The Last Storyteller

After dinner, as was her daily custom, Joan carried a meal up to the King’s chambers where she’d perform various scribe duties for him while he ate. Sometimes he needed a letter written or read. Sometimes he needed an update on his son’s business. So as Joan puttered around the room, the king with his matted white beard and scraggly hair, both of which had been collecting crumbs for years, sat his long frail body up in bed and ate his meal. Today he wanted an update on the recent business of the kingdom. Joan told him about the letter she wrote for Prince Chaz.

The king laughed. “My son is a brute. An idiot, but a brute. What he can’t accomplish with brains, he will accomplish with force. Nothing is scarier than an idiot with power. Next time you write a letter, I need you to make Chaz sound stupider, and even more brutish.”

“Yes, Sire,” Joan replied. “That should be easy to do.”

“What else is news?” he demanded as he wiped his mouth with his hair.

When Joan mentioned the prisoner who had listened to stories, the king choked on his food.

“Ahch!” He made a disgusted throat clearing sound. “I hope Chaz dealt with him as he deserved.”

She gave a full account, starting with the guards dragging him in this morning and ending with the impromptu church service at noon. The king applauded his son’s actions.

Joan became nervous. She wanted to ask about stories. The servants were too afraid to speak about them, and Joan completely understood why. She really needed to speak with someone of authority. Who better than the king? But she was worried about his reaction.

“Sire?” she began timidly. “I had some questions, but the prince was so busy I did not dare disrupt him. I wanted to ask: What are stories? Why are they so dangerous?”

The king eyed Joan suspiciously.

“You were right not to ask Chaz,” he replied after a moment. “He wouldn’t know. He’d probably throw you in the dungeon just for confusing him. But tell me first what you do know of them.”

“They are lies intended to hurt others, falsehoods spread to destroy the kingdom,” replied Joan dutifully. “I don’t understand why anyone would tell such things.”

“Just so,” said the king thoughtfully. “There are reasons stories are so dangerous. Most people these days are not aware of why we don’t allow them, and maybe that’s best. If people think they understand, then they may dare to weigh the reasons, and reasoning can be faulty.  It is much better to have blind obedience than to have rational agreement.”

“Yes, sire.”

“But I suppose someone should carry the knowledge after I’m gone,” continued the king, “just in case the royal family begins to stray. They would need a reminder.”

He looked pointedly at Joan. “Tell me, girl. You know the library downstairs? Do you recall what’s in it?”

The sudden change of subject confused Joan. What did the library have to do with this? She had gone there once by accident and never had a reason to return.

“It’s just a large empty room,” she answered hesitantly. She thought she was being tested somehow, so she tried to remember more details: dust piled in the corners, cobwebs clinging to the barren stone walls and draped across the high beamed ceiling. “Nothing on the walls, no furniture. It is completely unused.”

“Do you know what used to be in there?”

The idea of anything ever being in that room further baffled Joan, and she shook her head. “No, my lord.”

“Books!” he exclaimed, pleased to be able to shock her. “Floor to ceiling. Books.”

Joan was surprised. Books were used for accounting and levying taxes. She used one all the time, but one book was enough to last a year. “Why so many?” she asked. “A scribe never needs to figure out that much accounting.”

The king laughed at her. “They weren’t accounting books. They were books filled with stories.”

Joan caught her breath.

“One big collection of lies,” the king commented. “Things people just made up in their heads.”

“Stories were allowed?” Joan found this hard to believe. It went against everything she had learned.

“Yes, but that was before we became enlightened,” he said. “My grandfather burnt them all when I was a boy. We keep the empty library as a symbol, but the meaning of that symbol is fading, just as the memory of books is fading. This is as it should be.”

The king nodded his matted head to himself, and Joan remained silent.

He continued, “These stories were dangerous. They were full of words that people weren’t afraid to speak out loud. Peasants got ideas, strange ideas that threatened the kingdom. There was power in those lies, and commoners began to think they shared power with us. That’s why we can sometimes identify a person who listens to stories; they will look us in the eye because they think they are our equal. It is very dangerous. Power comes from keeping it to yourself. If you share it, you lose it.

“That’s why my grandfather banned stories, and when books went missing from the library, he burned them. But some storytellers persist. There always seems to be one every generation, but they are hard to find. They hide somewhere away from the light to conceal their shame. Listeners sneak off into the night and huddle together in the darkness to hear the lies. We prevent what we can. That is why no one is allowed to speak ever, unless a representative of this family addresses them. Commoners speaking to each other is a crime punishable by death.”

Joan thought back to the whispered conversation she overheard in the corridor. What would make someone take such a risk?

The king scrutinized Joan suspiciously. “I hope your curiosity in this matter is purely academic. I don’t think I need to tell you that a scribe mixed up in stories would be the worst abomination possible. I would rather see you dead.”

“Oh sir.” she attested. “I would never get involved with lies.” She meant it with her heart.

Later that evening, Joan stood just inside the stable watching out over the yard and the kitchen garden. The king had mentioned how listeners creep away at night. Joan had a good view of the kitchen and of the servants’ quarters. If Rose were to slink off, Joan would see. Rose seemed like a good person; Joan couldn’t imagine her involved in such terrible things, but she had looked Joan in the eye, and she had been talking without permission. If Joan wanted to know more about stories, she needed to be ready when Rose went sneaking out.

A gentle light suddenly filled the kitchen door, illuminating the nearby garden, and a silhouette stepped forward. Joan glimpsed the red hair just as the figure pulled a hood over its head. A soft thud shut out the warm glow as quickly as it had appeared. Joan could see the stifled spark of a closed lantern move through the garden and toward the gate. She heard the soft squeak of the old hinges and waited for quiet to settle again before crossing the yard and working her way around the rows of vegetables and herbs. At the garden gate, Joan hesitated a moment to listen. When she assured herself no danger waited on the other side, she pulled it open and peered into the darkness beyond the castle wall.

Joan could see the dim light of the small lantern bobbing its way across the fields toward the forest. Good, she thought. The light would make it easier to follow. Joan stepped out and closed the gate behind her.