Finally, the conjoint counts, wearing a red plaid suit that they had finally agreed grudgingly upon, lurched forward from their encampment. They moved in circles because of their disagreements, one turning left while the other turned right, which invariably slowed them down and required a full circle before they could get aimed toward the castle once again.

Cuthbert had combed and trimmed his beard, but Colin had poked him in the ribs while he was doing so, causing the scissors to slip, so the beard now had an oddly scalloped shape. Colin himself had shaved, but Cuthbert had nastily jostled the arm that held the razor several times. So Colin's cheeks and chin were peppered with small dots of blood-smeared toilet paper, which he intended to remove as soon as they reached the castle entrance.

The villagers arrived first and were welcomed and ushered inside, then led up the grand staircase to the banquet hall. Their eyes were wide at the magnificence of the marble floors, the fine tapestries on the walls, and most of all, when the banquet hall doors were pulled open, at the huge tables set with embroidered cloths and decorated with flowers, candles, and plates that hinted at the food yet to be served.

Footmen pulled out individual chairs and helped each villager to be seated. In a corner of the banquet hall, a harp player began to pluck the strings of a magnificent instrument, and the deep, vibrating chords filled the room with background music.

A footman consulted his list and looked down at a very small girl in a patched dress who seemed to be all alone and a little overwhelmed.

He leaned down and said gently, "Might you be Liz?"

She nodded.

"An orphan?" he asked, still looking at his list.

"Yes, that's me, a norphan," she whispered. "I never been to nuffink like this before."

He took her hand. "You're to sit here," he said, indicating a gilt chair, "next to the princess." He lifted the little girl into it and sat her on its satin cushion. She found herself beside the chair of honor, which was still unoccupied.

"Blimey," Liz said aloud. She grinned and scratched her mosquito bite.

***

The harpist played a long chord and then fell silent, and buglers entered the hall. Standing at either side of the doorway, they waited while a butler called out "Their Majesties!" and then played a fanfare as the king and queen entered.

The king hated parties. He loved his daughter, wished her well on her birthday—in fact, wished for the best for her always—but he hated parties and hoped that this one would not last long. He disliked ceremonies, was uncomfortable in his gold tights, and wanted to get back to his butterfly collection.

The queen, in contrast, adored elaborate occasions. She had spent the entire morning trying on one gown after another, having her hair done and redone, fussing with jewels and makeup, and enjoying time-consuming preparations for her daughter's birthday. Even now, as she entered the banquet hall, nodding her head graciously to the left and right, she was thinking that she should have worn the patent leather shoes with the stiletto heels instead of the soft satin ones she had chosen.

The Birthday Ball

"Would you hold this scepter?" she muttered to the king. "I can't greet everyone graciously with a stupid scepter in my hand." He took it from her, and she began to blow kisses to the villagers, who had stood respectfully at their seats and were watching their entrance in awe.

"Please, be seated, humble peasants," she called to the long tables lined with standing villagers.

With her husband she walked to the two magnificent chairs waiting for them at one end of the head table. Arranging her skirts, she sat gracefully in one, and the king took his place beside her. The harpist resumed playing.

"What would you like me to do with the scepter?" the king murmured.

"Eh?"

"The scepter," he repeated.

"What's kept her? She'll be here. She's going to make an entrance. After the suitors arrive. Look at that, dear! Look at that sweet little waif."

The queen waved to Liz at the far end of the long table.

The king sighed and placed the scepter on the floor under his chair.

"We're ready!" the queen called to the butler at the door. "Bring in the suitors now!"

17. The Arrivals

The schoolmaster was late. Wearing his best clothes and carrying a small birthday gift, a bouquet of flowers, for the princess, he had joined the throng of villagers at the gate to the castle grounds and waited there for the carillon to announce the beginning of the celebration.

But when the bells began to ring and the crowd moved forward, he lingered. He was looking for his favorite pupil, the young girl, Pat, who had only recently joined his classroom. He had a gift for her, as well. It seemed an appropriate time, this celebratory evening, to present her with a gift that he hoped would trigger a desire in her to go on for further training to become a teacher.

There was something about Pat. She was pretty, of course; he recognized that. But it wasn't her good looks. It was her liveliness, he thought, her energy and enthusiasm, and her love of learning. And, too, the gentleness with which she helped the younger children, especially the tiniest one, the one named Liz. And her sense of humor! He liked that almost most of all, watching her try to keep her face serious, the way he so often did himself, forcing himself to be stern in visage when his mouth wanted to move, always, into a smile.

He looked around. Far ahead, on the castle steps, he could see his fellow villagers lining up to enter. But there was still no sign of Pat. It would soon be too late. The doors would soon close behind the villagers, and he feared he would not have the courage to approach all alone.

He could see, too, three odd processions of foreigners approaching from different directions. They looked like nobility, surrounded by their courtiers, but it was strange, the way they moved, hopping and prancing, and there was not a royal look to any one of them.

She was not coming, he thought miserably. She had decided against coming. He looked down the winding path, but it was empty, and his shoulders slumped in disappointment. So many losses in his life, the schoolmaster thought. His mother's death. The disappearance of his beloved little sister. The day that his father turned his back on him and ordered him out of his life. Each memory flooded through him now as he stood alone at the gate and realized that the lively schoolgirl would not be joining him on this night.

Arrange your face to hide your feelings. That was what he had been taught to do, and he did it now. He straightened up, swallowed to force back the feeling of tears that had surprisingly begun to well in him, set his face in stern lines, and walked forward, all alone, to the castle.

***

Far below the banquet hall, in the kitchen, the three singing serving girls waited at the foot of the stairs for their signal. They were wearing new embroidered pinafores and were very, very nervous. Mmmmmmm, they hummed together very quietly, readying their voices. Mmmmmmmm.

In the back corridor, Tess the chambermaid watched with admiration as the pulley boy lifted tray after tray with a steady grip on the thick rope. The creamed pigeons ascended. Then the carved goats. The artichokes, tray after tray. A line of servants moved each delicacy by assembly line from the kitchen to the pulley. Tess stayed carefully out of their way, but she was astounded at how swiftly and seamlessly everything moved.

"THE VILLAGERS IS IN!" Cook called. She had gotten the word, relayed down the staircase from footmen.

"Now?" the singing girls asked.

"Not yet. Not till they calls for you," Cook said. She retied the sash on the youngest, then patted the starched bow into a perky shape.

Tess watched the muscles in the pulley boy's arms. The heavy task seemed effortless to him. The salmons were moving up now.

"What does the banquet hall look like?" she asked the elderly serving boy, who was in his rocker with a blanket over his arthritic knees.

"You seen above-stairs," he said irritably.

"I've seen the princess's bedchamber," she told him. "That's all."

"All marble and crystal and silver and gold," he said. "Big chandeliers. Chinese vases. Tapestries. Fancy stuff. All needs polishing and tidying all the time."

"Blimey," the chambermaid breathed. "I wish I could see it."

"KING AND QUEEN IS IN!" Cook reported loudly.

"Now?" asked the triplets.

The Birthday Ball

"Not yet. Queen has to blow kisses and such. And there's still the suit—Wait," Cook said, and went to get a message from the footman.

"SUITORS IS IN!" she bellowed.

"Now?" asked the singing girls nervously.

"I told you! Not yet! The princess ain't in yet! Wait till they calls you!"

Mmmmmm, they hummed, to calm themselves. Mmmmmm.

"Them suitors is horrible," Cook said to everyone. "All the footmen sez so. They seen 'em comin' in."

"Oh, the poor princess," Tess murmured. "And she must choose one tonight.

"I wish I could see," she said again, longingly. "I wish I could watch." But the chambermaid had been ordered to stay below-stairs.

The pulley boy heard her. "Food's all up," he said. "If you want, I could lift you up by the pulley and you could peek."

"By the pulley?" she asked in astonishment.

He grinned. "Sure. I did it fer my brother once, just playin' around. Got him all the way up, no problem. You don't weigh no more than him. No more than a roast goat. I'm strong."

She looked again at his muscular arms and nodded. "I know you are," she whispered.

"PRINCESS IS IN!" Cook shouted. She turned to the singing girls. "Get ready." The trio began to take deep, calming breaths.

A hush fell in the kitchen. The pulley was silent, all the food having been lifted. The cook was silent, waiting for the signal. The singing girls were silent, breathing deeply to assuage their nervousness. The elderly serving boy rocked silently.

Tess tiptoed across the corridor. The pulley boy put his finger to his lips, whispered "Shhh," and helped her into the opening, where carefully she arranged herself on the tray.

"It'll be dark," he whispered, leaning into the place where she now crouched. "And when I start lifting, them ropes'll make a creaking sound. Don't be scairt of it."

"I won't," she whispered back. "I'm very brave, like Alice in the book, and used to odd things."

"A fer Alice," he said to her, and grinned.

"B fer brave," she replied, and he began to pull.

"There's an interruption!" Cook listened attentively for a moment to the message delivered by the footman, then passed it on to the triplets, explaining, "Someone came late. The doors was already shut. But they let him in, so now he has to take his seat. It'll be just another minute."

She waited, listening again, then added, "It's the schoolmaster."

***

The pulley passage was narrow and very dark, as the pulley boy had explained it would be. Tess, crouching uncomfortably on the tray, found herself holding her breath as she moved slowly upward through the castle walls. The tray swayed and scraped against the stone walls on either side, but the hold on the rope was firm and steady. She felt a small draft as she passed the pulley passage door on the second floor; then, finally, she reached the third, and could hear, far below, the sounds as the pulley boy fastened the rope tightly to secure her there on the dangling tray.

Source: www_Novel12_Com