There was uncertainty in the land, as the great empires of Asia and Europe sought to win the allegiance of a bachelor monarch.
Not that the King took any notice. Henri-Luc the Third, the Most Christian Majesty of France, was preoccupied with a more immediate concern. Squatting in a small forest hide, he was busy watching the big stag in the glade. Clearly nervous, the beast was at full alert, nostrils flaring, eyes darting, flanks trembling.
“Sire, the issue of the Byzantine princess …” whispered his First Minister. Henri-Luc silenced him with an immediate raise of his hand. This morning already he’d lost three lances in an attempt to nail the buck; the King of All France, Its Territories and Grand Domains was not prepared to waste the last. He weighed up the spear in his hand and judged the distance once more. The hunting poodles sprang out at the deer on his command, and the Roi de France jumped up and hurled.
Straight into the side of the beast. Finally, a clean kill.
The King took a bow; the hunting party applauded and, at his command, began butchering the animal ahead of tonight’s feast.
But damn the Chinese and their silly ideas. That had taken far too long.
The Son of Heaven regarded his hunting seriously indeed, and it took him several hours to cease brooding and remember that he was unfortunately meant to be discussing matters of state. It was not until dinnertime that he took aside his Premier once more. “Lemerie, you were saying?”
The little man puckered up his face and tried to choose his words carefully. He looked downwards, as much to avoid the wafts of body odour that emanated from His Grace as anything else. “My liege, it is no small matter. Your impending choice of betrothed is causing much concern.”
The monarch paused to pass some wind, and giggled like a schoolboy. Lemerie gagged. Serving as head of government to such a dolt was no easy task, he reflected again, for the hundredth time that day.
“What, exactly, Lemerie?”
The First Minister needed to choose his words carefully. “It is the Byzantine princess, Your Manifest Wonderfulness. I agree that marrying her could be a great strategic boon to the kingdom. But she brings many strange customs with her. People are uncomfortable. They say she goes against the traditions of your kingdom. So uneasy are they, sire, that some of your nobles are beginning to believe the marriage should not proceed.”
The King stared at his Chief Counsellor, all the while absently picking his teeth. Lemerie could not tell if he was cogitating on this new intelligence, or simply trying to remove a particularly difficult chunk of meat from his molars. Who knew?
The First Minister gathered up the courage to continue. “They say you should take up the recent offer of the Chinese legation, and marry their Emperor’s daughter instead.”
Silence. Finally, the monarch withdrew his fingers from his mouth and brushed them clean on Lemerie’s lapel. “What particular customs, then? And why such offence?”
A servant entered in the uncomfortable silence, and dished them up each a plate of the cooked stag, along with bread, a knife and spoon. Lemerie had to think this one through carefully: the Divine Guardian of the People wasn’t good with complicated concepts or long explanations.
He watched silently for a minute as the King tore apart the roast with his spoon and knife, speared it on the tip of his knife, and ate.
“This, Your Majesty, may serve as an example.” From within his pocket he pulled out a novel little silver device. Like a knife, but with three much smaller prongs, rather than one. “The Byzantines call this a fork. Apparently they have been using them for centuries.”
The Dauphin took it in hand, turned it over, and grunted. “A fuque, eh? What do you do with it?”
“A fork, milord.” His counsellor politely but firmly turned it around so that the King was no longer holding it by the three tines, but rather by its handle. “You stab the meat with it, sire.” He glanced at the stag turning slowly over the charcoal. “Perhaps you might like to try it on that.”
Henri-Luc stared at the instrument for a minute, his eyes narrowing with the effort of so much concentration, then back at the roasting buck. He passed wind once more, loudly, and waved away his First Minister.
“Leave me. Let me see how useful this … fondue … thing is. At least it may help me determine whether this Byzantine bride will be to our royal wishes.”
“Fork, sire.” Lemerie departed, shaking his head.
The hunt started again, the next day. That afternoon, the First Minister was commanded to come forward and be alone with the Francorum Rex, as the hunting crew proceeded ahead of them.
“I am well pleased, Lemerie. I have decided to marry the Byzantine princess, regardless.”
“Oh, m’lord? May I ask why?”
“I had no idea that they were such an innovative people. We can learn much from the Byzantines. And all because of that…” he tried to describe it with his hand, “…little funk.”
“Fork, your excellency.”
“Yes, that as well.”
Up ahead they could hear the hunting party moving through the forest. Silence, then the woods were filled with the dying bray of another stag being bought down.
“So much smarter than the Chinese,” mused the King.
They hurried on towards the clearing.
“Yes,” continued the monarch, “those Asian emissaries tried us to convince us of their superior technology, like their dipstick…”
“And what did we get? Just a lance, and you saw how poorly that served me.” The Divine Majesty paused. “But the Byzantines are far advanced. Let me show you.”
They entered the clearing, where his hunters had gathered around a dead buck. A giant fork was sticking in its side.
“The best hunting instrument ever!”
Michael T Schaper hails from Australia’s “bush capital” Canberra, and is currently recovering from having spent the last decade as deputy chair of the country’s national competition & consumer agency. Few industries, though, are as competitive as writing.