I was offered a kingdom and, without thinking about what the future might hold, I took it.
My kingdom was just over three feet long and stood to up to eight inches in places. The highest of these was a tower made of stone and brick, with a small, lonely window.
I lived there.
My kingdom had no walls, so I built walls.
I built bastions and turrets and barbicans and spires. I built a drawbridge.
I dug a moat, which smelled like sewage, but at least it kept the enemies out.
The moat smelled like sewage because it was filled with sewage. A system of pipes and ditches fed the moat with wastewater and runoff.
I hired an engineer. An ingenious man, with impeccable credentials. He built sewers. He built an aqueduct to bring water from a river in the mountains. He built a dam at one end of the moat, so that in seasons of much rain, the excess would spill into a creek in the woods. In this way, the plain that surrounded my kingdom was kept dry.
In theory, my kingdom could be picked up and moved at any time. In practice, it is difficult to move a kingdom that is surrounded by walls and a moat and filled with aqueducts and citizens besides.
After two wet seasons, my engineer presented me with plans for a roof. To keep the citizenry dry, he said. Not everyone could live in a tower with a spire over his head.
I agreed with my engineer, although a roof would make my kingdom even more difficult to move.
My engineer was an old man, but every morning under a smiling sun, he sat in the center of the kingdom to work his blueprints. The roof would be suspended by wires and covered at one end in glass, so that on clear nights, citizens could watch the stars.
Call it a star roof, my engineer said. He was feeble by this point, but his mind was still quick.
On the very morning that the last section of glass was to be fitted, my engineer expired. All agreed that the timing of his death was apt, even poetic. The citizens stood together under the glass section of the roof until the sun set and the sky darkened and the stars appeared, sparkling, one by one.
Look! someone shouted. The moon!
We agreed that this was a special evening, magical, an evening to remember for the rest of our lives.
* * *
After several years of fortification, I was asked what my kingdom did. What do you provide to the world at large?
It is my kingdom, I replied. What does it have to do with the world at large?
Everything has to do with the world at large. What does your kingdom bring to the table? What is your value proposition?
Without thinking, I said, Steam engines.
Steam engines! Very good. We will place an initial order for two. Provided that these function as designed, we will be back for more. We will send our friends! Yes, your kingdom shall be known as the land of steam power, the territory of pistons and grease, the city that powers the world.
I hired six new engineers to plan a system for the manufacture of steam engines. None of the six was as brilliant as my late engineer, but no matter. In the next year, we constructed an ironworks, three factories, and an assembly plant.
Soon, every soul in my kingdom was engaged in the production of steam engines.
* * *
It was a time of great prosperity and many births. Our factories could hardly keep up with demand. More and more steam engines, built to specification and shipped around the world! It was amazing to think of. Many days I stood at my window and watched horses march the drawbridge, hauling wooden carts filled with steam engines, across the plain, through the woods, beyond the mountains, off and away to the world at large.
Faster and faster my kingdom toiled, production increasing every month. Smoke rose in straight lines from my kingdom to the sky. The engineers had to puncture the roof in places in order to fit exhaust towers.
Every afternoon, a bell pitched like birdsong rang for shift change at the ironworks. A different bell, of a lower tone, rang for shift change at the assembly plant. Many days I stood in the center of my kingdom and sang as citizens scurried around me, from home to factory, and, slower, from factory to home.
My engineers visited the schools in order to locate those children who demonstrated exceptional outcomes in physics and mathematics, and so could be trained as successors. But each year, my engineers complained that fewer and fewer students met their standards.
What are they teaching in these schools? my engineers said. They did not intend to criticize my leadership, nor to decry the teachers' dedication. Simply put, they could not understand why no child seemed to know what he or she should.
Meanwhile my engineers collected each evening under the star roof, where by this time only bankers and plant managers lived. The engineers studied the crossbeams, the cables, the suspension mechanism. They marveled at the brilliance of my late engineer.
A genius, my engineers said. A virtuoso. They don't make them like that anymore.
* * *
One day, it was observed that the walls of my kingdom had become dark with soot. It was noted that food had lost much of its taste. Some complained of chest coughs. Others remarked on low birth weights. Some days, the sun was hardly visible.
The kingdom council met to discuss the problem of pollution.
I had appointed a kingdom council under advisement of the small men who collected around me and called themselves consultants. I did not like these men. I did not like their plans for my kingdom. It seemed to me that a man should be able to operate his kingdom on his own, should be able to do with his kingdom what he wants. It was his kingdom! He should be able to pick it up and move it if he likes.
But already I had acquiesced.
At first, the kingdom council comprised canny citizens who wore fine clothing and called for expert testimony. A doctor recommended the curtailment of production in order to study the effects of air quality on birth weight. An engineer presented diagrams of a new type of factory: cleaner, safer, more efficient.
Testimony went on for six months. After a time, two council members resigned. They were replaced by men who had tired of factory work, men who were timid and bitter.
The final piece of testimony came from an ordinary citizen, a woman. Her child's cheeks, she said, had been blue since the day he was born.
The citizen raised the child above her head for all to see. Indeed, his cheeks were as blue as a bruise.
And we have no choice! she cried. No choice but to live here, in this kingdom, where the babies are small and clouds blot the sun! Which of us ever asked to be born here? Which of us ever asked for this kingdom?
Her words upset me. I called the consultants to my tower. I did not like them, but at least they would not become emotional about pollution.
The consultants said that any production outage would be fatal to the kingdom's economy.
The consultants said that the installation of just one new factory would cost more than eight times the kingdom's gross product. You'd have to raise marginal tax rates by 12%.
The consultants claimed it was unclear that the haze had anything to do with production, much less with the color of the walls, the rattling coughs you heard everywhere. Could anyone say for sure that food had once tasted better? That the sky had been unclouded?
The data are unreliable. True measurement may be impossible.
But I remembered. I remembered days of deepest blue, days when the sun seemed to smile across my entire kingdom.
If anyone in your kingdom is unhappy, he or she is free to leave at any time.
And the consultants were correct. Ever since prosperity had come, the bridge tender had been instructed to allow all to pass freely in and out.
Just let that woman try it on her own. In the woods, on the wild plain. Think of the beasts. Think of winter in the mountains. See how far she gets.
I coughed. Is there nothing I can do?
The consultants bowed their heads. We are sorry. But the expense . . .
I looked out my small, high window.
There is one thing, someone said.
The consultants turned. He who spoke wore glasses and stood even shorter than the rest.
You can borrow against the kingdom.
* * *
It was called leverage. We were leveraging. Leverage meant that my consultants trekked to another kingdom to meet its consultants, and, later, invited that kingdom's consultants to my kingdom, in order to discuss terms and liabilities.
At first, the money went to a new factory. Then, the kingdom council decided that it would like to convene in a new building. The consultants said it was doable, we had leverage.
I understood very little of leverage. Meanwhile the consultants asked for authorization to construct several new restaurants. They needed places to dine with visitors.
Fine places. The best places. Places that will impress our creditors. Places that will say, the people of this kingdom are tasteful and vivacious and can be trusted.
By this time the kingdom council had split into two factions that did not speak to each other. By a slim margin, it approved the restaurants, and I signed the authorization. The restaurants would be funded by selling our debts to a smaller kingdom that lay in the mountains' high reaches. That kingdom was doing even worse than we, the consultants said.
* * *
Somehow, my kingdom went to war. It is hard now to remember why. I remember meetings in which war was discussed, meetings in which numbers were added and intelligence analyzed. Many citizens declared with gusto that they were for the war, the war was the right thing for the kingdom, it was about time we showed our might, our leadership. Others stood to argue that the war was unjust or unwinnable, but they did so in quiet voices, and no one listened.
On the day that I signed the authorization, a parade marched past the base of my tower. Citizens beat drums and carried flags. Children rode on their fathers' shoulders. Women raised their fists and cried obscure mottos. On that day I authorized the permanent closure of the drawbridge. Open passage, it was said, was a security liability.
We converted our newest factory to a munitions plant. Complaints about air quality seemed to fade. No one mentioned low birth weights.
At first, the war went splendidly. Then, our creditors began to demand payment. So we found new creditors. We hauled home the spoils of war: foreign coins, ancient artifacts, things that could be sold or traded.
People, too. We put prisoners to work in our factories.
Still, the war was expensive, and my consultants kept leaving for other kingdoms.
At night I stood at my window and stared through the haze to the plain beyond. At the horizon, I could almost see the light of battle. It wearied me to think of how many dead there might be.
What, I thought, might I have done with my life, if I hadn't taken a kingdom? I could have been a great singer, or a champion of falconry, or a lone, silent hunter who lived in the woods and took only what he needed to survive.
Many nights, a consultant arrived with a stack of papers to be signed. These were authorizations of all sorts: authorizations to deploy new weaponry, to elongate the compulsory tour of duty, to sell off assets to fund the next battle. I signed an authorization to imprison any citizen who circulated images of the war dead.
For the sake of morale, the consultant said. He polished his glasses with one of my towels.
One day, I asked this consultant whether it was truly necessary to sign each authorization, or if the kingdom council might do so in my stead. I was becoming old. I would not be here to sign paper forever.
The consultant told me that the kingdom council had been dissolved. It had been ineffective and, in these times, only the very worst desired to serve.
And what of the consultants?
I am the last, he said.
I studied his face a moment. He was very short. I almost thought I recognized him.
Well, then. I see. I turned to my window to watch what I could of the war.
* * *
Finally, I authorized the dismantling of the star roof.
On the day it was to happen, I traveled to that end of my kingdom. I wanted to say a few words of significance.
It has come time, I said. I am sad to see our star roof go.
We were lucky to have it as long as we did, the citizens said.
Yes, I said. And yet I am sad to see it go. The engineer who built it was the greatest of engineers. One of the greatest of men.
We have often heard his name, the citizens said.
This may be the loneliest day my kingdom has ever seen, I said.
Yet, the citizens said. They mounted ladders, wrenches and pry bars tucked into their belts. Seen yet.
Within a week, the star roof was dissembled and sold, piece by piece, to a dozen different buyers.
In this way, the next battle was funded.
* * *
One day, a woman entered my room. She walked with a cane and carried a box.
Put it there, I said, motioning to a small table. With the others.
There were others – other gifts, I mean – but they were old and covered in dust. With the war on, it did not seem right to open gifts.
She had come to speak with me about the future of the kingdom.
I had no time to speak of the future of my kingdom, I informed her. There was a war on, did she not realize that? There was strategy to think of, tactics to determine. Tough decisions that could be made only by a man of my experience, a man who had seen great changes, changes that had taught him wisdom and resilience, and he did not have time to speak with a doddering woman, thank you very much!
You are crying, the woman said.
I touched my cheek. She was right.
I have lived in this kingdom my entire life, the woman said. I have been a faithful citizen. A dutiful worker. Devoted and true.
I want this war to end. Enough have died.
I shook my head. It's not that simple, I said.
It is that simple. You sign a piece of paper.
There are the soldiers to consider. Must I tell them their sacrifice was in vain?
I realized I did not know.
I went on. The war was nearly over! The war was in its drawdown stages, security forces had been trained, our exit strategy was in place.
She shook her head, and in an instant, I recognized her.
I remember you. You are the woman who brought the boy with blue cheeks. You said that no one had asked to live in my kingdom. It was very upsetting to hear you speak like that! Where is your boy now?
He is a tailor, she said. He works near the war. He fashions jackets and trousers for soldiers to wear to town on their days off.
Soldiers have days off? I decided I must look into that. It did not seem quite right.
And what of your son's livelihood? I said. I do not think that ending the war would be very wise for him!
It is not my son who concerns me, the woman said. Although he will land on his feet. Considering that he survives, of course.
The woman looked at me a little while longer. It seemed she was waiting for something, but I could not figure out what that might be.
As she turned to leave, I felt a sudden panic.
Don't go! I shouted.
But already she had closed the door. Her cane sounded on the stairs, knocking each step with a hollow thump.
Outside, citizens were roasting meat and singing. Did they not know there was a war on?
Her gift sat on the table with the others. It was a box the length of my hand, wrapped hastily in old newspaper. Inside was a pen. I removed it, scrawled a few circles on a scrap of paper, signed my name.
It was a fine pen, with a good weight, and a grace to how it wrote.
This was the pen to end the war.
* * *
In the coming days, I took ill. I became very cold. So this is dying, I thought. Already?
I decided that it would be prudent to ruminate upon my life, to uncover what lessons might be learned. The consultants, the kingdom council, the great days of prosperity. My late engineer, and that first night under his star roof.
I had been offered a kingdom. I had done my best to build it, to make it a good kingdom, a safe kingdom, a prosperous and happy kingdom for the citizenry and for me.
I did all right, I decided, considering.
In the days that came, I dreamed. I dreamed that my kingdom was not in fact mine, had never been mine, and would soon be offered to another. Someone whose face I could not quite see, but who knew what he was doing.
And on that day I would leave by drawbridge and stand above my kingdom and know, finally, how a kingdom was meant to be.
A new, right kingdom for the world at large.
But of course that could not happen. Because a kingdom is offered once, and taking it means forever.
Glenn Lester lives in Kansas City, MO, where he teaches writing and literature at Park University. He earned his MFA in creative writing at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where he also worked as fiction editor for The Greensboro Review. Glenn's reviews and fiction have appeared in The Rumpus, Revolver, StorySouth, THE2NDHAND, and elsewhere. He is currently at work on a novel.