The Marquis of Scalamandre cleared his throat and smiled. “Your majesties, fellow aristocrats, guests of honour, I am flattered by your kind reception of this little pageant. I did not wish to change the script so near the end, when the good players had already devoted so much time and energy to rehearsing and perfecting the show, but there is an epilogue of sorts that I must recount to you all.” He paused for effect. “As you may have heard, I have been away in the mines, though the true nature of my business was not known to you until today. And it is with great joy that I announce today to you that my search was not fruitless!” He turned to the wings and called out, “Josephine!” The leading lady emerged, holding Jason by the hand, who looked dazed and allowed himself to be led to the Marquis, who grasped his other wrist. The audience gasped, and began buzzing with whispers.
Rosalyn gasped, too. Her brother appeared to be wearing a deep pink knee-length robe with a round lace collar that was so long and full it looked like a dress. The sleeves were wide and bell-shaped, revealing a white shirt underneath trimmed with more lace at the wrist. Visible from the knee down to his mid-calf were puffy white bloomers. He wore white stockings and flat black satin slippers. Across his chest, a large swath of pale pink silk had been tied tight into a sort of sash. Perched on his blond curls sat a wide-brimmed black hat adorned with a swooping feather that swayed as he stepped toward the front. No wonder he was walking slowly, unsure of himself. He looked like a toddler walking in a snowsuit for the first time. But his hesitation was uncharacteristic—normally he loved to ham it up in front of an audience. What had they done to him? Rosalyn looked up at Cookie. What should she do? “Now?” she whispered. If she ran up now, and grabbed him, she’d have the advantage of surprise.
“Wait until he’s down off the stage. Go up the side, not the centre. Less conspicuous. We’ve got you covered. Head to the Forest Gate and we’ll take care of the rest.” Cookie sounded confident, which gave Rosalyn a much-needed boost. Her breath was coming in short bursts now and every muscle was strained for the moment she’d have to spring forward and race toward her brother. How would the king and queen react? Did they have bodyguards hiding in the audience who would prevent her from getting near her brother or from getting away? It seemed too impossible to work, but then again, last night’s plan had seemed easy and straightforward and it had failed.
Keeping a protective hand on the boy’s shoulder, which was almost level with his own, the Marquis of Scalamandre led Jason off the stage down three short steps toward the king and queen who got to their feet in slow motion.
A hush fell over the audience, everyone craning their necks to get a better view, not daring to stand. Rosalyn heard the queen say, “Charles?” and the king say, “Son?”
The Marquis of Scalamandre nudged Jason, who was nearly as tall as the adults around him, and he said robotically, “Hello, Mother. Hello, Father.”
In response, the king and the queen enfolded him their arms. The audience rose to their feet and erupted in thunderous applause. The Marquis bowed with a flourish of his hat, and with a triumphant smile on his face withdrew backstage with Josephine.
“Now!” said Cookie.
Rosalyn sprinted forward, kicking up gravel, the rows of aristocrats a blur, and turned a sharp right, stopping in front of the tender scene on the central cobblestone path. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a man wearing white epaulettes and a plaid sash who occupied the seat beside the king’s take a step toward her. Was he going to push her away? She tensed, ready to block his arm; then it registered that she was a full head taller than him. He must have realized this, too, for he only continued looking at her, wary, hand on the hilt of his sword. Though he was armed, and probably well-trained in the use of his weapon, Rosalyn felt a rush of power, feeling for the first time that she was intimidating to these grown-ups. It wasn’t only her stature, but their dread of those they called fixed—she was like a monster to them. On sunny days, her condition might inspire pity, but on rainy days like today, fear and mistrust.
The king and queen turned and stared at the intruder. The queen’s face was grave and she gripped Jason even tighter as if to say, ‘No one will ever separate me and my son again.’ Rosalyn suddenly felt doubly sorry for the mourning parents. Not only was their son still missing, but she was about to pull the rug of hope out from under their feet. The audience’s applause had given way to a babble of confused voices as they tried to make sense of her presence. Forgoing any formality, Rosalyn blurted out, “I’m sorry, but that’s not your son. It’s a hoax. Don’t listen to that man.” She got as close to Jason’s face as she could and shouted, “Jason! Look at me. Tell them you know who I am!”
The king and queen turned from Rosalyn to where Scalamandre had been standing and back again. Then the queen turned Jason toward her and cupped his cheeks in her hands, looking intently into his face. She whispered something to a lady standing beside her who nodded and came around behind Jason, flipped up the heavy pink robe and lifted up the back of his shirt for a second. The lady shook her head. Letting go of Jason, the queen whispered something in the king’s ear, who listened gravely and stroked his beard in thought while he looked at the boy who so closely resembled his own lost son.
Jason looked at Rosalyn as if from far away. He blinked a few times and yawned. He stood motionless, leaning on the queen’s shoulder and trying to keep his eyes from closing. The crowd were all talking, with the result that everyone had to speak much louder than normal simply to be heard. But against this backdrop of sound, Rosalyn found herself in a bubble of quiet, as the king and his bodyguard on the one hand and the queen and her lady-in-waiting took stock of the situation. What were they saying to one another? What did Jason’s back have to do with anything?
“Please believe me!” she begged. “Jason! It’s me!” Why hadn’t he recognized her yet? She felt a flutter of panic in her stomach. Would it be a repeat of the night before where he didn’t respond? “Jason! It’s me!” she repeated.
He looked at her through half-lidded eyes, “Rozzie? Is that you?” He said to the king, sleepily, “That’s my sister.”
Just then Scalamandre emerged from backstage smiling beatifically. Not getting getting the second round of applause he was likely expecting, and seeing Rosalyn instead, his face dissolved into livid fury. “You!” he mouthed. As quickly as he could, trying to restore his mask of calm, dignified grace, he strode toward the group. Whether he had caught Jason’s pronouncement, or whether he only guessed it, the Marquis cut in, little cracks appearing on his façade of calm, “My dear prince, she’s not your sister. She looks nothing like you. Her eyes are slanted, her hair is jet black. You’ve got your father’s blond curls and your mother’s blue eyes.” He turned to the king and queen, twisting his hands, “I fear the work in the mines has somehow confused him. Where this wench appeared from I have no idea but you can see at a glance she’s delusional. Figs do not grow on lemon trees.”
Their majesties listened to this explanation poker-faced but the king responded drily, “Yes, but not all lemons grow on the same tree.”
Scalamandre blinked, not understanding for a second. Then he smiled, “Ah, I see. Your son has changed after so many years away, and you aren’t sure it’s him. Get rid of the wench and dear Charles will tell you all about the last few years, won’t you, my boy.” He reached out a hand to touch the boy’s shoulder, but Jason shrugged it away and took a step toward Rosalyn who grabbed him tightly by the hand.
“Rozzie, can we go home now?” he asked.
The two children were now standing across from the king and queen and Scalamandre tried to position himself between the two parties. He said with a pitying look, “Your Highnesses, I’m afraid we won’t get a coherent story out of him until this stowaway from the mines is dealt with. She must remind him of the improvised family he was living in when I discovered him. They were all black with coal.”
The man could spin anything to his advantage! Rosalyn hugged Jason fiercely and took a step back. She whispered, “I’m going to get us home. But we have to run soon.” Still embracing Jason who was leaning his head on her shoulder, she looked up at the queen and king, on tenterhooks to hear what they would say.
But before they could respond, the Marquis raised his arm and snapped his fingers twice and from the rear corner of the tent, Rosalyn saw two burly men jogging toward them. Suddenly, out of nowhere, one of them was splattered with an eyeful of whipping cream and the other was hit in the back of the head with a volley of cream puffs. Apparently whoever was aiming at them was a little sloppy. Several women screamed in outrage. “My dress!” “My hat!” All heads turned toward the rear, where the serving staff stood innocently with their hands behind their back. All except one, who had a large serving spoon dipped in a metal bowl of whipping cream. He hastily let go of the handle.
The two goons were torn. They’d been called by their master to come deal with the intruder, but to be publically embarassed by some wimp in the kitchen was too much for their egos. They turned around and charged toward him, the one man wiping cream off his face and flinging it to the side, not caring that he was ruining several skirts and trousers. However, they were prepared to deal with only one smart-aleck, not with a team of highly coordinated artisans who worked with knives, fire and boiling water all day. Cookie’s trusted underlings brought their hands forward from behind their backs to reveal cleavers, skewers, cast iron frying pans and rolling pins, smuggled under the tables while they were setting up for the ceremony. The two men pulled up short, then grabbed chairs from under the people nearest them. They paused for a beat in front of the line of white-hatted chefs and servers, considering a strategy since they were so outnumbered. Before they could make their first move, the young man dipped his spoon into the bowl of cream and launched his make-shift catapult on the other man this time. With a collective roar, the chefs rushed forward, surrounding the two men, who tried in vain to parry their blows with the flimsy folding chairs.
While the two men had moved toward the chefs, the whole assembly, including Rosalyn, the king and queen and Scalamandre had held their breath. Now, it was as if someone had pressed play again and everyone came to life. Women screamed, men rushed forward to join the melee, and the orchestra, oddly enough, struck up a rousing march to which no one paid attention.
Above the din, a clatter of hooves came ringing down the cobblestone road leading up to the castle wall. Guards on horseback streamed through the Royal Gate cutting off the chefs and serving staff from the nobles gathered under and around the central tent. However, instead of serving to quiet the crowd, the riders caused the intensity to increase. Families who had been separated by the wall of horses called to one another and tried to get back together, dodging the animals’ heavy, iron-clad hooves. Further complicating matters, there was by now so much food under foot that people and horses were slipping and sliding every which way. Under the tent, it was like a game of dominos; as one person fell over, he knocked over his neighbour, who knocked over the next person. Several guards attempted to inch their horses forward up the central path to control the panic, but their commanding presence had the opposite effect. As people rushed to get past them they put too much pressure on the central supporting column. The whole structure seemed to wobble and shake and then, with a crack, the central support gave way and the tent slowly enveloped the assembly, like a gentle cloud descending. Inside, people screamed and yelled, horses neighed, and the white surface of the tent looked like a pot of boiling water, heads and limbs pushing up on it like bubbles rising.
Original illustration of Chambord Castle in France by Megalobo on https://www.deviantart.com/megalobo/art/The-Royal-Chateau-de-Chambord-141615299. I based the castle in this story loosely on this real one. You can see the central courtyard where the tent and stage were set up. The door on the side of the castle facing you is the one Rosalyn and Jason would have taken.
Rosalyn, Jason and the grown-ups standing near them took a few steps back in the nick of time and the edge of the tent puddled at their feet. Scalamandre, however, had advanced toward the approaching horses and was a few seconds too late. He, too, disappeared under the collapsing tent. Rosalyn wasn’t sure if she was imagining it or if the corners of the king’s mouth were actually twitching in amusement as he gave orders to his marshal to get the situation under control. There was no time to stand around and laugh, however. The momentary distraction of the collapse of the tent was the chance she had been waiting for to get away. It would be easier to run and tell Jason to follow—since he was normally as fast or faster a runner than she was—but she was not taking any risks of having him snatched from her again.
With a quick glance behind her to see if there was a clear way out, Rosalyn took firm hold of Jason’s limp hand and began to run, urging him to keep up. Her instinct had been correct. No one tried to stop them, caught off guard by her sudden move. She heard the queen call after her, “Wait! Please stay!” as they dashed toward the tables she had been hiding under. There was just enough of a gap between the last table and a large brown horse for them to squeeze through. Not daring to make eye contact with either horse or rider in case they noticed her and stepped sideways to block her path, she pushed Jason in front of her. Behind the table, a couple of chefs were still lobbing cherry tomatoes at anyone still standing, and bursting out laughing whenever one exploded in a gory red splat. They gave Rosalyn a friendly nod. In a couple of paces she would be around the side of the main building and then it would be a short dash to the door.
“Where are we going, Rozzie?” Jason asked as they pounded toward the far side of the courtyard.
“Home. But you’ve got to hurry. They might try to stop us.”
“I’m so tired. I can’t run.” He was already whining.
She’d have to gamble on slowing down to gain time. “Fine. I’ll give you a piggy back ride, but you have to hold on tight.” She shifted the rucksack to her chest so Jason could clamber up on her back. Linking her fingers under him, she stood up with a grunt and moved toward the tall green door as fast as she could. He was not holding on tight enough and was sliding around from side to side, throwing her off balance. “Jason! Hold on tighter!”
“I am holding tight,” came his sleepy voice.
Rosalyn was doubly surprised that she couldn’t hear anyone coming after them and that the door that would take them across the servants’ offices and out toward the forest was standing open. Would the guard on the outside try to stop her or had Cookie taken him into her confidence?
To her amazement, the door to the outer path was ajar and she pulled it open with her right foot. The two guards that normally stood sentry were not there either. Had they all gone to help get the outraged aristocrats out from under the tent? She looked right and left—all was clear. She hoisted Jason a little higher on her back and jogged off toward the clump of trees that hid the forest gate from view, feet crunching on the damp gravel. She didn’t know whether to be worried that he was so tired and limp, or annoyed that he wasn’t making this any easier for her.