The King and His Twenty-Three Subjects

This story was published in the third Florida Writers Association anthology Let’s Talk last month. The challenge was to write a story all in dialogue. I took the challenge one step further as you’ll see. A thousand thanks to Icy Sedgwick (@icypop) and Sam Adamson (@futurenostalgic) for beta reading it and giving great advice on it. This is for my grandma, who sang the rhyme that it’s based on to me when I was a small girl. And also for Anne McCaffrey, who instilled a love of fantasy in me. Anne passed away on Monday. 

“Oi! You there! What are you doing?”

“I’m walking. What’s it look like I’m doing? Who are you? More to the point, where are you?”

“Look up. Oak tree. Big, forked branch. Hulloo!”

“I say! You can talk! What about these others? Can they talk, too?”

“Me subjects? Nah, they can’t talk. I can talk on account of I’m their King. The Fairy King of this forest gifted all the animal kings with human speech. That was right nice of him, don’t you think?”

“You’re the king of the crows?”

“Blimey, no. I’m the king of this tree, just the king of this ‘ere lot. All twenty-three of ‘em. And technically, I’m a blackbird.”

“I don’t believe in fairies.”

“Well, they ‘aint got much to say about you, either. You didn’t believe in talking birds a minute ago. What are you doing walking in the woods, anyway?”

“I’m thinking. I like to take walks and think about things.”

“What’s that funny lookin’ thing on top of your head? Looks like a giant mushroom.”

“It’s a torque blanche.”

“A turk what? What the bloody hell is it?”

“A torque blanche! It’s a chef’s hat. I’m from that yonder castle, where I serve the King of my people as head cook.”

“I know where the castle is, you twit! Lost two of me mates there last month. There used to be twenty-six of us. Damned tragic.”

“How’d you lose them?”

“Well, it’s spring time, isn’t it? The people throw all the windows in the castle open and a bird can’t help his self. Me mate Reggie flew in the parlor window and helped himself to some of the Queen’s bread. It looked delicious from where we were perched. All slathered up with honey. Queen went out for a second and in ol’ Reg went. Didn’t see the handmaid sweeping in the corner. She grabbed the broom handle and bashed him a good ‘un! Poor Reg never knew what hit him.”

“Gods! A bad business, that. But it serves him right. I’m up at two in the morning on baking day, wearing my fingers to the bone kneading dough and slaving in front of a hot oven. My hands are blistered for days. For the love of my Queen, and not for some thieving bird! I’m chuffed he got bashed. Humph!”

“Are you glad his missus and his two little ‘uns went hungry that night?”

“Er…no, I suppose not. But honestly, what did he expect? The handmaid would say ‘Here poor Mr. Blackbird, you go on and have the Queen’s toast. Cookie can always bake more!’”

“Well, you could, couldn’t you? It’s not like birds have dough and ovens to bake bread in. Say…what’s that you’ve got there?”

“Where?”

“There. Sticking out of your apron.”

“Oh…um…it’s just a bit of rye I picked as I was walking through the fields.”

“Looks more than just a bit to me. There’s enough there for a good sized loaf, I’d wager. You got some nerve, Cookie, callin’ us thieves.”

“Ah, bugger it! My wages aren’t enough for a rat to live on! I only pinch enough to get by.”

“So do we.”

“You’re birds! You’ve got the whole world to pilfer. But never mind the rye in my pocket. What happened to your other mate? How did he die?”

“Die? He didn’t die. Poor devil. He’d be better off if he were dead.”

“Do tell.”

“Well, about a week after Reg met his broomy fate, a bunch of us were flying around the keep. A servant girl—that nice-looking one that always wears black—sometimes she puts out leftovers for us”

“That’d be Betsy. She’s one of them bloody weird goth girls.”

“Whatever. She feeds us. And I love that gold ring she wears. You know we blackbirds like a bit o’ shiny stuff.”

“I thought that was magpies?”

“Don’t bring those brutes into it! As I was saying…the girl left us some crumbs scattered in the courtyard and there we were pecking our little beaks out, when your King comes out of his storeroom carrying a bag in his hand. Such a jingling! Now I told you we like shiny stuff, but my mate Oliver…there’s nothin’ he loves better than the sound of loose coins tinkling in a purse. He’s mad for it!”

“Go on.”

“So, Ollie hears the King’s moneybag jangling and he goes spare. Hops right up to His Majesty like he’s some friggin’ pet canary. And the King? He’s lovin’ it. He laughs, and the manservant that’s with him laughs, too. The King reaches into the bag and pulls out a pretty new sixpence. He leans over and practically shoves the thing under poor Oliver’s nose. Then he wags it back and forth and there goes Ollie, hopping back and forth; poor gent can’t take his eyes off the thing. He’s hypnotized. He’s so fixed on that coin, he’s singing and dancing like some bloomin’ court jester. Made me ill to watch.”

“So what happened next?”

“Well, the King tossed down the coin in front of the poor bird. When Ollie went to snatch it up, the manservant threw a cloak over him! The King told the servant he meant to make a pet out of him. Poor Ollie!”

“That is dreadful!”

“‘Aint it, though? What I wouldn’t give to get in that castle and rescue good ol’ Ollie.”

“Hmmm…perhaps I can help you. It’ll be tricky, but it just might work. There’s a foreign novelty dish. I could bake you and your fellows here inside of a pie and then…”

“You what? You mean to cook us up? After I went and spilled my heart out like that?”

“Of course not. There’s a way to do it that doesn’t hurt you. When the pie is sliced open you fly out…unharmed.”

“Is it magic?”

“Aye. It’s culinary magic, it is.”

“And we won’t get roasted in that hot oven you were on about?”

“Upon my word, not one pinfeather will be scorched. When the King cuts the pie, you and your subjects fly out and cause as much commotion as you can. I’ll run off to the King’s private chambers and see if  Oliver’s being kept there. If so, I’ll set him free. How’s that?”

“It’s effin’ brilliant! We’ll do it. I’d fancy having a King-to-King chat with His Majesty and taking a peck or two at his fat arse. I sure wouldn’t mind having a go at Miss Betsy’s nose-ring, either. I do like a bit o’ shiny stuff!”

Go here to read the nursery rhyme that inspired the story. 

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22 thoughts on “The King and His Twenty-Three Subjects

    • Thanks, Tony. When they read the announcement for the anthology at the FWA meeting, my first thought was “Hell no!” But after thinking about it, I thought it might be a good vehicle in which to tell the blackbirds story, which I’ve wanted to do for a long while now.

      I’m glad you liked it! 😀

  1. That is an extremely well done dialogue only piece – well done! I loved your retelling of the old nursery rhyme – sing a song of sixpence •*¨*•♫♪

    • Thanks, Catherine. I’m glad you liked it. This story has wanted to be told since I first heard it as a child, I just didn’t know how to tell it until the “all-dialogue” idea came along. The muse works in strange ways. 😉

      Thanks for stopping by! 😀

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