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- by matt leibel
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The Tyranny of Judgment

The beauty of being a tyrant, the Tyrant thought, was that he wasn’t subject to Judgment. Still, he wanted to know how he might be judged, were he to be judged, so he hired a distinguished commission of Learned Judges for the task. The Judges were placed in a harrowing situation: if they judged the Tyrant too harshly, they would face unthinkable consequences. If they were overly effusive in their praise, they would not be believed—and would likely face the exact same consequences. Thus, the position of Judge-Advisor was not a position coveted by the Learned Judge community—nor, however, was it one that could be easily shirked.


The Tyranny of the Magazine Women (I)

The Tyrant had his Issues with women. One day, he decided that he preferred the women on the pages of the international fashion magazines littering his bedchambers to the flesh-and-blood women of his country. So he cut out images of models from the magazines, and ordered the Magicians to bring these images to life. The Magicians cast their spells, but it didn’t take the Tyrant long to become frustrated with the magazine women. They proved difficult to deal with: moody, gossipy, and petulant. High-maintenance wasn’t the half of it. And they smoked, three packs a day, some of them, which drove him mad. They were beautiful, sure, with the kind of lustrously ad-ready hair shampoo execs depend upon to feed their families. And willing partners, on occasion, cowed by the unbounded force of the Tyrant’s power: the glare off his impeccably-pressed, medal-draped uniform, the sky-aimed jut of his chin, the all-consuming fire of his steely gaze. But he found them truly vexing, these women, and it took an uncommon display of restraint on the Tyrant’s part not to murder the Magicians en masse for having had the gall to conjure up such bitchy monsters.


The Tyranny of the Sugar Wars

The Magicians determined that the best way to sweeten up the magazine women was to spoon-feed them sugar. Since there was no sugar to be found anywhere within the realm, the Magicians advised a full-scale invasion of the country next door, a sugarcane-rich kingdom the Tyrant had previously seen fit to ignore. Thus commenced the First Great Sugar War. The Generals devised a battle strategy that called upon the Magicians to create Cloaks of Invisibility, allowing soldiers to sneak behind enemy lines and gain the element of surprise. Unfortunately, no one had considered that the Cloaks only rendered the soldiers’ bodies invisible: not their weaponry, their uniforms, or their equipment. Which partially explains why the Sugar Wars (and there would be four of them in the end) were such drawn-out and bloody affairs, why the magazine women remained bitter, and why the Tyrant grew more and more frustrated with his lot. Still, there were many who would have happily bartered away their own children without a thought just to be in his position, even for a day.


The Tyranny of Loneliness

Loneliness is the true and sad fate of all Tyrants, the Tyrant thought. So he demanded that the Mathematicians invent a new equation to nullify Loneliness. The Mathematicians informed the Tyrant they would need a hundred million calculators for this project, and so the calculator factories in the Western Provinces were ordered to begin operating round the clock. Lunch breaks were cut to twelve minutes. Captured defectors from the Sugar Wars (many slated for execution) were forced onto the assembly lines. As the calculators poured off the conveyor belts, the Mathematicians worked feverishly to compute the Loneliness Problem, spending countless weekends apart from their families for years on end – entrenching themselves in precisely the same state of acute Loneliness which the Tyrant was trying so feverishly to banish from his own soul.


The Tyranny of Vanity

The Tyrant was deeply unhappy with how he looked in the mirror. So he ordered the Mirrormakers to make him a series of new mirrors that would reflect his physical appearance in the best possible light. Word about the enhanced mirrors reached the general population, which had become, almost universally, disgusted with their own respective appearances, and desperate for a boost of collective self-esteem. The Tyrant, seeing himself as a benevolent sort, decreed that one day each month, for a period of no more than forty-five minutes, the Mirror Room would be opened to the general public. Subjects of the realm lined the streets for miles, hoping to gain a glimpse into the funhouse world of their ideal selves. But the results were unanticipated: for those lucky enough to have a chance to view their own streamlined reflections, the later return to an ordinary, unmagical view in normal mirrors was often a crushing blow. Suicides among mirror-gazers began to occur well out of proportion to the rest of the population. The Tyrant, for his part, never once had to look at an image of himself he didn’t like.


The Tyranny of Dreams

The Tyrant worried that people were spending too much time in pursuit of their Dreams. So he decreed that henceforth, all dreaming would be forbidden. Sleep scientists told the Tyrant that enforcing such a ban would be flatly impossible. The human mind was too powerful a force: dreaming could never be completely stopped. But the Tyrant didn’t want to hear about it. And so he ordered the Ministry of Dreams to develop a solution. They devised a truly ingenious one: an edible blindfold that subjects would be forced to swallow immediately before sleep. The blindfold would shield sleepers from seeing pictures inside their brain as they slumbered. Soon after, edible earplugs were developed to silence the sounds and music of Dreams. Despite these precautions, fragments of the Dreams continued to sneak through. This aggravated the Tyrant to no end. He took it as a personal affront that ordinary citizens could have the audacity to dream of extraordinary things. 


The Tyranny of Flight

The Tyrant decreed that his people should travel overseas, to learn from other countries and return with the best ideas and practices these lands had to offer. So he ordered 20,000 airplanes to be built. Unfortunately, the Transportation Ministry had neither the resources nor the technical capacity to build them. It was suggested by the Tyrant’s personal Toymaker that toy planes could be Magicked into real planes. The toy planes, made of cardboard or foam or lightweight plastic, were painstakingly constructed down to the minutest of details: wings and stabilizers and ailerons were all built in perfect proportion to those of the latest state-of-the-art jumbo jets. The toy planes had transponders, miniature black boxes, reinforced cockpit doors. Altimeters, intake systems, overhead luggage storage, reclining seats, emergency exits. There were smiling stewardesses, illuminated seat belt signs, in-flight movies. All ready to be enlarged to real size, with no loss of verisimilitude. The Magicked planes were so successful that flights were booked up to six months in advance. The entire operation was flawlessly executed. But the Tyrant had failed to anticipate the inevitable: his citizenry, exposed to the charms and freedoms of the outside world, would take the opportunity to defect. So one morning, the Tyrant ordered all the planes to be Remagicked back into to toy form immediately –including several which were airborne at that very moment.


The Tyranny of the Magazine Women (II)

The magazine women brought to life by the Magicians met in secret to discuss the Tyrant.

-He’s certainly bold.
-Not to mention bald.
-Yet extraordinarily hairy otherwise. I marvel that a man can be so hirsute yet so powerful.
-Whereas we are smooth and glossy. 
-And he’s certainly imaginative, this Tyrant of ours, in his plots and schemes.
-Hmmmph. What exactly does imagination count for anyhow?
-It’s overrated if you ask me. Dangerous, frankly. Give me ordinary felt reality every time, the everyday certainties and conventions. 
-Could you love him?
-He is impossibly selfish. But love is too, sometimes. 
-He is a messy eater, slovenly and gluttonous as all get-up. 
-No man who is a messy eater can be entirely without value. 
-He is lonely and therefore must be loved. This must be codified into law, that the lonely must be loved. 
-If the lonely are not loved, violent conflagrations are sixty-two percent more likely to occur in the world, according to recent data. 
-And yet.
-And yet. Why must he be such a horrible, horrible bastard?


The Tyranny of the Father

The Tyrant was tormented by memories of his own father. The Tyrant’s father had ruled the nation with an iron fist – and this was not (or not only) a metaphor. Indeed, a boulder-sized, cast-iron clenched fist had adorned the Tyrant’s father’s Throne Room at all times: an unmistakable symbol of absolute control that the Tyrant struggled to match throughout his own reign. In fact, the Tyrant struggled to live up to his father’s example in many ways. The Tyrant’s father took seventeen wives and sired over fifty children, while the Tyrant himself was medically incapable of producing an heir. The Tyrant’s father was respected (or at least feared) worldwide – whereas the Tyrant himself was regarded as a minor player in international affairs. Frustrated, the Tyrant set out, like so many great heroes of Myth and Song, to kill his Father. But even in this endeavor, he failed to live up to his Father’s example. For unlike the Tyrant’s Father, who had successfully dethroned his own father through a spectacularly executed midnight raid, the Tyrant’s efforts to kill off his father were clumsy failures. The Tyrant’s father allowed the Tyrant to live after each of these failed attempts not only as a show of public benevolence – but also because he hoped his son would survive to become so incompetent a successor that it would make the father’s reign look positively legendary by comparison.  


The Tyranny of Revolution

The Tyrant, deeply concerned about uprisings, was reading a book entitled, Revolution, No!: The Step-by-Step Guide to Crushing Insurrections and Rebellions. The book’s central premise was “Think Like an Insurgent”, and so the Tyrant started dressing in guerrilla camouflage, chanting revolutionary slogans, and hiding out amidst the Resistance in the dense jungle outside the Capital. An unfortunate incident occurred one morning on the Palace lawns when the Tyrant, sporting a meticulously-cultivated Che Guevara beard and holding up a hand-painted placard reading “Down with Tyranny!”, was nearly shot to death by a trigger-happy member of his own Elite Guard. (It was later rumored, but never confirmed, that a second guard had whispered to the first, “Don’t miss next time.”) In the end, the Tyrant found the guidebook well-meant, but basically useless. And so he ordered all extant copies burned in a nationally televised ceremony in Central Square. (In fact, public book burning was recommended as step #4 of “thinking like an insurgent”, as outlined in Chapter 7 of Revolution, No!)


The Tyranny of the Magazine Women (III)

-I've heard he's trying to engineer the weather. 
- He's blasting seeds up into the clouds in a kind of bazooka. He wants it to rain flowers. He wants to give them to us to show his love. 
-Actually, that's kind of sweet. 
-In a sad way, maybe. 
-I think he's trying to prove he is actually capable of love. If for no other reason than he hates the idea that there's anything he's not capable of.  
-Meanwhile, the peasants wither away. Their fields lie fallow. 
-Yes, I've been following the fallowing of the fields.  
-If not but for the grace of God…
-What's God got to do with it? 
-Accident of birth.  
-Accident of birth. So much of who you are is determined in that one moment when you're painfully pushed out into the world. And you can't do a damn thing about it. 
-Sometimes I wish that I could give birth.
-I wish that I could go back to living on page sixty-seven.


The Tyranny of Role Models

The Tyrant viewed himself as part of a Pantheon of Great Leaders. (In fact, he loved the word “pantheon” so much that he ordered it carved in gigantic gold letters into the side of a mountain, despite strident protests from the Minister of the Treasury.) Role models for the Tyrant included strongmen like Peron and Mao, Stalin and Genghis Khan, Mussolini, Peter the Great, and Ivan the Terrible. The Tyrant considered himself heir to this great tradition of Despotism, and found himself comparing his own exploits to those of his monstrous mentors. He knew that he could never live up to the standards set by his predecessors, but this kept him Humble. Accordingly, the Tyrant decreed that anyone who questioned his Humility in any form be shipped off immediately to the Wastelands of the Frozen North.


The Tyranny of the Wastelands of the Frozen North

should really be self-evident, both to those who’ve been there, and those who haven’t yet had the pleasure.


The Tyranny of History

The Tyrant was obsessed with how he would be regarded by History, so he hired 100 historians to write the chronicle of his life and reign, including a number of stories and events that never actually happened. He spent six months reading through all of the accounts, and enjoyed many of them. But in the end, he determined that the Histories lacked the ring of Truth, so he declared History to be Dead. He then held a funeral for History in the Square, (attendance was mandatory) and gave a moving eulogy. Historians approached to place flowers—and key historiographical documents—on History’s grave. Then, the Tyrant declared it time to move on, to live in the Now. Looking back is for cowards, he told the assembled crowd, contemptuously spitting a cookie-sized wad of chewing tobacco off the edge of the Palace balcony. And so it was that all Historians all became Propagandists, or faced the consequences.


The Tyranny of Tears

One night, after he'd had his desultory way with the magazine women and booted them unceremoniously from his chambers, the Tyrant—feeling as hollow as the facades of a movie ghost town—cried his eyes out. He often kept a golden chalice by his bedside, and that night, he held it haplessly in his hands while he filled it to the brim with a monsoon of hot tears. Once he'd composed himself, the Tyrant called on the Alchemist to Magick the tears into the finest vintage of Champagne known in the Kingdom. The Tyrant drank up his sorrows and, upon finishing, smashed the chalice into a pile of unrecognizable bits of golden rubble. This pattern began to repeat itself, night after night after night after night. Each night too, a different Alchemist. For no man could see the Tyrant at his weakest—his most vulnerable, his most messily human—and expect to live to tell the tale.


The Tyranny of Death

The Tyrant, if he’d had his druthers, would never die. Immortality, he believed, was not just a goal to be reached for, but an essential part of the True Leader’s job description. And so the Tyrant ordered his Doctors to develop a potion that would grant him Eternal Life. The Doctors, with patience belying the ridiculousness of the request, calmly informed the Tyrant that this was impossible, and further, that the chest pains he’d been feeling of late could be a sign of something more serious. Soon hospitalized, his condition worsened. Increasingly aware of his own Mortality, his voice weakening, the Tyrant issued a series of new and more desperate orders. He ordered all the gold-colored crayons in the realm rounded up, Magicked into real Gold, and built into a Golden Palace, in tribute to his Regime. He ordered the Magazine Women to fall in love with him – not just physically, but truly, madly, deeply – as though he were an ordinary man with ordinary virtues. He ordered the Doctors to bring his father back from the dead, so that the Tyrant could curse the old man one last time in this world. He ordered that the television coverage of his own Death be presented not as a somber occasion but as a celebration of his life. And he ordered that his own Name be added to the Language as a common noun, meaning “one who has triumphed over adversity and is now universally revered” – and that verb and adjectival forms of his name be coined along the same lines. The Lexicographers assembled at his deathbed only pretended to amend their dictionaries and thesauri: the time was near when all of these spoken orders would disappear – poof! – into the ether, as though the Tyrant’s voice had never shaped their days, nor terrorized their nights.


The Tyranny of Freedom

The death of the Tyrant was met, predictably, with celebration. Crowds poured out into the streets, set off fireworks, chanted the songs the Tyrant had explicitly forbidden his people to chant. Slogans were spray painted over, and posters were clawed from the walls. Weapons were jubilantly and indiscriminately fired into the air, and the handful of tragic accidents that resulted from these outbursts was written off as the petty costs of Liberation. Many outside observers predicted that the People, newly left to their own devices, would quickly descend into petty squabbles and chaos. But it was not to be: improbably enough, the balm of freedom quickly healed almost all divisions between factions. Elections were held, and the nascent flowering of Democracy brought the populace Freedoms they hadn’t dreamed of. Still, the passage of time managed to muddy up this rosy picture. For the citizens of the nation eventually grew bored with their new way of life. Things became too easy, too predictable, and people actually began to miss the wildness of Tyranny: the random, crazy proclamations, the sudden, seemingly unpredictable bursts of Magic that fired the Collective Imagination, the almost intoxicating sense of purpose that came from going to war with a common enemy. They missed all this, or thought perhaps that they missed all of this (for this was generations later) and so a small rogue faction set out to recreate the Era of Tyranny by anointing a new Tyrant – a Doppelganger.


The Tyranny of the Doppelganger

The Doppelganger wished to replicate the Golden Age of Tyranny, but since the Histories had long since been destroyed, he had no idea what that Age might have been like. So he hired a small group of Forecasters from the Department of Possible Pasts to take their best guesses. The Forecasters told the Doppelganger that they seemed to remember a Tyrant once. They seemed to recall that he was a larger-than-life figure, maybe eleven feet tall. That his voice boomed like God’s own wrathful baritone projected through a bullhorn, that he wore diamond-studded ermine pajamas, shat in solid gold toilets, bent unnaturally beautiful women violently to his will, and controlled the frequency and content of people’s dreams. The Doppelganger suggested to the Forecasters that he would strive with all his might to live up to this shining example of tyrannical virtuosity. Still, throughout the Doppelganger’s reign, there was this nagging sense that, Historical Memory or no, he would always exist in the shadows of those Tyrants who had come before him. In order to guard against this, the Doppelganger decreed that all shadows were to be banished from the nation’s soil, and that non-compliant shadows be rounded up and burned in huge piles by a trained team of professional Shadow-Exterminators equipped with specially-molded shadow-retardant suits. And soon it came to pass that there were no shadows left – nor history nor memory nor dreams nor flight nor vanity nor freedom. Loneliness and death remained, however, the only things that could not be Magicked away. The Doppelganger had hoped that these things too would be malleable to his will, but instead they proved impenetrable, as hard and unyielding as Elephants’ tusks.


The Tyranny of the Tyrant

For the Tyrant, death had been deeply frustrating: in life, his power had been predicated upon his ability to instill fear – most notably the fear of death – in his subjects. Now, among the dead, fear was largely non-existent. Most of the dead feared nothing. But for the Tyrant, the mere prospect of spending eternity in a world devoid of fear induced in him, paradoxically, a feeling of terror every bit as palpable as the terror he’d perpetrated on others during his lifetime. Indeed, seeing the fearlessness on the faces of those he’d once terrorized – the dreamers, the warriors, the historians, the revolutionaries, the women – now filled the Tyrant with quivering Dread. He attempted to Magick the Dread away; he issued orders and decrees to the ghosts that surrounded him. And when his call was ignored (for he, too, was a mere ghost) his voice became a Cry. But his cry – much like the cries of all the Tyrants who’d come before him, and, eventually, all those who would follow in his wake – went unheard. Instead, it was swallowed up by the wind and the rocks and the sky and the sea, and was quietly Magicked into a single, silent, grain of sand.

was published in November 2018
    Flash Fiction
    Short Story
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