Jack had been traveling for several weeks, a pack on his back and his lute strapped to his side, before hitching a ride to the kingdom of Vitex. The steward of the castle in the last kingdom had said that Vitex was in constant need of new servants, so finding a job as the court minstrel should be a lock for him there. He hadn’t given a reason for the shortage, but Jack figured he’d find out when he arrived.
Vitex was a metropolitan kingdom, large, modern, and sprawling, with a wide river running through the middle of it. The castle rose, tall and shining white, near the city center, and Jack could see the sun glinting off paned windows with real glass. As he walked through town, though, he could see that many homes and businesses were empty, some with signs that read ‘Leaving town.’
Still, Jack didn’t want to make a decision without seeing the court, so he made his way to the castle, a smile on his face and songs in his heart. He whistled as he walked, brushing the dust of travel from his elegant minstrel attire in complimentary blue and orange colors.
Surprisingly, the castle was wide open that day and Jack was allowed to walk straight through to the throne room where it seemed like every knight and lady had gathered around the edges. They were all watching the head of the room intently and Jack lifted himself up on his toes to see.
The king and queen sat upon their thrones, holding court. The queen sat tall, a smirk on her face, resplendent in a sparkling golden gown that matched her hair, piled regally high on her head. The ginger haired king, dressed in gray with white trim, was slightly slumped over, his chin in his hand, despondently staring into the middle distance. He didn’t appear interested in the proceedings at all. The same couldn’t be said for the young princess in a soft pink gown with white ribbons, her long blonde hair worn loose down her back, who sat in an elegantly carved chair next to the king. Her dark eyes were trained excitedly on a young man who stood on a raised dias in the middle of the room.
He appeared to be a prince, as evidenced by the small crown on his fair haired head. He wore pale green robes and fidgeted with his hands nervously as the court wizard in shimmering purple attire circled him. With a flourish, the large, grey haired wizard unfurled a sheet of parchment.
“The next question concerns famous rulers.” He lifted an eyebrow at the prince. “Are you quite ready?”
The prince cast a glance at the princess and nodded. “I guess so.”
“Very well. Name three kings,” said the wizard, holding up three fingers.
The prince pursed his lips and placed a finger to his chin. Jack leaned over to a young lady in a modest lilac dress with short blonde hair.
“Is this a trial?” he asked in a quiet tone.
The woman blinked at him. “Oh, no,” she said, looking surprised at his ignorance. “It’s the royalty test to find out if he’s a real prince. Been living under a rock?”
“King John,” said the prince on the dias, slowly. “King Arthur. Aaaaand...”
Jack grinned. “Just arrived, actually. I’m Jack, a wandering minstrel.”
“Lady Kel,” said the woman, smiling.
“I take it him being a real prince is important,” said Jack, nodding toward the prince who was still trying to think of a third king.
“Oh, yes,” Lady Kel stressed. “If he is, then we can all finally get married.”
“King Ethelred!” declared the prince.
“Correct!” the wizard exclaimed, and all of the knights and ladies burst into enthusiastic applause.
The princess clapped along with them, beaming. “He’s very smart, Reinette,” she said to the queen. “He’s the best one yet, I think. Can I marry him now?”
“She calls her mother by her first name?” Jack asked the lady.
“The queen is the princess’ step-mother,” Lady Kel said. “Poor Princess Rose never knew Queen Jacqueline, who died in childbirth.”
Queen Reinette turned a condescending smile to the princess. “Not just yet, little flower. There’s still one more question,” she said in a saccharine tone before snapping her fingers at the wizard.
Lady Kel sighed as everyone watched the wizard bring forth a large fishbowl filled with small white cards. “This question isn’t going to be fair,” Lady Kel murmured. “Damn that blasted law!”
“What law?” asked Jack.
“The marriage law,” said Lady Kel. “Throughout the land, no one may wed, til the royal heir shares their marriage bed.”
“And that means Princess Rose,” said Jack.
Lady Kel nodded, sadly. “Until she gets married, none of us can.”
‘That explains why so many people picked up and left town,’ thought Jack.
The queen pretended to pick one of the cards from the bowl, but Jack saw her switch it for a piece of paper she’d hidden in her cleavage. He frowned as she handed it off to the wizard, who smiled confidently.
He approached the prince again, smoothed his mustache and stroked his small beard, then unfolded the paper. “You have reached the last plateau and here is your final question. It is divided into four parts and concerns a famous man often referred to as the Knight of the Red Cross.” The wizard took a deep breath and rattled off the questions, rapid-fire, in a booming voice, “One, what was his name? Two, what beast did he slay? Three, how many rows of teeth did the beast have, and what kind? And four, what was the middle name of the daughter-in-law of best friend of the blacksmith who forged the sword that killed the beast?”
The ladies and knights in the throne room all sighed in despair. There was no way the poor prince could answer such a convoluted question!
“Okay...” The prince likewise took a deep breath and spoke quickly, “One, Saint George. Two, the dragon. Three, twelve rows of teeth and they were iron. And four, would you repeat the last question, please?”
The wizard consulted the paper again as the audience clutched each others hands and sent fervent prayers heavenward. “What was the middle name of the daughter-in-law of best friend of the blacksmith who forged the sword that killed the beast?” He held up one arm and inverted a small hourglass that was strapped to his wrist. “You have... thirty seconds.”
To Jack’s other side, a young lady with long red hair wearing a tan gown clasped her hands desperately. “Pass, please,” she whispered. “Please, please, pass!”
“Did you say something, my lady?” Jack asked.
The redhead turned anxious dark green eyes to him. “Ah, no... I--” She shook her head and returned her attention to the floundering prince.
“Twenty seconds!” announced the wizard.
The prince flapped his hands in frustration. The princess was looking more and more disappointed as the seconds ticked by.
“Ohh!” the prince groaned.
“I’m terribly sorry...” The wizard shook the few remaining grains of sand into the bottom of the tiny hourglass. “...Your time is up.”
Almost as one, the entire assembly groaned. A few ladies burst into tears. Princess Rose slumped backward in her chair, her tiara slipping down on her forehead, but she didn’t seem to care.
Queen Reinette stood up from her throne, folding her hands in front of her as she gave a sad little sigh and shook her head. “Too bad, my dear, too bad. I will admit, you do show a certain aptitude, but as for true royal brilliance,” she patted her hair then frowned at the prince, “I’m afraid not. Blood will tell, and yours didn’t tell us quite enough. However,” she gestured to the wizard, to procured a large plucked goose from behind the thrones, “to show there are no hard feelings, we have a lovely consolation prize for you.” The wizard handed the goose to the prince, who held it by one flipper, not quite sure what to do with it. Reinette waved her fingers at the prince. “Goodbye and good luck.”
Dejected, the prince trudged out of the throne room, giving one sad last look at the princess before disappearing down the corridor. Reinette swept over to Rose and pinched her arm, frowning down at the girl.
“Don’t slouch, Rose. A princess doesn’t slouch. Nor does she pout.” She smiled sweetly, then. “Come along. It’s nearly time for tea.”
Rose sighed. “I’ll be along shortly.”
With a nod, Reinette left the room in a flourish of golden fabric, the wizard and the king trailing after her. Rose distractedly pushed her tiara back up on her head. She looked around at the gathered court, a sad look on her face.
A negative outcry rang up, the court was loyal to the young princess. Many spoke out, assuring Rose that it wasn’t her fault, the test was ridiculous. That all the tests had been ridiculous.
“How many princes have there been?” asked Jack to Lady Kel.
“You just saw number nine,” she answered. “Meanwhile, all of us ladies are either becoming spinsters or living in sin.”
“Isn’t that against the law?” asked Jack.
“Only if the queen finds out, which is usually when we get pregnant,” she said, shaking her head. “Too many women have had to leave Vitex because of that. Others left because they gave up hope. Nine tests, nine failures.”
As the princess moped off in the direction of the king and queen, the knights and ladies began to wander away to their duties in small groups, many of them talking miserably about the latest failed test. The wizard reappeared in the room, glaring at the lingering groups and making them hurry along. However, when his dark eyes found Jack, his expression lit up.
“A minstrel!” he said, moving nearer. “You are newly arrived?”
“I am, sir wizard,” Jack answered with a small bow.
“Wonderful! I am Grand Wizard Victor. Watch carefully.” He procured a piece of parchment from his sleeve and turned it this way and that in front of Jack. “I take a perfectly plain piece of parchment, no cuts, folds, creases, or concealed pockets of any kind and--”
He stopped as a gaily beribboned Jester’s stick was shook in his face, the bells jingling merrily. Jack looked around the wizard Victor and saw a red headed woman with bright blue eyes in a black and gold jester costume, the bells on the pointed toes of her shoes tinkling as she tapped her foot.
“Well, what is it?” Victor asked her, rudely.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Abzorbaloff, but the minstrel must sign in with the Castle Steward.” She gestured toward an older man with a log book and feathered quill, who waved at Jack.
“This way, please,” he said, and Jack followed him out after bowing to the wizard and the jester.
Victor glared at the female jester. “For your grandfather’s sake, I put up with a lot from you, Donna. Don’t call me Abzorbaloff! I am done with show business! Just because Wilfred and I had an act together once upon a time, don’t presume!”
Donna gave him a sweet, simpering smile and batted her eyelashes. Victor turned to leave and she stuck her tongue out at him before stomping off in the opposite direction.
* * *
The redheaded lady-in-waiting paced the parapets of the castle, repeatedly gazing off into the distance as she moved distractedly from one end of the stone walkway to the other. A bit of movement caught her eye and she stopped pacing, leaning over the balustrade and squinting to get a better look.
A white horse came into view, a knight in fine brocaded attire sitting proudly astride it, and the lady’s face split into a wide grin. She hurried to the tower, flew down the spiral staircase, and through the ground level of the castle. She ran into the courtyard just as the groomsman was coming forward to take the horse from the knight, calling, “Ho, Sir Roranicus!”
The knight dismounted and hurried to the lady, letting the groom take care of the horse. His hands went to her waist and he lifted her into the air, twirling them both around in a circle as she laughed.
“Rory, my love,” she said, still smiling, once her feet were back on the ground. “You missed the test.”
“My new duties as Chivalric Knight of the Herald keep me busy, sweet Amelia,” he said, gently. “How did the latest prince fare?”
Amelia frowned. “He failed.”
Rory’s shoulders slumped. “Bad luck,” he said, but offered her a smile. “Don’t worry. I promise if a prince is not found in the next few months, I’ll just go out and find out myself. Or else I don’t deserve to wear my spurs.”
Amelia looked away, an uncomfortable look on her face. “Oh... Those spurs...”
Rory tilted his head at her. “My love?”
She took Rory by the hand and led him away from the stables, deeper into the courtyard’s lush garden. “Darling... Do you remember the Royal Joust when you won those spurs?”
“Of course,” he said.
“They called you Sir Roranicus, the fairest and bravest knight in all the land, and everyone agreed that you had a brilliant future ahead of you, that you might become Lord Chamberlain or even Prime Minister...”
Rory blushed. “Well, I don’t know-- Did they really say all that?”
“And then you and I went for a picnic on that grassy knoll in the greensward?”
“We had cold pheasant,” he said, smiling, but unsure where she was going with this.
“And we climbed up the hill to...” She cleared her throat. “Watch the sun go down?”
Rory’s blush deepened. They might have started out watching the sun go down, but that definitely wasn’t how things ended. “Yes.”
“And you said you’d remember that moment forever because the setting sun painted the clouds overhead the color of my hair?”
“And then we...” She gave him a look. “Watched the sun go down?”
“Well...” She glanced around them. By then, she’d led him deep into an area that was surrounded by large bushes. She looked back up at Rory and took a deep breath. “I’m going to have a baby.”
Rory’s eyes grew wide and his mouth dropped open, but no words came forth.
Bravely, Amelia continued. “So, you see, a prince for Rose must be found. And soon. Or else, I shall have to leave the kingdom.”
Rory licked his lips and cleared his throat, but when he tried to speak again, all that came out was, “Uhh...”
Amelia put her arms around Rory’s neck. “Rory, I’m afraid! This could ruin you and you’ll never be Prime Minister!”
He stood there like a muppet, his arms dangling at his sides, unable to react. Amelia leaned backward, her green eyes boring into his blue ones.
“Say the word, Rory, and I’ll leave. I’ll go far away where no one knows me.”
“No!” Rory finally managed to speak. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close again. “You’ll stay right here. I won’t let us both suffer just because we experienced a moment of weakness.” He smiled down at her, excitement growing as the reality of the situation caught up to him. “A baby, Amelia. Our baby!” He leaned down, kissing her. “How soon?”
She looked up at the sky, counting in her head. “November.”
It was March. Amelia didn’t have long before the world would be able to see she was expecting. He nodded. “November,” he repeated. “I’ll get permission from the queen at once to go seek a new prince.”
She pulled him down for another kiss, worry knawing at her despite his assurances. “Please, hurry, Rory,” she murmured against his lips.
* * *
Reinette swept majestically down the castle corridor, Rose following along at a distance with her father, dragging her feet. Frowning, Reinette turned around and placed one hand at her hip, irritated by her step-daughter’s unbecoming behavior.
“Rose, pick up your feet! A princess does not shuffle. And for heaven’s sake, don’t squint. I’ve told you not to look at the sun.” Rose adjusted her posture and Reinette smiled and nodded. “That’s better.” She began moving down the hallway again, gesturing with her hands gracefully as she spoke. “You know I only correct you because we are the ones who must set an example for the rest of the court.”
The king followed along with Rose, making a ‘quacking’ motion with his hand as he mouthed ‘blah, blah, blah.’ Rose stifled a giggle behind her hand.
“What was that?” Reinette snapped, turning again.
The king and Rose automatically wiped their expressions blank. “Nothing,” said Rose, instantly changing the subject. “Reinette, when am I going to get my prince?”
Reinette sighed. “Rose, I don’t want to talk about that now, so soon after the latest failure. Besides, it’s time for tea and you know how sensitive my stomach is. All this talk of princes and tests is going to put me off!”
“But Reinette,” Rose persisted, “sometimes I feel like you don’t really want me to get married.”
Reinette placed one hand to her chest in an expression of hurt, her mouth dropping open in shock. “Don’t want you to get married? How can you possibly say such a thing? Of course I want you to get married! I was telling your father this morning, I said, ‘Peter, I want Rose to get married. It just isn’t normal for a girl her age to be single. After all, she’s next in line for the throne. I mean, I’m not exactly an old woman,” she said, smoothing back her hair, “look at me. But on the other hand, we’re not going to live forever and I would feel so much better, so much more relaxed in my mind if Rose were married and settled!’”
She moved closer to the father and daughter, her movements sinuous and measured. “And that is verbatim, exactly what I said to your father this morning.” Her eyes shifted and narrowed slightly at the king. “Of course, he didn’t say anything. He never does.” She put her hands in the air in an attitude of surrender. “But that’s the way he is. Impossible. And that’s my cross to bear, ever since I married him. But I don’t want you to worry your little head about it one tiny bit,” she said, patting Rose on the cheek. “If he makes me miserable, I just have to put up with it for your sweet sake. He is your father and I want you to respect him, but let’s be honest. There is only one person who really worries about your happiness and your future and that’s what I’m talking about right now.”
Rose and the king looked at each other. They might have gotten lost somewhere in that vast speech of hers. “What?” asked Rose.
“Your future!” said Reinette, sharply. “Let me make myself completely clear: I want you to get married, Rose, but I don’t want you to marry just anyone. You shouldn’t make the same mistake your father and I did. Marriage is a lifetime partnership! You are a princess and you must marry someone suitable. And he must be a prince. I mean, a real prince. That’s the one thing I absolutely insist upon. A real, genuine prince.”
Reinette probably would have gone on longer if Lady Amelia and Sir Rory hadn’t entered the corridor from the other side. Rose smiled in relief at her friends.
Amelia sank into a curtsey as Rory bowed. “Your Majesties,” she said to Reinette and Peter. “Your Highness,” she said to Rose.
“Amelia! Rory!” said Rose, going to embrace them, but Reinette held up her hand, blocking her way.
“Don’t interrupt!” she said, then looked to Amelia expectantly. “Well?”
“Sir Roranicus wishes to speak with you, Madame,” said Amelia.
Reinette turned her steely blue eyes to the knight. “Well?”
Rory stepped forward. “Madame, I have the honour to request a Perilous Labour,” he said, formally. “I wish to search for a true prince, a prince of Royal Blood; one who will suit both your Majesty and Princess Rose.”
Rose’s face lit up, but Reinette shook her head. “No.”
“But Reinette!” Rose cried.
“No, no, no!” said Reinette. “We’ve interviewed all the princes of the neighboring kingdoms. There are none left. We’ll have to wait until their little brothers grow up.” She smiled. “And that will take years.”
“But Madame,” Rory protested, “I plan to head North, over the Mountains of Solace and Solitude, across the Red Grasslands, and into Gallifrey where the silver leafed trees grow.”
“Gallifrey?” Reinette repeated. “Are you out of your mind?”
Rose grabbed at Reinette’s sleeve. “Let him go, Reinette, please!”
Reinette shook her step-daughter off. “You won’t find anything there but woprats, tafelshrews, and yaddlefish,” she said, haughtily.
“Reinette!” said Rose.
“Do you know what the weather there is like?” Reinette asked of Rory, ignoring Rose.
“Please, Reinette!” Rose persisted.
“It’s freezing! You’ll have to ride through the snow to get there!” said Reinette.
“Reinette!” pleaded Rose, coming around to stand in front of her, but the queen just pushed her out of the way.
“Quiet!” she said, wagging a finger at Rose before looking back at Rory. “It’s utterly oppressive, not to mention the frostbite, and--”
“Reinette,” Rose said, her tone quieter now, her hands clasped almost in an attitude of prayer. “Let Sir Roranicus try. Please.” She fell to one knee, her large hazel eyes luminous. “I beg you.”
Reinette looked down at Rose, then back at Rory and Amelia and sighed, rolling her eyes. “All right. Go ahead. They’re your toes.”
Behind Reinette’s back, Rose and Peter fist-pumped the air. Reinette wriggled her shoulders, straightening her spine, before regally moving past Amelia and Rory, gesturing to the others. “Come along, Rose, no doubt the tea has gotten cold by now...”
Rose jumped up and hugged Rory, giving him a chaste kiss on the cheek. “Good luck, Rory! Good luck!”
She hurried after Reinette. The king patted Rory on the arm in a show of encouragement before following after his daughter. Rory and Amelia each breathed a sigh of relief. He wrapped his arms around her.
“Now, all I have to do is bring back a prince who is not only a real prince, but one who will pass the queen’s mad tests,” he said.
“I believe in you,” Amelia said warmly. “We’ll be waiting.”
She smiled, ducking her head. “You know.”
Beaming with pleasure, Rory bent and kissed the woman who would soon be his wife - that is, if he succeeded in his quest.