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Lativia by Harry Neil

It was a dark and stormy knight who strode into the court of Queen Lativia of Shropshire. Sir Lloyd Little, a tall, muscular man with deep brown eyes and a Roman nose, had better things to be doing. In his hometown of Slougham-on-Severn wraiths were carrying away the spirits of children in the night. Only Sir Lloyd could stop this nonsense, at least in the eyes of the townsfolk. Nevertheless, Lativia had summoned him, and he had no choice but to obey. Parents of dying children would have to understand. It was how things were.

So Lloyd mounted his trusty charger Bucephalus 99—Bucephalus XCIX, which Lloyd always misspelled as Bucephalus IC, shortened to Buick – and galloped off to Shropscourt to do his duty. As he turned his Buick over to the stable hands, he grumbled absently. “I hope this goes fast. I don’t have the time to be here in the first place.” And he quickly summarized his problem with the wraiths.

One of her Majesty’s yellow pages was there, waiting to take him to the Queen. “I fear this may take some time,” he said. Majesty has a serious problem.” He pointed to the grand tapestry that hung over the grand entrance to the Royal Tower. Something was different there. The grand tapestry had been covered by a crude cloth on which was hastily broidered “Her Majesty Queen Hortense of Shropshire.” Odd, but not odd enough to mitigate Lloyd’s irritation at even being in Shropscourt in the first place. He followed the page into the court.

“Sir Lloyd Little at your command, Majesty,” he announced. “How may I serve my Queen Lativia?”

Her Majesty winced. “First, you must not call us by that name,” she said. “Someone has stolen our good name, and we must use our next best one until you, our champion, track down the thief and return to us our property. Until then you must call us Hortense. You can see why we are distressed.”

Lloyd was not usually a man to be at a loss for words, but at this moment he felt just so. “I do not understand,” he stammered. “How can this be? I have not heard of such a thing before.”

Lativia, or Hortense, as the case might be, was visibly irritated. “As it is said, ‘who steals our purse steals trash, but he who filches from us our good name makes us poor indeed.’ We are told by our Court Historian,” nodding towards a man on her right, “that this has been common in the past. And we are told by our Court Seer,” nodding towards one on her left, “that it will continue in the future.” Each man, on being indicated, bowed to the knight, though with some insolence.

“Is that said?” Lloyd asked of the Court Historian. “I have not heard that.”

“It will be,” interrupted the Court Seer. “It will be. Majesty is not constrained to quote the past. Surely you understand that.”

Her Majesty did not permit further conversation. “These learned gentlemen will apprise you of the details,” she said. “Then you will ride out immediately on your quest. You will report back to us as soon as you have recovered our property, or one week from today if you fail. Now be gone, all of you. We have business to transact.”

The Historian and the Seer escorted Lloyd from the court and into a smaller chamber of the tower. After sending a pageboy to fetch mead, the three of them sat down on the cold stone benches of the times. “Is Majesty mad?” asked Lloyd. “Is this a serious quest? What do you know of this insanity?”

The Seer, a thin, bony man, hardened his piercing green eyes and stroked his pointed red beard. “Those wishing to keep their heads do not question that of Her Majesty. If you are one such, you will undertake this quest with all deliberation. The Historian will tell you what happened, as is his role.”

The Historian, a fat, greasy man, rolled his rheumy blue eyes in his pouty round face. “As I understand it, and of course, I do understand it, Majesty keeps her various names in a collection of splendid caskets in a drawer in her chamber. They are safe there, and she seldom has occasion to look at them. But on Tuesday last, on returning from the Royal Dinner, she noticed that the drawer was ajar. Upon investigating, she determined that the number of caskets was short by one, and that the one unaccounted for was that containing her best name, Lativia. Of course, Majesty was beside herself. Her next best name, Hortense, is not at all to her liking. It sounds fat, or so she thinks. I don’t know why.”

“Because it will be so said,” growled the Seer impatiently. “Do not expect to understand all of the feelings of those of the blood! Now I have tried to convince Majesty that she is better off without this name. After all, a previous owner, the daughter of Titus Andronicus of old Rome, came to a grievous end.”

“Whatever,” Lloyd tried to get the conversation back on track. “What is this drawer thing, and how was it ajar?”

“A drawer is a kind of box that slides out of a coffer,” explained the Historian. “Normally it’s slid in, or closed, so its contents are hidden and safe. To get at anything inside, you have to open it, that is, slide it out. Draw it out, you see. When it’s ajar, it’s not quite closed, as if someone had closed it in a hurry. Anyway, Majesty has a whole chest of the things in the Royal Bedchamber, and that’s where the Royal Jewels and such things are kept.”

“Eventually everybody will have a chest of drawers,” remarked the Seer. Majesty is rightfully ahead of her time.”

“But where am I to start?” Lloyd pleaded. “This is all new to me.”

The Historian wrinkled his pudgy nose. “Start at the beginning. Go to the end. Then stop. So it is always said.”

“At least it will be,” the Seer sneered. Then turning to Lloyd, “And you, sir, must be off on your errand. You are a Knight Errant, and Knights Errant run errands. That is the way it is.”

Lloyd saw that there was nothing more to be learned from the learned gentlemen, so he took leave of them, mounted his Buick, and embarked upon his errand. His first task, he realized, would be to deduce just what his task was to be. He steered his Buick towards the Bawdy Bustard Inn, a place where he had done some of his best thinking and some of his most memorable youthful carousing.

The Bawdy Bustard was a rustic rock pile with a roaring fire and a crowd of locals greedily exchanging their few pence for warm steins of local mead. The innkeeper, a jolly man with a broad, red face and a mop of white hair, greeted him effusively. “Merry meet, good sir!” he cried. “It has been seventeen long years since you graced my establishment! I remember you well, and perhaps you remember that my name is Bram. I still have the best mead in Christendom, and the lustiest wenches! Come in, whilst my lads service your steed!” A wave of his hand summoned two dirty youths, who led Buick away towards the stables.

Lloyd sank into the big chair Bram indicated, and ordered mutton and mead. He thought for a moment and then asked, “Bram, what’s a name in?”

“Surely, sir, you mean to say, ‘What’s in a name’,” protested the innkeeper as he swung the stein and pitcher of mead down from his tray to the stone table.

“No, I mean ‘What’s a name in’,” said Lloyd. “I’m looking for a name that was kept in what is called ‘a splendid casket,’ and I have no idea what such a thing might be. How can I search for something if I don’t know what it looks like?” He took a deep draught from his stein. “As an innkeeper, you must sometimes be charged with the safekeeping of valuables for your guests. When one such a valuable is a name, what sort of container is it in?”

Bram regarded Lloyd suspiciously. “Names are not things kept in boxes, good sir. I remember you as an easy, free-spending man, and I hope you will be that way again while under my roof. Just for now, though, perhaps you should go easy on the mead. Perhaps this is not your first stop of the day.”

The prescribed week passed, and Lloyd returned to the court as ordered. He brought with him a handsome lad of perhaps sixteen summers.

“What is this, Sir Little?” The Queen was more irked than curious.

“This, Majesty, is an Urchin,” Lloyd replied. “Something I picked up in Kirby on Sea; something which has been important to our efforts.”

The Queen was now exasperated. “Sir Little, when we dispatch you on an important errand, we do not expect you to spend your time collecting beach flotsam. We do not have time for nonsense. As you can see, the Princes of the Kingdom are here waiting for our attention. Now tell us quickly, what have you accomplished towards your mission?”

The young Princes were indeed in attendance. Prince Ogg was a chubby dullard, with a round face and dull blue eyes. Prince Hal was thin and angular, with red hair and crafty green eyes. They both glared at Lloyd as though he were rain on their parade, and at the Urchin as though he were offal in their chamber.

The Urchin, a dirty but well-built lad with a dark complexion and a Roman nose, took no notice. He was preoccupied by the many wonders of the Court Chamber. While the Queen and Lloyd spoke, he shuffled restlessly about, touching this and that, sampling the texture of a tapestry, sniffing the odor of a cut rose, and in general tampering with things he should be leaving alone.

Suddenly a blinding flash of light dazzled the chamber. Her Majesty screamed, but instantly regained her composure and pulled herself up to her full Royal Height. “Nobody move!” She ordered. “Marshall, find out who did that! Now!”

The Urchin stepped forward timidly, his brown eyes contrite. “I think I did it, Mum. I was curious about all this armor over here, and when I touched that beautiful sword, it spit lightning. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any harm. It won’t happen again. I promise.”

All the Court stood transfixed as the Chamberlain gasped, “It is the sign! It is the prophecy! He is the rightful King of Shropshire! Oh, woe!” And the Chamberlain fainted dead away.

Her Majesty was not amused, and she said so in so many words. “We are not amused, as the saying goes, and we want this lese majesty investigated forthwith! Marshall, take this “urchin” to the dungeons while our advisors consider this matter. Now begone, all of you! She plopped down on her throne, looking exhausted. As the Seer and the Historian led Lloyd away, they overheard her saying, “Marshall, wait.”

“As the saying goes?” Lloyd questioned. “What is this saying. I have not heard it before.”

As usual, the Seer was ready with an answer. “It will be a popular saying amongst royalty sometime in the future. Again, Majesty may quote the future as well as the past. You must remember that.”

“Very well,” Lloyd responded, as the advisors led him back to the same nook where he had first discussed his errand. “Now what is going on here? Has my urchin indeed committed a crime? Will he be punished? Will I be punished?”

“I must explain something,” said the Historian. “You see, some sixteen years ago Majesty bore a child. She could not accept this, as she was heavily invested in her status as the people’s Virgin Queen. She ordered that the Chamberlain take the infant away, and that it be exposed in the fine tradition of old Sparta. So far as we know, that is what happened.”

The Seer interrupted, “The notion of a virgin queen will be quite popular sometime in the future.”

The Historian glared at his colleague and went on. “But the next year it became obvious that there would be another child. I convinced Majesty that if Mary of Nazareth, a simple carpenter’s betrothed, was allowed a virgin birth, how obviously should a Queen be permitted the same.” The Historian was most earnest.

As was the Seer. “I assured Majesty that in the future such things would be commonplace, especially for ladies of the very Blood. That was a falsehood, but, you see, it was necessary that she accept the notion that there would be Princes of Shropshire. Very necessary indeed unless she intended to become immortal. And as you have seen, there are two Princes, both born of a Virgin Queen, and both of the Royal Blood.”

“And now,” the Historian added, “we must consider the possibility that there are three Princes. The first infant may have survived, because this Urchin may actually be that Prince. Let us go to the Chamberlain and question him closely about what happened sixteen years ago.” He stood and led the party to the offices of the Chamberlain.

As they navigated the narrow passages of the royal tower, Lloyd thought back to that time. Her Majesty had only just ascended to the throne, and Lloyd had only just been dubbed a Knight of the Realm. Lativia had touched the ceremonial sword to the new knight’s armor with an especially grand flourish. She had looked deep into his youthful brown eyes as though searching for something there. Then she had sent him away on some contrived inaugural errand, and it was two years before they met face to face again. That was, he fondly remembered, the time of his first lodging at the Bawdy Bustard Inn, some seventeen years ago.

The Chamberlain greeted the three men with the trepidation of one about to be found out. Sweat beaded on his ancient brow as he performed the formalities of seating his guests and offering them mead. Then, with no excuses left to delay the inevitable, he asked, “And what can I do for you gentlemen today?”

Lloyd took charge of the interrogation. Being pushy is part of a knight errant’s education. “You must tell us what happened sixteen years ago when you were ordered to take an infant and expose it. It seems questionable whether you actually followed that royal order, and whether you could therefore have been guilty of treason. You must speak frankly, as the statute of limitations for treason has passed, and as the events of that time bear heavily on the security of the court today.”

The Seer offered his own encouragement. “The good knight speaks well and true. The statute of limitations is a future concept, but one that will be welcome today. You will not be accused of any crime. In fact, you could be richly rewarded for information clarifying today’s perplexing events.”

These assurances seemed of much relief to the Chamberlain’s trepidation, and his story poured out like water from a breached dam. “You gentlemen are surely correct. I did not, in fact, carry out that order, though I had every intention of doing so. I took the infant to the seaside cliffs near Kirby on Sea, and as I was securing him there, I was accosted by a shepherd named, if I remember, Cassius. This Cassius, who had that lean and hungry look that men call dangerous, took the child forcibly from me. He chided me for breaking some old commandment that was supposedly carved in stone, and he dispatched me back to the court, saying that he would take the child to be his own, and that nobody needed ever to know. The guilt that he heaped upon my soul outweighed my loyalty to my Queen at the time, but ever since then I have been tortured by my disobedience. My fate is now in your merciful hands.” Exhausted, the Chamberlain sank back upon his cold stone bench.

“It is admirable that you confess so freely,” said Lloyd, “because I already know facts that collaborate your story. In my quest to find Majesty’s best name, as I passed through Kirby on Sea I was accosted by an ancient shepherd named Cassius, who told me a remarkable tale. Cassius, it seems, has raised the rightful king of Shropshire from an infant, biding his time until the child reached the age of accountability, which in Shropshire is sixteen summers. Then he told the boy of his true identity and his rightful expectations, and together they hatched a plan to make a claim to the throne.”

“Astounding!” cried the Seer. “I have not foreseen this! How can that be?”

“Ah, my fine colleague,” the Historian broke in. “You must understand that we can neither of us see things that are contrary to Majesty’s desires. Even her unconscious prohibitions are stronger than our crafts. In this case, as she put her memories of her first child out of her mind, she also put them out of range of our visions. It is the privilege of royalty.”

The Seer looked crestfallen. “Yes, I see. In future they will call this ‘thematic apperception.’ But back to the problem at hand. Good knight, what was this plan hatched by a shepherd and an urchin, and how was it carried out?”

“The old shepherd proposed that the young man purloin Majesty’s best name from her chamber as she dined,” Lloyd explained. “It was an easy theft to carry out. Despite the tower’s reputation as a well-guarded fortress, its security forces depend mostly upon the people’s fear of the power of royalty, and they waste little of their resources on actual guard duty. The young man simply dressed as one of Majesty’s yellow pages, entered the tower, located the name, and took it away in the splendid casket that you have heard described. That casket and its contents are now secured on a farmstead somewhere near Kirby on Sea. It will be returned with all due reverence when Majesty proclaims the young man as her firstborn, and thus as the rightful heir to her throne.” Lloyd regarded the Seer and the Historian darkly. “I fear that you gentlemen may have reason to resist such a proclamation.”

The Seer, still looking shaken, took up the tale. “No, not I,” he said. “I have always understood that my Historian colleague’s son’s claim would preempt mine. Prince Ogg is older than Price Hal, and though a dullard, has the greater claim. Of course, I foresee a time when only a dullard will want a throne, but this is now.”

The Historian, looking even more shaken, seemed to feel that he must respond. “It is true that I have harbored dreams of Ogg’s expectations, but those dreams have always been tempered by the persistent memory that there was a previous child. And I have always known that Majesty would never admit that either of the princes were other than virgin births. Even with Ogg on the throne, my own claims would never have been considered. So no, I will not resist such a proclamation. I must say, though, that Majesty must come up with some explanation as to where this new prince has been keeping himself all these years. That question will spread through the populace like a plague of locusts.”

Lloyd, convinced now that there would be a peaceful solution to the problems at hand, turned his attention to other things. “Chamberlain,” he said, “You must tell us of this prophecy. Where does it come from, and when did you first hear of it?”

“Why, I heard it from the Seer, here, years ago.” Turning to that gentleman, “Surely you remember. The second prince had just been born, and we were discussing the matter of the royal succession. You told me that when the true king of Shropshire touched the royal sword, he would be illuminated by a flash of lightning.”

The Seer’s face reddened. “I do remember, good sir, but surely you know that that was not spoken seriously. At that time I did still harbor a bit of hope that my son might be the royal successor. It had become obvious that the elder prince was a slow learner, and I hoped that the younger might be chosen.” He became most earnest. “So I dreamed of some miracle that might do the choosing. But that was a fleeting thought. I quickly gave up all ideas of the sort. How that simple joke became a true prophecy I cannot guess. Perhaps I am a more powerful seer than I realize.”

The Chamberlain spoke up. “I must add what I know about this situation,” he said. “It may not lead to any solution, but we must have all the facts on the table as we search for one.” He poured new mead all around, being especially generous to his own flagon. “Seventeen years ago, when Majesty dubbed Sir Lloyd here her knight errant, she was captivated by his manly magnificence. She came to me and asked if I knew of the story of Lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic. It seems that Elaine's father, King Pelles, foresaw that he would have a grandson who would become a Knight of the Round Table and who would achieve great and impossible things, such as finding the storied Holy Grail. So Pelles arranged that Elaine be sneaked into the bed of the finest knight of the time, Sir Lancelot du Lac, in darkness. Lancelot was told that Guinevere would be waiting in his bed, and so was conceived the lad who would become Sir Galahad, and who would, indeed, do glorious deeds.” The Chamberlain paused to drink deeply from his flagon.

“But that’s all neither here nor there,” he continued. “What’s important is that Majesty, knowing that Sir Lloyd would be bedding at the Bawdy Bustard, rewarded me handsomely for arranging that she would be in his bed, posing as one of Landlord Bram’s regular wenches. So was conceived the lad whom I was later to expose, and who, apparently, has returned to the Royal Tower under the protection of Sir Lloyd. I do not know if that good knight is aware that he is the father of the lad, and I would not presume to ask, but you must know that Sir Lloyd cannot be a disinterested observer in this situation.”

Lloyd sat stony-faced through these revelations. That he was the father of a crown prince was a jolt, and its implications doubled and redoubled in his mind until nothing else could fit there. He sat catatonic for some time, pondering future triumphs and disasters, but then the Chamberlain slapped Lloyd’s face until his attention returned to the present. “Wake up, good knight! We are taking the accumulated facts to the Queen, who will decide how to proceed. You must be attentive, as this may take a long time.”

Lloyd followed the group back to the throne room in a daze. The chamberlain arranged for a private audience, which the queen, anxious for a resolution, granted immediately. “Leave us, all of you,” she proclaimed to the room. “Not you,” to the Urchin. “Chamberlain, bring in your party. And send for the Royal Amanuensis and the Royal Exchequer.”

It took a few minutes for the Amanuensis to open the court writing desk, arrange quills and inks, and produce a parchment. “Your scribe at your service, Majesty. What can I record for you today?”

“Compose for us a proclamation,” the Queen answered. “We have spent some time in conversation with this excellent young man,” indicating the Urchin, “and many things have become clear to us. Use the usual proclamation language but cover these points. First, we designate Prince Orsin here,” indicating the Urchin, “my firstborn, sole heir to the throne of Shropshire. Second, We create Cassius of Kirby on Sea, Duke of Kirby, in recognition of his sixteen years of service as the Crown Prince’s nanny, tutor and mentor. Cassius has faithfully carried out our instructions to raise the Prince to be familiar with the problems of the simple folk, and thus to be ready to be their king and champion.” She turned to the Royal Exchequer. “Send your best messenger, with an amount in gold equal to the annual income of a Duke, to Kirby on Sea. Present it to this Cassius and command him to appear before us tomorrow morning, washed and suitably attired. Assure him that he is to be rewarded, not punished. And tell him to bring the casket. He will know what you mean.”

The Amanuensis hastily produced another parchment, wrote out the Exchequer’s orders, and handed it to the Queen for her seal. The Exchequer took the document, bowed, and backed out of the room. “That man, said the Queen, is such a disgusting sniveller.”

Then she turned back to the Amanuensis. “Third, we designate Sir Lloyd Little our Prince Consort and chief among our knights errant. We tire of being a Virgin Queen; don’t write that. We charge him with educating the Crown Prince in the arts of war and chivalry, for which he will be richly rewarded. Sir Lloyd shall reside with the Prince here in the Royal Tower until we deem the Prince suitably skilled.

“Fourth, we command Sir Lloyd to form a detachment of knights, to dispatch them to Slougham-on-Severn, and to charge them with the eradication of those wraiths which threaten that town’s youth, so that Sir Lloyd can be spared to reside here.” She paused and took a deep draught of the tea that was always kept on the arm of her throne.

“Have we forgotten anything?” she mused. “Oh yes, Fifth, we reward our Chamberlain with forty gold pieces for his excellent judgement in arranging these things for us. Now put all this in a proper form and bring it to us for our seal. Then cause it to be posted and read all over Shropshire. Now, Chamberlain, provide the Crown Prince with suitable chambers, wardrobe, and a good hot bath. Then bring him and Sir Little to the Royal Dinner to sit by our side. Order the Royal Kitchens to prepare a celebratory feast. Finally, take down that crude banner calling us Hortense. Our best name is being returned to us, and we are once again Queen Lativia of Shropshire. And now we will retire to our chambers to rest. This has been a most eventful day.”

Sir Lloyd, the Seer and the Historian exchanged dumbfounded glances. “It seems that our deliberations were not needed,” said the seer. I should have foreseen that!”

The Historian added, “Apparently Majesty took it upon herself to interrogate this Urchin. And apparently he already possesses the charisma and powers of persuasion that we might expect of a Crown Prince, and that are totally lacking in either Ogg or Hal. Truth be told, I am relieved that my dullard son will never sit on the throne.”

“Do you know,” added the Seer, “This Cassius may well be the wisest man in the kingdom. He hatched this plan, taught it to the Prince, and taught the Prince the techniques to present it to Majesty as the solution to her quandary. I look forward to meeting our new Duke.”

Sir Lloyd’s face showed both pride and confusion. “How am I to be Prince Consort when I have a wife and family in Slougham-on-Severn? And how did Majesty even know that I have a wraith problem?”

“Ah, my good Knight,” the Historian replied, “As for the wraith information, I saw Majesty conferring with one of her yellow pages. Those are the pages with all the information one might want or need. This one is very thick with the stable boys, and you speak with them freely as they detail your Buick. And historically, the post of Prince Consort has been a chivalrous one. It does not require actual marriage.”

“That title will not be so informal in the future,” said the Seer. “But for today I think we can work it out. Now let us all return to our posts and prepare for this new reality.”

And so they went their separate ways and lived happily ever after.


Harry Neil is a retired computer programmer who gets much of his material from his birthplace in North Carolina’s Cape Fear Basin; however, he is now a permanent California desert transplant, preferring sidewinders to water moccasins and cactus to kudzu But Harry is not your ordinary California Desert Eccentric. He describes himself as a gay DRIT, a “desert rat in training,” and he eschews the superfluous things around him: Twitter, clothing, hip-hop, the right side of his full beard, etc... His first collection of short fiction is published by Donella Press as Screaming and Other Tales. A newer story, “Loretta” has been published by Free Spirit Magazine. Harry has been compared to O. Henry and to Poe.

Author's note

“Lativia” is unlike any of my many other short fictions. Actually, none of my short fictions is like any other. I call this “Renaissance,” but many of my critics call it “still searching.” It will be up to the reader to decide. I had an urge to do something with the strongly denigrated opening “It was a dark and stormy night,” not realizing at the time that it’s been done to death. I had no plot in mind, but it revealed itself to me as I wrote. The bent quote “he who filches from us our good name” suggested a plotline that I think has probably not been used before. I discovered a number of places where witticisms fell naturally. The Seer character gave me opportunities to hide “Easter eggs,” those opportunities to feel the reader exclaim “I recognize that!” Some of these are arcane indeed, and I’ll be delighted if even one reader sees (spoiler alert) “Hortense sounds fat,” and recalls that line from the movie The Bad Seed. Let me thank Editor Clarabelle Miray Fields for printing a tale that’s much longer than her usual conventions.