King Lionel’s grandfather King Hubert had brought Miracle Whip back from a long voyage to the Far East. He didn’t remember purchasing it, which probably meant he had acquired it while drunk, a habit of his that had filled whole rooms in the castle with useless junk that his ancestors were still trying to get rid of. Miracle Whip was one of his very few worthwhile acquisitions. And even it probably would have been disposed of or forgotten beneath a pile of a shoddy tapestries if it hadn’t happened to be lying nearby when King Hubert suspected a servant boy of stealing a pastry while his back was turned.
Miracle Whip didn’t look miraculous in any way. It was clearly very old, but otherwise just a regular leather whip, seven feet long with a soft grip and a ragged tassel on the end. But when King Hubert struck the sniffling servant boy across his bare back, the wound was inflicted upon his own back instead, blood soaking through his royal tunic as he groaned with pain and fell to his knees. The servant boy looked on in horror with his smooth, white back unscathed, afraid that he would somehow be blamed for this as well. As King Hubert lay on the floor and tried to figure out what had happened, he saw the missing pastry lying face down under the table where it had fallen, and he realized that the servant boy was in fact innocent. It was at that moment that he realized Miracle Whip had miraculous powers.
It wasn’t long before Miracle Whip was being used to settle every dispute. Whenever someone accused someone else of a crime, after a few cursory questions, the accuser was handed Miracle Whip and instructed to whip the accused. If the accused was guilty, Miracle Whip worked like a regular whip and the accused received the appropriate punishment for the crime. But if the accused was innocent, the wounds appeared in the flesh of the accuser, who was then whipped savagely with a regular whip by a court-appointed whipper. Before long, no one was accusing anyone of crimes that they weren’t absolutely positive the accused had committed. By the time King Lionel’s father, King Rowan took the throne, the kingdom had nearly seen the end of speculative accusation. Unless there was substantial evidence or a group of reliable eyewitnesses, no one wanted to accuse anyone of crimes they weren’t absolutely certain the accused had committed. And when accusations were made, Miracle Whip made long arguments and presentations of facts unnecessary. It was a huge time-saver.
King Lionel had actually never seen Miracle Whip perform its miracle. Since everyone knew about Miracle Whip’s special properties, the only people who ever got whipped anymore were guilty people, and Miracle Whip proved it again and again by rending their garments and ripping their flesh just like unmiraculous whips do to everyone. Justice was not a vague concept in King Lionel’s kingdom. It was as easy to grasp as Miracle Whip’s well-worn grip, always close at hand and always final.
Late one night, Gilbert, a servant boy and the sixteen-year-old son of one of the palace cooks, was wandering by himself through the halls when he came across one of the palace’s many opulent guest rooms. The door was standing ajar. Peering inside, Gilbert saw that whoever was staying in the room was not there but had left a beautiful jeweled figurine of a swooning mermaid sitting on a table just a few feet from the doorway. The desire to possess the figurine overcame him so suddenly and fiercely that without checking to make sure that the coast was clear, he ducked into the room, grabbed it from the table, and darted back into the hallway, colliding with Count Borning, who was just returning from a refreshing stroll down to the conservatory and back.
In the resulting uproar, Gilbert refused to confess to stealing the figurine. Even though he had been caught red-handed, he insisted that he’d done nothing wrong as vehemently as if he actually hadn’t. He knew that, being guilty, Miracle Whip would certainly wound him and make his guilt known to everyone, but if he continued to deny the theft, there was still a chance that some stroke of luck or a miracle of a different kind might spare him the encounter with Miracle Whip, the resulting lashing, and the loss of his job. A confession would leave no room for fate to intervene. He was not the first to think this way while being dragged to the throne room to be judged by Miracle Whip. It was quite common for the accused to protest their innocence right up to the moment when Miracle Whip tore them open, and afterwards too, insisting that Miracle Whip had made a mistake. They were never believed nor pitied.
“I didn’t do it!” cried Gilbert as two royal guardsmen pulled his shirt over his head and forced him to grab the free-standing whipping post that had been placed in the middle of the throne room. Gilbert’s mother stood nearby shaking her head, her narrow, red face creased with disappointment. Because of the late hour, there were not the usual number of spectators and gawkers.
King Lionel, who had been pulled out of bed to deal with the problem as quickly as possible because of Count Borning’s wealth and political importance, sat on his throne and tried not to roll his eyes as Count Borning gave Miracle Whip a few practice cracks. No one bothered to contradict Gilbert’s frantic denials since Miracle Whip would reveal the truth soon enough.
“Count Borning,” said King Lionel. “Of what do you accuse the servant boy Gilbert?”
“Trying to steal my swooning mermaid figurine,” said Count Borning. “But I caught him!” He cracked Miracle Whip again, theatrically.
“Since you dragged me out of bed,” said King Lionel, “I can only assume that you’re absolutely sure of this fact.”
“I am!” shouted Count Borning, grinning and eager.
“Then may Miracle Whip serve as the agent of true justice,” said King Lionel, reciting the official words in a bored voice.
“Harrr!” shouted Count Borning, rearing back and snapping Miracle Whip across Gilbert’s exposed back. Gilbert felt nothing, but he heard the crack, Count Borning’s shrill cry of pain and the sound of Miracle Whip falling to the tile floor.
King Lionel overcame his surprise at the sight of Count Borning panting on his hands and knees, his face contorted with confusion and suffering, and said, “Count Borning, Miracle Whip has shown you to be a False Accuser. The court-appointed whipper will now see that true justice is served.” Gilbert’s mother hugged him to her stew-spattered apron and wept with relief.
“But I saw him!” shouted Count Borning. “I saw him with the figurine in his hand! Miracle Whip is wrong!”
“You sound just like a False Accuser,” said the court-appointed whipper, handing Miracle Whip back to King Lionel, who put it back on its special rack on the throne room wall.
It took three royal guardsmen to hold Count Borning still as he received his punishment.
Gilbert didn’t know why Miracle Whip hadn’t hurt him despite his guilt, but he understood the importance of such a revelation. An immunity to Miracle Whip was an immunity to justice. But before he took this immunity as fact, he needed to make sure that his miraculous escape hadn’t been a one-time occurrence. And the only way to know for sure was to force another run-in with Miracle Whip. Gilbert knew that whatever he did had to be bad enough to warrant another appearance before the throne, but not bad enough to get him in serious trouble in case Miracle Whip worked properly on him this time. He also thought it best to make sure that there were no witnesses to what he did beyond his target and himself. The fewer people who knew about his ability, the better.
Lonnie, the Master of Hound, liked to go on solitary horseback rides in the woods on quiet afternoons and Gilbert decided that an unprovoked attack on the horse’s flank with a slingshot would certainly result in Lonnie being bucked off and summarily dragging Gilbert in front of King Lionel and demanding the use of Miracle Whip.
The night before his planned attack, Gilbert couldn’t sleep. He lay on his straw mattress in the servants’ quarters with his mother snoring on her own mattress next to his on the stone floor and spent equal time dreading the pain he would experience if it turned out that he wasn’t immune to Miracle Whip and imagining the incredible power he would have if it turned out he was.
The next day, the plan went perfectly, except Lonnie broke his right arm in the fall from his horse. “Gimme Miracle Whip, your highness!” he shouted, his voice echoing in the throne room. “I’ll use my left hand! Trust me, he won’t know the difference! I’ll split him open just the same as if I was whole!”
“You’re sure you didn’t do it?” asked King Lionel from his throne, sizing Gilbert up.
“I didn’t,” insisted Gilbert, shivering as he felt the swift approach of what could very well turn out to be the single most important moment of his life. He peeled his shirt over his head and turned his back to Lonnie, grabbing the post with both hands.
“All right,” said King Lionel, lifting Miracle Whip down from its rack. “Then may Miracle Whip serve as the agent of true justice.”
Lonnie grinned as he took the whip with his left hand, raised his arm over his head, and struck Gilbert across the back, yelping as he felt the blow across his own shoulders, staggering forward, almost falling into Gilbert before regaining his balance and shouting, “No! No! I saw him shoot my horse with his slingshot, your majesty! I know it was him! I’m a trustworthy man, your highness! I’m honest!”
“Apparently not,” said the court-appointed whipper, stepping out of the shadows with the evil-looking regular whip in hand.
Gilbert put his shirt back on. He looked at Lonnie as he took his place at the post. Lonnie looked back at him with fearful comprehension.
“I told you I didn’t do it,” said Gilbert to everyone.
In the weeks that followed, Gilbert began to test the possibilities of his power. He dumped a bucket of cold, filthy water on Lord Growt while he slept in his chambers, threw Lady Friedish’s parasol into the moat, and snatched a meat pie out of Sir Gormer’s hand and devoured it in front of him. Each time Gilbert and his accuser appeared before King Lionel, the King looked more and more worried. He became more hesitant to bring Miracle Whip out right away, asking the accusers specific questions about what they claimed Gilbert had done, asking if anyone else had seen what happened and giving Gilbert opportunity after opportunity to confess. But Gilbert wouldn’t budge. He knew that, in the end, King Lionel would have to use Miracle Whip. If he didn’t, he would be publicly admitting that Miracle Whip wasn’t completely trustworthy, the entire justice system would crumble, and his days would be spent trying to make sense of endless he-said-she-said trials just like every other king in the area.
As King Lionel and Gilbert watched Sir Gormer receive his whipping from the court-appointed whipper, King Lionel held Miracle Whip very close to his face, looking at it intently for any sign of defects. “Why have so many people been falsely accusing you recently, boy?”
Gilbert struggled to keep a sober expression on his face. “I wish I knew, your highness. It must be some sort of class prejudice.”
King Lionel frowned. “Then why aren’t the other servant boys being falsely accused?”
“I think there’s something about my face that attracts bullies, your majesty. It’s my cross to bear.”
“But these people know Miracle Whip will expose them if they make false accusations. Count Borning, Lonnie, Lord Growt, Lady Friedish, Sir Gormer: they all know better.”
“Perhaps,” said Gilbert, “they all believe themselves to be above the law, somehow. Perhaps there’s some subversive literature going around?”
King Lionel said nothing.
The court-appointed whipper, finished with Sir Gormer, looked up at the king with a wide grin, sweating profusely and massaging his right bicep with his left hand. He’d whipped more noble flesh in the last few weeks than he had ever hoped possible. He, at least, was happy.
Two weeks passed without incident. Gilbert laid low for a while, going about his duties without drawing attention to himself, although the other servants stayed out of his way. They sensed the danger that surrounded him, they saw the freedom on his face and read the menace in his eyes. The nobles who had been whipped as a result of Gilbert’s power watched him from a distance with hunted expressions. They tried to tell other nobles what had happened, warned them about what might happen to them if they crossed paths with Gilbert, but they were not believed. The kingdom believed in Miracle Whip. They were afraid of what might happen if doubt was allowed to spread. If anything, the fact that Miracle Whip had exhibited its miraculous powers after so much time caused people to believe in it even more fervently.
Observing this, Gilbert decided that it was time to gain from his power. Insolence and defiant pranks were fun, but he wasn’t realizing the full potential of his immunity. One night while another servant boy was giving Prince Fillmore, a frail boy of thirteen, an unsupervised foot bath, Gilbert came into the room and told the other servant boy he was needed in the armory. Then, alone with the Prince, Gilbert grabbed him by his embroidered collar and told him to give him any gold he had hidden in the room. When the Prince refused, Gilbert punched him in the nose. Sniffling and bleeding, the Prince opened up a chest on his dresser with a key and gave Gilbert a velvet bag full of gold pieces.
“I’m going to tell my dad,” said Prince Fillmore, choking with rage.
“Do it,” said Gilbert, dumping the gold coins into his pants pocket and handing the bag back to the prince.
Twenty minutes later, two guardsmen brought Gilbert in front of the king. The prince stood next to the throne holding a lace handkerchief to his nose, his eyes still shining with tears. Since the prince was involved in the dispute, a large number of nobles and servants had come to watch the proceedings, murmuring with collective indignation when Gilbert appeared.
King Lionel’s hands were clenched into fists. “You again,” he said.
“I didn’t do it,” said Gilbert. “I’ve been falsely accused.”
“We found these in the boy’s pocket,” said one of the guardsmen, holding up a handful of the gold coins. The spectators gasped.
“Those are mine,” said Gilbert. “I’ve been saving them.”
“You lie!” screamed Prince Fillmore. “Father, give me Miracle Whip! I’ll prove him a liar!”
“I have nothing to hide,” said Gilbert. “Miracle Whip will clear my name. I welcome it.”
King Lionel looked at Miracle Whip where it hung on the wall, ancient and mysterious. He thought about the board game he was inventing and the idle hours spent throwing captured rats to the alligators in the moat on sunny afternoons. He thought about his reading list and the proposal he had received from the council regarding the dress code for squires and how long it had been since he’d gone to his sister’s for a visit. He thought about the brevity of life and his heart sunk within him.
“My son is an honest boy,” said King Lionel. “And I believe he’s telling the truth.” He turned to the court-appointed whipper. “Bring the regular whip.”