"The Grail is a story, a myth! It didn't exist on your world! It can't exist here!"
The city-state of Varuz is failing. Duke Aurelian is the last of his line, his capital is crumbling, and the armies of his enemy, Duke Conrad, are poised beyond the mountains to invade. Aurelian is preparing to gamble everything on one last battle. So when a holy man, the Doctor comes to Varuz from beyond the mountains, Aurelian asks for his blessing in the war.
But all is not what it seems in Varuz. The city-guard have lasers for swords, and the halls are lit by electric candlelight. Aurelian's beloved wife, Guena, and his most trusted knight, Bernhardt, seem to be plotting to overthrow their Duke, and Clara finds herself drawn into their intrigue...
Will the Doctor stop Aurelian from going to war? Will Clara's involvement in the plot against the Duke be discovered? Why is Conrad's ambassador so nervous? And who are the ancient and weary knights who arrive in Varuz claiming to be on a quest for the Holy Grail...?
Back in the present, the Twelfth Doctor and Clara Oswald are trekking down a mountain range, in search of a "quasi-medieval city" as requested by Clara. Eventually they catch sight of the capital city of Varuz, and watch the sunset over the city from afar. Shortly afterwards a power cut hits the city, leading the Doctor to speculate that Varuz is experiencing some "local difficulty". They proceed to travel down into the city, where they are accosted by a group of guards led by Mikhail; mistakenly identifying the Doctor as a foreign ambassador of some sort, the guards escort him to the halls of Duke Aurelian.
The Doctor and Clara are brought before Duke Aurelian, Duchess Guena, and a younger Lord Bernhardt, to whom the Doctor admits he is not the ambassador they were expecting. He instead introduces himself as a traveller; Aurelian interprets that to mean the Doctor is a holy man, and begs his assistance in resolving a crisis affecting Varuz.
The Doctor, Aurelian and Bernhardt retire to an antechamber, where the two noblemen fill the Doctor in; Conrad, the Duke of a neighbouring state, has taken control of much of the land surrounding Varuz, and Aurelian suspects he will attempt an invasion in the near future. Aurelian wishes to go to war with Conrad, but the Doctor vehemently opposes this idea, stating that "when the buildings are burning and the soldiers are dying and the children are ripped from their parents' arms — you'll regret the day you ever went to war." Bernhardt sides with the Doctor, frustrating Aurelian.
Meanwhile, Clara and Guena move to a sitting room, where they drink together and discuss the predicament. Guena notes that Varuz has been in a state of decline for hundreds of years, and that it was once the political and technological capital of the world. She also reveals that she has several spies working for her in Conrad's territory, who had informed her that an ambassador would be coming to Varuz. Clara asks after Mikhail, whose relationship with Aurelian seems tense; Guena explains that he is her nephew, and technically the legal heir to the Dukedom. Finally, Guena makes a surprising request: she asks Clara to speak with Conrad's ambassador when they arrive, on her behalf, in secret. Clara begins to suspect that Guena is scheming against Aurelian.
The Doctor and Clara reunite in the guest quarters of the Duke's halls, and discuss everything they have learned. Initially, the Doctor is distracted by the ostentatious jewellery which decorates the chambers, finding it oddly out of place; however, he starts to pay attention when Clara mentions running messages from Guena to Conrad's ambassador. Clara worries about the possibility of committing treason, but the Doctor persuades her to go along with it, noting that negotiating with the ambassador might be their best chance of avoiding war.
The next morning, the ambassador arrives in Varuz. He meets with the Duke's court, and although he seems averse to the idea of war, the Doctor finds his behaviour suspicious. Aurelian hosts a feast in honour of the ambassador's arrival, during which the two men discuss the history and politics of Varuz at length. During the feast, Guena and Clara slip away, and are joined soon after by Bernhardt; the Duchess reveals that she and Bernhardt are romantically involved, and working together to ensure the safety of Varuz and its people. Bernhardt asks Clara to preach peace to the ambassador, in secret, against Aurelian's wishes; Guena gives Clara a small jewelled pendant as a token of her gratitude.
Clara sneaks into the ambassador's chambers, where she attempts to open negotiations between Conrad's country and Varuz. However, the ambassador seems much more interested in her new pendant, to Clara's confusion, and barely even mentions the crisis. Afterwards, Clara discusses this with the Doctor, who scans the jewel within the pendant with his sonic screwdriver. He detects some sort of energy emission coming from the pendant; Clara tries to take it off, but the Doctor insists she keeps wearing it until he can figure out what purpose it serves.
The next day begins with the palace guard summoning everybody before the Duke. Once they are gathered, Aurelian accuses Mikhail of conspiring against him, having seen the young Lord leaving the ambassador's chambers. Mikhail protests, but Aurelian strips him of his titles and banishes him from Varuz. When Clara objects, Aurelian turns on her, noting that she was also seen visiting the ambassador's chambers in secret. Just as the situation is about to turn ugly, Guena reveals herself as the "architect of the conspiracy", stating that if Aurelian punishes anybody, it should be her. She then gives the ambassador a direct message for Conrad, asking for peace. Stunned with shock, Aurelian sends the ambassador back to his master with the message, ordering him to take Clara away with him. Clara resists initially until the Doctor persuades her to go along with it, noting the opportunity to learn more about Conrad.
With Mikhail, Clara and the ambassador banished, an enraged Aurelian turns to Bernhardt. As Bernhardt is confessing to his crimes, however, a company of thirty knights materialises out of nowhere inside the chamber. Everybody in the court is taken aback; the captain of the knights removes his helmet and introduces himself to Aurelian, stating, "My name is Lancelot, and I come here from a city named Ravenna. Sir, in the name of Arthur the King, the Duke of Britain, I seek the Holy Grail."
The Doctor is immediately suspicious of Lancelot and his knights, assuming them to be conmen of some sort; he explains to Bernhardt that the story of the Holy Grail is a work of fiction from Clara's world. Aurelian, on the other hand, is enraptured by the mystery and glamour of the knights. When Lancelot tells him of the Grail, "a symbol of perfection and of life beyond death", Aurelian announces his own knights will assist Lancelot in his quest, much to the consternation of his court.
With Mikhail having travelled ahead without them, Clara and the ambassador are left alone to walk back to Conrad's country. The path is long and meandering, and the ambassador repeatedly delays the journey so he can stop and observe some aspect of the wildlife or geography of Varuz. Furthermore, he seems reluctant to allow Clara to accompany him all the way back to Conrad, or even to tell her the way to the border. Eventually night falls and they make camp. At some point, Clara awakens to find her pendant stolen and the ambassador gone. She hurries along the path and soon catches up with him, demanding he explain his behaviour.
Back at the court, Aurelian is angered by his knights' reluctance to join the quest for the Grail. Realising that the unity and hope of the quest is exactly what the people of Varuz need right now, Bernhardt pledges himself to the cause, despite Guena's protests; after a stirring speech, he persuades many of the other knights of Varuz to join him.
Out in the countryside, the ambassador admits to Clara that he, in truth, is not an envoy from Conrad's country at all — he is a space-traveller like herself, a collector by the name of Emfil. He explains that he came to Varuz to examine their technology, which he finds fascinating; Varuz is littered with extremely advanced equipment, but all of it seems to have been built hundreds of years ago, before some sort of mysterious collapse. He also returns Clara's necklace, apologising for the theft. When pushed by Clara, he admits that his true purpose in visiting Varuz is a treasure hunt of sorts – he is after an ancient and mythical artefact known as the Glamour.
In Varuz, Bernhardt retires to his chambers in preparation for the quest. The Doctor accosts him there, arguing that he should abandon the quest and instead focus on unveiling the true nature of Lancelot and his knights. Bernhardt explains his reasoning; with the knights of Varuz out chasing a mirage, Aurelian will be unable to mount a war. Satisfied, the Doctor instead decides to join the quest, so that he can keep an eye on Lancelot.
As they travel, Emfil tells Clara what little he actually knows about the Glamour — it is an object of great power, yet the specifics of its existence are vague at best. Emfil tracked the Glamour to the area around Varuz, and posed as Conrad's ambassador to gain entrance to the Duke's halls so that he could investigate. Eventually the two of them reach a narrow pass in the mountains, and speculate that they are nearing the border. In a small hollow, they stumble across four corpses dressed in the uniforms of Conrad's armies — the real ambassador and his entourage. Shocked, they move to leave, but hear footsteps approaching the hollow from outside...
Mikhail enters the hollow, finding Clara and Emfil with the corpses. Clara accuses him of being the murderer, but he denies the charge, and notes that Aurelian would never have ordered such a murder either. He asks Emfil how he escaped from the massacre; Emfil explains that he was never one of Conrad's ambassadors, but is actually a travelling collector. Mikhail laughs, and tells them he has heard stories of another group of treasure hunters arriving in Varuz – led by a captain named Lancelot. Clara, shocked, suggests that the "Holy Grail" of her world and the Glamour could be the same artefact under a different name. The three agree to travel on together towards Conrad's country, in search of answers and safety.
Back in Varuz, Bernhardt communicates with Guena using a "magic mirror", a device which projects images using some sort of mysterious energy emission. They talk about the immanent quest for the Grail, and whether or not they truly trust Lancelot. Midway through their conversation, the Doctor arrives at Bernhardt's side; he scans the mirror with the sonic screwdriver, concluding that it uses the same power source and form of energy as the jewels, but is still uncertain as to what exactly that power source is. Guena and Bernhardt are no wiser — this is technology handed down from generations ago, and its workings are barely understood by the people of modern Varuz.
Back in the mountains, Clara, Mikhail and Emfil are apprehended by a group of guards wearing Conrad's colours, and taken to a camp hidden further down the road. Mikhail notes that they have not yet reached the border; the invasion has already begun. The group are presented before Conrad, and Mikhail introduces them by saying, "Lord Conrad, I come to you in the hope of peace."
Conrad laughs at the idea of peace, and instead asks what news the trio can bring him. Mikhail explains the deaths of Conrad's ambassadors, and argues that Aurelian is unlikely to be the culprit; he also, with Emfil's help, tells the story of Lancelot's Knights' arrival and of the Grail for which they search. Clara attempts to broker peace, but Conrad is defiant, noting that spies from Varuz have been setting off explosives in his towns — he is unwilling to be the side which withdraws from the conflict. Eventually, Mikhail pledges his service to Conrad, announcing he will help track down the Grail if it will mean peace between the nations. Conrad, however, has other plans for Mikhail.
At the gates of Varuz, Aurelian gives an inspiring speech to his departing knights. Led by Lancelot and Bernhardt, the party travels off on horseback. As they ride, the Doctor tells Bernhardt the tale of Sir Galahad, and notes that in Arthurian legend, "the Grail could only be seen if a person was pure at heart."
Back at the camp, Conrad explains his plan. He wants Mikhail to ride with his vanguard to Varuz whilst the knights are out on their quest for the Grail, and help him take the city before the knights return. Clara objects, but Mikhail agrees to the plan, arguing that taking the city without a real battle will mean less bloodshed and death on both sides. Clara warns that Conrad will betray Mikhail after the invasion, but Conrad laughs again and announces that — though he may not have royal blood – he is still every bit as honourable as a Duke or a king.
The party of knights in search of the Grail ride on, traversing the vast valleys and mountains of Varuz. Along the way they note that much of the landscape is barren and lifeless; Bernhardt explains to the Doctor that the country has been like this for at least two generations. Eventually they arrive at a ruined hall, where they rest for the evening. Whilst there, the Doctor interrogates one of Lancelot's company; the knight admits he cannot remember who he is, or why he is following Lancelot on the quest. The Doctor realises that it is not the Grail they are hunting for — it's the Glamour.
Back in the city, Aurelian and Guena receive news that Conrad is marching further into Varuz. They argue over whether or not they should recall their knights — Aurelian wants to keep the quest going, but Guena persuades him to allow her to speak with Bernhardt using her mirror, and bring the knights home.
In the hall, the Doctor describes the Glamour to Bernhardt. He explains that it can change shape, appearing in different forms to different people, and that it exudes a powerful aura that makes people desire it above anything else. It also, as he explains, drains the life-force of people in its vicinity, turning them into semi-conscious husks like Lancelot's knights. Just as Bernhardt and the Doctor decide to abandon the quest, and Lancelot, Bernhardt's brooch starts to burn hot, indicating that Guena is trying to communicate with him.
Guena speaks to Bernhardt using her mirror, requesting he return to Varuz. Despite his earlier conversation with the Doctor, Bernhardt violently refuses to return; Guena is confused by his manner, until the Doctor steps in and realises Bernhardt is starting to come under the effects of the Glamour. He jolts some sense into Bernhardt, who agrees to try and persuade the knights of Varuz to give up on the quest. Meanwhile, Guena offers to try and use her mirror to help the Doctor communicate with Clara.
In the camps of Conrad's advancing army, Clara feels her pendant grow hot, and is able to use it to communicate with the Doctor, Bernhardt and Guena. She explains that Mikhail has turned traitor whilst the Doctor fills her in on his discoveries concerning Lancelot and the Glamour. The group worry that the knights of Varuz, enamoured as they are with the quest, will refuse to follow the Doctor and Bernhardt back to the city; Clara announces that she has a plan to deal with that, and cuts the connection. Finding Emfil, she announces her intention to escape the camp.
Back at the hall, the Doctor and Bernhardt ask Lancelot to return with them to Varuz. He refuses, but grants them leave to return without him. Bernhardt asks around his own knights, confirming his worst fears; only one fifth of his knights wish to return with him, the rest already enamoured with the quest for the Glamour. With a heavy heart, Bernhardt and his reduced company set off for Varuz. The Doctor stays behind, still determined to solve the mystery of Lancelot's origins.
Clara and Emfil attempt to escape Conrad's camp by stealing two horses. They are caught by Mikhail, but he allows them to leave, trusting them both enough to do the right thing. The two travel together for a time, eventually happening across Lancelot's company of knights. Clara speaks with a figure she recognises, a guard from Mikhail's old group, but he seems dazed and distracted; he has come under the effects of the Glamour. They then go to meet with Lancelot. At first he is unresponsive, but Emfil shows him some data he has collected which suggests that the Glamour might actually be back in Varuz. Lancelot takes this to heart, ordering his men to turn back for the city. As the journey begins, Clara notes that she has yet to find the Doctor.
Back at the city, Bernhardt, Aurelian and Guena prepare for war. They work for long days and nights, planning strategies and preparing their depleted troops. Then, one morning, Conrad's army arrives at their gate. Determined to protect Varuz to the end, Aurelian leads his knights out of the city and into battle. Just as the combat is about to begin, Lancelot and his company arrive on the scene.
From afar, Clara and Emfil watch the fighting begin. Mikhail meets Lancelot in battle, and wounds him; Lancelot's wound glows with a brilliant white light, and the old knight disappears in a flash. Everyone is confused for a moment, until Emfil realises the truth — Lancelot was the Glamour all along, disguised as a man, leading his followers on an endless and inescapable quest. Excited by this glimpse of the treasure he is hunting for, Emfil teleports away to his own ship to try and track down the Glamour, leaving Clara alone.
Guena watches the battlefield from the castle, as Conrad's men defeat the knights of Varuz. Eventually, Aurelian is killed by Mikhail, and the invading army enter the city. Bernhardt, realising all is lost, runs back into the heart of the city, hoping to reach Guena and escape before Conrad's men find her. He is intercepted en route by the Doctor – who, it is revealed, left Lancelot's company so that he could retrieve the TARDIS, and has already rescued Guena. The Doctor explains he has realised a vital truth about Varuz — the technology developed by the people of the past drains power from the very earth itself, explaining the barren state of much of the nation. Together, the three enter the ship and leave the city.
At the battlefield, the TARDIS materialises near to Clara, who joins the Doctor. Just after they arrive Guena is contacted by Mikhail via her mirror; he apologises for what he has done, thankful that she is alive, and hopes to one day earn her forgiveness by rebuilding Varuz into a great and prosperous nation. The Doctor relays his warning about the technology of Varuz to Mikhail, who promises to pass the information to Conrad. After the communication ends, the Doctor offers to take Guena and Bernhardt far away from Varuz, to a place where they can live in peace.
Sometime into the future, the Doctor and Clara return to Varuz, to discover that Mikhail and Conrad have scrapped the ancient technology and are hoping to return the nation to its former glory, without any of the dangerous excesses that troubled its ancient people. The townsfolk have built a bonfire to burn old technology, and Clara throws her pendant into the blaze. Satisfied that "the future's safe — or as safe as it can ever be", the Doctor and Clara leave in the TARDIS. There, the Doctor ponders what became of the Glamour.
Back in the far future, an elderly Bernhardt wonders if any of the many alien travellers who visited in the city's final days still remember Varuz.
to be added
- Royal Blood was released as an unabridged audiobook read by David Warner in 2015.
- The Doctor has previously encountered Glamour technology in PROSE: Ghosts of India and The Glamour Chase.
- The TARDIS "has a knack for finding places" where help is needed. (TV: The Doctor's Wife)
- Guena mistakes the Doctor for Clara's father. (TV: The Caretaker)
- Clara drinks hot chocolate with Guena; later, the Doctor jokes that she might have "accidentally sworn an oath" by accepting the drink. (TV: The Aztecs)
- The Doctor's suspicion of Lancelot, a folkloric hero, mirrors his earlier suspicion of Robin Hood. (TV: Robot of Sherwood)
- The Doctor has had significant involvement with figures reminiscent of Arthurian legend in the past, notably in TV: Battlefield and PROSE: One Fateful Knight.