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Rags and Generations

The old king lay on his deathbed, beckoning his son forward.

"My prince, I will soon be gone and the realms will be yours," he whispered, hoarsely. "Promise to take care of them."

"I will sir!" cried the prince, earnestly. He had seen his father fight long for their great lands. Many years ago, his father had been but a ragged captain in the army of a minor kingdom, whose genius first in battle and then in court had led him to become the old king's chief of staff, and when the king had died without heirs, he was perfectly positioned to assume the throne with minimum opposition. And under his wise rule, the country had grown and prospered. By deposing local tyrants, he had expanded their borders with minimum backlash and their fertile lands were now five times larger.

"It was all for you!" whispered the king with his last breath.

The prince bowed his head and vowed he would, indeed, care for their lands. And he kept his word. He worked hard to sustain the kingdom and its people. Whilst he lacked the fine skills of his father, he made up for this in determination and effort. He married well and, after three delightful daughters, had his own son and heir.

Nothing was too much for the young prince and he grew up in finery and beauty. A charming lad, he was the delight of the court and the king cherished the little time that the affairs of state allowed him to spend with the boy. His only worry was that his son seemed more concerned with the pleasures of youth than with the duties of his position. The king would cajole and the prince would smile and agree, but nothing would change, except perhaps that the lines on the king's face grew deeper as he worked tirelessly to sustain his promise.

And so time turned and one day the king fell gravely ill and the physicians could do nothing. They gave it long names but muttered sadly about stress and responsibility.

The young prince came to his father's deathbed, and the king looked at him sadly.

"Have I loved you too well?" asked the king. The prince furrowed his brow, unsure.

"My father, on his deathbed, set great obligation upon me," said the king, "and I have borne that mantle, though it has brought me to this place. And now, what should I say to you?"

"Whatever you will?" asked the prince, but the king could not say. He knew that he was not as great as his father but was nevertheless satisfied with having ruled in peace over a contented realm. His only worry was in the wisdom of his son to carry the orb and sceptre onwards. He was a lovely boy and a fine prince, but the king achingly doubted the ability of his son to rule.

And so he said nothing, and died as anxiously as he had lived.

The prince, knowing no care, became a sun king of light. He held festivals and balls and for a few years was the delight of all who knew him. But then one day a dark cloud grew in the East and war raised it's evil head. The king sent ambassadors to entreat for peace, but they came back shaking their heads. He would have gone himself but for his courtiers holding him back. Knowing nothing of battle, he asked his generals, who he had appointed himself, but they knew more of pageant than dirty war.

And so the country mobilized as best it could, with hurried conscription and sudden taxes to pay for it all. The enemy inevitably and arrogantly came and was surprisingly repulsed by an indignant and frantic army. After an uneasy pause in which the king celebrated victory, the aggressor came back, only this time with slower cunning. And so by long siege and attrition, the once great kingdom was laid low. The population by now were content with fair peace and made little protest at new rule.

The king escaped, disguised as a pauper. Once known for his wit, he now lived on his wits, keeping his head down and his beard long. Eventually he became a small farmer and raised his own family. He never mentioned his heritage, which faded into distant dreams. Nor did he encourage ambition, not that it did much good: his eldest took over the farm and gradually expanded it, whilst his youngest joined the army and won steady promotion.

On his deathbed, he wagged a weary finger at his sons. 'Rags to riches to rags!' he croaked. They smiled, indulgently, as he closed his eyes.

 

***

 

~by David Straker~

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