella was discovered — something she might have had a hand in, tales of princely true love and wedding bells being popular with teenage girls back then. Regardless, neither came up. Charles bought her a nice house and visited her as often as King Richard would let him. Marriage was out of the question, of course, but that didn’t stop him from siring a child on her. Cinderella named the girl Charlena in hopes the prince would remember his daughter. Charles didn’t so much but King Richard did and sent Charles on a tax mission to the Trollback Mines while he figured out what to do.
Charles returned with that woman.
Cinderella brought Charlena to the public square when Charles presented Snow White to the kingdom. After seeing that beautiful, pale sociopath, it didn’t surprise her when Charles came no more.
Cinderella didn’t miss the bump and grind but her stipend dried up, too. It was hard to maintain even a small house and daughter without visible means of support and Cinderella had no marketable skills.
Then, just when things were about to become truly desperate, a knock came on the door. She opened it and saw a sour-faced dwarf.
“I’ve brought you this. From Charming.” He spat the name as he gave her a small bag of coins.
“Come in, please.” Cinderella led him in and made tea for him. “I’m Cinderella.”
“I know who you are.”
“And I don’t know who you are.” She eyed him expectantly, the hot teakettle poised somewhat dangerously over his head.
The dwarf eyed her, and the kettle, sourly. “My name is Rupert. Rupert Trollback.”
“Welcome to my house, Rupert Trollback.” Charlena, a child of three by this point, came in and hugged her mother while looking at the stranger. “My daughter and I thank you.”
Cinderella knew the coins did not come from Charles — not only was Cinderella for the moment entirely forgotten by the Prince but that woman would not have allowed it. Rupert was supporting her for reasons of his own. Cinderella thought she knew what they were but after several more visits, more coins, and no suggestion of the implied improper behavior, she decided she was wrong.
They found they had things in common. Rupert had a dry sense of humor and a bitter wit. Cinderella had dealt with worse and knew what was bitter and what was wit and when to tell the difference. It wasn’t hard for the two castoff exiles to become friends.
When Charles was murdered, Rupert came to Cinderella before dawn. “Charming is dead.” Rupert stood in the doorway staring up at her.
“Did you kill him?”
“I did not,” he said indignantly. “But I’ll be blamed for it. I’m getting out while I can and before the war starts. I don’t know where I’ll be going.”
“I see.” Cinderella was not surprised by his leaving. She was surprised at how it made her sad.
“Come with me.” Rupert started to say more, closed his mouth, and waited.
Go with him? Travel with a little girl and a dwarf? It was likely Rupert had enough means to take care of them for at least a little while. She guessed she knew that much about him. She liked him well enough. Besides, no doubt that woman would eventually come around to get rid of any possible claimant to the throne. Charlena’s ancestry was well known.
“I have to pack.”
Between the two of them, they made small bundles of needful things that either could carry. As they set out, Cinderella carrying the sleeping Charlena and following a grim and silent Rupert, she found herself smiling. Rupert was a dwarf, grumpy, and obviously still obsessed with that woman. At the same time, he had come to save them at great risk to himself; a woman and a child were additional burdens on top of being a dwarf on the run. Maybe he would leave if things got too tough. Maybe he wanted her to sleep with him. Maybe she should. Maybe she would. There were worse fates.
But for the moment it seemed a good friend was helping her escape to the hope of a new life.
That was about as good as it got.
Copyright © 2010 by Steven Popkes.
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January-February 2010
“Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.”
—Big Name Author, author of Really Famous Book
“Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.”