A drought in the farmlands of the kingdom of Calencia had left the people sorely in need of food. In the not-too-distant kingdom of Hessiland, fires in the deeply forested southlands had left the citizens without lumber for their homes. Two kings sat in their palaces, each considering what it would cost to send their young men into war.
“I have no great love of bloodshed, m’dear,” said King Aloysius of Hessiland to his queen.
Elspeth put down her book. “Well then,” she said, “you must think of another way. I cannot believe that Cadmus wants to send Calencia’s youth into battle any more than you do.”
Aloysius rested his head in his hands. “It is no great joy to be a king,” he said. “Except for the banquets. I really like the banquets.”
“Then we shall have a banquet,” said Elspeth. She nodded meaningfully toward their son, Prince Dougal, who was pulling a tick from the fur of his beloved spaniel.
“Wait . . . what?” said Dougal.
On the road to Hessiland, Princess Liyana of Calencia tried to reason with her father. “It’s not that I mind getting married,” she said. “But I’d hoped to have some say in the selection of my groom. What if this fellow is stupid? What if he is . . . unkind? What kind of name is Dougal?”
“Liyana, hold your tongue.” King Cadmus looked out at the scorched and smoldering forests, then took his daughter’s hand. “I am sorry, LiLi. But I have raised you, I think, to regard the kingdom above yourself. However stupid or unkind Prince Dougal may be, this marriage is worth the lives of many hundreds of Calencia’s intelligent and kind young men.”
Liyana opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again and began to formulate plans for a hasty escape soon after the wedding.
At the wedding ceremony, Dougal stood beside his veiled bride and thought, Why must princes wear tights? These things chafe.
Liyana stood beside her shuffling groom and thought, I wonder if there’s a hidden passageway behind that tapestry.
The lavish banquet to celebrate the alliance of Calencia and Hessiland was attended by scores of royals and courtiers from surrounding principalities. Seats in the lower hall were filled by fawning merchants and accountants, bankers and lawyers.
Dougal and Liyana sat stiffly, side by side. Liyana had removed her veils and Dougal glanced shyly in her direction, but she seemed distracted, gazing around the banquet hall with a calculated squint. Dougal missed his dog.
After an interminable series of speeches by various ministers of state, Queen Elspeth gestured to a servant and a frantic army of servers began to bring in the banquet.
Clear, sparkling broths in gleaming silver bowls.
Fruit, glazed or sugared or honeyed.
Vegetables in herbed sauces. Vegetables in buttery sauces. Vegetables in sauces that were both herbed and buttery.
Fish so fresh that mere minutes before, they had been looking forward to a trip upstream for some vigorous spawning.
Roasted meats so tender that they fell apart with nothing more than a wish.
Cakes and candies made to resemble jewels and flowers and fantastical animals.
Dougal watched with interest as the pale and trembling servants brought in course after course after course. No one in the banquet hall so much as lifted a silver fork; all were waiting for him to speak the words that would seal the alliance. Dougal stood and cleared his throat. King Aloysius looked at his son, worried that he might forget his speech.
Clearing his throat again, Dougal regarded his new bride, who had stopped her nervous surveying of the room and was now reaching for a sugared strawberry. The prince laid his hand on her shoulder; she jumped, and the gathered people held their collective breath.
“People of Calencia!” he said. “People of Hessiland! On this momentous occasion . . . on this . . .” He stopped, reddening, and glanced at his father.
Liyana thought, I knew it.
Dougal started again. “So . . . yeah. I’m not good at speeches. But this food looks awesome, right?” He paused to look at the servers who stood at the walls of the banquet hall. “So I’d like to ask you good people to stand aside, and let the cooks and servers enjoy this feast. Go talk about treaties or something—there’ll be plenty of leftovers. My bride and I are going to have a talk.” He grabbed a few apples and Liyana’s hand.
Astonished, Liyana stood to join her husband, no longer thinking of escape.
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