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.
The new prince arrives to the delight of everyone but the queen.
Weeks passed. During the second week of Rory’s absence, Lady Amelia spent many an hour on the castle parapets, searching the horizon for any sign of a horse’s approach. During the third week, she spent her time packing and unpacking her belongings, trying to decide whether or not she should go before her pregnancy was discovered. If she was found out, she knew she’d be placed in exile and Rory would be disgraced. In the end, she put her things away, deciding to trust in her love, and hope that he would bring back a prince soon.
It was the following day, a beautiful sun-drenched afternoon in mid-April, when the wildflowers on the hill sides were just beginning to bloom, that a cry from the watchtower rang out: two figures on horseback were spotted approaching the kingdom at full gallop. The alarm spread like fire, Sir Roranicus had returned with the new prince. The knights and ladies and the queen and princess hurried into the courtyard to meet them.
Everyone was waiting for the drawbridge to be lowered when the knights on the battlements shouted, “No, wait! Stop!” Suddenly, a cry of “Allons-y!” was heard, followed by an enormous splash.
“What is going on out there?” Reinette demanded to know.
“Sir Roranicus’ companion!” one of the knights shouted. “He jumped into the moat!”
“He appears to be swimming across!” said another.
“He’s swimming the moat?!” cried Reinette, her tone climbing in pitch with every word. “For heaven’s sake, fish him out! Lower the drawbridge at once!”
The men jumped to follow the queen’s orders. The drawbridge was lowered and Sir Rory rode across, holding the reins to a second horse, a beautiful black stallion with an elegant royal crest emblazoned on the saddle.
While they were helping him dismount and remove his shining armor, a few others attempted to find the prince. They were all looking down into the water, so only Rose saw a head of brown hair pop up over the nearby wall. The man shook his head vigorously, like a dog, flinging water everywhere and making his hair stand straight up. Surprisingly, he looked rather good that way. He grinned down at her.
“Hello!” he said, brightly.
“Hello!” she said, smiling back.
That caught the attention of the rest of the assembly and suddenly, all eyes were on him. He flung a leg over the wall and hauled himself up. A few moat weeds were clinging to his clothes, which might have been a dark blue, but now that they were all wet, appeared more of a murky purple.
“Ah, wonderful exercise, swimming!” he said, enthusiastically. “Much better in proper attire, mind you, but no worries.” He swung his arms back and forth. “There’s a nice cross breeze right here. I’ll be dry in no time!” He reached behind himself and grabbed his short cape, wringing it out.
Rose stared at him, fascinated at the sight of his clothes clinging to his manly frame. “He’s... all wet,” she said in a slightly dazed voice.
“You swam the moat?” Reinette said.
The prince nodded pleasantly and began to descend from the battlements to join the rest of the company. “Wanted to arrive as soon as possible.”
“You swam the moat?” she said again.
He shrugged, pulled at his left ear. “Wellllll... All right, maybe that was a bit keen. Sir Rory said you had an opening for a prince. Any prince. So, here I am!” He smiled and clapped his hands together, rubbing them eagerly. “Who’s the lucky lady?”
Rose began to step forward when Reinette blocked her path, stepping bodily in front of her. “You SWAM the MOAT?”
He furrowed his brows at the queen. “Do you ever say anything other than ‘you swam the moat?’”
The knights and ladies gasped at his bold remark, and he looked around at their reaction, then wrinkled his nose. “Sorry, that was rude, wasn’t it? That’s me, I’m afraid. Rude and not ginger.”
Reinette seemed to recover her ability to form sentences then. “Do you actually mean to suggest that you are a true prince of royal blood, and am I truly to understand that you have the nerve, the gall, the utter presumption to apply for the princess’ hand in marriage--”
“Reinette, may I say something?” Rose murmured at her step-mother’s elbow.
“No!” the queen snapped, before returning her attention to the sodden prince. “It is quite plainly obvious that you are anything but suitable. The princess of Vitex isn’t going to marry any moat-swimmer!”
The prince shrugged. “Well, if that’s the way you feel about it...”
He turned to head for the entrance to the castle, but instantly all the ladies and knights blocked his path, pleading with him to stay. Rose darted around Reinette before she could be stopped and grasped the prince’s hand, which made him turn to look at her.
“Please, wait!” Rose said.
“You must be the princess, then,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, smiling. “I’m Princess Rose the Golden.” She made a slight face at her full title.
The prince shook the hand she was holding in a farewell gesture. “Well, it was nice to have met you.”
Rose tightened her grip when he turned to go again, grabbing on with her other hand as well. “No, please, don’t go! I like you!” The prince looked back at her, his eyebrows raised in surprise, and she blushed, glancing down. “Well, everyone likes you.”
Reinette trilled a laugh at that and Rose rolled her eyes.
“Well, almost everyone.”
The prince gave her a gentle smile. “Rose, I’d like to stay here, but I wouldn’t want to come between you and your mother.”
“Step-mother,” Rose corrected.
He accepted the change with a nod. “Step-mother, then. Even so. It would probably be for the best if I just cut my losses and head back to Gallifrey.”
“But I really like you,” Rose persisted, her dark eyes pleading.
“You do?” he said, curiously. “Why?”
“You swam the moat!” Rose said, enthusiastically. “No one’s ever done that before! You seem so... exciting! And fun!”
“I take it you don’t get a lot of that around here,” he said, with an amused half-smile, chuckling when Rose shook her head and gave a despairing sigh.
“Please,” Rose said again, “I think you’re wonderful. Can I marry you?”
“Marry him?” said Reinette, coming forward then. “Absolutely not. When you marry-- if you marry-- you’ll marry a real prince!”
Sir Rory came forward then, at last free of his cumbersome armor. Reinette frowned at him. “Sir Roranicus, what do you mean, bringing this imposter here? That is certainly no prince!”
“Oh, but he is, your Majesty, on my honor as a knight, I swear it!” Rory insisted, pulling a gilt-edged scroll from the bag at his side. “I have all his papers, right here.” He unfurled the scroll and read from it, “Theta the Tenth, Prince of Gallifrey, Guardian of the Untempered Schism and Warden of the Eye of Harmony. The inscription on his family crest reads: Donec fictus facies in ea.”
“What does that mean?” asked Reinette.
Rory squinted up at the sky as he attempted to translate. “Uh... roughly, it means “Fake it til you--”
The queen waved her hand. “Oh, never mind.”
“You see, Reinette, he is a prince!” said Rose, happily. At once, all of the gathered assembly began pleading with the queen, begging for at least a test. “Yes, a test!” Rose agreed. “At least that, please!”
Reinette sighed as if it were a great hardship. “All right, we’ll test him.” She ignored the happy exclamations from the others and gestured for the wizard to join her at her side. “The wizard and I will think about it and come up with a nice fair test to prove that this fellow, whoever he is, cannot possibly be a prince. He’ll fail just like all the others.”
The queen swept away into the castle with the wizard trailing after her. The ladies and knights began murmuring amongst each other, everyone wondering what kind of test the new prince would be put to as they started dispersing from the courtyard. Prince Theta looked at Rose in confusion.
“A test?” he asked.
“The royalty test,” said Rose. “Every prince asking for my hand must pass a test to prove he’s a real prince.”
“What kind of test?”
Rose shook her head. “It’s always highly secret. Every prince has had a different sort.”
“Hmm.” He shrugged. “Well, we’ll worry about that later.” He patted his still-wet clothing, frowning as he gingerly removed a few slimy weeds. “Right now, I’d better get out of these wet clothes. I doubt I’ll be in any condition to pass a test if I catch the vapours.”
The princess smiled sweetly. “May I show you part of the castle on the way to your room?”
“Why, princess, I’d be delighted,” he said with a brilliant smile, extending his arm for her.
Rose took it, completely unconcerned about his clothing being damp. “You’re very nice,” she said, shyly.
“Oh, you’re nicer,” he returned as they headed inside, making her blush again.
“You’re awfully good-looking, too,” she said. “You’ve got really great hair.”
“Thank you. You’re not so bad, yourself.”
“And you’re a great swimmer!”
* * *
Lady Amelia had been absent from the ‘show’ down in the courtyard, as she’d been helping the king communicate with a few of his advisors at the time. They’d heard from a small group returning from downstairs, however, about the commotion and she was anxious to see Rory again. She nearly skipped in her excitement as she and the king walked down the corridor together.
“Oh, your Majesty, aren’t you ecstatic? Sir Rory has brought back a new prince! I wonder what he’s like... I’m sure he’s quite rugged and manly.” She stopped, turning to the king. “Actually, I should make certain the prince’s room is prepared properly... Would you mind?”
The king shook his head ‘no,’ and Amelia impulsively embraced him. The king startled, pulling back from her, then pointed at her abdomen with a questioning look. She paled.
“Excuse me,” she said, bobbing a curtsy before hurrying away and disappearing around a corner.
King Peter, now worried, stroked his chin and paced back and forth. He’d certainly felt a slight bulge beneath Lady Amelia’s gown, and that could only mean one thing where a lady was concerned. He looked up as her heard voices approaching and smiled when he recognized the unmistakable tones of his friend.
“My grandfather expected me to follow in his footsteps,” Donna was saying to Jack as the entered the corridor, “but then I landed this ‘jester’ job and--” She looked up to see the king and grinned. “Your Majesty! May I present your new minstrel? This is Jack.”
Jack bowed before the king. “A great honor, your Majesty,” he said and the king inclined his head.
“Is something wrong?” Donna asked. “I can tell you’re worried, it’s written all over your face.”
The king nodded, pointing at the corridor behind them.
“Lady Amelia? We passed her on the stairs,” said Donna, and the king nodded again. “What about her?”
The king thought for a moment, his brow furrowing. Then he cast a glance around to make sure the were alone before removing his crown and sticking it under his tunic, then waddling around. Donna’s mouth dropped open.
“She’s pregnant? Oh, your Majesty, how could you?”
The king put his hands on his hips, looking at the jester indignantly, Donna had the good grace to look sheepish. “All right, then, who knocked her up?”
The king stood up straight and placed his fist to his chest.
“A knight,” said Donna. “Which knight?”
Curling his fingers into claws, the king pretended to roar like a lion.
“Sir Rory!” said Donna. “Does he know?” The king wavered his hand back and forth in indicate that the knight in question probably knew, but the king wasn’t sure. “Does anyone else know?”
The king shook his head, then pointed at each of them and ‘zipped’ his lips.
Donna smiled. “Don’t worry, we can keep a secret, can’t you, Jack?”
“Of course,” Jack said. “But I’m a little confused by all this...” He waved his arms to indicate the king’s pantomime. “Can’t the king speak?”
The king hung his head and Donna sighed. “That’s... kind of a long story.” She threaded her arm through Jack’s and began pulling him down the hall. “Come on, we’ll need wine. Joining us, your Majesty?”
King Peter rubbed his hands together eagerly and joined the two on their way to the kitchen.
* * *
The queen paced around her chamber, frowning sourly, her arms folding in front of her, as the wizard stood in the middle of the room, going over the prince’s scroll with a magnifying glass.
“As if I didn’t have enough to deal with,” Reinette said, “now I’m surrounded by people clamouring for a royalty test. Spies and traitors, all of them! Whom can I trust?”
“Me,” Wizard Victor said with a smile, but the queen ignored him.
“No one! And now I have to contend with another prince. I am in no mood to sit for hours in this stuffy chamber and wrack my brain over a test, just the thought of it makes me want to faint!” She placed one hand to her forehead, sighing. “But Rose asked for the test in front of everyone, so now I have to or else I’m the villain here.”
The wizard pocketed his magnifier and rolled up the scroll. “Well, his papers seem to be in order.”
Reinette scowled. Another loophole, gone. “What’s worse is Rose actually seems to like him, so we must think of a test that looks fair, and sounds fair, and seems fair, and isn’t fair.”
“Well, the prince does seem to be quite crude,” the wizard suggested. “Perhaps it can be exploited.”
“There is that,” Reinette conceded. “Did you hear how he spoke to me? And swimming the moat! Ugh, he stank to high heaven!”
“What about testing him for royal sensitivity?” said the wizard.
“That’s brilliant!” the queen exclaimed. “He’s sure to fail that, I don’t think he’d even know the meaning of the word ‘subtle.’ But exactly what sort of sensitivity test?”
“Hmm,” the wizard hummed thoughtfully. “Table manners?”
Reinette rolled her eyes. “Oh, no, that’s not good enough.” She uncrossed her arms, flinging them down at her sides in a motion of frustration. “This should be an easy test to think of. I am the very soul of sensitivity, unlike that wretched moat-swimmer.”
“Your Majesty is indeed,” the wizard said, sympathetically. “Perhaps you would like to lie down for a bit? They say that a mid-day rest is key for inspiration.”
The queen frowned over at her luxurious four poster bed, boasting an impressive number of pillows. “On that thing? Please, I never get any rest on that lumpy mattress. Why do you think my nerves are always on edge?”
“Your Majesty does have the softest down mattress in the kingdom,” the wizard said, politely.
“Piffle,” said Reinette, dismissively. “I could have the softest mattress in the world and I’d still manage to feel any lump, even if it were underneath the mattress and as small as a pea! That’s the answer!” she suddenly exclaimed.
“What is?” asked the wizard.
Reinette laughed. “The sensitivity test! We’ll place a tiny pea beneath the prince’s mattress and if he sleeps the night through, he’ll have failed! After all,” she said, haughtily, “any true royal should be able to feel it. Better yet... let’s make it two mattresses!”
“Why not five?” suggested the wizard, chuckling.
“Or ten?” said Reinette, smiling wickedly. “Just to be sure, we’ll say twenty. Twenty soft, down-filled mattresses. And to play it safe, you can make up a nice sedative for him.” She frowned. “While you’re at it, check the dosage we’ve been giving to Rose in her tea. Lately, she’s been annoyingly persistent and not nearly as docile as I like. Could she be building up a tolerance to it?”
The wizard shrugged. “Well, it must stay a fairly small amount as we can’t have her falling asleep in court,” he said, “but I’ll see if her dose can’t be increased a bit.”
“Good. Rose speaking her mind is the last thing I need. I must stay in absolute control of the kingdom!” She waved her hand to indicate he should leave. “Now, get out and get to work!”
* * *
In the guest chamber, Rose sat in a chair with her hands covering her eyes while Prince Theta got out of his wet clothes behind a screen. Two ladies-in-waiting stood nearby, to assist the prince and to serve as chaperones amid the slight impropriety of the princess being present while the prince changed.
Rose had refused to leave, wanting to spend as much time with Theta as possible, and so she kept her eyes covered, in the event that she might accidentally happen to see a bared expanse of flesh. She absolutely did not peek through her fingers, hoping to see such a thing, after seeing him soaking wet with his clothing clinging to him in all the right places.
The prince sighed as he emerged from behind the screen, dressed in a plain cream-colored shirt that fell to his knees, the ties at the neck casually undone, and a pair of plain hose. He carried his blue clothing in a wet wad in front of him. “It certainly feels good to wear something dry,” he said, dumping the sodden pile of fabric on a nearby table. “This is still completely soaked.”
There was a knock at the door, preceeding the entrance of the jester, who bowed before Rose. “Your Highness,” said Donna, “the king has asked to meet the young man.”
Rose stood from the chair, surprise on her face. “Why? He never asked before.”
“He heard he swam the moat,” said Donna, giving a thumbs-up to Theta.
Theta edged closer to Rose, his brows drawing together. “Uh, Rose? Is your father anything like your step-mother, because if he is--”
“Oh, no!” said Rose. “My father is silent. He--”
Theta grinned. “I’d love to meet him!”
The jester shook her stick, jangling the bells. “Your Majesty!” she called into the hall, and moments later the king entered and everyone bowed.
Rose stepped forward, taking her father’s hand. “Father, this is Prince Theta of Gallifrey.”
The prince offered a gallant bow and in return, the king mimed rolling out a red carpet. Donna moved to the prince’s side to interpret. “Your Highness, the king welcomes you-- and--” She waited while the king lifted up his joined hands in a manner of victory. “--he hopes you will pass the test.”
Theta made a pleased sound in the back of his throat, smiling. “Well, thanks!” he said.
The king removed his crown and held it to his chest, solemnly. “Oh,” said Rose, bringing a hand to her lips. “My father never touches his crown to his heart unless he really means it.”
“I don’t quite understand,” said Theta. “Is this a game?”
Rose sighed, sadly, and the jester shook her head.
“Alas, sir,” said Donna, “the king is mute, or else he would speak for himself.”
“He was cursed,” said Rose. “My mother, Queen Jacqueline, died in while having me and my father sought to remarry because he wanted me to have a mother. Well, one of the women vying for his hand turned out to be a powerful sorceress and she took offense to him choosing Reinette.”
“Plenty of people took offense to his choice,” said the jester.
“What made him want to marry her anyway?” asked Theta.
Rose shrugged. “He thought that’s what the kingdom needed at the time... an infusion of youth. And from what I’ve heard, she was quite poised, the perfect candidate. When he was cursed into silence, that’s when she took over and started being all... ruler-y.”
“Have you tried to break the curse?” asked the prince.
“Of course,” said Donna. “The curse says: ‘King Peter will never talk, until the mouse devours the peacock.’”
“That’s a bit rubbish, isn’t it?” said Theta. “No accounting for taste when it comes to poetry, I suppose. Well, couldn’t you find a big mouse and a really teeny peacock and--”
“We tried that,” said Rose. “The mouse got scared and the peacock bit Father.” The king pulled up his sleeve to show the jagged scar and Theta winced sympathetically.
“Hmm. Well, just let me get this test sorted and we’ll figure out something, don’t worry.” He smiled and enthusiastically shook hands with the king. “It certainly has been a pleasure meeting you!” The king pointed at himself and then at the prince to indicate he enjoyed the meeting as well. Sotto voce, Theta added, “A short while ago, I had the pleasure of meeting her Majesty.”
The king patted Theta on the back, sympathetically, before leaving the chamber. The jester made an elaborate bow to the prince and princess before following the king out.
Theta smiled at the princess. “Now, that is a nice man. I certainly do like almost both your parents, Rose!”
She smiled bravely. “I’m sorry about Reinette. I want you to be happy here. I know it’s probably a lot different than what you’re used to.”
“Well, it is a little difficult, adjusting to such warm weather,” he said. “Your mountains don’t even have any snow on them!”
Rose grabbed Theta’s hand and pulled him over to a bench. “Yes, please tell me, what is snow like? I’ve only seen pictures and heard stories!”
“Oh, it’s lovely!” he said, grinning. “It falls down from the sky, light as you please, glistening like jewels in the torchlight. It heaps up in piles and covers the silver trees like sugar on a cake.”
“That sounds beautiful,” she said, softly.
“It is,” he agreed, before frowning. “Until the following day, where the untouched white expanse has been trampled on by numerous people, carts, and animals, and becomes dirty, icy sludge.” his smile returned. “Still! Worth it for those short moments of beauty!”
Rose giggled. “Tell me more about Gallifrey.”
“Oh, it’s a beautiful place,” he said, warmly. “When the sun rises, it shines directly on the snow-capped mountains, making them seem to glow. The sunlight is reflected by the silver leaved trees, making the forest look as though it’s on fire. Lake Abydos is perpetually frozen, and it’s perfect for skating on, except for the three weeks when we have summer and the ice melts away, revealing the richest brown water you’ve ever seen!”
The princess sat in rapt attention as the prince went on, talking animatedly about his home. He gestured with his free hand, but kept the other entwined with Rose’s. The ladies gave side-long looks at each other, nodding knowingly. Rose might not have any experience in being courted, but they certainly did. And they recognized when two people were falling for each other.
Behind their backs, they crossed their fingers for luck. This new prince just had to pass the test.
Rory and Amy grow apart as Rose and the Prince grow closer.
The prince was still talking when another knock came at the door, interrupting Rose and Theta’s tete-a-tete. This time, two knights came in with armfuls of clothing. They bowed to the two royals, smiling engagingly.
“Your Highness,” one man said, addressing Theta, “the other knights and I would like to lend you something to wear while your own garment dries.”
“Well, isn’t that nice,” said the prince, standing from the bench he and Rose were sharing. “Um...” He looked down at her. “Uh, Rose, I’m going to change now.”
She nodded, her hazel eyes wide and guileless. “All right.”
He blushed, pulling at his ear. “Uh, no... It’s... erm... bad luck to see too much of the groom before the wedding.”
“Ohh!” she exclaimed and jumped up, her cheeks pink. “Um, I’ll see you later, then!” Quickly, she left the room, followed by the two ladies-in-waiting.
Theta breathed a sigh of relief. The knights stepped forward, laying many doublets and other garments across the bed. “We weren’t sure what you would favor, so we brought several things to choose from,” said one of the knights.
“Does his Highness have a favorite color?” asked the other.
“Hmm, well, I suppose at home folks tend to wear a lot of orange,” said Theta, thoughtfully, as he scratched his head. “But I think my own jacket there is my favorite color. It’s the same dark blue as our castle,” he said, beginning to speak rapidly, “the stone is mined deep within Mount Lung and starts out as a light grey, but its molecular structure changes in the light of the sun, turning it a beautiful blue--”
“Yes, yes, good,” said the knight, looking at his fellow in arms with a wide-eyed look. “But um... do you think any of these will do for now?”
“Ah.” The prince looked at everything, a bit overwhelmed by the choices. “Tell you what, leave them all and I’ll send back whatever I don’t use.”
“Very good, your Highness,” said the knight.
The two men bowed to the prince and hurriedly left the room. Theta turned and noticed his wet clothing still sitting in a heap on the table. Grabbing them up, he rushed to the door, but the knights were already gone. He hummed regretfully and tossed the lot onto a chair, noticing then that he’d trailed water everywhere.
“Oh, dear,” he murmured to himself. After fishing his handkerchief from one of his pockets, he knelt down and began mopping at the mess on the floor.
Moments later, a lady-in-waiting with long red hair entered, followed by a scullery maid with a mop and bucket. The lady stopped in surprise when she saw Theta crouched on the ground.
“Oh,” she said, turning to the maid, “I guess I won’t need you, it seems they’ve already sent someone up to do the floors.” The maid turned without a word and left the room as the lady looked back down at the prince. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
“Well, remember!” she interrupted, pulling herself up to her full height. “We’re all here to do a job and yours is just as important as anyone else’s.” She frowned at the handkerchief in his hand. “Oh, no, you can’t possibly clean the floor with such a tiny patch. You need a good, big, wet rag.” Her eyes fell on Theta’s clothing. “Here, what’s this?”
“Use this old thing!” The lady tore off a big piece of the blue jacket and handed it to him.
He looked at the fabric for a moment, his mouth open, but then shrugged. The damage was done, might as well clean up as he had intended. He leaned on one hand and sopped up the water on the floor with the ‘rag’ in his other.
The lady was frowning at the water dripping off the table, her hands on her hips. “Just look at this mess! What would the prince think?” She ripped another piece from his jacket in order to wipe down the table. “Oh, dear, wonderful Prince Theta... You will pass the queen’s test, I just know you will! Blessed Theta, what a strong name!”
Theta made a pleased sound in the back of his throat, smiling fondly at the lady who was vigorously cleaning off the table. A knock came at the door and the lady angled her head at it.
“Get that, please,” she said, adding, “Quick, quick, quick, quick, quick!” when Theta tripped over the hem of his shirt in his haste to get to his feet.
When he opened the door, Theta smiled broadly as Rory entered. “Rory!” he said happily in greeting.
Rory bowed before him. “Your Highness.”
The lady blinked wide green eyes as she straightened up from her task. “Your what?”
“Oh, get up,” said Theta, helping Rory up by his elbow. “You don’t have to go through the motions with me, we’re friends now! By the way,” he wrinkled his nose, “I hope I didn’t make a bad impression. You know... with the swimming.”
“Not at all, your Highness,” said Rory. “If you’ll just give your wet clothes to one of the ladies-in-waiting, she’ll see that it’s taken care of.”
“Thank you, but it’s already been taken care of,” said Theta, turning to smile at the lady behind him. Rory’s face lit up upon seeing her, crossing to take her hands in his.
“I see you’ve already met my dear Amelia,” said Rory, smiling warmly at her.
Recognition sparked in Theta’s expression. “You mean this is the little Amelia you told me all about?”
Rory nodded proudly. “The very same, your Highness.”
“Oh, Rory, she’s beautiful,” said the prince, happy for his friend to be reunited with his love. “And so energetic!”
“When I gaze upon this captivating face, I realize how poor my description must have been,” Rory said, his eyes only for Amelia, whose cheeks had turned beet red as she stared at the floor.
“Sir Rory is not very good at describing people, your Highness,” Amelia said in a tight, controlled voice.
“Maybe not,” said Theta with a shrug, “but he sure knows how to pick them. Now,” he grabbed an armful of leftover clothing, “if you’ll excuse me, I have to return these to the knights’ barracks. Nice to meet you, Amelia!”
As soon as the door closed behind the prince, Amelia pulled herself away from Rory, covering her face as she crossed the room. “I’ve never been so humiliated!”
“What’s the matter?” Rory asked, confused.
She took in a gulping breath and gestured toward the door. “I thought he was a servant,” she said, miserably.
His eyes went wide. “What?”
“Amelia, how could you?” cried Rory, in shock. “How could you mistake the prince for a servant?”
She stared at him. “How could I? How could you mistake that servant for a prince?”
He frowned. “You shouldn’t say things like that, just because you made a foolish mistake--”
She bristled. “I made a mistake? He was on his hands and knees, scrubbing the floor!”
Rory put his hands on his hips, clearly annoyed at Amelia’s behavior, especially since he’d set off on the quest for her. “He’s a real prince, no matter where he was, and I brought him here to help you out with your little situation, or had you forgot?”
Amelia’s lower lip trembled, but she lashed out with anger rather than tears. “I hate you!”
His mouth fell open, before he clenched his jaw. “Well, I hate you, too!”
“Get out!” she cried, pointing at the door.
“Oh, I’m going!” he said, turning his back on her.
“Goodbye!” she shouted.
“Goodbye!” He slammed the door.
He opened the door. “GOODBYE!” He slammed it again.
Amelia fell to her knees, sobbing.
* * *
Reinette paced impatiently across the diameter of the wizard’s tower as Victor paged through one of his alchemy books. Eventually, she huffed and went to his side, looking over his shoulder, even though the ingredients and formulas in the book made no sense to her.
“Have you found anything yet?” she asked.
“Not yet, your Majesty,” said the wizard, apologetically. “We want just the right potion to send the prince to a blissful slumber... The wrong one might have a decidedly adverse effect.”
“Well, I don’t want to poison the fool, but this is taking too much time, everything must be ready by tonight! After all, you’re a wizard, you should know this backwards and forwards. Find the right sleeping potion and make sure you prepare some of that good, heavy incense as well.” She tapped her chin. “Of course, the most important thing is that he’s tired out first.” Reinette clapped her hands together. “We’ll have an official ball tonight! I’ll have what’s-his-name dance til he drops.”
“Brilliant, your Majesty!” said the wizard.
“Keep your nose in that book til you find the right potion!” she commanded. The wizard busily turned back to his reading and Reinette began to pace again. “Let’s see... We could have him do the Prydonian Promenade...” She waved that away. “No, not tiring enough. What about that new dance, the Sonic Saltarello? It’s absolutely exhausting, all that jumping.”
Decided, she went to the door. “I’ll have to make everyone practice, not everyone is as up to date on dancing as I am.” She glared over her shoulder. “And the next time I see you, you’d better have everything ready!”
* * *
Jack, Donna, and the king were just coming up from the wine cellar with several bottles in their hands. Donna blew the dust from one, squinting at the vintage.
“Are you sure you need this many, sire?” she asked.
The king nodded emphatically, making a ‘talking’ motion with his hand, following it with pretending to sniff a flower, and then pointing to the fourth finger of his left hand.
“Ohhh,” said Donna, nodding knowingly.
“What?” asked Jack.
“He’s going to talk to Princess Rose about getting married,” she said.
Jack shook his head. “How you all manage to understand him so well is amazing, no offense meant, your Majesty,” he hurriedly added.
The king shook his head, having learned to take his handicap in stride a long time ago. Suddenly, the king went still, pointing to his ear, then down the corridor.
“Someone’s coming,” Donna translated.
A woman’s voice could be heard, approaching amid the sound of many footsteps. With wide eyes, the king tapped his crown. Donna mirrored his expression.
“It’s the queen!”
They knew the woman would have a word or two or fifty to say about the amount of alcohol they were currently holding and would want to know what they were intending to do with it. Wanting to avoid the lecture, the three of them scrambled for a moment, then bolted to the recesses in the wall of the hallway, each hiding behind a suit of armor or marble statue.
Reinette passed through the hallway, an entourage of ladies-in-waiting trailing after her. One of them was scribbling furiously on a piece of parchment.
“...and this has to be the biggest, loudest ball we’ve ever had,” Reinette was saying. “Be sure to hire extra musicians for the Sonic Saltarello dancing and tell the jester I want her to perform...” The group turned the corner, the queen’s voice fading away gradually.
The minstrel, the jester, and the king emerged from the hiding places when they could no longer hear her and collectively breathed a sigh of relief.
“What was she nattering on about?” asked Donna. The king put one hand to his hip and wagged a finger. “She’s going to make us do something?”
“What?” asked Jack.
King Peter did a fast five-step dance, ending in a jump. “Exercise?” Donna guessed.
The king pointed at his ear, then off toward the end of the corridor again. “Who is it?” asked Jack, but the king shrugged.
Not knowing whom to expect, all three of them hid again, but it was only Lady Amelia who emerged from the opposite hall. She was weeping piteously and carrying a cumbersome carpet bag and a birdcage with a plump blue songbird in it. As she passed by the suit of armor that Donna was hiding behind, the jester emerged, calling out to her in concern, “My lady?”
Amelia turned, her eyes wide and startled. She relaxed only minutely when she saw that it was Donna who had called.
“Is there something wrong?” asked the jester. The king and Jack also removed themselves from their hiding places, moving toward the distraught young woman.
“No,” Amelia said, hastily dashing the tears on her cheeks with the sleeve of her gown. “I... felt faint, that’s all. I was sitting in my room... sewing... and it got a bit stuffy, so I decided to come out and get some air.”
Donna gestured at the carpet bag. “I see you’re planning on camping out for a while.”
At that, Amelia burst into fresh tears, dropping her burdens, to the distress of the poor bird, and threw her arms around the king. His arms pinwheeled briefly at the sudden embrace, but he managed to keep his balance. Awkwardly, he patted her back, looking to Donna and Jack for help.
“Oh, your Majesty,” Amelia cried. “You don’t know, you just don’t know! Do you have any idea what can happen to the relationship between a man and a woman?”
The king put his hands on his hips as Donna snorted.
Amelia drew back and pulled a handkerchief from her pocket, wiping her nose and sniffling. “I’m glad I found out when I did; it’s better this way. I’m leaving.”
“You’re leaving?” Jack repeated, in shock.
“Yes,” said Amelia. “I’m leaving the service of the queen forever.”
“That’s a pretty big step to take by yourself,” said Donna.
“I have no choice,” said Amelia, looking at the floor.
“Well, you’ll need some help,” said Donna.
“Who would help me?” asked Amelia.
Jack stepped forward, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder. “I, my lady.” He turned to the king and the jester. “Chivalry demands that we protect a damsel in distress.”
“If you say so,” said Donna, not quite convinced.
Jack looked at Amelia’s luggage and shook his head. “But she’ll have to travel light, the way a man does.”
“Yes, we can dress her up as a boy!” said Donna, warming to the idea. “There’s a big pile of leftover clothing that the prince didn’t need in the knights’ barrack.” She grabbed the birdcage and carpet bag and shoved them into Jack’s arms. “We’ll help you take these things back to your room, and then go fetch your disguise.”
“Where will we go?” asked Amelia.
“I’ll take you to my home in the Boeshane Peninsula,” said Jack with a confident smile. “I know someone who knows someone who owns a cottage on the beach you can stay at. It’s a beautiful place, covered in peach blossoms.”
Amelia offered a tentative smile. “Thank you, dear friends!”
* * *
That night in the Great Hall, which had been festooned with garlands, the knights and ladies were whirling and jumping as the musicians played at a furious pace. Prince Theta and Princess Rose danced with each other in the center of it all, smiling and giggling as Rose fumbled with the steps. Theta just kept hold of her hand, swinging her back into the dance with enthusiasm.
“I’m afraid I’m not very good at this!” said Rose. “This dance is so new, I’m not as practiced.”
“Actually, it’s not all that different from a dance we do at home, the Gallifreyan Galliard!” said Theta. “Except that one involves a bit more jumping and hopping.”
“Even more than the Sonic Saltarello?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s quite an athletic dance!” he said, nodding and beginning to speak quite fast, even as he kept up the pace of the dancing. “One special step used during a galliard is called lavolta, a step which involves an intimate, close hold between a couple, with the woman being lifted into the air and the couple turning two hundred and seventy degrees, within one six-beat measure.” He leaned closer, lowering his voice a bit. “It’s considered by some dancing masters as an inappropriate dance.”
She blushed. “It sounds like fun to me. Maybe you could teach it to me sometime.”
His dark eyes were warm as he looked at her. “Oh, I’d love to.”
The two of them landed perfectly on the last beat of the song with their arms up in the air. Everyone else groaned and half-collapsed on top of one another, exhausted. Reinette, struggling for breath herself, turned toward Theta.
“Are you feeling a bit weary, my dear?” she asked, hopefully.
“No, let’s do it again!” Theta said, excitedly.
“Ugh!” Reinette frowned at the tired musicians and half-passed out couples and sighed in exasperation. It would seem her plan to tire Prince Theta out hadn’t worked. The man appeared to have an endless supply of energy! “No, I’m afraid we’re... quite done.”
“So, did I pass?” he asked with a dazzling smile.
“Pass what?” asked Reinette.
“Well... wasn’t that the test?” he said, brows drawing together slightly in confusion.
Reinette’s mouth dropped open. “The test? No!” She leaned on the arm of the knight who had been her dance partner, realizing it took energy she didn’t have to be indignant. She took a deep breath. “This was just... a waste of time.”
Slowly, the queen and the rest of the couples dispersed from the Great Hall in search of a bed or a sofa to rest on. Rose took Theta’s arm and together they headed for his room.
“It’s too bad that wasn’t the test,” Rose said. “You’re a brilliant dancer.”
He preened a bit. “Brilliant at most things, me. But maybe you could give me a clue?”
“A clue?” she repeated, blinking at him.
“I know it’s highly secret, but what sort of test does she usually give?” he asked.
“Oh,” she said, understanding. “Well... with Reinette thinking up the test, it might be almost anything. Like sometimes it’s a test of strength and endurance.” At this, Theta pressed his lips together thoughtfully, his lower lip sticking out a bit. “Sometimes it’s spelling or... dancing.” He perked up a little at this. “Or sometimes it’s history.”
“Ah!” he said. “That would be a good one.” He tapped his temple. “Mind like a steel trap!”
Rose smiled at him, then grabbed his hand and began pulling him in a different direction. “Come on, I want to show you something,” she said, heading for belowstairs.
They passed through a maze of corridors, always going down, until she stopped before a large wooden door. “This is a storage room,” she said, “but I like to call it, ‘the room of failed tests.’”
With some effort, she pushed open the door, revealing a spacious area stuffed with miscellaneous things. The nearest thing to the door were two large boulders that were strapped to a heavy bar. Rose gestured at it and said, “The first prince had to lift this weight.” She shook her head, sympathetically. “Poor man threw out his back and probably everything else. It took four of our knights just to bring it up to the courtyard.”
Theta looked at the weight, then at the princess. “Did you ever bring other princes in here?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No. Just you.”
She smiled softly. “I really want you to pass.”
A similar smile spread across his features. “Then, I’ll pass.” He looked back at the weight. “This, however... might take a bit of jiggery-pokery.”
“Jiggery-pokery? You mean, cheat?” she asked, eyes widening.
“It’s not cheating, per se,” he said, pulling on his left ear. “It’s... using the tools at my disposal.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a slim, silver rod. Pointing it at the boulders, it made a whirring sound and lit up blue at the end, then he flipped it in the air, caught it, and stuffed it back in his pocket. “There!” he said, grinning.
Rubbing his palms, he bent his knees and gripped the bar the rocks were strapped to, then slowly straightened, pulling it up to his chest. With a deep breath and great effort, he then pushed it over his head. Rose exclaimed in pleasure, clapping her hands for him.
“How did you do that?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s easy,” he said, then tossed the weight over to her as if it weighed no more than a feather.
She shrieked as the weight came flying at her, catching the bar reflexively and squeezing her eyes shut as she expected to be flung to the ground. She opened first one eye, then the other, as she realized that she was still standing... and holding the massive weight. She laughed as she lifted it up and down; it weighed next to nothing!
He was grinning cheekily. “I altered the molecules of the rocks,” he explained. “Made it lighter.”
“How?” she asked, setting the weight aside.
He pulled the silver device out of his pocket and activated it at the boulders again, returning them to their pre-altered state. “My own invention,” he said, proudly. “Dead useful when it comes to jiggery-pokery. I call it a screwdriver.”
“Oh, like a tournevis?” she asked, referring to the recent French tool.
He frowned. “No, Rose, this is completely different,” he sniffed, putting the screwdriver back in his pocket. He looked at her chastised expression and came back over to her, taking her hand. “By the way, ‘Prince Theta the Tenth’ is a bit too formal, I think. We’ve moved beyond that, haven’t we?”
Smiling again, she nodded.
He mirrored her expression. “Well, then. I’d like it if you would call me by my nickname. The Doctor.”
She tilted her head, curiously. “Doctor what? Doctor Theta?”
“No, just the Doctor.”
She looked at him for a moment, trying to decide if he was making a joke, then slowly nodded. “I like it. The man who makes people better. It’s so you!”
His cheeks reddened and he looked at the floor, rubbing the back of his neck. He cleared his throat and look at the rest of the room. “So!” he said, a little too loudly. “Will you show me the rest of the failed tests? I should make sure I can pass them all, just to be safe.”
“Well... you’ve already proven your dancing and athletic skills, and you’ve got the weight beaten,” she said, “but there are still some others we can try.” She brought him over to a large barrel marked ‘wine.’ “The eighth prince had to drink all of this without passing out. Something about ‘drinking like a lord.’”
“Child’s play,” he said, confidently. “I’ll have you know I once was challenged to a drinking contest with hypervodka. Granted, it was all a bit of a blur after the fifth one, but mere fermented grapes shouldn’t be a problem for me.”
Rose then led the Doctor to a small stage that had a thin coating of dust on it, where he proceeded to show off his ‘royal entertaining skills’ by singing and playing on a lute, and then his ‘royal sense of humor’ by acting out an engaging pantomime. He even included Rose as the ‘fish’ on the end of his line, bumping her hip playfully as he ‘reeled’ her in.
She giggled delightedly at the end of the performance. “Oh, Doctor, you’re going to pass for sure!” she said.
“And you’re all right with that?” he asked. “We’ll have to get married.”
“Yes,” she said, taking both of his hands in hers. “I like-- well, I mean-- I love you!”
His mouth fell open in shock. “You do? We’ve only just met!”
She looked down, running her toe along a crack in the floor. “I know... But I’ve never felt this way about anyone. Not any of the other nine princes made me feel the way you do.” She looked up at him, shyly. “Is that not love?”
“Welllll...” He gave her a smile. “It’s definitely a good start.”
He hesitated for a moment, then leaned down and pressed a quick kiss to her lips. He pulled back at once, his face bright red. Rose’s eyes were wide and she dropped his hands, pressing her fingers wonderingly to her mouth.
“That was... my first kiss,” she whispered.
He looked startled at that, then shook his head, a determined look on his face. “No, by my authority as prince of Gallifrey, I demand a do-over.”
Grabbing her hand, he pulled her close, bending her backward with one arm wrapped around her waist, the other behind her shoulders. Her hands went around his neck as his soft, warm lips found hers again. A happy noise escaped her, which seemed to encourage him. He somehow knew the precise angle at which to tilt his head for optimum enjoyment of both parties. His mouth was smooth and mobile against hers, making all thoughts of tests fly away.
When he set her back on her feet, she swayed slightly and he kept his arms around her, not that she would have objected.
“Better?” he asked, his breath coming just a little hard.
She nodded, dazedly. Her fingers crept up his doublet, her nails tracing the embroidery, as she smiled, her tongue touched to her teeth. “We should do it again, just to make sure.”
“My princess commands!” he said with a grin as he leaned down once more.
Everyone prepares for the queen's test in their own way.
Sorry this took me a while to update! The next chapter should be the last one!
As the sun was setting, King Peter, Donna the Jester, and Jack the Minstrel were discovering that it wouldn’t be so easy to sneak Lady Amelia out of the castle, even with her dressed in one of the prince’s cast-off suits, her long red hair tucked up underneath a puffy hat. The queen was ordering knights and ladies thither and yon as they readied a special tower room for the prince to sleep in. Knights were hauling mattress after mattress up the long and winding stairs, carried in from empty rooms all over the castle, followed by ladies with sheets and pillows.
On top of that, Reinette had placed a castle-wide order for ‘quiet.’ Anyone caught not-whispering or not-tip-toeing would be thrown in the dungeon. She was insistent that nothing would disturb the rest of Prince Theta, even though the man had yet to retire for the evening.
The four partners in crime scrambled to find an exit that was not occupied with guards or currently busy with activity as people moved in and out of rooms, gathering things for the queen. At one point, Donna even had to distract a room full of people by telling jokes while the other three snuck past. However, the laughter drew the attention of Reinette, who came to see what was making the noise, and Donna panicked, running off. Reinette ordered the jester found and brought before her, sensing something was up.
Before the king, Jack, and Amelia could make it out of the corridor, Amelia halted when she saw Rory coming from that direction, but when they went to head the other way, the king saw the queen and indicated that they should turn around. Jack tripped on a leftover mattress and fell, Amelia falling after him. Left with no other alternative, the king covered the two of them up with another mattress.
Reinette entered the corridor, pulling Donna by her ear. The jester complained, loudly, until the queen released her. “Oh, all right, if you’ll stop making that horrid racket! I have ordered QUIET! Now, what is going on here?” She noticed King Peter standing there near a pile of lumpy looking mattresses. “What are you up to?”
The king indicated his height to answer her question. Rory came into the corridor then, with a mattress, which he set down. With everyone occupying the hallway, there was no way for him to get through.
“There’s something going on around here!” Reinette snapped. She eyed the mattresses on the floor. They appeared to be... moving slightly. “What’s under this mattress?”
King Peter shook his head, making an ‘X’ with his arms to say that nothing was under it.
Reinette rolled her eyes at him and peeked under a corner. She gasped and straightened. “It’s a dead body!”
Sadly, the king removed his crown and placed it over his heart, nodding. Suspicious at his agreeing with her, Reinette snapped her fingers at Rory. “You! Move that away,” she said, indicating the mattress with the ‘body.’
Rory moved forward at once to do as the queen bid, pulling the mattress away, revealing Jack and a pageboy, who kept his face angled toward the ground. Reinette put her hands on her hips, glaring at the two of them.
“Well? What are you doing?” she asked. “Explain yourself!”
“It’s... nothing, your Majesty. You see, this boy and I...” He glanced at Amelia, whose face was turning red, then back to the queen. He smiled. “Heh. Well, nevermind.” He clapped the ‘pageboy’ on the back. “Go outside and wait for me... uh... uh... Lancelot.”
Amelia began to hurry past Reinette, but the queen’s eyes were sharp. “Lancelot?” She held up a hand, imperiously. “Wait!”
The surrounding ladies dropped into hasty curtsies at the queen’s bellow, dropping all the pillows and sheets they carried. Reinette stepped over the mess and went to ‘Lancelot,’ turning him around and yanking his hat off. Rory and the ladies-in-waiting all gasped.
“Amelia!” exclaimed Reinette, then narrowed her eyes. She turned to the other ladies and pointed at the mess of sheets. “Take those up to what’s-his-name’s chamber, the mattresses, too.”
Working together, the ladies hefted up the mattresses with everything else and carried them down the hallway. Rory remained where he stood, staring at Amelia with his lips slightly parted, confusion written large on his face.
“Your Majesty--” Amelia began, but Reinette would have none of it.
She turned sharply back to the disguised lady and fired off her questions without allowing for answers. “Quiet! What are you doing in that ridiculous getup? Why weren’t you at the ball? And why are you with this man?”
“Your Majesty, I beg of you--” Amelia tried again.
“You were running away, is that it?” Reinette surmised. When Amelia didn’t answer, the queen’s eyes widened. “You were running away!”
Rory’s mouth dropped open. “Amelia!” he said, horrified.
“You low-born, ungrateful little sneak!” Reinette berated the poor lady. “Is this the thanks I get for raising you to the status of lady-in-waiting? Just look at you! One of my ladies running off with a musician!”
Jack couldn’t stand by and let Amelia be treated that way. “Majesty, Lady Amelia is innocent!” he said, stepping forward. “I’ll tell you the truth. I... I forced her to leave against her will!”
Rory’s head snapped in Jack’s direction, furious. “Why, you low--”
“It’s not true!” Amelia cried at the same time, stepping in between Jack and Rory, pushing against her ex-fiance’s chest to keep him away from the other man.
“Just a moment!” said Reinette, wanting to get control of the situation again.
“What are you doing with him?” Rory demanded of Amelia.
“Just a moment!” said Reinette, louder.
“You go to your room!” Rory ordered Amelia, who straightened her spine, glaring at him.
“You don’t tell me what to do! You... Philistine!”
“QUIET!” Reinette shrieked. She grabbed Amelia’s arm, dragging her away from Rory. “May I remind you that you are still one of my ladies-in-waiting?” she said, pointedly. “Get above stairs where you belong and help prepare what’s-his-name for bed!”
“Please, your Majesty--” began Amelia, but she was cut off once again.
“Do as I say!” Reinette demanded.
Left with no other choice, Amelia headed in the direction of the stairs. Reinette turned to Rory next. “And may I remind you, Sir Roranicus, that you are still one of my knights. Step forward.” Rory snapped to attention and pressed a fist to his chest, formally. “Sir Roranicus, I order this minstrel banished from my kingdom! I want him out of here by dawn.”
Rory crossed to Jack and took his arm, none too gently, leading him out of the hallway. Donna followed them at a short distance. Reinette turned to her husband lastly. “And you, go to bed! I don’t want you wandering around all night. There is to be quiet in this castle! There is a young man upstairs who is bone-tired.”
King Peter shook his head and pretended to be reading from a book. Reinette sighed.
“He’s studying?” She threw up her hands. “Fine, let him study, but when he goes to bed, I want him to get a good rest, so there will be quiet, if I have to scream this whole castle down!”
* * *
Meanwhile, Rose and the Doctor were poring over a pile of books in the guest room. The princess had insisted on helping him ‘cram’ for the test, going over all the subjects that previous princes had been tested on. She closed one book, coughing delicately over the cloud of dust that appeared.
“Well, if you’re tested on literature or spelling, you’re sure to pass, Doctor. That leaves...” She picked up the next book in the pile. “History.”
“Ah, I’m a dab hand at history,” he said, confidently. “What’s first?”
Rose opened the book and read. “‘The Bravery of Prince Sigurd.’”
“Piece of cake. Check me for accuracy.” The Doctor cleared his throat and stood, beginning to pace the room as he recited rapidly from memory. “Young Sigurd, wishing avenge Regin and Hreidmar, agrees to slay the dragon Fafner, who had been transformed from a man by a curse sourced in Andvari’s ring, which he was hoarding with his gold. Sigurd has Regin make him a sword out of the fragments of his father’s weapon, the resulting sword, named Gram, has the ability to cut through an anvil. He goes into the forest, surprises Fafner in his lair and slays him. Upon bathing in the dragon’s blood, he is granted invulnerability, and upon drinking some of it, he is enabled to understand the speech of birds. Meanwhile, Sigurd’s deceased father, Sigmund, disguised as the Sacred Goat, tells him that Regin--”
Here, a soft snore interrupted him, and he looked back at the table where he’d been sitting to find Rose had drifted off, the book in her lap. He smiled and shook his head. She looked just as lovely asleep as she did awake, almost like that other historical tale... The one about the sleeping maiden. Would Rose awaken, he wondered, if he kissed her? He was leaning down to find out when there came a knock at the door and Rose jerked awake. The Doctor swung back, not wanting her to think he was able to do something inappropriate. Because he wasn’t.
The door opened and Amelia in her boy’s disguise came into the room. “Did you ask for a pageboy?” Rose asked, looking from Amelia to the prince.
The Doctor shook his head, but then looked closer. “Wait, aren’t you Lady Amelia?” He looked her up and down. “That suit looks awfully familiar...”
“What’s wrong, Amelia?” Rose asked, standing up and setting the history book aside.
“I am in disguise, your Highness,” Amelia said in a low, dejected voice. “I... I was running away.”
“I see,” said Rose, a bit unsure.
The Doctor swept over and put an arm around Amelia’s shoulders. “Come in, come in, have a seat.” He pressed her into the chair he had vacated.
She attempted to stand back up. “But the queen has ordered me to--”
“Never mind what the queen has ordered,” said the Doctor, firmly. “Tell us what’s the matter.”
Amelia stared at the floor, looking like she was about ready to cry. “Maybe if I stand naked on the parapet and catch a chill and die, that’d show him,” she mumbled.
“Show him what?” asked Rose.
“He’ll be sorry, then,” said Amelia.
“Who?” asked Rose.
“You mean nice, sweet Rory?” asked Rose, growing more confused by the minute.
“Just a minute,” the Doctor said to Rose, then leaned on the table, trying to get a good look at Amelia’s face. “What did you do to him?” he asked.
Slowly, Amelia seemed to regain some spark of life and her head lifted up, her green eyes bright. “What did I do to him?” she demanded of the Doctor.
“Well, you must have done something,” the Doctor said, keeping his tone calm and reasonable. “You’re talking the way I did once when I was afraid to go home because I’d given my brother, Brax, a bloody lip.” He looked at Rose, whose eyes had gone wide. “It was an accident,” he said, with an airy wave of one hand. Rose nodded, reassured.
Amelia fidgeted with her hands. “We had a little disagreement,” she allowed, evasively.
“So, you... decided to run away?” the Doctor said, looking at her ‘disguise.’
“He said some perfectly awful things to me!” Amelia said, in her defense.
“Oh, I’m sure he did,” said the Doctor, pushing away from the table and walking toward the window. “Well, in that case, I guess you’re right. The only thing you can do is pack up and get out.” He looked at her over his shoulder. “Unless, of course... you just go to him and say you’re sorry.”
Amelia said nothing and continued to look at the floor. The Doctor sighed and came back over to her. “Listen, Amelia. Rory is a wonderful man. And he really loves you. We were on the road for two weeks and all he would ever talk about was you!”
She looked up then, her eyes brimming with tears. “Oh, your Highness! Really?”
The Doctor smiled and nodded. “Really.” He helped her up by her elbow and slowly ushered her toward the door. “Now, why don’t you change into something that shows you’re a girl and patch things up with him.” He opened the door, then paused, glanced at Rose, and whispered, “And between you and me, try to act a little helpless. We men like to feel like we’re the strong ones.”
Amelia smiled and threw her arms around the Doctor impulsively. “Oh, dear prince! I don’t know how to thank you! If... if it’s a boy, I’ll name him Theta!”
He wrinkled his nose. “Er. No. No, don’t do that.” He patted her back and she hurried out of the room. The Doctor turned back to Rose, who had sat back down and appeared to be drooping in her chair again. He went to her and gently touched her shoulder. “You’d better go to bed, Rose,” he said when she opened her eyes. “I’ll keep studying on my own.”
She stood up and yawned behind her hand. “All right, Doctor.” She smiled at him. “I’m positive you’re going to pass Reinette’s test tomorrow.” Her expression slipped minutely. “Well, I’m pretty sure.” She took his hand in hers. “If you don’t, I’ll understand.” Leaning up on her toes, she kissed him sweetly. “But I really hope you pass.”
He caressed her cheek before he escorted her to the door, snuck another kiss, and then allowed her to slip into the hallway beyond. He sighed, his heart thudding, before heading back to the table and opening the history book. He marked his place and looked away from the pages, beginning to recite once more.
“And so, the young Prince Sigurd, having slain the dragon Fafner with the sword Gram, rescued the Princess Brynhild from the bower of flames, and together they mounted his horse, Grani...” He paused, checking his preciseness, then turned the page. “And rode to the castle of Heimar, where they were married and lived happily ever after.” He double checked his recitation and smiled, smugly. If it was a history test, he was sure to pass.
* * *
Rory was all but dragging Jack toward the dungeon, with Donna hard on his heels, calling him every insult in the book because he was refusing to listen to them.
“You’re a bully, and a tyrant, and a great big medieval dunce!” Donna said, shaking her jester’s stick at Rory’s back. “Just because you won your spurs you think--”
“Now, see here!” Rory said, turning around sharply on his heel, forcing Donna to stumble back a few steps. The knight, apparently, had had enough. “This man is charged with attempting to transport a young woman out-of-kingdom against her will. That’s a serious offense!”
“It’s not like that,” Donna insisted.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” said Jack at the same time.
“He was protecting Lady Amelia,” said Donna.
“I can’t leave yet,” said Jack. “I must see the Wizard first.”
“No,” said Rory, beginning to head for the dungeons again. Jack dug in his heels, impeding his progress.
“Fathead!” said Donna to Rory. “Can’t you see he’s trying to help you? We’re all trying to help!”
“How can you help?” Rory wanted to know.
“By finding out what the test is from the Wizard,” Jack explained.
“But that’s cheating!” exclaimed Rory, who was hastily shushed by Donna and Jack.
“Don’t you understand?” asked Donna. “This is for you! For you and Amelia and...” She lifted her eyebrows at Rory. “You know.”
Rory’s face flushed red, then he shook his head. “No, if anyone should defy the Wizard’s magic, it should be me.”
“You must stand guard,” said Donna. “This is our job. Now, come on!” The three of them quickly headed off in the direction of the Wizard’s tower.
* * *
Victor the Wizard was alone in his tower, gazing into a large steaming cauldron. The odor was quite pungent, making Donna, Jack, and Rory wrinkle their noses, but they nodded at each other, confirming the plan. Rory moved away from the door and went to stand on the stairs, to ensure that they would not be disturbed or overheard. Donna and Jack slipped into the room, casually.
“Pardon, sir Wizard,” called Donna, oh-so-politely.
“What do you want?” he grunted, not bothering to look up.
“Our friend, the minstrel, is a great admirer of yours,” said Donna, sweetly.
At the Wizard’s scoffing noise, Jack jumped right in with his bit. “I would be far too embarrassed to say it normally, except for the fact that I’ve been banished. And before I go... well... I hope it’s all right to say, but... I had to tell you what a great artist you are... Abzorbaloff.”
The Wizard’s head shot up and he whipped around to glare at Donna. “I told you never to call me by that name!” he shrieked, advancing on her angrily.
Jack stepped in front of him, fending him off quickly with the next part of the script, the information having been supplied by Donna and her stories of Victor and her grandfather’s days in show business.
“I use that name with honor, sir!” Jack insisted. The Wizard backed away, eyeing the minstrel warily. Jack went on, “I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing you in command performance at Clom in ‘92. What a show! What a triumph! You took seven curtain calls.”
“Eight,” the Wizard corrected him, smugly.
And then Jack dropped the carrot. “Do you happen to remember a little boy in the second row who stood up and yelled ‘bravo’ that night?”
“Yes?” said the Wizard, a touch of curiosity entering his tone.
Jack placed a hand to his heart. “I was that boy.”
“No!” cried the Wizard. “I can’t believe it!”
Jack then indicated his lute. “Of course, I’m in show business now, too. And sir... if it’s any interest to you... it was your inspiration that brought this about.”
The Wizard smiled delightedly. “Then you must belong to the guild!” Together, he and Jack shook both hands, turned around in a circle, struck their foreheads, and stuck out their tongues. The Wizard laughed. “Camelot Local 714! Oh, to think that someone remembers those days!”
“Yes,” said Jack, gratitude in his expression, before he started shuffling toward the door. “Well, I just wanted to tell you what that performance meant to me, Abzorbaloff. I’d better be going now.”
The Wizard darted forward, moving fast for a man of such girth, and caught Jack’s elbow. “No, wait! Stay awhile.” He waved his hands and produced a bunch of silk flowers. “For you, sir minstrel!”
“Thank you!” said Jack, appearing impressed and touched.
“Come, sit with me!” said the Wizard, gesturing towards a chair.
“Oh, no, I couldn’t,” Jack said. “The queen wouldn’t like it if she knew I was still around.”
The Wizard waved that away, unconcerned. “Oh, don’t worry about her. Have a seat. This is between us.”
Jack glanced at the chair, then the door, as if hesitating. “Well...” He shook his head. “You’re probably busy with that test for tomorrow.”
“Oh, that’s all right. The test is all taken care of,” said the Wizard.
“Is it?” asked Jack, moving closer to the Wizard. “I don’t suppose you could tell an old Guild brother what it is?”
“Er... I’m sort of under oath,” said the Wizard, looking uncomfortable.
Jack nodded, patting the man’s back. “I understand.” He turned to go. “Well, see you...”
The Wizard grabbed Jack again, stopping him. “No, wait a minute. May I borrow your handkerchief?”
“What handkerchief?” asked Jack.
The Wizard pulled one from Jack’s ear, turned it this way and that, then produced a plucked chicken from under it. “Some people think my act is pretty fowl,” he quipped, and Jack laughed uproariously.
“The Great Abzorbaloff!” Jack declared. “They said you could read any mind, there wasn’t a tidbit of information you couldn’t absorb!”
The Wizard’s cheeks were pink from pleasure, happy to have an audience again. “I’ll bet you can’t guess what the test is about.”
“Astronomy?” Jack said.
“No, you’ll never guess.” He put his arm around Jack’s shoulders, bringing him in close. Conspiratorially, he whispered, “Sensitivity!” The two men laughed together.
“Sensitivity!” Jack repeated, turning to Donna. “Did you hear?” Donna accordingly doubled over in laughter, joining in with the two of them. Jack pounded the Wizard on the back. “Abzorbaloff the Great!”
“Abzorbaloff the Greatest!” proclaimed the Wizard as he turned his staff into two lengths of silk. “Now, let me tell you the rest!” As Donna moved closer to be a part of the conversation, the Wizard frowned. “Mm. No. I’d better not.”
“Oh, fine, I’ll go,” said Donna. She made an elaborate bow before leaving the room to stand with Rory on the steps.
“Say,” said Jack, wanting to get the Wizard back on track. “I don’t actually have to leave until daybreak. Why don’t we go to the wine cellar, split a bottle, and talk some more about-- er-- talk some more.” He grinned, winningly.
“Fine, fine,” said the Wizard. He gestured at the cauldron. “I was kind of in the middle of something. You go ahead and I’ll join you in two seconds.”
Jack nodded and hurried out to the corridor to tell Donna and Rory to make themselves scarce... while the Wizard plugged first one nostril, then the other, breathing in the noxious fumes and clearing his nose. With a sigh, he headed out of the tower to join his new friend for a nice chat.
* * *
Rory paced the empty, dark courtyard, unable to sleep. The night watch walking the parapets above called out that it was three bells. He sighed, running a hand over his face. He hoped that the minstrel was finding out the information they needed from the Wizard. They didn’t have much time before dawn.
He heard a crunch on the gravel behind him and swung around, his hand going for his sword. “Who goes there?” he asked, his eyes darting around, trying to see into the darkness past the torchlight. “Friend or foe?”
Amelia, wearing a lovely light green dress with gauzy sleeves, stepped into the light, looking nervous. “Friend.”
Rory relaxed, but turned away. “Oh.”
“...I hope.” She came closer, tentatively. “Rory... Rory, will you not look at me?” He only crossed his arms and did not turn around. She sighed. “I... I was trying to run away. But it was only because I thought you didn’t love me.” She paused, hoping he would say he did. Hesitantly, she tried again, “I thought you didn’t love me?” He still maintained his silence. She looked down, swallowing hard. “Well, even if you... don’t... love me, I can’t love anyone but you and I want to be near you if I can... for as long as I can. But Rory... I don’t blame you if you’ve changed.”
She turned, beginning to walk away.
Amelia stopped at his voice and looked back, heart in her throat.
“In a way,” he said turning to look at her, “I have.” He uncrossed his arms and faced her, his expression raw. “I love you so much more now than I did before.”
“Oh, Rory!” Amelia ran to him and he swept her up into his arms, kissing her over and over.
The prince unwittingly faces the queen's test!
The final chapter! Began as a birthday fic for kelkat9, though by now, it's more of a "you are awesome" fic, hehe! Hope you enjoyed the story, sweetie! :D
“...seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty.” Alone in the tower with the massive bed that had been set up for Prince Theta, Reinette smiled to herself in satisfaction as she finished counting each mattress. “That should do it. And one tiny pea...” She reached into her bosom and retrieved the small, dried legume. Placing a kiss to it, she lifted up the center of the bottom-most mattress and tossed it underneath. “There. Nice and fair.”
Moving to the door, she opened it, beckoning to the lady-in-waiting outside. “All right, you can come in now. Did you bring everything?”
“Yes, madame,” said Lady Kel as she entered, holding a silver tray with a strange mirrored device, a flagon, and an incense burner.
“And the prince,” said Reinette. “Where is the prince? Doesn’t he know how late it is? One would think he would be dropping from exhaustion.”
Lady Kel delicately cleared her throat and tilted her head over her shoulder. Curiously, Reinette looked around the woman and saw that Theta was behind her, dressed in an ankle length sleep shirt, using her shoulder as a pillow as he dozed, nearly asleep on his feet.
“Oh.” The queen poked him in the side, making him jerk back from the lady-in-waiting with a slight snort. “Ready for bed?” Reinette asked, brightly. “You must be sure to get a good night’s rest so you’ll be fresh tomorrow morning for your trip back to your kingdom. Or wherever it is you’re going.”
From the tray, Reinette lifted the eight-sided mirrored cylinder, holding it by the stick through its center. “And the incantation?” she asked. “The Wizard said it would be written right on the wrapper.”
Balancing the tray with one hand, Lady Kel retrieved a slip of paper from her pocket. “Here it is, your Majesty.”
“Yes.” Reinette revolved the mirror before Theta’s drooping eyes, reading aloud, “Silken swishing sibilance wraps us in a gentle trance. Deep in Morpheus’ arms we lie; off we go to beddy-bye.” She wrinkled her nose. What poppycock. Still, if it helped the prince sleep... She put the device back on the tray and positioned Theta in front of the incense burner.
Lady Kel handed the queen the next incantation before dropping a lighted taper into the incense. There was a minor explosion and a miniature cloud in the shape of a mushroom rose into the prince’s face. He coughed, rocking slightly on his feet, and rubbed his eyes.
“Drowsy incense, sweet aroma, wraps us in a gentle coma,” read Reinette. “Murmuring voices seem to say, ‘Mr. Sandman’s on his way.’” She sighed. “That ought to help him sleep.”
Lastly, she picked up the flagon and pinched Theta’s nose as she tipped his head back and poured the potion down his throat. He choked a bit, but swallowed, too sleepy to really put up any sort of a fight.
“There we are,” Reinette said, cheerfully. “A little extract of opium and warm milk before going to bed, that’s what I always say. Now I’m sure you’re going to get a good night’s sleep. And just to make sure you have no trouble drifting off, I’ve prepared a special treat.”
She walked to the door where a crank was set in the wall. Turning the winch a few times, a gilded cage lowered from the ceiling until it was about even with the top of the bed. Inside was a beautifully plumed bird with purple and blue feathers. “Voila!” Reinette said. “The Nightingale of Trenzalore!” She clapped her hands together and ordered, “Now, sing!”
Startled, the poor bird let out a piercing shriek. Theta jumped, having nearly fallen asleep standing up again.
“Ugh, stop!” Reinette cried, plugging her ears. “You were brought here to put a live prince to sleep, not wake a dead one!” More gently, she coaxed, “Now, let’s have a lullaby, birdie, nice and soft.”
Quietly, the bird began to sing. The tune had a quasi-alien feel to it, as the bird apparently was able to harmonize with itself. Had Theta been more awake, he would have been fascinated by the species.
Reinette turned to the prince. “All right, let’s get you into bed, my dear.”
Drowsily, Theta moved slowly to the ladder leaning against the bed and grasped it in both hands. He put his foot on the bottom rung, but it slipped off, falling to the floor. He placed his other foot up, but when this slipped off as well, he tried his first foot again. As he continued, it was becoming apparent to the queen that he believed he was climbing. Slowly, he stopped.
“Am I almost there?” he mumbled.
Reinette rolled her eyes. “Naturally, I have to do everything myself.” Pressing her lips together, she pushed the prince up the ladder and gave him a shove for good measure. He collapsed on top of the blankets and the queen exhaled sharply, dusting off her hands. “Well, at least one person in this castle is going to get a good night’s sleep.”
Trusting that the prince was well on his way to slumberland, she swept out of the room, Lady Kel following behind, using her foot to close the door after them.
The Doctor turned over and laid on his back for a moment, then opened his eyes and arched his back in order to look at the bird in the cage situated behind him. Even upside down, the bird was lovely. “Oh, look at you, you beauty,” he cooed in a tired voice. “I shall have to look at you more closely,” he paused, yawning, “when I’m not so sleepy.”
He allowed himself to droop back down, but a few seconds later, rolled over onto his stomach again. He drew his knees up, supporting his arched body, but kept his head on the pillow. He sighed and sat up. There was something hard under his head. Moving the pillow, he poked at the mattress and found other protuberances. Briefly, he employed a swift, chopping-type massage to the bed, then smoothed it out and flopped down. He tried several different positions, then stood up, placing his hands on his hips.
“All right, lumps,” he warned as he glared at the mattress. “It’s time you knew something. They have a name for me in kingdoms that have tried to conquer Gallifrey and failed. The Oncoming Storm. And I am telling you right now, you get one warning and this is it: watch out!”
With a growl, he sprung to one corner of the bed and curled up in a tight knot, but his eyes popped open a moment later. He flailed about in several rapidly changing positions, including hanging his torso off the top of the bed. He sighed. This wasn’t working.
He sat up again and gave the bird a vicious cut-off motion, like a conductor. With a squawk, the bird fell silent. “All right,” he said. “Let’s take it from the top.”
The nightingale began to sing again as the Doctor slid to the bottom of the ladder, landing on the floor. “Goodnight, everyone,” he said to the empty room. “Sleep well!” He started up the ladder again. “What a beautiful bed! Twenty soft, downy mattresses. I’m going to sleep so well!”
He settled himself gracefully in the center of the top mattress, moving into a languid position with his hands under his cheek, and closed his eyes.
And opened them again.
“Quiet!” he yelled in frustration, and the poor bird cut itself off, mid-chirp. “Sorry,” he muttered, a bit half-heartedly. Surely, it shouldn’t be so difficult to get comfortable and fall asleep? He tried a few more positions in the bed, including spinning around on one shoulder to try and find some spot that was less lumpy than the others.
With a long-suffering sigh, he sat up, dangling his bare legs off the side of the bed.
“All right, sheep,” he said, miserably. “I’m ready when you are.” His eyes blearily followed imaginary fluffy white sheep in the middle distance before him. “One... Two... Three...”
* * *
The next morning, Rose rushed out of her room to meet Reinette and her father so that they could all go down to breakfast together. Her small crown was askew and she appeared a bit hastily dressed in a formal gown of cream silk with gold embroidery. Reinette had been smiling, but now she frowned at her step-daughter.
“Why are you wearing that, so early in the morning?” she asked.
Rose was struggling to fasten a pendant around her neck. “Well, today’s the test and I want to look my best for--”
“The test?” Reinette interrupted. “Why, Rose, the test is over.”
Peter and Rose each looked startled. “What?” Rose asked.
“The test is over,” Reinette repeated in a deliberate manner, as if the princess were a bit slow.
“But when was it?” Rose wanted to know. “What was it?”
With no reason to hide it any longer, Reinette took great pleasure in explaining her brilliant test. “It was last night. We put him to bed on twenty soft, down-filled mattresses with a pea under the bottom one in order to test him for sensitivity. And, of course,” she added, smugly, “the pea would have kept a real royal awake.”
Rose’s shoulders slumped. “And he slept?” she asked, miserably.
Reinette shrugged delicately. “Well, I’m sure I don’t know. But he was practically falling asleep before he got into bed, yawning like a vulgar stable boy. I mean, he looked ghastly.” With a smile, she patted the princess’ cheek. “I suppose we’ll see!”
As the queen moved off down the hall with the king following behind, Rose looked sadly at the floor, trying not to let tears well up in her eyes, her poor heart breaking.
“Oh, Doctor,” she said, sadly, before slowly moving toward the banquet hall.
* * *
Inside the hall, the ladies-in-waiting were already seated, the knights standing behind their chairs. Everyone had gotten up early for ‘test day,’ eager to see if the prince was up to whatever the queen would throw at him.
Lady Kel erupted in a hysterical giggle, which she hastily smothered behind her hands as the others shushed her. “I can’t help it,” she whispered. “I’m so nervous!” Another high-pitched giggle escaped her.
“Control yourself!” said Licie, a lady with short red hair, from beside her. “They’ll be here in a minute!”
“But what if he doesn’t pass?” asked Lady Kel, fidgeting with her fingers.
“Shh!” said Lady Licie. “Here comes the queen!”
Everyone rose from their chairs and offered the royal family a bow or curtsy as the king and queen entered, followed by the disconsolate princess, and then the wizard. Reinette smiled broadly at the court.
“Good morning, everyone!” she said, a satisfied smile on her face as she was greeted in kind. “All here to see the prince on his way?” She turned a sympathetic look to Rose as she said, “Since he’s such a favorite of ours, I have decided that he should have an extra-special consolation prize.”
The Wizard took a handkerchief from his sleeve and produced a plucked pheasant from underneath it. He frowned when he didn’t receive the applause he expected, but all the same, he assured the queen, “A very thoughtful gift, your Majesty.”
“Mm, quite,” said Reinette.
Rose pinched her lips together and grabbed the bird from the Wizard. She hit him over the head with it, shocking everyone, and the proceeded to throw the plucked fowl out of the room.
“Rose!” Reinette exclaimed. “Well, I have never seen the like! To see a princess acting like-- like-- some rough street-urchin!”
The princess crossed her arms and refused to look at the queen. Reinette frowned, but decided to ignore Rose’s behavior for the moment. She hadn’t been dosed with the Wizard’s special tea yet, after all, some of her more headstrong tendencies must be coming out.
“So, where is our little slugabed?” asked Reinette, looking expectantly around the room and noting the prince’s absence. “He should be getting an early start on the road.” Some movement from the open doorway attracted her attention and she smiled to see Theta walking unsteadily into the room, still in his sleep shirt. “Ah, here he is! And not even dressed yet, he must have slept like a baby.”
The prince stumbled into the room before the assembly, muttering under his breath, “Thirty-seven thousand, four hundred, twenty-eight... Thirty-seven thousand, four hundred, twenty-nine...”
Reinette furrowed her brow. “Thirty-seven thousand, four hundred, twenty-nine what?”
“SHEEP!” he exclaimed, leaning heavily on the head table with one hand. He blinked bloodshot eyes at the queen. “What do you stuff your mattresses with? Jousting equipment?” he asked, irritated.
“What do you mean?” Reinette asked, uneasily.
“I mean that bed ought to be moved down to the torture chamber!” he said as he placed one hand to his back, leaning into it in an attempt to stretch out the kinks.
The queen stared at him, aghast. “You didn’t sleep?”
“I never even shut my eyes,” he said, wretchedly.
Elated, Rose ran to him, throwing her arms around his neck. “You’ve passed!” she said, excitedly.
He looked down at her with tired eyes, but managed a smile since she looked so happy. “Passed what?”
“The test!” said Rose, and the company of ladies and knights all gasped. “Reinette put a pea under twenty mattresses and you felt it and now we can be married!”
Collectively, the court sprang to their feet, everyone enthusiastically embracing their significant other. Sir Rory fainted. Lady Amelia rushed over to revive him, kneeling at his side and waving her handkerchief in his face.
Dazedly, the Doctor lifted his eyebrows at Rose and offered a surprised but satisfied smirk. “A pea under twenty mattresses? No wonder I’m black and blue!” Rose giggled.
Stifling a yawn behind one hand, he backed up to the breakfast table and sat atop it, gingerly stretching himself out. “Rose, dear, I’ll leave the wedding arrangements to you. And we’d better start looking around for a small kingdom for us to settle in. I’ve got a feeling we aren’t going to want to live with the in-laws.” Stuffing several serviettes under his cheek for a pillow, the Doctor fell fast asleep in moments.
Tenderly stroking his chestnut locks, Rose frowned at his position on the table. “He’s going to get cold sleeping there,” she said. “I’d better have someone help me take him up to his room.”
“Rose, wait!” said Reinette, reaching out with one hand when Rose would have summoned a few knights to her purpose.
“What am I waiting for, Reinette?” she asked, annoyed at being detained.
“We need to give this matter proper consideration,” said the queen.
“What consideration?” asked Rose. “He passed your test. Now, I’m going to have him taken up to... our room.”
“I said wait!” Reinette shrieked. She drew herself up to her full height, glaring down at the princess, intimidatingly. “Now, you will listen to me. Throughout this heartbreaking business of trying to find you a true prince, I have never nagged, never interfered, and never expected one solitary word of sympathy...”
Rose wasn’t even listening to the woman anymore, she was completely focused on the Doctor, who murmured unintelligibly in his sleep. “Shh, Reinette, he’s sleeping,” she said, sotto voce.
“But I will not stand by and watch you throw yourself away on this little nobody!” Reinette continued, not once lowering her voice.
The princess glared at her. “Reinette, quiet!” she said, firmly.
“I mean, look at him!” Reinette went on. “He may have passed the test, but I must say, I’ve never trusted anyone who had those shifty eyes or that mean little mouth or--”
Rose had had enough. Stepping right up into the queen’s face, she shouted over her, “I told you to SHUT UP!”
Everyone gasped as Queen Reinette was struck dumb by Rose’s unexpected outburst-- literally dumb. Her mouth hung open, but no sound was coming out. Realizing what had happened, Donna jumped excitedly on a chair and pointed at the queen. “It happened! It happened! The curse! ‘The mouse devoured the peacock!’”
The entire court watched in fascination as Reinette helplessly flapped her jaw, trying to speak. Rory couldn’t help but chuckle from his place on the floor where he had fainted. “Look,” he said, sitting up, “the queen can’t talk!”
Reinette looked around in dismay as the rest of the ladies and knights began laughing at her expense. She couldn’t stop them, she didn’t know how to function without being able to speak.
Donna rushed over to the king, placing her hands on his shoulders as he worked his jaw, nodding encouragingly as he slowly said, “I... I... I...”
“What?” she said, excitedly.
Beaming, King Peter said, “I can!”
The jester threw her belled cap into the air. “The king talks!” Everyone exclaimed happily, they had their king back!
The king frowned at Reinette, who cowered a bit. “And I’ve got a lot to say.”
Meanwhile, Rose had commandeered a few knights to lift the Doctor between them. “Well, good night!” she said as she began to lead them out of the banquet hall. Reinette desperately grabbed Rose’s arm as she passed by, but the king pushed her away.
“Unhand my daughter!” he ordered, imperiously. When Reinette backed off, he smiled at Rose. “Go ahead, my dear. We’ll have plenty of time to talk later.”
The princess smiled gratefully and led the knights carrying her prince out of the room. King Peter stood tall, looking at the queen in a way he hadn’t since Rose was a baby; with authority. “Now, you asked for it, Reinette, and you got it. From now on, what I say goes! When I say hop, I want you to hop!”
Upstairs in the tower, Jack climbed the ladder to the prince’s bed and lifted up the top mattress. From under it, he removed his own lute, Sir Rory’s helmet, the jester’s staff, a spiky shield with the king’s insignia, a set of mounted deer antlers, a couple of mace-and-chains, the saddle from Rory’s horse, as well as his boots and spurs. All this he tossed into a wooden wheelbarrow at the foot of the ladder, then jumped down, hoisting the handles and quickly leaving the room. Only himself, Donna, the king, and Rory would ever know the real reason why the prince hadn’t slept!
No sooner had he disappeared then Princess Rose walked into the room with the knights, who helped Prince Theta up onto the bed. She followed him up the ladder and laid down next to him, only to squirm in lady-like discomfort. He frowned and nodded his agreement, seeming to understand the problem, and got up, sliding down the ladder. Lifting up the bottom mattress, he retrieved the pea and held it up to show her.
Rose laughed as the Doctor rejoined her on top of the now-soft mattresses. Laying down side by side, they faced one another, their hands entwined. Thoroughly satisfied with how events had turned out, the Doctor immediately fell asleep, a smile on his face.
As a soft, purr-like snore issued past his lips, Rose pressed a kiss to his fingers, happily thinking ahead to the day they would marry. She smiled as she gazed upon his dear face, mapping the constellations in his freckles, her heart bursting with love for her ‘sensitive,’ genuine prince.
* * *
And to this day, in the center of the foyer in the castle of the Kingdom of Tardis, a glass case sits upon a marble pedestal. Inside the case, a small dried pea lays on a blue velvet cushion, and a card below reads thusly:
“The Kingdom of Tardis, born of love, fair and true,
Was first tested by this tiny legume.”