Large lipped and sweating, the king summoned his guests to take their seats at the table. The succulent fruit shone in a large gold bowl set in the middle of the magnificently carved oak table. Various silver platters overflowed with glistening piles of roast pig, chicken and sliced meats adorned with olives, pickles and roasted onions. Baskets of breads were scattered along the mighty table’s length. Each guest took his or her place with a soft scrape of oak on marble. In the background a single minstrel strummed a lute, singing a cheerful tune that told the story of how a beautiful princess, who always wore white, fell in love with a dark haired nobleman from across the seas.
“My guests, I welcome you today at this fine feast in honour of my dearest and only daughter Katerina’s engagement. As you know, she has come of age and I have found her a suitable husband – the Count Snade of the Noria province.” The king tore off a piece of flesh from a chicken leg and chewed. The guests sat motionless, awaiting his next words.
“Katerina is a most fair woman, pleasingly built and a good rider and hunter. The Count is blessed to have my daughter’s hand. She may not think it now, but her love for the Count will grow in years to come. And, if not love, then at the very least fondness, for the Count is exceedingly well off”. At these words the King laughed heartily, and as he did so the air was filled with a fine spray of spit and chicken grease. Not a single guest stirred, but rather sat in attentive silence, pleasant expressions pasted on their faces.
“She will venture out of her chambers soon, and I caution each of you not to note her bruised eye or teary expression. Comment and you shall face severe punishment.”
The guests all nodded in agreement, frozen smiles fading slightly.
“The Count too will be here within the hour, to take his place by my side. His coachman sent word of a mishap involving a rock and a wheel just thirteen leagues from here. In the mean while, enjoy my food and wine.” The king lurched forward, scattering some grapes onto the floor, and grabbed a silver cup brimming with scarlet wine. He sat back and drank deeply, draining it. Coughing, the king threw the cup over his shoulder to smash into the minstrel’s lute, breaking a string. An attending servant rushed forward, recovered the cup and disappeared behind a purple curtain.
“Why has the music stopped? Carry on, fool, or you will surely be eviscerated and fed to my pigs bit my bit,” the king snarled, wiping his greasy mouth on his silk sleeve. It left a red-tinged, greyish streak.
“Of course, sire,” the minstrel bowed low, and walked to the corner of the banquet hall to sit at an ornate and polished harpsichord. “I shall play a special song, especially written by me last night for her lady, the princess Katerina.”
“Nobody said you may talk, lout, play or die.” The king faced his guests and sneered, “The bloody cheek, to address me directly…” and ripped a piece of flesh out of a dripping pork leg.
The minstrel held his hands above the pure white keyboard for a moment. He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply and began to play.
The song began delicately, like the slow trickling of water over rocks in a stream, or like a breeze blowing through an emerald green bamboo forest. It teased, like the first ray of orange light from the sun rising in the desert. Slowly the minstrel guided his fingers, gracefully and gently, laying them to rest on each key like a petal falling from a peach tree, springing off leaves on the way to the ground. The guests stopped their idle chatter and soon not a sound was heard except for the sound of the harpsichord.
The song began to slowly twist and turn, like a snake gliding across a sand dune. It sped up, a new beat forming. The minstrel’s eyes flew open and he threw his head back, his hands suddenly flying of their own accord. The song rushed forward, beating a path viciously, carving its way into the ears of the dumbstruck guests. The minstrel’s hands became a blur, barely holding onto the song as it writhed through the banquet room. The song lurched forward into a final crescendo and abruptly it died, crashing like a tinkling chandelier to the marble floor, echoing into a thousand tiny shards. The guests did not move, their eyes wide with wonder.
A crunching, chewing sound broke the silence. The king’s jaw moved up and down, working on a particularly tough piece of gristle. He spat out the partially chewed lump of bone and meat and it hit the wall with a plop, and then slowly slid to the floor.
Suddenly a high scream tore through the air. “Oh my god, the princess! The princess!” An ashen-faced chambermaid stumbled through the purple curtain, tearing it from the wall.
“The princess is dead!” she wailed. “A knife in her heart, by her own hand – she is dead!” The maid shrieked at the king. “You killed her! You!”
The king looked at her blankly. He carefully lowered the chicken bone onto his plate, and snapped his fingers at his guards. “Have this person thrown from the city wall immediately”. The king’s guards dragged the hysterically sobbing woman out.
Wordlessly, the king stood up from his seat, wiping his mouth. “Leave me, leave me immediately!” His guests sprang into action, leaping to their feet and scurrying out the door. In the corner the minstrel still sat, still as a stone at the harpsichord.
“Didn’t you hear what I said, you cretin. Get out of my sight immediately,” the king spat.
But the king’s words were unheard. The minstrel was dead.