A Grim Fairy Tale

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Once upon a time there lived an emperor who had three sons. The emperor was getting old, and began grooming a replacement. He soon concluded that one of the sons, a simpleton called Clever Jorg, could never succeed him. Jorg spent his days at the local tavern amusing the barmaids. He was a happy-go-lucky sort, less industrious than his brothers. But since fairy tale protocol requires that the happy-go-lucky simpleton get the throne/princess in the end, Clever Jorg wound up wearing ermine.

Some of the peasants laughed when they heard Jorg was going to run the show. "At least this might be entertaining," they said. Others did not laugh. "At best this might be catastrophic," they thought.

In a loud travesty of efficiency called National Elections, Jorg claimed the throne with the help of Veep, his huntsman. Fairy tale protocol requires that huntsmen either be conniving consorts of Darkness, or good-hearted fellows at bottom who spare the princess instead of shooting her as ordered. Veep was of the former. When he wasn’t on a date with the Dark Side, he was off on canned hunts, gunning for small birds and occasionally old friends.

One day out of nowhere, a twisted dragon flew brazenly to the heart of empire, toasting some of its most cherished monuments and toasting itself in the process. A number of largely expendable peasants died too. More troubling was the fact that the dragon had cut so close to the knuckle, endangering the lives of the indispensable, driving Veep himself into a dragon-proof chamber deep underground. Most troubling of all was the fact that the empire had been made to look vulnerable and clumsy.

"How the heck did that thing get past the Guards?" Jorg demanded privately, as the smoke cleared. A great deal of peasant gold was extracted annually to prevent just such snafus from happening. The Guards were supposed to be state of the art. The emperor dimly remembered having glanced at a report called "Twisted Dragon Plans to Attack Seat of Empire," but decided not to bring that up.

Several of Clever Jorg’s advisors suggested that the dragon had sprung from a vindictive breed known as Blowback, and that its visit had been a fairly predictable consequence of imperial shenanigans. "Stuff that," said Jorg. "That will never do. We can’t play that on Main Street." Main Street was where the peasants lived. "What do you say, Veep?"

The huntsman’s lip curled. "This malignant worm had nothing to do with Us," he said. "It is purely an agent of Them. It smacks of an eastern breed called Jihad, and its motive is simple — it hates our freedoms. We must take bold action. We must destroy the evildoers before they destroy us. You must become a war emperor."

"Now you’re talkin’" said Clever Jorg. Word reached Main Street, and fear spread throughout the realm. The peasants were encouraged to go shopping.

After a while it became hard to remember that the attack of the twisted worm had been a catastrophe. For Clever Jorg it began to feel more like a windfall. In fact, he was on something of a roll. War emperorship suited him.

One day Veep pulled Jorg aside. "Unfinished business," he winked, "in Messopotamia. Lotsa oil, broken defenses, rotten leadership… We’re talking maidens throwing flowers. We’re talking cakewalk. We’re talking the world’s biggest embassy. We’re talking good for the economy, yours and mine at any rate."

"Bring it on!" said Clever Jorg, and the peasants supported him, offering up more of their expendable children and gold. Some people asked whether it was right to make war on a broke-down country that hadn’t made war on you, so the emperor patiently explained the Clever Jorg Policy. A few continued to murmur. "But isn’t that like chopping off someone’s arm in case they might hit you someday? Where do you draw the line?" The emperor impatiently savaged their patriotism.

The emperor’s War Vizier, a jolly dwarf by the name of Rumsfeldstiltskin, directed a monumental military victory against Taliban, a former friend turned vile ogre, and against Taliban’s barbarous pets, the dragons of Tora Bora. He then turned his sights on Sodom Insane, another former friend turned ogre, and directed a monumental military victory in Messopotamia. "Mission Accomplished!" cried Clever Jorg. "Let’s do Persia!"

A short time later, as these monumental military victories unraveled to such an extent that even the distracted gaze of Main Street began to take notice, Rumsfeldstiltskin grew less jolly, and took to skulking on the sidelines with his friend Veep. "Stuff happens," he sniffed. Bombing wedding parties and torturing prisoners provided consolation for a time, but eventually things just got weird and Rumsfeldstiltskin threw in the towel.

Then one day the emperor called the peasants together. He had a grave announcement. "Remember all that gold you’ve been encouraged to drop in the imperial casinos? Well, due to greed and mismanagement of proportions incomprehensible to all of us here in the Palace, the casinos have gone bust. Your gold has turned to lead. It’s some kind of bizarre alchemy."

The peasants were shocked and awed. "How do we get our gold back?" many wondered aloud.

"Trust us," said Clever Jorg, indispensably. "We can fix it." His huntsman, meanwhile, was spotted leading the princess away into the deep, dark forest.

The End.

John Liechty [send him mail] currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.

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