“And his figgin placed upon a spike,” repeated the Supreme Grand Master pointedly, against a background of damp wooden noises as Brother Doorkeeper tried to get the dread portal open. “Are we quite finished? Any more knowlessmen happened to drop in on their way somewhere else?” he added with bitter sarcasm. “Right. Fine. So glad. I suppose it’s too much to ask if the Four Watchtowers are secured? Oh, good. And the Trouser of Sanctity, has anyone bothered to shrive it? Oh, you did. Properly? I’ll check, you know … all right. And have the windows been fastened with the Red Cords of Intellect, in accordance with ancient prescription? Good. Now perhaps we can get on with it.”
With the slightly miffed air of one who has run their finger along a daughter-in-law’s top shelf and found against all expectation that it is sparkling clean, the Grand Master got on with it.
What a shower, he told himself. A bunch of incompetents no other secret society would touch with a ten-foot Sceptre of Authority. The sort to dislocate their fingers with even the simplest secret handshake.
But incompetents with possibilities, nevertheless. Let the other societies take the skilled, the hopefuls, the ambitious, the self-confident. He’d take the whining resentful ones, the ones with a bellyful of spite and bile, the ones who knew they could make it big if only they’d been given the chance. Give him the ones in which the floods of venom and vindictiveness were dammed up behind thin walls of ineptitude and low-grade paranoia.
And stupidity, too. They’ve all sworn the oath, he thought, but not a man jack of ’em has even asked what a figgin is.
“Brethren,” he said. “Tonight we have matters of profound importance to discuss. The good governance, nay, the very future of Ankh-Morpork lies in our hands.”
They leaned closer. The Supreme Grand Master felt the beginnings of the old thrill of power. They were hanging on his words. This was a feeling worth dressing up in bloody silly robes for.
“Do we not well know that the city is in thrall to corrupt men, who wax fat on their ill-gotten gains, while better men are held back and forced into virtual servitude?”
“We certainly do!” said Brother Doorkeeper vehemently, when they’d had time to translate this mentally. “Only last week, down at the Bakers’ Guild, I tried to point out to Master Critchley that-”
It wasn’t eye contact, because the Supreme Grand Master had made sure the Brethren’s hoods shrouded their faces in mystic darkness, but nevertheless he managed to silence Brother Doorkeeper by dint of sheer outraged silence.
“Yet it was not always thus,” the Supreme Grand Master continued. “There was once a golden age, when those worthy of command and respect were justly rewarded. An age when Ankh-Morpork wasn’t simply a big city but a great one. An age of chivalry. An age when-yes, Brother Watchtower?”
A bulky robed figure lowered its hand. “Are you talking about when we had kings?”
“Well done, Brother,” said the Supreme Grand Master, slightly annoyed at this unusual evidence of intelligence. “And-”
“But that was all sorted out hundreds of years ago,” said Brother Watchtower. “Wasn’t there this great battle, or something? And since then we’ve just had the ruling lords, like the Patrician.”
“Yes, very good, Brother Watchtower.”
“There aren’t any more kings, is the point I’m trying to make,” said Brother Watchtower helpfully.
“As Brother Watchtower says, the line of-”
“It was you talking about chivalry that give me the clue,” said Brother Watchtower.
“Quite so, and-”
“You get that with kings, chivalry,” said Brother Watchtower happily. “And knights. And they used to have these-”
“However,” said the Supreme Grand Master sharply, “it may well be that the line of the kings of Ankh is not as defunct as hitherto imagined, and that progeny of the line exists even now. Thus my researches among the ancient scrolls do indicate.”
He stood back expectantly. There didn’t seem to be the effect he’d expected, however. Probably they can manage ‘defunct’, he thought, but I ought to have drawn the line at ‘progeny’.
Brother Watchtower had his hand up again.
“You saying there’s some sort of heir to the throne hanging around somewhere?” said Brother Watch-tower.
“This may be the case, yes.”
“Yeah. They do that, you know,” said Brother Watchtower knowledgeably. “Happens all the time. You read about it. Skions, they’re called. They go lurking around in the distant wildernesses for ages, handing down the secret sword and birthmark and so forth from generation to generation. Then just when the old kingdom needs them, they turn up and turf out any usurpers that happen to be around. And then there’s general rejoicing.”
The Supreme Grand Master felt his own mouth drop open. He hadn’t expected it to be as easy as this.
“Yes, all right,” said a figure the Supreme Grand Master knew to be Brother Plasterer. “But so what? Let’s say a skion turns up, walks up to the Patrician, says ‘What ho, I’m king, here’s the birthmark as per spec, now bugger off’. What’s he got then? Life expectancy of maybe two minutes, that’s what.”
“You don’t listen, ” said Brother Watchtower. “The thing is, the skion has to arrive when the kingdom is threatened, doesn’t he? Then everyone can see, right? Then he gets carried off to the palace, cures a few people, announces a half-holiday, hands round a bit of treasure, and Bob’s your uncle.”
“He has to marry a princess, too,” said Brother Doorkeeper. ‘ ‘On account of him being a swineherd.”
They looked at him.
“Who said anything about him being a swineherd?” said Brother Watchtower. “I never said he was a swineherd. What’s this about swineherds?”
“He’s got a point, though,” said Brother Plasterer. “He’s generally a swineherd or a forester or similar, your basic skion. It’s to do with being in wossname. Cognito. They’ve got to appear to be of, you know, humble origins.”
“Nothing special about humble origins,” said a very small Brother, who seemed to consist entirely of a little perambulatory black robe with halitosis. “I’ve got lots of humble origins. In my family we thought swineherding was a posh job.”
"But your family doesn’t have the blood of kings, Brother Dunnykin,” said Brother Plasterer.
“We might of,” said Brother Dunnykin sulkily.
“Right, then,” said Brother Watchtower grudgingly. “Fair enough. But at the essential moment, see your genuine kings throw back their cloak and say ‘Lo!’ and their essential kingnessness shines through.”
“How, exactly?” said Brother Doorkeeper.
“-might of got the blood of kings,” muttered Brother Dunnykin. “Got no right saying I might not have got the blood of-”
“Look, it just does, okay? You just know it when you see it.”
“But before that they’ve got to save the kingdom,” said Brother Plasterer.
“Oh, yes,” said Brother Watchtower heavily. “That’s the main thing, is that.”
“What from, then?”
"-got as much right as anyone to might have the blood of kings-”
“The Patrician?” said Brother Doorkeeper.
Brother Watchtower, as the sudden authority on the ways of royalty, shook his head.
“I dunno that the Patrician is a threat, exactly,” he said. "He’s not your actual tyrant, as such. Not as bad as some we’ve had. I mean, he doesn’t actually oppress.”
“I get oppressed all the time,” said Brother Doorkeeper. “Master Critchley, where I work, he oppresses me morning, noon and night, shouting at me and everything. And the woman in the vegetable shop, she oppresses me all the time.”
“That’s right,” said Brother Plasterer. “My landlord oppresses me something wicked. Banging on the door and going on and on about all the rent I allegedly owe, which is a total lie. And the people next door oppress me all night long. I tell them, I work all day, a man’s got to have some time to learn to play the tuba. That’s oppression, that is. If I’m not under the heel of the oppressor, I don’t know who is.”
“Put like that-” said Brother Watchtower slowly- “I reckon my brother-in-law is oppressing me all the time with having this new horse and buggy he’s been and bought. I haven’t got one. I mean, where’s the justice in that? I bet a king wouldn’t let that sort of oppression go on, people’s wives oppressing ’em with why haven’t they got a new coach like our Rodney and that.”
The Supreme Grand Master listened to this with a slightly light-headed feeling. It was as if he’d known that there were such things as avalanches, but had never dreamed when he dropped the little snowball on top of the mountain that it could lead to such astonishing results. He was hardly having to egg them on at all.
“I bet a king’d have something to say about landlords,” said Brother Plasterer.
“And he’d outlaw people with showy coaches,” said Brother Watchtower. “Probably bought with stolen money, too, I reckon.”
“I think,” said the Supreme Grand Master, tweaking things a little, “that a wise king would only, as it were, outlaw showy coaches for the undeserving. ”
There was a thoughtful pause in the conversation as the assembled Brethren mentally divided the universe into the deserving and the undeserving, and put themselves on the appropriate side.
“It’d be only fair,” said Brother Watchtower slowly. “But Brother Plasterer was right, really. I can’t see a skion manifesting his destiny just because Brother Doorkeeper thinks the woman in the vegetable shop keeps giving him funny looks. No offense.”
“And bloody short weight,” said Brother Doorkeeper. “And she-”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said the Supreme Grand Master. “Truly the right-thinking folk of Ankh-Morpork are beneath the heel of the oppressors. However, a king generally reveals himself in rather more dramatic circumstances. Like a war, for example.”
Things were going well. Surely, for all their self-centred stupidity, one of them would be bright enough to make the suggestion?
“There used to be some old prophecy or something,” said Brother Plasterer. “My grandad told me.” His eyes glazed with the effort of dramatic recall. “ ‘Yea, the king will come bringing Law and Justice, and know nothing but the Truth, and Protect and Serve the People with his Sword.’ You don’t all have to look at me like that, I didn’t make it up.”
“Oh, we all know that one. And a fat lot of good that’d be,” said Brother Watchtower. “I mean, what does he do, ride in with Law and Truth and so on like the Four Horsemen of the Apocralypse? Hallo everyone,” he squeaked, “I’m the king, and that’s Truth over there, watering his horse. Not very practical, is it? Nah. You can’t trust old legends.”
“Why not?” said Brother Dunnykin, in a peeved voice.
“ ‘Cos they’re legendary. That’s how you can tell,” said Brother Watchtower.
“Sleeping princesses is a good one,” said Brother Plasterer. “Only a king can wake ’em up.”
“Don’t be daft,” said Brother Watchtower severely. “We haven’t got a king, so we can’t have princesses. Stands to reason.”