"A lark? Indeed! And do you sing, still?"

"Only down in the kitchen. Not allowed any-wheres else in the castle."

The princess set down the hairbrush and took off her dressing gown. She opened the door of the large wardrobe to examine the long rows of frocks and gowns in many colors and fabrics. She frowned in indecision.

"In the kitchen," the chambermaid went on, her excitement increasing in the telling, "we all sing! The three serving girls, they can sing in parts! They practice all the time. And sometimes Cook, she beats time with a wooden spoon, and even the serving boy, though he's old and has false teeth that whistle, even he comes in on the choruses and the tra-la s. And the pulley boy!" The chambermaid closed her eyes and sighed.

"Pulley boy?" The princess turned from the wardrobe.

"Yes, miss. Him that pulls the food up from the kitchen. He's the fastest boy on his feet! And steady! Never a drop spilt! He can't read, but he sings like an angel," the chambermaid added, blushing, "and he's handsome, too."

Princess Patricia Priscilla began to laugh. "I expect I'll be hearing more about the pulley boy. But not now."

"No, miss, now you must dress." The chambermaid reassumed her attentive attitude. "Have you decided what gown?"

"I have. And now I am going to give you a command."

"Yes, miss?"

"And what must you do when given a command?"

"Obey. And curtsy first."

"Even if it is an odd command?"

"Yes, miss, I suppose so." The chambermaid looked a little uncertain.

"Tess," commanded the princess, "take off your clothes."

4. The Disguise

"Miss! I couldn't!"

"Don't be silly. Of course you can. First the apron. I want to see what dress you wear beneath the apron."

Nervously the chambermaid untied the sash of her starched white pinafore and let the wide apron fall loose. She pulled her arms free from the ruffled shoulders, folded the apron, and laid it on a pink damask chair.

"It's quite ordinary, isn't it? The dress, I mean." The princess examined it and felt the homespun brown fabric between her thumb and forefinger.

"I think it's nice." The chambermaid spoke a little defensively. "I never had one so nice till I come here to work."

"Of course it's nice. I simply meant that it is quite ordinary compared to the satins and organdies I have to wear every day. Tell me something, Tess. Would this be the kind of dress a village girl might wear to school?"

Tess wrinkled her face, thinking about it. "Aye," she said, "I guess. Maybe more raggedy and patched, for most. And not with shoes." She looked down at her own feet, shod in sturdy buckled leather over thick black stockings.

"No shoes?"

"No, miss. Not in this weather, at least. In winter, when it's cold, maybe clogs. But these"—she pointed to her feet with a certain amount of pride—"these here are castle shoes."

"Well, you keep those on, then. And your underclothes. But give me your dress."

"My dress? Why?"

"It is a command."

Tess sighed, curtsied, and began to unbutton the simple brown dress.

***

"There, now! Tell me what you think. Do I look like a simple village girl?"

Princess Patricia Priscilla stood back and posed against the embroidered draperies that framed the large double window. She was wearing the homely dress and her feet were bare.

The chambermaid, wearing her muslin under-shift, her bony shoulders and arms exposed, looked critically at her. "Hair too fancy. Feet too clean," she said, after a moment.

"I was afraid of that."

"I could fix the hair, I guess."

"Do so, then."

The chambermaid mussed the princess's long curls and then braided the hair into two uneven pigtails.

"Shall you put a ribbon at each end?" the princess asked.

"Oh my, no. That would be princesslike. Here's how we do." The chambermaid removed the sprigs of flowers from the crystal vase on the breakfast tray. Deftly she tied the ends of the braids with twisted flower stems.

"Oh, I think I look wonderfully rustic and primitive!" said the princess, standing before the long

The Birthday Ball

looking glass. "I'll dirty my feet when I am outdoors."

The chambermaid, standing beside her, staring at her own reflected image, groaned. "Blimey, I look bare-naked! I'm downright humiliated."

"Here." The princess handed Tess the dressing gown that was draped on the bed. "Put this on and wear it till I return."

"I can't, miss! They'd see, and I'd be punished!"

"No. No one will see you. You stay right in my room and I will leave instructions that no one is to enter.

"Look over there, Tess, at the bookshelves! Filled with books. You said you could read. You may read any book you want. That will pass the time while I'm gone.

The little freckled chambermaid stared in rapture at the crowded shelves. "Lordy," she breathed. "I hope my ma is looking down and can see this. Me in silk, with books!"

5. The Escape

Princess Patricia Priscilla, her homespun dress hidden under a cloak, made her way down the castle stairs, followed by Delicious, twitching her thick tail. She knew that she would not encounter her father. An old nursery rhyme contained great truth: The king was in his counting house...

The princess's father, King Lepidoptera, spent most of his time in his counting house, which was a separate small building to the left of the west tower. He was not there to "count out his money," as the rhyme described, because a team of exchequers worked continuously on that task in a vast room called the vault, which was in a secret location. There was a great deal of money, more coming in all the time—taxes and tributes and tithes—and fourteen highly intelligent money managers counted and sorted it twenty-four hours a day, making lists and notes and calculations with quill pens.

The counting house was different. In it the king kept his vast collections of butterflies. He acquired them, sorted them, organized them, and labeled them. He had old shelves and drawers removed and new shelves and drawers installed. A team of skilled carpenters worked on nothing but the king's collection cabinetry, though from time to time one carpenter might be summoned to the castle briefly to repair a wobbly chair or a creaking floorboard.

Because she knew that her father went to his counting house each morning, the princess was not worried about encountering him as she tiptoed stealthily down the wide stone stairs. The stone was chilly on her bare feet. Ordinarily her feet were unclothed only when she bathed, and then only very briefly and under the warmest of circumstances.

But she liked the feeling of touching something true, like stone. "I wonder what dirt will feel like," she said softly, even though no one was nearby. Tess the chambermaid had been left behind in the bedchamber, curled up with Alice in Wonderland, murmuring "Blimey!" each time an amazing thing happened, which was every other paragraph.

"I'm going now, Tess," the princess had announced. "I'm going to do just what you suggested, and tell the schoolmaster I am new to the village."

"Blimey," Tess said, barely looking up. "Now she's got herself a cake that says 'Eat me'! And what happened to that rabbit, I ask you!"

"I command you to listen for a moment."

The chambermaid carefully marked her place with a finger, and looked up.

"'My father is dead and my ma a poor widow newly come to the village who does washing for lazy folk.' I'll tell him that."

"Say Pa, not Father."

"Yes, of course. I almost forgot. 'My pa is dead, killed by—let me think—a wild boar.'"

The chambermaid nodded. Her glance slid to the page.

"And you promise that he'll take me as a pupil, and give me a desk."

"Uh-huh."

The princess glared at her.

I mean, Yes, miss.

"Oh, dear, I hope I'm not forgetting anything important. I'll smear my feet with dirt on the path so they'll look like true peasant feet, humble and smudged. Are you certain it's all right if my cat comes with me?"

The chambermaid shrugged. "Cats is everywhere. Nobody notices cats."

"I'm so very excited."

The chambermaid nodded and turned her eyes to the book again.

"Aren't you excited, also, at such an adventure?"

"Yes, miss. Excited."

The princess turned to leave.

"Blimey," said the chambermaid, absorbed in the book, examining a drawing of Alice, "now she's gone and grown huge."

***

Although her father was, as she had predicted, in the counting house, the princess did encounter her mother, the queen, as she tried to creep away unnoticed. Queen Romelda Rebozo emerged from her private beauty salon on the second landing just as the princess was tiptoeing past.

"Good Lord Almighty, what on earth have you done to your hair?" the queen bellowed.

She always bellowed. It was because she was so deaf.

The princess reached up and touched the end of one untidy pigtail.

"It's the latest style," she explained to her mother. "It's rustic."

"Plastic? It certainly is not. Your father outlawed plastic years ago." The queen noticed the bare feet next, though the princess tried to crouch and cover them with her gathered skirt.

The Birthday Ball

"Oh, I see, you're going bathing. That's why your hair is done up so oddly. But you should wear your bathing slippers, Patricia Priscilla. Don't catch a chill. Five days until the ball! We need you healthy! You know what happens at the ball?"

She waited.

"I said: You know what happens at the ball?"

The princess hadn't realized it was a question. "Music," she replied to her mother.

"Eh?" The queen cupped her hand behind her ear. "Who's sick, did you say? No one is sick. What a foolish thing to say!"

"I said music!" the princess shouted.

"Indeed! Full orchestra." The queen beamed. "Extra violins! And a dwarf who plays the bassoon. What else?"

"Banquet food," the princess said.

"Eh? Bank a few? What a foolish—"

"Banquet food!" the princess said again, more loudly.

"Oh, right! Creamed pigeons, to start. Truffles and roast goat, salmon timbale, braised asparagus with pistachios, pickled turnips, artichokes stuffed with goose liver, pheasant breast en croute—"

"Mother, I have to go. My toes are freezing!" The princess descended a few steps.

"What was that? Toast is easy? Who said it wasn't? We're not having toast! What a foolish thing to say!" The queen tsk-tsked.

"And also," she went on, "don't forget the most important thing!"

The princess, at the foot of the stairs now, looked back. Her mother beamed down at her.

"What's that, Mother?"

"Eh?"

"What's the most important thing?"

"Suitors!" the queen bellowed. "You'll be sixteen! Marriageable! It's time for suitors!"

***

The princess scurried along, avoiding housemaids and polishing boys busy at their never-ending scrubbing and wiping and shining. She tried to put her mother's final word out of her mind. Suitors! The princess hated the thought of it.

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