His first inclination was to make his way as quickly he could to the throne room. If what Sir Ephraim had said was true, the King accepted visitors at all times. Yet as anxious as he was to meet the King, a number of things held him back.
First, Cornelius was incredibly nervous about the upcoming encounter, regardless of how he tried to calm himself. He kept remembering Ephraim's words that the King would be nothing like he expected. Even though he felt confident in his friendship with the King, the idea of actually meeting him face to face still put his nerves on edge.
Second, because he had arrived a few hours early, he wanted to take the time to get to know the people of the town. They were certain to be people of grand importance, so he had best learn his place among them. Those who dwelt here must be the very closest of the King's friends. Cornelius did not want to impose upon them recklessly.
Third, he did not want to meet the King personally until the banquet began. Somehow, he felt that this would make it even more special. He would allow his anticipation to build throughout the day.
Finally, and most importantly, he sorely hoped to find others to attend the banquet with him. So far he was still going unaccompanied, those who had promised to come having parted ways with him. Yet it was not solely for the sake of company that he wished others to attend. It was for the very desire to share his joy with them. After all, if a lowly farm boy from the outlying territories had been invited, surely there were others who would just as gratefully accept the King's invitation.
With all these thoughts parading through his head like a carousel, Cornelius began his exploration of the city. He began by heading down a street lined with craftsmen and merchants plying their wares. The noise in the afternoon market was clamorous, and the heat was stifling. He forced his way through the press of bodies, looking for someone to speak with.
Spying a merchant selling brightly colored rolls of cloth, Cornelius stepped up to the stall. The man glanced over his bedraggled form with a critical eye. "Do you need something boy?" the salesman asked, "Are you lost or what?" It was not the greeting that Cornelius had been expecting. He stammered for an answer. "Um, I was wondering if you were planning on attending the King's banquet. I'm looking for company to bring along, and I bet the King would greatly enjoy meeting you." The cloth merchant's eyes widened in surprise. "Ah! Is that tonight? Why, I forgot all about it!"
"So you'll come?"
"I had planned on it, but I am much too busy at the moment. Too bad. Thank you, and have a nice day."
Cornelius persisted, "But are you sure you can't close your shop for just one evening to attend?"
Annoyed now, the merchant snapped at him. "And risk losing a profit? This is the best night of the year for my job! I can sell fabulous scarves to those who are actually going! Now if you don't plan on paying for anything, scamper off. Your stench is scaring off my customers."
Hurt and ashamed of himself, the boy turned and melted back into the crowd. The man's words had stung, and he wiped an arm across his eyes to keep them from streaming. He would just have to try someone else, someone kinder.
The next vendor he approached was a blacksmith. The burly man was beating at a horseshoe that glowed red hot on an anvil. His bald head and thick black beard gave him a somewhat intimidating appearance, but Cornelius would not be deterred. Everyone deserved a chance to meet the King.
"Excuse me, sir?" He said, trying to be heard over the hammer's banging. "Sir? Do you have a moment?" Eventually the blacksmith looked up in surprise. "Oh! And what is it you'll be a-wanting, young master?" he asked, leaning leisurely on the anvil as he halted his labor. Cornelius was immediately put at ease. He said, "That doesn't look like easy work you are doing, but you appear to be very skilled at it. I was wondering if you had a moment to speak with me?"
Surprisingly, the muscular man actually seemed embarrassed by the compliment. "Why, I suppose ye could say that. I'm a far cry from the King's finest though. You new to these parts young'un?" Cornelius nodded. "Yes, I just arrived this morning. You certainly live in a fine city, sir. It's beautiful." The big man scanned the marketplace. "Aye, she is a fine place to live, that's the truth. The King's done quite a bit ah work gettin' her where she is today."
"Are you very good friends with him?"
The smith returned his gaze to Cornelius. "With who?"
"With the King, of course. It must be wonderful living here, getting to see him whenever you want."
Suddenly the blacksmith began to look very uncomfortable. He ran a thick hand over the back of his neck. "Aye, well... I suppose y'could say I know 'im. Met him when I was just a wee lad. It's been a while since I've paid His Majesty a visit though."
"Really? How sad." Cornelius replied. "I had thought everyone who lived here would be the closest of friends with him."
"Er, look here lad, I had best be gettin' back t' me work before this shoe cools any further. It was good talking with you, master...?"
"Cornelius. My name is Cornelius."
"Ah. Well then Cornelius, have a good day." The smith picked up his hammer and bent over the anvil, prepared to return to work. The boy stopped him with a question first, and the hammer hung in midair. "Will I see you tonight at the King's banquet?"
The large man was quiet for a moment, looking down. Then he grunted. "Perhaps." With that, he banged away. Cornelius knew the interview was at an end. He turned around and filed into the street.
He climbed on top of a barrel to try and decide where he should go next. Seeing a woman hard at work weaving baskets, he drew near her stall.
It was fascinating to watch. Her rough, nimble hands carefully guided the reeds in and out of one another, making complicated patterns. At first he was unsure what she was crafting, but as her work progressed the basket began to take shape. The stall behind her was filled with others like it.
Eventually she noticed him standing there and looked up. "May I help you?" Her tone was not unfriendly, but neither was it congenial. It was, Cornelius decided, strictly businesslike.
He said, "I was wondering if you had heard about the King's banquet. He has invited everyone in the kingdom to attend." Her reply was brisk. "Why certainly I've heard of it. Why do you think I'm so busy making these baskets, eh?"
Cornelius was confused. "I really don't know, actually. Why are you making them? Shouldn't you be getting ready, or inviting others to come along?"
"Getting ready is precisely what I'm doing! I can't very well show up empty handed, can I?"
"What do you mean? Why not?"
"Did you think it was free? The King of all the land throws a party for us and you're not going to give him anything in return? My word, children these days are so selfish! You want to get into the feast you got to be willing to pay for it! I'm bringing him the very best of my wares."
Cornelius' face went numb. Was the woman right? In a hurry he pulled out his scroll, eyes searching the familiar words. He held the parchment before him as he replied. "Madam, I think you must be mistaken. It doesn't say anything about having to earn our way to the King's table. In fact, it even says right here that it is entirely free. All we have to do is accept the King's invitation and arrive on time."
"Give me that." she said, taking the scroll from his hands. "Where? Oh, here? No, you're reading that wrong. What he means is that the scroll is free. You don't have to pay to be invited, but you certainly got to give him something in return if you want to eat with him."
Cornelius shook his head. "You're wrong. He's the richest man in the kingdom. What could he possibly hope to gain from us? Besides, I have nothing I could present him with anyway. I lost all of my possessions on the way here."
"Well that was very irresponsible of you!"
Cornelius just sighed. "Please, believe me. The King would never invite us to dine with him and expect us to earn our place at his table. The entire reason he's invited us is so he can better know and relate to his subjects. It's not about money or payment at all."
The woman scoffed. "Ha! Talking like that. You sound like you know the man personally!"
"Why yes, I do. Don't you?"
She stared at him tight lipped for a moment. "I've no time for your impertinent questions, child. Be off with you."
He was not giving up this time. As he continued to press the issue, the woman became increasingly angry, eventually threatening to take a switch to his knuckles. He knew then that there was no hope for her. Pocketing his scroll again, he made his way up the road.
Cornelius tried several more stalls along the way, talking both with shop owners and customers. To his growing disappointment, he discovered that very few people even knew that the evening of the banquet was at hand. They all seemed so preoccupied with their own lives that they had forgotten entirely about their King's.
What was more disturbing however was the reticence with which people spoke of their relationship to the King. Many of them claimed to know him, but were unwilling to discuss the details further. When he spoke of anything concerning business, the city, or other harmless topics, people were as kind as could be. But strange things happened when he brought up the name of the King. Doors closed. Breath quickened. Hands became fidgety. Voices hushed, or stopped altogether.
Those who were willing to discuss matters of the King did so in a detached manner. They spoke of his generosity, protection, and goodwill, but none of them appeared to know him personally at all. Very few could recall the last time they had entered through the castle doors to see him.
It felt as if the city were hiding a terrible secret. What was the truth about the King and his people? Had they never even seen him before? Yet how could that be, when they all lived within the shadow of his walls? It was beyond Cornelius' comprehension to understand. Eventually he pulled a young woman aside who looked to be only a few years older than himself. She was dressed in baggy black pants and a floppy green coat, a stark contrast to her cropped red hair.
"Excuse me miss, I'm new to these parts. Could you spare a moment?"
"Eh, sure, I guess. Wot's yer name?"
"It's Cornelius. What's yours?"
"Errin. So what can I do for ya?"
"Have you lived here very long?"
"My whole life, yeah. Why do you ask, Corny?" He ignored the annoying nickname and decided to give it a shot. "I just needed to be sure you are familiar with the city's culture. You see, I traveled a very long way to get here. I've come to attend the King's banquet, but to my surprise, nobody else seems intent on going. In fact, most of the people I've talked to seem reluctant to even speak about the King. You must know about the way of life here. Why is that?" Her eyes flew to the heavens as she replied. "Oh, is that what you're wonderin'? Whopper! Your first day here and you've gone an' stuck yer nose right in it."
"I'm confused, Errin. What are you talking about?"
She draped an arm around his shoulders and leaned in close, whispering conspiratorially. "This city ain't everythin' it appears to be, young pup. Walk with me a while an' I'll tell ya what I mean."
She led him away from the market and they passed into the residential area, filled with apartments, hotels, and taverns. The noise disappeared with the crowds. Cornelius tried his best to pay attention to her, but stopped frequently to marvel at the impressive structures of the city. Everything was so large and unfamiliar.
While he stood staring up at a lofty tower, mouth agape, Errin snapped to get his attention. "Hey, Corny, ya listenin' to me?" His thoughts scattered. "Oh, sorry. So what you're saying is that not everyone within the city is loyal to the King? Why would that be?"
She shrugged. "Beats me. He's the swellest guy you'll ever meet."
"But if they don't care about him, why do they live here? Why does he even allow them to?"
"As best I can see it, they stay because he offers such great perks. No taxes, no crime, no constantly going to war like other kingdoms... There's a lot of benefits.
For his part, the King let's 'em live here cause 'es kind 'n' generous. Not to mention if 'e tried to drive 'em out there'd be a war. He doesn't want any of his own gettin' hurt in the process."
"But he has knights! Surely they at least remain loyal to him." Errin tilted her head. "I hope so. Can't allus tell though, can ya?" Errin was right, he realized, you really couldn't know sometimes.
She took him by the shoulders then, speaking in deadly earnest. "It gets worse'n that, friend. There are those in this town who don't want a real King; aren't even sure he exists." She continued before he could interrupt. "Oh, they claim loyalty to 'im alright, but to them, he's not a real live person with a noggin' on 'is shoulders the same as you 'n' me. Not a person you can get to know. In their minds the King is just an image, an idea, a symbol of their way of life, if you will."
"But that doesn't make sense! If they claim to follow a man they don't believe in then who are they really following?"
"Can't say for sure. Morality? Themselves? The good of the kingdom? I wish I knew."
Cornelius was quiet. Her words had a sobering effect. Then he asked, "How long does His Majesty plan on allowing things to go on like this?" The girl gestured helplessly. "Now 'ow am I sposed ta know that? Mebbe the King wants things to change as bad as we do. Mebbe he's perfectly content to let things continue as they are. I'm not the one to say. We'll have to ask 'is Highness tonight, eh?" Cornelius beamed. "You mean you're going to the banquet, Errin?"
"Course I am! He's my friend too, ain't 'e? Here now, getcher arms offa me! You'll choke me half to death!"
Cornelius stepped back self-consciously. "Sorry, it's just that you're one of the only persons I've met who plans on showing up. Nobody else wanted to commit."
Erin reached into a wide sleeve and withdrew a well-worn scroll. She tonked him gently on the head with it. "Ye'd haffa be an oaf not to accept a free gift like this'n! You weren't callin' me a oaf, were ya?" The boy grinned in response. "Course not!" he said. She nodded approvingly. "Good. An' don't you forget it." Then she looked up and gasped. "Whopper! Would ya lookit the sun! It's gettin' late. The banquet's only about two hours away, so we'd best get busy! Search the streets and send anyone you can on ahead to the castle." He agreed, promising to meet her in the banquet hall that evening. But before they parted ways, he asked one last question.
"Errin, there's one more thing I don't understand. You and I certainly feel comfortable talking about our friendship with the King, but there are many in the city who know him and still don't like to talk about it. They won't even discuss their relationship with him among each other! Why is that? If he's the most important person in the city, I would think that they'd speak of him all the time! What are they so afraid of? Why are they so ashamed?"
Errin gave him a long, sorrowful look. "Cornelius, there ain't nobody who's got an answer to that one."
With that, they split company, setting out in the failing autumn daylight to see who they could find.
It amazed Cornelius how many people were unaware of the hour, considering their proximity to the palace. How had they missed it? He wondered. Unwilling to let a soul pass him by, he ranged up and down the roads speaking with everyone he met. A number of them agreed to go, and Cornelius was glad. He only hoped they were sincere.
At one point he heard a loud commotion and looked down a side road to see Errin standing on an overturned wheelbarrow. Her over-sized coat flapped about like a wizard's cape. There was a crowd gathered round as she shouted for all to hear, "Listen up everyone! The King's havin' a banquet feast to celebrate the citizenry, but ya gotta show up on time iffens ya wants to get accepted! Yer all invited, and there's no charge. Food aplenty for everyone! But don't be late!"
That was one way to get the word out. Cornelius grinned and kept on going.
The streets began to empty as everyone closed their shops for the night. So Cornelius started knocking on houses, shouting into taverns, talking with the crowds gathered round stables and inns. He did everything he could.
Then he looked at the sun. The hour had come. His time through, Cornelius began to make his way along the wide road that ran through the center of the city, leading up to the castle.
On the way, he passed by a grassy park where a group of richly dressed men were seated around a large wooden table. It was spread with several copies of the King's invitation, which the men were poring over with great intent. He was relieved to hear them using the King's name freely. As he approached, he could tell that their conversation was full of heated disagreements. Standing near, he listened carefully to the debate.
"The question is, do people accept an invitation to the King's banquet because he first invited them, or did the King know who would agree to come and thence only send invitations to those few?"
Arguments flew from all sides of the table as everyone sought to make their view heard. Eventually one of the men noticed Cornelius. "You there! What do you think, boy?"
He answered calmly. "I'm afraid, gentlemen, that I do not know the answer to your question. Pardon my asking, but does it matter which is the case? Perhaps it is the King's choice that we come, or perhaps it is our own. It may likely be a combination of both. All I know is, what's most important is that we go to the King's banquet! Would any of you care to join me? We don't have much time."
"What?" the one who had spoken first said incredulously, "We can't go yet! First we need to settle the matters of debate regarding the scroll! For instance, how many invitations to the palace can a man receive before the king decides to stop inviting him?"
"Aye, or how about this," continued another, "Can a man, once he has accepted an invitation, ever reject it and decline to attend?"
"Of course not!" hollered a third gentleman. "If such is the case he must never have been invited to begin with!"
The retort was hot. "That's not true! Read the letter! It doesn't say a thing like that anywhere, see?"
"Why yes it does! But you wouldn't know because you're holding it upside down!"
"Gentlemen!" Cornelius interrupted, "Perhaps you would find the answers clearer if you spoke with the King himself about these issues. He happens to be a personal friend of mine. In fact I'm on my way to see him right now. I could take you to him if you like."
The men stared at him in shock and amusement. Their leader coughed, "You? You claim to know the King personally? Ha, a peasant from the outlying territories by the look of it, you've never even seen his face! We sit here just outside his gates, day after day, and none of us claim to be his friend. Besides, where in this letter does it say anything about having a friendship with our Lord?"
"Well if you would just read it properly--"
"Don't tell me how to study the King's writing! I've been examining this document for months and you probably can't even read. Get out of here you insolent urchin!"
Cornelius looked at them with pity. Stubborn and arrogant, they knew so much, but they did not know the one thing worth knowing. He turned his back on them and continued on towards the palace.