The cavalry first appeared as a bobbing of scarlet plumes above the sea of waving pennants.
Soon the clatter of hooves cleared a path through the cheering throng, launching the parade.
Into their wake, surged six phalanxes of drummers beating a sharp tattoo:
Tat! Tat!… Tat! Tat! Tat! Tat!
And on their heels washed wave after wave of marching bands, the big brass horns bleating a lively tune:
The crowd loved it. They locked arms and swayed to the music. Rarely had they so much fun. The emperor was in town and he always put on a good show.
Finally came the soldiers, lots and lots of soldiers, all marching in lock-step. There were so many soldiers that by the time the emperor strolled along, no one could hear the clatter of cavalry, nor the beat of drums, nor the oom-pa-pa of brass bands, only the muffled thud, thud, thud of boots against cobble stones.
As the emperor passed by, a hush fell over the throng as everyone held their collective breath. Even the cowbirds ceased their endless chatter.
He padded along quietly, bare-footed and quite bare-naked, nodding and smiling toward the crowd, who quietly and respectfully nodded and smiled in return.
His Magnificence was anything but. He was short, bald, portly and not well proportioned as was obvious by his more than revealed proportions.
The only thing exceptional about him was his crown, for without it he would be nothing more than a naked man. Yet no one saw what their eyes beheld because each person only observed what they convinced themselves to see.
Until…. a young boy cried out from a distant window in a back street.
“Holy Moly! The emperor is BUCK NAKED!!”
The emperor paid him no mind.
The crowd paid him no mind.
The only one who took note was the Prime Minister, who later that day stepped into a back street bakery. His presence sent the baker’s few customers bolting for the exit, only to have their way blocked by a thug, who leaned menacingly against the door jamb.
The Prime Minister causally picked through the breads, biscuits and tarts until finding one to his liking, took a bite, frowned and tossed it aside.
Turning his eye to the proprietor, he inquired, “May I speak to your children?”
The baker shuddered but managed to croak, “Of course, your eminence.”
A moment later, a bright lad and his little sister descended the stairway from a living space above the shop.
“Boy,” the prime minister asked, “Can you read?”
“Sure can,” the boy chirped.
“Read my title,” he said, indicating the badge he wore over his heart.
“Primus,” the boy said.
“Ah, a clever lad and gifted with sharp eyesight as well. Tell me what you saw today?”
Again the boy chirped, “A parade.”
“What did you not see?”
For the first time, the boy noticed the fear in his father’s eyes.
“Good boy, you saw nothing,” the Prime Minister said. “Though you will still have to apologize.”
“For what?” the boy wanted to know.
“For shouting that the emperor was naked.”
“But it was true.”
“Which is precisely why you must apologize, because no one will serve a leader made a fool of by a baker’s boy.”
“Then maybe he should put some clothes on.”
The Prime Minister scowled – but soon his expression turned into a broad smile.
“You are an intelligent child, so I will explain.
Clothes would only make him an ordinary emperor, not a powerful one. A truly powerful emperor does not need clothes. What he needs are subjects who see what he wants them to see – even if their eyes reveal something else.”
The Prime Minister then sighed and turned to the baker.
“Did you see a naked emperor?”
The baker vigorously shook his head. “No sir.”
“Did you?” the prime minister asked the little girl.
She let out a soft yelp and tucked behind her father.
The prime minister turned to the shoppers huddling in the corner.
“Can anyone say they saw what the boy claims?”
No one could.
“Then he must apologize.”
“He will,” the baker acknowledged.
“And he will do so naked before the entire city at the next parade.”
“Dad?” the boy cried.
But the baker shot down his appeal with a sharp wave of his hand.
“My boy,” the Prime Minister said, “Are you so clever that you can see what no one else can?”
“I saw what I saw,” the boy insisted.
“No,” said the Prime Minister, “you saw what you allowed yourself the luxury of seeing, but let us talk about that. For an emperor to be more then just any man, his subjects must see more than meets the eye, and to be truthful, there nothing is more humiliating than being forced to see what is not there. It is the ultimate test of power and something every one of our emperor’s subjects lives with day to day. Other than you I suppose – which is why you must join the humiliation.”
“I won’t do it,” cried the boy.
“Drago!” the Prime Minister growled.
“Even if you torture me, I won’t.”
“Oh, I would never torture you, for then you would be a martyr who lacked sincerity and the crowd would sense that…. No, I would torture someone you love. Someone too young to comprehend why she was subject to such horror… Seize the girl.”
Suddenly, the boy grasped the world he lived in.
“No, no, please, I’ll do it,” he cried.
“See,” the Prime Minister said, “this is how power works.”
At noon on the following Sunday, the cavalry cleared a path through a sea of pennants.
The drummers beat a sharp tattoo.
The brass bands played Oom-pa-pa and the crowd loved it.
The soldier’s boots thudded on the cobblestone in what seemed like an endless procession, until a naked emperor chanced upon a naked boy.
“Good grief, lad, what are you wearing?”
“Nothing, your magnificence.”
“Most odd… but if you are wearing nothing at all, what am I wearing?”
“Clever boy, anything else?”
“I am just a simple lad, your magnificence, I don’t know the name of things.”
“Ah…” said the emperor picking at his neck, “this stole is made from the finest ermine.”
“White ermine?” asked the boy, “… like what the Prime Minister wears?”
“Uh no… and my cloak is purest red velvet.”
“Not purple velvet?”
That angered the emperor. “Who would wear purple other than me?”
“I don’t want to get him in trouble.”
The emperor ticked through a list of his apparel and with each item the boy confirmed what he knew he should see, but also saw a more splendid item gracing the Prime Minister – and with each utterance the emperor’s jealous blush turned a deeper shade of red.
Finally, the Prime Minister had enough, and rushing forward, cried, “Drago, seize the little brat!”
But Drago catching a subtle nod from the emperor, seized the Prime Minister by the scruff of his neck instead.
“Sorry, your eminence,” Drago said, dragging the Prime Minister to his doom, “but you were right about one thing.“
“No one will serve a leader made a fool of by a baker’s boy.”
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