Prologue: Many Moons Ago
Well he cried alas and he sighed alas, but alas the prince couldn't find a lass who would suit his mother's pride...
The kingdom of Atlantis is like most other fairy-tale kingdoms: prettier than average, quasi-magical, and ruled by crazy people.
To get there, you make your way from Athos to the north or Sateda to the south and west (you could technically come through the Mountains of the Rings to the east, but no one has in ten thousand years). From any of the kingdom's borders, it's three days on horse or two hours by aircar to the center of the kingdom and its capital, Atlantis City.
You'll admire the countryside along the way. Everyone does. There are grand forests that provide shady green roofs in the summer and brilliant orange and yellow carpets in the fall; rolling hills that send the rivers into the farmland as if they'd been designed to; and the Lake of the Ancients, an expanse of pure blue water that surrounds Atlantis City and provides a natural moat. During wartime, the moat is enhanced with a magic shield that makes the city both invisible and invulnerable, but it requires too much energy to use except in cases of grave danger. Also, it interferes with the view.
Once you reach the castle, and are granted permission to cross the bridge (on foot; only nobility and royalty can bring horses or aircars into the heart of the city), you're faced with all new wonders. Stone walls that arch up to the heavens; busy hallways filled with brightly dressed, beautiful people; hints of magic winking at you from every other corner.
And then, I'm afraid, it's time to meet the royal family.
Here's what you need to know:
King Jack the Cranky is King Jack the Cranky because he refused to be King Jack the Silent, by jumping up and down and running out of the room every time someone tried to call him that. He really is silent (the obligatory curse), but once he got over the shock of no voice, he got really good at expressing himself in every other way. And he always has Daniel J (don't call him the Jester) around to interpret for him in a pinch.
Queen Vala the Mercurial is--difficult. And by "difficult," you should pretty much read "sociopathic." There are rumors that she used to be a loving, if moody, woman, but the curse that silenced her husband stole something from her, too. Her heart? Her soul? Both? Her favorite pastimes now include screaming at her husband, ordering her subjects to do unpleasant and nonsensical things, and mollycoddling her son.
Oh, her son.
Prince John the Laconic.
For someone whose fate will determine the fate of an entire kingdom, he's really not that...impressive. He's tall and lanky and fills out a tunic and tights just fine, but he's never the center of attention in any castle gathering. The Queen always takes center stage with some histrionics, and usually by the time the soup is served, the Prince is sitting on a window ledge just out of sight of the gathering, staring up into the eastern sky. Nobody knows what he's looking for. Even his closest friends aren't sure how to ask.
The only time the Prince is happy is when he convinces his mother to let him fly. She rarely gives in. She says it's to keep him safe, but everyone knows he's the best aircar pilot in two kingdoms. When she does let him go, he zooms straight overhead and then away, and doesn't come back until the very last second before he'll get in trouble.
The Prince is unmarried. Oh, is he unmarried. When he came of age, Queen Vala announced two laws:
1) No one in the kingdom was allowed to marry until Prince John, ahem, shared his marriage bed.
2) Prince John could only marry "one of the royal blood." Said blood to be determined by, guess who, the Queen.
(King Jack expressed his displeasure with the law by chucking pieces of masonry at his wife's head until she had him and Daniel J dragged out of the throne room by six knights.)
Eleven princesses have presented themselves to the court of Atlantis. Eleven princesses have been "tested" according to the whim of the Queen. The twelfth comes tomorrow.
So there you have it: a kingdom, a curse, a law, a test.
Sounds like a story to me.
Part I: Opening for a Princess
None of the ladies are having any--no one is having any--no one is getting any--younger!
Back in her home kingdom, Princess Neera was known as The Incomparable, Princess Perfect, and Her Highest Highness. But in Atlantis, she would forever be known as Princess Twelve. The latest in a long line of princesses who, not to put it too harshly, failed.
"The middle name?" she was repeating, bewildered, as Lady Brown led her away. "Of the sister-in-law?"
"I was sure this one would pass," Sir Lorne said. "Weren't you, Dex?"
"No," Sir Dex said shortly. He was looking at the east wall, where Prince John had wandered sometime during the fourth question of the test.
The rest of the lords and ladies made their way out of the Great Hall, heads down and steps slow. The air itself seemed disconsolate.
Dex turned away from his observation of the Prince. His usual hard expression lightened a bit. "Princess Teyla," he said with a half-bow. "How can I be of service to you?"
"A word, please, Sir Knight."
Sir Lorne watched them pass through the door to the garden, shaking his head. Princess Teyla of Athos had been the first princess to sue for Prince John's hand. No one would dream of calling her Princess One, though; three-quarters of the court worshiped the ground she walked on, and everyone else was afraid of her. She'd made no secret of her mastery of the mystical Athosian fighting traditions, and she wasn't afraid herself to tell someone when she thought their behavior inappropriate or oafish. She only moderated her tone around the Queen, and only because she would be dismissed from the court otherwise.
Sir Lorne would have gone back to Athos a long time ago, if he were Princess Teyla. (Athos was still ruled by crazy people, as required, but King Halling's tendency to put on a white wig and call himself "Todd" was barely a peccadillo compared to the rulers of Atlantis.) But then again, Sir Dex was bound by oath to the Atlantean court, so perhaps the princess's choices weren't so inexplicable.
Sir Dex and Princess Teyla disappeared from view. Lorne was about to leave himself when he heard the unmistakable sound of Queen Vala's voice. A lesser man would shrink out the nearest door, but Lorne was a knight of the realm...and Queen Vala and Prince John were between him and the nearest door. He sighed and braced himself.
"Ah, Sir Lorne," the Queen called. "Do join us!"
"Your Majesty, Your Highness." Lorne executed his best bows.
"I was just telling Johnny here how sorry I was at the test results. Weren't you?"
"Well..." Lorne cast about for a suitable answer, trying to avoid the Queen's malicious gaze. Her eyes were always particularly bright when she was about to skewer someone. "She certainly was beautiful," he finally said.
"Beautiful! Yes! That's what all the men think they're looking for, beauty. And there's nothing wrong with beauty--it's an essential requirement, I wouldn't want Johnny to settle for anything less than my beauty." Queen Vala tossed her head. "But beauty barely scratches the surface of what's required in a true princess. Grace, intelligence, talent, taste..."
Princesses four, eleven, two, and five, Sir Lorne noted mentally.
"That's why it's so important that I select just the perfect one for you, darling. I couldn't possibly leave you to the judgment of, well, men like this. Who knows what terrible advice you'd receive from them!"
"Hm," Prince John said.
Lorne tried to keep his face as expressionless as possible. "No doubt, Your Majesty."
Queen Vala ran her fingers through her son's hair; he just continued to look out the window. "Don't worry, baby. We'll find just the right girl for you. We'll see."
Part II: In a Little While
My time is at a premium, for soon the world will see me a maternal bride to be...
Princess Teyla didn't immediately start a conversation when they entered the garden; instead, she made her way to the fountain and stood watching the water splash from the stone statue of a dolphin. Or possibly a whale; Sir Dex wasn't much of an expert in aquatic life.
In her dark green dress, Teyla looked as though she belonged between the worn stones of the fountain and the red brick of the walkway. She had never paid attention to the fashions of the court, even when she was supposed to impress the Queen with her royal perfection. The rest of the ladies could have their bright colors, bright cheeks, bright hair; Teyla would always look as though she'd just arrived from the forests of Athos, and might escape back there at the first possible opportunity.
Dex looked around to make sure no one else had entered the garden, and crossed to stand next to Teyla at the fountain. "What's wrong, love?" he asked, sliding an arm around her waist.
She leaned her head against his shoulder. "Do you remember when I failed my princess test?"
"And my farewell ball afterwards?"
He started to smile.
"And how we ran away from the party and we hid in this very garden?"
"I remember I told you how glad I was that you'd failed the test." Dex leaned down to kiss her.
She put a hand between their lips. "Well, we're going to have a child."
Teyla indicated her stomach.
"Oh." Dex sat down hard on the edge of the fountain. There was water splashing on his tunic; he ignored it. "All right."
"I must return to Athos," Teyla said quietly.
"Of course." Dex closed his eyes and thought briefly of the oath of fealty he'd sworn to King Jack and his kingdom the night he'd arrived from Sateda. "If we leave now, we can be at your father's castle by the end of the day tomorrow."
He took both her hands in his. "Teyla, yes. There's only one thing more important to me than my honor. I guess..." He rested their joined hands against her stomach. "I guess now two things."
"Perhaps more," she said with the shy smile that had first won his heart. "Twins do tend to run in royal families, you know."
His left foot tapped out one, two, three, four against the base of the statue. "All right."
"I'm so sorry, Dex," Teyla said suddenly. "I don't want to run away. I don't want to tarnish your honor when you're the noblest man I know. I don't want to leave the Prince at the mercy of his mother. I just can't think of another way."
Dex looked up at the eastern sky. "Maybe I can."
Sir Dex presented himself to the Queen and the court the following morning. It wasn't entirely unheard of; he had petitioned to try for his spurs, of course, and once for permission to attend a joust in Athos, but those had both been mere formalities.
This request was remarkable enough to silence the entire court.
"...over the Mountains?" the Queen asked faintly.
"Yes, Your Majesty," Dex replied.
"There are no lands beyond the Mountains."
Daniel J spoke up from where he was sitting cross-legged on the stairs by the King's throne. "Actually, there are many legends about our ancestors coming to Atlantis from the mountains. There may still be countries there we've never heard of, and it stands to reason at least one of them might have a princess--" He ducked as Queen Vala threw a silver goblet at his head.
"It's ridiculous, no. No one from any kingdom we know has ventured into the mountains and returned again." She crossed her arms.
From the corner of his eye, Dex saw Princess Teyla unfold and refold her hands in her lap.
"You're right, Mother. It is really dangerous," Prince John said, and Dex blinked. "If we let him go, he might not come back."
"That's more or less the definition of a quest," Dex said.
Queen Vala stared at him, her eyes bright with malice, and Dex had the uncomfortable feeling that his potential death was an argument in favor of his petition.
"All right," she said finally. "Sir Dex, Knight of Atlantis, you have our permission to venture to the Mountains of the Ring in search of a royal bride for our beloved son John. But I warn you, the court will not look favorably on you if you return without a candidate for us to consider."
Teyla fisted her hands in her lap.
"I understand, Your Majesty. Thank you," Dex said. "I will leave within the hour."
He looked up and met Prince John's eyes. He bowed, and the Prince nodded formally back.
Part III: Shy
Can't you guess that this confident air is a mask that I wear 'cause I'm shy?
"Lady Jennifer! Lady Jennifer! Come attend to the Prince!"
"Yes, Your Majesty!" Lady Jennifer picked up her skirts and hurried across the lawn, dodging around croquet hoops and members of the court and one hopelessly out of place hedgehog. She dashed the last few feet to the royal family, and pulled to a breathless halt.
Prince John was standing there, worrying at a splinter in his left forefinger.
"Finally! Quickly, quickly, girl. I didn't pay for that ridiculous education of yours so you could laze around my castle while my son's medical needs go unattended!"
Only years of practice kept Jennifer's exasperation from showing on her face. "Of course, right away. Your Highness, may I see the--wound, please?"
The Prince extended his hand to her, face carefully neutral.
Daniel J crowed with delight as the King made some kind of successful shot, and the Queen immediately stormed over there to investigate.
"Sorry," Prince John murmured.
"I don't mind."
"Of course you don't. Lady Jennifer, do you ever wish you'd never saved my mother from choking all those years ago?"
Jennifer stifled a laugh, bending over her work even more intently in case Queen Vala was looking. "Only every once in a while. I promise."
She casually looked behind her; the Queen was still berating Daniel J, while King Jack made an amazing array of faces at her. "Teyla's doing well," she said as quietly as possible.
They didn't even have to have the argument anymore; Dex will be back, she could say, and it's already been three months, he could say back, and it didn't do them any good, so she just shook her head and pulled the splinter cleanly from the wound. "Go wash that," she said, stepping back.
"Yes, milady," John said, half-bowing. "Thank you."
He was halfway to the castle door when a cry came from the gates.
"Someone approaches! Someone approaches the castle!"
The lawn erupted into chaos.
The entire court hurriedly assembled in the courtyard. Lady Jennifer wedged herself into a spot just in front of Princess Teyla. The lords and ladies faced the front gate, fanning out around the royal family; King Jack was gesturing at Daniel J, who was shaking his head, and Queen Vala had somehow managed to place herself between Prince John and the gate.
There was a long, tense silence, broken by a burst of laughter from Daniel J that had everyone's head whipping around. Queen Vala reached out and hit him in the side of the head without even looking.
"Here he comes!" Squire Charles called from the parapet. The crowd leaned forward. "Wait. They--I think--"
"Is someone approaching or not, you idiot?" the Queen shrieked.
There was a sound like very loud beehive, and a--a machine of some kind--zoomed up over the courtyard. Jennifer caught her breath. It looked nothing like the aircars the nobles had flown for generations, bulky and slow and prone to having parts fall off them at the slightest wind. This was about a third the size of an aircar, smooth and sleek and silver. It hovered directly over the Prince for a moment, then zipped backards and landed easily right next to Squire Chuck, who looked beside himself with excitement.
A door on the side slid smoothly out of sight, and then Sir Dex made his way slowly out. Jennifer slid a hand under Princess Teyla's arm as she swayed slightly.
Sir Dex looked toward the machine, said something, and gestured emphatically. They all craned their heads as the other occupant came out, and then there was an audible gasp from the crowd.
"Your Majesties, Your Highness," Sir Dex said, "I present Prince Rodney the Frightfully Intelligent of the kingdom of Mere."
Rodney--Prince Rodney--His Highness--stepped to the edge of the parapet and looked down. "Dex here says you need someone to marry your Prince. Well, here I am, royal blood, blah blah. He also promised that your kingdom wasn't too horribly benighted. I hope he was right--that was a long trip if he just has low standards." Then he turned to Dex and "whispered" loudly enough that Jennifer could hear him half the courtyard away, "You didn't say there'd be so many people here, though. Didn't I tell you I'm shy?"
"No, no, no!"
Everyone turned to stare at Queen Vala, whose face was turning a shade of purple that had Jennifer a little worried for her health. But then she looked at John, who was still behind the Queen and thus out of her line of sight.
He was smiling.
Part IV: Sensitivity
We must think of a test that sounds fair, and looks fair, and seems fair, and isn't fair.
The dungeon door slammed open. Sam groaned and stuck her head under the pillow.
"I'm a wizard," Sam grumbled as she fought her way out of the covers.
"Get out here this instant!"
"Don't start with me." Sam stomped out of the bedroom and slammed the door behind her. "It's bad enough I'm locked in a dungeon, held hostage to Your Craziness, and forced to do all sorts of unethical things. I'll put up with a curse, but I don't have to take an attitude problem, too."
Vala crossed her arms and plopped down in the only comfortable chair in the room. "I'm the Queen, I deserve respect."
"We both know exactly what you are and exactly what you deserve, lady," Sam snapped. "Now whose life do you want me to ruin today? I haven't had coffee yet."
"Look for my son." Vala pointed an overly manicured finger at the giant mirror on one end of the room.
"You want to mess with your son?"
"Just look, witch."
"One of these days..." But Sam snapped her fingers twice at the mirror, and it obediently swirled and reformed as the image of Prince John and another man walking through the hallways of the castle.
"...sorry about my mother, Rodney," the Prince was saying, and Sam snorted.
The other man in the mirror, presumably Rodney, rolled his eyes. "She's a little cranky, but I think I can handle her. Besides, I'm not here to marry her, am I?"
Sam opened her mouth, but Vala hissed, "Just watch!"
"About that," John said. "I don't know if Dex told you, but in Atlantis, princes always marry princesses."
"Are you kidding? You don't--oh, for the love of the heavens. First you show me that excuse for a flying machine, and then you tell me you're not even allowed to marry me? I should never have left home."
"I'm glad you did."
Rodney looked confused. "You are? Really?"
"Wow, you really are 'the Laconic,' aren't you?" Rodney considered him. "You'll have to get over that. Start by telling me everything Dex forgot. Is there any way I could marry you? Assuming I don't run screaming before nightfall. What's this blather about a curse? Is that Teyla woman he can't shut up about good enough for him? And most importantly, how soon can I get some sleep? The journey through the mountains isn't easy even in F.R.E.D., you know, and I--"
"F.R.E.D.? Your flying machine?"
"It stands for Flying's Ridiculously Easy, Dummies."
"That's the worst name for anything I ever heard."
"What's your aircar named?"
"Well, what does that stand for?"
Rodney burst into laughter.
Sam blurred the mirror before Vala could see the look on John's face. "So this is a new candidate, is that what you're telling me?"
"I'm telling you to tell me he can't be a candidate. There's no way John can marry a Prince. I wrote the law."
"Technically, Queen V, you decreed that Johnny had to marry one of the royal blood. The word 'woman' never appears in the law."
"Life does surprise even you sometimes, I guess." Fortunately, Sam was really, really good at playing innocent.
"I want to see what they're saying," Vala demanded.
Sam snapped. "I'm sure Prince Rodney is getting the welcome-to-the-castle speech. Don't call Daniel a jester, don't go near the dungeons--thanks so much--no, the king can't talk until 'the mouse devours the hawk...'"
Rodney swam back into view. "Well, maybe if you bred a really large mouse, and got a baby hawk--although it seems too bad for the hawk."
"Nope," John said.
"This is a complicated kingdom, you know," Rodney said. "Back home I just have people telling me to leave F.R.E.D. alone and come into dinner all the time."
"Sounds nice. But, you know, there are good things about Atlantis, too. Maybe you'll decide some of it's not too awful."
"Do you, do you want me to like it here? Prince John?" Rodney's cheeks were bright red.
John ducked his head. "Yeah."
The Queen was out of her chair like a rocket. "We have to stop this," she said with such intensity that Sam took a step back. "If we can't rule him out as a candidate, I want him to fail the test now, tonight, before Johnny gets any more attached."
"All right, all right, calm down."
Sam knew better than to suggest testing Rodney's flying, math, or engineering skills. She lobbied hard for either history or fencing. So, of course, they ended up with 'sensitivity,' and the Queen tried to figure out how many mattresses she could get away with piling on one bed while Sam threw together what would hopefully be the crappiest sleeping potion ever concocted.
"You're all set. Here's a pea, here's a potion, get out."
"I won't forget this, witch!" Vala called as she left.
"I'm a freaking wizard!" Sam shouted as the door clanged shut. She sighed and turned back to the mirror. "There's only so much I can do from down here, you guys. You're going to have to work some magic between yourselves, too, or there's no way you'll win."
Part V: Spanish Panic
It's like the Magic Step, only forwards.
A clock appeared in the air in the middle of the dungeon, chiming nine times. Sam came running out of the bedroom, tossing a spellbook onto a pile of other spellbooks that promptly all fell over. She stood in front of the mirror and took a deep breath.
"Okay, people. Let's see what you've got," she said, and snapped her fingers twice.
The first scene the mirror showed her was the ballroom, with all the couples all assembled for the opening dance. The King and Queen were on their thrones on the dais, and--yes, there were the two princes, standing stiffly in the front row.
The orchestra conductor stood and raised his bow. At Queen Vala's nod, he proclaimed, "Your Majesties, lords and ladies, the Spanish Panic!" and flourished both arms out.
The dance began, and it was immediately obvious that every single person in the room was trying to watch Prince John and Prince Rodney together. Sam had an advantage, though; her mirror had a zoom feature. She watched, fascinated, as Prince Rodney made a credible showing through the first set of steps. Beside him, Prince John kept sneaking glances at his partner and then tripping over his feet.
There was a lull in the dance as the music slowed briefly and everyone took their places for the next set of steps. Rodney looked around, then leaned to the side and gave John a quick punch on the arm. John looked over, as startled as Sam, and Rodney gave him a completely exasperated look.
To Sam's complete surprise, John started laughing, and put a hand to his face to try to hide it. Rodney shook his head, but Sam could see as he turned to the side that he was smiling too. And as the steps began again, John slid into place next to Rodney cleanly, nothing but poise and grace.
"Interesting," Sam said.
She zoomed back out and examined the rest of the ballroom. There was something missing, something she couldn't put her finger on. There was Princess Teyla in the corner, sitting quietly with Sir Dex. There was the Queen, giving Prince Rodney the evil eye from her throne. And--and there was the King, bowing formally in front of his wife and extending her hand to her.
"Are you joking?" the Queen demanded. Sam could hear her clearly even over the music.
King Jack grabbed her hand and all but dragged her down to the dance floor.
Sam tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair. "Okay, King Jack, either you've hit your head recently, or you're trying to distract the Queen from something. What's going on? Hey, where's Daniel J?" She waved at the mirror, and the surface whirled crazily before showing her a hallway in the upper part of the castle. A couple of the squires were trundling along, carrying a mattress so fluffy they could hardly see past it.
They bounced off one of the suits of armor that lined the hall, and a hand came out from behind it to steady it. Sam smirked. "Nice move, Daniel."
"Quiet!" one of the squires hissed to the other. "The Queen insists on quiet!"
"The Queen should have insisted on someone else to carry this stupid thing, then," the other one hissed back. "At least if you trip and fall, you'll land on the mattress. I'll probably land on one of these swords and kill myself. How many more of these do we have to take to the guest suite?"
"Can you resign from being a squire?"
As soon as they turned the corner to the next hallway--accompanied by a loud clang as they bounced off the next suit of armor--Daniel went running full-speed in the other direction.
"Very interesting," Sam said.
Part VI: Song of Love
He is out of his medieval mind!
The end of a ball was Lady Jennifer's favorite part. The orchestra had segued into soft background music. The lords and ladies were gathered in clumps around the ballroom, chatting and finishing each other's wine.
It didn't hurt that Queen Vala had taken herself out of the ballroom a little while earlier, to "supervise" the preparation of Prince Rodney's room. The entire court had sighed with relief.
There was a broad stone stairway that led out of the ballroom up to the orchestra's balcony. Jennifer sat on one of the steps, looked around to make sure no one was watching, and eased her feet out of her dancing slippers. Ahh.
There was a shuffling sound, and then she heard Prince Rodney say, "Finally. I feel like I haven't sat down in a week." Jennifer sat straight up. There was still nobody near her.
"Me too," Prince John said. Jennifer swiveled around; the voices were coming from around the bend in the staircase. Obviously, the two princes had snuck up there for some privacy. Equally obviously, she should tiptoe off and leave them to it.
She crept up another step.
"I don't usually go to balls," Prince Rodney said. "They always interfere with my development schedule for F.R.E.D. But this wasn't awful."
"I'm glad it wasn't too horrible for you."
Rodney laughed. "Sorry."
"It's okay. I know what this place is like."
"Why don't you leave? Just get in an aircar and go? Or, or I'll build you a F.R.E.D. for reliability?"
Jennifer covered her mouth with her hand so she wouldn't squeak with delight.
John didn't say anything, and Rodney sounded hesitant when he spoke again. "If you want, I mean. Princes are supposed to travel and quest and have adventures."
"I came here, didn't I?"
There was more shuffling, but Jennifer didn't dare try to get any closer. John said, "I think a lot about going...going somewhere. But I can't leave Atlantis while it's cursed. I don't think me being here helps, but...I still can't walk away."
"You know something, Prince John the Laconic?"
"I really like you."
"Really? You do, Rodney?"
"I like you too. In fact--come with me!"
Jennifer jammed her feet back into her slippers and rushed away from the steps, but the princes didn't follow her down them. Instead, Prince John appeared on the balcony, dragging Prince Rodney along by the hand.
"Excuse me?" He cleared his throat. "Excuse me!"
The orchestra clanged to a halt. Everyone on the ballroom floor turned to stare up at the balcony.
"I, uh, I want to tell everyone something."
"What are you doing?" Rodney hissed.
John took a deep breath. The room was completely silent. "I love Prince Rodney."
Rodney was staring at John in shock.
"I love you, Rodney," John said, and he looked more than a little scared. "I hope that's okay. I know this isn't--"
"Shut up," Rodney said, and kissed him.
The ballroom erupted in cheers.
Jennifer clapped along with the rest of the lords and ladies. She looked over to see Teyla's reaction, but Teyla and Dex were rushing out of the ballroom, following someone--was that Daniel J?
"What is going on here?"
The room fell quiet again, except for the tap-tap-tap of Queen Vala's heels as she stalked through the room.
Prince John pulled away from Rodney, although he kept hold of his hand, and looked down. "Mother," he said calmly, as though his cheeks weren't fiery red.
"That will be quite enough of that, thank you," the Queen said. "It's time for all of you to go to bed. Everyone! Prince Rodney, with me." She gestured for Lady Jennifer to follow her and whirled back towards the door.
"Now, Prince Rodney, you've been granted a very special honor," Queen Vala said, leading a small entourage of people into the bedroom of the guest suite. "No expense has been spared in creating the most luxurious environment for you." Her smile was sharp and her eyes were bright. "Only the best for one of the most unique contenders for the hand of the Prince."
Prince Rodney stopped short in the doorway next to Lady Jennifer. "Wow. That's quite...an honor."
The bed towered over them, dwarfing the furniture and the other occupants of the room. At least a dozen mattresses were stacked one atop the other, and a ladder perched precariously on the end.
"I think you've gone to too much trouble," the Prince said, peering up at the top. "Really, I'd be perfectly happy with just a couple of mattresses. Even one. As long as it's prescription. I'm not picky, you know. Well, I'm picky, but I'm not that picky."
"Nonsense," the Queen said. "You've had a long journey today, and you'll have a long...day tomorrow."
"Well, yes, but--"
"You want to be ready for the test tomorrow. Don't you?"
"Of course!" Rodney glared at the Queen. "Fine. I'll sleep wherever you want."
"Excellent. Now then." The Queen gestured to three servants at once. "Squire Charles has your nightclothes and will take what you're wearing away to be washed. Lady Brown is one of the finest singers in the kingdom, and has prepared a lovely soft lullaby to help you drift off. And oh, here is a draught provided by our very own Lady Jennifer. Very healthy. Promotes sleep and clear thinking in the morning."
Jennifer opened her mouth, confused, but Queen Vala cut her off with a glare.
"All right, then. Good night, Your Highness! Sleep well!"
As Jennifer was swept out of the room, she looked back and shook her head fiercely at Rodney. She didn't know what was going on, but she had to do something. She didn't think he'd seen her, though.
Part VII: Yesterday I Loved You
Now I see what tricks my eyes can play...
Dex hurried into the garden, pulling Teyla after him. "Quick! That bench!"
"We should try to look calm," Teyla said, taking a deep breath and arranging her skirts.
"Or we could look like we have a reason not to be calm," Dex said, pulling her into his arms.
He'd barely got one decent kiss in--oh, he'd missed her, it had been the longest three months of his life--when they heard Queen Vala approaching and pulled apart. Dex tried to look shocked; next to him, Teyla was doing a much better job of it.
"So there you two are," the Queen said. "I've been looking for you all over."
"Your Majesty," Dex and Teyla said in unison. They stood to bow to her.
"Don't you 'Your Majesty' me, Dex. I know who to blame for this. Who told you to bring a prince back from the middle of nowhere?"
"Yes, I know what you just. How's the baby, Your Highness?"
Teyla put both hands on her stomach, and Dex stepped forward.
The Queen sneered at them. "Of course I know. I've known for months. Well, you two, you'd better hope that Prince Rodney miraculously wins my approval tomorrow morning. Otherwise, there will be no weddings for the foreseeable future, and I'm afraid I won't be able to overlook Teyla's unfortunate condition any longer."
"You won't hurt her," Dex said. He was very conscious of his sword at his side.
"I won't lay a finger on either of you. But I doubt Athos, or any other decent kingdom, will take you in once you've been banished from Atlantis and your oaths to the crown rescinded. Maybe Rodney will take you back to the Land of Mere, and you can live in exile there."
And then she was gone, the rest of her retinue following shamefacedly after her, and Dex and Teyla were left alone in the dark garden.
Dex put both his arms around Teyla. "Everything will be all right."
"I know," she said, although her voice shook slightly. "I love you."
"I love you too. I thought I loved you as much as anyone in the world before I left, but once I saw you again I realized how much more I love you now."
Teyla laughed a little. "Dex, I think that's the longest speech you've ever given me."
"I promise it'll never happen again," he said as he leaned down to kiss her.
Part VIII: Finale
It wasn't the pea, it wasn't the pea, it wasn't the pea at all!
Sir Lorne looked around the Great Hall. The scene looked pretty familiar: the royals staring at the court, the court buzzing with anticipation, and a space cleared in the front of the room for the latest candidate.
Around him, Lorne could hear four different people speculating on what Prince Rodney's test would be. He had some substantial money down on singing, but Sir Everett's theory about some kind of sewing or cooking test wasn't outside the realm of possibility.
He looked towards Prince John, expecting to find him gazing off into the distance as usual. Instead, though, the Prince was sitting straight up, leaning towards his mother (now that never happened) and discussing something with her intently. He looked more focused and determined than Lorne could remember seeing him. Ever.
There was a stir at one of the doors, and everyone's heads immediately turned.
"Prince Rodney of Mere!"
Prince Rodney entered, and the crowd let out a collective gasp. He was rumpled from head to foot--in fact, Sir Lorne wasn't sure he was even wearing both shoes. He was rubbing at the side of his head, and he looked thunderously angry.
"What happened to a luxurious, special environment?" he demanded, stomping his way up on the dais. "Do you people stuff your mattresses with your leftover jousting equipment? I have never, not once in my entire life, spent such an uncomfortable night. Hi, John," he added as an afterthought.
Prince John had already jumped to his feet. "Rodney, are you telling me you didn't sleep?"
"Not a wink. What is this, a plan to make sure I can't focus for the test?"
"No. No! It was the test! Mother put one pea under twenty mattresses to test your sensitivity. And you didn't sleep!"
"Of course! I'm incredibly sensitive, just ask--wait, I passed?"
"I passed! That's fantastic." Rodney's grin was distorted by a yawn. "Just, can I take a nap before the wedding? Please?"
"No!" Queen Vala shrieked. She pushed John and Rodney apart. "Absolutely not! There is no way you could have passed that test? How did you pass? Did you cheat, you wretched little man?"
"Now hold on--" Rodney sputtered.
"Mother!" John grabbed the Queen's arm.
"I will not stand for this, not as long as I'm Queen of Atlantis."
"Mother, he passed--"
"I don't care how many tests he passes. No! I say no! You are not marrying him, and that is final." She turned on Rodney, who was looking past her to John. "Get into your flying machine and get out of my kindgom. This instant."
"I'm marrying him, Mother." Queen Vala whipped back around to stare at her son. "I'm marrying Rodney."
Behind the Queen, Lorne could see King Jack pumping his fist.
"You are not!"
"I am marrying Rodney!" Prince John's voice had started to climb in volume.
"I am the Queen and I am your mother and you will listen to me, Johnny! You will never see him again and that is final, do you hear--"
Queen Vala collapsed backwards onto her throne.
Cries of alarm came from the court. Sir Lorne started fighting his way through the crowd to get to the thrones. Prince John was bent over the Queen, holding her hand--
--and then Queen Vala's entire body started to glow. Prince Rodney yanked John back.
Everyone stood, frozen, as the glow from her body increased, brighter and brighter, until there was a flash of white light that drove them all to their knees.
And then it was gone. Lorne forced himself to his feet and made his way the last few steps to the throne.
"Mother? What's happened? What was that?" Prince John was on his knees by his mother's throne, shaking her shoulders.
"It's happened!" Daniel J cried. "The mouse has devoured the hawk!"
And then Sir Lorne heard something so strange he couldn't entirely believe it: the King's voice. "Vala?"
"Your Majesty!" Daniel J said, as stunned as everyone else.
"Oh, for crying out loud," King Jack said, and crossed the space between his throne and his wife's. He took the Queen's hand in both of his. "Vala, honey, it's Jack. Wake up." And he leaned down to kiss her.
Lorne pinched himself in the side as hard as he could. No, the King was still talking. And kissing the Queen.
This was not how he'd expected today to go.
The next half hour was a blur of activity; Lady Jennifer examining the new (or, rather, old) Queen Vala, who seemed perfectly fine, if a little inclined to coo over her son and her future son-in-law; Daniel J rescuing a wizard named Sam from the dungeon; and a long involved explanation that basically boiled down to "the worst curse ever," as the King put it.
And now Lorne found himself in the guest suites, helping Sir Dex pull mattresses off the crazy bed while Princess Teyla looked on.
"So what really in these?" he asked as the second-to last one clanked at his feet.
"Used jousting equipment," Princess Teyla replied. She smiled at Sir Dex. "It was Daniel J's idea."
"And a pretty good idea, too, I'd say," Daniel J said, from his post at the door. "No, leave the last one. We didn't do anything to it."
Lorne muscled the last mattress over to the window and tossed it out to where two squires were waiting to trundle it off. "Stop complaining!" he called down after it. "The Prince insists on quiet!"
"They're coming, they're coming!" Daniel J said, and Lorne hurried to close the window.
Prince John led Prince Rodney in, talking a mile a minute. "And then we have to go back to Mere, right? I want to meet your parents."
"You really don't," Rodney said through yawns. "But if I have to suffer, you have to suffer."
"I'd love to," John said, and Lorne choked off a laugh.
"Great." Rodney was clearly not listening. He kicked off his one shoe, crawled into bed, and stretched out. "Oh, yes, this is much better--ow!"
"What?" John asked.
"There's still a lump." Rodney pointed to the right side of the bed.
John dug around under the mattress and pulled out--the pea. Naturally. Lorne raised an eyebrow at Dex, who grinned back.
Rodney collapsed back on the sheets and sighed. "Bliss. Thank you. Okay, everyone leave now."
John was perched on the edge of the bed as the rest of them made their bows and left. Sir Lorne was last, and he snuck a look back as he closed the door. Prince John bent over Rodney to kiss him. "Good night, Rodney."
Lorne could just hear Prince Rodney snoring as he closed the door. He smiled. "And may you both live happily ever after, Your Highnesses."
Epilogue: Happily Ever After
As the curtain descends there is nothing but loving and laughter...
"Daddies Daddies Daddies! Daddies! DADDIES!"
"Don't look now, Rodney," John said, "but here comes your daughter."
"My daughter? Why is she my daughter the second she starts screaming like a banshee?"
"No reason. Pass me that quill?"
A little girl with brown hair and a crooked crown burst through the doors of the royal study and stood between the two desks, panting. "Daddies!"
"Manners," John said mildly.
She huffed out a sigh of protest, but gathered herself together and dropped a curtsy. "Prince Consort Rodney the Frightfully Intelligent. King John the Loquacious."
"Princess Elizabeth the Straightforward," John said with a nod of his head. "Okay, what is it, sweetheart?"
Elizabeth dashed around John's desk and clambered into his lap. "The new minstrel just told us the story about you and Daddy, Daddy, and I think he got it wrong!"
Rodney leaned forward. "What kind of drivel is he spouting this time?"
"He said your princess test was that you had to sleep on a pea!" Elizabeth wrinkled her nose up. "How would sleeping on a pea bother you? Peas are squishy!"
John choked on a laugh, and Rodney shot them both an exasperated look.
"First of all, it wasn't a princess test."
"Oh, give it up," John said.
"Be quiet, Your Majesty. And second, only cooked peas are squishy, honey. The pea your grandmamma used was hard and...poky."
Elizabeth thought about it for a moment. "Still, you must be really sensitive, Daddy."
John thought his lungs might explode from repressing his laughter. "He is. Delicate and dainty as a dragonfly's wing."
Rodney threw his quill at John.
There was a scuffle at the door, and Lord Aiden, Teyla and Dex's oldest son, was propelled through the door. "Ow!" he shouted at someone behind him, and then he turned around and demanded of Elizabeth, "Well? It wasn't a pea, was it?"
"It wasn't a squishy pea," she informed him haughtily. "It was a poky pea."
"Out. Everybody out!" Rodney made ineffective shooing motions at the two children in turn, while John buried his face in his hands and shook both himself and Elizabeth with his laughter. "I don't want to hear anything else about peas, not one more word! Out!"
John lifted Elizabeth down. "Go play, sweetie. Daddy has to recover from being your daddy for a little while."
"Okay. Come on, Aiden! Let's play princesses! We can be delicate and dainty as a dragonfly's wing!"
Aiden let himself be dragged backwards out of the room, wearing almost exactly the same expression as Rodney.
John wiped tears out of his eyes while Rodney rested his head on his new flying machine designs in despair.
"I'm not 'dainty,' for the love of the heavens. I should put jousting equipment under your side of the mattress some night, see how well you sleep."
John grabbed Rodney's hand and tugged him towards the door, much as Elizabeth had with Aiden. "Come on, Rodney. Let's go flying this afternoon. Then tonight at supper, we can tell them all the real story."
"Fine. But you have to let me tell it. 'The kingdom of Atlantis is like most other fairy-tale kingdoms: prettier than average, quasi-magical, and ruled by crazy people.' Emphasis on the crazy people."
John grinned. "Sounds like a story to me."