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As he slid his coarse hand across the length of the windowsill, the sovereign's thin, cracked lips formed into a smile. With a hand clad heavy with gold and diamond rings, he motioned towards the vast landscape that the window framed.
Mine, he mused. And I earned it—rightfully so.
For that much was true; it was none other than he who had led the glorious victory charge down the hill, watched as thousands upon thousands of men's skulls were crushed beneath the hooves of his soldiers' horses, felt the rush of wielding destruction pulsate through his veins as he, he himself clubbed the life out of the opposing duke.
I earned it, he thought, now with a slight twinge of nervousness. And there shall be no question about that.
Around his feet, a lush velvet carpet sprawled across the vast chamber he was standing in. Repeating patterns of exquisite flowers crawled up the walls —age-old Victorian furniture lay neatly assorted around the room on their heavyset bases like unspeaking companions. On the opposing side of the chamber, a grandfather clock stood like an unyielding sentinel, its pendulum swinging with timely conviction.
The sovereign was very surprised. A grandfather clock? He hadn't called for one. Surely it must've been a mistake. As he walked towards it, he saw that it was a very interesting work indeed. It stood, balancing perfectly, on but two legs. Medieval-style carvings ran up its sides, and at the top was an angel with spread wings.
The sovereign shrugged.
It is but an oddity.
He sighed as he made his way back to the window, his low, resounding footsteps echoing in the sheer vastness of the chamber. The sovereign looked at the rings on his right hand, then his left, remarking individually on how beautiful, how splendid they were. My most loyal followers, he decided.
Suddenly, far in the furthermost recesses of the room, a pair of venerable double doors swung open. A huge gust of wind blew into the chamber, knocking over a house of cards that was sitting on a table. The sovereign, quite annoyed now, turned to address his visitor.
Standing on an oriental rug, far in the back of the room, was a boy. His clothes were but rags, torn blankets telling a tale of poverty and privation—his knees were knobby and his legs were thin. The boy's arms were about as thick as the sovereign's thumb, the boy's waist, his neck.
"What do you want?" the sovereign snapped. "And who was it that let you in? Was it Leonardo? He is quite an incompetent guard."
The boy pointed his eyes to the floor ashamedly.
"You did," he said, his voice high and raspy.
"What do you mean, I did," the sovereign chided, annoyed. "Are you out of your mind? Would I let filthy scum like you into my quarters? And step off that rug, you'll make it dirty."
The boy took a step into the chamber, onto the hardwood. The two stood silently for a few seconds, studying each other. The sovereign cleared his throat.
"Well? If you've no business here, be gone. I have much to do, for I am a very busy man."
"No," the boy said quietly. "I've no place to go."
The sovereign tapped his fingers on his temples impatiently.
"Then I suppose you may stay here for the time being." After a while, he added, "What would you like to do? Do you like board games? I have chess and checkers."
The boy only nodded quietly. Silence.
"Chess then?" the sovereign snapped.
The sovereign made his way deliberately to the opposing end of the room, sweeping his hands on the surface of a huge walnut cabinet before gingerly opening up a drawer. With both hands, he pulled out a wooden box covered in a layer of ethereal dust. The sovereign tilted it forward, and pawn after pawn tumbled onto the velvet carpet like light snows on lush grass. At last, only the king was left in the box. The sovereign picked it up and placed it on the carpet gently.
The boy was silent for a few moments.
"Do you always treat the pieces like that?" he asked.
"And what exactly are you implying?" the sovereign demanded, suddenly angry.
"The pawns—look—they're all over the place. But the king, you put him down gently," said the boy. His eyes looked at the sovereign in genuine confusion and concern. "Why?"
The sovereign let out a disgusted sigh.
"What is it to you?" he sneered. "The king is worth much more than the pawns! He is the center of the entire game—why, you must be a fool not to see that!"
The boy nodded slowly.
"But they are made of the same wood, no?" he whispered.
With a snort of disgust, the sovereign, now silent, set up the board. He gripped the centermost pawn with his thick fingers and set it down two spaces ahead.
The boy moved a pawn as well. The sovereign brought forth his knight. The boy moved a bishop. With deadly intent in his eye, the sovereign pushed forward his rooks. The boy, grasping his bishop, nudged aside the sovereign's pawn and set it to the side of the board.
"Why did you let me take that?" he asked quietly. "You could've moved that pawn away."
"Stupid boy," the sovereign snapped, disgusted. "You have no understanding of military strategies. These are all necessary sacrifices. And it is but a pawn."
"But a pawn?" the boy asked, quieter. "Are men but men as well?"
"You speak nonsense," the sovereign said. "I, for one, am an excellent commander." He hesitated. "The best commander," he added.
The sovereign stood up dramatically. He flung a heavy arm, motioning to the expanse of land that sat like a portrait in the window.
"Do you see that, stupid child?" he mocked with malicious glee. "That is the result of genius, and of sacrifice. Yes, many men have died to acquire these lands, but do you not see the beauty that has risen out of their demise? This land, this is what matters! This is the matter of consequence!"
"And what of the families of the dead soldiers?" the boy lamented, his voice barely a whisper now.
"And still you do not comprehend!" the sovereign cried. His sudden sforzando carved a hollow silence in the room. For an entire minute, both him and the boy were silent. Then, from the deep, empty recess of silence carried a slow, ticking noise.
"Do you hear that?" the sovereign demanded.
"No," the child said, very much afraid. He drew his spindly arms and legs closer to his body.
The sovereign paced the chamber nervously, looking for the source of the noise. It was faster now, and more syncopated. The sovereign broke into a cold sweat, exhausting first the north and west ends of the chamber. He ventured to the east end of the room in long, fast strides, and found nothing—turning his head, the sovereign beheld the grandfather clock, tall and suddenly menacing.
"Ah, it's nothing. Nothing but the grandfather clock. D*** thing was broken in the first place, I knew it."
The sovereign, palms sweating, heart racing, paced over to the clock. He examined the works, but found nothing. The ticking grew more out of time, louder, and faster still. The sovereign was gasping for breath.
"Stop!" he screamed. "In the name of I the sovereign, Lewis Coldstein, I command you to stop immediately!" His voice rang over the ticking and through the chamber.
"Checkmate," the boy whispered.
The ticking stopped abruptly. The grandfather clock seemed to pause, as if in hesitation, before crashing to the ground; bits of glass scattered over the carpet as the pendulum slid out of the works and onto the floor. The sovereign looked on in horror. The glass on the carpet merged into a single, nebulous mass; the world around him became distorted, blending and changing until all became an inconspicuous blur. Dazed, the sovereign fell to the ground.
The voice of a young man called out of the darkness. The sovereign opened one eye slightly, saw a tall man in a white coat pressing metal pads against his chest, and wondered where he was.
A curious place, no doubt. These clothes I am wearing—a gown of light blue—are of strange make. Perhaps Spanish?
A powerful shock ran through his body. The sovereign's heart erupted, beating violently fast against his chest for a few seconds before returning stubbornly to syncopation. Another shock, this time worse. His heart thumped weakly a few times before relapsing back into its nonsensical rhythm.
The man took off his face mask, panicked.
"I can't get it back to normal," he yelled to the people around him.
The sovereign could feel his heart's rhythm fading away. Making a final effort, he turned his head to glance at his hands—a constricting cold gripped his heart.
Where are my rings?