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The Balance of Affection

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The King and Queen of the Enchanted Forest had not slept in the same bed for seventeen years.

For many couples, this type of abstinence would signify great interpersonal difficulties and private marital distress, or at least horrifically disparate social schedules. For the king and queen, it was merely the unfortunate consequence of a lengthy curse from which the king had only just been released.

It was hard luck, that curse, but the royal couple were not given overmuch to bemoaning things they couldn’t change, so they tried to make the best of it.

“Only think how lucky we are,” Queen Cimorene had moralized the first night they were reunited. “Why, I have one cousin who was cursed to sleep for a hundred years. Her own fault, of course—she knew it was going to be a spindle, everybody knew it was going to be a spindle, they put it in all the textbooks for over a decade, and would you believe the silly chit touched the thing anyway—but I do still feel badly for her. I don’t imagine her husband will even be around for her to sleep with when she wakes. We got off very lightly, all things considered.”

“Yes, my dear,” King Mendanbar agreed. “But the fact remains that your feet are cold, and you have them pressed almost too firmly against my back, so if you wouldn’t mind . . .”

Cimorene offered her sincerest apologies, and removed her feet from the offending location. But they returned during the night while she slept and were of such a temperature and pressed with such force that they woke the king too soundly. His back sore and cold, he crept out of bed and curled up on the low sofa at the other end of the room, where he spent the remainder of that night.

When Cimorene woke the next day and found her husband shivering on the sofa, she said “oh dear.”

Then the door to the royal bedchamber opened and a small elf with a grand air entered, which prompted the Queen to repeat herself.

“Oh dear.”

Then, forcefully, “Willin, what have His Majesty and I told you about coming into our rooms at this hour?”

“I cannot recall,” said Willin. “It has been seventeen years since you told me, after all.” His gaze lit on Mendanbar. “But, what is His Majesty doing on the sofa?”

The king, who had been roused by this conversation, dug the heel of his palm into his eye and said His Majesty was doing his level best to get a decent night’s sleep.

“But I can see,” he said, “that it is not to be. What are you doing here, Willin?”

“I have come,” declared Willin, flourishing a length of paper almost half his own height, “with a list of my own making. It names all the finest potential honeymoon destinations for Your Majesties’ perusal. If you will permit me the liberty, I will add that the Fifth Realm is considered especially temperate this time of year, and relations between our kingdoms are of such a cordial nature that I cannot see aught to recommend against it as the ideal destination. Of course the others have their charming points too. The beaches at the Crystal Shore really must be seen to be believed and there is a golden fountain in the garden at the foot of Glass Mountain which draws visitors from realms all over, but for my very first choice I should say—”

“Willin!” Cimorene, catching the look on Mendanbar’s face, had to interrupt the elf for his own good. “Willin . . . what do you mean, a list of honeymoon destinations?”

“The very question I was about to ask,” said the king, although his tone suggested he’d not intended to ask so much as he’d meant to shout. “I never set you to such a task, Willin, and I judge by her Majesty’s question that neither did she. So who did?”

“Why,” Willin appeared genuinely taken aback, “nobody set me to it, but of course you’ve not had a honeymoon yet, given the circumstances, so I naturally assumed—”

“You assumed incorrectly,” said Mendanbar. “Honeymoons are for young couples with more spare time and money than care and obligation. We are not such a couple.” His expression softened as he looked at his wife, her black hair tumbling over her night rail like a dark, satin cape. “We never were.”

“And now,” Cimorene added, “with a kingdom that’s been left nearly unattended for going on two decades, and a son to instruct in the matters of its governance, we are less that couple than ever we were.”

“Yes,” put in Mendanbar, “and don’t you imagine I would like this chance, not to run off with my wife, but to get to know my own child? We’re a family now. A honeymoon is quite out of the question.”

“But your Majesties!” Willin now appeared less bewildered than distressed. “A honeymoon is not merely a frivolous exercise in self-indulgence; not for yourselves. A honeymoon is a symbol of your unity, and proof to your own subjects and those of all surrounding kingdoms that your relationship is strong. It safeguards you against possible usurpers! It protects the royal household from efforts by your enemies to undermine the sanctity of your hearth and homeland! Without a honeymoon, the people will begin to wonder; to worry. They will believe you are having,” Willin’s voice dropped to a strangled whisper, “marital difficulties, and it will weaken the bedrock of the entire kingdom! It will crush your subjects’ morale! A honeymoon for a royal couple is nothing less than a matter of national security.”

“Willin,” said Mendanbar, “that is absolutely the most ridiculous thing you have ever said.”

“Not quite,” said Cimorene. “Remember the home for orphaned goslings and their goose girls?”

“Ah yes, it just came screaming back to me,” Mendanbar muttered. He leaned over the edge of the sofa and put his face in his hands. “No honeymoon, Willin.”

“But—”

“And that’s final! Now please excuse us; Her Majesty and I would prefer to face all lurking usurpers and enemies of our hearth and homeland in a state of dress more advanced than this.”

Willin scowled, but bowed his way out of the room.

“Did you mean that?” said Cimorene.

“About the usurpers?”

“No, that part was clearly facetious. I mean, the part about getting dressed.”

Mendanbar started to nod, then caught himself. “Why?” he asked. “Did you have an alternate suggestion?”

“I might have one or ten,” her Majesty said pertly. “It has been a very long seventeen years, after all. I fancy the usurpers can stand to wait half an hour.”

“Far be it from me,” said the king, “to contradict the Queen.”

He joined her in the bed once more.

 

***

 

The Prince of the Enchanted Forest was sixteen years old, and until less than a week ago had not even known he was a prince. Now he lived in a palace with his mother (whom he had known all his life, but without knowing she was a queen) and his father (whom he had only just met) and was finding life a bit much to cope with at the moment.

It was no wonder, then, that he was glad to be quite alone in the breakfast room.

Prince Daystar filled his own plate from a modest buffet and settled at the table to carefully, neatly, enjoy his meal. He was nearly done when a nuthatch flew in a narrow window set high up in the wall, and alit on the darkened chandelier.

“Good morning,” said the nuthatch.

“Good morning,” replied Daystar. He raised his goblet. “To your very good health.”

“Really?” preened the nuthatch. “Well. Many thanks.” He flew down from the light fixture to perch on the back of a chair directly across from Daystar’s.

“Are you . . .” Daystar fumbled for the appropriate terminology. “Are you seeking an audience, perhaps? With my—that is, with the king?”

“The king? Oh, goodness no. I am a nuthatch. What would a common little fellow like me want with the King of the Enchanted Forest?”

“I had thought,” said Daystar, “that perhaps you were under an enchantment of some sort, and sought to be released from it.”

“An enchantment!” The nuthatch ruffled his feathers in grievous affront. “Well, I like that! As though I could only be under a curse—there are many respectable, well-educated nuthatches out here, I’ll have you know. Just because a fellow is well spoken, doesn’t mean he can’t have been born a nuthatch!”

“I am very sorry,” said Daystar. “I didn’t mean to give offence.”

“Well,” said the Nuthatch, remaining ruffled, “I suppose that’s all right.” But he didn’t look any too certain, so Daystar offered him a crumbled section of scone to make amends. This pleased the nuthatch greatly, and he set to gorging on the bounty spread before him. He had just finished his repast and flown back to the chandelier to preen his feathers when the doors to the breakfast room opened and Daystar’s parents entered.

“Mother,” Daystar immediately got to his feet, “Father. Good morning.”

Cimorene returned the greeting, but Mendanbar looked stricken.

“Daystar,” he said, “you don’t need to—I mean, when we enter, there’s no reason for you to—to stand like that.”

“Why ever not?” it was Cimorene who spoke, already filling her own plate with food. “Just because he’s discovered he’s a prince is no reason to throw perfectly good manners out the window.”

“Yes, but . . .” Mendanbar couldn’t lay hold of the words he needed, ones that would express just exactly what galled him about his own son rising when he entered the room. But then, such a span of years and all their accompanying changes was a lot of time to sum up in a few words. Mendanbar gave up looking for them, at least for the time being, in favour of filling his plate.

More than one kind of appetite got worked up after spending so much time under a curse.

 

***

 

“ . . . and I think once we’ve set the lost princesses packing, we’ll only have the odd disenchantment to perform for the remainder of the week,” Mendanbar concluded. He pushed his empty breakfast plate to the side in order to lean on the table as he spoke. “You know, turning frogs back into princes and that sort of thing. It’s all bound to be tedious work but these things tend to pile up if you don’t see to them directly. And it’s been a long time, so I anticipate several piles. You know Daystar, that’s something we might be able to do together, if you like. Disenchantment’s a good thing to get the hang of.”

“Thank you Father, I’m sure I’d enjoy that.”

“And we’re still agreed to leave the elves to sort matters out between themselves?” said Cimorene. “I’d be only too pleased to deliver that message personally.”

“Then it is yours to deliver,” promised Mendanbar. He smiled at his wife, who smiled back. Daystar, who wasn’t yet much used to having two parents, and certainly not parents who smiled at each other over breakfast, squirmed in his chair and studied the handle of his fork.

“Daystar,” said Cimorene, without looking away from her husband, “if you can’t be still, you may be excused.”

He knew his mother meant it as a reprimand of sorts, but that didn’t prevent the prince leaping immediately to his feet, making a brief, polite bow to each parent and heading out of the morning room as fast as he could travel. He nearly upended Willin, who was on the point of entering the room just as the prince left it. Both apologized profusely to one another until ordered, by the king, to cut that out.

“Your Majesties,” Willin brandished a different, somewhat shorter piece of paper than the one he’d been carrying earlier. “I have taken the liberty of compiling a list of books in the library which may be of service to you both. They are titles which come highly recommended for couples experiencing,” the elf lowered his voice to a stage whisper, “marital difficulties.”

Cimorene blinked.

Mendanbar said “oh, for crying out loud.” Then, “honestly, Willin!”

“Truly,” Willin promised, “it is the most natural thing in the world that after such a lengthy separation, intimacies between parties may not be what once they were. Any one of these estimable authors would be a useful resource in restoring the balance of affection between husband and—”

“Our affections are not in the least unbalanced, Willin, but if you speak one more word, I will be tempted to unbalance you,” threatened Mendanbar. “Let me make myself plain: we will take no honeymoon and we are having no difficulties, save that of preventing you from assuming we are! Is that clear?”

“Perfectly,” said Willin stiffly. “Although if your Majesties would only consent to look at the list I have—”

“Out!” cried the king.

Willin got out.

 

***

 

“It’s not today I’m really worried about,” Cimorene confided to Mendanbar, once they had both got away from the morning room into the relative privacy of the king’s study. “It’s everything that comes after. I know Willin was just being himself, with all the talk about the threats to the security of the kingdom if we don’t take a honeymoon, but he’s not entirely wrong.”

“You think we might face an invasion if we don’t take a holiday together?” Mendanbar looked amused, but Cimorene did not rise to the bait.

“There are bound to be gaps in diplomacy. It’s only to be expected, after so long. I know that tension between parties is usually contained within the kingdom, rather than crossing borders, but I still worry.”

Mendanbar settled into one chair, listening with sober attention. Cimorene continued to think out loud.

“I’ve tried to keep abreast of what’s being said about the forest, so I’d know if there had been any attempts at . . . not takeover, exactly, since who with a kingdom of his own to run could be so foolish as to think he can withstand the trial of invading ours? Unless maybe now that you’re back, somebody took it into his or her head to try something. Just to see if it were possible.”

“Do you have a particular reason to worry about that?” asked Mendanbar.

“Not anything significant to speak of. But there were one or two remarks . . . little things that were said by a few people who would pass the cottage.” Cimorene shook her head. “Look at me, listening to gossiping princes and questing knights! As though they had much of consequence between their ears, in the usual run of things.”

“Not so very much, ordinarily,” Mendanbar smiled, “but you’ve sense enough for ten princes, and I don’t think you’d be worried without good cause. I can ask around to see if anything else has been said. There’s usually something listening in, no matter where a prince ends up in the forest. I’ll check with some of the border regions.”

“It might be for the best,” Cimorene said. She tapped her forefinger on the surface of the king’s desk, a nervous tic that was so unlike her, Mendanbar reached over and covered her hand with his own.

“If there is something,” he said, “and I do mean anything to worry about? We’ll worry about it together. And we’ll handle it together too.”

Nowhere in that promise was any implication he thought Cimorene would be incapable of handling anything on her own; there was, however, a deep yearning to have been present for the past seventeen years when Cimorene had nobody to make such promises to her.

When Mendanbar had nobody to whom he could make such promises.

It’s almost too easy to guess where things would have headed for them next, had their kiss not been interrupted by a harrumph of deep disdain.

“Oh for pity’s sake!” rasped a new voice. Both king and queen leaped apart as if stung and looked up to where a leering gargoyle was mounted on the wall. “Look at the pair of you, all mushy-gushy smooching it up. Don’t know what that elf was on about: you sure don’t look like you’re having intimacy issues to me!”

“Inti—Willin!” Cimorene gasped, more pink with rage than embarrassment. “Oh, he did not.”

But of course Willin had.

“It’ll be all over the castle by midday,” Mendanbar said morosely. “Intimacy issues, marital strife, the works. They’ll be saying you’re packing to run away on me, that I drove you to it . . . honestly, there are days I could just wring Willin’s neck.”

“Yes, but not today, please dear,” Cimorene sighed. “You’ll need him to catalogue all the disenchanted footstools, first.”

“Tomorrow, then?” Mendanbar suggested.

“Perhaps tomorrow,” said Cimorene, and frowned quite forebodingly herself. Before the gargoyle had interrupted, it had been shaping up to be a very fine kiss.

 

***

 

The King of the Enchanted Forest and his son spent six and a half hours disenchanting every enchanted thing they found in, around and propped carelessly up against a tree close to the castle. Willin interviewed the restored individuals as to their given names, occupations, the nature of their quests pre-enchantment and what genus of magic-worker had effected the curse in the first place. Then he catalogued them all.

About halfway through the exercise, Daystar said maybe they had better have thought how they were going to feed all these people who were wandering around with their newly-restored stomachs woefully empty of food.

Another quarter of the way through, and Mendanbar said yes, Daystar was definitely right about that.

“That’s the thing about a curse,” he explained, as he and his son headed back to the castle to see about getting a meal for those still milling around, trying to remember what had made their original quests so important to begin with, “it tends to make you terribly hungry.”

“I didn’t know that,” Daystar said thoughtfully. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

Then, once they had sent Willin off to store his existing list and had seen to feeding everybody they’d changed back to their true forms, father and son sat down to a lunch of their own, at which Daystar proved you didn’t need to have been under a curse to be ravenously hungry. You only needed to be a teenage boy, with the corresponding appetite.

Mendanbar watched Daystar tuck away three sandwiches and four servings of chocolate mousse (“that’s your mother’s own recipe, Your Highness,” the cook informed him. Then she cast a strangely fierce look at Mendanbar as she added, “and any man who couldn’t see what a treasure he had in her would be the worst kind of fool, I’m sure!” which ringing indictment left Mendanbar speechless) with ever-growing wonder. When Daystar looked up at the end of the meal, he caught the expression of amazement on his father’s face, and blushed.

“I beg your pardon,” he said.

“What for?” Mendanbar wondered.

“Well—the eating, and—”

“Nonsense,” the king said earnestly. “I was sixteen once too, you know. Sixteen takes a lot of feeding. You’ve got seventeen to prepare for, after all, and seventeen’s never easy because everybody expects you to do twice as much as you did at sixteen, even though you’re only a year older. I never understood why, but there it is.”

Daystar smiled, really smiled, at this admission.

“In that case,” he said, “maybe I’d better have another serving of chocolate mousse.”

“With the rest of the footstools still left to be turned back,” said Mendanbar, “I think we both should.” And he suited action to the word.

 

***

 

The last of the enchanted footstools surprised both king and prince, as it transformed back into neither questing prince, distressed damsel or even valiant woodcutter’s son, but rather a grouchy orange cat of generous proportions and no discernible speaking ability.

“What is your name?” Willin asked it solemnly. The cat hissed, and endeavoured to scratch the elf. Willin beat a dignified retreat to the castle, suggesting that His Majesty had better leave this last one well enough alone.

King and prince were left to look at each other, then at the cat.

“What should we do with it?” Daystar wanted to know. He tried to pet it. The cat bit him.

“I suppose we should feed it too,” said Mendanbar. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Disenchanting an ordinary sort of cat is new territory for me, though.”

“Really?” Daystar looked up from nursing his cat-bite. The cat prowled around their feet, grumbling to itself. “You mean, this isn’t something you’ve done before?”

“No, it’s not.” At first Mendanbar couldn’t see why that intrigued the boy so much, but Daystar’s next words came as clarification.

“So the first time . . .” the boy blushed a little, and pressed one foot almost too firmly into the flagstones of the hall where they had found the last footstool. “I mean, it was us, together. The first time you disenchanted a regular cat.”

Mendanbar felt, with a perfect, terrible suddenness, the pang of too much time that should have been theirs. He said “yes, I suppose it was.”

 Then, because he’d had no infant head to cradle in his palm, no toddler’s fists to grasp his fingers or sturdy little body to twirl through the dusk of a summer’s night, childish laughter enchanting even the fireflies, the King of the Enchanted Forest settled for resting his hand on the shoulder of a son more grown up than not.

He gave the shoulder a squeeze.

“Let’s go tell your mother we seem to have acquired a cat of generous size and foul temper, shall we? Then we can let her be the one to tell Willin.”

Daystar could see the potential entertainment value in this being another of the first things he and his father did together. He gave his hearty assent.

 

***

 

Finding Cimorene proved more difficult than either Mendanbar or Daystar had anticipated. The various parties of quarrelling elves had long since been sent packing, but of the queen who’d driven them off, there was no sign. Enquiring with various people got them nowhere, as everybody could recall having seen the Queen at some point since the curse was broken, but none could direct her family where they might find her now.

At last they hit upon the answer almost by accident—a harried washer woman was returning from a creek often used by the palace staff for that purpose, as it was only slightly lemon-flavoured and not otherwise enchanted, and so generally considered safe for daily use.

“. . . just one more sign of what it’s all coming to!” she finished in a huff. “And friends of the queen they may very well be, but that still does not forgive—oh, begging your pardon, your Majesty.” She came to an awkward, startled stop. “I didn’t see you there.”

Mendanbar assured her there was no harm done, and honed in on the most intriguing part of what he’d just overheard.

“You encountered friends of the queen?” he wanted to know. “Recently?”

“Yes,” scowled the laundress, “and if I did not hold her Majesty in such high regard I’d have told them all exactly what I thought of folk who wave swords around during peace time, never mind she’d been standing there to overhear it. I like to think her Majesty’s the sort of woman who can bear a plain truth or two be told, and I still have a good mind to go back and tell that lot a full verse of plain truths, even allowing that the queen’s grace herself did suggest I leave, and do my washing late.”

Daystar stumbled to follow the thread of this narrative, but Mendanbar did not. His eyes went bright, then very dark indeed.

“Persons with swords,” he said, “were by the stream with the queen? And though they claimed to be friends of hers, she told you to come back here for now?”

“And do my washing later, yes,” nodded the woman.

“I see.” said the king. “Excellent. Thank you. Now, if I might impose on your further, perhaps you could bear the company of my son as you both return to the castle.”

“Father!” Daystar protested. “No, please! If . . .” he swallowed. “I mean, that is to say, if . . .” but it was not an “if” he was able to voice. As it happened, the boy’s very inability did more to persuade Mendanbar than any number of well-reasoned pleas would have done.

“Right,” he said. “You’ll come too. But on your life, Daystar, you must do exactly as I bid you.”

“I will,” said the prince, in such a way you could not mistake how much he meant it.

“Going to make amends are you?” the laundress said. “I’d heard you two were having troubles, you know. Best make a clean breast of it, I say. Go to her, tell her you love her, and you just see if that doesn’t heal all.”

“Many thanks,” said Mendanbar, in a tone that seemed to imply many things, none of which were thanks. “Come along, Daystar.”

At which point father and son took their leave of the laundress, and headed off in the direction of the lemon-flavoured washing-stream.

 

***

 

The entire set-up at the stream was one of the oddest things Mendanbar had seen since the curse had been broken. There were seven knights in full armour standing around, huffing at each other while his wife, wearing a plain green gown and an expression of mild irritation, looked on.

“. . . and how you actually planned to exploit that, you definitely did not say!” one short, stocky knight wound up his speech at full bellow, his cheeks a dull red with purple veins standing out along his temple.

“Just because you weren’t listening,” sneered a slim, fair knight, who carried his helm under his arm with a kind of self-conscious affectation that suggested a princess had once told him it made him look lordly, “doesn’t mean I didn’t say.”

“No,” muttered another knight, older than the first two combined, “he’s right, Rothbert, you did not exactly say what advantage this could give us. You only claimed it could, and off you went. I’m beginning to wonder why we even bothered to follow you.”

The fair knight, Rothbert, coloured a dull crimson too. A fourth knight nodded thoughtfully, and picked up the speech.

“Quite so. Now we’re reduced to mounting guard over one wretched woman who’s certainly not in any position to get us closer to our goal, and if it’s all the same to you lot, I think I’d just as soon sleep in my own bed tonight. Provided we can even find our way out of the forest.”

“Perhaps,” a fifth, very young knight with a smooth chin and only a mail coif on his head piped up, “the lady could be of some assistance in that area.” He made to Cimorene a bow so deep, he was mercifully spared the sight of her sceptical expression. “Good and gentle lady, if you would be so kind as to direct us—”

“Oh do shut up, Clifford, she’s our prisoner, she’s not going to help,” grumbled the sixth. “Really, I don’t see what the point in capturing her was to start with.”

“She overheard our plot!” cried Rothbert. “She could not be permitted to leave!”

“I think,” said Cimorene, “you’re playing a little fast and loose with the word ‘plot’ there, Rothbert. From what I’ve heard so far, it was really more of a lukewarm notion—and one founded on misinformation, at that.”

Mendanbar had been inching forward for the duration of the whole exchange, but stopped at this point to hear what Rothbert’s reaction would be.

“I don’t see what you could possibly know about it,” he said loftily.

“Maybe nothing,” said Cimorene, with the air of one too secure in her position to ever feel the need to prove it. “But that’d still be more than you know about it.” Then she made a rather pointed show of sitting on a narrow log at her feet, and putting her back to the knights.

Which was how she found herself staring directly at Mendanbar.

Her eyes widened, then narrowed. With one hand she made a small, impatient shooing motion.

Mendanbar, who hadn’t been inching through the trees at a snail’s pace just for the pleasure of running off the moment he was bade to do so, cheerfully shook his head no.

Cimorene made a larger, more pointed shooing motion.

Mendanbar shook his head again, and smiled.

Cimorene, now looking positively thunderous, used both hands to make a very complicated and incomprehensible series of gestures that ended with one of the rudest she knew, gleaned from a woodcutter who had passed her cottage more than once over the years. It was a gesture heretofore unknown to Mendanbar but nevertheless perfectly clear in its meaning.

He regarded his wife with open enjoyment.

Then he realized all the knights had swivelled around and were regarding him with something markedly less cordial.

“Ahem,” said Mendanbar, and stepped onto the bank of the river. “Terribly sorry, very rude, just trying to have a private chat with my wife.”

“Oh,” said the first knight, the one who had been doing most of the bellowing, “she’s your wife? Right, then, well you can just join her, can’t you? Take a seat, get comfy. We’ll be off soon anyway. Wild goose chase, this was.”

What was, exactly, if you don’t mind my asking?” Mendanbar wanted to know.

“They came,” said Cimorene, “to overthrow the King of the Enchanted Forest.”

“Did they really now?” marvelled the King of the Enchanted Forest. “It’s so refreshing to meet men with purpose. I don’t think I woke today with half that claim to ambition. Well done, gentlemen. And,” settling onto the log beside Cimorene, adjusting his sword so it didn’t jab her in the hip, “if you don’t mind me prying, whatever made you think that the King of the Enchanted Forest, of all people, would be amenable to being overthrown?”

“He’s been under a curse, hasn’t he?” said Rothbert, sulkily. ”He’s bound to be out of touch, for a start. Plus, I have it on very good authority,” he stuck his chin out belligerently at Cimorene, “that he and his wife are experiencing intimacy issues.”

Mendanbar suffered a violent coughing fit that it took the combined thumping ministrations of his wife and three gauntleted knights to abate.

“Do you, now,” he said weakly, once the coughing had stopped. “Well. Isn’t that . . . irrelevant?”

“Not so!” declaimed Rothbert, clutching his helm to the point of denting it a bit near the brim. “Why, such difficulties between the king and his wife will weaken the morale of the entire kingdom! It should be the simplest thing in the world to overthrow the fellow at this point.”

“Except,” scowled the eldest knight, “we’ve been wandering in this blasted place for a full day and still haven’t come within sight of the castle. Nor have I seen any signs of this civil unrest Rothbert swears must be rife in the land, and if you ask me the whole thing’s a wild goose chase.”

“I think,” said Mendanbar, “that there is some wisdom to what you say.” He considered the party with gravity, then spoke in ringing tones, seemingly to the air around them:

“Yes, you were right. Footstools all around.”

The next moment there was a strange twist in the air, and all seven knights vanished. Where they had stood were six footstools and a thin yellow cat.

Mendanbar frowned at the cat. The cat sat stiffly back on its haunches, and yowled in dismay.

“I said footstools, Daystar,” he scolded, and Daystar stepped from a place of much better concealment than his father had enjoyed to shrug and rub the back of his neck.

“Yes, I know, but Rothbert really irritated me. Plus, I think our new cat deserves him.”

“Our what?” said Cimorene, who had put her feet up on the nearest footstool.

“Oh yes,” said Mendanbar, “I forgot to mention, we’ve got a cat now.”

“I don’t remember there being a discussion about us acquiring a cat.”

“It was sort of sprung on us,” Daystar said helpfully. Cimorene pursed her lips.

“I see,” she said. “Mendanbar, you know I really prefer—”

“—to be consulted, yes, I know, but the situation being what it was . . .”

“Do not,” Cimorene warned, “blame the situation. I remember any number of situations far worse than those of the past day that still did not prompt you to—”

She broke off when Mendanbar cleared his throat and tipped his head in the direction of their son, who was regarding his parents with deep horror.

“Is it true, then?” Daystar asked, dismayed. “Are you two really . . . I mean, with the fighting, are you—”

“Oh for—no it’s not true!” Cimorene said. “And I would like to know how this lot,” she banged her shin across the footstool, “heard otherwise.”

“I bet it was the nuthatch,” Daystar murmured.

“The what?” Mendanbar asked, so Daystar told them about the nuthatch with whom he had shared the scone that morning.

“He’d have been there to hear what Willin said, I expect,” the prince concluded. “I don’t know if he was really a spy, though.”

“He wouldn’t need to be, necessarily,” Cimorene said thoughtfully. “Nuthatches are terrible talkers even at the best of times. Catch one in the right mood, and . . . well. Never a secret, near a nuthatch.”

“We’d better install screens,” Mendanbar said, getting to his feet. “Otherwise they’ll keep coming in and eavesdropping, and it’ll be over half the kingdoms before next week that the Forest has been divided as an asset in the divorce.”

“I don’t even like to imagine the sort of knights that would prompt to call on us,” Cimorene muttered, and stood to dust off her skirt. “Now, what will we do with the footstools?”

“Bring them back, I suppose,” Mendanbar sighed. “We’ll disenchant them eventually,  I would just really rather not do so until we’ve got the castle a bit more back to rights. We can put them in one of the attics until then. They won’t mind.”

“And the cat?” said Cimorene.

“I suppose,” said Mendanbar, “we don’t have to keep it . . .”

Cimorene pursed her lips.

“We’ll take it under consideration,” she said. “But it’s not sleeping in our bed.”

“On that point,” said Mendanbar, “I do not disagree.”

 

***

 

Rothbert the cat, it turned out, much preferred sleeping on top of the gargoyle to sleeping in anyone’s bed. The fat orange cat who had formerly been a footstool took to sleeping on one of the six new footstools in rotation, until he had tried them all, and started on the first all over again.

Daystar had never had pets before, and the fact that his first two were some of the most disagreeable pets anybody could have asked for did not abate his joy in the slightest. He showed them off to Shiara when she came to visit as though they were the handsomest creatures that had ever lived. Shiara, who was making a valiant effort to be more civil to people these days, actually waited three whole minutes before she told Daystar exactly what she thought of his cats.

The orange one bit her for the saying of it, and Rothbert shredded the hem of her gown in such a way that she was provoked to apologize, in all sincerity, to both cats and prince alike, so that worked out all right, too.

As for Mendanbar and Cimorene, they steadfastly refused to take a honeymoon, but they did set up a large picnic on the lawn of the castle to reacquaint themselves with their subjects, and during the course of the feast kissed one another no fewer than forty-eight times in full view of everyone, so Willin’s fears of political instability brought on by lack of marital affection between the royals were at last put to rest.

They also finally managed to spend a full night in the same bed for the first time in seventeen years, although it was not until several days after that they both succeeded in sleeping there, too.

Then again, that’s really not anyone’s business but theirs.