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The Game of Kings

02/23/2011

This is the third excerpt from my humour novel Royal Flush that I’ve posted to the blog. The first is here and the second, here.

“‘Let other men play at other things,’” the advisor said as they rode out onto the enormous polo field. “‘The King of Games is still the Game of Kings.’”

“I like that,” said the King. It served to distract him from his throbbing head, which the driving rain and cutting wind were doing nothing to improve. “Did you come up with it?”

“I read it on a stone tablet.”

The King and his advisor squared off in the center of the field. The King had commissioned the construction of the polo field under the guise of promoting public recreation. Then he forbid anybody else from using it.

“Outline the terms once more,” the King commanded.

“Very well. If you win, I promise never to mention the prospect of matrimony again.” For some reason, the advisor’s words made the King think of last night. “If I win, however, you must agree to one date with a maiden of my choosing.”

“Fair enough,” the King said. “Let’s decide handicaps.”

One of the primary reasons the King had yet to dismiss his advisor from service was that he alone matched the King’s ability in polo. This was not to say the King was in any sense of the word good—quite the opposite, in fact. Both men were so inept that serious players refused to play with them, even under threat of death. And so, the King’s abiding infatuation with the pastime granted the advisor superb job security.

The game of polo involved horses, mallets, a ball, and a lot of needlessly complicated rules. The King wasn’t completely familiar with all of them, but his favourite part was the declaration of handicaps that preceded the game. It had become a popular strategy with the King and his advisor to arrive in as miserable a condition as possible. This morning, the King expected to gain a staggering lead.

“You start,” the advisor said. “And remember, the rain doesn’t count.”

“I’m extremely hung over.”

“Okay, that’s one point for you. My horse has colic. That’s worth two.”

“Very well. I’m riding a goat.”

The advisor contemplated the King’s mount for several seconds. “Hmm, okay, that’s worth two goals.”

The King’s brow furrowed. “Do you jest? Perhaps you misheard me—I’m riding a goat.

The advisor sighed. “Fine, I’ll give it three. Now I’m two, you’re four.”

“That’s more like it.”

“I’ve got the flu.”

“Just nasal?”

“Nasal, chest and head.”

“Okay,” the King said with reluctance. “You’re up to three.”

“Any more for you?”

“Of course. I’m royalty, and unused to physical exertion. You’re three; I’m six.”

Six?

“Okay, five. Next.”

The advisor cast about for another one. Finally he said, “I have a lot on my mind.”

“You have a lot on your mind? Are you seriously venturing that as a handicap?”

“Um, yes.”

“And how many is that worth?”

“Two or three.”

“Two or three? Well in that case, I can never get a moment’s peace because my insufferable advisor pesters me incessantly! That’s worth at least seven!”

The advisor drew himself up indignantly. “Is that so? Well I get nine goals because I’m an underpaid, underappreciated professional whose employer is a tyrannical jerk with the maturity of a six-year-old girl!”

The King and his advisor glowered across their mounts, panting.

“What’s the score now?” the advisor snapped.

“I can’t remember,” the King growled.

“Let’s just play.”

They wheeled their mounts about viciously, each player riding fifty yards away from the ball, which sat in the very middle.

“Are you ready?” the advisor shouted.

“What a redundant question!”

“Oh, of course—I’d forgotten! You never are!”

And the game commenced, the opponents barrelling across the pitch with abandon.

Halfway through its charge, the King’s goat suddenly tucked its head into its chest, horns aimed directly at the opposing horse. This had two significant effects: the advisor hastily turned his mount, fleeing in the opposite direction, and the King grinned widely and wickedly.

“That’s right! Run, you self-important fleabag! Advise your way out of this one!”

The goat reached centerfield, and the King’s mallet connected with the ball. It traveled a pitiful five yards. Thankful the advisor’s back was turned, he chased after it. This time his mallet struck home with a robust smack, and the red orb followed a pleasingly broad parabola. The King let forth a triumphant roar.

Desperate to escape the goat’s horns, the advisor veered toward the left side of the field. The goat also steered left. The King’s heart sank.

“No!” the King cried. “Bad, stupid, animal! Go toward the ball!”

Above the rushing wind and galloping hooves, the advisor could be heard laughing wildly.

The advisor’s strategy developed from there. He took to leading the King around the immense field in wide circles, looping around to seize control of the ball. The King tugged the goat’s horns and kicked it in its flanks, but to no avail. The mindless beast was content to chase the opposing steed indefinitely. By the second seven-minute chukker—polo’s rough equivalent to a period—the advisor had scored nine times.

When the game ended with a score of seventeen to zero, the advisor dismounted fluidly, giving his horse a hearty slap on the rump. The animal took off into the downpour. Doggedly, dim-wittedly, the goat followed.

“Good game, Your Majesty!” the advisor shouted as the King hurtled past. “You owe me a date!”

Impotently furious, the King could only cling to his wayward steed as it carried him far into the wilderness.

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