Moored in a tiny village with the ridiculous name of Saint Germain-en-Laye, the royal flagship had accumulated a thin layer of frost on its deck. It was the Festival of Saint Charles de Foucault after all. After hearing mass below deck, Queen Pirouette nearly broke her neck when she ascended to begin her hand-waving duties. If not for GarGar, who was nearly always at her side, she would have fallen on the slippery surface.
Unable to contain his anger, GarGar, le comte des Deuxchats shouted, “Sand! Salt! Why hasn’t this deck been treated properly for Her Majesty? Where’s Admiral Crank? I’ll have his guts for garters if any mishap should befall our Queen!”
Standing on the prow of the ship with her herald standing directly behind her, Queen Pirouette waved obligingly at the crowds that lined both sides of the riverbed. Her flag which depicted a unicorn argent on a field of white with a golden crown around its neck. It was a fairly simple design of her own making. Trumpeters, half a dozen, blew tunelessly. They weren’t onboard to make music. They were they to let the people know that Her Majesty was coming. From the crow’s nest, a man with a good, strong arm threw silver coins at the people. So this is where my taxes are going, he thought as he tossed the money at the sea of outstretched arms.
“Jesus Christ!” Said the Queen over her shoulder to the herald. “My arm is getting tired! Abigail!” She shouted to her chief lady-in-waiting. “Get over here and wave at these people. They don’t know me from Adam. Here, put on my crown.”
Abigail laughed. “You can’t be serious.”
“Just who do you think you’re talking to?” Said Pirouette sternly. “Well?”
“Your Majesty!” Replied Lady Abigail tartly. “Your wish is my command.”
“Your loyalty to Our Royal Person is truly moving,” hissed Pirouette, oozing sarcasm. “I’m going to marry you off to the first troll I see!”
Trying not to think about the enormous amount of bad luck of having so many women aboard ship, Admiral Crank took a large bite from the plug of tobacco, a recently discovered herb from the New World that was all the rage among the upper classes. While it tasted atrocious, and more often than not gave him a stomach ache, there was something about how the tobac (as they called it at Court) that made him feel tip-top. As long as he didn’t swallow the foam in his mouth created by this plant-based stimulate, but rather spat it out, there were no stomach aches, no nausea, no vomiting, no headaches. Instead, it made him feel as though he had the strength of ten men, maybe even twenty men. Spitting a big mouthful onto the deck, the “Angry Admiral” as his men called him, failed to suppress a chortle as the big glob of the noxious material landed on one of GarGar’s shoes.
“Er…a million ‘pologies yer Grace,” muttered the Admiral.
GarGar chuckled good-naturedly. “I can buy a new pair of shoes once we pull into the next port.”
“Surely you jest, m’lord,” said Crank. “You there! Boy!” Shouted the Admiral at a nearly toothless, old man. “Swab ‘is Lordship’s shoes.”
“Yes, Admiral,” said the sailor, falling to his knees with a rag that was somehow dirtier than GarGar’s shoes. Not entirely comfortable with the situation at hand, le comte des Deux Chats tried his best not to look at the goiter on the old man’s neck. Given that the excrescence was the size of a grapefruit, it proved an impossible. That poor man, thought GarGar.
The new flagship for the Royal Navy pulled from its moorings. Crusty Admiral Crank stood on the poop deck in order to survey the activities of the sailors under his immediate command. To his right stood Queen Pirouette and to his left, le comte des Deux Chats, GarGar. The blessings of calm seas and low breeze meant that most of the crew were required to sit at the oars. That put most of the men below deck.
During the reign of Pirouette’s predecessor, slaves operated the galleys. The first act that came from the Queen’s hand upon her accession was to abolish the detestable institution; therefore, the rowers were all volunteers. The emancipation of tens of thousands of human chattel was immensely popular with the majority of her subjects (with the exception of the nobles, who with the wave of her dainty, royal hand had lost millions.) Jealous of her power and eternally suspicious of the nobility, Pirouette’s mind constantly turned on ways to weaken the upper classes.
“Let’s go below,” said GarGar cheerily. “I don’t think you’ve ever gone down there, my love. Have you?”
“No,” answered Pirouette. “I’ve been told that the smell is unbearable.”
“That was in the old days,” said GarGar. “Things are completely different nowadays.”
So down they went. As they descended the steps, the first thing Pirouette perceived was the time keeper with his big kettledrum. The grunts and groans of the men, along with the thump-thump-thump of the drum, created a hellish symphony. The first lieutenant roamed up and down the central aisle, his ceremonial whip hanging uselessly from his belt, bouncing against his thigh. From his expression, he appeared more than ready to use it. Catching the Queen in his flinty eyes, he immediately fell to his knees. The timekeeper stopped drumming. An audible sigh rose from the sweaty ranks as they folded their calloused and blistered hands into their laps.
With the exception of the First Lieutenant, all of the sailors below deck were stripped to the waist. For the first time in her life, the Queen saw a tattoo. It was on the shoulder of the burly timekeeper. Made entirely of blue ink, the design featured a mermaid with her scaly tail wrapped around an anchor. Six inches tall and four inches wide, it was impossible to miss. With so much room in which to work, the artist succeeded in fashioning a beautiful face for the ocean nymph. Unseen and imaginary forces below the surface of the sea caused her hair to split into numerous locks. With both hands, she held a trident, normally the sole property of Poseidon.
To the Prime Minister’s chagrin, Tata Sous-sus was included in the party. As the nearest thing to a family member of the Queen, she felt entitled to board the ship before it set sail down the Great River into the Kingdom’s heartland. Standing at the prow, Tata practiced waving at the crowd below. Someone who was deeply disappointed that Tata wasn’t the Queen threw a rock at her. “Look out!” Shouted a crew member as the missile whizzed by her head.
“Perhaps you should go below until we set sail,” said the Captain gently. “Once the sun sets, there will be a fireworks display. I assure you. It will be spectacular.”
“If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll just stay put until Her Majesty arrives,” replied Tata Sous-sus drily.
“Oh, no,” murmured Lady Natasha Rambovalina. “Here she comes.” For a woman who was nearly as wide as she was tall, Tata Sous-sus was amazingly fast and lithe on her feet. Walking like a woman with a purpose, she reached Lady Natasha in a few seconds, arm extended with a folded piece of paper in her hand.
“This is for you,” blurted Tata. “Read it now.”
“Would it kill you to be a little more discreet?” Asked Natasha as she snatched the note from Tata’s hand. “What’s this all about?”
“Just read it,” sighed Tata in exasperation.
It read: To my devoted servant- leave my Court now. -P
“What law have I broken,” demanded Lady Natasha. “Why should I leave Court like a thief in the night?”
“I’m just the messenger. I’ve no idea why someone would want you to leave.” Unspoken was the fact that the “someone” was Queen Pirouette.
“They’re fake,” said the Prime Minister who had a knack for appearing silently, seemingly out of the nowhere when you least expected it. With a slight gesture, a wave of the hand, he cleared the room of everyone except Tata Sous-sus. “Those beads are porcelain and I can prove it to you.”
“I’ll have you know that these pearls were a gift from my grandmother for my sixteenth birthday,” countered Tata who was in no mood to trade barbs with her perceived nemesis.
“Well, I’m sorry to report that your grandmama was duped.” Approaching Tata, the PM seized one of the white beads between his thumb and forefinger even as the strand was still wrapped around her neck. With little effort, he broke it and then beamed with self-satisfaction. “You see?” He said as he held the little pieces in front of Tata’s face for her close inspection.
Outraged at this violation of her personal space, Tata Sous-sus rose from her seat in front of the mirror, tore the offending strand from around her neck and threw it violently onto the floor. Her blood boiling with anger and hate, she began to stomp on this last gift her dear old granny had ever given her.
“What on earth are you doing!” Exclaimed the PM.
“Thanks for dispelling the last vestige of love I might have felt towards my Grandma Rambova!”
The PM rubbed his cheek, feeling as if he’d been hit in the face with a big, old, smelly fish. Did that silly old woman just say that she had a grandmother who was a Rambova? Was it possible?
Winding a lock of her thin, wispy hair around a finger, Tata Sous-sus used her other hand to point at one of her wigs. Choosing her newest one which was shockingly black, she said, “How about this one?”
“Your ladyship!” Exclaimed her Mistress of the Wardrobe. “Do you think that’s appropriate for the investiture?” On that day, the Prime Minister was due to be admitted to the Brotherhood of the Golden Ass. The Golden Ass was the highest knighthood in the Kingdom, and a new member could only be accepted after an older one had passed away, thereby opening a new slot. For years, the PM had been waiting for this opportunity. To be upstaged by the Queen’s frumpy, old cousin was not an acceptable outcome for anybody (with the exception of Tata Sous-sus.)
“If I wear that wig, the Prime Minister will leave Court in a pique of high dudgeon,” said Tata Sous-sus calmly. “Isn’t that what we want?” Batting her eyes innocently, the Queen’s kinswoman drew a string of pearls from her jewelry box and wrapped it tightly around her neck. “What do you think?” She asked of no one in particular. Answering her own question, she said, “I think it looks fabulous!”
Queen Pirouette took advantage of a quiet moment to pay a visit on GarGar. With his legs propped up on an ottoman, she found him luxuriating on a pink upholstered settee. There was a glimmer of the light that once brightened his countenance. Dispensing with the usual formalities, Pirouette allowed Lady Natasha to pull out a straight-backed armchair for her beside le comte des Deux Chats; that is, GarGar.
While GarGar looked much improved from the last time she’d seen him, Pirouette still found his entire manner quite spooky. It was as if her beloved had become something of a puppet. Who exactly was pulling the strings was a matter of conjecture; however, from his movements, there was a subtle jerkiness, a hesitancy. It was as if the unseen puppet master wasn’t paying enough attention to his job.