Many years ago, there were two swindlers. They were making their way about the countryside, and happened upon a merry and pleasant town ruled by a young emperor.
Tell us about your emperor,” the swindlers said to the townsfolk. “What is he like?”
“The emperor?” answered one, “why, he cares about nothing except for new clothes.”
“He doesn’t review the soldiers, or visit the theater, or go for carriage rides except to show off his new attire,” said another.
“He has a different coat for every hour, and a jacket for every occasion.”
“He is always in his dressing room, the way that other emperors are always in council.”
The swindlers thanked the townsfolk for their information, and decided upon a plan. They let it be known that they were weavers, and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. They said that not only were their colors brighter, and their patterns more complicated than any others in the empire, but they were also practitioners of an ancient, secretive method of spinning thread so fine that it was invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office.
The emperor was a crafty man, craftier than his villagers believed him to be. It was true that he loved clothes, but what he really loved was power. When he heard about the fine weavers in town, he said to himself “I know just how to make use of these swindlers.”
By the time the swindlers were brought before the emperor, the entire town knew of the new weavers and their supposed talents. They knew the emperor’s appetite for clothes, and the he would soon be trying on the garments made by these charlatans.
“I have heard of your skills,” said the emperor to the two frauds. “I have heard that your threads are so fine that those who are unfit for their office cannot see them.”
“Quite so, your majesty,” they said.
“I see my empire as you see cloth” said the Emperor. “The cloth is only as fine as its threads, and one bad thread can unravel the whole garment, isn’t that so?”
“Indeed,” they replied.
“Excellent,” said the Emperor. With that, he summoned his guards and signaled for the two men to be executed. Before they men could plead for their lives, the guards had drawn their swords and killed them. As the two men lay dying, the Emperor turned to his secretary.
“Be sure that no one hears of these two. Let it be said that they have taken up residence as my official tailors.”
Then he said: “write a new law. This is my decree: As a man is made by his associations, let it be known that any relatives or associates of those who are unfit to work are to be deemed themselves unfit for their post.”
The next day, he declared there would be a procession, led by the Emperor himself, in which he would wear the magnificent gowns made by the new weavers. The townsfolk had all heard of these fraudsters, and had not thought much of them. But the new law made it clear that they could not associate with anyone who did not pretend to find the new garments dazzling, or else be deemed unfit for their office.
As the parade began, the Emperor emerged, marching at the head of the parade beneath a wondrous canopy, stark naked. Everyone in the street stared in surprise, and worked to suppress laughter. Remembering the new law, they all remarked on how wondrous and how beautiful the royal garments were.
“Magnificent!” said one.
“How fine! Don’t they fit him to perfection?” said another.
“No clothes ever looked so marvelous!” said a third.
Then, from somewhere in the crowd, a small child spoke: “But he hasn’t got anything on.”
Everyone around the child stepped away, attempting to distance themselves from him. The boy’s father attempted to clamp a hand over his son’s mouth, but it was too late. Everyone had already heard. One of the Emperor’s constables asked, “did someone say they could not see the Emperor’s new clothes? Show him to me, so that we may identify his family and associates.”
Upon hearing this, the father thought of his work, and how his wife and his other children depended upon him to survive. He thought of what would happen when the constables identified his son. And he broke the boy’s neck. As the body of the young boy fell to the ground, the father stepped back into the crowd, saying that he too did not know the boy, who had suddenly dropped dead.
Those who saw the father kill his own son stared in horror, but dared not say a word. They thought of their own children, and were grateful that their young ones had not spoken out like the dead boy.
The Emperor’s constable reported to the Emperor that the boy who had not been able to see the new clothes had mysteriously dropped dead, with no family or associates. The Emperor smiled and continued with his parade, with a bit more triumph in his step.