The Claim to Royal Blood
copyright 2016 AM Kirkby
Timon is always telling people about his royal lineage. He doesn’t look like a fairytale prince – he’s slightly balding, which is a shame for a thirty-year-old, he has a wonky nose and like many boys who suddenly sprouted from tiny tot to lanky adolescent, he’s never quite worked out what to do with his over-long legs and arms that seem to have one too many joints in them – but he is, he says, descended from a long line of blue bloods: Tristan, Tantris, Tyrion, Trismegistus and all.
Apart from that, he’s good company. I’ve been knocking about with him since we were youngsters, and we share a flat in Nygaten. He cooks, I’m a home brewer – definitely into craft and sours and bourbon barrel aged hopmonsters, none of that sweet sticky lager stuff your Dad might have brewed out of a can – and we’re fixtures at most of the galleries and bars in Savenholm, when we’re not working. I paint, his architectural practice ticks along nicely, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get to work on the same contract so he gets to build a space for me to articulate. (I guess he’d say that he structures a space for me to decorate. We do have quite interesting conversations about that, sometimes rather loudly at two o’clock in the morning on our way back from a good exhibition opening party.)
So, when he says there’s a competition being held in Everlode, I’m hopeful.
“New opera house? I heard something about that…”
Last big job in Everlode was the new town hall, and that’s five or six years back. We lost out on that; Timon’s design came in second, though it probably did win him a couple of smaller jobs back in Savenholm from clients who’d seen the drawings and liked what they saw.
“Don’t tell me they’ve finally decided to unfreeze the funds for a proper market building?”
“No. Better than that.”
“Well I don’t know. And I can’t guess. Unless they want to blow a stupid amount of money on a new fire station or an inside-out library or … oh, godammit, Hobbit holes.”
The Hobbit holes usually reduced us both to howling and tears of laughter. He’d lost a major housing design to some architect with “impeccable sustainability credentials”, which turned out to mean building fifty percent of the housing units underground. Which would have been nice, if he’d remembered to include any windows.
But this time it’s not working. Timon just looks at me, eyes clear and open. I begin wondering just what he’s got himself into. Maybe he didn’t mean an architectural competition after all. Please, let him not be thinking of going in for Ironman or Mr Universe or worse still, some stupid bodybuilding thing…
“It’s a competition for a new king,” he says.
It’s a modern world. At least in Savenholm, we’ve moved on from the idea of monarchy, and we run the city in a modern way, with four interlocking councils of men, women, familiars and haunts. (The haunts don’t have a vote on the budget, but they have a casting vote on the planning committee – you can’t wail down an alley that’s been rerouted, or clank chains against a wall that’s been demolished to make room for a new cart park.) Other cities have other forms of government, but Everlode and a few other backwoods village states keep faith with the fairytale past and still have monarchs, in most cases strictly constitutional (though some of the more backwards places still haven’t quite got to grips with the concept of a constitution).
And usually there’s a reasonably controlled succession. There are three sons, or there’s a marriageable daughter, at the worst, and nowadays the contest for her hand (and all the other body parts that go with it) is rather better managed than used to be the case, so contestants who fail are not executed, and the tests tend more to the MBA questionnaire than dragon-slaughtering or extreme physical peril, and in one state far up in the northern pine forests the princess actually ended up marrying another woman. (The succession? Fine – they’ve adopted. Modern world, you see.) Not that she got much choice in the matter, though apparently she’s quite happy with the way things turned out.
But Everlode is different. Christoffel XXIII had three sons all right; but then things went wrong. The first, bored with a fairy tale world in which there were not enough dragons to fight, had a glorious, celebrated, imaginative, award-winning and, ultimately, brief, career in extreme sports. The second went wandering, found the islands of the south, and realised that the only thing missing from a paradise of year-round sunshine and warmth was a decent pint of beer. He’s officially abdicated any claim to the throne. More to the point he looks like becoming quite a good customer if I ever start that brewery I keep talking about.
Which leaves number three. Spiteful, vindictive, and sadistic, which you might think were good qualifications for a monarch of a certain sort; Christoffel didn’t, and so he barred him from the succession.
So now there’s a competition being held. There’s no royal daughter to marry off, so this competition will be without precedent. The aim of the contest – or rather, the multiple tests and contests that will be held over the next two weeks – is simple: to find royal blood.
Timon, naturally, thinks he has more of that blue liquid than anyone else; and purer.
(“To find royal blood,” I’d said, after perusing the advertisement. “It’s a bit vague.”
“Nonsense. It’s obvious what they want it for.”
“And the prize. A bit vague about that, too.”
“Well, that’s obvious too.”
“No runner-up prizes?”
“What would you give them? A paper crown and a cracker to pull?”
Even so, the paperwork seemed a bit less complete than for most competitions I’ve entered. And there was no mention of whether the travel costs were covered, either.)
The other competitors seem an odd crowd. One boy was nearly disqualified almost as soon as he arrived; he carried his own suitcase up to his rooms. He seems more a mouse than a monarch. But when he was challenged, he said, quite calmly, that he’d seen the chambermaid was tired, and everyone knows how little they get paid, and nobility is the art of small kindnesses; so he’s still in the game. Full marks for chivalry if zero for regal style.
There’s a princess with a face like a horse, but shrewd eyes; a beautiful blond boy (“gay, of course,” the princess sniffed when she spotted him); a cultivated gentleman in a light grey wool suit that matches his light silver hair, and whose voice is redolent of port and Christmas pudding; there are rather too many identikit Viking lads with good muscles and square jaws and all of them with the same laugh; a chap with a beautifully trimmed dark beard and a big smile, but whose eyes never twinkle the way you think they do. I’m not sure how many of those pale pink girls with long blonde hair and big white smiles on sharp white faces there are; quite a few, I think, but they all look alike to me. (No, I’m not racist. I just think they’ve all been to the same plastic surgeon.) There’s a weedy wonder from Weimar, who wanders about talking about Zeitgeists and a mission to civilise, and seems not to understand why he’s here at all, a couple of sultans in waiting (“and I’m not going home,” one of them is prone to saying, “my brother will kill me”), and a little dark Emperor called Basilius the Macerated, who wears too much purple and has more wrinkles than the average leasehold contract.
And there’s the Pharaoh, who walks sinuously, wears a massive woven wig, a fake beard, and almost no clothes, and brought her own sixteen sacred cats.
Timon may have his work cut out.
Okay. First up: ordeal by combat. I was really hoping there wasn’t going to be anything like this. No tournaments, no melees, no organised sport, and above all, no fight-to-the-death.
Timon just can’t fight. He can throw a shuriken, which is a good party trick, and he’s a great shot with any type of projectile you can name, and if it came down to construction equipment at dawn I’d back him at very short odds indeed. But swords are not his thing. Nor is pain, come to think of it.
I’ve already seen two of the Viking-clones carried off bleeding after half an hour of unimaginative hacking at each other with broadswords. The chap with the beard chose a nifty little rapier and danced round another of the big sporty blonds, who never landed a blow; beardy (whose name turns out to be Niccolo, ‘for Machiavelli’, he said smugly) simply made a few choice cuts and turned away, and waited for the other guy to chase after him. Which lasted two or three steps tell – Niccolo having neatly sliced through his belt – the young prince’s trousers fell round his ankles.
Horse-face won her match without ever taking her sword out of the scabbard; she waited for her opponent to attack, swung the scabbard at his legs, and when he was sprawled on the floor bashed him on the head with the flat of the sword, still in its sheath.
“Well, you wouldn’t want to get blood on a nice sword like that. It was my aunty’s,” she said, tying it back on her baldric.
So here we are, ten minutes to go to Timon’s round, and I’m wondering why I bothered to unpack since it’s almost certain (unless he gets the weedy wonder as an opponent) we’ll be headed home in short order. And then I hear the only sound, right now, that could give me any hope at all. “Hmm.”
I knew that thoughtful ‘hmm’. It was the sound Timon made in the back of his throat when he was working out one of his more innovative solutions; how he could pack fifteen more apartments on to a limited ground plan without shrinking the rooms or building higher, simply by cantilevering them out over the street with a sort of spider’s-web construction of tensioned wire, or how he could combine a fountain with a news vendor’s kiosk simply by making the kiosk of glass and running the water down the outside. So what’s he thinking now?
“Hamnet?” I look round. He’s drumming the fingers of one hand on the table. Oho, thinks I, he has got an idea. “Who decides on the weapons?”
I shrug. “I told you. The paperwork for this whole competition is a shambles.”
“So… no mention?”
I check. There isn’t. “Single combat” made no mention of the weapons at all.
So now I’m watching Timon standing there, with no apparent means of support and a fairly hefty prince running at him with a broadsword. I want to shut my eyes.
Good thing I don’t. The prince never gets near him. Timon takes a gun out of his pocket.
Surely that’s cheating? I think.
So does the prince, who stops, lowers his sword, and starts expostulating with the judges. They seem worried – I damn well would be, if I’d made such a mess of the rules.
Timon doesn’t wait to hear their answer. He walks towards the prince, raises his gun, and fires.
And that’s that. It’s very difficult to fight when you have green paint all over your face, and in your eyes, and on your hands. Particularly when a minute later you find out it’s been mixed up with a bit of super glue.
“Give it here,” he says, and swipes the judges’ report off me.
They’ve given him a cautious 8 rating for the ordeal – not the full ten points, because there’s still some doubt about something as sneaky as a water pistol full of green gunge.
“No fair,” Timon says. “They gave Niccolo ten, and he was sneakier than me.”
“You’re still high up the rankings.”
“Anything could happen. It’s only the first round.”
“True, but at least you weren’t beaten.”
He puts his head on one side and sucks his top lip in. I can see he’s wondering whether that two points will tell against him later. Nothing I can say will help.
“What’s up next?” I ask him.
“Oho. They have a special princess round? What in? Hair-curling? Cup cake baking?”
“I know half of them look brain-dead, but that’s ridiculous.”
“It’s the pea under the mattress thing. Can they sleep or will they detect where the lump is?”
“Well, it’s a bit obvious, isn’t it? They all say they couldn’t sleep a wink. Or drink so much coffee beforehand that they genuinely can’t.”
“It’s not that easy. Only half the beds have peas in the mattress.”
“Still, binary choice. Some of them will get lucky.”
His eyes gleamed. “Apply basic statistics. Probability fifty per cent. Get it wrong – zero. Get it right – ten points. So expected value – five points. Worth doing, hm?”
“But sir! This is for princesses only.”
“Does it say so in the rules?”
Of course it doesn’t. The rules aren’t that well drafted.
“But it’s… well, sir, normally it’s only princesses… and we didn’t think…”
“So, I’m sorry,” he says, as blandly and smoothly as he can (and he can be very smooth: remember, he has to cajole municipal committees into letting him build palaces of spun glass and cantilevered steel, instead of the little brick boxes or stone-clad jelly-moulds they always seem to want). “I’m sorry, am I missing something here? Only ladies can have feelings?”
“No, sir, it’s…”
“So really” – he’s almost whispering now – “there’s no reason I shouldn’t enter this part of the competition, is there?”
The flunky mumbles.
“I’m sorry?” he says, with an encouraging hint of a smile.
“It would be discriminatory, excluding him,” I say, sternly, playing bad cop to Timon’s good cop. And I watch Timon step through and join the line.
“Well, that was an easy ten points,” he says.
“You were lucky.”
“Not at all. Very simple. You forget: I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels, not all of them five star. I always check the basics. Clean linen? Clean pillows? No bedbugs? And nobody stopped me running a hand under the mattress before I turned in.”
“Clever sod,” says a voice over my shoulder. It’s Niccolo, smiling broadly though, as always, his eyes are cold. “Wish I’d thought of it myself.”
“But you didn’t,” Timon says.
“No.” The smile is still there, but the eyes are more wary. “Well… be seeing you.”
“So … now what?” Timon asks me.
“Ah, that takes me back,” he says. “Used to play that in college.”
He doesn’t listen particularly attentively to the explanation of the rules, with which one of the Pink Princesses (Roma Marriott? Barcelona Kempinski?) is having particular difficulty. Both he and Niccolo form alliances early on with a few of the less intelligent princes and princesses, then cheat, betray and back-stab their way to glory. What they haven’t noticed is that the elegant grey haired gentleman has managed to accumulate a number of crucial assets very quietly, and without any treachery whatsoever, so that at the end of the game, it’s Colin Uncumber (that being the elegant gentleman’s slightly inelegant and very English name) who smiles faintly as he’s named winner, with Niccolo and Timon equal second.
“Always beware the English gentleman,” Niccolo says. “He never lies, he never cheats, he never betrays his friends, and yet somehow he always manages to win. I don’t like the English. No, indeed I don’t.”
Fortunately there are no extra points in this round for gentlemanly (or indeed regal) bearing, nor is there any provision to subtract points from bad losers.
Someone has told us there’s to be a mass laying on of hands at some point – the royal touch is supposed to be able to cure all ills. Pure superstition, and as Timon says, ibuprofen is a better cure for most things. Horse-face said pulling swords out of stones would probably be involved too, but I think she may have been joking; it’s sometimes difficult to tell, with her.
Day five, and half the initial field have already departed, but we’re still here. Niccolo is hanging on in there, so is Colin, and horse-face is just hanging on by the skin of her teeth. The Pharaoh has departed, though from the caterwauling at night it’s obvious not all her sacred cats could be rounded up before she went, but the moody Weimaraner (as Timon calls him) and Basilius the Inebriated (every bloody night) are still in the game.
We’ve had a few hairy moments. There was some rather unnecessary questioning of Timon’s personal life; I noticed quite a few of the judges were looking at me when that came up. Timon lost points in the ‘hands of the king are the hands of a healer’ test, too, though as he points out, no one warned him the man was wearing a toupee. Still, he scored well on the theoretical test, and it turned out he knew one hangover cure that Basilius the Incapacitated (or nearly so) didn’t. (You know: that trick with raw egg and tabasco.) But Timon’s still sitting close to top of the league. We have hopes, still.
“Hey, guess what?” Timon says.
He annoys me when he does that. How am I supposed to know what he’s talking about?
“Okay,” I say, playing his game, “the sky is green instead of blue this morning.”
“You know,” he says, “it’s really annoying when you do that.”
“Make stupid guesses.”
“Right. So just tell me.”
He scowls half heartedly, then says: “Niccolo’s packing.”
“Oho. He thinks he’s going to lose.”
“He knows he’s going to lose?”
Timon is really annoying me by now and it’s all I can do not to throw something at him.
“Okay. Tell me.”
“He hopes he’s going to lose. He doesn’t like the way the wind’s blowing, is what he says.”
Turns out Niccolo’s been doing some digging. Everlode is broke. There’s nothing in the treasury, and something’s been killing the bees; the chestnut trees are blighted, and the great oaks are dying off, and there’s a wild waterhorse on the loose in the Trant, which has been dragging people to their deaths. All signs of a kingdom in decline.
“The sensible thing to do, then, would be to take the job on, asset-strip the kingdom, engineer a reverse coup, and retire to somewhere that doesn’t have an extradition treaty.”
“That’s what I thought,” he says, “but Niccolo’s not convinced.”
Niccolo’s out. In the last couple of tests it’s looked like he wasn’t really trying. He seemed to be in a hurry to go, and when I said farewell to him, he advised me not to stick around Everlode too long. (“It might be bad for your health,” he said. If I didn’t know his type, I’d take it more seriously; he must have put money on one of the other competitors, I thought, so I didn’t bother to carry his warning to Timon.)
Basilius the Macerated has become Basilius the Irate, having managed to fall over his own feet (assisted, no doubt, by alcohol) in the regal deportment test. Horse-face spoke her mind too forcefully for one of the judges in the ‘opening a new factory’ presentation, and she’s out, too.
That leaves Timon and Colin. We’re down to the last two. By this time tomorrow Timon could be a king.
I look at him. He doesn’t look like a king. But then they say no man is a prophet in his own land, and I’ve known him far too long, and laughed at his claims to royal blood far too often, to see him as royalty.
We walk out to the prize meadow where the final is to be held. I grab Timon’s hand when no one’s looking.
“I don’t care whether you win or not,” I say loyally. “Win, and we get free drinks for life. Lose, and we have to work for a living, just like we’ve done the last however many years. But I’m still here for you. Just so you know.”
He glances at me, and puts his free hand over my own, so that I have one hand caught between his two. “There,” he says, “oath of fealty done,” and releases my hand.
Colin’s already there, in front of the grandstand, ready to go. Grey hair, grey suit, creases in his trousers, jacket with the bottom button left undone, everything just so.
I underestimated him. Sometimes these grey people turn out to be clever. I think back. He so often went last, or next to last, when he got the chance, watching the other contestants, looking for clues. (How did he get past the ordeal? I can’t remember. Or did he stoop to tie his shoelace and simply let his opponent overstep? I wouldn’t put it past him.) He never cheated, he never shone, he was never spectacular, but somehow when you got to the end of a round and looked around to see who had made it through, he was always there. I’ve lost pitches so many times to grey men like him, and still I can never see it coming. I ought to learn my lesson, but I wonder whether I ever will.
Colin turns to greet us. Is it my imagination or does he have some secret that’s making him look so smug? He’s been talking to one of the judges, I can see.
“Careful,” I say to Timon. “He knows something.”
For the first time in the competition we don’t know what the test is to be. Maybe horse-face was right and it’s going to be the sword in the stone. There’s some kind of huge timber structure down by the river, which appeared overnight; I don’t know whether that’s part of the trial.
Colin Uncumber comes towards us, his hand outstretched, an urbane smile for Timon.
“Timon,” he says. “I’m an admirer. It has been a real pleasure competing against you.”
“Likewise,” Timon says politely, giving me a look that says “What the hell?”
“I was impressed by your conduct in the ordeal by combat. I like the fact that you are in touch with your inner femininity enough to compete with the princesses. You’ve competed in good faith, you’ve done your very best, and your best is very good indeed.”
If Timon could blush I’m sure he would. The corner of his mouth is twitching; I know he’s embarrassed by all this effusive praise. (Whatever happened to British understatement?)
“So,” Colin says, “I’ve decided to cede my claim. You are clearly the superior contestant.”
I’m sorry. I’ve misjudged him. He is a real gentleman after all.
I think that for at least two seconds before I realise something’s up. Two of the Everlode guards have come up softly and taken Timon’s arms, and they are pushing him forwards, away from me, away from Colin, roughly in the direction of the wooden stage, which, it suddenly occurs to me, looks more like a scaffold than a stage. They don’t seem rough, but when he starts to struggle, they insist.
I understand Niccolo’s message now. He must have known what was up; the same way Colin Uncumber worked it out. I remember reading somewhere, when I was working on my journeyman project and wanted some ancient myths to give my work a savage flavour, how the old Celts married their kings to the land in the shape of a white horse. And if the land ever sickened, the king would feed the land with his blood. Oh all ye gods and little fishes, I knew Everlode was backward, but I never imagined it could be that backward. No wonder Niccolo was eager to be away. No wonder the competition details were strangely reticent on the subject of the prize.
This morning I looked at Timon and thought: tomorrow, you’ll be a king. Now I look at him and think, tomorrow, you won’t be anything at all, unless I can think of a way to save you in the next thirty seconds. I look at him, then I look at Colin; urbane, gentlemanly, after-you, courteous Colin, Colin who has handed on a poisoned chalice while all the while everyone thinks he’s standing a friend a drink. Colin who says things like “punctuality is the politeness of princes.” And I think of a friend of Timon’s who used to say “a true gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes, and doesn’t.” And then the beginnings of an idea start to form in my mind, and before I’ve got it completely worked out I’m opening my mouth and shouting, “Wait! Before you make a bad mistake!”
Fortunately the judges do actually listen. They defer “the events of the afternoon” – no one mentions the word sacrifice – and I’m allowed to address them in camera, or rather, behind the grandstand.
Throughout the competition, I argue, the judges have consistently rewarded truly kingly behaviour. For instance, the lad who carried his own baggage was nearly disqualified for lack of regal attitude, till he showed he had only been considering the chambermaid’s tiredness. Timon was penalised in the combat for his trick with the water pistol, considering unsporting and undignified. Horseface – of course I don’t call her that to the judges – lost her footing when her speech was considered too honest, too blunt, not euphemistic enough for a queen. I adduce another few examples, and then wait for the penny to drop. Just as I see them beginning to work it out, I speak again.
“Mr Uncumber has been a stalwart competitor. He has consistently disdained trickery, treachery, spectacular shows of prowess or displays of talent, and yet he’s always managed to come in the top three or four of any event. He knows that what makes a king isn’t empty display. And now he’s doing the most kingly thing he could possibly do. Having competed so well for so long, he gladly cedes his claim to a competitor. That’s a truly kingly gesture.”
“Yes,” says one testy little councillor, “but if you knew the prize was being slowly sliced to pieces…”
A fierce outbreak of shushing makes him realise he’s let the tiger out of the bag.
“You’re joking,” I say, remembering to open my eyes and my mouth wide enough to look surprised.
“Er… yes. Yes, of course, I’m joking. Er, ha, ha.”
There’s a little very polite and not terribly heartfelt laughter, the kind of laughter you hear when a construction site boss makes a joke about feckless lazy leprechauns, and the leprechauns all laugh, because none of them want the sack, except for the very stupid leprechaun who’s been told the sack has gold in it. (Which is, in itself, a not very funny leprechaun joke. I’m ashamed of myself, really I am.)
“So you see… Colin, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my calling him Colin, is so obviously better suited to rule.”
One of the judges steps forward, only when I look I see it’s actually King Christoffel.
“Hamnet – it is Hamnet, isn’t it? – can I ask you a question?”
Well, that’s a bloody stupid question, isn’t it? But I nod, anyway.
“You’ve known Timon how long?”
I shake my head. “Can’t even remember. Since we were at school. Twenty years? More?”
“And in your view, would Timon have made such a gesture? Would he have given up a prize he’d as good as won?”
I think to myself, you damn well bet he’d cut and run if he found out what you had planned. But I say, “No, your majesty. If you offered him the crown, he’d take it.”
“I think we need to think about this,” Christoffel announces, and twitches his robes about him, and strides off to a pavilion where he can do some thinking, if that was a royal we.
The guards have brought Timon back. Councillors are being fetched, and running in and out of the king’s pavilion, and Colin is standing in front of the grandstand looking confused, and then – when it’s made obvious to him that he’s expected to stay there – annoyed, and we are sat at a table where a flunky brings us a couple of cling film wrapped sandwiches and a cup of weak brown liquid that would be better if it didn’t taste of anything, but actually tastes of polystyrene and damp, and with a number of guards standing just far enough away that we might possibly, if we were rather stupid, think they weren’t keeping an eye on us.
And then the king comes out, and dignifies us with a regal nod of his head, and turns to make his way towards Colin. We don’t hear what he says to Colin Uncumber, but we hear Colin’s scream; the first time we have ever heard his voice raised, as it happens. And we know it’s time to go.
We’re half way to Savenholm before Timon says anything to me. We haven’t felt much like talking. It was too narrow an escape. And that scream wasn’t the last we heard from Colin. An experience like today’s leaves you unfitted for small talk.
But now he says: “I’m going to feel guilty about this, you know. Because really, I probably would have won…”
Typical. I save him, and he’d rather not be saved. Though I suppose I know what he means.
“I’ll feel guilty about this the rest of my life.”
“Yeah. But you’re going to be alive the rest of your life.”
“Oh,” he says, “there is that”.