After the Long War, everything needed to be repaired. Fields were burnt brown from the fiery spittle that had rolled from the dragons’ tongues, the streets had been buckled by the spiny mountain peaks the giants had hurled like spears, the city’s walls were huddled against the remaining buildings to keep from falling, and the iron gate of the palace and its massive shining doors of purest white wood were in ruins, while inside the great table was splintered and the throne of ivory and gold had been dashed to pieces by some nameless, shadowy, monstrous horror.
Heralds of victory spread quickly, yet though all had been quiet for weeks, only now did women and children dare to creep out of the caves and catacombs, seeking hopefully for tidings of husbands, fathers, and elder brothers as they wandered dazedly through the broken streets.
The king declared, “We shall have a feast to celebrate the victory.”
“Realistically speaking, my lord,” said the lord chamberlain, “I do not believe that a feast is possible. There is no place left for the feast to take place and there are few places where a feast could be prepared.”
“There is no food,” the minister of affairs added quietly.
“Of course, of course,” the king replied. “Of course, I do not mean now. But we must begin today to prepare for the feast. It will be the goal of all our labor. Everything we have and every effort must be devoted to it. That is the will of the king.” So a decree went out from the king, that everyone in the kingdom devote their hands, hearts, and all they had to one end—preparing for the great feast.
Though confident that the serpents and giants had been driven from the kingdom forever, the king took no chances that enemies would darken the bright joy of the feast. He called his remaining generals into the ruins of his palace, where they pored for days over maps and fragments of maps, discussing which forts remained standing, which needed repair, and how many troops were needed where and with what arms.
Clerks with abacuses, long scrolls, and curling quilled pens in makeshift pots of dull grey ink met with the king and his closest advisors. They determined what was needed, what resources were available, what had to be bought and what made. The lord chamberlain and the minister of affairs chose four hundred of the most capable men in the kingdom to ensure that the plans were carried out.
Large boulders were lodged in the fields and had to be dug up and removed. Farmers forged their swords and spears into plows to prepare the fields for planting. They searched the dilapidated barns and shacks for seed, then planted it. They rebuilt the stone walls and barns, then searched mountains and forests for surviving sheep, cattle, goats, and fowl, and drove them back to safety. Wells that had been plugged were opened; water began to flow and brown lands turned green. Fields were planted with flowers of every color and description to adorn the tables of the feast.
In the capital, the architects and builders determined how to repair the palace and other buildings, and sent workmen to the quarries for fresh stone, which was brought to masons for intricate cutting, carving, and polishing. In the forests, trees of every description were felled. Mills were restored and began to cut wood for the craftsmen who would shape and shine the wood into tables and chairs.
Mines had operated during the Long War so that weapons and armor could be produced, but the finer metals had been all but forgotten. Gold and silver were again extracted, and men of cunning skill set to work to make ornaments for the palace, gleaming spoons, forks, and knives for the banquet table, mirror-shining goblets, platters, and plates.
The king and queen sat in their robes to be painted. Artists traveled the kingdom painting the loveliest landscapes and the most charming villages, the most majestic mountains, and a woman in home-spun standing at a window with a milk pitcher.
Many of the women were assigned the task of preparing festal robes. When the cotton and flax were harvested and the sheep had been shorn, the women began to spin thread and weave garments of the most wondrous kind. Traders brought silk, and shimmering gowns were made by magical feminine hands.
“We must have music,” the king exclaimed, “for we cannot eat in silence. It must be a feast for the ear as for the eye and tongue and nose.” Few instruments remained, so musicians in the capital drew plans for lyres and instruments of 10 strings, for horns of silver and bronze, for delicate wood-pipes and booming hollow drums￼covered with taut vellum, and for clashing cymbals.
“And a play,” he added. So scholars combed through the wreckage of the library at the King’s School to find uncharred books among the wet blackness of burned paper, while those who could write began to ponder what sort of play the king might enjoy.
Acrobats practiced their falls and tumbles, and jugglers experimented with knives and flaming torches. Dancers learned new steps.
A sage learned in the powers of all the elements conceived an ingenious engine, set on silver-spoked wheels, that could move without horses or oxen, by some magical combination of fire and water. He presented his invention to the king, who immediately decided to ride in the carriage to the palace at the beginning of the feast.
During the Long War, education had all but ceased, so that language and manners had become corrupt, hardened, and coarse. The king decreed that all, especially the children, be trained in proper etiquette at table, and ministers spread out through the country to teach the people that one should stand to seat others, how to speak with gentle frankness to a table companion, why one should share food with his neighbor, and what was the true art of conversation.
Some in the kingdom were inclined to resist the decree. They planted and harvested, produced wine and meats, built houses, made garments, and taught their children. They worked as hard as the others, but they declined to devote their work entirely to the feast, and so throughout the kingdom they became known as “Decliners.”
Some who believed themselves wise defended the Decliners. “There is work for everyday life on the one hand,” they said, “and there is work for the king’s feast on the other. Not all work is done for the king’s feast.” They produced large and difficult books written in ponderous foreign hyphenated tongues to elaborate this distinction, which some called a distinction between the common kingdom and the special kingdom, and others called a distinction between house life and palace life.
The wiser men answered: “All is to be done to honor our king, and all is to be done to enhance the beauty and wonder and joy of his feast. Not every meal is a feast, but each meal we eat today strengthens us to prepare for the feast at the end of the age. It is the decree of the king.”
Few listened to the Decliners, fewer read their books, and still fewer understood them. Soon they were forgotten.
It has been said that the preparations took many years, and that the king reigned for a millennium before all was finished. By that time, the city shone like a bride prepared for her wedding, while in the fields the crops rippled like liquid emerald and the forest trees stretched upward like pillars of the sky.
On that day, there was a procession such as the world had never seen, and never again shall. At the head were musicians joyously blaring the coming of the king into his kingdom, followed by dancers and acrobats and jugglers.
Meat, bread, and wine were paraded in by wave after wave of cooks and bakers. Painters brought their paintings and carvers of stone their carvings, walking on a rainbow path of flower petals. And all the riches of the kingdom were brought into the palace to adorn the feast.
At the center of the process came the king, riding in the ingenious engine with silver-spoked wheels, followed by ei
ght of the king’s bodyguard who bore the thrones of the king and queen on their great shoulders. In the center of the palace court, seven ivory steps—each adorned with carvings of one of the seven planets and the seven orders of living beings, with symbols of the seven seas and the seven continents, marked with signs representing the seven elders of the kingdom, the seven mountains of the capital, and scenes from the seven battles of the first great war—led up to a canopied platform, on which the thrones were set. Stately, the king took his queen by the hand and ascended to the eighth level, amidst the rising tide of song, music, and laughter. And, having surveyed the assembly joyful, he sat on this throne and raised his hand.
Silence like an unfolding blossom descended, filled only with the aroma of bread and wine and the sound of the canopy slapping gently in the gentle wind. “All is finished,” he cried. “Let the feast begin.”