The Real Princess gingerly descended the delicate ladder, wincing at every backward step.
“I’m absolutely shattered,” she said to the Lackey who had been looking up her nightie all the way from the towering topmost mattress to the richly carpeted floor.
“How can anyone hope to sleep with a great lump in the bed? Look at me! I’m black and blue! What on earth was the reason I had such a dreadful night?”
“Merely a pea, your Highness,” replied the beaming Lackey. It was time to explain.
“Certainly not,” retorted the Real Princess, “I was up there for seven hours straight; and now if you don’t mind ...”
“I meant a pea,” said the Lackey, who with some difficulty had pushed his hand under the bottom-most mattress and retrieved a tiny, hard, dark green sphere barely larger than a piece of grit. “Look! This is what bruised your royally sensitive limbs, Highness. You have passed our most stringent test! My master the Prince will be delighted to know that at last he has found a Real Princess. I shall tell him at once.”
“Your precious Prince has a lot to answer for. I have been cruelly mistreated. My whole body hurts. ... doN’T TOUCH ME!...” as the Prince’s Lackey reached out a consoling hand toward her silken shoulder “.... I need your physician, and I want a lawyer. A pea. How dare he abuse his honoured guest this way.”
“At once, Highness. At once.”
Prince Gorgeous was in his dressing gown sipping the most expensive morning coffee in the world whose beans had passed through the entrails of a swamp dragon, and playing the stock market on his Y-pad. One gold sleeve brushed the Mangosteen marmalade.
“Lackey! A fresh gown. Now.”
“Your Royal Highness, your special guest has awakened.” The Lackey’s nose was in the immaculate carpet, his eyes level with slippers so encrusted with rubies they could have bought the entire kingdom of Oz.
“And? I presume that as usual she slept well and will be departing after tea and toast?”
“No Sire! She has hardly slept! She thought she was lying on a boulder and now every inch of her perfect body ...” he paused momentarily at the dizzying memory “... is in extreme pain.”
“Bring her to me immediately. I may at long last have found a suitable wife.”
“Sire, she has asked for a physician ... and for a lawyer! She is not best pleased with the overnight accommodation afforded by our palace!”
“They will have to wait. She will understand that my word is my command. Does she have a name?”
“I don’t know, Sire. I’ll fetch her.”
The Lackey was not in the first flush of his youth and nearly toppled onto his Prince as he creaked and staggered back to the vertical position. He found the Real Princess pacing the tastefully appointed guest apartment in obvious annoyance.
“Is there no breakfast to be had in this place?” she demanded. “I arrive in the middle of the night, I’m bundled out of a carriage into a chair, rushed up to this room without a word, hoisted into this impossible bed, no introductions, no supper, and wake up half-crippled and starving! No doctor has come, no lawyer has been in touch ... who is in charge here? I wish to complain!”
“Ah!” said the Lackey with an ingratiating bow,”That can be arranged directly. This is of course the palace of His Royal Highness the Prince Gorgeous, and as it happens it is he who wishes to see you. I am commanded to bring you before him ... as soon as ... you are ...” His jaw dropped as the Real Princess slipped the nightdress from her shoulders and stepped out of it, clad only in fresh air.
“As my maidservant was not permitted to accompany me, you will have to help me dress. Please hand me my shift.”
He had only just taken the flimsy silk in trembling hands when the apartment door flew open and there stood the Prince, eyes blazing, still in the golden gown with marmalade on its sleeve.
“When I say immediately I mean AT ONCE!” and then he said,”Is this it?”
“Is this the proposed wife for His Most Majestic Royal Highness the Prince Gorgeous of All the Known Lands between the Seas?”
“It would appear so, Sire.”
“But she is damaged! Ugly! I asked for a perfect wife, a Real Princess! Look at her!”
The anxious eyes and the blazing eyes took in rapidly discolouring skin, distinctly swelling bruises, a comely face flushed with anger and embarrassment.
“Well what do you expect when you bully your guests?” She glared at the Prince, who was far from gorgeous and nowhere near her type. “You thought I would be a pushover, didn’t you! Virtually kidnapping me, dragging me blindfold over to your pretentious palace ... I’ve been in hotels better than this ... putting me through torment all night and now whingeing because its effects are visible! Yes, I look awful today, and I feel worse, and it’s your fault Prince whatever-your-name-is. And you’ve got marmalade on your sleeve.”
“She is in pain, Sire,” the Lackey whispered. “Perhaps if you were to summon your Physician?” and, “After all, Sire, this would be the outcome with any Real Princess. Blue Blood and thin skin will always be damaged when subjected to the Ultimate Royalty Test. Her bruises will heal, Sire. And with them, her temper.”
“Don’t hold your breath. There’s no way I’m marrying a man with such a cavalier attitude to pain. Perhaps I should invite you, Prince thingummybob, to spend a night on a wobbly pile of my servants’ mattresses with a lentil or two underneath and see what shape you’re in come the morning! Why, you may not even be a Real Prince.”
Prince Gorgeous’ rather ordinary face had lost its colour. Somewhat belatedly it was dawning on him that he might be doomed to spend his best years companionless as his strategy had clearly failed and compromise was unthinkable.
He straightened up and snapped his fingers. Hooves could be heard ringing on marble. There, framed in the silver doorway, stood a Centaur.
He took the Real Princess’s breath away. He was utterly gorgeous. The long equine body was tautly muscled and a glossy red-gold, the tail long and as ebony-black as the rich waves that curled around his shoulders. “OMG he’s fit!” she thought as her heart almost fibrillated with excitement. His eyes! Oh his eyes! Gray and yet bright as diamonds they dazzled her as the Centaur held her gaze ... and smiled the perfect smile.
“I have brought you my Physician,” said the Prince, oblivious to the nascent drama right under his nose.
“This is Chiron. His healing ability is legendary ...”
“And hopefully also real!” thought the Prince’s definitely-not-to-be-wife.
“ ... and once he has cured your bruising you will be presentable again. And I can consider whether you will make me a tolerable consort. You do have some attitude problems; but we shall find ways to deal with them.” There. He was willing to overlook her rant, and to make allowances. A singular effort for him, but maybe worthwhile. He would save the day.
“Chiron! I have heard such tales of you! Can you rid me of all this pain?”
“My Lady, my Real Princess ...” the way he said ‘my’ in that warm, resonant voice! ... “I can and I shall. Let me move my hands over your body. Don’t be afraid - it won’t hurt.”
She closed her eyes in bliss as the huge and gentle hands stroked away every ache, every contusion, every stress in her soul. And then opened them wide again to follow his movements over her healing limbs, and to fill her mind with his beauty. There was a fragrance with him - an invisible incense that enraptured her.
“Thank you,” she said softly, returning his radiant smile.
“You are perfect again,” said the Centaur. “You must put on your royal clothes. My Prince, are you satisfied?”
“Well enough,” replied Prince Gorgeous. “You are dismissed. Princess ... ? You may accompany me to my interrupted breakfast.” He extended a pale hand. There were traces of marmalade. The Real Princess said,
Chiron was turning to depart. She said,
“Keep my clothes.”
Chiron was moving gracefully away down the hall. It was now or never. She yelled,
“My name’s Godiva and I want your babies!”
Chiron paused, turned, gazed in delighted astonishment at the suddenly flying figure that sped from her silver prison, swept her up in his mighty arms onto his back, and galloped away with her into a golden sunset, the glorious Centaur and his very own Surprise Princess, happy ever after.
As for His Most Majestic Royal Highness the Prince Gorgeous etc etc, his next princess was so buxom that the tower of mattresses collapsed under her weight, catastrophically impacting her royal host, the Lackey and the toast and Marmite. They lie in the abandoned palace to this day, in a forest of peas.