The Boy Who Didn't Know How to Recognize a King

Long ago, in the days of the Khmer Empire, the common folk believed that the very monsoons blew at the Emperor's command, bringing both the rains that caused life to burst from the soil and the winds that swept villages into oblivion. And so it was that the common folk feared to draw the eye of the Emperor upon themselves lest they also draw his displeasure, and yet feared more his disregard, which was a subtler but no less certain form of ruin. Such is the way with emperors.

But no emperor, not even the great Jayavarman VII of legend, could know what went on in every corner of the Empire. And so the Empire was divided into provinces, each ruled by its own king. Some kings were little more than Imperial puppets; others ruled freely.

No king in the Empire ruled more freely than the wizard-king Souvannaroth, for he was clever and sly, wise in wizardry and kingcraft both. His province, Stung Treng, was distant from the Imperial capital, and so long as the Emperor received his regular tributes from Stung Treng, Souvannaroth might rule as he pleased.

But there were other ways in which a king's will could be thwarted, as Souvannaroth would learn, much to his enduring regret.

One day, King Souvannaroth was hunting in the thick and sparsely populated jungle along the Mekongk River. Hunting was the King's only respite from the demands of the Court, with its endless streams of judgments to be rendered and supplicants to be heard. Yet even when he hunted, it was necessary to bring along at least his son, Prince Pranna, the Lord Chamberlain, the Court Wizard (even a wizard-king needed a court wizard), and the Captain of the Guard, who would in turn bring a few fives of soldiers for royal safety.

But what pleased the King most was to withdraw even from this small retinue and track quarry on his own. The Captain of the Guard was never happy when the King went into the jungle alone, and the Court Wizard would insist on casting a spell of seeming on Souvannaroth, so that if anyone came across him hunting alone in the jungle, they would take him for a common villager and not know they had found a monarch undefended.

The King treasured these moments; they were the only times he could be alone and at peace. He seldom returned to his hunting companions with game, but always in better spirits.

On this particular day, Souvannaroth had found a silver pheasant and tracked it back to its nest. As the bird settled onto her eggs and began preening, the King crept toward her on his belly, his bow and a single arrow in his left hand. The perfume of the dark earth was heavy in his nostrils, mingling with the musky scent of the bird’s trail. Finding cover behind the broad leaves of a palm shrub, he rose to his knees, slid the nock of the arrow onto the bowstring, and drew. He took aim, holding his breath as the Captain of the Guard had taught him, and shot.

At that same instant, a peasant boy appeared. He lunged toward the nest, chasing away the hen. He had meant to collect her eggs, but the King's arrow now flew straight for his heart.

To kill a child was very bad karma. For a wizard, it might mean the loss of his hard-won powers. Perhaps forever.

The King acted quickly. He shouted a word in Sanskrit, the sacred tongue of magic, and the arrow faded into shadow.

Pain lanced through the King's body. A spell invoked and released so quickly created backlash. It would be a day or more before the King would be able to cast another spell. Still, better a day than a lifetime.

The King fell to the ground, gritting his teeth as he waited for the pain to pass. The boy paused for a moment to brush at the strange tickling sensation on his chest, and then knelt to gather the eggs, placing them in a small sack. He seemed to the King about fourteen years old-the same age as the Prince - though he was unmistakably of coarser stock: short and thin, dressed in nothing more than sandals and a dirty sarong around his hips. Long strands of unkempt black hair framed a scarred face. The King could see welts on his bare brown skin. He looked up as the King approached.

"Who are you?" the boy asked.

"I might ask you the same. What are you doing here?"

"I live here," the boy replied indignantly. "What are you doing here?"

"You didn't see the King's soldiers? It is their task to keep village folk away from this place."

The boy looked at him blankly.

The King's anger rose. "You are small and ignorant!" he cried, but then he remembered the spell. To the boy, the King was no more than another of the village folk himself. And that gave him an idea for a little joke. "What's your name?" he asked, in a calmer, friendlier voice.

"Nak," said the boy.

"Very well, Nak. Would you like to meet the King?"

The boy stood. "All right."

"The King and his hunting party are not far from here. I can take you to them."

Souvannaroth began to walk and gestured for the boy to follow. He hurried to catch up and asked, "But how will I know which one is the King?"

"All are required to kneel in the presence of the King. When we find the King's party, you will see everyone kneel but one. The one who does not kneel is the King. Do you understand?"

Nak nodded as he listened. "I understand."

Souvannaroth led the boy back to the clearing where he had left the others. At once, the entire party fell to their knees before Souvannaroth. The boy looked around, taking in the scene.

"Now do you see who is King?" the King asked. He waited for the boy to fall to his knees in terror as he realized the enormity of his mistake.

The boy gave the King a mild look and said, "I see that we are both kings."

The King felt the familiar rage rise again. "What?"

The boy waved his hand at the courtiers. "They are all kneeling. Only you and I stand. So you and I must be kings." He smiled.

This was more than Prince Pranna could bear. He leapt to his feet and drew his sword. The blade trembled with his anger.

"Stop!" Souvannaroth held up his hand. The Prince restrained himself. "Someday you will be King," Souvannaroth told his son, "and you will need to use your magic."

The Prince nodded. "Yes, Father. This insolent one isn't worth the sacrifice." He sheathed the blade, hard enough that the hilt rang when it struck the scabbard.

He gets his temper from his mother, the King thought before saying, "I will deal with him myself." But then the King remembered his own sacrifice of magic to save the boy, and once again became angry at the indignities he had suffered for such a fool of a peasant. So be it. He would make this very unpleasant indeed for the boy. "Court Wizard!" he called.

The Court Wizard rose and took a step forward. The boy looked at him, unimpressed.

The rage was rising again. Souvannaroth wrung his hands and said, "Change him into a dung beetle."

"As you wish, my King," said the Court Wizard, in that voice he used when he doubted the King's wisdom. He began to chant in Sanskrit.

The King looked at the boy with satisfaction. "Although you will become a dung beetle, your years will be the same as a man's. You will have much time to ponder your foolishness, and the sad state to which it brought you."

The boy looked back at him in a way that made clear his disbelief. The Court Wizard's chant wafted on the steaming afternoon air, and everyone became drowsy as he droned on. Even the birds fell silent.

A few minutes later, the Court Wizard finished the incantation with a flourish. The boy watched him, still insolently human. "Ten thousand pardons, Majesty,” the Wizard sputtered. “I do not understand. The words were correct."

"It's time for me to go home now," Nak said. He took two steps before the Prince and the Captain of the Guard seized him by the arms. They looked to the King for instruction.

Souvannaroth did not dare allow the boy to go free. If he returned to his village, everyone would know that he had defied the King and suffered no penalty for it. Soon the whole province would cease to fear their King. "Bring him back to the palace with us," the King commanded. "I will cast the spell myself when I am ready. In the meantime," he added, fixing his gaze on the boy, "you will be my slave."

King Souvannaroth expected Nak to collapse into tears at least, once it became apparent that he would never see his family or his village again, but this troublesome boy would not grant him even that small satisfaction. He spoke not at all, but merely looked everything over with the same silent stare that might have been curiosity or disdain. The King could feel the anger rising in him again, like steam in a kettle. His hunting day had been ruined. It was as if the trickster god had sent this unpunishable boy to mock him.

If Souvannaroth's anger was steam, then the Prince's was fire. Three times on the way home, Prince Pranna had struck the boy for some imagined slight, but it had no more effect on him than had the Court Wizard's spell.

At the palace, Nak was placed in the charge of Den, the master slave. The King then turned his attention to the vexations of the Court and did his best to forget the boy.

He found he could not. Too often he would come across Nak at his labors - sweeping floors, dusting the statues in the temple, cleaning the tables after dinner. And each time he saw the boy, the rage would return.

Once Souvannaroth almost tripped over Nak when he was scrubbing the stone floor. The boy scoured with vigor as he sang one of the folk tunes of the Mekongk people. Souvannaroth spat upon the floor, then made Nak clean that up as well, but this did nothing to change either of their moodsimprove his mood.

A few days later, the King was passing judgment in his throne room when a malcontent from the town of Thalabarivat was brought before him. That town was the source of many troubles. It was the home of a clan of traders who dealt dishonestly with their neighbors and the tax collectors. The man before him was a son of that clan and had been caught attempting to bribe a soldier to avoid paying his tax.

The King glared at the troublemaker. "Do you have anything to say for yourself?"

The man lifted his head in defiance. "You are a thief, not a king. A robber in fancy dress. We pay our taxes and receive cruelty and oppression in return. Who are you to judge me, or any of my clan?"

The King's left temple began to throb. "Just last month, a man from your town and of your clan stood where you stand today. He had killed his baby daughter--and I see from the look on your face that you recall the incident." The King was so angry now he had to stop and take a deep breath before continuing. "You may also remember that the fathers of your clan tried to conceal the crime, and threatened the peasants if anyone bore witness. It was only because one old woman dared to whisper in the ear of one of my soldiers that the crime was revealed and punished." The King leaned forward and smiled. "I turned him into a lizard."

The prisoner bolted for the door, but the guards subdued him with little difficulty and brought him before the throne once again. The people of Thalabarivat considered lizard meat a delicacy.

"Without taxes, there would be no soldiers, no laws, and killers of infants would go unpunished. I therefore deem your crime as vile as child murder. And so, the punishment shall be the same." The King rose, and spoke in a rapid, clipped Sanskrit. A bright light flashed, blinding everyone in the room. When they could see again, the prisoner was gone. On the stone floor where he had stood, a small lizard ran in circles, seeking escape.

"Take him back to Thalabarivat and release him in the marketplace," the King commanded. A soldier picked up the helpless creature and left the chamber. If the prisoner were unlucky, one of his own clan would cook him up and serve him on a stick at some market stall. If he were lucky, he would spend the rest of his life - of human length - scurrying around what was once his home town, living in perpetual terror of being found. A fitting punishment, the King deemed.

The thought of punishments brought the slave boy to mind. "Bring Nak to me," he commanded. "My magic has returned, and it is time I disposed of him as well."

Half an hour, and several variations of the man-to-dung-beetle spell later, Souvannaroth gave up in frustration. Nak remained human, kneeling before the King, infuriatingly unaware that the amount of magical energy that had just washed over him ought to have been enough to change an entire village of insolent boys into as many stinking insects.

"Let me kill him, Father," begged the Prince.

The King turned to his son, saw the anger in the Prince's face, and had an idea. And so he ordered that Nak would henceforth be the Prince's servant. "Spill not one drop of his blood," the King warned his son. "Break no bones. It will be ill for your karma if you do. Otherwise, you may deal with him as you like."

Pranna took the slave boy's ear between his thumb and forefinger and pulled him out of the throne room as the King watched with satisfaction. Even so, word would surely spread of the slave boy whom the King could not punish, and others might be tempted to defiance. A king who is not feared is not king.

"Court Wizard!” he called, “Find out what makes that boy unaffected by our magic. And then find a way to defeat it."

Two weeks later, King Souvannaroth sat upon his throne, listening distractedly to a delegation from the northwest district who were petitioning for relief from heavy rains that were ruining that season's rice crop. The King sighed. To use magic to benefit honest peasants was always preferable to punishing villains and rascals, yet today he found himself too weary to take up such a task. The number of lawbreakers was growing, and despite his best efforts to devise memorable punishments, it seemed two new criminals appeared before him for every one he dispatched. Had word of the insolent slave boy spread so quickly?

He had heard of a wizard-king in the faraway Ming Empire who dealt with his enemies by turning them into concubines and keeping them in a well-guarded harem. To change a man into a woman would take less effort than man to dung beetle or man to snake. Souvannaroth had even raised this possibility with the Queen.


Souvannaroth suddenly realized that the delegation had finished and were waiting for an answer. "Very well," he said. "We shall see what we can do about your drought."

"Flood, my lord," the Lord Chamberlain politely corrected him.

"Whatever," replied the King irritably. He stood. The simple northwesterners watched awestruck as the King cast the most potent spell he could manage. Though it might impress the ignorant, Souvannaroth knew the spell was not as strong as it should have been. It might have no effect at all. But he would not betray his doubts to these rustics; he dismissed them with empty promises that the rains would have ended before they could complete their journey home.

Look what that boy has reduced me to, the King thought as he watched the delegation leave. "Are there more petitioners?"

"Several," said the Lord Chamberlain reluctantly.

The King sighed wearily. "Have them return tomorrow. I am retiring to my chamber. Tell Den I wish to see him."

"How is the boy Nak?"

"Very well, Your Majesty," the master slave replied. If the old slave perceived the pain this news brought to his King, he did not show it. "He is a steady, cheerful worker. I wish I had a few fives more just like him."

"Where is he right now?"

"In the laundry house, washing the Prince's bedclothes. If it pleases Your Majesty, I could-"

"Leave me. Tell the Court Wizard I need to speak to him at once."

When the Court Wizard arrived, the King asked him, "Have you found me a way to make a dung beetle of that boy yet?"

"Not yet. I am sorry." Noting the King's frustration, he added, "Surely one peasant boy is not so important that Your Majesty need trouble himself-"

"Do you think I have a choice?" roared the King. "No man is ruler over his own passions, not even a king! I have done everything in my power to degrade and humiliate him, and he seems as cheerful as ever. Harsher punishments are denied to me, and even you cannot tell me why." The Court Wizard fell into an embarrassed silence. The King fumed for a moment, but then a thought struck him. "I wish you to cast that spell of seeming on me. Make me look like another slave boy, that I may approach him and learn his secret."

The Court Wizard looked dubious, but of course he obeyed.

Souvannaroth stumbled his way down the sloppy stone steps into the laundry house, under the unfamiliar weight of the straw basket he bore atop his head. Nak was kneeling by the edge of the spring-fed pool, soaking the Prince's sheets and singing a cheery old folk song about a visitation from the monkey god, "When Hanuman Came to Town."

To his surprise, Souvannaroth remembered some of the song from his own childhood and joined in for two verses. Then his memory failed him. Nak laughed at the lapse, and Souvannaroth laughed with him.

"I don't know you," Souvannaroth-in-disguise said to him. "Are you new here? You seem very happy, but one seldom sees the newly enslaved in such high spirits."

The boy shrugged. "I work no harder in the palace than I did in my village, and I eat much better. Why should I not be happy?"

"But I am told you serve the Prince, and he has...they say he has a terrible temper."

The boy agreed with a nod. "Sometimes he strikes me. But not so often as my father did. And if I speak politely to the Prince and touch my head to the floor when he passes, it pleases him well enough. At home, neither humility nor pleading could ever stay my father's hand."

"But even so, don't you miss your family? Your friends?"

Nak grinned. "So long as I have someone to sing 'When Hanuman Came to Town' with me, I have friends enough."

The King lay in bed at midday. The curtains of his bedchamber were closed; he wanted no sunshine to interrupt his misery. Unfortunately, the Lord Chamberlain and the Court Wizard could not be made to go away.

"Please, Majesty," the Lord Chamberlain begged. "The Court is in chaos. We have three prisoners to be sentenced, and the northwesterners have returned to beg for food. And a hundred lesser matters. You must come."

"He is happy in my own palace, and I am not," sighed the King. He looked at the Court Wizard. "It is insufferable. I want him made into a dung beetle. I insist he be made into a dung beetle. When will you find a way?"

The Court Wizard looked fearful. "I regret that the thing cannot be done, Majesty."

"Cannot?" Souvannaroth sat up. "Cannot? Who are you, to tell a King what he can or cannot do?"

The Court Wizard wilted, but the Lord Chamberlain said simply, "He is your Court Wizard, Majesty. It is one of his duties to inform Your Majesty when a thing cannot be done."

This was true enough. The King fell back into his bed in defeat. "Why can it not be done?" he asked the ceiling.

"The boy has a remarkable amount of karma," the Court Wizard explained. "His life has been harsh, but he suffers without complaint. He blames no one. He harbors ill will toward none. This has earned him a level of karma seldom found outside a monastery. Karma is to magic as weight is to muscle. To attempt to transform this boy into a dung beetle would be like a man trying to lift an elephant with his bare hands. It cannot be done."

"He mocks me," said the King. "His very existence mocks and torments me. Surely that has cost him karma."

The Court Wizard looked uncomfortable. "I do not think the gods see it that way, Majesty."

The King closed his eyes and groaned. "Even the gods mock me." He lay there for several minutes, saying nothing. The Lord Chamberlain and the Court Wizard stood by the bed, shifting uncomfortably, wondering what to do. At last, the King spoke again. "What about the spell of seeming, Court Wizard? Can the boy's appearance be changed?"

"As long as his look is kept reasonably human, I should think so. Shall I give him a horribly disfigured appearance for you?"

"Don't try to cheer me up," said the King. "I have something else in mind. I want you to make him look like me."

And so the King offered the boy Nak the chance to rule the province for a day in the King's place. Being ignorant of the ways of kings, the boy accepted the offer.

The following morning, the boy Nak held Court as king. Souvannaroth and the Lord Chamberlain concealed themselves among the petitioners and watched.

The first case was the three prisoners, more deceivers from that merchant clan in Thalabarivat. Souvannaroth would have changed them all into lizards, and then would probably have been too tired to render any further judgments this day. The boy ordered the prisoners released.

"Madness," the Lord Chamberlain whispered in Souvannaroth's ear.

"What can you expect, from a boy who doesn't recognize a king?"

"Allow him to carry on like this, and he will wreck the province. The merchants of Thalabarivat will raise an army and you will find it at your gate."

The Lord Chamberlain was concerned, but Souvannaroth only smiled. Relief from the burdens of Court, for even one day, gave him a peace he hadn't felt since, well, since singing "When Hanuman Came to Town."

"If they do, we will flee and they will kill the boy."

The Lord Chamberlain did not see the humor in it. "You assume we will have warning."

"Yes, I see your point. Very well. Have those men followed, and let me know what they get up to."

Nak next decided several minor cases. He had a shrewd sort of peasant wisdom, enough to keep the Lord Chamberlain silent and Souvannaroth nodding in approval. Then came the delegation of northwesterners. Souvannaroth's spell had had no effect, and their crop had washed away. Now they were petitioning for rice from the royal granary to avert a famine.

"Release whatever amount of rice they need," Nak commanded.

But Majesty," said the Royal Treasurer, "that will cost us more than half our reserve. This early in the season, we cannot know whether other districts may experience worse shortfalls. Feed the northwesterners today, and twice as many may starve next month."

"May?" asked the leader of the northwesterners. "You speak in possibilities. The suffering in our district is real. It happens as we speak. We have pregnant women and nothing to feed them. We have--"

"And next week, a delegation from the south may arrive, describing worse hardships," the Royal Treasurer insisted.

Nak looked back and forth between them, wordlessly. At last, the Royal Treasurer pressed him for a decision. "I...I...," he stammered. He looked back and forth at the two of them again. "I will decide tomorrow." He all but fled the throne room, as the leader of the northwesterners shouted after him that children would die while the King dithered. The Royal Treasurer had had enough, and punches flew. The Guard had to intervene to break up the melee.

Souvannaroth smiled.

"What will you do about the famine in the northwest?" Nak asked. He and the King were in the King's private chamber.

"You were wise to defer the decision to me, since it seems you had not yourself the strength to make it," the King told him. "The Royal Treasurer was quite correct. I will give them nothing."

"Even though the famine is your fault?"

The remark caused the King a moment of anger, but it passed. He reminded himself that the boy was ignorant. "I do what I can to make good weather for the peasants, but it is difficult magic. I may end a drought in one district, but bring floods to another. There is so much that needs be done, and my magic is not unlimited."

"Is this kind of decision one a king must often make?"

"Every day," the King told the boy.

The boy knelt and touched his head to the floor. "Forgive me, Majesty. I did not understand what it means to be king, and in my lack of understanding, I treated you with disrespect. I am sorry."

Souvannaroth felt as if clouds had broken after a long storm, and the first rays of the warming sun were for him alone. The boy's apology was more satisfying than changing him into a dung beetle could ever have been. "Get up," he told the boy. "I grant you your freedom. The Captain of the Guard will issue you proper clothes and food for the journey."

"Journey? To where? Where shall I go?"

"Wherever you like," said the King. "You are free."

"Then I will return to my village."

"But you said--" the King began, surprised. "I mean, I have heard that you were not happy there."

"I was not," said the boy, "but where else can I go?"

"Two judgments, Majesty," the Lord Chamberlain announced when Souvannaroth next arrived at the throne room to hold Court. "The first is a clear case of sedition--"

"He looks familiar."

"If Your Majesty recalls, he is one of the three men the boy - that is, Your Majesty - released three days ago. No sooner had he left the palace when he began speaking sedition against Your Majesty once more. Fortunately, one of the soldiers ordered to follow them overheard his treason."

The familiar feeling of rage came to the king again. "Ingrate!" he shouted. A moment later, after the prisoner was a tasty lizard, he thought to ask the Lord Chamberlain, "What about the other two?"

The Lord Chamberlain fidgeted. "It seems there is nothing else to report, Your Majesty. The other two have returned to their town and trouble Your Majesty’s peace no more."

"Two out of three? Perhaps they were moved by his - by my mercy."

The next case was a cutpurse from the capital market. A gibbon, the King decided, in light of the nonviolent nature of the crime. He wished he didn't have to go through this so often. "Your sentence is-"

Two out of three.

"Your sentence is to report to the stable, where you shall be given my own steed, the swiftest in the land. You shall ride the River Road north until you find a boy of about fourteen years traveling on foot and alone. You shall tell him that his King requires him and bring him to me at once."

The cutpurse stared at the king in bewilderment.

"After you do this, you will be released and the Royal Treasurer will pay you one hundred riel for your services. Return with the boy before sunset tomorrow, and the Royal Treasurer will pay you an additional one hundred riel."

The cutpurse dashed out of the throne room, headed for the stable.

Next, the King summoned the Captain of the Guard. "Send two of your fastest riders after that delegation from the northwest. They left only yesterday, so the riders should be able to reach them by this evening. Tell them to return to the palace. Then tell the Royal Treasurer I need to speak to him about opening the granary."

And so it came to pass that two Kings ruled in Stung Treng province: Souvannaroth and Nak. They came to be called Sdech Som and Sdech Bompleich: the King of Justice and the King of Mercy. All first offenders were brought to the King of Mercy, who would talk to them about their crime and release them without punishment, but with a warning that the next time, they would face the King of Justice.

Most heeded the warning. Those who did not were brought to the King of Justice, who dispatched them as before, and the stories of their fates would be recounted by the King of Mercy as part of his warning to the next offenders.

Because the King of Justice had fewer punishments to mete out, he was able to devote more attention to the needs of the peasants: rain and drought, insect plagues, bird migrations. The province prospered. When a district's harvest fell short, there was more than enough in the overflowing granaries to make up the lack.

The Kings were beloved by the people, which meant fewer prisoners, since fewer defied the Kings, and those who did were often punished by the peasants themselves, which meant even more time for beneficial magic, and ever larger harvests. Tax revenues increased enough to hire a second Court Wizard, which made the province richer still.

Other provinces grew jealous of Stung Treng. Four years later, the king of Kratie made war on the Kings of Stung Treng. The King of Justice personally commanded the provincial soldiers in a decisive campaign that routed the forces of Kratie. Stung Treng annexed one of Kratie's districts as reparation.

The people of that district were unhappy at first, and felt much bitterness toward the new Kings, for many of their sons had died in that war. So the King of Mercy moved his court to that district. Much of Stung Treng's surplus went to feed the hungry, pension the families, and dig new irrigation canals. The weather improved. Soon peasants in the new district were heard to say that the annexation was perhaps a blessing.

In time, the King of Justice died, and his son took his place, adopting the name Souvannarith, in honor of his father. Both Kings married and had sons. It became custom that the Prince of Mercy serve the Prince of Justice during their childhoods, so that the one would learn humility, and the other, forbearance.

In time, the whole Empire would hear of the unusual rule in Stung Treng. In Angkor Thom, the Imperial capital, some even dared whisper that it would be better if a second throne were added to the Grand Palace. One day, a member of the Emperor's Court dared speak this thought aloud in the Imperial Presence. He was, of course, instantly dismissed. The Emperor declared, "No such nonsense shall be spoken as long as I am on the throne!"

The Court took the Emperor at his word, and in quiet whispers and secret meetings, laid their plans.

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