But it was like all our conversations of this sort–pure speculation. All we knew was that the Queen would consider our cases at the end of the year.
And when I saw the Captain of the Guard, when he came into the stables and sent for me and let me talk to him, I told him that Tristan was desperate to return to Nicolas, and I was just as desperate to remain where I was.
After the life of a pony, how could I bear anything else?
He listened to me with obvious compassion.
"You’re a credit to the stables, both of you," he said. "You earn your feed twice and three times over."
"More than that," I thought, but I didn’t say so.
"The Queen may grant Nicolas’s wish, and as for you, it would be the natural thing for you to be given over for another year. The Queen’s more than pleased as it is to hear that you’ve both quieted down and behaved yourselves. And she has plenty of new playthings to content her at the castle."
"Is Lexius still with her?" I asked.
"Yes, she’s frightfully hard on him, but it is what he needs," said the Captain. "And then there is a lovely young Prince who wandered into this Land and threw himself upon her mercy. Said he was told of the Queen’s customs by Princess Beauty. Imagine that. He begged not to be sent away."
"Ah, Beauty." I felt a sudden stab of pain. I don’t think a day had passed that I’d not thought of her in her velvet gown, a flower held in a gloved hand, its petals looking all the more delicate for the fabric that pinched it. Gone forever into propriety, poor darling Beauty….
"Princess Beauty to you, Laurent," the Captain corrected me.
"Of course, Princess Beauty," I said softly, reverently.
"As to what will happen," said the Captain, going back to the question at hand, "there is Lady Elvera, who asks about you constantly."
"Captain, I am so happy here…" I said.
"I know. I shall do what I can. But continue to be obedient, Laurent. You have another three years to serve somewhere, I am sure of it."
"Captain, there is one more thing," I said. "What is it?"
"Princess Beauty…. Do you ever hear anything of her?"
His face grew a little sad, wistful.
"Only that she’s sure to be already married by this time. The suitors were beating down the door."
I looked away from him, not wanting to reveal my expression. Beauty married. Time had not made me miss her less.
"She is a great Princess now, Laurent," said the Captain, teasing me. "You are having disrespectful thoughts, I can see it!" "Yes, Captain," I said. We both smiled. But it wasn’t easy. "Captain, grant me a favor. When you do hear for certain that she has been married, don’t tell me. I would rather not know."
"That isn’t like you, Laurent," he said.
"I know. How explain it? I knew her only a little while." Coupling in the dark in the hold of the ship, her little face blood-red as she came beneath me, her hips pumping so ecstatically, she all but lifted my weight with her, off the floor. Of course, the Captain didn’t know that part of it. Or did he? I tried to put it out of my mind.
Weeks passed. I couldn’t keep track of them. I didn’t want to know how fast the time was running out.
Then one night Tristan confided to me with joyful tears that the Queen was giving him over to Nicolas when the year was out. He would be Nicolas’s private pony and sleep again in Nicolas’s chamber. He was ecstatic.
"I’m happy for you," I said again.
But what would befall me when the moment came? Would I be put up on the auction block, and bought by some wicked old cobbler, and made to sweep out his shop while the ponies trotted past the door in all their glory? Ah! I couldn’t think of it. I couldn’t believe in anything else but this! Days following days….
In the recreation yard, I devoured Jerard as if each moment was our last. And then one evening at twilight when I was just finished with him and pulling him up into my arms for a little tender nuzzling, I saw a pair of boots standing before me. And looking up, I realized it was the Captain of the Guard.
He never came out here. I went pale.
"Your Majesty," he said. "Please rise. I have a message of the greatest importance. I must ask you to come with me."
"No!" I said. I stared at him in horror, thinking madly that if I could somehow stop his lips the words wouldn’t work their evil spell. "It can’t be time yet! I’m supposed to serve for three more years!"
We had all heard Beauty’s screams when she’d been told of her reprieve. I wanted to roar just as loudly now.
"I’m afraid it’s true, Your Majesty!" he said. And, extending his hand, he helped me to my feet.
It was amazing, the awkwardness between us. And right there in the stables were clothes for me and two young boys, with heads bowed not to see my nakedness, who helped me to put the clothes on.
"Must this be done here!" I demanded. I was in a rage. But I was trying to hide my grief, my utter shock. I stared at Gareth as the boys buttoned my tunic and laced my breeches. I looked down in silent fury at my boots, my gloves. "Couldn’t you have had the decency to take me up to the castle for this little ritual! I mean I’ve never seen it done right here on the hay-strewn floor!"
"Forgive me, Your Majesty!" the Captain said. "But this news couldn’t wait."
He glanced at the open door. I saw two of the Queen’s most important advisers, both of whom had used me well at the castle, and now they too stood with bowed heads. I was on the edge of tears. Again I looked at Gareth. He too was about to cry.
"Goodbye, my beautiful Prince," he said, and he knelt in the hay and kissed my hand.
"’Prince’ is no longer the proper address for our gracious ally," said one of the advisers, advancing. "Your Majesty, I bring you the sad news that your father has died, and you are now the ruler of your Kingdom. The King is dead, long live the King."
"Damn it all," I whispered. "He was always an utter bastard, and he would choose this time to breathe his last!"
MOMENT OF TRUTH
THERE WAS no time for lingering at the castle. I had to ride for home at once. I knew my Kingdom would be on the verge of anarchy. Both my brothers were idiots, and the Captain of the Army, though devoted to my father, would now try to gain power for himself.
And so, after an hour’s conference with the Queen in which we talked mostly war and diplomatic agreements, I rode out, taking with me a great amount of treasure from her and also some little lovely trinkets and souvenirs of village and castle life.