"Show it!" she told the weeping duke.

He wiped his eyes again, leaned down, and lifted the small bamboo cage that he had placed under his chair. The guests leaned forward in their seats, trying to see what might be inside the cage.

"I can't hear a word he's saying," the queen said irritably. "What's that he's holding?"

"Shhh," said the king. "It's a cage of some sort."

"Tell about it," Liz whispered to the duke. "Speak up nice and loud!"

So the duke, choking back tears, for he could not stop thinking about how ugly he felt, explained how he had sent searchers for the rarest of butterflies as a gift to the king in exchange for the hand of his daughter.

"And this one came from Africa," he said. "I forget how to say its name. Chara ... Well, something."

"Charaxes acraeoides?" The king was on his feet.

"That's it," the duke replied. "Look!" He lifted the small golden latch and opened the door of the bamboo cage. An amber-colored butterfly with black decorations on its wings fluttered free.

"Blimey, it's beautiful!" the little girl said. "And lookit it go!"

The rare butterfly, the most powerful flier in the Congo, swooped the length of the huge head table, circled the head of the amazed king, lifted itself into a long upward glide, and disappeared through the open window.

"That were sumfink to see!" Liz exclaimed, clapping her hands.

The Birthday Ball

The king, his mouth open, sat back down slowly. "It's gone," he said.

Duke Desmond, still holding Liz's hand, sat down as well. "Yes," he said. "Free."

The queen tapped her crystal water glass with a silver knife to order quiet. She had not understood much of what had just occurred. "Next?" she called.

The thin bald man in black stood up slowly. "I am Percival," he said, "Prince of Pustula." He picked up a butter knife, held it in front of his face, and examined what he saw. No mustache. No hair. He felt destroyed.

"I brought a gift," he announced. "But it is useless now."

He reached into his back pocket, removed the small silver box, and tossed it toward the place where the princess sat. "Here," he said contemptuously. "Do what you want with it. I'm so out of here."

Then he stalked from the room and they could all hear his footsteps as he descended the staircase.

Curiously the princess reached for the container. She opened its lid, looked in, chuckled, and removed the gift. It was a pair of mirrored glasses, the frames encrusted with diamonds. She reached across the table and handed them to the orphan. "Try them on," she suggested. "They might be fun."

Liz unfolded the glasses and balanced them over her ears and nose. She giggled. "Everyfink's dark!" she said. "But I can see you!" she added, turning to the duke.

He looked at her, saw himself reflected, and burst into tears again.

"You stop that right now!" Liz said. "You just get used to it! Becuz I'm goin' to put these spectacles on every day and you can see your teef gettin' better and better iffen you start brushing regular!"

"Every day? But I'm going back to my own domain—"

"And you be takin' me wiv you! 'Cuz I'm a norphan and got no home!"

"You'd go with an ugly thing like me?" he asked in surprise.

"Iffen you let me bring a kitten," Liz replied with a grin.

The queen tapped again on the crystal glass. "This is all going on much too long," she announced. "There is still dancing planned. Can we have the final suitor at once?"

But amazingly, the conjoint counts refused to come forward. They were in the corner with the triplets, quietly practicing harmonies, planning new five-part songs.

Hmmmm.

Hmmmm.

Hmmmm.

Hmmmm.

Hmmmm.

"Counts?" the queen called. "We're ready for your presentation now!"

Count Cuthbert looked over. "We're busy," he replied.

***

"Father? Mother? Villagers?"

The princess, who had been seated and silent, rose from her chair. Everyone turned toward her end of the table. Liz put on her new spectacles and looked up at the princess with a grin. "Not now, Liz," the princess admonished her with a smile.

From her perch on the pulley tray, Tess leaned forward. Soon, she knew, she would be lowered. But she wanted to hear this moment, to know whom the princess would choose.

"It is the moment for the choice," the princess said to the waiting gathering.

"Eh?" The queen could not hear her daughter. "What did she say?" she asked the king.

"The choice. She's making the choice." The king was preoccupied with his own plans. If he could get out to the meadow, and if that Charaxes acraeoides had lingered there ... Well, there was a chance...

"I know it is required," the princess went on, and for a moment her voice faltered. "It is the Law of the Domain. Isn't that right, Father?"

The king nodded. He looked at his watch and yearned for the evening to end. "Law of the Domain."

"And only you can change that?" The princess felt this was her only hope: convincing her father, even at this last moment, that he must change the Law of the Domain. "You being king, I mean?"

The king was startled. His daughter was correct. But the procedure for changing the Law of the Domain was complex and lengthy and very, very time-consuming. "Yes," he acknowledged. "Only I. Being king. Very time-consuming. Minimum, seven years."

The princess's heart sank. Seven years? She'd be old by then! She didn't want to wait seven years!

"Well," she said, frantically searching in her mind for another solution, "am I correct, also, that the princess—that's me, of course." Here she laughed nervously. "Ah, the princess has to choose a husband, and he must be nobility?"

"Nobility. Correct. Prince. Duke. Count. Whatever." The king groaned inwardly, suffering for his daughter. The hideous duke was slobbering in his seat and being comforted by a waif. The repulsive prince had fled, stopping only briefly to squat and look at himself in a highly polished doorknob, and a footman had whispered to the king that he was now being pursued around the castle grounds by bees. The counts, one of them with toilet paper stuck in wads all over his face, were singing madrigals in a far corner with the serving maids.

The princess took a deep breath. "All right, then, I'm ready. I will make the choice."

The room fell absolutely silent.

The princess remembered, in that instant, what the schoolmaster had said to her once: You are tall and slender as a young willow tree, supple and lovely. She drew herself up and stood very straight.

"I choose to marry Herr Gutmann," she said.

19. The Happy Ending

"What did she say? What did my daughter say? I demand to know what the princess said!" The queen turned to her husband.

"She said something that makes no sense," he explained to her, enunciating clearly. "She said she wants to marry someone named Herr Gutmann!"

"The footman? Impossible!" the queen gasped.

"No, not the footman! Herr Gutmann is what she said!"

Around the table, all of the villagers were murmuring the same word. Impossible. Impossible. Impossible.

"It isn't impossible!" the princess, near tears, insisted. "My chambermaid told me about Herr Gutmann! He's nobility! He just likes to pretend to peasanthood! But he's truly noble, and qualifies!"

From her hiding place in the pulley passage, Tess listened, and her eyes grew wide. The princess had chosen the schoolmaster? That stern, bearded man who had taught her to read and sometimes rapped her knuckles with a ruler? He was old! But still, perhaps it was better than the horrible suitors!

A tall peasant woman, wringing and twisting her hands in nervousness on her skirt, stood. "Please, Your Majesties? Please, Princess? I can explain why it's impossible."

"Do so, then," the king commanded. He sighed. It was dark now outside. This was all taking much too long. The butterfly was out there somewhere.

"Herr Gutmann is nobility, it is true," the peasant woman explained. "That is, he was. Oh, I suppose he still is. Oh dear, I'm very nervous."

"Get to the point!" the king said.

"Well, the point being, Herr Gutmann went back to his own domain these many months ago, where he married his old friend Gertrude, her being a widow and all. He can't marry twice, not even if the princess chooses him!" The peasant woman sat down and bowed her head in embarrassment. She had never spoken in public before.

"No!" cried the princess. "He's not old! Not married! He's here! He's right here! Look! I brought him a book!" She held out the gift she had saved for the schoolmaster, the book of maps, and read the inscription aloud: "'For Herr Gutmann, with thanks from Patricia Priscilla, who was Pat for too short a time.' But he hasn't looked at me all evening, and I think my heart will break!" She pointed to the young schoolmaster.

He looked up at her and put it together in his mind, what she had thought, and how it was all hopeless. He stood.

He said slowly, "I too have brought a gift." He reached under his chair and held up exactly the same book of maps. He read his own inscription: "'For my dear pupil Pat.' But there has been such a misunderstanding. You are not my dear pupil Pat. She doesn't exist. And I am not Herr Gutmann. I am the new schoolmaster, only come recently from the teachers' academy.

"And," he went on, "I am truly a poor peasant, not nobility at all, so my heart is breaking, too.

"My name is Rafe," he said.

"Rafe!" Tess, on hearing the name, tumbled in a twirl of petticoats out of the pulley passage, onto the marble floor. "Ow!" she said. "Bruised me bum, I did!" Then she picked herself up and ran forward into the banquet hall. She found the schoolmaster, threw her arms around him, and grinned at the princess. "It's me brother, miss! The one I thought was gone forever!"

"Tess? My little lost sister? Pa sent you to work at the castle?" Rafe replied in delight as he hugged the freckled chambermaid.

"I'm happy for you both," the princess told them. And she was. But she was terribly sad for herself.

***

"Explain to me what is happening," the queen said to the king. "That's quite a good-looking man there, but he's wrapped his arms around the seventeenth chambermaid, and I don't like that one bit!"

"Sister. Long lost."

"And our daughter? Did she make the choice or not? I couldn't hear a thing. It seemed as if she was choosing a footman. We can't have that. All this hugging of servants! Quite unthinkable! And she looks sad."

The king leaned close to his wife. "Schoolmaster, dear. The good-looking one. She chose him. Can't happen. Not nobility. Very sad."

"Not nobility?"

"No. Not."

"What's his name?"

"Rafe, he says."

"Treif? That's a terrible name!"

"It's Rafe!" the king said loudly.

"Rafe!" the queen called. "Rafe, pay attention here! Disentangle yourself from the chambermaid! I'm summoning you! Come forward!" She made a summoning gesture with her hand toward the schoolmaster.

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***