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The Poet-Kings and the Word Plague

Alex Shvartsman is a writer, anthologist, translator, and game designer from Brooklyn, NY. He's the winner of the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction and a finalist for the 2015 Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Writing. His short stories have appeared in Nature, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, Galaxy's Edge, and a variety of other magazines and anthologies. His collection, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories, and his steampunk humor novella H. G. Wells, Secret Agent were published in 2015.

Alex is the editor of the Unidentified Funny Objects series of humorous science fiction and fantasy. In addition to the UFO series, he has edited the Funny Science Fiction, Funny Fantasy, Coffee: 14 Caffeinated Tales of the Fantastic, and Dark Expanse: Surviving the Collapse anthologies. His website is alexshvartsman.com.

The poet-kings of Sharabarai had reigned for millennia; a succession of benevolent rulers, each filling the vellum pages of sacred books with wisdom and beauty. It is said that Caium the Second labored for three straight days with no sleep, sustained only by sips of cardamom tea, as he feverishly wrote a hundred-page saga of creation and the early gods so potent that reality itself had altered to oblige his vision. Uthar the Clement spent thirty years composing the perfect haiku. Kira the Compassionate wrote powerful odes which made other poets weep knowing they could never match the elegance of her words.
By royal decree all children were schooled in the art of poetry, and all officeholders were expected to contribute compositions to the best of their ability. As the library shelves across Sharabarai grew more voluminous so did the prosperity and contentment of its citizens. The golden age lasted until the advent of the word plague.
The early warnings came from the small libraries in the villages on the outskirts of the kingdom. Reports of words gone missing from the otherwise perfectly metered verses and misplaced caesurae cropping up in copies of classic sagas were dismissed as hysterical presumptions of under-qualified scholars. But the word plague continued to spread, affecting tomes across the kingdom, corrupting entire poems, turning them into muddled messes of haphazard words.
The royal librarians ordered the doors shut, armed guard posted over the sacred volumes. Their efforts were for naught: the word plague ravaged the writings of kings and paupers alike. The venerated lines withered like leaves in October, the gilded tomes bleeding wisdom and ink.
There were panic and bread shortages. Anarchists recited limericks in the streets and even the most levelheaded of civil servants struggled with flawed form and cliched imagery. In the capital, where the density of books was highest, entire pages turned blank. Certain scholars, overcome by madness and grief, chose to burn the afflicted books in an effort to save the rest.
Desperate to preserve centuries of recorded wisdom, king Rashim the Gentle summoned mnemonists and savants. He tasked them with memorizing the greatest poems and the most astute commentaries so that the legacy of the poet-kings could survive.
For ten years the word plague ravaged the kingdom of Sharabarai. Those who memorized the texts of the now-useless books came to be known as the Keepers. They were sent to spread the teachings of the poet-kings and calm the populace in the provinces. But the Keepers weren't infallible: soon they discovered that knowledge was power and with no written record to dispute their recitations they adjusted and reshaped both word and spirit of the texts to suit their own needs, and so the perfection and brilliance of the poems were often lost.
The leader of the Keepers was a main named Eishiot. Charismatic and wily, he claimed to possess eidetic memory and was especially skilled at bending the ancient words to serve his goals. By decade's end he controlled the kingdom, with Rashim reduced to an impotent figurehead.
When he learned of the word plague subsiding, Eishiot feared losing the Keepers' grip on power. He ordered what few books remained intact to be gathered at the palace, then shredded and used as mulch in the royal garden. All those who opposed his will were banished or jailed, and the last poet-king of Sharabarai passed away in his bed, under the most suspicious of circumstances.
The end of the dynasty sparked the fires of revolution. The loyalists fought the usurpers. The capital burned. The garden, the library, and the palace were all turned to ash. The Keepers were rounded up by the new regime. Eishiot drank hemlock rather than be captured by his opponents. Other Keepers were tried and executed in public, but each time one of their numbers was put to death, precious poems they memorized were lost forever. The people mourned the loss of their legacy.
It is the will of the gods that, like raging forest fires, word plagues occasionally purge the philosophies of men, but the seeds of mortal minds are ever resilient; their ideas always find a way to survive and flourish.
The new growth sprung where the royal garden once stood. Stems reached toward the sun, rooted in mulch and ash, and when fragrant, fantastical flowers bloomed in the spring, the original lines of poems, unaltered by fallible men, were inscribed on their petals.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, October 3rd, 2016

Author Comments

Like many of my flash fiction stories, this was written as part of the Weekend Warrior contest at the Codex Writers forum. I refer to it as my "prose poetry book porn" story. I normally write plot-driven stories with relatively austere prose, the sort of prose whose job is not to get in the way of the tale. But flash fiction allows writers to experiment with different voices, styles, and modes of storytelling. So I tried to write something with lush descriptions and evocative imagery instead. I also wrote without a safety net: I normally plan out the major plot points and the ending, but this time I just let the story take me where it wanted to go. I hope you enjoy the result!

- Alex Shvartsman
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