Once upon a time, in the land of New Columbia, there was great ferment among the populace. All the neighboring dukedoms could set their own tax rates, pass their own laws and elect representatives to a strange, mystical place called The Hill. But New Columbia enjoyed none of those privileges, and never had.

For more than 200 years, the village had been a political backwater in fact, if not in name. Placards lamented its nickname: The Last Colony.

When King Lyndon was in power, he tried to give New Columbia the rights that all the other dukedoms enjoyed. But many dukes from the southern part of the kingdom objected.

So King Lyndon forged a compromise, as he was so skilled at doing. He appointed a body called the New Columbia Council. The members could choose dogcatchers and official songs, but couldn't do much else. And at first, the council wasn't elected, as were all similar bodies throughout the kingdom. Still, as King Lyndon liked to remind his subjects, half a loaf was better than none.

Under King Richard, the half-loaf developed a few patches of mold. During his campaign for the crown in 1968, Richard called New Columbia "the crime capital of the kingdom." Once he reached office, he added more than 2,000 sentries to the local constabulary, to maintain what he called "law and order." Members of his court jeered openly at calls from New Columbia for further freedom.

King Gerald wasn't around long enough to do much. King Jimmy claimed he was interested, but he quickly became obsessed with softball and micromanaging budgets. King Ronald never paid any attention, to New Columbia or much else.

When King George took office, optimism began to swell around New Columbia. After all, when George's political allies had gathered in the dukedom of New Orleans to anoint his candidacy, they had drawn up a paper called a platform. It called for full voting rights for New Columbia. Never before had such a provision been advocated by those politicians known as Republicans.

During the period of his reign known as the honeymoon, King George actually made a few tentative moves in the direction of equal rights for New Columbia. But just as optimism began to swell, a puzzling incident took place at a local inn.

The Earl of New Columbia, Marion For Life, was discovered in an upstairs room with a man whose home was in the islands far to the south. Unusual substances were also discovered in the room.

There began much whispering among the citizens of New Columbia. The chief local advocate announced that he would investigate the incident at the inn. Fearing that form of political anger known as a backlash, King George quietly abandoned his efforts to seek equal rights for New Columbia.

Earl Marion For Life was soon charged. He stood trial. For two months, lurid tales poured forth. All the while, representatives to that strange, mystical place known as The Hill were asked what effect the trial would have on New Columbia's chances for equal rights. The question was usually met with scoffs.

Occasionally, however, it was met with stark, brutal honesty.

One representative who was an ally of King George's said the trial of Marion For Life would end any chance of equal rights for New Columbia for at least 20 years. Another representative said that 50 years was probably more like it.

Scriveners asked in the public prints if this was fair. After all, they pointed out, Earl Marion For Life was only one man, and New Columbia had more than 575,000 citizens. Most of them were loyal subjects who telephoned their mothers every Sunday and never visited mysterious figures in public inns. Was it fair to deprive so many because of the behavior of one earl?

The response from King George's palace guard was quick and direct. Life is unfair, they declared, passionately if unoriginally.

Just as all seemed lost, Earl Marion For Life decided to abdicate. He declared that he had been so busy doing so much for others that he had not taken proper care of himself. Many citizens of New Columbia scoffed at that. But others did not waste a second. They announced plans to seek the Earlhood of New Columbia.

A spirited campaign took place. Much of the discussion centered around what Marion For Life had not done to achieve equal rights for New Columbia. When the votes were counted, two loyal subjects had moved to the fore: A previously unknown landholder from the shores of Rock Creek named Sharon, and a well-known former chief constable named Maurice.

Their struggle for the Earlhood would not be brief, and it would not be timid. But all over New Columbia, there was once again great ferment among the populace.

Whichever pretender became the next earl, those representatives to that strange, mystical place called The Hill could no longer point fingers of blame or scorn at Marion For Life. So they would surely reconsider equal rights for The Last Colony. Wouldn't they?