“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been…mmm…ah…oh, dash it all, can’t for the life of me remember the last time I’d been to confession. Oh, well…
“Hul-lo, Stinkpot, wotcher!”
“Ten years, I believe it’s been, Your Majesty.”
“Dash it all, man, you’re right, it has been too long. Stinky and Weaseltrees, together again at last! Sad thing when a fellow can’t get together with an old school chum except when he needs confessing. But you know how it is. Affairs of state and other assorted, and sordid, affairs.”
“Still and all, good to see you again. You haven’t changed much. Life in the monastery seems to agree with you very well. A little more here and there, more here than there, ’specially about the middle, must be feeding you pretty well over that place, eh?”
“Quite well, yes, Majesty, now, if we could get back to—”
“Reunion? Well, yes, I’ve given it some thought. Be good to see the old alma mater again. Be nice to see what they’ve done with the annual royal largesse. Be damn surprised if there isn’t at least a plaque somewhere on the quad. Something like, oh, ‘This building dedicated to the generosity and so-on-and-so-forth-blah-blah-blah’ that sort of thing.”
“Actually, Your Majesty—”
“Well, that’s neither here nor there. Down to business then. Oh, the usual number of Hail Mary’s and Pater Nosters should do the trick, I would think. Right. Now, Stinky, it’s dem’ good to see you again as I said, but the real reason I called you over is this: I need a favor.”
“To cut ahead of the chase, I need something done about a marriage. My marriage, to be precise.”
“I’m afraid I don’t—”
“Well, it was a mistake from the start, really. There’s right, rhyme, and plenty of good reasons for the separation of the classes. They just don’t mix at all well, I understand that now.”
“Ah, yes, but as I recall the girl looked—”
“Yes, she was pretty. They always are, aren’t they, what with the fresh country air and the sunshine and all that? One might even say she was beautiful, looked at from a certain angle or two. But a finely-sculpted statue is beautiful too, and will increase in value with age besides.”
“Mmm, still, at the time, if one might believe the gossips…”
“Oh, no, of course I never believed that story. Not for an instant. Straw into gold! Bally alchemists still can’t do it with lead, and that’s metal to start with. How should some crofter’s daughter from the other side of the canal be able to, then, with blessed straw, no less? Oh, I had it figured from the start, her father was just pulling the old royal leg, trying to make his daughter stand out from all the other pretty girls that show up at court looking for a good position.
“Mind you, it did work. I admit I did pay her a bit more attention than I might have done otherwise. Of course, I challenged her old man on it! Gave her a proper test, y’know. Set her up in one of the unused rooms of the palace—that one in the west wing with the portrait of Uncle Albert glaring down—provided her with a spinning wheel, gave her a bit of straw, told her to have at it and then left her to it.
“Now I may have hinted something about punishing her and her da if she didn’t spin the straw into gold, but I didn’t really mean it. Well, not her anyway. Might have had her old man whipped a bit for gross fibbing to the Royal Presence. But that’s all that would have happened. Likely.”
“Mmmm, and then?”
“Stinky, you could have shoved both hands in my mouth the next morning, it was that wide open. Flummoxed I was! Properly gobsmacked, as we used to say.”
“She did it! At least, there was this nice little pile of gold in place of the straw that I’d dumped beside the spinning wheel the night before.”
“I see, but—”
“Well, naturally, the thing to do was to test her again. After all, she could have had help, couldn’t she? No, of course, I didn’t know what kind. Heaven knows her father certainly didn’t look the sort to even recognize gold when he saw it, never mind have even a single speck at his fingertips to play that sort of game. If he had more than a couple spare coppers at most to rub together in his pocket, I’d have been surprised.
“Someone in the palace, that was my guess then. A serving boy or a page, or maybe even someone a bit older, say? Smitten with her obvious charms and willing to risk the Royal Wrath by slipping her a bit of gold before she went into the room, or even hiding it in there beforehand where she could find it later.”
“Yes, yes, I know, how would anyone know which room I’d pick for that first test? And where would they get the gold also? Well, I didn’t waste much time thinking too hard on the matter at the time. Just congratulated her, scooped up the gold into the folds of the cloak, and had her escorted to the top room of the North Tower, along with her spinning wheel, and a bale of straw this time.
“Same terms as before I told her. Spin it all to gold or suffer the consequences. This time, though I didn’t say so, I meant those consequences to include a session with the Royal Inquisitor to find out who helped her the first time.”
“Stinky, you could have stabbed me in the arse the next morning when I pushed past the guards and opened the door to that tower room. The entire floor was covered ankle-deep in gold. There she sat, smiling, by her spinning wheel, surrounded by a carpet of glittering gold!”
“Well, they do say that three is the charm. So, once more until the breach and all that. This time, I had the largest secure room available cleared out and then filled to the ceiling with bales of straw. By a happy coincidence, it was the palace vault. The proposal I put to the lass before the door shut for the night was that if she could fill the room with gold, I’d marry her.
“We announced the banns the next morning, Stinky. I knew a good thing when I saw it.
“Now wouldn’t you know it, but she got preggers right away after that. Blessed well put a stop to any more gold-spinning, it seemed. ‘Not in the right mood,’ she’d say. Well, it was better than ‘I’ve got a headache, dear,’ I s’pose, and I really couldn’t complain. Not really. Technically, she’d more than provided for her dowry, after all.”
“Mmm, yes, to be sure.”
“Well, you know how these things go. By next spring, there I was with a son and the kingdom with an heir, God’s in His Heaven, and all’s right with the world.”
“All’s well that ends well then.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But, no, then she gets this real mania for names. At first I thought it was just anxiety over the baptism arrangement, y’know, wanting to get the right proper name for the wee mite. I’d thought about naming him after dear ol’ da—mine, not hers, of course, I mean, well, really, a prince of the realm named Roger. Think of all the sniggering jokes behind his back. No, it just wouldn’t do.
“But, oh no, she wasn’t looking for just any old name, she wanted A Name! Spared no expense with my gold, she did, hiring archivists to research names, messengers to ride all about, hither and yon, asking folks the names of their forefathers back to the fourth or fifth generation or however far back they could go. Even had someone go searching around the gravestones at the cemeteries for names amongst the ‘Dearly Beloved’ and ‘Here Lies in Memory’ and whatnot.
“And scribes to write it all down. Every single one of these names found for her. One room of the palace filled with nothing but the scratching of quills on parchment.
“Names, names, names! Like to drive a man mad hearing all these names reported and written down. I’d heard women had odd cravings while they were ‘in the family way,’ but afterwards?”
“Well, by the third day I’d had enough. Collected the old boar spear, had the horse saddled, kissed her good-bye on the cheek, and rode off to hunt. I was in a right temper when I’d left, I can tell you. So much so I forgot to watch the way and ended up lost in the woods almost as soon as I was there. My own woods, right next door to my own palace! Can you believe it? Spent the night wandering all about before I finally found a familiar trail.
“When I got back home, body aching, stomach rumbling, throat parched, all I wanted was a flagon of wine, a haunch of beef, and my bed, and not necessarily in that order. What do I find but the whole palace in an uproar!
“There’s the bally wife, babe in her arms, standing at the top of the steps outside the main doors. Waiting. And weeping. And smiling. The baby’s wailing. Crowded behind her and him are servants and men-at-arms and scullery types and court folk. They’re all shouting and smiling and weeping and wailing. Some are also cheering, but then they soon enough got back to the weeping and the wailing.
“First thing as I climb down out of the saddle, even before I can drop my spear and hand the reins over to a groom, is the old girl rushes up and grabs me in such a tight hug I feared the baby might smother. Then we’re both surrounded by everyone, talking all at once so I can’t hear a blessed single word or sentence strung together that made any sense.
“So I’m standing there, bloody confused, y’know, looking at her smiling, all weepy-eyed, up at me. And the baby’s still crying, and I think I can smell the reason why.”
“Getting to the bottom of things, both figuratively and literally, took a bit of time, but here it all is, Stinky. Seems my wife, the mother of my firstborn and only—that I know about for certain—child, has been keeping secrets from me. They all do, I know, but more along the lines of a little stash of cash in the cookie jar sort of secret. This was much more serious.”
“First of all, she couldn’t, and didn’t, spin straw into gold. Well, yes, I know I said I never did believe that from the start. Just couldn’t figure out how she’d managed the trick. That was the second secret she’d kept from me until now.”
“Seems she’d struck a deal the night of the very first test with some odd little man for all of the gold he’d spin for her himself in exchange for her first child. Then, it seems, when she balked later on, he offered her a chance to get out of the deal. All she had to do was guess his name. That’s what the name game was all about. Of course, there was a catch. She only had three days to do it. Or nights, rather, because that was when he showed up for her to do her guessing.”
“Here I’d thought she was just mad about finding the right proper name for the baby. All day researching names and then all night reciting every name to this queer little fellow, hoping one of them was his. Oh, she was mad about finding the right proper name alright for the baby, oh, yes, indeed. Because if she couldn’t then, pfft! No baby and no heir to the throne.
“In the end, it was just blind luck that she ever got the right one. One of the messengers she’d hired out got lost in the woods—the very same woods I was lost in—and chanced on the little man, dancing around a fire in a clearing, singing a little ditty about his own name.”
“What was it?”
“Mmm? Oh, it was, uh, Rumpole, no, uhm…Rumpled something or other. Sounded foreign, anyway. Well, it would be, wouldn’t it? It’s what comes from living next door to a forest. One never knows what’s in there. Remind me to tell you some time about my cousin, Blanche, and her seven ‘friends’ as she calls ’em.
“Anyway, that night I was lost in the woods was the night she confronted the old fellow with that name. Sprang it right on him at the last minute, so to speak. Took him quite by surprise, I’m told. Put him in a right state. Stamping his feet about, screaming blue bloody murder, until the very floor broke open beneath him and he fell through and just disappeared. Which is a nice trick, given the room they were in was on the second floor above the throne room and none of the guards below ever saw him land.”
“And that’s that. At least, that’s what the girl says to me, all the time looking up at me with those dewy eyes and smiling away. All’s well that ends well. Oh, yes, I’m thinking as I smile and hug her back. All’s well that ends well. Not bloody likely.”
“Well, she blessed well lied about the whole thing from the start, didn’t she? Or, rather, her da told the first lie and she carried it on. What’s more she put the Royal Heir in jeopardy. My son’s own mother bargained to give him over before he was even conceived, and to some weird little man for Heaven knows what fate.”
“So then, after…?”
“Well, after turning the babe over to the wet-nurse to look after, I had the little hussy escorted under guard back to that tower room I used for the second night’s test. That’s where she is now and that’s where she’ll stay for the duration. Not sure what to do with her. Execution? Exile? Enter her in a nunnery and leave her there?”
“Anyway, that’s the whole story, Stinky. Now that brings me back to my original question. I suppose that an annulment is really out of the question. Obviously the marriage has been consummated. The proof is in a room down the hall, sucking away on his nurse’s nipple. No, can’t really allege anyone else as the father. She did deliver nine months after we were married.”
“Mmmm, no, not really.”
“But how much do you suppose it would cost to convince the Church to grant a divorce? And maybe a bishopric for yourself, just as a thank-you from an old school chum? After all, I’ve no lack of gold, and thank Creation for illiterate peasants and pre-nuptial agreements.”
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