There was a king, once. He wasn't a cruel king, but he wasn't very kind either. No, that's wrong. He didn't mean to be unkind, but he was ignorant. Yes, that's right. He wouldn't go out of his way to be kind to any of his people, but he wouldn't go out of his way to be cruel to any of them either. He was just concerned simply with himself and wouldn't do anything to the kingdom in general that would make him look like a bad ruler. And so the people loved him.
In the king's advisory board were three men, the brightest of their fields. The oldest had known the king since he was a small prince in swaddling clothes and babbling nonsense. The other two were educated men from the college in the nearest town. True that the old man had gone to college, but times were changing so much, most of his knowledge was obsolete.
The oldest was Senior Advisor; the other two were simply the Minister of Cities and the Minister of Towns, as that was what the kingdom was made up of. Whenever the two Ministers had a disagreement, the Senior Advisor would settle it. If the Ministers had an idea, the Senior Advisor would have to agree on it before it would even be presented to the king.
One spring day, the two Ministers had an idea. After a long winter, the People of The City were restless, and the People of the Town were becoming unsettled. They decided the king needed a queen. And so they came to the Senior Advisor.
He agreed, without reservations. And so the three advisors presented their idea to the king, who stroked his black beard thoughtfully for appearance's sake and agreed after five minutes of doing so. They quickly arranged him to marry one of the lord's daughters, a beautiful girl of good birth and good manners.
The wedding was a big affair. Only the best cooks were hired; only the best musicians were contracted; only the best for the king's wedding. The service took place atop a hill on a beautiful sunny day (only the best weather, of course), where everyone invited , which was everyone in the kingdom that could attend, could see the royal couple and their finery glinting in the sunlight like a pair of gods come upon this earth. When the service was over, the reception was held in the palace courtyard, where the musicians played and the courtesans danced and the guests ate and laughed and loved.
For celebration, the king had insisted on only the best and most extravagant of festivities. When he had heard of the firecrackers that the Chinese had created, he wanted some. And when he had heard of the invention that had been created by one of his own people, he had to include that in the celebration as well.
The invention was simply the most beautiful, most complex of inventions. It was a basket, woven of the finest rye stems, made to fit three men of modest size. That was not the amazing part. No, the amazing part was that, when attached to the giant cloth woven of only the finest threads and when hot air was blown into that cloth, it floated upward to the heavens.
The Senior Advisor had not thought it wise to have something such as this or the Chinese firecrackers at an affair where there would be many people. Yet the king insisted and had his way. Because the Senior Advisor had protested, he and the two Ministers were to man the invention at the reception.
"You would do so well, because you are very full of hot air, old man!" the king had exclaimed after being asked about his decision. The court had laughed.
So the Senior Advisor and the Ministers, when the time came, trooped obediently into the contraption and muttered nervously to themselves. The inventor had shown them how to work it the day before, and so they had been up already, one at a time, yet they were still very anxious. The Minister of Cities kept repeating over and over, "Do not stop blowing the hot air, do not stop blowing the hot air." This was the one thing they were to do if they did not want to hurtle back towards the ground.
Once up in the air, they relaxed a bit. The Minister of Cities, who was operating the invention, did not forget the cardinal rule. The Minister of Towns closed his eyes and kept them tightly shut. He had discovered yesterday that he didn't much like heights. The Senior Advisor rested on the side of the basket and looked down. The king, clad in his wedding outfit (which had been created only by the best tailors), stood on the grassy hill, his bride next to him. They made quite a couple, he with his muscles gleaning in the sunlight and she with her long, mahogany hair reflecting the radiance back towards the source.
They started rising higher. The crowd, composed of both People of the City and People of the Town, oohed and aahed as the top of the bright cloth slowly vanished beneath a mist of clouds until the bottom of the basket was no longer visible. Then there was silence.
Then there was a shriek from above the clouds. A huge crow was coming straight towards them, its golden eyes piercing them with fear. The Minister of Cities shrieked and tried to cover his head with his arms. Unfortunately, this meant stopping the hot air flow. The Minister of Towns, upon hearing the Minister of Cities' scream, opened his eyes only to see the ground rushing up at them. The two began screaming together and hugged each other tight, saying their prayers. The Senior Advisor only sighed and looked up at the white cotton clouds which now seemed so far away when once he could have touched them. It would figure that the day would be spoiled by a crow. It must be a sign. The gods must not be pleased.
The basket plummeted to the earth with a great crash. The king and his new queen rushed forward to see what fate had done of the three men that were manning the invention. Expecting the grass to turn crimson with their blood, the royal couple gasped.
The Senior Advisor and the two Ministers were picking themselves off the ground and brushing the dirt off their clothes. They were shaken, but unhurt. They were also angry, both at the king and at the inventor of this balloon thing.
While the king watched on, the three men talked amongst themselves and seemed to come to a conclusion. They faced the royal couple.
The Minister of Cities and the Minister of Towns, working together for a change, walked to the new queen and took her by the arms while the Senior Advisor tried to explain gently to them what was happening.
He explained that a giant crow had leapt out at them from behind a cloud and sent them back to the earth, as a sign from the gods to tell them that they were unhappy. The king sighed and knew that there would be no pleasing everyone. So he let the advisory board proceed with their idea.
The two men that held the queen led her through the arches and into another courtyard, this one an unfortunate yard where traitors were excuted and sacrifices to the gods made. In the center of it was a contraption similiar to the French guillotine which would be invented in the years to come. A traitor's head was fastened to one of the three tree stumps under the great oak that still stood. His or her hands would be tied, spread out, to the other two. Then, from the huge, sturdy branches, three large blades were hung with rope, kept up in the air by three men who, on the count of three, would then release the ropes. The blades would fall, and, if all went correctly, the traitor's head and hands would be chopped off quickly and effectively. Of course, if the man holding the blade that took the traitor's head off was slow and went on the count of four, the traitor would feel excruciating pain as skin was cut, nerves snapped, and bones crushed. And, oftentimes, the blades wouldn't go completely through all that thick tissue, and thus the person would writhe in pain for many seconds, even minutes, before a compassionate onlooker would take out his own knife and finish the job.
When the queen saw this, she screamed and tried to run. Unfortunately for her, the Ministers were young and in their prime and were thus able to hold onto her. After she realized they wouldn't let her go, she looked to the Senior Advisor. Searching his face, she realized he wouldn't help her anyway.
The king had solemnly followed the advisors and his queen, but he had stopped at the arches. The crowd that was at the reception had followed him, and he stopped them there, speaking to them with quiet words. They sighed and went away.
He walked over to the oak and nodded to the Senior Advisor, who then nodded to the other men. They fastened the queen to the stumps, then set up the blades. The Minister of Towns took the left hand; the Minister of Cities took the right; the Senior Advisor took the head blade. Then the king began to count, trying to be heard over his queen's loud prayers to the gods.
"Oh gods, forgive them their sin," she prayed, trying to hold back her tears.
"One," he said, trying to forget that this woman might have born him a child.
"They know not what they're doing." Her control had not worked. She was sobbing now, and openly so.
"Two." The Ministers looked at each other and prepared themselves to drop the blade.
"Forgive them as I have done."
"Three." The Senior Advisor hadn't heard three. He had only heard the girl's prayers and had been so surprised he would have dropped the blade anyway. She had forgiven them.