By T.S. Silvers
Early in his life, the troubadour Alto Zerenze met King Tuni, the Conqueror of Tiquine. He was two-and-ten at the time, following closely behind his father into Grabalt Palace, intimidated by its dancing, dark-skinned ladies dressed in diaphanous robes, black marble floors veined with red, and its colossal sardonyx columns, rising away to the shadowy ceiling above. Despite all these fears, Alto quickly came to enjoy his time in Grabalt Palace, owing mostly to its ruler’s fair features, kind smiles, and easy demeanor.
Three quarters into Alto’s father’s performance, King Tuni asked him if his son could play. Alto’s father assured him he could, so Alto was given a golden-stringed lute and told to play to the best of his abilities. The best of Alto’s abilities happened to be the best the fair king had ever heard, so much so that King Tuni begged him for an encore. Flattered but tired, Alto declined, despite his father’s insistence that he play his heart out for the illustrious man. King Tuni was, however, endeared by this refusal, and laughed a great, thunderous laugh. Then, to the awe-stricken courtesans, who had traveled to Grabalt from far and wide to speak to him, he said, “Go, now. I have true business to discuss.”
Only King Tuni, Alto, and Alto’s father remained within that cavernous throne room, and a deep silence fell. “I will not ask you to play again, not tonight,” the king said. “I only ask that you permit me to purchase you, little boy, so that you may play for me to the end of my days, perhaps all the way to my death bed, should I be fortunate enough.” Both musicians stood stunned and silent, and the boy tightly hugged that glittering lute. Alto was sold to King Tuni, happy to rid his father of his debts, and more happy to be finally respected for the talent he knew he had been blessed with.
As if to celebrate his new musician, King Tuni declared war once again on the Dukes of Tiquine and carried Alto with him on all his battles. Alto’s life was regimented during these ten years of war. He was ordered to play his golden-stringed lute once before a battle and once after, in lieu of prayer to the gods. Recognizing this, Alto put all his efforts into his music and was happy to learn that he inspired the men who heard him to flawless victories.
Since King Tuni had him play only before and after every single battle in the war, the length of the war owed only to slow, relaxed marches, painfully difficult terrain, and large Tiquinese hordes. Once the war was finally won, and the autonomous lands of Tiquine brought completely under King Tuni’s control, Alto was permitted to stop playing. In fact, the man, now grown, was instructed never to play again.
Hurt and angry, Alto would constantly ask why he was told not to play. He sensed on all these occasions that King Tuni was dodging his question. On one occasion, after a particularly bad hounding, King Tuni told him, “You live in luxury now; you have no worries, no reason to fret, and have to do nothing but drink, eat, and lie with women. Why do you insist upon playing, when you must toil over the lute and page?” Alto was infuriated at this and stormed out of the king’s solar.
That very same night, Alto took up his golden-stringed loot again but hadn’t the confidence to play for but a few minutes.
He never again touched the lute after that night and fell deeper and deeper into depravity. So bibulous a man was he that he constantly toppled down the royal stairs, and was so-known for his pitiful state that none regarded him with more than a disgusted glance. Under these circumstances, the once-proud musician descended sharply, and his life was lost to despair and self-loathing, all fueled, of course, by drink.
During one such night of self-destruction, Alto was called by a messenger to King Tuni’s deathbed. He was told that, earlier in the day, the beloved king had fallen beneath the galloping hooves of his horse and was soon to depart this mortal coil.
Alto appeared at his bedside as drunk as he had ever been. Disgusting, fat, and unkempt, his hair was undone, and his clothes were spattered with untold filths. Still, King Tuni regarded him with the kind smile that he had when he was but a boy, and told his noblemen to leave them alone, so that they may speak as frankly as they had together all Alto’s noble life.
“Alto,” King Tuni breathed, “why do you come in such a fashion? You are a pitiful drunk!” The exertion of speech clearly caused him great pain and weighed heavily on Alto’s heart.
“You have drunken yourself into a pitiful state, and I shall die knowing you never amounted to anything!”
Anger rose in Alto, surpassing his pity. “You told me to stop! You told me I was never to play again! I assumed I wasn’t good enough! It’s all your fault!”
King Tuni laughed the greatest laugh his broken ribs would allow. “I told you that to test your devotion to your craft. And it is clear you hadn’t enough, to be told when and why to play. You bring great dishonor upon me, who hoped, with great joy, that I should be fortunate enough to hear you play on my deathbed, in my last moments.” The last words were a mere choke, followed by his death, accompanied by no music.