The occasion was Princess Pirouette’s eighteenth birthday and the entire court was abuzz with excitement. The old King, feeling awfully chipper, insisted that he have the first dance with the birthday girl. She was only too happy to oblige him. His Majesty’s arthritic feet seemed to glide on the black and white tiles of the ballroom floor.
Just as the old King was getting ready to give Princess Pirouette a little spin, he suddenly swooned in her arms. Alas! She was not strong enough to support his weight, so he fell to the floor as if in slow-motion. Cries of alarm filled the ballroom. The royal physicians, always in attendance, rushed to their patient, leeches and knives in hand. What these learned men did not know, nor could ever know, was the His Majesty was suffering from a serious malady: encephalopathy. Neither a thousand leeches, nor a thousand cuts could cure His Majesty of this ailment. Bedrest and prayers were the best treatment available at the time.
Tata Sous-sus’ elevation to chief lady-in-waiting to Princess Pirouette resulted in many changes at court, primarily in Tata herself. For the first few days and weeks, she practiced looking stern in the mirror. Thanks to a generous stipend, she was able to outfit herself in a completely new (and more fashionable) wardrobe, including several new wigs, new cosmetics and brand new shoes. With the assistance of Princess Pirouette and her official dresser, Abigail Hofenhof, Tata polished up her overall mien.
To Tata the most important job involved in her new role was to control, or rather restrict, access to the Princess. All of the courtiers who’d enjoyed making fun of Tata were now in the unenviable position of trying to seek her favor. For the most ambitious and self-seeking, there was little effort involved in cozying up to the new chief lady-in-waiting; however, for the more proud and haughty set, it was an ordeal. These were the people who spoke to Tata through gritted teeth. For Tata it was a secret and most delightful pleasure to watch the high and mighty flush with anger when she shook her head, no, the Princess won’t be receiving you today. In fact, she would swear she could hear their brains sizzle and see smoke issue forth from their ears.
“Take that, Lord So-and-So!” She thought to herself. “Take that, Lady Muckety-Muck!”
“You can beat around the bush all you want, my lady, but we are here to establish the truth and establish it we will!” Said the prime minister to Tata Sous-sus. After the dismissal of Lady Greenmeadow, Princess Pirouette took for granted that dear, old Tata would become her new chief lady-in-waiting. She had told Tata that the interview with Monsieur le premier ministre would be perfunctory, just a matter dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. Poor Tata was not prepared for the probing questioning at the hands of the old King’s chief minister.
Tata Sous-sus didn’t mean to prevaricate, but she couldn’t remember how much she paid for her clothes or when she bought them, or who made them. What little jewelry she did wear was on loan from Princess Pirouette. As for how long she stayed and where during her lifetime of wandering, she hadn’t a clue. For Tata the past was like a painting left out in the rain, it was all a blur. Perhaps it was mere revenge over his niece’s unceremonious ejection from court that caused Monsieur le premier ministre to abuse poor old Tata Sous-sus so mercilessly. Then again, Monsieur did like to pride himself on being thorough and punctilious in all things.
Lady Greenmeadow sat alone in the carriage. Her face was several shades more pale than was considered fashionable at court. Ever since she was spotted embracing the captain of the guards in a dark corner, she was treated like a pariah. At last Princess Pirouette had an excuse to ask the prime minister to dismiss her. After making a brief show of resisting such a move, Monsieur le premier ministre agreed that Lady Greenmeadow had to go.
Monsieur le premier ministre in fact was the only person to bid her farewell. After giving his niece a quick peck on the cheek, he helped her into the awaiting carriage with hardly a word. Seeing how glum she looked, he poked his head into the carriage and said, “Bonne chance, my dear,” then he slammed the carriage door shut, turned on his heels and walked away.
When GarGar, le comte des Deux Chats entered the old King’s bedroom, he found the old man standing by a window with Tata Sous-sus on one side and Princess Pirouette on the other. They were conversing quietly about something outside that had caught their eyes. While their exact words didn’t quite register in GarGar’s ears, he did think he heard the word, “raven.”
“I was taught that les corbeaux were most unlucky,” said Tata Sous-sus. “Not at all,” replied the old King. “They are very intelligent birds. You can train them to do anything.”
The old King was still bed-ridden with pneumonia. While it didn’t seem to be getting better, neither did it appear to be getting worse. With Princess Pirouette, Tata Sous-sus and la duchesse du Linge in attendance at the sickbed, His Majesty was under constant supervision. It was Tata Sous-sus who made a liniment by crushing the leaves of various plants such as cedarleaf and nutmeg. With a few drops of turpentine to seal the deal, she rubbed the concoction onto His Majesty’s chest.
“It was my own mother who taught me how to make it,” said Tata Sous-sus to Pirouette. “She called it ‘country comfort.‘ It works like a charm when a fever settles into the chest.”
“Ouch!” Cried Princess Pirouette. “I’ve been stung!”
“Let me take a look,” said GarGar, le comte des Deux Chats, reaching for Pirouette’s hand. “Let’s pull back your glove and see what kind of damage has been done.” Pirouette whimpered quietly as GarGar peeled the fine chamois fabric away. “It must have had a long stinger to get through this cloth,” he observed. And there it was, an angry red welt on the back of Pirouette’s hand. GarGar gave it a gentle kiss. “Feel better?”
“Oh, much better, kind sir,” replied Pirouette. “I’m afraid you may have missed your calling, Monsieur GarGar,” continued the Princess. “You would have made a fine chirurgeon.”
“Specializing in insect bites, no doubt.” GarGar laughed.