"Villagers. Ball. Whatever." The king's mind was on the rare butterfly that was missing from his collection. Perhaps if he arranged a jungle excursion...

"We would have to order them to wash first," the queen mused.

"Peasants are clean, Mother—truly, they are." The princess took a small bite of asparagus. "But of course we could mention bathing, in the invitation, if you think we should."

"Mention what? What was that? Baiting? Oh, I don't think so, dear. There was a terrible sport in the old days, called bearbaiting. Your father outlawed it years ago."

"Bathing, Mother. We could say that the invitation is for all well-bathed villagers." The princess enunciated clearly.

"Yes, of course. Bathing." The queen nodded. "I'd hope they wouldn't bring gifts, though, dear. Think what they might bring. Piglets, I'm afraid ... things like that."

"We would tell them gifts aren't necessary, Mother. In fact..."

"The suitors will bring gifts, of course. Oh my, I make myself nervous and excited, just thinking what incredible gifts the suitors might bring!" The queen shivered.

The princess did not want to think about, or talk about, suitors. "In fact," she went on, "I would like to give gifts to the villagers."

"Eh? What was that? Gift gifts? Give gives? Give gloves? Lift cloves? Oh, dear, I can't think what ever you are talking about."

"Father?" The princess turned to the king. "May I have your permission to give gifts to the villagers?"

"Gifts. Permission. Yes. Whatever. I'll skip dessert." The king took his linen monogrammed napkin from his lap and gestured to the serving girls, who hurried to the table to remove his plate.

The queen wiped her lips daintily with her own napkin and then nodded to one of the triplets. "Do hum a bit more," she said. "Or sing. I did enjoy that."

Holding a tray with the waiting dessert dishes on it, the alto sang, "Apricot ice cream..."and the other girls joined in:

"Apricot ice cream..."

"Apricot ice cream ..."

The king changed his mind. "Changed my mind. Dessert. After all."

The three serving girls continued singing as they served the ice cream and then left the dining chamber, carrying trays of empty plates, and descended the stairs. Their harmony grew fainter as they walked to the kitchen.

From far below, in the antechamber to the kitchen, the sound echoing through the pulley passage, the princess heard the pulley boy join in with his deep, rich baritone. I do hope Tess is down there, hearing that, the princess thought, thinking of the freckled chambermaid.

Then she heard a sweet female voice join in and knew that Tess was right there in the middle of the music.

11. The Conjoint Counts

When the conjoint counts were born and were revealed to be joined at the middle, which was quite astonishing to their parents, a royal decree was issued almost immediately. It seemed fairly simple, not designed to cause hardship.

Everything in the domain was to become plural in name. The word cow, a word commonly used in the area because there were many farms, was now to be cows.

It was sometimes difficult for the peasants. They were accustomed to saying "Do your lessons," or "Pull up your trousers," but they had a hard time remembering to say, "Go milk the cows" when the family owned only one. Now, instead of weeding the garden, they had to weed the gardens, even though they were tending only a small patch of carrots and potatoes. And when a peasant mother told her little ones, "Go and kiss your granny," she was required to say, "Go and kiss your grannies," which confused the tots and made them cry, often, and refuse their supper.

Even now, though years had passed since the decree, and though the parents of the conjoint counts were long dead, the language of the domain continued to make use of the superfluous plural. No one was ever quite certain what verb to employ. In speaking of a single tree, for example, should one say "The trees is large" or "The trees are large"? Small children had trouble learning to talk. It was a nuisance and a bother—sometimes worse—but it was the Law of the Domain.

Count Colin and Count Cuthbert were adults now, and ruled the domain in which they lived. But although they were joined at the middle, always had been, always would be, it did not make them the best of friends. They agreed on only one thing, and that was jokes. They both laughed uproariously at bathroom jokes, or jokes involving underwear, though as soon as they finished laughing, they argued about who could tell a joke better, and sometimes made rude noises at each other with their lips, and said "Nyah nyah" and "I'm rubber, you're glue, everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you" in a singsong, whiny voice.

They had a particular annoying prank that they played on each other. One would wait until his brother's face was turned toward his own, and then belch loudly at it and cry, "Gotcha!"

The belched-at one would invariably respond with a full-scale wedgie.

They bickered constantly. If Colin wanted to walk to the left, Cuthbert insisted that right was the way to go, so that they pulled at each other and argued.

The Birthday Ball

Their clothing was, of course, specially made, with four arms and four legs and two neckholes and a very wide waist—called, of course, a waists—to accommodate them both. But if Colin decided to wear the blue suit, Cuthbert said no, the brown. Then they fought, and had even torn some suits to shreds. Once they had decided to be naked for an entire day because they couldn't agree on what to wear.

If Cuthbert wanted to sleep, Colin decided not only to stay awake but to play his saxophones (of course he played only one, but he spoke of it, as required, in the plural) fortissimo so that the blares kept his brother awake and angry.

Colin was squeamish about bugs, so Cuthbert collected them, and kept the pockets on his side of their specially made trousers filled with crickets and beetles and things that squirmed and occasionally made noises.

Cuthbert had grown what he called a beards. Of course it was only one beard, and he thought it quite handsome. Colin was not only clean-shaven but very ticklish, and his brother's beard constantly brushed against his neck with its wiry, curling ends, making him shriek.

When they attended church, as rulers generally do, they were a distraction for the populace. When Colin wanted to kneel, Cuthbert wanted to stand. If Cuthbert decided to sing a hymn (or hymns, as it was called), it was at the very moment that Colin felt compelled to pray. With their constant pulling and tugging and shrieking and bickering, their poking and slapping and name-calling, the most solemn ceremonies were chaotic, and even an entire order of contemplative nuns had complained that they lost their ability to concentrate if the conjoint counts were in the congregation.

But like the Duke of Dyspepsia and the Prince of Pustula, the Counts of Coagulatia were immensely wealthy and overwhelmingly powerful. No one could change their behavior, or complain about it.

It was at an evensong service that those who had gathered in the cathedral noticed a change. The counts, sitting together as they always did, since there was no other way for them to sit, were relatively peaceful throughout the service. They knelt together, sang together, and even, the villagers noticed (because it was not the usual thing, or proper thing, in church), giggled loudly from time to time as if they had a secret.

"Something has happened to the conjoint counts," people murmured. "Wonder what!"

The murmurs reached the castle.

"What has happened to the conjoint counts?" was asked again and again, first of the guards at the portcullis, then by a food deliveryman with a crate of aubergines at the kitchen door, and once by a small child who wandered through the courtyard with his fingers in his mouth (or mouths, as he had been taught to say) so that the question came out slurpy and moist.

What has happened to the conjoint counts?

Finally the people were told. A royal proclamation was issued, with trumpets tootling and flower petals flung everywhere along the village lanes.

"The conjoint counts have chosen a brides!" was the announcement.

The villagers wondered exactly what that meant, and who the brides might be that would be willing to marry the pair of them, but no one dared to ask.

***

"I love her initials," Colin said with a wicked little laugh as they began to plan their journey to the neighboring domain where the Birthday Ball was being held for the princess. They were making a lists of things to take. "Pee pee."

"Pee pee poo poo," Cuthbert chortled. "I'm going to get new underwears and have it monogrammed like that." He began to write it on the list: PP.

"No, you can't! I thought of it first." Colin slapped his brother's hand so that the pencil fell to the floor.

Cuthbert pushed him. In no time they were back at it, shoving and poking as they always had, forgetting the brief friendship that their decision to marry the princess had forged.

"I'm going to burp on you!" Cuthbert said. "Big burps on the way!" He opened his mouth and belched at Colin, who, being attached, could not avoid it, though he turned his head away. "Gotcha! Smelled like our lunches, huh? Huh?"

"I'm going to tell her what a poopy-pants you are!" Colin said. "Then she won't want to—"

But they both fell silent. If the princess didn't want to marry one of them, she couldn't marry the other.

Sullenly they stopped jostling each other, picked up the pencil, went back to the list, and continued planning the journey and deciding what provisions they would need.

Colin looked at what had been written already, gave a hoarse chuckle, and poked Cuthbert in the ribs with his elbow. "Know what? Know where we're going? Huh? Huh?"

Cuthbert poked him back. "Huh?"

"Balls!" Colin said.

"Balls!" Cuthbert echoed with a rude gleeful laugh.

For a moment they were quite peaceful together, thinking how amusing it would be to announce their presence by bellowing "Balls!" when they arrived, and then to explain their intentions to become Patricia Priscilla's husbands.

12. The Invitation

The invitation from the castle, elaborately decorated, arrived in the village on Thursday. It was delivered to each cottage and each farmhouse and, finally, to the schoolhouse.

The princess noticed with relief that the message boy, an old man who had been doing the same job for the castle for many, many years—he had been the one, almost sixteen years before, to deliver the announcements of the birth of the princess, and five years before that, the marriage of the king and queen—did not recognize her in her peasant garb. He was old, and his eyesight was poor. He simply squinted into the schoolhouse, glanced around at the pupils all working at their desks, and then hobbled forward with his cane to deliver the rolled scroll to the schoolmaster.

"From the castle," he said abruptly. There was no reason to add the word "sir" to a lowly village schoolmaster. And, too, he was tired. He had delivered so many announcements over so many years, and now suffered from boredom, arthritis, and a trick knee. He also needed spectacles.

"Thank you," the schoolmaster said, in some surprise, but when he looked up, the message boy had already turned and hobbled out. He had several more deliveries to make and was eager to finish.

***

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