Asgreen spent the next two days in an increasingly foul mood as he tried to work out what was going on. His three assistants were fully occupied during daylight hours tracking the large number of journeys made by the staff of the three shops. The puzzling aspect of it was that the journeys were all being made between the three establishments. His magic using spies reported no unusual visitors and the staff at the end of each day went home and stayed there. The old groom spent his time in the stables and made no contact with anyone. Prince Blaise kept to his apartments and apart from behaving in a manner quite unlike himself and making an enormous fuss about his attire for the ball did nothing suspicious. Smitty was completely focussed on his performance as the most magnificent royal prince and oblivious to the fact his behaviour was the equivalent of holding a lighted match over an open powder keg.
By breakfast time on Friday Asgreen was a bubbling volcano of suspicion and frustration. His three assistants were resigned to experiencing yet another period as amphibians. They’d become used to it and it wasn’t too bad. A few days in the royal fountain was the nearest thing to a holiday they ever got.
“What is he up to? What? What? What?” Asgreen muttered as he paced up and down the length of the sitting room of the Queen’s private apartment.
“Oh for heaven’s sake Vincent just stop it. You’re giving me a headache. The brat’s in his rooms. The ball is tonight and I want to enjoy it.”
Asgreen stopped pacing “That’s what I’m trying to ensure.” He snapped.
Karmella snorted “If you’re so worried why not go and see what the brat is doing.”
Asgreen turned “Of course, why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because you’re too clever. That’s why.”
Asgreen found the Prince absorbed in preparations for the ball. The valet was trotting about with various garments while his master was inspecting hair powder.
“Ah Count Asgreen. Lovely day, what?” the prince returned to sniffing delicately at the various boxes of hair powder.
Asgreen frowned and caught the valet’s eye over Blaise’s head. The valet shrugged. The prince looked up from the hair powder at the waistcoat the valet was holding
“No, no Tomkins that simply will not do. The Lady Letitia will be wearing rose pink. I told you silver or pink. I shall wear the pale green coat.” He straightened up from his examination of hair powder. “The violet will be excellent with a trône d’amour.”
“Very good Your Highness” The valet’s manner was subdued. He wasn’t used to having to work and he’d been hard at it for two hours already not to mention the two previous days.
Smitty turned back to the Count “Now how about a cup of chocolate and you can tell me what brings you here. Not that it isn’t a pleasure to see you. Oh, a moment” he clapped his hands and beckoned a footman. “Go and tell Lord Pomfret and the others that Count Asgreen is here. I would wish them to attend us.”
Vincent Asgreen was rarely, if ever, lost for words but in the face of the prince’s uncharacteristic behaviour he found himself nodding and being shepherded to Blaise’s sitting room. The prince seemed oblivious to the scowl that was growing in ferocity as the count tried to work out what the brat thought he was up to. Normally Blaise was sullen and silent in his presence not airy and unconcerned. He listened to the prince giving instructions to Lord Pomfret and the others about the arrival of the betrothal gift and found himself agreeing that the correct time to present it would be just after the announcement at the end of the banquet. He relieved his bad mood by putting the prince into a deep sleep from which he would awaken at five o’clock giving him just enough time to dress and have his hair done. He snarled at the prince’s attendants indiscriminately and threatened the gentlemen in waiting with unspecified but dire consequences if his highness and his damn gift weren’t present at the banquet at precisely seven o’clock. He stomped back to his work room and sat glowering at the wall. No-one disturbed him.
Guests started arriving in the late afternoon. The earliest arrivals were the least important. Minor nobles and rich merchants from Alcheron, Borland and the two neighbouring principalities of Morenia and Vinland. Most of the minor nobles were there for the free food and drink and the merchants were there to mingle with their betters. All of them were there to see the spectacle of two people who were well known to loathe each other being forced to wed. The crowd in the marquee partook of refreshments and speculated while waiting for their social superiors to arrive and the fun to begin.
At five minutes to seven the prince looking splendidly regal with his hair piled high and powdered violet and with two beauty patches in the shapes of hearts adorning his face, strolled languidly up to the queen and swept her a deep bow with several flourishes before bending over Letitia’s hand and giving it a sniff. He declared himself enchanted and took his place in the receiving line. Asgreen kept a close eye on him but the prince behaved impeccably throughout. It was the same during the banquet. Queen Karmella decided that the brat had simply given up in the same way as his father had though that was after the wedding. Still she wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The betrothal was duly announced to the polite applause of the guests and Smitty preened himself on how well the performance was going. He had found his signature role and he basked in the limelight. He signalled to the servants to bring in the present.
“My dear Letitia allow me to present you with a gift to mark this auspicious occasion. I believe you wished for something different. Something unique. Something no other bride has ever received from their betrothed. Something to make you gasp.”
Letitia didn’t respond she, like everyone else, was staring at the replica of the castle that was being carried towards her on the shoulders of six sturdy footmen. They placed the huge iced edifice with its model guards who were all toy mice in front of her and stepped back. The prince leant over and applied a taper to the central rotunda and the four corners of the building. Sparkling fountains of silver and gold lights made her gasp.
The prince smirked. “I believe I have fulfilled your requirements.” He handed her a knife. “It is edible.” Letitia automatically took the knife. Her brain was trying to process whether the prince was trying to make a fool of her or if he was just being his usual stupid self. While she was still pondering the question the whole edifice exploded and pieces of palace spattered her, the Queen the Count and the guests. It was pure coincidence that Smitty had noticed a piece of thread on his stocking and bent to remove it at the precise moment of disaster. No-one had anticipated the effect of setting off fireworks inside a cake. He stood up to find he was the only undecorated person at the top table.
That was also the point when everyone discovered that inside the icing the cake was made of a particularly pungent cheese. Letitia screamed and drummed her heels in an impressive fit of hysterics and the Queen uttered the sort of words that no self respecting monarch should admit to knowing let alone using. The worst might have been averted if the Dowager Duchess of Gor who had been a friend of old King Wellan’s hadn’t cackled with laughter and started clapping. Lower ranked guests took note of the fact that the Duchess who was liberally caked with debris thought it funny and followed her lead because it was. The whole marquee echoed to the sound of laughter. Asgreen, his eyes blazing and the deep red colour that his assistants knew all too well preceded time in the fountain, leapt to his feet with an oath. He pointed at the prince
“You, you misbegotten brat, you’ll pay for this.”
Smitty was aghast. He had not intended to cause an explosion. Such things did not accord with royal dignity. He flung up his hand “Assure you, quite unintended” he gasped.
Asgreen’s response was a snarl of rage. He started on a spell that would have seen the prince spending considerable time in the royal fountain when the Queen screamed at him to get the expletives deleted stuff off her now. It is undoubtedly true that even the worst of people have a soft spot for someone or something and Asgreen’s was Karmella. Her demand distracted him and as any would be wizard who had been flattened by a squirrel man could have told him focus is everything when declaiming a spell. The result was not a frog prince as intended. Instead every crumb of cake debris turned into a frog. The sound of laughter was almost drowned out by the vocalising of the frogs who all wanted to find the nearest pond.
Letitia’s screams reached the point where several glasses shattered. The effect on the prince was not what Asgreen had intended but then he thought he was directing a spell at a human. The frog bit bounced off but Smitty resumed his natural form though he remained human sized. Letitia’s eyes rolled up in her head and she toppled backwards in a dead faint which at least reduced the volume of noise in the marquee. Smitty’s parents had subscribed to the school of parenting that could be summarised as ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. He had learnt at an early age that there were occasions when absence of body was much better than presence of mind. This was clearly one of them and abandoning his starring role he fled out of the marquee at top speed.