King Toliver Nesbitt flashes his million-dollar caps and wiggles his bushy eyebrows at Chancellor Manville Dubois, a sure sign the monarch will try to coerce Manville into doing the impossible.
“I’m looking forward to seeing Queen Esther,” King Toliver says.
“How is the queen feeling these days?” Manville asks.
Distinguished, yet unassuming, Chancellor Dubois’s lanky build, fluffy brown hair, and glasses make him look more like a college professor than Andorra’s most accomplished diplomat.
“She’s fragile. I can’t thank you enough for coming up with the idea of moving her to our second home in Canillo,” King Toliver replies. “The press would’ve hounded her into having another breakdown… And that funeral you organized! It made the news in America and the U.K. The closed coffin excuse was brilliant! That explanation you concocted -- the grieving King and his family being unable to bear seeing their loved one in death -- was perfect. The thousands of weeping citizens who passed by Queen Esther’s empty coffin certainly were convinced. I nearly cried real tears myself! Having Esther dead in the public eye while she’s really tucked away in Canillo has made life much easier for the both of us, although it must be getting harder for you to explain the nature of the trips I’ve been taking. Where am I supposed to be this time?”
“Viewing army maneuvers in Canillo. Most of the army will actually be guarding your castle while you’re visiting Queen Esther.”
King Toliver sighs. “All this intrigue and stress. And the political fringe has gone from criticizing me to trying to kill me. I’m getting too old for this, Manny.”
“Unfortunately, I think we all are, your majesty.”
“The problems we’ve been having with anarchists have made me think about naming my successor.”
“I thought it would be Princess Ingrid. She’s the oldest.”
“Older than Beatrice by three minutes, and infinitely more experienced. She’s like her mother, Queen Caterina. She’s strong-willed, pious.
“Sounds like the perfect choice,” Manville says.
“She’s also fragile, hesitant, and a religious zealot with no intention of being Queen, traits she picked up from her stepmother, Queen Esther.”
“If I may speak freely, your majesty. Your son…”
“Vladimir is an inconsiderate, rude, violent embarrassment, and all of eighteen.”
“You do have a second daughter to consider.”
“Yes, Beatrice, my beautiful, damaged child. Mentally she’s only eight, and she hasn’t spoken in years.”
“She’s spoken to me.”
“Everyone speaks to you, Manny. But the people wouldn’t want a mime for a queen.”
Manville checks the passing street signs.
“We’re here, driver. Pull over here behind the other limousine.”
“What’s going on, Manny?”
“A safety precaution, your majesty. We’re just switching limousines.”
“Are you sure this is necessary?” the corpulent King asks as he struggles to get into the second limousine.
The first limousine explodes, its hood flipping past the second limousine.
“You knew!” the King exclaims. “How is it you always know what’s going to happen? Everyone in court whispers that you’re a modern-day wizard. You’ve saved my life more times than I can count. In the past year alone, you said that the private plane I was going to get on would crash, and it did; you kept me from going to the Baxter Building before it collapsed, and you stopped my maid from poisoning me. You’ve got a special talent for predicting the future, my friend.”
“I’m not always right, your majesty. I thought Mike Tyson would beat Buster Douglas.”
“I want you to pick my successor, Manny. I want you to look into that crystal ball of yours or whatever you use and tell me who’s going to sit on my throne when I die.”
Manville opens the window to his bedroom. A raven swoops through the window, landing on his bed.
“Hello, big boy,” the Raven says, whistling.
The raven morphs into a woman with long chestnut hair, an alluring figure, and a sly smile.
“Since you’re here, I guess we saved the day again,” the Raven says.
“The king thinks it was anarchists. My money’s on Count Drago.”
“He’s your man, all right. He and that hotel owner, that worm Donald Drummond, are in cahoots,” the Raven replies. ”I was outside of Drummonds’ penthouse when they got the news that you and the king were still alive. He really knows how to swear with flair.”
“I don’t know what makes a guy who owns a few overpriced hotels think he can run the country. Follow him.”
“And what will you be doing?”
“I have to pick one of the Three Stooges to succeed King Toliver.”
The Raven rises from the bed. Walking to a nearby dresser, she sifts through a collection of vials and small bottles.
“Take this with you, you’re going to need it,” she says, handing a bottle to Manville. “Give this to Princess Ingrid.”
“What is it?”
“A combination of amyl nitrate and speed, among other things, with a dash of cayenne pepper.”
“Princess Ingrid may be rigid, but she likes spicy food.”
“And why am I giving her this?”
“She’s going to have a fatal seizure. That mixture will restart her heart and save her life.”
Manville studies his companion. “Another incident that’ll make me look like the Nesbitt’s guardian angel. There are less than a hundred thousand people in Andorra. Why are you helping me?”
“You’re kind, intelligent, and loyal. Ravens are attracted to benevolent people.”
“So, when we met in the lobby of the tourist bureau, and I asked you to dinner…”
“It was destined to happen, although the caviar and steak helped,” the Raven says. “I think it may have also helped that I reminded you of someone you once knew.”
“Brenda? So, your appearance is intentional?”
“She was the love of your life. I can look like someone else if you want…Maybe Cathy, that girl you had a crush on in college.”
“No, definitely not Cathy!”
Manville and the Raven burst into laughter.
“We’ve had a lot of success together.”
“Fourteen years,” she replies.
“What do you really look like?”
“I guess the closest thing to something you’re familiar with would be a wisp of smoke.”
“So, your body is an illusion?”
“No, it’s your illusion. It’s what you wanted. It easier for Ravens to perform their duties if we’re accepted by the people we choose to help.”
“Who are some of the other people Ravens have helped?”
“Cicero, Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King…”
“Sounds like I’m destined for greatness,” Manville says.
“We also chose Caligula, George Armstrong Custer, and Sonny Liston. Sometimes we hurt the people we try to assist.”
“Are you an angel or a devil?”
“There’s a bit of both in everyone,” she replies.
“I’ve asked you these questions before, haven’t I?”
“I know you’re trying to protect me, to help me, by making me forget what we’ve talked about. Will you allow me to remember this conversation?”
“Yes, it will help you get through what lies ahead,” the Raven says.
“One last question. Are Ravens allowed to love the people you help?”
“It’s a requirement.”
Manville enters St. Anthony’s Church. Princess Ingrid and a pair of nuns are kneeling in prayer at the church’s ornate altar.
Unlike her twin sister, Beatrice, twenty-two-year-old Ingrid keeps her abundant jet-black hair concealed under a coif. She eschews make-up, and although she isn’t ordained, she dresses in a flowing black robe.
“So, what does the King’s right-hand man want from me?”
Manville clears his throat, hesitating.
“I can tell when something is weighing heavily on you, Chancellor. We’ve always been able to speak frankly. Don’t let the outfit or my reputation intimidate you.”
“The King wants to know if you’ll succeed him when he dies.”
“You know how I feel about being queen. I serve God first. I’ll only take the throne if we convert the country to Catholicism.”
“May I remind the princess that thirty percent of her subjects are Jewish; ten percent are Muslim, and another ten are God knows what.”
“Sorry. Trying to convert everyone to one religion would start a holy war. We’re already fighting a war to keep the Nesbitts on the throne. But think about this… As queen, you would be able to expand the food and education programs you’re already running for the poor.”
Princess Ingrid’s eyes glaze over in thought. “I could do so much more… I could make guns illegal, bring back school prayer… ”
She begins reciting scripture from the Bible, speaking faster each time she repeats it.
“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Princess Ingrid’s joy elevates to such a point that she begins to hyperventilate.
She yells “GOD COULD SPEAK THROUGH ME!” clawing at her throat. Gasping for air, she turns blue and keels over, her body shaking violently.
The two nuns continue to chirp in prayer, clutching at each other for support.
Pulling out the bottle, Manville opens Princess Ingrid’s mouth, pouring the liquid down her throat.
Princess Ingrid’s eyes widen. Her heart pounds as she gasps for air.
Sitting up, Princess Ingrid takes a deep, ragged breath.
“Thank you, Chancellor. You’ve saved my life yet again. It seems that just the thought of being Queen nearly killed me. Get yourself another Nesbitt.”
Manville cautiously approaches Prince Vladimir.
The prince has tied Count Yuri Drago to a target and is throwing hatchets at him. A trio of guards stands nearby at attention, casting uneasy looks.
“I hear we Nesbitt’s owe you our lives twice over today. First my father, and now my sister.”
“Just doing my duty,” Manville says humbly.
“So, I’m in line to be King, eh?” Prince Vladimir says, hurling a hatchet at Count Drago. The hatchet sticks in the wooden target just above the Count’s head.
“Can I ask what you’re doing, my prince?”
“I’m trying to get him to confess. We already interrogated a few anarchists. They maintained their innocence all the way up to when we shot them. So, it dawned on me that Drago, who’s been a bit vocal of late about my father’s policies, night be a traitor.”
Prince Vladimir throws another hatchet at Count Drago. It clips the sleeve of his billowy white shirt, drawing blood. The count’s lips quiver, but he remains silent.
“It would be an honor to take over for my father,” the prince continues. “Once I’m on the throne, I’d like to invade Alsace–Moselle.”
“We have been at peace with them since the First World War,” Manville points out. “Why invade the second smallest country in the world?”
“Because we’re the first, and we can,” Prince Vladimir replies. “Besides, I hear they have some nice vineyards there.”
“We barely have five hundred soldiers, and a war would wreak havoc on our finances.”
“So, we draft more men, and we boost the economy by making prostitution and drugs legal.”
Prince Vladimir flings another hatchet at Count Drago. The hatchet hits the count between the eyes, splitting open his skull.
“Well, what do you know? He didn’t confess.”
Manville paces the floor in his apartment. The Raven flies in his window, cawing “Message from the front!” before morphing into a woman.
“You heard about Drago?”
“I saw it. That blood-thirsty madman can’t rule, and Princess Ingrid refuses to rule. Thank you for the potion. She would have died without it.”
“Did you talk to Beatrice?”
“Why bother? She’s the least fit to rule.”
“You need to speak to Beatrice.”
“This would be a lot easier if you simply told me who to pick.”
“I honestly don’t know. I can’t see that far ahead,” The Raven says. “All I see is darkness.”
“Well doesn’t that in itself say something?”
“…I suppose it does…,” she replies. “Before you go, why don’t we…”
She moves toward Manville, kissing him.
“It doesn’t take a seer to tell me what’s going to happen next.”
Manville knocks on Princess Beatrice’s door, slowly swinging it open.
He notices the Raven sitting on the windowsill and heads toward it.
“You’re supposed to be spying on Drummond.”
“More fun spying on you,” the Raven caws.
“Shoo,” Chancellor says.
“Killjoy,” the Raven caws, flying off.
The princess’ matronly nanny, Pillar Puente, gives Manville a suspicious look.
“Were you just talking to that bird?”
“Of course not. You’ve been working too hard, Pillar.”
The princess is sitting on the floor, playing with a miniature tea set.
Manville turns to Pillar. “How is she today?”
“Somewhere between six and eight years old,” she says, her mouth puckering into a frown. “She still won’t speak.”
Manville sits down, picking up one of the cups. Beatrice lifts her cup, and the two of them pretend to be sipping tea.
“Amazing. You’re the only one she plays with,” Pillar says. “Most of the time she just stares out of the window.”
“We do share a tragic bond. Cheers, Beatrice.”
Beatrice smiles at him.
“That bond. It’s Queen Caterina’s death, isn’t it?”
Beatrice’s head droops.
“It’s all right, Princess. You’re safe.”
Turning toward Pillar he says, “I often think about that day. King Toliver, Princess Ingrid, and Prince Vladimir were visiting his cousin in Switzerland. Queen Caterina wanted to attend the annual music festival with her favorite daughter. Princess Beatrice and I were sitting in the back seat. Queen Caterina was sitting in the front of the limousine with the diver. I couldn’t save her.”
“They said the way you reacted, shielding the child, it was like you knew what was coming.”
“…A little bird told me…,” Manville mutters.
“I said it was my training that helped me react.”
“How many bullets did you take?”
“Four. But I was wearing a bulletproof vest.”
“And even though you saved her, poor Beatrice has never been the same. Sometimes, when she’s looking out the window, I get the feeling she’s waiting for her mother to come home.”
“And someday, she might be Queen.”
Pillar respectfully tries to stifle her laughter.
“She can’t rule the country! She can barely dress herself! She’s a twenty-two-year-old sheet of blank paper.”
Manville pats Beatrice on her cheek.
“Would you like to be Queen someday?”
Beatrice smiles, holding up her teacup.
Manville passes the castle’s massive stone patio, freezing when he sees Prince Vladimir firing a rifle at a flock of passing birds.
The guards stand by looking non-plussed.
A raven passes overhead, flying toward the castle.
The prince fires at the raven. The bird dips in mid-flight hit in the side.
Manville grabs the rifle from Prince Vladimir’s hands.
“What do you think you’re doing, Chancellor?”
“I’m sorry, my Prince, but it’s bad luck to harm a raven.”
“Bad luck for the raven,” Prince Vladimir smirks. “Better get used to this, Chancellor. When I’m King, we’ll have daily pheasant and fox hunts. We might throw in a few anarchists as well.”
Manville rushes to his apartment.
The Raven is lying on his bed in the form of a dying woman.
He holds her.
“Quoth the Raven, ouch.”
“So, this is why you couldn’t tell me who’ll succeed Toliver.”
“What will I do without you?”
“I’m not leaving you forever. I’ll be back. We have a dynasty to save.”
“How will I know you?” he asks.
“I’ll say, ‘You can call me Raven.’”
Manville bows, kissing Princess Ingrid’s hand.
“How is his majesty?”
“Fading quickly. He had a second stroke this morning. It’s been two weeks since he asked you for your recommendation. He wants it today before he dies.”
“Give me a moment.”
Manville stands on the patio looking out at the trimmed trees and perfectly cropped grass.
He senses he is not alone.
Princess Beatrice is standing next to him. She turns and smiles at him.
“I thought I’d come out here to relax a bit,” he says.
“I often come out here myself,” she replies.
“You can speak!”
“I suppose I always could,” Princess Beatrice replies. “I just didn’t have anything to say.”
“This certainly changes my assessment of who should rule next, Princess.”
“You can call me Raven.”