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straight ahead, then left at the plinth

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The afterlife was nothing like James had expected.

“Sign here, please,” the bored-looking lackey told him, managing to imply by his tone that he thought James was a fool for not hearing him the first time.

James had heard him, but he was taking his time examining his surroundings. No saints, no angels, no shining Almighty, and if the lackey had a halo, he was certainly doing a good job of hiding it. Nor was this the unrelenting gloom of Purgatory, which James certainly would have been relegated to by the Catholics (he’d had his fair share of sinful indulgence) if he’d escaped being consigned to the fires of Hell for being a non-Catholic King. And it didn’t seem like it could be Hell – there wasn’t a horn or conflagration to be seen.

So. Both the Catholics and the Protestants had been wrong about what the afterlife would look like. James grinned at the thought of the Pope and John Knox being identically flustered (and spitting mad to be on the same side of a question for once).

The lackey was still looking at him, so James took the strange metal quill. But… “What exactly am I signing, sirrah?”

He hadn’t become the monarch of two kingdoms, survived multiple conspiracies, and sparred with the recalcitrant English Parliament, by being a blockhead. Whoever was in charge of this afterlife, whether knave or deity, would find that James was no decadent Englishman but a canny Scot.

The lackey sighed. “It says that you acknowledge your arrival in the Afterlife, that you are in possession of a body in no worse condition and missing no more limbs that it was at death, that you agree to indemnify and press no suit against the Afterlife for any personal or emotional injury sustained by you through the actions of other members of the Afterlife, should they continue to press a quarrel from your respective lives, and that you agree not to play the vuvuzela.”

“The what?” He’d spoken quite quickly, rattling the clauses off like pebbles cascading down a hillside, but James was fairly sure the last was not English of any sort.

For the first time, the lackey showed signs of unbending. “Tenkamenin really doesn’t like the vuvuzela,” he said in a confidential tone, leaning towards James over the table. “After his fifteenth complaint, he took matters into his own hands and started playing it outside the Central Office at all hours. Eventually the Powers That Be said to just put a damn clause in the welcome material about it.”

James thought through the various promises. He could sign that. He wasn’t missing any limbs, and he had no plans to play the vuvuzela. But first he intended to try to gain all the additional information he could. “Who are the Powers That Be?”

The lackey made a vague gesture. “Oh, you know. The bosses. The muckety-mucks. The Big Kahunas. The – ”

James cut him off before he could descend further into nonsense. “Why am I in the afterlife now?” While you did lose track of time once you were buried, he was fairly sure some centuries had gone by above his tomb. “Why did I not arrive in the afterlife after I died?”

“Well,” the lackey said. He seemed to have relaxed from his earlier uptight officiousness. “You know how people always say Rest in Peace? Requiescat in pace? Or maybe that’s after your time. I get mixed up. Anyway, your people make it all spiritual and stuff –”

“My people?”

“People who are alive. The thing is, it’s quite literal, really. Your earthly body is supposed to rest in peace while it, uh, returns to dust. For the cremation people, that works out swell, but for the rest of us, well, it turns out that people’s bones get disturbed a lot. Then they’re wandering around as vengeful spirits, and that can get messy. Particularly when they had power during their lifetime.”

James could imagine. “I don’t think my bones have been disturbed.” There had been the time a while back when the vault was opened and his coffin moved around a bit, but they hadn’t mistreated his bones. The varlets wouldn’t dare.

The lackey shook his head. “No, yours are fine. But, you see, there was this queen, a real firecracker, let me tell you, and when the French Revolution came along and disturbed her bones – oh, that was after you, well, there was a French Revolution – she decided not to waste her time on being an ordinary vengeful spirit. She joined up with some other spirits and started this place. Right now we’re working our way around the globe, bringing monarchs of the world up to Rest in Peace here instead of taking their chances with the living lot down there. Privileges of rank.”

“Could I go back?”

“Well, you could,” the lackey said, his face doubtful. “But isn’t it boring being buried? Say that three times fast. I mean, I always found it boring. Hardly anyone visits graveyards any more except to find a quiet place to get their nasty on. Up here is much more interesting. And you’ll be able to see your family.”

James wasn’t sure he wanted to see his family, but he supposed being buried had been rather boring. He wondered what sort of king Charles had turned out to be, and how well he'd stewarded James's two countries. And perhaps the Powers That Be would be amenable to a special request - the Afterlife would be much brighter if Steenie could be brought up to share it with him, after all.

“Would you get a move on?” someone behind him said. “You’re holding up the line.”

The lackey looked behind James. “Oh! Sorry.” To James, he added apologetically, “King Richard does have a point. Plus he takes priority, since his bones were recently disturbed. If you have additional questions, feel free to check in at the Central Office.”

Feeling a trifle miffed, James let his face fall into his loftiest expression as he signed the strange parchment with the metal quill.

“That’s right, sire,” the lackey said encouragingly, then consulted a list. “You’re in 717. Straight ahead, then left at the plinth.”

Well, James reflected as he walked in the direction indicated, things could be worse. In the grave, he’d escaped both the gout and kidney stones that had plagued his last years, as well as the dysentery that had killed him, and none of his health complaints seemed to have returned when he was raised from the grave and given this new (if slightly see-through) body. In fact, as he strode through the wide avenues of the Afterlife, James felt young again, and ready to face whatever manner of man, beast, or wraith might assail him in this new phase of existence.

For the first time since entering the Afterlife, he smiled, and strode forward, shoulders back, into all his tomorrows.