Chapter 4: In which a frail and angelic® king refuses radical surgery and discovers there might be worse things than dying in a last desperate suicidal charge
Low voices woke him, bright lights momentarily blinded him and a splitting headache made him realise there was a chance – despite recent events – that he was alive. Frail and angelic® but alive.
The voices seemed to belong to three men who were huddled together at the end of a long room. He understood not a word that was said.
“He’s not at all like I imagined he’d be.” One of them men cast a glance the King’s way. “And I’m not sure we can recast at this late stage.”
“Recast!” A second man spurtled. “He’s the only one. The real thing. The punters would spot a ring in a mile off.”
“Well, he doesn’t look like the real thing.”
Richard or Dickon closed his eyes. Whatever they were saying, he sensed that they were talking about him. It was time, he decided, to figure out where he was and what the hell might be going on.
He was lying in a bed. Narrower than he was used to and harder. Cold metal rails at its foot and head. Crisp white sheets. Beside the bed was a large machine that occasionally made a strange sound. When he lifted his arm, he seemed to be attached to it. He pulled gently and the machine protested. Loudly. One of the men still talking incomprehensible gibberish looked up. Another one started towards him and the third one said, “Bloody hell! He’s awake!”
Before the man could reach him, however, a vision in pale blue appeared by his bed. Long black hair hanging about her shoulders, a tiny hat – little more than a folded square of cloth – perched at a seductive angle atop her head. Creamy white breasts straining against the restraints of a garment that seemed moulded to her flesh, long blue leggings accentuating the length and shapeliness of her legs. Richard or Dickon swallowed hard and remember that he had once been a happily married man to his childhood sweetheart and love of his life. Sighing heavily, he thought of her, Anne, sweet Anne! Beautiful in her way but never ever, even in his wildest imaginings, anything close to this goddess.
“Sire.” It was a breath of warm and perfumed air.
Richard or Dickon struggled to sit up. He knew that voice! Tearing his eyes away from the woman’s ample chest – he knew that soft and cushiony bosom! – he looked at her exquisite face. He knew those gentle liquid eyes!
“Dakota?” he said.
She frowned, but even that couldn’t spoil the perfect symmetry of her ethereal beauty. “Sire?”
“Where am I? What’s going on?”
“You’re in hospital, Sire. Don’t worry. We’ll take good care of you.”
Now it was time for Richard or Dickon to frown. He understood her! She was speaking perfect Middle English, his native language and the only one he knew, except for French and a smattering of Latin. And Yorkshire.
She settled him gently back onto the pillows and he hadn’t the strength to resist. A gentle hand on his cheek and a smile that would have melted the heart of the Devil himself, she turned her attention to the complaining machine.
“How is he doing?” the man said, coming to a stop by the nurse’s side.
“Pretty well. We should be up and about in a couple of days. Then he can join Julius and the Scottish one in the convalescent suite.”
The man looked at the King and drew the nurse – Dakota, his favourite spy and undercover courtesan, he was sure of it now – a little way from the bed.
“Dr Shepherd’s not happy,” the man said. “We may have to do a little work on him. If you could explain it to him, I’m sure he’ll understand.”
“Just do it, Sister FitzPercy, or I’ll have you transferred to the centipede ward.” He lowered his beetling eyebrows and glared at her. The nurse stood her ground for a moment then sighed and turned back to the bed. Dr Shepherd watched her for a time, then went back to the others. Richard or Dickon watched warily as they left the ward.
“And how are we this morning?” the nurse said brightly.
Later, much later, when all was still and quiet, Richard or Dickon lay in his bed wondering how he’d got into this mess and how on earth he was going to get out of it. His nurse was indeed named Dakota FitzPercy but, she insisted insistently, not the one he’d known and grown to rely on all those years ago.
Years… Centuries! This was going to take some getting used to.
He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Despite his pleas, Dakota had refused to remove the bandages from his arms or the tether that connected him to the machine. So, it would have to come with him. Wherever it was he was going.
Sire, she’d said, apologetically. I’m not sure I can explain properly, but you’re here for a reason. A very important reason. And… She’d hesitated and he sensed that he wasn’t going to like what he was about to hear next. When he heard it, he realised he’d been right. And… you don’t look right. I mean, where’s the hump? The withered arm? The cruel and choleric expression? The beaky nose?
The what? he’d said.
He put his feet flat on the floor and pushed himself up. Taking the machine by the scruff of its neck, he tested his balance. It seemed good, though his legs were a little week. Pushing the machine in front of him – it glided beautifully on little wheels – he made his slow way to the door.
It’s important, sire, Dakota had assertively asserted. You must look the part. It won’t take long. They’ll put you under and you won’t know a thing. When you wake up, you’ll be perfect!
His hand was on the door and he pushed it open, dragging his machine behind him. Perfect! he thought bitterly. With an ugly hump on his back and a useless arm!
I will not do it! he’d cried in fury and outrage. ‘Tis a monstrous thing to turn a reasonably well shaped man into a monster! People would hate and fear me and I am a King used to being greatly loved. Besides, it’s a stupid idea!
It was also a cruel and pointless idea. What made it worse was that he still had no clue as to what it was all about. He crept out into a cold and dark hallway. Using the machine as support, he hobbled down it, careless as to direction, not caring where he went so long as he found another door, preferably to some kind of freedom.
Some way down the passage, light spilled out from under a closed door. He heard the hum of muted voices. Beside the door was a large glass window. Richard or Dickon stopped beside it and peered inside. The sight that met his eyes made him reel back in horror. Lying on a circle of tables was a line of naked people, men and women alike. A figure swathed in green, its face masked, was busy attaching the face of the last man to the… and here Richard or Dickon had to swallow hard so as not to throw up… the bottom of another.
What kind of place was this? What hell had he arrived in? For hell it must be. His first thoughts that he was dead, belied as they were by his surroundings, must have been correct after all. In that cold hospital corridor, a fiendish medical experiment almost coming to its devillish end not six feet from him, the stricken King, truly frail and angelic® for the first time in his life, fell to his knees and prayed for deliverance.