The King is not often awake. This afternoon, he sits on his throne in the Sun Room, watching dust motes in the golden light. The great glazed windows are narrow and twenty feet tall. The King's advisors, retainers, courtiers, and guards stand around him. Nobody speaks until spoken to.
On the flagstones before the throne stands a ragged man patiently tossing and catching a simple gold ring. The guards to either side of this man stand without moving. After an hour, the King speaks.
"What have you come to ask of me?"
The ragged man bows.
"Half your kingdom, Sire."
The King smiles a small cold smile, turns his eyes up to the great windows, and thinks it over. Nobody else reacts. Minutes pass, and the King looks down at the ragged man.
"I feel sure that you offer me something delightful in return."
The ragged man bows again. "Life, Sire. If I should drop this ring..."
The King looks lazily at the man for a long moment. "It would be the end of me? I am not so easily ended."
"It would be the end of you, Sire, and of me, and of half your kingdom besides."
The King nods to the guards. They behead the man instantly. As his head falls, the King leans forward and snatches the ring out of the still air.
The guards drag the body off and drabs come to swab away the blood. The King sits back in his throne, idly tossing and catching the ring. With his free hand, he motions to his Wizard. The Wizard steps forward silently.
"Is it true, what he said, that miserable extortionist?"
"If I may handle the ring, Sire...?"
The King tosses the ring to the Wizard, who catches it deftly. He throws and catches, throws and catches. The King watches lazily while the light from the great windows travels two feet across the floor, and then the Wizard speaks.
"I believe it to be true, Sire."
"Then don't let it drop."
The King has grown weary. He motions to his courtiers and retainers and proceeds to his Chamber, at the top of the great Keep, where the drapes are always drawn shut. As he lays himself down, they turn silently and depart.
Five hundred years later, early in the afternoon, the King awakens in his Chamber. The tapestries on the walls are faded and ragged, the drapes are dust, and there is no sign of his retainers. The King did not expect this, but a powerful and methodical man allows very little to startle him. He descends the long spiral staircase, coughing a little on the dust. The courtyard is overgrown with brambles. He makes his way across to the chapel and climbs the great stone stairs to the Sun Room above.
By the throne, the Wizard stands as he stood five hundred years ago, tossing the ring in the air and catching it, tossing and catching. The King smiles and utters a quiet greeting, to which the Wizard does not reply. The King's brow darkens and he crosses the room to face the man. Closer, he sees that the Wizard's face is dry, dusty, and cracked; his eye sockets are empty and the flesh has worn entirely away from the fingers of his right hand, the hand with which he endlessly tosses and catches and tosses the ring.
Sadly, the King touches the Wizard's sleeve, and the Wizard dissolves into dust. The ring falls, rings sharply and clearly as it lands, and bounces then rolls to a corner of the room, where it lies still.
For an hour, the King contemplates the ring and the soft dust that was his friend the Wizard.
The King returns to his Chamber to sleep.