A tiny community of vagrants under a bridge was visited by a newcomer: a man whose face was so wrapped in hair and scars that it was barely a face at all. He came limping, begging for food, and they gave him lumpy soup in return for the sharp, cheap whisky he brought in a paper bag. When he got his food, he sat with it – didn’t speak for hours. The vagrants forgot he was even there for a while, when he sat outside the circle when they sang to accordion music and shouted and laughed. The night strangled the evening, and when the vagrants were subdued by the drink and the exhaustion, they settled on barrel chairs and told stories of the horrifying world over the bridge and in the cities, where few of them had set foot. The newcomer joined the circle.
“I have a story about the cities.” He said. His mouth barely moved when he spoke, like a puppet. “About a King.”
“What’s a King?” said a half-asleep child. The newcomer pulled out an old coin from his rags and pointed out the rusted profile of a semi-handsome man. “Oh,” said the child. “The Pennyface.”
“The King was a vile, greedy man. His grip was tight, and his kingdom was massive. He swindled and stole land from farmers and barons, and every foot of earth he took jingled like pennies in his purse.”
“I was a farmer.” Said a particularly old vagrant. “That King took my land and slaughtered all of my livestock. He razed my fields, and built a grand fortress on the scorched earth.” He pointed to the distance, and they all saw the ruins of an old waste structure peeking glumly from the horizon. The newcomer paid it no notice.
“He took the land, but he never left his castle.” He continued. “He thought his subjects the world over worshipped him as a god – he brought culture to the savages, he brought architecture to the woodlands. But one morning, he heard someone shout from the plazas miles below, up to his window.
“’Free the people! My family in the next town is being starved because of your gluttony!’ Obviously, the King thought the man was an ungrateful little monster – he was making the next city useful, growing food for the castle, and they should have felt honoured. And so, he had the man killed.”
Some of the men at the back grumbled.
“Though he knew the man was in the wrong, the King stayed up all night thinking. Surely, everybody loved him – why would anyone oppose him? Who would hate the amiable King?
“In the morning, he was told by a messenger of a brutal coup that had happened in the next town, where the executed man had come from – the people had been so angered by the execution that they tore the authorities to shreds and broke free in a single night. The city had slipped from the King’s tight grip like soap.”
“What’s a soap?”
“But it didn’t matter, a town of ungrateful savages didn’t deserve to be a part of the King’s world, and he left them to destroy themselves. Surely, he thought, the rest of his kingdom loved him, so it didn’t matter. He thought that, until a man in black came through his window that night with knives so big they could have been his arms. He whispered about how he was avenging his subjugated kingdom, miles and miles away, and readied himself to snip the King’s head clean off. Then the guards burst in, dragged the silent assassin kicking and screaming from the King’s neck and tossed him out of the window.” The newcomer scratched the scruff on his throat and swallowed. “The next morning, as it happened, the kingdom the assassin had spoken about had managed to secede – an underground rebellion had risen from the sewers and snapped the necks of the guards and pulled the war machines into scrap.
“The King had lost yet another part of his kingdom, and he was beginning to realise that he wasn’t as loved as he thought. Before he could even begin to make amends (and begin to visit his kingdom personally, and begin to make his people love him the way they thought they did), each town, city and hamlet popped from his grasp without fanfare. He was left only with his castle, his staff, and regiment of guards inside of it. All he knew, all he trusted.
“But what he didn’t remember was that in the week previous, he had cut the guards’ pay to only 50% of what it used to be, and his servants had been told they now had to bring their own cleaning supplies in. They all held a vicious mutiny that night, when the King was in bed, and they stormed up to his room. The staff of one thousand all stormed upstairs. They stormed into his room – every one of the thousand – and they picked him up and jostled him around and punched him in the face. He was still in his pyjamas when they tossed him out of the window.”
“So what happened to him?”
“I don’t know, they didn’t find his body. But he’d lost everything, he ended up with less than all of you. Even with very little, most of you are happy.”
The oldest vagrant laughed. They accepted him into their community, they patted him on the back, drank his whisky and told more stories. Then they all went to sleep in their scrap huts, just like the newcomer waited for them to do. And when everyone was gone, he crept into the homes of the elders and cut their throats with a piece of broken glass, silently. And when he was sure he was the oldest one there, he sat on a throne of old wood and waited until morning, where he would begin to lead the vagrant community. The bridge was his new kingdom. He wouldn’t make the same mistakes this time.