Princesses, Peas, and Other ImPonderables
Chapter Six: In which our Heroine explains some things, but not others
Why was the king staring at her as if she had uttered something amazing and unexpected? Giselle mentally reviewed her last sentence. ‘Turn and turn about is fair play, I fear, King Alexander.' No, absolutely nothing extraordinary in that, unless she had managed to offend his sense of Duty and Decorum again. True, her mother and older sisters would probably have advised that she just endure the test meekly, for ‘The meek shall inherit the earth, dearest,' but if she did not want to inherit Phantasea, why would she want the whole earth?
Meanwhile, the Queen had temporarily run out of sail in berating the Prince. Mind, Giselle doubted that it would take much of a breeze to set her going again, but the Queen had turned back to face them and the princess set a silent wager with herself as to whether the Royal Displeasure would fall next on herself or the king.
Ah, she had guessed correctly. Hold tight for the thunder and lightning, because she was too tired to act meek and polite. "I realize your Majesty slept poorly, but surely it is not so hard to recollect that I introduced myself as Princess Tulip of Flora?"
"Princess Tulip," it came out between clenched teeth, "how did you sleep last night?"
"I didn't sleep: collected bruises, yes, twisted my back into a pretzel, certainly, had an extended balancing test, beyond a doubt, but I never even succeeded in catnapping until your son escorted me in here."
"Do you mean to say that one infinitesimal pea kept you awake?"
Giselle couldn't help smiling. "May I point out that a single pea succeeded in keeping you awake?"
Her Majesty frowned ... again. If she were not careful, her face would freeze in that expression. "What nonsense is this?"
"No nonsense at all. That ‘rock' you accused the maids of leaving in your mattress was, in point of fact, a pea. I placed it there myself yesterday afternoon."
"Have you run mad?"
She shrugged. "Very likely, considering that I did not flee the moment I awoke yesterday morning, but as far as the lump in the mattress goes, I assure you that I speak the truth. Interrogate the maids if you disbelieve me."
Queen Catherine looked ready to expostulate further but the king evidently decided that the pair of them needed a mediator before someone (likely his mother) exploded. "That sounds reasonable to me, Mother. Would someone kindly send for the chambermaids?" He frowned. "And if the circles beneath her eyes this morning were at all indicative, I doubt the princess misrepresented her night."
"Alexander," his mother screeched, "be reasonable! Who could feel a lump that small beneath twenty mattresses?"
"Have you seen her bruises?"
Hmm. Perhaps she would not have to speak in her own defense at all. Apparently the sight of her this morning had disturbed the king more than she suspected; either Chivalry was overemphasized in his education (seeing Prince Peter, she doubted it, but this might have been a case where each parent educated their favorite), or else the time had definitely come for her to depart. She had no desire to add a seventeenth royal proposal to her collection.
A pair of quaking maidservants had been escorted into the room, and the princess slipped away unobtrusively while the king & his court questioned the girls. With any luck, she would have packed and gone halfway to the Spice Fair in Thyme before anyone noticed her absence.
Alas, packing took longer than she had anticipated.
"So, were you looking for revenge?"
Giselle lifted her head out of the depths of her satchel, where she had been rummaging for her missing ribbon (she could not have been so foolish as to lose it -- not the blue one that Odette had picked out for her especially just before). She blinked for a minute at the ermine-clad figure in the doorway. "Revenge for...? Oh! That." She chuckled. "I must confess that just knowing that the peas were there, even if you mightn't feel them, was rather a consolation during my ordeal. However, I have made it a point to always mix Scientific Enquiry with my own forays into the realm of Revenge."
"And what form of science did you investigate? The squishing point of raw peas?" Alexander had removed his crown and was idling tossing the circlet from hand to hand.
"It might interest you to know that the Delicacy Test has proved highly gender-specific: three queens and two other princesses besides myself have suffered from pea-induced discomfort, but you are the first royal male out of -- is it seven or eight? - to have had even the least disturbance of their slumber." She frowned at the bag; she had completely emptied the contents without the missing article resurfacing.
He burst out laughing. "So you did not target us specifically? After Mother's abominable behaviour, I would not have blamed you."
"I am an equal opportunity targeter: I aim for anyone who aims for me."
"Prince or pauper, eh?"
She nodded, then chuckled. "Well, possibly excepting village idiots; they never intend any harm and they do amuse me."
"So that is how one wins clemency: by becoming harmless entertainment. I see I shall have to do more to make you laugh!"
By this time she had succeeded in bringing her braid over her shoulder to investigate its ribbon. So much for that theory. She sighed and began to repack the oilskin satchel, an action not missed by her audience of one.
"You are leaving?"
"Much as I enjoy discomfort, disrespect, and disbelief, I really do think that the time has come to find other entertainment." She gently set the maps back inside and patted the bag fondly.
"Oh. That reminds me of something I meant to ask you yesterday. You arrived in the pouring rain, yet when you spread out your maps in the Library the next morning, not one of them had the least trace of water damage. By rights, they should have been nothing but ink-smeared pulp."
She smiled. "It is the bag. Oilskin sheds a certain amount of water on its own, but this has a mild water-repelling charm cast upon it ... not enough that its wearer could walk on water, but sufficient to keep the contents dry. Quite decidedly, that satchel was my best -- and most practical -- birthday gift ever. It will not soak through even if you manage to fall in the river."
His eyebrows had elevated at her last statement. "I presume you speak from experience."
"Well, if one does bargain with a flighty naiad for river passage, one can hardly be surprised if the nymph suddenly sees an otter and swims off to play, leaving one teetering precariously on a log, midway across the river." She folded her spare gown and laid it atop the stack.
"I am glad it was only a shallow river."
Now it was Giselle's turn to raise her eyebrows in surprise. "What do you mean?"
"If it had been deep, you would not have been able to stand and escape drowning when you rolled off the log."
She blinked for a moment before making sense of that statement; comprehension came with a chuckle. "I had forgotten that, in this region, only the peasants can swim. At home, hardly anyone, peasant or royal, lacks the ability."
"In other words, you swam to safety after being deposited in the water."
"Exactly." Well, minus the dive to the bottom to retrieve the bag, anyway. "Your mother would be completely convinced that I had cheated on my Princess Test if she knew, would she not?"
He chuckled. "Oh, indubitably. She would regard you as not merely a peasant but an utter hoyden."
Her giggles escalated to full laughter. "Too late! According to Her Majesty, I reached hoyden status already. Don't you recall?"
He seemed to consider it, but the twinkle in his eyes belied the thoughtful stance. "Well, if you are a common hoyden, and I have ‘completely forgotten my duty to my crown and country,'" his voice had risen briefly to falsetto as he quoted, "we might just as well both run away and join a gypsy caravan."
King Alexander the Responsible as a gypsy wanderer? Now that she would pay to see!
When they had both subsided to intermittent chuckles, an idea occurred to Giselle. "Your Majesty, where might I find the maids at this time of day?"
He frowned. "Did they fail to clean your room properly?"
"No, I have merely misplaced something and I hoped perhaps they might have seen it."
She felt her jaw drop open as he produced a length of blue ribbon. "You would not, by any chance, mean this?"
"Where did you find that?"
He smirked. "You should not have been so quick to leave the Library, your Highness."
"Thank you." Giselle reached eagerly for the ribbon, only to have the king re-pocket it. "Your Majesty, kindly unhand my ribbon."
"No, I don't think I shall." Before she could do more than put her hands on her hips (in preparation for giving him a good piece of her mind), he continued, "Consider it a hostage against your return visit."
"What return visit?" Come within a league of the crabby queen and her pea-infested castle knowingly and voluntarily? Not on her life, thank you very much.
He had the audacity to grin at her. "I guessed as much. But you do seem to be attached to the ribbon, so perhaps it will serve as a motive for you to return instead of as a memento of your visit."
If only Ettinsmore or Barrington's guides allowed princesses to slap!
"You look rather displeased."
That might be the understatement of the morning. "Would you feel pleased in my place?"
"Is it truly so awful to be invited to stay here a second time?"
She had to laugh. "Oh, no, a night on a swaying torture rack is just my cup of tea."
He looked distressed. "I apologize again for my mother's behaviour. Her actions, both last night and this morning, were inexcusable."
"She believes in your hierarchy, and I, as an outsider of both culture and social structure, am a threat. I do not like her reaction, but I do understand it." She gave him a direct look, "which was why I did not intend to return."
"Can I do nothing to change your mind?"
It went against the grain to give him a straight answer, but she had a feeling he would settle for nothing less. "Your Majesty, my sisters have not died, but in a very real sense I am the last of my family. Please, do not ask me to give up the advantage of being a moving target."
"Can I do nothing to help?" He had left the doorway to move closer.
She nodded. "Wave your hand, and say, ‘Goodbye, Tulip.'"
He looked so sad that she could almost forgive him for imprisoning her hands. "I shall never see you again, then?"
She gently pulled free. "I rather doubt it."
A discreet cough behind Alexander made them both turn. An apologetic servant said, "Is your Majesty not coming to Morning Audiences? Count Popinjay has been awaiting you for quite some time."
Giselle buried her face in a pillow to muffle her giggles; when she had recovered control enough to speak coherently, she asked, "Is that really his title?"
Alexander looked less amused. "Yes -- and it fits. What on earth does the man want now?"
The servant coughed. "I believe he is petitioning to change his family shield, Sire."
"He said something about wishing to have three unicorns argent rampant on a field azure."
The king rolled his eyes. "Only last month he was convinced it should be two griffons sable guardant on a field or, separated by a bend vert dexter, and the month before that it was a dragon crimson on a field ermine with a charge sable."
She couldn't help gaping. "Is he that ferocious a hunter? But three unicorns - how could he?"
The king snorted. "So far as I know, the only thing he has ever slain was a roast pork that was well braised."
She relaxed with a chuckle. "Well, then, your position is clear. If he hasn't either slain them or done something spectacular connected with them, he cannot add any of the fantastic beasts to his family crest. End of petition."
"Where did you learn that?"
She smiled. "You mean that isn't in Compleate Guide to Ye Royal Etiquette? I am ever more convinced of the superiority of Ettinsmore, even though that is more than half comprised of useless drivel."
"You could not, by any chance, happen to know the section or chapter in which that appears?" The king looked hopeful. "I might be able to get a few month's reprieve from his heraldic delusions of grandeur if I could cite that information in my decision."
"I haven't suffered through, excuse me, had any etiquette lessons in nigh on six years. I would presume it was in the section ‘On The Great Science of Heraldry and Pomp & Circumstance,' but I could hardly swear to it."
He shrugged. "Ah, well. One cannot have everything."
"No," she agreed, thinking of the ribbon he had confiscated. "One cannot."
"Your Majesty..." She had no doubt that if it were permissible, the servant would be tapping his toes to express his impatience with the king's inertia. As it was, the man sounded as if he were coming down with a cold with all of his throat-clearing.
"I suppose my duty calls." The king looked as if he might add something, but then he sighed. "After you, James."
Giselle managed to muffle her giggles at the sight of him throwing his cape train over one arm like a washerwoman carrying laundry (much to James' horror) until they had safely left the room. She stuffed the last of her belongings into the satchel, took a last look around, and left the room. In less than a half an hour, she was on her way down the road, with Chateau Reverie safely behind her.
Chapter Seven: In which our Hero does not see our Heroine
It had taken Alexander several weeks to plow far enough through Barrington's etiquette book without falling asleep, but he discovered that Tulip had been exactly right in her claims about heraldry, even if she had been basing her comments on a different source of information. He sighed as he reshelved the massive tome.
Everything now seemed to come back to Tulip. He had only seen her for a little more than a day, and in all likelihood would never see her again...yet it had been like gazing on the sun -- everywhere he looked, he saw little after-images of her. Perhaps it was for the best that she had left his life forever, for she could dazzle and burn as badly as the sun to which he had compared her. Still, she also caused him to grow in ways he could never have foreseen. Would she ever return?
Should he even hope she did?
He had all the beginnings of a good mope underway when the seneschal interrupted his musings. "Beg pardon for disturbing your Majesty, but where am I supposed to put the princess?"
"Princess? What princess?" She had returned?
The seneschal's explanation killed Alexander's eager leap from his chair before it began. "Princess Gemma of Adamant, your Majesty ... and her mother. Your mother informed me that you had invited the Adamantine royalty to visit."
"Mother may have invited them, but I jolly well did not." Melancholy had quickly surrendered to irritation. "Just house them in whichever vacant ambassadorial suite is furthest from my chambers."
"Well, that's the problem, sire, or part of it, anyway. Queen Catherine wanted them in the suite near her."
"In the family wing? That is the last place I want a visiting royal with an unmarried daughter -- just think of the impression it gives of one's intentions." He paused. "Unless Mother is planning on marrying Peter off, of course. In which case, put her there, and get the family betrothal ring out of wherever you store the crown jewels these days -- make sure it hasn't tarnished when you do."
From the uncomfortable silence on Lord Stuart's side, Alexander gathered that while Queen Catherine did want Gemma to start to think of herself as one of the family, she had planned to offer someone other than Peter on the altar of matrimony.
He sighed. "Having Peter taken off my hands was too much to hope for. All right -- put the guests in a nice, roomy and remote suite. Now, what was the other part of the problem?"
"Well, you see, sire, all the mattresses not currently needed by the current inhabitants got sort of ... borrowed." Lord Stuart shrugged apologetically. "I had hoped you could tell me when the Adamantines might be arriving, and whether or not I was permitted to retrieve the mattresses for their use."
Alexander let loose a wry chuckle, tempted for more than a minute to suggest that Gemma take Tulip's suite, and sleep under exactly the same conditions (one night atop that mountain would deter even the most determined husband-hunter, surely?). The temptation surrendered to the long habit of proper duty to one's guests...and the realization that Gemma was unlikely to be as talented at Tulip in coping with the unsteady swaying. If she fell and broke something, she would be in the castle for considerably longer than a short visit.
Realizing that the seneschal still patiently waited for an answer, Alexander replied, "By all means, do disassemble the mattress-mountain in Princess Tulip's chambers. I would advise a certain amount of caution, though; I was given to understand that the stack is not entirely steady."
"Very good, sire."
"Oh, Stuart?" Alexander called as the man began to turn away.
"Yes, your Majesty?"
"Where might I find my mother? I think I have a few things to discuss with her." In truth, he would fume and she would attempt to manipulate him into feeling guilty, but it seemed to be as close as they ever came to discussing anything.
Lord Stuart bowed. "I believe she is in the rose garden, your Majesty."
The king made a slight detour on his way to the gardens; the water-clock in the hallways had indicated it would not be long before Afternoon Audiences began, and it was easier to collect the detestably-heavy Official Cape in advance rather than having to sprint back to his rooms for it later. The side benefit to this was that he had to move slowly and regally enough that he would not have the ability to give in to any wish of shaking, throttling, or otherwise damaging his mother. ‘Royal Matricide' listed under ‘Noteworthy Events/Deeds' did not leave history with the best impression of one's reign.
Sure enough, he found his mother and several of her attendants gardening among the roses; more accurately, they bombarded the master gardener and his unfortunate assistants with constant and conflicting advice. Master Victor had grown sufficiently deaf over the years, and could calmly ignore the ladies with impunity, proceeding as he thought best. The assistants rushed hither and thither, trying to please both the court and their master and succeeding in pleasing neither.
"Well, Mother," Alexander said, stepping around a well-supervised assistant trying alternately to ‘not water too much' and ‘keep it good and damp, ye fool.' "I understand you've chosen to invite some guests to stay with us."
"My dear son," the queen began, in what he remembered from his youth as her ‘argue with me and all you'll get for dinner is spinach' tone, "surely you must remember that you asked me to invite Princess Gemma -- and her mother, of course, for propriety's sake -- to visit us in preparation for a certain other happy event."
Frankly, at the moment, she could order spinach for every meal for a year, and he would consider a small price to pay. "You must have me confused with Peter. The first I heard of this visit was when the seneschal consulted me regarding room arrangements."
By all rights, the look with which Queen Catherine graced him should have left scorch marks. "You have a duty to your crown and your family to marry a suitable princess and produce an heir."
"And just what renders a princess suitable?" He had heard his father's comments on the subject long ago and more recently plowed through that particular chapter of Compleate Guyde to Ye Royal Etiquette; no doubt his mother's ideas would prove the stuffiest of the three.
"I should think it quite obvious. A suitable princess is of the correct -- and verifiable -- pedigree, flawless in dress and face, properly behaved and respectful of her betters, and possessed of a good dowry."
Filtered through his mother's attitude, that meant a beautiful and vapid doll from one of the neighboring kingdoms who lacked the imagination to do anything other than she was told and whom Queen Catherine knew she could manipulate as she saw fit. That sort of princess usually carried a small lapdog of hefty girth but no great brains, although the argument could be made that the pet was smarter than its owner. Quite honestly, he preferred the walking dust-mops; one was permitted to pet them on the head at first acquaintance and then completely ignore them for all time.
"May I point out that your previous examples of suitable princesses have contained some very unadmirable traits?" He couldn't help a derisive snort.
She began to bluster, "They have all been most..."
He cut her off. "Let us not forget Patricia, or Petty as her mother called her, of Larceny, whose pockets constantly needed to be relieved of other people's belongings. She had a certified pedigree that reached beyond Adam and Eve, but she still nearly made off with the second-best silver. Then there was Lizzie of Borden, who spent the entire visit trying to sneak into her parents' suite with her jeweled axe...and have you forgotten -- what was her name? -- the one who constantly tried to fling herself in any body of water she could find? Ophelia?"
"I see no need to bring up a few unpleasant experiences among what has been, on the whole, a series of unexceptional young women." The queen sniffed.
"Unexceptional! Exactly my point: not one of your unending parade of princesses has had any characteristic which distinguished her from the others in a positive way. I am growing weary of always having to meet the same cookie-cutter figure. Had it ever occurred to you that I might be a bit more willing to do my ‘duty to my country' had you looked at pedigree a little less and personality a little more?"
She spluttered. "You cannot mean to tell me that some common hoyden who happens to catch your fancy would make a better queen than a lady who has been groomed for the post since birth! That twit with the flute calling herself a princess would have been a complete disaster, no matter what happened with her bed..."
Alexander counted to ten to prevent himself from the unroyal gesture of rolling his eyes heavenward. If he had heard his mother condemn Tulip once in the past month, he had heard a thousand lectures on her unsuitability and the ‘disgrace' such a marriage would have visited on the throne. He managed to control himself sufficiently to reply, "It seems a moot point to discuss Tulip's qualifications, Mother, when she has departed without any intention of returning. But can you really tell me that a lady who can quote obscure sections of Barrington's handbook is less qualified than Blanche of ResPolitica, who never once committed herself to anything definite in her entire three-week stay?"
That opened the floodgates. The indignant huff with which Queen Catherine began her diatribe was the last breath she took for a full ten minutes. As his mother's voice moved beyond ‘shrill' into the realm of ‘piercing,' Alexander cut her off. "Enough. You have already made your feelings abundantly clear. However, I believe I should point out a few things. Firstly, I am a man grown, not a small toddler who needs his every decision made for him. Secondly, a King outranks even a Queen Mother, so you should not rely on being able to countermand the staff and court behind my back, as you have done so often in the past. I would hate to incarcerate anyone for treason because they disobeyed my orders."
Queen Catherine stopped mid-syllable, looking rather as if someone had hit her in the face with a board. Clearly his mother had never expected that he would stand up to her so firmly.
"Now that I have your attention, mother, this is what is going to happen. I will not humiliate you by writing to the Adamantine royal family and canceling your invitation, so Gemma and her mother will come and visit." He held up a hand to forestall her commentary. "You, in turn, will not humiliate yourself by so much as hinting at a marital alliance between our countries, because I tell you now that unless Peter has agreed to sacrifice himself on the altar of patriotic duty, no such alliance is likely to be forthcoming."
"But you might decide you like the Princess," one of his mother's ladies interjected hopefully. Everyone knew Lady Elizabeth had been waiting -- thus far in vain -- for her cousin, Lord Elliot, to propose for more than a decade now, and she was always at the forefront of any bouquet-catching group at Court Weddings. She seemed to think that if she could just grab the flowers once it would push her reluctant would-be suitor into taking action.
Alexander raised an eyebrow. "Forgive me, Lady Elizabeth, if previous experience has made me dubious."
"Oh." She wilted.
All the women looked rather unhappy at that statement, but he would drink poison before he entered into marriage simply for marriage's sake. If they were so desperate for a wedding, let one of them be the sacrificial lamb.
He raised an eyebrow at his mother. "Are we agreed?"
Queen Catherine huffed. "It seems I have no choice."
"Good." He bowed, and, catching sight of the shadow on the sundial, left for Afternoon Audiences.
Princess Gemma, her mother, and their escort arrived a fortnight later. Watching the procession wind through the city and up the hill to the castle, Alexander decided she reminded him of a marionette: beautiful, but utterly lacking any spirit of her own. He saw no reason to change his judgment when the visitors reached the castle and she proclaimed her "joy" at arriving with as much emotion as a clerk reciting a legal statute. Actually he suspected, given the rote phrases and careful -- if toneless -- diction, that she was reciting a speech written up for her in advance. Nevertheless, aware of his mother hovering behind him, he moved forward to perform his duties as a host. "Queen Yenta, Princess Gemma, We are honored and pleased that you have accepted Our mother's invitation and are come to visit Us."
Not exactly true, but one could hardly ask company that had scarce arrived, "and when are you leaving?"
Clearly Queen Catherine had not caught his insincerity, because she beamed at him as if he had just behaved in a truly clever or praiseworthy manner. Moreover, a heard of galloping horses would not have drawn Peter's attention away from ogling the foreign ladies-in-waiting, so Alexander felt safe in guessing that his attitude (and his careful statement about it being his mother who had issued the invitation) had gone undetected.
Of course, angering King Rockwell by openly slighting his wife and daughter was just asking for a declaration of war, so Polite but Firm Indifference must be the order of the day. "Did you have a pleasant trip?"
"Yes, your Majesty."
"It was not too fatiguing?" Obviously not, as they had arrived; you could never depend on a good late spring blizzard when you needed one.
"No, your Majesty."
"Your chambers have been prepared -- my mother or the seneschal will escort you there if you wish to change out of your current attire."
If he thought those replies dull at the moment, he would find them infinitely more so before a week had passed. Gemma had, by his count, exactly five remarks in her repertoire (the other two being ‘good morning' and ‘good night'); anything that could not be answered by one of them received a long stare before she could formulate a reply. Attempting to discover her hobbies at dinner -- a far less hazardous proposition than turning to his left and receiving another dose of Queen Yenta's never-ending list of Gemma's perfections, where any attention was interpreted as keen interest - took longer than even talking to Princess Helen of Keller via her lady-in-waiting.
"Do you have any hobbies, Princess?"
She turned, tilting her head at just the angle she must have been told displayed it best. "Yes, your Majesty?"
"Such as...?" He trailed off, hoping to prompt her to say something.
He had counted all the candles in the Hall -- thrice -- before Gemma answered. "Embroidery, your Majesty."
He had pulled out teeth with more ease. "Decorating furnishings like tapestries or pillows, or adorning clothing?"
"Yes, your Majesty." She smiled.
He had not realized that ‘yes' was an acceptable answer to an either-or query. Moreover, she lacked that twinkling gaze that implied deliberate obtuseness which had marked Tulip's evasive replies. He'd even prefer Maude Elle's endless fashion lecture to this vacant stare.
Unfortunately for him, his last question had caught his would-be mother-in-law's ear. "My darling Gemma is such a talented needlewoman. Just look at the fancywork on my cuffs!" The wrists thrust at him would have knocked him sideways had he not jerked backward to avoid them. "Real silver and gold threads and so intricate a pattern! I always say there is no one to match her for either design or execution of embroidery...."
"Very nice," he muttered.
"She has been working on designs for her wedding gown, you know."
Help! Alexander wasn't quite sure how he managed to dredge a disinterested reply out of his panic, but nevertheless found himself saying, "Oh? Am I to offer my congratulations?"
Queen Yenta blinked before recovering with a laugh. "Oh, you mustn't be so silly. Of course nothing is official yet, but you cannot blame my dearest girl for being a bit eager, can you? After all, you make such a handsome couple ... and it does take time to make a wedding gown and do all the embroidery both for her clothes and yours. Such tiny stitches as she takes! And you know what they say: the patience and dedication needed for needlework are the same traits that make a good mother..."
Could the floor please open and swallow him now?
Chapter Eight: In which our Heroine receives an Unwanted Offer
Giselle carefully packed away her flute before upturning the hat which contained her share of the coins earned that day. Silver glinted here and there among the healthy pile of copper; another faire like this one, and she would be able to travel home directly after her birthday. Perhaps it was time to pay another discreet visit to the gemsmith. A semiprecious jewel could be sewn inside one's hem without being noticed, but a too-heavy purse drew pickpockets like honeysuckle draws bees.
Oh, yes, that was her name this week. Giselle turned, sweeping the coins into the hat once more, and dropping the hat inside her satchel. Robin stood just inside the tent flap with a rather odd expression on her face. Giselle laughed, "Robin, if I didn't know better, I would think you had swallowed a worm and it was digesting peculiarly."
"Well..." a few more spasms crossed the other girl's face. "There's someone outside who wants to see you."
She hadn't done anything against the law, or even been near anything of questionable legality, so it was not likely to be a constable. An elf or a fairy would not wait for permission to enter any more than would a criminal. Her family had enough to worry about in coping with the fates of her sisters, not to mention that they were hundreds of miles to the north. None of the other royal families she had encountered knew either her real name or her current alias, so she doubted that any rejected suitors had succeeded in finding her. Having eliminated the more dangerous or difficult possibilities, it seemed she had nothing to lose in asking, "Who?"
Robin shook her head and poked a thumb over her shoulder. "You had better see for yourself."
Had she been as melodramatic at fifteen? Probably, Giselle conceded to herself, but the intervening five-and-a-half years made her feel quite old and worldly-wise when compared with the young lutist.
Still, debating the point would only frustrate both of them. "Thank you, Robin," Giselle said and went outside.
One look and she nearly doubled back into the tent. Part of her desperately wanted to scream ‘not again' but another part argued that she must have known it would come, and really, what would it hurt? She had intended to move on in a few days anyway, and this would simply provide incentive to depart a little sooner. There was, of course, always the chance that she had jumped to the wrong conclusion, but she suspected that phoenixes had a better chance of catching frostbite.
Forcing a smile on her face, she looked up at the earnest young man in a burn-stained leather apron, and prayed he had a reasonable temper. Bad enough that working with all that iron gave them muscles like a draft horse, but did all blacksmiths have to be such tall men, too? It gave one the feeling of talking to a small mountain, not at all reassuring when one considered the usual course of these conversations. Best just to get the ordeal out of the way. "Good afternoon. I was told you wanted to see me?"
Maybe she would get lucky, and he had ‘hidden' musical ambitions, or one of the other musicians had made use of his services -- though Heaven knew for what -- and had neglected to pay him. Maybe...
"Oh, beautiful Melody, you came!"
He thrust a straggly bouquet of flowers at her; the wilted stems gave mute testimony that the blooms had borne the brunt of his nerves. "These are for you."
She accepted with the same enthusiasm she would feel in accepting a snake, privately resolving to discreetly dispose of the pitiful wreckage as soon as possible. The poor flowers had already suffered enough abuse. "Thank you."
"You cannot doubt why I am here. My attentions have been too marked to be mistaken."
Blast and double blast. Although, she personally wondered when staring at a singer for two or three songs had come to be ‘marked attention.' In that case, some of the smallest children should have been married to her by the end of the first day. Perhaps she had better revert to the ‘vapid female' persona; she blinked, opening her eyes to make them as wide and empty as possible. "I fear I do not understand you."
"My darling, I am begging that you do me the honor of allowing me to marry you."
Yes, it was definitely time to leave town. Every guildsman's daughter and wife would be up in arms that an itinerant hussy had been chosen over a respectable (i.e., local) girl, whether or not the daughter or wife in question would consider the blacksmith an acceptable suitor. Town dignity would be further offended by her refusal -- effectively a double snub. She tried a gentle hint first. "Sir, I barely know you."
"You would grow to know me." He sounded almost pleading.
Did they all have to have such puppy eyes?
"And you deserve so much better than life as a vagabond..."
If he knew just how far above vagabond she had been born, he would have fainted, Giselle felt certain. Poor fellow; here he was, pouring his heart out in youthful infatuation while she, having encountered almost the same proposal nearly a dozen times before, was simply waiting for him to run out of steam. Ah well, at least her experiences had made it possible for her to react -- even if only outwardly -- with grace and calmness instead of the shocked horror with which she had blurted out "oh heavens, no!" to her first suitor. Now she could gently suggest, "Not all of us were born to put down roots."
"You don't have to become a gardener," he assured her hurriedly.
She fought the temptation to whack her forehead with her palm.
"...We can easily buy our vegetables or get them in trade for my services," the blacksmith continued. "Dearest, I want to rescue you from a life of unending toil, not consign you to hard labor."
Giselle elected to keep her thoughts on childbirth to herself.
"You're so beautiful..."
For which she blamed the fairies, thank you.
The man had clearly only seen her during performances, and never when she was bargaining for a purchase.
"Your voice is like an angel's."
No, that was her sister.
He floundered on for another few moments, comparing her with the sun, moon, and stars before she stopped herself from reacting with silent sarcasm. He did mean well, and it was only fair to speak up and gently-but-firmly reject him as soon as possible. He should not have to cringe in humiliation every time he remembered the incident in years to come, and nothing, she thought to herself with the ancient wisdom of nearly twenty-one years, embarrassed one more than one's own adolescent emotional excesses.
She coughed in the middle of his panegyric (if she didn't cut him off before he switched from flowers of the field to woodland animals, she ran the risk of him mistaking her silence for assent). He didn't hear her, and so she repeated the process with a slightly more violent cough.
"...swan's grace." He trailed off. "Melody? Are you ill?"
"No, but thank you for asking. Look, er ... what is your name?"
John Smith. How much blander could one get? "Sorry. Please do not think me insensible of the honor you are trying to bestow on me, but I simply cannot marry you."
"Is it me?"
She almost patted his head, pathetic and grammatically incorrect as he was. "No."
"I have a family curse hanging over my head." When she saw him open his mouth, perhaps to volunteer to break it, she decided to stretch the truth a little, "and a bridegroom waiting at home for me when I do."
Now that she considered it, it might not be all that much of a lie. The Phantasean tradition was that all its princesses were eligible to be courted upon their sixteenth birthdays, betrothed on their seventeenth, and usually married by their eighteenth (Effie and Odette's weddings had been moved up in a failed attempt to avoid the curse of the current generation, but had merely triggered it early). She had assumed that the scandal of having spent over five years wandering the world on her own would render her unsuitable as a bride, but perhaps the advantages of a Phantasean alliance had outweighed the risk of scandal in the mind of some neighboring royal family. Goodness knew her father had no other spare daughters -- if any of her sisters had been rescued by the princes Giselle sent to aid them, they had probably married the rescuer as a result.
"Oh." How did any man that big manage to look like a wilted plant?
"It was very sweet of you to offer. Now, please do excuse me. I must pack and move along before the moon rises."
She had rather stretched the truth again with her last statement, but it sounded portentous enough to prevent him from attempting to dissuade her. The ploy worked: he drooped further, but made no move to stop her as she returned to the tent.
Robin was waiting. "Well?"
Giselle handed her the mangled bouquet. "Would you be so kind as to give these poor things a decent burial?"
"You're not going to keep them?" She might as well have said she murdered baby sparrows for fun; Robin looked absolutely aghast.
"What would I want with flowers that look as if they have attended their own funeral? As for keeping them, I prefer to have my hands unencumbered when I travel."
"Travel. It's what happens when you step on a road and keep putting one foot in front of the other."
"B-b-b-b-but he proposed!"
Giselle nodded calmly. "And I refused."
As slowly and clearly as possible, Giselle replied, "It means I said no." Really, if Robin were any slower today, she would be going backwards. "It's the traditional alternative to ‘yes' when you do not want to marry the man who asks you."
"You don't want to marry him? Whyever not?"
It probably wouldn't be polite to say that if she did, one of them would be dead within the year -- either he would die of shock or she would perish of boredom. Forgoing stretching the truth in favor of outright fabrication, she fell back on her favorite lie. It had enough melodrama in it to satisfy even Robin's need for emotional excess. "After one has had one's heart broken by an elven bard, no mere mortal can mend it."
As she anticipated, the comment successfully sidetracked the younger musician. Robin's eyes went soft (and, in Giselle's opinion, just a bit vacant), and she uttered a profound sigh, her hands clasped over her heart. "Oh, Melody, an elven bard? Truly?"
"Would I lie to you?"
Someone swifter than Robin would have picked up on that classic giveaway, but as she had supposed, it went right over Robin's head. "Oh, do tell!"
She shrugged. "There is very little to tell."
Robin let out an exasperated sigh. "Melody! You have no sense of romance at all. What was he like?"
If only Giselle could land fish as successfully as she could land people; she had Robin right where she wanted her -- completely distracted from earlier events. She gave a second equally "careless" shrug. "Oh, just what you would expect of someone who was both bard and elf: tall, slim, debonair, eyes that smoldered, and a voice that would make you think jumping off a cliff was a marvelous idea."
"Oooooh. And of course you fell madly in love."
Really, the girl was better than she at inventing such fiddle-faddle ... clearly she had practiced too many ballads and not enough comic satires. For the moment, though, Giselle would play along. "Would you have been able to resist the advances of someone like that? Especially if you had only recently left home?"
Robin gave a happy little sigh. "He could have pursued anyone and he chose you."
Giselle nearly foiled herself. "I certainly did not pursue him."
"My dear child, please credit me with a little sense. The first time I ever saw him, he had three women," three fairies, truth be told, although the truth wasn't what Robin would want to be told, "all as lovely as flowers, hanging about him, vying for his attention." She chuckled. "And then I attracted the attention of the entire room because a drunken porter lurched into the ladder I was perched upon, sending me flying."
"And he caught you, and was smitten."
Well, he had caught her, and then she had caught sight of those ears and done the fastest vanishing trick of her entire career; she had last seen him beguiling the barmaid...poor girl. Aloud, she agreed, "Yes."
"But it didn't last."
"No, it did not. Elves are notoriously fickle, you know. A few towns later, another pretty face caught his eye."
Robin looked stricken. "He can't have just left you?"
"Personally, between getting the ‘Fair though you are, you are no longer fairest of all to me' note on my pillow, where I could have a good cry in private, and a humiliating public dismissal, I think just leaving me was the kinder option, don't you?"
The younger girl sniffled, and nodded. "But you still love him."
If it would get her out of here any faster, she would agree to the sun rising in the west. "But of course."
"Oh, that's so romantic..."
Giselle gave her a few minutes to revel in drama before nudging her. "Now, please scoot. I need to pack my bags."
Robin obediently drifted from the tent, stars in her eyes and humming one of the soppier romantic ballads. Giselle only just managed to wait until the girl would be safely out of earshot before collapsing on her blanket in a fit of laughter; the last half-hour had been too absurd for words.
As she packed her bag, she mentally reviewed her maps of the region. The two roads out of town led north and south. For years she had zigzagged southward from home, which should have led her to take the southbound route, safely away from those who might have recognized her or the Fae looking to enforce her christening curse, whatever it might be. On the other hand, it looked to be more than a week's journey to the next village, and the very name "Banshee Woods" made her uneasy about the idea of traveling through the region. Names like that usually came about for a (nasty) reason.
Going north, on the other hand ... she undid the work of the last few minutes and spread wide her newest cartographic scrolls. Not far out of town, the road diverged, running northwesterly toward Sylvania, and east-north-easterly toward Alexander. Er, Magnificat. (Drat the ribbon-thieving man, anyway.) Northwest started out as the more direct route, but it required more zigzagging when she got closer to home. Worse, still, it meant going almost the entire length of Porgy, while the route going north from Al-Magnificat only cut through a tiny corner of that kingdom. Then again, did she trust the ribbon thief not to have alerted his soldiers to find her?
Well, that problem would keep until she reached the crossroads. For now, it would serve to know that she could find villages (and thereby avoid foraging for her food) to the north, and would also, in all likelihood, avoid any worse menace than will-o-the-wisps and pixies. She rolled her scrolls back up and stuffed them into her satchel.
On her way out of the fair, she made a point of finding Andrew's busking spot rather than Robin's; he would realize that the coins she held up and dropped in the hat should go toward paying the cost of the tent and he had a sufficient level of intelligence not to stop during his set and ask why she was leaving. She looked back and waved in salute when he chose to acknowledge her by segueing into "Farewell, Fairest."
Her cheerful mood lasted through the evening at a tiny farm and still lingered when she reached the crossroads between Magnificat and Sylvania the next noon. Gazing up at the three-way signpost, she debated her options once more, unable to decide. After all, nearly every city and village hosted a Midsummer Faire. Northeast and northwest both had their own particular hazards, as well as the shared hazard of being closer to home instead of new territory. She closed her eyes and spun.
Chapter Nine: In which a Poem explains much
All the world attended Midsummer Faire.
Well, Alexander amended to himself truthfully, everyone attended their nearest midsummer faire, but the crush of people always made it seem as if the whole world came. The expectation of his presence and the huge crowds had provided a convenient method of escaping his guests for a while. Better still, it lasted for nigh onto a week, which meant he still had three more days of relatively Adamantine-free existence. He found he could tolerate Gemma's vapidity and her mother's unsubtle hints far better on days when he knew he would not have to see them again until the next evening.
"...and so Captain Miles told the king, ‘Give me the eldest, for I am no longer young.'"
Alexander stopped dead in his tracks. He would know that voice in a thunderstorm (he conveniently ignored the minor detail that he had heard it first in a thunderstorm). He craned his neck, trying to find the source of the voice. Could he be dreaming, or was she actually here?
"The king - and Princess Anna - agreed, and they were married the next day in the great cathedral, while all the citizens of Pavlova cheered."
There! Between two of the food stalls, only just visible for the men and women who had stopped to listen, Tulip stood, her eyes alight as she finished her tale. A moment later her head suddenly vanished, and he would have feared that she had seen him and fled, had he not heard her say to someone, "Now, what do you think comes next?"
A young voice ventured, "And they all lived happily ever after?"
"Exactly." She straightened up with a smile. "Well, except on the days that the cooks served spinach for dinner. And thus ends the tale of the Dancing Princesses, ladies and gentlemen. What tale or song would anyone like to hear now?"
He knew he should not do it, but even so, he heard himself pitch his voice to carry over the crowd. "Perhaps the ‘Ballad of Lady Spearmint?'"
His eyes and ears were on Tulip and he paid far more attention to her sudden wince and hiss of shock than to the murmurs and stares of his subjects as they recognized him. She recovered quickly, however, and dryly inquired, "Rather a serious ballad for such a festive occasion, is it not?"
He bowed in acknowledgement of the point as he threaded his way to the forefront of the audience. "I yield to superior knowledge." He reached inside his tunic and handed over her ribbon. "In appreciation of a tale well told."
One of the children sitting on the ground looked up at him indignantly. "A ribbon? Everyone knows you put a penny in the singer's hat if you liked the song."
A woman hissed, "Michael!" in tones of mortification, presumably the child's mother or elder sister, but Alexander only chuckled. "Ah, my mistake again."
He dropped a handful of coins into the hat at Tulip's feet and tried to settle unobtrusively off to the side to listen, but his presence clearly had an adverse effect. After stealing nervous glances his way, the audience slipped off in ones and twos until only he and the bread merchants remained. He more than half expected a scolding, but what he received was a chuckle. "Are you always this bad for business, your Majesty?"
He shrugged. "Not usually, but then I usually try not to say or do anything to draw attention to myself."
Her eyebrows arched, but she seemed to content herself with a quiet "lucky me" as she stored her instrument back in her satchel.
"You are done for the day?"
She laughed outright. "Normally I would continue for as long as my voice or wind held up, but it seems to me an exercise in futility to continue performing when one lacks an audience."
He knew he should continue on his way and let her resume her minstrel persona, but he found himself asking, "Would you like to wander the faire with me?"
She looked at him for a long moment and he had almost resigned himself to her rejection when she gave a slight shrug and gingerly laid her hand on his proffered forearm. "You do realize, of course, that if we meet your guests and there is a royal fuss, I shall have no compunction in abandoning you and vanishing like last night's dreams?"
Alexander refrained from mentioning that the person of whom he had dreamt the previous night had actually manifested rather than vanishing; she found enough reasons to leave on her own, without him adding another to the list. He then processed the rest of her comment. "So you know about the Adamantine invasion?"
She threw back her head and laughed. "Fie, Majesty! Such an unchivalrous description of the ladies' visit does not speak well of your gallantry."
He raised an eyebrow. "And you what title would you give to a set of houseguests who apparently have arrived for a never-ending stay?"
"Leeches." She grinned, "But I am, firstly, not their host, secondly, of their sex, and, thirdly, far more blunt than a proper royal after spending a quarter of my life among the peasantry."
How did she always end up getting the last word? And why did that amuse him?
He reverted back to his earlier query. "But you had heard about my mother's guests."
She smiled. "Of course. The doings of the nobility make excellent conversational fodder for the lower classes. One of the taverns even has a betting pool on your odds of escaping the matrimonial noose."
Her glance was suspicious. "Why do you want to know?"
"It might be worth placing a bet of my own."
She laughed so hard she had to lean on his shoulder (he repressed the temptation to take advantage of his position by sneaking his arm around her waist). "You can't be a bettor, silly," she gasped between bursts, "you are already the bet."
"Blast." He sighed theatrically. "And here I had hoped that I might be able to get some use out of the woman's interminable visit."
She sobered a little. "Has it really been that bad?"
"Even when you played the vapid fool at dinner, you showed more sense than Gemma has displayed in her entire visit. I have to admit, though, that I wouldn't find her half so bothersome if her mother hadn't apparently decided to marry her off to anyone kingly, wealthy and in the same room. To wit, me."
She rolled her eyes. "One of those. Well, at least she hasn't locked you into a tower while she arranges the wedding, but it is probably more difficult when the would-be prisoner is actually your host." She rubbed at her shoulder absently.
"I gather you speak from experience."
"One of the early years, before I learned a few things about staying hidden and, more importantly, escaping. As a side note, do not ever make a rope out of satin sheets. Even if it means hitting the guard over the head with a fire-iron, find a different way out of the room."
Alexander remembered something. "That story you were telling when I found you -- I gather it originates near the coast?"
She tilted her head, but he caught the wary look in her eyes. "What makes you say that?"
He shrugged as casually as he could. "Oh, simply that I don't recall ever hearing it before now."
She smiled. "Well, that's the sign of a good minstrel. We not only spread stories beyond their home area, but we can make our retelling unique enough to seem almost a new story, even if the audience has heard it a dozen times previously."
"Of course, a new and novel tale garners more interest and better pay than an old one, no matter how well told, making it an advantage to be as well-traveled as you."
She inclined her head with mock-dignity. Really, talking to Tulip reminded him of holding a gem up to the light: you never quite knew which facet would flash next, but that very unpredictability lent to its fascination.
"And so you broaden our narrow mountain horizons by importing a tale from the northern shore."
"Why, your Majesty," she remarked, "I'm surprised at you. Didn't you know that ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses' originated right here in your own realm?"
"Somehow, I doubt that."
The twinkle in her eyes belied her angelic expression. "Would I lie to you?"
He couldn't help laughing. "In a heartbeat, Tulip."
He half-expected her to be offended, but her laughter came as readily as his. "I might have known you would catch me. You really are too intelligent, you know."
"I would say that you are criticizing me with such a remark, yet I have the suspicion that you have even less use for fools."
She bobbled her head in a so-so gesture. "It depends on the context. Village idiots can be vastly amusing, especially when you know that they will not be offended or pained long by anything that happens around them." She giggled. "One followed me around for a whole day, constantly begging me to marry him, but the very next morning he was absolutely convinced that I was his sister, whom he apparently disliked immensely."
He chuckled. "Alas for romance."
"As you can imagine, I was absolutely crushed."
Alexander had paid little attention to his surroundings, but a sudden arm-numbing clench on his forearm made him look at his companion. Tulip had frozen in place, staring at the musician a few feet away; he would have sworn previously that someone as snow-white as she could not be any paler, but she had somehow managed the impossible. The bard seemed harmless enough; a bit of a dandy, to be sure, with his longish hair and fancy clothing, but certainly no monster to inspire such instant terror.
"Oh, no, not good, not good," Tulip was whispering under her breath.
"What's not good?"
She didn't answer. Alexander looked over at the musician again, just in time to see that man notice them. An intent stare flashed across his face, quickly replaced by an almost calculating gleam in his eye. He stopped his current song almost mid-verse, much to the disappointment of his audience, and the king had the feeling that the man's next words were some sort of challenge as he announced that his next song would be ‘The Lay of the Lost Princesses.' The title meant nothing to him, but the grip on his arm increased to the point of near-bruising.
Listen, my friend, and I'll sing to thee
Of seven princesses by the sea...
Ne'er hast seen maidens so gay and fair,
Yet it saved them not from danger's snare.
in enchantment without a key,
Those seven fair sisters by the sea;
Oh, what brave hero shall set them free,
The seven princesses by the sea?
Wheels in Alexander's mind began to turn. Tulip herself admitted she came from "where the land met the sea" and she had started to say ‘sev-' when referring to her place in the family order. Could it possibly be...?
Aurora, eldest, fair as the dawn,
Armide, her twin, whose eyes like stars shone,
Coppelia, who, child-like, knew not Wrong,
Dulcinea, blest with th'angel's song.
Alexander ignored the next chorus. So far, he had a perfect match for one sister in both name and christening gift. Tulip's sister Aurora glowed pink ‘like the dawn.' The other three were unfamiliar, but there were three more yet to come...
Effie, graceful as the birches tall,
Odette, from whose lips wisdom pearls fall,
Lastly, Giselle with her skin like snow,
Fairest and gayest, as e'er 'twill go.
Two more name matches among the sisters, and the youngest -- the seventh had skin like snow. It seemed he might have found the answers to "Tulip's" past. What could have sent her fleeing so far from home? Perhaps this song could tell him that, too. He listened intently to the rest of the verses.
The prick of a spindle -- 'twas not deep --
Bound Aurora in a dreamless sleep.
Armide, when a wizard she had denied,
Found herself trapped within a hind's hide.
in enchantment without a key,
Those seven fair sisters by the sea;
Oh, what brave hero shall set them free,
The seven princesses by the sea?
wept in her keep apart,
Held by a katschei without a heart.
Dulcinea, though hid in the wood,
A poisoned apple had not withstood.
He frowned at the last: Tulip had specifically stated that none of her sisters were dead. A poisoned sister shot his theory regarding her identity all to rags. Unless, the thought suddenly occurred to him, their court magician was somehow preserving the girl with magic while the family sought an antidote. Tulip believed in magic with amazing fervor -- perhaps from experience?
Effie, the morn of her wedding day,
A dragon did catch and steal away;
Odette, likewise on her bridal dawn,
Th'evil mage transfigured to a swan.
That accounted for all six of the older sisters, leaving the youngest as the eldest. Unless, of course, his theory was wrong, and the seventh princess had met a similar fate. If the princess with skin like snow was mewed up in a glass coffin somewhere, he was back to the beginning in his hunt for Tulip's past.
And young Giselle, that princess most fair?
She vanishéd, people knew not where...
In his castle o'erlooking the wave,
The king sought heroes his heirs to save.
A-ha! Alexander ignored the final chorus and applause. No wonder Tul-, Giselle he corrected himself sternly, had said she was the last of her family: one in enchanted sleep, two magically captive, another two turned to animals, and one poisoned. He, too, would have fled to stay alive in her place. It sounded too fantastic to be real, but he had felt her snow-cold skin, and seen the panic in her eyes as she accused him of learning too much of her past.
He turned to his left, not quite sure of what he intended to say, only to find himself alone. Giselle had fled.
Chapter Ten: In which our Heroine is Lost and Found
Stupid, stupid, stupid! Giselle chastised herself as she walked as swiftly as she dared through the Faire. Banshees or no banshees, she would have been far safer in unknown territory until the crucial birthday had passed.
She had nearly fainted dead away when she and the king had rounded the corner only to behold Songwynde. No elf could be considered good news to her, but she was coming to consider this particular elf as her personal albatross. Worse still, he had clearly recognized her. It had taken every ounce of will not to bolt like a startled hare at the first notes of that wretched song; only the knowledge that fleeing would attract attention had allowed her to pry her fingers slowly off Alexander's arm and ease off into the crowd.
Alexander: he was her other problem. She had said more than she ought about her past, and she had no doubt that he would soon deduce the truth, if he had not done so already. Unfortunately, the man also had an army at his command, so she rather doubted she would be able to simply walk out of the faire.
Right; the time had come to stop panicking and start planning. Assuming the worst, she would have to go past guards looking for a pretty female musician attempting to sneak out of the faire; therefore, she required a disguise that allowed her to go out boldly under their noses. Pity that she lacked the courage to give herself a black eye: people tended to see the blemish and ignore the face beneath. A kerchief or a cap could cover her hair...a cap. Oh, of course!
She backtracked to the nearest wagon and ran her fingers along the hitch to collect some grease. A couple of "accidental" smears on her face and apron, along with using her handkerchief as a head covering, would make her appear to the casual observer as a scullery maid either enjoying a day off or running an errand. That should protect her for the moment. Now, for the real disguise.
A spirited bargaining session among the clothing stalls left her the new owner of a pair of trousers and a rather bedraggled cap. The trousers were actually probably a little short in the leg, and the merchant had been too irked by her price to offer anything more than a rope for a belt, but that might be all to the good. The cap, seemingly the veteran of a lifetime of brawls and other abuse, pleased her even more. Her facial features undoubtedly would fail a close inspection, but if she timed her exit right, no one would gaze too closely at one boy among a whole group of rowdy lads. Dusk, with its failing light and the need for most lads to return home before supper, would be absolutely ideal. Gazing thoughtfully upward, she noticed that she only had a couple of hours -- three at most -- in which to prepare. Carefully and quickly, she retreated to the most secluded corner of the faire she could remember -- a tiny space between three tents, and set to work.
Just after dusk, a greasy-haired lad whose trousers and sleeves both looked a trifle short slipped quietly into a pack of seven or eight boys making their way home and tossing a wooden ball back and forth. The guards, now posted at the major exits, barely spared a wave for the group although any woman old enough to have outgrown her pigtails was being rigorously questioned. Not even the heavy sack on the back of the one boy (preventing him alone from joining the game of pitch and toss) aroused any interest, though none of "his" comrades carried anything more than the usual Midsummer trifles. As soon as a peddler's cart hid them from view of the faire, the latecomer left the group by the simple expedient of stopping to tie a boot and then heading off in a different direction.
Another half-hour saw the same figure at the forest's edge, beyond the outskirts of town. It left the road at the first stream, following the water upriver until coming to a briar thicket. After studying the barrier for several moments, the youth took an eating knife from his belt and poked the foremost brambles. Nothing happened.
Giselle flung off the cap with a relieved sigh, and knelt by the stream to wash the grease from her face and hair. If the thicket had no reaction to cold iron, she could be reasonably certain that it was not protecting a fairy enclave. She had avoided every clearing and toadstool ring to avoid elf detection, and as tempting as crawling into the deepest cave felt, she feared finding dwarves there to meet her. A bramble thicket might be uncomfortable, but if her sisters' fates served as any indication, whatever the fairies had in store for her would be far worse.
When she had scrubbed to her satisfaction she set about creating a campsite for herself, concealed as deeply as she dared venture within the briars. Only then did she take her knife and slit the hurried seam with which she had turned her two aprons into a sack holding her other belongings. She rather lacked spare provender, but her woodcraft was insufficient to be able to gather more than berries, and she certainly did not intend to risk detection by venturing back into town before her birthday had passed. A couple of days' fasting would not kill her.
The couple of days passed rather uneventfully. She rather feared a passing rider had spotted her at one point when she had crawled out for a drink, but she had rolled quickly back into hiding and he had not reappeared for a closer look. With any luck he had shrugged it off as a mirage. Dusk on her twenty-first birthday -- only a few more hours until midnight and safety. Who would have thought she could have made it so far? She slipped clear for a last drink before sleeping off the last few hours of curseable existence. She had heard a hunter pass through earlier, but his footsteps had long since faded away, so she felt safe in lingering by the stream to scrub the grime from her face and hands.
She froze, trying to evaluate if she merely in trouble or desperately in Trouble. That had come from a mortal throat, presumably King Alexander's; merely in trouble, then. She reluctantly turned to see him sitting on a nearby boulder. "So you know."
"It would have been impossible to miss that something had disturbed you; I have known bear traps with looser grasps. And when I realized you had slipped away, I was sure of it. After all, no minstrel could be that frightening."
She couldn't help herself. "Songwynde is an elf," she all but hissed. "Do you think I want to see an elf, particularly one who knows my identity?"
His mouth hung open for a minute. "Songwynde? The object of your brief romance? The elf who took up with the bar-maid?"
"Yes, no, yes, in that order." Blast the man! She wanted nothing but to be left alone until after midnight -- why must he sit there chattering at her? She sighed; obviously she would have to find another sanctuary, because if the king had found her, she doubted the elves would lag far behind. Remaining here was tantamount to requesting to be cursed. A hole in the ground sounded more appealing by the minute, despite the dirtiness and risk of gnomes or dwarves. Reaching into the briars to retrieve her belongings, she asked, "You could not have stayed away another half a day, could you?"
"Half a day? Your curse is tied into the phases of the moon, then?"
She succeeded in pulling everything free, but the satchel came out upside down and spilled its contents, so she sat on her heels to repack her bag. She shrugged at the question. "I do not know ... but with a little luck, which I obviously lack at present, in a few hours it would cease to matter forever."
"Was today to be your wedding day?"
She laughed. "No, although I cannot fault your conclusion, given the scanty evidence. That abominable poem makes no mention of the other common factor among my sisters. Well, except Odette. Moving up the wedding by a week merely caused the curse to take hold early." Anxiety made her hands unsteady and she kept snagging the scrolls she was attempting to place in the satchel.
He came over and held the satchel open for her. "So why would you be safer in a few hours than you are now?"
"Midnight will have passed."
"I never knew that curses had a time limit." The man never gave up; he merely changed tack.
"When it became obvious that the curses were an epidemic rather than isolated events for my eldest sisters, my father naturally set all his scholars to researching such things. Apparently most curses are set off by Events -- christenings, weddings, birthdays, and the like -- although insulting a supernatural being is also a poor choice. However, in all their research, they could not find a single princess who had been stricken after passing her twenty-first birthday."
"Happy birthday." Sometimes, the speed of his comprehension frightened her.
On the topic of being entirely too intelligent, that raised another excellent point. "May I ask how you found me?"
"Luck, I think. Do you remember the hunt that passed near here yesterday?" At her nod, he continued, "One of the nobles in that party happened to comment at dinner last night that for a moment, he thought he had seen the most beautiful wood nymph in the world."
She couldn't help rolling her eyes.
He chuckled as he closed the packed satchel and returned it to her. "No, you value your beauty very little, I know. However, barring the words ‘wood nymph', it so closely aligned with my first impression of your appearance that I thought a ride into the woods might be in order. You really should be a little more careful of your hair-ribbons, Princess. Finding this in the branches near the brook told me I had guessed correctly."
Giselle blinked as he placed the colorful band in her palm. Flipping her braid over her shoulder, she discovered that the bottom had indeed lost its binding and begun to unravel. Fixing her hair gave her hands something to do other than twist her bag's shoulder strap.
"What will you do now?"
She tied the ribbon as tightly has her hands could manage. "Attempt and pray to stay undiscovered until midnight."
"Go home, I suppose." She had never actually thought beyond her twenty-first birthday; truth to tell, she had never expected to see it. "However, in order to do so, I must first survive the next few hours." She got to her feet and settled her bag on her shoulder. "Once again, you have been most kind and obliging" (not entirely true, but nevertheless polite to say) "and I wish you all imaginable good fortune."
"You are going?" He jumped to his feet.
"What would you have me do? Wait here, when I know this location has been discovered once already? Perhaps mountain princesses are such weak creatures, but I have no intention of going like a lamb to the slaughter."
"You would hardly be yourself if you did." How and when had the man managed to imprison her hand in the crook of his elbow? Moreover, he seemed quite unaware of her discreet and not-so-discreet attempts to pull free, although perhaps the hand which settled atop hers indicated he was not so much inobservant as determined. "I have a suggestion, if you would care to hear it."
She raised an eyebrow.
"Had you considered hiding in plain sight?" He rushed on rather quickly. "The marriage brigade has organized a ball for tonight - yet another attempt to maneuver me into an engagement -- and you would be just one among dozens of young women present, safely anonymous."
"In this?" Was the man blind?
He waved the concern away. "I think something can be arranged about your attire. Besides, I need an ally in the ballroom, even if only I know you are there; otherwise I might do something truly drastic. I doubt it would reflect well on either my family or my guests if I ended up climbing the tapestries to escape Queen Yenta."
She dug in her heels and forced them both to a complete halt. "No. Absolutely not. The only way I could be more conspicuous than as your living shield would be standing atop the tallest turret and having all the heralds in the kingdom announce my name with a trumpet fanfare. I will not leap from the frying pan into the fire."
He gripped both her shoulders. "Giselle, I swear on my life that I will not even speak to you if you do not desire me to do so. Moreover, if you feel threatened, I believe I know a place in the castle where you could retreat safely, somewhere not even an elf might expect to find you."
She let herself be led once more. "Where?"
He winked. "I will tell you once you agree to attend, but I think Barrington would approve."
She felt her mouth work for a minute or two before she succeeded in voicing a gasping laugh. "Your Majesty!" After a moment or two of near hysterical giggles, though, she had to concede, "I cannot fault your logic."
"Good. It is far less distressing when you vanish if I know where to find you."
Giselle could not think of a suitable retort, so she lapsed into silence until they came to a clearing where a horse was tethered to low bush. As the king untangled the reins, she slowly approached the animal's head and allowed it to sniff her, reaching up to gently rub its nose when it showed no signs of fright. She had missed the company of equines (as well as canines and felines) in her itinerant years; having a horse made one seem prosperous to be worth robbing, so she had traveled by foot to avoid bandits. She caught Alexander watching her with an amused smile and flushed as she realized she had been murmuring affectionate nonsense to the animal.
"You like horses, I see."
She nodded. "I think I missed having them about almost as much as I missed my family. Not quite, of course, but almost."
"Why did you do without them? I would have thought the transportation would have been very useful to a wandering bard."
"Indeed -- right up until a bandit ambushed me and left me penniless or dead. I left home with a horse, but I had only been gone from the castle a few days when I realized that having Shadowfax marked me as more prosperous, and hence more conspicuous, than the normal minstrel ... and nearly every merchant caravan in the inn was complaining about the robbers in the woods. I disliked doing so, but selling him to the wizard with the wardrobe confusion was probably the best decision I made that first week." She noticed he was smiling. "What is it?"
"Even two days ago, I had a difficult time prying the least tiny detail from you, and now you reply freely."
"Two days ago, that wretched elf had not yet given away my identity. With my name and those of my sisters, you could trace my origin on your own, so excessive secrecy is a wasted effort."
He led her around to the side of the horse and hoisted her up in front of the saddle.
"What are you doing?"
He swung up behind her. "Taking you back to the castle." He smirked, "This way I know you cannot have second thoughts and decide to abandon me. Besides, if you have not ridden for a while, it seemed unfair to expect you to adopt riding astride."
"I could have walked."
"While I rode? The laws of chivalry would never forgive me." He reached around her to grasp the reins with both hands. "Hi ho, Silver, away!"
She nearly burst into giggles when Silver set off at a sedate trot.
Giselle would never forget the look of absolute amazement on the faces of the guards when they arrived at the castle. No matter what Alexander had said about not drawing attention to her, she had a feeling that the story of the king arriving at the side gate with a maiden on his saddle bow would shortly be all over Chateau Reverie. She tried yet again to convince him to let her slip quietly into an empty room to hide, but the man was as unstoppable as an avalanche. She was still protesting when the king turned her over to Lady Ariel of Prospero, warned her that attempting to pull rank on the lady would get her nowhere as his royal command as the native king outranked hers as a visiting princess, and vanished in the direction of his own apartments to change.
Princes! Kings! No wonder they so often ended up as frogs.
©2006, 2007 Copyright held by the author.