The Princely Proof

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    Over the wind ravaged mountain tops, across the forested lands, the storm drove forward. Sleet gave way to rain, which pummeled the tree tops and slapped the great lake. The late autumn storm drove itself up to the doorstep of an ancient kingdom, where traditions and beliefs strained to crawl into the modern age, driving along with it a bedraggled visitor upon an even more miserable looking horse.
    His fist pounded upon the great oaken door, the sound barely elevating itself above the cacophony of nature’s wheezing. After some time, a castle worker must have noticed a bizarre rhythm to the wind’s rattle and gone to investigate.
    “My Lady.” The portly, wizened old man approached the queen and attempted a respectful bow, only managing to get about halfway there. The queen laid down her soup spoon with a hit of annoyance on her face not missed by the rest of the company at the dinner table. She turned stiffly and folded her hands onto her right hip.
    “Yes?” she sighed out, barely able to muster the interest needed to deal with an underling. The closing hours of the day were not her finest.
    “A traveler at the door, my lady. He begs food and shelter for the night from the storm.”
    At this the queen huffed. She did not have much patience for freeloaders. She held a firm belief that a man should always have a solid plan for basic life needs and not rely on others for handouts. However, to avoid potential embarrassment should the wayward traveler be an important friend of one of her contacts and to avoid the simple inconvenience of having to get up from dinner to walk all the way to the front door to look this person in the eye, she waved at the servant to admit the man.
    Silence filled the dining hall except for the squelching, soggy footsteps of the rescued man. He surveyed the room and approached an unattended place at the table.
    “Your name… good sir?” The queen hesitated as she took up her soup spoon, taking in his appearance disdainfully.
    The man gave an effective bow and sat down smoothly. His soaked pants slapped against the chair as he sat and began to drip onto the floor. “Lexton from Rhodon, My Lady. I wish to extend my deepest gratitude for your hospitality on this stormy evening.”
    The queen gave an aloof nod.
    Princess Emilia chewed thoughtfully on a hunk of bread. Newcomers were no longer usual in the kingdom of Cranstonia. At one time, princes were all but flocking to the castle as the queen had put out a general call for suitable grooms for her two daughters. Unfailingly, the men would make unforgivable mistakes in etiquette or protocol, causing the queen to turn them away with a practiced ease. Emilia was fairly certain they had interviewed every prince in the known world. Her mother had chiseled away at their options until all that remained was a kind of resignation to a single life. Not a great choice for a princess in her early twenties.
    Emilia’s older sister Brin, desperate for any break in the monotony of her castle life, had no reservations regarding the strange visitor. She peppered him with questions and flirtations. The stranger engaged all at the table with charm and effervescence. Stories poured forth as the food courses were laid before them. Emilia kept mostly to herself but was unable to help herself from prying additional details from the charming Lexton. She noticed his table manners were exquisite.
    The queen had appeared to come around on her opinion of the wet man. She giggled and smiled, even fanning herself from time to time as if suddenly the room had become unbearably hot.
    Finally, Lexton rose from his seat. “If you will pardon me, it has been a long day, and I would wish to retire now.”
    The queen looked startled, as if suddenly remembering where she was. “Why, my good man,” she began. “We have greatly enjoyed your company for supper. But I am afraid it is absolutely out of the question that a commoner should stay the night. I hope you will remember the kindness of food and company fondly, but this is where we shall part ways.”
    The dripping rain outside the windows punctuated the silenced voices. Lexton cleared his throat uncomfortably. “My Lady,” he said. “I am indeed a prince of my land.”
    Brin gasped in delight, but Emilia sat back in her chair. How convenient, to suddenly be a prince when it was a requirement of obtaining a roof over one’s head!
    Queen Drizza clapped her hands once and waved for her attendant to show the visitor to his room. Emilia noticed the cloud over her mother’s expression, as if she, too, had suspicions regarding this sudden claim of royalty. The visitor gave another perfect bow and followed the attendant from the dining room. The queen glanced sidelong at her daughters, and made a hasty exit, no doubt to brood in her quarters.
    —————
    Emilia caused herself to be wandering in the general area of the guest quarters. She was surprised they were even ready for guests, when she counted up how much time had passed since they had entertained any royalty. She didn’t mean to be sneaking, but surprised herself by flattening against the wall around the corner when he exited the guest room. His hair, having dried somewhat, was brushed back out of his face and the attendant had loaned him some dry clothes and a cloak. Emilia’s breath caught in her throat. She quickly berated herself for feeling attracted to him. He was most likely lying about being a prince, and his good manners were surely all a show for the queen!
    She followed him at a distance as he exited out the main door. She watched out the window and was able to spot him heading for the stables. Grabbing a cloak, she took one of the less obvious side doors and peeped into the stables, expecting to catch him in the act of placing priceless stolen goods into his saddlebag, or meeting up with a crony to hatch evil plots, or somehow exhibiting poor manners! Her eyes widened as she observed what she had not prepared herself for.
    Lexton was gently brushing his horse down, a fond expression softening his face. After a few moments of whispering to the steed, he broke out into a gentle melody. His rich tenor filled the room, stroking his brush down the horse’s flank in time to the tune. The horse looked absolutely entranced and serene. Emilia’s mind fuzzed as she became absorbed in the song. In this moment, she did not care that he was probably a pretend prince. He was the loveliest person she had ever known.
    Finished, Lexton opened the stable door to discover Emilia standing there waiting for him.
    “Would you like to sit with me by the fire for a while? It’s still early enough, and I might not get another chance to talk with you before you have to leave,” she said.
    An impish look came over his face. “Of course, My Lady,” he said, bowing, gesturing for her to precede him into the castle. Emilia smiled and hastened into the castle ahead of him through the lessening storm.
    Not three steps into the main room and she was brought to a dead halt. Queen Drizza stood to the side, her face graced with what Emilia could only imagine to be royal mischief. She ordered Emilia to follow her but promised Lexton she would return her daughter to his company quickly. Reluctantly, Emilia told Lexton she would meet him by the fireplace.
    Once in a private room a short way down the hall, Drizza grabbed Emilia’s hand. “I have the perfect solution to our quandary,” she said, unable to restrain herself from grooming her daughter as she spoke. “I have an age old method of revealing true royal blood!” She picked a few pieces of lint from Emilia’s shirt.
    Emilia gave her mother a quizzical look, so she continued. “We simply place this under his mattress. A true prince will be unable to get comfortable upon this pearl, whereas a commoner will no doubt sleep like a baby. Once proven, I will finally arrange a marriage for your sister Brin!” She triumphantly held up a small pearl, and Emilia took it into her hand. She examined it, frowning, while her mother smoothed down her daughter’s rain-frizzed hair.
    “Mother,” Emilia sighed, then stopped herself from speaking. Once set upon a course of action, her mother could rarely be deterred. She returned the pearl to her mother’s hand and the queen floated gleefully from the room, her heart buoyed with a thrill not felt in years.
    Emilia’s return trip to the hearth room was burdened by uncertainty. Should she trust in this test that her mother claimed was unfailing?
    Entering the room, Lexton’s welcoming smile pushed aside thoughts of the foolish trial. They spent the next few hours talking, laughing, and exchanging stories of their homelands. The ease felt in one another’s presence was one not often encountered in a lifetime. At times they would lapse into a comfortable lull, searching one another’s faces.
    At last the time came for Lexton to retire. Emilia, with head suddenly returned to present whereabouts, rested her hand upon his arm. “A warning,” she spoke. “The queen has placed a small pearl beneath your mattress to prove your royal claim. You must complain in the morning of a difficult night’s rest. Only then will she believe that you are who you claim to be.”
    Lexton placed his hand upon hers. “And then what?” he asked.
    Emilia’s mouth tightened and a lump sprang to her throat. “Why, then you will be able to marry my older sister Brin. You will be quite happy, and I will be able to begin the search for my own prince.” Unable to stand it any longer, she pulled her hand away from his and ran from the room. She spent a restless night alone with her troubles, as she knew Lexton was pretending to have with the bothersome pearl.
    —————
    The queen and Brin came to Emilia’s quarters in the early morning, dragging her out of bed to witness a “glorious day for the family,” as her mother insisted on describing it. With weighted step, Emilia allowed herself to be led to the place of her impending heartbreak.
    Lexton was waiting for them in the entryway, a vision in fresh clothes and shined boots. Emilia’s heart gave a little squeeze as the royal family approached the visitor. He looked too rested, Emilia thought. He would never be able to convincingly feign a sleepless night.
    “Well, my good man, how did you sleep?” crowed the queen, unable to restrain herself from getting to the heart of the matter.
    Lexton bowed respectfully. “I thank thee, My Lady, for the kindness of your hospitality. The triple mattress was an unexpected pleasure. I slept like a newborn nestled in his crib.”
    The queen flinched back a step. Momentarily at a loss for words, she frowned at him. “I have been told that a royal prince might find it unusually difficult to get comfortable on those mattresses, so used to luxury are they.” She tilted her head at him. “Are you quite sure you did not feel some slight bothersome thing that made it quite impossible to get to sleep?”
    All hung upon his every word. A glimmer of a tender smile graced his face as he locked eyes with Emilia. Then he faced Brin directly and spoke. “No,” he said. “I felt nothing.”
    The queen’s face became apoplectic. “You are no prince, sir! A real prince would have felt the pearl I placed beneath his mattresses as tradition has revealed to us through the ages! Remove yourself from my kingdom at once, commoner!” She stormed from the room. Brin burst into tears and ran after her mother.
    Emilia and Lexton stood for a moment, absorbing the stillness created from the removal of the queen’s fury. At last she could not hold her tongue. “Did you really feel nothing?”
    He opened his hand and extended it. A single gleaming pearl rested upon his palm. “I was quite comfortable after I removed this bothersome gem.”
    Emilia took the pearl, unsure of what to say.
    “My Lady Emilia, I must return to Rhodon. I have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. I need to find a husband for this sister of yours before I can return and ask for your hand in marriage.” He bowed deeply before her, gave a small sweet smile, then departed.

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