Friday, 24 February 2017

Is it really that cunning?

The weather-beaten Agorn nods. He is now sitting in a chair, smoking a long pipe. His legs stretch out in front of him. He wears high boots of supple leather that fit badly, but are much worn and now caked in mud. He wears a travel-stained cloak of heavy dark green cloth drawn close about him. And in spite of the heat of the room he wears a hood that overshadows his face. But the gleam of his eye can be seen.
'Yes, my lords,' says Herr Agorn, slowly, 'I am the true air to the throne of Vulgaria. I, and not that cheating toad, Dimitri.'
'You see,' says Voeltickler, 'I have found a pretender to the Vulgarian throne!'
'But what's the point of that?' says Prince Rupprecht. The prince is idly checkmating the supine form of baron Steinhagen with his croquet mallet. 'What's the point in having someone pretending to be the Voivode of Vulgaria? I could do that.'
'Indeed,' says Voeltickler, 'And a splendid job that you would make of it, my lord. But by "Pretender" I mean that he is a rival claimant to the throne.'
Agorn, animated now, stands. 'Yes! Long years have I spent striding about the country on my long shanks, and for this reason I have acquired the name 'Rambler' as well as quite a few nasty blisters. And long have I waited to reclaim my throne!'
'How long?' says the Prince.
'Well, quite a long time. I have lived an age, Prince Rupprecht. I am older than I look.'
'How old?'
'Guess, my lord.'
'Er, 23.'
'I am 184, your highness.'
'No you're not.'
'No,' admits Rambler. 'I'm not. I'm 36. But I have done and seen things beyond the ken of ordinary man: I have wrestled dark forces; I have slain hundreds of foes; I have travelled through all the wide lands of this world!'
'No, you haven't,' admonishes Rupprecht.
'No,' admits Rambler, 'I haven't. But still, 'Terror' is my middle name; 'Hardship' my last; to my friends I am known as 'the hero captain'; to my enemies I am 'Death!'
'What's wrong with just 'Michael?'' asks Rupprecht, 'Or Rupprecht.''
Fluck scowls. 'And you're certain that you are the rightful heir to the Voivodate of Vulgaria?'
Agorn nods. 'Oh yes, my lord. For it was foretold upon my birth. There was a prophecy:

All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
But some don't want to be bothered
and others they cannot be tossed'

'It's rather ... elliptical in its meaning isn't it?' says Fluck. 'I'm just saying: it is quite ambiguous.'
'Nonsense,' says Voeltickler. 'It seems perfectly well to indicate to me that Agorn is the real heir to the Voivodate of Vulgaria. And in any case, look at him: he has all of the qualities. He can whistle. He's certainly a few stollen short of a Christmas. And he has the chin.'
'He has a chin,' says Fluck. 'It's really not such a conclusive piece of evidence.'
Agorn takes something from his cloak. 'And I have also this picture of my father.'
Voeltickler points triumphantly at it. 'He certainly looks like his grandsire of old.'
'Are we sure of its authenticity?' asks Fluck.
'Oh yes.'
'It's just,' continues Fluck, 'that it does look a little bit like someone has scribbled a moustache and a pair of reading glasses on the face of ...'
'No, no, no,' says Voeltickler, snatching it away. 'I can vouch for him.'

A servant knocks with trepidation and then pokes his head around the door to the chamber. 'My lord Chamberlain,' he says. 'What about the other eight visitors in the waiting room?'
'Eight?' asks Rupprecht.
'My companions,' says Agorn.
'Where are they from?' asks Rupprecht. The servant shakes his head. 'I'm not entirely sure, my lord, for they are a strange company. Four of them are very small, have no shoes and their feet smell terrible.'
'They sound English to me, ' says Fluck.
'One has a long beard, my lord' says the servant. 'He looks a bit like a druid.'
'Welsh, then.'
'No my lord,' says Agorn, 'These are my sworn companions, who have accompanied me on this quest. For it is said that this is will be my final battle and I shall come into my own.'
'Your own what?' asks Fluck.
'That bit,' says Agorn, 'is rather ambiguous. But my hope is that it will include money and wine. And possibly some battenburg. For behold!', says the weathered fellow, taking his sword from its sheath: 'here is the sword that was broken and has been forged anew!' He makes a few experimental swipes with it as Rupprecht and his councillors take a step or two back.
Rupprecht peers at it. 'Hmmm. It's just, my fine fellow, that it still seems to be, you know ... broken.' He points to the space where the top half of the sabre should be.
'I'd have that seen by the doctor, my lord'
Agorn sighs. 'I broke it again,' he admits ruefully. 'I got it stuck in a door.'
Fluck shakes his head. 'So this is "The Sword that was Broken and was Reforged but got Broken Again." It doesn't really have much of a ring to it.'
'Ring,' mumbles Agorn, 'rings, rings, bloody rings. All the way across the low countries and the states of Germany with those knumbskulls blithering on about rings! And fiery cracks. Well, they should have done as I advised and seen a doctor.'
'Burning is a bad sign,' concurs Fluck. 'Questing must be hard work when it hurts to sit down.'

'What should I do about the eight guests,' repeats the servant nervously. 'I could have them executed, sir. Or offer them some coffee? Or a combination of the two?'
'Are they your friends?' Rupprecht asks Agorn.
Herr Agorn thinks for a moment. 'Not really.'
'Excellent,' replies Rupprecht, and then says to the servant 'have them executed.'
'Yes sir.'
'Wait! On the other hand,' says Rupprecht, 'find out if any of them like chess.'

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

I have a cunning plan!

'Ah,' says Prince Rupprecht of Saukopf-Bachscuttel happily, 'someone new! I should wager he has yet to see my ...'
'I'm sure that Herr Agorn is not the sort of fellow who would want to see your ...' begins Leopold Von Fecklenburg, Rupprecht's Grand Chamberlain.
'Nonsense,' says the Prince getting up and hurrying over to the weather-beaten Agorn. 'Of course he is. Herr Agorn, I want your opinion on my Steffi.'
'Um?' says Agorn, looking alarmed, and shuffling slowly back towards the doorway. 'My Prince, I didn't realise that it was one of those sorts of get-togethers.'
Rupprecht wrinkles his brow: 'Why not? Everyone here has seen my Steffi.'
Count Geyr von Voeltickler, Minister for Finance and Other Tedious Things, nods resignedly. 'It's true. But don't worry Agorn - the Prince will not force you to hold it.'
'Gark?' says Agorn, beginning to hyper-ventilate.
'Fie and tush, man,' says the Prince, 'it's just a picture.'
'A picture?' says Agorn 'Um, no sir, not to be impolite but I still feel that that is pushing the boundaries on a first meeting: I'd still rather not if it's all the same to you ...'. Agorn, however, is trapped. The Prince whips out a small picture from the pocket of his waist coat.
'See, Agorn, what a corker, eh! My lovely Steffi; my new mistress!' The Prince points to the picture of a comely milk-maid frolicking with a little pig. 'But no touching, now' says the Prince.
Agorn stops shuffling and says with relief 'Mistress? Well, thank goodness. Yes, your lordliness - she is indeed lovely. What soft skin; what limpid eyes; what a springy little tail.'
'Not the pig, you fool!' huffs Rupprecht. Then he looks more closely at the picture, 'Still - now you mention it .... '

Steffi: "Makin' Bacon"
'My lord,' says Voeltickler. 'I think that we are losing the purpose of this meeting. I have brought Herr Agorn here because of the services he can render us in our current wars.'
Rupprecht sighs, 'She is such a beauty. Voeltickler, I intend to marry her.'
Freiherr Maximillian von Fluck, Minister of Sausages, coughs loudly, 'But, ah, Your Highness, you're already married.'
'But I'm not married.'
'You are married to Princess Caroline.'
'When did that happen?'
'Several years ago - at the Cathedral. There was a large if unenthusiastic crowd.'
'Oh,' says Rupprecht, 'I wondered why the Princess looked so miserable. Ah well. Just a mistress then.'
'Quite so, sir,' says Fluck.
Rupprecht frowns. 'And you're quite sure that the Princess is still alive? I'm not a widower?'
'No, sir,' says Voeltickler, 'Princess Caroline was at breakfast with you.'
Rupprecht nods ruefully, 'Ah yes,' he says.
'And,' continues Voeltickler, 'she was here some twenty minutes ago when she turned down your offer of a game of chess.'
Rupprecht takes one last look at the picture and then sits himself down. 'Very well then Voeltickler. What is this all about? Sit! Sit!' He gestures to the assembled personages.

Voeltickler begins. 'Let me introduce you to my grand plan, my Prince: "Operation Mince Pie."'
'"Mince Pie?,"' queries Rupprecht.
'My lord?' says Voeltickler.
'Well,' says Rupprecht, 'shouldn't our war plans sound more ... manly and ... frightening. You know - "Operation Hammer;" "Operation Hot Tweezers;" or "Operation Tax Self-Assessment."'
'Yes, yes,' says Fluck. 'Our prince is right. It should be "Operation Lemon Drizzle."'
'How is "Lemon Drizzle" frightening?' asks Voeltickler. 'Has any man here experienced trepidation on account of a lemon drizzle?'
'What about "Operation Country Slice,"' says Fecklenburg.
"Country slice" just sounds rude,' replies Fluck.
'How can "country slice" sound rude,' asks Fecklenburg incredulously. 'Now "muffin:" that's rude.'
'Look,' says Voeltickler wearily. 'Look. Let's just agree to disagree on this issue, so that I can explain Operation ... "Cake to be Determined."'
Those assembled nod, although in baron Steinhagen's case this is also accompanied by a snore and a certain quantity of dribble.
Voeltickler continues. 'My lord, the key element of this plan is a joint attack by ourselves and the Kingdom of Gelderland. First, we will strike across the River Strudel to seize one of the  key artillery forts just south of Fort Pippin. This will cut the fort off from any army of relief. In parallel, we will launch a swift assault on the fort itself. We will overwhelm Fenwick's defences before they have a chance to respond!'
'Hurrah!' shouts Rupprecht. 'But, won't the Nabstrians block this plan? Do they not themselves covet northern Fenwick?'
'You naughty little minx'

Voeltickler continues. 'Indeed, my lord. So before all of this we must first entangle the Nabstrians in Vulgaria. To do this, we need to convince them to send their army into the Voivodate.'
'Hmmm,' says Rupprecht. 'And how shall we achieve this?'
'Well, sir,' replies Voeltickler, 'we're going to lie.'
The Prince claps delightedly, 'Yes! Oh yes! We could, um .... we could tell them that their shoe buckles are undone and then push them when they bend over to check!'
Voeltickler tilts his head, 'Well, yes sir: but I was looking at something a little more ambitious.'
Rupprecht nods agreeably, 'We could hit them with a chair when they bend over?'
Voeltickler continues, 'Yes, my Prince - another excellent suggestion. However, my feeling is that we need something bigger; but also plausible, to allay any Nabstrian suspicions.'
'Why would they be suspicious?' asks Rupprecht.
'Hmmm,' says Fecklenburg, 'I think that we need to see this from the Nabstrian point of view: we need to put ourselves in their position.'
'Really?' asks Prince Rupprecht, uncertainly. The Prince, it is fair to say, is not well equipped in the empathy department. For him, "walking a mile in another man's shoes" just means that, at the end of the process when he has inevitably decided that he does not really like the other fellow, he is a mile away from the man and also has his shoes.
Voeltickler continues 'We have been at war with Nabstria in the past and they must surely suspect anything that we tell them to do. But they might be less careful regarding things that we tell them not to do. So, we will tell them that the Vulgarian army has indeed been crushed, but that our army is in the midst of a logistic crisis and is perilously low on muffins. We will tell the Nabstrians that they must not, absolutely not, steal our glory by moving into Vulgaria and sweeping up the broken remains of the enemy army.'
'Clever, clever!' says Fecklenburg admiringly.
Voeltickler nods. 'They won't be able to help themselves. Their army will barrel into Vulgaria; it will suffer a calamitous defeat; and we will raise an insurrection behind their lines in Vulgaria that will crush both Vulgaria and the remains of the Nabstrians in one blow!'
'An insurrection?' asks Fluck.
'Yes, my good Freiherr,' says Voeltickler, pointing at Agorn. 'Let me introduce the instrument of our revenge!'

Monday, 13 February 2017


'I said my lord, "the campaign against Vulgaria isn't going as well as we anticipated."' Count Geyr von Voeltickler, the Palatinate of Saukopf-Bachscuttel's Minister for Finance and Other Tedious Things, gesticulates at the map laid out on the table in the middle of the chamber. Prince Rupprecht of Saukopf-Bachscuttel snorts dismissively. Here in Pfeildorf, the brightest minds are busy strategising, ruminating on the outcomes of the battle of Leipflute and the consequences for the war.
'Snap!' says Prince Rupprecht, reaching over the chessboard and then moving his knight straight forwards and removing three of  Baron Steinhagen's pawns as well as a small but valuable diamond brooch attached to the baron's waistcoat.
'A brilliant move, your highness,' says the baron.
Count Voeltickeler says firmly 'Will you not come to the table my, lord, so that we can discuss important matters of strategy and policy?'
Rupprecht sticks his tongue out and blows a raspberry.
'But this is all so unnecessary,' says the Prince,  'I've already mentioned many times that there must be better ways of governing my state; ways that could improve the quality of government whilst at the same time reducing the amount of effort that I have to expend on it.'
'Chess in Bachscuttel: not for the faint-hearted ....'
'Your suicide might be one option, sir' murmurs Freiherr Maximillian von Fluck, Minister of Sausages.
'What?' says Rupprecht, producing another rook from his sleeve and slipping it onto the board.
'Bravo, sir,' says Steinhagen, 'another masterful move.'
'We must soon decide, sir' says the Freiherr more loudly. 'We must decide what General Barry-Eylund's army will do next.'
Rupprecht shakes his head. 'But why must I decide?' he says, taking up a croquet mallet and hitting Steinhagen around the head with it. 'Check!' says the Prince. The baron does not reply; understandably, since he is now slumped unconscious on the floor.
Prince Rupprecht begins removing the baron's splendidly embroidered boots, holding them up to his own feet. 'Well, Fluck. I was just reading the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men by Jean Jacques Rousseau.'
'Really sir?' replies Fluck, with a note of surprise of the same order as if, for example, a pig had expressed in rhyming verse a preference for  Italian over French opera.
Rupprecht nods: 'It was disappointing  - the early material on the 'state of nature' led me to expect more nakedness than the book actually contained. But it returned me to my thinking about the need to introduce more democracy into the Palatinate's government.'
The assembled councillors choke as if an opera-loving pig had kicked them in their gentleman's parts and stolen their wallets.
'Democracy, my prince?'
'Well yes,' nods Rupprecht. 'It occurred to me that more plural forms of government would have a number of key advantages, not least relieving me of the need to waste my time with all the stuff I have to do before lunch. You know,  the sitting and listening and deciding and stamping things.
'You meaning ruling, sir?' says Leopold Von Fecklenburg, the Grand Chamberlain.
'Yes,' says Rupprecht, 'that.'

'Perhaps, my lord, 'says Voeltickler placatingly, 'perhaps we could come back later to your insightful thoughts on the reform of government and now focus instead on the use of our army after the battle of Leipflute.'
'But it was a brilliant victory,' replies the Prince. 'I remember distinctly in Graf Barry-Eylund's dispatch reading the phrase "brilliant victory." And also the words "steaming loins."'
The assembled councillors look at one another alarmed.
'Oh no,' says Rupprecht, ' my mistake: the phrase "steaming loins" was in something else I was reading. But anyway, the battle at Leipflute was certainly described by Barry-Eylund as a great success.'
Voeltickler nods. 'My lord the Vulgarian army by all accounts is a strange force,  It is very small, and what with their system of depot battalions and their Garde du Corps, their army is depressingly resilient. Ironically, given Vulgarian folklore's focus on the undead, their military forces seem to be the army that cannot die. Every time it gets beaten it seems just to come back a little bit better than before.'
'It is not enough to kill them: one must also push them over,' quips Chamberlain Fecklenburg.
'No,' says Voeltickler, 'that's the Russians. With the Vulgarians, they say " It is not enough to kill them; one must also stuff their mouths with garlic; decapitate them; stake them; and then burn the body; but watch out for the weak sequels."
'Well,' replies Rupprecht, 'I told the Nabstrian ambassador that the Vulgarians had been utterly crushed and that all that was left was to administer the coup-de-grace.'
Freiherr von Fluck frowns 'What did he say, sir?'
The Prince shrugs 'Nothing immediately: it turns out that the ambassador speaks French rather less well than he speaks dolphin.'
'That must be inconvenient for an ambassador,' says Fluck.
Rupprecht shakes his head 'Not really - he's never been that interested in fish.'
'No, I mean French. He doesn't speak French,' replies Fluck. 'He wasn't clear what a coup-de-grace was.'
Rupprecht chortles in agreement 'What a fool. Has he never cut the grass before?'

' ... but it's a lot safer than Bachscuttel
Voeltickler hurrumphs. 'My lord; gentlemen. My point is that if we continue to push forwards into Vulgaria, we are likely to become sucked into an extended campaign there. We therefore will miss opportunities to focus our energies on the our real enemies.'
Rupprecht flicks both of Steinhagen's ears and then pulls off the baron's wig. 'Check!' he declares and then pauses, turning to Voeltickler. 'But,' he begins cautiously, 'but ... we are at war with Vulgaria, Rotenburg, and Imperial Fenwick. Aren't they our enemies? Or are they just bad friends?'
The Freiherr nods. 'Voeltickler is right, my lord. Here in Bachscuttel, it is an eternal principle of our foreign policy that we hate everyone. Allies are just enemies that exploit our good nature, sponging from us and cramping our style with their bonhomie and their ententes cordiale.'
Rupprecht frowns. 'Bah! More dolphin talk. So what course of action do you propose then, Minister Voeltickler?'
'Well, sir,' says Voeltickler, 'there's someone that I'd like you to meet.' He gestures to the two liveried servants who stand by the door. 'Open!' says Voeltickler. 'My lord, late of northern Vulgaria, meet Herr Michael Agorn!'
'Excellent!' says the Prince. He hefts the mallet again and approaches the supine form of Baron Steinhagen. 'Gentlemen - some room please: I see that the baron's bishop is now vulnerable!'