The King’s Cut
Like many of the ambitious young men in Spartalia who came of age during the Crab Years, I have spent the first few weeks of several Januarys looking for some strange things. I always started immediately after the King’s January 2nd announcement. We’ve finished celebrating the New Year, and the wooden skulls and bright flags are back in the attics and our welts are healing from beating the year’s spirits from our bellies. The lone horseman races by at dizzying speeds, dirt and grass flying high behind, and throws a small leather bag filled with two red roses and a gilded envelope on the doorstep of the registered participants. As he rides away on his white steed, he yells “Spartacando,” hanging on the final “O” in a deep voice, until he’s just a dot on the horizon. The children and dogs are the first to run onto the muddy, rutted roads of our village. They bark, cheer and dance, and then a party erupts as everyone rushes out and neighbors greet each other, excited with news of Spartacondo.
When the envelope was for me I was so excited I barely noticed the golden griffin crests on the vermilion envelope or its subtle pear scent. I just tore into it, eager for the thrill of seeing my name printed next to the king’s official signature. As I stood in the garden of our simple stone home, I saw my father come out of his smithy shop. The smoke drifted and curled toward the snow-topped hills like the tail of a sleeping cat, as the sun set in the pale orange and light blue sky. He was tall and rangy, with long arms and a wide but thin chest, and wavy gray hair. He was at least seven staffs tall, a full staff taller than I could ever hope to be. I’d tried to apprentice in his shop when I was 13, and even though I was strong for my age I couldn’t stand the heat or the constant banging. I just liked the smell of the metals and the forge, and listening to the men who came, describing the tools and implements they needed my father to make.
On the day he told me, I was eagerly sweeping the bits of iron and coal from his work area. He walked behind me, and put his gloved hand on my head and messed up my hair like I was five again. I laughed, and continued my chore. “Joel, I just don’t think this life is for you. Your tastes, your interests, I think they lean to something a little fairer. We’re sending you to the service institute this fall.” I ran inside and cried, wondering if I’d really made it all that obvious.
But on the day the king’s announcement arrived he came out of his shop and removed his thick leather gloves, placing them in the pockets of his blackened leather apron. He put his warm hand on my shoulder and said, “Are you sure you’re up for it again? You were dangerously close to the cut last year.”
I stood up straight and pointed to the signature. “The king has invited me, and I don’t even have to think about it. I rather die than not do it. I’ve only got three chances left.”
“Yes, I know.” He sighed and shook his head, but there wasn’t much he could do. He’d twice been one of The Hundred when he was my age, and still told stories of how in his final event he’d had to drink four quarts of pickle juice then swim to the bottom of a deep pond to fetch a brass ring.
In my first season, it was easy to acquire the necessary items. I just needed a 16-pound cannon ball and a Spanish-Spartalian dictionary. The next year it was more of a challenge, as I needed a fire resistant wool suit, four bullwhips and a book on the mountain monk’s deep breathing techniques. In my third year it was easy again; just a barrel of mink sausage and a good suit of armor.
But the fourth year was the toughest. It took me three weeks of searching the hills and canyons in the bitter cold before I caught the right sheep. The king had several thousand released from his private stock during the first few weeks of the year, but no one realized how quickly they would wander so deep into the mountains and how much of our time it would waste tracking and trapping them. Ten Spartos died in that first week, just looking for their sheep, either from exposure or falling into the ravines. The rich ones could buy their sheep in the markets, but the rest of us were left to work for our entry. After I finally found my sheep I easily procured the small iron balls and Book of Jentor.
But before I continue any further, dear reader, you might still be a little perplexed as to the true nature of our beloved Spartacondo. I forgive your disbelief, perhaps even outright suspicion, that this is nothing more than a figment of my imagination. News and details of our little island nation doesn’t reach every corner of the globe, especially during this time of such great wars, and even if you have heard of what happens in our land you might not have believed it, since nothing like it exists in your country. But believe me, it is all too real, and the reason I live among you today as a lucky ambassador of Spartalia.
As I mentioned before, on the first day of each year the king announces the details of the upcoming Spartacondo. It concludes each Summer Solstice in our great stadium, and a week of grand parades and raucous festivals precedes the great event. The stadium is our largest structure, built by our best eunuchs. It holds nearly 50,000 people, which must be nearly half the capitol’s population.
Some have said it’s the most useless and decadent event in the world, and even though it seems we all agree, you would have trouble finding anyone in Spartalia who cares. While the exact details are deeply guarded secrets, everyone agrees that the king chooses the events based on his interests and abilities of the moment, so he can do well in the competition. He never expects to win, considering he’s nearly 40 years old and competes against dedicated young Spartos, but our very nation would collapse if he didn’t fare well in the event and every effort is made to ensure he competes fairly, like the rest of us. The year he discovered archery we had a competition to see who could shoot the farthest. The year his brothers visited he held a grand wrestling tournament. The year he studied with the monks he challenged us to hold our breaths under water. He always adds a mental component as well, like a spelling bee or geography quiz, which seems to make the women happy. I prefer the more manly events. The more physical, the better.
In case you think this is just a silly exercise designed merely to distract our little nation, here are some of the details. 1000 young men are allowed to enter each year. Most are from middle-class families, but a number of the poorest are allowed to participate for free, a chance to better their lots in life. The top 100 finishers, or The Hundred as we call them, receive a 10,000-rubino prize, enough to make them comfortable for several years to come. Those who place in the middle 800 receive nothing but the adulation of our nation, and a bit of extra attention from the girls. This was enough for me! It is the Bottom Hundred who really give the event its unusual drama, and make this the most exciting spectacle in the world. Those of the bottom hundred who survive the event are given the option of leaving Spartalia for a ten-year ambassadorial mission or joining the ranks of our beloved eunuchs. This may seem like a harsh choice to you, but even those who choose The Cutting are well respected within the community and don’t seem to mind their lot.
In my final year, the king came up with a competition more involved than usual. My training went well, and despite my studies at the Service Institute, I felt I was prepared.
We began the first day with a two-mile morning swim in the icy waters of Big Bay. The king began by removing his robe and giving a moving talk about Spartalia and the young men he loved so much, weeping and touching many of us tenderly as he walked among us. He then dove into the water and Spartacondo had begun! I finished about 500th, and was happy with that placing since I considered it to be my worst event. Apparently, the king had a large pool built in his castle during the winter, and the eunuchs poured warm water into the feeding pipes and he trained in comfort all spring. The rest of us trained in the frigid waters of our lakes and rivers. Our climate is moderate here near the sea, but the king still had a large advantage with a warm pool, and finished securely in about 400th place.
The next morning began the quizzing on the royal family history from the Book of Jentor. Since the royal family has nearly 100 living members, and their reign has been documented for over a thousand years, this required hundreds of hours of study. I didn’t mind however, since it was part of my coursework for the Service Institute anyway. Since the king was born in the family and has studied the history nearly everyday since he could speak, I’m surprised he doesn’t make this part of Spartacondo every year. I scored 80 percent on my quiz, in 711th place, which surprised me considering that I’d been studying so much.
Then, in the mid-day we had the sheep carry. We raced in timed heats, carrying our sheep around the stadium track three times. I started off quite well, and was happy with my performance until my sheep decided to defecate on my neck—my greatest fear. I had to put her down to clean us both, and as I did that she broke free from her ropes and I had to catch her, retie her and start running again. At the end of the third lap I sheared her and we collapsed together in a pile, spent in our misery. I ended the event in 949th place.
There’s always a surprise event at the very end. The pundits and journalists are always speculating what it will be next year, mere minutes after the closing ceremony. The king has been seen at the pubs a lot this year, so perhaps it will be a drinking competition? Or he was spotted climbing trees in the Bulbo Forest in the fall, so perhaps it will be a climbing competition? But, we found out what the small iron balls were for. We had to see how far we could spit them. I’d never been much of a spitter, so I placed 922nd, and I ended the day 930th overall.
I had one week to decide if I was to be cut, or leave our fair land. Well, as you might suspect dear reader, I chose to leave on a ten-year mission.
Those who choose to leave have to attend the cutting ceremony, supervised by the king in his castle a week after Spartacondo. For most of us it was the first time we had ever been in the castle. I was amazed by it’s beauty and grandeur. The Cutting began with a somber ceremony in which all of the bottom 100 disrobed in front of the king. He inspected and touched many of us closely, to determine our health. I was surprised that he told ten of the young men to go into another room to await a special ceremony, but I later learned that the king wanted to perform The Cutting himself for these select few. I almost think it would have been worth it, just to be able to meet with him personally.
The rest was too bloody and terrifying for me to recount. Let me just say that I am happy I chose my mission, instead of The Cutting.
So you see, dear reader, that is why I live in your country today as an agent at the Spartalian embassy. I hope this knowledge brings peace and greater understanding between our peoples.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
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