The Count is the Kingdom
A long, dark line appeared on the horizon. I kicked the mare into a trot, my heart racing. Perhaps I'd at last arrived at the end of the world and would be able to turn back toward home. I had begun to fear that I would never see my North again.
Last night I'd slept in another empty town. Rummaging in the abandoned store, I'd found only a stick of beef jerky and a couple stale chocolate bars. Lately, the thought that the world might never end obsessed me. I had left the king's territory months ago. For weeks now every settlement had been deserted, and I wondered if perhaps the end of the world simply meant there was no one left to count.
As we drew closer, the line became a great curving wall. I tried to swallow my disappointment. If not the end of my quest, perhaps there were people in need of counting on the other side.
For as long as anyone could remember, the king's wealth has been assessed in the living flesh of the people. Who we were was never as important as how many. I had always wanted to become a Census-Taker, one of the hundreds sent out annually to ascertain the realm. And this census was to be like no other.
The wall was constructed of standing logs lashed together, bark hanging in tatters like beggar's rags. I saw only one sentry. I dismounted and called out the official greeting.
"The count is the kingdom."
The sentry disappeared from his hidden perch without a word. Wood screamed against wood as some enormous gearworks inched one massive trunk aside.
I dropped the reins and approached the sentry who now stood in the narrow opening. His uniform was threadbare, and he'd neglected to fasten all but the middle button of his jacket.
I found the scarab's box in my coat pocket and slid the filigreed top back to let my living warrant and keeper of the count mount my hand. The insect feebly lifted a leg in what could only generously be considered a salute.
When the court magician presented these scarabs to the king, he promised that once these enchanted insects passed through the land they would possess a living record of everyone.
Determined to be one of only four Census-Takers to collect and deliver this perpetual count to the king, I begged my father, a courtier, to recommend me. He won my appointment despite his misgivings about the magician's promises.
"Another Census-Taker!" The sentry seemed delighted.
"Are you already counted, then?" Confused, I looked behind me at the sun touching the horizon. I had not strayed from my course. Had one of the other Census-Takers lost their way?
"Not entirely." The sentry's eyes fixed on the beetle. His mouth parted in silent wonder. The weathered wrinkles on his face became deep lines bathed in golden light. The scarab's normally black shell glowed bright as smelted metal. Waves of heat rippled off its back, warming our faces, yet my hand remained cool.
In our many months traveling together, never had it done this. Perhaps this was some terminal outpost, and his glow a sign that I could soon turn back toward home.
"There's a beauty." The sentry cupped his hands under mine as if to catch the beetle. As if I would drop this precious, golden creature.
"You sir, are the man to count us at last!" He opened his arms in a grand gesture. The frank delight in his voice made me wonder if he was touched. He seemed a strange choice to guard this wall.
I closed my hand around the scarab, returning us to the gathering darkness, and strode past him through the opening. Inside, thousands of hastily constructed dwellings crowded together just a few dozen feet from the wall. They stretched as far as I could see in any direction. Tents of every size and description were pitched among shanties built from whatever materials had come to hand. Dusty paths wound through loosely formed neighborhoods.
Everywhere people went about their business, throngs of them. The low patter of their conversations drifted up. Fine dust filled my nose. It stank of dried piss and animals living and cooked. I had never seen so much wealth in one place.
The sentry stood next to me, grinning.
"Shouldn't you be . . ." I indicated the wall looming, black and formless, behind us.
"Right, of course! To my post." He started to trot away. "You are the one to bring the count to the king."
I glanced down at my fist, still clasped around the beetle. A faint glow leaked out from between my fingers. I opened my hand, and his carapace faded to its usual glossy shine. I slipped the creature back into its box and dropped it into my pocket.
Unsure how to count such a gathering of people, I ventured into the settlement walking aimlessly as evening deepened to night. People drained off the paths to gather around fires. Everyone looked thin and worn, like refugees. Somewhere a child wailed. Confused and exhausted, I gave up any attempt to comprehend the layout of this place and ventured into the light and warmth of one of the local fires.
A girl in a carefully repaired dress tended to a rabbit on a spit. Children ran through the darkness arguing and laughing. A few men and women sat on upturned stumps or lounged on the ground. Their eyes flicked to the purple rank insignia on my cuffs that identified me as a counter, and silence solidified around me.
No one dared speak against the count, and rightly so. We flourished, the sum of us, under the king's beneficence, and in this way his wealth increased. Even so, counters were not always welcome. It didn't matter. Tonight, after so many months, I was again among people.
When the rabbit was cooked, the girl distributed it equally, including me without welcome or prejudice. When the meager meal hit my stomach, exhaustion overcame me, and I lay down on the bare earth. Before giving in to sleep, I slipped my hand into my pocket and found the box. At my touch, the creature's wings rattled against the wood. Perhaps he was regaining his vigor. I hoped so. In the morning we would have our work cut out for us.
I woke shivering, the fire dead. Somewhere beyond the encampment, the sun painted the sky a tentative blue. Last night's darkness had been a kindness to the conditions. The now-vacant tree stumps leaned forlornly this way and that. A crow watched a skinny, filthy dog dig the bones out of the ashes of the fire. People stirred behind the stained blankets that fluttered in their doorways.
I stood and retraced my steps until I rejoined a broader path. I had no idea where to start or if the scarab would even be able to comprehend the human wealth packed into this place. I tried asking some of the people I encountered about the other Census-Taker, but those who would speak to me claimed to know nothing.
By late morning, it was clear that this ad hoc city was vast, and I was lost. I got out the last of the jerky and made to bite off a morsel when a pair of boys shoved past me. The larger one brazenly grabbed the dried meat from my hand. He spun to face me, his cheek smeared with mud and his knuckles bloody.
"Counter, counter where have you fled?" The first boy delivered the line like a threat.
Then the other one joined in. "Counter, counter your scarab's all dead. Count me not and I'll be free. Counter, uncounted I will be!"
With that he gobbled up my jerky, and the pair ran off in a swirl of fine dust. I stood in the middle of the path flummoxed and robbed as the people around me went about their business. Apparently, their privations had inured them to petty thievery and open insults.
I hadn't heard that verse before.
I plunged my hand into my pocket and found scarab's box, hoping to feel his wings beating inside, but it was still, and I was afraid to take it out and look. Not knowing what else to do, I began to walk again.
Rounding the curve of the path, an elderly man shuffled along toward me. Even in the shadows of the close buildings, he looked in worse shape than most. His clothes not just dirty and faded but askew in such a way as to suggest that he'd lost any interest in even the appearance of sanity. I stepped out of his way, but he adjusted his course, so I stopped and let him approach.
It wasn't until he was close enough to grip the lapels of my coat that I recognized him as my own father. I grabbed his wasted shoulders to steady him.
"My son!" Tears streamed down his cheeks.
I opened my mouth but couldn't find breath to speak. His voice and carriage had always been so regal, but now he was a frail slip of a man. His jutting cheekbones cast shadows on his trembling jaw. His face blurred as tears filled my own eyes. Blinking them away, I noticed the wreck of his garments were the remains of his courtier's robes.
"Father, what are you doing here?" My voice was a hoarse croak.
"I knew I would see you again." He wept.
He's gone mad, I thought.
Throwing his arms in the air, he shouted, "My son, the Census-Taker, has found us!"
Those on the path went from simply ignoring us to giving us a wide berth.
"Come." He tugged my sleeve, looking at me with such childlike joy that my heart ached. I followed him as he led us through the dense tangle of pathways until we emerged at last into the open.
I shaded my eyes against the noon sun and looked up to see the castle. I sank to my knees. My mind struggled toward comprehension. The castle. Here. It meant I was home. Yet, I had never strayed from my cardinal direction.
I looked back over the uneven rooftops that sloped away from the castle and at the great wall that encircled this vast encampment.
The world was round, and I had circumnavigated it. I could think of no other explanation.
Four bridges arched over the moat. People bathed or washed their clothes in the brackish water. The swans were gone. Gray, weathered wood creaked underfoot. When I left two years ago, each bridge bore the name and bright color of its cardinal direction.
Once past the gatehouse, the constant din of so many people going about their lives faded away. Father's quiet step behind me brought back all the times I'd watched him at the head of a long train of courtiers, eyes lowered in deference, adjusting his pace to maintain the correct distance from the king.
We walked around the great curving wall of the first tower. Never had I seen the courtyard empty--this, my childhood playground. When not running errands for father, I made mischief with the children of the other courtiers and merchants that lived here.
Dread clamped my chest when the stables came into view. Crows loitered around a cluster of bodies. In varying states of decay, they hung from ropes of every type, one noose cleverly knotted from a bridle. To each was pinned a cloth bearing a crudely painted zero. A toppled feed barrel lay below their feet.
"Father," I said, a bare whisper.
"Come." His fingers plucked at my sleeve.
"Who are they?"
"Protesters," he said. "They hang themselves in view of the royal apartments." He waved a hand at the windows high above. "The Uncounted, they call themselves."
I stood before the protesters, five of them. I couldn't help counting. No, six. One body had fallen and lay hidden in the shadows, except for a shrunken hand sticking out of the ragged sleeve of a riding coat not unlike my own.
Father climbed the steps that spiraled up the main tower. "They should have been hanged for treason, but who would do it now that the king is gone?"
"Wait, the king isn't here?" I took two steps at a time to rejoin him.
"Now that you have returned with your scarab." Father paused and looked at me. "You do have your scarab?"
"Yes, father, I have it."
"Then all will be well, child."
We walked through the outer hall. Dust motes ebbed and flowed in the sunlight slanting across the room. The four great tapestries were gone.
Each had been a milieu of the peoples of the four corners of the realm. Bored on rainy afternoons, I would try to count the wealth depicted in the fabric. I never succeeded. The minuscule people crowding each tapestry ran into the thousands, all occupied in the mundane dramas of everyday life: Two women arguing over a goose, a blacksmith pounding out a horseshoe, the circle of children playing "One, Two, Who Are You?" All gone.
"Let me pass, boy," father said imperiously as we approached the grand doors. "I will announce you."
Announce me to whom? I wondered.
I knew better than to help him as he labored to push the heavy door open. He entered the throne room, rapped his cane regally on the floor as if it were a long staff, and called out, "The Census-Taker, East, has returned."
He bowed and swept his hand toward the throne at the far end of the room. I walked into the darkness. The throne glinted in the light of a fire in the vast fireplace behind it. I could just make out a body draped across the arms of the great golden chair.
"East!" A familiar voice cried. It was West. He struggled out of the throne, slinging a wine bottle in greeting. He approached with great lunging strides. "You have returned!"
"The count is the kingdom." I responded by rote in my confusion.
West embraced me, his arms as strong as a bear's.
"What has happened?" I asked.
"You're late. We thought you'd met with some misadventure."
Beyond the throne, a woman stood silhouetted by the flames.
"Is that North?" I asked.
She gave a little nod. I studied the familiar shape of her simple riding skirt and blouse. Her unruly black hair was wound into a bun at the base of her neck.
"Indeed." West waved the wine bottle at me. "But where are my manners?"
"No, thank you."
He sat heavily on the first step as I climbed the dais.
"Oh, I forgot. Son of a courtier. I'll call for the crystal glasses." He clapped his hands theatrically.
Father stood unmoving at the other end of the room.
I passed the throne and stood by North. I ached to wrap my arms around her, to bury my face in her mahogany neck.
"You made it back," she said.
"As did you."
She pressed her lips together in a thoughtful frown and slipped her slender fingers into my palm. I thought she might say more, but instead she looked over to West and gave me a warning glance. I clasped her hand and trained my eyes on the great fireplace. The top corner of a tapestry lay at our feet, truncated by a long, ragged burn line. Dropping North's hand, I knelt and looked at the little cluster of people that remained. The market scene with the woman selling eggs by a table stacked with lamb shanks. Through waves of heat in the still-standing ashes, I could see folds of fabric. I recognized more people. The flames had leached out the color but the shapes of their bodies remained in the texture of the thread.
"By the living realm," I whispered.
"Woman!" West's voice boomed.
I looked up at North. She watched the fire, her eyes made molten by the reflected flames.
"Fetch the case." West struggled to his feet.
"Fetch it yourself," she said.
"You are the last to return," North said to me. "Your scarab will complete the set. He believes that will somehow set things right."
West shuffled to a dark alcove on the other side of the room.
"Where is South?" I asked.
North searched my face. "Did you not see her on your way in?" A tear rolled down her cheek, but her voice remained steady. "At the stables."
My stomach dropped. I reached out for her once again, and she clasped my wrists.
"I did not recognize her."
"It was more than six months ago. When she saw the state of the realm . . . what we had become."
West trotted back carrying an ornate wooden case. Dropping to his knees, he laid it on the floor at our feet. I knelt and looked through the glass panel inset in the top.
To my horror, there were the other three scarabs. All dead. Gray as spent embers. Pins skewered them to a fine black velvet bed. Dead, and their counts with them.
West turned the golden key that sat in the lock at the front of the box and opened the top. He withdrew a long pin from the last empty space and looked at me.
I stood, thrust my hand into my pocket and grabbed my scarab's box. "You killed them?"
"What? No!" West rose and stepped over the box, his powerful chest touching mine. I backed up, the dying fire's heat soaking through the wool of my jacket. "You accuse me of treason?" West's voice was low and menacing.
"Of course not. I only--"
West's eyes grew wide, "Your scarab lives!" He clamped a hand on my neck. "Let me see it."
"What happened to your scarabs?" I said. "Where is the king?"
He held the pin up. "Put it with the others. The spell will be repaired and the counts recovered. The kingdom restored--"
"You don't know that," North said.
"Shut up!" West's voice rang off the walls.
North did not flinch. "If it does live we cannot just kill it for the sake of your precious box."
"Can't the magician fix them?" I asked.
"That old bastard's dead." West's hand tightened around my neck. "We'll find the king and show him the complete set!"
Quick as a garden snake, North's hand slipped into my pocket, her fingers playing around the scarab's house. I released it to her. She withdrew it and stepped back. "Search him if you think he has it."
West plunged his hands into my pockets.
"By all in the realm!" I kicked West's legs out from under him and lunged. We went down hard. North ran to my father, then West punched me in the jaw.
"Surrender the creature!" West ripped my coat off. I struggled to my knees. His hands searched through my trouser pockets. I shoved him away and staggered back.
Glass crunched under my boot.
"You uncounted bastard!" West growled.
Under my foot, the beetles vanished into little puffs of dust, which rose up from the wreck of velvet, glass and splintered wood.
I kicked the case off and sprinted for the great doors. North and my father were already gone.
With West at my heels, I shoved the great door shut, ripped my belt from my waist and knotted it around the handles.
I ran down the stairs and through the courtyard. I couldn't fathom how North had managed to bundle my father off so quickly, then one of the bodies in the stables swung violently and she emerged from the shadows dragging my father by the wrist. Obscenities poured from his mouth. He spun and spat on the corpse.
I grabbed my father around the waist and slung him over my back. The three of us made our way through the gatehouse, over the bridge and into the encampment. North walked briskly, shouldering through the crowds. I panted along behind her, my father screaming invective from my back.
"Wait," I called when I could walk no further. I set father on his feet.
He looked around vaguely. "Here again?"
"Come, it's not much further," North said.
She led us through a narrow alley to a well-made mud-and-thatch building. A large woman sat on a stool by a potbellied stove next to the doorway. She rose and wrapped North in her arms.
"Oh, thank each and every!" she said.
They had the same black hair and dark brown eyes.
North turned to me. "My sister, Rowan."
"You've brought guests," Rowan said.
"Yes, East and his father--"
"Who needs to lie down by the looks of it."
Rowan showed us into the single dark room crowded with mattresses. Without a word, my father curled up on one, still clutching his cane. Rowan covered him with a blanket.
"Come, eat. Before the children return."
Outside, North ladled stew into rough bowls. Rowan set out more stools and pulled a warm loaf of bread from the stove. We sat and ate in silence, our knees nearly touching. The stew was delicious, though I could not identify the meat. Remembering the missing swans, I decided not to inquire.
After finishing, I watched North sop up the last of her broth with a crust of bread and wondered, again, what her given name might be.
Rowan took the bowls from our hands. "You two catch up." She disappeared into the hut.
North looked at me, opened her mouth to speak then closed it. I didn't know what to say either, our affections so long constrained by duty. She reached out and cupped my face, running her thumb along my lips, melting my uncertainty. I pulled her to me. She wrapped her arms around my neck. She smelled of dried sweat and sandalwood.
"I didn't think I would ever see you again," she whispered.
"Nor I you." I kissed her and all the empty days of my quest fell away.
She sat back, reached into the folds of her skirt, and handed the scarab's box to me.
I slid the top off. Relief washed over me with the faint golden light that radiated off the beetle's back.
"Oh." North sighed. "It does live."
The beetle climbed out and onto my hand. I placed a crust of bread on my palm and it began to eat.
"Who knows what magic might have been released had West killed it?" she said.
"How did the others die?"
"About six months after we set out, the king's magician fell gravely ill. When he died, so did our scarabs. I turned back when my beetle died, as did the others."
"How did mine survive?"
"I don't know." She reached out, her fingers testing the air above its glowing carapace. "Perhaps yours is the one from which he created the others."
"Magic. Father never trusted it." He wasn't alone in the opinion that the court magician kept his spells secret because he was a sham dabbling in powers beyond his ability.
"But a count that would contain the sum of us in such magical creatures . . ." she said.
I put the remaining crumbs in her palm and let the scarab crawl onto her hand, watching its gentle glow illuminate her delighted face.
"When we returned with our dead beetles, the king raised an army and paid them in gold to build the wall and drive everyone inside."
"He's mad, then," I said.
"Don't let your father hear you say that."
"He's mad, too."
Suddenly it was funny. All of it. I began to snicker. North smiled, but her eyes knew my heart, and I had to look away. I rocked forward with great, gasping sobs. She tucked the scarab back in his box while I labored to recover myself.
"Once the wall was complete," she said, "the king disappeared."
The first stars appeared in the indigo sky. So many nights I lay on my bedroll watching the stars wheel by, the scarab clinging to my lapel. I imagined him adjusting their numbers whenever a shooting star extinguished itself overhead.
"What made you turn back?" she asked.
"I never did, North. I followed my cardinal direction until I arrived back here."
She was quiet for a long time, that thoughtful frown returning to her face. "Then the world is not endless."
"Do you think your scarab has the count of us all?" she asked.
"What does it matter now?"
"I hate to give West any credence, but maybe you could find the king and give him your scarab. Once the wall was complete no one has been able to find a way out."
I listened to the constant motion of the population beyond this little courtyard. The patter of feet on the trail, water sloshing in a bucket, the crackle of newly lit fires as people prepared their evening meals. "Surely, he's here, somewhere, among his wealth."
Two children ran into the courtyard. A skinny girl in a tattered pinafore followed by a toddler, trailing a grubby blanket.
"Auntie!" The girl threw her arms around North.
"Go on and wash up," North said after the boy had jostled in for a hug.
"Wait!" I dug in my trouser pocket. The small brick of chocolate I'd picked up on the way in had survived my fight with West. I offered it to the girl. She stared at it, her mouth frozen in a surprised "O."
"Where did you get that?" North asked.
"A general store at the last town. It was empty--"
They all stared at the small package.
"Of people." I pressed the bar into the girl's hand. The children turned and went into the house, the girl cradling the chocolate.
"Here." North handed me the scarab's box. I dropped it into my pocket.
"Kids still like chocolate, don't they?" I asked.
Rowan appeared in the doorway and held the chocolate out to me.
"We don't take charity," she said.
"That will trade for goat's milk and meat for a month," North said.
"Consider it payment, then. To keep my father." I backed away.
"Where are you going?" North asked.
"Just until I return." I turned away from the look on her face and strode out into the crowd before she could say anything more.
I wound my way through chaotic paths, elbowing past people, tacking west by the fading light of sunset until I arrived at the wall. I couldn't see the gearworks nor any sign of the sentry.
I took the scarab out and held him in the palm of my hand. The glow of his carapace now bright enough to light my way as I walked. Hour after hour, I kept moving, looking for the point where I'd entered.
I staggered on until dawn revealed the squalid topography of the countless shambling rooftops the wall encompassed. I sank down against one of the massive trunks, closed my eyes, and despaired of ever finding the gate.
When I opened my eyes, the scarab's light grew once again, becoming molten. I got to my feet.
"Hi Ho!" The sentry walked along the wall towards me. I still couldn't see the gate. The gearworks he guarded remained his secret. "I knew you would come back."
"My Liege." I sank to one knee as I had been taught. I had never been this close to his Eminence.
He laughed, delighted. "You see me, even as I am."
He straightened and held out his hand to receive the count. I looked at the frayed hem of his sleeve, his faded foot soldier's uniform. Straw clung to his grimy hair.
I stood and closed my hand around the insect. Behind us, a clatter and hum rose from the buildings as the people began to awake and set about their day.
"Come, boy. The count is the kingdom." He drew himself up to his full height, which was, in fact, not impressive.
I had always believed in the scarab. Even if this magic beetle hadn't counted a single one, my companion of two years knew the sum of us. And I knew that the king did not deserve this horde of wealth.
"I'm sorry," I whispered.
The king looked at me puzzled, but I was not speaking to him. I crushed the scarab in my fist, its carapace cracking under my fingers with a heartbreaking crunch.
The king screamed.
Blue flames threaded through my fingers. I opened my hand to reveal a ball of fire growing from the broken remains of the insect. Sparks dripped off my palm as heat tore through my hand and up my arm. I threw the fireball against the base of the wall and fell to my knees clutching my throbbing arm.
Flames raced along the wall, shooting up the narrow spaces between the great logs. The king waded into the fire, frantically searching for the scarab. His clothes burned away and his skin turned black as he dug in the sod where the fireball had landed. Finally he fell, his body curling like a leaf on the hearth.
Heat washed over me. The flames already engulfed the wall for as far as I could see. Someone pulled me to my feet and away from the fire. I looked over my shoulder. A burly man smiled back at me, and I realized that without my coat no one would know me for a counter. Smoke poured into the sky muting the morning sun.
At first only the most recklessly curious crowded out of the city to see. When it became clear that the conflagration would not stray from the wall, more people arrived and the mood turned festive. Children ran among the adults, everyone chattering excitedly, wondering at what new magic might have brought this about.
I stood with them watching the wall burn as the sun rose. A woman called out, "It's going to fall!" just as the first trunk twisted and crashed to the ground, inspiring a great cheer. Outside, the long grass of the open prairie bobbed and dipped in the breeze.
By early afternoon the flames subsided. The smoldering logs glowed for a time with the scarab's brilliant golden hue before cooling to a fragile, velvety gray.
People began dismantling their homes and packing their belongings. I watched them move out across the land. They drove flocks of geese before them, and pulled goats behind by lengths of twine. They swung their children onto their hips and picked their way carefully over the fallen logs.
It was the scarab's own magic that had freed us, and I would see to it that we remained uncounted.
With smoke stinging my eyes and tears streaming down my face, I turned and made my way against the great exodus to find my North.