"You all right, then?" He was whispering, but the hollow passage carried the echoing whisper up to her.

"Fine!" she called back. She leaned over the edge and could see a light at the bottom outlining his head in the open pulley passage door far below.

"I'll keep you there till they need to send the empties down!" he called. "But I have to lower you then so's they won't find you!"

"Yes, all right!" Tess called down. Carefully she felt in the darkness for the latch to the door, and opened it a crack very slowly, fearful that someone may be standing near. But all of the servants had lined up at the edge of the banquet hall to watch the ceremony that was about to take place.

She opened the door a little farther and pushed her face against the opening so that she could see. There was the marble floor, which the elderly serving boy had described, and she could see a glimpse of a tapestry on a nearby wall. A delicate silk curtain moved slightly in the breeze from an open window. She noticed a Chinese vase on a small table with curved legs. And if she tilted her head and stretched her neck, she could see a bit of a lavish chandelier above. She was looking into the reception hall just outside the huge room where the banquet was being held.

When she heard familiar giggles and footsteps on the staircase, she ducked back inside, knowing that the triplets had been summoned and were about to appear. Peeking through the open slot, she saw them reach the hallway, enter the banquet hall timidly, holding hands, and assume their position for singing.

She could hear a great deal of commotion from the banquet hall itself. Now that the singing girls had taken their place, there seemed to be no one nearby, so she took a chance, opened the door to its full width, and poked her head out. That way, she could see into the banquet room: the backs of the queen and king, first (she recognized the crowns); many servants, all at attention; many villagers, who seemed to be opening gifts and exclaiming over them.

She could not quite see the princess, who was blocked by several footmen standing at attention near the door, or the people seated around her, which was a disappointment.

But the suitors were visible! And every bit as horrible as she remembered! She leaned forward to examine them one by one just as the king rose, holding a goblet of wine, to make a toast.

***

The Birthday Ball

The schoolmaster, slumped in the chair to which he'd been assigned after his late arrival, was desolate. He knew he would have to rise and raise his own goblet in a moment, for the king was making a speech that would clearly end in a toast. But it would be a toast to the princess, and he didn't want to participate. He had already dropped the two gifts he had brought onto the floor beneath his chair. The bouquet of flowers that he had picked for the princess were simple wildflowers, not at all suited for this room or this table or—he groaned inwardly—for this bejeweled, coifed, satin-gowned beauty, the Princess Patricia Priscilla, who had looked at him, her aquamarine eyes alight with admiration but awash, too, with regret, when he arrived.

And his other gift, his gift for Pat, the pupil for whom he had had so much affection and hope? It was abandoned, too, on the floor. For there was no Pat, he realized now. The winsome schoolgirl had simply been the princess, disguised. Why had the princess played such a trick? The schoolmaster felt cheated and duped. It was one more loss in a life that had already been too filled with them.

The king droned on. Something about butterflies, how beautiful they were, like his daughter, the princess, emerging now from the cocoon of childhood into the blah blah blah. The schoolmaster stopped listening and looked around the lengthy table.

What he saw was very strange. Seated next to his small pupil Liz was a hideous man dressed in green. His head, from which was thrust a thick spikey wad of reddish-brown hair, was on his plate, and he was sobbing loudly.

The Birthday Ball

Liz, he saw to his surprise, was patting the man's cheek and murmuring to him.

The king droned on, and the schoolmaster leaned forward to try to hear what Liz and the hideous man were saying to each other.

"I'm so ugly!" the man wailed. "I never knew!"

"It don't matter," little Liz was saying in a soothing voice.

"I never knew at all until I entered the castle and there was a whole phalanx of courtiers carrying mirrors! Mirrors! I never saw one before! I had no idea I was so ugly!" The man burst into fresh tears.

"Stop it," Liz said firmly to him. "I fink you're sweet. It don't matter about ugly."

The man snuffled.

"But you do need to brush your teef," she told him. "And I'll help you wiv that mess of hair."

"You will?" he asked, and lifted his head.

Across the table, the schoolmaster saw another odd sight. A thin man wearing makeup and dressed entirely in black was grabbing utensils, one after another. He had overturned a goblet and a candlestick by reaching frantically across the table to grab things. He was muttering at the same time.

"Wouldn't let my mirror bearers in, eh? No room for a hundred mirror bearers? What kind of domain is this? I must see myself! I must always see myself!"

He grabbed a silver soup ladle and held it in front of his own face, peering at the bowl of it as he tilted the ladle from side to side. His nose in the image grew huge, then receded to become a miniature nose atop a mammoth lopsided mustache. He had one huge Cyclops eye and one small, slitted piggy one.

"Valet!" he called out desperately. "Someone, summon my valet!"

(But the valet, sensing an opportunity, had slipped through a back door of the hallway and found his way to the kitchen. There he had already introduced himself as Hal to the head housekeeper and applied for the next available job.)

The man in black, while the schoolmaster watched, threw the silver ladle to the floor. From his seat he leaned forward across the table, squinting and mumbling and trying to see his own image in the base of a many-tiered silver candelabra.

With a whoosh of flame it ignited his thick hair lubricant so that for a moment he appeared to have a halo. Then two villagers adroitly doused the flames with their drinking water, and the man sat, defeated, confused, with no eyelashes left, and bald but for a singed fringe around each ear.

"I need my valet," he announced piteously. "I need to have my dandruff whisked."

The elderly peasant woman who had poured water on him glanced sympathetically his way and explained, "Yer gots no dandruff, sir. It's burnt off."

The queen could not hear the bits of commotion at the end of the table. She sat smiling blankly as the king droned on. The king heard nothing but his own voice. He hated parties, hated speeches, hated making toasts. But he did love the princess.

"So," the king concluded. "That's that. Daughter, butterfly. Birthday. And in a minute, a special song, right?" He looked at the triplets. They blushed and nodded.

"And then the choice. The princess makes her choice. Chooses from the suitors, gets a husband. Law of the Domain, that's what it is.

"To the choice!" he said loudly, and held up his goblet.

The guests all rose and echoed the phrase. "To the choice!"

The schoolmaster was beside himself with dismay and disappointment. He rose to his feet out of respect for the king, but he could not bring himself to repeat the words of the toast. Standing silently as the guests raised their glasses to honor the occasion, he glanced at the young woman he had known for such a short and hopeful time as Pat. He wondered whether she felt a disdain for his stupidity, a smugness that he had been so easily fooled.

But to his surprise, he could see that the princess was terribly sad.

The king nodded to the trio of serving maids, and they curtsied together and began their song.

***

Tess, from her place on the pulley tray, could not see much, but she heard everything. She had listened with a smile to the king's loving words about his daughter, but her face fell when he mentioned the choice and made the toast. How could her beloved princess choose among the three—or four, if the conjoint counts were considered two—equally repulsive suitors?

Tess had heard the duke sobbing, and the orphan's words of comfort. She had glimpsed a tiny bit of the flustered excitement when the prince caught fire. But she couldn't see the conjoint counts. They were seated in a specially built double chair not far from the queen, just out of the chambermaid's range of vision.

She began to hear them mutter, though, when the serving girls began their song.

"What're they, twins like us?" Colin poked his brother and pointed to the serving girls.

Cuthbert poked back. "Quit it!" He leaned forward to get a better view. "Nah. Not twins. There's three of 'em!"

"Are they joint?" Colin asked.

"Nah. Holding hands."

"We can sing as good as that, I bet. We're joint."

"Shhh!" The villagers held their fingers to their mouths. "We want to hear the song."

The counts both put their tongue between their lips in order to make their usual rude noise. But they forgot to. Their attention was caught by the trio, who had begun their song.

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

"Ball," said Count Colin aloud. But he wasn't saying it to be rude. He was—well, he was singing the word along with the girls.

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

"Hall," sang Colin and Cuthbert together.

"Banquet hall Banquet hall Banquet hall!"

"We can't do that part 'cuz we only got two of us, blast it all," Colin muttered to his brother.

The girls now performed a special chorus they had rehearsed, to go between each verse. It had no words, just a lyrical melody that they hummed in harmony.

Hummmmm. Hummmmm. Hummmmm.

Count Colin elbowed his brother. "Bummmmm," he sang, and raised an eyebrow naughtily.

"Don't," Count Cuthbert said. "Bum is rude."

"But—"

"And butt is rude, too! Stop it! Sing right!"

They were both silent for a moment, but one of the triplets glanced over at them and grinned. So the conjoint counts began to sing. They sang in harmony, one tenor, one bass; the three girls felt their way into the same harmony, and they completed the song together. The audience applauded. The three girls curtsied, and the counts lumbered awkwardly to their feet, and bowed, side by side.

"Now," said the king, when the applause subsided, "the gifts from the suitors, and the choice."

18. The Choice

"Wipe your nose," the orphan instructed.

They had announced the Duke of Dyspepsia first. Obediently he took the napkin the little girl had handed him and wiped his streaming eyes and nose.

"Hold my hand?" he implored. Gently she placed her small hand in his, and he stood. He had entirely forgotten the speech he had intended to make. Something about how the princess would be lucky to have him? Had that really been what he had planned to say?

"I'm Duke Desmond," he said, and sniffed back fresh tears. The little girl squeezed his hand. "Duke of Dyspepsia," he added.

"Ugliest man in the world!" he wailed.

Liz stood up. "Is not!" she said loudly. "He only needs sumbody to take care of him and make him brush his teef every single day! He's nice! And he brung a nice gift, too!

***

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