Princesses, Peas, and Other ImPonderables

Chapter One: In which our Hero meets our (disguised) Heroine

It was a dark and stormy night. Rain made a steady stream off the brim of Alexander's hat and poured with unfailing aim into the gap of his collar and down his back. He cursed the day that he had conceived of having everyone share guard duty in order to teach responsibility to some of the wilder knights of the court. He seriously debated the merits of just leaving his post and getting some sleep. After all, no one in his right mind would venture out in such miserable weather, so standing guard on the castle gate was really an exercise in futility. Only the realization that all the irresponsible lads would seize upon his defection to excuse their own kept him from laying down his pike. Blast his sense of duty, anyway.

A barely audible sound made him pause in his 307th trip across the seven-pace wide gate. Had that really been...? No, surely he imagined it.

Wait! There it came again, barely audible over the thunderclaps: the sound of someone pounding on the other side of the wooden gate. Who, other than the mythical Wild Hunt, could possibly be abroad tonight?

He stepped over to the gate itself, reached through the portcullis, and opened the tiny shutter. "Who goes there?"

"A thoroughly soaked traveler, of course," came the exasperated reply. "Where might I find the nearest farmstead?"

The figure was quite thoroughly concealed under the sodden cloak, but the voice told Alexander volumes. "Why would a lady such as yourself be seeking lodgings among the peasants? Do come into the castle and make yourself comfortable."

The unknown woman drew back. "You don't have any unmarried princes living here, do you?"

The question startled him into momentarily forgetting the cold wet stream running down his spine. "Unmarried princes? Why would that matter?"

"Kindly answer ‘yes' or ‘no.' Do any unmarried princes live here?"

"No." After all, Peter really lived at Chateau En-L'air, and he himself was not a prince. "Won't you come inside?"

"If there aren't any unwed princes, I guess it should be safe enough," the lady commented, half to herself. "You are certain that the castle owner will not mind?"

"I rather doubt that you are an assassin or an evil fairy," he commented, "so I expect it will be fine. Wait just a moment whilst I have the portcullis raised."

It took him slightly longer than a minute to awaken two of the guardsmen and have them raise the metal grate, but when it had risen and he pushed open the wooden gate, the lady lost no time in hurrying into the courtyard. In order to avoid introductions for the moment, he had in advance delegated one of the guards to show her to a room, and he now waited impatiently for Gervaise to complete his task and report back.

As he paced, he noticed Leonard, the other guardsman, watching him quizzically. "What is it, man? I should have thought you would have gone directly back to your bunk."

"Pardon me, but why does Your Majesty not take advantage of shelter?"

"Did you not know that I was on sentry duty?"

"Yes, sire, but we always pace under the gate arch, where the stone roof affords some protection, instead of standing in the courtyard." The other man paused, as if aware he might have been impertinent. "Forgive me, Majesty. Good night."

He walked off and left Alexander feeling decidedly foolish (along with dripping wet). The arched entryway did indeed offer a short span of relatively dry ground, as well as shielding him from the full brunt of the winds. He took the opportunity to shake off his hat, recreasing the brim so that next time the water would pour off all sides equally. He had just replaced it on his head when Gervaise returned, chuckling to himself.

"Well, Gervaise, what can you tell me of our guest?"

The guard stifled a snicker. "Begging pardon, majesty, but she don't think any too highly of royalty. Musta asked me five times if she couldn't get directions to a farmstead 'stead of having to stay here."

"What else? Did she mention a name?"

"No, sire, she didn't. I said, ‘good night, milady,' and she said, ‘that title will do as well as any.'"

Alexander thanked the man and dismissed him. For the rest of his watch, he pondered the question of the cloaked visitor. Her accent, though slightly foreign, had the crisp sound of having been well educated. She had a distinct aversion to unmarried royalty -- had she been pursued by a prince at some point in her past? If so, what prince could it have been that she would have found his person more repellent than his position was attractive? He could not recall any of the other royal families nearby as having particularly tyrannical or ugly sons, nor could he dredge up any scandals involving a Prince (well, there was the fiasco with Prince Peregrine and one of the ladies in his court, but as King Godwit had forced Peregrine to marry the woman, Alexander hardly thought that counted).

The next morning, after a few hours' dreams of mysterious women of varying degrees of nobility and beauty, he knocked at his guest's door. After some odd noises (surely she would not be dragging something?), a melodious voice called back, "Who is it?"

"Would you like an escort to breakfast, milady?"

The pause that followed this was so long that Alexander nearly repeated the question. She, however, had evidently taken time to make use of the peephole. "What, pray tell, was a lord such as yourself doing on sentry duty? For, unless I've quite mistaken the matter, you have the same voice as the guard who opened the gate last night."

"And why do you believe me to be a lord?"

She must have leaned against the door, for it shook as she laughed. "Milord, no commoner would ever wear such fine fabric, or such a bright color, unless it was a truly special occasion."

He was still debating his answer to that when the door opened. He felt his jaw drop open and stay there: his guest had the loveliest face he had ever seen. He surreptitiously pinched himself, for surely he must have imagined so flawless a beauty. His reaction apparently neither surprised nor amused her, for she cast her eyes up to heaven as if imploring for patience. After a few more moments of waiting, she stepped into the hall and deliberately laid her fingertips against his jugular, causing him to jump in surprise at the cold sensation. "My God! Your hands are like ice!"

"Snow, actually," she corrected, removing her hand.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Surely you have heard of receiving ‘skin like snow' as a christening gift?" Her smile more closely resembled a grimace. "It comes with certain unpleasant side-effects that the bards never remember to mention. I fared better than Aurora, though: can you imagine glowing pale pink for all eternity just because some fool of a fairy gifted you with being ‘fair as the dawn'?"

"Your sister gl ... you must be joking, Your Highness."

She had allowed him to tuck her hand in his elbow and escort her toward the Great Hall, but at this comment, she jerked free and came to a complete stop, staring warily at him. "Why, pray tell, did you call me thus?"

"Well, that is what you are, is it not? Despite the peasant's garb you currently wear, your face and speech bespeak ancestry of at least noble origin, and fairies only attend the christenings of royalty."

She gave a brief sigh. "I knew I was safer in farmsteads than castles."

"Why are you so set against princes, Princess," he paused, aware that she had yet to give any name besides that of her sister. "Princess...?"

"Princess Tulip will do."

He laughed. "That is not your real name, is it?"

"No, but many princesses are named for flowers."

"You still have not answered my query. Why do you have such a distaste for royal company?"

"Barrington's Compleate Guide to Ye Royal Etiquette. Ettinsmore's Official Royal Handbook is bad enough, but the last half-dozen kingdoms have all stocked Barrington."

"I don't follow." He racked his brain, but could recollect nothing particularly offensive in the musty old tome his Protocol Tutor had used.

"Good."

She seemingly had no intention of explaining, so he promised himself that he would have to reread the book (in a very uncomfortable chair, to slow down the speed with which he was bound to fall asleep over its pages) at his earliest convenience. Alexander admitted to himself that a mysterious princess who refused to reveal even her own name was more likely to herald trouble than good fortune, but that same reticence intrigued him. Every other princess he had ever met would prattle endlessly, until he knew more than he ever wanted to know about her family, country, favorite hobby (inevitably embroidery or dancing) and -- heaven defend him -- her tastes in clothing. Princess Maude Elle of Fashionista had talked of fabric and fashion until he had pretended to being color-blind in order to escape. Worse, every last one either had hopes of an advantageous marriage or had a parent with such hopes, until he began to regard State Visits with the same eagerness that a fox anticipated the hounds and hunters.

Much of the court usually chose to have their breakfast in their rooms, but enough people had come to breakfast to create an unmistakable commotion when he entered the hall with a young lady on his arm. He sensed more than saw Princess ‘Tulip' stiffen beside him, but there was no mistaking the barely concealed anger in her hissed question. "No one reacts like that to a guardsman or even a lesser noble ... who are you?"

"I, your Highness? I am merely..."

"About to lie through your teeth."

Her remark surprised him with both its forthrightness and perception; the princesses he knew would never have guessed his next action, and if they had, diplomacy would have forced them to verbally dance around the subject, rather than coming directly to the heart of the matter. He had just begun to decide on a reply when a movement at the head table caught his attention: his mother had seen them and was coming over to investigate.

The Queen Mother had omitted wearing her crown that morning, and for a fleeting second, Alexander hoped that he might be able to carry off his masquerade as a lesser noble.

‘Tulip' had watched the other woman approach, her face unexpressive, but as Queen Catherine drew near, she removed her hand from Alexander's arm and swept her skirts into a graceful curtsey. "Good morning, your Majesty."

Alexander couldn't quite keep from gaping. "How did you ever guess?"

Her eyebrow quirked. "I may have been an ingénue, but I was never an imbecile." Her eyes flickered from one face to the other. "I must admit, however, that I do feel idiotic at present ... is it your Highness or your Majesty?"

His mother had overheard this exchange. "My son, am I to gather that you have not even bothered to introduce yourself properly?"

"I was a bit more concerned with her health than any propriety at the time."

Queen Catherine withdrew a step, but regarded him doubtfully. "She seems to be in perfect health."

"I think, Majesty," Tulip interjected, "your son referred to the weather in which I arrived."

"It is a gloriously sunny morning!"

"Actually, Mother, Princess Tulip arrived during the worst of last night's thunderstorm."

"Princess Tulip!" The Queen Mother repeated, casting a scornful eye over the young lady's attire.

The glimmer in Tulip's eyes should have warned him. "Yes, your Majesty. Princess Tulip of Flora, at your service."

"There is no such country," the queen retorted as Alexander choked back a laugh.

"Our philosophy governess did love to say that ‘All reality is relative.'" Her lips twitched suddenly, and she added in a lightly self-mocking tone, "of course, as a little girl, I used to think that mountains only existed in storybooks."

He couldn't help a quick glance out the window at the craggy landscape of his kingdom. Even the maps of other known lands in his library did not extend to kingdoms without mountains ... let alone a country so far from them as to make them seem a figment of imagination. No wonder her pronunciation of some words sounded odd. His mind boggled at the thought of how far she must have travelled.

Clearly, his mother's more skeptical thoughts had run along the same vein. "What country would allow its princess to travel alone for weeks, if not months?"

Tulip chuckled. "Did I not introduce myself scarcely two minutes ago?"

Alexander jumped in before his mother and his guest could really get going. Granted, Tulip -- or whatever her real name was -- did not seem perturbed in the slightest; in fact, he suspected she enjoyed it almost to the point of laughter. He could not say the same of Queen Catherine, who seemed ready to either scream or go into apoplexy. "Indeed you did, and it was most unkind of us not to return the favor. This is my mother, Queen Catherine, widow of the late King Charles. The fellow in purple brocade is my brother, Prince Peter, and I am Alexander."

"You mean King Alexander the something-or-other-th, do you not? And tell me, did your brother only arrive this morning?"

"No, he came last week on an extended stay; however, he lives at Chateau En L'air." He smiled, knowing that she would catch the very fine distinction that had allowed him to make the statement of the previous night.

Her lips pressed together for a moment before a wry chuckle escaped. "Has anyone ever told you that you split hairs more finely than an elf?"

"I could hardly permit you to venture back into that tempest, your Highness."

"Your chivalry overwhelms me, your Majesty."

His mother had apparently not progressed beyond the introductions. "This peasant says she is a princess?"

Tulip rubbed her temples. "You couldn't have introduced me as ‘Lady Tulip,' could you?" She turned to the queen mother. "Yes, I am a princess. It is, however, difficult to look dazzling when you travel incognito. Rather defeats the purpose, actually."

"Yet you expect us to treat you as royalty."

"No, I prefer to be treated as a travelling musician. Your son is the one who deduced my status and would not let it lie."

Alexander's brother had wandered over during this exchange. "Well, Mother," he drawled, buffing a ring on the sleeve of his tunic, "there is one way to put the question to rest once and for all. Give her a princess test."

Tulip shot Alexander a look that should have singed him from head to toe and muttered, "If you use Barrington's book, I may have to kill you."

The queen mother had overheard the exchange, and pounced upon it with the smug satisfaction of the falcon who has just seized the pigeon. "Are you afraid of failing?"

Tulip rubbed an arm. "I only wish I could."

 

 

Chapter Two: In which we learn more about our Heroine, including her name

"I only wish I could."

Giselle bit her lip as the words left her mouth. All she had had to say was ‘of course I'll fail' and she would have been free to go her way; they would have practically thrown her out. She caught her escort -- King Alexander, she reminded herself -- watching her, and realized she had rubbed her arm. She forced her hand back to her side; ‘a princess should never publicly admit to discomfort,' according to both Barrington & Ettinsmore ... though she never understood how the former could reconcile that claim with other sections of his book.

The stuffy Queen Mother narrowed her eyes at her. "We shall see."

Giselle debated a reply, then decided that the lady looked quite purple enough as it was. She stifled a giggle at the stray thought that the last time she had seen a royal so near to bursting was when she had refused to marry...what was his name again?...that last un-frogged prince, anyway.

While she had been wracking her brain for the name, the queen and the prince had said a few more things that she hadn't absorbed, and then wandered away; the queen sweeping away with several ladies hurrying to follow whilst Prince Peter ambled over to a mirror where he seemed to take issue with one of the curls above his forehead. She felt more than a bit surprised to see the king regarding her with admiration.

"Do you know, you are the first visitor my mother has failed to intimidate?"

She chuckled. "I haven't felt scared by foreign royalty since Odette put a mouse in Queen Henbane's wimple."

"Put a mouse in where?"

The king did not seem to know whether to look amused or horrified, and Giselle decided with a certain amount of pity that he must have been raised with the "Duty, Country, and Honor above All" ethos; a commendable trait in a ruler, but not one that permitted a great deal of fun in one's life. She smiled. "Well, what would you do if you had a very handy pet mouse and a nasty visitor? Finding out afterwards that she had a horror of anything smaller than her overweight lapdog was simply icing on the cake."

"Your father permitted you to embarrass visiting dignitaries?"

"He never knew that it was a pet, and not a pest."

He looked appalled enough that she decided to forgo mentioning that Odette had tamed Millie deliberately for that one prank. No doubt his upbringing did not allow for familial revenge; she, on the other hand, had thoroughly agreed with Odette's opinion that Queen Henbane's bullying of their sister had removed the protection of her ‘guest' status and moved her into the category of ‘fair game.' A phantom of her six-year-old self cheerfully reminded her that none of them had guessed Henbane wore a wig, or that Sweetums (Henbane's lapdog) would dive beneath it when ordered to attack the mouse.

She had rather hoped that the king would seat her at one of the lower tables, permitting her to resume her travelling minstrel persona, but he led her to the head table, seating her in the chair his mother had recently vacated. As a servant replaced the place setting, the king turned to her and asked, "You said you wished to be treated as a common musician, but unless my memory fails me, you arrived without any instruments. Between that and your educated speech, how did you hope to carry off your disguise?"

Giselle laughed. "Oh, I have a flute in my bags -- it is rather less susceptible to the elements than a lyre or lute. I tried the lute for a while, but I would inevitably forget to loosen the strings when packing it; after replacing all the strings a few times and almost cracking the neck once, I traded down to the flute. As for the speech, some of the most renowned bards on the coast have been the illegitimate children of nobles."

"The coast?"

This Alexander noticed far too much; she would have to be very careful. She stalled for time, selecting some bread and laying a wedge of cheese atop it before she replied. "I have been to many places in the past few years, but the musicians in this region do not seem to transcribe their music into books as fervently and frequently as their fellows living where the land meets the sea."

"You do have a certain lyricism to your words. Have you contributed to any of those books yourself?"

She chuckled. "No, like the mockingbird, I can but imitate. Someone else must create ... besides, I should be far too worried about offending someone by how I portrayed them, as I know truth can be very subjective."

"I would have considered truth an Absolute."

"Some truths, yes. For example, one cannot debate the point that the sun rises in the east, no matter where one originates. In other matters, however, truth becomes almost more an opinion in its subjectivity. The Ballad of Lady Spearmint tells of her valiant attempts to overthrow the tyrant King Halitosis, and yet official histories of the period merely describe the man as the mildly incompetent predecessor to Queen Ginger Vitis, while Lady Spearmint becomes a traitorous rebel."

"Hmmm. A good point, but then one must remember that history is in part a story, as indicated by the name, and hence suffers from a certain blending of fiction with fact in order to make the narrative more interesting."

She chuckled. "Our philosophy tutor would love you. Master Weems, on the other hand..."

"Would take my comment about as gracefully as my mother took your ‘all reality is relative' retort."

Giselle blushed. "I apologize. I shouldn't have goaded her."

To her shock -- and his, it seemed, from the sudden widening of his eyes -- he laughed. "Oh, please do ... in moderation, of course. It will give her something else to consider besides the line of succession."

She couldn't help it. "You don't look as if you are in danger of shuffling off this mortal coil."

"Nor am I. It nevertheless worries her greatly that I have not yet done my duty by the dynasty."

She raised her eyebrows. "It doubtless worries the neighboring princesses, too."

"Or at least their mothers. My mother seems to have a steady stream of visiting Queens, and every one of them drags along a daughter, if not two or three, to parade in front of me."

"Not Peter? He has graduated from Spare to Heir, after all."

"Oh, he shows enough interest to keep her placated, dancing attendance and listening to music and gossip. I wish he showed half so much interest in the legal system or the condition of the army."

Interested despite herself, she asked, "Is that why you stood guard last night? To check the condition of the army? Or to prove something to your brother?"

He looked rueful. "Actually, that was an unintentional case of my words coming back to haunt me. Peter has gathered a collection of young nobles around him, from knights to counts, who all seem to believe that they should exercise all the privileges of their station without upholding any of the responsibilities."

She rolled her eyes. The world could do without another Prince George.

He nodded at her reaction. "Exactly. So, if they would not take up their duties willingly, I decided to force at least a little discipline on them. In one of my less brilliant moments, I decreed that every lord in my court would go on the roster for sentry duty, and that those who failed to perform it would have their titles passed to their heir."

Giselle gaped. "Isn't that rather harsh?"

He shrugged. "I expect I'll just exile them to their estates for a few months. To many of them, that would be worse than losing their title."

She had to grant him points for both his effort, and the consideration he had put into it. Too many monarchs would have either let the situation slide or would have imposed monetary fines, which the nobles would merely raise taxes to pay. --And to have actually stood his watch in that tempest! He had looked more waterlogged than she when they let her inside, but then her hood shed water more discreetly than that hat of his.

A movement at one of the side tables caught Giselle's eye and she nearly choked on her bread and cheese. As unobtrusively as possible, she slid her left hand under the table, reached sideways, and tugged on the king's doublet. As he turned to her with an inquiring lift of his eyebrows, she hissed, "Who is that?!?"

"Who is who?"

She lifted her chin at the person in question. She had some suspicions of course, given the tall pointed cap with its embroidered moons and stars...

Alexander offhandedly replied, "Oh, that's the court wizard, Loki. Harmless fellow; I doubt he could even turn water into wine."

She kept her own counsel on the harmlessness matter; magic apparently occurred more rarely here, and hence mountain folk viewed it with a careless disregard, if not outright disbelief. She never profitted by arguing the matter, and as it brought to mind another point, she changed tactics. "That is unfortunate. Are there any Faerie Enclaves nearby, or do your people manage with just those charms and cantrips which the village herbwitches can provide?"

His reply was both incredulous and condescending. "Surely a woman as educated as yourself does not believe in magic."

She counted to ten for patience. Deliberately, so that he could not miss seeing her actions, she picked up the steaming teapot from the table and held it in her hands for several moments, then set it back on the table and placed both her hands on his wrists. "I believe in that."

"I thought you were joking earlier!"

"Does this feel like a joke?"

She stifled a chuckle as he felt her wrists with his other hand. He gobbled for a moment before asking, "How can this be?"

"As I told you earlier, it's what happens when you have a foolish elf or ditzy fairy stand over your cradle following a christening banquet that was a bit too generous with the mead and lemonade."

"Lemonade?"

She shrugged. "For some reason, a fairy can become more inebriated from a good lemonade than if she drank all the ale in the world. The elves love mead, but their wives adore lemonade."

"They sound like Lord Aurenfae and his wife, Lady Argenfae."

Aurenfae and Argenfae, or rather, the Auren Fae and the Argen Fae ... could the hint have been any broader? Well, perhaps in a land that didn't believe in magic they could take the risk of living so boldly among humans. All the immortals at home kept themselves carefully hidden in Hills and Hollows, and only appeared openly as fairies & elves when attending Royal Weddings/Christenings.

She scanned the assembled nobles, looking for a couple dressed in shades of yellow/gold and silver/white. She knew she had found the right pair when she noticed that the "people" surrounding them consisted of women with wimples or headscarves and men wearing their hair long enough to conceal all but the lowest part of their earlobes. They did not have the indefinably eye-catching quality of fairies and elves back home, but perhaps they had made an effort to reduce their glamorie in order to blend more fully.

"They wouldn't happen to be the ones at the third table? The lord in the yellow tunic and the lady in the white and grey brocade gown?"

"I won't even ask how you guessed, but, yes, you're correct. Would you like me to introduce you after the meal?"

She shook her head so fast that she felt the pins in her hair shift against her scalp. Just in case she hadn't made herself clear, she added, "No! No! No, thank you. You really do not have to do that."

"You're certain?"

Heaven defend her from ‘helpful' royalty! "Quite."

In self-defense, she retreated to silence for the rest of the meal, speaking only to thank the king when he escorted her back to her rooms. It was better to be asocial than to reveal too much and be discovered. The man had more curiosity than the fabled cat! Indeed, she rather suspected Alexander's repeated coughs might indicate he was working himself up to another question.

Giselle closed the door firmly behind her, tempted for more than a moment to lock it and then escape through the window. She knew from experience, though, that a rope of sheets made a good trick in stories but unless your knots were very tight, the real thing tended to pull apart and send the climber hurtling to the ground...particularly (she massaged her shoulder in remembrance) ropes of silken sheets. Besides, the windows faced the inner courtyard: she'd only end up providing the local nobility with an afternoon's entertainment. If she entertained anyone, at least the burghers and peasants paid her!

She shook her head ruefully. Had anyone told her five years ago that she would prefer the "unwashed rabble" of the general populace to the "chivalrous nobility" found at royal courts, she would have tilted her snobbish nose (though not so far as to have disturbed the tiara carefully set atop her head) and declared them mad. After all, what could Princess Giselle Lilac Elaine Psyche Marguerite Opal, one of the jewels of the most ancient line of Phantasea, possibly have in common with ordinary people?

A strong desire to see her next birthday, as it turned out. Everyone had always told her to watch her six elder sisters so that she might learn the things expected of her. Grace, poise, elegance, music, dancing: emulating her sisters' example had always seemed easy...until Aurora and Armide reached their sixteenth birthday. She might have dismissed their fates as anomalies, but the sixteenth birthday of each successive sister made a pattern too distinct too ignore. Exhaustive research by both herself and her father's scholars had lead to the conclusion that she had but one chance to escape: disappear until after not only her sixteenth birthday, but also her eighteenth and twenty-first birthdays had passed.

Her mother had promptly had hysterics and her father had disapproved of her scheme, but the week before the dangerous sixteenth anniversary of her natal day, she had gathered a few things and galloped from the castle before daybreak. Despite any number of foolish and arrogant mistakes she had made during that first few weeks (galloping! And on a horse no one could ever mistake for a farm pony! She shook her head at her younger self's folly), she had made it to within a season of her goal.

That, of course, was why she had to leave. Even leaving the bed issue out of the question, Chateau de Reverie posed the biggest threat to her well-being she had encountered in many months. Two unmarried royals, a wizard in residence, fairies nearby; it spelled trouble with a capital T. One might as well stand atop the highest tower in a thunderstorm!

Still, she had let that king's family trick her into agreeing to stay at least long enough for a princess test. She set aside the spare apron she had been about to pack. Before she depressed herself over-much, perhaps she had better visit the library and discover which etiquette guide this royal family used...and therefore, which princess test she might expect. There was, she reminded herself, no point in presuming the worst. After all, one or two kingdoms had even created their own Tests of Princessness. Giselle smiled to herself at the particular memory of the exam given by Queen Madge I of Sagacity.

Her cheerfulness restored, she stepped around the divan she had used to block the door the previous night and went in search of the Library.

 

 

Chapter Three: In which we visit the Library

Alexander snapped himself back to wakefulness the instant before his nose would have touched the printed page. He sighed. Not even the most excruciatingly uncomfortable chair in the Library (an overly-ornate gilded piece removed from the Ballroom due to its tendency to snare ladies' gowns hopelessly among the curls of its vine-and-leaf design) could keep him from succumbing to the narcotic text.

He had intended to read the guide from cover to cover, of course, to see what Princess Tulip found so objectionable in its contents, but the first chapter -- a ninety page treatise on the proper arrangement of the furniture in the throne room -- quickly convinced him of the impracticability of such a scheme. After a quick walk about the room to return his brain to its usual alertness, he had picked up Volume I and scanned through the Table of Contents to discover that material relating to Princesses could be found in the fourth section of Volume III. After all, the offending passages in the Compleate Guide to Ye Royal Etiquette had to pertain to Tulip in some way personally; therefore, it must concern Princesses.

Forty pages and five near-naps later, and he still hadn't discovered what her objection might be, though he had learned that the list of prohibited activities for princesses nearly rivalled twice again the list of superficial ‘expected duties.' The latter could be condensed into ‘look lovely, say little, marry early, have children.' He had nearly given up the book entirely, despite his dislike of unsolved mysteries, when he heard footsteps in the row of shelves behind him.

Few courtiers ever bothered to use the library, and most of the scholars would have already selected their books for the morning. The unseen researcher began to sing under her breath, and he felt little surprise at recognizing Tulip's voice in the unfamiliar tune. Clearly, she hadn't wanted to wait to discover which etiquette guide his mother used.

"‘Come away -way -way; come away, my love'... hmm. A Standard Guyde to Manners and any number of heraldry and protocol tomes, but an empty space where a book for royal conduct should be. Botherating barnacles."

What, he wondered, were barnacles?

Her toe tapped on the floor for a minute or two, and then he heard a swirl of skirts and quickly receding footsteps. He had just popped his head around the corner to check whether she had really gone when several slide-thunks indicated that she had merely changed her area of research, and that she found the new one profitable indeed. Now decidedly curious, he scanned the long chamber and found her in front of the geographies, a not-too-small pile of books at her feet and half a dozen scrolls collected in her arm.

He had to duck back behind the bookcase when she turned around, but she did not spare any side glances to check for observers. Instead she made a beeline for the largest of the tables in the middle aisle, where she deposited the scrolls before returning with the books. The scrolls she laid along the right-hand edge of the table, and then she began to work her way down the stack of tomes. Through some system he did not quite understand, she flipped open the front for a heartbeat, and either placed it to her immediate left or turned to another section for barely a longer period and then placed it to the upper left or the upper right. Tulip couldn't be reading anything at that pace.

In a few minutes she had sorted the entire stack. The upper right pile of books she took straight back to the shelves, sliding them back into their places with the air of one disposing of bad rubbish. Seating herself at the table, she began to flick through a book from the top left pile. A ribbon from her pocket was casually tossed into the book between flicks, and a second soon joined it. Could she be marking illustrations?

Her pocket must have held a great quantity of ribbons, for she dealt with all half dozen books in the same manner before starting in on the pile on her immediate left. Several of those she shut quite firmly with the comment of "rubbish!" and set aside, while the rest followed the example of the top left pile. The "rubbish" books went back on the shelves. Alexander wondered what she intended to do with the scrolls, but she left the Library immediately after shelving her last discarded tome.

As soon as he felt sure Tulip had gone, he slid the etiquette book under the ornate monstrosity that called itself a chair and ventured out to the table to get a better view of her activity. The scrolls held maps, as he had rather expected, but not one of the ribbon-marked locations that he had checked revealed a map or picture of any kind. One had a description of the mines of Adamant, another related the wood production of the forests of Falconree, etc. It seemed he would have to revise his opinion of Tulip's reading.

Wait a moment, that was odd. He double-checked the bookmarks to confirm his suspicions. Not one kingdom mentioned lay to the north of his country.

The sound of the door opening interrupted his thoughts. He had just time to duck back into the stacks when Tulip returned, carrying her bag. From it, she pulled several scrolls of her own, which she spread out in the middle of the table, borrowing the smallest books possible from nearby shelves to keep them from curling up. She also produced a bottle of ink and a battered quill, and after studying his scrolls for several minutes, bent over one of her own and began to write.

She referenced the maps many times while she worked, and he had just decided to return to the "Battle of Barrington," as he had begun to call it in his own mind, when she piled up all his scrolls and replaced them on the shelves. In his fascination, he had failed to remember to duck behind the shelves, so when she spun lightly about-face on her toe, she caught sight of her audience.

"Well," she shook her head a little and placed one fist on her hip as she chuckled, "just how long have you been standing there?"

"If a cat may look at a king, a king may certainly look at a princess."

She laughed. "I never disputed that, although depending on the type of ‘look at' you mean, I might recommend picking another princess. If you simply mean ‘observe,' well, I've entertained village fools before, so why not kings? ... if, however, you mean ‘examine in terms of marriage suitability,' please harass someone else."

Alexander chuckled. "Presuming quite a bit, aren't you?"

She tilted her head. "Fourteen other kingdoms with unmarried princes, sixteen proposals from said princes, and one rather spectacular escape out the window from an idiot who refused to be refused...no, I can't say I have presumed all that much."

"You've received sixteen proposals of marriage?" Granted, Tulip was almost unbelievably lovely, but sixteen?!?!

"From royalty, yes. The number increases if you count farmers, smiths, merchants, and, my favorite, village idiots."

He couldn't help it. He broke the near-sacred library silence with a series of hearty guffaws. Several astonished & indignant faces appeared around the edges of the stacks, but any reprimands they might have delivered were swallowed as they realized they had nearly scolded the king. The amused twinkle in Tulip's eyes gave lie to her expression of mild innocence as she watched him laugh. Finally he managed to get himself enough under control to gasp out, "Now I know you aren't serious."

Her lips twitched. "I make it a point never to take life more seriously than it deserves, but seriousness and truthfulness are two very different matters."

"You have actually received that many proposals?"

"It seems a peregrinating princess must be seeking her own domestic domain." She sighed with a mix of what he thought was exasperation and amusement.

"But you are not," and he couldn't help smiling. He had used much the same tone himself when referring to his mother's numerous attempts to find him a bride.

She chuckled. "No. If I wanted a kingdom," she suddenly cut herself short.

"If you wanted a kingdom, what?"

"I could have married the first man who asked me."

While that was no doubt true, Alexander would have bet his sword and shield that she had originally intended a different ending to that sentence! Still, the rules of chivalry forbade the questioning of a lady's word, and so he cast about for a slight change of topic. "So, you have not been researching for a potential country to rule?"

She smiled, "After five years of travel, I no longer know if I should call geography a hobby or a necessity."

"You consider geography your hobby?" Well, it sounded far more interesting to him than dancing or clothes, but he'd certainly never met another princess with that interest.

Tulip nodded. "As a matter of fact, I think I can claim to having the most complete map of anyone in the Known World." She gave a wry smile. "Probably not the Unseen World, though."

"The Unseen World?" Should that not have been the Unknown World? Or perhaps the Unexplored World?

"The one in which you don't believe. Fairies, elves, and whatnot."

Oh. He didn't know how to respond to that. It just wasn't logical to believe in that nonsense, but Tulip evidently believed it as firmly as the sun rising in the east.

This time it was Tulip who found a way of breaking the silence. "Come to think of it, that is how I can repay your hospitality."

"Oh?"

She waved her hand in a ‘come here' gesture. "I'll show you." She retrieved a scroll from the shelf behind her, and unrolled it, handing the one end to him as he came to stand near her. "See these?"

He looked where she indicated in the northwest & northeast corners of the map. "‘Here be Dragons?'"

She chuckled and nodded. "Utter balderdash."

"So you don't believe in dragons?" Hard to believe, when she seemed to insist on the existence of every other outlandish creature under the sun.

"Oh, they're real enough ... they just aren't there or there." She waved her hand. "That section is the swampland of Bogwump, known for its peat production, but beware of its pixies, fenlings, and wil-o-the-wisps. Over here, you have the Fabled Forest of Sylvania, and I think the capital city, Woodston, is," she closed her eyes for a second, "yes, just about where the tip of that abysmally unrealistic dragon wing is."

He looked at her in amazement. "No wonder you were only reading about kingdoms to the south of here."

Her eyes narrowed. "How did you know what I was researching?"

He felt himself flush. "I looked in the books while you were out of the room."

She sighed. "Then you might as well see the whole project, I suppose."

With that, she twisted up and reshelved the scroll, then led the way back to the table. Close up, he could see that the scrolls nearly covered the table, and that the section of wet ink was indeed an extension of her rather comprehensive experiment in cartography. As she began opening the books and adding tiny symbols to the new section, he peered at the older scrolls. Some of the drawings he could understand -- a tiny pick-axe for mining areas, crowns for capital cities -- but some of the drawings up along the coast left him mystified.

"Princess?" When she obediently looked up from her work, he continued, "What are these things?"

She gave a cursory glance. "Anchors. To indicate major ports."

"And these?"

"Mikimoto is the preeminent provider of pearls and shellfish."

"But what are these hearts?"

Her eyes flickered up at him briefly. "I don't recall."

Hmm, and diamonds grew on trees. He bent over the table to investigate more closely. "They are near several capital cities, as well as scattered across the coast. Do they mark your first marriage proposals?"

"Perhaps those are the ones I accepted."

He couldn't help a snort of disbelief. Not five minutes ago she had proclaimed her disinterest in matrimony, and now she expected him to believe she had accepted a dozen proposals? No matter how dim-witted the other princes she had met had been, he didn't lack for brains as much as that.

"All right," she said sarcastically, "I confess. I fell head-over-heels for the wandering Elven bard Songwynde, and those hearts indicate every one of our precious, heart-stopping meetings before he threw me over for Bacardi the bar-maid."

Perhaps he had better drop the subject, as his interest only seemed to irk her. Nevertheless he tried his best to memorize the nations of the capitals involved, as he had the sense that those hearts marked some vital clues to Tulip's past. In doing so, one last symbol caught his eye. "Is this a skull?"

"And crossbones -- for pirate routes." She sounded much calmer.

He looked at the actual coastline and saw the symbol repeated several times on waterways. Then he returned his gaze to the one that had first attracted his attention, and frowned. "Do you also mark bandits that way?"

"Pardon?" She looked up from what he realized with a start was the last book in her stack -- good heavens, she worked fast! -- and followed his finger to the map. "Oh, that. No."

"Then what...?"

She snorted. "A reminder to stay away."

He squinted at the name. "The Kingdom of Porgy?"

"The kingdom's not bad. Prince George badly needs frogging."

"I gather you've met him." He watched the emotions flicker over her face.

"He was supposed to marry my sister." Her quill nearly speared the scroll.

"He jilted her?" He commented to keep her talking, his eyes scanning the area around Porgy. Tulip's kingdom had to be reasonably close by; unless, of course, her sister had wandered as much as she did. Still, investigating that region would give him a place to start -- once he found someone or something other than Tulip that actually knew anything about that area. It lay well to the north, far into what his maps considered ‘Terra Incognita.' "And which sister? Aurora or Odette?"

"Effie."

He blinked, even as he stored away the name. Another non-flower. Princess Tulip, his foot. "How many sisters do you have?"

"More than you do," she chuckled.

"I don't have any sisters." He reminded her.

"I rest my case." Her smile said clearly that she had not forgotten.

He tried another angle of attack. "And are you the eldest of your sisters?"

She started to shake her head and laugh, then paused, her chin resting in her hand as her fingers thoughtfully tapped her cheek. Her look at him revealed her surprise. "Do you know, I just may be at this point. How amazing."

"You make it sound as if seniority could be changed. Or do your parents not know the order of your birth?"

She held up a finger and shook it at him. "Ah, but you did not inquire if I was the first-born, your Majesty. You asked if I was the oldest."

"The two are interchangeable." Alexander protested.

"Not in this case." She handed him a stack of books. "Here. If you insist upon questioning me, you can at least help me shelve these properly."

Trailing in her wake, he asked, "So are you the first-born?"

She shook her head.

"Then how can you possibly be the eldest?"

She pirouetted across the floor, her hair catching the afternoon sunlight, before she gathered up her own materials and stowed them in her sack. "Ask me no questions and I shall tell you no lies."

"Princess..." He closed his mouth over his protest.

She had gone.

He picked up a ribbon she had forgotten, and as he went to attack the etiquette book once more, he commented to the blue fabric, "Am I ahead or behind where I was this morning?"

 

 

Chapter Four: In which our Heroine gets lost and faces The Test

Giselle was having an attack of conscience. She had behaved abominably in the Library, riddling and confusing the truth worse than the most obscure oracles. The king's quick comprehension at breakfast had panicked her, and she had responded by muddying the waters for all she was worth in their second meeting. She certainly must have succeeded in confusing him, for he had failed to guess even the non-magical way of being eldest without being firstborn.

She shook her head. Until he had asked, it had never occurred to her that she, the youngest, might now be older than all her sisters. Actually, their whole order might have rearranged, depending on circumstances. She wondered how the heralds would arrange them now: by age or by birth order?

She suppressed a snort at her own foolishness. If they were ever all reunited at her father's castle, no doubt they would be ranked by the influence of the princes they married. With the possible exception of Odette, she could not see any of her sisters refusing to marry their rescuers, even if the men in question were strangers. Alexander's guess had not erred far for some of her hearts, nor had she exactly lied in her first reply. The hearts near capitals marked not her first proposals, but the princes whose proposals she had accepted on her sisters' behalf. The other hearts, of course, marked her best guesses at her sisters' current locations.

As for herself, she had three more months before she could even think about returning home, much less about marriage. Of course, if she returned home unmarried, her father would probably do his best to find her a husband immediately. Well, perhaps he would not. After all, it had to be embarrassingly scandalous to have a daughter who had spent the last five years alone, unchaperoned, doing heaven-knew-what.

With the cheering thought that she would make a splendid Eccentric Maiden Aunt, possessed of enough stories to horrify her sisters and enthrall small children, she reached the door of her guest room, only to find herself barred from entry. Inside she could hear a lot of thumping and sliding, but the apologetic and flustered footman who opened the door told her that Her Majesty had given orders not to admit "that hoyden" in until bedtime.

At that moment, Giselle would have bet almost anything that she knew which etiquette book this kingdom used, had anyone but the footman been present to take her wager. Nobility she could fleece for a small sum with a clean conscience, but not the servants.

Well, if she was not allowed in the room, she would have to find somewhere else to go. She had the uneasy feeling that she would find The Inquisition (King Alexander) waiting to pounce if she returned to the Library. Perhaps the castle had a separate Scriptorium where the scribes copied scrolls and important documents, as some abbeys did. If so, it would make an ideal place to produce the map she had promised herself she would leave the king in exchange for his hospitality.

Hmmm. She looked both ways along the corridor: nary a soul in sight. She thought longingly for a moment of the castle of Nesia, where the king had inlaid the floor at every hall intersection with maps of the castle because of his daughter Ann's poor memory and tendency to get lost. Still, it was no use crying over spilt milk, and if she could explore the world, why not this fortress?

Resisting the childish urge to trail string or breadcrumbs behind her, she took a deep breath and set off down the right hand passageway.

One sewing room, four kitchens, three audience chambers, six ambassadorial suites, a great hall, two portrait galleries, and an Inquisition Chamber later, and she half-wished for that ball of string. From the tapestries on the walls, she would guess that she had found her way into one of the older, less used wings, but where it connected to what other section, she hadn't the least idea. The air felt dusty, but the floor had been swept clear recently, so she lacked the option of retracing her footsteps.

Just a little further along, a window let light into the passageway. She walked over and peered out to find herself overlooking what she presumed was the Queen's Bower: a small flower garden with several benches and arbors, laid out mathematically and pruned to within an inch of its life. Only the ivy and wisteria vines climbing the palace walls had been allowed free reign, climbing up beyond her window; leaning out, she could see at least another story and a half of vines over her head. While the ivy would barely hold an overfed squirrel, the wisteria's sturdy ropes were another matter.

She sat for a long time on the windowsill, weighing her options. She could climb down to the garden, assuming that her shoulder could still hold her, and get at least rudimentary directions from one of the gardeners. Of course, Queen -- what was her name? oh, yes -- Catherine would take such behavior far moor grouchily in an adult princess than her parents had indulgently reacted to her childhood antics. She could continue in her current path and risk getting herself lost in rooms so old that even the servants would not seek her there. Thirdly, she could attempt to retrace her route, and hope that she might see someone who could either direct her to the Scriptorium (if it existed) or back to some other chamber whose location she knew.

Suddenly a door down the hall opened. Giselle jumped and had to grab for both sides of the window to steady herself as her reaction altered her balance. It wouldn't do to fall out the window at the very moment when she had reason to hope for another way of returning to the main section of the castle.

"Thank heaven that's over and done for today." The speaker remained unseen inside the doorway, but she thought she recognized the voice. "I vow that the seat in the audience chamber gets harder every time I sit in it. Oh, and put these back with the rest of the crown jewels -- I shall just nip through the Old Wing and change into something that doesn't limit me to a sedate crawl."

She stifled a giggle as Alexander came into the hall, loaded down by dress robes and an ermine cape that would have nicely doubled as a Summer Faire tent.

He stopped on seeing her. "Princess Tulip, I must say you do show up in the most peculiar places."

She accepted the hand he offered to help her rise. "I got myself turned around, I fear, and by the time I admitted it, I had not the faintest idea of how to return to my starting point."

Instead of releasing her hand and offering directions he tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow and started down the hallway. (She wondered if she should mention it: if he behaved thus with every princess, she would feel foolish at fussing over nothing, but if he only had this impulse around her, she definitely needed to make a few things clear.) "I am rather glad I encountered you again, as it happens," he said. "I should like to apologize for my appalling insensitivity in the Library. I must be a terrible muttonhead this morning, for the explanation did not occur to me until well after we had parted ways. May I also tell you I am truly sorry for forcing you to relive the pain of your sisters' loss?"

As convenient as it would be to have him think her family deceased, she could not in all conscientiousness deceive him that badly. "Thank you for the thought, but your concern if unfounded. I did not ‘lose' my sisters in the way you mean. They have not died, although they have stopped aging." She saw him start to open his mouth for a question, and held up her free hand to forestall him. "Please, don't ask. I would prefer not to lie or mislead you any more than absolutely necessary."

"And why should it be necessary at all?"

"Because, your Majesty, you are entirely too intelligent for my peace of mind."

"Come again?"

She let out an exasperated sigh. "I'm sure it has occurred to you that I do not want anyone to know my actual identity."

He laughed. "It's just possible."

"Then it should logically follow that any time someone questions me too closely on my past, I may choose to be neither perfectly clear nor perfectly accurate in my replies."

His expression informed her that she could stop iterating the obvious whenever it pleased her.

"More to the point, within the first few minutes of conversing with me, you took what I had thought were fairly innocuous comments and drew some exceedingly accurate conclusions. Quite frankly, you terrified me."

He began to chuckle. "You believe in dragons, fairies, wizards, and I-know-not-what, and I terrify you?"

She wavered between the urge to laugh and the urge to shake him. "I can to a certain degree predict what they will do; you are a complete unknown."

He grinned at her. "If you ever discuss me with my brother, people shall think you are describing two completely separate people. Peter believes me the most dull, tiresome, predictable bore in existence."

Giselle arched her eyebrows. "I bow to Peter's superior knowledge. Younger siblings always know everything."

He chuckled. "Are you sure you are not the eldest? I make similar comments."

"Far from it. Sev-" She caught herself.

"Sev-what?" The man was entirely too quick!

"Saving grace of the family."

"Didn't you mean ‘several children down the line' or," he shot a quick, sharp look at her, "‘seventh'?"

She tugged her hand free and set her fists on her hips. "Kindly let my past alone or I shall do what I have not done in almost two years, and climb out the window to escape."

"You wouldn't!"

She didn't bother to speak, just looked.

"You would."

Really, she was managing better by staying silent than by arguing. If only she had remembered the technique this morning, she could have saved herself a fair amount of headache. A moment later the king had even apologized for his nosiness and had meekly offered to show her the way back to the Library, as the castle had no Scriptorium. She beamed and nodded.

Heaven spare her. Why did every man on the planet react to that action with a vacant, jaw-dropped stare?

Along the way, she debated asking him about either himself or the kingdom, but it would not be fair to request information when she was unwilling to offer her own in exchange. He opened his mouth a few times to speak, glanced at her, glanced at the nearest window, and closed it again. Apparently he had taken her threat as seriously as she meant it. Once at her destination, she smiled, thanked him, and made good her escape inside while he was recovering his brains... again.

She managed to maintain the near-silent act all afternoon -- not so difficult in a mostly empty Library, or in a kitchen when everyone was too busy to pay the least attention to her -- and through dinner (a bit more challenging because the king had once more seated her at the head table, and his mother aimed a few choice barbs in her direction). She felt like a wax doll. Then again, if she played the "Any Light in My Eyes Is Coming Uninterrupted from the Hole in the Back of My Head" princess that seemed common to this region, perhaps the king would lose interest. It seemed to work right up until Queen Catherine announced that perhaps their guest would like to retire, as she had doubtless had a long journey the day before. Alexander was at her side and assisting her to rise before she had finished processing his mother's statement.

Blast. Worse still, when they reached her chamber and the door opened, she promptly forgot her decision about silence being golden.

Giselle looked up -- and up -- at her bed. Letting out an exasperated puff of air, she said, "Barrington. I knew it."

Beside her, the king choked off an exclamation. After taking a moment to compose himself, he questioned in an aghast tone, "Has Mother gone mad? There must be at least a dozen mattresses on this bed."

"Twenty, theoretically," she corrected absently. "Though I think her Majesty lost count, because I see twenty one. Fortunately I never had any tendency to acrophobia."

He was not appeased. "If you roll over the edge in your sleep, you will surely break a bone -- and how does she expect you to get up there in the first place?"

"Hmm." She circled the bed. "I agree, she has seemingly forgotten the ladder."

"Nay, your Highness," interposed the anxious maid, "'tis here, behind the door. I didn't think you would wish it before you had changed."

Giselle turned and clapped her hands (more in relief that something looked less-than-disastrous than in any real excess of joy with the situation). "One of the free-standing wheeled kind from the Library. How marvelous! I had worried that the unsupported mattresses wouldn't bear a ladder. Or, worse, that I should have had to climb it unassisted."

She did not, however, add the comment that the queen's test made her feel infinitely less guilt-stricken about her actions that afternoon. Instead she bade the still-spluttering Alexander "good night," gently but firmly evicted him from the room, and closed the door in his face. She found the maid gawking at her: "Y-Y-You just kicked out 'Is Majesty!"

"Majestic or not, he is not entitled to see me in my shift -- my slip, you would call it here." She made a face. "That seamstress in Freud was entirely too generous in her leg-slit."

The maid's stare had become even more goggle-eyed, and Giselle could only surmise that the girl had probably never heard of the Empire of Id. (Empire, indeed! Two or three duchies united by a diminutive man of tall ambitions.)

"Well," she said when the silence had stretched too long, "what is your name?"

"Marian, your Highness."

"Well, Marian, I suppose there is no point in attempting to delay the inevitable." The princess removed bodice, skirt, shoes and stockings and gave them to the maid. "I should appreciate it if you would come help me dress at sunrise."

Marian set down the clothes long enough to roll the ladder into position by the bed. "But surely you can't want to be woken at dawn, Princess. Wouldn't it be better if I came after Matins?"

Giselle paused in the act of ascending. "Believe me," she said dryly, "I shall not be asleep. Good night."

The maid looked doubtful but curtseyed in acceptance. "Good night, your Highness."

When the door had fully closed, Giselle treated the pile of mattresses to a long and level glance. "A good night? Somehow I very much doubt that."

She stepped gently from the ladder onto the bed, dropping to her knees as the entire stack swayed. Clearly, she had had good reason to fear what might occur if an ordinary ladder were leaned against the bed; merely shifting her weight seemed liable to cause an avalanche. Bracing her hands on either side, she closed her eyes and tried to remember how one moved in a dinghy or a longboat, either of which, like the bed, reacted strongly to changes in weight distribution. Right. Easy does it and keep the weight as close to center as possible.

Ten minutes later she had succeeded in positioning herself on her back in the center of the bed and hummed "Rock-a-Bye, Baby" in ironic celebration of the achievement. The mattresses already felt uncomfortable and lumpy, of course, but tossing and turning would only increase the number of bruises, to say nothing of risking an unrecoverable sway. She chuckled even as she held resolutely immobile; she wasn't that curious to know what these people used to stuff their bedding.

In the distance, the clock tower bells tolled ten. She wondered what sort of sleep her hosts were having as she settled herself for a long night. Perhaps she would get lucky this time and manage a few naps; most likely she would end up reciting all 804 verses of A Tribute to Brevity.

 

 

Chapter Five: In which the Results of the Test are revealed

The sun had only just cleared the eastern horizon, but Alexander had been awake long since. Truth be told, he had actually slept very little, for he kept waking himself with nightmares of Tulip rolling off that unholy mountain of a bed, falling to the hard floor and gravely injuring herself in some manner. When his imagination had grown so overwrought that he was picturing Tulip on her funeral bier instead of merely cradling a broken limb, he decided that sleep was overrated.

Surely it would not hurt to wander past their visitor's door, he reasoned to himself. Then he could prove to himself that his irrational fears had been just that: irrational. He nodded to himself, donned his clothing without bothering to ring for a servant and left his rooms. Arriving at her suite, he was shocked to hear voices within, and knocked. "It is I, King Alexander."

Had it been his imagination or had his announcement been greeted with an inelegant "Bah!" from someone within? He heard more movements, and then the latch turned.

"She says you may go in," the maid at the door told him with a curtsey.

He did not wait for a second invitation, brushing past the girl and into the room. The monstrous bed stood as an impressive testament to his mother's foolishness, certainly enough, but where was Tulip? "Your Highness?"

A soft groan answered him. "Morning, your Majesty."

He could not stifle a gasp as she emerged from around the corner of the mattress stack. She stood twisted over at an angle that simply could not be comfortable and moved with the speed and agility of an octogenarian. Her hair, although pulled back in a neat braid, hung down her back instead of being pinned to her head as it had been the other times he had seen her, and, when she turned her head a little, he thought he could see a discoloration of the skin on her neck. The circles under her eyes gave mute testimony that even his pitiful attempts at slumber had proved more restful than hers.

"Tulip! What happened?"

She gave him a wry smile. "Your mother's Princess Test is what happened."

He started to ask her to explain, but she must have foreseen his question, because she had raised a hand to halt him even before he opened his mouth.

"Your Majesty, I promise, I will make things clear in a moment, but first I need you to do me a favor." She shuffled over to stand with her back to him. "I need you to grab both of my shoulders -- just ignore me if I whimper -- put your knee in the middle of my back, and pull as hard as you can."

Had she lost her mind? "But..."

She let out an impatient huff. "How long must I suffer before you do as I ask?"

Put that way, he had no other choice. Against his better judgement he braced a knee in the small of her back and tried not to wince himself as each handhold on her shoulders was met with a hiss of indrawn breath. Closing his eyes so that he did not have to witness his own cruelty, he yanked both shoulders backward, and was shocked to feel back muscles suddenly shift under his hands. He released his grip as if burned, and stood perfectly still, afraid to look at his handiwork. Had he killed her?

When he dared open his eyes again, Tulip, who now stood perfectly straight and easy, had turned around and watched him with her arms crossed and a smile glinting in her eyes. "I admit I am bruised from keel to yardarm, but I don't actually break, you know. Thank you."

"Y-You're not hunched over any more!" He wanted to take back the words the moment they left his mouth. Could he sound any more imbecilic?

"That was why I needed your help. My spine does not react well to peas these days, although it used to heal on its own, mostly thanks to that oh-so-helpful pack of idiots in Canis Labradoria."

"I'm afraid I don't follow. Peas? What peas?"

"You had better take a seat. This will take some explaining."

He began to sit on the rolling ladder, but then he noticed that she remained on her feet. "Are you not going to sit?"

She shook her head. "I need to move and work out some of the smaller muscle kinks."

He smiled and stood. "Tsk, tsk, tsk. Have you forgotten the rules of Chivalry, my lady? No truly noble man may sit whilst a lady remains on her feet."

She shrugged -- carefully. "As you wish. Now, in a world where princesses do occasionally wander from home, whether by accident or design, it is not surprising that other nobles create tests to determine if the ‘princess' on their doorstep is real or an imposter. A couple of these tests have such a wide following that they have appeared in official royal etiquette guides. Ettinsmore's book (which your kingdom apparently does not use) advocates the Daintiness, or perhaps I should call it the Uselessness, Test, wherein the princess is asked to try on a ring from the smallest finger of the Queen's hand. Because a normal royal does absolutely nothing more strenuous than light embroidery, they - and only they - have fingers like twigs, and so a princess would be able to wear the ring while a commoner would not." She stretched her hands in front of her and regarded them thoughtfully. "After five years of playing music and scribing, I wonder if I could still pass; they have definitely gained in size, even if they aren't yet as broad as a peasant's."

Both her hands would still fit in one of his, he noted to himself. "And Barrington?"

She made a face. "Ah, the bane of my existence. The Delicacy Test advises that only a true princess is fragile and sensitive enough to feel a pea beneath twenty mattresses. I would take an oath that magic is involved somehow, because I have slept on bare ground with less discomfort than I feel with one of those pea-infested beds."

"Do you mean to tell me that there is a pea underneath that mountain? And you felt it?"

She walked over to the bed, knelt down, and reached in one arm up to the elbow. When she removed it, her fist had curled around something, which she brought over to deposit in his unresisting hand. He looked down to a miniscule green orb nestled in his palm: a pea no larger than the tip of Tulip's pinky. He blinked. "You could feel that?"

"My bruises certainly did not form because of a ten-foot tall stack of goosedown feathers, and I have bruises on every surface that contacted the mattresses."

"And your back?"

"About four kingdoms ago, one overly helpful prince got his hands on the etiquette book before my test and decided that a single pea was too difficult. Somehow, he and his brothers slipped into the bedchamber and placed a half dozen fist-sized rocks in the bed." She grimaced. "I could barely move the next morning. I finally had to lay on the rug and have the nearest herbwitch walk on my back to get it straightened."

It sounded too impossible and fanciful to be real, but the disgusted look on her face made it clear that she found it altogether too realistic. And she was bruised on her neck and arms, as well as (presumably) her shoulders; he could see the livid discolorations with his own eyes. No wonder she had felt less than pleased at the idea of a Princess test; he made a mental note to have a discussion with his mother about the propriety of torturing a guest. "Did you sleep at all?"

She shook her head minutely. "No. Sometimes I manage to drift off despite the discomfort, but your mother's less-than-thorough planning made it impossible this time."

He should have waited to present himself at the suite until he was more awake, but he had felt too worried about something happening to his guest. Now, he could only flounder after the bits of the conversation he thought he understood. "She forgot something?"

Tulip nodded. "Look." Returning to the bed, she reached up a hand and pushed against one of the higher mattresses. The whole stack wobbled like a child's loose tooth; he fought down the urge to pull her as far from the pile as possible. "Usually the bed gets a kind of fence-like frame that helps hold all the extra bedding steady."

"I wonder if that is why I kept having dreams about you falling off the bed."

He couldn't quite interpret the look she directed at him. "You ... spent last night ... dreaming of me?"

Alexander nodded. "Several times."

"How did you sleep otherwise? Was the bed ... comfortable?"

He shrugged. "As comfortable as it always is -- I have been a nightly occupant for more than two decades now."

"Yes, but..." She stopped herself.

He started to ask her to explain, then remembered the threat she had made the previous day. Her back and shoulders could not possibly handle the strain of climbing out the window in her current condition, and he could never forgive himself were she to lose her grip and fall. Perhaps he should temper his curiousity now and she might reveal more information later, whether accidentally or by design.

She had watched him debate his options, it seemed, for when he did not pounce upon her last words, she offered him a smile. "You are learning."

"I thought the point was that I was not learning." He countered.

"Touché."

He raised an eyebrow. "Do you include fencing in your list of accomplishments, as well?"

She laughed. "Goodness, no, but I have seen enough bouts to know the language used in acknowledging a hit, Majesty."

Watching her attempt to stifle a yawn with only partial success, he asked, "Shall I escort you to the Great Hall, then, Princess?"

She blinked. "Is it not rather early for breakfast?"

"I had thought that perhaps you might want to nap for a time on one of the padded benches lining the walls. I can promise that they neither sway nor contain any vegetables in their padding."

She beamed. "I think that is the nicest offer anyone has made in a very long time. Lead on, sire."

He could not doubt the genuineness of Tulip's fatigue, for the moment they arrived in the Hall and she laid down on the nearest bench, her eyes closed. Her slow, steady breathing soon confirmed her somnolent state. He sat on the bench a foot or so from her head, easing down onto the material as gently as he could so as not to disturb the sleeping princess. Oddly enough, although a single pea could keep her awake on a bed, he rather doubted that a thunderstorm could disturb her now; yet he would not risk it. She looked so very dainty and vulnerable like this...

"What is going on here?" His mother's strident voice seemingly came from nowhere, startling him into jerking his head back and hitting the stone wall.

He reached up and rubbed at the tender spot, realizing that he must have drifted off himself. "I say, Mother, was that absolutely necessary?"

"And I say again, ‘what is going on?'" Queen Catherine sounded well on her way to having a healthy case of histrionics.

A much gentler voice offered, "mmm-mmm-mm?"

He looked down as the pressure he hadn't realized he felt on his leg shifted and discovered that at some point he and Tulip had shifted their positions so that her head was in his lap and his hand rested on her shoulder. That explained his mother's fit, although he admitted to himself that there seemed to be no pleasing the woman. First she pestered him to marry, and when he actually looked to be showing interest (she would never believe the truth, that this was strictly an accident and he was not looking at marrying Tulip) she did nothing but find fault.

The princess evidently came to full wakefulness rather abruptly, because a bare second after her murmur had alerted him to her presence, she had snapped upright -- a motion that left her rubbing ruefully at her lower back and which narrowly missed clipping him in the chin. A flush burned in her cheeks as she said, "Well, this is rather embarrassing. I could have sworn you were still standing."

Ignoring his mother's sputters for just a moment, he replied. "It seems we both needed sleep. Now, Mother, just because we happened to take a nap whilst awaiting breakfast, is there any reason to act as though either her Highness or I has done something terrible?"

"You both have bedchambers. Sleeping here -- together!! -- in the Hall," really, the queen's voice would break the rafters if it went any louder or shriller, "is most indecorous! As if you were the only persons who did not sleep well last night."

"Really?" Tulip leaned forward before he could inform his mother of what he thought of her arrangements in Tulip's suite. Her blush had vanished and her gaze was locked on the queen. "Your Majesty slept poorly?"

What did that gleam in her eye mean?

"It was absolutely ghastly. I doubt that I slept more than half the night." His mother had evidently forgotten for the moment that she was angry at Tulip. "I have ordered the maids to thoroughly turn out my bedding, and warned them that the next time any rocks make it into the mattresses, they shall be flogged."

"And, you, your Highness?" The princess had turned her attention to Peter, standing idly behind his mother and smirking at the pair.

A suspicion began to form in Alexander's mind. Surely, surely she hadn't...

"Perfectly well, what part of the night I bothered to sleep. That new kitchen maid is rather frisky." He offered his brother a wink and Tulip a leer.

As Queen Catherine turned her attention to scolding her second son about A) the proprieties of seducing the servants and B) the shame of admitting to such deeds in public, the king looked over at the princess. "Your Highness."

"Your Majesty?" Her face was all innocence.

"Dare I ask if you visited the kitchens yesterday?"

Had she just winked? "I wandered through a great part of the castle before you found me: portrait galleries, torture chambers, ambassadorial suites, the kitchens..."

He would take that as a yes, which brought him to another query. "And did everyone share a bed with a vegetable last night?"

"Oh, no." She laughed gaily. "Only the royal family. Turn and turn about is fair play, my dear King Alexander."

Her dear King Alexander?

 

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