Once the Ambassador took the seat of honor at Queen Pirouette’s right hand, there was a flourish of trumpets, drums, fifes and tambourines. The Ambassador, thinking that all of this musical display was in his honor, rose to his feet, his face suitably red with embarrassment and pride, suddenly realized that all eyes were fixed on a doorway to the right of the Queen’s seat. GarGar, le comte des Deux Chats had entered the room from a hidden doorway behind the Queen’s seat of honor. Monsieur le comte, dressed in white britches that appeared to be studded with diamonds, seemed to emanate an unearthly beam. Quietly taking his seat, he joined the other guests in their rapturous applause for the Queen’s husband-to-be.
When the Imperial Ambassador, Monsignor von Thornbird entered the banquet hall, he was stunned by the enormity of the room, as well as by the number of people gathered in his honor. There must be two hundred people in attendance. He thought to himself. When the Chamberlain struck the floor three times in order to silence the attendees, he shouted, “Monsignor von Thornbird, Imperial Ambassador!” The Monsignor was bowled over by the thunderous applause that the pronouncement induced. So enthusiastic was the welcome of the courtiers, that he felt embarrassed. He could feel the blood rush into his face. His scalp began to itch. He had to fight the urge to turn and flee the room.
The Queen rose from her seat, holding a small glass of wine. “To the honorable ambassador, Monsignor von Thornbird! Long life and prosperity!” She announced in a loud, firm voice. “Here! Here!” Intoned the courtiers. They all took a solid draught from their glasses. Queen Pirouette then left her place at the table and approached the befuddled Monsignor. Taking him by the elbow, she said, “Please, my lord, come sit at my right hand. We’ve so much to discuss.”
Of all the faces Monsignor von Thornbird had seen in his life, Queen Pirouette’s was beyond dispute the most beautiful. Now he understood all of the rapturous reports that had come from all quarters. Without exception, every story of the young Queen began and ended with details of her legendary beauty. This beauty extended beyond physical description. Her poise, her gracefulness, her smile, all of these attributes and more set this woman apart from all others.
Where is le comte GarGar des Deux Chats? The Monsignor asked himself. From all he had heard, the queen’s fiancé never left her side, except when he was on a military campaign. Scion of one of the Kingdom’s oldest families with a devil-may-care attitude, his disinterest in politics made him most suitable as a future consort for Her Majesty. Dare I inquire?
Shocked by the Chamberlain’s rebuke, Monsignor von Thornbird forced his gaze downwards to the floor of the Presence Chamber. “Sir!” Had shouted the Queen’s Chamberlain. “You forget yourself!” Indeed, the Emperor’s new ambassador extraordinaire had forgotten himself. So beautiful was the Queen to whose Court he’d been sent, Monsignor von Thornbird had been ill-equipped to remember the rules of protocol that dictated he never look the Queen directly in the face. How not to look with admiration upon the most beautiful face in the world?
“My lord Chamberlain,” said Queen Pirouette in a voice so sweet that it made birdsong sound like thunder, “Please do not be so harsh with the Monsignor. He is new to our Court. He must be given some leeway in order to adjust to his new surroundings.”
The Chamberlain bowed deeply from the waist. “Forgive me, Sire,” he muttered. Scouring his mind for some excuse to explain his indecorous outburst, he rubbed his forehead, as if that would hatch a thought worthy of a man of his station. “Forgive me, Monsignor,” he finally managed to utter in a tone that sounded deeply sincere to all in the presence chamber. “Please forgive me,” he repeated.
“Let’s not become mired in blame,” said the Queen serenely. Extending her hand for the ambassador to kiss, she continued. “My lord Monsignor, it is my sincere hope that you shall act as a bridge between myself and your master, the Emperor.”
When Monsignor Nigel von Thornbird entered the Presence Chamber, also known as the throne room, his heart was beating so hard that it felt as though it might burst from his chest. The Chamber was basically a long, wide hallway, fifty feet wide and one hundred and fifty feet long. On the left and right were galleries where the curious could look down upon the royal grandeur. Poor Nigel could feel the pressure of all these gazes weighing down upon him. He thanked the fact that he was employing a walking stick to help him maintain his equilibrium as he moved carefully, one careful step at a time, toward the Queen who sat enthroned on a dais at the end of the room.
As he progressed closer to Queen Pirouette, he could hear the hissing of the courtiers as they whispered to each other about this new intruder into their realm. The new Imperial ambassador chose to recite in his mind a childhood nursery rhyme in an effort to drown them out. Ring around the rosies. A pocket full of posies. Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down! Surprisingly, it worked rather well and he was able to concentrate his attention on the woman that he’d been sent to meet. While he used his right hand to clutch his walking stick, in his left hand, he held the letter of introduction for the Queen that had been written in the Emperor’s own hand.
Once within five feet of the bottom of the dais, he fell to one knee. The Royal Chamberlain struck the marble floor of the Presence Chamber with his staff and shouted, “Monsignor Nigel von Thornbird, ambassador extraordinaire of His Imperial Majesty,” he paused, not daring to speak the name of the Emperor in front of his Queen, and so he concluded the introduction with the words, “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”
Against all protocol, the Monsignor couldn’t resist the urge to look Queen Pirouette directly in the face. He had to suppress the urge to gasp. Never had he seen such beauty. Most striking were the Queen’s eyes, the deepest shade of blue that he’d ever seen on another human being. While she gazed straight ahead, as if concentrating on something in the distance, he felt drawn to the young woman on the throne. Cobalt, he thought. Her eyes are made of cobalt!
“You forget yourself, sir!” Said the Chamberlain angrily, shocked by the ambassador’s temerity.
Imperial Ambassador Nigel von Thornbird adjusted his cravat, staring intently into the hand mirror that his valet held before him. Dressed from head to toe in black, as was expected from any servant of the Emperor, his peach colored cravat was the only expression of individuality allowed to a servitor of His Imperial Majesty. With his index finger, he gave the mou on his chin a final adjustment. Monsignor von Thornbird brusquely pushed the mirror away.
“Go!” He barked at his poor, beleaguered valet. “Polish my shoes, or do something useful to justify the enormous salary you collect!”
Let us not judge the Monsignor too harshly. He was consumed with anxiety over his first interview with Queen Pirouette. Being the third ambassador within a single year to fill the post, the stories he’d heard about Her Majesty ranged from a living saint to a screaming banshee. The one thing all of the reports agreed upon was that the young sovereign was beautiful, stunningly so. So intense was her pulchritude.
As Lord High Admiral of Her Majesty’s Navy, it was GarGar’s duty to present worthy seamen with meddles, ribbons and sashes to display on their uniforms. These ornaments were visible testimony to the sailor’s meritorious conduct. A hardened cynic might arch a brow and scoff at such self-serving display, but to the recipient of such an award, it represented the culmination of years of struggle, untold days and nights of keeping watch, pulling rope, dragging fellow sailors from a briny death. That little medal pinned on one’s chest encapsulated a lifetime of back-breaking effort.
“Captain Grincheux! In recognition of your bravery in the field of battle, your commitment to the well-being of the men who served you and your devotion to your Queen and Country, I present you with the Gold Star of Meritorious Conduct,” intoned GarGar. With a purposeful step and a salute, the Captain presented himself to GarGar, his gaze focused on a point somewhere beyond his left shoulder.
GarGar pinned the medal on Captain Grincheux chest. After the obligatory kiss on each cheek, the solemn salute, the Captain clicked his heels and walked off of the podium. The band struck up a tune, and scattered applause rippled across the witnesses.
Once the ceremony was completed, Captain Grincheux was conducted to the Queen’s sitting room. The first thing that caught his attention upon entering the room was the color pink. Little pink roses adorned the wallpaper. Fresh pink tulips were crowded into vases that sat on tables, cupboards and windowsills. The same rosettes danced on the upholstery of every chair, sofa and divan. The Queen herself sat at the end of a little table, dressed in white with little pink rose vines crawling over the fabric. Around her sleeves and collar, white lace undulated with her slightest gesture.
My Lord! Thought the Captain. Is this a woman, or a goddess?
With a deep bow from the waist, Captain Grincheux lost his footing for a moment. Pirouette jumped from her seat and grabbed one of his elbows. “My Lord Captain!” She exclaimed. “Are you not well?” Guiding him into a chair, she stood straight up, took a kerchief from her reticule and mopped the old sailor’s brow.
“Forgive me, Your August Majesty,” he began. “I daresay that I’ve never seen a vision of such pure beauty as I do now in you.”
“Nonsense,” laughed Pirouette. “You, who have circumnavigated the entire globe several times over, you have seen sights that would make me look very pale and inconsequential indeed.”
“Not so, Your Majesty,” replied the Captain. “Why, I’ve seen sights that would make your blood freeze with terror. In the icy mist, lost in the fog, I’ve seen oorie phantoms whose provenance could only be hell. And on the other hand, I’ve sailed into harbors crowded with beautiful people, baskets of every imaginable fruit, fragrant blossoms shifting in a gentle breeze. Of all these sights, you are the very ultimate. God bless you, my Queen! Long may you reign!”
“But how?” Asked Queen Pirouette to Tata Sous-sus. “How did you know that Lady Greenmeadow was still alive? And who was that whose body was found? Will we ever know the answer to this mystery?”
Tata was gazing out the window in the antechamber to the Queen’s boudoir. A gentle rain was falling. Tata pushed the window open and took an expansive, deep breath. The smell of the air both energized and soothed her- an interesting mixture of feelings that she’d never experienced before. “All in good time,” replied Tata. “All in good time. For now, my dear, let me kiss you.” She moved over to Pirouette and kissed her forehead. “You were always such a sweet child.”
GarGar, luxuriating on a divan and sipping champagne, smiled at the touching reunion of the two kinswomen. “I’ve sent Lady Greenmeadow to my country estate,” he said and then belched into his gloved hand. “Excuse me.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” said Pirouette. “I never want to see that woman at court again. Don’t forget, Lady Abigail is my new chief lady of the bedchamber.”
“That’s right,” said the Queen. “And my dear Abby is a much better servant, if I must say so.”
Tata smiled as she poured herself a glass of the bubbly. “A new broom sweeps clean.”
Sitting in a straight-backed chair, Tata Sous-sus, remembering her breeding, kept her own back ramrod straight and her hands neatly folded in her lap. Training her eyes on some imaginary, distant point, she succeeded in making her interrogators uncomfortable. It was as if she were staring right through them, as if they weren’t even there.
“Your Ladyship,” intoned the judge of the high court. “You have been accused of high crimes and misdemeanors against God and country.
So often in her life, Tata had been accused of having a loud, abrasive voice, but now she answered at a low volume, with a dignified, measured tone. “I am innocent.”
Shaking his head, the judge said, “You must plead “guilty” or “not guilty.” Those are your only options.
“As God is my witness, I am innocent as a newborn babe!” Forgetting herself, she allowed her voice to become strident, almost shrill.
From the public gallery, two of Queen Pirouette’s ladies sat side by side. Lady Abigail Hoffenhoff took the hand of her colleague, Lady Sharpsweet. Leaning into Sharpsweet’s ear, Abigail said, “At last, Auntie Finale is going to get her comeuppance.”