It's good to be king, if just for a while
To be there in velvet, yeah, to give 'em a smile
London, England - 1498
He's a scrawny lad with a mane of matted brown hair and hazel eyes that are too big for his narrow face. Fat Bess the cook calls him Hatchet Face. The madame, Mistress Hawkins, calls him Mongrel and Cur. The whores just call him Boy.
But he has a name. He knows he has because Molly, the red-headed whore, told him so. Last winter, on a day that hadn't seemed any different from the others, she had given him a sweetmeat pie and chucked him under the chin.
"'Tis a special day, Boy. Do you know why?" He dumbly shook his head, eyes the size of windowpanes.
"'Tis the king's birthday, his Grand Majesty his self."
She had cocked her lovely face to the side like an inquisitive wren. For the rest of his long, long life the boy would do the same whenever he was feeling overwhelmed.
"You're a lucky lad, Boy, to be named after him. It's a good king he is, our Harry."
Harry. Henry. Hal. He has used them all at some point, but inside he is still Boy. Each name is someone different. Harry is vicious and cruel. Henry is urbane and condescending. Hal has a conscience. He remembers lovely Eleanor, all of fourteen, asking him why, sir, why. He had leant in close to her delicate, shell-like ear. He'd wanted to tell her, 'Of all the people I've been, of all the lifetimes I've lived, I'm so sorry you had to find yourself in this one', but really, what was the point? She had screamed for one short moment before he'd torn her throat out.
Five years later, Molly is the last of the six whores to die, her head caved in by a boot heel. The boy is the one to find her. He wraps her broken face in a bit of old petticoat and cries in the corner for hours. He never found out which whore was his mother, but now he knows for certain that he is an orphan. He is fourteen. At least he thinks he's fourteen, there's no way of really knowing and it doesn't really matter. Sitting on the filthy floor of an empty brothel, the boy thinks he knows more about suffering than any other of God's own creatures. In a century or two he will laugh at himself.
It would shock more than a few to discover that the boy dies a virgin. He has offers of course, being a likely looking lad, but he's seen all that is foul and vicious about the act of intercourse and no amount of perfume or face paint can disguise the slow rot of Death or tempt him into its bed.
It is 1503 and with the Dutch and Portuguese making enormous strides in maritime technology and trade, the English are left to play catch up at their own expense. New ships are pushed out onto the Thames every month and there is a conspicuous lack of bodies to man them. Good King Harry's Navy is desperate to recruit sailors, not much caring how it's done. There's a lot of money in men, so when four sailors corner the boy outside a rat infested dockside tavern and beat him until he losses consciousness, not a soul says a word.
He hates the navy more than he's hated anything in his short life. The men are cruel and the officers are worse. When his ship comes into port in Italy, the boy throws himself from its decks and swims for shore. The sea is dark and angry and he is not followed. It takes him most of the night to beat back the crushing waves and reach the Italian shore. As the sun rises over the pale houses and red roofs of Naples, he feels hopeful for the first time in as long as
he can remember.
It doesn't take him long to realize Naples is no different from London in the ways that really matter. His water-logged boots are stolen off him as he sleeps in a doorway that first night and when he tries to get them back the half-starved thief presses a sliver of a blade beneath his right eye and screams like a wild animal. The boy will one day be able to dress himself in silk and gold, but he will always carry that tiny scar on his cheek, a reminder of what he might have become.
He spends the next eleven years wandering through Europe. He works as a farm hand in Switzerland and a fisherman in Greece. In this age of the village and the feudal lord, any stranger is looked on with suspicion and distrust. He is called gypsy and beggar and never stays in one place for too long.
One night in Saxony he discovers he has a talent for killing. He is trying to spend his pay on a stein of the thick local brew, when a mountain of a man grabs him by the shoulder and pulls him backward off the low bench. He lands hard on his back, beer covering his face and front. The mountain is shouting accusingly at him in German and the boy pulls his eating knife from his belt and calmly severs the big man's femoral artery. The mountain bleeds out like a pig on the tavern floor and the boy makes his exit surrounded by stunned silence.
The boy joins a mercenary force and fights in various squabbles between Germanic princes and eastern tribesmen, hacking at limbs and growing into a man.
The Battle of Orsha takes place on September, 8 1514 in what is today Belarus and it will be largely forgotten by most of the world. The boy is now a man of twenty-five or thereabouts and he figures he's only survived this long by force of habit. The battle is short and the man's part in it is even shorter. He is run through by a Muscovite lance on the very first charge and spends the rest of the battle dying slowly in the snow. By the time the Polish surgeon discovers him on his battlefield rounds, the man is only nominally alive. The surgeon asks him a question - the question, really - and the man looks up at the darkening sky, trying to think of a reason to say no.
When he finally wakes up, the surgeon pounds him on the back, offers him a tin mug of blood and asks him, "Co masz na imię?" What is your name?
Like the king.
Lyric - "It's Good To Be King" by Tom Petty