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The Sibyl Tale

I came to the King that day as an old, old, woman all in rags, my white hair unbound and tangled. But the dark light in my eyes was fierce, and his guards, two old veterans, saw that and stood aside. And so I came to the King, young Tarquin the Proud.

And he looked me up and down in his common finery, his silver-gilt crown and tunic of blue wool, not from a palace but from his wooden house on a hill; King, he called himself, as if he ruled a great land and a great people. We were sheep-farmers then, really, camping out on a few hills above a bend in a river, banded together to keep the robbers away; still, give him his pride, young Tarquin the King. And he looked at me, and I saw mingled with his disgust displeasure at the incompetence of his guards, but I knew he would not punish them, for there was more wine to be drunk and he did not want to engage in such a nasty business, truly. And he set down his painted cup, and he looked at me, though he obviously took no pleasure in it.

What young, proud man will take an old woman seriously? But something, a bit of humor or tolerance brought on by the wine, something let him consider me. And within that humor, that leniency? Perhaps, just perhaps, a tiny seed of wisdom.

And I said: "King, would you be wise?"

He snorted, and did not answer. Perhaps I was not worth bothering with after all.

And I took out the Scrolls, nine all told, for wisdom comes in three times three. Within them, the lore of civilization, of gods and man; the signs to be read in the flight of birds, proper offerings made and the holy days kept to appease the gods, rituals to found prosperous cities, inaugurate temples, avert evil and cure plague, all within, of course. But before that, and more valuable, they held besides the elder wisdom of goddess and woman and the sanctity of the Earth, the lessons of the dying and the living, of compassion and kindness and balance and true strength. The wisdom both of the Earth and of civilization, all that a King might want, all that a great nation would need. Wisdom beyond price, in nine slim Scrolls. And I held them out to him. I said again:

"Would you be wise, King?"

"What are you asking for them," he said, bored, losing interest in a common peddler.

I named my price. A price so high he, as petty King of a petty people, would have a hard time scraping it together, though he would be able to, just. I knew this. He did not, and young and proud and in need of wisdom, the young King thundered at me. He nearly threw me out, then, but I caught his eye, and he checked, a little.

"Are you sure?" I said, and then, calmly, irrevocably, I set three of them into the brazier. Dry, old parchment, they blazed immediately, dramatically.

His eyes snapped to hardness, attendant now, the effects of the wine thrown off. Ah.

I held up the Scrolls, six now. I asked, again:

"King, would you be wise?"

And I named my price again, the same exorbitant price, though there were now three fewer Scrolls.

He did not yell this time, but met my eyes with his own, and they were cold, and proud, and a little fearful now.

And I set another three on the flames, gently, sadly, as one lays the body in a grave. And I saw fear grow in his eyes, though he was a young, proud man. And wisdom, finally, grew out of that fear, that fear of what might be lost, that young, proud men only recognize when it is almost gone.

I held up the last three.

"Now, King?"

And he paid that price, then, and did not question it.

But it was as it ever has been with Kings, too little too late. And so that great Kingdom, that august Republic, that vast Empire which would rule the world, was only ever founded on scraps of wisdom; ah, what might have been.


Ch'ang O