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Fiction

Three Variations on a Theme of Imperial Attire

They never tell the story right. The Danish must have their heavens and happy endings, and Andersen’s tales are meant for children. We, however—you and I—know that people are people, and every one of us capable of—

But the story.

Once there was a vain and foolish emperor, who made up for his foolishness by a kind of low cunning. As such rulers do, he drew to himself a retinue of like men and women, who told him he was wise and humble, gracious and good. The emperor would smile at their flattery, which in his wisdom he knew to be the truth, and lavish gold and gems and deeds upon them. Thus was everyone contented within the palace walls. And those outside got on as well as they could.

Eventually, with narrative inevitability, two men with knapsacks and pockets full of thread came knocking at the palace gates.

“We are tailors,” the first one said, “wise but humble tailors, who seek to offer our boutique services to men of might, such as yourself.”

“Here is a list of our bona fides,” said the second man. “Sterling references, one and all.”

“The very best, I’m sure,” the emperor said, looking at the ruby buttons on their vests of gilt brocade.

“What we’d like to offer you is an exclusive deal—”

“—the latest in fashion, which no one else owns—”

“—designed in collaboration with a distant country’s military-industrial complex—”

“—top secret and cutting-edge—”

“—the Loyalty Distinguisher line of couture.”

“What a mouthful,” the emperor said, looking askance. “Call it something I can pronounce.”

“What a brilliant suggestion! The Thresher, how’s that? Since it sorts the wheat from the worthless chaff.”

“Powerful,” the emperor said. “I like it.”

“Now, the key selling point of the Thresher line—what a wonderful name!—is that it’ll let you sort at a glance your loyal, meritorious, and worthy subjects from—well, the useless ones.”

“At a glance, eh?”

“Indeed! When we dress you in Thresher fabric, cut to the height of style, those subjects of noble character will see you as you truly are, with all your hidden virtues displayed. They’ll swoon at your intellect, marvel at your power, gape at your discernment and understanding. You’ll know them by their raptures and fits of joy. Then you can place them in positions of authority. Judging village disputes and distributing grain, for example. Or tax collecting.”

“Good,” the emperor said, rubbing his chin. “And the rest?”

“The Thresher fabric will reflect their true ugliness. They will pale and shrink back and avert their eyes.”

“They will scream and faint.”

“They will whimper at the sight of their deepest selves.”

“And thus you will know your traitorous subjects.”

“Hard labor would be too good for them.”

“Make me this suit at once!” the emperor said. And his court, whispering amongst themselves, wondered how the marvel would be managed.

Well, you know how. The tailors placed loud orders on the phone for Italian leather and French wool, Japanese silks and bulletproof thread; had conspicuously large boxes airlifted to their quarters; and all day and all night they cut and sewed the air with an industry that was inspiring to see.

The appointed day came, red and hot. Crows rattled in the palace trees. In the emperor’s chamber, before his cheval glass, the tailors presented their work with pride.

“Our finest piece.”

“A triumph.”

“A breakthrough in fashion.”

“But let us see what it looks like on you. Habeas corpus is the haberdasher’s true test.”

The emperor looked at their empty hands—swallowed—scowled—thought—and said, “Bravo!”

“Is the jacket not to your liking?”

“Hm, yes, the pants are a little long.”

“I’ll fix that in a minute, never you worry. There.”

“How’s that?”

“Perfect,” the emperor said, gazing at his reflection.

“Now you must show it to your subjects. Your courtiers have assembled and are waiting.”

When the emperor strode into his court, a ruby-buttoned tailor at each elbow, his courtiers stared. Then one, then another hastily applauded, and the stamping and cheering shook the walls. A little color came back into the emperor’s cheeks, and he whuffed through his blonde whiskers in relief, though what terrible worry he had been relieved of, no one watching could say.

“You chose your court wisely,” the tailors said. “Now ride throughout your kingdom and sift the wicked from the good.”

And the emperor, glancing dubiously at the saddle, mounted his horse and rode through the city streets. His stomach billowed with every bounce. Before him rode his courtiers, shouting the people forth to praise the craftsmanship and glory of these new clothes, which would divide the loyal from the perfidious.

The people, who had not survived six decades of imperial whims and sudden prohibitions on various fruits, fats, and hats without acquiring a certain degree of sense, observed the wind’s direction and vociferously admired the blinding gleam of the cloth-of-gold, the shimmer of silks, the cut and fit of everything.

Children, however, who through lack of life experience have not yet learned the salubrious lessons of unjust pain, while quite disposed to lie to avoid immediate punishment, are also inclined to speak inconvenient truths at the most inconvenient times.

“Ma, the emperor is naked.”

“No, he’s not. He’s wearing the finest suit that I ever did see.”

“Ma, I can see his dick.”

At this the goodwife clapped her aproned hand over her son’s mouth, but it was too late. The emperor had heard. He turned a pitying eye upon them, as their neighbors immediately began to point and hiss. Why, they’d always known—an absent father—single motherhood stirred up evil, that’s what they’d always said—but the emperor’s getup was magnificent—truly unparalleled—only a stupid blind woman couldn’t see that—

The emperor nudged his horse with his knees and serenely continued upon his way.

In the morning the boy and his mother were gone. Their little stone-and-thatch cottage had burned to the ground. Their neighbors and their houses had vanished as well. Only a few cracked teeth and a fistful of phalanges were found.

The emperor retained the tailors on an exclusive contract at astronomical rates and took to riding out among his people on a weekly basis, since it was now clear that there was treachery in the land. People fell over themselves to report their parents, in-laws, rivals, classmates, colleagues, never failing to praise the newest suit of clothes themselves, until the streets turned black with blood and soot.

When the emperor was finally stricken with a fatal case of pneumonia—which happened far later than one might imagine, because he was a corpulent and well-insulated man—his former subjects, one after the other, dazed by the news, picked up the phone by habit to denounce their friends, and heard, on the other end, the dusty silence of a dead line.

• • • •

Unnecessarily grim, you say? Unrealistic? Scenes this bloody no longer occur in the civilized world? I agree with all your criticisms, most erudite of readers. There’s nothing for it but to try again.

Here then is a more charming tale, one that will better suit your taste.

Once there was a body politic that, through happy geographic accident, had avoided any number of devastating wars, and was thus left the most powerful government in the world. On the basis of that evidence, it thought itself the most enlightened body politic that the world had ever seen. It kept its citizens under surveillance, arresting or ejecting those who did not agree, and as a result enjoyed unanimous approbation.

One day, two men, sons of a vast clothing empire, who had recently been elected to the body, presented a sheaf of invisible bills.

“See how stylishly we’ve cut, trimmed, and hemmed taxes! How popular you’ll be with the tastemakers of this realm—how perceptive and attractive you’ll seem—if you pass them!”

“See how they funnel the vast majority of money to the military, which is always fashionable. How powerful you’ll look to your enemies!”

“Look how your children will benefit, leapfrogging into elite universities, flourishing in the compost of your trusts and estates!”

“All honorable members of this body politic will see the good, glorious vision these bills represent. All citizens of discernment shall agree. The others? Well, they are not citizens, or they are fake citizens, voting without proper identification, and we should divert a portion of our security budget to uncovering these traitors and deporting or imprisoning them, as our fathers did in their day.”

The platforms and proposals were trotted before the country with pleasing pomp and ceremony. The true citizens applauded them so loudly you couldn’t think, and trained in militias to hunt down the fake citizens, and rammed cars into the bodies of fake citizens, and phoned in denunciations of their neighbors, ex-lovers, grandchildren, pets—and before too long the streets ran black and red with—

Ah.

That didn’t go very well, did it? Heavy-handed, on the nose . . . it’s hardly even a story. The artistic error was choosing a plurality as a subject. It’s difficult to create complexity of character, complete with inner conflicts and landscapes and unique worldviews, when one’s protagonist is an amorphous group. Especially when the members are as slippery as politicians. I understand now why Andersen chose to write about an emperor rather than, say, the Rigsdag. Artistically, that is, never mind that the first Rigsdag convened twelve years after his fairy tale was published. That detail will be conveniently left out of my forthcoming treatise on art. It is a treatise written for a very select few, and will be scorned by the unenlightened masses. Only a humble and wise reader such as yourself, magnanimous and perfect in character, will understand the secrets I disclose therein.

So a character study is what’s needed, it seems.

• • • •

Once there were two tailors—

You know what? You’re right. We don’t need both of them. They’re hardly distinguishable as it is. Andersen might have wished to signify the multitudinousness of such men, or illustrate how well they work together, once they recognize each other, but we can take that for granted as something the reader already knows.

• • • •

Once there was a man who called himself whatever was suitable to his purposes at the time. If it profited him to say he was a soldier, then he was a soldier who had served with distinction. If it furthered his aims to call himself beloved, then someone’s sweetheart he was. By speaking the words that another person wished to hear, whether those words were flattery or promises or blame, he could insinuate himself into most others’ trust.

He had few talents besides this one, and a loathing for honest work besides, but this one talent proved enough to feed and clothe him until such time that the trick was plain. By then, of course, the man was long gone.

He fed at first on the labor of farmers, progressing at length to literate merchants and clerks. Over and over his living proved to him the moral by which he compassed his world: that the slow and stupid existed to be ruled and robbed by cleverer and better men than they.

But the smell of damp wool and the low burr of laborers came to displease him; the damp, wormy odors of ancient books soon bored him; in short, there are only so many times a bright man of tremendous worth can fleece the same kind of idiot. The reward is small, the dupery tedious. One must establish trust, perform small favors, establish rapport and commonalities, and so on and so forth, and that routine grows repetitive. The man longed to leave a mark on the face of history, as a result of which he could no longer be ignored.

And to do that, one must be proximate to greatness.

So the man who would call himself anything stashed away the profits of his cleverness until he could move to the valley of kings and queens, where starry fortunes were built upon a vastness of sand. Like pharaohs these men and women lived, erecting monuments and pressing whole hosts into hard labor; and word of their power and wealth had come to his ears.

The man bid farewell to the women who all thought themselves his one and only love, with haste and without many tears, since he did not expect to see them again. He did not kiss the infant boy that one held, with his own dark hair and dimpled cheeks.

Time and space did not chain our storyteller, for the stories he told disregarded both as soon as they became inconvenient. And so by steamer and coach, Greyhound and plane, the man made his way to the valley of sand.

And where money flows and ebbs in deep tides like the sea, shifting mountains, crashing, storming, drowning, the humblest barnacle is sufficiently wetted if it only clings to a firm surface. So the man lived, studying the landscape, until he heard the clack of dice in every two shells rolled along by the sea. With adjustments to his former patterns, he crabbed small fortunes with the wire cage of his smile and landed wish-granting carp with his tongue for bait.

A little empire he eked out, nestling against the greater fortunes and powers that ironed the land flat, effacing a neighborhood there, shredding communities there. From the kings of that land he learned to spin his silken webs to catch not one fly but a thousand. Once stuck in his flatteries, they squirmed to be sucked, pleading to be wrapped in his glorious silks. And he, like a spider, was glad to oblige.

Dining on every rare delicacy, traveling to white-dusted parties by limo and helicopter, he was contented for a time.

Then, as he listened, as he grew familiar with that land, he learned that these kings were clever but lesser, that an emperor ruled over them, and that this emperor was a fool. The kings simpered and groveled when they came before the emperor, just as this man did before them.

Bit by bit, the glitter of the valley of kings faded. The man grew restless and hungry once more. Late at night, he spun plans to weave himself into the imperial court and staff. Favors were asked here, a rumor murmured there. A few careers had to be ended to clear the way, but what of it? Soon an invitation on cream-thick paper made its way into his hand.

All was ready, the story staged, waiting only for the curtain and the lights.

On the morning the man walked out of his old apartment for the last time, a plane ticket clutched in one hand, he found a boy no older than fifteen, dressed in the clothes of another era, standing in the building’s entryway.

“Excuse me,” the man said, stepping around the boy.

“You’re my father,” the boy said.

“I don’t have a son.”

“Here’s a picture of us. I was three at the time.”

“That could be anyone.”

“It’s you. I didn’t come to bother you. I only wanted to ask—”

“You’re making me late.”

“—why you left. Why we weren’t enough for you.”

“Nothing personal. Nothing to do with you. But look at your mother. Was I supposed to grow old—with that? In that small, ratty house? In that backwater of a time and place? No, I am meant for greater things.”

“She said you were a tailor.”

“I do stitch, weave, and spin.”

“Will you teach me to be a tailor too?”

“In ten minutes, I’m going to miss my flight, which will cause me to miss a very important appointment. See, I’m on a tight schedule. Call me another time.”

“But,” the boy said, looking after him, “I don’t have your number . . .”

“So sorry, your imperial grandiloquence,” the man said, several hours later. “Encountered an unavoidable delay. But now that I’m here, my various skills as a tailor are at your praiseworthy self’s disposal. I can sew you an outfit, invisible, that all your subjects must nonetheless kiss the hems of, and admire. Sew half-truths and falsehoods together, until a listener can’t tell head from tail. Weave tales to turn brother against brother, snipping all bonds of loyalty except to you. These matters make my trade.”

“Be welcome here,” the emperor said. “I can tell that you are a gifted man.”

And the emperor threw a fistful of peas at him.

“Quick, a suit that will make me irresistible. I need it in five minutes. The Queen of Sheba is coming.”

“Immediately,” the tailor said.

But when the tailor returned after four minutes, carrying a suit of exaggerations, the emperor was already pawing at the Queen, who resisted with an expression of deep distaste, extracted herself, and stormed off.

“Where were you?” the emperor said, mashing a handful of gravy into the tailor’s hair. “I told you to be done in two minutes. You took ten.”

The tailor said, “That’s right, O golden sun of wisdom.”

“I didn’t get to fuck her because of you.”

“To make amends for your disappointment, may I offer you this suit of Impregnable Armor?” And he held out again the invisible clothes that mere minutes before had been an Irresistible Suit.

“Don’t be stupid. I can’t get pregnant.”

“Ah, but this suit protects you from all harm.”

“Gimme,” the emperor said, and was quickly dressed.

Even though his wares were intangible, producing enough of them to please the emperor and thus avoid the latest flung dish of baked beans proved exhausting for the soi-disant tailor.

He spun the Three-Piece of Plausible Denial, the Vest and Cravat of High Event Attendance, the Cufflinks of Venality. Each time, the emperor toyed with his work, tried it on, pronounced himself satisfied, and promptly forgot it existed.

“May I suggest,” the depleted tailor said, “stripping the populace of their rights, so that no one has rights but the most righteous of all, which is to say you, our rightness, you who are never wrong.”

“Why not?” the emperor said.

That was carried out, despite demonstrations and strikes and scathing newspaper columns, and then the tailor had to invent a new diversion.

“What about setting neighbor against neighbor and stranger against stranger? Tell the old story of the dark-skinned foreigner with his knife dripping blood. A little chaos does for power what warm horseshit does for weeds.”

“Whatever you like,” said the triply-clothed emperor. “Next.”

And those foreign-born or born to foreigners or born to those born to foreigners were rounded up, accused of crimes, and variously punished.

“May I suggest plucking the flower of youth before it grows strong enough to revolt?”

“Let it be so,” the emperor said.

Across the realm, children were mown down like green grass ahead of the mower’s scythe. Even the onion-eyed kings in their silicon towers felt their quartz hearts crack and said, “No more.” But they spoke it softly, so the emperor would not hear.

And while the tailor measured and spun and snipped, the murmur of the people rose to a roar. For there remained some of intelligence and clear thinking and good judgment among them, and these had gently taught the rest to put on new eyes and see.

On a day when the emperor was deliberating between the empty suit of Universal Belovedness on the tailor’s left arm and the trousers and blazer of Religious Authority draped over his right, a herald ran in with the report that a mob had smashed through the palace gates and was headed toward the emperor’s palace.

Indeed, through the window they could see a dark storm of humanity swelling on the horizon. All that stood between that flood and the doors was a line of police with loaded rifles. Most of the mob was children, with some old women mixed in, and some young, as well as a few brave men, and they stepped over the bodies of those who were shot and pressed forward to the palace, inevitable as death.

The tailor, with the instinct of a hare, twitched and backed toward the exit.

The emperor said, “Sit.”

And the tailor sat.

At a snap of the emperor’s fingers, servants tugged the curtains shut, so that they could no longer see the cresting wave. The lights were switched off. They waited in darkness.

“Bring me a bottle,” the emperor said, and poured two fingers of sixty-year-old liquor into two glasses. One he drank. One he emptied over the tailor.

“That suit,” the emperor said, “that prevents all harm—I’m wearing it now. But what will you do, clever tailor, when they come through these doors?”

Distantly, over the gunfire, they could hear the children singing, and the song rose sweet and clear on the wind. Soon there began, at the palace doors, a heavy and fateful thudding, like that of a heart under terrible strain. All the world, it seemed, kind and cruel alike, had come to beat down the palace doors.

If you’ll excuse me, I am now going to join them.

Heaven help the children.

Heaven help us all.

E. Lily Yu

E. Lily Yu is the author of On Fragile Waves, published in 2021, which the New York Times described as “devastating and perfect.” She received the Artist Trust LaSalle Storyteller Award in 2017 and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 2012, and has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards. More than thirty short stories have appeared in venues from McSweeney’s to Boston Review to Tor.com, as well as twelve best-of-the-year anthologies.