A storm was raging over the city of London, nothing unusual in the British spring. It was pouring with rain, and the howling winds made an umbrella an impossibility. Yet the endless corridors in the richly decorated interior of Buckingham Palace were silent when the elderly Archbishop of Canterbury gently closed the door. The Queen had been in poor health for many months, but her condition had been deteriorating during the past few days. It had become clear to her heartbroken staff that her reign was slowly coming to the end.
“I have a confession to make,” the Queen began.
“Take all your sorrows and bring them before the Lord,” the Archbishop replied. “He will forgive all our sins and wipe the tears…”
“This is serious,” she interrupted him resolutely. “How long have We known you now, Your Excellency?”
“It has been half my life, Your Majesty,” he replied with a hint of pride.
She nodded, coughing hard. He helpfully handed her a glass of water. She sipped on it a little, then put the glass away on her nightstand with trembling hands. “What We’re going to say now is not going to be easy,” she announced.
“Her Majesty has to keep up Her strength,” the Archbishop hurried to say, but she dismissed his concern with a wave of her hand.
“We both know We’re not going to recover from this stroke,” she told him.
“Her Majesty mustn’t—” he began, but she silenced him with a look.
“Your Excellency, We have decided that due to Our poor health, We should abdicate and retire to one of Our castles. It is high time the young got their say.”
The Archbishop took a deep breath. He had never expected the Queen to say such a thing, he had always been convinced she was going to die Queen of England. Another implication leapt to mind. The Queen confirmed what he had been thinking about.
“We must therefore consider Our succession,” she said.
He cleared his voice. “Your Majesty’s first-born son will…”
She shook her head, and for a moment, the facade dropped and she was merely a mother, not a queen any more. “Charles has married a divorced woman and has divorced himself, my grandson William clearly expressed he has no wish whatsoever to become King and will decline the honour, and after my grandson Harry’s wedding to this appalling pop singer – what’s her name, Britney? – last year, he is out of the question, as well. The scandal would be too much to take.”
“So it is going to be one of Her Majesty’s other sons, then?” the Archbishop replied devotedly and bowed his head.
The Queen straightened her shoulders and sat up in the bed, now looking entirely the dignified Queen of England once again. “One of my sons is going to succeed me to the throne indeed. But as long as I still draw breath, no divorcee is going to rule this country.”
The Archbishop cleared his voice. “If I may object, Your Majesty, all of your sons are divorced, save for Prince Edward. So he is going to become King of England, after all.”
“Well, which brings me to my confession,” the Queen admitted. “But before I explain matters to Your Excellency, I need Your Excellency’s vow that you will do everything to bring the rightful heir to the throne. Swear your allegiance to the future King of England before we proceed.”
He nodded. “His Majesty can rely on my loyalty.”
“Swear it,” she insisted.
And the Archbishop swore.
She sighed. “I love Edward, he’s my son to me, and this will never change. But he may never become King.” As she saw the Archbishop’s questioning gaze, she replied: “When Edward was thirteen years of age, he tried to run away and attempted to climb over the Palace gates at night. He fell and tore his leg, lying there in the dark all night until the guards found him in the morning. He lost a lot of blood, the situation was life-threatening.”
The Archbishop nodded slowly. “I remember the accident. The yellow press was full of it.”
Once again, the Queen sighed heavily. “Yet they didn’t know everything. Of course my husband and I wanted to give blood for Edward, that was when we found out.”
The Archbishop’s heartbeat quickened as he looked on the darkened face of his monarch. “Found out what?”
The Queen coughed again. She had to drink another glass of water before she was able to continue. “When my youngest son was born, things got complicated, I couldn’t stay at Buckingham Palace and was rushed to hospital. Then, something occurred which happens all the time at hospitals, and often it is never brought to the light. It was a baby switch.”
His eyes widened. “A baby switch?!”
“I know what you’re saying, how could this happen to a Queen’s baby? The MI6 looked into all the documents, and there is no other explanation. Of course, heads had to roll, the former chief surgeon of the hospital was removed, the staff were promoted and paid large sums of money to prevent them from telling what they knew. However, one fact can never be altered: Prince Edward is not my son.”
He hardly dared to ask the next question. “Does Her Majesty know…”
She lifted her head proudly. “Of course I know where my son is. He grew up with a woman he always thought was his mother, but in fact she’s just the victim of a baby switch, like myself.” She closed her eyes briefly. “Oh, the scandal, she wasn’t even married! His father was an influential politician, though, that was why his mother gave birth to her son at the same expensive private hospital where I was treated.” She looked at the Archbishop with a determined expression. “I’ve always wanted him to be happy, and I didn’t want to hurt Edward’s feelings either. It was so unlikely he would ever have a chance of becoming King. The truth would have been too painful. So I held my peace.”
He arched an eyebrow. “What is Her Majesty hinting at?”
“Forgive me, father, for I have sinned,” the Queen admitted. “He has no idea who he is.”
“How is Her Majesty?” the Queen’s Chamberlain asked with concern as the Archbishop left the Queen’s quarters.
The priest briefly closed his eyes then breathed deeply. “Sir, we have a problem on our hands.”
The crowd was cheering; girls far too young to be at a nightclub at this hour were undressing the singer of the otherwise merely mediocre band with their eyes. His lean body moved to the rhythm of the music, the black shirt and tight blue jeans he was wearing did nothing to cover his muscular body. In another time and place, one would have compared him to a Greek god, yet as things were, the girls just had one description: drop-dead gorgeous. His blue eyes, cold as steel and soulful like a deep sea to drown in, emphasized by black eyeliner to be an eye-catcher despite the limelight, scanned the crowd. He sought eye contact with each of the girls during the gig, and right now he winked at the blonde in the front row right below the stage. It was part of the job, making the ladies feel special. He had no illusions it was not just his music, but mainly his looks and charms that drew the girls to this place whenever his band was on the program, but if they left humming at least one of his songs, it made him feel he did the right thing.
“Thank you very much, you’re lovely,” he said into the microphone, running a hand through his bleached blond hair, his voice almost drowned by the shouts of the girls. “My next song’s going to be a little softer, and it’s for one special lady out there who comes to listen to us every time we’re on stage. This one’s for you, pet.” He knew virtually every woman present was convinced he was singing about her and exclusively for her. In fact, that one special lady did not exist in his life yet.
As the first lines of the song came on, the enthusiasm became so loud it almost drowned the music, and all eyes in the cramped disco were resting on the singer, the girls wanting to be with him, the guys wanting to be him.
Nobody seemed to notice the two stout men who entered the club through the front door, making their way slowly through the crowd of crazed girls, being pushed aside more than once as their eyes sought the stage. One of them was a middle-aged man with already slightly thinning hair, wearing rimmed glasses and a brown tweed suit that had already been old-fashioned in his prime, the other one was dressed in black, the dark hair smoothed with styling gel, trying not to look like the secret agent he was.
“Are you sure we have come to the right place?” Tweedy asked in perfect RP.
“I’m afraid so,” the other one replied in equally dignified English, resigning. “There can be no doubt about it. The DNA testing was positive, and the secret service has observed the family for a long time. This is where he works.”
He gestured towards the stage, where the singer had just finished his song. the applause virtually blew him away.
“Thank you, you’ve been a helluvan audience! Now welcome our American guest band, the Dingoes, here’s Oz!” He stepped back with a nod of his head. A smaller guy took the microphone. “Now give a big hand for Spike and the Vampire Slayers!”
The audience did not have to be told twice. They enthusiastically clapped their hands and begged for another song, but Spike made it clear there wasn’t going to be another encore this time. They would have to come back another night.
Tweedy arched an eyebrow. “King Spike I?” he asked in desperate disbelief.
His companion shook his head. “Good Lord, no. He has got a real name. As a matter of fact, it is going to be King William V.”
Tweedy watched as the bleached blond singer joined his band – and a bunch of teenage girls – at the bar and drank down five alcopops in a row, accompanied by the encouraging shouts of his groupies. His piercings reflected the dim lights, as well as the safety pins that were all over his black shirt.
A dumb blond bartender turned to the unlikely couple. “What can I get ya, sweeties?”
Tweedy’s face went pale while he kept watching as Spike put on a leather duster and pulled a dark-haired beauty onto his lap. Her eyes were wide, clouded, it was clear she had been using drugs that night. She giggled when he touched her and whispered a few naughty things to him, loud enough for the two gentlemen to distinguish her Irish lilt.
“A pint of ale,” Tweedy replied, “And an overdose of arsenic.”
The agent patted his shoulder. “It may be not that bad. We grow with our responsibilities.”
Spike pulled the woman on his lap near, kissing her passionately under the envious eyes of the other girls, his hand moving suspiciously beneath her wide skirts. She gasped and moaned into his mouth.
“Or, maybe I’ve been a little too optimistic,” the agent admitted.
“Is there no way out of this, Mr Wyndham-Pryce?” Tweedy asked desperately.
Agent Wyndham-Pryce shook his head. “The Archbishop has sworn allegiance to the new King, too many people already know the truth. I am afraid we will have to go through with this.”
Tweedy drank down his beer as if to brace himself for what was coming. Then the two of them walked stiffly towards the group around the couple.
At first, Spike did not notice them and kept kissing his girlfriend.
Agent Wyndham-Pryce coughed audibly, clearing his throat.
The other members of the band cast them odd looks. The two middle-aged men seemed strangely out of place in this club in their suits, and with the sour expressions on their faces.
Agent Wyndham-Pryce coughed again. “Excuse me, sir. Are you Mr William Darcy?”
Someone from the band tipped Spike’s shoulder.
His girlfriend interrupted the kiss, slightly irritated.
Spike looked up, a curious expression on his face. “Depends on who’s asking.” He stared at them for a moment. He did his best not to burst out laughing at their grave expressions. Yet on the inside he was getting a little nervous. Dru had taken drugs again, and she probably had at least some coke on her. Those men were bound to be cops, and he was yet on probation. This could get nasty. He raised a hand in a defensive gesture. “Hey, listen up, mate. I don’t do that kinda stuff any more. You can ask my probation officer!”
They exchanged uncomfortable looks.
Agent Wyndham-Pryce straightened his shoulders. “We are not police, Mr Darcy. We are not interested in your… career. My name is Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, royal national intelligence.”
Spike relaxed a little. So, no cops. His lips curled into a wide grin. “Royal, probably. National, maybe. But the intelligence part…” The girl on his lap giggled. Spike gestured at Tweedy. “Who’s your friend?”
Wesley ignored him. “This is Sir Rupert Giles, Her Majesty’s Knight. May we have a word with you?”
Spike ran his hand up Dru’s thigh. “I’m busy,” he replied with a sly smirk.
“Yes, I can see that,” Wesley replied, stressing every syllable. “If we may nevertheless kindly ask for one minute of your precious time…”
“Bloody hell,” Spike replied, “Come back with a warrant, or leave me alone.”
Sir Rupert stepped forward. “As we said before, we are here for a reason other than your… history. You could say we are here to offer you a — a job.”
Spike arched an eyebrow. “A job?”
“More, a lifelong sacred duty,” Sir Rupert added.
Spike pushed the protesting Drusilla from his lap and stood up to him. “You got my demo tape, innit?”
Sir Rupert shook his head. Who did he think he was, Sting?
Wesley heaved a sigh. How was he going to explain this? “I really would prefer if we could talk about this in private, and I am sure that would be in your best interest.”
“I don’t have any secrets. Whatever you gotta say, you can say it in front of my pals.”
Sir Rupert shrugged. “I don’t think that would be wise.”
Spike shook his head. He was getting very impatient with the two stiff gentlemen who were keeping him from his drinks and his girls. “Hey, listen, unless you’re offering me a music contract, I’m not bloody interested!”
Sir Rupert felt his temper getting the best of him. “You’re the bloody King!” he burst out angrily. Only then did he notice the band was taking a break, and conversations at the bar and nearby tables had died down. His words hung in an uncanny silence.
Spike walked toward him and stared into his eyes. “What?”
Sir Rupert nervously felt for his fil-o-fax and began to produce documents. “I’ve got it all here, Mr Darcy. I regret having to tell you like this, but you expressed you would have it that way… You have been the victim of a baby switch in hospital. I got copies of everything here in this folder, you can have it checked, but truth be told, and I wish I didn’t have to: you are the Earl of Essex, youngest son of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, rightful heir to the throne of England after Her Majesty’s abdication. We have been sent to take you with us to Buckingham Palace, where an education will be provided to equip you for your office and will conclude with your Coronation in Westminster Abbey on the 20th of June.” With gritted teeth, he added: “At your service, Your Majesty.”
Spike could not say a word. He stood and stared.
Drusilla’s smile widened. She walked around Sir Rupert and Agent Wyndham-Pryce in a circle. “So, you’re a real knight, huh?” she asked.
Sir Rupert nodded.
Dru stood before him, tiny and slim, yet impressive and somehow frightening because of the wild expression in her eyes. “Then…” She stretched out her arm and pointed down at the floor. “Kneel down before your King.”
“Dru…” Spike began, but she silenced him with a look.
“This is ridiculous,” Sir Rupert replied.
Agent Wyndham-Pryce looked at him with a doubtful look. Technically, there was no way they could object.
Spike skimmed through the pages of the folder. Then he looked at the gentlemen’s desperate expressions. He was still looking for the candid camera. If he looked good on TV, maybe he would get a record contract after all. He ran his hand through his hair and decided to play along. “If this is true…” he said slowly, “Then Dru’s right. Do as she said.”
Agent Wyndham-Pryce and Sir Rupert exchanged a look. This was a nightmare.
Agent Wyndham-Pryce sighed. “Long live the King,” he said and knelt down before the rock singer.
Sir Rupert looked defeated when he knelt beside him.
Spike stared at the middle-aged visitors on their knees before him. “Bloody hell,” he murmured.