The rain was little more than a distraction. Carol was not going to let a little water ruin his day. The girl he’d just visited had made his every dream come true, and made him feel absolutely alive.
The world was at his feet, and even the weight of being king of Romania could be set aside in favor of the benefits, the feeling of power. His country was at its peak, his people produced more than enough to support the life he wanted to live, and he could afford to simply let the world take care of itself for a few days.
So the fact that he couldn’t control the weather was of little import. He could transcend it. The distance to his beautiful, newly completed Royal Palace was short enough that he could luxuriate in the rain.
“Such a day might not be amiss in one of Dante’s circles,” a man said.
Carol turned to look at him, more curious than alarmed by the appearance of a stranger at his side. Anyone on the palace grounds would have been thoroughly checked before entrance was granted. The man was tall and gaunt, dressed in the dark suit of a clerk and possessed of skin so sallow as to seem grey. He was about sixty years old.
“And yet, here you prance like a carefree child.” The voice was mild, unassuming, but with some authority.
Perhaps, Carol thought, he is an officer among the clerks. Then he wondered whether there were ranks among the grey men who ordered his food and kept track of the gardeners’ salaries. “I would advise you to disappear before you draw the wrong kind of attention to yourself,” Carol said, feeling generous. “You come dangerously close to impertinence.”
“Truth cannot be impertinent.”
“I shall have the first guard we meet put you in irons.” Carol was a military man, trained in trench warfare during the days of the Great War, not merely a soft monarch. No elderly clerk was going to worry him overmuch.
He reached the door of the palace, irritated to find that the guard was off on rounds. The impertinent clerk followed him inside. “You understand that you will suffer the hot irons of the torture chamber if you persist in annoying me, do you not?”
“I will burn? Perhaps I will. But that is not the question here.” They walked through the echoing corridors, past the formal throne room and all the way into Carol’s private office.
Carol’s secretary was out to lunch. He sighed. “You have gone well past the point of mere incarceration and torture. I suppose there is something you want.”
“I want nothing for myself. I am only here to open your eyes.”
At this, Carol II, King of Romania, laughed. “And what is it you see from your desk in my cellars that I cannot see from the pinnacle of our society?”
“I can see the signs in the clouds. The darkness of the clouds of war that will engulf Romania while you flitter from one puerile pleasure to another. I can see them, many can see them. But you are blind.”
“Romania is not involved in the war. Let the French and the Germans keep their little spat to themselves.”
“And the Soviets? Do you think that Hitler will tolerate Stalin on his borders? Or that Stalin doesn’t know that he can’t survive having the Fascists on his?”
“That is of no concern to me. Romania has nothing to do with the conflict.”
“For a king, you seem to have little grasp of geography. Where, exactly, do you think this war will be fought? And which convenient, nearby oil-rich nation do you think will fuel it?”
Carol lifted his arm to pick up his phone, to order the man publicly hanged. The only thing that stopped him was the fact that the man’s words echoed the fears that he, himself harbored. The voice that kept him awake at three in the morning, long after his mistress had drifted into the peaceful sleep of the peasantry. “We are neutral,” he insisted. “The British and the French guarantee our territorial rights.”
“The French are as good as defeated, and I imagine the British will soon have bigger problems to worry about.”
Carol just stared at him, arm outstretched.
“Perhaps it is something you should consider, instead of thinking about which girl you will bed next.”
“What do you mean?”
“You need to choose. You need to take a side, because a war is coming that will tear Romania apart.”
“We are neutral.”
“That means less than nothing.” A hint of emotion entered the man’s voice. “Two madmen, madmen at the helms of two of the greatest armies the world will ever see, are about to fight to the death. They define the reality in which they function, and their troops enforce that definition for everyone else. Do you really think they care about your blessed neutrality?”
Carol said nothing.
“You will die against a wall of this palace, shot like a dog. And so will many, many other Romanians. The difference is that you have the chance to decide your fate. They will not. You must choose.”
“But… But who? Who should I choose?”
A dry chuckle. “That is your burden, not mine. But you must choose wisely.” The man took one last look at Carol and stood, nodded once and walked out the door.
Carol sat for an eternity, head in hands. And then he stood up and walked into the parade ground, in an attempt to clear his head. The rain beat down on his shoulders like molten lead.
He knew it would be too heavy a burden to bear, and an image of himself, alone in exile, came unbidden but with the force of truth into his mind. But it was still better than standing against the wall blindfolded. It was still better than having to choose.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over a hundred published stories and three books to his credit. Every Day Fiction is one of his favorite places to get a fiction fix — and loves the interaction when one of his stories is published there.