Chapter 1: The Apprenticeship
Long ago, in a time before men had mapped the four corners of the Earth, just as humanity was starting to toy with the concept of Reason, there lived two gods who watched the whole world.
This arrangement, it must be said, was relatively new. The elder god had been caught off guard when asked to take the younger god as an apprentice. He might have declined the responsibility, were it not so dangerous to leave an untrained god in the world.
Yet, as time passed, and after many lessons, the master took a liking to his apprentice, as his only heir and best friend. And the two made merry mischief together across all lands and cultures.
And it must also be said that though the younger god had needed a great deal of teaching, he was an excellent learner and quickly absorbed the lessons handed down to him by his master, without complaint or objection.
Except in one case….
Chapter 2: The Complaint
The apprentice looked upon his master with the highest of admiration, and as his own knowledge and power grew, he came to understand just how much he owed to his master’s wisdom and charity. He was humbled, yet happy.
So grateful was he that he made his joy known throughout the world. He danced across the mountaintops and sang to the sky, reveling in what a strong and capable god he was becoming thanks to his master’s tutelage.
His song was carried on the wind to every land. All men heard it in their own tongue, though few understood its meaning.
And only one of them was bold enough to try stopping him.
“What is this obnoxious rancor?” said a miserable little man. As a beggar and a vagrant, he had spent his entire life asking the gods for favors and was incensed that anyone could be as happy as the younger god appeared to be.
“I didn’t mean to cause offense,” the younger god said by way of apology. “My song was for my master, for he has taught me all the right ways for a god to behave. I will even admit that once I would have looked upon you like a man looks on a worm, to be crushed underfoot. Some god I was then! But my master opened my eyes to the dignity of all creation, and I now wish only to help mankind.”
“Tell me,” the god continued, “is not my master the greatest of benefactors? He is so cunning, yet kind. Like the first gods who took the flames from the wild fire and brought them into the hearth, he has taught me how to be more than just a force of nature. Surely, he is a paragon of order and justice.”
“Justice?” the beggar said with a sneer. “What could the gods possibly know of justice? If gods have eyes, then look at the one who stands before you. Better yet, look at all mankind. Do you see justice?”
So brazen were the man’s words that the god was shocked into silence. He could not believe anyone would speak about his master with such contempt. And, as such, he didn’t know how to contradict such slander.
“The universe is nothing but injustice,” said the beggar. “It is a world of kings and beggars. One man can have so much that his very clothes are made of gold. Meanwhile, entire families live in huts made of branches, and have less to eat than the hounds of their lords.”
“Kings and beggars,” he rambled on. “And the kings did nothing to earn their station, just as the beggars have done nothing to merit such a loathsome life. Do not speak to me of justice, child. If the gods care about justice, then make them do something about the unfairness of this world.”
And as the man walked away, the younger god’s song stopped. His feet did not dance, for he now wanted nothing else but to help this man—an instinct that had been instilled from his master’s teachings. Yet those teachings were now in question.
With his divinity suddenly at odds with itself, he didn’t know how to feel, and he left that place with a new and heavy burden.
Chapter 3: The Lesson
It is by no means an easy thing to hurt a god’s feelings. Yet the words of the beggar hounded the once-joyful god as he looked at the world of men.
It was, indeed, a world of kings and beggars. Some men had enough resources to live out a thousand lifetimes, while others could not gather together enough to live through the night. Existence was tragedy, and he was sickened by the sight of it.
Inconsolable, he ran in tears to his master.
The elder god immediately noticed his apprentice’s distress, and asked him to name his sorrow.
The apprentice was reluctant to repeat the beggar’s accusation, but with some prodding, he was able to speak his chief concern: “I am in the height of despair, for there is no justice in the world, and we gods are least just of all.” And with that, he told his master of the great disparity he had seen in human civilization. For it was a world of kings and beggars, feast and famine, excess and dearth, the few dominating the many.
And after hearing his apprentice’s troubles, the master said, “Oh. That.” Patting the lad’s head, he spoke gently, “Be not surprised that the world is lopsided, for men exist not to be coddled but to be free. And such freedom cannot exist behind a shield, nor can it exist apart from want and hurt. Though the world turns and time changes, they will always know hardship.”
“Their kings know no hardship,” the younger god muttered. “We could have helped all people if you had desired it.”
“Can all people be kings?” To the master, this was just another lesson, like so many others he had given. “One might just as well make a body out of nothing but heads. And how could such a creature survive? Some are kings, some are lords, some are servants, and some are beggars. All are needed.”
“But none are given a choice!” And that was something the younger god could never accept. “By luck alone, one man is lifted and another destroyed. And we gods are responsible for it all.” And with that admission, he fell to his knees, weeping.
And now it was clear that this would be no ordinary lesson. The master could not simply talk his apprentice out of his despair. But as an experienced god, and, more importantly, a sensitive master, he quickly thought of a way to restore the boy’s flagging faith.
Chapter 4: A Crown for Every Man
“My dear child,” the master said, “I can see that nothing short of great action will sway you. And as you have spoken most passionately in favor of the downtrodden, I propose we perform a most charitable bit of mischief.”
“What do you have in mind?” the apprentice asked.
“You and I together shall give all people a choice. With our great power, we shall forge a golden crown for every man, woman, and child of the human family.
“These crowns shall be protected by the blessing of the gods, so that they cannot be seized or stolen—only kept, discarded, or lost according to the will and diligence of the owner. And on the tenth day, all those who have retained their crowns will be given kingdoms, and all who rejected their crowns shall be left with none. Thus, every man will freely choose whether he is a king. Is this acceptable to you?”
The apprentice clapped his hands and shouted, “Yes, This shall correct the injustice of all previous generations.” For he was convinced that every soul would accept the offered crown and the kingdom that came with it.
Thus decided, the master and apprentice went to work together. Cloaking themselves in the forms of men, each set out into the world with a heavy sack slung over his shoulder. And to every man, woman, and child they saw, they offered a golden crown from their bags.
This they did until all people everywhere had been given the opportunity.
To the apprentice’s delight, many people eagerly accepted the golden treasure without objection. Though, to his frustration, he also encountered many who were suspicious of the gift. Some would not even suffer him to show it to them. And he went away disappointed.
Nevertheless, he allowed himself to keep believing that his actions would rid the world of, at least, the greater part of its injustice.
Chapter 5: A Misfired Miracle
Having finished their work, the gods sat down to watch their holy prank unfold. The apprentice’s despair had vanished, and he was visibly excited by the prospect of seeing so many people lifted to a better life.
The master, for his part, was strangely stoic. Neither in the tone of his voice nor in any twitch of his face did he betray his hidden thoughts. He watched, solemn, as the events unfolded.
On the morning of the tenth day, the world was changed. All those people who had accepted the crowns of the gods, and kept them, awoke in a palace. Whatever home they lived in before, whether grand or humble, was suddenly transformed. The land they lived on was likewise expanded, so that each one was now lord of their own kingdom, with all the treasure and grandeur that came with it.
But all those who had refused a crown suddenly found themselves living in humble quarters. Their lands had shrunk so that they could barely contain their homes. And those homes, whether they had been large or small the day before, were now pathetic things, made of poor wood and bent with the wind.
This growing and shrinking of the land changed the entire geography of the world. New countries with new names filled the maps. The old nations had been entirely forgotten.
At first glance, it appeared that the younger god’s wishes had come true. For among the people who now lived in palaces, some had been poor only moments before. And, in turn, some people awoke in shanties who had once lived in mansions.
But neither of those things was typical. Overwhelmingly, the people who awoke in palaces on the tenth day were those who had lived in palaces all their lives. And the ones who awoke in hovels knew those hovels as a familiar sight.
Stranger still was that some kings now had even larger kingdoms, with grander palaces and greater riches. These had acquired more than one crown, having bought extras from people who were eager to sell theirs. Ten days, it appeared, was too long a time for most people to hold on to such valuables, which could be traded for more immediate comforts.
In the end, though land and sea had changed shape, the lives of people were little different. While many had their fortunes changed, the world, for its part, ticked on like nothing of importance had happened.
And seeing this, the apprentice bowed his head. “At last, I have learned what you wanted to teach me. I am satisfied that we did some good this day, but understand now that human nature cannot be changed.”
With that, the master broke his facade of disinterest. “How proud I am to see you grow. Though our lessons together are far from over, you have proven your mastery of our craft. Come, let us celebrate!”
And celebrate they did, in the manner of gods, with music and great feast, setting the sky alight with shooting stars and reveling late into the night.
But this story would not be interesting if it ended there.
Chapter 6: A Fitting Punishment
Some days later, as the younger god was walking through the world, he encountered the same beggar who had prompted the divine experiment, and to the god’s great astonishment, the man was still a beggar.
“I gave you a crown!” he said. “You were the first person in all the Earth that I visited. You, of all people, should have known the value of my gift and kept it with gratitude.”
The beggar bristled. “You expected me to hold on to that trinket? Why could you not have given me good shoes, or a mouthful of meal, or even a cup of ale? I asked you for help. A god should know that I can’t eat gold.”
And, with even greater boldness, he began making demands: “If the gods be just, then fill my belly. If you can make a crown, then make me some clothes that don’t stink. Give me a horse to ease my feet. Give me wine and women to help me forget my misery. And if you don’t do all this for me, then that proves how uncaring the gods are.”
But the younger god was no longer young enough to entertain such demands. And he would not be fooled twice by one who was a tramp in body and soul.
“Enough!” he shouted, casting off the vagrant. “I have dealt you more justice than you ever deserved and overturned the entire world for your sake alone. Do not dare to call me uncaring. I will not let such words go unpunished.”
“Cruelty!” shouted the beggar. “I have beseeched the gods in vain! Behold their arrogance, their apathy. My life is proof of their savagery.”
And, having reached the limit of his nerve, the god let loose the smallest part of his primality. For a moment, he forsook the hearth and became the wild fire—a force of nature—and passed sentence upon the man who reviled him.
“Your life is proof of my mercy. And that proof shall endure forever. From this day onward, death shall never find you. Your many appetites are now irrelevant. You shall go on living, with or without food, drink, or a roof over your head. Your body will never fail you. No injury or sickness will be allowed to touch you, even if you seek it out. And you shall outlive all other men.”
In a cloud of fury, the god vanished, returning the startled beggar to his own devices. The man left that place barely understanding what had happened, and not truly believing it.
Indeed, the great lesson provided in the god’s curse would not reveal itself for many years yet.
Chapter 7: To Live Forever
For the first few decades, the beggar lived exactly as he always had. He plead for food, even though he no longer felt hunger, and could not remember what it felt like. He groaned, though he hadn’t felt pain since that terrible day. And he continued to blame the gods and the kings for misfortunes he no longer had.
But though his body was frozen in a state of perfect health, his mind could still change and grow. He made no attempt to better himself, but the long years of human experience forced him to learn. As kingdoms came and went, he could observe how such changes came about, and picked up a bit of history, mathematics, and literacy without honestly meaning to.
After only a few regime changes, he understood how to take advantage of the system. He knew which treasures to hoard and which causes to support. A kingdom rose, and he became a scribe. When the next kingdom came, he became a merchant. The next kingdom made him a guild master. And the one after that made him a lord.
The world transformed around him. Columns became arches. Ships got longer and faster. Roads and aqueducts cut through the wilderness. Temples became cathedrals. Monarchies became republics. And new lands were being discovered every day.
The change that most astonished him was the steam engine. He had never enjoyed manual labor, and now it was obsolete. In a greatcoat and starched collar, he boarded a train and rode to the ends of the Earth, using his millennia of experience to establish fiefdoms in the four corners of the world. The winds of global trade brought him wealth beyond that of any of the kings he had once reviled, and without needing food or rest, he had an advantage over every competitor who would attempt to take his market share.
The man who had once been a beggar was now unstoppable. But he did stop, once, to notice something.
Chapter 8: To See with New Eyes
His immortal life had begun with the idea that no one had a choice. Some men were born kings, and some men were born beggars, and the kings would bear future kings, and the beggars would bear future beggars.
Now, living in a tower of glass and steel, looking down on an ocean of electric lights, he knew he was surrounded by the descendants of people he once knew, kings and beggars both. Yet they all lived in mostly the same way, with indoor plumbing, climate control, and supermarkets.
Some still lived in poverty, of course. Yet the beggar of today often was descended from a king of so long ago. And there was just as much chance that a descendant of the ancient beggars was living in a palace now.
Having seen so many generations pass, he now could not deny that the fortunes of men were always in flux. Dynasties always came to an end. Families rose and fell. No one was guaranteed success, but no one was trapped in failure, either. On a generational scale, balance always became obvious.
And, having learned the lesson his immortality was meant to teach, he halfheartedly hoped that the curse would be taken from him.
But the decree of a god is not so easily broken.
Chapter 9: To End the Cycle
It is the fate of all common knowledge to eventually fall into the vaults of secrecy. Even the gods themselves, who once danced upon the mountains and walked among all stripes of men, have become secrets—known by few and seen by fewer.
The immortal beggar had not encountered them since the day he was cursed. And with the passage of time, all their tracks cleaned up quite carefully. The world now had more hiding places than ever before. If he dedicated a thousand lifetimes to the search, he still would never find the one god he was looking for.
But with great wealth and greater connections, he was able to catch a rumor. The crowns of the gods were mostly forgotten, and few had survived to the present day. But that first one, given to the beggar so many ages ago, was believed to be still in the world.
It could be collecting dust in some private collection, or perhaps buried deep in a cave, or at the bottom of the ocean. But as the only artifact tying him to that ancient event, retrieving it was the only restitution he could make. And that might be enough to grab the gods’ attention.
To this day, he seeks it. But what chance could he possibly have? Remember: the crown cannot be stolen or seized, only bartered. And, surely, no on is foolish enough to make the same mistake the beggar had, all those centuries ago, in trading away such a treasure.
Does this story have an ending?