"Make Us a map."
The silence following hung on the air of King Bing's grand court. There would have to be an answer, of course. And only one possible. Mal Longlegs, royal mapper, swallowed. "As Your Majesty wishes."
Mal, aged twenty years, and already veteran of a half dozen royal expeditions, savoured the job's perks. The comforts at court. Fine food. Clothes. Playful high-born women, perfumed pleasantly of mothballs. He liked drawing the maps, too. Only he dreaded the travel. Just this past winter, he'd walked across blighted Surrey to make the king his map. Mal had drawn the Serpentine to the sea. Met the wild woman of Mud Bay, bedded her, but only just fled her. A gang of vicious weasels ate most of his clothes, and possibly a horse. He hoped it wasn't Surrey again.
King Bing sneered over the grey morning court. "Queen Meg...the Chaste."
At His Royal Pause, those attentive raised approving snickers.
"Queen Meg has a map now of Surrey."
Mal swallowed again.
"Rest easy, my mapper. Meg calls it Surrey, her wall hanging. Not as fine a map of Surrey as ours, though. Not even a suggestive squiggle of the Serpentine. And no sea."
King Bing guffawed. Mal and all the court guffawed along with him.
"So, We wish to do Chaste Meg...," the king ignored the chorus of snickers, "...one much grander."
Mal swallowed hard, sure all the court heard the lump drop down his throat. "I await Your Royal Pleasure...all anticipation."
King Bing smiled. The smile twisted his wrinkled face quite knee-tremblingly unrecognizable. "Ah, your dead father taught you well. My mapper. Make me a map of America. By Christmas."
Hushed silence. Mal made the tiniest streamlet of urine down one leg.
On cue the King's fool, Munk, capered and jangled from behind the throne, splendid in his coat of clashing colours, and all of three feet tall. It fell to Munk to deliver unpleasant facts, the news of the day, and so on at court. Munk's amusing antics, his childlike stature, and reedy gibber replaced frowns and worries with smiles. Many a listener afterward often believed they hadn't heard anything unpleasant at all.
Munk gyred among the knees of court standees. He dragged a hand across the backside skirts of prim Lady Pim. Her eyes softened. She seemed not to mind.
Munk gyred and jangled, and this morning gibbered of legend. "Ah'merica burned when the world burned. After, Ah'merica walled themselves in, and all not them out..."
"Excellent plan, 'Majesty." Reynard, king's advisor, grinning broadly, strode from the crowd, indecently close by prim Lady Pim's back skirts. She seemed again not to mind.
Reynard strode directly for the king's fool. Munk staggered back, back, at last sheltered by King Bing's elbow.
"Peasant!" Munk's dark eyes were daggers.
Reynard bowed to his king, spun his head left and right over the assembly.
"You're very rude," Munk sneered.
Reynard ignored him. "Excellent, and most decorative, 'Majesty. Yes? Yes?"
Muted cheers drifted in response, insubstantial as soap bubbles. A few clapped hands, loudly as thunder. And startled another streamlet down Mal's inside leg.
"...And unnaturally tall," Munk added.
King Bing chose the moment to declare, "And no mere suggestion of a map now. Not just the crinkly edges. Not a lot of terra I-don't-know-what. We, and we are saying I, want to know the place. If America is real at all. The Great Plains dark with wildebeest. That sort of thing, my mapper. Not forgetting any terrors. You know We especially like the terrors, oh yes. It'll look grand on yon wall at Christmas!"
Mal nodded, nodded again, his smile frozen. He quivered slightly on his two legs.
Munk snickered. "...Though my dagger's bigger than yours!"
King Bing glanced at Munk. "Take my Fool with you. He's eased my days. He's sure to brighten your journey."
"No no Bingo. My short legs. I'll only slow him when he has to run away..."
The king patted his fool on the head. "Think of the stories you'll return with. The new jokes."
Reynard snorted. "More excellence, 'Eminence."
"And Reynard, too."
"M...me, My Lord?"
Munk tipped over on his backside, laughing. "With him interrupting those terrors I might live long enough to return with stories!"
"B...but, 'Majesty. The taxees...my royal duty to tax them at harvest time...to the full degree of Your Decree. If I'm not at Your Good Works until Christmas..."
"In case there are royal anythings to speak with on my behalf, Reynard. The taxees will grumble. They'll pay their taxes. Any soldier of mine with a sword can collect my taxes, Reynard. Bring along plenty of beads, hmm?"
A cloud suddenly broke apart, like an egg, beyond the east window behind the throne. Sunlight streamed in through the thousand-years old glass patchwork, and struck King Bing in seemingly-blessed golden glory. He knew a grand moment when it happened. He found his feet, standing between his stock-still Advisor and subdued Fool. His Highness spread wide his robed arms, proclaimed, "MY CHRISTMAS MAP. AMERICA!"
Cheering and applause exploded, and uncorked Mal's bladder, ruining his new soft shoes.