I tried not to. I held out as long as I could. But eventually, it happened. I started watching The White Throne.
The White Throne was a show about a mythical kingdom. It had dragons and dwarves and armies and princesses, and they were all fighting to sit on the White Throne. They betrayed and stabbed and poisoned and raped each other, every Sunday night at 9:00PM.
The White Throne had taken over my office. On Monday mornings, my co-workers walked in shouting about the show: “Can you believe it? Gwendor Fairlord! Oh. My. God.” On our Slack channel, everyone posted his or her own theory about who was going to sit on the White Throne next. In the kitchen, people warmed up their lunches and discussed the rape and murder of various dwarves and princesses.
Everyone was always asking, “Can you believe it?” And no one ever could.
It had taken over the internet too. As they watched the show, my Facebook friends gave running updates, telling everyone how “crushed” or “devastated” or “absolutely devastated” they were. They posted the results of quizzes that told them which dwarf, princess, or dragon they were: one of my high school girlfriends was Maxilia; my father-in-law was Wegar. And my newsfeed was full of White Throne stories—“The Medicare Crisis is a Real-Life Episode of The White Throne!”;“All Hail Hillary Clinton, America’s Lady Winderfell!”; “What The White Throne Teaches Us about Saving for Retirement”; “You Won’t Believe Richard Dawkins’s Crazy White Throne Theory!” “Hillary Clinton is NOT Lady Winderfell, and Anyone Who Says Otherwise is a Human Dumpster Fire.”
I didn’t want to watch. Dragons and dwarves weren’t my thing. And besides, my queue was already full. I still hadn’t watched the last two seasons of Mister Meth, the last show that everyone was talking about. (I always seemed to be behind on these things.) The thought of all those dragons and battles was exhausting.
But what could I do? In a meeting, my boss said that our content marketing strategy was to be like Wegar and the Redwalkers, and everyone nodded. And of course, I nodded too.
So, one night, I watched the first episode of The White Throne. People in robes shouted in vaguely British accents about swords and spells, treaties and clans. I flinched when Wegar cut out the old queen’s tongue, and I watched through my fingers as he forced her to eat it.
I didn’t quite like it. But I did want to watch another episode. And another. And another.
I watched the entire first season that night. I gasped as Wiglaf betrayed Littlejohn. When Chungo the Dragonlord killed Gwendor, I was in tears.
I finished the season finale as the sun was rising. I tried to get an hour or two of sleep before work, but I found myself lying awake, wondering who would end up sitting on the White Throne.
I couldn’t believe it.
I knew the show was a little ridiculous—and very violent. But still, there was something satisfying about it. Things happened—princesses died, armies fought, kids drank poison. It was never boring. You knew, every episode, that something would happen.
And besides, now I could talk to my coworkers and understand what people were saying on the internet. I made jokes about the Redwalkers, and shared the results of my character quiz. (I was Littlejohn.) Everyone was excited for me. “Just wait until you get to the gouging episode,” they said. “You won’t even believe it.”
I tried to get my wife to watch with me. It was hard, being the only one in the house who knew about poor Gwendor.
“The White Throne?” she said. “People are always talking about that at work. Isn’t it about dragons?”
I admitted that it did include some dragons.
“And isn’t there a lot of rape?”
I said that there wasn’t as much rape as I had expected. “It’s very tastefully done. The show is definitely not pro-rape. There was a whole debate about this. I read some articles about it on Slate. The show is just trying to depict how things really would be in a patriarchal medieval society.”
“But also dragons?”
“But also dragons.”
“It doesn’t sound like my kind of thing.”
“I said that too.”
I watched The White Throne in bed, on my iPad, with my headphones in. My wife lay next to me, watching her own shows on her own iPad with her own headphones. Sometimes, I caught her looking at my screen. When our eyes met, she scrunched her lips, shook her head, muttered “dragons and rape,” and went back to her own show.
One night, I was finally watching the gouging episode. Everything in my body was clenched. I knew that someone was going to get his eyes gouged out, and every minute brought me closer to it. Who would it be—Riflin? Wegar? Littlejohn? It couldn’t be Littlejohn—not poor sweet Littlejohn.
The gouging came. It was Littlejohn. I couldn’t look. I turned my head—and saw my wife, watching my iPad. She started.
“It’s an awful show,” she said. “Why would they show something like that? Why would someone do something like that to him?”
“Well,” I said, “he’s the rightful heir to the White Throne. So Wegar wants to make sure he can’t claim his place.”
“Which one is Wegar?”
“The one in the black robe. There.”
“Ah. The woman who sits next to me at work thinks he’s handsome. Ugh—now he’s gouging out the kid’s eyes?”
“That’s Littlejohn’s stepson. He was helping Wegar, but—it’s kind of confusing. You really should start at the beginning.”
“Oh, no. This is gross.”
She watched the rest of the episode.
This happened at the end of spring, just before our trip to Sadirvan.
We had been planning the trip for a while. Two or three years ago, everyone was talking about a show called Rendition. It was about a woman who worked for the CIA—she went all over the Middle East, hunting terrorists (and sometimes falling in love with them). My wife and I watched it together, and we were always impressed with how beautiful the show looked. When the CIA agent ran through a crowded bazaar, it looked like a real bazaar. When she chased a terrorist to the top of a minaret, it looked like a real minaret.
Of course, we didn’t exactly know what a real bazaar or minaret looked like—we had done our share of travelling, but we had never been anywhere with a bazaar or a minaret. But still.
We googled it, and found out that the show was filmed in Sadirvan. We looked at pictures of the city, and we knew that we had to go.
We had been to Paris and Prague, London and Rome. They were all beautiful—but not like Sadirvan. Sadirvan had a deep beauty, a heavy beauty. It was an ancient city. It had been the capital of five empires, the city of emperors and sultans. It was thick with time. Everything seemed to be crumbling and glowing, all at once—the bridges and the pillars, the minarets and the domes, even the kebabs and the coffee.
We wanted to be there. So we planned a vacation. At the beginning of the summer, we were going to spend a week in Sadirvan. We were going to see the real thing, to be inside all that history, that crumbling glow.
We were very excited.
Before our trip, we made a decision: no White Throne in Sadirvan. We could watch TV anywhere, but Sadirvan was special. We were going to travel across the world, to a city heavy with time, and we wanted to really be there—to be present.
“But wait,” I said, “what about the flight? Does the flight count?”
“No, of course not,” said my wife. “It’s a very long flight.”
We flew to Frankfurt, and waited for a few hours. Our flight to Sadirvan was delayed, so we waited for another few hours. That was fine with us: the airport had wifi, and we had our iPads. We put our feet on our bags, and our neck pillows around our necks, and we watched The White Throne.
We each watched it on our own iPad: my wife had gone back and started from the beginning, and she was still two seasons behind me. Sometimes, I found myself watching her screen, remembering a great moment from an old episode. I was a little jealous of her: she was getting to experience it all for the first time. She had all of it still ahead of her.
On her screen, Hrogar was proposing to Lady Winderfell. My wife cooed.
“Don’t get too attached,” I said.
She squinted at me. I had promised her no spoilers. I went back to my own screen, where Lady Winderfell was weeping over her husband’s body. Wegar had killed him, and cut off her hands. She swore she would get her revenge.
But I wouldn’t see it. Not for another week, anyway. The airline announced—first in English, then in German, then in Sadirsh—that that it was now boarding the 5:15 flight to Sadirvan.
Our hotel was a few blocks east of the Silver Mosque. From our room, we could hear the call to prayer warbling through the loudspeakers. It was a good sign: it felt very real.
On our first day, we slept in, and came down to the breakfast room just as they were clearing away the buffet. We snagged a yogurt and a few muffins covered in black seeds, filled two paper cups with coffee, and took our breakfast to the lobby. I ate and looked at the internet on my phone. After a while, I felt someone staring at me. I looked up and met my wife’s eyes.
“Hi,” I said.
“I was thinking.”
“I left off at the end of season three.”
“Oh, that’s a good one. The cliffhanger with Hetwar.”
“I can’t stop thinking about it.” She paused, breathed in, and exhaled. “So tell me.”
“Tell you? Tell you spoilers?”
“Tell me spoilers. Spoil me. Get it over with. Then I’ll know what happens, and I’ll stop wondering about it, and I’ll be able to enjoy, you know, this.” She waved her hand at the window.
“Are you sure?” She was. So I told her how Hetwar was betrayed by the Saflings. “But he escapes to Easterland and joins up with the Fairlords.”
“Okay,” she said. “Good. Now I’m spoiled. I’m ready for Sadirvan.” She picked up her coffee, took a sip, and put it down again. “The Fairlords? Really?”
“Even after what happened what happened to Gwendor?”
“I know. I couldn’t believe it.”
“It won’t last though. Will it? I mean—” She stopped. “You know what—don’t answer that.”
We were ready for Sadirvan.
Ten minutes later, we were outside the Silver Mosque. It was an impossible building—a big pile of domes, ten or twenty of them, each seeming to balance on top of another. “It’s like Jenga,” I said.
The mosque surrounded by a white stone wall and tall, thin minarets. A row of spigots stuck out of the wall—men sat in front of them on little stone seats and washed their feet.A sign told us—in English—to go to the tourist entrance and remove our shoes. Another sign had a picture of two women: one was wearing a short skirt and a sleeveless top; the other had a long skirt and a scarf over her arms and heads. There was a big red X over the first, and a yellow check-mark over the second. My wife took a pink scarf out of his purse and wound it around her head.
“Sorry about this,” I said. I wasn’t quite sure why I was apologizing, but it felt like the right thing to do. “You look nice though.”
I wasn’t lying. She really did. She reminded me of someone or something, but I couldn’t figure out who or what it was.
We carried our shoes by the heels, and walked through a high narrow door and into the mosque. It was not dark, but the light seemed heavier somehow: it came in through stained glass windows, and stuck to the brown marble and the red rugs. We stared up for a while at the domes. They were painted with all kinds of interesting patterns—flowers and vines, circles and curves. At the tops of the pillars were dark green medallions, covered with gold lines that flowed into and out of and over each other.
“I wish I knew what it all meant,” I said.
“We should have prepared better,” said my wife.
“I thought it was like a cathedral. I assumed there would be pictures.”
I opened Wikipedia on my phone and read about the mosque. “The many windows,” it said, “confer a spacious impression.” I looked around. Yes—it was spacious.
We walked up and down the mosque, looking at the patterns from different angles, taking pictures with our phones. Other tourists did the same thing. One woman kept losing her headscarf: she couldn’t seem to tie it properly. On the other side of the mosque, people sat on the ground, their clean feet on the carpet, talking in little groups or reading.
Soon, we heard the call to prayer, echoing off the domes and the pillars. Bearded men walked along the tourist side of the mosque, waving us toward the exit. I grabbed my wife behind the elbow and scooted behind a pillar.
“Hey,” she said. “We have to go. They’re going to do their prayer.”
“I know,” I said. On the other side of the pillar, the other tourists shuffled back into the sun. “But we came here to see things, right?”
“We didn’t understand all the patterns. But maybe we’ll see the prayer and it’ll all, you know, pop into place.”
“What if they catch us?”
“They’ll probably kick us out.”
We pressed ourselves close to the pillar. Soon, we heard a different chant. We peeked around the pillar and saw rows of men, standing, their backs to us. The chant rose and fell. The men dropped to their knees, and then put their faces on the rug. They sat on their knees again, stood, and did it all a few more times. After a while, they started to move around.
“Is it over?” I said.
“I think so.”
“It was interesting.”
“Yeah. Did you feel like you understood it?”
“Me either.” She pushed a hair back into her headscarf. “Five times a day. I can’t imagine what it’s like—to have something that rules you like that.” (We were spiritual, not religious.)
“It sort of reminded me of the ceremony of the Redwalkers,” I said.“They do the same sort of standing-kneeling-bowing thing. I wonder if the show borrowed that from this.”
My wife glared at me. I realized my mistake immediately. Here we were, almost having a real experience with Sadirvan, and I had to ruin it with a TV show. We had promised not to watch The White Throne, but talking about it was just as bad.
We left the mosque, and stopped, outside the walls, at a fountain lined with turquoise tiles. My wife took off her scarf, looked at her reflection in the water, and fixed her hair. I watched an old man sit at one of the spigots in the wall and wash his yellow toenails.
We walked for a while in silence. We passed in abroken old amphitheater and a shady park. I planned a little apology, and was almost ready to deliver it when my wife spoke.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“That’s what I thought you said. But why? I’m the one that should be apologizing. I brought up the stupid show.”
“I know. But I’m not any better. When we talked about what would happen if they kicked us out, I started thinking about Rendition. You know—that episode where she’s hiding in the mosque, trying to spy on Abu Bakr and the Russian ambassador.”
“Is this before or after she falls in love with Abu Bakr?”
“Before. Anyway, she’s hiding behind a pillar, listening to them. And it was exciting, for a moment, to imagine that I was her—to think that they might catch us, and turn us over to Abu Bakr.”
“I don’t think they would’ve turned us over to anyone.”
“It’s stupid. I know.”
I took her hand. “It’s just as stupid as thinking about The White Throne. We’re stupid together.”
“There’s so much history here,” she said. “So much real stuff. We came here to see that, to feel that.”
“We will,” I said. “We’re going to the palace tomorrow.”
She squeezed my hand. “Right. We’re going to the palace tomorrow.”
The sun came out from behind a cloud, and we walked across one of the old stone bridges. It was windy, and some of my wife’s hair blew into my mouth.
The next morning, we rode the trolley down a long, steep hill. The street was clogged with people, and the trolley rang its bell over and over. It crossed the gray river, and came to the gates of the palace—a big wooden door, with blue stone towers on either side.
My wife and I bought tickets from a woman in a glass booth, and passed through the gate and into a courtyard. Suddenly, we were surrounded by boys. There were five or ten of them, and they spoke to us in five or ten languages. My wife held her purse against her body. I shrugged furiously at the boys. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t understand.”
“You need a guide,” said one of the boys. He was wearing a red soccer jersey and acid-washed jeans. “The palace is very big. A hundred lira—I’ll show you everything.”
I turned to my wife. “What do you think?” The boys watched us.
“It could be good. If he knows the history of the palace—if he can help us understand. We don’t want a repeat of yesterday.”
“Right.” I turned back to the boy in the jersey. “Do you know the history of the palace?”
“Yes,” he said. “Of course.”
I nodded at my wife, and she nodded at me. The other boys shouted lower prices at us—“Ninety lira!” “Eight-five!”—but the boy in the jersey was already walking very quickly across the courtyard. He waved at me and my wife, and we followed.
He led us all over the palace—the bedrooms and the long porches, the throne-rooms and the armories. We saw the sultan’s chambers and the baths and the harems. We walked across blue and white tiles, painted with peacocks and fountains and flowers, and we walked under the gold and blue ceilings and the heavy hanging lamps.
All this time, the boy talked. He really did know his history. He told us about the court of the old sultans—the sons and the wives, the viziers and the eunuchs, the factions and the plots, the murders and the betrayals.
My wife and I walked next to each other, listening. I tried not to look at her. I knew what I was thinking, but I hoped it could stay stuck inside me.
A few times, our eyes almost met—we looked away, quickly, and became very interested in the ceilings and the tiles.
I kept expecting to come to the end—to the back wall of the palace—but there was always another courtyard, opening onto another set of porches and rooms, another set of murders and betrayals.
At the center of one courtyard was a silver fountain. This, the boy said, was where Sultan Uthman the Twenty-Sixth had been drowned by his bodyguards. I saw my wife reflected in the wet silver, and she saw me, and we understood each other.
We ate dinner in a Greek restaurant. We ate lamb off metal skewers with elaborate handles.
We talked about the boy—how smart he was, how much he knew about history.
“I’m glad we hired him,” I said.
“He was worth every lira.”
I worked a piece of lamb off the skewer with my work. My wife cut the meat on her plate, raised a bite to her mouth, and put it down again.
“Can I just say it?” she said.“We’re both thinking it.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
She ate a bite of lamb. I cut my food. We chewed and cut, and listened to each other chewing and cutting.
“Okay,” I said. “You should just say it.”
She shook her head. “Now we’ve made it weird.”
“It is weird. To be in a place like that—surrounded by all that history—all those real kings and real plots—and to be thinking about a stupid TV show.”
“It did sound a lot like the show.”
“That fountain thing is straight out of season four. Sorry—spoilers.”
She looked at her plate. “It was so beautiful—the old gold, the blue, the patterns. I knew I should have been having some—I don’t know—experience with it. But I just kept thinking about the show, and then I felt bad for thinking about the show.”
“There’s always tomorrow,” I said. “We can go the Grand Bazaar. Or maybe the Roman ruins.”
“Why would they be any different?”
I didn’t know. But what else could we do? “We’ll find something,” I said. “Maybe it’s the bazaar, maybe it’s the ruins, maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, it’ll be so amazing—so real—that they’ll just overwhelm us, and we’ll forget all the TV we’ve ever seen.”
My wife smiled. “We’ll just keep trying,” she said. “We came all the way across the world. That has to count for something.”
We couldn’t stay depressed for long. We were optimistic. We had good reason to be: life usually proved us right.
That night, we were full of lamb, and we couldn’t sleep. I tossed and sweated. My wife put her leg out of the blanket, pulled it back in, and put it out again.
I tried to look at Facebook on my phone, but the internet wasn’t working. I turned on the TV, and flipped through Sadirsh dramas, Sadirsh news, a soccer game on another continent, CNN International, HBO. I stopped on a familiar face.
It was The White Throne, dubbed in Sadirsh.
My wife sat up. “I think I’ve seen this one.”
“It’s season one.”
“They must be behind here.”
“I had forgotten all about this one. It’s a really good episode.”
Chungo pledged his love to Gwendor in Sadirsh.
“We probably shouldn’t,” I said.
“Right. But still.”
“We would just be sleeping otherwise.”
Chungo and Gwendor embraced.
“It’s not—you know—pathetic that we’re watching it in Sadirsh?”
“No. Of course not. It’s a good thing, I think.”
“A cultural experience.”
Chungo returned to his nests, and the dragons began to hatch from their eggs.
The episode ended, and another started. It was halfway over when the boom came.
We felt it first. The room shook—the furniture vibrated—my watch fell off the nightstand. A few seconds later, we heard a loud crack, and then a slow roar. I muted the TV, and we listened to the sound fade away.
“Was that an earthquake?” said my wife.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure what an earthquake feels like.”
“Like that, maybe.”
“Well, it’s not so bad then. I always imagined an earthquake would be much worse.” I reached over the side of the bed. “Look—my watch didn’t even break.”
“Oh, good.” We listened to the watch tick. “But aren’t there aftershocks?”
“I think so.” I put the watch back on the ground. “Do you think I should call someone?”
“I don’t know. The front desk?”
“Maybe. But what are they going to do about an earthquake?”
“That’s true,” I said. “Although.”
“We don’t know it’s an earthquake. It could be—you know.”
“I thought that too.”
“It’s probably not. Just because it’s a Muslim country doesn’t mean—”
“Right. Exactly.” She scratched her leg through the sheet. “Maybe you should call the desk though.”
I picked up the phone and dialed zero. It rang and rang. We started to hear doors opening in the hallway and footsteps in the rooms above us.
There was another, bigger boom. Even my teeth vibrated. The crack and the roar were louder and longer.
My wife checked her phone. The internet was still down. She flipped through the channels. Chungo was raising his dragons, and the soccer players were taking penalty kicks, but something had happened to the Sadirsh news station. The news desk and chairs were empty. Everything was still and silent. The camera had slumped a little, revealing the wires taped to the floor.
My wife flipped to CNN, which was showing the Silver Mosque, lit by floodlights and the pale little moon. The anchors were talking about the Sadirsh military: it had, they said, taken over the bridges, shut down state television and the internet, and ordered everyone to stay inside. The prime minister’s whereabouts were unknown, and there were reports of fighter jets buzzing the capital. Wolf Blitzer said it was an extremely tense situation.
A graphic flashed at the bottom of the screen: MILITARY COUP UNDERWAY IN SADIRVAN.
My wife stuck her leg out of the blanket. “Do you think we should—you know—go?”
“The TV said to stay inside,” I said. I realized I was still holding the phone. I listened to it ring a few more times and hung up.
My wife threw back the blanket. “I’m going to put on pants, at least.”
It was a good idea. We both put on pants. It was a serious situation.
We opened our curtains. There was no one in the street, but we the Sadirsh flag flying from a few balconies. We didn’t know if that meant they were for the coup or against it.
We sat in the bed, on top of the blankets, in our pants, and watched CNN.
“We’re going to be okay, right?” said my wife.
“I think so,” I said. “We’re Americans.”
“But maybe that means we should be worried. What if the military is, you know, people who don’t like people like us?”
“I don’t think they are. CNN said the military did a coup before, in the 90s, and that America supported it.”
“Oh, okay. Good. That makes me feel better.”
“Besides, we’re tourists. They can’t hurt us. There has to be a Geneva Convention or something for that.
We kept watching. CNN showed helicopters floating over the Silver Mosque. We heard them, faintly, over the sound of the TV.
Our little conversation made me realize how little I knew about modern Sadirvan. I tried to pay attention. The anchors talked about the prime minister and the different factions of military. At one point, they had been on the same side, but recently they had split, and the prime minister had put some of the big generals in jail. Now, it seemed, the military was fighting back. One of the generals said that the prime minister had betrayed the republic. The prime minister was on Skype, urging people to take to the streets and resist.
The anchors called a Sadirsh politics expert. He said it was a stunning turn of events. “I knew things had deteriorated in the past few months, but I didn’t expect it to come to this. I really can’t believe it.”
My wife and I sat very still. We did not look at each other.
An ex-CIA guy came on and talked about coup-planning. The anchors showed cellphone video of tanks blocking the bridges. Wolf Blitzer read viewers’ tweets. One person wrote “#Sadirvan looks like a real-life White Throne right now!”
My wife and I both exhaled at once.
“Awful,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “This is serious.”
“Exactly. This isn’t a show.”
“The prime minister isn’t Wegar. The military aren’t the Redwalkers.”
“No. Of course not,” she said. “If anything, the president would be Chungo. But he’s not.”
“Right.” I looked down at my pants and tried to smooth out a wrinkle. “Chungo? Really?”
“The prime minister looks just like him—the mustache, the beady little eyes.”
“Fair enough. But in terms of his position, he’s clearly Wegar. Ruthlessly eliminating opposition, breaking alliances—”
“See, that sounds more like Hrogar to me.”
“But you’re only on season three. In the later seasons—”
The furniture shook. We heard the crack and roar of the jet.
“What’s wrong with us?” said my wife.
We held hands. I could feel her pulse beating in her fingers. I knew mine was going just as fast, and I understood, finally, why we had come here. We got what we wanted, although as usual, we did not realize what we had really wanted until after we got it.
“I was thinking,” I said, “about the mosque yesterday. About what you said—how you enjoyed thinking you were like Clara from Rendition, and how stupid it was. But why do those have to be separate? Can’t you enjoy something even though it’s stupid? Even though you know you shouldn’t?”
“But doesn’t that make us terrible people?”
I shook my head. “We know better. Deep down, we know that this isn’t like The White Throne.”
“Right. We know that this is real. People are actually in danger.”
“And we don’t actually want anyone to get hurt.”
“No. Of course not.”
“So why should we feel guilty? Who does that help?”
“We’ve come here. We should enjoy it.”
Our eyes were wide open, and we were smiling. I could see every one of her teeth.
We watched CNN. We felt stupid and a little guilty at first, but soon that didn’t matter: things were happening. The protestors blocked the tanks on the bridge, and the military fired on the parliament. We heard the helicopters and the shouts in the street, and we argued about which generals were which characters. It was a show, and it was real, all at once. We were very happy. The sun rose, the call to prayer sounded, and the jets buzzed the city and shook us in the deepest parts of ourselves.
If you enjoyed The White Throne, leave a comment and let Ryan know.
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