"Cream sauce? No thanks."
"You could do that?" He scooped up another armful of birds. Then he nodded to her, and blushed. "I'm John," he said.
"Pastry!" They could hear the cook shout in the kitchen. "Clear some tables for rolling out the pastry!"
"I could!" the chambermaid said. "It's easy. Look: A is first, all stiff and upright, like this." She drew the letter with a stick in the ground beside the wheelbarrow. The pulley boy, his arms filled with pigeons, stared down at it.
"A is for Alice, in that book I told you about." He dropped the pigeons onto the top of the pile they had already made. "Lemme try it, then," he said, and took the stick from her. Carefully he made an A in the dirt.
"Nuts to be shelled!" the cook called. "Where's that boy went to get the pigeons? He could be shelling these pistachios!""
Quickly they loaded the last of the limp birds and pushed the wheelbarrow toward the corridor. "I'll show you B later," Tess whispered.
"B is for birthday, and for ball," she explained.
The Birthday Ball
14. The Suitors
From three different directions they started out, early Saturday morning, as the sun was rising. Each suitor had an entourage of servants, horses, a coach in which to ride, and long lines of bearers carrying trunks of clothing, toiletries, and trinkets.
A hawk, soaring high on the cloudless morning, peering below, his keen eyes alert for rodents or snakes to descend on for his breakfast, saw the processions from a great distance. From his place in the sky they looked like scores of ants moving steadily toward a destination where they would all converge on some edible mound, perhaps the leavings of a peasant picnic. But the hawk, no stranger to humans and the complicated lives they led, knew exactly what and who these caravans were.
Through the countryside they came. En route from the east, Duke Desmond of Dyspepsia lay back among the thick cushions in his carriage, snoring. In his sleep he scratched himself. His stomach grumbled noisily. From the side of his always open mouth, a bit of drool slid to the cushion and made a wet splotch.
Surrounding his carriage rode six attendants on horseback, each one selected for superior eyesight. They swiveled their necks constantly, searching the landscape for anything that might create a reflection. Their entire duties were to make absolutely certain that no mirror, no looking glass, nothing of a reflective nature, would ever be within range of Duke Desmond's vision.
When they approached a lake, the attendants signaled the procession to halt. Two of them rode ahead and perceived that the lake was quite still: not a dark stagnant pond, but rather a deep, serene pool of clear water.
They cantered to the shore, urging their horses until their noses were at the edge and, in fact, they leaned down to drink.
Seated on the horses' backs, the attendants leaned forward in their saddles, looked at their own reflections in the water, and sighed. It would never do.
"Splashers!" they called loudly back to the entourage. "Summon the splashers!"
Upon hearing the summons, a troop of thirty men wearing bathrobes trotted from the back of the procession, where they had been assigned to march, to the edge of the lake. This was their moment, the time they trained for. They got into position and in unison dropped their bathrobes, plunged naked into the water, and swam to their designated spots. Then with highly synchronized movements (they trained in a castle pool every morning) they splashed with their muscular arms, churning the water into a froth.
The procession started up and passed the lake slowly. Duke Desmond, pillowed in his carriage, had woken at the stopping and starting, and he heard the noise. He raised a window shade, glanced outside, and saw nothing but a body of water wild with waves, foam, and bubbles. It did not seem surprising to Desmond that on a clear sunny morning a lake would be so tempestuous. In his presence, all lakes were controlled by the splashers, and he had never seen one calm and reflective.
The duke closed the shade, yawned, gobbled several aspirin to soothe his toothache, scratched his left armpit, and tossed his thick dirt-encrusted hair from one side to the other. His manservant, poised, as he had been for hours, on a narrow, straight-backed seat, leaned forward to fluff the duke's pillows and murmured his usual greeting: "How fine you look this morning, sir!"
The lengthy procession moved along on the rutted road. As it passed the lake, the splashers quickly redonned their robes and trotted back into their marching place. The front attendants continued to scan the landscape vigilantly for anything that might be reflective. And at the very end, a uniformed man, especially chosen for his sure-footedness, marched very carefully, alert for any rock or hole that might cause him to stumble. He carried a bamboo cage that contained a very rare, very valuable butterfly. It would be the duke's gift, the gift that would amaze and delight the king, that would persuade the Princess Patricia Priscilla to choose him of all the suitors, and would make her the Duke of Dyspepsia's bride.
From the west, a similarly long and complicated procession moved forward from the domain of Pustula. There were the decorated horses, of course, the costumed courtiers, and the elaborate coach that carried Prince Percival and his valet. There was also a large brass band trained to form themselves, while marching and playing, into the shape of one large letter P, or, alternatively, into four small Ps intended to represent the bride-and-groom-to-be.
In addition, trudging at the end of the line, a large number of servants were carrying trunks of the prince's clothing, boxes of ointments, jars of perfumes, and tubes of hair dyes and pomades, as well as whisk brooms to resupply the valet from time to time when his dandruff brushes became clogged and had to be destroyed.
Finally, surrounding the entire entourage, walking with precision, were one hundred mirror bearers. They walked sideways, like crabs—an art they practiced and practiced back in the domain when the prince was not traveling—so that at any given
The Birthday Ball
moment, if the prince looked from the window of his carriage, he would not see scenery, not see lakes or hills or meadows, though they were traveling through such a landscape, but instead would behold with satisfaction the thing he most admired: himself.
Inside the carriage, at his side so that he could stroke it now and then (following which he curtly ordered the valet to wipe it free of his oily fingerprints), sat a small rectangular silver box with a lid that was snapped closed and latched. The box contained his engagement gift to the princess, the specially made gift that he knew would persuade her to agree to be his wife.
The procession of the conjoint counts was moving down from the north at the same time. But seen from the hawk's point of view, from above, it was a sharp contrast to the steady and orderly lines that came from the east and the west. The third group, equally large, moved in fits and starts, in zigs and zags.
It was because it had two leaders and they couldn't agree.
"Take that detours, there to the left!" Count Colin had bellowed, leaning from the left-hand window of the double-wide carriage in which he rode with his twin brother.
"No, stupid, go to the right!" Count Cuthbert shouted, and dragged his brother across the slippery leather seat of the carriage so that he could put his head through the window on the right, and point. In retaliation for being dragged, Colin yanked his brother's beard as hard as he could. Cuthbert turned and slapped him, then grabbed one of his brother's earlobes and twisted. The carriage lurched and jiggled as they fought, kicking and biting, and the entire procession once again, as it had throughout the day, slowed to a halt because the drivers did not know whether to go left or right.
"Sirs!" A polite knock at the carriage door interrupted the fight, and the convoy leader, an army general in full uniform, expressed his concern to the counts. "We're losing time because of all the stoppings and startings, and I fear we will arrive late for the balls if we don't move more steadily along."
"It's his fault!" Colin said, gesturing to his brother. "He caused all the poppings and fartings!" He laughed raucously and poked Cuthbert with an elbow. "Get it? Get it?"
Cuthbert poked him back and giggled. "Poppings and fartings!" he repeated with glee.
The general waited patiently. "May I suggest, sirs, that in order to proceed at a good paces, we rely on the maps readers? I believe they have studied the routes carefully. We have entire troops of geography experts."
"Entire poops?" Colin chortled. "What do you think, Cuth? Shall we let the poops lead us, with their stoopy-poopy maps?"
Count Cuthbert put his tongue between his lips and made a rude noise at the general.
Count Colin turned, pulled down his trousers, and mooned the general.
Then they both leaned back in their seat and began to pick their noses. "Get moving!" Count Cuthbert called loudly to the carriage driver. "Me and Colin want to get married!"
The hawk, watching as the convoys advanced, sensed what was coming. They would converge, he could see, at the castle, and no good would come of it, no good at all.
He screeched and wheeled about in the cloudless sky, wanting nothing to do with humans, and especially these. He tested the wind, then turned and flew full-speed toward the southwest, deciding to soar today over a distant city instead, where he would find rats, a much more reliable species. You always knew exactly where you stood with a rat, and they were edible as well.
An entire room beside the banquet hall had been designated the gift room and was filled now with the wrapped and ribboned gifts that the princess would distribute to the villagers during dinner, before the toasts were made.
There were dolls and balls and kites and games for all the village children, and for those who attended school, a shiny sharpened pencil as well.
There were flowered aprons for the village housewives, each with a small bottle of perfume in the pocket. For the village men, most of them farmers, bright-colored handkerchiefs, and combs.
Special gifts had been chosen by the princess for special people. For Tess, her chambermaid, her own copy of Alice in Wonderland, with illustrations; for the schoolmaster, a leather-bound book of maps (in which she had inscribed, "For Herr Gutmann, with thanks from Patricia Priscilla, who was Pat for too short a time"); an engraved silver pitch pipe for the trio of singing serving girls, who would, tonight, perform the song that they had prepared for the birthday; for the pulley boy, a fine pair of gloves to protect his hands against the thick rope; and finally, for the little orphan who wanted something to cuddle, a small pink-ribboned basket containing a satin cushion with a note attached that read: "Coming soon: one delicious kitten."
(Upstairs, that morning, upon awakening, the princess had looked around, as usual, for her cat. A loud purr and some tiny squeaking sounds directed her attention to a far corner of the bedchamber, where she saw Delicious lying haughtily upon a pillow that had been dragged from a chair. The cat was licking and tending three tiny yellow kittens.
"I should have known!" the princess cried. "The size of your tummy was suspicious, Delicious!")
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