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Prisoners of War


An excerpt from my humour novel, Royal Flush. It’s about exploiting disadvantaged people to achieve self-interested ends.

The dungeon consisted of a single cavernous room, bordered by hundreds of cells. It was constructed in this way so a ruler would only have to announce once such things as reduced sentences, or—as was more often the case—extended sentences. The King now intended to use this architectural quirk to realize the counsel of the Wisest Man Alive and, fortune permitting, end a siege.

The occupants of the cells themselves looked anything but robust. They were whitish and scrawny. That they hadn’t eaten in weeks was painfully evident, except for some, who—

The King frowned. “There are considerably fewer of you,” he said, his voice echoing around the prison.

It was true. Many cells contained only one inmate, though they should all have contained two. Even more perplexing: those who lacked cellmates seemed much more fleshed out than the other prisoners. It was almost as if…

“Gods have mercy,” the King gasped. Similarly sharp inhalations from Frederick and Eliza told him they had arrived at the same conclusion.

He began his address. “Um, hello,” he said loudly. His voice bounced back to him, punctuating his uncertainty. “I see some of you have eaten your cellmates.” He coughed. “I’m going to overlook that.”

“We wouldn’t have done it if Igor was here to feed us!” shouted one vigorous-looking man. Igor was normally responsible for feeding the inmates. “Where’s Igor?”

“I gave him a holiday. Listen, it’s a long story.”

The prisoners all screamed in outrage.

“Be quiet!” the King roared. “Quiet or no one goes free!”

At the word ‘free’, a respectful silence descended.

“Thank you. Now, hear this: an army of well-trained soldiers has had this castle surrounded for the past month.” The King cleared his throat. “I need you to get rid of them for me.”

“Bloody likely!” a woman with an eye patch screamed.

“I wouldn’t fight a toothless gaffer for you!” another captive shrieked.

“I know some of you may not be altogether fond of me,” the King said over the tumult. Their voices rose in agreement. “However!” he yelled. This was where the instructions of the Wisest Man Alive came in. “However. You all have two options. You can either persist in your vendetta against me—and even kill me, when given the chance—or you can listen to what I have to say.

“Oh, and I should mention the latter option involves food.”

Their ears perked up.

“I won’t lie. There aren’t any victuals to be had in the castle. My associates and I have gone hungry for some time. The invading army, however, possesses food in revolting quantities. As we starve inside these stone walls, they gorge excessively on stolen meats. And vegetables, and cheesecakes, and what have you.

“I am going to set you all free now, two by two—or two by one, as the case may be. After that, the choice is yours. I will have no control over your actions.”

He turned to Eliza. “Keys.”

They approached the first cell. When they entered the view of the occupants, the King gave a start. “Georgianna!” he said in a strangled voice. “It’s been a while.”

Inside, an attractive young woman glared out at him.

“Who’s Georgianna, Your Majesty?” Eliza asked. Her voice had a keenly jealous edge. Frederick eyed her askance.

“She’s, uh, just this girl I ate supper with once.” He turned back to the cell. “Listen, Georgianna I’m really sorry for—”

“It’s okay, sire. Really. For the first three months I was pretty ticked off, but then I fell in love.” She gestured tenderly to her cellmate. He waved. “His name is Roberto.”

“Hello, Your Majesty,” Roberto said brightly. “You sentenced me to life imprisonment for loitering in the Royal Square—remember?”

“Oh, yes,” said the King. Perhaps this would prove more tedious than he’d anticipated. “Such fond memories.”

He unlocked their cell. They didn’t tear him to bits. Instead, they proceeded to the middle of the giant chamber, and waited for him to release the others.

He moved on to the next cell, where the elderly inmate addressed him stridently.

“Making speeches again, are you, boy?” she said in a voice like rusty hinges, clutching the bars. “More like blowing hot air, if you ask me. ‘His Royal Highness’ my pimply bottom.”

“Hello, Mother,” the King muttered.

Mother?” Eliza said.

“You locked your own mother in the dungeon?” said Frederick.

“Not a good time, guys,” the King said under his breath.

“Of course he locked me in his dungeon!” the old woman crowed, and the King cringed. “He couldn’t handle being wrong all the time, that’s all!” She hooted with laughter. “Stupid, spoilt boy!”

“Where’s your cellmate, Mother?”

“Oh, him? Had to eat him.” She pointed to a pile of dusty bones in the corner of her cell. “A shame, too—he was such a nice fellow. Tavern brawler.” She pointed a gnarled finger at the King. “See what you drive me to, son?”

The King unlocked and opened the cell. “Please just go wait in the center of the room.”

“Wait in the center of the room, he says! After two years of waiting in his dungeon, he tells me to wait in the center of the room!” She cuffed the King on his ear. “You never did have any tact,” she cawed up at him, and marched over to join Georgianna and Roberto.

The King fingered his ear tenderly. “I hope General Percy gets her.”

His army was growing.

They went from cell to cell, releasing prisoners and praying they wouldn’t attack. Many prisoners chose to share the crimes for which they’d been imprisoned. After hearing the many reasons the King found for locking folks away, Frederick and Eliza marvelled they weren’t prisoners themselves.

Finally all the cells were opened, and the giant chamber packed with freed prisoners. The King said nothing, knowing the time for words had passed. For a protracted moment the mob seemed to teeter between charging up the stairs and lynching the King.

At last, they arrived at a decision. The castle rumbled with their passage.

The King, Frederick and Eliza now stood alone in the empty dungeon. The latter pair seemed both impressed with the King’s accomplishment and repelled by his treatment of his mother.

“You’ve never lived with her,” he said. “Now, let’s get a good view of the battle.”


Night had descended, and the only warning had by General Percy’s sleeping army was the silent, inexorable lowering of the drawbridge. After a month of inactivity, the soldiers had grown accustomed to two things: gluttony, and sweating in their pitch-black uniforms. The last thing they expected was to be ambushed by hundreds of raging men and women from inside the castle they presumed nearly empty.

High above, from the window of the King’s bedchambers, Frederick, Eliza and the King enjoyed an aerial view of the short battle. They watched with an electrifying trepidation as the former prisoners engaged the first rows of sleeping soldiers. Perhaps ‘engaged’ is too balanced a term, however—what they did was steal their weapons and butcher them in their sleep. Eliza whimpered in horror; Frederick struggled not to throw up. The King thought about how long it had been since he last hunted elk in the nearby wood. That would be the first thing he did with his rediscovered freedom.

There are many factors that decide a battle’s outcome, however only a few of then have any noticeable effect. Battles are influenced by things like which side is better armed, and which side possesses the element of surprise. But most of all, they are determined by which side is angrier. In this respect, the former inmates were leagues ahead. The conflict ended in minutes, with General Percy and his remaining men scattering in all eight compass directions. Frenzied, the newly liberated convicts harried them through the streets. The King was convinced he spotted his mother at their head, screaming and waving a scimitar.

“We’re free,” the King declared wonderingly. “And you have the Wisest Man Alive to thank.”

Frederick shot him a strange look. “That’s a little pretentious, isn’t it? I mean, you did well, but I wouldn’t say—”

Eliza shushed him. For some reason, she seemed uncomfortable at the mention of her therapist.

The King threw open the window and inhaled the sweet summer air. “Finally free,” he murmured. “And it’s a beautiful day for hunting.”

Suddenly, it began to rain.


They looked upon the hundreds of bloodied corpses scattered outside. The King whistled. “Who’s going to clean up that mess?”

His gaze wandered in the fiddler’s direction.


Though Royal Flush isn’t published, I did have a cover designed for it. My friend Susan Jarvis is the artist.

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