Smitty woke to the rattle of curtains being drawn back from the windows and the clatter of the poker on the grate as the maid coaxed the fire into a blaze. He wriggled his toes and twitched his whiskers, except he didn’t have any. He was a Royal Prince. At last he had a starring part worthy of his abilities. Unlike the previous incumbent he was going to play it to perfection. The human hadn’t got under the skin the role at all. He was diffident and self effacing. Audiences had certain notions about how characters should be and Royal Princes had dignity and hauteur and a commanding presence. They didn’t smile sweetly and defer to others. Smitty was a proponent of Mouseleski’s ‘method’. You lived the part and that was what he intended to do. This was going to be his greatest triumph, ‘The Rat who Ruled a Kingdom’ starring the great Smitty. He wished his parents had bestowed a more heroic name on him but he was the youngest of a very large family and they’d run out of ideas by the time he arrived.
If the Prince’s valet was surprised by the unusual air of haughty indifference displayed by his nominal master it was nothing to that of Count Asgreen and Queen Karmella when they received a formally worded missive from Prince Blaise enquiring after the health of ‘his dear Letitia’ and requesting assistance in selecting a suitable betrothal gift for his ‘exquisite espoused to be’. The letter was delivered to the Queen as she was taking her morning chocolate and cake in the company of Letitia. Lady Letitia was indeed exquisitely beautiful, second only to the Queen herself to whom she bore an uncanny resemblance. No-one had ever seen Count Asgreen’s late wife who had died in childbirth.
Countess Lamotte who had no children of her own and who it was said had been a relative of the Count’s late wife had taken the motherless child out of the goodness of her heart. Letitia had remained at her side through her widowhood and subsequent marriage to King Merrick.
Karmella dismissed the footman then called him back and told him to ask the Count to attend her.
She read the message twice before her brain agreed with her eyes. Letita giggled over it and Asgreen when he was handed it scanned it with a scowl.
“What does the damn brat think he’s playing at?”
“He probably thinks he’ll be let out to go shopping and can run away.” Letitia said “He always was a stupid baby.”
Asgreen chuckled “You might be right” He tapped his finger on the paper “I think it would do the populace good to see their prince buying some suitably extravagant gift for his betrothed. You’d like some diamonds or something like that wouldn’t you?”
Letitia shrugged “One can never have too many jewels I suppose. So long as he doesn’t get the opportunity to run away. I want to be Queen after Mamma.”
“Hush Letty. Don’t call me that!”
“We’re quite private. There’s only us and Papa has a terrifically strong sound blocking spell on these rooms if I know him.”
Asgreen laughed. “Of course! We do need somewhere to be able to talk freely. I’ll send the three gentlemen in waiting and a detachment of the guard. That should stop any ideas he may have in their tracks. Now what do you want?”
Letitia thought for a bit and a malicious smile curved her lips “Let’s give him a headache. I want something different. Something unique. Something no other bride has ever received from their betrothed. Something to make me gasp.” She sniggered “That should do it. Let’s see what the little creep comes up with. Papa make sure he understands I will be very unhappy and displeased if it’s just some crummy diamond necklace.”
Prince Blaise lifted the reply from its silver salver with a languid air. He opened it and then rang the little silver bell on the side table next to his chair.
“Ah, Tomkins. I am going out. I shall need to change my clothes. Something suitably impressive for the peasantry. I am going to buy a gift for the Lady Letitia.” He turned to the footman
“Inform Lord Gorlish, Lord Pomfret and Sir Jolyon that I require them to attend me.” The footman hesitated and the prince raised an eyebrow “Today. I require you to tell them today. So hurry up.” He finished with a snap. The footman bowed and hastened off to deliver the message. The prince beckoned to one of the two footmen occupying the space either side of the fireplace “Tell the stables to have my carriage at the door in half an hour.” The footman glanced at his companion and gave an almost imperceptible shrug. “One does not tolerate insolence in servants. Be careful, any repetition and I shall talk to Asgreen about replacing you. I’m sure you could be occupied digging the garden.” The footman’s face was now a mask of astonishment and he hastened off to deliver the message wondering what side of the bed the prince had got out of this morning.
Tomkins, after a hasty check with Count Asgreen, hurried to lay out the prince’s normal coat and breeches. Normally the prince just shrugged himself into his blue wool coat with the embroidered cuffs and hauled on a pair of boots. Today he was much more particular and the valet actually had to do some work. After inspecting and rejecting three separate outfits the prince settled on a dark red velvet with a gold embroidered waistcoat. He was equally fussy about the rest of his attire and he was still having his hair arranged to his liking when the three gentlemen in waiting arrived.
Count Asgreen watched the departure of the prince and his entourage with a saturnine smile. An open carriage containing Blaise and the three gentlemen in waiting, preceded by four mounted guardsmen and followed by the same number and three running footmen either side of the carriage itself. An impressively royal turnout. Just let the brat try giving that lot the slip. The prince and his entourage returned some four hours later. The prince confessed himself fatigued and dismissed his gentlemen in waiting. He told his valet he would take a short nap. The gentlemen in waiting lost no time in presenting themselves to Count Asgreen to report.
Lord Pomfret as the highest in rank was the spokesperson. He bowed with all the deference due to someone who could and had in the past turned you into a toad.
“Your Grace the prince made no attempt to disappear. However his choice of shops to visit was odd so we were especially vigilant. He did not give anyone a note or talk of anything other than the merchandise in the stores.”
“What shops? I’ll have them watched.”
“The toy shop where he discussed automatons and other mechanical devices. The bakery and the cheese shop.”
“That’s all? No jewellers, none of those places that sell fancy gewgaws and trinkets?”
Lord Pomfret and the others shook their heads. “He sampled cheeses. He must have spent an hour in there discussing the properties of just about every damn cheese in the place. Same with the bakery. Sampling this and that and discussing fancy cakes and their decoration for ages. He bought some items in each shop. The biggest parcel was from the cheese shop.”
“He said he was going shopping for a present for Lady Letitia,”
“Well Your Grace unless he’s giving her a clockwork mouse, three sponge buns and a large chunk of Gorgonzola he didn’t buy anything remotely like a present.”
Asgreen questioned them further but neither of the other two had anything to add to Lord Pomfret’s account so he dismissed them instructing them to return to spending time with the prince and to keep a close eye on him until Friday night.
Asgreen pondered the question of Blaise’s behaviour. The damn brat was up to something but what he couldn’t work out. He’d already put a tracking spell on the old groom. It would do no harm to put one on the prince as well. He made his way to his workshops and beckoned his chief assistant. Asgreen instructed him to go to the shops Prince Blaise had visited and put tracking spells on all the employees. The man bowed and assured Asgreen it would be done. He kept his misgivings about how they were supposed to monitor numerous employees to himself. His master did not take kindly to comments or suggestions regarding them as evidence of either slacking or insubordination or both.
Asgreen left the workshops confident his instructions would be carried out to the letter. His next stop was a a small office tucked away in an area of the palace that was mostly storerooms. The sole occupant was dozing with his feet on the desk. He removed them hastily and stood as Asgreen entered
“Ah Colfin, any nocturnal activity around the Prince’s quarters?”
“No Your Grace.”
“Good. Now get some of your people to watch the shops the prince visited today.”
He gestured and a piece of paper appeared in Colfin’s hand.
“I’ll see to it immediately Your Grace. Is there anything else?”
“Not at the moment.”
Asgreen made his way back to the main part of the palace satisfied that Blaise couldn’t stir an inch without him knowing. He still wondered what the brat was plotting but whatever it was would come to nothing.