nce upon a time there was a great and powerful kingdom. Though not totally peaceful, it was more peaceful than most; its Emperors tried hard to do the right thing, usually, and sometimes even succeeded. It was a lucky land.
One spring, however, its fortunes turned. A ship bearing cargo from the East contained a pestilence, which spread far and wide. The sitting Emperor, who had been a reasonably good Emperor, died; as did the person expected to succeed him — and so forth and so on, until the throne ended up in the hands of a distant relation, a vain and dim-witted merchant widely considered to be a mountebank.
This poor reputation made the new Emperor even more determined to show his enemies — which he defined as “everyone” — how wonderful and special he was. He decided to throw the most lavish coronation the Empire had ever seen; putting the affairs of state on hold, the Emperor oversaw every detail personally. Finally, he was down to the last item: his outfit.
Merchants from all around the Empire came to offer up their goods. They knew that the Emperor’s taste was rather garish, so each of them tried to outdo the other until the Emperor was practically drowning in bolts of silk, luxurious pelts and fabrics that sparkled like the night sky. Finally one outfit seemed to stand out above all the others, a velvet and ermine number so encrusted with gems you could barely lift it.
“I’ll take it,” the Emperor snarled, for he snarled at everyone. “For free. You’ll be paid in exposure.”
To his credit, the clothier did not lose his temper; he was much too sly for that. Paid in exposure, eh? A plan formed.
“My dear Emperor,” the man purred, “this was a test. These raiments, though fine, are not the finest in the land — but by picking them you show yourself to be a man of unparalleled taste and refinement. There is an ensemble, one I’ve been working on for years, that is classier by far. So classy, in fact, that only the classiest people can even see it.”
The Emperor stopped frowning. “Did you bring it?” he asked.
The next morning, the Emperor and the clothier boarded his splendid gilded carriage. During the short ride to the Grand Cathedral, the clothier helped the Emperor out of his old outfit, and into his new, much classier one. Just as they pulled up to the Grand Cathedral, the clothier leaned over. “Sire, let me adjust your hat.”
“Thanks,” the Emperor growled, for he growled at everyone. “How do I look?” “Unforgettable,” the clothier said.
When the Emperor emerged from his carriage, there were gasps. For a moment, the Emperor was unsure; the clothier leaned out of the window. “They are gasping in wonder, your Highness.”
“Obviously,” the Emperor snapped, and strode confidently down the red carpet toward the church. The throngs packed in behind grim-faced soldiers were silent; not a flag waved, not a word was spoken.
At the church door, a child of one of the imperial chambermaids broke the silence. “Look, Mom!” she cried. “He’s naked! The Emperor is naked!”
The little girl wormed her way between the soldiers. Giggling, she ran up to the Emperor, and grabbed his scrawny member. “Mom, look!” She pulled it like the bell in the Empress’s bedroom. “Ding-DONG. Get it? Ding-dong!” Then the girl collapsed on the ground laughing because this was the funniest thing ever.
Perhaps it was the titters in the crowd, or perhaps the Emperor had a thing about females, but his face turned a very unattractive shade of puce. “Pikemen!” he roared. “Capture her! Be rough!”
The nearest pair of pikemen moved rather slowly — roughing up little girls was not why they’d gone to the Piking Academy — but they shoveled her up, gently, using the flat blade of their pikes like a spatula. The little girl was escorted, still giggling, to the Tower.
The next day, everyone tried to figure out what had happened. Some said he was a new Emperor, and didn’t understand the nuances of the job. He’s got his own style, others said, remember that Emperor who didn’t like to wear a hat?
Seven percent of the Emperor’s subjects dismissed it as “an honest mistake.”
Another 9 percent, secret nudists, said, “That’s exactly why I like him!”
But the leading theory, held by fully 12 percent of the Emperor’s subjects, was this: they didn’t believe he’d been naked at all. They dismissed the whole thing as a plot to make him look foolish. And no amount of evidence could convince them, including time-lapse photos of the Emperor’s genitals getting sunburned. “Obvious fakes,” they said.
Though the remaining 72 percent of the country thought the Emperor a fool, some kindhearted folks tried to meet him halfway. In a spirit of amity and patriotism, they began going bottomless, which made both sides hate them and led to many painful splinters.
The Castle went on the offensive. “So-called elites need to wake up to the fact that their fashion-backward ‘values’ don’t play to the average citizen,” said the Emperor’s chamberlain. Overnight, the imperial court all adopted the new dress code. This was stomach-turning, except in the case of the Empress, whose approval rating skyrocketed.
Encouraged by the Emperor, whole districts suddenly became hotbeds of pugnacious nudity. Some became worried by this, and humbly petitioned the Emperor. “In summer, O.K. — but what happens in fall?” they wrote. “Or, God forbid, winter?” The Emperor wouldn’t even receive their petition; he knew what side they were on, and privately began discussing ways to throw everyone wearing pants into prison.
Fall came, and some citizens did die, mostly babies and old people, but this changed fewer minds than you’d think. Camping became less popular, as did dining alfresco. Then winter came, and people died in droves. Eventually, the Emperor’s support began to wane. And when a wicked flu came through the kingdom, even the Emperor himself got it.
“I just can’t seem to get warm,” the Emperor said, lying naked on his bare mattress (the clothier had made him a really classy sheet and duvet combo which, to its credit, had been delightfully cool in summer. Now, however, the Emperor felt every draft. “This place is a dump,” the Emperor griped weakly. “I should knock it down and rebuild it…out of gold or something.”
“Your Highness,” the Lord Chamberlain said, “why not go back to your old pajamas, old bedclothes — just until you get better. No one need know.”
Normally this would’ve loosed a torrent of abuse, but the Emperor was too weak. “Not…classy…enough,” he whispered.
“At least let me move you close to the fire,” the chamberlain said. Now whether this was an honest mistake, or payback for some private humiliation, we will never know. But it seems that, sometime in the night, a stray spark spat out of the fire and ignited the Emperor’s bed. Others whisper that the kindling was the Emperor’s pubes, dried by exposure to the sun — but this was never proved. What is sure is that he was found the next morning, burned to a crisp.
The Emperor rested in state, in the Rotunda of the Grand Cathedral, dressed in the outfit that had sealed his fate. Naked supporters filed by, those that had survived; in their eyes, the Emperor was a martyr. They vowed, in his memory, to go naked for the rest of their lives. Which, it being December, were not long.
And what happened to the little girl? She and her family tried to live quietly for a while. But people egged their house and fed their cows grass that made the milk stinky, and generally made life intolerable. So they moved to a kingdom to the north, or maybe it was the south, and got along quite well. The little girl grew up to run a very classy humor magazine called — you guessed it — Ding Dong. Her scathing-yet-hilarious front-of-book essays solved every conceivable political problem, and everyone everywhere lived happily after ever. ◊
This article originally appeared in The American Bystander #5.