The Birthday Ball Page 7

"Yes, sir," he said.

"You will be my new valet! Your new name is Valet!"

And thus Hal's future had changed. Once he had been a successful, well-traveled man, with business contacts in many domains. He had owned a camel and a horse. He had several maids. He had hoped to become affianced soon, to the daughter of a rug merchant.

But now he was a lowly valet and even his name had disappeared.

On this morning, summoned by the prince's bellow, he hurried into the room carrying his valeting equipment.

"Dress me," the prince commanded.

The valet bowed and began. First he opened the small suede bag that he carried and removed a soft brush with lemur-hair bristles. He picked up the black satin shirt with voluminous sleeves that was draped over the corner of the chair, examined it, brushed it meticulously, then held it while the prince slid his arms into the sleeves, shivering with delight at the feel of the sleek fabric. The valet buttoned the shirt and its cuffs as the prince gazed at himself in the mirror.

Next the valet lifted the velvet trousers from the chair and brushed them assiduously. He took out a perfumed spray from his bag and sprayed the trousers. He examined each button and tested the zipper.

Then, convinced, to his relief (for he worried terribly each morning), that the trousers were in perfect condition, he knelt and held them discreetly in just the right position for the prince to insert his legs, one after the other.

He raised the trousers and slipped the suspenders over the satin-covered shoulders of the prince.

Prince Percival posed in front of the mirror, flexing one knee at a time, to assess the fit.

"Mmm, marvelous thighs," the prince murmured to his own image. He tossed his head, looked into the mirror again, and shouted, "Brush, idiot!"

The valet hurried forward with his second brush, a smaller one made from the hair of a tapir's tail. Gently he brushed the prince's shoulders, which in the few short moments since he had been clothed had become peppered with white flakes of dandruff. It was an affliction of the prince's for which there seemed no remedy, and despite the thick lubricants with which he coated his dyed hair, the dandruff still fell like a perpetual blizzard.

Part of the valet's job was to accompany the prince everywhere, brushing his shoulders unobtrusively at intervals.

The prince leaned forward toward the mirror, fingering his mustache and examining his pores. "I'm planning to marry," he told his valet.

The valet tried to hide his surprise. Who would marry the prince? He couldn't imagine. "I'm pleased to hear that, sir," he said, and leaned forward to brush away a fresh torrent of flakes. "Will you be making a public announcement?"

"I have to press my suit first," the prince replied. He leaned even closer to the mirror. "Toothpick!" he bellowed suddenly. The valet handed him an ivory toothpick and waited while the prince probed his teeth, found a morsel left from breakfast, examined it, and then ate it a second time. The valet took the used toothpick and wrapped it in a cloth, to be sterilized. He brushed the prince's left shoulder.

"Just tell me which suit, sir. I have the ironing board at the ready in the laundry room. I'll press your suit."

Prince Percival whirled toward him, spraying dandruff everywhere. "IMBECILE!" he shouted.

Terrified, the valet stepped back.

"I'm a suitor! Got that, you half-wit moron? SUITOR!"

"Yes, sir. I understand, sir." (He didn't, really.)

"Pressing my suit means that I must go through the formality of wooing my intended. It's a tedious, ridiculous bit of nonsense. But I will be going to a ball on Saturday night, to press my suit. Got it, idiot? To press my suit!"

"Yes, sir. I see, sir."

The valet stepped out of saliva range. Each time the prince said a word that began with the letter p, saliva accompanied the sound. Between the flying dandruff and the globs of spewing liquid—and in addition to the clouds of foul-smelling breath—the valet felt as if he were being attacked by airborne weaponry. He hoped the prince would not say anything else that began with the letter p.

The prince, calmer now, smoothed his oiled hair and practiced some slow smiles in the mirror: teeth exposed, teeth partially exposed, teeth concealed. He wasn't certain which smile to use on his intended when they met at the ball. They were all, he thought, so attractive.

"Wouldn't you like to know the name of my intended?" he asked the valet.

"Yes, sir, I would."

The prince sighed with pleasure, releasing a particularly terrible cloud of bad breath. "Princess Patricia Priscilla. We will be Prince Percival and Princess Patricia Priscilla, a perfect pair," he said.

The valet excused himself politely and rushed to the bath chamber to wash the saliva from his face.

10. Dinner Conversation

Dinner in the castle was always a tedious meal, with many courses served one after another, and the king, queen, and princess seated so far from one another at the long mahogany table that it was difficult for them to converse. Not that it mattered. The queen's hearing was so poor that she misunderstood most of what was said, and the king was so preoccupied with thoughts of butterflies that he didn't care.

But on this evening, the second day after she had become a pupil-in-disguise at the village school, and four days before her Birthday Ball, the princess wanted to make a request of her parents.

"Father?" the princess said. But he didn't look up.

"Mother?" But the queen continued to sip at her soup and made no reply.

The princess gestured to the serving girl who stood near her chair. It was the alto, one of the three identical kitchen maids who sang together so beautifully in the kitchen.

"Yes, miss?" The serving girl curtsied.

The princess, hearing the deep timbre of the serving girl's voice, which she had never noticed before, remembered what Tess had told her about the music in the kitchen.

"Are you the one who sings?" the princess asked.

The serving girl blushed. "Yes, miss, but only in the kitchen. Never above-stairs, I promise."

"And those two? Are they the ones who sing with you? My chambermaid told me."

The other two sisters looked up. One stood at the far end of the table behind the king, and the other behind the queen at the opposite end. They noticed that the princess had pointed them out, and looked nervous.

"Yes, miss. More soup, miss? I can ring for the pulley boy to send some. Or there's pheasant pie next, quite lovely."

"No, no. I've had quite enough soup. I would like you to do something, though."

"Yes, miss."

"I would like to converse with my parents, but I can't seem to get their attention. Would you and the others—are they your sisters, by the way?"

"Yes, miss. Triplets, we are, all three of us born together in a whoosh whoosh whoosh, our ma said, such a surprise, but too many to feed. So now we're serving maids and take our meals for free."

"I was asking about singing. Is it true, what my chambermaid told me, that you sing?"

"Yes, miss, it is that."

"Well, would you and your sisters please sing something rousing? An attention-getting song?"

The serving girl looked stricken. "Oh, miss, it simply ain't allowed. Never never never. To sing above-stairs."

"Nonsense. I order it. Let me hear a first note."

Trembling, the girl hummed a note. Hmmmmm. Even though it was a small, frightened hum, the princess could hear the rich tone of her voice.

"Louder, please."


The two other serving girls looked over in surprise, and then each one hummed in harmony.

Hmmmm. Hmmmm. Hmmmmm. Their voices, together, blended into an exquisite sound. The king and queen, looking quite startled, both put down their soup spoons.

"It's all right! I've given them permission! I ordered them to do it!" the princess called to her parents in explanation.

"What?" the queen asked. "They've been given persimmons?"

"Permission," the king explained loudly. "Our daughter. Permission. Ordered them."

"I see," the queen replied, still confused.

"Once more," the princess said to the serving girls. "Move closer together."

Timidly the three girls moved to stand in a row. Hmmmm. Hmmmm. Hmmmmm. They hummed the three-part harmony once again.

"Do you do words?" the princess asked. "Or just hums?"

"Oh, all sorts of words, miss. Tra-las and such, as well."

One of the sopranos giggled. "Fiddle-de-fee s, on occasion," she said.

"I'd like you to compose a song about the Birthday Ball. Maybe it could be a kind of, well, a celebration song."

"We could do a 'Happy Birthday to You,' miss. We do it all the time in the kitchen. It's always somebody's birthday. Cook's, last Thursday."

The princess frowned. "No. That's too ordinary. I'd like an original celebratory song."

"Yes, miss. We'll practice one down in the scullery. Shall I call for the pheasant pie now?"

"Oh, I suppose so. Sing for it, though."

The three serving girls grinned. They moved to the bell rope, which alerted the pulley boy, and one of the girls pulled on it. Then they opened the door in the wall and sang down to the kitchen:

"Pheasant pie! Pheasant pie! Pheasant pie!"

From below, echoing up through the passageway carved through three floors of thick stone, a baritone replied in song: "Pheasant piiiiieee!" and with the pulley boy's voice they could hear a small staccato accompaniment, the elderly serving boy tapping in time on the stone wall with a heavy fork. The rope moved, and dinner ascended.

Still singing "Pheasant pie," the three girls served it, a plateful apiece, with some asparagus, and spooned some hollandaise on top.

The Birthday Ball

"Sauce! Sauce! Sauce!" they sang in chorus.

"Now that I have your attention, Mother and Father, I would like to talk about the Birthday Ball," the princess said as the plates were served.

"Move closer so that I can hear you," the queen suggested. Then she turned to her husband. "You too, dear. Let's sit side by side and discuss the Birthday Ball.

"Girls?" she said, turning to the three serving maids, who curtsied, one by one, in reply. "Move our plates and forks and everything here together. Then, if you would, please hum lightly while we finish our dinner. It soothes my nerves and makes the meal seem festive."


"The entire village?" the queen asked, disconcerted. "To your Birthday Ball? Did I hear you correctly?"

"Yes, please, Mother. I'd like that." Princess Patricia Priscilla touched the tip of her silver fork to the pale yellow sauce. "The villagers are all poor peasants and they have never been to a ball. Think how they'd enjoy it."

"Oh, I don't know, I don't know," the queen murmured. "It's so not done."

"Father? What do you think?"

The king had begun to tire of talk about the ball and his mind had wandered off to contemplate rare butterflies. He frowned. "What do I think. About what. I don't know. No idea. Not a clue."

"Might I invite the villagers to my Birthday Ball?" the princess asked him patiently.

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