by Stanley McFarland
I was still young when the king first summoned me. Our nation was small, and it was not too outrageous that a monarch might call for an obscure but promising member of his diplomatic corps.
Of course I was nervous as I arrived at the palace. The chamberlain said nothing to me; he merely beckoned and I followed, past the reception chamber, into the royal apartments, and finally into the king’s study. The king was there, staring at a map the way I’d always imagined kings did.
The chamberlain shut the door behind me.
“I want you at your best,” said the king. “How do we accomplish that? Wine? Tea?”
“Tea, Your Majesty,” I said, struggling to keep my voice even.
There was a brazier in the corner, and the king filled a tin pot with water, and put it on to boil. He pulled a teapot and two cups from a high shelf, and a canister from a lower cupboard. The king motioned to a table on which was a chess set. There were two chairs at the table.
“Sit,” he said, “and shut your eyes.”
I did as I was commanded. I could hear the king setting up his tea tray.
“As precisely as you can,” said the king, “tell me how far it is to the door by which you entered.”
I counted the steps in my mind. “Four and a quarter meters, Your Majesty.”
“What color is the teapot I brought down from the shelf?”
“It is white… an ivory white, with the royal crest,” I answered.
“Are the pieces on the chess board set correctly?”
“Nearly, Your Majesty,” I said. “The white king and queen are reversed.”
The tin pot whistled. “Then open your eyes, and correct them,” said the king.
I opened my eyes and resisted the temptation to measure the distance to the door behind me. The teapot was ivory white, and the king and queen were reversed. I corrected them as the king poured water into the pot. Then he sat opposite me, and moved his king’s pawn to the forth rank. It was a standard opening move. He motioned for me to play.
For an hour we drank tea, and played a challenging game of chess. I almost forgot I was playing a man who could have me executed with a single word, until I looked at the board and realized that the king had left his queen exposed. I studied at the board. It wasn’t a gambit. He had made an error, one that was not obvious three moves earlier, but was apparent now.
Should I take his queen? He had said that he wanted me at my best. Did that mean my best game of chess?
I took his queen.
The king seemed unaffected, and continued the game for the remaining eight moves before I checkmated him. Then he looked me in the eye. There was no irritation or congratulation in his glance. “I’m sending you to Brussels,” he said. “There, you will meet a man named Pierre Dupard. You will be given papers and an appropriate diplomatic title. Dupard will assume you are a spy. You will spend three days in Brussels, observe everything, come back, and report what you’ve seen.”
I waited for more instructions. What was I supposed to look for? Was Dupard an enemy, or an ally? The king said nothing more. He rang a small bell, and the chamberlain entered. The chamberlain beckoned, and I followed him out of the palace.
“I was concerned,” I told the chamberlain. “The king left his queen exposed. I didn’t know if I should take it or not.”
The chamberlain led me on silently. I tried again. “I didn’t know if the king minded losing at chess.”
I didn’t think the chamberlain was going to respond to either statement until we reached the palace door. “I have never known His Majesty to win a game of chess,” said the Chamberlain, as he shut the palace door.
I went to Brussels, and met Dupard. Dupard clearly thought I was a spy, and used several tricks to get me reveal what I was there to do. As I didn’t know myself, there was nothing I could reveal, but Dupard’s comments and questions brushed on a number of interesting topics.
Two days after returning, I was summoned again. Again, the king made tea. He asked me many questions about my trip as we played chess. He made a fatal error which I pounced on, and I defeated him again.
He gave me another assignment. This time he was more specific. He wanted me to assess our trade minister in Bonn – to see if he was open to bribery. I successfully bribed the trade minister, who was then dismissed from his post the day after I beat the king at chess for the third time.
For two years, it was always the same. My assignments and debriefings always took place with the king, always over a cup of tea and a game of chess which I won.
I began to wonder. I knew the king intended to lose each game, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t the superior player either. Each game he got my best, but I had little idea about his abilities. It was a small matter, but I wanted to know. Was my king brilliant, or limited?
In University we occasionally played what we called fool’s chess. The idea was to force your opponent to beat you. It was a chancy thing to play such games with a king, but I had known him two years, or at least I had spent a great deal of time with him for the last two years.
The game was a farce, and I couldn’t help chuckling to myself as blunder followed blunder. The king acted as he always did, asking me questions about my last assignment, offering me more tea, and reliably making the worst possible move. It seemed certain to end in a draw when the king resigned. I felt a surge of victory, as strange as that seems.
He looked me in the eye, as he always did when giving me my next assignment. I tried to keep my expression dignified.
“You will not play in such a fashion again,” was all he said, and he rang the bell.
I was not summoned again for three months. In the interim, I discovered a few things about how I was perceived in the kingdom. There had been talk – some of it jealous, some of it fearful about my access to the king. Now that I was obviously out of favor, people who had shown me courtesy and respect in the past openly mocked me. It was a revelation. How could I have been so keen an observer for the king, and not seen how I was seen?
When I was summoned again, I played my best chess. I sipped tea, answered the king’s questions, and received my assignment after once again, checkmating the king.
For two decades I did the king’s bidding. He grew older, as I came into my prime. The subtle blunders that he made in each game became more apparent. The reasons for my assignment, and the meanings behind the king’s questions became more apparent as well. Perhaps I was improving, growing in my understanding of chess and statecraft. Perhaps the king was aging. He no longer stood so straight when he reached for the pot. In recent years, I noted that the pot and cups were moved to a lower shelf. The tea was already out of the cabinet before I arrived.
It was that way when I was summoned this morning. The king and I played as usual, but his blunder came earlier in the game. I had a commanding lead in material, a rook and two pawns. I worried about the king. If his game was deteriorating so, how soon before the kingdom would suffer.
The king’s move was like a lightning bolt. It didn’t seem that way physically, the king’s arm moved slowly, as he captured my bishop with his knight. It didn’t seem a particularly good move; his knight was unsupported, and its loss would further expose his queen.
And then I saw it. There was nothing I could do to change it. He would checkmate me in five moves. I looked up at the king.
For the first time in twenty-three years, a tiny smile appeared at the corner of the king’s mouth. “It’s my game, I believe,” he said. Then he looked me in the eye. I tried to put my loss behind me, and focus on the assignment the king was about to give me.
The king reached into his pocket, and pulled out a packet, sealed with his ring. “You break the seal here, in this room, just before sunset,” he said.
Not many people even noticed the ship leave port this afternoon. There was nothing particularly interesting about the old man in workmen’s clothing that got on it. I don’t suppose anyone bothered to see that his hands were smooth - not a callous on them. It’s a detail I would not have missed, not after spending half my life as the king’s observer.
The open packet lies on the tea tray. The king’s abdication and his instructions have been extracted. The old chamberlain was my witness. He gave me the ring is now on my finger. My coronation is tomorrow.
There was a particularly promising young woman I noticed at the bureau of taxation. She’s misplaced. She didn’t show the slightest surprise when they announced the king’s abdication in my favor. I’ve already summoned her.
I reverse the white king and queen on the board, and stare up on the cabinet. I wonder what we’ll be drinking tonight, wine, or tea?