In the huge entry hall of the castle, she hung her cloak on an iron hook near a mounted stag's head. Then she pulled open the heavy carved oak door and went outside. Behind her, Delicious, the cat, slid out just before the massive door closed on her thick, yellow, very sensitive tail.

The Birthday Ball

It was not that the princess had never been outside before. On the contrary, as a younger child she had often been taken out for an airing by her nursemaid, and the two of them had skipped and hopped, laughing, on the finely mowed lawn beside the flower gardens. Now that she was older, the princess had often attended fetes and celebrations, sometimes at great distances to which she had traveled by the castle coach and its four magnificent sleek brown horses, who were decorated with plumes that bobbed with their heads. Sometimes, too, she had paid solicitous visits to the poor and downtrodden, accompanying her mother, the two of them followed by servants carrying baskets of nicely wrapped food and herbal medications.

But this was different. Now she was barefoot, clothed only in an extremely humble frock. Now she was alone except for her thoughts—Suitors! she said to herself again, with a shudder—and her pet.

"Listen, Delicious!" The two of them, princess and cat, cocked their heads and stood motionless, listening to the sound of the many birds that twittered and chirped in the trees. The cat's ears twitched. A small pink tongue emerged and licked thin cat lips. The cat's tail moved slowly back and forth.

"Don't be silly," the princess said, scolding her pet affectionately. "Peasant cats eat birds, of course, because they are poor and hungry and have no choice. But you are a castle cat with sardines at your beck and call. Stop looking avaricious, Delicious."

The cat, knowing the princess was correct, was embarrassed, and stilled her twitching tail.

The pair strode quickly down the well-kept path that led to the castle entrance. In the distance, across the vast lawn, gardeners were trimming hedges and watering a bed of peonies. No one noticed the princess as she pushed open the scrolled iron gate and left the castle grounds.

Outside, the path was no longer raked and neatly tended. Thick with dust and pebbles, it curved through the trees, and they followed it until the castle gate was out of sight behind them. Here the princess knelt and rubbed dirt onto her feet.

"Look, now my fingernails are dirty, too!" she said, speaking to the cat as she often did, since she usually had no one else. "I wonder if poor peasants have dirty fingernails. I suppose they do. And faces? Here, I'll smear some dirt across my cheek."

She did so while the cat watched.

"Now I am perfectly disguised as a pitiful peasant," the princess said with satisfaction. "Come along quickly. I don't hear the children playing anymore, and I think they must have gone into the school. So we should hurry. And no need, incidentally, to be surreptitious, Delicious. We blend in nicely."

The cat followed her compliantly, though her attention was diverted now and then by things that rustled the bushes and tall grass bordering the path. Mice. Chipmunks. A toad. A small green snake. Delicious yearned to prowl and pounce.

"Isn't this fun?" the princess said as they made their way hastily along the path toward the little school. "I am not one bit bored!"

6. The Schoolhouse

"I'm a poor peasant girl only recently come to live in the village because my mother was killed by a wild boar and my pa has to take in washing."

The princess stood nervously in the doorway of the schoolhouse. She looked down at her own dirty bare toes, then, because of the silence, back up at the face of the schoolmaster. His mouth was set in a line and his forehead was furrowed. He looked very stern, just as Tess, the chambermaid, had described.

The children, each one seated at a small desk, giggled.

I said it wrong, she thought. "I mean my pa was

The Birthday Ball

killed, that's what, and it's my mother that has to take in washing. I mean my ma."

"And you would like to become a pupil?"

"Yes."

"Yes what?"

"Yes, ah, I would like to."

He frowned and his forehead furrowed further.

"Yes, sir is the response," he said sternly.

The princess had never said "Yes, sir" to anyone in her life. But now she imitated the chambermaid, bobbed in a curtsy, and murmured, "Yes, sir."

"You're quite tall for a schoolgirl."

What was the phrase the chambermaid had used? "I'm a great galoomph of a girl."

The schoolmaster winced visibly at the phrase. "Please don't refer to yourself in that demeaning way," he said abruptly. Then his voice softened. "You are tall and slender as a young willow tree, supple and lovely. Remember that."

She nodded. "Yes, sir. Young willow tree."

The schoolmaster looked around the room, and his gaze settled on one pudgy boy. "Fred," he said, and beckoned to the boy.

"Yes, sir?"

"Move that empty desk, the one in the corner, and place it at the girls' end of our semicircle."

The boy obeyed and began to drag the desk to its place.

"And I," the schoolmaster said, "will make a nametag for your desk. That is, if you will tell me your name, which you have so far neglected to do."

"Blimey," the princess said aloud, imitating the chambermaid again. "I forgot."

"Excuse me?" The schoolmaster was at his tall desk, holding his quill pen.

"I forgot I had to have a name."

He eyed her curiously.

She cleared her throat. "Ah, it's Pat," she said. "Quite a short name because I'm merely a humble peasant."

"Well, that wasn't so hard, was it, to remember your own name?" He began to write the letters.

"No."

He looked up. "No what?"

"No, it wasn't. I mean: No, sir."

For the first time the schoolmaster smiled slightly. Then he placed the nametag, with its carefully lettered on her desk. He gestured to her to take her seat.

When she was seated, he leaned forward and looked at her more closely. He sighed. "Your face is dirty," he observed, "and so are your fingernails."

"Because I'm a poor peasant," the princess replied.

"Everyone in this room is a poor peasant," he said sternly, "including me. But we are all clean."

The princess looked around and saw that it was true. How had she gotten things so wrong? The other pupils' feet were dirty, all of them bare and coated with dust from the path (the schoolmaster wore high-topped suede shoes), but their faces were scrubbed, their hair was brushed, and their fingernails were clean.

"Go outside to the pump and wash," he told her. "Then come back quietly and take your seat for a spelling lesson.

"And," he added, "when you return, leave your cat outside."

The cat had curled around her feet, under the desk. Now opening both amber eyes at the sound of the word "cat," Delicious yawned, stood, and followed the princess as she left the room.

"You stay out here and lie in the sun," she told her pet as she dutifully cleaned her hands and face at the pump. "Wait for me. At the end of the school day, we'll go back to the castle and I'll summon your nice sardines for supper." She stroked the furry neck briefly.

The banished cat yawned and looked around, then extended the claws of all four feet, trying them out, because they had never been used for anything beyond dismantling embroidery. Now, above, a nest of plump and tasty-looking baby wrens was clearly visible. Across the schoolyard the cat perceived an appetizing small rodent of some sort, nibbling on a fern. The tip of a rough, pink, glistening tongue emerged.

The princess could almost read her cat's mind. "Don't be malicious, Delicious," she commanded, and shook her finger in warning. Then she left the cat there and returned, scrubbed clean, to the schoolroom.

***

"Oh, it was lovely, Tess, just lovely," the princess said at the end of the day, back in her bedchamber. "We had poetry and penmanship, and in geography I learned the names of all the domains, in alphabetical order."

"Domains, miss?" The chambermaid, reclothed, finished buttoning her dress and reached for the starched apron that had lain all day folded on the damask chair.

"You know, other principalities and kingdoms. Fiefdoms, too. Places ruled by other royalty, not us."

"Didn't even know there was other, miss."

"Oh, of course, there are tons! There's Analgesia, Bulimia, Coagulatia..." She sat, then held out her left foot so that the chambermaid could lace and tie her shoe. "I'm reciting them alphabetically," she explained. "Dyspepsia," she said next.

"I heard about that one," the chambermaid said. "There's a duke there."

The princess made a face of disgust. "Duke Desmond. A face like a warthog. No other domain has a ruler so hideous."

"Sorry to hear that, miss. There, this foot's done. Hold out the other."

The princess did so. "Why are you sorry to hear about stupid old Duke Desmond? He never comes here."

"Oh, but he will, ma'am. His name is on the list."

"What list? Is there a list of repulsive rulers?" The princess laughed, then reached for her hairbrush.

The chambermaid bit her lip uneasily. "Maybe I shouldn't have said, miss. But there's a list in the kitchen so's Cook can plan the food. A list of who's coming to your Birthday Ball."

Angrily the princess flung the silver-backed brush to her bed. Her cat, lying there, looked up, startled.

"Oh, don't be so suspicious, Delicious," the princess said in an irritated voice. "I wasn't aiming at you.

"Why would that warthog be invited to my ball?"

The chambermaid looked very nervous. She curtsied and began to edge herself toward the door.

"You know something I don't know! Tell me at once! This is a command!"

The chambermaid curtsied again and whispered it. "He's a suitor, miss. He's on the suitor list."

"No!" The princess gasped in horror.

"Yes, miss."

"Are there others? Who else is on the list?"

"I need a minute to think, miss." The chambermaid closed her eyes and tried to see the list in her mind. "Duke Desmond of Dyspepsia."

"You said that already. The warthog. Who else?"

"Ah, Prince Percival of—"

"Oh, no!" the princess wailed. "Of Pustula! Not him! He has dandruff, and he oozes foul-smelling hair oil!" She flung herself onto her bed. The cat hopped down in dismay and moved to the window seat instead.

"Anyone else?" the princess asked with a groan.

"Just one, miss. It's an odd one, though. Because it says two names together. Let me think."

"You don't need to. Two names together means only one thing." The princess was speaking now in a resigned voice, as if she had no more groans or wails left. "It's the Lords Colin and Cuthbert the Conjoint, isn't it?"

"Yes, miss, that's it."

"I knew it! My mother finds them fascinating because they're attached together. But they're coarse and rude. They bicker continuously, and they belch, too, and reek! They never bathe because no tub fits them both at once."

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