It took several minutes for everyone to examine it. They were naturally suspicious people. They were all descendants of people for whom suspicion and paranoia had been prime survival traits.
Because they were all aristocrats. Not one among them did not know the name of his or her great-great-greatgrandfather and what embarrassing disease he'd died of.
They had just eaten a not-very-good meal which had, however, included some ancient and worthwhile wines. They'd attended because they'd all known Edward's father, and the d'Eaths were a fine old family, if now in very reduced circumstances.
“So you see,” said Edward proudly, “the evidence is overwhelming. We have a king!”
His audience tried to avoid looking at one another's faces.
“I thought you'd be pl-eased,” said Edward.
Finally, Lord Rust voiced the unspoken consensus. There was no room in those true-blue eyes for pity, which was not a survival trait, but sometimes it was possible to risk a little kindness.
“Edward,” he said, “the last king of Ankh-Morpork died centuries ago.”
“Executed by t-raitors!”
“Even if a descendant could still be found, the royal blood would be somewhat watered down by now, don't you think?”
“The royal b-lood cannot be wa-tered down!”
Ah, thought Lord Rust. So he's that kind. Young Edward thinks the touch of a king can cure scrofula, as if royalty was the equivalent of a sulphur ointment. Young Edward thinks that there is no lake of blood too big to wade through to put a rightful king on a throne, no deed too base in defence of a crown. A romantic, in fact.
Lord Rust was not a romantic. The Rusts had adapted well to Ankh-Morpork's post-monarchy centuries by buying and selling and renting and making contacts and doing what aristocrats have always done, which is trim sails and survive.
“Well, maybe,” he conceded, in the gentle tones of someone trying to talk someone else off a ledge, “but we must ask ourselves: does Ankh-Morpork, at this point in time, require a king?”
Edward looked at him as though he were mad.
“Need? Need? While our fair city languishes under the heel of the ty-rant?”
“Oh. You mean Vetinari.”
“Can't you see what he's done to this city?”
“He is a very unpleasant, jumped-up little man,” said Lady Selachii, “but I would not say he actually terrorizes much. Not as such.”
“You have to hand it to him,” said Viscount Skater, “the city operates. More or less. Fellas and whatnot do things.”
“The streets are safer than they used to be under Mad Lord Snapcase,” said Lady Selachii.
“Sa-fer? Vetinari set up the Thieves' Guild!” shouted Edward.
“Yes, yes, of course, very reprehensible, certainly. On the other hand, a modest annual payment and one walks in safety…”
“He always says,” said Lord Rust, “that if you're going to have crime, it might as well be organized crime.”
“Seems to me,” said Viscount Skater, “that all the Guild chappies put up with him because anyone else would be worse, yes? We've certainly had some… difficult ones. Anyone remember Homicidal Lord Winder?”
“Deranged Lord Harmoni,” said Lord Monflathers.
“Laughing Lord Scapula,” said Lady Selachii. “A man with a very pointed sense of humour.”
“Mind you, Vetinari… there's something not entirely…” Lord Rust began.
“I know what you mean,” said Viscount Skater. “I don't like the way he always knows what you're thinking before you think it.”
“Everyone knows the Assassins have set his fee at a million dollars,” said Lady Selachii. “That's how much it would cost to have him killed.”
“One can't help feeling,” said Lord Rust, “that it would cost a lot more than that to make sure he stayed dead.”
“Ye gods! What happened to pride? What happened to honour?”
They perceptibly jumped as the last Lord d'Eath thrust himself out of his chair.
“Will you listen to yourselves? Please? Look at you. What man among you has not seen his family name degraded since the days of the kings? Can't you remember the men your forefathers were?” He strode rapidly around the table, so that they had to turn to watch him. He pointed an angry finger.
“You, Lord Rust! Your ancestor was cr-eated a Baron after single-handedly killing thirty-seven Klatchians while armed with nothing more than a p-in, isn't that so?”
“You, sir… Lord Monflathers! The first Duke led six hundred men to a glorious and epic de-feat at the Battle of Quirm! Does that mean n-othing? And you, Lord Venturii, and you, Sir George… sitting in Ankh in your old houses with your old names and your old money, while Guilds—Guilds! Ragtags of tradesmen and merchants!—Guilds, I say, have a voice in the r-unning of the city!”
He reached a bookshelf in two strides and threw a huge leather-bound book on the table, where it upset Lord Rust's glass.
“Twurp's P-eerage,” he shouted. “We all have pages in there! We own it. But this man has you mesmerized! I assure you he is flesh and blood, a mere mortal! No-one dares remove him because they th-ink it will make things a little worse for themselves! Ye g-ods!”
His audience looked glum. It was all true, of course… if you put it that way. And it didn't sound any better coming from a wild-eyed, pompous young man.
“Yes, yes, the good old days. Towerin' spires and pennants and chivalry and all that,” said Viscount Skater. “Ladies in pointy hats. Chappies in armour bashin' one another and whatnot. But, y'know, we have to move with the times—”
“It was a golden age,” said Edward.
My god, thought Lord Rust. He actually does believe it.
“You see, dear boy,” said Lady Selachii, “a few chance likenesses and a piece of jewellery—that doesn't really add up to much, does it?”
“My nurse told me,” said Viscount Skater, “that a true king could pull a sword from a stone.”
“Hah, yes, and cure dandruff,” said Lord Rust. “That's just a legend. That's not real. Anyway, I've always been a bit puzzled about that story. What's so hard about pulling a sword out of a stone? The real work's already been done. You ought to make yourself useful and find the man who put the sword in the stone in the first place, eh?”
There was a sort of relieved laughter. That's what Edward remembered. It all ended up in laughter. Not exactly at him, but he was the type of person who always takes laughter personally.
Ten minutes later, Edward d'Eath was alone.
They're being so nice about it. Moving with the times! He'd expected more than that of them. A lot more. He'd dared to hope that they might be inspired by his lead. He'd pictured himself at the head of an army—
Blenkin came in at a respectful shuffle.
“I saw 'em all off, Mr Edward,” he said.
“Thank you, Blenkin. You may clear the table.”
“Yes, Mr Edward.”
“Whatever happened to honour, Blenkin?”
“Dunno, sir. I never took it.”
“They didn't want to listen.”
“They didn't want to l-isten.”
Edward sat by the dying fire, with a dog-eared copy of Thighbiter's The Ankh-Morpork Succesfion open on his lap. Dead kings and queens looked at him reproachfully.
And there it might have ended. In fact it did end there, in millions of universes. Edward d'Eath grew older and obsession turned to a sort of bookish insanity of the gloves-with-the-fingers-cut-out and carpet slippers variety, and became an expert on royalty although no-one ever knew this because he seldom left his rooms. Corporal Carrot became Sergeant Carrot and, in the fullness of time, died in uniform aged seventy in an unlikely accident involving an anteater.
In a million universes, Lance-Constables Cuddy and Detritus didn't fall through the hole. In a million universes, Vimes didn't find the pipes. (In one strange but theoretically possible universe the Watch House was redecorated in pastel colours by a freak whirlwind, which also repaired the door latch and did a few other odd jobs around the place.) In a million universes, the Watch failed. In a million universes, this was a very short book.