The Conman Who Would Be King

We all know this one. It’s the one song you’ll hear without fail in any properly roused tavern. The Conman Who Would Be King: The tale of Captain Ravian Dahl and his uncannily lucky ship One Last Dance. He was allegedly of the House of Dahl, a withered branch of the maze-like Orventian Imperial Family tree. Or just a fellow with enough imagination and wits to fake it. Hard to say. The central beats of the song are always the same. Dahl and the crew of the One Last Dance decide to pull off the greatest con the world will ever know: Start a war to steal the throne of the Orventian Empire, a position supposedly Dahl’s by right and by blood.

History and Folklore, inextricably intertwined.

Whether Dahl and crew are heroic rebels or arrogant criminals depends on the who’s doing the singing and where you are. For Coalition vets it’s a soaring anthem that turns into a tragedy. For those with lingering Imperial sympathies, it’s a mocking history of outsized hubris and bittersweet comeuppance.

You gotta be careful and not give Dahl and the Dance too much credit. The War was happening one way or another. There were too many old wounds from precursor rebellions. Too many new warships built in secret. Too many social and ethnic pressures on the Empire’s rule. But the One Last Dance sparked the fire and saw their game through to the would-be end. Dahl did indeed sit his butt on the Orventian throne. It’s what happened afterward that soured the whole tale.

The Dissolution wasn’t part of the plan and rogues make poor rulers.

I’m a bit of a collector of the song, a scholar if you’re feeling generous. So far as I’ve gathered, the song has sixty-three distinct verses. Half the verses tell the familiar core story beats, of best laid plans and daring deceptions and incidental Coalition building, but variations in word choice flip the tone and perspective on its head. About a quarter of them exist in other languages and, believe me, translating the wacky structure of the three exclusively Ekuan verses is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. So, really, the song’s pushing about a hundred verses in countless arrangements and permutations.

It’s a bit of a headache to keep all the pieces straight, but it’s a fine challenge to any performer in an untested room. You open with the well-known beginnings, then ease into verses gently slanted to one side or another and get a sense of which way the wind’s blowing in the audience. The song’s long enough and the verses varied enough to calibrate it to your audience, until you have the whole floor singing along, precisely tuned like an accompanying instrument.

Just don’t get it wrong or you might need to make a hasty exit.


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Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2016

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