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The Will of the People

a short story by Lexi Summer Hale

King Francis was woken rudely from his happy slumber by a great clamor and cry outside the palace. As he stirred, blinking blearily through the great stained-glass window, his manservant Frederick burst through the door.

"Sire," Frederick panted; "sire, it's the peasants! They're revolting!"

"Now, now, Frederick," chided the King. "I've told you this before, it is most unkind to refer to the good working people of our nation with such language—"

"No, sire, I mean they're revolting!" exclaimed Frederick. "Rebelling! Toppling the government! Throwing down the state! Demanding your head on a silver platter! The works!"

"Come now, it's nothing that dramatic." Helen, the Grand Vizier, stepped gracefully into the King's bedroom. "They're simply protesting, your Majesty." She patted Frederick on the head. "It would be wise to address their concerns promptly, of course."

"I… yes, I suppose I should!" exclaimed Francis. "A good monarch never ignores the will of the people! Isn't that right, Helen?"

"Right indeed, sire."

Ten minutes later, a hurriedly dressed King Francis pushed his way onto the Great Balcony, flanked by Helen and Frederick. A roar rose up from the crowd as they spotted their liege.

"Steady on now, steady on!" King Francis proclaimed at the top of his lungs. "I can't tell what you want when you're all shouting like that! Pipe down, will you? I SAID, PIPE DOWN!"

After a short minute of the King's frantic gesticulations, the crowd slowly settled to a malicious murmur. A peasant woman, clutching a pitchfork, seemingly the leader of the massed discontents, forced her way forward.

"King Francis!" she bellowed up to the balcony. "We, the people, demand satisfaction!"

"Yes, yes, all right," Francis shouted back agreeably. "What seems to be the trouble?"

With the air of a lawyer with all the facts in her favor, the woman unfurled a scroll and began to speak.

"Three months ago," she began, "you, King Francis, passed a royal decree forbidding - forbidding!- the use of, and I quote, 'Thumbſcrewes, Rackes, Peares of Agonie (theſe being þe Machine, & not þe Fruite), & all oþer ſuch Unſeemly Deviſes, with whiche þe Eſſential Dignities of Man are Impugn'd.'" The crowd roared its disapproval. "Two months ago, you passed a royal decree forbidding - and again, I quote - 'þe Priſoner to be ſubject to þe Detention wiþout Proſpect of Tryal in proper & timely Faſhion.'" She shook her head in disgust as the crowd booed. "And today!" With a violent motion, she thrust a scroll into the air. "What do the good, honest, hard-working people of this great nation wake to find plastered across their places of gathering? What news to they raise their heads to the sound of the town criers proclaiming?" She was shaking with rage. "One last time, I QUOTE - 'þe Loathſome & Uncouþe Practice of publicke Whipping, Beating, Flogging, &c. in þe Town Square shall henceforþ be Abolish'd, & a Fine of no less than Four Crowns ſhall be levy'd upon thoſe Miſcreants who ſhall be found in Violation of þis Ordinance.'" She stared up defiantly at her monarch.

The crowd's volatility was palpable. A coin with two sides, one peace and the other bloody revolution, balanced precariously on its edge, waiting for their King to push it one direction or the other.

"...yes?" replied King Francis, blinking sleepily.

The only sound was the irritable cackle of a hedgelark nesting on balcony.

"Go on," Francis urged after a moment. "I'm listening!"

"Do you have any idea how bored we all are?" the leader burst out, her voice shaking with frustration. "No thumbscrews, no indefinite detention; gods above, man, we can't even get a good whipping in this town anymore! What's a girl supposed to do of an evening? You answer me that!"

King Francis blinked. "You... want me to reinstate all these horrible old practices?"

"Yes!" thundered the crowd.

"But..." Francis scratched his head in bewilderment. "But they're inhuman! Degrading! An affront to your dignity! Can you not see that?"

"You answer me this, King Francis!" the woman shouted back. "Where's a good hard-working citizen to socialize in this city now the jails are all empty? Eh? Are you out to ruin our nightlife, as well as our entertainment? What are you going to do next, outlaw slavery too?"

"Your... nightlife?" Francis boggled. "I... well, I suppose... nightclubs? Taverns? You people have those things, right?"

The assembled citizens looked to each other in confusion.

"Let me tell you something!" the leader shot back. "My lovely Emma, wife of twelve years, know where I met her? I'll tell you, it weren't at no town hall meeting nor no civic brainstorming session! It was in a dank, cold jail cell, half-naked and starving, scared half to death, wondering when the guards were going to drag me off to force a confession outta me! And I know most everyone here's got the same story, ain't that so? Come on, you lot, show of hands!"

A disconcertingly large portion of the crowd raised their hands.

"But... but..." Francis stuttered. "Look, this is the modern world we're in! You can't just go around flogging people because they looked at a prince wrong!"

"Your father did!" growled the leader. "He had no problem being a proper king, before he died in a tragic being-beaten-to-death-by-thirty-men accident!"

Francis turned beet-red. "Now look here!" he exclaimed. "My father was a brutal barbarian with no respect for the dignity or humanity of his subjects! You lot ought to know; you lived under him, for god's sake!"

"He was dreamy, tho!" a man shouted back. The crowd murmured its assent.

"He had an eyepatch!" Francis cried in disbelief.

"And it were sexy eyepatch!" another protestor yelled back.

"So you tell us plain, King Francis," the leader declared, planting her feet firmly on the first steps of the drawbridge. "Are you going to do what's right for your subjects, and repeal all these oppressive decrees?"

"Oppres-?" Francis stared. He shook his head wildly, and folded his arms. "No!" he declared. "I absolutely will not condone this absolute disregard for human rights, and you lot had better get used to the idea!"

Grand Vizier Helen sighed heavily, and pushed Francis off the balcony. Frederick yelped at the sound of bone cracking on the pavement.

"As your queen," she said, striding forward, "I promise you I will not only repeal all of the tragically departed former king's mad edicts, but that I will crack down on crime and shiftlessness like never before! This city is full of slouches and layabouts, and I'll whip some discipline into you all if it's the last thing I do, or my name isn't Helen!"

The crowd hesitated for a moment. Then their leader turned, tears in her eyes, and thrust her pitchfork into the air.

"The King is dead!" she proclaimed, her voice welling with emotion.

"Long live Queen Helen!" the crowd roared back.

"Gotta give the people what they want, Frederick," said Queen Helen, patting the stunned manservant on the shoulder. "Now be a dear, and bring me the good wine."