Once upon a time, in the faraway land of Arevnia, there lived a handsome king and a beautiful queen. Their Serene Majesties lived in a strong, beautiful castle set midway between the top of a beautiful mountain and a beautiful valley with a long, beautiful lake that trailed off beautifully into the distance. And all their people loved them, and they were very happy.
Just not with each other.
Theirs was a match made in, at best, one of Heaven’s slums, where the Protestant work ethic had never taken root. Heaven’s management held to a strict policy of “no comment” on the matter.
They had loved each other well at first, and had gone to the altar full of joy. Shortly thereafter, however, they began to notice little habits and idiosyncracies and one strained nerve led to another, as will happen. Passion’s flame flickered and faded and they then saw each other in the light of cold wax and charred wick and took a dim view of the subject. Rather than live and let live and love, as wiser couples learn to do, King Arvid and Queen Shelly took counsel of General Grant near Spotsylvania Courthouse and fought it out on that line all summer. And into the fall. And winter…
Because he was a constitutional monarch and not one of the powerful, tyranty kings of old, King Arvid couldn’t have Queen Shelly executed or imprisoned or banished without the consent of the Parliament and that, King Arvid knew, was not going to be forthcoming. Even when Queen Shelly, in a snit about something, sold King Arvid’s favorite horse to a farmer for a couple of ducats, Parliament stolidly refused to permit even so much as the flogging of their beloved Queen Shelly. King Arvid had to buy the farmer a different horse to get his own back. Parliament did issue a formal request to Queen Shelly that she not dispose of King Arvid’s belongings without his consent, which she accepted from the delegation with a smile and something not quite like a promise never to do so again.
Queen Shelly, for her part, had no official power because Arevnia was traditionally quite sexist and not even a queen had any say-so in the ruling of the kingdom. “See that?” the men said. “Kingdom. Not queendom.” And that was that, and had Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott lived in Arevnia they would have had emigrated to the United States where the pickings were better and history would have played out much as it has anyway. Still, as Queen Shelly was quite beautiful and had a charming smile and a soft, lilting voice, and as Parliament was composed entirely of men, you may draw your own conclusions as to how often she got her way when she wanted something.
That was what had King Arvid in a passion this particular afternoon. Parliament had unanimously voted to expend a great deal of money on a new opera house and formal gardens.
“And what about my request for funding to invade our western neighbor, Krumpfenland?” he snarled at his prime minister.
“We haven’t the funding to do both, Sire,” the prime minister replied calmly. “The invasion will have to wait.”
“Knowing, as I do, how many devotees of both the opera and flowers there are in Parliament,” King Arvid sneered, “dare I ask where this miserable notion came from?” Even sneering, he was still quite handsome.
The prime minister pretended to consider the question for a moment. “I believe … the original suggestion may possibly have come from Her Highness.”
King Arvid flew into a rage and said things he was permitted by Parliament to say only when behind closed doors because if King Arvid’s earnestly earthy vocabulary were to be heard openly it would corrode the peasants’ morale, corrupt the kingdom’s children, and collapse the tourist trade.
“We are,” the prime minister said when King Arvid wound down, “in Parliament at somewhat of a loss to understand, Your Highness, why you wish to invade Krumpfenland. They possess no enmity toward us nor any appreciable army.”
“What more reason do you need?” King Arvid shouted. “They’re the perfect enemy!” The prime minister left the castle for home shortly after that and lived another 52 years in good health without ever understanding King Arvid’s point.
King Arvid fumed and fretted and fulminated loudly and at length alone in his great hall. So many forms of revenge were off his plate due to his status as a head of state rather than head of government, and also because Parliament would see his as the hand behind any misdeed committed against Queen Shelly.
“Opera! Ha!” And he kicked a chair. “Formal gardens! Ha!” And he smashed a vase against a far wall. “Krumpfenland! I want Krumpfenland! Give me Krumpfenland! Not opera! Not flowers! Krumpfenland!”
Just when life seemed its bleakest, a thought burrowed out from its hiding place deep inside King Arvid’s brain. He stood stock still, letting the thought take its own time. As he began to actively think the thought, the left side of his face drew upward in a smile. Soon, the right side of his face made its own ascent. His eyelids, on the other hand, lowered to about half staff, giving the handsome king a rather stereotypically villianish look. Had he known, he would have coped with it just fine.
And in keeping with tradition, he laughed loudly. “Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!” He did so several more times as he began to refine his plan.
Throughout the next year, King Arvid and Queen Shelly continued their mutual dislike with the standard sniping at each other. But they were both preoccupied with their own projects and it was largely pro forma. And when Parliament again voted a large sum of money to finish the opera hall and formal gardens rather than to support an invasion of their peaceful neighbor, Krumpfenland, King Arvid shrugged it off.
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” he said lightly. “The thing has been started; it might just as well be completed. We shall continue to live peaceably with Krumpfenland.”
Upon hearing this, Queen Shelly cleaned and quietly test-fired the pistol she kept hidden on her person. A King Arvid being reasonable could be considered infinitely more dangerous than one openly plotting against her.
Three months before the opera hall was completed, King Arvid went to the prime minister.
“I know I originally scoffed at the notion of an opera hall and formal gardens,” he admitted, “but it is a reality now and it is my duty as king to be openly supportive.”
“Your Highness is most gracious,” the prime minister lied. “In what manner do you wish to be seen as supporting the facilities?”
“I have written an opera. I should like for it to be the first opera performed in the new hall.”
The prime minister took both the libretto and the score from his king’s hands as though they were poisoned. But he and then a small committee from Parliament looked the opera over and whistled out some of the tunes and declared the whole to be promising.
The prime minister and the capellmeister approached Queen Shelly together about the king’s opera. They assured her that the opera would be a good one – no Don Giovanni, to be sure, but quite well done for a beginner – and the perfect inaugural for the new hall. Queen Shelly smiled charmingly and in her soft, lilting voice agreed.
Then she went to her spacious bedroom, slammed the door behind her, and took to her bed with a headache for the rest of the day. This, then, was her husband’s revenge; this was what he had been working on for nearly two years. He would force her to open her beautiful new opera hall and formal gardens with substandard material. And with Parliament backing him, there was nothing to be done about the fiasco.
For opening night, the prime minister had asked King Arvid if he wished to make a speech. King Arvid deferred to Queen Shelly, as it had been her project. Queen Shelly, not wanting to give aid and comfort to whatever her husband had planned for the stage, deferred to the prime minister who, because he could, deferred to the capellmeister.
The capellmeister stood before the full house and welcomed everyone. He bowed to King Arvid and Queen Shelly, and all in the house stood and bowed with him. They waved back prettily. Then the capellmeister welcomed their honored guests, King Grumpenflumpf and Queen Loschenloofe of Krumpfenland, and there was polite applause for their majesties of the pleasant little kingdom to the west.
Then came the overture to King Arvid’s opera, Twilight of the Petals. An honest reviewer, had one been available, would have said the plot was a little difficult to follow; it had something to do with beauty being transitory but the will of the strong would last forever. There were some good tunes to be heard, though, the mythical reviewer would have noted, and these would be whistled in Arevnia for many years to come.
There was, of course, no honest reviewer and there were five curtain calls for the actors in King Arvid’s opera and a standing ovation for the author himself. He finally rose to acknowledge his adoring fans and silenced them to speak.
“My friends, I thank you. I am delighted to have delighted you so as we open this hall of story and music. There remain only two things left to make this a perfect evening.” He bent down and picked up a parchment scroll from under his chair. He turned slightly to address King Grumpenflumpf of Krumpfenland. “You will sign this instrument of surrender, Your Majesty, and Arevnia will formally annex your kingdom.”
King Grumpenflumpf bridled at what he considered a poor joke. Queen Shelly closed her eyes and put two fingers to her head, which was beginning to throb. Both she and the foreign king – and everyone else but King Arvid – jumped as the doors to the hall opened and armed Arevnian soldiers poured in. A small squad made itself known at the door to the Royal Box.
King Grumpenflumpf realized he had no choice and surrendered his kingdom. As the audience realized what had just taken place, light applause scattered itself around the great room. It slowly gathered strength after a meaningful look from the handsome king and his name was finally cheered for his bloodless victory.
King Arvid handed the vanquished Grumpenflumpf and his queen over to Arevnia’s top general for transport back to Krumpfenland, where they would announce the bad news. Their Serene Majesties of Arevnia made their way toward the exit. She was quietly furious with him.
“That was quite a scene,” she fumed.
“It was, wasn’t it?” he agreed, pleased with himself.
She stopped. “You said there were two things remaining to make this a perfect evening,” she accused. “What’s the other one?”
King Arvid smiled the sort of smile one never likes to see on someone else’s face. He gestured for Queen Shelly to keep moving toward the exit. They walked through the door and she screamed briefly before stifling herself.
There stood the Arevnian army, armed to the teeth, having trampled the lush and lovely formal gardens into compost.
“Now … it’s a perfect evening,” King Arvid said happily.
Needless to say, in time Queen Shelly skillfully engineered the return of Krumpfenland to its king. Also, for two months King Arvid seemed to encounter poison ivy at his every turn and in the most unlikely of locations.
And everyone else lived happily ever after.