She felt a sharp tap upon her shoulder and realized that a shadow had fallen across her desk. The schoolmaster was standing beside her and had used his pointing stick to tap her into attention.

"Sorry, sir," she said quickly, and looked down at the geography book she was supposed to be studying. An outline map showed all the domains, and beyond them the seas, which were dotted with small, intricately rendered drawings of serpents and whales rising from the foam.

***

The other children laughed at her lunch. On her first day, the day before, she had brought none, and they had nicely shared torn-off bits of their own thick bread. One, the pudgy boy named Fred, had given her his apple. She had never eaten a whole one before, because at the castle apples were always served peeled and sliced and arranged on a porcelain plate.

"How primitive this is!" the princess said in delight as she bit through the skin, following the example of the others. "How peasant-y!"

"What?" Fred asked.

"I just meant blimey, what a good-tasting apple!" the princess explained, and dabbed some juice from her chin.

"Aye. I'll bring you another tomorrow. I got a whole apple tree by my house."

And he had. She thanked him for it and added it to the lunch she had brought today, her own castle breakfast wrapped in a napkin.

"What you got there?" one girl, Nell, asked, staring at her lunch.

"It's toast. Just bread, same as you, but toasted over a fire."

"And cut in fancy pieces!" Nell pointed out, laughing. She called the other girls to see—"Looky what Pat's got here in her lunch!"—and they all giggled. The princess, looking at her own cold toast, realized that peasant bread would not be cut into neat triangles as this was. She had so much to learn about being humble and poor.

"I just did it to be silly and foolish," she explained, and laughed with them, at the same time hiding the crisp bacon under her napkin.

"Where be your lard?" Nell asked.

"Lard?"

"Your pig fat, to rub on the bread. Blimey, I got lots! Want some of mine?"

The princess looked with horror at the glistening thick glob of white fat that Nell graciously offered.

"Thank you," she said, "but, ah, my belly's full. Just room for apple." She folded her napkin around the toast and bacon, bit into the bright red apple skin, and was relieved to see the lard disappear back into Nell's lunch.

"Pat!" The tiny waif, Liz, came scampering to her from the bushes that ringed the schoolyard. "I had me a bird," she wailed, "what I was taming with scraps of me lunch bread, to be a pet, so I would have sumfing to cuddle! Now I fink a cat has gone and et him!"

"Oh, no!" the princess cried. "Did you see it happen?" She looked to where the child was pointing and saw her own pet lying spread out, bulging belly exposed, in the sun.

"No. But the cat's got fevvers stuck to his whiskers. Blue ones, like me bird."

The princess sighed. "It's Delicious."

Liz burst into tears. "Mebbe it is to a cat, but it was me pet bird he et!"

The princess patted her back, attempting to comfort her, planning at the same time how to provide the orphan with ... what was it she had said she wanted? Something to cuddle.

One of the advantages of being royalty was that, though life was boring, it did provide an opportunity to acquire anything one wanted. She could easily get a pet for this lonely child. She could order a singing bird, even a pair of them, perhaps in a gilded cage. But how to get them to little Liz anonymously?

She needed to give it some more thought. But now the bell was ringing. She could see the schoolmaster (and he was handsome, she thought, very handsome indeed, even if Tess the chambermaid had said he had a fierce face!) standing on the

The Birthday Ball

steps, shaking the bell to summon them back to their desks.

***

He detained her at the end of the school day. "Pat?" he said. "I'd like you to stay for a minute, if you will."

The Birthday Ball

The other pupils filed nervously past her on the way to the door. "Punishment," one whispered sympathetically. "Hope it don't be too harsh."

Punishment? The princess had never been punished for anything, never in her life.

Apprehensively she waited at her desk until the schoolroom was empty. The schoolmaster, who stood at the door at the end of each day to say goodbye to his students, strode past her to his tall desk at the front. She noticed, again, his soft leather shoes, and remembered what Tess the chambermaid had confided, that the schoolmaster was part of a noble family in another kingdom, though he pretended otherwise.

His mouth was set in a firm line and his brow was furrowed so that he looked very stern when he summoned her to his desk.

"Come forward," he said curtly.

Odd, the princess thought, how often she had been the one to summon and command. How easy it was to do that. How hard, how demeaning, to be the one summoned! One didn't know exactly what to do, or where to look. She stood before him, her hands at her sides, and she looked at the floor and her own bare feet. Then, as an afterthought, she curtsied.

"Yes, sir," she said.

"I wanted to speak to you privately," he said, "about your schoolwork."

"Sir," she replied, "I'll try harder. I'm new, and didn't know the way to go about things, and so I skipped ahead in the book. I knew I shouldn't, but the pictures of sea serpents? I never been near no sea but I was interested in them things, and I skipped ahead without permission. I won't do it again, sir, no, I won't."

Then she curtsied once more.

He was staring at her.

She continued her lengthy apology. "And I know I kept leaning across to the orphan when she was working on her circles. I just thought I could help, sir! She's a pathetic orphan and has no ma nor pa what could help her at home. Also she has mosquito bites, sir, what itch her fiercely.

"I'm a poor peasant girl, remember, sir, and I hope you won't whip me, 'cuz my pa was killed by a something—a lion? No, a wild boar, it was.

"I'll try harder," she said again, and then fell silent.

The schoolmaster pulled out his handkerchief and held it to his mouth. His shoulders shook for a moment. Then he folded his handkerchief and looked sternly at her, his mouth set again in a line.

"I simply wanted to commend you, Pat," he said. "Your schoolwork is quite extraordinary. I don't know where you came from, or where you attended school before—"

"Some other domain. I forget what."

"Be that as it may, you were well taught. How old are you, Pat?"

"Soon sixteen, sir." Four days, she thought.

He frowned, thinking. "I was sixteen when I left the village school and went far distant to study at a teachers' academy. You might think about preparing to do the same. I could help you with the preparation, if you like."

"But I'm a girl, sir," the princess pointed out. "A poor peasant one," she added. "Very humble and pathetic."

"Yes, well, I understand that. But there were some girls at the teachers' academy. So although unusual, it is not unheard of.

"You might like to think about it. That's all. You may go now, Pat."

"Yes, sir, I will do that, I'll think about it, when I have time, though right now I must hurry back to my hut, I mean my hovel, to help with the..." Desperately the princess tried to remember what hard-working peasants actually did. "Pigs. That's it. I must tend the pigs, a very dirty and thankless job, and I believe I might milk a cow as well, sir, quite hard on the hands, and what's the other? Yes! Collect firewood. I must bend over and get a very achy back, collecting firewood; oh, it's a difficult life, indeed, sir."

She looked up at last and saw that he was laughing.

"Blimey," she said, without thinking, "you're wicked handsome when you laugh, sir!"

Then she curtsied and fled.

9. The Prince

Prince Percival of Pustula dressed entirely in black, always. Even his underclothing was black. His hair had once been a nondescript brown, but he kept it dyed jet black and thickly oiled. His mustache, as well.

Black matched the darkness of his moods—he was always depressed—and, in fact, the color matched his heart. Percival was a black-hearted man who hated his subjects, the Pustulans, the populace of his domain; who hated his own family (he had sentenced his own mother to a minimum-security prison seven years before and he did not venture there on visiting days, never had, not once, and on the most recent Father's Day he had given his aged father a tarantula); and who, in truth, hated everyone but himself.

He spent a great deal of time in front of the mirror. He had had his own bedchamber lined with mirrors so that he could view himself from every angle. He preened. He strutted.

"Right hip? Ah, yes," he cooed to his own image on a sunny morning as he stood sideways in his underwear and observed his own stance and the jut of his hipbone.

"Pecs?" he murmured, and changed his position so that he could see the muscles of his chest bulge around the shoulder straps of his black silk undershirt. "Oh, niiicce," he said admiringly, turning slightly to the left and then to the right.

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He smoothed his hair and then wiped his hand free of the hair oil, using the bedsheet and leaving a smear of black dye. He looked at his clothing, draped over a nearby chair. As he did so, he bellowed, "Valet!"

A valet is a sort of manservant, the one who tends the wardrobe and the needs of a nobleman. The Prince of Pustula's valet was a thin, mild-mannered middle-aged man who had, astonishingly, no name. Once, he had. His parents, upon his birth, had named him Hal. He had been Hal through his school years and during his quite successful career as an importer of Far East goods.

Then, unfortunately, he had been summoned before the prince because of a tiny snag in a pair of black silk socks imported from Asia. Hal the importer had been terrified by the summons. He knew what such a command had meant to others in the past. There were egg suppliers in exile, dentists in dungeons, and even a trouser presser locked away in a tower, all because of small flaws in their work.

Trembling, he had gone before the prince and knelt, as was required. Prince Percival flung the snagged sock at him and shouted obscenities.

Feeling he had nothing to lose, Hal picked up the sock and examined it while the prince continued to roar and shriek. With his thumb and forefinger, he repaired the tiny snag by pushing a thread through and then smoothing it straight. Then, with his head bowed, he held the flawless sock up in a conciliatory and supplicating gesture.

The prince grabbed it. He looked at it. He turned it over and over in his thin-fingered hands.

"It's fixed!" he shouted.

"Yes, sir."

"It was unfixable!"

Hal did not know what to say. It was against the law not to answer the prince. But it was also against the law to answer him with a no.

In desperation he replied, "Yes, sir," agreeing (though he knew it was not true) that the sock had been unfixable.

"You performed a haberdashery miracle!"

Hal did not know what the word haberdashery meant. He did know he had not performed a miracle. But at this point he felt he had no choices left. Lie or be executed, he thought.

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