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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

Captive Cool Guy

               King Olphant lay face down on his bed, his feet dangling off the bottom edge of the feather mattress. The sheets and blankets were tangled beneath his slim body. He had almost gotten all the way dressed before collapsing back onto the bed as a protest against putting his shoes on. The protest, he supposed, was directed at what his own life had become.

                It had been just over a year since King Olphant’s mother, Queen Sybil, had poisoned King Olphant’s father, King Curtis. It had not taken the Royal Council long to determine that Queen Sybil was the poisoner since she confessed as soon as she was asked if she knew who might want to poison the king. Queen Sybil had been executed before the Council crowned King Olphant because everyone knew he would just pardon her if given the chance, which he certainly would have. Not because he was OK with her killing his dad, but because he would have preferred not to lose both of his parents within a matter of days, even if one of them had poisoned the other. Less than an hour after Queen Sybil was beheaded, the Royal Council crowned Olphant, and he had been the king ever since. He was barely 20 years old when he was crowned, and now he was barely 21. Since he was little, he had known he would eventually become the king, but he had never thought it would happen so soon.

King Olphant knew he was not a good king, but what did people expect? He hadn’t been a good prince either, and then tragedy had thrust the crown upon him prematurely. Did anyone really think that could be a recipe for a good king? Maybe some princes would have risen to the challenge, matured overnight, used the whole situation as a catalyst for self-improvement. King Olphant had not done that. As far as he could tell, becoming king and the circumstances under which that had transpired had not changed his character at all, which was bad news for everybody. Another reason King Olphant would have liked to pardon his mother was that she would have taken on a big chunk of his responsibilities. She had carried a sizable portion of the royal burden for King Curtis, so King Olphant assumed she would have done the same for him. Although, maybe that was why she had snapped and poisoned his father? Maybe she would have eventually poisoned King Olphant too? What if King Olphant had just asked his mom to be Queen Regent for a while, ruling in his name while he enjoyed his 20s, or at least his early 20s? Would pardoning her have made such an arrangement possible, or would that have been a bridge too far for the Royal Council?

                Someone knocked on the door of King Olphant’s royal bedchamber. “Your Highness? Are you in there?”

                King Olphant said nothing. He recognized General Ferguson’s voice and he was not obligated to respond to General Ferguson if he didn’t feel like it, which he did not.

                “Something wonderful has happened, Your Majesty,” said General Ferguson, as if substituting “Majesty” for “Highness” would make King Olphant more likely to respond. “Your forces have captured King Armond’s favorite nephew. He was struck down by one of your loyal knights in battle and taken alive. He will be in your dungeon in a matter of days!”

                King Olphant could not have cared less about this news, which seemed like an opinion worth expressing. He rolled onto his back and called, “I don’t care.”

                “Well, you should care,” said General Ferguson. “This gives us significant leverage in negotiations which, frankly, we can really use right now.”

                “OK,” said King Olphant. “Sounds great.” He looked up at the purple velvet canopy hanging over his bed. A moment later, he heard General Ferguson heave a sigh and walk away. King Olphant promised himself that he would put his shoes on sometime within the next 5 or 10 minutes.


                King Olphant had never set foot in the dungeon before. He’d been curious about it when he was a kid, but King Curtis had told him he couldn’t take a tour of it until he was 16, and by the time he was 16, all interest in the dungeon had long since drained out of King Olphant. He had been putting off this visit to the dungeon for two days, but members of the Royal Council kept saying “it’s customary, it’s customary, it’s customary” so much that eventually King Olphant realized that what they meant was that if he didn’t visit the dungeon, they’d never shut up about it.

                As it turned out, the dungeon was dark, wet, cold, and it smelled bad. Also, the ceilings were low. King Olphant was only 5’8”, and although he didn’t have to stoop to keep from bumping his head, he walked with a slightly hunched posture anyway. General Ferguson was tall enough that he had to stoop, but he was psyched out of his mind to be in the dungeon, which King Olphant found annoying. In addition to being tall, General Ferguson was lanky and red-faced. King Curtis had thought General Ferguson was awesome, but King Olphant had never found General Ferguson to be awesome, not even when he was a little kid and still found stories about battles and wars and all that stuff fascinating.

                “Over this way,” said General Ferguson. “We’ve got him all the way in the back, in one of the worst cells. Right, Lyman?”

                “That’s right,” said Lyman. “Probably the second worst cell, but that depends on your criteria.” Lyman was the Royal Jailer. He hated his job, but was also very proud and protective of it. He had strong forearms, high-water pants, and hair that hung down in his eyes. Sometimes the hair was clearly touching Lyman’s eyeballs, yet he never brushed or blew it out of his face. How did it not drive him crazy? King Olphant had a premonition that one day he would snap and command Lyman to get a haircut. Lyman wore a ring with three big keys on it on a cord around his neck. Why only three keys? Did that mean most of the cells used the same key? That seemed like a stupid idea to King Olphant, but he didn’t want to bring it up. Bringing up problems that he noticed meant listening to a bunch of different ideas for a solution, having to pick one, and then having to listen to endless updates and follow-up questions. Very early in his reign, he had learned to not express thoughts that would mutate into persistent aggravations.

                “This way, Your Highness,” said General Ferguson. He waved at King Olphant with his torch. He did not need a torch – there were torches in sconces on the wall and his torch did not meaningfully alter the visibility – but he had insisted on carrying one. As soon as he’d set foot in the dungeon, General Ferguson had started acting all dungeony. What a loser.

                King Olphant followed General Ferguson through an arch into a narrow hallway lined with heavy iron doors. Lyman came next, and two bored guards armed with swords brought up the rear.

                “He’s in the one allllll the way at the end,” said General Ferguson with a little smirk. He acted as if that should mean something to King Olphant. It didn’t.

                “I told him this one was worse,” said Lyman, gesturing at a door on the right as the group walked past. “But he insisted that we put him in the cell on the end.”

                “If he’s in the cell on the end, then that means he’s deeper in the dungeon,” said General Ferguson. “In fact, he’s in the deepest cell in the dungeon.” This fact made him radiant.

                “Like I said,” said Lyman. “What constitutes ‘worst’ all depends on your criteria.”

                “Deeper is worse,” said General Ferguson. “Deepest is worst.” He stopped in front of the door at the end of the hall and motioned for Lyman to open it. “I know you’re a difficult man to impress, Your Majesty,” said General Ferguson. “But wait until you see this. You’re going to love it.”

                “Isn’t it just King Armond’s nephew in a cell?” asked King Olphant.

                “His favorite nephew,” said General Ferguson. “And yes. But wait until you see him. Then the reality of the accomplishment will really sink in.”

                As Lyman struggled to determine which of the three keys belonged to the cell containing King Armond’s favorite nephew, King Olphant turned to look over his shoulder at the two guards. One of them was using the blade of his sword to make reflected torchlight zip around on the damp, stone ceiling of the dungeon. The other guard had his eyes closed.

                “It has to be one of these,” said Lyman. “This is why I hate this job so much. I get it, dungeons are supposed to be miserable, but does that mean nothing can work right? Not even for the guy in charge of the place?”

                “Don’t worry, Your Highness,” said General Ferguson. “We’ll get it.”

                King Olphant said nothing. He hoped his petulant silence would make General Ferguson feel embarrassed and stupid.

                The key clicked in the lock and Lyman grunted. “Finally.” He pulled the door open, the hinges of which made the kind of groaning noise one would expect from the hinges of the door of the deepest cell in a dungeon.

General Ferguson barged through the doorway with his torch, paused to admire something not visible from outside the cell, and then motioned for King Olphant to join him. “You have to see this, Your Highness. You’re going to love this.”

King Olphant wondered if there was anything in the whole world that he could love to see. He didn’t think there was, but he stepped into the cell anyway.

“Look,” said General Ferguson. “There.” He held his torch out toward the back, right corner of the cell. There, seated on the floor with his hands shackled to the wall over his head, was a man. The man’s hands were reddish-purple, their circulation restricted by the tight iron manacles around his wrists. At first, King Olphant took the man for middle-aged, but upon closer inspection, he realized that the man was probably only a few years older than himself. He had long hair tied back behind his head with a strip of leather. A filthy bandage ran from his temple and down his right cheek. His right eye was also blackened. He had several day’s growth of beard, and his face and neck were smeared with dirt that had turned to mud in the dungeon’s dampness. His shirt was torn, there were holes in the knees of his pants, and his feet were bare and as dirty as his face. Dirtier, actually.

“That’s him,” said General Ferguson, his voice throbbing with pride. “King Armond’s favorite nephew.”

“What’s his name?” asked King Olphant.

“I’ll happily tell you, Your Majesty,” said General Ferguson. “But you can ask him yourself, if you like. He has to answer you since you’re the king. If he doesn’t, I can kick him or punch him or what-have-you.”

                “Just tell me his name,” said King Olphant. The captive nephew of King Olphant’s greatest enemy did not look at him, but neither did he stare despondently at the floor. He looked past King Olphant and King Ferguson to the opposite wall as if he were so lost in his own thoughts that he hadn’t noticed their arrival.

                “His name is Leon,” said General Ferguson. “Do you want to question him? Find out what he knows about his uncle’s plans? See if he can shed some light on their overall strategy, maybe find out some specifics regarding tactics?”

                “No,” said King Olphant. “I don’t.”

                “OK,” said General Ferguson. “Well, I can take care of all that stuff. I’ll be sure to let you know whenever we get anything important out of him. Which will be soon, I assure you, Your Majesty. A guy like this won’t take long to crack. He’s gonna sing like a, uh, songbird.”

                “Sing?” asked King Olphant. “Why would he sing?”

                “No, it’s not literal singing,” said General Ferguson. “That’s just what we call it when a captive talks.”

                “You call talking singing?” asked King Olphant. “Why?”

                “Uh, I don’t know, Your Highness,” said General Ferguson.

                “It’s stupid,” said King Olphant. “Stop trying to act cool. You’re not cool.”

                “All right, Your Majesty,” said General Ferguson, now almost fully deflated. “I will.”

                Leon didn’t look at King Olphant or General Ferguson, but the corners of his mouth bent slightly upward. This tiny affirmation from his high-profile captive made King Olphant feel a twinge of pleasure, for some reason. He turned to face General Ferguson. “I mean, you’re not even the one who captured him,” said King Olphant. He shot continual glances at Leon out of the corner of his eye as he warmed to the task of berating his general. “You’ve just been sitting here in the castle while Sir Hubert and Sir Rollet and Sir, uh, whoever else do all the real fighting. They’re the ones who captured this guy, so I don’t know why you’re so full of yourself all of the sudden. And don’t bring up ‘overall strategy’ or whatever else you take credit for to make yourself feel better about not risking your life in that stupid war. Your own sons are out there fighting while you’re here bragging to me about how you’re going to make this guy ‘sing.’ Do you even hear how lame that sounds?” Leon had wiped the smile from his face, but he was no longer pretending to look at the far wall. He was looking right at King Olphant, listening with what King Olphant considered to be a few outward signs of admiration. “I’d quit this stupid war tomorrow,” said King Olphant. “I’ve mentioned quitting it before, but every time I do, the Royal Council throws a giant fit. I don’t know why you all love this war so much, but I barely even know who King Armond is or why my dad hated him so much. And I don’t want to know because I don’t care.

                General Ferguson refused to look at King Olphant. He looked at his own hands instead. After a long pause, he appeared to realize he should respond, so he said, “Yes, Your Grace.”

                “Are you being sarcastic?” asked King Olphant.

                “No, of course not,” said General Ferguson.

                “Then why did you call me ‘Your Grace?’ That’s not in your regular rotation. You always call me ‘Your Highness’ or ‘Your Majesty.’ I just think it’s a little weird that you would choose ‘Your Grace’ right now while I’m chewing you out in front of this captive that you love so much.”

                “I don’t ‘love’ the captive, Your Majesty,” said General Ferguson. “And I won’t call you ‘Your Grace’ again.”

                “Well, this was a waste of time,” said King Olphant. He turned to give Leon one final look. Leon met his eyes with neither fear nor defiance. Not even with interest, really. He was definitely looking at King Olphant, but in a very detached way. Without knowing why, King Olphant suddenly felt silly, maybe even a little corny. He gave Leon a nod that he hoped seemed nonchalant, and then left the cell. Behind him, he heard a thud and a grunt. He realized that General Ferguson had kicked Leon. Despite the fact that he considered Leon to be cooler than General Ferguson, the kick pleased King Olphant, again for reasons he did not understand. He was supposed to have lunch with a member of the Royal Council – he had forgotten which one – but he decided to skip the lunch and return to his chambers instead. He had a sudden urge to be alone with his thoughts and, yes, his feelings too, and King Olphant intended to satisfy that urge.


                Lyman was surprised to see King Olphant back in the dungeon, especially without General Ferguson or any guards. “Your Majesty! I, uh…I didn’t expect you. Did you send word that you were coming, or…?” He dropped something under his chair just inside the dungeon entrance, stood, and rapidly brushed his hands together as if to remove the evidence of, what, sandwich-eating?

                “Why should I have to send word that I’m coming to visit my own dungeon?” asked King Olphant.

                “Well, you shouldn’t have to,” said Lyman. “And you don’t have to. So…welcome. Welcome back.”

                “I’m going to see that captive again,” said King Olphant. “King Armond’s nephew. Take me to that cell and open it up for me.”

                “Got it,” said Lyman. “I’m on it.” He picked up the cord with the keyring on it from his desk and looped it over his neck. Then he paused to give King Olphant a brief up-and-down look, perhaps perplexed by the king’s change of outfit. King Olphant had decided that his usual kingly finery was not appropriate for the dungeon; it looked and felt ridiculous in such a grim context. Instead, he had opted for a normal shirt, normal vest, normal pants, and normal shoes. Normal in terms of the impression they made on those who saw someone wearing them. They were all well-made and expensive, of course, but no reasonable person would call them fancy. King Olphant also wore his most subtle crown. “This way, Your Majesty,” said Lyman, not bold enough to allow himself any comment or question pertaining to the king’s clothing.

                King Olphant followed Lyman through the cramped, twisted halls of the dungeon. “We have captives in these other cells too, don’t we?” asked King Olphant.

                “Of course, Your Majesty,” said Lyman.

                “How come they don’t make any noise?” asked King Olphant.

                “I don’t know,” said Lyman.

                Eventually, they arrived back at the deepest cell in the dungeon. Somehow, Lyman again struggled with the lock, trying all three keys multiple times. Would this be the moment that King Olphant snapped and forced Lyman to get a haircut? It felt like it might be. The moment felt very close. But one of the keys finally produced the clumsily-sought click of success, and Lyman pulled the door open, poking his head inside to make sure Leon hadn’t escaped his shackles. Satisfied that nothing seemed amiss, he stepped back from the door and gestured for King Olphant to enter. “Here you go, Your Highness.”

                “Wait down the hall where you can’t hear us talking,” said King Olphant. “I don’t want you eavesdropping on stuff that could be top secret.”

                “Yes, Your Majesty,” said Lyman, failing to conceal his disappointment.

                King Olphant watched the jailer shuffle toward the opposite end of the hall. “Farther. Farther. OK, there is fine.” Then he took the torch from the nearest sconce and entered Leon’s cell.

                The prisoner’s posture had not changed since King Olphant had seen him that morning, but then again, how could it? He was clamped in place. A small variety of leg positionings was the full range of movement afforded Leon. That and the height at which he held his head, which was now up and facing King Olphant as he stood just out of the reach of Leon’s feet, peering down from what happened to be a kingly height by default.

                “You’re back,” said Leon. “By yourself this time.” It was the first King Olphant had heard of Leon’s voice, which was low and coarse. It sounded like an affectation, yes, but an affectation of a man of taste.

                “Yeah,” said King Olphant. “I’m back.” He felt weirdly self-conscious again, the very feeling that made him resent Leon, but also the feeling that had drawn him back to this cell.

                Leon looked at King Olphant as if here were perfectly content to think about other things until King Olphant said something, as if he’d actually prefer to just stay inside his own thoughts and never have to hear what King Olphant had to say. The look made King Olphant second guess several conversation-starters. Finally, he said, “What makes you King Armond’s favorite nephew?”

                “Weak competition,” said Leon.

                King Olphant tried not to laugh, succeeded, then failed as soon as he let his guard down. Nothing in Leon’s expression revealed satisfaction at having achieved the laugh, which made King Olphant mentally kick himself. “How old are you?”

                “24,” said Leon.

                “I’m 21,” said King Olphant.

                “I thought you were, like, 18,” said Leon. “What happened to your other clothes?”

                King Olphant was filled with shame, but nothing about the way Leon inflected his voice indicated that he was being intentionally insulting. If King Olphant got angry and lashed out, he would be the one who looked foolish. “I changed,” said King Olphant, trying to sound casual. “I had to wear those other clothes for this lunch meeting thing. Which I blew off. Didn’t even go. So, yeah, I was wearing those other clothes for no reason, it turns out. Totally pointless. So stupid. Being a king is just, like, that. Constantly that. That kind of stuff, I mean.”

                “Wow, yeah,” said Leon. “I’d hate to be you. Wearing fancy clothes and skipping lunch dates. Much rather just stay chained to a wall.”

                “Ha ha,” said King Olphant. Touché.” Leon smirked and King Olphant desperately wished he could retract his “touché.” But he could not. How did Leon do it? He was sitting on the floor, he was covered in filth, wounded, his clothes were tattered, he was literally shackled to the wall and his hands had turned purple, yet he had all the power in the conversation. It was maddening. “So, listen,” said King Olphant, masking his inner turmoil with all of his might. “I’m going to shoot straight with you here.”

                “‘Shoot straight,’” said Leon. “Got it.” The faux-serious way that he drew his eyebrows together felt like human spit spattering King Olphant’s face. It was impossible to say the right thing to this guy.

                “Well, however you want to say it,” said King Olphant.

                “No, no,” said Leon. “‘Shoot straight’ with me. By all means.”

                “‘By all means?’” said King Olphant, grasping at an opportunity. “Seriously? How old are you?”

                “24,” said Leon. “I already told you before when you asked me the first time. Why are you obsessed with my age?”

                “I’m not,” said King Olphant. “I was pointing out that ‘by all means’ is a thing that old people say.”

                “Oh,” said Leon. “Is that what you were doing?” His expression had gone blank again. With horror, King Olphant realized that he had been played for what felt like the thousandth time in the last, like, five minutes.

                “I’m not gonna let General Ferguson torture you for info,” said King Olphant. “For information!” He blurted this last part in hopes that it would cut off any mockery Leon might be considering over his use of the word “info,” which now that King Olphant thought about it, was a staggeringly lame word to use.

                “Wow, thanks,” said Leon. “You’ve got a heart of gold. I guess I’ll just give you a rundown of everything my uncle’s cooking up because I like you now.”

                King Olphant was embarrassed of how good even this sarcastic declaration made him feel. When he got back to his chambers, he stood in the middle of the room and looked all around him, taking in the entire inherited atmosphere of the space. Then he shouted for Bergand, his Royal Steward. Minutes later, after the shouted demand had been conveyed to Bergand by a series of sprinting servants, Bergand announced his arrival at King Olphant’s chambers with a light knock. “It’s Bergand, Your Majesty.”

                “Come in,” said King Olphant.

                Bergand complied. “What can I do for you, Your Highness?”

                “Get this stuff out of here,” said King Olphant.

                “What stuff?”

                “This stuff. The tapestries, the paintings, the vases, the furniture.”

                “All of the furniture?” asked Bergand.

                “Of course not,” said King Olphant. “Don’t be an idiot. Leave the necessary stuff. The normal stuff. Or replace the necessary stuff with less over-the-top versions of the same stuff.”

                “Oh,” said Bergand. “OK. I’ll get some people on that right away, Your Highness.”

                “I want a normal bed too,” said King Olphant. “This one is…just…I mean, look at it.”

                “I’ll get this all taken care of,” said Bergand.

                “Good,” said King Olphant. “I’m going to the, uh, library.”

                “The library, Your Majesty?” Bergand did not have the grace to not look shocked.

                “You heard me!” shouted King Olphant, and he slammed his chamber door behind him as he left.


                After five days of not shaving, King Olphant went back to the dungeon to pay Leon a visit. Not shaving was definitely not an attempt to seem a little older and more rugged in front of Leon. King Olphant was just experimenting with a new look. There were lots of people with beards. King Olphant even knew of some guys who were younger than him with beards. Seeing Leon with his untended facial hair may have given King Olphant the idea to try something similar, sure, but he wasn’t doing it for Leon’s approval.

                King Olphant’s heart drummed away in his chest as Lyman struggled with the lock on the door of the deepest cell in the dungeon again. “Cut your hair, Lyman,” said King Olphant. He could hear the fury in his own voice, so Lyman had to hear it too.


                “Cut your hair. You have to. I’m commanding it.”

                “What do you mean?”

                “If your hair is hanging in your eyes the next time I see you, I’m going to fire you.”

                Lyman’s face showed a brief, inner push toward defiance, but it faded as quickly as it appeared and he muttered, “Yes, Your Majesty” in a hurt voice. The lock clicked and Lyman swung the cell door open.

                “Long time no see,” said Leon.

                “What does that mean?” asked King Olphant with what he hoped was a cruel sneer.

                “You seriously don’t know what it means?” asked Leon. “You’ve never heard that before? Like, do you want me to define each word for you or what?”

                “Uh, no,” said King Olphant. “No, I think I can figure it out on my own.” He said it in a sort of wry voice, and he was proud of his save.

                “Wow,” said Leon. “You must be one of those scholar-kings.”

                King Olphant paused to think of a retort, but nothing came to him. This was already crumbling. “I just think it sounds old-fashioned,” said King Olphant. “And I was surprised you would use an old-fashioned saying. I thought you were too cool for that.”

                “Maybe I’m bringing it back,” said Leon. He leaned back, his loose ponytail flattened against the dark and dripping dungeon wall. His legs were stretched out in front of him and his feet were splayed in an aggressive display of relaxation. Even his purple hands, still clamped above his head, looked as if Leon had hung them there by choice as decorations intended to contribute to the easy atmosphere of the cell. “Where did you get such a grubby shirt?” asked Leon. “Did you send some servants out to rub it in the dirt before you put it on?”

                “Oh, this?” said King Olphant. “No, I just got done riding before I came here. Horse riding. Huh, yeah, I guess my horse must have kicked up a lot of dirt. I didn’t notice.” He ran his hand over his bristly chin, trying to make it look like an absent-minded gesture, something unconscious, something habitual. Leon didn’t take the bait. Perhaps he had recognized it as bait, and had decided to never comment on King Olphant’s facial hair, to just pretend to never notice it. “So,” said King Olphant. “Has anyone tortured you in the last few days?”

                Leon let himself grin for the first time since he’d been in the dungeon. Well, the first time that King Olphant had seen. It was a strange grin, though: a little lopsided and Leon’s eyes were slits. His teeth were straight and white and seemed almost as incongruous with the dungeon as King Olphant’s fancy king clothes had been, although the teeth somehow fit perfectly with Leon’s dirty, wounded, scruffy face. They served as a confirmation that Leon was not defined by his circumstances, that despite the indignities that King Olphant and his men had imposed upon him, he was and always would be King Armond’s favorite nephew, and not just because of “weak competition.” He was the favorite for reasons that would be obvious to anyone who spent even a minute with him. “No,” said Leon. “No one’s tortured me. Is that why you came down here again? To see if your people have been defying your orders behind your back? Is that a common problem for you? Subjects openly contradicting you?”

                “No,” said King Olphant. “No, that’s never been a problem.” He knew giving straight answers to Leon’s mocking questions was what a sucker would do, but he could not figure out how to talk to him. He hated Leon so much, but couldn’t stand the thought of Leon hating him.

                “So why are you back?” asked Leon. “Just hoping I’ll mention that thing you’re growing on your face?”

                “Huh?” said King Olphant. “Oh, no, I’m not growing a beard. I just didn’t bother to shave this morning.”

                “Oh, OK,” said Leon. “Well, if that’s only one day’s growth, then yeah, you don’t have to be as ashamed. I was worried you might have been working on that since the last time I saw you.” His face had gone blank again. King Olphant felt the ice crackling beneath his feet.

                “The reason I’m back,” said King Olphant. He paused. He’d been going over this in his head since last night, he had to phrase it exactly right. “Is that I’ve decided to move you to a different cell. You’re a valuable hostage and I assume your uncle will want to negotiate your return at some point. And I don’t want you to take a report back to him that we mistreat hostages in my kingdom, especially hostages with royal blood.”

                “I don’t have any royal blood,” said Leon. “The queen, King Armond’s wife, is my dad’s sister.”

                “Well, you’re still related to royalty,” said King Olphant.

                “Thanks for the offer,” said Leon. “But I like it here.”

                “No, I’m saying the new cell will be a lot more comfortable,” said King Olphant. “You won’t have your hands shackled to the wall.”

                “So sweet of you to offer,” said Leon. “But I must decline.”

                “I’m not offering,” said King Olphant. “I’m telling you what’s going to happen.”

                “Then I guess I have no choice,” said Leon with a big, fake sigh. “I mean, you’re the king around here, after all.”

                “So you do want to switch cells?” asked King Olphant, now just openly floundering.

                “Oh, this is about what I want?” said Leon. “In that case, I want you to recite a poem for me. Make one up off the top of your head. If you’re asking what I want, that’s what I want.”

                King Olphant felt angry tears welling in his eyes. He wanted to kill Leon. But if he killed Leon, how would he ever convince Leon that he could be cool too, that they could be friends?

                Behind King Olphant, he heard a throat-clearing meant to draw his attention. He turned to see Lyman standing in the doorway of the cell. “Why are you here?” asked King Olphant. “I told you to stay down the hall.”

                “You finally noticed him,” said Leon. “I was hoping he’d get to hear your poem too.”

                “You’ve been standing there that long?” asked King Olphant.

                “I didn’t want to interrupt anything,” said Lyman. “But, Your Majesty, General Ferguson wants to speak to you right away. He says it’s vitally important. He’s waiting for you in the War Room.”

                “Didn’t I tell you to cut your hair by the next time I saw you?” asked King Olphant.

                “Uh, yes,” said Lyman. “But that was only a few minutes ago. I thought you meant to cut it by tomorrow.”

                “Did I say ‘by tomorrow?’” asked King Olphant. “How about I answer for you: no, I did not say ‘by tomorrow.’ I said that if your hair was hanging in your eyes the next time I saw you, I would fire you. Then I didn’t see you for a while. And now I’m seeing you again. So this, right now, is the next time I’m seeing you. And your hair is hanging in your eyes, just like always. Therefore, you’re fired.”

                “I’ll cut it right away, Your Majesty. Just give me a minute. I’ll do it with the knife at my desk.”

                “Wow,” said King Olphant. “That would be such a great solution if I had said to make sure your hair was out of your eyes the time after the next time I saw you. But since I didn’t say that, then I guess your solution isn’t great at all and you’re still fired.” Behind him, King Olphant heard Leon laugh. A small laugh, yes, but it sounded like the laugh of someone who was sincerely amused. King Olphant didn’t spoil the moment by turning to acknowledge it. Instead, he floated past Lyman, out of the dungeon, and all the way to the War Room.


                “We have to trade him,” said General Ferguson. His eyes were red and wet. The palms of his hands were also red from all the table-smacking he’d been doing since he’d gotten the bad news from the war front.

                “He’s more valuable here,” said King Olphant. “Sorry.”

                “You’re not sorry!” shouted General Ferguson. He hadn’t used any honorifics to refer to King Olphant since he’d gotten to the War Room, not even “Your Grace.”

                “He gives us leverage,” said King Olphant. “You said that yourself. You said that was a good thing.”

                “Yeah, he gives us leverage in case something like this happens!” shouted General Ferguson. “They got both of them, Your Majesty! King Armond’s forces captured both of my sons!”

                “Don’t take this the wrong way,” said King Olphant. “And I’m pretty sure you are going to take it the wrong way. But I’m telling you not to.” He paused, giving General Ferguson time to prepare himself to not take it the wrong way if he so chose. “But Leon is worth a lot more than your two sons. We would clearly be on the losing end of the deal if we traded King Armond’s favorite nephew for two sons of one of my generals.”

                “I’m your top general,” said General Ferguson. The way he gritted his teeth as he said it made it clear that he had not taken King Olphant’s advice, that he had instead taken what King Olphant had to say in the worst possible way. “And my boys are great warriors in their own right. Each one of my boys is worth ten Leons. Trading one Leon for both of my sons is an insult almost too great to comprehend, but it is an insult I will gladly bear if it means I get to see my boys even one more time.”

                “Well, that’s not gonna happen,” said King Olphant. “Because I need Leon to stay here until an offer comes along that really blows me away. And don’t run to the rest of the Royal Council to whine about this as soon as I leave.” With that, King Olphant left. He wondered if General Ferguson waited even a full minute before running off to whine to the rest of the Royal Council.


                King Olphant awoke in darkness to the sound of a scuffle in the hall outside his chambers. A moment later, the door swung open and in stepped Leon, a torch in one hand and a sword with blood running down the blade in the other. His hands, despite days spent shackled to the wall with inhibited circulation, appeared fully functional. King Olphant sat up in bed, relieved to not be caught wearing anything fancier than a simple nightshirt. “Did General Ferguson let you out?”

                “Nope,” said Leon. “Why, is he mad at you too?”

                “Yeah,” said King Olphant. “Very. So who was it?”

                “The jailer,” said Leon. “Really upset about the whole haircut incident.”

                “Oh,” said King Olphant. “Did he cut his hair, though?”

                Leon chuckled. It was the second real laugh King Olphant had gotten out of him in the last 24 hours. Maybe there would have been hope for a friendship. If only he could have kept Leon captive for another week, or maybe a month, two months. No telling how long it would have taken, but they would have gotten there eventually, King Olphant was sure of it.

Leon walked to the middle of the room and held the torch out in front of him as he turned in a slow circle, taking in the bare walls and sparse furnishings. “I’m surprised,” he said. “I took you for a tapestry man.”

                “Nah,” said King Olphant. “I like to keep things simple.”

                “Well,” said Leon as he approached King Olphant’s bed. “You’re not cool. But maybe you’re not as uncool as I thought.” He plunged his sword into King Olphant’s chest, who died happy. 

Discussion Questions

  • Describe a time your tastes naturally evolved in such a way that they just so happened to favorably influence someone cool’s impression of you.

  • Describe a time you artificially manipulated your own tastes in order to favorably influence someone cool’s impression of you.

  • If you could choose anyone to compliment you right before she or he stabbed you to death, who would it be?

  • In medieval times, how many general’s sons was one king’s favorite nephew worth?

  • Describe the real-life haircut you would most like to force someone to change if you had the power to do so.

  • What are three safe things you can say to someone who is significantly cooler than you and also looking for any opportunity to make you feel stupid?