***

The sun was just beginning to set over the domain. Outside, on the castle grounds, scores of tents had been set up for the visitors who had traveled long distances. Beyond the vegetable gardens, spreading down toward the king's fishing creek, were the red striped tents that housed Duke Desmond and his many courtiers. It had been an unfortunate choice of location, for the splashers, already exhausted when they arrived, were immediately called into service once again. Now they took turns, going in groups of ten at a time, dashing to the creek to stir up the usually quiet waters.

On another side of the castle grounds, beside the meadow where wildflowers attracted hundreds of bees that lived in nearby hives and provided the honey for the queen's breakfast, green polka-dotted tents provided shelter for Prince Percival and his entourage. It too had been a poor choice, for the rows of tents, when surrounded by the mirror bearers, blocked the beeline to the meadow, which confused the bees dreadfully and was beginning to make them so angry that a sinister and alarming bzzzzz was becoming quite audible.

Finally, behind the counting house and west tower, a double-wide blue and white checked tent had been erected for the conjoint counts, and around it, similar but smaller blue and white tents for their many servers and carriers. But the large tent had already partially collapsed because of the wrestling match between Colin and Cuthbert that had ensued shortly after their arrival, when one wanted the bedpillows arranged to the east and the other to the west. Colin got Cuthbert in a hammerlock, but Cuthbert dug his fingernails into Colin's backside, and within moments they had destroyed the furniture and splintered one of the side tent poles.

***

"Oh, miss, you do look so lovely and grown up." Tess the chambermaid had just finished pinning up the princess's hair. Ordinarily it fell in curls over her shoulders. But tonight, for the first time, she would wear it on top of her head, framed by a small tiara of pearls and aquamarines that just matched her eyes.

"Well, Tess, I'm sixteen today." The princess sighed and leaned forward toward the looking glass to fasten earrings that matched the tiara. "Sixteen is grown up." She stared at herself and bit her lip. "Old enough to marry," she added in a small voice.

"Blimey," the chambermaid said. For a moment they were both silent.

"Oh, Tess!" The princess wiped away a small tear that had formed in the corner of her eye. "I did so love going to school! And the schoolmaster said he could help me to become a teacher!"

"Why don't you then, miss? That would be just the thing for you! I been thinkin' about wantin' to become a teacher myself, miss, someday! I tried teachin' the pulley boy his letters, and he took to it right away!"

"The Law of the Domain," the princess said sadly.

The Birthday Ball

"Law of the Domain? What ever's that, miss?"

"It's—well, it's the law, Tess. It says the heiress—that's me—has to marry at sixteen and produce an heir, or another heiress."

"An air? Well, that's foolish, miss, to think you can produce an air. The sky does that. Or the heavens, maybe. Sumpthin' up there, anyways." The chambermaid went to the window and looked out. "Just see! The leaves are movin' around. There's plenty of air."

"No, an heir, Tess. It's not the same. It means a..."

The princess fell silent.

"A what, then?"

"A baby," the princess said in a small voice.

Tess looked outraged. "A baby! No way! Not now, miss! Not when you are sixteen and wantin' to be a teacher! Maybe later, miss! But not now!" The chambermaid paced angrily back and forth across the bedchamber.

The princess stood up, and her embroidered petticoats swirled around her. "Pull yourself together, Tess. It makes me fretful when you pace," she said with resignation. "It is the Law of the Domain, and it is my sixteenth birthday. Help me with my gown."

The chambermaid stamped her foot. "But blimey, miss, it's a bad law! Can't sumbody change it?"

"Only the king. My father."

Tess stood still. "A pa can be hard," she said. "Mine was. Threw me right out of the house, he did. Told me to not come back."

"My father's not cruel like that. He's a good ruler, I think. We haven't gone to war in years because he doesn't believe in it." The princess gestured to the silvery-blue gown that was laid out carefully on her bed.

"He never raises taxes," she went on, "and he outlawed hangings. Get the gown, Tess."

Tess carefully picked up the elaborate gown and lowered it over the princess, taking care not to muss the elegantly upswept hair. With her voice muffled by the heavy folds of the skirt, the princess continued, "He holds celebrations, and parades, and invites traveling circuses. Last year he built a hhssspp—"

"What's that, miss?" The chambermaid eased the gown down so that the head of the princess emerged.

"Hospital. He had a hospital built because he learned that the villagers had none. Do you remember when Cook chopped her hand, Tess, when she was aiming for a turkey? It was the hospital stitched her up so nicely."

"So they did, miss. Hardly a scar." The chambermaid began to button, one by one, the long line of pearl buttons on the back of the gown.

"He's a good king," the princess said again.

"Yes, he is, miss. Hold still."

"He loves me dearly."

"Don't squirm. I can't button when you squirm, miss."

"He only wants the best for me."

The chambermaid stopped buttoning and stood back indignantly with her hands on her hips. "Well then, miss," she said in a loud voice, "all I got to say is he has an odd way of showin' it iffen he wants you to have a air when you're still nothin' but a girl. I know he don't beat you like my pa did, or throw you out, but iffen he was a really good king he would change the Law of the Domain, and that's all I got to say, miss!"

A small golden clock on the dressing table chimed.

"Button, Tess. It's almost time."

"And as for them suitors, miss—well, we haven't talked about them suitors. But I seen them, miss, when they arrived. One is the ugliest man in the world, miss, with teeth that stick out and a huge snarl of dirty hair all ratted up. And the next one, miss, well, the next one don't do nuthin' but strut and look at hisself every minute, and his hair is sleeked back with foul-smelling oil. And the last one, miss, blimey, the last one is two stuck together, slapping at each other and spitting and using the coarsest language—"

"Tess, don't talk about them—I can't bear it!"

"But miss, they say you have to choose tonight! They say below-stairs that at the ball you have to choose, and I don't see how you can, when the choice be so horrible!"

The princess took a deep breath and drew up her shoulders. "Tess, be still, and button my gown! That is a command!"

The chambermaid sniffed. Her freckled face was pink with outrage. "Yes, miss," she said, and curtsied.

16. The Banquet

The banquet tables had been set with the finest of the castle's engraved silver flatware and handpainted china. Masses of flowers had been arranged in crystal vases placed at intervals along the length of each table. Footmen in full uniform stood at attention around the walls, waiting to attend the guests, and serving maids in freshly starched aprons scurried in and out, carrying plates of butter and celery and baskets of fresh-baked breads of all sorts. In the kitchen far below, massive tables held the plates of food, all of it waiting to be lifted up by pulley and served to the guests. The pigeons were creamed, the pistachios shelled, and two hundred artichokes had been stuffed with goose liver and arranged on plates.

In the corridor, the three singing serving girls, exempted from serving duties, were rehearsing their song. They had spent the entire previous night perfecting the rhymes and practicing the harmonies.

"Tonight's the night of the Birthday Ball," they sang.

"Dinner first in the banquet hall," they sang next.

"Banquet hall Banquet hall Banquet hall!" Here their voices divided into a complex harmony and formed a chorus.

"Gifts and fun for one and all..."

"Birthday Ball Birthday ball Birthday Ball!"

The elderly serving boy hobbled past them, carrying a fresh case of sardines. "That blasted cat's gone and had kittens. More mouths to feed," he muttered irritably. "Why don't you make up a song about that?" He glared at the serving girls in their pinafores. "Plenty of words to rhyme with cat, I'd say. Brat and fat and drat, for a few." He continued on his way, muttering.

From the bell tower, suddenly, the sound of the carillon began. Usually it played only the number of the hours, but now it rang a melody to signal the start of the event. The villagers, bathed and dressed in their best, had all been waiting at the gate to the castle grounds for the signal. Now they pushed the gate open and flooded through, the children skipping happily, the older village folk, many of them wearing unaccustomed shoes, trying to walk with dignity and purpose.

From their three encampments on the grounds, the visiting suitors emerged from their tents.

Duke Desmond wore a one-piece form-fitting green outfit, stretched across his pudgy belly and outlining his legs down to the ankles. On his feet he wore pointed green suede shoes with slippery soles that would help him to glide on the dance floor; he had practiced the waltz again and again, back in his own domain, and had created his own version of the dance, using dips and twirls that made his thick cord of hair fly back and forth.

Now, as he walked in a stately fashion toward the castle, surrounded by his courtiers, he did a little hop here and there, holding his arms out, pretending the princess was already encircled in them. He murmured sweet nothings under his breath in preparation, and blew some spit-laden air kisses (not easy to do, around his protruding teeth), relishing the thought that very soon his saliva would be decorating her lovely pink neck.

The splashers scurried ahead of him, rushing to flutter their hands in the castle birdbaths, and behind him came the bearer of the butterfly, carrying the elaborate bamboo cage that housed his gift to the king.

At the same time, from another direction, completely surrounded by mirror bearers walking sideways in the prescribed manner, Prince Percival began strolling toward the castle entrance. He was dressed entirely in black, and had enhanced his eyelashes with jet black mascara and added a little metallic gray shadow above, on the lids.

He was practicing his own dance steps, pointing his toes and wiggling his slim hips in a kind of tango. He turned from left to right, admiring himself in the mirrors as he did, stopping occasionally to check his makeup (for in addition to the mascara and eye shadow, he had applied some blush) or to adjust his mustache. Frequently he ordered another whisking of his shoulders by the valet, who trotted immediately behind him, carrying the dandruff brushes.

The Birthday Ball

The Birthday Ball

He carried his gift in his own back pocket, adjusting it now and then when the mirrors revealed that it was causing an unsightly bulge.

Behind his group, though unseen, a large swarm of bees was following in a slow-moving, purposeful cloud. The ringing of the carillon, which continued playing birthday music, masked the deep buzzing hum.

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