“Sic Semper” by Kristopher Reisz
Vladislav IX had been the first monarch ever assassinated by bullet, a fact his ghost was quite proud of. “No brutish stabbing and hacking for me!” he crowed. “Powder and lead, efficient and to the point.”
Backed against the wall of the royal crypt, Alexander nodded. “Sure… I can tell.” The historic shot had left Vladislav IX with very little face above his curled white mustachios. This made talking to him unsettling. Luckily, the ghost carried most of the conversation.
“My reign was very forward-looking that way. I was also the first Cynanian monarch to eat a plantain.”
“Oh? Did you like it?”
“Not particularly. Mushy.”
Alexander kept nodding. He tried to remember something about Vladislav IX’s reign he might add to the conversation, but the truth was, Cynan had lots of Kings Vladislav. After a while, they all blurred together into one endless mustachio.
Just then, the shade of Queen Ludmila the First drifted close. “Vlad, stop pestering him. Can’t you see he’s nervous?”
Vladislav IX harrumphed. “I’m simply giving him some historical context for what he’s about to do.”
“He doesn’t need any historical context.” Queen Ludmila smiled at Alexander. “Just do what comes naturally, dear. Assassination isn’t difficult.”
Alexander gulped. “Y-you know why I’m here?”
The ghosts filling the royal crypts laughed. “We’re nobles, boy! Can’t slip an assassin past us,” Boris the Younger said.
“Unless he’s hiding in the privy with a spear, eh, Boris?” asked Mad King Casimir. This made all the ghosts – except Boris – laugh even harder. Boris the Younger (also known to the annals as the Man-Eater King and Boris Lutheran-Bane) snipped back, “Well, at least I wasn’t poisoned like some woman!”
“No, you just died with a spear-point rammed up your–”
“Lords, please!” Queen Ludmila drifted between them, then turned back to Alexander. “The point is, you’re hiding in the royal crypt fiddling with a gun. I’d know what you were up to even if I hadn’t killed my husband’s first wife.”
Alexander stuffed the revolver in his pocket, but the queen was right. He was here to kill the king.
Alexander belonged to a secret society, the Free Cynanian Congress. It wasn’t the kind of secret society that went around shooting kings willy-nilly, though. Rather, the Congress was mostly university students drinking and making speeches. During a typical meeting, they got drunk, denounced the king, denounced nobility, swore never to rest until all Cynanian people breathed the sweet perfume of freedom, and then passed out. The next morning, they’d stagger off to class, having forgotten their denouncements from the night before. Being in The Congress was exciting, but the only danger lay in trying to pronounce “antidisestablishmentarianism” while hammered.
Then Gregor showed up.
Gregor wasn’t a student. Of the working classes, he toiled in the kitchens of the royal palace. As autumn approached, he galvanized the Congress with details of the upcoming Mundos Texo. During the gala, masked nobles would dance around a great bonfire, clutching turnip-lanterns to scare away spirits. King Petar IV had ordered wine, roast geese, and Chinese fire-rockets to shoot at peasants.
Gregor’s story had the Congress furious. Seizing the moment, Alexander jumped onto his chair. “Brothers! Doesn’t it stab your heart to hear of such wicked excess?”
“Yes!” the Congress cried, sloshing their beer.
“Isn’t it the bitterest irony that we light bonfires on Mundos Texo to frighten away evil spirits, yet we cower under the evilest spirit – the vile shade of monarchy?”
“But we shall not cower, brothers. The fire of our cause burns bright, soon the king will be dead, and soon Cynan will finally be free!”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
And then, much calmer, Gregor said, “Let’s do it.”
Alexander turned. “Um… do what?”
“During the gala, we’ll kill the king.”
“Oh. Well…” Alexander noticed that Gregor wasn’t drunk. That hardly seemed fair. You shouldn’t get a fellow to denounce the king while you were sober enough to remember it later. Backed into a corner, though, Alexander heard himself agreeing to Gregor’s plot.
Gregor’s plan seemed simple. The royal crypt connected to the king’s apartments through the Old Chapel, which Petar IV used as a wine cellar. All the guests at the gala would be wearing masks. Gregor would sneak a disguised Alexander past the guards and into the crypt. Eventually, the king would stumble into his wine cellar, looking for a hearty red that paired well with porking a maid. When he did, Alexander would shoot him. Alexander told himself shooting somebody was basically the same as denouncing them, just louder.
They’d only overlooked one detail. During Mundos Texo, spirits of the dead walked the earth. While Alexander waited for his moment to strike, the pale shades of Vladislav IX and his wife, Florentina the Wall-Eyed, rose from their tombs and started arguing about who had come up with the plan to invade Prussia. Several pagan chieftains bounded from their cairns, bashing at each other with axes made from wisps of memory. Another queen sat up through a stone effigy of herself clutching a rosary, mumbled, “Dogs’ balls, is it Mundos Texo again?” and flopped back into her tomb.
It was several minutes before the ghosts noticed Alexander, pale and shaking in the corner. Eventually, Vladislav IX asked, “So why are you killing the new fellow?”
“Well, because he’s king.”
“Yes, yes, but why do you want to kill the king. You know, the four Ps of regicide: passion, politics, popery (for or against), or ponies.”
“One of them,” Vladislav IX motioned to the pagan chieftains, “killed his brother for stealing his pony.”
The chieftains had stopped fighting and started quaffing bottles of liquor they’d been buried with. The one in the furriest hat passed the bottle of fermented ectoplasm and grunted, “Good pony. Very delicious.”
“So which one are you here for?” Vladislav IX asked again.
“Politics, I suppose. Bu–”
“Excellent!” Mad King Casimir crowed. “Cause a succession crisis, then step in to restore order. A tried and true method of winning the crown. Are you a general or… anything?” The ghosts looked at Alexander with uncertainty. Alexander had the physique of a shad and the noble chin of a clam. In fact, his whole presence could be described as fish market-y.
“I’m a university student.”
“A student? You mean one of those ink-stained fellows?” Casimir asked. He had reigned back when reading was similar to barbering: a handy skill for other people to know but not anything a king should bother with.
Alexander nodded. “That’s us, yes. But I–”
“No, no, no. I’m sorry, lad, but nobody’s going to follow some student during a crisis. The whole point of causing a crisis is so people will demand a strong and decisive leader to step in.”
“Somebody with a very progressive witch-burning policy,” Boris Lutheran-Bane added.
“Exactly.” Casimir nodded. “But some student? Some owl-eyed boy up at all hours reading things and writing things down and… reading?”
“I’m afraid they’re right, dear,” Queen Ludmila added. “Nobody wants to see a student take the throne. It just doesn’t inspire confidence.”
“But I don’t want to take the throne!” Alexander yelled over them. “I don’t want to be king. I want Cynan to finally be free of kings.”
The ghosts hovered silently, staring at him. Somehow they turned an even paler shade of translucent. “Free… of kings?”
“Yes. And Queens,” Alexander added before Queen Ludmila could ask.
He watched the spectral royalty try wrapping their heads around this concept. “But if there aren’t any kings, who’s in charge?”
“The people will be in charge,” Alexander explained. “Working collectively in semi-autonomous, agrarian-based cooperatives.”
Casimir huffed, “And they called me mad.”
Queen Ludmila rose up to her full height. “Young man, I may have poisoned the king’s first wife, and his firstborn son, and two of his cousins, but I always respected the institution of monarchy!”
The other ghosts nodded and mumbled agreement, chorusing, “Yes, yes. You’ve got to respect the institution.”
Florentina the Wall-Eyed added, “If you don’t have a king or queen, who shoots fire-rockets at the peasants?”
“Nobody shoots fire-rockets at anybody!” Alexander snapped. “Can’t you see how cruel that is? Can’t you see how royalty lives, vampire-like, by sucking on living labor. It must end!”
“Piffle,” Vladislav IX harrumphed. “Cynan was ruled by that vampire awhile back, and she was way worse than us.”
“Really? How? What did any of you ever do except throw galas, eat plantains, and tyrannize the people? What do you do except take and take, giving nothing back? It must stop! It will stop! From tonight forward, there will be five Ps of regicide: passion, politics, popery (for or against), ponies, and at long last, the proletariat!”
If Alexander had entered the royal crypt uncertain, a bare hour spent with these dead twits had reminded him what must be done and why. It was a fine denouncement, but the expired monarchs remained unimpressed. “Young man, the people like being tyrannized,” Florentina the Wall-Eyed said.
“Well, they’ll just have to tyrannize themselves!” Alexander snapped back. It wasn’t exactly what he’d meant, but before he could correct himself, the door to the Old Chapel swung open. Several costumed men crowded around. Casimir cried, “Look out! They have turnips carved into lanterns!” All the ghosts fled into their tombs, leaving Alexander alone.
“Who are you? What are you yelling about?” The man who spoke was Petar IV. He was dressed like a penny. It wasn’t a hard costume for him to pull off since his face was on all Cynanian coins already. He just painted his face with copper-colored greasepaint. Seeing him, Alexander yanked the revolver out of his pocket. Blam!
Petar IV’s body tumbled down the steps. Alexander waved the gun in the air, shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis! Sic semper–!”
“A filthy student just murdered the king!”
Alexander recognized Gergor’s voice and froze. His co-conspirator stood like an oak amid the king’s stumbling, scattering entourage. Except, instead of the grimy white apron of a cook, Gregor now wore an elaborate domino mask of gold leaf and a military uniform glittering with brass. He pulled a revolver out of the holster at his side.
“Oh, come on,” Alexander groaned.
The shot smashed Alexander back against one of the tombs. His chest burned so badly he couldn’t breathe. Alexander tried to lift his own gun, but it suddenly felt very heavy and slipped out of his hand.
His limbs went numb. His legs folded under him. He slumped down, and his wounds kissed the cool thirsty earth of the royal crypt.
Another member of the entourage peered down at Alexander. He said, “Captain Zhestakova, this is bad. Prince Boniface will try to snatch the crown while the king’s son is still too young to defend it. And the Earl of Mahzy. If he finds out about this…”
Gregor nodded. “You’re right, Lieutenant Duroc. We can’t let this get out yet. Not until the royal council can appoint a lord protector for the young prince.”
“A lord protector? Who?”
Gregor pretended to consider this. “I will step forward myself. It’s a terrible burden, of course, but it’s the only way to prevent a succession crisis.”
Lieutenant Duroc spoke carefully… very, very carefully. “Of course, captain. Shall I summon the rest of the council?”
“Yes. Except the archbishop. He’s loyal to the Earl of Mahzy and might complicate matters needlessly. Let’s let him…” The voices fell silent as the heavy door closed again. Alexander continued to lie dead on the floor. Except some part of him wiggled free of bones and kidneys. It felt like untangling himself from twisted bed sheets after a long night of drinking. “Double…” his ghost moaned. “Double-cross… Gregor. He helped me. He…”
“He’s a man who respects the institution of royalty,” Vladislav IX said.
Boris the Younger nodded. “Cunning too. Using the students to create a succession crisis.”
“Oh yes, giving an old standard a new twist like that, he’s very forward-thinking, I can tell,” Vladislav IX said.
“Excuse me, I think I was just murdered.” Petar IV crouched near his body, prodding the bullet-wound in his chest.
“Afraid so, but if it helps any, you’re in good company there. In fact, it might interest you to know that I was the first monarch ever assassinated by a bullet.”
Petar IV straightened up. “Vladislav IX? Sir, it is an honor.”
The two ghosts clasped hands. Vladislav IX said, “Here, let me introduce you to everybody.”
Alexander stood by himself near the crypt door. Staring down at his body, a terrible thought occurred to him. “Um, they’re going to move me eventually, right? They won’t just leave me down here… with you guys… forever. Right? Right?”
But the royal ghosts were arguing about Prussia again, and nobody paid Alexander any attention.
About the Author
Kristopher Reisz lives in Alabama. He has never assassinated anybody nor eaten a plantain. His most recent novel is a ghost story called The Drowned Forest.