In the World, a gleaming city built with unfathomable technology, the king is dead. Anyone who wants his crown can claim it, provided that they are a man. The king's eldest daughter has run the place for years, and thinks that she ought to keep it up indefinitely. The common people grow restless and unite behind a young girl who claims to see the future. An agent in the pay of mysterious powers manipulated events to suit her own purposes, while she looks for someone she has been chasing for a ve
The King is dead.
On the third day after that happened, Ado Maya stands over the body laid out on a table at the foot of its former bed. Ever since it stopped breathing she has sat and watched for any sign that it might start up again. She got through a lot of books and tried to ignore the rising smell. Now the women enter the room and get to work preparing the body for a final performance of its duty. They work at it methodically, with strong arms and determined looks on their ugly faces.
By necessity of her position, Ado Maya knows something about protocol. She knows that tradition calls for nubile young beauties in this role. The bleached woolen smocks that they are wearing properly ought to be cut low, from fabric that is thin to the point of translucence. This dignified tradition stretches back to the Third King, who had conveniently been as parsimonious as he was lecherous. As the Third had in fact woken again, just as his cheaply-dressed beauties were removing the clothes he’d died in, the method was deemed an effective means of establishing death. The Seventh had refused to have the women. He was so disgusted by the presence of women, indeed, that he had exiled them all from court and surrounded himself with young boys. He had also woken, and killed several of the youths before they got him on fire. This was interpreted as fresh evidence in favor of the women method, reinforced by the fact that none after the Seventh had ever woken again. Without the women, she supposed, they'd all be eaten in their beds. Since then the tradition had become something of an excuse for black humor. The Fifteenth has chosen his own women, on his very deathbed, blindly groping with a palsied hand to determine if their breasts were large enough. Every unmarried lady at the court had presented herself, highborn or not, and great fun was had by all. “I don’t care how dead I am,” the King quavered to his chosen bevy, “I’ll stand right up to take a bite out of this meat.” He’d winked, one pinched and watery eye opening and closing, right up at the ceiling. Everyone laughed, and kept laughing even after they realized that he’d died right exactly at that moment. She’d watched the video three times, trying to catch someone not laughing. But they all had.
Some had grumbled at Ado Maya’s bold innovations, but she had the best of them by recalling her great-great grandfather, the Seventeenth. This titan had commanded that none attend him but his own numerous and comely daughters. “If daughters were sufficient for the Seventeenth, founder of our glorious dynasty, then it will be sufficient for my father.” This silenced the courtiers, anything spoken by the Seventeenth regarded as one step removed from holy writ. None of them were aware that he had also decreed that his daughters do it in the nude. This had been interpreted at the time as a product of delirium, or drink, or both, and had been ignored. None of this history really mattered to Ado Maya, least of all the ruinous and frankly ridiculous past of her own family. If no basis for her actions existed then she simply would have lied about the women. She was the Herald of Transition, master of ceremonies, and they all had to do what she said for a little longer yet. These were not times for giggling breasts but for fast, competent work performed by practical horsefaces.
When they finish, the women have the dignity not to flee from the room. They all wipe their hands vigorously on their smocks, which are no longer quite so white. Everyone regards the body for a disgusted moment. Even the many portraits of the King in his more gloried years seem to stare down from the walls, reflecting a little grimly on what years of profligacy and debauch have wrought upon their once lithe body. Shorn of every hair, gleaming with perfumed oil, it resembles a monstrous beached jellyfish gone slack in the sun. Even the color of his skin has begun to be reminiscent of the sea. Ado Maya inspects the work, impressing even herself with how calm she is, how professional. She observes, calmly and professionally, how her father’s gluttony has even robbed him of his manhood, swaddling his penis somewhere inside folds of fat. Not even sexed, barely even human.
The horsefaces approach when she beckons, then retreat again when she reminds them, rather forcefully, to go and wash their hands. This done, they undress her right down, carrying away her black robes of mourning, her underclothes, and her shoes. Her skin also receives the oil. The women’s hands are not tender. They lift her arms and her breasts without comment, and give her ankles a bit of a kick to open her legs. Then Ado Maya stands naked and stinking of roses, together with her father. She wonders if he would stand up, if he would open his eyes and see her. She is calm and professional, and cannot believe how settled her stomach is. The women push her head forward and slide a black shift over her body, holding up a mirror for inspection. She tugs the shift down, and then pulls it up, and settles at last for ensuring that nothing too obscene is popping out. The shift is very traditional. A very long and distinguished tradition. The courtiers can only bend so far.
“Get him dressed,” she commands the horsefaces. “I pray that the uniform still fits him.” The King had it made back when he could still stand on his own, a long time ago indeed. A tailor is waiting in a nearby room with a couple of yards of additional fabric. Then she checks the time, and considers that a doctor with a handsaw and a pump would be much faster. But the uniform finally does fit, with the help of some rope and the expulsion of some gasses. One last memory of him, just as pleasant as all the rest.
And now, at last, the King shines in red silk and cloth of gold, his medals and honors so numerous that they spill off his chest and finally give his gut something useful to do. Ado Maya takes her time inspecting him. She finds a loose button that no one will ever notice, but it gives her a reason to glare at the horsefaces. She straightens up and steps away, and the time has come to get this over with.
She waits alone with the body in the great bedchamber, waiting for other people to get everything in line outside. She’s waited here for days, but only now, in the deafening silence of anticipation, beneath the gaze of those dozens of grim-faced portraits, does she realize that her father is dead. Abom Mora, the Nineteenth King of the World, Fourth of the Blood, third of his dynasty, and a thousand other things besides. The Breaker of the Dawn, the Butcher of Beasts, Captain of Dancing's First and Only, hero of the Endless War, captor of countries, despoiler of cities, salter of the earth, raper of women, eater of children, the glory of his age. As dead as the Dodo. She no longer has to call herself his daughter.
When the double doors swing open to admit the curious gaze of the ten thousand assembled nobility, she has only just stopped laughing.