by Robin Gordon
- Auksford -
Part II: The Royal Wedding
Chapter 7: Nightmare Headlines
Copyright Robin Gordon, 1996/2004
"Ah, er ... yes," said King Arthur. "So you've seen the cloth, eh Bertie?"
"No, of course we haven't seen the cloth," snapped Prince Egbert. "There's nothing to see - is there, Bruce?"
"Nothing at all!" said Prince Bruce defiantly.
"Well of course there's nothing to see," said the King. "The whole thing is just a ghastly Boranian plot."
"Phew! That's a relief," sighed Prince Egbert. "I was afraid you were going to pretend you could see it - and a nice mess that would have left me in if I'd had to wear nothing on my wedding day."
"Just because I can see it's nothing but a Boranian plot doesn't mean you don't have to wear it," said the King testily. "Let me explain it to you. The Boranians have given us this gift with loads of publicity, and we have to accept it or we insult their Emperor."
"Well I'd rather insult their bally Emperor than parade through the town in my underclothes with the whole bally world watching on television and laughing its beastly head off," replied Prince Egbert.
"If we insult the Emperor," said the King wearily, "the Boranians will invade, we'll be driven out, our people will be enslaved, and you'll have to go and earn your livin' as a dustman or a street cleaner or somethin' of the sort. It can't be helped: for the sake of New Zephyria you'll have to go through with it."
"But what about me?" yelped Prince Bruce. "I don't even belong to New Zephyria. Can't I refuse to wear the Boranian suit? After all, it's much worse for me than for Bertie because my legs are so much longer!"
"I don't think any of us can refuse the Boranian gift," said the King miserably. "What do you say, Simpkin?"
"Well, of course," answered Oliver Simpkin, "while none of us can reject the gift without insulting the Emperor of Borania, I suppose there's nothing to stop Prince Bruce insulting New Zephyria by refusing to be best man. Doubtless Your Majesty would not take offence if he were to withdraw ... but it does leave us with a ticklish problem: we should have to find a new best man."
"I could get Dandy, I suppose," said Prince Egbert in a depressed sort of tone, "although it's not really fair play to order a chap to parade through the town practically naked."
"I've got an idea," said Prince Bruce. "Boris doesn't know about the tradition that the best man has to wear the same as the groom. If he doesn't find out till just before the wedding it'll be too late for the Boranians to make a second suit."
"But there isn't a suit," grumbled the King. "That's the whole point. If the blasted thing doesn't exist at all he can make another on just like it in ten minutes."
"Not without admitting it doesn't exist," objected Prince Bruce.
"Prince Bruce is quite correct, Your Majesty," interjected Oliver Simpkin. "The Boranians can hardly create a second suit of clothes identical to the first in so short a period without revealing the whole affair as a sham from start to finish. It may be that the possibility of a scandal would not deter Prince Boris from the attempt, though I think we could probably extricate ourselves while leaving the Boranians looking as foolish as they had hoped to make us ..."
"I wish you'd talk more plainly, Simpkin," said the King. "D'you mean we can get out of it?"
"Unfortunately not, Your Majesty. I was going on to say that the Boranians would probably not even try to pretend that they could make a second suit ..."
"Whoopee!" cried Prince Bruce.
Oliver Simpkin coughed disapprovingly and continued. "They would simply claim that we had knowingly and deliberately insulted them by failing to inform them in time of the ancient tradition. We should then be faced with a new dilemma. On the one hand we face the abandonment of a tradition that has lasted unbroken since the First Prince of New Zephyria came out of the west with but a single companion, saved the People of the Sea from the fearsome taniwha monsters, defeated Ruahine-nui Makutu, and won the Sea King's daughter - and, incidentally, Prince Egbert would still have to walk through the streets in a state of semi-nudity. - On the other we face war with Borania and certain defeat. No, Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, if we are to avert catastrophe we must inform the Boranians of the tradition and allow them to measure the best man for his suit by tomorrow at the latest."
"Well now ... I ... er I'm not quite sure that I really can be best man," stammered Prince Bruce. "I think I feel a sort of diplomatic illness coming on."
"His Majesty will give you until tomorrow at midday to think about it," said Oliver Simpkin. "At that time precisely he will send me to inform His Imperial Highness, Prince Boris of Borania, of the necessary arrangements."
"Um ... yes ... quite," said the King.
* * * * *
Both of the Zephyrian Princes seemed strangely preoccupied for the rest of the day, and Cinderella was quite hurt that her betrothed seemed to take so little interest in her. When she talked of her dress he seemed distrait. When she mentioned her bridesmaids and her bouquet his eye was as listless as that of a codfish languishing on a fishmonger's slab. Even her account of her stepsisters' desire to act as matrons of honour failed to raise so much as a half-hearted chuckle. She began to wonder if he was regretting his proposal. Perhaps married life wouldn't suit him, perhaps he was pining for his nights out with the boys, or perhaps he had found a real princess and loved her better than Cinderella.
"You don't seem very interested in me tonight, Bertie," she said reproachfully.
Prince Egbert explained. Cinderella was sympathetic. She did not like to see her Prince worried, though privately she thought he was making a fuss about nothing. Still, men have their vanity, she supposed, and, if her beloved was unhappy at the prospect of walking in procession without his trousers, then she, as his loving wife-to-be, was quite prepared to divert her attention from the much more important question of the design of her veil to soothe away his foolish fears.
She pointed out to him that, of all the peoples in the world, none loved their royal family more than the New Zephyrians. "Why," she said, "the people even love Araxia and Bulkomia now that they are going to be your sisters-in-law."
Having disposed of that little problem, she went on to talk about her going-away outfit, and whether her gloves should match or contrast.
"I should be so mortified," she said, if everybody says my gloves are wrong. You can't imagine the humiliation."
* * * * *
Sleep would not come to Prince Egbert that night. Cinderella's assurance that the Royal Family was loved by all the people did not convince him. Apart from anything else the crowds lining the route to the cathedral would include thousands of foreigners, among them hundreds of Boranians, probably all hand-picked agents sent by the Emperor for the sole purpose of encouraging the spectators to laugh at him. Then there were the New Zephyrian republicans. They hated all kings and would be only to pleased to have the chance of jeering at a royal prince in his underwear. As for the loyal New Zephyrians, well, they might love King Arthur and Queen Elizabeth, but far too many had been on the receiving end of one of Prince Egbert's nocturnal pranks for there to be much love left for him.
Every time he closed his eyes he saw their angry faces: gardeners bereft of their gnomes, householders of their gates, respectable citizens roused in the night and unable to open their doors because they were tied to the doors of the houses opposite, an old man woken by undertakers come to measure him for his coffin, a family who came back from holiday to find their swimming pool filled in and turned into a tennis court - they all rose accusingly before him.
He turned on to his other side, and the newspaper headlines flashed before his eyes: -
GNOME SWEET GNOME!
JAPES OF A
It was all their fault, of course. They liked his jokes, and even encouraged him, because they knew people would always buy newspapers to read about scandalous royal behaviour.
JEST IN TIME!
- that was when he and his friends turned all the town clocks two hours back at the beginning of Summertime. When he took to holding pretty girls to ransom for a kiss they called him Flirty Bertie.
KISSES FOR PRINCE CHARMING!
- the headlines screamed.
The girls never minded a kiss from the Prince. Their boyfriends objected, of course, but the Prince and his gang were always ready for a rough and tumble with an angry young man or two: upending their victims into dustbins, pitching them into ponds, or leaving them tied to lamp-posts, gates or railings, often with their faces daubed with mud or paint, and almost always - Prince Egbert groaned in misery to think of it - wearing little more than their shirts and their socks. They'd be delighted to see him in the same sorry state. Wouldn't they just! See how they treated Dandy as soon as they got the chance. What a revenge it would be!
The newspapers and the television companies would make the most of it.
SHOW A LEG, EG!
Clown Prince Flirty Bertie whose princely pranks kept the nation in stitches was feeling rather shirty on his wedding day! And no wonder! He could have done with a few stitches himself.Everyone laughed harder than ever as the prince of pant-pinchers made his own ridiculous knickerless way to the cathedral.
Whoever wears the trousers in this marriage it's certainly not barelegs Bertie, the knight of the knobbly knees!
And no-one would ever know that he had sacrificed his honour and dignity to save his people from being enslaved by the Boranians.
At last he fell into an uneasy sleep. The individual faces blended into a jeering crowd. Prince Boris lumbered chortling before him, and he himself was walking in procession to the cathedral, a golden crown on his head, his sword at his side, the blue sash with the insignia of a Knight Grand Commander of the Order of Zephyrus across his breast, and beneath it only his shirt and underpants.
He awoke with a gasp, tossed and turned for a while, then tried to sleep again. Over and over again he sank into uneasy slumber, and still it returned, until, at last, when dawn was already approaching, he fell, exhausted, into a deep and mercifully dreamless sleep.
* * * * *
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