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Sane King Lon

               King Lon came from a long line of mad kings, but as for him, he was sane. For most of his early life, King Lon had been proud of his sanity, but now, at age 29 and in the 2nd year of his rule, his sanity had become a problem.

               “The truth is that madness has been a great boon to this kingdom,” said Dimlet, the court jester and King Lon’s most trusted adviser. Jesters had held positions of power in the kingdom ever since Mad King Zethyr had raised his untalented jester Rotto to prominence more than 200 years before.

               Today, King Lon and Dimlet conferred on horseback as they rode the snow-covered paths winding through the nightmarish sculpture garden constructed by King Lon’s great-great-grandfather, Mad King Dusmund. The madness of King Lon’s forebears had taken many forms, but the madness of Mad King Dusmund had been of the frightening variety. Still, the kingdom had thrived during his reign.

               “Of course you like madness,” said King Lon. “Jesters in other kingdoms do not live like they do here.” He allowed his horse to stray from the path to sniff fruitlessly for thistles around the base of a statue of an old woman holding a broom by the bristled end and sweeping with the handle. A few inches of snow had piled on her head like a cap. Some of the statues were less nightmarish than others.

               “I can’t deny that I’ve benefitted personally from the decisions of mad kings of the past,” said Dimlet. “But so have others. Many others. That’s my point.”

               “So where does that leave me?” asked King Lon as he guided his horse back onto the path.

               “If I’m being honest,” said Dimlet, “then I’m not sure.”

               “You say madness has been a boon to this kingdom,” said King Lon.

               “A great boon,” said Dimlet. “We would not be where we are today if not for the madness of our kings.”

               “Fine,” said King Lon. “Let’s say I accept that. But what I don’t get is why people think that means we should have mad kings forever. Why can’t sanity pick up where madness left off? Or, who knows, maybe I’ll have a mad son, and my reign will just be a short interval of sanity. What’s wrong with that? Why can’t that be a good thing?”

               Dimlet shrugged and kept his eyes fixed forward as he and King Lon rode past a truly horrendous statue. “I suppose it’s possible that a sane king could be a good thing,” said Dimlet. “But only if everyone bought in. And that’s never going to happen here. People are used to mad kings, they know you’re sane, and that’s going to bother them, that’s going to lead to trouble. It already is leading to trouble.”

               Dimlet was referring to the rising crime rate, the increasing belligerence of neighboring kingdoms, and the intensifying feuds between eminent lords and ladies of the court.

               “But we could make them understand,” said King Lon. “We could launch a pro-sanity marketing campaign. Give them information, raise awareness. I can earn their trust by showing them the tangible benefits of having a sane king.”

               “Mmm,” said Dimlet. “I don’t know about that. I don’t think people are going to go for that. I don’t think you’re going to get a lot of support.”

               “Well, you’re clearly not going to support me,” said King Lon.

               The two men lapsed into silence. The hooves of their horses crunched through the snow and onto the icy gravel beneath it. Nightmarish statues loomed on all sides.

               “What if I feigned madness?” asked King Lon. “I’ve seen enough of it to know what it’s like. Father was mad, Grandfather was mad, and I spent a lot of time with both of them.”

               “That won’t work,” said Dimlet. “The people of this kingdom are connoisseurs of madness, Your Highness. They know exactly what to look for, all the subtle tell-tale signs. They’ll see right through it.”

               “You overestimate their abilities, Dimlet,” said King Lon. “My subjects are not as clever as you think.”

               “Perhaps not,” said Dimlet. “But they’ll be suspicious from the beginning, and all it takes is one clever subject to see through your ruse and call you on it to bring the whole scheme crashing down around us.”

               “So what’s the solution, then?” asked King Lon. “What am I supposed to do? Just muddle along sanely while everyone waits for me to die so my hopefully-mad son can take over and get the kingdom back on track?”

               Dimlet cleared his throat. “No, Sire, that is not what I would advise.”

               “Then what would you advise, Dimlet? That is the jester’s role in our beloved kingdom, isn’t it? Because I’ve never seen you sing or dance, and you certainly aren’t funny. In our kingdom, it’s the kings who are funny: conversing with furniture, riding nude into battle, bestowing titles to hogs.”

               “You’re oversimplifying,” said Dimlet. “And you know it.” He was offended, King Lon could hear it in his voice.

               “Would you say I’m being irrational?” asked King Lon.

               Dimlet looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “Yes, Your Highness,” he said. “I would.”

               “Well, great!” said King Lon. “Maybe I am mad!”

               “No,” said Dimlet. “You are not mad, Sire. But maybe you could be.”


               King Lon paced around his chambers while his wife, Queen Astrid, sat in front of her mirror and ran a brush through her long, red hair. They were both in their pajamas, but King Lon also wore black boots that came half-way to his knees. Bitter wind rattled their windows, but a bright fire in the hearth kept the cold in check.

               “Would you still love me if I were mad?” asked King Lon.

               “Why are you wearing those boots?” asked Queen Astrid.

               “The floor is chilly,” said King Lon. “I don’t want to take ill.”

               “But haven’t you ever so many slippers?” asked Queen Astrid, knowing the answer. In fact, an adjoining chamber was utterly filled with slippers, a holdover from one mad king or another. The slippers were of all different sizes, and it was nigh unto impossible to find matching pairs, but it usually didn’t take long to find a mismatched pair that would do the job.

               “I prefer the boots,” said King Lon.

               Queen Astrid ceased her brushing and looked at King Lon over her shoulder rather than gazing at him in the mirror. “But darling,” she said. “You look…foolish.”

               “You almost said that I look mad,” said King Lon, pointing an accusing finger at his wife. “Didn’t you?” The finger may have been accusing, but there was also a heartbreaking note of hope in his voice.

               “I did not,” said Queen Astrid. “I said what I meant. You look foolish.”

               “Ah,” said King Lon. “But in this kingdom, it’s good for the king to look foolish. Everyone loves it when the king looks foolish!”

               “That isn’t so,” said Queen Astrid, returning to her brushing, hissing in pain as she tore through a stubborn tangle hidden in the depths of her hair.

               “When Father came to dinner dripping wet from falling from his stilts into the horse trough,” said King Lon. “Didn’t he look foolish then?”

               “Oh, Lon,” said Queen Astrid. “Your father was mad. You’re not. Can’t you see the difference? If you were mad and you wanted to wear your boots with your pajamas, then that would make sense. But you’re sane and you’re wearing your boots with your pajamas and you look foolish.”

               King Lon flopped down on the edge of the bed and pulled the boots off of his feet, flinging them across the room where they thumped against the far wall. “There,” he said, holding his feet out straight and wiggling his toes at his wife. “Do I look foolish now?”

               “Well, you’re behaving foolishly, yes,” said Queen Astrid.

               “You didn’t answer my question,” said King Lon. “The one from before you started in on the boots.”

               “And what question was that?” asked Queen Astrid, a query of pure innocence.

               “I asked you if you would still love me if I were mad,” said King Lon.

               “Oh, Lonnie,” said Queen Astrid. “I couldn’t still love you because I don’t love you now. But you know that, and you know you don’t love me either. The only reason we’re married at all is because your mad father believed it best to pair you off with a woman who had already died so you wouldn’t have to go through the pain of being a widower.”

               “But you’ve never died,” said King Lon.

               “Well, of course not,” said Queen Astrid. “But that’s easy for you to say. You’re sane.” She said it how a lot of people had been saying it recently: with distaste.

               “So you don’t love me,” said King Lon. “But would your feelings change toward me if I were mad?”

               “Not for the worse,” said Queen Astrid.

               “So your feelings toward me would change for the better if I were mad?” asked King Lon.

               “I can’t say for certain,” said Queen Astrid as she set the brush down and began to apply creams from a small jar to her face. “But yes, probably.”

               “But why?” asked King Lon, throwing himself back on the bed and staring up at the underside of the canopy overhead. Mad King Polliv had ordered the canopy embroidered with “special words” to bring comfort to sleeping monarchs, but the special words meant nothing, and they had never brought King Lon any comfort, neither while sleeping nor now.

               “When a woman of this kingdom marries a king,” said Queen Astrid. “She expects certain things.”

               “Madness,” said King Lon.

               “In a word, yes,” said Queen Astrid.

               “But how would my being mad make me a better husband?” asked King Lon, trying and failing to not sound like he was pleading.

               “For one, you’d be less predictable,” said Queen Astrid. “There would be more…I don’t know…surprises.”

               “You’re saying I’ve never surprised you,” said King Lon.

               “Not in a mad way,” said Queen Astrid. “Not like when Mad King Yaird surprised Queen Venwyn with the underwater carriage pulled by a team of eight sets of conjoined donkeys.”

               “All of those donkeys drowned,” said King Lon. “And Queen Venwyn would have too if the carriage hadn’t been so poorly constructed that it disintegrated around her at a depth of merely ten feet.”

               “But she was surprised by the gift, by the gesture,” said Queen Astrid. “Truly surprised.”

               “I can give you bizarre and terrible gifts,” said King Lon. “If that’s really what you want, I don’t have to be mad to do that. I can use creativity instead, my imagination.”

               Queen Astrid sighed, her face coated in creams. “It isn’t about the gifts,” she said. “It isn’t about surprises, not really, although those would be nice.”

               “Then what is it about?” asked King Lon.

               “I wish you saw me how your father saw me,” said Queen Astrid.

               “As a dead woman?” asked King Lon. “As a ghost?”

               Queen Astrid nodded. “It made me feel special. It made me feel like I had something to offer that no one else could. Even though I knew it wasn’t true. But he, in his madness, was convinced. He couldn’t believe his good fortune to have found a wife like me for his son, his heir: a dead woman who could not die again and leave his son a widower.”

               “He hated being a widower,” said King Lon with a wry chuckle.

               “But then you met me,” said Queen Astrid. “And you were just like, ‘Oh, hey, it’s a regular woman, who knows why my dad thinks she’s dead, but I guess if this is who he says I’m marrying, then this is who I’m marrying.’”

               “But you aren’t dead,” said King Lon. “And you never have been.”

               “I know that,” said Queen Astrid. She stood and walked to the bed, pulling back the covers on her side. “I’m as sane as you are.”


               The sorcerers’ laboratory was deep in the earth, accessible only through a secret doorway hidden somewhere in the maze-like dungeon beneath the castle. No kings were allowed to know how to get to the sorcerers’ laboratory on their own. Even in a kingdom in which madness was regarded as a virtue, most everyone agreed that giving mad kings unrestricted access to the sorcerers’ laboratory would be extremely unwise.

               Even though King Lon was not mad, he was still forced to endure the opaque hood and wax earplugs required of all kings when escorted to the sorcerers’ laboratory. After a long journey on foot – much of which was nothing more than misdirection – Dimlet pulled the hood from King Lon’s head and said something unintelligible.

               “Hold on,” said King Lon. “I still have the plugs in.” He removed them, shaking his head and yawning to relieve the pressure in his ears. “What did you say?”

               “I said Bill told us to wait here for him,” said Dimlet. “And he said not to sit down on any of these benches because ‘they are not as they appear.’”

               King Lon looked around the small room in which he now found himself. The walls and ceiling were made of stone held in place by wooden beams. Water leaked from the cracks between the stones and puddled on the uneven stone floor. At the front of the room near King Lon and Dimlet was a small lectern made of bones of indeterminate origin. Two columns of benches four rows deep with an aisle between them faced the lectern. There were dissimilar doors on each of the room’s four walls, plus a trapdoor in the middle of the aisle between the benches.

               “Are we in the sorcerers’ laboratory?” asked King Lon.

               “We’re in one of the many rooms in the sorcerers’ laboratory,” said Dimlet.

               “It sort of looks like a chapel,” said King Lon. “Is that out of some sort of profane intention?”

               “Don’t ask me,” said Dimlet. “Ask Bill when he gets here.”

               As if on cue, a short, plump man in a flowing, paint-spattered garment entered through the door at the back of the room. “Forgive me, Your Highness,” he said as he swept up the aisle, his sandaled feet booming over the trapdoor. “We’re repainting the Living Ingredients Storeroom and some of the other sorcerers are dripping paint everywhere and it’s driving me, well, mad! Ha Ha! Maybe we should have you supervise the painting!”

               King Lon did not laugh. Dimlet barely did.

               Bill did not apologize. Instead, he maneuvered around the king and the jester and took his position behind the lectern. “Sit, Sire, please. Anywhere you like, but more toward the middle would be better. And more toward the front.”

               “I heard we weren’t supposed to sit on these benches,” said King Lon. “I heard that they’re not as they appear.”

               “Oh, uh, yes,” said Bill. “But I’m here now, so they should be fine.”

               “How mysterious,” said King Lon.

               “Can’t we just discuss this like peers?” asked Dimlet, sensing King Lon’s irritation.

               “No, no,” said Bill. “I’ve got a presentation prepared. Sit down, please, both of you.”

               King Lon and Dimlet took their seats on one of the front benches, King Lon next to the aisle and Dimlet on his left.

               “Thank you,” said Bill. He adjusted his spectacles, which everyone knew were strictly ornamental. He touched his thinning hair with his fingertips, not daring to run them through it for fear of disturbing his precise comb-job. He spoke. “My presentation, Your Highness, is called ‘So You Want to Become Mad.’”

               “Hold on,” said King Lon. “I haven’t decided yet.”

               Bill paused, his hands frozen in mid-presentation-title-reveal gesture. “I was told you had decided,” he said. “I thought you were coming here today to hear about techniques.”

               “Then Dimlet misrepresented my position,” said King Lon. “It sounds like he represented his position as my own. I do not yet know if I want to go mad or not. Hearing about the available techniques for achieving that end is but one factor that I’ll consider when making my final decision.”

               “I didn’t tell him you were one hundred percent decided,” said Dimlet. He didn’t sound very nervous.

               King Lon thought that Dimlet being slightly more afraid of him would be one positive outcome of going mad.

               “Well, yes, you didn’t use the exact phrase ‘one hundred percent decided,’” said Bill. “But still, you made it clear that-”

               “I don’t care what Dimlet said or what you thought he meant,” said King Lon. “Go ahead with your presentation, Bill. It sounds like you’re planning on telling me what I came to hear anyway. The only difference is that I’m not decided.”

               “Then I shall continue, Your Highness.” Bill executed a stiff bow that tilted a little off center toward his right side.

               “Good,” said King Lon. “Go for it.”

               “There are several tried and true ways to make a sane man mad,” said Bill, launching right into his lecture voice as if there had never been a lengthy interruption. “One of the most reliable is torture. Within the broader category of torture are several sub-types: physical, mental, emotional-”

               “Come on, Bill,” said Dimlet, shooting an uneasy glance at King Lon. “You’re leading with torture?”

               “Excuse me,” said Bill. “As with every technique, there are pros and cons, which I was about to elucidate before you butted in. Let us begin with the cons. First, of course, is the fact that the process is excruciating for the subject. Second-”

               “Let me stop you there,” said King Lon. “I’m not going to submit myself to be tortured until I go mad from the pain.”

               “Very well, Your Highness,” said Bill. “We’ll move on. But I would ask that your jester not attempt to inflict his own prejudices on you with his running commentary.”

               “A bias against torture is one that I share with my jester,” said King Lon. “His outburst had no effect on my feelings toward torture in any way.”

               Bill seemed unconvinced. “The second option is to expose you to a scene of mind-shattering horror.” Bill paused with eyebrows raised, gauging King Lon’s reaction.

               “‘Mind-shattering horror,’” said King Lon.

               “Exactly,” said Bill, breaking into a grin. “Exactly, Your Majesty.”

               “That sounds almost as bad as torture,” said King Lon.

               Bill’s face fell. Whatever his strengths, reading people did not appear to be one of them. “It’s over much faster,” he said. “The human brain is equipped to deal with certain quantities and different varieties of pain and suffering, so with torture it takes a little while to get it over the hump and on its way to madness. With scenes of mind-shattering horror, the effect is almost immediate. We show you something your mind can’t process and – pow! – it shatters.”

               King Lon nodded. “And a shattered mind…”

               “…is a mad mind, exactly,” finished Bill.

               “Where do the scenes come from?” asked King Lon.

               “Oh, we sorcerers create them ourselves,” said Bill. “Some of us are quite adept at it. Not me personally, but some of my colleagues. They’re mad themselves. You have to be to be able to construct a scene mind-shattering enough to drive a sane person mad.”

               “And what do these scenes…look like?” asked King Lon.

               Bill shrugged. “Never seen one,” he said. “Obviously.” He chuckled and pointed at his own face as if only a madman would question his sanity. Then a serious look came over his face and he said, “I don’t like to speculate about the scenes of mind-shattering horror, truth be told.”

               A cold silence fell over the room.

               “What else do you have?” asked King Lon.

               “Ah, well, yes, there’s a third option, but it’s a little bit blah is how I’d put it.”

               “Spit it out,” said Dimlet. “His Highness has a kingdom to run.” He was clearly still smarting from his earlier spat with the sorcerer.

               “There’s a drug you can take,” said Bill. His entire affect had gone flat.

               “A drug?” said King Lon.

               “An extract from some plant, I think,” said Bill. “This isn’t really my area of interest, but it is an option. We mix it in a tea.”

               “And it will make me go mad?” asked King Lon.

               “It’s less reliable than the other methods,” said Bill. “It only works about 80 percent of the time. And to be honest, it usually results in a somewhat…anemic madness.”

               King Lon scratched the bridge of his nose as he thought. He looked at Dimlet and said, “What do you think?”

               Dimlet shrugged. “I think any amount of madness will help.”

               “And the drug tea tastes bad,” said Bill.

               But Bill was wrong. The drug tea tasted good. King Lon might have even asked for another cup, but he didn’t want to go too mad.


               When King Lon returned to his senses, he found himself in his bed wearing nothing but a thin night-shirt. Queen Astrid, Dimlet, and Bill were arrayed around the bed displaying synchronized smiles. Afternoon sunlight came through the frosty windows of King Lon’s chambers. There was a strange taste on King Lon’s tongue, which brought back the memory of his trip to the sorcerers’ laboratory, Bill’s presentation, and the drug tea. So the question now was had King Lon returned to his senses? Or had he instead merely regained consciousness as a madman?

               Queen Astrid broke the silence first. “How do you feel, Lonnie?”

               King Lon didn’t know how to answer. Did mad people feel mad? Didn’t madness destroy the ability to discern the mad from the sane? Isn’t that what madness was? Other than a touch of grogginess, King Lon felt the same as before he’d drunk the drug tea in the sorcerers’ laboratory. But while it was true that he did not feel mad, King Lon didn’t think that meant he wasn’t.

               “Lon,” said Queen Astrid. “I’m speaking to you. How do you feel?”

               King Lon ran through several potential answers. What could he say that would not convince her one way or the other? “I don’t know,” he said. His voice sounded odd.

               The queen, the jester, and the sorcerer all shot looks at each other over King Lon’s prone form. Maybe King Lon’s voice sounded odd to them too.

               “What do you want to do, Sire?” asked Bill. “Do you feel compelled to do anything specific, no matter how unusual?”

               “I don’t know,” said King Lon again. It seemed to have worked the first time, and he hoped it would again.

               “Confusion,” said Bill.

               “What does that mean?” asked Dimlet.

               “It could mean anything,” said BIll, now speaking about King Lon as if he weren’t present. “It could mean temporary madness, it could mean permanent madness, or it could mean that he just woke up after sleeping for two days.”

               “When will we know for sure?” asked Dimlet.

               “Hard to say,” said Bill. “The drug method can lead to vague results. The good news is that the other techniques are still on the table. If this one doesn’t turn out, we can still torture him or show him a scene of mind-shattering horror.”

               “No,” said King Lon. “That won’t be necessary.”

               Queen Astrid narrowed her eyes at him. “Did that sound mad to you, Dimlet?”

               “Not really,” said Dimlet. “But ‘the faces of madness are many times many,’ as the saying goes.” He leaned over King Lon and looked him in the eye. “What do you mean, Your Highness? What won’t be necessary? Why did you say that?”

               “I don’t know,” said King Lon, retreating to safer ground.

               “You’ll just have to monitor him closely,” said Bill. “Keep your eyes and ears open, note his words and gestures, track his habits, note any behavioral changes no matter how minor.”

               “Maybe we shouldn’t have this conversation in front of him,” said Dimlet. “The other day in the sculpture garden, he mentioned the possibility of feigning madness. I wouldn’t put it past him.”

               Bill scowled and scoffed. “You can always bring in an expert. He won’t be able to fool an expert. But keep in mind that feigning madness doesn’t rule out actual madness. There are well-documented cases of some of our maddest kings faking certain symptoms of madness for their own mad purposes. What you need to seriously consider is if this is the kind of madness you were hoping for.”

               “I thought it would be easier to tell,” said Queen Astrid a bit poutily.

               “I told them the drug wasn’t ideal,” said Bill.

               “Let’s give it time,” said Dimlet. “We don’t know anything one way or the other yet.”

               King Lon decided to chime in just to be on the safe side. “I don’t know,” he said.

               It seemed to make Queen Astrid feel better, at least.


               The most difficult part of maintaining the ruse that he was mad was that King Lon didn’t know if it was a ruse. He was incapable of evaluating himself from a vantage point outside of his own brain, a limitation complicated further by the possible – even probable – madness of that brain. Then, a week after waking from the drug tea stupor, it occurred to him that obsessing over diagnosing his own madness might be a symptom of madness. But, of course, it could also be a sane and reasonable reaction to consuming a drug tea purported to cause madness.

               One nice thing about maybe being mad was that King Lon felt more free to indulge himself. He could be impulsive, he could do the things he’d often wanted to do but had always resisted when he was definitely sane. He could hum a melody stuck in his head during an important meeting, he could try to toss an apple core into Lord Goith’s cup of milk during dinner, he could spell words in proclamations however seemed right without having to look them up. But then a stray thought spoiled that too: what if the fact that these were things he had wanted to do before he drank the drug tea proved that he had always been mad, and had in fact been pretending to be sane, even to himself? And what if drinking the drug tea had done nothing to further madden his mind, but had instead given him an excuse to ignore the safeguards his mind had long ago constructed to prevent the exposure of his madness?

               His thoughts ran in these kinds of circles continually.

               Of those closest to King Lon’s situation, Queen Astrid was the most willing to believe that he had actually gone mad. She was a bit disappointed that he still didn’t believe, like his mad father, that she had already died once and would therefore not die again, but she’d gotten the idea in her head that King Lon might very well become even madder over time. She wanted to believe that she was queen to a mad king, and so she did. She even gave King Lon a moving speech about accepting his madness in whatever form it took and not holding his madness to the standards of any of his forebears. When she finished speaking, King Lon said, “I don’t know,” which had sort of become his catchphrase, and Queen Astrid flung her arms around his neck and wept what turned out to be happy tears on his shoulder.

               Bill was on the other end of the spectrum. While he was hesitant to deny King Lon’s madness outright, he was not hesitant to express his overall dissatisfaction with the results of King Lon’s consumption of the drug tea. He had very specific ideas about what constituted solid, respectable madness, a certain expectation of quality, and King Lon’s madness did not measure up. Bill regularly stopped by to pitch King Lon on juicing his madness with a little torture or a little glimpse of scenes of mind-shattering horror, and he always left in disgust at King Lon’s non-committal answers. “I don’t know,” was what King Lon usually said.

               Dimlet was open about not knowing whether or not King Lon was now mad. But not knowing bothered him a lot less than it bothered King Lon, probably because it wasn’t the state of his own mind at question. From Dimlet’s perspective, uncertainty about the king’s madness accomplished much of the same goals that proving the king’s madness would accomplish. The people of King Lon’s kingdom had heard conflicting reports about his madness. Some people said he was still sane, some said he’d gone mad recently, some said he’d always been mad, some said he was only mad in direct sunlight, some said he was only sane as long as he could hear harp music, and so on, and so on. But the crime rate went down, the belligerent neighboring kingdoms backed off, and the feuding lords and ladies of the court let their grievances go, at least for the time being. Why behave yourself around someone powerful and mad? Because you’re never quite sure how he or she is going to react. It turned out that the same principle applied to someone who’s powerful and might be mad.

               And so, other than Bill’s disappointment and King Lon’s internal conflict, the matter seemed settled in a way that worked for the majority. It probably should have gone on like that, with everyone just holding their own opinion on the matter and the day-to-day functions of the kingdom operating as they always had, that is to say, well.

               But King Lon’s internal conflict was real, and it nagged at him day and night. Perhaps if he had given it more time the issue would have faded, he would have learned to live with it, he would have come up with some patched-together structure of explanation and rationalization that would have given him enough peace of mind to move on with his life.

But he didn’t do that. Instead, King Lon went to the only other person he knew who was at all interested in interrogating his madness. And that person was Bill. And while Bill’s motives did not match King Lon’s motives, King Lon felt as if he could use Bill’s motives to his own end. He was pretty sure he could manipulate the fussy little sorcerer.

On a still, clear night, King Lon and Bill met in secret atop a little-used tower along the castle wall. King Lon arrived first and stood looking out over his kingdom, draped in snow and reflecting the bits and pieces of moonlight that slipped through the gaps between the migratory clouds above. He couldn’t help but wonder how much of the scene he was hallucinating, if any. Not that there was anything that struck him as out-of-the-ordinary, but then again, if he were mad, what would strike him as-

“It’s freezing up here,” said Bill as he appeared at the top of the tower stairs in a thin cloak with three-quarter-length sleeves.

“You should have dressed warmer,” said King Lon.

“Oh, no, I’m not cold,” said Bill. “I’m just saying that it is freezing up here, but that doesn’t automatically mean that I’m cold.

“I want an expert to evaluate me,” said King Lon. “You mentioned that possibility when I first woke up from the drug tea.”

Bill frowned. Then he stiffened his whole body, which King Lon did not understand until he realized Bill was suppressing a shiver. “Why an expert now?” asked Bill. King Lon could see he was suspicious.

“Because,” said King Lon, easing into his lie. “If the expert says I’m not actually mad, then I want to reconsider my options. I’m thinking of looking into the torture, maybe, or the other one.”

               “Being shown a scene of mind-shattering horror,” said Bill. “Yes, yes.” He rubbed his hands together in a gesture that was mostly gleeful, but which King Lon suspected was also intended to achieve a little friction-based warmth.

               “I’m not promising anything,” said King Lon. He didn’t want to seem too eager.

               “Of course not,” said Bill. “You’re the king. You owe no one a promise. But, as you said, you want to reconsider your options.”

               “But only if the expert determines that I’m not mad,” said King Lon.

               “Of course, of course,” said Bill. “Or-” he started to say, but thought better of it and shut his mouth with a clack of his teeth.

               “Or what?” asked King Lon.

               “It was nothing,” said Bill.

               “How soon can we do this?” asked King Lon. “And I want to make sure no one else finds out that it’s happening. I don’t want this expert to feel any kind of outside pressure to find one way or the other.”

               “Within a few days,” said Bill. “I’ll reach out to him and send you a message with specifics as soon as I hear back.”

               “And you won’t exert any pressure on him to find me sane,” said King Lon. “Right, Bill?”

               “No!” said Bill, feigning offense. “All I want is for the truth to be known so that you can be mad in a way that’s satisfying to everyone, including you, if you want.”

               “All right,” said King Lon. “Good. Go back to your warm bed, Bill.”

               “Ha ha,” said Bill. “I don’t care if my bed’s warm or not. I probably won’t even light a fire tonight.” It was hard to understand him with his teeth gritted against involuntary chatter.


               The expert madness evaluator had a bulky, rounded upper body and rickety legs. His name was Hutton, and he was dressed in clothing of simple appearance but made of pricy materials. Bill brought Hutton to King Lon’s chambers while Queen Astrid was preoccupied with a winter hunt in the forest. King Lon had avoided participating in the hunt by saying he didn’t know if he wanted to go or not right up until the moment when everyone was leaving, and then not joining them.

               “How long will this take?” asked King Lon as he showed Hutton into his chambers.

               “Not long,” said Hutton. “Unless your case is exceptionally puzzling.”

               “That may turn out to be the case,” said King Lon.

               “Don’t be pessimistic, Sire,” said Bill. “Hutton will get to the bottom of this in no time, I’m sure.”

               “I want you to wait outside in the hall,” said King Lon.

               “But…why?” asked Bill. “I’m quite interested in the outcome of this evaluation, Your Highness. And in the process itself.”

               “Out,” said King Lon. “Now.”

               When Bill had petulantly removed himself from the room and closed the door behind him, King Lon took Hutton by the elbow and guided him to two chairs he had arranged facing each other as far from the door as possible. He sat down and motioned for Hutton to join him.

               “Now listen to me,” said King Lon in a near-whisper. “I’m sure Bill is listening at the door, so I expect you to keep your voice down. Understood?”

               Hutton nodded.

               “Speak so I can hear the volume you’re planning on using,” said King Lon.

               “I understand,” said Hutton.

               “OK, that’s fine,” said King Lon. “Now let me explain something to you. All I want is the truth. I want you to be completely truthful with me about your expert opinion. And before you say ‘of course’ or ‘I would never dream of doing otherwise,’ I want you to know that I know that Bill has told you to find me sane no matter what so that he can gain leverage in his attempts to interest me in the more extreme techniques of turning me mad, which I want you to know I have no intention of subjecting myself to no matter how sane you find me. So don’t talk, don’t deny, just listen. I don’t know what Bill has told you. I don’t know if he’s told you to find me sane for the good of the kingdom, I don’t know if he’s offered you money or the services of his sorcery, I don’t know if he’s threatened you, but I am telling you that if I find out – or even suspect – that you have given me anything other than your true expert opinion, I will have you subjected to torture until you are driven mad. Understand? And there will be no trial, no attempt at fairness, this decision will come down to whether or not I believe that you have given me your sincere opinion. So, Hutton, with all that established, are you ready to begin your evaluation?”

               Hutton, whose face had never changed from an expression of concentration throughout King Lon’s speech, said, “My evaluation has concluded.”

               When Bill was allowed back into the royal chambers, he couldn’t contain himself. “Well?” he asked. “What’s the word?”

               “I’m mad,” said King Lon.

               “You’re…what?” asked Bill. “Mad, you say?” He looked rapidly back and forth between King Lon and Hutton.

               “Tell him, Hutton,” said King Lon.

               “Quite mad,” said Hutton.

               “But…based on what?” asked Bill. “On what evidence?”

               “Paranoid obsession,” said Hutton. “Violent ideation. Etcetera. No need to go into detail, but this is classic madness.”

               “What paranoid obsession?” asked Bill. “What violent ideation? I’ve never noticed any violent ideation in His Majesty.”

               “Most of it’s about you, Bill,” said King Lon, and while he didn’t think one would have to be mad to enjoy the look of terror on Bill’s face as he scurried out of the room, he figured it probably helped.


               King Lon believed Hutton’s evaluation. The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. Or maybe that was the wrong way to put it. It was more like the more he thought about it, the more at ease with the idea he became. It made little difference to him how he’d gone from sane to mad. Being mad took a lot of pressure off of him to figure out those kinds of things. Rather than fixating on his own mental condition, King Lon settled in to applying his madness to the benefit of his subjects. The kingdom flourished. Dimlet was content.

               And one morning King Lon woke Queen Astrid up in the gray dawn light to tell her that maybe she had died before. “I don’t think you did,” he said. “But what do I know about who’s died before and who hasn’t? I’m mad!”

               “Oh, Lonnie,” said Queen Astrid, her sleep mask pulled up onto her forehead. “Maybe I can love you.”

               King Lon sighed and looked up at the “special words” embroidered on the underside of the bed’s canopy, and though he could see them only faintly, and though he still did not know what they meant, they brought him comfort, they really did.


               After a month of happy madness, King Lon decided Hutton needed a great reward, a feast in his honor, a title, something. Hadn’t it been Hutton’s diagnosis of King Lon’s madness that had completely turned things around? He deserved some recognition. But King Lon didn’t know how to get a hold of him. No one that King Lon spoke to had ever heard of an expert madness evaluator named Hutton. In the end, he was forced to summon Bill. King Lon had not spoken to Bill since the night of the evaluation.

               “Hutton?” said Bill. “I’m sorry, Your Highness, but Hutton went mad.”

               King Lon was stunned. “Hutton went mad?”

               “Yes,” said Bill. “Quite mad indeed, Your Highness.”

               “But how did that happen?” asked King Lon.

               “He walked through the wrong door in the sorcerers’ laboratory,” said Bill. “And he stumbled upon a scene of mind-shattering horror. His mind was shattered instantly.” He snapped his fingers for effect.

               “He stumbled through the wrong door,” said King Lon. “How did that happen?”

               “Carelessness on the part of the mad sorcerers constructing the scene of mind-shattering horror,” said Bill. “We tell them to take precautions, but, well, they’re mad. I’m sure you, of all people, Your Highness, can find it in your heart to forgive madmen a bit of carelessness.”

               “Where is he now?” asked King Lon.


               “Hutton!” shouted King Lon.

               “Don’t worry about him,” said Bill. “We’ve put him to work. He’s creating scenes of mind-shattering horror for us now. He’s got a real aptitude for it.”

               “Take me to him,” said King Lon. “I want to see him. I want you to prove what you’re telling me.”

               “As you wish, Sire,” said Bill.

               “And I’m not wearing the earplugs or the hood,” said King Lon.

               “As you wish,” said Bill. King Lon was surprised at the lack of push-back.

               “Let’s go now,” said King Lon.

               “As,” said Bill, “you wish.”


               The sorcerer’s laboratory didn’t turn out to be that hard to find. It was just an unassuming door in the back corner of the dungeon. Its continued secrecy seemed to be based mostly on the fact that the previous generations of mad kings had bought into the idea that they wouldn’t be able to find it, so they hadn’t tried. Once through the door, Bill led King Lon down a spiraling stairway made of stone and lined with intermittent torches in sconces shaped like scary faces. At the bottom of the stairway was a round room with halls of widely-varied widths branching off of it in different directions.

               “This way,” said Bill, walking toward a hallway with an arched ceiling and a floor of planks painted white. “Hutton’s sleeping quarters are this way. He’s usually resting this time of day.”

               King Lon hesitated for a moment, then followed Bill down the hall. They walked in silence passing no doors on either side, only more torches. The air was stifling without being warm.

               “If this is a deception, Bill,” said King Lon, “you will suffer so much.”

               “Come now, Your Majesty,” said Bill with an over-the-shoulder smirk. “You needn’t pretend for me.”

               “You still don’t believe me mad?” asked King Lon.

               “You threatened Hutton,” said Bill. “You threatened to have him tortured unless he deemed you mad.”

               “That’s false!” said King Lon. “I threatened to have him tortured unless he gave me his truthful opinion, whatever that would be!”

               “So you did threaten him,” said Bill. “Hutton said as much while he was being tortured, but it’s a much better method for driving men mad than for getting useful information.”

               “You said he saw a scene of mind-shattering horror,” said King Lon.

               Bill shrugged. “Well, either way, he’s mad. As you’ll soon see. Here is where he stays.” He pointed ahead to a heavy iron door fifty yards away at the end of the hall. A chandelier made of bone bearing many white candles hung from the ceiling over the door. White wax had dripped and piled on the wooden flooring like bat guano.

               “What treachery are you planning?” asked King Lon. He reached inside his cloak and fingered the dagger hanging from his belt.

               “I’m giving you what you wanted,” said Bill. He turned and continued to the door.

               After a moment, King Lon again followed. He was confident he could take Bill if it came to that, especially since it was obvious that Bill carried no weapons. King Lon wasn’t sure what kind of sorcery Bill had at his disposal, but King Lon realized in that moment that he didn’t believe in sorcery and never had.

               At the door, Bill executed an elaborate knock, and then stepped aside. “Stand right here, Your Highness. Hutton will open it from within in a moment to allow you to see…uh…to enter.”

               King Lon stepped in front of the door and stood facing it. There were words engraved in the door, but he could not read them. They seemed similar to those embroidered on the canopy of his bed. “Allow me to see what?” asked King Lon. “You almost said I would be allowed to see something before you caught yourself.”

               “No, I didn’t,” said Bill.

               “Yes,” said King Lon. “You did.”

               “I just almost said ‘Hutton will open the door to allow you to see him’ but I thought that sounded stupid,” said Bill. “So I changed it to ‘allow you to enter.’ That’s all it was.”

               And then the door swung open.

               “Ha ha!” shouted Bill, whirling away and throwing one arm over his eyes. “Behold! Behold a scene of mind-shattering horror! Now you shall be truly mad!”

               King Lon’s first instinct was to clamp his hands over his eyes, but no, it was too late, he had already seen it, his mind was already shattering.

               Except it wasn’t.

               King Lon narrowed his eyes and stepped into the dimly-lit room. He was conscious of robed figures muttering and cackling on either side of him, but it was the scene they had constructed against the far wall that drew his attention. It was weird, but it wasn’t that weird. Maybe it would have been more effective if the craftsmanship had been better. As it was, the figures were pretty fakey. It looked like they were made of wax. The hair might have been real, but it didn’t look like they had even used animal guts for the gore, which seemed to King Lon like a missed opportunity. The imagery struck King Lon as the kind of thing a pre-teen boy would invent in an attempt to shock a younger female cousin or to impress a playmate of baser origins whose parents let him smoke a pipe. There was a woman with a bird head eating her own entrails, a pathetic tentacle emerging from a warped egg, a skeletal man on all fours eating human hands from a trough. The more King Lon looked at the scene, the more he realized it was mostly weird people eating gross stuff.

               He turned around and called back to Bill, “Where’s Hutton, Bill?”

               Bill, who still held his arm firmly across his eyes, said, “What? Your Highness, is that you?”

               “Yes,” said King Lon. “Who else would it be?” He looked at the madmen in the room who had now gathered into a small cluster, all watching him with disappointment. None of them were Hutton. “He’s not in here, Bill. Is he actually down here, or was the whole thing a lie?”

               “But your mind,” said Bill. “You saw the scene, Your Highness, did you not?”

               “I saw it,” said King Lon. “I’m not very impressed. How much do we pay you to do this, anyway?”

               “But Sire,” said Bill. “Don’t you see what this means? You’re able to look upon the scene of mind-shattering horror without it shattering your mind! That can only mean that your mind has already been shattered! You are mad, Your Highness! You truly are!”

               King Lon turned to look at the scene of mind-shattering horror again. Was it possible? Was he only unaffected by the scene because, in his madness, it had no power over him? Had he been sane when the door was opened to him, would he have collapsed to the floor, crying out, clawing at his eyes, gnawing his tongue, foam forming on his lips? No. There was no way. It wasn’t a scene of mind-shattering horror, it was just corny. It was corny and it sucked. “This isn’t going to shatter anyone’s mind,” said King Lon. “Sorry to disappoint you, Bill. Every battle I’ve ever been in is more horrifying than this. If the entrails weren’t coming out of the bird-head lady’s stomach, I wouldn’t even know what they were supposed to be.”

               “Entrails?” said Bill. “Bird-head lady?” Overcome by curiosity, he took his arm away from his eyes, emitted an ear-splitting shriek, and collapsed to the floor, clawing at his eyes, gnawing his tongue, foam forming on his lips, the whole works, and as he writhed and babbled the expressions of his shattered mind, the other madmen began to howl and caper around him.

               And in that moment, King Lon knew not only that he was sane and had always been so, but also that he was the only sane person in his entire kingdom, and perhaps in the entire world. 

Discussion Questions

  • You may be aware that the Queen of England has occasionally chosen to knight famous entertainers, such as actors and musicians. Who might the Queen of England choose to knight if she were not the Queen of England, but was instead a KING…who was MAD?

  • What’s a better method of ensuring one never becomes a widower than marrying a woman who has already died?

  • Which method of becoming mad would you choose: torture, being shown a scene of mind-shattering horror, or drinking a drug tea that tastes good? Now consider this: what if the drug tea tasted bad?

  • Imagine you have a time machine and you travel back in time to a medieval kingdom. You arrive just in time for a birthday party thrown by the king in honor of the prince. What would you expect the party to be like…if the king were MAD?

  • How mad did my incomplete description of the scene of mind-shattering horror drive you? Not mad at all, somewhat mad, quite mad, or quite mad indeed.

  • How might jousting tournaments be a little…different…in the kingdom of a MAD king?