Sung was a land which was famous far and wide, simply because it was so often and so richly insulted. However, there was one visitor, more excitable than most, who developed a positive passion for criticising the place. Unfortunately, the pursuit of this hobby soon led him to take leave of the truth.
This unkind traveller once claimed that the king of Sung, the notable Skan Askander, was a derelict glutton with a monster for a son and a slug for a daughter. This was unkind to the daughter. While she was no great beauty, she was not a slug. After all, slugs do not have arms and legs - and, besides, slugs do not grow to that size.
There was a grain of truth in the traveller's statement, in as much as the son was a regrettable young man. However, soon afterwards, the son was accidentally drowned when he made the mistake of falling into a swamp with his hands and feet tied together and a knife sticking out of his back.
This tragedy did not encourage the traveller to extend his sympathies to the family. Instead, he invented fresh accusations. This wayfarer, an ignorant tourist if ever there was one, claimed that the king had leprosy. This was false. The king merely had a well-developed case of boils.
The man with the evil mouth was guilty of a further malignant slander when he stated that King Skan Askander was a cannibal. This was untrue. While it must be admitted that the king once ate one of his wives, he did not do so intentionally; the whole disgraceful episode was the fault of the chef, who was a drunkard, and who was subsequently severely reprimanded.
Again, the traveller was in error when he claimed that the kingdom of Sung was badly governed. In fact, the kingdom was not governed at all. Indeed, even to imply that there was such a thing as the "kingdom of Sung" was, to say the least, misleading.
The question of the governance, and, indeed, the very existence of the "kingdom of Sung" is one that is worth pursuing in detail, before dealing with the traveller's other allegations.
It is true that there was a king, his name being Skan Askander, and that some of his ancestors had been absolute rulers of considerable power. It is also true that the king's chief swineherd, who doubled as royal cartographer, drew bold, confident maps proclaiming the borders of the realm. Furthermore, the king could pass laws, sign death warrants, issue currency, declare war or amuse himself by inventing new taxes. And what he could do, he did.
"We are a king who knows how to be king," said the king.
And, certainly, anyone wishing to dispute his right to use the imperial "we" would have had to contend with the fact that there was enough of him, in girth, bulk and substance, to provide the makings of four or five ordinary people, flesh, bones and all. He was an imposing figure; "very imposing," one of his brides is alleged to have said, shortly before the accident in which she suffocated.
"We live in a palace," said the king. "Not in a tent like Khmar, the chief milkmaid of Tameran, or in a draughty pile of stones like Comedo of Estar."
His remarks were, in due course, widely reported.
From Prince Comedo came the following tart rejoinder:
"Unlike yours, my floors are not made of milk-white marble. However, unlike yours, my floors are not knee-deep in pigshit."
The Note from Comedo came promptly, for, pirates and sea monsters permitting, a few days by sea could take one from Estar to Sung. Receiving that Note, Skan Askander placed it by his commode, where it would be handy for future royal use.
Much later, and to his great surprise, he received a communication from the Lord Emperor Khmar, the undisputed master of most of the continent of Tameran. The fact that Sung had come to the attention of Khmar was, to say the least, ominous. Khmar had this to say:
"Your words have been reported. In due course, they will be remembered against you."
The king of Sung, terrified, endured the sudden onset of an attack of diarrhoea which had nothing to do with the figs he had been eating. His latest bride, seeing his acute distress, made the most of her opportunity, and vigorously counselled him to commit suicide. Knowing Khmar's reputation, he was tempted - but finally, to her great disappointment, declined. Nevertheless, he lived in fear; he had no way of knowing that he was simply the victim of one of Khmar's little jokes.
In an effort to avert disaster, the king of Sung made the following law:
"Skan Askander, king of Sung, ruler of Ravlish East, emperor of the Lesser Teeth and of the Greater, rightful heir of Penvash and of Trest and of Estar, scourge of the Hauma Sea and lord of the Central Ocean, will and must and does with respect and piety thrice daily honour an image of the Lord Emperor Khmar, most noble and esteemed Overlord of All Lands and All Peoples for All Eternity."
The law was obeyed, one of Khmar's far-flung coins serving as an image until a statue could be made.
Thus, thrice daily, Skan Askander bowed down to his idol, the graven image of the distant emperor of Tameran. Khmar, hearing of this, sent him a present - a wine skin containing the death-blood of a traitor. The skin was many days in transit; the condition of the contents on arrival are better imagined than described. However, the king thanked Khmar for his gift, and sent him a side of bacon in return.
Skan Askander ordered the wine skin, bereft of contents, to be paraded in front of his household once a year, at a solemn ceremony at which all present were to take or affirm an oath of fealty to the distant emperor.
This was done.
So it is clear that at least two of the king's laws were effective. Furthermore, obedient to his written commands, the sun rose in the east and set in the west; the moon waxed and waned; the tides rose and fell; the winds swept in from the open oceans and brought generous helpings of rain to his scrabble-rock kingdom.
Nevertheless, most of the laws passed by the king were widely flouted, or obeyed only by accident. He decreed that everyone should wash their bodies at least once in every lunar month; scarcely one person in a thousand obeyed. He had more success with a law forbidding people to sleep by daylight, but no joy whatseover with a ludicrous statute - he was drunk at the time he signed it into law - which endeavoured to compel people to obtain written permits from the state to authorise their births, deaths and marriages.
As for the king's wars, death warrants and taxes, these were never fought, executed or raised; indeed, most of the king's putative subjects never heard of those wars, death warrants and taxes. In fact, many of them lived out their lives without hearing of the king.
For, if the unvarnished truth be told, the borders established with such exactitude by Skan Askander's part-time cartographer were, not to put too fine a point upon it, fatuous. In the continent of Argan, many leagues to the east of the king's palace and piggery, the lands of Trest and Estar had their own rulers, while Penvash was commanded by the Melski, green-skinned monsters who had defeated the king's ancestors in a disastrous war which had permanently undermined the credibility of the monarchy.
To the south, the islands of the Greater Teeth were under the sway of the Orfus pirates, those gentlemen occasionally known - but only to themselves - as the Honourable Associates of the Free Federation of High Sea Sailors. Skan Askander's claim to rule the Greater Teeth was spurious; even the fishermen and fisherwomen who inhabited the low-slung sandy islands of the Lesser Teeth defied him, for they lived independently, acknowledging no rulers whatsoever.
As for the eastern end of the Ravlish Lands, where the king had his home, most of it was effectively under the control of the barons who lorded it over huge country estates, or was supervised by self-governing towns which had persuaded the world to describe them as "city states," though few had a population of more than two thousand talking heads.
To return to our unkind traveller, who so maligned the unfortunate land of Sung, it has now been demonstrated that there was no truth to his claim that the kingdom of Sung was badly goverend. His statement was not just untrue but impossible, for, as there was in practice no such thing as "the kingdom of Sung," the question of its governance did not arise.
The traveller, out of ignorance or malice, made another mistake when he claimed that the main amusements in the kingdom of Sung were scavenging gorse, drowning in peat bogs and playing at fumble in the smothering fog.
The non-existence of the kingdom in question has already been amply demonstrated, which in itself serves to prove the allegation false. Assuming that the traveller was speaking of that eastern part of the Ravlish Lands commonly known as "Sung" scarcely improves matters, for the statement would still be false both in its substance and its implications.
The traveller's accusation implies that Sung was a dull, foggy area domianted by gorse and peat bogs and inhabited by dull, provincial people at a loss for any reasonable form of entertainment.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
As a matter of fact, less than seven percent of the arable land was covered with gorse; in contrast, horse thistle, gripe and barbarian thorn accounted for twenty-two percent between them, with another twelve percent being dominated by snare, clox and blackberry. Overall, only three percent of Sung was peat bog, a full fifty percent being bleak-rock uplands, or trackless forests where ravening wolves would ravage the unwary, leaving the stripped skeletons to become bones of contention between bad-tempered porcupines and rabid foxes.
And to say that Sung was foggy! That was ridiculous. Foggy days were few and far between, there being only ten days of fog a year, compared to 275 days of rain. Water is essential to life, so the inhabitants of Sung were particularly favoured and fortunate, for they were copiously supplied with this commodity, which was delivered free of charge or taxes.
Let is also be known that, contrary to the traveller's declaration, the amusements of the people were many. The principal pastimes were hunting, feuding, fighting and fornication. Drinking and gambling were also very popular, and, on occasion, the people found time for dancing, music and banqueting.
The inhabitants of Sung had their own unique cultural heritage, the intricacies of which were seldom appreciated by outsiders; it included lively games such as "Stone the Leper," and detailed religious rituals such as those laid down for strangling unwanted children and disposing of aged relatives.
Clearly, the unkind traveller whose comments have been the subject of this analysis did Sung a great wrong when he slandered it so unforgivably.
So who was he, and what were his motives?
The disgruntled traveller was none other than the renegade wizard of Drum, who lived on a high and barren island in the dangerous strait separating the continent of Argan from the Ravlish Lands. The wizard of Drum had passed through Sung frequently on his various peregrinations, and, for one reason or another, had never been very pleased with his reception.
Once, indeed, he almost became the victim of a game of "Stone the Leper," which was unfortunate as his incontinent reaction left fifty people dead and an entire village in smouldering ruins. It must be admitted, also, that the wizard of Drum was one of the victims of the Devaluation, which occurred shortly after he had been paid 5,268 punts for work he had done for the Wordsmiths and the Warguild. After that incident, he swore never again to have anything to do with Sung, or even to set foot in the place.
The Devaluation, which ruined many people, was the direct result of swine fever.
While the kingdom of Sung was at best a legal fiction, and the king of Sung little more than a handy butt for the jokes of his people, the currency issued by the king had for many years enjoyed great respect and stability.
King Skan Askander was passionately interested in pigs, which he bred on a large scale. The currency he issued was backed up pork, and consisted of elegant ceramic dials marked "one rasher," "five rashers" or "fifty rashers," and of thin bronze disks which each declared that "This Punt Will Be Redeemed By The Royal Exchequer For One Side Of Bacon."
Then came the great swine fever epidemic of the year Askander 32. In the consequent and inevitably Devaluation, a punt became worth a single rasher of bacon, and the minor ceramic coins became worthless. Hence the wrath of the wizard of Drum, who, besides being rather partial to pork, had seven hungry dragons to feed.
While the wizard of Drum had nothing good to say of Sung, there was some good that could be said of it. There were no droughts and no deserts; the land was free from scorpions and crocodiles; nobody died of thirst and nobody of heatstroke; there were no forest fires, and there was virtually unlimited stone for building with.
Furthermore, despite the weakness of the king, the ferocity of the barons, the strictly parochial interest of the city states and the local penchant for feuding and fighting, the land was protected by a rough and ready form of law and order administered by the Warguild. This wizard of Drum once described the Warguild as a club for the promotion of amateur archery; while it is true that the Warguild held archery contests with wine and women as the prizes, there was much more to it than that.
The Warguild was a league of the most aggressive barons who had made a mutal defence treaty to protect the realm. It had been formed thirty years previously when the land had been plagued by bandits and warlords; having routed out those nuisances, the Warguild now occasionally exercised itself by undertaking mercenary forays, or by serving as guards with Galish convoys.
Many Galish convoys passed through Sung, as the main long-distance trading route, the Salt Road, ran through the land. Furthermore, convoys often wintered in Sung. The Galish found it attractive first and most importantly because the king was too weak to levy any residency taxes, and, second, because the local patois was a form of Galish, albeit much modified. Indeed, some generations previously, this land had been colonised by a number of Galish convoys at a time when war, plague and famine had made trading particularly difficult. The lifestyle of the inhabitants of Sung was now wildly different from that of the Galish traders, to put it mildly, but, when they spoke, they still found each other mutually intelligible.
If there had been any problems in understanding then the Wordsmiths, now busy perfecting their command of all known languages, could surely have translated. The Wordsmiths, an organisation slightly oder than the Warguild, had formed their alliance shortly after the discovery of the odex, which, in the year Askander 35 - three years after the Devaluation - was held in the Wordsmiths' stronghold in a city state in the mountains, a town known as Keep, which boasted a population of a full 5,000 souls.
Not far from Keep was the estate of Baron Chan Poulaan, who, on a certain night in the season of autumn, was keeping a close eye on his son Togura, who was dancing with the girl Day Suet. Now the Suets were a family from Keep, a powerful banking and trading family which actively supported the Wordsmiths. Baron Chan Poulaan, head of the Warguild, considered himself to be, in some respects, the de facto ruler of Sung; he was suspicious of traders, bankers and of the Wordsmiths, and saw the family Suet in partciular as a potential rival for influence and power.
At this stage, it is worth noting that the palace of King Skan Askander lay close to the city state of Keeep. The Suets were, therefore, in a good position to make a grab for any residual power commanded by the royal family. It was said that one of the boys of the Suet family was bravely romancing the king's daughter, Slerma, who, at sweet sixteen, was alleged to weigh in at sixty bushels.
Baron Chan Poulaan had already determined that his son Togura would marry the king's daughter. He had come to a private agreement with Skan Askander, and had already informed Togura that he would soon be betrothed to Slerma.
Watching Togura and Day, Baron Poulaan noted how closely they held each other when the dance came to a clinch, and frowned.