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The Ugly Princess
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ISBN-10: 1-55404-012-4
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Fantasy/SF
eBook Length: 146 Pages
Published: February 2003
OUT OF PRINT

From inside the flap

The king is dead, long live the queen! Well, not if the King of Nadwich and the dead monarch's three royal ministers have anything to about it. It's up to Sir Christopher Evergild, the Royal Champion, to see that the new queen survives to take her throne--even if she is so ugly she's been locked away for twenty years with only trolls for company.

Chris is prepared to do his duty, even if The Ugly Princess does turn out to be the lunatic she's always been rumored to be. What he isn't ready for is having his entire world turned upside down and inside out?and having to decide between love and the fear that has haunted him most of his life.


The Ugly Princess (Excerpt)


CHAPTER ONE

The truth might never have come to light had the king not gotten drunk at his wedding banquet and choked to death on a pheasant bone.
The events leading up to and instrumental in the unfortunate moment began three months earlier, just after the summer solstice. The day commenced much like every other, with King Edrick roaring into the private dining hall already well into his first bottle of brandy. He engulfed his usual enormous breakfast, then strode off to his private council chamber to see if there were any pressing matters of state he needed to attend to.

I was in my small office near the kitchens attending to the monthly accounts when one of the downstairs maids dashed in to inform me a courier waited in the main reception hall. As such messengers were only employed for matters of the utmost urgency, I immediately went to greet him.

"I have a message for His Grace," the man announced before I had barely stepped into the room.

"I will take it," I said, quickly assessing the layer of dust on his uniform, thick enough to nearly obscure the patch on his shoulder, and the shadows of fatigue under his eyes. He had ridden long and hard, and I saw no reason not to relieve him of his task and send him off for a meal.

"My orders are to give the message to His Grace."

"Corporal, do you know who I am?" I dislike resorting to a military tone but I dislike even more standing about arguing with people who should know not to.

"Yes, milord."

"Then you are aware I am privy to all the king’s business. Now, your message, if you please."

He wrestled with it for a brief moment but, in the end, he truly did have no choice. And so I was the first to learn that the Queen of Abernal was dead.

I expect self-introduction is in order before we go any further. My name is Bartrim Ruford, and I am the Seneschal of House Rediman, the twelfth member of my lineage to occupy the post. It, like all those of any importance in the king's household, is hereditary, guaranteeing the monarch dependable help and a fair number of people steady employment for generations. At least, that is the official explanation for the system. When said monarch is like Edrick, it tends to work somewhat less smoothly than its originators had intended.

His Gracious Majesty Edrick Rediman, the fourth of his name to reign in Abernal, was, shall I say, difficult to appreciate but fairly easy to please, provided one had considerable skill at diplomacy and an even greater willingness to compromise one's ethics. Fortunately, I had been blessed with a more than ample portion of the former and so was able to avoid many instances of the latter. I had assumed my position some five years prior to the events we will be discussing and had, so far, kept His Majesty's good will.

For the past two decades, an outpost stood at the foot of the Stone Mountains. It had one purpose -- to apprise the king by the swiftest means available that his detested wife was dead. I now led the dusty courier to the council chamber, where we interrupted a discussion among His Grace and his three Ministers of Council of the comparative charms of two new ladies just arrived at court. I then hastened to find my wife.

Danella and I knew the king would want to celebrate the news he had just received and hastened to prepare a small feast for His Grace and a few select friends. He had waited twenty years to hear that his estranged wife had finally been killed in some skirmish or other so he could replace her and get a male heir. Well, a legitimate male heir, anyway. He had produced plenty of the other kind, not being any more inclined to celibacy than he was to restraint in dining.

The news that the longed-for day of liberty had, at last, arrived provoked instantaneous results. Envoys departed before the following noon to all the neighboring monarchs with nubile daughters, and a week later Edrick was betrothed to the lovely Yolanthe of Nadwich. Despite our surprise at the alacrity with which the queen-to-be was selected, Danella and I immediately began preparations for the nuptials; and I dispatched invitations to all the relevant lords, ladies and royals. As the weeks prior to the arrival of the lady and her parents passed, the palace actually had a rather more light-hearted, festive air than I could recall having enjoyed for many years.

I, of course, made all the necessary arrangements to welcome the future lady of the house, just as my late father had done for her predecessor. Not surprisingly, the said preparations included gently persuading my sovereign to temper some of his more abrupt mannerisms.

"Are you calling me a boor, Ruford?" he snarled when I suggested that having the princess taken immediately to his chambers on arrival so he could "try her out" was somewhat less than romantic.

"Heaven forbid, Your Grace. You are, as everyone knows, the consummate gentleman. However, the lady Yolanthe is fresh from the convent and likely shy for that reason."

"Then best she get over her girlish megrims now. The sooner she’s in whelp, the better."

"Well, of course, there is the matter of her father, who is rumored to be an overly pious man much enamored of the concept of premarital chastity."

The mention of his prospective father-in-law, who in addition to piety had a treasury reputed to be twice the size of Edrick’s that he might, if provoked, decide not to share with his new son-in-law, gave my royal master pause.

"So, have her brought after he’s in bed," Edrick suggested, though his voice had lost some of its earlier assurance.

"A possible alternative, Your Grace, but Queen Barba has asked to share her daughter’s chambers to assist with last-minute preparations. And I suspect even were that worthy lady to be a sufficiently sound sleeper to allow your wishes to be fulfilled, King Benifaz will have more than one...observer...in his daughter’s retinue, ready to report in detail if the princess’s virtue were in any way compromised prior to the exchange of vows."

He sat slumped, one hand gripping his favorite goblet, the other clenched on the arm of the chair; and the course of his thoughts as he struggled to reach a plan with a greater chance of success made his face twitch. Finally, to his obvious disgruntlement and my sincere relief, he accepted the inevitable.

"'Tis but four days," he conceded. "Do what you think best."

So it was that the king met his betrothed with all appropriate courtesy in the Great Hall, the only remaining remnant of the original castle, as per custom. She was a lovely vision, small and slight with deep violet eyes and red-gold hair flowing freely to below her waist. She was exquisitely lovely and had a palpable air of sweetness. She took one look at her betrothed and went white to the lips.

Her royal parents chose not to officially take notice of her reaction, although Queen Barba shot her husband’s back a glance that should have drawn blood. I subsequently noted, however, that she kept her eyes downcast and her face carefully schooled when there was the least chance her spouse might observe her demeanor. My interpretation of this behavior did not speak well of His Grace of Nadwich, a summation which?but more on that at the appropriate time.

Edrick was five years past his fifth decade, while the lady was two years shy of her second. He was squat and broad and not much inclined to regular bathing; and despite his respect for Benifaz his small, black eyes stripped off Yolanthe’s traveling ensemble like razors. Recognizing the need for intervention, I made haste to suggest she might be over-tired by her journey and hustled her off to her temporary suite of rooms to recover. Edrick licked his lips as he watched her go, and I?m saddened to admit I was glad the nuptials would take place in only four days. Otherwise, I suspect, Edrick would have reverted to his original plan in spite of Benifaz’s money.

"Poor lass," muttered Danella as we retreated to the kitchen to begin preparation for that night’s betrothal banquet.

I quite agreed with her, but the deed was done. One could only hope the lady would manage to produce the required heir as soon as possible, after which time she would likely be spared most of her spouse’s intimate attentions. Edrick preferred women with fewer inhibitions than a princess trained by religious women was likely to have.

Still, to give the man credit, he did behave himself reasonably well for the remaining days before the wedding. The ceremony went off without a hitch, and the wedding feast began as the sun retired for the evening. I made certain Yolanthe’s wineglass was topped off, but I doubted even that wasn?t going to be enough. As course after course arrived and Edrick grew more and more drunk, I caught her staring at him with a look usually reserved for confrontations with savage beasts.

When the final toast to the bride had been made, Queen Barba and a cluster of Abernalan ladies escorted her from the festivities upstairs to the king’s bedchamber, where she would wait in nervous nakedness in the royal bed to do her duty. Custom demanded that Edrick allow at least an hour before joining her, so a variety of entertainers had been hired to help him while away the time. As a troupe of bawdy clowns sent the assembly into roars of laughter, a course of lemon-ginger partridge was served, a dish that was one of His Grace’s favorites. Snatching a drumstick, he bit it in half, chewing bone and all as he hoisted his cup and gulped wine.

I had left the hall to see that the buffet table in the ballroom, where the wedding guests would retire once Edrick had gone, was adequately supplied, so I was not present for the terminal event. However, the man who had served the partridge informed me later that His Grace, in the midst of a bellow of laughter, suddenly fell back into his chair. He sat staring into infinity with his mouth a-gape as the already-high color in his face grew darker still. He seemed to be trying to speak, but the group’s attention was on the clowns so all failed to notice his peculiar behavior. He clapped his hand to his throat, a signal he had instituted to alert the wine steward he desired a refill on those occasions when the noise level was too high for conversation. This was promptly provided, but Edrick continued to gesture madly. The rest of the staff, unable to interpret what it was he seemed so desperate to obtain, mingled about in confusion until the king gurgled, turned a singularly unregal shade of purple and fell facedown into his mashed potatoes.

It was at that moment I returned to the banquet hall. One of the clowns had observed the king’s curious behavior and stopped to stare. His fellows, their practiced routine thrown awry, stopped as well and turned to see what had interrupted them. Slowly, the room fell utterly silent as I hurried to see what was happening.

Benifaz leaped up and gawked at his son-in-law as if he suspected Edrick were simply evincing yet another disgusting aspect of his character. He confirmed this a moment later in the tone of a man just discovering manure on his best boots.

"Good God! The man’s passed out!"

As such an event had occurred numerous times in the past, it was not an unwarranted conclusion. The king's ministers exchanged looks of mingled exasperation and chagrin from their seats. Until the marriage was consummated their plans to continue in their positions of power were uncertain. Edrick's apparent incapacity to perform that duty -- not to mention his having mortally offended the new queen's proud and easily offended sire -- was not encouraging.

I, however, had a dreadful feeling that was not inspired by politics or thoughts of my future, and so, apparently did my lifelong friend the Royal Champion. Sir Christopher Evergild had failed to observe Edrick’s distress, as he was stationed according to Edrick’s orders well behind the throne-like chair the king used when dining formally. Despite his height, his view was thus blocked by the ornate back of the royal seat. At Benifaz’s exclamation, however, he leaped forward?too late.

Chris pushed through the gawking servants to lift Edrick from dinner and lean him against the back of the chair. The king’s eyes were wide and blank amid the potatoes and gravy and his head lolled in a way no living man’s would. I laid my fingers on the place on his throat where his pulse should be. As I had suspected, there was none.

"Gentlemen," I said to King Benifaz and the Members of Council as quietly as I could and still be heard, "the king is dead."

Benifaz slumped into his chair, never taking his eyes off the corpse. The gaggle of ministers put their heads together and muttered as I gently cleaned my late sovereign’s face with a napkin while Sir Christopher held him steady. They gazed in horror at the corpse of their monarch and former source of steady revenue and then stared with even greater dismay at each other.

The silence that had to this point held sway was shattered as three hundred voices all erupted at once. Many of the gentlemen and not a few of the ladies leaped to their feet in an effort to see. Some who were less mindful of their dignity went so far as to climb onto their chairs.

Finished with my cleaning chore, I motioned for four of the footmen to remove His Grace, surreptitiously removing the royal signet from his hand, then stepped down from the dais to the center the room under the high dome that crowned the hall. From here, I knew, my voice would carry to all.

"Ladies and gentlemen!"

The uproar ebbed as all eyes moved from the exiting cortege to me.

"His Grace King Edrick has suffered an accident--may God grant him eternal peace."

For a long moment no one moved; and then, one by one, the guests stood and left, some to their chambers, others to their carriages. In a matter of minutes, the only guests remaining in the Great Hall were Benifaz, who was staring into his cup of wine; the ministers, who were staring at each other, and Sir Christopher.

No one had really expected Edrick to survive long enough for any son he might sire to reach majority. The ministers had intended to ensure at least one--and preferably all--of them were named as regents when the hoped-for male heir inherited the throne.

Now, they were appalled. The king was dead, his marriage unconsummated, thus precluding the possibility of there being a posthumous heir. The line of succession, by default, fell thus to his late majesty's only living child.

"There must be someone else," muttered First Minister Marlan Overlack to Third Minister Zephus Settleson.

"You know better," growled Second Minister Ludlow Entreputt, tossing back a double measure of brandy. "It was you who advised him to kill all the ones from the wrong side of the blanket off, remember?"

"But, ye gods," interjected Settleson, slumping back and covering his face with his hand, "Her!"

Already the servants were clearing the tables, so of course I must stand on the dais where I could adequately supervise. That my position also offered me the capability of overhearing their discussion was hardly accidental, not that they would have paid me much attention in any case. Many if not most courtiers overlooked the presence of "the help," and quite often they included me in that designation.

That cloak of servitor invisibility apparently covered Sir Christopher as well. He had returned to his place behind the king’s chair, from which I knew he could hear every word being said.

"We know where she is," Overlack said, his voice cold and ugly. "And there are cousins. Accidents happen."

Settleson slid his hand down below his eyes, which were suddenly bright with speculation. Entreputt smiled, a most unpleasant expression.

"Indeed," the he agreed, pouring another two fingers of brandy but this time sipping it meditatively.

He poured for his fellows also, and they raised their glasses in a toast. I did not care to consider what they pledged, but I suspected it had nothing to do with anyone’s health--especially hers.