Prince Roland Nor prepared to meet the new president of the United States. Diplomacy was traditionally the queen’s domain, but an unforeseen and dangerous surplus of royal wine demanded executive attention. Roland’s mother risked life and liver to fight the threat, leaving him to greet their honored guest.
The prince stood before the palace steps and adjusted his bow tie. By his understanding, he was a year too young to vote in America, let alone hold any kind of office. If he didn’t know better, he’d think that his mother was using him as some kind of insult. But her wisdom put her above suspicion. In fact, considering the idea at all almost amounted to treason. He cursed his flimsy loyalty and vowed to repent in private.
The queen spread her wisdom through memorable, pocket-sized maxims. This year she’d become fond of “Never trust a sober adult” and “A short memory means a long life.” Leather-bound books of her musings were a popular gift on Thorn Island, allowing citizens to carry the royal family’s presence with them. For similar reasons, the royal family’s used clothing and utensils were black market mainstays. Roland preferred not to dwell on that for too long. The Caribbean was full of wonders that spared him the need to reflect on human absurdity. Including the survival of a monarchy in the twenty-first century.
The royal palace was at the bottom of an ancient, revered mountain. During Thorn Island’s warring states period, the palace’s indefensible location made a statement: the Nor family—“Nor” loosely translated to “the Grim Reaper’s Chosen”—feared nothing from their rivals. Today the Nors embraced a softer approach to governing, largely enabled by the long-past extermination of every competing noble family on the island. Spanish sailors had observed one of these purges in the eighteenth century and decided to sail on toward saner prey.
Roland enjoyed exterminating sandwiches. He finished off a tuna melt as the president’s motorcade made its way down the mountain. The flavor helped mute his fear of disappointing his mother. She wasn’t the type to reprimand him or even make a passive aggressive comment. Her eyes would simply radiate disappointment until he slunk out of court.
The most impressive limousine drove past the prince, stopping three car lengths to his right. Six hypertrophic men in black suits (one rogue wore navy blue) and matching glasses stepped out, nodded at each other, and waved at the stragglers. A second limousine pulled in, and five more hypertrophic men emerged. Followed by the president.
President McDowell had a poster-friendly face. He looked like he was in his mid-fifties, which Roland recalled as the ideal age for the white men standing behind podiums in American films and newsreels. In person, the gray roots under his dye-black hair were visible.
“Greetings, Mr. President.” The prince extended his hand.
“Greetings, Your Highness,” said President McDowell. He bowed. This wasn’t a Thorn Island tradition, so the prince assumed it was an American pastime and followed suit.
“We’re honored to have you.”
“I’m honored to be here. And now I have to go.”
“I have a lot of ground to cover. But I hope we can do this again sometime.”
“Of course. I’m, er, glad we could get to know each other.”
The president bowed again, pivoted, and darted back into his limousine. The vehicle backed out of the palace driveway at a mildly dangerous speed and then sped up the mountain road at a pointedly dangerous speed. The rest of the motorcade struggled to follow suit. Prince Roland waved as they fled.
On March 12, Year X + 4, Prince Roland prepared to meet the new president of the United States. After years of reflecting on his first diplomatic outing, the prince decided that the Secret Service lent the president his mystique. The well-dressed killers had captured Roland’s imagination, and he’d prepared his own guard for today. Ideally the extra gravitas would lead to a longer meeting.
By dawn, Roland had committed two thousand soldiers to invading a country he’d never thought about before.
The new motorcade was made of black vans. Peculiarly, the president emerged from the first van to park, stepping out of the driver’s seat. He looked behind him and smiled as the rest of the motorcade struggled to catch up to their charge. Then he turned toward the royal palace and snorted. Roland coughed to make himself (and his guards) known.
“Greetings, Mr. President.” Roland bowed, recalling the last visit.
President Leon handed Roland his suitcase, coughed, and drew a cigarette. It took him three tries to light it, and he looked more frustrated with each attempt. He took two deep drags and then put the tip out on the hood of his van. The area was full of small circular scorch marks.
“God, look at this dirt pile,” grumbled President Leon. The prince’s briefing said the man was forty, an infant in American political years. Roland chalked the layered insults up to inexperience.
“We’re honored to have you.”
“Honor my dick.”
“Just messing with you. Don’t you people tell jokes here? Please tell me you do. I started this goddamn diplomacy tour in Russia, and we just glared at each other for half an hour. Stodgy pricks.”
“I know a few jokes,” Roland volunteered. He was off-balance but remained eager.
“Maybe later. I’ve got some American jokes for ya.”
“How many pinkos does it take to lose an election?”
“Let’s see. I’ll guess—”
“Doesn’t matter. They’re too stoned to vote. Let’s go inside, I hear your momma’s got a nice ass.”
“She’s the wisdom of our people.”
“I’m not hearing a no.”
The president adjusted his collar, popped a small white mint into his mouth, and marched up the palace steps. Roland weighed ordering his guards to open fire, but the president’s own security detail had emerged. They outnumbered Roland’s retinue two to one, and the bored glaze in their expressions said they’d consider a firefight a welcome diversion.
On December 2, Year X + 12, Prince Roland prepared to meet the new president of the United States. He looked forward to a diplomatic reset after President Leon. Over time, the queen had honored him with more responsibility. Said honor included dealing with any and all letters, phone calls, and handshakes exchanged with President Leon. It had been trying.
That said, he’d rather have tended to his sagging love life. Dating meant sorting through relentless gold diggers, foreign intelligence assets, and heirs to monarchies with flightier stances on inbreeding.
This time the motorcade descended the mountain at a leisurely place and arrived forty minutes late. The stretch limos entered in pairs instead of the standard single winding line. President Hobbes stepped out of the left car in the third row wearing a pair of red-tinted reflective sunglasses above his eyes. Before he approached, he put a hand on his forehead to block out the sun.
“Greetings, Mr. President.”
“Nice digs. Hey, Roland, can I call you Rolex?”
“Like the watch. You’re a rich guy, it fits.”
“I don’t think I like that.”
“That’s fine. I plan on being rich, too, once my four years are up.” President Hobbes adopted the inspired dreamer’s expression that defined his campaign posters.
“A noble goal. I think.”
“Maybe, who knows. I try not to get caught up in that shit. I leave it for the academic types. You got any wine? I love wine.”
“We keep the palace dry. Mother is trying to quit.”
“I respect that. I tried to quit once, until I got bored of it. I find that three or so drinks help me get in the mood to look over bills. Otherwise, all that legalese starts running together.”
A question about the wisdom of drunk leadership almost reached Roland’s lips. Almost. But no other visit had gone this smoothly. This was, for all its warts, a leap forward for international relations.
“Actually, ‘Rolex’ is fine. And there’s some tequila in my quarters, if that’s to your taste.”
“Sounds great, Rolex. Hey, you ever joined a coalition invasion? Because I’ve got this idea . . .”
Roland only paid cursory attention to the proposal and quickly moved the conversation back toward drinking. He had six bottles of imported SpiderHead tequila, a now-banned Arizona specialty that mixed traditional tequila with a drop of tarantula venom. Its logo was an eight-legged skeleton. The prince and president drank out of the same bottle, hurling insults at the mountain from the roof of the royal palace.
By dawn, Roland had committed two thousand soldiers to invading a country he’d never thought about before. He hoped that most of them would make it back.
On March 16, Year X + 20, King Roland prepared to meet the new president of the United States. He missed the novelty that waiting on the palace steps once held. Now it felt too serious. There was no one above him to untangle any mistakes he might make. He could only rely on the echoes of his mother’s maxims.
Roland wore a black suit paired with a black shirt and black tie. He usually preferred more eccentric colors, but the grim cloud of his mother’s funeral still hung over him. Dignitaries from nations great and small had come to pay their respects, or at least be seen next to people paying their respects. A state funeral, if nothing else, was a good opportunity to show solidarity that transcended regional alliances. The new president had been absent.
Roland would have been insulted, but he’d come to respect a head of state’s schedule. His personal desk was coated in proposals from parliament. He’d shredded the more obvious cash grabs and planned to review the others for subtler forms of graft. This process was, until now, his main distraction from grieving. The endless pattern had a calming, Zen garden quality.
President Tarth stepped out of the last car in his motorcade. Two of Roland’s guards exchanged small sums of cash. They’d taken to placing bets on how visiting heads of state would make their appearance. The king knew he should disapprove, but their levity had helped him get through the last three months.
“Greetings, Mr. President.”
“I know you’ve been trading with the Russians, goat-fucker. Give me one reason not to nuke this hole into next Tuesday.”
King Roland’s tongue hung limp inside his mouth. Then he recovered, steeled himself, and found a sane reaction to an insane world.
“People live here.”
“You’re going to have to do better than that, goat-fucker.”
“We don’t even have goats here.”
“Whatever, goat-fucker. I’m just here to warn you, in person. Straighten up, or I’m carpet-bombing this hole and renaming it Guam 2.”
“I won’t stand for this.”
“Stand for my dick, goat-fucker.”
“What is it with you people and your dicks?”
President Tarth grabbed his crotch with one hand and flipped the king off with the other. He maintained both gestures as he reentered his van, which played a cartoonish march (which Roland later learned was called “The Stars and Stripes Forever”) at painful volume while pulling out of the royal driveway. The king imagined a long four years and then corrected himself. The Americans would definitely keep this one around for eight.
On January 29, Year X + 28, King Roland prepared to meet the new president of the United States. After his last experience, he toyed with the idea of an assassination. But the maxims of his dearly departed mother were still with him. She believed in forgiveness, especially when the alternative was inconvenient. To that end, the king had to maintain peace with the nuclear monkey to the northwest.
News networks praised President Kei as the first female head of the American Empire. This was, by and large, made possible by the immense personal and global failures of her predecessor. While watching him blunder brought Roland no small amount of pleasure, the threat of global thermonuclear war lost him no small amount of sleep. As he occupied his usual spot before the steps, Roland quietly prayed for someone stable to come down the mountain.
President Kei emerged from a single, tanklike vehicle. Like Roland, she had the round figure that came with pairing a civilian’s desire for food with a statesman’s authority. The king inhaled and extended his arm.
“Greetings, Madam President.” The king followed habit and bowed.
“I am so, so sorry,” said the president.
“That’s how I’m starting all my trips. My predecessor was . . . temperamental. But I’d like you to know that we’re sorry. From now on, things are going to be different.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“I mean it. This is a fresh start for us—and everyone that comes after us. I promise you a golden future between our people.”
“We don’t fuck goats.”
“I know you don’t fuck goats. And if you did, we’d be fine with it, because we respect you and your culture.”
“We don’t fuck goats.”
“You don’t. I am so, so sorry.”
A beat passed between them.
“One of your predecessors called me Rolex.”
“Is that a slur? I’m sorry for that.”
The king laughed. He could have a decent time with this one. Her stress-induced-early-coronary attitude recalled his old friends at Thorn University. Admission required brilliance, amphetamines, or membership in the royal family. Back then, Roland liked to think he possessed all three. Today he simply considered himself blessed with patience.
On February 21, Year X + 32, King Roland prepared to meet the new president of the United States. He thought Eden Kei deserved a second term—she was the only U.S. citizen invited to his wedding—but American pundits considered failing to grow a penis a severe political blunder. The new president had shown more foresight.
“Not blowing up the world was the center of my platform. It resonated with the youth.”
This time Roland had brought out a folding chair. His ankles had been bothering him lately, and he’d come to realize that decorum did little to change how a given president treated him. They’d chosen long ago. He still maintained his guard out of habit, and the minor chance that a new president might try to bite his nose off.
Despite keeping an eye on politics around the hemisphere, the king couldn’t put a pin on any of President Torres’s political positions. Few people could. Torres had coasted through the election without putting forward much of a political platform at all. Roland wondered if it would be fun to throw an election sometime. The rules got more unclear as he got older (evidently you didn’t need the majority of votes?), but the constant novelty seemed to capture the world’s attention.
President Torres emerged from the dead center of three identical gray limousines. He approached the king with blank eyes and an unshifting smile.
“Greetings, Mr. President,” said the king.
“Hello, citizen,” said the president.
“Citizen? That’s technically true, I guess.”
“I believe in revitalizing the middle class.”
“That sounds like a quality goal. Welcome to Thorn Island.”
“I hear that Thorn Island has a thriving middle class. If not, I’m sure we can work to revitalize it.”
“. . . Right.”
“Yes, secure paths to retirement are a right of the middle class. Which I, personally, am dedicated to revitalizing.”
“Are you a robot?” The king took a step behind his guard.
“That’s a great question! I believe that revitalizing the middle class will bring us closer to an answer.”
“Well, it could be worse. Why don’t you come inside?”
“Yes. Coming inside the palace is integral to revitalizing the middle class.”
President Torres beamed and followed Roland inside. After posturing for the press, the king tested how many shots the president would take in the name of revitalizing the middle class. The experiment ended with Torres passing out beneath a portrait of the dearly departed queen. Roland noted that the president mumbled sweet nothings about revitalizing the middle class in his sleep.
On February 3, Year X + 36, King Roland prepared to meet the new president of the United States. He no longer held positive or negative expectations. He simply waited to find out who the universe decided he had to work with. Hopefully, they liked to drink. The good ones usually liked to drink.
Four black Italian supercars descended the mountain. Two guards emerged from the front car and laid out a red carpet that stretched from the palace gates to King Roland’s feet. They took positions on opposite sides of the carpet and saluted as President Kincaid marched past them.
This flamboyance extended to President Kincaid’s fashion sense. He wore a bronze armlet on his right, engraved with the image of a bald eagle chopping down a cherry tree. His left armlet was made of gold and had an engraving of his own face. The engraving looked far less gaunt but was an otherwise faithful rendition of the sixty-seven-year-old former senator.
“Greetings, Mr. President.”
“Who stands before a god but does not kneel?” President Kincaid extended a gloved hand and waited. It took the king several moments to realize he was expected to kiss the large red, white, and blue ring on his finger.
“King Roland. The leader of the sovereign nation you’re standing in.”
“You will be the king of ashes.”
“A sovereign nation with nukes,” the king added. They were new.
“Ahem. Sorry for the attitude earlier. Jet lag, you know how it is. Want to get some coffee?”
“Fine, mortal. But know that there are consequences for testing a god’s patience. You will find your political opponents much better funded—and far more heavily armed.”
“If you come back here, I’ll have you shot. I don’t care what happens afterward, I’ll have you fucking shot.”
“Why would I grace this pit twice? This is a kingdom of goat-fucking—”
“You have three minutes.”
President Kincaid jogged down the red carpet. King Roland was impressed to note that both of the guards flanking the president had drawn their sidearms, and one standing by the gates had discreetly produced a compact assault rifle. Threatening Kincaid had been a risk, but Roland had read one too many goat jokes online. Some had even found their way into news articles.
On January 23, Year X + 44, King Roland prepared to meet the new president of the United States. He’d upgraded the folding chair to a full-blown lounge chair, complete with a small plastic stand holding a bowl of fresh fruit. A veteran bodyguard cut a pomegranate into fourths as the presidential motorcade rolled in. The luxury cars had been replaced with Japanese motorcycles, for reasons that probably made sense to the Americans. The king didn’t worry himself about that kind of thing these days.
President Cameron was a Democrat, or a Republican, or something else. According to the news, his platform had excited some people and angered others. Judging by his presence, more people were excited. Roland was more focused on the man’s baldness. After the relative vigor of the last president, it was odd to see the electorate pivot to a geriatric.
“I’m so fucking sorry.”
“Hmm. Been a while since they elected your type.” Roland flicked a chunk of pomegranate toward the president, who caught it with surprising dexterity.
“Just . . . we were . . . I’m so fucking sorry.”
“I accept your apology. But I’ll also need you to apologize again.”
“Let me clarify. I want you to apologize for your successors. It will make their insults easier to ignore.”
To his credit, the president pushed past the confusion etched onto his face, clasped his hands together, and bowed. Roland suppressed a groan. Years of watching dignitaries in the news had convinced his own people it was a Thorn Island tradition.
“I’m sorry for any insults my successors might make. But since we’re turning a new page in history, I’m confident that there’s nothing to worry about.”
“There’s always something to worry about,” said Roland. “But let’s forget about it for now. We’ve got a whole bowl of fruit to get through. Once we’re done with the strawberries, you can fly off to a larger, angrier country.”
On April 4, Year X + 48, King Roland prepared to meet the new president of the United States. He approached this burden with a positive, floaty mood. His first granddaughter had been born two days earlier. That was a positive omen that even the American executive branch couldn’t ruin. The king sat upright on his lounge chair, scrolling through pictures of his grandchild on a waterproof smartphone. Focusing on this task kept him from noticing the entrance of the presidential motorcade or the arrival of the president.
President Nolan was a skinny man who took deep breaths. The unseemly noise brought the president’s presence to the king’s attention. Roland glanced up from his cell phone and found an openmouthed scarecrow in an expensive white suit. The opening was slight, closer to a model’s fly-catching expression than a look of constant shock.
“Greetings, Mr. President,” he said warmly. “I hope you’re ready for a feast. Tonight we’re throwing the party of a lifetime, in honor of a healthy heir’s birth.”
“Do you hear them? The spiders?”
“Of course not. The spiders are everywhere. In our eyes, in our mouths, in our souls.”
“Please tell me you’re fucking with me.”
“The spiders come from the niggers. That’s why I have to punish them. I have to stop the spiders.”
“The people of Thorn Island are Black.”
“Yes, but you’re not niggers. You didn’t come on the spider boats to spin webs around our women. Why do they take the women? Help me get the women back.”
Two of President Nolan’s handlers gently grabbed their charge’s shoulders. “The president appreciates you taking the time to meet him,” said one of the men in black. “He deeply respects the people of Thorn Island and the Caribbean at large, and apologizes for anything that may have been misconstrued as an insult.”
The speaker introduced himself as the newest director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Roland recognized the name; his appointment had grabbed headlines as a conflict of interest, which Congress subsequently ignored. He looked accustomed to interrupting the president.
“Hmm. I can understand a president needing management. Lord knows, a few of the last batch could have used more. But isn’t that typically the vice president’s purview? Or at least the secretary of state’s?”
“I like to think that I wear many hats,” said the CIA director. He started steering President Nolan back toward the motorcade.
“Don’t trust the hats,” suggested the president. “They’re made of spider silk.”
“That’s right, Mr. President. Good job telling him. Now why don’t we take a little nap?”
King Roland watched the president and shadow president enter the first of six black vans. He thought he saw a pair of triangle-shaped cufflinks on the shadow president’s sleeve, but the implications of this were too stupid to consider.
On February 17, Year X + 56, King Roland prepared to deal with his regular diplomatic enema. He sat on the railing of the palace steps and swirled a half-empty mug of SpiderHead tequila. It was a beautiful day, marred only by the descent of his guests down the mountain. The presidential motorcade moved with the self-conscious sloth that marked the duller commanders in chief. Roland hoped that if he glared intently enough, the vehicles would explode, or implode, or fly into space. Instead, they crawled to the royal palace.
Dying as a direct result of his choices would be a refreshing change.
The president emerged from a black hovercraft. It was the first time the king had seen President Such-and-Such’s face. Roland had abandoned tracking American politics two years before—watching humanity’s worst specimens claw their way ahead was stressful, and he had resolved to spend his golden years savoring life. At a glance, he hadn’t missed much. The new president fit the same dull, pale template as most of his forebears, down to the plastic smile.
“Greetings,” said the president. “I’m honored to be here.”
King Roland continued glaring.
“Greetings,” repeated the president. He bowed.
The king’s glare intensified.
“Did I say something impolite?” asked the president.
“What the blue fuck is wrong with you people? You change philosophies the way I change shoes. I never know if you’re going to hug me, insult me, or ask me to help you blow up the fucking world!”
The president gave a bobblehead nod. “Not blowing up the world was the center of my platform. It resonated with the youth.”
“America isn’t the only country that sends me madmen. But the others at least have the decency to send a consistent type of madman. Why should I talk to you? Your successor might resent me for even making eye contact with you, let alone making any deals. Leave. Fly away. Go home. I’m sure your people have already invented a new crisis to handle.”
The president stalled by wiping his sunglasses on his shirt. Roland’s mother had frequently abused the same gesture. A new cliché-filled maxim typically followed. He missed those clichés.
“I was hoping we could have a productive talk.”
“What could we possibly talk about?”
“Well, lowering tariffs. On both sides.”
“If I lower the damn tariffs, will you leave?”
“And tell your successors to stay home?”
“I can’t promise that.”
“Then the tariffs stay.”
“That might lead to a police action.”
The king contemplated the Secret Service. They were the only American visitors he consistently respected, representing the brightest killers in their empire. His guards wouldn’t stand a chance. Nonetheless, he slammed his fist into the president’s throat.
His old, fat fingers ached from the effort. He had never been athletic, or even particularly mobile, and the consequences had wreaked havoc on his body. This was the first time he had regretted it. If he’d spent more of his life running and jumping, his blow might have killed the president. As things stood, he’d merely knocked the man to the floor, where he clutched his neck and wheezed.
“Do your worst. I’ve enjoyed sixty years of harems, two years of Illuminati membership, and forty years of unlimited access to the state treasury. Feel free to invade and deal with the rebels your predecessors funded. In fact, I invite you.”
Roland looked down. Ten distinct laser sights formed a near-perfect circle around his heart. His own guards stood still, frozen in understandable terror. The young men had hometowns that they likely didn’t want to see burned by drones, ravaged by mercenaries, and occupied by brutes. That same fear had paralyzed the king—until now. The whims of the great powers usually had nothing to do with his actions. Dying as a direct result of his choices would be a refreshing change.
“Hold on!” The president stumbled to his feet and gave two more violent coughs. “You’re about to shoot a valuable regional ally.”
“What?” said Roland. The dots faded, save one near the center of his chest.
“He hit back, which makes him perfect. We need more global partners with a penchant for violence. Thorn Island is a perfect staging area for operations over the entire Caribbean.”
King Roland Nor groaned and trudged back to his perch on the palace steps. For him, the visit was over. After his best attempt at courting death and ruin, the status quo had shrugged and marched on. He drained the rest of his SpiderHead and imagined how much simpler life would have been with an older brother.