The wizard’s throne was tall and thin, angular and sharp like the wizard ensconced within it. I’d sallied forth into the chamber with great confidence and bravado, but now that I was actually in his presence, I felt my spirits dampened by the scowl on his slender face.
“Your Eminent Wizardship,” I began, instantly forgetting all the appropriate terms that protocol and good sense permitted, “I – ah, it is wonderful to be in your thaumaturgic presence.”
The wizard looked at me as if I were some kind of moron. It was a fair appraisal. “King Rentworth, Lord of the Lower Lands and Duke of Dustchester, welcome.”
I was a little surprised by his warm welcome which belied the look on his face. Perhaps he always looked like that. This was the first time we had actually met, after all. All of the lower lands knew of his power and reputation. In Dustchester he was spoken of only in whispers, so sure were the townsfolk that he was always listening. Rarely did anyone ask why he might be always listening to traders and drunks swapping tales in the course of their humdrum day. You’d think he’d at least be listening only to those with something worth listening to. The gentry, select priests… criminals? Who knows. If his main interest was spying, you’d also think he would do something with all the information he’d amass that way. My own spy networks were necessarily extensive, fragile and rather unreliable, but you just had to have spies. Got to keep up with the neighbours, or potential enemies as we tended to think of them: a stranger is just someone who hasn’t turned on you yet. Being king isn’t for everyone. I don’t just mean the whole royal blood thing, which is plainly nonsense, since as far as I can tell from the heavily revised family genealogy I’m only two generations down from a woodsman and a scullery maid. Who knows where the real royal family went. Probably murdered by rivals, or took the truly sensible move of running off with a load of money. Some days I’d do the same. Most of my life is spent in either concocting plots, rebuffing plots, drinking wine (which I detest) and judging people, mostly for just doing ordinary people things. Heavy hangs the head that wears this absurdly heavy crown. Three kilograms of gold is no laughing matter for your spine, or those lumps on the side of my head that it seems to dig into. All of this and more went through my head and out my ears in the short time it took for the rest of my brain to return to the conversation I’d barely begun with this wizard.
“Ah, you are most kind, my dear… wizard. It grieves me that this is our first meeting, but I hope that it will not be our last.”
“Indeed. Twelve years you have sat upon the throne in Dustchester. I thought myself quite spurned by your monarchy!”
It took me a moment to realise that the look on the wizard’s face was not disapproval, but a smirking smile. It was possible that this might go better than I’d hoped.
“It pains me also to imagine you wounded by my inattention, a thousand apologies,” I appeared to have struck the right balance as something in the wizard’s visage lifted. He rose from his impressive throne and descended to clasp my hand firmly in his. He was as tall and thin as I’d expected, he unfolded like a mantis, with its grace and fluidity.
“Come, let us share a drink,” the wizard steered me in the direction of an antechamber, “perhaps some wine…”
“Alas, my throneroom is awash with the stuff, I feel like I bathe in it.” I replied.
“It is not to my taste either, but many insist upon it. Do you drink beer?”
My heart sang. The antechamber turned out to contain not a single bottle of wine, and was instead more tavern than drawing room. The wizard spread his arms to indicate the array that faced us, and suggested we simply start on the right and work our way down the casks. It was possibly the best diplomatic mission I’ve ever been on. Immediately more enjoyable than meeting the miserable bastard who ran Diggleness to the north-east. He could barely be bothered to speak to me. It’s not that my kingdom is small, it’s just that we’re pretty much fine. There’s not a lot to take, not a huge amount to give; peaceable on the whole and we’ve done quite well in reducing both poverty and serfdom. The people seem generally quite pleased. I often wonder if that’s because I don’t have the royal blood, which, judging by our neighbours, seems to make the monarchy into real arseholes. Eight casks later, and a pint from each, we finished our discussion of the relative merits of the ales and what the drink a monarch chose might imply about their abilities, both mental and physical.
“Now then, Ference – may I call you Ference?” the wizard paused, awaiting my consent which I freely gave with a slightly tipsy wave of my hand, “you have come a long way to see me and I have distracted you with ale – a treat for myself I must confess, due to the tedious nature of your fellow rulers – and prevented you from declaring the reason for your visit.”
“In truth, this has been a most pleasant afternoon–“ I paused, wondering if I might obtain the wizard’s name in kind…
“–Quaveer, and I’m most grateful for your hospitality. Honestly I’d happily return home with nothing more than your friendship. And the beer,” the wizard – Quaveer – actually honked with laughter, “and it seems a little rude now to bring up matters of business and state.”
“No no, you are polite to demur, but kings must king, even after a few pints. Please, what was the cause of your visit?”
I smiled, pleased. “Well, and this may seem somewhat silly, but the lower lands and Dustchester have done well these past few years. We are at peace, albeit through rather more scheming and bartering than I’d like, and my people are broadly happy. But I do wonder if are… lacking in something. All my neighbours are keen to leap into war against each other and more distant foes of their own making. It’s not that I want to lead my people into battle – god no – I can think of no worse way to care for them than spilling their blood. I suppose I just want something for them, a reward of some sort for their all round goodness. King Smirl brings his people the spoils of war, King Effluude brings them gemstones from their famed mines. And what do I bring my people?” It seemed so petty now that it was out of my head and mouth, and I cast my eyes down in embarrassment.
“You are a good king Ference,” the wizard – Quaveer – patted me gently on the shoulder. “No other king has come to me with wishing to reward his subjects. All come with wishes for weapons, for espionage and insight into their enemy, a plague to strike down dissidents, a more erect… presence. All things for themselves and their own glory. You are a rare ruler.”
I flushed in further embarrassment at the wizard’s – Quaveer’s – kind words. “Well, perhaps I seek nothing, if all I have already is everything!” It’s possible that I was slightly more than merely tipsy.
“You need nothing my dear Ference, but reassurance. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Your fellow monarchs measure themselves with sword and violence, but why should you apply their brutal standards to yourself. I shall give you something, something that will not bring riches unto your lands, nor expand it with war. Have you thought about establishing a royal brewery?”
I had not, but I left my first meeting with the wizard – Quaveer – with a solemn assurance of his support in setting up a first-rate new brewery so I could share his apparently non-magical beer with my subjects. They’ve really never been happier.